MONTHLY BLOG 123, THE PEOPLING OF BRITAIN: PROPOSED SCHOOLS COURSE FOR TEENAGERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

123.1 Black-and-white diagram showing ‘everyman’ and ‘everywoman’ on the move:
© binary template from research.net (2021)

Humans are a globe-trotting species;1 and the people of Britain are notable exponents of that trait. In fact, continental Europe’s sizeable offshore islands, with their long maritime tradition, are among the world’s most hybrid communities. Its people come and go. Many stop and stay. Others move on and depart, and, not infrequently, return. In the process, their histories say much about both the culturally positive and negative aspects of migration.

For that reason, there’s a great case for a schools course for British teenagers to study ‘The Peopling of Britain’, from the earliest times until now. Everybody’s family plays a part in the collective story. Such a course can be located within Modern History, or Sociology, or Civics: and it can easily be associated with individual Roots Projects, in which students discuss their history with older members of the family.2

Such themes need to be addressed with care and sensitivity. Not all families are happy to uncover past secrets, if secrets there be. Some are happy to be revealed as ‘stayers’. Yet not all families are satisfied with staying put. Conversely, not all cases of migration are happy ones. And some adopted children don’t know their full family history. They especially need thoughtful and sensitive help in tracing their roots, in so far as that’s possible.3 But they can also benefit from understanding their adoptive families’ stories, which show how population mixing happens from day-to-day, as part of ordinary life. These are all crucial issues for young adults as they grow up and find their places in a complex society. So it is helpful to confront the long history of ‘the peopling of Britain’ in a supportive class environment, with supportive teachers.

One immediate effect is to provide historical perspective. Population movement into and out of Britain is far from a recent invention. It goes back to the very earliest recorded settlements by Celts and Basques; and has continued ever since. In 1701 the novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe amused his readers by poetically lampooning the mongrel heritage of The True-Born Englishman:

‘The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit;

And with the English-Saxon all Unite.’4

He was not intent on disparagement. On the contrary, he was glorying in the country’s diversity. Moreover, Defoe was writing about the English as they had recruited population in the millennia before 1066. After that date, the Norman French invaders followed in 1066, Dutch and Walloon religious refugees arrived in the sixteenth century; French Huguenot, German, Irish, and Caribbean migrants settled from the eighteenth century onwards; and many others have followed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Canada, North and South America; from the Middle East; from India, Pakistan, China, and the Far East, including the Philippines; from many parts of Africa; from Australia and New Zealand; as well as from Scandinavia, from across central, southern and eastern Europe – and, on a small scale, from Russia.5

Defoe’s point, as he explained in the  Preface to the 1703 edition of The True-Born Englishman, was that population migration was and is normal. Accordingly, he explained that: ‘I only infer, that an English Man, of all Men ought not to despise Foreigners as such, and I think the Inference is just, since what they are today, we were yesterday; and tomorrow they will be like us’.6

Of course, migration has not always been easy. That is a big, obvious and important point. There have been tensions, hostilities, riots, rejection, and simmering bitterness.7 But such responses should not therefore be brushed under the historical carpet. Instead, it is helpful for students to explore: why tensions emerge in some circumstances; and not in others. And in some periods; but not in others? What factors help integration? And which factors impeded cohesion? The answers include crucial contextual factors, like the availability of work and housing. And they also highlight the behaviour both of host communities and of migrant groups, including rival languages, religions, and differing cultural attitudes – for example to the role of women.

At the same time, migration has its positive and dynamic side. The acceptance of social pluralism, for example with different religions worshipping peacefully side by side, is a useful civic art, in a world full of different religious groups. Equally, learning from and sharing the global diversity of food and music adds much to cultural creativity. And the same applies across the board, in terms of generating and sharing the global stock of knowledge, to which all cultures contribute.

Moreover, there is one quietly successful – almost secret – experience that underpins migration, which many students’ own family histories will reveal. That is, the very great extent of intermarriage between these migrant groups, especially over time. (Needless to say, not all the unions between people from different backgrounds were actually legal ones; but ‘intermarriage’ is the demographers’ term not just for sexual encounters but for all unions which produced children). Such relationships happen across and between different ethnic, religious, and social groups, even when forbidden. Romeo and Juliet are the tragic theatrical representations of a human story of love despite barriers.

It is certainly a common experience for Britons, who delve back into their ancestry, to find forebears from a variety of ethnic, religious and geographical origins. Equally, many known migrants to Britain from ‘foreign parts’ have descendants who merge seamlessly into the population today. One example stands proxy for many. The ancestry of Lord ‘Bill’ Wedderburn, a noted Labour lawyer and politician (1927-2012), stretches back, on his father’s side, to Robert Wedderburn, the Jamaican-born radical and anti-slavery campaigner (1762-c.1835). They couldn’t meet in daily life; but they do meet in the pages of British history – complete with their intent gazes and small frown lines between the eyes.

123.2 (L) Jamaican-born Robert Wedderburn (1762-c.1835), anti-slavery campaigner, and (R) his descendant, Bill Wedderburn, lawyer & Labour politician (1927-2012).

Incidentally, Britain’s long-standing aversion to national identity papers made it hard for the authorities in earlier times to track the location of migrants. Hence many ‘foreigners’ quietly Anglicised their names and disappeared from the official record. That situation contrasted, for example, with non-Islamic newcomers into the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. They were required, in theory at least, to wear distinctive dress, featuring specifically coloured turbans to indicate their religious/ethnic origins.8 But all such regulations were difficult to sustain over time, as migrant families became established over successive generations.

Studying these issues provides a long-term perspective on issues of social and personal sensitivity. The Schools’ curriculum tends to be divided into chunks around specific periods of history – often very recent ones. But it’s good for teenagers to study some long-term trends. History is rightly not taught today as one inevitable success story. Old Whig views of ‘the March of Progress’ have been discarded in the light of chronic warfare, famines, genocides, racism, chronic poverty, and sundry catastrophes. And an alternative Marxist view of history as unending class struggle, leading to the inevitable triumph of the proletariat, has also been revealed as a massive over-simplification.9

Yet all British students can study with benefit the long-term peopling of the country in which they live. They will confront conflict, but also cooperation. Enmities but also love. They will learn how and why people move – and how societies can learn to cope with migration. These complex legacies impact not only upon society at large but also upon all individuals. (At the same time, too, there is a parallel story of the massive British diaspora around the world).10 Understanding the history of humanity’s chronic globe-trotting is part of learning to be simultaneously a British citizen and a global one.

ENDNOTES:

1 L.L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Harlow, 1995).

2 See companion-piece PJC BLOG/122 (Feb.2021), ‘Proposed Roots Project for Teenagers’. And relevant analysis in R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2.

3 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

4 D. Defoe, The True-Born Englishman (1703), lines 25-26.

5 J. Walvin, Passage to Britain: Immigration in British History and Politics (Harmondsworth, 1984); P. Panayi, An Immigration History of Britain: Multicultural Racism since 1800 (Harlow, 2010); M. Spafford and D. Lyndon, Migrants to Britain, c.1250 to Present (2016).

6 Defoe, True-Born Englishman, Preface to 1703 edn.

7 A.H. Richmond, Immigration and Ethnic Conflict (Basingstoke, 1988); R.M. Dancygier, Immigration and Conflict in Europe (Cambridge, 2010).

8 D. Quataert, ‘Clothing Laws, State and Society in the Ottoman Empire, 1720-1829’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 29 (1997), pp. 403-25.

9 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 74-5, 174-8; and idem, ‘Time and the Historians in the Age of Relativity’, in A.C.T. Geppert and Till Kössler (eds), Obsession der Gegenwart: Zeit im 20. Jahrhundert; transl. as Obsession with the Here-and-Now: Concepts of Time in the Twentieth Century, (Göttingen, 2015), pp. 71-91, esp. pp. 78-80, 83.

