“…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. 

Activist Selly Oak

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

The Lost World of Liberal Christian Activism

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

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

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

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Elmsfield House (summer 2018), Author’s photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Geoffrey Allen 1928-2018, photo courtesy Mary Allen

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

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

Entering the Suburb Next Door

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

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

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Bournbrook Terraces (March 2018), Author’s photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosamund Lily West-Kingston University

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

What is your background?

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

What led you to choose your subject matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whilst researching, what sources have you found most illuminating?

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

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

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

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

Do they appear to have changed over time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Worth less than zero”? When the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a biker gang

“If your going to survive riding a motorbike you have to be totally concentrated on the here and now. About everything observed of the here and now. You don’t think about the past, you don’t think about the future you don’t have expectations except the immediate ones which are negotiated… This concentration of the here and now is curiously calming.”

John Berger, 2016

How did the Church of England cope with social change in the second half of the 20th Century?

The answer that trips off the tongue is: very badly. Two clips spring to mind. The first is the Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood debating John Cleese and Michael Palin in 1979 following the release of The Life of Brian:

Concluding by stating that “they’ll soon have their thirty pieces of silver” Stockwood (who was widely considered a “liberal”) can most charitably be viewed as a rabbit in the headlights, a man staring dazed and confused at a world changing all around him.

The second clip is drawn from Privilege Peter Watkins’ 1967 (Birmingham filmed) pop music “mocumentary”:

Here the church is an sinister, malevolent and insidious presence locked in a repressive ideological marriage of convenience with capital and the state. The aging priestly characters lurk with almost lecherous intent, moving their pop star manque around like a chess piece, as they plot the reassertion of their traditional moral and social authority. Of course, whilst its dominant codes are seldom radical the culture industry-in reality-never formed an alliance with the established church. However, echos of a backlash in the name of the established “Christian” order against “permissiveness” can be heard in everything from the short lived-Cliff Richards endorsed-Festival of Light Movement in 1970-71, to the rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher ten years later.

And of course-stretching across both the out of touch and the actively reactionary positions-is a graph. A graph with steadily declining church attendance on one axis and increasing lack of identification with any kind of religious faith on the other.

The thing about this narrative, the story of how hundreds (if not thousands) of years of (supposedly) monolithic Christian culture rapidly breaking down, is that it is a little bit to neat, to tidy, to comfortable for lumpy secular liberalism. What if sections of the Church of England, including parts of its hierarchy, were rather more in tune with-and eager to adapt to-the changing society that they found themselves in? What follows is a case study from Birmingham which shows how in the later 1960s a group of Anglicans attempted to do just that.

Between 1965 and 1970-71 the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron of a motorcycle club based at the disused St. Basil’s Church, Digbeth. Today with its pop-up concepts, contemporary art galleries and design studios the area has a rough and ready chic. In the 1960s it was part of the inner-city “twilight zone”, a messy, crumbling, insanitary, urban wasteland awaiting the bulldozers. It was here that the Reverend David Collyer the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” facilitated the establishment of the Double Zero Motorcycle Club.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1968) Rea Valley towards Digbeth, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

In of itself what Collyer was doing was not radical. With varying degrees of formal church input, Anglicans had been founding “Boy’s Clubs” centered around recreations that they thought would appeal to tough working class youth’s since the 19th Century, as any Smiths fan could tell you.

It is possible to read the Double Zero as merely a late flowering iteration of this tradition, however, it is clear that Collyer and his supporters thought they had a rather different agenda.

The name Double Zero reputedly came about because the club’s membership thought that “they were worth less than zero”. Which seems on first glance an incredibly nihilistic starting point for a church run youth group. Collyer secured St. Basil’s from the diocese to start the club because he felt that he needed a more solid base for the youth outreach work he was doing. 1965 when it first opened was near the height of the moral panic that surrounded the “mod” and “rocker” violence of the mid-1960s meaning that the club’s target audience were high up the public’s list of folk devils.

