- The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present by J.F.C. Harrison
Croom Helm and Flamingo, 445 pp, £12.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7099 0125 9
- British Society 1914-45 by John Stevenson
Allen Lane/Penguin, 503 pp, £16.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1390 8
- The World We Left Behind: A Chronicle of the Year 1939 by Robert Kee
Weidenfeld, 369 pp, £11.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 297 78287 8
- Wigan Pier Revisited: Poverty and Politics in the Eighties by Beatrix Campbell
Virago, 272 pp, £4.50, April 1984, ISBN 0 86068 417 2
Twenty-odd years ago I was lucky enough to hear the great Jeannie Robertson, then at the height of her powers as a singer in Scots of anything from ‘classic’ ballads to sheer bawdy. During a sunny lunchtime in Cambridge, after giving a formal recital, she sat outside a pub drinking, talking and singing. One of the ‘travelling people’, turned Aberdeen housewife, subsequently ‘discovered’ and launched as a public performer, she spoke of the time when King James had roamed the country as a gaberlunzie man as if it was just a moment before yesterday. What she sang seemed to her to be fact, or at any rate truth, and her historical sense collapsed chronology. I was moved to remember this by J.F.C. Harrison’s ‘coda’ to his fine new book: ‘As writers like Thomas Hardy have noted, there is a certain timelessness about the common people, which means that in the last resort their experience can be expressed by myth as well as by history.’
Yes, and the response of present-day common people to the Royal Family has to be understood – if we can ‘understand’ it at all – in terms of myth. But how does Professor Harrison’s suggestive conclusion fit his insistence on leaving most ‘great events’ and most ‘great men’ out of his book? He doesn’t deal with Scotland, where peculiar versions of feudalism once generalised a sense of family closeness between high and low such as Jeannie Robertson’s mythology expressed. Maybe English consciousness over the last few hundred years has been radically different. But what about that street ballad from the Napoleonic wars in which a young woman laments the loss of her lover, pressganged to serve on the Victory, and in which social protest does not prevent her acclaiming ‘the noble lord, bold Nelson’? What about the popular success of Shakespeare’s history plays, or the fame of ‘the People’s William’, Gladstone?
Professor Harrison, always patiently sceptical, might reply to these rhetorical flourishes: ‘Well – what? How on earth can we tell?’ G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate once added a postscript to their study of The Common People since 1746 suffused with Whiggish pleasure over Labour’s recent triumph in the 1945 General Election. They clearly believed that they understood the common ‘man’ and what was good for him. In 1746, outside a ‘small upper working class of skilled craftsmen’, the common man had, ‘it is not entirely unfair to say, no mind of his own’. In the days of Cobbett, he began to show gleams of intelligence, but then he relapsed. ‘The Chartists are more than anything else a pitiable people.’ However, the ‘Radical working man’ came along, supported Charles Bradlaugh and went on to found the Labour Party. ‘The men of 1946’, Cole and Postgate concluded, were cleverer still – look at how their earnest quest for information had forced their oppressors to ‘improve’ the technique of ‘deluding the masses’ through newspapers and magazines. These historians seemed to believe that the long march of the common ‘man’ could and should properly end in universal paid-up membership of the Fabian Society. Harrison, who once wrote a very good book on the history of adult education, can’t share that tempting delusion. He evokes the mysteriousness of the ‘common’ experience, lived outside written documentation. Yes, he agrees, Whiggishness is hard to avoid since it can plausibly be suggested that ‘the happiness of the greatest number (the common people) has increased, albeit very slowly and with many setbacks, during the past nine hundred years ... ’ But he thinks, unlike Cole and Postgate, that common people always had ‘minds of their own’, and that conceptions of existence other than those of benevolent utilitarians should be respected as and when we can strike through to them.
How, though? ‘The first and greatest problem is the scarcity of sources. We are dealing with that part of the community which was largely inarticulate.’ But since Cole and Postgate, historians have learnt some useful new skills. They have sought out forgotten or unpublished autobiographies by working women and men. The ‘archives of repression’ – records of court cases, reports by spies and so on – can be made to yield fresh insights. Folklore and oral testimony, archaeology and anthropology, can liberate us from the ‘tyranny of literary sources’, and computers can process statistics which help us to reconstruct Early Modern family life. So Harrison reproaches his own profession, quoting Hugh Trevor-Roper to the effect that historians in general are great toadies of power. They could have written the history of the common people, but have chosen not to. ‘The historian shuts himself off from ever finding the common people as they saw themselves, and then proclaims that the common people have no history, or history worth taking seriously.’
