A talk I gave at the 2017 Hay Literature Festival that was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
I’m writing a book about Christmas since 1914 so I’ve been watching a lot of Christmas specials from the 1970s and 80s recently. Television has been rather underused as a source by contemporary historians because old programmes have always been difficult to get hold of. However, the growth of people using Youtube to share things they buy on DVD or find on old VHS tapes (and television companies’ apparent willingness to overlook the copyright infringement) mean there is now online a wealth of ephemera from the small screen.
Just as with novels, the historical riches come not from the highbrow but from the popular. The light entertainment of the past is an important source because it says so much about what people found funny and their everyday attitudes. It also reminds us just how much these attitudes have changed. The 1970s and 80s doesn’t seem that long ago but watching its television shows is a reminder of a world where sexism and racism were rife; pretty girls were there to be openly leered at and jokes about buses being like Calcutta were funny.
Humour is a complex phenomenon to study. Just because a script writer thought a joke was worth telling and a studio audience subsequently laughed doesn’t mean the audience at home reacted that way. Nor should we just accept viewing figures as measures of which shows reflected popular tastes. In a world of three channels, there wasn’t exactly much choice and many a person found themselves forced to watch something at Christmas to compromise or to keep the peace.
Then there’s the issue of how we escape our own tastes and, in the case of recent television, our own memories. I did not find a 1970s Tommy Cooper Christmas special remotely funny. But was that me or was it always very silly? In contrast, the Good Life and the Two Ronnies have held up well and made me laugh. But then they did in the 80s too.
In contrast, as a kid I never liked repeats of Steptoe and Son. It’s still not very funny but it’s been far the most interesting watch in my research because it’s full of sociological comment. Yet interpreting that is not easy. When Albert sings ‘Enoch’s dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know’, are people laughing at or with Powell’s racism? In a society where race was a divisive issue, it was probably both.
Alas, I’m not sure that I’ve learnt too much about Christmas itself from these programmes but they were an integral part of the Christmas experience for the majority of the population. The research is thus probably more about getting into the mentality of the past rather than about finding out specifics, even if that does mean I need to try to lose the traces of that mentality that still exist in my memory. If nothing else, I’m learning why light entertainment was so important on Christmas day. At its best, it was very funny but it also enabled people to escape the kind of domestic quarrels that they were watching depicted on screen. And in some families that was probably worth putting up with a bit of Tommy Cooper.
A slightly revised version of an article first published in Soccer History magazine in 2005.
Newspapers represent one of the most accessible and informative sources in sports history. Back issues of the local press are available from local libraries and football was covered from its organised beginnings. There were 170 provincial daily newspapers and approximately 100 evening ones at the turn of the twentieth century and all covered sport. The local and national press did not just report football, it played an important role in promoting it too and was thus an integral agent behind the game’s development. While trawling through the back issues of newspapers can be long and laborious task, it will be a fruitful, indeed required, activity for any historian of the game.
Most main local libraries hold back issues of newspapers published in that area. For conservation reasons, these have normally been transferred to microfilms and thus it is usually advisable to book a microfilm reader in advance of a visit. Some microfilm readers can produce printouts but these are usually more expensive than photocopies and of variable quality.
For those seeking to consult papers from more than one locality a visit to the British Newspaper Library is advised. This is located on Colindale Avenue in north Londonand holds backcopies of all local and national newspapers and most periodicals, including sporting ones. Proof of identity is required for those without a British Library reader’s ticket. A search on the catalogue using football as a key word produces lists 257 titles. Whilst there, those interested in football from the 1880s until the 1930s should consult Athletic News, a sporting paper which gave unrivalled and extensive coverage of the professional game at all levels and enjoyed very close links with the football clubs and authorities. By 1919, it was selling 170,000 copies a week. The Athletic News is also available at Manchester Central Library, which has an extensive collection of local and national newspapers.
Very few local national newspapers are indexed for the period before the 1990s and thus locating information is dependent on the reader knowing the precise or approximate date of the event on which information is sought. Nonetheless, a random dip into the press from any season invariably produces something of interest or use.
