A camp in France

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Everyone talks about the wind. The Rivesaltes internment camp stands on a flat stretch of land north of Perpignan, in the southwest of France. It’s not far inland and not even a hundred metres above sea level, but it feels high and exposed, with views extending to the Pyrenees. There’s no shade in the summer and no shelter in the winter. Scrubby, drought-resistant plants grow between broken lines of cheap concrete huts and latrines, and at the edge of the site a rank of sleek modern wind turbines catch the wind that’s always blowing from the mountains or the sea.

Senn, exterior 1Rivesaltes has been written about by people who lived or worked there in its multiple incarnations as an internment camp between the late 1930s and the 1960, or as an immigration detention centre from the 1980s to 2007. It has been written about by people who’ve visited it, to research its history or find out more about the stories of their family members, and by publicists for the new museum there. They all talk about the wind. In pictures taken by the Swiss photographer Paul Senn, who spent six months in the camp in 1942 reporting on the work of Swiss charities, inmates wear heavy woollen coats and headscarves and wrap themselves in blankets whether they’re inside the draughty, poorly insulated huts or outside in the brilliant sunshine and bitter cold of winter.

I visited the camp one afternoon last July, on a day when it was the sun, not the wind, that felt merciless. Some American friends were staying nearby with their teenaged sons and they met me in the village of Rivesaltes itself, at the tiny railway station. It was almost deserted on a Sunday afternoon, everyone on their way to beaches nearby. We drove out through vineyards and low-slung industrial estates, a little uncertainly at first—the satnav confidently giving wrong instructions—but then finding and following new signs for the Musée mémorial du camp de Rivesaltes.Senn, interior 2

My current research project is on the history of refugee camps: that’s why I was visiting Rivesaltes, and will visit it again. It started life as a military transit camp, built in 1938 with the intention of keeping colonial troops well away from French people in the event of a European conflict: the alternative name, camp Joffre (from the first world war marshal), still shows up on Google maps. Before it came into service as a military camp, though, it was used to house Spanish refugees fleeing the defeat of the Republic in 1939. These were the lucky ones: some, especially men of military age, were penned in barbed-wire enclosures on the nearby beaches of Argelès-sur-Mer and Barcarès. During the second world war the camp was used, in rapid succession, as a detention centre for ‘undesirable aliens’, a holding camp for Jews under Vichy, a camp for Axis prisoners-of-war at the Liberation, and a prison camp for collaborators. Later it was an accommodation centre for migrant workers, a transit camp for repatriated pied noir settlers from Algeria and then more lastingly a dwelling-place for Algerian Muslims who had fought on the French side in the war of independence between 1954 and 1962. It was also, at last, a military camp for colonial troops.

In the 1980s a detention centre was built on the site for undocumented Spanish migrant workers, but it opened just as Spain entered the European Economic Community and its citizens gained a full right to work in France. Undocumented migrants from other countries were detained there instead. By the 1990s, memorials had been placed around the camp by groups commemorating Jewish deportees, Algerian Muslims, and Spanish Republicans. The site was registered as a historic monument in 2000, and by 2005 was open to visitors, but the detention centre only closed in 2007, around the time that the decision was taken to create the museum.

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He lost the socialist party primary the weekend I drafted this

Continuing to lock up immigrants on a site dedicated to commemorating the past victims of the French state’s illiberal immigration practices would have looked bad. But that continuity exists, and creates a tension that runs through the museum. Plain letters on a bare concrete wall note that it was opened in October 2015 by Manuel Valls, then prime minister. Valls—himself a naturalised French citizen born to immigrant parents—was not notably liberal on immigration either as premier or, earlier, as interior minister.

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The concrete manufacturer was understandably pleased with the result

The building is impressive, but not obtrusive. Designed by the starchitect Rudy Ricciotti, it’s far more restrained than his other and much larger recent museum design, the exuberant but overblown MuCEM on the waterfront at Marseille. Where that shows off, with its patterned concrete screens and seemingly unsupported pedestrian walkway from the fort St-Jean, the Rivesaltes museum deliberately conceals itself. To avoid overwhelming a site mostly made up of low and semi-ruined concrete huts, the structure—a long sloping slab of ochre concrete—is half-buried in a depression dug out of what was once camp Joffre’s parade ground. You barely notice it until the walkway leads you down into the building. It’s only from the air that you can get a sense of its size, as these images from the architect’s website show:

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This means the building manages to be unobtrusive relative to the site it commemorates, while also creating a doubly memorable architectural effect: the sheer gee-whizz factor when you realize what’s happening (“They hid a whole museum!”), and, quite different, the sense as you walk down towards the entrance of being drawn out of the open air and bright sunshine into an enclosed and hidden space. It’s not the same as being interned yourself, but it creates an emotional resonance that the museum’s long corridors and sombre exhibition spaces sustain.

