6th April – Social History

I’ve recently been reading Spitalfields Life by A Gentle Author.  The chap, for I believe the author to be a chap, has a blog by the same name, which is enchanting and engrossing.  Spitalfields is an area of London close to and east of the City of London, the financial district, the original London as settled by the Romans.  It has a very long and interesting history, as characterised by the people who now call the place home.  Spitalfields Life is a social history, recording people and places of the area in charming and gentle prose, and it’s got me hooked.

The characters in the book are portrayed very much as part of the area.  Even the ones who have no real family roots at least have community roots, in that they are a well established and well known part of the area.  And this got me thinking about my own history.  I often feel like I was adopted or orphaned, although I believe I am neither.  When I was growing up, our house was a house of secrets.  Goodness knows how my mum and dad got married, because all I can remember is their intense dislike of one another.  I was born only 18 months into their marriage, so by the time I became aware, they would have been married only 5 or 6 years.  I don’t even know how they met.  My dad was evacuated from London to Devon during the war, but I don’t know anything about that, no one would talk about anything while I was growing up.  My mum never seemed to be able to tell a straight story, one day it would be one thing, the next it would be something else, so I could never rely on her telling the truth.  And some things she said were so blatant a lie that even a child would not believe it.  So you see how I sometimes feel disconnected, disjointed and without history.  When I left home I lived all over the UK, never settling in one place for very long, so I don’t have those community roots either.

I have such a stong interest in social history.  Part of my degree was Oral History and my dissertation was on what the lives of women were like after the end of the war, when the men came home, wanting their jobs back, expecting the women to go back to the home, to their kitchens.  I love to know about how people live their lives, what their everyday existence is like.  I’m fascinated by history, not the type of Kings and Queens but the ordinary person and how they lived.  I have on order a couple of new social history books relating to London in the 18th and 19th centuries.  And it’s only struck me very recently, because sometimes these things have to be blindingly obvious for me to get them.  Maybe I am so interested in history and how people live and lived, because I have next to no sense of my own past.  I might as well be adopted.  Or an orphan.   Just a thought.  I might blog more about this another time.

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8 Responses to 6th April – Social History

  1. Ally Bean says:

    Polly, your personal story sounds fascinating. I have some similar experiences to yours, so I relate to the idea of being an orphan. An outsider. Also, I’ve been reading the Spitalfields Life blog. I might have found it through you, in fact. I’m always interested in how [and why] ppl live as they do. What a life those children had, eh?

    • Ally, it’s amazing to me, and also comforting in some ways, how many people feel similarly to me. Not because I’m glad they have similar feelings, but because it confirms that I am not too unusual – it’s not just me! As we can’t sit down over a cappuccino, or large glass of something, I would be fascinated to learn more if you ever felt like blogging about it. I only discovered the Spitalfields Life blog on Tuesday of last week, so you won’t have got that from me. How random that you are following that one too! I’ve just been reading about Anna Maria Garthwaite, fabric designer, so I’m off to the V&A soon to see some of her textiles for myself.

  2. Zazzy says:

    It’s an interesting thought. We have a few family secrets, too, which have left me curious and there is no one left to ask to find out the truth. But you also reminded me of a story Mom told me about her childhood. My grandmother once asked Mom how she would feel if she told her she was adopted – freaked my mother out and then tried to reassure her that it wasn’t true. I’ve always said it couldn’t have been true since I am the spitting image of my grandmother but, I suppose Mom could have been Aunt Tote’s daughter since she and grandma looked alike. And we’ll never know. Mom, like you, was left feeling like she didn’t quite belong.

    I, too, enjoy the social history of a people. It’s much more interesting to learn about how a society lived than the general history of wars and technology. I enjoy well written historical fiction for the glimpse into the daily life of the characters as much as the story being told.

    • What an interesting story, Zazzy. Thanks for sharing it. I imagine in the days when your mum was born it wasn’t unusual for a child born out of wedlock, as they used to say, to have been bought up as the (real) grandmothers daughter, the real mother being presented as the sister. Are there records going back that far? Birth certificates or whatever? Or could they have been falsified? I’ve got no idea – what an interesting story! As for fiction, there is an extremely good book called I Am England, by Patricia Wright and a sequel That Near and Distant Place (not so good but still enjoyable). It covers hundreds of years and is based around a place in Sussex, in southern England, and the lives of the people who lived there, starting with the nomads who wandered through, through the Normal Conquest, right up to more modern times. Even though its a very easy read, its based on true events, and very interesting.

  3. Lovely post Polly, and your background sounds like it must have made you feel very uneasy, like you were never quite on a solid footing. I wonder as well if this is behind your wanderlust – your love of new places, having moved so much in the past, like you are searching for something – your history, the truth (I can see a character in a novel here!). And I love Spitalfields too – I used to live on Kingsland Road in Hoxton, just around the corner, and I just love everything about that part of London – the grottiness, the character and the architecture – some wonderful buildings and churches. X.

    • OM, we went to Columbia Road flower market yesterday so we were only really just around the corner! Little man did some amazing walking and we saw a lot of the area. I don’t know it well, but you get a better sense when you walk around, don’t you. I think I would love to live there too. I think you are right about the wanderlust etc. Will look out for the novel!

  4. I am miffed to not be getting your posts Polly so will re-subscribe. I know exactly what you mean about not being able to trust what your mum says and the sense of aloneness that comes with it. It has had the opposite effect on me – I have an aversion to history and family trees and things. I wasn’t aware it was more than indifference until reading the effect it has on you! My mother is still in the same house she’s been in most of my life, but I still yearn to know where ‘home’ is. Good luck with your exploring – you’re always interesting! xx

    • Anya, I’m sorry you’re not getting the posts, it’s a bit worrying. I haven’t had a new notification that you’ve subscribed. I’ll get hubby to have a look at what the problem might be. Funny how a similar situation can have such different effects on people. Also, I’m amazed by the number of people telling me similar experiences. It was very, very unsettling as a child, less so from an adult perspective, but then as you grow you learn to accept that it is what it is and it can’t be changed.