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Wednesday 27 March 2013

Queer London last Saturday

In spite of the horrendously horrible weather (cold, windy, sleet and snow) there was a good turnout for the Queer London interdisciplinary conference at the University of Westminster on Saturday, although alas a few cancellations by advertised speakers.

This was a rich day of thought-provoking papers from a variety of fields and perspectives - the large number of good papers offered meant that all sessions apart from the keynote and the final round table were organised as parallel strands, and I am entirely sure that I missed some excellent presentations through a failure to master the art of bilocation.

A motif raised in Matt Cook's extremely juicy keynote which recurred in a number of other contexts during the day was the significant role of of subcultures or counter-cultures which weren't 'queer' in the sense of being specifically LGBT, but which were unconventional and accepting enough to provide a place of possibilities, a community of support and warmth mixing up different groups.

Similarly, Anne Witchard's exciting paper on early C20th lesbian nightclubs in Soho located these within the relatively late development of a London nightclub scene (by comparison with the cosmopolitan metropolises of continental Europe) and the connection between these and a wider raffish bohemian, 'arty' subculture widely perceived as transgressing conventional barriers of race, class, and gender.

The organisers, who are to be congratulated on the success of the day, hope that this will be only the start of further initiatives on Queer London, and on the basis of last Saturday, there is a substantial amount of interest in taking this further.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Continuing to get out and about

This week there was a lovely book launch at the Artworkers' Guild in Queen Square of Carol Dyhouse's exciting new book, Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women (Zed Books):
Horror, scandal and moral panic! Obsession with the conduct of young women has permeated society for over a hundred years. Be it over flappers, beat girls, dolly birds or ladettes, public outrage at girls' perceived misbehaviour has been a mass-media staple with each changing generation.
 O so very true. It just goes round and around. A journalist was asking me about 50 Shades of Grey the other day, and my mind immediately went to a rather obvious, when you think about it, historical parallel, EM Hull's notorious The Sheik, with its sado-masochistic themes and very similar plot trajectory (now available free through the good offices of Project Gutenberg).

From girls to ordinary devoted mothers: yesterday evening to an excellent and very thought-provoking paper by Anne Karpf in the Psychoanalysis and History seminar series, 'Constructing and addressing "the Ordinary Devoted Mother": Winnicott's BBC broadcasts, 1943-62', which I found particularly fascinating for its elucidation of the important part played by his BBC radio producers, Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie, in the production, not just in style but in content, of these broadcasts, which formed the foundation of Winnicott's acclaimed work on motherhood and good enough mothering, and eventually published by Penguin as The Child, the Family and the Outside World. My mind went to a rather tangential place about women and BBC radio, following some archival encounters with Hilda Matheson's work in the 30s and a paper at the Women's History Network conference last year on early women's work at the BBC, and this possible unsung tradition of women pioneers in the field. But it was also interesting about the circumstances of production as very situated within a particular (popular) context rather than within the more elevated realms of psychoanalytic theory.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Ann Oakley, A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (2011)

I'm woefully behind about posting about things I've been reading recently. I was behindhand enough with actually reading A Critical Woman, because between one thing and another I had it on my to-read pile but was not feeling in the right headspace for a big fat biography of twentieth century woman economist, social scientist and activist.

Even though it did, in fact, turn out to be very readable on the whole (and I did have a few historian-type niggles, like occasionally feeling a need for more chronological anchoring than I was getting). I was very struck by the family origins - far from coming from generations of Cambridge scholars or intellectuals her father came from a humble background yetended up a renowned classical scholar.

It's got a bit of an uphill struggle given that Wootton was obviously a very reserved and private woman and it probably quite hard to get know to know her beyond the formal level even when she was alive. I wondered, however, how much of that reserve and forbidding air was a necessary stragety, given that, while still quite young she was widely regarded as an outstanding economist, and as a result was interacting with a lot of much older men, many of them of considerable political or social distinction. How far would her being  a war widow would have discouraged displeasing attentions, quite apart from a reasonable desire to be taken seriously? Her surprise marriage to a much younger man (and the occasional hint at other affairs) makes one wonder if there was a friskier aspect that she kept well-concealed.

