If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

Can you take decisions? Including tough ones that don’t please everyone? I discovered that I can, by doing it intensively as an elected councillor. At the same time, I learned that, having made a decision, it’s important to defend it when the going gets tough. Unless it’s proven to have been a serious mistake (should be only rarely or, ideally, never) – in which case a dignified retreat is required. And it’s also vital to follow through, to ensure that policies are implemented. It turns out that lots of decisions are triumphantly made and then quietly shelved. Sometimes such a negative outcome stems from subterranean obstruction by the officers; but sometimes also from a surfeit of political decisions, made without time for consolidation.

These were some of the valuable lessons I learned as an elected Labour Councillor on the London Borough of Wandsworth in the years 1971-4.
february001It was a fascinating time. We had a large majority and a small dispirited Tory opposition. We were also predominantly new brooms, as many former Labour councillors did not stand again after our big local defeat in 1968. Many of my close political friends held leading posts in the Labour Group; and I became the Planning Applications supremo. Incidentally, I was never offered a bribe, despite chairing a committee that made various financially significant decisions. Labour’s new planning leaders early resolved that, when meeting with developers, those present should always include Council officers alongside councillors. It was the right decision. In particular, we were well aware that underhand kickbacks had been paid by building contractors to the previous Labour leader in Wandsworth.1 So we wanted to be not just clean but visibly so.

Overall, the years 1971-4 became key ‘events lived through’ which influenced my outlook on life. Nothing like a bit of experience to leaven one’s theoretical stance. I learned that I can take decisions. And that, while I enjoyed the political hurly-burly in the short term, I was not cut out for a lifetime of the same.

Lots of things went well. I won’t list them all, because they are now history. But I was proud of running a sharp, questing, and efficient Planning Applications committee. We made good decisions briskly. We were not afraid to challenge the officers. But we stuck to good planning practice, engendering a great team morale which was left as a legacy.

Labour’s strategic stance also bore long-term fruits. We collectively opposed the proposed inner London motorway. It was initially supported by transport experts and by the political bigwigs of London Labour. But concerted opposition from grass-roots like us, and from Battersea’s MP Douglas Jay, ‘stopped the box’. It would have divided Battersea by a locally inaccessible motorway leading to a massive motorway ‘spaghetti’ interchange at Clapham Junction. Halting this planning monstrosity was a decisive victory that shifted inner-urban transport policy towards controlling motor traffic rather than giving it priority over homes, jobs and a pleasant local environment.

Moreover, we had many positive plans for the low-rise urban renewal of Battersea’s housing and for environmental improvements. Notably, the Wandsworth Labour councillors were among the first to promote plans for the Thames riverside walk and the Wandle walkway from Croydon to the Thames, now the Wandle Trail, supported by the Wandle Trail group. I can still remember the derision and disbelief (even on our own side) when the Planning Committee asserted that these things could and would be achieved over time. Yet the need for access to London riverfront has now become orthodoxy. The Thames River Path is not always landscaped to the best effect. But it does exist and the remaining gaps in the ‘magical 40 miles (64 km)’ from Hampton Court to the Themes Barrier are now being plugged, wherever possible.2 I still feel pride, when walking this route (see Fig.2), that I contributed to the collective effort that went into its patient creation.
february002Things also went wrong. The worst for the collective morale and cohesion of the Labour Group was the controversy over the Conservative government’s Housing Finance Act (1972). This legislation disempowered municipal councils of all political hues, by imposed a central decision upon local rent levels. And the Act turned out to be but the first in a long succession of moves to take power away from locally elected bodies. So we were right on democratic grounds to oppose it, in the hopes that a majority of councils would refuse to implement the act. But wrong to continue the arguments, once it was apparent that no such majority was forthcoming.1 Our Labour Group became bitterly divided. And even when we eventually agreed to implement the rent rise, we remained at odds, even while steaming ahead as a progressive Labour council. It took the gloss off what was an otherwise inspiriting experience.

