Oral historians

Howkins, Alun (11of 17).  Oral History of Oral History

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  • Recording date

    2008-03-03, 2009-04-21, 2009-06-11, 2009-07-30, 2009-10-08, 2009-10-29, 2009-12-10, 2010-04-22, 2010-11-17, 2011-08-15

  • Interviewees

    Howkins, Alun, 1947- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Wilkinson, Robert (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 11: [Session ten: 10 December 2009] Essex still had a revolutionary reputation as a left wing university during his time there (68-69), though Robin Blackburn had gone to the LSE by this time. The Angry Brigade were the most notorious. At least two of the women went to Essex, Anna Mendleson and another. The Angry Brigades trial was in 1972. The reputation was attached to the faculty as much as the students, Ted Benton and Ian McCraig would have described themselves as revolutionary socialists but not many others on the staff would have. Gabriel Pearson, founder of New Left Review taught in English, he was old new left. Alun was in his early twenties at this time they would have been mid-thirties. Some like Peter Townsend or Dennis Marsden were sympathetic to the left and demands of students but there was a worry by the early 70s (he started in 1973) that a lot of the younger faculty, (under 35s who taught in sociology in the new universities in the late 60s) were sympathetic to the students but up to a point. They were the product of the 60s in a way. They had huge sympathies with support for the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement, CND and Paris. People got fed up when the tactic moved towards occupation and disruption of teaching, particularly a denial of what people thought of as freedom of speech. Is unsure of position now, perhaps would have worried about it. Has no problem denying freedom of speech to the BNP. The History Man does bring this up to some extent, the tyranny of the left wing seminar to non-left wing people is exaggerated but any orthodoxies are oppressive of a minority. Remembers having an angry argument in around 1974 with an academic who had come out of Nazi Germany and said the left shouting fascist scum was no different from storm troopers breaking up a Jewish, liberal lecture in 1935. [07:30] Upon arriving at Essex in 1973 there were some straightforward faculty members who saw it as unnecessary, there was probably a right wing element somewhere too. There was a group who had been very sympathetic to students in 1968-69 who by 1973 were getting fed up with it. There was one extremely well organised occupation which managed to shut the university down. Was involved, filled 50 gallon metal bins with water and put them across the road. It lasted for about a week. The vice chancellor panicked, rightly to some extent, and phoned the police inviting them on to campus as it was private property. Head of uniformed police in Colchester was Geoff Markham who later became assistant chief constable of Essex. He had been a police student at Essex and got a brilliant first in sociology, he had just been presented with a brutal sexual murder the night before the occupation. He arrived at 9am with 12 police vans and 100 police, he arrested 110 students. Outrage broke out and the liberal conscience was challenged. Was in bed when this happened, got to campus at 10am, Paul Thompson, Peter Townsend were worried about the precedent. Geoff Markham came into the room and admonished them. That wasnt the end of political activity but it did slow down a lot afterwards. It was a local issue over fees. There was a big local divide in Colchester with the university. There was relatively little contact with the campus and the local labour movement. There were tensions with the town, it was a garrison town and this was the time of the IRA campaign. IMG were very big on victory to the IRA. From late 1974 onwards, after settling down, liked it. They were good graduate students, they were sparking each other off. The East Anglian History Workshop was a product of this intellectual tooing and froing. One or two were interested in rural history. [16:05] Paul was a bad supervisor in some ways, he was not careful or hands on but nobody was then. Supervision has changed in time in academic life. Saw Paul at least every week but formal supervisions took less time. He was there when had a crisis of confidence whilst living in a caravan in Norfolk. He and Thea came up for a weekend and talked through problems, mostly intellectual. He read drafts and went through them. It was very laid back, just a chat. Now its a much more structured process. Paul was more of a friend in most respects, they were a small group of pioneers, thought they knew what they were doing and nobody else did. [18:47] Jo (Bornat), Di Gittins, and Eve were very good people. It was the beginning of a movement. History was seen as a political subject. The politics was about rescuing the past, quotes from 1968 version of The Making of the English Working Class. Mentions some of the work people were doing which was seen as politically rescuing the past. The class warrior approach was not common at Essex as it was with Ken Walpole. Ted Benton and other hard-line Marxists criticised them for not getting their hands dirty, he saw his academic work as important to the class struggle. He later wrote influentially on Marxist ecology in The New Left review in the 80s, why Marxists have to be green. Class warriors