In a recent article in the Guardian on the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, Paul Mason reflected on his family history. Before him it featured an unbroken sequence of hatters and miners to whom his education and career path would have seemed inconceivable, an improvement in life chances beyond their dreams. Inspired by this thought, and fearing, like many of us, that those advances are in the process of being reversed, he scribbled a sign in a bus stop on the way to the announcement of Corbyn’s confirmation in office. It read: This is for all our ancestors.
It so happens that similar thoughts have been passing through my mind in the course of writing a family history. For most of us, the experience of searching for one’s roots prompts sobering reflections on the various forms of misery that blighted our forebears’ lives. Poverty. Disease. An almost complete lack of education (deleting ‘almost’ in the case of women). A punitive legal system backed up by dragoons in cases where the desperate were driven to crime or protest against the system. The Johns were luckier than many but still knew all of these things, which makes my own charmed existence a thing of wonder. How fortunate has my generation been and the few that came after. How hard those gains had to be fought for. And how easily they are being lost under the guise of austerity.
Yet there is a disconnect between the injustices of the past and attitudes to the politics of the present. This has many causes, no doubt: the blandness of the school curriculum, media bias or pusillanimity, the co-opting of history as a form of entertainment with no sense of relevance to the present – I could go on. But I sense it in the current mania for researching one’s ancestors as well, a place where the personal relevance of past suffering ought to be most keenly felt. How can we know what conditions were like and not feel angry? Why is knowledge so divorced from action and understanding? Why aren’t more people, myself included, writing banners like Paul’s?
It is this that leads me to propose a new approach to the subject. Let us call it radical genealogy. Immediately it sounds like an oxymoron, such is the aura surrounding family history, something safe and slightly obsessive like trainspotting. Nor do I intend a dogmatic imposition of political theory or a revisioning of the past through the lens of current concerns. But a more critical, contextualised and purposeful form of engagement should be possible, as suggested by my book The Dancer and the Drum. For example, the roots of one’s own character and links these might forge with aspects of psychology. Male domination of the family tree as an example of the treatment of women. Where our predecessors lived and what that tells us about the housing market then – and now. What access they had to medicine and education, and not just as an exercise in nostalgia for midwives in wimples or ‘the Victorian classroom’. The energy, resourcefulness and creativity of the poor as a challenge to notions of victimhood and passivity. Even the motives and means by which records of the past are made available and whether the current, privatised model is best.
Others will have their own angles – the past experience of immigrants, for example, which could hardly be more relevant to today, or a view from the opposite side of the class divide. Nor will we always, perhaps ever, agree regarding a particular take on someone’s background or what lessons are to be drawn. Ideally not, indeed, the point being to make the past – our pasts – an area of contention, of theorising sometimes, but above all of relevance to present lives. That is what history should be, after all. Not a pageant of canonical figures and events, still less a celebration of something loaded yet vacuous like British values, but a lively, disputatious conversation whose terms of reference are changing all the time. Genealogy has a place at that table. Our families should be part of the debate. What better tribute could we pay to their memory?