Monday, July 24, 2006

Radical history

The Guardian (who else?) is launching a campaign to better commemorate Britain's long history of radical political and democratic activity. Media-friendly historian Tristram Hunt kicks off with his own nominations of events and sites that deserve monuments, including Manchester's Peterloo Massacre, the signing of the National Covenant in Edinburgh, and key scenes from the Chartist movement.

Hunt notes, with regards to the BBC's Restoration programme:
But there is another story of Britain's heritage which this picture-postcard take on the past is studiously ignoring. While Restoration Village shores up rural pastiche - complete with dry-stone walls and a warm, feudal glow of noblesse oblige - Britain's more exciting, more radical heritage is once again being by-passed in the search for funds and fame.
The stories, monuments and myths that traditionally linked progressives with their heroic past have steadily retreated from public consciousness. This amounts to something akin to a loss of collective memory. And so it should come as no surprise that we have difficulty rallying any broader, popular enthusiasm for our political process when we lack an appreciation of our democratic heritage.

It's a useful adjunct to the History Matters campaign which, with high-profile backers such as Boris Johnson and David Starkey (though Hunt and Tony Benn were also among the founders), can appear to be promoting an 'official' institutional version of histor, as per the Telegraph's interpretation -
Without a sense of history, we are not a nation, simply a random set of individuals born to another random set of individuals. Lose the thread that links us to our institutions and we lose ourselves. [...] Unless we know who the Stuart kings were, when they ascended to their thrones, and the main events of their reigns, the outlook of the contemporary peasant loses its reference points.

There's certainly appetite for history about all those radical events despised by the Telegraphs of their day. Here in Halifax last weekend, there was a healthy turnout for a Chartist Festival celebrating the lives and works of local figures. We joined in a walk around key scenes from the Chartist-backed Plug Plot of 1842, including the rallying ground on Skircoat Moor and the site of a pitched battle between mounted soldiers and workers down the hill at Salterhebble (just by the Shell garage and drive-through Macdonalds). I briefly mentioned the events in the local psychogeographical piece I wrote for Strange Attractor Journal -
On 15 August 1842, probably the largest mob ever seen in Halifax began with a procession of four or five thousand Chartist marchers entering across North Bridge from Bradford, a famished-looking mob armed with bludgeons, flails, pitchforks and pikes. Another march of five thousand entered the town from Skircoat Moor, where they'd spent the night. That group had come across from Lancashire, swelling in number as it came, closing the mills as it went by drawing the plugs from the mill boilers. They entered Halifax singing Chartist hymns and the 100th Psalm: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands." The two groups met and the Riot Act was read. At the height, a mob of some 25,000 people thronged the streets of Halifax.

History worth remembering, I reckon.

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