Sally Alexander in conversation with Poppy Sebag-Montefiore for History Workshop Online.

I meet Sally in the kitchen of her home in London. She blasts the coffee grinder when I arrive and heats some milk in a pan. She tells me that when she first met Raphael Samuel he’d greet her with the loud drill of the coffee grinder; it makes her think of him every time.

Sally is being played by Keira Knightly in a movie, Misbehaviour, released in cinemas this week (13 March). Misbehaviour is about the Miss World Contest in 1970 at the Royal Albert Hall. Sally was one of many women’s liberationists who flour-bombed the stage. She has been ambivalent about the film since it was first mooted, perhaps partly out of a kind of discretion. She tells me that when she was shown the finished film, she asked for her name to be removed because of several misrepresentations. One scene in particular never happened. It takes place the night before the contest: the fictional Sally’s partner, Gareth (Stedman Jones), watches the news, which warns of a bomb explosion outside the Albert Hall. He remonstrates with her not to join the protest. Sally’s objection was that, had she known of violence, she would not have risked demonstrating. Her daughter (Abigail) was five years old. In fact, Sally was one of five arrested that evening and put on trial three months later.

After talking to her family and the filmmakers, Sally accepted that the film was using some poetic license to re-write the timeline of her own history and supported the film. Misbehaviour tells the interwoven stories of the organisers, contestants, and demonstrators, and offers a complex glimpse of Britain in 1970.

Sally has spoken about her involvement in the flour bombing of the 1970 Miss World contest to the BBC’s Witness programme.

Here we talk about Sally’s thinking, writing and work as a historian.

See Red Women’s Workshop. Creative Commons License.

Poppy

I’ve loved reading your work in preparation for this conversation. Some of your sentences seem to contain entire books. Most of your work is short, in essay form, and essays tend to get hidden; so it’s exciting to be here and bring some of it out again. Let’s start with your essay: ‘Do Grandmas have husbands?’ I loved the title. You write about your granddaughter’s questions to you and about the younger generation questioning older. You write: “we have the memories they want.” And I felt that when reading your work, that you have the memories that we would like to understand the texture of: for example, how it felt to be part of the women’s liberation movement in the late 60s, how you moved from theatre to history, working through Marxism, reading and writing the history of psychoanalysis at the beginning of that wave.

Sally

The essay began – literally – with noticing (I keep a notebook) that both of my eldest granddaughters at about the age of four or five asked me the same question – ‘do grandmas have husbands?’  None of their three grandmothers had husbands then. I was struck by the question, intrigued by what the child notices. It made me think. I was born into a fortunate generation: children of the welfare state, nurtured by its orange juice, schools, free medical inspections, fought for by earlier generations.  Earlier generations of women would have struggled to lead independent lives.

Actually, the essay sprang from two conversations. The other was with Paul Thompson, the distinguished oral historian, in the early 1970s. It was about whether psychoanalysis could be useful in writing family histories. That conversation went on for several decades! Paul’s reservations about Freud’s thought were shared by many British historians: the focus on the individual unconscious; its unknowabiliity, except through dreams, phantasy, jokes; Freud’s own manner of patriarchal authority, and more.

Whereas I’d first read Freud in a feminist history group: our questions were about sexual difference and desire, how ideas live in the mind. Paul’s difficulties with Freud’s writings only spurred me on. In the ‘Grandmas’ essay, I answered the child’s questions with family memories as well as my own. But I also wanted to show how identification with previous generations – always part of feminism, often part of the process of writing history too – strengthened and enabled me to imagine a life alone, after divorce, separation. And I needed Joan Riviere’s peopling of the unconscious – to illustrate both memory work, the building up of a self, and what aloneness might mean.

Poppy

What are you working on now?

Sally

I’m trying to think about why people have often refused social democracy in Britain, why people vote against it, why it’s so often pushed aside for more ruthless forms of liberal democratic government. I’ve had to read or re-read much before I could write a sentence about the manifestations and roots of racial thinking that run through British history in the 20th century. Apart from my fellow History Workshop Journal editors: Claire Wills, Paul Gilroy, Gail Lewis, Mark Mazower, Tony Judt – among others – all help. I’m in a small reading group working our way through Hannah Arendt on Totalitarianism.

