Like its predecessor, the year 2021 has been strange, momentous, and unsettling, marked by continuing climate catastrophes, recurrent political upheavals, and a global pandemic whose permutations show no signs of abating. In the midst of so much instability, books, articles, and podcasts have been a resource and a refuge. Once again, History Workshop editors choose their radical reads of the year.
I have been reading about England during and after the second world war and the making of the welfare state by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government. Jose Harris’ William Beveridge: a Biography unravels the intellectual formation of this complex, somehow graceless man, whose Plan was one of the foundations of the Welfare State. It’s brilliant. I’m halfway through Jerry White’s new Battle of London 1939-45, which takes issue with Angus Calder’s incomparable The People’s War (1969; 1992 edn.) over the effectiveness of local government, and the impact of the Communist Party. Calder’s second last chapter ‘War on the mind’ ends with the ‘intellectual rigor and cold courage’ of Keith Douglas the soldier poet, killed in Normandy in 1944. Courage and ‘unremitting clarity of vision’ were necessary qualities Calder argued for the ‘desperate reality’ which lay ahead.
I have two books to recommend. The first is Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy. This is a 1977 prose-poem novel, which is quite often funny, but also a searing commentary on colonisation. It flips the script of the standard travel narrative, where most often someone from the global north travels to the south but instead follows Sissy, a young Ghanaian woman, on state sponsored visit to Europe. The second is Amia Srinivasan’s work of public philosophy The Right to Sex, released this year. This takes an unflinching look at many important questions in feminism, when often it is tempting to look away or provide the glib justification of “personal choice.” Srinivasan models for us how we might do better, encouraging courage in work and in life.
My recommendation is Christine Walker’s Jamaica Ladies: Female Slaveholders and the Creation of Britain’s Atlantic Empire. It is both meticulously researched and evocatively written. The way Walker builds up a picture of these women, most of whom are slave owners, is remarkable and so rich you feel that you’ve met them. Her analysis shows that female slave owners (of both European and African descent) were central to early modern Jamaica’s booming economy and used chattel slavery to bolster their own, often precarious, independence. The book has pushed me to explore the role of women in my own research about the 18th century mahogany trade.
I’ve read a lot of books on aspects of environmental history this year and the best of them have radically challenged conventional ways of writing about the experience of nature and landscape. One book I’ll remember for a long time is David Gange’s amazing book The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel, a book which reimagines the history of Britain as seen from a kayak navigating its western extremities. There’s a lot of radical history in it – people’s history, postcolonial history, global history – though it’s not the kind of history taught in schools or most British universities. I seem to be drawn to these genre-busting books – another is anthropologist Erik Mueggler’s absolutely brilliant book The Paper Road: Archive and Experience in the Botanical Exploration of West China and Tibet (published in 2011 but still fresh in my mind), an eloquent account of the relationships between two colonial botanists travelling in Western China and their Indigenous collaborators which raises many questions about landscape, memory and encounter.
At the risk of too much insularity, my favourite radical read of the year was unquestionably Joe Moran’s article “The Scattering: a Family History for a Floating World”, which has just been published in HWJ 92. An account of his journey to scatter his father’s ashes on Scattery, an island in the Shannon estuary, it is a luminous and profoundly moving exploration of place, family, migration, and the nature of belonging in island nations (or indeed anywhere else). Reading and re-reading it over the last few months sent me to Moran’s other works, and I’m now deep into If You Should Fail: a Book of Solace, which is at once an eloquent, clear-sighted rebuttal of pop culture exhortations to “fail better” and an illuminating untangling of the free market roots of the concept of “failure” itself. Finally, if I can extend the concept of “reading” to encompass listening to podcasts, in reflecting on these ever-stranger times I’ve become a devotee of Conspirituality, in which Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker (a journalist, a cult researcher, and a “philosophical skeptic”, respectively) skewer the increasingly ubiquitous convergence of right-wing conspiracy theories and “faux-progressive wellness utopianism”. It’s smart, funny, and often frightening.
I absolutely adored this piece in HWJ 92 by Su Lin Lewis and Robert Bickers, “Four Lives, Two Cars, and a Colony”, which opened up the most amazing possibilities for family history as a way to think of empire and decolonisation. I was also very excited by Jessica Namakkal’s Unsettling Utopia: the Making and Unmaking of French India. Focusing on imperial French territories in India in the age of decolonisation, it also is a history of how such a formal decolonisation can still allow very colonial forms of settlement to persist. Supposedly utopian and spiritual places like the Ashram at Auroville (the key leaders being Aurobindo and the Mother, a French woman) near Pondicherry, actually relied on practices of a recolonisation, combining exploitative labour, settlement, and even erased the wishes and contributions of Indian followers as well as local people (including linguistically). Its deeply fascinating for a whole host of reasons, both as the afterlives of Empire in South Asia tend to be thought of as British, and also how such seemingly innocuous yet ubiquitous projects that do not sit easily with so many people can be revealing of a much larger hierarchy that still persists.
My radical read of the year is Amelia Horgan, Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism. I read Horgan’s book while spinning multiple work-related plates. Like many (early career) historians, finding time to plan and complete archival work, teaching plans, academic writing, and job/funding applications – the list goes on – can feel unachievable, if not impossible. While Lost in Work is not a book of optimistic solutions, it opened my eyes to a radical new possibility – allowing myself to enjoy more free time, not simply to consume more ‘stuff’, but to find joy outside of work.
I drew inspiration this year from two books that cross the boundary between memoir and history: the graphic memoir/history Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall, with illustrations by Hugo Martinez, and Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands. Both weave together the authors’ present-day life and research with accounts of past lives inside and outside slavery, holding historical imagination in productive tension with archival work. Both are courageous in revealing and interrogating their authors’ personal stakes in the histories they tell, and in doing so they make these histories personal for all readers.
Both offered sustenance. Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby is a novel looking to the future rather than the past, which provided insight and escape during this tumultuous year. This book reframes family, love and gender through the story of three cis and trans women struggling to define their relationship to motherhood together. Whip sharp, witty and profound in equal measure, it is the modern day heir to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.
Leila Berg’s Flickerbook is a work of reliving a very difficult personal past. Berg, a crusader for children through her writing and campaigning for progressive education for children, wrote it in her late seventies, fifteen years before she died. The book is a series of vignettes, of moments in time in a radical, often very painful, personal history, captured beautifully by this wonderful writer.
My choice is Philip Ruff, A Towering Flame: the life and time of the elusive Latvian anarchist Peter the Painter . The stern visage of the legendary Peter the Painter – with bow tie and waistcoat, a Trotsky-style beard and a stare which could turn you to stone – peers out from the cover of Philip Ruff’s exceptional new book. Peter was the “one that got away” – the Latvian revolutionary suspected of directing the gang of ‘expropriators’ involved in the dramatic shoot-out at Sidney Street in Stepney in 1911, but whose fate and real identity remained a mystery. That’s a puzzle which Ruff has convincingly solved through meticulous scholarship in Latvia, London and elsewhere. He not only puts a name to this expropriator, but chronicles his life and activism across Europe, America and (much later) Australia, and meets some of his distant relatives. Above all, he describes the determination of politicised young women and men in early twentieth century Latvia to break free of Russian imperialism, German landlords and the Lutheran church, and to build a more equal society – and how the bitterness of that struggle, and the torture and terror inflicted by the Russian authorities after the failed Latvian revolution of 1905, pushed some leftists towards ‘revolutionary expropriation’, armed robbery, as a means of sustaining their movement and themselves.