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St. Basil’s Digbeth as it appears today, author’s photo

Birmingham in the 1960s was well placed for the development of a motorcycle subculture. New motorways and expressways with exhilarating underpasses sliced through the city allowing for speed, it’s industrial economy was predicated upon exactly the kind of mechnical skills needed to maintain a bike and the baby boom generation was leaving school and entering workplaces that combined, hard, dull work with relatively high wages.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1966) View from the Rotunda over the roof of New Street Station, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

From the start the club was popular, and by 1966-7 St. Basil’s hundreds of regular attenders and thousands on the peripheries. Members ranged from a hardcore of Hell’s Angels and “greasers” that were widely deemed anti social and frequently in legal trouble, through a much larger pool of wayward disaffected teens and young adults, to those who were essentially young motorcycle enthusiasts that appreciate the club’s free tools and engine oil. Collyer had a keen eye for a good story and little objection to being in the limelight (to the consternation of many more traditional Anglicans) and a splurge of charitable donations, local authority and central government grants funded an expanding cadre of salaried staff, building extensions and better catering, games and musical equipment. The lowering of the age of majority in 1969 even allowed for a charity appeal to fund the institution of a licensed bar!         

In 1973 Collyer published his experiences as a diocesan youth worker in Double Zero: Five Years with Rockers and Hell’s Angels in an English City. Brought out by Fontana it is a lively book clearly aimed at the mass market. In genre terms it recalls earlier generations of Christian testament and faith autobiography, but also secular life-stories especially those dealing with war-time service, or other extraordinary situations (like: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Escape from Colditz, Kon-Tiki), that were published in large numbers in the 1950s when Collyer was a teen. All in all more “Boys Own” than Hunter S. Thompson. These qualities make the book an excitable and at times even lurid source. Did Collyer really gain the respect of Birmingham’s biker’s by playing “chicken” at 100 miles per hour-on the back of a bike-between two double decker buses going the wrong way down the A45 towards Coventry? Win a fist-fight with the leader of a gang of Hell’s Angels? Or drive over to a brothel on the Varna Road to “rescue a fallen girl” with dozens of rockers in train? Likewise the book’s religious symbolism is at times overly neat. For instance: Collyer’s car breaks down in the Staffordshire countryside late at night and the only person willing to stop and help him is a leader of a (different) gang of Hell’s Angels that a few weeks previously threatened him with a sawn off shotgun. Handily this Wulfrunian Good Samaritan’s day job is as a mechanic’s mate.

Collyer’s work must be read in light of these dramatic moments. But, lively points aside; Double Zero provides a brilliant insight into what the community of volunteers and paid youth workers that gathered around St. Basil’s and Birmingham’s biker youth hoped to achieve. Their objectives can be best understood through division into three broad categories: the pastoral, the participatory and the iconoclastic.

In pastoral terms the “Double Zero model”, whilst delivered almost entirely by staunch Christians with a very deep belief in the values of their faith, was in practice far closer to the developing fields of youth and social work than traditional faith based charity. By Collyer’s own admission the club’s-frequently troubled-clientele “just wouldn’t come” if they felt that they would be preached to, forced to express gratitude and contrition, and reformed, in exchange for support and assistance. Instead the Double Zero’s practice was to offer food and drink (including alcohol), company and contraceptives with an understanding that housing, legal, employment (and spiritual) support was there if asked for.

This lack of overt moralism was far removed from the stance adopted by many state, and especially local authority agencies in the period, and in the late 1960s attracted many observers. Indeed, half a century later, the Double Zero experiment with its communalism and emphasis on free spirited human flourishing seems quintessentially of its era. Collyer’s account balances a social concerned, bang up-to-date, sociological understanding of the persistence of want in Britain despite “full employment” and the welfare state, with the traditional moral concerns of his religion.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (0019) The Bull Ring Shooping Centre. [Image] (Unpublished)

Perhaps the most quintessentially 1960s part of the Double Zero experiment was its emphasis on participation. The club was supposedly run on a “dual power” basis with authority vested not just in Collyer and his staff of church youth workers, but also in an elected members committee, as if the Double Zero was any other biker’s chapter. This arrangement-unavoidably-led to tensions and constant politicking. But also vividly illustrates the genuine desire on the part of the Anglicans (who it can be assumed secured and administered the government, local authority and Church of England grants that lubricated the club’s day-to-day functions) to manage the club in partnership with, rather than for; the membership.

