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Update on Unofficial Histories Conference

2012 May 20

The Unofficial Histories conference that took place recently at the Bishopsgate Institute organised by Fiona Cosson and Ian Gwynn was a successful event. There was a wide range of speakers and topics. There were various contributions by artists on imaginative approaches to the past including work on walks and squatting in Hackney by Melissa Bliss, and memory work by Katy Beinart in Brixton market (undertaken by someone with a white South African background) and Rosa Ainley on approaches to family history and place focussing on a potentially boring-looking house in Colindale.

Other contributions included Catherine Feely’s fascinating analysis of a Communist’s  diary – mixing Dietzgen with dancing and Andrew Flinn on controversies around workers’ libraries and Jerome de Groot on the pastness evoked by cigarettes.

My contribution drew on aspects of the introduction to the forthcoming Reader in Public History:

I argued that by opening up the categorisation of those making history, ‘the who’, then epistemology, ‘the what’, also changed: the nature of the knowledge produced was different – and wider in its compass. Social knowledge including an approach designed to place an emphasis on lived and engaged experience produced different histories.

I referred to ‘Start the Week’ on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 13 May in which  Professor Paul Preston of the LSE was promoting his book The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain about the murder of Republicans under Franco. He focussed on the 2000 Associations for the Recovery of Historical Memory in Spain. While stating that Spanish universities had been ‘pretty remiss on this’ since they did not receive any government funding for such work he praised the network of local historians without whom he could not have written his own book talking of the ‘great historian of south west Spain’ who runs a petrol station and the ‘great expert’ of atrocities in Valencia who runs a little tobacconist shop.

Another good example of experience creating different sorts of histories is London Recruits,  a powerful new collection of personal testimonies written by white British people who were recruited clandestinely in the late 60s and 70s to distribute illegal leaflets in South Africa at a time when the Apartheid regime was strong and the opposition was fragmented, underground or imprisoned. It is only some 35 years later that the individuals met each other and realised that they had all been undertaking this: the book arose from this meeting. The book is an excellent subjective account of individuals’ experience of their own involvement in this campaign but it is not – nor is it intended to be – an over-arching analysis of the politics of South Africa in the 60s and 70s. To accompany this is a wonderful youtube film of Graeme Whyte, one of the recruits, displaying the suitcase with the false bottom he took to – and brought back -from South Africa – that now holds his Xmas decorations.

I look forward to further conferences and events discussing such ideas. Michael Blythe has taken some great images of the conference  For those of a certain age note the Patricia Roberts jumper…


unofficial histories conference

Photo by Michael Blythe


2 Responses Post a comment
  1. Ian Manborde permalink
    May 22, 2012

    Hi Hilda,

    A fantastic web-site/blog – well done!

    Sorry we haven’t been able to meet up – workload only, not an unwillngness to help.

    Let’s try again soon.


    • Hilda Kean permalink
      May 22, 2012

      Thanks Ian – we are both busy people! You will notice that I mentioned the great new book London Recruits. Pleased that the editor has been invited to Ruskin College to talk to trade union students about clandestine work for the ANC in the 60s and 70s.

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