The Practice of History

Time and the Middle-Aged Historian

There are many unsettling things about entering middle age, but as a historian of contemporary Britain, the most troubling part is how it has upended my sense of historical time. I used to think of the past as something which old people remembered, whilst my world, by contrast, seemed bounded by a continuous present. ‘Every historian has his or her own lifetime, a private perch from which to survey the world,’ Eric Hobsbawm wrote shortly after the end of the Cold War. But the perch I was sitting on didn’t allow me to look very far. Septuagenarian Marxists might contemplate a mountain-range of seismic historical events. My twenty-something view was the plain foothills of current affairs.

At some point, perhaps around the age of 35, this began to change. As a parent of small children with a mortgage and a fulltime job, it was not wholly unexpected to feel a tug of nostalgia for the 1990s and early 2000s, to look back to the era of my youth. But as a scholar whose interests were moving ever closer to the end of the twentieth century, I worried about what to do with this strange personal brew of memory and emotion. Would it fortify me to write better, more reflexive history, or throw a distorting haze of subjectivity over my work? 

Historians, of course, have always been mindful of the place of individual perspective in their encounters with the past. EH Carr told his readers in 1961 to ‘study the historian’ before you study ‘his facts’. In recent decades, historians (of all genders) have added a twist to Carr’s advice by studying themselves, inserting autobiography and family history into their scholarship. Sarah Knott does this brilliantly in Mother (2019), bringing her journey through pregnancy, labour and infant care in the present day into conversation with mothering across cultures and centuries past. Similarly, Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum (2014) uses the author’s experience of psychotherapy in the 1980s to tell a larger story about the treatment of madness over the past two hundred years. Alongside memory, Knott and Taylor mine intimate archives which yield up fragments of their former selves. Mother opens with a brown-beige NHS envelope on a kitchen table containing maternity records from the 1970s belonging to Knott’s mother. In The Last Asylum, Taylor cites vividly from a private journal in which she recorded conversations with her psychoanalyst alongside disturbing dreams and suicidal ideations.

This kind of material encounter with the person, or people one used to be – through diaries kept under the bed, school essays boxed up in the loft, photo albums dusted off every other Christmas – is, of course, an ordinary part of getting older. Our capacity, and perhaps also our need, to reckon with the past expands in step with our archival footprint, now increasingly digital. Over the last twenty-five years, email, text and social media have come to dominate the means by which we communicate and document our lives. The writer Anne Helen Petersen, who must be roughly the same age as me, recently described the collection of artifacts preserved from her teenage years as ‘abundant, even luxurious, in its capture of that burgeoning self’. Her 20s and 30s, by contrast, were lived through email and blogging on websites and she recalls them less vividly despite their greater temporal proximity.

For the historian, these matters of self-archiving carry higher stakes because for us looking back is not just a reflexive project but an intellectual exercise. We are trained to think in terms of change and continuity, causes and conjunctures, evidence and argument – a formidable analytical battery to unleash onto one’s own life. It is discombobulating to watch oneself moving around in the world like any other historical actor, wanting things, feeling things, doing things. The feminist Michele Roberts articulates this beautifully in Paper Houses, her memoir of the 1970s. Autobiographical writing ‘joins up all the scattered bits of me,’ she observes, ‘makes them continuous, gives me a conscious self existing in history, a self able to make decisions and carry out ambitions, and that feels like a surprise.’ Barbara Taylor, too, was struck by the ‘oddity’ of what she was attempting in The Last Asylum, turning herself into a primary source, ‘harnessing my personal story to the history of the community care revolution, with its cast of many thousands.’ 

Publishing a full-length memoir is an endeavour which most historians will never attempt, either because their lives are too dull or they lack the literary gifts to make a dull life interesting. Yet, to return to Hobsbawm’s image of the private perch, all historical writing, in some sense, is self-writing, the imprint of an intensely subjective vision. The sources we select, our responses to the material laid before us, the words we put on the page – all spring from an embodied sensibility, fixed in time and place. (Which is why, for any PhD students reading, you should never seriously worry about other scholars working on the same topic.)

