Annie Skinner, The Cowley Road: A History

David Renton



More than any other British town of its size, Oxford has been home to campaigns and social movements. When 150 years ago Newman's high church followers felt unease with Anglicanism, they took the name the Oxford Movement. Among Newman's descendants there were a number of Christian Socialists, including the red Vicar Conrad Noel, and the future Trotskyist Reg Groves. To this day, Oxford provides bases for the Green Party and the Independent Working Class Alliance.


When modern movements have begun, in Oxford, it has almost always been along Cowley Road. At the west end, the road holds private schools, Magdalen and St. Hilda's Colleges. At its east, the road leads directly to the estate of Blackbird Leys. It gives a home to the people who have worked at the Cowley car plant, or more recently the post-workers who have led several national disputes.

 

For any activist who has lived in Oxford, Annie Skinner's book should bring back memories: of strikes at the car plants in the 1970s, and the 'Cowley wives' who opposed the strikers, supported by the national press, Close Down Campsfield, long meetings at the East Oxford Community Centre, the Oxford Committee for Racial Integration, Uhuru, the poll tax campaigns, the Campaign Against the Criminal Justice Bill, the battle to save the Ultimate Picture Palace (when the police fought
back anarchists, armed, they claimed, with didgeridoos), council strikes, women's liberation, the Campaign for Homosexual Equality. All are recorded here, with the proper historian's attitudes of sympathy and respect.

 

For years, academic historians have been turning their back on the study of grand political processes, to concentrate on the micro-history of local lives. They are not creating fashion, but chasing it: a deeper movement exists taking in local and family history, heritage and other grassroots movements so that people can take a pride in their region, their place. The left contributes, of course, as the list above shows. But we never seem to acknowledge what we're doing. Instead, our campaigns takes on restless names: if a hypothetical socialist party had branches in Oxford, what would they be called? 'Oxford East' and 'West' (bureaucratic)? Or 'Cowley Road' (resonant with people's own sense of place)? I'd recommend Annie Skinner's book: people should read it; but most important all of us should build the movements on which such local histories are based.