Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The working-class autodidact: fact or fiction?

We can get this one out of the way easily enough: don't let anyone ever tell you that the working-class autodidact was a creature of myth. The breed may now have become all but extinct, gone with the particular social cultures of the heavy industries that produced them, but we can still glory in their achievements. How about this for a superb example, uncovered whilst looking at early 20th-century trade union reports among the TUC collections at London Metropolitan University Archives.

National Union of Foundry Workers, Monthly Journal and Report, May 1921.

Why did these industrial cultures - so primitive, limited and limiting in many respects - produce outstanding men such as Robert Dunlop? My own view - based, I sometimes despondently think, more on blind hope that sufficient evidence - is that the desire for knowledge and self-improvement is simply an eternal verity of human nature. But perhaps a more pertinent question for us to consider in our time is why we don't seem to have our own Robert Dunlops: surely somewhere out there, enduring and rising above the petty miseries of call-centre, zero-hours contract Britain, are his 21st century equivalents. For what it's worth I think that they are still with us, but whether they will ever be recognised by a culture that does not seem to revere knowledge and intellectual prowess, let alone be celebrated by future generations is debatable.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

'We already know what happened...'

Thus Lord Tebbit on the recent decision not to hold a public enquiry into the events at Orgreave Coking Plant on 18 June 1984. Well, what else would he say, you might reasonably ask: we can safely predict with some accuracy that individual's views on most issues, and anyway the past is immutable and fixed, is it not? In this case we even have television footage of the events (the plural is deliberate) in question so what else is there to add to what we can see with our own eyes?

Leaving aside the fact that some creative editing can do wonders for reconfiguring the past as it appears to be preserved in moving visual images, what is perhaps most exasperating about this stunted view of history is that it underestimates just how difficult it is to reconstruct a plausible past using inevitably incomplete sources. Any fool can put together a pre-fabricated version of historic events to serve political ends, but try honestly reconstructing even small incidents from the recent past and see how you get on. You'll soon find that the past is actually riddled with black holes which it sometimes seems that no amount of research can fill.

I have been frequently reminded of this basic truth over the past few months while I've been trying to put together a history of the small allotment association of which I am secretary (don't roll your eyes: the history of land use in London is fascinating and highly relevant - we'll need to be organised if and when the developers come sniffing around the site). The organisation dates from the early 1980s and is still going strong, so yes, we already know what happened, but this seemingly straightforward research task has thrown up some formidable difficulties, many of which are probably insuperable: the people involved are long gone, the local council's records seem to be incomplete and who knows what was lost when the GLC was abolished - an archival retreat from Moscow if ever there was one. In fact, it's a remarkable thing but I've had easier times of it researching events from 200 years ago!
I sometimes think that we'd do well to admit that vast swathes of history - including ostensibly well-documented events - are nigh on irretrievable, but the point is that we shouldn't stop trying: it's what makes the subject exciting.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Muddling through...

Egos and bitter personality clashes, administrative and organisational difficulties, a pervading sense of utter hopelessness on one side and calamity on the other - no, not British/world politics in 2016, the Methodists, of all people, in the 1840s. How do I know this? Well, a recent commission took me for the first time in ages to SOAS Library, home to the Methodist Missionary Society archives. Diligent record-creators and keepers, the Methodists and we have much to thank them for, especially if your bag happens to be the history of the British overseas, and you want something other than the usual Colonial Office fare down at TNA.

But as well as its rich historical value, I was, as I say, struck by another aspect of the correspondence I was looking at: how utterly modern the personalities and issues seemed to be. It may have been handwritten, nineteenth-century correspondence rather than some half-witted tweet from yesterday, but it all leapt off the page at me as if alive: the chancer looking for opportunities for self-enrichment, the decent fellow in office somehow trying to hold it all together at the centre, the hapless mistakes and misjudgements, and the debilitating sense of despair. I recognised it all: be it political parties, work, football clubs, even my allotment association - these seem to be the hallmarks of how all organisations and their component personalities function, or perhaps I should say barely function. Strangely enough, I find that there's a queer sort of comfort in all this: no matter how dire it may all seem at a given moment in time, the fact is we've been here before - probably been here all along - and somehow we muddle through. 'Somehow, we muddle through': not a very inspiring slogan for a political party or a company, but it's probably nearer the mark than most.    

Monday, 25 July 2016

From Mutiny to Music Hall

At its worst, genealogy can amount to little more than an arid exercise in collecting disconnected bits of information: the result of this drudgery is invariably an endless list of names and dates with nothing in the way of context, no colour or detail - essentially meaningless to anyone apart from the compiler. But at its best, genealogy really can illuminate and humanise important historical events and offer a rich and emotionally satisfying connection with the past to those doing the research. 

Which brings me to From Mutiny to Music Hall, a privately published illustrated family history which I had the pleasure to research and write for a client. When commissioned to do genealogical work it's not often that I get asked to settle more than the odd minor point of obscurity in a client's family history, so the chance to research and write a full-blown account of one particular branch of a family tree was too good to miss. And what was even better was that the facts as known at the outset offered so much potential - poverty in mid 19th-century London, soldiering in India during the 1857 Mutiny (with apparently some adultery on the side), Victorian music hall clowning, second-hand furniture dealing in the East End... if I couldn't make something readable out of that lot, I may as well have called it a day.

