How do we experience Satan?

Tom Graham, English and Humanities PhD student, is researching the long and complex genealogy of Satan and the history of Satanic evil. In this blog, Tom delves into how Satan is conceptualised.

Tom Graham

Exploring the genealogy of Satan requires me to pore over a great many theological and philosophical treatises on the subjects of demons, hell, the nature of evil, and so on. What emerges from this line of study are many different intellectually conceptualized images of Satan. But intellectually conceptualizing Satan strips him of the gut-punching terror and dark, dangerous glamour that so defines him. We cannot merely know what Satan is, we must feel what Satan is, otherwise he loses that which makes him what he is.

In contrast, then, to the intellectually conceptualized Satan of theology and philosophy, I am also concerned with the viscerally experienced Satan that we find in folklore, in the common imagination, in pop culture, and perhaps even in nightmares and fears about the dark. This is Satan as he extravagantly appears in movies, in video games, in various sub-genres of rock music, and perhaps even in the knowingly ironic ceremonies and iconography of modern-day Satanic temples.

I see this viscerally experienced Satan beautifully manifested in those cruel (but admittedly sometimes funny) YouTube pranks where an unsuspecting dupe is encouraged to play (or rather, believe that they are playing) a simple computer game whereby they must guide a dot through a maze without touching the walls; the victim’s face draws closer to the screen as they concentrate intently upon the game – and then, after a few silent minutes, there is a terrible scream and the mutilated face of the demonically possessed child in The Exorcist suddenly fills the screen. The victim’s reaction – which can be extreme and result in genuine tears and trauma – embodies what I am talking about when I describe a viscerally experienced Satan. Maybe those poor duped YouTube victims show us how we really ought to react to the concept of ultimate evil – not by conceptualizing it in theological and philosophical terms, but by screaming and hurling ourselves out of our chair.

And yet, at the same time, this viscerally experienced Satan has in no small part been formed and developed by the intellectual conceptualizations of the very theologians and philosophers who (I believe) fail to capture and express the emotionally experienced aspect of Satan that is (I also believe) essential to his nature. There is, then, an intriguing and complex dialectic relationship at work between the “intellectual Satan” and the “visceral Satan”.

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Halloween: a Horror Story of Unnecessary Consumerism?

And we thought the costumes were the scariest thing about Halloween! Dr Amy R Hackley, Senior Lecturer in Marketing in Birkbeck’s Department of Management explores the dark side of holiday consumerism.

As Halloween approaches, are you considering buying a pumpkin or two, and perhaps a plastic broom, make up or a horror mask for the kids to take trick or treating? Or even some Halloween-themed nightwear, or a special chocolate treat for yourself? Halloween consumption is on a rising trend: according to www.statistica.com, UK consumers are spending more than twice as much money on Halloween as we did in 2013, and an estimated 25% of us will buy a pumpkin, at a cost of around £30,000,000 (yes, that’s £30 million). Total Halloween related spending is estimated at almost half a billion pounds sterling annually. Last year, British supermarket chain Waitrose reported its biggest ever Halloween sales bonanza, with sales up by 62% on the previous year[i]. This year, in the home of Halloween consumption, the USA, pre-Halloween chocolate and confectionary sales have reached $324[ii] million, up by 48% comparing to the same period in 2020, with American consumers spending a stunning $10 billion every year on Halloween. But why do we spend such extraordinary sums on trivial items to mark an ancient Celtic death festival?

Halloween originated as the pagan festival of Samhain, part of the ancient Celtic religion in Britain and other parts of Europe. The Celts believed that on the 31st October the barrier between the world of humans and the world of spirits dissolves to allow ghosts to wander amongst us on earth. The festival was needed to scare away the bad spirits, and to remember the dead. Turnips were used to carve lanterns rather than pumpkins, and ‘guising’ (going from house to house in masks and costumes) was practised. Under the influence of Christianity, the day became known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Saint’s Eve. There are versions of this festival practiced around the world. For example, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead in Mexico is celebrated in the 2017 Disney movie Coco, and across East Asia there are many versions of ghost festivals practiced, such as paper burning rituals of ancestor worship, the Hungry Ghost festivals in Singapore and the ‘Pee Ta Khon’ festival in Dan-sai district, Loei province, Thailand. All these ritual practices are marked by consumption of various kinds, of food, goods and services. Halloween gained its popularity in America when 19th century Irish immigrants brought it with them, and the influence of American TV shows, books and movies, made Halloween more and more popular in the 20th Century.

