ESSAY: By the people, for the people; and now on prime-time TV

Fred Dibnah, `Time Team': why are we all so keen on the history of everyday life? By Sheila Rowbotham
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Surely one of the most unexpected popular draws on television at the moment is Time Team, in which Tony Robinson digs up Britain's ancient past. Sober members of the public are charmed by hairy archaeologists in stripy sweaters, allowing their patios and gardens to be burrowed under by mechanical diggers or eager school children. You could hardly guess that the Time Team approach to the past was once regarded as controversial and subversive.

Enquiry into the everyday has a long history, though as an oppositional current within mainstream opinion, it has flitted in and out of view. It can be seen in the social crisis of the 1840s, when Frederick Engels and Henry Mayhew went off to question the working class in Manchester and London. It reappeared in documentary photography and drama during the 1920s and 1930s. Then off it went into Picture Post magazine, to make money eventually in market research.

The history of the interactions between these cultural currents is fascinating because despite exercising a pervasive influence upon popular culture, they repeatedly appear only to vanish again. Yet just when the stream seems to have been lost entirely, it suddenly spurts up as if from nowhere. Each generation tends to assume it is making the connection with a lost and submerged past for the first time.

I gave my first ever talk in a big hall in Ruskin College, Oxford, in 1967 on the impact of education on 19th-century workers, unaware that this was part of a wider interest in documenting social existence. The occasion was the second History Workshop conference, organised by the social historian Raphael Samuel. History Workshops were to become gathering- places for hundreds of radical young enthusiasts who believed that history should focus on the lives of the subordinated, the marginal and the excluded. The Ruskin College authorities came to dread the invasion of sleeping bags and beer mugs which heralded the arrival of yet another weekend meeting devoted to what came to be known as "history from below". However, for people like myself, the History Workshops about Chartists and battles against enclosure, women factory workers and village schools were exciting examples of history as it ought to be.

The first ever Women's Liberation Conference was planned at a Ruskin History Workshop in the autumn of 1969 and women's history in Britain was to develop with close affinities to "history from below". We pieced together the autobiographies of working-class suffrage campaigners, and reconstructed the labour of laundry day before washing machines. At the time, we did not wonder self-consciously why looking at resistance and ordinary life appeared so much more relevant to us than the study of the people with power.

Social history was being creatively transformed in this period by the work of historians such as E P Thompson, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm. They were rejecting the focus of earlier labour historians on formal political institutions and seeking to uncover the ideas and aspirations of people who would normally have not been deemed worthy of the attention of posterity.

The idea that everyday life was an area of human experience that could be examined was not only surfacing in social history. My generation, growing up in the late 1950s, had read Richard Hoggart's influential Uses of Literacy; we watched the "kitchen sink" plays of Arnold Wesker and John Osborne, the popular television series Z Cars and then the Wednesday Plays.

Raphael Samuel himself was interested in all these connections, and in the mix of drama and music which inspired the folk singer Ewan MacColl and the director Joan Littlewood, whose Theatre Workshop drew on everyday experience and popular songs. The assumption that the everyday and the "ordinary" should be considered was thus exercising a pervasive influence upon the broader culture before it began to challenge the definition of history. However, by the late 1980s again it seemed that the dynamism of "history from below" had run into the ground. The whole approach had become beset by internal doubts and questions which had simply not occurred to the crowds who had packed into Ruskin the decade before.

There was no longer agreement about whose vantage point was to be taken from below. It had become evident that people without power could be at odds with one another, because they were of differing genders, races or ethnicities, or simply because of their political views. It was no longer sufficient to be simply at the bottom of the pile, for it had become evident that the popular voice could well be racist or reactionary. Nor was there certainty about uncovering "real" attitudes and experiences of the everyday. Reality had become a vexed topic and no longer to be taken for granted.

These internal questions occurred at a time when an ideological offensive had been mounted by the right to reinstate a perspective on history as the unified history of the nation. Indeed history from above made a triumphal comeback during the Thatcher era with the heritage industry, and the uncritical celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution. A look at most academic bookshops will confirm that it has maintained its ascendancy.

The outcome was not, however, to be a straightforward rout. Instead, social history proceeded to divide into a series of academic sub-groups which incorporated aspects of "history from below": labour history, women's history, gay and lesbian history, black history, oral history, cultural history. All of these raised new areas of study, disputed their own sets of issues and debates, and generated their own vast literature, presenting a daunting disparity to radical historians concerned to connect these increasingly separate realms of knowledge. None the less, they do maintain in fragmented ways countervailing perspectives about how to look at the past.

Yet "history from below" has found itself a much broader audience during the past decade. This is partly because some History Workshoppers took their interest in the social history of everyday life into their own work. But there were also less direct factors operating.

In an attempt to become "popular" and attract more people, museums like the London Transport Museum and the Pump House People's History Museum in Manchester began their own oral history projects in the 1990s. Radio and television similarly found audiences for programmes based on compilations of memories. For instance Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon's BBC series Forbidden Britain uncovered sexual abuse, attacks on football players, race riots and forced camps for the unemployed as part of the national heritage. Another notable example is the BBC's The People's Century, which became a global export. It was showing on Brazilian television in my Rio hotel room last autumn. And recent TV reconstructions of the Crimea and the First World War through the recollections of survivors in the ranks made compelling viewing.

In reaching a mass audience, the more subversive, rebel aspects of "history from below" have been rubbed smooth. And yet, an important point has been made. You don't have to be "noble" to be included among those "known" through time. The worm's-eye view did not transform history as we envisaged, but it has hung on in there.

My own preference is still for the bottom-up kind of history which shaped me at Ruskin College. Three decades later, however, I recognise that "history from below" is not enough. It made a fatal mistake in turning its gaze from the powerful who always need watching by those from below.

`Threads Through Time', Sheila Rowbotham's collection of essays on history and autobiography, is published by Penguin in paperback at pounds 8.99

Comments