Stories of Family and Class in Modern Britain – Jon Lawrence, Alison Light, and Julie-Marie Strange

Stef Eastoe is a third year PhD student in the department of History at Birkbeck, researching the social history of idiots and imbeciles in the long nineteenth century, using Caterham Imbecile Asylum as a case study to explore the voice and experiences of the patients and staff. Alongside Janet Weston, Hazel Croft and Susanna Shapland (fellow PhD students at Birkbeck) Stef is organizing a conference exploring Alternative Psychiatric Narratives, supported by Birkbeck, Society for the Social History of Medicine, and the Wellcome Trust.

Movement, migration and fluidity were common themes than ran through the ‘Stories of Family and Class in Modern Britain’ panel. The session began with Dr Jon Lawrence (Cambridge) revisiting the 1950s Bethnal Green families presented in Willmott and Young’s Family and Kin, followed by Professor Alison Light’s (Newcastle) investigations into her family history, ending with Dr Julie-Marie Strange’s (Manchester) use of working class auto-biography to explore working class fathers. All three provided a different methodological lens to reassess traditional sources to investigate experience of working class life, and the construction, composition and meaning of family.

Each of the papers were actively myth busting in their reassessment of sources, as well as paradoxically using the myths and assumptions that surround the notion of the working class family to interrogate the meaning of the category and definition of the term. All three offered a way of talking about class by using a different language, one that was constructed, used, and deployed by the very individuals they were researching. For Dr Lawrence it was in the return to the original interviews, for Light it was looking at the people behind the occupational registers, and for Strange it was in the minutia of everyday life and the use of humour in working-class autobiography.

family-and-kinship-in-east-london-book-coverThrough careful re-reading of established sources, be it going behind the published text, looking at familial composition, or familial relations and interactions, each of the three speakers was able to show that family was far from linear, and was experienced in many ways. Dr Lawrence stated that part of his organizing idea behind his work re-analysing Willmott and Young was to see how people escaped Young’s categories, and to some degree each of the panellists did this. Light saw the practice of family history as a way of democratizing and opening up a number of categories surrounding class, industry and occupation in modern Britain, through the experiences of her family members. Strange was able to show in her close reading of working class auto-biography that far from being absent figures, fathers were an integral part of the family, present in the home, and a major part of the birth story.

In his introduction to the conference Birkbeck’s own Professor John Arnold asked us to keep in mind Hobsbawm’s view and approach to history, an important theme being the ability to use history and approaching history in order to ‘dream forward’. Dr Lawrence, Professor Light and Dr Strange’s reanalysis of the sources certainly provided current and future scholars a number of opportunities to indeed dream forward. Strange stated that she was interested in the small things in the autobiographies, namely the recounting of birth stories and the use of humour, the padding as such that was often overlooked by other scholars, to ask big questions.

Professor Light made an excellent case for the usefulness of the family history lens to more fully understand the experience of working-class people in the eighteen and nineteenth century, highlighting the liberating working style of family historians who trace numerous multi-layered narratives and lives side-by-side, in non-linear ways. Professor Light found this frenetic approach exciting, and provided a number of opportunities for crossing generational, periodic and temporal boundaries which gave rise to rich links, discussions and findings. These interwoven lives, spreading back from her grandparents to the 1750s, provided Professor Light with a unique analytical lens that was informed by stories, experiences and the notion of family that provided a useful context in understanding the development of the working classes in modern Britain, one that went beyond the names of occupations.

Professor Light was able to express and show in a compelling manner the various ways in which individuals escaped the categories placed upon them. They were members of someone’s family, part of a bigger network of historical actors who had myths, stories, and narratives told about them, tales which allowed Professor Light a richer view of their experiences, which in turn has allowed her access to voices of the working classes which was not available to her prior to her family history tracing. It was this moving beyond the definitions that made Professor Light’s paper so invigorating and exciting, how connections and meanings, however personal, can enrich research and give another layer of meaning to social categories that we have become somewhat inured to over the years.

