The Trenches, The Tram and the Trolley Bus

CONTENT NOTE: This post contains discussion of suicide.

I have just found out that I have had my abstract below accepted for the Telling Stories: History, Narrative and Fiction conference at Queens University, Belfast in September. I have been thinking about writing about this history for a while – and writing about it creatively – and now seems the time, for various reasons. It’s not easy but the writing about it comes easily, and I’m looking forward to thinking about it alongside my more conventional academic work this summer. It’s still a very sensitive subject so there are no footnotes for you to check, no way for you to check the facts without a lot of digging, as I overlay my own story over many, many others.

Housing being built surrounding Kingsway, Burnage, Manchester, where my great-grandfather drove his tram, 1927

In 1939, my great-grandfather drank a bottle of weedkiller in his shed. Due to the stigma surrounding suicide, this was a family secret until the mid-1990s when my father broke down while watching the final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth. The story he told me was compelling, especially as I had recently memorized Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in my English Literature class. Having served as a young man in the First World War, his grandfather returned a broken man and, on the eve of another global catastrophe, ended his life. Around this time, my father had the only surviving photograph of my great-grandfather – a boy in an army uniform – restored and enlarged: his image was rehabilitated and placed on the mantlepiece.

As time went on, this story nagged away at me. It was not that I disbelieved the explanation but that it seemed too neat. After years of telling myself that I was not interested in family history, I found myself on a database searching for the documents of my great-grandfather’s life and death. Within seconds, I found the report of the inquest in the Manchester Evening News, headlined ‘TRAM DRIVER FEARED BUS CHANGE OVER’. My great-grandmother testified that they ‘had been married 19 years and her husband had always worked for the Corporation Transport department. He was made a tramcar driver about four years ago. He did not like the idea of tramcars being replaced by buses and had become very depressed about it.’

This new knowledge felt shameful: I did not tell my father. The image of a man not eating for days as he frantically read a book titled How to Drive a Motorcar wasn’t the right kind of tragedy. You couldn’t imagine the scene fading into a field of poppies. Yet, this was the reality of the 1920s and 1930s: not only trenches but trams and trolleybuses. This paper will use this newspaper page as a creative starting point for writing about the context of my great-grandfather’s mental breakdown in the aftermath of my own, and will explore the ethics – but also the benefits – of exploration over explanation when grasping at historical experience.

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Can you reference a biscuit?

I want to write about them.

Not yet. Hers are still the arms that hugged me when my gerbil died. His face is still the one he kept straight to make me giggle.

I am convinced that my grandparents can tell a story of twentieth-century Britain. Maybe not the story but an important one, all the same. Look, I can explain them. At least three wars marked them. You name it, I can bring it all to the table: migration, law, religion, reconstruction, class, housing, industry, region, transport, technology, education. And then: disability, mental illness, suicide. Babies wrapped in newspaper. Hair gone white with worry. A car going through a red light.

‘You historicise,’ said the therapist. It’s true. I quip about it being an occupational hazard. But it’s deeper than that. It’s what makes me both a good historian and a lousy one, because I can never stop.

Nana waits for my mother to fall, 1947/8

Not yet. And yet …

The archive is growing. Mother wants me to have the old photographs – ‘I have all the ones I want on the wall’ – and I have my grandmother’s bible, given to her by her elementary school teacher, with markers of faith, death, fear and love interweaved between the pages. I have the racist ornament in a box, a papier mâché ‘Chinaman’ that was a cheap souvenir from a school trip but that wobbled in a way that mesmerized me. It has a chunk of its head missing.

And now they turn up, unexpected – or, maybe, half-expected – in other people’s archives. They are, there, detached from context; detached from us. A report in the Manchester Evening News tells of an everyday tragedy to go along with the half-truths that were whispers. It was more mundane than you thought, were told. Except, of course, it wasn’t: the ordinary made extraordinary.

Searching for teaching material, I stumble upon a database and half think ‘Grandpa was in India’. And there he is. Digitally restored. A film for my Nana, who he starts to call ‘chuck’ but stops. She wouldn’t like it: ‘darling’ will do nicely. No-one can read this source like I can, I think. How could anyone even try? The prospect is haunting.

