23rd Practising Historical Geography Conference

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The 2017 Practising Historical Geography Conference was held in Manchester (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last week, I went to Manchester Metropolitan University for the 23rd annual Practising Historical Geography Conference, organised by the Historical Geography Research Group (HGRG).  It was my fifth time attending the conference (I wrote about the last one I attended, in 2015, here), but my first time presenting. As always, I thought it was a great day, well organised, with really interesting speakers.

The day involves: two keynote speakers; two methodological workshops; a Postgraduate Voices presentation by a recently completed PhD student; and a paper by the HGRG undergraduate dissertation prize winner. This year, I gave the Postgraduate Voices talk. It meant a lot to be asked, as the Practising Historical Geography conferences have been a really important part of my PhD. I have valued the time spent with other enthusiastic researchers who have been unfailingly supportive over the last five years. Because of how much I have gotten out of these conferences, I decided to use my Postgraduate Voices presentation to talk about my place in the academic communities that played such an important role in my PhD. Doing a PhD can be a lonely experience, so I think it’s really important to take a bit of time and effort to participate in academic networks when you get the chance.

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The Royal Holloway contingent at the 23rd Practising Historical Geography conference. Left to right: Ben Newman, myself, and Ed Armstron-Sheret (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

In her introduction to the conference, President of the HGRG Dr. Briony McDonagh said that the field of historical geography was in “rude health.” By the end of the day, I couldn’t help but agree. The keynote lectures, given by Professor Jon Stobbart and Dr. Kimberly Peters, were both fantastic, and they highlighted the diversity of research being conducted in the field. Professor Stobbart discussed the construction of ‘comfortable’ homes in Georgian England using material objects, whilst Dr. Peters talked about the development of maritime ‘motorways,’ shipping lanes designed to minimise the chance of large container ships colliding head-on. I never thought that I would find maritime trade so interesting!

The two workshops were also excellent. The first, organised by Dr. Sarah Mills, was about the ethics of archival research. I must admit I generally fall into the trap of assuming that I don’t need to think too much about ethics because I research the past, but the workshop made me realise it was something I should pay more attention to. The second workshop, run by Dr. James Kneale, was about the merits and challenges of time capsules for historical research. During the recent demolition of the Temperance Hospital in London, two time capsules were found, and Dr. Kneale was asked to consult on their contents. Whilst it seems unlikely that many historical geographers will find themselves in a similar situation during their careers, we had some great discussions about the nature, meaning, purpose, and use of time capsules.

Practising Historical Geography is always a brilliant event, and this year was no different. I drove home feeling energised, with a renewed enthusiasm for my own research. I would like to say thank you to the HGRG committee, particularly Dr. Cheryl McGeachan and Dr. Hannah Neate, for organising such a wonderful event.

Turbulent Londoners: Harriet Taylor Mill, 1807-1858

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. The next Turbulent Londoner is Harriet Taylor Mill, a radical thinker who made a significant contribution to the work of John Stuart Mill.


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Harriet Taylor Mill, around 1834 (Source: National Portrait Gallery).

The well-known phrase ‘Behind every man is a great woman’ could have been invented for the philosopher John Stuart Mill. His wife Harriet Taylor Mill was hugely significant to his work, and, whilst we may never know the full extent of her contribution, she may well have co-authored substantial amounts of the writing attributed to him. She was also a radical thinker and writer in her own right.

Harriet Hardy was born in Walworth, south London on the 8th of October 1807. The daughter of a surgeon, she was educated at home. Her relationship with John Stuart  Mill was unconventional, even by modern standards. In 1826 Harriet married he first husband, the merchant John Taylor. They had three children. Four years into their marriage, Harriet became active in the Unitarian church community in London, and was introduced to John Stuart Mill. The two became close friends, exchanging essays on marriage and women’s rights. Mill was the first man to treat Harriet as an intellectual equal. Harriet was the more radical of the two, criticising the degrading effects of women’s economic dependence on men. She believed the situation could only be changed by the drastic reform of marriage laws.

By 1833, Harriet was living apart from John Taylor with her daughter, Helen. She spent six weeks in Paris with John Stuart Mill, and despite claiming they did not have a sexual relationship, they caused a scandal that left them both socially isolated. Harriet lived in a house in Walton-on-Thames, and Mill visited her at the weekends. John Taylor eventually accepted Harriet’s relationship with Mill, on the condition that she move back in with him.

