Irish Studies

Jonathan Jeffrey Wright – Author Insights

To coincide with May’s Free Read Friday – here are some author insights from Jonathan Jeffrey Wright on his book The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World: Politics, Culture and Society in Belfast, c. 1801–1832.  

1. What prompted you to write this book?

The ‘Natural Leaders’ and their World is based on my doctoral research, which focused on the Presbyterian community of Belfast in the early nineteenth century. I was prompted to research this area because it had, to some extent, been overlooked. It is well known that some Presbyterians were active in the United Irish movement and that, during the 1790s, Belfast was a dynamic urban centre with a reputation for political radicalism. I wanted to explore the aftermath of this period. In the past, it was thought that after the 1790s Presbyterian radicalism declined, and the early nineteenth-century tended to be viewed, in a negative sense, as a period in which the opportunities of the 1790s were shut down. I wanted to reframe the period and look at it on its own terms.

2. What is the main argument of the book?

Essentially, the main argument of this book is that the early-nineteenth century was, for the Presbyterians of Belfast, an altogether more complex period than has previously been understood. In simple terms, there was a lot more going on, whether in terms of politics, cultural life or religious life, than is often appreciated. Related to this, the book argues that what was happening in Belfast cannot be understood in isolation, but must be viewed against a broader British and, indeed, European backdrop. The early-nineteenth century was a period of transition throughout Britain – it was arguably a period in which a shift from early modernity to modernity took place – and Belfast’s experience has to be viewed in this context.

3. How does your approach differ from other research in this area?

My work differs from other research in terms of its focus. Rather than focusing simply on politics or religion (or the interaction of the two), it focuses on politics, religion, culture and also family life. Central to The ‘Natural Leaders’ is the story of the Tennents, a prominent family of Belfast Presbyterians. While not a straightforward group biography, the The ‘Natural Leaders’ combines elements of biography, using the Tennents and their experiences as a means of illustrating the broader social, political and cultural changes of the period.

5. Did anything within your research surprise you?

During my research a lot of things surprised me. Not the least of these was the private life of William Tennent, a well-known and, seemingly, well-respected member of Belfast’s Presbyterian middle classes, who had as many as thirteen illegitimate children. I was also surprised to discover just how deeply involved Tennent had been in the United Irish movement and by the way in which he was able to re-establish himself in Belfast society despite his associations with radicalism. Beyond this, I was particularly struck by the engagement of Belfast’s Presbyterians with broader cultural trends, such as romanticism. Romantic literature appears to have been as popular in Belfast as it was elsewhere in Britain, and particularly among the young men educated in the Belfast Academical Institution. Their literary preferences, and also their pretensions and their numerous flirtations with the young ladies of the town, are revealed vividly in the papers of Robert James Tennent (William Tennent’s nephew); I was frequently amused as I worked on those papers.

Dr Jonathan Jeffrey Wright holds an IRCHSS-funded postdoctoral fellowship at Trinity College, Dublin and is a research fellow on the AHRC-funded Scientific Metropolis project at Queen’s University Belfast.

You can download Jonathan’s book free on the 6th of May here or purchase from our website.

 

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History

Tara Martin López – Author Insights

This month, The Winter of Discontent by Tara Martin López is our chosen #FreeReadFriday title. Learn more about the book below through our chat with the author, before it’s available to download free this Friday (7th of October).

Tara Martin López

 Tara Martin López is Professor of Sociology at Peninsula College.*

1. What prompted you to write this book?

I first heard of the Winter of Discontent when discussing politics with a British friend who continually referred to how bad things were in 1979 when trade unions were supposedly “out of control.” According to him Margaret Thatcher intervened and brought Britain out of a socialist mire. I was amazed not only that a person born in 1980 would have such a potent memory of the event, but also that it was a touchstone of his conversations decades later. He also used this series of events as a political cudgel against the Labour movement and social democracy. My interest was immediately piqued, and I sought to work under historian Sheila Rowbotham at the University of Manchester to write my Ph.D. thesis on the topic. After finishing my Ph.D., I was awarded fellowships from both the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust and the Lipman-Miliband Trust, which allowed me to expand my research.