I’m interested in the camp at Rivesaltes because it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for refugee camps to house different groups of displaced people successively, or for that matter at the same time. And it’s not unusual for a camp that houses refugees to serve as different kinds of camp at other times: Rivesaltes was a military camp, an internment camp, and a prisoner-or-war camp as well as a refugee camp, while other refugee camps have been made out of forestry camps or holiday camps. These are two important things for me to understand and explore as I continue my research.

Rivesaltes is also not unusual, or at least not exceptional, in the amount of academic research, reportage, and literary or other artwork that it’s generated: for some examples, try searching on Google Scholar for “Dadaab refugee camp“, or reading Kate Evans’s powerful new comic book about the Calais ‘Jungle’, Threads.

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What does make Rivesaltes unusual is that memory organizations commemorating different groups came together to preserve the site, and successfully got government support to create the memorial museum. This has allowed historians working on different periods, and other researchers too, to come together to try and develop a shared understanding of the history of this uneasy, windswept place. (You can go there to watch the sunrise, which would surely be atmospheric.) The museum takes an impressively long and hard look at France’s containment, detention, and deportation of displaced populations across the middle of the twentieth century. But you also leave with the sense that, perhaps inevitably for a state-run institution, it is looking away from the present. It’s one thing to allow historians and the public to examine such practices in the past, but acknowledging their continuity in our own time would be uncomfortable indeed for Manuel Valls and his successors.

Update (29 June): see comments below for some thoughts, and relevant links, from colleagues in France.

Update (1 July): the director of the museum’s Comité scientifique also commented: again, see below.

Click images for source.
If that doesn’t take you off this blog,
I took the photo.

 

 

 

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Recent work

As usual, quiet times on this blog reflect hectic times elsewhere. Here are a couple of things I’ve been up to, though.

First, as promised, I produced a short version of my article ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939’ (whose long gestation was the subject of my most recent post) for RefugeeHistory.org, with some reflections on the present. This went up a while back, on the sixth anniversary of the start of the uprising. You can read it here.

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Tulips in University Gardens

Second, more recently, I’ve been engaging with a new book that’s been getting a lot of air-time—Refuge: transforming the broken refugee system, by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier. Betts and Collier, Refuge, coverI spotted the book just before it came out on a visit to the Refugee Studies Centre in March (Betts is the centre’s director), and since then the authors have been all over the media, from the Guardian to the Spectator as well as on TV and various online outlets. The book has also been widely—though not always approvingly—reviewed, in Standpoint, The Economist, the Times Literary Supplement, and Nature, among others. It was the glowing but deeply misinformed review in Standpoint that drew me into the debate about the book.

As soon as the marking season is out of the way I’ll be writing a review of the book from a historian’s perspective for RefugeeHistory.org. In the meantime, though, I’ve been engaging with it on Twitter, and storifying the resulting threads. You can find them here:

Live-tweeting the book as I read it has been interesting—and has brought me into contact with some very interesting people—but it’s taking forever. For future chapters I may have to skip the rest of the tweets and get on with writing the review of the whole thing. (Spoiler: I think it’s a very bad book.) Meanwhile, here in the northern hemisphere, the spring is going on all around us.

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Azaleas in Pollok Park, at the end of April

Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939

The wheels of academic writing turn slowly.

It’s seven years since I first gave a talk at a workshop in Princeton outlining some ideas about how the arrival and settlement of refugees in Syria helped to define the modern state’s territory, institutions, and national identity. It’s six years since I developed them more fully in a seminar at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, which I entitled ‘Refugees and the definition of Syria, 1920-1939’. (The name stuck.) Over the next year or two I did some further archival research to test the ideas out, and was pleased to find that rather than contradicting my argument, this extra work allowed me to nuance and extend it. Meanwhile, just as I was learning more about Syria’s history as a destination for refugees in earlier generations, the civil war there broke out, and turned the country into the world’s largest producer of refugees.

