‘Physical Resistance’ and Public History
Yesterday I went to the launch at Brighton University of a new book by the late Dave Hann, Physical resistance. A hundred years of anti-fascism. The well-attended event reflected in form the narrative of the book with people reading accounts of their own anti -fascist campaigning. This included stories of parents’ activism in the Spanish Civil War or against Mosley in London after the war. Others told their own narratives from the 1970s or later. As I discuss in the forthcoming Public History Reader, Physical Resistance is a book written from inside a political movement by an activist. Although based on extensive reading the bulk of the book is centred on oral interviews of anti-fascist campaigners who were willing to talk to the activist author.
This form in which extensive interviews shape the narrative – as much as the account by the author – can be read as an excellent example of history writing that ‘shares authority.’ Too often this idea of sharing authority simply means an interviewee checking a transcript of an interview for accuracy. However, in this work there is a collective thread running through the book. It also goes against conventional academic history by looking at anti-fascism over 100 years rather than as discrete moments. By so doing threads of activism – and people’s lives – cross the decades showing continuity of opposition and also, of course, a fascist presence that has not gone away.
In Physical Resistance a reader is offered a history that values experience creating a particular form of historical knowledge, described by historian Raphael Samuel as unofficial knowledge. He argued that ‘history is not the prerogative of the historian… It is, rather, a social form of knowledge; the work in a given instance, of a thousand different hands…’
Writing in the introduction Dave’s partner, Louise Purbrick, explains ‘ He was a self-taught historian. If I was a romantic, I would be tempted to call Dave Hann one of the last of the autodidacts.’ Whether this definition is romantic or not, this is a well-written engaging book enhanced by a moving and reflective introduction. Louise writes, ‘ When Dave Hann died on 29 September 2009, he left £30 in the bank and a manuscript of over 100,000 words… Dave’s manuscript was, and is, a far more substantial inheritance than any amount of money, large or small.’ I am sure that many future readers will agree.
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