From an academic perspective, consumption is a rich site of ritual practices, and death-related ritual is one of the most powerful. Death rituals re-enact our symbolic connection with our existence. They give us opportunities to re-tell tell stories about life and death, and to connect with the spirit world from which we are separated. They help the living to move away from the brute fact of death towards an acceptance of death as a kind of continuity of life. In a way, Halloween and other ritual practices help the living to celebrate life, by ritualising death.

Of course, the spiritual side of death rituals is very well-hidden in today’s deeply commercialised consumer festival of Halloween. Although a lot of consumption is essential to the practice of death rituals, we really do not need to eat so much chocolate or to buy so many horror costumes. It is, really, a horror of wasteful consumption. Halloween costumes and decorations are made from cheap plastic and synthetic materials which are not so good for our environment. It was recorded that consumers created 2,000 tonnes of plastic waste by discarding Halloween costumes[iii], and an estimated 8 million pumpkins (or 18,000 tonnes of edible pumpkin flesh) are heading for the bin as consumers do not eat it[iv] But, when we are young, Halloween is an opportunity to party and have fun dressing up, trick or treating, eating a lot of chocolate and candy and, when we are older, perhaps drinking a lot of alcohol. What’s not to love? Most supermarkets have their own dedicated range of branded Halloween products because the event is a huge opportunity to make money by selling us overpriced stuff we do not need.

Halloween remains one of the world’s oldest holidays and death festivals, and in its many forms around the world it retains a rich cultural significance in human society. As the contemporary American author Andrew Delbanco notes in his book ‘The death of Satan: how Americans have lost the sense of evil’, he suggests that as we have lost touch with the idea of evil, we seem to need more vivid representations of it. The commercialisation of Halloween in the Western world helps us to affirm our sense of self and social identity and to reconcile us to the inevitability of death by making it seem like a harmless children’s cartoon. Yet, lurking beneath the millions of pounds worth of fake blood, carved pumpkins and discarded plastic witch hats, is a real horror story of reckless and unsustainable consumption.

[i] https://waitrose.pressarea.com/pressrelease/details/78/NEWS_13/12558 accessed 21/10.2021

[ii]  “New Data Shows 2021 Halloween Chocolate and Candy Sales Are Up” Yahoo News Monday 18th October 2021 https://finance.yahoo.com/news/data-shows-2021-halloween-chocolate-173600801.html accessed 21/10/2021

[iii] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/10/17/halloween-2019-costumes-will-create-2000-tonnes-plastic-waste/ (paywall)

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/23/pumpkin-waste-uk-halloween-lanterns

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In their own words: Tips from our Cheveners (references)

We’ve asked our 2020 Cheveners to share their experience applying for the prestigious UK government scholarship. In this blog, we highlight their tips and advice about obtaining references as part of the selection process.

“My advice to the Chevening future applicants is to be realistic and genuine to select referees that (you) know very well and have engaged with on professional levels, be it in academia, at work, or people you have collaborated with on certain projects. Select people who know your capabilities and believe that you have the potential. People who inspire you to inspire others, encourage and motivate you to be successful, and make a difference in your community.”
Menessia Diergaardt, Namibia

“I would advise future applicants to choose people with whom they have a strong professional and/or academic relationship. Someone whom you can trust to speak on your behalf confidently and with objectivity.”
Bongani Njalo, South Africa

“Since I have been working for 10 years and my work was related to the course of my studies, I chose two of my supervisors as referees. They were an important influence in my career, and they watched me grow from a young inexperienced student to a confident young professional and I appreciate their evaluation of my journey. I would advise applicants to choose people that really know them and have worked with them closely so they can give you a thoughtful opinion of your character rather than a general note. And it’s also a nice letter to read while you apply for the scholarship that you may be anxious about.”
Eva Shimaj, Albania

“My mentor and my MSc dissertation supervisor were my referees. Both knew of my aspiration at the early stages of the Chevening application and supported the application idea. I approached my mentor because they were aware of my personal strengths and career aspirations and my supervisor because they knew of my academic strengths and zeal to learn.

My advice for applicants is to be strategic in their referee selection. Pick people who have seen your strengths and have had experience with you professionally and academically, preferably also someone in a senior role.”
Nozipho Nomzana Mziyako, Eswatini

“I knew my referees in a professional capacity however, we had engaged in several academic activities before as part of our professional relationship. I selected them because I maintained a close relationship with them at the moment, also they are both entrepreneurs developing their businesses in a non-ideal environment, so they are driven, motivated and capable people whose opinions and experience I respect and value. Also, I had the chance to work closely with them while they were making significant progress in their businesses, so they know my abilities and qualities as a collaborator and employee.

