Today is a day when history will be made. That’s probably the understatement of the hour because you would be hard pressed to have avoided awareness of the fact that today is the Coronation of Charles III. I am not going to go anywhere near the ‘politics’, the pros and cons of the event – there has already been enough trees destroyed and energy wasted in the commentary and run up to this day. What I am interested in is the historical significance of the day because I have always been fascinated by history.
At school when others loved the stimulation of science and mathematical conundrums I was always fascinated with the stories of people, more so the real stories of real folk, rather than the history of crowns and empires. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to have fantastic teachers who brought alive the story of the past in a way that made it enjoyable and interesting, and this was years before the absolute glorious delight of today’s Horrible Histories.
History and the events of the past shape our present and give some meaning to our future. So it is that in the years to come people will be able to reflect on the events of this day and no doubt will talk about them to others, especially if they were physically there or if there is a specific significance to the story for them.
One of my first experiences of being in a care setting was listening to a resident telling her experience of the late Queen’s Coronation. Recalling the delight of having the first television in the street, of neighbours crowding into their front room brought back more than just memories of the moment, it brought back to her long gone faces and forgotten smells, absent touches and lost tears, for of such are the windows into our past that bring transparency to our today.
I do not know what the memories and stories of this day will be for the future, but all of us are made up of the sinews of stories told by others in a long line of memories recalled.
In one of those strange juxtapositions of time this is Local and Community History Month. ‘The aim of the month is to increase awareness of local history, promote history in general to the local community and encourage all members of the community to participate.’
Every community is overflowing with stories of who have over the years and centuries made that place what it has become. What makes a place special, for me at least, and something I love to explore when I visit somewhere new, is not just the stories of the great and the good (or more often the not so great and the even less good), but the tales of ordinary life, however hard, that create the energy of our communities. The problem often is that it is rare that their story is heard or told. It is not just the victors who write the history.
But in no small way we are the story-bearers of our own places and it is through our words that the children of today learn the stories of our time. Everyone is a teacher of history.
I wonder what the story of this day will be which we will pass down to generations as yet unborn. Undoubtedly on this ‘special’ and unique day there will be the pomp and circumstance, the glitz and glamour, the celebrity and nobility, maybe even the quiet and spiritual. But that will only tell part of the story.
What about those who are little mentioned in the narratives of memory? What about the insights of those who live with disability, the recollections of those on the margins of memory, the experience of those who are struggling today in mental health, in material possession, or simply with hope? What about the old and the labelled, those who struggle with life and who ache with grief? What about the stories of the uninvited and the unnoticed, the echoes of those whose music we have grown deaf to, those whose experiences we have become blasé to?
History has an immense power to teach, inspire and guide but only if we listen to all its teachers? I hope today as well as all the informed commentators and history pundits, we will give space to the stories that are but whispers through the cheers, but whose truth for tomorrow’s listening is as valuable as any on this day.
Carol Ann Duffy gloriously re-writes our expectations of history in a poem which has now become a favourite of examiners:
he woke up old at last, alone,
bones in a bed, not a tooth
in her head, half dead, shuffled
and limped downstairs
in the rag of her nightdress,
smelling of pee.
Slurped tea, stared
at her hand–twigs, stained gloves–
wheezed and coughed, pulled on
the coat that hung from a hook
on the door, lay on the sofa,
She was History.
She’d seen them ease him down
from the Cross, his mother gasping
for breath, as though his death
was a difficult birth, the soldiers spitting,
spears in the earth;
when the fisherman swore he was back
from the dead; seen the basilicas rise
in Jerusalem, Constantinople, Sicily; watched
for a hundred years as the air of Rome
turned into stone;
witnessed the wars,
the bloody crusades, knew them by date
and by name, Bannockburn, Passchendaele,
Babi Yar, Vietnam. She’d heard the last words
of the martyrs burnt at the stake, the murderers
hung by the neck,
how the saint whistled and spat in the flames,
how the dictator strutting and stuttering film
blew out his brains, how the children waved
their little hands from the trains. She woke again,
cold, in the dark,
in the empty house.
Bricks through the window now, thieves
in the night. When they rang on her bell
there was nobody there; fresh graffiti sprayed
on her door, shit wrapped in a newspaper posted
onto the floor.
From Feminine Gospels by Carol Ann Duffy. copyright © 2003 by Carol Ann Duffy. Published in April 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.