In a similar fashion Dr Julie-Marie Strange’s paper drew on reanalysis and alternative reading and engagement with sources to show how they can be used to extricate voice and experience. Concentrating on the use of humour and comedy in working class autobiography, Dr Strange highlighted the usefulness of these texts to the social historian, and how they shed light on the creation, composition and maintenance of the family. Significantly for Dr Strange, by reading the whole text, not just the meaty and juicy bits, she was able to see that far from being absent entities, fathers were central figures to the family, and specifically to the male authors.

Using three reports of birth stories as case studies of the specific use of humour, Dr Strange illustrated the interactions of men engaged in ‘baby talk’, and that this was evidence of male presence in the home, in the family, and in childhood. These were all important features in the creation of an individual’s self and social identity, as family is the prime socializing agent. Using the small things in the autobiographies to ask big questions, Dr Strange’s use of the texts showed how the working-class family in late Victorian Britain could operate as a unit and in conjunction with wider society. In one account of his birth, a writer stated that his father was teased about the paternity of his child by a male friend. Upon being told that his new born son was the ‘spit of him’ his father replied that he had better be. This exchanged showed not only men engaging with one another in what has generally been viewed as a female topic, namely baby talk, but also the centrality of men and fathers to this story for other men, for as Dr Strange pointed out across all three stories the mothers were absent, with the fathers cast as the central characters.

To sum up the panel, all three papers reconsidered not only the use and nature of traditional social, familial, and class sources, they also provided three very different but complimentary lenses to re-analyse texts, from the querying eye of the social investigator, the inquiring eye of the family historian, and the revealing eye of the auto-biographer. I think Hobsbawm would have found the findings of the session, and the discussion that followed, stimulating, vibrant, and excitingly challenging, not least the inventive use of the everyday experiences of working class individuals, but also their expressions, anticipations and the frames of reference employed.

Peter Bailey’s plenary on ‘The Other Captain Swing: Eric Hobsbawm and Jazz’

Janet Weston is a second year PhD student at Birkbeck, researching the history of medical approaches to diagnosing, treating, and curing sexual offenders in mid-twentieth century Britain.

‘The world of jazz is so captivating,’ reflected Hobsbawm, ‘that everyone with an interest in humanity ought to be made to see its attractions’. In the final session of Wednesday’s programme, Professor Peter Bailey displayed some of these attractions, accompanying his account of Hobsbawm’s delight and enduring interest in jazz music and its musicians with performances at the piano of jazz classics from Billie Holliday’s Lover Man, to Fats Waller’s Stealin’ Apples, taking in the occasional original composition along the way.


Professor Peter Bailey at the piano

Professor Peter Bailey at the piano, Copyright © Birkbeck Media Services Centre 2014

Hobsbawm’s experiences and views of the jazz scene in Britain and beyond were set alongside insights into Peter Bailey’s own initiation into the same world as a teenager in 1950s Coventry: the locus horrendous, as he put it. As one of a new generation of British jazz consumers that Hobsbawm sought to understand, Bailey’s own interest in the art form – its sex appeal and its potential to alarm and confuse his parents were potent attractions – and extracts from his teenage diary beautifully enhanced this history of jazz and Hobsbawm’s lifelong obsession with it. Inspired by Jelly Roll Morton, Bailey the jazz pianist became Porridge-Foot Pete and noted solemnly in his diary, aged 16, that ‘my life is jazz, and sex. I get a fair amount of one but none of the other’.

Hobsbawm’s work as the jazz critic for the New Statesman under the pseudonym Francis Newton provided ample material to access his opinions and thoughts on the ever-changing world of jazz music, as well as some of his wonderfully evocative writing. Initially wary of the Modern Jazz Quartet and their apparent aspirations to the gravitas of the classical world, Hobsbawm came to admire their pianist John Lewis greatly, and wrote of their music that it possessed a ‘dense, stately texture, like electrified fur’. Some of his pronouncements were memorable less for their poetry and more for their mistakes, given the benefits of hindsight. His low opinion of rock ‘n’ roll was epitomised in his dismissal of the Beatles as ‘an agreeable bunch of kids. In 20 years’ time, nothing of them will survive’.

