Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘social history’


In which things get recorded

Today is apparently One Day In History, a day for creating a “mass blog” which will be stored by the British Library. It sounds like an interesting idea, but I’m not convinced.

The grandfather of this sort of event is Mass-Observation, an organisation set up to record everyday life in the 1930s, and still going today. It, though, was directed centrally by anthropologists, and still tells its writers vaguely what it would like them to write about. One Day In History, by comparison, is broad but shallow. It wants to know what people did, not what their opinions are. It wants you to talk about an ordinary day, but also wants “history” to be an important part of what you do.

In any event like this, there’s always going to be a contrast between the drive to make sure people write about “ordinary things”, and the pressure to write something interesting. My day today will probably be fairly boring. Get up, office, home, dinner, spend the evening sorting and filing the photos I took at the weekend. If One Day In History had been last Saturday, say, I’d have had something much more interesting to write about. It’s also a very self-selecting event.* How many people are only going to write if they have something interesting to say? How many are going to feel an urge to do something special, to paint a slightly more interesting life? I’m going to write about my own boring day for them tonight, if only to balance things out a little.

* But then, so is the current incarnation of Mass-Observation


In which we discover some family history

The Mother has discovered The Internet. Specifically, she has discovered a plethora of genealogy websites, and is using them to try to track down our family tree.

Now, her family is fairly easy to trace back into the 19th century. They had a family bible, kept newspaper clippings and wedding invitations, and are nice, simple, and straightforward to track. My Dad’s family, on the other hand, is another matter.

Dad doesn’t know anything at all about his family tree, beyond his parents, sisters, and the names of a few more distant relatives. Questions to my grandmother, before her death, always went unanswered. However, my aunt has kept plenty of details about our family, and does know a lot more about how they’re all related. As we were visiting her anyway, The Mother asked her if she could get out her family births book so The Mother could copy it all down. And we quickly found out just how complex and baroque my father’s family really was.

For one thing, their surnames are all rather confusing. Once you go back beyond the current generations, very few people in our family bothered to get married. This was, it turns out, one of the reasons why my grandmother always refused to answer queries about family history. It’s very unclear whether her parents ever did marry – there’s no record of it, and my great-grandmother kept paperwork in both surnames until her death – but, my aunt told us, anyone who asked my gran directly about this would usually get punched. Some of my gran’s brothers and sisters shared her surname; but some of them took their mother’s name. My great-grandfather was apparently in the Cavalry – “there’s a photo of him in uniform, on a horse” – in India, in the 1920s, but nobody knows any other details about him.

My grandfather’s family is just as confusing. They, also, rarely bothered to marry. When they did, it often made things worse. One of my grandfather’s close relatives married a man called Frank. Her sister then married Frank’s son – I’m not even sure how you draw that on a family tree. Their son, incidentally, was the mayor of Southampton a few years ago. Having a grandfather who is also your uncle, in an entirely legal way I should add, clearly doesn’t stop you entering politics.

The Mother, being upright, respectable, churchgoing, and definitely no-sex-before-marriage, was rather shocked at all this. She is one of those people who sees The Past as a golden age of morality, when things were done properly and you didn’t get all these single mothers all over the place; so she was rather surprised to see that before her own generation, a lot of my ancestors just didn’t think that way. Myself, I’ve always had a suspicion that Victorian morals are both fairly modern and a middle-class innovation, so I was rather pleased to find all this out. Even though it might make genealogists blanche at the thought of trying to draw the tree out, I rather like my ancestors now.

Update, September 24th 2005: we’ve since discovered that my gran’s parents never were married, because my great-grandfather already had a wife, who he never bothered to divorce.