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2015-12-No1-Hogarth's-distressed_poet

MONTHLY BLOG 60, WRITING THROUGH A BIG RESEARCH PROJECT, NOT WRITING UP

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

My heart sinks when I hear someone declare gaily: ‘I’ve done all the research; now all I have to do is write it up’.1 So what’s so wrong with that? It sounds so straightforward. First research, then sit down and write. Then, bingo, big party with lots of happy friends and relieved research supervisor.

But undertaking a big project in the Humanities or Social Sciences doesn’t and shouldn’t work like that.2 So my heart sinks on behalf of any researcher who declares ‘All I have to do is write it up’, because he or she has been wasting a lot of time, under the impression that they have been working hard. Far from being close to the end of a big project, they have hardly begun.

Why so? There are both practical and intellectual reasons for ‘writing through’ a big research project, rather than ‘writing up’ at the end. For a start, stringing words and paragraphs together to construct a book-length study takes a lot of time. The exercise entails ordering a miscellany of thoughts into a satisfactory sequence, marshalling a huge amount of documented detail to expound the sustained argument, and then punching home a set of original conclusions. It’s an arduous art, not an automatic procedure.
2015-12 No1 Hogarth's distressed_poet

Hogarth’s Distrest Poet (1741) expresses the agonies of composition, as he sits in a poky garret, poor and dishevelled, with abandoned drafts at his feet.

Writing and research in the Humanities and Social Sciences should thus proceed in tandem. These tasks between them provide the necessary legs which enable a project to advance. No supervised researcher should be without a target deadline for a forthcoming report or interim paper, which collectively function as prototype chapters. That rule applies from the onset, starting with a written review of the research questions, or bibliographical overview, or primary source search – or however the project is launched. Without ‘writing through’, researchers do not really appreciate what they have found or what they are arguing. Certainly there will be much redrafting and revision, as the research progresses. That’s all part of the process.

But grappling with ideas to turn them into a sustained account in written words is not just a medium for communication. It’s a mechanism for cogitation itself. Just as spoken language crystallises instinctive feelings into expressed thoughts, so the process of turning thoughts into written form advances, clarifies and extends their meaning to form a considered analysis. A book can say much more than a speech, because it’s longer and more complexly structured than even the longest speech. Writing through continually means thinking through properly.

Incidentally, what about prose style? The answer is: suit yourself. Match your personality. Obviously, suit the subject-matter too. Snappy dictums are good value. I enjoy them myself. They punch an argument home. But non-stop bullet-points are wearing. Ideas are unduly compressed. Readers can be stunned. The big argument goes missing. Writing short sentences is fun. Brevity challenges the mind. I could go on. And on. One gets a second wind. But content is also required. Otherwise, vacuity is revealed. And exhaustion threatens. So arguments need building. One point after another. There may be an exception. Sometimes they prove the rule. Sometimes, however, not. It depends upon the evidence. Everything needs evaluation. Points are sometimes obvious. Yet there’s room for subtlety. Don’t succumb to the obvious. Meanings multiply. Take your time. Think things through. Test arguments against data. There’s always a rival case. But what’s the final conclusion? Surely, it’s clear enough. Think kindly of your readers. Employ authorial diversity. Meaning what exactly? [162 words in 39 sentences, none longer than five words]

Alternatively, the full and unmitigated case for long, intricate, sinuous, thoughtful yet controlled sentences, winding their way gracefully and inexorably across vast tracts of crisp, white paper can be made not only in terms of academic pretentiousness – always the last resort of the petty-minded – but also in terms of intellectual expansiveness and mental ‘stretch’, with a capacity to reflect and inflect even the most subtle nuances of thought, although it should certainly be remembered that, without some authorial control or indeed domination in the form of a final full-stop, the impatient reader – eager to follow the by-ways yet equally anxious to seize the cardinal point – can find a numbing, not to say crushing, sense of boredom beginning to overtake the responsive mind, as it struggles to remember the opening gambit, let alone the many intermediate staging posts, as the overall argument staggers and reels towards what I can only describe, with some difficulty, as the ultimate conclusion or final verdict: The End! [162 words in one sentence, also fun to write].3

In other words, my stylistic advice is to vary the mix of sentence lengths. A combination of an Ernest-Hemingway-style brevity with an Edward Gibbonian luxuriance allows points to be fully developed, but also summarised pithily.

