The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“LCC Municipal”

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

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

What is your background?

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

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

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

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

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

What encouraged you to start sharing them?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can follow “LCC Municipal” on Twitter. For more profiles like this see here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A neatly tippexed correction there,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words have been, left out, misspelled and corrected,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ewan Gibbs-University of the West of Scotland

“A historical reading of Scotland which implicates the centrality of major socio-economic changes and social conflicts is required for a politics which can also grapple with the contemporary realities of class and economic power all too often missing from our dominant discourse.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Ewan Gibbs; who lectures in the social science faculty at the University of the West of Scotland. He explains how political conviction and political experience, shapes his approach to questions of Scotland’s economic and political development in the mid-20th Century.

What is your background?

I am originally from Edinburgh and went to the University of Glasgow where I graduated in Economic and Social History in 2012. I recently completed a PhD examining the protracted process and long-term consequences of de-industrialisation in the Lanarkshire coalfields to the East of Glasgow. Since then I have been appointed as an Early Career Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland.

Throughout that time I have been an active socialist. I am a member of the Labour Party and a trade unionist.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“It became apparent during my dissertation research that de-industrialisation, the proportionate decline of industrial activities to employment and economic activity, was a key dynamic in the rise of Scottish nationalism during the late twentieth century.”

I chose to study de-industrialisation in Scotland with a focus on the Lanarkshire coalfield following developing an interests in labour and working class history during my undergraduate degree. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on the anti-poll tax movement in Glasgow, tracing the connection between this episode of community mobilisation with historical narratives of Red Clydeside era housing protests mobilised by activists. However, a key aspect to this was also discontinuities associated with the absence of workplace activism during the late 1980s and that the poll tax non-payment campaign was opposed by traditional labour movement organisations, especially the Scottish Trade Union Congress and the Labour Party. Whilst partly related to the nature of the measure and the impact of non-payment on local government, this was also the result of the adoption of a civic Scottish nationalist political outlook as opposed to traditional social democratic or class struggle based outlooks.

As a socialist activist as well as a historian I was keen to get to grips with these dynamics of political change. It became apparent during my dissertation research that de-industrialisation, the proportionate decline of industrial activities to employment and economic activity, was a key dynamic in the rise of Scottish nationalism during the late twentieth century. It was also an obvious reference point for the decline of trade union strength and activism. I turned towards studying de-industrialisation in the Lanarkshire coalfields for my thesis because they were Scotland’s largest coalfields between the early nineteenth and mid-twentieth century but entered sustained contraction after coal’s nationalisation in 1947. Lanarkshire was at the centre of Scotland’s post-1945 state-led process of modernisation which incorporated the establishment of New Towns, East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. It also included the establishment of major industrial estates which hosted inward investment from manufacturing firms, which incorporated the prominent involvement of American multinationals. This research allowed me to focus on the long-term process of major changes behind shifts in the dynamics of class and nation I had originally viewed through the more specific period of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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

“Thompson’s deployment of thick description and highlighting self-image and understanding, that the working class was “present at its own making”, has been formative in my conception of history.”

I need to preface any remarks here with a statement of modesty, these are inspirations rather than figures I would hope to imitate. E.P. Thompson’s approach to labour history most apparent in The Making of the English Working Class emphasised how class consciousness evolved through changes in economic relations mediated by historical experience and cultural understanding. Thompson’s deployment of thick description and highlighting self-image and understanding, that the working class was “present at its own making”, has been formative in my conception of history. Recently I have also been increasingly influenced by the French Annales School approach which underlines the long-term development of social structures, in Fernand Braudel’s term “the slow and powerful march of history.” My interest in these perspectives were partly stemmed by an earlier appreciation for Eric Hobsbawm’s analysis in his trilogy of the ‘long nineteenth century’ history which similarly highlight long-term changes in social relations behind the evolution of mass politics as capitalism and the nation state developed, consolidated and experienced crisis.

