Who was at the Centre?

I’m looking at people who were at the Centre. Exploring the social backgrounds and life experiences of graduate students at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, played out in the work they produced, in roughly the period 1970 to 1980. The paradox in all this is that the more I search for the Centre the less it becomes clear what “being at the Centre” actually meant.

The archive, which in the case of the CCCS contains copious amounts of contemporary printed material, as well as recent oral histories (conducted chiefly by Hudson Vincent and Kieran Connell as part of two separate projects to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Centre’s 1964 formation) provides clear indication that there was no moulded, cookie cutter, way of being a CCCS student. Rather, that it was possible for individual students, registered in all sorts of different ways, to dip in and out of individual study and collective work-often over the course of many years-in ways that suited them at that moment.

In this post I shall highlight and explore how external interests, commitments and viewpoints percolated through the CCCS during the 1970s. Doing so shall shine light upon the domestic life a research centre now considered pivotal for the development of social studies disciplines and approaches. Whilst starting to illustrate how concerns beyond the pure pursuit of academic knowledge, that ranged from the quotidian to the existential, fed into the work that the CCCS produced.

Money, Money, Money

UK higher education in the early 1970s, ninety percent funded by state grants, was caught in a perfect storm of static budgets and spiralling inflation meaning real terms cuts. From 1975 the university’s budget saw real terms cuts, whilst inflation continued to bite, meaning the pressures upon the creaking higher education system only intensified.

In this situation funding for postgraduate study became ever scarcer, as Stuart Hall frequently lamented in his annual reports at CCCS Director. A scarcity of funding and the needs to make ends meet led CCCS members to take on ever increasing teaching loads. John Clarke recalls a “well connected network” at the Centre that secured students teaching work at various higher and further education institutions across the West Midlands. As Dick Hebdige puts it “there [was] this circuit you [got on]…  Do a day here a day there”. At one point Paul Willis recalls teaching “at six different” institutions and driving an ice cream van around the Black Country serving up Mr. Whippy outside of term time when the colleges were shut.

Willis wasn’t the only CCCS member to work outside the confines of teaching. Janet Batsleer who studied for a PhD in the late 1970s, despite having a grant, worked full time in London whilst studying at Birmingham. In her words this was “a way of keeping a foot in the real world… Avoiding the Birmingham bubble” but was also because her working class background meant “not earning a living, not paying [her] way, wasn’t something that entered [her] head, really”. In a similar vein Hazel Chowcat, who’d work as a secretary prior to entering higher education, would go and temp in offices around Birmingham outside of term time.

Interesting there is no sense in any of the accounts that the CCCS students resented these fiscally driven intrusions upon their time as students. Indeed John Clarke now reflects that the challenges of teaching “liberal studies” to apprentices on day release “keeping them interested… stopping them all from going home… keeping people engaged who didn’t really want to learn” Dick Hebdige has similar reminiscences, the experience of trying to teach English to trainee butchers “sharpened you up… Shows you how knowledge fitted with people not in the same game as you”. In each case going outside the Centre helped them with their studies and honed their ability to articulate their ideas.

Career Opportunities

Of course there were some students for whom studying at the CCCS was an escape from jobs or other situations that they felt trapped in. Patricia McCabe remembers being offered “typing lessons” in the final year of her English undergraduate degree at Birmingham because “with an English degree you could always become a secretary”. A desire not to go down this path, and interest in why career paths were so gendered, encouraged her to carry on with her studies at the Centre. Similarly Rebecca O’Rourke joined the Centre from Hull in 1976 having been encouraged to “do some research” by her tutor because she “had a mind that would be wasted on nursing”, her initial post graduation career plan. Hazel Chowcat, having worked as a clerical assistant for several years after leaving school, enrolled on an interdisciplinary social sciences course at Bradford University in 1974. Graduating three years later she found that “she was still only qualified to be a secretary” so applied to the Centre for a PhD.

