During my recent trip to Moscow I had the chance to see the famous Soviet film Tsirk / Circus (1936) for the first time. The film is reputed to have been one of Stalin’s favourites. The director, Grigori Aleksandrov, billed the film as an ‘eccentric comedy … a real side-splitter’ and it does indeed have some comic moments, including a pastiche of Charlie Chaplin. The film propelled Lyubova Orlova even further into the limelight (and she is shot out of a canon in the film itself!), making her the first true ‘star’ of Soviet cinema.
The plot revolves around the hostility directed at American vaudeville dancer Marion Dixon (played by Orlova) because she has a black baby. In the opening scenes, set in America, she is seen being chased by a hostile crowd onto a train and then the camera turns to focus on a swaddled infant. In Moscow, she attracts the attention of the local circus director who is impressed by her circus and performance skills. Her German manager, however, has other ideas. On the brink of making a deal with the Soviet circus director, Dixon’s manager produces the black child as an attempt to shame and embarrass her in front of the circus audience. Contrary to his expectations, however, the child is lovingly passed around the audience as they all sing a lullaby.
The child was played by Jim Patterson, the three-year-old baby son of budding actor Lloyd Patterson, an African American immigrant to the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian theatre designer and artist Vera Aralova. Lloyd died in 1942 as a result of injuries suffered during the war-time bombing of Moscow. Jim went on to have a prestigious career with the Black Sea Fleet in the Soviet navy in the 1950s. He turned his hand to writing poetry in the 1960s and was admitted to the Union of Writers in 1967. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jim and his mother emigrated to the United States. Following the death of his mother in 2001 and now suffering some ill-health, Jim is reported to be leading a rather reclusive life in Washington. In a recent report to the Russian press, Jim noted that he had never intended to leave Russia for ever, but it looks unlikely that he will return.
What is it to ‘do’ public history? This is a question our students are asked to address in a number of different modules and which I was forced to ask myself as a result of attending a couple of recent events. One rather bland answer is, of course, that it is a performance. In addressing an audience in public, rather than in the classroom, we are somehow performing the past into (and to) the present.
Depending on which ‘national tradition’ (Australian; American; British) you belong to, your view on the nature of public history may well be very different. The British tradition, for instance, draws on both the more radical Australian approach and the more conservative American. This means that we can have both the History Workshop movement (and the many community history projects it has spawned), alongside the academic-driven events I recently attended.
The first of these was a hugely interesting talk by Professor Roy Foster (University of Oxford) on the Dublin Uprising of 1916 and given as part of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, to which the School of Humanities has very close ties. Foster is a historian (of Ireland) of considerable repute and has published a number of important books, quite a few of which we use here on modules in both second and third year. As this was a literature festival Professor Foster was inevitably promoting his latest book: Vivid Faces which focuses on the intellectual environment that gave rise to the Uprising. His thesis is that here was the radicalisation of a set of unlikely radicals, prompted by a need to wage war on their parents as much as on the government. It was as much of a generational rebellion as that of the counter-culture of the 1960s, the Spanish Civil War or the Italian Risorgimento. I spent a compelling hour in Professor Foster’s company and his talk definitely made me want to buy the book (I haven’t!). But it was much more of a public lecture than anything either Raphael Samuel or Hilda Kean would identify as public history. But does that matter?
A much more entertaining and relaxed hour was spent later the same evening in the company of our own Christian O’Connell. This was the first of this year’s Showcasing History events and it took the form of a musical documentary on ‘The Discovery of the Blues’. Christian both performed songs and talked about how the blues was ‘re-discovered’ during the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on the way this blurred the lines between myth and reality, and between folk and popular culture. Opening and closing on electric guitar and performing in the student union bar, for this participant here was a really interesting attempt to close the gap between the public and academic forms of presenting the past. Like Professor Foster, Christian is a professional historian specialising in (inevitably) US history. But this was more than just a public lecture and it was also more than a performance. It was the performing of the past into the present.
Nowadays we are all being encouraged to think about our students, their future, and employability in our degree courses. In fact, we often address the question of the usefulness, or otherwise, of History to audiences at Open Days and other events, and we lay a great deal of emphasis on the skills required/acquired to be good historians. I have often argued that it is these transferable skills rather than subject content itself that provides employability – no one if likely to be asked who caused the First World War in a job interview. However, I admit this is a rather simplistic approach intended to appease anxious parents and the powers that be in universities, so I was very pleased to see a lengthy piece in The Guardian yesterday extolling the importance of the content History – at least for policy makers.