For Hobsbawm, comparing the music of Count Basie to his great idol Duke Ellington was like placing the writing of William Cobbett next to that of James Joyce: it was ‘predictable, yet it lifted the audience out of their seats like a crane’. Peter Bailey certainly succeeded in lifting his audience, receiving a standing ovation, and dispatched us with the immortal lyrics of one of jazz standards made famous by Ellington himself, translated into Latin, of course, for gravitas: nihil significat si non pulsam.*

* ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)’. Possibly.

Britain, Empire, Europe – Antoinette Burton, Maya Jasanoff, Jan Rüger

Emma Lundin is an AHRC-funded PhD student at Birkbeck. Her thesis, ‘Practical Solidarity: Connections between Swedish Social Democratic women and women in the ANC, 1960-1994’, explores the historical impact of informal transnational relationships in national and international settings, and how these informed ideas about gender and equality. Alongside Barbara Warnock, Emma is organising a conference on History and Space at Birkbeck in June 2014.

By the time Professor Bill Schwarz commented that “we aren’t interested in hagiography or denunciations” – after the panel on ‘Resistance in the Colony; Resistance in the Metropole’ on the second day of the History After Hobsbawm conference – that assertion had already been put into practice by the panellists at the ‘Britain, Empire, Europe’ session earlier in the day. Convened by Jan Rüger and chaired by David Feldman, the session offered insight into historiographical and theoretical areas neglected by Hobsbawm, instead presenting a view of the world that challenges his focus on the colonial metropole by using subaltern, gendered, migratory and transcontinental perspectives.

orientalism Professor Antoinette Burton (University of Illinois) began her paper on ‘Antiphonies: Call and Response in Empire History’ by saying that she had been flabbergasted when reading Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire in the early 1990s as it was a wholly metropolitan story with no trace of the indigenous or women, despite being published less than a decade after Edward Said’s Orientalism. Instead of drawing on the new sources and research that challenged his perspective – or even just referencing them – Hobsbawm had produced a “relentlessly insular story”.

Placing Hobsbawm in a long line of historians who treat non-white, non-European/North American and non-male subjects by ignoring them, Professor Burton went on to argue that these insular tendencies and lack of connection to life in the empire does not just align Hobsbawm with his contemporary conservative rivals, but with much of the historical research still produced today. “If footnotes are anything to go by,” Professor Burton said, the authors of “new works on British imperialism read very selectively, and ignore the role of indigenous histories wherever they exist”. Niall Ferguson and John Darwin, for example, “show complete ignorance of our work,” and continue to focus on a dated narrative of rise and fall, while the work of ‘new imperialist historians’ (a phrase that Professor Burton herself does not like but used in this instance “to schematise a complex field”) does not reach a wider audience. Iconic institutions, meanwhile, either think this work does not matter or are skeptical towards its value. “Sometimes a poke in the eye is better than nothing. It is as though the new body of work doesn’t exist,” she said, asking the audience to contemplate both the lack of new imperial history reviews in the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, and whether the coverage of war in Afghanistan would have been any different had recent research on earlier British involvement been general knowledge. Adding that “gatekeeping by neglect means our field is struggling to move away from the white man’s gaze despite half a century of work,” Professor Burton pointed out that ‘new imperial history’ remains a minority history. The supposed victory of her field, the assumption that we all are or need to be imperial scholars now, is – just like all other victories throughout history – much contested.

In the panel’s second paper, ‘Lost at the imperial turn’, Professor Maya Jasanoff (Harvard) argued that the empirical potential of connected empires has yet to be fully unlocked. In her own work on novelist Joseph Conrad she has found a mirror image for Eric Hobsbawm: both were central European émigrés “who found in Britain a congenial home. For both men, [their] continental perspective expressed itself in a remarkable erudition and cosmopolitanism”. They also “keenly understood the slippages of empires in the age of industrial capitalism”. Both Conrad and Hobsbawm also wrote the beginning of the globalised world: “What Conrad can tell us is the lived, intellectual and moral experience of living in such a world”, while Eric Hobsbawm charted its development.