Three years ago, while I was on research leave for a semester after changing jobs, I worked these presentations up into a full article. That turned into a bit of a monster (especially when the footnotes were included: Lordy!) but I was quite happy with it, and a couple of academic friends read it and gave me some positive feedback—as well as some advice on points that needed improving, of course. So I made some minor revisions, then sent the draft to a contact who was preparing a special issue of a historical journal, on refugees and statelessness.

And then nothing happened. For nearly a year. The person I’d been in touch with had gone on parental leave, her co-editor didn’t reply to my emails, and when I eventually contacted the journal, they couldn’t help—they’d never heard of the special issue. So I withdrew the article. By that point, two years ago, I was back to a full teaching load with plenty of other responsibilities. I didn’t know quite what to do next.

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Somewhere over this horizon, your article will be published

Eventually, though, I asked another couple of (senior) colleagues to read over the article and tell me if they thought it would be worth submitting it to Past & Present—a very good journal, but one with a famously intimidating review process. Both of them thought that with a bit of reframing to make it suitable for a non-specialist audience (ie, historians who don’t specifically work on refugees and statelessness), the article would make a plausible submission. In November 2015, with a bit of free time, I gritted my teeth and made what turned out to be some fairly minor amendments to reframe the article—and, a bigger job, reformatted the footnotes in line with the requirements of a different journal. And so, in some trepidation, I was able to send it off.

This was quite a big deal for me, because by that point it had been four years since my book came out, and in the meantime I’d published nothing but book reviews. I’d started my first permanent job at an institution where I didn’t feel at home, then moved to my second—which meant two rounds of settling in to a new city, getting to grips with a new institutional culture (and new administrative responsibilities), and preparing a lot of new teaching. Finding time to research and write had been difficult, and I’d also had to change what I was working on: the war in Syria had made it impossible for me to continue a project I’d begun. I knew what I wanted to do instead, and I’d started making connections here in Glasgow (thanks to GRAMNet) that would help me develop it—but I was grimly aware that the gap opening up in my publications record was like an ever-growing question mark over my future as a researcher. Anyone working in British academia will know what I mean.

Last March, I got the reply from Past & Present: to my delight, they wanted to publish it. During the double-blind peer review process, five (!) reviewers had read the article. One of them was lukewarm, the other four were positive or very positive. They all had suggestions for minor revisions, and a kindly-worded email from the editor suggested how I might approach them. I submitted the revised final version in early July, after I’d made some amendments and got a friend who’s an academic copyeditor to check the footnotes. (I told him to charge me the full rate, of course.) Proofs came my way for checking in the autumn, along with a publication date: May 2017, seven years to the month after the workshop where I first presented the argument, with online access a bit earlier. I didn’t imagine, when I started on this work, that it would take so long to see it to completion—or that the country whose history I’d been writing would experience such catastrophe in the meantime.

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All of which is by way of announcing that my article ‘Refugees and the Definition of Syria, 1920-1939’ is now available online, and will be out in print soon. For anyone who wants a shorter version without footnotes, a post will be going up on RefugeeHistory.org shortly. The next article I publish should be out rather quicker—though the gestation time has been almost as long.

Many thanks once again to everyone mentioned in this post
who read the article in draft form and helped improve it.

Can a refugee carry a gun?

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Can a refugee carry a gun? Or, to put it another way, can someone who is armed still be considered a refugee?

The answer seems to be no. When Kurds fled Turkey in the 1920s and 30s and entered the French-controlled territory of Syria, they were one group of refugees among several: in particular, Armenians and other Anatolian Christians, including survivors of the 1915 genocide as well as people pushed out of the new Turkish Republic in the 1920s, and after 1933, Assyrians coming from Iraq. But the French authorities in Syria only referred to Christian refugees as ‘refugees’. Regardless of the circumstances of their departure from Turkey (usually fleeing military repression) and arrival in Syria (often accompanied by their flocks), Kurds were much more likely to appear in official correspondence as Kurdes réfugiés en Syrie—‘Kurds who have taken refuge in Syria’—than réfugiés kurdes, ‘Kurdish refugees’. In the lengthy reports to the League of Nations that the French foreign ministry produced each year, there is always a section about assistance to refugees: it fit the image of a benevolent mandatory power to help needy refugees. But not Kurds: they sometimes appear in summaries of the political situation, but never in the section about refugees. The League of Nations itself took action on behalf of both Armenian and Assyrian refugees in the 1920s and 30s, but not Kurds.

