Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

3 posts from June 2011

28 June 2011

The clock's ticking

Simone Bacchini writes:

I was in Trafalgar Square last week, having left St. Martin in the Fields where I’d been attending a nice concert: Handel, Vivaldi, and Mozart were bound to put me in a good mood. The air was pleasantly fresh, only a few clouds in the sky and not too many people around. Perfect.

 As I stepped onto the area outside the National Gallery, now thankfully fully pedestrianised, I turned my head to take in the whole of the Square in all  its glory. And there I saw it, for the first time, standing by one of the two fountains and only a few yards from the famous Fourth Plinth, which now hosts an impressive ship in a glass bottle, by the Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE. It’s not just a ship by the way: it represents HMS Victory.

 Behind me, something else I hadn’t seen before. A large panel has been installed outside the Gallery and on it, hundreds of plants have been arranged to create a “living painting” which forms a detail of Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield, with Cypresses, painted in 1889. People seemed to love it, judging by the number of photos of it being taken. I must admit the effect was remarkable.

 But I’m digressing here; it’s the Olympic clock I wanted to talk about. With its zigzagged lines and awkward colour-scheme, I’m not sure it’s much competition for the surrounding architectural grandeur. But it’s certainly eye-catching and it attracted a good share of photographers too, myself included.

 It seems appropriate to have placed the clock where it stands. After all, Trafalgar Square is one the city’s - and even the nation’s - big stages. From political protests to mass jubilation, this vast area in the middle of our capital has hosted the hopes, the joys, the anger and the frustrations of generations of Londoners. So three cheers for the Olympic clock – technical glitches notwithstanding.

 And one last thought. The world-famous gallery a few yards away is host to many paintings which depict, among other things, ticking clocks or sand glasses to remind the viewer that life is fleeting and it must end, the memento mori being a common trope in Western art (one of my favourites being van Steenwick’s An Allegory of the Vanities of Human Life, painted around 1640). So, whatever you may think of the Olympic Circus coming to town, it’s certainly refreshing to have gigantic ticking clock to remind us there are things in life to look forward to, a memento vita. Whether the Olympics will count as one of those is down to individuals’ preferences.. To use the words of the Italian Romantic poet Alessandro Manzoni: Ai posteri l’ardua sentenza; “let posterity judge”.



Houseal, E.W.W.G. Poetical Pearls, Translated by E.W.W.G. Houseal.

London: printed for the author, 1849

London reference collections shelfmark: RB.23.b.6661.


Koozin, Kristine (1990). The Vanitas Still Lifes of Harmen Steenwyck: Metamorphic Realism.

Lewiston; Lampeter: Mellen, 1990.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.1990.b.7615

Lending collections shelfmark: 7356.866470 vol 1

10 June 2011


How many people does it take to market a website? At the moment, four of us are busy firing off e-leaflets to all our contacts (and many putative ones) with the aim of getting the Sport and Society website ‘out there’.

 This is the first marketing push we’ve made for the site, which had a soft launch last year and has since accumulated lots more content. We’ve also become more technically adept at editing and putting stuff online (helped by the BL’s patient and hardworking web management team) so it’s more than time to give the site the oxygen of publicity!

 Part of the process has entailed creating a leaflet which can be sent online, as well as distributed in print at events; in addition, we have a poster on the starting blocks, and this will eventually be sent to university sports departments to put on their notice boards for faculty and students to see.  

 It’s clear that lots of people are beavering away all over the UK (and elsewhere) creating what they hope will be a 2012 research legacy similar to our own. One of the most interesting of these is ‘The People’s Record’ which aims to “create a record of the impact of the Games on people across the nation”. As such, it will be the first coordinated record by a host nation of the public’s attitude to the Games, and it will encompass various projects right across the UK, all of which are dedicated to providing a platform for people’s reactions and experiences, and archiving these for the future. The result will be a range of research resources (some of which are already available online, including oral histories and photographs). The website is here:


The momentum for London 2012 is definitely building up in the DCMS sector, with cultural institutions looking to showcase national treasures for the expected influx of visitors. I’m particularly looking forward to the Shakespeare festival - in which the RSC and the British Museum will both play their part. And let’s hope that these aren’t just ephemeral events but that they leave their own legacy in the form of archived film and artefacts.

02 June 2011

Changing London

Simone Bacchini writes:

 This week, I attended an event at Foyles bookshop, on Charing Cross Road, in central London. It was a book presentation: Ian Sinclair’s latest work, “Ghost Milk”, to be published in July.

 Quite interestingly, the event was organised as a dialogue between Sinclair and the academic, writer, and broadcaster Patrick Wright who, like Sinclair, has written extensively on the changing faces of the Capital. The venue was packed: women, men, young and old.

 “Ghost Milk” is subtitled: “calling time on the Grand Project”, the “Grand Project” being none other than the Olympic building programme. Quite appropriately, for a discussion about a book, much of the event consisted of a challenge: a challenge to, among other things, language.

 I’m talking about the language that we’ve heard and read infinite times, since London’s candidacy to host the Games in 2012 was announced. It’s a language of agency: things get planned, organised, done, built, and opened. In this kind of discourse, dynamism is everywhere: it’s about the city moving forward; the future getting a little bit closer.

 It’s also the language of positivity, nicely packaged in enticing nouns and adjectives: “legacy” (who wouldn’t want one?) and “engagement”, “inspiration” and, obviously, “inspirational”; and of course “exciting” and, needless to say, “new”. At times, the discourse around “London 2012” (notice the familiar allure of the name: like any “Jonnie”, or “Katie”) takes on quasi-religious overtones: areas get “rescued”, communities become “engaged”; where once there were only rubble and misery now – in the future which, by the way, is here –order and prosperity are to be found. “The Games save”, could be the motto of the event.

 But are there other voices? Is there another language, another narrative that has not been properly heard? Well, yes, according to Ian Sinclair who, in his forthcoming volume, articulates a different vision: a much less optimistic one. There the Olympics are still spoken of in a language of “doing” but it’s a “doing to”, rather than a “doing for” or “doing with”. The outcomes, in this narrative are much less positive; the “legacy” much more sinister. In this view, the whole Olympic project becomes a metaphor for a kind of voracious model of development, which stops at nothing and destroys in its progression.

 After the event was over, I was not sure how much I agreed with Sinclair and Wright. Was their view of the pre-Olympic past a bit too rosy? Was their elegy of the run-down streets and estates of East London a romanticisation of dereliction, coupled with the reassuring familiarity of bygone eras? Perhaps, at least to some extent, but there is a space - a need, I would argue –for dissenting voices, for a different use of language, for alternative narratives. Those present at the event certainly seemed to agree.

 I’m looking forward to reading Sinclair’s book when it’s published, as well as exploring some of Wright’s writings on urban development.

Now I ask myself? Has the time come for our very own Sport and Society website to really join the debate?


Write, Patrick (2009). A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009

London reference collections shelfmark:  YK.1990.12465