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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

16 April 2013


Although I have now been travelling on London buses for more than fifty years, I still find that the upper deck of a London bus is one of the most entertaining and diverting places to be. Coming home on the bus this evening, the Strand was disrupted outside King's College by preparations for Lady Thatcher's funeral tomorrow. Seeing the notices for her funeral, I felt one phase of my life coming full circle. I was job hunting during the Winter of Discontent in 1979 and was appointed at the British Library just as Margaret Thatcher was coming to power, so the first period of my professional life coincided with her government. I remember an old-style civil servant at the British Library assuring me and others that governments come and go - some would privatise cleaning services, other would bring services back in-house, at the end of the day it wouldn't make much difference. I instinctively felt that such cosy bureaucratic complacency was misplaced, and I was right - Thatcher was very different to everything we had known before.

At that time, I was completing my doctoral thesis on the history of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, as I was at that time, and the early days of Thatcher government provided an instructive and appropriate backdrop. On 11 April 1381, I gave my first public talk on the revolt of 1981 at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I afterwards used my memories of the day to introduce an article on the 1381 revolt:

Returning to London by train, I was astonished to see, as we passed through Brixton, cars and shops in flames and mobs running through the streets. It seemed as if the ghosts of 1381 had come back to take their revenge on modern society. But it was not; it was a riot provoked by heavy-handed police behaviour following a stabbing outside a mini-cab office the previous night. This was the prelude to a summer of riots which affected inner city areas of London, Liverpool, Manchester and elsewhere, eventually leading to disturbances even in peaceful country towns like Cirencester and Knaresborough. These riots marked the nadir of the early days of the Thatcher government. 

Shortly afterwards, I saw a group of rioters throw a burning car into the air at Clapham Junction station, close to where I then lived. These events were instructive for a historian of rebellion: the way in which rumours of disturbances circulated beforehand, for example,  illustrated the power of rumour in such events. I also discovered how it was possible to be in a house close to very violent events and be completely unaware of what was going on. Later, the parallels with 1381 became even stronger when Thatcher's reintroduced a poll tax. The resulting riots were again instructive for a historian of 1381. In Hackney, for example, rioters were very selective in their attacks, destroying shops owned by international conglomerates or singling out unpopular local figures - strong parallels to what happened in 1381. A puzzle in 1381 is how manorial courts sat during the revolt while officials were being attacked and manorial records were being burnt. Yet in 1990 while Trafalgar Square saw the riots which eventually precipitated Thatcher's departure from office,  I sat contentedly in a pub half a mile away, with no knowledge of any disturbances.

Two memories of Margaret Thatcher on the eve of her funeral. I was on the top of a 170 bus, going through Parliament Square, on my way to research the 1381 revolt at the Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. A small car (was it a British Leyland car?) cut up the bus, causing it to swerve. Sitting at the front of the bus, I realised it was driven by Margaret Thatcher, then a new Leader of the Opposition. The coiffure and dress suit made the driver instantly recognisable. Her indomitable driving, heading for the gates of the Palace of Westminster without much regard for anything else on the road, seemed to summarise her character perfectly.

In 1991, I attended the opening of an exhibition of English Silver Treasures feom the Kremlin at Sotheby's in London. It was one of the earliest displays of art treasures from Russia following the events of 1989, and the Chairman of Sotheby's at that time was Lord Gowrie, a former minister in Thatcher's cabinet. Rumours began to circulate in the reception that she herself would attend. And indeed after a while, she appeared, to the ecstatic delight of the Russian representatives at the reception. Gowrie showed her round. What was truly astonishing was the way that she looked like a parody of herself: layered in thick make-up, she looked and moved like a Thatcher doll - the exaggerated movements in slow motion were particularly striking.

These are just two images that run through my mind on the eve of Lady Thatcher's funeral. I lived of course at that time in Battersea, and frequently walked past the tiny Thatcher home in Flood Street. I remember my surprise when, after she was elected Leader of the Opposition, a policeman stoof outside the house. I suddenly also remember working on my thesis when I heard a huge explosion the other side of the river - the siege of the Iranian Embassy had been raised. But what have these trivial memories to do with the main theme of this blog, the digital and the changes our new digital world are bringing?  Thatcher, although she was a scientist and despite the fact that her government saw the PC beginning to be introduced into offices, is somehow not in my mind associated with technology - the supremely technological British government of the twentieth century will always to me (rightly or wrongly) be Harold Wilson's 1964-70 government.

The digital transformation here is not Thatcher herself, but the fact that I am inclined to write down and share these memories. I'm not a natural diary writer (too much self-discipline required) and I woild never have bothered to use pen and ink on these memories. But somehow its more tempting and convenient to capture thse thoughts and memories on a London bus in blog form.  I'm sure there are others who have done the same, in different ways and in different forms, following the death of Margaret Thatcher. If we can somehow locate and analyse all these various recollections of Margaret Thatcher, we will be able to create a very different picture of the impact and characteristics of her premiership than would be possible for (say) Gladstone or Disraeli, where we are restricted to what as written, drawn and printed. 

Blogs, Twitter, Facebook enable us to share shards of memory and recollection which are otherwise too easily lost to the historical record.




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