I’m thinking once again of writing something semi-autobiographical. Have I mentioned this before? Anyway, here’s my new first draft of a Preface. Whether it will go much further I can’t tell. But it’s something to do, during the cold Swedish winter.
My ‘Ukes’, by the way – the Ukrainian refugee family I’m ‘hosting’ in Hull – will arrive in mid-January. Kajsa and I will be meeting them at Manchester Airport and taking them over by train – if our appalling Northern rail company (private, of course) obliges. I may follow up here with an account of our experiences with them.
A HISTORY OF MY TIME
And from my perspective
Every history book is written from a perspective, however much its author seeks to allow and compensate for the distortions this will give rise to. In fact historians are generally better at that – at compensating – than other kinds of authors, aware as we are through our researches of the subjectivity of positions taken in the past. One easy way of compensating is for them to try to be open about our own biases and prejudices, often in ‘Introductions’ or ‘Prefaces’ to our books, describing ‘where we come from’, so that readers can be aware of our particular ‘slants’ and discount them if they wish. I’ve done this in my most recent books. One drawback to this approach is that very often we simply aren’t aware of the deepest influences on us – just as our historical subjects were not; but again, it helps to be aware of that. A second drawback is that readers might fall into the opposite error, of assuming that everything we write is totally conditioned by our early experiences. (‘Oh, so that’s why he’s a Tory’ – or a Leftie, or whatever.) I believe – or want to believe – that in my case at least, most of my published views have been formed by research, some degree of objective reasoning, and thought.
However, this book is rather different. It doesn’t claim or pretend to be absolutely objective, although it is not deliberately deceptive. It’s an account of how the world genuinely appeared to me, from the moment of my birth in February 1941, through the next eighty years; which I hope won’t be quite my last. Or rather: it’s an account of how I remember the world appearing to me, which adds another layer of subjectivity to it. Obviously my first few years appear somewhat hazy to me, and so I’ll have to fill in with what I’ve been told. (There’s the third layer.) Thereafter I’ll be describing what I recall of the impressions and concerns of a boy, a young man, a middle-aged man and an elderly man, in different places, different social contexts, and at different stages of my mental development. Most of it will relate to events outside of me, especially political, and my reactions to them. It will not be a personal autobiography, which for someone as boring as me would not be very interesting, might turn out to be embarrassing if it were complete and honest (my early sexual fumblings, for example, though they will be mentioned, decorously), and the whole idea of which strikes me as rather self-indulgent. The personal will come into it – indeed it will need to, in order to provide the account with a structure – but only if I think I can make points of wider relevance thereby. ‘Sexual fumblings’, for example, might serve to illustrate the general innocence of the time and class I grew up in. For the whole purpose of this book is to describe the history of the last 80 years, but from a particular standpoint.
I began writing it in unusual circumstances; although they may become more usual in the future, if occurrences of the pandemic we were suffering from then become a recurring feature of our future history. As a member of a ‘vulnerable group’, due to my age and an ‘underlying condition’, I was living with my partner Kajsa in quarantine on ‘our’ island in the Stockholm Archipelago, unable to return to Britain even if I wanted to – and there were reasons, which will appear later, why I chose to spend most of my time in Sweden – and so cut off from the papers and diaries that could have added flesh to the very bare bones of the personal story that appears here. Which of course was no great loss if I wanted to avoid autobiography, and focus on the general history that I could retrieve from the internet. Our island stuga may look primitive, but it has wi-fi; and it furnishes an ideal writing environment, without the distractions – social gatherings, and the like – that more ‘civilised’ settings inevitably impose. And during two ice-bound Swedish winters, a wood-burning stove and a newly-purchased luftvärmepump kept it comfortably warm.
Thinking back now, as I’ve not really done before the idea of writing this account occurred to me (I’m not a great one for nostalgia), I’m no longer so certain that my life and experiences have been quite as ‘boring’ as I’ve always assumed. I’ve lived through a momentous period in British history, from the depths of war to the collapse of the post-war consensus; taking in the loss of a world-wide empire, entry into and then exit from the post-war European Union, the creation and later dismantling of a welfare state, the social emancipation (to an extent) of women, foreign immigration and its repercussions, a revolution in popular music, sexual liberation following the spread of efficient means of contraception, a ‘cold war’ that threatened to become hotter under the shadow of ‘The Bomb’, the establishment of television as people’s main source of information and entertainment, the whole computer/internet thing, men on the moon, huge changes in the character of the popular Press, even greater changes in eating habits, several frightening pandemics even before Covid, the commercialisation of ‘the People’s Game’ (football), the entire reign of Britain’s longest-living monarch… and much more.
My own place in this history has never been a leading or even a particularly active one, but it is one that has enabled me to observe it from a number of different points of view. That is because of my anomalous and shifting position in the all-important class structure of Britain – or of England, anyway – giving me what I think is an unusual insight into the situations, and especially the prejudices, of them all. My immediate family were aspirant lower-middle class; my paternal grandparents working class; at school I mixed with middle-middle class boys; and at university with the upper and public school-educated classes and even a few aristocrats. I got on pretty well with all of them. (The aristos were very kind.) In university vacations I worked in a factory, and in theatres. My profession has been as an academic, at various different types of university and in three or four countries; specialising in British imperial history, for which I was sometimes mistaken to be an imperialist. I was brought up a Methodist, but enjoyed Anglican church services, and their architecture even more. I was a member of the Labour party for a long period, but no longer. (The ‘no longer’ may give a hint as to my political proclivities today.) I’ve experienced marriage with a Scots-Irish wife, fatherhood, divorce, and a new relationship, this time with a Swede. I’ve lived in both the south and the north of England. I travelled extensively in Europe as a young man, and more later, when I also lived for fairly long periods in the USA and Australia. The only substantial gap in this catalogue of life-experiences is women and girls, whom I scarcely got to know as a boy, or even at university, in my single-sex college; which will explain – I’m sure – those ‘fumblings’. If all these life-experiences have affected my research, teaching and writing in my adult years, they are at least various enough to have likely influenced them in divergent ways. And there are still my attempts at scholarly ‘objectivity’ to set against all of them.
So, on to the substance: the last eighty years of British – and world – history, as seen through the eyes of someone like me; biases and all.