Having been involved with the bracing and inventive Activist Selly Oak project (phase one of which is just concluding) since it’s inception, I thought that I’d reflect a bit on my personal connections to Selly Oak and what it signifies to me. This piece is autobiographical in nature, though section one is about my family’s history and predates my life. Section two is my recollections, but they are mostly those of a small child or teenager; so are impressionistic and heavily filtered through with later knowledge and understanding; so must be read in this light. Section three is quite raw, because it deals with raw topics, and less well worked out, basically because it isn’t all worked it all out yet. Selly Oak is an important setting, but it is really the university which is the key actor and looming presence in this section. I hope though, that this subjective approach injects some life and meaning into the abstract and at times hazy mass of material that Activist Selly Oak has uncovered, tries to embrace and give narrative. It certainly touches upon some of my personal motivations as a project manager, occasional volunteer and more widely as a contemporary historian, creative practitioner and an activist in my own right.
The Lost World of Liberal Christian Activism
I first got involved with Activist Selly Oak in the autumn of 2016 when I was approached by a- former colleague; now collaborator-at a drinks reception and asked to lend a hand putting together a Heritage Lottery Fund application.
Presented this chance I jumped at the opportunity. Partly because the project seemed excellent (and very exciting!) in of itself, partly because I am interested in the history of politics and activism in the mid to late 20th Century; but also because I grew up close to Selly Oak. The area is one that whilst it doesn’t retain a huge place in my affections, has always fascinated me and which has long had a presence in my life.
Indeed a presence in familial terms that precedes my life. It was to Selly Oak, to Elmsfield House a grand crumbling Victorian villa on the Bristol Road that my Dad’s family moved to from Preston in 1967. My Grandpa (who’s life I’ve written a bit about before) had been teaching social studies and social service administration at Harris College (now the University of Central Lancashire) and moved to Birmingham to take up a new position as the Head of Social Studies and Administration, and Vice Principal of the Selly Oak College’s Federation. Elmsfield where they first lived when they came to Birmingham was scheduled for demolition to construct a new central teaching and administration block. Also called Elmsfield House-it still just about stands-in a tinned up state; awaiting the bulldozers from the University of Birmingham who now own the old Selly Oak Colleges’ campus.
The Selly Oak Colleges (not unlike the University of Birmingham, which was described by one Activist Selly Oak oral history interviewee as “the other side of the wall… Somewhere where you only went to work as a cook, or a cleaner, or a gardener”) was in many ways aloof from the community that surrounded it. For instance: in the 1970s as a teenager, my Dad would work for the Colleges’ Grounds and Maintenance Department in the school holidays. He recalls that the College’s Workmen had a degree of-generally good natured-disdain for the unworldly scholars whose efforts their work enabled.
In other ways however, the Colleges’ were well plugged into activist networks locally, nationally and internationally. Quaker by foundation (they were established with the financial aid of the Cadbury family in the 1920s) the Selly Oak Colleges were ecumenically Christian in ethos, with the initial purpose of training overseas missionaries for a wide array of mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic church. This outward facing missionary focus, and the Quakers longstanding engagement with an incredibly wide array of activist and progressive causes; meant that far from being a place solely devoted to the contemplation of faith and matters of doctrine and theology the Selly Oak Colleges were from their inception deeply plugged into the world.
By the 1960s and 1970s they were remarkably cosmopolitan with staff, students and visiting scholars from at least fifty countries present at any one time. Academic staff were drawn from all over the Christian parts of the world, and as its interest and expertise in other faiths such as Islam grew; from far beyond it. Students as well were drawn from all over the world, some by the colleges’ historical strengths in theology and missionary training, but others by newer courses in teaching, social work and social administration. Part of the reason for my Grandpa’s hiring by the college, was that in the later 1950s (whilst still only in his late 20s); he held a number of senior administrative positions in a mining company, the public health authority and a higher education institution, in Nigeria; just as it was about the gain independence. This and his subsequent teaching experience meant he was uniquely well placed to develop new courses on social work and social administration that could be offered to graduate students from the newly independent nations of the global south. With funding in the form of tuition fee payments from these new government, private foundations, and grants from the Foreign Office in the form of scholarships, this new strand of the Colleges’ work proved very successful and added further diversity and additional international networks to the institution’s culture.
