Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Strange Death of Liberal England Revisited and Revamped

'Such is the brief opening scene of a political tragi-comedy. And since dramatic irony consists of the audience's knowing what the actor does not know, it is at least an ironical scene. History unfortunately has decreed that the rest of the play should be somewhat wanting in nobility and balance; that is it should be hysterical, violent, and inconclusive: a mere fragment of the play, with the last act unwritten.'

Is this Britain after the Brexit vote? Or perhaps this is a wry comment on the precariously ambiguous and vanishing mandate of the new Conservative government elected in June 2017. No, this comes from a judgement about Britain's dangerously volatile political scene just prior to the First World War. It comes from George Dangerfield's Strange Death of Liberal England and I was reminded of this text when I suddenly confronted an old American copy of this book in my local Oxfam bookshop. 

It is a demonstration that how we react to history texts can really be shaped by the context in which we read them! I first encountered the lyrical and winding prose of Dangerfield in the autumn of 1980 when I was a first year history undergraduate. Reading this next to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen's The River and The Clash's London Calling was incongruous and perhaps showed me how much had changed in a whole range of ways. But the killer impression this experience had on me was realising I was reading this during the first stages of the Thatcher revolution. From every pore of her government the desire to sweep away the cobwebs of the past was evident. Britain, so this narrative argued, had been irreparably damaged by the actions of complacent and old fashioned men schooled in the ideas and sentiments of a thoroughly liberal past. These evil men, so the Thatcher Revolution argued, should be discredited and held to account for the damage they did and for the havoc they wreaked. But actually so many of us in my small seminar group were still obvious products of the dying remnants of the consensus that had been an important part of the 20th century. Some of us even deployed regret in noting its passing. Many of us were exactly the right age to have had parents who had been involved in the War. Even then it seemed crucial that Mrs Thatcher was the first Prime Minister who really did not understand the War's impact upon people and political culture.

So all this meant that Dangerfield's book and its analysis was remote and bewildering. The ‘death’ described happened long ago and Thatcher's Britain really did seem to be the greedy predator feasting on the carrion left behind. Dangerfield painted a fragile Britain outflanked by the uncertainties surrounding it and the growing number of enemies from without and within that it was helpless to combat. In contrast Thatcher's Britain, at least to start with, just seemed to carry all before it and was capable of vanquishing anything that lay in its path. The apogee of this was reached with victory in the Falklands which harked back to a time I was only just starting to read about professionally, but one which my generation had been told was irretrievably past. Anachronism could be reborn in our lifetime if you could recapture Churchillian rhetoric, if only for a moment.

But fast forward thirty seven years and encountering Strange Death once again invokes entirely different thoughts. The Britain of today is a thoroughly different place in which to read this enthralling work and it just gets still more enthralling when its story is used to think about contemporary events. Dangerfield described Liberalism as an out of date ideology that became an overbearing burden to carry around. Moreover, its tacit acceptance meant it was thus capable of inspiring discontent on the grand scale. For this read the modern Conservative Party which chose to wash its dirty linen in public in what has proved to be supremely damaging to its sense of coherence. Many believe this act risked destroying the country merely to save a tired ideology. Some of the cultural assumptions of free market capitalism are also being questioned in everything from complaints about corporate tax avoidance to what goes in our food and our building materials. For the various foreign policy problems faced by Liberalism on the eve of the First World War read the looming leap in the dark of Brexit negotiations and their multiple potential outcomes. Ulster said NO in 1912 and its politics have similarly ground to a halt in a fashion that creates headaches for Westminster. Ulster is even now in a position to demand YES from an embattled and beleaguered Conservative government. This text, The Strange Death of Liberal England is now alive and real in a way that it simply was not 37 years ago. The question is does a new Dangerfield wait in the wings to write lyrically and enthrallingly about our own time?

Professor David Nash who works on blasphemy, history of shame, blame and culpability, links between religion and crime, history of secularisation, history of radicalism and the affinities all these have with cultural history.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Telling stories with the Census

I’m a quantitative historian. I like to know that I have a good stack of evidence to support the things that I say. My graduate students frequently have to endure scrawls of ‘is this representative????’ when they cite a particular individual, or a nice vignette, but I think it’s really important to know whether the stories that catch our attention in the archives were interesting one-offs, or a common experience.

But on the other hand, all of my research is focused on everyday lives of everyday people, and I very much do want to know what my numbers might have meant in terms of lived experiences. That’s the fun part of quantitative history: putting the ‘real life’ back in again. Of course it’s also its biggest challenge as numerical sources don’t often contain personal reflections, and we can’t assume that people in the past felt the same about any given circumstance as we do today.

It’s an approach I’ve used fruitfully since my PhD study of healthcare and survivorship among abandoned babies in eighteenth-century Europe. I spent a lot of time doing what was probably the most technical statistical work I’ve ever done (thanks to the expertise at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, where I was based), working out what factors made it likely that some ‘foundlings’ made it through childhood, while others (very many of them, sadly), did not. However, once the analysis was complete, I felt it was important to return to what that might have meant for all those babies and young children, for the mothers who in all likelihood would never see them again, and for the institutional officials who looked after them (a telling note in a committee minute mentioned the problems that went with large numbers of four- and five-year olds returning from placements with country wet-nurses and never having encountered stairs before!). Some of this came from records like letters and minutes, but a lot of it is about simply thinking in more personal terms about the bald data generated for survival or regression analysis.

I’ve spent my summer busily interrogating another source that lends itself well to large-scale analysis: the British census. These have been taken every ten years in one form another (world wars excepted) since 1801, and I’m using the one recorded in 1851. Of course, many people use the census precisely to help them tell very personal stories about their own families. I’m doing something slightly different:  I’m using it to reconstruct the households of Jews in several growing cities, in order to examine how a self-bounded and highly mobile population arranged itself in a time of huge economic and social change.  In total, my database contains over 3500 individuals, arranged in 853 households across seven towns. It’s allowed me to examine whether Jews lived with family beyond the basic parents-and-children core; whether they employed Jewish servants (rarely – possibly because Jews didn’t work as servants very often); whether Jewish lodgers boarded with co-religionists, and whether they clustered together in the same parts of town.

