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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Reading Historical Literature Critically: Tips For Success

I’ve had a few lecturers ask me if they can use the reading advice that I posted on twitter a few weeks ago in workshops with students, so I have decided to put it on my blog to make it easier to share. Not only I am happy for people to use this material with their students, I’d like to encourage it, because I think it is very difficult for students when they are told to ‘think critically’. It’s quite a vague and abstract instruction. What practical steps can you take to make it easier to do this? The below was my attempt to lay this out for my students. It’s not exhaustive, of course, and should be adapted to your own working methods, but it least gives some practical ideas. Please do add your own tips in the comments.

Reading: Approaching Historical Literature Critically

Students occasionally can be overwhelmed by their reading and try to cram every fact that they have come across into their essay. Sometimes students think that they should keep on reading and reading and reading until everything becomes absolutely clear in their head … In my experience, this rarely helps and can sometimes become a form of procrastination in itself (even if well-meaning procrastination!). You need to be more focused in your reading to get the most out of it. Here are some tips gleaned both from my own experience of writing history and those of my students.

Feely’s Five Point Plan to Reading Success

1. Start with broad texts on your chosen subject, paying particular attention to the introduction, conclusion, tables of contents, etc. You can read more carefully for detail later; at this point you should be thinking about what the key arguments of the book/article are and how they relate to other reading and your own developing thoughts about the topic. Reading a few reviews of a book can also help you to see the ‘big picture’.

2. At this relatively early stage, sit down and write a couple of bullet points (or a mind map, if you’re that way inclined) about the overall picture of the topic you are starting to form and the key questions you have identified. This can be – should be – very rough and little of it will make it into your finished essay, but the key thing to remember is that writing actually helps you to develop your ideas. Research and writing are not separate activities; you should see them as part of one and the same process.

3. When you have a clearer idea of your own thoughts, you can now start reading in more detail, making notes that particularly relate to the questions you want to answer. To ensure that you engage with your reading critically, don’t just write down ‘the facts’ you come across: always think about why certain examples are used over others, how they relate to the author’s overall argument, cross reference with other texts, etc. It’s a good idea to perhaps jot down these thoughts in a different coloured pen, to differentiate your own words from direct quotation. A student of mine has recently started following every note she makes with a note explaining why she’s written it down. It’s a wonderfully simple idea but one that really helps to prevent you making irrelevant notes and getting overwhelmed by ‘stuff’.

4. When you’ve finished a book/article, it’s a really good idea to write a sentence or two, in your own words, that sum up the main argument you think the author is trying to make. Do this NOW, while the material is fresh in your mind. You will thank yourself later when you have at least a few sentences to use as the basis for parts of your essay.

5. Now go back to your original bullet points/mind map and see if your ideas have changed, or if you can refine them. Start to make a more detailed plan, drawing from the notes you have made. This plan is now the basic first draft of your essay. Writers sometimes call this their ‘zero draft’. It might be messy, and you will probably still need to do more reading, but the key point is that it exists. You’re no longer staring at a blank screen and the anxiety that entails.

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‘The greatly varied procession of phenomena’: reflecting on history and the everyday

A short post just because I want to note something that came to mind today while gatecrashing a wonderful workshop led by Amber Regis on the ‘everyday’ for Storying Sheffield. As Amber talked about how Henri Lefebvre claimed that, despite only leaving a ‘scanty residue’, everyday life should be considered a ‘complex totality’, I was reminded – as I all too often am – of Frank Forster’s diaries. (You can read more about Forster’s diaries in this earlier blog post and by following the link to a longer article from this page.)

It was reading Forster’s diaries, I think, that convinced me that even the most momentous historical events have to be considered as part of what Virginia Woolf called ‘the cotton wool of daily life’. A very short entry from 1939 (Forster was experimenting with brevity; it did not last) is a stark and poetic illustration of this:

Belgrave Avenue Thurs 16.3.39
Another rough day
Still at Sealand
Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia

In his diary, Forster brings together the seemingly mundane and the momentous, and ponders the relationship between them. This was no accident, but something that he was clearly aware of and that motivated his writing. Indeed, in an earlier entry Forster writes about this relationship more clearly than any theorist on everyday life I’ve ever read, so I shall give him the last word (by the ‘study of thinking’ Forster is referring to his recent interest in the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism):

(Wednesday October 9, 1935) Although outwardly and indeed to a greater degree there does not seem to be any change in me since I have begun in the study of thinking, I feel, in myself, greatly different from what I did previous to beginning to study … Because of this I feel much more confident, confident in at least knowing of a way of interpreting the greatly varied procession of phenomena which forms the activity of everyday life as well as being part of the activity of greater events.

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