Whilst the extent to which the emergence of new states in the formerly colonised areas of the global south from the 1950s onwards represented true decolonisation is highly contested, but there is little doubt that from the liberal/radical perspective of those working in the field at the Selly Oak Colleges they definitely thought that they were working in partnership and collaboration with those that they advised and taught. I recall as a teenager when my Grandpa often passed on books to me, that I’d frequently find old bookmarks wedged between the leaves of the volumes. Sometimes they were ad-hoc, old clippings from The Guardian and New Society, in other cases they comprised the ephemerial traces of progressively minded internationalism in the mid to late 20th Century. Two examples which particularly standout are a bookmark advertising the then newly created New Internationalist magazine (initially a Methodist endeavour) and one socilicting donations for a co-operative community radio project in Mauritius.
One of the things that the Activist Selly Oak project has uncovered is that Birmingham was a hub for new thinking around social policy both at home and overseas during this period. Francois Lafitte, who performed a not dissimilar role to my Grandpa at the University of Birmingham between the 1950s and the 1980s, and who lived in Selly Park; was a prime mover in terms of establishing the Birmingham (later British) Pregnancy Advisory Service. If they interacted, which they probably did from time-to-time; I doubt that my Grandpa and Francois Lafitte got on especially well. There was too much of a gulf in terms of personality and ideological leanings for that. But there are some commonalities in terms of their engagement with the city around them through work to support third sector initiatives.
An important source of funding and support for voluntary projects in Birmingham during the period was the Birmingham Settlement Society. Barry Toon a stalwart of Selly Oak community activism of fifty year’s standing, refers to the Settlement several times during his oral history interview as providing the money to enable projects he was involved with during the 1970s. Initially founded in the 19th Century to provide relief to the poor and destitute in Birmingham’s inner city slums, by the 1970s-in tune with the spirit of the age-it had shifted its initial focus on poverty alleviation, to also embrace general community building and empowerment initiatives.
In many ways the kinds of people who ran the Birmingham Settlement did not change with this shift. Board members included Walter and Maisy Smith, evangelically minded Anglicans; who owned a regional chain of butchers shops and a meat processing business worth millions of pounds. Or my Grandpa, who whilst himself from a working class background; was firmly ensconced by the nature of his post at the Selly Oak Colleges in a milieu that straddled academia and the training needs of the emerging social work and overseas development professions.
Another key mover at the Birmingham Settlement, though; was Peter Houghton, a radically minded palliative care counsellor keenly interested in the emerging current of liberation theology. As the Settlement’s Director he championed an eclectic array of community development causes in the inner city, including-spectacularly-Birmingham Arts Lab; who he allowed to use space in the Settlement’s Newtown building. In an interview in the early 2000s with Third Sector Magazine he stated that his proudest professional achievement was establishing in 1971-through the Settlement-Britain’s first non-judgemental money advice centre. An initiative that was quickly recognised as representing best practice in the field to such an extent that the City Council took over funding the advice centre from the Settlement, but kept the existing management structure in place.
In addition to his work as a counsellor for the NHS and at the Birmingham Settlement, Peter Houghton; lectured from time-to-time in my Grandpa’s department. The two were friends, either through this connection or their mutual involvement in the work of the Settlement. When the Triangle Media and Arts Centre-which housed Birmingham’s first permanent arthouse cinema and where the Arts Lab moved in the late 1970s-was established, Peter Houghton gave my Grandpa a seat on the board. A small example of the-often surprisingly establishment-networks that sustained activism and alternative culture in Birmingham during this period.
Another member of the Selly Oak College’s community who was engaged in activism whilst my Grandpa worked there, was his boss College President; the Reverend Paul Rowntree-Clifford. My Dad, who spent most of his childhood in and around the colleges; recalls Paul Rowntree-Clifford as a somewhat esoteric man of very scholarly bearing. He smoked a pipe, wrote extensively on Baptist theology and outside of academia had a passion for cultivating roses. However, he was also a staunch proponent of ecumenicalism in Christianity, an egalitarian and a keen advocate of racial equality. A liberal Christian of a stripe that’s now largely faded he argued that “…those who remain wedded to dogmatic and divisive formulae appear to me to be splitting theological hairs that are out of all proportion to the common confession of a Christian faith.”
It was these concerns that led him in 1979 to saliforth and stand as the Liberal Party candidate in the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency. He must have had some persuasive power as a politico, because he persuaded my Grandpa (a lifelong Labour supporter with Bevanite leanings) to-briefly-join the Liberals. However, Paul Rowntree-Clifford’s candidacy was not a success, in a year when the Conservative vote in Selly Oak surged; the Liberal Party lost the equivalent of a third of the vote share they’d gained at the previous election in 1974.