John Taylor died in 1849, and Harriet married Mill two years later. The same year, 1851, ‘The Enfranchisement of Women’ was published by The Westminster Review. It is one of the few pieces of writing that can be solely attributed to Harriet, but at the time it was published in Mill’s name. Mill would build on Harriet’s arguments in The Subjection of Women (1869), although his arguments were less radical than Harriet’s.

Harriet published little of her own work, but contributed extensively to Mill’s. It is hard to know exactly the extent of this contribution though. At least, Harriet commented on all of Mill’s writing. In his autobiography, he claimed that she co-authored most of his work. In 1832, Early Essays on Marriage on divorce was published, co-authored by Harriet and Mill. It is unclear why Harriet might have been reluctant to take credit for her work– perhaps she was worried it would affect how the ideas were received. What was clear, however, was that Mill valued Harriet’s contribution; he dedicated On Liberty (1859) to her.

In her later years, Harriet traveled a lot due to ill health. She died in Avignon on the 3rd of November 1858. Mill bought a villa near Avignon, and spent most of the rest of the life there. Harriet’s daughter Helen helped Mill finish The Subjection of Women.

Even if Harriet Taylor Mill wasn’t a significant contributor to the work of John Stuart Mill, I think she would be worthy of admiration for to bravery she showed in pursuing happiness in her personal life in the face of social ostracism. Although the extent of her abilities will probably never be know for sure, she was also an accomplished thinker and writer. She deserves recognition.

Sources and Further Reading

Anschutz, Richard Paul. “John Stuart Mill.’ Encyclopaedia Britannica. Last modified June 15, 2017, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Stuart-Mill.

Miller, Dale E. “Harriet Taylor Mill.’ Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified October 5, 2015, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at  https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/harriet-mill/#EnfWom

Simkin, John. “Harriet Mill.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed November 9, 2017. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/Wtaylor.htm

Wikipedia, “Harriet Taylor Mill.” Last modified August 22 2017, accessed September 28, 2017. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Taylor_Mill

Protest Stickers: Haywards Heath

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Haywards Heath in Sussex wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the train station (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

A common side effect of academia can be moving around a lot. For the first 2 years of my PhD I lived in London, and I am now back in my home town of Brighton, but for a year in between that I lived in Haywards Heath, a semi-rural commuter town on the London-Brighton train line in Sussex. Like Egham in Surrey, it is not the sort of town where you would expect to find protest stickers. It is not the sort of place where you expect to find any alternative politics, to be honest. Nevertheless, I did find protest stickers, although  not all of them promoted the left-wing, progressive politics that I normally expect to find.

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Like many towns south of London, the commuters have Haywards Heath have suffered as a result of the dispute between Southern Rail and the RMT Union. The conflict has been dragging on for some time now, but I was surprised when I realised I took this photo more than two years ago; no wonder patience is running out on all sides. I found this sticker in the Haywards Heath train station (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 01/12/15).

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This sticker is on the back of a traffic sign on the outskirts of Haywards Heath. It is referring to the fox hunting ban, which was introduced in 2005, so there’s a possibility that this sticker is quite old. Haywards Heath is surrounded by small, rural villages, so there is a lot of support for fox hunting in the area (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 05/07/16).

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This is the detail of the logo from the above sticker. It is hard to make out the words because the sticker has been scratched, but I think it says “Felix says keep hunting.” The web address no longer works, further evidence that the sticker is old (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 05/07/16).

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This was placed on  the entrance sign on one of the numerous office blocks that line one of the main roads in Haywards Heath. Needless to say, it was removed quite quickly. I was surprised to find such radical sentiment expressed in Haywards Heath (Photo: 06/08/16).

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This sticker is produced by Active Distribution, who make quite a lot of the protest stickers I come across (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 07/12/15).

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This sticker was trying to persuade people to vote Remain in the 2016 EU Referendum for the sake of the environment. Haywards Heath did vote to remain in the European Union, by a small margin (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 01/10/16).

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Most protest stickers are left wing, but I do come across some supporting right wing groups and policies. This small sticker was advertising the British National Party, a far right political party which has been in decline over the last few years (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 12/01/16).

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The National Front is another small far-right party. It advocates a form of racist nationalism, seeing anyone who isn’t white British as a threat, hence the demand this sticker makes (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 22/12/15).