But Conrad and Hobsbawm were not unique in their adoption of London and Britain: “When we think ofSikhs_aboard_Komagata_Maru revolutionary hubs, havens for exile,” Professor Jasanoff said, “we think, perhaps romantically, of Paris. But what does it mean for [British imperial history] to think of London as one of these hubs?” Britain, she continued, was a hub for revolutionaries, refugees and exiles, with a large spectrum of actors ranging from revolutionaries like Francisco de Miranda, Simon Bolivar and Karl Marx to ousted monarchs like Louis Napoleon and anti-colonial activists like Gandhi. “The list goes on and on, and is an interesting lens on 19th-century British political life.” Professor Jasanoff later pointed out that “what is interesting is that the underrepresented voices aren’t just non-whites over there [in the colonies or former colonies] anymore, but that they are over here too.” Global migration has a far longer history than is often understood. The global turn of history, Professor Jasanoff concluded, is not straightforward: “When the world shifts and gets flatter for some people, it gets rockier and more difficult to navigate for others”.

That thread was picked up by Dr Jan Rüger‘s paper on ‘Europe and the British Empire’ in which he focused on the interaction of imperial and European experiences, and the relationship(s) between Britain, Europe and colonialism. Taking a more positive approach to Eric Hobsbawm’s work on empire than his fellow panellists, Dr Rüger argued that “if we want to attempt to write the British empire into European history”, there are few better examples to follow than Hobsbawm’s 19th-century trilogy. He also added that several similarities and themes are shared by European colonialists, despite their rivalries: the suppression of colonial peoples for offences committed against white men – “from the Opium Wars to the Boxer Rebellion” – is one example, which saw supposed rivals exact colonial revenge on behalf of one another; acts that were sanctioned by London and Berlin, and reported on in favourable terms in the metropole press.

Dr Rüger also argued that the rethinking of the relationship between Britain, Europe and the colonies has been broadened by the immersion into global history. Historians of continental Europe have made a similar outwards journey and German historians are currently busy rewriting their national history as global. Much remains to be done, however. “Theoretically,” Dr Rüger said, “this opens up the opportunity to connect these histories in a global context. But this has not happened. So far, the writing of national histories under empire and world paradigms haven’t led to the expansion of perspectives in British history.”

Latin America and Global Environmental History

Janet Weston is a second year PhD student at Birkbeck, researching the history of medical approaches to diagnosing, treating, and curing sexual offenders in mid-twentieth century Britain.

Wednesday at the ‘History after Hobsbawm’ was a curious combination of Latin America, the environment, and jazz, but perhaps this wasn’t a wholly unexpected sequence of subjects at a conference inspired by Eric Hobsbawm. Knowing a little about all three topics, but not a great deal about any, also meant that the first full day of the conference was, for me, a day of considerable and eclectic learning, from glimpses of Hobsbawm’s ‘rock star’ status in Latin America to the potential of the history of wild camels in Australia.

In the panel dedicated to Latin America, chaired by Professor Lucy Riall (Birkbeck and the European University Institute), speakers highlighted the importance of the region in both shaping, and also providing avenues to challenge, Hobsbawm’s thinking. Dr Paulo Drinot (UCL) placed Hobsbawm’s interest in Latin America in the context of his personal connections and experiences of the region, including his family members in Chile, his Rockefeller-sponsored research trips in the 1960s and 1970s, and his friendships with many of the household names of that era, including Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and the Allende family. Despite Hobsbawm’s limited explicit discussion of Latin America in his ‘Ages’ tetralogy, Drinot reminded the audience that the attention paid to the region was still significant at a time when world history was rather different in shape and content than they are now. Even more unusual, he argued, was Hobsbawm’s willingness to challenge the importance of guerrilla movements, and to incorporate analytical frameworks developed in the global south. Perhaps most of all, Hobsbawm saw Latin America as a ‘laboratory’, or a place where historical processes could be observed following different trajectories despite the region having much in common with Europe.