If anyone is to add footnotes, it will be me. It falls to me – of course it does! – to tell the half-truths.

He bought me a Wagon Wheel biscuit. I hated them but ate it anyway. Maybe, somehow, somewhere, I knew that he’d survived a civil war to give it to me.

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One in Four

At Accident and Emergency, I go up to the desk and am ready to tell the waiting room the whole sorry business, as I have become used to in the last two weeks, but am given a ticket – number 40 – and told to sit and wait. They don’t even ask what’s wrong or my name. Just a ticket, like you’d get at a supermarket butchers’ counter. I need to go to the toilet. When I come out, I have already been called to the triage nurse. She asks what she can do for me. I say ‘I’m pregnant’, before stopping myself: ‘I was pregnant, but I have been bleeding heavily’. Ever the historian, ever the pedant, even now I am wondering aloud about what tense to use. She takes my blood pressure, and says it is ‘perfect’. How can it be perfect? How, in God’s name, can it perfect? She keeps saying, over and over again, almost in a whisper, ‘bless you’. At the end of every sentence, the well-meant but utterly useless refrain of this pregnancy: bless you, bless you, bless you. I am reminded of another room, two weeks before, where we sat in shock as we were told by a nurse that I had ‘a gift from God’.

We are quickly passed on to see the doctor and told to sit down and wait. While other patients are shouted to the desk, a nurse comes to me, leans down to my level, and asks me for my full name and date of birth before handing me a sample pot. She is kind as I worry about whether that is possible. I have spent the last few hours on the toilet and it has all been blood and what is called, correctly but half-euphemistically, ‘tissue’. In my own time, she says. None of this feels in my own time. John gets me two cups of water from the dispenser, which I drink like shots.  The sample pot fills with red. I apologise as I hand it over. I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry.

The doctor turns out to be the kind I like: matter of fact but not a dick. Fairly few of them exist, so I am happy to have found one at this particular moment. He asks me how far I’m on; I really don’t know. I had a bleed at the end of April but that didn’t seem like a real period, the first day of the last of which I can only date from an annoying email from a colleague on 7th March (‘he picked the wrong fucking day to piss me off’, I remember saying at the time). So anywhere from just under four weeks – but that doesn’t add up, really, at all – to maybe ten. Quite a window. He asks me about the rate of blood flow. And clots. Yes, there have been clots. What size? I indicate with my fingers, while shaking my head, and he winces; ‘I know’, I say.

‘I’m afraid this is almost certainly a miscarriage. There are two options. Option 1: go home, hot water bottle, paracetamol and husband monitoring you. Come back if the bleeding doesn’t settle. Option 2: we book you in for a scan, but it would be next week and we don’t know how far you are, so you’d probably have to have another one later.’ It’s very sad, he says, and I know he means it, even though he probably says it often. Any other children? Other pregnancies? We exchange a look.  As we talk – and as much as I like him, the doctor only talks to me and John may as well not be there as far as he’s concerned – he seems to notice my annoying habit, inherited from my mother, of finishing people’s sentences. Except I’m finishing them correctly. ‘What do you do for a living?’ he asks, possibly becoming aware he has a clever one, the worst kind of patient. When he tells me that I will need to take a pregnancy test in a few weeks’ time and I finish that sentence with the reason why, he says ‘you’re good at this’.

I want to tell him that this is the absolute last thing that I want to be good at, that this is the only exam of my life that I do not want to pass.

On Friday morning, I throw out the ten (yes, ten) positive pregnancy tests. I delete the photographs of my swollen, smooth stomach, as it starts to relax into mottled flab again. John has hidden the pregnancy vitamins somewhere. A friend comes round, for which I’ll always be grateful, and hugs me and listens to me, as I ask him – because he had seen the swollen stomach, as we had laughed about the impossibility of keeping it from other people at work for much longer – it did happen, didn’t it? Yes, he says. It did.

I realise that’s why I’m writing this. I’m not looking for pity. I know that this happens to thousands of women every day and that I am not special. This is not the defining moment of my life. But neither do I want to pretend that it did not happen to me, to us. As the queasiness disappears, as strong smells subside, as I return to ‘normal’, there is no other record that our baby – because to us it was that, even though I will fight to the death anyone who uses that term to oppress women who want to end their pregnancies – ever existed.