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Sadly, I found a higher proportion of right wing and racist stickers in Haywards Heath than I have done in other cities.  Overall, the town is quite conservative politically, and I guess that results in a relatively large proportion of people with far-right beliefs (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 06/01/16)

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I have seen this sticker in a few cities around the country, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure it counts as a protest sticker. There are some people who still beleive that the world is flat, but I’m not sure if that’s what this sticker is really about (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 11/01/16).

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I know this isn’t a protest sticker, but I wanted to finish on a positive note! (Photo, Hannah Awcock, 06/01/16).

Vienna’s Street Art

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Central Vienna is beautiful, but a little too formal for my liking (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

This summer, I spent a few days in Vienna on a family holiday. Although beautiful, I found the city, particularly the city centre, had an add, formal feel that didn’t sit very well with me. It didn’t feel lived in, more like a model city than an actual place. There were some parts of the city I did connect with however, like the Prater funfair, the city’s lively protest sticker culture, and the street art. I quickly discovered however, that the advice the guide books give you about finding street art is not necessarily the best.

Dotted around the Museum Quarter of the city there are a series of Micromuseums, small passageways that focus on different art genres, including literature, typography, and sound art. They are the brainchild of Q21, which provides creative work and exhibition spaces in the Museum Quarter. One of these Micromuseums is called Street Art Passage Vienna, and its where a lot of guide books direct you if you want to see street art in the city. Whilst I like the idea of turning “simple means of entrance and exit to innovative art spaces,” I found the reality a bit disappointing. The space is almost 10 years old, and it feels a little neglected.

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The Street Art Passage Vienna was looking a little neglected when I saw it in July (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The two  permanent pieces of art in the passage by Invader (2008) and Lois Weinberger (2013) (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The main feature of the passage is a tiled bridge by French artist Invader (2008). His distinctive Space Invader mosaics are a recognisable feature of many cities. There is also a permanent typographic piece by Lois Weinberger (2013), which is visible in the above picture on the wall behind the Invader bridge. There are also temporary exhibitions by a wide range of artists (you can see a full list here). There are two vending machines, which are supposed to contain mini catalogues and sets of stickers that you can buy for 2 Euros, but the machines were empty when I went there. In addition, each temporary artists produces a limited number of affordable screen prints, designed to encourage young art collectors.

When there is crossover between the informal, ephemeral tradition of  street art and more formalised traditions of artistic display like art galleries and museums, there can be tensions. Whilst street art is often associated with a certain urban ‘scruffiness,’ in the case of the Street Art Passage Vienna it just felt neglected. For me, street art is exciting and vibrant, it makes a city feel more alive. The Street Art Passage felt…stagnant.

If you want to see dynamic and vivid street art in Vienna, and lots of it, then I would recommend going to the Danube Canal, which splits of from the Danube proper north of the city centre, then loops round to the west of the river before rejoining the Danube further south. The canal is below street level, with a tow path on either side and concrete walls rising to the main roads that run either side. The walls on both sides of the canal are covered in street art, and there are also some sculptures along the tow paths. In the hour or so I was walking along the canal, I saw several artists working on pieces on the walls.

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The Danube canal is below street level, with concrete walls between the tow path and the street. The walls are covered in street art and grafitti (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The confluence of the Danube Canal with Wienfluss. In the bottom right of the photo, there is an artist working on an image of a woman (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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An in-progress piece of street art on the wall under a bridge across the Danube Canal (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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A map of central Vienna with the Street Art Passage Vienna and the Danube Canal marked on it (Source: Google Maps, with alterations by the author).

Most guide books and websites will send you to the Street Art Passage Vienna if you’re looking for street art in the city. But I wouldn’t recommend it. The litter, dust bins, and empty vending machines felt a little sad. The street art at the Danube Canal, however, is energetic and vibrant, and helped me to connect to a city that had I had struggled to relate to previously.

We Are Many Review

Rise, like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number!

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you:

Ye are many—they are few!”

The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Shelly, 1819.

We Are Many Landscape

Many of you who has ever been to a protest will be familiar with at least part of the above quote, the final stanza of a poem written by Percy Shelley after the Peterloo massacre. We Are Many, a documentary film that tells the story of the Stop the War protests on the 15th February 2003, takes it’s name from the final line of this evocative poem. The film is not unjustified in borrowing such powerful words; it is a forceful and effecting documentary.

