Radical Family History is Dead

September will be the 12th anniversary of the International Conference on Public History at Ruskin College in 2005. I presented a paper: Absent Fathers, Present Histories. In the subsequent symposium publication (People and Their Pasts) I floated the idea of ‘radical family history’. It is now time to consider the concept again.

In its simplest form, radical family history was a call to family historians to collectively use their skills and knowledge to raise the profile of the genre by using long series of histories in parallel and comparison in order to explore both old and perhaps new themes that emerged from the data. It was a way of conducting a history of everyday life from the ground up: assembling data, analysing it creatively, making interpretations and arguments and presenting the findings. It was posited with an eye to the small minority of family historians who looked beyond the mere collection of trees.

The idea is dead in the water, and probably always was more of a hope than a likelihood. True, there have been individual published histories that have indicated the potential of the concept (books that I have reviewed in this blog). There have been academic-led studies using data in this way and there is another Anglo-American project in progress at this time, studying social mobility. There may be, buried away somewhere, freelance studies of families, self-published and little known and perhaps reaching no higher level than antiquarian recording.

The idea of collective work is out of the question. There is no appetite such as might have been hoped for from the family history societies, who seem more inclined to undermine their own reason to exist by publishing all their data on line for others to mine amid declining memberships. The commercial companies and media continue to dominate much of the field, such as Ancestry and its drive to collect DNA. When it comes to accessing funding for complex projects, academics more or less totally dominate the sources that are available – something equally true of institutions and universities with regard to ‘heritage’. In any case, in so far as family history was part of the public history and heritage domain, the combination of factors above continues to permit the dominance of the standard heritage discourse, to the extent that one might even call it now an ‘ideology’.

There is no room for radical popular innovation, such as I had envisaged, in the present culture, dominated as it is by commercial, institutional, academic and bureaucratic elites. There probably never was, despite the interest shown by a small number of enlightened academics. Radical Family History is dead.

Another Man Done Gone: Vin Garbutt (1947-2017)

Sad to hear of the untimely death of folk-singer Vin Garbutt on 6 June 2017 at just 69. It was reported that he had heart problems. I am sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that the only thing wrong with his heart was that it was too big. Having a couple of years’ head start, I began my interest in folk music a bit before him, so I missed the early part of his career. With the group, The Clevelanders (named after Vin’s beloved Cleveland Hills), I helped start Darlington’s first folk club back in 1963. We used to make trips down river to Stockton Folk Club, where we heard The Fettlers perform their own songs and those of Ron Angel and Graeme Miles. In due time, Vin Garbutt would join this band of Tees Valley song writers who put the area onto the folk map. He will also have heard Babs and Garth sing ‘The White Cockade’ there, before he joined the Fettlers himself. Our little group, a bit of a skiffle-cum-folk band, went our separate ways in 1964 and began our personal tours around the country in search of education and work.

I guess I would have heard of Vin Garbutt during occasional trips back home and visits to successor folk clubs – enough for me, when I ran the folk club at Louth in Lincolnshire in the 70s to book him as a guest. Needless to say, he brought the house down, but even 16-year old kids there already knew his name and his first LP. He was the same off stage as on: a mixture of mischief and seriousness, with a fund of stories and a skill at mindless, surreal humour. I remember remarking, by way of introduction, that we would have played in the same river as children (he lived in South Bank just beyond Middlesbrough), to which he replied that he wished we hadn’t made it so mucky down his way (or words to that effect – those who know the River Tees will appreciate the joke). I still have the signed copy of his LP from that visit, The Valley of Tees, and the four that followed in rapid succession: The Young Tin Whistle Pest, King Gooden, Eston California and Tossin’ a Wobbler.

By that time, I was back in Darlington to live, and saw him more than once at the club in Darlington Arts Centre. He became controversial in folk circles, for reasons that don’t reflect well on the tolerance of folkies. He was well known for songs on topical subjects, not least the Troubles in Ireland, and applauded for the way he handled such a difficult item in fraught times. He was a staunch Catholic and his song The Little Innocents tackled the subject of abortion from that point of view. He had a hard time getting work in British clubs after that, though he still sang it at the Cambridge Folk Festival. Vin always had his heart on his sleeve and you took him as the man he was, in the round, you couldn’t pick and choose the bits you liked and the bits you didn’t. I didn’t agree with his views always, but loved him for the way he was not afraid to speak out and risk upsetting people he was there to entertain.

