‘Distance lends enchantment to the view’: The Left Book Club abroad.

Chloe Ward 2

Chloe Ward

Chloe Ward, who is spending some time with MBS as a Universitas 21 Visiting Fellow from the University of Melbourne writes this week on the transnational history of the Left Book Club. You can follow Chloe on Twitter @doctorchlod.

In April 1946 Horace Flower, the manager of the Queensland Farmers’ Co-Operative Association, wrote to the British publisher Victor Gollancz. Flower thanked Gollancz for his ‘splendid work … to open the eyes and the minds of so many world-citizens’ through the Left Book Club. He wrote that the Club’s influence through extended well beyond Britain’s borders:

… ‘distance lends enchantment to the view’ … If you remove the distance then you find we are pretty much alike and with about the same large percentage of unthinking citizens who blindly accept what the Beaverbrooks and Northcliffs (sic) of the world tell them to believe” [1]

Left Book Club Membership Form c. 1938

Left Book Club Membership Form c. 1938

Gollancz founded the LBC in 1936. It was a publishing enterprise, a Communist front organisation (to some) and, as I plan to argue in my PhD, a social movement. It published, circulated and discussed anti-fascist books chosen every month by Gollancz and the political economists Harold Laski and John Strachey. Its 57,000 members met in 1200 local Club discussion groups across the country. In doing so, they sought to prevent war and bring about a democratic peace.

The international connections of the LBC are relatively underexplored. Flower was one of several thousand Australian LBC subscribers. In Australia, LBC activity centred on radical bookshops in state capitals. As in Britain, the Australian LBC attracted communists, socialists and radicals. Like their British counterparts, they took discussion of the monthly Club book for their principle task. In November 1938 the Sydney group launched a national journal, the Australian Left News, which reported different states’ activities and published original journalism.

Australian Club members used the Club to overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’ between Australia and Britain. In their writings and discussions they made claims for their relevance to British anti-fascist politics. These met relative indifference in Britain. British Club members showed little interest in imperial politics or the Australian LBC. Nonetheless, the ways Australians responded to the LBC and anti-fascist politics speaks to the proliferation of ways of understanding ‘Britishness’ beyond Britain’s borders.

A Left Book Club Book

A Left Book Club Book

These efforts were largely imaginative. A letter to the ALN described the literal, cultural and political distance involved in joining the European anti-fascist struggle from so far away:

Two months ago you were in London, having tea in Lyons and walking down Oxford Street towards Baker Street station … A short air trip, and you would be within hearing of the guns in the Spanish War. Now you are in another world with new problems and different solutions, and you have to adapt your insular and London self to an Australian and Sydney setting.[2]

Empire held the key to Australians’ claims on a vaunted place in the anti-fascist movement as representatives of white civilization in Asia. In Britain, fallout from the Munich negotiations overshadowed the release of Amleto Vespa’s Secret Agent of Japan in October 1938. In Australia, the book provided a way of internationalizing European diplomacy. In their discussions the Australian groups linked air raid precautions, Munich, and the Japanese threat to Australia’s borders, which they tried to assimilate to a common policy for national and international defence.[3]

The Australian LBC’s organisers argued about where obedience to the British project ended and its reformulation for Australian purposes began. In January 1939 the Adelaide Club took the ALN’s editors to task for abandoning Gollancz’s declared liberal, pluralistic vision of the Club’s politics and taking a forthright, anti-capitalist position. In reply the Sydney group declared that, whatever its sympathies with the original Club, ‘“keeping in step” does not mean imitating … [and] we believe we should supplement from the Australian angle our English contemporary’.[4] This ‘Australian angle’ was largely a political difference. The LBC’s official organisation in Australia, and especially in Sydney where the ALN was produced, had close links to the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), and fewer countervailing forces against its influence, as represented in the British Club by Harold Laski and, increasingly, Gollancz himself.

The Second World War widened the political gulf between the two LBCs. This exposed very different thinking about the ‘democracy’ the Club defended. In Britain, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the outbreak of war divided Gollancz’s office between its communist and non-communist factions. Gollancz then excised its anti-war membership, including non-communists, from the Club. He argued they betrayed the democratic principles for which the Club was founded and the war was fought. The ban on CPA in June 1940 led to police seizing individuals’ Club books. Club members then united in defence of the liberal freedoms their circulation signified.

