Activist Selly Oak

Having been involved with the bracing and inventive Activist Selly Oak project (phase one of which is just concluding) since it’s inception, I thought that I’d reflect a bit on my personal connections to Selly Oak and what it signifies to me. This piece is autobiographical in nature, though section one is about my family’s history and predates my life. Section two is my recollections, but they are mostly those of a small child or teenager; so are impressionistic and heavily filtered through with later knowledge and understanding; so must be read in this light. Section three is quite raw, because it deals with raw topics, and less well worked out, basically because it isn’t all worked it all out yet. Selly Oak is an important setting, but it is really the university which is the key actor and looming presence in this section. I hope though, that this subjective approach injects some life and meaning into the abstract and at times hazy mass of material that Activist Selly Oak has uncovered, tries to embrace and give narrative. It certainly touches upon some of my personal motivations as a project manager, occasional volunteer and more widely as a contemporary historian, creative practitioner and an activist in my own right.     

The Lost World of Liberal Christian Activism

I first got involved with Activist Selly Oak in the autumn of 2016 when I was approached by a- former colleague; now collaborator-at a drinks reception and asked to lend a hand putting together a Heritage Lottery Fund application.

    Presented this chance I jumped at the opportunity. Partly because the project seemed excellent (and very exciting!) in of itself, partly because I am interested in the history of politics and activism in the mid to late 20th Century; but also because I grew up close to Selly Oak. The area is one that whilst it doesn’t retain a huge place in my affections, has always fascinated me and which has long had a presence in my life.

  Indeed a presence in familial terms that precedes my life. It was to Selly Oak, to Elmsfield House a grand crumbling Victorian villa on the Bristol Road that my Dad’s family moved to from Preston in 1967. My Grandpa (who’s life I’ve written a bit about before) had been teaching social studies and social service administration at Harris College (now the University of Central Lancashire) and moved to Birmingham to take up a new position as the Head of Social Studies and Administration, and Vice Principal of the Selly Oak College’s Federation. Elmsfield where they first lived when they came to Birmingham was scheduled for demolition to construct a new central teaching and administration block. Also called Elmsfield House-it still just about stands-in a tinned up state; awaiting the bulldozers from the University of Birmingham who now own the old Selly Oak Colleges’ campus.

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Elmsfield House (summer 2018), Author’s photo

   The Selly Oak Colleges (not unlike the University of Birmingham, which was described by one Activist Selly Oak oral history interviewee as “the other side of the wall… Somewhere where you only went to work as a cook, or a cleaner, or a gardener”) was in many ways aloof from the community that surrounded it. For instance: in the 1970s as a teenager, my Dad would work for the Colleges’ Grounds and Maintenance Department in the school holidays. He recalls that the College’s Workmen had a degree of-generally good natured-disdain for the unworldly scholars whose efforts their work enabled.  

  In other ways however, the Colleges’ were well plugged into activist networks locally, nationally and internationally. Quaker by foundation (they were established with the financial aid of the Cadbury family in the 1920s) the Selly Oak Colleges were ecumenically Christian in ethos, with the initial purpose of training overseas missionaries for a wide array of mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic church. This outward facing missionary focus, and the Quakers longstanding engagement with an incredibly wide array of activist and progressive causes; meant that far from being a place solely devoted to the contemplation of faith and matters of doctrine and theology the Selly Oak Colleges were from their inception deeply plugged into the world.

  By the 1960s and 1970s they were remarkably cosmopolitan with staff, students and visiting scholars from at least fifty countries present at any one time. Academic staff were drawn from all over the Christian parts of the world, and as its interest and expertise in other faiths such as Islam grew; from far beyond it. Students as well were drawn from all over the world, some by the colleges’ historical strengths in theology and missionary training, but others by newer courses in teaching, social work and social administration. Part of the reason for my Grandpa’s hiring by the college, was that in the later 1950s (whilst still only in his late 20s); he held a number of senior administrative positions in a mining company, the public health authority and a higher education institution, in Nigeria; just as it was about the gain independence. This and his subsequent teaching experience meant he was uniquely well placed to develop new courses on social work and social administration that could be offered to graduate students from the newly independent nations of the global south. With funding in the form of tuition fee payments from these new government, private foundations, and grants from the Foreign Office in the form of scholarships, this new strand of the Colleges’ work proved very successful and added further diversity and additional international networks to the institution’s culture.

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Spectral Traces of the Selly Oak Colleges (summer 2018), Author’s photo

   Whilst the extent to which the emergence of new states in the formerly colonised areas of the global south from the 1950s onwards represented true decolonisation is highly contested, but there is little doubt that from the liberal/radical perspective of those working in the field at the Selly Oak Colleges they definitely thought that they were working in partnership and collaboration with those that they advised and taught. I recall as a teenager when my Grandpa often passed on books to me, that I’d frequently find old bookmarks wedged between the leaves of the volumes. Sometimes they were ad-hoc, old clippings from The Guardian and New Society, in other cases they comprised the ephemerial traces of progressively minded internationalism in the mid to late 20th Century. Two examples which particularly standout are a bookmark advertising the then newly created New Internationalist magazine (initially a Methodist endeavour) and one socilicting donations for a co-operative community radio project in Mauritius.             

   One of the things that the Activist Selly Oak project has uncovered is that Birmingham was a hub for new thinking around social policy both at home and overseas during this period. Francois Lafitte, who performed a not dissimilar role to my Grandpa at the University of Birmingham between the 1950s and the 1980s, and who lived in Selly Park; was a prime mover in terms of establishing the Birmingham (later British) Pregnancy Advisory Service. If they interacted, which they probably did from time-to-time; I doubt that my Grandpa and Francois Lafitte got on especially well. There was too much of a gulf in terms of personality and ideological leanings for that. But there are some commonalities in terms of their engagement with the city around them through work to support third sector initiatives.

  An important source of funding and support for voluntary projects in Birmingham during the period was the Birmingham Settlement Society. Barry Toon a stalwart of Selly Oak community activism of fifty year’s standing, refers to the Settlement several times during his oral history interview as providing the money to enable projects he was involved with during the 1970s. Initially founded in the 19th Century to provide relief to the poor and destitute in Birmingham’s inner city slums, by the 1970s-in tune with the spirit of the age-it had shifted its initial focus on poverty alleviation, to also embrace general community building and empowerment initiatives.

   In many ways the kinds of people who ran the Birmingham Settlement did not change with this shift. Board members included Walter and Maisy Smith, evangelically minded Anglicans; who owned a regional chain of butchers shops and a meat processing business worth millions of pounds. Or my Grandpa, who whilst himself from a working class background; was firmly ensconced by the nature of his post at the Selly Oak Colleges in a milieu that straddled academia and the training needs of the emerging social work and overseas development professions.

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Prospect Hall-former home of much of the Selly Oak College’s central administration and teaching-(summer 2018), Author’s photo

    Another key mover at the Birmingham Settlement, though; was Peter Houghton, a radically minded palliative care counsellor keenly interested in the emerging current of liberation theology. As the Settlement’s Director he championed an eclectic array of community development causes in the inner city, including-spectacularly-Birmingham Arts Lab; who he allowed to use space in the Settlement’s Newtown building. In an interview in the early 2000s with Third Sector Magazine he stated that his proudest professional achievement was establishing in 1971-through the Settlement-Britain’s first non-judgemental money advice centre. An initiative that was quickly recognised as representing best practice in the field to such an extent that the City Council took over funding the advice centre from the Settlement, but kept the existing management structure in place.        

    In addition to his work as a counsellor for the NHS and at the Birmingham Settlement, Peter Houghton; lectured from time-to-time in my Grandpa’s department. The two were friends, either through this connection or their mutual involvement in the work of the Settlement. When the Triangle Media and Arts Centre-which housed Birmingham’s first permanent arthouse cinema and where the Arts Lab moved in the late 1970s-was established, Peter Houghton gave my Grandpa a seat on the board. A small example of the-often surprisingly establishment-networks that sustained activism and alternative culture in Birmingham during this period.      

  Another member of the Selly Oak College’s community who was engaged in activism whilst my Grandpa worked there, was his boss College President; the Reverend Paul Rowntree-Clifford. My Dad, who spent most of his childhood in and around the colleges; recalls Paul Rowntree-Clifford as a somewhat esoteric man of very scholarly bearing. He smoked a pipe, wrote extensively on Baptist theology and outside of academia had a passion for cultivating roses. However, he was also a staunch proponent of ecumenicalism in Christianity, an egalitarian and a keen advocate of racial equality. A liberal Christian of a stripe that’s now largely faded he argued that “…those who remain wedded to dogmatic and divisive formulae appear to me to be splitting theological hairs that are out of all proportion to the common confession of a Christian faith.”

   It was these concerns that led him in 1979 to saliforth and stand as the Liberal Party candidate in the Selly Oak parliamentary constituency. He must have had some persuasive power as a politico, because he persuaded my Grandpa (a lifelong Labour supporter with Bevanite leanings) to-briefly-join the Liberals. However, Paul Rowntree-Clifford’s candidacy was not a success, in a year when the Conservative vote in Selly Oak surged; the Liberal Party lost the equivalent of a third of the vote share they’d gained at the previous election in 1974.