Digitization is opening up new opportunities. The British Library have digitized 49 local newspapers, although most runs end around 1900. They are searchable by keywords and this is invaluable for tracking the emergence and spread of football in periods before newspapers began systematically reporting on the game.
The actual information that can be derived from newspapers depends on the period being studied. In essence, the later the period the more information there is likely to be on the game. During the late nineteenth century, local newspapers largely limited their reporting of football to reports and previews of local matches and club meetings. Reports were not on a sportspage but mixed in with the rest of the news and thus require careful spotting by the historian. Critical comment, speculation and gossip were overlooked, by and large, in favour of a reporting of the facts. However, incidents such as violent play or crowd trouble inevitably drew condemnatory remarks. The late nineteenth century also saw the beginning of the football specials in the larger towns and cities. The ‘pinks’, as they were often known, were evening papers published on a Saturday giving results, match reports and various sporting articles. These papers were produced very quickly, some being on sale by 6.00 pm on a Saturday, and thus the detail within the match reports is limited, with most of the copy being written before the game was actually over.
By the twentieth century the extent of football coverage invariably increases in daily local and regional newspapers to include more general news on local teams and brief mentions of important national events such as the FA Cup final. However, it was between the wars that local newspapers’ coverage of football increased and diversified significantly into something that modern readers would recognise. By the 1930s, it was normal for daily local papers to have not only match reports on even local amateur and schoolboy games but also gossip and news from this world of junior football too. For the senior clubs there were now action photographs, human interest stories, hints of scandal and rumours from inside clubs and interviews with players and managers. This extended beyond concentrating on local clubs with newspapers buying in syndicated interviews with famous players of the day. There were also national form guides and tips, prompted by the rapid growth in popularity of the pools. Reports and articles were increasingly written in ‘snappier’ styles, with shorter sentences and more colourful descriptions. Many local newspapers also began to publish letters from fans commenting on everything from last week’s performance to the cost of admission and the policies of directors. Weekly local newspapers inevitably contained much less football coverage but they too adopted of some of these new approaches.
The stimulus for change in the local papers came from developments in the national press. National popular newspapers were selling more and aggressively marketing themselves to a working-class audience with door-to-door salesmen promising free gifts in return for subscriptions. Although football played only a minor role in the ‘quality’ nationals until the 1960s, sports reporting in the popular nationals was becoming more ‘gossipy’ and sensationalised in order to win and sustain increased readerships in this more competitive market. The local daily press had little option but to follow such approaches if it was to retain readers. Indeed, many local newspapers actually used sport to win distinguish themselves from the nationals. The nationals inevitably focussed on the first division in general rather than any specific team. A local newspaper in contrast could offer the extensive coverage of local clubs that local readers sought.
Reporters were well placed to offer extensive coverage of local clubs through their position in local football culture. Directors used the press as their official voice for everything from the announcements of signings, to denials of rumours and the thanking of supporters. Sometimes this would be through a letter to the paper but, more commonly, it was done by asking a reporter to write a story. It was these connections between club directors and newspapers that made the press a component of the local football culture rather than just a reporter of it. Thus, for example, in times of financial crisis, the local newspaper took the lead in promoting fund raising and stressing the gravity of the situation and supporters’ duty to help.
Yet the close relationship reporters enjoyed with clubs also put them in a difficult position. They relied on access to clubs for information, which made it difficult for them to print critical stories for fear of endangering that relationship. Fans thus often accused reporters of being in the pocket of clubs, while many articles frustratingly hint that the reporter knows more than the club will allow him to write. For the historian this means that explanations or defences of clubs’ actions need to be read and interpreted with caution. Nonetheless, fans had their own opinions, watched games themselves and sometimes even met and knew players. They were not willing to tolerate justification of obviously poor results and performances. Reporters thus had to strike a balance, one that depended on their own inclinations and relationship with supporters and the local club. As a reporter inCardiffcomplained, ‘If I criticise players fearlessly I am told I am undermining their confidence, if I praise them I am told by the public I am an agent of the club.’
