Monthly Archives: May 2013


Here’s an update on our current research project on the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, from our colleague Kieran Connell.

CCCS report 1972-74, cover detail

2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment by Richard Hoggart of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Hoggart was appointed Professor of English at Birmingham in 1962, and it was in his inaugural lecture that he signalled his intention to research ‘mass’ culture: advertisements, popular fiction, fashion, and television programmes, subjects that had hitherto largely been ignored by the academy. Two years later, with the arrival of Stuart Hall as Hoggart’s deputy, the Centre was born. Now, an AHRC-funded project in the Department of History, run by Professor Matthew Hilton and Dr Kieran Connell, seeks to reflect on the legacies of the Centre, which played a pivotal role in the establishment of what has become the international discipline of cultural studies.

Alongside the focus on popular culture, the Centre also adopted a range of innovative teaching and research methods. It only ever operated with two or three full-time members of staff, for example, and great emphasis was placed on collaborative work, another feature that set the Centre apart from the practice of individualised scholarly research that remains the convention in the arts and humanities.

Every major Centre publication, including Policing the Crisis (1978), Women Take Issue (1978), and The Empire Strikes Back (1982), was written in collaboration with or solely by postgraduate students. Students had ownership of the cultural studies project. They shaped its syllabus, established their own research groups and even sat on the Centre’s admissions panels. Intellectual work at the Centre was inseparable from a highly politicised engagement, influenced by a range of left-wing political projects and the growing influence of continental Marxism, which was beginning to be translated into English.

The research project is exploring these themes through a number of activities. A Centre archive has been established at the Cadbury Research Library, which includes material from former members of staff and students. In summer 2014 a conference reflecting on the legacies of the Centre will be held at the University of Birmingham. At the same time there will also be an exhibition at the Midland Arts Centre, which will explore the continuing relevance of the Centre in the modern day through the work of a range of contemporary artists.

For regular updates you can follow the project on Twitter. For further information – or if you have any material for the Centre archive – please email Kieran Connell at or visit the project website:

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Get those Japs!

The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, 1900

A new exhibition entitled War Games has opened at the Museum of Childhood in London, with a selection of fighty toys from across the period since 1800. The website has a splendid range of different resources: a perspectives page includes essays by some academics as well as links to the exhibition blog, an online debate page, and the photographer Brian McCarty’s excellent War Toys project. There are also many images of toys to look at, though I have to say—dating myself somewhat—that the most evocative ones for me weren’t of aggressively nationalistic tin soldiers but the fantasy figures of my own youth, including my man Skeletor (see below). If these toys seem a bit masculine, by the way, read PhD student Mary Guyatt’s short essay: ‘the very first point I wish to make is that girls as well as boys liked to play with toy soldiers.’

The BBC visited the exhibition over the weekend and were introduced to five toys that, they say, ‘will never be sold again‘: a smiling Hitler in a Dinky-style staff car; a tiny model German Landser of 1914–18 gripping a French poilu by the throat and preparing to plunge a dagger into his chest; two toys sold in America during and after the second world war, one encouraging kids to drop a bomb on Hiroshima (this is actually just one of those little ‘roll the silver ball into a hole’ games, which is one of the most weirdly inappropriate disproportions of comparison I’ve ever seen) and the other—more openly racist but on balance perhaps less offensive—a darts game entitled ‘Get those Japs!’; and another bit of Hitler memorabilia, this one a tile game for very young children learning their letters and shapes. Spell the Führer’s name, happy German child!

I’m not so sure that toys like these will never be sold again, though, and that’s not just because I’ve seen Nazi memorabilia on public display in a junk/’antique’ shop window recently (and am sure there’s a roaring trade in the stuff on the internet). Check out the model Predator and Reaper drones over on Agamben Toys—an excellent and alarming tumblr that isn’t updated often enough—to see how far we’ve come. It takes a lot to make a skull-faced and muscle-bound baddie extruded by late industrial capitalism look like a relic of more innocent days, but I think Playmobil riot police are scarier than Skeletor any day.

Skeletor, 1981

Click images for source.

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In memoriam

Forget-me-notsThese are for Francesca Carnevali, an unsentimental woman. We will miss her.

You can donate in memory of Francesca by following this link. There is an announcement on the History Department webpages here, and a tribute to her and a memorial page here.


