I used to be an academic but I’ve almost recovered. Not completely, the ghosts of old employments linger, especially the conditioned reflex of enthusing about obscure knowledge. I hope that if I tell stories about such stuff well enough, people might be tempted to read the books I’d like to write.
One thing I want to do is re-evaluate working life. The literary response to work tends to be satirical or to describe how characters react against it. There are not many stories showing how relationships at work can have the same impact as romantic, personal or family interactions. I tried to write short fiction exploring such work relations. Most of it remains unpublished.
If fiction and working life do not mix, what about non-fiction? Documentaries set in workplaces used to be a staple infill around feature films in the cinema. They have been replaced by television programmes about work, ranging from medicine and the fight against crime to visits to factories churning out all manner of products. Most are about the nuts and bolts of work, not relationships. So perhaps describing practical life in the workplace could make good reading, especially if innovations that happen there lead to new ways of life.
I have put together two such stories, both set in the decades before and after the Second World War. In Household Names I wrote a combined memoir/history of Russell Hobbs and the innovation that made them household names, the kettle that never boiled over. That sounds trivial but uncontrolled kettles were dangerous and how they were brought under control is a microcosm of successful product innovation. That process needs innovators and appropriate economic and social conditions. There will always be people wanting to innovate but the external conditions for success have largely disappeared in the UK over the last half-century.
Lubetkin and Goldfinger explores the work of these two émigré architects in the design of council housing in the decade before the Second World War, when substantial public sector accommodation was planned, onto the decades afterwards when council house building accelerated. Like innovation-driven manufacturing, the supply of council housing in the UK was largely shut off nearly fifty years ago. The two phenomena are connected, the loss of well-paid industrial jobs created poverty and dysfunction, allowing crime and deprivation to spread across council estates. This turned them from sub-utopias into places where no one wanted to live.
I have a dream that the history of automatic kettles and council housing might eventually become required reading! I think they are good stories that deserve to be told. The old enthusing gene never goes away and I’d like to write a few more tales. So watch this space.
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Household Names is all about the iconic Russell Hobbs automatic kettles of the 1950s and 60s and the people who invented, designed and made them, set in the wider context of the British economy and culture in the second half of the twentieth century.
Russell Hobbs (founded 1952) was the brainchild of Bill Russell and Peter Hobbs. They’d started out at Morphy Richards before parting company and setting up on their own, with Bill on design and engineering and Russell on marketing and sales.
Demonstrating the significance of invention and design for successful manufacturing, often neglected by British firms, especially during the latter part of the 20th century, their stories provide object lessons in how successful product manufacturing might still be done. Russell Hobbs was independent for only a decade but in that short time established an international reputation for design quality.
Brexit and the Coronavirus will almost certainly force the British industry to pay more attention to local manufacturing again and this is a timely look at the origins of a household name by Nicholas Russell the son of Bill Russell.
Nicholas Russell has degrees in Botany and the History of Technology has published papers on the history of agriculture, technology and science. He has taught Applied Biology and History of Science and Technology for many years and has worked extensively as a freelance science and education journalist for the Independent, New Scientist, Times Educational Supplement, THES and History Today among others. Most recently he worked at Imperial College London, teaching postgraduate programmes. He remains Emeritus Reader in Science Communication and published a textbook, Science Communication, Professional, Popular, Literary (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Nicholas lives in Bath.
Berthold Lubetkin and Ernö Goldfinger were two leading architects who designed high-rise council housing after the Second World War; a type of building that now holds a poor reputation.
Lubetkin built one of the earliest post-war estates in London, Spa Green in Finsbury, while Goldfinger designed the last and most notorious council block in the city, Trellick Tower in North Kensington. Both architects were communist migrants from central Europe who shared much in common but were rivals who disliked each other. Their reputations suffered with the decline of their buildings and from their sometimes-unpleasant personalities.
But they were both idealists, dedicated to building the best possible homes for ordinary people. Lubetkin and Goldfinger aims to shine a light on the overlooked work of these two visionary architects and give them credit where duly deserved.
Nicholas Russell was a university reader in Science Communication and a college lecturer in Biology and History of Technology. Having had a lifelong interest in art and design, he now works as a heritage volunteer and spent several seasons as a National Trust guide at Erno Goldfinger’s house in Hampstead. His book on industrial invention and design through a history of the manufacturing firm Russell Hobbs, Household Names, was published in 2021. Nicholas lives in Bath.