There are several reasons for this. But one of them is that the Kurds were usually armed.

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The Baquba refugee camp, from the front cover of Austin’s book

Here’s another example. For a few years after 1918, the British military occupation forces in Mesopotamia ran a large refugee camp at Baquba, about 33 miles north-northeast of Baghdad. The people who lived in it, nearly fifty thousand of them, were Armenians and Assyrians who had been displaced from eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus during the first world war. From among the refugee population the British had formed a contingent of irregular troops, four battalions of them. But at the very start of 1920, a British attempt to make the arrangement less irregular by formally enrolling the troops created unexpected tensions. For reasons the British didn’t fully understand, troops in two of the battalions refused to sign the enrolment forms (they appeared to suspect that Britain would ship them off to serve the empire in India). One of the battalions was Armenian, and its opposition was particularly strong: when the battalion’s officers agreed, under heavy British pressure, to sign the forms, the rank and file threatened to shoot them.

This is what happened next, in the words of the camp commandant, Brigadier-General H.H. Austin (the emphasis is mine):

I decided thereupon to disarm and disband the Armenian battalion; and issued orders that the battalion should be paraded fully equipped and marched up to my Headquarters, alongside which the 1/4th Battalion Devons were camped.

Two companies of the Devons were told to hold themselves in readiness about their camp; but not to show up, as though trouble was anticipated, unless I blew a whistle to signify that my order to “ground arms” was disobeyed by the Armenians. In due course the battalion arrived, and was formed up with its rear to the river bank—here 40 or 50 feet high and a sheer drop to the water below. After addressing the men for some time through an English-speaking Armenian official of the orphanage, I informed them it was my painful duty, as a result of their distrust of the British Government, no longer to regard them as soldiers, but as refugees pure and simple. They would, accordingly, hand over their arms, accoutrements, and equipment now; and on return to their camp make over their uniform to their respective company commanders. The order to “ground arms” was obeyed without any sign of hesitation: a company of the Devons emerged from their camp to take over rifles, bandoliers, etc; and every Armenian of the battalion was searched over to see that he had no revolver or ammunition concealed about his person. They were then marched back through the Armenian sections of the camp, to their own on the other side of the river, and a few days later transferred and distributed among the Armenian population in “A” area.

H.H. Austin, The Baqubah Refugee Camp
(London and Manchester: The Faith Press, 1920), pp. 47-48

No longer soldiers, but refugees pure and simple: when refugees are disarmed, they become ‘just’ refugees.[1]

The photograph at the top of this post is evidence of this happening. In early 1939, the final territory under the control of the elected Republican government in Spain fell to the fascist military rebellion led by Franco. Over three hundred thousand people—young, old; children, women, men—fled north into France. The rifles in this pile were taken from Republican refugees as they entered the country.

There was precedent for this kind of thing. When the (substantial) remnants of the White Russian army were evacuated from the Crimea in 1921 at the end of the Russian civil war, their commander General Wrangel wanted to maintain them as a military formation to continue the fight. The Allies, hosting 120,000 Russians in the Straits Zone, disarmed and disbanded them instead. Spanish Republicans, too, hoped to continue the fight against Franco—but the French government, terrified of a war with the fascist powers, had no intention of permitting that.

Being defined as a refugee is itself a loss of control. This is one reason why many refugees reject the term: Spanish Republicans called themselves exiliados, ‘exiles’, while Russian refugees preferred to be ‘émigrés’. Here’s a Kosovo Albanian woman discussing the term, closer to our own time:

Well, you cannot describe it. It is awful, very hard to be like that. The name can show you, you know, R.E.F.U.G.E.E. is like the worst thing in the world, so it is something that you cannot describe. You don’t have any power and you don’t have anything but your soul, your body and nothing else. This is very difficult and hard for everybody. Even for the people who accepted refugees it was very hard, every time you feel like you are not you. So, every day you feel empty, you feel… I mean it’s just very hard, without any power, with nothing.

Quoted—from a book by Losi, Passerini, and Salvatici—in Peter Gatrell,
The Making of the Modern Refugee (Oxford, 2013), p. 265

The sense of powerlessness that the term R.E.F.U.G.E.E. brings is so strong that she is unwilling to speak it, and spells it out instead. But it would be a mistake to think that a person loses control at the moment when they flee their home, or cross the border into a neighbouring country.

