I will now be blogging from emilyarobinson.wordpress.com. It would be great to see you there!

So, it’s been a while. A new comment recently prompted me to re-read this blog, which I hadn’t looked at for two and a half years. While there weren’t many posts, it struck me that so many of the ideas and questions I explored here have since developed into other projects and formats. I found it an incredibly useful way of developing fledgling ideas and getting early feedback. As I’m now in the early stages of a new project, I will be taking up blogging again (see below). But first, here’s a brief catch-up on the after-life of ‘the historical shiver’:

First, I started to write an article about the emotional and affective experience of working with archives. This was published nearly a year ago in Rethinking History. It’s free to download at the moment as part of Routledge’s celebrations for Arts and Humanities Month, so do have a look!

Second, a book. This is based on my PhD research, which mainly focused on political parties and their relationship to the past, but reading back over this blog I see that a lot of the ideas I explored here have made it in there too – progressive nostalgia, the way the past is privileged in contemporary society, the heritage industry, the aesthetics of ‘pastness’. The book is called History, Heritage and Tradition in Contemporary British Politics: Past Politics and Present Histories and will be published in January 2012, but is available to pre-order now on Amazon. It’s rather pricey (even with the £3.25 discount!), but do please mention it to your libraries!

I am now working on a new project, looking at political and cultural ideas about progress in the long twentieth century (1888-2010) and also about the ways that people, and especially politicians, have talked about being ‘progressive’. It’s a very malleable word, with lots of contradictory meanings: moderate and radical; left-wing and centrist; pluralist and partisan. I’m trying to unpick the specific political associations it has from the more general statements it makes about progressing through time – but even these are complex and contradictory: does it mean moderate, gradual change or a radical rupture with the past?

I first started thinking about this in relation to the 2010 General Election when (I think for the first time), all three of the main parties were describing themselves as ‘progressive’, but with rather different assumptions about what that meant. David Cameron also described the Coalition as a ‘progressive partnership’, seemingly in a direct challenge to those who think that this is a term associated broadly with the values of the left and specifically with co-operation between Liberals and socialists dating back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

I’m now tracing these shifting meanings and uses back to the late nineteenth century, to put it all in a longer perspective and to find out where the boundaries are. Can anything be described as ‘progressive’? Are there particular core meanings which must be there? And, perhaps most importantly, how have the public understood the term? Does it have the same associations for them as for the politicians?

I’m currently trying to decide whether to start a new blog for this project (and if so what to call it – all suggestions welcome!), or whether to continue discussing it on here. Expect an update soon!

In the meantime, please download my article and pre-order my book!

18 Folgate Street

February 3, 2009

This is a slightly odd post in that it’s about something I haven’t actually seen myself (for reasons which will be discussed below). 18 Folgate Street is regularly mentioned in lists of London’s ‘best kept secrets’ and best museums. I first heard of it years and years ago and have always been fascinated by the idea. It’s a house in Spitalfields in which the (late) owner, Dennis Severs, created a ‘still life drama’. As you move through the rooms, you pass through the lives of the fictional Gervais/Jervis family invented by Severs and consequently through a fictionalised history of the house 1724-1914. Severs also wrote a book about the house, which is beautiful and fascinating.

It’s emphatically not a reconstruction. Severs occasionally takes great pleasure in undermining the museum effect, pointing out the anachronisms and inaccuracies. And of course the whole project revels in fictionalisation and trickery. It is about ‘aura’, not authenticity. Visual and aural effects are used to give the impression that the family are just out of reach, that they have just left the room: half eaten food, ruffled bedsheets, whispers. Read the rest of this entry »

Faking It

January 5, 2009

This is a holiday photo (Crete, last summer). My initial reaction was to be disappointed that the brochure on the right hand side of the picture spoiled the timeless impression of the rest of the scene. I was going to crop it. But why? Why pretend that I somehow managed to travel through time rather than just across Europe? Why would that be a more accurate/impressive record of my holiday?

I now have it as a screensaver to remind myself of all the problems associated with our everyday approaches to the past.

I have recently been giving some thought to the opposition between history and heritage. Raphael Samuel and Patrick Wright covered this subject very engagingly in the 1980s and 90s and I have been largely drinking in their ideas. It was only last night when it struck me that as part of the first generation of historians (born 1980) to have been brought up on Living History, my own experience must necessarily differ from theirs. Rather than observing the growth of the popular heritage industry from afar, I have been immersed in it for as long as I can remember. I experienced recreation and reconstruction long before reading history books and contemplated Historical Re-enactor as a career choice before really knowing about the existence of Historians. This must have a bearing on the way that historians of my generation view their craft. Is ‘resurrectionism’ more natural, less suspect to us than to our mentors? Or have we been sucked into the formalities/prejudices of the discipline?

Privileging the Past

November 23, 2008

In my third post of the day…

A recent conversation about atheism and the privileging of faith, made me think about the privileged status the past has in our society. Things are so often justified on the grounds simply that they are old. In a particularly irksome example, the standard defence of prostitution on the grounds that ‘it’s the world’s oldest profession’ has been trotted out again this week in response to the criminalisation of men who use controlled/pimped/trafficked prostitutes.

Slavery also has a long pedigree. It doesn’t make it right.

The History of Emotions

November 23, 2008

I went to a very interesting workshop on Friday, discussing Roger Smith’s book, Being Human. It was organised by the History of Emotions group set up at Queen Mary University, in conjunction with the Wellcome Centre. They have lots of other seminars planned and I am quite excited about them. I hadn’t really thought of my project in scientific/medical terms before, but talking to people who are working on the history of emotions has opened up some new avenues. Perhaps I’m looking at the history of the emotions of history! This is probably too much of a new departure for my thesis but I’m currently very keen on moving in that direction afterwards…

Review: Waltz with Bashir

November 23, 2008

My full review of Waltz with Bashir is now online at the DFG Docs website: http://www.dfgdocs.com/Resources/Doc_Reviews/137.aspx



November 18, 2008

I’ve just finished teaching a seminar, which a student said was ‘actually fun’. I’m not sure whether to be flattered or insulted!


November 13, 2008

I’ve recently been working on an article, based on the idea behind the post below on ‘The historical shiver’. I’m in the final drafting stage and am getting ready to submit it to a Journal (my first time).


Then, on Friday, someone pointed me in the direction of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust. It’s a wonderful book, which I unreservedly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it. But there it is. A beautiful, playful, engaging encapsulation of everything I was trying to say. She even follows the same trails – Freud, Derrida, Michelet. But of course it is far more than that, she weaves together so many strands – from a social history of dust, to a meditation on the meanings attached to rag rug. And all with a lightness of touch I can’t imagine ever matching.


So where to go from here? Part of me is encouraged that I managed to arrive at (some) similar points on my own, part appalled by the gulf between my writing and Steedman’s. Of course I can revise my article, making it more of a reflection on her study. But my point – the point I thought was mine alone now seems so sad, so pointless. Essentially, my article has turned to dust.