“I… have been highly influenced by Alessandro Portelli, an Italian pioneer of oral history theory. Portelli’s work on the Appalachian coalfield, They Say in Harlan County, underlines the non-linear nature of relationships between temporarily and memory, and how understandings of the past frame the constructions of contemporary controversies.”

At a more specific level related to my own research and period I have been influenced by scholars of North American de-industrialisation including Barry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison’s seminal work from 1982, The Deindustrialization of America. This analysis emphasises the development of contradiction between capital and community interests behind divestment, which was a result of long-term corporate strategy and resource allocation. This has since been developed by historians such as Jefferson Cowie, Joseph Heathcott and Sherry Linkon who have argued for looking “beyond the ruins” of post-industrial society in order to historicise the major changes in social and cultural structures that de-industrialisation entails. In conducting my research I relied heavily on oral history research and have been highly influenced by Alessandro Portelli, an Italian pioneer of oral history theory. Portelli’s work on the Appalachian coalfield, They Say in Harlan County, underlines the non-linear nature of relationships between temporarily and memory, and how understandings of the past frame the constructions of contemporary controversies. In terms of Scottish history, John Foster’s approach to the twentieth century experience foregrounds the changing nature of industrial structures and increasingly central role of externally owned capital in stimulating labour movement-influenced assertions of nationhood has shaped my outlook. My PhD supervisor, Jim Phillips’s, development of these perspectives in underlining the role of industrial workers in shaping arguments for devolution during the 1960s and 1970s have also been formative. His conception of the community assertions of rights to the employment provided by colliery employment through a moral economy of the coalfields also influenced my work.

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

“Fundamentally I hope that readers also appreciate that these changes are not the inevitable result of historical processes, or aloof market forces, but are instead the result of heavily contested episodes of investment and divestment and decisions taken by policy-makers and firms.”

I hope that readers appreciate the major role that changes in industrial employment have had in shaping societies and their political consciousness. Fundamentally I hope that readers also appreciate that these changes are not the inevitable result of historical processes, or aloof market forces, but are instead the result of heavily contested episodes of investment and divestment and decisions taken by policy-makers and firms. Within a Scottish context I hope that my work will influence audiences to reconsider the forces and time period they ascribe to both deindustrialisation and strengthened assertions of Scottish nationhood and calls for greater political autonomy. In most Scottish historiography this has been ascribed to either the divergences between Scottish and UK electoral results during the 1980s or a more confident Scottish culture, led by the arts and literature, also visible since the 1980s.

My research suggests that the fundamental changes behind de-industrialisation have roots in the falling employment within staple industries and investment decisions made during the 1940s and 1950s. These contributed towards the increasing externalisation of control of the Scottish economy which stimulated increasing calls for devolution during the 1960s and 1970s. A formative role in this was played by the National Union of Mineworkers Scottish Area (NUMSA). My work also recasts and challenges positive readings of the economically prosperous and politically mature ‘New Scotland’ that has emerged in recent decades. Through oral testimonies it relies on perspectives from localities which have not benefited from this transition and cast doubts on a social structure which has heightened economic inequality and removed elements of policy-making and structures that allowed workers and communities to exercise collective ‘voice’.

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

Over the last 3 or 4 years I have become more sensitive to some of the major drivers of the process of de-industrialisation and the direction of policy-makers. It became apparent when researching my masters dissertation on American manufacturing foreign direct investment in Lanarkshire, and then more so during my thesis research, that a relatively tight knit policy-making community drove major changes in mid and late twentieth century Scotland. This technocratic grouping had roots in the 1930s and the establishment of the Scottish Office, drawing key lessons on the need for industrial diversification from the heavy industry crisis of the interwar period. As traditional industrial dynasties in coal, steel and then shipbuilding declined the strength of this elite increased. The importance of energy policy and its dynamic changes over this time period also became evidently central. In particular the choice to opt for cheap oil and nuclear during the 1960s, and its relationship to investment in power stations. This reversed during the 1970s as the oil crisis revealed the danger of relying on imported fuel sources, which has renewed salience today. These dynamics revealed the importance of tracing relationships between devolved elements of Scottish policy-making and application, and centralised UK decision making. I hope to take analysis of energy policy and its national dynamics forward in further research.

