Making Students Jump: Materiality, Movement and Embodiment

Yesterday, I took part in an excellent History Lab Plus event on ‘Starting Out in Social History’ at the University of Edinburgh, which particularly focused on designing research-led teaching, inheriting modules and making them your own and how to build networks, both within and beyond your department. There was a lot of great discussion and Lucie Matthews-Jones’ comments on blogging, in particular, made me think about starting this blog up again. I think I’m going to use this blog as a digital notebook, as and when a thought comes to me that I want to record, much like one of my favourite history blogs The Trickster Prince. I’m not going to follow the rules about posting regular posts and obsess about building my audience. If you like what I write, great. But I’m just here to record moments that I want to remember.

In Ronnie Scott’s excellent talk on research-led teaching and engaging learners in later life, he explained the importance of getting out of the classroom. In Ronnie’s courses on all manner of aspects of the history of Glasgow, he uses the visual and material culture of the city to inspire deep learning in his students. Often, he explained, this kind of experiential learning can be an emotional experience and one that motivates students to learn more. Ronnie’s talk really chimed with me and how much I had learned about teaching history, just this very week, in just a couple of seconds watching some of my students at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum in Sheffield.

The special subject that I am teaching this semester is Britain’s Social Revolution: Welfare, State and Society, c. 1870-1914. The course is based on primary documents, and we have looked at parliamentary papers, newspapers, autobiographies, photographs and film, amongst many other sources. But last Monday, I saw the most incredible thing happen: I saw a ‘source’ make my students jump.

Kelham Island houses the River Don Steam Engine, the most powerful working steam engine remaining in Europe (you can watch a video of it working here). Before the engine started up, the students dutifully read the panels on the walls explaining its dimensions and asked me a few questions about steam power. It was clear that steam power was something that was very abstract for most of them and I could see a few looks of confusion on their faces. Three of them made their way to the very front to get closer to the engine as it slowly cranked into life. Suddenly, after this gentle build-up, the machine went into full pelt and I watched as the three of them, in unison, all jumped back from the engine in fright. They had felt its power in their bodies and been enveloped by its noise and rhythms. In just a few seconds, they had learned something that could never have been conveyed in a lecture or a seminar discussion. Although the museum, of course, is a curated environment and removes the engine from its original context and purpose, the experience of feeling its vibrations coursing through you is deep and – literally – moving. As they jumped, my students were making a mental as well as a physical leap as, one of them told me afterwards, it made what they had been studying in the classroom ‘feel real’.

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Diaries, Archives and ‘Value’

Last night, I stumbled upon a wonderful Radio 4 programme called ‘The Man Who Saves Life Stories’. This was about the ‘diary rescuer’ Irving Finkel and his attempt to find a home for his manuscript diary collection (Update: this is now available on youtube and is as delightful the second time around). One word which kept recurring throughout the programme was ‘value’; various participants talked about the value of diaries to archivists, historians or book dealers, and this was distinct from the ‘value’ of the diaries in themselves.

Irving talked about the case of a friend – a dealer in odds and ends – who tried to sell a lifetime of diaries of one man (a man called Godfrey) to a museum. He explained that the museum was only interested in the volumes that concerned the world wars and this meant that the collection, spanning decades, would have been split up and ‘less interesting volumes’ perhaps thrown away. This chimed with my experience of researching Frank Forster’s diaries, which are split across two repositories (that we know about; I refuse – because it would make me cry – to think about if some diaries may have been thrown away because the period or events depicted were not considered significant). The diaries spanning from 1939-1944 are kept by the Department of Documents at the Imperial War Museum, while diaries dating from 1934 to 1938 are at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.

Apart from the fact that some of these diaries happen to have been produced during the Second World War, there is no intrinsic reason why these diaries should have been split up. They are written by the same man, deal with similar issues and the first volume at the IWM starts a short period after the last at the MRC concludes. There is no natural break between them in terms of Forster’s life; the break is an external one, the fact that war is on the immediate horizon. The diaries were therefore thought of as having ‘value’ by an archive that, quite understandably, concentrates on war experience.