As I was completing this work, a series called “Studies in Labour History” appeared at Liverpool University Press. I thought my work would be a perfect match for that series. I was elated when LUP accepted my proposal because it gave me the opportunity to share research on an extremely important topic with a broader audience.

2. What is the main argument of the book?

I argue that Conservative and Labour Party politics were primarily responsible for the particular contours of the myth of the Winter of Discontent. Many politicians like Margaret Thatcher effectively used the Winter of Discontent as a symbol of the “bad old days of socialism” to warn British voters away from electing Labour for more than a decade. However, while this dominant image of the Winter of Discontent arose out of a very real sense of chaos and crisis in the late 1970s, I demonstrate that the mythical resonance of these experiences only developed after the series of strikes had been resolved. Furthermore, I assert that instead of a fratricidal act, rank-and-file activists and local trade union leaders were engaged in activism that was hoping to address declining real wages and shifts in the ideological, gender, and racial composition of the trade union movement and the Labour Party. This series of strikes must also be seen in the context of evolving social movements such as the New Left and the Women’s Movement. I contend that the memories of local trade union leaders and grassroots activists involved in the strikes challenge the grim implications of the myth of the Winter of Discontent. More specifically, among some of the female trade unionists, the strikes of 1978-79 provided a transformative inroad into broader activism in the Labour movement for years to come. Finally, I assert that the different rememberings of the Winter of Discontent have distinctly shaped participants’ political identities, which, in turn, helped to reconfigure the political landscape of the Left decades later.

3. Why do you think the roles of female and black activists during the strikes have been largely ignored in the past?

I think the primary reasons lie in traditions of historical scholarship, limitations in archival material, and the gendered nature of the myth of the Winter of Discontent.

Unfortunately, the absence of these women and black activists has been part of the long tradition of erasing the contributions of women, people of color, and especially women of color, from the historical narrative. Labour historians’ emphasis on social class, in particular, tended to sideline equally important issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality. However, I had the privilege of researching at a time where the works of people like Sheila Rowbotham, Ava Baron, and Paul Gilroy had begun to open new lines of inquiry into these areas.

Previous accounts of the time period also privileged the perspectives of politicians and male trade unionists. By relying heavily on the biographies of Conservative and Labour politicians as primary sources, for example, by and large, perspectives were limited to those of white, middle to upper class, men. Newspapers, on the other hand, provided a broader spectrum of perspectives, including those of black activists and women, but still the coverage did not explore how and why these individuals became politically active. That is why it was so important for me to conduct oral histories with both women and men involved in these strikes. These oral histories, therefore, provided essential insight into the perspectives of women and black activists that were ignored for so long.

Finally, the absence of female activists, in particular, served a political agenda. A key element of this myth was that Margaret Thatcher was the one leader tough enough to stand up to the “trade union bully boys” who had crippled Britain during the 1970s. Politically, the potency of that dichotomous image would have been undermined if the historical reality of working class women as striking trade unionists had been brought to the fore.

4. Why do you think the myths surrounding the ‘greedy’ workers during the Winter of Discontent became so embedded?

The particular nature of the strikes, and, again, politics, played a key role in perpetuating this myth of “greedy” workers during the Winter of Discontent.

With the rise of the service sector in the UK during the 1970s, which coincided with the growth of female employment in these jobs, strikes were no longer just factory stoppages. For instance, care assistants for the elderly and the disabled were tasked with taking strike action during the Winter of Discontent without hurting the people they served. The oral histories reveal the creative ways people took action, like not doing a patient’s hair one day, but still providing essential care. Nonetheless, such strikes, especially in the NHS, provoked particular ire in the media. Headlines in The Daily Mail read “Target for Today – Sick Children” or “Patients Sent Home – Some Will Die.” I think the strikes of junior doctors in the NHS this year demonstrate the continued struggle such workers have in regards to addressing issues of workplace justice while providing essential care.

