Pet Massacre or Mercy Killing?

A neglected element of ‘history from below’ concerns people’s relations with animals and vice versa. For a disturbing and unusual insight into an incident, or series of the same, illustrating human-animal interactions, the most recent book by Hilda Kean, covers the killing of thousands of pets at the start of WW 2 in the UK. Called ‘The Great Cat and Dog Massacre’ it is just published by the University of Chicago Press. Details can be found here:

Film buffs may remember Glorious 39, starring Romola Garai as a young actress called Anne Keyes, and directed by Steven Poliakoff, which contains a scene where she stumbles upon one of these processes of pet killing under way. While not the main concern of the film, it hints at how the events are remembered more by a deliberate attempt to hide and forget. Not surprising as the events sit uncomfortably next to the myth of Britain as a nation of animal lovers. I look forward to reading how Hilda Kean deals with all the ambiguities and conflicts that will have been involved.


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 Ruskin Archives

Although I never attended courses at Ruskin College in Oxford, the Public History conferences organised there by Hilda Kean before she retired have been a major influence in the way I think about history and practice it for myself. Those conferences were in some respects a continuation of the earlier events organised by Raphael Samuel under the auspices of the History Workshop. Several of my friends and acquaintances participated in those with great enthusiasm and have remained deeply influenced. Ruskin had a massive influence on succeeding generations of working-class students and their future lives.

No wonder then, that there was such a furore when the current Ruskin leadership with the tacit support of the board, pursued a policy of destruction of the college’s records, including much of the work of past students, both academically and in terms of the culture of the College. It was an act of cultural vandalism of the worst kind, perhaps not too different from mass book burnings, even if born of stupidity and ignorance rather than ideology.

Fortunately there has now been a concerted attempt to try to, at least partially, reconstitute a virtual archive. You can read more about it here:

If you know anyone who was a former student, who has kept material from their student days, they will be interested to hear from you.

History from Below Rises Again

Some fifty years ago, EP Thompson published ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, which is regarded as the foundation document of the concept of ‘history from below’, though there were other historians ploughing similar fields of research at the time. In the wake of the many post-modernist ‘turns’, the idea of developing an empirically-based view of the past from the angle of the marginalised, the dispossessed and the lower orders of society, fell somewhat out of fashion in favour of concentrating on (mainly middle-class) culture.

Thankfully, post-modernism as a self-referencing, exclusivist mindset has apparently run its course, and, equally thankfully, the many valuable insights that characterised post-modern thought at its best have been more or less seamlessly reintegrated with empirically based historical research and writing. There have always been continuities, since Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop Movement and its successor, Hilda Kean’s Public History courses and conferences based on Ruskin College, quickly absorbed the new ways of seeing things, and feminist historians (especially those with a socialist leaning) also kept the flame alive while maintaining their own critical stance.

In the past decade, a new wave of young academic historians has been exploring the insights to be gained from ‘history from below’ and its way of reading the past against the grain, though many would not wish to be labelled under this movement as they have equally absorbed the critical reference points from post-modernism. Nevertheless, several scores of them have begun to organise again around debating the continued value of the concept of ‘history from below’ and taking it on in new ways.

Check out the website ‘The Many Headed Monster’ . Here you will find a range of contributions taken from the two symposia that the network has organised and get an idea of the range of thinking that is going on.

It is to be hoped that this new wave of thinking does not confine itself to a small network of academics, but that they manage to break out of the institutional closet into the wider society. Here they will be able to meet up with and work alongside those of us operating in radical history groups, family history societies and local history societies of one sort or another. It was perhaps a fault of the earlier movement that, despite the best efforts of people like Thompson through the WEA and University Extra-Mural departments, it remained a largely institutionally based academic activity.

‘History from below’ needs also to be ‘history for below’ and ‘history by below’.