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.     

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

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Rosamund Lily West-Kingston University

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

What is your background?

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

What led you to choose your subject matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whilst researching, what sources have you found most illuminating?

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

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

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

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

Do they appear to have changed over time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tate Modern Switch House (27633103611)

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.  

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.

“Municipal Dreams”

“Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors… Who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I’ve been lucky enough to grab a word with John, the stalwart social historian who writes and curates Municipal Dreams. Municipal Dreams is a blog that explores the multifaceted, but generally very positive, legacy of activist local government in Britain.

What is your background?

I was brought up in a small Norfolk seaside resort and enjoyed it but I was determined to experience something urban and grittier when the opportunity arose. So I did voluntary work on a Leeds council estate during my gap year and then headed to the University of Manchester where I studied History. I’d joined the Labour Party aged 16 in 1974 and I was lucky to be able to pursue my interest in labour history in some depth at Manchester. I followed this with a PhD in the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. After seven years straight HE – no fees, full grant (we were a lucky generation) – I was ready for something else so I worked in a couple of roles for Norwich City Council before taking a teaching qualification. I also served as a Labour councillor for four years.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

You probably already have the answer. Firstly, there are my politics. Secondly, there’s my education. My PhD was on working-class politics in interwar Birmingham and Sheffield (I spent a lot of time in the late, lamented Birmingham Central Library so it’s great to see that as the header image for this blog) and in both – Birmingham, Tory; Sheffield, Labour – you had councils determined to use the power of the local state to serve their communities.

Since then we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record; not blindly, of course, as not everything done was wise or wonderful, but with a proper historical understanding of what was achieved and why things sometimes went wrong.

The blog has a particular focus on housing and this has become incredibly timely. We could begin writing the epitaph of council housing from 1979 but recent and proposed legislation seems determined to kill it off once and for all or, at the least, so radically reduce it to housing of last resort that it seems to me really important to defend it and to present an alternative history – far removed from contemporary caricatures – which properly celebrates its positive and transformative role in the lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

“…we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record…”

I’m aware that all this makes my work far more obviously and directly ‘political’ than that of some of your other respondents. I’d only say that, while the blog does have a clear political perspective and (I hope) message, I’m not interested in writing propaganda or polemic. It is, to my mind, precisely the nuance and rootedness of an historical approach that allows a proper and more persuasive case to be made.

Are there any historians or other writers that particularly inspire your approach to your topic?

“…‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.”

Karl Marx. That may sound like a provocation but, as I think back to my formative influences and reading, I realise just how much I’ve taken from a Marxist approach – not the great man’s revolutionary aspirations and predictions, nor ever the practice of ‘actually existing socialism’, but the basic and profound insight that society and its ruling ideas are shaped (I would say ‘determined’) by the economic system of the day. Maybe this is now so commonplace a notion that our debt to Marx doesn’t need to be stated but it is an approach, I believe, that should inform the work of any social historian. And ‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.

As a teenager, I devoured EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class – a wonderfully rich and humane book which added a cultural dimension to class and ideology which Marx’s more schematic approach largely neglected.

I came of age in another era, a time when labour history was in vogue and ideas of class, rather than all the multifarious identities currently celebrated, were dominant. I’ve learnt a lot from the latter but I feel a sense of loss too. I worry that current preoccupations are too fragmentary and lead us to neglect the broader realities which still shape most lives.

What kind of sources do you use to inform your work?

Basically, as I range widely, I use whatever sources are to hand and the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study. Council records tend to be very dry, such is the nitty-gritty of local government work, but occasionally council publications will provide a more colourful and ‘political’ account of local reforms. The local press, particularly in its hey-day, often provided rich detail on local government controversies and achievements. The architectural press is often informative on particular schemes though overwhelmingly and narrowly design-focused. Sources recording the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ lives are still too rare but very valuable where they exist. In terms of secondary sources, I’m thankful for the work of the relatively few academics working in the field and very grateful to those doctoral students who have produced fine local studies.

“…the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study…”

I’m grateful to various people who have written guest posts for the blog and I’d love to extend this so that it becomes a resource centre for everyone – academics and non-academics, local historians, people researching their own stories – interested in the field or with a history to share.

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

At its most basic, a renewed belief in the positive and necessary role of the state in securing a fairer and more equal society and an appreciation of the enormously constructive role played by local government over many years. This, as the consistent failure of the free market to provide decent homes for all, makes clear is most apparent in the field of housing.

