My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
I spent a couple of days in London at the end of last week. Socks for the Boys! was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for an unpublished first-time biography and I was invited to the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner at the Liberal Club in Whitehall Place (very posh, as my great aunts would say, the ‘o’ pronounced as in ‘post’). I was really delighted to be shortlisted; to see Norah take her place amongst the royals and assorted aristocrats, the Bloomsbury-ites and Romantics of previous shortlists, was very very satisfying. One of the judges, Lara Feigel, praised the ‘wonderful immediacy’ of Norah’s diary entries and read the ‘Lovely among the boys’ sequence from September 1938. (You can see the full shortlist – and indeed the winner, Polly Clark, who is doing creative things at the interface of history, memoir and biography – here).
I also used the opportunity of this trip to do some research, catch up with friends and see a couple of exhibitions. The first of these was ‘Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960’ at the National Portrait Gallery. I had been looking forward to this for some time. I first encountered Morris on Stephen Yeo’s ‘Labour Movements’ course as a second year history student at Sussex University in 1986, for which I read E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (although it is probably fair to say that Thompson’s famous ‘1976 Postscript’ was as much our focus as Morris himself). Most recently, I have become reacquainted with Morris through writing a history walk based on the life of Edward Carpenter, the Sheffield socialist and early gay liberationist (and much else besides). Morris spoke on the London Riots at the Sheffield Hall of Science in 1886 (the site of which forms the first stopping-off point on my walk). His aim was to form a branch of the Socialist League in the town. Sheffield being Sheffield, however, well used to independence and notoriously resistant to elite ‘interference’ of any kind, formed its own Sheffield Socialist Society instead. Carpenter and his lover George Hukin were both members. On another occasion, Morris spoke at the Commonwealth Cafe on Scotland Street that Carpenter ran briefly in the mid-1880s. Other visitors included birth control campaigner Annie Besant, anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Charlotte Wilson, sexologist Havelock Ellis and trade unionist Tom Maguire.
Morris also features in Carpenter’s Chants of Labour (and is prominent in Oscar Wilde’s review of the little book).
So: I knew a bit about Morris: his politics, the value he accorded to the well-made and the hand-crafted over cheap mass produced articles, the belief in the Dignity of Labour that he shared with Carpenter. I knew a little bit about Red House and his circle, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and others. I expected all of these to feature in the exhibition. And they do, very prominently.
But there is a gaping absence. For an exhibition purporting to be concerned with ‘art for the people’, there is no exploration of what this might actually mean. Morris was inspired by crafts and folk art, but which crafts, which folk art? What about Morris’s romanticism, his nostalgia? Was his art ‘of’ or ‘for’ the people? How did working people – early socialists especially – respond to his belief that art and beauty should be an intrinsic part of the new moral world? I’m no expert here but I know that these issues preoccupied Robert Blatchford in his Clarion newspaper. And I am reliably informed (by my friend Ingrid Hanson, Morris scholar and author of this book) that there were endless discussions on these themes in socialist periodicals in the 1890s and early 1900s.
But while Walter Crane features in the exhibition, there is no Blatchford, no Clarion, no Orage or The New Age and precious little about the cultural activities of the ILP. There are some lovely images of trade union banners, but which way did the inspiration work here? How much were these inspired by Chartist banners, say, of the 1830s and 1840s? The architect Raymond Unwin appears a few times, but in the context of Welwyn Garden City rather than the Arts and Crafts-inspired council housing that went up in north Sheffield (and elsewhere) in the early C20th (see here for a blog post about Sheffield’s Flower Estate by the wonderful Municipal Dreams). Among the elegant furniture, sumptuous textiles and gorgeous tapestries, wallpaper, stained glass and more, there is very little about ordinary homes. And what about the women? Morris’s daughter, May Morris, designer and founder of the Women’s Guild of Arts in 1907, features in the exhibition, but I came away none the wiser about Jane, his wife, who with her sister Bessie, was a talented embroiderer; we just learn that she was from a working-class background and a muse for Rossetti, with whom she was romantically engaged.
Indeed, rather than explore any of these themes, the exhibition skips through the first half of the C20th, looking at a whole host of artists and designers, mostly of independent means, ending with the Festival of Britain and Terence Conran. Now this ‘legacy’ may well be true. I may be wrong to find it a little bit tenuous. But I don’t think I am wrong to feel disappointed with the exhibition as a whole. It might have been about ‘networks, connections and influences’ but for me, it was same old, same old. Same elite London coterie. Same elite audience in mind. What a missed opportunity.
