Activist Selly Oak

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

The Lost World of Liberal Christian Activism

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

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

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

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Elmsfield House (summer 2018), Author’s photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geoffrey Allen 1928-2018, photo courtesy Mary Allen

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

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

Entering the Suburb Next Door

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

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

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Bournbrook Terraces (March 2018), Author’s photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Joe night

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

The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“LCC Municipal”

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

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

What is your background?

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

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

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

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

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

What encouraged you to start sharing them?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.        

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.

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.

Ex Libris Stuart Hall

Housman’s Radical Bookshop

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

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

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

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

Books on Display

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

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

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

Ex Libris Stuart Hall

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

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

Nationwide

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

UoB Library Plate

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

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

Labeling Deviant Behaviour

Nationwide Audience BFI Monograph Series, Josh Allen’s picture

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

Libraries: Networks not Appendages

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

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

Football on TV frontpage

Football on Television Front Cover, Josh Allen’s picture

 

Football on TV Monograph

Football on Television inside cover, Josh Allen’s picture

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

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

“Global Urban History”, Freie Universität Berlin, a discussion with Michael Goebel

“…we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history.”

For the latest in my series on urban historians at work today, I was very lucky to be able to catch up with Michael Goebel, of Freie Universität Berlin; the  who edits and writes for the Global Urban History blog.

What is your background?

I grew up in Munich, Germany, and went to a secondary school right next to the city’s central station. So, although Munich is not huge, I come from a pretty urban environment and have never been much of a country person. But I’m not an urban historian by training. I did my PhD in history at University College London, with a thesis on the intellectual history of nationalism in postcolonial Argentina, so modern Latin America was my broader region of specialization. There were two distinct paths of how this has stirred my interest in urban history. First, whoever studies nationalism in Argentina cannot do without considering two factors: the importance of the country’s capital city (economically, culturally, politically, but also for the national imagination) and the history of European immigration, for which Buenos Aires again has always been the chief point of entry. Second, modern intellectual historians are almost always urban historians in one way or another, though usually without knowing or admitting it. And my interest in the intellectual history of Latin America eventually took me to study early twentieth-century Paris as a sort of cultural capital of Latin America. 

These two paths flowed together in my book Anti-Imperial Metropolis, which came out last year. The book eventually concentrated much more on immigrants to Paris from French colonies such as Algeria than on Latin Americans, but it brings together the social history of migration with an intellectual history of the roots of nationalism in Africa and Asia. These concerns also led me to look in more detail at the Parisian cityscape, the everyday social fabric of non-Europeans there, and their settlement patterns. In the course of this research I have grown more interested in the history of ethnic segregation in cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, in particular in world regions outside the North Atlantic, for which there has been much less research so far. So in hindsight there were a few unforeseeable twists that took me where I am now.

What led you to decide to set up Global Urban History?

“…we noticed that urban history… has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus… on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing.”

Again, this comes out of a confluence of several factors. My first idea stemmed from this interest in the global history of ethnic segregation on which I had also taught a course in our MA in Global History here at the Freie Universität Berlin. Given the changes that digitisation has wrought on our discipline in recent years a topic such as ethnic segregation in cities seemed especially apt for the blog format, which is much more flexible, visual, and digital than our traditional ways of presenting our research. It’s also a topic of great concern for the public in Germany, Britain, the USA, and other countries at the moment. But it’s too narrow a concern for a blog with a hopefully wider readership. So I teamed up with a few great colleagues in urban history such as Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone, who I was lucky enough to find in my immediate surroundings here in Berlin. With them involved the blog quickly expanded topically.

Since we all work in the area of global history, we began to start thinking about ways to combine our interest in the history of long-distance connections, European colonialism overseas, and urban history. At the same time, we noticed that urban history as an established field has perhaps been shaped more profoundly by European and North American categories and continues to focus more frequently on North Atlantic examples than other quarters of historical writing. This realization mutated into a sort of embryonic mission statement encouraging our readers to think more explicitly about how global history and urban history have related to one another in the past and should communicate in the future.

What do you hope that readers get from the blog?

“…we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.”

Ours is a pretty academic, i.e. not so journalistic or personal, blog. We first took other blogs, such as the Imperial & Global Forum based at the University of Exeter and the one of the Journal of the History of Ideas, as models to emulate. Accordingly, I suspect that our readership consists largely of academics, in particular historians, mostly based in Germany, the UK, and the United States. Yet some successful posts, such as one on colonial Mexico City, also attracted readers beyond academics in these countries. It’s not easy to strike a balance here between general accessibility, interest, and scholarly specialization.