Harrison tells us that his book will not attempt ‘to use any particular theory of history or model of social change’. Yet its alignment is perfectly clear. He is working in the spirit of recent labour historians and oral historians, of feminist scholars searching for women’s experience ‘hidden from history’, and, further afield, of those who have recently transformed our understanding of black slavery in the New World and those who use oral and archaeological evidence to open up the histories of non-European peoples without traditions of literacy. He mistrusts sweeping generalisations and snappy conclusions, and to some of his allies his work will seem ‘under-theorised’. But they would all do well to have a look at it.
One has struggled uneasily trying to extract from standard textbooks some clear picture of what life under feudalism was like – they seem to assume that you know that already. Harrison provides such a picture in 32 pages. A specialist might detect oversimplification here, but her or his equivalent is unlikely to do so in Harrison’s masterly 120 pages on 1780-1880, the period on which his own research has centred. He does not find the Chartists ‘pitiable’ but points to their angry articulation of class consciousness, and to the huge size of their movement.
Harrison’s vision of Chartism is stirring yet in no way sentimental. It is underpinned by his preceding careful discussion of conditions of work under the new industrialism, and is balanced by the critical yet sympathetic discussion of ‘Self-Help and Respectability’ which follows. He respects the experience of working men who became Methodists: ‘the message that comes through innumerable accounts of the great central Methodist experience of conversion is one of joy and hope.’ To some impatiently radical readers that might seem old-fashioned: but what will they make of Harrison’s subversive, utterly anti-Whiggish suggestion, drawing on recent research by Dr Philip Gardner, that the working-class private-venture schools of the mid-19th century, the notorious ‘dame schools’ denounced by middle-class reformers, were better institutions (if we take the common person’s point of view as our standard of ‘good’) than the grim state schools instituted by the 1870 Education Act? Like trade unions, they were agencies of self-help ‘which the middle classes did not welcome. Schools for the people were one thing: the people’s own schools were quite another.’ The people paid their money – and they took their choice. In the private-venture schools pupils were not segregated by age, sex or ability, they came and went when they chose, working-class mothers were admirably assisted.
John Pounds, a crippled Portsmouth cobbler, ran one such, carrying on his trade while his pupils did the work he set them. A visitor suggested that he needed some new books – ‘those under that birdcage seem to be coming to pieces.’ Pounds: ‘So much the better.’ Genteel interlocutor: ‘How can that be ...?’ Pounds: ‘Why, ye sees, Sir, when a book’s new like, an all tight together, it sarves for only one at a time; but when it comes to pieces, every leaf sarves for one. Besides, I doesn’t always larn ‘em out o’ books.’ Dickens would have been proud of that as comic dialogue – yet we can hear an echo in it of John Bunyan’s wife Elizabeth pleading for his release before the justices in the repression which followed the Restoration: ‘because he is a Tinker, and a poor man, therefore he is despised, and cannot have justice.’ The mysterious human values of the poor, again and again through Harrison’s book, are seen beating against the incomprehension of the rich. The very fact that the poor ‘were largely ignored because it was thought they did not matter’ meant that ‘they were the ones who experienced the true values of a society, not its pretensions.’
That subtle remark makes the concept of ‘social history’ problematic. Is there ever one ‘society’ to be described from one point of view? John Stevenson is committed to thinking so by the project of a ‘Pelican Social History of Britain’, of which his is the third volume to appear. Taking up (as I’ve done myself on occasion – it seemed one had to) an elevated aerial position roughly half-way between the slums of Glasgow and the Recording Angel, within nodding distance of G.D.H. Cole and Sir William Beveridge, he shows us that in spite of two world wars full of horrors beyond the range of adjectives, and mass unemployment between them which reduced large areas of Britain to endemic misery, life got better between 1914 and 1945. This conclusion is not very jolting. Cole and Postgate were tending to reach it nearer the time, and G.M. Trevelyan, in the middle of the Second World War, felt able to finish his English Social History with the firm statement that ‘the material conditions of the working class in 1939 were much better than in the year Queen Victoria died.’ My grandfather, a doctor in the said Glasgow slums, underlined these words in the copy which I have inherited, and I think that he must have conceded their truth since he was not sparing of red-ink protests in margins.
