22 September 2009

Claptrap 5: In the right places at the right times


This is the fifth in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap, which you can watch HERE.

Part 2: Eureka! is HERE
Part 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre is HERE
Part 4: How to get a book published is HERE


If a chance meeting on a Croatian beach had broken the deadlock of 22 rejections slips (Claptrap 4), another similar encounter resulted in Our Masters’ Voices being promoted to a much wider audience than expected.

How it happened and where it happened made it difficult not to believe that fate was working in mysterious ways – as it’s unlikely that any of it would ever have happened if I hadn’t been a research fellow at Essex University more than fifteen years earlier.

Another chance meeting

I mentioned in Claptrap 4 how easy it had been to get academic books published during the 1970s – so easy, in fact, that my PhD thesis had been published, more or less verbatim, by the Macmillan Press (Discovering Suicide, 1978).

Although I knew that sociology students, from ‘A’ level to universities, were all required to know about Emile Durkheim’s classic Le Suicide (1898), it hadn’t occurred to me there was therefore a market for secondary reading on the subject, especially if it was cheeky enough to question the methodology of such a famous founding father of the discipline.

One result of this was that some of my earliest publications had penetrated as far as the ‘A’ level syllabus. A spin-off from that was that I found myself being invited to speak at sixth form conferences, where bus-loads of reluctant school children were treated to the dubious pleasure of listening to some of the authors whose work they were supposed to know about.

At one such conference, I bumped into someone I’d known from when I was working at Essex University. By then, Ivor Crewe (left) had become a professor in the department of government, and his work on elections meant that he too was getting invited to speak at sixth form conferences.

When I told him about the clapping research, he became interested enough to ask me to send him some samples of what I’d written so far – which I did.

An invitation to meet the media
A few months later, he invited me to speak at one of the most fascinating conferences I’d ever been to. In those days, Ivor Crewe and Tony King used to organize a weekend at Essex University on ‘Political Communications’ during the most recent general election campaign.

They were planning the one on the 1983 election, which was scheduled for the early spring of 1984. A paper from me comparing the performances of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot during the campaign, they thought, might give a novel angle on their usual proceedings.

What made their conferences so different from all the other academic conferences I’d ever been to was that it wasn’t just attended by academics, but also attracted people from politics, the media, opinion polling, etc. So speakers at that first one I attended included Cecil Parkinson, fresh from presiding over Margaret Thatcher’s second election victory, Austin Mitchell, M.P., Robin Day and Peter Snow from the BBC, Gus Macdonald from Granada Television, Bob Worcester from MORI, representatives from the advertising agents used by the main political parties - as well as leading academics from politics and government departments around the country.

The mood of these conferences was best summed by the delegate who told me that what newcomers had to understand about them was that all the academics there wanted to be on the media and all the media people there really wanted to be academics.

'Opening Pandora’s box'
As no one there knew who I was, let alone anything about this still unpublished research into clapping, the comparison between Thatcher and Foot depended on my starting off with a selection of introductory video clips illustrating the main rhetorical devices that trigger applause in speeches.

Before the session was over, two notes had been passed up to me at the front. One was from someone asking for a copy of (the yet to be published) Our Masters’ Voices to review in his column in The Times. Another was from someone asking me to go on his TV show.

By the end of the weekend, people were saying that what I’d shown them had been like watching someone opening Pandora’s box, and I’d been approached by five different producers and/or presenters about my work being featured on five different television news and current affairs programmes.

It was as if the media interest in that first lecture I’d given a few years earlier (Claptrap 3) had suddenly started to explode. It also reminded me of the secret vow I’d made not to go on television again until I’d published a book on the subject.

A kindred spirit?




It wasn’t just his unusual background – a former ship builder from the Upper Clyde with little in the way of a formal education – but he was the only person there who’d spotted that there might be a connection between what I was doing and the work of one of my heroes, Erving Goffman. Gus, it turned out, was a Goffman fan too and one of our meal-time conversations must have made those nearby wonder what on earth we were talking about.

I was also intrigued by his parting words as we were all leaving. He shook me firmly by the and said “Don’t sign up with any of these other bastards until you’ve spoken to me.”

There’d been no promises and no hints about what he might have in mind. But he sounded so emphatic and decisive that I couldn’t get his words out of my mind when some of the ‘other bastards’ did start phoning a few days later (on which more in Claptrap 6).

Coincidental domestic footnote
The Essex post-election conferences eventually became part of the EPOP group of the Political Studies Association. One of the co-organisers of the last one I went to was my son, Simon Atkinson, who has worked for MORI (now IPSOS-MORI) for nearly twenty years.

Bob Worcester, the founder of MORI, assures me that no nepotism was involved in his appointment. Sociologists who know of my early diatribes against survey research and quantitative methodology will find this very easy to believe - and will no doubt appreciate the irony of my having a son who was to became a senior manager of the UK's leading polling company.



No comments: