Editorial — Issue 19

The people be praised

Where were the songs the soldiers sang? Les Cleveland asks of war histories in his lead review. They could tell us much about what being in the war was really like, about how ordinary soldiers served their time.

David Grant bangs the same drum in his review of Len Richardson’s history of the coalminers union. “British labour historian Allan Hawkins,” Grant notes, “has written that the words of songs collected from ordinary people can tell the historian something about these people’s attitudes, ideas and feelings.”

Jane Stafford, reviewing Dennis McEldowney’s numbingly Pooterish but, she says, absorbing diary of not very much in the 1970s, quotes “professional” historians scoffing at ordinary soldiers’ tales of the war. Generals run wars; ordinary soldiers only fight them. What can they know?

Quite a lot, argues Neville Bennett, worrying that the internationalised élite, here as elsewhere in our sorts of countries, is adrift from non-internationalised ordinary people’s fears, insecurities and suspicions and musing on how that may translate into votes next time (now that, thanks to Jack Vowles et al, reviewed by Nigel Roberts, we know – or do we? – how they / we (?) voted last time). Free votes can make uncertain history.

The people do have a place in their history, as the Book of New Zealand Women brilliantly demonstrated by its interweaving of everyday life achievements into its illuminating biographies. Professionals do well who do not simply translate that voice but transmit it. If the ordinary people’s voice is denied, they may as well just go in for the sort of dottiness Sharon Crosbie wises us to in her review of a splendid spoof.

Colin James

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