I was only thinking yesterday, on the train, about local histories and the history of ordinary people like ourselves. I hesitate to use the word “people’s history” as this has been hijacked by folkish historians seeking a woolly, paternalistic sort of history. The histories I’m talking about are stories from the battlefront of history, even if half the characters in these stories were not entirely aware of their place in the story.
I have a casual interest in the history of the British in the Spanish Civil War and read an excellent book of the same title by a chap called James K Hopkins. He noted how the international volunteers involved in that war are remembered as Oxbridge undergraduates and similar members of the upper middle classes, but the reality is that most of the volunteers were working men although most of their voices are lost from the history books because they didn’t have the training to express their voices – i.e. state education makes workers, public schools make leaders.
The Spanish war was something of an exception in that involved relatively large numbers (proportionally) of the self-educated working class, plus the war was a ‘Just War’ that is remembered as perhaps the last great hurrah for the international Left. Other wars, like the first world war, are brilliant examples of how the ordinary person’s voice is muted: officers brokedown and wrote protests and letters to parliament. Enlisted soldiers suffered from ‘mutism’, the only defiance available to them, or else where shot by their officers and sergeants.
The note that I entered into my notebook was that my family has no history. Although my family have been refugees from different parts of Europe, nothing was ever written down. There are no records, no journals, diaries or memoirs. My granddad wouldn’t even consider writing a memoir, but what is the difference between his story and that of a footballer or corrupt aristocrat? Instead of citable history there is only vague myths and dying legends: a great grandfather who came to Birkenhead from Ireland by himself at the age of 12, a family of Jewish refugees from the East, North Wales miners, Ulster farmers and, more recently, a family that saw the ruin and abandonment of their region (and their country) at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and her South East. Until the workingclass is confident and sure of its own histories, charlatans like Ben Chapman will remain in office and nothing will change.