Coming out of the hospital, I told John that I had talked to the baby. That, on Wednesday night and early Thursday morning, when I knew something was wrong, I had rubbed my belly and said ‘you were wanted, you were loved’, before correcting myself and saying ‘You are wanted, you are loved’. Damn tense again.

You were. You are.

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Anthony Feely (1946-2020)

In preparing this eulogy, I consulted one of Dad’s notebooks in his study and found a typical lament from one of our family holidays in France, so quintessentially Dad that I could hear his voice saying it. You might recognise the tone:

Mark didn’t sleep until 3.30am; Catherine’s just thrown up in her room. Breakfast was not a success.

As you’ve already heard today, Dad was a writer. He dreamed of having a novel published. But – reading these notebooks – his real talent lay in small everyday observations, capturing revealing details (not all of them so disparaging!) He was watching us and taking notes. His laptop is full of photos of us caught unawares doing ordinary things. He found people – and life in general – frustrating and often maddening, but always, always fascinating.

Dad’s greatest loves in life were Mum, who, despite the bickering, he absolutely adored and could not bear to be apart from; his own family, to whom he felt a deep sense of debt and gratitude; and his children and grandchildren, of whom he was very proud. Underpinning everything, though, was his love of literature, music and creative expression in general. Most of us know the story about Dad becoming an accountant by accident at 13 when he put up his hand for book-keeping thinking it was librarianship. But Dad’s own head was a library of an incredible range of both high and popular culture, from Proust to Dennis Potter to Pointless. Dad was eclectic in his influences and took inspiration wherever he found it. In turn, he taught us, more than anything, about the power of words and rhythm. He gave us songs to sing (and drum) that bring us together, poems to recite for personal solace, and the unshakeable belief that our voices should be heard.

As everyone in this room will know, Dad did not shy away from making himself heard. His ability to communicate with a wide range of people was at the heart of his career as a trainer but also latterly in a range of interesting jobs in his 60s, including digesting the news and current affairs for Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw, a 100-year-old mathematician, and giving basic IT tutorials at DIB, a charity where he was lovingly dubbed ‘Sir Anthony’ by his colleagues, whom he also clearly had a lot of affection for. At home, Dad didn’t always get the same response, or not the one he wanted, which could lead to him feeling misunderstood.

But we did understand. We absorbed the words and rhythm and it became part of who we are. One of the last times when the five of us were together was when we went to see Paul Simon on his farewell tour, just over two years ago. This was a few months before Dad was diagnosed with the brain tumour but, looking back, there was a sense of this being the last chance to share the music that had always united us as a family, whatever our differences. The photographs from that night show joy on all of our faces, as we lost and found ourselves together.

Dad spent much of his life searching for meaning. But in one of his notebooks written shortly after his own Dad died, he drew on religion and philosophy to express his debt to him:

I don’t think Dad would have wanted to think of himself as a Hindu. But what did he say?

“You can’t repay me for what we have done for you – the only way you can pay us back is to do the same for your children.”

If you do enough good to other people then sooner or later – perhaps in another life – the good will come back to you – shades of reincarnation.

Our last exchanges with Dad were about things we had each shared with him: a play, a song, a poem, a joke. In the end he knew that we understood. He wasn’t, and nor are we, perfect, but he taught us how to be human, how to make ourselves vulnerable, and the incredible strength and love that can come from that.

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Karl Marx’s Legs: An Introduction

marx 1

Karl Marx in 1861

Today is, as you might be aware, the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx in 1818. His bicentenary has prompted literally thousands of articles and blog posts about why Marx still matters, or doesn’t matter, or should or shouldn’t matter, and I have already made several contributions of my own to this genre. But what have struck me are the familiar images of Marx that accompany these articles. If asked to describe Karl Marx, most people, I would wager, would ‘think big’ and focus on the monumental: giant head, huge hair, impressive beard. The rest of his body doesn’t really get a look in, except the occasional joke about the boils on the bum that he suffered while writing Das Kapital.

