Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”

Inspiration

“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.

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‘Amateurism’ to ‘Elitism’: An Exploration of ‘The Games’ with David Goldblatt

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

olympia-1535219_1920For all of its successes, Rio 2016 came to embody many of the problematic and, at times, controversial aspects of the Olympic Games. From its roots in antiquity as an aristocratic pastime, to its re-emergence in Athens in 1896 as a ‘display of manly virtue’, the Olympics has always been at the nexus of political, social and ideological currents, as each era sees itself reflected  in the class, race, gender and sexuality of its athletic ideals. Its role in modernity has seen it both transcend and yield to international diplomacy and, successfully or not, has attempted to appeal to a ‘Universal Humanism’ above the fray of nation-state politics. It is this complex legacy that provides the context for award winning sports author David Goldblatt’s seminar ‘The Games: A Global History of The Olympics’, a lucid and sober assessment of the world’s preeminent sporting event.

The first in a series of seminars hosted by Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre, Goldblatt spoke to an audience of eager students, academics and industry professionals on the topics covered in his most recent work ‘The Games: A Global History of The Olympics’. The public seminar series, hosted by Birkbeck, invites the leading academics, social, political and economic commentators, and sport industry professionals, to discuss the latest developments in their work and share them with the Birkbeck community, industry and the public.

Whose values?

With many of the shortcomings of Rio 2016 prevalent in press coverage of the event, the purpose and significance of the Olympics has never been under more scrutiny. Indeed, increased crime, poorly paid cleaning staff, and a multitude of other failed initiatives has created a kind of existential crisis around which set of values the Olympics are meant to represent; what kind of torch is being passed along? Is it the individualism of elite sports, the lucrative urban regeneration projects for the host or a broader and inclusive culture built on health and equality? Through a carefully curated study of the historic role played by the Olympics, David Goldblatt asked his audience to navigate a history as complex as it is iconic.

Starting with a consideration of how the modern games came about, inaugurated in 1896 after a near 2000 year absence and sporadic revivals, Goldblatt explored how the ‘amateurism’ clauses of the early games ensured only the privileged elite could participate. Whilst the fight for racial and gender equality at the games would be fought throughout the 20th Century, the working classes were carefully excluded by clauses barring anyone who had accepted wages for manual labour from competing. With a diverse audience of different genders, races, nationalities and ages, the audience shared a variety of perspectives in an open discussion that reflected on both the inclusive and exclusive nature of the event.

Trickle-down inspiration?

relay-race-655353_1920Britain’s success at Rio may well have caught the world by surprise, but Goldblatt discussed with the audience whether a medal tally really equates to success. Indeed, whilst elite British athletes hit new heights, breaking records and elevating their esteem, what can be said of the public’s access to sporting facilities? Is Britain’s sporting strategy merely an emulation of trickle-down economics? Should funding be directed solely to those that will achieve?

Much of the current narrative around Olympic success, particularly in Britain, is the notion that successful athletes will ‘inspire’ the next generation of gold medal winners. Indeed, to those of us interested in athletics but not blessed with superhuman capabilities, the notion that we’ll be inspired by elite individuals can seem like an empty platitude, particularly when local services face cuts and playing fields are converted into luxury apartments. But, crucially, we must ask whether this is the responsibility of the Olympics. Certainly, if it wants to be the international event it aspires to, representing a coming together of nations and peoples, then a holistic sporting culture should be the objective. Or, alternatively, are the Olympics our glimpse into the capabilities of elite athletes? Should we watch with awe comfortably from our sofas? Has the Olympics had its ‘Premier League’ moment?

Whilst an interrogation of what Olympic values really are and whether they represent the possibility of a ‘Universal Humanism’ will likely continue, Goldblatt invited his audience to consider broader questions about what sport represents, where it’s been and where it’s heading, connecting ‘The Games’ with the great political and social questions of our time.

You can learn more about the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre at their website and see upcoming events here. Next week (24th October) will be ‘Not Only Lewandowski: The State of Polish Football and Business Around it Four Years After Euro 2012’ and tickets are available here.

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Eric J. Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2016: “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” by Sir Richard J. Evans – reflections from a Hobsbawm Scholar

This post was contributed by Antonio E Weiss, a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and a 2014 recipient of a Hobsbawm Schoalrship.

Sir Richard Evans’ lecture on “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on the nature and legacy of a towering figure of modern history in general, and Birkbeck College in particuar.

Evans opened with a 23 year-old Eric Hobsbawm on the verge of tears in 1940 as he packed his books in preparation for serving on the front-line in the war effort. Hobsbawm had a voracious appetite for a wide variety of literature – Balzac, Melville – and eclectic musical tastes, spanEric Hobsbawmning jazz and classical. As part of his latest work, Evans has had access to Hobsbawm’s diaries, providing a fascinating window into Hobsbawm’s life. It is Hobsbawm’s keen and wide interest in culture, of all forms and varieties, but with a particularly European focus, which helps to explain his emergence as such a special and influential figure of the twentieth century.