But, as ever, the bigger-picture perspective, with individuals bundled into statistical categories and variables, does also allow me to draw out something of what that might have meant in terms of family relationships. While many families and individuals lived without other relatives in their house or even the town, others were well connected. Jacob and Juliana Myers, for instance, who were living at 2 Bordesley Street in Birmingham in 1851, had a wide range of relatives on Juliana’s side of the family nearby (Jacob, like 40 per cent of my database, was born abroad, in Strasbourg, and does not seem to have had other relatives in Britain in 1851). Juliana, in contrast was a Brummie born and bred, and all seven of her siblings were also resident in the town in 1851. Her brother Isaac shared a home with their widowed mother, while siblings John, Emma and Henry lived together in a separate house. Being close by didn’t mean that family members necessarily saw or helped each other, of course, but Jacob and Juliana’s three year old daughter Sarah was staying in her grandmother’s house on census night, which certainly suggests that there were close and useful bonds at work. Information on birthplaces shows us that this was not a family who stayed put all their lives though – the Myers’ six children had been born on the south coast, variously in Lymington and Portsmouth. They were to remain physically close though: their son Joseph was living either next door to, or opposite, his widowed mother in the 1881 census.

We see another little glimpse of these sorts of family relationships in the household of the Simons family, also living in Birmingham in 1851, this time in Cleve Terrace. Here, the parents were actually absent on census night, leaving four children aged between 14 and 2 in the care of their grandfather, 76 year old Nathan Aaron. If only we knew a little more about what that experience was like! I have a similar yen to know more about the living arrangements of the 24 employees of Benjamin Hyam, a Jewish clothing manufacturer in Manchester, male and female, Jewish and non-Jewish, who all shared a residence at 35 Pall Mall. The house next door contained a similar mix of workers, enlivened by the presence of two prostitutes. Benjamin himself lived in Salford, with his wife, three daughters, two sons, a niece, and that rare addition: a Jewish employee, acting as a governess.

There is a limit to the details we can add back in to the census data without the sorts of personal reflections and diaries which become more common over time. However, my current project is showing that the household is a very fruitful level of analysis when it comes to combining numbers with stories. As I continue, adding in charity records and more sophisticated mapping techniques, I hope to be able to reveal much more about how the Jews of the mid-nineteenth century lived, intermingled, and assisted one another.

Dr Alysa Levene, Reader in History.

Note: the British censuses did not record individuals’ religions until 2011. The identification of Jews within the 1851 census has been carried out by a team of researchers and combined into a searchable database curated by Petra Laidlaw. It can be found at The note on the Myers family in 1881 is taken from there. My work enriches these data by returning to the census to recreate whole households, including non-Jewish members, and building in new measures of relatedness, geography and community ties.

This image is the Perkoff Family from the collection of the Jewish Museum London

Friday, 4 August 2017

Air: an Exhibition and a Symposium

Air: an Exhibition and a Symposium

Exhibition: ‘Air: Visualising the Invisible in British Art, 1768-2017’, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 16 June – 3 September 2017

Symposium: ‘Breath, Flight and Atmosphere: The Theme of Air in British Culture’, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, 26 June 2017

At first sight, the theme of ‘Air’ might not seem very promising for an exhibition.  Rather nebulous, airy-fairy, you might think. But the show I have recently co-curated at Bristol has proved to be immensely satisfying, bringing out important interlinked themes in historic British art as well as tapping into the current preoccupations of many contemporary artists.

The idea for the show began as a sequel to The Power of the Sea, an exhibition that I co-curated at the RWA with the artist Janette Kerr in 2014. Once again, I worked with an artist, Stephen Jacobson, and with Gemma Brace, the Head of Programmes and Exhibition Curator at the RWA. I was responsible for the historic section.

A wish-list of possible exhibits was rapidly drawn up: sky studies by Turner and Constable, Millais’s notorious Bubbles, paintings of air balloons, musical instruments, windy days at the seaside, polluted urban landscapes, aerial activity in the two world wars – all provided different ways of approaching the central theme.

Top of our list, however, was Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768). This is a large and very important painting, which normally hangs in the same room as Turner’s Fighting Temeraire and Constable’s Hay Wain in the National Gallery.  We were all thrilled when the National Gallery agreed to lend.  I was especially pleased as my colleague at Brookes, Matthew Craske, is writing a major book on the artist, and he was able to contribute an essay on the painting to the catalogue.

Conservators from the National Gallery hanging Joseph Wright’s Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

The contemporary section included a pair of lungs in glass, by Annie Cattrell, the artist who made the installation, Resounding, that hangs above the Forum in the John Henry Brookes Building. Themes of the fragility of breath and the dangers of atmospheric pollution were prominent in the contemporary section. Coincidentally, the opening of the exhibition coincided with the first national Clean Air Day.

Annie Cattrell, Capacity (2007), borosilicate glass made by human breath to form the intricate structure of human lungs

A week after the exhibition opened, we held a Symposium on the theme of ‘Breath, Flight and Atmosphere’. The speakers included the artist Polly Gould, whose delicate glass globes, based on her research on the watercolourist Edward Wilson, were in the exhibition, two literary scholars, Erin Lafford and Elsa Hammond, and a Brookes alumnus and independent art historian, Jan Cox. 

Polly Gould’s Observation Hill, Anamorphic Landscape Series (2012), with Jemma Grundon’s series of cloud images, Mono no Aware, behind

Subjects ranged from the underfunding of research into Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to the responsibility of artists and art institutions to take action on climate change. Along the way, we heard about the discovery of carbon dioxide, the war paintings of C. R. W. Nevinson and Paul Nash, the poetry of William Cowper and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It was a day of lively debate and stimulating exchanges.

The next element to be explored is ‘Fire’ – tentatively scheduled for the late 2019/early 2020.

The catalogue for ‘Air’ is for sale from Sansom and Company, price £25.

Christiana Payne

Friday, 28 July 2017

“Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society” – International Research Symposium, 29-30 June 2017

Academics of eleven different nationalities gathered for a symposium to address the historical links between alcohol, psychiatry and society (Convened by Professor Waltraud Ernst, Oxford Brookes University, and Professor Thomas Mueller, University of Ulm/Centre for Psychiatry, Suedwuerttemberg Ravensburg). We learned that definitions of excessive drinking, drunkenness, alcoholism, and addiction varied across national contexts and that what was an acceptable – or even desirable – level of drinking in one culture, was considered problematic in another.  Alcohol could be a sign of civilisation or individual status; it could be perceived as a medical treatment as well as a poison; and as a source of tax revenue or mental degeneration.

