History Carnival 145: Elections, Bodies, Wars

I’ve been saying for a while now that academic life has spilled over into the digital arena. Blogging and social media seem to me like a conference that never ends. We prepare and share new research findings and insights on blogs, while twitter serves as a forum for further discussion. Old wine in new bottles, perhaps. But it also makes it easier than ever for the reading and writing of history to be democratised and opened up – and for the readers and writers of history to be connected from every corner of the globe.* It’s a great platform for a huge amount of the great history writing out there. So I’m thrilled to be hosting the latest edition of the History Carnival – a round-up of some of the best from the past month.

The UK General Election has been prompting some interesting political history musings, following programmes on radio (you can listen to Steve Richards’ BBC Radio 4 documentary drawing parallels between today and the two general elections of 1974 here) and TV (Matthew Cooper wrote a good review of Channel 4’s documentary on the 1964 “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” election battle in Smethwick). And historian-bloggers have been getting in on the action.

In a series of election-related posts at History Workshop OnlineAndrew Perchard puts the startling rise of the Scottish Nationalists in the historical context of deindustrialisation. He suggests “it is not so much that the SNP have appropriated Scottish Labour’s language but that they have better understood the national narrative”. It might be worth carrying over this idea to Roger Scully’s post on Labour in Wales, looking at the party’s historic levels of support. These, he says, have been falling away, despite the lack of a strong challenger in the vein of the SNP, or any sudden shock like that produced by the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Which leads us nicely onto the conclusion of our Celtic trio. Until that referendum, “the Union hadn’t really mattered in British politics for exactly one hundred years” suggests Dan Jackson, offering some interesting stories from the politics of the Ulster question in 1914.

Race and immigration have come to the fore in this election like no other in recent years. The parallels with the 1970s and 1980s have been of particular interest to my students lately, as they’ve opted for assignments looking at the National Front, the fallout from Eric Clapton’s support for Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher’s comments on fears of being swamped. All of which added to a sense of growing tensions at the time, which fits nicely with Evan Smith’s discussion of the Brixton Riots, 34 years on – sharing with us something he’s working on for his forthcoming book on the Communist Party of Great Britain and anti-racism. There is another side to race relations and the right, however. It was the double defeat in 1974 that, as Matthew Francis shows, prompted the Tories to be the first party to really take the black and minority ethnic vote seriously.

Over at the Municipal Dreams blog, it’s the election issue of housing that gets some historical perspective. Looking at the first council housing in Plymouth following the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act, we find “an unusually successful attempt to rehouse an inner-city slum population in Corporation housing”, yet one that was not repeated as financial short-termism won the day. It’s especially good to be able include this blog, which (in keeping with the History Carnival ethos) shows that in-depth, well-researched history blogging is not reserved for professional academics. That said, I did enjoy Prof Glen O’Hara’s use of both history and policy analysis to demolish the nonsense that is the Conservative policy of extending ‘right-to-buy’ to housing associations.

There are plenty of parallels to today in Alun Wyburn’s nuggets of twentieth-century election history, not least the Tories’ 1929 ‘Safety First’ election campaign. But eyes have also been cast further back. Katrina Navickas notes that the complaint over stage-managed electioneering, with real people excluded, is nothing new – she takes us back to Manchester 1831. Still further back, Simon Payling suggests the cherished notion of “electoral independence” from the Tudor Crown “existed only in its denial” in the larger boroughs. Smaller, newer boroughs often had trouble finding high-status candidates locally, meaning ‘nominations’ from outside were often royal servants. And Elaine Chalus tells the remarkable story of political battling in late eighteenth-century Horsham. At the crux of which is a clash between two widows. Frances, Lady Irwin, was a powerful political figure, going to extraordinary lengths to uphold her family’s political influence. The same was true for Elizabeth Bridger, whose modest property was the basis of that political influence before electoral reform, and which she could have sold for a hefty sum. Both passed on their family’s political interest, not to a son, but a daughter.

Alexander Lock has been looking at another figure of eighteenth-century politics, John Wilkes, and his association with Magna Carta. This saw a shift, he says, whereby “a peace treaty between the king and the barons was now being used to challenge the very authority of Parliament and the government, on the path to securing greater liberties for the population at large”. This is one of a series of blog posts tying in with the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty and Legacy exhibition. But calls for it to have a central place in teaching history in schools have not received unqualified welcome. Marcus Morris discusses the celebration and scepticism amongst socialists in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, suggesting its significance is ultimately symbolic. And Charles West recommends five other texts that provide a fuller view of medieval liberty – and bring us back to questions relating to the EU and the SNP today.