This cartoon illustrates the complexities of utilising the local press. It offers a clear opinion on the financial difficulties of MerthyrTown, that the club’s problems were rooted in a lack of support from the local population. But was this interpretation a common one? Is the newspaper reporting what local people thought or telling them what to think? To understand and interpret a source, it must be placed within context. The cartoon makes no reference to the rampant unemployment plaguing Merthyr and the rest of the south Walescoalfield at this time. Other sources from this time, including the South Wales Echo who published thus cartoon, placed the blame for the club’s demise firmly at the feet of the economic depression. Thus was the cartoon a deliberate attempt to sting local people into supporting the team?
Supporters would not read or interpret the press in simple or singular ways. Some would believe anything in print, others nothing and most somewhere inbetween. The media may not tell people what to think but it does set the framework within which people think; it contributes to what they think about. People may not have agreed that Merthyr Town was dying because of a lack of local support but this cartoon would have raise the possibility of that interpretation and given them an agenda against which to offer their own analysis. Thus the historian must not take newspaper sources at face value but the value of those sources is increased because they were key components in creating and fashioning the local football culture. The public’s perception of the game was as much shaped by reading newspapers as it was by their own experiences.
Thus in utilising the local press successfully the historian will benefit from reading as many issues as possible rather than just dipping in and out. This should allow the reader to develop a more considered understanding of events in a club’s history, and, by not just reading the sport pages, the social, political and economic contexts in which they took place. More sustained reading of a newspaper also allows a familiarity with the approach and style of individual reporters, although it is also worth realising that the pseudonyms that reporters usually employed could be shared, if only temporarily. The leading correspondents of mass newspapers, although retaining their noms de plume, gradually became personalities in their own right. They liked to think of themselves as experts on the game and thus advised players and directors in their columns. It is useful for the historian to try to compare the approach of different newspapers’ reporters to single issues at clubs, although this is normally only possible in larger cities where there could be more than one local newspaper.
Thus the rewards of newspaper research for the football historian are vast and increased by the key role the press played within football culture. Just as so many supporters relied on newspapers for news of their favourite team so too must the historian. Details of the issues behind key events, such as the dismissal of a manager, may often be frustratingly limited, but newspapers are frequently the only available source. The historian may end up involved in speculating on such events but this is no different to dealing with more mundane reports, where what is actually written is not necessarily a guide to how supporters interpreted goings-on or what actually happened. The historian’s craft is learning to interpret rather than just report the past.
Sources and further reading
- Richard Cox, Dave Russell and Wray Vamplew (eds), The Encyclopedia of British Football (Frank Cass, 2002).
- Nicholas Fishwick, English Football and Society, 1910-50 (Manchester University Press, 1989), ch. 5.
- Martin Johnes, Soccer and Society, South Wales 1900-39 (University ofWales Press, 2002).
- Stephen F. Kelly, Back Page Football: A Century of Newspaper Coverage (Queen Anne Press, 1988).
- Tony Mason ‘All the Winners and the Half Times …’, The Sports Historian, 13 (May 1993), 3-13.
- Dave Russell, Football and the English: A Social History of Association in England, 1863-1995 (Carnegie, 1997).
John Davies, a leading Welsh historian who was born in 1938, remembers being told at university that everything since 1911 was ‘mere journalism’. Such views were already then becoming outdated due to the momentous horrors of two world wars, events which plainly needed studying and understanding.
Yet studying the recent past remained less popular than events a safer distance away and even in 1997 Arthur Marwick could note a prejudice towards contemporary history. If there is a prejudice or hesitancy towards studying the recent past it is rooted in its difficulties rather than any sense that contemporary history is not an important or valid topic for study. Contemporary history throws up significant challenges because of the volume of sources, the difficulty of negotiating the historian’s own position, outlook and memories and the problem of not knowing what happened next.
