Ever-present history

Adrian Chiles had a bit of a rant in his column in the Guardian this month. Now, I should say from the outset that I sympathise with his obvious desperation; as someone who has to write a blog post every week, I have a small shred of insight into the pressure that paid columnists must be under to come up with something – anything – to write about every week in their column. I find it hard enough, and I don’t have to write to the standard that’s expected for the Guardian (no jokes, please). Years ago I had a paid gig writing for an online magazine once a fortnight, for which the standard of writing was pretty high: I couldn’t keep it up.

Poor Adrian was obviously having a particularly tough week when he decided to write a piece about television documentaries which use the present tense to describe historical events. Apparently, it “makes his blood boil.”

“If something happened centuries ago,” he says (said?), “let’s talk about it as if it happened centuries ago – not as if it was going on right now.” Chiles even quotes (quoted?) Dan Snow as someone who is (was?) apparently “miserable” as a result of the process, forced by his producers to speak in the present tense about historical events. I cannot begin to imagine their pain.

Sarcasm aside, it is interesting to me that Chiles – and, based on the comments I read online, perhaps others – claims to find the process of talking about past events using the present tense patronising; he seems to have decided that producers have come up with this device as a cynical or simplistic tool to bring events to life for a modern audience with a short attention span. Chiles not only believes that this unnecessary, but cites it as something which is likely to tip him over the edge.

Personally, I had not noticed that the use of the historic present in historical documentaries was on the increase, but if this is the case is then it is certainly not a modern phenomenon. It has always amused me how incensed English teachers become when a student’s work slides between the tenses. In English classes, students are trained that switching tense is an absolute no-no and will mean that their writing makes no sense. In the ancient world, by contrast, switching between tenses for effect was considered the height of excellent writing: Virgil was a genius at it.

A poet such as Virgil sometimes wrote whole passages in the present tense for effect; he would also write in the past tense and then jump into the present for a particularly striking moment, capitalising on the jarring effect to make a moment vivid. So a technique practised by men that were and are (past and present) considered to be some of the greatest literary artists that have ever lived now gets you marked down in GCSE creative writing and certainly gets you up the nose of Adrian Chiles.

In truth, I would not advise students to switch constantly betweeen tenses in the way that Virgil does; it is a not a technique commonly used in modern writing and can indeed lead to potential confusion unless used with caution. Apart from anything, just because a technique is used by a genius doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a great idea for us lesser mortals. But the use of the present tense to describe historical events is surely an effective way to bring them to life and I’m a little puzzled as to why anyone would find it so irritating. I guess it’s one of those things, like a dripping tap, that starts to wind a person up inexorably once they have noticed it. My advice for Chiles would be to try some deep-breathing exercises next time he watches anything on BBC Four.

Photo by Hadija on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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