The symposium took us from the “gin craze” of eighteenth-century London to the streets of fin-de-siècle Paris, where drunk horses, dogs and cats made public nuisances of themselves, and onto post-war Japan, where a drinking culture developed despite the inability of the Japanese to metabolise alcohol effectively. The complexities of alcohol in the colonial settings of Algeria and Nigeria were addressed, as were the deliberations of early twentieth- century Greek psychiatrists who were divided between those who condemned alcohol for its adverse effects on health and those who recognised its value to the Greek economy.  We heard about drunk Irish asylum nurses in the nineteenth century and the use of alcohol to build up the strength of women suffering from puerperal insanity. A variety of approaches to the treatment of alcoholism were discussed, from the administration of LSD to work therapy and self-help groups.

French psychiatrists, who recognised the link between “lunacy” and “inebriety” in the late nineteenth century, propagated the belief that alcoholism was inheritable and would ultimately lead to the degeneration of society, thus fuelling anxiety about mental and physical degeneration across the continent. By the end of the century even moderate drinking was frowned upon by the German state. In the USSR and communist Czechoslovakia, alcohol was believed to compromise a citizen’s ability to work and to threaten productivity.

The papers highlighted the influence of transnational networks in terms of responses to the social and individual problems caused by alcoholism, but they also revealed that alcohol can be perceived very differently in different national contexts and cultures. 

Jane Freebody, cand. PhD, Department of History, Philosophy and Religion, Oxford Brookes University

Thursday, 13 July 2017

‘The Man without Desires’: A review of an Exhibition about Max von Baden, the Last Chancellor of Imperial Germany

In the secret correspondence that preceded the last restructuring of the German government before the end of the First World War, Max von Baden featured under the code name “the man without desires” (“der Wunschlose”). Prince Max who would eventually become the last chancellor of imperial Germany has always been a somewhat enigmatic figure. The regional archive of Karlsruhe has dedicated a major exhibition to him that was first presented at Karlsruhe, is now shown at Salem and will finally go to Berlin. Salem manor is a particularly well-suited place for the exhibition. The manor house (formerly Salem monastery) together with its park, the medieval Cistercian church and the world famous Salem public school form a unique ensemble that is well worth a visit all by itself. Large parts of the Salem premises are still in the possession of the Baden dynasty.  

Max von Baden (1867-1929) was the cousin of the Grand Duke of Baden. He only became the head of the house of Baden in 1928 a few months before his death. The exhibition draws attention to Max’s favourable position in the intricate network of aristocratic families that still governed Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

An entire room of the exhibition is dedicated to the personal contacts and interests of the prince. Even though he made a good career in the Prussian army, Max seems not to have been too interested in Reich politics, the court and aristocratic representation. Kaiser Wilhelm II who features in the exhibition in a series of sketches for ‘court’ portraits never formed any kind of meaningful relationship with the aristocratic officer from the South German province. The exhibition presents Max as a keen mountaineer, enthusiastic Wagnerian and sophisticated aesthete. He moved in the heterogeneous circle of intellectuals the theologian Johannes Müller gathered at Elmau manor (that last made headlines during the G7 summit of 2015) where the prince established contact to liberals and social democrats, among them Anton Fendrich. Whereas some of the Elmau circle later on turned to the extreme right, Max von Baden kept his distance from any kind of extremism. The tone of this part of the exhibition is private, almost intimate. Personal possessions and private papers of the prince are on display that offer a glimpse into his daily life and personal feelings.

Even though Max von Baden had already retired from the military, he served again in the general staff after the outbreak of the Great War. After retiring from active duty due to his failing health prince Max began his real work during the war: He arranged support for prisoners of war inside and outside Germany. Max organized large scale exchanges of prisoners of war between Germany and other nations. A number of original documents including newsreels rightly emphasise Max’s humanitarian activities and achievements. 

The fact that Hindenburg und Ludendorff, the de facto military dictators, tried to use Max’s honest efforts for their propaganda does not lessen the merits of the prince. Given his international reputation and his connections to the Social Democrats, Max von Baden was almost the ideal candidate when the German Reich needed a new chancellor after the fall of von Bethmann-Hollweg and the resignation of von Hertling. It was clear that it would be the most invidious task of the new chancellor to admit defeat and to arrange the surrender of Germany. The exhibition presents a number of original documents including a placard with an entire speech by Max von Baden in which he tries to sketch terms for peace. Still, it would have paid to say even more about the last weeks of the war, Max’s negotiations with the Social Democrats, especially Friedrich Ebert, and Max’s fight against Ludendorff that ended with the latter’s downfall. We learn almost nothing about the constitutional reform of October 1918 that completely redefined the role of the Reich parliament vis à vis the monarch, and about Max’s decision to force Wilhelm II to finally abdicate.

The last part of the exhibition is about Max’s relation to Salem public school he helped to found in 1920. The fact that Max von Baden publicly urged Reich president Ebert in 1923 to fight both Communists and Nazis more vigorously is mentioned but not explained any further. More could have been said about Max’s memoires, originally published in 1927.

The exhibition strikes a good balance between original text documents and other exhibits. It is necessarily somewhat ‘talky’ but never ‘chatty’. Indeed, a little more background information might have helped to understand the complicated developments of 1918 better.

The exhibition certainly succeeds insofar as it helps the visitors to understand the ‘man without desires’ somewhat better. Even though it is in part based on primary sources that came into the possession of the Karlsruhe archive only in 2014, the exhibition admits that it offers new insights but no spectacular news that would answer all open questions. One might see it as part of the success of the exhibition that it modestly refrains from trying to explain the enigmatic figure of the Baden prince fully. One of the most impressive exhibits is a statuette the prince had created according to his own wishes: It shows Max von Baden in his officer’s uniform complete with ceremonial sabre. Avoiding the beholder’s glance, he stoops down to read in a large book his balances awkwardly in one hand.

