Big River, Jimmy Nail.

This song became the anthem of the Women of the Waterfront. I have listened to it on repeat all day and, whilst it’s not about the Mersey, it may as well be! It’s a good job historians went all postmodern as I am very emotionally invested in my project. Don’t worry, I know I need to acknowledge my subjectivity and I will do so in my dissertation. However, right now it is 8:30pm on a rainy July evening and I want to revel in it. The lyrics are great, the song is great, the Women of the Waterfront were (still are) great.

Walking on cobbled stones
Little bits of skin and bone
Jumping on a tram car for a ride

I can remember then
‘Cause I was a just a boy of ten
Hanging around the old Quayside

Now all the capstans and the cargo boats
And Stevedores are gone
To where all the old ships go
But memories, just like the sea live on

‘Cause that was when coal was King
The river was a living thing
And I was just a boy but it was mine
The coal Tyne

For this was a big river
I want you all to know
That I was proud

This was a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now
That’s not now

My father was a working man
He earned our living with his hands
He had to cross the river every day

He picked up a Union card
Out of the Neptune yard
Mouths to feed and bills to pay

There came a time for him to sail
Across the sea and far away
And finally when that war was won
You brought him home and home he stayed

And when his days were done
Under a golden sun
You took him back to where he longed to be
Back to the sea

For this was a big river
I want you all to know
That I was proud

This was a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now
That’s not now

That’s not now

The Neptune was the last to go
I heard it on my radio
And then they played
The latest number one

But what do they do all day
And what are they supposed to say
What does a father tell his son?

If you believe that there’s a bond
Between our future and our past
Try to hold on to what we have
We build them strong, we built to last

‘Cause this is a mighty town
Build upon a solid ground
And everything they’ve tried so hard to kill
We will rebuild

For this is a big river
I want you all to know
I’m so very proud

This is a big river
But that was long ago
That’s not now

And this is a big, big river
And in my heart I know
It will rise again
The river will rise again

My First Interviews

In the last two weeks I have carried out my first ever interviews as a historian. I have read many books on oral history theory but no amount of reading could have prepared me for how I felt when I sat face-to-face with the people who had trusted me to write the history of their life.

As I am researching the 1995-98 dock dispute in Liverpool, my interviews took place in the CASA- it was only right. Prior to meeting my first interviewee, I had carefully chosen what to wear to ensure I looked professional enough to convince people that I had some sort of right to be involved in a project like this. My fears melted away as I greeted a lovely gentleman who had already got a pot of tea ready for me. I know he could tell I was terrified and I had already told him on the phone that he would be my first ever interviewee. After a little small talk, I shakily took my Dictaphone out of my bag and asked if it was okay if I started recording. This caused some unease as it really is a reminder that this is not just a chat for both parties involved. Anyway, after a couple of minutes the Dictaphone faded into the background- unfortunately the sound of seagulls did not- and I was thrown into a world full of amazing characters, story lines and life mottos.

Sometimes- and by sometimes, I mean often- I question myself and why I’m going into academia. Who am I to try to write the past? But, sitting in the CASA surrounded by such a rich history, talking to lovely, patient and extremely impressive people reminded me that they are the reason I want to do this. How can we let life pass us by without recording the importance of daily life?

Besides learning a lot about my general interviewing technique and Dictaphones, I have five key reflections I want to outline from these early experiences:

  1. Constantly considering what I want to ask about next whilst having a conservation was exhausting.
  2. Being in awe of the interviewee and listening to their achievements through their humble viewpoint made me feel wholly inadequate.
  3. Asking what seemed like an obvious or stupid question provoked some of the best answers. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  4. People are kind. When I showed an interest, nodded my head and let them try to work out/recall/finish their story, they appreciated it and told me more.
  5. Post-interview elation is a thing. As my interviewees said their goodbyes and walked away. I had to sit for a while and think about the gold mine I now had stored in my Dictaphone.

Oral History Workshop

I recently attended an oral history workshop at the University of Liverpool. I have read all the theory and practice books available and, to be honest, I thought my attendance was largely to tick a box on the numerous applications I have had to make in order to carry out my own interviews in my research. This was not the case.

