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Wednesday 30 January 2013

Guest blogging

I've owed Body Impolitic a guest post for months, but between being over-committed and not being able to get my ideas in order, I didn't get round to doing this until recently, when the news that 'overweight is actually healthy' catalysed the various thoughts I'd been playing around with. This seemed to me yet another of those instances where medicine and popular opinion believe that something that is not actually pathological and pretty much within the normal range of healthy human variations is something terrible and to be feared and fought against.

So: Health Panics in Historical Perspective

Friday 25 January 2013

Queer London conference forthcoming

I shall be giving a paper, '"Advocating the culture of unnatural and criminal practices"? the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology as a pioneer homophile organisation in the UK' at the following event:
Queer London Conference
Department of English, Linguistics and Cultural Studies
University of Westminster
Saturday 23rd March 2013
Keynote Speaker:
Dr. Matt Cook (Birkbeck College, University of London)
This one-day conference is dedicated to a consideration of London and its role in creating, housing, reflecting and facilitating queer life. It will bring together scholars from a variety of different disciplines and backgrounds to consider representations of queer London and how London itself represents queers.
That London is a focus and centre for queer life and culture can be seen on its stages; in its bar and club scenes; in its film festivals and its representations in film; in its performance art; in its political life; in its gyms; in its history; in its book groups and book shops; and in its representations in the contemporary queer fiction of writers like Alan Hollinghurst and Sarah Waters. That London is a hub and an axis goes without saying. What the ‘Queer London’ conference offers is an opportunity for further analysis and investigation of these representations/representational platforms and consideration of the socio-cultural role that London plays in queer life.
The conference focuses on the period 1885 to the present and includes papers on topics such as diverse as 1920s lesbian London; modes of queer activism; the art and photography of Francis Bacon; London’s drag scenes; Alan Hollingshurst’s queer London; queer Soho; and London’s queer sex work.
The conference programme will shortly be posted here –
The conference will be from 10.30am until 7pm and will be held in the University of Westminster’s building at 309 Regent Street.
The conference will be FREE to attend but places are limited. In order to reserve a place, please email, including your name, contact details and affiliation.
If you have any question please get in touch with Dr. Simon Avery ( and Dr. Katherine M. Graham (

Thursday 24 January 2013

Trying to get out more

I was thinking the other day of the times back when I had just begun working at what was then the Wellcome Institute, and the huge number of associated seminars and symposia I used to attend, whether or not they related directly to my own academic concerns (the remembrance that brought this to mind was of a seminar on, to the best of my recollection, Biblical views on leprosy). This is something that has rather fallen by the wayside of recent years.

Now that the pressure which did not seem to relent during pretty much the whole of 2012 has let up a bit, and given that there are currently a number of attractive seminar series at the Institute of Historical Research, just down the road, I am trying to schedule in getting to at least some of them.

The Life-Cycles Seminar has some intriguing offerings this term: last week I went to Victoria Bates' '"The Breakers that Separate Childhood from Youth": Medicine and Sexual Development in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century Britain'. Although rather thinly atttended, it generated a vibrant discussion around puberty in history. I'm hoping to get to a couple of the others.

Yesterday evening, at the Psychoanalysis and History seminar, Chris Waters gave a very rich presentation on
'Edward Glover and the Politics of Homosexual Law Reform'. There was a lot in this paper, but one of the take-home reflections was the tension between Glover's belief (he was a strict Freudian and in this he followed Freud) that homosexuality was not a disorder to be cured, and, increasingly, that any problems gay men had were largely to do with societal homophobia, and the requirements of the situation in his day that making a case for psychiatric referrals of men accused of homosexual conduct was a humane expedient to avoid imprisonment on the one hand, and, on the other, the use of chemical castration (as in the case of Alan Turing - Waters made some passing comments on this cause celebre which make one eager to read the book of which this and the Glover material will form part). The condemnation of the psychiatrisation and medicalisation of homosexuality in the post-1967 era demonised figures who had been doing work that fed into the Wolfenden Report recommendations and thus led to decriminalisation. A number of other intriguing seminars are forthcoming in this series.

Other IHR seminar series that are tempting me are Modern British History and Sport and Leisure History, although there is nothing much in the current Women's History schedule that speaks to my particular interests.

I also draw attention to the Archives and Society series, in particular the seminar on 26th February at which my Wellcome colleagues will be presenting on 'Ethics, Access and Digitisation'.

Monday 21 January 2013

Just out online

The Subject is Obscene: No Lady Would Dream of Alluding to It’: Marie Stopes and her courtroom dramas

This is a piece I'm rather fond of: I wrote the earliest version for a day conference about women and the courtroom at the University of Warwick around 2006 or so. I knew it needed further work and research but I got distracted by other things. I dug it up and gave it another outing at the Women's History Network Annual Conference in 2010, 'Performing the Self: Women's Lives in Historical Perspective' (also, by coincidence, at Warwick that year), and was invited to contribute an expanded version of the paper to the resulting themed issue of Women's History Review.