I was very taken by Wootton's firm line that the death and devastation caused by the motorcar was a much greater evil it was than many menaces against which contemporaries fulminated,  and her insistence upon on having actual evidence-based data  in order to produce government report on cannabis.

Given her troubled relationship with her mother, and her lack of interest in feminism, I think there's probably a whole study waiting to be done about generations and feminists and suffragist/suffragette mothers and their daughters and how the second generation do or do not consider themselves feminists or different kinds of feminists.

Probably about as thorough an account of a rather opaque woman as one is likely to get, paying particular attention to what she would have considered most important, i.e. her intellectual work and her politics.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Reading with care

Reading with care and attention to historical and topographical detail would prevent people from posting on the internet an account of something that purports to be the menu from an early C20th brothel, with image, with claims that it refers to a London establishment, when the prices are in dollars, the address is 22nd St, and the spellings are US rather than UK usage. It has been suggested that in fact it derives from a fairly recent piece of erotica in pastiche period style.

Some years ago, in an earlier incarnation of  H-Histsex, there was a brief discussion touching on a series of novels with 'Cremorne' in the title, alluding to the famous C19th pleasure gardens, which were said to be reprinted works of Victorian pornography (though other descriptions indicate that the setting is Edwardian). A few years later I received an email from the person who had anonymously authored these during the 1990s... They appear to still be in print and to have taken on possibly new life as ebooks. I don't think I've ever come across them but am now tempted to find one just to see how convincing they are for period.

There is a long-ish tradition of modern pastiches of period works being taken as authentic narratives: a classic instance is Magdalen King-Hall's Diary of A Young Lady of Fashion 1764-65 (by 'Cleone Knox'). In spite of fairly early contemporary exposure of the 'hoax', this work still occasionally crops up being described as an authentic C18th account.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Yet more getting out more

I managed to get to two seminars at the Institute of Historical Research this week.

On Wednesday I went to hear Angela Davis on 'Gradual Separations and Substitute Mothers: The Influence of Anna Freud's Hampstead War Nurseries on Post-War British Childcare Provision and Practic' in the Psychoanalysis and History series.This is part her much larger project on childcare provision and I realised that I had already heard her speak on other aspects of post-WWII childcare provision. This was an excellent paper on the very particular approach taken by Anna Freud's Hampstead nurseries, which were geared towards child observation and research along with care for children in what were often, given the period fairly dire straits requiring it. Apparently it was always heavily oversubscribed with waiting lists. Its findings had a significant impact on post-war nursery policies in the UK (though on reflection, I note that recent opposition to proposed changes in staffing levels in nurseries has focused almost entirely on the physical and organisational problems, rather than the issues around attachment and psychological security that were central to Freud and Burlingham's work).

There was a good deal of lively discussion, including personal experiences such as the very different approach taken in France (where of course there is a rather longer tradition of childcare outside the home), and bad personal memories of another North London nursery at about the same period, run by idealistic Communists with an ideological commitment to collective childcare.

The following evening I attended the Modern British History seminar, at which Selina Todd gave a very rich presentation on 'Post-war British people...was it ever that good? Working Class Life in England postwar', which tended to confirm my own arguments, coming from a rather different angle, that far from being cosy and complacent, the 1950s were a good deal less stable and about the haven of the stable familial household than the usual narrative suggests. Todd's work (I am now longing to read her forthcoming book on the working classes in C20th Britain) indicates that there was an assumption that the full employment of the post-war era and the advent of the Welfare State meant that poverty was no longer an issue and indeed this tended to drop out of discussion. Todd, however, found that while working class families were tending to be better-off than in the 1930s, and more able to purchase consumer goods, this came with long hours of hard work and overtime for the head of the family, fears of job loss, taking less congenial but better paid jobs, 'housewife' shifts for mothers, and the 'never-never' hire-purchase of newly available luxuries under the threat of repossession if payments could not be kept up. Social mobility through education was still low, though parents were determined to improve the position of their children. There were many questions during the discussion session and quite possibly discussions could have gone on even longer.