Review by Professor Johannes Dillinger

Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10am-6pm, Sunday and bank holidays 10:30am-6pm
Admission fee (including the exhibition, the manor, the park – plus two mazes - , Salem monastery church and school grounds): 9 Euros

The special exhibition ‘Der Wunschlose. Prinz Max von Baden und seine Welt’ is on display till October 3, 2017.

 A collection of essays about Max von Baden is available at the museum: Konrad Krimm (ed.), Der Wunschlose (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 2016).

A: Max von Baden
B: Max von Baden surrounded by released prisoners of war.
D: Salem manor

Friday, 7 July 2017

Beyond Brutalism: Architecture, Citizenship, and Space as a way into 20th-century British Architectural History

A great privilege of academic life is the opportunity to convene with scholars in one’s field and share new research. Most recently, this took the form of the conference ‘Architecture Citizenship Space: British Architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s,’ that I convened with Dr Alistair Fair of the University of Edinburgh. Held here at Oxford Brookes on 15-16 June, it was funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with additional support from the Research Fund of the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.

Re-thinking how we do architectural history

In convening the event we had a number of aims.  Central was to bring together excellent scholars – from early career to emerita professor - who are producing excellent work in the field of twentieth century British architectural history – and to give them an opportunity to share their research and enjoy a conversation about it. 

More particularly, we wanted to bring together scholars who are working on that history in a particular way. All the work presented at the conference took as its starting point an understanding of architectural production in the widest sense, encompassing not only completed buildings and unbuilt projects but also texts and the media, clients, builders, and users. That is, we are all part of a turn in twentieth-century British architectural history away from primarily formalist accounts of style (we’re just a bit bored with Brutalism). This new architectural history – now beginning to consolidate itself - is rooted in the archive and asks how cultural production functioned as a vehicle through which to explore such ideas as modernity, identity and community. In essence, the material and spatial culture of architecture is conceived as a commentary on these ideas, whether by embracing or resisting them. 

The Pivotal Decades: Re-thinking Architecture and Nationhood 1918-1939 

The conference began with a focus on the 1920s and 1930s, which, speakers argued, was the period when architects and others self-consciously began to re-evaluate the purpose and nature of architectural culture as Britain entered full democracy. This would be done through the creation of prototypical new sites (such as the Pioneer Health Centre, discussed by Elizabeth Darling), through architectural journalism (Jessica Kelly on the Architectural Review) or through a re-invention of the architectural profession, especially in the wake of the inter-war Registration Acts (Neal Shasore on the RIBA). 

What emerged in these papers was the idea of the building, as the creators of the Pioneer Health Centre put it, as ‘an inter-facial membrane’: an active and dynamic set of spaces in and through which ‘publics’ could be or become modern.

Elizabeth Darling explored this idea through a consideration of the concept of the ‘Centre,’ and the examples of the Pioneer Health Centre, the Building Centre, the Housing Centre and the Community Centre. These addressed a number of publics – another key theme in this session. This might be a working-class public, as was the case at the Pioneer Health Centre, enabled to assume a fuller role in society through improved health care and access to birth control, or a more affluent, middle-class public who, through access to information about modern products for their homes at the Building Centre, could create domestic settings as modern as they were.

Speakers were careful to note the difficulty of the term ‘public,’ noting a tension between the intentions of middle-class/upper middle-class reformers, journalists, architects, and the audiences they addressed. Jessica Kelly’s paper showed how the Architectural Review  negotiated a relationship with a reading public from the late 1920s onwards, when it became a proselytiser for architectural modernism. From problematising a (middle-class) public (and equating femininity with poor taste in articles such as ‘The Architectural Consequences of Women’) and which thus needed to be instructed about the new architecture, she charted the emergence of an idea that the architectural press might collaborate with its readership in the advocacy of a specifically national form of modernism. 

Neal Shasore showed how the architectural profession similarly sought to engage with a middle-class public through a new headquarters building (opened 1934) notable for its openness (in contrast to other profession’s more monumental and private institutional interiors) and a newly-founded PR committee: its aim to create the idea of architecture as a public service and the architect as indispensable in the formation of the commonweal. 

This linking of the architect/architectural culture and the public realm; buildings as some form of setting for transformation; and more national or regional forms of modernism would find full expression in the reconstruction of Britain after the Second World War. Subsequent sessions explored their manifestation in the fields of education, urban planning, and the cultural sphere.

Educating the Nation after 1945

In this session speakers considered how the new Welfare State’s concern for citizens from cradle to grave, began with a massive school (and later university) building programme. Roy Kozlovsky showed how a concern for children’s emotional well-being (largely stemming from the experience of wartime evacuation) led to carefully designed, domestic scale, school environments, settings for a more informal education with the ultimate aim of creating the child as a (proto) ‘social democratic self.’ 

Catherine Burke picked up this theme of the school as an early training in democracy – so important to a nation reconstructing. She also demonstrated how a new understanding that all children were entitled to the best was manifested in how architects (now very much public servants) designed these new schools meticulously: from structure to fixtures and fittings. In such attractive settings children received an education in culture as well as the 3 Rs.

This nurturing was continued through to higher education buildings, the subject of Louise Campbell’s paper. Again, the state understood education not simply as a means to an end, but a good in and of itself; the university was a site to train a new generation of engineers, civil servants and so on, but more generally to enable generations to become cultivated citizens of both a modern Britain and a modern Europe.

Architecture Citizenship Space: Beyond the Academy

Discussion took a slightly different tack in our final session of day one, a roundtable to which we had invited the blogger Municipal Dreams (John Boughton); the Manchester Modernist Society’s Jack Hale, and Verity-Jane Keefe, who runs the Mobile Museum

Working beyond the confines of an academic context, each engages with the architecture of the period under discussion with a particular emphasis on its lived experience and its enjoyment and appreciation. How often the architecture of the Welfare State (and indeed pre-war social architecture) has come to be dismissed and understood as a generic misstep in social policy, was a theme that quickly emerged. Thus work to remind a wider public and politicians that, for example, council estates are not anonymous agglomerations of housing, but Places inhabited by communities, or that Manchester’s modernist office blocks and highways might be important markers of a local identity, is a central activity of all our discussants whether through community workshops, blog writing or walks and publications. Emphasis was also placed on the importance of grassroots responses to local architectures versus the parachuting in of outside bodies unfamiliar with the particularities of a place.

