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  • Feature:Remembering Alun Howkins, 1947–2018
  • Nicola Verdon (bio)

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Alun Howkins performing at the Mary's Arts Centre, Gateshead, 2011. Photo and permission Derek Schofield.

The death of Alun Howkins in July 2018 has deprived modern British history of one of its most influential and charismatic academics and History Workshop Journal of one of its original, long-serving collective members. Whilst Alun's interests and publications were broad, cutting across disciplinary boundaries and historical approaches, his central commitment was always to the history of the modern British countryside and the men and women who lived and worked there. This was partly a reflection of his own background and also of the training he had received at Ruskin College in the late 1960s with Raphael Samuel.

Alun was born in 1947 in Bicester, Oxfordshire, the older of two children. His father Harold had served a seven-year apprenticeship as a motor mechanic in the 1920s, but after being badly injured in the Middle East during the Second World War he found work only intermittently in that trade and was [End Page 299] forced to move to a series of semi and unskilled jobs. As his father's income fell in the mid 1950s, his mother Lillian went out to work, as an orderly and then cook in the local hospital before moving to the Ministry of Defence Central Ordnance Depot in Bicester, a large local employer. The Howkins family lived in a rented terrace house on the edge of Bicester, which like many small rural market towns was undergoing postwar transformation. Alun's recollections of the place were ambivalent. He remembered 'horses in the fields … when cows weren't all black and white and when corn fields were full of poppies'. But he also recalled 'low wages and houses without toilets or tap water' and standing with a union banner 'while a family was turned out of a cottage, which had been their home for the best part of 20 years'.1 Growing up there didn't produce any great attachment; for the teenage Alun it was a trap, somewhere to escape.

Nor did the education system cultivate any early academic ambitions. Alun failed the eleven-plus selective exam and then attended Highfield Secondary Modern School in Bicester. He left with the County Leaving Certificate at fifteen, aware that like many other working-class children he had been discarded at the bottom of the postwar tripartite education system. He then moved to Banbury Tech to begin an 'O' Level course but was thrown out after nine fairly undistinguished months. Over the next couple of years he worked locally in and around Bicester and Oxford in a variety of jobs. The first was as an agricultural apprentice on two local farms. He was meant to attend college one day a week but found himself mostly working as a general labourer and all-round dogsbody. There was no romance attached to this farm work; it was exploitative, isolated, and mechanized. He then went to work for the Central Ordnance Depot in Bicester, before moving to the Pergamon Press in Oxford as a copyeditor for nine months in 1965–6, and on being sacked from that, as a bookseller at Blackwell's until the autumn of 1967. After this he moved to Longman's in Harlow as an education copywriter, preparing jacket copy and press advertising. A career in publishing beckoned.

These early working years were formative in many respects. They widened the circles in which he moved and began to shape his understanding of the world he was from. As a teenager he was involved in youth theatre, and became increasingly interested in jazz and folk music. The latter became especially important, and from the early 1960s he began to spend evenings and weekends in Oxford, frequenting the Oxford University folk club, Heritage, amongst others. Mistrustful of pop music (it was a bourgeois conspiracy) and unsure of American folk, it was traditional English and Irish songs that really captivated him. He began to learn songs by sound (he didn't play an instrument at this stage) and to perform. His lifelong commitment to the English folk...


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pp. 299-313
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