The term ‘refugee’ has had a distinct meaning in international law for nearly a century. It has evolved in that time, and expanded from a very narrow range of applicability covering two specific groups of displaced people (Russian and Armenian refugees in the 1920s) to a theoretically universal one (anyone displaced over a border by a legitimate fear of persecution). The point of the legal definition, which is the basis of national refugee law in most places where such legislation exists, is to make protection available to refugees, in the shape of rights—eg, the right to asylum; the right not to be pushed back into the country they are fleeing; the right to work—and humanitarian assistance. In practice, though, to access that protection as ‘refugees’, people are expected to give up any control over their own destinies, and become as passive and needy as the term requires them to be. This is not always voluntary: consider Denmark’s recent decision to strip asylum-seekers of their money and belongings as a precondition of being considered for refugee status.

When refugees are armed, they have altogether too much control over their own destinies to be considered ‘refugees’. The British themselves had formed the Armenian battalion at Baquba, but when the troops showed their autonomy they were swiftly disarmed, in a setting that was designed to expose them: backs to a forty-foot drop, British soldiers waiting nearby to intervene if they failed to ground their weapons on command. They were literally ‘marched back’ into civilian life, no longer soldiers, but refugees pure and simple. For the Spanish Republicans, disarming was only the first step. They were then—as refugees often are—split up, transported long distances, and interned: women, children, and the elderly in rough accommodation rapidly converted from forestry camps or army camps, the men of military age in barbed-wire pens on the beaches of Roussillon. Many of them did not survive this exposure. The author of this loss of control was not Franco but the French state.

So: can a refugee carry a gun? Probably not. But to understand why, we need to understand the quid pro quo that states expect when they give asylum to refugees—when they define people as ‘refugees’. The point isn’t that refugees should be given guns, but what happens when they arrive with guns is a particularly clear illustration that protection, however flimsy, is conditional on loss of control.

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Click images for source if not indicated

[1] Austin’s book gives an account of the events that had pushed these Assyrians and Armenians from their respective homes and brought them into contact with British troops advancing into northwestern Persia (Iran) in 1918 (pp. 3-14). Although by then some of them had been displaced over hundreds of miles, he doesn’t use the term ‘refugees’ to describe them until he reaches the point, on p.14, when they were brought under British protection.

Tackling inequalities, the comfortable way

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‘Tackle’ is one of my least favourite verbs—maybe not when it’s applied on the rugby field, but certainly when it’s used with abstract nouns and intractable social problems. This struck me a while ago when I read a career summary that mentioned the author’s professional experience of ‘tackling child poverty’. As I started writing this blog post I came across another example: a poster from the Glasgow Council on Alcohol, ‘tackling the misuse of alcohol’.

But what really made me start thinking about the way this word is used was the announcement, a couple of months back, of a £64.4m grant by The Atlantic Philanthropies to the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The purpose of this enormous grant is to endow a fellowships programme, running over twenty years, ‘to support leaders tackling inequalities’. It’s been bothering me ever since.

‘Tackling’. It sounds manly, purposeful. It summons up sporting images: the attacker rushes forward with the ball, the defender stops them short with one effective tackle. It’s guff.

What does ‘tackle’ mean, in this kind of context? ‘Making a good living out of’, perhaps, like the civil servants who work for the UK government’s Child Poverty Unit. Or perhaps not, because it’s not clear from its own website whether this unit is still functioning. The CPU set about ‘tackling the causes of disadvantage and transforming families’ lives’ with a 2011 strategy, aiming ‘to tackle poverty’—that’s a lot of tackling—‘by strengthening families and providing support to the most vulnerable’. But the CPU’s homepage hasn’t been updated in three years: a new strategy, it says, ‘will be published in 2014’. And despite all this resolute tackling, child poverty in Britain has steadily worsened since 2011. So perhaps ‘tackle’ means ‘do nothing to hinder’. (The Glasgow Council on Alcohol says it’s been tackling the misuse of alcohol for fifty years: you don’t have to spend long walking around the city to see how effective it’s been.)
Glasgow Council on Alcohol

Now, as it happens, the worst child poverty rates in the UK are not in Glasgow, where I live, or in the most deprived local authority areas of England, like Blackpool: they’re in London. Of the 20 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty, 14 are in London (pdf; figures for late 2014). London is a highly unequal city: if it’s housed at LSE, a project that aims to ‘tackle inequalities’ can find plenty on its doorstep.