The Australian LBC reformulated its relationship to Britain once more during the war. ‘Research groups’ of Club members in New South Wales and Victoria published short books about problems of domestic and topical importance to Australians: for example women’s labour, the minimum wage, and housing. Yet even while refocusing the Club’s objectives on Australian issues, these writers united Australian and British interests in visions of future transnational, socialist achievement. One, for example, repeated Stafford Cripps’ declaration that the war was ‘in reality, a people’s war of liberation’ in its epigraph.[5]

Australian LBC readers’ activities are symptomatic of how people could and can define political identities against ‘Britishness’ even outside Britain. Their example also points to the importance of media both in mediating political and cultural identities, and as a tool in their further dissemination. Horace Flower, to his 1946 letter to Gollancz, attached copies of a private newsletter he had distributed locally for the previous three years. Sending the newsletter to the London publisher helped Flower feel he had ‘a definite link with a man who has done a mighty big job towards the evolution of real world-citizens’. Yet Flower’s action, and the activities of the LBC, points to neither to the primacy of Gollancz in the LBC’s achievements, or to objective emergence of cosmopolitan, ‘real world-citizens’. Rather, these are instances of the transnational circulation and appropriation, of ideas about Britain and its place in the world that could inspire political activity in different national contexts.

[1] Horace Flower to Victor Gollancz, Papers of Sir Victor Gollancz, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, MSS.157/3/LB/1/43.

[2] ‘London Letter’, Australian Left News, February 1939, 6.

[3] ‘Australian Group News’, Australian Left News, January 1939, 12.

[4] ‘Action must supplement thought’, Australian Left News, January 1939, 2.

[5] F Oswald Barnett & W.O Burt, Housing the Australian Nation, Research Group of the Left Book Club of Victoria, 1942.

British Studies and North Britain: UHI, HSBI, and the Impact of Research-Led Teaching

This week we are very happy share a guest blog from our colleagues at the University of Highlands and Islands who offer their own take and on Britishness, British Studies, teaching, research and engagement.

We have been following the exciting events at Modern British Studies from our base in the north of Scotland, at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). UHI is Scotland’s newest university, spread out over 13 colleges and research centres from Perth to Shetland, and Argyll to Moray. This is our campus:

UHI Campus Map

UHI Campus Map

In the Humanities we have a thriving range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, and like most Scottish universities our students take modules from different disciplines. Our staff, too, are often involved in more than one subject area, and as such interdisciplinary research is second-nature to many of us. Because of the nature of our institution we had to find creative ways to make Humanities teaching and research work, and we’ve become experts in the use of VLE spaces and video-conference teaching.

For the past three years we have been working on a new interdisciplinary Masters programme, which was approved recently with Prof. Matt Houlbrook as our external. The MLitt British Studies brings together academics from History, Literature, Philosophy and Archaeology who share a research interest in British identities: Dr Jim MacPherson (History, Dornoch), Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott (Literature, Inverness), Dr Innes Kennedy (Philosophy, Orkney) and Dr Simon Clarke (Archaeology, Shetland). Students on the programme will study core modules from those disciplines as well as option modules from across the Humanities, and their dissertation will be an interdisciplinary research project of 15,000 words. Students can study this course in the Highlands and Islands, or anywhere in the world – we are internationally validated. The weekly video-conference seminars bring staff and students together in small discussion-based sessions, and the classes are timetabled to suit our students’ needs.

But this isn’t all that makes the course special. As well as growing organically out of our research interests – work we’ve done in the past, current projects, and future undertakings – and being truly interdisciplinary, the course is distinctly different from traditional Masters courses: it puts students at the heart of wider research public engagement projects. We see our students as ‘junior researchers’ – from day 1 on their undergraduate programmes we expect to them think, read and write outside the box. Our MLitt students are part of our soon-to-be-formally-launched ‘Hub for the Study of British Identities’ (HSBI), and online research network for academics, students and the public. HSBI is a digital meeting space, and it encompasses a blog, a peer-reviewed journal (with space for junior researchers), a forum for debate, and various social media outlets. But it’s also a physical network that will bring researchers and the public together in a series of workshops and conferences, held face-to-face but supported by video-conference technology so as many people as possible can participate without having to worry about funding.

Where do our junior researchers come into this? They are at the heart of HSBI. They will be involved, formally and informally, in running the Hub, editing the journal, moderating the forum and contributing to the blog. They are expected to participate in the workshops and conferences, and to share their work with the wider community. Throughout their time with us – and beyond, we hope – they will be ‘British Identity Citizens’ (must find a better term for that!), brought together by shared scholarly interest, public engagement and the opportunity to be taken seriously as researchers. We are working with a number of cultural and heritage bodies – in particular, High Life Highland – to give our junior researchers ample opportunities to gain hands-on work experience in the cultural sector, from museums, archives and libraries to cultural arts and heritage management. Our junior researchers will be publicly visible – on placements throughout our region, by giving public talks and leading workshops, and by promoting our region’s rich cultural resources through their research.