I have also increased my understanding of the complex relationship between the NUMSA and both the nationalised coal industry and Scottish nationhood. Coalfield de-industrialisation was incremental, and the process of falling employment coincided with centralisation as the Coal Board was reorganised. This stimulated the NUMSA’s support for Scottish autonomy and contribution to the Scottish labour movement’s adoption of devolution over the late 1960s and early 1970s. The role of institution building and invented traditions were apparent in this process too, in particular the NUMSA’s development of the Scottish Miners’ Gala which became a major annual labour movement event. Responses to coalfield de-industrialisation therefore involved assertions of cultural agency. These incorporated elements of the NUMSA’s Communist-influenced politics apparent in international links, and support for Scottish devolution but also in the ambiguous relationship between this and continued backing for a UK nationalised industry and class conscious appeals for labour movement unity. The roots the Gala had in community traditions and the importance of informal community linkages founded in a distinct coalfield identity and culture became central to my thesis. This was apparent from oral testimonies, many of which emphasised the construction of a sense of belonging from family and community, its disruption by economic restructuring and the suburbanisation of former industrial communities.

Do you get any sense of how the regional focus of much government policy during this period affected how urbanised areas of Scotland were perceived?

“…we see something of a geographical reading associated with conceptions of modernisation and backwardness through the allocation of modernity to particular areas that would absorb labour from others.”

It becomes apparent reading both the major economic plans, in particular the Abercrombie/Clyde Valley plan of 1947 and Toothill plan of 1961, but perhaps more so Scottish Office correspondence, that conceptions of modernisation and backwardness were vital. The policy-making community had definite conceptions of major changes to Scotland’s industrial base and an associated redistribution of population and urban settlement. In particular, it was felt that single-industry locations were particularly susceptible to economic dislocation. This mirrored the more general reading of the need to diversify Scotland’s economy as a whole. I haven’t done much research on housing policy but it is clear there was a drive towards resettlement and in providing communities which were different from their industrial revolution era predecessors. The centre of this concern was on not evolving through reliance on labour markets which were viewed as highly vulnerable to market fluctuations, technological changes, foreign competition etc.

It is evident that the New Towns were seen as the areas which were to provide a beacon for Scotland’s future. Although this is fairly well established, it is important to note these were adjoined by several other ‘growth points’ that were earmarked to act as key nodal points for developments and to receive commuting workers from areas which were expected to experience labour market decline. Thus, we see something of a geographical reading associated with conceptions of modernisation and backwardness through the allocation of modernity to particular areas that would absorb labour from others. It was felt this was a rationalised, planned, method of development in contrast to the experience of the chaotic developments of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that overly concentrated industrial activities and population, especially in Glasgow. These also contributed to an over-dependency on a small number of heavy industrial activities.

When approaching policies like the dispersal of industry, if asked to choose, do you feel that economic imperatives or political concerns were the key drivers of decision making?

This might seem like a classic historian’s copout but it is difficult to differentiate the two. Conceptions of what entailed economic objectives were politically constructed, and during a period when the state, especially the Scottish Office’s departments but also nationalised industries, were so central to economic decision making, it is difficult to demark political and economic imperatives. In the initial post-1945 period, as outlined in the Clyde Valley Regional Plan, diversification was the prime objective. This included the development of New Towns and focusing investment outwith Glasgow in particular. Under the regime that followed the Toothill plan of 1961 this gave way to an increasing dash for growth which welcomed the decline of employment in staple industries, in particular the release of skilled engineers from traditional manufacturing, mining and steel, to develop new mass production activities. These were to be focused on ‘growth points’, and definitively therefore not upon alleviating unemployment. Jobs were to be provided but it was hoped that labour would migrate from declining regions to allow for the development of self-sustaining growth.

