“…as dramatic as anything induced by any preceding wave of industrialisation or deindustrialisation”

Last summer I was part of the team based at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Modern British Studies focused upon delivering the Activist Selly Oak Project. Financed by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Activist Selly Oak brought together Birmingham students and longstanding members of the Selly Oak community to co-produce a microhistory of social and political activism in the suburb between the 1950s and the 1990s. Intentionally lively, upbeat-and ever so slightly subversive-in tone, the project culminated in a series of events, an exhibition and a publication aimed at engaging and involving the widest possible audience. Things public history projects, regardless of scope or scale-aspire to; but which in our case- because the project was instigated and managed from the university-were especially important.

If you are unfamiliar with the geography of south Birmingham, Selly Oak is a primarily residential area located immediately adjacent to the University of Birmingham campus. Whilst cheek by jowl for decades, Selly Oak and the university developed in relative isolation from each other. A pattern of development that was neatly summed up by one of our oral history participants (a life long Selly Oak resident) who described the campus during his youth as representing “Another world… the other side of the wall… A place you might go to work as a cook or cleaner”.

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Activist Selly Oak Banner logo, Designed by Kerry Leslie (2018)

Which is not to say that there was complete disconnection between Selly Oak and the University. Activist Selly Oak uncovered a rich history of mutually interdependent organising that benefited both communities. In the 1950s and 1960s this took the form of staff and students involving themselves in the activities of local political, religious and campaigning associations. A typical example from the mid-1960s being Stuart Hall, a precariously employed researcher in the English Department, lodging on Gibbins Road; whose name and address appears on the membership list of the Selly Oak branch of the CND.

Towards the end of the 1960s, in line with general activist trends; student and wider community activism began to take on a more broadly focused, less formal, more ad-hoc character. Whilst less stringent (and less successful) in its demands than other contemporary actions at LSE, Essex, Warwick and elsewhere, our oral history participants vehemently felt that the University of Birmingham occupation in 1968 was a catalyst for greater politicisation and subsequent involvement in community action by university members.

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Selly Oak Station Footbridge, Author’s photo (February, 2018)

This assertion is supported by surviving contemporary documentation. University of Birmingham students and recent graduates played a key role in the establishment of south Birmingham Claimants Unions in 1969, a form of direct action which widened and morphed over the course of the 1970s into involvement with a widespread Selly Oak squatting and tenants rights movement. The high watermark of this moment was the creation-in microscale-of an Italian style social centre in a squatted shop at 768 Bristol Road. Known as the Selly Oak People’s Centre this venue became an activist meeting space, hosting workshops, performances and gigs including benefits for the Grunwick strikers and Rock Against Racism. Day-to-day, activists affiliated with the centre-including university staff and students-provided practical advice and support. For instance: two Law School alumni who came on one of our walking tours of key sites uncovered during the project told us that they had volunteered at a legal advice centre based there.

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Worcester-Birmingham Canal Towpath, Author’s photo (February, 2018)

This pattern of politicised mutually supportive action continued across the 1980s, with the Guild of Students facilitating amongst other things; the production of the Selly Oak Alternative Paper (SOAP) between 1980 and 1983 and joining with Selly Oak residents to support the Miners Strike in 1984-85. Well established ties between students and community activists are celebrated in the Guild’s Annual Reports from the 1990s. A notable example from the 1996-7 report being the Guild picking out its successful alliance with community groups in Selly Oak to oppose the planned alignment of the A38 relief road on environmental grounds as a major achievement. This campaign had seen its members and members of the wider community jointly write to, petition and protest against the City Council’s plans.

As a reader you can doubtless tell from the narrative mode I have adopted that this period of rapport between student and community activists in Selly Oak has not sustained. Indeed-as hinted at the start of this piece-many of the community participants in the Activist Selly Oak project were far from favourable in their opinions of the university as an institution, and indeed; of its students. This is because since the 1990s much of Selly Oak’s housing stock has been purchased by buy-to let landlords who have converted former single household dwellings into houses in multiple occupancy (HMOs).

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Alton Road, Author’s photo (March, 2018) 

For the suburb’s established community the changes were sudden and dramatic. By the 2011 census 16,500 people in Selly Oak ward out of a total population of 26,000 were aged 20-29, almost all of them students. Now comprising 65-70% of the ward-and especially concentrated in Bournbrook and other sub-districts by the University-HMOs today make up nearly one hundred percent of the housing stock on some roads, whilst yet more students, especially those from overseas; reside in purpose built blocks.

