Hysterical History






Hysterical History - An Essay



“History,” wrote Roland Barthes, “is hysterical.”


That sent me scrambling for the dictionary. Did he mean that history is side-splittingly funny, that all those dry and dusty dates and facts and lists of kings and queens that I learned at school should have made me laugh? That perhaps history was more mirth than myth, more comedy than chronology; more bunkum than memoriam. Well sometimes it is; but I don’t think that is what Barthes meant. But the other listed meaning, “wildly emotional”, did not sound right either. Or did it? Barthes, echoing Nietzsche, questioned whether history could ever be objective in the sense of being an accurate reflection of the past. On the contrary, history is a subjective assembly of some of the facts into a narrative from which meaning may be deduced. Vary the selection and competing narratives and meanings emerge. Pace Fukuyama, but the end of history is nowhere in sight. At the centenary of the Great War we are still living with competing narratives resulting from that cataclysm. Nowhere more evident than Palestine and the Levant; its passionately suffering peoples still torn apart by competing historical, hysterical narratives tempered in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire and its replacement by the victors, in the twilight of their imperial adventures, with states delineated by hydrocarbon-hazed cartography and governed with colonial arrogance overlaid with religious and cultural insensitivity.

I recalled Barthes and his view of history when the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War prompted me to look with fresh eyes at an old family photograph taken shortly after my grandfather, William, heeding the patriotic call to duty, joined the first enthusiastic wave flooding to the colours. “There’s thirty shillings on the drum,” runs the old song, “for those who volunteer to come. To come and fight the foe today, over the hills and far away.” And one hundred years ago William took the shilling and went far away. No shilling for Barthes though who, while studying an old family photograph and trying to recognise in the image of a young woman the mother he had nursed into old age, reflected on the tension, the division, of history. The emotional tension experienced in looking at an old family photograph and experiencing history, one’s own family history; but also being apart from it; of being both participant and observer. That tension partly arising from what Barthes identified as the photographic paradox, the existence within it of two messages. One derived from the objective perception of the image and the cultural and historical context in which it was captured (what Barthes terms “studium”) and the other derived subjectively by the observer whose response is influenced by different cultural or historical perceptions or by discordant or surprising elements in the picture (what Barthes terms “punctum”) that stimulate an emotional response to it. Marianne Hirsch also explored this distinction in her separation between what she termed the “familial gaze”, the idealising of the family and familial narratives that inhabit a particular culture and the “familial look”, real looks exchanged between family members and, by extension, with the familial viewer, that construct the particular relationships and identity of that family.

I was reminded of all this, as I say, when the approaching centenary of the Great War found me gazing at a photograph of William and his family. I never met any of them but I know them, headed by Thomas, my great grandfather, who was orphaned at age of four and committed to Blean Workhouse in Kent. Located and tamed within a middle class housing estate today, it still evokes the bleak and forbidding Victorian structures that Dickens described. By the age of eighteen he a seaman in sailing ships carrying coal from Sunderland and Newcastle to southern England. By the age of 24 he was lodging and working as a labourer in Sunderland where he met Mary Jane Allsop, the daughter of a shipyard foreman, whom he married in the grand Victorian Gothic Anglican Church of St Luke’s at Pallion. Their family photograph was taken in late 1914 or early 1915 and is carefully staged, conforming to the social and historical context of the Edwardian era and its idealised familial image, with the parents  stiffly seated and surrounded by their obedient, neatly dressed, standing children: William, my grandfather, and his siblings, Jane Anne, Elizabeth, Freddie, Tommy and Connie. The group forming a triangle at the apex of which is William, the uniformed eldest son, having accepted the invitation of Kitchener’s directing finger and ready to undertake his patriotic duty. In its carefully arranged and structured symmetry, its formalism, its compliance with the Edwardian image of a family unit and with its demonstration of loyalty to King and country, its studium, its acceptance of its social and historical context, is clearly apparent.

Both gender and age are symmetrically balanced in the picture. The six children stand grouped around their parents in an alternating boy – girl configuration, eldest at the back, the middle children beside the parents and the youngest in front. The horizontal, diagonal and vertical arrangements all reinforce this image of an ideal, balanced, family unit. The parents in their 40s, the children ranging in age from three (Connie) to twenty (William) and all formally dressed. Thomas in a dark suit and waistcoat. Mary Jane in a dark, high collared dress. The girls with their hair severely groomed, two in dark dresses. William in his gunner’s uniform and his younger brothers in sailor suits with white neck cloths. But the eye tends to be drawn towards Jane Anne, the eldest daughter, who, in a just a hint of non-conformity, is wearing a white blouse. Soldier William has his right arm draped protectively about Jane Anne’s shoulder while his left hand rests reassuringly on his mother’s left shoulder. One can almost hear the photographer encouraging William to look as if he is ready to lay down his life to protect his mother and sisters from the ravages of the marauding Huns, who’s rapacious devouring of Belgium had justified Britain’s declaration of war. 

