Independent Newsagents: A History and Celebration

Since writing a blog post here about newsagents, I have started to research their history more seriously and was recently asked to contribute to a wonderful exhibition of drawings and watercolours of Glasgow newsagents by the artist Will Knight, taking place at the New Glasgow Society from 11-22 August (10am-6pm). You can find out more about the exhibition here. Below is the introduction I have written for the ‘newspaper’ being printed to accompany the exhibition. 

Independent Newsagents: A History and Celebration

Cath Feely

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Premises of WB Milne, newsagent and tobacconist; 329 Springburn Rd, c. 1900. ©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

The photograph lying before me shows Mr W.B. Milne outside his shop in Springburn Road in June 1900. This scene can be dated by the newspaper billboards framing the doorway shouting out headlines about the Boer War in South Africa. He is flanked on either side by family and/or employees (are they delivery boys sitting cheekily on the pavement?), though the distinction between the two is blurred. The sign above the door states that Milne is a ‘stationer and news-agent’, a reminder that, in 1900, being a newsagent was still very novel. As working-class readers began to see a daily paper as a must in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, men and women like Milne were pioneers and opened up shops across the city to cater for their needs. Although agents for the products of others, photographs like these in local image collections across the country are testament to the individuality and independence of newsagents and the pride that they took, and still take, in the appearance of their shops.

In 1940, George Orwell described the ‘small newsagent’s shop’ to be found in ‘any poor quarter in any big town’. ‘The general appearance of these shops is always very much the same’, he claimed: ‘a few posters for the Daily Mail and the News of the World outside, a poky little window with sweet-bottles and packets of Players, and a dark interior smelling of liquorice allsorts and festooned from floor to ceiling with vilely printed twopenny papers, most of them with lurid cover-illustrations in three colours …’ But Orwell was not quite right: though we may all be able to conjure a typical newsagent in our mind’s eye, what we are actually imagining is often a very particular place, probably the newsagent of our youth. While much of the contents and ‘general appearance’ of these shops might be shared, as the drawings in this exhibition show, the devil is in the detail. For, strangely, covered though their walls are with generic branding, newsagents have their own unique ways of arranging and labelling stock: their own signs, their own personalities.

Network NewsagentEmail

Network Newsagent by Will Knight

Orwell was right about one thing, though. He suggested that the interiors of newsagents needed to be recorded, as an indicator of what the ‘mass’ of people ‘really thinks and feels’: ‘Certainly nothing half so revealing exists in documentary form’. As everyday spaces that have traditionally sold ephemeral products – newspapers, cigarettes, sweets, and now phone minutes – newsagents seem so familiar and unchanging to us that we forget to really look at them. When we record them over time, we realise that newsagents are different from one another and that they change and adapt: that they have a past and, therefore, a present and future. These drawings are not the product of nostalgia but of now. In the process, they tell us not only about newsagents but about ourselves.

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My Arty-Farty Summer, or Why Historians Should go to Galleries

I fairly recently came across a school report where I had, when forced to make a ‘pupil comment’, moaned that ‘I’m really rubbish at source work. I spend ages looking at paintings and never find anything to say’. My History teacher informed my parents that ‘Catherine is rather better at interpreting sources than indicated above’. But I would say that would rather accurately sum up my attitude to visual sources until the present day. That doesn’t mean that I don’t try: my next project will make quite a lot of use of photographs and film – in a meaningful way, I hope, and not just as pretty pictures – and I’m starting to get to grips with it. But it is still something that I struggle with sometimes: I think my identity is so caught up with words that my visual literacy has always seemed to lag behind.

The teenager who wrote that comment about being rubbish at reading paintings, though, was not, however, anti-art. I was, at that very same time, really into the ‘young British artists’ after having visiting a exhibition in Manchester with my art class which included stuff by Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili, at which we’d cut out our fingerprints in lino and made prints with them, after a talk one of the artists about identity which completely captivated me (apparently my fingerprint is particularly neat). I remember, about that time, forcing my poor dad to take me to see the shark in formaldehyde. The Liverpool Tate was my favourite day out (coupled with The Beatles Story), with Bridget Riley’s paintings being my favourite. So I have always liked really looking at art – especially twentieth century onwards – even if I have considered myself to be rubbish at ‘reading’ it.

