Roses in December: Edwardian Recollections
East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding
The People’s England
The Victorian Countryside
The Gentleman’s Country House and Its Plan 1835-1914
Was there ever such a popular preoccupation with British history as there is at present, such a lusting interest in the past? If, as Tennyson maintained, “all things are taken from us, and become portions and parcels of the dreadful past,” then we are now all hell-bent on retrieving them. It is as if we have no idea of what constitutes the present unless we dig up all that lies beneath it. Six miles from where I write, in Colchester, our market town, a place mentioned by Tacitus in his Annals, they are digging up the houses where the officers who commanded a Roman legion lived in the first century AD. Carrying our supermarket shopping, and in the pouring rain, we trail past the tesselated floors five feet down below the car park, listening enrapt to the muddy archaeologists. We see a lot of charring from the ferocious day in 61 AD when Queen Boudicca burned the place down, also the skeleton of a baby correctly arranged on a copy of the Daily Mail. A little girl touches the tiny bones without horror—already the cool historian. There is half a ton of broken pots. Everything is plentiful and unambiguous.
Back home in the village a neighbor, searching the church registers for information about her family, which has lived here since the eighteenth century, is depressed to find “laborer” given as the occupation for the males of each generation. Laborer, laborer, laborer. I tell her, and it is the truth, that this is all part of the rough handling of the people not so long ago and that what she is really seeing is thatcher, horseman (East Anglia’s name for ploughman), hedger; and many another skilled countryman, though few of the parsons who filled in the registers would have bothered with such things, so “hand”; “servant,” and “laborer” stand for most of our ancestors.
In the evenings a vast audience watches the current TV costume dramas, Sons and Lovers and the life of David Lloyd George, staring into the amazingly accurate Edwardian houses and factories, third-class railway carriages and farms, and riveted by the clothes. At the local university researchers attached to the oral-history department are as persuasive as medieval mendicants in their tireless request for more and more giving to the tape recorder, and, in a non-academic, though no less urgent, collecting spirit which is activated by objects, not words, there is a huge cult of what are called “By-gones.” Indeed a new magazine has just been launched to deal with it. It is called Everything Has a Value.
A healthy case for all this therapeutic toil, amateur and professional alike, in the lumber room could be made out. Or even a profitable case, for if it isn’t exactly big business, the turnover is now quite handsome. But most people put it all down to what is dubbed the nostalgia boom, though they would not do this if they knew what nostalgia really means, the pain of …