When Peter Sanders told his family that he was planning this history there were varying reactions. His Aunt Mary told him 'We all come from the gypsies'. She also told him 'I hope you finish this book before I conk out'. For non-members of the family this is a superb book, the most impressive history of an 'ordinary family' that I have ever read. It has been well worth waiting for . As you read it, the book speaks for itself. The story unfolds in proper chronological order from the beginning to the end, and in every chapter there are new scenes and new relationships. It spans three centuries and, like all histories, ends unfinished. The author knows not only about his own family, but about family history as a whole and the different approaches to it. He is fully aware, therefore, of the bearings of his subject and of the complex relationships between the history of one particular family and of local and national social history. For this reason, then, readers will turn to this book who are interested less in the details of the Sanders family than in the history of Essex and Bethnal Green and of class, politics and religion.
They will learn much, for in dealing with all these topics it is wiser to begin from the ground and work upwards than to look down at the ground from above. The author's own education at Oxford is a kind of indicative landmark in his family's history. When he won a place there to read Greats, his mother was overwhelmed with pride and his father told his friends 'I never thought that one of mine would go there'. For them, education was 'a strange and unfamiliar land, full of signposts to places whose existence and importance they had to take on trust', and when they talked of their own education it was 'as if they were relating their experiences in some remote foreign country which they had visited in their youth and which they had never seen again'. Clearly the experience of Peter Sanders has been quite different. If he had not followed the route he knows so well, this book would most likely never have appeared at all. Throughout emphasis is placed on experience, and the experience encompassed in these pages is broad enough to suggest that although it is an 'ordinary family' which is under review there are several extraordinary features about it.
The evidence is restricted - there are for example, few family photographs - but it is adequate to open many doors that have long since been closed and many windows that for generations have been shuttered. Family history has a future. It thrives on curiosity and it arouses great interest as the forgotten past is recovered. This book is more than a case study. It provides a model for any other family historian seeking to trace the intricate patterns of continuity and change.
Dr Peter Sanders studied African history and literature at Oxford, going on to write several books on the subject. He also spent time at the Ministry of Defence before becoming Chief Executive of the Commission for Racial Equality. He lives in Stansted, Essex.