But before this image of Marx became burned into the collective consciousness – before the gargantuan Soviet statues and the disembodied heads – the rest of Marx’s body posed somewhat of a problem for his first biographers. Here was a man who had spent most of his adult life writing, who had for most of these years been afflicted with a plethora of illnesses, and who spent most of his days in the study or the library. But his earliest biographers had to make his life appear relevant to the manual workers of Western Europe at a time, in the 1890s, when the iconography of socialist movements increasingly celebrated a masculine and athletic image of labour. This was, as historian Raphael Samuel argued, the era of ‘the proletarian giant, strong jawed with muscular arms and his sleeves rolled up’. It was also a period when, as Christopher Forth has shown in the case of France, the position of the ‘intellectual’ was increasing precarious as a ‘systematized and explicitly corporeal stereotype of masculinity reached its apotheosis at the end of the nineteenth century’. Put simply, Marx’s biographers had to turn a sickly scholar into a worthy proletarian hero.


Marx with daughter Jenny c. 1870

The first to take this challenge up was Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law and co-founder of the first avowedly Marxist party in France. His essay, first published in 1890, largely concentrated on Marx’s working life in the run-up to the publication of Das Kapital in 1867. Lafargue plunges into a description of his study, and the piles of books it housed, before switching focus to show the man himself at work: smoking heavily, pacing up and down the room, occasionally stopping for meals but often becoming so absorbed in his work that he would forget to take them: ‘His stomach had the suffer for the enormous activity of his brain. He sacrificed his whole body to his brain, thinking was his greatest enjoyment’. However, this evocative picture of physical suffering in the name of thought was immediately followed by a celebration of the ‘very strong constitution’ which allowed for ‘such exhausting intellectual labours’. Marx was:

in fact, very powerfully built. A man above the average height, he had broad shoulders and a deep chest, and his limbs were well proportioned on the whole, though his legs were rather too short for his body (as is often the case among members of the Jewish race). If he had practised gymnastics in his youth, he would have become an extremely powerful man. The only physical exercise he took was walking. He could walk for hours, and even climb hills, talking and smoking the whole time, without showing a sign of fatigue. It may be said that he did his work while walking in his study. Only for short intervals would he sit down at his desk in order to commit to paper what he had thought out while pacing the floor.

Karl Marx’s legs: too short for his body, apparently a marker of his Jewish ancestry, but the engine of his thought, powered by a deep chest.

In later biographies, which started appearing in larger numbers after Franz Mehring’s first full-length treatment in 1918, Marx’s labour on Das Kapital was transformed into a superhuman feat. Achille Loria’s biography, translated into English by Eden and Cedar Paul in 1920, drew attention to the ‘gigantic toil’ and ‘incredible labour’ that it represented. Loria claimed that ‘in all its fibres, the book seems to be the offspring of an unfathomable and transcendental union between superhuman labour and superhuman pain’. In 1927, David Riazanov, the head of the Soviet Marx-Engels Institute agreed, and claimed that while Capital was the product of physical endurance it was ultimately left unfinished due to the effect writing had on Marx’s body, as ‘the mighty organism, once capable of superhuman labour, was gradually becoming weaker … Before Marx his great work lay in the rough’.

Yet, even as he aged, Marx’s legs remained an unlikely source of strength. E.H. Carr (1934) acknowledged that the ‘sheer physical labour of writing’ took its toll. But, it was stressed:

Marx was no weakling—a live brain in a puny body … His physique was uncommonly robust; and his rather short legs were sturdy and active enough. He celebrated one of his convalescences, at the age of forty-five, by walking the seventeen miles from Margate to Canterbury … in less than four hours.

So spare a thought today for Marx’s rather short legs. While his head ‘displayed the assurance of a full-bearded manhood’ (C.J.S. Sprigge, 1938), according to Marx’s biographers, without his legs he wouldn’t have written anything for us to argue about.

I’m currently writing an article provisionally titled ‘Beards, Boils and Fat Books: Karl Marx’s Capital and the Authorial Body’ in which Marx’s legs play a brief but important role, so all feedback is welcome.

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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


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.


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.


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):


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]


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 [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.


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?’


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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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