Thursday, July 4th, 2013

Stephen Brooke on Observing the 1980s

by Jessica Scantlebury

Stephen Brooke (York University) has sent us this response to the Observing the 1980s project:

The wonderful achievement that is Observing the 80s opens up many possibilities in writing, teaching and thinking about everyday life in one of the most tumultuous decades of the twentieth century. The site has a truly impressive depth and breadth of coverage as well as innovative ways of framing the material on offer, such as the Infographics, the Youtube playlist and the Facebook timeline. Observing the 80s affords valuable access to a broad range of Mass-Observation Directives that looked for reactions to contemporary developments across a wide register of life, including major political and social developments such the Falklands War, the formation of the Liberal-SDP Alliance, the AIDS crisis and the miners’ strike. But Observing the 80s also brings to light other patterns in the shifting fabric of everyday life in the 1980s, such the appearance of the new £1 and 20p coins, changes in banking, drug use and the problem of pocket money for children. This produces a striking juxtaposition of the ordinary and the extraordinary in our historical understanding of the 1980s. This is something that I have found incredibly useful in doing my own research on politics and society in the eighties.

A great value of the site, in terms of both research and teaching, is the combination of disparate kinds of historical documents – the Mass-Observation Directives, the oral testimonies contained in the British Library Oral History Collections and the ephemera from the University of Sussex Library. Particularly in terms of teaching British history or contemporary history, the availability of different kinds of historical material is a crucial aspect of the resource, as it engages students in challenging ways, not least in encouraging them to learn how to use different kinds of historical and cultural media.

Finally, as all good historical resources should be, Observing the 80s is home to many moving and compelling personal stories that engage with some of the most important historical events of the late twentieth-century, such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Miners’ Strike, the Falklands War, the women’s movement, changes in technology and the experience of crises such as that of unemployment and AIDS. I am hoping to make Observing the 1980s a central component in teaching twentieth-century British history to undergraduates in North America and it will certainly be an important touchstone in my own research on the politics and culture of the late twentieth century, but, perhaps most importantly, it has also become a regular place for me simply to visit, to hear and read those stories.

Stephen give the plenary lecture at the New Times Revisited? conference at the University of Birmingham last weekend. The conference also featured talks by Jill Kirby and Lucy Robinson from the Observing 80s team. Take a look at the programme for more details.

  1. […] of their coursework for History 3490: 20th Century Britain in Film and Culture.  Professor Brooke has written for us before and has integrated our resources into this year’s course’  focus on the 1980s – the […]