With a PhD in Geography, EC member Drew Whitelegg isn’t your ‘average’ transport and mobility historian. Now based at the Emory Center for Myth and Ritual, at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, his research has focused on the air industry and urbanisation. Formerly book review editor for the JTH, he has continued his links with the Journal by becoming Assistant editor.
Where and when did you get interested in transport and mobility issues?
I’ve always had a thing about transport and routes and maps, which may have been a result of never having had a car in our house when I was growing up. I was always gripped with finding out how to get to places.
As an adult I became very committed to public transport from both an ecological perspective and a social justice one. I’m a great believer in rubbing shoulders with fellow human beings and I find the daily interactions you have on the bus or train are part of what help makes the world a better place. Even living in a car-crazed city like Atlanta, I ride the bus when I can – people here of course think I’m nuts.
Your research explores one of the more neglected areas of transport: flight. What do you see as the key issues for historians looking at air travel, and how do they relate to the field of mobility as a whole?
Aviation has always been something of a poor relation in comparison with other transport modes even though we have been in the air for over a hundred years now. There has been very little work done in aviation from a cultural perspective in terms of the huge impact that the industry has had on people’s lives. I think that the rise of low-cost carriers has particularly contributed to this impact in the sense that flying is no longer the preserve of rich and has developed highly deregulated and flexible route systems to cater for the far greater mobility present in the modern world. This is a different mobility pattern to the classic jet tourism that emerged in the 1960s. People now have changed their entire lifestyles – taking weekend citybreaks, commuting to other countries – through flying and I don’t think that we’ve got to grips with this from an analytical perspective. Mark Gottdeiner, a sociologist, wrote a book called Life in the Air recently, which was a start.
One thing we need to get away from is the hagiography for the captains of aviation. There’s always been a testosterone-driven obsession with the macho-ness of the business (think Thomas Petzinger’s Hard Landing, for instance). I’m more interested in how people live their lives within this aviation network than in the derring-do or Howard Hughes or Richard Branson.
T²M is known for its new ways of looking at transport history – particularly focusing on ideas of mobility and the user. In your research you’ve also looked at workers. Where do you see the worker fitting into T²M’s agenda?
Well, workers are users too. One of the things that I stumbled across with my flight attendant research was this extraordinary lifestyle in which workers use the job for their own ends, deriving benefits from it that go beyond a strict nexus of paid labour. Workers, characteristically, have long been consigned by historians to the production side of things whereas I see them also on the consumption side – maybe not the same way as the paying passengers but still in ways that we haven’t really got to. Jo Stanley has done some cracking work on sea stewardesses from this perspective and so too has Tim Strangleman on the rails.
What did it mean, for instance, from an existential or phenomenological point of view, for a Bajan woman to get up in the morning in a West London flat and spend the day collecting fares on London’s buses? She was working, for sure; but she was also travelling. The journey has a long history as the locus of identity development and change – think of the Grand Tour or Jack Kerouac’s disciples hitchhiking around America. But what about all those journeys that workers take as part of their jobs? Because, as Edward Said once said, none of us are just one thing – worker and traveller, worker and tourist; this seems to me fertile ground.
You’ve just taken on a greater role at the JTH, as assistant editor. How will you shape the job and push the JTH forwards?
I’m working alongside Lena Andersson-Skog and Javier Vidal Olivares, who I am sure are familiar to T²M members. It’s very early days at this stage but I can say that we will be looking to continue the expansion of the geographical range of the journal. Peter Lyth, when he was editor, started to make inroads in terms of greater awareness of cultural approaches, and these of course were deepened by Gijs Mom. I would expect us to continue to go down this course, while at the same time not rejecting out-of-hand other methods.
Finally, what advice would you offer to a recently appointed newsletter editor?!
Being newsletter editor was great fun for me as I learned quickly about the organization in ways that I would not have otherwise been able to do. I was however disappointed with the lack of material being offered by members. I wanted it to get to the level where members would automatically think about sending stuff to the newsletter so we would have a steady flow. Maybe I was being naively optimistic there. So my advice would be try come up with ways to involve the membership more. Oh, and also co-ordinate with the website better, another plan of mine that didn’t really come to fruition.