10 E. Richards, Britannia’s Children: Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (2004).

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MONTHLY BLOG 122, PROPOSED ROOTS PROJECT FOR TEENAGERS

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Line Drawing of Tree & Roots:
© Vector Illustrations (2020)
65691748

It’s important for individuals to know about their personal roots, Humans all live in Time-Space (also known as the Space-Time continuum).1 And knowing a bit about personal family roots helps to locate people in their own individual spot in history and geography.

So this short essay speculates about a possible School Roots Project for children in their mid-teens. (Perhaps in a Civics class; or a part of a contemporary History course). The aim is not in any way to encourage family- bragging, whether for ‘lofty’ aristocratic lineage or for ‘authentic’ proletarian roots. Instead, the value is chiefly for the individuals concerned, to know more about themselves – and to have the chance to talk seriously about their roots with parents/ grandparents/ influential family members/ and/or any others who played a significant role in their upbringings.

Clearly teachers need to organise all such Roots Projects with great sensitivity. Not all families are happy ones. Not all older relatives will be at ease talking about the past with people of a younger generation. And thoughtful arrangements have to be made for students who are adopted, who may know little or nothing about their biological background – but who share the same human need to be socially well rooted in Time-Space. Indeed, it can well be argued that those whose position is, outwardly at least, relatively unsettled have the greatest need for this exercise in rooting, both with their adoptive families and/or with their biological families, if they can be traced.2

The more that individuals know about their personal background, the more secure they feel – the more they understand their connections with others – the better their sense of self-esteem – and the more they feel in control of their own lives. Rootedness is a prime indicator of emotional health and happiness. And the more that people are secure in their own skin, the better they can relate to others.3 They can simultaneously see their own role as part of a wider human history, set in unfolding Time which links the generations.

What then should a Roots Project for teenagers entail? The details are best left to be specified by teachers who know the relevant age-group. There’s no magic formula. Just a desire to get children talking to their parents/ grandparents/ or any other significant figures in their upbringing. At infant school level, there are many good storybooks about families; and there are projects which invite children to ask grandparents (say) simple questions, such as ‘What sort of toys did you have as a child?’ For teenagers, the discussion can be more probing – but may be hampered by years of not talking about personal matters. Therefore Projects should start modestly: asking children which adults influenced them as they grew? And then asking the youngsters to think of questions to ask the grownups in their lives?

Students should also be briefed on asking for family help with their Roots Projects. It must be stressed that all information will be used exclusively by the students. These talks will not be ‘on the record’ – here contrasting with what can happen to taped interviews as the result of formal Oral History exercises.4 Instead, the Roots Projects are intended as launch-pads for informal chats, enabling the students to write a short account of one or more significant adults who influenced their upbringing.

Afterwards, the class can be invited to share their experiences of the process. Some families will already be talkers. Others not. In every case, there is always more to be learned. Did the students find it easy or difficult to get the adults to talk? If difficult, why was that? Was it that they themselves were embarrassed? Or the parents shy? Did the talking exercise make things any easier? Did they learn anything surprising? What might they ask next time that they have a family chat? To stress again, the exercise is not a competitive exercise in bragging about comparative social backgrounds. Instead, it is an exercise in Rooting – taking specific steps in what may become a longer series of family discussions.

Generally, it’s very common for people to exclaim, at the demise of a parent, grandparent or any other significant relative or carer: ‘I wish I’d asked them more about themselves, when they were alive to tell me’. Death locks the doors to personal memories of a shared past. Rooting Projects help to open the conversations while all the protagonists are alive to relate their own histories.

ENDNOTES:

1 Whether the chosen terminology is Time-Space or Space-Time, the proposition is the same: that Time and Space are integrally yoked. For further discussion, see P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 15, 9-11, 17-18, 218, 220, 248-52; and PJC current research-in-progress.

2 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

3 R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2/

4 Oral History, professionally undertaken, provides a wonderful set of original resources for historical studies: among a huge literature, see e.g. A. Zusman, Story Bridges: A Guide for Conducting Intergenerational Oral History Projects (2016); F-A. Montoya and B. Allen, Practising Oral History to Connect University to Community (2018). These Schools Rooting Projects can be regarded as early stepping stones in the same process of tapping into the powers of the human memory – and sharing them with others.

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MONTHLY BLOG 112, ON RECONSIDERING THE (INTERRUPTED) FUTURE

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Fig.1 Silhouettes of grass in fog

It is not possible to learn from the future that has not yet unfolded. The unidirectional nature of Time forbids it. So when people assert airily: ‘We don’t learn from the past’, I am incredulous. What? Of course, humans must learn from the past because they can’t learn from the future – and the unstable present, in which they learn, is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the past.

However, while humans can’t learn from the future, it is certainly pertinent to think again about future expectations, now that routine life has been so suddenly interrupted. Diaries that were full of engagements and plans have suddenly been voided. The clear future has become foggy. It’s disconcerting but educational, particularly for those, like myself, living voluntarily under something near to house-arrest for the duration of the health emergency.

In fact, humans have a lot of advance knowledge about the long-term future. One certainty, confirmed by universal past experience, is that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die. Generally, however, humans manage to live their daily lives without dwelling on that thought. But, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic – a contemporary plague – an awareness of the reality and ubiquity of death is sharpened. It’s a valuable jolt. Remember to finish projects; to express affection; to help others; to enjoy every immediate minute; to make the mental leap into long-term history which will continue whatever; and to breathe deeply.

Then there’s the immediate future. That’s much more under personal control. Coming through the fog more clearly. Living indoors and making minimal trips outside heightens appreciation of the usefulness of daily routines. It helps to have a structure to the day, without over-organising. Remember to exercise; to laugh; to contact friends; to eat healthily; to think about others; to do a daily crossword; to study history; to tend the plants; to listen to music (sometimes to sing); and (vital for me personally) to write.

Yet the most problematic area of the suddenly interrupted future is the uncertainty of the intermediate span of the soon-to-follow weeks, months and years. Very far ahead will look after itself. Close at hand can be managed. But the intermediate future is the foggiest of all. Very disconcerting. For how long will the lockdown continue? Will the containment policy work? For how long will the population consent to the current state of affairs? Will historians judge the government’s efforts kindly or unkindly? Will the laid-back Swedish approach to the health emergency prove to have been the right one? How far will life in Britain be radically changed once the crisis is over? No-one knows.

Informed guesses can be ventured, based upon past experience. One pattern suggests that the people – and particularly those at the ‘foot’ of the social hierarchy – will want major reforms, after the great upheaval and sacrifices of a collectively fought war. Yet the actual outcome is unknown.

The foggy shapelessness of the intermediate future contains threats and promises. Remember to roll with the punches; to keep a measured optimism; to avoid being disconcerted by history’s capacity to spring surprises; to recall also the staying power of history’s deep continuities; to be ready to resume life outdoors and on the move; to enjoy hugging friends and family again; to look for the wood in the trees – the big picture in the daily details – the pattern emerging from the fog; and, above all, to embrace the unknown future, which will become the past from which humans can learn. Unseen, social energies are being recharged. Through the fog,  community options are emerging. Yet only Time will reveal the precise story, as it always does.

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MONTHLY BLOG 111, THREE RULES FOR WRITING A REGULAR BLOG

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Fig.1 After Henry Robert Morland,
Writing by Candlelight (mid-C18)

Firstly and inevitably: have something to say.1 No point in writing just to fill the blank page. And, more particularly, decide on the topic at least two or three days in advance. That system gives a good chance to mull over ideas, phrases, and half sentences, in quiet moments well before writing. (Such cogitations are good subjects to think about while on a long, non-taxing walk, or while swimming up and down in a quiet pool). Lateral thinking and inventiveness is a great prelude to the sequential progression of writing. And the more that ideas have been mulled over beforehand, the easier the writing becomes. It flows as if from inner dictation. A good style should then be conversational, not didactic.