I further demonstrate that both Conservative and Labour Party politicians were instrumental in embedding the negative image of workers in popular memory. The Conservative Party, along with major media outlets like The Sun, not only evoked images of the Winter of Discontent and conniving workers in the 1979 General Election, but in subsequent General Elections, as symbols of Labour incompetence. Ironically, New Labour leaders subsequently used the same images to reinvent the party by telling voters that it was no longer the “party of the Winter of Discontent” that had been besieged by so called “greedy workers” in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

You can download The Winter of Discontent ebook free on Friday 7th of October using code FreeReadFriday at the checkout. See our blog for more instructions. 

 

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*Photo by Emma Jones

Literature

David Ashford – Author Insights

To coincide with February’s Free Read Friday – here are some author insights from David Ashford on his book London Underground: A Cultural Geography.

 

1.What prompted you to write this book?

Moving to London — and *not* using the Tube. As a tourist I had relied on the network to get around. It made the city navigable. But now I began to explore the city on foot and to use buses. It was then that I realise how the Tube had been distorting my sense of the geography. My experience of the city above had been broken into fragments by Tube journeys, held together only by the Tube Map, and it turned out this orderly arrangement of brightly coloured lines bore little relation to the reality. I thought this magical. Illusions of an orderly Modernist utopia that existed only a Map. Why build such a city when you could simply map it? I wanted to find out precisely what had happened here.

2.What is the main argument of the book?

The Tube is the prototype for what French Anthropologist Marc Augé terms non-lieu — spaces like airports, motorways and supermarkets that have tentative connections to the physical geography, and that interpret themselves to their users through the media of signs, messages and maps. I trace the origin of the non-place back to the Victorian sub-surface railways, and show how British Modernists developed an aesthetic for this space that made it comprehensible, providing a template for the non-places that have since become so pervasive.

3.How does your approach differ from other research in this area?

Other research on the London Underground focuses on the commercial history of the railway company — or else consider it as an underground place, i.e. as part of a much longer history of underground spaces that extends right back to the Babylonian Underworld. This book provides a new framework for thinking about the network, that draws on Cultural Geography.

4.Did anything within your research surprise you? 

When I began I’d expected to write a Cultural History of the Tube, that is to say, the history of how this railway has been represented over the past two centuries. What I found was that the literature and art were not just representing but producing the space. I’d stumbled across a dialectical process that enabled me to tell a story of how Londoners have transformed the spaces they have to negotiate each day — through literature, music, art.

5.Is it possible to conclude the influence which the London Underground has over the capital today?

I think it’s curious that such an intangible space — a prototype for the non-lieu — has become an emblem of the city under which it operates. London is a World-City at the heart of a global system for transits and transfers. So perhaps it’s apt the Underground Roundel is now a symbol for this city. Like the Tube Map itself, the London Underground enables us to grasp the history of the reality we now inhabit, and those ways in which we might change it.

 

You can download London Underground: A Cultural Geography free for 24 hours on the 5th February here using code FreeReadFriday
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History

Iain Whyte – Author Insights

Here are the author insights behind our current #FreeReadFriday title, Zachary Macaulay 1768-1838 The Steadfast Scot in the British Anti-Slavery Movement straight from author, Rev Dr Iain Whyte.

1. What prompted you to write this book?

During my research for my earlier book Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery 1756-1838  I came across Zachary Macaulay, who rates a mention in few accounts of abolition, despite his bust in Westminster Abbey. Through a friend I was introduced to the late Sir Lance Errington and Lady Reine Errington ( Zachary Macaulay’s great great grandaughter) who gave me access to some of his diaries that were in their small home in Argyll. In 2006 I researched the Macaulay papers in the Huntington Library in California with a Fellowship from the British Academy and, having checked that there was no biography of him apart from two books by the family in 1900 and 1934, I decided to attempt to fill the gap.

2. Why do you think Zachary Macauley is such a neglected figure?

Undoubtedly because he was a shy and unassuming man who allowed himself to be dwarfed by his friends William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and other giants of the British abolition movement. Uniquely amongst the ‘Clapham Saints’ and other leaders in the anti-slavery campaign, Zachary Macaulay never made a public speech. His son Thomas (Lord Macaulay the historian,  administrator, and politician) became far better known) Some modern historians have written him off with the sterotype of a ‘narrow Presbyterian Scot’ and apart from a shallow judgement based on  his shy reticence and rather fierce demeanour, have portrayed him as uncaring – one even accused him of not being interested in freedom.

