‘Women at Watney’ Exhibit

Excellent new resource: ‘Women at Watney: Voices from an East End market’. Created in partnership with KCBH’s own Dr Alana Harris, UCL and LAHP funding.
This exhibition captures women’s memories of Watney Market, past and present. It draws from interviews recorded by East End Women’s Museum volunteers in spring 2017.
You can find more information about the exhibit here.

Reconfiguring the British/Modern British seminar: 1 February 2018: Teaching modern British history after the Brexit vote

Instead of the usual seminar format of a speaker + Q&A, the next Reconfiguring the British seminar on Thursday 1 February 2018 at 5.30 in the Wolfson Room II, IHR, will be an open discussion, chaired by Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, on Teaching modern British history after the Brexit vote (and after the postcolonial turn, amidst growing recognition of gender inequalities)

Our teaching – particularly survey courses on modern Britain – is a key way that we disseminate key findings, themes, questions and concepts from the cutting edge of historical research. Indeed, in 2021, this ‘Impact’ will apparently be eligible for recognition in the Research Excellent Framework (REF). Our students will, in the main, go on to careers outside academia, taking with them critical approaches and narratives that we develop in our teaching. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, we believe that it is, therefore, worthwhile to think collectively about what themes and questions we place at the heart of such courses. In thinking about this question we should, of course, be aware that graduates did tend to vote more for Remain than for leave, as did the young.

This session will be an open debate, inviting participation from all attendees, organised around the following questions:

  1. Should we rethink any aspects of our teaching of modern British history in the light of the Brexit vote? For example, race and xenophobia, nation and nationalism?
  2. How do – and how should – we balance thinking about Europe, the ‘special relationship’, and the Empire in our teaching?
  3. What are the intellectual and practical barriers that keep us from rewriting courses over time? How might these be overcome?
  4. Where does gender history fit in pre-post-Brexit histories of Britain?
  5. How does teaching surveys shape research agendas?
  6. Postgrad teaching assistants – what are your experiences teaching survey courses? How useful is it as teaching experience? Has it cross-fertilised your research?

‘Bonfire of Britain: Does Brexit spell the end of the UK?’ 1 March Talk

Brexit is a breakdown of an old regime. Under Thatcher and then Blair, British power tried to renew itself as a world leader by embracing an extreme form of neoliberalism – which crashed 2008. Their successor is project Brexit: an attempt to forge an independent ‘Global Britain’. It too will fail, as it external ambition is frustrated by internal incoherence and the UK itself divides.

King’s Contemporary British History invites you to a talk by the writer Anthony Barnett, the founding Editor of openDemocracy. Author of Iron Britannia, his latest book is The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump; described by Andrew Sparrow, Editor of the Guardian’s Politics Live as “a dazzling, all-encompassing, big picture analysis of the Brexit vote, easily the best of its kind in print, brilliantly written and endlessly thought-provoking”.

This event is free to attend and all are welcome. Refreshments will be served after the talk. Registration is required here.

Talk on ‘Assembling Anti-Imperialist Networks in London in the Early 1980s’

Professor Gavin Brown (University of Leicester) will speak on ‘Assembling Anti-Imperialist Networks in London in the Early 1980s’ at King’s College London on 22 November. You can find more details about his talk here.

From Professor Brown: “I have in my office two crates stuffed to bursting with papers belonging to the late Steve Kitson. These papers record his political activity in London in the early 1980s (when he was in his early twenties). As the son of one of the longest serving white political prisoners in apartheid era South Africa (and on the back of his own short detention in South Africa in 1982) Kitson was embedded in a range of anti-apartheid, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist networks passing through London at the time. His mother’s flat in Highbury served as a salon for anti-colonial intellectuals and politicians from across the ‘Third World’. The politics of anti-imperialism was embedded in Kitson’s everyday life, and it was embedded in his London. I use the samples from Steve Kitson’s papers to investigate the ways in which anti-imperialist politics functioned in London in the late Cold War period and how transnational anti-imperialist networks were articulated through specific events and practices. This rich empirical material is brought into dialogue with assemblage theory and recent debates about the materiality of diplomatic cultures to examine how subaltern forms of diplomacy were assembled at the time.”