After three years of intense politics, I decided – reluctantly – not to stand again. I realised that, in my core being, I was an academic, not a politician. I never regretted the decision. At the same time, my brief but intense political foray gave me respect for politicians and sympathy with the pressures of their lifestyle. Probably that’s one contributory reason for the survival of my nearly 50-year relationship with my partner Tony Belton, who has remained a Wandsworth Labour councillor since 1971.

Living with a politician, however, for me has proved enough. I’m glad that I can take decisions; and glad that one of them was to limit my experience as an elected councillor. Would I recommend this role to others? Yes, for those with time and commitment. But while for me ‘1968’ meant no instant revolution, then ‘1971’ meant no instant political solutions. I decided to remain a grass-root; and to teach/research History – not as the ‘dead past’ but as a living process.

1 In 1971, Cllr Sid Sporle was gaoled for six years on charges of corruption, having been part of a ‘building’ network including Labour’s Newcastle city boss T. Dan Smith, architect John Paulson, and Tory front-bencher Reginald Maudling. See M. Gillard, Nothing to Declare: The Political Corruptions of John Poulson (1980); Stephen Knight, The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons (1984), pp. 203-6; and P.J. Corfield with Mike Marchant, DVD – Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008).

2 See David Sharp, Thames Path (National Trail Guide, 2010); and website

3 Others are writing more on this dispute. For the Derbyshire councillors who did hold out for non-implementation, to their personal cost, see J. Langdon and D. Skinner, The Story of Clay Cross (1974).

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Another way of thinking of influences (whether positive or negative) is to think of events lived through. There’s nothing like direct experience for augmenting or revising or contradicting the impact of books and people.

By contrast with my parents, I haven’t lived through a World War, so I have nothing to compare with the intense, anxious, sometimes exhilarating times that they knew as young adults. But impactful events can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The question is what is/was significant for the individual.

For myself, I would have to nominate the combination of events in and around two different years: 1968 and 1971. This set of meditations refers to the first of those: the year of world-wide student ‘revolutions’. I was then a postgraduate at the LSE and, technically at least, at the eye of the storm. For me personally, this was a great time. I was young, happily in love, beginning to become engaged in politics, and deeply absorbed in London life, in my historical research, and in endless discussions about the meaning of life with my friends and family.

Optimism, which is my personal default condition, seemed pervasive in the youth culture of the times. It was energising. (Not that I wrote my thesis very rapidly. I was almost too busy with my research to put pen to paper … a serious mistake, as I later came to realise). But the positive atmosphere was contagious. There were plentiful jobs; there was lot of talk about sex; there was great music; there were experimental films; and there was a cultural irreverence that opened eyes and minds. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, I taught so many sad-eyed and depressed students that I felt almost guilty at continuing to be cheerful. I always tried to jolly them along, on the grounds that an atmosphere of educational gloom is not good for learning, let alone for personal development. But cheeriness seemed more difficult under Thatcher, whereas in 1968 optimism – at least at first – was so easy.

This famous year, however, was much more complex in practice. As often happens, radical euphoria is hard to sustain. There are always plenty of serpents in Eden. One repellent shock was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21-22 August 1968, dousing liberal hopes invested in the Prague Spring. I remember halting in a street near Norwich, where I’d gone for research purposes, to watch with consternation as the invasion was blurrily shown on a black-and-white television in a shop-window. I was depressed – and angered that the Dubcek experiment had not had time to unfold. But I was not particularly shocked, as Hungary in 1956 had provided a prior warning. That crisis had triggered many left-wingers in Britain, like my uncle Christopher Hill, to leave the Communist Party – after the failure of their attempts at democratic reform within the British CP.
soviet-invasion-czechoslovakia-1968-illustrated-history-pictures-images-photos-008In the aftermath of Czechoslovakia, the response in Britain was not so drastic. I personally wasn’t so blind about the faults of the Soviet system. And I was not a member of the British CP, so couldn’t resign in protest. Nonetheless, the general effect was dispiriting. The political and cultural left,1 which at that time were still in synchronisation, were angered but also depressed.