Whilst effects of capitalism neo-liberal turn upon the mission and staff of higher education institutions is much discussed, its effects upon the communities immediately adjacent to them has been far less documented. To borrow conceptually from the geographer David Harvey, what had happened in Selly Oak since the 1990s is that the tripling of the university’s student population over the last three decades has decanted the settled working and lower middle class community that historically inhabited Selly Oak’s terraces and semis in favour of a more profitable population.

Landlords from the early 1990s onwards recognised that Selly Oak’s housing stock was relatively cheap. So, as house prices rose in the comparatively expensive Harborne, Moseley and Kings Heath areas where Birmingham’s students traditionally resided (in a relatively dispersed manner) leading bedsits and HMOs there to be sold off to single occupiers; they bought up and converted Selly Oak houses enmass. By the 2000s-as in comparable areas in other British university towns-a tipping point had been reached with local services and amenities catering to non-students shutting and being withdrawn increasing numbers of Selly Oak residents sold-up and moved on meaning even more properties were converted for student occupation. For those involved in converting, managing and creaming off the rent from them, it is an incredibly lucrative business; today when they change hands student lets in Selly Oak sell for at least as much as comparable properties in wealthier parts of the city based upon rental values alone.

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Langley’s Road, Author’s photo (Summer, 2018)

In this way the government’s policies to encourage university expansion and the adoption of financialised operating models has effectively unravelled the social fabric of Selly Oak. This rent seeking alliance between capital, the state and the managers of higher education institutions has undone the conditions that made possible the mutually supportive campaigning environment that facilitated the campaigns and movements that Activist Selly Oak uncovered and charted.

It is little wonder that many of the current and former Selly Oak residents that we spoke to disposed and disorientated, resentful of the university on their doorstep. There are also detrimental effects upon the students crammed into the area, reported in the local paper in a manner simultaneously farcical and tragic. Voyeuristic pictures of seriously substandard, or just bizarre student housing, mounds of rubbish and belongings left at end of session; and most striking; the surrealistic image of students wading through flash flooding-because overdevelopment in the area has changed the area’s water table-abound.

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Eighteen Storey Student Block, Author’s photo (December, 2018)

Even darker is the effect that living in such a monoculture has upon students’ safety and wellbeing. When our student volunteers spoke about living in Selly Oak the real and perceived fear of crime featured highly. Areas such as Selly Oak are often derided as student bubbles, but in a time of austerity and increasing desperation on the part of those in danger of falling between society’s yawning cracks; the lack of a settled community of “eyes on the street”; has contributed to the area becoming a hotspot for petty crime.

Beyond immediate threats the deeper personal wellbeing of students in such areas is also under question. The effects that the pressure of constant competition and striving for distinction have upon student wellbeing, mental health and development, are much discussed and must only be exacerbated by living in such warped locations. Interestingly our oral history participants and those who contributed personal archives to project recognised this. They commented on how much more pressure students today are under to pursue a very narrow vision of “success”. It is hackneyed, if not blinkered; to look back to higher education prior to the 1990s as a halcyon age. But today’s ghettoised, hothoused, students who feel compelled by everything around them to strive for magic circle internships as opposed to honing their skills by helping out an ad-hoc, pro-bono clinic in a squat are surely rendered all the more atomised, vulnerable and detrementially detached from society?

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Raddlebarn Road, Author’s photo (Summer, 2018)

When Modern British Studies designed and embarked upon Activist Selly Oak there was a hope that it would in some small way serve to bridge the gap that has grown between the student and non-student community. What we discovered when we got down to work and went out into the community was a far richer tapestry of connections and shared projects than we could have ever envisaged. What we also uncovered was a far bigger story, a worked case study of how capitalism in its current moment works to undermine and exploit communities and impede collective action.

When they first wrote in the 1840s about how capitalist exploitation renders asunder all existing beliefs and social relations Marx and Engels could not have envisaged the social conditions and systems of relations which make possible modern higher education and its foundational place within the contemporary knowledge economy. Far beyond its Heritage Lottery mandated remit our project discovered lying amidst the sea of builders skips, to-let signs and pizza cartons that characterise the student district of any contemporary British city, a story of dispossession and social ties rent asunder as dramatic as any induced by any preceding wave of industrialisation or deindustrialisation. And hopefully, on a more positive note; that universities and the communities that surround them have come together before, and that there is no reason why they cannot do so again.