Themes of body and mind have prompted some fascinating blogging this past month. Claire Hayward recounts the joy of unintentionally stumbling upon a great museum – this one marking the life and legacy of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a pioneer of women’s doctoring. Meanwhile, there’s been quite a bit attention for the Wellcome Collection’s current Institute of Sexology exhibition. Rebecca Saunders appreciated both the importance of sexology’s clash of uncovering and constructing sexualities, and the exhibition’s ability to bring together an audience of teenagers and troupes of old ladies with kissing couples and even “one woman in a leather onesie and bunny ears”. Heike Bauer celebrated its absurd humour and feminist framing of critical sexuality. By contrast, Heather Brunskell-Evans found the story presented, of “sexology’s heroic struggle for the objective study of human sexuality and the quest for sexual freedom”, troublingly male and Freudian. Alongside the exhibition there’s also been a sexology song-writing project, about which Lucy Robinson has blogged, exploring some unexpected questions about authenticity.

Daphna Oren-Magidor shares some insights from the book she’s currently writing, digging deeper into the stigmas attached to the common early-modern notion that a woman’s infertility could be cured by adultery. Beyond the obvious relationship to gender identities, she finds some surprising resonance with the wider religious and royal politics of the Stuart age. Gillian Frank has also been looking at sexuality and marriage, but as presented in Marabel Morgan’s 1980 Total Woman Cookbook. This born-again US Southern Baptist “imagined cooking not as a domestic chore, but a form of foreplay and a means of seduction” – a highly eroticised approach to shoring up the institution of marriage. Meanwhile, food features as a metaphor in Jeanne de Montbaston’s post, with women described as ripe and rotten going back to Chaucer.

You’ll get a very different take on the history of food from Mark Hailwood’s in-depth 3-part series, using it to survey the theory historians ought to know. “The history of drinking, for instance, might just seem like a series of amusing anecdotes” but, he insists, “really it is all about how we interpret the instances of eating and drinking that we find in the archives, how we use them to tell stories about the societies and cultures that they take place in”. His three posts cover theories broadly rooted in anthropology, sociology and literary criticism. It’s no surprise to find something so ambitious and thought-provoking on the excellent early-modern many-headed monster blog.

Moving to the mind, Marjory Harper has been looking at the nineteenth-century “phenomenon of the dysfunctional diaspora, notably the perceived relationship between intercontinental migration and insanity across the British world”. She explains where two upcoming symposia (in Canada and Scotland) and a host of intriguing sources will fit in her new project on this fascinating topic.

As usual there’s been some great blogging around the histories of war. At The Conversation they’ve adopted an expansive remit to the centenary of Gallipoli, posting a series of Australian-focused essays reflecting on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. It’s the often overlooked impact of the First World War in East Africa that Daniel Steinbach has been talking to the British Council about. While Charlotte Bill has been blogging about the suffragists-turned-peace-campaigners who founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She writes about the volunteer research project and documentary on the subject, which you can see in her blog post at the Imperial and Global Forum. And, over at the History of Parliament blog, Kathryn Rix has added the second and third to her series of posts on British MPs who died fighting in the First World War. April 1915 saw the death of William Glynne Charles Gladstone, the grandson of the late Prime Minister, and 29 year-old MP for the Kilmarnock Burghs, only a matter of days after arriving in France. His body was exhumed and returned for burial with his family, and this prompted a ban on repatriations thereafter to ensure equality in death.

Daryl Leeworthy draws our attention to the remarkable international cultural purchase Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Valley enjoyed during the Second World War. The Welsh setting spoke to the complex relationship between place and the universalities of wartime experience. This is also nicely explored by Andrew Smith, who considers two maps – of Paris and of London during the war, placing them alongside political narratives of solidarity and self-reliance to interrogate the nested identities of popular wartime national mythologies.

Jumping back to a much earlier conflict, Casey Schmitt has been investigating Caribbean race relations through the sources created in Oliver Cromwell’s ill-fated “Western Design”, seeking to establish a staging post for an assault on the Spanish in the Americas. A word of warning from the author to those using his account in the future made him question his reading the narrative against the grain. What he’d missed was the fighting, the fear and the death: “Somehow, I’d overlooked a part of the narrative where Captain Tinoco described the dead bodies surrounding the city walls, which he explained, ‘to count them was impossible, because they stunk, and because they were heaped up on each other in piles of 40 and 50 corpses’.”

Anyhow, there are loads more out there but these three themes in particular stood out to me this past month. The one exception I’ll make, because it made me laugh, is Jennifer Bishop’s blog post on the BBC’s new Wolf Hall sequel, Poldark. In this case, it is worth reading the comments.

My apologies to those who wrote or suggested blogs that didn’t quite fit. Please do add further recommendations in the comments below, or better still host one month yourself. Next up, we’ll be hopping across the pond, where our hosts will be NiCHE: the Network in Canadian History & Environment (or Nouvelle initiative canadienne en histoire de l’environnement). For now, happy reading.

Globes don’t have corners.

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