The Guardian’s take on ordinary stories: often quite extraordinary | Editorial
In his 1939 poem The Unknown Citizen, WH Auden imagines a composite of a working man made up of public documents – union lists, social psychology notes, health card, insurance policies. A man so well-mannered, average, and docile (“he had the right opinions for the time of year…our teachers report that he never interfered with their upbringing”) that he must be happy: ” If something was wrong, we definitely should have heard.” The state erects a marble statue to him, calls him JS/07 M 378, and moves on.
But of course the fact is that statistics cannot capture the warp and weft of real lives lived, the things that matter. It is true that the so-called everyday is now much more noticed and celebrated in literature, music, theatre, academia and politics than ever before (although the recent Brexit-motivated attempt to oppose ‘the ‘ordinary’ to the ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ ” cannot be called a particularly positive advance). And Auden’s poem was actually written two years after the launch of this extraordinary testimony to ordinary lives, the Mass Observation project. However, it is still true that the nation’s monuments – stately homes, castles, statues – overwhelmingly commemorate the small percentage of the population with big money, for whom official history is a family affair. Auden’s ironies still bite.
This week, Historic England launched an attempt to redress the balance further, inviting applications for Everyday Heritage Grants. Funds of up to £25,000 will be awarded to projects that bring to light the hidden stories of places where ‘ordinary people’ have worked, lived or socialised. The initial focus is specifically on working class experience and culture; if successful, subsequent rounds may have slightly different accents.
Selina Todd writes in The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 (which began out of frustration with the invisibility of people like her parents in the historical record) that this group, “consisting largely of blue-collar workers and their families…and lower-level office workers,” accounted for “more than three-quarters of Britons until 1950, and more than half until 1991”. called a ‘working class of the mind’: Historic England points to 2016 research which found 60% still identified as working class despite a marked drop (to 25%) in people working in routine and semi-routine activities Professions The “ordinary” has good reason to be the dominant story, and it is certainly also colorful Part of the international success of the working-class series Peaky Blinders, says its creator Steven Knight this he week, came from the rejection of the ‘cultural cringe’ that means the English ‘don’t write songs about Huddersfield, Bolton or Birmingham’. He took “everyday people’s experiences and made them as big and vivid and wild as they really are”.
Silver donated by Historic England is not for passive plaques or effigies. The intention is for the ordinary to be brought to light through art projects, oral histories and yet unthought interventions, to reveal the hidden stories of streets, factories and fields, and in doing so, to rescue individuality. and the idiosyncrasy of the unknown citizen. smooth marble of statistics. It’s time.