Hobsbawn BanditsCvrThe image provided by Drinot of screaming crowds eager to greet Eric the celebrity historian as he travelled in Latin America is one example of just how extraordinary Hobsbawm’s remarkable career was. Professor Alan Knight (University of Oxford) addressed another, highlighting the enormous impact of transforming banditry into a serious subject for scholarly study. Discussing some of the ways in which Hobsbawm’s model of banditry has both succeeded and failed to withstand scrutiny, Knight drew attention to the sweeping generalisations Hobsbawm made about bandits around the world, and his reliance upon second-hand sources. However, Knight maintained that the concept of the social bandit remains useful and valid, albeit more applicable in certain times and places than others. Building upon Hobsbawm’s work, he argued that the same bandits could inspire quite different impressions depending upon the proximity of the commentator to the inner circle of banditry, and indeed the same individual or group could enjoy a variable status as the context within which they operated changed.

Professor Joan Martinez Alier (Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona) also reflected upon his own points of agreement and disagreement with Hobsbawm’s perspective, considering Primitive Rebels and, more fundamentally, Hobsbawm’s neglect of environmentalism. This was echoed in the next panel, chaired by Professor Rana Mitter (University of Oxford) which was dedicated to the flourishing field of environmental history. All three speakers drew attention to Hobsbawm’s limited interest in the environment as a subject for historical enquiry, but in considering how developments in environmental history might take shape, the panel suggested a future history in the spirit of Hobsbawm’s work.

Dr Paul Warde (University of East Anglia) emphasised changing understandings of the environment itself, but also the interconnected nature of environmental and social history, while Professor Harriet Ritvo (MIT) drew attention to the difficulties and potential of incorporating animals into our historical narratives, citing as one example the complicated history of the camel in Australia. Dr Sunil Amrith (Birkbeck) used the historiography of environmental history of south Asia to suggest potential for the future: environmental history might pursue research into mass urbanisation and could enrich labour history, given the links between human suffering and the abuse of the land. And finally, in the writing of such histories, Hobsbawm’s consideration of the revival of narrative history, and its compatibility with ‘big’ history, remains relevant. Environmental history, as it grows and develops in the future, might make use of the specific and the local in combination with the larger-scale work on climate, geology, species and planet, producing truly global history.

Mark Mazower on Hobsbawm and the historical profession

Emma Lundin is an AHRC-funded PhD student at Birkbeck. Her thesis, ‘Practical Solidarity: Connections between Swedish Social Democratic women and women in the ANC, 1960-1994’, explores the historical impact of informal transnational relationships in national and international settings, and how these informed ideas about gender and equality. Alongside Barbara Warnock, Emma is organising a conference on History and Space at Birkbeck in June 2014.

In his inaugural Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture – the first item on the History After Hobsbawm Conference programme – Professor Mark Mazower (Ira D. Wallach Professor of History, Columbia University) used Eric Hobsbawm’s professional development as a mirror image of the pattern of change his profession underwent in general during Hobsbawm’s own lifetime.

Tracing Hobsbawm’s development from an anonymous author of Cambridge anecdotes in his former school’s paper to the young academic in Cambridge and at Birkbeck – in which he was recognisable but not quite the historian he would become – Professor Mazower pointed out that these were days in which the subject of history itself was not the professionalised and increasingly globalised profession it would later become. But while the development of the profession can be traced by looking at Hobsbawm’s career, Professor Mazower emphasised that one must not overlooked the critical role Hobsbawm himself played in its development.