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Self-Portrait of the Author as a Young Child (1986)

Today, after having visited two exhibitions that have made a real impression on me, it came to me: I am not rubbish at ‘using’ art as a historian. I just use it in a different way. It makes me think. What it makes me feel can often make me think about a topic I’ve been working on from a slightly different angle, or suddenly help me to make connections I wouldn’t have necessarily thought about otherwise. It might be a response to a particular image, object or film but more often it is a response to a collection of works, and the ideas behind that collection or curation. Sometimes it can aesthetically illustrate something that I know as a historian and is already there in the historiography, but in a way that might bring it alive for students.  For instance, the brilliant Portraying a Nation exhibition at Tate Liverpool juxtaposes the very different paintings of Otto Dix and the photographs of August Sander (the amazing People of the Twentieth Century) to show Weimar Germany as complex and confusing, both ultra-modern and deeply conservative. Sanders’ photographs might support Benjamin Ziemann’s argument that ‘modernity of metropolitan culture in Berlin, and its significance for Weimar Germany more generally, have been overestimated, and … —in cultural terms—Weimar was Weimar: it is best represented by the small town in Thuringia.’

So, art can help me to discuss ideas about history. But it can also help me to think about how – and why – I write history in the first place. A few years ago, I was slightly involved in a exhibition at the Manchester Cornerhouse by Phil Collins called Marxism Today. I chaired a discussion of Marx’s relevance (in 2010). But the real inspiration was a single conversation with Phil in the cafe. We spoke about how we were both fascinated with how this all encompassing ideology became tied up with the everyday minutiae of people’s lives, Phil with his ex-Marxist-Leninist teachers who ended up setting up dating agencies and me with my dialectical dancer. We were interested in similar ideas and that conversation helped me to articulate what I was trying to do.

This summer, I am working with the artist Will Knight to look at newsagents. Will has been doing some beautiful drawings of Glasgow newsagents of which there is an exhibition at the New Glasgow Society opening on the 11th August. I’ll be contributing to the exhibition with discussion and a bit of writing. I am excited about this because Will has already influenced my thinking without even knowing it, as I have become more concerned with shop fronts and displays in my research. Hopefully, this inspiration will go both ways. Watch this space.

Anyway, this was a very long–winded way of saying something very simple: historians don’t just need to think about art as a ‘source’. It can be that, but it can be much more: it can be collaboration, perhaps an actual collaboration between the artist and the historian, but more likely a silent one, with the work sparking an idea, even across centuries. So I end with a plea to my students (or maybe the one who might see this): Derby is full of art this summer. There is the Machine Made Robot and AI exhibition at QUAD, the Weeping Window poppies at the Silk Mill, the Finding Lines exhibition at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and always, always the amazing Joseph Wright, also in the Art Gallery, and probably much more.

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A Philosopher giving a Lecture on the Orrery in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (1766), by Joseph Wright of Derby. Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

You probably don’t need me to tell you to go and see them. But if you’re like me, and think you might be a bit rubbish with art, give it a go and see where it takes you. One of the themes of the Finding Lines exhibition is confronting your inner critic: that goes for consumers of art as well as creators.

 

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Orphan Texts: Marxist Marginalia

This is the first in an occasional series of bits of sources and writing that I quite like that no longer fit into the book or an article. This is a orphan text in two ways: not only does this not really fit into my work on Marx (I’m not sure it ever really did) but – as is common with marginalia that one comes across randomly – I don’t really know enough about the author of these marginal notes to really do him justice. But I LIKE Brain. I like his grumpiness with Dietzgen, his doggedness and his refusal to give up hope of socialism while repeatedly noting its non-arrival. And I like the idea of this book as a memorial to that stubbornness. So this is for Vic Brain, who is too important to shoehorn into an argument where he doesn’t belong. Let’s just enjoy his marginalia as a fragment of a life.

The inscriptions contained in W. Brain’s copy of Joseph Dietzgen’s The Positive Outcome of Philosophy range in date from 1940 to 1993. Dietzgen (1828-1888) was a German tanner who, independently of Marx and Engels, had also developed a philosophy of dialectical materialism, and his work was enormously popular amongst working-class Marxist autodidacts in early twentieth-century Britain.[1] Dietzgen was often read in conjunction with Marx because his work was presented, particularly in labour college classes, as extending the principles of Marx’s approach to economics into the realm of epistemology.

