On a visit to the market town of Arundel in the South Downs last year, I did what I always do and looked for second-hand books. At Kim’s Bookshop I found a 1972 biography of Aleksandr Solzhenistyn by David Burg and George Feifer, with around twenty press clippings tucked among the pages. I had great pleasure in giving this treasure to my son George, who had taken an interest in the author after borrowing my edition of Cancer Ward.
For me, I found a 1908 edition of the Complete Letter-Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd.
The book provides nearly two hundred example letters, covering social invitations, letters from parents to and about their children, letters relating to betrothal and marriage, letters of condolence, and letters relating to employment and business.
The general advice on how to write any letter warns the writer against ‘badinage’ which should never be attempted unless the parties are on very friendly terms. And even if they are on very friendly terms, certain conventions apply. The book devotes a not insignificant proportion of the section on ‘Practical Letter Writing’ to the topic of love letters, with strong encouragement to express one’s feelings in loving phrases that are ‘gentleman-like’ and ‘lady-like’,
‘With reference to “love-letters” no rule can be laid down; but even here the less “high-falutin” writing and bombast the better. Affection is very well, but extravagance is not unlikely to provoke ridicule, and that is fatal to a lover’s correspondence.’
This example letter in the romantic category caught my eye.
No. 150. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Affirmatively.
MY DEAR MR. WALKER, Our friendship, if I may use the word, has not had a long existence, but short though it has been, I have learned to appreciate it more than you can imagine. Indeed, were it not so, I should shrink from replying frankly to the question you ask. You ask me if I will accompany you to Africa, and share the trials of a missionary’s life there, and I answer that I will, believing it to be my duty to join in so noble an undertaking as the wife of one whom I esteem. I cannot, as your wife, aid you as I would like, and to the work I cannot bring more than a willing heart, but perhaps the Almighty will strengthen both my heart and my hands, and enable me to be useful as your helpmeet in your distant home. The day of your departure is, you say, drawing nigh, but, however near it may be, I can be ready. The sorest part of the preparation will be saying good-bye to those I love, and they are many. I am sure, however, that they will not tax my strength too far when they know in whose care I shall go. You will tell me what to do. And believe me, My dear Mr. Walker, Yours sincerely, MARY BURTON
My immediate thought on reading this earnest epistle was that the template would be of no use to Jane Eyre.
I turned to my Blackie & Son edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and looked up the episode where St. John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane. He wants, nay demands, that Jane accompanies him to India,
“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must––shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you––not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”
“… do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!”
The next example letter in the handbook affords a refusal.
No. 151. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Negatively.
MY DEAR MR. WALKER, Were I free to consult my own wishes, my answer to your kind and generous letter would be “Yes.” I have seen much in your character to admire since you first became a visitor at my father’s house. But my parents, to whom I showed your letter, consider that I am constitutionally unfitted to reside in a climate so trying as that of Africa, and wish me to remain with them. They are, with myself, grateful for all that you say; and, were it not that you go abroad, their consent would have been willingly given. I feel myself, too, that I would be only an encumbrance even were I spared; and at a missionary station there should be no encumbrances. You will allow me to call myself your sincere well-wisher, if nothing more, and I hope that your efforts in Africa will be crowned with success. Believe me, My dear Mr. Walker, Yours sincerely, MARY BURTON.
Alas, this template would also have been of no use to Jane, whose refusal of St. John is necessarily more forthright,
“God did not give me my life to throw it away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide.”
Helpmeet – what does it mean?
In the example letter No150 (the acceptance letter), and in Jane Eyre, we find the term, ‘helpmeet’. St. John wants Jane to accompany him as his ‘helpmeet and fellow-labourer’.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, helpmeet is an ‘absurdly formed’ compound of the two words, ‘help’ and ‘meet’. With its biblical roots in The Book of Genesis, the later conjoined version came into prominent use during the nineteenth century. It was unknown to lexicographers Dr Samuel Johnson (d1784) and Noah Webster (d1843). The OED gives this definition of the term,
‘A fitting or suitable helper; a helpmate: usually applied to a wife or husband.’
We know that by ‘helpmeet’ St. John means wife, as he finds Jane’s offer of her companionship to India as his ‘sister’ unacceptable. He wants a wife and nothing less, “the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death”.
The OED cites a usage of the term by Samuel Smiles in his 1873 book, Huguenots in France, which would aptly describe St. John’s impression of Jane Eyre as a, ‘true helpmeet for him, young, beautiful, rich, and withal virtuous.’ By the time of his marriage proposal, Jane’s inheritance had been divulged.
Whilst helpmeet is a term I don’t use myself, I did recognise it when reading the example letter No150. I was surprised therefore when several of my friends and associates had never heard of it.
The Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman, writes an interesting post on, Helpmeet, Or Can Stillborn Words Prosper? He concludes that the term is the product of ignorance, and acknowledges that our language constantly delivers such ‘freaks’, which through usage may even for a short while look like ‘well-formed creatures.’ Liberman tells us that in usage, everything is right that the majority considers right, which does not mean that every novelty is beautiful.
Here are a few examples of the term’s usage from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, from the British Press.
‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’
In 1880, a Miss Farningham delivered a lecture on the topic of ‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’ to a small gathering of the Huddersfield Young Men’s Christian Association. Her paper, especially prepared for women, set out the differences between helpmeets who ‘chiefly gave their hearts to the keeping of others’ and a hinderer, who, ‘was a dreamy thinker, whose thoughts led to nothing but thinking, no working’.
‘A Great Man’s Helpmeet’
A press feature in 1897 on Mrs Thomas A. Edison, the wife of the inventor, is headed, ‘A GREAT MAN’S HELPMEET’. It is stated that Mrs Edison is, ‘in the highest sense of the term, a helpmeet to her famous husband, and the great inventive genius esteems his wife’s advice of greater value than that of the shrewdest lawyer or most intimate friend.’ She is an ‘almost perfect wife and mother’.
Kings and Queens
In his 1936 Declaration to the Privy Council on his succession to the throne, King George VI stated, ‘With my wife as helpmeet by my side, I take up the heavy task which lies before me.’ Twenty-five years earlier his father, King George V had used the same term in his own Declaration when referring to Queen Mary.
In 1947, the Fifeshire Advertiser featured advice for mothers on the topic of giving vitamins to infants, under the heading of ‘Mother’s Helpmeet’.
I was not aware of the term’s biblical origins which others have expanded upon, prompting different interpretations of the Bible and much debate on its true Christian meaning. Heather Farrell, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, writes a blog, ‘Women in the Scriptures’ (with a sub-heading, ‘The greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus Christ’). Her post on, The real meeting of the term “Help Meet”, concludes that Eve was Adam’s complete spiritual equal and that women ‘have been given a stewardship that is uniquely theirs and which is every bit as important as men’s stewardship’.
I often find comments on a post just as interesting as the post itself. Amongst the comments on Farrell’s post is a declaration that the equality of women we see today, ‘is a direct result of the firearm, particularly the small, concealable revolver.’ Another comment declares that women are never equal to men, that the relationship is complementary and, ‘One leads the other follows, one is dominant the other is submissive, one penetrates the other is penetrated, one is the authority the other is the subordinate.’
Perhaps ‘interesting’ is the wrong word in this instance. Even if I were Christian (which I’m not), I’d still find these views abhorrent and disturbing.
From a brief investigation it does appear that the modern use of the term ‘helpmeet’ has been commandeered by the Christian creed. Farrell’s take on equality between men and women is certainly rooted in her Christianity as she asserts that, ‘Each woman, regardless of her ability to give birth, is a saviour to mankind when she loves men and nurtures a child closer to Christ.’
This association is further extended by Debi Pearl’s 2004 book, Created to be his Help Meet, in which she writes about God’s design for a woman, as a ‘properly-fitted helper’ (in 2012 her husband, Michael wrote, Created to Need a Help Meet). A Christian fundamentalist, Debi Pearl declares, ‘There is no loss of dignity in subordination when it serves a higher purpose. God made you to be a help meet to your husband so you can bolster him’, and, ‘God stands with you when you stand by your man, but you will stand alone if you insist on standing by your rights.’
The book, which contains case studies, advice giving responses to letters, and biblical reflections, is not necessarily representative of the diverse Christian communities across the U.S. and beyond. With nearly 1,000 reviews on Amazon.com (at 28 June 2019), it is described as toxic, dangerous, confusing, a holy grail, tough, raw, truthful and challenging.
A review by the Christian blogger Tim Challies (a pastor at the Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario) describes Pearl’s book as, ‘one of the harshest, angriest books I have read on this side of Richard Dawkins and this critical spirit is displayed in insulting language, in lack of sympathy, and in the passing of harsh judgments.’
I was unaware until now that the term ‘helpmeet’ is today being used to castigate women in the name of patriarchy and the Christian God. As Liberman might say, the use of this novelty is this case is not beautiful.
Although one of Pearl’s line did make me smile. In writing about Eve as God’s birthday gift to Adam, she says, ‘My husband, who is a learned student of the Word, assures me that Eve was indeed a birthday present, as seen by the fact that they were both wearing their birthday suits.’ (cue emoji).
Pearl then encourages her reader to greet their husband when he wakes up in the morning with an ‘inviting smile and a welcoming body’. A wife, according to Pearl, is created by God as a helper to suit the needs of her man, to make him complete and not to seek personal fulfilment parallel to him. A failing marriage in Pearl’s book is almost always put down to the wife, whatever the circumstances, and it is the wife who must change her game . For example, if the reader suspects that her husband is having an affair, she must use her feminine wiles to win him back,
‘Write love notes he will find when he gets to the office. Don’t ride him with suspicion. Don’t play detective and follow him around. But do call his work with a giggle in your voice, and give him fair warning that you expect “some loving” when he gets home, then giggle and ask him if he is blushing … Make sure you are looking radiant and delightfully in love.’
As I read on my smile disappears.
I reach for Jane Eyre, thinking if that’s what being a helpmeet means, I’d much rather, like Jane, resist the iron shroud of marriage with a man who, ‘regarded one but as a useful tool.’
Jane may in the end marry Mr Rochester with a love that is strengthened now she can really be useful to him (now he is blind), but in their partnership they are, ‘ever together … as free in solitude, as gay in company.’
If you have never heard of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ by Norah Margaret Ruth Cordner James, or of James herself, it is not surprising. Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929.
The novel was swiftly ruled obscene at the Bow Street Police Court in March 1929, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place that is neglected in favour of more esteemed names and better writers including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence (see my post on ‘Mr Reuben, Penguin Books & Lady Chatterley’) and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for James and ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, many banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience.
James lived from 1896 to 1979, and had numerous occupations. She was an art student at the Slade, a civil servant and trade union organiser at the Ministry of Pensions, a publicist for the English publisher Jonathan Cape, literary talent scout for American publisher William Morrow, a journalist, private secretary to parliamentary candidate Barbara Ayrton-Gould (mother of the sculptor, filmmaker and author, Michael Ayrton), and the Author’s Society representative on the National Book Council. In 1939 James joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and then the Air Transport Auxiliary. She was appointed Staff Captain in the Directorate of Public Relations at the War Office and invalided out in 1943. She later became a borough councillor in Finsbury.
The oeuvre of a minor author
James wrote over 75 publications including novels, radio plays and a great many short stories and articles such as a 1938 feature for the Aberdeen Press and Journal entitled, ‘Are you a cheat in the marriage game?’
A 1936 review of a James novel, ‘The Lion Beat the Unicorn’, describes her works as a ‘gallery of very human men and women–people like you and your neighbour and the rest of the world.’ The review declares that family life is a theme with which James is very much at home. From the titles I’ve read thus far, this assessment captures the essence of James’ approach to her writing and points to her popular appeal amongst a certain demographic.
I wonder if any of James’ readers were aware that she was gay (or as one would say in her day, lesbian). Not many, I suspect. For the second half of her life James lived with her partner, and occasional co-author, Barbara Beauchamp. In her 1939 autobiography (dedicated to Beauchamp), James chose to avoid writing about her ‘emotional life’.
So far, I’ve read the following:
Sleeveless Errand (1929)
Hail! All Hail! (1929)
I Lived in a Democracy (1939) (autobiography)
Jake the Dog: An Animal Story (1933) (illustrated by Ruth Vale)
Mrs Piffy: A Child’s-Eye View of Life (1934) (illustrated with photographs by C.C. Gaddum)
Cottage Angles (1935) (illustrated by Gwen Raverat)
The Hunted Heart (1941)
Green Fingers and the Gourmet (1949), with Barbara Beauchamp (illustrated by Bruce Roberts)
Hospital Angles (1966) (not ‘Angels’ as listed by the bookseller)
In another 1936 review of another novel, ‘By a Side Wind’, described as ‘curiously mixed’, James’ story is said to be told with,
‘a wearying of sincere simplicity. To the simple-minded who are not afraid of writing that does not call a spade a garden implement, this queer mixture might be palatable.’
The romances are not really my cup of tea but I felt I should read a few to get an overall sense of James’ style. When my copy of ‘Hospital Angles’ arrived and I noticed that it was published by Hurst and Blackett, I must confess I couldn’t get Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket and their hilarious double entendres out of my mind. I can just hear them singing this line from ‘The Hunted Heart’,
‘His mind sped out the room, tossed forth from the high, bright column of his longing.’
Research and rumours
On reading James’ autobiography, it is not difficult to see that much of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is autobiographical, though I’m pleased to acknowledge that James’ real life took a very different turn to that of her protagonist, Paula Cranford. James’ life is not terribly well documented and I’m still piecing together a chronology and narrative with a mind to publishing a concise biography at some time in the future. I do have enough material for an illustrated talk and will add the topic to my current list of available topics for groups and societies (see page on this website).
I do know that for a number of years during the 1930s, James had a weekend cottage in Great Gransden, the village where I currently reside. I have our friend Val Davison, organiser of the Gransdens Society, to thank for introducing me to the life and work of James. I’m also grateful for the support and encouragement of Dr Charles Turner, friend and village resident, whose aunt’s dog, Brandy, appears in ‘Jake the Dog.’
People do still talk about James’ weekend life in Great Gransden. There is rumour of a ménage à trois, but that is all it is, rumour. We know she jointly purchased the Old Cottage in West Street with Margaret and Frederick Voigt in the early 1930s and she mainly lived with Margaret in London whilst Frederick worked in Berlin for the Manchester Guardian. In 1929, James had travelled to America with Margaret (an American journalist and biographer, Margaret – formerly Margaret Goldsmith – had had a short affair in Berlin with Vita Sackville-West in 1928 and went on to divorce Voigt in 1935).
James on the book trade
James’ autobiography is one of her more interesting tomes, not least because she had a spell working for the publisher, Jonathan Cape from 1926, and makes insightful observations of the book trade which are still relevant today. She observed the prosaic aspects of the business which involved, ‘sitting at a desk and calculating the price of paper per pound’, and acknowledged also, the excitement of the unknown whereby,
‘the whole thing was a gamble. Probably only one book out of five makes money for the publisher. Although you think that you can generally guess which of the five is a winner, you’re not always right.’
Her specific role at Cape was in the ‘queer game’ of publicity and she astutely recognised that a book sells if people talk about it. For James, a book has to be ‘talk-worthy’,
‘One can suggest, in various ways, to people, the book they should be speaking about, but if they haven’t the urge to talk, they won’t. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important things in selling a book.’
And on authors, she writes, ‘Then there were the authors, quite important people–although not so important as they often imagined.’
The plot is uncomplicated and takes place over two days in the early 1920s. Paula Cranford, jilted by her lover, resolves to commit suicide. She meets Bill Cleland and together they wander around London night clubs meeting Paula’s bohemian associates, ‘The Crowd’. Paula and Bill talk all night at her place about their respective families and circumstances, and form a suicide pact, planning to drive a hire car over a cliff on the coast. They drive towards Hove, break down in Brighton and spend the night in a hotel where they meet with a travelling revue company. Bill has second thoughts about suicide and Paula persuades him to return to his wife. She then ends her own life as she had planned before meeting Bill.
Alexander Lockwood, in his 2014 doctoral thesis, observes that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ fails to support post-war efforts to renew British identity through a ‘conservative modernity’ of fixed social relations, marriage and women’s domesticity. During the 1920s the tide was certainly turning, as Patricia Fara, in her 2018 examination of science and suffrage in the First World War (‘A Lab of One’s Own’), concludes, when she declares that however much traditionalists argued for a return to the old conventions, the upheavals of wartime had proved that social change was possible,
‘gender boundaries were more severely challenged and there was no going back to exactly the same situation.’
The feminist cause does not appear, however, to be a primary concern in James’ perceived rejection of the old conventions in this novel. One wonders if her protagonist, Paula, is wedded to any cause at all, as she rejects life itself and all that it entails. The clue is in the title, as given in this definition from The Oxford Dictionary which James herself cites at the beginning;
‘Sleeveless Errand :– Ending in, or leading to nothing’
(Meaning a fool’s errand, this now obsolete phrase is found in Act Five of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.)
We know from early on in the novel that Paula is planning to commit suicide. We even know how she will do it. But why?
Various suggestions have been put forward, including the post-war malaise, an augmentation of the disappointment that characterised ‘feminine middlebrow’ fiction and the failure of hope, a profound boredom, and a rejection of the internal reflection that was afforded by the flowering of psychoanalysis in contemporary popular culture.
The literary critic, Edward Garnett, who wrote the Preface for the First Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ (1929), had called the novel, ‘a real diagnosis of the War generation’s neurotics’. He had also concluded, in his Preface, that the novel’s censorship was a case of, ‘moral righteousness and official Pecksniffery’.
In the Preface, Garnett cites Arnold Bennett’s assessment of the novel as,
“an absolutely merciless exposure of neurotics and decadents, and I should say that the effect of it on the young reader would have been to destroy in him all immoral and unconventional impulses for ever and ever.”
James declared her novel was indeed about neurotics but was not of itself, neurotic. The post-war malaise is certainly not ignored, and Paula Cranford has her own distinctive take on happiness, the moral code, pacifism, the Church, democracy, sexual control and corruption, and marriage. Whilst declaring that her generation seems not to have any moral values at all, Paula says,
“as a whole, my generation of women is rotten to the core… We sneer at goodness and decency whenever we come across it. We’re bored with people who aren’t bawdy. We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner. We despise people who don’t swill booze down as we do,”
She does at least pose a determinant,
“Freedom came too quickly for us. We weren’t ready for it. We had no reserves with which to meet the deadly disappointment after the War of finding ourselves workless, and husbandless and useless. Those of us who had cared a bit about reconstruction and all that came down with even a greater bang, for we found that there wasn’t going to be any reconstruction at all… it’s in the next generation of children that the chance of a better future lies. The only thing my sort can do is to contaminate them as little as possible.”
Lockwood acknowledges that boredom was a common experience in the interwar period. Paula’s boredom is manifested in her refusal to wallow in self-analysis. In her conversations with Bill, Paula refers to her own ‘handicap of bad heredity’ and calls herself a ‘hopeless egoist’ and a ‘neurotic emotionalist’. But having done so, she then rejects the modern way of introspection (a way that could possibly lead to a reason for living) and, ultimately, any perceived notion of a noble obligation to society, as she tells Bill,
“I’m not going from any quixotic idea that because I’m part of the plague spot I ought to; no, it’s simply that I’m unutterably bored.”
Bill thinks to himself,
“She’s right to die; she at any rate is damned.”
The publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’
In 1928, Eric Honeywood Partridge of Scholartis Press accepted the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ for publication. He paid James a £25 advance and received pre-orders from booksellers for around 1,500 copies (the cover price was 7s6d). (Partridge went on to become a renowned lexicographer. I recently bought a 1937 edition of his ‘Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English’, in which I could not find an entry for the phrase, ‘sleeveless errand’, or indeed, ‘fool’s errand’.)
James had previously offered the manuscript of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to her employer, Jonathan Cape, who, whilst appreciating a ‘glowing’ 1928 assessment by Garnett (‘A very interesting novel very well written’), was concerned about upsetting his authors who might have thought she had neglected the promotion of their books for her own writing. In 1939 James writes,
‘I had to agree with him that it might lead to difficulties with some of our authors. I knew how touchy they could be.’
She had also offered the manuscript to the Hogarth Press, meeting with Leonard and Virginia Woolf who turned it down (later on, following the book’s suppression, Virginia described it as ‘vulgar’ but not offensive).
An obscene book
The British Establishment condemned ‘Sleeveless Errand’ with incredible speed, effectively obliterating the very act of publication. Although according to Neil Pearson in his 2007 history of Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press (see below), a few collectors and copyright libraries retained a copy from that first print run, technically retaining it as the first edition. Copies had also been sent to reviewers and to Partridge’s contacts in America.
It was reported that on the evening of 20 February 1929, the Police seized 517 copies. They called upon Eric Partridge at home, escorted him to his office in Museum Street, and confiscated all 289 copies therein including 39 that bore James’ signature. They listed the names of all who had received copies; ten booksellers, the distributor Simpkin Marshall (250 copies) and the exporter William Jackson and Company (100 copies). According to one report, Scotland Yard posted a police constable outside the premises of a bookseller who had placed the book on display in his shop window whilst taking a short holiday. They also visited a reviewer and seized her advance copy, and 1,000 unbound sheets from the The Garden City Press Ltd in Letchworth.
James was oblivious to these events and in 1939 recalls,
‘On the day of publication I walked to the office in Bedford Square, and, on my way, passed a news placard saying: “Woman’s Novel Seized.” So far was I from connecting SE with that news item, that I never even stopped to buy a copy of the paper.’
Just three months earlier James had attended the trial of another banned book, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall. It was the first time she had ever been inside a courtroom. James had got to know Hall through Jonathan Cape who had asked her to read Hall’s manuscript when he was considering publication. Hall and James both frequented the Cave of Harmony, a club owned by the actress Elsa Lanchester (‘Bride of Frankenstein’), a popular meeting place for London intellectuals. James writes in her autobiography,
‘I found her [Hall] an extremely highly-strung woman, with one of the kindest hearts in the world… The Well of Loneliness was a fine and sincere piece of work, and I think it did a great deal of good in enlightening people on a subject that had been too long hidden under a veil of dirty innuendo or shamed self-conscious silence.’
Ostensibly banned because of its obscene language (see below), although in the American edition only three words were cut from the original text, ‘Sleeveless Errand’ tends to be coupled with ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by academics and historians. The challenge that these two books represented to the patriarchal status quo has been observed as a factor in their censorship. Angela Ingram, for example, declares that both novels, in their different ways, show how ‘utterly unalluring’ heterosexual life often was.
The two novels have, however, fared very differently. Initially republished in 1949, ‘The Well of Loneliness’ has over the years gained what Harrison calls, a ‘cultural legitimacy’ that is denied to ‘Sleeveless Errand’. But then ‘The Well of Loneliness’ was a landmark in the history of queer literature.
In 1929, the writer and publisher Percy ‘Inky’ Stephensen, penned a lampoon entitled, ‘The Well of Sleevelessness’, also published by Scholartis Press.
The British Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks (a public morality campaigner who had been instrumental in the prosecution of ‘The Well of Loneliness’), sent a copy of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He had received his copy from the editor of the Morning Post with a covering note declaring the book obscene. A Home Office briefing prepared by a senior civil servant declares,
‘It is astonishing that such a book could be written by a woman, but the authoress must be a woman whose command of foul, obscene, indecent and profane language is, I should hope, unique amongst women who can write.’
The Home Office file for the prosecution itself is missing but there is a transcript of the trial and The Times reported the court proceedings on 5 March 1929. The case against the book, as put by Mr Percival Clarke, supporting the summons on behalf of the Director of Public Prosecutions, is reported accordingly,
‘The book itself was a novel of 239 pages. The story concerned a period of two days, and was told in the form of a conversation by persons entirely devoid of decency and morality, who for the most part were under the influence of drink, and who not only tolerated but even advocated adultery and promiscuous fornication. Filthy language and indecent situations appeared to be the keynote of the book. He (counsel) did not pretend to be a literary critic, but it seemed to him to be degrading that such a collection of obscene matter should be published by any respectable firm. It was the aim of some writers to pass off as literature matter which could only have a degrading, immoral influence, and which tended to excite unhealthy persons; and to command a market by writing daring and corrupt stories. One thing noticeable about this book was that the name of God or Christ was taken in vain more than 60 times in a way which shocked. Mr. Clarke quoted from the book the saying of one character, “For Christ’s sake give me a drink”, and said that profanity could not possibly be justified, even by the characters in the book.’
The Crown Prosecutor’s file highlighted certain lines from the novel, such as, ‘We call them prigs and prudes if they don’t want to talk about copulation at lunchtime and buggery at dinner.’
Mr Clarke is reported in The Times as stating, “There are decent-minded people who read books and appreciate some of the beauties in English literature, and they look to the strong arm of the law to check and prevent the broadcasting of such foul stuff as this.”
And for the defence, The Times reports Mr Sandlands as stating, “There were a lot of horrible things in it, but the object of the book was to hold up to horror the mode of life and the language and habits of a certain section of the community… far from tending to deprave and demoralise, this book tended entirely the other way. Shakespeare’s works and the Old Testament mentioned horrible things in order to condemn them or to exhort against their use… It called attention to the despair and hopelessness and waste of the life alluded to by contrasting it with a normal life.”
Lord Chief Justice Cockburn was certain that the book would, “suggest to the minds of the young of either sex, or even to persons of more advanced years, thoughts of a most impure character.” He made an order for the destruction of the seized copies; 785 of the 799 were destroyed (there are questions over exactly how many copies Scholartis Press had in the first print run).
Later, in 1939, James writes,
‘I could not understand why. The book had been read by a number of well-known literary people in manuscript, and no one had suggested that I should make any cuts in it. But, apparently, it was called an obscene book–simply because of the words used in it. I would have cut them out willingly if I’d been told it was necessary. But I’d never been told that. It never occurred to me that it would be considered obscene to let the characters in it use the language they used in real life… I don’t believe the book was obscene. I do know that it was a kind of sermon against the stupidity and futility of the life a section of the post-war generation was leading.’
Harrison acknowledges that the official reason for the novel’s suppression cannot help but be attributed to James’s own supposed naïve or superficial–but ultimately heretical–attempt at “being frank”. Its vocabulary was crude, but according to James and her publisher, not intentionally obscene. In a contemporary interview with The Times, James described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as “an extremely moral book and a condemnation of the people and the life it portrays.” Eric Partridge was of the opinion that the novel had been suppressed for political reasons, with obscenity being a ‘mere pretext’.
