There are few sub-disciplinary fields of study that can claim to be so essentially and inextricably bound up with the cause and practice of lifelong learning as local history. May is ‘Local History Month’, and through the month of May, 2020, local historians have risen to various calls for action, and have found new and different ways to sustain their endeavours, and the diverse communities, societies and networks of which they are a part. A number of items have come to my attention in recent months that have prompted reflection on the role of local and community history at this time, and how its numerous practitioners have contributed to society and culture during a period of national emergency, or how might they?
The first item, and early on in the pandemic, was the Universities UK report, ‘How universities are helping fight Covid-19’, published on 7 April to accompany the launch of its ‘#wearetogether’ campaign. It lists over 170 examples of how HEIs joined the very front line of the public-health effort, or contributed to the life-saving equipment production-and-supply chains. In addition, the various cases given also include many of the ways in which institutions and their staff have offered up other assets, materials and expertise to assist in ‘helping people get through a crisis’, or in supporting their students.
It was probably a little optimistic to think that local history, or indeed the arts and humanities more generally, would get many mentions in the report, given where urgent life-and-death priorities were then. There is just one clear citation in fact, in the long list of projects, initiatives and engagements. The arts and humanities have been involved clearly, acknowledged at least implicitly and probably most evidently within the mass collective effort to provide online resources for students, home-schoolers, adult learners, and the vulnerable in our local communities.
Beyond this, some local historical studies have been produced to inform current offerings from public history, and its turning to the historical record to root out parallels and to identify any lessons that might be learnt from the past. Where necessary, they have sounded notes of caution when hearing of history being misappropriated or misinterpreted by politicians and policy-makers. I took to this task as well by mid-March, with local historian’s kitbag at hand. I was interested in comparing and contrasting what we are seeing or might see today, with what was recorded in the Lincolnshire press through two waves of the ‘Spanish flu’ epidemic of the summer and autumn of 1918. How did communities in Britain react, and how did the local media respond?
By early April, my mind and mood had moved on. Indeed, the national sentiment appeared to be getting somewhat graver and more critical. Never before, at least during my career as a historian, had I found myself writing history against a backdrop of such immense disruption, dislocation and distress, and, in conjunction, where so much of the past appeared to be revisiting us. The role that I would increasingly adopt was one of contemporary commentator and journal keeper. In so doing, I also became conscious of the live-fashioning around me of the historical legacy. What will, or even ought, form the records of the future? What might historians in 2120, looking back to mark the centenary of Coronavirus 2020, consult and consider in forming their interpretations and judgements?
I began to ask myself where the historical record is most like to be lost? There are, it seems to me, three areas: where it is materially most fragile; where local and community-level difference and distinctiveness are being diminished, diluted or disregarded in favour of grand-national or metropolitan/Westminster-centric narratives; and in the sphere of how individual people actually feel, and recording this now, not when they are reflecting back – if and when that time comes. These were three agenda items, therefore, that public and community historians could take up as part of the disciplinary extra-mural effort, if not already: to record the intangible and physically vulnerable, to single out and promote the local and regional, to capture the feelings of people; or, more illuminating, compelling and poignant still, is how these three intersect and interact.
This brings me to another item, which helped me finalise this to-do list for me as a local and community historian during lockdown. It came from Maureen Sutton, a Lincolnshire dialect poet and folklore historian, with whom I have shared many a stage, mic or lectern in recent years. During the current crisis she has been under orders, isolated and vulnerable. However, she has found distraction and has brought much joy through her rare and much-cherished craft. I will leave you with a verse from one of her latest poems, ‘House Arrest’:
Well maate, I’ve gotten a craw to pick wi Boris, he’s putten me under
‘ouse arrest, an’ I dossent like it, I ain’t gone an’ done owt wrong
An’ now I’ve got to stay at ‘ome for weeks on end.
It ain’t no good werriting so I’ll just have to find summats
To keep me sen busy or I’ll go crazed. Already I’m mazzeled
About what I’m going to do.
Craw = argument/disagreement
Werriting = worrying
Summats = something/some things
Sen = self/myself
Mazzeled = puzzled
The place of local history and lifelong learning in universities is very different to how it existed a couple of decades ago. Long gone is the range of the accredited courses, the benignly disposed adult-education departments, and the highly committed local-historian teams. Despite the departure of this framework and cultural fabric, there is, today, a considerable amount of university-based local and community history engagement and learning. It is driven now, however, through public impact and knowledge exchange projects, and integral heritage-sector, amenity-society, and local-community partnerships. Furthermore, much of this is publicly funded through the research councils and other grant-making trusts. Lead investigators are more likely to consider themselves to be social, cultural or public, rather than local and community, historians. In addition, their activities can seem rather fleeting, momentary and provisional. Nonetheless, an intensity of local and community focus is essential, and output can be highly creative, responsive and accessible. Both UKRI and the British Academy have been publishing calls for new art and humanities-based engagements with the current crisis, and there is great opportunity here for those who work in the field of local and community history and lifelong learning.
Dr Andrew Jackson, Bishop Grosseteste University
Dr Andrew Jackson is Head of Research and Knowledge Exchange at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. Andrew has been writing a column for the free, online local newspaper, The Lincolnite, including working with fellow local historians in the community: ‘Rationing returns to Lincoln stores 106 years on’ (17 March); ‘Government influenza advice repeated 102 years on’ (24 March); ‘How long do influenza pandemics normally last?’ (30 March); ‘Coping with pandemics, past and present’ (10 April); ‘Pandemic stories and family memories, old and new’ (15 April); ‘Lockdown blues? Some pandemic poetry’ (22 April); and ‘Hospitalisation, isolation and superstition across decades of pandemics’ (8 May). He also reflects on the role of the press and public history in: ‘Public history, flu pandemics and the provincial media in 1918 and 2020’, Social History Society Community Exchange (6 April); and ‘The legacy of pandemics in the community: 1918 and 1920’, History Workshop Online (16 May).