Secondly: dedicate a quiet place and a good slab of unbroken time for the actual writing process. Ban emails, regular mail, phone-calls, texts, real-life visits, and all other distractions for the duration. Press right on to the end. In the event of any necessary stoppage to check sources or for any other reason, keep the break as short as possible – and don’t use it as an excuse to divert into another task, no matter how urgent. Remember the story of Coleridge in 1797, when he had written 54 lines of his enigmatic poem Kubla Khan. He was disrupted by ‘a person on business from Porlock’. When the visitor departed an hour later, Coleridge found, to his mortification, that the muse had left him.2 The poem remained A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment. Whether it would or would not have been an even greater work if twice the length, and/or whether the ‘person’ was a real visitor or a proxy in Coleridge’s mind for his inability to complete, does not matter. ‘Porlock’ is the codeword for an untimely break in literary concentration. So take care to avoid being Porlocked, while in creative flow. (Writing longer works, which cannot be completed in one session, requires a different strategy. Yet the same principle applies: learn to concentrate. It’s a great ability to acquire, in this era of multiple electronic distractions.)

Thirdly: embed the writing in its context, with footnotes or short references in brackets, if appropriate. The point is not to make a show of learning; or, even less, to bore impatient readers. Nonetheless, it’s helpful for them to know when authors are relying on their own invention and when they are using sources or citing information which can be corroborated. (It’s especially important, when fake news and information are proliferating, to know that authors have not simply made up the evidence that they are quoting in support of their case). In other words, citations supply intellectual scaffolding for original thoughts. New insights build upon the existing stocks of knowledge. Retrospectively, indeed literary detectives can unpick the background building blocks of even the most off-the-wall creative works: John Livingston Lowes did just that in inspired style when sleuthing the origins of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.3 Writers of BLOGs are considerably more earthbound than was Coleridge. But all are using words to communicate. All with a mixture of originality and authenticated information. Then end with a ‘snappy dictum’, such as the following (ten words): Regular BLOGS need uninterrupted time to fuse inspiration and information.  

ENDNOTES:

1 Please note that there are plenty of web-BLOGPOSTS on this very theme.

2 As recounted by Coleridge in Preface to 1816 edition of his poems: see E.H. Coleridge (ed.), The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1912; in 1964 reprint), p. 296.

3 J.L. Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of Imagination (1927; and many later edns).

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MONTHLY BLOG 110, THE (POLITICAL) RED-GREEN ALLIANCE

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Call it a political RED-GREEN alliance. Call it a loose political RED-GREEN federation. Even a move towards a full-blown RED-GREEN party merger? But enough shilly-shallying. It’s time for action.

The global climate emergency makes that clear enough. If there are any continuing doubters, then mark the words of David Attenborough to the World Economic Forum in January 2019. Or study the data provided in the 2019 State of the Global Climate report by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation, based in Geneva.Or heed calls from Greta Thunberg and many schoolchildren for urgent action, not distant promises. Or view images of exceptional wildfires in Australia and Spain; abnormally extended droughts in Somalia and parts of the USA; unseasonal floods and rainfall in Brazil, India, Thailand and many other countries; and melting glaciers in Antarctica.3

Everyone needs to take action; and political parties should take a lead. Needless to say, organisations in opposition have less power than those in office. But it is simply not true that those outside Westminster/Whitehall are toothless, fangless lap-poodles. Governments respond to public opinion, public pressure, public lobbying, public agitation, public emergencies. Look at the way that green issues are zooming to the forefront of politics, far ahead of the rate at which Green politicians are gaining control of central government power.4

It’s more than time for political parties to move out of their traditional comfort-zones. And the defeat of the Left in the 2019 general election shows that the electorate is also changing – and not in favour of the opposition in its current form.

What should the Labour Party in Britain do? Keep its proud red flag and its commitment to redistribution of power to the people and the ending of vast and unproductive economic inequalities. But simultaneously it should ally itself politically with the Green Party. And that means an active alliance, with electoral agreements, locally, regionally and nationally.

What should the Greens in Britain do? Keep their proud green flag and their commitment to ecological transformation and the ending of vast and unproductive economic inequalities. But simultaneously it should ally itself politically with the Labour Party. And that means an active alliance, with electoral agreements, locally, regionally and nationally.

Both parties share great swathes of common ground, so that an alliance is feasible as well as desirable. Changes should be made with reasonable speed, to show the electorate and the Tory government that the opposition has woken to the need for fundamental transformation. It’s a pledge of sincerity to begin with self-reform at home. And it strengthens campaigns to bring red-green issues together to the political forefront, which can be done firstly from opposition, and later from government.

A PERSONAL NOTE: This BLOG is written by someone who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1959 and remembers the days when the party had millions of card-carrying members. During the years, she has been at times in accord with the Labour leadership; at other times not.    But the point of being a persistent grass-root is not to be perfectly happy at every moment.

Instead, party members make whatever personal contribution they can to a long-term movement, which is bigger and more important than them. Keir Starmer is right that the Labour Party needs to be seen as a continuing force for good. And, in these turbulent times, the big next step is to work hand-in-hand with the Greens. In alliance – in federation – in merger: the details matter less than the urgent need to renovate the Left and cope with the climate emergency.

1 https://www.coolearth.org/2019/01/the-garden-of-eden-is-no-more-sir-david-attenborough.

2 https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/climate/wmo-statement-state-of-global-climate

3 www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/09/glacial-melting-in-antarctica-may-become-irreversible.

4 For a recent overview, see ‘Pathways to Power’, Green European Journal (2020): https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/pathways-to-power-how-green-parties-join-governments/

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MONTHLY BLOG 109, HONOURING VERA BÁCSKAI (1930-2018)

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Vera Bácskai

Vera Bácskai in 2016 in image taken from Youtube Interview in Hungarian:
© Tabudöntök: Bácskai Vera a Petőfi Körrol (2016)

Behind the invariably calm, genial and ecumenical welcome accorded by Vera Bácskai to her many friends and colleagues around the world, there was a hit of something darker. ‘Melancholic’ would not be the right word. Nor would ‘bleak’. Those adjectives are far too negative. A better description would be a hint of inner stoic fortitude, indicating someone, who had faced a complex trauma of political failure and personal deprivation at the age of 26, and come through determinedly and, eventually – but only after the passage of many years –  triumphantly.

Is it saying too much, to detect all that in the personality of Vera Bácskai? I don’t think so. We live our own personal histories, which are imprinted in our personalities. Vera not only lived through turbulent times but, for a moment in November 1956, she herself was literally present in the eye of the Hungarian storm, when the Soviet army invaded Budapest.

For my part, I first met Vera Bácskai in the later 1980s, through our shared interests in urban history. We talked animatedly about research, politics, our mutual friends, our families, and our shared interests in classical music and detective stories. Not for a moment did Vera allude to her own past history, whether to exult at her youthful daring or to complain at the outcome or simply to convey basic information. She was affable but reserved. I later realised that this tough, deep silence was Vera’s way of coping with trauma. As a response, it is a well known one among veterans, particularly in earlier generations, who have faced bitter experiences in wartime or other forms of conflict.2

In the early 1950s, Vera Bácskai had been one of many youthful enthusiasts in Hungary for liberal/radical explorations of socialism and internationalism. She joined an influential network of like-minded activists, known as the Sándor Petőfi Circle.3 This debating club was so named after their national poet, the hero of the 1848 Revolution who died young in 1849 at the age of twenty-six.4 ‘Liberty and love/ These two I must have’ … Petőfi’s most famous verse couplet represented the romance and the enthusiasm of the movement. It was part of the flowering of national and cultural idealism which defined itself after World War II as renewing socialism – but was not so defined by the Soviets. The army was dispatched to crush what was termed the Hungarian Uprising or Revolution,5 just as in 1968 it was sent into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.