Paris and United States editions
An English writer in Paris, Jack Kahane, was also quick off the mark. Having followed the ‘Sleeveless Errand’ case, he decided to publish an English-language edition in France and secured the rights accordingly. James stipulated that half of her royalties from the Kahane deal be paid to Eric Partridge by way of recompense for the loss of income brought about by the trial. She also agreed to place her next novel, ‘Hail! All Hail!’ with Scholartis, which came out in 1929 with this introduction,
‘Miss James’s first novel, Sleeveless Errandwas suppressed. Her new story deals most attractively with life in the English countryside and with a poor district in West Central London. Hail! All Hail! shows an undoubted advance on Sleeveless Errand, which Mr. Arnold Bennett declared to be well constructed and well written, and to disclose a new talent for fiction. Here the pattern of a certain family’s life is worked out with skill and a rare sympathy.’
Kahane’s first Paris Edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published in April 1929 (copies appeared in French bookshops as early as the end of March 1929). Kahane paid Edward Garnett five hundred francs for the preface and set the cover price at one hundred francs. The resulting profit of four hundred thousand francs effectively kickstarted Kahane’s publishing career. He went on to establish the Obelisk Press and re-printed several banned books including Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’ and books by D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and Radclyffe Hall.
An American edition of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was published by William Morrow and sold well (around 20,000 copies), enabling James to buy a second-hand car and a typewriter (Morrow also gave James the job of representing his firm in Britain as a literary scout). ‘Sleeveless Errand’ was translated into at least six other languages but has never be republished in Britain.
Following the publication in America, Basil Dean, the English film director and theatrical producer, told James that he was quite taken with the book and thought it would make a good play. James, who had high hopes, wrote a script which Dean showed to Noel Coward, who found it to be ‘too defeatist’. The American actress, Talullah Bankhead, told James she thought Paula was not a nice character, and declared, “actresses don’t like being thought not nice–on the stage or off it!”
Wren Sidhe in her 2001 doctoral thesis, considers ‘Sleeveless Errand’ to be ‘an indictment of the generation responsible for the prosecution of the war’ and observes as a matter of interest, the fact that court reports neglect this aspect of the text in favour of one which accuses the writer and publisher of immorality. The novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation. This perspective points to the novel’s suppression as a case of conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action; a conclusion reached by Harrison who calls ‘Sleeveless Errand’ a ‘marginalized and possibly marginal novel’.
‘Sleeveless Errand’ certainly has a place in censorship and publishing history and, as Lockwood points out, it contributed to the establishment of the Obelisk Press and was ‘the first link in the chain’ of their publication of other banned yet more enduring books.
Opinion on the quality of James’ writing in ‘Sleeveless Errand’ is divided. In 1934, T. S. Matthews, literary editor of Time Magazine, described ‘Sleeveless Errand’ as, ‘A story of post-war London; one of the few convincing suicide stories I remember.’ In contrast, Neil Pearson describes it as ‘a deeply terrible book, maudlin, melodramatic and fatally upstaged by its obvious and unabsorbed influences.’ A review recently published on Sheffield Hallam University’s blog on popular fiction 1900-1950, concludes the narrative would have been more successful if the story had been shorter and sharper.
Whilst the subject matter of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ holds much interest, I personally find James’ writing at times clunky and guileless. I’m not offended by the novel’s content, though I suspect there are those today who would find certain terms unacceptable, including the ‘n’ word and, like me, would disagree with Bill’s private thoughts on women and rape.
The story of the book and its censorship would make an excellent drama, especially if placed in the capable hands of British playwright and director, Stephen Poliakoff, who has so successfully tackled a number of intriguing episodes in twentieth century history.
Durability is something that ‘Sleeveless Errand’ lacks, as it is still ‘quarantined from literary expression’.
Perhaps it is time for a new British edition, with or without expurgation.
Brief bibliography, in addition to James’ works cited above:
In a previous post on ‘Mazes, opium and publishing deals’, I noted that anyone who wanted Heffers of Cambridge to publish their book had to be interviewed by ‘Mr Heffer’ – most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or his son, ‘Mr Reuben’. By the early twentieth century, Heffers of Cambridge, the bookseller, stationer, printer and publisher was, ‘known all over the world’.
The author and self-proclaimed mystic, Aelfrida Tillyard, described by her biographer Sheila Mann as a ‘forgotten 20th Century writer’, appeared to have had a good working relationship with Mr Ernest (son of the firm’s founder, William Heffer). Heffers published seven of her titles between 1910 and 1926.
Cambridge born, Aelfrida (1883-1959) was the daughter of nonconformists, Alfred and Catharine Tillyard. Alfred was editor of the Cambridge Independent Press and Catharine, a staunch advocate for women’s higher education (Antony Carpen writes about Catharine in his ‘Lost Cambridge’ blog).
The relevant volume of the Heffer publishing diaries is unfortunately missing and I cannot ascertain the exact contractual terms between the firm and Tillyard. I can, however, piece together a cameo that reveals yet another aspect to the fascinating history of Heffers.
The Tillyard titles published by Heffers are:
To Malise and other poems (1910) 2s 6d Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard (1913) 5s Bammie’s Book (1915) The Garden and the Fire (1916) 2s 6d The Making of a Mystic (1917) 2s 6d Verses for Alethea (1920) Agnes E. Slack: two hundred thousand miles travel for temperance in four continents (1926) 7s 6d and 3s 6d
To Malise and other poems
To Malise was published by subscription and, as Mann reports, we do not know if Tillyard covered her costs. The poems contained in the volume are intensely personal, detailing her husband Constantine’s courtship of her and the early years of their marriage. Mann describes Tillyard’s dedication, ‘À toi’, and inscription, ‘to my perfectly beloved husband’ as simultaneously fulsome, truthful and duplicitous. The poems revealed Tillyard’s misery and desperation for freedom from the marriage, in contrast to her professed happiness at the time; ‘I wonder if I shall ever be quite as happy again’. Anyone with the slightest inclination of Tillyard’s true feelings about her marriage would have understood, as Constantine must have done, the significance of this humiliating publication. Was Ernest Heffer aware of the situation? It is unlikely. Whilst we cannot know what Tillyard said in the ‘interview’ with her prospective publisher, we can surmise that her case for publication would have focussed upon the higher themes and her potential sales appeal as an author – she did once describe herself as, ‘better than Christina Rossetti’.
It is not surprising that the relationship between Tillyard and Constantine Cleanthes Graham continued to deteriorate. Later, in November 1917, she writes in her diary:
‘I tried not to be hurt that he was so completely indifferent to my interests & pursuits, and, incidentally, extremely rude to me over my opinions… but it is difficult not to feel chilled when one’s husband says “I do not think thy opinion is worth having.”’
‘This morning he asked me whether I expected to make any money out of my books. I answered no, not a penny. And then he suggested my doing some war work & hinted that he thought I was wasting my time.’
They divorced in 1921.
Cambridge Poets 1900-1913
Mann describes the excitement stirred up by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s 1913 lectures, especially his call for Cambridge to ‘take the lead in English poetry once more’ (having recently edited the 1912 Oxford Book of Victorian Verse). Tillyard was prompted to call on Quiller-Couch (known as ‘Q’) by appointment at Jesus College, armed with a proposal for a ‘scheme of Cambridge poets’. He approved her proposal and even agreed to pen an introduction. Tillyard reported in her diary that upon leaving ‘Q’, she ‘raced to Heffers and told [her] victory’. She also reported that she and ‘Young Heffer’ began to make plans. Presumably, she is distinguishing between Heffer senior (Ernest’s father, William) and Heffer junior (Ernest himself), seeing that Ernest was eight years older than Tillyard.
In writing about the production of the resulting publication, Cambridge Poets 1900-1913: An Anthology: chosen by Aelfrida Tillyard, Mann acknowledges Ernest Heffer’s greater knowledge of the world of publishing. He would have been aware of a forthcoming title, Oxford Poetry 1910-13, and he suggested that Tillyard include poetry written by Cambridge poets between 1900 and 1913. I wonder what Ernest would have made of the Birmingham Daily Post review in which the paper, ‘contemplated with considerable astonishment, but little admiration’, the inclusion of twenty pages of poetry written by the occultist Aleister Crowley. Mann sees this as an early indication of Crowley’s influence on Tillyard, partly because his poems had most likely been written before 1900 (he was at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1895-1898) and therefore did not fit her stated selection criteria. Those who are intrigued by the story of Tillyard’s relationship with ‘Crowley and Crowleyism’, and his Ceremonial Magic, will find a comprehensive account in Mann’s biography.
For details about negotiations between the author and publisher for the publication of this anthology, we just have Tillyard’s personal diary to go on and she was clearly excited about the book. She must have felt it to be a positive omen when Heffers agreed to bear all the expenses and divide the profits with her. Ernest also sought an independent opinion on the book from Maynard Keynes prior to drawing up a contract, but this was not forthcoming and he settled instead for ‘Q’s blessing’.
By 1913, Ernest Heffer (1871-1948) was a respected publisher and bookseller. The fourth son of the firm’s founder, he had been a sickly child of a studious disposition. Ernest learned his trade at the Heffers Fitzroy Street shop which had a thriving Children’s Book Department. During the 1880s, the firm’s connection with the Cambridge Sunday School Association provided a business breakthrough when they began to supply Sunday School prizes. Ernest tells a tale of the time when he recommended Marryat’s Japhet in Search of a Father, the story of a foundling in search of his father, as a Sunday School prize. Evidently, his selection was not well received, as the vicar he recommended it to threw it back at him after having read it.
Despite such early hiccups, Ernest went on to play a significant role in building up the bookselling side of the business, overseeing the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896. He seemed equally at ease in commercial and literary circles. Ernest attended the inaugural meeting of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce in January 1917 and also served as President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association. As his son, Reuben declared, Ernest, ‘blew the stuff of books into the firm’. His obituary in The Times described Ernest as:
‘a bookseller in charge who knew something about the insides of books. If he found you dipping into a newly published book he might strongly recommend it, having read it himself the night before, or on the other hand, he might urge you not to buy such rubbish … Both Cambridge and the book trade have lost a “character”.’
The Making of a Mystic
On 22 July 1917, Tillyard took her manuscript of The Making of a Mystic to Heffers for a meeting. Ernest quoted a cost of £40 for a 120-page publication and quickly agreed to act as the publisher. Tillyard writes on 24 July, ‘Quite an exciting day. Heffer says he thinks they will “love to publish” my book’. The contract was not signed until 13 September, shortly after the final manuscript had been submitted for printing. On 11 November, Tillyard writes:
‘I went to the works to see about some labels for Constantine, & asked about my book. “Oh!” cried Mr Frank Heffer “Fate & the Gods are against us! The machine broke down and –“ a long tale of woes. I was prepared to learn that the book would not be out before Christmas, when he added “But you can have an advance copy today”. It quite took my breath away! What is more, I got five copies. I learn too, that 130 copies have already been ordered!! Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.’
Frank Heffer (1876-1933) was the second youngest son of William and Mary Heffer. He had had to have a leg amputated as a child. Ernest wrote of his brother, ‘what he lost in the leg, he made up in animal spirits’, and described him as ‘having the face of a saint; but mischief was always in his vicinity’. Frank studied Medicine at Sidney Sussex, Cambridge, but was brought into the business in 1900. He became managing director of the firm’s printing works, after Heffers obtained the Black Bear Press (Dixon’s Printing Works Ltd) in 1911.
Tillyard’s literary prescience
Tillyard had a number of publishers over the years. It is interesting to note her title published in 1930, not by Heffers, but by Hutchinson. Concrete: a Story of Two Hundred Years Hence, is a novel that depicts a dystopian world following the collapse of civilization in the twentieth century via various events including a revolution of the proletariat in the Western world, a plague that wipes out three-quarters of the human race, and a repetition of the Dancing Mania of the Middle Ages. It is now 2126, the ‘Age of Reason’, an international civilization. Religion is banned and performance of any religious ceremony is punishable by death. Britain is governed locally by the Eugenist Party, with absolute power over human reproduction. The population is divided into eugenic groups, the lower of which are forbidden to propagate. Males are not allowed to marry before thirty. Biologically unfit individuals are euthanatized.
The president of the British Empire oversees a number of ministries such as the Ministry of Reason, headed by an official called ‘Big Brother’. There is also a Ministry of Aesthetics, responsible for propaganda. Described by American editor and scholar of science fiction, Everett F. Bleiler, as a ‘drab dictatorship’, the state in Tillyard’s future Britain is characterized by ubiquitous spying, ruthless thought control and a ready death penalty. The Western Morning News & Mercury declares that Concrete strikes a topical note as Tillyard pictures a world in which Sovietism is triumphant, religion abolished, and the reign of reason inaugurated. This new world is comfortable enough materially, but its inhabitants are thoroughly bored with life. The paper asks, will religion return and help them find a meaning in existence? As Concrete was published in 1930, it is difficult not to assume that her writing influenced both Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1932) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949). Tillyard’s protagonist, Alaric, works at the Ministry of Aesthetics and Orwell’s Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth. Both are subversives but only one finds redemption.
Originally submitted for a religious novel competition run by Hodder and Stoughton, Mann describes Tillyard’s novel as an attempt to bring the world to light that ended in darkness – sales did not go well. Tillyard put this down to her publisher, Hutchinson, noting they were not being taken seriously and they were ‘known to be circulating library trash’. It is interesting that Mann writes about Concrete in her chapter on ‘Rubbish that will sell’. Tillyard’s indifference to domestic affairs and her failure to economise meant she needed to make money from her writing. I wonder how the novel might have fared had it been published by Heffers.
I came across Tillyard’s connection with Heffers quite by chance, when reading her 1917 diary at the Girton College Archive for another project. Intrigued, I purchased a copy of Mann’s 2013 ‘novel biography’ of Tillyard, Hints of a Perfect Splendour. It is a tour de force and a joy to read.
I continue to discover more about the history of Heffers and regularly give illustrated talks on the topic to groups and societies in and around Cambridge, and beyond. If you would like to book a talk, do get in touch – email@example.com
I will soon visit Histon Road Cemetery in Cambridge, to look at the Tillyard family monuments. The cemetery is located close to where I grew up.
And finally, I have ordered a copy of Tillyard’s biography of her aunt, Agnes E. Slack (1926), as I am interested in the history of Methodism and the Temperance Movement.
It seems the older I get, the more ‘joined-up’ my research and writing becomes.
As we advance the clocks it’s now warm enough for me to work in the ‘Philosopher’s Hut’, my pimped garden shed geared up for writing, and I have much to think about. I’ve been ruminating of late on existential topics, reading Joan Forman on the nature of time and Simone de Beauvoir on the meaning of what it is to live and to die. It’s partly the work on our new book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire, that led me to Forman’s writing, which in turn led me to revisit works that I haven’t read for years such as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
My cerebral batteries have also been re-charged by a fresh dialectic between a long-proclaimed Cambridge family doctrine and the ‘truth’ that lies behind the life and death of my great-great grandmother Susan Anstee (1864-1914), whose name I learned only last year thanks to a disclosure by a distant cousin.
As a child I wanted to connect with people from the past. I was drawn to stories that shifted our sense of time and history. Particular favourites were Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Gardenand Charlotte Sometimes. It’s a revelation for Tom Long that neither he nor his new friend from the midnight garden are ghosts. He discovers whilst different people have different times, they’re really all bits of the same big Time. People are not really living in the past but are instead living out their individual existences in different layers of that same big Time.
I didn’t know then that I would have to wait over forty years to experience that interruption of now, that moment of timeless synchronicity, when a far family memory is revealed in all its unseemly glory. Consequently, as well as continuing my researches on the topics of Cambridge college servants (which I began in 2016) and the life and work of the author Norah C. James (which I began in 2018), I’m now looking into plight of sex workers in Victorian Cambridge.
Yesterday I attended a course at the Cambridge Central Library – ‘An introduction to memoir writing’. The whole session was a series of writing exercises, what I call ‘fast-twitch’ writing. Whilst stimulating, this was slightly disappointing. I wanted us to talk about what we mean by ‘memoir’ and to hear about published works that might be a good read. During the last six months I’ve read A Lincolnshire Childhood by Ursula Brighouse; I Lived in a Democracy by Norah C. James; In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, and A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir. For one of the workshop tasks we were given a few minutes to write about food that we did or didn’t like. I wrote about a memory from when I was eight or nine.
Gritty, chewy bogies on toast. My grandad would use a needle to delicately pick out the winkles one by one and lay them across a slice of thickly buttered toast. He offered me a taste and, not wanting to displease, I screwed up my eyes, held my nose and popped a tiny grey morsel into my mouth. He didn’t seem to notice my revulsion and smiled approvingly. Trying not to chew, I swallowed as quickly as I could and then took a gulp from my glass of lemonade.
The workshop was certainly a useful anaerobic interlude, prompting a return to the blog writing and a review of my collection of filled notebooks. These are not diaries but ‘sketch’ books, much like my husband Trevor’s but unlike his, filled with words rather than drawings.
Whilst my muscles do need stretching, it’s probably a good thing that my running days are over. The recent unsurprising diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my ankles and knees means I have more time to spend in the hut. Last year I completed The Curious History of Mazes which had to be written according to a strict schedule set by the publisher. Immediately after that I went on to the research and curation for the Window on the Warexhibition on women in Cambridge during World War I, and to the research for our first ghost book, Beer & Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Bedfordshire.
Last January I stepped down from the Monday Collections volunteering at the Museum of Cambridge, to release more time for me to assist Trevor with paid work in the studio. Besides working on the next in our Beer & Spirits series, I’m delivering many illustrated talks for a range of groups and societies on three topics; The Remarkable Story of Heffers of Cambridge, 1876-1999; The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes, and Beer and Spirits: tales of sightings, sounds and sensations in our local haunted hostelries.I enjoy engaging with different audiences and I enjoy winkling out the past, unsavoury though it may be for some.
My distant cousin said the other day, ‘I suppose you’ll be writing about Susan’.
Cambridge journalist Chris Elliott included my plea in his regular Memories feature and I keenly awaited the calls. I distinctly remember picking up the phone just a day or so later and hearing a gentle and cultured voice saying,
“Good afternoon, my name is Criddle. I understand you are seeking memories of Heffers.”
Subsequently, I spent many happy hours in the convivial company of Mr Criddle – Gerald – as he looked back upon his fifteen years at the firm. Before establishing his own Cambridge gallery in 1970, Gerald worked as an artist based at the Heffers Sidney Street stationery shop from 1955; a shop once aptly described by another former employee, Sarah Burton, as a “tower of treasures” (now a librarian, Sarah writes an interesting blog). Gerald’s office at Sidney Street was on the top floor, alongside the art gallery and boardroom, and he himself recalls the building as having, “a quality about it, you nestled into it.”
Award winning window displays
At Heffers, Gerald focussed on promotions, displays and greetings cards. His artistic talents were employed in putting together many inventive and award-winning window displays. Over the years he earned a total of £998 in prize money for the firm. Often, he would go up to London for the presentations. On one occasion he was presented with a cheque by the publisher Sir George Harrap, made out to him personally and not to Heffers. Sir George insisted that Gerald should have the money as he had done the work. However, the Heffers directors did not view it that way and insisted the money be set aside for purchasing window display materials.
This is Heffers, not WH Smith!
Gerald was also involved with greetings cards and calendars. For many years, Heffers had stocked a wide range of cards from suppliers such as J. Arthur Dixon and Valentines. In the 1950s and ’60s the industry was beginning to change with greetings cards imported from US companies such as Hallmark and Hanson White.
Gerald recalls answering his phone one day to John Heffer, who wanted to see him immediately in the boardroom (known among the staff as ‘Mr John’ to distinguish him from other members of the family working in the firm, John was a grandson of the firm’s founder and in charge of the stationery side of the business).
Whenever Mr John wanted to show someone something, he would slip it into a large notepad and fling it across the table. If the person on the receiving end side-stepped in order to avoid a collision, Mr John would exclaim, “butter fingers! On this occasion, Gerald caught the pad and inside were two Hanson White greetings cards, known as ‘slim-jims’, with black and white illustrations. One depicted a vicar at a sale saying,
‘Oh Miss Smith, what a lovely pear you’ve got!’,
to a very glamorous female holding up some fruit. The other also featured a vicar, this time standing behind a stall which held a large vegetable marrow and a lady saying,
‘My goodness, vicar, you have got a big one!’
Gerald thought they were funny. However, Mr John did not and exclaimed, “they are disgusting. This is Heffers, not W.H. Smith!” He asked Gerald to speak to Mrs Webb, the buyer responsible for cards. On doing so, Gerald discovered that whilst being pleased with the new stock of up-to-date designs, poor Mrs Webb had no clue about the innuendos.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Different Heffers shops approached sales of the new unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s controversial novel in very different ways. Gerald recalls that at Sidney Street, it was deemed that each sale would be individually handled by Mr Hobson, the store’s book buyer. Customers were to be shown the cover and then the book placed in a plain bag. After it had been on sale for a few weeks, Miss Dudley-Hay, in the Church Supplies department, had a customer enquire after the book. Her most emphatic response, heard by everyone right across the floor, was a loud cry to Mr Hobson,
“this gentleman wishes to purchase a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, will you attend to it?!”
Lunch at the Dorothy, visits to the theatre and a flight to Boulogne
While Sidney Street was undergoing another refurbishment, staff were given a voucher to buy their lunch at the Civic. Mr Court, manager at Sidney Street, one day asked Gerald for assistance during the lunch hour, and offered to pay for his lunch by way of compensation. Seeing this as an opportunity to dine somewhere nice, Gerald popped to the Dorothy Ballroom next door and had a three-course lunch for 6s 6d. Unsurprisingly, the firm refused to meet more than half the bill. (Gerald would often attend trade fairs at Earls Court in London or Birmingham, with Mr Court or Mr Biggs. These also involved dining out but, as Gerald recalls, he would be the only one drinking as both his managers were teetotal.)
Although shop-floor staff frequently worked on Saturdays, the Thursday half-day early closing had its benefits. Together with colleagues, Gerald would attend theatrical performances in London on these afternoons. These were paid for by a subscription of one shilling a week and organised by Miss Star on the Pen Counter and Mrs Snell. In the 1950s and ’60s it was possible to travel to London, go to the theatre and have dinner, all for twenty-five shillings (£26 at today’s value). I was not surprised to learn recently that Gerald was a member of the St John’s Players in Cambridge for many years.
In 1961 Heffers was feeling adventurous and scheduled an outing by air to Boulogne, France, with a charge to employees of £10 (£208 at today’s value) per head. Many had never flown before. Gerald (who went on fifteen staff outings in all), recalls the firm were so anxious about safety, that husbands and wives were asked to travel on separate planes. Some of the older ladies were full of trepidation but in the end thoroughly enjoyed it. At Boulogne they lunched in a casino and took a walk along the sea front. Dinner on the way home was at Stowmarket in Suffolk. As everyone disembarked the coach at the end of a long day they were reminded not to be late for work in the morning.
Gerald sadly passed away in January 2019.
These are a few of his Heffers stories and I’ve enjoyed revisiting them as I fondly recall our conversations. Gerald’s son, Tim, kindly told me that his father had been most impressed with ‘This Book is about Heffers’. My hope is that the book and my illustrated talks which include some of Gerald’s stories, will in a small way contribute to his legacy.
It was my privilege to meet such an interesting, talented and convivial gentleman.
Are there Cambridge women in your family who lived through WW1?
Do you have letters, documents or photographs you’d be willing to share?
If so, do please check out the Window on the War website or email firstname.lastname@example.org
My research so far, thanks to a number of leads including Ann Kennedy Smith’s excellent blog, has drawn me to the plight of Belgian refugees and the extraordinary altruistic response, initially of women and of the wider community.
It’s not knitting
In writing about the topic of philanthropy during the First World War, I’m sensitive to the danger of perpetuating the ‘sock knitting’ image of women’s voluntary action. Yes, many did knit, but that was not all they did. Press reports at the time, and indeed, several subsequent accounts are, at the very least, condescending in tone when it comes to the role of women.
As an undergraduate in 1980-83, I studied aspects of nineteenth and early twentieth century altruism and, from a personal perspective, came to venerate women social reformers and activists. Octavia Hill (1838-1912), for example. I may not have agreed with her distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, but Hill did inspire me to pursue an early career in social housing. Which reminds me of another more recent activist I greatly admired (and had the good fortune to meet); the homelessness campaigner Sheila McKechnie (1948-2004).
It is on housing where the initial response to the plight of Belgian refugees provides an interesting case study of private charity involving women during the First World War. Described by Dr Peter Grant as immediate, spontaneous and ‘bottom-up’, Britain’s response to this crisis in 1914 was characterised by a humanity that was (and still is) shared by members of all social classes. (Except, perhaps, Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, who wrote privately in 1914 that it was no time for charity and that the Belgians ‘ought to stay there and eat up continental food and occupy German policy attention’.)
In 1914, the London Society for Women’s Suffrage (a branch of Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies) carried out the registering of Belgian refugees and facilitated the provision of 150 French and Flemish interpreters.
In 2018, we have of course been commemorating the centenary of women’s suffrage whereby 8.5m British women gained the right to vote. Whilst the non-violent Suffragists and the more militant Suffragettes still had much to campaign for (full suffrage was not gained until 1928), both put aside their crusades in 1914, in order to concentrate on supporting the war effort.
I’m thrilled that in 2018, Millicent Fawcett (1847-1929) finally gained the recognition she deserved in Cambridge (and London), although I do wonder if, for Fawcett, the Cambridge City Blue Plaque unveiling would have been somewhat marred with the accompanying re-enactment of Emmeline Pankhurst’s speech, whose militancy was anathema to her.
The overall co-ordination of Britain’s response to the Belgian refugee crisis in 1914 was then taken up by the newly formed War Refugees Committee (WRC), who’s founding members included Lady Lugard and the Hon. Mrs Alfred Lyttleton. Communities across the country stepped up to the plate, as evidenced by the 1,000 letters to the WRC offering accommodation for the refugees, and offers of hospitality for 100,000 people. (The WRC itself quickly became overwhelmed and the Local Government Board took over the legal responsibility for the settlement of the refugees.)