A drinks reception will follow the lecture. This talk is part of the King’s Human Geography seminar series.

‘Period Piece’ at the Science Gallery London

‘Period Piece’, designed by KCBH member Dr Alana Harris is on display at the Science Gallery London from 7 to 13 November 2017.

Period Piece seeks to provoke critical dialogue about shifts in contraceptive technologies and constructions of the ‘natural’ around women’s bodies from the rise of the pill to the emergence of period tracking apps. Through an audio-visual installation juxtaposing a biometrically-derived choral composition with holograms and film footage, we invite you to see and listen to the inside rhythms often hidden by secrecy and taboo.

Period Piece was conceived through collaborative conversations between the historian Alana Harris, classical composer Ion Marmarinos and contemporary artist and designer Stephanie Bickford-Smith.

This new audio-visual installation, Period Piece, explores this same fraught and freighted emotional landscape – seeking to break the stigma and taboo that, for some, still surrounds the discussion of women’s menstruation, fertility and contraception.

For more information, see the Science Gallery’s website. You can read Alana’s article for the Guardian here.

The Death of Secularisation

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Ruth Lindley (Birmingham) who discusses the secularisation panel.

Many thanks to Maggie Scull and everyone at KCBH for organising ‘Contemporary British History Now’, especially for being brave enough to experiment with a new panel format that really seemed to work. My comments below are primarily concerned with the ‘secularisation’ panel on which I spoke; however, I also touch on the conference format and how we might usefully go forward from here.  

My one big disagreement with the experimental panels has more to do with the choice of themes and ‘big books’ than the format itself. Asking us to think about ‘declinism’ and ‘permissiveness’ seemed like turning back the debate thirty years rather than addressing the conference aim of surveying contemporary British history now. Haven’t sophisticated scholars already shown us that linear narratives of decline and resurgence flatten out all the bits of historical texture we love? And that terms like ‘permissiveness’ are not neutral analytic categories but come loaded down in historically specific political and cultural meaning?

This issue seemed especially obvious during the secularisation panel, where Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain (2001) was selected to represent scholarship on religious change in modern Britain. As I said in my paper, sophisticated gender historians have done a huge amount to challenge linear narratives of inevitable religious decline. I’m thinking, in particular, of edited collections like Lucy Delap and Sue Morgan’s, Men Masculinities and Religious Change in Twentieth-Century Britain (2013) and Jacqueline Devries and Morgan’s, Women, Gender and Religious Cultures in Britain (2010). These interventions are not empirical – wrangling over causal-moments and rates of decline – but challenge secularisation at its conceptual core. By applying gender theory to the binary analysis that underpins secularisation (and every other linear narrative), these scholars show us that the theory’s central tenets rest on easy assumptions about the nature of contemporary Britain (modern-secular-rational) as opposed to ‘the past’ (traditional-religious-superstitious). These taken-for-granted characteristics of modernity are not, of course, self-evident, they need historicising. This calls for embracing textured history and taking it seriously on its own terms, rather than squeezing it all into one big explanatory framework.

In saying that, going back to Brown was useful in that it revealed the tenacity of secularisation theory. The sociological grand narrative appears to have taken on a ‘common sense’ gloss, as if we are all in general agreement about its trajectory, rather than acknowledging that it is one idea about religious change among many. It even insinuated its way onto other panel discussions; woven into all kinds of different stories about mid-century Britain, endlessly participated in, reproduced and embellished upon. The death of secularisation still seems like a really long way off.

Why does any of this matter? Why should we be so suspicious of secularisation and its proponents? Because I think the same structures that privilege Brown with having delivered the ‘dominant’ narrative of religious change in modern Britain are the same structures that conceptualise ‘dominant’ religiosity in Britain as institutional and therefore necessarily pale and male. By holding up institutional religiosity as the marker of legitimate belief, historians collude with the religious institutions themselves that have all the say in who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘outside’, who is ‘religious’ and who is ‘spiritual’, who is ‘orthodox’ and who is ‘heterodox’. Through the lens of these implicit value-judgements, women’s spirituality – and, as we learned, BME religious adherence – are ignored, or marginalised, or seen as signs of ‘resurgence’ rather than evidence of the ever-changing, myriad forms and modes of religiosity.

