History of History Workshop

Alun Howkins: the Land and its Rebels

Alun Howkins (1947-2018) was a historian of the land and its people, a founding editor of History Workshop Journal, and a singer and historian of folk song.

On 25 April 2019 History Workshop Journal and the Raphael Samuel History Centre honoured his work and memory at a memorial event at Birkbeck College. Here, to celebrate the richness and depth of Alun’s legacy, Becky Taylor shares her eulogy, Derek Schofield shares his photographs, and Stewart Morgan Hajdukiewicz shares his video of an interview with Alun in 2016.

Alun Howkins’ memorial event coincided with the last of ten days of environmental protest in London by Extinction Rebellion. These were the most sustained and high-profile anti-climate change actions Britain has experienced to date.  Thousands of people, committed to non-violent direct action and willing to face arrest, took and held four iconic sites across the capital – Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch. Aided by the unseasonably summery weather and the holiday period, the ‘conscientious objectors’ seemed to capture the mood of a disaffected public and attracted the support of diverse public figures, from Mark Carney, head of the Bank of England, to wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough and school striker Greta Thunberg who took the moment to urge government to declare a climate emergency.

Alun Howkins in 2011. Photo by Derek Schofield.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first published in 1962, is often credited with inspiring the modern environmental movement, although of course since the industrial revolution there had been those – Romantics, back-to-the-landers and ‘simple lifers’ as well as active conservationists such as John Muir – who had been questioning humanity’s relationship with nature and been searching for new ways to formulate that relationship. Nevertheless the burgeoning environmental movement from the 1960s saw a parallel emergence, primarily in the US, of a growing field of environmental history asking questions of the relations between human agency and ecological transformation through imperialism, exploration, agricultural change, technological innovation and urban expansion.

In Britain until recently environmental history has been a more muted, sometimes invisible, presence, often found sitting under the label of landscape or rural history. Alun did not, I think, position himself as an environmental historian. Rather he saw himself as a historian of the land and the people who worked it. Perhaps in the British Isles which saw the simultaneous emergence of a new ecology and human presence after the last ice age, and where wilderness has long been in short supply, this was particularly fitting. In Alun’s case it was also testament to his involvement in the labour and social justice causes of the 1960s and 1970s and the History Workshop movement which was determined to re-centre history around the everyday experiences of the poor and those commonly marginalised from history.

Alun Howkins in 2011. Photo by Derek Schofield

But in common with environmental historians, running through his work was a central preoccupation with the relationship between the landscape and people, and the changing role of power and capital in humanity’s drive to produce food, and in doing so reworking that relationship. Nowhere was this more visible than in his 2003 book, The Death of Rural England, and in the BBC television series Fruitful Earth, (1999). This four-part history of agriculture was written and presented by Alun, and the first of the programmes was screened as part of the memorial evening. His focus in Fruitful Earth was on food, land, agriculture and power.  Four episodes covered the history of the British Isles from 5000 BC to the aftermath of the BSE crisis, the rise of GM crops, and reactions to chemically-dominated industrial agriculture from the growth of vegetarianism to the resurgence of organic farming.

Alun Howkins on William ‘Merrie’ Kimber and the origins of Cecil Sharp’s morris dance revival. From an interview recorded in June 2016, in Winfarthing, Norfolk. Music and images used by kind permission of the rights holders. Video (c) Stewart Morgan Hajdukiewicz (2019).

Alun’s commitment to understanding, recording and revealing the human costs of the work of turning the land into humanity’s larder is perhaps what marked him out from other environmental historians. Alun was also, always, a historian of popular protest, of resistance to the injustices capital wrought, most often on the poorest and most marginal, by the processes of change. Rick-burnings, strikes and attempts at unionisation, as much as networks of solidarity and affiliation through chapel or labour, showed time and again that the subjects of Alun’s research were self activated, articulate often in song or verse, imbued with dignity and resilience. With his easy sociability and capacious curiosity over the lives of others, oral history, song, the landscape itself provided Alun with the medium to capture something of the hard world of rural labour, where the demands of the seasons shaped people’s bodies, activities and sense of time, a world where ‘you stopped work in winter when you could see two stars with one eye’.

This seems a world away from the social media savvy protests of Extinction Rebellion, with its pink boat, sound systems and meditation sessions. But it is there in the determined, indeed desperate cry, from those with little power to those with power, demanding that our relationship to the world about us be fundamentally, and urgently, reworked. It is a cry which has been sent up across the centuries and one which Alun would have recognised.

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