#Thanks for Typing

Modern British Studies Birmingham

Josh Allen Josh Allen

AI was recently enthralled by the hashtag “Thanks for Typing”. In a nutshell #ThanksforTyping is a way for today’s intellectuals to share and shine a spotlight upon just how vital the (often unpaid) labour-both intellectual and emotional-of typists, proofreaders, research assistants and other (often unpaid) has been in the development of knowledge.

Within the field of modern British studies, uncovering “brain work’s hidden labourers” is an area of research that is gathering pace. Probably my favourite article last year was Carolyn Steedman’s Threatening Letters: E. E. Dodd, E. P. Thompson, and the Making of ‘The Crime of Anonymity’” in History Workshop Journal, exploring the relationship between the author of the Making of the English Working Class and his longstanding research assistant.

But when it comes to my current project, exploring graduate study at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s, I’d be the first…

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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). 

Rosamund Lily West-Kingston University

For the latest in my series exploring the practice of urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Rosamund West, museums professional and PhD student at Kingston University. Rosamund’s PhD explores, partly through utalising a range of public engagement approaches, the ways in which the London County Council’s public art policies worked their way-not just into London’s fabric-but the fabric of Londoner’s lives.

What is your background?

I am South-East London born and bred, and so the subject of my research is possibly not the most adventurous! I did a BA and a part time MA in History of Art at the University of York, and really loved my time there. My BA dissertation was on the post-war rebuilding of the Elephant and Castle and my MA dissertation was on two London County Council (LCC) estates that had artworks installed on them. In between, and at the same time as studying, I have worked in a number of museums in London and Yorkshire.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…growing up I was dazzled by the bright pink of the Elephant’s shopping centre, and loved the splashes of colour in subways and on walls around London.”

I went into my degree wanting to study the architecture and planning of the Elephant and Castle. I have known the Elephant my whole life and have family connections to the area. Growing up, people would say how ugly it was and how it had been ruined. As I got older, I wandered why the environment was like it was, why you had to go under the ground to cross from one side of the roundabout to another, who ‘ruined’ it, and why?

Also growing up I was dazzled by the bright pink of the Elephant’s shopping centre, and loved the splashes of colour in subways and on walls around London. I particularly noticed the colourful murals, often political, on the end of terraces around my local area. As a child, the motivation and meaning of them was lost on me but I loved how colourful they were and how I could see familiar people in them.

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

“An approach I always try to bear in mind is how would family and friends who experienced LCC policies react to my research?”

There are a lot of historians doing research into post-war architecture and planning, which is great as it stimulates more work and more interest in the area. I recently joined twitter and have been blown away by how supportive people have been in showing an interest in my work, in pointing me towards articles, and in helping me find sources. I have found the wider community of historians, enthusiasts and professionals to be a generous and supportive one.

An approach I always try to bear in mind is how would family and friends who experienced LCC policies react to my research? When I speak about my research, reactions range from bemusement to a real enthusiasm to talk about the effect the LCC had on them. Presenting research to people that experienced what you are talking about is a useful challenge, I find.

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

“I… hope to share my work and increase access to the history of London and the LCC by talking about it outside in the environment, not just writing about it.”

I hope readers find the post-war re-planning of London engaging as it affects many of us in our daily lives. I hope people see how optimistically London was planned, and how the original vision, the original ideas, were intended to make London a better place to live in for Londoners. I hope people get a sense of how a municipal authority was providing housing so desperately needed, while at the same time being concerned about people’s cultural enrichment and education.

I also hope to share my work and increase access to the history of London and the LCC by talking about it outside in the environment, not just writing about it. I have taken people on tours of the Lansbury estate in Poplar, which I love doing, as I get to talk about an (apparently everyday) environment with people and respond to their questions, opinions and memories. I find this way of working so beneficial to my research, especially when former and current residents come along and fill in gaps for me!

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

Going right back to my BA, a big change I have noticed is how easy it is now to take photographs of an everyday urban environment. We now all have camera phones and use social media, so taking photographs all the time is normal. When I began studying and taking photographs of the Elephant and Castle around 2005, a lot of my photographs have my Dad in. It felt intrusive taking photos around people going about their daily business, so I pretended I was taking photos of my Dad. Consequently, he is in a lot of my dissertation photographs of the Elephant!

“For the LCC, art was not an elitist pursuit, but a part of daily life.”

Another way my work has evolved is that I cannot fail to ignore current housing and arts policies as they become increasingly remote from the post-war consensus. How people are housed, and attitudes of politicians and the media to people that need housing, are a world away from the policies and rhetoric of the LCC. Cuts to arts funding and arts education are also a huge departure from the post-war LCC. The LCC was installing artworks by artists such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, and Franta Belsky within everyday housing environments. They believed in the value of the arts and the value of arts education. For the LCC, art was not an elitist pursuit, but a part of daily life.

Whilst researching, what sources have you found most illuminating?

My absolute favourite source is LCC publications themselves. The LCC wrote about themselves a lot! The way they are so proud of their achievements and write in such a totally optimistic way about the LCC is fascinating. The LCC publications directly address Londoners and are sentimental about London and Londoners; they see the romance in everyday London life. These publications are very revealing about what the LCC thought Londoners wanted and how they believed they were working in Londoner’s best interests.

How easy is it to trace the networks that enabled the creation of public art in post-war London

“I have… spoken to an artist who talked through his work with residents, but I want to know more.”

My holy grail is to find minutes, or some detailed descriptions, of the ‘client committees’ used to discuss an artwork. Representatives from the Arts Council, the LCC and a client committee would meet to discuss an artwork. The client committee would vary depending on whether the artwork was for a school, a housing estate, an old people’s home, or a park. I have found many references to the discussions and outcomes of the client committees, and have spoken to an artist who talked through his work with residents, but I want to know more. Later in my PhD, I hope to track down residents who remember speaking to artists or the LCC about artworks.

Do they appear to have changed over time?

Yes. Before the patronage of the arts programme really got going in 1956/57, the LCC were already installing artworks in residential settings. As early as 1949, Peter Laszlo Peri’s sculptural relief, Following the Leader (Memorial to the children killed in the Blitz) was installed on the Vauxhall Gardens estate. From 1956/57, the LCC set aside £20,000 a year for the scheme. The scheme morphs over time, and the LCC express concern over not exercising personal taste; seeking advice from the Arts Council; and the role of the client committees in assessing works.

Through my museum job, I identify with the LCC’s need to change and adapt their acquisition policy and process over time. The main purpose of my museum role is the complicated and varied process of acquiring objects and I attend the acquisition committee meetings. These same ethical and moral concerns over acquisitions are still relevant to practise today.

Is there anything that historians can learn from museum work and practices?

“Historians can learn from museum work and practise by utilising the power of objects to engage and inspire: nothing can replace looking at and touching an object, being in its physical space.”

In my museum career, I have delivered many handling workshops and talks involving objects, and witnessed how powerfully an object can evoke a period in history or a memory for a person. Such activities open up museum collections to the public, and increase access and knowledge to the collections. Historians can learn from museum work and practise by utilising the power of objects to engage and inspire: nothing can replace looking at and touching an object, being in its physical space. Architecture and the built environment is the same: to engage with it you need to be within the environment. This is especially relevant with my research as I am interested in how the LCC planned for communities, and why they installed artworks where they did, and so physically walking around the environment is crucial.

draped-seated-woman

Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman(‘Old Flo’), Stifford Estate, Stepney

You can find Rosamund on Twitter and she can also be reached through the Kingston University Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture graduate school. More  urban history profiles can be read here.

“Worth less than zero”? When the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a biker gang

“If your going to survive riding a motorbike you have to be totally concentrated on the here and now. About everything observed of the here and now. You don’t think about the past, you don’t think about the future you don’t have expectations except the immediate ones which are negotiated… This concentration of the here and now is curiously calming.”

John Berger, 2016

How did the Church of England cope with social change in the second half of the 20th Century?

The answer that trips off the tongue is: very badly. Two clips spring to mind. The first is the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood debating John Cleese and Michael Palin in 1979 following the release of The Life of Brian:

Concluding by stating that “they’ll soon have their thirty pieces of silver” Stockwood (who was widely considered a “liberal”) can most charitably be viewed as a rabbit in the headlights, a man staring dazed and confused at a world changing all around him.

