One of the most enduring motifs in Iain Banks’s novels is the return home to unfinished business, whether it’s to Stonemouth or following an uncle who is away the Crow Road. This I think is a useful metaphor for the way 2015 has worked out for me. If I was able to describe 2014 as a ‘transitional year’, its successor has proven to be a time for finishing off what was left incomplete when I moved north to Huddersfield in 2013. In some respects it can be seen as a successful year – I had four research articles released, another completed and accepted for publication at some point next year, three (perhaps four) commissions for work that will be completed in the course of 2016, and some ideas for where to go next.
Elsewhere, I worked with the BBC on Gordon Brown’s radio documentary on Keir Hardie (although like Merthyr my contribution went by the wayside in the editing suite) and on the development of ideas for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, I was the talking head contributor for a special episode of Wales This Week on ITV Wales that explored the history and enduring presence of Pontypridd Lido, and I worked with the Glamorgan Archives and the Parliamentary Archives on a project about S. O. Davies and workmen’s compensation.
And I was fortunate – and extremely grateful – to be asked to provide emergency teaching cover at Cardiff University over the course of the Spring Semester. I had brilliant students, extremely supportive colleagues, and an institutional identity. At least for a while – that all came to an end with the semester and I was adrift for months afterwards until a chance conversation with Sian Williams, the Librarian at the South Wales Miners’ Library, put in motion my next move: to become a tutor in history at the Department for Adult and Continuing Education (DACE) at Swansea University. To say that I’m excited by the move is an understatement. In my article on LGSM I touched upon some of the origins of DACE and I’m looking forward to working with the Miners’ Library to create new teaching materials out of the riches gathered there. I don’t know what kind of effect this new posting will have on my research, but I’m sure the influence will be positive.
Above all, I seem to have been able to conquer the fear had enveloped me after leaving Huddersfield, that I’d be unemployed and completely adrift on my 30th birthday. This will no longer be the case.
Publications and Research
Looking back at my research and publication record over the last year, I seem still to be unable to settle on a fixed theme. I’ve long thought this an advantage as a teacher, but when it comes to jobs it is definitely a drawback – panels favour coherence over what Barry Doyle once called a ‘scattergun’ approach. Several themes emerge from my work but that isn’t how I really operate. I think of the past as a kind of jigsaw and that a coherent picture emerges as I put the pieces together. I can see more of the image now but only because I’ve taken ‘edge’ pieces and ‘inner’ pieces in a more random fashion than demanded by interview panels staffed (very often) by folk who work on singular fields. And what an image it is: in South Walian terms I see a lost world, a social democracy that was once there but is no longer. I’ll come back to that in a moment.
My first article of the year was something that I’d worked on for years and which had gone through several iterations – and rejections – before reaching its final form. It is the first academic piece that tackles the history of ice hockey in Britain but is really about the ways in which commercialism, class, emigration, and even the weather, can impact the development of sport in particular locations. I was able to weave together royal sources, personal collections held in Winnipeg and Ottawa, the sporting interests of mining lads in and around Merthyr and Rhodes Scholars based at Oriel College. And it’s an article entirely in keeping with my belief that when historians say Britain they should mean it and bring together examples from across the country. Whilst ice hockey in its 1930s commercial heyday may have been most especially prominent in South East England and Central Scotland, it had a developmental pattern that touched Wales, Ireland, the North of England, and the South West of England too. Four Nations history is possible, it can be done.
My second article was written just before I finished at Huddersfield and was put together with Rebecca Gill. In my first term at Huddersfield I shared an office with Rebecca – I had been her research assistant before being appointed as a lecturer there – and we came to be good friends. This piece returned me to ground I’d covered in my PhD (and written about subsequently in my book, Fields of Play), namely the aid movements that descended on Brynmawr in the 1930s. But this was slightly different, back then I’d been interested in the open-air swimming pool project; now Rebecca and I were looking at the Emergency Open-Air Nursery opened by the Save the Children Fund in the town (it was largely financed by Nancy Astor). Woven through the piece are reactions to outside charitable activity, to the gendered responses to the nursery, and the clash of cultures between a charity guided by liberal, interventionist instincts, and a region that was by then firmly social democratic in politics. Astor had her fingers burned by her involvement in South Wales and this sheds not inconsiderable light on her rather ungracious comments in the House of Commons about the ‘moaning’ of South Walian MPs.
