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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Resistance through Writing

Stuart Hall did not feature on any of my undergraduate reading lists when I studied sociology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The whole cultural studies thing might  have been going on elsewhere but it didn't touch the LSE. The nearest I got to it was taking a course with Alan Swingewood on the sociology of literature. Hoggart I'd already read. Williams I couldn't really make out, but the words seemed to make English sentences. Lukacs, Goldmann, Barthes and Benjamin, I had no idea what they were on about and secretly felt that it was unlikely to very important and that I'd get by without it. I imagine I wrote a very unimpressive exam. 

So Hall for me was a road not taken and I never really felt the need to tread it. From time to time an acquaintance would tell me how great his and the work of the Birmingham CCCS was. Occasionally I'd glance through some of the latter, but  failed to get anything out of it. It just wasn't concerned with the same sort of things that I was. I was aware that for some Hall was a cult figure, but he apparently arrived too late on the scene for me to join the cult. One place I did catch up with him was in Redemption Song a 1990s BBC documentary series about the Caribbean. It was worth watching and I certainly learned a few things from it, but I don't recall it being revelatory.

Which brings me to a chance encounter in a bookshop. I rarely enter such places these days unless it is to buy books for my daughter or sheet music, but on one of the last days of the Summer vacation, which I largely spent building two decks in two two different locations, I crossed the threshold of Waterstones in Twickenham. I had a few minutes to kill and I didn't expect to buy anything. More or less the first thing I saw was Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall's autobiography. This is actually a slight misnomer as Hall didn't actually write an autobiography, but he gave hours of taped interviews to his friend  Bill Schwarz who put it together in autobiographical form. I looked at it, thought what the hell, and bought it. To be honest I was expecting to hate it, but at least I'd be able to say that I had actually read something that Hall had written, more or less.

So the punch line is: I was surprised. Of course about a quarter of it was written in the impenetrable and obfuscating language of cultural theory - first time I've read an "interpellation" in quite a few years. I have no idea what that bit was about. But the rest gives us a portrait of an intelligent, sensitive man  trying to make sense of a life lived simultaneously in several cultures, both in Jamaica and in London, dealing with the lived contradictions of a dying colonialism - the Halls were a rather well to do light skinned family - living in a society where skin tone was as important as class in delineating the status order. The story of his engagement with anti-nuclear politics after his emigration to Britain, student life in Oxford and the foundation of the New Left  Review are equally fascinating as are his encounters with the British class system in the marriage market. 

I don't think I learned that much about sociology, but I did get some sense of a man who led an interesting life and insight into why he became, for some, such a charismatic figure. I don't think I'll be reaching for Policing the Crisis though just yet.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Tha Amazing Family Moshinsky

I was recently in Edinburgh giving a paper at a conference on the history of sociology in the UK. One of the characters who cropped up in my talk was a woman called Pearl Moshinsky. If she hadn't died in 1941 she could have become a major figure in British sociology rather than just a footnote, for in the inter-war years she wrote a series of quite remarkable empirical papers,  co-authored with John Linton Gray on social class, ability and education and  with J. B. S. Haldane on genetics. It was really another 25 years before anything of similar quality was produced by British sociologists yet who now has heard of her?

Pearl Moshinsky was born on the 2nd of July 1909 in Whitechapel to Joseph and Rebecca Moshinsky. Joseph's 1910 naturalization papers say that he was born at Boruslov (probably Bohuslav which had a large Jewish population) in the province of Kiev in October 1880. The 1911 Census gives Rebecca's place of birth as Russia and tells us that by that time they had been married for six years and had four children, one of whom was dead.  I can find neither in the 1901 Census so I assume they arrived in Britain during the first decade of the 20th century.

In 1910 Joseph's occupation is given as 'tobacconist' and his address as 4 Leman Street which is adjacent to Aldgate East Station. This was in fact the shop. In 1911 the family is living in 3 rooms at  34 Vallance Road, Whitechapel. Later they appear in the electoral register at Fredrick Street and throughout the 20s and 30s at 4 Leman Street (Joseph also appears in rating records as renting number 2 Leman Street).

Pearl attended Malmesbury Road Board School in Bow and then in October 1915 was admitted to Cable Street School. I know nothing more about her education except that she was admitted to the London School of Economics in 1928 and graduated BSc (Econ) in 1931. Shortly thereafter she seems to have started working in Lancelot Hogben's Department of Social Biology and wrote a PhD awarded in 1937 for a thesis on 'The relation between the distribution of intelligence and the social environment'. She published three papers before the award of her doctorate, the first in 1934 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh which seems to have initially been communicated by Hogben and two in 1935, both in the Sociological Review. One of the latter was the subject of an extended report in the Manchester Guardian. I wonder how many pieces published in today's sociology journals would get that?

In December 1933 Pearl married Samuel Goldman, son of an East End tailor and like her a graduate of the LSE. Goldman was a brilliant economics student who went  on to have a career in banking  and  the civil service, eventually becoming second permanent secretary at the Treasury. They had two children: a daughter Janet, born in 1937 died shortly after birth. Their son Antony John born in 1940 went on after Marlborough and Peterhouse to have himself a distinguished civil service career ending up as Director General of Civil Aviation.

In July 1940 Pearl and her infant son sailed on the Duchess of Richmond from Liverpool to Montreal. At the end of the month they both crossed into the US at St Alban's,Vermont and made their way to New York where Pearl seems to have taken up a position as an instructor in  sociology and anthropology at Brooklyn College. One wonders what the motivation for this move was. Perhaps it was a career opportunity or perhaps it was simply  to get the child to safety.  The sojourn in America didn't last long and in December 1941 Pearl's death was registered in Islington.

You might say that given her background Pearl did well for herself. An East End immigrant upbringing wasn't an obvious route to academic success. But what is astonishing is not just how successful Pearl was but how successful a number of her siblings were. Her elder brother Israel became a physician after studying at Guy's Hospital. Sometime in the 1930s he changed his name to Ivan Rayle Marre. A younger brother Issac also became a doctor and changed his name to Leonard Marre. But perhaps the most successful of all was another younger brother Aaron Samuel. He won a scholarship to Trinity Hall and was awarded  a 1st class degree in part II of  the Classics Tripos. In July 1940 he changed his name to Alan Samuel Marre and Sir Alan Samuel Marre ended his civil service career as second permanent secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security. 

Joseph, the  tobacconist died in March 1956. By that time he had long left the East End behind and moved to a house in Oman Avenue, Willesden. The Probate Register tells us that his estate was worth almost £16,000. A tidy sum for a man who began life in a backwater of the Russian empire.

Thursday, 8 March 2018