In accordance with our initial ideas we hoped to attract a great deal of sophisticated theoretical and programmatic reasoning about what we saw as the missing link between urban and global history, presented in accessible language and adorned with fancy pictures. Then the nitty-gritty of everyday management kicked in. If you have a blog with no or very few followers, yet hope to get brilliant and famous people on a terribly busy schedule writing for you, there is a mismatch in what you are asking and what you can offer. So in the first place you have to position your blog as a platform for the dissemination of the research of your contributors. Then, if you call yourself global, you want to cover different world regions once in a while, but you also want both male and female authors, senior academics and PhD students. If you take into account all of these factors, you run the risk of becoming what from the outside looks like a random cabinet of curiosities about aspects of the history of particular cities spread over the globe; a little bit like The Guardian’s series on the “Story of Cities,” which of course generates much more traffic than our little site.

At its best, this sensitizes our readers to the huge global variations in the urban experience. And we do hope that our readers get this from our blog. But this doesn’t amount to generating a programmatic discussion about where and how global and urban history should intersect. So we decided to flank this format of presenting contributors’ empirical research with a few other formats, such as book reviews and, soon to come, a conversation between leading urban historians about their relationship with global history. In the medium term, we hope that our readers get both, entertaining and interesting posts that inform about recent scholarship, but also a broader theoretical and methodological discussion.

What would you say are the key scholarly benefits of taking a global approach to studying urban history?

“the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization… in the decades before and after 1900… the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.”

This question can be approached from the angle of urban history and from the angle of global history. Beginning with the first, one reason of why urban history is important is that an ever growing proportion of the world population lives in cities. Historically, people saw Europe and North America as the most urbanized regions of the world, where the great cities were located. Think of London and New York. In truth the North Atlantic was furthest ahead in terms of urbanization mainly in the decades before and after 1900. Yet this was also the period when history as an academic discipline emerged. This coincidence in my view shapes urban history to this day in that the field has a heavy focus on the North Atlantic.

Fast forward a century and most of today’s megacities are located in the Global South, a trend that will no doubt continue. This realization should really push urban historians to rethink how useful their conceptual tools are for studying the histories of, say, Manila or Lagos, which are different from that of Paris. I don’t think this discussion is as prominent in urban history as it should be. The same is true if you turn the tables: Many good urban historians of course, have always been aware that London and Liverpool would be unthinkable without the British Empire, but I don’t think this realization has had the effect of explicit and systematic reasoning about the role of the global in urban history that it should have.

Now if you approach the question from the opposite side, I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities. As Frederick Cooper, a historian of Africa, stresses, the history of global connections never proceeded evenly through geographic space, but was “lumpy.” That means some places on earth have much denser long-distance connections than others—port cities being the obvious case, to which a project at the University of Portsmouth is devoted. Global historians have been good at drawing attention to connections, but in doing so they are tempted to “overuse the network metaphor,” as the Princeton historian David Bell has complained. Grounding their empirical work in specific places such as cities can work as an antidote to this problem. It helps to make their work more tangible and testable. Looking in detail at the local nodal points of long-distance connections of the past may actually also tell us something new about the nature of historic globalization.

Finally, global history has a bit of a bias against social history in my opinion. This has to do with the biography of global history, which was midwifed by a generation of historians who reacted against the generation of social historians of the 1960s and their characteristic belief in large sets of serial data and “modernization. To an extent, urban history is a child of this social history of the 1960s, in which urbanization was considered a key ingredient of “modernization.” I think the fact that urban history and global history developed out of synch has generated a certain mutual mistrust that we should work to overcome.

“I also believe that global history could benefit from a closer look at cities.”

What would you say are the current key trends in the study of global urban history?

Global history per se has been the fastest expanding subfield of history during the last two decades, I think. Whereas fourteen years ago, when I began my PhD, I was under pressure to justify my decision to study Argentina as a German in the UK, today the onus is on those studying their own country’s past to uphold what they are doing—to a silly extent at times, I believe, when I see quite how apologetic today’s historians are if they don’t have “global” or “transnational” in their working titles. But for better or worse, urban historians have not remained unaffected by this trend, even if this is one of the more Eurocentric (or North Atlantic-centered) part of historical writing.

From what I can see, these broader trends have so far taken mostly the form of an expansion of research on cities in what today is called the Global South. I think of the work of Tim Harper, Su Lin Lewis, Carole Woodall, Emer O’Dwyer, and many others I can’t mention here. These are also the kind of people we admire and seek to approach for our blog.

