A House Through Time by David Olusoga and Melanie Backe-Hansen: Packed with remarkable human stories, richly detailed and informative - book review -
If walls could talk, what stories they could tell…
As historian, broadcaster and BAFTA award-winning presenter and film-maker David Olusoga returns to BBC2 this week with his hit series, A House Through Time, enjoy an even more in-depth look into some of the seemingly ordinary homes which also have the history of our country embedded within their walls.
When we move into a new house, most of us try frantically to exorcise the lingering presence and evidence of past occupants from what is now our space but, as Olusoga points out in the introduction to this fascinating tie-in book, no matter how many layers of paint we slap on, we can never fully succeed in wiping away the traces of ‘the lives that have been lived there before us.’
And the simple truth is that it is the ordinary houses which tell the best stories, rather than the grand public buildings and the mansions of the rich. It is at home, behind closed doors and drawn curtains, that people live their inner, family lives… only in domestic spaces do they become genuinely themselves.
Olusoga and his consultant for the book, Melanie Backe-Hansen – a historian, writer, and speaker who specialises in researching the social history of houses in the UK – lift the roofs on the nation’s domestic spaces as house histories become the new frontier of popular, participatory history.
People, many of whom have already embarked upon that great adventure of genealogical research, and who have encountered their ancestors in the archives and uncovered hidden family secrets, are now turning to the secrets contained within the four walls of their homes and in doing so finding a direct link to earlier generations.
As Olusoga points out, ‘Those who set out to discover the histories of their homes report experiencing profound feelings of empathy for the people who came before them… their hands gripped the same wooden banisters and pushed open the same doors.’
And the story of any single home extends beyond its four walls to the streets surrounding it. The house’s history, and the lives and circumstances of the people who lived there, are closely wrapped up in the changing fortunes of each district and neighbourhood, and with wider history both national and international.
Economic cycles, the coming of the railways, the arrival of new industries and decline of old ones, slavery and its abolition, world wars, crime, class, and, topically, endemic and epidemic diseases, all influenced the lives of the residents of these homes over the decades and centuries.
Each chapter of the book charts developments in the history of the British home and British cities, and explores the changing social idea of the home, a subject which has tended to shift for as long as people have moved house.
As with the television series, A House Through Time offers readers not only the tools to explore the histories of their own homes, but also details of the often surprising journey that one single house can take from elegant dwelling in a fashionable district to a tenement for society’s rejects.
Packed with remarkable human stories, Olusoga and Backe-Hansen’s richly detailed and informative book rewards readers with a deep insight into living history, a history we can see every day on the streets where we live.
And it reminds us that however interesting a home’s architectural and wider history might be, it is the people themselves who lived there before us, and their stories, that ‘echo through the corridors.’
(Picador, hardback, £20)