On publishing an academic book

My new book is out. When I say out I mean there are a pile of them sitting in my office next to other piles of stuff. The official publication date is the start of March, although Amazon says it’s out in May for some reason. Academic books tend to creep out rather than get released in a blaze of glory.

Publishing an academic book is a strange experience. You think about the book for a long time before starting it. You do some research and then you write.  You mess around with the structure. You work and rework individual sentences.  You move bits of text around. You delete things and then put them back, sometimes in the exact place where you first had them. You think about it at night, in the shower, in the middle of films.

Somewhere along the line you find a publisher, which may or may not be straightforward. Eventually, some years later, you finish the book.  You’re still not quite happy with it but you send it off.

Months and months later you get the proofs which you read and wish you’d done things differently. But, even though it isn’t quite what you thought it might be, you’re still quite proud. You send them back. You wait a long time. You get some more proofs. You do an index or you pay someone to do one.

More months pass and then a box suddenly and usually unexpectedly arrives. It’s your book with your name on the front. You show your mum, your wife and your kids. They’re quite proud but none of them will ever read it.

Then not much happens. It takes months for reviews to arrive.  If they’re nice you tell people about them; if they’re not  nice it’s because the reviewer hasn’t properly read or understood the book.

You check it on Amazon every now and then (i.e. every day initially) and you get excited when you see it’s climbed 200,000 places in the bestseller list. Then you realize this just means you sold a single copy.

You might see it in a shop.  This is also quite exciting and you may move it to the front of the shelf, cover facing out so the world can see.

Some people do buy the book, some of them even read it, but you have no idea what most people think of it.

In today’s world of instant interaction this lack of interaction is a bit frustrating and a bit odd. But it’s no different to publishing in an academic journal where the feedback is even less and the readership can sometimes be counted on not many hands. Moreover, most blogs don’t, I imagine, have very high readerships either. Publishing on an interactive forum does not guarantee interaction.

Perhaps this new book will be different. It is reasonably priced (only £15.64 at Amazon) and it has a very broad topic. I’m plugging it where I can and various media have promised some coverage.  It will be in a few newspapers and on the radio. Some people may tell me what they think of the argument rather than the cover.

Doing this self-publicity (like this blog) feels a little odd to academics who spent their time buried in an introspective world of teaching, research and paperwork. It certainly draws some sniggering.

For academics, finishing writing is too often seen as the end of a project rather than a stage in the whole research experience.  If we don’t  want people to read our work, why write it at all? Why go through all that frustration and agonizing? Surely not just so we have another publication for our CV?

Perhaps most academics’ reluctance to engage too closely with publicizing their work is down to a fear of just how few people are interested.

In case you missed the subtle link above, you can buy Wales since 1939 from Amazon here. Other online booksellers are available too.  If you live in Wales you might even see it in a shop.

The above is not a literal description of publishing an academic book. There are other parts to the process, not least the publisher’s peer reviewing. There you do get told what others think of either the idea of the book or the book itself. They are not always right.

Sleeper and me

Some thoughts on autobiography and the history of popular music

When I was a student someone bought me Sleeper’s first album for Christmas.  I don’t remember who it was or whether I had asked for it. It’s getting frightening how I can’t remember details of my student days. I don’t recall at all where I got Sleeper’s second album from. I have it my head that I borrowed it from someone but never gave it back. But perhaps I imagined that.

Listening to Sleeper now vaguely reminds me of dancing around a room I had in a shared house and of fancying the lead singer, Louise Wener. She embodied the kind of cool girls who smoked, were recklessly romantic and wore jeans and trainers, girls who were out of my league.

Music is a good jogger of the memory. It’s hardly original to point out that hearing a song can remind you of certain people, places and emotions. But when you repeatedly listen to a song or album its associations get confused.  I liked Sleeper a lot but their records now prompt a jumbled mix of half-remembered associations that are mixed up with other bands from a period when I spent too much time at indie nights. I can’t even remember for sure whether I ever saw Sleeper live.

I am prompted into self-indulgent nostlagia by having just finished Louise Wener’s autobiography.  Its second half, recollections of being a sex symbol in one of Britpop’s key bands, is funny and self-effacing but it’s the first half, the story of being a geeky, music-obsessed teenager in a small town, that makes the book stand out.

Her stories of how music helped her cope with self-doubt, social awkwardness and the ruthlessness of teenagers brought all sorts of things flooding back that I haven’t thought about in a long time. But they also illustrate the power of popular music. Songs are the trigger of memories because they are more than sounds and melodies to have fun to. At its best, music isn’t something in the background of our life events, it’s something that twists and shapes what’s happening in the foreground. It can make us who we are. Wener calls David Bowie ‘the sticking plaster I apply to my teenage awkwardness’. Maybe such power fades as we get older and subsumed by work, family and money, but it’s always there if we want it.

That’s why the history of popular music matters and that’s what historians who write about music should be interested in.  Understanding the form, the fashion and the lyrics only makes sense if we look at how they were received.  Historians of popular culture should concentrate on the audiences rather than bands.