   Based upon my limited discussions with him about it, around seven years ago; during the period when I was a candidate in student union elections, my Grandpa suggested that Paul Rowntree-Clifford had found the experience bruising. I recall him noting wryly that when it came to third party candidates “the real skill lay with the agent… And them encouraging the supporters to back the candidate [you prefered that was most likely to win the seat”. This was something that Paul Rowntree-Clifford’s agent had apparently told him. Shortly after I stopped contesting student unions myself, took on campaign manager positions instead; and you know what? He was absolutely spot on.

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Geoffrey Allen 1928-2018, photo courtesy Mary Allen

   The most spectacular act of educational activism (off the University of Birmingham campus at least) during these years, however; occurred adjacent to the Selly Oak Colleges. Fircroft College, founded by the Cadbury’s; but in 1909, twenty years before the bulk of the college’s were established: always stood aloof from their neighbours. Not part of the federation that bound the other colleges together, they were also substantially more secular; having some of the religious ethos of the other colleges but looking first and foremost to the trade union movement where most of its students came from as adult learners. During the 1970s one of the lecturers there was Margaret Stanton-the Selly Oak super activist of Popular Front area vintage-which gives a clue as to the political tenor of the place.

 A complex dispute began in 1975 between the students and some of the staff on the one hand, and other staff and the college’s trustees on the other; over student and staff participation in the running of the institution. A long running strike was initiated, which culminated in the national Department of Education expressing concern about Fircroft’s “governance arrangements”, revoking it’s management grant, and deregistering them as an education provider. This controversial action meant that the college’s operations were suspended for years, only resuming in September 1980. Interested in the dispute I recently asked my Dad if he could recall anything of it. He initially couldn’t, but after some reflection he did remember Grandpa in the 1970s talking about “trouble at Fircroft”; but seeing as the institution was adjacent to the Selly Oak Colleges, this was perhaps just local gossip. When Fircroft reopened in 1980, however, the seemingly omnipresent Peter Houghton was appointed-on a part time basis-as the College’s Head of Social Studies.

Entering the Suburb Next Door

But that’s enough family lore, how do I personally fit into the story of Activist Selly Oak? Perhaps only tangentially. If I cast my mind back, to the part of my memory that is almost memories of memories, as if they were file extensions; my earliest memory of Selly Oak is probably being sat in the back of my parents Peugeot 205 and driven along the Raddlebarn Road on the way to see my Mum’s parents one Christmas morning. This happened most Christmases for years, hence why the recollection is so imprinted; but this occurrence must have been in 1994 or 1995.

   In many ways this impressionistic recalling of the Raddlebarn Road at Christmas is indicative of my early childhood memories of Selly Oak. It was a place that I passed through when out with one of my parents. Whether into town on my Mum’s days off to visit the Central Library, shop or pay her locum’s cheques in at the HSBC on New Street, or with my Dad on days she was at work when he drove or cycled to see clients, or the small, now vanished, video production companies he used to work with.

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Bournbrook Terraces (March 2018), Author’s photo

   As a child I was a fairly intense day dreamer, but I’m pretty sure that even in my otherworldly mindset; I appreciated that the tenor of Selly Oak with its straggly closely packed terraces, and desolate deindustrialised spaces, was different from the ordered, leafy world of Bournville where I lived and went to school. I recall (I think) the chimney of the old Birmingham Battery-that was such a horrendous place to work-which lingered into the late 1990s, possibly even after the rest of the site was cleared. To my child’s mind the cleared site, glimpsed often through the windows of the Cross City line trains with its uneven topography, scrappy shrubbery and saplings and the odd burnt out car was a fascinating wilderness. Today as the new shops and proposed campus extension take shape, in many ways I mourn its passing.

   The Selly Oak locations I was most frequently taken to, were the-then newly opened-Sainsbury’s and Battery Retail Parks, Selly Oak Hospital (where my Mum had to deliver blood samples and other specimens after her surgeries) and St. Mary’s the church that my parents attended. Aged about three I was briefly enrolled at the nursery school on Tiverton Road for a few days a week. But this didn’t last long as I chaffed at the regimented and inflexible way it was organised (“what do you mean I can’t play with lego and toy animals at the same time?”), was consistently disobedience and therefore constantly in trouble or aware that I was about to be in trouble, so hence miserable. Somethings don’t change.

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Selly Oak Sainsbury’s looking north along Bristol Rd (March 2018), Author’s photo

   This intermittent and quite fluid engagement with Selly Oak changed and became more constant in the autumn of 1999 when my Mum moved from being an itinerant locum GP to being a partner at the Bournbrook and Varsity Medical Centre. Suddenly Selly Oak, its community and its goings on, were at the forefront of my childhood experiences. My brother-then aged one-was placed at the nursery school above the Elim Church, which had a rather gentler regime; than the one I endured at Tiverton Road. This meant that on days when my mum was working, after lessons finished at 15:30 my sister and I were taken by our Dad from our primary school in Bournville to the nursery to collect him.

    This was during the period that Bournbrook was in the midsts of its great transition from being a fairly normal “middle ring” suburb, to being primarily a student dormitory for the adjacent university campus. During this time period the university did not loom that large in my thinking. I was aware that both my parents and an aunt and an uncle had been students there, though what a student was I wasn’t quite sure; it sounded a bit like school which was something I really did not like. I did really, really like stories though and especially stories from the past. And I’d been told my family members and teachers that you could go away to university and spend every day hearing stories from the past, so I assumed from an early age; that as my parents and my aunts and uncles had been to university that one day too I would go and be a student: probably studying history. Which in its quiet inevitability is-I guess-basically a case study in social reproduction theory.  

  The only visit to the campus I can remember must have taken place in around the year 2000 when my primary school class was taken on a morning long excursion to the Barber Institute. I recall more or less enjoying the trip-the staff were very welcoming-but the artworks themselves made relatively little impression upon me. I doubt I was even aware in the slightest that the gallery was connected to the university.

  I did-even a child-pick up though; a bit of a sense of how the University of Birmingham was changing the neighbourhood around it. I noticed the forest of letting agents boards, the proliferation of takeaways and curry houses, the terraced houses being gutted, extended and rendered fit for maximising the rental yields of the buy-to-let landlords that proliferated in the years before the credit crunch. When I contemplate the workings of capitalism, reflect how markets must constantly be expanded, new avenues for trade sought, Marx’s notion of “constant revolutions in the means of production”, it is this process of gutting a house, expanding the number of people you can fit in it, kitting it out so it can be maintained as cheaply as possible and the rapid way in which a neighbourhood services and facilities can be re-geared towards a new more profitable population, that I think of. I struggle to think of a more transparent reflection of the working of late capitalism than the expansion, creation and constant churn of a student district in a major British city.

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End of year detritus, (Alton Rd, June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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End of year detritus (Raddlebarn Rd, June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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End of year detritus (Tiverton Rd, June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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Furniture dumped outside houses (Bournbrook Rd, June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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Builder’s waste, (Bournbrook, 2018) Author’s photo

   

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Building work on student house (Bournbrook June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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Presumably an argument between an arts and a science student… (Bournbrook, June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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Raddlebarn Shoes I (June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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Raddlebarn Shoes II (June/July 2018), Author’s photo

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Raddlebarn Shoes III (June/July 2018), Author’s photo

This made an impression on me and stuck. Maybe it helped shape my future political leanings? The experience of growing up next to a vast student community also shaped my mindset in other ways. Through my Mum’s experiences of her increasingly student dominated patient list, I learnt the many student were troubled, depressed, lonely or otherwise mentally unwell and that these were the major issues that faced them. This stuck with me, as I thought it was very sad; and I was worried for them being away from home and so unhappy. It meant that when I later became a student myself I was acutely aware of some of things that my peers were likely to be experiencing and it shaped my involvement in student activism. More recently it was one of the things that motivated me to apply to be a Student Experience Officer.

  My interest in how the area was changing also emerged in my GCSE Geography coursework. Utilising a mixed source base including the results of a survey completed by patients in my Mum’s waiting room and survey of the shop types in the area, I researched attitudes towards immigration in the area. Being a liberally minded bunch-probably mostly students-(I seem to recall over sixty percent of respondents stated that The Guardian, Daily Mirror or The Independent was their favoured paper…) they were overwhelmingly in favour and welcoming towards newcomers to the area. Although there were some dissenters including the respondent who when asked how they felt about immigrants wrote “get them out” and drew a swastika in the “Further Comments” box. Given that this was in the spring of 2008, only a year before the BNP got a million votes in the European Parliament elections and the EDL emerged onto the streets; this is a salutary reminder that extreme right-wing, fascist and racist views have been prevalent in our society for a long time. It is just that social media and the breakdown of traditional gatekeepers (the press, BBC etc.) means that they have got louder and more easily able to spread their venom. As has always been the case they just need to be vehemently silenced and opposed.      

  My GCSE results were a mixed bag, which wasn’t a surprise as I had to take Maths… But Geography proved my strongest result-even better than History and English Lit-so my coursework project must have had something going for it! With hindsight though, rather than immigration (which transient overseas students aside, is not a huge factor in Selly Oak) what would have been rather more interesting to explore is the effect of proximity to the University, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and resulting populations on unrooted students and healthcare professionals upon the area. Ten years later, Activist Selly Oak makes for an interesting corollary.

