Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 April 2021
A unique period
MOST PEOPLE WHO read this chapter will have lived through part of the twentieth century. If not, they will know directly family members, friends, neighbours or colleagues who have. Immediately we are put in a unique relationship with this period of the past, which makes it unlike any of the earlier local histories we have discussed. The twentieth century is part of all our personal histories. If being a historian is about achieving a balance of perspectives, on the one hand attaining a necessary critical distance, on the other becoming involved in understanding the experiences of people and places, then engaging with the history of the twentieth century brings particular challenges and opportunities. Brian Short has concluded that, ‘Many local historians simply cannot come to terms with the twentieth century.’ It is certainly a past that can be uncomfortably close, making detached judgement difficult. The fields of enquiry that are the bread and butter of local history – family, politics, religion, power, property, influence – include some of the most sensitive and contentious areas of recent experience. Also the sheer volume of evidence makes its management and discriminating analysis particularly demanding. The nature of that evidence, both public records and private testimonies, often makes it complex to access and interpret. When it comes to deciding what is significant, it may be difficult to think of a photograph of a 1950s domestic interior as historical evidence. Yet it has become so, all the more if linked to other evidence like oral history interviews. The twentieth century is the most voluminously visible and arguably the most immediately influential period in the local histories of many individuals and places. It now stands complete, awaiting retrospective scrutiny, recording and analysis. Implicit and explicit assumptions about its effects, notably understandings of modernization, change and continuity, also colour the picture some present-day local historians have of earlier, pre-1900 periods. Thus, local history as nostalgia is a twentieth-century phenomenon we will encounter in this chapter as we consider how historians are doing so far in tackling the local study of the twentieth century, and look at how we may research and understand this vital period, for ourselves and future local historians.