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On the March

Susan Pedersen, 16 February 2017

... Most​ of the signs at the Women’s March on Washington on 21 January were hand-lettered, idiosyncratic, fierce, personal and often very funny. Hats off to the folks who thought up ‘Hell Toupée’, or the junior doctor type carrying a clinical description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or the bearer of the Magritte pipe with Trump’s face superimposed (‘Ceci n’est pas un président’), or the assorted Mary Poppins fans: ‘super-callous-fascist-racist-extra-braggadocios’, ‘super-shallow-fragile-ego-Trump-UR-atrocious ...

A Girl’s Right to Have Fun

Susan Pedersen: Young Women at Work Between the Wars, 5 October 2006

Young Women, Work and Family in England 1918-50 
by Selina Todd.
Oxford, 272 pp., £50, September 2005, 0 19 928275 7
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... When I was an undergraduate in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, social history was a much admired discipline. We trudged across campus lawns with sacred texts in our rucksacks (The Making of the English Working Class, Work and Revolution in France), convinced that we were acquiring the tools to explain – and, we naturally assumed, alter – relations of power and domination ...

At least we worried

Susan Pedersen: International Law after WW1, 17 June 2015

A Scrap of Paper: Breaking and Making International Law during the Great War 
by Isabel Hull.
Cornell, 384 pp., £29.50, April 2014, 978 0 8014 5273 4
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... In the explosion​ of recent books about the First World War – many of them excellent, almost all packed with narrative excitement, but not all breaking new ground – Isabel Hull’s stands out. There is no human interest, no lice and dysentery, but it is as gripping and important as any. It is concerned not with the experience of war but with legal arguments over its prosecution, and it began as a modest research project aimed at understanding the uses made of the doctrine of military necessity ...

Festschriftiness

Susan Pedersen, 6 October 2011

Structures and Transformations in Modern British History 
edited by David Feldman and Jon Lawrence.
Cambridge, 331 pp., £50, January 2011, 978 0 521 51882 6
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The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain 
edited by Simon Gunn and James Vernon.
California, 271 pp., £20.95, May 2011, 978 0 9845909 5 7
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Classes, Cultures and Politics: Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin 
edited by Clare Griffiths, John Nott and William Whyte.
Oxford, 320 pp., £65, April 2011, 978 0 19 957988 4
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... forgiven for assuming that those two at least were on the same side. But when David Mayfield and Susan Thorne, two young American scholars, cited Stedman Jones and Joyce as exemplars of social history’s ‘linguistic turn’ in an essay published in Social History in 1992, a tempest ensued. Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor, two of Stedman Jones’s recent PhD ...

A Babylonian Touch

Susan Pedersen: Weimar in Britain, 6 November 2008

‘We Danced All Night’: A Social History of Britain between the Wars 
by Martin Pugh.
Bodley Head, 495 pp., £20, July 2008, 978 0 224 07698 2
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... The Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 with a print run of more than forty thousand, had an inset of a dozen or so grainy photographs. They offered shocking visual confirmation of Orwell’s already shocking text. There were the bent figures scavenging for loose coal on slag heaps, the squashy-faced women and children crowded into damp basements, the cloth-capped unemployed men leaning against lampposts ...

Brotherly Love

Susan Pedersen: Down and Out in Victorian London, 31 March 2005

Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London 
by Seth Koven.
Princeton, 399 pp., £19.95, September 2004, 0 691 11592 3
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... In January 1866, on a bitterly cold night, a man dressed in ragged clothes begged for a night’s lodging in the male casual ward of Lambeth workhouse. On entering, he was made to strip and plunge into bathwater so polluted with use that it looked ‘disgustingly like weak mutton broth’; he was then issued with a towel and a regulation striped cotton shirt, and shown into a freezing, cavernous shed where some forty semi-naked paupers shared a smaller number of straw-tick mattresses laid on the stone floor ...

In the Front Row

Susan Pedersen: Loving Lloyd George, 25 January 2007

. . . If Love Were All: The Story of Frances Stevenson and David Lloyd George 
by John Campbell.
Cape, 557 pp., £25, June 2006, 0 224 07464 4
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... Imagine you are hired, fresh out of college at the age of 24, as tutor to the teenage daughter of the chancellor of the exchequer. His wife is away in the country much of the time; he wanders about 11 Downing Street in his carpet slippers. He looks at you a lot, and brushes up against you in the hallway when he passes. You know he has a terrible reputation but if you are honest with yourself you have to admit you quite fancy him ...