The lecture was titled ‘Europe’ but Professor Mazower crossed both the Mediterranean (reminding us that Eric Hobsbawm had once dreamt of doing graduate work on the Maghreb) and the Atlantic. But before then, Hobsbawm had “particularly deep, long-standing ties to France” at a time when “Paris managed to become a post-war dynamo of intellectual thought”. Struggling to move on from the war, France’s re-emergence on the world stage owed much to its internationalism. Using the 1950 International Congress of Historical Sciences – in which Hobsbawm participated – as an example, Professor Mazower further argued that although international collaborations of that particular kind were not an effective catalyst for postwar historical developments, the personal connections made in these venues proved much more durable and influential. He traced the creation of one such network: the Anglo-French AnnalesPast & Present collaborations that both informed and coincided with the expansion of academic history, and its first attempts to define global patterns of change through social and economic history. At the International Congress of Historical Sciences, Hobsbawm’s input – which included criticising Dutch historian Adolf Rüter for his ‘parochialism’ – shows both that he from an early stage saw the need for history to move away from a European viewpoint to a global scope; from a history of ideas to a history of economic developments; and from an individual perspective to that of groups and their relationships with others. Meanwhile, the exchange between Annales and Past & Present became a part of a web of Anglo-French academic connections, which were – in turn – critical for the internationalisation of this new approach to history. In short, international cooperation became both a research method and Hobsbawm’s personal practice, as he formed lasting friendships with members of the Annales School and beyond, including Ernest Labrousse and Pierre Vilar.

In the 1960s developments in France in the preceding decade (including Annales and the cultural diplomacy that brought funds to both École pratique des hautes études and École des hautes études en sciences sociales) began to be discussed on a greater scale in Britain. The École owed its prestige to its internationalist network, which broke down barriers to such an extent that “it is almost as though for them the Cold War didn’t exist,” Professor Mazower said. Meanwhile, Hobsbawm (who, Professor Mazower pointed out, had no interest in empire-building) and E.P. Thompson became fixtures at Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris, where they frequented a regular round-table seminar, sharing seats and discussions with Americans and other Europeans, with Hobsbawm in particular serving as a kind of intellectual broker.

“The Americans,” Professor Mazower said, “provided the money while the British provided the enthusiasm” for this new historiographical philosophy, which was followed by an “Anglo-French invasion of US academy” in the mid-1970s. It was at this time that the expansion of universities and the globalisation of the postcolonial world led to the setting out of a new course in history in which a cross-national views of the world became much more common.

By 1980, non-Europeanists were not as rare in history departments on both sides of the Atlantic as they had been; world history itself was a concept much less questioned than before. Critics claimed the drawbacks included a potential splintering of the humanities, with historians paying for depth with a lack of overview. Hobsbawm, however, welcomed the new path, arguing that it was a question of synthesis, not analysis. He “demonstrated triumphantly through his own work that the profession hadn’t lost its ability to speak to greater patterns,” Professor Mazower said. Pointing to “the works most associated with his name,” which were made during this period, he added that The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and The Age of Extremes make up “an extraordinary work of synthesis that is unlikely ever to be matched”. Through his work Hobsbawm demonstrated the power of synthesis in era of fragmentation, setting out how we can use new knowledge to breathe life into old histories. His passing, Professor Mazower concluded, “leaves us with an irreparable loss”.


Jan Rüger on ‘History after Hobsbawm’: Europe and the world

Jan Rüger, Reader in Modern History at Birkbeck, has a new article in the April issue of History Today:

maycover.back issueFor Hobsbawm there was never a question that British history had to be understood in a European as much as a global context. He explained this succinctly in an essay entitled ‘The Curious History of Europe’, which was first published in 1996. ‘Europe’, he wrote, was a ‘shifting, divisible and flexible concept’, not a clearly defined territory or homogenous political entity. The historian’s task was to explore Europe’s diversity – and Britain as part of that patchwork of different European pasts. In Hobsbawm’s writing this task went hand in hand with an understanding of imperialism and globalisation, both of which defined the 19th century. It was ‘impossible to sever European history from world history’. Britain’s past had to be understood in both contexts.


Read the whole piece here:


Hobsbawm Scholars Announced

We are very pleased to announce the first cohort of Hobsbawm scholars.

