Book Review: Past Mistakes by David Mountain

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Sometimes, as history lovers, we get too bogged down with the 'bones' of history. The dates, what happened and when - and we don't ever stop to think about the concept of history itself. The why. Not superficial things like why did Elizabethans wear ruffs or why did the Spanish Armada fail. But what's behind the whole story in the first place and how am I hearing about it today? 

Past Mistakes, a book by David Mountain aims to enlighten us. 

And it has one consistent theme: Question Everything. 

The book delves into some common themes in history and aims to shed light on the truth behind legends and some of the cornerstones of history you learned at school. From the literal whitewashing of originally multicoloured ancient Greek sculptures - to the golden mythical age of the Wild West. Turns out that factually, the Wild West of gun-toting cowboys meeting for a stand off at high noon and squinting under their Stetsons was actually a calm and civilised community with a surprisingly low rate of gun violence. Although it did have its fair share of poverty and disease. 

Whenever you have a legend or a myth, there's usually an agenda behind it. This is often, the author argues, to promote a national pride, sway people towards another agenda or even cover up something else completely. 

Photo by Mika on Unsplash

You'll learn that Christopher Columbus wasn't actually the heroic, capable navigator of legend that set out to find America and discovered it for the Spanish. So why do we think he was? You might not be surprised to know that our Christoforo Colombo has been the subject of a glittering PR campaign.  

And if you really start to look deeper, you find that history is a PR tool in itself. We can airbrush the past, just like the Victorians did to those creamy white ancient Greek sculptures that were originally daubed in bold, bright colours. 

Darwin's theory of evolution also gets picked apart. Who says that evolution is linear? Who says that we are always evolving for the better? And yet we read and teach that our hunter gatherer ancestors were primitive types who used to bonk each other over the heads with clubs amid hairy, uncoordinated grunts. History and archaeology tell a different story. Stonehenge. 100,000-year-old intricate, beaded jewellery. Cave markings. Neolithic houses. Is it really so awful to think that our ancestors were civilised and developed? And maybe even more adapted, resilient and healthy than we are today? And yep, there's an agenda behind that, too. 

History is never still. It's interpreted (and also misinterpreted) by each generation that looks at it in a new way, through the lens of their own time. 

The book itself is strongly persuasive. If you want to find evidence that challenges the author's point of view you'll have to find it yourself. The writing style is funny at times, and relatable. The chapters are quite long, but they are packed with a lot of information, so they're needed. Overall I did find the book lengthy - but easy to read and really engaging. 

It's not often you can read a book and say that it's changed you as a person, but for me, this one has. It's opened my eyes to the whole practice of history and what we might be doing, as historians, in perpetuating myths and legends that have been created out of a political narrative, sometimes centuries ago. I have learned to question everything. I think it's a really great read - and essential reading in my view if you'll be writing or reading about history in general. 

Past Mistakes can be found in bookshops or you can order it here on Amazon

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