Ex Libris Stuart Hall

Housman’s Radical Bookshop

I was in London on Saturday for The Shadow Chancellor’s State of the Economy Conference.

A very worthy event and one that was well worth going to. However, there was somewhere else in London that I was if anything even keener to go to.

In a gesture at once highly commendable and deeply poignant, Catherine Hall recently donated much of Stuart Hall’s personal library to Housman’s Radical Bookshop in King’s Cross. Clinging on in a long gentrified part of central London’s, once scuzzy and alternative fringe, Housman’s is well worth a visit in of itself. Acting as a social and community space for the far-left as well as a bookshop its ramshackle (and highly affordable) array of stock could be happily perused for hours. My personal favourite is the gloriously archaic racks of revolutionary periodicals, which see dozens of densely written journals of theoretically Marxist economics, jostle with the kind of thin Trotskyite tabloid that dimly harks back to agitprop, before doubtless putting aside their sectarian differences to turn on the single sheet A4 anarchist newsletters.

Aware that the Stuart Hall collection had been on display for the best part of a fortnight and was being avidly bought up by other critical and cultural theory aficionados. I went down early to tried and get in before the conference kicked off at 11:00, only to find that Housman’s opens at the oh so civilised hour of 10:00.

Books on Display

Luckily for me, as the Conference-held at Imperial College-characteristically significantly overran; it also adheres to Marx’s dictum that evenings are “for criticising” staying open until 18:30.

I finished my journey on the Piccadilly Line just before 18:00 and hurried over to the Caledonian Road, dashing down to the basement rooms, where I’d heard that the Hall collection was on display. In keeping with the spirit of the bequest, that the books be returned to readers to inspire new thoughts; Housman’s had decided upon two price brackets for the books £1.00 for old text books, journals and other reference type works and £3.00 for newer, more popular in style, or else more significant books.

Deeply intrigued by the chance to see what had been on the bookcase of arguably Britain’s most significant post-second world war theorist, as well as admittedly, the rather morbid-and arguably “pre-modern”-desire to snag a relic, I hurriedly flicked through the titles on display. I Paused when I came across something that seemed especially noteworthy or significant. Hall’s copy of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism jumped out at me, as did several reference works on communications theory and the mass media. Significant journals also caught my eye the New Review, New Left Review, tattered and faded early issues of History Workshop Journal were stacked alongside institutional and sociological pamphlets.

Ex Libris Stuart Hall

As an archeologist of knowledge my approach was arguably more Time Team than “raising the Mary Rose” in terms of technique and finesse, however, I managed to glean a few interesting things from what I saw of Stuart Hall’s library.

Like so many of us, probably through shear absent mindedness, Stuart Hall was better at borrowing books that returning them! A strikingly large number of the books that I flicked through had institutional nameplates in them, usually the distinctive imprint of the University of Birmingham’s library services (like the copies of David Morley’s work on the Nationwide audience [see below], which will come in handy with my research), although some-later books and papers-had come from the Open University. They were obviously borrowed, in an era long before computerised library systems, and simply lost track of.

Nationwide

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

UoB Library Plate

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

It wasn’t just institutional books that Stuart Hall had the occasional habit of acquiring through extended loan. In my quick look through I came across several books bearing the names of Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies students whose work I am familiar with (and possibly several students whose names I didn’t recognise). At least one book was inscribed with Chas Critcher’s name, whilst several appeared to have once belonged to John Clarke, including a 1971 edition of Edwin M. Schur’s Labelling Deviant Behaviour: The Sociological Implications (which you can see below).

Labeling Deviant Behaviour

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

The long running generosity, both intellectual and material, of one of my family members has given me pause for thought of late. And meant that I’ve recently been reflecting on the significance of books owners and their interactions with texts (stay tuned for more on this very soon).

Libraries: Networks not Appendages

Arguably this is what historians, even more than other humanities scholars, especially in the popular imagining of them; are supposed to do. However, I’ve always been a little bit sceptical. It has always seemed to my mind akin to the ridiculous liberal veneration of the “artist” and their “unique sensibility”, a negation of the collective structures of support and significance that enable scholars to go about doing what they do.

That said these old tropes are always hard to escape from and it would be the height of arrogance to insist that they have no purchase upon you. Just look at me tearing over to King’s Cross, in search of a book signed Stuart Hall, like an archetypal medieval yokel on pilgrimage, or an 18th Century forbear questing for a handkerchief dipped in the blood of an executed man. Full disclosure I did manage to find one

Football on TV frontpage

Football on Television Front Cover, Josh Allen’s picture

 

Football on TV Monograph

Football on Television inside cover, Josh Allen’s picture

I also first hand, in a way that previously I’d grasped in theory, but not practice, what our reading matter and the way that we interact with it and the reading matter of others can illuminate. Stuart Hall’s jumbled library comprising books that he purchased or was given, enhanced and supplemented through using the libraries of institutions that he was associated with and drawing upon the collections of friends and students, taken collectively, paints a picture of an intellectual who far from being an island or a lone intelligence, was plugged into a network of colleagues and co-conspirators, both flesh and blood and in the form of texts, that were absolutely essential to his practice.

This is what makes the Housman’s sale the perfect memorial to a life that was spent interacting with others, shaping them, their politics, their practice; and in turn being shaped by them. Far from being, as in the backdrop to thousands of academic, critical and literary portrait photos, a marker of status, or “the master’s tools”. Our libraries and their contents are markers of group and collective identity which showcase and enable collaboration and collective self-fashioning.      

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Sam Wetherell-University of California, Berkeley

“…the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I was lucky to be able to catch up Sam Wetherell (currently at UC Berkeley, soon to be at Columbia University). He explained how politics informs his approach to exploring and attempting to re-plot our understanding of urban Britain’s recent past and boldly grappled with one of most amorphous terms in contemporary social discourse: “neo-liberal”.

What is your background?

I spent my formative teenage years living in Milton Keynes. During this time I did most of my socialising in the town’s shopping mall (now branded “thecentre:mk”), attending a comprehensive school that was formally sponsored by Yahama keyboards and living in a high density apartment complex called (wait for it) “Enterprise Lane.” In other words I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!

I half-heartedly studied History at Oxford as an undergraduate, never really latching onto a topic that I loved. Afterwards I briefly worked for the Labour Party, before spending a year on a fellowship at Harvard. After another year spent in the wilderness, working at a second hand bookstore in Boston and then, later, for an unpleasant lobbying firm in the UK, I began my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley. I completed my dissertation this year and from next semester I’ll be working as a visiting lecturer in British history at Columbia University.

“…I have lived every word of my dissertation on neo-liberal British cities!”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I decided that I wanted to be an academic long before I decided that I wanted to be an urban historian. I’d always loved ideas and loved writing but for a long time I couldn’t work out what I wanted to study. For me there were two stages to discovering what I wanted to write about. First, I took an American urban history graduate class at Harvard with Lizabeth Cohen, which exposed me, for the first time, to people such as Jane Jacobs, Margaret Crawford, Michel De Certeau, and Mike Davis – as well the fantastic historical literature on American postwar cities (including Thomas Sugrue’s work on Detroit and Robert Self’s works on Oakland). Living in London and in Boston I was exposed to large cities for the first time and (probably naively) associated them with freedom and adulthood.

