A presentation of early progress in my PhD research, given at the University of Liverpool on the 19th May 2019. In which telling the story like an actual story becomes my thing.

“The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into out hearts and our brains.” 

Paul Simon: “Train in the Distance”

I want to tell you a story, called “Looking for Utopia.” A story about using sociological fiction to find out what’s true or at least possible. For the moment it’s also the story of me searching for the beginning of my PhD research.

Sat here in the Sydney Jones Library, early on a rainy Thursday morning, I’m listening to music through headphones to help me think and stop me hearing the rising babble of revision time. Some Scott Walker soundtrack has got me a basic mind map drawn of what I might write about. I have my files and my ways of working around me, like C Wright Mills says in “The Sociological Imagination.” The character of  myself being fully present too, linking history and biographies as Mills also says. This is the work I’ve taken on and I’m working now. 

The soundtrack’s become Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis,’ big cathedral music, and I’m thinking some of this might get written in a cathedral before the day is through. This attempt to sum up these months of thinking, writing, research and conversation with one day’s story telling.

Back to last year then, and my interview for even being here on this 1+3, MA + PhD studentship, that’s at least partly about a place called Port Sunlight. Thinking about the apparently idyllic industrial village then I heard myself saying:

“What must it be like? Living in someone else’s Utopia a hundred years after the founding utopian’s died?”

The who that was doesn’t matter for now, but the utopia does. It’s called Port Sunlight, just across the river, late Victorian, and all neat and proud of its heritage-self. Historically interesting, yes, but perhaps a bit stuck in its founder’s rules? Worth thinking about, like I said at the interview.

Which I got through anyway. Scepticism turning out to be no barrier to study, apparently. Except it was, a bit. Possibly because when I first arrived here at the University I was thinking of Port Sunlight as a place, rather than an idea. Just the kind of sentence that would have made me laugh out loud a year ago. Except it was that change of mind that eventually got me started on the story I’m telling you now, like this. 

 One day I’m sat talking through everything with my main PhD supervisor Paul Jones, when he says to me:

Remember that thing you said at your interview about utopia? Maybe that’s it? Maybe that’s what you’re looking for, for utopia?” And I said “Yes, that’s exactly it.” Immediately feeling better. With a broader subject to work on, but still one that would involve Port Sunlight, somehow.

So next I talked about utopia with one of my other supervisors, Cheryl Hudson. She’s a historian and recommended I read some. Stories as it turned out. Fictions about what might be perfect forming a significant part of the relatively small body of utopian literature that’s on a shelf and a half in the library here. I could have started with Thomas More, back from the sixteenth century, but I haven’t yet. Instead I began with Cheryl’s leading recommendation “Looking Backwards” by Edward Bellamy. He plays with time by writing in 1888, but as if he’s looking back from now. A brilliant story, if a bit totalitarian in its organising of people’s lives. But it kept me up late reading over Christmas, always the sign of a good story. Unlike the next one, by William Morris. Even though it’s the name of my favourite co-operative book-shop in Liverpool, I thought “News From Nowhere” was a dreadful book. A tediously written medieval trudge round some future London that’s got itself stuck in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. OK for an afternoon in an art gallery, but no way to organise a future.

I was started though. And started with fiction too. A major clue to my future direction.


“You must set up a file, which is I suppose, a sociologist’s way of saying: keep a journal. Many creative writers keep journals; the sociologist’s need for systematic reflection demands it.”

C.Wright Mills: “The Sociological Imagination”

I’ve walked down to the Bluecoat now. And in a way Mills couldn’t do back in his 1950s, I’ve brought my journal and all my files and folders here with me. We can work anywhere these days.

The place I’m sat, by an eighteenth century garden window, calls itself all manner of cultural things, but for me it’s a breathing space. A quiet garden in the centre of the city, that I love like it’s home. As I do some other places I’ve been a writing and thinking contributor to these past few years. Granby 4 Streets, Homebaked, Kitty’s Launderette, The Ralla, Make Liverpool and more. “Little victories” my friend Tony from the Naked Lunch co-operative on Smithdown calls these. “Little utopias everywhere” as I began to think, the day the Winter Garden opened in Granby.

