Swimming in a Sea of Newsprint by Matthew Kerry

Adverts for rubber studs for clogs. A village festival to celebrate the installation of street lighting. The raffling of a parrot.[1] I’m sure most historians would agree that the printed press is one of the richest sources available for trying to get to grips with the past. Six months ago, I turned my attention to the newspapers of Asturias as part of my research for my thesis on the lived experience of the Spanish Second Republic (1931-1936). Previously I’d concentrated on other source material, such as judicial cases and the meetings of municipal council meetings. I’d thought that the newspapers would provide rich and extensive material for my thesis, provide a sort of window onto past society (even if the view is only of what the newspaper itself published) and some notion of narrative structure. And it has done so.

But not only this, the experience of six months of trawling chronologically and systematically through newspapers has made me reflect on History more deeply.

Flag of the Asturias.

Flag of the Asturias. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When delving into the past, you generally have an idea of the broad scope of what is going on – like a bad crime novel you know what’s going to happen in the end. Writing history is a process of writing the past from the present while working through newspapers chronologically means going the other way, and has made me more sensitive to the pulses of time, the rise and fall of crises and the ripple effects of events, as well as the jarring shocks of sudden happenings. In this way it’s easier to track the waves of strikes in Asturias during the 1930s, the rise of language and concepts and their fall into disuse, in addition to the steady stream of reports of scientific, literary and political talks at cultural centres that provided a steady rhythm and structure to not only my research but the lives of the people I study.

More than this, History, when condensed into neat uniform lines in 300-page books or 30-page articles, is a condensed, combed and altogether cleaner interpretation of the past.  The messiness of the past has been smoothed into a (hopefully) clear and coherent narrative: errors, conflicting reports and misinformation are removed and rectified as far as possible as sources are compared with one another.

Of course, this is the imperative of concision; the process of condensation – it’s not possible to describe all of the nitty-gritty details of the past and it would be impossible to actually describe the totality of any one moment. The vast quantity of information about different events and developments, and the simultaneity of them, highlight this difficulty and have made me think hard about what to prioritise for my thesis and what will unfortunately but necessarily have to be left out.

Sometimes I feel that working my way through reams and reams of newspapers is like swimming in the open sea towards land. There are deep troughs between the waves; currents drag me off course; I catch glimpses of the sky and can try to imagine what the perspective is like from above. The privilege of writing from the present means I already know what I’ll find on the approaching horizon, making me appreciate the journey along the way all the more.

 [1] All from El Noroeste, a republican newspaper printed in Gijón, which covered the northern Spanish province of Asturias.

Matthew Kerry is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. He studies the coalfield communities of Asturias in northern Spain during the Second Republic (1931-1936). He concentrates on the construction and articulation of radical political identities, and the formation and interaction of different communities during these tumultuous years.

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