Assistance flowed from town and gown. On 1st September 1914, Baroness Eliza von Hügel wrote to the Cambridge Daily News,
‘HOMES FOR BELGIAN REFUGEES
TO THE EDITOR
Sir,– Your readers must already be aware of the terrible misery at present existing in Belgium, and that great efforts are being made all over England to afford shelter as well as sympathy to the women and children of all classes who have been rendered homeless by the outrages of the last few weeks. Many of them are now in London in most desolate plight… I have already secured some premises from various friends in the town, but it would greatly facilitate the work if others, where hearts are moved towards Belgium, would kindly let me know, with the least possible delay, if they are able to help in any way in this urgent work of charity.’
This was the beginning of Cambridge’s Hügel Homes for Belgian Refugees, which ran from 1914 to 1918.
Families cannot be separated
In October 1914, Cambridge received wounded Belgian soldiers and 100 Belgian refugees. All the refugees were expected to be housed temporarily at the Corn Exchange before they were found homes. It was mid-September when von Hügel learned that the refugees would be coming in large families and again writing to the Press, she declared that, ‘practically all the refugees continue to arrive in families which cannot be separated.’
As you may imagine, the phrase ‘cannot be separated’ leapt off the page. One cannot help comparing the treatment of the 1914 Belgian refugees with that of families in ‘modern day’ America, traumatised by the implementation of Trump’s zero tolerance policy towards immigrants. Trump is not the first US President to have families separated at the Border Patrol Processing Centres but his policy of detaining and prosecuting adults is reportedly resulting in many more family separations. The sight of families being broken up and of children being held in chain-link fence enclosures is deeply disturbing, no matter when the photographs were taken.
What would the Baroness have made of this? In her 1919 report on the scheme, Hügel Homes For Belgian Refugees (co-authored with her husband), she observed that it would have been ‘both difficult and unkind’ to break up the large family groups.
In 1914, von Hügel’s friends and the residents of Cambridge rallied round to keep the families together and to provide them with homes, provisions, medical care and education. Mrs Poole undertook to prepare the houses for occupation by the families. Her band of volunteers laboured, ‘early and late as char-women, house-maids, upholsterers and decorators’ and in a very few days put house after house into commission.
It has been suggested that the Cambridge Belgian Relief Committee went to great lengths to be sent only socially acceptable refugees, though Baroness von Hügel did emphasise in her second letter to the Press that the first families will, if possible, be selected from the poorer category (on registration, the refugees were divided into two classes, ‘officielle’ meaning skilled and ‘ouvrière’ meaning non-skilled, possibly echoing remnants of nineteenth century Charity Organisation Society moralism).
The Trumpington Local History Group has published an account of their own local charitable support for a family of Belgian refugees, as reported in the Cambridge Press at the time. In November 1914, a house at 27 Shelford Road was taken and furnished for occupation by a Monsieur Latour and family. ‘Practically all’ the Trumpington residents assisted in some way or other. A French class, hosted by Miss Pemberton at Trumpington Hall, gave Monsieur Latour employment as the instructor. And in March 1915, Mrs J. Collins organised a fundraising concert for the Trumpington Belgian Relief Fund, attended by the Latour family.
Over 60,000 Belgians worked in Britain during the First World War. The Belgian women in Cambridge worked as dressmakers, lace makers and as French and Flemish teachers. Some of the unmarried women took posts as resident or daily governesses, nursery governesses, companions or mothers’ helps, as noted in a 1915 Cambridge Town Committee Report.
Abundant with donations of all kinds
Money was raised across Cambridge for the Belgian refugees through weekly and monthly subscriptions (individuals and organisations), events such as an amateur concert in New Chesterton (Mrs White, raising £23 7 0), a children’s French entertainment, a whist drive (Mrs N C Richardson & Mrs W J Collier, raising £14 10 3), school children’s penny collections, the sale of Trinity College Hospital post-cards, a Rose Day, and a church collection box.
In 1919, a full list of subscribers and donors was published in the Press. It is not surprising to see donations from Cambridge firms such as Messrs Heffer & Sons, Sayle & Co, Kings & Harper, Boots, Matthew & Son, Sindall and Eaden Lilley; also, the workmen of the University Press. Individual donors included Miss Darwin, Mrs Fawcett, Lady Jebb, Mrs Eaden Lilley, Mrs Poole and the von Hügels.
A total of £2,534 19s 2d was received and disbursed (the equivalent in today’s value of around £278,000 in 1914, reduced by wartime inflation to around £167,000 in 1918). The monies were spent on various items such as carting and labour, travelling expenses of refugees, children’s education fees and dinners, repairs, house removal expenses, college fees for a boy and holidays.
Cambridge residents and businesses also contributed in-kind with donations of food and clothing, milk, confectionary, coal, toys, and even the loan of motors and bicycles. Doctors, surgeons and dentists undertook to look after the health of the refugees free of charge, and an optician volunteered to supply spectacles. Trade discount was prominent and the Hügel Homes report notes the special assistance provided by Mrs Tanner’s Clothing Depot. Schooling was undertaken by St. Mary’s Convent, assisted by two qualified Flemish school teachers, both resident in the Homes. Over forty children attended classes.
Dwindling support and repatriation
This level of support, however, could not be sustained, in Cambridge and elsewhere. As Grant observes, the issue of the refugees faded later in the war as other causes came to prominence. The von Hügels acknowledged in their 1919 report that the steady flow of support became intermittent and then ceased altogether. At Midsummer 1918, the work of the Hügel Homes for Refugees Committee was brought to a close by the transfer of one family then remaining in their charge, together with the balance of their fund, to the Cambridge Borough Belgian Refugee Committee.
In 1918, many local committees were disbanded across Britain and those that remained became frustrated with the lack of clear information on the national operation to repatriate the refugees. The situation may well have been aggravated by the Local Government Board’s abolition of the WRC on 31st December 1918, touching upon the complex issue of the changing relationship between voluntary action and state aid in Britain. As acknowledged by the Migration Museum Project, the Local Government Board’s role in this crisis was the first time that Government itself had taken policy responsibility for the settlement of refugees.
Within twelve months of the war ending, 90 per cent of the Belgian refugees (around 250,000) had returned home from Britain. There is little to show of their four-year presence.
Various explanations of why the Belgians received such a warm welcome in 1914 have been given. Lloyd George described the country’s response to the crisis as a ‘great act of humanity’. More recently, Professor Gary Sheffield is quoted as saying that contact with the refugees acted as a good reminder of why the war was a war worth fighting. And Christophe Declercq of the Centre for Research on Belgian Refugees, is reported as observing they were ‘treated rather like pets’. At least they were not held in cages.
What I’ve tried to do in this post is simply describe something of the Cambridge scenario and in particular, the role of Cambridge women. There are many interesting accounts of how communities across the country supported the Belgian refugees during the First World War, and of the many ways in which the refugees themselves contributed to the war effort whilst in Britain. Again, as pointed out by the Migration Museum Project, by 1916 there were 2,500 local committees of volunteers and there has not been such broad public engagement with migrant reception since then.
The von Hügels ended their 1919 report as follows,
‘Already those days when Belgians thronged the town and Flemish and French were heard spoken in every street, seem remote and dreamlike. Cambridge has regained its normal life, and a few graves of those who died among us in exile remain the only material trace of their reality. With them rest four “petits soldats” who fought the good fight in 1914 and, brought from the Front to England, died of wounds in the First Eastern Hospital. They were buried with military honours, and were followed to their graves, in the Newmarket Road Cemetery, by never to be forgotten, long, straggling processions of maimed, sick, or blinded Belgian and British comrades. R.I.P.’
Was anyone in your family involved with assisting Belgian refugees in Cambridge during the First World War?
If so, I’d love to hear from you – email@example.com
An autumn 2017 commission that I received from Wellfleet Press (an imprint of US publisher Quarto) led to a winter researching and writing an illustrated history of labyrinths and mazes. I spent many short days and long evenings absorbed in the joyful task of piecing together what is hopefully an informative and engaging recitation of this fascinating 4,000-year old phenomenon.
During this time I also managed to deliver a few talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge and have more coming up in the diary. (I did however, have to pause much of the college servants research, apart from a most interesting conversation with a retired college porter from St John’s — in September last year I wrote about The artist, the college, the bursar and his cook.)
The history talks are such a pleasure for me to deliver, especially when members of the audience share their own memories of enigmatic Heffer people and places. And then, on 5thJune 2018, I had the pleasure of being a guest speaker for the Cambridge Publishing Society. My talk, entitled ‘Some Truths About Opium’, provided a welcome excuse to delve further into another aspect of Heffers — their extraordinary publishing history.
I chose the title because the first half of the twentieth century was clearly an intoxicating time for Heffers publishing. It is taken from a short paper by Herbert A. Giles, published by Heffers in 1923.
A British diplomat and sinologist, Giles was ‘the’ Cambridge Professor of Chinese and much of his output was published by the University Press. This title however, along with his exposition, ‘Chaos in China: A Rhapsody’, was published and printed by Heffers who produced 2,000 copies of the former and 1,000 of the latter. In 1924 Giles paid Heffers £10 to cover a deficit on the publishing costs of the opium paper and ten years later it was taken out of the firm’s catalogue.
Giles had originally sent his treatise to The Times. However, his stance on the topic directly opposed that of the broadsheet. In his sketch of opium in China as a drug from 874AD to the present day (early 1920s), Giles concluded that in view of the historical facts, we had better leave China to work out the opium problem themselves, without the interference of foreigners. Inevitably, the paper was returned as unsuitable. He then tried an academic journal, only to have it rejected once more. Finally, he approached Heffers.
This appears to have been a common scenario for authors published by Heffers. A scout through the old publishing diaries (kindly loaned by Richard Reynolds of Heffers) reveals that in many cases the firm provided a kind of vanity publishing service (a precursor of Troubadour perhaps?).
Anyone who wanted Heffers to publish their book had to be interviewed by Mr Heffer (most likely ‘Mr Ernest’ or ‘Mr Reuben’ — I’ve previously written about Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley). Examples of Heffer publishing deals reveal the extent to which the financial risk was offset by some authors:
‘Agreement by letter. Author has agreed to pay £60 towards productions costs on publication and a further £20 if necessary in a year’s time.’
‘Author agreed to guarantee us against loss up to a limit of £10, and to surrender the first £5 of profit to our Firm. Thereafter, profits to be divided equally between Author and Publisher.’
‘No agreement, but Prof. Whitney called and agreed to be responsible for the costs of publication.
‘No Agreement. Author pays all costs of production. To be published but Not Catalogued. All stock to be returned to Author, and any orders for book to be passed to her.’
Heffers first described itself as a publisher in advertisements in the early 1900s and the firm’s list grew with William Heffer’s expansion into printing. Between 1889 and 1959 the firm published around 2,000 titles. The publishing was wound down in the 1960s and ceased altogether in 1975. Several publications were cast into the bargain bin, never to reappear. Intriguing titles such as,
The Problem of the Future Life (1925)
Whatsoever Things are Lovely …Think on these Things(1927)
Mathematical Snack Bar(1936)
The Delights of Dictatorship(1938)
Finland in Summer(1938)
Prayers for a One-Year-Old(1927)
The Two Coins: An English Girl’s Thoughts on Modern Morals(1931)
Those who work in the book trade may know about the annual Bookseller/DiagramOddest Title of the Year(of a book), instigated by Diagram Group director, Trevor Bounford, at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1978. Many Heffer publications would have been worthy contenders for the prize. (In March 2015, I wrote a post, The oddest title for a public lecture?, as I fondly remembered the late Bruce Robertson, co-founder of the Diagram Group.)
I’m pleased to report that I did not have to pay Wellfleet Press to publish the maze book. I’m also pleased to report that the book was illustrated, designed and packaged by my talented husband, Trevor Bounford whose next book, ‘Bend the Rules’, has recently been published by the Tarquin Group in the UK.
The Curious History of Mazes is due out in October 2018. I’ll be writing more about this in due course, and I’m already taking bookings for illustrated talks.
Do get in touch if you’d like me to come and talk to your group – firstname.lastname@example.org
The September 2017 edition of Artists & Illustrators magazine featured the winners of prestigious painting competitions. Benjamin Sullivan had top billing. His winning BP Portrait Award 2017 portrait, Breech!, of his wife Virginia breastfeeding their daughter, is not only skilfully executed but incredibly touching. As feature writer Natalie Milner observes, ‘there’s no doubt that the time and love behind this painting will outlive a casual selfie.’
Whilst I love this painting, it is a 2008 commission of his that I’m particularly drawn to. The All Souls Triptych is a portrait of the domestic and non-academic staff at All Souls College, Oxford. To execute this work, Sullivan lived and worked at the college for 18 months, observing the staff unobtrusively, taking account of ‘idiosyncrasies and nuances of character’. As Milner informs us, Sullivan wanted to give an account of people’s day-to-day activities: to celebrate them as individuals and elevate their work.
Through my research and writing on Cambridge college servants from 1900 to the present day, I’m attempting to achieve a similar result – insightful and engaging descriptions of the different roles that may be broadly described as ‘servants’, illuminated by memories and stories shared by retired and current college staff. Portraits that reflect on how the roles have changed over the past 120 years or so.
As with my illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge, the research also involves exploring archival records. Of late, I’ve been spending time in the excellent King’s College Archive Centre, reading material from the first half of the twentieth century. Guided by the Archivist Patricia McGuire, I’ve scrutinised files on, ‘College Servants (General) Private 1920-34’; ‘Correspondence concerning the appointment of a Lady Superintendent’; ’Bedmakers Bus Service, Dec 1937-May 1940’; and ’Dadie’s War Correspondence’.
I’ve been poring over index cards on bedmakers (1930-1960), typed letters, hand-written notes, annotations, and reports. Some voices from the past are coming through strongly, and I don’t just mean the more obvious, such as Dadie Rylands, already a well-known Cambridge persona who, as it happens, served as Domus Bursar at the college, thereby overseeing servants.
Take chef Arthur G. Allen, who completed an apprenticeship at Trinity College and went on to hotel work in Norwich and Lowestoft before joining the staff at King’s in October 1922. In March that year Allen writes to King’s Bursar, H. G. Durnford, enquiring about possible employment. In his enquiry Allen demonstrates a certain boldness by setting out his terms; £5 a week plus food. Perhaps the fact that he was already in a job gave him self-assurance. His maturity (he was 42 at the time) and his prior experience of college work must have helped too. Furthermore, his family were no strangers to this environment – on further investigation I discovered that his father had worked as a college shoeblack.
And no doubt Allen was in touch with the Cambridge network of college cooks. Wroth, who wrote about college servants at St John’s, Cambridge 1850-1900, acknowledges the network whereby cooks exchanged intimate knowledge of each establishment. One wonders if, in early 1922, Allen had inside information about King’s employment of a temporary chef during that Easter Term at a salary of £6 a week. Word must have been out that King’s were in need of a chef, as in March, Durnford receives another enquiry from an F. W. Wallace, who, whilst having some college experience, clearly considers his time in the ‘Merchant Service’ cooking for as many as 700 passengers, more noteworthy,
‘I have recently seen one of your every day menus & may I say that it is child’s play to what I have had to do when at sea.’
It wasn’t unusual for a qualified cook to work at establishments outside academia after serving his college apprenticeship, and then return to a college in a more senior position. Another chef, or ‘head cook’, who had served his apprenticeship at Trinity was Edwin Cash, whose career was typical of many. After qualifying he gained further experience in London and Cheltenham and then returned to Cambridge to work for St John’s where he gave over 30 years of service.
At St John’s before the twentieth century, and indeed at many Cambridge colleges, the head cook did not receive a college stipend but instead ran the kitchen as his own personal enterprise. Or maybe we should say ‘kingdom’. Wroth says,
‘There was no doubt that those who scrubbed the vegetables, carried sacks of potatoes, and kept fires in the kitchen were college servants. The head cooks, however, did not consider themselves as servants; most of them ran successful enterprises based in the college kitchens supplying both town customers and members of college. The Cambridge community did not consider them as servants either.’
However, this was different at King’s where the cooks were college employees. At the same time Cash was at St John’s, King’s employed a Mr Ernest Ing as cook on a six month trial from Midsummer 1891 at a salary of £180 a year. Ing went on to serve King’s for ten years and during his period of office acted as secretary to the Cambridge College Servants’ Boat, Cricket and Football Clubs. A busy man in the servant fraternity.
So did Allen’s approach to King’s College work out?
In March 1922 it was unsuccessful, as explained by an exchange of letters, after he and Durnford had spoken by telephone. On 15 March Durnford writes,
‘I have thought a good deal about the conditions on which you might be willing to come to this College as Chef. I am afraid I must state at once that a wage of £5 weekly plus food is more than I feel justified in offering for that particular post. I find that 90/- per week is more nearly the wage paid to College Chefs who are not entrusted with any special responsibilities of management besides their own department: and unless the cost of living increases, I [would not] not be prepared to go beyond that figure.’
Allen replies that it would not be of any advantage for him to change his present position. But that’s not the end of the story. On 23 August, Allen turns down another offer from Durnford, saying that under present conditions he is unable to, ‘do justice to the college or myself’. And then, on 31st we find that not only have they spoken once again by telephone but that Allen accepts the post of ‘Cook Manager’ of King’s kitchen, with an agreed starting date of 5 October 1922.
The position of ‘Kitchen Manager’ at King’s had been salaried at £225 in 1919 and a chef was paid £234 (£4.10s per week and food – only ten shillings less than Allen’s original terms of £5 for a chef role). Allen took over from W. Whitecross as Cook Manager at a salary of £250 per annum.
On 19 September 1922, Allen writes to Durnford, recommending a Mr Ellwood from the University Arms Hotel, for employment in his team at King’s, and assures him that,
‘the staff will soon fall in with my systems of working, and that business will go smoothly.’
The male kitchen staff at King’s had been listed at November 1921 as comprising two chefs, three cooks, a store man, a boiler man, seven porters, an apprentice, one kitchen manager, a head clerk and two assistant clerks. One hopes that Allen was able to build good relations with all concerned – unlike at another Cambridge college, where a former apprentice recalls the head chef and kitchen manager, albeit it in the 1960s, as constantly being at loggerheads.
Clearly, kitchens were, and can still be, stressful environments.
Things must have gone well, at least for a few years, because in 1930 Allen is still at the College and his salary is £325. As I continue to read King’s archives over the coming weeks, I hope to discover more of his college story (in the 1939 Register he is listed as ‘Chef Manager’ and I know that he died in 1959). Perhaps his family might read this and can tell me more?
If you work, or have worked as a ‘college servant’, or if you have a family member or ancestor who has done so, I’d be delighted to hear your story.
A previous post on ‘Looking for the tradesman’s entrance’ briefly dwells on the notion of ‘service’ in the context of college, university and town communities. In asking what we mean by ‘being in’ and ‘being of’ service, I draw upon the Oxford English Dictionary which understandably focuses on the utilitarian nature of the act. Whilst there is reference to ‘helping or benefiting’ and to ‘friendly action’, there is scant consideration of whether or not a service is provided with care. One can of course be ‘in’ or ‘of’ service without caring.
My early conversations with retired college staff however, reveal just how much they do care. I spoke recently to a retired college bedder who sounded remarkably like a parent as she vehemently declared her loyalty to her charges, saying she would, “defend them to the hilt!” There were times when this bedder performed the role of surrogate mother, as no doubt many did. I certainly remember my Nanna, Ethel Driver, talking fondly of her ‘boys’ at Jesus College in the 1970s.
Just this week, a Queen’s College alumnus described the vital role his bedder played when he came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1959. Without her prompting he would never have got up in the morning.
Enid Porter, Curator of the Cambridge and County Folk Museum from 1947 to 1976, states in her book on Cambridgeshire Customs & Folklore that the bedders of today (1969) are devoted to the undergraduates in their care and take a keen interest in their well-being. She says there are known instances of women turning up for work even though their husbands had died during the preceding night. One such woman, on being told she should not have come replied, ‘I had to; the exams are on and I had to be here to see after my gentlemen.’
In loco parentis
It’s perhaps not surprising that retired tutor Ken Riley entitled his Clare College memoire, In Loco Parentis: a light-hearted look at the role of a Cambridge tutor (2016). Riley acknowledges that the expression ‘in loco parentis’, in referring to the responsibilities normally associated with parenthood, may not be totally appropriate in the light of the age of majority being reduced in 1970 to eighteen years. Technically, all university students are adults. He does, however, still see the tutor role as guide, mentor and even ‘friend at court’ if the worst comes to the worst.
There were occasions when Riley, in his role as Rooms Tutor, had to discipline students (do parents not discipline their children?). He describes in some detail one such time when he received a report from the Domestic Bursar on the state of a flat occupied by three students,
‘in many ways, worst of all, [was] their lack of concern for the feelings of the bedmaker (bedder) who looks after and cleans the flat… the Domestic Bursar would not have visited the flat at all if their behaviour had not brought the bedder near to tears; it was his duty to investigate anything that upset any member of the College Staff.’
Riley demanded written assurance that the students had apologised to the bedmaker but some three weeks later just one had done so and two had never tried to find her to apologise, even though she came into the flat every weekday morning. Their ‘insulting’ excuse was that they were never up until nearly eleven o’clock at the earliest. A written apology was then sent to the bedder but they had made it impossible for her to resume her normal cleaning duties. After further developments, the College Master became involved and the three were exiled. That is, required to move out of Clare housing to non-college property.
For many of course it’s a different story and there are Cambridge alumni who keep in touch with their fondly remembered bedder or landlady, long after moving on. Billie Allinson’s mother, Mrs Bass, was a Hostelkeeper at Clare College’s Braeside for thirty-one years and is pictured in Clare Through the Twentieth Century (2001) with some of her students at the time of their matriculation in 1959 and then at a 1989 reunion in Mrs Bass’ eightieth year. Billie, who also worked at Clare College, still receives Christmas cards from her mother’s former charges.
In this post I reflect on who cares about the bedder. There are of course different perspectives to explore on the topic of college servants and a number of themes are already emerging from my early conversations.
Collecting your memories and stories
I plan to write a book that focuses on the period from 1900 to the present day. By ‘servants’, I don’t just mean bedders but also other staff such as butlers, porters, handymen, gardeners, buttery and pantry staff, and landladies.
As with This book is about Heffers (2016), my aim is to blend living memory with the desk research in order to create what I hope will be an informative and interesting portrait.
I’d be delighted to hear if you worked at a college and would be willing to tell me about your experience. Also, if you have a memory of college servants to share, no matter how fleeting.
Or maybe you have thoughts on the topic of college servants generally?
In researching the history of Heffers of Cambridge I had face-to-face and telephone conversations with former and current staff, customers and authors. People also kindly shared their stories via letters and emails. And contributions can be anonymised.
My email address is email@example.com
And do say hello to Ethel and Ivy
My Nanna worked at Jesus as a bedder for many years. And yet the college has no trace of her existence. This is not uncommon. Here she is with her sister, Ivy, who also worked as a bedder.
Three years ago we decided to set up a publishing arm for our long-established graphic design business. My husband Trevor Bounford (illustrator, artist and author) has been designing and creating books for over 45 years. With our shared interest in social history and the prospect of more ‘free’ time on my part after completing the PhD, we set up Gottahavebooks in 2015.
What we now have is very much a cottage industry. And that’s not just because we run the business from our Tudor cottage in a village near Cambridge. We like being small scale. For me this is especially appealing after many years of working in large organisations with highly rigid structures and politicised cultures. I’m loving the new freedom and flexibility of working independently as a writer, editor and micro-publisher.
Our publishing is driven by a desire to share people’s stories, and our titles and activities reflect this.
In 2015 Richard Houghton needed to publish the memories he had gathered from people who had attended Rolling Stones concerts in the 1960s. Richard and Trevor jointly devised a concept they named as ‘You Had To Be There’ and we set about getting Richard’s book to press in double-quick time. We also liaised individually with his 500 contributors, confirming their place in the book and keeping them up to date with the production. This was very time-consuming but worthwhile, and we were pleased to have helped Richard with his first publication.
Our second book, ‘Days of Sorrow, Times of Joy’ by Frances Clemmow (2016), is an extraordinary family memoire, interwoven with the grand picture of modern Chinese history from the late nineteenth century through to the Second World War. Trevor had previously assisted Fran with the design, layout and production of a self-published edition in 2012. We offered to publish a new extended edition as a way of helping Fran to share her story with a wider audience, and we were delighted when historian Michael Wood agreed to contribute a foreword. Professor Anthony Bradley describes the book as a,
‘living history, in which the actors in a far-reaching drama speak in their own words. We need not today endorse all aspects of the missionary enterprise, but readers of this impressive and enjoyable book will surely long remember the vivid scenes in which one family’s commitment enabled its members to play a part in events that have helped to shape our world.’
‘Forever entwined, my young and my old mind, the voices inside me that chatter and chide, encourage and rage, as I look both outwards and in with the curiosity of a benign, yet wary stranger.’
Born in 1944, Carol spent the late 1960s and ’70s living in a ‘so-called community of freaks, immigrants and photographers, artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers, drug dealers, models, fashionistas, groupies and hangers-on.’
Whilst giving talks on the history of Heffers of Cambridge, I’m reminded that many have memories of the firm. I enjoy sharing stories from the book and hearing anecdotes from members of the audience who were customers, authors, or employees.
Earlier this year, I received a communication from Sandor P. Vaci RIBA, who worked for the architects Austin Smith: Lord, at the time they were transforming Heffers’ Trinity Street premises into the radical new ‘University and General’ bookshop, opened by Lord Butler in 1970.
Sandor is kindly sharing his memories and images from the project, and I’m looking forward to meeting him later this year to hear more. A Hungarian born British architect who has lived in London since the 1956 Revolution, Sandor has many interests including cultural connections and sharing the public space.
He has put together a gallery of Budapest ‘portas’ (doors and doorways), from the city’s historic centre. As he says, the individually designed portas show astonishing variety, exuberance, originality and craftsmanship rarely found in other cities. It’s a lovely collection.
It’s interesting to note Sandor’s observation that the doorways into residential blocks were single entries: all the residents, servants, tradesmen, deliveries and rubbish removals passed through (no back door or tradesman’s entrance for them).
As I start to work on my next social history project, on college service in the twentieth century, I’m prompted to wonder if the college servants used the same entrances as everyone else.
My aim is to explore the notion of ‘service’, in the context of college, university and town communities in Cambridge. As Alex Saunders from the Cambridge Antiquarian Society said to me recently, it’s a huge topic. My husband, Trevor, says it sounds like another doctoral research proposal (my first – and only PhD, was on the topic of community inside higher education).
