‘The Grassroots of English History’: Review

While the historian David Hey, a great friend and advocate of family and community historians both ‘amateur’ and professional, may no longer be with us, he left an important legacy in the form of his last book. The Grassroots of English History was published posthumously [Bloomsbury Academic, London etc., 2016] with the sub-title Local Societies in England before the Industrial Revolution. It is a wonderful, broad survey of all the latest understanding of the period of English society up to approximately the middle of the eighteenth century and a reminder of how much we miss the author.

If, as a family historian, you get no further back in your research than that time, then this provides a useful background, but if, like myself, your researches go further, this becomes a vital insight into the social and cultural context. Better still, for those of us of a certain vintage, this volume demolishes a load of old beliefs about the past with which our heads were filled at school about who the English were and are and demonstrates what a melting-pot English society has always been. It is also immensely readable and well-argued, copiously annotated and with a full bibliography to set the reader off on further avenues of exploration. If you read no other book on English history this year, then read this one.

One can pick small faults: the chapter on timber-framed houses could have done with diagrams and illustrations to help follow the text – but that only means you have to follow the notes and bibliography where they take you, and that is no bad thing. The same chapter illustrates the great benefit of this book – its wide-ranging, cross-disciplinary approach to understanding the past, and something which David Hey always advocated.

Overall, this book is worth reading several times, it is so rich and stimulating a combination of detail and breadth. There is more than one avenue that I shall now follow in developing meaning from my own family history research.

 

 

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More New Pages

As part of an ongoing review of this blog site and how it works, I have added two new pages and deleted one. The one that has gone, sadly, is Archives in Fiction: I have not added much to it and the idea has past its value now. In its place there are two pages to feature projects on which I am working and which, each in their different ways, illustrate how I use my concept of Radical Family History in practice. The first relates to the history of the Barnsley Cordwainers Society, the oldest surviving local Friendly Society in England, founded in March 1647/8, to which several people who shared my surname in the past once belonged and of which I am a somewhat geographically challenged member. The second relates to a project, once titled ‘Diverse Evill Disposed Persons’ (under which it featured in Public History Review Journal 18, 2011), centring on events in the ‘country’ around Cannon Hall in 1674, though covering the period from the Restoration and earlier. It illustrates a clash of cultures, classes and individuals during a period of social flux, and is, in some sense, a micro-history of what this entailed at the grass roots level of society. Both of these projects have featured on separate sites, now defunct, but the work still stands. Content will follow in due course.

Changes to the Site

I have made some changes to the layout of the site. Having disposed of a separate ‘blog’ confined to political ranting, I have separated ‘Radical History’ from ‘Radical Theory’ and re-posted some of the posts from the other site as new items under ‘Radical Theory‘. These contain ruminations on a variety of things I might come across, especially reviews of books I have recently been reading, or events in the wider world. Most of it is political, some of it will be highly theoretical as time goes on, as I have been doing quite a lot of re-reading of that sort in recent weeks. As I make new sub-pages, I will use the blog to draw attention and create a link.

Pet Massacre or Mercy Killing?

A neglected element of ‘history from below’ concerns people’s relations with animals and vice versa. For a disturbing and unusual insight into an incident, or series of the same, illustrating human-animal interactions, the most recent book by Hilda Kean, covers the killing of thousands of pets at the start of WW 2 in the UK. Called ‘The Great Cat and Dog Massacre’ it is just published by the University of Chicago Press. Details can be found here:  http://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/G/bo22091014.html

Film buffs may remember Glorious 39, starring Romola Garai as a young actress called Anne Keyes, and directed by Steven Poliakoff, which contains a scene where she stumbles upon one of these processes of pet killing under way. While not the main concern of the film, it hints at how the events are remembered more by a deliberate attempt to hide and forget. Not surprising as the events sit uncomfortably next to the myth of Britain as a nation of animal lovers. I look forward to reading how Hilda Kean deals with all the ambiguities and conflicts that will have been involved.

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’.