Megan Gates reviews RSVP, a 'thoroughly entertaining piece of student theatre'Written by Megan Gates on 18th January 2019
A History of Your Student Voice
Celebrating the publication of our 1500th print edition, read the story of how Redbrick amplified the student voice of the University of Birmingham
For 82 years, Redbrick has been the student voice of the University of Birmingham.
Although we have changed our look over the years, most significantly changing from Guild News to our current title in the 1960s, and now share our readership with several other fantastic media groups at the University of Birmingham, as a publication we are as strong as ever.
Since we were established on February 5th 1936, Redbrick has won countless awards, covered greatly significant national and international events, and even been embroiled in scandals that the editorial teams of the time would rather forget. To summarise this rich history in only two pages has been a challenge, but we hope that this feature piece offers just a hint at the huge volume of content that we have produced over the years.
Today we operate out of the media centre in the Guild, producing a 40-page newspaper every fortnight during term time and maintaining an award-winning website 24/7. Staffed entirely by volunteers, this is far from a simple operation. In fact, we currently have over 300 members writing, proofreading, editing, formatting and uploading entirely original content. It is a simple fact that without our members we wouldn’t exist.
It is also a fact that Redbrick, like other student publications across the country, has had its fair share of struggles over the years. We pride ourselves on our editorial independence and the ability to reflect the student voice regardless of pressures from above, but these are values that successive generations of members have had to fight for.
In an era in which ‘fake news’ is far too readily available on our devices and low-quality, sensationalist journalism is gaining popularity, there has arguably been no better time to advocate for the survival of student media.
This year we are celebrating 1,500 issues of Redbrick. When that reaches 2,000, the publication may well look very different. However, at its heart, Redbrick will always be written by, and for, the student voice.
Redbrick’s first incarnation, Guild News, came about as a reaction to a series of controversies surrounding what was at the time the University’s only real student publication, The Mermaid, which had become embroiled in controversy with the Guild of Students. Our paper’s progenitor and first Editor-in-Chief, J.M. Pike, was however quick to stress in his editorial that Guild News had arisen due to Mermaid's failure to reflect Birmingham’s student voice - ‘The Mermaid has no fixed policy, and as far as can be seen, has no intentions of forming one.’
The policy of Guild News, then, was clear from the outset: it would endeavour to ‘reflect in its outlook the spirit of the time and of the University.’ Its first attempts to do this resulted in some entertaining, if menial, reports of such breaking stories as a student tobogganing session (which was strangely linked to the ‘sudden death of His Majesty King George V’ a few days later); and a cocoa shortage in the University women’s accommodation, a crisis so serious that, according to Guild News, ‘the warden has threatened to stop the cocoa ration unless this menace ceases.’ Vital journalism indeed.
By its second issue the paper was already under threat of collapse - a lack of advertisements meant a complete absence of funding for the publication (despite its name, Guild News were not yet funded by the Guild of Students). The back page of its first few editions were left blank, divided into several potential advertising spaces that were yet to be filled due to claims that ‘students do not spend money’ (a statement which, as we well know, is an outrage). ‘Have no doubt about it,’ wrote Pike, ‘it is not the mere existence of Guild News that is challenged by these words - its is the student himself - every student.’
The paper soldiered on, and with its 100th issue Guild News finally recorded its first profit - to commemorate the occasion a beech tree was planted on the site of the Barber Institute. The following issue’s front page praised ‘the magnificent response from the whole University,’ and stated that ‘if the keenness of our staff and public ensure continued progress [...] Guild News will indeed become, once and for all, “The University Newspaper.”’
Eighty years on and, despite a name change in 1962, this paper is still the Official Student Newspaper of the University of Birmingham and remains, as its very first issue declares, ‘The Students' Mouth-piece.’ As a bonus, we have managed to struggle on while reducing our costs by a full 100% - the 100th issue cost a full penny!
In countless ways, the 1960s are remembered (and often sung about) as a period in which the times were a changing. Perhaps the most seismic turn of events across the entire decade was the great ‘Redbrick’ rebrand of September 28th, 1962.