Although I have planned out my dissertation research strategy, I realised I have not given much thought to what my interviewees will actually say. When I sit down in front of men and women and ask them how the 1995-98 lockout on the docks made them feel and how they relate to others who went through the same struggle they will not give me answers in pre-packaged, academic form. During this workshop, I really considered the extent to which my transcripts will include stumbles, pauses and slang terms and how I would really cope hearing upsetting stories. This last concern has worried me as if I do get upset during the interviews, I may look unprofessional or even rude- how could I, an MA student from Nottinghamshire, truly understand how they were feeling? Perhaps, if this does happen, my interviewees will alter what they are saying so they do not upset me. I am hoping a day or two composing myself prior to the interview will help prevent an outburst on my part at least.

A PhD student helping to run the workshop, Dan, showed us an example transcript and explained that he had been lucky to have a ‘natural story-teller’ interviewee. I really hoped for somebody like this as he was describing their interviews but I realised quickly this may not always be the easiest type of interview to guide. I have planned for a 1-2 hour interview with 4 people. How can somebody really tell their story in a 2 hour slot?

The day made me question my well-structured plan in a way that really brought oral history back to its roots. In my bid to understand what memory studies and narrative theories have to say about the interview process I had lost sight of the true value of oral history- the human side. I can read all the books I want but I am certain now that none of my 4 interviews will go the way I expect them to. Whilst this is quite a terrifying thought, I am also very excited. Plus, I finally got the hang of my Dictaphone this week.

History and Microhistory

Ever since reading Andrew Popp’s ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’ I have been keen to use the approach of microhistory and I recently got my chance.[1] I took the moment Robbie Fowler lifted his Liverpool top to reveal a t-shirt with a message of support for 500 sacked dock workers in a European Cup Winners Cup match on the 20th March 1997 as my focal point. I wanted to move this between multiple contexts to demonstrate that the moment had a number of meanings to different groups in society. Although I understood what went into the top and its meanings, structuring this essay was extremely difficult.

The problems with structure arose as soon as I situated the top as a reaction to the forces of neoliberalism, deindustrialisation and globalisation (three powerful processes with masses of theory and debate attached to them).[2] Not only did I have to delve into this but I had to look into local structures of masculinity and class amongst dock workers and football fans. The former were fighting for their jobs in the face of deindustrialisation, the latter were in crisis as the corporatisation of football clubs turned fans into consumers in order to boost profits. The final ingredient was the nature of Liverpool itself and a notion of exceptionalism discussed by authors such as John Belchem and Brian Marren.[3] At the centre of the explosion was just one t-shirt, everything overlapped and untangling the webs was not an easy task- I am still not convinced that I did it justice.

I settled on dividing my analysis in two. The first half began with a brief discussion of the political and economic structure in the 1990s, then I looked into class, masculinity and football and the final section discussed a notion of Liverpool exceptionalism. This clearly outlined the main normative systems governing the meaning of the t-shirt before I moved on to the second half of the analysis which moved the t-shirt between these to demonstrate the interaction between agency and structure in creating meaning. I found myself reading about Calvin Klein in the 1990s (the dockers t-shirt borrowed the ‘CK’ logo), how all-seated stadiums undermined a traditional sense of masculinity at football matches and the influence Irish immigrants had on Liverpool’s culture.

Throughout this piece of research I truly realised the importance of the historian’s choices in writing history. I could have used the t-shirt to discuss fashion trends and ‘culture jamming’, I could have slotted it into the history of football regulation and I could have used it to demonstrate how Liverpool developed a unique sense of separateness from the rest of mainland Britain.[4] Discovering meaning in history depends just as much on the historian’s context as it does the historical context. The reason I struggled to write this essay was because I was focusing on uncovering as many different contexts as possible to produce a piece of microhistory. This differed to my usual approach to research in which I have already narrowed down the historian’s context to class, gender and emotions at work.

I must remember to always approach sources with an open mind, ready to accept that all social action is the result of ‘constant negotiation, manipulation, choices and decisions in the face of a normative reality which, though pervasive, nevertheless offers many possibilities for personal interpretations and freedoms’.[5] I also must also remember not to choose such a large topic for a 3000 word assignment.