Brain’s copy of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, originally published by Kerr & Co. in 1906, had at some point been imported into Britain from Chicago.[2] We know that this was once W. Brain’s copy because this name is written in the front of the book several times, along with some text in Welsh (which can be roughly translated as “This book belongs to …”), a date (1940) and various addresses in Llanelli and the Swansea suburb of Fforestfach, both in South Wales.[3] These addresses, along with an obituary in the Socialist Party of Great Britain newsletter, the Socialist Standard, birth records and information that can be gleaned from some of Brain’s marginalia, make it possible to identify Brain as William T.V. Brain, known by his comrades in the Swansea Branch of the Socialist Party of Great Britain as “Vic.”[4] Brain was born in Swansea in 1914 and died in December 2009. According to his obituary, he had been a member of the CPGB “in the early years of the Cold War period” but joined the SPGB in 1952 and remained a member until his death.[5] The description of Vic Brain in his obituary strongly resonates with his inscriptions in his copy of the Positive Outcome of Philosophy. A keen watercolourist who had trained as an art teacher fairly late in life, in his notes he took Dietzgen to task several times on points concerning artistic expression. Of all of Brain’s characteristics listed in the article, however, the one that is echoed most in his marginalia is his persistent asking of “the perennial question – when would we get socialism.”[6]

While notes in a single book can only be considered a fragmentary glimpse of one particular reading experience, Brain’s copy of The Positive Outcome of Philosophy reveals a deep and long-lasting engagement not only with the text but the book itself, which was extensively written on in multiple differently-coloured inks, though always in the same handwriting. On the title page, under the author’s name, it is noted that Dietzgen had been a “tanner and leather worker,” a working man who used his hands as well as a philosopher. A manuscript index added at the back of the book, alongside extensive marginalia scattered throughout and loose scraps of notes inserted at several points, indicates that Brain was particularly interested in Dietzgen’s attitude towards truth, religion and the concept of the “human soul.” These notes were often questioning in their nature. For instance, on one occasion, Brain underlined Dietzgen’s statement that “[t]he understanding of man is limited” and “[t]he human intellect is thus degraded to the position of a substitute of some ‘higher’ intellect which is not discovered, but must be ‘believed’.”[7] Next to this passage, Brain added a note in the margin, in capital letters (the marginalia in this book largely being in lower-case):

THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STATEMENT IN THE AUTHORS WHOLE ARGUMENT, AND ONE DOES NOT HAVE TO WRITE A LEARNED WORK ABOUT A PHENOMENON. IT IS POSSIBLE TO OVERCOME LACK OF UNDERSTANDING BY FAITH – SO WHAT? WHAT IS IMPORTANT IS COMFORT, SENERITY, EXPECTANCY – UNSCIENTIFIC? SO WHAT.[8]

In other notes, Brain hinted that socialism itself was not immune from being considered a “faith,” and highlighted a paragraph in which the “comforting Logic of Dietzgen” was “embodied.”[9] Elsewhere, on a note inserted into the book on slips on paper, Brain wrote that “TRUTH ITSELF cannot be wholly conceived by the human brain, only in parts. Therefore what we possess is the ever-active striving for truth.”[10]

brain

We might speculate that Brain’s careful and critical study of Dietzgen itself formed part of an “ever-active striving for truth.” For over fifty years, Brain continued to re-read this book and to make notes in it. On one page of the introduction (see image above), a line is underlined in black pen: “Capitalism is now approaching its decline. Socialism is near.” Next to it, an asterisk draws attention to a hand-written annotation at the foot of the page:

It is now 1986. Over the years I have re-read this book several times. During the 84 years that have elapsed since this statement was made some gains have been won but CAPITALISM IS STILL VIRILE and Socialism has NOT ARRIVED. (W. Brain 1986)

(again 1993).[11]

Brain’s book is full of critical comments on Dietzgen’s text. Yet, this melancholic note also recorded the long passage of time in which the book had been a physical presence in Brain’s life and home. We can conclude from its notes that this book was a prized one: re-opened, re-read, thought about deeply and marked for use.

[1] W. Brain’s copy of Joseph Dietzgen, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy, trans. Ernest Untermann (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1906). Copy in the possession of the present author.

For more detail on Dietzgen see Tony Burns, “Joseph Dietzgen and the History of Marxism,” Science and Society, 66.2 (2002), pp. 202-27; Adam Buick, “Joseph Dietzgen,” Radical Philosophy, 10 (1975), 3-7; On the reading of Dietzgen by British workers, see Jonathan Rèe, Proletarian Philosophers  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984); Stuart Macintyre, A Proletarian Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 127-46; Catherine Feely, “From Dialectics to Dancing: Reading, Writing and the Experience of Everyday Life in the Diaries of Frank P. Forster,” History Workshop Journal, 69 (2010), 90-110.