The second clip is drawn from Privilege Peter Watkins’ 1967 (Birmingham filmed) pop music “mocumentary”:

Here the church is an sinister, malevolent and insidious presence locked in a repressive ideological marriage of convenience with capital and the state. The aging priestly characters lurk with almost lecherous intent, moving their pop star manque around like a chess piece, as they plot the reassertion of their traditional moral and social authority. Of course, whilst its dominant codes are seldom radical the culture industry-in reality-never formed an alliance with the established church. However, echos of a backlash in the name of the established “Christian” order against “permissiveness” can be heard in everything from the short lived-Cliff Richards endorsed-Festival of Light Movement in 1970-71, to the rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher ten years later.

And of course-stretching across both the out of touch and the actively reactionary positions-is a graph. A graph with steadily declining church attendance on one axis and increasing lack of identification with any kind of religious faith on the other.

The thing about this narrative, the story of how hundreds (if not thousands) of years of (supposedly) monolithic Christian culture rapidly breaking down, is that it is a little bit to neat, to tidy, to comfortable for lumpy secular liberalism. What if sections of the Church of England, including parts of its hierarchy, were rather more in tune with-and eager to adapt to-the changing society that they found themselves in? What follows is a case study from Birmingham which shows how in the later 1960s a group of Anglicans attempted to do just that.

Between 1965 and 1970-71 the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a motorcycle club based at the disused St. Basil’s Church, Digbeth. Today with its pop-up concepts, contemporary art galleries and design studios the area has a rough and ready chic. In the 1960s it was part of the inner-city “twilight zone”, a messy, crumbling, insanitary, urban wasteland awaiting the bulldozers. It was here that the Reverend David Collyer the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” facilitated the establishment of the Double Zero Motorcycle Club.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1968) Rea Valley towards Digbeth, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

In of itself what Collyer was doing was not radical. With varying degrees of formal church input, Anglicans had been founding “Boy’s Clubs” centered around recreations that they thought would appeal to tough working class youth’s since the 19th Century, as any Smiths fan could tell you.

It is possible to read the Double Zero as merely a late flowering iteration of this tradition, however, it is clear that Collyer and his supporters thought they had a rather different agenda.

The name Double Zero reputedly came about because the club’s membership thought that “they were worth less than zero”. Which seems on first glance an incredibly nihilistic starting point for a church run youth group. Collyer secured St. Basil’s from the diocese to start the club because he felt that he needed a more solid base for the youth outreach work he was doing. 1965 when it first opened was near the height of the moral panic that surrounded the “mod” and “rocker” violence of the mid-1960s meaning that the club’s target audience were high up the public’s list of folk devils.

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St. Basil’s Digbeth as it appears today, author’s photo

Birmingham in the 1960s was well placed for the development of a motorcycle subculture. New motorways and expressways with exhilarating underpasses sliced through the city allowing for speed, it’s industrial economy was predicated upon exactly the kind of mechnical skills needed to maintain a bike and the baby boom generation was leaving school and entering workplaces that combined, hard, dull work with relatively high wages.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1966) View from the Rotunda over the roof of New Street Station, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

From the start the club was popular, and by 1966-7 St. Basil’s hundreds of regular attenders and thousands on the peripheries. Members ranged from a hardcore of Hell’s Angels and “greasers” that were widely deemed anti social and frequently in legal trouble, through a much larger pool of wayward disaffected teens and young adults, to those who were essentially young motorcycle enthusiasts that appreciate the club’s free tools and engine oil. Collyer had a keen eye for a good story and little objection to being in the limelight (to the consternation of many more traditional Anglicans) and a splurge of charitable donations, local authority and central government grants funded an expanding cadre of salaried staff, building extensions and better catering, games and musical equipment. The lowering of the age of majority in 1969 even allowed for a charity appeal to fund the institution of a licensed bar!         

In 1973 Collyer published his experiences as a diocesan youth worker in Double Zero: Five Years with Rockers and Hell’s Angels in an English City. Brought out by Fontana it is a lively book clearly aimed at the mass market. In genre terms it recalls earlier generations of Christian testament and faith autobiography, but also secular life-stories especially those dealing with war-time service, or other extraordinary situations (like: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Escape from Colditz, Kon-Tiki), that were published in large numbers in the 1950s when Collyer was a teen. All in all more “Boys Own” than Hunter S. Thompson. These qualities make the book an excitable and at times even lurid source. Did Collyer really gain the respect of Birmingham’s biker’s by playing “chicken” at 100 miles per hour-on the back of a bike-between two double decker buses going the wrong way down the A45 towards Coventry? Win a fist-fight with the leader of a gang of Hell’s Angels? Or drive over to a brothel on the Varna Road to “rescue a fallen girl” with dozens of rockers in train? Likewise the book’s religious symbolism is at times overly neat. For instance: Collyer’s car breaks down in the Staffordshire countryside late at night and the only person willing to stop and help him is a leader of a (different) gang of Hell’s Angels that a few weeks previously threatened him with a sawn off shotgun. Handily this Wulfrunian Good Samaritan’s day job is as a mechanic’s mate.

Collyer’s work must be read in light of these dramatic moments. But, lively points aside; Double Zero provides a brilliant insight into what the community of volunteers and paid youth workers that gathered around St. Basil’s and Birmingham’s biker youth hoped to achieve. Their objectives can be best understood through division into three broad categories: the pastoral, the participatory and the iconoclastic.

In pastoral terms the “Double Zero model”, whilst delivered almost entirely by staunch Christians with a very deep belief in the values of their faith, was in practice far closer to the developing fields of youth and social work than traditional faith based charity. By Collyer’s own admission the club’s-frequently troubled-clientele “just wouldn’t come” if they felt that they would be preached to, forced to express gratitude and contrition, and reformed, in exchange for support and assistance. Instead the Double Zero’s practice was to offer food and drink (including alcohol), company and contraceptives with an understanding that housing, legal, employment (and spiritual) support was there if asked for.

This lack of overt moralism was far removed from the stance adopted by many state, and especially local authority agencies in the period, and in the late 1960s attracted many observers. Indeed, half a century later, the Double Zero experiment with its communalism and emphasis on free spirited human flourishing seems quintessentially of its era. Collyer’s account balances a social concerned, bang up-to-date, sociological understanding of the persistence of want in Britain despite “full employment” and the welfare state, with the traditional moral concerns of his religion.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (0019) The Bull Ring Shooping Centre. [Image] (Unpublished)

Perhaps the most quintessentially 1960s part of the Double Zero experiment was its emphasis on participation. The club was supposedly run on a “dual power” basis with authority vested not just in Collyer and his staff of church youth workers, but also in an elected members committee, as if the Double Zero was any other biker’s chapter. This arrangement-unavoidably-led to tensions and constant politicking. But also vividly illustrates the genuine desire on the part of the Anglicans (who it can be assumed secured and administered the government, local authority and Church of England grants that lubricated the club’s day-to-day functions) to manage the club in partnership with, rather than for; the membership.

This spirit of participation extended to other organisations and milieus. From the “major figure in his firm” who discreetly found work for bikers down on their luck, through the radical students “Pam” and “Alan” who despite little love for organised religion arranged for their “Student Action” organisation to support the club, to the “elderly anglo-catholic priest” with a “quiet parish” in “an affluent suburb” who woke up early to rouse a bailed biker for his probation appointments, like any project the Double Zero had many architects. Key amongst these was Leonard Wilson who was the Bishop of Birmingham until 1969. A liberal clergyman of a previous generation, he appears to have had little affinity for or understanding of modern youth culture, but believed that Collyer’s schemes merited support and sanction. Capitalists, student radicals and aged clerical grandees enabling the same scheme for their own divergent ends, graphically illustrates that changes are multi-authored, multi-purposed and frequently driven by impulse.   