Tellingly, however, in my impression most such historians do not present themselves as “urban historians in the first place. Instead they first recur to other labels to describe their work, geographic ones in particular, such as global history, Southeast Asian history, colonial history, or whatever their specialization may be precisely. There are exceptions to this rule, to be sure. Leicester University’s Centre for Urban History now produces more and more research on the history of cities in the Global South, while avowedly maintaining the label “urban history.” Carl Nightingale’s book on the global history of urban segregation would be another example. So there are exciting developments if you look for them, but on the whole I would argue that they are still too exceptional.

Is there any advice that you have for historians looking to work collaboratively across countries?

To have time at their hands and never underestimate the importance of language. For our blog—and many other projects we are involved in—it is nowadays commonplace to work with people in other countries. In my particular case, my academic upbringing was mostly outside of Germany anyway, having done a PhD about Argentina in the U.K. before going to Italy and spending a year in the US. But it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this. In choosing to produce an English-language blog in Germany, we also chose to lose potential German readers outside of academia. We will never attract many readers in Latin America. If I look at our followers on Twitter, the overwhelming majority are based in Britain and the US.

“…it’s all too easy to underestimate the real challenges in cross-national cooperation and language has everything to do with this.”

Conversely, it is difficult to find contributors outside of Anglophone academia. History is a literary discipline and a blog is the kind of format where you want to upload something that also sounds nice, so the level of English of potential contributors is something we constantly discuss among the editors, especially bearing in mind our own time constraints in proofreading. In history, national—or linguistically specific—markets also continue to shape the conceptual concerns and interests that scholars bring along, making it much harder to convey our approach and goals outside the core areas of our readership. On the other hand, if all your contributors and readers are in Germany, the UK, and the USA we really shouldn’t call this “global.” So we really try hard to keep an open mind for influences from beyond the English-speaking world, which is something global history should heed more generally given its tendency towards increasing monolingualism.

Is there any advice that you have for academics looking to create a blog like Global Urban History?

In my impression there are lots of people with great ideas, but the main danger for creating a new blog is that it becomes a flash in the pan. We were all enthusiastic in the beginning—and still are—but the everyday maintenance of the whole structure is arduous. On top of that we all have teaching and admin duties and we pursue our actual research, which means going to archives, reading other historians, and writing journal articles and books. So if you want to create a blog that lasts for a year or so and is meant to be read by a few more people than your closest friends, ask yourself how many hours per week you are able and willing to invest in the coming twelve months.

Horacio Coppola - Buenos Aires 1936 - Corrientes desde el edificio COMEGA nocturna.jpg

Horacio CoppolaCÓPPOLA, H., PREBISCH, A. y ANZOÁTEGUI, I.: Buenos Aires 1936: visión fotográfica por Horacio Coppola, Buenos Aires, Municipalidad de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1936 (editado en ocasión del cuarto centenario de la fundación de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, 1536-1936)

You can find out more about Michael Goebel, of Global Urban History; and his work from his page on the Freie Universität Berlin website. He is on Twitter as are his co-editors Joseph Ben Prestel and Antonio Carbone . If you’d like to read more urban history profiles, please follow the link here. 

Donna Taylor-“Notes from 19th Century Birmingham”

For the latest in my series about urban historians working today, I spoke to Donna Taylor, a University of Birmingham PhD student who’s work explores new angles on Birmingham’s 19th Century local administration. She blogs at Notes from 19th Century Birmingham.

What is  your background?

I’m really just a council-house nan who does a bit of history. I came to academia rather late in life, having taken the scenic route through education. I left school in 1982 with a handful of low grade CSEs, a few words of German (I can still remember how to ask the time) and mad typing skills that have been more useful than could ever have been foretold in the pre-digital age. I dropped out, grew a beautiful pink mohican and set off to ban the bomb before settling down to a family life. This was hard in the Thatcher era and there were many years of unemployment and part-time cleaning jobs. In my late 30s I decided I wanted to do ‘something else’.  It started with night school, then an Access to HE course at Leicester College. The staff there were amazing and played a major role in transforming so many lives. I’m very passionate about FE and worry about cuts and other changes impacting accessibility to it. It’s becoming ever more difficult for people like me to get into HE.

My family, but particularly my children and our mom, have been fabulous and just rolled along with all the changes. I’ve been very lucky.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

By accident. Although I was born in and have spent much of my life in Birmingham, there was never originally an intention to ‘do’ Birmingham history. This changed when I came across a mention of the Bull Ring riots in a book by Roger Ward. I’d never heard of them before and quickly became absorbed in finding out more. They were the subject of both my undergrad dissertation and MRes. thesis. Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century was incredibly modern and also wonderfully fierce. It is way more interesting than the currently on-trend Chamberlain period. It’s a history that makes me feel proud of where I come from.

