In conversation with... Professor George McKay

Theme Leadership Fellow for Connected Communities, Professor George McKay explains why collaboration and dialogue are important for arts and humanities scholars - and how music has shaped his thinking.

I’m a Glaswegian, although we moved to England when I was a boy so I have this English accent. When punk rock came along in the Seventies, I was this slightly displaced teenager living in Norfolk. I had always been obsessed with music and loved seeing live bands, but there was a politics and attitude to punk that really spoke to me. I got involved in radical politics after that and have pretty much spent the rest of my life studying it. I think it was the bassist from Siouxsie and the Banshees that said the further away we get punk the more important it seems. It sounds a bit like nostalgia in later years, but I think there’s more than an element of truth in it.

I’ve only got a limited number of ideas and one of them was around culture and politics – I’ve just been mining it ever since! I wrote a paper on anarchism, culture and music in the 1980s for a conference in 1992. In the same week Norman Lamont was standing outside Westminster looking shifty because the economy was crumbling all around us – it was Black Wednesday. There was something in the air – slightly intangible, perhaps – around culture, politics, crisis and music as a form of critical attack. It got me going and I went on to write Senseless Acts of Beauty, which tied in techno and rave, and the anti-motorway protests of the Nineties to the counter cultures of the Sixties and Seventies, including punk.

Connected Communities is for scholars who want to engage with partners outside the university. That can be anything from cultural institutions, voluntary and third sector, to small and medium enterprises. It can range from the Royal Shakespeare Company across to a solo artist. In some disciplines, like sociology, collaborative work is standard, but for a lot of arts and humanities scholars it’s an unusual way of doing things. So our focus has been to get arts and humanities scholars interested in working with people outside universities, creating new forms of partnerships and using new methodologies. It’s important because collaborating outside the higher education environment changes the questions you ask and the work you do. It’s a way of making a contribution not just to your discipline but to a wider set of debates.

I wish I'd known...‘Make your topic both focussed and wide’

Have a sense of being able to cross fields with your topic. A very narrow topic might great for your doctoral study, but if the reason you’re doing a PhD is in the hope you’ll get an academic career at the end of it, then a narrow subject reduces your options. It happened by accident on my own PhD – the utopian and dystopian books I studied just happened to be by both British and American authors. This meant that four years later, when I went for jobs, I could apply for ones in English departments and in American Studies. Having width to your subject, even just a bit, allows capacity to move outside the narrow confines of the doctoral thesis. It’s a trick to be both focussed and wide, but it is possible.

I didn’t know it at the time, but when I was writing Senseless Acts of Beauty it was collaborative research. I interviewed people living on a protest camp against the A34 outside Newbury in Berkshire. They wanted to see what I’d written, so I faxed it to their ‘office’, a Portacabin in the woods, and they rang to say they would get back to me but were just in the middle of getting evicted. But they did get back to me and there were lots of scrawls over the paper – a great dialogue and collaboration. And it wasn’t just that I was trying to get things accurate, but also, in this process, becoming a different sort of researcher.

The idea for Mr Seel’s Garden project in Liverpool was sparked by somebody walking past a fascia in front of some building work. The information explained that a small walled garden, owned by a Mr Seel, used to be there in the 19th century. From that the project brought together academics from sociology, history, geography and digital humanities, with local groups, including beekeepers and community gardeners. Together, they spent a year working ideas through, and then produced this lovely map, which you can access online. It shows all the little spaces where horticulture happened in the city. City gardens and allotment sites are all mapped as they are now, but also 40 and 100 years ago, so you can see where things have changed, when there were dips and when there were peaks again. It was a great project because it combined lots of key Connected Communities ideas about collaboration, locale and local identity. At the end of the project, there was a day when beekeepers from different parts of the city brought jars of honey labelled with the postcodes of the city. I bought several jars and spent ages tasting the city. It struck me as a clever, different form of mapping, and a beautiful bit of research with ideas, provocations, and little things to spark your mind.

One of the ways Connected Communities has managed to create a community of like-minded scholars and partners is really very simple. Every summer we’ve held an annual gathering of people from the different Connected Communities projects. The one we held in Cardiff a few years ago was like a huge festival, with hundreds of scholars and partners taking over four or five key buildings. There’s a wonderful atmosphere at these events, where people get to know each other, develop connections, and create a sense of possibility and togetherness. We’ve found there are lots of people in local communities who want to work with universities, but just don’t know how to go about it. When you’re outside the university environment it can be difficult to know how to find the right person, or even map your way around all the acronyms. One of the great successes of Connected Communities is that we’ve built this constituency of community partners who understand all that; we’ve helped demystify and open the access to universities.

I’d like to see the mainstreaming of co-production or collaborative research within the arts and humanities funding landscape. The challenge is that in a year’s time the programme funding will end, so how do you maintain the momentum? My Connected Communities colleague, Professor Keri Facer, has produced a brilliant book about collaborative research and we’ve created a book series which I hope will act as a legacy to the project. But another way we’ve looked to the future is through targeting funding for our Early Career Researchers. As well as helping them – it’s difficult being an ECR at the moment when you don’t know if there’s a job at the end of it – there’s also a strategic element. If we fund them to do this sort of collaborative research now, then they’ll keep doing it in the future – we create a shift in the arts and humanities research landscape.

My Life in Three Objects

My double bass

My father was a jazz musician so jazz is in our family. He and my mum went to see the great John Coltrane play live in Glasgow. At the time my mother was pregnant with me, so I like to say I went to a Coltrane gig and some of those vibrations from Coltrane’s tenor saxophone went through my mum and reached me.

I started learning bass guitar when I was 14, and I bought my first double bass when I was 23. I tried to make it as a musician but in my mid-twenties I looked around and saw bassists who were better than me who still weren’t getting gigs. So I took the only thing I had – a first class English degree – and decided to go back to Glasgow to do my PhD. I thought that would be an easy life! It wasn’t quite the doddle of a job I thought, but I still play my music. I bought this, my second one, six years ago. It’s a nice mid-19th century double bass – probably German, but could be English. Even though I play in exactly the same way, it makes me sound better. It’s a beautiful, generous instrument that can do that.

A photo of a record cover by artist Gee Vaucher

Gee Vaucher was a member of the band Crass, the most important Anarcho-punk band of the 1980s. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Crass, so there’s a little bit of my study that’s got this anarchist thing going on – the naughty corner! Crass and Anarcho-punk still speak to me, and I think the reason I keep coming back to them is that a lot of my writing is about cultures of peace – anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-weaponry cultural expressions. A band like Crass have a compelling, even aggressive expression of pacifism. It’s a statement of political attitude which I haven’t quite grown out of.

An ‘alternative clock’

Every summer my wife and I would take our two girls on holiday to Southwold in Suffolk. One year there was a town competition to create an alternative clock and my daughter, who was about ten, really wanted to do it. She made a model with a hippy girl on it, a tepee, a little shoe-box lid that’s been covered in green grass-like felt, a camp bed and a big flag that says ‘Albion Fair’. The Albion Fairs were East Anglian counter-cultural festivals in the Seventies and Eighties. Behind the cut-out of the hippy girl with a pink dress, bandana and long hair made from yellow wool, there’s the alternative clock element of the model – instead going from one to 12, it goes from 1972 to 1985 because those were the years of the fairs.

I was writing a lot about the festivals at that time, and she used to look through the photos. I love it because, somehow, it had gone into her mind and stayed there as this ideal way of spending a summer. She didn’t win, but we had a lovely day. A few old people came up to her and said they’d been to the fairs. We could see them smiling down the street as they remembered those utopian days. 

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