Thus, in order to develop a sustained case within a major research project, my organisational advice is to ‘write through’ throughout. That’s the only real way to germinate, sustain, develop, understand innerly and simultaneously communicate a big overarching picture, complete with supporting arguments and data. Oh, and my final point? Let’s banish the dreadful phrase ‘writing up’. It means bodging.
2015-12 No2 Writing

A snappy dictum from the American journalist and writer William Zinsser (1922-2015).

1 This BLOG is a companion-piece to PJC BLOG/59, ‘Supervising a Big Research Project to Finish Well and on Time: Three Framework Rules’ (Nov. 2015). Also relevant is PJC BLOG/34 ‘Coping with Writer’s Block’ (Oct. 2013).

2 In the Sciences, the model is somewhat different, according to the differential weight given to experimental research processes/outcomes and to written output.

3 My puny effort barely registers in the smallest foothills of lengthy sentences in the English language, one celebrated example being Molly Bloom’s soliloquy as finale to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), reportedly in a sentence of over 4,000 words.

4 Hemingway is commonly cited as the maestro of pithiness. Yet the playwright Samuel Beckett also shares the honours in the brevity stakes, writing in sharp contradistinction to his friend and fellow-Irishman James Joyce.

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MONTHLY BLOG 20, IN PRAISE OF DISTINCTIVE CITIES – AND AGAINST THE MARCH OF HIGH-RISE ANYWHERE-CITY

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

may001Okay, so not everywhere can look like Venice. Cities have to adapt and change. Venice itself is not immune from innovations. Yet, in the relentless processes of urban development, much more effort is needed to save each place’s distinctive identity – and to introduce or reintroduce such qualities, if they have been lost. If every omni-urban scene looks like every other omni-urban scene, humans have collectively lost something vital.

This BLOG has general bearings but it is specifically prompted by the publication of my new, expanded booklet on Vauxhall, Sex and Entertainment.1 The history of London’s pioneering pleasure gardens, which triumphantly eroticised the eighteenth-century leisure industry, may seem far distant from today’s plans to redevelop the Vauxhall area into a ‘mini-Manhattan’. (See my April 2012 BLOG). There is, however, an urgent link. We need to reject the march of high-rise anywhere-city – and to keep or restore urban distinctiveness.

Variety is the spice. Trite, but fundamentally right. And authenticity is absolutely essential too.

Many congratulations are rightly paid to the planners/ architects/ politicians/ people for preserving central Paris from the march of identikit high-rise development. That success includes some luck in avoiding wartime devastation but has relied on good judgment thereafter. And, around the globe, the same applies to all those historic towns which have kept their traditional topography and ambience. Udaipur in Rajasthan is but one spectacular example.

Yet, even after praising distinctive cities, it’s worth recalling that many places with sparky urban centres also contain inner-urban and suburban areas that are dire. Areas lose human scale when urban thoroughfares and junctions become too massive; when factory zones are kept isolated, featureless, and dilapidated – especially if their core industries are declining; when shopping malls slowly kill in-town high streets and local shops; and when mass housing estates are left without shops, cafes, pubs, post offices, jobs, viable parks and social amenities. Above all, it’s a disaster if the building of new homes, with modern facilities, simultaneously fail to build functioning communities.

In response, the crucial thing is to get planners, architects, developers, politicians and people to think in terms of the entire lived environment – including the local and regional context, and the prevailing landscape and weather conditions.

Why is all the literature about tall buildings concerned with the effects of heat/wind/weather on the said buildings? But virtually nothing is available on the overshadowing and wind channelling effects of such high-risers upon people and the wider environment.

Too much of the serious planning/development focuses upon just one plot of land; or upon just one building, whether supposedly ‘iconic’ or otherwise. Yet the test should not be for an architect to dream up a strange shape, which is then set as a challenge for an engineer to realise it. Buildings should be part of a townscape, not imposed upon it.

Of course, views of architectural monuments are subjective. Google-search the ‘world’s ugliest building’ and the Elephant Tower, Bangkok, is often nominated, shown here in this 2009 photograph.2 It is not necessarily the jokey concept that is criticised but especially its bleak implementation.
may003But my partner saw this image on screen, grinned, and said ‘Great’. I suspect that he was trying to annoy me, although this building is not in fact my personal nomination for the world’s architectural black-spot. Anyhow, a much more important consideration would be to understand the impact of these buildings upon the immediate locality and the wider city environment – and what visitors and locals think in reality.

