The lecturer in London would tell us that Thucydides account of the Peloponnesian war was the first work of history. Wishing to engage with a world beyond that of the church and outside of Northern Ireland, which was a stifling place to be in the 1980s, Thucydides seemed an interesting prospect and I bought a copy of the book. It had a sober black cover, its appearance presumably intended to convey a sense of the gravitas of its contents, to say to others that here was a person serious about what they read. For someone who knew absolutely nothing about classical history, it was, perhaps, not an ideal introduction to the conflicts of the time. More likely, it was simply too demanding, there were not the stories of individuals that would have allowed an imagining of the story. Anyway, my efforts at engaging with a new world of knowledge did not last long. The book still sits on the bookshelves, unread.
The passing years since the 1980s have brought a sense that people are infinitely more interesting than facts, and that if history is to be told, it needs to be told about people. Leading visits to the Western Front each year, there is an awareness that collections of details do not appeal. To talk of companies and battalions and brigades and divisions is to invite a glazing over of the eyes of the listeners; tell stories of individuals and they listen with interest. At the Somme, the vast memorial with more than seventy thousand names has not the emotional power of the Devonshire Trench with its one hundred and forty graves and its tale of the individuals who lie there.
It’s not just in history that flesh and blood people mean more to us than anything. Old ways of calling with neighbours, of gathering with family neighbours, of meeting with friends, seem to be disappearing. We retreat within our own houses; even on summer evenings we sit in front of televisions or computers, or we devote our attention to tablets and smartphones. There is no experience comparable with actually being with people, yet we seem content with an ersatz electronic alternative.
Perhaps there will be a reaction, perhaps a generation who have become virtual in their relationships will realize that they have subjected themselves to severe deprivation, both emotionally and psychologically. Perhaps new gatherings and social centres will emerge and people will again realize how fascinating real people can be, how compelling are the stories that people have to tell. Whatever the attractions of the electronic alternatives, and they are many, there is nothing like flesh and blood.