Hidden in ‘Do Grandmas Have Husbands?– buried in it – is another question that my (then) youngest granddaughter Talia asked me about relations of kin and her own place in the family. As Talia questioned how one ‘cousin’ is also – mysteriously – their step-uncle, Molly, older and wiser in the ways of the world than her sister, explained: he’s not a ‘blood relation’, with the emphasis on the blood. Historians of racial thinking might not agree, but it occurred to me as I was writing, that that phrase heard often in conversation – ‘blood relation’, not of our blood, blood lines and so on – might resonate so viscerally because it stems (at least in part) from the moment when the young child tries both to master language and to work out who s/he is in relation to others. This might be one starting point of Freud’s ‘narcissism of minor differences’, which always risks contaminating liberal or social democracy unless vigorously resisted.

I’ve been thinking about all this for a very long time; it’s part of an ongoing concern with subjectivity.

Poppy

This kind of subjectivity that you describe as being around in social democracy – what happens to it in liberal democracy?

Sally

The two are difficult to disentangle because liberal and social democracy are layered and overdetermined since the middle decades of the 20th century, when Clement Attlee’s Labour Government established the ‘welfare state’ and NHS. These structures and institutions – despite the onslaughts of Thatcherism and the Conservative government’s ‘austerity’ policies since 2010 – still shape political subjectivities. The architects of the British welfare state, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, were both liberals. Beveridge had streaks of utopianism in him – for instance, labour market and unemployment reform, his rejection of means testing. He was a Fabian before the First World War. His autobiography ends with the bleakest vision of Britain at the end of the 1950s, besieged by death and destruction; he’s haunted by the certainty of a third world war, world poverty and destitution. Keynes, also a liberal, reconstructs the intellectual formation of the early, male, Bloomsbury group (most of whom were socialists of sorts) in the essay ‘My Early Beliefs’ (1920s). Keynes puts the Cambridge idealist philosopher George Moore’s ‘states of mind’ at the centre of their thinking.  Donald Winnicott, paediatrician and psychoanalyst, whose work was vital in foregrounding the psychic life of the child in welfare institutions, was also a liberal who believed in social provision.  For me one of his best essays, ‘War Aims’ (1940), opens with the claim that we are the same as our enemies, born out of the same European subsoil, with a shared ‘historical responsibility’ for Nazism and world war. Psychoanalysis, like history, leaves you with few illusions.

There’s scarcely a breath between liberal and social democratic subjectivity on some issues of social justice, though perhaps the starting point for the liberal is the individual, whereas for the social democrat it is collective: a show of hands, shop-floor or local trades council democracy, school governor boards or cooperative societies.  Some liberals doubt that collectives can think coherently, only the individual mind reasons.  Fear of bureaucracies runs through both liberal and social democratic thought, post-1945, even as the Cold War divided Europe and the world.

Poppy

Can you talk about your political awakening? What lead you to Ruskin, to Marxist history?

Sally

I hadn’t read Marx before I went to Ruskin [College].  A student in my economics class during the first term gave a wonderfully clear account of the Labour Theory of Value which I’ve never forgotten. The idea came from the early 18th and 19th century trade unions. It helped me understand labour markets, labour process, the distinctions between skilled, unskilled and casual labour, the sexual division of labour when I came to write about women’s work in Victorian London. I’ve held onto a version of the Labour Theory of Value ever since, and we need it today to restore dignity and meaning to work in the gig economy, across part-time casual sectors.

As to how I was politically awakened, I grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in an entrepreneurial family near Reading.  My parents were liberal, loving, and they voted Conservative. My father was a self-made man and I argued with him about hanging, homosexuality, CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and, later, the Vietnam war. I read avidly. Isolated with polio when I was eleven, I talked to my brother and sisters through the bedroom window, I read, and listened to the wireless. I was a tomboy, book worm.

