The July meeting of Alde Valley Suffolk Family History Group was treated to a thought-provoking talk by Sue Liddell. Sue, an articulate and entertaining speaker, was formerly a tutor in English and History at the University of East Anglia. Nowadays, she is Church Secretary at the United Church, Saxmundam and a lay preacher. She is also an active member of Leiston Reading Group and a volunteer at the Long Shop Museum.
Just to get the audience’s minds warmed up for the intellectual stimulation to come, Sue started by naming her favourite Hitchcock film as the 1955 release "The Trouble with Harry". She went on to explain that one of the characters in the film, a young boy called Arnie, has a slightly unusual perspective on time, seeing today as yesterday and yesterday as tomorrow. The point of this mental ‘brain twister’ was to challenge our backward looking view of history, dictionary definitions of which tend to focus on ‘the past’, ‘former times’ or ‘the good old days’.
Many of those attending will have found resonance in Sue’s traditional view of the teaching of history as a seemingly endless list of dates, battles, kings and queens and acts, all of which had to be learned and regurgitated ‘parrot fashion’ for any chance of success in school examinations. This, she suggested was perfectly captured in Alan Bennett’s play ‘The History Boys’, where the subject is dismissed by one of the class as ‘just one event after another’.
This ‘old fashioned’ treatment of history contrasts quite sharply with modern-day tuition, whereby students are encouraged to think about past events in the context of prevailing socio-economic conditions, and from the perspective of individuals who were directly impacted by them.
Such an approach has undoubtedly made history less dry and more accessible to many, leading to popular interpretations of major events in the best-selling ‘Horrible Histories’ books, or in semi-fictional historical novels by authors such as Philippa Gregory. Added to these, we have a wave of new television documentaries, in which history is re-imagined and presented by a bold, new generation of historians such as Dan Snow, Kate Williams, Suzannah Lipscomb and Lucy Worsley, with her love of donning historical costumes.
As to whether history is fact or fiction, Sue left members of the audience to reach their own conclusion, reminding us that ‘history’ itself is a slippery word. In this respect, she reminded us how historical events can be ‘cherry picked’ by politicians and national leaders to justify their actions, how today’s oft cited ‘fake news’ can become ‘fake history’, and how factual recollection of the past is so heavily dependent on the memory and the personal bias of the narrator. Perhaps it was this thought that gave Henry Ford to proclaim that ‘History is more or less bunk’ or Winston Churchill to observe that ‘History will bear me out, particularly because I shall write that history myself ’.
Finally, in relation to their own family history research, those attending were left to think about the extent to which knowledge of their own ancestry, beyond the factual details of birth, marriage and death, may have been influenced by the interpretation and recollection of events that shaped their ancestors’ lives.
Sue Liddell has been a tutor/lecturer in English and History for the WEA and London University’s Extra-Mural Department/Birkbeck College and Essex’s Continuing Education Department since the 1960's. She was also closely involved in running the Essex History Fairs, and with her husband, Bill Liddell, published "Imagined Land: Essex in Poetry and Prose". Since moving to Suffolk they helped to set up the Historical Association's Suffolk Branch that has now sadly ceased; but she continues her interest in history and literature through volunteering at the Long Shop Museum and being a member of a local reading group. She is also church secretary of the United Reformed Church in Saxmundham.