When opening the door to a new project, I like to begin by contemplating the broader questions and possibilities. For this topic, some of the questions are informed by my own direct experience of working in higher education and of researching the field. Here are a few:
What do we mean by ‘service’, by ‘being in’ service and by ‘being of’ service?
The condition of being a servant; the fact of serving a master?
The condition, station, or occupation of being a servant?
A particular employ; the serving of a certain master or household?
Performance of the duties of a servant; attendance of servants; work done in obedience to and for the benefit of a master?
To do, bear (one) service, to serve, attend on (a master)?
An act of serving; a duty or piece of work done for a master or superior?
An act of helping or benefiting; an instance of beneficial or friendly action; a useful office?
Waiting at table, supply of food; hence, supply of commodities, etc?
Provision (of labour, material appliances, etc.) for the carrying out of some work for which there is a constant public demand?
(with thanks to the OED)
What roles in this context would be classified as ‘college servants’?
Bedder; porter; gyp; butler; waiter; clerk; librarian?
Who is ‘serving’ whom?
Individuals serving individuals?
Individuals serving institutions?
Institutions serving society?
Society serving institutions?
Institutions serving individuals?
Individuals serving individuals?
What is the impact of the changing undergraduate population during the twentieth century?
The demographic and size of the population changed dramatically between 1900 and 2000.
What is the impact of changes in the role of colleges and universities in society during the twentieth century?
A complex and weathered terrain, the sector saw sweeping changes during this period.
A family in service
Like many who were raised in Cambridge, members of my family were ‘in college service’.
My Nanna, Ethel Lily Driver (1914-2006), lived in Christchurch Street and was a ‘bedder’ at Jesus College. Her mother, Lily Ethel Parsons (1895-1952) who lived in Ross Street, is listed on the 1939 Register as a ‘college help’.
My great-grandmother, Henrietta Saunders (1877-1971) who lived in the old dairy in Gold Street, was a ‘bedder’ at Queens College. Her husband, George Saunders (1873-1965) was a ‘general labourer’ who, as the story goes, once stood back to admire his own work on the roof of the Senate House.
The radio silence over recent months is mainly due to time spent on project managing the 2017 Cambridge History Festival on behalf of the Museum of Cambridge. Considering the vital role that the Museum played in my plea for Heffers stories, it seemed most fitting to work with the trustees, staff and volunteers on this event.
And it was a pleasure. I particularly love the fact that the festival is a community-led initiative. Caroline Biggs, the Creative Director, like so many of us, is passionate about local history. She’s currently researching the story of Daisy Hopkins, arrested in 1891 for ‘walking with a member of the University’. Caroline writes her own blog on Real Cambridge.
Immediately after the festival, I delivered a talk at University College London on the topic of university and campus bookshops. I also started work on editing the next Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by jazz singer, Carol Grimes; an autobiography that is refreshingly free from affectation, infused with raw honesty and emotion. Out later this year, it will appeal to many, no doubt.
Now I’m easing back into my own research and writing, catching up with local history conversations. As I do so, here is lesson number three from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge. It is a brief reflection on the practicalities and pitfalls of collecting and recording stories, with extracts from ‘This book is about Heffers’.
The first lesson, ‘Possession is a delicate issue’ tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
The second, ‘Connecting up and creating a conversation’, set out the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials. Links to all the networks and sources are provided.
Lesson 3: two small dogs, an exotic caged bird and wandering hands
Visits & gatherings It’s surprising how trusting people can be when it comes to arranging interviews, especially in their own homes. Though perhaps I’m also trusting, as I usually (but not always) go alone. If you’re planning to audio record or film the encounter, do let your host know beforehand. I always declare that the recording saves me having to take notes, and confirm that I will not share it with any third-party. I also have a release form which I ask people to sign. At the end of the Heffers research I had over fifty hours of audio recordings!
Make sure you have enough battery charge in your audio recorder. If you run out and don’t have spare batteries, remember the recording facility on your mobile phone, which can be a great back-up. This happened when I visited author, Pippa Goodhart, who had worked at Heffers from 1974 to 1986. On reading the completed book in November 2016, Pippa kindly told me,
‘You’ve achieved a wonderful balance between a thorough factual account and a very human, often heart-warming and amusing account, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed the character of the Heffers firm… how it was/is made-up of so many characters.’
This is exactly what I had hoped to do by blending stories from living memory and the desk research. I’m thrilled with Pippa’s feedback.
Also, when setting out on a visit, make sure you get all the letters and numbers in the right order when entering them into the SatNav. On one excursion I found myself heading towards Norfolk instead of Suffolk. Not a disaster maybe for one who once lived in North Norfolk and still craves the seaside, but embarrassing nevertheless. The detour meant I was late for my appointment.
The setting of the encounter can drastically affect the quality of the recording. The more challenging, from a recording perspective, included a gathering of several ladies in someone’s lounge, a one-to-one in the corridor of a bustling academic building, and a three-way encounter in someone’s home interspersed with contributions from two small dogs, and an exotic caged bird.
Many meetings involved tea, coffee, sausage rolls, cake and chocolate biscuits, as well as great stories. Much to my delight. It is no wonder that I have walk five miles a day.
The ladies mentioned above had worked as invoice girls in the top office at the Petty Cury bookshop in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of their memories relate to the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. I like this one:
‘The girls had been told they were not to concern themselves with the content of the book. This may have been irresistible for some but they recall that they were more intrigued by books on forensic medicine with their graphic illustrations – occasionally giving themselves nightmares.’
Whilst I usually prepare some notes in advance of what topics I’d like to cover, I prefer the exchange to be more of an open conversation than a structured interview. See what comes up. What then emerges is arguably, more authentic. Sometimes a really significant memory may be shared after you’ve switched off the recorder and when you’re about to leave. If that happens, write it down the moment you get in the car. You can always go back to the person another time to check out the detail.
A particularly memorable visit, kindly arranged by retired bookseller, Clive Cornell, was to the home of his former colleague, Frank Collieson who at the time was fast approaching his ninetieth birthday. At the end of a most captivating afternoon with the two gentlemen, I went to shake Frank’s hand, and he gave me a big hug. As I walked back to my car I found myself in tears. I was most saddened to hear of Franks passing a few weeks later but pleased to learn that he did make that special birthday. I do treasure the meetings, however brief, and fondly recall Frank reminiscing about Heffers as he alternated between glasses of Bushmills whiskey and cups of tea. Much of Frank’s voice is in the book, not only from that afternoon but from a 1985 BBC Radio interview, his writings, and the extraordinary publicity materials he produced for the firm over many years. (The only time I ever broke my rule about sharing a recorded conversation with a third party was when I sent the recording of that afternoon to Frank’s daughters, after he had passed away. Jenny had been present at Frank’s house anyway, and had joined in the conversation.) Earlier this month I received a wonderful letter from a reader in Ireland who had known Frank, thanking me for putting his contribution into print.
I describe the memory cafe at the Museum of Cambridge in a previous post. The event was a pivotal moment, providing a tangible sense of place for the project.
As we all know, photographs can be a great tool for triggering memories.
This image, from a news report on the 1946 fire at Petty Cury, took Audrey and Peter Coleman back to the day they first met. Audrey was working in accounts for Miss King at the time and Peter, who worked for the Electricity Board, attended to the repairs. Audrey says,
“We didn’t know anything ’til we got to work and there’d been this awful fire. Miss King said we’d better first go back for a little while because the Police and everyone were there. We went to her mother’s house in Clarendon Street and then we came back and had to help clear up. All of us put turbans on our heads. There was all the smoke and an awful lot of damage. We had tarpaulins up and we had our national cash machines transferred to the basement. All the books were charred. It was horrible.”
Not all the damaged books were successfully removed, however. Over a decade later, Clive Cornell observed charred books on the shelves when he started work at Petty Cury as a shop assistant in 1958, and Frank Collieson saw the scorch marks still there in 1962.
If you’re collecting someone’s memories via a telephone call, do tell them if you want to record the conversation. I used the loud speaker facility on my mobile phone and recorded the conversation on my digital recorder. Not ideal but adequate.
Books, written accounts and emails
Robert Webb tracked down Sue Bradley’s fascinating 2008 oral history of the book trade via the British Library and I bought the last copy in stock. The book included accounts by Nicholas Heffer and bookseller Frank Stoakley, who served over sixty years with the firm and worked with my great-grandfather. Online you can find summaries of the transcripts. I didn’t have the time or resources to visit the Library and listen to the recordings, but the topics listed in the summaries were nevertheless very useful.
I had written accounts from several former Heffers staff, and from customers. For example, Shelley Lockwood, a Cambridge alumnus and oral historian who now works for the David Parr House project in Gwydir Street, kindly wrote about her experience of Heffers as a student, setting up an account and using her Heffer diary. And Mark Jones, a former Heffers employee who now lives in Scotland, wrote his own memories of working for Heffers Sound. Here is one of his stories from the book,
‘One year, on the last Saturday before Christmas, whilst putting a refund through for a Russian student, Mark accidentally swiped her debit card before first entering the amount to be refunded. Automatically, the till instantly refunded the first four digits of her card number. On the busiest and most profitable day of the entire year, Mark had given away £4,567. His manager was very understanding and the money was returned after a week or so (the student had to ask her bank to refund the refund). The cash register was reprogrammed to prevent a similar error from ever happening again.’
Communicating by letter
Don’t forget that some people still prefer to communicate by letter. for whatever reason. I found former Heffers director, Norman Biggs, via Bunty Heffer who kindly gave me his address. I wrote to Mr Biggs and subsequently arranged our three visits by letter. He had been in charge of Heffers Stationery and the Sidney Street premises for many years, and his stories were most illuminating. He recalled, for example, some of the characters from Cambridge academia,
‘One of the Proctors used to come into the Sidney Street shop early morning, soon after nine o’clock. He hadn’t combed his hair, he clearly hadn’t shaved and his pyjamas were sticking out from the bottom of his corduroy trousers. Another time, an academic customer ended up running out of Sidney Street screaming because they could not find a particular type of stationery file that fitted his exact requirements from the hundreds of options available.’
Mr Biggs also kindly loaned me a very grand portfolio, presented to him by Heffers on his retirement.
Social media has an important role to play, not just in reaching people but in gathering memories, no matter how fleeting. Remember, it’s a continuous feed on both Facebook and Twitter. People will react to an image or quotation. You will get more responses to something specific than to a general plea for stories. Publish your posts at different times of the day and always engage with the responses. It helps if you have a personal connection with the topic and if you share your own memories. Through the dialogue you will no doubt find people who are willing to talk further.
Diplomacy at all times
When collecting stories from living memory, you are very likely to hear anecdotes about people who are still alive. If someone is indiscreet or insensitive, don’t react. Move on to another topic.
Be aware, when writing up, that different people will recall the same incident in differently. It’s a good idea to cross-reference stories and double-check with all sources. Often, just a slight tweak can help to avoid any potential embarrassment or consternation.
A challenging topic in this case was the tricky issue of ‘wandering hands’. As I state in the book,
‘like many organisations certainly at the time [the 1960s], some male colleagues had what was then termed ‘wandering hands’, giving the phrase ‘hands on’ a somewhat different and unpleasant meaning, particularly for the ladies. It would not be appropriate to deny that this occurred, as so many have mentioned it when interviewed for this book, but it would also be inappropriate to name the alleged culprits, who are now long gone. Needless to say, for some ladies, taking dictation could be a hazardous chore, when they were trapped between the wall and their manager. For others, there were certain amenities best avoided, so not to give a gentleman colleague an opportunity to get too close. John Welch [General Manager] was made aware of certain issues on his arrival in 1964 and his response, not untypical of the time, was, “we all have our little idiosyncrasies”.’
And In a previous post I wrote about the challenges of having a personal connection with the topic. I share my thoughts on this blog with the aim of hearing what others think about a range of different topics, and this has been difficult one.
As I said in the previous post, the memories of Heffers are uncomplicated but the family association with the firm did cause a moment of anxiety. That moment came when a member of my family (who had not worked for Heffers) demanded that they be included in the book. As I mentioned in the post, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm. It was because of this they felt they had a right to be included.
This not only created a rather delicate situation, it was deeply upsetting. It was not a matter of disagreeing with their opinion but of balancing that opinion alongside those held by others. Particularly those who had had a more direct involvement with the firm – who were inside that world. This is why, in the book, I acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families. I didn’t want to upset other families whose members had given many years of service to the firm, as well as my own. The story of Heffers belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Everyone’s experience is different and there is a need for diplomacy and sensitivity when collecting and sharing living memories. There were many things that came up in the interviews that I chose not to write about, for the sake of people’s feelings, and I took great care with what I did write.
At the end of the day, it’s a collection of different viewpoints. That’s what history is.
Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge
I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the Heffers project. My aim in this series of blog posts is to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!
The first post, Possession is a delicate issue tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
In this second post, I refer to the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials, and will be expanding on exactly what I used in a later post. Links to all the networks and sources are provided, plus one or two publications written by authors whom I was fortunate enough to meet during the project.
Lesson number 2: Connecting up and creating a conversation
I may originate from Cambridge but having lived and worked in Norfolk until relatively recently, I had no network as such in the area, apart from family friends. Eve Stafford, who is featured in the book, was the first family friend to have a conversation recorded about her time at Heffers. Eve then facilitated my introduction to Heffers retirees, Marion & Dudley Davenport, Peggy Green and Audrey Coleman, who all have stories in the book.
It didn’t take long of course to identify other effective ways to reach those with memories of Heffers and start a wider conversation. On 23rd January 2016, Chris Elliott published a plea for stories with my contact details in the Cambridge News Memories section. Also, in January, I emailed Chris Jakes at the Cambridgeshire Collection at the Central Library, declaring my intention to carry out some desk research there. Chris responded with very useful and specific information on what the Collection held about the firm and the bookselling trade. Meanwhile, Robert Webb (who’s father worked for Heffers and who worked for the firm himself) found Becky Proctor (running the Mill Road History Project at that time), who suggested I put a plea via the Cambridge in the Good Ol Days Facebook Group. Robert Webb also contacted Fonz Chamberlain, the Cambridge Historian, who writes about Cambridge history and who owns a lot of memorabilia.
As it turned out, both Chris Jakes and Becky Proctor contributed stories for the book (Becky worked as a bookseller at Heffers in the early 1990s). The Facebook Group, run by Derek Smiley, was a great way to reach people with memories of Heffers. It really helped to have something interesting to say about the topic when exchanging thoughts on Facebook. This is where a personal connection or some local knowledge can be useful. Sharing memories, even brief reflections, is a great way to get a conversation going. It’s important to post regularly, whilst at the same time, not making a nuisance of oneself.
I wanted people to understand my motivation for writing the book, and to appreciate that I too, shared their enthusiasm and interest in the topic. To that end, I had already written about my interest in Heffers in my own blog, as early as February 2014, in Choosing books, living life. In fact, it was through this post that I met Robert Webb who must have been keeping an eye out for references to Heffers, as he contacted me after having seen the post. My next reference to Heffers was in Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment, followed by Heffers and the elusive bust, This book is about Heffers, Portrait of a bookseller: the pacifist, and Mr Reuben, Penguin Books and Lady Chatterley. I regularly shared the blog posts via Facebook and Twitter and made some really useful connections in doing so. Bookseller, Claire Brown, got in touch via my website (Claire’s stories are in the book) and I made a useful connection with Dr Samantha Rayner at University College London via Twitter. Samantha kindly facilitated my access to the Penguin Archive at the University of Bristol, and I’m planning to do a talk on Heffers for her Masters students in early 2017.
Whenever I refer to Heffers on Twitter, I use a hashtag. Over the past year, I found that if you googled Heffers or Heffers of Cambridge, images that I had shared, including the book cover of ‘This book is about Heffers’, which we had designed very early on (I shall be writing about the book layout and design later in this series), were fairly prominent. Along with images of large ruminants…
On 2nd February I attended the launch at Heffers of The Promise by Alison Bruce. I had met Alison a few months earlier when she kindly gave a talk at a writing group meeting that I had co-convened in our village. Alison, whose relationship with Heffers is shared in the book, invited me to attend her launch and it was there that I introduced myself to David Robinson (manager of Heffers), bookseller Richard Reynolds and retired bookseller Clive Cornell, who had kindly responded to the Cambridge News Memories plea. I subsequently had a meeting with David and Richard at the shop to tell them about my plans, and to ask if they had anything that may be useful. It turns out they did, including twenty years worth of staff newsletters, the Heffers publishing diaries and other fascinating memorabilia. Much later, in April, I attended another book launch for Timed Out by Barbara Lorna Hudson. Kate Fleet at Heffers had given Barbara my contact details, as she had worked at Heffers as a student in the early 1960s. I attended the launch, bought the book and not only enjoyed it but have retained my contact with Barbara who, as I learned later, was embarking on a second career as a fiction writer after working as an Oxford academic.
Also, in February I emailed the Cambridge University Alumni Office, asking for stories. By then I had written an Advance Information Sheet, which provided a useful summary of the proposed book. I received a swift response and the Alumni team used social media to reach out to Cambridge alumni all over the world. And I emailed Mike Petty, renowned local historian, and he not only agreed to meet up for a chat over coffee but also sent a list of useful references from his own ‘Chronicle of Cambridge News’, a terrific digital database of Cambridge events and stories.
Whilst virtual communication via Facebook and Twitter is great, never underestimate the value of getting together face-to-face. A pivotal moment in the Heffers project was a memory café at the Museum of Cambridge, on Friday 26th February. The Museum, located near the city centre, provides a tangible sense of place and plays a vital role in bringing people together for exchange and reflection. At this event I met members of the Heffer family and Heffers staff, past and present. David Robinson had always wanted to meet the Heffer family, and this was his chance, also. I brought posters and materials to the café and we had a small display. People like to look at photographs and memorabilia, which can of course trigger memories. Others also brought artefacts, including William Heffer who brought the original lease on the Petty Cury bookshop from 1896 –how exciting!
Hilary Cox-Condron at the Museum, made a terrific six-minute film of the memory café, starring Bunty Heffer, now aged 96 years. I was impressed with how relatively easy it was for Hilary to create the film on her mobile phone and I’m planning to use film much more in 2017 to share stories and images from my research and from Gottahavebooks publications.
Early on in the project, having received a communication from Kate Fleet, Heffer’s very enterprising Events Manager, asking if I would be interested in launching the book at Heffers, I had an opportunity to fix a publication date. Thus, I duly agreed with Kate we would launch the book at Heffers on 10th November 2016.
Now I had a DEADLINE.
Better get on with collecting and recording the stories.
How I did that is the topic of the next blog post.
Lessons from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge
One day, back in February this year, whilst striding down Trumpington Street after spending an afternoon at the Cambridgeshire Collection, I felt a rush of pure elation and was reminded of some advice a friend had recently shared on my future direction after finishing the PhD. She said ‘do what gives you joy’.
Since that time the experience of researching, writing and publishing ‘This Book Is About Heffers’ has given me mountains of joy – as well as anxieties, challenges, frustrations, and sadness. There were many things to tackle. For example, the pros and cons of having a personal connection to the topic, finding people willing to share their memories, using digital networks without making a nuisance of oneself, making the most of a face-to-face gathering, visiting people in their homes (and finding their homes in the first place!), recording conversations (with rather odd, and sometimes peripheral, sound effects), finding myself dreaming about it all, and deploying diplomacy at all times.
I don’t claim to be an expert on doing social history, or any sort of history, and I did have some terrific help with aspects of the project. My aim in this series of blog posts is simply to reflect on the experience and hopefully, by doing so, share some useful lessons for anyone who wishes to undertake a social history. I’d also love to hear from anyone who has advice to share, as this experience has left me wanting to do more, and I have a lot to learn!
Lesson number 1: Possession is a delicate issue
It’s not obligatory to have a personal connection with the topic but if you do, it can help, especially at the beginning when you’re trying to explain why you’ve embarked on such a major undertaking. And even when the word is out, (people said ‘she’s writing a book about Heffers’) you’ll need to revisit that special connection from time to time. For me, there were many quiet moments in the study when I thought about my family members who had worked for the firm. It sounds whimsical but I sensed their approval of the legacy I was trying to create and it gave me an inner confidence. It was, and still is, a nice feeling.
A personal connection can also, however, create a bit of a dilemma, as it did with this project. The book was inspired by my childhood memories of visiting Heffers Children’s bookshop every Saturday morning, and of course, by my family’s association with the firm. The memories are uncomplicated but the family association caused a moment of anxiety, which I will explain, as I suspect the scenario is not uncommon.
I hail from a line of Cambridge booksellers, bakers, college bedders and bus cleaners. Members of my family clocked up 120 years of service with Heffers, starting with my great-grandfather, Frederick Anstee, employed by William Heffer in 1896 when the Petty Cury bookshop was first opened. Frederick, along with bookseller F. J. Sebley, was one of the first employees at Heffers, at least on record. Since then of course, hundreds of people have worked for the firm and indeed there have been periods when Heffers employed well over 500 people at any one time across the bookselling, stationery and printing divisions. There are several stories in the book about the different ways in which people got started at Heffers, and how they fared. Frederick, who rose to become Head of Science, sadly died suddenly in 1944 whilst still in service.
The part that Frederick played in helping to build the firm is rightly something to be proud of. That pride is boosted by a letter from a family friend, Duncan Littlechild (bookseller with Heffers for fifty-four years), written in 1968 on the death of my great-grandmother, Frederick’s widow. In expressing his condolences, Littlechild declared that it was Frederick, along with Ernest and Frank Heffer, who ‘founded’ the firm. This of course is his opinion, his ‘selfish feeling’ as he describes it, about a friend whom he described as an, ‘oh such perfect father who lived for his family’. After careful consideration, I decided not to quote this in the book. Another of his ‘selfish feelings’, too indelicate to include, was his opinion that Ernest and Frank were, ‘the only two Heffers who were worth more than a pound a week.’
Littlechild’s letter wasn’t actually the issue that caused the ethical quandary as I wrote the book, though it probably contributed. In late July, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm and that this must be stated in the book. This created a rather delicate situation. Whilst I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feeling, I wasn’t comfortable with making such a claim. Nor was I comfortable with being told what to write. I don’t mind being asked to take something into consideration, and in my work I do try to be sensitive to people’s feelings – and to my own. And so, when this exchange occurred, a number of questions, some of which I’d already been grappling with, came to the fore.
How do you balance personal involvement with a dispassionate telling of the story?
Perhaps it’s like doing sociology, you must hold your connection up to the light so that it can be seen and acknowledged. I did include a narrative about my family’s association with the firm and indeed quoted letters from members of the Heffer family who clearly had high regard for Frederick. I also acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families.
Who does the story belong to?
I’m collecting, curating and interpreting people’s memories that are given freely and openly. The history of Heffers, as with other histories, is not in some exclusive ownership. It lives in people’s minds and it’s evolving. The story belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Who has responsibility for the publication?
As the author, and the publisher in this instance, I have the responsibility. I may have an aversion to the phrase, ‘my book’ (for reasons I need not explain here), but it is my doing. I initiated the project, took control and decided what to write. I was sensitive to people’s feelings, I checked stories and quotations and I made changes accordingly. I did my best to get things right and I didn’t want anyone telling me what I should write. In that sense, perhaps is has to be ‘my book’.
The next post will be about finding people with stories to share.
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS, published on 21st October 2016, aims to convey something of the story, style and character of the Cambridge phenomenon that is Heffers, the bookshop that is ‘known all over the world’. This post introduces Reuben Heffer (a key figure in the history of Heffers), and his association with Penguin Books.
Employees of the firm generally referred to members of the Heffer family as ‘Mr’ Sidney, ‘Mr’ Ernest etc. and the ladies as ‘Miss’, although this convention had mostly fallen out of use by the mid-1970s. Reuben George Heffer (1908-1985) is still sometimes referred to as ‘Mr Reuben’.
Younger son of Ernest and grandson of William Heffer (the firm’s founder), Reuben was educated at the Perse School, Cambridge, where he acquired an interest in modern languages, which he read at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. He also read economics. Having trained at the London School of Printing, he joined the firm’s bookselling side after the untimely death of his brother, Arthur. In the Second World War he joined the RAF, serving in flight control and as a squadron leader. He took charge of the bookshop in Petty Cury in 1948 and was Chairman of the company from 1959 to 1975. He was on the council of the Booksellers Association, of the 1948 Book Trade Committee, of the Society of Bookmen, and of the Sette of Odd Volumes. John Welch, appointed by Reuben as the first general manager in 1964, described him as a man of considerable charm; unfailingly generous of his time and quiet advice: ‘Honest and caring, he was above all a liberal man. Though holding firm views, he never inflicted them on anyone. His great talent, giving him abiding pleasure, was to encourage success in those younger than himself.’
Reuben was largely responsible for the continued existence of the Cambridge Review from 1939 and his other activities included serving as a magistrate for twenty-seven years, and with the Marriage Guidance Council, the Trustee Savings Bank, and the Cambridge Preservation Society. The Open University awarded him an honorary MA degree in 1979. Bookseller, Frank Collieson, in Remembering Reuben, wrote that within the book trade, while eschewing office, Reuben was undoubtedly influential, his authority being genuinely modest and understated. Of Reuben he declared:
‘It was a joy to watch him open a book. No spine-cracking for Reuben: the book, whatever its format, would sit easily in his left hand as if measured for it: while the fastidious fingers of his right would turn the pages slowly and without injury from the top.’
Over the years Reuben had built such a good relationship with Penguin Books that he was invited to be a contributor to the publication Penguin’s Progress 1935–1960, a celebration of the publisher’s Silver Jubilee, issued in 1960. He was in good company; other contributors ‘from the outside’ were Compton Mackenzie, Michael Grant, Elliott Viney and Richard Hoggart.
In 1957, thanks to Reuben’s ingenuity, Heffers had opened the first bookshop in the UK
dedicated to Penguin and its associated paperback brands, located at 51 Trumpington Street, Cambridge (on the corner with Downing Street). This was something of a coup for Heffers in the Cambridge bookselling trade, and a key Heffers rival was not at all pleased, as will be revealed in THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS.