The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) opened my eyes. I didn’t know what I was doing there really. Except that I fell in love with theatre as a child. In the early sixties, London was dotted with theatres and cinemas, clubs, venues for plays, workshops, screenings or meetings. RADA students were often given free tickets in the gods. We saw everything, every avant-garde film (often shown with soft porn film), all the new plays. My husband John Thaw, an actor, hammered home to me what it meant to come from a secondary modern school without O-levels, where the jobs on offer were in the local factory or on the market, which was where he worked before RADA.  John – who’d read plays in Manchester Library, and worked in Liverpool Rep and Granada’s The Younger Generation before we met – instilled in me the grammar of class. He understood my father. He was at home in the Ruskin bar. He took me home to meet his beloved extended family in Manchester, to a small terrace house which had nothing in the kitchen except a pot of HP sauce and a pot of ketchup on the table. Nothing else.

Poppy

What lead you to Ruskin?

Sally

I went on impulse. I was in the middle of a divorce. I had been working in the theatre for seven or eight years. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted. I had been doing voluntary work at the Blackfriars Settlement and taking a correspondence course in English A-level. Clive Goodwin – who was a literary agent to all the left-wing writers, directors and producers (those who weren’t with Peggy Ramsay) – was starting a radical newspaper called The Black Dwarf, with a group of writers, journalists and artists. It was named after Thomas Wooler’s newspaper in the 1840s. Clive was a friend, our daughters were the same age, he thought I could be useful. Someone told me about Ruskin, and I applied. I was one of two women taking the Oxford diploma. Ruskin was residential. Eventually they allowed me to ‘live out’ because I had a three year old. Abigail went to the local nursey and I went in every day.

Poppy

What was it like, you and these trade union guys?

Sally

I was silent; I don’t think I ever opened my mouth in a seminar ever during the time I was at Ruskin. I don’t think I did at RADA either; or later at UCL. I wasn’t silent with my friends – but anywhere else.

Poppy

Why were you silent?

Sally

I hadn’t anything to say. I had no plan or project for my life. I only knew that I wanted to learn, but I didn’t know how. I sort of breathed in the atmosphere of engineers and post office workers, miners and others, their shop-floor culture and I learnt a respect for the Labour movement. Some aspects of London’s left politics had made me uneasy. I fled from the anti-Vietnam demonstrations in Hyde Park in 1968 when violence broke out, for instance. But at Ruskin I learnt respect for the ways in which trade unionists, members of the Labour or the Communist Party, and some socialists paid attention to and listened to each other. On occasion at Ruskin we did howl down Michael Stewart, the foreign secretary, for supporting the Vietnam war; Barbara Castle for introducing the industrial relations act; Enoch Powell more than once. But I observed how campaigns were built: for instance, the Oxford to London marches to ‘Free Dave Kitson’, a former Ruskin student, imprisoned for 20 years in South Africa under the race laws.

Poppy

What about Raphael Samuel. What was it like to be taught by him?

Sally

Life-changing. I learnt everything from Raphael, though he scarcely ‘taught’ so much as encouraged, engaged in conversation, led us to the libraries and archives. We met at the end of my first term. He asked me what I enjoyed reading. Novels, I replied. ‘Well that makes you a historian Sally!’ was his reply and, before I knew where I was, I was one of a handful of students who were taking a new diploma in History that didn’t yet exist, that he was creating. Alun Howkins, Arielle Aberson and I were its first recruits.

Poppy

What did you learn from Raphael?

Sally

That a mind filled with books reading and knowledge was a very fine thing.  That libraries and archives were filled with riches.  That the historical imagination was to be nurtured and that history included memory, myths, folklore, and song. Raphael was gentle. I was drawn to this quieter world of reflection (as I thought!). Raphael Samuel seemed to promise this. He made me believe I could write. I seldom delivered the weekly essay on time. He never engaged with my negativity. He simply asked what I had read, what it made me think about and to read the few paragraphs I might have with me.  As I read aloud he murmured with enthusiasm or leapt up to reach for a book. When I left the tutorial, my head thrummed with thoughts – sentences even – I felt exhilarated; soon the essay was written.

Poppy

How personal is the history you have done? You write in your introduction to Becoming a Woman: “My personal history is there too – in the full stops and the commas”.