“…the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done…”

At the very least, because I try to write to people across the political spectrum, I hope that readers come away with a more rounded and contextualised understanding of council housing – to see the ideals and ambitions which shaped it and the social and economic forces (rather than, in most cases, any inherent flaws in conception and execution) which have sometimes undercut those founding aspirations.

More generally, the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done – ‘instrumental’ politics rather than the ‘expressive, virtue-signalling and identity politics that is consuming many on the left at present.

Over the course of your research have you come across any recurring difficulties or challenges that municipal reformers faced?

Two connected difficulties confront municipal reformers and do so even more powerfully in the present: parliamentary sovereignty – that local government can only ever do what has been specifically authorised by Westminster, and finance – that councils have very rarely enjoyed the resources needed to execute their plans optimally. As a state and society, we have been consistently unwilling to provide the social investment needed to enable all our people to thrive. Local councillors can only ever work within this reality.

Which of the municipal pioneers you’ve written about do you think we can learn most from today?

Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors – of all parties – who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.

“Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’.”

Of course I do have my heroes – Alfred and Ada Salter in Bermondsey, George Lansbury in Poplar and the rebel councillors of Clay Cross but each were representative of a time and place and it’s hard to see their actions replicated in the present. However, I’d give a special place to Ada. Bermondsey pioneered health and housing reform – vital functions of local government – but for the Salters politics had a profoundly spiritual dimension expressed in their practical Christian socialism. Those who had created Bermondsey, in Alfred’s words, ‘did not realise that they had cut off the people from the chiefest means of natural grace. They did not appreciate the curse and cruelty of ugliness’. As a councillor and mayor, Ada established a Beautification Committee. It planted 10,000 trees and created pocket parks across the borough. In Fenner Brockway’s words, ‘Bermondsey became a place of unexpected beauty spots’.

Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’. That – and the civic pride it speaks to – seems something to aspire to and emulate.

Conversely which do you consider the most egregiously wrong-headed or damaging?

That’s an interesting question and the easy response is to point to those councillors who oversaw the system-built high-rise debacle of the 1960s. Sometimes personal aggrandisement further tainted their judgement. T Dan Smith in Newcastle is the obvious example. And yet even here one sees an ambition to house the people and get them out of the slums and the pressures to do that from central government using ‘modern’ methods were enormous. It’s easy to criticise some of the housing schemes of the sixties and lament the loss of the old working-class terraces (though we too readily forget just how bad the slum housing of the era was). In fact, the rehabilitation drive began in the mid-sixties and some of the best council housing ever was built in the seventies so, even here, lessons were learnt.

“I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities…”

For all that I defend local government, I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities, as we see, for example, in Lambeth in the present (the Cressingham Gardens estate being a case in point), seems entirely wrong whatever the pressures to ‘densify’ and however justified by proponents as a means to build and finance new social housing. There’s a fine line between working a loaded system for progressive ends and complicity in that system and this, to me, oversteps the mark.

Do you see any scope for comparable local action today?

The opportunities for councils to engage in bold reform are very limited now given central government cuts and restrictions. Some councils are working imaginatively to build new social housing within the current hostile framework but it’s all necessarily legalistic and unheroic. Too often, councils are forced into unholy alliance with commercial interests and lack the acumen and clout needed to secure even the limited gains such deals are supposed to generate. We need to change central government policy and liberate local government to serve its people. And local councils must work with, be seen to genuinely represent, and mobilise their communities.

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In addition to his main blog, John also posts shorter pieces and pictures on tumblr. He can be reached via Twitter here.

 

Birmingham Central Library

A personal tribute to, and set of reflections on, the-currently being demolished-Birmingham Central Library.

Consciously trying to mix up the personal, the political and the architectural.

More like this very soon…

Modern British Studies Birmingham

Josh Allen is currently studying an MA in Modern British Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshPAllen


Josh Allen Josh Allen

I’ve many lofty aesthetic, ideological and historical objections to the Central Library’s destruction. We’ll touch on them in due course, the primary thrust of this blog is far closer to the gut, rawer and more emotional. With each bite that the concrete compactor takes out of the Paradise Circus structure, a chunk of one of the key sites and landmarks of my childhood is being torn away.

One of my earliest memories is of gazing out of the windows of the Central Library’s, tiny, slightly shabby, first floor cafe. I can’t be more than three, maybe I’m as young as two. The exact timing would hinge on whether my Mum, who, doubtless clutching a brown plastic cup of coffee, must be present near by, is cradling my sister or not…

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