   Throughout my teens however, my Mum’s surgery remained my main Selly Oak touchstone. From the age of sixteen I did odd bits and pieces of clerical work there, jobs like being paid fifty pence a file to move paperwork from an old style “Lloyd George” medical records folder into the A4 format that my Mum’s work had adopted. Mind numbing stuff, enlivened only by reading the often deeply offensive way that doctors-especially hospital consultants-used to write to each other about patients in the not to distant past. They were also remarkably fond of using their memos to each other to arrange rounds of golf!

“Jobseeker (can of Strongbow, I’m a mess…”)

  I began to get to know the University of Birmingham campus better after I became a student myself in 2010. Studying History at the University of York I was seldom in Birmingham, preferring to stay in York and pick up bits and pieces of temporary work; rather than returning home during the holidays. When I did come back however, pinning for a campus environment; I would often wander over to the campus and stroll around.

    Like so  many people my age I was “radicalised” for want of a better word, by the experience of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government. Like so many young people I voted LibDem in 2010, genuinely thinking that their vaguely anti-establishment, weak tea libertarian brand of radical centrism was the wave of the future. The long recession, experience of having a landlord, looming prospect of unemployment or insecure work upon graduation and the genuinely horrific way that the Tories and the Liberals gleefully implemented austerity convinced me otherwise. I ditched the LibDems for involvement in the students union, where vaguely socialist ethos aside; I encountered intelligent, interesting and impassioned people involved in the struggle for women’s, LGBTQ+ and BME liberation. I identify with non of those categories, but increasingly understanding (not least thanks to my degree, and reading around it) how oppression works in societies like ours; I saw the righteousness of their causes and came to support them.

  The same was true of Marxism, my schooling and own reading prior to university had convinced me that Marxism was a ridiculous, childish, ideology based upon a mixture of resentment and a desire to dominate. How wrong could I have been. Encountering actual Marxist texts and actual Marxist people (plus the experience of encountering actual Tories and libertarians… Neither of whom had been especially prevalent in the pinkish milieu I was raised in or the decidedly middle-of-the-road Solihull Sixth Form College where I acquired my A-Levels) turned my view of the world and how it worked upside down. Coupled with my experience of the good, big hearted, thoroughly decent people engaged in liberation struggles and campaigns around issues like mental health, I embraced communism through the realisation that freedom for one person can only be truly achieved through securing equal freedom for everyone all of the time.

 York was a very political, though not especially radical, or at least not revolutionary; institution. From my outsider’s perspective, Birmingham-on the other hand-in the first half of the 2010s; seemed like a campus that was fraught, divided and practically ready to explode. Defend Education Birmingham, a major contributor to the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) constellation, was an active and noisy presence amongst an otherwise quiet and quisent student body. Within the cosmos of UK higher education University of Birmingham students have a reputation for being “nice”, pleasant, relatively lacking in hang-ups and tend to go on to quickly get nice, well remunerated, if slightly boring and predictable jobs in the corporate world upon graduation. None of these things could be said about York students, at least whilst I was studying there. But, anyway; Defend Education was different, they were exciting and willing to militantly confront their institution (which at the time I thought-wrongly as it happened-represent the vanguard of the movement to monetise and financialise the university sector); openly representing a radical strand of communist thought that lay far to the left of the (barely communist) Socialist Appeal, (stale) Socialist, or ( deeply problematic) SWP parties that comprised the University of York’s revolutionary scene.

   Whilst still an undergraduate I watched Defend Education’s campaign against the most reactionary and overtly neo-liberal aspects of their institution and the Guild of Students from afar. As a sixth former I’d always perceived the University of Birmingham’s student as being either pretty middle of the road or unnervingly sporty. So when Defend Education appeared and began making waves online, in print and on campus, I was intrigued to see one of the largest, most dogged and overtly revolutionary in terms of its objectives and postures, campaigns to come out of the movement against £9,000 fees emerge from it.

   I soon got the chance to observe it closer up. In the summer of 2013 I graduated from my History degree of York with an upper second and into unemployment. Being utterly broke and hundreds of pounds in the red, I did something I never expected to have to do and signed on as unemployed; receiving the £56.80 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance payments that were then due to those under twenty five with no savings or other forms of income. The three months I spent on the dole was a salutary experience, one that I found at once eye opening and chasening.

    As mentioned, whilst in theory I believed that there was no shame in claiming social security; in practice I felt déclassé. I was a victim of the lazy middle class assumption, that credit crunch and appalling job market that existed in the summer of 2013 aside, communist politics or not, I would just fall into a reasonably satisfying job that would would meet all my needs. From this position I fell rapidly into the classic unemployed routine of not sleeping at night, getting up late in the morning, frantically applying for jobs, any job I thought worth my while. Having been incredibly busy all the way through university, partying, writing, campaigning, politiking, editing, working part-time and temp jobs, occasionally panic writing an essay (in roughly that order) I was bereft. Most of my friends and acquaintances were at far-flung ends of the country and I had no means of going to see them. Some in similar positions to me (probably the largest proportion with hindsight), others starting internships, preparing for master’s study, travelling or moving into jobs, and when facing the later tribes in particular; I felt incredibly like a loser and didn’t really want to engage.

   The JobCentre nearest my parent’s house sits on Harborne Park Lane. Literally a stones throw from the pleasant late 1970s era council houses that were achieved by the residents of the former slum housing on the site uniting to blockade the Bristol Road in the summer of 1976. The JobCentre is an increasingly tatty, faded and sad looking building; constructed to probably very poor standards with little architectural input; during the Blair boom in the early 2000s. It is essentially an out of town retail unit for the surveillance, policing and maintenance (just about) of some of the most vulnerable members of society. Vice magazine once ran an article comparing-in a not entirely negative way-the interior of a JobCentre to a Weatherspoon’s. This frame of reference works pretty well when imaging the inside of Harborne Park Lane. There is a stained, hard wearing carpet in an intermediate shade of blue. Posters from an array of quangos, DWP and local government initiatives festoon the walls like burger and a pint deals in a cheap chain bar. The front of house employment clerks hunch in shabily partitioned cubicles, over aged desktops, squinting at their screens as they tap the claimant’s responses to their questions into the social security agency’s antiquated database systems.

   The claimants, sometimes with their carers or with their children either very young, or middle aged and now looking after Mum and Dad, sit tensely in interview chairs in front of the social security administrators (or Job Coaches as they’d recently been rebranded during the period when I was in contact with the system), or else patiently await their turn on tired blue sofas that match the carpet. The building has very few windows and the sense of claustrophobia is heightened by a heavy security presence, half a dozen thick-set men in G4S uniforms; who patrol the floors and guard the doors. Polite enough, but definitely menacing.

     A little bit like the letter you are issued at the end of each appointment with your “Job Coach”. The letter states the date and time of your next meeting with them, anything you are supposed to do between now and then, which concludes by reminding you that the Job Coach is acting with the authority of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions meaning you as a claimant are legally obliged to respect and comply with their every instruction: or else. You are required to bring this letter with you when you next attend so as to gain admission to the JobCentre. Once you are there everything is done by National Insurance number. More than four years after I “signed off” the dole mine is still seared on my mind as if it had been tattooed on my retina. Despite constantly having to claim tax rebates from temporary and casual jobs all the way through university, I barely knew I had one prior to coming into contact with the social security system. They also insist on calling you by your surname. On the one hand a civil servant with the power to cut off your only source of income calling you “Mr. Allen” conjures up a veneer of respect for you as a citizen, on the other though; it is an impersonal distancing mechanism that works to blur the contours of you as an individual and a person.        

   I will write more about this period of my life, and explore these strands in greater depth; on future occasions. It’s all still quite raw and something, over four years later; that I muse on a lot. Highly formative in terms of my thinking. For now though I’ll start moving away from this topic by sharing this piece by Gabriel Bristow in Mute magazine from the summer of 2014, which I think is great; and which helped me understand the significance of unemployment and unemployment assistance in capitalist societies.           

     During the two three month periods in 2013 and 2014 when I was on the dole I spent quite a bit of time in Selly Oak. Going too and from appointments at Harborne Lane obviously, but also drifting around. Feeling dispossessed of my recent student existence (I was at this point in time frantically trying to find work in the students movement, the formally constituted bits of which I despised; but which had a weird lure for me nonetheless) I felt strangely at peace-yet also a bit resentful-walking the terraced streets of Bournbrook and around Oak Tree Lane. Being in the lucky, lucky position-courtesy of my affluent parents-of not actually needing money to eat, or keep a roof over my head; I took to binge drinking, buying cheap wine, cider and strong beer from the off-licences on Oak Tree Lane and sneaking it home to drink late at night. The kind of hobby you take up when you are severed from most of your contacts, miserably at a loose end with what to do with your life; and too deep into the emergency part of your overdraft to do anything about it.

    Whilst my affection for it has grown in recent years, I have always had a deeply ambivalent relationship with my hometown. This is-I get the impression-pretty normal, but aged eighteen and throughout my time at York I was hellbent on never going back to Birmingham for more than an extended weekend if at all possible. And here I was, back home and seemingly without prospects. Desperate to leave I didn’t do what I probably should have done with hindsight and start volunteering, as a way of expanding my horizons and meeting people, I just applied continually for jobs; the further away from Birmingham the better. In my defence this was around the period when the open advertisement of unpaid internships was at its height and the blurring of the line between genuine volunteering and the use of the bloated, and desperate graduate labour market to exploitatively avoid paying people, a desperate concern.       

