Sociability and social movements: the new left’s venture into cafe culture

Advertisement in the Universities and Left Review, 5, 1958

The Partisan Cafe opened in 1958, founded by the radical historian (and my friend) Raphael Samuel with help from Stuart Hall, Ken Tynan, and others. Based in the heart of Soho, near the present-day offices of Private Eye, it rapidly became a meeting point for a range of counter-cultural groups and heterodox individuals from the novelist Doris Lessing to the film-maker Lindsay Anderson, from the folk singer Peggy Seeger to the then-blues performer Rod Stewart.

Raph had three main aims for the cafe. He wanted to create a congenial space for political, historical and cultural debate; he wanted to challenge the emerging hegemony of the modish Italian-style espresso house; and he hoped to generate a source of funding for favoured causes, especially Universities and Left Review, the magazine that he edited. The ambience seems to me with hindsight a mixture of beatnik culture (skiffle bands, beat poets) and the British New Left (talks, debates, library). The menu offered a blend of British and Irish staples and East End Jewish dishes, accompanied by a semi-humorous list of coffees.

Far from subsidising other projects, the cafe lost money and it closed in 1962, partly because – in a typically open Raph Samuel gesture – people could sit around without buying anything. Raph’s own interest in popular history to one side, it was a rather rarified and intellectual milieu. It was notably a metropolitan phenomenon, and I imagine that its ambience attracted quite a narrow socio-cultural niche, a fair number of whom went on to occupy senior positions in academic life and the arts; proletarian it certainly was not.

I think its influence and legacy lay largely in connecting together disparate elements of the post-1956 New Left, drawing in old Marxists like Eric Hobsbawm and younger unaligned thinkers such as Stuart Hall, and promoting debates and ideas about the arts (especially music and film), international and politics, and according to my friend Jean McCrindle it debated early feminism but kept up a conventional division of domestic labour.

In spite of its demise, Raph long continued to remember it fondly. I was reminded of it the other day when clearing out some old papers, among which was a copy of the Universities and Left Review with an advert for the cafe. It certainly has its place in the history of the British New Left, as well as in the origins of contemporary cultural studies. An East London Gallery showed an exhibition of photographs of the cafe a couple of years ago, curated by Mike Berlin. I see it as a flawed but nonethless inspiring exercise in creating a semi-structured space for informal learning; but it arose out of conditions that simply do not exist today.

And as a footnote, although I was far too young and provincial to even see the Partisan, I have Raph to thank for showing me how to make a decent espresso.

Gavin Williamson: Guardian letter writer. Where did it all go wrong?

My thanks to sometime beard wearer and biographer of Karl Marx Francis Wheen for dredging up a letter that Gavin Williamson wrote to the Guardian on …

Gavin Williamson: Guardian letter writer. Where did it all go wrong?

Adult learners and the exam board debacle

Update: on the 17th August, the English and Welsh education ministers joined their Scottish counterpart in reversing their commitment to an algorithm-based approach to exam results, and settling for teacher-based assessments. All three ministers have also issued apologies. For details, see:

This summer’s examination results have triggered unusual indignation and outrage across the UK. It all kicked off in Scotland, where the education minister reacted to public anger by dumping a strategy that he had originally approved. This was followed a week later by an outcry when results were announced elsewhere in the UK, but a common theme was that in each system, the preferred solutions to problems caused by the pandemic all tended to discriminate against the least privileged children.

Understandably, the media – social and ‘traditional’ – had a field day. In the middle of the row I tweeted a mildly-worded reminder that adults were affected as well as school-leavers: some second chance returners take GCSEs and/or A-levels, either to measure themselves against able youngsters, or – probably more significantly – as a way of building up a portfolio of qualifications that are widely recognised and can enable progression.

My message prompted a number of replies, and this post summarises the main points that people raised. Some people tweeted that any inherent bias in this summer’s system was likely to affect adult returners more severely than youngsters. One noted that as adults usually do a GCSE in 9 months, they had less time for full mock exams to fall back on. Another said that adult learners’ lack of previous education may have caused issue with the moderation of their grades. Finally, David Hughes commented that Ofqual’s algorithms struggle to cope with adults because of lack of comparable prior achievement data

One person pointed out that the number of adults taking schoolleaver qualifications has dropped significantly. In particular, a tiny number of adults now sit GCE A levels, with 1780 entries (not learners) for 19+ learners on 2018/19 NARTs (many of whom will be under 21), and only 340 Advanced Learning Loans approved for A Levels in 2018/19.

Once the dust settles, and the inevitable enquiries grind into action, it will be important to ensure that the disinctive needs and experiences of adult returners are not overlooked. I hope that this short summary of initial responses helps make the case for including adult learners in the conversation – and maybe in the longer run ensuring that these qualifications are made more accessible elements in our lifelong learning system.