Faced with absolute crisis on the streets of Budapest, the Hungarian leadership with a core of supporters retreated for safety into the Yugoslav Embassy (now the Embassy of the Republic of Serbia). It is a solid building at the conjunction of two major roads, Andrássy út and Dózsa György út, sited immediately opposite to what is now the imposing Heroes Square, celebrating the historic Magyar origins of Hungary. The situation then was tense and utterly chaotic, as bullets flew. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, and numerous close colleagues in government, were ‘persuaded’ into leaving the Embassy and were promptly taken into captivity by the Soviet army. Most were immediately sent into exile, although the Hungarian leader, Imre Nagy (1896-1958), was recalled to Budapest, where he was arrested, put on trial and executed in 1958.6 (Today the confrontation between the Soviets and the Hungarian insurgents is commemorated by a modest plaque on the front wall of the building).

Fig.2 The Serbian (formerly Yugoslav) Embassy in Budapest, showing the windows of the first floor room into which the defiant leaders of the Hungarian government and key supporters had retreated, before they were taken into captivity by the Soviet Army.
Photo © Tony Belton 2019

Among the Hungarian activists who had retreated with Imre Nagy into the Embassy was the young Vera Bácskai. She too was sent into exile at Snagov in Romania, a rural commune 40km north of Bucharest. The move abruptly separated her from her very young daughter without a chance of saying farewell. They did not meet again for several years. Not surprisingly, that break caused Vera feelings of acute guilt and anxiety; and it also strained her relationship with her husband, Gábor Tánczos (1928-79), who had been secretary of the Petőfi Circle and a fellow activist. In 1958 he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, before being released under an amnesty in 1963. However, these were not matters to which Vera ever alluded in any detail. She buried deeply both her political disappointment at failure in 1956 and her responses to the personal and familial difficulties which followed.

Once, when we were discussing the impact of ‘Hungary 1956’ upon left-wing intellectuals across Europe, I referred to the tensions between the British Communists as they disagreed upon how to respond to news of the Soviet intervention My uncle, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, found that this event triggered a particularly torrid and unhappy era in his life. He opposed the Soviet move but he hated the disagreements with old comrades, as they argued over how to democratise the British Communist Party. When they failed, many, like Hill himself, then took the wrenching decision to leave the CP. This crisis followed a sad period in his life when his first marriage had disintegrated; and his deeply religious parents were aghast that their much-loved son was getting a divorce, at a time when such break-ups were regarded as dangerous assaults upon societal harmony. All these problems seemed to fuse into a personal and political maelstrom.7 As I spoke, Vera listened intently. And then she remarked, flatly and without emotion: ‘But this is normal, Penny’. It was an understated declaration of: ‘Me too’, but again without vouchsafing any personal details.

From the crisis of 1956 and its aftermath, Vera emerged with strengthened qualities of stoicism, dignity, self-sufficiency and resilience. These traits underpinned her charm and cheerfulness throughout. Perhaps one might speculate about her past of inner tensions from her heavy smoking, which remained a life-time habit long after she realised that it was medically harmful. Be that as it may, Vera’s way of coping with trauma worked admirably well for her. She had no need or desire to wear her heart on her sleeve.

Then in 1958 Vera was reprieved from exile and returned to Hungary. She was at that time banned from teaching. So she found a job in the Budapest Archives. The change was initially regarded as something of a come-down for a brilliant young scholar, who had studied Marxist theory and history in Russia. It provided, however, an intellectual lifeline. Vera transformed herself into an archive historian, with all the strengths which that implied. She learned to read old German, old Hungarian and Latin; immersed herself in the primary sources; and began to write an updated urban/social history that was at once knowledgeable and theoretically informed, yet without Marxist dogma.

Moreover, Vera linked her documentary expertise with topographical understanding. She knew her Budapest. And as Hungary began to open contacts with the wider world in the 1980s, visiting scholars were taken by Vera on guided walks through the old city, to see ancient housing, old churches of many denominations, Turkish baths, an old travellers’ inn with spacious stabling, and a half-built-over but surviving section of the old Pest city walls. The flavour of her work at this time was conveyed in an interview with her in 1996, which I undertook for the Journal of Urban History.8 A characteristic remark on her part stated that: ‘I did not try to be fashionable’.9 It was in this interview that she first explained to me, in very brief and deadpan style, the events of 1956 which led to her exile. I was very surprised at this information and, as I learned later, so were a number of her colleagues at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, where she had eventually gained an academic post in 1991.

International links and international admiration for Vera’s work in due course began then to multiply. By the 1990s, she had become an inspirational figure both within and outside Hungary. Her role as a linchpin of the flourishing European Association for Urban History (founded 1989) was reflected in her election as President in 1996. Indeed, she remained deeply satisfied by her work as an academic; and by her close relationship with her daughter Éva and her two spirited grand-children Gergely (Gergõ) and Judit.

At no time did Vera display any interest in a return to politics. Even after the Hungarian regime change in 1989, when many of her earlier associates either returned to politics or (in the case of Imre Nagy) were rehabilitated as national heroes, she did not in any way push herself onto the public stage. Only late in her life (2016) did she did give an important interview on the Petőfi Circle, essentially bearing witness for the historical record.10

Throughout, Vera Bácskai retained her vivid interest in making connections, reaching out to new ideas, new people, new approaches. She believed passionately that knowledge flourishes best with the aid of open exchange and debate. A motif of a circle, composed of many individuals linking hands around the world would well describe her dedicated commitment – from the Petőfi Circle onwards – to an associational life.

Fig.3 Motif: Hands around the World
© WikiClipArt (2019)

To all these shared debates, Vera Bácskai brought her original research, her genial courtesy, her enjoyment of discussion, her freedom from dogma, her optimism, and her underlying deep resolve. She was a proud patriot in her love for her country and its unique language and heritage. Yet she simultaneously enjoyed the role of Budapest as a cultural hub between East and West.

Vera Bácskai herself embodied Hungary’s long tradition of liberal radicalism, which looks not inwards but outwards. She contributed to a persistent community of people striving to reconcile freedom with fairness, liberty with commitment, meritocratic learning with universalism. I honour her – from my heart as well as from my head – as a sincere friend, a wise scholar, and a brave internationalist.

ENDNOTES:

1 This account has been expanded from personal testimony given on 16 May 2019 as part of a two-day Conference in Tribute to Vera Bácskai, held at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest: with special thanks to Dr. Erika Szívós and her colleagues for their effective organisation, to all present for their enthusiastic participation, and to Dr. Erika Szívós again for kindly correcting errors in an initial draft.

2 See e.g. M. Ritter, ‘Silence as the Voice of Trauma’, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 74 (2014), pp. 176-94.

3 Details in A.B. Hegedüs and T. Cox, ‘The Petőfi Circle: The Forum of Reform in 1956’, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol. 13 (1997), pp. 108-33; and S. Hall, 1956: The World in Revolt (2016).

4 See W.N. Loew, Gems from Petőfi and Other Hungarian Poets, Translated: With a Memoir of the Former (New York, 1881).

5 G. Litván (ed.), The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression, 1953-63 (1996); L. Péter and M. Rady (eds), Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution in Hungary and Central Europe: Commemorating 1956 (2008); P. Lendvai, One Day that Shook the Communist World: The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and its Legacy, transl. A. Major (Princeton, 2008).

6 See variously P. Unwin, Voice in the Wilderness: Imre Nagy and the Hungarian Revolution (1991); K.P. Benziger, Imre Nagy, Martyr of the Nation: Contested History, Legitimacy, and Popular Memory in Hungary (2008); J.M. Rainer, Imre Nagy: A Biography (Budapest, 2002) transl. L.H. Legter (2009).

