Tag Archives: social history

‘Don’t judge me!’ – judging, the past and the present

Ever heard someone shreek ‘don’t judge me!’, or ‘don’t judge someone unless you haven’t met them’? It does seem to be a bit of a cliche nowadays, or should I say, an excuse to be an ass and then deflect any criticism?

If we are not supposed to judge anyone we have never met, does that preclude all us historians from researching people who died before we were born? Of course not. History would be in trouble if we didn’t research people who came before us. And of course, we don’t know them.

And I have to say, and this comes as someone who spent 18 months researching somebody who died in 1847, that you CAN come to some kind of conclusion about what kind of person someone was, as long as you start off with a clean slate and see everything in the context of the time. Judging the past by the standards of today is problematic to say the least.

I guess the same stands for the 2,549 WW2 servicemen I have spent two years researching, or the 5,000 WW1 servicemen I am currently looking at. Just because I can never meet them, does that mean they should be abandoned to anonymity forever? Of course not.

If we don’t research people then we don’t have social history, and a society without history is like a ship without an anchor. And by the same token, our deeds and our actions precede us in the present day too. Life is full of judgement, its impossible to get away from it. Job interviews, dates, they are all about judgement – if someone has the skills you are looking for, or if they take care over their appearance.

So, go ahead – judge away!

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British History to make a comeback in Schools?

The Bayeux Tapestry, chronicling the English/N...

Image via Wikipedia

 

The Education Secretary has announced that British History will make a comeback in the ‘heart of the national curriculum‘, in a back to basics move.

I have to say I broadly approve. Whilst I would not want to go back to the bad old days of names and dates of kings and queens, it seems absurd that children learn hardly anything about British history, but lots about politically correct history from the four corners of the globe. For instance, at GCSE I did about Cowboys and Indians – whats the point of that? For some reason, someone somewhere had the bare-brained idea that if we teach children about British history, they will turn out to be BNP supporters, and if we teach them about wars, then they will want to blow each others brains out. Actually, when it comes to military history, I think the opposite is true. But in general, history teaching in schools is mind numbing. I feel sorry for teachers who want to show some latitude but can’t, thanks to the curriculum.

As Al Murray said, British children seem to think that Nelson is the character with the funny laugh in the Simpsons. A sad indictment indeed. Basic elements of our history should be a given for everyone, and we should be encouraged to look back with pride on things that are worth feeling proud about. If we understand where we came from, and the world around us, we find it easier to place ourselves in it and be sure of who we are. It puts us in context. We do that by starting with our local area and our country, not the social history of the Umboto tribe of the Limpopo valley.

On a related matter, it appears that the renowned Historian Simon Schama has been asked to advise the Government on history teaching. This is a very positive step, to have a history academic advising rather than some shadowy policy advisor. Schama’s background is in Dutch Art and French Social History during the revolution, but he did also of course present the succesful History of Britain series on the BBC. Not always easy to watch, and a bit ‘top-down’, but hey its a step in the right direction.

On a more light-hearted note, the BBC News Magazine has posted a 7 question quiz on British History… I’m ashamed to say I only scored three!

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Guide to Your Ancestors Lives by Nick Barratt

Barratt

Family History is more popular now than it has ever been before. Along with the growth of genealogy websites, this explosion in interest has also been caused by the popular programme ‘Who do you think you are?’. Nick Barratt is the mastermind behind WDYTYA. A Doctor of History and a former employee of The National Archives, there are few people better placed to give us a guide to family history. But the bookshelf of family history is crowded one, so what makes this book different?

The clue is very much in the title. This is not just a guide to carrying out research and finding out dates and names, but a deeper look at the lives of our predecessors. I am a big fan of the more social history approach to genealogy. Why stop at just finding out their names, why not really get to grips with what their lives were like? There are some aspects where Barratt’s expertise really shines – in particular regarding legal documents, property history and the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps this book is not so strong on military history, but it would be pretty impossible for any family history book to be all things to all people.

I applaud that this book does not instantly point the reader towards family history websites. Whilst these can be useful, I do feel that they take away some of the fun of researching your family history. For me, part of the appeal is going to libraries and records offices and getting your hands dirty. I think is misleading to think that you can research your family tree just on Ancestry.