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Rookery Road in the Twlight, Author’s photo (May 2018)

An alternative version of this piece has been published by History Workshop Online. 

Birmingham Manufactures project

“Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer.”

For the latest in my series exploring the work of urban historians today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with the team that’s working on the Birmingham Museums Trust’s Birmingham Manufactures project. Birmingham Manufactures is an Arts Council funded project that-amongst other things-aims to catalogue and make more accessible and visible, the Birmingham made objects in the museum’s collections.

What is the background to Birmingham Manufactures?

“The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.”

The project came out of a desire to improve the cataloguing system for Birmingham Museums, and make the collection more accessible to researchers and members of the public. The project is funded by the Art’s Council’s Designation Fund which funds projects which ensure the long-term sustainability of significant museum collections and maximise their value both to the public and to museum staff. This money has paid for two new dedicated members of staff, and will be used to develop the cataloguing system and to pay for new archival and collections storage. Birmingham Museums has an enormous collection of objects – somewhere in the region of 800,000 items – which have come into the collection in various ways. The acquisition and cataloguing of objects has traditionally been the responsibility of individual curators who look after a particular area of the collection – applied art, for example, or science and industry. Although many of the items in the collection are related to Birmingham manufacture, these objects are rarely understood in this way. Some objects, such as fine metalwork and jewellery, were acquired as examples of ‘good’ design to inspire Birmingham’s workforce and subsequently found their way into the applied arts collection. Others items, such as the engines and machinery used in some of the city’s various trades, were acquired and displayed at the old Museum of Science and Industry as examples of innovation and technology. More recently, oral histories from individuals employed in Birmingham’s workshops and factories have been collected as part of the social history collection, and new interpretation for the Birmingham History Gallery. The project will encourage thinking across the collections, and recognising the importance of these items for understanding the history of Birmingham manufacture.

How does this help us understand Birmingham’s history?

“As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them.”

Birmingham is known for its history of manufacturing, and is commonly referred to as the City of a Thousand Trades. Industry and manufacture were central to the city’s growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and making and manufacture remain at the heart of the self-identity of many in the city today. The variety of objects that we will be cataloguing as part of this project suggest the complexity of this history. Items that we will be considering include weights and scales, engines, motor vehicles, bicycles, firearms, jewellery and domestic metalware, food products, buttons and pens amongst many, many others. Unlike industrialising towns like Manchester and Sheffield which were focused on one major industry (cotton and steel respectively), Birmingham flourished precisely because of the variety of industries operating within its borders. By understanding the composition of objects and the materials needed for their production, these items can help demonstrate the interconnectivity of Birmingham industries, and of their place in national and international markets and movement of people. As well as helping us to understand the economic development of the city, these objects can also help us to access something of the daily lives of the people who lived and worked with them. Some of these objects speak volumes about the skill (or otherwise) of Birmingham’s workforce and of the labour involved in their production; others suggest changes in fashion, taste, and consumption patterns; other objects will have more personal meanings, and will appear in individual and family histories in different ways. Rather than simply understanding these items as commodities or as examples of design, we will be digging through archives and conducting oral histories interviews to generate a more complex record of what these objects may have meant.

What do you see as being the project’s long-term outcome?

“It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture.”

The project will ensure that a significant number of items in the collection that were made in Birmingham and its surrounding areas are properly catalogued. This may not sound like an exciting ambition, but it is vital for the future of the collection, and its interpretation. As well as describing the objects in full and assessing their condition, we will be recording maker names and the location of production where it is known. A large number of items will be photographed to a professional standard, creating a vital visual record which might also be used for display purposes. All this information will support the work of researchers and academics, and provide a wealth of information for those interested in the history of manufacturing in Birmingham. Eventually, all this information will be available online, allowing members of the public to access images and information about the collection digitally. It is hoped that a second phase of the project will work from the data we generate to map the location of particular workshops and factories, and provide a publicly-accessible resource to those interested in the history of Birmingham and its manufacture. Although the main outcome of the project will be to document, make accessible and raise awareness about an important part of the collection at Birmingham Museums we also hope that the project will encourage curators and members of the public to think differently about the objects in store and on display, and to continue to build connections between different parts of the collection. We are also hopeful that the project will encourage future collaboration between Birmingham Museums and local heritage sites, archives, libraries and community groups.