The IWM finding aid, however, is very revealing about the supposed ‘value’ of Forster’s diaries. Neither the IWM nor the MRC catalogue explain the whereabouts of the other diaries – I found the IWM diaries in a Google search – but there is a reference to other diaries in the summary:

The ten diaries not held by this Museum concentrate on Forster’s disillusion with the Capitalist system and his support for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War (1936). They are quite turgid and dull, and reflect the hopelessness of his situation … In contrast the eight diaries catalogued here are more palatable, although still weighed down by ponderous views on Communism and society. (Private papers of F P Forster, Imperial War Museum, 88/37/1)

This is very problematic. The other diaries are roundly dismissed as ‘turgid and dull’, not only because they do not deal with war, but in their style and content. The cataloguer (writing in the mid-1990s) also laments that the IWM diaries have a significant gap between November 1939 and December 1942 and ‘[u]nfortunately the main events of the Blitz on England occurred within these dates’. Even Forster’s war diaries, then, have limited value for the cataloguer, because they do not cover the larger events that they are most interested in.

This is not to criticise the IWM, which is one of the best archives I have ever visited and still the only archive to have sent me an actual proper letter (from the Head Keeper himself) to say thank you for an offprint and to wish me well in my doctoral studies. Rather it is to talk about the various value judgements about personal documents made by a whole chain of people before they get anywhere near the historian, who then gets to make a whole set of value judgements of his or her own: the relative or friend who helps clear out a house; the dealer in ephemera who tries to find a buyer; the archivist who scans lists of items in search of something that fits their remit. As Irving Finkel says, these are frail documents, frail because there are so many stages at which they can be dismissed as having little or no value.

Forster actually had his own ideas about the possible value of his diaries and, actually, the more I ponder them, the more I think that they are not as far removed from those of the IWM archivist as I initially thought:

The more I think of the idea the more I like the sound of it- I mean that of keeping a diary as an account of the life and happenings in the Army when I am called up – I am now very  expert as a diarist and with the stuff which will be recorded having a direct bearing on events which loom so large in the eyes of people, all this will go to making the diary a thing of value – its publication will be an event. (IWM 88/37/1, 22.10.39)

For Forster, the value of the diaries is connected to ‘events which loom so large in the eyes of people’, in this case the war. But, of course, the ‘eyes of people’ change. Historians are not as interested in ‘events’ as much as they once were, but more in the very creation of self, the self that considers that he is ‘now very expert as a diarist’. Finkel articulated it very well when he said that nobody can anticipate what people will find ‘valuable’ several decades hence. And archivists, too, have changed, as Stef Dickers of the Bishopsgate Institute, which is going to give a home to Irving Finkel’s collection, showed.

Dickers ended the programme with a rousing call to arms: ‘Let’s rock!’

I, for one, can hardly wait.

UPDATE: Irving Finkel is giving a talk about the Great Diary Project at the Bishopsgate Institute on November 10th for the Public History discussion group. More details here:

For more on Irving Finkel’s collection see:

The Bishopsgate Institute can be found here:

For more by me on Frank Forster’s diaries see : (this is behind a paywall; please contact me if you do not have access but would like to read it)

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Blogs, Social Media and the Conference Experience

Despite the title of this blog, writing in it hasn’t become a habit at all. Reading Lucinda Matthews-Jones’ write up of a roundtable on blogging at a recent conference, I began to think about why my blog was so badly neglected. I think it is because I let it become academic work: ‘another thing that needed to be added to the list’, as Lucie puts it.  In thinking that my blog posts had to be profound mini-articles, I felt a bit inhibited. I was reminded of one of my subjects, Frank Forster, and his attempt to make his diary ‘a literary work’ rather than a record of his daily life. This was a decision that he almost immediately reversed, and I’m tempted to do the same.

