|Posted - 09/05/2010 : 08:13
I'm working hard on the job of preparing the Stanley's View articles for publication so that I can put copies in the local libraries and I came across this piece this morning. In view of the 'debate' on 'What grabbed your attention' it might be a useful indication of where I come from and what my attitudes are to history. (Or as Frank would have it, 'nostalgia'.
IT MUST BE SOMETHING TO DO WITH MY GENES.
I’m going to get a bit introspective with you this week. I’m still working hard on the Barlick research and one of the things that you have to get right if you’re going to write about history is to be quite certain what is driving you to do it so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and what I have come up with is a short whinge about my problems with authority, class and incompetence.
My mother’s family name is Challenger and she was born in Dukinfield, Cheshire. I came across the family name when I was looking into the history of Chartism in the north of England and found a reference to a man called Challenger who was arrested for ‘seditious riot’ in Ashton-under-Lyne. This is an unusual name to crop up by coincidence in the area where I knew my mother’s family originated from, I like his style, so I’ve adopted him!
My father was an Australian who fought with the Anzacs at Gallipoli. I remember two things in particular from his account of what happened there, the first was his amazement at the stunning incompetence of the British officers who guided them to the invasion beaches and managed to deposit them at the bottom of a steep cliff which they had to scale under fire over a period of two days losing many men in the process. The second was the fact that the retreat was so much better organised than the invasion that ‘Johnny Turk’ didn’t realise they had left until the timed charges went off blowing up their abandoned ammunition dumps and stores. When they arrived in England after the evacuation they were billeted in tented camps on Salisbury Plain and had a miserable time of it. They were paraded for inspection by King George V who rode round the vast parade ground on his horse looking, so father said, bored with the whole thing. The Aussies ‘counted him out’, one of their favourite methods of expressing contempt, and nobody took issue with them.
This refreshingly clear sight of authority wasn’t confined to the lower ranks. Later in the war the British Army General Staff enquired of the General leading the Anzacs at to why they hadn’t shot anyone for desertion or cowardice. The reply came back that he thought the Germans were killing enough of their men without them joining in. We, the British, shot over 300 of our own men.
My first encounter with the officer class was in 1954 when I was invited to join the Queen’s employ for two years in the 22nd of Foot, the Cheshire Regiment. First a man of the cloth told me it was alright to murder the enemy because God was on our side and then an officer called Lieutenant Scurfield put me on a charge for demurring when instructed to dig a channel uphill to drain water out of a gunpit.
These are small matters but I cite them to give an idea of what my experience of authority is and how my attitudes might have been influenced. It might be my genes!
Let's march forward a few years to the decade starting in 1940. I was a reasonably well-built but nondescript child who wore glasses because of terrible short sight and came from a family which, though technically ‘skilled working class’, was very short of money. I won a scholarship to Stockport Grammar School and was thrown in with boys who were better dressed and more confident than myself and I was quite severely bullied. I got some very good School Certificate results and against the advice of my teachers, left school and went to work in farming for two reasons, first I knew my family would be relieved of the strain of supporting me and secondly, I was fed up with school and the stresses it put on me.
As far as I can make out, if I had been pressed at this point to voice what my overwhelming feeling about myself was it would have been one of inferiority. This would have been true for the year I spent away from home working on the farm and was certainly the case when I entered the army for my National Service in 1954. Two years later I had achieved the rank of full corporal and was being pressed by my superiors to sign on for more service. If I did I was promised the rank of sergeant immediately and promotion to colour sergeant within twelve months. I didn’t fall for this offer but took the point that this was a fairly clear demonstration of what the army’s opinion was of me. The offer didn’t remove my feelings of inferiority which were still there deep inside me but it certainly laid the seed of a doubt about my own assessment.
Forty years later with several small successes to my credit and very little feeling of inferiority beyond a becoming modesty, I attempt to identify where the change occurred. At what point did I shake the demon of inferiority off my back? My motives for examining this question are complex. There is within me the need to know the answers but I have an even more pressing problem in that I want to be as certain as I can be how my attitudes shade my view of the history I am researching. I have no problem with the subjectivity that this implies, from what I can see, the nearer one gets to objectivity the more boring the result becomes, I want to allow my interpretation to be coloured by my opinions, it is my view, they are my passions, I want to tell it my way. At the same time, I want to ensure that these influences are as pure as they can be and in order to do this I need to be as sure as possible that I clearly understand the passions which drive me.
