Sunday 16 August 2009

Whose (Hi)story is it Anyway

I remember Chris Haigh best as the man whose job it was to have concerned words with me whenever my college parties displayed too much, er, party spirit. To much of the academic world, though, and beyond, he is best known as the man behind what is broadly known as Revisionist History. His work on Tudor England asked a simple question: sure, that’s what happened in parliament; that’s what the “great and good” of England did; but what actually happened to everyday people?

And the answer is in many cases we just don’t know. What we do know we have pieced together from oblique sources and inferences, from places historians never previously thought to look. But whatever evidence we have; there’s a whole lot more we don’t. There is a vast black hole at the heart of England’s history from which nothing of the details of everyday life escapes. Millions of voices have been forever silenced.

I came across the same as a theologian. You’d think if you did a little reading that women had been absent from the life of the church for over a thousand years. They weren’t, of course, they just have no voice with which to speak to us across the centuries.

Which leads me to a continuation from last week’s blog on social exclusion. I argued there that the publishing industry perpetuates its own segregation. I want to look very briefly here at what that means. What does it mean that the majority of society is unrepresented in literature; or rather is represented by people who do not come from the sectors of society about which they write?

It means that today’s silent class have been silenced just the same as yesterday’s. The books we choose to publish are the voice with which we speak to future generations. When we decide that swathes of society have nothing worth publishing, we are making the decision to whitewash them from history. We are leaving historians of the future as skewed a view of our society as the Tudors left us. We are relying on a Chris Haigh of the future to uncover from the oblique abyss any trace of our hidden history.

But we have lots of books about the homeless and the dispossessed. Of course, and the Tudors wrote lots about peasants. The Church wrote lots about women. What makes us so different? Why are we unable to learn from the propagandist lies of the past that there is something inherently slanted and propagandist about the portrayal of our own dispossessed.

But. Yes, but! We DO have a record. We have, should it be preserved in an aspic of the ether, the internet! With its blogs and videos and Facebook walls outlining the lives of our modern dispossessed.

Fantastic. Our future historians may have first hand accounts after all. They will not have to be Sherlock Holmeses like Chris Haigh. They will have two histories. They will have our books, with their privileged portrayals of the classes considered unpublishable. And they will have the screaming voices of the voiceless to place alongside.

What a healthy, pretty picture those historians will have to see of our society. Of the things we value. Of the voices we allow to be heard. And what do they say, these YouTube archives chattering away at our Booker lists? Ils nous accusent!

Only they don’t. There is no “nous”, because I am fortunate enough to be a member of the silenced masses too. So my voice can scream back across history as loudly as theirs.

(proud to be associated with, amongst other things, the literary manifesto of the Word Nerd Army)


  1. Just to note that one reason there is little debate here is that the debate is going on at Authonomy:

  2. Wonderful article. I agree entirely.

  3. Great post. Thanks for mentioning the Word Nerd Army. Stories ARE more important than books. Will the digitalised future of 'contained' stories produce a division in access to stories that is even more marked than in the past or can it be used to give everyone a voice?

    'Story' is such a huge topic isn't it? No one option works for everyone. The stories handed down through songs around fires are no less important than those handed down in print or binary code. Maybe some of the gaps between the stories are also important. Where the facts are missing, myths rise up to replace them, like mist between mountains.

    That said, there have been way too many male mountains in the past and much too much in the way of mist for us women. I'm all in favour of a more substantial female landscape :)


  4. Thanks, Rebecca. I must say the deconstructors are going to have a field day with your mountain metaphors :-)

    You're absolutely right that we msut never think of just one level of segregation or exclusion - it's so much more complicated than that, and the task of removing all of those layers is one we all have to cooperate on.

    Great point about they way new stories spring out of the gaps!