Nineteen-sixty was also the thirtieth anniversary of the death of author D.H. Lawrence, and, to mark the occasion, Penguin Books decided to publish seven of his titles, including the unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Charged under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 for doing so, the publisher was put on trial at the Old Bailey, represented by Michael Rubinstein, ‘the book trade’s lawyer’ and defended by Gerald Gardiner QC. On 2nd November 1960, Penguin was acquitted when the jury passed a ‘not guilty’ verdict. In the end, Reuben, who had been listed as a possible witness, was not one of the thirty-five called.
Penguin went on to sell three million copies of Lady Chatterley over the next three months and Heffers contributed to those sales. Prepared for a favourable verdict, the invoice office at Heffer’s Petty Cury bookshop had already typed invoices, so they were ready to go out with the orders as soon as the trial was over. Bookseller, Dudley Davenport recalls the big rush for copies at Petty Cury, “the place was packed out”. Naturally, the recently-opened Penguin shop was hectic too. In his published memoirs, Michael Black, an editor at Cambridge University Press at the time, recalls looking from his office down into the street on publication day:
‘Heffer’s Penguin Bookshop was directly opposite my window, and on that morning there was a very long queue. There still used to be errand-boys in those days, and more than one had taken time off to join the queue and was standing there with his bike. I reflected mildly on the literary tastes and interests of errand-boys – but I suspect they weren’t any different from other people’s.’
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS contains previously unpublished images of the Heffer’s Penguin Bookshop in Cambridge at the time it opened.
There may well have been a Heffers board meeting to discuss the question of stocking the book, although clearly by the time of the trial the firm was in favour. As William Heffer says today of his father, Reuben, “I’m sure he would have been perfectly happy to stock it.”
Norman Biggs, former director of the stationery division reflects, “The view taken was that you couldn’t censure, and certainly not in a place like Cambridge.”
In THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS, former employees recall reactions to the publication.
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT HEFFERS by Julie E Bounford will be available from Heffers of Cambridge, from November 2016.
 Founded 1878 in London by the bookseller Quaritch, the Sette today remains a small social club dedicated to book collecting, printing history, and bibliophily.
 Welch, J. (2004) ‘Heffer, Reuben George (1908–1985)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.
 The Cambridge Review (A Journal of University Life and Thought), was first published in 1879. It continued for many years after the Heffers acquisition and, after 119 volumes in total, finally ceased publication in 1998.
Bryan needed the paper that he’d left in his office at Greystone. He took one more look through his briefcase, despite knowing full well that the paper was still on his desk. He could visualize exactly where he had left it, next to the bright yellow desk tidy his colleague, Wendy, had given him for Christmas. Downloading the paper online was pointless – what Bryan really needed were the crucial, yet elusive, notes he had scribbled on a hard copy the day before his departure. He had been away for almost a month now, and was preparing for his third consecutive international keynote. It was no good. Barbara, his wife and veteran Greystone researcher, would just have to go in and retrieve it.
Following his call, Barbara made her way to the Social Science building. Standing in the corridor, she felt light headed and wheezy. She couldn’t decide what was making her feel sick. Perhaps it was the fumes from the emulsion. The breezeblock walls, it seemed, had been liberated from their bleak façade; a façade keenly unobserved by Barbara day in and day out for almost four decades, until now. How white they looked. How bright and clean. Equally, it could be the glue from the newly fitted plush blue carpet showered in tiny gold crest motifs. Soft underfoot and very unlike the brown rush matting that always so neatly soaked up the drips from spent umbrellas on rainy days.
Barbara planned to be quickly in and out but there seemed to be problem with the lock. As she stood there trying not to think about being sick, she tried the key again and then fumbled around in her bag, feeling flustered. She couldn’t believe it wasn’t the right key yet felt compelled to look for another. ‘Damn’, she said to herself, out loud. ‘He really has given me the wrong one’. She put her bag down and phoned Bryan. She’d no idea what time of day it might be at his end.
‘You do have the right key, don’t you?’ asked Bryan.
‘Yes,’ snapped Barbara
‘The one with the blue tab from my spare set’
‘Yes. It doesn’t work,’ said Barbara
‘Have you tried wriggling it?’
‘Yes, of course I’ve tried wriggling it.’
‘You need to push harder. It sticks sometimes.’
‘Bryan, I know how to open a door. The key doesn’t fit.’
‘Well, that’s ridiculous. How are we going to get the bloody paper? I can hardly come back from Brazil. Wait! Wendy will have a key. She’s always got spares.’
Hanging up, Barbara shuffled down the corridor, heading for Wendy’s office. She turned the corner and stopped. Her progress was halted by a clear glass wall painted with three towering white letters which she read out loud, ‘HUB.’
Inside there was a sign hanging from the ceiling, which read: ‘Learning & Teaching Hub: the key to your success.’
Walking through a roped off section which reminded her of the post office but without the queue – there was no-one else around – she reached a pristine counter, behind which sat a smart young girl who welcomed Barbara with a big smile,
‘Hi, how can I help you?’
‘I need to access Bryans’ office and he’s given me the wrong key. There’s a master key. Could I borrow it?’
The girl looked puzzled. ‘No office here. You can see we’re open plan… whose office?’
Barbara glanced back out into the corridor. ‘Out there… second door on the right?’
The girl shook her head.
‘Where’s Wendy? She’ll know what I’m talking about,’ said Barbara
‘Sorry, there’s no one called Wendy working here.’
‘But I really need to get into Bryan’s office.’
Perplexed, the girl called a colleague over and asked her if she knew the whereabouts of a Wendy and also, an office belonging to someone called Bryan.
‘Ah yes,’ said the second woman. ‘Do you mean that rather quaint elderly gentleman who used to pop in and chat with Wendy before she left? He did have an office here but that was cleared out a couple of weeks ago. It’s now the Hub storeroom. There were some old papers but I think they were put in one of the PGR cupboards.’
Barbara, feeling even more flustered and not quite knowing how to react, just wanted to get the paper and leave.
‘Is the PGR room still there?’ She was beginning to wonder.
‘Yes, of course.’
Barbara made her way out of the Hub, beyond what had been Bryan’s office, and stood outside the PGR room. To her frustration, she didn’t have the combination for the keypad.
Back at the Hub she was told that as she wasn’t a postgraduate researcher, she couldn’t have the number. Being the partner of an internationally renowned professor who supervises postgraduate researchers didn’t cut any ice.
As several observed in conversations for my research on ‘This book is about Heffers’, the bookshop was a haven for many interesting characters.
R D Littlechild (1889-1974)
Sidney Heffer, son of the firm’s founder, wrote in the 1950s,
‘It would be impossible to detail the numerous errand boys, apprentice boys and assistants who entered our employment but mention may here be made of a few who coming to us in almost the beginnings of really vital things have cast in their lot with us and stayed the course.’
Gratitude is sent out to a few who could tell the story of Heffers from a different point of view, including R D Littlechild, appointed as bookselling apprentice in 1903, as recorded in the first company Minute Book,
‘D. Littlechild, entered apprentice for 5 years at 2/- per week on April 25th 1903’
Duncan Littlechild, a strong pacifist who disapproved of Churchill, actively discouraged customers at Petty Cury from buying Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s,
‘you don’t want to buy that old rogue’, he would say.
Considered as old school by his colleagues at this time, he would often be observed as ‘kowtowing’ to academic customers on the telephone.
During the First World War Littlechild was a prisoner of war. In November 1917, The Cambridge Independent reported,
‘LANCE-CORPL. R. D. LITTECHILD – Mr. E. Littlechild, 2, Park-parade, has received the following letter from an officer regarding his son, Lance-Corpl. R. D. Littlechild of the Royal Scots: “I regret to be the bearer of news which will cause you great anxiety and suspense, but your son, Lance-Corpl. R. D. Littlechild, went into an attack on the 2nd of this month, and it has been so far impossible to ascertain anything definite regarding his fate. None of the company who arrived saw him hit, but several fell in to the hands of the enemy. You will have to wait patiently, perhaps several months, before hearing news. He was a cheerful and brave soldier, and a highly efficient N.C.O.” Lance-Corpl. Littlechild had been in France since June. He was formerly employed by Messrs. Heffer and Son, Petty-cury.’
Thankfully, he survived and returned to his job at Heffers to continue his distinguished 54-year career. Like many booksellers, Littlechild had great wit and a fantastic memory for faces and books. He was outstanding in debating circles and enjoyed debates against Cambridge undergraduates. On his retirement from the firm in 1957, the Cambridge Press reported that generations of publishers’ travellers had called on him and he always liked to remember the more leisurely days of the early part of the century when the traveller would call in his silk hat and with his bag of books pushed on a barrow from the station by an outside porter.
This post is dedicated to those who went over the top.
‘This book about Heffers’ will be published 1st November 2016, and will be available from Heffers Bookshop, Trinity Street, Cambridge, UK
This book is about Heffers: the bookshop that is known all over the world
William Heffer, William Heffer,
Bowes and Bowes, Bowes and Bowes,
Galloway and Porter, Galloway and Porter,
Deighton Bell, Deighton Bell
This rhyme, sung to the tune of Frère Jacques, harks back to a golden age of bookselling in the early to mid-twentieth century Cambridge when the city was served by several excellent establishments, each with their own distinctive history and character. This book tells the story of just one; Heffers of Cambridge, founded by William Heffer in 1876. As a bookseller Heffers enjoyed that golden age. And as a bookseller Heffers was and still is, ‘known all over the world’. What may not be known worldwide, however, is that Heffers has always been a stationer and was once a prolific publisher and printer. In 1933 ‘Mr Ernest’ (son of William) wrote to The Times, challenging the notion of Heffers bookshop as a craft emporium.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir, – It seems almost ungrateful to criticize such a delicious jeu d’esprit, and we would not do it, except for one reference you make to Oxford. You say that Heffer’s of Cambridge is a bookshop known even to Oxford men, and then go on to pack that bookshop with “little crafts.” Mentally one conjures up visions of wool and of pewter, of seagrass stools and barbola, and the like, on intimate terms with and indeed almost dominating all that is best, and a great deal that is less than best, in the whole realm of books.
Now, Sir, Cambridge by experience knows better; but Oxford, knowing chiefly by repute, might be led to have a wrong conception of what our bookshop really is. May we beg of you to correct this possible misconception before it spreads too deep for correction?
The Efferini Craftelli is carried on at our Sidney Street branch, whilst Heffer’s books is in the Cury: and come there who will, they shall find neither frills nor furbelows: they shall hunt without success for wool and the silk and the straw that delight the heart of woman. The only craft “worked” there is the craft of books.
Director, W. Heffer and Sons, Limited,
3 and 4, Petty Cury, Cambridge
Published in The Times, 20th January 1933
Whilst, arguably, the impressions held by Oxford men or what delights the heart of woman may not concern us, it is a fact that the ‘bookseller’ and ‘stationer’ trades are from the same stable. Chrimes, in his 2012 portrait of Cambridge, tells us that Cambridge University licensed sellers of books to work from ‘fixed stations’, initially in churches or outside their north and south walls. As one of the few stationary trades, the bookselling trade was considered superior to that of itinerant pedlars. The Latin word, ‘stationarius’ had been used to mean a trader with a fixed place of business, but booksellers secured this term for themselves. The ‘e’ in stationers was an eighteenth century derivation. Oldfield, on the other hand, in his 1944 article on Cambridge and its Stationers, insists the derivation rests rather on the metaphysical translations, ‘that which is established by custom’ … than the literal rendering of a ‘place of abode’ or ‘station’.
In a similar fashion to E. W. Heffer’s eloquent retort, I aim to convey something of the style and character of the Cambridge phenomenon that is Heffers. The stories revealed in the forthcoming book, kindly shared by eighty past and present employees and customers, will testify to the many sides of the firm.
‘This books is about Heffers’ will be published on 1st November 2016.
I’m now writing in earnest and over the coming months will share some of the stories as we lead up to the publication and launch of the book at Heffers in Trinity Street, Cambridge, in November 2016.
Meanwhile, an image has come to light of a bust of the firm’s founder, William Heffer.
The image is contained in an envelope with “Ralph Heffer” written upon it in Stephen Heffer’s handwriting. Ralph (1893-1974), son of Harry Heffer and grandson of William, was not involved with the firm but according to his family, enjoyed working with his hands and would possibly have had a go at creating something like this. The Heffer family were not aware of the bust and we cannot ask Stephen who sadly died in 1996.
I hope the bust has not been destroyed and would be delighted to hear from anyone who knows of its whereabouts. Perhaps it is in someone’s house. My parents have a bust of my grandfather, Sidney Saunders. Or perhaps it is nestling in the corner of a college room or library somewhere. William had good relations with many Cambridge establishments and rented the shop at Petty Cury from Emmanuel College. Even if the bust has been destroyed, it would be nice to know who created it and when.
Here is a brief biography of Stephen Heffer, a gifted artist who worked in the family firm.
Stephen John Heffer(1948-1996)
Son of John Heffer and great-grandson of William, Stephen worked with the firm for fifteen years from 1971. He assisted Managing Director, John Welch, on the bookselling and publishing side, and played an instrumental role setting up the Children’s Bookshop and the Bookworm Book Club. He also made regular visits abroad both in Europe and America, retaining very useful personal contacts with librarians overseas. His travels were noted regularly in the staff newsletter, Trinity Street News and he managed the Grafton Centre shop when it first opened in 1983. An artist, Stephen decided in 1986 to leave the firm in order to train at the Camberwell School of Arts and at Winchester. He then worked as an artist in Barcelona, London and Norfolk and he died in London in 1996. An exhibition of his paintings was held at the Sidney Street Gallery in 1998, providing, as described in the brochure, a unique opportunity for friends and visitors to view the breadth of his vision.
If you recognise the bust and know where it can be found, or if you simply know the story behind its creation, please do get in touch:
I enjoyed Deborah Harrison’s blog about the challenges and inspirations of her New Year’s resolution. Like Deborah, I’m trying to walk everyday. And like Deborah, there’s still so much I want to do with my life:
I recently wrote a short piece for a non-fiction course with Midge Gillies at Madingley Hall, Cambridge. We were asked to write about a pair of shoes.
A well-trodden testimony
We’re pleased to be part of a long accomplished line. We appreciate that our kind must be renewed on a regular basis. No doubt Julie has lost count of how many forerunners we have; how many she’s worn in, and then out, since 1975 when she started upon what would have been described as the running habit of a lifetime, only the habit now appears to be dwindling.
We’re proud to have ancestors that made the grade. We look up to those who’ve achieved the seemingly impossible. Crossing the finishing line after the ultimate distance, not once but twice. We’re proud to wear Julie’s triumphant red laces on ten K treks, a distance that would have been classed as modest in comparison to a marathon but is now no longer attempted.
We’re content to take a daily stroll that’s not too taxing. It’s not that we don’t want to live up to our name. On close inspection, our irregularities signify the extensive use that we have had, borne down by Julie’s increasingly uneven gait that at one time would have been declared perfect but is now favouring left over right.
We’re relieved to bypass the fields and the mud. We have dirt ingrained in our treads and we’re grey, not white. Julie put us through the washer after a January park run so that our metallic strips may still flash like new. The prospect of a cross-country route through farms and rivers, which at one time would have been exhilarating, is now rather daunting.
We’re delighted to see the sun when we leave the house. We know the spirits can be lifted by a sky that beckons the spring. Previously, the necessity of preparing for a special race has taken Julie out in all weathers, temperatures from minus five to plus thirty. An icy, fourteen-mile slog that would have been taken in one’s stride, need now no longer be contemplated.
We’re not afraid to go off the beaten track. We understand how being solitary can open up space for contemplation. But once, in the twentieth mile, away from anywhere and anyone, Julie ran out of fuel and had to phone for a pick up. No matter what distance, training alone would have been the preferred option and now, whilst it’s good to get away, it’s also good not to be too far from home.
We’re grateful to welcome a new sense of tranquillity. We know how much courage it takes to break away and seek out a new life. For Julie, meeting John – whilst running –was a mixed blessing. It took a sustained effort to leave him behind and at the finish, much more than endorphins were released. Pressing on regardless of pain would once have been normal, and now we see how right it was to take a different route.
These running shoes, aged 3, belong to Julie Bounford, aged 54.
How are you getting on with your New Year’s resolution?
‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’
In writing my PhD thesis on the topic of the idea and experience of academic community, I followed Andrew Sparkes’ less traditional approach and produced three fictional vignettes, aimed a revealing elements of academic life within a fictional setting. All three pieces illustrate the institutional culture of contemporary higher education, or as observed, it’s brutality and crassness. They also illustrate the day-to-day lives of the research participants. Bryan (an emeritus professor) is subject to a surprise move as, in his absence, his office (and his status) is eradicated; Jonathon (an academic leader) introduces a new member of staff to a different way of meeting the team, and the Vice-Chancellor gives an address that is steeped in the language of excellence that pervades the institutional discourse, a language from which there is no escape.
The Vice-Chancellor’s address, given below, is made up from phrases selected from the official corporate narrative of the University of Greystone, the site of the research. The confidence of the institutional discourse is emblematic of the grand narrative that tends to be a strong feature of universities today.
Greystone itself is included as a player in the research, with an articulated position in relation to idea of community. The institution is given a voice by the selection and presentation of corporate documents, including a number of corporate plans. Thirty-one letters from the Vice-Chancellor to all university staff were also analysed. Written in the first person, the letters reveal something about the character of the Vice-Chancellor as a person, through the way in which he chooses to convey his message, his observations and the language he uses. Through them he appears to be speaking directly to the staff and is creating an impression of sharing an almost intimate perspective on what is happening. The (not so) fictional address below, however, is less intimate and evokes what Readings described as the ‘University of Excellence’.
The Vice-Chancellor of Greystone gives an address.
‘Let me state at the outset that it is our leadership that is at the forefront of an outstanding reputation. The major contributions we shall make will undoubtedly be our greatest impact. Our particular strength is that we are well equipped for the pursuit of excellence. We are agenda setting internationally, avowedly ambitious and world-leading due to exceptional strengths that make us world-class. Being among the best with our high-quality, high-achieving and highest standards, which are undeniably of the highest quality and thereby market-leading at a high-level. This high-class and high-impact status must be the highest possible. Our highest ambitions, driven by the highest calibre leadership, enable the highest achievements and therefore the highest possible global influence. Inevitably this highest possible performance from our high performing team ensures a high academic engagement. From such a high base we can gain an edge. Our standards will be ratcheted up, supported by a long and proud history with its international distinction making us excellent in our excellence. This excellent achievement, regarded by all as an exemplar of good practice, is not just exemplary but is regarded as internationally excellent. Being internationally recognised, and being internationally aware, our international significance ensures us the strongest international position. Such international recognition of our extraordinary potential keeps us firmly in the top, in the top flight and on the top tier. And we are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking. Recognised as globally strong, the University excels and we can contribute equally with the best universities in the world. And this enviable reputation delivers an exceptional education, and with excellent research our excellent achievement is second to none. Building on the successes, which put us well within the world top 100, our intellectual power and influence obliges us to play a leading role. Our consistent top-20 ranking is an outstanding contribution, which is ranked in the top quartile. Being successful, inevitably there is public good flowing from what we do. This public good ensures a strong culture and our pioneering work in this area is a powerful combination, and a powerful platform. We are, simply, inspiring and innovative.’
What phrases would you suggest to make this excellent address more excellent?
Heffers & E.M. Forster, libraries, books & a Del Boy moment
As I eagerly anticipate a period of desk research at the Cambridgeshire Collection in the Central Library next week, I recall the times I’ve used libraries in various locations over the years, for a myriad of reasons.
My current project is a social history of the long established Cambridge Heffers Booksellers, Stationers and Printers, to be published this autumn. I’m particularly excited about this due to the family association with the firm, which began with my great-grandfather’s employment as a boy at the end of the nineteenth century.
‘One lad was anything but a bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home.’ William Heffer helped the lad, ‘by insisting that he should write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to his employer the next morning. The boy profited by this strange tuition, so much so that he eventually became head assistant in the science department at Petty Cury – no mean achievement.’ (a 1952 biography of William Heffer 1843-1928, by Sidney Heffer, presented to Heffer’s staff, ‘With the Author’s Compliments’)
The ‘boy’ was my great-grandfather, seen here sitting at his desk.
I’m also thoroughly enjoying the research conversations with former employees, customers, authors and academics about their own memories of the firm. I must admit it’s a labour of love.
Do you have a Heffers story you’d be willing to share? If so, please do drop me a line via firstname.lastname@example.org or see the project background on the website –
One service Heffers provided was the valuation of libraries for probate. Heffers also bought libraries to sell through their second-hand and antiquarian department. A family friend, Eve Stafford, who worked for Heffers, recalled the time when the firm valued E.M. Forster’s library after his death in 1970. Not long after, Eve left Heffers to work for King’s, Forster’s college and home for many years.
In my 2014 blog post, ‘Choosing books, living life’, I wrote about the Saturday morning library routine and how I treasured the time with my children at the library.
Where did I hide from those higher education Alan Sugar wannabes, the chequered suited troopers of Enterprise who loudly proclaimed that profit is king?
Where did I find solace for a day as I regained my composure after an absurd contretemps with Trevor?
Neil Gaiman said libraries are about freedom, ‘Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.’
For me, the appeal of the library most definitely has an affective dimension; an emotional attachment that doesn’t exist for some of the other places I may have retreated to in troubled times such as cafés, hotel lobbies, sports centres, galleries and museums. I guess museums come the closest. Museum artefacts, like books, bring different worlds and perspectives to bear on the problem I’m grappling with. Like the books, I don’t have to examine them intently to seek the answers. I just know they’re there, giving the long view informed by lives that have been lived over tens, hundreds, thousands of years. They remind me that I’m not the first to face this problem (whatever it is), nor will I be the last.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve been an inveterate reader and keeper of biographies and memoires. I feel the presence of the lives I’ve observed through other people’s interpretations; people such as Iris Murdoch, D.H. Lawrence, Frida Kahlo, Tony Judt, Jennie Lee, Ada Lovelace, Lorna Sage, Zelda Fitzgerald, John Lennon, Augustus John, Vincent Van Gogh, Bernard Shaw, The Brontes, Elizabeth I, Thomas Hardy, Karl Marx, Elizabeth of York, Ottoline Morrell and Virginia Woolf. I sometimes look at the volumes and reflect on the years lived though it’s not always a conscious thing. Similarly, living in our five hundred year old home, I feel reassured that many others have lived here, and have faced and overcome their own challenges, whatever they may have been.
In ‘The Comfort of Things’, Daniel Miller says relationships ‘flow constantly’ between persons and things. His extraordinarily moving portrait of thirty households in a street in modern London, focusing on our relationship with material things, reveals the centrality of stuff in our lives and what it means for our relationships with people (Miller, 2008). Like my Great Aunt Winifred Anstee (another family member who worked at Heffers) I’m very attached to my books. Hunter Davies said we are a people divided between those who accumulate and those who chuck out. Like Aunty Win, I’m in the former camp. As a child I loved to browse through her overflowing bookcase. I later learned that she had purchased the bookcase for 5 shillings from Heffers when they made the move from Petty Cury to Trinity Street in 1970, and I’m pleased to say that it is still in the family.
I did have a spell working in a library, though it wasn’t in the role I had dreamed of as a teenager. A history fanatic at fourteen, besides wanting to meet Mary Queen of Scots, I wanted to be an archivist. Instead, I worked as the Senior Housing Adviser at Norwich Advice Services in the ‘90s when it was located in the old Norwich subscription library on Guildhall Hill. I recall two memorable days; first, when I heard the news that Margaret Thatcher had resigned in November 1990, and second, when I became trapped in an interview room by a highly disturbed client for two uncomfortable and alarming hours. The building is now a restaurant.
The most significant event in the history of libraries in Norwich (and perhaps in the UK) was when the central library burned down on 1st August 1994. My (first marriage) wedding anniversary, as it happens. I recall watching the news with horror and fully understanding Councillor Brenda Ferris’ distress as she stood in front of the smouldering pile of bricks and pages – a very real Farenheit 451.
I recently visited a friend who gave her address as, ‘The Old Library’. I was delighted to find a stunning and stylish home, still full of books and a most fitting abode for an inspirational, intelligent and incredibly well read woman, writing up her National Trust funded PhD on the history of adult education at Attingham Hall in Shropshire. My own library at home (not the genuine article like Sharon’s), expanded significantly in 2012 when Trevor and I joyfully conjoined our lives, along with our not insignificant book collections. Is there such a thing as a marriage of libraries? Our small publishing venture, Gottahavebooks is certainly an expression of our shared love of books and of social history. And now my pile of postdoc reading material is getting out of hand as I buy and borrow publications that I had wanted to read for years but dared not for fear of neglecting the doctoral thesis.
We can’t all afford to buy the books we read, and we may not want to anyway. Joining a library gives us access to books and so much more. Being a member of a library also entails certain responsibilities. If you don’t follow the rules there are sanctions. Trevor says it’s about having a sense of order and discipline. He says whilst you don’t have to be a member to use the facilities, one should, for example, be quiet. I do get that. However, my children enjoyed the ‘Dick and Dom in ad Bungalow show’ in the mid-2000s, which featured a game called ‘Bogies’. Celebrities took part and I recall Carol Vorderman shouting out ‘bogies!’ possibly in Cambridge University Library (though I may be wrong). It broke the rules and it was funny.
I’ve had my own entertaining library moments. More embarrassing than funny at the time, my backpack was once so overloaded with library books that I fell backwards whilst making polite conversation with one of my college lecturers outside the library at Norwich City College. I went down gracefully, landing on my back, feeling grateful that the books cushioned my fall. The incident, which now makes me smile, reminds me of Del Boy’s famous fall.
Confident, not corporate: the way to a ‘no corrections’ PhD
We’ve all had that recurring fantasy, the one where the examiners pronounce that we have passed the viva with ‘no corrections’. In my case, I was convinced that it would remain just that, pure fantasy. Then, on 27th November 2015, it became a reality. I had passed with ‘no corrections’.
I couldn’t believe it and my examiners said, ‘what did you expect?’ A few days later I received their formal report which stated,
‘The thesis was very impressive and was well-defended. Both theory and methodology were well-developed and clearly explained and justified’
It wasn’t a dream. I thought my responses during the viva could have been more specific. Also, I was rather taken aback with the first question which was, ‘what motivated you to do the PhD?’ I had rehearsed the presentation of a summary of my thesis but not an account of why I did it. On reflection it seems an obvious question to ask, as I hadn’t gone the normal route. I started the PhD in my forties whilst working full-time and it was not funded. I had, however, lived with it for so long that I’m still, even now, adjusting to the idea of living without it.
