Tag Archives: history

Graduate launches a teaching career at 59

Nick Townsend graduates this week with a BA in History after returning to education in his 50s. We spoke to Nicholas about how he balanced his studies with work, and what he would say to someone considering a degree later in life. #BBKgrad

Before Nick embarked on his degree at Birkbeck he was an advocate for education, at every stage of life, and he put this into practice with his work with Unite, a British trade union organisation that seeks to serve the rights of workers. “I volunteered at the Heathrow branch where we have 300 members who are mainly London black cab drivers and Heathrow airport staff. We helped them with queries or issues, computer literacy, and ran Spanish classes members who were looking to move abroad.”

Driven by a lifelong love of history and access to a Unite union member’s discount of 10% off each semester, Nick decided to take the leap into higher education in 2017 to learn more on the topic. He recalls the first time he set foot into the marbled halls of Senate House, as like “a Hollywood film moment, when the camera zooms back in and I thought to myself, what have I got myself in to? It really was quite an intimidating process.”

Despite the initial adjustment to life as a student, father and volunteer with a day job, he was able to establish a whole new routine which meant that three months in he was used to his busy schedule. He cites his prior responsibilities as part of the reason why he chose Birkbeck in the first place, “I couldn’t study during the day and Birkbeck had an extensive evening learning programme that was perfect for me.”

As an avid reader and writer in his spare time, Nicholas had no trouble adapting to the rigorous reading schedule, however he did struggle slightly with punctuation and grammar which he was able to address quickly after his tutors pointed him towards the Study Skills support available at the College.

Nicholas enjoyed delving into discussions about colonialisation and what effect it has had around the globe in his seminars and being able to share his opinions and views with his fellow students who were diverse and brought “a whole range of ideas” to the table. One aspect he particularly enjoyed was the Healing, Health and Modernity in African History module and the perspectives it offered on the effects of western medicine being imposed on indigenous cultures Dr Hilary Sapire, Reader in Modern History in the Department of History, Classics & Archaeology, who he says, “made the subject very interesting as she brought her own life experiences as a South African to her teaching of the subject.”

In his final year, Nick was able to explore his interest in social history and wrote his dissertation on the impact of Jamaican music on British culture from 1962-1983. He hopes that topics like these will become more commonplace in discussions of British history and that the subject will become more accessible in the media.

In the future Nick is open to further study, but in the short term he is hoping to begin a career in teaching at a secondary school where he can hopefully inspire young people to engage with the past.

When Nick reflects on how he achieved his academic ambition he boils it down to “time management and tenacity” and would say to someone doing the same to “not be too shy to speak in class, it’s the hardest thing to express what you want to say but it’s what you are there to do. Ultimately, if you don’t try, you will never know.”

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Birkbeck students embark on virtual tour of the City of London

While we’ve been unable to head out and explore our capital city in person, Birkbeck students toured the historic City of London virtually with the help of guide Tim Kidd.

Picture of the City of London

Whilst we would all love to be together in person, Birkbeck is bringing London to its international student community.

On Thursday 26 June, Birkbeck students were treated to a fascinating virtual tour through the historic City of London.

Courtesy of Tim Kidd, a member of the British Guild of Tour Guides, the Birkbeck community was brought together to explore London’s ancient origins. As Tim explained throughout the event, the City of London has a vibrant and varied history which tells the story of our famous capital. From the Bank of England to the walls of the Tour, Tim was able to explain London’s Roman roots and their role in shaping the world of finance today.

For many of Birkbeck’s students, the City offers world-class employment prospects and a foothold into the world of banking, trading and insurance. The City of London is today regarded as one of the major financial capitals of the world, and with good reason. Tim’s tour told the tale of the City of London, exploring why it is so such a unique place within the UK and Europe. At the end of the tour, an insightful Q&A session followed.

With the international situation evolving rapidly, it’s as important as ever that Birkbeck continues to adapt its student experience. Indeed, we very much look forward to hosting more engaging virtual tours in the future.

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The Windrush Betrayal

Zeljka Oparnica, PhD student in the Department of History, reports on journalist Amelia Gentleman’s talk about the Windrush Scandal that took place as part of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology’s Discover the Past lecture series that welcomes Birkbeck students, alumni and guests.

The Empire Windrush in 1947.

The Empire Windrush in 1947.

Amelia Gentleman’s reportages in the past two years covered a series of immigration issues that became known as The Windrush scandal. In this talk, she covered the background of both her reporting and the results it had provoked.

Professor Jan Rueger, Head of the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology Department greeted the audience and introduced the speaker and her book, stressing an important historians’ credo: “People’s voices matter, individual lives matter, and persistent research and adept covering of injustice can make a difference.” Amelia Gentleman began by reflecting on her background in history. That was a great introduction to the talk that followed the storylines of individuals leading to the discovery of a systematic fallacy, showcasing the background of “big history.”

What led to the series of reportages was a single case which came to Gentlemen through an NGO in November 2017. It was a story about a woman who came to the United Kingdom in her early childhood and was detained and about to be deported to Jamaica at the age of 61. For about two years prior to her detention, she had been receiving letters from the Home Office warning her about her illegal status. What at first glance seemed to be an oversight by the Home Office, turned out to be just the first among many isolated cases. The day when the article was printed in the Guardian, Gentleman received a call from the son of a man in a similar situation facing deportation. The individual cases started to line up and it became evident there was more to the series of what seemed like lone, disturbing cases. Her emphatical but sober writing, followed by amazing photo portraits, incited readers’ reactions and brought the well-needed attention.