So, for many years, I never met up with him again (on my travels once more), but still enjoyed what of his music I had, and was pleased last year to pick up his CD Synthetic Hues and renew old acquaintance. I am glad I have so many of his songs and tunes to remind me of what a great guy he was and remained. I have been pleased to see so many positive tributes on the internet. I have great memories of him and he is a link to more from those early days of the folk revival. RIP, Vin!

Creating History

I am drawn to the view, by whomsoever expressed, that we make our own history, we are not victims of it, even when it appears so. This includes Karl Marx, who suggested that we do not make history in conditions of our own choosing. It therefore includes also Raya Dunayevskaya, in her rescue of humanism from the ravages of post-Marx Marxists. It also includes Cornelius Castoriadis and his view of History as Creation and The Imaginary Institution of Society, from a post-Marxist viewpoint. There are others with whose work I am not familiar enough to cite them.

You will note that this also relates to writers who were writing about political action and creativity, so that my view of history and my view of political action have tended to coincide. The one feeds into the other and has done for me for over 50 years. If I have a generally libertarian view of politics, it is matched by a libertarian view of history, while in both cases aware of the collective nature of human society (I am not an individualist). As human beings we are essentially creative, even when it looks different. This infuses my concept of ‘history from below’, which goes beyond the idea of studying history as if from the lower ranks of society, though it includes that. It comes out in my concept of radical family history, both as a way of understanding the world and as a practice for historians.

I am prompted to these thoughts having just read The Future of History, by John Lukacs, (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011). It is not that he directly addresses the issues in which I am interested, but the honest appreciation he makes of the limits of history, the limits of the surviving record, while pleading for all historians to fight for the profession (which includes so-called amateurs like myself) and for meaningful standards, including readability. There are elements of what he says with which I might disagree, but that in no ways is a criticism[1]. He is also a self-confessed ‘reactionary’ or ‘conservative’, while I see myself as ‘radical’ – but that makes his views all the more interesting, not least when I find myself often in full agreement. I hope he will not therefore mind if I describe the work as entertaining, by which I mean stimulating and enjoyable in equal measure. It is a work worth returning to and allowing his critique to work on one’s consciousness and inform one’s practice.

As a primarily family historian, I am all too aware of the limitations of the records from which I and my co-conspirators have to work. These become less and less adequate, the further one travels back in time. It is, to say the least, a challenge and not merely from a technical, genealogical point of view. It is an even bigger challenge for me to then suggest that this is a way of testing the theory that we make our own history in the sense described above. Just how does that actually work? How can we, as historians, demonstrate that the theory is more than an unproven hypothesis? When the thinkers I mention above talk about history as creation, what exactly do they have in mind? What kinds of verifiable records are there to prove the hypothesis? Or is it just abstract theorising? Sometimes when you read their work it seems like that, not least because of their selection of relevant illustrative events.

As a professed ‘radical family historian’, however, I am not positing an abstract theory: I am testing it to destruction. What sort of family history can I and others of my ilk write and what will it demonstrate? Some have written excellent histories of their own particular family lines and the reader can see how some of the characters shaped their immediate world, while being equally shaped by it (I have mentioned these in previous posts). The balance from one individual to another might vary considerably – some of us are passive and it is the passivity that helps shape our own history and, to some degree, that of the world around us (think of those who can’t be bothered to vote in elections, for example, or pour scorn on others who do try to bring about social change). I have suggested elsewhere that comparative, parallel family histories might offer insights on social change or specific facets of everyday life. My own aim is to use the history of those who took up and bore the name ‘Bashforth’ over three centuries, how they spread around the world, how their fates differed and can be compared, how they ‘created history’ and in what sense. What I can show (let alone prove) with that approach is as yet an open book, with lots of blank pages. One thing I am sure I will find is that ‘radical family history’ is a concept, not a methodology.

[1] I think he describes social history in terms that are too narrow and, while I concur with his view that some of the subjects that are studied and written about by academics in the field of cultural history may seem bizarre (pp 86-87), his list is rhetorically selective (and therefore unworthy) and fails to appreciate the way in which historians today are concerned with the history of ‘everyday life’.