It was the official first day of spring this year, and all morning I’d been in a “Photography and Creative Practice” lecture where we were set the practical task of taking some photographs before the next day’s session. Easily done because the Granby people had already asked me to come and photograph their event, like I’ve been doing there so often these past ten years.

And stood there in the beautiful thing the local people had insisted on creating I thought:

“They’ve made their version of utopia here. From the years of racism and neglect, the few people who were left in these 4 streets have done more than just get the houses lived in again, they’ve made a utopia.” 

Granby then came into the next module too, into “Ethnomethodology.” Analysing a conversation I’d filmed years ago. Never thinking the film would be research data one day. Or that it would ever do anything so grand as bring Granby and this idea of utopias everywhere into a PhD. Into the story I’m telling you now. But it did.  

And sat writing this in the Bluecoat, maybe this is a utopia too? A small and perfectly formed garden oasis in the middle of all the commerce and homelessness outside its gates. The grand gate out front, and the secret one at the back? Or maybe it’s this other new thing I’ve found out about. Maybe it’s a heterotopia?


As she walked home her future life came to her without conscious thought or reflection but as a memory of events that had not yet taken place, but now would.”

Linda Grant: “A Stranger City”

Time and clouds pass and I’m up on the third floor of Liverpool’s Central Library. A sunny afternoon appearing on the streets as I walked along. In here the soundtrack is Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City.” Twentieth Century American classical, bordering into jazz. Deliberately echoing Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, or maybe it’s the other way round? Who knows where ideas come from?

Paul had mentioned heterotopia a while back, when a group of us were out taking photographs for his “Visual Methods” course. Then it turned up as a required reading in “Using Foucault’s methods:”

A sort of place that is actually localizable. In contrast to the utopias, these places which are absolutely other with respect to all the arrangements that they reflect and of which they speak might be described as heterotopias.”

Michel Foucault: “Heterotopia”

As I read through Michel Foucault’s short article my thinking kept returning to Port Sunlight, like this was another research clue? That maybe I could think of it as not a utopia at all, but this other thing? One of these heterotopia?

“The heterotopia has the power of juxtaposing in a single real place different spaces and locations that are incompatible with each other.”

Michel Foucault: “Heterotopia”

Incompatible like Granby and those other Liverpool ideas I mentioned, but might join up and form a full place somehow? Heterotopias everywhere?

“There is probably not a single culture in the world that is not made up of heterotopias”

Michel Foucault: “Heterotopia”

As an aside, I realise this stringing together of Foucault quote-clues could be completely wrong. That Foucault’s is a new way of thinking that will take time for me to get used to. Time for me to not make obvious  starter errors? Well if you don’t try you never learn, do you?

Anyway, next up my research took me down a side street into two laboratories, one of them being on Mars, sort of. This was the “Ethnographic Studies of Science and Technology” module, another turn in my thinking. Bruno Latour’s original writing on “Laboratory Life’ leading to Janet Vertesi joining NASA’s Mars Rover team for her PhD, now published as “Seeing Like a Rover.” Opening up and pulling me into each chapter with her cinematic descriptions of the scenes on Mars, viewed through the high definition eyes of two little robots up there, Skyping back to Earth. 

I bought the book. Because Mars and the marvel of what we might make of travelling to future worlds has stayed with me ever since being allowed to stay up late and watch the Moon landings when I was small. It’s a big part of why I’m writing this now. 

I loved the science of the moon landings too. The getting there with Newton’s mathematics on an onboard computer far less powerful than the silver device I’m typing this on now. And loved the science in Janet Vertesi’s book. The systems and vernacular of consensual deciding, the observations, recording and taking several years to do it all. The importance of observing over time. Then the group of us going and doing much the same, if just for a morning, in a bio-veterinary lab here on Earth. 

I also loved the idea of my research becoming a book you can hold in your hands. Written with some “drawing as, seeing as and acting as” like she does, but about utopia, heterotopia too?

But now, as the soundtrack in my headphones reaches Debussy’s cathedral music, it’s time to go and write in one.