In a previous blog post on, ’15 lessons from doing doctoral research’, I reflected on some aspects of the doctoral experience. The final stage of my doctoral journey involved preparing for the viva, and this is what I did.
I read, and re-read the thesis.
I marked up the typos (n14). (I had decided not to ask Trevor, my husband, to proof read before the submission because he was under a great deal of pressure at the time with two major commissions. I did make an enquiry with a professional proof reading service and received a response stating that ‘proof reading is not a ‘cheap’ exercise when undertaken properly, and it is important to ascertain that your budget is in line with likely costs.’ Whilst appreciating the point, I decided to go it alone).
I wrote forty pages of notes on the following:
The conclusions of my research and how my findings fit in with or contradict the rest of the literature in the field
A sketch of the thesis, a summary of the eight chapters and eight appendices.
What my work tells us that we did not know before, and implications for the future development of the field
How the topic was framed, my reasons for using reflexive sociology and my specific take on my chosen theoretical framework
The practical and ethical difficulties encountered in conducting the research
Concerns about representativeness and how the data may or may not appropriately relate to the theoretical concepts and measure what is actually going on
The additional techniques and data I would like to have used and why I didn’t use them
Making such extensive notes was like revising for a major examination. The fact that I was revising my own work, words I had so diligently crafted, didn’t stop the fear of having my mind go blank. How on earth am I going to remember it all in the final interrogation? If I took all my notes and my annotated thesis into the viva, perhaps they would act as a reminder. (Yes, I did take them in. I laid them out neatly on the table in front of me. I pointed to the notes a few times and opened the thesis once).
I had two mock vivas, the first with a brave and kind colleague from Cambridge, and the second with both supervisors. I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for the first and it (inevitably) ended in tears; I was annoyed with myself more than anything. The second was fine and gave me some useful pointers that I hadn’t previously considered such as reconciling the difference between a constructivist and structural reading, the longitudinal dimension of the research encounter, and why it is not a case study but still makes sense in an institutional context.
I wrote and practiced a short presentation under the heading of, ‘Please provide a summary of your thesis, describe its rationale and what you consider to be its main aims, key findings and contributions to knowledge’. I tested this out on colleagues at a research meeting where I handed out copies of my research poster and an explanation of the ‘Infinity Model of Academic Community’. They responded with constructive questions and I felt encouraged.
I researched papers written by my examiners and looked for similarities in their arguments to mine. Gewirtz had declared that collectively, as sociologists, we need to be more ethically reflexive (Gewirtz & Cribb 2006) and Stronach, on professionalism, had emphasised the need for a theory of tension; tension between ‘economies of performance’ and ‘ecologies of practice’ (Stronach et al 2002 – online 2010). Stronach et al had called for a ‘more fissiparous employment that will keep tensions in movement’; their metaphor for professionalism (‘pulse’ rather than ‘push’) chimed with something one of my supervisors had said about envisaging my Infinity Model of Academic Community as pulsating.
I looked up recent publications on my topic. (I used to eagerly trawl the SRHE Research Into Higher Education Abstracts as a way of catching up on the latest literature. However, as I prepared for my final submission, I found that I couldn’t open the June edition for fear of finding something that would somehow crush the whole argument of my thesis. When I did finally look, I found a particularly interesting paper on ‘sense of community’ in academic communities of practice. It seemed fortuitous more than anything).
I booked a short holiday in Suffolk with Trevor, who accompanied me to UEA on the day of the viva and spent a happy hour or so at the Sainsbury Centre’s Alphonse Mucha exhibition as I underwent the examination.
At the School, when I came out to await the final verdict, a kind colleague handed me a slice of cake, declaring it was just what I needed. Within two minutes I had been called back in and I had to leave the cake outside. After congratulations and hugs from the panel members, I rushed over to find Trevor, as I wanted him to be the first to hear the news. I then phoned my children and my parents. Afterwards Trevor and I drove to Suffolk and spent an enjoyable but tiring three days visiting more galleries and museums, (not so) gently floating back down to earth.
Finally, in wanting to appear (and feel) more confident than corporate, I chose to wear my red patent leather DMs with a gorgeous mini-skirt my daughter, Phoebe, found for me in Top Shop.
Blue hair, green jacket, multi-coloured skirt and red boots.
What did you, or what will you… wear to YOUR VIVA?
Gewirtz, S, & Cribb, A 2006, ‘What to do about values in social research: The case for ethical reflexivity in the sociology of education’, British Journal Of Sociology Of Education, 27, 2, pp. 141-155
Ian Stronach , Brian Corbin , Olwen McNamara , Sheila Stark & Tony Warne (2002) Towards an uncertain politics of professionalism: teacher and nurse identities in flux, Journal of Education Policy, 17:1, 109-138
Having submitted my PhD thesis on 28th July, I planned to take a well-earned break. Much as I love writing, the marathon effort involved in completing a 100,000-word thesis was exhausting and I needed to re-charge my batteries. As it turned out, I didn’t actually get that break, for reasons explained below, and I’m now preparing for my viva, scheduled for 27th November.
A good way to begin that prep, I thought, was to read the thesis. My first reaction on picking up this weighty tome was to wonder who had written it. It looks far too good for someone who failed the 11plus back in ’72 and who always had to work doubly hard to make the grade. But then, it’s surprising how good a script can look when printed and bound. It can still, of course, be crap.
No matter (I tell myself). My enthusiasm for the topic was quickly rekindled, boosted by a recent positive exchange with the Senior Commissioning Editor of Palgrave Macmillan about a possible book publication based on the thesis. I had already decided that I wanted to make a statement with my research and a book seems the ideal way to do it. All well and good but now I must press the pause button on the book plans and focus on the prep for November.
If I want to make a statement (in whatever format), I must demonstrate that I have something original to say. It may be useful, therefore, to consider the notion of originality, as in ‘original contribution to knowledge’, the doctoral requisite that strikes fear into the hearts (and minds) of all postgraduate researchers as they lurch or limp towards the final hurdle. It is of course sensible to check what is stipulated in the guidelines for examiners (don’t want to trip up by not understanding the question). The University of East Anglia requires,
‘the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory or the revision of older views.’ (Guidelines for Examiners)
Dunleavy, who imparts indispensible advice on doing doctoral research, stresses the importance of grounding your originality in your research. He warns against, ‘value-added’ artificiality and observes that coining new concepts or terminology that are not really needed is not being genuinely original. (Dunleavy 2003 p110)
In my own case, I declare that my newly devised ‘Infinity Model’ of academic community provides a cohesive framework for critically appraising academic community, by balancing extrinsic (value) and intrinsic (values) elements, taking us beyond the notion in its most limited form (the form that is dominant today).
In order to avoid an accusation of artificiality, or to be ready with a convincing repost if I do stand accused, I must explain my approach to constructing the research object (the idea and experience of academic community) and to engaging with the literature and the data. Doing so in a way that clearly demonstrates how the act of construction was necessary (it was a problem that needed addressing) and how it has brought about new knowledge. At the very least, I plan to demonstrate that I’ve made a connection between ‘previously unrelated facts’ about the topic.
Dunleavy believes that originality is a cumulative achievement, that new ideas,
‘most often reflect the patient accumulation of layers of small insights and intuitions that only taken together allow an alternative view of a problem to crystallise.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)
Whilst many of those layers are set out in a fine-grained analysis, no thesis can truly impart the extent and depth of the incremental cognitive activity that doctoral research entails; how, as a researcher (and a human being), you never totally switch off the cogitation, no matter what you’re doing or how long it takes (nearly seven years, part-time in my case). Perhaps the viva is an opportunity to communicate some of that as a way of demonstrating originality. However, best not to bleat about the protraction. And it wasn’t really that bad. Tony Judt, in his exquisite memoir, ‘The Memory Chalet’, describes how he did much of his doctoral reading whilst working in the kitchens at the Blue Boar Hotel in Cambridge,
‘Once mastered, short-order cooking does more than allow for the life of the mind; it facilitates it.’ (Judt p133)
I can’t imagine the mundane travails of doing doctoral research would be of any interest to the examiners. It comes with the territory.
I mentioned that I didn’t take a break after submitting the thesis. Instead, I went about setting up our new small publishing venture called ‘Gottahavebooks’, including pre-selling our first publication and assisting Trevor with preparing a 124,000 word manuscript for press. The publication is a compilation of first-hand accounts of ‘60s Rolling Stones concerts, told in the words of those who were there, gathered by Richard Houghton. It’s a great read. The stories are original and the book contains previously unpublished images of the band. By bringing the fans accounts together in this format, Richard has helped to shed a new light on the social history of the period, on the Rolling Stones and on the fans themselves.
This in itself is new knowledge but it is different from the sort of knowledge created through doctoral research. For example, Dunleavy tells us to focus on ‘added value’, to keep a critical eye on the extent to which you have transformed or enhanced or differentiated the starting materials of your analysis (Dunleavy 2003 p31).
Whilst the fans’ accounts may be viewed as starting (or primary) materials and whilst they’ve been through a transcription, editorial and publishing process, they’ve not been analysed or interpreted – not in an academic sense. That wasn’t the intention. As I understand it, Richard’s intention was to retain as much as possible the authenticity of the fans’ voices. I too, in my research, wanted authenticity; the title of my thesis is, ‘The academy and community: seeking authentic voices inside higher education’. But the similarity ends there.
The accounts that I had gathered through conversations and focus groups with academics were also transcribed but then subject to a detailed and extensive heuristic analysis. The object of my research (the idea and experience of community) is interpreted and (re)constructed in a way that blends its disparate elements, as revealed through the research itself. The approach to my analysis is briefly explained in my blog post published 28th February 2015 –
Dunleavy says that doing genuinely new theory at PhD level is now very difficult in all of the humanities and social science disciplines,
‘The large empty spaces and opportunities for making major intellectual advances available earlier on have tended to be colonized.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p38) He says,
‘being original in the modern social sciences and humanities is rarely about coming up with an entirely new way of looking at things… it is mostly a more moderate activity… originality involves encountering an established idea or viewpoint or method in one part of your discipline (or in a neighbouring discipline) and then taking that idea for a walk and putting it down somewhere else, applying it in a different context or for a different purpose.’ (Dunleavy 2003 p40)
It is true that much has been written on the topic of academic community. The tone of that literature implies a sense of something that may have been lost but is on the brink of being found, if only we knew where to look. That’s where the contribution of my thesis comes into play, by setting out where to look and by developing a framework that helps us to do so; a framework that leads to a fresh insight and a new model. Yes, I have utilised established constructs, such as the infinity symbol, for the purpose of describing and understanding the relations of the homology that is the idea and experience of academic community. The model is an outcome of the research and it is to be taken forward. It has significant potential as a conceptual framework for exploring, through research and through dialogue, the conditions that create, define, sustain or destroy community inside the academy.
This is the key message for my examiners.
Does it sound convincing?
Dunleavy, P (2003) Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation Palgrave Macmillan
I have precious little time for new writing this month as I put the final touches to my doctoral thesis, which goes to print in mid-July (hooray!). One of the appendices is the poster that I presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) Annual Conference in 2012. I recall it was enormous fun working with Trevor Bounford on the poster design. Trevor, a talented designer and illustrator, ably captured my ideas and ‘cut-out’ tea-party concept in his drawings. The text in the poster is from the research data, not my words but those of the research participants. It was also fun presenting the poster at the SRHE Conference, especially with the design being a little out of the ordinary. As well as A4 handouts of the poster, I gave out postcards printed with a design on the front, based on the poster content, and an explanation of my methodology on the reverse.
You can see the postcard and download the full poster as a pdf via this website using the link below –
Work on my final chapter is progressing well and I should have the draft finished soon. Meanwhile, my supervisor asked if I would jot down some lessons I had learned about research through doing the doctorate. Whilst the list below is not exhaustive, it is hopefully useful to postgraduate research colleagues and possibly others.
Reviewing the literature is a continuous process. Keeping abreast of relevant abstracts, preferably via a learned society in your field is essential. Maintaining an accurate electronic library of sources from the beginning makes checking and cross-referencing so much easier.
Printing source material may be costly and is not environmentally friendly but doing so and having it constantly on-hand, significantly aids your review. Spending time sifting through the literature and reflecting helps you to fully comprehend the conversation that you are joining.
Searching electronic databases is essential but do not ignore the benefits of simply walking around the university library. Useful publications can unexpectedly leap off the shelves. Know the value of a book as opposed to a journal paper. A book enables you to see how a sustained argument can be (well or badly) constructed.
Getting into the habit of writing, right from the start, makes the task of drafting chapters easier and more enjoyable. A regular writing routine pays huge dividends in productivity and can be very gratifying.
Keeping a monthly blog during the research provides an arena for thinking out loud about emerging ideas and conclusions. It is also helps to introduce discipline into your routine.
Doing doctoral research part-time whilst occupying a professional role that entails different forms of writing makes it more important to distinguish between your academic and managerial forms of writing. Do not be afraid to share what you have written and nurture your academic voice as well as your academic identity.
Doing doctoral research is a form of continuous meditation. The cognitive process is never entirely switched-off. Always be prepared to record emerging thoughts and ideas, whatever time of day or night. Those light-bulb moments really do happen.
Pilot data gathering is an effective way of refining the overarching research question. Do not underestimate the value of testing out your initial ideas and be open to variations. Your question is likely to change.
Understanding the heuristic value of combining your existing practical knowledge of the field and the newly formed scholarly knowledge gained in doing the research helps you to manage boundaries and determine what is data. Do not see every scenario as a data gathering opportunity.
Transcribing is time-consuming and using a professional transcription service helps to save time. Do your own transcribing wherever possible and if you do use a professional service, check their transcripts against the audio-recorded data before commencing any analysis.
Taking the opportunity to assess the data analysis tools at your disposal means that your ultimate selection is well informed and can be justified, even if you decide not to use any.
Listening to the opinions of others (especially your supervisors) about content and structure aids reflection. Do not worry if those opinions are variable or if your supervisor’s opinion changes from draft to draft. Take time to consider them all but remember that the ultimate argument you are making, and therefore justifying, is yours.
Researching researchers who share your discipline can make it easier to communicate concepts through a common vocabulary. Do not be surprised, however, if your participants turn your questions back on you. Utilise such exchanges to enhance your reflexivity.
Explaining your research to others, both inside and outside the academy, helps to crystallise your argument. Unlike you, others are not immersed in the topic and do not feel passionate about it in the way that you do. Treat every encounter as an opportunity to question your own assumptions.
Backing up your work may be a no-brainer but do not take it for granted. Always take your memory stick away with you. If the house burns down you will at least not have lost the countless number of hours you have spent on this project. A colleague once said to me, ‘it is only a PhD’ but losing the work would be catastrophic.
What you cannot account for is the stuff that happens along the way. Since starting the doctorate in October 2008, I have been divorced and remarried, I have changed jobs and I have moved house four times.
Right now, finding the time to write anything apart from the final chapter of my PhD is difficult. However, I just can’t let the prospect of George and Phoebe’s first opportunity to vote in a General Election pass by without some acknowledgement of this significant milestone – in their lives and in mine.
It doesn’t seem that long ago when I routinely took George and Phoebe with me to the polling station in Southrepps on elections days. I’m grateful that the Presiding Officer never minded me taking the children into the polling booth. Our little ritual included reading through the list of candidates before I cast my vote, and George liked to pop the folded ballot paper into the box.
These days George is far away at Durham University and Phoebe lives in North Norfolk. I miss them both and was really pleased when Phoebe told me that she is going to vote with her Dad – a nice way to mark the occasion.
Years ago, long before rolling registration, I occasionally traipsed the streets of Norwich, delivering electoral census forms. Like all piecework, there was much more to the job than meets the eye. After collecting the forms from the council office you had to sort and deliver them. At a later date, you had to collect the returned completed forms, sort and mark them against the draft register, and then deliver any reminders. The whole process was exhausting and sometimes hazardous, mostly due to the dogs and the strongly sprung letterboxes.
A more enjoyable task was polling duty on the big day itself, which I did for a few years in my twenties. I never applied for the rank of Presiding Officer, choosing to leave that enormous responsibility to someone else and instead, enjoyed a day out of the office, meeting the folk who came to vote and the various pollsters who hung around outside.
And so, George and Phoebe, many congratulations on your right to vote in the forthcoming General Election.
In July, Trevor Bounford and I will be joining friends and colleagues at Old Hampstead Town Hall to celebrate the long and extraordinary life of the late Bruce Robertson, co-founder of the Diagram Group, or Diagram Visual Information Ltd. In recent years, we had the privilege of spending a number of convivial evenings with Bruce and his wife, Pat, at their favourite restaurant, Pasta Plus, near Euston Station in London. I loved to hear their stories about Sunderland Art School where they met, Bruce’s time at the Royal College of Art, the early Diagram years and trips to the Frankfurt Book Fair. I could easily picture in my mind’s eye, a much younger Bruce and Trevor working together at the studio in Soho. We were thrilled when Bruce and Pat made it all the way to Gransden for our wedding bash in 2013, despite Bruce’s many health problems – it meant a great deal to have their blessing.
One of the stories was about the founding of the Diagram Group Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year at the Frankfurt Book Fair, now known as the Bookseller/Diagram Prize. According to Bruce, the prize was originally Trevor’s idea. In 1977 Trevor suggested the Diagram crew look for seemingly bizarre, yet serious, book titles as a part of their book fair routine – scouting for possible publication projects. How do you stop yourself from becoming ‘book blind’? You look for weird titles – odd by accident, not by design.
The first winner, in 1978, was in fact, an academic publication, ‘Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice’ published by the University of Tokyo Press. Of course, to biologists, this title may not appear odd at all but to the outsider… nude mice? Really?
Still running after almost forty years, here are some of the recent winners of the Prize:
2010 Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way by Michael R. Young. A how-to guide on managing a dental practice, published by Radcliffe.
2011 Cooking with Poo by Saiyuud Diwong. A Thai cookbook published by Urban Neighbours of Hope.
2012 Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop by Bakeley Reginal. A guide to banishing fairies from your home published by Conari Press.
2013 How to Poo on a Date by Mats & Enzo. The ‘lovers’ guide to toilet etiquette published by Prion Press.
2014 Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Stiletto. A self-published travelogue published by Choose Art.
In 2013, Bruce donated the Diagram Group archive to the University for the Creative Arts, and it is now being used for teaching and research. In November 2014, Dr Sue Perks and Rebekah Taylor from UCA gave a fascinating a talk about the archive which, for me, illuminated the socio-political context in which the Group operated, and the extent to which their body of work contributed to the democratisation of information about everyday things, predominately in pre-internet times. Personally, I’d love to explore this further, if ever I get the time after finishing the PhD.
Meanwhile, the Diagram Prize concept got me thinking. Not about academic publication titles but about those of public lectures given by academics.
Have you ever given a public lecture and employed a quirky turn of phrase to elicit interest?
Did it attract the right sort of interest?
Or have you ever come across or used a title that prompted an unexpected reaction or audience?
If so, please do share. There’s no prize offered – let’s have a show and tell.
As a child in the 1960s, I had to undergo regular visits to the optician. I didn’t mind so much having to go. It was a chance to skip school, sit in Dipple and Conway’s snug little waiting room and read Rupert the Bear annuals. In thinking about the approach to reading and interpreting the data in my doctoral research, I was reminded of those visits. Just like in the eye examination, my visual acuity was being tested – how could I clearly see the data?
Using the concept of the lens, I created a coding framework based on the inductive process I had thus far conducted via the literature review and an initial thematic data analysis. The framework in fact comprised a series of eight lenses through which I read the data. Whilst it was not my intention to be overly prescriptive or sociologically reductive, using the framework as a reading tool enabled me to think at a deeper, more heuristic level, about what I was seeing in the context of the research questions.
I read the data (all 169,000 words) manually, through each lens in turn, using five different refractions, which allowed me to consider the specific research questions from different angles. Using the coding framework as a heuristic tool, informed by both an inductive and deductive process, enabled me to be more systematic. It also enabled me to remain connected to the theory. This is where the theory and data, never far apart, began to move closer together for the final analysis. The discipline of employing the refractions reminded me of having to wear the plastic blue NHS spectacles as child with a fabric plaster stuck over one of the lenses for whole weeks at a time, just to get my lazy eye to work that much harder – now that, I did mind!
Perhaps I should explain why I conducted a manual, in vivo analysis instead of using computer software. I attended a training course quite early on in the research, on the NVivo programme and immediately became concerned about the possibility of the data becoming subservient in some way to the software. It all seemed to be very process-driven – although I do acknowledge the plea, what is data analysis, if not a process? However, I was also concerned about the possibility of becoming distanced from the data, and losing the voice of the participants in a noise of nodes. I didn’t want to become detached from meaning and context. This is why I decided, therefore, to continue with a manual analysis. Sometimes a practical, hands on approach, can be the most productive, even if it does take a little longer… OK, a lot longer!
Through the coding and analysis, I attempted to make possible biases less opaque and to problematise structuring influences, which included my own inside experience and relationship with both the research topic and the research participants. I was once again reminded of those visits to the optician; this time in the consulting room, sitting in a high leather chair with my legs dangling, wearing heavy metal frames into which the nice optician slotted different lenses as I attempted to read the letters off the Snellen chart hanging on the wall at the far end of the room. The danger, as always, was the temptation to recall the sequence of letters from previous visits. I had to concentrate really hard on seeing it all as though I had never seen it before and yet still be able to recognise what I was looking at. As with re-reading the research data through the final, fine-grained analysis, I needed to see it all afresh and not make assumptions or rush to conclusions.
In applying this heuristic approach, I’m ultimately blending my existing practical knowledge of the research topic as an insider researcher, and my newly formed scholarly knowledge gained by doing the research itself. This is where I’m at right now, as I draw the picture into sharp focus and approach the task of writing the final chapter of my thesis.
This post, a bit of light relief from the academic writing, introduces a new fictional character, Cyril Wilmslow, volunteer extraordinaire.
Cyril Wilmslow’s discomfort was painfully obvious as he attempted to secure his seat in the already crowded gallery. Close physical proximity, especially to those of his own kind, was something he tried to avoid – touching was out of the question. Cyril shuddered visibly as he inevitably brushed past the well-rounded nylon clad knees of an immaculately attired, over odourised middle-aged lady who looked up and beamed invitingly. She made no attempt to lean the other way and appeared to relish his unease.
Being a gentleman, Cyril grappled for the right words to apologise for his ungallant infringement of her personal space. To his dismay he instead erupted with a senseless blustery gasp as he pressed his corpulent gut over the balustrade whilst straining to save, not hers, but his own blushes. His blazing red cheeks, his flaxen hair plastered across his hot forehead and his cobalt waistcoat created above all, a patriotic vision of red, white and blue – a vision which, in different circumstances, Cyril would have most heartily approved of.
Cyril finally managed to squeeze his frame into the only remaining gap, next to the smiling lady. As soon as he sat down, she gently tilted towards him as if anticipating his manly protection from what they were about to witness. There seemed to be no escape. He would have to remain at close range for the duration.
‘I fear the shock of what’s to come may be too much for me to bear,’ she sighed, clearly seeking comfort before the proceedings had even begun.
Cyril had that effect on people. As he would remind his wife every morning at breakfast,
‘I have an aura of compassion that draws the sad and the sick wherever I go, Mrs W.’
In fact, the conversation at breakfast just an hour earlier had followed the usual pattern. Sitting at an immaculately laid breakfast table, Cyril tucked in his napkin and consumed his bran flakes with military precision, starting with the top of the bowl and working his way downwards in a clockwise motion. As ever, Cyril was oblivious to the clanking that reverberated around the small kitchen as he used his spoon to round up any deviant flakes, and oblivious to Mrs W’s flinching. Mrs W never complained, so how could he possibly know that the sound drove her to distraction every morning?
In truth, Cyril was a real stickler for good table manners, always the first to spot the foul misdeeds of a fellow diner such as shovelling peas and what he contemptuously regarded as ‘chomping’. He struggled immensely with the communal dining experience in the staff canteen and could not help scowling at offenders, making them feel dreadfully uneasy. They could not know what they had done to displease but would be left in no doubt that whatever it was, their sin would never be absolved.
That morning at breakfast Cyril picked up his neatly folded Cambridge News and glanced at the headlines,
STUDENT IN DEATH PLUNGE TRAGEDY
‘Oh dear Mrs W’ he exclaimed, ‘another blessed soul has slipped through the net.’
Mrs W, waiting for Cyril to hand over his empty cereal bowl in exchange for a quieter plateful of mushrooms and scrambled eggs, asked,
‘Pardon, what’s that dear?’
Irritated at having to repeat himself Cyril retorted loudly, ‘I said yet another blessed soul slips through the next. I would’ve talked him out of it. Convinced him that life’s always worth living!’
Mrs W, a consistent and compliant player in the breakfast liturgy, declared,
‘Perhaps I shouldn’t say it Mr W but you’re a pillar of society, you are the life-blood of the Cambridge Samaritans!’
Cyril could not agree more but knew it would appear conceited to say so. Yes, it was true. Total strangers told him their life stories, their tragedies and tales – at the Coop checkout, on the guided bus and in the queue at the post office. That was why he did what he did; one night a week as a Good Samaritan and one day a week as a Witness Service Volunteer, comforting the victims and witnesses of all manner of crimes.
Back on the gallery, resigned to the burden of consoling his new neighbour, Cyril made himself as comfortable as he could. Looking around, he admired the symbols of office with reverence and reflection, sharing an acute sense of occasion with everyone present, officials and public alike. The solemnity of the audacious yet utilitarian backdrop, designed by the town cemetery architect did not appear to dampen the anticipation of what could well turn out to be the best show in town.
Cyril had been here many times before but today was different. This time he was a member of the public and he had personal knowledge of the major protagonist.
All present were about to be both fascinated and repulsed.
It had been a trying few days for Ruth, a newly arrived lecturer at Greystone. She felt disconnected, almost cut off, despite having received a thorough induction from the administrators in the local support office and a five page checklist of departmental directives which seemed to cover every conceivable aspect of campus life. And that was only a part of it. After a campus orientation tour and yet more briefings on this, that and the other, Ruth was finally issued with a gleaming campus card. Now a fully signed-up member of the university, she had access to the hallowed ground that was the staff car park, just as long as she made it to work by nine every morning – before all the spaces had gone. Reeling after this most thorough initiation, Ruth still felt somehow lonely. She was dying to meet her teaching colleagues and wanted to get on with the teaching. She was also by now quite frankly desperate for a conversation about something more stimulating than first aid kits and fire drills.