At the next conference, let’s spend less time thinking about exclusionary narratives and concepts, and more about the challenges facing us as we seek to write inclusive and socially responsible histories of modern Britain.

Ruth Lindley is an AHRC-funded doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her thesis uses the feminist spirituality movement to open up histories of gender, secularism and religious change in post-1960s Britain. You can find Ruth on Twitter @RuthLindley

An interesting format, but needs some further thought

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Sean Male (Birmingham) who discusses the usefulness of this unique conference format.

I would first like to thank the organisers for both making this conference free, and for offering a generous travel bursary to postgrad students. This has enabled new researchers to take part in the conference, which of course allows for some exciting and fresh scholarship to be shared. And it appeared that many PG students took advantage of the offer, which was great to see.

It is inevitable that this one-day conference will be compared to the two well attended Modern British Studies conferences held at the University of Birmingham in 2015 and 2017. MBS2015 worked on the assumption that the field of modern British history was fractured and in crisis, and sought to forge new narratives and explanatory frameworks. At the end of MBS2015, the field, it turned out, was healthier than thought.

Similarly, KCBHnow returns to the idea that the field of modern British history needs reassessing, with the grand narratives and ‘big books’ of the past thirty years revisited. Calum Brown and Sally Alexander were in attendance to look back at their work, and long-established narratives and concepts such as ‘consensus’, ‘Thatcherism’, and ‘permissiveness’ were debated. If KCBH wanted to create a new year zero in the field of modern British history, looking to reassess the grand narratives would seem like a logical place to start.

If there were some parallels to be drawn in the premise of the conference, then the format promised something new. Papers were to be kept to five minutes, all addressing a ‘big book’ or grand narrative, followed by a discussion. The initial response to this format among the delegates was overwhelmingly positive, and the format certainly sparked some lively discussion.

Where I thought the format worked best was on the discussion of ‘consensus’. Fascinating mini-papers by Dr Ceci Flinn on post-war city planning, and Dr Chris Smith using a gender framework to assess the wartime role of Bletchley Park, both proved a great launching pad for debate. The audience were engaged, and the chair, Dr Helen McCarthy, kept the discussion flowing. The result of the panel, I am glad to report, is that there was no consensus on the concept of consensus.

I do, however, think the format could do with some extra thought elsewhere, especially when making authors the moderators of discussion on their own work. I think this practice has the potential to stifle discussion where the panel are in awe of the author, or where the panel are in complete disagreement with the work under discussion. For the most part, the discussions I attended avoided this. Professor Sally Alexander presided over a discussion which was both productive and allowed for critical discussion of her work. The discussion of Professor Calum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain, too, was for the most part lively. However, I think the points raised by Rev Dr David Goodhew’s on BAME church attendance figures, and Ruth Lindley’s case study of spirituality within the women’s liberation movement, could potentially have been given more time for discussion. Brown, nonetheless, provided a memorable session.

Despite my reservations, it was a format that was well worth exploring. The discussion format was helpful, I thought, in exploding some of the grand narratives – or at least in complicating them. And as with the two Modern British Studies conferences, KCBHnow has shown a discipline that is healthy and still willing to question some of the narratives which dominate our field.

Sean Male is a second year PGR at the University of Birmingham. He is researching the response to post-war immigration within the children’s homes system in England and Wales.

Permissiveness: A Useful Framework for Historical Analysis?

As part of our ‘Contemporary British History Now’ conference, we were able to award 10 postgraduate/early career researcher travel bursaries. Over the next few weeks these bursary winners will discuss their perceptions of the conference.

Next up is PhD student Katie Jones (Birmingham) who discusses the usefulness of the ‘permissiveness’ panel.