Of course, the road to ‘British Studies’ wasn’t easy, and it has taken much convincing (of our institution, of local partners, of colleagues) that this is less about current politics and more to do with finding an umbrella that allows us to pin down our research and set up these exciting collaborations. In the land of the marginally-defeated referendum, of SNP dominance and social justice, we are painfully aware of the responsibilities and expectations that come with such a programme. We have been impressed, however, by people’s enthusiasm for our undertaking – both within and without academia, and it has proved to be an excellent conversation starter for engaging with the public.

In Inverness, for example, we have spent time discussing notions of identity with members of the public in the ‘Yes’ hub, who were admittedly a bit sceptical at first. Soon, though, they realised that we weren’t trying to sell them ‘British Studies’ as a pro-British, pro-establishment, pro-English idea, but that instead we wanted to hear their ideas on the concept! Soon, both tea and ideas flowed, and we went away inspired. They’ve kindly displayed some posters for us, too!


Just before the MLitt approval event one of our team, Kristin, obtained British citizenship. We don’t want to get into the how and why, or the prohibitive cost associated with it, or how this relates to identity – but instead, we wanted to talk about the ‘Citizenship Ceremony’ in which the process culminates. The ceremonies are run by the local councils, and there is quite a bit of freedom in how councils choose to frame the event. Here, in Inverness Town House, the ceremony was firmly Highland. Not Scottish, Highland. The address was about the region – its rich heritage, the opportunities it provides, its ‘unspoilt’ landscape – and there was a notable absence of British emblems (with the exception of a Union Jack and the oath that all new citizens were required to swear). There was, for example, no rendition of the national anthem – but there was a gift, which, as that, too, is at the discretion of each council, was delightfully local: a map of the Highlands. We are hoping that one of our students will do research into this – the process of becoming British. We’d also been keen to hear from others who have gone through the process – how did your ceremony compare to this one? The Highland Council version was truly that – Highland. It confirmed, yet again, that Scotland is a different country, and one of many identities.

A City with No Memory?

Nicola Gauld

Nicola Gauld

Nicola Gauld is the Co-ordinator for Voices of War and Peace: the Great War and its legacy. She is a historian, outreach worker and curator based in Birmingham. You can follow her on Twitter @nicolagauld or on her blog.

In December 2014 Birmingham City Council announced drastic cuts to its budget for 2015 and beyond. The Library of Birmingham, opened in September 2013 at a cost of £189m and the biggest public library in Europe, did not escape and a saving of £1.3m is currently being implemented, resulting in around 100 redundancies to be made in 2015 and a reduction in opening hours from 73 to 40 per week. Further cuts to the service are likely to be made in 2016-2018. The city’s Archives, Heritage & Photography department, housed in the Library, will be dramatically affected. This will inevitably result in reduced access to documents and photographs that are the city’s memory and the loss of skilled and experienced staff will mean that the service can no longer engage with citizens from across Birmingham to tell their stories and include them in the archive for the future.

A recent event at the newly-opened Impact Hub Birmingham, organised by myself, Immy Kaur (Co-founder of the Hub), Fiona Joseph (author) and Jez Collins (BCU/Birmingham Music Archive), discussed how we could deal with this situation. My connection to the archive is closely related to my personal experience of living in Birmingham. After moving here in late 2009 it took many months to feel part of the city, and starting work with the archives in spring 2011 undoubtedly helped me to connect, primarily through the city’s history but also through working with colleagues. For Fiona, who has written extensively about Birmingham’s historical residents, including the Cadbury family, the city’s history and its archive collections are essential for her work and Fiona spoke eloquently about the ‘trail of discovery’ that occurs when you begin to delve into the city’s history. Handling archive material triggers connections to the past, and to restrict access to that material, to letters, photographs, documents, that which connects us as humans, will inevitably have a negative impact. As Fiona remarked, by accepting the loss of the archive we are saying that it’s ok to be divorced from the past. As a ‘citizen archivist’ Jez set up the Birmingham Music Archive, a resource that clearly demonstrates the importance of shared memories and nostalgia, helping people to connect to the past but also to the present and to other people. Jez observed that it was important to reimagine how the service might be delivered – what might be the new ways of working and can that be more diverse and inclusive?

