Kings, queens, generals, presidents, champions, celebrities: are these the people that make history? They are certainly the people that make history books, but the trajectory of the world is so much more than these powerful people. Real history is about ordinary people, how they lived, how they changed the world for us. And each of us, however ordinary has a story to tell. And is there really any such thing as an ordinary person? We are all extraordinary beings, surviving, sometimes against all odds, in a world that is often pitched against us.
I often think about this in relation to my own ancestors. Some of them have made the history books in a very tiny and niche way, but the vast majority have no voice. And yet they were living their lives, bringing up children, loving, arguing, learning, having adventures, working to put a profit in someone else's pocket, and building our heritage. In my grandfather's case, literally, because he had a hand in the bricklaying, and later concrete laying of buildings in every city in the UK.
Being the keeper of so many family stories weighs heavily on me. I feel a duty to not let those stories die. And what about everyone else's stories? When do we get to hear them? I'm lucky to have a stash of photographs of some of my ancestors. They're stuck in a box and their stories will die with me.
So now I'm digging them out of oblivion, and just for a short while giving them an airing.
This is an ongoing project. At this point, I am digitally printing scanned photographs onto cotton, working into them and then framing them with the vintage tatted lace mats that I have inherited from my grandparents and aunts.
Why was my Great Aunt Mary so supportive (she gave a lot of money to charities) of young single mothers and children 'born out of wedlock' at a time when being supportive was radical? I think I found the answer to that after her death: the 1891 census shows my Great Grandmother with a child (Emma) but no husband and bearing her maiden name. Ahh. Now obviously that wasn't rare, but it was rare to be open about it. I don't know who knew about it. I think if my mother knew, she would have said so.
Emma was the oldest of 7 children in that branch of my family. She died before my mother was born, and my Great Aunt Mary - the youngest sibling - only had vague memories of her. I know very little about her. But just look at her, she looks kind and loving, if there's such a look. And perhaps that's just because Mary told me she was. If she was anything like her younger sisters though, I bet she was stubborn and held her ground.
Mary The youngest of seven children. Mary was an adventurer. A single woman, she cared more for travel than she did for a husband. She was a machinist in the tailoring trade in Leeds most of her working life, and she kept house for her father and brother too. There was no magic travelling fund. She paid her weekly subs into the Workers' Travel Association, and with that she went on hiking trips around the Yorkshire Dales, and trips around Europe and in the 1930s, she went on two Mediterranean cruises along with a ship load of fellow WTA members. Her favourite city was Paris. She read George Simenon Magraite novels with map of the city spread on her knees. Mary Mary quite contrary, she wasn't such an easy person to get on with all the time, but she loved my mum, my sister and I fiercely, like the mother and grandmother she stood in for. She taught me to sew, gave me my love of crime fiction and drove me crazy. There's so much more I could tell you about Mary. She was not ordinary.
Anne Anne with an e. The only child of Lily and Jack, a child of the 30s, and child of East End Park. She left school at 15 and went to work for Van Den Burgs in accounts. She was a stickler for budgets and records and lists. I like to think she would have taught me how if she'd lived long enough, but alas....
Anne was a massive cinema fan. She would astound me by knowing what had happened in the 10 minutes she'd been out of the room for the Westerns we watched on Saturday afternoons. I now realise that she had probably seen the film at the flicks when it was first released, and probably several times since too, but as a child it seemed like some kind of superpower my mum had. She adored being around children and was a fabulous child minder and nursery nurse.
Anne was life and soul of any party, the first to laugh. She knew everyone, always smiled; smile was her resting face. She had a lot of funny stories to tell, mostly because she could find humour even in the face of tragedy.
Anne died of breast cancer at the age of 46, leaving a distraught husband and two teenage daughters. Because of that, I find that in my mind she's kind of preserved in aspic. I have no idea what an adult relationship with her would have been like. I have no idea what she would have done next. And my idea of her is precious and sacred. (I found it impossible to stick a needle into her face, even her childhood face). And not at all rounded.