Based upon my limited discussions with him about it, around seven years ago; during the period when I was a candidate in student union elections, my Grandpa suggested that Paul Rowntree-Clifford had found the experience bruising. I recall him noting wryly that when it came to third party candidates “the real skill lay with the agent… And them encouraging the supporters to back the candidate [you prefered that was most likely to win the seat”. This was something that Paul Rowntree-Clifford’s agent had apparently told him. Shortly after I stopped contesting student unions myself, took on campaign manager positions instead; and you know what? He was absolutely spot on.
The most spectacular act of educational activism (off the University of Birmingham campus at least) during these years, however; occurred adjacent to the Selly Oak Colleges. Fircroft College, founded by the Cadbury’s; but in 1909, twenty years before the bulk of the college’s were established: always stood aloof from their neighbours. Not part of the federation that bound the other colleges together, they were also substantially more secular; having some of the religious ethos of the other colleges but looking first and foremost to the trade union movement where most of its students came from as adult learners. During the 1970s one of the lecturers there was Margaret Stanton-the Selly Oak super activist of Popular Front area vintage-which gives a clue as to the political tenor of the place.
A complex dispute began in 1975 between the students and some of the staff on the one hand, and other staff and the college’s trustees on the other; over student and staff participation in the running of the institution. A long running strike was initiated, which culminated in the national Department of Education expressing concern about Fircroft’s “governance arrangements”, revoking it’s management grant, and deregistering them as an education provider. This controversial action meant that the college’s operations were suspended for years, only resuming in September 1980. Interested in the dispute I recently asked my Dad if he could recall anything of it. He initially couldn’t, but after some reflection he did remember Grandpa in the 1970s talking about “trouble at Fircroft”; but seeing as the institution was adjacent to the Selly Oak Colleges, this was perhaps just local gossip. When Fircroft reopened in 1980, however, the seemingly omnipresent Peter Houghton was appointed-on a part time basis-as the College’s Head of Social Studies.
Entering the Suburb Next Door
But that’s enough family lore, how do I personally fit into the story of Activist Selly Oak? Perhaps only tangentially. If I cast my mind back, to the part of my memory that is almost memories of memories, as if they were file extensions; my earliest memory of Selly Oak is probably being sat in the back of my parents Peugeot 205 and driven along the Raddlebarn Road on the way to see my Mum’s parents one Christmas morning. This happened most Christmases for years, hence why the recollection is so imprinted; but this occurrence must have been in 1994 or 1995.
In many ways this impressionistic recalling of the Raddlebarn Road at Christmas is indicative of my early childhood memories of Selly Oak. It was a place that I passed through when out with one of my parents. Whether into town on my Mum’s days off to visit the Central Library, shop or pay her locum’s cheques in at the HSBC on New Street, or with my Dad on days she was at work when he drove or cycled to see clients, or the small, now vanished, video production companies he used to work with.
As a child I was a fairly intense day dreamer, but I’m pretty sure that even in my otherworldly mindset; I appreciated that the tenor of Selly Oak with its straggly closely packed terraces, and desolate deindustrialised spaces, was different from the ordered, leafy world of Bournville where I lived and went to school. I recall (I think) the chimney of the old Birmingham Battery-that was such a horrendous place to work-which lingered into the late 1990s, possibly even after the rest of the site was cleared. To my child’s mind the cleared site, glimpsed often through the windows of the Cross City line trains with its uneven topography, scrappy shrubbery and saplings and the odd burnt out car was a fascinating wilderness. Today as the new shops and proposed campus extension take shape, in many ways I mourn its passing.
The Selly Oak locations I was most frequently taken to, were the-then newly opened-Sainsbury’s and Battery Retail Parks, Selly Oak Hospital (where my Mum had to deliver blood samples and other specimens after her surgeries) and St. Mary’s the church that my parents attended. Aged about three I was briefly enrolled at the nursery school on Tiverton Road for a few days a week. But this didn’t last long as I chaffed at the regimented and inflexible way it was organised (“what do you mean I can’t play with lego and toy animals at the same time?”), was consistently disobedience and therefore constantly in trouble or aware that I was about to be in trouble, so hence miserable. Somethings don’t change.