My thanks to all those who commented. You can follow them on Twitter at:






Dracula, gender, and adult learning: Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay reimagines the relationship between Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving, set against the background of Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula. Stoker’s wife, Florence, is a somewhat absent figure; O’Connor shows her developing an increasingly independent life after her husband is appointed manager of Irving’s new theatre.

The early signs of Flo’s independence appear when she announces that she is going to the British Library to ‘polish my German’ and study the law of copyright. After that, she informs her uneasy husband, she was heading to the Mechanics’ Insitute in High Holborn,triggering the following exchange:

“What is that?”

“An organisation of working men and their families. I mean to offer a series of night lectures there shortly, essentials of reading, writing and algebra. There us a very great need among the poor”.

“You intend to give lessons, dear? To labouring men?”

“And their wives, yes”.

Later on it transpires that Florence had become a respected staff member at the institute, where she was sufficiently influential and courageous to successfully challenge male discrimination.

Whether Florence actually taught in a mechanics institute or not isn’t the point. O’Connor uses this episode both to demonstrate her intellectual independence and to underline her refusal to enter a conventional domestic role, as well as to signal an emergent feminism. He shows Florence as a modern woman with a sense of social responsibility and a mind of her own; her attraction to and involvement in adult education seerves as a symbol of and vehicle for her modernity.

That’s the novel, which I recommend. If you want to know more about the real Florence, there’s a succinct scholarly account in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. And by the time that Florence and Bram were in London, the London Mechanics’ Institute had been renamed as the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, forerunner of Birkbeck College.

Russian influence in UK higher education

I’ve been puzzling over a sentence in the recently-released report on Russia from the UK Parliament Committee on Intelligence and Security. The report has been attracting a lot of attention. And rightly so: while it is full of redactions and gaps, its main finding – that the UK government has shown insufficient interest in the security threat that the Russian regime poses – is disturbing.

One area that the Committee investigated was the role of Russian oligarchs, whose wealth is often tied closely to government-related contracts and licenses in Russia. Successive UK governments have courted Russian oligarchs since the mid-1990s, initially through the 1994 investor visa scheme and then through light-touch regulation and taxation. And in its own terms this was a successful strategy, in that it attracted considerable Russian money into the UK, and above all London.

The Committee, though, describes the outcome as ‘counterproductive’, with illicit funds being recycled through the ‘London laundromat’. In paragraph 50, the report adds that “money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process”.

Wait a minute – academia? If ‘academia’ really has been an active part of the process of surreptitious Russian influence, why haven’t we heard more about it? In spite of substantial media coverage of the report, the role of universities and individual academics seems to have attracted relatively little attention. Should we conclude that there isn’t much to this suggestion, even perhaps that it springs from Russophobia? Or are there questions for our universities to answer about their openness to Russian influence, and their role in ‘reputation laundering’?

It’s certainly the case that some UK universities have accepted funding from sources close to the Russian government. One obvious example is the role of the Russkiy Mir (“Russian World”) foundation, created in 2005 and formally adopted by decree by Vladimir Putin in 2007 as a government-sponsored agency to promote Russian culture globally. The foundation provides funding for Russian Centres, as well as for grants to undertake research and other projects; in 2014 it supported 100 centres around the world, many of which were in the former Soviet nations.

One red-top tabloid published a characteristically lurid attack on the foundation, claiming that it was led by a former head of the KGB anmd linking it to the Sputnik news agencyas an arm of Russian soft power. That story appeared in 2016. In 2019, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee published a report on Chinese and Russian interference which included allegations that a Russkiy Mir staff member tried to bug a seminar at Edinburgh.

At this stage, a prudent university manager or a principle academic might well have decided that it was time to cut ties with the foundation. Edinburgh University’s Princess Dashkova Centre, launched with support from Russkiy Mir, no longer accepts its grants. According to the youth newspaper The Tab, between 2010 and 2017, Russkiy Mir donated £253,939 to the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre between; in 2018, though, the University told The Tab that it had “no active agreements with the foundation”.

Judging by its website, Russkiy Mir is still associated with the Sergei Averintsev Centre at Durham, which describes its role as “a facilitator of interdisciplinary research and at the same time, as a bridge between cultures, which will communicate the riches of Russian civilisation to the general public”.

Russkiy Mir also reported that its was supporting a programme at St Anthony’s College, Oxford; I do not know whether this association continues, but I suspect not.

I am not suggesting that this handful of examples suggests anything particularly untoward. There is no evidence to my knowledge that these universities have done anything wrong, and these examples hardly suggest that Russian money has flooded into university coffers. And there was no mention of universities in Private Eye’s informative report on Russian money, Looting with Putin.