Iconoclasm, the Double Zero project’s third key strand, is tightly woven into Collyer’s narrative of what the Double Zero was about. This is perhaps unsurprising, early in the book he sets himself up as a maverick, someone who from an early age reckoned “rules got in the way” and “people mattered more than organisations”. On the most basic level there is evident glee in his presentation of how the Double Zero differs from “traditional” youth clubs. The club is a place where youths can come and blast the juke box, fix their bike, or kick a ball around in the church. In contrast to the Boy’s Brigade or the Scout’s physical activity was generally scorned. An attempted outdoors bound trip cheerily written off as a disaster-utterly alien to the Double Zero membership’s everyday experience-a certain pride taken in their short lived football team scraping along the bottom of the league.

The decision to relate these trappings of rebellion paints a picture of Collyer’s radically egalitarian objectives for the club. However, aspects of the theology on display at St. Basil’s were equally radical. Prior to becoming the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” Collyer gained a degree of notoriety for publicly disclaiming the concept of infant baptism and refusing to have his children baptised. The style of worship-in so far as there was a style of worship practised whilst the Double Zero was based at the church-was equally radical. Collyer gleefully recounts how memorials services for dead bikers and wedding blessings departed from the standard practises of the Church of England to take into account “the situation” “circumstances” and “life experiences” of club members. This practice is defended by arguing the anything else would be perceived as “unreal” or “false”-in a Holden Caulfield sense-by the audience of bikers.

As priest in charge Collyer’s actions-he reports gleefully-are condemned by “traditionalists” and “[his] persistent evangelical critics”. He states that his aim was to “reach out to people who are failed by the parish system” and make “religion relevant to everyday life in the inner-city”. Evidentially he and his supporters felt the form of religion they sought to enact was well suited to injecting some compassion into the highly stratified, atomised and brutal, affluent society. This comes across clearly in one of the self-written hymns Collyer includes as an appendix to Double Zero:

“When you’ve looked in the streets just lately

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the slog, slog of the factory

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the concrete flats of the suburbs

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?”

The sound of alienation according to another group of 1960s Birmingham musicians 

It is at this point that the Double Zero’s progressive brand of Christian humanism intersects with the dominant discourses of mid-late ‘60s grassroots left-wing activism. It is possible to discern in Collyer and his supporters intensely practical attempt to reach out to Birmingham’s damaged, disaffected and alienated youth a Christian counterpart to the cry of anger against the compromises and contradictions of welfare capitalism that can be found in the pages of the New Left Review or the work of Marcuse and Debord. Far from our inherited picture of the Church of England in this period as bewildered and reactionary in its decrepitude, the Double Zero experiment shows that parts of the church were tuned into and engaged with criticisms of the social order and working to overcome it.

What then became of this strand of Anglicanism? Why is it that the Double Zero club closed in 1970 and those involved with it were scattered? Why did Collyer’s brand of open minded, socially engaged, Christianity seemingly gain so little traction that it’s been largely forgotten? Why these things came to pass is possibly best explained through comparison with another product of 1960s critical emancipatory thought: cultural studies.

In 1972 Paul Willis, an early PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, completed his thesis: Popular Music and Youth Culture Groups in Birmingham.           

In the first chapter of the thesis Willis traces a lineage of rebellion. A pop genealogy that can be traced from progressive rock:

Through the Rolling Stones:

And Dylan:

To Marlon Brando in the early motorcycle movie The Wild Bunch (1953) answering the question: “…What are you rebelling against?”

By asking: “What have you got?”

Willis sought to establish the validity of pop culture’s own “great canon”. A rebel canon, an emancipatory canon, a canon showcasing youth culture’s increasing sophistication and refinement.

In the early stages of his research, perhaps through sympathetic student radicals, although more likely through earlier University of Birmingham researchers who’d found them accommodating, Willis found himself in Digbeth at the Double Zero Club interviewing the club’s members.

Willis hoped to show through interviewing the biker boys about their love of early rock ‘n roll that their critical judgement was just as developed, discerning and reasoned as critical conclusions about established art forms expressed by the upper middle class.

It is also clear that he found the Club’s members exciting and fascinating in of themselves. With their den in the dingy backstreets of Digbeth and “greasy” “unkempt” “appearance calculated to shock members of the middle class and respectable society” Willis found the Double Zero “authentic”. They emerge from the text as totemic representatives of a form of unpredictably vibrant working class masculinity. Qualities that despite being-as a Cambridge educated upwardly mobile research student-in society’s terms a “success”, he clearly envived.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1960) Old Crown, Heath Mill Lane, Deritend, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

Yet, he was also fascinated by Collyer and those who worked with him. The idea of a Christian run youth club for rockers and Hell’s Angels evidently grabbed his attention. As it did me. Discovering through Willis’ thesis that the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron in the 1960s of a Digbeth based motorcycle club sent me hurtling to Google and from their to Collyer’s book.

He provides-seemingly with a half raised eyebrow-a comprehensive list of some of the voluntary activities “community spirited” Double Zero members undertook in an attempt to “improve the public image” of young motorcyclists. All orientated towards biking, these included:

Leafleting to support road safety campaigns

Transporting emergency blood supplies to hospitals

Guiding emergency vehicles through the fog

Lending their premises to one of Birmingham’s grammar schools for their end of year prom. An event that was apparently poorly received by both parties….

He also comments upon the club’s ethos and its goals. With his thesis noting in several places how egalitarian the club seemed and how unbound by rules, Willis’ observations indicate that the environment at the Double Zero was much as Collyer hoped it would be.  

At times he suggests that this might even have gone too far, finding the atmosphere of constant engine revving, loud rock music and physical boisterousness “edgy”, “unnerving” even “intimidating”. In discussing the club’s management he describes how despite the club’s ostensibly Anglican foundation he “never saw Collyer or any of the other workers preaching or moralising” and praises their warmth and open mindedness.

An open mindedness that perhaps went a little bit too far. Willis’ thesis notes that whilst he was undertaking fieldwork at the club and in the surrounding streets (including the still existent Forge pub on Fazeley Street) he had reason to suspect that stolen goods were being fenced inside the club. Indeed one of his key subjects was jailed for burglary during the course of his research. In Double Zero Collyer’s recounts that there were hundreds of incidents when club members were arrested and charged with crimes of theft and assault, he also writes about three or four cases when club members were charged with unlawful killing, including murder.

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“The Forge Tavern as it appears today”, author’s photo

These details, together with Willis’ observations and snatches of tape transcript which record copious examples of fairly extreme misogynistic and racist statements falling from the mouths of Double Zero members, remind us not to overly romanticise them. By the same virtue, whilst Willis’ subjects were mostly older members in their twenties, Collyer’s reminiscences of the kind of pastoral work he was doing at the Double Zero indicate that most members were teenagers frequently using the club as a refuge from what today would be viewed as abusive and exploitative situations. This probably goes some way towards explaining the aggressive, impulsive, even self-loathing, behaviour displayed by members.

From a twenty first century perspective Willis and Collyer’s approach towards tackling and discussing these issues seems naive. But at least they were attempting to raise and address them. At the time practically every formal state agency and charitable organisation was set up just to meet material needs, and then, even twenty years after the National Assistance Act, frequently with explicit conduct based strings attached.

Which leads us to the question of what happened to the fiery, naive, yet iconoclastic; ‘60s optimism that fired both the Double Zero project and the early years of cultural studies. It did not disappear it just grew-up, got wise and was assimilated.

The open values that underpinned Collyer’s charismatic, yet liberal and pragmatic, brand of Christianity, were transmitted via a process of general osmosis to the youth and social worker sectors as a whole. Cut to the bone and highly regulated (only one of which is in of itself a bad thing) today’s outreach, homeless prevention and counselling services at least pay-lip service to the idea of user-provider co-production and even at their most marketised are a far cry from the kind of cold, one-sized fits all, overbearing; forms of social provision that Collyer felt had failed his clients.

The seeds of this change were already apparent in the 1960s. Many of the volunteers that facilitated the Double Zero’s work at St. Basil’s were “young girls” (and a few young men) who wanted to go on and study for teaching, social work and youth work qualifications. Assuming that they then went on the practice and have careers in these fields, they will have had an impact upon shaping the delivery of these services in the UK and further afield, that extends to the present day.