   At the same time paradoxically, I got most of the way through the process of applying for a masters degree in the School of Government and Society at the University of Birmingham. I was compelled towards a masters by warm feelings towards universities as spaces (not, I stress; the academy itself) and a desire to return to active combat as a student activist and regain the sense of exuberance, urgency and relevance I felt whilst campaigning at York. As summer turned to autumn and the student areas began to feel busy again, I partially moved my drinking from my bedroom to The Guild of Students. A bartender assumed I was a member and let me purchase a Joes Card, which opened up a whole new vista of incredibly cheap cider drinking opportunities. As the leaves began to turn and a chill settled in the air, I would sit on the building’s terrace with a copy of the Daily Mirror (then 40p an issue, bargain) read the latest celebrity gossip, sip copious amounts of cider at two pounds a pint and brood over the hideous injustice of life under late capitalism-mine in particular-and avoid as best I could life going on around me.    

   Presently, as is the way with these things; the situation somewhat resolved itself. I got an editorial assistants job, paying the princely, and possibly legally dubious; sum of £1,000 a month with a start-up magazine company in York and moved back up there. I’ve made it, I thought.

  Looking back, a new found empathy and understanding of the invasive indignities with heap upon those struggling at the bottom of society aside; this first spell of unemployment wasn’t entirely wasted. It gave me a chance to read and explore outside the narrow confines that university education, even if you hesitant in engaging with that education; force upon you. I read a lot of Marxist thought, some anarchist literature as well, and through a chance encounter on Wikipedia developed a fascination with cultural studies as a field and an approach that endures to this day. This would soon become very relevant. I even managed to get my first piece for a non-student publication published.

   My hopes of starting a career in art and community journalism in York did not last very long. So by the spring of 2014 I was back once more in Birmingham, tearing my hair out in the Harborne Lane JobCentre; and pouring most of my £113.60 fortnightly dole payments into the tills of the down at heel pubs that line the lower part of Selly Oak High Street. My cashflow was worse than ever, I was taking out a £100 Wonga loan each month; to stand still effectively reducing my actual income-once my phone payments had gone out-to less than £100.

   This was completely unsustainable. Despite nothing of any material substance having changed I stopped drinking, stopped buying any food out, walked everywhere, let my wardrobe deteriorate even further into rags; and managed over the course of months to get my bank balance back to something approximating zero. I was still frantically applying for jobs, in journalism and publishing now; (again the further away from Birmingham the better) as well as the students’ movement. I got enough interviews to keep me persisting, but having now been nearly a year out of university; I increasingly felt the need to change tac.

After a bit of time back on the dole I thought it worth taking a risk. I took a very temporary job working for the City Council to administer the local and European Parliament elections, and came off social security. I’d sought some advice from friends (almost all of whom were native Londoners or who had parents willing to pay the City University Journalism MA fees…) and began pitching speculative pieces of journalism to magazine editors. The story I was especially keen to chase was that of Defend Education. I reached out to one of their sabbatical officers at The Guild and was pleased and surprised to quickly get a positive response. We furtively met on their “lunch-break” at the-now gone-Woodstock Cafe, and over the blaring sound of Turkish pop music a devastating tale of activist burnout, gaslighting and institutionally mandated repression was relayed to me.

    More followed, my Gmail, Facebook messenger and Twitter direct messages groaned with activists at the end of their tether looking for someway to unburden themselves, for someone to help them tell their story. I groped around for weeks trying to find a publication that would run some of this. Unfortunately it seemed that most outlets weren’t interested in what was essentially a dispute between some students and their university. finally through a contact at the NetPol  (a police action monitoring project) Vice magazine took the bait; and ran a piece about an activist who had been referred to the Prevent programme, with a letter being sent to his parents; because the force in his home area thought that he was in danger of being transformed into a domestic extremist.   

  That was it sadly. Off the back of the Vice article I wrote a shorter more reflective piece for the New Internationalist website about Defend Education but that was all I was ever able to get anyone to publish. This is something I still feel a bit bad about, the activists who spoke out to me clearly dearly hoped that I would be able to get the word out; and I was able to do so only haltingly. All of their messages are buried deep, nearly half a decade ago; in the landfill that is my personal e-mail and social media inboxes. I shan’t go digging for it. I had a look at my files from 2014 whilst writing this piece. The ailing, barely portable, Windows Seven laptop that I used in those days; is long defunct and I have everything from that time saved on a memory stick. I tried to access the transcript of my interview with the sabbatical officer, its in a file format that my current netbook doesn’t support; so it looks like that’s lost as well. Who knows? Maybe an Activist Selly Oak equivalent project in the 2060s will be able to crack that one open like a time capsule. Not yet born contemporary historians if you’re reading this, I don’t have much to tell you; but I’m always willing to talk.

   Around the time that I was conducting my Defend Education investigation I walked to MAC one day for a change of scene. Public libraries were somewhat thicker on the ground then than they are now, but those aside; there was hardly anywhere within a reasonable walking distance of my house that offered free WiFi and-being practically without an income, having signed off the dole but not yet made any money freelancing-I was painfully conscious of the need not to exceed my data allowance.

   Going to find a seat, I noticed that the display in the arena gallery had changed. From where I stood it looked an eclectic array, cartoon style pictures sat next to paintings, black and white photographs juxtaposed with colour ones taken decades apart. Permeating it all was a logo I instantly recognised, the distinctive; incredibly mid to late twentieth century retro chic logo of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS). Drawn in by this I wandered around enthralled.

    Who put all of it all together I wondered, searching for the list of partners. “The School of History & Cultures at the University of Birmingham”? Why was the University of Birmingham suddenly so keen to engage with the ongoing legacy of cultural studies seeing as it was only just over a decade since they’d expunged the field from their institution entirely. I was more surprised though that the prime mover behind the exhibition appeared to be historians. After my three years at York I had pretty much given up on the study of the past. Far from wanting to create interesting stories to challenge and entertain people, being outward facing to the world, it seemed that historical studies was a closed shop occupied by obtuse people who delighted in doing the precise opposite of this. Here though was a group of historians using their work to present a challenging, even revolutionary; narrative to the public in a very public place. Whilst a student I had become very interested in the visual arts-as a fan more than anything else-and following the dry, gleefully unvisual; deeply univentive form of history that I’d encountered whilst an undergrad, seeing historians working so well, and seemingly with respect and synergy with artists to create something new, provocative and relevant; was a revelation.

  I took a flyer, began Googling names. Came across the Modern British Studies blog, discovered there was a research centre, learnt about the MA. Suddenly thought, this is actually what I want to do; find creative ways of using the past to communicate with people, entertain them and help them think about contemporary issues. I had decided years ago that museums, whilst occasionally home to interesting displays; were stuffy-but I did like art galleries as spaces-and this approach to presenting the past was to my mind as much about art as it was anything else.   

   Feeling I was lacking momentum I had been toying with doing an MA for a while, I considered architectural history at UCL (to expensive), Art History at BCU, which I seriously considered doing for a time. I was conscious though that I wanted to pick the right course. So located right on my doorstep, offering part-time options (I was keen to be able to do other things whilst I studied), and seemingly run by a group of people I was in sync with, Modern British Studies felt a great choice. After months of procrastination I submitted an application and was offered a place to start in September 2015. I had no idea how I was going to get there, but in my mind; my road to being a creative, community historian lay before me.

  As it happened, a lot of my earlier concerns about the academy proved absolutely spot on. I also discovered that given the right conditions I am actually a pretty good generalist administrator: who knew? These things knocked me off track a bit, especially when a risky job that seemed to offer the potential to challenge the academy, manage part of the university and do history (and other humanities disciplines) in new, challenging and creative, outward facing ways, just happened to become vacant at exactly the moment I was finishing my masters. I will survive that experience.

     And having escaped I will find ways in which I can use the past to creatively connect with people and critique and challenge the present. Activist Selly Oak has been a brilliant reflective experience and a great learning opportunity. And the best bit is that it is just the start.     

Old Joe night

Bournbrook in the evening (May 2018), Author’s photo

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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). 

“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)

“I would like to thank a number of typists…”

“I am grateful to Deirdre Barker who did my typing until the moment she was ‘carried off’ to hospital to have her baby and to Wendy Rigg for coming to my aid at the last moment”.

Documents have stories inscribed upon them, but stories are also woven into their creation.

I was recently in the University of Birmingham’s Library studying a couple of dissertations submitted “in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree” of MA and PhD by members of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s. In many ways the concerns that the researchers sought to address, de-industrialisation, race and gender relations, underemployment, alienation… have a lot of contemporary resonance. Which perhaps isn’t surprising, the earliest dissertation that I’ve called up from the store was awarded in the spring of 1972 twenty years before I was born, the most recent in the Autumn of 1978 (a few weeks after my parents began their A-Levels). What is surprising, at least for a reader who learnt how to use Microsoft Office Millennium edition alongside how to produce cursive script; is the way the dissertations are presented.

As the quote the that starts this post, taken from the Acknowledgements section of A study of working class women at home : femininity, domesticity and maternity, Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis attests: they were typed, by hand, on manual typewriters.

When first approaching, the bulging, battered, hard bound volumes that contain the CCCS theses, the full import of this doesn’t immediately sink in. Sure, the typescript is smaller, harder, less softly and invitingly serifed than computer fonts, but as, Kindle aside, there isn’t-yet-a commercially available form of reading digital texts that’s especially quick use, (Adobe, and online e-books don’t really cut it) the tactility of the theses as physical objects makes up for it.