Male students, whilst much less constrained in the career opportunities available to them, also saw enrolling at the Centre as a means of escape. Arriving in the late 1960s and early 1970s, John Clarke and Paul Willis were refugees from management studies programmes, which in the words of Clarke sought to make them “the human face of British capitalism”. Tony Jefferson, who started during the same period, was disillusioned with working as a PE teacher. Whilst for Paul Gilroy who arrived much later, in 1978, whether or not to accept a funded place at Birmingham was a toss-up with continuing to pursue a musical career.

Let’s Stick Together

In 1970 the average marriage age was 25 for women and 27 for men. It wasn’t all that much higher in 1980. As such it should be little surprise that quite a few of the postgraduates at the Centre were married and had children.

Whilst writing and researching his PhD in Birmingham between 1968 and 1972, Paul Willis was living in Wolverhampton with his wife and two young children, driving fourteen miles to come into campus and even further-out to Digbeth and Moseley-to conduct fieldwork. He was far from the only one of his peers to be living with his family. Dorothy Hobson, whose MA work between 1974 and 1978 focused upon the experience of working class housewives living in peripherally located municipal tower blocks, lived with her husband and primary school aged son in a “middle class part of King’s Norton”. This situation provided much of the impetus for her work, as a mother she was familiar with the same clinics, schools and other services as the women who lived on council housing estates and used this familiarity to access their networks and secured access for other CCCS researchers (like Andrew Tolson) as well.

But perhaps most impressive story, of the individuals that I am aware of, was Tony Jefferson. In 1972, he was having “a trouble with discipline” in his role as a PE teacher in Harlow in Essex “partly because [he] he was on the kid’s side”. Jefferson resolved to go back into education, however, by this time he was married with three children. Nonetheless, he “sold his house in Harlow” and self-funded his first year at the Centre with the proceeds house. Commuting up to Birmingham from Essex, and staying with fellow CCCS member Chas Critcher in Handsworth, before securing an ESRC grant that enabled him and his family to move north.

Of course Jefferson was not unusual in terms of commuting, many other students, such as Janet Batsleer (who was working full time in London) also only came up to Birmingham “arriving early in the morning and leaving late at night” or “sleeping on someone’s floor” from time-to-time. David Morely as well, (who was actually registered for a PhD at Kent rather than Birmingham), having grown up in Birmingham and having spent “his teenage years dreaming of ‘how to get out of this dump’”, opted to remain in London-where he’d studied for his BSc-and commute up.

Students that were residing in Birmingham often didn’t find themselves in an easy situation, at least initially. Paul Gilroy recalls “the uncertainty” about where he was going to live whilst Hazel Chowcat remembers “initially having to share with someone”. Dick Hebdige resided in a squat on the Bristol Road during his time at the Centre. The building now houses a laser eye clinic. Trevor Fisher, who studied for a research MA in the early 1970s, on the other hand endured an experience shared by many unfunded postgrads over the years: moving back in with his parents.

Children of the Revolution

Dick Hebdige’s time squatting “with a bunch of beatniks turned hippies” highlights another facet of the the CCCS’ porousness, their eager engagement with outside groups and causes.

Chas Critcher, who was involved with the CCCS throughout the 1970s, moved to Handsworth in 1968-69, shortly after completing an English degree at Birmingham. Here with a group of other activists some from the community, others drawn (like Critcher) from the ranks of the new left “simultaneous[ly] trying to do good and raise the consciousness of the proletariat”. Critcher continued to live in Handsworth and work with “40 Hall Road” the project that he founded throughout his time as a student at the Centre, and whilst working on Policing the Crisis. From “40 Hall Road” Critcher found himself “going back and forth” enjoying the intellectual aspects of life at the Centre but at the same time feeling that “making an intellectual wasn’t enough” because “[he] wanted to make a direct difference”. So over time, like many others in the CCCS “he dipped in less” and “focused more on the community work… Slowly drifting away”.

Many other students had extensive commitments in other spheres of activism. The CCCS’ role as a key node in Britain’s women’s movement as it rapidly developed after 1970 being a key example. Given the keen interest in gender and the work it performs held by many of the Centre’s women prior to arriving it is not surprising that the Centre developed strong connections with the wider feminist movement. CCCS members were involved with a wide array of campaigns and initiatives around women’s liberation. Patricia McCabe recalls squatting Chamberlain House in Edgbaston to secure a base for Birmingham’s first women’s refuge. Whilst Janet Batsleer remembers working with Catherine Hall in the Hall family kitchen to boil hundreds of eggs for delegates a women’s conference due to take place in the city. On a different front, Richard Dyer recalls being involved with activists based in the city in establishing the Birmingham branch of Gay Action, a gay liberation group, whilst studying for a PhD at the Centre.                   