Anti-Condescensionism

Susan Pedersen: The fear of needles, 1 September 2005

Bodily Matters: The Anti-Vaccination Movement in England, 1853-1907 
by Nadja Durbach.
Duke, 276 pp., £14.95, March 2005, 0 8223 3423 2
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... If, like me, you are young enough to have been immunised against diphtheria and polio in the mass public health campaigns of the postwar period, but old enough to have known victims of these childhood scourges, it may be hard to think of vaccination except within a narrative of progress. Almost paralysed with dread of the needles awaiting us, my sisters and I nonetheless understood ourselves to be lucky children, rescued by heroic doctors and a benevolent state from the implacable and unseen demons that had randomly crippled or killed so many of our parents’ generation ...

Heat-Seeking

Susan Pedersen: A.J.P. Taylor, 10 May 2007

A.J.P. Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe 
by Chris Wrigley.
Tauris, 439 pp., £25, August 2006, 1 86064 286 1
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... This is the third full biography of A.J.P. Taylor to appear since his death in 1990. I find this fact almost more interesting than anything in the biographies themselves. For more than two decades after the war Taylor was, very nearly, the public face of the historical profession in Britain, delivering his pugnacious, often revisionist, views on television and radio, in more than two dozen books and hundreds of newspaper columns, and in countless lectures to Oxford undergraduates and the history-minded public ...

Less than Perfectly Submissive

Susan Pedersen: No Votes, Thank You, 20 March 2008

Women against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain 
by Julia Bush.
Oxford, 340 pp., £35, October 2007, 978 0 19 924877 3
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... Poor Lord Cromer. The great imperial proconsul returned to England in 1907 after more than two decades governing Egypt to find his homeland awash with suffragists and socialists, Irish nationalists and trade unionists. The swelling women’s suffrage movement especially appalled him. Few things were more likely to undermine the British Empire, he was convinced, than the entry of women into the Westminster Parliament ...

Britain’s Second Most Famous Nurse

Susan Pedersen: Edith Cavell, 14 April 2011

Edith Cavell 
by Diana Souhami.
Quercus, 417 pp., £25, September 2010, 978 1 84916 359 0
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... Nurses are tough subjects for biography. Their ethos of compassion and, sometimes, self-sacrifice can lead to hagiography or – when times change – invite satire. It’s hard to forget Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale, her health broken by her exertions in the Crimea, issuing breathless directives on sanitary reform to the secretary of war, Sidney Herbert, and harrying him into an early grave ...

Suitable Heroes

Susan Pedersen: Home from the War, 25 February 2010

Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War 
by Alan Allport.
Yale, 265 pp., £20, October 2009, 978 0 300 14043 9
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The Flyer: British Culture and the Royal Air Force, 1939-45 
by Martin Francis.
Oxford, 266 pp., £32, November 2008, 978 0 19 927748 3
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... Whatever sort of welcome the former Eighth Army driver Maurice Merritt was hoping for when he walked out of the Second World War and in through his front door, it probably wasn’t the note on the kitchen table that greeted him: ‘Make a cup of cocoa if you like and there’s a tin of pilchards in the larder if you feel peckish. Joan.’ Of course, Merritt was luckier than thousands of his comrades: he didn’t find his home blown to bits or his wife sitting cosily by the fire with another man ...

Sam, Caroline, Janet, Stella, Len, Helen and Bob

Susan Pedersen: Mass Observation, 20 September 2017

Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late 20th Century 
by James Hinton.
Oxford, 207 pp., £25, October 2016, 978 0 19 878713 6
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... Mass Observation​ was the brainchild of the charismatic ornithologist turned anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the Marxist poet Charles Madge and (briefly) the experimental filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. It attempted to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ by ‘observing’ ordinary Britons as they went about their ordinary lives – and by enlisting those same people as diarists and commentators ...

Only Men in Mind

Susan Pedersen: R.H. Tawney, 20 August 2014

The Life of R.H. Tawney 
by Lawrence Goldman.
Bloomsbury, 411 pp., £65, September 2013, 978 1 78093 704 5
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... On​ 1 July 1916, Sergeant R.H. Tawney led his platoon over the top on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, holding a gun to one young man’s head to get him to stop crying and keep going. Almost immediately afterwards, Tawney himself was shot through the chest and abdomen and lay for 24 hours in no-man’s-land before being rescued. Although he lived with pain for the rest of his life, he was amazingly lucky to survive at all ...

One-Man Ministry

Susan Pedersen: Welfare States, 8 February 2018

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State 
by Chris Renwick.
Allen Lane, 323 pp., £20, September 2017, 978 0 241 18668 8
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... If I were asked​ to name the man who did most to shape the welfare state in modern Britain, I just might give the palm to Sir Alfred Watson. He would be an unconventional choice. Short, bald, unassuming, more at home with numbers than people, Watson is well and truly forgotten. But he had strong views on how social services should develop and be funded, and first as a kind of roving adviser to the committees that set up national insurance schemes before the First World War, and then as government actuary with an office in the Treasury from 1917, he took a red pen to anything that smacked of profligacy or radicalism ...

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