Our colleague Nick Crowson has written a Birmingham Brief giving a historical perspective on the Conservative Party’s current disagreements over Britain’s relationship with the EU. We thought we’d reproduce it here.

Europe 1648, Peace of Westphalia, Perry-Castañeda historical maps collection, University of Texas at AustinThe Conservative Party, Europe and a referendum

After several years of successfully bottling the Conservative Eurosceptic genie, it has been released again: a draft bill offering a yes-no vote on EU membership is promised, and two Cabinet ministers, Michael Gove and Philip Hammond, have declared they favour withdrawal.

Such referendum promises have been made before and the demands for one have a long pedigree. With the 1961–63 EEC entry negotiations Party activists sought reassurances of a referendum. Harold Macmillan gave none, nor would Edward Heath a decade later, despite the Party’s own polling showing in 1970 that six out of ten Conservative voters wanted such an option. Labour conceded a referendum in 1975 in order to hold its unity and a two to one vote said yes to Europe. Referendum demands re-emerged in the late 1980s and especially during the protracted Maastricht parliamentary process of 1991–93. John Major’s leadership challenger in 1995, John Redwood, was partially standing on the referendum ticket. Then in the run-up to 1997 Mr Major became ‘minded’ to hold a referendum on the single currency.

The emergence of explicitly anti-EU parties (both the Referendum Party and UKIP) has meant Conservatives keeping a watchful eye for signs of a Eurosceptic electoral takeoff. William Hague’s answer was to allow his party to vote whether a future government would accept the single currency: 84% said no. But the 2001 election showed what the electorate thought of a single-issue Conservative party.

For all the current bluster, there is, historically speaking, little evidence that sounding Eurosceptic is a vote winner. It carries low voter saliency and they care more for economic competency. Maybe Conservatives are looking to Margaret Thatcher’s battles over the European budgetary rebate, which she used to distract from her own unpopularity, recession and record unemployment figures. There will certainly be some siren voices in Conservative HQ telling Mr Cameron that he needs to steal UKIP’s thunder and shore up the core Conservative vote.

But if history is any guide, it is exceedingly unlikely that this referendum pledge will ever be fulfilled. For one thing, the bill needs to be enacted. Then the Conservatives need to win the 2015 election, and it is far from clear that promises of a referendum will greatly aid that cause. The last time the Conservative’s pledged themselves to a referendum, in the run-up to the 2004 European elections, Tony Blair neutralised the threat with a similar pledge – but did the country ever see that referendum?

William Hague as Tory leader, 2000Given the need to dent Mr Miliband’s lead in the polls, the current furore might be animated by a hope that it will force into public view Labour’s own divisions – Labour for a Referendum has launched, and, contrary to popular opinion, Europe has historically been a far more toxic issue for Labour than for the Tories: witness the 1983 pledge to leave the EU, the earlier split that led to the formation of the SDP, and the deep divisions over entry and renegotiation in the 1970s.

Finally, why has Mr Gove broken cover? Leadership ambitions are never far from the surface for the Tories and we are currently witnessing the latest instalment, as candidates jockey for who will succeed Mr Cameron should electoral failure occur in 2015. Mr Gove would do well to look to history and remember two things: first, that he who wields the knife rarely wears the crown (as Mr Heseltine discovered to his cost in 1990); and second, that previously successful Eurosceptic candidates (William Hague from 1997 to 2001, Iain Duncan Smith from 2001 to 2003, and Michael Howard, 2003–05) have not always fared so well as party leaders – and often significantly less well than Mr Cameron.

Professor Nicholas Crowson, Head of History Department and Professor of Contemporary British History
Author: The Conservative Party and European Integration Since 1945 (2007) and Britain and Europe: A Political History Since 1918 (2011)
Click images for source.

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Here’s another post about a book that’s not a history book, but that historians might be interested in: Andrew Miller’s novel Pure, published in 2011 to considerable acclaim and the Costa book prize. (Beware: this post contains spoilers.)

Andrew Miller Pure coverPure is set in Paris in the 1780s, a few years before the Revolution, where the young engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte comes from the provinces in search of advancement and is charged with the nauseating task of clearing out the ancient cemetery of les Innocents, burying-ground for the city since medieval times, recently closed but still stinking the place out: “Some days I believe I can smell it from here”, the minister tells him, in an office at Versailles, twelve miles away. Soon Baratte is lodging with the Monnards, a family whose dwelling overlooks the cemetery; they carry the reek of the place on their breath, and the food they eat tastes off even though it’s not.