Friday 8 March 2013

Forthcoming presentations

Contributing at the Queer London Conference, University of Westminster, 23 March.

Debuting a new Insights session at the Wellcome Library on 4 April, Sex and the city: the STDs of old London

Keynoting at the colloquium Civilising Bodies:Literature, rhetoric and image 1700-present day, University of Exeter, 25-26 Apr

And have a bonus crosspost of my recent posts on the Wellcome Library blog: for Rare Disease Day and for International Women's Day and the annual roundup of what archives our readers are using.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Misapprehensions about archives

Following a speech at the launch of Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics which did make it clear that having those archives available to digitise was the outcome of long years involving negotiations and building up good relationships with donors and depositors, and generally indicating that archives usually do not just arrive, someone said to me that they had always assumed that people just gave their papers to archive repositories.

Well, sometimes they do, but it is good professional practice to look any such gift-horses in the mouth, and get the documentation sorted. To begin with, any given repository may not be a good match for a particular collection and there may even be legal issues bearing upon this, as with records generated within the National Health Service. There may even be other papers of the individual or organisation in some other repository, which anything offered should be joining.

We'd like to know exactly what we're letting ourselves in for by taking a particular collection. Is it a gift or a deposit on permanent loan? Some libraries end up with papers that were originally only on loan for the duration of a particular researcher's project. Whatever the status, this needs to be documented.

Does any part need to be closed, either under the Data Protection Act, or because of the donor/depositor's sensitivities? Are they going to want intending researchers to request permission to consult their records? If so, is there going to be a reliable system for researchers obtaining this? What about copyright - are they okay with people photocopying or scanning for private research purposes, even if they want them to come back for permission if they actually publish anything?

What sort of physical condition are the papers in? Do they require de-infestation of insects or mould? Will they need extensive conservation treatment? How large is the collection? How well-organised is it? What sort of resources is it going to require for storage and processing? This is why we like to make on-site surveys before giving a definite commitment.

And finally: do we think this is a collection that has historical interest and value and that researchers are going to want to use?

Saturday 2 March 2013

Unsung work of archivists

It's extremely gratifying to see a substantial article in the FT Magazine apropos of the about-to-launch digital archives project at the Wellcome Library on the history of genetics: “Codebreakers: Makers of Modern Genetics”

However, as an archivist who has been closely involved with many of the collections included in this project, I do wish a line or two could have been given to recognising the absolutely essential professional archive work that had been done, over a period of several decades, leading to the circumstances in which these collections were actually available for digitisation.

Archives of individuals or organisations don't just migrate into the stacks of a collecting repository: there is a process of negotiation with the people or bodies who created those papers, or into whose hands they have fallen, and this can take time and diplomacy to ensure that the transfer happens to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

There's then the overlooked process by which those papers are sorted and organised and described so that they are usable by researchers. It's not just journalists who think that this just somehow happens rather than being a rather time-consuming and intricate job without which it would be pretty much impossible to locate things within a morass of documentation.

Most archivists, I surmise, would not appreciate a 'Hug an Archivist!' Day, but I think the profession as a whole would like a little more recognition of what it does.

Archivists who have seen people using well-catalogued archives in acid-free folders, ordered via a sophisticated online ordering system, in a clean well-lighted search room with facilities to use laptops, scan documents, and use digital cameras, are less than patient when the tiresome 'piles of dusty archives' trope is invoked by individuals who have actually consulted any archives they reference in the afore-mentioned conditions, and have probably never gone into a damp crypt and observed teachests full of precious records covered with waving fronds of white mould like something out of a horror film.

And are also made to laugh, then bang their heads, at accounts of 'hidden treasures' found exactly where one would have anticipated their being in an archive.