[2] See Allen Ruff, We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Jason D. Martinek, Socialism and Print Culture in America, 1897-1920 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012).

[3] The bookseller who sold the book to the present author in 2007 claimed that Brain was a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain but did not elaborate further. Further investigations uncovered an obituary for ‘Vic’ Brain in the SPGB’s Socialist Standard (April 2010) and this account was compared with information from Brain’s marginalia, as indicated in the text, to satisfy the author that this book had belonged to ‘Vic’ Brain.

[4] Howard Moss, “Obituary: Vic Brain,” Socialist Standard (April 2010). Available online at http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/2010s/2010/no-1268-april-2010/obituary-vic-brain [Accessed 27 August 2013].

[5] Moss, “Obituary: Vic Brain”.

[6] Moss, “Obituary: Vic Brain”.

[7] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 344-345.

[8] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 344-345. Punctuation and spelling of the original note is retained.

[9] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 242.

[10] Loose slip of handwritten notes inserted between 430-431 of Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, The Positive Outcome of Philosophy.

[11] Brain’s copy of Dietzgen, Positive Outcome of Philosophy, 11.

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Where are the women? Rewriting the history of Marx’s Capital

‘Where are the women in this thesis?’

Picture the scene: late May or early June 2011, in my PhD supervisor’s office, in my mock viva discussing my thesis on the British publication and reception of Karl Marx’s Capital. I’d like to say that it was an obvious question and I easily rattled through an impressive answer. But I didn’t. I confess it was something I don’t think I had really thought about in a conscious way before that moment. I talked about masculinity in the thesis, I knew that, but women? British Marxism was overwhelmingly a male world and most of the working-class autobiographers I had mined for reading experiences were male. I started, falteringly, to offer an answer:

‘Erm, well, well they aren’t really in the sources …’

‘WRONG ANSWER! Start again.’

It was the wrong answer. He was right. And when a similar question inevitably came up in the real viva, I think I offered a better answer (something about women being an important part of the process as translators, editors, booksellers, etc. – the memory is blurry) but I still don’t think I answered it properly. It was of secondary importance to me, as I was more concerned with tracking the ‘real history’ of how the editing process had changed the presentation and understanding of Marxist theory.  It has taken five years since that moment in my supervisor’s office to fully understand and appreciate the question, and I’m ready to answer it now, as I finally write the book manuscript this summer.

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Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx and Marx’s daughters Jenny, Laura and Eleanor

In the 1860s, Jenny Marx copied out the original German manuscript of Das Kapital, deciphering her husband’s handwriting (so awful that he was turned down for a job as a railway clerk) so that the typesetters had a reasonable chance of understanding it. She wrote letters explaining how the ‘fat book’ had taken over the lives of her family and damaged her husband’s health: ‘if only the leviathan were launched!’

In the mid 1880s, Eleanor Marx spent months in the British Museum Reading Room chasing up all of her father’s sources to replace his translations with the original quotations for the first authorised English translation of Capital, for which she did not receive credit on the title page, next to Friedrich Engels, Samuel Moore and her common-law husband Edward Aveling. In the British Museum Reading Room, she worked amongst a group of educated women who were jobbing translators and journalists– a sort of literary proletariat – who between them produced the first English translations of Flaubert, Ibsen, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy …

In the late 1920s, Cedar Paul took the bold step, with her husband Eden, of retranslating Capital for publisher George Allen and Unwin when it was realised that they had sold the copyright of the original translation. Communists themselves – although bohemian ones who also flirted with psychoanalysis and translated much of the non-Freudian literature available in the 1920s – they were heavily criticised by orthodox Marxists for daring to revise a translation that had the authority of having been overseen by the great Friedrich Engels himself.

Torr Letters 1942

Dona Torr’s translation of the Selected Correspondence of Marx and Engels, 1942

In the 1930s, Dona Torr, founder member of the Communist Party Historians’ Group and officially my heroine, attempted to repair the damage, liaising between George Allen and Unwin and the Marxist theoreticians in Moscow to edit an edition of the ‘original translation’ that would be acceptable to committed Communists. In adding historical material about the production and reception of the book – as well as a facsimile of the 1887 title page – Torr turned the book into an historical object. Really, she claimed, the book was not only itself a history of England but the various editions of Capital a way in to think about the histories of working class movements in each of the countries in which they were produced. Hence, Torr made my work possible without me even being aware of it.

