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