In a sense the set-up at St. Basil’s that the Double Zero established has also continued to exist. Today St. Basil’s sits at the heart of the eponymous St. Basil’s youth homelessness prevention charity. How the charity has changed since it was established in 1972 reflects well shifts in society. Firstly the massive increase in housing and employment precarity that has emerged in cities like Birmingham since the decline of mass manufacturing in the 1970s. Secondly the neo-liberal state’s shift towards contracting third sector organisations to deliver key social services. St. Basil’s is a brilliant example of an organisation that has met these challenges and delivered a brilliant service to its users in very trying circumstances. It retains church input but is fundamentally secular and whilst retaining a focus on listening to, working with and empowering its service users, operates to standards of professionalism light years away from those that prevailed at the Double Zero.

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“St. Basil’s Church Digbeth as it appears today”, author’s photo

The cultural studies project has followed a similar trajectory. Today when every broadsheet has a pop music critic and BBC Four happily broadcasts documentaries about post-punk alongside those about Prokofiev, few would seriously dispute that Willis’ notion that pop culture has a worthy canonical tradition that deserves serious attention. But (great as they are) the deification of New Order and The Fall in no way extinguishes the inherently elitist and exclusionary notion of a canon: it just reproduces it with less cello and more guitars.

Cultural studies related academic disciplines, whilst (due in large part to the political climate) not as powerful as they were fifteen or twenty years ago, are well established in the academy. According to Peter Mandler, whilst relative numbers are lower than in the 1980s and ‘90s one in ten British undergraduates are currently studying for a degree in social studies. But all this shows it that the study of popular culture has been accepted into the academy, it hasn’t fundamentally altered, or even exploded the academy. As with radical youth work what has happened is that cultural studies concepts and the radical ideals and critique that they embodied have been co-opted.

It’s clear-as my exploration of the Double Zero initiative indicates-that many Anglicans, at all levels of the church’s hierarchy, from the cathedral throne right down to the rank sat in their parish pews, were far from dismayed by the cultural changes of the 1960s. Indeed they agreed with many criticisms of the affluent society and traditional cultures of deference and morality. For them as many as anyone else the spectre of cultural change in the 1960s was welcome, exciting and pregnant with opportunities.

However, like so many other radical initiatives from the period it was co-opted, incorporated into a slightly liberalised version of the existing system. Life in 21st Century Britain might be rather less authoritarian than the society that Willis and Collyer railed against. However, is it really any less rigid, brutal or alienating? Parts of the superstructure have been smoothed down but the base remains as hard as ever. The Church of England’s 1960s experiments in socially involved agape are forgotten, its spasms of pearl clutching remembered; because they legitimise rather than problematise the existing order.

“Jesus Built My Hotrod”, (Redline/Whiteline Version), Jourgensen, Rieflin, Balch, Haynes (Sire, 1991)

Katrina Navickas-University of Hertfordshire

“…trying to move historians away from a simplistic ‘spatial turn’ and emphasis on symbolic representations in space, to deeper thinking about the cultural, customary and emotional meanings of place and how these affected people’s engagements with their environments in protest.”

For the latest in my series exploring urban history today, I was lucky enough to catch up with Katrina Navickas; a Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire. Katrina’s work brings an exciting new spatial dimension to the study of urban and regional protest movements in eighteenth and nineteenth Century Lancashire.

What is your background?

I’m originally from Rochdale in Lancashire. I read Modern History at St John’s College, Oxford, and I taught at Oxford, Bath Spa and Edinburgh universities before joining the University of Hertfordshire in 2009.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I was taught about the history of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the Luddites of 1812 at school, and their legacy stayed with me. I really appreciate the Pennine landscape of Lancashire and Yorkshire too, so combining this with my interest in the history of popular democratic movements and protest was obvious.

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

The geographer Doreen Massey. Last year I went to the colloquium at the Royal Geographic Society in memory of Massey, and the number of her friends and former students who testified to her original thinking about space and place was testimony to her influence on all sorts of scholars.

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

Hopefully an appreciation that protesting for democratic and human rights is important, and that there is a long history of these movements, often rooted in their localities and places that we can still see today. I’m trying to move historians away from a simplistic ‘spatial turn’ and emphasis on symbolic representations in space, to deeper thinking about the cultural, customary and emotional meanings of place and how these affected people’s engagements with their environments in protest.

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

“…my collaboration with the British Library Labs team, Political Meetings Mapper, enabled me to teach myself how to use Python to text-mine historic newspapers and plot thousands of sites of political meetings in the 1840s.”

I’m turning into a geographer! I’m thinking and reading a lot more about the cultural geographies of space and place, and how to apply various theories and models to historical evidence. I’m also using digital resources and open software more regularly not just to visualise the places that I research, but also as analytical tools to enable me to deal with much larger data. For example, my collaboration with the British Library Labs team, Political Meetings Mapper, enabled me to teach myself how to use Python to text-mine historic newspapers and plot thousands of sites of political meetings in the 1840s. I would not have been able to do this on that scale before. I’m still developing my skills in digital humanities and seeing what new insights I can gain from them.

How have tools like GIS shaped the way that you use sources in researching your work?

“…I can analyse large numbers of political meetings, procession and march routes, and other types of geographical data.”

Related to the previous question, they’ve enabled me to examine much larger bodies of sources on a scale I was unable to do before. I first used GIS during the last year of my DPhil studies, when I went to the Bodleian Map Library and asked for help in drawing maps for my thesis. It was a lot more simplistic then, so I was simply doing a digital version of a map I could draw on paper. Now my use of GIS is a lot more sophisticated: I can analyse large numbers of political meetings, procession and march routes, and other types of geographical data. I can layer lots of different mapped data on top of each other to find any correlations or relations between them, such as population density, cholera outbreaks, ethnic and religious communities’ concentration in particular areas, etc.

I am also collaborating with Dr Sam Griffiths and his colleagues at the Space Syntax Lab of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, on a project using space syntax methods on the historical data. Space Syntax is a way of modelling the level of connectedness or integration of urban street plans, and the software, Depthmap, enables some great visualisations of how ‘busy’ or ‘isolated’ particular locations were. We’re hoping to apply the methods to historical street plans and my data of protest sites to come to new ways of describing their locations.

Are there any new questions that this enables you to address?

“I’m most excited about 3D modelling the street plans in particular, as this will give a more detailed impression of how the street spaces were experienced and navigated by crowds and residents.”

Yes, I’m looking for new ways of understanding the locations of protest and political meetings and how and why they changed over time. I’m most excited about 3D modelling the street plans in particular, as this will give a more detailed impression of how the street spaces were experienced and navigated by crowds and residents. Modelling isovists, or lines of sight, will also enable me to understand something about how both protesters and the authorities saw each other, both physically and perhaps more metaphorically.

Do you get a sense that there was a cohesive “northern” or “north western” identity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or were identities far more locally rooted?

“…the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which was seen across the industrial parts of the North as an attack by the authorities and the government against all working-class people rather than just a singular event in Manchester.”

There was certainly a northern identity in this period. Industrialisation, though regional, fostered a sense of a distinctive identity against ‘the South’, and though custom, tradition, and landscape meant that local identities and links were still strong, particular events served to bring the North together – in particular, the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which was seen across the industrial parts of the North as an attack by the authorities and the government against all working-class people rather than just a singular event in Manchester. The massive protests against the implementation of the New Poor Law from 1837 onwards were also clear evidence of a distinctive northern defiance against perceived centralisation of power from London – indeed, there was little overt or violent resistance south of the Trent.

Do you get any impression that the protesters you study saw their actions as forming part of established local traditions?

Yes definitely. The processions to St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in 1816-19, culminating with the Peterloo Massacre, drew directly from local customs, notably the Rushbearing festivals of the towns and villages surrounding Manchester and also the processions of Friendly societies and Sunday schools. You can read the recollections of the Middleton leader, Samuel Bamford, for his defence of the tactic of political processions as an integral part of working-class culture. The Chartists also organised their ‘camp meetings’ on the moors, which had hymns, sermons and other features borrowed from Methodist culture.

Pennine Way, Edale from Kinder Scout, Peak District, Derbyshire (8120126842)

“Kinder Scout (Peak District, southern Pennines)” By Andrew Bone from Weymouth, England [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

You can read more about Katrina’s work on her University of Hertfordshire Faculty page, the “Protest History” blog and academia.edu profile. She is also on Twitter.

