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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006
    Writing ordinary lives
    Fondly rereading the life of Alan Freeman in today's paper I was then drawn to another obituary, of a man whose name I did not know, but whose life's work looks fascinating to me. John Burnett, a social historian whose central interest was in ordinary people's lives:

    From Plenty and Want (1966) to Clothes Make the Man (which he was working on at the time of his death), Burnett, professor of social history at Brunel University, west London, from 1972 to 1990, set out to describe the life of the people of Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries in every aspect - what they ate and drank, how they were housed, their schooling, work and spending patterns. Plenty and Want, a social history of diet, was followed by A History of the Cost of Living (1969) and, in 1986, A Social History of Housing 1815-1985.

    Burnett was convinced that ordinary people were historically more literate than had been thought. Over three decades he compiled many collections of working-class memoirs, culminating in his collaborative tour-de-force The Autobiography of the Working Class, 'a three-volume annotated bibliography of all known examples of material written in English by authors who were working class - at least for part of their lives - and who lived for some time in England, Scotland or Wales between 1790 and 1945.'

    In 1994 he produced Idle Hands: Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990. And that's the one I'll be searching out with great interest, as one for whom the decade 1980-1990 was one in which my own hands were sometimes idle through the loss of employment. For part of that time at least, I think, I was still working class - and that was the period when I truly began to value learning and when I truly began to learn to write. Burnett's introduction promises a work of rare humaneness and insight when it comes to this subject: