My top books of 2016

west

By this time of the year I’m heartily sick of “best of” lists. Sporting moments, movies, dead celebrities, kitten GIFs – there’s no end to the things that can be turned into an annual league table.But books are the oppositive of trivial, and when the Times Higher invited me to nominate my top two books of 2016, I jumped at the chance.

My first choice was related to my interest in the way that education shapes social mobility – a relationship that cuts both ways, as education (including adult learning) produces and legitimates privileges and inequalities, while at the same time providing a pathway for the least advantaged individuals and groups to improve their life chances and access rewarding careers. My sense is that the social mobility debate has been rather Brito-centric, so it was a real pleasure to recommend a set of case studies that applies a shared approach to the issue of social mobility in quite different types of economically-advanced societies.

Second, I opted for a biography of the Frankfurt School. I found Stuart Jeffries’ study conceptually astute, and historically aware, as well as highly readable. He has the ability to place his subjects in their wider socio-cultural context, while also attending to aspects of their everyday lives. I was utterly persuaded of the importance of family and ethnicity in the formation of the first generation: Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer were typical, sharing an upbringing in comfortable Jewish suburban homes, and rebelling against those very capitalist virtues that had made their families rich. Jeffries evokes this milieu beautifully, while quietly insisting that Benjamin was the outstanding intellectual of them all. Habermas doesn’t emerge from the story well, and Honneth merits barely a mention.

Other than sharply analytical curiosity in cultural practices, the book left me wondering how much of the Frankfurt School legacy will survive. We don’t need Benjamin’s soilt tantrums (apparently he was unable to make a cup of coffee well into his thirties), and I certainly hope that their political pessimism and aloofness doesn’t linger, as the next year or two will require inspiration and organised action. We can seek some pointers for that journey in a book I didn’t recommend, Linden West’s Distress in the City: Racism, fundamentalism and a democratic education. While I found this a stunning study of contemporary social solidarities and sharp divisions, set in Linden’s native Stoke, the author is a friend and I provided the foreword, so I felt obliged to leave it out.

What I would say is that reading the book certainly helped me understand the anger, alienation and despair of so many of our citizens. West explores the life worlds of working class people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and political traditions, and both genders; and he does so with humanity and sympathy. West’s compassion and integrity are a long way from the demeaning stereotypes of the post mortem on the Brexit referendum, and he concludes with a call for adult learning and democratic renewal that can make the most of the ‘resources of hope’ that he discerns among those he interviews. I hope he reaches the wide audience that his argument merits.

I was similarly impressed by Jan Etienne’s study of first generation African Caribbean women in Britain.explores the learning lives of a group of older women. As well as analysing these accounts in solid academic manner, Etienne represents them in a creative and imaginative way as scenes from a drama.And she does so with humour (including her interviewees’ mocking of her as a middle class academic), drawing on a rich variety of spoken and written English.

While I don’t buy into the idea of a distinctively ‘womanist’ way of learning, the book develops a black feminist perspective that celebrates sisterhood while never shying away from experiences of oppression. I didn’t feel able to include Learning in Womanist Ways in my Times Higher selection because I examined the doctoral thesis on which it draws, but I found it absorbing and informative, and it makes a major contribution to the literature on learning in later life – as well as to our understandings of what it means to be senior, female and black in contemporary Britain.

From the Times Higher Education, 23 December 2016

Advertisements

Spying on sword dancers: Nazis, work camps, and English folk music

In 1927, a party of 46 German students visited Newcastle. The local chief constable duly reported this to the British security services, who opened up a new file on Rolf Gardiner, the Germans’ English contact, and the spooks duly monitored Gardiner for the next twenty years. Gardiner loved folk music all his life, and he ensured that folk song and dance was an integral part of the work camps that he founded and led.

I’ve been thinking about Gardiner and race this week, as the folk festival season gets into full swing, and I pass my evenings stewarding concerts in my local rugby club. Rolf Gardiner (father of John Eliot Gardiner) has intrigued and divided historians for years. His most recent biographers sum him up as a ‘folk dancer, forester, poet and visionary’. He was all of these, and more, for Gardiner was also an adult educator, youth worker, organic farmer and lifelong Germanophile with strong public views on Jews, racial purity, and the future of Europe. He admired the Danish adult education thinker Nikolai Grundtvig, and described his own rural work camps as attempts to put the ideal of the Danish folk high school into practice in England.

He became involved in folk dancing while a pupil at Bedales School, and joined a dance side while a student at Cambridge. So when he joined a work camp in Germany in 1927, it was entirely in character that he led his young male camper comrades in a naked sun dance – at six in the morning. By 1930 he was hosting work camps for Kings’ College students at his uncle’s farm in Dorset, complete with singing around the campfire (though he seems to have found the students less adept at dancing).

By this time, Gardiner was spending time in Cleveland, researching local sword-dancing traditions and encountering a ‘people of robust Scandinavian stock’. He opened further work camps for unemployed miners that he had met through the dancing sides, as well as sympathetic students on their summer vacations, as well as visitors from the German youth movement. Again, folk singing and dancing were part of the everyday routine, along with the demanding labour of converting rough pasture into small-holdings. And they also helped Michael Tippett, himself a communist and a student volunteer in Gardiner’s, to compose a somewhat völkisch opera about Robin Hood, duly performed in the miners’ hall.

