If there’s one abiding image that sums up the spirit of Unofficial Histories 2014, it is that of a room of academics, postgraduate students, and enthusiastic members of the public bhangra dancing in a lecture theatre to ‘earn’ their dinner comprising Caribbean cuisine and lashings of Robinson’s Squash. Despite some initial reluctance (including on my part … even dads cringe at my attempt at dancing), we were soon all spinning, clapping, and giggling away forgetting all our self-awareness for some fun. After the dinner, we were then treated to a showing of the fantastic ‘Sound System Culture’ film. Here’s the trailer:
Unofficial Histories kicked off yesterday morning at the George Buckley Theatre, University of Huddersfield, with a panel discussing radical history and how it can be used. This session ranged widely from Paul Griffin’s relating of the recovery and digitisation of Glasgow’s anarchist tradition – check it out on the web – to a similar project in Lancaster called Documenting Dissent – more info here – and finally a remarkable project by Jez Dolan exploring Polari (something I’d never heard of before) a cant spoken by gay men as a form of individual expression and self-preservation at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Examples include: charpering omi (policeman), palone (woman), omi (man). At times this had the room in hysterics, but the serious point about using language as a form of expression was powerfully made. There’s more about the project here.
At this point the conference split into three concurrent sessions, so what follows is largely based on my observations of those that I attended. First up was a panel on the value of blogging both to teaching, to public outreach, and to research. Blogging is something I’m an advocate of, history on the dole has allowed me to do all of the above and at Huddersfield we run a successful departmental blog which brings together students and staff in a variety of different ways. It inspires us all to think about different types of history and different ways of presenting it to audiences. This certainly came out in the three papers presented. Each one gave encouragement to blogging and to what it can achieve.
Dinner brought brilliant musical accompaniment provided by Tina McKevitt and Matt Hegarty: folk music with a radical message. Here’s a flavour of what they do:
After the break, I headed upstairs to hear the paper I’d been most looking forward to: Sam Blaxland’s on the Conservative Party in Wales and the recovery of its tradition. It’s not often that I got to conferences and get to hear Welsh history – unless the conferences are held in Wales, of course – so anticipation was all the greater. Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Wales has a Conservative history, but it doesn’t really have Conservative historians and thus the history is neglected. That was one of Sam’s major points – for others check out his blog – but many others flowed in excellent conversation over the weekend. Manon Parry engaged us with her work on the American birth control movement and its use of the media. Manipulation of the past is often crucial to organisations and Manon amply illustrated this through a Photoshopped image of a prominent birth control activist in the US ‘speaking’ as a KKK rally. Manon puts it better than I could here: http://www.bbc.humanities.uva.nl/. Finally Ian Gwinn gave us a further taste of his research into the History Workshop movement and particularly the place of Raphael Samuel in the movement’s relationship with adult education.
Then came my own panel featuring Aengus Kerrin, myself, and Alan Brooke. Under the banner of the Great War and Memory, the panel ranged from the lingering effects of the land war in Ireland to Welsh conscientious objection to the way in which the war is likely to be commemorated in England over the next few years. My paper is a work in progress, forming part of what I hope will become a collective biography of the Morgan family of Ynysybwl. Last year I spoke about Johnny Morgan and this year about his brother Bethuel, who was imprisoned for objecting war service and even went on hunger strike to prove the seriousness of his convictions. That paper will hopefully make its way to publication soon.
Unofficial histories comes just a few weeks after a conference at the University of Huddersfield on the life and work of Eric Hobsbawm and a matter of weeks before one on transnational labour, both of which were sponsored by the Society for the Study of Labour History. It’s remarkable to think that where once – and not all that long ago – historians despaired at the malaise of radical history, of history from below, we now have a vibrant community of young (and established) scholars pursuing the types of histories that once made History Workshop and Llafur such brilliant organisations to be a part of. Unofficial Histories has the genuine potential to revive that spirit, to bring together historians from across Britain (and internationally), and to create a new form of history that makes the most of new perspectives, new technologies, and new enthusiasms.
Oh, and finally: for those that are wondering how long it took two Welsh people to realise they knew someone in common – about 10 minutes!