Historians are lucky when they find a written record that’s not produced for public consumption. A diary, or a journal. This is the enduring value of Pepy’s Diaries because they were not written for posterity or for an audience, but for the man himself. Mostly, however, all the historians have is the ‘official record’, and that means that in some way the sound of history is silent.
If one find some ancient Babylonian stone tablet, or an inscription written in the Linear A script of the Minoan civilisation, the lexicality of what is said is easy enough. In the case of the stone tablet, it may be as mundane as a record that a certain man owed a certain amount of grain to another man. The Minoan script may be about how a man must attend the X ceremony. But what if it’s something more abstract? And here in lies the problem. The ancient Minoan didn’t see fit to explain to us what the X Ceremony is, because the author assumed everyone already knew.
What an author thinks everyone already know is the void, the chasm, the abyss present in all history. The unspoken certainties informs the actions of the powerful whose officials record we do get to read. They put a block on ambitions, and they compel an effort in a direction we can not accurately understand. It limits our understanding of a process from a past epoch – sometimes to the point where we really don’t understand anything of what was going on.
I have a pet theory that I have no academic support for, that cold weather Peoples aren’t that keen on individualism. That is mirrored in desert Peoples, I suppose. The Tuareg moving from oasis to oasis in the Sahara would face the same pressures as a people whose world freezes for half the year. Cold weather Peoples who depend on cooperation and sharing for survival will have a dim view of odd-balls and egotists who go off and do their own thing. And in the climate of Sweden, given a more basic technological level, those who did so would die.
I think that this is mainly why Nordic countries have the Law of Jante, as explained by the Danish author Axel Sandemose. You shan’t think you are any better than us. You shan’t think you are more special than us. You shan’t think you are smarter than us. And so on. I have some vague and scant hunch that this works in Scotland as well.
Now, Scotland is on the southern end of the cold-zone of Europe, and like Denmark – who always enjoyed their odd-balls more than we Swedes, Norwegians, and Finns did – there is a higher tolerance for the quirky. Despite the evidence on a January morning, Scotland is both more fertile and more forgiving than the islands of Troms in Norway or the inland forests of Swedish Laplandia. John o’ Groats is still farther south than Ystad, one of the most southern towns of Sweden, and Scania – the region where Ystad lies – is the breadbasket of Sweden.
The assumptions people make, and then never discuss because everyone knows those assumptions, are in part based on the natural world around them. For the 19th century Scot or Swede or Norwegian, they did things framed by shared assumptions. These shared assumptions are generally called ‘culture’. They are things that are obvious to everyone.
And we are raised by people shaped by their environments. Our grandparents were raised when the climate could still kill us, and when individualism was too expensive, both for the group and the individual. They raised our parents with those assumptions, and when our parents rebelled, it was not against those unspoken truths. And our parents raised us, just as we are raising the next generations, to think as we’ve always thought, and believe what we’ve always believed.
History is silent on this process. When the record of our time is studied in centuries hence, they will face the same problem we do when we try to read a Babylonian receipt or a Minoan instruction to go to X Ceremony. What ceremony? Why was the Babylonian in debt? What little truth guided civilisation’s small parts to the point where the big cogs and the the prime movers didn’t even think of doing certain things?
One of the most interesting parts of the geographical journalism I want to do in Scotland when I get there is to investigate those shared assumptions. I’m not a news reporter. I don’t really care about the doings and sayings of a politician in the now. The privelege and gift of my kind of journalism, is that it allows me to consider everything. I can’t wait to go there. I’ve postponed this several times, but now I need to do it.
Scotland is in one of those rare times when a whole society talks to itself to reach a new settlement. We know of those times in the past as ‘the rennaissance’ or ‘the enlightenment’. Or the Thirty Year War or World War II. When that process is over, everything will be different and there will be new truths that are never spoken about because everyone will just assume everyone else knows. That’s what makes Scotland the exiting part of the Brexit process. That’s why I want to go and observe in the middle of it, rather than sit outside and wonder what I’m missing. What remains is to find a couch to sleep on when I artive.