“I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do…”

The second important stage for me was discovering left wing politics and activism in my early twenties. In 2011 I returned to the UK after a year and a half in America to find a Conservative government in power and a sense of generalized post-2008 crisis. I became involved in groups like UK Uncut and tried to teach myself as much about economics as possible. I’ve tried to maintain a political perspective in everything that I do and it was the wedding of this new interest in cities with a new investment in politics at this crucial juncture when I was applying for graduate schools that really determined my topic and informed my last five years of scholarship.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Like most graduate students/early career folks I’m left trying to carve out a theoretical niche on the back of a cannon of wonderful yet radically contradictory texts. In terms of urban history my go-to texts would be Carl Schorske’s essay on Vienna, William Cronin’s Nature’s Metropolis, Lizabeth Cohen’s work on New Deal Chicago, Doreen Massey’s For Space, Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s Disenchanted Night (the greatest history book ever written?), David Harvey’s work on Paris and of course the wonderful first few chapters of Engel’s Conditions of the Working Class in England. All of these say different things at different political and theoretical registers but all would be central to any class I would teach on urban history!

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward.”

There’s that lovely line by John Maynard Keynes that we are all the slaves to some defunct economist. What I’d like to show in my work is how our daily lives unfold in cities and among buildings that were designed and built during times that are radically different to our own. That the houses we live in, the routes we take to work, the buildings in which we buy our coffee and our shoes, were often built by planners and architects whose political assumptions and anthropological claims have long since been deemed to be defunct. This seems obvious but I’m endlessly struck by the capacity of the built environment to freeze political moments in space and project them forward. What I love about the built environment is that it works at this meso level – between structure and agency and between high politics and spontaneous grass roots movements or individual instances of self-fashioning. Academically I hope my work allows people to periodise British history differently (escaping the endlessly rehearsed stories of 1945-51 and 1979-90). Politically I hope it offers an alternative (or at least supplementary) road map for political change – one that is isn’t trapped by the endless question of whether the left should throw its lot into the doomed process of winning un-winnable elections in a given nation state or the equally impossible challenge of forging a new hegemony or governmentality!

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“What I found while writing my dissertation… is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond”

My dissertation is ostensibly about the transformation of the British built environment in the last third of the twentieth century, looking at five case studies (or “pilot zones” as I call them): the enterprise zone, the national garden festival, the housing estate, the shopping centre and the business park. What I found while writing my dissertation, however, is that each of these case studies has a prehistory that stretches back well into the twentieth century, and sometimes beyond, and in each chapter I found myself writing as much about the pre-history of these spaces as about their actual emergence.

I’m loathe to say exactly how I’m going to transform the dissertation into a book, just because I know it will change along the way, but at the moment I’m hoping to incorporate this prehistory and extend the thesis into a book about British cities from the late nineteenth century to the present. In the book I want to ask how we get from the individual home/house to the vast modernist housing estate to the private gated community. Next I want to ask how you get from the individual factory enterprise to the government managed trading estate to the private, suburban business park. Finally I want to trace the development of the unplanned sprawling high street to the state-planned shopping precinct to the private, out of town megamall.

On a very general note: how have you found the experience of studying British history through a university in the USA?

I have absolutely loved my time at Berkeley, to the point where people no longer let me talk to new admits who are considering coming (because I seem too optimistic and happy – and in America that’s saying something!). While the idea of flying across the world to study the place that you set out from seemed mad (and still seems a little mad) I think there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance. Almost all of my friends or colleagues know almost nothing about Britain, so you have to think on a large, global scale to make your work relevant. Furthermore you are forced to study, teach and read hundreds of books, not just  just about all of British history since 1688, but also a second field (in my case US history since European contact) too.

“…there is a lot to be said for studying Britain at a distance…you have to think on a large, global scale…”

There are definitely downsides too of course. Being forced to think big means you lose a lot of detail and sometimes end up getting excited about claims that are frustratingly self-evident to those working in Britain. I always love going to conferences and meeting other British historians working on cities and being amazed by the detail of their knowledge and how their work is made immediate and relevant by being immersed in the world that they are historicizing. Also, while the three-year programs in Britain (compared with the six-year programs in the US) feel rushed, you come out of it younger and fresher and with the job market being what it is, doing a 3 year UK PhD is less of a risk!

What alternatives were there to the “neo-liberal” city in the 1970s and 1980s and why did these alternatives fail?

This question cuts to the heart of the ceaselessly awful issue of how one defines neoliberalism. Is neoliberalism a set of policies implemented by governments in the 1970s and 80s? Or is it a hegemony or a rationality or even an epoch (like the Late Medieval period)? I think the term can be used productively to mean all of these things as long as we are clear what we mean each time we use it. I think a lot of the best theorists of neoliberalism (Michel Foucault, Stuart Hall, Wendy Brown, Pierre Dardot) would take the latter of those two definitions, and would answer your question by arguing that neoliberalism left almost no ideological room for constructing alternatives. If neoliberalism is a rationality, or a set of claims about the world that have become commonsensical, then it’s a difficult thing to oppose, act outside of and construct alternatives to.

“I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure.”

For this reason I might rephrase your question to ask what the alternatives were to the privatization and securitization of space and infrastructure, and the re-orientation of cities as engines for attracting global capital and rather than providing services. The clearest alternative to this was the built environment that emerged out of late nineteenth century liberal reform and twentieth century social democracy, in other words the built forms that were transformed and re-negotiated in the late twentieth century. I think many people who are (rightly) critical of British cities today look back on this moment as a time of decent, affordable public housing, subsidized municipal transport networks, unregulated public space etc… etc… and see it as a workable alternative to the present. I’m less sure. While our present cities are a disaster, we also know that the British social democratic experiment was deeply flawed. Economically it was predicated on US Cold War spending and the residues of an increasingly repressive imperial world system. It was paternalistic and at times inhumane, a terrible place to be a woman or a person of colour. Its survival depended on an international monetary system that no longer exists. While, in the 1980s, the alternative to the neo-liberal city may have been tower blocks, trading estates, and a nationalized train network, the left now needs a bolder, more globally orientated vision. This is something Stuart Hall was arguing 30 years ago in the Hard Road to Renewal.

“One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city.”

I would also challenge the idea that the mid century British city “failed” as an alternative model. One of the things I learned writing this dissertation was the extent to which the urban forms developed in the heyday of state planning went on to structure or thwart the late twentieth century city. Local authorities struggled (and often failed) to price and sell individual council flats on estates, for example, because they were plugged into comprehensive, holistically planned worlds. Meanwhile the first shopping centres in Britain were state-run affairs in towns like Coventry, built to try and re-centre British cities around ideals of public space and assembly. In this sense, rather than “failing”, the social democratic city was sublimated, reconstituted and repressed.

For more about Sam and his work check out his UC Berkeley Department of History profile page and his Academia.edu profile, he can also be contacted through Twitter. For more urban historian profiles see here.