Even those who practice it can struggle with how contemporary history differs from studying other periods. Mazower, a historian of twentieth-century Europe, wrote that he found it difficult to see the recent past ‘as a period of history rather than as a series of contemporary social, political and economic issues’. Elsewhere he noted that because it was social scientists who mostly wrote about post-1945 Europe, ‘the feel and approach of the scholarly literature … is quite different from that of earlier periods, and this poses special problems for the would-be synthesizer. Lines of historical debate and terms of enquiry are ill-defined, non-existent or simply unrecognisable’.
Any reluctance to study the recent past is masked somewhat by the changing boundaries of when that past is. No longer, for example, do most historians consider the Second World War as contemporary history. Although 1945 remains a common boundary used to define the topic, even the 1950s and 60s are far beyond the living memory of many adults today and are thus often not regarded as contemporary history.
In the UK, it is probably the last three decades that really marks the contemporary past, not least because of the thirty-year rule in public records. Thus the recent growth of work on the 1970s gives a more vibrant impression of contemporary history than would be garnered if work on the 1980s was looked for.
A search of the Bibliography of British and Irish History clearly illustrates how the volume of work on more recent decade tails off to such an extent that it cannot simply be because earlier decades have had more time to be written about.
Number of bibliographic entries on Bibliography of British and Irish History related to different decades
It is not just the period that contemporary history refers to that is shifting. Freedom of information legislation, new archival policies, the internet and the general shift to electronic communication and storage are all changing the nature of researching the recent past. Indeed, practitioners of contemporary history often express confusion about what research resources are now available online. The practice of the topic is changing and changing quickly.
Nonetheless, there has been a recent upsurge in writing about the recent past. The work of Dominic Sandbrook, in particular, has shown there is both a market for contemporary history and significant potential in its telling. Others have begun explicit attempts to use history, especially recent history, to offer policy lessons for the present. But it is still surprising that there is not more contemporary history written or even taught. After all, students’ view of what is contemporary is rather different to their older lecturers.
Neither students nor history have always been quite as well served by universities as they might have been. In looking at what professionalization and the growth of higher education had done to British history, David Cannadine argued that it became introspective, pedantic, narrow in focus and preoccupied with fine detail rather general interpretations. Too much of it was ‘little more than an intellectual pastime for consenting academics in private’.
Perhaps more than any other kind of history, contemporary history can meet this challenge. When done well, it can be lively, entertaining, engaging, unsettling and provocative. When it achieves that, not only is the public expenditure on its production justified but so too is the thinking, agonizing and slog that went into its writing.
Martin Johnes is the author of Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Pres, 2012).
 John Davies, ‘Whose memory do we keep?’, in John Osmond (ed), Myths, Memories and Futures: The National Library and National Museum in the Story of Wales (Cardiff, 2007), 58-67, quote from 59.
 Arthur Marwick, ‘A new look, a new departure: a personal comment on our changed appearance’, Journal of Contemporary History, 32, 1 (1997), 5-8.
 For a full discussion of these challenges and how they can be negotiated see Martin Johnes, ‘On writing contemporary history’, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, 6, 1 (2011). Online at http://welshstudiesjournal.org/article/view/11/7
 Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (London, 1998), 478.
 Mark Mazower, Response to Review no. 67, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/67/response
 For discussion on when contemporary history is see Jane Caplan, ‘Contemporary history: reflections from Britain and Germany’, History Workshop Journal, 63 (2007), 230-38.
 Data assembled using the ‘close search’ facility. An item which covers long period is counted in each decade’s total.
 For discussions see E. Hampshire and V. Johnson, ‘The Digital World and the Future of Historical Research’, Twentieth Century British History, 20, 3 (2009), 396-414, and A. Flinn and H. Jones (eds), Freedom of Information: Open Access, Empty Archives? (London, 2009).
 Vanessa Ann Chambers, ‘`Informed by, but not guided by, the concerns of the present’: contemporary history in UK Higher Education – its teaching and assessment’, Journal of Contemporary History, 44, 1 (2009), 89-105, 99.
 Dominic Sanbrook, Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (London, 2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (London, 2006), State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970–1974 (London, 2010).
 David Cannadine, ‘British history: past, present – and future?’, Past and Present, 116 (1987), 169-191. Quote from 178.