The photograph is very much a product of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, of a family dressed and posed to maintain the image of loyalty, cleanliness, sobriety and industry. The upright, hardworking parents raising their dutiful children. The eldest son ready to serve in his country’s hour of need. The elder daughters, clean, modest, younger versions of their mother preparing to marry and raise families of their own. And they all gaze, unsmiling, at the camera. Thomas with a careworn expression befitting a man with roots in the workhouse who has laboured hard to raise a family. Mary Jane, tight lipped but with a rounded softness of face.  William, head cocked to one side, his eyes narrowed as if already seeing the distant horizon for which he is shortly bound. Elizabeth, the middle daughter, with a slightly sardonic expression as if she is hiding something from the camera. The younger children all looking dreadfully serious as if having been warned not to smile and lark about and spoil the picture.


The studium and the familial gaze of this picture would have been reassuringly clear to the contemporary observer. The modest, sober, hardworking, family as the structural underpinning of a productive, ordered, loyal society. And the social and historical context are equally clear to me today despite knowing that the truth is not always as portrayed and, as a family member, being on the fault line between observing history and participating in it.  Because there are elements in the photograph that fracture its studium, the puncta that prick me into a shock of poignant recognition. And there is much that is poignant to me in this photograph. The most compelling being one of the major tragedies of Industrial Age Britain. Because the photograph captures the image of six children but is also inhabited by the shades of five more who died in infancy of diseases, the product of crowded, unsanitary housing conditions, inadequate diet and primitive medical care. And one more is still to die. Young Tommy, barely turned five will be dead before his tenth birthday. He stands in the foreground, between, his mother’s knees, starring at the camera with a confused expression on his chubby face. His boots, in contrast with those the rest of his family, are scuffed and dirty; and they are on the wrong feet. I knew that he had died young before ever I saw the photograph, and then to see him with his boots on the wrong feet! Perhaps the last image that his parents had of him, the one and only image of him I have ever seen. Hysterical history, the photograph of the doomed little boy with his boots on the wrong feet.

Then there’s Freddie. Looking sad and slightly pugnacious, with his hands curled into fists. His sad little face affects as he gazes at me through the camera lens from a century ago. The familial look, as if trying to share something of his thoughts and emotions with the future, with family yet unborn. Freddie is nine. He will continue to live at home until he is twenty and then, suddenly, marries a local girl. Pregnant with their child at fourteen she marries him at the Registry Office by special license one month after giving birth and before she has turned fifteen! Unable to support his new and very young family they live with his mother-in-law. Three more daughters are born but by the time the eldest is fifteen he has abandoned them and run away to Canada. I see his sad little face in the photograph, I know his sad history, and I wonder whether there is another family somewhere for whom his life has a different narrative and a different meaning?

But it is William’s story that, on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, is the most poignant to me. He looks so young in the photograph. Twenty years old and only weeks after swapping his job as a Durham miner, driving pit ponies in the coal black, cramped, damp shafts of the Brancepeth pit in Willington, for his soldier’s uniform. At the apex of the picture he stands in testament to the historical context, to the sense of patriotic duty and pride in King and country that drove thousands of men to enthusiastically volunteer in those innocent pre-trench warfare slaughter days. There is a sense of determination and pride in the line of his jaw. A newly recruited driver in the Royal Field Artillery, putting his pit pony driving skills to good use, wearing his gunner’s field uniform with the mounted trooper’s white shoulder lanyard and the bandolier of ammunition pouches slung diagonally across the left shoulder.

Was the narrative of his enlisting one of patriotic duty to save his family from same fate as the plucky Belgians or was it one of escape from the choking dust and coal-dirt of the pit to find adventure beyond the slag heaps, winding towers and blast furnaces of south Durham. Or should he be considered a victim, one of the countless victims, of a reactionary, imperialist, capitalist, class-bound system that waged war to try and preserve the rights of a privileged, grasping, European ruling class at the expense of the exploited mass of working men and women. For an observer of history all such narratives have their merits, but, as a participant in my own family’s history, whether his motives fitted into any of the conflicting historical narratives matters less to me than the effect the war had on him and on his family.

