In his 1939 poem The Unknown Citizen, WH Auden imagines a composite of a working man built of public records – union lists, social psychology notes, health-card, insurance policies. A man so well-behaved and average and compliant (“he held the proper opinions for the time of year … our teachers report he never interfered with their education”) that he must be happy: “Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.” The state erects a marble statue of him, calls it JS/07 M 378, and moves on.
But of course the point is that statistics cannot capture the warp and weft of actual lives lived, the things that matter. It is true that the so-called everyday is now far more noticed and celebrated in literature, music, drama, academia and politics than before (though the recent Brexit-driven attempt to set “ordinary” in opposition to “elites” and “experts” cannot be called an especially positive advance). And Auden’s poem was in fact written two years after the launch of that extraordinary testament to ordinary lives, the Mass Observation project. However, it is still the case that the nation’s monuments – stately homes, castles, statues – overwhelmingly memorialise the small percentage of the population with a lot of money, for whom official history is a family affair. Auden’s ironies still bite.
This week Historic England launched an attempt to further redress the balance, soliciting applications for Everyday Heritage Grants. Sums of up to £25,000 will be awarded to projects that highlight the hidden histories of places where “ordinary people” have worked, lived or socialised. The initial focus is specifically on working-class experience and culture; if it is successful, subsequent rounds may have slightly different emphases.
Selina Todd writes in The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 (which began out of frustration at the invisibility of people like her parents in the historical record) that this group, “composed largely of manual workers and their families … and lower grade clerical workers”, accounted for “more than three-quarters of British people until 1950, and more than half as late as 1991”. There is also what has been called a “working class of the mind”: Historic England refers to 2016 research that found 60% still identified themselves as working class despite a marked decline (to 25%) in people working in routine and semi-routine occupations. The “ordinary” has good claim to be the dominant history, and is certainly as colourful. Part of the international success of working-class-set series Peaky Blinders, its creator Steven Knight argued this week, came from rejecting the “cultural cringe” that means the English do not “write songs about Huddersfield or Bolton or Birmingham”. He took “the experiences of ordinary people and made them as big and vivid and wild as they really are”.
The money offered by Historic England is not for passive plaques or effigies. The intent is for the ordinary to be brought into view through art projects, oral histories and as-yet unthought-of interventions, to reveal the hidden histories of streets and factories and fields, and by doing so to rescue the unknown citizen’s individuality and idiosyncrasy from the smoothed marble of statistics. It is past time.