There are plenty of things in this book that were new even to myself, in particular a couple of websites that I have never see before – just goes to show there is always something new in the internet world. But the most interesting thing about this book – for me – is the suggestion that perhaps we should be thinking about archiving our lives now to help our descendants in the future. But with mobile phones, emails and social networking, will there be a lack of sources? This is were Arcalife comes in – a website that archives our activities across a range of media and, effectively, archives our lives.

There are some issues of presentation that I feel do let the book down. I’m exactly not sure why there has to be a full-sized picture of Barratt on the back cover. Also I think some more illustrations would help explain some of what he is trying to say. I’m not advocating dumbing down – after all most genealogy books are full of pictures anyway – but sometimes pictures or diagrams make more sense than words. This book, however, is probably most useful for people who already have a basic grasp of genealogy issues.

Guide to Your Ancestors Lives is published by Pen and Sword

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The New Forest at War: John Leete

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the New Forest – its a great place to go and walk out in the country, see the famous Ponies, have a pub lunch and generally spend some time away from the rat-race. However I must confess that I know very little about the history of the New Forest beyond Willam Rufus. Therefore this book by John Leete is most timely – especially with spring and the walking season rapidly approaching!

As a huge expanse of woodland and heathland, the New Forest proved to be an ideal training area in wartime, particuarly for the Army. The wide open spaces also provided space for numerous airfields – the traces of some can still be seen today. The House at Beaulieu provided the training base for the Special Operations Executive, and Exbury House was an important Naval Intelligence centre. General Patton even used Braemar House as a Headquarters for some time. The New Forest was also an embarkation centre fo prior to D-Day. The volume of traffic flowing through the forest, and the amount of men based there, also led to many of the main roads being widened – a lasting physical impact. In fact, I must confess to getting out my Ordnance Survey map of the Forest to look for some sites to explore!

This book is illustrated with some wonderful images of the New Forest in wartime, and complemented by numerous oral testimonies. I’m a big fan of oral hisory, theres no better way to present the rich tapestry of ordinary people’s experiences than by letting them tell their story, in their words. Hence this book is not just about buildings, generals and elite units, but also about evacuees, Air raid precautions and rationing.

When I go down to the New Forest in the summer this book will almost certainly be in my rucksack!

The New Forest at War is published by The History Press

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Thoughts on Culture… or is it culture with a little c?

Think of Culture. What to you think of?

Opera? Art Galleries? Fine Wines? Theatre? Poetry? Classical Music? Foreign Literature? Architecture?… yep, when we think of culture, we tend to think of Culture with a Capital C – high Culture.

But what do these things represent? They say nothing about a city like Portsmouth, for one. For the most part, they represent what Culture is for a very small part of the population. Usually, the very top 5%, perhaps, of people in society. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of ordinary working people – and I’m thinking about past ages, not just the present – simply aren’t bothered about listening to people warbling in Latin, or abstract art. I cannot imagine your average Dockyard worker being too worried about reading the latest book by Emile Zola, but rather popping to the Pub, or how Pompey will get on on Saturday. If they had a painting on the wall, it might have been of a nice local view.

So how is, considering so few people are interested in high culture, and it says so little about society, that it overshadows all other forms of culture? There’s something very undemocratic about high Culture. Something snobby, almost like ‘we know most people dont like it, but what would you know?’. How is it, in a supposedly consensus society where we elect Governments by unversal suffrage, that a small select part of society dictate what we should like? As if its something that the rest of us should aspire to, like a kind of social Premier League?

Not only is it about choices, but also money. Look at the funding that is given to institutions such as the Royal Opera House – yet how many ordinary people, who have indirectly paid for it, can actually afford to go there? And even if you can, is it welcoming to all walks of people? Somehow I think not. And how many high-brow Museums and Galleries are full of exhibitions designed for curators and high-brow aficianados, rather than the general public? For some reason, Culture is one of those areas that is still the preserve of the well-adjusted, a hangover from a different age.

Personally, I think that culture is not about lumps of pottery, or random smatterings of paint on canvas. Its about ways of life, ways of thinking, unique words or food or drink that you wont find anywhere else, the spirit that you find in a city that makes it what it is. With the best will in the world, Portsmouth is not a Cultural City with a Capital C. But in terms of broader culture, spirit and way of life, it has that in spades.

So what makes Portsmouth culture? Heres a few thoughts of my own… The view from Portsdown Hill… The Fratton End… Mother Kellys… Still and West… Guildhall Walk… Southsea Common… The Pompey Chimes… The Pompey Sailor… Pompey Royal…

Any more ideas?

