Many thanks to Lizzy Jewell for this guest post.
The mistake that people make with history is to assume that there is only one of them. Once you’ve learned the kings and queens, memorised the key dates of all the important things that have happened you’re good to go. 1066, 1789, 1914, 1917, 1939, 1989. Sorted, boring, done.
Once you’ve got a grasp of the dates – encompassing nation building, the making and breaking of kingship, war and revolution, you can come up with a skeleton of some of the important things that have happened. This is useful information, and decent knowledge to have, but basic events and written sources can only take you so far. Memorising and catechising history might give you some trivia to reel off, but doesn’t teach us anything. The fervour of the revolutionaries, and the fear of the soldiers get lost and forgotten beneath the history of a few great men.
For many, learning history is like learning Shakespeare. Learn nothing but your ‘wherefore art thou’s, and your ‘to be or not to be’s, and you miss out on the richness and depth by not reading around them. John of Gaunt’s famous speech in Richard II gets flaunted, quoted and misquoted. The ‘This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’ speech is brilliant. It is. Yet, what seems to be forgotten when the speech is paraded with pomp and ceremony is that in Richard II the blessed old-fashioned England pretty much dies along with Gaunt. If you don’t look behind the quotes, so much in history can get forgotten. Marie Antoinette never really said ‘Let them eat cake’, yet for so many the beheading of the French monarchy is epitomised by a mistranslation and some rather ridiculous wigs.
What I’m trying to argue is that whatever the historical event or time period, there will always be more to it than at first glance, and this is why I feel that oral history is an important pursuit and should be noted as a valid way of collecting historical evidence. It is a way of collecting and preserving a history that can be personal to you alone. Although not always the most reliable way to discover the bare bones of what actually happened, people’s stories can tell us so much more than that.
And, further, sometimes ‘what happened’ isn’t even the most important part, a fitting example being Alessandro Portelli’s book ‘The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories’. The murder of Luigi Trastulli differs in various accounts; the press articles and the collective memory of the events can differ by four years. An entire culture believed a fact that turned out not to be true. Yet, Portelli fervently argues that regardless of any real events, the beliefs held are still historical fact. The storied version had a real impact on thoughts and activities; to dismiss it as not true is ridiculous.
Oral sources, then, are important not to learn what happened, but can teach us so much more than that. From people’s stories, we can learn infinite amounts about why events occurred, how people reacted, and how they feel about it.
Another facet of this line of thought is that we can make history personal; we can make it ours. It is very natural to root oneself in your own heritage, and I don’t think it is too far to argue that we turn to history when times are changing. In the broadest of senses, in the wake of ever-changing media, new technology and resources, there has been a hankering for a simpler time. Vintage clothing and furniture has never been trendier, and the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ slogans are starting to become tiresome, but show a longing for strength in the face of adversity and turbulence. And tracing family histories using ancestry websites and archives is not only easier, but more popular than ever.
Family history in particular shows that history can belong to anyone, and has more soul to it than monarchical or military history. Collecting stories in an oral history project is one manifestation of this. I grew up with my grandad telling me stories; not fairytales, but anecdotes that seemed a world away. During “the war”, a time that felt as removed and mythical to my childhood self as fiction, I listened to tales of air raids and the sweets he bought with his ration book.
Our stories make us: they infiltrate our language and our mannerisms, conversations with my family members often include allusions to old family stories, sometimes referring to relatives whom I never got the chance to meet. Military history has its place, but for me at least is made so much richer by the people who made it, and the stories that surround it. Stories detailing relatives in the forces, the hopes and fears of those left back at home, blackout curtains and ration books. You can’t choose your family, but it defines you, and you can preserve it.