Saturday, 4 May 2019

End of an Era? On researching Working-Class Classics 1981-2019


With Henry and the Red Gnome who has helped our work
This week, with steadfast and eloquent co-author Henry Stead, I finished a 200,000-word book that I think alters our understanding of the history of Classics irrevocably. I’ve been gathering materials since 1981, when I was struggling to make sense of the chasm between the way I was being trained to study Classics at Oxford and my socialist views and self-education. The miners’ strike of 1984-5 and my contact with strikers from Maerdy Colliery (while I was writing a doctorate on Greek Tragedy!) made the (eventual) appearance of the book inevitable. For I discovered the extraordinary tradition of Miners’ Libraries in South Wales.
Economy Edition of Putarch

But there have been obstacles. Getting the research funded (despite it being inexpensive, entailing only Travelodges in provincial conurbations near workers’ archives) proved difficult. I suspect my interest in Labour History got me excluded from a couple of shortlists and powerful committees. But producing what as proud mother I believe is a staggeringly beautiful intellectual baby after a 38-year gestation is far more satisfying than any career advancement could possibly be.

A  People’s History of Classics: Class and Greco-Roman Antiquity in Britain will be available completely free of charge on the Routledge Taylor Francis Open Access platform, as is only appropriate for a book about responses to educational exclusion, as well as in hardback with the banner of the Lanchester miners in Co. Durham proudly hosted on its cover. The Lanchester Review, edited by the resourceful David Lindsay, yesterday posted this longer blog where I summarise the research.

The discipline did function historically as the curriculum of the British elite. This problem is still with us, and I am campaigning for a solution with a related project co-led by Arlene Holmes-Henderson.  But the book reveals evidence for the diverse working-class experience of the classical world between the Bill of Rights 1689 and the outbreak of WWII: autobiographies, poetry, fiction, visual and material culture in museums, galleries and the civic environment, theatrical ephemera, records of Trade Union activities, self-education publications, mass-market inexpensive ‘classic’ series, archives relating to Poor, Free, Workers’, Adult and Dissenting educational establishments, and to political parties which supported the working class.

John Thelwall lecturing on Roman History to 1790s Democrats
The classical world aided some workers’ careers, expanded their horizons, improved their rhetoric, informed their politics, alleviated their boredom, inspired them to read, write, paint, draw, sculpt, act, perform, teach, publish, organize Trade Unions, join debating societies, read the Gospels in the original or question the existence of God altogether. They used Classics to prove their intellectual calibre, to analyse their plight and signal their consciousness of the class system; they also used it to subvert and undermine the authority of the classes that ruled them and to entertain themselves during leisure hours.


Ann Yearsley, the Milkmaid-Radical Poet of Bristol
They deserve honoured places in the gallery of People’s Classics simply because they struggled so hard to get access to the ancient world. But they also offer us a new ancestral backstory for a discipline sorely in need of a democratic makeover.

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