What do we know about where we live, and is any of it true?

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

I was recently asked to write a blog about Oxfordshire history. I’d just finished writing a concise history of the county for The History Press (published in March 2019), and had included in my preface an apology for anachronism – the crime of calling the region ‘Oxfordshire’ before such a name had been coined. A bit pedantic perhaps, but it always irritates me when people write about (for example) Oxfordshire at the time of the Roman Conquest, or mammoths roaming in England.

This pedantry springs from my instinctive dislike and distrust of patriotism. The characteristics people feel nationalistic about are usually constructs of the heart rather than anything that bears close scrutiny. A country is largely an idea, and that idea shifts endlessly across the centuries.

book cover

History – hit or myth?

The first genre of history I wrote about professionally was folklore, myth and legend. The older I get, the more I realise that 90% of history is just that – stuff that has been created for instruction and/or entertainment; political or social propaganda; simplified narratives that seek to make sense of chaos; stories that tap into national archetypes and motifs to present something simultaneously novel and familiar; or simply a little downtime that offers a brief respite from a life spent in toil and at war.

So, I asked myself, bearing this heavy load in mind, what do people think of when they hear the word “Oxfordshire”?

It might be home, or childhood. Perhaps holidays, music festivals, academia… maybe Morse, Lewis and Midsomer Murders on TV.

We all have our own mental image, experience and memories of the places we’ve lived in or visited, whether as residents or visitors. And we all have our needs and gut feelings when it comes to piecing together a personal sense of place. It is common to use this sense of place, and the history and observation that informs it, as a mirror onto ourselves and the wider world.

For some people history can become a lesson in how to avoid trouble. It contains all humanity’s mistakes and, in theory, can show us how to avoid those mistakes in the future and cherish the actions, morals and places we hold dear.

For others, history is a classical Tragedy, in which we, the players, are doomed to repeat our ancestors’ mistakes in spite of all our supposed wisdom.

Others embrace history as part of their character and belonging – that indefinable Spirit of Place. Nowhere is this more true than in Oxfordshire, with a rich history coloured by Oxford University, the Thames and Cherwell, golden Cotswold Stone, busy RAF bases and jingling Morris teams.

All these senses of what the past is and how it lives on revolve around the idea that history equals Truth. But let’s imagine for a moment that this isn’t the case at all – that history isn’t the truth, but a series of rewrites and reboots, a series of oversimplifications and misunderstandings, like a dimly recalled pub conversation the morning after. Not truth, then, but a reflection of our own prejudices, needs and wants, our localised store of folklore, myth and legend.

Forest Hill view

One of my favourite shots of my former home – Magda building the garden office in Forest Hill, Oxfordshire

The test of time

To put this to the test, think of a question, and filter it back through time. If “What happened in Oxfordshire?” is the question, here are some possible answers:

One year ago: Brize Norton announces significant changes to its airspace regulations. Wantage gears up for its biggest-yet beer festival. The Oxford Blue Plaques Board proposes a plaque commemorating Christ Church chemistry don Andrea Angel on Banbury Road, Oxford.

These stories were very much in keeping with the county’s contemporary sense of self – visible RAF presence, classic English ale brewing, and Oxford dons.

Ten years ago: The Environment Agency announces that the flood threat in Oxfordshire has been greatly reduced. Anthony Gormey’s naked man sculpture is about to be hoisted to the top of the Blackwell’s shop on the corner of Turl Street and Broad Street in Oxford.

All very familiar again – the dominance of the rivers in low-lying Oxfordshire, and Oxford’s place as a hub for artists.

100 years ago. Still fresh from the traumas of the First Wold War, many Oxfordshire people struggle to find work and make ends meet. In Oxford, ground-breaking work into shell shock victims leads to the development of modern psychiatry.

This grimly underlines one of Oxfordshire history’s abiding themes – war.

1000 years ago. Anglo-Danish King Cnut lives in Oxford. It is only ten years since the last major slaughter between local Anglo-Saxons and Danes, and the county of Oxfordshire, and the city of Oxford itself, have only been on the map for around 100 years.

This far back, Oxfordshire is, from modern perspectives, a foreign country. No recognisable English was spoken, but Saxon and Danish dialects instead, with Latin the preserve of clerics and scholars. One timeless theme is very much in the air, though – war, and the county leaders’ fraught relationship with their neighbours.

10,000 years ago. No Oxfordshire, no Saxons, Danes or Romans, not even proto-Celtic tribes, who would not arrive in the region until around 5,000 BC. Aboriginal peoples lived here, of whom we know nothing other than the scraps bequeathed by archaeology.

100,000 years ago. No humans yet, but plenty of ice-locked wildlife in the midst of the Ice Age.

And so on, back through prehistory…

Welcome to the continuum

Our perspective on history requires a human presence. But once those humans appear in the story, it is all too easy to imagine them as people with the same language, social backgrounds and aspirations as us, toiling and struggling their way through history as a single, coherent population. We want the Romano-Britons, Saxons and Danes to be ‘English’; we probably want King Alfred to be the founder of Oxford University; and we want some positive, inspiring historical themes to distract us from the only truly constant theme – war.

A historian can meet these expectations halfway, offering insights into how people lived, what they aspired to and achieved, and how they helped shape the physical, genetic and intellectual landscape, the end results of which we live in today. But an honest one must come clean and remind the reader that, really, it’s all folklore at heart.

When seeking to find out more about the GPS location we have come to consider home, stories about people are the best starting point. Throughout history, people have lived, loved, worked and died on the land. The continuum may not always live up to our high expectations of consistency and inspiring examples, but it is nevertheless a continuum in which we spend our brief days, and the least we can do is add something to it.

forest hill view 1

The imagined hills I used to call home – view from my old back garden, towards Shotover

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