Where and how to live

Day two saw our final sessions. In the first, new ideas of urban form and dwelling, as well as new methods of designing them, formed the subject of discussion. Otto Saumarez Smith explored post-war urban planning, favouring the concept of ‘urbanity’ as a lens through which to understand design rather than stylistc tropes like Brutalism or the New Empiricism. Urbanity – a term deployed by architects and sociologists working together – argued for higher-density city redevelopment that drew on the traditions of Georgian town planning to create urban spatial forms that retained the social relations of working-class communities but in much better designed and spatially generous surroundings. 

Christine Hui Lan Manley considered a different form of urbanity - this time a more visual form - in her discussion of Frederick Gibberd’s work at Harlow and Hackney. Gibberd sought to blend local references be that to Georgian architecture in an urban context or vernacular in a more rural setting with the more usual tropes of modernism to again create decent well-designed homes and neighbourhoods. 

Ruth Lang’s paper offered a parallel commentary on the development of modern ways of working through her discussion of the London County Council Architects’ Department’s method of design organization. She showed how small teams comprising not just architects but other specialists (including sociologists) worked communally on projects: experts dedicated to serving a post-war public that warranted - without question - the best of environments. 

Culture and Democracy

Finally, and in keeping with the theme that the post-war world required a cultured citizenry, speakers explored the nationalisation of culture from the mid-1940s onwards. Alistair Fair argued that for both Left and Right, the theatre was understood as a site in which all people could enjoy access to culture (as opposed to the less highbrow, and American, forms of culture such as the cinema). Through the Arts Council, successive governments in the 1960s and early 1970s supported the building of new civic theatres which, in their combination of performance with social spaces for mingling and eating, created sites of cultivated leisure. As Fair pointed out, the plays put on might not, however, always be to locals’ taste: in response to a play rich in its language, excused by its director as ‘idiom’, a woman complained ‘what you call idiom, I call filth.’ 

Reflecting the tensions in that letter, and also raised in the first session’s papers, that the intentions behind such projects were not always met on the ground with appreciation, Rosamund West’s paper outlined the London County Council’s policy of including artwork (usually sculpture) in its housing estates. This might be understood as a further echo of the policy of surrounding children in their new schools with well-designed furniture.  While some work was very popular, locals did not always appreciate the modernity of the sculptures commissioned.  

Lesley Whitworth’s paper showed how a parallel organization to the Arts Council, the Council of Industrial Design (COID, founded 1944) similarly sought to foster an awareness of the importance of design and the designer in the formation of a modern Britain. This most certainly had an economic motive: the purchase of consumer goods would help the British economy and fill the homes of those re-housed in the estates designed by Gibberd et al. But, more particularly, as Whitworth noted, and reiterating the idea of the importance of the arts per se, the objects that the COID approved as examples of good design, were talismanic for those who promoted them, and those who bought them. They were signs of Britain’s and Britons’ modernity.

These papers were all delivered in an atmosphere notable for its friendliness and collegiality, and each session ended in useful and constructive discussion. We finished with the observation that having considered the historical moment when culture was seen as transcendant, rather than tied to measurable outputs, and that the provision of spaces and things through and in which individuals might negotiate their place in democracy was the goal of architects, designers, their clients and their users, we were rather a long way from our present reality. The theme of architecture, citizenship, space, seemed therefore especially timely.  

Dr Elizabeth Darling, Reader in Architectural History 

Image one: Elizabeth Darling & Alistair Fair introduce the conference
Image two: Roundtable speakers

Monday, 3 July 2017

The Witchcraft Exhibition at Ravensburg: A Review

The municipal museum of Ravensburg (Baden-Württemberg, Germany) is currently hosting a major witchcraft exhibition. ‘Hexenwahn 1484. Frauen auf dem Scheiterhaufen’ (‘Witch Craze 1484. Women at the Stake’) is the somewhat curious title of the event that includes the exhibition itself, a series of public lectures, and the publication of a collection of essays about the witch hunts in Ravensburg and the surrounding Lake Constance area.

Ravensburg is clearly a good place for a witchcraft exhibition, since it has largely escaped the air raids of WW2 and large parts of the old town centre are still intact. A number of buildings mentioned in the Ravensburg witch trials therefore still exist. The former imperial free city of Ravensburg, one of the more affluent semi-republican city states that had flourished in South Germany in the late Middle Ages and experienced a slow but steady decline in the early modern period witnessed some of the earliest German witch trials. 

The municipal museum ‘Humpis Quartier’ is a unique place that would be well worth a visit all by itself. The museum is not really housed in a building. Rather, it houses itself in a number of late medieval buildings. The modern museum space integrates a courtyard and some old buildings into a complete new system that is artificial and yet seems to have grown organically out of medieval architectural roots. The symbiosis of ancient half-timber, rough masonry, concrete and glass is almost in itself ‘magical’. At times, the visitor may wonder where exactly in the architectural space and where in time he is.

The exhibition uses what is in Germany sometimes called the ‘taxi approach’ to the eternal problem of getting the general audience interested in a very specific academic question: You’ve got to pick them up where they stand. The visitors are greeted by three screens with videos that talk about modern concepts of the witch most visitors would be familiar with. The screens present witches in the popular imagination (long noses and red hair seem to be of the essence), literary witches (‘Faust’ and fairy tales), and the witches of the Southwest German street carnival (male mummers wearing grotesque wooden masks). In order to see these screens the visitors have to go through a comparatively dark and narrow corridor. This corridor leads into a big open space under a high class roof. 

The room itself is a symbol: Here, the exhibition ‘illuminates’ and ‘clarifies’ matters. A series of reproductions of pictures with explanatory texts present the five elements of the demonological definition of the witch: A witch is a person who has made a pact with the devil (1). She (the witch is usually female) has sex with demons (2). She meets regularly with other witches. This so called witches’ Sabbath is usually not imagined as a ‘Black Mass’ but rather as a peasants’ feast (3). In order to join these secret gatherings quickly and without being seen, witches fly magically through the air (4). Witches use magic to do harm (5). This essential part of the exhibition is much too ‘talky’: The explanatory texts matter, the (not very well chosen) reproductions of pictures do not. It seems as if the organizers of the exhibition simply wanted to get the basics out of the way. The visitors cannot help a feeling of anti-climax. The fantastic open exhibition space and the three screens that made the visitor think about various concepts of the witch seem to be wasted.

