Formations Of Self And Society 1943-73: A Conversation With Cynthia Cockburn

2008  was forty years after  the student uprisings which  caused a storm in the teacups of the political establishment across the world. The anniversary was an occasion for  that generation, my generation, to take stock, to look back at the conjuncture  and consider how it had shaped  our politics  and subsequent lives.  As someone who  had been a student in the early sixties but had dropped out and become part of what became known as the ‘underground’ counter culture in London, I felt somewhat ambivalent about this spate of ‘memory work’,  most of it produced by ex student activists who had gone on to become established academics. Perhaps understandably their accounts  ignored anything that was not happening in  the universities. One of the motivations in writing my memoir, Reading Room Only   was to  correct this bias, and insist that there was other stuff going on, including the squatting movement in which I was involved, that should be included in the public record.   [Read more…]

Autographologies: Reflections On Writing A Memoir

Autographologies (text)

This essay draws on the experience of writing  a memoir- ‘Reading Room Only’- to reflect on current trends, models and motivations within the genre. Philippe Lejeune’s notion of the ‘autobiographical pact’ is used to look at how different approaches to memoir-writing stake their claims to be an ‘authentic’ discourse of the self. In addition it is argued that life-story scripts, conveyed primarily through family and schooling, play an important role in the process of authentification, albeit one that is shifting as a result of changes in the culture, economy and society. The discourse of aspirationalism with its meritocratic insistence that everyone is an author of their own life is seen as symptomatic of this shift, as evidenced by the current popularity of the ‘triumph over adversity’ life story. The essay then turns to look at the influence of identity politics and the growth of the ‘victimology’ narrative; this is followed by a discussion of life stories that focus on the ‘dislocated subject’ and the various uses of the memoir to settle accounts with past and present. The essay concludes by considering the ‘anxiety of influence’ in contemporary memoir-writing and just how unsettling and revisionary the whole project can turn out to be.

A version of this article appears in History Workshop Journal 74 : The original version of the memoir can be accessed at

Living in Time


I first met Phyllida Salmon when she was a colleague of mine at the London Institute of Education in the 1980’s. I was immediately struck by the precise and considered way she talked, as if she had given the matter a lot of thought and honed her perceptions accordingly. There was nothing pedantic about her approach – she just cut to the essentials of an argument, and expressed her ideas with the greatest clarity. She wrote in the same way , with a minimum of jargon and a total absence of academic pretentiousness .

She had studied English at Cambridge and it showed in her prose style. She then trained as an educational psychologist, coming under the influence of Don Bannister and personal construct theory. Her research concentrated on the informal processes through which teachers and students made sense of the experience of education, and in particular how this was influenced by gender. Her educational books were addressed to parents and teachers, as much as academics and educational policy makers. Psychology in the Classroom appeared in 1995 and Life at School in 1998. In these books she challenged the then dominant models of curriculum learning as a one way transmission of knowledge from teacher to student, and show how young people actively participated in the educational process.

She was one of the great supervisors, with a large and devoted network of students and ex-students and her book drawing on this experience Achieving a PhD (1982) has become a classic, influencing generations of post graduates and their supervisors.

She had a life long interest in the relationships between memory, narrative and social identity, which she explored in her book Living in Time (1985).

In 2003 she suffered an attack of cerebral palsy from which she partially recovered, only to then be diagnosed with a brain tumour. She continued working and writing almost to the end, running a course on Life History at Birkbeck and giving a paper to a festschrift organised in her honour by her colleagues in the British Psychological Society.

I read this poem at her funeral service, and it was subsequently read at a special memorial event at the Institute. In it I try to capture some of personal qualities that made her such an inspiring teacher, colleague and friend.

This poem is also available for viewing here:  living in time