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.
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.
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:
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 email@example.com 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
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 –
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.
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 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 –