The University of Birmingham’s Libraries as photographic objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azadi Tower - Tehran City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A neatly tippexed correction there,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words have been, left out, misspelled and corrected,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Modernist Church in the Outer Hebrides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Lady of Sorrows ceramic

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

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

Our Lady of Sorrows interior 1

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

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

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

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

view from Our Lady of Sorrows grounds.jpg

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

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

Catherine (Ceci) Flinn

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

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

What is your background?

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

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

What led you to choose your subject matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Situating the city within post-war social science: the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the West Midlands

On the face of it the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies seems a strange point from which to explore the evolving relationship between post-war social science Britain and conceptions of place. The CCCS, after all, are noted for their groundbreaking work in the field of media studies, the study of gender and race.

Policing the Crisis, the Centre’s era defining study of the politics of law, order and reaction in 1970s Britain notably begins by stating that the author’s interest in the media created phenomena of “mugging” began with “a case known to us in Handsworth”. Handsworth is a district of central Birmingham about four miles north of the University’s campus. However, from these origins clearly grounded in a very specific location and set of local circumstances, Policing the Crisis accelerates. It moves from the specific to the general, with most of the rest of the book comprising a study of the nexus between media representation and political praxis.

The same is true of other classic CCCS texts, like Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style. Hebdige’s primary subject in Subculture is a loosely defined, universal conception of alienated urban youth. In his paper Reggie, Rastas and Rudies published in Resistance Through Ritual three years before Subculture, Hebdige briefly focuses his critical gaze upon “mod youths” living in generic suburbs in south east England, “accelerating along by-passes on their scooters”. But beyond this his work, whilst resplendent with markers of social division; does not impart any sense of the specificities of place.  

We perhaps shouldn’t be surprised by the CCCS’ apparent lack of interest in the specificities of location and the peculiarities of place. As Mike Savage shows in the Politics of Method mid-20th Century British social science, taking the lead from practitioners in the United States and keen to escape its crudely didactic origins, became fixated on the search for the mean. In the 1950s and ‘60s the work of British sociologists like Elizabeth Bott and Ray Phal actively worked to undermine the idea that place retained saliency. The recent-separate-studies conducted by Jon Lawrence and Selina Todd into the Goldthorpe’s Affluent Worker Study and the early work of Michael Young, reinforce this impression. Whether like Young they bemoaned it, or like Goldthorpe they saw it as potentially emancipatory, the general tenor of mid-20th Century pointed to ever greater homogeneity and place’s increasing redundancy.

As we’ve seen the work of Dick Hebdige on subcultures and Stuart Hall and his collaborators on Policing the Crisis, growing out of mid-20th Century sociology and heavily influenced by the structuralist theory of Althusser and Barthes, whilst brilliant and sadly still relevant, is fundamentally uninterested in place as a category in of itself.

I have however, identified a different strand of the CCCS’ work, an ethnographic strand, which did, from the late 1960s onwards, started to take a keen interest in place and its sociological significance.  

I will briefly outline where I think that this interest stemmed from and I will suggest some reasons why I consider it significant. However, as mentioned, I come here with questions as much as answers and would very much appreciate your thoughts either during the questions or later at the reception about what the wider historical significance of all this is.

There was another strand in mid-20th Century British thought a decidedly literary one. The scholars in mid-20th Century Britain for whom place mattered were people like Raymond Williams, Asa Briggs and E.P. Thompson, all of whom were heavily influenced by the “new criticism” that flowed out of the University of Cambridge during this period. A new approach that scholars like Williams, Thompson and Richard Hoggart, the founder of the CCCS, interpreted as meaning that criticism meant nothing if it was not socially engaged with the entire spectrum of culture and everyday life.

What better defence and illustration of the significance of place at a time when it was marginalised in discourse is there than Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy? It invokes and evokes strong ethnographic images of mid-20th Century working class Leeds to make its points about the effects of mass production and capitalism upon people.

I believe that, with a rather different accent and inflection, Hoggart’s interest in place and its significance in people’s lives continued after he left the Centre in 1968. Through four cases studies of CCCS ethnographers, all of whom studied English prior to starting their work at the Centre, I will show how an interest in place came to the fore in the work of a group of British social scientists.                   

Janet Mendelsohn, an American, arrived at the University of Birmingham in 1967 as a visiting student from Harvard. Her interest appears to have been in blending the techniques of photojournalism with the tools, method and agenda of a social scientist.

Mendelsohn spent two years in Birmingham. Over this time her project evolved from an interest in the markers and signifiers of poverty, sex work and race relations towards nuanced study of place and community. A shift that can be seen in the photographs she took of Birmingham’s Balsall Heath.

This photo (see Powerpoint) is in many ways a quintessential early CCCS image. It shows a traditional corner shop in a working class area, festooned with commercial and mass media signifiers that intrude and encroach upon the community.

Content wise this image is similar to the first one. In the form of the drinks poster we can see the commercial signifiers imposing once again. However, if we look just below, next to man wearing a turban, we can see a poster made a by a the local Afro-Caribbean Association, advertising a dance that they are putting on.