Then suddenly it hits you: the little imperfections, a letter out of sync here,

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“Letter out of sync” A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

A neatly tippexed correction there,

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“Tippexed correction”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

a place where a comma has been discretely added with a pen.

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“comma added with a pen”, A study of working class women at home: femininity, domesticity and maternity (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

Together they add up to show the reader how different a manually typed document is from one which is word processed. This is I reckon, opens up a number of interesting questions to explore about the documents as physical objects, the thought and craft that goes into creating them, and the stories-the social history-that we can gleam from how they came into being.

Terms like word processing betray their origin in manual typing. Manual typing is highly physical work, which requires accuracy and judgement. The CCCS theses I have been studying demonstrate this with aplomb. Whilst typing on a computer I have a lot of software holding my hand: an algorithm automatically moves the cursor at the end of the line, another algorithm wired to a database (both ever more accurate) corrects, or enables me to correct, my spelling, typos and sometimes grammar, yet more algorithms control for spacing and so on.

With a manual typewriter there isn’t any of that, spelling, spacing, margin widths, even reaching the end of a line, are entirely in the hands of the operator. This isn’t the only way in which the operator was key. When I type, I am engaged in a physical process in that my hands are moving, but, I am merely telling my computer which characters to display in which order. It’s at a power station-probably hundreds of miles away-fired by gas, coal, nuclear fission, the wind, whatever; where the hard work of providing the energy that makes the process run happens. By contrast on a manual typewriter it is the typist exerting themselves that provides the power that makes the production of the document possible. You can see the sheer force with which they had to hit the keys on the backs of the pages which comprise the volumes, just like a photographic negative.

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“Back of a typed page”, A study of working class women at home: domesticity, femininity and maternity  (Hobson, 1978), Author’s photo (2016)

And indeed it is just like a negative. Much as the sun’s rays are captured through a chemical process by an old style photo film, and the jazz sax solo we hear on an old ‘78 is a sound enabled by the lungs of a musician now decades deceased, so a physical trace of Deirdre and Wendy who toiled to make it possible, remains in every character of Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis.

The job of a typist was rather like that of a lathe operator in a factory, the skilled craftsperson who with some skillful judgement and adjustment here and there, skills won through practice and training, brings the designer’s blueprint to life. In this sense the mid-century intellectual who wanted their work neatly presented in typescript, but who either couldn’t or wouldn’t type it themselves, becomes more like an engineer giving instructions to a fitter. The longhand draft is the blueprint, the typed up chapter the finished widget.

In many regards this is a radically different relationship from one enjoyed by creative worker’s today. Whilst in the early twentieth century, higher education and other forms of knowledge creation and transmission have called into being a whole new range of support professions,  today’s academic or student is far more expected to live up to ideal of the “lone genius” in many crucial regards. Computer word processing at once liberates and enslaves them.

The death of the typing pool, whilst being yet another example of how skilled, yet monotonous, work has been edged out by technology, doubtless changes the kind of work that scholars produce. The media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler has argued with reference to Nietzsche (one of the first writers to use a typewriter) that the machine transformed the form of his work from “arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”

But, it is beyond the scope of this short post, and certainly my abilities as a critic, to unpack this to much, so I shall let another German-Gunter Grass-have the final word on this topic:

“I would like to put a stop to this movement toward reading on computers, but it seems that nobody can do this. Nevertheless, the drawbacks of the electronic process are already apparent during the writing of the manuscript. Most young authors write directly on their computers, and then edit and work in their files. In my case, on the other hand, there are many preliminary steps: a handwritten version, two that I’ve typed myself on my Olivetti typewriter and, finally, several copies of versions that my secretary has input into the computer and printed out, and into which I’ve incorporated many handwritten corrections. These steps are lost when you write directly on the computer.”    

What I can comment upon is some of the social and cultural history that is revealed by the typed theses I have been reading lately. Hobson’s brief mention of her typists in the “Acknowledgements” section of her thesis go beyond the formulaic and express with economy-I think-a lot of genuine gratitude, friendliness and familiarity with them. Whilst also serving as a reminder that computers don’t take maternity leave. It is I think, possible to see in a slight darkening of the ink on the page, the point at which Hobson’s typist changed.

There is lots yet to be written about the now vanished social formation that was the typing pool. If anyone wants a place to start, during the 1970s and ‘80s the CCCS, especially female members like Hazel Chowcat, some of whom came from secretarial professional backgrounds, produced quite a lot of work the explored skilled and semi-skilled office work as a phenomenon. Typing was a skill that women who were entered for public examinations at school were expected to learn, it was a respectable, but not necessarily especially respected (even in comparison to their male counterpart the lathe operator) trade.

This meant that a great many women who attended university in the second half of the twentieth century would have had some familiarity with typewriters. I think that it might be possible to see this in the production of another CCCS thesis, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham by Paul Willis.

Whereas the typing up of Hobson’s thesis is of a very high quality, giving it a rather polished professional look, the production of Willis’ (admittedly far longer thesis) is rather more hit and miss in terms of its production values.

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“Changes on the page” Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham, (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Words have been, left out, misspelled and corrected,

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“Word added”, Popular Music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

elsewhere words haven’t come out well on the page and had to have been added in by hand.

Here and there words, or even entire sections have been added by someone’s, small, spikey, but legible hand; using a black fountain pen,

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“Sentence added”, Popular music and youth culture groups in Birmingham (Willis, 1972), Author’s photo (2016)

Whilst in other places sections of the typing seem quite faded, like it was done haltingly, and or on a machine that had a fading ribbon, was poorly calibrated, or perhaps just didn’t work that well.

I wonder whether an explanation for this might be found in the relative Iliad about producing the typescript that is recounted in the “Acknowledgements” section of the thesis, which begins:

“I would like to thank a number of typists for their unstinting and often unpaid efforts…”

Willis then goes on to thank a total of six typists (all women) for producing the final version. Towards the end of the typist’s paragraph Willis mentions that he initially attempted to type much of the thesis himself, but that it proved necessary for the women thanked to “rescue [Willis] from two eleventh hour crises… and [his] own indifferent typing”. It is of course possible that the sections riddled with errors and corrections are Willis’ own efforts at typing up his work, however, the fact that most of those who worked to produce the submitted version of Youth Culture were “unpaid” leads me to wonder whether they were fellow students, or possibly friends of Willis and his wife, who offered to help him produce the final version. Given that typing was a very common skill found among women at university during this period, and amongst those educated beyond a very elementary level among the population in general, this seems to me a perfectly plausible explanation.

Does the difference in terms of the “finish” on their respective projects point to the evolution of the CCCS project?

In 1972 when Willis submitted his thesis the CCCS was still in its infancy, it was a very small research centre, with only a couple of staff, offered no taught programmes, and had few sources of funding beyond a grant from Penguin books. In this straightened environment, it possibly made a lot of sense for people to chip in and deploy skills that they had to assist each other. By contrast in 1978 when Hobson submitted her thesis the Centre’s taught MA had been up and running for some years, networks bringing teaching work the way of CCCS research students had opened up, and the Centre itself was (comparatively) secure financially and in terms of its expanding reputation.

This blog post is not intended as a eulogy to the typewriter. For all of typescript’s tactility and romanticism, not to mention the seductive idea of having someone else to do the administration, the benefits (and distractions) of computers outweigh the relative hassle and lack of utility that comes with producing typewritten pages. This blog also makes a number of somewhat speculative claims, however, they serve their primary intention which is to suggest ways in which the construction of documents (or any other types of source) should form part of the histories that we write, and indeed can be history that we write in of themselves.

As a final note in having these discussions today I feel that we have to thank those like the CCCS scholars, who having done it-or grown up with it looming as an overdetermined career choice-began asking questions and taking an interest in the significance and nature of routine office work and the world’s, relationships, structures of feeling and meaning that it creates. I certainly know that my understanding of how things are or aren’t recorded, how decisions are reached and systems of thought reinforced and articulated, was honed, improved and on occasions radically tilted by days, months and years spent filing, data inputting and typing in routine office jobs.        

Situating the city within post-war social science: the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the West Midlands

On the face of it the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies seems a strange point from which to explore the evolving relationship between post-war social science Britain and conceptions of place. The CCCS, after all, are noted for their groundbreaking work in the field of media studies, the study of gender and race.

Policing the Crisis, the Centre’s era defining study of the politics of law, order and reaction in 1970s Britain notably begins by stating that the author’s interest in the media created phenomena of “mugging” began with “a case known to us in Handsworth”. Handsworth is a district of central Birmingham about four miles north of the University’s campus. However, from these origins clearly grounded in a very specific location and set of local circumstances, Policing the Crisis accelerates. It moves from the specific to the general, with most of the rest of the book comprising a study of the nexus between media representation and political praxis.

The same is true of other classic CCCS texts, like Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style. Hebdige’s primary subject in Subculture is a loosely defined, universal conception of alienated urban youth. In his paper Reggie, Rastas and Rudies published in Resistance Through Ritual three years before Subculture, Hebdige briefly focuses his critical gaze upon “mod youths” living in generic suburbs in south east England, “accelerating along by-passes on their scooters”. But beyond this his work, whilst resplendent with markers of social division; does not impart any sense of the specificities of place.  

