We’re several months into summer, and whilst many of us are relaxing and making the most of it, it seems that term and all its pressures is just on the horizon. Soon, the time for actually consuming media for pleasure will be sadly swallowed up by reading, writing and (more) reading. To help you make the most of this blessed time before summer ends and before collections panic sinks in, the OHR editorial team would like to share some of their summer picks to tempt you back into the world of history — albeit in a fun way. Read on to discover what our editors are enjoying, from art history to personal diaries to explosive British history.
Uprising: A powerful exploration of the tragedy that ignited rebellion
Directed by Oscar winner, Steve McQueen, Uprising unpicks the tragedy of the 1981 New Cross Fire, which left thirteen Black young people dead. As an area with prominent National Front presence, reports promptly circulated that the house fire at 439 New Cross Road was a deliberate racist attack by white supremacists. Bringing together those at the house party that ended in tragedy and those connected to the case, Uprising carefully reconstructs the events leading up to the fire, as well as the ‘uprising’ and outrage that followed.
To hear the perspective of those caught up in, and left with lifelong injuries and trauma from the fire, is an understatedly powerful thing. Now adults, many of those caught in the New Cross Fire were children, aged between fourteen and twenty-two, recall the harrowing events in inscrutable detail. They take us through their upbringing as Black Britons in a vehemently racist society, in which white supremacists unabashedly prowled the streets and every major institution was steeped in racism. Then, we hear the events of the night of the fire and the devastation that followed, as the local Black community reeled from the loss of so many young people. The final parts of the documentary series focus on the immediate and long-term effects of the fire.
Swirling around in the case of thirteen young children killed by a fire were the racial politics of late 20th century Britain. The events in New Cross had an impact far beyond just the local area and ignited hurt and outrage across the country, as Uprising shows. The Black People’s Day of Action, illustrated to us through archival footage and testimonies from organisers and participants, saw an estimated 20,000 people march across London, demanding justice.
Unrest quickly spread beyond New Cross, to Southall, Liverpool, Manchester and more, as mistrust of the authorities and the establishment came to the fore. The turmoil of 1981 marks a flashpoint in race relations and the social history of modern Britain. In the manner that it carefully interrogates the events at the heart of this unrest, and in how it centres survivors’ and witness testimony, Uprising is important, potent and timely viewing.
You can watch Uprising here.
Modern Nature: a subversive and self-aware retelling of the late 20th century
There are two sorts of reasons why Historians should be interested in Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature (1991). On the one hand, it is useful like a conventional diary: it offers a specific vision into contemporary events and values. Here Jarman covers all of 1989 and much of 1990, often discussing the sort of life he lived as an openly gay and HIV positive public figure. Yet Jarman’s reflections are enhanced by the fact that ‘[h]istory fascinate[d]’ him’. This leads him to constantly reflect on matters he considers to be of ‘Historical’ interest such as the ‘swinging sixties’ or the ‘clean buildings and dirty streets’ of the eighties.
However, this self-awareness is also closely related to a different reason Historians should be interested in Modern Nature. Early in the diary, Jarman reflects that ‘[a] personal mythology recurs in my writing, . . . this archaeology has become obsessive, for the “experts” my sexuality is a confusion. All received information should make us inverts sad. But before I finish I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise’. In other words, Jarman is aware of the posterity he speaks to. He attacks those who would seek to explain his sexuality, or his life and times, for him. Consequently, he speaks quite specifically and intriguingly of historically ‘important’ events to be.
For example, in a November 1989 entry, he writes that ‘[a]s I drowsed news bulletins of a great march for reform in Prague wove through my dreams’ and a few days later writes ‘[w]alked home through Berwick Street market and climbed straight into bed. Drako arrived, made ginseng tea and recited poems. HB typed. I fell asleep. Alexander Dubcek on TV.’ Jarman chooses to portray these events on his terms. Consequently, Modern Nature is a great book for Historians to read because, in many ways, it attacks their very goals: Jarman, rather than straightforwardly accepting interpretation, or slumping into broader narratives, almost fights against both.
You can find a copy of Modern Nature here or online.
Baumgartner Restoration: conserving the past on canvas
If you’re a fan of art history, this is definitely one to watch. So often we focus on the artist and their experience in how they shape the artwork in question, but Baumgartner Restoration truly makes you question the critical and popular reception of art throughout the artwork’s lifetime — and beyond. With a cult following due to his calming voice and ASMR-style videos, the pieces Julien Baumgartner works on range from contemporary sculpture pieces to medieval wood panels and everything in between.
The main highlight of the Baumgartner Restoration YouTube channel is undoubtedly how the conservator in question introduces his audience to the questions and nuances of restoration: why did the artist choose to use certain techniques? Why do people treat paintings in the way they do? How can conservation preserve and prolong the artwork’s ‘truth’? It’s possible — and fascinating — to draw parallels between this restoration process and the conservation of historical fact throughout time, no matter the latter’s subject matter. An insight into art’s role in individuals’ lives throughout history, the channel is contemplative yet captivating, educational but never dry. Plus, it’s really satisfying to see these awe-inspiring artworks cleaned and returned to their former glory. Watch for instant peace of mind and an educational alternative to mindless scrolling on your phone.
You can view the Baumgartner Restoration YouTube channel here.
For past editors’ picks, click here.