The image complicates the earlier narratives, present in both the humanities and social sciences, about the spread of homogeneity. Whilst the commercial signifier in the form of the soft drinks advert looms large over the rest of the picture, highlights the significance and corrosive power of image in capitalist society. The presence of the incomers, Sikhs and Afro-Caribbeans and their clear agency; renders this reading overly reductive.

Through the closeness and contradictions that characterised relations between different immigrant groups in the area, we get a sense of the districts changing topography as it underwent redevelopment. We also get a feel for the local characters, shops and entertainment venues. Whilst not necessarily uncritical, and potentially open to charges of voyeurism, taken together the photographs are a celebration of the specificities of place, drawing attention to Balsall Heath’s unique and particular qualities.  

By capturing the grain, and more voyeuristically, the peculiarities and spectacle of life in Balsall Heath the photos enable us to get sense of what the area was like in the late 1960s, providing a sense of place.

A similar shift can be observed in the work of Paul Willis. Willis’ doctoral thesis completed in 1972 and published as the book Profane Culture is heavily influenced by semiotics and literary theory. Willis’ debt to Barthes and Althusser is clearly displayed, but in terms of form and focus it reads like Richard Hoggart hitching a lift with a young Hunter S. Thompson.

Willis states his research, an ethnographic exploration of the worldview, referents and significance of the motorcycle and hippie subcultures, was conducted in “a large midlands industrial city. From this a reader might deduce that Willis is referring to Birmingham, however, there is little sense of place imparted beyond this. Willis’ subjects float in a realm of signifiers. Their reflections upon the importance of the music that they listen to, their experiences of work and home life, the substances that they do and don’t consume and the significance that they attach to these things, float freely.

Part of this idiosyncratic book’s charm is the wonderful literacy and fluency with which Willis uses his encounters with bikers and drug takers to build up a set of almost decontextualised reference points around which he weaves an argument about class, alienation and youth self-determination. In its soixante-huitard Marcusian grandeur and optimism, it was probably out date by the time he was examined on his thesis.

Willis’ project at the Centre after the completion of Profane Culture, Learning to Labour, the fieldwork for which was conducted between 1974 and 1975 stands on very different ground. Learning to Labour subtitled How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, follows a group of working class “lads” through their final year at school before going out into the workplace.

Here, whilst not intimately concerned with aspects of place, Willis adopts a very different approach. Rather than floating free, constrained only by their relationship to the means of production, class position and ideological baggage, the “lads” that Willis studies are heavily interwoven with the community that they live in, their choices defined by their hometown’s economic structure.

Learning to Labour opens with a detailed description of the situation of “Hammertown” the Black Country settlement where the “lads” have grown up. Willis describes the town’s history and prior economic and social development, its class structure, that it is overwhelmingly working class; and that unlike other neighbouring towns, with economies based around workshops its economic structure is based upon the large plants of “a few multinational engineering firms”. He also describes how the town relates to its neighbours in other ways, the prosperous outlying suburban areas from which the teachers at “Hammertown Boys” and the managers in industry commute and the “large city” [Birmingham] which “lies at the heart of the local conurbation. He even notes as an aside that the fact Hammertown shares a postcode with the large neighbouring city is a line used by the “lads” in his study when they are trying to impress girls from other less felicitous towns.

From this introduction sprinkled with local and incidental detail, Willis’ account continues to be streaked with a clear sense of place. Willis’ concerns and policy suggestions are national, even universal in scope, relating as they do to careers policy in schools and the choices that individuals are forced to make in class societies. However, the ballast that supports them is anchored both in the words of the “lads” themselves and a culture and situation which is many ways highly regional specific.

He tries to show how the distinctively rough culture of the foundry and machine shop shapes the “lads” sense of themselves and their place in the world. Willis teases out clear ethnic and gendered dimensions to this.

The ethnic dimension in particular gives a clear place specific flavour to the relations that Willis describes. The Black Country in the 1970s was a stronghold of the National Front. In 1976 the party polled 27.5% of the vote in elections to Sandwell Metropolitan Council, judging by Willis’ description, Hammertown is almost certainly one of the constituent towns of the Sandwell Council area.

Willis uses his “lads” words to show the role that this kind of overt racism played in cementing bonds between white working class males in the workplaces of the mid-1970s Black Country. Given that mass immigration was a highly localised phenomena at the time this state of affairs gives readers a clear sense of place. The wider point that Willis makes, that racial hatred distracted workers in “Hammertown’s” foundries and workshops from seeing that their true enemy was a system rigged against them dictated by capital, is; in this instance; dictated by highly particular and localised examples of grievances.

With regards the schooling system itself, again Willis’ arguments stretch far beyond Sandwell and indeed far beyond the UK. As do his policy prescriptions, one of which could be read as Marxist demand for free or academy schools, thirty or forty years before they became part of neo-liberal reality. However, the specific examples that Willis gives of the failure of comprehensive schooling in Hammertown rest, yet again, upon specific local factors, even whilst his ideological concerns remain universal. Willis singles out the town’s unusually socially un-mixed population as a factor in why some many young people end up going into routine manual jobs. This is quite unusual in the West Midlands, an area which; as in London-at least historically-and unlike Leeds or Sheffield for instance, generally sees working class and middle class areas sit side by side.