20110803 Coventry Cathedral Tower West Panoramic View [Pano4] Original

Coventry Cathedral Tower panormamic views, taken on 3rd August by Si (User:mintchociecream). This version released into the public domina via Wikicommons on 25 Aug 2011. West view-towards Broadgate

Sarah Kenny-University of Sheffield

“Many young people’s cultural experiences did not fit into the tightly defined and somewhat extreme lifestyle presented by subcultural theory and as a result of this their experiences have often been neglected.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban historians at work today, I catch up with the University of Sheffield’s Sarah Kenny. Sarah is working on a PhD exploring the evolution of youth culture in England’s urban north, specifically in Sheffield and Manchester.

What is your background?

I grew up in the Essex countryside before moving to study History at the University of Sheffield for my undergraduate degree. I was drawn to the history of British popular culture early on in my degree, writing about consumerism and pirate radio, before focusing my interests on Mod culture and the concept of ‘swinging London’. I stayed at the University to do an MA in Modern History, where I continued my research on Mod culture, and began my PhD here with Dr Adrian Bingham in 2013.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

Initially my research was focused on sixties Britain and Mod culture. My interest in this area was sparked after watching the 2009 film The Boat That Rocked. Having previously worked on the history of British media, the history of pirate radio was fascinating to me. I attempted (rather unsuccessfully!) to write an essay on pirate radio. After this I continued researching the ‘swinging sixties’ and began working on youth subcultures during the third year of my undergraduate. My MA dissertation was an in depth study of Mod culture in Sheffield and the ideas and approach of my MA dissertation formed the basis for my thesis.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

The work of historians such as Penny Summerfield, Kate Fisher and Simon Szreter were, and remain, particularly influential to my work. Oral and personal history has become an important part of my research, and their work encouraged me to question dominant historical narratives, and to appreciate the complexities of personal narratives. Although not linked to my research, the writing of Arthur Marwick has been hugely influential. His writing style was accessible without losing the complexity of argument or historical analysis and this is something I try to achieve in my own work.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

That the history of ‘ordinary’ lives and experiences can be, and should be (where possible), central to the way we write and research cultural and social history. Although less visible in the archives, it is the experiences of the everyday- where you work, where you socialise, what you do at a weekend, how you spend your evenings, how you chose to spend your income, etc.- that has made up much of the fabric of human experience in the modern period.

“…the history of ‘ordinary’ lives and experiences can be, and should be… central to the way we write and research cultural and social history.”

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“…I became interested in the ‘everyday’ experience of subculture…”

When I began researching youth cultures and subcultures I was drawn to the spectacle of groups such as Mods and Punks. As the majority of the writing about these groups was based in London, I was interested to see if, and how, these cultures manifested themselves in other cities. As the portrayal of these groups seemed so different to my own experiences as a teenager, I wanted to ask the question: ‘How were they different from everybody else?’ After doing a case study of Mod culture in Sheffield during my MA I found that youth cultural experiences were fluid, and many people engaged with elements of subculture, without necessarily identifying as Mods or Punks, etc. This encouraged me to question the notion of cultural authenticity and the very central role it plays in defining what is, and is not, subcultural and, by extension, who it is that decides what is ‘authentic’. As a result of this I became interested in the ‘everyday’ experience of subculture, and from there the role of space in the development of patterns of behaviour and lifestyle choices.

“…youth cultural experiences were fluid, and many people engaged with elements of subculture, without necessarily identifying as Mods or Punks…”

Does your research lead you to think that there are specific local and regional dimensions to youth subcultures in post-war Britain?  

To a very limited extent. My research focuses only on licensed and legal venues and while there were underground networks of young people hosting events in towns and cities across the country, the vast majority of young people did not encounter them. The types of venues and spaces available to young people impacted how they spent their leisure time and this varied from city to city. Similarly, large cities will have provided access to a larger and more varied range of spaces for young people compared to those found in a smaller town. Other factors such as politics and the local economy will also impact how people experienced youth culture in different areas. While access to different forms of youth culture may have varied I would be hesitant to argue that there were significant differences in the types of youth culture found across Britain. My research has not led me to believe that youth culture in Sheffield was particularly different or distinctive from other cities of a similar size.

“…while there were underground networks of young people hosting events in towns and cities across the country, the vast majority of young people did not encounter them.”

Are there any substantial changes in the way that youth subcultures form and express themselves across the time period that you study?

I think there’s a change in the way that people engaged with subcultures across the time period I study. Between the 1960s and the 1980s there was a significant change in the lifestyles of young people- staying out until 2:00 was commonplace by 1989 but this was not the case in Sheffield in 1960. This move towards evening entertainment coincided with the rise of bars and clubs aimed at young people in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1980s these spaces were diversifying, therefore enabling more young people to engage with a variety of different types of youth culture.

Do you have any sense of how representative the “official” (police, local authority, media etc.) reaction to youth sub-cultures was of the wider “adult” response to experimentation amongst young people?

“…my research interviews… suggest that parents were less outraged by teenage experimentation than other sources would suggest.”

In Sheffield much of the official reaction to more extreme forms of youth culture mirrored the national reaction. In the 1970s the Sheffield Star newspaper ran a series of front pages examining the rise of punk and the fight to get the Sex Pistols banned from performing at the City Hall. At the same time, the licensing magistrates had clamped down on the conditions of the licence of the Limit nightclub- one of Sheffield’s first alternative venues- citing obscene graffiti and unsanitary conditions. There were similar panics about the rise of skinheads in the late 1960s in the local media. Unfortunately my sources do not allow me to confidently say whether this was representative of the wider adult response, but my research interviews would suggest that parents were less outraged by teenage experimentation than other sources would suggest.

As a historian, how far have established sociological models that explain subculture formation helped or hindered you in your work?

“Many young people engaged with elements of a subculture without fully identifying as part of it.”

The work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham in the 1960s and 1970s has formed the basis of much of existing scholarship on subcultures. I would argue, as have other historians such as Sarah Thornton and Andy Bennett, that the model established by the CCCS is flawed in many aspects. It argues that subculture is a resistance against mainstream forms of youth culture, therefore making subculture and popular culture diametrically opposed. This is reflected in much of the writing about young people where the focus is either on subcultures or popular culture. In reality, the interaction between popular culture and alternative forms of culture is much more fluid. Many young people engaged with elements of a subculture without fully identifying as part of it. Subculture as a lifestyle was not possible for the vast majority of young people, yet a significant portion of the historical writing about youth culture in post-war Britain is focused on subcultural participants. Many young people’s cultural experiences did not fit into the tightly defined and somewhat extreme lifestyle presented by subcultural theory and as a result of this their experiences have often been neglected. My work hopes to bring the experiences of these young people to the fore.

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Image hosted on: Urban Trawl: Steel Yourself  

If you would like to find out more about Sarah and her research please check out her profile on the University of Sheffield website and on academia.edu. You can also follow her on Twitter.  For more urban historian profiles please click here.

 

 

“Global Urban History”, Freie Universität Berlin, a discussion with Michael Goebel

“…we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history.”