We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised by the CCCS’ apparent lack of interest in the specificities of location and the peculiarities of place. As Mike Savage shows in the Politics of Method mid-20th Century British social science, taking the lead from practitioners in the United States and keen to escape its crudely didactic origins, became fixated on the search for the mean. In the 1950s and ‘60s the work of British sociologists like Elizabeth Bott and Ray Phal actively worked to undermine the idea that place retained saliency. The recent-separate-studies conducted by Jon Lawrence and Selina Todd into the Goldthorpe’s Affluent Worker Study and the early work of Michael Young, reinforce this impression. Whether like Young they bemoaned it, or like Goldthorpe they saw it as potentially emancipatory, the general tenor of mid-20th Century pointed to ever greater homogeneity and place’s increasing redundancy.

As we’ve seen the work of Dick Hebdige on subcultures and Stuart Hall and his collaborators on Policing the Crisis, growing out of mid-20th Century sociology and heavily influenced by the structuralist theory of Althusser and Barthes, whilst brilliant and sadly still relevant, is fundamentally uninterested in place as a category in of itself.

I have however, identified a different strand of the CCCS’ work, an ethnographic strand, which did, from the late 1960s onwards, started to take a keen interest in place and its sociological significance.  

I will briefly outline where I think that this interest stemmed from and I will suggest some reasons why I consider it significant. However, as mentioned, I come here with questions as much as answers and would very much appreciate your thoughts either during the questions or later at the reception about what the wider historical significance of all this is.

There was another strand in mid-20th Century British thought a decidedly literary one. The scholars in mid-20th Century Britain for whom place mattered were people like Raymond Williams, Asa Briggs and E.P. Thompson, all of whom were heavily influenced by the “new criticism” that flowed out of the University of Cambridge during this period. A new approach that scholars like Williams, Thompson and Richard Hoggart, the founder of the CCCS, interpreted as meaning that criticism meant nothing if it was not socially engaged with the entire spectrum of culture and everyday life.

What better defence and illustration of the significance of place at a time when it was marginalised in discourse is there than Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy? It invokes and evokes strong ethnographic images of mid-20th Century working class Leeds to make its points about the effects of mass production and capitalism upon people.

I believe that, with a rather different accent and inflection, Hoggart’s interest in place and its significance in people’s lives continued after he left the Centre in 1968. Through four cases studies of CCCS ethnographers, all of whom studied English prior to starting their work at the Centre, I will show how an interest in place came to the fore in the work of a group of British social scientists.                   

Janet Mendelsohn, an American, arrived at the University of Birmingham in 1967 as a visiting student from Harvard. Her interest appears to have been in blending the techniques of photojournalism with the tools, method and agenda of a social scientist.

Mendelsohn spent two years in Birmingham. Over this time her project evolved from an interest in the markers and signifiers of poverty, sex work and race relations towards nuanced study of place and community. A shift that can be seen in the photographs she took of Birmingham’s Balsall Heath.

This photo (see Powerpoint) is in many ways a quintessential early CCCS image. It shows a traditional corner shop in a working class area, festooned with commercial and mass media signifiers that intrude and encroach upon the community.

Content wise this image is similar to the first one. In the form of the drinks poster we can see the commercial signifiers imposing once again. However, if we look just below, next to man wearing a turban, we can see a poster made a by a the local Afro-Caribbean Association, advertising a dance that they are putting on.

The image complicates the earlier narratives, present in both the humanities and social sciences, about the spread of homogeneity. Whilst the commercial signifier in the form of the soft drinks advert looms large over the rest of the picture, highlights the significance and corrosive power of image in capitalist society. The presence of the incomers, Sikhs and Afro-Caribbeans and their clear agency; renders this reading overly reductive.

Through the closeness and contradictions that characterised relations between different immigrant groups in the area, we get a sense of the districts changing topography as it underwent redevelopment. We also get a feel for the local characters, shops and entertainment venues. Whilst not necessarily uncritical, and potentially open to charges of voyeurism, taken together the photographs are a celebration of the specificities of place, drawing attention to Balsall Heath’s unique and particular qualities.  

By capturing the grain, and more voyeuristically, the peculiarities and spectacle of life in Balsall Heath the photos enable us to get sense of what the area was like in the late 1960s, providing a sense of place.

A similar shift can be observed in the work of Paul Willis. Willis’ doctoral thesis completed in 1972 and published as the book Profane Culture is heavily influenced by semiotics and literary theory. Willis’ debt to Barthes and Althusser is clearly displayed, but in terms of form and focus it reads like Richard Hoggart hitching a lift with a young Hunter S. Thompson.

Willis states his research, an ethnographic exploration of the worldview, referents and significance of the motorcycle and hippie subcultures, was conducted in “a large midlands industrial city. From this a reader might deduce that Willis is referring to Birmingham, however, there is little sense of place imparted beyond this. Willis’ subjects float in a realm of signifiers. Their reflections upon the importance of the music that they listen to, their experiences of work and home life, the substances that they do and don’t consume and the significance that they attach to these things, float freely.

Part of this idiosyncratic book’s charm is the wonderful literacy and fluency with which Willis uses his encounters with bikers and drug takers to build up a set of almost decontextualised reference points around which he weaves an argument about class, alienation and youth self-determination. In its soixante-huitard Marcusian grandeur and optimism, it was probably out date by the time he was examined on his thesis.

Willis’ project at the Centre after the completion of Profane Culture, Learning to Labour, the fieldwork for which was conducted between 1974 and 1975 stands on very different ground. Learning to Labour subtitled How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, follows a group of working class “lads” through their final year at school before going out into the workplace.

Here, whilst not intimately concerned with aspects of place, Willis adopts a very different approach. Rather than floating free, constrained only by their relationship to the means of production, class position and ideological baggage, the “lads” that Willis studies are heavily interwoven with the community that they live in, their choices defined by their hometown’s economic structure.

Learning to Labour opens with a detailed description of the situation of “Hammertown” the Black Country settlement where the “lads” have grown up. Willis describes the town’s history and prior economic and social development, its class structure, that it is overwhelmingly working class; and that unlike other neighbouring towns, with economies based around workshops its economic structure is based upon the large plants of “a few multinational engineering firms”. He also describes how the town relates to its neighbours in other ways, the prosperous outlying suburban areas from which the teachers at “Hammertown Boys” and the managers in industry commute and the “large city” [Birmingham] which “lies at the heart of the local conurbation. He even notes as an aside that the fact Hammertown shares a postcode with the large neighbouring city is a line used by the “lads” in his study when they are trying to impress girls from other less felicitous towns.

From this introduction sprinkled with local and incidental detail, Willis’ account continues to be streaked with a clear sense of place. Willis’ concerns and policy suggestions are national, even universal in scope, relating as they do to careers policy in schools and the choices that individuals are forced to make in class societies. However, the ballast that supports them is anchored both in the words of the “lads” themselves and a culture and situation which is many ways highly regional specific.

He tries to show how the distinctively rough culture of the foundry and machine shop shapes the “lads” sense of themselves and their place in the world. Willis teases out clear ethnic and gendered dimensions to this.

The ethnic dimension in particular gives a clear place specific flavour to the relations that Willis describes. The Black Country in the 1970s was a stronghold of the National Front. In 1976 the party polled 27.5% of the vote in elections to Sandwell Metropolitan Council, judging by Willis’ description, Hammertown is almost certainly one of the constituent towns of the Sandwell Council area.

Willis uses his “lads” words to show the role that this kind of overt racism played in cementing bonds between white working class males in the workplaces of the mid-1970s Black Country. Given that mass immigration was a highly localised phenomena at the time this state of affairs gives readers a clear sense of place. The wider point that Willis makes, that racial hatred distracted workers in “Hammertown’s” foundries and workshops from seeing that their true enemy was a system rigged against them dictated by capital, is; in this instance; dictated by highly particular and localised examples of grievances.

With regards the schooling system itself, again Willis’ arguments stretch far beyond Sandwell and indeed far beyond the UK. As do his policy prescriptions, one of which could be read as Marxist demand for free or academy schools, thirty or forty years before they became part of neo-liberal reality. However, the specific examples that Willis gives of the failure of comprehensive schooling in Hammertown rest, yet again, upon specific local factors, even whilst his ideological concerns remain universal. Willis singles out the town’s unusually socially un-mixed population as a factor in why some many young people end up going into routine manual jobs. This is quite unusual in the West Midlands, an area which; as in London-at least historically-and unlike Leeds or Sheffield for instance, generally sees working class and middle class areas sit side by side.

Willis suggests that the lack of spatial residential proximity between people in professional jobs and those in manual ones causes greater division. Throughout the book he illustrates this through testimony from both teachers and the “lads” how the geographical distance between the teachers and pupils at the primary secondary school he studies creates lower expectations on both sides.

Willis’ scholarship and the discussions held in the “Work” working group that he co-ordinated, inspired others. Dorothy Hobson, another CCCS member deeply interested in ethnography and the power of place, has spoken of how Willis’ interests and approach influenced her own work. Hobson and Angela McRobbie, my final two case studies, further developed the CCCS ethnographic approach by using it to investigate the experience of being female in Birmingham. As with Mendelsohn and Willis their work shows an interest in place and how it shapes people.   