So I am left wondering what the Parliamentary Committee was referring to when it identified ‘academia’ as being among the ‘willing beneficiaries of Russian money’. Including higher education in this way implies to me that the Committee takes the issue seriously, but hasn’t provided any detail. I entirely accept that the Russian government is autocratic, homophobic, and hostile to liberal democracy, and has several times shown contempt for academic freedom at home. I’d rather like to be reassured about its influence in UK higher education.

Adult education in a prisoner-of-war camp

Bowen Road Military Hospital in Hong Kong , c. 1925 (copyright expired)

I’ve been reading my father’s wartime diaries, which cover periods of his life as a prisoner in Hong Kong. He was in Bowen Road Hospital at the time of the British surrender, suffering from shrapnel wounds, and was then taken to the former British barracks at Sham Shui Po. As an acting second lieutenant (temporary in his case, but the Japanese didn’t know that), he moved to the Argyle Street officers’ camp in April 1942. His diary is patchy, and is written in pencil on small sheets of paper; the section I’ve been reading covers the period between December 1941 and late April 1942.

Most of the entries discuss food – the meals he had eaten that day, and those he imagined eating. If food was his main concern at this time, he also tends to list the state of his bowels. The Japanese, usually referred to in abusive terms, feature relatively rarely. The rest of the entries tend to be taken up with thoughts of home and the snippets of news he’d picked up about the progress of the war, punctuated by the odd angry complaint about the British army’s treatment of its men.

He also records his daily activities, which invariaby include a regular parade as well as occasional physical exercises, roll calls, and on one occasion an escape. And he records his attempts to expand his knowledge, to counter the confines and boredom of camp life by working his brain.

Following his injury, my dad was briefly taken to a temporary hospital in the university library, where he “borrowed” two books on foreign languages. After almost three months of imprisonment, he decided to spend five hours a day on languages. On 23rd March, he reported that he had fallen short of his target by half an hour, adding that “today was not a good day for non-stop study” (partly because he’d spent part of the morning attending a lecture on military history).

The next day he grappled with French tenses in the morning, then “went for an hour’s French lesson with M. Matthieu”. The following morning he worked on his Japanese (using one of his pilfered books) before attending a lecture on the Indian Ocean. The following day he again studied Japanese “until 2 pm when I developed a headache” (though this didn’t prevent him from going to another lecture on military history).

On the 27th “the morning & afternoon passed quietly studying Japanese” By the following day he was complaining that he had “got a little behind in my work programme which I must catch up before the end of the month”; the next day saw him working “very hard”, and the following morning was devoted entirely to studying Japanese, followed in the evening by a talk on flowers that had him reflecting on home. In March 30th, he faced a setback: the guards had searched his hut while the prisoners were at roll-call, and seized his “notes on the Malay language”.

Unsurprisingly, his enthusiasm for this rigorous “work programme” flagged. There’s a week’s gap in the diary, and by the time it resumes he had established a new and slightly less demanding regime (and was also learning Malay). On April the 9th he reported that he couldn’t find his French teacher, who he supposed had been taken out by their captors on an inspection tour, so he attended another lecture, this time on fuel supply. He spent most of the 10th and 11th working on his Japanese before his studies were interrupted on the 12th by Japanese demands for constant roll-calls after four men escaped. By the 15th he was back to his routine, and on the 16th his French class resumed.

During his time at Sham Shui Po, then, much of my father’s energy was spent on what appears to have been largely self-directed study. Possibly it was supported by some sort of exchanges with native language speakers, though I wonder exactly what that involved. Only in the French lessons does there seem to have been some sort of organised course, led by a native speaker (it sounds as though this might have been a civilian).

On the 18th of April, though, this all changed: the officers were to to pack their belongings for transfer to the Argyle Street camp, where his first concern was to try to find some cigarettes and a bed. But he was still interested enough in adult education to sign up on 22nd April for classes in Japanese, Cantonese, and Book-keeping, and in the following few days he attended lectures on publishing and Gallipoli, and started plotting to wangle a transfer to hospital “as I badly want a change of company”.

Life at Argyle Street sounds rather more organised with its classes than Sham Shui Po had been. It was, after all, a camp full of officers. But that was possibly also why my father fancied “a change of company”, as his fellow prisoners would have been acutely conscious that his status as an officer (and gentleman) was temporary; to them he would have seemed a jumped-up battery serjeant major.

I imagine he was rather relieved when on 16th May the camp commander decided to send the wartime officers back to Sham Shui Po, though this does beg the question of whether the regular officers had complained about them to the Japanese.

As Midge Gillies shows in her book The Barbed Wire University, self-help education was quite common among prisoners of war, forming part of an informal economy of entertainment and improvement that countered the loss of control and freedom that the camp represented. In my dad’s case, the experience led to a reasonable grasp of spoken French, a smattering of Japanese (which he said had driven him half mad), and a grounding in German; he also picked up some Punjabi from Sikh gunners, and he remembered enough of it to baffle Bengali waiters in the 1970s.