I’ve realised that one of the best things about blogs is about how they can be part of a wider conversation and that, in my attempt to produce little nuggets of individual introspection, I was perhaps missing the point of the medium. That doesn’t mean I won’t continue to talk about sources and theory here, but it doesn’t have to be the only thing that I address. So today’s post is about the last few conferences I’ve spoken at and the ways in which online interaction has transformed my experience of them.

First was the wonderful Unofficial Histories conference, organised by Fiona Cosson and Ian Gwinn and held at the Bishopsgate Institute in London on May 19th. I wasn’t supposed to be presenting at this conference but stepped in at the last minute to fill a gap left by someone who was unable to give their paper. I would have been attending anyway, but I was glad to give a paper on the diaries of Frank Forster again, after some time away from him. Every talk I attended was very thought-provoking, and highlights for me included Rosa Ainley’s talk on the ‘unauthorised biography’ of a suburban semi-detached house (2 Ennerdale Drive), Hilda Kean on public history, Alison Ronan on anti-war women in Manchester during WW1, and Andrew Flinn on workers’ libraries and archives.

What struck me about this conference was how my experience of it was enhanced by social media, particularly twitter, and blogs. Fiona was very successful at promoting the conference hashtag and several attendees were live-tweeting the conference throughout the day. I find it difficult to concentrate on a conference and tweet at the same time, but it was great to find that, after we got home, several of us started following each other on twitter and the conversation continued. Alongside the private e-mail correspondence and personal conversations was a much more public, if unofficial, record of the conference, such as in these blog posts by Hilda Kean and Rosa Ainley.

This was also true of the Writing Lives symposium organised by Hannah Andrews at the University of Warwick on May 25th. This was an excellent and really inspiring day, and a truly interdisciplinary one, with perspectives from history, literature, film and television, education and many more subjects. I spoke in the afternoon session, which allowed for the traditional post-lunch dip in concentration with short and snappy ten minute presentations. I talked about Frank Forster again, but in a much more personal and reflective vein. This was probably my favourite talk I have given to date, because I felt that I was speaking very honestly about what drives me as a historian and about the real anxieties of ‘using’ past lives for my own ends. The round table discussion that followed was lively and stimulating and, because it was recorded, has gone beyond the conference itself. Like the Unofficial Histories conference, this was live-tweeted – you can see all the tweets in a Storify here – and I was delighted to see, after a long and traumatic train journey, that many other speakers and attendees had followed me on twitter, where the connections and conversation continues …

Finally, this Saturday, I presented a paper at ‘The Book Through Time’ conference at Merton College, Oxford, organised by the Book History Research Network and the Merton History of the Book Group. This was, perhaps, less technologically ‘wired’ than the other two conferences but, as BHRN days always are, a very friendly and intellectually stimulating day. There are two things in particular that I love about book history conferences. The first is the vast chronological range you tend to see represented, from medieval manuscripts to e-readers. The second is that, invariably, conference organisers make a real effort to build in a practical workshop or visit into the programme. On this occasion, I attended a printing demonstration at Paul Nash’s Bodleian Printing Workshop, currently housed at the Story Museum. I’ve seen letterpress printing demonstrated a number of times, but Paul is incredible at explaining the process in both a learned and accessible way. As Paul stood in front of the compositing cases, I thought of the poor compositors setting Das Kapital, who were simply not fast or accurate enough to satisfy Marx.

Due to other commitments, these are the last conferences that I will be speaking at this summer. But due to the conversations that started or were continued at these conferences –  and that are still being sparked by further discussions on social media and blogs –  it’s been a very fruitful couple of weeks.

I will try to squeeze the odd blog post in somewhere too, but I can’t (and won’t) promise a ‘literary work’.

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‘Gentlemen of the Press’: James Joyce, “Sir” Davy Stephens and Popular Journalism

As of January 1st, 2012, the work of James Joyce is in the public domain in the European Union.