Dr Stevenson’s book will very justly become a standard work of reference. It has two chapters on the First World War, one on the Second, and otherwise ranges theme by theme over the entire period, which is thus constructed as a unity. More and more the state intervenes to help those in need, and to organise the economy. There is substantial economic growth, life expectancy increases, disease and poverty are much reduced. While the distribution of wealth remains (very) unequal, the middle class ‘broadens’ and its values are increasingly influential. Large-scale rehousing of proletarians helps to promote the ‘privatisation of family life’. Though this frustrates the emancipation of women, the latter are ‘often the beneficiaries of expanding opportunities in the labour market, the greater freedom allowed by social convention and a somewhat less arduous round of housework and childbearing’. There is ‘a confusing, and sometimes bizarre, challenge to older values’, but scientists and technologists, economists and social scientists remain optimistic and rise to the opportunities which 1939-45 provides, one set making the weapons which win the war, the others seizing the chance to Plan the peace. A ‘more uniform mass society’, under increasing American influence, is developing through ‘the spread of consumerism, national radio broadcasting and the cheap press’, but this ‘sameness’ is balanced by ‘the increasingly complex network of societies, clubs, pressure groups and organisations’. Britain survives as a great imperial power, the working classes acquiesce ‘in the maintenance of the status quo’, and the middle classes, between wars, enjoy ‘a form of heyday’.
Within this sturdy, if Whiggish frame of conceptions, Dr Stevenson does set forth the uglier facts of the period. He does not slight the enormity of war, he does not forget that women had their own view of things (though it is rather odd to find half the population described as a ‘sub-class’), he is not starry-eyed about the Planners and notes ‘signs of insensitivity to popular feeling’ in schemes for council estates which dumped people miles from work, shops, pubs and family. But the very qualities of balance and comprehensiveness which make this book so useful for reference seem to deprive it of focus on experience. Its chapter on ‘Unemployment’ is unemphatically set, after the middle of the volume, between ‘Childhood, Youth and Education’ and ‘Social Policy’.
A later chapter on ‘Arts, Science and Culture’ purveys the Whiggish and questionable view that the British were getting more ‘artistic’ and ‘cultured’ on the whole, despite the growth of ‘mass culture’, and concludes: ‘The paradox of post-1945 Britain would be in the expansion and divergence of its “highbrow” and its mass cultures.’ If there is indeed a ‘paradox’ there, it is worth considering in relation to the twenty-five years of intense debate over post-industrial ‘popular culture’ of which Dr Stevenson seems to be unaware (though Professor Harrison has been alert to it). Hoggart’s estimable Uses of Literacy is no longer to be cited as the last word on such matters. Dr Stevenson is amply equipped with academic snaffles and bits, but instead of Roy Campbell’s ‘bloody horse’ one encounters a beast rather too close for comfort to Gradgrind’s graminivorous quadruped. The book is stuffed with Statistics, and Facts about Acts and Commissions and Surveys and Boards and Plans. It suffers, I am afraid, by comparison with its already-published sequel, Arthur Marwick’s British Society Since 1945, which deals with a slightly longer period in three-fifths of the space, and is more lively.
In pursuit of liveliness, social historians are often tempted to turn to the press, to its photographs, commonly posed or faked, to its over-simplistic headlines and its unintentional absurdities. Robert Kee’s The World We Left Behind shows that one can make up an interesting and agreeable book almost solely from this source. It isn’t ‘social history’, since, as it moves from 1 January 1939 to 31 December, it is largely concerned with ‘political’ news: indeed it is ‘history’ only in the sense that monkish chronicles are history. Even the best daily journalism, as Kee in effect acknowledges, rarely gets ‘facts’ completely right or achieves perspective and depth of analysis. Social historians learn to look cautiously at bright-seeming reports by outsiders intruding into, say, the lives of the poor. Professor Harrison’s radical admonitions remind us that even a Cobbett or a Mayhew cannot take us directly into the minds and feelings of ‘the common people’. But latterly George Orwell has become a handy resource for historians searching for pep. From now on, they had better read Beatrix Campbell before snatching a splendidly written sentence from The Road to Wigan Pier or The Lion and the Unicorn.