“You can’t prove anything,”
“Means, motive and opportunity,” Rebus replied. “The holy trinity of any investigation.”

Ian Rankin: “In A House of Lies”

There is no need for the noise reduction headphones here in the cathedral, and no real noise anyway, as I come towards the end of my one day story. 

I’m writing with paper and pen, as tapping on a keyboard would feel inappropriate, to use an old fashioned word in a modernist kind of place. This is Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral, silent this afternoon apart from the quiet conversation of two probable tourists over the far side of the circular space from me. Remembering the last time I was in here, a fortnight ago for the MA “Observation” module. But also and mainly remembering 1967. Me coming up that curving walkway over there, carrying a candle at the cathedral’s opening, I am part of this place. An altar boy the year Sergeant Pepper’s was released. Turning into teenage me the year one of the things the future was going to look like became part of Liverpool. An architect’s dream built on top of a previous architect’s dream this. Versions of the future, built layer on layer on layer like stories. Taking my thoughts back to Port Sunlight where we began.

Having visited the archives there, layers on layer of the past, one day late in the wintertime I could see they were fascinating but they still weren’t the angle I was looking for. My way into how Port Sunlight was going to be more of a part of my utopian research than the foundation and philanthropy stories already so frequently told there. Stories there could be no point me telling again. 

The archives had been my go at seeing if I might deepen those foundation stories. I’d also had the idea of adding the archives of another utopian place, Skelmersdale New Town, into the research as a comparative study with Port Sunlight. But both of these were feeling like further down the line possibilities. Wrong turns for the getting started of now. And it was exactly now when the angle of starting with a story turned up, from an unexpected direction.

I have a friend called Linda Grant, the novelist, who got in touch one day to tell me about an invitation she couldn’t get to, but that I might enjoy? A talk the crime writer Ian Rankin was giving at Liverpool Hope University for their creative writing students. When one of them asked Ian how he developed his ideas, this was the reply:

“Well I don’t make the mistake of doing too much research any more. Having once spent months researching haemophilia, only for it to end up as two and a half sentences in the finished novel, now I concentrate on a quickly written first draft, that no one but my wife and I get to see until we’re happy there’s the beginnings of a believable story there. At which point I’ll know what I need to go on and research.”

Ian Rankin at Liverpool Hope University, 26th March 2019

And this was my turn, my angle. The means, motive and opportunity for my investigation. The idea of using the months of work I’d already done to write something quickly and see if it sounds like the beginning of a story. Maybe even a detective story like one of Ian Rankin’s? Where I could be like John Rebus, his detective. Seeing as, acting as. Using the sidestep of fiction to free up my thinking from too much unfocussed research too early on?

‘Sociological fiction,’ it’s a thing as I’ve since found out. Fiction like detective stories, fiction like most stories of utopias. And I’ve begun my own now.

A short version of which I told Kath Lynch from Port Sunlight, the third of my three PhD supervisors, who thankfully liked the sound of it. So now I’ll be Port Sunlight’s “Writer in Residence,” looking forward to a summer of writing in some borrowed spaces there. Seeing like a writer. Acting as if the place will have an effect on where the story goes next. Knowing and expecting it will. This “Looking For Utopia.”


But that’s enough story for now, sat here in the early evening of Abercromby Square, typing up what I wrote down in the cathedral and wondering where the story might go next?  It’s like that with stories. You never know where they’ll take you until you get going. 

And I’ve got going now. In one day of story telling I’ve got going.

The End

Presented at the University of Liverpool on Friday 19th May 2019. And published here the same day, along with some of the utopian photographs used as part of the presentation, as active research for where the story might go next. Let me know what you think?

You may say I’m a dreamer…

Read more of my university stories here at “Fieldnotes for Utopia.”

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place: http://asenseofplace.com.

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  1. I like this idea of getting down a draft or other extended ideas before diving into archives. It stops the research derailing you from the thought train that inspired you in the first place (see all my university essays!) and helps avoid being daunted by all the materials. If you were going to read everything on utopias first then you’d never get started I imagine!

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