This spirit of participation extended to other organisations and milieus. From the “major figure in his firm” who discreetly found work for bikers down on their luck, through the radical students “Pam” and “Alan” who despite little love for organised religion arranged for their “Student Action” organisation to support the club, to the “elderly anglo-catholic priest” with a “quiet parish” in “an affluent suburb” who woke up early to rouse a bailed biker for his probation appointments, like any project the Double Zero had many architects. Key amongst these was Leonard Wilson who was the Bishop of Birmingham until 1969. A liberal clergyman of a previous generation, he appears to have had little affinity for or understanding of modern youth culture, but believed that Collyer’s schemes merited support and sanction. Capitalists, student radicals and aged clerical grandees enabling the same scheme for their own divergent ends, graphically illustrates that changes are multi-authored, multi-purposed and frequently driven by impulse.   

Iconoclasm, the Double Zero project’s third key strand, is tightly woven into Collyer’s narrative of what the Double Zero was about. This is perhaps unsurprising, early in the book he sets himself up as a maverick, someone who from an early age reckoned “rules got in the way” and “people mattered more than organisations”. On the most basic level there is evident glee in his presentation of how the Double Zero differs from “traditional” youth clubs. The club is a place where youths can come and blast the juke box, fix their bike, or kick a ball around in the church. In contrast to the Boy’s Brigade or the Scout’s physical activity was generally scorned. An attempted outdoors bound trip cheerily written off as a disaster-utterly alien to the Double Zero membership’s everyday experience-a certain pride taken in their short lived football team scraping along the bottom of the league.

The decision to relate these trappings of rebellion paints a picture of Collyer’s radically egalitarian objectives for the club. However, aspects of the theology on display at St. Basil’s were equally radical. Prior to becoming the Bishop’s “Chaplain to the Unattached” Collyer gained a degree of notoriety for publicly disclaiming the concept of infant baptism and refusing to have his children baptised. The style of worship-in so far as there was a style of worship practised whilst the Double Zero was based at the church-was equally radical. Collyer gleefully recounts how memorials services for dead bikers and wedding blessings departed from the standard practises of the Church of England to take into account “the situation” “circumstances” and “life experiences” of club members. This practice is defended by arguing the anything else would be perceived as “unreal” or “false”-in a Holden Caulfield sense-by the audience of bikers.

As priest in charge Collyer’s actions-he reports gleefully-are condemned by “traditionalists” and “[his] persistent evangelical critics”. He states that his aim was to “reach out to people who are failed by the parish system” and make “religion relevant to everyday life in the inner-city”. Evidentially he and his supporters felt the form of religion they sought to enact was well suited to injecting some compassion into the highly stratified, atomised and brutal, affluent society. This comes across clearly in one of the self-written hymns Collyer includes as an appendix to Double Zero:

“When you’ve looked in the streets just lately

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the slog, slog of the factory

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?

In the concrete flats of the suburbs

Did you really see people there,

Or was it some half-human shadows

For whom there was no need to care?”

The sound of alienation according to another group of 1960s Birmingham musicians 

It is at this point that the Double Zero’s progressive brand of Christian humanism intersects with the dominant discourses of mid-late ‘60s grassroots left-wing activism. It is possible to discern in Collyer and his supporters intensely practical attempt to reach out to Birmingham’s damaged, disaffected and alienated youth a Christian counterpart to the cry of anger against the compromises and contradictions of welfare capitalism that can be found in the pages of the New Left Review or the work of Marcuse and Debord. Far from our inherited picture of the Church of England in this period as bewildered and reactionary in its decrepitude, the Double Zero experiment shows that parts of the church were tuned into and engaged with criticisms of the social order and working to overcome it.