All of these women, and many more, were in the thesis. I just didn’t know it at the time. Wrong answer, start again:

‘Where are the women in this book?’

‘Everywhere.’

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Misplaced Habits: The Newsagent

I love newsagents. The local newsagent was the first place that I was allowed to walk to on my own, when I was about six or seven, armed with 20p (often in actual pennies) to buy some cola bottles from the pic ‘n’ mix. When I was in my early teens, a group of us used to terrorise the local shop flicking through magazines in desperate need of Take That photos, before the sign went up to decree that ‘no more than three schoolchildren can enter the shop at once’, a move that we thought authoritarian and deeply unfair. As a student, I took much amusement from the Manchester suburban newsagent who proudly boasted with a sign in the window of his shop that he kept ‘THE BEST TOP SHELF IN TOWN’. Flicking through my phone recently, I was somewhat alarmed to see that roughly 50% of my photos were of daily newspaper billboards (is that the proper term?) outside Derby newsagents. I sincerely want to meet the person who writes these for the Derby Telegraph and thank them for their services in helping me to settle in to my new city.

DT Home Rule DT Tube of Glue

Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that as historian I also find newsagents deeply fascinating. Newsagent shops are (were?) a modern phenomenon. Before I get trampled on by a horde of angry early-modernists, I am aware that ‘news agents’ existed well before the late nineteenth century. But both as a distinct place and occupation, the retail newsagent really came into its own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the interwar period, newsagents were organising, with the first meeting of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents taking place in Leicester in 1919. One of the reasons for this organisation, I suspect (having not really done proper research on this at all) is that other retailers such as booksellers and stationers were mobilising against newsagents as encroaching on their trades. Because then, as now, newsagents diversified beyond selling newspapers. The alarm in the book trade at the launch of Penguin Books, which were expressly designed to be sold in non-traditional retail spaces like newsagents, is just one example of the book trade trying to mobilise against newsagents.

However, newsagents reached parts of the population that most booksellers and stationers hadn’t previously: the working class. Newsagents could provide a one-stop shop for working-class autodidacts in the interwar period. For instance, Dobson’s, of Brook Street in Chester, was an absolute life line for Frank Forster. We know from Forster’s diaries (1934-1938) that almost daily trips to Dobson’s provided him with a routine when he was unemployed. It was there that he bought the reporters’ notebooks and ink to write his diaries. It was there, and not a radical bookshop, that he ordered books and magazines on Soviet Russia and dialectical materialism, his first introduction to Communist theory, eventually leading to him joining the (tiny) Chester branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It was to Dobson that he gave his form to join Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club. It was there, too, that he bought his father’s Daily Herald (and used his Daily Herald coupons to buy classic novels), with regret at his reformism. Dobson was also a source of friendly and somewhat intellectual discussion, something Forster felt he lacked at home, with diary reports of conversations about the news and even language learning (Dobson seems to have been an enthusiast for Esperanto). I only wish I had Dobson’s side of the story but, alas, I have only this from a Kelly’s Directory from 1910.

dobson brook street kelly directory 1910

Both the interwar newspaper industry and the book trade now have numerous historians. But what about newsagents? They seem to me to provide a way in to talking about the uneasy relationship between book and newspaper publishing in this period when newspaper publishers were becoming major players in the production of non-fiction, in particular (the proliferation of ‘home advice’ and books about hobbies published under newspaper branding is the subject of a whole other post). But they might also be seen as agents of knowledge and places of community, especially important in understanding the intellectual life of the British working classes, to use Jonathan Rose’s phrase, in the first half of the twentieth century.

There are other stories to be told about newsagents. Stories about youth: Mass Observation diaries of the Second World War are a goldmine for complaints about the unreliability of paper boys. Stories about labour: in this ATV report from 1959, the employment of children comes under dispute in Derbyshire. Stories, indeed, about class, race and Britishness, as the MACE archive also carries several reports of the firebombing of newsagents, as well as the story of the Asian newsagent in Smethwick proudly displaying portraits of Charles and Di to ATV’s Anne Diamond in 1981 (I am desperate to see this; hat-tip to Christine Grandy’s great Rethinking Modern British Studies paper on race in Midlands regional news). Stories about crime and its representation: the murders of newspaper boys and armed robberies.