Amelia Gentleman with her book 'The Windrush Betrayal'

Amelia Gentleman with her book ‘The Windrush Betrayal’.

Beyond talking to a number of affected individuals, Gentleman also referred to immigration lawyers, law centres, and PMs from areas with high immigration rates. As the stories received ever more publicity and caused a public uproar, the Home Office reacted to individual cases, and ministers offered half-hearted apologies. There was a rush to resolve the most prominent cases, and it was difficult for all the people invested in helping to connect the dots.

After months of research, Amelia Gentleman came to a true historical revelation. Behind the dozens of comprehensive individual reportages were around 500,000 cases of undocumented people who were born in the Commonwealth countries and came legally, as imperial citizens, to the United Kingdom in the period between two Immigration Acts, namely 1948 and 1973. The lack of personal documents, such as passports, went hand in hand with what Gentleman called “the general British papers distrust.” Namely, even today 17% of British citizens do not possess passports, and in the previous decades, the number was much higher. It became apparent that the trigger was the so-called Hostile Environment, the Tory anti-immigration policies that came to power in the early 2010s. It became apparent how the citizenship of thousands of people depended on the unjust context of the present.

The stories reached their peak in 2018, overlapping with the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex. Since those affected by the new Hostile Environment policies were the descendants of the people who arrived in the same period, and it seemed like an appropriate name for the scandal Gentleman’s reportages.

However, Gentleman still feels bitter-sweet about the outcomes of her work. As a direct result of the stories’ publication, Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned in April 2018 and a public promise was given to all affected that they could claim compensation from 200 to 572 million pounds. Up until today, over eight thousand people affected by the scandal have been granted citizenship or papers that confirm their full legal status. The number of detainees in deportation camps has also decreased. However, only 32 people have received some compensation, and many of those who have a right to compensation have either died or are very old. The Hostile Environment policies have not been repealed nor debated. With this sobering overview, Amelia Gentleman ended her talk by underlining that the list of tasks is long. For both journalists and historians.

In the well-established Birkbeck tradition, the talk sparked a comprehensive discussion that lasted for another hour.

 

 

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The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

Natalie Mitchell, a first-year MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, shares insights from Professor Marina Warner’s lecture that took place as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

City of women map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘City of Women 2.0’, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Professor Dame Marina Warner took her audience on a fascinating journey through the role of mapping in storytelling and memory, in her lecture, which forms part of the 100 Years of the University of London lecture series. Using Alfred Korzybski famous axiom ‘the map is not the territory’, which suggests that a map cannot encompass the true quality of a place, Professor Warner considered the re-imagining of place and how mapping can become a rebellious act.

She began the lecture considering the many roles of cartography in territory making, defining borders, resources, military and governance, and how this informs our memory of place. The map attempts to ‘actualise history’ through naming, marking and dividing, but the construction of history is a type of narrative. A point Professor Warner emphasised through the words history and story, which are the same in many languages. As such, mapping can control the narrative of a place and becomes an important tool for colonisers, although it may bear little resemblance to the reality of a place by its indigenous people.

Adam Dant – Shoreditch as New York – 2018

The activity of creating maps can also realise fiction, such as the detailed fictional maps in the novels Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, star maps give mythical gods a presence in reality through the stargazer’s eye and theme parks and Disney castles parody real locations through the child’s imagination. In this way, the fictional locations of stories can become real locations; these narratives ‘folding back’ onto the actual.

Professor Warner went on to suggest that the map can function in time as well as space, making the past present. This was particularly notable in Emma Willard’s mapping of aboriginal tribes in America and her Progress of the Roman Empire, charting time using the course of the Amazon river. These reworkings of maps can also perform a ‘historical resistance’ as seen in Layla Curtis’ NewcastleGateshead collaged map of all the places renamed after those cities, which highlights the colonial activity of claiming places through naming. Such use of cartography revealed the potential rebellious nature the renaming of maps can perform.

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease - Monarchs and Queens - 2010

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease – Monarchs and Queens – 2010

This type of resistance was expanded further by Professor Warner through many recent examples of the renaming and reworking of maps and places. In Paris in 2015, Osez le Feminisme flyered the city’s street signs, renaming them to notable women from history. Artists have also reimagined places via the redrawing of maps, such as Rebecca Solnit’s and Adam Dant’s maps, which create a visual narrative, questioning the authority of the map and returning to a cartography blending art and science. Similarly, Simon Patterson’s iconic reworking of the London tube map in his work The Great Bear renamed the stations after a myriad of famous and forgotten figures from history. Through each of her examples, Professor Warner showed how the reimagining of the map ‘makes the familiar unfamiliar’ and how a sense of place can be reclaimed by those in situ.

Simon Patterson - The Great Bear - 1992

Simon Patterson – The Great Bear – 1992

Professor Warner’s lecture was bookended by her recent work with a collective of young migrants in Palermo, Sicily, through the Stories in Transit workshop project Giocherenda. These workshops involved the young people developing stories of the city using the figure of The Genius of Palermo, a 15th century icon who has become a synonymous symbol of the city. The workshop took place around the city, where the young people placed the historical figure in different locations. Through this, they could develop their own sense of their new home in Palermo, but through the use of the city’s history. She expressed how it was the children who wanted to use mapping in their story creations and in doing so created a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.

Professor Warner concluded her lecture by emphasising the importance of continuing to create stories. Storytelling is an action and a way of history-making and in the days of fake news and big data, it is even more paramount.

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