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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A walk into London’s past

This post was contributed by Graham Fifoot, who is currently enrolled on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies

Great-Fire-of-LondonAt one o’clock on Thursday the fourth of June 2015, an important crowd gathering took place at St. Paul’s Cross within the churchyard precinct of St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the very place where victory was announced over the Armada, where books were burnt by Cardinal Wolsey, where four Gunpowder plotters were seen publicly punished, as well as where the book-trade took off in a big way – we were to meet Professor Vanessa Harding who was fully prepared to be our expert guide for London’s nearby streets and pathways.

I think many questions were circulating amongst us all in anticipation: Can we possibly envisage an old London as experienced by past Londoners? How do past maps of London compare to our more contemporary and familiar ideas?

Fully equipped with our Wenceslas Holler maps of London (a London just after the Great Fire), we began by walking beyond Paternoster Row, along Cheapside to discuss the seventeenth century frontage offering a tantalizing glimpse of where the old street had once been.

We were to continue along the old ‘Goose Lane’ (that no longer exists) towards Bow Lane, to stop in the Bow Churchyard and discover the bronze ground studs for indicating the boundary of the churchyard. As we walked further along London’s streets, we could visibly see implemented (or about to be implemented) changes to road layout, boundaries as well as past marks of property ownership. Along Fenchurch Street, we viewed the Drapers and Vintners companies with their coat of arms, and found how the old stream of Walbrook had now become a named street.

Then, passing along Wittington Ave and the Leadenhall Market to St Helen’s Church – we were able to view the extent to which the Great Fire had had an impact, as well as stop by the Shard to pass judgment on the continuing redevelopment of our contemporary London (probably to the horror of Professor Vanessa Harding!).

On continuing to the Guildhall Yard (also hit by the Great Fire) we were able to view where the Roman amphitheatre may have stood before progressing further to Little Britain and Aldersgate Street.

In fact, what originally stood as a one and a half hour appointment with Vanessa, quickly became (by overwhelming crowd demand and opinion) a fantastic two and a half hour overview of the surrounding streets of London.

By the end of this walk on a most glorious summers day, our assembly realised they had experienced something special. Now the old maps of London began to make more sense and the London of John Stow and Strype more imaginable thanks to the company of Birkbeck’s own expert, Professor Vanessa Harding…

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London Connections: ‘The Mediated City: A Tour of Media and Mediation in West End London’&‘London: A Renaissance City ?’

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Scott Rodgers and tour participants in Fitzroy Square

Birkbeck Arts Week on Wednesday featured a double bill of London events. First off a West End walking tour guided by Dr Joel McKim and Scott Rodgers who promised us that we’d be using the city to rethink the way we use media, and using media to rethink the way we see the city. From Fitzroy to Leicester Square (both spaces re-fashioned to reap the rewards of film industry activity, from ‘Georgian’ location to Red Carpet stargazing) we tracked the spores of London’s media creatures. We inspected a protected Banksy under the shadow of the BT (formerly GPO) Tower and submitted ourselves to airport-type security to peer in at the ants nest that is the BBC Newsroom. Whereas George Val Myer’s Broadcasting House (1932) looks like an Art Deco liner bearing down on Oxford Circus, the Apple Store occupies Regent House (1898), built on the site of the former Hanover Chapel in Regent Street, like a cathedral. Scott pointed out the Venetian mosaics over the ubiquitous logo, showing that when it was built the building already had connections with Paris, New York, St Petersburg and Berlin.

Venturing into Soho we passed the artisanal post-production houses, rendering, digitising and generally buffing up the raw material for untold hours of viewing, and in Soho Square found the ducal palaces of film production, the address for the likes of Twentieth Century Fox.  Joel told us how the film and tv industries had benefitted from the fibre-optic digital networks installed by banks for high-speed transfers, and how companies like Sohonet were now enabling post-production on the same film to take place simultaneously in London and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, just round the corner in Dean Street is Rippon Newsagent’s, which has been distributing media from its Georgian storefront  since 1791.