Are museums and their collections overlooked as a historical resource?

we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource whether… writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co… or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…”

Yes! Historians (both professional and non-professional) find objects tricky to understand and interpret. Historical ‘truth’ tends to be associated with the written word rather than with things, and objects are thought to be less articulate about the insights into the past that they offer. More recently, and partly stimulated by what is termed ‘the material turn’, there has been an increase in the use of museum collections in historical research and a recognition that objects offer important insights into the past. Although the interest in using museum collections is increasing, there is a problem with the logistics of how exactly interested parties might access these items, particularly the vast majority of items which are not on display, but locked away in museum stores. As funding cuts follow funding cuts and staff numbers dwindle, providing access to these collections becomes all the more difficult. By fully cataloguing the objects which appear as part of the project, and by taking detailed photographs of them, we hope the project encourages others to use the collection as a resource, whether they’re interested in writing an institutional history of Elkington & Co. or one of the many other Birmingham manufacturers, or wanting to show their friends the custard packets they used to have on their table…

Has there been much interest from the public in what you’re doing?

Although we’re still at the very early stages of the project, we’ve been lucky to have lots of people get in touch. It’s wonderful to hear the stories of those who work or worked in Birmingham-based industries, or those who have memories of their relatives doing so. As I mentioned, we will be doing some oral histories as part of the project, and would be very pleased to hear from anybody who would be interested in doing this. At the moment, we are particularly interested to find anybody who worked at the factory of Alfred Bird and Sons in Digbeth, so please do get in touch!

Why do you think that people have been motivated to get in touch, or otherwise engage with you, about Birmingham Manufactures?

These industries shaped people’s lives, and those who worked in them (and their relatives) have a strong affinity with them. There is also something very powerful about the idea of your history, the history of your workplace, your family, or your neighbourhood being recorded in some way by a museum.

What’s the interesting thing that you’ve uncovered so far?

“One rectangular tin of custard powder… made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6…”

There are many interesting stories to be told from the collection, but our favourites so far are the globe-trotting tins of Alfred Bird’s food products. With its home in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, Bird’s was an iconic Birmingham brand, and because of this, we acquired a collection from its archives in 2013. The collection offers a fascinating insight into the development of a brand, food tastes, and advertising in this country, but it also demonstrates the global reach of many Birmingham-made goods. One rectangular tin of custard powder, for example, made it all the way to the North Pole on Fridtjof Nansen’s expedition in 1893-6; another tin of baking powder was found on the other side of the globe, rescued from Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Birmingham Manufactures say:

Please do get in touch with us: birminghammanufactures@birminghammuseums.org.uk. We are also on Twitter @BrumMfr and on Facebook, where we post regular updates about our findings.

Please also consider signing the petition to ask Birmingham City Council to reconsider substantial cuts to Birmingham Museums at www.change.org/p/birmingham-city-council-please-reconsider-cuts6-to-birmingham-museums. The deadline for the petition in Monday the 16th January 2017.

For more urban history profiles see here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A neatly tippexed correction there,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words have been, left out, misspelled and corrected,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ewan Gibbs-University of the West of Scotland

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

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

What is your background?

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

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

What led you to choose your subject matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine (Ceci) Flinn

“The approaches I was taught early on in examining the built environment did not take into account much of the mundane – and hidden – machinations that I saw in the ‘real’ world.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Catherine Flinn. Catherine’s work focuses on the post-war redevelopment of Britain’s cities with a particular interest in  the economics of the reconstruction period. She has just completed a spell as a lecturer at the University of Westminster.

What is your background?

Multi-disciplinary! I started as a history major at Berkeley but was swept off my feet by a course in the College of Environmental Design and I changed my major to Landscape Architecture. They had a “minor” in History of the Built Environment so I didn’t bail out on history entirely. After a year working for SOM (American architects in London) I started a diploma in garden history and conservation at the AA (Architectural Association). I then completed an MSc in History of Architecture at the Bartlett (UCL). But academia wasn’t right for me then, even though I originally aimed for a PhD. So I spent a long time in various roles in the design profession (landscape/architecture/planning) and learned a huge amount about how the built environment is shaped. But I couldn’t stay away from history, particularly political, and decided to have another go – this time combining all my expertise and interests. I did an MA at Oxford Brookes then went back for the PhD. My supervision was in history, with planning as the secondary.