Directed by Amir Amirani, and first released at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2014, We Are Many tells the story of the global protests against the imminent Iraq War on the 15th of February 2003. Up to 30 million people in nearly 800 cities took part, many of whom had never been to a protest before. The film uses news footage, interviews with participants, experts, and journalists, footage of protests, and clips of political speeches to tell the narrative of the protests themselves, as well as the events that led up to them, and the political movements they helped to inspire (you can see the trailer here).

Starting with 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror; the documentary traces the foundation of the Stop the War coalition; the growing opposition to military intervention in Iraq; the protests themselves; further attempts to prevent Western intervention in Iraq; the war itself; and the Tahir Square protests in Egypt. It ends with the vote by British Parliament in 2013 in which they decided against military intervention in Syria, an indication that, although the Iraq War was not prevented, the protest was not necessarily a waste of time. It is a comprehensive account, and I think it could have benefited from doing less, the last half and hour or so does drag somewhat.

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The Stop the War march on the 15th March 2003 was one of the biggest marches London has seen in decades (Source: Channel 4).

Overall, however, I thought it was a brilliant documentary. The interviews were particularly effective: a US air force veteran who came to oppose the war and US government officials admitting the war was wrong make for convincing viewing. The documentary also featured footage of the interviewees speechless. When the narrative arrives at the 19th of March when the war started, many of the interviewees were lost for words, even after a decade. That was pretty powerful.

When a protest doesn’t result in direct changes, it can be difficult to assess its impact. We Are Many admits that the Stop the War protests failed in their primary objective, and left many so demoralised that they withdrew from political engagement. The documentary does, however, make the argument that the 2003 demonstrations had long-term, positive impacts. It argues that the democracy movement in Egypt in 2011 was the product of the global anti-war movement, and highlights that when Britain faced the choice to invade Syria in 2013, MPs made a different decision than the government made a decade before. It is an interesting attempt to assess the impacts that a protest can have.

We Are Many is a comprehensive and emotive account of the events of the 15th February 2003. The global day of protest is thoroughly contextualised in both the events leading up to it, and the possible impacts it may have had. I would recommend this film as a teaching resource about both dissent and the Iraq War, or for those who are just curious about one of the biggest globally coordinated protests the world has ever seen.

London’s Protest Stickers: Israel-Palestine

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This is not technically a sticker, but I like the work of this artist, so I decided to include it (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Oxford Street, 15/04/15).

On the 25th of August, Frankfurt City Council approved a bill that will ban the use of municipal funds for Boycott, Divestment Sanctions (BDS) activities targeting Israel, if it is approved by the city parliament. Frankfurt is the first German city to take this step, but it looks like Munich will follow suit in the autumn (Jerusalem Post, 2017).Uwe Becker, the deputy mayor and city treasurer for Frankfurt, argues that the movement is anti-Semitic. The BDS movement campaigns to put economic pressure on the Israeli state in order to compel Israel to obey international law in its dealings with Palestine. Founded in 2005, BDS is a coalition of groups from Palestine and around the world. London’s protest stickers suggest that support for the BDS movement is much stronger here than it is in Germany. In fact, every sticker I have found in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict in London is pro-Palestine.

You can see where I found these stickers on the Turbulent London Map.

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The colour scheme of BDS stickers usually reflects the Palestinian flag, which has three horizontal strips of black, white, and green, overlaid with a red triangle on the left hand side. War on Want is an organisation that campaigns on multiple issues relating to human rights, social justice, and the root causes of poverty (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Lewisham Way, 20/03/16).

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This sticker, which features the Palestian flag, is produced by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which claims to be the biggest organisation in the UK campaigning for Palestinian human rights (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Royal Mint Street, 25/02/15).

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This sticker doesn’t directly refer to the BDS campaign, but it does also use the colours of the Palestinian flag (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Cable Street, 25/02/15).

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Again, this sticker uses the colour scheme of the Palestinian flag (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Pentonville Road, 23/03/17)

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I suspect that this sticker was designed to be worn by people rather than street furniture, because of its small, round shape. However, stickers worn on street furniture tends to last longer than stickers worn on clothes (Photo: Hannah Awcock, British Museum, 12/05/15).

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This sticker was produced by the Socialist Worker Student Society, the student arm of the Socialist Worker’s Party, a revolutionary party that campaigns for socialism and internationalism (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Malet Street, 28/05/17).

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This sticker does not use the traditional BDS colour scheme, but it does illustrate the logic behind BDS in a way that I think is quite striking (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Russell Square, 15/04/15).

