We all have our own mental image, experience and memories of Oxfordshire, 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 sense of place, hinted at earlier. Nowhere is this more true than in Oxfordshire, with a rich history coloured by Oxford University, the Thames and Cherwell, and golden Cotswold Stone.
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.
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…
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 Oxfordshire people, 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 popular history book meets 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.
When seeking to find out more about Oxfordshire, stories about people are the best starting point. Throughout the history of the county, 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 to which we very much belong.
By Paul Sullivan