Snapshot: Andrew Flinn
Interview by Sasha Nyary
Andrew Flinn is the inaugural Allen Smith Visiting Scholar this semester, funded by a bequest from the estate of the late beloved professor. Flinn is a senior lecturer in archives and records management at University College London and director of its archives and records management program. He’s teaching Oral History (LIS 433) and helping with the Cultural Heritage interns in LIS 531V. His Ph.D. is in history with a focus on pre-World War II British political activism. His expertise includes community archives, memory studies, oral history, and archival issues around truth and reconciliation commissions, political identity, and cultural property.
Q: What is your background?
I grew up in Coventry, but I think of myself as from Manchester. I did history at university at Manchester. I became an archivist at the People’s History Museum at Manchester and worked there for 10 years. I looked after the papers of the Labor Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain. While I was there I earned my Ph.D., again at Manchester University. I didn’t expect to end up teaching archives in London.
What is oral history?
It is a relatively structured process in which one person will interview and record other people’s description of their experiences. That might either be experiences about something in particular — an event, a place, an interest — or it can be what’s called “life history: recording an account of that person’s life from start to finish.” Usually, if we’re thinking about what oral history is, it can be placed in an archive or library so that others can use it. It becomes a historical record. The idea is it puts people and people’s experiences into history. Traditional archive-based history might be dry and factual and not so much on what people might have felt, and oral history is a way of getting at those stories.
What’s the focus of your current research?
I’m focused on independent community archives, the wider field of archives, and history initiatives that are generally nonprofessional. They exist in different ways outside the professional mainstream archives, libraries, and museums, and they are established with some sort of understanding that those histories aren’t being told properly — or at all — in those institutions. That might be because of the locality; it’s a long way from the museum, say. Or it might be some ethnic or political group, or a women’s group, or having to do with sexuality — people who feel their story is not being told.
“Oral history puts people and people's experiences into history.”
How does London compare to Manchester?
Manchester is a big industrial city, a center of the Industrial Revolution. It was a big cotton town and had lots of engineering as well. It could have declined and closed down, but it reinvented itself quite well as a center for arts and culture and service industries. The university is a major center there. Music and football are a big part of the city. All those things made quite an impact on Manchester as a young person’s city, a vibrant city.
London is 250 miles away, like Boston to New York, but seems a different world in some ways. London is . . . London. It’s huge. It’s never quiet. There are traffic jams in the middle of the night. There’s lots and lots going on. It’s incredibly rich in terms of culture and history and it’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural.
Manchester is as well, but not to the same extent as London. My wife got a job in London so we moved there. We went as a young family, so it was a bit daunting. My boys were three and one at the time.
What is it like to be away from home for the semester?
I was expecting it to be quite traumatic. My sons are twelve and nine now, and they were all right with it. We Skype a lot. It’s amazing to be able to speak and see them through Skype. I can’t imagine what it would have been like even five years ago. The experience of being abroad now, away from your country, when
you have access to the Internet, is different from what it would have been even two or three years ago. Now, constant broadband is available everywhere. Online I have access to U.K. newspapers all the time, and I can listen to U.K.
radio if I want. I’m often working quite late, so I go to sleep listening to U.K. World Service Radio, their morning news, on NPR. It’s a little bit disorienting. In a way it’s slightly not so good, I think. It allows you to cocoon yourself in where you were, rather than thinking about and engaging fully with where you are now.
Have you noticed a difference in the political atmosphere here, compared to the U.K.?
I suppose I haven’t noticed it as much as I suspected I would. I don’t know if it’s being in Boston, a university town. The apartment I’m staying in doesn't
have a television, so I’ve been listening to public radio. I do see definite differences, but I haven’t been exposed to a popular right-wing culture, so I haven’t noticed the difference as much as I thought I would. A lot of discussions about funding and the role of the state are not too dissimilar. There are similar arguments going on in the U.K. at the moment.
What food do you miss?
I don’t feel as if I’m missing anything at the moment. I love spicy food, so I’m normally eating lots of Indian spicy food. I had a curry the other day, and I also like to eat Mexican-inspired food. I’m not sure how truly Mexican it is. And I visit the Whole Foods store that’s around the corner, where I spend far too much of my money. I don’t feel deprived of anything.
What does your wife do?
She works for the International Transport Workers Federation. ITF. That’s part of why my being here has been a little bit easier, really. Her job is very international so she’s traveled a lot. But never for these extended periods. It’s the sustained part that is so different. She went away for a week or two at the most. She’s the education officer, so she runs education programs. Her big focus is on transport and climate change.
Have you been able to attend many cultural events yet?
Not as much as I had hoped to do and I will do. There was quite a lot of settling in, and all the snow. I’ve been to the Museum of Fine Arts a few times. The snow has put me off a little bit. I like to go to the theater, and haven’t done that but I will do. I’ve been out of Boston already, had an invitation to go to UCLA, which was nice. I’ll be going to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, which I expect will be prairie-like. I’m going to New York, and hoping to see the surroundings of Boston and New England.
How do the students here differ from those in London and Manchester?
I think they’re very nice. I did expect them to be different in some way I suppose, but they aren’t. They seem very bright, very engaged. I hope they’re enjoying the class. I’m very pleased.
How about faculty meetings?
I went to my first faculty meeting last week. It’s always interesting to see how things are done differently, as much as from one institution to another, as well as country to country.
So, here are the Vanity Fair questions. Favorite color?
Noisy, political music. Basically an old punk rocker, really. I like things that are strange and odd, discordant generally.
I love all movies. One of the things I’m most keen on doing while I’m here is watching films, as I don’t do much of that at home, because of the kids. My favorite film has been Raging Bull, but I saw Mike Leigh’s Another Year two nights ago and it was very good.
Curry. Indian food generally.
Brand of tea?
P.G. Tips, but I’m a coffee drinker.
Country to visit?
My wife is South African, and it's a fascinating country to visit. Beautiful and difficult at the same time, but always fascinating. Amazing place. We’ve only been to South Africa and Namibia as a family, and we’d like to travel more in Africa.
Are you going to see your family soon?
They’re coming for holiday in April for two weeks. It’s going to be great!