The Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth has co-edited The People Speak, an anthology of writing, letters, speeches and songs which tell the story of British history through the voices of those who took on the Establishment. Here is his introduction, and three extracts from the book
If you studied O-level history in the 1970s, you probably know as much as I do about the achievements of kings, queens, archbishops and generals. My poor history teacher, Mr Cosgrove, occasionally used to try to liven things up by convincing us that they were all perverts.
He’d bewitch us with extracurricular tales of inventive cruelties and obscure peccadilloes. It was often worth going to his class. This will have been offset with impersonal details of irrigation systems and mining utilities, bridges and steam engines – anything that testified to Britain’s industrial, commercial or military prowess.
But whether we were given the official versions of these stories or not, whether they were edited, sanitised, bowdlerised, bare facts or outright lies, something was always missing. While it may be true that history, by which I mean the one we’re actually living in, is full of kings, queens and politicians – written by them or for them (they also have a popular place in film lore, I’m told) – the absent component always seemed to be just about everybody else. The further back one looked in time, the more ‘everybody else’ was portrayed as a homogeneous mass: the multitude, the rabble, the people, crowd extras.
In order to give faces – or, rather, voices – to these people, I felt I had to look outside the classroom and perhaps outside the country.
I began to realise that many of the real stories of Britain revealed themselves through its guilty pleasures: the music I wasn’t supposed to be listening to, or the jokes I wasn’t supposed to be laughing at, or the books I wasn’t supposed to be reading. Chief among the latter was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: a book obviously not directly about Britain but which had an impact on the way I view my own country and the people who are left out of the text books. Zinn pointed out that these are the people who brought us democracy, that it works from the bottom up. That democracy’s real protagonists are the troublemakers. He applied this conviction by living his life as a rampant troublemaker himself. And in so doing he changed a great many lives, including my own.
Another troublemaker, named Anthony Arnove, worked with Howard to develop that book into a series of readings celebrating the voices of such people around the United States. Aware of my enthusiasm for their project, they asked me if I would be interested in finding a British equivalent.
The People Speak is the result of Anthony’s and my exuberant and resounding failure to do that. In our attempt to include everything and everybody, we will have excluded whole centuries, whole issues, political movements, sections of the populace – and entire countries. There was a millennium or two to cover but we had to sign off at page 485. So, what we are offering is a taster’s menu.
I hope that these voices – whether they be socialists, anarchists, agitators, Chartists, suffragists, Lollards or Levellers – serve as a reminder that much of what we feel entitled to today, much of what we accept as civilised or decent, began as treason. Was fought for by men and women who weren’t endowed with any political power, who were hanged for it, transported, tortured or imprisoned, until eventually their ideas were adapted to, adopted and handed down to us as basic rights. These freedoms are now in our care. And unless we act on them and continue to fight for them, they will be lost more easily than they were won.
Some of the words will be familiar to you. Some have been buried for years, words that might not have been heard aloud since they were first uttered. Some are the words of people whose lives overlap with our own.
Before gathering the voices in the book, we had the great good fortune to bring together some of our friends and performers we admire to read a number of these selections on stage at a performance in 2010 that was filmed for and later broadcast by the History Channel. This was not actorly activism: often implored to shut up about matters of consequence, actors were doing what they are trained and paid to do – act, interpret the voices of others.
It will not go unnoticed that, elsewhere, I have rather conspicuously embraced our monarchic narrative – and, in my haphazard professional capacity, also rendered the voice of a king. I can only say that I took great joy in the exercise and now revel in the contrariety. As Emerson would have it, ‘A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’
Our exercise is a capricious one. We are not offering an objective version of history. It is not an attack on the many fine history teachers or their curricula (my father is a history teacher – the finest of all). It is simply an excursion beyond Mr Cosgrove’s classroom. The pieces are chosen not necessarily because of their importance or because we feel any sense of responsibility, but because we liked them. Or they sound good out loud. We suggest you try them. We’ve cheated a little and added and subtracted from our event for the sake of shape. But not much. Vast quantities of rich and important material have been left out. Hopefully you’ll feel indignant about that and feel impelled to point it out or, even better, compile another book . . . and then another.
Most of all, we hope you might find some inspiration to speak out yourself, and make your own voice heard on the issues that move you. As Howard reminds us, democracy is not a spectator sport, and history is not something on a library shelf, but something in which each of us has a potentially critical role.
• The People Speak: Voices That Changed Britain, edited by Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, is published by Canongate Books, £17.99 hardback and £14.99 ebook