It should also not be forgotten that party politics played an important role in the life of the Centre. Many of the oral histories that have been conducted with CCCS members include recollections of divisions, generally sublimated occasionally out in the open, between members of the well established Labour and Communist parties on one hand, and newer Trotskyite groups like the IMG and SWP. Many in the Centre, both men and women, were also attracted to Big Flame, a revolutionary socialist feminist group, active between 1970 and 1984; that was considered to “have a libertarian bent” lacking in other Marxist and socialist groups. It is undoubted that these more formal and partisan politics played a crucial role in shaping and forming the atmosphere at the Centre and connecting it to wider networks and concerns. In some cases these connections led to careers after the Centre: Hazel Chowcat’s involvement with Birmingham Trades Council, gave her contacts that later led to senior roles within the trade union movement.   

Students at the Centre also engaged closely with broader social and cultural initiatives outside academia. In the early 1970s Trevor Fisher set-up the community magazine Grapevine, and later helped establish Arts Lab, whilst studying at the Centre. A few years later Dick Hebdige was involved with managing (and mcing) at a club night called the Shoop. Being a self-described “right fashion marvin… dressed in bags and eyeliner like David Bowie” he was a key part of the show. Paul Gilroy who arrived towards the end of the 1970s had similar musical connections recalling that: “At that time, I was also a little bit friendly with some of the guys from Steel Pulse who lived in Birmingham and were from there. That was the moment when their record Handsworth Revolution was just released, and they were working on Tribute to the Martyrs, so Birmingham seemed to be a more interesting place.”  On a national level one more overtly intellectual-but far from conventionally academic-scene that other CCCS students were involved with was the History Workshop, whose conventions and conferences CCCS members often attended en-masse and vice-versa. A connection that was doubtless aided by Stuart Hall’s very longstanding friendship with Raphael Samuel. In every case these outside interests and entanglements, like the political causes that Centre members rallied to, took students outside of the confines of Edgbaston and brought them into contact with ways of life and modes of living far removed from the groves of academia.

Life on Mars?

What did outsiders bring to the CCCS? It is something thing to write about the CCCS’ engagement with the world outside, another to write about the world’s engagement with the CCCS? It would be one thing to write about what crusty, disapproving Arts Faculty grandees on the right, Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart’s old friends and sparring partners (Raymond Williams, Raphael Samuel, the Thompson’s et al) on the left thought, but what about the countless more anonymous, frequently less audible figures, who engaged with the Centre during the 1970s?

As a first point of call, is clear not everybody who was studying at the Centre was technically a University of Birmingham student. Some like Chas Critcher began as students, but despite still being involved in Centre projects, had long stopped paying any kind of fee. Others like David Morley were students elsewhere and just attended a lot of things at Birmingham because they liked the Centre and found it conducive to conduct their own work. Some students like Angela Lloyd who was at the Centre between 1969 and 1972, prior to getting a job at Birmingham Polytechnic, weren’t actually registered on programmes “merely visiting students” engaged in “collective work”. In Lloyd’s case at one point Richard Hoggart paid her “six pounds a week” to work as the Centre’s administrative assistant so that she could continue to be there.

Lloyd’s temporary spell as an administrative assistant also points to another form of “external” engagement: clerical workers. At a time when much office work (typing, filing, franking etc.) was routine and quite physical it required an army of skilled yet largely silent (usually female) workers to undertake it. I’ve written before about several CCCS students’ engagement with the typing pool, but it bears a little bit of further discussion. In her oral history Janet Batsleer recalled Joan Good the CCCS’ secretary “a really lovely woman, who made [her] feel comfortable before [her] interview”. Batsleer further remembers that, regarding students borrowing office equipment to produce their own work Good was: “amazingly tolerant of the way folk occupied that space really, because it was used a lot to produce papers and she was there for sessions and so on”.  