The novel follows Baratte as he prepares the ground, literally, for his task, identifying and staking out the overgrown common pits with the assistance of the sexton and his granddaughter, hiring workers from his former job in the mines at Valenciennes (along with a fellow-engineer and friend, Lecœur, as a supervisor), laying in supplies and negotiating his tricky position in a neighbourhood which, however little it likes having platoons of corpses burst through its cellar walls after heavy rain, is suspicious of outsiders and superstitious about the stinking boneyard at its heart. Baratte also makes friends with Armand de Saint-Méard, the organist at the decaying church of les Innocents, a one-time foundling child who is an avowed member of the ‘party of the future’. Armand takes Baratte to the Palais-Royal, pleasure centre of Europe, and gets him pissed; he also gets him fitted out in a pistachio-green silk suit at Charvet the tailor’s, daringly moderne, to contrast with the respectable, provincial brown suit he had been given by his dead father in Bellême. In line with his philosophical disposition but against his better judgment, Baratte tentatively and briefly joins Armand in his anti-royal activities, under the nickname Bêche or ‘Spade’—a pseudonym all too easy to match to his job, especially when someone paints grafitti on the cemetery wall warning ‘FAT KING SLUT QUEEN BEWARE! BÊCHE IS DIGGING A HOLE BIG ENOUGH TO BURY ALL VERSAILLES!’

Anyone wanting to get a sense of what Paris felt—and smelt—like on the cusp of the Revolution could do a lot worse than read Pure: its crisp present-tense narrative carries you easily down the rue aux Fers, along endless corridors at Versailles, or down with the redeployed miners to the bottom of a common grave pit seventeen metres deep, its sides supported by wooden box-cribs—the miners happy to build them because Baratte pays them a wage, whereas in the mines they would never take the time to shore up their tunnels because they were only paid for the coal they brought up. The interweaving of historical fact and literary fiction is smooth, and fun. Two physicians of enquiring mind join the excavations: their names are Guillotin and Thouret, both real people. You don’t need me to tell you what Guillotin’s contribution to the revolution was (here he’s a genial, kindly character); his colleague may be less familiar, but the real Auguste Thouret had a brother who made a distinctive contribution to the revolution—and to the shape of modern France—before he himself went to the guillotine. The sense of France’s class, regional, and capital/provincial distinctions is sure-footed, and the personal and precarious connections Baratte must rely on in his slow climb out of provincial obscurity are delicately and unobtrusively etched out, and we can easily extrapolate from what we know of his trajectory to see what this new and rational kind of man will become. Baratte must prove that he is, as the minister puts it at the outset, ‘a man unafraid of a little unpleasantness’; by the second half of the book, even the minister’s grim-faced bagman, Lafosse (‘the pit’ or ‘the grave’, a gag that’s a little too obvious), starts to recognize that Baratte could handle a lot of unpleasantness. Mocked by a man on the street, Baratte responds with unexpected swiftness and violence. ‘In the time to come’, the narrator tells us, ‘the man will say he saw bloody murder in those grey eyes, will insist on it and be listened to.’ Before his task is done, Baratte has had to bury a couple of fresh corpses as well as exhuming thousands of old ones. He’s ditched his pistachio silk suit, too, for a sober black, ‘like a Geneva parson’.

Les Saints Innocents around 1550, Hoffbauer

The problems with the book, notwithstanding the praise showered on it by the critics, aren’t historical: they’re literary. Even when it isn’t explicit, the foreshadowing of the coming upheaval is heavy-handed. The main plot has a rationalist clearing out the stink of old corruption (to borrow a term from a different ancien régime), and finding that superstition and irrationality may be more powerful forces than reason—may do his job for him faster and more thoroughly, but are impossible to control. As workers knock holes in the roof of the cavernous old church, shafts of daylight penetrate into the grand interior, to reveal that it is dirty and moth-eaten. ‘How filthy eveything below now appears! How much the place depended on its darkness!’. This is hardly subtle. ‘Beams are rotten to the heart!’, the mason Sagnac yells down, ‘Another twenty years it would have come down on its own!’ There’s an even stagier, more unlikely episode in the coda, when Baratte returns to Versailles with his carefully edited report on the completed task, a year older, considerably wiser, and altogether scarier in his own right. Getting lost on the way out precisely as he did on his first visit, he comes upon a garden where servants are attempting to shift ‘something grey and vast and lonely’, the corpse of an alcoholic elephant.