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The boycott element of BDS includes academia. In 2015, the SOAS Student Union held a referendum over whether or not the university should implement an academic boycott. The students voted yes to the boycott (Photo: Hanna Awcock, Malet Street, 17/02/15).

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This sticker Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st century is a group that campaigns on a whole range of issues. This sticker is calling for BDS, using the image of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister (Photo: Hannah Awcock, Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, 09/08/15).

Preparing for your Viva: Collected Resources

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The printed copies of my thesis before I submitted them (Photo:  Hannah Awcock)

A few weeks ago, I passed my PhD viva! As my viva got closer, I spoke to lots of people about theirs, and many had actually enjoyed the chance to talk in-depth about their work. I also trusted the work that I have put in over the last four years, and trusted that my supervisors would have told me if they thought my thesis would fail the viva. So whilst I was nervous about my viva, I was also quite looking forward to it. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say I enjoyed the viva, I definitely would not say it was a negative experience, and it definitely wasn’t the terrifying occasion that some people expect it to be.

I think part of the reason I wasn’t too nervous before and during my viva was the preparation I had done. I read my thesis, trying to identify anything my examiners might ask about, and made notes on a series of general questions that I thought might come up. I found this to be quite a good way of getting ready for the viva; I felt well-prepared. I put the list of possible questions together from advice from my supervisors and others, and from the websites listed below.  The list of questions that I prepared for, in no particular order, are:

  • How did you come to research the topic/how does it relate to your earlier studies?
  • Who are your intellectual influences?
  • Summarise your key findings?
  • Why did you choose your case studies?
  • Explain your relationship with theory.
  • What is original about your work/ what are your contributions to knowledge?
  • How does your work contribute to geographical debates?
  • Which topics overlap with your area?
  • What are the strongest parts of your work? What are the weakest?
  • Looking back, what might you have done differently?
  • Do you have any plans for publishing your work?
  • What did you learn from the process of doing your PhD?
  • What are the main issues and debates in this subject area?
  • Why was your research worth doing?
  • What published work is closest to yours? How is it different?
  • How have you evaluated your work?
  • How has your thinking about the topic changed as your research went on?
  • Did you have any problems with the data collection process?
  • How would you hope that this research could be followed up and taken further?
  • Do you have any questions for the examiners?
  • I didn’t get asked all of these questions during my viva, but most of them came up in some shape or form.

And here is a list of webpages and blogs that I used to collate my list of questions and for other general advice:

Nasty PhD Viva Questions by Dr. Andrew Broad is written from a Computer Science perspective, but I think that most of it is generic enough to be helpful to other subjects. As well as a list of possible viva questions, it also contains advice for preparing for the viva in other ways, such as preparing a summary of your thesis.

Research Essentials: Top 40 Potential Viva Questions is a comprehensive list of questions that your examiners might ask.

University of Leicester Graduate School: Practice Viva Questions is another helpful list.

David Denyer: Questions in a PhD Viva provides another list, as well as some general tips about the attitude with which to approach your viva. Many of the questions are similar to those in the other resources listed here, but I thin that is quite reassuring, as it shows that similar kinds of questions do tend to come up again and again.

The Guardian Higher Education Network: How to Survive a PhD Viva: 17 Top Tips is a compilation of advice from different people. It covers both before and during the viva.

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A celebratory post-viva selfie with my family and partner (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I have two main pieces of advice about doing a PhD viva. The first is don’t blag answers; if you feel like you can’t answer a question, or need to spend a bit more time thinking about it, then have the confidence to say that. The second piece of advice is take a few moments to think before you answer each question; there’s no rush, and the examiners will appreciate a more thoughtful answer. Fundamentally though, try to relax– you never know, you might actually enjoy yourself! Whilst the viva itself is important, your thesis is what really matters. The viva lasts only a few hours, but the thesis is your lasting legacy, and in many ways, it speaks for itself.

Book Review: Walk the Lines- The London Underground, Overground

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Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground by Mark Mason.

Mark Mason. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground. London: Random House, 2011. RRP £8.99 paperback.

The London Underground is one of the most distinctive elements of the city, but it does result in a disjointed perception of the metropolis–I don’t feel like I really got to know how the various areas of London fit together until I moved there and started to walk or get the bus more. Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground is the ultimate exercise in getting to know London; author Mark Mason walked the route of every underground line from beginning to end, then wrote a book about it.