Willis suggests that the lack of spatial residential proximity between people in professional jobs and those in manual ones causes greater division. Throughout the book he illustrates this through testimony from both teachers and the “lads” how the geographical distance between the teachers and pupils at the primary secondary school he studies creates lower expectations on both sides.

Willis’ scholarship and the discussions held in the “Work” working group that he co-ordinated, inspired others. Dorothy Hobson, another CCCS member deeply interested in ethnography and the power of place, has spoken of how Willis’ interests and approach influenced her own work. Hobson and Angela McRobbie, my final two case studies, further developed the CCCS ethnographic approach by using it to investigate the experience of being female in Birmingham. As with Mendelsohn and Willis their work shows an interest in place and how it shapes people.   

Angela McRobbie’s PhD, parts of which were published as Working Class Girls and the Culture of Femininity in Women Take Issue covered similar ground to Willis’ study of the Hammertown lads. McRobbie interviewed, over the course of six months, female members of a youth group on a council estate in south west Birmingham. She asked them about their relationships with their families and peers, their self-perception and expectations for their future.

Many aspects of her research focus on the idea of an imprisoning “code of femininity” and the specific class related pressures faced by the girls that she studied. McRobbie is, well known for Jackie her study of the ideology of teenaged girl’s magazines, indicating an interest in the media and representation which continues to animate her research to this day. However, as with Willis, in The Culture of Femininity specific issues are clearly deeply embedded in the specific local context of south Birmingham.

McRobbie juxtaposes the contrasting experiences of life in a major city experienced by working and middle class adolescent girls. The working class girls that she interviewed lived lives that were highly bound the estate where they lived, lives which even in mid-adolescence mirrored those of their mothers and older sisters. The girls from the youth club that McRobbie interviewed were expected to do household chores for pocket money, mirroring the sort of char-women types jobs taken on by their mothers. For instance the girl who described her mother’s work as “cleaning out the labs and all that [at the University of Birmingham a mile or two up the road]”.

By contrast the middle class girls mentioned in McRobbie’s paper, she doesn’t quote them, are depicted as being far more able to make the most of living a life in a major city. Their social life is described as being far more centered on the city centre, attending art centres and discos and using public transport to attend schools outside of the immediate areas where they grew up.

Housewives: Isolation as Oppression, Dorothy Hobson’s contribution to Women Take Issue, covers similar ground to McRobbie’s work on adolescent girls. It is, however, in many ways even more striking, in that despite the fact that all of the women Hobson speaks to are stuck in their high-rise flats all day, how much of a sense of place is evoked.

In many ways the landscape that Hobson describes, isolated, exurban, socially atomised, is exactly the kind of homogenised environment that Michael Young railed against in Family and Kinship nearly thirty years earlier. However, the transcripts of Hobson’s ethnographic interviews with participants in their homes develops an altogether different picture, one which is at once richer and more mundane.

Hobson’s primary concern is to explore how the women feel about the transition from work to being stay at housewives. From this material Hobson paints a picture of how women in low waged, frequently insecure work navigated and experienced the urban environment of south Birmingham in the mid to late 20th Century. It’s a world criss-crossed by bus routes leading from system built council estates to industrial estates populated with corrugated iron sheds where the basic components of industrial civilisation are churned out. This routine pattern of existence is punctuated by bursts of dancing, again linked by the bus, in both local and city centre venues. Through snatches of interview like this Hobson constructs the mental geography and subjective experience of working class life in Birmingham.

The parts of the study that at first glance seem to focus more on the women’s psychic world, their experience of transitioning to being a housewife, of spending much of everyday by themselves doing housework and looking after infants, is also highly attuned to place. Hobson captures a lot of the women’s feelings about their homes in high-rise blocks on the edge of King’s Norton, which is itself on the outskirts of Birmingham.

Their husbands are well paid car workers at the nearby Langbridge plant, their wages as the reason why, unlike the mothers of the girls in McRobbie’s study; the women do not have to go out to work. Hobson captures the effect of this, one woman tells her that living eight stories up in air and only knowing a few people in the block to “say hello to” that the media has become her “only connection to the outside world”.

In many ways this seems like the culmination of the concerns expressed about the effects of modernisation and the mass media upon human relations. In fact it is a far more place specific phenomena than that. The women that Hobson interviews are from a relatively affluent strand of the working class and their life experiences are determined by the-at this time-relatively prestigious estate upon which they live, which just happens to be structured in such a way and located in such a place as to minimise their opportunities for human interaction. In this way Hobson’s work is deeply shaped by and concerned with place.
I believe that my exploration of how members of the CCCS began to turn to place from about 1968 onwards, whilst having clear antecedents, can be factored into wider changes in society. Changes which point to a shift away from the general towards towards the more specific. In the months ahead I intend to conduct further research and develop a clearer picture of the significance of the CCCS’ ethnography to the development of cultural studies and our understanding of people and places.

Adapted from a paper given at the Cities@SAS: New Researchers in Modern Urban History Conference, 4th July 2016.  

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.