In my last article I made the argument for ‘invisible history’; a history of events that did not happen. In my case, the cancelled South African cricket tour of England of 1970. Here I want to do the opposite, and describe something that did happen; a recent afternoon when I ‘did’ history; that is, as an amateur historian put in some hours of research. It began at 2.41pm. That was the time on my ‘phone when I finished my second and final job of the day. It was an interview in the café of Methodist Central Hall in London. As Dr Alison Wakefield was leaving, I told her I would go to the British Library before my off-peak train. I had five hours less one minute. I felt the sudden slump after a satisfyingly busy day’s work and more coffee than is good for me (these days: any). So I sat, checked my work email, and thought for a while what to do next.

The City of Westminster Archives came to mind. Only a few streets away, and the few times I have been, for whatever reason, I have found things. In no time the throngs of tourists were behind me and I was in the calm of the fifth-floor archive. I asked the man at the desk if the place had anything on anti-apartheid. He gave a straight no. That left the newspapers. Westminster was promising because Lord’s is in its district. As an aside, I see from the council’s website that Lord’s is in Abbey Ward. The Abbey Road studios of Beatles fame gets a mention, not the cricket ground; an interesting contrast in their relative interest to tourists, a point I made in my history of English cricket, The Summer Field. I digress.

With the Westminster and Pimlico News, I drew a blank, though it was a pleasure to read it for 1970, to steep myself in the year; and using the now old-fashioned reader that you have to wind, instead of the new ones at the British Library for example that you work with a computer mouse. I had more success, though no ‘bingo’ moment of a telling piece of evidence, with the Marylebone Mercury. Marylebone’s constituency MP then was Quintin Hogg. The newspaper in the weeks before the cancellation of the tour, and the general election of June 1970, regularly featured right- and left-wingers and clergy, and reader letters. What one thing stood out (without cheating, by looking in my notebook!)? A Young Conservative, who seconded Hogg as Tory candidate, described the anti-tour demonstrators as – among other things – ‘anti-national’, a phrase new to me. It spoke of a strident, if rather incoherent, nationalism. As someone in that ‘paper said, something about the issue made people divide. It pointed to a more general, and profound division in Britain, that we can still see; and showed the sheer bad-temperedness (if that is a word) of the country in 1970.

I had wondered whether to pop to the Oxfam second-hand bookshop nearby, before the archive. I told myself time in archives was more precious, and I was right; in no time it was 6pm and time to head for my train. What had I achieved? I had a few pages of notes. A couple of things might find their way into the finished work; or none. I had been an historian, for three hours, like a desert traveller at an oasis. I had filled out my knowledge slightly. Quintin Hogg I knew had been vocally for the tour, as part of a more general Tory campaign for ‘law and order’. In his local newspaper I saw he made that case in the election campaign; yet he was the exception to the rule. Nationally, the cancelled tour was not an election issue; once cancelled, people, and the media, forgot it; moved on.

Until 2.41pm that day, I had no thought of trying the Westminster archive. It reminded me of a further lead, and gave me another. Was it worthwhile? Totally. Would I, were I a full-time, professional historian, have included it in an itinerary? Probably not. Here I point to a difference between the amateur (doing something for the love of it, more or less unpaid) and the professional (paid; working according to training, agreed standards, a career ladder and so on, as set out for example by the social historian Harold Perkin). In my paid job, I do work like a professional; I use time as rationally as I can – which is only sensible; I must meet core tasks, else I risk being out of a job. I believe it is healthy to do both in a life; to not be a professional all the time. Westminster could have drawn a complete blank; or an exciting ‘bingo’ moment. How could I know until I tried? This article began, frankly (I tell you now), as a ramble. I now see I have been making an argument; for the amateur historian.

Article © Mark Rowe


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