Trivial histories and car tyres? – November 2016

In writing this quickly, I am aware that there is very much more that I could, and perhaps should, research and write, about the nature of history. Maybe in 2017…

I have spent a fair amount of time in 2016 researching and writing some very minor histories indeed. I had long been curious about the history of the canal at Ellesmere Port, especially that part which is now within the National Waterways Museum and within reach of it – the route followed by the trip boat that regularly operates from the Museum. This is partly because I knew this area before the Museum was founded, indeed some 10 years before its site at Ellesmere Port opened. I hope that there is no immediate condemnation of such investigations in their own right. If the alternatives were to research how many car tyres I could slash before public apprehension, my pursuit of the detailed museum site history might prove a lot less damaging!

I have had three parts out of a four-part “study” published in the Boat Museum Society’s magazine Re:Port in 2016, and once the last one has appeared, will be tidying up the whole series and placing it on the website. One might well ask – why bother with this? Who on earth might read it? Few enough people visit my website (for good reason!), but it is possible that someone who is also vaguely curious as to how the Ellesmere Port site developed might find my account interesting. I hope so, but if no one does, I see no harm in it simply remaining deposited on the site. Much material that I examine, at the Waterways Archive, has not been viewed for many years, and yet may enlighten someone in the future.

A significant location place whose semi-recent history has been clarified might seem a worthy enough subject. However, I have also spent much time developing, from very limited materials, some sort of account of my late father’s life and, increasingly, that of his family. My father introduced me to waterways, but in many ways our interests greatly diverged, so why should I have spent time, so much time, trying to trace his life and join this to my memories and reflections, and placing the results, fragment by fragment, on the website Having begun this process, why should anyone else be interested in my memories? I’ll return to this question below.

To get deeper into apparent trivia, there is one form of history that is expanding, popular, pursued almost to the point of obsession by numerous people, and yet often seen as of doubtful value. I refer to family history. Without family history (and local history to a lesser extent), many archives could go unvisited by all but a small number of specialists. Even my investigations of my father’s life have leant on family history resources. And yet, very sadly, to hear about someone else’s family is often like hearing about another person’s grandchild’s secondary school homework – something about which it is difficult to engender or maintain any interest. While family history research methods can be intriguing, the results are rarely so. I suspect that never before has so much research into history been carried out, but without the development of historical explanation. If a small proportion of those who carry out family history research could turn their attention to broader history and its interpretation, a great deal might perhaps be accomplished.

If I can accuse family (and many local) historians of engaging with, if not wallowing in, triviality, is that not also true of my musings about Ellesmere Port and my father’s life? Much of the time, I can only concur with this judgement. Part of me finds inland waterways history irredeemably trivial and parochial; many adherents are concerned solely with minor details, and interested in very little that took place beyond the towpath. Some of the most impressive history that I have read goes beyond transport on this small group of islands, and, in considering the broadest historical factors, especially environmental history, approach both a history of the world and an explanation of the world (and perhaps its future). Most attempts at historical investigations and explanations could be said to falter against the ambitions of world environmental history. Indeed, judged in the court of environmental history, and its attempts to consider the world’s future, most historical work falls, seemingly irredeemably, condemned as lacking serious purpose.

While this does not dismiss the work of professional historians, neither should the work of enthusiasts be disparaged. The real question should be whether attention is diverted, from significant work towards the trivial; if somehow, a major exponent of environmental or political history was to give up because family history research was regarded as more rewarding, or held higher status. To return to my pieces about my father’s life, if I was persuaded to remove these and close the website, this might not mean that I would spend the time thus liberated on something more serious – indeed, I might be tempted to give up attempts at historical research altogether. While there are some who might divert from family history into something of wider application, there are many more who would simply abandon their searches.

Finally, the pursuit of trivial histories may, inadvertently, provide materials that others can use in wider studies. The more meticulous of family historians have, at the very least, freed up time that biographers might have had to devote to the ancestors of their subjects. And reading my father’s website as if I was an outsider, I am struck that if someone was investigating the lives of middle class males and their families from the 1930s to the 1970s, some elements might provide slight insights. The site is about him and family close to him, and these may not be interesting in their own right; but some details of what happened to them, their interrelationships, and how his own life developed, could interest someone in the future. We do not know who will read our words, what they might take from them, but to place materials online, for archive rather than current consumption, is an act of faith, even one of (probably) idle hope. And at least the car tyres remain unslashed, at least by this solitary researcher.