Proper newsagents now seem to me to be an endangered species, a misplaced habit. Some are still there, clinging on, diversifying as they always have done, in the face of competition from supermarkets opening ‘local’ shops. My local newsagent in Withington, Manchester, closed last year as it sat opposite a new Sainsbury’s Local. The place where I got my pic ‘n’ mix has been converted into a house. For me, the newsagent has become a place of nostalgia. But I imagine there are still many communities in Britain where the newsagent remains a gateway to the wider world.

I don’t know if I will ever get to write twentieth-century British history through the eyes of the newsagent. But somebody should.

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“Not an institution, but a little community”: T.F. Tout and the ‘Manchester School’

This morning I am contemplating my ‘teaching philosophy’. How’s this for a teaching philosophy?

Perhaps his happiest trait was his firm belief, almost an instinctive belief, that what he did was worth doing. He believed in the place, in his work as a teacher, and in his students. Sometimes people speak of the Manchester history school as though it were a piece of deliberate invention, finished and shaped in all its parts, imposed from without by a powerful personality and achieving results which can only be described as surprising. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The department of history grew gradually; a conscious tradition was but slowly realised. The school was not an institution, but a little community, led by two fine teachers, and dominated by a strong, but very human, personality. Its success was the outcome of this companionship, in which every member had the opportunity of feeling that he had a share. The young people of the north who read history were taken seriously. Tout and his colleague assumed that they meant business. That they might not be worth guidance never occurred to them. If Manchester could produce physicians, chemists, and engineers, it could produce historians. Indeed, it had already done so. Lancashire people respond to this sort of treatment. I imagine that the irresponsive could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Nearly all in various ways gave the response expected of them and found something which they never forgot. In course of time the school became conscious of a living tradition. It had never been a mechanical society, but had grown and changed from decade to decade. It is still a living witness to Tout’s administrative skill but yet more to his confidence in his work and his pupils.

F.M. Powicke, Modern Historians and the Study of History: Essays and Papers (London: Odhams Press, 1955), p.29.

You can find out more about Tout, his student Powicke, and the ‘Manchester School’ in these pages I contributed to several moons ago. Their simple, but still not often realised, ideas inspire me every day.

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Objects and Remembering

After an absence of six months, I have decided to use this blog as a kind of notebook again. From September, I am co-teaching a third year course on ‘Historians and Material Culture’. Having learned that the best way to think through things is to try to teach them, I am really looking forward to this experience, not least because my colleague comes to material culture with a background in archaeology, medieval studies and eighteenth-century history (isn’t that great?!), and I come to it with the sensibilities of a modern cultural historian. We will also be genuinely co-teaching – with two of us in the same room – rather than doing tag-team lectures. This is really exciting because I think this will lead to a real conversation in the classroom, with us learning from each other as well as from the students.

With this in mind, I went to a wonderful conference yesterday called ‘Objects and Remembering’. I gave a paper on Marxist marginalia and what I think it can tell us about how British Marxists used their books to shape personal identities, cement relationships, and pass down political attitudes and practices over several generations.

ImageThe programme is here. I urge you to go and Google every name on it (excluding mine – my paper was a show and tell rather than anything amounting to much!) and read their work. There were too many excellent papers to go into detail, but I should note that Layla Renshaw‘s paper on the exhumation of mass graves of the Spanish Civil War is, as I recall, the first conference paper of my career to move me to tears. Renshaw perfectly conveyed the charged atmosphere of these digs while critically analysing the emotional processes and politics at play. It was fascinating to see how both families of the deceased and archeologists fixed on material objects – not only those that were actually found in the graves but those which were absent, having being stolen by their murderers – as a vehicle of memory. Her book is now top of my reading list, alongside the work of Gabe Moshenska. Gabe’s range of interests as a public archaeologist is astonishing, but I was particularly struck by his discussion of how much the term ‘collective memory’ obscures more than it explains, flattening the complexities of multiple individual experiences. I was slightly embarrassed to remember that I had, earlier in the day, myself used the phrase ‘a form of radical collective memory’ without really thinking about what I meant by that. Although he wasn’t referring to my paper (which he was actually rather too nice about!), when Gabe said ‘we can do better than that’, I felt that he had given me permission to think more deeply and carefully about what is actually going on. I reckon that counts as a productive day in anyone’s books!

So, this summer, expect a few blog posts where I use some things to think with, as and when I feel like it.

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