Brute force had again triumphed. Totalitarian repression was bad enough in itself. But totalitarianism in the name of the left was worse, since it perverted the ideal of international brotherhood. That betrayal made it even more galling, in following years, to be denounced, by right-wing opponents in local politics, as an agent of Moscow. I certainly wasn’t. But the behaviour of communist Russia made it possible for hostile rhetoric to tar – however unjustly – all those on the broad spectrum of the left as advocates of totalitarian state power. It was particularly unfair when that accusation was made against the historian E.P. Thompson, who was actively encouraging East European dissidents.

At the same time, 1968 was full of much more immediate student politics at home. I enjoyed the alternative debates and attended, casually rather than systematically, a number of mass meetings. I also participated in a number of protest demonstrations, including the so-called ‘riot’ outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square on 17 March 1968.

But I didn’t join any of the sit-ins, primarily because I disbelieved the euphoric rhetoric that accompanied them. I remember one activist (now a Labour peer in the House of Lords) proclaiming, to cheers, that occupying the Principal’s room and opening the College files would promote the imminent overthrow of western capitalism. Even the enthusiasm of the moment, which surely permits a bit of exaggeration, could not excuse such an infantile level of analysis. I was offended not so much at the students’ actions but at their weak rationale for their behaviour and their lack of strategic sense. This vagueness signalled in advance that the protests in Britain were bound to fail, since the students’ ultimate aims were so utopian and their actions were so far from seizing or even challenging any real levers of political or economic power. (The situation was different in France, where the student and worker protests contributed to the resignation of De Gaulle in 1969. Yet even there, the eventual limitations to the student activism were very visible).

Capitalism is anyway a very protean force, liable to change and adapt. And, whatever form it took in 1968, it was highly unlikely to be overthrown by disrupting the universities. It was laughable, really. The outcome almost everywhere was a mouse, in the form of student representation on university boards and the creation of departmental staff/student committees. Good – but not revolutionary, even within the most hide-bound of academic institutions.

The energies and enthusiasms of 1968 were dissipated. And elsewhere, we learned in detail later, student radicalism in the form of the Red Guards was used cruelly by Mao as a party mechanism of social terror.
China Red Guards 1968So 1968 was an educative moment for me. Vague utopianism had to be rejected as much as totalitarianism. Indeed, utopianism had to be treated with even more suspicion, since it seemed the more seductive. The answer – between brute force and empty rhetoric – had to be more humdrum and more realistic. In company with my partner Tony Belton, I became more active within the Labour Party. In 1971, we were both elected as councillors in the London Borough of Wandsworth. The outcome of that experience also proved to be stimulating but far from simple – see my next month’s discussion-piece.

1 This definition takes attitudes towards the redistribution of wealth as the dividing line between the political left (in favour) and the right (opposed, unless undertaken by non-state charities). An alternative, supported by some neo-liberals, sees attitudes towards state power as forming the dividing line with neo-liberals (opposed) and statists (supportive). But the latter division, although psychologically important for some libertarians, is not very helpful practically as de facto all parties are inescapably embroiled in the modern state, thus lumping everyone de facto into just one category.

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Thinking of influences, two very different historians influenced me not only through their originality but through their intellectual ‘bite’. They were nothing if not challenging. In that they were very alike, although otherwise they were very different.

I tend to think of them as polar opposites: one representing the critical intellect and the other the creative intellect. In fact, however, that extreme contrast is unfair. Both men combined both qualities and both produced path-breaking historical studies. But they presented themselves to the world and to their students in different ways.

Actually I was formally taught only by one of them. He was F.J. Fisher (1908-88), universally known as Jack.1 He supervised my doctorate at the LSE. ‘Formal’ tutoring, however, was very far from Jack’s style. Often we walked round and round Lincoln’s Inn Fields (close to the LSE), sometimes for hours – talking about history and breaking off from time to time for a coffee or a drink.