“I spent a long time in various roles in the design profession… and learned a huge amount about how the built environment is shaped.”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I read Maureen Waller’s London 1945: Life in the Debris of War and found it fascinating. She had included an epilogue about how research was needed around reconstruction and planning for the future city. That was my inspiration and it dovetailed perfectly with my previous research and work experience work too, happily!

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

I am so multi/inter-disciplinary that I rarely find historians I aim to emulate (but having said that there are of course many many many histories I’ve not yet read!). My supervisors are very inspirational (Glen O’Hara and Steve Ward), and probably Martin Daunton too, though my mind boggles at how he has accumulated all that knowledge and managed to write about it so clearly (Glen and Steve too in many respects!). I’m also inspired by any writing that approaches its topic from a huge variety of angles, because the real world is infinitely complex itself.

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

“I’m always telling students ‘nothing happens in a vacuum!’…”

I think exactly what I’ve just said is inspirational to me. I find the toughest part of writing is to tell a coherent story that adequately explains complexities in history. So in my work I try to show that politics and economics are tremendously important while within that bigger picture the individual actors on many levels can have enormous impact. I’m always telling students “nothing happens in a vacuum!”, there is almost never a simple, black and white answer to an important question.

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

I set out to trace a story about rebuilding after the war and was constantly surprised by what I found and by what hadn’t been written about – forcing me to dig around for answers myself! How did things happen and why, how were decisions taken, who impacted those decisions and in turn how did they impact the built environment? The more I learn the more I realise I still have to learn and discover. Research is a bottomless pit!

How has your past experience working in planning and conservation influenced your approach?

The approaches I was taught early on in examining the built environment did not take into account much of the mundane – and hidden – machinations that I saw in the “real” world. The complex relationships between local authorities and architects and engineers and transport planners and landowners and developers: so much of that felt like it was missing from histories I had read. And from a conservation standpoint I was taught early on that even buildings can’t be static, much less landscapes, so that “conservation” is a very contested term. Today people are much more aware of this as public history and heritage studies have grown enormously in recent years.

Was urban development in the UK post 1945 as radically different from urban development pre-1945 as is often popularly assumed?

“What’s different in the postwar period, for me, is the rise of new technologies and the increase in ‘experts’.”

I’m not sure it is “popularly assumed”! I suppose it depends who you read. Certainly in my work there is a great continuity from early 20th century garden cities and early planning that informed the growing profession through the 40s and 50s. What’s different in the postwar period, for me, is the rise of new technologies and the increase in “experts”. So, I’d probably say that while urban development may seem different, the war was both an interruption and a catalyst. Obviously a lot of the modernist plans that came out of the wartime period wouldn’t have been needed in the same way without the bomb damage, but the ideas weren’t necessarily brand new.

Did political and ideological decisions play any significant role in the reconstruction of post-war Britain?

From the work I have done – and there will be different answers from historians who’ve taken different approaches with different sources – I’d certainly say that political decisions were significant in reconstruction. The Attlee government struggled constantly to make decisions on how and what to prioritise, particularly economically. However – and this is where individual actions are so key – there were loads of civil servants and local authority officials all fighting for their own little corner. Ideologies seemed to get played down so appear less significant for me, because in the end it was economics that played a huge role. Just look at the rise of property development in the postwar as an example of this!

Are there any other areas of urban history that you feel could be enhanced through historians applying a more economics focused approach?

“…I can’t do history without some awareness around the economic issues of whatever I’m working on.”

I’m resisting the temptation to say that every area could be enhanced through a more economics focused approach! I know that for historians today it is not a “sexy” field. On the other hand, I can’t do history without some awareness around the economic issues of whatever I’m working on. When Richard Rogers talked about this in his keynote for the recent one-day Cities@SAS conference, I wanted to go up and hug him afterward. I often think about the fact that in my undergrad economics class at Berkeley I had a great teacher and ‘got’ the concepts, but I struggled to express myself – I was sure I had failed the final exam! It’s ironic how important a lot of what I learned as an undergraduate, and never thought I’d use again, has become a part of what I do every day. In the world we live in now, it’s hard to avoid touching on economics though I don’t think it necessarily needs to be the focus. (It occurs to me that this is a good spot to plug something I stumbled on recently and highly recommend: Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: The User’s Guide It’s a very accessible and even fun read about how the world works.)

Catherine Flinn is on Twitter and more of her work can be read on her academia.edu profile page. In 2015 she recorded a podcast for History&Policy. If you would like to read more urban historian profiles a full list is available here.