Next week, History on the Dole celebrates its second birthday, and so I thought this an opportune moment to sit back and reflect on the journey it has made. I started writing it in a moment of solitude prompted by a feeling of distance from the academic profession to which, nominally, I had attached myself by virtue of having undertaken a PhD, having published several articles, and having written a book. That day, it was announced that Eric Hobsbawm had died. I always imagined he would live to 100, to be part of the academic community, still, just as his books are inevitably picked up by sixth formers, undergraduates, and people slightly older than that, and read as guides to the long nineteenth and short twentieth centuries. If there are better books on specific periods – Tony Judt’s Postwar, for instance – nothing quite challenges Hobsbawm for his level of synthesis. The blog’s name ought, I hope, to be the give-away as to what stage of life I was at, at that time. Two years on, it still does.
For six weeks, I had attended the dole office in Pontypridd. The first visit was kindly, the lady who spoke to me and processed my case was caring and genuinely sympathetic. In a town where thousands of people are unemployed, that job cannot have been easy. She explained that she was not the case worker, that was someone different, but in any case I would only see the case worker every three months or so. A fortnight later, the first appointment, I attended the job centre for my appointment with the third party, a disinterested, unhelpful woman in her mid-30s. She was there to draw the salary and nothing more. The train of disheartened, desperate people, was never ending. You entered the building, spoke to the burly G4S security guard who signed you in, and you sat, waiting, for your name to be called. I usually took a book with me to pass the time away a bit. That first week I made the terrible mistake of having something other than a Tesco bestseller with me, for the advisor immediately took a dislike to me. ‘So what were you doing before’, she asked. I explained I’d been a researcher for an Assembly Government-sponsored body. ‘Never heard of it’, she replied, ‘what did it involve’. So I explained what we did and how it was related to the Assembly. ‘Oh, like CADW isit, castles and that’. I nodded for sake of simplicity. ‘So what qualifications have you got’, was the next question. And so I rattled them off, GCSEs, A Levels, degree, master’s, and doctorate. ‘Oh, we haven’t got space for that on our form’, she said as I went above the BA, ‘you’ll have to leave it off’. As the first person in my family to get a doctorate, I was proud of it, but went along with what she said. She’s supposed to know better, since this is her job after all. She explained the process of filling in the little book, of keeping records of job searches and so on, and said, finally, ‘right, that’s it, your next appointment is in two weeks’. I’d waited ten minutes to see her, she gave me no more than five minutes attention. We’d been promised a minimum of ten minutes by the initial processor – I say we, she processed a number of people that day and she said the same thing to each of them. I suppose I should have known better.
Knowing what academia and academic recruitment is like, I wasn’t expecting to find a great deal in that fortnight, and so endeavoured to turn my hand to other things. What could I translate my doctorate into? Museums? No, you need a qualification for that in practice. Archives? The same difficulty. Teaching? No. Research? Well, there’s not much demand for that in South Wales, certainly not in the humanities in any case. Media? I’d worked with colleagues on BBC projects not six months previously, but as a patronising Dean once put it to me – I was just the talking head. I went back the fortnight later with zero success, and the advisor looked at me dumbfounded. Well, you’ll have to think a bit better won’t you, she said. ‘How about you take off all your qualifications above A Levels, that’ll help’. I’m sure my face was a picture of shock and surprise, and quickly a look of anger and resentment. ‘And how’, I replied, ‘do I explain the last decade or so of my life?’ I don’t drive, either, so my initial thought was, well all they’ll do is think I’ve been in prison. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘say you’ve been travelling’. I left pretty quickly.
For six months I was stuck in that cycle and as each week passed by and the rejection emails slowly mounted up, I began to lose any hope that I would ever see the inside of a university again. The one thing that I did do to keep me ticking over was pen an article on rugby league in Pontypridd in the aftermath of the General Strike. It struck me then, and still does now, that at a time of extreme privation the people of Pontypridd determined to form a new rugby league club. It would have survived, too, if the RFL hadn’t been so completely disregarding of what was going on in the Valleys. They happily took the gate receipts from the internationals held at Taff Vale Park in Pontypridd, but were rather reluctant to help a struggling club keep going. The RFL took its money and ran. I’m really proud – despite the fact one leading labour historian dismissed the article as ‘merely good local history’ – that it was shortlisted for the best essay prize in Sport in History for 2013.