This intermittent and quite fluid engagement with Selly Oak changed and became more constant in the autumn of 1999 when my Mum moved from being an itinerant locum GP to being a partner at the Bournbrook and Varsity Medical Centre. Suddenly Selly Oak, its community and its goings on, were at the forefront of my childhood experiences. My brother-then aged one-was placed at the nursery school above the Elim Church, which had a rather gentler regime; than the one I endured at Tiverton Road. This meant that on days when my mum was working, after lessons finished at 15:30 my sister and I were taken by our Dad from our primary school in Bournville to the nursery to collect him.
This was during the period that Bournbrook was in the midsts of its great transition from being a fairly normal “middle ring” suburb, to being primarily a student dormitory for the adjacent university campus. During this time period the university did not loom that large in my thinking. I was aware that both my parents and an aunt and an uncle had been students there, though what a student was I wasn’t quite sure; it sounded a bit like school which was something I really did not like. I did really, really like stories though and especially stories from the past. And I’d been told my family members and teachers that you could go away to university and spend every day hearing stories from the past, so I assumed from an early age; that as my parents and my aunts and uncles had been to university that one day too I would go and be a student: probably studying history. Which in its quiet inevitability is-I guess-basically a case study in social reproduction theory.
The only visit to the campus I can remember must have taken place in around the year 2000 when my primary school class was taken on a morning long excursion to the Barber Institute. I recall more or less enjoying the trip-the staff were very welcoming-but the artworks themselves made relatively little impression upon me. I doubt I was even aware in the slightest that the gallery was connected to the university.
I did-even a child-pick up though; a bit of a sense of how the University of Birmingham was changing the neighbourhood around it. I noticed the forest of letting agents boards, the proliferation of takeaways and curry houses, the terraced houses being gutted, extended and rendered fit for maximising the rental yields of the buy-to-let landlords that proliferated in the years before the credit crunch. When I contemplate the workings of capitalism, reflect how markets must constantly be expanded, new avenues for trade sought, Marx’s notion of “constant revolutions in the means of production”, it is this process of gutting a house, expanding the number of people you can fit in it, kitting it out so it can be maintained as cheaply as possible and the rapid way in which a neighbourhood services and facilities can be re-geared towards a new more profitable population, that I think of. I struggle to think of a more transparent reflection of the working of late capitalism than the expansion, creation and constant churn of a student district in a major British city.
This made an impression on me and stuck. Maybe it helped shape my future political leanings? The experience of growing up next to a vast student community also shaped my mindset in other ways. Through my Mum’s experiences of her increasingly student dominated patient list, I learnt the many student were troubled, depressed, lonely or otherwise mentally unwell and that these were the major issues that faced them. This stuck with me, as I thought it was very sad; and I was worried for them being away from home and so unhappy. It meant that when I later became a student myself I was acutely aware of some of things that my peers were likely to be experiencing and it shaped my involvement in student activism. More recently it was one of the things that motivated me to apply to be a Student Experience Officer.
My interest in how the area was changing also emerged in my GCSE Geography coursework. Utilising a mixed source base including the results of a survey completed by patients in my Mum’s waiting room and survey of the shop types in the area, I researched attitudes towards immigration in the area. Being a liberally minded bunch-probably mostly students-(I seem to recall over sixty percent of respondents stated that The Guardian, Daily Mirror or The Independent was their favoured paper…) they were overwhelmingly in favour and welcoming towards newcomers to the area. Although there were some dissenters including the respondent who when asked how they felt about immigrants wrote “get them out” and drew a swastika in the “Further Comments” box. Given that this was in the spring of 2008, only a year before the BNP got a million votes in the European Parliament elections and the EDL emerged onto the streets; this is a salutary reminder that extreme right-wing, fascist and racist views have been prevalent in our society for a long time. It is just that social media and the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers (the press, BBC etc.) means that they have got louder and more easily able to spread their venom. As has always been the case they just need to be vehemently silenced and opposed.
My GCSE results were a mixed bag, which wasn’t a surprise as I had to take Maths… But Geography proved my strongest result-even better than History and English Lit-so my coursework project must have had something going for it! With hindsight though, rather than immigration (which transient overseas students aside, is not a huge factor in Selly Oak) what would have been rather more interesting to explore is the effect of proximity to the University, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and resulting populations on unrooted students and healthcare professionals upon the area. Ten years later, Activist Selly Oak makes for an interesting corollary.
