Welcome back to the MBS Blog. Over the past year we have shared many different posts on many important subjects. Amongst other things, these covered community history within Birmingham, media appearances, archival discoveries, university collections, contemporary events, new modules associated with the MA in Modern British Studies, the challenges facing emerging scholars, and highlighted new research projects of MBS members.
During the summer we were delighted to share responses to the Modern British Studies Conference held in July and I urge you all to take a look at these if you have not already.
To start the new academic year, however, this blog entry will not do anything so worthy. In fact, more indulgently, I am using it to write about a picture I found in an archive this summer.
As a historian interested in the evolution of human rights, I have been researching campaigning from Britain against the Chilean junta of Augusto Pinochet. These campaigns were part of a movement and moment which increased the saliency of human rights politics during the 1970s.
The archives offered many different discoveries; some of which won’t necessarily feature in the publication generated by the research. So I thought I would use this post to share material which did not quite add to the arguments of a distinct article or contained material that might be used in future projects.
An example of the former was the efforts by unionized telecommunications technicians to block the transmission of the Eurovision song contest to Chile in 1975. Members of the junta were, no doubt, upset to have missed out on Ding-a-Dong the Netherlands’ winning entry from that year. In case you missed it as well, here it is:
As for the latter, I also discovered that this house, which I pretty much pass on my commute to work, is one of a number close to the University of Birmingham which housed families of Chilean refugees in Selly Oak, Birmingham. I hope to write some more about this in the coming year.
In addition to these, one item stood out in the papers of the Chile Solidarity Campaign (CSC). It was this photo.
Sent from a small town in the South of England, two members of a local football team attached their photo to a letter explaining their opposition to Pinochet. The 25 year old men offered three typical explanations for solidarity with Chile. This was political – they were ‘politically aware and anxious to assist the Chile Solidarity Campaign’. This was cultural; their interest was encouraged by Chilean concerts raising money for the children of the ‘disappeared’. This was humanitarian; the CSC was thanked for its ‘help and humanity for others’.
Similar explanations for engagement are common in the archives of these campaigns, but this particular letter included a less usual request. As it explained, the note was written ‘to find out if there are two Chilean females who would care to correspond or meet two left-oriented males for friendship’. The enclosed picture was for the benefit of ‘any Chilean lady (or ladies) who might be interested’.
The photo and letter got me thinking, once more, about the relationship between politics and emotion – one of the many discussions which took place at the MBS conference (in particular see Charlotte Greenhalgh, Stephen Brooke, and Rhodri Hayward). It might be tempting to cast these two activists into a narrative stressing a sometimes problematic, misjudged romantic gaze of the humanitarian activist. Here, the politics of solidarity – about which Lucy Robinson blogged about in response to the recent Conference on Rethinking Contemporary British Political History at Queen Mary’s University of London – becomes slippier still.
But if the footballers’ letter lacked finesse, it is also a reminder that politics often fused with, or served as, a platform, an opportunity, or even an excuse, to meet girls or boys with shared concerns and interests. Those of us that have spent time researching and writing about social movements, NGOs, and voluntary associations could doubtless muster countless examples of activism constructed around, and informed by, the intimate relationships of those involved.
While the motivations of those circled in the photo do not, perhaps, appear entirely wholesome, the letter also hints at the isolation of young, left-wing men, in a ferry town, in a solid Conservative constituency in England in the late 1970s. The letter concludes, ‘I hope that this request for Chilean friendship is not imposing on your goodwill but our geographical position isolates us and we’re desperate for contact’. If there is a slight leeriness in tone there is also a loneliness of sentiment, which should not escape our attention.
Solidarity therefore is revealed as a tricky subject, difficult to unpack. As the wider research shows, ‘solidarity’ as a phrase might have been used by opposition to Pinochet, but it is easy enough to find businesses, activists, companies, traders, politicians, diplomats, and military personnel offering a form of ‘solidarity’ to support a junta responsible for deaths and disappearances of hundreds of thousands. As Lucy points out, ‘we better sort out our solidarity’. This is clearly a valuable undertaking, politically and historically, but as the letter from the footballers and the multiple different actors engaging with Chile might suggest, it will not be straightforward.