The following day, after a respectable spell in the library, I traipsed the breadth of the city (I love walking in London, even in the drizzle) to Rivington Place in Shoreditch to see Black Chronicles II. This exhibition of studio portraiture was curated by Autograph ABP, a group researching and writing Britain’s black photographic history. Again, I’d read about this in a Guardian review. As I don’t know anything about the history of photography, I wondered if I would be able to appreciate the significance of the portraits, beyond the knowledge that such an exhibition is long over due.
In fact, I was totally blown away. Two rooms of perhaps 200 photographs of black people in Britain spanning mid-C19th to the 1930s. The centrepiece, a collection of the most beautiful, luminous, elegant portraits of members of an African choir who visited London in the early 1890s. At some point on their tour – which included singing for Queen Victoria – the singers had their portraits taken by the London Stereoscopic Company.
Two children, Albert Jonas and John Xiniwe, formed part of the group and there are some delightful photos of them playing around in front of (and with) the camera.
In a second upstairs room: smaller photographs of black men and women – missionaries, sportsmen, servants, performers, dignitaries and more, many of them unidentified.
The exhibition was dedicated to Stuart Hall (1932-2014), arguably the greatest cultural theorist of the second half of the C20th. It was framed by text and audio from a lecture on race and representation, archives and cultural memory, given by Hall at Rivington Place in 2008 and delivered in his usual style: profound yet accessible, scholarly yet humorous and biographical. “They are here because you were there”, Hall argues. “There is an umbilical connection. There is no understanding Englishness without understanding its imperial and colonial dimensions.” (Stuart Hall, 2008). It is a beautiful, moving, thought-provoking collection. I found myself thinking that after it closes in Rivington Place this weekend, a suitable next port-of-call would be the National Portrait Gallery.
I haven’t got any profound conclusions to make about people’s history. Just that while I continue to be delighted that Norah can hold her own among the great and the good of past Tony Lothian Prize shortlisted subjects, it still seems such a struggle to represent anyone other than the metropolitan elite. This is not just a question of why it has taken all these years for there to be an exhibition of photographs of black people in Britain, or how working people can be so casually absent from ‘Anarchy and Beauty’. There are other things too. Maxine Peake’s fund-raising efforts for the Working-Class Movements Library in Salford, for example. The knowedge that that Library and the Peoples’ History Museum are both under threat. And Kate Clanchy’s appallingly snooty dismissal of the apparently less-than-interesting characters in Alison Light’s rich and thought-provoking memoir, Common People; the ‘tribe of cricket players, saddlers, postmen and publicans’ who ‘had the good fortune to be hardly interesting at all.’ She wishes that Light had used her ‘rare gifts’ differently, leaving family history ‘to the dabblers’, and composing instead ‘a literary and cultural history of the workhouse’, keeping under wraps her own ‘personal passion’ (for working-class history, presumably) and writing instead for an audience of poets and Guardian readers. (And indeed, if snobby Guardian reviews are your speciality, see another one, right here.)
I have struggled with ending this post. All manner of doubts have crept in. Did I miss something at Anarchy and Beauty? A whole installation, perhaps, tucked away around a corner, about Morris and the working class? And my anger at snotty Guardian reviews of books about ordinary lives. Isn’t that just another manifestation of my chippiness?
And then this weekend I attended a memorial event in London for Stuart Hall. Over the decades, at university and beyond, I have read (and heard) and been astonished and inspired by Hall’s cultural and political analyses. His writing on heritage, culture and race is essential reading on the modules I teach. Until my visit to Rivington Place, however, I had been only vaguely aware of his two decades’ worth of work in the Arts.
It felt a huge privilege to be able to listen to the wonderful, heartfelt tributes. Hall’s energetic political commitment, his contributions to New Left Review and Marxism Today. His life as an inspirational teacher, not only at Birmingham CCCS and at the Open University, but in all manner of contexts, formal and informal. His remarkable independent thinking; his profound engagement with movements and ideas while never being captured by any of them. His ability to discuss complex issues of race and identity in the most accessible of ways. Stuart Hall, the diasporic Jamaican, whose own private yearning was expressed only by Miles Davies’ trumpet. His understanding of the public world: how hard it is to forge a place there, to insist on being represented on your own terms. And his kindness, generosity and capacity for bringing out the best in people, inspiring them to do their very best work (and their own work, note, not his). In the midst of all this, I thought again about Norah’s diaries and mainstream biography, William Morris and the National Portrait Gallery, about Rivington Place and the African Choir, and saw anew the struggle for representation that is at the heart of what we do.
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