7 P.J. Corfield, ‘Christopher Hill: The Marxist Historian as I Knew Him’ (2018), in PJC website www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/Pdf/47. For many different perspectives upon debates within British communism in 1956 and thereafter, see: D. Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-68 (1976); [Anon.], The Cult of the Individual: The Controversy within British Communism, 1956-8 (Belfast,1975); M. Heinemann, ‘1956 and the Communist Party’, Socialist Register, 1976 (1976), pp. 43-57; D. McNally, ‘E.P. Thompson: Class Struggle and Historical Materialism’, International Socialism, Vol. 2:61 (1993); T. Brotherstone, ‘1956 and the Crisis in the Communist Party of Great Britain: Four Witnesses’, Journal of Socialist Theory, Vol. 35 (2007), pp. 189-209.

8 P.J. Corfield, ‘A Conversation with Vera Bácskai’, Journal of Urban History, Vol. 25 (1999), pp. 514-35. See also, for her further reflections in Hungarian upon her work as a historian, A. Keszei, ‘“Én kíváncsi történész vagyok”: Interjú Bácskai Verával/ “I am a Curious Historian”: Interview with Vera Bácskai’, Korall, Vol. 1 (2000), pp. 7-18.

9 Corfield, ‘Conversation with Vera Bácskai’, p. 532.

10 Youtube Interview: Tabudöntök: Bácskai Vera a Petőfi Körrol (2016).

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MONTHLY BLOG 108, Why must Humans beware the Midas Touch?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

PJC REVIEWS

CHARLES DICKENS

 A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1843)

ADAPTED FOR STAGE PERFORMANCE

BY LAURA TURNER (2010; updated 2019)

Viewed at Palace Theatre, Appleton Gate, Newark NG24 1JY

16 November 2019

Cast (alphabetically): The Chapterhouse Touring Company –

Gareth Cary; Matthew Christmas; Eliza Jade; Graham Hill; Alexandra Lansdale;

Amy Llewellyn; Zachery Price

Director: Antony Law


‘Bah! Humbug!’ With those great words, Scrooge launches an evening of festive entertainment and a ripple of appreciation spreads through the audience. The central theme is set. When is it right to be frank, forthright and unsentimental? To speak the truth as one sees it. But when does such behaviour become surly, selfish and inhumane? Dismissing genuine concerns as simply sentimental and confected? There is a special resonance to such questions right now since an election campaign is in train when the Prime Minister seeking re-election has dismissed concerns about personal safety and the coarsened state of public discourse, as emotionally expressed by a female MP, as ‘Humbug!’

On stage, the youthful cast of seven actors throw themselves energetically into recreating the bustling life of mid-nineteenth-century London. All but one play multiple roles, including the ghost of Scrooge’s former partner Jacob Marley. Their parts are rather stereotyped; but they make an effective ensemble, under the skilful stage direction of Antony Law.

One character, however, has to undergo moral growth and change from being an old skinflint into a sentient, feeling human being. He is Ebenezer Scrooge, as played by Matthew Christmas, who is visibly youthful and good-looking. Does that matter? Surely not, Acting is make-believe. If Sarah Bernhardt in her 70s, with a wooden leg, could make audiences cry when she played Hamlet, then a young actor can play an old man, or woman, come to that. Christmas was stern and inflexible enough as Scrooge in the opening scenes; but perhaps he needed to convey a bit more thoroughly that Scrooge had spent an entire, dreary lifetime in amassing money, and in doing nothing but that. His avarice should be imprinted in his visage. Anyhow, once Scrooge began to soften, Christmas played the role very well. His look of initial surprise at himself when returning to the world of emotions was excellent.

The outcome of the story as a whole, as Dickens had intended, is heart-warming. There is a danger that scenes involving ghosts (four appear during the play) can be unintentionally risible. This production avoided that outcome, by playing everything to the hilt, with full intensity. There is another danger that scenes involving youthful death – in this case the demise of the handicapped but perennially cheerful Tiny Tim – can become too sentimentalised and, as a result, also unintentionally comic. No danger in this production. The actors switched immediately into a clear and still rendering of an appropriate Christmas carol, unaccompanied. It was very moving. Indeed, they sang a number of carols throughout the play, underpinning the theme of festive cheer. What a bonus to find a troupe of good actors, all with excellent singing voices.

So what does the story of A Christmas Carol mean? In one sense, Dickens’s moral is clear and simple. People should care for their fellow humans. Heartless austerity is indeed heartless. Individuals should give personal help willingly, not just for the benefit of those in want but also because caring for others is a means of unlocking one’s own heart, which otherwise would remain frozen. To be complete, a human has to be part of society. Not necessarily married or dwelling within a group. But emphatically not living in chill segregation from others.

At the same time, there is a hidden power within the story in the lure of money. Dickens is well aware that it’s not just love which makes the world go round. Money provides the basic means of subsistence but can also effect so much more. It constitutes a great source of social status and esteem, as well as confers the economic power of capital. Scrooge is an old skinflint. But he is also a respectable pillar of society and an employer, with the potential to give great happiness to others. Moreover, Scrooge’s diligence and his application are admirable qualities. Dickens is not encouraging people to live idly or without employment. Nor is he trying to envisage a different structure for society. He campaigned for reforms (for example, to the prison system), not revolutionary change.  Unlike (say) his contemporaries Robert Owen or Karl Marx, Charles Dickens is not a visionary with alternative communitarian economic models in mind.

Instead, his challenge to the world is to re-infuse everyday transactions with moral values. People must work for money but not love it too much. Gold can corrode the heart, as in the classic tale of King Midas. If everything within touching range turns to gold, then nothing is left to eat and drink. Other people too become lifeless, as King Midas killed his little daughter with a touch. Scrooge has, through his lifestyle, destroyed his own heart and feelings. He is outwardly rich and powerful, but innerly tragic.

Capping the accumulation of immense wealth and undertaking a degree of social redistribution can thus be advocated as a moral as well as a political good cause for democratic societies to undertake. The sort of economic policies that the very rich deride as the ‘politics of envy’. They certainly won’t like to hear that they must redeploy some of their wealth for their own good, as well as for the good of others. They will join Scrooge with further reiterations of ‘Bah! Humbug!’ So how are attitudes to change? It’s not enough to rely upon fictional Dickensian ghosts to create a moral awakening across society at large.

Is it being too fanciful to consider that climate change will bring about a fundamental change? In a sense, unprecedented floods, storms, heatwaves, fires and rising seas are signs from Planet Earth that humans are at risk of behaving like a collective King Midas: destroying with their touch the very things that they love the most. These thoughts are perhaps straying too far from the evening of collective good cheer provided by the youthful payers on stage in Newark. They indicate, however, that Dickens’s fable – and Laura Turner’s dramatisation of its scenes of moral redemption – are genuinely thought-provoking. Don’t love money too much! Great wealth is a curse! Make friendships! Save Planet Earth! And enjoy the midwinter festival!

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MONTHLY BLOG 107, Reasons for unrepentant (relative) Optimism about the coming of Green Politics

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Fig.1 Greta Thunberg (b. 2003),
Swedish environmental activist;
author of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference (2019)

In response to my October BLOG about Greener Cities, I got many queries about how I could plausibly state that ‘I am an unrepentant optimist’? In fact, I should have said an ‘unrepentant (relative) optimist’, since it’s clear that not all is currently well with Planet Earth. Things would be better without today’s growing number of major fires, heatwaves, droughts, tempests, floods, icemelts, and rising seas. So I am far from taking the ultra-optimist’s view that all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds.

But, short of adopting a totally Panglossian outlook, it is possible, indeed necessary, to remain optimistic that actions can be taken in time to control the adverse effects of global warming. Humans are not only problem-creators but also problem- solvers. In this case, the challenge is undeniably great. It will require significant changes from not only big business and big politics (using that term for the networks of national and international institutions) but also from individuals. Global patterns of transport, trade, energy generation; and energy consumption will have to be fundamentally adapted. And at an individual level, people will have to think again about their food and drink; their clothing; their systems for warming houses; their transport; their sports; their holidays; and, indeed, everything. It is asking a lot. Especially as remedial actions will need to be adopted at both macro- and micro-levels simultaneously.

