History and All That

Even the tiniest village shop nowadays offers a display of books and pamphlets dedicated to the local history of that particular community. The world, it seems, is awash with amateur historians who take infinite trouble scouring church records, the county archives and the internet, and who gather an enormous amount of information about their settlement or some aspect of its past. Their researches are then condensed (you hope) into a book - which, in its turn, often becomes a landmark in the history of that locality. I am reading rather a good example at the moment called Crosstracks to Hindon by Richard Dewhurst - Hindon being a charming village in Wiltshire, chiefly famous for being a classic ‘rotten borough’ until the 1830s. Crosstracks is a fine example of a local history and gives just the right amount of information about this one small settlement and its social, religious, political and commercial life over nearly 800 years. Local historians may be extremely knowledgeable but occasionally lack judgement as to the amount of information they should pass on. They want to include every jot and tittle; if they have researched something, it must go in the book, and the poor reader's flickering interest is drowned by endless census entries, registers, charts, lists and tables. People want the authors of local history books to carry their learning lightly but interestingly; they are not forgiven if they are boring. I suppose I can understand how historical research becomes, like any hobby, a bit of an obsession. I edited a family history a couple of years ago. The author had died and I had the impression that his widow or perhaps his children were paying for his book to be put into print as a final tribute. He had done much research on the origins of his family and – even when he was not entirely sure of the relationship of a particular branch to his own – he meticulously recorded every birth, baptism, death or marriage he could find. The result was a mass of unmanageable and mostly unreadable material. Even if a Victorian baby only lived 3 days, the little mite’s place of baptism and date of death were faithfully set down. There was something rather touching about the author’s desire to save everything from oblivion, but I fear his family’s loyalty must have stopped short of wading through it all.

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