That’s easier said that done because audiences’ memories of music shift and blur.  Some of Wener’s descriptions of seminal moments in her musical life are remarkably detailed and it’s hard not to think that occasionally they are an older, wiser woman looking back on what her younger self probably felt. Indeed, she finishes the book saying she hasn’t made any of it up: ‘It’s all exactly the way I remember it’. Presumably, the implication is that other people might remember it differently.

Events are all about perception. Historians can’t ‘tell it how it was’, because it was always different for different people. The trick is trying to come to generalizations that work, without losing sight of the variations of experience within them.

For some of the groupies in the book, Sleeper were life. For other people, they were just another example of how pretentious Britpop was. For me, they were some great tunes, sang by the kind of unattainable cool woman that I was too nervous to talk to in a dingy Cardiff indie club. Music can be everything and nothing.

British social and cultural history is still lacking a definitive book that looks at the impact of pop music on everyday life. When someone gets round to writing it, Wener’s autobiography will be an excellent source.  It might not be typical of the impact of Haircut 100 or David Bowie on every teenager. It might not even be quite right on Wener herself. After all, all autobiography involves reconstructing incomplete memories and some degree of image management, conscious or otherwise. But in this second element, it’s no different to deciding what music you are into.  Popular music has never just been about the tunes.

Sleeper on Top of the Pops in 1995, a show that is central to the cultural history of post-war Britain.

Using local newspapers to research the history of football

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).

Cardiff City’s 1938 voodoo doll

In April 1938, Cardiff City, playing well at home but with only two away wins all season, were looking like blowing promotion from the Third Division South yet again. All the usual excuses were trotted out but then one fan found the answer. He sent a doll to the local paper, claiming it was the “bogey” that had been harming City’s away form. The sports reporter did his duty and took the doll along to the club. The manager, seeing his chance to exorcise some of the blame from his shoulders, got all the players to line up and, as suggested by the evil doll’s captor, stuck pins in it before the local press photographer. However it was all to little avail as City still failed to win any of their remaining away games that season.

There’s decentralisation for you!

London is more get-at-able than Cardiff for us in North Wales. It is, therefore, with interest that we read of the new Secretary of State for Wales, Mr. James Griffiths, establishing himself a Welsh Office in Whitehall.

Half a dozen civil servants have already gone up from the Old Office at Cardiff (there’s decentralisation for you!) and reinforcements are expected at Paddington hourly.

Will Wales, North or South, benefit as a result? Certainly the experience of Scotland under the Scottish Office would not lead one to think so. In Cabinet, Scottish business always tended to be taken after the affairs of England and Wales were disposed of.

This was even though the Secretary of State for Scotland had statutory powers which Mr. Griffiths does not possess. Mr. Griffiths, in fact, has neither the power nor, now, the backing of a substantial Department, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He is a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best.

Editorial in the Caernarvon and Denbigh Herald and North Wales Observer, 23 October 1964

Some angry comment on bilingual motorway signs from 1977.

Some rather angry comment on bilingual motorway signs from The Economist, 25 June 1977. 

As you barrel along the M4 motorway, heading towards Newport with the Severn Bridge at your back, a giant road sign leaps out from the verge and screams … what? At 70 mph, with the children fighting in the back seat, you search the lines of bold lettering for a clue. There is none, until farther along the road an equally large sign – in English – reveals that the first one instructed Welsh-speaking drivers of heavy lorries to keep to the crawler lane.

How many drivers of heavy lorries speak Welsh? The question of numbers is irrelevant and that of road safety nearly so. The government is spending £10m to cover Wales with bilingual traffic signs, having decided that the opportunity to give the Welsh language a place of importance and dignity in national life is worth it, even though the language may be on its way to extinction by the year 2000 and the signs may keep drivers’ eyes off the road for longer than is strictly necessary.

Advice for motorists in rural Wales 1955

The road surface varies from county to county, but on the whole is hardly up to the English standard. In the remoter mountain districts the roads are narrow, tortuous, seldom tarred, and with breakneck gradients, providing the adventurous motorist with the maximum of thrills. Garages and filling stations, which are often closed on Sundays, are few and far between in some districts, and ample supplies of petrol and oil, besides a spare inner tube, should be carried.

H. A. Phiehler, Wales for Everyman (London: 1955)

a proud and ancient people

The Welsh are a proud and ancient people. Racially they are no purer than the English; linguistically they are disunited, less than half of them to-day being Welsh speaking; in religion they have agreed to disagree; and, contrary to commonly held opinions, neither rugby football nor choral singing is a unifying factor, for hundreds of thousands of Welshmen prefer the association code, and the majority of the inhabitants of Wales have never attended an eisteddfod. Yet they account themselves, and indeed they are, a nation.

T. I. Jeffreys-Jones (Senior Tutor, Coleg Harlech), ‘Wales and its Peoples’, in D. J. Davies, (ed), Wales and Monmouthshire: An Illustrated Review (1951).