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Is Bloody-mindedness British?

I’ve been reading a very interesting article on the BBC News website, by Finlo Rohrer.

It argues that sheer bloody-mindedness, the desire to resist authority and overwhelming odds, is something that is quintessentially British. As much as queuing, in fact (try it when next abroad. Only in Britain do we REALLY know how to queue!).

Why be bloody-minded? It comes from a range of motivations. From simply to annoy, to standing up for what you believe in (there is a risk of nimbyism here), to the extreme of having to resist a foreign invader. It was felt by quite a few in 1940 that Britain simply does not give in to ‘grubby little dictators’. And in 1982, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Henry Leach told Margaret Thatcher that we SHOULD re-take the Falklands, as ‘if we don’t, soon we will be living in a country where words count for very little’. The politicians thought it impossible, as did the Army and the RAF. But Thatcher liked what she heard, and have Leach the order to send a Task Force.

It transcends into Military History. Look at the amount of British battles where men have had to hold on for grim death against the odds – Waterloo, Rorkes Drift, Arhem… it takes bloody mindedness to fight off a superior enemy. Yes, there is something very British about being the underdog.

Polls, or anything that is open to public participation, are game for bloody-mindedness, as the recent Christmas no.1 battle has shown. It is a thread that does seem to run through British society. Cultural Historian Joe Moran has some interesting things to say:

“There is quite a long British tradition of localism and scepticism towards state power, and after World War II this was refuelled by widespread resentments about the survival of wartime red tape and rationing.”

Funnily enough, as a country we do seem to enjoy queuing, and feel comfortable doing what we are told. But we’ll have a good moan while we’re at it. But not to the person who is responsible, oh no. We don’t do complaining…

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Land Girls and Their Impact – Ann Kramer

Land Girls and Their Impact

Land Girls and Their Impact

I must admit, I have always tended to shy away from Gender History. Or, in fact, any part of history that mentions the word ‘women’ too much. I guess its only natural, after one of my first year tutors at Uni tried to tell us that the most important effect of the first world war was that women started smoking and riding motorbikes. I guess the millions of men being killed didnt occur to her.

Having said that, I know that women have often played an important, and usually overlooked, role in times of War. All too often we can become too fixated on Planes, tanks, and Generals, when in fact total war means exactly that. This new book by Ann Kramer should go a long way to redressing the balance for one of the Women’s services that has been perhaps the most maligned of all – the Women’s Land Army.

Aware that once war started millions of men would be called up, the Government drew up plans to recruit women to replace male agricultural workers. Thousands volunteered, and served throughout the war in their distinctive slouch hats and green jerseys. Without their sterling work througout the country on farms, and also performing forestry work, they made a vital contribution to keeping Britain’s supplies of food stable. We only have to look at the fact that Britain is an island nation dependent on imports, and how close the U-boats came to starving the country, to see what might have been if the Land Girls had not played their part.

But it wasn’t all green fields and nice summer evenings. The work was a big shock to many of the girls, a fair proportion of whom came from towns and were unused to rural ways. Indeed, many countryfolk were very sceptical about the potential of women for working on the land, and the Land Army had to go a long way to prove their worth, and to overcome fairly entrenched social attitudes and snobbery. And then at the end of the war, they were given scant recognition for many years – a truly glaring ommission, like the country’s failure to recognise the service of the Bevin Boys.

The story of the Land Girls is at the epicentre of many of the important social development of the second world war – attitudes to gender, changing roles in society, class and the relations between rural and urban Britain. The needs of total war always seem to bring about a lot of social change in a very short change of time, and this case is no exception.

This is a very interesting book, and I am sure that it will contribute much to the history of women during wartime. Kramer makes interesting use of oral history interviews with surviving Land Girls, which in my opinion is absolutely crucial in a book like this. My only criticism might be that the way these accounts are presented, often in separate boxes, does break up the text a little. But this is a relatively minor point, I enjoyed reading this book immensely.

Land Girls and Their Impact is published by Remember When

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Education – still failing us?

John Pounds, founder of the Ragged Schools

John Pounds, founder of the Ragged Schools

In 1867 a Royal Commission investigated every school in England. The inspectors looked at every school, from root and branch. Teachers were interviewed, classes observed, neighbourhoods examined and standards assessed. This was the first real national audit of education in the country, an early OFSTED.