I think the concept for this book is excellent; but unfortunately I am not so keen on its execution. I think it would be really interesting to repeat this challenge in a decade or so, London changes so quickly that some of Mason’s observations already feel out of date. Part of me also wants to recreate the exercise in my home town of Brighton, based on a map of a fictional underground network created by illustrator John Sims (see below). Walk the Lines is a fascinating idea that got me thinking about my own relationship with London, and as well as other British cities

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If Brighton had an underground network, it might look something like this (Source: John Sims)

Sadly, I did not get on so well with Mark Mason’s writing. I did not like the tone of the book at all when I started reading it; it felt like Mason was trying too hard to be funny. This did become less noticeable as I progressed through the book, but I couldn’t say whether it’s because the tone improves or because I just got used to it. I also dislike Mason’s heavy use of footnotes. They interrupt the flow of the writing, and sometimes I missed the superscript, and found myself searching the page for the relevant point. I think they are unnecessary in Walk the Lines.

I also found Mason himself to be a bit arrogant–one of his reasons for undertaking the challenge was to own London, a desire which I think is conceited and a bit odd, quite frankly (p. 4-5). Nobody owns London. If anything, the opposite is true; there have been several occasions when I have felt that London’s influence over my life has been a bit too significant for comfort. In addition, Mason is snobbish about anything that is ‘not London.’ He seems to look down on other cities and London’s suburbs, and view them as automatically inferior. I understand that both of these attitudes come from a great love of London, I too am captivated by it. I am just not so keen on how this affection manifests itself in Mason’s writing.

The final significant issue with Walk the Lines is the lack of photographs. This is a book about the many different faces of London, but there is not a single image of Mason or the different aspects of London he encountered on his walks.

The concept of Walk the Lines is not the only element of the book that I liked however. I enjoyed Mason’s musings on the subjectivity and power of maps, although these are not new ideas to geographers. The book also contains some decent historical facts. For example, London cabbies call the junction on which the Royal Geographical Society sits ‘Hot and Cold Corner,’ because the building has statures of David Livingstone and Ernest Shackleton. Finally, I enjoyed the sections when Mason stops along his walks to talk to other people about their perceptions of London, such as: artist and ex-Popstar Bill Drummond; The Archers actor Tim Bentinck, who was the ‘Mind the Gap’ voice on the Piccadilly Line for 15 years; and John Pearson, the official biographer of the Kray twins.

I enjoy reading books about London, and I admire the inventive approach in Walk the Lines. I’ve always thought that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around it, and I like the idea of using a city’s transport network, effectively its circulatory system, to organise such exploration. However, I am not so keen on Mason’s writing style or attitude towards London. This is not a bad book, it just isn’t a great one either.

 

Art The Arms Fair Exhibition

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Poppies in a rocket (2017) by Anonymous. One of the pieces on display at the Art the Arms Fair exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Every two years, the Defence and Security International exhibition, known colloquially as the DSEI arms fair, takes place in the vast ExCel Centre in East London. People come from all over the world  to see and purchase the latest weapons and defence technology at one of the world’s largest arms fairs. Every year, there are protests attempting to stop, disrupt, and draw attention to the event. This year, at the same time, the 12th-15th of September, a very different kind of exhibition also took place in East London, with the aim of raising awareness of the DSEI, an event which most Londoners have no idea exists. The Art the Arms Fair exhibition took place at SET Studios in Capstan House in Poplar. It was preceded by an art event on the 9th of September at the ExCel Centre, where artists produced works in a variety of mediums. The exhibition displayed art that responded to the arms trade. Events, such as spoken word and comedy, were held in the space in the evenings. Works were sold to support the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), an organisation which aims to end the international arms trade. I have always been a little sceptical about the significance and power of art, so I went along to see if I could be convinced.

To begin with, SET Studios is not your typical art gallery. SET is an initiative that provides artists with affordable studio and project space in buildings that would otherwise be empty. Capstan House is a stylish new office block, with an imposing foyer and fancy elevators. SET occupies the seventh floor, with beautiful views across the Thames to the O2 arena and the Emirates Airline Cable Car. You can see the artists’ studio space through the glass walls that are so fashionable in modern offices. The art, some of it attached haphazardly to plywood display boards, sits oddly in this environment. But none of that detracted from the effect the exhibition had on me. In fact, it might well have contributed to the disconcerted feeling with which I left the exhibition.

