Q&A Chris Upton
History of Birmingham

518wF-iDh5L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_We are pleased to post this interview with Dr Chris Upton, Reader in Public History at Newman University, Birmingham. Dr Upton specialises in the history of the West Midlands region and has written a weekly history column for the Birmingham Post for the last twenty-four years. He previously taught at the universities of Aston and Birmingham and once worked in the Archives & Heritage section of Birmingham Central Library. He is the author of four books on West Midlands history, all published by Phillimore & Co.. His A History of Birmingham is a classic of its kind.

YouCaxton:
Birmingham is a city with a diverse population. Do you believe that a knowledge of its earlier, less-ethnically-diverse history is useful for drawing its various communities together?

Chris Upton:
Almost the opposite, in fact. Migration into Birmingham began as early as the Saxons and has never really stopped! One of the clues to Birmingham’s history is as an inclusive place, almost a town without boundaries. Even in the 19th Century, those people who had migrated for factory work from Shropshire or Herefordshire would, I imagine, have thought of themselves, and been seen, as just as much strangers as those who had arrived from Ireland and Italy and Eastern Europe.

Having said that, I do think that a sense of place, and a shared history, is key to uniting us, whatever our background.

YouCaxton:
Much of history is uncertain. When writing, how do you think it best to qualify any statements of uncertain fact? Do you have any rules for yourself as to when qualifying words such as ‘possibly’ or ‘perhaps’ should be brought into play? Is it ever justifiable for a writer to claim a level of certainty that is not entirely consistent with his or her research if that helps the narrative?

Chris Upton:
Probably not, though I fear we all do it from time to time. I do think it’s important for the historian to place the evidence and the possibilities in front of the reader. But if a reader is buying a book, then he or she is entitled to expect the author to go some way adjudicating. I’ve never been one for a postmodernist denial of truth.

It is true, though, that a strong narrative, whilst it might be engaging, does tend to cut corners when it comes to providing the evidence and the alternative explanations. Sometimes an inset section in a book, separate from the narrative, can allow the writer space to do this.

YouCaxton:
Has your time as an archivist lent any unique quality to your work as an historian?

Chris Upton:
Yes, I think it does, and it certainly affects the way I research. I’m always more excited by a new piece of primary evidence, dug out of the archives, than a new historical theory developed by a current historian. And it helps to provide an answer to that age-old historical question: ‘what was it like ?’

It also helps, I think, to place some historical nugget in a better context. Knowing why a record has been kept, what its limitations are, and the gaps which often surround it, helps my interpretation. I’m very aware of this in my recent research on workhouses and the Poor Law.

YouCaxton:
Do you have any useful tips on collating research notes prior to writing. Do you have any useful tips on how to write research notes?

Chris Upton:
I’ve always encouraged my students, especially when they’re writing their dissertations, to write as they research. It helps to counteract writer’s constipation and keeps open a two-way process between reading and writing.

I also try to get them to make an early decision about the chapters or sections of their work, and to think of those chapters as imaginary (or actual) box-files. Then they read specifically to place material into each box, rather than reading in a generalised and un-directed way.

YouCaxton:
In an ideal world, are there any practical changes that you would like to see in the organisation of Birmingham’s various archives so as to make them more useful to writers and researchers?

Chris Upton:
These are really tough days for the archives and library services across the country, with budgets being slashed everywhere. Just keeping them open feels like a herculean challenge at the moment!

I would like to see academic libraries and archives open up more generously to the general public, and I’d like to see historians willing to act as go-betweens. I used to run an extra-mural course in Birmingham – together with the city archivists – which was intended to de-mystify archives for new researchers. The catalogue search-room can be a bewildering place for the beginner, and every catalogue search-room is different.

On-line catalogues are obviously important and can sometimes be made more user-friendly, but I’ve never been one to want, or expect, everything to be there at the press of a button.

YouCaxton:
Do you think that Birmingham’s’ association with the Parliamentary cause during the Civil War continues to colour the city’s political outlook?

Chris Upton:
I now believe that this sense of non-conformity goes back much further than the Civil War, perhaps as far back as the Lollards in the 14th Century, and to the radical preachers at St Martin’s in Tudor times. It’s striking that no monarch ever visited Birmingham until Queen Victoria, and she only came twice !

That Puritan message – of economic freedom and individualism – certainly coloured the 19th Century and left Birmingham often indifferent to what the government of the day was saying. It’s far more difficult to maintain that stance in the centralised – and London-centric – Britain of the 21st Century. But Birmingham is still a city which feels that it should, or must, go it alone.

YouCaxton:
Do you have any particular ideas on how history should be taught in schools?

Chris Upton:
It’s been a long while since I did that! I would stress – as you’d expect – the importance of local history, and the local environment, in school history. I end up covering it with first year undergraduates instead, and I think it makes them better citizens, as well as better historians.

Personally, I was quite happy with the old National Curriculum. It was, as all curricula are, a compromise, but covered many of the most important areas. But I would certainly bring my history as near to the present as possible. I know some schools and teachers are nervous about this. At Newman University we go as far as the Iraq war and Afghanistan. Just because it’s in the news doesn’t stop it being history!

YouCaxton:
What new books are you planning or in the process of writing?

Chris Upton:
I’ve finished a book on Birmingham workhouse, that is, the old parish workhouse, which was replaced in the 1840s. Having done a book on back-to-back housing, I felt the need to take my history to the really poor, whose voices are not often heard.

However, along the way, I realised that the Poor Law was only part of the wider practice of law and order, and so I have written a second book on that. Fingers crossed I can get them both on the shelves next year.

And I’m still writing my weekly column on West Midlands history for the Birmingham Post, for those who really can’t wait for another book.