Last week I finally said goodbye to my Nan. I wouldn’t normally blog about something so personal, but her influence has guided so much of my academic career to date that she deserves a mention. Besides, the academic and the personal aren’t so easy to separate as we might imagine.
History is written by people. Historians are not Objective History Machines, however much we might aim to be so. Something I try to emphasise to students is that the scholarly book or article they read is the product of a process, the work of an actual human being – with a life, with prejudices, with political views, passions, anxieties, obsessions, influences and the rest that comes with… well, being human. It’s not always easy to see, but it’s always there.
This was highlighted in an excellent blog post recently by historian of French folklore William G Pooley. Drawing upon American essayist Phillip Lopate’s advice to memoir writers, he suggested historians should consider how they write themselves into their work – making themselves a character. This is not at all bad advice for the writing process, but writing is only one stage in a longer process. The personality of the historian, with all that entails, shapes the questions they ask, the assumptions they test, the stories they choose to tell, the audiences they seek and much more besides before they can be consciously devised as some sort of quirky narrator for the tome.
This narration might be throughout or might be restricted to a personalised introduction, but Will Pooley also suggests a third: perhapsing. This, he says, is “where the first-person singular is used to show the reader that the work is a result of my questions, which sometimes go unanswered”. And he sees “this kind of personal insertion as a way to deal with historiographies, theories, implications”. What’s really exciting about this to me is the way the digital arena means this is writ large. Many academics now blog their way through their work, as Matt Houbrook recently reminded us. As a result, any student or curious reader wanting a far greater insight into the personality behind what they read now often only needs to know how to use a search engine.
Blogging offers space to ponder those theoretical, methodological and disciplinary questions lurking in the background. It’s an opportunity to elaborate on the caveats we might be wary of emphasising in a piece of writing we hope to have published or an application for a project we wish to see funded. If everyone else wants solid answers, this is a space for the troublesome questions. And one of the most important questions is: why are you asking those questions at all?
Too often historiography is presented as the different answers historians put forward to the big questions and the argument over which one is right. In reality, it’s far more often a matter of historians asking different questions, determined by different ideas but also different personalities. I can make a strong case that my work examines the nature of changing social dynamics at the heart of our civic fabric, yet that is not why I work on what I do. In truth, I’ve spent a decade trying to answer a simple question put to me by my Nan.
By the time I went to Bangor in North Wales to study History, I had already learnt my Nan’s origin story. This had less to do with her childhood in St Werbrughs, a working-class neighbourhood in Bristol, or marrying a respectable Methodist scout leader, and more to do with his sudden, untimely death in the days following Christmas in 1965 – leaving her with two teenage daughters. After this she quickly began wearing trousers, learnt to drive and trained as a teacher. When I met her a couple of decades later, she was an impressive woman – a gifted educator, inspiringly self-taught on a vast range of subjects from world religions to art history, and who gave a mean rendition of Do Your Ears Hang Low?
When I returned from university and told her I’d switched to joint honours with Social Policy, she asked me what that was. When I explained I was writing an essay on Lloyd George’s introduction of health insurance as part of the National Insurance Act of 1911, she asked me a question.
She told me of the ‘dispensary ticket’ system she remembered from her childhood. She recounted what was asked of her as a small child between the wars when her father was sick – walking from the east of Bristol to the city’s north to go cap in hand to the vicar to get a ticket, then down into the city centre to the dispensary where the ticket could be cashed in for medicines, which then needed to be taken home. In total over six miles up and down some serious hills – a long journey for little legs.
Why, she asked me, was this necessary? Why was there not a National Health Service so he could simply see a doctor? I’ve spent over a decade finding out and making sense of what I found. I included this explanation in the acknowledgements of my doctoral thesis. The insightful way History is taught at Liverpool meant I was invited to share this story with a lecture hall full of students. And blogging is just a more public platform on which to say that I owe her not only the topic of my PhD and my first two books, but also my sense of mission as an academic historian.
And the greatest regret of my life is that I didn’t embrace oral history before her dementia set in. I went to the British Library for a training day and picked out the recorder I was going to use to use when asking her to retell that story and then dig deeper. But I was too late. Part of the reason I’ve barely cried since she died is that I’ve been grieving for the past couple of years.
Dementia stole her – slowly but surely. She was no longer quite the same person by the time she, this woman who had once been so pleased to be described at a Church event as the working man’s Barbara Castle, had to ask what the NHS was. But dementia also offered what was for me a striking echo across her life as she lived it. On visits to hospital in her final years she started to ask and worry about the bill. Most people around the world will not find that odd, but for those living with the British National Health Service it is bizarre and alien.
When given a chance, she asked me why she’d had to pay as a child. When dementia stripped away the years and placed her back in her younger days, she relived and experienced the worry that had brought. This has belatedly taught me a heavy lesson. For everything I’ve found about the philanthropic principle governing pre-NHS hospitals, the extensive mutual aid schemes vast numbers signed up to and the means-tested exemptions for those who couldn’t afford to pay, it was a worry. Not only a bugbear of daily life, but a worry deep enough that 50 years later she might ask why to a student who might have an answer, and another ten years on she might forget that she didn’t need to be afraid.
As a historian, this doesn’t just put me in my place for how I answer the question she asked me. It also raises new questions. We know memory is fallible and changeable. We can never rely on memory alone for factual accounts of what happened. It tends to reveal more about the time of telling than what is told. But recollections are fundamental to understanding what something meant and continues to mean to a person or a people. And yet we’ve never taken seriously the recollections of people with dementia. There have been projects seeking to record life stories before memories are lost, and creative ways of engaging with oral history as a window in to the experience of dementia. Reminiscence as a form of therapy is widely appreciated, and the cultural value of capturing memories before they’re gone is part of that. Yet we are a long way off any methodology for treating their involuntarily voicings of the past as the valid source material of History.
There are many problems with using the the unwitting testimony of people with dementia as witness statements on the past, not least that so few (even in the health care professions) seem to understand the variety of ways dementia plays out. It is not simply memory loss. Yet I find the problems fall a long way short of a reason to write their view out altogether. Half a century ago historians turned to writing history from below (the view of ordinary people) and then to writing history from the margins (that of those in excluded groups, watching from the sidelines). You might almost think there are no undismissed voices left in writing History. Yet when someone with dementia lets on they’ve returned to an earlier time in their life, we’re usually so sad or angry or embarrassed that we instinctively shut them up. Even when we encourage them to talk, we think we’re doing them a favour. What we overlook is a muddied time capsule.
These are some very initial ramblings, sketching out and stretching out an idea. I’m sure they’ll be knocked into shape before they end up in any scholarly publication. But they’re the starting point for academic inquiry, and they’re not generated at random. As historians, our character should be more than caricature. We might write it in as invention, but in truth we’re already saddled with it before we ever pick up a pen. If she was here for this, I’m pretty sure my Nan would have spotted that too.