It seems rather fitting to celebrate the occasion with a link to Episode 4 (‘Calypso’) of Joyce’s Ulysses, which mentions Tit-Bits. Tit-Bits, a popular entertainment paper founded by George Newnes in 1881, was famously unconcerned with issues of copyright [1]. Not only was the paper made up of extracts from ‘all the most interesting books, periodicals and newspapers in the world’, as proudly declared on its masthead, but it ran a weekly competition to find ‘The Prize Tit-Bit’, which Joyce refers to at some length here. This competition was rather ‘democratic’ in terms of its entrance requirements:

In awarding the Prize the arbitrators will take into consideration the pithiness and interest in each Tit-Bit sent, and the Prize will be given to the sender of that one which the arbitrators consider most interesting to the general reader.

Competitors should state from what book, periodical, or newspaper (if any) their contribution is taken. [2]

As John Carey has noted, Joyce’s depiction of ‘mass’ culture is rather less scathing than many of his literary contemporaries, such as E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Joyce ‘pointedly embroils’ Leopold Bloom, the central character of the novel, ‘in newsprint and advertising’. [3] Bloom is not a two-dimensional figure whom we are meant to poke fun at but a character that, by the end of this day in his life and the novel, we know intimately. And yet, as Carey claims, there is a ‘duplicity’ at work here, because the style of Ulysses serves to ‘exclude people like Bloom from its readership’.[4] And even Bloom considers Tit-Bits the perfect substitute for toilet paper…

Also mentioned in passing in Joyce’s description of Kingstown, the port near Dublin now called Dún Laoghaire, is “Sir” Davy Stephens. Stephens was a news vendor who, rather inexplicably, became a minor celebrity. Quite by chance, last week I happened upon this postcard of Stephens advertising the accident insurance scheme also offered by Tit-Bits. Other than this rather strange biography, I know very little about Stephens, or even the date of this postcard – any information gratefully received. I would suggest that, as the circulation of Tit-Bits would have been rather larger than Ulysses on its first publication, “Sir” Davy Stephens would have been a more recognisable face to its readers than Joyce ever was.



More to come on the material history of Tit-Bits in future posts. In the meantime, enjoy this image of Leopold Bloom wiping his backside with it.

He tore away half the prize story sharply and wiped himself with it. Then he girded up his trousers, braced and buttoned himself. He pulled back the jerky shaky door of the jakes and came forth from the gloom into the air.

[1] For more on Newnes and Tit-Bits, see Kate Jackson, George Newnes and the New Journalism in Britain, 1880-1910 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001); Kate Jackson, ‘The Tit-Bits Phenomenon: George Newnes, New Journalism and the Periodical Texts,’ Victorian Periodicals Review, Vol.30, No.3, (Fall, 1997), pp. 201-227.

[2] From the announcement of the competition in the first issue: Tit-Bits, Vol.1, No.1 (Oct. 22nd, 1881), p. 16.

[3] John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), p. 20.

[4] Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, p. 20.

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‘The Unknown Public’: fragmentary notes on public engagement

Already, I am veering away from what I originally intended this blog to be, i.e. a reflection on the historical use of material culture. A new post on the author as collector (another unashamed reference to Walter Benjamin) is imminent. But I have been distracted a little this week as I have been thinking about a presentation I’m giving next week on ‘public engagement’ and the arts.

Public engagement appears to be a much more palatable term than ‘impact’ for discussing the relationship between academic researchers and the wider world. And so it is. But the more I think about it, the more it also makes me feel slightly uneasy. At first, I found it hard to put my finger on exactly why this was. Then, when reading some Victorian penny papers, it came to me: ‘public engagement’ reminds me of Wilkie Collins.

Yes, Wilkie Collins, the author of such excellent novels as The Woman in White and The Moonstone. In 1858, Collins wrote a famous essay on ‘trash’ literature, titled ‘The Unknown Public‘, which was published in the periodical Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens. For Collins, this cheap literature was evidence of an ignorant ‘unknown public’:

The Unknown Public is, in a literary sense, hardly beginning, as yet, to learn to read. The members of it are evidently, in the mass, from no fault of theirs, still ignorant of almost everything which is generally known and understood among readers whom circumstances have placed, socially and intellectually, in the rank above them

… An immense public has been discovered; the next thing to be done is, in a literary sense, to teach that public how to read.