More urban historian profiles can be read here.

Birmingham Manufactures project

“Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer.”

For the latest in my series exploring the work of urban historians today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with the team that’s working on the Birmingham Museums Trust’s Birmingham Manufactures project. Birmingham Manufactures is an Arts Council funded project that-amongst other things-aims to catalogue and make more accessible and visible, the Birmingham made objects in the museum’s collections.

What is the background to Birmingham Manufactures?

“The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.”

The project came out of a desire to improve the cataloguing system for Birmingham Museums, and make the collection more accessible to researchers and members of the public. The project is funded by the Art’s Council’s Designation Fund which funds projects which ensure the long-term sustainability of significant museum collections and maximise their value both to the public and to museum staff. This money has paid for two new dedicated members of staff, and will be used to develop the cataloguing system and to pay for new archival and collections storage. Birmingham Museums has an enormous collection of objects – somewhere in the region of 800,000 items – which have come into the collection in various ways. The acquisition and cataloguing of objects has traditionally been the responsibility of individual curators who look after a particular area of the collection – applied art, for example, or science and industry. Although many of the items in the collection are related to Birmingham manufacture, these objects are rarely understood in this way. Some objects, such as fine metalwork and jewellery, were acquired as examples of ‘good’ design to inspire Birmingham’s workforce and subsequently found their way into the applied arts collection. Others items, such as the engines and machinery used in some of the city’s various trades, were acquired and displayed at the old Museum of Science and Industry as examples of innovation and technology. More recently, oral histories from individuals employed in Birmingham’s workshops and factories have been collected as part of the social history collection, and new interpretation for the Birmingham History Gallery. The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.

How does this help us understand Birmingham’s history?

“As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them.”

Birmingham is known for its history of manufacturing, and is commonly referred to as the City of a Thousand Trades. Industry and manufacture were central to the city’s growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and making and manufacture remain at the heart of the self-identity of many in the city today. The variety of objects that we will be cataloguing as part of this project suggest the complexity of this history. Items that we will be considering include weights and scales, engines, motor vehicles, bicycles, firearms, jewellery and domestic metalware, food products, buttons and pens amongst many, many others. Unlike industrialising towns like Manchester and Sheffield which were focused on one major industry (cotton and steel respectively), Birmingham flourished precisely because of the variety of industries operating within its borders. By understanding the composition of objects and the materials needed for their production, these items can help demonstrate the interconnectivity of Birmingham industries, and of their place in national and international markets and movement of people. As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them. Some of these objects speak volumes about the skill (or otherwise) of Birmingham’s workforce and of the labour involved in their production; others suggest changes in fashion, taste, and consumption patterns; other objects will have more personal meanings, and will appear in individual and family histories in different ways. Rather than simply understanding these items as commodities or as examples of design, we will be digging through archives and conducting oral histories interviews to generate a more complex record of what these objects may have meant.

What do you see as being the project’s long-term outcome?

“It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture.”

The project will ensure that a significant number of items in the collection that were made in Birmingham and its surrounding areas are properly catalogued. This may not sound like an exciting ambition, but it is vital for the future of the collection, and its interpretation. As well as describing the objects in full and assessing their condition, we will be recording maker names and the location of production where it is known. A large number of items will be photographed to a professional standard, creating a vital visual record which might also be used for display purposes. All this information will support the work of researchers and academics, and provide a wealth of information for those interested in the history of manufacturing in Birmingham. Eventually, all this information will be available online, allowing members of the public to access images and information about the collection digitally. It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture. Although the main outcome of the project will be to document, make accessible and raise awareness about an important part of the collection at Birmingham Museums we also hope that the project will encourage curators and members of the public to think differently about the objects in store and on display, and to continue to build connections between different parts of the collection. We are also hopeful that the project will encourage future collaboration between Birmingham Museums and local heritage sites, archives, libraries and community groups.

Are museums and their collections overlooked as a historical resource?

we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource whether… writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co… or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…”

Yes! Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer. More recently, and partly stimulated by what is termed ‘the material turn’, there has been an increase in the use of museum collections in historical research and a recognition that objects offer important insights into the past. Although the interest in using museum collections is increasing, there is a problem with the logistics of how exactly interested parties might access these items, particularly the vast majority of items which are not on display, but locked away in museum stores. As funding cuts follow funding cuts and staff numbers dwindle, providing access to these collections becomes all the more difficult. By fully cataloguing the objects which appear as part of the project, and by taking detailed photographs of them, we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource, whether they’re interested in writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co. or one of the many other Birmingham manufacturers, or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…

Has there been much interest from the public in what you’re doing?

Although we’re still at the very early stages of the project, we’ve been lucky to have lots of people get in touch. It’s wonderful to hear the stories of those who work or worked in Birmingham-based industries, or those who have memories of their relatives doing so. As I mentioned, we will be doing some oral histories as part of the project, and would be very pleased to hear from anybody who would be interested in doing this. At the moment, we are particularly interested to find anybody who worked at the factory of Alfred Bird and Sons in Digbeth, so please do get in touch!

Why do you think that people have been motivated to get in touch, or otherwise engage with you, about Birmingham Manufactures?

These industries shaped people’s lives, and those who worked in them (and their relatives) have a strong affinity with them. There is also something very powerful about the idea of your history, the history of your workplace, your family, or your neighbourhood being recorded in some way by a museum.

What’s the interesting thing that you’ve uncovered so far?

“One rectangular tin of custard powder… made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6…”

There are many interesting stories to be told from the collection, but our favourites so far are the globe-trotting tins of Alfred Bird’s food products. With its home in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Bird’s was an iconic Birmingham brand, and because of this, we acquired a collection from its archives in 2013. The collection offers a fascinating insight into the development of a brand, food tastes, and advertising in this country, but it also demonstrates the global reach of many Birmingham-made goods. One rectangular tin of custard powder, for example, made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6; another tin of baking powder was found on the other side of the globe, rescued from Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Birmingham Manufactures say:

Please do get in touch with us: birminghammanufactures@birminghammuseums.org.uk. We are also on Twitter @BrumMfr and on Facebook, where we post regular updates about our findings.

Please also consider signing the petition to ask Birmingham City Council to reconsider substantial cuts to Birmingham Museums at www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-please-reconsider-cuts6-to-birmingham-museums. The deadline for the petition in Monday the 16th January 2017.

For more urban history profiles see here.

Sarah Mass-University of Michigan

“…I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Sarah Mass of the University of Michigan. Sarah’s doctoral work focuses on street trading and markets in post-war Britian, providing insights into the social role that they play and what they tell us about identity, especially amongst migrant communities.

What is your background?

I was born in San Francisco, but spent most of my childhood in a small suburban town north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I became interested in British history in the ways I think many Americansparticularly womenbecome interested in the subject: through novels, mini-series, and royal history. I completed my BA at Tufts University, during which time I spent a year abroad at Worcester College, Oxford. I received my MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Modern British and Irish History before I started by PhD at the University of Michigan in 2011.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, ‘This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.’”

In my first 2 ¾ years of university, I remember writing essays on Imperialism, Chartism, Jacobitism, and all the other “-isms” that seemed to matter. Yet the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, “This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.” When I returned to the States, I wrote an honours thesis on the comparative experiences of difference among the Irish and Pakistani communities in West Yorkshire, and ever since then I would say my work has been concerned with the relationship between place, belonging, and identity in twentieth-century Britain. I thought I would continue to focus on immigration and community formation, but I veered off towards shopping and consumption. Ethnicity is still one lens in my scholarship (and I’ve pursued it more explicitly in other projects), but my main question has developed into how and why traditional city centre shopping survived an era of urban redevelopment and the rise of planned shopping centres.

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

“…one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.”

Although I only discovered her work within the last few years, Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America is absolutely the kind of scholarship I hope to produce. Her ability to “people” the often un-peopled fields of planning and economic history is exemplary, and I only hope I can span the 1945 divide in urban history with as much dexterity. Erika Hanna’s Modern Dublin and Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place have both shown me how to write urban history through a nuanced and careful analysis of heritage movements and public history. None of these scholars work on Britain, but that’s one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.