“There were also elements of tension between different aspects of the modernisation agenda and the nationalised coal industry. Lanarkshire was designated to decline by the Coal Board with the hope that miners would migrate to more productive coalfields, in particular Fife and the Lothians.”

My research suggests that these broad paradigms were applied, but also that they were continually contested, with community opposition able to incrementally challenge the Scottish Office. There were also elements of tension between different aspects of the modernisation agenda and the nationalised coal industry. Lanarkshire was designated to decline by the Coal Board with the hope that miners would migrate to more productive coalfields, in particular Fife and the Lothians. Divestment was focused upon the Shotts area of eastern Lanarkshire which experienced a series of major colliery closures between the 1940s and 1950s. However, community protest, and reluctance to migration were adjoined by the Board of Trade advocating a “take work to the workers” policy that led to sustained industrial employment in the area through the attraction of engineering investment.

“…there are other examples where political pressure and a feeling of social obligation on the part of policy-makers asserted themselves. References are made to ‘unemployment areas’ requiring assistance as well as ‘growth areas’.”

This was made further apparent during the 1960s when Alf Robens, Chair of the Coal Board, objected to the precision of the management of closures with inward investment which he felt hampered the Board’s migration schemes that attempted to attract skilled manpower from Scotland to the English Midlands. Furthermore, there are other examples where political pressure and a feeling of social obligation on the part of policy-makers asserted themselves. References are made to “unemployment areas” requiring assistance as well as “growth areas”. Cumbernauld New Town lost out on investment of a significant clothing factory during the late 1960s to the nearby declining coalfield area of Kilsyth, North Lanarkshire. More pressingly the town also lost on a major electronics investment from National Semiconductor to the shipbuilding town of Greenock, Inverclyde.

What impact did the implementation of these policies have upon Scotland’s existing cities?

“Glasgow was at the heart of regional policy but largely as a city that was going to give up population and its status at the centre of industrial development. The young and skilled workforce was to be moved towards New Towns and into the factories brought by inward investment.”

My research does not focus directly on the experience of cities, but it is clear that these policies had a varied impact upon differing locations. My paper with Jim Tomlinson in Contemporary British History highlights the limits of predominant conceptions of the ‘industrial nation’, which excluded Edinburgh despite the city’s large industrial workforce. When conducting research for that paper on differing Scottish regions on Aberdeen it became clear the area had relatively minimal impact from regional policy before oil. It was largely still a shipbuilding and fishing location which changed markedly for reasons outwith the remit of the managed transition viewed over the central belt.

Glasgow was at the heart of regional policy but largely as a city that was going to give up population and its status at the centre of industrial development. The young and skilled workforce was to be moved towards New Towns and into the factories brought by inward investment. My interviewees included John Salven, the son of parents who had moved to work at the Caterpillar factory which opened in Uddingston, South Lanarkshire, in 1958. John recalled the optimism of this movement and the new factory employment which was understood as a qualitative improvement in social terms, especially as an upgrade on both previous employment and living standards. Chik Collins and Ian Levitt’s recent article in Scottish Affairs, which is available for free, provides a thorough overview of the approach towards Glasgow between the 1940s and 1970s. My own research does indicate an important geographical link between the diversification and then growth agenda and policy-makers geographical priorities. A particular apparent example of this was a Scottish Office official in 1965 bemoaning the “somewhat artificially high level of activity in Clyde[ship] yards, which was leading them to try and claw back skilled labour.”

“Unlike Glasgow, Dundee, rather than its hinterland, received extensive foreign direct investment…”

It hasn’t been within the remit of my research but Dundee also deserves mention as the Scottish city at the forefront of inward investment. Unlike Glasgow, Dundee, rather than its hinterland, received extensive foreign direct investment, particularly from American multinationals. This provided a generation with improved employment, in particular assembly work provided a better paid job in a cleaner environment for women workers than the jute industry.