At this point in the story, I should stop and thank two people: Professor Paul Ward and Dr Rebecca Gill, both of the University of Huddersfield. Without Paul, I’d have given up. He arranged for me to have access to journals and e-books and he put me in touch with Rebecca, who took me on as a locally-based research assistant for a project she was working on. That project revealed a side of South Wales that I’d never really thought about before, and we’re still going – but instead of being an RA, I’ve now become co-author of the outputs. That’s how significant the South Wales research became. And then, one day, whilst I was at a conference I spotted that Huddersfield had a job going. I applied and, I suspect with some from enthusiasm from Paul (it really does pay to have an ally on the inside), was shortlisted. Just as with every other academic interview I’ve ever had, I wasn’t successful and came away really disappointed but utterly resigned to the fact that my career in academia was over. Except, by chance, it wasn’t because extended contracts elsewhere meant the person who was offered the job couldn’t take it. And so I arrived in Huddersfield at the end of July 2013 to begin the best experience of my life.
Over a year on, with that experience having come to an end, I find myself once again facing exactly the same pile of rejections. During my PhD, I’d built in a buffer of savings because I knew that the years immediately after qualifying would be turbulent, and so it proved. But such things are easily exhausted and such enthusiasm is easily exhausted. Right now, I am again a historian on the dole (although given my previous experiences of dole offices, I haven’t gone back to sign on yet) and this blog becomes a life-line. I’m not sure how long I’ll continue with it, for it seems to me to be a form of hanging on, clinging to something that doesn’t actually want to know. And yet I think the blog provides context and insight into precisely the sort of historian I want(ed) to be, and what sort of history I do. Often enough people complain that I’m a magpie, that I do all sorts of history because I’m interested in everything. They’re right and wrong: whilst I’ve a broad base, I really am focused on one thing in particular – the experiences of working-class people.
And so, when I wonder ‘what am I fighting for’, why am I clinging on in this way, I think to myself that the reason is because working-class history is too important, too vital a form of expression, to be left to the chance encounters of already middle-class people. A colleague I respect and value very dearly has often chided me that as soon as I stepped foot in the junior common room of Oriel College, the working-class me died. On paper that’s absolutely true, but in practice I think of myself as working-class because that’s the essence of who I really am. By the inherited standards of my family, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate over the last ten years – for that is all it is – having made it to Oxford, the first Leeworthy (as far as I know) ever to attend the oldest university in the English-speaking world, having gone on to do postgraduate and doctoral study, and to enjoy a taste of what is the best job in the world. But still the inheritance of my family’s staunchly working-class worldview weighs upon my shoulders. My politics are the same, my instincts are the same; my pieces of paper – for the value that they hold – are not.
To find the answer – and I use the definite article advisedly here – to the question ‘what is history’, I’ve never really looked very far. It was my secondary school history teacher who introduced me to Gwyn Alf Williams, and from there I discovered Dai Smith and Hywel Francis. In their hands history is not simply a page of a book, it’s the sweat that gets into your eyes (not my words, Gwyn Alf’s). It’s the source of the joke. It’s the means of overcoming. It’s a mechanism by which working-class people can arm themselves with the knowledge to fight the battles that do, still, need to be fought. History can never be left to the chattering middle class, or else its purpose is lost. Now there will be readers – many of them professional historians – who will recoil at that notion, who will think it sounds a little passé. But that’s the essence of why I do what I do, and why, I hope, this blog matters a little more than just keeping me ticking over.
I do not know if I shall ever be employed at a university again: on current form I do not think I will. But, as this blog enters into its third year, I shall continue to post and to write histories that I think are important. Who knows, I may even find time to finish the books I’ve been threatening to write. The hardest thing about having not a penny to your name – and I joke not about that – is the feeling of failure and the pangs of hunger that remind you of it every hour of the day. But throughout history, people have been in the same position and not able to communicate their anger through words. That’s a power that we now have can’t be taken away, even when everything else is. In the next few weeks, I’ve got some posts on events in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall – the quarter century anniversary of which is but a few weeks away now -, on the role played by gramophones in preserving a vision of Welshness in the Edwardian era, and the second half of my examination of the home rule movement at the end of the nineteenth century. What comes after that, I suppose, is a story for another day.
And so, happy birthday, to the blog: penblwydd hapus. And to those who have supported this venture, a really big thank you. The material is, I know, eclectic, but I hope it has been and will continue to be interesting and stimulating. As for me, I think it has made me a better historian – I’m more alive to the possibility of total history than ever I was. Plus, someone has read this blog in almost every country in Europe, North America, and Australasia. Folks in Chile, Brazil, India, Mexico, and Ecuador have logged on. As they have in Zambia, Kenya, and South Africa. I can’t imagine that ever happening with a journal article published in a journal that not even members of the British public can access because of the paywalls that are imposed. But that, too, is a battle for another time. For now it just leaves me to say:
Hwyl am y tro! Turrah for now!