‘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.

Dr Helen Fry & ‘The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain’s World War II Interrogation Centre’

In partnership with the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, we’re delighted to welcome Dr Helen Fry to the King’s History department. On 11 December, she will discuss her new book ‘The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain’s World War II Interrogation Centre’.

This event is free but registration is required here. We hope to see you there!

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

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