2023 has been another year of uncertainty, instability and crisis for so many – a description which has haunted us for the past several years now. Reflecting on the past year, History Workshop editors have selected some radical ‘reads’ – broadly defined to include the many forms and mediums through which we have engaged with histories. These ‘reads’, watches’ or ‘listens’ have provoked thought, brought comfort, generated solidarity and inspired learning amongst the History Workshop and History Workshop Journal editors.
My top choice, and really the high point of my cultural year, was Hot Off the Griddle, the monumental Barbican retrospective of the work of the American artist Alice Neel. Though I’d long ago read her biography, I’d never seen any of her work in person, and seeing her paintings face to face – her acute, unsentimental eye and unwavering commitment to portraiture as a radical art form – was a revelation, as was her luminous portrait of a frail Andy Warhol, painted two years after his shooting by Valerie Solanas and perhaps the greatest work of her long and storied career.
I also loved Mother Country Radicals, a documentary podcast subtitled “A Family History of the Weather Underground”. It’s presented and written by Zayd Ayers Dohrn, a playwright and screenwriter whose parents Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn spent years on the run from the FBI as members of the Weather Underground and allies of the Black Panthers. In ten gripping episodes, in which he interviews both his parents and the children of other Weatherpeople and Panthers, he chronicles his parents’ political and intellectual journeys, maps the intersecting undergrounds that comprised the revolutionary left, and delves into the vexed emotional terrain of being a child amidst the turmoil. It also includes an unforgettable anecdote about an encounter with Muhammed Ali – it’s worth tuning in for that alone.
Finally, though I read it early in the year, I’ve been haunted by Jonathan Rosen’s book The Best Minds: A Story of Friendship, Madness, and the Tragedy of Good Intentions. It’s a memoir of the author’s relationship with his childhood best friend, Michael Laudor, the golden boy of his high school class, who after triumphing at Harvard and embarking on a high flying business career, suffers a crippling descent into schizophrenia. The “good intentions” of the subtitle are those of Laudor’s doggedly supportive friends and mentors, who want to believe that he can triumph over an illness that ultimately overwhelms him, with catastrophic results. Embedded in that personal story is a harrowing analysis of late twentieth century responses to mental illness that I’ve been thinking about ever since.
Ruth Walter took her own life in December 2017. She was 75. She had planned it carefully – but made no mention to her two daughters for fear of making them complicit. Natasha Walter’s exceptional memoir Before the Light Fades describes the anguish and guilt which swept over her and her family. The book then turns to Ruth’s life. It is subtitled ‘a memoir of grief and resistance’. That resistance is Ruth’s own determined campaigning for peace, and her German forbears’ role in trying to frustrate the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists With the help of letters and documents Ruth carefully preserved and the archives of Ruth’s husband, Nicolas Walter (they divorced in the 1980s and Nicolas died in 2000), Natasha has pieced together a powerful account of her mother’s activism. Her parents were both active in the Committee of 100, the direct action wing of the campaign against nuclear weapons. Ruth was 19 when she was first arrested for an act of civil disobedience. Ruth and Nicolas were both Spies for Peace, part of a small and necessarily secretive group which in 1963 successfully exposed the government’s network of civil defence bunkers, ‘regional seats of government’ in official parlance. The Spies knew they risked long jail sentences if caught. It was an episode Ruth remained proud of for the rest of her life. Natasha Walter also delves back into he grandfather’s imprisonment in Germany in the 1930s and his time on the move across a continent which was turning hostile to the liberal values it had once cherished. There’s a lot of pain in the pages of this eloquent memoir, but also a quiet appreciation of the power of defiance.
Don’t Tell Me How to Run My Art School: the inside story of the Guildford School of Art sit-in 1968 – privately published in 2023 – is an account of a different sort of defiance, that of the longest student occupation in the turbulent Summer of ’68. Two veterans of the sit-in have combined to produce this attractive and vivid book: Claire Grey provides the words, some from the diary she kept through the occupation, and John Walmsley contributes the wonderful photos that he took at the time. In straightforward terms, the students lost. Those staff who supported them were sacked. But the sit-in shaped the lives of many of those swept up in that moment of empowerment, including the authors of this book.
First is a podcast recommendation, Sold A Story, which looks at the recent history of teaching children to read. It looks at a long fight between cognitive scientists, politicians and parents over two main theories. It’s also a fascinating look at how academic work trickles down into society and the problems that can cause at times.
The second is a book. William Tullett’s Smell and the Past encourages readers to get their noses stuck into heritage. Tullett looks at how we can “re-oderize” the archives. Smell is a scent that has been massively ignored in favour of “higher” senses like sight and sound.
For several years I’ve been following the work of writer, political journalist and disability advocate, Lucy Webster. She recently published a book called The View From Down Here: Life as a Young Disabled Woman, which is a powerful and incisively written memoir highlighting the intersection of sexism and ableism in everyday life. My favourite chapter was a reflection on social care and ‘the radical case for interdependence’. Lucy’s insight really pushed me to interrogate some of my own assumptions about what it means to employ a PA (personal assistant) and it opened my eyes to the reciprocal nature of the relationship it creates.
First up on the list is a listen – I love Articles of Interest, but this episode on the Corduroy Appreciation Club had me reeling. It is ultimately a reminder about the commitment to the absurd as a hallmark of friendship and creativity. The podcast is amazing at pointing out how we adorn and present ourselves in clothes holds political value, even in (maybe even especially) when our excitement stems from appreciation of beauty. Other highlights of Articles of Interest include the mini-series on American Ivy, on the international history, creation, and appropriation of an ‘American’ aesthetic, and The Black Fashion Museum, following the radical work of Lois Alexander Lane in archiving garments in a dedicated Black American Fashion archive.
