History – what is it good for?

Everyone studies History at school but what do we learn? There are so many different histories – kings and queens, wars, political, social, Commonwealth, world. How does it help us? The philosopher Santayana said ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ Judging by the number of times history repeats itself, we’re not doing too well.

Did Russia understand the history of Ukraine when it imagined it would all be over in 3 days? And does our government understand the history of Russia and Ukraine to be of any use in ending this brutal loss of lives? Do we even understand our own history? David Olusoga’s history of Bristol in the TV series A House Through Time exposed much of a previously unacknowledged history of the impact of slavery on the structure and social history of the city. This ‘hidden’ history has shown how much many of us do not know.

Birmingham also has its fair share of hidden histories. BOLDtext’s latest show GEM OF A PLACE will reveal some of that hidden history of the Jewellery Quarter. My play Dayus Square references the life of Kathleen Dayus who was born there in 1903 and grew up in extreme poverty. Her large family was squeezed into a small back to back house in Camden Drive where the homes were poorly maintained by landlords who did the little in return for their rents. Fast forward to the 1950’s and Peter Rachman was a notorious landlord who exploited and intimidated his tenants to such an extent that the word  ‘Rachmanism’ entered the dictionary. And now we have housing association and private landlords’ properties which are not fit to live in because of damp and leaking plumbing which doesn’t get fixed. Instead of studying politics and finance at university, maybe more of our prospective politicians should be studying social history.

Poverty, like that suffered by Kathleen Dayus’ family, required a concerted government effort to create the possibility of decent jobs, homes and education. And things did improve for her generation, despite living through two world wars. We need to remember our history to focus on how to make life better, so that we don’t keep repeating the mistakes that drive people into poverty. Julia Wright

GEM OF A PLACE is at Birmingham’s historic JQ on September 9/10/11 & 16/17/18 at 11.30am, 2pm and 5pm.


GEM OF A PLACE  is proud to be part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival and Birmingham Heritage Week. Supported by Arts Council England and the Sir Barry Jackson Trust.

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