To date, I have resisted all temptation to adopt a self-consciously autobiographical posture in my work on the 1990s, the first decade which I remember really well. The final chapter of my book Double Lives: a history of working motherhood (2020) covers the 1990s and early 2000s and writing it was a strange experience. In those years I was not a working mother (that would come later), but I did, in a very modest way, contribute to the public discourse by writing a pamphlet on professional women’s networks for the left-leaning think-tank Demos in 2003. A dog-eared copy still sits on the shelf in my office and during the drafting of the chapter I took it down and read my words for the first time in a decade and a half. As I did so, I felt a curious sensation of my critical faculties faltering. It seemed impossible – faintly corrupt, even – to attempt any analysis of a ‘source’ of which I was the author. How could I be objective about the work of my twenty-three year-old self, or draw any meaning from the text other than an intensely personal one? Within the space of a few seconds, years of scholarly training were overrun by a rush of complicated emotions about the world as it had appeared to me in 2003 and how it felt to me now. There was too much psychic weight to bear, I concluded, to take a scholarly position. Yet the message-in-a-bottle sent by that young Demos researcher to her future historian self was irresistible. I included a citation for the pamphlet, buried in the bibliography.

Helen McCarthy’s 2003 report for Demos

Continuing to research and teach contemporary Britain, I have slowly warmed to the idea of using myself as a ‘human footnote’, to borrow Peter Hennessy’s wonderful phrase. Now I take pleasure in measuring the distance travelled by debates about women’s workplace rights through units of personal history. I think about my little pamphlet and realise that I have the privilege of understanding the context in which it was published better than anyone. I remember making the pitch to funders and recall the language of ‘glass ceilings’ and ‘leaky pipelines’ which dominated corporate HR literature in the early 2000s. I cringe at my punning title for the final report, Girlfriends in High Places, and take myself back to the launch at a London gentleman’s club at which Cherie Blair, the then Prime Minister’s wife, spoke. I marvel at how this document, work of my own hand, should belong to a political moment so radically different from the one that I now inhabit.

Cheri Blair and Helen McCarthy c 2004. Photo courtesy Helen McCarthy

With the passing of the decades, the view from my private perch has filled with landmarks planted into the ground by the Iraq War, the Global Financial Crisis, Brexit, Trump and Covid 19. The arc of historical change now curves within my lifetime, rather than outside it. History is the antidote to presentism, that limiting mindset which holds, to quote David Cannadine, ‘that the only place is here, and the only time is now.’ As a young historian, I knew this to be true. As a middle-aged historian, I feel the force of this statement in a wholly new way.   

Occasionally I wonder whether this intensified historical consciousness is in part generational, a product of unusually turbulent times coinciding with passage into my fifth decade. Compared to the period since Brexit, the nineties and early noughties do appear a remarkably stable era for global and domestic affairs. And, if I’m honest, I probably did imbibe the ideological orthodoxies of those years, believing liberal democracy and market capitalism to be unassailable, and judging their alternatives as a historical dead end. For people now in their forties, history, it would appear, is finally catching up with us.

These are the pillars supporting the historian’s private perch, determining what can be seen. Like many of my peers with jobs and mortgages and families to care for, I’m exhausted by the relentless eventfulness of the last six years. But as a middle-aged historian in 2023, I’m enjoying my view of the mountain.

Helen McCarthy is 43.

One Comment

  1. A colleague referred me to Helen McCarthy’s post after I had given a work in progress presentation of my research. My thoughts on personal experience and historical research had prompted him to make the connection.

    I must first admit to being beyond the conventional boundary of middle-aged. I enjoyed a long, non-academic, career, after which I returned to University, and History. I chose to research the post-war Malayan Colonial Civil Service, which ceased to exist at Malaya’s independence in 1957, at a time when I was only just mastering my first steps and words.

    My initial perspective held that there was clear water between my personal experience and that of Malayan Civil Servants. I have since revisited my thinking. I found that understanding the Service required a study not only of what its members did between 1945 and 1957, but how they subsequently reflected upon and memorialised their earlier contributions, during their ‘lives after Malaya’. This extended my research period into the mid-1980s, a period embracing my younger life. As I now reflect on how my research subjects reacted to the unfolding of the Falklands War, for example, I recall my own memories of reacting to the same events.

    A desire at career’s end to give meaning and purpose to a lifetime’s activity was keenly felt amongst this group of Civil Servants, especially as society’s interest in and respect for Empire’s achievements waned from the 1960s onwards. Such a search for career meaning is by no means unique. I find myself reflecting on my own career. How might the certainty of beneficial purpose that I held to during my working life be viewed critically by a historian studying my career contributions in 50 years’ time? Finally, whilst I was never a civil servant, I worked in a large organisation with many familiar bureaucratic parallels to the Secretariat and District Office working homes of my research subjects.

    So, I thank Helen for sharing her ‘perch’ and I readily own to mine as well. I welcome when it prompts me to consider differing perspectives and insights. To those who may eventually read my research, I can only be open about ‘me’, whilst I use the historical record to inform and frame my conclusions as best I can.

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