The silence of the archive. A review

[A review that appeared first in the LSE Review of Books.]

David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson.
The Silence of the Archive.
Facet, 2017.

In the past two to three decades, the archival profession has been caught between two currents of cultural and technological change: simultaneous, largely unrelated, both apparently inexorable. Largely confined to the academy, but resonating beyond it, has been a radical scepticism about the stability of meaning in language resulting from the postmodern turn in historical thinking. Coupled with this epistemological scepticism has been a hermeneutic of suspicion of the power relations that are embedded in the creation, description and accessing of archival records. This has been bound up with the emergence of a wider politics of identity, and the assertion of the experience of marginalised groups as being equally worthy of documentation and study as those more ‘official’ voices that have traditionally dominated archives.

At much the same time, the transition from paper to digital in records management and archiving has presented the profession with challenges of exceptional scale and complexity, as laid out by David Thomas, former Director of Technology at the National Archives of the UK, in Chapter Three of this fascinating book. This transformation has fundamentally changed the ways in which live records are created and managed by organisations, with the significant added risk of mis-description as frontline staff are pressed into becoming their own archivists, and also of discontinuity in working IT systems such that data is lost or rendered uninterpretable. As these records pass to the archive, new and intractable challenges of scale come into play as archivists must select content for archiving and appraise it, presenting the difficulty of finding effective ways of describing these records and designing access systems that meet the needs of users.

For most working historians, much of the ferment of the discussion that these changes have prompted amongst archivists and theorists has been largely obscure; most of the literature that the authors (all three of them present or former TNA staff) synthesise here is to be found in the journals of the archival profession, into which historians rarely look. For those scholars whose only contact with archives is in the search room, this book will likely come as something of a revelation of just how far-ranging and radical some of that thought has been in the last ten years, and should be widely read for that reason alone. One might expect it also to find its way onto reading lists for introductory courses in the methods of archival research. It is therefore a matter for regret that the book, even in paperback form, is priced at a level that makes it unlikely that it will find its way into many private collections.

As a whole, the book has two major themes, one of which is acknowledged by both the title and the back cover, and another, equally if not more important, which is everywhere implied but rarely stated (to which this review returns below). Firstly, the theme of the title: the silence of the archive. The authors, along with Anne J. Gilliland in the foreword, identify an image that has formed in the public imaginary of the archive as a comprehensive repository of all known facts about the past. Scholars will differ on how potent and pervasive that image is, but the authors set out to show firstly that archives are neither comprehensive in this sense nor purely objective, even supposing such a state were possible.

Chapter One, by Simon Fowler, deals with ‘enforced silences’, whereby organisations conceal, amend or destroy records before they reach the archive, or where (as an unintended consequence of freedom of information legislation) records are never created as business is transacted informally. All manner of decisions are then made as the archivist selects which records should be preserved, appraises those records that are selected and removes material in the process, and then catalogues records in ways that bring certain aspects of a record to the fore while effectively silencing other voices. In addition, neither the transient quality of everyday life nor the lives of the majority of the population often come under the gaze of the state and so leave few traces (Chapter Six by Valerie Johnson is instructive on the ways in which marginalised communities may be intentionally brought into view and their stories documented as a result.)

Professional historians are of course accustomed to engaging critically with the ways in which their archival sources come into being, but they will benefit nonetheless from this wide-ranging survey of the particular issues. In several places, however, a strangely critical note is struck: a suppressed frustration with the users of archives and their apparent inability to understand the issues. In Chapter Two, ‘Inappropriate Expectations’, Fowler quotes the historian Nicholas Rodger on the distaste of staff of the Public Record Office when asked to provide subject indexes: to do so ‘would imply that the Office had a duty to provide something the public wanted, instead of the public having a duty to shift for itself and leave the archivists in peace’ (54).