Collins’ essay has to be understood in the context of the time and the periodical in which he was writing. But it strikes me as odd that, in the twenty-first century, some of the jargon about ‘public engagement’ reminds me of it with its air of superiority [1]. What is meant by the ‘public’ when we talk about public engagement? My PhD supervisor used to tell me off for appealing to ‘anonymous massives’ such as ‘the public’. We wouldn’t allow this sort of sloppy term in our research, so why use it to discuss the communication of that research?

Anyway, below is the blurb I’ve written for my presentation in advance of the actual text. I’d be very interested in any response you might have to it – this is very much still in progress.

Blurb for ‘Public Engagement in the Arts’

I’ve just submitted my PhD thesis on the publication of the works of Karl Marx and the role of books and reading in the lives of British Marxists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I’ve recently worked with The Cornerhouse and the artist Phil Collins in connection with the latter’s marxism today project (see and was asked to chair and set the agenda of a panel discussion on the exhibition that brought together philosophers, sociologists, historians (well, me!) and artists to discuss the relevance of Marx in the twenty-first century (see

I’ve also just started a blog relating to my interest in material culture. This is in VERY early stages but is already proving useful as a place to think through and discuss methodological and theoretical issues.

In this short presentation, I will question what we mean by ‘public engagement’. I want to suggest that we should reflect more carefully about what we are actually hoping to achieve when we share our work. I find some of the discourse surrounding the ‘impact agenda’ extremely limiting because it seems to treat ‘the public’ simply as an audience ready and waiting to receive our perfectly polished gems of research and sometimes verges upon patronising the audience it seeks to appeal to. Conversely, I have found that the most interesting discussions I have had about my work both inside and outside of the academy have been in response to sharing the problems, puzzles and process of research in progress. Sharing the thought processes and practical experience of research when actually in the thick of it has been much more rewarding for me, because it helps me to think through the problems I encounter and other people have become active collaborators rather than simply my ‘audience’. Sharing my work has gradually become an integral part of the research process itself. I would also argue that, in these times when the arts are under attack, sharing the way that we work is much more engaging and educative than simply sharing the work itself. Relatively few PhD topics are likely to be intrinsically exciting to a wide audience and can often appear bafflingly obscure at face value (I have seen the glazed-over eyes more than once … ) But opening up the process of research highlights the effort and expertise involved in undertaking any research in a much more tangible and engaging manner.

More practically, I will talk about how to raise the visibility of your research online (particularly using social networking sites and blogs) and how to turn casual online contact into concrete opportunities to further your research and – rather indirectly – your career.

[1] For an excellent discussion of Collins’ essay, which highlights the ambiguity underlying this surface smugness, however, see Lorna Huett, ‘Among the Unknown Public: Household Words, All the Year Round and the Mass-Market Weekly Periodical in the Mid-Nineteenth Century’, Victorian Periodicals Review – Volume 38, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 61-82.

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My Nana and Walter Benjamin, Or the Movement of Things

In Berlin Childhood around 1900, a series of essays written in the 1930s and unpublished in his own lifetime, Walter Benjamin uses the objects, interiors and experiences of his childhood to explore the relationship between people, memory and things. One object, the ‘reading box’, a box full of lettered tablets with which to form words, stands out:

everyone has encountered certain things which occasioned more lasting habits than other things. Through them, each person developed those capabilities which helped to determine the course of his life. And because—so far as my own life is concerned—it was reading and writing that were decisive, none of the things that surrounded me in my early years arouses greater longing than the reading box.

(As an aside, Benjamin’s reading box always reminds me of the cardboard folders with slots to put individual words in that were used to teach sentence structure in the mid-1980s. What were they called? We had individual ones and giant class ones. Evidently they – along with teaching sentence structure – are now horribly out of fashion.)