Surprisingly, little was originally made of the decision to change our name - not even in the pages of issue 617, our paper’s first under the Redbrick moniker. The only mention across this entire edition is in its masthead, which read ‘Redbrick [...] formerly Guild News.’ When the decision to rebrand was first reported earlier that year, it was so with little pizzazz:
‘At a meeting of the Guild Council on Monday it was decided to change the name of GUILD NEWS to ‘REDBRICK’, as a shorter title is needed.’ The paper’s new name had apparently been deemed ‘suitable’ - strange, when now Redbrick has become so synonymous with the students of the University (in our humble opinion, of course).
Birmingham’s campus was subject to a number of its own changes and notable events during the 1960s. The architecture of the Edgbaston campus began to take its modern shape with the construction of the now-infamous Muirhead Tower. Known during its construction phase as the ‘Arts-Commerce Tower’, the glass-and-metal monolith which most students now regard as something of an eyesore was, as in Redbrick’s first report of the building process, described as ‘The shape of the future,’ part of a ‘comprehensive development plan’ intended to maximise the potential of the Edgbaston site. Nowadays, it would seem that the University’s students tend to be less enthusiastic at the potential of our latest ‘comprehensive development plan.’
This is not to say that campus was without its controversies during the 60s. The racist politician Enoch Powell was guest at a meeting of the Debating Society in December 1967, arguing that ‘Socialism and a Free Society are incompatible’ - a reasonably innocuous event, but given Powell’s notoriety by the end of the decade, one which the students of the University would not look back on with fondness.
Elsewhere ‘Carnival’, an annual event held by University of Birmingham students and the precursor to today’s Carnival Rag society, became infamous during the late 1960s for their costly publicity stunts across the city. The most famous of these, and also the most damning for the event’s reputation, was the planting of a fake WWII bomb underneath Constitution Hill in the city centre - a hoax which prompted a mass evacuation of the area and a bomb disposal unit having to be called in. The ‘bomb’, an empty shell stuffed with leaflets advertising the ‘67 Carnival, had spent three weeks in the student union before its planting. Redbrick were the first paper to break this story, and the outcry which followed involved Birmingham’s chief constable calling for the Carnival to be banned across the city.
Fortunately for the future society, and for the charities it has continued to raise money for, Carnival reformed in the wake of this disaster, creating the Carnival Rag which today is UoB’s largest society and does such crucial work for both the University and the city.
The most significant event to occur at the University of Birmingham during the 1960s was unquestionably the 1968 student occupation of the Aston Webb building, an event which celebrated its 50th anniversary last week (and which the Guild of Students has this week been proud to celebrate). Discussed at length by Jenny Wickham in our last edition, this was the most significant voicing of student opinion in our university’s history - and Redbrick, as ever, was on the front line. Our issue from November 27th (published on the date of the occupation’s first night) has been reprinted by the Guild to commemorate the event, as an example of how Redbrick helped to amplify the student voice during this momentous turning-point for student representation on campus.
One issue the Guild have not reprinted however (which we are thankful for) is one from March of 1968, in which a Redbrick review of their ‘Student Role’ report (which outlined the demands of the then unrepresented student populace) stated that the report was significant enough to merit ‘no need for sit-ins or demonstrations.’ But then, you can’t have everything.
Although Redbrick is a university student newspaper, we have always had our eyes on the international news agenda, including covering conflicts that have shaken the world.
Two years before the outbreak of World War II, we reported on the general discontent of students towards Neville Chamberlain’s foreign policy of appeasing Nazi Germany following the crumbling of the League of Nations. Being the son of the University’s founder, Joseph Chamberlain, and a UoB alumnus himself, naturally the focus of the publication fell on the prime minister.
This focus continued as the country hurtled towards international conflict, with an issue published on 16th March 1939 considering the possibilities of negotiating peace. As we now know, these efforts failed.