‘Nearly fifty years ago a posh, lanky young man packed his bags and made off into the undergrowth of England. Like a mountaineer conquering his own nightmare, he embarked on a two-month personal encounter with the unknown – the working class, who populated his childhood memories as a spectre of fear and loathing. He made a sentimental journey ... amidst the supposedly silent majority, the people excluded from politics who appeared as vagrants on the doorstep of democracy.’ Beatrix Campbell wrestles respectfully with Orwell, but makes it clear by the end that the adjective ‘sentimental’ was not casually chosen: she can support it. Her own position in the world is very different from his: she was born in the North, into a working-class, political family, and her feminism has modified her socialism. Orwell’s book, in the late Thirties, shocked many people into new thoughts about politics and society. It did its job, entered into the general consciousness and was transmuted there into platitude. Campbell’s book re-opens argument, hits very hard indeed, and deserves to have an influence as great or greater. Her crucial, and topical, insight is that Orwell’s homo-erotic projection of the miner as the ideal type of working-class person obscured, to the disadvantage of women, important truths about ‘work’ and ‘employment’ and ‘class’.
Orwell was looking for the essential ‘England’ and thought he’d found it in the decency of Northern workers, which he could assimilate with the mildness of middle-class suburbia in his construction of a patriotic socialism. Campbell doesn’t fliply dismiss his vision – he was brave, she points out, to insist ‘that the popular culture of common sense is part of the theatre of politics and not just a subsidiary effect of economic class exploitation.’ But she herself construes England to be ‘multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-coloured’, without a single permanent essence, and argues that Orwell can’t see ‘those creative contradictions which are the watershed of change’. One imagines Orwell the stylistic purist rearing up to strike at the clumsy metaphor.
For six months from July 1982 she cycled round the Midlands and North of England, staying in working-class homes in Coventry, Sunderland, Barnsley and Wigan, which last town she found ‘much like anywhere else, with a bit of light engineering and service industries’: it ‘only seems to have a Black population on Tuesday nights when the music from the Wigan Pier night-club’s jazz-funk DJ draws in young Blacks from as far as the Midlands to body-pop.’ Out of interviews with scores of ‘common people’, from many of whom she quotes at length, and also from what she sees with her own eyes, she conveys, so as to make you flinch, what it is like to be unemployed 37 years after the great Plans of 1939-45.
You simply can’t live on £1,300 a year – unemployment benefit for a single person. Hence you depend on supplementary benefit, and, as in the Thirties, you are means-tested. In better times, you bought a fitted carpet and a freezer. The DHSS now tell you to sell them. You can’t make use of the well-known Pauper’s Cookbook, since beans on toast are all you can afford. Seaside holidays, even in Britain, are out of the question, a trip to the swimming-baths is too expensive, and even taking the children to the park is problematic – ice-creams and bus fares back might result. And unless you make an heroic effort of will, staying in touch with the Labour movement is impossible. You are effectively debarred from politics, which are the prerogative of the waged working class. ‘An unemployed engineer in Coventry, who joined the Labour Party after being made redundant, walks to all his meetings and reckons he wears out his shoes three times faster than when he was working. He goes to the meetings, but he can’t stay behind afterwards for the real meeting – in the pub.’
You are socially stigmatised. The press, Mirror as well as Sun and Telegraph, has inveighed for years against ‘dole-queue swindlers’ and ‘scroungers’. Yet very likely you are not collecting all the supplementary benefits and rebates to which you are entitled. If you’re a woman single parent, you daren’t entertain a lover too often lest Special Claims Control squads accuse you of ‘cohabiting’. But you may well be living in conditions which would put even lovers off visiting you. Beatrix Campbell’s descriptions of the environments created by Planners who Knew that common people should live in jerry-built estates and shaky tower blocks will not surprise any middle-class reader who has canvassed for Labour votes in the last few years, but can help such a person understand why the occupants aren’t always eager to vote for the party which shares responsibility for creating these wastelands by decisions at local and national level. ‘One block in the middle of the North-East garden city, Washington New Town, now stands completely empty. These flats, the size of a Victorian mill, were evacuated only 15 years after being built. People just won’t live there.’ In Newcastle there are ‘sprawling badlands where all that distinguishes the housing from the old brick back-to-backs is that they’re further away from everywhere.’ On an estate in Coventry, once the motor industry Klondyke,
fifty per cent of the men are unemployed, and the percentage of women without a wage is of course even higher ... The shop windows are permanently barricaded, many flats boarded up and the walls covered in spray-can slogans ... There are no safe spaces around the flats, no fences or shrubs, sheds or seats, to shelter bikes, prams, washing, last year’s bulbs, or children ... Kids rush out, only to be followed by shouts of ‘Wayne ... Lee ... Karen ... come in here ... ’
Damp ruins furniture. In Coventry the local Labour Party produced a dossier detailing disrepair on council estates and calling for agitation. ‘The councillors involved were expelled from the ruling Labour Group on the Council.’ The political leaders of the deprived are also their landlords.