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

“…I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly ‘unbuilt’ features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.)”

On the most basic level, I hope that Americans reading my work can learn to appreciate British urban history beyond London history. Seriously, this is a problem. On a more disciplinary level, I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly “unbuilt” features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.). I think twentieth-century urban historians have been quick to see outlying towns or the countryside as victims of urban residential growth, but there are open, public spaces in the centres of our towns and cities which are targeted by infrastructure projects or the real estate interests. Renewed interest in Jane Jacobs and issues around neoliberal urbanism have brought attention to these spaces, but I hope my scholarship can offer a pre-history to these debates in provincial Britain’s town and city centres.

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

“I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment…”

As I mentioned above, I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white. While I used to write this off as simply a turn in the project, the last six months have really changed my perspective. There have been multiple Brexit features that use the town or city centre market place as a set piece for quintessential, authentic British life. I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment: markets “belonged” to localities, not to transient or outside traders. As I revise and write the last chapters of my dissertation, I’m striving to capture the categories of “local” and “English” as constructed, protected, and contingent categories wherein retail and ethnicity intersect.

Broadly speaking, what role do markets and shopping play in creating and sustaining community identity?

“…markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging.”

In Britain, many markets trace their charters back to the thirteenth century; therefore, they carry the weight of a deep, transhistorical sense of community. Since the nineteenth century, when local authorities bought market franchises en masse, these retail sites have been the spaces where public oversight meets private business. I think markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging. This makes their importance for post-industrial community identity particularly fraught.

How do you go about deciding which case studies to focus upon?

This is a great question and one I still struggle to explain. I knew I didn’t want to study London because it would invariably overwhelm other towns or cities in a comparative project. London also has a very different market culture than other localities, with the tradition of licensed street traders and street markets rather than covered retail markets. Instead, I’ve tried to get as much geographic, scalar, and structural coverage as I can. The one city that’s stayed fairly constant throughout the project is Glasgow, but other than that I’ve taken my cues from trade journals, heritage campaigns, and particularly strong local repositories. It’s not the most rigorous or systematic process, but it’s easier than going to every county record office in the country to look at their market committee meeting minutes!

Has it been fairly straightforward or quite hard to access the opinions and voices of the people and communities that you study?

“This… shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage.”

Market traders are not “joiners” almost by definition, so it’s hard to trace them in institutional records. This is really why I’ve turned to planning and architectural sources: markets come into view when they are knocked down, developed, or protected. This, of course, shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage. I’ve learned to read almost all of these accounts with an element of scepticism, keeping the politics of preservation and the professional interests of the speakers in mind.

Have you developed a sense of what leads to changes in the way that use shops and markets?

“Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.”

If I knew this, I think I’d make a very successful planning consultant! From my perspective, it’s an issue of how citizensespecially womenmade claims for retail stability during socio-economic crisis and change. During periods of interwar depression and wartime austerity, women patronized informal markets to make ends meet. When New Towns or outlying estates were constructed, housewives were often the citizens demanding markets alongside multiples or supermarkets. And as inflation constricted consumer buying power and women spent more time in the workplace, many markets rebranded themselves as one-stop family outings and bargain outlets. I think markets offer a corrective to the story of shopping we usually tell about post-1945 Britain: the usual tale is one of new precincts or modernist centres, but in the basements or outdoor squares of these structures, there were often bustling retail markets that continued to serve material and immaterial needs of sellers and shoppers. Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.

Sarah can be reached Twitter and the University of Mitchigan’s History Department, where you can find out more about her work. For more urban history profiles click here.

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Phyllis Nicklin, “Photograph of the Bull Ring street market, taken on the last day of street trading, 12/9/59”, Scanned by the Chrysalis project in 2004, from original 35mm slides held at the University of Birmingham. University of Birmingham all rights reserved

The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

“Increasingly, everyday amateur photography is a performative practice connected to presence, immediate communication and social networking, as opposed to the storing of memories for eternity, which is how it has hitherto been conceptualised” (Larsen & Sandbye 2014 p. xx)

At some point between the Marshall Mathers LP and the collapse of Leeman Brothers photography mutated and grew legs. Today everyday photos are no longer encountered sporadically reverently displayed on walls, tucked into hardback alums or folded into newsprint rather they are deeply embedded into the fabric of everyday life. As anyone who’s taken a picture of their lunch and shared it with the world (or alternately scoffed at an acquaintance who’s done so) can attest.

The short term implications of this shift are clear: photography in the 2010s is deeply, more so than ever, enmeshed with the technology through which it is created and shared with a photographer’s social networks. The ability to create and rapidly disseminate images has rapidly altered how individuals use images and the value that is attached to them. Whereas once a cherished snapshot shimmered miraculously in the face of everything that counted against its creation (cloud cover, motion blur, a finished film canister). Today’s images are evanescent, existing in the moment for the moment, showing both ourselves and those around us that we are in a moment and (whilst still performing a vital social function) are almost entirely supplanted a short while later when we next flick our phone out, open the camera app and hit the shutter button.

What the longer term implications of this are remain to be seen, but it is possible to see already how the instagramification of everyday life is starting to break out of the virtual part of our reality and impact upon the material world before us.

A couple of years ago, when I was temping at a large UK university, I was amused to notice outside one of the plusher campus buildings where my department had an open day stand, that the event’s organisers had set up a “selfie spot”. The “selfie spot” came resplendent with its own hashtag and open day attendees were being invited to stand on the spot and take their own picture. The purpose of the picture was clearly intended to encourage the prospective applicant to “picture themselves” at the institution, and just as crucially; share an image of themselves pictured at the institution with their wider social network and the world at large. A clever campaign, that probably seemed utterly bizarre to the parents and grandparents chaperoning the sixth form age attendees; but one which a scholar in the Department of Marketing at the university’s Business School could have taught as Social Marketing 101.

The snapshot in the age of the selfie, remains one of “visual culture’s cliches”, however, the inherently networked nature of everyday photographic practice makes it, if judged right, and incredibly potent marketing tool. There is nothing new about brands consciously trying to create an icon. As long ago as the 1950s, the popularity and public impact of Roland Barthes Espirt columns (collected and published as Mythologies) lead him to lucrative consulting work for companies, like Citroen; attempting to sculpt products that were irresistible to the public.

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A stylish mid-1950s Citroen DS rally car in Finland, Author Unknown (1956) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In architecture the urge to iconify goes back even further, what was the Acropolis if not a signifier for classical Athens? What were the Pyramids or the the Ziggurats of Ur? In the modern period both states and corporations hit upon the idea of using the buildings in which they were situated as physical symbols of their presence and power. From the earliest decades of the 19th Century banknotes featured pictures of the assets or offices of the banks where they were produced: an allegorical way of giving form to the abstract financial conjuring and transactions they represented. Goods producers as well, once mass advertising became a thing, began to put pictures of their premises (or an idealised set of premises) on their packaging and in information about their products. By the mid-20th Century in the words of Allan Sekula:

“Imagine the gaze of a stockbroker (who may or may not have ever visited a coal mine) thumbing his way [through a company annual report or a share prospectus] to the table of earnings and lingering for a moment on a picture of a mining machine… The concrete source of the abstract wealth being accounted for in those pages.” (Sekula in Wells eds. 1995)

Approaching our own time as sources of value have become ever more abstract (and in societies like the United Kingdom intangible values like prestige and spectacle have come to be as valuable as physical products) so the importance, for any public or private authority, of possessing an iconic building has only increased. Since the emergence of rollfilm in the late 19th Century it is hard to doubt that, slowly but surely, the “snapshot value” of a building has begun to be taken into account by both architects and those who commission them (interesting Kodak predates the Eifel Tower by a single year).

The great World Fairs of the early to mid-20th Century are a brilliant example of where this tendency began to emerge. To quote Douglas Murphy “it seems hard to believe now… But once whole families would travel to see the world’s fair”. From the clashes between the Axis powers and the USSR at the World Fairs of the 1930s to the last gasps of modernist optimism at New York in 1964 and Montreal in 1967 the pavilion designs at the World Fair were crafted with at least half an eye on the potential for them to provide a good backdrop for family portraiture.

