When other geographers find themselves in ‘our’ archive

On 19 November, I gave a seminar paper about the Non-Stop Picket to staff and students in the Geography Department at University College London.  I had been invited to contribute to a series of seminars on participatory research methods in geography.  I decided to talk about the complexities of conducting research on a social movement that I had been a participant in, in my youth.

For part of the talk I discussed the experience of finding and confronting my teenage self in the archive – finding letters I had written on behalf of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group; finding reference to myself in the minutes of meetings; reading witness statements I had provided; or, the cutting remarks left in the stewards’ report book by another picketer who resented that I would not stop and keep them company on a quiet shift when I had somewhere else to be one Boxing Day afternoon.

All seemed to go well. Looking around the room, the audience seemed engaged and interested. They laughed in all the right places.  Then, having spoken a little longer than expected, it was time for questions – always a tense moment. The first question was posed by an academic I didn’t recognize.  He made some pertinent observations about the Non-Stop Picket in relation to the decline of the Left in Britain in the 1980s, and I started to prepare my response.  Then it got interesting…

Our interlocutor (who I now know to be Andrew Barry) explained that around the time the Non-Stop Picket started, maybe earlier (he wasn’t sure of the precise dates), he had recently finished his doctorate and was working as a researcher for a Labour MP.  The moment he said that, it was already sounding familiar.  He went on to explain that he had walked past a protest at the South African embassy and stopped to sign the petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. I know where this is going! Helen is in the audience and exchanges a knowing glance with me. She recognizes it too.  Having signed the petition he offered a donation. Immediately the police officer on duty threatened to arrest the campaigner for ‘illegal street trading’ and threatened Andrew Barry with arrest for aiding and abetting this offence. By this stage I am really excited. He was so outraged that he returned straight to the office and his boss, the Labour MP, shared his outrage and wrote a letter of complaint to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. I know I’ve read this story before.

Andrew’s reminiscence comes to an end. It’s my turn to speak.  Now I take him by surprise. Yes, that was during the early months of the Non-Stop Picket. It wasn’t earlier. I know that because we’ve found and read a copy of the letter from his boss in the City Group archive.

And here’s what the letter said:

Letter from Jeremy Bray MP to Sir Kenneth Newman (Source: City Group)

Letter from Jeremy Bray MP to Sir Kenneth Newman (Source: City Group)

While Helen and I have long acknowledged that our own stories are intimately connected with the history of the Non-Stop Picket, increasingly it seems our research is also entangled with the lives of our academic audiences.  Cultural and historical geographers (like my friend Sarah Mills) often reflect on how their archival research becomes haunted by encounters with the ghosts of the dead. It seems the archive we are working with provokes uncanny encounters with the living too. It is not just Helen and myself who have to confront our younger selves in the archive.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Academic, Archival research, Dissemination, Gavin Brown, Helen Yaffe, Project staff and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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