But everything about this project, from the press release on, suggests that ‘tackle’ here is more likely to mean ‘reproduce’, if not ‘structurally reinforce’.

All publicity is good publicity, as long as it reproduces social hierarchy

Let’s start with the press release, and the very obvious inequalities that it manifests. It names, and quotes, the co-directors of the International Inequalities Institute, who will run the new fellowships programme: two middle-aged white men. It names, and quotes, the director of LSE: a middle-aged white man. It names, and quotes, the CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that’s endowed the programme: a middle-aged white man. Then it gives contact details for the corporate communications and PR staff at the LSE and Atlantic who are meant to field any enquiries that the press release might generate: two younger white women at the LSE and one younger Iranian-American man at Atlantic.* It doesn’t quote any of these three, though, as they’re not in positions of power. So the press release for a programme ‘tackling inequalities’ itself reproduces fundamental inequalities of gender, race, age, and class, without a thought for how that looks. Only the privileged can be so thoughtless.

In fact, the press release doesn’t even mention anyone who’s at the sharp end of inequality, the end where most people in the US and the UK, let alone the world, actually live. They’re not people: they’re a set of abstract problems, ‘inequalities’. People might have politics, a word that’s also missing from the press release.

Now, I’m a white man working at a big, old university; not quite middle-aged yet, but pushing 40. Obviously I like to think that I’m a decent sort of chap. But on all those spectrums of gender, race, age, and class, I’m on the side that’s doing nicely out of inequality. So I have to admit that if anyone who really wanted to ‘tackle inequality’ came looking for me, they’d be carrying a hook and a length of rope, not a £64.4m grant.

For he that hath, to him shall be given

Then there’s the fellowship programme’s host institution, the London School of Economics and Political Science. By British standards, if not by American ones, the LSE is a wealthy institution. The size of its endowment is a good measure of that (for reasons explained in this blog post).

Only two British universities have endowments of over a billion pounds: Cambridge and Oxford, as you’d expect. (They’re both well clear of a billion, in fact, respectively close to £6 billion and around £4.25 billion). Most universities in Britain have endowments that are a tiny fraction of that, from a few thousand pounds—basically operating off annual teaching, research, and commercial income—to £25 million. As of 2015, ten UK universities had endowments of £25–50 million, and nine of £50–100 million. Apart from Oxbridge, only eight universities had endowments of over £100 million: Edinburgh and Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, and four institutions in the University of London system: King’s, UCL, Imperial… and the LSE, whose ranking in this table (the impressively well-documented Wikipedia page listing UK universities by endowment**) will presumably rise sharply in 2016: this one grant will increase it by more than half.

640px-LSE_main_entranceAnd LSE is considerably richer than it appears from a simple mine’s-bigger-than-yours comparison of endowment size. First, it is much smaller than any of the other institutions in the top ten: far fewer students, far fewer staff.⁂ So LSE’s considerable endowment is spread rather thicker. Second, unlike the rest of these universities, which cover a broad range of subjects from medicine to medieval history, LSE is—as its name suggests—a specialist institution. It covers a relatively narrow set of subjects, mostly in the social sciences. Its endowment isn’t needed to fund the acquisition of supercomputers, advanced laboratory equipment, or expensive library books in the biomedical sciences.

In the extremely unequal landscape of UK higher education, then, LSE is very privileged. Within the school, other inequalities are also reproduced: gender distribution of academic staff, for example, is ‘similar to levels seen across the sector’ (pdf; see fig. 13)—ie, highly unequal, with under 40% being women. (How that distribution breaks down at different levels of seniority is not clear.) Located as it is in the middle of one of the world’s most expensive cities, LSE probably disproportionately attracts students from a background of high household income, though that figure isn’t so easy to find.†

Is this a problem? The forces that create these inequalities are way beyond the LSE’s control. But if I had £64.4m and I wanted to spend it on tackling inequalities, I wouldn’t start at the LSE—unless I was giving it to the cleaners.

For ‘tackle’, read ‘structurally reinforce’

The details of the grants programme are no more reassuring. “The 20-year fellowship initiative”, according to the press release, “will train the next generation of leaders seeking to influence and facilitate changes in global policy and practice to enable greater equality, opportunity and outcomes for all. It is expected that well over 600 Atlantic Fellows will be developed across geographic and disciplinary boundaries over the duration of the programme.”