Have the current ongoing debates about the future of the Union played into your work on Scotland’s 20th Century history?

My choice of subject matter was clearly influenced by the present dynamics of Scottish politics. Initial research into the poll tax was in part an attempt to question the received wisdom about the origins of Scottish nationalism and ‘Civic Scotland’. I located its origins in the defeat of class struggle based labour movement outlooks following the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The research I have undertaken since then on de-industrialisation has aimed to point to the longer history of the development of Scottish national consciousness. In particular I have been keen to point to its origins within economic changes and matters of industrial substance. This was influenced by what I viewed during the independence referendum as the impoverished and limited nature of the discussion on the economy, and deployments of history on both sides. The development of Scottish politics before and especially since then to a form of civic nationalism (incorporating both Unionist and pro-independence standpoints) has furthered this concern. A historical reading of Scotland which implicates the centrality of major socio-economic changes and social conflicts is required for a politics which can also grapple with the contemporary realities of class and economic power all too often missing from our dominant discourse.

Ewan’s article (co-authored with Jim Tomlinson) “Planning the new industrial nation: Scotland 1931 to 1979” can be read in the Journal of Contemporary British History (not open access. You can follow Ewan on Twitter and you can find out more about his research from his Academia.edu profile. For more urban historian profiles see here. 

A Modernist Church in the Outer Hebrides

Scotland’s Outer Hebrides aren’t a well known destination for architectural connoisseurs.

So I was surprised the other day, driving along the narrow lane that comprises the main road in the southernmost quadrant of South Uist, to be confronted by a plain, white, building; that rather resembled a pre-multiplex-single screen-cinema.

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Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Garrynamonie (author’s photograph)

Rather than being an unlikely north westerly outlet of the Rank Organisation, the structure, sited just across the road from the crofting hamlet of Garrynamonie-upon closer inspection-turned out to be a Roman Catholic church: Our Lady of Sorrows.

South Uist (population 1,818); along with the smaller neighbouring islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and Barra, are described, with complete justification, as being “the part of Scotland that the reformation didn’t reach”. This small chain of incredibly isolated islands are an example-unique in Britain outside of Ireland-of a surviving pre-reformation Roman Catholic community.

And they are, at least in outward expression, intensely Catholic communities at that. In a manner akin to Ireland, Brittany or further south in Europe the islands are watched over by a litany of carefully tended, colourful, alabasta saints statues situated in whitewashed grottos.

The islands; like North Uist their Calvinist neighbour, despite a low (and still shrinking) population are home to a large number of small chapels and churches, with each hamlet of more than a dozen houses seemingly served by some kind of place of worship. Very few of them, a quick scan of their outside notice boards reveals, have mass said their especially frequently. Yet still, like the saints statues, the communities within which they are situated, continue to diligently attend to their upkeep. A few church structures stand roofless, long ruined, but unlike in Wales or the parts of the far south-west there are no or few signs of churches being converted into residential properties.

Our Lady of Sorrows is no exception in this regard. Large by South Uist standards it is as unusual in its modernity, on a island where most churches are small, modest traditional structures, as it is striking in appearance.

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Our Lady of Sorrows’ imposing front (author’s photograph)

Designed by Richard J. McCarron (then newly qualified, it was his first commission) the church was built between 1964-5 replacing an earlier, dilapidated, structure. Due to the church’s remote location most of the building work was conducted by the parishioners themselves: a striking act of faith in of itself.

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Our Lady of Sorrows rear of the building (author’s photo)

 

In terms of appearance Our Lady of Sorrows is stark, possibly even harsh, and angular. Despite the similarities between its form and a mid-20th Century cinema and its obvious architectural debts to the modernist movement, Our Lady of Sorrows harks back as well as forwards. It is whitewashed like so many of the other local churches and its alcoves, even its angularity, recall early Christian sites, like Celtic monasteries built in the 6-7th Centuries, as much as anything constructed during the space age. In this way it’s incredibly simple form, almost like a slab of rock growing out the landscape, connotes thousands of years of Christian tradition, whilst also serving to inject a note of modernity into a landscape and a community that can seem ancient and unchanging.