Like so many people, I watched Pride with great interest. When it was released in the cinemas I was quite homesick and hearing Welsh accents at the cinema was a real boost. I left overwhelmed both by the emotions of the film and by a desire to find out more about it. So I began digging in my own way – I was interested in ideas of tolerance and acceptance, since these are considered to be markers of liberal and social democratic societies, and wondered about Wales. So in to the library I went picking up books that I’d never previously thought to read. Weeks, Cook, Houlbrook, and even the British Social Attitudes survey, they replaced my usual record of Labour historians. The LGSM archive being based at the People’s History Museum, I dropped a note to Darren and was soon delving into the real minutes of the group. But I also made a trip to Sheffield Local Studies Library which houses a large collection of materials relating to sexuality and gender and began reading through the minutes and newsletters of CHE. A new world was beginning to open up on the microfilm screen. I’d never read, in any Welsh history ever, of pub nights in Merthyr in the early 1980s that were especially for LGBT people, but there was the phone number in front of me. In the end I produced two articles and have enough material, or enough sense of where the material lies elsewhere, to produce a book. It’s something I need to give serious consideration to. I’m particularly proud of placing one of those articles in Llafur, so that hundreds (if not thousands) of people can read about this history.
But there’s always more to do.
Not having very much money, conferences have been increasingly difficult to attend. I’ve not been to any of the major conferences for a while now and I don’t think I will be able to go for some considerable time in the future. I did, however, attend the MBS conference at Birmingham. Unlike most commentators, at least on twitter, I found this a tremendous disappointment. The material I heard had an Anglo-centric sense of ‘British’ and as a self-confessed social/labour historian the dominance of cultural history left me with a sour taste. The last time I was that put off by a conference was when I attended the Social History Society event in Manchester several years ago. I’ve never been back there either!
Luckily I’ve been to several labour/social history events this year which filled me with considerable joy. There was the Women’s Archive of Wales/ Llafur joint day school on the 1984-5 miners’ strike which I spoke at and spent hours listening to those who had taken part in the strike; there was the Keir Hardie commemoration event organised by Dr Deborah Mutch at the Working Class Movement Library; and there was the AWWE conference at Gregynog Hall back in the Spring which was an especial highlight. AWWE – which explores Welsh Writing in English – did leave me a little like a fish out of water being a historian amongst a spectrum of literary scholars but its collegiality and openness was something I’ve found lacking in most of the history conferences I’ve attended in recent years. Apart from my comments on Rhys Davies, I think my paper was well received…
History on the Dole keeps going from strength to strength. It has been viewed by nearly 12,000 people this year – which is quite staggering. The really big post was the ‘Left in Love’ post published back in the Spring. Similarly popular was a post dealing with the UKIP insurgence in the South Wales Coalfield during the General Election. This tells me a lot about what ‘sells’ on the blogosphere but also chimes with the anxieties and interests of the major audience which is undoubtedly Britain and Ireland. In the second tier of clicks are the United States, Canada, Australia, and certain countries of Europe like Sweden, Denmark, and the Czech Republic. No prizes for those who guess I have friends living in those places!
As I wrote recently, the blog is going to go through some changes in the new year. I’m going to dial down the Welsh material and focus on developing new research interests – at least initially. I hope readers will find these posts interesting – I’ll find out soon enough I suppose!
2016 is a fascinating year full of milestones. Historically, of course, it is the centenary year of the Easter Rising, the Battle of the Somme, the introduction of conscription to Britain for the first time; it marks the 50th anniversary of England’s triumph in the World Cup, Labour’s high watermark in Welsh politics (look at a map of the constituencies Labour won that year), the election of Gwynfor Evans at the Carmarthen by-election; it marks the 40th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s resignation as Prime Minister; and, perhaps most chillingly of all, it marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster and the Challenger disaster. And on a personal note it marks 5 years since I was awarded my PhD.
As I look towards 2016, I hope it’ll be a year when everything finally starts to fall into place. I’m more convinced than ever, though, that it marks the year when I have to make a decision about where my research and publications go. Do I stick with the Welsh material, in which I’m now expert, even though contemporary Wales makes me profoundly unhappy; or do I go off in a different direction knowing that it might prove detrimental to career development? At the moment I’ve squared the circle by moving to the West Country. I think it might just work!