Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who writes history?

Who writes history?

As an historian, I find this question increasingly intriguing as I continue to study the subject. At school we were taught a government-approved version, from textbooks that claimed absolute truth. An Oxford history degree taught me to (try to) think for myself. But while writing my Masters dissertation, it struck me that I was now the one writing history. And I began to wonder if my version was really any more accurate than anyone else's.

My grandma recently led me a copy of the Reader's Digest 'Yesterday's Britain', an illustrated history book concentrating on 1900 - 1979. The interesting thing about this is that she included some of her own notes. For example, in response to the articles on childhood in the 1930s, she writes:

"These two pages are not true. I was born in November 1928 and started school in January 1934. There were no such things as school dinners in this area - maybe in London there might have been but it was not general. Also - believe me we thought we were 'well-off' if we had 1/2d to spend, we certainly would never have spent 1d all at once. Sweets were 2 grams for 1/2d, you could also buy some 'chews' for 1/4d. Rolos, Mars Bars etc were never bought by children for themselves but they might have to go to the shop to buy them once in a blue moon for their parents".

And later: "A lot of this is not true, especially the bit about people eating squirrel tail soup and hedgehog stew. Also fruit from abroad was in short supply for long after the war. Grandad and I got married in February 1952 and I remember being thrilled when the greengrocer put a newspaper wrapped parcel in my shopping bag and when I got home I found it contained 4 bananas".

"Where I lived in a Council House, there were 14 children at Grammar Schools, all FREE PLACES...Eleven of these were already at Grammar School when the last 3 of us started in September 1939".

Whose version is correct? The official legislative and economic one, or my grandma's own lived experience?

Photos can also tell lies in themselves. Next to a picture of men in the City, my grandma writes: "Rubbish!!! I worked in the City about 300 yards away from the Stock Exchange and I NEVER saw anyone in a bowler hat. I was there from 1944-1952. Grandad was there from 1948 and was a senior Bank Official and didn't wear any hat at all. He worked in the City more or less all the time until he retired at the end of 1982".

"The Home Guard was NOT known as Dad's Army", she writes angrily a few pages later. "This was just the TV show name made some time AFTER the war". This is a rather interesting comment on the ability of popular culture to influence the way we think and feel about particular moments of history. But interestingly, my grandma is equally guilty of this. Was WW2 really our "finest hour"? Can people really have relished such a destructive period when they never knew if death was coming?

Memory can be a fickle thing. Is my grandma's oral history really "trustworthy" and "non-biased"? I don't think so. But isn't it the nearest to history we will ever get, as those long-ago days pass on into the sunset? What makes her version any less valid than my own historical musings, dashed upon the page?


These reflections do have some bearing on the history of women in cricket. Consider this: sports history is overwhelmingly written by men. Men write about male sport. I know, because I have read numerous texts claiming to be 'authoritative' histories with only a page or two devoted to women. People reading sports history therefore subconsciously assume that women have not played sport very much, and that the history of sportswomen is unimportant.

It strikes me that this kind of omission from the history books is a minor form of what Winston Smith took part in at the MiniTru.

Another example is media coverage. How many reports of women's cricket matches have you read in The Times recently? Admittedly more than we used to see, but still a rare sight. This has precisely the same effect of relegating sportswomen to the bottom of the Importance Pile and rendering them, at least partly, invisible.

The book ends thus:

"Yesterday's Britain has come to an end in 1979. This is, of course, an arbitrary cut-off point: there is no sunset and sunrise to separate our todays from history's yesterdays, no checkpoints to mark the frontier between the past and the almost-present.

But we know somehow when that border has been crossed. Photographs and newspapers from the Eighties and Nineties, unlike those from earlier decades, do not for us evoke the spirit of the age in quite the same way. The dust has yet to settle on the events; the telling detail has not been forgotten, and so the remembering of it is not accompanied by the joyful rush of rediscovery".

Who writes history? Is it the people or the historians? Those like my grandma who can experience the rush of rediscovery, or those like me who have an emotional distance? Perhaps we need both kinds, as we seek to establish who did what when, and why.