Doing the additional research for it, I was led to reflect that Reginald Ruggles Gates, the first husband against whom Stopes brought a suit of nullity, is not a figure who improves the more one learns about him. Whether he was actually impotent or not, he sounds like somebody any woman would be very glad to be quit of.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Sometimes being an archivist is frustrating

Recently posted on the Wellcome Library Blog: There are a million stories in the Naked Archive: here are some of them.

 While those stories are tantalising, and there are things that one could probably never find out about about the context to those particular manuscripts, sometimes it might be possible to discover at least a bit more detail, if one had the time to spare.

For example, in the case of Fanny George, Chancery lunatic, it's not improbable that the records of Court of Chancery in The National Archives might have something about how she was declared to be of unsound mind and who initiated the inquisition.

There might be local records about the Rev Joseph Cook and Dr Robert Pringle.

But the likelihood of making a definite identification of who compiled that recipe book, and where (and if there was ever a fatal accident involving arsenic-based facewash in the vicinity), seems remote indeed.  

Monday 7 January 2013

Just once I'd like some cheerful news about archives

Alas, 2013 seems to be carrying on the infamous tradition of 2012 as far as archive news goes: the latest intelligence is that Croydon Council are proposing to cut their archive and local studies service down to the statutory minimum with serious impact on access. Croydon has an extremely rich local history collection  - among other things they hold the records of several local hospitals, according to Wellcome/The National Archives Hospital Records Database, and the Wellcome Medical Archives and Manuscripts Survey reported on their significant holdings relating to medicine, health and welfare, both within the official records of local government, and in material from local voluntary bodies.

Sunday 6 January 2013

It wasn't 'banned', and it's hardly rare

For some reason, a number of newspapers have been reporting, as if it were something unusual and exciting, the sale at auction of  a C18th copy of Aristotle's Masterpiece, with claims that this was a 'banned book'.

I am not sure what 'banned' means in this context: there was no context in the UK for 'banning' books but there were certainly titles that, at least in the wake of the 1858 Obscene Publications Act,  reputable publishers and booksellers might have been cautious about vending without provisos that they were for a restricted audience such as doctors and lawyers. Even so, prosecution only occurred if somebody made a complaint to the authorities.

However, the Masterpiece was not produced by mainstream publishers but as part of a low culture of ephemeral productions, and sold in a variety of venues including 'rubber goods shops', which also sold contraceptives, abortifacient pills, etc. It may well have got swept up in police raids along with other literature considered dubious and falling within the parameters of Obscene Publications Act, but there are no famous trials involving its prosecution (though probably because the dealers selling it considered paying the occasional fine part of the cost of doing business, rather than seeing the issue as a matter of principle, as with the Bradlaugh/Besant Fruits of Philosophy case).

The fact that numerous copies of various dates come up when searching Bookfinder and are held by a range of libraries featuring in COPAC suggests that for a supposedly banned book a significant number of copies were in circulation in the UK (including in Welsh) from the late C17th until at least the 1930s, when it is listed alongside the works of Marie Stopes and Theodor van der Velde in the mail-order catalogues of rubber goods firms.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Not quite the positive year-opener I'd intended

Over the Christmas/New Year break I was reading a book that had been sent to me for review, published by the press of a fairly distinguished university.

I was driven to google 'X University Press' to ascertain that this was, indeed, the publishing arm of 'University of X', because I wondered if we were in the realm of the 'Watford University Press' of Havelock Ellis's publishing misadventures with Sexual Inversion, or one of those 'open access' academic publishing enterprises which send out spammy emails soliciting contributions in a particularly untargetted way.

But no, this appears to be the Print on Demand and digital press operation of the University of X.

What they don't appear to have is editorial staff (the only staff member I could locate on their website was a 'business manager', not terribly encouraging). The book as received looked as though somebody had just put into print the kind of unfinished, unpolished draft one might send on spec to a likely publisher for consideration. The references - where there were any, because there were quite a lot of places where there were no citations to material quoted - were all over the place and in various inconsistent forms (some as footnotes; some in brackets after the quote; and some I think the reader was required to match up themselves by going to the bibliography at the back - which was incomplete). If it had ever received the attentions of a copy-editor, the individual in question should be sacked for incompetence.

It seems unlikely that the work had been sent out to external reviewers for comment before publishing, which might have eliminated a few bloopers.

I have read self-published works in which the necessary editorial work has been much more conscientiously done and which have perfectly acceptable scholarly apparatus.

Reading this book was a depressing experience of potential wasted. Its issue in  this condition did no service to the author, to the potential audience, or to the press itself and the institution of which it is a part. Is this the way university presses are going?