werent by and large within the oral history movement. [22:36] Surprised to find Raphael Samuel was on the committee of The Oral History Society. He published on Headington Quarry in the early journals. Raphaels article in issue 1 of The Oral History Journal ( History Workshop Journal) upset Paul by being critical of oral history. Discusses Raphaels oral history articles. Paul and Raphael had other problems as time went on, partly personal and problems on projected essays on the history of childhood. Paul and Thea both sent versions to Raphael for a book which never appeared, there were suggestions some of this was plagiarised. They later did the Workshop on The Myths We Live By but were never particularly close. The two distinct movements were always very distinct. The journal published oral history articles, people published in both but they were distinct. Before the journal, the workshop was just conference, pamphlets and the books. Living the Fishing was a Workshop book in the series; this means Raphael must have approved it. The journal became the focus of Raphaels intellectual endeavour, which it did from 1976 until the mid-90s. Until his death he was a great consistent presence on the journal, always involved. That took the journal away from the oral history movement. Continued to subscribe to Oral History until five years ago, never read it often. Gave a complete run to Al Thompson for student use. Got a sense from Al that there were problems in the movement in the 80s, has no position on this. Discusses a conference in the 80s or early 90s when he noticed tensions. [30:05] Moving from Essex to Sussex was complex, over a period of 18 months life changed a lot so the break was total. Eve was still in Essex for the first year, would come back to Colchester every weekend. Stayed in a B&B for the first term, got to know people slowly. 2nd and 3rd term took a room in a house with Ian Nobby Duncan who became a good friend. Idea was for Eve and the kids to move to London with Sally Alexander and Gareth in a big house in Pimlico. Split up with Eve in the summer of 1977. In the early autumn of 1977 began to live permanently in Brighton, with Nobby Duncan. Paul had also separated from Thea. Paul moved to Oxford and came down as little as he could to avoid Thea, he also had a new relationship in Oxford. Thea lived close by in Colchester. Moving into a different department and a first full time teaching job at Sussex was also a big change, though staff were supportive. Next went back to Colchester in the mid 80s to take doctorate. Decided to pick it up as life had got more organised, also the Sociology Department in Essex was under threat and there was talk of closure. Rewrote the whole PhD over a long summer. Was vivad in London. Had no contact with Paul after this [37:14] The allegiance was to History Workshop. Was reviews editor (Oral History) for a long time. Paul had a grandiose idea of what the society was about, there was a difficulty in finding oral history books to review. Kept up for 18 months after leaving Essex until Jo took it over. she was more committed to oral history due to its therapeutic benefits, she saw it as a direct political intervention. The journal started in 69, the first issue of the broadsheet was 3 or 4. It was called occasional papers. First published in issue 5 and it was well established. Had attended at least one oral history conference by then. there was a special issue on women which Eve Hostetler worked on. Discusses various issues and articles. They were thematic. [42:05] Paul asked him to become reviews editor. Paul, Thea and Brenda Corti was really it, then Trevor Lummis who was a pre oral history student of Pauls, he was doing a PhD on the aristocracy of labour. He was employed as a research officer on the big Essex project. His wife Sandra was unpopular. Thinks he was the first PhD student in oral history, possibly Jo Bornat though she and Diane Gittins may have been doing the MA. Howard Newby was a sympathetic observer, Paul had got to know George Ewart Evans by then but he wasnt particularly involved. Theo Barker was the first president, John Saville and he had worked on railwaymen in Kent. Christopher Storm Clark from York worked on pitmen. David Lance from the Imperial War Museum came in around this time; he was replaced by Margaret who is still at the Museum now. People doubted whether they should be involved in militarism. David Lance got around this; he had Margaret interview conscientious objectors. Lists people on the committee; Eric Cregeen from the School of Scottish Studies was a really nice man. Tony Green was a folklorist from Leeds, he was on the committee. He wrote an important piece of pioneering folklore. Stewart Sanderson from the English Dialect Study at Leeds. He died a fortnight before this interview. His obituary didnt mention oral history at all. They did free association recording sessions; they had been done since the late 40s all over England. Some folklorists felt left out, George Ewart Evans had a difficult relationship with the Society in the long term. George was interested in the relationship between the material and oral cultures, characteristic of early Italian work. The folk life approach, in retrospect he wishes had been more involved in the journal. First thing he wrote for oral history was about folk song. The folklorists were pushed out. George had got very fed up with the over academicisation of it. He was one of the most academic