The Eric Hobsbawm Postgraduate Scholarships, named in memory of one of the greatest historians of the last century who, from 1947 until his death in 2012, was a loyal member of Birkbeck College.

The Scholarships have been set up to encourage the next generation of talented historians to pursue original, high-quality and exciting research in history by assisting financially with study and research costs.


MA Hobsbawm scholarships have been awarded to:

Paul Kelly, interest rates and economic rationality in the Roman Empire

David McGeehan, the experience of Algerian Jews in 20th century France

Jack Watling, Soviet foreign policy and civil-military relations


We have also made smaller awards to assist the following PhD students with research trips or conferences:

Fabio Antonini

Shaul Bar-Haim

Brian O’Sullivan

Barbara Warnock

Antonio Weiss


Well done to all of our MA and PhD students who have been successful in winning these awards, and and on behalf of the entire committee would like to thank all of those who applied.


The History of the Falklands After Hobsbawm

By Dr. Lucy Robinson, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Sussex. This post was first published on Observing the 80s.

At the end of April I’m going to be presenting at the History After Hobsbawm Conference as part of a panel on Marxist and post-Marxist social history.  Fittingly, I will be presenting a collaborative collective project on protest Political Protest and the Police: Young People in Brighton  that I produced with Tom Akehurst and Louise Purbrick. We produced the report in response to what we had witnessed at the demonstrations in defence of further and higher education in 2011.  There are clear echoes around debates about policing and protest in the 1980s and in more recent years. But there are also some methodological implications about what it means to record a movement from within, (or from very very close to the edge at least). One of the key issues raised by the protest project for me as an activist academic was to explore how traditional socialist history could fit in what seems to be a political world beyond the organised Left?  What are the lines of difference and development between activist historians now, and the forefathers of radical history? So much of the contemporary history project has been informed by earlier generations of Marxist academics who worked through the political possibilities of academic engagement with the traditional organised working class.  But politically engaged contemporary history today also embraces the complexity of taking individual identities, personal experience and testimony seriously, that might be more of a fit with present day forms of resistance around Occupy and lifestyle politics.

Working up to preparing for the conference (the other side of marking) whilst marking this term’s research proposals for 1984: Thatcher’s Britain made me wonder if I could pin down Hobsbawm’s contribution to Observing the 80s.

Eric Hobsbawm’s article ‘Falklands Fallout’ published in Marxism Today in January 1983 is one of the sources that was explicitly critical of the Falklands War at the time.

Gotcha - Falklands WarIn Falklands Fallout Hobsbawm argues that the Falklands had been talked about more than any other recent issue, demonstrating that more people had ‘lost their marbles’ over the war than over anything else. In the absence of many personal lived connections between people on the mainland UK and the Falklands, people were incorporating the islands into their own narratives and concerns; around the nation, around memory and around the Left. One of the benefits of combining the different types of evidence in Observing the 80s is that we get to bring together lots of different types of talking about the war, that move between public discourse and personal exerience and engage with the cracks around mainstream political debate, so alongside Diana Gould and Tam Dalyell’s challenges to the legality of the sinking of the Belgrano, students explore the role of anarcho-punk as a form of anti war discourse, and of the use of the conflict by activist groups like the Socialist SocietyRevolutionary Communist Party to create poles of debate, at least between each other.  The life history evidence suggests more negotiated positions on the war, relatives of combatants challenge the price paid for the victory and the failures of the public to comprehend the importance of commemoration of the fallen, whilst maintaining the importance of military defence of the islands.  Combatants themselves are critical of the politicians’ role in the war, and to some extent of the command decisions and power hierarchies, particular over equipment and communication. Whereas MOP respondents outlined different layers of analysis and evaluation. Some doubted the necessity and financial cost of maintaining the islands, others outlined the emotional politics of war describing feelings of ‘helplessness and incomprehension.’