For the latest in my series on urban historians at work today, I was very lucky to be able to catch up with Michael Goebel, of Freie Universität Berlin; the  who edits and writes for the Global Urban History blog.

What is your background?

I grew up in Munich, Germany, and went to a secondary school right next to the city’s central station. So, although Munich is not huge, I come from a pretty urban environment and have never been much of a country person. But I’m not an urban historian by training. I did my PhD in history at University College London, with a thesis on the intellectual history of nationalism in postcolonial Argentina, so modern Latin America was my broader region of specialization. There were two distinct paths of how this has stirred my interest in urban history. First, whoever studies nationalism in Argentina cannot do without considering two factors: the importance of the country’s capital city (economically, culturally, politically, but also for the national imagination) and the history of European immigration, for which Buenos Aires again has always been the chief point of entry. Second, modern intellectual historians are almost always urban historians in one way or another, though usually without knowing or admitting it. And my interest in the intellectual history of Latin America eventually took me to study early twentieth-century Paris as a sort of cultural capital of Latin America. 

These two paths flowed together in my book Anti-Imperial Metropolis, which came out last year. The book eventually concentrated much more on immigrants to Paris from French colonies such as Algeria than on Latin Americans, but it brings together the social history of migration with an intellectual history of the roots of nationalism in Africa and Asia. These concerns also led me to look in more detail at the Parisian cityscape, the everyday social fabric of non-Europeans there, and their settlement patterns. In the course of this research I have grown more interested in the history of ethnic segregation in cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in particular in world regions outside the North Atlantic, for which there has been much less research so far. So in hindsight there were a few unforeseeable twists that took me where I am now.

What led you to decide to set up Global Urban History?

“…we noticed that urban history… has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus… on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing.”

Again, this comes out of a confluence of several factors. My first idea stemmed from this interest in the global history of ethnic segregation on which I had also taught a course in our MA in Global History here at the Freie Universität Berlin. Given the changes that digitisation has wrought on our discipline in recent years a topic such as ethnic segregation in cities seemed especially apt for the blog format, which is much more flexible, visual, and digital than our traditional ways of presenting our research. It’s also a topic of great concern for the public in Germany, Britain, the USA, and other countries at the moment. But it’s too narrow a concern for a blog with a hopefully wider readership. So I teamed up with a few great colleagues in urban history such as Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone, who I was lucky enough to find in my immediate surroundings here in Berlin. With them involved the blog quickly expanded topically.

Since we all work in the area of global history, we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history. At the same time, we noticed that urban history as an established field has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus more frequently on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing. This realization mutated into a sort of embryonic mission statement encouraging our readers to think more explicitly about how global history and urban history have related to one another in the past and should communicate in the future.

What do you hope that readers get from the blog?

“…we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.”

Ours is a pretty academic, i.e. not so journalistic or personal, blog. We first took other blogs, such as the Imperial & Global Forum based at the University of Exeter and the one of the Journal of the History of Ideas, as models to emulate. Accordingly, I suspect that our readership consists largely of academics, in particular historians, mostly based in Germany, the UK, and the United States. Yet some successful posts, such as one on colonial Mexico City, also attracted readers beyond academics in these countries. It’s not easy to strike a balance here between general accessibility, interest, and scholarly specialization.

In accordance with our initial ideas we hoped to attract a great deal of sophisticated theoretical and programmatic reasoning about what we saw as the missing link between urban and global history, presented in accessible language and adorned with fancy pictures. Then the nitty-gritty of everyday management kicked in. If you have a blog with no or very few followers, yet hope to get brilliant and famous people on a terribly busy schedule writing for you, there is a mismatch in what you are asking and what you can offer. So in the first place you have to position your blog as a platform for the dissemination of the research of your contributors. Then, if you call yourself global, you want to cover different world regions once in a while, but you also want both male and female authors, senior academics and PhD students. If you take into account all of these factors, you run the risk of becoming what from the outside looks like a random cabinet of curiosities about aspects of the history of particular cities spread over the globe; a little bit like The Guardian’s series on the “Story of Cities,” which of course generates much more traffic than our little site.

At its best, this sensitizes our readers to the huge global variations in the urban experience. And we do hope that our readers get this from our blog. But this doesn’t amount to generating a programmatic discussion about where and how global and urban history should intersect. So we decided to flank this format of presenting contributors’ empirical research with a few other formats, such as book reviews and, soon to come, a conversation between leading urban historians about their relationship with global history. In the medium term, we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.

What would you say are the key scholarly benefits of taking a global approach to studying urban history?

“the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization… in the decades before and after 1900… the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.”

This question can be approached from the angle of urban history and from the angle of global history. Beginning with the first, one reason of why urban history is important is that an ever growing proportion of the world population lives in cities. Historically, people saw Europe and North America as the most urbanized regions of the world, where the great cities were located. Think of London and New York. In truth the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization mainly in the decades before and after 1900. Yet this was also the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.

Fast forward a century and most of today’s megacities are located in the Global South, a trend that will no doubt continue. This realization should really push urban historians to rethink how useful their conceptual tools are for studying the histories of, say, Manila or Lagos, which are different from that of Paris. I don’t think this discussion is as prominent in urban history as it should be. The same is true if you turn the tables: Many good urban historians of course, have always been aware that London and Liverpool would be unthinkable without the British Empire, but I don’t think this realization has had the effect of explicit and systematic reasoning about the role of the global in urban history that it should have.

Now if you approach the question from the opposite side, I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities. As Frederick Cooper, a historian of Africa, stresses, the history of global connections never proceeded evenly through geographic space, but was “lumpy.” That means some places on earth have much denser long-distance connections than others—port cities being the obvious case, to which a project at the University of Portsmouth is devoted. Global historians have been good at drawing attention to connections, but in doing so they are tempted to “overuse the network metaphor,” as the Princeton historian David Bell has complained. Grounding their empirical work in specific places such as cities can work as an antidote to this problem. It helps to make their work more tangible and testable. Looking in detail at the local nodal points of long-distance connections of the past may actually also tell us something new about the nature of historic globalization.

Finally, global history has a bit of a bias against social history in my opinion. This has to do with the biography of global history, which was midwifed by a generation of historians who reacted against the generation of social historians of the 1960s and their characteristic belief in large sets of serial data and “modernization. To an extent, urban history is a child of this social history of the 1960s, in which urbanization was considered a key ingredient of “modernization.” I think the fact that urban history and global history developed out of synch has generated a certain mutual mistrust that we should work to overcome.

“I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities.”

What would you say are the current key trends in the study of global urban history?

Global history per se has been the fastest expanding subfield of history during the last two decades, I think. Whereas fourteen years ago, when I began my PhD, I was under pressure to justify my decision to study Argentina as a German in the UK, today the onus is on those studying their own country’s past to uphold what they are doing—to a silly extent at times, I believe, when I see quite how apologetic today’s historians are if they don’t have “global” or “transnational” in their working titles. But for better or worse, urban historians have not remained unaffected by this trend, even if this is one of the more Eurocentric (or North Atlantic-centered) part of historical writing.

