The history we’re told is generally the history of the good and the great. The history of kings and queens, of the powerful and the wealthy. Important historical figures rarely struggle to find someone to tell their story, and the self-important are all too ready to tell their own. If you want a lesson in hubris, walk into any bookshop in the country and check out the cut-price offerings from former politicians or celebs who’ve gone from household name to remainder pile before the ink is dry on the page.
Personally, I’ve always had a far greater passion for stories about people who live on the margins of society, who dwell in the footnotes of history. People who are all but invisible, and all too easily forgotten. At a time when our society seems to consider the installation of spikes on areas of paving to be an acceptable response to the problem of homelessness, telling these stories seems more important than ever.
Poetry – despite what Jeremy Paxman thinks – has a rich tradition of passing on hidden history, of keeping radical and dissenting voices alive. At the start of this week I was lucky enough to be at a poetry event in London where one of the poets read a piece about a woman called Kate Sharpley, the woman who threw her medals at Queen Mary, wife of George V.
It was 1917. Kate was 22. Her father, brother, and boyfriend had all been killed in a war they’d been told would be over by Xmas, and Queen Mary was visiting the East End to hand out medals to plucky, grieving families. To people like Kate, whose expected role was to meekly and gratefully accept a mouthful of platitudes and a handful of gongs as some kind of recompense for her loss.
But when Kate was given her medals, she threw them back in Queen Mary’s face, shouting “If you like them so much, you can have them!” The royal visage was scratched. Royal blood flowed. This was not the done thing. Not. At. All. For not knowing her place, for daring to question the order of things, for failing to bottle up her grief and her rage and her politics, Kate Sharpley was dragged away by police, thrown in a cell, and beaten so badly that when she was released – without charge – four days later, her friends barely recognised her.
I wonder if the police who beat Kate Sharpley believed they were teaching her the British Values of tolerance, democracy, and individual liberty which Michael Gove seems so keen to promote. Perhaps they did. After all, Gove’s proposals seem aimed more at garnering some kind of knee-jerk support based on nationalistic prejudice than on actually trying to help create a more tolerant society.
Maybe it would be an idea for someone in a position of power – the Secretary of State for Education, perhaps – to get Kate Sharpley’sstory told in schools to set that right. To celebrate our history of dissent and show a little humility when it comes to our record on tolerance.