Founded in October 2008 by a group of postgraduates determined to counter the isolation that seemed inevitably to come with postgraduate research, the idea was to gather together history postgraduates in a support network that prioritised tea, cake and pub. It has been continuously in existence since then and celebrates its 10th anniversary next year.
‘The Lost Ones: Malawians in Urban Zimbabwe’, the poster reads. A black and white photo appears on it, two black men in shorts and tshirts, looking to their right, out of the photograph, walking barefoot along a dirt track. It appears in multiple places: the library, the school office, the common room at the building that houses the Centre for Urban History and the Centre for English History. It appears on social media – the Facebook group, Twitter, where followers are urged to pack up their books early on a Friday afternoon, and seek out Tea, Cake, History and Pub. The refrain is repeated multiple times throughout a term: tea, cake, history, pub… tea cake history pub… teacakehistorypub. By the time of the last lab, this one, the end of term, we’re all tired, all eager for the Christmas break. The usual Friday afternoon tweet exhorting people to pack up their books and head over for … (you know) is happily received. Any excuse for tea (and this time, mulled wine too). We gather round the table, oohing over the home-made cakes, happily slurping tea and chatting. People chime out hellos and greet those they’ve come to know over the years. Christmas cards are exchanged. Those ‘Oh, did you hear from…’ moments. Half an hour of quick snatches of conversation, then an hour of history, presented by someone on something that’s often nothing to do with your topic. A chance to learn, to keep informed. It’s work, but not WORK, so you can enjoy it without feeling guilty, without feeling that ( … you should be writing … ). And by the time it’s over, it’s 6pm, and really, who works after 6pm on a Friday?
In this way, New History Lab has maintained itself. The history was almost an afterthought. Early titles included ‘Gold Dust Women’, ‘Night and Fog: Nazi Concentration Camps caught on Film’, and ‘The Trial of Richard III’ (held with the Richard III society in March 2012, five months before the University announced their intention to search for him in that now-famous Leicester car park). Celebrity guests have included Tristram Hunt, Jonathan Foyle, Julie Etchingham and Melvyn Bragg. The early committee appeared in the Independent, had mugs and elastic bands featuring their pink logo made. Many labs featured history, of course, but some did not: many featured career-oriented talks, like ‘Making an impact with books, blogs and vods’, ‘beyond the PhD’; ‘how I learned to stop worrying and got a job’, and more recently, ‘Creative Life Management and the Early Career Academic’. Richard III appeared twice more after his ‘Trial’. There have been off shoots – ‘peregrinations’; interviews; films; quizzes; write-off sessions. Some labs feature regularly: the first lab of the year, in the autumn hues of October, is held during Fresher’s week and is a welcome session; and the last, in the summer haze of July, is often a walking tour of the local history of Leicester by Colin Hyde from the East Midlands Oral History Archive at the University [and which always ends in a pub]. And between them we have the history. Medieval History. Colonial. Early Modern. Ancient. History of all kinds, all flavours. Deaf history, Doctor Who. Criminal corpses. Next semester we’re hosting talks by ECRs funded by the RHS – talks on Irish music and dance, animals as criminals, childbirth in eighteenth century England. We take all kinds, here.
But the history is not the point. The point is before and after: cakes and pints. The quiet support from those who are experiencing the same thing, and can offer constructive suggestions for dealing with problems without judging. For the committee, the Labs are an addition to an already heavy workload, but they continue to arrange labs. Like the committees before them, they believe in what the lab can offer. The lab is amorphous. The 2008 Lab is, judging by the blogs that were written at the time, completely different in style to that of the 2017 Lab. Which in fact is not a bad thing: this is the ultimate secret of its success. It is flexible, able to change to meet the needs and desires of the students who attend. Just core things remain throughout: the format; the posters (we are, perhaps understandably, very proud of our archive of posters stretching back across the ten years of existence).
This piece goes live around the same time as ‘The Lost Ones’ lab begins. The mulled wine will have been heating all day. The bakers will have been slaving away, making Christmas related goodies. The presenter will be putting the finishing touches to her talk. And at around 2pm the tweet will go out, calling the faithful. Tea, cake, history, pub. Tea, cake… history… pub.
New History Lab committee member. The lab can be found at the following links:
Image copyright New History Lab, 2017, used with permission