William stares across the century that separates us. He is sleek, fresh faced, clean; his plump lips curling slightly as if about to break into a smile. In the line of his jaw and the shape of his face I can see myself at the same age. But in that exchange of familial looks the tension of history divides us. He has no idea what is ahead of him; but I do. Soon he will be camped on the gunnery range in North Wales learning how to drive a six-horse team dragging a one and a quarter ton field gun up boggy, rock strewn tracks before manhandling it into position on a wet, windswept hillside. An experience that is going to stand him in good stead soon enough. Then, in the early summer of 1915, he will board a troop ship at Avonmouth bound for Gallipoli. Part of the force being sent to renew the stalled attempt to capture the Dardanelles. The ship will call at Malta and the boy whose life has, until then, revolved entirely around the pit where he works, the row of tiny terraced cottages where he lives and the workingman’s club where he spends the pocket money left after he gives his mother his share of the board and rent, will be dazzled by the gleaming, ornate (he will never have heard of baroque), golden sandstone city with its massive fortifications. He will thrill to tales of the Great Siege in which a handful of Knights (assisted by the unappreciated Maltese) fought off the might of Suleiman the Magnificent’s Turkish army – the same Ottoman Turks he is on his way to fight.

He will sail on to Alexandria and for three months will be camped on the shores of Aboukir Bay, fishing and swimming and larking about in the same waters where Nelson destroyed a French fleet over a century before. But there will also be sand storms and flies and dysentery and horses to exercise and to muck out in the furnace heat of the Egyptian summer. Oh, for a crack at the enemy!
But be careful what you wish for William. Spared Gallipoli, in the early autumn he will arrive in Salonika. From the anchored ship the city appears a flashy, gem encrusted Oriental pleasure park with red and white mosques and sprouting minarets and vivid green splashes of  gardens and trees sprinkled amidst a jumble of white, pink and brown buildings that scramble up the steep sides of the surrounding hillsides and end at the ancient, crumbling ramparts. Behind the city a line of jagged, bare-rocked peaks disappears into the clouds. Ashore and the vision transforms into an ancient, crumbling, smelly maze of lanes and alleys inhabited by a polyglot mixture of quarrelsome Jews, Greeks, Turks, Bulgars, Serbs, Croats and Albanians.

In the last glorious days of summer William will march north into the mountains of Macedonia passing fields of waving, golden maize and plantations of ripe, laden fruit trees. Higher up the leaves will be turning red and transforming the dusty, grey road into a crimson flecked carpet. In the upland valleys he will set up camp and site the guns to await the enemy. But the enemy that comes is not the one expected. With a ferocious, bone chilling, blast winter sweeps down from the northern mountains, freezing the unprepared gunners who huddle in the dugouts they have scratched from the frozen, iron-bound earth trying to keep warm. And then the real enemy attacks and William will scramble to heave the guns forward up slippery, ice covered slopes to support the hard-pressed infantry. Over open sights against the advancing brown ranks of Bulgarians they fire until they are almost overrun. With barely only enough time to spike the guns they abandon them and scramble down the mountainsides as best they can. Running, retreating, running all the way back to Salonika.

 To digging trenches. To stalemate.


After surviving his initial baptism of war William will settle down to three years of mostly static warfare in Salonika. Unharmed by shot and shell he will contract malaria in the mosquito infested swamps of the Vardar and Struma rivers and will be gassed when the Bulgarians fire a barrage of poison gas shells at his gun battery. Two months before the War’s end he will be sent home, his health broken, his lungs wracked and scarred.  He will marry my grandmother in 1919 and they will raise three children. But he is never the same man.  All the later photographs that I have seen of him show a thinner man, with pale, thin lips pursed in a pained or weary grimace, eyes creased and watchfully wary. The rest of his life was a struggle. A struggle against the scarred lungs and weakened heart which finally drove him from the mine and onto charity. Struggling to find odd jobs and to provide for his family; scraping up sea coal from the beaches of the Durham coast, picking over slag heaps, carting vegetables to market and, finally, nightwatchmen in a factory where he died in an air raid in a war that he had, supposedly, fought to prevent. He was 42 years old.


By the end of the war many of the ideals represented in the studium of that photograph from a century ago had been well and truly shattered. Reality has a way of shattering narratives as war shatters the lives of so many.  Narratives of patriotism, of loyalty, of family and of the dignity of labour. How much of these were shattered for William? No written or oral evidence remains; but his weary, wary, burdened expression in post war photographs attests as much. And the price of victory? He lived to see the meaning of his sacrifice swept away in a second cataclysm and I sense that his slumber would be profoundly disturbed to know that people are still dying over conflicting hysterical interpretations of the historical narratives that survived that war to end all wars.

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