Similar concerns can be observed on a more localised level. Writing in the early 2000s Tom Phillips recalled seeing a “tintype photographer”, hawking a primitive form of instant photography, at the Festival of Britain in 1951. A clear indication that the organisers thought it important that visitors were able to immortalise themselves besides their iconic displays, and of course; return home to share with their friends and family a memento of their trip to see Britain’s bright socialist future. Outside of Europe, doubtless a more modern impulse than a craving for shear gigantism, lay behind the leaders of newly independent “Third World” countries to build grand parliaments, convention centres and national monuments in their capital cities. From India and Brazil in 1950s, to the “Red African” countries in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Iran the middle east after they became mass oil producers, surely the desire that their people’s showcase their modernity through capturing snapshots of themselves in  Chandigarh, or Brasilia or posing before Azadi Tower, provided part of the impetus for their construction?

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

Azadi Tower Tehran, By Hooperag (File:Azadi_Square_in_Tehran,_Iran.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

All of these iconic constructions, however, are best suited to pre-digital photography. The bold statements that they make are perfectly shaped to fit the contours of an age prior to our own, when photography was not something that could be-in the words of Nancy Van House-done “any time, any place, without any prior planning” (Van House 2011). Twentieth Century tourists flocking to national capitals and coming home with a few dozen cherished frames, were relatively easily satisfied with a few sightseeing snapshots, a few intimate moments captured, maybe a frame or two providing a dash of local colour. Today’s highly networked camera phone wielder might still take “old fashioned” snapshots whether out of a sense of tradition or proprietary or for the sake of older relatives or acquaintances who are familiar with and comforted by the older style of picture (a similar logic presumably attaches itself to the lingering ritual, perhaps peculiar to the UK, of the posed school child in their school uniform). However, given how much a part of their everyday life photography is, it is necessary for the 21st Century iconic structure to offer a larger palette of photographic possibilities.

Tate Modern in London is a classic case in point. Designed in the 1990s at the tail-end of the traditional snapshot era, Tate Modern is designed to be encountered from the far side of the Millennium Bridge. Here the snapshot taker can arrange the objects of their affection, friends, family a lover, on the north bank of the Thames-opposite the squat gallery building with its distinctive chimney, the Millennium Bridge providing a graceful and easily legible way into the picture-and immortalise their own instantly classic shot.

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Tate Modern opening day 2000, Wurzeller at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast to this traditional, snapshot album friendly vista, the Tate Modern Extension-opened in the summer of 2016-is a mishmash of crazy angles, making it very hard to get the whole structure into the frame when trying to compose a shot. Which is surely the point. Whilst bracingly curved, anti-geometric museum and gallery structures; have been something of a fetish in the cultural sector ever since the Bilbao branch of the Guggenheim Museum appeared briefly on screen in The World is Not Enough just prior to James Bond abseiling out of a window, it is clear that the Tate Modern Extension has been designed for a very 2010s purpose: the selfie.

The Tate Modern Extension’s jagged form from its heavy dark bricked protrusions, to its gash like windows providing views over central London, is not supposed to offer a sense of the whole. Instead it offers up small individual chunks of itself and of London for the visitor to snap pictures of themselves against and promptly pass on to their social networks. The shear array of potentially interesting posing places offered by the new gallery (and many other buildings of the 2010s for instance the Library of Birmingham) is perfectly suited to an age when the “entry barriers to art [or merely artful photography” (Van House 2011) have crashed down. The purpose that the building’s endlessly selfiable aesthetic serves is similar to that offered by the optimistic national monuments of the mid-20th Century and the millennial naivety of the Millennium Bridge/Tate Modern vista: it allows for a certain limited kind of bourgeois self expression and self fashioning, whilst proclaiming the power of certain institutions. It also, thanks to the networks from which 21st Century digital photography gains its power, offers the Tate as an organisation, London as a “global city” and the United Kingdom as a worldwide brand brilliant exposure.

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By Jim Linwood from London (The New Tate Modern Extension – London.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Just in time for the 2016/17 academic year the University of Birmingham completed the switch from its old main Library, built in the late 1950s, to a brand new one. There were many reasons for the switch, many of them very good as the old library really wasn’t fit for purpose, however, one that wasn’t openly discussed was the potential for either of the University of Birmingham’s Libraries to serve as a photographic object.

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Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

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New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s Photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

It was clearly grasped in the 1950s that the University’s Library was a potent symbol of the institution and its values. There is for example newsreel footage of the Queen Mother opening Library in 1958. This is however, nowhere near as interesting as the role which the old Main Library came to play in one key aspect of the University’s life: graduation. When they have had access to cameras students have always been keen photographers, however, given the relative difficulty and barrier to taking photographs prior to the invention of digital photography and the camera phone, students until into the 2000s probably did not take all that many more pictures than the rest of the population. One occasion when photography was very likely to be present was at graduation right at the end of the students’ studies, when the family camera clasped in the hands of a proud older relative; would snap pictures of the proud newly minted graduate in their full regalia clutching their hardwon scroll.

At the University of Birmingham the sweeping rise of steps up to the terrace in front of the Main Library became the natural location for graduation photography. It is certainly a fairly well established tradition. My Mum and my uncle graduated from Birmingham Medical School in 1985 and 1990 respectively. Many of the half a dozen or so photographs from their graduations feature the Library and its steps prominently. Like a World Fair pavilion or the sweep of the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern the old University of Birmingham Library provides the perfect situation for the quintessential graduation picture. Its appearance solid, plain, vaguely modernist but with traditional flourishes, hewn from safely bourgeois redbrick (deeply evocative of the buildings built by the Edwardian Birmingham elite that created the institution) provides the perfect backdrop for a newly minted graduate about to step out into the world of respectable, comfortable employment.

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Frontage, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

 

The “visual cliche” (Berger 2011) of a graduate stood before a building that oozes with visual signifiers that connote the popular image of what a civic university’s buildings should look like carries with it the full weight of the expectations that are placed upon graduates. The photograph, once printed, framed and situated on the sitting room wall, carries with it the weight of the graduate’s expectations for their future, the family’s pride that they have achieved a university qualification (with all the social power that connotes) and on an ideological, level society’s wider investment in reproducing certain codes, values and behaviours in its middle class citizens.

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Entrance, Old Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Birmingham’s new Main Library also lends itself to photography, but not of the traditional snapshot kind. As with the Tate Modern Extension it is very hard to fit the entirely of the new Main Library in one photographic frame. Suggests that the photo taker is not supposed to try and do so, as with the Tate Extension the granularity of the Library’s structure, the intricacies of its casing and its gaudiness lend itself to being the backdrop for a selfie.

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The author takes a selfie (completely unironically) outside the University of Birmingham’s new Main Library (all rights reserved, 2016)

Whilst there are certain angles from which it might be possible to pose a reasonable traditional snapshot with the new Library as a backdrop, in future graduates who want a classic graduation shot will have to make do with the Aston Webb, Law School, base of Old Joe or-if needs must-cross University Green to the Faculty of Arts Building. This suggests that if-viewed as a photographic object-serving as the site for a graduation photo is not its purpose.

Whether intentional or not the old Main Library building signified the end goal of western higher education: the reproduction of a certain kind of patriarchal bourgeois order. By contrast the new Library signifies and provides a backdrop for the higher education journey itself. To return to the “selfie spot” it can be read as a marketing tool with forty miles of shelving. On open days and school visits in the future it will act as a tempting canvas against which potential applicants will be able to picture themselves at University. Once they arrive the distinctive metallic cladding and gold fins will provide an infinite number of social media starbursts fleeting signifying the University to those who glimpse them on their newsfeeds.

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Frontage, New Main Library University of Birmingham, Author’s photo (all rights reserved, 2016)

Internally as well as externally the new Library provides a perfect playground for curating and cultivating certain images of University life. Countless Instagrammed, Snapchatted and Tweeted images of airy, well equipped, yet welcomingly informal study spaces, reinforce the (if not glamourous then at least worthily exciting) conception of university life that is the dominant code in popular discourse and the media. Social media posts provided for free do the work of the University Marketing Department more effectively than several Scandinavian forests worth of paper flyer and prospectuses thrust into wilting arms on a summer’s open day.