Future applicants can make better use of their references if they choose people that are close to them and somehow share their interests or vision in life. I considered my references as a guide for what I wanted to achieve in the future because of their attitudes, capabilities and motivations.”
Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt, Cuba

“You may want to include a brief description of your motivation to apply, what you wish to achieve with the degree and how it relates to your common interests, and most importantly why you think she/he would be a great fit to comment on your suitability. It is about engaging your referee.

You may want to get in touch with more than one referee to make sure that by February you can at least get the formal approval of two referees.”
Zina Diari, Tunisia

You have submitted your Chevening application, what’s next?
“I stayed in touch with the referees, still through our networking, email, phone calls and sometimes meeting up over a cup of coffee to update them about my Chevening journey and asking them advice on different aspects, professional, personal, and self-development. My referees have been very supportive and encouraging, hence we are still in contact, they check up on me and my academic progression.”
Menessia Diergaardt, Namibia

“Keep in contact after submitting the application. As soon as required, I let them know, when I had received the email from Chevening and let them know that they needed to send the reference. Later on, I would call from time to time to ensure that they send it on time.”
Randolphe Severin N’Guessan, Cote d’Ivoire

“When I got selected for an interview, I followed up with a detailed email where I listed the responsibilities I carried out under (my referee’s) supervision, that she could draw upon to develop my reference letter. Keep in mind that referees are generally academics or managers who come across several similar requests to act as a referee. It is important to highlight the period of time in which you have collaborated.

I also shared the Chevening guidelines for writing a reference letter and kept on active communication with my referee during the process.”
Zina Diari, Tunisia

“I stayed in touch with my referees through social media and phone calls. Since they formed part of my network of professionals, it was easier to reach out to them.

Future applicants should create a network of professionals who understand their ambitions, character, and ethics. This ensures that you are easily referenced and supported objectively.” Freemen Pasurai, Zimbabwe.

Further information:

Blog post by Catherine Charpentier, International Marketing and Recruitment Officer (Africa)

 

 

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Storm Train

Throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), the Building Resilience in Breast Cancer Centre (BRiC) is sharing stories, told first-hand by women who’ve experienced the illness. Here, Sara Williamson, Writer and Chair of the Mid-Yorkshire Breast Cancer Support Group, shares her journey.

image of Sara Williamson quote

So, after a mastectomy: node clearance (as 14/17 lymph nodes were affected), then chemotherapy, sepsis delaying radiotherapy, more surgery due to infections, Herceptin being stopped and started due to heart failure twice, then the Zoladex harpooning, followed by reconstruction, reduction, lypo filling – that filled four years from 2015 – 2019. That was the treatment plan! Nothing went in a straight line! The train kept derailing and diverting. Nothing prepares you for the side effects. Having to relearn to walk again and use my arms was an upward challenge.

Cancer disrupts your career, friendships and day to day living. I remember people being scared of me, the sad looks, no close proxemics. I was a reminder of the possibility of death and subjects always changed so that they did not have the burden of carrying my illness.

So, grade 3, stage 3c with a 40% chance of living. Five years was the predicted life expectancy, if I completed all treatment. I fought to continue treatment as was bloody minded enough to prove that those stats would be wrong. You would think after completing four years of treatment that you would be relieved, but the truth is that psychologically and emotionally the clock starts ticking backwards and the mind plays tricks on you. There’s the whisper in your ear that means that you have one year left to live, and reaching the five-year mark is supposed to be good, right!? People don’t realise that although alive you feel half dead with the side effects.

Every blood test recalled, mammogram, urine test and medical review terrifies me, so much so that there are sleepless nights until a recurrence is ruled out. When the word ‘cancer’ hangs over a cancer survivors head, it can be emotionally paralysing, making decision-making a challenge. New unexplained aches and pains cause fear of recurrence, and anxiety can be triggered by sounds and smells in hospital waiting rooms. Knowing your own body helps distinguish and recognise changes, but to what extent are we vigilant? Checking daily is obsessive but like a form of necessary obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

There’s emotional grief with enforced menopause and the loss of fertility, even if you never planned to have children. Body image, scars and disfigurement mean that you can’t relate to old friends in the same way. It’s difficult losing part of your body especially one so visible, and one which defines you as a woman. There’s frustration at life interrupted. Trying on bras and t-shirts that never seem to fit. Life and the body is lopsided.

