Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - London Stories (2005)

Hilda Kean, London Stories (Rivers Oram Press, 2004)
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: January 2005
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 23: Lent 2005 

Hilda Kean is well known as a lecturer at Ruskin College, and one of those who has fought to keep the kind of traditions that the late Raph Samuel maintained there, and also as a longtime activist in London’s East End.

Her latest book combines something of these two perspectives in constructing a family history. This kind of history - establishing one’s family tree and ancestors - is without doubt the most popular form of participatory history in the UK. Many thousands hunt in record offices and archives for details. It says something about official British society that it is also a form of history frowned upon by the academy and, indeed, until recently, the TV history market.

Even the left itself has tended to be disdainful. Certainly we have had only one or two papers in the general area in the ten years’ existence of the London Socialist Historians Group. And while Raphael Samuel and History Workshop had begun to champion family history as an historical approach - even if Raph himself did describe it as ‘unpolitical’, little work appears to have been done since his untimely death.

Hilda Kean’s book is a welcome attempt then to re-open the question of what constitutes history and historical evidence and how we should write the history of ordinary working people.

As Hilda demonstrates, her ancestors were not leading militants in left-wing organisations, or trade union organisers. They were working people trying to make their way and survive in a capitalist market economy not so different to that which currently exists in London’s East End.

As Hilda demonstrates, her ancestors were not leading militants in left-wing organisations, or trade union organisers. They were working people trying to make their way and survive in a capitalist market economy not so different to that which currently exists in London’s East End.

That means that actually piecing together the history is a major task of recovery. It is no good looking in trade union minute books or the left-wing press for details. Rather what Hilda Kean has to go on are a large amounts of possessions and memorabilia left by her parents, and the clues that these, often disregarded as historical evidence by professional historians, give to her ancestors history. It is backed up of course by visits to record offices and to graveyards to check burial dates and locations.

The focus of the book is on what might be called the inner East End from early nineteenth century Spitalfields to twentieth century Bethnal Green, but chapters range widely across the country in search of the origins of family members who ended up as East Enders.

Hilda’s research uncovers and throws light on the East End Methodist community that her parents were part of in the second half of the twentieth century, and in particular looks at a secret from their, and her, past. Read the book to discover more on this!

Those interested in London’s East End will find much of interest in the book as well, although Hilda does seem to have fallen a little out of love with Hackney over the years. It does have its social problems, as it always has had in one form or other. It was also, however, the London Borough which voted in sufficient numbers, in a contest for Mayor, for the late Paul Foot to beat the Tories and run the LibDems a close second

In a brief concluding chapter Hilda Kean argues that writing London Stories should be seen against a backdrop of political defeat, where, if big battles are lost, at least it is possible to see interest and hope at the micro and personal level. Readers of this Newsletter might, in part, disagree with this political perspective, but it should not detract from the value of an immensely interesting exercise in writing the history of ordinary people. It is surely time to return to one of the best aspects of the History Workshop tradition, apparently itself lost in the New Labour years, of a democratic history, where historians look at the struggles and battles of everyday life, while not of course forgetting the bigger picture.

And finally, particularly given Hilda Kean’s work on the history of animals, I would like to have known more about ‘bobby the cat’. A picture of said feline would have been nice as well

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