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner's Cleveland work camp as it looks today

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner’s Cleveland work camp as it looks today

By 1933, Gardiner had fallen out with his Cleveland partner (and owner of the land), who disliked Hitler’s treatment of German Jews. By now he had his own farm in Dorset, at Springhead, and could organise his own ‘harvest camps’. Once more, the camp day started with a supposedly Nordic ritual, and closed with song; plentiful dance and song opportunities arose in the evenings.

Gardiner’s aim, whether through heavy labour or folk music, was ‘to restore and remake the real England which is basically that rural England upon whose final destruction the forces of today are willy-nilly bent’. Gardiner was clear and unambiguous in portraying Jews as among these destructive forces. In one article, published two years before the Nazi seizure of power, he denounced ‘deliberate misinformation by our Jew-controlled press, cinema, wireless and advertising’ for having ‘corrupted the soul of England’.

By contrast to these dark forces, both labour and dance, he said, taught ‘order, beauty and rhythm’, which ultimately ‘come of the soil and care of the soil’. These were, of course, fundamentally masculine – he would have said ‘virile’ – qualities. And the folk high school model was attractive because, as conceived by Grundtvig, it provided a form of ‘national education’ that underpinned work and cultural activities with a suitably nationalist – or Nordic and Germanic – knowledge of history, agriculture and current affairs.

Gardiner was, then, more than a Germanophile. His understanding of history and culture was racially based, and he was more than a sympathiser with the Nazi Party. He was on good terms with Otto Bene, the Nazi Party’s Landesgruppenleiter for the British Isles (ironically, given the Irish Republican movement’s sympathies, when it came to their own organisation, the Nazis treated Ireland and the UK as a single political space). Gardiner disparaged Oswald Mosley to Bene as ‘very shallow’. In exchange, Bene reported to Berlin that Gardiner’s work camp movement, while puny by German standards, was ‘well above the average English one’.

What Britain’s spooks made of this is another matter. While they opened his mail, and monitored his connections, a report in March 1940 mocked him for ‘still worshipping the sun, Wotan etc at a Dorset farm and being generally “nordic” and “voelkisch”‘, concluding that ‘I do not think he is a danger’. Nevertheless, the authorities carried out period checks, including an inquiry into rumours that he had planted trees on his farm in the shape of a swastika, and was engaging young men ‘in disgusting practices under the influence of hypnotism’ (neither of which could be confirmed). The last report, in 1949, asked for British security officers in Germany to monitor Gardiner’s contacts during a visit to recruit managers for a tea company.

Don’t for a moment think I am damning the whole of English folk music with this reminder of a dark, racially-rooted past. Gardiner was denounced on several occasions by other folk enthusiasts for his attempts to weave dance and music into a mystical pan-Nordic völkisch world-view. But there was enough overlap to cause discomfort: in presenting folk dancing as manly, for example, Gardiner was echoing the views of Cecil Sharp, and an interest in national culture often went together with beliefs in racial purity. I have blogged previously about Scottish nationalist thinking on race and work camps.

I see Gardiner as a man of his time. He shared the racial assumptions of many English and German men of his generation, and was certainly guilty of anti-Semitism; unlike some, I do not minimise his Nazi sympathies. But I’m also not persuaded that I should see sword dancing and folk singing as quintessentially tainted by association. Far more important to me is how we reposition British traditional music today so that it appeals to and engages a more diverse audience that is representative of the entire population of these islands. British folk festivals routinely include Irish, Australian and American performers; it is high time that they also made space for black British traditional music.

Race and work camps: interwar Scottish nationalist perspectives

All nationalist movements view themselves as guardians of their country’s heritage, and woe betide those who point to anything that does not chime with the “true” history of the land. Scotland is no exception, as we can see from the storm over Gavin Bowd’s newspaper article about Scottish fascism. I’ve not yet seen his book on this subject, but Bowd is a professional historian, and I expect to see him set out his evidence and name his source material.

Some of that evidence is well known. Indeed, I have stumbled across some of it while looking at the various work camp systems that were scattered across these islands before the 1940s. Nationalist campaigners in Scotland tended to see the main ‘other’ as the Irish, and they found a broad audience for their views. This complicated their views on work camps, which could be seen as vehicles for emigration of fine Scots (bad) or as training schemes to prepare Scots for jobs at home or life on the land (good).

The Reverend Duncan Cameron, chief author of a report for the Kirk on The menace of the Irish race to our Scottish nationality, made himself available for speeches and lectures. Among other organisations who invited him was the City Business Club in Glasgow, who in 1926 heard him call for ‘drastic measures’ to ‘safeguard the Scottish race in their native land’ from the Irish.

A decade later, Charles Davidson spoke to the National Party in Elgin of the racial deterioration caused by government training policy: ‘The finest went overseas’, he said, and were replaced by immigrants ‘not of the same stock, class or quality’. Meanwhile, a National Party delegation to the Scottish Office complained that ‘the flower of the race’ was being encouraged to leave home in search of work, while the government’s work camps were filled with inferior migrant stock.

So it isn’t hard to find plenty of examples of nationalist movements in Scotland that were bigoted, racist and sympathetic to the radical right. We can also find similar movements in England (part of my book is devoted to the work camps associated with Rolf Gardiner, who was profoundly anti-Semitic and thought the people of Cleveland and North Yorkshire were to be admired for being of ‘robust Scandinavian stock’. And of course we can find such people across much of Europe – just as we can also find Scottish, English and indeed German and Italian anti-fascists.

Details of Gavin Bowd’s book are at: http://www.birlinn.co.uk/Fascist-Scotland.html