The design of the arts building where Ruth had her office seemed to make things worse. When she first saw the rows of closed heavy oak doors along both sides of the narrow and dingy breeze block corridor, it crossed her mind that the place could easily be mistaken for a monastery, or a prison. She even asked herself,
‘Who occupies these cells, saints or sinners?’
For Ruth it felt like a more like prison. Confined to her cramped office behind one of those doors with barely enough room for a single desk, she found herself wondering where everyone was and how she could meet them.
Just that morning as Ruth was unlocking her office she heard a door open at the other end of the corridor. She turned quickly, ready to give a smile and at least wave good morning but to her disappointment, no one materialised and the door closed almost instantly.
Not to worry, she thought. This morning’s meeting will change all that. Ruth had received an invitation by email from her new academic director, Jonathon to a ‘scheduled conversation’ about the course she would be teaching. After locating his door, she knocked gingerly and heard a gentle voice,
On the other side Ruth found Jonathon sitting in a comfortable room with a desk, a meeting table with four chairs and a large window which overlooked the walkway, a long concrete pathway which zigzagged through the centre of the campus.
Across the room Jonathon was smiling.
‘Hi Ruth, welcome to Greystone. Glad you managed to locate my room. I know it isn’t easy for the uninitiated. I hope you’re settling in OK.’
Thinking but not dare saying, ‘I’d hardly describe myself as that’, Ruth enthusiastically greeted Jonathon and blurted out how she keen she was to meet the team.
‘It will be nice to finally meet everyone,’ she repeated.
‘Ah yes’, he replied, and looking at this watch he added, ‘but it’s not quite time… coffee?’
Reaching up to a compact coffee maker tucked neatly on top of his filing cabinet, Jonathon asked,
‘What will it be, Cappuccino, Latte or Americano?’
Ruth imagined she might be in Costa, a brand seen on almost every campus. Not wanting to give the impression that having a barista for a boss was anything out of ordinary, she opted for her usual – an Americano. Jonathon happily obliged and poured it into a paper cup.
‘You’ll need a lid when we go out.’ He said. ‘I have some here.’
‘Onto the walkway… to meet the team. We’ve just a minute and then we’d better go down.’
‘On the walkway? I thought we might be meeting them in the staff room. You know, at coffee time.’
‘Oh we don’t have a staff room any more. And coffee time was stopped last year as part of the ‘Use or Lose’ Campaign. The school office did an audit. Something about the number of ideas for successful research grant applications and stuff like that, and then declared we didn’t need coffee time. In my opinion, use or lose doesn’t come into it. We were using it. I don’t think they realised just how much business is done over coffee. So we’ve had to find an alternative way to meet.’
‘What happens now then?’ asked Ruth.
‘We make our own coffee and meet on the walkway between 10 and 10.30 every day. It’s a bit random as you can often get what feels like the whole university wandering up and down. It gets really crowded out there. They must’ve shut down coffee time in all the schools. At least when we had it in 0.23 you knew who you’d be seeing.’ He paused. ‘Didn’t they cover this in your induction?’
‘I thought they covered pretty much everything. Seems not.’
Jonathon handed her a lid.
A moment later, he led Ruth down to the walkway. She wondered what exactly was going to happen. They stood in the walkway at the school entrance and waited. At first, there was hardly anyone around. Gradually people began to emerge from the various school entrances. Most were holding coffee cups, along with notebooks and iPads. Some were holding up sheets of paper with names written on them as if they were meeting someone at an airport.
After three for four minutes, people were milling around along the whole length of the walkway, in eager conversation. It gave Ruth the impression of exercise time in a prison yard.
With a shout of ‘Follow me!’ Jonathon started moving towards the top end of the walkway.
So, thought Ruth, this is how we meet the team.
Do you still commune for ‘coffee time’ at your university?
The Climategate clarion call – is it time for another?
Having read Kevin Grandia’s recent Huffington blog on ‘Climategate: 5 years later’, I reflect on a missed opportunity from a public engagement perspective.
In 2006, UEA’s Executive Team asked me to write the bid for the university to become one of six national Beacons for Public Engagement and to invite Professor Keith Roberts, a public engagement exemplar, to be our champion. Having agreed to do so, Keith co-authored the business plan and following our success, chaired our Beacon steering group and acted as my mentor throughout the four-year programme, from 2008 to 2012. We would not have secured the Beacon status without Keith’s endorsement and I’m indebted to him for his support. Keith also kindly secured Paul Nurse (then president of the Rockefeller Institute) as a bid referee, to accompany Mike Tomlinson (former Chief Inspector of Schools) and Frances Cairncross (then Chair of the BA Festival of Science 2006 which had just taken place in Norwich).
The Beacon Funders Group, comprising the Higher Education Funding Councils, Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Wellcome Trust, took an active interest in the progress of all six Beacons via regular updates, evaluation reports and by their representation at bi-monthly Beacon Coordination Group meetings. In September 2011, leading up to the end of the programme, the Beacon project directors and their champions attended a Funders Group panel in London. During our presentation I was asked why I had chosen to continue in my role as the Beacon for Public Engagement Project Director, despite particular challenges,
‘was it altruism that kept you going?’
The Funders were referring to two factors, both of which feature strongly in the higher education sector and both of which have particular resonance for UEA during this period; first, the continuing rise and dominance of the enterprise discourse and second, the imperative to maintain a positive institutional reputation.
At UEA this manifested itself in a discourse and managerial structure controlled by enterprise and an emulation of the business world. The then ‘Knowledge Transfer’ Executive was the formal internal accountable body for the Beacon that UEA was hosting. Whilst I had the opportunity as the Project Director to present regular progress reports to the Executive as a standard agenda item, meetings were mainly consumed by the calculation of income generated by consultancy and spinouts, the management of intellectual property, and the accumulation of prizes.
Ron Barnett, reflecting in 2011 on the possibility of the authentic university, refers to a ‘dominant self-deceiving mode of being’ whereby a university exhibits ‘bad faith’. For example, when it persuades itself that it can do none other than orient itself towards income generation as its dominant mode of being. At UEA, a prime example of Barnett’s ‘dystopia’, engagement was drowned out by the din of the dollar discourse.
In April 2010, halfway through the Beacon programme, the independent evaluator reported that at senior leadership and management levels, public engagement at UEA had certainly been put on the agenda but it had been largely ‘tolerated’ rather than actively endorsed. 2010 had been a challenging year for the university’s reputation. Any external assessment that could be construed as negative or an outright criticism would have been unwelcome, particularly in this context. A few months previously, in November 2009, it had emerged that the computers at the university’s climatic research unit had been hacked, resulting in what became known as ‘Climategate’.
UEA has never acknowledged any direct association between public engagement and Climategate. This was not the case outside the university, however, where across and beyond the Beacon network, people at all levels in the sector were making the connection between the idea that someone would want to hack a university research unit and the perceived need for a more open dialogue about research between researchers and society (a colleague at the Open University, Rick Holliman, has since aptly described Climategate as an ‘unstructured’ form of public engagement (Holliman 2011).
Alan Thorpe, then Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council and RCUK Public Engagement Champion, in his keynote address to the first national Engage Conference in December 2010, described the incident as a ‘clarion call for public engagement’. Unfortunately, his intended audience from UEA arrived late and did not get to receive the message that the Beacon Funders so wanted them to hear. However, in the context of the national Beacon programme, there was no avoiding the issue.
A criticism, therefore, in a relatively unimportant evaluation of a relatively unimportant externally funded project may not, in more normal circumstances, have caused a great deal of consternation on the part of those inside the university. In fact, when the 2010 evaluator’s report was discussed at a high level meeting in April of that year, it was acknowledged by almost all of those present that engagement was indeed ‘tolerated’ as described.
Meanwhile, the Beacon Funders offered Keith and me what support they could in dealing with the fallout at a corporate level though what they could actually do was limited. Universities remain autonomous in many respects, which from a broader perspective is no bad thing, and I have always described the Beacon initiative as a ‘government intervention’. What this situation needed was someone at a senior level on the inside to get the bigger picture. Clearly, the reluctance at an institutional level for self-reflection prevents the possibility of self-understanding.
Barnett asks whether the university misunderstands the truth about itself or perhaps it understands the truth but blocks it out? He concludes that it is neither one thing nor the other and recognises that authenticity is acted out every day both in tiny occurrences at an individual level and in large activities. It is perhaps this more than anything else that enabled me to carry on with the Beacon role in spite of many political (with a small ‘p’) skirmishes. It was a privilege not only to work with Keith but also many other colleagues at UEA who were and remain committed to engagement and co-production in their day-to-day academic practice.
Whilst UEA may have recovered its pre- Climategate composure, assuring everyone that the incident has served to improve its reputation, the enterprise discourse is stronger than ever and the university continues to be a place of rigid hierarchy and patronage. Perhaps these characteristics inevitably apply to universities. Earlier this year following the appointment of its new Vice-Chancellor, UEA’s Executive decided to remove ‘Engagement’ from the title of Pro-Vice Chancellor so it is now just PVC for ‘Research and Enterprise’. Members of the Engagement Executive who were not consulted, or indeed notified, were concerned about the message this change would send to our community partners. At the same time phrases such as ‘altruistic but enterprising’ were starting to appear in the official narrative about engagement in university marketing materials.
It was at that point I decided to move on from those ever-decreasing circles and focus on the research and the writing.
Five years on from the Climategate clarion call, is it time for another?
Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis
Richard Holliman (2011). Advocacy in the tail: Exploring the implications of ‘climategate’ for science journalism and public debate in the digital age. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, 12(7) pp. 832–846.
This post is prompted by Lynne Berry’s keynote at the ‘Turning the Corner’ Conference, Anglia Ruskin University, September 2014. Lynne Berry OBE is Chair of the Commission on the Voluntary Sector & Ageing.
In her address Berry contemplated the future of volunteering over the next twenty years in the context of our ageing population and the new legislation on health and social care. She wondered if the current structure of charitable organisations would survive and talked of building a new narrative and of specialist roles including providers of ‘mutual support’. She also invited us to consider volunteering organisations from a different angle, posing the possibility of,
‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services.’
The suggestion that we need a structure for ‘being there’, and the implication that the very act of ‘being there’ could be construed as a voluntary service, prompts a number of questions about volunteering. In my post on, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’ (January 2014), I warn against the danger of ignoring basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact, which can be met via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small (this was in response to Lindsay Levkoff Lynn’s 2014 prediction for NESTA about extreme volunteering). In this post I consider the question of ‘structure’ in the context of Berry’s invitation. In my next I will consider the question of ‘services’.
It’s not that I’m against structure as such. As a sociologist I spend much of my time observing and thinking about structure in society. However, in working towards the final conclusion of my doctoral thesis on community inside higher education, I do find myself questioning the utility of structure as applied to the notion of a university community – a task that is especially challenging when, as a researcher, I find myself at different times inside or on the margins of that community, depending on the day, the role, the task and so on.
Sarah Mann considers alienation in the learning community in the context of online learning environments and cites Derrida’s understanding of community as something that has ‘an inside and an outside’ (Caputo 1997). The word ‘community’ can presuppose the idea of exclusion and as Mann says,
‘belonging and sharing in common imply not belonging and sharing in common.’ (my emphasis)
Mann concludes that belonging or having a shared purpose is not at issue. Rather, what seems to be at issue is the opening up of possibilities for expression (e.g. seeking understanding; making explicit norms and assumptions in order to question and configure them more appropriately; and voicing different experiences, histories and positions, and having these accounts heard). Facilitating dialogue is more critical than establishing a sense of belonging, in the quest for reducing alienation (Mann 2005).
In my thesis I ask whether a sense of ‘community’ is somehow structured, or if not, should it be; that is, imposed and regulated. UEA’s Corporate Plan 2008-2012 for example, declared, ‘we are a scholarly community within a wider community… the cohesion of our own community depends on parity of esteem and a sense of collegiality and mutual obligation.’
Mann describes a ‘dynamic of compliance’ which pulls teachers and learners towards a ‘surface form of harmony’ – sound familiar?
I’m drawn towards Mann’s suggestion that we resist the idea of certainty contained in a consensus-based (or more structured) view of community, ‘in order to maintain openness to the possibility that the future might bring something which is as yet unimagined or unknown.’
Ron Barnett, in acknowledging the existence of structure, or structures in the contemporary university, concludes that the space for an academic community to be an academic community is shrinking and that structure as such may tend to obtrude into the human relationships of a community. There is too much structure (Barnett 2004).
So, where does this leave Berry’s proposal for ‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services’?
Perhaps we should think of ‘being there’ as a form of structuring itself. After all, as Berry stated in May 2009, there is a, ‘mutuality that engages us all.’
‘…Ties that bind. Contacts that help build strong, cohesive and resilient communities. These acts of citizenship build communities that can withstand snowstorms, unemployment, fire and flood…The personal experience of volunteering helps build lives and communities; and through the power of volunteering we can make a difference. We all need help sometimes.’ (Berry 2009)
If this is a form of structuring within society, how might it relate to the notion of, ‘a new structure for new sorts of ‘being there’ services’?
Was Berry envisaging the emergence of new organisational forms, arising from communities, or was she telling existing community organisations to transform themselves, to re-structure? Her audience at Anglia Ruskin in September comprised representatives from charities and social enterprise. All no doubt, concerned about their future role and indeed, existence. I was there representing ARVAC, the Association for Research in the Voluntary & Community Sector.
Professor Jenny Pearce assessed the potential of community organising in the UK at the ARVAC 2014 Annual Lecture. Writing in the ARVAC Bulletin (Issue 121), Pearce discusses the possibility of a ‘resistant citizenship’ which may be short of ‘activism’ but could still amount to a new form of organising in the community that contributes to a, ‘greater sense of belonging to place and more intra and inter neighbourhood relationships capable of giving voice to local needs.’
On the face of it, the Berry and Pearce descriptions are similar – ‘ties that bind’, ‘intra and inter neighbourhood relationships’. However, a significant difference is their use of the terms ‘resilient’ (Berry) and ‘resistant’ (Pearce). Resilient communities may ensure their survival but they do not necessarily challenge the current social order; they are more likely to reproduce it. Resistant communities have the potential to challenge and change the social order.
Also, whilst Berry endorsed the role of the voluntary sector as a campaigner at her Anglia Ruskin address, I suspect she does not envisage the sector’s role as an agent for change. In an interview with Third Sector in January 2014, Berry referred to the future charity workforce as a ‘post-employment group of portfolio workers’, drawn from a growing group of people who are retired for up to twenty years; a group that will have a lot to offer but will have high expectations of the charities they support. She said, ‘this generation will contain a lot of stroppy older women who want a bit more.’ That’s about as radical as it gets.
According to Pearce, citizens today are offered the role of consumers and little else. I wonder if Berry is offering much the same.
What real purpose would Berry’s new structure serve – resilience or resistance?
In my next post I will consider what ‘services’ may mean in this context.
The ARVAC AGM and Annual Conference, on ‘Talking out of turn: getting community voices heard’ is taking place at The Circle in Sheffield on 20th November 2014.
Barnett, R. (2004). Epilogue: Reclaiming Universities from a Runaway World. Reclaiming Universities from a Runaway World. M. Walker and J. Nixon. New York, Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.
Caputo, John D (1997). Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida Fordham University Press
Mann, S. J. (2005). “Alienation in the learning environment: a failure of community?” Studies in Higher Education 30(1): 43-55.
Early one morning recently I bumped into a colleague on campus who I’d not seen for a while. He greeted me with the exclamation, ‘I hear you’ve moved over, Julie!’ Knowing exactly what he meant, I smiled and confirmed that yes, indeed, I had resigned from my management role; that I was now working as a research fellow and completing my PhD. He kindly asked about the topic of the doctorate, wished me luck and went on his way.
This exchange came at a time when for me, as Schostak says,
‘the pragmatics give way to the lonely yet exhilarating reflections on ‘life’, ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’, ‘self’ and ‘otherness.’ (Schostak, 2002 p35)
The moment I completely gave up my ‘new management’ role (I had been part-time for a while) it all went quiet. I don’t mean the embarrassed silence in the departmental meeting when I announced my impending move to a research role (I should’ve seen that coming). I mean the absence of the day-to-day jingle jangle of new management; the groans at yet another abuse of the university brand guidelines, the ‘kill Kodak’ rallying cries in the race for admissions, the laments over another conference crisis, the gripes about phone calls from eccentric alumni and rude remarks about former colleagues who had ‘moved over’ to the other side. I could at last, on the other side, hear myself think.
(It also came at a time when four friends, Andrew, Estella, Jasper and Friso, died together on flight MH17. We had been with Andrew and the boys on the Easter trip this year and whilst we were not particularly close, their sudden loss in this way shook my understanding of ‘moving to the other side’ in a very different context. I’m still thinking that one through.)
I am of course still a member of the university community. And it is far from lonely.
In examining morale in university life, David Watson, who sees universities as ‘membership organisations’, acknowledges the complex and contradictory nature of higher education and suggests that the mesh of psychological contracts, or ‘deals’ that it involves,
‘make much of the current discourse about happiness and unhappiness in contemporary life look simplistic and banal.’ (Watson, 2009 p3)
I wonder if this is so different from other sectors. I recall difficult times at Norwich City Council in the 1990s with round after round of cuts; when as managers we had to attend a ‘star chamber’ and justify the continued existence of our service. I remember, despite some success, a palpable sense of bereavement as my own organisation suffered repeated losses of assets and morale. I don’t imagine it is any easier in the current economic climate.
Watson repeats the tale that vice-chancellors like to tell each other – go around your university or college and ask the first ten people who you meet how their morale is and the response will always be ‘rock bottom’. Ask them what they’re working on and the response will be full of life, optimism and of enthusiasm for the task in hand.
This almost certainly applies just as much in public and voluntary organisations. Generally, people care about what they do and they want to make a difference.
Jon Nixon, who writes about the moral bases of academic professionalism, describes academic practitioners as members of a ‘highly differentiated workforce’ having to ‘hammer out their sense of purposefulness within an institutional context which is morally fractured.’ (Nixon, 2008 p14)
Why this matters especially in higher education as opposed to elsewhere is that, according to Nixon, the university is the one place where we can, indeed must, ask awkward questions about why we do what we do.
I couldn’t agree more. In the university we should have the space and the freedom to think the unthinkable. It is what universities are for.
However, Nixon goes on to say that the task is virtually impossible in a context where the leaders of our institutions have ‘deserted the field’. Their abdication of moral responsibility for the university sector as a whole represents a serious ‘failure of nerve’.
Perhaps, as practitioners on the ground we need to become subversive and move into the liminal space that enables us to breathe a different air.
Gary Rolfe, in echoing Bourdieu’s ‘community of unconsciousness’ offers freedom (and possibly happiness) via a parallel existence in his ‘paraversity’ with its ‘organic, fluid, rhizomatic, evolving community of thought’ in which the ‘values-based’ researcher and lecturer have the ‘freedom to be good.’ (Rolfe, 2013)
What a shame his invitation is to academic staff only. His freedom, exercised by a ‘community of critical friends committed to the process of thinking together’ appears to be denied to those who he describes as the ‘ever-expanding administrative class’ thereby implying that the very opportunity to be good is the sole domain of the academic.
I may have ‘moved over’ but I’d like to assert a right for all members of the university, academic and administrative alike, to join in the thinking; to be ‘values-based’, whatever their role, and to experience the freedom to be good.
Why have sides?
Nixon, J (2008) Towards the Virtuous University: The Moral Bases of Academic Practice New York, Routledge
Rolfe, G (2013) The University in Dissent: Scholarship in the Corporate University London, SRHE
Schostak, J (2002) Understanding, Designing and Conducting Qualitative Research in Education, Buckingham, Open University Press
Watson, D (2009) The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life, Maidenhead, Open University Press & McGraw Hill Education
As Project Director for the Beacon for Public Engagement based at UEA, I volunteered to do a comedy stand-up routine for Norwich Bright Club in 2011, along with Professor Tim Jickells, Dr Richard Grey and postgraduate researchers Alessia Freddo and Chris Roberts.
Staff and students were joined in the audience by Norwich and Norfolk civic members. I especially recall the late Cllr Jenny Lay, Norwich Lord Mayor who, despite being hit on the head by the bouquet of flowers I threw into the audience, expressed her congratulations on my performance, saying, ‘I didn’t know you had it in you, Julie’. I always admired Jenny’s warmth and compassion and was sad to hear of her passing last year.
Whilst the Bright Club experience proved to be more nerve-wracking than any job-interview or presentation, I was on a high for days afterwards. It was an amazing experience which I highly recommend. View the routine on YouTube or read the script below. My act starts 10 minutes in. I hope it raises a smile.
The Big Idea
Is work making you miserable? Do you want to be happy?
Are you becoming restless, depressed, apathetic or cynical?
You academics out there…are you resenting your students, your colleagues, your institution even? The other day I found a great service called, ‘Escape the ivory tower’. You can use it to ‘examine your own unhappiness’. Coaching is offered that will let you ‘go deep’ and really explore whatever you’re struggling with.
Well, my research does pretty much the same thing. I’m going deep…real deep. I’m going down on 12 very lucky academics. You see, they need to be appreciated. They need to be loved, to feel valued. Yet, in these times when making money rules supreme, we seem to have lost our appreciation of the things that really matter. Such as happiness and pursuing the truth; the truth about things that mean absolutely nothing to the public at large…well, someone’s got to do it.
David Watson, the David Attenborough of higher education, has written a book on Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life. He talked to academics who said,
We don’t have enough money to do our jobs properly but we’re really good at them.
Can’t think what they mean, can you?
We clearly need to boost their morale. We need to make them happy. We need to help them feel connected, somehow engaged. Hmmm engaged…engaged…what makes people happy? Being engaged?
You know, lots of students get engaged at University so we could spread a little happiness and cash in on that. You know, I got engaged when I was at Bangor University? To a young man called Wilf. Didn’t marry him…he met a nice young lady called Alison whilst doing his PGCE. Am I bitter, 30 years on? Maybe…just a little bit…
Didn’t Kate and Wills meet at University?
Did you actually watch the Royal Wedding? What an adoring couple. How nice it is to see two gorgeous young people so much in love. Wasn’t the dress simply wonderful and oh what a stunner. I thought Kate looked fantastic too. Bit caked up maybe. Got to cover up those acne pock marks somehow I suppose.
It’s just been announced that the Palace of Westminster will be available for wedding receptions. Well, I’m not talking alternative wedding venue. I’m talking wedding concept, the total wedding package.
Never mind the big fat royal wedding. I have the big fat university wedding!
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the UEA Wedding Experience – a complete cradle to grave service. World class, carbon neutral, award winning.
For a fairytale experience, UEA’s your concrete castle full of Eastern promise. Explore our labyrinths and exotic subterranean streets.
Now I grant you, the venue may not be instantly appealing – more Gretna grey that Gretna Green. So, if you want a quickie, it’s Gretna Gray, destination UEA. A bit of bunting here and there, maybe draped around the scaffolding. Instead of cleaning the concrete, spay it with glitter!
But it’s not the venue that makes a classic wedding. It’s all the extras – and don’t we have extras at UEA!
Just think of the facilities. Shotgun weddings not a problem. We have a School of Nursing and Midwifery. All services are at hand.
I mean, all services…for you shy young virgins who lack confidence in the bedroom department we can set up special observation points around the campus so you can watch the rabbits. You’ll soon learn.
Our nursery can provide as many cute bridesmaids and page boys as you like, for an extra one-off payment to the parents. Rates negotiable.
For those vital pre-nuptial agreements, our School of Law can offer New Union Practical Treatments Including All Liaison Services – that is, NUPTIALS for short.
Speeches. A wedding is not a wedding without speeches. The School of Literature and Creative Writing! There’s a bunch of scribblers who could do with a bit of extra income. Say, 10p a word, 15p if it rhymes – 75p if it’s funny?
For speech writing, we can set up the Educational Institute for Engagement in Oratory – EIEIO.
Pointless having speeches without a receptive audience. So don’t worry if you’re a little short of guests. UEA can provide a guest list to die for. Any kind you like. Want a refined party with idle chit chat, sipping sherry and nodding sagely – we have pro-vice chancellors, deans, directors and so on. A more cultured lot you could not hope to meet. You want a merry throng, chattering and cheery – we have lecturers and researchers – always game for a laugh. You want a raucous bunch of rebel rousers with a couple of arguments and maybe a fistfight – we have pro-vice chancellors, deans, directors! Wait a minute, they’re in twice. Well, security and maintenance will have to do the sherry and chat.
All those wedding guests you have to invite but don’t actually want? We understand that sometimes it’s necessary to invite those relatives that you really have no desire to see. This is not a problem. We have the solution. We will give them a campus map, some emergency rations and tell them to find room 003.01.03. We guarantee that you’ll never see them…ever again.
It is not even a problem if have no family or friends. You can tack your wedding service onto one of our Congregation ceremonies, coming up soon with a special Star Trek theme this year. Dust off your Klingon outfit. You won’t look out of place. At UEA we really know how to dress up and you’ll be thrilled with the results. Have your photograph taken with our Vice Chancellor, he won’t mind, I’m sure.
Now, I did say ‘low carbon. I don’t mean horse and cart down the Mall – l mean proper low-carbon, environmentally sound weddings. Take the catering. You can have the icing but no cake – there’s a load more food miles in a fruit cake, you know. Think how virtuous you will feel knowing that you’re doing your bit to save the planet. Talking of saving the planet, our School of Environmental Sciences have stacks of shredded emails that would make fantastic confetti.
This could be a true Norwich Research Park Enterprise collaboration. The John Innes Centre can grow you GM flowers that will double up as the salad for the wedding breakfast. And if we’re really pushed, we could buy in some half decent catering from City College Norwich.
Forgotten to buy something for the lucky couple? Stumped for ideas? The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts! They’ve got some very pleasant tat that they can’t possibly want to keep. Anything from cute little Japanese ornaments to those all essential recycled shopping baskets. They could flog a few bits off and make a bit of cash.
So, don’t just think of that job satisfaction, all those boosted academic morals. Think also of the cash that we’ll raise. No longer will engagement be accused of not generating cash.
Prices range from £9,000 to £9,000. Because we’re worth it.
