Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Standing on the top rung of a ladder, peering behind a boxed away fuse box, I felt that kind of giddy nervous thrill I usually associate with being in an archive. A small square of wallpaper – an incongruous flash of crimson rose petals and leaves now faded to blue tucked away behind chipboard and electrical cable. This prompted the same visceral excitement as finding an impossible historical subject in a court register. The historian’s pleasures always come covered with a layer of a dust.
This is the first time I have been confronted by the history of this house. I know that it was built in 1910 – part of a planned development around a Birmingham factory. Our relationship has been confined to the here and now for the last few weeks, however. There are boxes to unpack, jobs to do, problems to sort. Looking back has gone no further than the recent past. The previous occupants with a tendency towards garish feature wallpaper, using pallets instead of kitchen tiles, and splashing paint over everything other than the door it was meant for mark the line where I stop.
White painted walls and recent-laid floors do not give up their secrets easily. Plaster covers the traces of lives lived here before. New patterns and colours accumulate. The neat edges of carpets and coving make the present both shallow in its time and seamless in its fabric. There is little of the past to feel in this.
A fragment of yellowing wallpaper, though – this is something different. Frayed and peeling edges give us something to grasp hold of. Crimson roses suggest the choices made by someone long gone, just as the residual traces of paste and brush marks point towards the process of their labour. In the layers of rough plaster, flowery print, and chipboard we see the accretion of lives, choices, moments – histories, now boxed away and hidden.
Take away the box, and I prefer my histories this way, Edges, layers, threads that unravel as you pull on them – each gives us a way into the past. More than this, perhaps, they invite us to explore and think for ourselves. The historian who leaves behind the traces of their archival and intellectual labour offers a similar kind of invitation. Working the decisions we have made and the desires we have pursued into the texture of our writing, leaving gaps where our knowledge can go no further is both more intellectually honest and, I think, more compelling.
Histories that are seamless and pristine, confident and certain – such histories draw a line that works as a boundary, rather than as a thread that draws us further in. A hidden scrap of wallpaper that is slowly turning to dust feels more like the kind of history I hope to make.