May 2021


Back in April I spent a wonderful day in the company of the Post Workers Theatre and several academics working in the field of precarity and the marketisation of education. It was the culmination of the Post Workers Theatre residency at the University of Gothenburg, and the idea was that we would all contribute ideas to the writing of a new ballad – The Ballad of Goodwill. I was invited for a dual purpose – the first and most obvious being my expertise in ballad history, but the second was my lived experience as a precariously employed academic, something on which I’ve accidentally become a voice since my Precarity Story tweets in February last year.

Professor Rajani Naidoo (Director International Centre for Higher Education Management), Dr. Joanna Figiel (Centre for Cultural Policy and Management, City University of London), Dr. Stevphen Shukaitis, (Reader at the University of Essex, Centre for Work and Organisation) and myself spent the first hour or so discussing how goodwill is being transformed by the rise in competitive regulatory instruments generating anxiety for academics; how ‘the pursuits of what we love’ results in university staff sacrificing time and wellbeing without reward; and how goodwill is often biased and excludes those who are unable to perform unpaid overtime or survive on part-time or precarious contracts. It was a wide ranging discussion which gave me plenty of things to think about ahead of my upcoming keynote lecture on loneliness, academic precarity and history.

The next section of the day was where I talked a bit about the history of ballads and social protest, as well as the practicalities of how ballads work and how they can be used effectively to spread messages. I explained that they have a long history of highlighting social injustice, and talked for a while about the early modern idea of the commonwealth, in which every person had a role to play in society and it was believed that everyone needed to play their own part in order for the community to prosper. I also described the inclusive language that ballads use to bring people together or exclude those who disagree, as well as the ways in which rhyme, rhythm, metre and melody all help listeners to remember the message.

The next step was to begin suggesting ideas for a modern ballad based on the idea that goodwill in the modern university is undermined by increasing marketisation. We came up with the plan that we would use personification making characters out of goodwill, competition and collegiality who meet on the road.

At this point I had to take a back seat, because I needed to start work on my Social History Society admin role. But the good thing about being an administrator one day a week is that I finally have a job where I can listen to the radio while I’m working (normally I can’t because there are Too Many Conflicting Words in my head at once). So that Thursday afternoon, instead of switching on the radio or listening to Spotify, I was able to listen to the creation of the ballad in the background, and just interject occasionally for a few moments when I thought I could usefully help out.

At 4 I took a five minute break from the SHS to join the communal singing of the new ballad, set to the tune Packington’s Pound. I’d love to be able to share it with you, but I can’t at the moment because the Post Workers Theatre are continuing to work on it. On the plus side, this means I’ll be able to write another post later to tell you all about the finished piece. I’m really hoping that it will be ready in time for me to include some of it in my keynote!

One really positive thing to come out of the event was the way we’ve been sharing information since the day itself – I’ve now got all sorts of things that I can read to help me add some depth and scholarly credentials to a paper that was, up to now, essentially based on anecdote and personal experience. So I’m going to set aside a few days in the next few weeks to look into the literature around marketisation and precarity in the academic world.

Another was some affirmation. I raised the point that I fear my keynote is going to be fairly depressing – although there are some positive points about my fabulous colleagues, my story does not as yet have a happy ending. Rajani immediately stepped in and told me not to worry – that that is the reality and it’s time we stopped sugar coating it. People need to hear just how bad things are.

I recently took part in an online study day on Ballad and Song in the History of North West England run by the Regional Heritage Centre at Lancaster University. Although I’ve taken part in a lot of online activities over the last 12 months, this was a little bit different. Back in April we speakers went up to Lancaster Castle to record our papers, in pairs, meaning that the audience was made up of two or maybe three people – the organiser, the cameraman and, possibly, the other speaker. I went up in the morning, and listened to Jennifer Reid talk about the similarities between Mancunian songs from the Industrial Revolution and those she had collected on her recent trips to Bangladesh. I can’t help but think that there’s the potential for some really interesting work in this area…

I then talked about John Balshaw’s Jig, in a paper heavily based on the work I did for it’s upcoming publication (it’s gone off to the printers, by the way, and I’m just waiting for the proofs to come through – exciting times!). I talked about the manuscript itself and the plot of the jigg, giving a few sung examples from each section of the script, as wel as how it related to the Civil War and who John Balshaw might have been. Having done a several recordings for Sovereign Education prior to this, I’m beginning to get used to talking to a camera!

