Saturday 16 June 2012

Something for the Weekend 12

Our Ancestors’ Secret History

I wasn’t even going to watch the programme in the first place: The Secret History of Our Streets, it was called. Episode 1 – and the whole series, in fact – was/is about the history of random thoroughfares in outer London. I have virtually no ancestral interest in the social history of the capital … but my fancy new TiVo box recorded the programme by accident, so I thought I’d give it a chance.

The show was great, as it turned out. It concerned the changing face of Deptford High Street – its ups and downs over the years, how it once was, and how it is now. It used maps – most famously Charles Booth’s colour-coded Victorian affairs – to illustrate how the area has moved in and out of favour over time with various classes of society. It also contained much in the way of personal accounts and recollections of old-timers who have known the place since the immediate post-war era.

However, the central pillar of the programme was the concept of our streets as communities, and not (as I had anticipated) as structural or architectural entities. It brought the social effects of the ‘compulsory purchase orders’ and so-called ‘slum clearances’ of the 1960s sharply into focus. It even produced documentary evidence that these suburban ‘improvement schemes’ were foisted upon close and helpless communities with little or no justification. Tight-knit and largely happy neighbourhoods of working class people were unthinkingly bulldozed and scattered in the name of high-rise progress.

I’ve never really lived in such a close and supportive community as that which existed in places like 1960s Deptford. Our family was forced out of just such a neighbourhood in Newcastle’s West End and into the more distant suburbs when I was a babe-in-arms (in 1966, before you ask) – at a time when more space and a good deal less intimacy with one’s neighbours seemed like a good idea. Deptford’s little story was, therefore, something of a revelation to me.

Sure, it was a bit of a hark back to the ‘good old, bad old days’, but it made me appreciate a mode of existence – a style of living – that had been the accepted norm for many, many centuries. A huge expanse of time when we all relied on each other in a much more immediate way than we do today: extended family, close friends and neighbours all supporting each other – physically, financially and emotionally – on a daily basis. A world that has largely vanished today.

It set me wondering about those aspects of our ancestors’ lives which we shall never really know about. We have their names, where they lived, what they did for a living and, of course, the important dates in their lives. But it was the daily interactions with those around them – those who shared their house, their street, their town or suburb – that really made the lives of our forebears what they were. Insights into these vital aspects of former times are so very difficult to come by – indeed most of us will never be lucky enough to catch so much as a glimpse of them. Sadly, recorded history rarely ventures into these important corners of our past.

I’m not sure I have really been able to get over my point. If you can, watch the show to get an idea of just what I’m getting at. It’s available in the UK via the BBC iPlayer until 18th July – see here.

Mick Southwick

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1 comment:

  1. Yes, I do get your point, and I think it's an important one. And thank you for the reminder to watch this - I'd heard mention of the series, but couldn't remember when it was on or what it was called, but I have family who lived in Deptford, so am very keen to catch this episode while I can.