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). 

The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timo Korpivaara - 1956 Rally Finland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.        

Kinds of Place

Like every child growing up I became increasingly aware of spatial difference and inequalities within the city where I was raised. This is basically a fancy way of saying that I became aware that there were some areas that were richer, sometimes dramatically so, than others.

Slowly realising the implications of this was one of the ways in which-for better or worse-I figured out who I was and what my place was in scheme of things. Without ever explicitly being told it I came to realise that I was “at home” in the well established, left-leaning, middle class suburb where I grew up. Differences of taste, appearance and yes; implicit notions of fear and threat, served to mark out the boundaries of where I wanted to go, where I could and couldn’t go.

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A great view from the author’s walk to work, and handy illustration of Birmingham’s spatial divisions (Author’s own photo)

My middle-middle class, middlebrow intellectual mindset semi-consciously marked out other parts of the city as “posh”, “boringly average” and “rough”. Places to hurry through at best, avoid at worst.  

Despite liking to think that I am a fairly critical individual, in possession of a fair bit of empathy and imagination I admit that a lot of this went unchallenged in my mind until I was eighteen and left where I grew up to attend university in York.

York is a predominantly prosperous city, with the peculiar character of having a large transient population. Even out of season it’s population is swelled by thousands of day trippers, tourists and conference delegates. Their number is complemented by tens of thousands of other semi-permanent residents students, soldiers and agency workers posted there for a fixed period of time, many of whom will leave when they get their degree scroll, next deployment or a better contract. A tier above them sit the academics, civil servants and technicians, not really rooted anywhere, who swoop in to work at the universities, DEFRA, English Heritage, Network Rail one of the building firms, financial services companies or technology groups who make York their home. A tier beneath them sit a raft of people who gravitate towards York’s bright lights, some have just left prison, some are homeless.

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Different users of York’s St. Helen’s Square (Author’s own photo)

Mushed together these different groups give the impression, once you’ve been there a little while, that York is a city in a steady state of flux. The experience of this, very clearly implanted in my mind the idea that everybody experiences cities in a different way. There isn’t one York, there isn’t one Birmingham, there isn’t one Tallinn or Bogota or anywhere else. At the most you can say that there are “kind of cities” that certain groups experience urban life in a certain way and enjoy a certain type of shared communal experience.

That this is the case struck me on days when I used to walk around York’s old city. It became obvious that my experience of York, as full time student at the pre-92 university to the south of the city, was very different from that of one of the shopkeepers on Stonegate, or a white collar council worker buying their lunch opposite St. Leonard’s Place. And that their lives and experiences of the city were as different again as that of the tourists strolling the walls with cameras slung round their necks, were from that of the beggars sat strung out along the pavement from the Railway Station to the Minster.

This impression, essentially a moment of clarity, was only further reinforced a few years later when I briefly worked as a local journalist in York, getting to know and working to represent, a very broad cross section of the city’s people.

When it finally dawned upon me that this was how urban experience worked it made a really powerful impression upon me. An impression that has stayed with me, and I hope, made me a better denizen of the urban realms that I have inhabited (and indeed written about) since.                     

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Dusk in York’s King’s Square (Author’s own photo)

The idea that an individual’s personal situation shapes their urban existence has, after a period of abeyance (at least in mainstream discourse), recently become a hot topic of much interest and debate. Yet the very suggestion that it is something that we should be concerned about still has the potential to provoke.

This article, about how women are structurally disadvantaged within the built environment was published a couple of months ago on CityMetric, one of my favourite “wonkish” websites. CityMetric, whilst noted for its love of maps, charts and stats, typically takes a highly humanistic approach to issues that impact upon those living urban lives.

Here’s a few choice quotes:

“Last year, councillors for the city of London, in Ontario, Canada, spent 90 minutes discussing a 12 word addition to a document. The contentious sentence read, ‘Consider a gender lens during the development and execution of new policies’.”

