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.