Angela McRobbie’s PhD, parts of which were published as Working Class Girls and the Culture of Femininity in Women Take Issue covered similar ground to Willis’ study of the Hammertown lads. McRobbie interviewed, over the course of six months, female members of a youth group on a council estate in south west Birmingham. She asked them about their relationships with their families and peers, their self-perception and expectations for their future.

Many aspects of her research focus on the idea of an imprisoning “code of femininity” and the specific class related pressures faced by the girls that she studied. McRobbie is, well known for Jackie her study of the ideology of teenaged girl’s magazines, indicating an interest in the media and representation which continues to animate her research to this day. However, as with Willis, in The Culture of Femininity specific issues are clearly deeply embedded in the specific local context of south Birmingham.

McRobbie juxtaposes the contrasting experiences of life in a major city experienced by working and middle class adolescent girls. The working class girls that she interviewed lived lives that were highly bound the estate where they lived, lives which even in mid-adolescence mirrored those of their mothers and older sisters. The girls from the youth club that McRobbie interviewed were expected to do household chores for pocket money, mirroring the sort of char-women types jobs taken on by their mothers. For instance the girl who described her mother’s work as “cleaning out the labs and all that [at the University of Birmingham a mile or two up the road]”.

By contrast the middle class girls mentioned in McRobbie’s paper, she doesn’t quote them, are depicted as being far more able to make the most of living a life in a major city. Their social life is described as being far more centered on the city centre, attending art centres and discos and using public transport to attend schools outside of the immediate areas where they grew up.

Housewives: Isolation as Oppression, Dorothy Hobson’s contribution to Women Take Issue, covers similar ground to McRobbie’s work on adolescent girls. It is, however, in many ways even more striking, in that despite the fact that all of the women Hobson speaks to are stuck in their high-rise flats all day, how much of a sense of place is evoked.

In many ways the landscape that Hobson describes, isolated, exurban, socially atomised, is exactly the kind of homogenised environment that Michael Young railed against in Family and Kinship nearly thirty years earlier. However, the transcripts of Hobson’s ethnographic interviews with participants in their homes develops an altogether different picture, one which is at once richer and more mundane.

Hobson’s primary concern is to explore how the women feel about the transition from work to being stay at housewives. From this material Hobson paints a picture of how women in low waged, frequently insecure work navigated and experienced the urban environment of south Birmingham in the mid to late 20th Century. It’s a world criss-crossed by bus routes leading from system built council estates to industrial estates populated with corrugated iron sheds where the basic components of industrial civilisation are churned out. This routine pattern of existence is punctuated by bursts of dancing, again linked by the bus, in both local and city centre venues. Through snatches of interview like this Hobson constructs the mental geography and subjective experience of working class life in Birmingham.

The parts of the study that at first glance seem to focus more on the women’s psychic world, their experience of transitioning to being a housewife, of spending much of everyday by themselves doing housework and looking after infants, is also highly attuned to place. Hobson captures a lot of the women’s feelings about their homes in high-rise blocks on the edge of King’s Norton, which is itself on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Their husbands are well paid car workers at the nearby Langbridge plant, their wages as the reason why, unlike the mothers of the girls in McRobbie’s study; the women do not have to go out to work. Hobson captures the effect of this, one woman tells her that living eight stories up in air and only knowing a few people in the block to “say hello to” that the media has become her “only connection to the outside world”.

In many ways this seems like the culmination of the concerns expressed about the effects of modernisation and the mass media upon human relations. In fact it is a far more place specific phenomena than that. The women that Hobson interviews are from a relatively affluent strand of the working class and their life experiences are determined by the-at this time-relatively prestigious estate upon which they live, which just happens to be structured in such a way and located in such a place as to minimise their opportunities for human interaction. In this way Hobson’s work is deeply shaped by and concerned with place.
I believe that my exploration of how members of the CCCS began to turn to place from about 1968 onwards, whilst having clear antecedents, can be factored into wider changes in society. Changes which point to a shift away from the general towards towards the more specific. In the months ahead I intend to conduct further research and develop a clearer picture of the significance of the CCCS’ ethnography to the development of cultural studies and our understanding of people and places.

Adapted from a paper given at the Cities@SAS: New Researchers in Modern Urban History Conference, 4th July 2016.  

Ex Libris Stuart Hall

Housman’s Radical Bookshop

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

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

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

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

Books on Display

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

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

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

Ex Libris Stuart Hall

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

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

Nationwide

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

UoB Library Plate

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

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

Labeling Deviant Behaviour

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

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

Libraries: Networks not Appendages

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

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

Football on TV frontpage

Football on Television Front Cover, Josh Allen’s picture

 

Football on TV Monograph

Football on Television inside cover, Josh Allen’s picture

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

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

Sarah Kenny-University of Sheffield

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

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

What is your background?

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

What led you to choose your subject matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image hosted on: Urban Trawl: Steel Yourself  

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

 

 

Lauren Piko-University of Melbourne

“…there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual…”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Melbourne’s Lauren Piko about her interest in Milton Keynes; and what the much maligned the new town can teach us today.

What is your background?

I studied British history at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate, yet despite the History department’s fine urban history tradition, I was very much a subcultural studies enthusiast at that time. After finishing my honours thesis in 2008 I spent a few years working in education administration in London, Bath and Melbourne, before returning to the University of Melbourne to undertake my PhD with Professor Andrew May and Dr David Nichols.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

My thesis examines the depiction of Milton Keynes in national British media and popular culture from 1967 to 1992, particularly with reference to ideas of national decline. This was specifically motivated by my experience of negotiating English urban spaces as an Australian. I moved to Milton Keynes in 2009 directly from Melbourne, knowing nothing of it other than that it was a cheap place to live while working in London. To someone who had grown up in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual, and so I was taken aback by the scorn and derision directed at Milton Keynes whenever I happened to mention where I lived. I was intrigued by these tacit value judgements of “good” urban landscapes, which were somehow lost in translation to my Melbournian ears. To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”, and so the stage was set for me to explore this in my PhD.

“To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”…”

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

E.P Thompson’s “Time and Work-discipline in Industrial Capitalism” is a perfect model of the “world in a grain of sand” approach to history I find the most exciting and politically powerful. The work of Sara Ahmed, along with Stuart Hall, are also constant touchstones, for their ability to use the tiniest iterations of culture as entry points.

My supervisor Professor Andrew May has suggested in the past that there may be a specifically “Melbourne way” of doing history; a sort of Greg-Dening-esque focus on language and meaning. I think it’s very likely that my ethnographic instincts and curiosity about hidden cultural boundaries have been shaped by being based at Melbourne’s history department.

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

I hope it makes them think twice about the political implications of beliefs and ideas that they consider to be “normal”, innate, or automatic.

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

I have been constantly delighted by the range of subject material I get to cover; the realisation that I needed to go back to Lockean ideas of nationhood was a shock, but so too was needing to spend so much time listening to Cliff Richard records. I really relish following the strange journeys of source material in cultural history.

What specific challenges do you face as a historian studying a subject that is located on the other side of the world from you?

“…negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.”

My work is borne out of being an Australian in Milton Keynes, so I think it’s very appropriate to be writing this thesis from Melbourne, back to exploring the tacit language of Englishness from the outside. A substantial amount of my research was undertaken from Australia, though I was lucky to obtain funding for two on-site research trips. This meant an exhausting and frenzied workload during those two-and-a-half months! Though I would have loved to have had the luxury of losing myself for months in the archives, negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.

Do you think there are connections between the denigration of Milton Keynes and other new towns in British popular culture and wider shifts in society since the 1960s?

Absolutely. It is very much part of a wider ideological rejection that has led tower blocks, council estates, and other new towns to be condemned and ridiculed. Much like how “the 1970s” are regularly invoked as the “bad old days” of British politics, condemning postwar urban planned spaces helps reinforce the idea that “there is no alternative” to the neo-liberal state. It’s an ongoing rejection that legitimates the status quo.

Does your research lead you to see the plans for Milton Keynes as fundamentally a radical or a conservative project?

To give a stereotypical historian’s response, it depends on the context. In terms of urban planning, The Plan for Milton Keynes was a radical re-imagining of the very idea of the discipline and what it should do. Politically, however, the very “flexibility” at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily, and through doing so it has become more conservative than the Plan itself ever envisioned.

“the… ‘flexibility’ at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily…”

Given contemporary ecological concerns, are car-centric development like Milton Keynes worrying anachronisms or can they be salvaged?

This is a great question. In reality I don’t think Milton Keynes is inherently as car-centric as its reputation suggests. It’s also incredibly pedestrian and cycle-friendly, and while it’s been let down by public transport provision in the past, this is getting better overall. Milton Keynes is also a beautifully verdant town with a fantastically diverse urban ecology. Provided that public transport provision continues to improve, it will be exciting to watch how Milton Keynes continues to challenge preconceptions about density and urban functioning into the future.

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You can read more about Lauren’s research into the genesis and cultural impact of Milton Keynes on her academia.edu page. She can be contacted through the University of Melbourne’s graduate school. 

Solidarity and Close Encounters in 1970s Birmingham? Observing the Relationship Between the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and Their Subjects

This short paper is an account of how a wrong turn, breed a niggling insight and blossomed into the seed of a research project.  