What then became of this strand of Anglicanism? Why is it that the Double Zero club closed in 1970 and those involved with it were scattered? Why did Collyer’s brand of open minded, socially engaged, Christianity seemingly gain so little traction that it’s been largely forgotten? Why these things came to pass is possibly best explained through comparison with another product of 1960s critical emancipatory thought: cultural studies.

In 1972 Paul Willis, an early PhD student at the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, completed his thesis: Popular Music and Youth Culture Groups in Birmingham.           

In the first chapter of the thesis Willis traces a lineage of rebellion. A pop genealogy that can be traced from progressive rock:

Through the Rolling Stones:

And Dylan:

To Marlon Brando in the early motorcycle movie The Wild Bunch (1953) answering the question: “…What are you rebelling against?”

By asking: “What have you got?”

Willis sought to establish the validity of pop culture’s own “great canon”. A rebel canon, an emancipatory canon, a canon showcasing youth culture’s increasing sophistication and refinement.

In the early stages of his research, perhaps through sympathetic student radicals, although more likely through earlier University of Birmingham researchers who’d found them accommodating, Willis found himself in Digbeth at the Double Zero Club interviewing the club’s members.

Willis hoped to show through interviewing the biker boys about their love of early rock ‘n roll that their critical judgement was just as developed, discerning and reasoned as critical conclusions about established art forms expressed by the upper middle class.

It is also clear that he found the Club’s members exciting and fascinating in of themselves. With their den in the dingy backstreets of Digbeth and “greasy” “unkempt” “appearance calculated to shock members of the middle class and respectable society” Willis found the Double Zero “authentic”. They emerge from the text as totemic representatives of a form of unpredictably vibrant working class masculinity. Qualities that despite being-as a Cambridge educated upwardly mobile research student-in society’s terms a “success”, he clearly envived.

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Nicklin, Phyllis (1960) Old Crown, Heath Mill Lane, Deritend, Birmingham. [Image] (Unpublished)

Yet, he was also fascinated by Collyer and those who worked with him. The idea of a Christian run youth club for rockers and Hell’s Angels evidently grabbed his attention. As it did me. Discovering through Willis’ thesis that the Bishop of Birmingham was the patron in the 1960s of a Digbeth based motorcycle club sent me hurtling to Google and from their to Collyer’s book.

He provides-seemingly with a half raised eyebrow-a comprehensive list of some of the voluntary activities “community spirited” Double Zero members undertook in an attempt to “improve the public image” of young motorcyclists. All orientated towards biking, these included:

Leafleting to support road safety campaigns

Transporting emergency blood supplies to hospitals

Guiding emergency vehicles through the fog

Lending their premises to one of Birmingham’s grammar schools for their end of year prom. An event that was apparently poorly received by both parties….

He also comments upon the club’s ethos and its goals. With his thesis noting in several places how egalitarian the club seemed and how unbound by rules, Willis’ observations indicate that the environment at the Double Zero was much as Collyer hoped it would be.  

At times he suggests that this might even have gone too far, finding the atmosphere of constant engine revving, loud rock music and physical boisterousness “edgy”, “unnerving” even “intimidating”. In discussing the club’s management he describes how despite the club’s ostensibly Anglican foundation he “never saw Collyer or any of the other workers preaching or moralising” and praises their warmth and open mindedness.

An open mindedness that perhaps went a little bit too far. Willis’ thesis notes that whilst he was undertaking fieldwork at the club and in the surrounding streets (including the still existent Forge pub on Fazeley Street) he had reason to suspect that stolen goods were being fenced inside the club. Indeed one of his key subjects was jailed for burglary during the course of his research. In Double Zero Collyer’s recounts that there were hundreds of incidents when club members were arrested and charged with crimes of theft and assault, he also writes about three or four cases when club members were charged with unlawful killing, including murder.

