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!