Thursday 4 February 2010



Usually I can't stand conferences. I'm nodding off almost before I've lost my map and dropped my pen. But last weekend's NEW HISTORY LAB conference Transcending the Boundaries (30 January) had me transcending my own boundaries even before my first cup of coffee. Not only did I stay awake, but I stayed awake in that slightly spooky skin tight bright sort of way that makes your eyes go wide like the droogs in A Clockwork Orange.


I heard five papers and they were all brilliant.
First up Gill Murray and Julie Ives showed us images of Stoke on Trent from the MACE regional TV collection. Midlands Today circa 1964 to 1987. In other words our life and times drawn from a camera angle, or, a way of lining up young women from the office and middle aged men from the factory floor. The natural world of labour. Of course that's just how life was in the olden days wasn't it?

The TV Eyes were followed by a lad from Sussex in a green jumper who told us how the inter war suburbs transcended the boundaries of taste, decency, and municipal Hove. His semis looked great to me - staring down the Downs - but for some reason intellectuals have found fault. He was followed by a lad from Oxford on the designing of the paradigmatic post war British kitchen. How many academic disciplines can you fit into a new kitchen? The kitchen sink alone has about four - including drama and film history. Take a walk round IKEA, as you do, you'll see the basic design has hardly changed since 1946.

Then William Marshall from Huddersfield spoke on The Luddites in 19th century industrial fiction. Victorian Yorkshire used the Luddites to say something strong about its regional identity. There's lots here for MA thesis writers and third year dissertationistas. There's also the question why Yorkshire made so much of Ned Ludd while Leicestershire and the East Midlands made so little? Why so? Luddism started in Arnold, Nottinghamshire, and as every Labber knows, Ned Ludd was a Leicester apprentice lad who smashed his stocking frame because his girl friend called him a muppet.

Joe Moran of John Moore's University gave the key note lecture. This was a tour de force far far better read in full on Jenny's blog (see link) than summarized here. BUT, suffice to say, Joe's book On Roads (2009) is a masterpiece of real interdisciplinarity and his lecture on Saturday offered the concept within a whole political economy of global higher education. Best of all Joe thought Interdisciplinarity, put like that, in the abstract, encouraged by the funding councils and all that, is a load of crap - more about commodification than history.

So, there was all that and more all day Saturday with cake and sandwiches and a trip down to the Guildhall and up to The Rise of the Raj but... the night before...Friday 29th... we had one of the best LABS ever with Paul Lay, editor of Britain's premier history publication, History Today.

Paul got us, as they say. He understood the LAB's enthusiasm for a fun and confident history - and in between the history of History Today and its editor (both shocking) he explained what he thought mattered in good history and, most of all, what mattered in good history writing. Names were mentioned. David Starkey was his clear favourite not only because of his scholarship but also, in Paul's view, because Starkey never patronizes his audience. He tries to tell it like he thinks it was - complexities and contradictions included. Personally I find Starkey er difficult, but when Paul put his champion up against the dreadful Andrew Marrs 'Modern Britain' Marr, we all had to cheer. And did so. No contest. Didnt even show.

Best of all Paul asked the LAB for 1200 words on its life and times for History Today.

We couldnt afford to buy the publicity we earn.

Thanks PAUL for a great talk.

Could he be our Mystery Guest? Or is it Cherry Berry Miss Birmingham 1975 as featured by our TV Eyes?

Mark's blog (above) is so good on Victorian cross dressers it's almost a shame to press this button. But there, it's pressed...