The article’s author, David Armitage, is a History Professor at Harvard, and he draws attention to the importance of historians in influencing policy – the Foreign and Commonwealth Office actually has its own history section; former Foreign Secretary William Hague is himself a historian. Professor Armitage points out that “for centuries”, historians were advisers to rulers, governments, and policy-makers. History at university was meant not just to equip one for life, but to provide essential training for statesmen and diplomats. Several British prime ministers have been historians, most famously Winston Churchill. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson both had “resident” historians among their advisers. However, those two examples point out the limitations of the role of historians in policy making – if there were lessons of history, Johnson particularly applied them badly in Vietnam, often using the experience of “appeasement” in the past to justify US policy in South-east Asia in the 1960s.
Nonetheless, as Armitage suggests history is or should be vitally important in questioning short-term views, offering alternative perspectives, and challenging the accepted consensus – always, of course, bearing in mind that historians disagree among themselves and that knowledge of the past does not necessarily mean we can avoid the mistakes of the past. For example, while history – and as Armitage suggests, a longer historical view rather than just the most recent past – helps us to understand the origins of the latest crisis in the Middle East and our involvement in the region, it does not provide us with any easy solutions. But at least it might make us question what seem to be easy solutions when they are proposed by our leaders.
The School, and History in particular, is very pleased to announce that late last week Nigel Harrison successfully defended his PhD thesis on the architect Clough Williams-Ellis. CW-E (as Nigel came rather fondly to know him) is best known for being the architect behind Portmeirion of the The Prisoner fame, but as Nigel convincingly demonstrated, there was much more to the man than this. And this despite the fact that his Welsh-Mediterranean fantasy can be successfully cited as one of the influences behind Prince Charles’s Poundbury.
CW-E was one of the breed of early twentieth century architect/planners, having an influence on Stevenage new town and the redevelopment of Weston Super Mare. He was also a prolific writer (England and the Octopus being his most important work), campaigner and conservationist. In all of this and with his links to Morris and Ruskin, to the Arts and Crafts more generally and with his legacy to be found in the careers of a number of influential neo-classical architects, Nigel successfully argued that CW-E has been an important missing link in the development of the modern heritage industry.
These observations, the quality and weight of his illustrations and his sheer hard work were all singled out by his examiners. This became something of a labour of love for Nigel and he is to be warmly congratulated on his achievement. We also hope that Nigel will be around the School for some time to come as he follows up the recommendation of his examiners to turn this into a book!
Black history is a subject we deal with in several modules, particularly in British and US history. However, Black History will be a theme in our blogs next month because every October Black History Month (BHM) is celebrated in the UK. BHM began originally in the USA and was instigated by an African American historian, and son of a slave, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. He established the Association for the Study of Negro (subsequently African American) Life and History in 1925 and began Negro History Week in 1926. This later changed to Negro History Month and then in 1976 became Black History Month. President Jimmy Carter gave it official recognition in 1978 and it has continued ever since. In the USA and Canada BHM is celebrated in February, the month of Abraham Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’s birth.
The celebration did not come to the UK until 1987 when Akyaada Addai-Sebo, a special projects worker at the GLC in London, began it. This reflected the growth in the British black population after World War II, and was also perhaps a response to some of the tensions of the 1980s. Addai-Sebbo chose October as it coincided with Marcus Garvey’s centenary – and also because it followed shortly after the start of the school year. The event was endorsed by the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone who declared that ‘In order to further enrich the cultural diversity of the Greater London area, it is imperative that Londoners know more about African influences on medieval and renaissance European music and more about the roots of Greek music so that accepted ideas about European music is changed. Despite the significant role that Africa and its Diaspora has played in the world civilization since thebeginning of time, Africa’s contribution has been omitted or distorted in most history books’.
This was of course true in for most parts of Britain, and BHM has since become well established and spread beyond London. Intended to widen British appreciation of the historical and cultural contributions of members of the African Diaspora, it has now become a celebration of key individuals, events, and movements in black life and history and the black contributions to our history and heritage. Locally, BHM will be celebrated by a series of events – all open to the public – organised by the Cheltenham West End Partnership: details can be found here.
There is also a lecture organised by the Historical Association on “Africans in Tudor and Stuart Britain” by Dr Miranda Kaufman at 7.30 pm at Friends Meeting Hose, Greyfriars, Gloucester. Entrance is free for all members of the university. And watch our blogs on various aspects of the theme through October!
This week, we welcome our new first years. Induction week is always an exciting time for everyone – but perhaps also a little daunting. As a way of easing our students into the facilities they enjoy here at Gloucestershire, and the ways in which they might make use of them during their studies, this year we’re asking our new students to investigate the history of the town which for many of them is a total stranger. Cheltenham’s past is all around us in so well-preserved a Regency town, so we thought we’d delve a little deeper with a visit to the FCH archive, a tour around the town, and a treasure hunt ending in a pop quiz!.
By way of introduction, here’s a great video via the excellent Twitter account, Old Cheltenham: rare footage of the town from 1910. Call it a game of spot the difference.