Nobody, to my mind, has ever written about things as beautifully as Benjamin does in these essays. But most interesting here is his discussion of movement. For Benjamin’s memory of the reading box is not only of the object itself, but of the repetitive movement of his hand in using it. What he seeks in his longing for the box is his ‘entire childhood, as concentrated in the movement by which my hand slid the letters into the groove, where they would be arranged to form words’.

In 1999, my Nana died. When her children were sorting through her things, my aunt gave me a small pot that had been on her dressing table. ‘She wanted you to have that’, my aunt explained, ‘because when you were little you spent hours just taking the lid off and putting it back on again’. I have a vague conscious memory of this. She kept her rings in it and I remember that I liked the sound that the lid made as it hit the base of the pot. But, mostly, it was the feeling of the two parts of the pot fitting together that I remember being most satisfying. The pot is in my living room now, on a shelf. When I look at it, I do think of Nana. But that memory is nothing compared to the feelings evoked by simply taking the lid off. For a split second, in that movement, I am five or six and I can feel the velvety fabric of the dressing table stool under my knees as I put the lid back on. Like Benjamin and his reading box, this pot ‘is thoroughly bound up … with my childhood’.

(Please forgive the blurry pictures; I will update with better ones a.s.a.p.)

My Nana's pot

My nana's ring pot from above

My nana's pot 2

Nana's ring pot from the side, showing join between pot and lid

In recent years, historians have become much more open to using material sources. But I don’t think I’ve come across anyone who has yet managed to really capture the importance of movement to the way that objects are used, preserved or remembered. Why is this? Benjamin’s reading box lived in his memory; the object itself was long gone:

My hand can still dream of this movement, but it can no longer awaken so as to actually perform it. By the same token, I can dream of the way I once learned to walk. But that doesn’t help. I now know how to walk; there is no more learning to walk.

My Nana’s pot is bound up with my memory. It is not just an object, but a dynamic link with a moment, or many moments, of my own past. It is people, experience, time and emotion. Benjamin longed for a past that couldn’t be fully recovered without access to the reading box. But we, as historians, are faced with the opposite problem: we have access to the reading box, or whatever our sources happen to be, but not to the memories attached to it. They have survived, but can we really gain any sense of what they ‘meant’ to the people that have owned or used them? Or are we attempting the impossible in trying to recover a dynamic experience that has been and gone and is no more? Is there ‘no more learning to walk’?

This blog is intended as a kind of online commonplace book to think about these questions, and more, concerning the use of material objects as historical evidence; it is no more than a few notes, some photographs, descriptions, quotes and useful links. If anyone else enjoys it or finds it useful, that’s a bonus, of course, and I’d be grateful for any comments you might have. I am not, as I’m sure will be painfully obvious, an expert on material culture, but rather a cultural historian who has recently become fascinated with the possibilities of material sources. So all input and correction is very welcome indeed. Its title is also Benjamin’s, from the same essay on the reading box:

It may be that what makes the forgotten so weighty and so pregnant is nothing but the trace of misplaced habits in which we no longer find ourselves. Perhaps the mingling of the forgotten with the dust of our vanished dwellings is the secret of its survival.

I’ve just written a PhD thesis on the publication and reception of Karl Marx’s works in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But – don’t worry – I don’t plan to talk too much about Marx, partly because I hope to use this blog as an informal way of thinking beyond my thesis and partly because he didn’t actually have all that much to say about the ‘thingyness’ of things (some more about this at a later date, I’m sure). While I did focus on the ‘materiality’ of many of the sources that I was writing about – mostly books – here I’m not limited to a particular topic, trying to develop an overall argument or really making any argument at all, so I can be a lot more experimental. It’s hard to write evocatively about an object – to capture its look, feel, smell, or movement– and to balance physical description, sensory experience and historical context effectively. We can’t all be Walter Benjamin, more’s the pity. So this is a modest attempt to get a little better, one thing at a time.

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