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London Stories. Personal Lives, Public Histories

2012 April 20

London stories cover

London Stories. Personal Lives, Public Histories Rivers Oram Press, 2004

This book  is an exploration  of ways of writing about working class lives beyond the stereotypes of either drunken ‘East End’ parties around the old joanna eating pie and mash or of heroic dockers or class war militants. It is based on my family who came from the Midlands, Kent and Pomerania  some of whom were settled in London from the turn of the eighteenth /nineteenth century.It explores the way in which tiny traces of material – a souvenir from Southend, a carved chair, a certificate of exemption from smallpox vaccination – can be used to create individual (and broader) histories. Much of the material also arose from days out wandering around graveyards or a former lunatic asylum – a very different idea to that of sitting in an archive or in front of a computer screen to create meaning… It partly originated from my early work with students at Ruskin College who bemoaned the supposed lack of material for writing about ordinary lives. It also arose from clearing my mother’s tiny Essex flat and realising that traces of the lives of generations were in that place and that if I did nothing about it they would disappear.

Although many who read it found it moving, illuminating and could identify with parts of it, the book didn’t get the publicity it deserved partly because of publisher lack of interest but also because it did not conform to the East End romantic tales that even some historians who ought to know better really want to hear. An extract will appear in  The Public History Reader

Extracts from reviews:

‘This is a story of intricate journeys and intimate reflections through time and space. The journeys take us into ‘private’ memories and ‘public’ history. And often they tell us a moving story of silences… How I wish I’d paid as much attention as Kean has done to the ‘ephemera’, the detritus of living, that individuals and families gather about themselves in apparently meaningless clusters…

Kean gets almost as much from private dusty cupboards as from public dusty archives. In doing so she has illuminated in novel ways a family history and her own life story. Her book is a fruitful model for others to follow.’ Jerry White. Oral History Review

‘This important study is both a personal journal into family history, and a valuable research manual, with a meditative thread on how and why such research helps us make sense of the past and our relationship to it in the present… I found myself in this book’. Martin Bashforth  Family and Community History

‘This is an exceptional and readable book which bridges the gap between professional historians and the every-growing army of family historians’. Journal of the Oxford University History Society

‘Hilda Kean’s pioneering work London Stories is an engaging personal account of the author’s family, knitting together family history, academic context and a personal intellectual journey to form a rich narrative of the evolution of families , their public archival record and the private artefactual  remains.’ Andrew Gritt Family History in Lancashire.

London Stories provides my MA students with a sensitive and illuminating analysis of the connections between personal and community histories. It was a very useful resource which informed my students’ online discussions about the meanings of family and community.’ Dr Katherine Holden, Senior Lecturer in History University of the West of England

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