Discussions at the Impact Hub

Discussions at the Impact Hub

The event attempted to explore the following questions: what will the cuts to the Library and Archives service mean for the city and its residents? What does engagement with the city’s past now look like in this new landscape? How can we, its citizens, help protect and preserve the city’s important historical legacy? And how do we harness our shared knowledge of the past to better inform Birmingham’s future? All who were present at the event understand that the cuts should be resisted and that we should protest vehemently and loudly against them but we also wanted to start thinking about the landscape after those cuts have happened. And they are happening: colleagues and friends are losing their jobs, jobs that they have done for decades, jobs that they love and do out of passion and enthusiasm, jobs they desperately don’t want to leave, but the reality is that Birmingham City Council will not protect them, or attempt to find ways to protect them, and clearly does not value the work that has been done over the years, the active and determined inclusion in the archive of new residents and citizens of Birmingham, the sense of place and identity, belonging even, that has come from the many, many projects the archive has been involved in. Being angry about that, being incredibly sad, demoralised and outraged about the situation will take time to fade but what can we do about it? How can we keep doing the good work, keep reaching out to communities, keep telling those stories that will remain otherwise untold?

Jez talking about the Birmingham Music Archive

Jez talking about the Birmingham Music Archive

We come together and build libraries and archives because the past is bigger than any us. What do we do when the institutions that we build are taken away? Birmingham Archives, Heritage & Photography has recognised that an archive is a collaboration, built together by citizens, demonstrated by the years of valuable outreach work that has been done (for example Connecting Histories, Birmingham Stories). How can we help enable and support that outreach work to continue happening? Sadly the word ‘outreach’ disappeared from the Library of Birmingham’s staffing structure before the new building had even opened but the huge importance of the work that has been done cannot be disregarded (see Jim Ranahan’s recent blog post ‘Real People, Real Archives’ on the 10th anniversary of Connecting Histories). This work is too precious to lose and we must not allow the cuts to prevent this work from continuing to happen in the future. The form in which it happens now needs to be re-thought, re-negotiated and re-navigated.

As Matt Houlbrook remarked during the discussion, we are at risk of writing Birmingham out of UK and world history – is that really what we want?

Continuing the Conversation

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham.You can follow her on Twitter @laurajsefton. This blog was written on behalf of the various PG students at MBS.

As the Modern British Studies conference quickly approaches, we are excitedly finalising the details of the postgraduate workshop scheduled to take place on the first morning, 1st July. The schedule for the event with links to the panellists can be found on the MBS conference pages.

The workshop will be centred around Working Paper 2, co-written by postgraduate researchers in the department in November 2014. We always envisaged that the paper would be referenced in the workshop but in a new political climate, in which the Arts and Humanities are placed in an even more vulnerable position, the concerns raised in the paper seem more pertinent than before. We have therefore asked panellists to briefly respond to two different aspects of the working paper and then we will open up the debate to the floor for lengthy discussion.

Our working paper had two principal concerns: how postgraduates and early career researchers can engage with the Modern British Studies project and the working conditions we needed to do so. One of MBS aims was to “provide sites for research seeking to move beyond the fragmentation of the field whether by academic staff or a postgraduate community.”

Indeed, a key aspect of MBS’s intellectual project is to challenge the “problematic disciplinary, analytic and theoretical fragmentation of the field”, yet we feel strongly that our daily working practices and the research we undertake are intrinsically linked and, as such, the former is as important as the latter.

We called upon MBS to place PGs and ECRs at the heart of the project, firmly believing that they could not fulfill their stated aims without addressing our concerns because fragmentation of the field is not just occurring within research, but amongst researchers.

The isolation of academic research has long been documented, but as academia becomes increasingly specialised, communities are harder to maintain and researchers are further isolated and insular. This is compounded in Modern British history; as the field fragments, our questions become narrower, our answers more focused, our circles of influence smaller and our support networks diminished.

Just as academia demands increasing specialism, it also requires demonstrable engagement. We are told we must engage with the public, we must find ways for our research to have impact otherwise a career in academia, or elsewhere, is impossible. At the same time, we are told that the ‘problem’ is our inability to talk to the public; that our specialised research does not translate to ‘ordinary’ settings, that we cannot address the publics concerns. Yet the subsequent focus on employability, transferable skills and measurable impact usually involves jargon and bureaucracy that only serve to make us even more unrelatable.

Ironically, this preparation for the ‘real world’ renders us unable to fully engage with the big questions the public are now asking. As Britain’s future and place in the world is debated and austerity, privatization and the very meaning of society dominate public discussion, critical analysis and sound judgements are needed more than ever before. We should not engage for the sake of engaging but because we are passionate about intellectual knowledge and have a firm belief in its value to wider society.

Moreover, PGs and ECRs are also under greater pressures to research, teach, network and demonstrate impact in an increasingly competitive environment. It is unsurprising then that resilience gets weakened, wellbeing suffers and passion gives way to pragmatism.

