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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, 18 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 ...

Flocculent and Feculent

Susan Pedersen, 23 September 2021

Diet for a Large Planet: Industrial Britain, Food Systems and World Ecology 
by Chris Otter.
Chicago, 411 pp., £40, August 2020, 978 0 226 69710 9
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... Of the many​ hardships visited on New York in the first months of the pandemic, food shortages weren’t among them. Supply chains held. Cleaning products vanished from supermarket shelves but there was still plenty to eat. The system showed its tensile strength, its eerie ability to deliver food of all kinds even to a population pinned in place, unequally able to purchase it ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Only Men in Mind

Susan Pedersen: R.H. Tawney, 21 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 ...

Triumph of the Poshocracy

Susan Pedersen: Britain between the Wars, 8 August 2013

The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c.1918-45 
by Helen McCarthy.
Manchester, 282 pp., £65, November 2011, 978 0 7190 8616 8
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A Lark for the Sake of Their Country: The 1926 General Strike Volunteers in Folklore and Memory 
by Rachelle Hope Saltzman.
Manchester, 262 pp., £65, April 2012, 978 0 7190 7977 1
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... After the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17 and with no sign of war abating, my husband’s grandfather, the oldest child of an impoverished widow in the central German town of Kassel, ran away to join the navy. He was hungry, and though underage and not really military material imagined sailors probably got enough to eat. This was a good guess, and while he had a chancy time of it – surviving the loss of his ship, the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow and more than a year’s internment in a Merseyside POW camp – he never starved ...

Mothers were different

Susan Pedersen: The Breadwinner Norm, 19 November 2020

Bread Winner: An Intimate History of the Victorian Economy 
by Emma Griffin.
Yale, 389 pp., £20, April 2020, 978 0 300 23006 2
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... In​ 1894, Mary Molloy married Jimmy O’Meara, a Liverpool docker. She was 30 and he was 37. Mary may well have fallen in love, but the marriage made economic sense too. Although she had worked since girlhood, she earned only 12 shillings a week – just above the average women’s wage at the turn of the century, but not really enough for her to live comfortably on her own ...

Destined to Disappear

Susan Pedersen: ‘Race Studies’, 20 October 2016

White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations 
by Robert Vitalis.
Cornell, 272 pp., $29.95, November 2015, 978 0 8014 5397 7
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... Robert Vitalis​ tells a great story about how he came to write this book. Some years ago, sitting in the Clark University library avoiding grading his students’ final exams, he pulled an old history of the university off the shelf. Clark played a key role in the birth of the field of international relations in the two decades before the First World War, he read, especially by founding and supporting one of the new discipline’s flagship journals, the Journal of Race Development ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Going up to Heaven

Susan Pedersen: Before the Pill, 28 May 2009

Birth Control, Sex and Marriage in Britain 1918-60 
by Kate Fisher.
Oxford, 294 pp., £24, May 2008, 978 0 19 954460 8
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For Their Own Good: The Transformation of English Working-Class Health Culture, 1880-1970 
by Lucinda McCray Beier.
Ohio State, 409 pp., £64.95, October 2008, 978 0 8142 1094 9
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... John Sayles’s film Lianna broke new ground in 1982 with its portrait of a young wife and mother who comes out as a lesbian. Equally ground-breaking was a scene early in the film in which Lianna’s husband, a philandering, self-obsessed academic, suggests that she have sex with him. Lianna looks at him with a mixture of indulgence and exasperation and says: ‘I’ll go put the thing in ...

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