The task of creating an author blog based on the life of a person who lived during, arguably, one of the most eventful periods of English history has been a fascinating undertaking. Researching and exploring the intimate thoughts and feelings of a person who has taken the time to produce a memoir commands a certain level of respect and responsibility for their work. Upon reading Harry Young’s memoir for the first time, it was instantly obvious that this was a man whose life had been a series of remarkable adventures. My initial worry was that I would not be able to do this man and his amazing life justice in a few short blog posts – hopefully that is not the case.
I found that unpicking Mr Young’s unique insights and experiences was completely different to the usual academic, essay-based research. I had to reassess my normal approach to encompass his particular life, and although broader associations with his life and the general state of society could be made, I found that the value in using his memoir as a foundation was being able to focus microscopically on particular geographical, cultural and political situations of the time. Being able to locate his childhood home, for instance, revealed particular details about his community and daily life that is simply not available in most non-fiction research material. If anything, I found that following Harry’s memoir, the streets of London came alive, and his sensory observations enabled a real sense of ‘living’ alongside him – it gave permission to my imagination to try to understand what life as a turn-of-the-century working-class child entailed.
The collaborative nature of this project also contributes a great deal to understanding not only the wider conditions of life in the early twentieth century, but the differences between each author and their respective lives. Reading the other students’ blogs, and comparing their authors’ experiences to Harry’s highlights, I feel, how macroscopic some academic research can be. One author, who grew up less than a mile from Harry, appears to have lead a near polar opposite life in terms of culture, political views, work, and education. Having this comparative material, and being able to see just how different certain lives were from others, despite their proximity, really opened up my mind to how important these memoirs, and others like it, are to understanding our own history.
When I consider my role in the Writing Lives project, and in helping to bring the life of Harry Young to the world, I hope that my interpretation of his life, and some of the insights I have offered produces the same sense of fascination in others as it has in me. I don’t claim to have made a telling contribution to public history, but would like to think that the blog entries that I have created and published are one small part of a project that can only help to increase an awareness of our own history, and a consideration of the lives of those who helped create the society we live in today – there are not many people I know who have come close to living the same kind of live today as Harry lived!
The digital nature of this project has been a real benefit to understanding just how much information can be found about a particular person through the internet. Being able to find Harry’s Communist writings for the Socialist Standard, and to map his travels throughout Russia, China and Europe in the course of his career, is something that would simply not be possibly to do without the digital resources – aside from hundreds of hours of painstaking library research and collation. I also found that the blog publication format provides a lot more accessibility to a lot more people who may be interested in working -class writing, and the coverage that can be achieved through social media makes Harry’s life, and those of the other authors, available to an audience that, sadly, wouldn’t be reached by paper publication.
Moving forwards, my own research can only hope to benefit from the resources this project has introduced to me. While I remain a loyal advocate of the printed word, I cannot deny the value that lies in digital research. For me, one of the most invaluable aspects is the interaction that can be achieved though the digital format. It is one of my biggest regrets in this project that I was unable to locate any of Harry’s living relatives, or even gather enough information for a reliable family tree – although not for lack of trying. I have, through reading the blogs of my peers, learned that some have been luckier in tracking down descendants. For me, it is remarkable that, through the details given in these memoirs, family members and friends of the authors are being introduced to aspects of their ancestors’ lives that they may have been unaware of.
For me, the impact that the Writing Lives project has had on my own research methods is twofold. Firstly, it has given me a far greater understanding of how important individual contributions are to wider social and cultural issues. In the case of Writing Lives, this may be through the specific journey of a single author, or the significance of the writing of the memoir itself. Secondly, I cannot ignore the importance, in contemporary academia, of the digital format. The potential for uncovering vital information and insight into a particular subject is, in my opinion, nearly endless. In my mind there will always be a question over the authenticity of some of the information found online, but collating, verifying and refining that information through digital research can yield results that can only enhance an understanding of a particular subject.
Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858