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

Our grandad taught me to question everything. Carl Chinn, my undergraduate mentor (and now PhD supervisor), has taught me always to ‘follow the evidence’. These are the two core guiding principles. I’m fascinated by dialogues that took place in the early nineteenth-century public sphere, particularly at that time of great social and political change in the 1830s. James Epstein’s Radical Expression and Craig Calhoun’s Roots of Radicalism have been influential on my PhD writing. But if I had to choose one influential historian it would be Eric Hobsbawm. When I’m in a bit of writing slump turning to any one of his essays is usually enough to remind me that this business of bothering dead people has some purpose.
There have also been blogs that inspired me to have a go myself. These include Prison Voices which was established by second year students at Liverpool John Moores. And of course the wonderful Municipal Dreams, a quality to which I can only aspire.

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

That history is something everyone can  and should engage with in order to understand where we are now.  We’ve inherited an impressive history, be proud of it.

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

Originally the topic of my thesis was going to centre on things that were done -buildings that were built; legislation that was legislated, that sort of thing. Now the focus is on how these things entered the collective social imagination, which had to happen for a project or idea to manifest and to be accepted. This is the really interesting stuff that I like to talk about.

What drove the changes in municipal culture that occurred in Birmingham during this period?

A multiplicity of moral and pragmatic reasons could be argued and they would all probably be right. Desire for rational government, improved justice, a shift away from county dependency, greater transparency, civic pride, public opinion, changing demography, economic growth &c.  It is also useful to identify who drove the changes and how those conversations entered the public sphere which began that momentum. Then it is possible to see these small groups of politically ambitious men consistently at the forefront of demands for change. This happened first in the late 18th century when a body of ‘civic minded’ men took charge of improving the town – which they did very well by the way. They began the material transformation of Birmingham that Joseph Chamberlain was only able to build upon. Early in the 19th century another group of men came to the fore with more radical ideas. Many of these formed the first town council and were among Birmingham’s earliest MPs, including Thomas Attwood, Joshua Scholefield and George Muntz.

Has your blogging and other public engagement work changed your thoughts about the period and people you study?

My blog material is slightly different to my thesis research, in that I stretch the blog across the whole 19th century and focus on the more mundane, everyday interactions taking place in Birmingham during that period. It was originally intended as a sort of repository for all the bits of research that wouldn’t fit into my thesis. I can’t think of an instance in which my thinking has been changed, but I have become aware that there is more interest in Birmingham’s history than I originally imagined there would be.

Does your experience of blogging and other public engagement activities suggest to you any profitable ways in which historians can go about working with people outside the academy?

Absolutely and perhaps especially at a local level. Interest in Birmingham has grown steadily over the past few years, thanks to the tireless work of historians like Carl Chinn and the late Chris Upton. The Centre for West Midlands History, based at the University of Birmingham, has also brought local history into the public eye with a recent series of glossy magazines and books. As a result of those efforts, organisations such as the Birmingham Conservation Trust and Birmingham Museums’ Trust have successfully obtained significant pots of funding to pursue local heritage projects. The Birmingham History galleries at BM&AG attracted an £8.9 million investment and drew on the knowledge of academic historians (including myself) as well as members of the public. Projects like that offer a pooling of knowledge, from all sorts of sources, that wouldn’t be available from simply leafing through a lot of dusty books. The Coffin Works project is another, award-winning, example. I’m not sure there will ever be any public historian millionaires, but public engagement projects brings great knowledge profit to the academy.

Is there anything that Birmingham’s leaders today could learn from their mid-19th century predecessors?

If Birmingham’s leaders could spend time reading through the minute books of their predecessors, right across the 19th century, they would see a history of great civic ambition and investment in the local community. Over a relatively short period of time Birmingham was transformed from a small, dirty town with a few puddled streets to what  American journalist Julian Ralph described as ‘the best governed city in the world.’ Although I’m never shy about challenging the current council, they do a pretty good job of drawing investment to the city, enabling that momentum of growth that has been in place for over two hundred years now.  But please, stop closing our libraries and demolishing our heritage!

For more information on Donna and her work check out her Academia.edu profile. She is on Twitter and her blog can be found here. Notes from 19th Century Birmingham can be followed separately. Other profiles in the urban historians series can be found read here.