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“The Forge Tavern as it appears today”, author’s photo

These details, together with Willis’ observations and snatches of tape transcript which record copious examples of fairly extreme misogynistic and racist statements falling from the mouths of Double Zero members, remind us not to overly romanticise them. By the same virtue, whilst Willis’ subjects were mostly older members in their twenties, Collyer’s reminiscences of the kind of pastoral work he was doing at the Double Zero indicate that most members were teenagers frequently using the club as a refuge from what today would be viewed as abusive and exploitative situations. This probably goes some way towards explaining the aggressive, impulsive, even self-loathing, behaviour displayed by members.

From a twenty first century perspective Willis and Collyer’s approach towards tackling and discussing these issues seems naive. But at least they were attempting to raise and address them. At the time practically every formal state agency and charitable organisation was set up just to meet material needs, and then, even twenty years after the National Assistance Act, frequently with explicit conduct based strings attached.

Which leads us to the question of what happened to the fiery, naive, yet iconoclastic; ‘60s optimism that fired both the Double Zero project and the early years of cultural studies. It did not disappear it just grew-up, got wise and was assimilated.

The open values that underpinned Collyer’s charismatic, yet liberal and pragmatic, brand of Christianity, were transmitted via a process of general osmosis to the youth and social worker sectors as a whole. Cut to the bone and highly regulated (only one of which is in of itself a bad thing) today’s outreach, homeless prevention and counselling services at least pay-lip service to the idea of user-provider co-production and even at their most marketised are a far cry from the kind of cold, one-sized fits all, overbearing; forms of social provision that Collyer felt had failed his clients.

The seeds of this change were already apparent in the 1960s. Many of the volunteers that facilitated the Double Zero’s work at St. Basil’s were “young girls” (and a few young men) who wanted to go on and study for teaching, social work and youth work qualifications. Assuming that they then went on the practice and have careers in these fields, they will have had an impact upon shaping the delivery of these services in the UK and further afield, that extends to the present day.

In a sense the set-up at St. Basil’s that the Double Zero established has also continued to exist. Today St. Basil’s sits at the heart of the eponymous St. Basil’s youth homelessness prevention charity. How the charity has changed since it was established in 1972 reflects well shifts in society. Firstly the massive increase in housing and employment precarity that has emerged in cities like Birmingham since the decline of mass manufacturing in the 1970s. Secondly the neo-liberal state’s shift towards contracting third sector organisations to deliver key social services. St. Basil’s is a brilliant example of an organisation that has met these challenges and delivered a brilliant service to its users in very trying circumstances. It retains church input but is fundamentally secular and whilst retaining a focus on listening to, working with and empowering its service users, operates to standards of professionalism light years away from those that prevailed at the Double Zero.

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“St. Basil’s Church Digbeth as it appears today”, author’s photo

The cultural studies project has followed a similar trajectory. Today when every broadsheet has a pop music critic and BBC Four happily broadcasts documentaries about post-punk alongside those about Prokofiev, few would seriously dispute that Willis’ notion that pop culture has a worthy canonical tradition that deserves serious attention. But (great as they are) the deification of New Order and The Fall in no way extinguishes the inherently elitist and exclusionary notion of a canon: it just reproduces it with less cello and more guitars.

Cultural studies related academic disciplines, whilst (due in large part to the political climate) not as powerful as they were fifteen or twenty years ago, are well established in the academy. According to Peter Mandler, whilst relative numbers are lower than in the 1980s and ‘90s one in ten British undergraduates are currently studying for a degree in social studies. But all this shows it that the study of popular culture has been accepted into the academy, it hasn’t fundamentally altered, or even exploded the academy. As with radical youth work what has happened is that cultural studies concepts and the radical ideals and critique that they embodied have been co-opted.

It’s clear-as my exploration of the Double Zero initiative indicates-that many Anglicans, at all levels of the church’s hierarchy, from the cathedral throne right down to the rank sat in their parish pews, were far from dismayed by the cultural changes of the 1960s. Indeed they agreed with many criticisms of the affluent society and traditional cultures of deference and morality. For them as many as anyone else the spectre of cultural change in the 1960s was welcome, exciting and pregnant with opportunities.