Words all seem to have new meanings: ‘Warrior, fighter, survivor’. There’s no emphasis on one’s quality of life, or acquired disabilities, or new health issues. For secondary metastatic breast cancer patients, the word survivor seems to optimise the gift of life inappropriately. Then there’s guilt and grief at hearing of friends that have not lived. You are back on that storm train again.

Further information:

Learn more about BRiC

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Managing our mental health in an uncertain world: tips for employers and individuals in the return to the workplace

In recognition of World Mental Health Day 2021, we asked academics from our Department of Organizational Psychology to share practical advice for mental wellbeing as people make the transition back to the workplace.

If there is one thing that is certain well into the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that certainty is no more.

Looking back to Spring 2020, when the UK imposed its first lockdown, there was a clear message for workers: work from home if you can, otherwise continue to go to work.

Now, the situation is rather less clear-cut, and the uncertainty surrounding how organisations and individuals will return (or not) to former ways of working can be a source of considerable anxiety and stress.

As World Mental Health Day 2021 approaches on Sunday 10 October, we spoke to Dr Kevin Teoh and Dr Jo Yarker from our Department of Organizational Psychology to learn more about how we can look after our mental health as we navigate this period of transition.

Why is this a particularly difficult time for people’s mental health?

“What the research has shown is that people are really depleted,” explains Dr Jo Yarker, Reader in Occupational Psychology. “All of these extra demands have been on us in terms of home demands, working in different ways and having to think about the way we do things that we used to take for granted. This has taken up a lot of energy, so many people are going back into this transition from a depleted state. We also haven’t had holidays and the opportunity to restore in the same way.”

For Dr Kevin Teoh, Senior Lecturer in Organisational Psychology, it is difficult for individuals to take care of the ‘ABC’s of mental wellbeing in the current climate: “As individuals, we need autonomy, belonging and competence to support out mental wellbeing,” he explains. “In other words, we need freedom and control over how we do things, the chance to connect with other people and to feel like we can get things done. Everything that’s going on in the world right now is hitting these areas; we’ve lost a lot of freedom, we aren’t connecting with each other physically and some people who have been made redundant or were on furlough may be asking if they can get through this. A lot of workers will be struggling to meet at least one or two of these needs right now.”

What can employers do to support positive mental health in the transition back to work?

For both Kevin and Jo, mental health at work is a collective responsibility. As Jo explains, “Often employers have been going through the same challenges as their workers, but they’ve had to put a brave face on it and pretend they know what to do. So that’s really hard.”

Jo recommends using an IGLOO model, where Individuals, the Group around them, Leaders, the Organisation and Our wider society take shared responsibility for mental health support. “It needs to be the whole system working and communicating together so there’s a shared understanding and shared expectation”, she explains.

Kevin encourages employers to think about how they can support individuals’ autonomy, belonging and competence: “Employers could facilitate a conversation to find out what their teams and individual employees want and involve them in the process. There also needs to be opportunities for employees to connect, be that formally via a mentoring process or more informally. As for competence, what resources and training do employees need to work remotely or return to the office, and how can they be supported to continue to develop?”

What can individuals do to take care of their mental health?

Individuals alone might not be able to shift company policy, but Jo and Kevin are keen to point out that, regardless of your work environment, there are things we can do to take care of ourselves.

“Ask yourself whether you are looking after yourself – are you putting boundaries in place? Are you investing time in your social networks? Are you receiving feedback from somebody at work?” says Jo. “Identify the gaps in your armoury of support and take steps to build them or find out how you could get support from work to build them.”

In addition, supporting mental health at work does not need to begin and end at work, as Kevin explains: “We can be purposeful in how we manage our mental health, so I might gain control over how much I exercise or how much news I consume. I could call a friend to feel a sense of belonging and take up a new skill like learning a language or musical instrument to feel more competent.

“We have to recognise that there are lots of things that we cannot control, but rather than be swept away with that, what’s one thing that I could do today, or this week, that would be a step towards more positive mental health?”

The Department of Organizational Psychology has published more detailed guidance on managing our wellbeing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Read the guide online.

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Returning to campus

Fraser Keir, Academic Registrar at Birkbeck, reflects on how life has changed since the start of the pandemic, and urges people to be kind and considerate of others as many students and staff return to campus next Monday 4 October for the start of the autumn term.

