A House Through Time: A Refreshing Start to 2018

Just occasionally a historian comes along with some exciting new ways of understanding history. They usually come from the field of ‘public history’. 2018 kicks off with one such contribution from David Olusoga, who has already given us new insights into the personal side of the history of slavery. His new TV series ‘A House Through Time’ (BBC2 from 4 January) puts the spotlight on the homes we live in, at least those with a significant history. The series will explore the occupants over time of 62 Falkner Street in Liverpool since 1840.

What struck me most forcibly, however, was his introductory feature in The Observer (31.13.2017, page 25). It is full of some startlingly pithy statements about the meeting point between history in its grand sense and the personal in its everyday sense. It is worth quoting some of these remarks.

“Our homes, the most acutely personal places in our lives, come to us second-hand, and invisibly link us to people we have never met, people to whom we have no association other than a single shared connection to place.” My previous home had a relatively short history, going back to the 1930s, but we had the original deeds and papers relating to changes of ownership, and there were even neighbours who recalled the previous occupiers in a way that shattered anonymity. One of the first things I did when I arrived in my present, much older, home was to track down its earliest occupants in the census and to form a picture of their lives by wider family history research. The stories that emerged were commonplace but moving for that very reason, involving a seaman’s widow and her young son, an elderly lady and her unmarried piano teacher niece. We add our own stories to their’s.

Olusoga talks of how we make connections not only via documents from the archives, but the sheer physical presence of the building. “To read their letters from within the house in which they were written, or to hold in your hands their death certificates, while standing on their front steps or in their bedroom, is a strangely intimate experience.” Sometimes it can become “too close and a little too real for comfort”.

Historians have traditionally esteemed ‘objectivity’ and distance from their subjects, but this kind of history is the diametric opposite, as is much of family and community history at this level. “Historians love to talk about how we can get closer to the people of the past, but when it happens of its own volition the effects can be unnerving.”

There is much more that I could quote and all of it with hearty approval. But I will finish with the following, which sums up what should be a clarion call to all of us who operate in the field of personal history, whether family or collective.

“There is no official register of historians. No list from which practitioners of the art can be struck off for professional misconduct.”

Amen to that!


The Legacy of Archives

Perhaps one should not confess to ‘guilty pleasures’ on-line for all to access, but mine is not particularly startling. Since the ‘60s I have happily enjoyed the pleasures of spy fiction, most especially the work of John Le Carré, whom I first encountered through the book and film, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963 and 1965 respectively). Maybe it sat rather oddly against my involvement in the YCL and CPGB and other left-wing movements at the time. I remember entertaining a sneaking admiration for the character of Fiedler, the deputy head of the Stasi, who at least had strong political beliefs, albeit ruthlessly expressed. The only other person in the novel/film to match that was the naïve and romantic Liz Gold. Both came to a sticky end.

What has reminded me of all this has been the publication of JLC’s latest novel, A Legacy of Spies, (Viking, 2017). And this explains why I am having this little fictional digression on a blog devoted to history, and family history in particular. Fast forward 50 or so years from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the ‘case’ rears its ugly head again. Descendants of Liz Gold and the spy Alec Leamas have combined to sue the British State for what happened to their forebears when they were shot trying to climb over the Berlin Wall. One at least is determined to have her day in court and not be bought off. It is reminiscent of the cases against extraordinary rendition in that regard.

Reading A Legacy of Spies, I gradually became a bit uncomfortable with what was going on. Those who read Le Carré will be familiar with the characters of George Smiley and Peter Guillam, ‘heroes’, if that is the right word, of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, when they exposed the mole inside the British espionage system. One starts, therefore, with a predilection of sympathy towards Guillam, dragged out of retirement to be interrogated for his part in dispatching Leamas and Gold. One has a similar respect for Smiley, who remains off-stage until the very end of the novel. It seems as if the new breed working in the monstrosity on the South Bank are determined to hang someone out to dry and Guillam is to be the sacrificial goat. For the greater good, of course. It rings bells.

It was not this that made me have doubts about the ‘truth’ of what was being written and how characters were being portrayed, but it was the use of a mysterious paper trail of archive material the interrogators seem to have come across, despite their seemingly having been a clear out of the original papers. Is the reader being drawn in to the idea that these surviving archives are the truth, or are they a fiendishly well-constructed false trail of evidence? Do the ‘real’ archives exist somewhere else and are they any more likely to be credible? There was, of course, only one way for the reader to get a better handle on this – to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, in my case for the umpteenth time. And I won’t say any more than that about the intricacies of Le Carré’s cunning novel, other than that my enjoyment of both novels was greatly enhanced.

The point we all have to remember as historians, in whatever genre, is to remember that the archives are not necessarily some treasure-trove of neutral and ultimate truth. Somebody in the past put them there for a purpose and we often have to guess what purpose. Archives also get weeded and destroyed, neglected and decayed. They also get deliberately hidden (e.g. some archives from the British Empire covering its many least attractive aspects). Archives lie. Even some of our ancestors slip out of our view, either by avoiding (or simply not having) contact with the authorities that compile records, or by providing false information about names, marital status. My ‘guilty pleasure’ has a benefit – it provides you with a bullshit detector that you should always keep switched on. Things are not always what they superficially seem.