Throughout my teens however, my Mum’s surgery remained my main Selly Oak touchstone. From the age of sixteen I did odd bits and pieces of clerical work there, jobs like being paid fifty pence a file to move paperwork from an old style “Lloyd George” medical records folder into the A4 format that my Mum’s work had adopted. Mind numbing stuff, enlivened only by reading the often deeply offensive way that doctors-especially hospital consultants-used to write to each other about patients in the not to distant past. They were also remarkably fond of using their memos to each other to arrange rounds of golf!
“Jobseeker (can of Strongbow, I’m a mess…”)
I began to get to know the University of Birmingham campus better after I became a student myself in 2010. Studying History at the University of York I was seldom in Birmingham, preferring to stay in York and pick up bits and pieces of temporary work; rather than returning home during the holidays. When I did come back however, pinning for a campus environment; I would often wander over to the campus and stroll around.
Like so many people my age I was “radicalised” for want of a better word, by the experience of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government. Like so many young people I voted LibDem in 2010, genuinely thinking that their vaguely anti-establishment, weak tea libertarian brand of radical centrism was the wave of the future. The long recession, experience of having a landlord, looming prospect of unemployment or insecure work upon graduation and the genuinely horrific way that the Tories and the Liberals gleefully implemented austerity convinced me otherwise. I ditched the LibDems for involvement in the students union, where vaguely socialist ethos aside; I encountered intelligent, interesting and impassioned people involved in the struggle for women’s, LGBTQ+ and BME liberation. I identify with non of those categories, but increasingly understanding (not least thanks to my degree, and reading around it) how oppression works in societies like ours; I saw the righteousness of their causes and came to support them.
The same was true of Marxism, my schooling and own reading prior to university had convinced me that Marxism was a ridiculous, childish, ideology based upon a mixture of resentment and a desire to dominate. How wrong could I have been. Encountering actual Marxist texts and actual Marxist people (plus the experience of encountering actual Tories and libertarians… Neither of whom had been especially prevalent in the pinkish milieu I was raised in or the decidedly middle-of-the-road Solihull Sixth Form College where I acquired my A-Levels) turned my view of the world and how it worked upside down. Coupled with my experience of the good, big hearted, thoroughly decent people engaged in liberation struggles and campaigns around issues like mental health, I embraced communism through the realisation that freedom for one person can only be truly achieved through securing equal freedom for everyone all of the time.
York was a very political, though not especially radical, or at least not revolutionary; institution. From my outsider’s perspective, Birmingham-on the other hand-in the first half of the 2010s; seemed like a campus that was fraught, divided and practically ready to explode. Defend Education Birmingham, a major contributor to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) constellation, was an active and noisy presence amongst an otherwise quiet and quisent student body. Within the cosmos of UK higher education University of Birmingham students have a reputation for being “nice”, pleasant, relatively lacking in hang-ups and tend to go on to quickly get nice, well remunerated, if slightly boring and predictable jobs in the corporate world upon graduation. None of these things could be said about York students, at least whilst I was studying there. But, anyway; Defend Education was different, they were exciting and willing to militantly confront their institution (which at the time I thought-wrongly as it happened-represent the vanguard of the movement to monetise and financialise the university sector); openly representing a radical strand of communist thought that lay far to the left of the (barely communist) Socialist Appeal, (stale) Socialist, or ( deeply problematic) SWP parties that comprised the University of York’s revolutionary scene.
Whilst still an undergraduate I watched Defend Education’s campaign against the most reactionary and overtly neo-liberal aspects of their institution and the Guild of Students from afar. As a sixth former I’d always perceived the University of Birmingham’s student as being either pretty middle of the road or unnervingly sporty. So when Defend Education appeared and began making waves online, in print and on campus, I was intrigued to see one of the largest, most dogged and overtly revolutionary in terms of its objectives and postures, campaigns to come out of the movement against £9,000 fees emerge from it.
I soon got the chance to observe it closer up. In the summer of 2013 I graduated from my History degree of York with an upper second and into unemployment. Being utterly broke and hundreds of pounds in the red, I did something I never expected to have to do and signed on as unemployed; receiving the £56.80 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance payments that were then due to those under twenty five with no savings or other forms of income. The three months I spent on the dole was a salutary experience, one that I found at once eye opening and chasening.