Plenty of high-rise buildings, which were praised when first installed, have now been removed as urban and social disasters. It’s not the scale per se which makes some constructions succeed and some fail. It’s the full context and the full experience. We need a good global debate and update upon Jane Jacobs’s humanist tract on the Death and Life of Great American Cities.3

It’s also right to rectify mistakes where buildings have been removed without due thought. Congratulations therefore to historic Datong in China’s Shanxi prefecture, to the west of Beijing. Known as today’s gritty ‘city of coal’, it features among lists of the world’s most polluted cities. Yet, as a sign of good intentions to improve, Datong is rebuilding its great Ming dynasty city walls, which were destroyed in the 1980s in the name of ‘modernity’.4 Let’s have more, more.

Erasing buildings entails erasing past thoughts as well as past deeds. Pulling down the old may well have to be done. But we need to be confident that our new thoughts and deeds are better, and that we fit new constructions into a whole environment of living and liveable cities.

My current example refers to plans to redevelop London’s Vauxhall into a ‘mini-Manhattan’. Why should a low marshy area of Thames bankside, far from the river mouth, emulate the high-rise effect of New York at its distinctive location at the confluence of the Hudson and the Atlantic? If London needs such an attempt, then Canary Wharf is already trying.

Vauxhall could certainly do with improvement. But, unlike some parts of London, it has an exotic past. From the later seventeenth century to 1859, it was the home of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.5 This venue popularised the urban leisure park. It provided an attractive combination of music, dancing, food, drink, variegated entertainments, and an eroticised ambience of sexual dalliance. Not surprisingly, it packed in the crowds, both high and low.

What could the memory of the old Pleasure Gardens contribute to London’s Vauxhall area today?

For a start:
Lots of trees and rose-bushes, lining streets, riverside, parks, and open spaces. Vauxhall was a prime place for courting couples to visit. The nightingales that once serenaded the lovers won’t come back. But why not the indigenous trees? They can help to absorb the noxious exhaust fumes at this polluted traffic interchange; and their flourishing (or otherwise) will signal whether London’s air is getting any cleaner.

• How about arches over the street-scene to generate attractive vistas? And some colonnades; and some statuary? In the eighteenth-century Gardens, there were monuments to John Milton and Georg Handel. But today they could honour Jonathan Tyers, who organised the Gardens in the 1730s, and William Hogarth, who probably designed their dramatic scenery – as seen in the following eighteenth-century print.
may002A musical focus. The Vauxhall Gardens in their prime attracted open-air audiences for summer evening concerts of song and music at both popular and classical levels. Now London has many specialist venues and the bifurcation between high-brow and low-brow can’t easily be undone. But why should the area not host a musical venue of some sort? Maybe a low-cost hall for hire? Plus a link from the Proms in the Park to Vauxhall where London’s open-air summer concerts began?

• More financial and community support for the current imaginative updating of the public open space, now renamed the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, on the site of the old Gardens?6

• And, lastly, some commemoration of Vauxhall as a place for lovers? I don’t know how that’s to be done; and it’s true that love usually evades the planning process. But maybe a statue to Mary Perdita Robinson, a celebrated/notorious eighteenth-century actor and lover, who appeared prominently in Rowlandson’s iconic painting of Vauxhall Gardens in 1784? At very least, it would offer a reminder that women as well as men helped to make old Vauxhall famous as an urban rendez-vous.

1 P.J. Corfield, Vauxhall, Sex and Entertainment: London’s Pioneering Urban Pleasure Garden (History & Social Action Publication: London, 2012) – available after 26 May 2012 via p.j.corfield@btconnect.com; or www.historysocialaction.co.uk.

2 One commentator remarks that ‘the building is 10,000 times bigger than a real elephant, and 10,000 times uglier too’: CNN www.cnngo.com/explorations, 11 Feb. 2011.

3 Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House: New York, 1961; and many later edns).

4 For Datong, see ‘Chinese City’s Bid to Revive Glory of Imperial Past’, BBC News, 3 May 2010; and for context, I. Mohan, The World of Walled Cities: Conservation, Environmental Pollution, Urban Renewal and Developmental Prospects (Mittal: New Delhi, 1992).

5 See Corfield, Vauxhall, Sex and Entertainment; D. Coke and A. Borg, Vauxhall Gardens: A History (Yale University Press: London, 2011); and website: www.vauxhallgardens.com

6 For details, see: www.friendsofvauxhallpleasuregardens.org.uk

7 Consult Paula Byrne, Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (Harpercollins: London, 2004); and May Robinson, The Memoirs of Mary Robinson ‘Perdita’, Edited by her Daughter (London, 1894).

