I recently heard a talk on ‘tact’ by Edmund de Waal, ceramicist and author of the best-selling and prizewinning family history The Hare with the Amber Eyes.
De Waal pointed out that the word ‘tact’ comes from the Latin tactus, touch (hence tactile) – a connection I had never made before. According to the OED, tact did indeed have this meaning in seventeenth-century English and but by the mid-nineteenth had developed its commonly understood meaning of ‘a ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence or to win good will.’
De Waal was trained to make ‘tactful’ pottery that fitted in without drawing great attention to itself. However, he found himself limited by this – frustrated by ‘not being able to raise one’s voice’ – and therefore developed his own distinctive style of pottery that has presence whilst also being unobtrusive.
De Waal defined tactlessness as crossing a boundary in the wrong way – intruding or crashing in on someone’s personal space. We have probably all been offended at some point by the tactlessness of others.
Writing a family history does of course involve intruding on the lives of others, some of them long dead, with no right of reply. De Waal raised these questions in relation to the writing of The Hare with the Amber Eyes. How do you respect the complexity of the lives of others? How do you avoid falling into the trap of nostalgia and skating over difficult areas on the one hand, while still being ‘tactful’?
There are no easy answers, and De Waal himself pointed out that some of the best family memoirs, such as Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood are in fact deeply ‘tactless’ books!
It’s something that everyone writing a family history must wrestle with. What are your experiences?