Archives in Poetry

I have added a new entrant into the ‘Archives in Fiction’ section, accessible via the appropriate page tag. This time the quotation is from poetry, from Anne Stevenson, that conjures up that sense we get when we handle original items from the archives – more so when the piece of paper concerns one of our forebears, possibly even with their signature. Enjoy.

Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research

Valuing interdisciplinary collaborative research, [edited Keri Facer and Kate Pahl, Policy Press, Bristol & Chicago, 2017] – paperback retailing at £24.99

Until 2014, I was involved in a project examining the issue of socialising heritage and legacy, part of a wider series of projects under the A.H.R.C. Connected Communities label looking at collaborative methods of working. Our particular strand concerned ‘heritage’ and, from the start, set out to be collaborative – including the design of the research. The outcomes of this strand are summarised and analysed in Chapter Four of this book: ‘Socialising heritage/ socialising legacy’.

My involvement was as an individual freelance family and community historian, participating in the York’s Alternative History group. There were more than 20 of us in this project, from a variety of backgrounds in a well-designed balance of university academics, heritage professionals (including local planners) and members of community organisations. The boundaries of the group were fluid enough to include new people as the project developed, as well as (memorably) the critique of another 20 or so volunteers at a mid-way event in Manchester. It was a wonderful experience, very inspiring, though not without its conflicts, and I met some great people whom I much admire. From my perspective, one of the best outcomes has been the way in which things changed in York with the involvement of Richard and Lianne Brigham and how that has continued and grown (see https://en-gb.facebook.com/YorkPastandPresent/).

At the point I moved away, the project was being written up and at this stage I began to develop the only slight negative feeling. The unease I felt has redoubled on the publication of this book. In some ways, it was to be expected that the final writing up of the project would fall principally to the academics, so I initially dismissed my reservations since I trusted the academics involved, and drafts were always referred around the group as a whole. However, now that I have the collective publication in my hands, the unease has returned.

From the very start of the editors’ introduction the emphasis is on a two-handed division: academics on the one hand, everybody else on the other hand, in the context of ‘the boundaries between universities and publics’. On scanning through the contents as a whole, this pattern seems to be the norm. It seems to be all about justifying the funding of academia by bringing in the participation of the community. The latter is never clearly defined, though it is stated that communities are ‘seeking evidence and validation for their practice’.

I would demur from that statement as the emphasis in this volume is largely different – the academics are coming to us for their validation and our evidence. While I am perfectly happy with the way our own strand developed and the kinds of outcome it produced (notably the DIY Heritage Manifesto contributed by Danny Callaghan, a freelance grassroots heritage consultant in the Potteries), I am initially disappointed by the way in which the editors have characterised the issues we explored as some sort of problem for universities. The real problem is how grassroots initiatives can be validated in their own right and escape the bureaucracy involved in funding bids – which are heavily biased in favour of academics and professionals in the heritage and legacy milieu as they are more adept at filling in the forms.

I hope that my initial unease will be dispelled as I work through the various other project write-ups in this book, though a quick glance indicates I may have to wade through a lot of jargon and bullshit to extract what is really useful. Nevertheless – set aside the academic bias, these are all worthwhile projects in their own right. It will be worth the effort to persevere with the book – though I suspect a lot of community activists, if they hear of it through their networks and can get past the rather forbidding title, may find it hard going.

Birdcage Walk

It was an essay in the Guardian G2 Review [4 March 2017] that sent me off to get this book, recently published, by Helen Dunmore[1]. The article was about legacy, a more personal concept than heritage and therefore more humanistic. It struck several chords for me at once. Most personal was the disclosure that the author has ‘a cancer that has a very poor prognosis’. Though not personally displaying any symptoms, following a routine medical check-up, I am currently under investigation for what may be in the same ball park. I hope she does well, as I do for myself.

The paragraph that struck me with greatest force is worth quoting in full:

“Most of us die in silence and leave silence behind us. There is no visible mark, no written record and very often no grave to visit. Ancestors have shifted about in search of work, or been unable to write, or have never had the cash to pay a stonemason. They leave behind a story, perhaps, or an anecdote that is handed down from child to grandchildren, and then is heard no more. Existence subsides into a humus that at first sight looks entirely anonymous. But I want to probe more deeply, because I believe that there is more to it than that. Anonymity is also an inheritance and perhaps a precious one, just as the poems grouped under Anonymous in an anthology are often the most moving of all, honed as they are by generations of memory.”