The past 18 months have been a roller coaster for everyone in the Birkbeck community, myself included. Overnight Microsoft Teams became our new best friend and the gateway to keeping in touch with colleagues, friends and family. I clapped for our NHS heros and learned the value of an hours walk when you were only allowed an hours walk a day. For those in hospitals and care homes every second was precious, and for many people they lived day by day as the virus ravaged communities. We were all living, praying and hoping the worst would not come. As the fragility of life and the power of viruses came to the fore so awakened our compassion for others and the importance and value we place on the NHS and keyworkers, many of whom are students at Birkbeck. Jobs and roles that we may not have considered that critical in the past became essential – carers, lorry drivers, supermarket workers, nurses and cleaners to name but a few. Seeing empty shelves highlighted the inter-connectedness of our society and the just-in-time nature of how we consume. When things got really tricky during lockdown I only had admiration for the people keeping our country running whilst trying to look after kids, the oldies and often in home circumstances that were not always conducive to work, study and home schooling. I didn’t take a drive to Barnard Castle during lockdown but following the rules and being a rule keeper as well as being a university rule maker really became important to me as someone who works in the public sector. Having colleagues and students trust you are doing the right thing by them was both humbling and a heavy burden in equal measures.

Altering the way school pupils and university students were assessed and examined was one of the most fascinating aspects of the lockdowns. Some pupils and students loved online learning and some didn’t. What we do now know is that there are options to the traditional 2 or 3 hour closed books exams that work and these options can create a more inclusive learning environment by taking out some of the ‘exam hall anxiety’. Learners can learn from the comfort of their own homes and academic standards can be maintained by careful assessment design. There is much we can learn and benefit from continuing to support elements of digital learning and assessment.

It was through higher education and our scientific community that hope emerged. Issues that would previously have taken years to implement happened almost overnight – lockdown, furlough and, of course, a vaccine roll-out. We learned that we could be agile and do things differently. For many of us, productivity increased whilst working at home and not having to travel 10 hours a week on public transport. Coming out of this phase of the pandemic I’m going to retain some of the benefits of this experience and work flexibly as are many of my colleagues in Registry Services and across the College. Personally I feel that a good home/work life balance makes us all more productive.

As I start to attend meetings back in Bloomsbury, l continue to take a cautious approach to coronavirus. Why? Part of it is me trying to be a good neighbour to others in clinically or emotionally vulnerable situations. Part of it is me wanting to avoid contracting COVID-19. My hope is care and compassion will continue into the future and a focus on mental health is only a good thing. So, I’m now double jabbed. Thanks to Oxford AstraZeneca I can say I’m an Oxford lad as well as an alumnus of Aberdeen and the Open Universities. I’ve also had my flu vaccine and will take a booster shot for COVID-19 when they become available and I’m eligible to have one. I’m happy to wear a mask on campus even if its uncomfortable. I don’t like wearing masks but it’s my personal contribution to the health and safety of a wonderful 12,000 strong Birkbeck community. I’ll keep washing my hands and I’ll give people space when they want it. I’ll also take lateral flow tests when I have to meet others indoors. Is all this an inconvenience and an assault on my personal liberty? No, not really because a resurgence of coronavirus is the real issue and the real assault on our freedom. Kindness costs nothing and it is our kindness that will be remembered by colleagues, friends and family in the years to come. As we go back to our new normal and regardless of how strongly we hold views; if we can be anything, lets be kind to one another.

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“The pandemic cannot be overcome if everyone chooses their own way to battle it”

Professor Renata Salecl, Professor of Psychology/Psychoanalyis and Law in the School of Law, delves into how differently people are perceiving getting the COVID-19 vaccination, and the dangers this presents to society.

Person getting COVID-19 vaccine

While developing countries are dealing with vaccine shortages, in many wealthy countries, people are fighting for the right not to be vaccinated. While these people perceive vaccination as a matter of individual choice, vaccinated people perceive it as a matter of social choice. They accept that the pandemic can only be overcome if people go beyond their anxieties and desires and try to protect themselves, others and society as a whole.

How is it that people have such a different understanding of choice? From the times of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, people have been hearing that there is no society, that the individuals are utterly responsible for their wellbeing and that their success and happiness are related to their choices. Health has especially been perceived as a matter of personal choice. When people fall ill, they are often accused of it being the result of the bad choices they made in the past. They are reminded that they have not embraced a healthy lifestyle, not eaten the right food, not exercised, or not limited stress. Even overcoming illness has been in some circles propagated as a matter of choice. Thus, one often hears that one needs to choose to overcome illness, work hard to change bad habits, and embrace positive thoughts.