Three years later, these findings led to the Education Act in 1870. This was the first major attempt to introduce national standards for Education. Prior to 1870, teaching was almost completely in the hands of national authorities. Education for the poor for centuries was haphazard. The privileged would pay to send their children to school, and the poor would more than likely send theirs to work. Early efforts to educate poor children came in the form of Ragged Schools, one of the first begun by John Pounds in Portsmouth

Countless Education Acts have followed since 1870. But, over 130 years after the first Education Act, why is our Education system still getting it so wrong?

It does seem pretty much to be a systemic problem, rather than through any failings of particular teachers or schools. Governments throw money at the problem, but this week an influential report suggested the scrapping of SAT’s and not commencing formal teaching until the age of 6. In my experience plenty of money is wasted on projects, advisers, and strangely-named departments that add little to what goes on in schools, but drains the Education Budget. The national curriculum certainly does not help matters. Neither do the SATS, which are to test schools and teachers rather than children, but the schools and teachers pass the stress onto the children over something which has not real consequence on their education.

Ministers will point to the ever-improving exam results. We should not be fooled by these, they improve every year, which suggests that the pass-marks are adjusted every year to give politically motivated results. In real terms, the quality of Education has fallen, but to counter this the expectations are lower. Essentially, this is cooking the books.

Sadly, elitism is also still alive and well in this country. Being able to put certain schools or universities on your CV is almost better than having a first class with honours degree from a not so good University. Why should it matter where you went to school? Surely it is more impressive to have gone to a supposedly average school but to have done well? Two-tier education, based on class and not ability, creates barriers for able children.

We should not pillory certain schools as failing, just because their catchment area includes children from difficult backgrounds. They have their work cut out, and they are not miracle workers. The problems go far beyond Education, and have more to do with families and influences in broader life.

Priorities are fundamentally wrong. It seems to be a Governmental Policy to get as many school leavers to go into Higher Education as possible. But is this right? We are chronically short of plumbers, electricians, gas fitters. Many of the people who would have done these jobs are now going to study Media Studies, Sports Sciences or Psychology, because they can rather than because they want to. And then leaving university and finding themselves out of work, while we rely on foreign nationals to do these jobs. But Higher Education has become a business. The Universities can name their price, and a high price it is. Yet their income is largely spent on nice new buildings, and not students. If there were fewer students, there would be more funding to go round for those who want to work.

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are we soft?

I can well remember our first lecture in one of our first units studying History at University. In ‘early modern Europe – a different world?’ the whole thrust of the lecture was to encourage us not to see times gone by through our modern perspective, but to try and think about how life was fundamentally different.

And that point has stuck with me very clearly since then. For example, when was the last time the average person walked ten miles a day? or ate something that they grew or reared themselves? or built something? or found their way round a strange town without getting lost? How many people could survive out in the countryside for a couple of days with no food? Yet these were all things that people not so long ago had to do every day in some cases.

There’s no doubt about it: we’re soft. People moan nowadays if they dont get exactly what they want for tea, or if they have to walk somewhere, or if the bus is 2 minutes late. We have helpdesks and helplines for everything. Don’t worry about doing something yourself, get someone else to do it for you! If you dont feel like working, you can always find a way to scive off. Technology and science may have improved our lives in some sense, but in others, its made us soft and lazy. Hard work surely had its benefits. Very few working people would have been overweight. Firstly, because they simply did not have enough food to gorge themselves, and what they had was not loaded with fats or sugar. And secondly, they would have worked it off. Medieval Archers were much fitter and healthier than we are today, due to their demmanding exercise and more sensible diet and lifestyle.

But at the same time I don’t want to fall into the ‘youth of today’ trap. OK, there are some little toerags out there, but its not just young people. But one major difference is, at least people nowadays are honest. In years gone by if someone had a child out of wedlock, they either vanished, or hurriedly married someone, or the child became their ‘sister’. Paedophiles and abusers who were in positions of authority, say priests or councillors, got away with it due to their position. At least people have no heirs or graces now, which is at least refreshing.

But it is very worrying that on the whole, people are much softer than ever. And that peoples ideas of what constitutes a hero are so warped. Everyone knows who Katie Price and Cheryl Cole are, but compare them to Guy Gibson and Robert Cain. And some of the concepts of ‘respect’ that get bandied about are plain wrong. Shooting someone for supposedly ‘dissing’ you is not respectful. And nothing is killing someone for going against your wishes honourable ‘honourable’.

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