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Our Lady of Sorrows top corner (author’s photograph)

Except this is not really the case. For all of South Uist’s remoteness, and the sheer proximity to nature inherent in life there, the island’s landscape, almost entirely deforested, subjected to horticulture, quarrying, fish farming and (admittedly light) demands from the tourism industry is as much of a manmade environment as anything on the mainland.

Only incorporated into Scotland in 1266, islands have always been plugged into wider networks of cultural exchange and commercial dealing. In many ways our Lady of Sorrows reflects this. Its construction indicates ways in which mid-20th Century Catholicism attempted to negotiate the demands that modernity placed upon the faith of its communicants.

Read this way Our Lady of Sorrows is a physical expression of how one small community attempted engaged with the movement for reform within Roman Catholicism that gathered pace around the time of the Second Vatican Council. This is expressed in the simplicity and lightness of the church’s form, it is as open in design as it is large and imposing. This speaks to the democratising impulses that animated Roman Catholic theological and liturgical thought at the time. It is also an impulse which finds its way into the church’s interior which is also plain and incorporates local slate and local timber.

What decoration there is, is largely locally inspired, taking on a rugged, naturalistic, Celtic, yet modern expression.

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small altar, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The Stations of the Cross are expressionistic in form, arrayed abstractly and were rendered on slate from South Uist by Canon Calum McNeil, who was the priest of a neighbouring parish.

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Stations of the Cross, Calum McNeil (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

The ceramic mural of the Sacred Heart produced by the artist David Harding is similar. Harding’s rendition of Jesus is abstract and colourful, recalling the tumult of the sea and the drama of the landscape within which the church and it community are situated.     

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Sacred Heart David Harding (1965), Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In terms of layout the front of the church is also open, the pews arrayed relatively informally in short rows. The fittings are equally simple and shorn of ostentation, the worship space as a whole is bathed with sunlight by two, unobtrusive, floor-ceiling height plain glass windows.

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plain glass windows, Our Lady of Sorrows (author’s photograph)

In these regards Our Lady of Sorrows is rather like hundreds of other post-war Roman Catholic churches across Britain. Churches often built to serve new estates or in slum clearance areas, part of the wide spread modernising imperative that prevailed in the middle of the 20th Century. Here’s another example (there are many more) on the excellent Sacred Suburbs website.

This said, thanks to South Uists remote location, low population density and unusual cultural and confessional history Our Lady of Sorrows is striking as an expression of how one particular and distinctive community partook in debates about modernisation and the future of religious expression. Given the number of abandoned crofts that litter the island and the modernity of the houses that most islanders live in today, it is clear that South Uist was undergoing its own form of development and modernisation at the time the church was built. The arrival of a large military base in 1958, the opening of causeways to neighbouring islands in 1961 and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 brought new contacts and new opportunities to the island.

Just as the islanders upgraded their own homes and living arrangements so they chose to update the house of their God. The years since have not been kind to Our Lady of Sorrows, like so many flat roofed buildings of its era its roof is leaking and the damp is not proving kind to its internal structure. The Islands to, have had mixed fortunes. Increased incomes, better services, rising incomes and improving transport connections, giving today’s islanders a standard of living comparable to that of mainland Scots, but conversely also making it far easier to leave and not return.

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View from the Our Lady of Sorrows church grounds (author’s photograph)

This said, the Outer Hebrides appear to be in the midst of a series of interesting experiments that raise questions for everyone interested in how people can live better, more sustainable lives, in the 21st Century. For the church’s part, Our Lady of Sorrows was listed in 2009 as part of a major exercise to recognise, record and preserve Scotland’s modernist heritage, perhaps restoration will be on the cards? The community of South Uist remains as much on the fringes of civilisation and at the centre of debate as ever.