people he knew, he could translate from Latin. Jo Bornat was involved from very early on, memory is imperfect. Questions how much interviewing Christopher Storm Clark and Theo Barker did, never heard the tapes, John Saville didnt do much. He was connected with the Archive at Hull which was undercut by the Modern Record Centre at Warwick. [53:15] The Journal begat the Society around this time. The Inaugural meeting of the Journal was 1969 Alun may have attended the inaugural meeting of the Society. He came early on and stayed on the committee for some time. Did odd bits and pieces for the Society whilst at Sussex, Aberdeen Buckie interviews. Jean McrIndell had done work with Sheila Rowbotham on Scottish women. This was after 76. There was a Buckie fishing road show which went to conferences, Paul and Trevor Lummis were involved. Paul did Lerwick and the Hebrides. He did peasants of the sea which upset people, this was after leaving Essex. By the time of the OU felt a long way away. That was with David Triesmans sister, Sue. She was something to do with Paul. Dave Triesman was an Essex rebel from 1968. Sue worked for the BBC/OU and put together the project using the Buckie material for OU elective material. It was media analysis rather than straight history. Attended committee meetings and conferences. [58:50] At one conference in the north they got rid of Theo Barker. Paul had put him in thinking he was important in the SRC. They thought he was neither use nor ornament. Theo would feign modesty over re-election. John Saville and he planned a strategy to depose him but John Saville backed down fearing it looked like they had planned a coup. It worked and they replaced him with George. Theo had an acolyte called John Wyman who edited a Kent history journal. Theo got the grant which Mike Winstanley worked on Kent at the turn  of the twentieth century is now at University of Lancaster, straight 19th century stuff, he came to a Society meeting but was never involved in the movement. Thought Caroline Baker ought to get it, she was an MA student of Pauls who did work on Hopping. She applied for the Winstanley job but Theo had different ideas, she did a PhD on hopping which was important. It was in Manchester because Bill Williams was there for a Jewish history project at Manchester Polytechnic. There was another in Scotland which Eric Cregeen organised, that was later, knew Bob Munroe by then who was working on the Bothy  Ballads in Aberdeen with Ian Carter. Discusses minutes of the meetings. [1:06:40] By the Manchester meeting they were well run with a chair and minute taker and an agenda. Brenda took minutes. Is uncertain if there was more than one committee meeting a year. Possibly an annual meeting at the conference with smaller meetings at Essex where not everybody came. He Paul, Thea, Trevor, Brenda and Jo were in Colchester. The journal was all done by them, not the committee. Remembers picking up the journal from the printers and mailing it out. Janet was employed to transcribe the tapes. The journals were originally done in the Sociology Department until they were being done by golfball and photolighter. Brenda Corti probably typed it on a golfball typewriter and printed off from sheets in Colchester. The journal was just called Oral History they were at most once a year and were numbered, the blue one was number 5, the last without a wraparound binding, the last to be by Roneo. After this it was bound, remembers doing this. Was involved in the Youth one, thinks Eve edited the Women one. There was a sense in which it could always implode. Paul had a vision of the Society as a successful academic organisation, unlike the Workshop. Remembers Tim Mason questioning the Society with a joke, Tim envisioned Journal moving part of the focus from the conferences, mass work and big meetings to influencing university teaching forever. He saw it as a 10 year project, that Marxs social history got a place in the academy in Europe, much less America, nobody cared for America though they had lots of comrades there. Discusses TV programme on Joan Baez. Oral History Society and Paul had a much clearer agenda, though did not produce anything as nice. He recognised that the way to get academic work done was to get grants from the SSRC, he was always good at this. He had an ability to recruit people who would work hard with him without much praise, to support a figurehead. It wasnt planned they agreed to print the journal out of practicality, a cottage industry other than a Routledge type publication machine, has always remained produced by the society. History Workshop has gone to Oxford now, was at Routledge who were useless. Discusses  article has just produced with a colleague, Nicola (Verdon) which has no oral history in it at all. Had 10 years self-publishing but it was too much work. Economic History Society done for years by the Society, now by Basil Blackwell. Past and present done for years by itself.  Stan Shipley thought they should print it themselves. Was done by a company called Titus Wilson in Kendal, no longer exists. Is unsure how long they printed it for, it went first to Pluto. Bookshop distribution, was done by Red Lion by then, they were SWP. By 1979 it was being done by Pluto and Red Lion.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Alun Howkins, Emeritus Professor of History at University of Sussex and agricultural historian and folklorist.

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