Re-writing, Re-thinking and Re-singing History by Boff Whalley

That lad at the back of the class, slumped on one elbow and looking out of the window, bored to distraction during a three-hour lesson, that’s me. Last thing on a Friday, an entire afternoon of history. The teachers get to take it in turns, splitting their histories into two; one does the first hour-and-a-half (British) and one the second (European). Most of us just slump and doodle, yawn and fidget. I still have a heavily-defaced textbook somewhere that was so scribbled-on I didn’t dare hand it in.

History. Palmerston, Gladstone, the War of Jenkins’ Ear. 1848, the “turning point in history on which history failed to turn”. Robespierre, the Factory Acts, Bismarck, the repeal of the Corn Laws. All a big jumble of names and dates stuffed like bingo balls into a bag, unconnected and random.

The curly-haired, lanky idiot who taught me European History – his only saving grace was his unintentionally hilarious pronunciation of French and German phrases (I still can’t say the word ‘bourgeoisie’ without hearing the echo of his gorgeously clunky “bore-gee-oy-sey”) – let me know before my final exams that my chances of passing were nil. Not even, “unless you pull your socks up”. Just, “Let’s face facts, Whalley – you’re going to fail.”

Half a decade after leaving school, I began to discover history for myself, started to understand and enjoy it. I stayed in Paris and learnt about the 1968 student revolution, following its tread backwards into 200 years of rebellion and uprising. Back in Britain I began to read about the local, northern English rebellions; the Chartists, the Luddites, Coiners, Suffragettes; Peterloo, Jarrow, the Manchester Martyrs. It was fascinating, relevant, exciting stuff. How could school have presented history as so dry, so tepid, so irrelevant? Suddenly I was connecting the places I knew about with their histories, linking today’s political landscape with a vibrant political past. The mind-numbing roll-call of Kings, Queens and Prime Ministers started to make a little more sense now, if only as a backdrop to the thriving and fermenting history of working people, of scientific advancement, of cultural and artistic innovation.

Boff Whalley at The Big Bookend 2013
Boff Whalley at The Big Bookend 2013

When I started to write songs, and much later, theatre, I turned to history. It felt neither dutiful nor boring to delve back into the colour and life of the past now that I’d worked out that history was simply our collected stories as well as theirs, that history could be made enjoyable and lively.

Now, thankfully, kids have got Horrible Histories and industrial museums full of buttons and switches and dressing-up boxes, and thanks to some great historians we’re beginning to reclaim the idea of history as being about the everyday lives and struggles of ordinary people (who, we often discover, are far more extraordinary than the decadent Royals who dominate the history books).

Wrong 'Un
Wrong ‘Un

And the beautiful thing about history is that, once I started to dig around, I always found more than I bargained for. When I started to research the suffragette movement for the play, ‘Wrong ‘Un’ – a one-woman play with songs – I had what I believed to be a fairly thorough knowledge of the fight for suffrage; the Pankhursts, Emily Wilding Davison, the campaigns and arrests, imprisonment and force-feeding, and eventually the granting of the vote to women. But, book by book, I discovered events and debates I had no idea about, women whose stories are seldom told, ideas and politics that have been purposely submerged and overshadowed by ‘official’ myths. I discovered, in short, a history beneath the history.

Daft as it might sound (especially in light of that slumped and bored lad back in school), these discoveries – revelations found on the way back into history – make me practically giddy with excitement. For suddenly what I do isn’t just a re-telling of the past (with added jokes and music, of course) but hopefully a new story, a new version of what we accept as the truth. Theatre and song as a starting point to discovering what really happened, and why. It means I get to fall in love with history all over again, only this time it’s a history I didn’t already know.

In the case of Wrong ‘Un,  I ended up learning vital and surprising parts of suffragette history that coloured not only the play but also the way I viewed the fight for women’s suffrage. It’s no less important or resonant – but to me at least it makes more sense. I won’t go into what those discoveries might be, I’d rather you went and saw the play (obviously). But as a teaser, I’ll leave this blog with the historical note that contrary to popular myth, women didn’t, in fact, get the vote at the end of the First World War in 1918.

Boff Whalley’s Wrong ‘Un had its world premiere at the Big Bookend 2013. It returns later this month to the City Varieties, Leeds for two nights only, on Thursday 23rd and Friday 24th January as part  of Red Ladder’s Songs of Solidarity, Suffrage and Strength. It really is not to be missed.

Annie Wilde, played by Ella Harris, in Red Ladder Theatre's production of Wrong 'Un.
Annie Wilde, played by Ella Harris, in Red Ladder Theatre’s production of Wrong ‘Un.
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