The Proper Gander column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
When were ‘the Olden Days’? Between 10,000BC and when your parents were children, suggests Ian Hislop in his documentary series about history. In The Olden Days: The power of the past in Britain (BBC2), he examines our need for a belief in a ‘heightened, idealised, imagined past’. ‘The Olden Days’ is history as what we want to believe happened, rather than what really happened.
The first episode describes how Dark Ages kings Arthur and Alfred have been invoked as national heroes at different times. Ninth Century cake-burner King Alfred has been portrayed as the founding father of various British legal, military and educational institutions, regardless of his actual involvement. King Arthur, who probably never existed, has been romanticised as a mighty, mystical monarch by groups as disparate as Henry VIII, the Pre-Raphaelites, Welsh industrialists and New Agers. Over the centuries, the legends of both rulers have been used by institutions to get credit. Alfred was spun into being the creator of Oxford University to gain the favour of Richard II, and a bunch of twelfth century Glastonbury monks turned their supposed discovery of Arthur’s bones into a moneyspinner for their monastery. The Arthurian myth still helps draw in the dosh, now from visitors to Glastonbury’s trinket shops and Tintagel Castle. Alfred’s popularity has declined, perhaps because the institutions he represents are trusted less these days. The future will see different interpretations of Alfred and Arthur, hopefully in the direction of stripping away the myths.
Hislop could just as easily have focused on Che Guevara, Jesus or even Father Christmas, whose personalities have also been reinvented according to changing ideologies. The malleability of historical figures demonstrates how unreliable the ‘Great Man’ theory of history is. Hislop’s examples show how economic forces help shape our views of figureheads like Arthur and Alfred, usually by invoking them to attract power and money. The programme usefully reminds us that our view of the past isn’t set in stone; it’s carved out again and again according to contemporary tastes, especially those of the ruling class.