As mentioned, whilst in theory I believed that there was no shame in claiming social security; in practice I felt déclassé. I was a victim of the lazy middle class assumption, that credit crunch and appalling job market that existed in the summer of 2013 aside, communist politics or not, I would just fall into a reasonably satisfying job that would would meet all my needs. From this position I fell rapidly into the classic unemployed routine of not sleeping at night, getting up late in the morning, frantically applying for jobs, any job I thought worth my while. Having been incredibly busy all the way through university, partying, writing, campaigning, politiking, editing, working part-time and temp jobs, occasionally panic writing an essay (in roughly that order) I was bereft. Most of my friends and acquaintances were at far-flung ends of the country and I had no means of going to see them. Some in similar positions to me (probably the largest proportion with hindsight), others starting internships, preparing for master’s study, travelling or moving into jobs, and when facing the later tribes in particular; I felt incredibly like a loser and didn’t really want to engage.
The JobCentre nearest my parent’s house sits on Harborne Park Lane. Literally a stones throw from the pleasant late 1970s era council houses that were achieved by the residents of the former slum housing on the site uniting to blockade the Bristol Road in the summer of 1976. The JobCentre is an increasingly tatty, faded and sad looking building; constructed to probably very poor standards with little architectural input; during the Blair boom in the early 2000s. It is essentially an out of town retail unit for the surveillance, policing and maintenance (just about) of some of the most vulnerable members of society. Vice magazine once ran an article comparing-in a not entirely negative way-the interior of a JobCentre to a Weatherspoon’s. This frame of reference works pretty well when imaging the inside of Harborne Park Lane. There is a stained, hard wearing carpet in an intermediate shade of blue. Posters from an array of quangos, DWP and local government initiatives festoon the walls like burger and a pint deals in a cheap chain bar. The front of house employment clerks hunch in shabily partitioned cubicles, over aged desktops, squinting at their screens as they tap the claimant’s responses to their questions into the social security agency’s antiquated database systems.
The claimants, sometimes with their carers or with their children either very young, or middle aged and now looking after Mum and Dad, sit tensely in interview chairs in front of the social security administrators (or Job Coaches as they’d recently been rebranded during the period when I was in contact with the system), or else patiently await their turn on tired blue sofas that match the carpet. The building has very few windows and the sense of claustrophobia is heightened by a heavy security presence, half a dozen thick-set men in G4S uniforms; who patrol the floors and guard the doors. Polite enough, but definitely menacing.
A little bit like the letter you are issued at the end of each appointment with your “Job Coach”. The letter states the date and time of your next meeting with them, anything you are supposed to do between now and then, which concludes by reminding you that the Job Coach is acting with the authority of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions meaning you as a claimant are legally obliged to respect and comply with their every instruction: or else. You are required to bring this letter with you when you next attend so as to gain admission to the JobCentre. Once you are there everything is done by National Insurance number. More than four years after I “signed off” the dole mine is still seared on my mind as if it had been tattooed on my retina. Despite constantly having to claim tax rebates from temporary and casual jobs all the way through university, I barely knew I had one prior to coming into contact with the social security system. They also insist on calling you by your surname. On the one hand a civil servant with the power to cut off your only source of income calling you “Mr. Allen” conjures up a veneer of respect for you as a citizen, on the other though; it is an impersonal distancing mechanism that works to blur the contours of you as an individual and a person.
I will write more about this period of my life, and explore these strands in greater depth; on future occasions. It’s all still quite raw and something, over four years later; that I muse on a lot. Highly formative in terms of my thinking. For now though I’ll start moving away from this topic by sharing this piece by Gabriel Bristow in Mute magazine from the summer of 2014, which I think is great; and which helped me understand the significance of unemployment and unemployment assistance in capitalist societies.
During the two three month periods in 2013 and 2014 when I was on the dole I spent quite a bit of time in Selly Oak. Going too and from appointments at Harborne Lane obviously, but also drifting around. Feeling dispossessed of my recent student existence (I was at this point in time frantically trying to find work in the students movement, the formally constituted bits of which I despised; but which had a weird lure for me nonetheless) I felt strangely at peace-yet also a bit resentful-walking the terraced streets of Bournbrook and around Oak Tree Lane. Being in the lucky, lucky position-courtesy of my affluent parents-of not actually needing money to eat, or keep a roof over my head; I took to binge drinking, buying cheap wine, cider and strong beer from the off-licences on Oak Tree Lane and sneaking it home to drink late at night. The kind of hobby you take up when you are severed from most of your contacts, miserably at a loose end with what to do with your life; and too deep into the emergency part of your overdraft to do anything about it.