From what I can see, these broader trends have so far taken mostly the form of an expansion of research on cities in what today is called the Global South. I think of the work of Tim Harper, Su Lin Lewis, Carole Woodall, Emer O’Dwyer, and many others I can’t mention here. These are also the kind of people we admire and seek to approach for our blog.

Tellingly, however, in my impression most such historians do not present themselves as “urban historians in the first place. Instead they first recur to other labels to describe their work, geographic ones in particular, such as global history, Southeast Asian history, colonial history, or whatever their specialization may be precisely. There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure. Leicester University’s Centre for Urban History now produces more and more research on the history of cities in the Global South, while avowedly maintaining the label “urban history.” Carl Nightingale’s book on the global history of urban segregation would be another example. So there are exciting developments if you look for them, but on the whole I would argue that they are still too exceptional.

Is there any advice that you have for historians looking to work collaboratively across countries?

To have time at their hands and never underestimate the importance of language. For our blog—and many other projects we are involved in—it is nowadays commonplace to work with people in other countries. In my particular case, my academic upbringing was mostly outside of Germany anyway, having done a PhD about Argentina in the U.K. before going to Italy and spending a year in the US. But it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this. In choosing to produce an English-language blog in Germany, we also chose to lose potential German readers outside of academia. We will never attract many readers in Latin America. If I look at our followers on Twitter, the overwhelming majority are based in Britain and the US.

“…it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this.”

Conversely, it is difficult to find contributors outside of Anglophone academia. History is a literary discipline and a blog is the kind of format where you want to upload something that also sounds nice, so the level of English of potential contributors is something we constantly discuss among the editors, especially bearing in mind our own time constraints in proofreading. In history, national—or linguistically specific—markets also continue to shape the conceptual concerns and interests that scholars bring along, making it much harder to convey our approach and goals outside the core areas of our readership. On the other hand, if all your contributors and readers are in Germany, the UK, and the USA we really shouldn’t call this “global.” So we really try hard to keep an open mind for influences from beyond the English-speaking world, which is something global history should heed more generally given its tendency towards increasing monolingualism.

Is there any advice that you have for academics looking to create a blog like Global Urban History?

In my impression there are lots of people with great ideas, but the main danger for creating a new blog is that it becomes a flash in the pan. We were all enthusiastic in the beginning—and still are—but the everyday maintenance of the whole structure is arduous. On top of that we all have teaching and admin duties and we pursue our actual research, which means going to archives, reading other historians, and writing journal articles and books. So if you want to create a blog that lasts for a year or so and is meant to be read by a few more people than your closest friends, ask yourself how many hours per week you are able and willing to invest in the coming twelve months.

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Horacio CoppolaCÓPPOLA, H., PREBISCH, A. y ANZOÁTEGUI, I.: Buenos Aires 1936: visión fotográfica por Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires, Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1936 (editado en ocasión del cuarto centenario de la fundación de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1536-1936)

You can find out more about Michael Goebel, of Global Urban History; and his work from his page on the Freie Universität Berlin website. He is on Twitter as are his co-editors Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone . If you’d like to read more urban history profiles, please follow the link here. 

Nicola Blacklaws-University of Leicester

“…many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Leicester’s Nicola Blacklaws. Nicola is completing a PhD exploring the operation of the poor law in early 20th Century England and is heavily involved with the University of Leicester’s “New History Lab”, a support network for postgraduate researchers.

What is your background?

I’m originally from North Shropshire, although I lived in Germany and Cyprus as a kid (my mum taught in British Forces primary schools). After a gap year where I answered phones at my former secondary school, waitressed and flirted with the idea of joining the Royal Marines Band Service, I came to the University of Leicester to do my BA in History, and have been here ever since. I did an MA at Leicester’s Centre for English Local History, and started my PhD here in 2014, funded by a Midlands3Cities DTP studentship.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

Initially, quite a lot of luck. I happened to be allocated Keith Snell as my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, and in our first meeting he showed me an eighteenth-century settlement examination. This is a document that could be created when a person applied for poor relief, and often recorded the key features of a person’s life, including various places they had lived and worked and for how long. I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken, and that poor law sources could act as a window into the lives of individuals and families who otherwise don’t loom very large in the historical record.  I’ve since moved into the New Poor Law, focusing in particular the last 30 years of its life, from 1900 to 1930, which grabbed my interest largely because people are often so surprised that the poor law was still operating beyond the First World War!

“I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken…”

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

I aspire to Keith Snell’s rigorous use of both quantitative and qualitative material, and his clear, engaging writing. I return to the chapter in his book Parish and Belonging on outdoor relief over and over again. I also think of John Hatcher’s book The Black Death: An Intimate History often. It was the first micro-history I ever read, and I dream of bringing the places I study to life as vividly.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond…”

That the poor law isn’t quite as ancient history as we’re often led to believe, and there is no clear line separating it and the beginning of our modern welfare state. The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond, overlapping with reforms we often see today as the beginnings of state-provided welfare. I’d also like it to fly the flag for the importance of local context. Finally (and perhaps most ambitiously), I’d hope that it invites readers to consider current debates about poverty and welfare in their historical contexts. To paraphrase something I heard Simon Szreter say in an interview, welfare systems are not historically a luxury that we give ourselves when we’re doing particularly well, something that we can cut back when the going gets tougher – they’re an integral ingredient of successful advanced societies.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

I’ve definitely become more flexible in terms of the sources I feel like I need to do a decent case study. When I first started my PhD I had very high standards regarding the kinds of sources that had to survive before I would consider a union for case study status – my supervisors eventually had to talk me down from that! I think I’ve also become more interested in the actual ending of the poor law – what did its ending, and the transfer of authority to Public Assistance Committees, actually look like on the ground? Did guardians and paupers feel like they were coming to the ‘end of an era’? How did the approaching termination of the system impact on day-to-day operations? I haven’t fully answered these questions yet, but I’m going to get there eventually!

What factors do you think principally influenced the differing ways in which the 20th Century poor law was administered in various locales?

“The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked…”

Oh, there are so many potential factors! Perhaps most obviously, the economic conditions in a region could be hugely influential. Downturns in key regional industries could put enormous strain on local poor law resources, as in places like Staffordshire in the 1920s. Density of population could also play a role – how well did the poor law officers know the poor they were dealing with? It’s been argued, and I think I agree, that if a relieving officer had more of an established relationship with a pauper, they might be less likely to offer them ‘harsher’ relief options like entry into the workhouse. Local politics could be impactful as well, as could individual unions’ relationship with the central authorities – the Local Government Board at the beginning of the period, and the Ministry of Health from 1919. The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Was there much local campaigning to influence the decisions made by poor law guardians during your period?

The local press were often very interested in poor law goings-on – there were often reporters at guardians’ board meetings, and guardians were usually keen to avoid public controversy. For instance, one Leicestershire board of guardians had a very fractious relationship with one of their vaccination officers in the early 1900s – he actually took the board to court multiple times over non-payment of expenses – and both the guardians and the LGB were conscious that the conflict reflected poorly on the union. Another example that comes to mind is from a Staffordshire board who were obliged during the First World War to investigate claims that the bodies of paupers who had died in the workhouse were not being properly shrouded. There are explicit references in the minutes to the coverage the issue had attracted in the press. So many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!

