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Club Critical Theory takes flight

students studying at UEL

Ideas club started by UEL academics goes from strength to strength

Can cultural and social theory interact with local issues and people?

Dr Tony D Sampson, a reader at the School of Arts and Digital Industries (ADI) at the University of East London and Giles Tofield, Southend entrepreneur, pondered the thought one night over a drink in their local pub. Soon after, Dr Andrew Branch, a senior lecturer at ADI, joined in their musings.

From those conversations, Southend’s Club Critical Theory was born. 

Andrew, Tony and Giles wanted to create a public and critical space which meant taking the kind of critical discussions they usually have in the lecture hall and moving them outside to a public space. 

At Club Critical Theory, ideas and their histories are debated and used to make sense of social relations and expose social injustices. 

The club’s collaboration with the Cultural Engine, a social and cultural enterprise business in south Essex, of which Giles is the director, gives Club Critical Theory a link with people who can make decisions and potentially influence policy makers. Ultimately, the idea of the club is to make a difference in the local community. 

How would people react? They didn’t know. But the location they settled on for the opening event, an upstairs pub in the Railway Hotel in Southend, seemed the perfect starting point.

They expected to attract a small, select group of people that first night, but the response was the opposite. People from all walks of life, including those passing by only for a beer, showed up. Every subsequent event has also been well attended. The Southend locals admitted they were waiting for debates like this – once the group even got kicked out of the pub because the conversation was getting a little over the top. 

All events are free, and include guest speakers from academia, the arts and local community groups discussing issues such as place-making, heritage, migration, cultural tourism and local political activism. 

The plan is to continue to grow the club’s activities. The trio has recently succeeded in securing funding to host a free day-long conference in Southend to talk about all of these and other issues. 

The next scheduled event engages with Southend’s rich local music scene. It’s called Strange, Mad Celebration and will be an all-day affair on 19 June centred on the life and work of David Bowie and his impact on the local music scene, with live music, special guests and exclusive screenings. 

Tony, Andrew and Giles are also organising an event on food culture tentatively scheduled for early autumn that will explore healthy and unhealthy food and people’s interactions with online takeaway ordering services like Just Eat. The event will also promote growing one’s own food and the idea that preparing fresh food daily can be quick and easy. Club Critical Theory will also invite experts to talk about their research on food cultures and open up a discussion about food cultures in the region. Guests will be able to sample The Railway Hotel's delicious vegan menu.

If you would like to know more about Club Critical Theory and its events, or suggest ideas or speakers, please visit the club's blog