‘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.



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

The Secret History of My Family 4

In times when there is enormous political and social pressure to reduce or remove welfare benefits, the fourth episode of BBC 2’s Secret History of my Family was compelling viewing. It managed to achieve a balanced survey of some of the arguments without moralising about families in the past or the present. In that regard, this was probably the best episode.

Social welfare has been a contentious subject politically since the Elizabethan Poor Laws at the end of the 16th century. It was a moral problem long before that, when benefits were charitable foundations attached to churches and monasteries. The rights and wrongs of handouts and who ‘deserved’ them or not was only briefly taken out of the hands of the moralisers with the introduction of State pensions and the family allowance during the 20th century.

The programme centred on Susan Nelson, a mother of three children in 1903 who had lost her husband in the South African Wars. She tried her best to avoid going into the workhouse but when all means ran out turned to the Charitable Organisation Society (COS) for help. She was placed under the supervision of Margaret Martin, one of the lady volunteers, who was the daughter of a well-to-do solicitor. The COS and Margaret were motivated by a desire to help, subject to the avoidance of ‘pauperism’, what we now hear described as welfare dependency. Interpretations of who was deserving were heavily dependent on moral behaviour. When it was discovered that Susan had shacked up with her brother in law, the three children were taken away and farmed out to distant relatives along with any charitable assistance.

The programme restricted itself to the fate of one child out of the three, Charlotte, and what happened to her and her own descendants. She was eventually rehoused from Deptford to Kent and remained estranged from her mother, as was her son. He himself suffered from a divorce and became estranged from his son and daughter, until reunited by this programme.

Susan meanwhile had three more children with her brother in law Nathaniel, out of wedlock. There were no more benefits from the COS and, after a dreadful incident between Susan and a drunken Nathaniel in which the youngest child ended up in the river before being rescued, she deserted her children to fend for themselves. The programme followed two of the sons and their descendants.

Nathaniel junior found a trade, but life remained hard with a mouth to mouth existence at the mercy of the ‘tally man’. Alfred, who had almost drowned, worked as a ferryman and labourer. During WW2 the children were evacuated to Durham where one son, Alec, acquired a strong local accent. He was teased about that, he passed the 11 plus for grammar school where he was teased mercilessly for lacking a decent uniform. He left to work as a carpenter on parental demands, but worked at night school and eventually also moved out of the area and encouraged his own children to progress through education. Meanwhile another of Alfred’s sons, Alex, deserted his wife leaving her to bring up 5 children on benefits, two of whom carried on that tradition as unmarried mothers with five children apiece.

The sole descendant of the charitable lady Margaret Martin to appear, a great-great niece, might have been expected to moralise about the unmarried mothers, but she was intensely understanding and had herself worked in birth control charities in America. She was the end of her own family line, while the descendants of Susan Nelson had created a massive extended family network, largely characterised by a rough and ready working class culture.

There was much sympathy for Susan Nelson and it is sad that we did not hear much about what happened to her – though she had been known to older members of the family. Yes, there is a working-class argument against welfare dependency, but it is based on the knowledge that it is generally better for all to have the limited independence of wages and that surviving on benefits is just that – survival. We may not be totally prisoners of our circumstances, as stories in this episode showed, but when horizons are lowered and ambitions discouraged by the surrounding culture, choices are less free than the well-off folk might imagine, particularly for women. In those instances, ‘welfare dependency’ is just another way of ‘getting by’ and ‘making shift’ – what those dependent on their labour have done since time immemorial.

The Secret History of My Family Part 4 – NOT

I was looking forward to reviewing the final part of the BBC2 series, The Secret History of My Family today. Unfortunately that will have to wait. Unlike the privileged Tim Dowling from the Guardian newspaper, I didn’t get a preview version to watch. From his review today it seems that is a pity as it addresses the contemporary topic of ‘benefits dependency’ – something that has troubled the well off and powerful since at least the time of the Elizabethan poor laws, if not long before.

Unfortunately, the BBC seems to have a rather skewed idea of its priorities these days. Instead of SHMF 4 the less privileged among us had the option to watch a one hour tribute to the comedian Ronnie Corbett, who died yesterday aged 85. He was a great laugh, but come on, the tribute could have waited a day or two instead of being rushed out as if it had been compiled well in advance – not tasteful at all. However, it seems to be part of a pattern at the BBC to put the relatively trivial before the serious.

A few weeks ago the BBC was running a police procedural in the Shetland series based on the novels of Ann Cleeves. It was a particularly moving serial, touching on some very difficult issues to do with rape and violence against women, but the BBC chose to interrupt the series, not once but twice, in order to screen football matches. It makes no sense either in terms of the values of public service broadcasting, or in terms of ‘Ratings R Us’.

Winge! Winge!

PS – I opted to read more of the wonderful book on existentialism by Sarah Bakewell, ‘At the Existentialist Cafe’ instead. Brilliant stuff.