Sally

It’s only in the full stops. I don’t think it’s in the sentences.  But of course, I am there. There’s always more in the archives, in writing and language, than one first glimpses. This was oral history’s great insight. I’m thinking of Luisa Passerini’s archaeological excavation of Turin worker’s silences in their testimony of living under fascism. I interviewed women about their memories of growing up and working in London during the 1920s and ‘30s.  Once, after a seminar paper I gave in California, Tom Lacquer, the historian of sexuality and remembrance, asked whether I had asked my respondents about love. No, I had not. But as I read and re-read their transcripts, I realised love was everywhere. Women worked for love, worked for the children – ‘it’s love isn’t it’; they described illicit love affairs, abortions – ‘I gave way to love’. How could I not have noticed? One woman describing her love for her mother speaks blank verse. I’ve never done it justice. Someone’s testimony is never exhausted. There’s so much still to write.

Poppy

I want to ask about psychoanalysis in a moment – first how about your feminist awaking? How did that come about?

Sally

Slowly – like socialism – there wasn’t a moment of epiphany. I had friendships with women. I was one of three sisters and a brother. I was completely comfortable with women, I understood women, I had a child very young. I had men friends too, but I loved men, physically, sexually, I fell in love with men. Having a child changed me.

While I was helping Clive raise money for The Black Dwarf in ’67 and ‘68, going to meetings at Tony Garnett’s or David Mercer’s, among others, where members of left groups or the new left would be invited to debate –  I met Sheila Rowbotham. As we sat on the floor in Clive’s office, piling copies of The Black Dwarf into stacks, we talked. Every question I asked her: who are the International Socialists, the International Marxist Group, what was the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, what is the difference between Communism and Troskyism, she answered. Sheila was (and is) incandescent: she made me laugh, she was a gorgeous dancer, and she wrote. She was an equal with all these guys editing Black Dwarf.  I think Sheila was probably born writing. So as I began to talk to her, with other women too, we began to think about what it meant to be a woman,  and – in the context of civil rights, the events of 1968, the anti-Vietnam movement, we borrowed ideas from all of them – gradually there was a movement, women’s liberation.

Poppy

Did you ever feel torn, because you had this sympathy for the labour movement, for socialism. Did you feel a conflict there with feminism? Was there ever a sense of betrayal of socialism when you committed to the women’s movement – or were they connected?

Sally

Yes I did! Of course I did!  There’s a long historic struggle between Labour and the women’s movement. For some historians of my political generation the relation between socialism and women’s liberation was more intimate: for Sheila, for instance, or Catherine Hall, Barbara Taylor, Anna Davin, I hesitate to speak for all History Workshop Journal editors. But the Women’s Liberation Movement was where I belonged. The relation between feminism and socialism always has to be negotiated, as the suffragettes found in the 1900s. Socialism doesn’t always take into account the forms and relations that women’s oppression takes. What is a woman? How is she different from a man? What does she desire? Those were some of the questions we were preoccupied with and many socialists thought them divisive or irrelevant. Those questions have changed with the pill, legal abortion, gay liberation, AIDS, IVF, gay marriage, LGBTQ. Sexuality and desire, bodily difference, matters but how they matter, where and when and in what circumstances – that’s always a matter for negotiation in relation with others.

Poppy

So let’s turn to psychoanalysis. How did that become so important to you?

Sally

I was in the history group in 1970 in London. There were about eight or nine of us reading Kate Millet, Levi-Strauss, Marx, Engels. Juliet Mitchell suggested that we read Freud, as I remember, because psychoanalysis was the body of work that addressed the questions we were addressing: the body, phantasy, infantile desire, the incest taboo, generational difference. I locked myself in the bathroom to read the 1933 essay on femininity and nearly drowned. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, it spoke directly to me. I came out of the bathroom a changed woman! Freud wrote about a dimension of phantasy that I recognised in myself and – I didn’t realise this at the time – in training myself to be a historian, I denied and tried to push away. Reading Freud made me realise that I needed that dimension if I was to be able to think. Passion, the impossibility of desire, those hateful questions: are women more envious, jealous, less capable of social justice? What is penis envy? Is it women who ‘are the problem’, Freud asked? Where does femininity spring from, inside us or without?

And I’ve never stopped reading Freud since.

Photo credit: Sally Alexander

Poppy

And what was it like at that time to try to bring psychoanalysis into your history writing?

