Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book Review: The Thread of Identity

The Thread of Identity. Explored through the 600 year story of the Ram family. Ronald Ram. Amberley Publishing. 2010. ISBN 978 1 84868 264 1.  448 pages (including appendices and index). £18.99

If family history is merely a collection of names then Ronald Ram disproves this by delving into the lives and background of his Essex ancestors from the Middle Ages to the turn of the twentieth century.  His were the ‘middling’ sort: farmers in Great Waltham, lawyers in Romford, merchants and clergymen.  It is not a book about one family but of society as a whole.  The book covers family, local and social history as well as psychology, religion and politics.  The appeal of ‘The Thread of Identity’ is that it works on several levels, and rather than being a single thread there are several threads which are woven into a story where the reader can select or otherwise aspects which appeal, and still be captured by the overarching story. 

Long life and few children, Mr Ram discovers, are key to the amassing and maintenance of family wealth.  He charts the misfortune of one branch through early death of family members.  There’s a wonderful passage where a man suffering from the plague in Romford calls out his last will and testament to a member of the Ram family standing in the street below his bedroom window.  Sometimes the detail of the ancestral lines can be confusing but, if left to one side, there remains much to admire. 

The work is well researched and evidenced, written from a personal perspective to encourage the reader to follow his or her own journey of discovery.  It is a book which I read from start to finish without distraction to another on the pending pile.  Unfortunately place names at times appear misspelled and, likewise, proof reading could have been much improved.  This is its single disappointment in that the finished work is less polished that it could have been.

Mr Ram’s concluding chapter encapsulates his theory and the thread itself.  He argues that society has become so centralised by bureaucracy that a notion of locally determined community has been lost.  It could be counter-argued that by omitting coverage of the twentieth century, where legislators changed the hierarchical structure of society for good, Mr Ram has omitted to explain how the Victorian vision of a “parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and improved” system of local government can be unwound and roles in the local community re-established.  Britain in the second decade of the twenty-first century will grapple with a realignment of political and social values as a consequence of radical reductions in public spending, announced just after publication of the book.  “This is a book to set you thinking about how we live our lives”, the author writes on the back cover.  This book opens the debate and is of its time, if not ahead of its time.  A history book which looks forward is a revelation.

This item first appeared in ‘Transactions’ Series 4, Volume 1

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