Michael Wood gave his inaugural lecture, or more accurately, inaugural conversation on the broad topic “Victorians, Manchester and the Importance of History in Public Culture”. The member of the audience who complained that he was expecting a lecture on what public history actually is may have been dissatisfied. However, the discourse between the newly-appointed Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, with Tristram Hunt, MP and historian, demonstrated how relating historical knowledge and ideas to present day issues can be fascinating, enlightening and entertaining. If that’s public history, it has a wide audience.
The discussion focused on the books of the Labour MP; Building Jerusalem – based on his PhD dissertation on British Victorian cities – and the celebrated biography of Friedrich Engels, The Frock-Coated Communist. While Hunt’s books are well known to me I was unaware that he was the Labour shadow spokesman on further education. I was, however, impressed that on Friday afternoons Hunt frequently teaches at an FE college in his Stoke constituency.
Wood and Hunt reflected on the great age of city autonomy, from the 1820s to 90s, before London reasserted itself on the back of Empire finance at the end of the century. At the beginning of this period Manchester was the place to come to see. Nothing before had been like it. The future was Manchester, but it was an ominous future. In 1829 life expectancy in the city was only 29, the lowest since the Black Death. Centuries of progress were being undone by relentless industrialisation.
After the rise of the cities came their demise. The bleeding of the cities was synonymous with the decline of Empire, but cities are rising again. In the 1990s Manchester had only 500 residents in the city centre. Now there are 15-20,000. Culture is important in the resurgence of the modern city, witness Liverpool. Culture and creativity attracts talent and success. Get them by the time they are 29, and here I paraphrase, and they are the city’s for life. As Moss Side born and Manchester Grammar School educated Wood, whose family had lived in one of the peripatetic Engels’ many dwellings, now lives in London we can only assume that the Manc culture did not capture his imagination in the 1970s when he worked at the BBC, although he clearly has an affinity for the place.
We are now witnessing the rise of city regions. The HS2 project is driven by arguments for city regions in Birmingham and Manchester. Hunt reveals, to me any way, that Manchester’s voice is strong in London because the chief executive and leader of the Council whip their MPs in.
Engels, described by a straight-faced Wood, as a man ‘full of contradictions’ lived in Manchester between 1842-44. His motto was ‘take it easy’ and his idea of happiness was a bottle of Chateau Margaux 1848. He defended his participation in the Cheshire Hunt by arguing that ‘come the revolution, someone would have to lead the cavalry’. Sent abroad by his family, whose purpose was to keep their wayward son out of trouble, Engels arrived in a Manchester alive with radical ideas and discontent which erupted in the Chartist riots. What, reflected the conversationalists, might have been Engels’ political philosophy had he arrived in Birmingham or even Leamington Spa instead of the revolutionary Lancashire city?
Engels returned to Manchester in 1850 for twenty years, working to financially support the London-based Marx, outliving his compatriot. By the end of his life it was clear that the English working class had failed to meet Engels’ expectations of overthrowing capitalism. Hunt commented that, ‘his criticism of capitalism was compelling, the problem comes with some of his solutions’ which assumed a capacity for the spiritual transformation of the proletariat. He noted that Jonathan Sperber had advanced the argument that it was Engels that advocated a positivist path for Marxism, wilfully misinterpreting Marx’s legacy after his death, which led ultimately to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.
Onto present day issues and the role of history in the national curriculum. Hunt believed that the conservatives routinely asked parliamentary questions about the history syllabus as a vehicle to discuss the nature of modern Britain – about which they were uneasy. He disclosed that he was comfortable with British history foregrounding the syllabus – the real issue was the space for history within the curriculum, and the access children had to history, which a recent survey ad shown was considerably less in Merseyside’s Knowsley than Surrey’s Epsom.
This was the first of Michael Wood’s trilogy of “lectures”. I look forward to the next.
I found the Frock-Coated Communist on my book shelf next to Asa Briggs’, Victorian Cities (Manchester was the shock city of its age). I certainly enjoyed reading Hunt’s well-researched book, which vividly painted a picture of the era.I think I should put this forward into my “favourite book” shortlist.