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Joel McKim and tour participants in Clipstone Street

Dodging the crowds round the Eros Statue, we learned about the history of advertising in Piccadilly Circus, where flashing lights have been selling soft drinks since 1908. Perhaps, suggested Joel, the Piccadilly screens may at some future point be used for purposes other than advertising, as in the innovative Times Square Arts collaboration with contemporary artists, or the transnational project that used public screens to link Seoul and Melbourne. We reached Leicester Square in time for the five o’clock serenade from the Glockenspiel Clock to hear about the plans for the replacement of the Odeon West End  with a 10-storey hotel and cinema complex which Rowan Moore, in the Guardian, describes as being ‘the architectural equivalent of the premium-priced vats of tepid Coke on sale in the foyers of multiplexes’.

The re-development will mean the end of the Hand and Racquet, the pub in Whitcomb Street which is apparently named after a nearby tennis court used by Charles II, a sports facility roughly contemporary with the publication of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) which Dr Stephen Clucas considers to be the final flowering of the English Renaissance.

In the session which asked the question ‘London: A Renaissance City?’ Stephen Clucas spoke up for some of the powerhouses behind discoveries in the Natural Sciences in the mid-to-late Sixteenth Century as coming not from the city, but from the periphery of London. Specifically the mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot, who lived in the grounds of his patron Henry Percy’s  Syon House in Isleworth, and the astronomer and astrologer Dr John Dee who lived just downstream at Mortlake. We heard how in 1575 Queen Elizabeth called on Dr Dee in order to have a look at his ‘scrying glass’ but didn’t disturb him because he had just come from his wife’s funeral. Dee had a library of over 2000 printed books in Mortlake, and Henry Percy had one of the largest libraries in Europe, although the ‘Wizard Earl’ had to make do with regular deliveries of books when he did a seventeen-year stretch in the Tower for his part in the Gunpowder Plot.

The Earl was lucky to get away with his life. Dr Brodie Waddell told us how in 1590’s London, anyone found guilty of Grand Larceny, which meant the theft of anything of the value of one shilling or more, was sentenced to death. Those found guilty of lesser thefts would be tied to a cart and whipped through the streets. The population of London had doubled in the years from the mid-16th Century, to reach over 140,000 by the year 1600. Refugees from religious persecution in Holland flocked to the city and provided cheap labour. Bad harvests led to a three-fold increase in the price of flour between 1594 and 1597, and following the ruinous attempts to contain the Tyrone rebellion in Ireland, demobbed soldiers added to problems of vagrancy, crime, social disorder and sedition.

The backing track to the extraordinary developments on the Elizabethan stage was more likely to be the sound of apprentices rioting, or the plague bell, than the colloquy of classical scholarship. Dr Gillian Woods made the point in an analysis of Shakespeare’s most brutal play, Titus Andronicus that in the early 1590s, Shakespeare shows his villainous characters, the rapist brothers Chiron and Demetrius and their provocateur Aaron, ransacking classical authors for a guide to depravity and then adding new tortures of their own devising. And in a marked departure from classical convention, Shakespeare presents much 0f the violence on stage ‘thereby forcing the audience to examine a development of what is at the heart of the Renaissance endeavour’.

Dr Susan Wiseman concluded the session by paying tribute to a group of dedicated (or perhaps obsessed) men and women who took it upon themselves in the late 19th Century to record and preserve London’s ancient monuments and buildings. Chief amongst them was Charles Robert Ashbee, editor of the Survey of London. As Sue pointed out, many of the buildings photographed for the Survey are commonly used to illustrate Dickens’s London, whereas they actually provide an extraordinary visual record of London before the Fire. The 1590’s façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house in Bishopsgate has been preserved in the V&A, but The Oxford Arms, a 17th Century coaching inn, was demolished in the late 1870s.

England came late to the Renaissance party, and none of the speakers at the session seemed confident to give a full affirmative to the ‘Was London a Renaissance City?’ question. But one thing was clear, that from Dr Dee plotting the course of Jupiter’s moons from the roof of Northumberland House on the Strand, to today’s digital pioneers developing the future’s equivalent to Dee’s ‘scrying glass’, London has incubated a pursuit of knowledge and artistic endeavour with all the energy and innovation of its classical antecedents.

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