Changes to the Site

I have made some changes to the layout of the site. Having disposed of a separate ‘blog’ confined to political ranting, I have separated ‘Radical History’ from ‘Radical Theory’ and re-posted some of the posts from the other site as new items under ‘Radical Theory‘. These contain ruminations on a variety of things I might come across, especially reviews of books I have recently been reading, or events in the wider world. Most of it is political, some of it will be highly theoretical as time goes on, as I have been doing quite a lot of re-reading of that sort in recent weeks. As I make new sub-pages, I will use the blog to draw attention and create a link.

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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)

Pause for thought

Readers will have noticed a distinct lack of posts on this site since July. It is not that there haven’t been things to blog about, just a lack of opportunity to do the thinking that is necessary to make a blog worthwhile. I have just moved house long distance and that took most of my time and energy in the run-up to the move and since. There may be some light at the end of the tunnel soon and I hope to get back into putting up new posts before too long. There will be much to reflect on.

I have been involved for almost two years in a project exploring ‘how heritage decisions are made’ and it will be good to share some of this experience with a wider audience, now that the project is coming to its final conclusions.

I have also left behind activity in York and the wider North Country in connection with ways of introducing aspects of radical history to a wider audience and will have some reflections on that experience and where I go from here in my new and very different locality.

Having moved further away from the south-west Yorkshire roots of the Bashforth family name, by some 200 miles or so, it prompts me to think about the way in which the family name moved around the country and the world and how this relates generally to the experience of working-class migration from the 18th century to the present day and the various motivations behind it. And that will also prompt me to get back to more of the exploration I have been making into the dispersal of the name during the 19th century.

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’.

Co-Design in Heritage Project

It has been very gratifying to have been invited to join an intriguing project being led by Helen Graham from Leeds University. We are exploring the concept and process of ‘co-design’ in heritage projects, something that has become highly topical as what one might call ‘the heritage industry’ tries to ground itself more firmly in the various localities. The project itself is going to be co-designed by its members, rather than dictated by Helen and her colleagues, which makes it doubly interesting and exciting.

Most of the members are ‘heritage professionals’, so my involvement is somewhat from left field as a radical historian, albeit a retired heritage professional myself. The project is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and it is good to have that kind of public support for what the project is about. Check it out on its own blog.

Personally, this will be something of a learning curve, not least in getting a more nuanced idea of what is meant by ‘co-design’ in this context, as I understand it has something of a provenance in ICT. We get started in the middle of March, basing ourselves for a day at Bede’s World, near Jarrow. I look forward to getting stuck in and also to revisiting a place I last saw around 1959-60 on a school trip to visit Hadrian’s Wall. It had a huge influence on my long-standing self-identity as a Northumbrian with a romantic attachment to its high Anglian period in the 7th and 8th centuries, though I also connect it with a darker side of North-East history – the Jarrow March and the desperate history of suicides in the Jarrow Slacks.