The underside of the ideology that puts choice on a pedestal has led to an increase in anxiety, guilt, and inadequacy. People struggle with the questions: What if I am making the wrong choice? Why are others getting better outcomes from their choices? Which information to trust when we are making our decisions? And when things do not go well in people’s lives, they often blame themselves for their lack of success, even if poverty and other social factors might have very much limited their choices.

Since people have been told that everything in their lives is a matter of choice, it is not surprising that choice plays an essential role in current discussions about vaccination. When people have constantly been hearing how important it is to make the right choices, especially when it comes to their bodies, anxiety over the question of what one is putting into one’s body and whom to listen to about vaccination can, for some, become overwhelming.

Rational choice theory presupposes that people think before they act and try to maximise the benefits and minimise losses. Given sufficient information, people are supposed to choose what is in their best interest. This is, however, often not the case since many people behave in ways that do not maximise their pleasure and minimise their pain, and some even derive pleasure from acting against their wellbeing. Our choices are also far less “free” than we think. We often choose under the influence of others, social expectations, and unconscious impulses. And after we have already made a choice, we might second guess if it was the right one or search for assurances that we did not make a mistake.

Among people who are not vaccinated, many are procrastinating over their decision. Some cannot decide whether to get vaccinated or not, and some are waiting for reassurances. In the US, some people said that they were waiting for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine fully. One, however, wonders if they have got vaccinated, now that this approval has happened.

The way people make choices is influenced by decisions that old and new types of authorities are making. Political leaders, media personalities and internet influencers have the power to sway public opinion with the choices they are making in their lives. If people who are influential in their communities get vaccinated, this makes an impact on people’s attitudes towards the vaccines. For some, seeing their loved ones and especially their children suffering from COVID-19 might also be an incentive to make a choice and finally get vaccinated.

Freedom, rights and choice are cornerstones of democracy. However, the problem starts when societies cannot find a consensus on what the way out of a crisis is and when individual choices take precedence over social ones. Sadly, the pandemic cannot be overcome if everyone chooses their own way to battle it.

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Birkbeck and the dubious dealings of Francis H. Fowler

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue an MPhil/PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, shares the story of the development of a new Birkbeck building in the nineteenth century. This blog is part of our 200th anniversary series.

New building of Birkbeck Institute 1800s

New building of the Birkbeck Institute. ‘Bream’s building, Chancery Lane’

Once the decision had finally been made in 1879 for the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution to fly the nest and leave its original home in Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane, it took years for the necessary funds to be raised. Rather than move to another existing building and “make do”, Birkbeck’s executive committee was dead set on commissioning a new one. Fund raising was slow. Scarred by the struggles of the mid-nineteenth century, where mounting debts had threatened the Institution with collapse, the Committee set about taking public subscriptions to reduce the costs.

Nevertheless, the risk had to be taken. Birkbeck could remain in its home no longer. A new building, the Committee asserted, was essential to ‘the prosperity and development of the Institution.’ The revival of its fortunes under the leadership of George Norris was such that, by 1879, new applicants were having to be turned down. There simply was not enough room.

Perhaps this explains the expediency with which an architect was selected to build Norris’s dreams. Intriguingly, the Committee decided not to request tenders from architects. Birkbeck’s future was entrusted to one man, Francis Hayman Fowler. Fowler was an internationally famous and reputable theatre architect. Hailed as a “pillar” of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW), the forerunner to the London County Council, he had been an important figure in London politics for twenty years.

With his reputation taken into consideration, his selection out of the blue seems above board. It then merely seems incongruous that the Committee asked eighteen different vendors to tender for the job of constructing Fowler’s edifice. Besides, they could not take any risks. After taking into consideration the various pros and cons of each – and making especial note that they were selecting a builder based on a number of factors, not merely who was cheapest – a Mr. Cates was awarded the contract.

During the Committee’s next meeting, the contract was suddenly and inexplicably presented to Messrs. Nightingale. No clarification was forthcoming. A solitary clue remained, however. Amidst the notes of the meeting, a special note was made thanking Fowler ‘for his attendance and explanations.’ These breadcrumbs seemingly amount to nothing, until we look deeper into Francis Hayman Fowler’s conduct.