Whilst my affection for it has grown in recent years, I have always had a deeply ambivalent relationship with my hometown. This is-I get the impression-pretty normal, but aged eighteen and throughout my time at York I was hellbent on never going back to Birmingham for more than an extended weekend if at all possible. And here I was, back home and seemingly without prospects. Desperate to leave I didn’t do what I probably should have done with hindsight and start volunteering, as a way of expanding my horizons and meeting people, I just applied continually for jobs; the further away from Birmingham the better. In my defence this was around the period when the open advertisement of unpaid internships was at its height and the blurring of the line between genuine volunteering and the use of the bloated, and desperate graduate labour market to exploitatively avoid paying people, a desperate concern.
At the same time paradoxically, I got most of the way through the process of applying for a masters degree in the School of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham. I was compelled towards a masters by warm feelings towards universities as spaces (not, I stress; the academy itself) and a desire to return to active combat as a student activist and regain the sense of exuberance, urgency and relevance I felt whilst campaigning at York. As summer turned to autumn and the student areas began to feel busy again, I partially moved my drinking from my bedroom to The Guild of Students. A bartender assumed I was a member and let me purchase a Joes Card, which opened up a whole new vista of incredibly cheap cider drinking opportunities. As the leaves began to turn and a chill settled in the air, I would sit on the building’s terrace with a copy of the Daily Mirror (then 40p an issue, bargain) read the latest celebrity gossip, sip copious amounts of cider at two pounds a pint and brood over the hideous injustice of life under late capitalism-mine in particular-and avoid as best I could life going on around me.
Presently, as is the way with these things; the situation somewhat resolved itself. I got an editorial assistants job, paying the princely, and possibly legally dubious; sum of £1,000 a month with a start-up magazine company in York and moved back up there. I’ve made it, I thought.
Looking back, a new found empathy and understanding of the invasive indignities with heap upon those struggling at the bottom of society aside; this first spell of unemployment wasn’t entirely wasted. It gave me a chance to read and explore outside the narrow confines that university education, even if you hesitant in engaging with that education; force upon you. I read a lot of Marxist thought, some anarchist literature as well, and through a chance encounter on Wikipedia developed a fascination with cultural studies as a field and an approach that endures to this day. This would soon become very relevant. I even managed to get my first piece for a non-student publication published.
My hopes of starting a career in art and community journalism in York did not last very long. So by the spring of 2014 I was back once more in Birmingham, tearing my hair out in the Harborne Lane JobCentre; and pouring most of my £113.60 fortnightly dole payments into the tills of the down at heel pubs that line the lower part of Selly Oak High Street. My cashflow was worse than ever, I was taking out a £100 Wonga loan each month; to stand still effectively reducing my actual income-once my phone payments had gone out-to less than £100.
This was completely unsustainable. Despite nothing of any material substance having changed I stopped drinking, stopped buying any food out, walked everywhere, let my wardrobe deteriorate even further into rags; and managed over the course of months to get my bank balance back to something approximating zero. I was still frantically applying for jobs, in journalism and publishing now; (again the further away from Birmingham the better) as well as the students’ movement. I got enough interviews to keep me persisting, but having now been nearly a year out of university; I increasingly felt the need to change tac.
After a bit of time back on the dole I thought it worth taking a risk. I took a very temporary job working for the City Council to administer the local and European Parliament elections, and came off social security. I’d sought some advice from friends (almost all of whom were native Londoners or who had parents willing to pay the City University Journalism MA fees…) and began pitching speculative pieces of journalism to magazine editors. The story I was especially keen to chase was that of Defend Education. I reached out to one of their sabbatical officers at The Guild and was pleased and surprised to quickly get a positive response. We furtively met on their “lunch-break” at the-now gone-Woodstock Cafe, and over the blaring sound of Turkish pop music a devastating tale of activist burnout, gaslighting and institutionally mandated repression was relayed to me.
More followed, my Gmail, Facebook messenger and Twitter direct messages groaned with activists at the end of their tether looking for someway to unburden themselves, for someone to help them tell their story. I groped around for weeks trying to find a publication that would run some of this. Unfortunately it seemed that most outlets weren’t interested in what was essentially a dispute between some students and their university. finally through a contact at the NetPol (a police action monitoring project) Vice magazine took the bait; and ran a piece about an activist who had been referred to the Prevent programme, with a letter being sent to his parents; because the force in his home area thought that he was in danger of being transformed into a domestic extremist.