Too often HEIs’ defence of PGs and ECRs and fleeting moments of unity are centred on the critique of specific cases within other universities. Whilst it is right that institutions are held accountable for their actions, classifying them as out of the ordinary enables other institutions to normalize their own working practices. A thorough and open debate about the academic landscape and the socio-economic position of postgraduates and ECRs is desperately needed. Even the discursive framework used to talk about postgraduates and early career researchers is problematic, maintaining hierarchies in universities that are surely detrimental to collaborative research.

If MBS seeks collaboration and engagement it must continue to provide an Intellectually rigorous and supportive environment for all of its researchers. Yet, as proud as we are to be active and respected members of the MBS community at Birmingham, we are also members of the wider postgraduate community in Britain and beyond. MBS must use its influence to show solidarity with PGs and ECRs and provide a forum to openly discuss our concerns.

We believe then that MBS can be, and should, be, a space for all postgraduates working under the umbrella of Modern British Studies who seek debate, conversation and the means for genuine engagement in a supportive environment. As part of this, the waiving of all costs for all postgraduates, ECRs and the unwaged, is particularly welcomed, but this is only a start. We urge all postgraduates and ECRs to attend the workshop on 1st July as well as writing a blog post* about the conference. This way we can begin building a strong community of researchers working in Modern British Studies.

*For further information about the blog posts please see here

MBS 2015: Conversations Beyond the Conference

Chris Moores

Chris Moores

Thanks to those of you who have registered for the Modern British Studies Conference in July. We are really looking forward to hosting this. Because of support from the University of Birmingham and the Economic History Society we have been able to make registration and catering costs completely free for over 100 postgraduates, people on temporary contracts and those that are currently between posts. Our excellent PGs will be sharing some news about the PG/ECR workshop they have organized in the near future.

Part of the challenge we have set ourselves is to make sure that we involve new scholars in the on-going conversations around the conference and feed these into proceedings. We also want to make sure that those unable to come along are able to tap into some of the discussions which take place.

We have, therefore, been grappling with how we might capture the energy, new ideas, reflections, questions and criticisms that come out of a conference and put these to use. We have various ideas about making sure some of the conference contributions are made sustainable – including podcasts, Twitter,  but would welcome any bright ideas on this.

As part of this, we are also asking everyone who has registered for free to offer some reflections on the conference as part of the MBS blog.

We are very open minded about what might be posted here (feel free to browse through our somewhat eclectic back catalogue of posts), but we are really eager to share conference reports, feedback notes, reflections on projects, responses to specific papers, questions, or agendas, social media responses, photo essays, reviews of the plenary sessions, etc.. etc.. we hope people will feel free to be as creative or even formulaic as you like.


MBS people at Birmingham have been thinking a lot about the various funding models that exist for academic conferences and their different inequities. We hope that by showing the energy and ideas that can be brought to an event by making it both relatively low-cost and, hopefully, accessible to emerging scholars will, perhaps, help set an example for future events.

A series of blog posts by those who have been able to come and contribute because of the omission of fees will, we think, demonstrate in a modest way the value in rethinking our funding models for conference more widely.

Our experiments with blog writing have, for the most part, been fun, challenging and rewarding and we have been surprised and delighted that each post has been generally widely read.

We hope you like this idea. Part of the plan  for MBS at Birmingham is to create different spaces for conversations – please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions, suggestions or ideas. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing you all here in July.

MA Student Research Day, 8 June 2015, 11 AM.


We’re very pleased to announce a research day for the excellent dissertation projects of our students in the MA Contemporary History, MA Global History and MA in Modern British Studies.

Monday June 8, in the Whitting Room on the 4th Floor of the Arts Building from 11-15:30h.

All are welcome.


  • 11h Welcome/Introductory Comments (Organizers)
  • 11:20h: Charlie Marriott, (MA Contemporary), “The Future of Poland in Allied Eyes”
  • 11:40: Fraser Sutherland, (MA Contemporary), “Popular Culture of the Post-punk Era in Britain: 1978-82”
  • 12h: William Gale, (MA Contemporary), “British Steel Workers: Nostalgia for the ‘Ideal Type’ of Working Class, 1945-1983”
  • 12:20h: Emma Barrett, (MA Contemporary), “Political Bankers, Financial Politicians: Examining the Intellectual Rationale behind Thatcher’s Financial Revolution, 1979-1986
  • 12:40h: Shahmima Akhtar (MA Global History) “The Exhibition of the Irish in the Village of Ballymaclinton from 1907-1924 – Ireland’s Exhibitions”

13h Lunch

  • 14:00h: Edmund Bradbury (MA Global History) “

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