My second read is Louisa Lim’s Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong, which reflects on the rapidly shifting dynamics and changing visuality of the landscape in Hong Kong during the 2019 Anti-Extradition Movement. The opening chapter observing and taking part in the making of calligraphic banners is especially moving, since I began learning Chinese calligraphy online during the pandemic as a way to connect with others as well as my mother tongue. She writes history through her own vignettes of the city, a mode of writing which I aspire to!
My final read is an oldie but a goodie, a zine by Sofia Niazi called Intifada Milk first published in 2015 and made available to read for free online. Intifada Milk tells the true story of ‘How one small community in Palestine fought the Israeli occupation with just 18 cows – and almost won.’ As a design educator, I am frequently reminded of the power of profound histories shared in a simple publication printed at home and in the community.
On Savage Shores. How indigenous Americans discovered Europe, by Caroline Dodds Pennock. It is a history of cross-Atlantic entanglement that turns the conventional assumptions on their head, and it’s superbly written too.
Avi Schlaim’s Three Worlds: Memoirs of an Arab-Jew imagines another future for the Middle East through the childhood and adolescence of one of its most thoughtful and distinguished historians. Clair Wills’ The Family Plot: Three Pieces About Containment, is an indispensable historian for these harrowing times. I look forward to reading Natasha Walters, Before the Light Fades a memoir of grief and resistance over the new year.
Keith Snell, Annals of the Laboring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900. The great thing about changing fields (going from eighteenth-century and revolutionary France to nineteenth-century Britain) is that you get to discover so many wonderful new/old books. This one stands out for its measurement and evocation of the wrenching social transformations that underpinned “modern” agriculture: the casualization of labor, increasing poverty with enclosure, changes in gender relations. After decades of cultural history, it’s genuinely exciting to rediscover this sort of scholarship.
Andrea Elliott, Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City. It’s beautifully written and based on a journalist’s eight years with a Black family trapped in deep poverty in New York City. Both bleak and an absolute page turner.
Frank W. Fetter, The Development of British Monetary Orthodoxy. Based on research supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1937-1938, this book was published in 1965. You may or may not want to read it, but you can surely be cheered by the thought that it can sometimes be okay to take three decades to write a book.
I have enjoyed Victoria MacKenzie’s novel, For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain.
I don’t generally love historical fiction, but this is one of a number of recent literary reimaginings of medieval women which play creatively and provocatively with powerful female voices from the past. 2022 saw the publication of Lauren Groff’s Matrix: a wonderfully challenging piece of feminist fiction taking the twelfth-century figure of Marie de France as its starting point; Katherine J. Chen’s Joan uses Joan of Arc to open up provocative possibilities of female agency; Charlie Josephine’s play I Joan brought a great splash of joy into radical reimaginings of Joan’s story. Victoria MacKenzie’s new novel uses the fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe and anchoress Julian of Norwich to voice women’s engagement with grief, trauma and doubt. These are all books which unashamedly exploit the creative and challenging possibilities of women from the past – perhaps most strikingly, the oppressions they all examine are shot through with a sense of radical joy.
At the start of the year I read Margaretta Jolly’s excellent oral history of the UK Women’s Liberation Movement, Sisterhood and After and Ramachandra Guha’s Rebels against the Raj on British, American and Irish writers, journalists and activists who campaigned for India’s freedom from imperial rule. More disconcerting for this radical reader was Tania Branigan’s haunting book Red Memory: Living, Remembering and Forgetting China’s Cultural Revolution. In a way all three of these books are about listening, and specifically the art of listening better: oral histories and interviews figure strongly in two of them, and the third discovers a different version of the history of national liberation hidden in the archives: as Guha writes in his last sentence, ‘If only we could listen better’.
David Vincent’s The Fatal Breath: Covid-19 and Society in Britain (Polity, 2023) is a major study of the pandemic written with Vincent’s usual combination of deep research, literary skill and political savvy. It opens with ‘The Wall’, a description of a stone wall on the south embankment of the Thames in Westminster with a stretch of five hundred yards covered in more than two hundred thousand red hearts. This is the ‘National Covid Memorial Wall’ which records a level of excess deaths ‘not seen in peacetime since the 1918-20 Spanish Flu epidemic’. The title of the book is taken from Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (1722), a fictionalised account of the bubonic plague which had taken its dreadful toll some six decades earlier.
Like its seventeenth-century predecessor, Covid-19 was in some respects democratic in its impact: infecting and too often killing people of all classes. Lockdowns were hard on everyone. But in other respects – as the current inquiry into the government’s disastrous handling of the pandemic is now revealing in damning detail – it followed the fault lines of our society. Those with secure incomes were far more able to protect themselves against the disease, while those crowded into low-income neighbourhoods – particularly members of ethnic minorities – were acutely vulnerable. The scandal of the return of infected elderly people into care-homes; the purchase of defective medical equipment at huge cost; the acute stress levels of NHS workers…the list goes on and on. Vincent quotes a senior doctor: ‘I feel at times, that I am considered totally expendable, and that if I die or become ill not only will it have been preventable with political will, I will simply be an inconvenient statistic. I’m not a COVID hero, I’m COVID cannon fodder.’
How will the history of the Covid pandemic be written a half-century from now, by some twenty-first century Defoe-style chronicler? No doubt there will be many versions, many chroniclers. David Vincent’s book is one of the first of what will surely become a veritable industry. But I am sure it is destined to become a classic: a vital contribution to our understanding of a time no-one living now is likely to forget.