As a hugely grateful recipient of the generous Hobsbawm Scholarship Fund (to fund trips to Scottish and Irish archives as part of my PhD research on the history of the British state’s use of management consultancy firms in the twentieth century), Evans’ words on the unique contribution of Hobsbawm to historical scholarship made me reflect on the great privilege it is so receive support from the Fund. As Evans identified, The Age of Revolution (published in 1962 and the first of Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books on the “long nineteenth century”) was distinctive for two, critical, reasons. First, in an era when the focus of British historian was on nationalism and nation-states, Hobsbawm took a transnational approach, spanning his inquiry across countries. And second, highly influenced by the Annales School, Hobsbawm’s elevation of the importance of economic and social history, was in marked distinction to the focus on political and diplomatic history at the time, favoured by figures such as A.J.P. Taylor.

So much has been written and discussed about Eric Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Communist Party and his writings as a “Marxist historian” that attention has, potentially, been deflected from the enduring legacy of his contribution to history as a discipline. It is not hard to see the impact of Hobsbawm on my own research, even though the time and subject matter may initially appear far removed from Hobsbawm’s own historical concerns.

My research, on consultancy and the state, takes an emphatically transnational approach as it seeks to understand the transmission of ideas on management and managerialism from the United States to Europe in the postwar period; this is in a similarly vein to the transnational concerns Hobsbawm brought to the fore in The Age of Revolution. And to understand the relationship between consultancy and the state requires an appreciation of the economic and social trends and forces at play as Hobsbawm achieved in his work; not the mere machinations of political elites.

Evans, in responding to a question from a full floor, responded that Hobsbawm’s legacy was hard to pin down because it was so diffuse and general. It is precisely this diffusion which is so impressive – it can be seen in the multidisciplinary nature of current historical research, in the recognition of the importance of more than just policy and diplomacy in historical inquiry, and in the shift to the scientific and analytical method, away from narrative history. Hobsbawm’s legacy as a “Marxist historian” is huge, but it is his influence on history as a discipline which I feel even more keenly.

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London’s history: The ups and downs of an unrivalled metropolis

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, a PhD candidate in History at Birkbeck. His research focuses on the port of London from 1889-1939.

London and the NationLondon inspires love or hate. No-one is indifferent towards the capital, and that’s as true today as it has always been. London has suffered disasters and celebrated triumphs through the ages, but its status as the UK’s largest city has been constant. The capital is unique and the dominance it exerts upon the nation’s affairs is unmatched by the role of other capital cities in other countries.

Having been born, bred and employed in London, I was keen to learn more about the capital’s history at the London and the Nation conference at Birkbeck. The event, organised by the Raphael Samuel History Centre, was also an opportunity to test some early research undertaken as part of my PhD studies at Birkbeck.

Professor Jerry White, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, opened the event on 10 July by highlighting how London has always been different from the rest of the UK, and he traced the roots of anxieties about the capital’s dominance and “adamantine metropolitan hubris” to the eighteenth century. White continued by emphasising how London’s fortunes have fluctuated in the twentieth century. The interwar period witnessed the “age-old lure of London.” Population growth, suburban expansion, industrial development and rearmament saw the capital expand hugely. In 1939, 20 per cent of the UK’s population lived in the capital

But restrictions were to follow with limitations on office growth and decentralisation, all leading to inner city problems in the 1970s. Michael Ward, Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also referred to decline in his presentation, showing how London’s population bottomed out in the 1980s at 6.6 million. Surprisingly, the capital’s population has only just surpassed its previous 1939 peak of 8.6 million.

The world’s greatest port

My presentation showed how the port of London was in a crisis at the turn of the twentieth century. Its standing as the world’s greatest port was in jeopardy as the waters of the Thames were too shallow for the draught of the new, large steamships. Rival dock could not invest in dredging and dock facilities because of ferocious competition. Following a Royal Commission to investigate these problems, the capital’s dock companies were nationalised in a £23m takeover and the Port of London Authority was born in 1909. By 1927, the PLA – a public trust – had spent £12m on improvements in the port of London, including dredging a 50-mile channel in the Thames and building the George V dock, complete with electric cranes and refrigeration facilities.

The transition from a chaotic port to a coordinated one was largely inspired by, and achieved, because it followed similar transformations in other ports, notably Liverpool and Glasgow. Legislative action and multi-million pound civil engineering projects began on the Mersey and the Clyde in the 1850s and were used as a blueprint to grant the port of London a new lease of life in the early twentieth century.

London’s dynamic past – a familiar tale?

Guy Collender

Guy Collender

I kept on making parallels throughout the conference as I learned more about London’s dynamic past. I realised that the challenges and opportunities facing London today, although different in detail, bear an uncanny resemblance to previous eras. Let me elaborate.

In 1913, the port of London was the heart of imperial and international trade (it lost this crown to New York during World War I). In 2015, London is booming, its population is at an all-time high and the capital is increasingly referred to as a city-state. Before WWI, major infrastructure projects were underway to dredge the Thames and expand the docks. Today, London is investing in infrastructure to accommodate its growing population. A prime example is Crossrail – Europe’s largest construction project. It is due to open in 2018.

However, as history has shown, this is no time for complacency. The breakdown of international cooperation and the outbreak of WWI undermined world trade and ships were diverted from the port of London. The capital’s port never regained its status as the world’s greatest port. Similarly, storm clouds are on the horizon today. Problems in the Eurozone and the question mark about the UK’s future in the European Union are creating uncertainty – a bad situation for the global economy and London’s financial sector. Let’s hope there is no catastrophe around the corner, and let’s hope policy-makers reflect upon London’s history when they take decisions affecting its future.

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