While this whole book is a testament to how far those kinds of attitudes have been eclipsed, glimpses occasionally show through. Archivists, we are told on page 45, are familiar with being ‘bombarded’ with questions which cannot be answered, by users who ‘struggle to understand’ the issues (60). Johnson writes (after Lisa Jardine) of the ‘longing of historians and researchers to find that golden key which will unlock the secret they are investigating’, which in some cases leads to false assumptions about evidence that does not in fact exist and (at the extreme) to the sorts of conspiracy theorising, fictionalisation and fabrication that Thomas explores in Chapter Five. Whilst some researchers can and do cross this line, the experience of this reviewer, at least, is that such cases are rare, and are perhaps overstressed here. Most historians are able to control their longing. That said, archive users, for their part, have no doubt been guilty of failing to appreciate the role of the archivist as something more than a mere fetcher and carrier of files as Johnson notes (146): there is work to do perhaps on both sides of the relationship.

To a certain extent, the book is let down by its title and chapter headings, since the focus on what is not possible obscures a more hopeful and arguably more important thread which appears explicitly only on page 141. Johnson asks where the responsibility for the documentation of society lies, and answers: ‘it has been the implicit argument of this book that we are all responsible, whether as creators of records or professional curators of those papers, or as users, researchers, historians and informed citizens.’ At this point, this reviewer must declare an interest, as one working to facilitate precisely this better working between archives and the users of their digital services.

Nonetheless, The Silence of the Archive is throughout a call for a new relationship between archivists, the ‘archival subjects’ (those whose lives are documented) and those who use the archived record. Johnson writes of the process whereby those archival subjects are engaged in the process of creating the archive of their existence, thus becoming co-creators with the archivist (149-53). Thomas points out the acute need in a digital archive for close engagement with end users, both in the selection of material and in the design of the interfaces that make those records first discoverable and then usable (70-72). It is a shame, then, that this call for change – necessary and urgent – is somewhat muted here; indeed, in general, the authors have a tendency to quote and expound the work of others rather than elaborate an argument, and could have been bolder. However, it is a case that should be widely heard. Records managers, archivists, historians and other users of archives should read this timely and important book.


The New Elizabethan Age: a review

[This review appeared in the LSE Review of Books earlier this month, and is here republished under a Creative Commons licence.]

The New Elizabethan Age. Culture, Society and National Identity after World War II.
Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge (eds).
London, I.B. Tauris, 2016.

The Britain of the late 1940s and 1950s has often languished in the historiographical shadow of its neighbours in time: the World Wars that preceded it and the sixties that followed. The popular perception of the early 1950s in particular is now of greyness and stasis: of a desperately slow recovery from the effects of the war and a return to social conformity; an in-between time without energy or direction. Only in 1963 did sex begin (it would seem), and the nation became young, swinging, forging ahead in the white heat of technological revolution.

Recent scholarship has begun to rescue this period from such caricature. The New Elizabethan Age: Culture, Society and National Identity after World War II, edited by Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge, both of Cardiff University, goes further again in cracking open the time to reveal fresh insights. Far from being culturally uniform and static, the nation that emerges is in vigorous dialogue with itself over both its past and its future. Here are chapters on Shakespeare, opera, ballet, musical theatre and film; others engage with national identities in the constituent nations of the UK; still more with British technological invention and with the persistence and usefulness of Arthurian, Byzantine and medieval themes. They are for the most part clearly written and suggestive, although some seem only to be connected with the theme in the most tenuous sense, notably the two pieces by the playwright Edward Bond, which although interesting, add little to the volume as a whole and should perhaps have been omitted.

The volume as a whole stands as a highly stimulating exploration of culture, society and national identity, as the subtitle suggests. This reviewer was left with more reservations about the overall theme of the ‘New Elizabethan Age’. As the introduction clearly shows, there was a moment associated with the coronation of Elizabeth II in which media and other commentators sought to bring the figure of the first Elizabeth into symbolic play. The ‘New Elizabethans’ were to be in continuity with their past, but also youthful, inventive, exploratory – a spirit most clearly to be seen in the arts. This was no ‘false start’ to the sixties, but rather an enduring cast of mind that deserves close attention. The instruments of this particular discourse were the media (and the BBC in particular) and the arts, as fostered by the newly founded Arts Council. The particular attention paid to the means by which this discourse was articulated is important and welcome.