There are two problems here. The first is the absolute refusal to acknowledge that ‘inequality’ is the outcome of political choices, economic exploitation, or social structures: is something that people with power do to other people. If you saw an angry man choking a child, you wouldn’t seek to facilitate changes in his behaviour to enable greater opportunities for that child to breathe. This degree of abstraction would be laughable if it weren’t so disgraceful.

The second problem is the focus on ‘leaders’. The press release continues:

“Aimed at academics, activists, policy-makers, journalists, lawyers, health professionals, cultural leaders, writers and creative artists, the Atlantic Fellows programme has been designed with the flexibility to offer different levels of engagement in order to create and continue to support an international community of diverse multidisciplinary and action-oriented leaders.”

Even in Britain, a wealthy country where participation in two world wars resulted in several decades of social democracy within living memory, every single one of these different fields is highly unequal, and disproportionately dominated by the privileged. Academia is the example I know best: it’s not the worst, but it’s pretty bad. The further up the hierarchy you go from first-year undergraduate to endowed professor to vice-chancellor, the fewer state-educated people you find; the fewer women you find; the fewer people of colour you find. The same in politics, journalism, law, medicine, the creative arts. So a fellows programme aimed at people in these sectors will, from the start and by design, disproportionately benefit privately-educated white men. This is a global programme, so the precise complexion of privilege will vary according to the hierarchies in place in the countries from which fellows are recruited. But it’s the privileged who’ll benefit most. There’s no evidence that the institute has even considered a strategy to offset this.

In other words, a programme intended to ‘tackle’ inequalities has been set up in such a way that it will simply reproduce them. Note the words of LSE Director, Craig Calhoun: “This remarkable grant will enable LSE’s new International Inequalities Institute to scale up faster, join students and researchers across departmental lines, and prepare generations of engaged practitioners to have an even more profound impact.” The prime beneficiary of the multi-million pound grant tackling inequalities, in other words, is the LSE’s new academic institute itself. The intended outcome is for that institute ‘to scale up faster’. And what, precisely, will that do to limit, moderate, reduce, or—God help us—end inequality?

 

* I guessed the ethnicity from his surname, and confirmed it by looking him up online. As an Iranian-American, he’s ‘Caucasian’ by the US census categories, though I wouldn’t want to second-guess his life experiences; he’s certainly the closest to a person of colour mentioned in this document.

** The 405 references for this page (as at 18 August 2016)  are almost all directly to universities’ own financial statements. University press offices would edit the information if it were incorrect.

⁂ The others all have between twenty and forty thousand students, except Imperial, which has under 17,000 students. But that’s still more than half as big again as LSE, with its 10,600 students. (These figures are from 2014/15.) These other comparably wealthy universities also have at least twice as many academic staff as LSE—most have three, four, five times as many.

† LSE offers bursaries of up to £4,000/year to UK and EU students from lower-income households, but its 2015 ‘Context Statistics’ document doesn’t give a breakdown of students by household income. If the Higher Education Statistics Agency collects such information, it doesn’t make it easily available on its website either.

Click images for source.
LSE Old Building picture credit: Umezo Kamata (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Pogo with the Quo

I’ve never done an oral history interview, though I keep meaning to start. But the other night, on a ten-minute taxi ride home from a concert, I got an informal bit of oral history.Jim MacNeary, Glasgow Apollo

As soon as he heard I’d been at a gig, the driver began reminiscing about gigs he’d been to himself, especially as a young man in the seventies and eighties. The venue he talked about most was the Glasgow Apollo, which closed in 1985—he’d seen several gigs there, the first of them Status Quo in the 1970s. The ticket for that one, he said, cost £1.50, and when a friend heard that he was going he said “I hope you’re not in the upper balcony!” But he was indeed in the upper balcony, and when he got there he understood why his friend had said that: it was perilously steep and high, and when people started dancing down at the front of it it felt as if the whole thing was shaking. There were bouncers, he said, going up and down the aisles at rock gigs like that, but if you watched the bouncers in the upper circle you’d notice that they didn’t go all the way down to the rows closest to the stage: from the doors at the top, they’d walk down the stairs of the aisle as far as about five rows up, then stop.