Postgraduate study (especially in the humanities) can be lonely. How do you think that having a forum like New History Lab benefits researchers?

“Building a support network of other postgrads is… crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing.”

You’re absolutely right that MAs and PhDs in the humanities have the potential to be SO isolating, especially if you don’t have an office or workspace to go to every day. Building a support network of other postgrads is, I think, crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing. New History Lab gives our researchers a guaranteed space every fortnight where you can turn up, eat some cake (in itself therapeutic) and meet other people going through the same processes as you. I started going along to Lab events when I was doing my MA, and some of the people I met there became really good friends, who are often the first people to hear about my PhD-related triumphs and tribulations. I see the connections you can make in forums like the Lab as, in a lot of ways, more valuable than the ‘networking’ we’re often encouraged to attempt in more formal settings with more senior academics, which can feel cold, manipulative and stressful. As the Lab is run almost entirely by postgraduate students (we do have a staff representative on our committee as well), we can also design programmes of events that cater explicitly to postgraduates. We can both expose people to interesting corners of history other than their own field of study (it can be easy to forget there are other people working on other things out there!), and organise events that speak to specific concerns of postgraduate life. The last two terms, for instance, have included Clare Anderson on getting your first article published and Matt Houlbrook on blogging as a historian, as well as talks about Star Wars and medieval culture, the Rolling Stones Redlands scandal, palaeontology and the Easter Rising. All postgraduates should have a New History Lab in their lives.

How do you think that postgraduates can become better at working collaboratively with each other?

I think practice is key, as with anything – taking opportunities to be part of an organising committee of some kind can be really helpful in getting experience of planning and problem-solving as a team. Having the infrastructure in place to support collaborative projects is also important, such as funding, so that if researchers have an idea that they want to try out (like the New History Lab!) then the provision is there to enable them to have a go. Having said that, in my experience, postgrads are mostly pretty good at working collaboratively; I think sometimes humanities researchers can be stereotyped as being solitary beasts who aren’t able to work in teams, but I haven’t so far found that to be the case!

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If you would like to contact Nicola about her research she is on Twitter and can be reached via the University of Leicester’s School of History. Her academia.edu profile can be read here.  For more urban historian profiles follow this link.

Pictures of York’s Stonebow House Taken One January Day

Long entangled in a bizarre ownership structure that split the structure’s ownership between a private company that held the building’s lease and City of York Council and North Yorkshire County Council that shared the freehold, the fate of York’s Stonebow House has finally been sealed.

For decades decried by many in the city as an eyesore, not in keeping with York’s “historic aesthetic” and self-image, Stonebow House’s brutalist structure is in the words of one critic “one of the few proofs [in the walled city at least] that the 20th Century happened in York”. For years from the York Press’ letters page and message boards to the conversations overheard in the pubs, there has been a clamour in the city for Stonebow House to be demolished.

Now it will not be. The building and the land upon which it sits have been bought by the Wetherby based Oakgate Group who propose to comprehensively refurbish the building. Their plans, which obliterate the building’s exposed raw concrete, whilst keeping its essential form intact are doubtless not entirely to everyone’s taste. However, in the main it in principle a sensitive, low key revamp that avoids the waste of demolition and retains a key York landmark from an important period in the city’s history.

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Opened in 1964, Stonebow House was intended as a key component of the York Corporation’s long running (and still arguably incomplete) plan to comprehensively redevelop the poor quality buildings and environment in the city’s Hungate and Walmgate areas. Always poor quality, marshy land (which as Christmas’ events prove remain at the mercy of the River Foss) the area’s awful slum housing had largely vanished in favour of industrial units by the time that Stonebow House was built.

Constructed alongside the newly created Stonebow road, built to open up the city’s Hungate and Aldwark areas for redevelopment, Stonebow House-it was hoped-would act as a beacon for a newly prosperous York.

As it happened the turn to conservation, a species of postmodernism which first emerged in the later 1960s, rendered the building’s brute scale and unabashed modernity passe, even crass, within a few years of it being finished and let. Out of favour, even as far more monumentally imposing structures like the Coppergate Centre, York Barbican and the North Street Office block now inhabited by AVIVA, all of which genuflect somewhat towards the vernacular idiom, were constructed, Stonebow House took on a less flashy role in York’s civic life. In recent year it has, quite fittingly, become something of a haven for the odds, ends and misfits of York.

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Providing a home to Fibbers (which moved out in the summer of 2014) and to the Duchess, for over 20 years Stonebow House was the residence of the two venues that showcased York’s more interesting homegrown musical talent and visiting bands that would have had nowhere else to play. Two generations of indie kids, punks, goths and ravers wouldn’t have had any other venues in their somewhat geographically isolated hometown. Likewise the existence of Fibbers and The Duchess meant students at York Uni and St. John’s got a bit of a taste of the more varied and exotic music scenes elsewhere.

In a less rarefied and all to concrete way (pun fully intended) the shops and services housed in Stonebow House (the Jobcentre, Heron Foods, and York’s local independent bus company) provide vital services to the city’s poorest and most marginalised residents. Services which would otherwise struggle to find a home in the centre of one of Britain’s most expensive (but not especially high wage) cities. York’s gentrified city centre, dependent as it is on pubs, coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques is not a welcoming place for a person without personal transport. As in Paris most of the city’s bourgeoisie shop in the retail parks, dotted around the outer ring-road, miles out from the city centre, but easily accessible to North Yorkshire’s gentry, from which the city’s poorer and more marginalised residents are spatially segregated.

Considered aesthetically: the building’s exposed concrete hasn’t weathered the wind swept and bitingly cold east Yorkshire climate all that well. Likewise, there is little pretty, twee, or overtly “historic” about Stonebow House’s hard, angular form. But the same can, and has been said, about the structure and form of John Vanbrugh’s Castle Howard, and York’s worthies named a college at their university after him.

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Arguably the worst place to view the building from is from the place that most people first glimpse it. The junction, at Whip-ma-Whop-ma-Gate where Pavement becomes Stonebow. Viewed from up close, or from the structure itself, the shear swirling intricacy of the building, its geometric virtues, are abundantly apparent. The concrete staircases, striking and unusual in the way that they slot together, very different from most other British brutalist structures, recalling French, Italian or Latin American buildings of the period are especially worth seeing.

Stonebow House is also worth viewing from afar. Glimpsed from the city’s walls over on the far bank of the Ouse, just down from Micklegate Bar, its tower-soon to be converted into “luxury apartments”; looks just like a slightly squatter version of all the other steeples spread out across the city. The tower in fact has a very sympathetic relationship to the church towers that it stands in relationship to. Taken in from the side, or from the deck like car park, atop the first floor, the viewer is left with the impression that the building complements the church towers around it, especially the mighty lantern of All Saints, Pavement.

