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Families re-writing history: A Things We Forgot To Remember podcast

Updated Friday, 17th November 2006

Amongst the other things they hand down to you, your ancestors are shaping your view of the past.

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A montage of family images by Valerie Reneé Creative commons image Icon Valerie Reneé under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
Valerie Renee's monatge of family photographs



Chris Williams:
Welcome to The Things We Forgot to Remember podcast. My name’s Chris Williams from the Open University and consultant on the Radio 4 series. During the making of this series we’re supporting, we’ve heard about the role of families in setting up historical memories. To discuss this issue, I’ve got with me today from the Open University, Clive Emsley, Professor of History, Jovan Byford, who’s a psychologist, and Dan Weinbren, a social scientist.

I’d like to start with a clip of one of our programs where John Bourne talks about his research into the way the First World War has been remembered.

John Bourne (clip):
It’s a commonplace of history that depends how you look at the past where you're viewing it from. And sometimes this changes within people’s lives. I was told once by a man whose father was a veteran of the war that he completely believed in the justice of Britain’s cause, of the rightness of the war, of the outcome of the war, of the role of himself and his friends in it, and he believed it until the moment when Neville Chamberlain made his speech on the 3rd of September, 1939. And he said - this was a Staffordshire man as well - his father burst into tears when Neville Chamberlain completed his broadcast to the British people saying that we were now at war with Germany, because then he felt that the war had been somehow pointless, that we were going to have to do it again, and another generation was going to have to do it, and then he lost the faith at that moment. So people could change over time.

Chris Williams:
So, Dan, after that can I begin by asking you the question how does our relationship with our ancestors alter our view of history?

Dan Weinbren:
I think what was interesting about this clip, or one of the interesting elements, was the fact that he talked about a loss of faith, and I think in a secular society, part of the sense of being part of a network or chain of people or a long line going back is something that we get from our understanding of our ancestors, and be it from diaries or letters or bits put up by family historians on the web or recordings, you can get a sense from those ancestors of new insights, fresh dimensions, the personal and individual way which people coped with wars, depressions or other happy or unhappy events in their lives.

And that sense of those coping strategies is contained in how they talk about, how they record their understanding of those events. They compose their own memories to give themself and those around them a sense of composure perhaps. And that notion of a coping of a shared reality is something which we get from that which our ancestors leave us.

Chris Williams:
Jovan, you’re a psychologist who knows about how collective and individual memory works. Do you feel it’s the same thing; it’s about being a network, a sense of shared identity?

Jovan Byford:
I think that remembering actually plays a key role in family life because families don’t only have a shared past, but remembering that past is an essential aspect of what families do. If you think about any family gathering, a lot of what goes on in the conversation is remembering the past. And this especially becomes apparent when families don’t meet that often because then one thing that they have in common is that shared past.

And what is fascinating about family conversations about the past is that over time one can see that very clear rules develop about what is remembered and what is not, and families have their taboos in certain things that are simply not discussed, and members of the family will develop very subtle strategies of always diverting the topic away from uncomfortable questions, uncomfortable memories, etc, as certain more comfortable and comforting memories are remembered.

Chris Williams:
So, the family seems to be the place where we have a comforting and reassuring view of the past. Has this always been the case, Clive?

Clive Emsley:
I think we know far more about our families now, or we have the opportunity of finding it out. For one thing people, generally speaking, live a lot longer. So it’s possible for children to know their great grandparents, not just their grandparents, although arguably hundred, hundred-and-fifty years ago knowing your grandparents in the bulk of families might have been rare.

We’ve got photographs, so now we know what grandparents, great grandparents looked like. We’ve got a photograph of both of my great grandmothers taken at the end of the 19th Century, which is astonishing for my grandchildren to look back that far. With the availability of things like the census now on the web, people can so easily trace their families back. I mean, indeed it’s a cottage industry with an enormous number of people now tracing their family history, made popular by a BBC television series about ‘who do you think you are’?

So I think it is new, perhaps one of the interesting things that historians really ought to be thinking about is what people understood by their family and their sort of shared past two hundred, three hundred years ago when they didn’t know who great granddad and great-great-granddad were.

Chris Williams:
So it seems that the family contains us. So, Dan, can we ever escape from our family history?

Dan Weinbren:
I think the way in which we often remember the past or understand the past is in terms of families. That’s both in people’s own personal recollections and in a wider sense. I have a recording of a woman who as a child witnessed the funeral of a suffragette who was killed at the Derby in 1913. Now this woman was recording this eighty years later, and her mother was never interested in suffragettes, but in her account, she makes it clear that this is a formative event because from that day onwards her mother always voted. And also she tells it in terms of how it explains her own lifelong commitment to the Labour Party and the radicalism of her own daughters. She sees a public event in terms of her family. And I think we do that quite often in terms of war memorials as well which are quite often of individual soldiers rather than of the people who may have also had an effect on the war, which is strategists, for example, or civil servants.
Perhaps also this notion of family is taken up frequently throughout history so that everybody just about from nuns to trade unionists refers to sisters and brothers because the idealised perception of a family is one which everybody wants to be involved with.

Chris Williams:
Jovan, you mentioned that when families have get-togethers, they have taboos as well and the remembrances, you sense it, if you like. So, in the wider context, if we’re thinking of institutions as substitute families, do the same sort of mechanisms apply?

Jovan Byford:
I think in the wider community that is definitely the case, definitely if we look in the community of a nation if you like. National commemorative events often remember certain things, and by remembering certain things they forget others. And this is exactly the same thing that happens in families. The way we learn through repetition and the routines we develop about talking about certain topics enable us not to remember other ones that for some reason of interest we don’t want to remember.

Chris Williams:
So in the national conversation as in the family, censorship is less a positive thing and far more just a simple act of not mentioning the thing?

Jovan Byford:
Yes, it’s not so much about direct sense, often about direct censorship; it is simply through developing strategies and ways of talking about topics in a way that certain unmentionables are not mentioned.

Chris Williams:
Clive, can you expand at all on this issue of the family history? How, for example, has the way that we see our families changed, not just with the arrival of family history but maybe with the arrival of a more democratic society that gives us ancestors who have done things we’ve heard of, and means for example that most of us will think of like a grandparent or a great grandparent, particularly in the United Kingdom, will have participated in a major war, for example? How do we relate the experience of one or two ancestors to a broad sweep of history?

Clive Emsley:
I think that’s an interesting question and an issue that perhaps we’re still, we haven’t fully engaged with. We can make sort of broad statements about the age of a democratic man in which the entire, I suppose you could say the entire media is encouraging people to think of ordinary people’s participation in events. And I think there’s a very significant shift in the way history began to be researched, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War, with what social historians at the time called history from below. Whereby they weren’t just looking at kings and queens and prime ministers and generals but were actually thinking much more in terms of just the ordinary people who had participated in major events and recognising that if you don’t have ordinary people schlepping muskets or rifles or machine guns across battlefields, no one is actually going to win the battles. Generals don’t win them. People vote now for politicians. Politicians want to get people on side.

So in some respects individuals I think have become more important. History has recognised that with this notion of history from below and trying to get into the lives of ordinary people and understand how ordinary people, both as individuals and as families, relate to events which engage the entire local community or national community or even international community.

Chris Williams:
Thanks very much, Clive, for explaining to us about how the individual and the national relate to one another. And thanks also to Jovan Byford and Dan Weinbren. Join us next time when we’ll be exploring the way that individuals remember history. To find out more about the Radio 4 series of The Things We Forgot to Remember and history in general, visit our website at I’m Chris Williams, the Producer was Mercia Goodway, and this is a BBC Worldwide production for the Open University.





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