Nonetheless, here are four arguments for (relative) optimism. Governments and big businesses have paid attention to scientific warnings in the past, and then taken successful remedial action. In the 1970s, it was first reported that there was a widening gap in the ozone layer, which shields Planet Earth from harmful ultra-violet radiation. The culprits were chemicals known familiarly as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which were used in aerosol sprays, refrigerators, and blowing agents for foams and packaging materials. An international agreement, known as the Montreal Protocol (1987), then launched decisive change. CFCs were banned.

Over time, all nations around the world have signed up to the Protocol. And in May 2018 a new scientific survey confirmed that the ozone hole has diminished significantly.1 Humans still have to remain vigilant, since the workings of the upper atmosphere are volatile and not easy to study.2 Nonetheless, collective action has been undertaken; and is working.

A second example can be taken from individual actions to renounce a social practice, which was once seen as a great source of personal pleasure. Smoking tobacco in cigars and cigarettes is disappearing. Not at the same rate in all countries around the world. Nor at the same rate among all social classes. Yet, globally, humans are entering into what has been well described as the ‘tobacco-endgame’.3 For example, in the case of Britain, it is hoped that the entire country may become smoke-free by 2030, according to a health report in July 2019.4 Progress in curbing smoking has been triggered by many factors. Medical warnings paved the way from the 1950s onwards, at first cautiously, and then, with more definitive research, more emphatically. Supportive government policies eventually helped too. Above all, however, the slow but eventually decisive shift in individual and communal attitudes was crucial.

Up to and including most of the 1960s, it was considered ‘cool’ to smoke and rude to refuse a friend’s offer of a cigarette. Over time, those attitudes have been completely reversed. Many older people can still remember their personal struggles to quit. Younger people, if they are lucky, never get caught by the habit in the first place. They have no memories of pubs, cinemas, tube trains and other public places being clogged with tobacco fumes – or of their hair and clothes reeking unpleasantly. Again, the battle against smoking is far from won. There are still skirmishes and diversionary tactics (as from e-cigarettes) along the way.5 Yet the trend is becoming clear. As is the crucial role of individual decision-making and active participation in the process.

The story of Prohibition in the USA in 1919 offers an instructive contrast. There the legislative ban on the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol was well intentioned. Drinking as such was never made illegal; but aggregate consumption was indeed reduced. However, the policy was introduced too abruptly and without widespread public support. The outcome was evasion on an epic scale, boosting illicit stills and bootlegging gangsters. Other side-effects included a boom in hypocrisy and contempt for the law. Campaigners for a more rational system managed to repeal the ban in 1933, leaving the different US states to adopt their own policies.6 The contrast between alcohol’s survival, despite Prohibition, and nicotine’s slow demise is instructive. Government policies, health advisors and medical practitioners can and do play significant roles. But on big questions which affect people’s intimate personal behaviour on a day-by-day basis, structural policies have to work with, not against, public opinion. Hence the question of how that state-of-many-collective-minds is formed and sustained becomes crucial.

So here is a third reason for (relative) optimism on global warming. Public opinion, fuelled by young people like the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, is being everywhere encouraged to turn in favour of urgent action. True, the mechanisms for channelling such attitudes into the political system are indirect and slow-working. However, what is happening now seems like part of a Zeitgeist shift of immense significance. The young are numerous, vocal, and willing to campaign. Furthermore, people of all ages know that the human species has no other domicile than Planet Earth. People of many different political persuasions are showing new interest in green policies. And people in all parts of the world are witnessing the increased incidence of freak weather. The voices of sceptics and deniers are waning.7 Getting collective action to harness this rising tide of opinion will depend upon big politics being able and willing to channel the tide successfully – and upon big business becoming aware and either adjusting its actions, or being made to do so. Big demands, which entail challenging big vested interests. Yet these demands are not impossible ones. Vigorous explorations are already being undertaken to find alternative technologies. Such game-changing innovations may alter the nature of the decisions that need to be made. Politicians need to show the same willingness to respond positively, in the face of an accumulating emergency.

And, lastly, a degree of activism (whether driven by pessimism or optimism) is needed from everyone, to add force to the changing Zeitgeist. The alternative is fatalism, which only makes a bad situation worse. True, being optimistic is easier for those with optimistic temperaments. Yet even those who feel nothing but gloom are called upon, in this climate emergency, to transmute their valid anxieties into pressure for change. Relative pessimism can be as great a goad to call for remedial action, as can relative optimism. ‘Climate change constitutes a global emergency!’ ‘Let’s take countervailing action!’ All can lend their voices to swell the tide of public opinion.

ENDNOTES:

1 S. Pereira, report on Ozone Layer dated 1/5/2018 for Newsweek 27 October 2019: https://www.newsweek.com/nasa-hole-earths-ozone-layer-finally-closing-humans-did-something-771922

2 E.A. Parson, Protecting the Ozone Layer: Science and Strategy (Oxford, 2003); S.O. Andersen and K.M. Sarma, Protecting the Ozone Layer: The United Nations History (2002).

3 [British Medical Journal], India: The Endgame for Tobacco Conference (2013).

4 S. Barr, report dated 23 July 2019 in The Independent: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/smoking-ban-uk-end-cigarettes-tobacco-health-green-paper-a9016636.html

5 S. Gabb, Smoking and its Enemies: A Short History of 500 Years of the Use and Prohibition of Tobacco (1990).

6 D. Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2010); J.J. Binder, Al Capone’s Beer Wars: A Complete History of Organised Crime in Chicago during Prohibition (Amherst, 2017);

7 G.T. Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis (Dordrecht, 2013); J. Fessmann (ed.), Strategic Climate Change Communications: Effective Approaches to Fighting Climate Change Denial (Wilmington, 2019); S. Maloney, H. Fuenfgeld and M. Gramberg, Local Action on Climate Change: Opportunities and Constraints (2017).

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MONTHLY BLOG 106, Cities Greener Still and Greener

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Scrapbook Silhouettes: available EBay (2019)

Towns and cities are wonderful human creations. They allow large numbers of people to live together at high density, reasonably successfully, without spreading all over Planet Earth. The mixture of collective and individual organisation that enables this process to happen and to sustain itself is impressive and admirable.1 And, without concentrated cities and towns as living spaces, it would be extremely difficult to accommodate the Earth’s 7.7 billion humans (at the latest count in September 2019) – a demanding species.

Now, however, it’s time for a major step-change in the characteristics of the prevailing urban environment worldwide. All towns and cities must go greener, much, much greener. It’s true that some urban places are already pleasantly green. And all, even the most concrete-based urban settlements have at least some city parks and green spaces, acting as urban lungs.