Beyond this clumsy symbolism, you can’t help but notice that several of the characters aren’t really characters. The depiction of an unbridgeable distinction between a labouring collective of workmen and their lonely, educated superior is surely accurate, but it’s undermined by Miller’s halfhearted attempts to give a couple of the miners individual voices: Jan Block, survivor of an early injury, and above all the supposedly mysterious—but actually just vacant—‘miner with the violet eyes’ who steps forward from the plot equivalent of nowhere to be their decisive leader at the crisis point. Nor did literature need another male novelist to write about a beautiful prostitute whose human dignity is intact despite her trade, and who proves herself more humane than the ‘respectable’ folk who surround (and fuck) her: here the character of Héloïse, who becomes Baratte’s partner, and who isn’t saved from cliché by the fact that she reads books and has a bit of explanatory family background.

The parts of the plot that rest on what these characters do, therefore, don’t work. We can believe that the miners working to demolish the church might decide to torch the place after one of them is killed in an accident, but not that a mysterious miner with violet eyes and a missing half-finger would make them do it. Ziguette, the voluptuous daughter of Baratte’s landlord, gets a couple of pages of the narrator’s attention near the start of the novel, but not nearly enough to explain why, midway through, she should go mad upon learning that the true purpose of Baratte’s work at les Innocents is to expunge it—let alone attempt to stave his head in with his own brass engineer’s ruler as he sleeps, nearly killing him. (She’s naked when she does this, so Miller can describe ‘the tight blond curls over her sex’.) I don’t mind characters behaving in ways that don’t make sense to me, but I do prefer it when I can see why they’re behaving in a way that makes sense to them. Women aren’t very well served generally: Armand’s common-law wife Lisa Saget does some cooking, but the main reason we know she’s a competent and likable person is because that’s what Baratte thinks of her, not because the narrator provides us with any free-standing evidence from her point of view.

Then there’s the sexton’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, Jeanne: when she first appears, and has the role of showing the young engineer—and us—round the graveyard, she’s a proper character, with thoughts and a perspective of her own. But she thins out drastically in the rest of the book, when her other main plot function is to be raped, battered, and impregnated by the disappointed utopian, Lecœur. Then again, the only reason the miner Jan Block gets a name, and a life-threatening injury early on in the show, is so he can recuperate in the sexton’s house, allowing him to fall in love with Jeanne and take care of her after the attack—so all’s well that ends well, or at least it is for the now bovine Jeanne. (‘She has visibly thickened about the waist; her breasts are swelling. She looks younger. Young, shy, dreamy. Not unhappy.’) Less so for the plot of the novel, which falls apart towards the end. Miller seems to get bored of the patient reconstruction of a painstaking and stomach-turning task, and whips things on to a hasty and unconvincing climax.

Un gros livre est un grand malheur, the saying goes in French: a thick book is a great misfortune. That usually holds true for history books, but with novels you can argue it both ways. This one is too short. In the first half of the book, the pace is slow—the miners don’t arrive to start digging until a hundred and twenty pages in—but the narrative is lightfooted. When it abandons this steady work and starts hurrying things along, the novel becomes less convincing and less original. If it had held its nerve, it would have been two or three times longer, and much better.

Update: I deliberately didn’t check FFFH (or any other sites) for reviews of Pure before I wrote this, but it turns out FFFH does indeed have a rather good article on the novel, by Clare Crowston of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She takes a contrasting view, finding the novel good as fiction and more problematic as history. Read her piece here.