Jack was a meta-critic, of great insight. He quickly moved from the immediate question in hand to the deeper implications of any intellectual position. ‘Your problem is this …’, he would commence, before peeling back layers and layers of argument. Another of his favourite ploys, used in public to deceive the unwary, was ‘I know nothing about this but …’, before posing a devastating question or deep observation. At the same time, he relished quick wit and intellectual banter. As a result, he was often surrounded by a crowd of people, laughing.

Above all, Jack Fisher was always ready to challenge any possible viewpoint. Indeed, his readiness to attack made him feared by some, including by a surprising number of senior historians. But while Jack was tough, he was also relatively kinder to beginners than he ever was to eminent scholars, when they came to lecture at LSE. In fact, he viewed it as part of his task to try to cut visiting grandees down to size, so that the students should learn to be critics rather than supine followers of ‘great men’.

Unsurprisingly, Jack rarely gave praise. But when he once said that something I’d done was ‘not bad’, I was much pleased. The result was a stimulating and enjoyable education not only in history but also in the art of thinking.

Jack Fisher was a miniaturist, writing a small number of lucid essays – not long books. That could not have been more different from the other historian who influenced me: E.P. (Edward) Thompson (1924-93). He wrote voluminously, elegantly, wordily, creatively, often amazingly. Never to other people’s deadlines, as is revealed in the most recent study of his oeuvre.2 Yet he produced books both long and short, essays and later commentaries on his own essays, historical studies, polemical tracts on current politics, theoretical interventions within the Marxist intellectual tradition(s), and countless long and informative letters, as well as poetry, and a novel.

Of course, he too was a critic. Edward Thompson was both sharp and robust in discussion and at times immensely polemical among his fellow left-wingers. Many experienced his volcanic wrath. Indeed some of his friendships were halted over political differences. His remarkable letters were also ready to rebuke, when he felt a rebuke was due, although their flowing pages might well continue with a torrent of wit and information alongside the chastisement.

It was this torrential outflow of ideas that made Edward Thompson represent for me the creative intellect, fusing ideas from sociology, anthropology, literature and history.3 I was never one of his students. Instead I met him socially, through his wife Dorothy Thompson, who was in the History Department at Birmingham University, where I was learning to teach on the job. At parties and gatherings, the Thompsons were enlivening and magnetic – and very far from didactic. But every time we met, I always got something new about which to cogitate.

In part, that was because Edward Thompson was himself in constant intellectual transition. He broke from the rigidities of the British Communist Party in 1956, after the failure of internal attempts at reform by himself and many fellow-historians including Christopher Hill. And then, slowly and agonisingly, Edward receded from strict Marxism. Instead, he strove to create his own humanist Marxism, but without falling entirely out of the Marxist embrace. Over time, however, that struggle became more difficult. He recoiled not only from the brutalities of communist regimes, perpetrated in the name of Karl Marx, but also from schematic intellectual edifices, such as the structuralist Marxism of Althusser, against whom Thompson polemicised in startling but effective style.

Overall, Edward’s utter seriousness in his commitment was compelling. He wanted to find a systematic answer – unlike Jack Fisher, who was not worried at its lack. So the travails of the left often made Edward deeply depressed. Yet his flow of wit, erudition, personal kindness and charm, plus intellectual creativity, never ceased.4

I consider myself lucky to have met both men. I don’t follow either in their views, but I do try to combine their creativity with their critical mode. The one time they both met in my presence (which was probably the one time overall that they met) was when Edward Thompson came to lecture at the LSE in the late 1960s. Crowds turned out to hear him. And they got a treat – an early version of his influential lecture, steeped in anthropology as well as history, entitled ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd’.5 In the discussion after the talk, Jack had the best of it. Wittily, he queried just how ‘moral’ the crowds were, when they rioted in protest at high food prices. Were they justly defending the communal welfare of the masses? Or were they, when they tried to stop grain from leaving their own areas, defending their sectional interest as one group of workers against those of other workers elsewhere? Was it ‘moral’ class solidarity? or a case of much-less-moral though readily understandable ‘I’m all right, Jack’? At the time, Edward Thompson laughed and said that he’d answer that in writing. But when he published the article, to much fame and controversy, he stuck unhesitatingly with the concept of the ‘moral’ crowd.

