During my time at the John Rylands Research Institute & Library, I have been box listing the Norman Shrapnel Collection. Norman Shrapnel (1912-2004) was a political and cultural journalist, author, and nature-lover. He worked and reported for The Manchester Guardian (and later The Guardian), the BBC and various other magazines, journals, and newspapers in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Shrapnel kept diaries, meticulously sorted into dates and subjects from 1949-1974. These diaries feature his reflections and observations on political matters such as sitting in the House of Commons Press Gallery, but also include drawings of hiking routes and poetic descriptions of nature. Noteworthy elements of the collection include: a sketch from Parliament featuring Shrapnel in the Press Gallery in the 1980s, radio transcripts, book reviews, short stories, unpublished novels, a range of correspondence from friends to editors and producers, and an invitation, menu, and seating plan for a luncheon at Buckingham Palace from 1972.
A particular genre of document I have found very exciting in the collection is his ‘London Letter’/ ‘Letter from London’ transcripts. Shrapnel kept many, if not all, of the transcripts for a radio broadcast that seems to have been aired weekly for the BBC Overseas Service (which became the World Service) where he discusses everything from political observations in Parliament to international tragedies like the assassination of J.F.K. Other cultural happenings, like the fight for equal pay, racism, and the youth culture of the ’60s and ’70s, are also frequent talking points. Furthermore, quite niche and entertaining subjects like how the British love cats and dogs, the price of beer going up, and the marvels of the London Underground, also make an appearance.
These ‘London Letters’ give an extraordinary insight into the everyday lives of the British public mid-century, because they reflect ordinary life, and they represent what was deemed important for overseas countries to know about London/Britain. This angle is, of course, very capital-centric, but Shrapnel does touch on other subjects, like life outside London, the Irish Troubles, and the North v. South Divide. His background in political journalism is noticeable in many of the topics, as various politicians, bills, and policies are often mentioned in relation to the subjects at hand.
Going through the many ‘London Letters’ in the collection, I could not help but be reminded of the podcast medium. With the risk of sounding somewhat anachronistic, Shrapnel uses his voice to talk about anything that is of interest, and what is happening in society and culture, much like a podcast would nowadays. The listeners tuned in to hear him specifically talk about these things, like you would do your favourite podcast. You would not listen to just anyone talk about how cats have infiltrated modern society on the radio: similarly, people listened because it was Shrapnel.
The ‘London Letters’ were never only about one thing, they were always part of a bigger discussion, like how the British view themselves and how others view them. The subjects may feel a bit silly at first glance, but they always get pulled up to another level (on the subject on dogs, for instance, Shrapnel asks if the popularity of the pet is based on monetary value or love – the conclusion is: both).
If there is one subject from his Letters that is increasingly relevant and close to home nowadays, it is nostalgia. In 1970s Britain, nostalgia was as prevalent in society as – one could argue – it is in the present. Shrapnel dedicates a 1972 ‘London Letter’ to nostalgia, and the way it is described could be taken from 2022, if you only changed the dates:
‘And there’s all that Victoriana we’ve got so crazy about (…) People are now paying real money for the sort of things their parents paid the dustman to take away (…)’ (‘Letter from London’, 14/12/1972, Box 3)
1970s Britain was nostalgic for the ’40s and ’50s and even the Edwardian and Victorian eras. In 2022, there is a huge resurgence of ’60s and ’70s aesthetic in clothing, music, and interior design. The mid-century period is a time of fascination, as so many cultural happenings, well, happened. Nostalgia as a term has its origins in the 1700s, used to describe the feelings of yearning for home, experienced by young French mercenary soldiers during wartime. Throughout time, nostalgia has come to mean much more than homesickness. A longing for a different time in one’s life, or even a time before you were born! Nostalgia is perhaps the most melancholy of emotions, because of the impossible nature of curing it. A form of rebellion against the ever-moving nature of time, it is no coincidence that Shrapnel’s reports on nostalgia in the ’70s seem ever so relatable. Then and now are times of extreme uncertainty, with the ’60s and ’70s turning the entire (western) cultural and political landscape on its head, and the late 2010s and early 2020s facing almost every global catastrophe known to man. Due to the uncertainty of the state of the world, nostalgia provides a sense of comfort, which Shrapnel also touches upon in his ‘London Letter’:
‘Is it cowardice? I’m not so sure about that. Maybe we just want a rest. We’re a bit tired of the global village, being instantly involved with the events of the world, most of them bad. We hanker for happy endings, and if the news services can’t provide them we look to … well, “Random Harvest” [the 1942 romantic film].’ (Letter from London, 14/12/1972, Box 3)
In a separate 1966 ‘London Letter’, Shrapnel addresses the emergence of a new ‘pop culture’, by highlighting aspects of the emerging youth culture: ‘By now we’re landed with a whole pop culture – not only music, but art and design and language and clothes.’ (‘London Letter’, 04/01/1966, Box 3). These are the pop cultural elements that go on to influence generations to come. Journalist Simon Reynolds writes in his 2011 book Retromania: Pop culture’s addiction to its own past that:
‘Where pop nostalgia gets interesting is in that peculiar nostalgia you can feel for the glory days of “living in the now” that you didn’t … actually … live through (…) the Swinging Sixties beats all comers when it comes to triggering vicarious nostalgia.’ (Reynolds, 2011: xxviii).
This theme of nostalgia really shows how modern (western) civilisation reflects on its own past, with a coping mechanism that just repeats itself. Shrapnel brings these observations to a head, at the end of the transcript, by musing over the reasons for this nostalgia trip. Here, he mentions the prospect of joining the European Economic Community. Apparently, joining the EEC gave rise to the belief that Britons would lose their affiliation to their own country, and that is one of the reasons why the film adaptation of The Railway Children was so immensely popular. As Shrapnel writes: ‘(…) they all seemed to make the same significant remark: “It’s the innocence of it, that’s what’s so appealing.”’ (‘Letter from London’, 14/12/1972, Box 3). Nothing says Britain like Edwardian children waving red petticoats at locomotives and saving the day.
Using the collection
Going through first-hand accounts and reading historical documents is a privilege for which I am very grateful. Being told that the past is not as different from the present as we would think is one thing, but experiencing it by reading actual thoughts and ideas from a certain time, gives it a whole new perspective. Shrapnel acutely strikes the nail on the head on the topic of nostalgia. The subject matter is just as relevant now as it was 50 years ago, and that is exactly what a collection like this can teach us. Going through the Shrapnel collection scratched my nostalgic itch a few of times, and I feel very lucky that I have been able to access the archive, to learn more about Shrapnel himself, and the time he lived and reported in.
- Reynolds, Simon (2011): Retromania: Pop Culture’s addiction to its own past, London: Faber and Faber Ltd
- Shrapnel, Norman (14/12/1972): ‘Letter from London’ from The Norman Shrapnel Collection, Box 3