People, home movies and their ordinary histories

I spent my afternoon watching Christmas family home movies from the British Film Institute’s newly expanded archive player.

1937Not much happens in any of the films and the absence of sound adds a rather surreal feel. The people featured are not named. We can only guess at their ages and what they are saying. They are all clearly aware of the camera but they are also carrying on pretty much as normal.

Everyone gives and receive presents, they eat meals and play games and most people laugh and mess around a bit. There are some nice shots of living spaces, furniture and seasonal decorations and some touching hugs and thank you kisses. It’s all very ordinary. Although Christmas is the most unusual day of the year, some of what makes it special is just doing everyday things with the people you love.

Some of the films come from the same family and watching them in order allows you to see fashions in dress and furnishings evolve, adults age and lose their hair, and their young children grow into teenagers. A slightly grumpy looking grandfather appears in the first of the sequence but not in any of the subsequent ones. By the last one, his wife is in a wheelchair and looking frail. Christmas always reminds people of the passage of time but these films actually chart it, in all it sadness and joys.

There has been much talk online recently about the need for radical histories that challenge and confront the present. That is, of course, important but so too is history that is more mundane because, for most people throughout history, daily life has been just that.

People eat, drink, sleep, travel, work and play. They love and they lose. Histories of such things do not have to have a political relevance, a challenge or a lesson for the present. But they can remind us that the past, like the present, is about real people. As historians we make people into numbers, categories and classifications but they are still are individuals too and watching them celebrate Christmas is a vivid reminder of that.

My favourite of the home movies can be watched here: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-family-christmas-1952/

My book Christmas and the British: A Modern History will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016.

Some quick thoughts on Cabinet minutes, government records and the 30 year rule

It’s been announced that government records will begin to be released after 20 rather than 30 years. On the whole this is good news for historians but we shouldn’t expect too much, especially from the records of Cabinet.

As Simon Ball’s (1995) research has shown, only rarely do newly released records radically change existing historical interpretations.  When it comes to British government, we already know ‘what’ happened and ministers have usually said something about ‘why’ in the media and in their memoirs. On the whole, what new government records do is in fill in the gaps of our existing knowledge of decision making.

Some of the most interesting material in government files relates to decisions not taken but considered. Yet even here there are limits to what we can learn.  The full breadth and frankness of discussion gets lost. This is partly because it can take place unrecorded in the bar, in the corridor and on the phone. But even in formal meetings the historic record is not full or accurate.

Richard Crossman’s dairy recorded that cabinet minutes are ‘a travesty [which] do not pretend to be an account of what actually takes place in cabinet’. Yes Minister tried to explain why:

  1. Minutes do not record everything that was said at a meeting.
  2. People frequently change their minds during a meeting.
  3. Minutes, by virtue of the selection process, can never be a true and complete record.
  4. Therefore, what is said at a meeting merely constitutes the choice of ingredients for the minutes.
  5. The secretary’s task is to choose, from a jumble of ill-digested ideas, a version that presents the Prime Minister’s views as he would, on reflection, have liked them to emerge.

It then goes further:

  1. The purpose of minutes is not to record events.
  2. The purpose is to protect people.
  3. You do not take notes if the Prime Minister says something he did not mean to say, especially if this contradicts what he has said publicly on an issue.
  4. In short, minutes are constructive. They are to improve what is said, to be tactful, to put in better order.
  5. There is no moral problem. The secretary is the Prime Minister’s servant.

As with all humour, it’s funny because there is a grain of truth here and Lowe’s research (1997) has shown the difference between the minutes actually taken at cabinet (something strongly denied by the Cabinet Office) and those published.

The really interesting stuff in the files of government is often not the minutes of the highest levels of government but in the departments. It’s not the material written by politicians but by civil servants and by members of the public writing to government. There historians can mine the National Archives and begin to understand how government works and what people in and outside government thought about what was going on.

 

References

Ball, Simon, ‘Harold Macmillan and the politics of defence: the market for strategic ideas during the Sandys era revisited’, Twentieth Century British History, 1, 3 (1995), 78-100.

Crossman, Richard (1975). Diaries of a cabinet minister, volume 1: Minister of Housing, 1964-66, London: Hamish Hamilton and Jonathan Cape

Lowe, Rodney (1997) ‘Plumbing New Depths? Contemporary historians and the Public Record Office’, Twentieth Century British History, 8, 463-91.

Lynn, J. & Jay, A. (1989) The Complete Yes Prime Minister, BBC.