Common People – Review

Common People: The History of an English Family by Alison Light (Fig Tree, London 2014)

Having been promoting for nearly ten years the wider value of family history to our general understanding of the past, this year has seen my arguments vindicated in double measure[1].

Firstly, an accomplished academic literary historian has published a history of her own family that exemplifies the power of family history to shine lights into the less exposed corners of the past. Secondly, the book made it onto the short list for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction alongside some very stiff competition. It did not win, but the achievement stands in defiance of all those who dismiss family historians as cranks and the product of their work as nothing better than dull anecdote, meaningless to non-family members. Alison Light’s book Common People is a magnificent example and challenge to all of us who do care about family history to ‘up our game’ and have the confidence to follow a similar path, marrying our research with local and social history.

Common People traces back six generations of Alison Light’s family. They include everyone from the workhouse poor, the criminal and the destitute through to successful small business people and pillars of the chapel, with all shades in between. They are all very ordinary and in their ordinariness tell us more than most other stories (other than fiction) about everyday life in the past. It is the magic of this book, as the author herself puts it, that it is not so much ‘history from below’ as ‘history from inside’.

From time to time, the author steps aside from the narrative to share with us two particular facets of her interest. Firstly there are passing nuggets of wisdom about the value of family history as such. It is best to stumble on these in context to be brought short with their inspirational message, but I will mention one as an example: that anonymity also has its history. Secondly she is unafraid to be passionate about the stories she discovers in her research. It has become somewhat fashionable for historians to ‘rise above’ emotional comment on the iniquities perpetrated on the poor, with the idea that ‘the past is a different country’ and had different values. Alison Light affirms our right to be angry about the cruelty of much historic public policy, noting that many voices were raised in the past for reform and change but they were ignored by those in power. The world was contested then as it remains today – uncannily so with the ongoing debates about welfare and austerity against a background of expenses scandals, bankers bonuses and the audacious criminality of much of the finance industry and large corporations. We need humane voices like Alison Light’s to remind us that we make history, it does not simply happen to us.

She concludes with the hope that ‘this book encourages others to write their family history as a public history’. I hope so too. This kind of detailed forensic examination of ordinary, everyday life has an unusual power. The world is exposed to us in a radically different way from more analytic forms of history and sociology. These lives echo and resonate in our own lives, here and now. It is a way of speaking Truth unto Power. This is what I mean by ‘radical family history’. Finding our roots can change us dramatically.

I would also recommend The Valley by Richard Benson and London Stories by Hilda Kean as two more and different examples of this kind of radical family history, each with its own different viewpoint and value. Alison Light was not the first and will not be the last on this road.

Martin Bashforth

[1] My original arguments are in ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’, Chapter 11 of People and Their Pasts: {ublic History Today, Edited by Paul Ashton and Hilda Kean (Palgrave, London 2009)


New Paths in Norwich

On the face of it there should not be a lot of difference between York and Norwich, where I was and where I am now. Both are towns with a long history, attractive to tourists and with a Cathedral and University. But there are some striking differences. Norwich is only slightly bigger but seems much more so because it is so much busier, though the local people are generally quite laid back and friendly despite that. Both cities have radical traditions, evident today in the strong showing of Green politicians locally. Of the two Norwich has a more independent cultural scene than York, which tends to be dominated by the tourist industry. That may be because York is on the East Coast Main Line from London, more heavily marketed and more accessible to foreign tourists. In terms of transport connectivity, Norwich is badly disadvantaged with a poor rail service (it takes almost as long to cover the shorter distance to London from Norwich as it does on the high speed rail network from York) and being well off the beaten track of England’s motorway networks. Consequently the people of Norwich may have to look more to their own devices for a cultural life. The region has always had an attraction to artists and musicians which continues to this day.

Coming to Norwich from the outside has its problems for someone like me interested in family history. My own family history has absolutely no connection with Norwich, Norfolk or even the wider East Anglian region. That became very evident when I visited the Norfolk Family History Society. They have a well endowed building to house their collections, a short walk from where I live, so it was natural to gravitate in their direction. There is a busy and active membership, very friendly and welcoming, with highly capable people running the Trust that funds the premises and a volunteer force to man the ‘office’ and carry out various projects both in the Society and in conjunction with Norfolk County Records Office. Despite that, I felt completely at sea on my first visit. With all this treasure house of resources where should I start? Clearly, if I am to achieve anything here, I have to connect with the wider history of the City and its surroundings and, in particular, given my leaning towards the working classes and the poorer sort, as well as the dissenting tendencies among these, I have much to learn and much to explore.

An early fascination has begun to develop in relation to the sector of the city within which I live. Real estate people call it the Golden Triangle (a feature which increases or shrinks in size according to the demands of marketing) and it is characterised by a melting pot of older, more settled local people, young professional families, students and academics. It has a very pleasant feel to it with plenty of interesting independent shops dotted around, artisan bakers and the like, and some great old style pubs. The housing stock is a not too grid like pattern of streets of terrace houses of varying sizes, from Victorian middle class villas to smaller working class houses, intersected by busy radial roads. The main ‘breathing space’ of greenery is the huge city Cemetery, which is always an interesting stroll on an autumn day for someone interested in both urban wild life and local and family history. Yet for me to try is a slightly longer walk that would bring me to the river Wensum and a very different aspect, and a small public park in the other direction. The city centre is a quarter of an hour away, with all its facilities. So the area is worth exploring to see how it originally developed during the 19th century and how it acquired the character it has today – perhaps not all that different if one checks Census data for occupations of householders then and today. My own house was unoccupied in 1911, but in 1901 was occupied by an elderly lady pensioner and her music teacher niece.

As always it pays to look up, so that you notice the small plaques on the sides of houses that show how individual buildings once had their own names and small blocks of houses were created piecemeal before the full street pattern emerged with its modern naming and numbering: Oxford House, Belgrave Villas. Maybe to begin with I will be paying more attention to the last couple of centuries of history, rather than my first love, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I am reminded of one of the many wise things Robert McFarlane has to say about paths in his recent book, The OId Ways. He notes that we start from the place we are at right now but we soon find ourselves treading pathways that others have created and finding our own responses. In time we find our own branches off the more obvious routes, though we are ever and always in the debt of the person who first set off in that direction. It is as true of the physical roads we follow as the cultural, social and political.