Other CCCS students also remember being helped out by clerical workers at critical moments. John Clarke took a series of classes for trainee secretaries at a further education college whilst he was writing up his dissertation: “…embarrassingly if you go to the university library and find my Master’s thesis you will find that it was typed on 10 different keyboards, because they said, “We’ll do it for you,” and so they took a chapter each.”

Another key way in which the CCCS engaged with people from outside of the Centre was through their research. For instance, students engaged in film studies worked closely with, and were even even co-supervised in a few cases, by the BFI. However, the role of outside interlocutors is clearest when students were going out and doing ethnographic work. I have written before about how David Collyer, a charismatic and unconventional Anglican priest who worked with biker gangs in Digbeth, helped Paul Willis with his PhD research the project that later became Profane Cultures. Anglican youth workers (possibly met through Collyer or his contacts) helped Willis make contact with the hippie subculture in Moseley within which Willis researched the second part of his thesis. There are countless other examples: the nameless youth club workers that let Angela McRobbie conduct research amongst their attendees, the employment agency clerks who took on Hazel Chowcat during the university holidays unwittingly allowing her to further her research into clerical work. The teachers, housing and NHS workers that helped Dorothy Hobson access networks in her local community that she might otherwise not have been able to access. Each of these became an accomplice, a co-producer, of the work that the Centre was producing. Even the slightly unlikely figure of Peter Fryer, a Trotskyite tabloid journalist from Yorkshire who began a correspondence with Paul Gilroy in the early 1980s about black British history, can be considered to have touched upon the workings of the CCCS. In Fryer’s case it led to Staying Power a history of black people’s presence and culture in Britain that is still read.

Trans Europa Express

In closing this kaleidoscope of people it is worth considering the CCCS’ ties to universities outside of the UK. Several notable American students studied at the CCCS, especially in its early days, notably Lawrence Grossberg and the photographers Janet Mendelsohn and Richard Rogers. However, especially in the later 1970s (when Erasmus was still just a twinkle in a Eurocrats eye) the Centre’s records show impressive ties with universities in Europe in France and Italy, but especially in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Aarhus and Roskilde were institutions that the Centre had particularly strong ties with, with staff and students not infrequently coming to Birmingham as visitors. In the process they took news of what Birmingham was doing back to their home countries and brought news of what their homes countries were doing to Birmingham.

Stuck in the Middle With You   

In penning this post I have adopted a patchwork bricolage approach. I have deliberately scrambled participant’s recollections and snatches of the archive to show the sheer breadth of people, perspectives and (frequently brilliant and exciting, sometimes practical and mundane) concerns that students brought to the Centre and the work that they did there.  

I hope that the effect of doing so captures something of the the utterly porous nature of the CCCS. Like every institution where people work in close proximity it was a domestic space, every student, every staff member, everyone who came into its orbit also had a domestic situation and I hopefully and highlighted how this governed members’ experiences and participation. Indeed if this piece has a conclusion it is probably that with the exception of some long serving staff e.g. Stuart Hall and even more so Richard Johnson and Michael Green, I have shown that the “the Centre” didn’t have a centre at all.     

The wider point however, is to show that academic study is actually a very small part of intellectual enquiry and that the activity of lecturers and students are only part of the picture. Producing knowledge is a process much bigger than going to study at a “Centre”, it is clear from the testimony that whilst the CCCS was an important part of their lives both before and after they were “students there” it was far from the only thing that they were involved in, attached significance and found stimulation. This has implications for everybody who studies intellectual history, the development of approach, disciplines and institutions of learning. But it also has implications for our work today, there are countless ways to be a student and countless ways to participate in intellectual life. The days when relatively large block grants allowed for lax tracking of fee income and PhD registrations lasted for ten years have gone. But today isn’t so far removed from the 1970s that suddenly the best insights are to be gained and the best connections formed whilst slumped at a desk.  

The sources utilised in penning this post can be found  in the Cadbury Research Library at the University of Birmingham, in the online archives of the University of Birmingham’s CCCS 50 project and in the Journal of Cultural Studies 27:5 (2013). 

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