Our output over the subsequent six years included articles about how to stay safe on campus during air raids, the importance of arts degrees as a way of preserving culture, and the role of academia in wartime, including one piece (with the provocative title ‘Nazi Universities’) from a Dr Waidson on how he was expected to submit to Nazi traditions when gaining his doctorate in Germany.
Furthermore, the publication’s unique student perspective on war continued after VE Day in 1945, when an editorial encouraged compassion for the ‘large percentage of ex-service students among the freshers’ in order to avoid further ‘division.’
Although they were not quite as close to home as WWII, Redbrick also voiced the student opinion on the Vietnam War in 1968 and the Gulf War in 1991. Using student surveys, with a striking resemblance to our ‘Poll of the Week’ today, the publication revealed that a majority of students were opposed to war, although the actions of politicians had made conflict in the Gulf regrettably ‘necessary.’
Redbrick proved through its coverage of international conflict that, despite only having an office in Birmingham, it could focus its unique student lens on events of global significance.
Opinion has always been at the heart of free speech. We are privileged that journalism is a unique means of communication with the power to evoke change in thought and action. After looking back on the archives of our paper, the history of Redbrick shows just how a student paper can be a force for good.
From the importance of abortion rights to LGBT solidarity, Redbrick has embodied the voice of the student body and historically supported pivotal moments in our history.
Back when we were called Guild News in 1940, the Founder’s Room was transformed into the Women’s Common Room. A satirical article lamented over the ‘tragedy’ of the event, despairing at the occurrence. In addition to the feminist tones of the satire, it’s good to see a sense of humour was alive and well at UoB even when the name of our paper was significantly less fun.
50 years ago, an editorial called ‘Powell Not Worth Shouting About’ ridiculed the Conservative MP’s ideas in the wake of his infamous so-called ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Several student protests over the Wolverhampton MP’s racist tirade were also reported on in the late 60s, including a notable issue in which we broke the story of the Guild President, Mike Terry, being arrested at an anti-Powell demo in 1969.
Redbrick continued to voice student opinions on affairs which are still relevant today. In 1969, Redbrick helped to amplify the University’s early pro-choice stance, standing in solidarity with the opening of abortion clinics and reiterating the existence of the Birmingham Pregnancy Advisory Service. Only this term, Redbrick interviewed the current Women’s Officers Alif Trevathan and Holly Battrick about the threat pro-life groups pose to the student body.
1988’s ‘Don We Now Our Gay Apparel’ editorial demonstrated compassion for the LGBTQ+ community in the midst of the AIDs crisis. Knowing how many mainstream media outlets demonised the community, this support feels even more important. Acceptance and celebration of diverse sexualities and genders is something this paper takes very seriously, with ‘Hate Crimes are Not Punchlines’ written recently by Comment Writer Velvet Jones iterating the severity of verbal hatred on online platforms. Comment has championed LGBTQ+ rights, with ‘Spotlight On: LGBTQ+ Students’ providing a platform for students across the University to discuss their experiences, both good and bad.
An editorial in 1990, titled ‘Capitalising on Mandela,’ warned that his release did not equate to the end of apartheid, claiming ‘now would be the worst time to opt for starry-eyed complacency when nothing concrete has been gained.’ We are not only as eloquent in our opinion writing now, but also as bold in our rejection of ignorance and complacency.
It’s exciting to see parallels between the history of Redbrick and the publication of today and feel connected to people across the years. We hope to retain our identity as a paper when it comes to current affairs: outspoken and just. Although we are now an entirely politically neutral paper, the Comment section still provides a powerful platform for UoB students to voice their individual thoughts, no matter their political affiliation or standpoint.
What staggers the most, looking back on Redbrick’s 1500 issues, is how closely our publication can be used to track the most significant events of the past 82 years. Even in those instances where the news itself was far from home, Redbrick journalists were able to provide shockingly immediate coverage of a plethora of the 20th (and 21st) century’s most historic moments.