Historically academics, historians included, have been pretty bad at being open about what led them to study what they study. Scholars in all disciplines act like conjurers, seemingly of the belief that revealing a personal interest or involvement with a topic will break break their spell and compromise what they do. The mythic legacy of enlightenment rationalism and modernity’s professionalising imperatives linger.

Fifteen years after it was shut the legacy of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies is seemingly secured by its reputation for moving beyond the normal narrow confines of academia. Its members are renowned for embracing a more engaged form of scholarship, an activist brand of academia that was highly attuned to shifts in popular culture and engaged in political struggles far beyond this campus in leafy, sleepy; Edgbaston.

Having become familiar with the CCCS through this mythology, and sensing some possible contradictions, I was inspired by my reading of Koven and Walkowitz to attempt to try and exploring class dynamics and the limits of empathy in the CCCS’ work. My aim was to produce a study that situated well educated, keen, politicised young people in post-1960s Britain within the growing body of research of that has been produced exploring the assumptions and agendas brought to social research by the tribes of experts that seek to conduct it.   

So I was surprised when I went back to some classic CCCS texts and found little or no trace of their author’s active involvement with scenes and situations that they explore and pass comment upon.

In his paper, “The Worldliness of Cultural Studies” published last year, Dick Hebdige explains how DJ’ing at a central Birmingham nightclub provided a gateway into the world of subcultures:           

“From 1972 throughout most of the decade, when I wasn’t writing about subculture or teaching part-time in UK art schools, I spent much of my time helping run a sound system called the Shoop, then a fixture on Birmingham’s underground circuit – with a weekly gig every Thursday night over a long ago demolished pub on Hill Street in the city centre.”

 

Yet none of this deep active involvement with the music scene seeps into his work.

It’s hard to find even passing mentions of Birmingham and the West Midlands in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, let alone any reference to Hebdige’s close involvement with a succession of musical subcultural scenes.

After Hebdige I turned to Policing the Crisis. We know thanks to Kieron Connell’s oral histories of the CCCS, that much of the impetus for Policing the Crisis came from the black community in Handsworth’s experiences of police harassment. Experiences that Centre members like Chas Critcher and John Clarke became highly aware of, and involved in, through running social action projects in the area.

Aware of this context I was very surprised to find that the authors’ personal involvement with the issues and the area gets one single solitary mention in the entire 400 page book. In 400 pages only the Introduction mentions-offhandedly-that: “we became involved in a practical way” when some young men known at a community centre run by Critcher in Handsworth made the national news after receiving 20 year sentences for “mugging”.

After this single brief mention of possible close engagement the authors’ veer away, distancing themselves, implying that it was the “unnecessary-viciousness” of the sentences and popular focus upon “dealing with causes, not effects” that drew them to take an interest.

Through recourse to popular opinion in Birmingham and the language of sociology, the authors of Policing the Crisis hide their personal involvement and any feelings they might have about the workings of the criminal justice system and the effects of structural oppression upon society and individuals.

Hebdige had close encounters with punks, rastas and glam rockers, Clarke and Critcher worked in solidarity with the the Afro-Caribbean community in Handsworth. Does any of this make its way into their published work? Put simply: no.  

My initial research has shown that any attempt to the explore the working of the relationships that CCCS researchers built up with their subjects will have to be incredibly focused.

Thanks to the work of Kieron Connell and Matthew Hilton in this field we now have a strong overview, a big picture, of the work that the CCCS did. What I hope to do is hone it further and start to develop a higher resolution image of one aspect of the CCCS’ output.  

During the long 1970s the CCCS produced a strong body of ethnographic work.

In amongst the volumes of encoding/decoding studies that the Centre produced during this period, of which Hebdige’s Subcultures and Policing the Crisis are the most polished examples, there are also some brilliant works of social study and ethnography.

I believe the study of these has the potential to enhance our understanding of what young politically committed academics brought to their work during this period. I want to explore how this shaped their approach to their subjects, the questions they asked of them and the texts that they crafted from their responses.   

There’s also, of course, the Stakhanovite level of output in Althusserian social history and literary criticism that the Centre managed to achieve during the ‘70s… But that might have to wait a bit longer for its historian.

My research into the “ethnographic” CCCS is still at a very early stage, however, I have identified some promising lines of enquiry.

A lot of attention has recently been given to the photographic work Janet Mendelsohn conducted in Balsall Heath. It is not my intention to explore in depth the work that Mendelsohn and Dick Rogers did with communities in that part of the city. However, for me, their blended projects, juxtaposing photos of their subjects with snatches of interview, represent a critical moment in the development of the CCCS.

Their work, conducted between 1967 and 1969, came at a critical juncture, when some CCCS members began to move beyond the Centre’s origins and early orientation in literary studies towards a more ethnographic approach, trying to ascertain the effects of ideology upon concrete individuals and communities.

This turn also manifests itself in the evolution of other CCCS projects. Paul Willis, one of the originators of the CCCS’ subcultural studies group, moved in the early to mid 1970s from the classic encoding/decoding analysis of hippie and biker youth ritual seen in Profane Culture to the fully fledged ethnography of Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs.

In Learning to Labour Willis follows a group of male working class youths, who are part of what he terms an “anti-school” subculture, through their last years of secondary school and into their first months in the workplace. As Graeme Turner has noted, Willis’ work implicitly expresses a great affinity with the antinomian working class “lads” that feature in his study.

I intend in the course of my research to delve into Willis’ work with his “lads”, tracing through the CCCS’ working papers how his approach to them changed, how the way he sought to connect with them shaped his study and reach an assessment-insofar as such a thing is possible-of how well he was able to build up an accurate picture of their lives and concerns. Developing an approach to his work which asks the question, were they acting up for him?

I am keen to explore the work of Centre members like Willis and Mendelsohn because of the very explicit relationship their work has to Birmingham and the wider West Midlands.

From the mid-1970s the CCCS Women’s Group produced a series of groundbreaking ethnographic work exploring how ideological tropes of womanhood impacted upon the lives of young women in the city. Reacting against the fact that “birds” only intrude into Willis’ work when his “lads talk about sex and dating, Angela McRobbie initiated a study in 1975-76, into what teenaged girls living on a Birmingham council estate perceived to be their place in the world.

McRobbie got to know the girls who frequented a youth club in south Birmingham, a club that appears to have been based in Quinton, and spoke with them at length about their lives and hopes and dreams for the future.

A highly filleted and editorialised version of her discussions with them appeared in 1978’s Women Take Issue. As with Willis’ work I will be tracing the evolution of the  ways in which McRobbie used the material she gathered and trying to develop a sense of how the relationship with her subjects worked.

Another Women Take Issue paper which stands out for me, amongst, you guessed it, all the Althusserian literary criticism, is a write up of Dorothy Hobson’s interviews with young working class housewives exploring how the experience of getting married changed their lives. The implication, and arguably the reality, being that it generally made their lives a lot narrower if not demonstrably worse.

I was struck by Hobson’s work, which like her later studies of the Crossroad audience, I find groundbreaking and consider unfairly overlooked. It has a degree of apparent self-awareness and a sense of reflection that the work of other CCCS scholars generally lacks. Whilst politically engaged and committed to her subjects, Hobson is also highly interested in the methodology of her work and interrogates the nature of her relationship with her subjects at some length.

As with the others, I am interested in the limitations and blind spots inherent within Hobson’s approach. In many ways her openness about her reasons why she became interested in topic and relatively untheoretical approach makes her a strong candidate for this kind of analysis.

Hobson is keen to stress to her readers that she has been able to build up a strong relationship with her subjects. She explains that she got to know them first through local GP surgeries, building a rapport with them before going to their homes to conduct interviews. She is keen to stress how like the women she interviews she is, giving biographical details like the fact she had a primary school aged son, just like many of her subjects. Hobson even goes so far as to ask her subjects whether they think she is like them, as if she is seeking their affirmation. When they readily indicate that they don’t really consider her any different to them she reports this at some length, as if signalling to her readers just how close to her subjects she is.

In approaching Hobson, more than any of the others, I am struck by the potential similarities with what Jon Lawrence has explored in his study of the Cambridge-Luton embourgeoisement surveys of the early 1960s. The researchers who worked on these projects were very keen to highlight how “classless” and shorn of snobbery and pre-conception they were, whilst at the same time, make presuppositions about their subjects which illustrate how far they were away from being either.

With Hobson’s work I will be especially looking at ways in which her close engagement with her subjects might have influenced her respondents responses in particular ways.

Over the coming year I shall be focusing on the work of the scholars I’ve just outlined. I will get getting to grips with their projects and the wider culture of the CCCS and British left at this time. I hope to be able to make good use of the recently assembled CCCS archive, and where possible and appropriate, go out and speak to the subjects of my study directly.

My research is still at a very early stage, but I hope that I’ve been able to give you a flavour of where my interest in this topic stems from and where I hope to take my research in future.
By way of a final note, it is not my intention to abandon Dick Hebdige’s work and Policing the Crisis. I remain as interested in their relationship to what they wrote about as ever. Maybe, through trying to tackle the easier to read ethnographic strand of the CCCS’ work, it will be possible for me to extrapolate and gain insights into how it might be possible to read the influences that served to create these other canonical texts upon which the reputation of the Centre rests.  

Paper delivered on 18th March 2016 as part of Panel Three at the Modern British Studies, Contemporary and Global History MA Research Day in the University of Birmingham’s Chemical Engineering 112