While Helen Dunmore writes fiction, historical for the most part, I cannot help but see the many echoes of sentiment between what she has written here and my ideas about radical family and community history, especially her use of the word ‘anonymous’ and its resonance with Walter Benjamin’s concern for honouring the anonymous.

Birdcage Walk centres on a family and its circle of friends among 18th century political radicals in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution – less about their ideas and beliefs than about the impact of wider affairs on ordinary people. But these were also the foot soldiers of history-making. We might recall some of the famous names – Paine, Wollstonecraft, Godwin, and other later figures. But they would have no significance were it not for the thousands of fellow thinkers out in the wider shires and cities and villages – the artisans and factory workers with copies of The Rights of Man in their pockets. And then there were the millions who simply toiled from day to day as domestic servants, migrant workers, farm labourers in a basic quest for survival, our first instinct. They all made history. They all continue to do so today. It is warming to see them figure in fiction in a way that highlights their humanity as they pass through on their anonymous way, particularly with the focus on the feminine viewpoint – often doubly anonymised in what passes for ‘history’.

One small afterword: on page 15, the ‘author’ is visiting an archivist and is presented with a fragment of paper bearing the writing of the person she was trying to identify: “I touched the paper as if the heat of their lives might come off on my fingers.” Someone who clearly does her research! We know that sensation, even if it only a signature in a marriage register.

 

 

[1] Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk, Hutchinson, London, 2017

Family History – Messages of Hope

Sometimes in your family history you can find messages of hope from the past. It is one of the reasons I regard this type of history research as potentially ‘radical’, so long as you are prepared to go beyond collecting dates of baptisms, marriages and burials (though even these records have their contexts). I was reminded of this watching the latest episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ on BBC 1 (25 January 2017: 8pm), which featured Sir Ian McKellen, actor and LGBT activist.

Inevitably, it being one of the features of this series, there is the attempt to find roots of the person’s celebrity in their past and, sure enough there was a great uncle who trod the boards and a grandmother who was a mezzo-soprano soloist. Neither were particularly famous, except at a local level, but – pause for thought – each in a quiet way illustrated how we are agents in history, however small, not simply victims of fate.

The greatest revelation however was the ancestor, Robert Lowes, who was a warehouse clerk in Manchester. He was very definitely one of those neglected heroes of the past who made an enormous difference to the lives of those around him. In the 1840s, at a time when Friedrich Engels was writing his classic The Condition of the Working Classes, Robert Lowes, humble clerk, skilfully organised his fellow workers, clerical and manual, to petition their rich and powerful employers for a half day holiday. Robert himself had used the opportunity provided by the Lyceum to build his skills at public speaking, writing, researching, networking and advocacy in his rare spare time. He wanted more of the same opportunities for his fellow workers. This was not a time when it was easy to organise, though demand for change was on the rise. But Robert’s campaign was successful and what we now know as ‘the weekend’ was born. He went on to campaign for workers in other industries, especially the women garment workers in the sweatshops, and was successful again.

This was an uplifting episode at a time when the process of reform and change started by men and women like Robert in 1845 is being put into reverse on a global scale and a Mussolini impersonator inhabits the White House. It is a reminder that we don’t have to be cowed by history or by patriarchal interpretations of the past and present – we can make history too. It just takes a bit of effort, one step at a time.

There is a less dramatic but just as vital example from my own maternal ancestry. My great uncle Edwin Martin was described to me as a ‘black sheep’, who was irresponsible in his working life, was blacklisted as a union organiser, might have been a communist, died of TB and left his wife and child destitute. I grew up with a sneaking admiration for this rebel and was fortunate enough in later life to be put in touch with his daughter, Margaret. He was a lovely man, a keen exponent of amateur dramatics and opera, a trade unionist, socialist in 1930s London. He looked after nieces who came to London to seek domestic work, making sure they were well placed and not mistreated. Yes, he did die of TB, from untreated milk; he did find work hard to get because of his principles; but he is remembered by his daughter with great affection. I was right to secretly admire him as I grew up.