Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.
Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire—and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead and then imagine yourself looking back from that future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration and therefore less certainty as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records—in words, sound, pictures—you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
I still read a lot of history, and of course, I’ve followed all the official history that’s happened in my own lifetime—the fall of Communism, Mrs Thatcher, 9/11, global warming—with the normal mixture of fear, anxiety and cautious optimism. But I’ve never felt the same about it—I’ve never quite trusted it—as I do ancient Greece and Roman, or the British Empire, or the Russian Revolution. Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history—even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?