The next room presents a number of most interesting artefacts: talismans and bits of paper with magical writing and symbols. While these are clearly the most interesting pieces of the exhibition, they have hardly anything to do with witch trials: All of these items belong to the huge area of folk magic. They were supposed to ward off misfortune, illness and any kind of evil influence, at times including witchcraft. However, contrary to popular knowledge, folk magicians were usually not accused of witchcraft. Nevertheless, the room does provide a glimpse into actual magical practices from the early modern period that the visitors will appreciate.

So far, we have learned little about the actual Ravensburg witch hunt of 1484. The next sequence of rooms is dedicated to it and to one of its key players, the witch hunter Heinrich Kramer. Kramer, also known as Institoris, was the author of the notorious demonological manual ‘Malleus maleficarum’ (Hammer of the Witches). A local clergyman invited Kramer to Ravensburg so that he could lead an investigation against witches in his capacity as papal inquisitor. Kramer preached sermons against witchcraft and tried to talk the people of Ravensburg into denouncing their neighbours as witches. However, the crop of actual trials was rather scanty. Six women ended up in court, only two of them were found guilty and executed. 

The exhibition tends to overlook the basic fact of the Ravensburg witch hunt. Even though Kramer was an inquisitor, the court that tried the alleged witches was not an inquisitorial court. It was the municipal court of Ravensburg i.e. a secular, not an ecclesiastical court. Without the active support of the town authorities, Kramer would have failed utterly. The two women executed were persons of ill repute whom the people who mattered in Ravensburg saw as likely disciples of the devil. This exhibition fails to make the interrelation between Kramer, the local authorities and the inhabitants of Ravenburg sufficiently clear. Indeed, the selection of exhibits and the explanatory texts re-affirm the old misunderstanding that the inquisition was responsible for the witch trials. 

Visitors who have no prior knowledge are not likely to learn about the basic findings of witchcraft research, therefore. Almost all witch trials were conducted by secular authorities, not by the church. The driving force behind the witch trials were the so called common people, peasants and town people, not learned witch hunters. Instead of teaching this essential (and certainly somewhat disillusioning) lesson, the Ravensburg exhibition goes into details of individual trials and torture. The visitors are confronted with an executioner’s sword, and a torture device used for the ‘strappado’ the most common and most simple form of torture. Strangely enough, the organizers of the exhibition decided to include the so called ‘torture chair’ in the display, a rather ridiculous forgery from the 19th century that has a lot to do with modern sadomasochistic fantasies about the so called ‘dark’ Middle Ages but nothing at all with early modern criminal trials. 

One display case presents an original text from a Ravensburg witch trial, interestingly one that documents an acquittal. Audio tapes play excerpts from trial records. A most helpful map identifies buildings and places connected with the witch hunts in Ravensburg: The visitors may continue their tour outside of the museum and go to the actual places that can still be found in today’s Ravensburg. These include the Green Tower where the alleged witches were imprisoned and a nice residential neighbourhood near the town centre, formerly a bit of woodland just outside the city walls where the witches’ Sabbath supposedly took place. This is clearly relevant and important. However, the exhibits do not stress the big inconvenient truth that the local authorities - not just the learned outsider Kramer - were responsible for the Ravensburg witch hunt.

Kramer used the experiences he had made in Ravensburg and other places in the German South when he wrote his manual for witch hunting, the ‘Malleus maleficarum’. The point of the book was to convince secular authorities that they should take a more pro-active stance toward the alleged threat of witchcraft. One early modern copy of the ‘Malleus maleficarum’ is on display. A series of panels without any original exhibits informs the visitors about Kramer’s further career and witch hunts that took place in some South German principalities. The last room of the exhibition confronts the visitors with the contemporary witch hunts that are taking place right now in large parts of Africa. Many experts agree that one of the main factors that hinder the further economic and political development of African societies is the fear of witches and actual witch hunts. There are a number of informative texts and photographs, but no original exhibits whatsoever.

The Ravensburg exhibition is highly informative. Visitors with little or no expert knowledge will learn something about the history of the witch hunts. However, some the explanatory texts are clearly misleading. There are too many of these texts and not enough original exhibits. It would be highly unfair to compare the Ravensburg exhibition to the big historical witchcraft exhibition in Karlsruhe in 1994, clearly the best one so far, or even to those in Berlin 2002 and Speyer 2010. The municipal museum of Ravensburg simply does not have a million-Euro budget to spend on an individual exhibition. Still, it would have paid to invest just a little more time and effort into the exhibition. The wonderful historical sights of the Lake Constance area are always worth a visit. So, if you go there this summer anyway, make sure to include the Ravensburg witchcraft exhibition in your itinerary.

Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday, 11am -6 pm (Thusday 11am -8pm)
Admission fee: 5 Euros

The special exhibition about witchcraft ‘Hexenwahn 1484. Frauen auf dem Scheiterhaufen’ is on display till October 3, 2017.

  1. Cradle with a pentagram (five-pointed star) that is supposed to ward off evil spirits who might threaten or steal the baby
  2. Modern mummer from Ravensburg wearing a wooden witch mask. Strangely enough, no such mask was on display in the exhibition
  3. Executioner’s sword

Review by Professor Johannes Dillinger, Historian of Witchcraft and Magic

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Professor Beverley Clack on the philosophy of religion

I’m a Philosopher of Religion. I’ve always been interested in how people make or find meaning in life, and one of the most significant ways in which people make meaningful lives is through adopting forms of religious belief or practice.

That is not to say that religion is always a Good Thing: the final chapter of the book I wrote with my brother Brian Clack in 2008 on the Philosophy of Religion considering the relationship between Religion and Terrorism, and sadly this connection has not diminished in the years that followed its publication.

But perhaps this connection should not surprise us: after all, religion is a human phenomenon, and thus it reflects the kaleidoscope of positions open to human beings. We might note that societies committed to atheism have not been averse to dealing cruelly with their citizens. I am interested in the way in which religion can add something creative and positive to life, and in an age where human experience is increasingly being shaped by information technologies and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, it is not a bad thing to think about the ways in which human beings might create meaningful lives from reflection on their place in the cosmos.

