Saturday, 3 April 2010

On pseudohistories

I just made it into the local paper with the Express & Echo story "Town 'guide' has residents fuming" concerning my spoof town guide Secret Topsham. Quoting:

One critic, who asked not to be named: "The whole thing is extremely distasteful. It is not in the spirit of Topsham people—we are not like that.

"On Saturday there was a couple visiting Topsham complete with a Secret Topsham quiz they had downloaded from the internet.

"The couple were upset when they realised they had been tricked—disgusted, I think, was the expression used."

A spot of context for those who've come here in response to that story. I maintain the official Topsham website as well as the unofficial "Topsham Ten" page. I also run the weblog for the Devon History Society and co-maintain the Topsham Museum website. From this it should be abundantly clear that I think Topsham's a brilliant place, and that I'm also keen on history.

My short response is exactly as I was quoted in the paper (though I don't recall saying exactly those words): "It is really just taking a friendly poke by someone who loves the town at some of the more formal guides you see."

But of course it's more complex than that. Amateur local history, as an activity and genre - and I'm talking about everywhere, not just Topsham - has a number of foibles. It tends to enshrine concrete anecdote over the often fuzzy reality, and accept personal testimony uncritically. It seizes on the most tenuous connections to famous persons. It likes its history airbrushed: local persons are always worthy, social unrest and the grittiness of the historical past ignored. Like all histories, it reflects the social biases of its compilers (in the case of local history, usually older middle-class people). And it takes itself far too seriously.

Some of these I had in mind as applicable to Topsham. The Vivien Leigh connection, for instance, is an example of the 'famous person' syndrome; she never lived in Topsham, and the only connection is that she was married for five years to someone from the town. But these are far more widespead foibles characteristic of local guide pamphlets, websites and advertorial articles for many towns and villages, and Secret Topsham is satirising the 'local anecdote' format in general.

Anyone who feels "disgusted" after falling for a hoax or satire they found on the Internet should look to the origin of that feeling. This is all about cognitive dissonance, the discomfort that comes from taking on an idea, then having to radically revise it. It's easier to blame the originator than accept responsibility for believing something uncritically - despite it being well-known that the Internet is full of misinformation - then realising your mistake.

Secret Topsham is full of impossibilities, tall stories, joke names, an unlikely concentration of famous connections, and even a link to the famously fictious Dunchideock Treacle Mines. It's hard to see how anyone could believe it for more than a moment.

Addendum: further to discussions in the comments, I just found Granite State of Mind, Christian Wisecarver's lovely parody that transplants Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind to portray New Hampshire as a seething metropolis.

- Ray

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