As Breams Buildings, the Institution’s new home, was being designed and built, the Royal Institute of British Architects was starting to doubt the legitimacy of the Board’s conduct. Three presidents used their inaugural addresses to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the MBW’s processes, in 1879, 1881, and again in 1883. Singled out for particular admonishment were the Building Acts Committee and the theatre subcommittee, of which Fowler was one of only five members. Specifically, other architects suspected Fowler and other members of the MBW of abusing their position in order to gain contracts, or exact payment for advice and services which would then guarantee that projects met final approval with the Board.

Three years after Breams Buildings was completed in 1885, the rumours surrounding Fowler and a number of other architects on the MBW reached a fever pitch. The Financial Times interviewed a number of disgruntled London architects, and boldly declared that the “facts are no secret.” A scandal erupted off the back of the article. Parliament took up the issue. Almost immediately, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate the Board for corruption, and Lord Herschell was appointed its chairman.

What it found was a shock to a great many people. Fowler’s reputation was such ‘that the Commission was genuinely surprised’ that the allegations were true. Fowler certainly was using his positions to exact payments in expectation of serving external interests on the board. Fowler was forced to resign but refused to ‘admit that he had behaved reprehensibly.’

How does all this relate to Birkbeck, you might be asking? Let’s go further down the rabbit hole. Another member of the Board, John Rüntz was also implicated. Only because he was not an architect, the Commission did not find him to be corrupt per se. Nevertheless, Rüntz and Fowler, the Commission asserted, were part of an ‘inner ring’ which exerted control over the affairs of the MBW.

Rüntz had extremely close ties to Birkbeck, spanning several decades. Originally a cabinet maker, he started attending the institution in the 1840s.  By 1848, he had been appointed Master of the Birkbeck school. By 1852, Francis Ravenscroft had co-opted Rüntz onto the board of the Birkbeck Bank. This relationship with Ravenscroft would have brought him in very close range of the Executive Committee, of which Ravenscroft was a dedicated, important (and honest) member. By 1860, Rüntz was a trustee of the Bank. 1868 saw Fowler elected to the Board of Works, and Rüntz became Chairman of the bank’s board.

The close relationship between the two men, and Rüntz’s extensive connections with Birkbeck, may have set the scene for Fowler’s introduction to the Committee at the very least. In such situations, both men would profit, as Fowler would pay for other MBW members for introductions. This is one course of events that may explain the peculiar decision to award Fowler the commission, with no prior interaction and no alternative tenders by other architects. Alternatively, it could all be entirely speculative, creating false links between the dots.

Either way, it is also important to consider the historical context even of dubious dealings. As historian David Owen conceded, architects were one of a number of occupations that were undergoing a gradual process of professionalisation in the Victorian era. An important yet fractious facet of this transformation was the establishment of agreed standards of ethics. Fowler’s case is evidence of this process. Debates were still ongoing concerning what was permissible in obtaining commissions, how to distinguish a justifiable use of connexions, and precisely what constituted a corrupt use of special influence. This is a potent reason for why Fowler might have refused to concede any wrongdoing: he sincerely felt he had acted reasonably. If architects themselves had differing opinions of the basic standards of fairness, furthermore, how were those commissioning work to decide what was honest or not?

Seemingly, although this scandal put an end to Fowler’s political career, it did not put an end to his scheming. Theatre magnate Sefton Parry commissioned Fowler to build the Avenue Theatre in 1882. With inside knowledge from the MBW, who owned the land, Parry financed the theatre with the express intention of having it requisitioned by the South Eastern Railway. Subsequently, he would receive a payout for the value of the theatre; that is, more than he spent on construction. His plan came to nothing. Then, in 1905, something suspicious occurred. Allegedly, the Avenue needed renovation. Parry commissioned Fowler once more. Before the opening night, part of Charing Cross Station collapsed onto the theatre, leaving only its original façade! Parry got his payday after all.

 

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“Coaching has given me the tools to support wellbeing and help people find happiness in their work”

Sarah Wissing graduated from the MSc Career Management and Coaching in 2020. She shares her #BBKStory.

Sarah Wissing wearing black, leaning against a wall.I’ve always been drawn to supporting people and their welfare – on a night out, I’m that person who makes sure everybody gets home safe! In my role in HR, I’m interested in helping people develop and giving them the tools to flourish at work.

I’d known about Birkbeck’s MSc Career Coaching for a few years and finally decided to take the plunge after going along to an open day and meeting the Programme Director Janet Sheath, who was really lovely.

Studying for a Master’s part-time whilst working full-time was quite intense – there was a lot less going out to the pub! Luckily, my work was very supportive and the temporary sacrifice to my personal life was definitely worth it.