That there was a ‘New Elizabethan’ discourse is therefore hard to dispute, but there is a marked centrifugal tendency among the essays not wholly overcome by the introduction. Too many of the authors seem to acknowledge the notion of the ‘New Elizabethan’ in introductory paragraphs only for it to recede to vanishing point in the body of the chapter. Not everything that occurred in the early 1950s may usefully be dubbed ‘New Elizabethan’ without emptying the concept of its meaning. Readers most interested in this particular aspect would be best served by the introduction, and Chapter One from Morra, which explore and define the New Elizabethan discourse. Also key are Paul Stevens on the historian A.L. Rowse and Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, Helen Phillips on literature for children and Stephen Banfield on the ambiguous music of the ‘New Elizabethan soundtrack’. Amongst the others, it becomes clear that British people in the 1950s looked all over for resources to fund their thinking and actions, including to Tudor revivals that were in fact much older, such as in music, and to several periods of the past that were not Elizabethan. For every example that might fit the template, there are counter-examples, dissensions and dissonances.

One other striking omission is the visual arts, in which the symbolic play of past and present may be observed in other contexts, and which were similarly the object of both state and private patronage, and the forces of a growing market. Of course, the editors may only include work which is available to publish, but there is yet a space open for studies of artistic representations of both the new queen and of the Tudor past in this particular period.

The New Elizabethan Age as a whole is highly suggestive and valuable, and shows well the moment in which answers to pressing questions of national identity were sought. Several of its chapters throw light on aspects of British culture seldom if ever illuminated before, and will be read with profit by cultural historians and scholars of the arts alike. However, it may be that in order to realise the full value of this collection the reader needs first to set aside the search for an essential New Elizabethanism. Read without this particular frame, the collection vividly presents a Britain seeking a means to reconcile a reverence for elements of its history while also imagining a future in fundamentally changed circumstances after World War II. While losing both an empire and any last vestiges of world leadership and adjusting to a new social settlement in the welfare state, for some the figure of the new Queen and her earlier namesake did indeed symbolise something important; for others, notably outside England, the new Queen provided little symbolic heft. Ultimately, the interest lies in the fact of the search for such meaning, rather than in any single finding.

Where were the churches after the Blitz ?

This week I made my debut as a reviewer for the LSE Review of Books. Since the Review is admirably free in the reuse it will allow, I republish it here under a Creative Commons licence. It is a review of an highly suggestive study of the lived experience of blitz conditions during the Second World War and patterns of planning and reconstruction afterwards. edited by Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham, and published by Ashgate.

From the point of view of my own research, there is one aspect of the question which the collection only touches very obliquely, at least in relation to England. These discourses of reconstruction turn on themes of modernity, efficiency, revolutionary change, the future, looking forward. How should we understand the rebuilding, repair or demolition of bomb-damaged churches: often ancient and mostly inefficient buildings, symbols of continuity and the presence of the past in urban spaces ? The collection very deftly opens up the complex processes in which national planners, local government and local opinion interacted in the creation of new urban centres such as Plymouth. Where, if anywhere, were the churches ? This article of mine from 2008 (available Open Access here) tried to open up some of the debates at national level; this collection reminds me of how many local stories there are still to tell.

Review, from LSE Review of Books, 1st October 2013

Mark Clapson and Peter J. Larkham (eds)
The Blitz and its Legacy. Wartime destruction to post-war reconstruction
Farnham, Ashgate, 2013

‘One of the most cherished popular myths of the Second World War centres on the London Blitz: a story of stiff upper lips, social solidarity and unity of purpose in the face of a terrifying onslaught; keep calm and carry on. Although this interpretation of the ‘People’s War’ has taken as intense a pounding from historians’ artillery as did London from the air, elements of it are left standing. This collection of essays examines two of them.

‘The first of these was that, at least in Britain, the experience of war turned the people into a ‘nation of town planners’. The utopianism that lay behind the nationalisation of key industries and the foundation of the National Health Service also produced a consensus that cities should not merely be repaired, but reimagined, and created afresh on clean and rational lines. The second myth refers to the reconstruction process itself, in which all the subsequent problems of urban Britain, all decaying concrete and thin social fabric, can be laid at the door of ‘the planners’. The contradictions between these two myths have not shortened their life or restricted their apparent explanatory power.