That was it sadly. Off the back of the Vice article I wrote a shorter more reflective piece for the New Internationalist website about Defend Education but that was all I was ever able to get anyone to publish. This is something I still feel a bit bad about, the activists who spoke out to me clearly dearly hoped that I would be able to get the word out; and I was able to do so only haltingly. All of their messages are buried deep, nearly half a decade ago; in the landfill that is my personal e-mail and social media inboxes. I shan’t go digging for it. I had a look at my files from 2014 whilst writing this piece. The ailing, barely portable, Windows Seven laptop that I used in those days; is long defunct and I have everything from that time saved on a memory stick. I tried to access the transcript of my interview with the sabbatical officer, its in a file format that my current netbook doesn’t support; so it looks like that’s lost as well. Who knows? Maybe an Activist Selly Oak equivalent project in the 2060s will be able to crack that one open like a time capsule. Not yet born contemporary historians if you’re reading this, I don’t have much to tell you; but I’m always willing to talk.
Around the time that I was conducting my Defend Education investigation I walked to MAC one day for a change of scene. Public libraries were somewhat thicker on the ground then than they are now, but those aside; there was hardly anywhere within a reasonable walking distance of my house that offered free WiFi and-being practically without an income, having signed off the dole but not yet made any money freelancing-I was painfully conscious of the need not to exceed my data allowance.
Going to find a seat, I noticed that the display in the arena gallery had changed. From where I stood it looked an eclectic array, cartoon style pictures sat next to paintings, black and white photographs juxtaposed with colour ones taken decades apart. Permeating it all was a logo I instantly recognised, the distinctive; incredibly mid to late twentieth century retro chic logo of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Drawn in by this I wandered around enthralled.
Who put all of it all together I wondered, searching for the list of partners. “The School of History & Cultures at the University of Birmingham”? Why was the University of Birmingham suddenly so keen to engage with the ongoing legacy of cultural studies seeing as it was only just over a decade since they’d expunged the field from their institution entirely. I was more surprised though that the prime mover behind the exhibition appeared to be historians. After my three years at York I had pretty much given up on the study of the past. Far from wanting to create interesting stories to challenge and entertain people, being outward facing to the world, it seemed that historical studies was a closed shop occupied by obtuse people who delighted in doing the precise opposite of this. Here though was a group of historians using their work to present a challenging, even revolutionary; narrative to the public in a very public place. Whilst a student I had become very interested in the visual arts-as a fan more than anything else-and following the dry, gleefully unvisual; deeply univentive form of history that I’d encountered whilst an undergrad, seeing historians working so well, and seemingly with respect and synergy with artists to create something new, provocative and relevant; was a revelation.
I took a flyer, began Googling names. Came across the Modern British Studies blog, discovered there was a research centre, learnt about the MA. Suddenly thought, this is actually what I want to do; find creative ways of using the past to communicate with people, entertain them and help them think about contemporary issues. I had decided years ago that museums, whilst occasionally home to interesting displays; were stuffy-but I did like art galleries as spaces-and this approach to presenting the past was to my mind as much about art as it was anything else.
Feeling I was lacking momentum I had been toying with doing an MA for a while, I considered architectural history at UCL (to expensive), Art History at BCU, which I seriously considered doing for a time. I was conscious though that I wanted to pick the right course. So located right on my doorstep, offering part-time options (I was keen to be able to do other things whilst I studied), and seemingly run by a group of people I was in sync with, Modern British Studies felt a great choice. After months of procrastination I submitted an application and was offered a place to start in September 2015. I had no idea how I was going to get there, but in my mind; my road to being a creative, community historian lay before me.
As it happened, a lot of my earlier concerns about the academy proved absolutely spot on. I also discovered that given the right conditions I am actually a pretty good generalist administrator: who knew? These things knocked me off track a bit, especially when a risky job that seemed to offer the potential to challenge the academy, manage part of the university and do history (and other humanities disciplines) in new, challenging and creative, outward facing ways, just happened to become vacant at exactly the moment I was finishing my masters. I will survive that experience.
And having escaped I will find ways in which I can use the past to creatively connect with people and critique and challenge the present. Activist Selly Oak has been a brilliant reflective experience and a great learning opportunity. And the best bit is that it is just the start.