In a sense, they both gained. Edward Thompson succeeded in getting historians to take food riots seriously, refuting the assumption that the brutish masses reacted with knee-jerk violence whenever food prices soared. Human responses to economic crisis are far more complex, both in the eighteenth century and as we are witnessing today. But Jack was also right in that Thompson’s views would generate scholarly criticisms, from all points on the historiographical spectrum.

A final point. Neither man would fit into today’s academic world of continual assessment. Jack Fisher wrote far too little, for regular assessment purposes, though what he did write was vintage quality. Edward Thompson wrote too voluminously and eclectically, with many glittering jewels amidst much vivid polemics, without meeting deadlines – being an old-style ‘man of letters’ and not a career Prof. But so much the worse for today’s world of academic assessment. They were great historians, who don’t fit into any mould.

1 For further details and a collection of Jack Fisher’s path-breaking essays, see P.J. Corfield, ‘F.J. Fisher and the Dialectic of Economic History’, in P.J. Corfield and N.B. Harte (eds), F.J. Fisher: London the English Economy, 1500-1700 (1990), pp. 3-22.

2 See Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: E.P. Thompson, The New Left, and Postwar British Politics (Manchester, 2011), reviewed by P.J.C. in electronic Reviews in History: IHR London – featured review no 1137 (29 Sept. 2011): see website Another helpful overview is provided Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions: The Histories and Politics of E.P. Thompson (1994).

3 For further details, see P.J. Corfield, ‘E.P.Thompson, Historian: An Appreciation’, New Left Review, 201 (1993), pp. 10-17.

4 For a quick introduction, see Dorothy Thompson (ed.), The Essential E.P. Thompson (New York, 2001).

5 E.P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, Past & Present, 50 (1971), pp. 76-136; repr. in his Customs in Common (1991), pp. 185-258, with his response to the debates in ‘The Moral Economy Reviewed’, ibid., pp. 259-351.

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Writing my father’s obituary recently, I began to muse about people who have influenced me, who emphatically include my parents. And then, in parallel, I began to think about books which had an impact on me; and decided to write about one unknown tome, which I read as a teenager.

The book in question was given to me as a History prize in the sixth-form at Chislehurst and Sidcup County Grammar School for Girls (as it then was). Who chose the volume, I have no idea. I’ve never heard anyone else ever refer to it. It’s entitled The Living Past by Ivar Lissner, flowingly translated from the German by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, and published in 1957. Today the work is available via Googlebooks – and advertised among collections of rare books. The stout volume is well illustrated and mapped; and on the front cover are figures from an ancient script – encouraging the mind to fly to unknown places.
november001I remember reading this work with fascination as a teenager in the 1960s and then letting it lie fallow, as it was so far removed from anything in the normal History curriculum, either at school or university.

My first interest in the book, which is written with luminous ease, was triggered by its ambitious global coverage. Subtitled The Great Civilisations of Mankind, the title bears the imprint of its age. Today we know all too well just how uncivilised the behaviour of allegedly ‘civilised’ nations can be. So possibly the author would have chosen to refer to ‘cultures’ instead. But putting that niggle aside, the book starts with Mesopotamia and then tours through the archaeological/social history of: Egypt; Anatolia; Phoenicia; Persia; Palestine; India; Cambodia; China; Central Asia; Japan; Australia; Polynesia; Melanesia; North America; South America; Central America; Crete; Greece; Italy; and Carthage.