At the very least a viewer of this felicitous and deeply complementary arrangement comes across feeling that the architects of the mid-20th Century had a far more sensitive relationship with the past than they are often credited with. At the most, a more superstitious visitor might be inclined to see in the form of Stonebow House the ghostly vestige of St. Crux Pavement, an unusual 17th Century church building demolished in 1887, because its baroque styling did not meet Victorian notions of piety and decency.

British (English) School; St Crux, York, Looking from the Shambles to Pavement
The pictures below were taken by me in January 2014, whilst I was working for a magazine in York, for an article about Stonebow House that wasn’t eventually published.

If you’d like to see inside the currently deserted office block then The Press has a good gallery.  

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Donna Taylor-“Notes from 19th Century Birmingham”

For the latest in my series about urban historians working today, I spoke to Donna Taylor, a University of Birmingham PhD student who’s work explores new angles on Birmingham’s 19th Century local administration. She blogs at Notes from 19th Century Birmingham.

What is  your background?

I’m really just a council-house nan who does a bit of history. I came to academia rather late in life, having taken the scenic route through education. I left school in 1982 with a handful of low grade CSEs, a few words of German (I can still remember how to ask the time) and mad typing skills that have been more useful than could ever have been foretold in the pre-digital age. I dropped out, grew a beautiful pink mohican and set off to ban the bomb before settling down to a family life. This was hard in the Thatcher era and there were many years of unemployment and part-time cleaning jobs. In my late 30s I decided I wanted to do ‘something else’.  It started with night school, then an Access to HE course at Leicester College. The staff there were amazing and played a major role in transforming so many lives. I’m very passionate about FE and worry about cuts and other changes impacting accessibility to it. It’s becoming ever more difficult for people like me to get into HE.

My family, but particularly my children and our mom, have been fabulous and just rolled along with all the changes. I’ve been very lucky.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

By accident. Although I was born in and have spent much of my life in Birmingham, there was never originally an intention to ‘do’ Birmingham history. This changed when I came across a mention of the Bull Ring riots in a book by Roger Ward. I’d never heard of them before and quickly became absorbed in finding out more. They were the subject of both my undergrad dissertation and MRes. thesis. Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century was incredibly modern and also wonderfully fierce. It is way more interesting than the currently on-trend Chamberlain period. It’s a history that makes me feel proud of where I come from.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Our grandad taught me to question everything. Carl Chinn, my undergraduate mentor (and now PhD supervisor), has taught me always to ‘follow the evidence’. These are the two core guiding principles. I’m fascinated by dialogues that took place in the early nineteenth-century public sphere, particularly at that time of great social and political change in the 1830s. James Epstein’s Radical Expression and Craig Calhoun’s Roots of Radicalism have been influential on my PhD writing. But if I had to choose one influential historian it would be Eric Hobsbawm. When I’m in a bit of writing slump turning to any one of his essays is usually enough to remind me that this business of bothering dead people has some purpose.
There have also been blogs that inspired me to have a go myself. These include Prison Voices which was established by second year students at Liverpool John Moores. And of course the wonderful Municipal Dreams, a quality to which I can only aspire.

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

That history is something everyone can  and should engage with in order to understand where we are now.  We’ve inherited an impressive history, be proud of it.

How has your work evolved over the course of your subject?

Originally the topic of my thesis was going to centre on things that were done -buildings that were built; legislation that was legislated, that sort of thing. Now the focus is on how these things entered the collective social imagination, which had to happen for a project or idea to manifest and to be accepted. This is the really interesting stuff that I like to talk about.

What drove the changes in municipal culture that occurred in Birmingham during this period?

A multiplicity of moral and pragmatic reasons could be argued and they would all probably be right. Desire for rational government, improved justice, a shift away from county dependency, greater transparency, civic pride, public opinion, changing demography, economic growth &c.  It is also useful to identify who drove the changes and how those conversations entered the public sphere which began that momentum. Then it is possible to see these small groups of politically ambitious men consistently at the forefront of demands for change. This happened first in the late 18th century when a body of ‘civic minded’ men took charge of improving the town – which they did very well by the way. They began the material transformation of Birmingham that Joseph Chamberlain was only able to build upon. Early in the 19th century another group of men came to the fore with more radical ideas. Many of these formed the first town council and were among Birmingham’s earliest MPs, including Thomas Attwood, Joshua Scholefield and George Muntz.

Has your blogging and other public engagement work changed your thoughts about the period and people you study?

My blog material is slightly different to my thesis research, in that I stretch the blog across the whole 19th century and focus on the more mundane, everyday interactions taking place in Birmingham during that period. It was originally intended as a sort of repository for all the bits of research that wouldn’t fit into my thesis. I can’t think of an instance in which my thinking has been changed, but I have become aware that there is more interest in Birmingham’s history than I originally imagined there would be.

Does your experience of blogging and other public engagement activities suggest to you any profitable ways in which historians can go about working with people outside the academy?

Absolutely and perhaps especially at a local level. Interest in Birmingham has grown steadily over the past few years, thanks to the tireless work of historians like Carl Chinn and the late Chris Upton. The Centre for West Midlands History, based at the University of Birmingham, has also brought local history into the public eye with a recent series of glossy magazines and books. As a result of those efforts, organisations such as the Birmingham Conservation Trust and Birmingham Museums’ Trust have successfully obtained significant pots of funding to pursue local heritage projects. The Birmingham History galleries at BM&AG attracted an £8.9 million investment and drew on the knowledge of academic historians (including myself) as well as members of the public. Projects like that offer a pooling of knowledge, from all sorts of sources, that wouldn’t be available from simply leafing through a lot of dusty books. The Coffin Works project is another, award-winning, example. I’m not sure there will ever be any public historian millionaires, but public engagement projects brings great knowledge profit to the academy.

Is there anything that Birmingham’s leaders today could learn from their mid-19th century predecessors?

If Birmingham’s leaders could spend time reading through the minute books of their predecessors, right across the 19th century, they would see a history of great civic ambition and investment in the local community. Over a relatively short period of time Birmingham was transformed from a small, dirty town with a few puddled streets to what  American journalist Julian Ralph described as ‘the best governed city in the world.’ Although I’m never shy about challenging the current council, they do a pretty good job of drawing investment to the city, enabling that momentum of growth that has been in place for over two hundred years now.  But please, stop closing our libraries and demolishing our heritage!

For more information on Donna and her work check out her Academia.edu profile. She is on Twitter and her blog can be found here. Notes from 19th Century Birmingham can be followed separately. Other profiles in the urban historians series can be found read here.  

“Municipal Dreams”

“Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors… Who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I’ve been lucky enough to grab a word with John, the stalwart social historian who writes and curates Municipal Dreams. Municipal Dreams is a blog that explores the multifaceted, but generally very positive, legacy of activist local government in Britain.

What is your background?