However, like so many other radical initiatives from the period it was co-opted, incorporated into a slightly liberalised version of the existing system. Life in 21st Century Britain might be rather less authoritarian than the society that Willis and Collyer railed against. However, is it really any less rigid, brutal or alienating? Parts of the superstructure have been smoothed down but the base remains as hard as ever. The Church of England’s 1960s experiments in socially involved agape are forgotten, its spasms of pearl clutching remembered; because they legitimise rather than problematise the existing order.

“Jesus Built My Hotrod”, (Redline/Whiteline Version), Jourgensen, Rieflin, Balch, Haynes (Sire, 1991)

Sarah Mass-University of Michigan

“…I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Sarah Mass of the University of Michigan. Sarah’s doctoral work focuses on street trading and markets in post-war Britian, providing insights into the social role that they play and what they tell us about identity, especially amongst migrant communities.

What is your background?

I was born in San Francisco, but spent most of my childhood in a small suburban town north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I became interested in British history in the ways I think many Americansparticularly womenbecome interested in the subject: through novels, mini-series, and royal history. I completed my BA at Tufts University, during which time I spent a year abroad at Worcester College, Oxford. I received my MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Modern British and Irish History before I started by PhD at the University of Michigan in 2011.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, ‘This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.’”

In my first 2 ¾ years of university, I remember writing essays on Imperialism, Chartism, Jacobitism, and all the other “-isms” that seemed to matter. Yet the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, “This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.” When I returned to the States, I wrote an honours thesis on the comparative experiences of difference among the Irish and Pakistani communities in West Yorkshire, and ever since then I would say my work has been concerned with the relationship between place, belonging, and identity in twentieth-century Britain. I thought I would continue to focus on immigration and community formation, but I veered off towards shopping and consumption. Ethnicity is still one lens in my scholarship (and I’ve pursued it more explicitly in other projects), but my main question has developed into how and why traditional city centre shopping survived an era of urban redevelopment and the rise of planned shopping centres.

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

“…one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.”

Although I only discovered her work within the last few years, Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America is absolutely the kind of scholarship I hope to produce. Her ability to “people” the often un-peopled fields of planning and economic history is exemplary, and I only hope I can span the 1945 divide in urban history with as much dexterity. Erika Hanna’s Modern Dublin and Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place have both shown me how to write urban history through a nuanced and careful analysis of heritage movements and public history. None of these scholars work on Britain, but that’s one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.

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

“…I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly ‘unbuilt’ features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.)”

On the most basic level, I hope that Americans reading my work can learn to appreciate British urban history beyond London history. Seriously, this is a problem. On a more disciplinary level, I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly “unbuilt” features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.). I think twentieth-century urban historians have been quick to see outlying towns or the countryside as victims of urban residential growth, but there are open, public spaces in the centres of our towns and cities which are targeted by infrastructure projects or the real estate interests. Renewed interest in Jane Jacobs and issues around neoliberal urbanism have brought attention to these spaces, but I hope my scholarship can offer a pre-history to these debates in provincial Britain’s town and city centres.

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

“I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment…”

As I mentioned above, I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white. While I used to write this off as simply a turn in the project, the last six months have really changed my perspective. There have been multiple Brexit features that use the town or city centre market place as a set piece for quintessential, authentic British life. I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment: markets “belonged” to localities, not to transient or outside traders. As I revise and write the last chapters of my dissertation, I’m striving to capture the categories of “local” and “English” as constructed, protected, and contingent categories wherein retail and ethnicity intersect.

Broadly speaking, what role do markets and shopping play in creating and sustaining community identity?

“…markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging.”

In Britain, many markets trace their charters back to the thirteenth century; therefore, they carry the weight of a deep, transhistorical sense of community. Since the nineteenth century, when local authorities bought market franchises en masse, these retail sites have been the spaces where public oversight meets private business. I think markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging. This makes their importance for post-industrial community identity particularly fraught.

How do you go about deciding which case studies to focus upon?