Later I noticed that most of Africa; northern Europe; and Russia were excluded. But the effect of Lissner’s light, gliding prose was such that it was easy to imagine that, with more space, he would have encompassed these other areas with equal aplomb. His text offered sweep rather than universality; and his sweep was determined to take all cultures equally seriously.

A second immediately impressive element was Lissner’s quest to make the ‘dead’ past come alive. Readers were encouraged into efforts at empathy across the generations. Many of the pithy chapters have evocative labels. ‘Cursing their Master behind his Back’ examines the nature of slavery in classical Greece, whilst the author breathes humanist sympathy for the slaves. ‘Babylon was well lit at night’ evokes the bright lights of ancient Babylon and the city’s social mores. And at the end of the Babylonian chapter, Lissner quotes moving scraps of texts from cuneiform messages, songs, and love-letters, written on clay tablets dating from thousands of years ago.

It was such personal declarations from long-dead people which, many years later, jogged my memory about Lissner’s book and got me rereading it. His impressionistic style today seems old-fashioned and I can see many points with which I would later argue. But he had influenced me and also my teaching. ‘Long-sweep’ history need not just be about assessing impersonal trends but should also incorporate the mental effort of imagining/evaluating past experiences of work, wars, loves, joys, griefs – echoing through time.
november002Above all, the text conveyed the implicit assumption that, with historical effort and study, one human could understand, even if not approve, the culture of any other, anywhere around the world – and at any time.
Lissner himself seems to have taken a cyclical view of history. Great ‘civilisations’ would rise and then fall (p.41). His book did not, however, follow anything like a chronological narrative. Instead, he stressed the interconnections between different cultures and the power of continuity.

Ultimately, for him, the key to ‘modernity’ was the emergence of Greek democracy. Its teachings were then conveyed to Rome, which welded ‘the spiritual order of Greece with Christianity’ (p.361). Yet Lissner’s final chapter was surprising. The book ends with ‘the tragedy of Hannibal’. Had Carthage won the Punic wars, Lissner argued, then it would have been the Carthaginians, rather than the Romans, who would have become the historic middlemen ‘between the heritage of the Mediterranean and modern Europe’. Somehow history’s flow was destined but the key actors in achieving it were not. The argument was faintly strange. But I did not worry about that upon first reading, being moved by his approach rather than his conclusions.

Long after reading the book, I discovered that Ivar Lissner (1909-67) came from a Baltic German family with Jewish ancestry but, repellently, had become an active Nazi. He joined the party in 1933 and provided military intelligence for Hitler in the Far East. Falling between several stools, he was imprisoned in harsh conditions by the Japanese from 1943-5. One would not guess any of that from the book. The international humanism seems sincere. And the chapters on Japan are affectionate. Perhaps the deep past gave him a mental escape-route from his fascist years. Certainly, the book’s tone is melancholic. It warns against praising the present at the expense of past cultures. And the nearest to explicit repentance comes in Lissner’s disparaging reference to the ‘so-called “New” Orders of our own small age’ (p.24), although that remark probably reflected anti-communism as much as anti-fascism.

Anyway, as I’ve indicated, upon first reading I was utterly uninterested in the author. Instead, I was stirred by the clarion call to study The Living Past, in the skilled translator’s effective choice of words.1  Not dead history. But a living process. The book thus acted as a ‘sleeper’ in my mind, nurturing my interest in the long-span history,2  even when it was out of fashion. Now that ‘big history’ (or cosmic history) is returning to serious attention,3  I am thoroughly glad that I was pre-primed long ago. The Living Past is a part of my own living past.

1 The German title was So Habt Ihr Geleb = literally Thus Have They Lived.

2 My contribution is Time and the Shape of History (Yale University Press, 2007).

3 The International Big History Association recruits from many disciplines, scientific as well as historical: see website for Newsletter and call for papers at first international conference to be held in 2012.

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