For this blog post I wish to share some initial thoughts on attending the recent inaugural King’s Contemporary British History conference as a young, female PhD researcher, my opinions on the general format and give my response to the panel centred on the narrative of ‘permissiveness’.

My first impression of the conference was that – as a PhD researcher – I immediately felt included. The four panels I attended exploring key themes and texts (permissiveness; reflections on Sally Alexander’s, Becoming A Woman; revisiting Callum Brown’s The Death of Christian Britain and Thatcherism), PhD/ECRs were panellists, as well as also being visibly present amongst the audience. The overall representation of ECRs, doctoral students and even MA students was encouraging and for this alone the organizers deserve due commendation. This was largely helped, I’m sure, by incentivising PhD students with travel bursaries to attend the conference. Practically, this made it possible for those of us outside of London, whilst also helping to us to feel included, welcome, and ultimately, valued.

The experimental format of the conference, which saw panellists give short, five minute papers followed by an hour-long discussion, in my opinion, really worked. Yet, it would have perhaps been useful for speakers to have been allocated slightly longer time slots in which to pitch their initial thoughts, allowing them to expand on their points and bring in further evidence and examples from their research. However, the format facilitated lively debate and allowed for much more interaction between the speakers and the audience than the traditional conference format.

One panel generating such debate was the panel most closely related to my own research on masculinities, contraception and sexual health in late-twentieth century Britain was centred on the narrative of ‘permissiveness’ and the concept of the ‘permissive society’. This panel raised important questions centred on methodology we use to ‘get at’ permissiveness and secondly, around the term itself, which in turn prompted questioning of the language we use to make sense of historical processes. To me, the debate seemed to reveal that permissiveness was a somewhat unhelpful, vague ‘catch-all’ term which excluded the experience of certain groups and individuals. Hannah Charnock’s case for the uses of oral history and personal testimony was strong, exposing the limits of this narrative. Charnock argued for the uses of qualitative, which stood somewhat in opposition to the use of opinion poll data by fellow panel member Marcus Collins. These differing methodological standpoints proved for lively debate, encouraged further by the experimental format. Jodi Burkett’s paper was also hugely thought-provoking. Like Charnock, drawing on the personal testimony of black Britons, Burkett argued that when they spoke about their experiences of life in post-war Britain, ‘permissiveness’ was not a narrative they used and if ‘permissiveness’ did have an impact on the lives of black Britons, it did not take effect until the 1980s and 1990s. Surely then, ‘permissiveness’ loses legitimacy as a useful interpretive framework when it excludes the experiences of certain groups and individuals? Collins attested to the usefulness of the term in that it helps us to thread together often disparate subjects (homosexuality; prostitution; race relations etc.). However, during the discussion, delegate Lucy Delap was quick to draw attention to its inherent loftiness. I for, one would agree with her. Especially after hearing papers by Charnock and Burkett, as a historian dealing with experience and personal testimony myself, I doubt that ‘permissiveness’ remains a useful interpretive framework for understanding contemporary Britain, as this narrative clearly fails to match up with the lived experience of individuals. It seems a focus on individual lives reveals the limitations of this well established narrative by exposing who and what it excludes. Perhaps, then, it is time to rethink the some of the terms we use to try and make sense of contemporary Britain.

The conference format certainly revealed the usefulness of revisiting old debates in order to revise current frameworks for contemporary British history in the here and now. Yet, with a conference called Contemporary British History Now, it would have been exciting to hear even more new research. For speakers to go into greater depth of course you need time. From an organizational perspective, necessarily this would have meant reducing the discussion time and thus risk sacrificing the lively debate which followed the individual papers. Within a limited timeframe something has to give. I’m aware that when utilising an experimental format organizing a longer conference can be a risk, but perhaps this could be something to consider when organising future events after this recent success – I, for one, am intrigued by the approach taken by KCBH and will gladly return for more.

Katie Jones is a second-year doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her broader research interests centre on the histories of gender, sex and sexuality and emotion in modern Britain and her thesis explores masculinities, contraception and sexual health in late-twentieth century Britain, 1967-1997. You can also find Katie on Twitter @klhjones

The Study of Contemporary British History at King's College London