The other two speakers recorded their lectures during the afternoon, so like all the participants in the study day, I caught up with those papers on Moodle in the week running up to the live event. Dr Martin Purdy described what he saw as Industrial Bias and North West Song from the Victorians to the Modern Age, and why he believes the few north west folk bands who are active on the national scene explicitly engage with their northern roots by singing some of this repetoire. Finally, I listened to Dr Sue Allan’s paper, Folk Song in Cumbria – a distinctive regional repertoire? She talked about how she discovered that Cumbrian folk songs tended to be made up of dialect songs and poems as well as hunting songs.

Then on the Saturday afternoon, we joined a Teams call with the study day participants where we gave a quick precis of our talk, and then discussed some wide ranging questions from the audience. It was certainly an interesting afternoon, and I’m pleased to have got a few emails with useful pointers in them since the live event itself.

I’m really proud to announce that at the end of April, I was made an Honorary Fellow of the Historical Association. I’ve done an awful lot of work for the HA over the years, not least in being secretary of the Bolton Branch for some long time and of course I was Associate Vice President of the charity from 2016-19. Nevetheless, I have no idea who proposed my election nor on what grounds – so whoever it was, I’m immensely grateful and touched.

This is a big honour, as far as I’m concerned. The HA is instrumental in bringing together academics, teachers, students, and the general public with people from public history bodies in order to promote the enjoyment of history at all levels, and it only creates a limited number of Fellows each year – each being recognised for their contribution to the history community. I’m proud to be in such distinguished company (just look at the rest of the names on that list!), and I really hope that we get to celebrate together at the Medlicott Award Ceremony in the autumn.

On the second day of the Glorious Sounds conference, the plenary was a fascinating paper given by John Craig (Simon Fraser University) on ‘Sounding Godly: from Bilney to Bunyan’. He starting by raising a number of questions including how godly sounds affected the way people related to one another.  He went on to acknowledge the difference between urban and rural parishes, and describe his attempts to investigate lost sounds in the Elizabethan church.  He first discussed the popular demand for metrical psalters and how this allowed female voices to sing alongside male in the congregations. But he suggested that the singing of psalms in metre wasn’t wholly accepted by the church – metrical psalters were never required as purchases for clergy by the bishops. Sternhold and Hopkins’ metrical psalms were rarely bought by parishes – they might have prose psalters, but not ones intended for singing. Instead, parish clerks led singing, but in rural parishes it might well only have been the priest who spoke during the service because they had no clerk to lead congregations in participation. This might explain why they tried to encourage participation through lining out, however unpopular it might have been.  His second point was about the ways in which prayers were accompanied by sighs and groans, and he also considered how people listened to sermons. He suggested that when we study sounds, we should also think about how different groups listened to these sounds.

The afternoon’s panel began with Matthew Stanton of Queen’s University, Belfast talking about ‘Charisma and Controversy: Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) and the Debate About Congregational Song’. He described how Keach’s introduction of hymns into the service was unique and displaced the congregation singing psalms.  Keach was involved in a controversy over whether hymn-singing should be encouraged. Stanton demonstrated the spread of hymn singing in London Baptist congregations, showing that congregational hymn singing was enthusiastically supported by this branch of non-conformity.

Next was Rosamund Paice (Northumbria University) giving a paper on ‘Sound Theology: Serious Punning in Paradise Lost’. She highlighted the anxieties about puns in high culture, although they were in fact very popular and even expected. For Milton, puns were really important and since they were part of the way God speaks through Scripture, they were sanctioned by Him.

Finally, we heard from Vera J. Camden of Kent State University, Ohio on ‘The Sounds of Sermons and Hymns in Hannah Burton’s London Diary (1782)’. She described the sermon gadding of the Hannah Burton, the daughter of an ejected non-conformist preacher. Hannah used a family heirloom notebook to describe the sermons that she heard, comparing them to commentaries and making notes of her own thoughts on the subject, and it is clear from her writings that she plans to come back to them because she leaves blank pages after her notes. She quotes portions of hymns too, which fit with what she is thinking about at the time.

It was a really interesting couple of days.

In a conscious effort to take a bit more advantage of the opportunities opened up by so many conferences this year taking place online, I’m trying to attend a few more. Some are things that I wouldn’t otherwise attend, because I wouldn’t have time or money to go to, but others, like the Sound Affects workshop and The International John Bunyan Society’s GLORIOUS SOUNDS: EXPLORING THE SOUNDSCAPES OF BRITISH NONCONFORMITY: 1550-1800 are much closer to my current research on soundscapes and songs. It took place over two afternoons in April, and this post is about the first of those sessions.

