I’ve been meaning to write an update here for ages – my last post was, unbelievably, over a year ago. But now I’m here, I’m twiddling my thumbs a bit because I don’t have a particular research topic to write about. Or, rather, I have too many. I’m busy writing up my PhD research, which means most of my brain power is going into that, and the blog has suffered as a result – somewhat ironically, as I started it to help me with my PhD thinking. No doubt when I eventually reach the proof-reading stage you’ll face a barrage of posts as a good means of distraction.
In fact, my last year has simply been the culmination of several massive shifts in the last decade. Historians, like any writers, are products of their times, and these are Interesting Times. “Historians of the future will judge this event…” is just another boring trope by now; sometimes even historians of the present have a go. What that linked article doesn’t really represent, of course, is that there might not be historians 100 years in the future – scant reference to climate change reflects how little it impacts on the lives of most professional people still; as always, capitalism’s externalities fall on the already hard-pressed and down-trodden.
In her lovely book Common People, Alison Light talks about the decade-leaping tendency of the family history researcher, especially now, when all you need to do this is online. I recognise this absolutely from my own family tree: find one person and suddenly you can leap back through censuses, tracking an individual from place to place, house to house, through family coming and going. Add in more and more digitised archives like newspapers, Google Books, film archives and so much more, and it’s easy to amass a host of data about individuals very quickly. Sean Male talked at the 2018 MBS conference about the complicated ethics of this – who wants their lives to be so easily assembled in retrospect, really? I’ve recently been hunting down a particular individual across time and space for my own research – James F Egan, a Limerick-born Irish nationalist campaigner whose legacy stretched to Wolverhampton, Willenhall, Birmingham, New York and Dublin, via spells in jail and friendships with important figures in Irish revolutionary history. Although it still takes some skill with the sources and their contextualisation, I kept on and on coming up with more and more tidbits about him, to the point where I felt I completely knew him. But of course I didn’t, because they’re just snapshots. Right now I’m looking at those individuals who didn’t leave a substantial trace, where the census was perhaps the only contact they had with a state that wanted to record them; here, it’s even more difficult, because so much changes in those ten years between censuses.
Right now for instance, at the beginning of a new decade, I’m finishing a doctorate in history, researching for a living at the Black Country Living Museum, living in that same Black Country; I’m 6’3″ and mostly bald, married, I’m relearning the piano, I have a dog called Maude, and am recovering from the removal of my gall bladder. I’ve just had my very first historical work published – just a page, but very exciting all the same (it’s a section in this lovely book). Those future historians might be able to learn some of these things: perhaps the NHS records will be in an archive by then (whether or not the NHS still exists); perhaps this old-fashioned “internet” thing will have been archived too, so that my name (a helpfully unusual one) will show up on things like conference programmes; press releases about our work at the museum; my census entry might soon become available. But they still won’t really know why I’m here, why I’m not where I was ten years ago, what changed.
A decade ago, I was midway through a Masters in urban geography in London, fully expecting to stay there, to enter a reasonable job, probably in the public sector; I was just about to start modules in urban governance and public policy, and preparing to work on a dissertation on the housing estate where I lived. I was as yet unmarried, writing an anonymous personal blog, still 6’3″ and only marginally less bald, and was recovering from a broken hip after coming off my bike coming down Highbury Park. Ten years before that, I was preparing for my mock A-levels at a sixth-form college in Winchester, working as a washer-upper on the weekends, hadn’t heard of blogs, not bald but still tall, playing piano as part of one of those A-levels but really more interested in learning Metallica songs on guitar, living in the middle of nowhere in the Hampshire countryside, having known nothing else. Ten years before that, I was a local primary student, resplendent in royal blue jumper and probably dreading going back into Mrs Hancock’s lower juniors class (our school was so small it lumped two year groups together at a time).
All of which tells me that ten years is a long time, that as a historian of ordinary people I can find snippets of lives, but I can’t really presume to understand motivations, emotions or the subtle shifts in belief and understanding of the world from just these. If future historians can find that blog, maybe there’s a starting point (although I went out of the way to make it anonymous, and am regularly tempted to just delete it outright), but even so, like any social media it’s a carefully curated presentation of my life, rather than a straightforward text to read. I would never have blogged about my somewhat dull career – falling entirely within two snapshots – as a university administrator: it was not exciting, did not make for exciting text, but for a while looked as though it might define the rest of my life. Similarly, those historians would have to dig around to find an undergraduate degree which had little to no bearing on the rest of my life, and still probably wouldn’t be able to say for sure why my life jumped from rural Hampshire, to inner-city London, to the small-town-in-a-conurbation that is the modern Black Country.
The only thing I can think I can confidently say out of this is that I have no idea what Simon in January 2030 will be like. Maybe the fallout from Brexit will be so dire that we’ll have finally taken up our tenuous claim to Irish passports, and be living in the wilds of Connemara; or I’ll stretch back three generations to claim a right to live in an independent Scotland; or perhaps we’ll still be here in the Black Country, because moving house is a massive pain, and each time we do it we vow never again. For the time being I’m here, getting ready to publish more actual history (including a book!). Either way, I’d better have finally finished this PhD.