In such environments, men beat up women who love them. Campbell’s moving report from a Women’s Aid Federation refuge for battered wives in Andy Capp land, which she sees as representing ‘a new kind of politics, with the power to change lives’, immediately precedes her critique of male-socialist adulation of miners. Their work depends greatly on sheer muscle, and its celebration involves ‘mass narcissism’. The ‘equation between work and masculinity depends on an exclusion – women.’ There were in the Thirties twice as many women in domestic service as there were miners. Orwell pointed out that society depended on the hewers of coal and forgot that everyone, even the hewers themselves, depended on the work of women. Under the 1911 Coal Mines Act, pithead baths had to be provided if two-thirds of the miners voted for them. Yet somehow, in all the militancy which followed, demand for them was not enforced – only one colliery in three had a pithead bath before nationalisation, and women elsewhere remained committed to cleaning the dirt of the pits daily out of clothes and homes. Campbell goes to a meeting where miners cheer Scargill and McGahey as they attack the class enemy. She is impressed by their militant consciousness. But even now it excludes women. She quotes Engels to the effect that within the working class men are the bourgeoisie, women the proletariat.
Why should socialists remain fixated with shop stewards in the shipyards and car industry? There are other models of ‘work’ than the pride of a skilled male craftsman in a shrunken heavy industry or the alienated anger of a male assembly-line worker. What about the gentle, caring labour of women in hospitals, whose real concern for the people they help in an increasingly jeopardised service can express itself only in distorted form by industrial action over wages? The trade-union movement, Campbell points out, is infested with ‘sexual Toryism’. She reports an argument between active Sheffield Communists, man and wife. She is a school dinners supervisor, worried about the declining quality of the stuff she dishes up. The male union secretary isn’t interested. Her husband won’t go along with her attack on this man. ‘What he couldn’t see and she couldn’t say was that he was defending a lazy right-winger against her women because he was a man.’
Everywhere she goes, Campbell finds women’s groups fighting local authority landlords, fighting for nurseries, organising youth clubs for girls and play schemes to help mothers. She contrasts their pleasurable informality with the mania for organisation and hierarchy displayed by men. Perhaps some readers will ask questions at this point, wondering if she hasn’t gone over the top. But her book lets men talk as well as women, and her feminism is inseparable from the historic aims of socialism. ‘The men’s movement’s relationship to women and children ... produced a historic compromise with capital which closed their socialist imagination.’ The miners got their clubs, and excluded women from them. The cult of ‘respectability’ within the working class laid down that the wife’s place was in the kitchen. And in the Seventies, she argues, skilled workers faced with rising contributions to social services, turned, at the crunch, to Thatcher. Money for male breadwinners counted more than services for the family. But now, in Wigan and elsewhere, Beatrix Campbell sees hopeful portents. ‘The sons and daughters and wives of the respectable working man who represented the class have rebelled against his moral virtues. The wives work and the sons and daughters have “illegitimate” children.’ She ends with a rousing affirmation of democratic egalitarianism, lambasting the ultra-Left ideologists with their notion that an intellectual élite (themselves) must rouse ‘the NCOs of the class war’, working-class ‘militants’, and their contempt for ‘ordinary people who don’t get their O levels, parents, people with period pains, bad backs and depression’ – and the so-called socialists who ‘rarely see themselves as being transformed by the people with whom they struggle’, and conceive themselves to be ‘agents of change, not subjects of change’.
And yet – I return to Jeannie Robertson, whose expression of feminine sexuality was so strong that even Topic Records had to censor her, whose imagination nevertheless took lords and monarchs for granted. I should like to know what Beatrix Campbell thinks about myth. Didn’t Thatcher summon Elizabeth I and Churchill successfully to her aid just before Campbell set off on her journey? Aren’t the miners as I write acting out yet again their role as press scapegoats and storm troops of trade-unionism? How does one break the spell of a history which has been patriarchal and non-egalitarian? Scandina-vianise the Monarchy? Or, as way-out as 17th-century Covenanters and as defiant of what common people think as early Quaker women walking naked into church, as heterodox as a Primitive Methodist, does one risk odium by demanding its abolition?