It’s different up here: Region, locality, and place in 20th Century British History

Speakers: Christine Grandy, Helen Smith, James Greenhalgh

Chair: Laura King

At the core of this panel is a historiographical and conceptual absence in the face of a fairly straightforward question: What place do region or the local have in historiography of the 20th century or indeed within historiography of modern Britain? These areas have, for the most part, been largely ignored by historians of modern Britain, even while the very different experiences of the North and the South, the metropolitan and local, are registered with relatively little comment within our works. Our panel asks whether a ‘rethinking’ of modern British studies should grapple with the overlooked role of region and locality in shaping conceptions of sexuality, the urban and municipal, and race? Does regional and local history need to be torn away from conceptions of small-scale analysis or uncomfortable associations with heritage?

This panel considers the largely overlooked role of region and place within histories of 20th century Britain. Together, these three papers examine the usefulness of region and locality as an organising principal for understanding communities, space, and even time periods within the 20th century. Helen Smith’s paper rethinks long-standing assumptions around sexuality in the North in light of her work on relatively high levels of same-sex acceptance in Yorkshire while James Greenhalgh considers the overlooked role of local planning as an engine for change, rather than World War II, in in fostering post-war British modernity. Christine Grandy examines the role of regional television news in both collapsing and invoking concepts of ‘strangerhood’ in post-war reporting on immigration in the Midlands. Together, our papers are concerned with interrogating both the benefits and drawbacks of using region and locality as primary categories of analysis within the complex terrain of 20th century Britain.

Paper 1 Abstract: ‘It’s all incest and buggery up there’: Same-sex desire, northernness and a different way of living?

(Helen Smith, University Of Lincoln)

In her memoir, Evelyn Haythorne remembered how her family reacted to being relocated to South Yorkshire during the inter-war period. Her mother was mortified about the move north (from Hampshire) because she had always known that ‘it’s all incest and buggery up there’. Evelyn enjoyed life up north and was not worried by the evidence of same-sex desire that she saw in cafes and on the streets of Sheffield, and neither in her experience, were the rest of the city’s inhabitants. Somehow, Yorkshire had acquired a reputation for sexual depravity and this does not fit with understood narratives within the history of sexuality.

This paper will explore region as a category of analysis for understanding sexual cultures and the expression of same-sex desire. For the most part, historians of sexuality have ignored non-Metropolitan men, assuming that such men did not have the same freedom of opportunity to be found in the capital and that they have left behind few traces of their experiences. The fact that, for the first half of the 20th century, most northern men did not have access to the types of commercial and cultural venues as their metropolitan counterparts has been seen as evidence of repression and of a certain kind of provincial ‘backwardness’. However, this kind of reading obscures the fact that, for many men in the north, same-sex desire was an acceptable way to find sexual and emotional release. And as shown by the attitudes of the residents of Evelyn Haythorne’s Sheffield, communities, albeit within a certain set of locally governed expectations, could feel the same way.

While well-documented lives were being led in London, thousands of working-class men were having sex with each other in the north without challenging their ideas of sexual ‘normality’. Laura Doan has written on how ideas of normality can be challenged and reconfigured and, in terms of sexual experience, a study of the north can add to this scholarship. By reworking an analysis of sexuality in the 20th century to include region specific research, the picture of how ordinary men fulfilled their desires becomes more both nuanced and more grounded in other forms of life experience such as work, class-culture and family life. This paper will examine these intersections between sexuality, region, class and masculinity to offer up the beginnings of a new normal and a new way to interpret 20th British history more broadly.

Paper 2 Abstract: ‘Do your neighbours talk to you?’ Region, ‘strangerhood,’ and immigration in Midlands news television.

(Christine Grandy, University Of Lincoln)

In 1956, the relatively new ITV channel began broadcasting a regional news bulletin produced by a Birmingham based television company, ATV. This news bulletin, called Midlands News was a daily weekday broadcast until 1969, when it merged with another programme ATV today. From its inception, Midlands News focused on regional news, often racing from its headquarters to developing stories across the Midlands. This was modern media in the new age of two television channels, as the power of the screen within the home was just beginning to be realized.

This paper is concerned with exploring region, but within the peculiar confines of a two-channel television system that was tasked with documenting a variety of local concerns, including the growth of immigrant communities in the Midlands. This paper firstly considers how regional television news sits within James Vernon’s recent argument that provincial newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries worked to ‘remake associational and political culture’ between increasingly dislocated and abstracted notions ‘distant strangers’ within Britain. My paper attempts to situate the work of a 20th century regional television network within Vernon’s concept of, for lack of a better word, regional ‘strangerhood,’ and alongside concerns that with another type of ‘distant strangers’ who, as Chris Waters has argued, powerfully shaped post-war notions of an encompassing Britishness. Where, or can, regional identities sit within this post-war reshaping of Britishness? How do regional affiliations work to both collapse notions of strangerhood within regions, but also conversely to invoke strangerhood in the powerful medium of screen culture as grounds for a defensive and persistent framework of identification? By examining ATV’s reporting on post-war immigration in the Midlands, this paper examines the intersections of post-war television and notions of racial and regional strangerhood in modern Britain.

Paper 3 Abstract: Local modernities: Urban planning, war, and the citizen

(James Greenhalgh, University Of Lincoln)

This paper examines the manner in which narratives of change have been influenced by historical periodization and too-heavy a focus on the national-level state as both an arena for and the driver of developments in policy designed to shape people’s lives through interventions in urban space. The paper argues that, despite caveats, scholarship on post-war Britain has been too ready to treat the war as a caesura or a driver of change, which has led to misunderstandings about the genesis of policy concerning the built environment and the importance of the local state being ignored or downplayed.

Examination of approaches to urban space in provincial cities — here focused upon attempts by the corporations of Manchester and Hull to produce functional, liveable cities through spatial policies — reveals local state actors in corporations and planning departments as one of, if not the, key driver of national policies emerging after the Second World War. By discarding assumptions about the salience of the war as a driver of change, the paper shows the importance of challenging understandings associated with common periodization of modern Britain and Europe and offers examination of the local state as a way of doing so. Following on from work done by historians of twentieth century Germany and France the paper thus suggests ways we might challenge conventional understandings of what constituted British modernity in in the middle of the twentieth century.  Building on theses developed by historians of urban Britain like Simon Gunn, the paper reveals local corporations deploying their own vision of urban modernism, redefining the functional city and showing detailed models of how space functioned in shaping the behaviours of the consciously-free citizen subject.  British modernity emerges not as a singular, national process, but as a contested, fragmented set of processes, with different meanings at the personal, local and national levels of the state. Attention to how local corporations were interpreting and contesting the meanings of planning legislation; how they were regulating advertising, fairground noise, waste-ground hawkers or bystanders; and how they brought detailed understandings of the manner in which space shaped individual experience shows the importance of the local state and local state actors as drivers of change at a national level.


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