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Capstan House in Poplar, the location of  the Art the Arms Fair exhibition (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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The Art the Arms Fair was not housed in what I would describe as a typical art gallery space, but I think that only added to its impact (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am not a great believer in the power of art. I did not need to be convinced that the arms trade was a bad thing; I was already a strong believer in the futility and cruelty of war. But I left the exhibition feeling a lot more emotional than I expected to. Whilst I thought some of the artwork was good, I think what really affected me was the opportunity to ‘Make Your Own Art’ on blank postcards. Attempting to focus my response to the arms trade on one small rectangle of white card clarified and crystalised my feelings in a way that I was not expecting.

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The ‘Make Your Own Art Section’ of the exhibition. The piece suspended from the ceiling is Half scale Tomahawk missile by Joseph Steele (2017). I think this is what made me connect with the exhibition so much (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

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Some of the art produced by visitors to the exhibition (I’m not going to say which one is mine!) (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The Art the Arms Fair exhibition was powerful and emotive. It’s main stated goal was to make the DSEI arms fair visible, to make people aware of its existence. It would be hard to say how far that goal was achieved; the exhibition was nowhere near the ExCel Centre, and the area didn’t seem like the kind of place that people just pass through, so it was unlikely to attract many people who didn’t already intend to visit. I do wonder if an art exhibition in an out-of-the-way office block in East London is really the best way to raise the profile of the DSEI. Nevertheless, it hopefully raised some money for CAAT, and provided a space for creative opposition to the arms trade. At the end of the day, I am reluctant to criticise anyone who is attempting to make a positive difference in the world, as doing something is very often better than doing nothing.

On This Day: Occupation of the Savoy, 14th September 1940

When we think of London during the Second World War, we think of the Blitz. When we think of the Blitz, we think of the Blitz spirit epitomising the British stiff upper lip. There is a collective imaginary of Londoners banding stoically together, facing down the Nazis with a grim smile, a cup of tea, and maybe a sing song. But London was not always united in the face of the enemy. The occupation of the Savoy Hotel on the night of the 14th September 1940, the 8th night of the Blitz, was a manifestation of some of these divisions.

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Londoners sheltering in Elephant and Castle Underground station during an air raid. At first, the government were reluctant to let people shelter in the underground (Source: IWM)

In the early days of the Blitz, there was a serious lack of deep shelters in the East End, which was particularly hard hit due to the high levels of industry in the area. Pre-war planning by the government had rejected deep shelters in London, afraid that a ‘shelter mentality’ would develop. They decided instead to issue gas masks and rely on surface level shelters, such as the Anderson shelter. It very quickly became obvious that this provision was insufficient. What shelters there were lacked facilities and were overcrowded.

The Communist Party immediately took up the cause. the London district printed 100,000 leaflets and 5,000 posters calling for better provision of shelters and the requisitioning of empty houses for the homeless. The East End Communists decided to march for better air raid shelters in the East End, and to highlight the fact that not all Londoners suffered the effects of the bombs equally.

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The entrance to the world famous Savoy hotel on the Strand (Source: The Daily Mail)

With the help of some sympathetic waiters, between 40 and 70 protesters occupied the Savoy’s luxurious air raid shelter. The shelter was divided into cubicles, with beds and armchairs. Nurses and waiters served the hotel’s guests during raids. When the air raid siren went off, the Savoy’s manager realised he could not chuck the occupiers out; they would have to stay the night. After some negotiation with the catering staff, the occupiers were provided with tea, bread, and butter. All in all, it was a pretty pleasant way of drawing attention to the disparity of deep shelter provision across the capital.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done…One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families.

Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006); p. 73. Phil Piratin was a prominent member of the Communist Party, and became one of the party’s first MPs in 1945. He was present during the occupation of the Savoy.

The Blitz was one of the darkest periods in London’s history. By the time it ended 43,000 British civilians had been killed, half of them in London. Protest and dissent was less common during the world wars than in peace time, but Londoners were willing to fight for decent air raid shelter provision. Thanks to actions such as the occupation of the Savoy Hotel, the situation greatly improved, making the lives of Londoners that much more bearable as the bombs fell.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey, and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso, 2012.

Piratin, Phil. Our Flag Stays Red. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2006.

Sweet, Matthew. “When Max Levitas Stormed the Savoy.” Spitalfields Life. Last modified 3 November, 2011. Accessed 23 August, 2017. Available at http://spitalfieldslife.com/2011/11/03/when-max-levitas-stormed-the-savoy/