A few years ago I was heading off on a long train journey, I think to a work conference (remember those?) when I realised that I’d forgotten to pack a book. I ducked into WH Smith’s to see what they had to offer, expecting the usual array of “holiday reading” trash but instead found East West Street by Philippe Sands. Yes, a factual book about interconnected families, war crimes and the International Criminal Court was my idea of a good travel read. It is an excellent book and I still think about it often.
To partially explain, I studied the International Criminal Court as part of my Masters in Human Rights, so it was a topic I already knew a little about and had an interest in. What we didn’t learn at university, and what Sands explores so brilliantly in his book, is about the actual people behind the processes, statutes and conventions. Throughout my formal education, social history was largely sidelined. We learned about laws, revolutions and great thinkers but not about the people, individuals and families who were affected by these, lived through them and whose destinies were determined by them.
In a previous post I talked about what I was reading, and mentioned that I tend to stick to a theme for a while in my book choices. I anticipated that the theme of biographies/memoirs would continue with Obama’s latest. Well I’m afraid I took a slight detour into my current area of study by reading Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks, about the Deaf signing community which I would recommend for anyone involved with deaf people. I then did a swift about turn to read Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel which I would recommend to everyone. Yes, everyone, including you. Even if you are not Jewish (I’m not), especially if you are not Jewish. Even if you think you are a liberal progressive (I think I am), especially if you think you are a liberal progressive, but also especially if you aren’t. Just read it. It’s short, like an old timey persuasive pamphlet type thing and it’s saying something very important.
So then my themes merged and memoirs melded with Jewish stories and I have just finished House of Glass by Hadley Freeman. I’ve been a fan of Freeman’s writing since she wrote a fashion column for the Guardian that I always read even though I have absolutely no interest in fashion, she’s that good of a writer. I haven’t read her other books, but House of Glass sounded intriguing so I delved in. Similar to East West Street, it takes major events in history – World War II and the Holocaust – and lets us see them through the eyes of real people, who were trying to live their real lives. It is beautifully written, with even an amount of humour but always real love and warmth for those whose stories she reveals.
Both House of Glass and East West Street have plots and twists worthy of thrillers or mystery novels but document the real lives of people, often family members or acquaintances of the authors, a product of research and investigation into parts of their lives that were hitherto unknown to their loved ones. My own parents have been doing family history research as a hobby for years now. As far as I know none of my relatives or ancestors were involved in international affairs or single-handedly shaped world events. In fact a good lot of them resided in a place called Dull. Farmers and mill workers from Dull don’t make for much mystery or intrigue and I don’t think I’ll be writing a book about them, but I do want to know about them. I’ve visited Dull. It was, well, dull but it was interesting to see where my forebears lived, worked and no doubt had their own personal dramas. Much genealogy research is records-based – births, marriages, deaths – at the basic level these give places and dates but occasionally they can include other snippets of lives such as whether they died after a long illness or were found drunk in a ditch. Census records can reveal occupations, how many people lived in a house and whether they were wealthy enough to employ “help” or whether they were the hired help to another family. One relative of mine was a police officer, and it’s fascinating to look through his police notebooks and find out what crimes he was investigating and learn that he was once commended for catching a runaway horse.
Through my parents efforts I know more about some distant ancestors than I do about closer relatives. Living the past year through a pandemic, with lockdowns keeping us from seeing our families, it’s natural to re-evaluate our relationships with our nearest and dearest, or farthest and most distant. I want to hear all their stories and piece together the unique jigsaw of my family with all its branches extending around the world, containing Scottish stories, English stories, Jewish stories, tales from Australia and Sri Lanka and possibly beyond.
It also makes me wonder what future generations will know or learn about me? Digital records might make it easier to investigate but what impression will be left behind of my life? Facts of my birth, marriage and not-yet-completed divorce will tell one story, but what of my personal social history? Well I suppose I’m still writing that…