‘Busy in the world as well as in the mind’ The History Man reflections (2)
This is the second of two posts prompted by a reading of ‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975). I had intended in this post to compare a university that I know today with Bradbury’s fictional University of Watermouth. There are, however, too many features that deserve comment for a blog and I have chosen to focus on just three; activist academics, catering for meetings, and the departmental meeting. And I stray into local government territory – in my experience, higher education and local government rituals can be inter-changeable.
‘Howard is a well-known activist, a thorn in the flesh of the council, a terror to the selfish bourgeoisie, a pressing agent in the Claimants’ Union, a focus of responsibility and concern… busy in the world as well as in the mind’ (The History Man, p3 & p68)
Probably the most well-known ‘activist’ academic in Norwich is the former MP, Ian Gibson, in office from 1997 to 2009. I suspect in earlier days in the late ’70s, as a member of the Socialist Workers Party, he might have been seen with other university colleagues selling the Social Worker outside Norwich City Hall. I certainly don’t recall Ian being a thorn in the flesh of the City Council during my fourteen years as an officer. The Council, led by a strong Labour group, was often more bent on in-fighting; what else was there to do in the absence of a credible opposition? (It was no different in Sheffield in the mid-80s.) Ian did make a great rousing speech at the Assembly Rooms in 1999 when we launched the Council’s Equality Charter, one of my last projects before leaving for a job in the voluntary sector in 2000. Today, as a trustee of the Silver Road Community Centre, he is actively campaigning for the centre as a base for community learning. Perhaps not a thorn in the flesh, but a useful bit of grit in the shoe.
At the City Council today you will find university lecturers, postgraduate researchers and students in the Council Chamber, sitting on the Green benches as elected Members, fifteen strong; now a more credible opposition to the twenty-one member Labour Group and the miserly three member Liberal Democrat contingency. And active – in my final month as Community University Engagement Manager, I received a call from the one of those Green academics, asking if the university could find a way of helping to fund a charity which had just lost its City Council grant. Not long after, I heard lecturer and Green Party Councillor, Rupert Read, interviewed on local radio as he protested against the building of the Norwich Northern Distributor Road. So, like Howard, these academics are busy in the world as well as in the mind but I would say, much better placed to agitate for effective change.
CATERING FOR MEETINGS
‘Two ladies in blue overalls come in with cups of tea and a plate of biscuits and place cups in front of all the people present’ (The History Man, p155)
I arrived at the university in early 2005, towards the end of the tea-lady era. A lady in grey overalls wheeled her tea-trolley around the Registry and the Council House, serving beverages and biscuits to the Vice-Chancellor and his Executive Team. If you asked Val (I think that was her name) nicely, she would service your meetings too as long as your request was logged in the Registry Receptionist’s diary. The Registrar held a tea-party in the Vice-Chancellor’s Office in honour of her retirement and uttered the most eloquent and profound tribute that I’ve ever heard on such an occasion. The last of her kind, she wasn’t replaced.
Catering for meetings can be tricky as it seems we can never go too long without some sort of sustenance. During City Council Housing Committee meetings over lunch in the late ’80s, as a council officer I struggled to make myself heard above the sound of Members slurping their soup. The soup option was later withdrawn; the sandwiches and sausage rolls continued well into the ’90s. Anything, however, was preferable to the sight and sound of chief executive Anne Seex, chewing gum as she presented her reports to the Cabinet Meeting. Observing my glares, she carried on regardless, seemingly oblivious to the effect of her ruminant impersonation.
THE DEPARTMENTAL MEETING
‘he has now prepared for the afternoon by placing here a backfile of bound volumes of the British Journal of Sociology; he is head-down at once, flicking over pages with practised hand’ (The History Man, p153)
At one time I would have been highly irritated at the presence of any distraction at a meeting that took someone’s attention from the agenda. I recall over fifteen years ago, Councillor David Fullman’s habit of texting during Norwich City Council’s Housing Committee meetings. No amount of glaring by me – the housing policy officer presenting her report – would shame David into putting down his gadget. The glaring was pointless (he was looking at his phone) but at least I was displaying my disapproval, should anyone care to notice. But just when I thought he wasn’t paying attention, David would nonchalantly chip in, not only with a correction to a typo in my report that I hadn’t spotted, but with an incredibly insightful contribution to the discussion. No doubt David didn’t realise at the time that he was ahead of the game. Effectively utilising one’s time at meetings is clearly an art.
Today David is not alone. During meetings at the university, many of us habitually log onto our ipads, macbooks, laptops and smartphones, perusing communications, dealing with vital matters during moments when attention is diverted to someone else around the table and even at times, when all eyes are turned on us. No problem. Like soap operas when you’ve missed an episode or two, it’s not difficult to pick up the thread of a departmental meeting after a few, or indeed several, minutes down time. Perhaps I should take a pile of SRHE Research into Higher Education Abstracts into the next meeting and chew my way through those –
The freedom to be exploited: reflections on The History Man
This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of ‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury (1975). This post is about why we should contemplate the past, real or imagined. My next post will compare the university as we know it today with Bradbury’s fictional University of Watermouth.
At a recent all-staff admissions conference the marketers proclaimed we must adopt ‘future-facing’ branding and ‘future trends’ as much as possible. We were told we can no longer rely on our old experience because, ‘what we’re facing is new’. I wondered what they meant exactly and was reminded of my late father-in-law who, ever hopeful, would often ask ‘are you looking forward?’ as he earnestly sought affirmation that something better really would turn up tomorrow. In the case of the marketers, however, they’re leaving nothing to chance as they drive the admissions agenda onwards to a brighter, winning future. At the all-staff conference we were regaled with phrases such as, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘competing head to head with the big boys’ and ‘rules of the game’, and with sporting metaphors. We were told, ‘we HAVE that winning horse’ and as the image flashed across the screen, I was struck by a strong similarity between the horse racing world and universities; both are prone to grand narrative and the glamour of status.
It is exactly this type of future-facing discourse, which, according to Susan Clegg, valorizes only certain forms of reflexivity and limits the ways in which we might think about the future in higher education (Clegg, 2010). I’m concerned about where the compelling narrative of the marketers is taking us, not least because it rules out the option of reflecting on what has gone before, an exercise that just might prevent us from repeating the mistakes of the past.
So, it was at a recent Research in Higher Education & Society Group session that we stopped the clock and took the time to reflect on Malcolm Bradbury’s iconic novel, ‘The History Man’, his ‘darker and more troubled’ take on higher education in the post-war world (Lodge, 2008). Whether or not ‘The History Man’ is a true account of higher education in 1972 – or indeed, of one particular university – we found it a very uncomfortable read.
The Vintage edition cover blurb describes the protagonist, Howard Kirk as, ‘the trendiest of radical tutors at a fashionable campus university. Timid Vice-Chancellors pale before his threats of disruption. Reactionary colleagues are crushed beneath his merciless Marxist logic. Women are drawn by his progressive promiscuity.’
The exchange at our meeting was animated. The veteran male professor, who first read the novel in 1975, was shocked by his second reading – “the abuse of power which was not clear then is abundantly clear now”. The male postgraduate researcher reflected on Kirk’s manipulative strategy centred on fulfilling his desire for control and sexual conquest. To the female researcher, Kirk is a manifestation of what society was like in those days; it was not as unreal as some would imagine. For the male early career researcher, Kirk, as a strategist and bully, serves as a warning from history of what not to become. Even so, the female early career researcher insisted there are characters in higher education today with those same traits as Kirk. The male senior lecturer talked of the ’70s as the beginning of individualism – “Bradbury was constructing sexual and social morality and the bigger picture gave rise to Kirk’s position as new history was being written”. The male international post-doctoral researcher could not comprehend the idea of inviting your students to your home – “this makes for a bad relationship”.
Bradbury described Kirk as, ‘a rogue of rogues, but at least he believed that.’ So, there was self-awareness. Bradbury also stated, ‘No doubt in 1979 he would have voted for Thatcher, and in 1997 for Blair. He would now be enjoying his vice-chancellorship at Batley Canalside University, and the life peerage has been a source of the greatest pleasure. But at least Howard believed – even if it was chiefly for his own advantage – all the things that still do matter. He believed in history, society, philosophy, ideas, human progress, mental discovery, all that’s left of the Enlightenment Project’.
David Lodge describes ‘The History Man’ as having the ‘power to grip even the resistant reader’ (Lodge, 2008). I did find it gripping. Like ‘Stoner’ (John Williams, 1965), it is difficult to put down. However, whilst both novels are adroitly crafted, they provoke very different emotional reactions. A part of my response to ‘The History Man’ is one of repugnance for Kirk, in a similar vein to the revulsion that I experienced when I saw the 1969 road movie ‘Easy Rider’, another iconic representation of that ‘progressive’ period.
Our group discussion reflected on the false promise of those times, when women were free; free that is, to be exploited. I understand this interpretation but worry about the notion of putting the exploitation down to the emergent individualism of the ’70s. A consequence of doing so is the temptation not only to view Kirk’s behaviour as a thing of the past but to blame it on a specific ideology, like it wouldn’t happen here. A similar explanation is used to excuse the conduct of marauding celebrities such as Stuart Hall and Max Clifford, convicted for assaulting girls and young women – it was the culture of the time. Ah well, that explains it, then.
Kirk is not actually asserting his right to self-realisation as he rapes (yes, rapes) his female colleague. His declaration immediately afterwards that the act is inevitable, (‘It was bound to happen…Marx arranged it’) may be tied up in a clever narrative about history (his victim had earlier named him as ‘The History Man’) but that should in no way detract from the violence and abuse committed.
I would like nothing more than to say that the era of the amoral male egoist and predator is over but let’s not kid ourselves.
David Watson, in viewing university history as geology, sets out the higher education sector ‘strata’, denoting the main layers as six distinct waves of development; specialist communities; national and regional institutions serving post-industrial society; public ‘systems of HE’; curriculum and institutional innovation; blurred boundaries and the ‘dual sector’; and the ‘for profit’ sector (Watson 2014) . His analysis mirrors Ron Barnett’s earlier description of the university itself as an intermingling set of narratives that have been laid down over time; rock formations, the separate strata being visible but also running into each other, with old strata reaching up into the new (Barnett 2011).
Judging from recent conversations with colleagues, one noteworthy event in the HE geological timeline, the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 (the Act which converted thirty-five polytechnics into universities), is still uppermost in some minds. In fact, it strikes me that some colleagues have their geologic time clock stuck at 1992. They appear to be fixated on labelling certain institutions as ‘post-1992’; a term that for them signifies a university which in research terms and probably in many other respects is dysfunctional and derisory.
Tell me, what is it in 2014 that still triggers this conditioned reflex?
Barnett, R. (2011). Being a University. London & New York, Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group.
Watson, D. (2014). The Question of Conscience: Higher education and personal responsibility. London, Institute of Education.
This post is prompted by a reading of Philip Roscoe’s publication, ‘I spend therefore I am: the true cost of economics’ (2014) Viking
Roscoe’s wistful and entertaining appraisal of the discipline that is economics provides another useful reference point in my quest to go beyond the technical instruments of capital in my doctoral research analysis. In a previous post entitled, ‘Conviviality with a cause’ I observe Bev Skeggs’ assertion that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives. The notion of a commodity or commodification in this context merits closer examination.
Roscoe’s wide-ranging treatise which includes a section on, ‘Lists, rankings and the commodification of education’ highlights the malignant legacy of the Chicago School of Economics and in particular, Becker’s theory of human capital which has helped to, ‘reinforce a myopic understanding of the point and purpose of education.’ Roscoe depressingly describes the ‘subtle repositioning’ of education as, ‘some kind of experiential commodity, like a safari or an adventure day in a hot-air balloon.’
In my post entitled, ‘The marketisation marvel in higher education’, I bemoan the existence of a discourse and managerial structure in higher education that is dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world although I do assert that universities are still distinguishable from private sector companies. Roscoe it seems, is less optimistic as he contemplates the commodification of university education which has recast students as customers who, according to Roscoe, do not see that buying a tin of beans from the supermarket is a profoundly different transaction from embarking upon a process of education that requires them to participate, ‘to the limits of their ability, imagination and emotional reserve.’ He echoes Mary Beard when he calls for dissatisfied students who are unsettled by what they have learned and, ‘driven to a critical examination of their preconceptions.’
Has higher education become a commodity? Is it now ‘fungible’ (a term deployed by Roscoe); something that is freely traded; one degree or university being indistinguishable from the next with the ‘student experience’ being the differential?
What other signs are there of commodification in higher education?
At the Engage 2013 Conference in Bristol, Professor Ella Ritchie, Deputy Vice-Chancellor with specific responsibility for Engagement and Internationalisation (University of Newcastle), warned that we were in danger of treating university-community engagement as a commodity. And in my post entitled, ‘Why extreme volunteering is too extreme’, I express concern about the industry that has of late emerged around student volunteering or ‘employability’ as it is called these days and suggest that we are in danger of commodifying the very act of student volunteering.
So, does our use of terms and notions such as ‘capital’ and ‘commodity’ REALLY restrict our ability to critically reflect on these important issues? It seems to me that utilising the concept of commodification in this context actually galvanises the sort of reflection that is so badly needed in higher education today on many levels.
It is sometimes necessary to administer a little jolt!
Roscoe wants us to look beyond the ‘machinery of calculation’; beyond the ‘lists, rankings, scores, tabulations and algorithms that populate our lives’ and says that humans are, ‘distinctive because we can treat others as persons, distinctive in our ability to empathize with, commit to and understand one another, and to build relationships that are strong and mutually nourishing.’
But Roscoe does NOT want us to abandon economics altogether. Instead, he wants us to ‘occupy’ economics; make economics subservient to a higher social and democratic vision.
And why not; the economic lexicon does have its uses.
Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’
2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –
This post is about voluntary action and the research agenda.
In critically appraising the historiography of voluntary action, Rochester embraces notions of ‘conviviality’ and ‘expressive behaviour’, providing a fresh insight into the roots of volunteering. Breaking free of a ‘narrow paradigm’, he looks beyond the restrictive archetype of volunteering as a philanthropic act and explores what he describes as a desire for ‘conviviality’ that is closely allied to recreational activities and the constructive use of leisure time. I don’t believe for a moment that Rochester is claiming we use all our spare time for idle pursuits. I do believe that he is retelling the traditional chronicle and in doing so, providing a new lens through which we may see the act of volunteering as ‘serious leisure’; a term used by Rochester as he works towards his, ‘truly ‘round earth’ map of the territory’.
Rochester draws upon Hemming’s conclusion that participation in volunteer groups provides, ‘a sense of camaraderie and fellowship; a sense of belonging or identity; and above all, ‘an excuse to escape’ and ‘an adult form of play’. It contributes to a sense of community (Hemming 2011). He believes ‘expressive’ volunteering enables people to pursue an interest out of love for the activity rather than financial reward, and to act upon their most cherished beliefs.
In my blog entitled, ‘Why ‘extreme’ volunteering is too extreme’ (31st Jan 2014), I pleaded for us not to ignore the mundane, as without it, society would come unstuck; meeting basic needs, such as having some form of day-to-day human contact via a simple act of kindness, no matter how small:
It’s about community on many levels. Since moving to Great Gransden, for example, I’ve been struck by the way in which the expressive and the mundane are fused in friendships of all kinds, in all scenarios, responding to need, and sharing recreation, joy and troubled times.
I would call it conviviality with a cause.
Rochester also calls for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field. Critical of an academic tradition that has, ‘not produced much in the way of additional ‘usable theory’’ (his ‘honourable exceptions’ include Horton Smith 2000, Lohmann 1992 and Milofsky 2008), he wants research to move away from quantitative methods, that is, collecting evidence by measuring e.g. organisations, resources and time spent on volunteering. Existing qualitative research is also judged to be of limited scope, diverting attention from what volunteers actually do, and how they work together; what is the balance – or tension – between expressive aims (or member benefit) and instrumental aims (or public benefit)?; why and how do people join non-bureaucratic groups?; how is the ‘work’ of the group organised? He says we need qualitative research that develops ‘usable’ theories to explain ‘how things work’.
In attempting to move away from the concentration on measuring the instrumental impacts of volunteering, Rochester looks to the IVR Impact Assessment Toolkit which groups ‘the major ways in which stakeholders can be affected’ into five types of ‘capital’ – physical, human, economic, social and cultural. He clearly approves of this societal level analysis, saying it captures much – but not all – of the constellation of roles and functions played by volunteering. Social capital, for example, contributes to the creation of a ‘more cohesive community through building relationships, networks and bond of trust between people’.
My concern is that having criticised a ‘dominate paradigm’ that characterises volunteering as a gift of time (analogous to a gift of money) Rochester then appears to endorse the notion of capital which itself is contested as a tool of analysis in certain academic quarters. For example, Bev Skeggs, in her 2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture last October, concluded that as sociologists we have a duty not to reproduce the logic of capital in everything we analyse. In applying the logic of capital we convert everything into commodity. We become the subject of capital and we internalise its imperatives.
I am currently grappling with this issue in my own research where I am asking if ‘community’ may be construed as a form of capital and exploring the conditions necessary for the existence of community inside the academy. I am, for example, seeking signifiers of personal, physical and institutional attributes that may reveal the existence of ‘community’ capital. Last week my supervisor asked me how I intended to ‘measure’ these forms of capital. I didn’t have an answer and, to be honest, that doesn’t worry me.
As I work through the final analysis, I am minded to heed Skeggs’ call for us to look for where the theories don’t work, where they can’t be applied. This is where, in my view, Rochester’s plea for us to embrace the expressive and Skeggs’ entreaty for the expression of ‘values beyond value’, come together.
I’m now wondering how ‘community’ may be understood in its expressive form… in 2015 I may have an answer.
Bev Skeggs, ‘Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?’
2013 BJS Annual Public Lecture, given at the London School of Economics on 17th October 2013 –
This is the first of two posts prompted by a reading of Colin Rochester’s publication ‘Rediscovering Voluntary Action: The Beat of a Different Drum’ (2013) Palgrave Macmillan
After 45 years of working with and writing about, volunteers and voluntary organisations, Rochester is better qualified than most to stimulate and inform a debate about the notion of a ‘invented’ unified voluntary and community sector in the UK; to observe the nature of the relationship between government and this sector as it takes on the ‘mainstream’ delivery of state services; to revise the typology of voluntary action; and to call for a radical revision of the research agenda in this field. My second post will be about voluntary action and the research agenda.
Rochester’s seminal work is published against the background of the rise and rise of a neo-liberal discourse that has seeped into every aspect of our lives. It is a refreshing and timely addition to the congregation that is calling for a different approach to how we understand what it is to be a person in the western world; an approach that enables us to acknowledge and embrace expression as a form of sociality and being.
The beginning of the neo-liberal agenda in this country, in this context, is marked as the election of the Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 which Rochester sees as a milestone, alongside 1945; a marker of a new phase of political and social history. As many have observed elsewhere, this agenda continued to thrive through the New Labour administrations and we now have a new multi-party consensus about the, ‘parameters and driving forces of public and social policy’. Rochester declares that the rise of neo-liberalism has led to the permeation of voluntary organisations and volunteering by the values and norms of the market as part of a profound and far-reaching change in the political culture, not only of the UK but also of much of the World.
No doubt Rochester would agree that these market values and norms have pervaded many domains of our existence; personal and professional. The marketisation of higher education, for example, observed daily by those of us who work in the sector, gained impetus this month with the publication of the OFT Call for Information on Higher Education in England. In response to the OFT findings, Paul Clarke (Director of Policy at Universities UK), acknowledges that in the opinion of the OFT, some higher education structures and practices, ‘belong to an era that has now passed.’ The parallels between Rochester’s analysis of the voluntary & community sector and what is happening in higher education today are striking.
According to Rochester, the ‘invention’ of a unified voluntary sector in Britain facilitated the casting of voluntary sector organisations in a more central role on the stage of social policy in the delivery of state services. He describes the promotion of a unified voluntary sector as a ‘massive sleight of hand’, whereby the organisational norms of bureaucracy and the culture and practices of the private sector has ensured that the real beneficiaries of this greater role in the provision of state services are the top two percent of voluntary agencies including NCVO and ACEVO, and those in government bent on privatising public services. He says that Government has been able to implement its policies under the cloak of ‘public esteem for charities’ and the argument that voluntary organisations have distinctive characteristics which given them ‘unique’ advantages over statutory bureaucracies.
Rochester questions these ‘distinctive’ characteristics as he observes the increasing homogenisation of the voluntary and community sector. He is not referring to all voluntary organisations but the small minority that have been trusted with this new role of providing state services. He says they are unrepresentative and that they have, ‘more in common with the agencies they have supplanted than they have with the bulk of the organisations that comprise the sector and provide the evidence for the characteristics featured in government rhetoric.’
My experience of working as a manager in the public and voluntary sectors concurs with Rochester’s observations. Indeed, as a boundary-crosser, moving between these sectors (and then into higher education), it could be argued that I have been culpable in transmitting new managerial norms and practices from one sector to the next. Rochester is particularly critical of the infrastructure organisations, the CVSs which have actively played their part through initiatives such as the ChangeUp programme and says that voluntary organisations have been, ‘nudged, bribed and sometimes coerced into becoming more and more similar in their structure and behaviour to the bureaucratic agencies of the state and the market.’
As someone who has been involved with the voluntary sector as a volunteer and as a manager, I have observed the colonisation of some of the larger charities by former local government employees who have in many respects turned their charities into the mirror image of the organisations they had left behind. And in the circumstances you can hardly blame them. As Rochester points out, the biggest voluntary organisations have been given a more central role in the delivery of public services and have gained substantial new resources as a result.
Rochester concludes that the models of business organisations have come to dominate our society and social institutions over the past thirty years. He says that being ‘business-like’ was the ‘desirable characteristic’ and this meant imitating the approaches and techniques used in the private sector without questioning how appropriate and/or helpful they might be in organisations that were based on very different values and principles.
Many of us can bear witness to a similar trend in higher education. What has elsewhere been described as the ‘economic ideology of education’ is a phenomenon much debated. But it is not a recent revelation. In 1890 German university professors complained that their world was increasingly dominated by blind economic processes, by the power of money, and by the weight of numbers (Salter and Tapper 1994). In universities today, this manifests itself in a discourse and managerial structure dominated by enterprise and an emulation of the business world. As a member of the new management clan in a university, I am no innocent bystander though at times it feels like I’m drowning in an alien discourse that bears little or no resemblance to my own academic practice.
According to Rochester, many voluntary organisations have lost sight of their original purposes and functions, and apart from not distributing their profits or surpluses as dividends, they are indistinguishable from private sector companies. I believe that universities ARE still distinguishable from private sector companies.
As the marketisation marvel glides confidently into the admissions arena, I hear colleagues declare “it’s official, we are now a ‘private enterprise’”.
This post represents my own views and not those of my institution.
OFT report: higher education is a market, but the student-university relationship remains unique – UUK Blog posted on 14 March 2014 by Paul Clark
I recently had a conversation about my doctoral research with an acquaintance I met at a dinner dance who asked, ‘what are you doing it in, what are you doing it for?’ Not an unreasonable response. I began my reply by saying that it was in the sociology of education and whilst I was conjuring up an answer to the latter question (it changes from day to day), they retorted in a jocular fashion, ‘the sociology of vegetation? You’re researching vegetables?’ The acquaintance laughed, a little uneasily. Perhaps they had misheard me.
My sense of humour is reasonably well honed but at that particular moment I was not in a frame of mind to see the joke; on them or on me. I hadn’t wanted to be there in the first place. Rather than finding the retort comical, I took it at best to be idiotic and at worst, mocking. I raised my eyebrows and civilly withdrew from the conversation. There was no other exchange on the matter until the end of the evening when we said cheerio and my hapless acquaintance wished me luck with, ‘the vegetable thing’.
How should I have reacted? Maybe I should have given an equally jocular riposte. Moments earlier they had told me about their counselling course and, thinking about the state of my vegetable patch at home, I could have suggested that my parsnips would benefit from some talking therapy. Rather lame, I admit.
So, what is the research about? It’s about community in higher education.
When invited to talk about community, those participating in my doctoral research (all academics) chose to focus primarily on their experience inside the university; that is, on the academic community.
In the ‘80s, Cohen concluded that people construct community symbolically, ‘making it a resource and repository of meaning, and a referent of their identity.’ (Cohen 1985 p118); I invited the research participants to draw upon their repository, to describe their idea and experience of community and also to picture it in some symbolic form. Some began by approaching the question as an intellectual exercise. This was unsurprising. However, as the exchange went on and as we explored values and a sense of belonging, more idiosyncratic thoughts and stories emerged. These stories revealed deeply held values which manifested themselves, not only in their day-to-day academic practice, but also in responses to situations when they felt threatened or excluded by the academic community, or by their institution.
All have a stake in the game of higher education; all believe in the game. They are complicit players in what Bourdieu describes as the, ‘prolonged cohabitation of a socially very homogeneous group’, linked by a ‘cullusio in the illusio’ (Bourdieu 2004 p7). Higher education not only provides their livelihood but, more fundamentally, connects with their values and serves their need to do what they do; research, teach and, in many (but not all) cases, make the world a better place:
‘To the outsider the game may appear insignificant but to the players it becomes the meaning of their life, mystifying the underlying conditions of domination that make the game possible.’ (Burawoy 2010 p24)
Whilst I would question Bourdieu’s description of the academic community as homogeneous, particularly in a contemporary context, I find the notion of ‘complicit players’ worthy of consideration. We are all potentially complicit.
In July 2012, I attended an excellent SRHE (Society for Research into Higher Education) symposium on ‘Structuring Knowledge: new visions of higher education’, where Ron Barnett made an entreaty for the play of the imagination, and for others to enter a dialogic community, and to see their world as he sees it – as a relational entity. At the same session, Gert Biesta reflected on a need for a more accurate account of what is going on in higher education. He called for a ‘non-epistemological’ approach, one that allows for the telling of different stories other than the story of knowledge – stories about what it means to be an academic or a researcher. And whilst in response, Michael Young called for a differentiated epistemology rather than none all (because then, ‘all we are left with is meaning making’), he did acknowledge a need for ‘community’ and for people to feel a part of something; a point that many of those present endorsed.
So, whatever your role in higher education or the vegetable patch; academic, student, administrator, volunteer, collaborator, dean, enthusiast…
what does (academic) community mean to you?
If you need a prompt, click here for a cut-out kit for you to assemble, ‘Communi-Tea Party at the Academy’