I believe that the importance of personal memory, made up collectively as local, or even national memory, has only begun to be realised by social historians, some of whom now write of "social memory" or "popular memory." It is appropriate that we connect the two terms "memory" and "mythology" and it is appropriate also to visit questions concerning their interconnectivity.
In France, Pierre Nora's pioneering work, Les Lieux de Memoire, unhappily translated into English by his American publishers as "Realms of Memory," provides a framework for any historian wishing to study the relationship between history, memory and their cultural reference points--images, sounds, institutions, memorials, buildings, texts and the many other iconic forms with which nations and peoples surround themselves in an attempt at self-identification. These are, after all, the memoria technica of the human mind and the human experience.
As Freedman writes:
Cultural forms are the means by which people know history (speech, radio, film, newspaper account), present history (narrative, epic, saga), and commemorate history (parade, pageant, festival, ritual). To study cultural forms as they have served political and historical events (stories of national heroes, songs of resistance fighters) is to take an important first step, but to take no other is to further the view that cultural forms are the eternal handmaidens of life, secondary to the great events of history that sweep by us like soldiers on parade (p. 13,"Whistling in the Dark": Memory and Culture in Wartime London. By Jean R. Freedman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. 256 pp. $29.95. ISBN 0-8131-2076-4).
This is the crux of the matter and still represents the gulf between some historians and folklorists. Although she does not refer to the recent work of crucial commentators such as Pierre Nora, Jay Winter, Alistair Thomson, Angela Gaffney, and the late Raphael Samuel, who explore similar ground, Freedman has much in common with these approaches: "Cultural representations," she writes, "are not the secondary phenomenon that surround history, not the chaff to be examined once the wheat has been consumed. Instead, they are the raw material out of which history--our understanding and interpretation of the past--is formed" (p. 13).
She shows that the unifying ideology of wartime London, constructed from a variety of different individual and collective responses from government down to people themselves, was the civic pride of carrying on--photographs of cheery milkmen delivering the morning "pinta" against a cityscape of rubble and destruction, of the dome on St Paul's against the glare of fires, searchlights and anti-aircraft barrages, of London traffic skirting round great bomb craters, were encapsulated in the Ministry of Information Film Ordinary People: London Carries On. From where did this ideology spring? Was it simple national propaganda?
Featured in the April 2001 issue of Folklore Magazine
Bob Bushaway, Department of Modern History, University of Birmingham, UK