In the later years of the 1980s, this paper continually published reports and opinion articles on the issues that would eventually cause the collapse of the Soviet Union. In an article from October 1988, entitled ‘Purging the Kremlin,’ Redbrick claimed that USSR leader Gorbachev ‘must succeed or go’ amidst the dire straits of his Communist party - as history later revealed, he would not succeed, and the Eastern Bloc fell just a couple of years later.
On November 9th, 1989, an article was published journaling one student’s travels through East and West Germany, focusing particularly on life on either side of the Berlin Wall. Mere hours after the printing of this issue, the first pieces of concrete would be hammered from the wall, signalling the end of Germany’s split regime.
8 years later, the paper gave another vision of the future. In an 1997 interview with then-Aston Villa footballer Gareth Southgate, the future England manager discussed with Redbrick the possibilities of his going into coaching. ‘Southgate has certainly got the potential and intelligence to become an established figure in the world of football, not just now but in the future as well.’ After a summer in which the nation rallied behind an England side which for the first time in years looked capable of bringing football home, these words certainly read prophetic.
17 years and 87 days on, the magnitude of the September 11th attacks hardly needs explaining. In a seminar this year, the tutor asked us what our first political memory was, to a unanimous answer: 9/11. Searching through the annals of Redbrick’s past for this feature, we stumbled across a brutal read, and one of the most affecting pieces the paper has ever produced. 2001-2’s Editor-in-Chief, Tom Royal, was in New York City on that fateful day, what was supposed to be the final day of his travels. He depicts a city utterly broken by the unprecedented, unpredicted attacks: the sadness, the confusion, the anger, the hurt, the terror.
Alongside his stunningly bleak take on President Bush in the aftermath, that would certainly struggle to pass today’s review process, Royal’s article begins to assess the path forward. Tom grapples with whether he should have done more, whether he should have rushed to the World Trade Center; he laments his inability to donate blood due to American fears of BSE (mad cow disease); most impactful, he wonders what it means that he had planned to be at the WTC site just two hours after the plane hit.
The article, raw and poignant as it is, offers little in the way of answers to these questions. It has few notes of positivity as to what is to come. In that way it is quite prophetic and speaks to the power of student journalism as an outlet for the wisdom from the mouths of babes that society often ignores. I have read a thousand Redbrick articles, and no ending has ever moved like this one:
If there is a God, fine: God bless America, but more importantly God help America. And if America chooses unwisely then, well frankly God help us all.’
Over the years we have been able to celebrate a number of special occasions and monumental issues. Issue 153, published on the June 21st 1940, celebrated 5 years of Guild News’ existence. With an editorial from R. L. Kirk, the paper looked at the past and ended with looking toward the future. Kirk’s concluding statement was set to be reminder for the committees that went after his, to be an outlet which benefits not only members but the wider student population. 78 years later, we are certainly doing just that.
Looking into Redbrick’s history, it is evident that every single person who has spent time thinking about our past is proud. To celebrate our 750th issue, the Redbrick team looked back to the past to once again trace their development, noting where the paper stood today was a far more secure position than ever before. They had finally received the backing and support of the Guild, as well as being well-established across campus.
Whilst they may have felt Redbrick was ‘the only real medium of communication’ on campus at the time, we today certainly do not, now we are a part of the wider media groups that work tirelessly to provide students with news, reviews, opinions and entertainment.
The closest celebratory edition to us today was back in 1988 with the printing of issue 1000. The 80s saw Redbrick enter a more magazine-like phase: stories were not printed on our front cover and reviews began to grow in popularity. As someone who entered Redbrick writing for the music section, it is amazing to see how we have now established such professional and fantastic review sections, without whom Redbrick would certainly not be the same.
Today we are a fusion of the traditional newspaper of our early history, and the more relaxed fashionable issues of the 80s. But something that has remained constant from 1936 to the present, and will remain constant as long as this paper shall exist, is that we are The Students’ Mouth-piece.
This article was made possible through the archives of the Cadbury Research Library, and specifically through the work of Redbrick’s many archivists from the past 82 years.