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Editors’ picks Hilary 2022: new year, new term, new books

Maybe your new year’s resolution is to read more this year, or actually do some of that background reading you’ve always told yourself you’d do someday. Or maybe you’re just looking for a new book to borrow from the library and turn into a coaster in your room. We’ve got you covered: read on to discover what the OHR team are enjoying at the minute.

The Lively Minded Women: The First Twenty Years of the National Housewives Register by Betty Jerman

Hannah Stovin

The National House Wives Register was established in 1960 after an angry article in the Guardian by Betty Jerman. Entitled ‘Sardines in Suburbia’, she unleashed a scathing attack on new towns and the inane and uneventful lives these spaces produced. There was a lack of culture; of intellectualism; of excitement. It was a lovely place to live but only if you only had to see it at weekends and evenings – in other words, if you were a man commuting to the City every day. For women, these places were likened to dull and lifeless prisons and she was sick of it. She wasn’t alone. The article caused one similarly understimulated housewife, Maureen Nichol, to respond. She resonated with everything Jerman stated but wanted to do something about it. “Perhaps housebound wives with liberal interests and a desire to remain individuals could form a national register,” she suggested. Her home was quickly inundated with letters from women reaching out with interest and she rapidly set up the Housebound Wives’ Register in response.

Whilst it may have the superficial air of an imitation Women’s Institute the network was, in fact, the antithesis to such groups. Recognising that women had more to offer than being mothers; child rearing, cooking and cleaning were all off the table as subjects of conversation. Instead, members met in rotating homes to discuss such varied matters as foreign and current affairs, history, arts and culture. Whilst the group wasn’t active in politics in a conventional way, this discussion was in itself a political act and even more so the normalisation of conversation around such things as abortion and divorce was just as important, in my view, as the activism of more recognisable second wave feminist groups.   

Betty Jerman, via The Guardian.

After that long winded introduction, my pick is the 1981 history of the NWR written by Betty Jerman herself. The book is out of print but there are still copies floating around on AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace and I’d highly recommend getting your hands on one. The book – part history, part memoir, part oral testimony – is a hidden gem of women’s history.

Each woman’s story is interesting, funny, heart-breaking and uplifting – all the best emotions. I literally had to stop reading to recount parts to my parents because I just had to tell someone what I was reading. You know a book is good when this is the feeling it provokes! 

There are too many standout parts to detail them all here but a particular personal highlight is the details from the NWR‘s annual conferences. These conferences would often be the only times these women could get out of the house and away from their families for more than a few hours at a time. All staying in the same hotel for the weekend, the women would become almost teenager-like, staying up all night and having sleepover chats till the early hours. The liminal space of a hotel allowed these women to freely express themselves in a way that the space of the home didn’t allow. I don’t know what it is but the thought of these women in their pyjamas drinking tea and putting the world to rights really collapsed all time and space between us – me and the NWR women as one and the same.

When I first started gathering thesis ideas last Hilary I turned to the NWR. I had come across it vaguely at A level and it had always lived in the back of my mind so it was an obvious choice. Due to a combination of factors (damn the pandemic!) I had to abandon it as a project and change my route entirely. As you can tell I am thus taking this opportunity to get out all my thoughts about the organisation and give them the attention they deserve! Go read this book people!

A masterful account of a malign era – why Tony Judt’s Postwar is a must-read for any modern historian

Daniel Morgan

One of the first revelations which comes to any student taking Europe Divided: 1914-1989, a European and World History Final paper, is that the over-simplified narratives integral to British primary school and GCSE education must be debunked. The emergence of democracy in Europe has not been a clear-cut process, nor a foregone conclusion. Though the Blitz presented a dark period for Britain, casualty rates pale in comparison to the immense destruction and loss of life on the Eastern Front. 1945 did not represent an ‘end of history’ and the smooth rebirth of a civilised and stable continent as political and social upheaval and sectarian conflict continued, and these trends are compellingly addressed by the historian Tony Judt in his work Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945.

The first theme to note about Postwar is its sheer scope. The book begins with a continent in ruins with millions dead, Western-style democracy moving from a precarious victory to a confrontation with Soviet communism and staggering material loss, the destruction of 95% of all buildings in Warsaw reflecting this sombre reality. Judt’s balancing of chronological and thematic perspectives means that this advanced work of history is surprisingly accessible to the ordinary reader. He charts Europe’s progression out of the ashes – although one of his most illuminating and oft-repeated ideas is that prosperity never came easily and was not universal – into the social democratic experiments of the 1950s-70s, the ongoing tensions of the Cold War and the neo-liberal responses to the challenges of the 1970s. One of the most developed chapters is one on the 1989 revolutions although crucially, Judt does not resort to the easy, Western-centric hubris visible in many works inspired by the fall of Communism.

Instead, his narrative continues right up to 2005 and with his prescient words on Russian expansionism and the struggles faced by the EU, he turns sixty years of history into an oddly contemporary issue. The chronological scope is coloured with descriptive variety. Few authors would have the acumen to expertly move from anti-Nazi retributions to southern European industry to French car-manufacturing to the Eurovision song contest; fewer still would succeed in making such analysis central to a masterful book.

One of the most salient reviews of Judt’s work praised it as ‘history-writing with a human face,’ as high politics and diplomacy are seamlessly connected to events on the ground. Figures as diverse as Ernest Bevin, the British statesman, and Franjo Tudman, the first Croatian President, are scrutinised, their prejudices and responses to the calamities around them influencing their careers. Though the Marshall Plan is rightly celebrated as a turning-point in European-American relations, Judt notes that only one-third of French adults were aware of it and of this portion, two-thirds considered it a bad idea. Coming from a secular Jewish background and having written critiques of certain Israeli policies, Judt also notes how anti-Semitism has remained an ulcer in the side of European civil society, from pogroms in Poland after 1945 to Polish social democratic statesman Lech Walesa’s failure to rebuke a friend’s anti-Semitic comment in 1995. Indeed, the book’s epilogue is entitled ‘An Essay on European Memory’ and charts how new values of morality and nonviolence emerged (but evenly) ‘from the crematoria of Auschwitz,’ highlighting the importance of commemoration and proper understanding.

However, even an author as shrewd as Judt cannot help to note material and moral progress. One of the trends he accounts for is the ‘disdain for violence’ as a ‘new aspect of the European soul,’ as highlighted by the relative bloodlessness of the 1989 revolutions. Indeed, he is cautiously optimistic about the exportation of these European values, hoping that ‘the 21st century may yet belong to Europe.’ Whether or not his prediction is true remains to be seen. What is clear is that Judt is an erudite and sensitive academic, a widely-accepted truth in historical circles because after his untimely death from motor neurone disease in 2010, Time magazine celebrated him as ‘a historian of the very first order, a public intellectual of an old-fashioned kind and—in more ways than one—a very brave man.’

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