3. Did anything in your research surprise you?

I think above all his contradictions and his single mindedness. In company with many evangelical Protestants in his time he deplored Roman Catholicism and in company with political  Conservatives of the time he had a horror of even the mildest hint of revolution or even legislation to permit Trades Unions.  Yet he hailed slave revolutions in Demerara, Jamaica and Haiti as liberation movements. On a trip to France he wrote to his wife that the Abbe Gregoire, former bishop and member of the French revolutionary assembly, was one of the most ‘spiritual’ men he knew – Gregoire had a substantial record of opposing slavery, and that was the litmus test for him.

4. What, in your opinion, is Macauley’s legacy?

His most significant work was undoubtedly to edit The Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter which had the dual role of providing factual information on slavery for the Parliamentary campaign and news of anti-slavery activity throughout Britain (a modern parallel would be the Anti-Apartheid News) These were the silent weapons against slavery. Macaulay’s research was meticulous, culled from numerous government reports, documents and Caribbean newspapers. His encyclopedic knowledge was acknowledged by Wilberforce who said to his colleagues ‘let us look it up in Macaulay.’ This made him hated by the defenders of slavery both in Britain and the West Indies. THey could not contradict his evidence. His silent background work provided a vital platform for those who were more visible in the cause.

 

You can download Zachary Macaulay 1768-1838 free on 4th of December here.

If you’d like some instructions you can also download following this guide.

Modern Languages

Celia Britton – Author Insights

We have our next #FreeReadFriday coming up, so here is our Q&A with Celia Britton ahead of the day. Read on to find out what you can expect from Celia’s book, Language and Literary Form in French Caribbean Writing which will be available to download free for 24 hours on Friday 6th of November!

1)       What prompted you to write this book?

Issues of the language and literary form of postcolonial literature have recently become a prominent area of research, after having been largely neglected. Since much of my work has always been in this area, I felt that the time had come to bring my ideas together and develop them further.

2)       What is the main argument of the book?

The central argument is that attention to the language and formal features of these texts can provide insights into their themes and social context that would otherwise remain inaccessible. But it is interpreted in very varied ways: ‘language’, for example, ranges from analysing Condé’s sentence structures and Maximin’s use of pronouns, to discussing the role of Creole in the identity politics of Chamoiseau and Confiant, and Glissant’s promotion of what I call ‘multilingual surfing’ in the Tout-monde. Equally, the formal features cover both large-scale issues of genre (e.g., primitivism, exoticism, autobiography), and detailed analyses of intertextuality, narrative voice, etc.. In addition to strictly literary texts I also consider quasi-political writings about literature and, in Chapter 3, the commercial marketing of French Caribbean literature.

An important subsidiary argument is that orthodox postcolonial theory alone is not well-equipped to do this kind of study; theorists such as Benveniste, Bakhtin, Kristeva and Barthes, for example, offer ways of analysing the subject’s relation to language that can better illuminate the position of the postcolonial subject.

3)       How does your approach differ from other research in this area?

In my use of poststructuralist and other theories to supplement postcolonial theory in my analysis of texts. But I also show that postcolonial texts reveal some of the limitations of poststructuralist theory, particularly with regard to realism.

4)       You devoted Part II of the book to the work of Edouard Glissant. What sets his work out from the other authors discussed?

Of all the authors I discuss, Glissant is by far the most concerned with questions of language and poetics; he has produced a body of theoretical work on these issues that has no equivalent in other authors of the francophone Caribbean. He has greatly influenced my own thinking on the subject.

 

Read more on Celia’s book here and remember to download for free on the next #FreeReadFriday (6th November 2015)

Celia Britton is Emeritus Professor of French and Francophone Studies at University College London and is co-editor of American Creoles (Liverpool University Press, 2012) and the author of The Sense of Community in French Caribbean Fiction (Liverpool University Press, 2008); Race and the Unconscious: Freudianism in French Caribbean Thought (Legenda, 2002); Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory: Strategies of Language and Resistance (University of Virginia Press, 1999).