 

“…some… male politicians felt the line impugned their honour. Bill Armstrong, representative of Ward 2 since the 90s, accused Maureen Cassidy, the councillor who introduced the offending line, of ‘questioning the integrity of our administration and suggesting they were doing practices that would be discriminatory’… ‘Plain and simple,” he concluded, ‘all people are treated equally, so it doesn’t have to be said.’”

The article goes on to state that:

“…treating people equally has a long rap-sheet when it comes to achieving equal outcomes. That is to say, treating people equally often translates as treating people like men.”

CityMetric’s piece is talking about policy making in the here and now, and of course, in the near future. But it helped me formulate something concrete from a sea of considerations-hunches if you like-that had been swimming around my subconscious for a long time. If, and unlike the London, OT Councilman Anderson I do not consider this contentious in the slightest, an individual’s experience of the city is subjective and highly shaped by who they are, then surely someone’s memory of the city, the way that it interplays with their psyche is just as conditional and subjective?

The claim that a person’s experience of a city is inedibly marked by who they are is nothing new or in of itself especially novel. A memorable and well known example is the section in the Road to Wigan Pier where Orwell writes about how as a middle-middle class child his access to the city was curtailed by the injunctions, entreaties and vignettes of disgust hurled by his parents and other adults; at the residents of working class parts of the town where he grew up that they were “dirty”. This created a psycho-semantic field of disgust that remained with him into adulthood. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a novel set during a similar period to the one in which Orwell sets his autobiographical reflections, Muriel Spark uses Brodie’s decision to take her class on walking trips around the moody, decrepit tenements of Edinburgh’s Old Town (still decades away from any kind of “gentrification”) as an illustration of how she is striving to lead her class into other kinds of transgression, transgressions of both morality and decent.

Eton rifles 1915 (accessed via pictify.saatchigallery.com)

Both of these literary accounts, one essentially fictional, one a bit less so; present the bourgeois experience of urban life’s mental boundaries. Boundaries which as Seth Koven shows in Slumming it can be exciting to transgress. What then of those people whose position in society lacks the comparative privilege afforded to the middle class?

In City of Dreadful Delight a brilliantly political work of history that works an extended essay illuminating the parallels between the Jack the Ripper killings of the 1880s and the Yorkshire Ripper Murders of the 1970s, Judith Walkowitz writes about how the perils of navigating late Victorian London governed the movements of Victorian women. By examining the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette in the 1880s she uncovers a fascinating series of exchanges between “ladies” and “gentlemen” frequenting the parks and shops of the West End. The letters, spanning a period of time, are a loose dialogue between women who experienced harassment and unwanted attention from men in public places and men who felt that it was “their right” to stare at, comment upon, and in some cases touch, women who were out in public.

This fascinating dialogue-which shows just how long standing the roots of contemporary concerns about, and struggles against, street harassment are, comprises part of a wider section of the book which explores the impact of increasing numbers of women using public spaces upon late-Victorian London. An experience, which many women at times found unpleasant, and which many men found unsettling. Experiences which-as Walkowitz shows-shaped emerging codes about how women should behave in and approach public spaces.

Returning to the present day it is worth exploring some contemporary manifestations of how personal situation and personal experience shape people’s urban existences. In Reading the Everyday, a book that must rapidly be becoming a classic, Joe Moran provides a fine example of how matters like class shape urban existence.

Partially taking his cue for LeFebvre, partially taking his cue from cultural studies, Moran focuses on the political meanings and decisions that structure our built environment at the most basic level. For instance: the privileging by both planners and popular culture of the motorist (more middle class, more masculine) over the bus passenger (more working class, more feminine).

I believe that just as attention has turned, once more; to the inequalities inherent in our built environment and the urban realm more widely so it is possible to explore how particular patterns of thought and preferences are shaped by people’s interaction with of experience of particular urban environments. I will be returning further to these themes in due course.

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.

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Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

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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).

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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

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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.      

Pictures of York’s Stonebow House Taken One January Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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