So great raw material to work with, but the research journey has not been straightforward. Far from it in fact: it not only involved the time and effort required to find widely scattered documents (worth pointing out that most were not available online) detailing something of the family’s history in the first place; it was also necessary to repeatedly analyse the surviving records in forensic detail to try and settle a conundrum caused by an old adversary – inconsistent evidence. In this case, the whole thing hinged on a small point that many genealogists will have come across: who is this person whose name appears on these bits of paper? She may be someone – so to speak – but then again, according to the records she might be someone else. Are we doomed to chase these fleeting shadows through the records, or is it possible to sort this out? And does it really matter? Well, trivial this sort of thing may certainly be, but it was fun to try and come up with a convincing explanation, and it does actually ask some profound questions about the fallibilities of the research process and the art of the historian when it comes to reconstructing a plausible version of the past (at any level) based on very imperfect sources. In the case of From Mutiny to Music Hall I did reach a conclusion about the mysterious person, but only after hours spent sketching possible scenarios and tortuous explanations, discussing them, changing my mind and then going through the whole process again. A tentative conclusion I admit, but I managed to convince my client, and I can happily see it in print without blushing.    

Friday, 27 May 2016

School for Scandal

Here's a question for literary scholars rather than historians, although they can chip in if they wish: what can there be in Sheridan's School for Scandal that could so have exercised the British ambassador to Italy in 1939? I don't know the work and don't have time to read it, but I would have thought it to be a finely wrought comedy of manners, very much of its time. And yet we find it proscribed from a list of plays to be performed by the Old Vic Company (and directed by John Gielgud no less) during their tour of Italy in November 1939.

So far, so obscure; how do I know this fact? Because of our old friend and constant companion in the archives, serendipity: it appears in a minute of a meeting held in Rome at the British Institute on 29 November (ref. TNA BW 40/7 for anyone interested). Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet got the nod, but SfS was on no account to be performed. Quite what this says about the play or British perceptions of Italian sensibilities I'm not sure, but wartime does strange things to people. Maybe the ambassador Sir Percy Loraine just didn't think much of Sheridan.

By the by, it seems extraordinary that with WW2 three months underway a British theatre company should have been anywhere near the Continent, but the Italians were still warming up on the touchline of course, and war or no war, life goes on.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Good Old Days?

I think that it was the late Gore Vidal who advised a one-word response if faced with anyone nostalgically harping on about the good old days: 'dentistry'.

I write with some feeling on the subject: having suffered with terrible teeth for as long as I can remember I have frequently had good reason to offer heartfelt thanks for the advances made in medical science. But our good fortune to live in a time of effective anaesthetics was never made clearer to me than after stumbling across a truly fearful advertisement in the 10 May 1834 edition of the Royal Gazette of British Guiana (a riveting read: I'll explain some other time). Headed simply 'The Teeth', the piece acquainted the public with the news that surgeon-dentist Mr C. F. Koth had arranged for the importation to the colony of a large consignment of natural and artificial teeth, together with a newly invented cement for filling cavities. These conveniences had duly arrived and their benefits could be enjoyed by patients courtesy of  Mr Koth's 'Easy Chair' (a contrivance 'of the most approved construction' apparently), and 'an immense number of Instruments for rendering his operations as little painful ... as possible'. Mr Koth also helpfully provided a price-list for scaling, 'plugging' and extracting, and generously offered gratis treatment to those in indigent circumstances (what ever did happen to dentistry on the NHS by the way? I seem to pay a fortune these days).

I really did shudder whilst reading this bland and complacent account with its implied terrors. It is all too easy when one dwells on the numerous minor miseries and indignities that modern life inflicts on us - let alone contemplating the unending nightmare of current geo-politics - to conclude that things really were better before, but think of Mr Koth and his hapless patients and remember this - at least we have the means to make a simple visit to the dentist a tolerable experience.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The 21st Century Historical Researcher

In between completing recent research commissions for scholars working on Turkish POWs interned in India and Burma in WW1, Iraqi coinage (issued by the Royal Mint - hence the records at TNA) and Greek refugees in the post-WW2 period, I'm currently chipping away at my PhD, trying to render it fit for publication (and not before time given that I finished the thing 20 years ago). The working title of this eagerly awaited masterpiece is 'Venal Hirelings and Despicable Incendiaries: British West Indian Newspapers During the Struggle for Abolition', and what strikes me on revisiting the original text is how different it could have been had I been doing the research now. So many new and potentially rich fields of historical enquiry have been opened up by the Internet that it's difficult to pick any one that would illustrate just how different the experience of the 21st century researcher is to his/her counterpart of a mere 20 years ago. Take the records of Parliament, for example; struggling as I was to get to grips with the Colonial Office stuff at TNA, I never did get around to even approaching this apparently impenetrable mass of material - why! even referencing the report of a nineteenth-century select committee seemed to be an arcane mystery. Thus these invaluable records remained untouched, at least as far as my work was concerned. And what an omission: a few careful searches of the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers website has produced an undreamt of bounty, all of which can be read, sifted and analysed at home and at leisure.

But it's not that simple, and even though the technocratic mystics out there may not like it there are some things that the Internet can never change: individually and collectively, the documents themselves are still what they always were, and I remain staggered at just how complex and multifarious the records of Parliament and government can be (the two are not the same thing, of course). Even finding a simple verbatim account of what was said in the Commons or Lords on a certain occasion can pose problems: 20 years ago as a callow researcher I would have thought that we would be on safe ground with Hansard, but not so - or at least not for the 1830s. In fact, I have found Hansard to be remarkably inaccurate and have had to resort to other sources in the quest to find what I was looking for: the little-known Mirror of Parliament (on which Dickens - a famously accurate notetaker - worked) or the parliamentary reports that appeared in the press, for instance. However, press reports differ slightly from MoP which differs from Hansard - so which should I use? It goes on and on: access to records has improved to an extent that previous generations would have thought impossible, but certain ineluctable research problems remain for the historian to wrestle with.