The first plenary was given by one of my former supervisors, Rosamund Oates, of Manchester Metropolitan University on ‘“Speaking in Hands”: Preaching, Deafness and Sign Language in Early Modern Europe’.  She considered the questions of how attitudes to hearing loss and deafness developed from the belief that it was the curse of the devil.  If based on the teaching of Romans 10:17, faith comes by hearing, what about the deaf?  She pointed out that the situation in practice was more complicated – both Protestant and Catholics had more nuanced attitudes than just relegating all deaf people to hell.  Deafness and hearing loss were endemic in early modern England, especially among the elderly, while illness and accident could cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.  Sometimes there were accidental or deliberate attempts to disrupt sermons.

The efficacy of the sermon was not in the sound but in what it stirred up in you. So Ros explained how preachers began to think about how they could infuse the spirit of all their parishioners. They used rhetorical texts which were designed to affect the spiritually deaf, but also the physically deaf.  Texts were written that described the use of gestures, pronunciation and tone.  Specific gestures meant specific things, and these were standardised in the 16th and 17th centuries. Preachers used them to learn how to use their bodies to get their message across. Gestures could articulate a layer of meaning that language couldn’t manage. In England, these texts seemed to be about reminding preachers for the importance of gravity in the pulpit, and were intended to control the preacher’s body. Gestures were believed to be more powerful than speech, and preachers were encouraged to feel emotions themselves before stirring them in other people.

This is also a reason why preachers were concerned about the limitations of printed sermons – readers missed sharing the voice gesture and purpose of the man who gave it.  Preachers and their audiences appreciated the contribution of gesture and tone.

Although the gestures might not have been developed to help those who were deaf or hard of hearing, preachers began to realise that they could use them as a valid alternative to the voice.  This challenged the prevailing tradition that pre-lingually deaf people were to be treated legally as infants, because they were believed to be unable to understand because of their deafness.  The acceptance of a form of sign language meant that deaf people could communicate acceptance, understanding and consent.  She then considered the implications of accepting signing in the marriage service on our understanding of personhood, consent and legality.

We then moved on to a panel made up of three papers. The first was given by Robert W. Daniel (University of Warwick) on ‘Piety, but Quietly: The Devotional Soundscape of Dissenting Households’. He described how the various parts of a prosperous yeoman’s home were used for devotional activities.

Closets were meant to be acoustic barriers to the outside world. They were supposed to be above the noise and closer to heaven, but also to keep the noise of prayer within the closet to.  But there were limits to the privacy of the closet, and it therefore represents something of a liminal space.  Servants and family members could eavesdrop on the prayers taking place within the closet, while other people’s prayers were so loud they could be heard in the street.

Bedchambers were not private spaces, and from day to day were used for meditating, psalm singing and other devotional exercises.  They were also a place for spiritual activities when people were on their deathbeds. Studies were the scholarly dens of gentlemen, especially ministers. But the thin walls between them and the parlour, which was often next door, meant that it could be difficult to concentrate. The parlour was far enough away from the street to be considered acceptable places for prayers, but they were often disrupted by sounds from within the house instead.

It was lovely to hear Eleanor Hedger (University of Birmingham) again, as I haven’t heard her since we were at Maynooth for MedRen several years ago. She spoke on ‘Acoustic Territorialisation and Sonic Conflict in the Early Modern English Prison’. Ellie described how prisoners complained about the avarice of prison officials, and many had a difficult relationship with their keepers. Many prisoners turned to writing and other cultural activities to make their prison experience more bearable.  She described how singing, especially psalm singing, was used as a means to preserve their mental and physical health.  She noted that this was especially true of the Protestant prisoners under Mary I, and that this was one of the reasons that psalm-singing became part of the English Protestant identity.  After the Elizabethan reformation, prisons became filled instead with Catholic altars and the sound of Catholic services. These were not just the celebration of Mass, but also baptisms, dirges, and weddings. These confessional noises sometimes provoked sonic conflicts, while noisy expressions of religious belief were also challenged by the cacophony of drunkenness, cursing, rattling chains or other disorderly noises

The final paper of the three was given by Mary Fairclough (University of York) on ‘Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the Dissenting Art of Reading’. She described how Barbauld developed the practice of reading aloud not just as a pedagogical practise but as a devotional one.  It is a hybrid engagement with the art of reading.  She explained why Thomas Sheridan complained about the poor elocution of English public speakers.  He, like many other elocutionists, was a former actor, but there was another tradition of elocution which came from the dissenters.  They advocate an affective method of speaking. Mary described a gendered response to reading aloud.  Women engaged with the domestic culture of reading, and Barbauld was strongly associated with dissenting educational and teaching activities. Her educational writings focus on young children, writing prose hymns which can be used in lessons. The teacher doesn’t speak to the child, but instead, it brings child and teacher together in reading aloud.