[1] A. Popp, ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’, History Workshop Journal, 78 (2014), pp. 133-156.
[2] I had to tackle the agency/structure debate in terms of Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives whilst outlining what each process entailed. For theoretical discussions see: P. Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review, 1.23 (1964), pp. 33-50; E. P. Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ (1965). Available from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1965/english.htm [accessed: 11th December 2016]; M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge, trans R. Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 92-102 and R. Gagnier, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain 1832-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 8-14. For definitions of the three processes see: J. Tomlinson, ‘De-industrialisation not Decline: A New Meta-narrative for Post-war British History’, Twentieth Century British History, 27.1 (2016), pp. 76-99; C. Fuchs, ‘Neoliberalism in Britain: From Thatcherism to Cameronism’, Triple C, 14.1 (2016), pp. 163-188 and R. Hine and P. Wright, ‘Trade With Low Wage Economies: Employment and Productivity in UK Manufacturing’, Economic Journal, 108 (1998), pp. 1500-1510.
[3] J. Belchem, Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) and B. Marren, We Shall Not Be Moved: How Liverpool’s Working Class Fought Redundancies, Closures and Cuts in the Age of Thatcher (Manchester: Manchester University press, 2016)
[4] ‘Culture jamming’ is covered brilliantly in N. Klein, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, 10th anniversary ed. (London: Fourth Estate, 2010), p. 281.
[5] G. Levi, ‘On Microhistory’, in P. Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 94.

 

“Dr. Kearney or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Impostor Syndrome”

I read this blog post back in February and still like to reread it now when I haven’t picked up a book for a while, when I write words in an essay that don’t seem to make sense or generally just feel a little blue.

Everyone should learn to be a little more impressed with themselves.

womenareboring

by Eve Kearney

belle

I was at a family gathering recently, when as I was stuffing my face with free, home cooked food, an aunt approached me and said the words that all research students dread: “How’s being back at school going?” Apart from making it sound like I’m back wearing a uniform and taking my Junior Cert again, that question makes me stifle a sigh of despair.  I only started my PhD in English in September, and am still struggling to define what my actual research project will be on, so condensing it to a party-friendly sound bite is definitely not on my radar at the moment, nor is answering the follow up question that always comes: “And what are you going to do with that?”  In short, Aunt Jen, I don’t know how my research is going, and I sure don’t know what I’m going to do in four…

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Reflections on how I became classy.

I hope the cheesy pun is excused because anyone that knows me well will know that ‘classy’ is not a word which is often associated with myself. I have always had a passion for studying class in society and I wanted to take some time to ponder why that is.

  • First of all, I grew up in an old coal mining town in Nottinghamshire. I think the fact that everyone had stories to tell of their relatives going ‘dahn the pit’ subconsciously influenced my interests in class. My home town used to centre around this industry and, despite the pits being closed, the legacies linger on in the town’s physicality and culture.
  • My family has a peculiar demographic. My grandparents were a mix of factory workers and a bank manager, so my parents, uncles and aunts all have memories of times being hard but also ones when they weren’t so bad. I think that my family’s own experience over the last 50 years, and their often contradictory stories of it, have meant that I have spent more time considering the relationship between economics and life experience.
  • I owe an awful lot to my A Level Sociology teacher. He is the man who first taught me about Karl Marx (he actually had a poster of him on his classroom wall) and he is an active trade unionist. I remember sitting in his lessons discussing education reform, unemployment and privatisation in the 1980s and for the first time feeling like I had a voice and a right to be passionate about my own thoughts. I have always had a lot to say for myself, but prior to these classes I did not really think that my opinions would be able to bring about any sort of change. He brought his lessons to life in the most biased way possible and I thank him for that. Being taught post-war British politics by a staunch Conservative in my History lessons at the same time also helped to give me the space to consolidate my own ideas. The chasm between these two brilliant teachers is where I would pinpoint the beginning of my obsession with studying class.
  • Aged 18 I moved to Liverpool to study for a BA in History and Politics. With the first three points securely embedded in my psyche at this point, the fact that the focus of my studies always drifted towards class related issues was inevitable. Particularly as Liverpool’s past offers a plethora of topics to study in this department.