Reading the University of Birmingham’s libraries as photographic objects brilliant illustrates how networked digital photography and the emerging practices surrounding it has transformed popular photography. It is clear how the graduation photographs taken by generations of Birmingham students, and the countless everyday pictures of University life taken and shared by their successors, connote and reinforce certain key social meanings and messages. Today’s photography, like the photography that preceded it and like visual culture throughout time; speaks to the society in which it is created and the relationships through which it gains its meaning. It serves to illustrate a society in which technology has brought near infinite abundance and possibility in some spheres, whilst at the same time experiencing a sense that everything is ephemeral, provisional and liable to vanish into air.  

“LCC Municipal”

“What I have enjoyed about collecting and sharing all of this material is the many and varied tangents that the journey takes you on.  I found a load of old cigarette cards that documented the crests of the inner London boroughs.  The GLC campaign and protest badges from the 1980s connect me with my teenage years…”

For the latest in my series exploring how people engage with, interpret and share their interest in the urban past, today I was lucky enough to catch up with Ian who curates the “LCC Municipal” Twitter feed.“LCC Municipal” exploits the potential of Twitter as a visual medium to tantalise its followers with pictures of colourful, poignant and times somewhat eccentric, examples of municipal ephemera from across Greater London.

What is your background?

“When you are at the periphery the sense of belonging can be stronger than when you are at the centre.  You have to try harder to belong.”

Well, it isn’t anything to do with local government although I am fortunate enough to find myself working in one of the more ornate and extravagant former London town halls rendered obsolete in 1965.  My academic background was economics and economic history with a bit of politics thrown in, but after university I trained and qualified as a chartered accountant with one of the so-called “Big Four” accountancy firms.  It may sound defensive, but my interest in all things to do with the LCC, GLC, and the boroughs – past and present – that make up Greater London is purely that of the amateur hobbyist.  There is no professional connection and no PhD in the offing.

I think the fascination with Greater London has had a lot to do with growing up one street away from the London/Surrey border.  When you are at the periphery the sense of belonging can be stronger than when you are at the centre.  You have to try harder to belong.  Even now, I live four houses in from the edge of Greater London – it may be an invisible and largely ignored border for everyone else, but it has always exerted a powerful pull on my imagination.

Where do you find the municipal “relics” and “memories” that you tweet?

Being a dedicated hoarder, I have accumulated quite a few items over the past 25 years or so with only the vague notion that some form of definable “collection” was being formed.  These days, life doesn’t really permit the leisurely trips to Hay-on-Wye bookshops or the aimless wandering around London that used to be such a fruitful source of material.  So, I would be lying if I denied the impact that bookfinder.com, eBay and so forth have had on me!

What encouraged you to start sharing them?

“…I have always thought [that Twitter] is quite a visual medium.”

I tend to use Twitter mainly as, despite the focus on the character limit, I have always thought it is quite a visual medium.  If you go on Twitter in order to be outraged or to indulge in a spot of gratuitous trolling, then I guess it is largely about the words.  But I have always been drawn to the pictures that people post – the digitised archives, the fragments of documents and so on.

My original plan was to photograph and tweet objects that reflected council identities of the past.  I was inspired by the commemorative plaque in Cheam library that records its 1962 opening by the then Borough of Sutton and Cheam – a last gasp progressive act by a borough that was seeing out its final days.  The goal was to try and capture this type of stuff and share it to see if anyone else was interested.  Except it slowly dawned on me that the chances of getting out to go exploring were pretty slim – “you look after the kids, I’m off to photograph municipal relics” doesn’t really wash.  So my focus has been on sharing images of all the various bits of London local authority ephemera that I have picked up over the years.  Rather pretentiously, I describe it under the catch-all of the “aesthetics of local government”.

 

What I have enjoyed about collecting and sharing all of this material is the many and varied tangents that the journey takes you on.  I found a load of old cigarette cards that documented the crests of the inner London boroughs.  The GLC campaign and protest badges from the 1980s connect me with my teenage years.  I have unearthed a few fascinating documents that record Charter day celebrations, for example when Urban District Councils attained full Borough status.

“Part of me probably hopes that there is someone out there who appreciates the material, can make sense of it all and turn it into a coherent narrative.”

As I said, I am an amateur and I am just sharing an interest.  Part of me probably hopes that there is someone out there who appreciates the material, can make sense of it all and turn it into a coherent narrative.

Do you have any thoughts on what role councils’ logos and symbols play in developing people’s sense of local identity?

The “lost logos of the London Boroughs” is a good example of one of those tangents.  It started as a bit of fun, but the completist in me seems to have turned it into a life’s mission.  I think everyone in my family breathed a sigh of relief when I found the London Borough of Barnet logo from the 1980s.

“It is always dangerous to assume that your perception or framing of things is the same as anyone else’s, so while these logos and symbols have always exerted a strong influence on me, I accept that I may be in a minority of one.”

I’m not convinced the logos, or indeed the wider visual identities of local authorities, play that much of a role in developing a sense of local identity, although I am happy for a branding expert to challenge my thinking.  It is always dangerous to assume that your perception or framing of things is the same as anyone else’s, so while these logos and symbols have always exerted a strong influence on me, I accept that I may be in a minority of one.  For example, opposite the house where I grew up there was, in the 1970s and 80s, a smart council noticeboard – navy blue with “London Borough of Sutton” written in white in a simple modern font.  Sutton Council rebranded itself around about 1990 and this noticeboard was painted a rather ugly shade of jade green together with all the new corporate branding.  For me, a powerful and ever-present point of reference had gone and it felt like something was missing, but I cannot imagine anyone else on my street noticed the change.

At the risk of labouring the point, I tweeted a bunch of pictures the other day of some recently removed Croydon lampposts. These silver lampposts with the comforting orange glow of their GEC and Revo lanterns have been an ever-present in my lifetime.  It was a Council decision to install them in the 1950s and 60s.  It was a Council decision to paint them silver.  They are a form of Council symbol aren’t they?  (Indeed, many carried the crest of the old County Borough of Croydon).  They existed in Croydon but not in neighbouring boroughs, so they were a point of differentiation.  When I think of Croydon, I think of them.  And now they are all gone.  But did they create a sense of local identity for anyone else?  Probably not.

“I can share an image of council literature that is, say, 30 or 40 years old and it will generate a strong emotional and nostalgic response with people…  Yet that literature would have been ignored at the time and probably discarded by most.”

I suspect that it is in retrospect that logos and symbols play a much stronger role and for a much wider group of people.  I can share an image of council literature that is, say, 30 or 40 years old and it will generate a strong emotional and nostalgic response with people.  The power of the image comes from the ability to trigger or anchor a memory, so increases as the years pass by.  Yet that literature would have been ignored at the time and probably discarded by most.  The objects that survive – the “relics” to use your apt term – gain a mythical power and exert a disproportionate influence on our grasp of the past.

Have you noticed any particular “types” of people interacting with the content that you share, or is it a very diverse array of people?

“In a world of Brexit, Trump, post-truth politics… I suspect a lot of my Twitter crowd probably feel that the “Future” has receded into the past.”

It’s a good mix of local historians, museum professionals, archivists, academics, local councillors and local government officials to name but a few. One comment I received really made me reflect on who (if anyone) all this was resonating with.  In response to a post about the demolition of Croydon’s 1960s municipal offices, someone responded “we want our Future back”.  I think the capital F was intentional – a big concept was being alluded to.  The demand resonated with me as it captured the slow death of that post WW2 sense of optimism and of progressive politics and policies that underpins so much of what interests me and many of those people I interact with on Twitter:  strong local government, New Towns, social infrastructure (especially housing), transport, motorways, concrete, brutalism, modernism (a term that I tend to use liberally and inaccurately).  Not everyone in this little universe shares all of those interests, but there are a lot of overlaps and intersections.  In a world of Brexit, Trump, post-truth politics and what many of my academic work colleagues badge as neoliberalism, I suspect a lot of my Twitter crowd probably feel that the “Future” has receded into the past.

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