Yet a programme of Cities Greener Still and Greener needs a complete urban revamp and restructuring. It is required partly for ecological reasons. The impending crisis of global overheating provides the immediate call to action on behalf of all species world-wide. And human-biological needs give a subsidiary impetus to all urban leaders and planners, now that much more is becoming known about the beneficial effects of greenery (trees, plants, wildlife) upon human health and wellbeing.2

A full programme for profound urban ecological change will require structural changes to transportation systems, domestic and industrial heating systems, and so much else besides. Improvements to air quality must be a priority. This BLOG, however, is not the place for a full manifesto on behalf greenery and sustainable cities, although I have no doubt that green policies will, sooner or later, have to be adopted everywhere.3

These thoughts express some immediate hobby-horses, which a personal BLOG provides a chance to exercise. So here are four imperatives relating to planting urban trees/bushes/greenery; sowing/planting grasses and wild plants; restoring lost urban rivers and streams; and adopting permeable paving wherever possible. The aim is to banish unbroken swathes of concrete. That stern and rigid material has manifold uses; but, as currently adopted, it is stifling the earth, which is too important to be so mistreated. Not only does the making of concrete involve harmful processes which add to global warming, but the greyspread of concrete is destroying the natural infrastructure of the soil and hence seriously damaging processes of fertilisation, pollination, flood control, oxygen production and water purification. Environmentalists as well as architects and planners are beginning to warn that massy developments based upon this rigid and impermeable material are storing up problems for the not-very distant suture. ‘Simply pouring concrete is doing more harm than good’.4

Trees and Bushes: it’s not enough to give urban dwellers more opportunities of going out of town to visit forests; and/or to complain about the destruction of forests in the Amazon, although both of those are worthwhile campaigns. But instead trees and bushes should be planted in the cities – everywhere. In every road and courtyard and backyard and corner. And, if there’s no room in the ground, then the trees and bushes should be in big tubs and planters. Absolutely everywhere. Millions and millions of trees and bushes. Old city centres, with a maze of small streets, are great places to walk around. Greater still with tubs of trees and bushes everywhere. New city avenues, boulevards, urban thoroughfares, bypasses – all need trees and greenery. Precisely which species can survive and thrive in each different town or city environment is a matter for tree specialists and urban landscapers to advise. But greenery is the universal requirement, for better air quality, better visual impact, and better lives for humans plus for all forms of urban wildlife.

Tree-in-a-tub: from www.fromoldbooks.org (2019)

Sowing Grasses and Planting Plants: Suitably hardy plants, wild or cultivated, as well as grasses, which grow well without careful tending should be sown in every bit of earth, including in unused large areas of neglected ground and every small patch at the feet of trees or anywhere else, such as railway sidings. Plants and grasses are environmentally favourable for wildlife and insects, as well as pleasant for humans. And where there are opportunities for community gardening, those options should be embraced as well. Already some people spontaneously grow plants at the foot of trees in the roads where they live. And Lambeth Council in London has already begun a creative Biodiversity Policy across the Borough to the same effect (and more). The programme is bringing huge benefits – ecological, cultural, economic, health, and community – for a comparatively small outlay.

Such initiatives deserve not just congratulations but immediate imitation everywhere. In its support, Lambeth Council cites an eminent and idiosyncratic Victorian who lived in the Borough: John Ruskin, the pioneering critic of untrammelled industrialism and environmental degradation. He praised the restorative power of nature: ‘It is written on the arched sky; it looks out from every star. It is the poetry of nature; it is that which uplifts the spirit within us’.5  Well, it’s not the sort of language which is usually found in official documents; but entirely relevant. Ruskin would be proud.

Wild Flowers © Clipart 2019

Restoring Lost Streams and Rivers: Restoring lost rivers is trickier, since in many cases they flow in culverts under roads and buildings. Nonetheless, they are integral parts of the urban environmental ecology and should be respected, uncovered wherever possible, and enjoyed. It’s an excellent as well as urgent new challenge to the ingenuity of engineers and urban landscape designers. Such rethinking is part of a revised attitude to cities and their terrain, which should not be built over heedlessly.6 London is one of many places which have secret watery undergrounds. Its lost rivers have their own devotees; and people eagerly attend talks and join walks along their courses.7

There are also more ambitious plans for river restoration wherever possible. For example, in Lewisham’s Chinbrook Meadows a section of the River Quaggy (great name) has been uncovered, as something beneficial in itself but also as part of a wider water management project.8 The park has gained in amenities and popularity; wildlife has been assisted; and the wetland serves as an overflow area in time of flooding, protecting local homes and businesses. This creative feat of reverse engineering is an admirable portent for a future that is more nature- and human-friendly, as well as more practically sustainable. Not every urban river and stream will be easily restored; and town dwellers have to resolve not to throw litter into running waterways, once visible again. But these challenges are live ones, here and now!

The unremarked outfall of London’s Fleet River under Blackfriars Bridge: image from website for Paul Talling’s zestful exploration of London’s Lost Rivers (2011),
https://www.londonslostrivers.com/river-fleet.html

Permeable Paving: It’s depressing to realise that a very ingenious invention which uses concrete and still allows cars to park without stifling the earth has long been known but is not used at all widely. There are numerous forms of permeable paving. One takes the form of a concrete lattice, which allows grass to grow within the grid. (And if the climate does not encourage grass, then earth or sand fill the gaps). Water drains simply and naturally into the ground; and excess runoffs at times of heavy rain or flooding are minimised. Needless to say, this system is not suitable for all terrains and climates; and there are practical limits to the quantity of traffic and load that porous paving can bear. Indeed, a number of alternatives are being developed concurrently, using plastic or asphalt.

So porous paving exists;9 but is not (yet) used sufficiently. It seems clear that more urgent effort is needed, to research and development of such systems, and to make them easier and cheaper to use. Builders and engineers who are currently accustomed to schemes for widespread concretisation (yes, the word exists) will have to rethink their ways. But they represent buccaneering professions which are used to facing challenges. The future now requires working with nature, not stifling or attempting to erase it – for the obvious reason that outraged nature has a very determined way of striking back.

Advertisement for Grasscrete ®: Concrete Paver System (2019)

Envoi: Where has this BLOG come from? I am an urban historian who loves towns and cities, and who has long been meditating on these themes. I first saw grass-crete in Switzerland in the mid-1980s and was sure that I had seen the future – only to find that the universal future of porous paving has been somewhat delayed. Today’s debates about the problems of excess water run-off from concreted land as well as the wider context of the accelerating climate emergency have triggered me into writing down my thoughts.

So where is this BLOG going? It’s my way of bearing witness, of joining the tide of protest at the present dire state of Planet Earth. I believe that human beings are noted problem solvers as well as problem creators. It’s true that urgent action on climate change is needed to accompany the fine words from many (not all) of today’s politicians.

Nonetheless, I am an unrepentant optimist that humans will react positively in response to collective danger.10 Today’s warnings from scientists, campaigners, and many thousands of young people globally cannot be ignored for much longer. Transformative action is needed, learning from past experience to new effect. And that includes local initiatives, in every town and city, where many green micro-improvements will together promote greener still macro-change.

ENDNOTES:

1 For a panoptic historical survey, see collectively the essays in P. Clark (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Cities in World History (Oxford, 2013).

2 K. Nilsson and others (eds), Forests, Trees and Human Health (Elsevier, 2006; New York, 2010); [US. Dept. of Agriculture/ Forest Service], Urban Nature for Human Health and Well-Being: A Research Summary (Washington DC, 2018); Q. Li, Into the Forest: How Trees can help you Find Health and Happiness (2019).

3 See e.g. new thinking in T. Elkin, Reviving the City: Towards Sustainable Urban Development (1991); and recent work on ecological cities.

4 From J. Watts, ‘Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth’, The Guardian, 25 Feb. 2019: see https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/25/concrete-the-most-destructive-material-on-earth. See also a kinder but still warning analysis in A. Forty, Concrete and Culture: A Material History (2012).

5 See details of Lambeth Biodiversity Action Plan, 2019-24, in https://www.lambeth.gov.uk/sites/default/files/lpl-lambeth-biodiversity-action-plan-2019-20.pdf

6 K. Perini and P. Sabbon, Urban Sustainability and River Restoration: Green and Blue Infrastructure (2016); M. Knoll and others (eds), Rivers Lost, Rivers Regained: Rethinking City-River Relations (Pittsburgh, PA, 2017).

7 P. Talling, London’s Lost Rivers (2011) and associated website; T. Bolton, London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide (Devizes, 2014).