This is a great question and one I still struggle to explain. I knew I didn’t want to study London because it would invariably overwhelm other towns or cities in a comparative project. London also has a very different market culture than other localities, with the tradition of licensed street traders and street markets rather than covered retail markets. Instead, I’ve tried to get as much geographic, scalar, and structural coverage as I can. The one city that’s stayed fairly constant throughout the project is Glasgow, but other than that I’ve taken my cues from trade journals, heritage campaigns, and particularly strong local repositories. It’s not the most rigorous or systematic process, but it’s easier than going to every county record office in the country to look at their market committee meeting minutes!

Has it been fairly straightforward or quite hard to access the opinions and voices of the people and communities that you study?

“This… shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage.”

Market traders are not “joiners” almost by definition, so it’s hard to trace them in institutional records. This is really why I’ve turned to planning and architectural sources: markets come into view when they are knocked down, developed, or protected. This, of course, shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage. I’ve learned to read almost all of these accounts with an element of scepticism, keeping the politics of preservation and the professional interests of the speakers in mind.

Have you developed a sense of what leads to changes in the way that use shops and markets?

“Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.”

If I knew this, I think I’d make a very successful planning consultant! From my perspective, it’s an issue of how citizensespecially womenmade claims for retail stability during socio-economic crisis and change. During periods of interwar depression and wartime austerity, women patronized informal markets to make ends meet. When New Towns or outlying estates were constructed, housewives were often the citizens demanding markets alongside multiples or supermarkets. And as inflation constricted consumer buying power and women spent more time in the workplace, many markets rebranded themselves as one-stop family outings and bargain outlets. I think markets offer a corrective to the story of shopping we usually tell about post-1945 Britain: the usual tale is one of new precincts or modernist centres, but in the basements or outdoor squares of these structures, there were often bustling retail markets that continued to serve material and immaterial needs of sellers and shoppers. Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.

Sarah can be reached Twitter and the University of Mitchigan’s History Department, where you can find out more about her work. For more urban history profiles click here.

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Phyllis Nicklin, “Photograph of the Bull Ring street market, taken on the last day of street trading, 12/9/59”, Scanned by the Chrysalis project in 2004, from original 35mm slides held at the University of Birmingham. University of Birmingham all rights reserved

“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.

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. 

Aaron Andrews-University of Leicester

“…‘declining cities can still be great cities.”

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I have been lucky enough to catch up with the University of Leicester Centre for Urban History’s Aaron Andrews. Aaron explained some of the ways in which his research contests and complicates established tropes of “decline” in post-war urban Britain.

What is your background?

I come from a fairly normal working class family in Northampton, and have become one of those ‘perpetual students’ that give postgrads a bad name. I moved to Leicester in 2009 to study for a BA in International Relations and History – unfortunately my international relations training hasn’t helped me bring about world peace yet. I then went to Bristol to study for an MA in History where my interest in contemporary British history really grew, before returning to Leicester to do my PhD.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…from the very beginning I’ve had to think about the ‘real world’ applications of my research…”

During my Masters, I worked as an admin assistant for a consultancy firm that was looking to branch out into local government work. I was offered funding to research ‘urban decline’ in the hope that the end product could be useful to urban regeneration projects across the country. So, from the very beginning I’ve had to think about the ‘real world’ applications of my research, which can be particularly difficult when ‘imposter syndrome’ hits.

Of course, I hope my research will also be historiographically relevant, especially with regard to questions of ‘decline’ and ‘de-industrialisation’ to which I was introduced during my time at Bristol.

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

Of course, the first name that comes to mind is Simon Gunn. As my supervisor, he reads and comments on almost everything I write, with this (consciously and subconsciously) informing the way I try to do history. There is a whole network of urban and social historians who have inspired me and continue to do so, and it would be difficult to name just a few. I recently read Leif Jerram’s Streetlife which, to be honest, I should have done years ago! Not only is this a brilliant history of 20th Century Europe, it is one example of a book which shows the importance of space and cities in writing the histories of much larger processes of change.