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Farewell Topkapi

The Ottoman empire began life as a frontier principality in northwestern Anatolia in the fourteenth century, on the fringes of the Christian Byzantine empire and the lands of Islam. It survived an early setback in 1402, when the extremely scary Timur defeated and captured the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I; by 1452, the Ottomans had conquered Byzantium and made it their own capital. For the next couple of hundred years the Osmanlı devlet was one of the most formidable states in Eurasia, and even after its military expansion ceased—towards the end of the seventeenth century—and the empire began to contract, it proved remarkably durable. The notion of Ottoman decline was an idée reçue with a pedigree long before it became a commonplace of European diplomacy in the nineteenth century: it had its roots, ironically, in the works of Ottoman historians, writing when the empire was approaching its zenith, who were uneasy with the inevitable shifting and settling of political institutions in an increasingly established and powerful state. The idea proved oddly resilient, and more recent historians have had a lot of fun in the last couple of decades pointing out that if a state in inevitable decline manages to stick it out for another three hundred years, we may need to revise our definition of ‘decline’. The empire lasted until the first world war and beyond, signing an armistice rather than collapsing in revolution and crashing out of the war (like its old rival to the north, the Romanov empire) and breaking up under pressure of foreign occupation—the Ottomans managed to outlast the Habsburgs too. What really finished the dynasty off was the rise of a Turkish nationalist movement that viewed their acceptance of Allied occupation as a betrayal; but the swiftness with which Mustafa Kemal chucked them overboard was, and still is, shocking. Here’s the last Sultan leaving the Dolmabahçe palace in 1922, a few days before he was deposed:

Sultan Vahideddin

I remember being told as an undergraduate that the Ottoman state archives contained riches of which Europeanists could only dream—except that Europeanists wouldn’t bother dreaming of them, because they were blithely ignorant of the history of the empire, repeating a few tired clichés of nineteenth-century historiography instead of learning something about the state which perhaps more than any other is responsible for ‘Europe’ actually being a thing.* (This still goes on: ‘Five centuries of Turkish wars against Europe’, yelled the cover story of a French popular history magazine I saw on newsstands in Paris a few years back.)

At that time, and until very recently, the Ottoman archives—inherited by the Turkish Republic that had abolished the Ottoman state—were housed inside the Topkapı palace in Istanbul, where the dynasty resided for much of the empire’s history. The internet provides this touristy picture of it, on the promontory overlooking the Golden Horn (foreground) and the Bosphorus (background):

Topkapı palace

Over the last twenty years or so, a combination of factors (among them the end of the cold war, political liberalization in Turkey, and the increasing ‘critical mass’ of Ottoman studies as a field both outside and to an extent inside Turkey) has meant that the riches of these archives have begun to be exploited. Historians working on parts of the world that were under Ottoman rule for centuries have started using the Ottoman archives to understand that period—heck, it only took about eighty years of crass nationalist historiography to make it seem worthwhile—and, perhaps because they got talking to each other in the reading rooms at the archives, started thinking about the Ottoman experience as a whole rather than as a series of unrelated regional histories. My own attempts to acquire some Turkish in recent years, stalled since I got a proper academic job, were intended to work up from modern Turkish to Ottoman so I could work my way back from 1919—my rough ‘starting point’ as a researcher—into the late Ottoman period, so I could get in on some of this action.

I still hope to get my Turkish up to scratch one day, modern and Ottoman. But I won’t be doing any research trips to the Topkapı palace grounds: as of last month, the Ottoman archives have been moved out to a charmless new facility next to a freeway in Kağıthane a few miles to the north beyond the head of the Golden Horn:

İmrahor Caddesi, 34400, Gürsel Mh., Kağıthane, Istanbul, Turkey

Kağıthane, incidentally, means ‘paperhouse’, which I’m sure is pure coincidence. Click on the image for the full google map, and zoom out to see where it is relative to the old city.

Although the new building is certainly bigger and more suitable for the increasingly heavy use the archives are getting, the move hasn’t been terribly well planned: it wasn’t until February that researchers in the archives—and for that matter the staff—were told the old reading room would close in mid-March, and while the new reading room is open, only material that had already been digitized is currently accessible there. It’ll be months before the physical archives are relocated and made available again. And the new reading rooms are hard to get to. This article on Jadaliyya gives a rundown of the pluses and minuses of the new site, along with a nostalgic look back at the old one—as well as links to some useful practical details that researchers have already assembled, including a google map showing where you can find public transport links. But don’t plan your trip anytime soon.

*I would have put in a prudent ‘arguably’ here, but I’ve just been telling my students to state an argument in their exam essays instead of hedging their bets, so.

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