I was brought up in a small Norfolk seaside resort and enjoyed it but I was determined to experience something urban and grittier when the opportunity arose. So I did voluntary work on a Leeds council estate during my gap year and then headed to the University of Manchester where I studied History. I’d joined the Labour Party aged 16 in 1974 and I was lucky to be able to pursue my interest in labour history in some depth at Manchester. I followed this with a PhD in the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. After seven years straight HE – no fees, full grant (we were a lucky generation) – I was ready for something else so I worked in a couple of roles for Norwich City Council before taking a teaching qualification. I also served as a Labour councillor for four years.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

You probably already have the answer. Firstly, there are my politics. Secondly, there’s my education. My PhD was on working-class politics in interwar Birmingham and Sheffield (I spent a lot of time in the late, lamented Birmingham Central Library so it’s great to see that as the header image for this blog) and in both – Birmingham, Tory; Sheffield, Labour – you had councils determined to use the power of the local state to serve their communities.

Since then we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record; not blindly, of course, as not everything done was wise or wonderful, but with a proper historical understanding of what was achieved and why things sometimes went wrong.

The blog has a particular focus on housing and this has become incredibly timely. We could begin writing the epitaph of council housing from 1979 but recent and proposed legislation seems determined to kill it off once and for all or, at the least, so radically reduce it to housing of last resort that it seems to me really important to defend it and to present an alternative history – far removed from contemporary caricatures – which properly celebrates its positive and transformative role in the lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

“…we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record…”

I’m aware that all this makes my work far more obviously and directly ‘political’ than that of some of your other respondents. I’d only say that, while the blog does have a clear political perspective and (I hope) message, I’m not interested in writing propaganda or polemic. It is, to my mind, precisely the nuance and rootedness of an historical approach that allows a proper and more persuasive case to be made.

Are there any historians or other writers that particularly inspire your approach to your topic?

“…‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.”

Karl Marx. That may sound like a provocation but, as I think back to my formative influences and reading, I realise just how much I’ve taken from a Marxist approach – not the great man’s revolutionary aspirations and predictions, nor ever the practice of ‘actually existing socialism’, but the basic and profound insight that society and its ruling ideas are shaped (I would say ‘determined’) by the economic system of the day. Maybe this is now so commonplace a notion that our debt to Marx doesn’t need to be stated but it is an approach, I believe, that should inform the work of any social historian. And ‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.

As a teenager, I devoured EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class – a wonderfully rich and humane book which added a cultural dimension to class and ideology which Marx’s more schematic approach largely neglected.

I came of age in another era, a time when labour history was in vogue and ideas of class, rather than all the multifarious identities currently celebrated, were dominant. I’ve learnt a lot from the latter but I feel a sense of loss too. I worry that current preoccupations are too fragmentary and lead us to neglect the broader realities which still shape most lives.

What kind of sources do you use to inform your work?

Basically, as I range widely, I use whatever sources are to hand and the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study. Council records tend to be very dry, such is the nitty-gritty of local government work, but occasionally council publications will provide a more colourful and ‘political’ account of local reforms. The local press, particularly in its hey-day, often provided rich detail on local government controversies and achievements. The architectural press is often informative on particular schemes though overwhelmingly and narrowly design-focused. Sources recording the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ lives are still too rare but very valuable where they exist. In terms of secondary sources, I’m thankful for the work of the relatively few academics working in the field and very grateful to those doctoral students who have produced fine local studies.

“…the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study…”

I’m grateful to various people who have written guest posts for the blog and I’d love to extend this so that it becomes a resource centre for everyone – academics and non-academics, local historians, people researching their own stories – interested in the field or with a history to share.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

At its most basic, a renewed belief in the positive and necessary role of the state in securing a fairer and more equal society and an appreciation of the enormously constructive role played by local government over many years. This, as the consistent failure of the free market to provide decent homes for all, makes clear is most apparent in the field of housing.

“…the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done…”

At the very least, because I try to write to people across the political spectrum, I hope that readers come away with a more rounded and contextualised understanding of council housing – to see the ideals and ambitions which shaped it and the social and economic forces (rather than, in most cases, any inherent flaws in conception and execution) which have sometimes undercut those founding aspirations.

More generally, the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done – ‘instrumental’ politics rather than the ‘expressive, virtue-signalling and identity politics that is consuming many on the left at present.

Over the course of your research have you come across any recurring difficulties or challenges that municipal reformers faced?

Two connected difficulties confront municipal reformers and do so even more powerfully in the present: parliamentary sovereignty – that local government can only ever do what has been specifically authorised by Westminster, and finance – that councils have very rarely enjoyed the resources needed to execute their plans optimally. As a state and society, we have been consistently unwilling to provide the social investment needed to enable all our people to thrive. Local councillors can only ever work within this reality.

Which of the municipal pioneers you’ve written about do you think we can learn most from today?

Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors – of all parties – who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.

“Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’.”

Of course I do have my heroes – Alfred and Ada Salter in Bermondsey, George Lansbury in Poplar and the rebel councillors of Clay Cross but each were representative of a time and place and it’s hard to see their actions replicated in the present. However, I’d give a special place to Ada. Bermondsey pioneered health and housing reform – vital functions of local government – but for the Salters politics had a profoundly spiritual dimension expressed in their practical Christian socialism. Those who had created Bermondsey, in Alfred’s words, ‘did not realise that they had cut off the people from the chiefest means of natural grace. They did not appreciate the curse and cruelty of ugliness’. As a councillor and mayor, Ada established a Beautification Committee. It planted 10,000 trees and created pocket parks across the borough. In Fenner Brockway’s words, ‘Bermondsey became a place of unexpected beauty spots’.

Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’. That – and the civic pride it speaks to – seems something to aspire to and emulate.

Conversely which do you consider the most egregiously wrong-headed or damaging?

That’s an interesting question and the easy response is to point to those councillors who oversaw the system-built high-rise debacle of the 1960s. Sometimes personal aggrandisement further tainted their judgement. T Dan Smith in Newcastle is the obvious example. And yet even here one sees an ambition to house the people and get them out of the slums and the pressures to do that from central government using ‘modern’ methods were enormous. It’s easy to criticise some of the housing schemes of the sixties and lament the loss of the old working-class terraces (though we too readily forget just how bad the slum housing of the era was). In fact, the rehabilitation drive began in the mid-sixties and some of the best council housing ever was built in the seventies so, even here, lessons were learnt.

“I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities…”

For all that I defend local government, I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities, as we see, for example, in Lambeth in the present (the Cressingham Gardens estate being a case in point), seems entirely wrong whatever the pressures to ‘densify’ and however justified by proponents as a means to build and finance new social housing. There’s a fine line between working a loaded system for progressive ends and complicity in that system and this, to me, oversteps the mark.

Do you see any scope for comparable local action today?

The opportunities for councils to engage in bold reform are very limited now given central government cuts and restrictions. Some councils are working imaginatively to build new social housing within the current hostile framework but it’s all necessarily legalistic and unheroic. Too often, councils are forced into unholy alliance with commercial interests and lack the acumen and clout needed to secure even the limited gains such deals are supposed to generate. We need to change central government policy and liberate local government to serve its people. And local councils must work with, be seen to genuinely represent, and mobilise their communities.

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In addition to his main blog, John also posts shorter pieces and pictures on tumblr. He can be reached via Twitter here.