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Whose voice in the writing of history?

2015 February 4

Snapshot Richard SumnerI have drafted some 40,000 words of my book on animals on the Home Front on the Second World War. Quantity and quality, of course, are not synonymous… There have already been major re-structurings to try and get the ‘voice’ right. When I was speaking on the topic at one university seminar last year I was introduced as working on a monograph. I corrected the chair: it was a book. To my mind a monograph implies something few people read and that is written for the REF – or whatever funding mechanism is in place – rather than being an attempt to convey ideas to particular audiences in interesting ways. I do want people to read it! It is always important for me that my argument comes through and is not lost in a pile of ‘interesting facts’. I also try to make clear how I have interpreted particular material – even if I do not always use the supposedly personal I.

I was shocked in a recent class to have students tell me that they had been discouraged from using their own voice in their essays. I do not understand how students – or writers in general – can gain in confidence if they are not encouraged to develop their own voice. Fortunately there are many examples of confident historical writing. The latest book by Paul Ashton and Anna Clark Australian History Now is a collection of very readable accounts by a number of Australian historians explaining their own work and how they have shifted their approaches over the years. These explicitly biographical approaches would prove really valuable to students of history in any country – provided their university libraries would agree to buying a book outside the narrow range of university core courses…

I have been particularly engaged by recent works from two former MA Public History students. Richard J. Sumner’s The Road to Joseph’s Stone. A Journey through Time and Memory plays around skilfully with the idea of ecstatic time which, Sumner explains ‘happens when we delve into our memory bank to revisit events. Because of the passing of linear (clock) time we bring fresh thought, opinion and judgement – new history.’ Award winning poet Anna Robinson has recently issued her second fascinating collection Into the Woods with the prestigious Enitharmon Press. Her fine ear for the language of London and a deep knowledge of the city’s past is evident in her poems. She makes us think again about what we thought we already knew.

Perhaps my favourite recent book is the latest work by Carolyn Steedman An Everyday Life of the English Working Class. Introducing the reader to her approach to analysing the diaries of Joseph Woolley, a working man from Nottinghamshire in the early nineteenth century, Steedman explains her approach and her shifting sympathies ‘ Transcription makes you read very thoroughly indeed … But I never could have looked forward to an evening with Joseph Woolley down the Coach and Horses’. With her engaging and witty style she introduces the reader to a highly sophisticated approach to writing about working class lives in the C21st.

All of these works are produced by confident writers. The passive voice, the third person, almost anonymised prose that could have been written by a computer programme do not dominate these books. As a publisher recently wrote to me ‘I hope you keep telling your students to write like writers’. I do – but I also continue to learn from others including writers such as Anna and Richard.

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