But let’s put all that active attainment into perspective. He also witnessed several murders of Chinese civilians (male and female) and a couple of executions of his comrades, which marked him for life; suffered long term effects of malnutrition; was badly beaten for protesting being used as slave labour; and stood as witness in the post-war trial of a leading British collaborator. The prisoners may have built their own world of improving activity, but all in all it was a bloody awful experience.

What is participation?

I’m greatly enjoying Christopher Kelty’s recent book The Participant which is an enormously creative reflection on participation from a philosophical…

What is participation?

Lockdown reading: 21 June to 20 July


Volker Kutscher, Goldstein

José Saramago, The Double

L. J. Ross, Holy Island

Graham Swift, Here We Are

Geir Tangen, Seelenmesse


Mark Kermode, The Good, the Bad, and the Multiplex: What’s wrong with modern movies?

Linda Colley, Acts of Union and Disunion

Lockdown reading: 21 May to 20 June
Herta Müller with her Nobel Prize for Literature


Luca di Fulvio, The Mannequin Man

Herta Müller, The Passport

Klaus-Peter Wolf, Ostfriesenhölle

Ali Smith, Hotel World


William Atkins, The Moor: Lives, Landscape, Literature

Mark Kermode, The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex: What’s wrong with modern movies

Lexicometric methods in the study of lifelong learning

I was recently asked to provide a foreword to a new study of the troubled relationship between lifelong learning research and European education policy. The author, Lisa Breyer, was formerly a colleague at the University of Cologne, and is now a head of department at the Volkshochschule Rhein-Erft. While her book is in German, she has published lexicometric analyses in English on approaches to social justice in adult education and on comparisons of national adult education policies.

Given the widespread use of ‘critical discourse analysis’ in Anglophone research in our field, I was delighted to read and recommend a rather different and – as I see it – more grounded method of analysing the languages of lifelong learning policy. If you want to read more of Lisa’s own work in English then take a look at the two papers I mentioned above. What follows here is an expanded and slightly reworked English language version of my foreword.

Adult education research has to position itself in a field rich with tensions, which is influenced by scholarly theory, educational policy, and practical pedagogic demands. Unlike most academic disciplines, the study of adult education developed out of the field of practice, and was also shaped by policy measures. At the same time, policy actors increasingly support their decisions with reference to research findings and recommendations, all in the name of evidence-based policy. Relatively few studies so far have been concerned with the relationship between and form of the communication process between research and policy.

In our field at least, this book presents a new approach to policy research. Lisa Breyer has gone beyond standard approaches, contributing both to our understanding of policy influence and to our methodological repertoire, as well as provoking reflection on the much-debated relationship between policy and research, by subjecting a corpus of 288 texts from adult education research and education policy covering a 20-year period to lexicometric analysis. Her findings force us to think again about the relations between policy and research.

While much discourse analysis tends to be based on the researcher’s reading of a relatively small number of texts, Dr Breyer uses lexicometric techniques to examine and compare the ways in which the core concepts of „Lebenslanges Lernen“ (lifelong learning) und „Kompetenz“ (skill) feature in systematically selected papers from the European Commission as well as in journal articles by adult education researchers. Her analysis of the findings sheds light on relations between research and policy in adult education, as well as on the differing ways in which researchers and policy-makers understand, use, and contextualise the basic concepts in the field. Indeed, even where there is a shared use of terms like lebenslanges Lernen and Kompetenz, Breyer’s findings show that the very notion of a field of adult education is often understood very differently by policy actors and researchers.

Although some of these patterns will seem familiar to readers, as in the divergence between the economic and employment focus of policy as against the emancipatory and critical values of researchers, the book provides a rich variety of evidence and  a refined analysis of the complexities and nuances that can be found. She also examines the attention that each party pays to the other: while researchers refer explicitly to the European level of policy, policy-makers implicitly privilege comparative survey data as their main source of research evidence while turning to researchers as a source of evidence-based policy. This evolving relationship, Breyer contends, means that it is necessary to redefine the relationship between research and policy.

These reflections complement other research and publications of the DIE, particularly in respect to system and policy. However, the book also serves as a case study in a relatively new method. Breyer has adapted her lexicometric approach to the discipline of adult education research and applied it to a corpus of 288 texts, and concludes that the method allows us to identify patterns and relationships that cannot be shown by analysing a handful of texts. This seems to me to have wider methodological ramifications for comparative educational research in general, as well as for adult education research in particular. I am not aware of any other lexicometric study in adult education of such scale and ambition; and personally I am convinced that she has abundantly demonstrated the potential of this approach, and thus makes an important contribution to our methodological debates.