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MONTHLY BLOG 19, IN PRAISE OF PUBLIC INFORMATION, AND DISPRAISE OF SUGARED PUBLIC RELATIONS

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

On the subject of accuracy, there’s no doubt that concerned citizens need access to good public information. But how can we get it straight? Without the sugared gloss of PR?

Take the artists’ illustrations that are commonly presented as part of the brief for controversial planning developments. These pictures are so unreal that one immediately smells a large Rat.

The proposed new development is always shown in summer, under blue skies – sometimes dotted with a few puffs of light, high clouds. The people in sight are predominantly young, comely, and Anglo-Saxon. At most they hold light bags and perhaps a styrofoam cup of coffee. There are no prams, no shopping trolleys, no wheel-chairs in sight. No older people. No babies. No skate-boards or any signs of children having fun. If there is a road, there are perhaps one or two cars and a reassuring bus – but no congestion (and hence, by implication, no air pollution).

Very rarely the proposed high-rise buildings appear to have shadows that might fall upon any adjacent properties. Or, if they do, then such darkened areas are lightly, almost apologetically, shaded.

Above all, when the proposed new buildings are disproportionately tall in a low-rise area, then the illustrations either focus upon a trendy new piazza at the foot of the tall building; or look at it from a distance – say across a river, sparkling blue in the summer sunshine. A night-time view is taken with all lights glittering, perhaps across the river. No hint of the under-occupied buildings which result, looking bleak with deserted streets at ground level.

There is no real sense of how such proposed buildings might fit into a wider area. How they are viewed from afar, affecting the views of countless people who are not consulted over the proposed changes.

There is no sense of how the development will look at different times of year and in different climatic conditions. What about wet February afternoons as well as sunny June days?

Talking of climatic effects in particular, there is no consideration of the potential for wind funnels. People daily experience the mini-gales that swirl around at the feet of high-rise buildings, especially in exposed areas such as sites by the riverside. But somehow it is assumed that such invisible costs must never be mentioned. Depressingly, almost all architectural studies of wind effects and high-rise buildings concentrate on the impact of wind upon the buildings themselves but not upon the wider locality. A sad sign of how the individual structures are given priority over the urban landscape and environment as a whole.

Developers promise more one- and two-bedroom flats. How does that relate to housing demand locally? What about families? What percent of the single-bed and two-bedroom flats recently built along the Wandsworth riverside are empty for some or all of the year? We are not told in the public planning brief. Offices are to be provided. Is London short of offices? No documentation is provided. They promise more retail outlets. How does that relate to the growth of on-line buying and the crisis of small shops in town centres? Especially in the light of the Portas Report, which has just won promises of support for existing town centres – while the so-called planning process is undermining them daily.

Continuing the litany of questions: where are the community facilities, such as a hall which is available for public use and private hire? There is no mention of libraries or schools, because the lop-sided community without families will not need such things.

And lastly, why do the promised public green spaces at the feet of these developments seem so dispiriting? Are the amenities actually amenable? Will people want to use them? Are they central to the plan or add-ons to allow some green colouring on the plans? Will these places be free from overshadowing and wind blight? Who will maintain them, keeping them free from litter and vandalism? Needless to say, detailed reports on many aspects of every planning application are promised, including a ‘Placemaking Strategy’. But how often do such documents critique the basic application? The fear is that reports have pre-judged the issue in advance. And that over-development of a site for short-term expediency risks being preferred over long-term planning, even while the deleterious results of hasty over-development last for a long, long time.

There are so many other forms of public information, which turn out to be nothing more than PR exercises, about which much more could be written. But enough for now. Just have a look at the following illustration, which is attached to the current planning application for ‘One Nine Elms’, next to Vauxhall station.
April2012This illustration flatters the proposed Market Towers. The sky is deep blue, shading to lighter sky and lights at ground level. The Towers seem to cast no shadows. The surviving Grade I listed building at their feet (centre R) is merged into the background, foretelling its coming obscurity. The traffic at a major traffic interchange is strangely reduced to give the picture harmony. The struggling commuters battling through the wind funnel at the feet of high-rise buildings by the exposed riverside don’t exist. Bah! Humbug! And … more anon.

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MONTHLY BLOG 17, EVENTS LIVED THROUGH – PART TWO: 1971

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 www.walklondon.org.uk.

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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MONTHLY BLOG 16, EVENTS LIVED THROUGH – PART ONE: 1968

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

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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