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)

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One thought on “Common People – Review

  1. Thanks for this review, Martin. I’ve my eye on Light’s book since it first crossed my radar a few months ago, but haven’t found the time to look at it yet. You’ve inspired me to make time to read it as I’m excited by the broader project and now very intrigued about the notion that ‘anonymity also has its history’.

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