Looking back at what I have always been convinced was an inferiority complex in my early days, I begin to have doubts. This is not to say that feelings of inferiority weren’t part of the picture, I am certain they were. However, I suspect the fog of easily identified inferiority covered deeper and more significant insecurities. Remember that this was a period of total war, being bombed, sheltering in holes in the ground all night, widespread destruction all around us and more death than anyone should have to cope with at that age, this clear evidence convinced us we were in mortal danger and that we had no control over our fate.
My stage of thinking now is that it is this issue of lack of control which is the key, not only to my reactions at that time but to the forces that govern my attitudes to history now. Rather, it is the insight into the consequences of lack of control that informs my view of the condition of the working classes who were the bedrock of the system which I investigate. My objective is to give these people a voice, to clearly identify their role and achievements and to write in such a way that they can identify themselves, enjoy the experience and perhaps realise that there was more control within their reach than they suspected at the time.
I think I have identified some of the wider themes in the domination of the ‘lower classes’ by their ‘superiors’. There was no need for debate under a feudal system, the Chain of Being was unbreakable, the rich man was in his castle and the poor man was at his gate, they even wrote a hymn about it. As time went on the necessity for social control fostered the determination of the financially advantaged classes to maintain a tight grip on the workers. The weapons that were used were economic control by low wages and organised religion backed by a strong property law. The need for industrial discipline in order to make the factory system work reinforced all these mechanisms and it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that two forces emerged which were eventually, to break some of the chains that held the workers down. The first was the realisation by the establishment that the status quo was actually weakening and killing the workers, this was brought to prominence by the fact that so many conscripts for the Crimean and African Wars were physically sub-standard. This started debate and gradual improvement.
The next discontinuity was the First World War. As the battlefields of Flanders devoured the flowers of a generation even people like Winston Churchill, in his post as First Lord of the Admiralty, were beginning to ask questions that would have been unthinkable fifty years before, "What would happen if they refused to fight?" The reaction was a sort of embarrassed bonhomie, read W E Johns' Biggles books for a wonderful example of this. The recognition was dawning that these common people were indispensable and actually kept the world turning! How could they be incorporated into the wider scheme of things without turning their heads? The answer seems to have been to treat them more kindly but almost as figures of fun. I watched a programme on TV last night about the Raj and was struck by the way that the essential men, the engineers and administrators were allowed to get their toes on the bottom rungs of the ladder but carefully manipulated to make sure they stayed there.
The Great War was a turning point for many of the ‘superior class’. They came home with questions in their minds about the social order and these were reinforced by tidings of violent revolution in Russia. It took a world economic depression to convince the establishment that all was well and the lower classes were in their place. Business could carry on as before, the excesses of the twenties and thirties could co-exist with the lowest living standards in the civilised world for the under classes.
Beneath all this froth, solid movements were starting to gather momentum in the minds of the thinking classes. There was a gradual onset of recognition, not simply of the potential power of the lower classes but of their utility in society and the just nature of their claim to have more of the fruits of their labours. The Second World War advanced progress and there was a movement which knew that the mistakes of the inter-war period could not be allowed to be repeated.
We made a good start after the war but somewhere in the consumer boom that ensued we have lost our way. I’m not capable of analysing this at this point. The only thing I am certain of is that there is a wider financial gap now between those who have control of their lives and those who have none. A report issued in April 2001 shows that not only is the gap increasing at around 2% per annum, but the rate of increase itself is growing. The criterion for a 'good life' now is even clearer than it was a hundred years ago, it is quite simply the ownership of capital and the ability to consume. I am also aware, as I get older, that there are other categories who must be counted amongst those with no control, the aged, the infirm and the disabled.
So, the conclusion I have come to is that I can't change the world but, in a small way, at the local level, I can try to give the workers of Barnoldswick a voice. I can chronicle their achievements and solid worth and perhaps help them regain the dignity which for many was lost by oppression. I shall not be afraid to allow myself to be subjective as long as I am sure that I am being honest. Whatever this does for anyone else, it will satisfy me because by giving the good people of Barlick their voice I assert my own and regain a measure of control.
It must be something to do with my genes.
14 April 2001
Stanley Challenger Graham
stanley at barnoldswick.freeserve.co.uk