My undergraduate degree was in English and French and I’d done a Master’s in English ten years before starting the MSc, but this course was completely different. I remember totally freaking out in my first term when I failed my first essay, but Janet was really great and Birkbeck’s study support tutors were so helpful and I ended up graduating with a merit.

During our coaching weekends there’d be about ten of us and our two tutors – we did practical sessions where we coached each other and received real time feedback. We really got to know each other and it was a very supportive environment.

I also completed a placement in Birkbeck’s Careers Service, where I was assigned students to coach and given supervisions to talk about any challenges I was facing in that role.

The coaching skills I’ve gained on the course and the insight through my research project on Dyslexia in the workplace has really supported me at work: I love helping people to work at their best and am particularly excited about supporting neurodivergent individuals. Alongside my current role, I also operate as a freelance coach.

Studying coaching has made me an all-round better human – it’s about being an ethical person, in and out of work, and making people feel at ease. It equips you with the tools to support wellbeing and help people find happiness in their work and personal lives in an evidence-based way.

I never really have a five-year plan and the Master’s was the same, it just felt like the right thing to do at the time, and I’ve really enjoyed the process of studying and being at university again – nothing bad can come from a bit of education!

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Make soap not waste: the MBA graduate on a mission to reduce plastic packaging

Martina Schwarz wearing a grey t-shirt standing against a white background.

Blackmarket founder Martina Schwarz. Photo by Simon Habegger.

Martina Schwarz came up with the idea for a refillable soap that produces no plastic waste while writing her MBA thesis. Her business, Blackmarket, launches this September.

What should you do when you’re worried that the role you are great at is contributing to climate change?

This was the dilemma facing Martina Schwarz, an experienced packaging designer who’s worked with the likes of Unilever, Procter and Gamble and Kellogg’s, when she enrolled on the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA.

“A friction started to develop between my work and my values”, Martina explains. “I decided to write my MBA thesis on packaging and sustainability to incorporate my experience as an insider in the packaging industry with a focus on sustainability.”

Martina began her exploratory thesis with a focus on skincare, but when the pandemic hit, pivoting to handwash seemed like a natural step. In April 2020, Martina left her job to focus full time on her business, Blackmarket, and its first product: a refillable liquid handwash that uses no single-use plastic packaging.

“The first question I always get asked is why ‘Blackmarket’”, she explains, “You could say that the name has negative connotations, but I’ve chosen it so that people will ask questions. Blackmarket symbolises a desire to change the status quo and challenge someone’s thought process about how we design products.”

Blackmarket’s handwash stands out from mainstream refillable competitors through its innovative delivery system. Through her research on the MBA, Martina realised that a lot of personal care and cosmetic products are made mainly of water. By removing the water, she was able to design packaging similar to that of dishwasher tablets or laundry detergents that dissolves in contact with warm water.

“It’s about rethinking how we create packaging”, says Martina, “the film is a thickener that gives the handwash the gel texture that we recognise, so the packaging becomes part of the product. By removing the water at the packaging stage, the product weighs 95% less than its competitors, so transportation emissions are also reduced. Why would we bother to transport something that we can get on tap at home?”

The film packaging of Blackmarket liquid soap is the thickener that gives it a recognisable texture. Image credit – Blackmarket.

Blackmarket’s innovative approach saw Martina receive the UAL Creative Enterprise Award for Innovation in July 2021. She receives £5000 and a mentorship from IBM iX, who sponsored the award.

“The prize money is absolutely incredible – as a startup founder, there are a lot of costs associated with launching a cosmetic product – but the mentorship is as valuable as the prize money if not more,” says Martina. “I’m so pleased that IBM iX is the sponsor – I’m looking forward to using the mentorship programme to focus on behavioural change and the customer journey, making it as easy as possible for people to make sustainable choices.”

While, environmentally speaking, the best choice for handwash is a bar of soap, Martina’s market research found that the majority of consumers aren’t willing to make the switch from liquid soap. The product aims to make it as easy as possible for consumers to make pro-environmental choices.

Blackmarket has launched with a Kickstarter campaign, and Martina has an ambitious vision for the business: “Long term, we want to launch new products like shampoo and conditioner, but also to think about packaging differently. The nature of packaging is to be something that protects, but I really want with Blackmarket to think of that quite differently. I want to change perceptions of packaging to something that is long term, precious, and to be proud of how much you have used it.”

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