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

“…contemporary discourses should be understood in relation to material processes.”

Well, first of all thatdeclining cities can still be great cities. ‘People Make Glasgow’ isn’t just a slogan, but something I definitely believe (then again an awful lot of my family live there so I have to say that!) Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, decline did happen in Britain. It wasn’t simply a political construction, but occurred in particular spaces and within a specific context. And finally, contemporary discourses should be understood in relation to material processes. The interaction between the two is an important part of my thesis. I hope that this can be seen as an attempt to take the two as equally seriously when considering the issue of decline.

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

It has become narrower – much narrower! In fact, in the last two weeks I have decided, after much contemplation, to remove one case study from my thesis. This narrowing hasn’t affected the questions I’m asking, but will allow greater depth and should hopefully make the answers more accessible for the reader. Though, it seems this is an experience most PhD students have to go through. It can be tough, but necessary!

What led you to choose Glasgow and Liverpool as your two case studies?

When I first began my research, there was a lot of discussion over picking the right case studies, but in identifying these two, there were two key factors. Firstly, they were the archetypal declining cities, especially in the 1970s. This was evident in the way that urban policy discourses developed, in the geographies of government (and other) studies, and in contemporary media coverage. Secondly, access to the archival material was (of course) crucial. Having family in and around Glasgow made the trips to Scotland easier (and cheaper)!

But now I’m focusing on Liverpool, which is a fascinating city and one on which a lot of great research has been and is being done (not to imply too forcefully that mine is included in that!)

Have you discovered any striking differences between how the two cities developed during the period you study?

“…Glasgow’s decline has been questioned, but Liverpool’s has not…”

There are many striking differences between the two, which is inevitable. What is often striking, however, is the way Glasgow’s decline has been questioned, but Liverpool’s has not in conversations I’ve had about the two. I suspect that this has something to do with the politics of ‘urban crisis’ and they way in which processes of change are interpreted. It’s something I think about a lot, and will hopefully have a decent answer for, because many of the processes of change which affected the cities were, in many ways, ‘the same’.

How does your work relate to wider narratives about economic change, “globalisation” and the decline of traditional industries in the second half of the 20th Century?

I’ve said a lot, though maybe more in style than substance, about ‘processes of change’. ‘Globalisation’ was one of the processes which was impacting on urban Britain during the latter half of the twentieth century. We can see this with shipbuilding in Glasgow and port services in Liverpool, in which global economic change was seen to undermine ‘traditional’ and other industries. But narratives of de-industrialisation and economic decline do loom, and it is with these that I have to be especially careful at times. The ‘declinist’ label is something I’d rather avoid! But again, I think we should be looking seriously at the interplay between materiality and narratives/discourses, as well as considering the spaces in which economic changes occurred. Hopefully my work does this!

What was the relationship between the “core” urban areas of Liverpool and Glasgow and their wider urban networks? The smaller neighbouring towns, both well established and newly created, that are closely interlinked with them.

“…space was central in contemporary discourse – it was the urban core which was the problem, and policy interventions within the urban network were geared towards alleviating the problems at the centre.”

That’s a good question, and one which I could spend an awful lot of time discussing. The process of urban change saw people and jobs move from the ‘core’ areas to towns further afield. So ‘decline’ can be seen, on the face of it, as the result of successful policy making. In terms of how these urban areas worked together (or didn’t), we can see different structures developing which facilitated the development of the Merseyside and Clydeside ‘conurbations’. Into the 1970s, the idea of the ‘inner city’ was developed in Britain. With this, we can see how space was central in contemporary discourse – it was the urban core which was the problem, and policy interventions within the urban network were geared towards alleviating the problems at the centre. Nothing is ever this black and white, and there were competing spatialities of concern. Which is good, because at some point I might need a new research project!

Glasgow Finnieston area

By innoxiuss (Somewhere under the rainbow….) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

You can read more about Aaron’s work on his academia.edu page. He can be contacted via the University of Leicester’s Department of History and is on Twitter.  For more urban historians profiles click here.