There’s a part of Bolton where I park when I don’t cycle in, it’s about fifteen minutes from the centre of town and the university where I work. It is a series of streets of terraced housing, I don’t know how old, but late Victorian I guess. There’s a mill, gasometers, a couple of other old bits and a few factories. The area always reminds me of what the whole town must have looked like at one point and I can’t help thinking about the houses history. This must all sound very boring, but the houses many of us live in have histories of their own, especially terrace streets. Any one house might have seen brutal poverty at the end of the nineteenth century, family deaths during the First World War, and deaths in mining accidents in this area. Deaths in the Second World War, unemployment during the depression, even bomb damage in the Second World War, and all manner of issues since then. It just struck me that the framework we all live in predates us, and has existed around all kinds of lives, and whilst we think of it as ours, our house, our workplace, in another fifty years we might be forgotten about and very different lives be existing in ‘our’ places.
I was looking through some records of the Pretoria pit disaster – December 1910 – as some of my written work recently has been inspired by it, and I found that as I live in number thirteen on my street, a miner died whose home was number twelve and three miners died (possibly a father and two sons) at number fourteen. This isn’t like standing in Durham Cathedral and thinking some Middle Ages carpenter worked on this or that, this is sitting in my own bedroom and trying to imagine the lives of someone sitting here a hundred years ago finding out about the death of four neighbours in one afternoon. I wonder if that meant a husband did come home to this house? And sat dumbstruck in his chair, face still smeared with coal dust, hands bruised and chipped from hard work trying to work out what happened. And maybe a mother had to hush her kids up in respect for the grieving through the walls.
We are stuffed full of information these days, internet, TV, film, novels, magazines, and I often wonder how before all of that when there was just the occasional newspaper and an oral tradition of stories and memories – what did people know that we’ve now forgotten? I think they could tie themselves more to their own past, and to each other in a community. I think they shared more experiences and that gave them unity and empathy. I must admit I’m envious of lives lived with space and much less stimulus. The focus of a hobby, the understanding of distance when many journeys had to be done on foot and the feeling of belonging to one place.
So my question is; we’ve gained a lot, but have we lost anything to history?