Sally

Trying to use psychoanalysis as a historian during the 1980s and ‘90s – when gender, Foucault, discourse analysis, performativity swept the board – was not easy. Sexual difference, the inner world, phantasy seemed unwelcome to feminist historians who found the concept of gender more productive. But the historical exploration of racial feeling, sexual violence, political conviction in its more intransigent forms – these events and manifestations demand the register of phantasy, sexual desire, if historians are to grasp the force of feeling which underpins political power, as Jacqueline Rose, writing so cogently on South Africa, Palestine/Israel, on violence has shown.

Poppy

Do you think socialism suffered because it couldn’t keep hold of all the intellectuals on the left – because feminism and psychoanalysis took over some people’s imaginations and interests?

Sally

That’s an interesting thought. It shouldn’t, should it? Because social democracy is open-ended, international, looks outward, and so is feminism. Both movements are democratic – which is so often where difficulty steps in…

 Poppy

We think of psychoanalysis as very much to do with individual subjectivity, and you do this genius thing of looking at Winnicott and how his ideas infected the NHS, and so you make a link between psychoanalysis and social democracy.

Sally

It’s Donald Winnicott’s genius, born of his time, not mine. He worked in an open clinic for families and children, studied the mother/infant relation there and in the minds of evacuees, disturbed children in local authority care; he opposed eugenics, electric shock treatment and always advocated public provision of need. For him, the human mind began through the minds of others.

But think also of Freud’s essays written during the 1920s and ‘30s. Where else can we read about the erotic power of groups? Why people believe so intensely?  One of the most absorbing essays, difficult to comprehend, is ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ (1919) in which Freud introduces the death drive. It was written after the First World War, after the death from influenza of his eldest, very much loved, daughter. As he watches his grandson play the Fort Da game, which re-enacts the mother’s presence and absence, he finds in the child’s game both the death drive and attachment. I found Freud’s notion of repetition helpful for thinking about the history of feminism. ‘Moses and Monotheism’ (1939) is – among other things – a sustained reflection on belief and history. The first two or more generations of psychoanalysts were building an international movement and practice amid the ravages of fascism and world war. Their writings are a huge resource for historians wanting to understand social democracy, or any political regime.

Poppy

I wanted to ask you what it’s meant for you to be part of collectives, part of History Workshop and in conversation with these historians?

Sally

It’s held me up. All of us – it’s held all of us up.  To have been part of feminist history in the 1970s, History Workshop in all its vicissitudes since then, all the informal and extra-mural opportunities for talking and teaching history – all this has been a great good fortune.  Historical work is always collaborative, and we wanted to honour that explicitly as part of the original project of History Workshop Journal. In a sense we inherited this extra-mural tradition from the generations before us: the Communist Party Historians’ Group, the Workers Educational Association, Trade Union study groups.  Intellectual work can sometimes find you alone in the archive –   although never really alone because of the whispering voices and hallucinatory presences from all around – but alone in the effort to shape some thoughts into a history.  My political generation of historians have seldom been really alone. Even without the virtual world of the internet and digital media, when not actually with fellow historians or students of history, we still speak to each other in our minds, silently. When we write, we address each other. Bill Schwarz has written somewhere of the wonders of the seminar, of people together, meeting as equals to explore ideas, which is still the preserve of the university.  Extraordinary.

Poppy

Because we can’t think by ourselves.

Sally

We can’t. Any thought is the work of many, many minds. And I think I love that about the historian’s craft.

Misbehaviour is out in cinemas now. It was written by Rebecca Frayn and Gaby Chiappe, directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, produced by Suzanne Mackie.

Sally Alexander is Emeritus Professor of Modern History at Goldsmiths University of London. Her books include Becoming a Woman: and other essays in 19th and 20th century feminist history (London: Virago, 1994), and most recently History and Psyche: Culture, Psychoanalysis, and the Past, edited with Barbara Taylor (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

 

Photo credit: Laura McCartney

Poppy Sebag-Montefiore is a writer and journalist, and a member of the History Workshop Journal’s editorial collective. 

 

2 Comments

  1. Ellen Ross

    A wonderful, thoughtful interview. It taught me so much about Sally, though I’ve known her for many years. A far cry from what could have been the celebrity interview–because of the movie.

  2. Ron Grele

    I find it interesting that the segment of the interview shown here begins with the essay by Sally “Do Grandmas Have Husbands?” I think it is one of the most profound essays of the last few years. I enjoyed hearing the first presentation and the final version. Many thanks for the interview.

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