I’m particularly interested in how psychoanalysis has helped us explore the strangeness of the connections human beings make as they seek to make sense of their place in the world. My most recent book was on Freud, and I explored his ideas explicitly against the backdrop of psychotherapeutic practice. 

My next book is on failure. I’ve become fascinated by how a dominant cultural narrative of what makes for a successful life has meant we are more miserable and anxious than ever. To be a success - so the story goes - demands attaining status, money and possessions. By exploring the shadow side of success - failure - it is possible to arrive at a different way of thinking about the meaning of life. I’m particularly interested in the way in which death has increasingly been constructed as a form of failure, when in fact it tells us something significant about the role loss and vulnerability play in determining human existence. We are not godlike creatures, separate from each other and the world. We need each other, and reflecting on loss and failure shows just how dependent we are. Instead of greeting the fact that loss and death are fundamental aspects of life with shame, we might instead allow these realities to shape better ways of living that ground us in an appreciation of this mutable world. And my book closes with suggestions about how we might do this!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Dr Mark Cain on the human mind

I’m a philosopher interested in the human mind: what exactly are minds, how do they work and how do they develop? These questions have been at the core of my academic life since I started studying for an MPhil way back in the early 1990s. Back in those days I was rather sniffy about the relevance of science to what I thought of as distinctly philosophical questions. However, under the influence of philosophers such as Jerry Fodor and Daniel Dennett I went ‘naturalistic’ coming to see philosophy as being continuous with science. Hence, I became an enthusiast for cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of the mind that unites philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence. Several years later this interest manifested itself in the publication of my book The Philosophy of Cognitive Science (published in 2015 by Polity) in which I wrestle with some of the biggest questions about the mind from an empirically informed perspective. 

Being a naturalistic philosopher of mind has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I do seem to be interested in questions which most intelligent and curious non-philosophers can relate to and see as important and interesting. I’m reminded of this whenever I go to my local book store and look in the popular science section that is stuffed with books about the mind and brain popularising, the kind of research that I reflect upon on a daily basis. As a philosopher I can’t overemphasise what a relief it is not to be regarded as some kind of crank engaged in a pointless endeavour. On the minus side, I have to remain on top of a rapidly expanding literature that straddles several demanding disciplines. This sometimes makes me feel ignorant and overwhelmed but I’ve found that running miles and miles every week along trails in the Chiltern Hills helps keep me positive. 

I’m currently writing a book for Routledge entitled Innateness and the Cognitive Mind. Here I will address the question of which aspects of the mature human mind are learned and which are innate, arguing that much more is innate than is often thought. If the trail running helps keep my anxiety levels down this book should be completed by the end of the year.

Details of my published books can be found here.

Dr Marika Leino on Renaissance plaquettes

What can you tell us about your research?
I started my career at Christie’s auction house in London, in the European Sculpture and Works of Art Department, and quickly learned that research could mean many different things. Sometimes it was a means of establishing authorship (or a route to the realisation that it was impossible to place a sculpture within the oeuvre of a particular artist, or even a school); at times an interesting ‘human interest angle’ was needed to give early modern sculpture a relevance to contemporary buyers; but more and more I came to an understanding that for me research allowed for a way of exploring how works of art, and Renaissance sculptures in particular, were appreciated in their original social and cultural contexts.

It is precisely from this perspective that my book, Fashion, Devotion and Contemplation: The Status and Functions of Italian Renaissance Plaquettes (Peter Lang, 2013), explored the many functions ofa category of objects labelled in the 19th century as ‘plaquettes’ - small, seemingly uniform, mainly bronze reliefs – concluding that they were in fact produced as a multitude of different object types – hat badges, sword pommels, sides of caskets and also collectors’ pieces to be held in the hand, discussed with cultured friends, and admired for their artistry and design. Very quickly, however, these original contexts were lost, the reliefs were divorced from their intended uses, and stored in cabinets of curiosity, and later museums, as a homonymous category, the plaquette. This disparity between initial function and later display has continued to fascinate me.

A selection of plaquettes from the V & A, London.

I am currently perplexed by inscriptions, which are hidden underneath the bases of a group of Italian fifteenth-century portrait busts. These inscriptions are written in Roman letters, carefully carved into the marble, stating the name of the sitter, the sculptor and the age of the sitter or the date of the work, and on occasion the profession of the sitter and the location. The busts were made for wealthy Florentine men, by foremost sculptors of their period; Mino da Fiesole, Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino, between 1453 and 1468. My aim is to investigate the possible reasons for these concealed words, which can only been seen by lifting the busts off their bases, not an inconsiderable feat, as I was lucky to discover when the V&A bust of Giovanni Chellini, by Antonio Rossellino, was taken down for me – it took three men to lift it off its support and a hydraulic lift to place it back again! An analysis of the motivation for these clandestine inscriptions will be conducted through an examination of the busts themselves, by researching links between the sitters, as well as those between the sculptors, who all lived and worked in and around Florence and Rome. Many of the men portrayed were interested in ideas relating to humanism and antiquity, and so a key area of investigation will be the relationship between the inscriptions on the busts and contemporary notions of memory and posterity.

 Antonio Rossellino, Bust of Giovanni Chellini, marble, 1456, V&A, London.

How does your research influence your teaching?

Apart from the obvious links in subject matter – I teach straight art-historical courses which relate to my research on Renaissance sculpture and painting – I am increasingly interested in conveying to students the importance of thinking about original intended display and reception alongside current museum and gallery presentation. To this end, I, along with my colleagues Christiana Payne and Elizabeth Darling, developed a second year undergraduate module, Curatorial Practice, aimed at increasing curatorial awareness in our undergraduate students. This module not only allows us to consider the fascinating journeys objects have made from their original intended contexts to becoming ‘art’ in museums - altarpieces which are no longer worshipped in the churches they were made for; portraits which have lost their identity; fountain figures which have been dry for years – but has also give us, staff and students alike, the opportunity to consider how our research can shape the way in which works of art are appreciated and understood now. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Dr David Maguire discusses his research on the culture of male incarceration

What can you tell us about your research?