‘Britain was hardly alone in experiencing such damage, of course, and academic interest in destruction and reconstruction has been heightened in part by more recent conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East. The editors, academics from the disciplines of history and of planning, have brought together an interdisciplinary team of specialists in history, planning, architecture and urban geography. There are valuable perspectives also from France, Germany and Japan, but two thirds of the papers relate to Britain, on which this review will concentrate.

As the editors acknowledge, the fourteen essays are highly diverse, on subjects ranging from the evacuation of disabled children from London to architectural style in a post-Hiroshima Japan. But there is design in this assembly of fragments, which points the way towards a reconnection of previously disparate literatures. The preoccupation of the book is to suggest how connections might be made between the lived experiences of individuals in blitz conditions, and the processes in which local populations interacted with local and national government to plan and then build. The social history of the People’s War has seldom been connected with the study of post-war planning. This collection begins to form those connections.

‘One such starting point is Mark Clapson’s essay on the London blitz and the dispersal of the London working class to the out-county estates within greater London, and the new towns beyond. Far from causing the fragmentation of the London working class, the Blitz only interrupted and then shaped and accelerated a longer-term process which can be traced back to late Victorian slum clearance and the Garden City movement. Part of that acceleration was caused by the experience of evacuation to the country, which to some extent prepared Londoners for suburban living. As Sue Wheatcroft shows, the evacuations also led directly to the post-war establishment of a system of residential special schools for children with disabilities.

‘Susanne Cowan provides a salutary note on the limitations of public enthusiasm for planning in the immediate post-war period. Whilst the enthusiasm for a ‘better Britain’ was genuine, it was short-lived; and the desire for change was at least as much directed towards older, more basic needs, such as for better housing, than any longing for more far-reaching change. Cowan shows that planners were proactive in shaping public opinion; but were ultimately mistaken in believing their own propaganda.

‘Catherine Flinn provides a wryly downbeat assessment of the real influence of “the planners”. Far from being set free to design new urban environments without constraint, the planners were in fact hemmed in by planning law itself, and by the inability of local authorities to agree amongst themselves. Reconstruction was also low amongst the priorities of those who controlled the supply of scarce building materials, particularly outside London; the members of the Investment Programmes Committee of the cabinet were clearly not among the ‘nation of town planners.’ Instead, much of the building took place slowly, and largely on private initiative, and so few post-war city centres bore much resemblance to the grand plans prepared for them. If later public opinion disliked these centres, it was not the planners who were to blame.

‘There are also case studies in which all these themes combine. Particularly interesting are those by David Adams and Peter J. Larkham on Birmingham, and on Plymouth by Stephen Essex and Mark Brayshay. Plymouth was perhaps the most fully realised modernist scheme for a new city centre, in which even those Victorian buildings that survived the bombing were demolished to allow the complete remodelling of the centre, with little of the street plan surviving. However, to view Plymouth as a straightforward victory for the ‘planners’ obscures a more complex and more interesting story. The site of a key naval dockyard, Plymouth was hit very hard by the bombing, and an early statement of intent to rebuild was felt necessary for morale. The initiative was seized very early by a tight knot of the elite, including Lord Astor, the mayor, and John Reith, minister of Works and Building. The Plan for Plymouth (1943) became as it were a local Magna Carta, which the objections of neither the local council, nor of city landowners deprived of their freehold, nor of the new Ministry of Town and Country Planning in London could amend. With a pleasing irony, the modernist scheme which allowed nothing old to remain, in recent years has itself become an object of conservation.

‘The editors have unfortunately been let down in the preparation of the text for the press. One essay contains the longest sentence this reviewer has ever read (running to some 75 words), and another so mangled as to be nonsensical. This is a shame, as this fertile collection promises to provoke and stimulate much fresh thinking about the connections between the experience of the blitz and later reconstruction. It deserves a large and diverse readership.