For Hobsbawm, these narratives of past and present, however contradictory, in the form of ‘patriotism and jingoism’ could be used in Thatcher’s favour. The Observing the 80s collection suggests that experiences also encouraged people to question that narrative too.

Bursaries for PhD and Early Career Academics

A major international conference, with plenary speakers and large parallel sessions, exploring where the study of history is heading and what it means to be an historian in the twenty-first century. Keynote speakers will include Mark Mazower (Columbia), Catherine Hall (UCL), Gareth Stedman Jones (Queen Mary), Chris Wickham (Oxford), Maxine Berg (Warwick), Rana Mitter (Oxford) and Geoff Eley (Michigan). The conference is organised by Birkbeck, University of London, where Eric Hobsbawm taught most of his life, and by Past & Present, which he co-founded. It will be held with the support and assistance of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, and the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities.

Thanks to the generosity of the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy, Birkbeck, we are pleased to be able to offer a further thirty PhD and early career bursaries as reductions to the conference fee. These will be available via the conference registration website from 21 March 2014 on a first-come-first-served basis to current postgraduate students and early career academics (within three years of their doctorate). Please visit for more details.

History after Hobsbawm: conference announcement

A conference on the current trajectories of history, 29 April to 1 May 2014, at Senate House, London.


A major international conference, with plenary speakers and large parallel sessions, exploring where the study of history is currently heading. The conference draws inspiration from the capacious legacy of the late Eric Hobsbawm, but is not a memorial event. We aim, rather, to bring together discussion about what we are currently doing as socially-committed historians, where we are headed, and what it means to be an historian in the twenty-first century.

Please download a copy of the draft programme here.

The hashtag for the conference is #afterhobsbawm.

To register, visit

Please note that the conference fee includes refreshments, lunches, and a drinks reception, but does NOT include accommodation which you will need to arrange separately.

A list of hotels and directions can be found here.

Plenary Session Speakers

Mark Mazower (Columbia)
Gareth Stedman Jones (Queen Mary)
Catherine Hall (UCL)
Chris Wickham (Oxford)
Maxine Berg (Warwick)
Rana Mitter (Oxford)
Geoff Eley (Michigan)



Emma Rothschild (Harvard/Cambridge)
Prasannan Parthasarathi (Boston)
Donald Sassoon (Queen Mary)
Frank Trentmann (Birkbeck)

Frameworks of historical explanation
Peter Burke (Cambridge)
Joanna Innes (Oxford)
Renaud Morieux (Cambridge)
Filippo de Vivo (Birkbeck)

The Crisis of the 17th Century
Sanjay Subrahmanyam (UCLA)
Geoffrey Parker (Ohio State)
John Elliott (Oxford)
Mike Braddick (Sheffield)

Protest and Rebels in Modern Times
Lucy Riall (EUI/Birkbeck)
François Jarrige (Bourgogne)
Steve Smith (Oxford)
Ilaria Favretto (Kingston)

Britain, Empire, Europe
Antoinette Burton (Illinois)
Maya Jasanoff (Harvard)
Jan Rüger (Birkbeck)

What happened to class?
John Tosh (Roehampton)
Sonya Rose (Michigan/Birkbeck)
Marjorie Levine-Clark (Colorado)
Sean Brady (Birkbeck)

Global environmental history
Harriet Ritvo (MIT)
Paul Warde (UEA)
Christof Mauch (Munich)
Sunil Amrith (Birkbeck)

Latin America
Alan Knight (Oxford)
Paulo Drinot (UCL)
Joan Martinez Alier (ICTA, Barcelona)

Marxist and post-Marxist social history
Andy Wood (Durham)
Jane Whittle (Exeter)
Lucy Robinson (Sussex)

Stefan Berger (Bochum)
Bill Schwarz (Queen Mary)
John Breuilly (LSE)

Further details will be available closer to the conference dates.

The conference is organised by Birkbeck, University of London, where Eric Hobsbawm taught most of his life, and by Past & Present, which he co-founded. We are grateful for the support offered by the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities and the Institute of Historical Research.