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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Bye Bye Sam Alex

Tomorrow I will lead my last seminar at the University of Manchester, where I have taught on and off since 2006 and have been attached to in various capacities for fourteen years. I am very much looking forward to starting my new job at the University of Derby but I always knew that this week would be a strange one. What I didn’t appreciate was just how much, in my last few weeks, I would take notice of and appreciate the fabric of the building in which History is based. This building is now called Samuel Alexander, after the famous Manchester philosophy professor of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century who did so much to promote the Faculty of Arts of this great ‘redbrick’ university (a handsome chap, too; see his bust, below).


Photograph by Jacqueline Banerjee, 2012.: http://www.victorianweb.org/art/architecture/manchester/1.html

It’s funny how attached you can get to a building. I first entered this impressive foyer as a nervous eighteen-year-old in October 1999, a month later than my peers because I had transferred from another University (where, twelve years later, I got my first full-time lectureship and loved the department; funny how life turns out). Having not had the benefit of a tour of the building, I got lost.  It would not be the last time. Every time I find a lost fresher in the corridor, looking like a rabbit in headlights, I remember that day very clearly.


The Philip Haworth Memorial Library (then a PhD office), c. 2008, taken by Cath Feely. Note the Lucozade: the trainee historian’s elixir

Apart from its name (of which it has had three in the time I’ve been here), the building has changed relatively little, while I have changed an awful lot. In this place, I have cried with laughter, frustration, anger, exhaustion and joy. I have cried in an impressive number of offices, including my own. A number of people have now cried on me, enough that the box of tissues in the office has proved an excellent investment. In these rooms, I have been lucky enough to enjoy the encouragement of a group of scholars – now colleagues and, in several cases, friends – who have had always had faith in me when I haven’t always deserved it. Here I have left rooms in huffs, with panic attacks and, on one momentous occasion, a doctorate. I have consumed a lot of cakes, most of them offerings to my ever-patient PhD supervisors to disguise a lack of work or to apologise for being a complete diva. In this building, I was once physically sick at the very thought of having to give a seminar presentation (as my former PhD supervisor seems to delight in telling nervous incoming PhD students …). Six or seven years later, I co-delivered my first impromptu lecture (without notes!) in its largest lecture theatre when the course convenor was stranded in Yorkshire snow.

I grew up in this building and will miss it dearly. But I still get lost in it sometimes.

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Journal of Victorian Culture Online: Archival Fiction and the Mill

My review of Channel 4’s historical drama The Mill on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online Blog. Some thoughts about the nature of archives and the experience of research, & also some unashamedly self-indulgent stuff about my childhood understanding of history …

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Additions and Ornaments to the Bare Grant of a Living: Elizabeth Gaskell, the ‘Manchester Guardian’ and Cultural Value in 1914

When doing some research for a small project I am involved in, I came across this wonderful passage on the value of the arts in the Manchester Guardian, written in the context of a campaign to purchase Mrs Gaskell’s house for the city after her daughter, Meta, had died in 1913. It is quite long, but speaks for itself:

Projects of this kind cannot be forced. If a city does not care about such things they must be left to cities that do. But it is a pity. It means a real loss, the “scrapping” of a rare and irreplaceable commodity. Almost everyone who knows how to read has delighted in some book of Mrs. GASKELL’S, and most of those who have done so would find a keen, curious pleasure in seeing the rooms where she lived and handling the things that used to be everyday in her hands. One always feels this way towards a great artist whose work has really found its way into our minds. For our relation to any great artist whom we can understand is one of the most intimate of human relations; in some ways we know more about the inmost mind of CHARLOTTE BRONTE or of SHELLEY than we know of our closest living friends. And so our minds have good reason to be delighted and touched by little material relics and surroundings of these intense intimates of our own …

Some people say this is not “practical”. They feel it is “practical” to spend money out of the rates in order to give our trade the help of the Ship Canal. They feel it is practical, too, for the city to help its men of business get to town in the morning. But what do they go into town for, and what is the aim of our trade? Is it not mainly to  get the means to live some parts of our lives, other than the business parts, in the way which seems to us happiest? And, by civilised people, a good part of happiness is sought in some such stir of the heart and the mind as they can obtain from music, from books, from pictures, from the play and sparkle of the human spirit when it is animated above itself, as it is in all great art, as it was in MRS. GASKELL … contact with work like hers, or even the place where she did it, sets light to our faculties too. We are kindled; we get the best hours, perhaps, of our days; we are, while the charm holds, the beings that we would wish always to be. To open the way to these moments of release and vision, to gain these additions and ornaments to the bare grant of a living, we catch early trains and dig ship canals; we spend half of our lives in taking means to that end; and then, when there comes a chance to grasp at the end directly, someone is sure to say that this is not “practical,” and that the only thing to do is to stick to the means and pooh-pooh the end. Probably such counsels will prevail in the City Council to-morrow, and in a few years, when MRS. GASKELL’S house has been pulled down, some inferior substitute for it will be expensively acquired and made a memorial of.

(Manchester Guardian, 3.2.1914, p. 8)

It may be a little Arnoldian for some tastes, but isn’t it beautiful? While the author was correct that practicality would prevail and that the Council would not buy the house, they were thankfully wrong about it being pulled down. By the hard work of many volunteers and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, Elizabeth Gaskell’s house at Plymouth Grove is currently being restored and will open to the public next year. Then Mancunians will get the chance to ‘gain these additions and ornaments to the bare grant of a living’ at last.

For more information on the Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, visit this website: http://www.elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/

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Probably there are many different explanations as to what love really is …

Lyn and I have had two years of married life together – we married at a very difficult time, yet I would not change the life for any other – it gives me a sense of security, one feels with a partner to look to nothing is too big to accomplish … our main consideration is one another. A desire to see the other happy – and in that Lyn and I have so far succeeded – my most earnest wish is that I can continue to live with her in happiness.

Probably there are many different explanations as to what love really is … I should say that the most important factor is concern over the partner – an anxiety as to what she is doing and how she is faring …

I thank her for giving me this happiness, thank her with so deep a gratitude – never have I felt so contented with life yet never so full of confidence, as now.


Frank Forster, autodidact and Communist, attempts to define love in 1943. I was reminded of this quote by this great little film by Claire Langhamer about her forthcoming book about the history of love. I should probably also declare that Forster’s words have their own special significance in my own history of love and marriage, as they were read at my wedding …

For more about Frank Forster, see these posts:



And do check out Claire Langhamer’s book, which will be excellent.


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