I am interested in the classed, gendered and criminal journeys of (young) men from deindustrialised regions and impoverished neighbourhoods in the UK. More specifically my research explores how boys and young men construct masculinity across various sites of exclusion, such as deprived housing estates, under resourced and ‘failing’ schools, residential children’s or ‘care’ homes and prisons. A major concern of this research is to explore if and how constructing or ‘doing’ masculinity across these sites leads many to contribute to their own economic exclusion, imprisonment and continued disadvantage. The most important aspect of my work is to uncover how these sites of exclusion play an active role in reinforcing and recreating the same masculinities they exclude, abandon and incarcerate.

Why did you choose this research?
I came to academic research and teaching relatively late. Before this I spent almost two decades working in heavily deprived areas or housing estates, with marginalised groups and those described as ‘hard to reach’. During this time I worked in schools and exclusion centres, with homeless populations, those involved in gang or serious youth violence, with male prisoners in both young offender institutions (YOI) and adult prisons.

During this period I was constantly struck by how for many of the young men it was ‘doing masculinity’ across impoverished spaces that led incrementally to more extreme exclusion, with every shift culminating in costly and more marginalised masculine performances. I understood then the significance of class, gender and place and wanted to explore this more.      

What makes your research different?
Many criminologists agree gender is the best predictor of crime and that men are by a huge margin the sex responsible for violent, sexual and other serious offences. It follows that in most industrialised societies, prison populations remain relatively static at over 90% male. Data from a range of sources for England and Wales shows that 90% of the male prison population is predominantly made up of undereducated, underemployed, young men from the poorest neighborhoods. Despite men featuring so heavily in crime and prison statistics there is relatively little qualitative scholarship exploring the links between masculinity and crime and even less focusing on ‘doing masculinity’ in UK prisons. Most of the important research on prison and prisoners tends of focus on ‘lifer’ or long-term prisoners. With a focus on gender and the interplay between masculinity, education, and crime among short-term ‘revolving door’ prisoners, this research adds to addressing a deficit in knowledge. Importantly through this work I reveal some of the process behind the substantial overrepresentation of poor and undereducated men as prisoners

How do you feel about being part of the team developing the new criminology course here at Oxford Brookes and will your input be informed by your research and work experiences?

I am very excited to be in at the start of this new criminology course. As a subject area criminology is growing at an incredible rate and is increasingly being seen as a pathway to rewarding careers across criminal justice agencies and in other sectors. The enthusiasm for this course in the department, coupled with the openness to draw from existing modules and expert knowledge across the faculty, sets a solid foundation to develop what will be an intellectually engaging and highly regarded criminology pathway.

The most exciting feature for me in terms of the lecturing role is the encouragement and expectation that my teaching will be both research led and informed by my extensive practical experiences. My research interests (gender/masculinity, boys ‘underachievement’, resistance to and rejection from changing workplaces, crime and imprisonment) straddle key contemporary criminological issues. I am equally enthused by the opportunity to draw on and share the extensive academic and practical knowledge from departmental colleagues.   Our associated networks will play a significant role in relating real world issues to core criminological themes and perspectives, which will offer a great experience for our students.  

Friday, 21 April 2017

Yale visit shows anxiety and concern about Britain’s role in the world

On Tuesday 11 and Wednesday 12 April, I spent two days at Yale University in Connecticut. As one of the world’ best universities, and a key centre of research and teaching in the United States, it was an excellent vantage point from which to take the temperature of American Higher Education – and especially, as a British historian myself, in terms of US views of both British history and contemporary British politics. Invited by Yale’s Centre for International Security Studies to speak to both faculty and students, it was a fascinating visit that helped me to both sharpen my research questions and to see how others perceive the UK’s modern history.

As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, and now enters yet another election campaign, clearly many Americans were very interested to hear and talk about the situation the UK finds itself in. What I found most obvious was a puzzlement that Britain should chose to leave the EU, but perhaps more deeply an uncertainty as to where Britain stands – diplomatically, politically, even culturally and ideologically.

On the first day of my  visit, I helped take an undergraduate class, comprised not just of History students but drawing participants from subjects as diverse as Political Science and Computing, entitled ‘War at Sea in the Age of Sail’. Together with Dr Evan Wilson, who once taught with me here at Oxford Brookes as an Associate Lecturer, we looked with the students at different visions of Britain’s foreign policy in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a so-called ‘blue water’ policy, or a European engagement. Nothing could seem more apposite in terms of present-day choices, and the students wanted to ask about the parallels with British diplomacy right now: to talk about trade, national self-image, and foreign relations, especially over Gibraltar, a running crisis at the time.

I then gave a paper to the ISS Brady-Johnson Colloquium in Grand Strategy and International History, entitled ‘Is the Sea Still Swinging into View? Contemporary British History and the Maritime Turn’. In this I attempt to show how the uncertainties stalking modern British politics have been transmuted into the way in which we think about Britain’s seagoing past: how modern concerns over networked economies, regional and continental trade blocs, gender and identity politics, and concepts of moveable, mutable space have fed back into the ways in which we perceive Britons’ engagement with the wider world. The questions were sharp, wide-ranging, and hard to field, mainly focusing on the way in which the British imagination lost touch with the oceanic emphasis that would have seemed second nature to most Georgian or Victorian Britons: again, the parallels with today’s debates about British as a ‘global’ or ‘European’ power were not hard to see.

On the Wednesday, I gave a lecture on Britain’s Brexit vote, trying to draw out the wider cultural, geographical, political and demographic issues that helped to bring about Britain’s ‘Leave’ vote. Here I argued that this decision was not primarily economic, but cultural – a protest against rapid change in and of itself, and (in England at least) a revolt of small towns and ‘provinces’ against London and other big cities. The audience were particularly interested in the parallels with the election of President Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election, as well as the emergence of so-called ‘populist’ movements across the developed world.

Overall, what was so noticeable about the reactions in my teaching session, and at my two talks, was the lack of clarity about Britain’s modern role in the world: is it a free-trading, ocean-going, globalised power, or a more ‘normal’ mid-ranking regional nation-state? And how do Britons now see their national past in the light of those dilemmas and choices? As a country that – as part of an Atlantic archipelago – looks inevitably outwards, or as a country with deep ties and interests in the heart of its own continent? It is no wonder that US students and lecturers are unclear, because Britain is very divided and uncertain about those issues too.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs regularly, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past, and writes about current public affairs for a number of publications, including The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog, The Staggers.