Pink with gold trimThis was a conversation in a taxi: I didn’t take notes, and I’m only getting round to writing this a few weeks later. But the internet being the internet, checking a few details and learning more was easy. The Apollo opened as Green’s Playhouse cinema in 1927—the largest in Europe, according to this website about Scottish cinemas, seating 4,368 (!), and with a ballroom above the auditorium too. You wouldn’t have guessed this from the pavement in front of the building on Renfield Street, where the entrance was set in a row of shops with offices above them (all part of the same building), but going inside must have been like entering another world. A pretty lurid world, too: I don’t know what the colour scheme was in 1927, but when the building was operating as a concert venue between 1973 and 1985 much of the interior was painted in shocking two-tone pink with gold trim.

How this looked under normal lighting, I’m not sure. This is one of a series of photos taken as the building was demolished, in 1987, after a fire had left it strucurally unsafe. Or perhaps that should be even more structurally unsafe: the building’s structural problems were apparently the reason why it was closed two years earlier.

The Apollo had a reputation as the best rock venue in Britain, and ‘the Quo’ loved it—they played there seven times in a single year (1976), a record for the venue, and their three concerts that December were used for recording a live album. I wonder if it was one of these gigs that I heard about from the chap whose taxi I was riding in: if so, he’d have been entitled to one of these stickers:

Quo_Live76_Fixed

That formidable reputation may explain why the online forum devoted to its memory has had nearly ten million visitors. It also figures heavily on the discussion boards of other forums, about Glasgow or about bands who played there. So anyone who wanted to do a proper oral history project about it would find it easy to recruit interviewees. As I did a brief skim of the internet to write this post, a few questions sprang to mind. Was the Apollo’s reputation justified—and if so, why? It wasn’t just a rock venue, but that’s what it’s most famous for: the names most immediately associated with it by Google are Status Quo, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, AC/DC… and this picture of fans at an AC/DC concert makes it look like a bit of a boys’ club, as does the painting at the top of this post. So what was the gender history of the Apollo? In the mid-century heyday of the Glasgow dance halls, these were mixed (that was the whole point of them): was it all sweaty boys later in the century? The cutaway architectural plan shows kitchen, offices, an art room, though whether these were still in operation in the ‘Apollo years’ or dated from the time of Green’s Playhouse I don’t know. Still: what was it like to work at the Apollo, in the box office, backstage, or as a bouncer?

A bit more time on the internet, though, revealed that someone has recently completed a PhD about this: Kenny Forbes, now teaching at the University of the West of Scotland. He ran a blog about the project, and his thesis, You had to be there? Reflections on the ‘legendary’ status of the Glasgow Apollo theatre (1973-85), is available on the e-theses site of my own institution. (It’s been downloaded over 200 times since it was submitted less than a year ago: more evidence that the old ‘no-one reads PhD theses’ claim is nonsense.) So if a student ever asks me about doing their dissertation on this, they’ll have to come up with an original angle of their own.

Playhouse cutawayAnd what about the balcony? The Wikipedia page on the Apollo is on the brief side, but claims that the balcony was ‘designed and built so that it would move up and down’. I’m dubious about this: for a concert venue that might make sense, but for an auditorium designed as a cinema? Kenny Forbes expressed similar doubts on his blog, having heard the claim in several places but found no evidence to support it. He posted some architectural plans and asked if any readers could help: I’ll need to read the thesis to find out if he got any answers. But no-one is in any doubt that it moved, alarmingly. The bouncers were right to take care.

Click images for sources, which aren’t always properly sourced themselves.
The  painting at the top is by Jim MacNeary, sourced from Kenny Forbes’s blog.

This post is for my uncle Phil,
who loved knowing about music and buildings in a city’s history.

 

17 years again

More or Less, camp image

Last week someone tweeted a link to my post about the average length of stay in a refugee camp to the BBC radio programme More or Less, which investigates numbers that are in the news. The “17 years” statistic is exactly the kind of thing they like to get their teeth into.

I duly got a message from the producer, and went into the BBC Scotland studios here in Glasgow for an interview earlier this week. The programme was broadcast on the World Service last night—you can listen to it here.

The image is borrowed from the More or Less programme page (click for link),
and I’m quite pleased that it’s not an aerial view:
An Afghan woman carries laundry in a refugee camp in Malakasa.
Credit: Milos Bicanski / Getty