8 Case Study: Quaggy Flood Alleviation Scheme (2013) in https://restorerivers.eu/wiki/index.php?title=Case_study%3AQuaggy_Flood_Alleviation_Scheme

9 B.K. Ferguson, Porous Pavements (Boca Raton, FL, 2005).

10 P.J. Corfield, ‘Climate Reds: Responding to Global Warming with Relative Optimism’, (2011) with companion piece by M. Levene, ‘Climate Blues: Or How Awareness of the Human End might Re-instil Ethical Purpose to the Writing of History’: PJC essay available on personal website www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/Pdf21.

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MONTHLY BLOG 105, Researchers, Do Your Ideas Have Impact? A Critique of Short-Term Impact Assessments

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

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 Researchers, do your ideas have impact? Does your work produce ‘an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’? Since 2014, that question has been addressed to all research-active UK academics during the assessments for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which is the new ‘improved’ name for the older Research Assessment Exercise (RAE).1

From its first proposal, however, and long before implementation, the Impact Agenda has proved controversial.2 Each academic is asked to produce for assessment, within a specified timespan (usually seven years), four items of published research. These contributions may be long or short, major or minor. But, in the unlovely terminology of the assessment world, each one is termed a ‘Unit of Output’ and is marked separately. Then the results can be tallied for each researcher, for each Department or Faculty, and for each University. The process is mechanistic, putting the delivery of quantity ahead of quality. And now the REF’s whistle demands demonstrable civic ‘impact’ as well.

These changes add to the complexities of an already intricate and unduly time-consuming assessment process. But ‘Impact’ certainly sounds great. It’s punchy, powerful: Pow! When hearing criticisms of this requirement, people are prone to protest: ‘But surely you want your research to have impact?’ To which the answer is clearly ‘Yes’. No-one wants to be irrelevant and ignored.

However, much depends upon the definition of impact – and whether it is appropriate to expect measurable impact from each individual Unit of Output. Counting/assessing each individual tree is a methodology that will serve only to obscure sight of the entire forest. And will hamper its future growth.

In some cases, to be sure, immediate impact can be readily demonstrated. A historian working on a popular topic can display new results in a special exhibition, assuming that provision is made for the time and organisational effort required. Attendance figures can then be tallied and appreciative visitors’ comments logged. (Fortunately, people who make an effort to attend an exhibition usually reply ‘Yes’ when asked ‘Did you learn something new?’). Bingo. The virtuous circle is closed: new research → an innovative exhibition → gratified and informed members of the public → relieved University administrators → happy politicians and voters.

Yet not all research topics are suitable to generate, within the timespan of the research assessment cycle, the exhibitions, TV programmes, radio interviews, Twitterstorms, applied welfare programmes, environmental improvements, or any of the other multifarious means of bringing the subject to public attention and benefit.

The current approach focuses upon the short-term and upon the first applications of knowledge rather than upon the long-term and the often indirect slow-fuse combustion effects of innovative research. It fails to register that new ideas do not automatically have instant success. Some of the greatest innovations take time – sometimes a very long time – to become appreciated even by fellow researchers, let alone by the general public. Moreover, in many research fields, there has to be scope for ‘trial and error’. Short-term failures are part of the price of innovation for ultimate long-term gain. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the history of science and technology contains many examples of wrong turnings and mistakes, along the pathways to improvement.3

An Einstein, challenging the research fundamentals of his subject, would get short shrift in today’s assessment world. It took 15 years between the first publication of his paper on Special Relativity in 1905 and the wider scientific acceptance of his theory, once his predictions were confirmed experimentally. And it has taken another hundred years for the full scientific and cultural applications of the core concept to become both applied and absorbed.4 But even then, some of Einstein’s later ideas, in search of a Unified Field Theory to embrace analytically all the fundamental forces of nature, have not (yet) been accepted by his fellow scientists.5 Even a towering genius can err.

Knowledge is a fluid and ever-debated resource which has many different applications over time. Applied subjects (such as engineering; medicine; architecture; public health) are much more likely to have detectable and direct ‘impact’, although those fields also require time for development. ‘Pure’ or theoretical subjects (like mathematics), meanwhile, are more likely to achieve their effects indirectly. Yet technology and the sciences – let alone many other aspects of life – could not thrive without the calculative powers of mathematics, as the unspoken language of science. Moreover, it is not unknown for advances in ‘pure’ mathematics, which have no apparent immediate use, to become crucial many years subsequently. (An example is the role of abstract Number Theory for the later development of both cryptography and digital computing).6

Hence the Impact Agenda is alarmingly short-termist in its formulation. It is liable to discourage blue skies innovation and originality, in the haste to produce the required volume of output with proven impact.

It is also fundamentally wrong that the assessment formula precludes the contribution of research to teaching and vice versa. Historically, the proud boast of the Universities has been the integral link between both those activities. Academics are not just transmitting current knowhow to the next generation of students but they (with the stimulus and often the direct cooperation of their students) are simultaneously working to expand, refine, debate, develop and apply the entire corpus of knowledge itself. Moreover, they are undertaking these processes within an international framework of shared endeavour. This comment does not imply, by the way, that all knowledge is originally derived from academics. It comes indeed from multiple human resources, the unlearned as well as learned. Yet increasingly it is the research Universities which play a leading role in collecting, systematising, testing, critiquing, applying, developing and advancing the entire corpus of human knowledge, which provides the essential firepower for today’s economies and societies.7

These considerations make the current Impact Agenda all the more disappointing. It ignores the combined impact of research upon teaching, and vice versa. It privileges ‘applied’ over ‘pure’ knowledge. It prefers instant contributions over long-term development. It discourages innovation, sharing and cooperation. And it entirely ignores the international context of knowledge development and its transmission. Instead, it encourages researchers to break down their output into bite-sized chunks; to be risk-averse; to try for crowd-pleasers; and to feel harried and unloved, as all sectors of the educational world are supposed to compete endlessly against one another.

No one gains from warped assessment systems. Instead, everyone loses, as civic trust is eroded. Accountability is an entirely ‘good thing’. But only when done intelligently and without discouraging innovation. ‘Trial and error’ contains the possibility of error, for the greater good. So the quest for instant and local impact should not be overdone. True impact entails a degree of adventure, which should be figured into the system. To repeat a dictum which is commonly attributed to Einstein (because it summarises his known viewpoint), original research requires an element of uncertainty: ‘If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called “research”, would it?’8

ENDNOTES:

1 See The Research Excellence Framework: Diversity, Collaboration, Impact Criteria, and Preparing for Open Access (Westminster, 2019); and historical context in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_Assessment_Exercise.

2 See e.g. B.R. Martin, ‘The Research Excellence Framework and the “Impact Agenda”: Are We Creating a Frankenstein Monster?’ Research Evaluation, 20 (Sept. 2011), pp. 247-54; and other contributions in same issue.

3 S. Firestein, Failure: Why Science is So Successful (Oxford, 2015); [History of Science Congress Papers], Failed Innovations: Symposium (1992).

4 See P.C.W. Davies, About Time: Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1995); L.P. Williams (ed.), Relativity Theory: Its Origins and Impact on Modern Thought (Chichester, 1968); C. Christodoulides, The Special Theory of Relativity: Foundations, Theory, Verification, Applications (2016).

5 F. Finster and others (eds), Quantum Field Theory and Gravity: Conceptual and Mathematical Advances in the Search for a Unified Framework (Basel, 2012).

6 M.R. Schroeder, Number Theory in Science and Communications: With Applications in Cryptography, Physics, Biology, Digital Information and Computing (Berlin, 2008).

7 J. Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, 2002); A. Valero and J. van Reenen, ‘The Economic Impact of Universities: Evidence from Across the Globe’ (CEP Discussion Paper No. 1444, 2016), in Vox: https://voxeu.org/article/how-universities-boost-economic-growth

8 For the common attribution and its uncertainty, see [D. Hirshman], ‘Adventures in Fact-Checking: Einstein Quote Edition’, https://asociologist.com/2010/09/04/adventures-in-fact-checking-einstein-quote-edition/

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