Tag Archive for: history

MONTHLY BLOG 28, ANSWERING QUESTIONS POST SEMINAR PAPERS/ LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

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If post-seminar questions are less memorable that the papers or lectures which precede them, then the answers tend to be even less anecdotable. I can think of only a handful, among thousands of intellectual encounters, which remain in my memory.

Nevertheless, answers in an academic setting (as in a political one) need to meet certain criteria. They can enhance a good presentation. And wrongly handled, answers can backfire and, at worst, they can ruin an apparently successful paper or lecture by failing to rebut a fundamental criticism.

Hence the overwhelming rule is to reply rather than to evade the question. Nothing is more annoying to an audience when it detects that the presenter is intellectually absconding. If the speaker can’t immediately answer (it happens to us all), the best reply is: ‘That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer off-hand; but I will check it out and get back to you’.

On rare occasions, it is acceptable to prevaricate. Queen Elizabeth I was once in a political quandary. In response to the strong advice of a parliamentary deputation in 1586 that she execute her close relative and fellow monarch, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth equivocated by giving them what she herself honestly termed as an ‘answer, answerless’.

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In other words, she would not say.2 Yet very few scholars find themselves walking the same sort of political highwire upon which Elizabeth I walked coolly for years. Academic waffle is thus best avoided. I have done it myself but always felt suitably remorseful afterwards.

The academic cut-and-thrust is instead predicated upon an open exchange of views and, if need be, a frank confession of an inability to answer immediately, rather than a fudge-and-mudge.

But, while too much evasive verbiage can be disappointing, too much brevity can prove equally annoying. One terse response that I can remember came from Balliol’s Christopher Hill. It was in a series of interviews with senior historians,3 in which some staple questions had been supplied by the organisers. As the interviewer, I was allowed to improvise but also requested to cover the basics. Accordingly I asked politely: ‘Would you like to explain your methodology?’ It was a relevant question, since Hill had been sternly criticised in 1975 by his fellow historian J.H. Hexter for the alleged sin of being a ‘lumper’. Even more damagingly, Hexter accused Hill being seriously unprofessional by quoting selectively from the sources, to support his big argument.4 ‘Lumpers’, by the way, lump everything together to form one big picture, while ‘splitters’ (of whom Hexter was a pre-eminent example) demur and say: ‘No, hang on – things are really much more complicated than that’.

Nonetheless, when invited to comment, Christopher Hill replied, gruffly: ‘No’. Like many of his generation, he bristled at the very word ‘methodology’. I laughed and continued to the next question, which was a mistake on my part. I should have changed the wording and tried again. In the event, the unsatisfactory exchange was cut from the final version of the interview. Not that there was any doubt that Christopher Hill was a ‘lumper’. Many (though probably not most) historians are. Yet Hill did not accept that he distorted or read sources selectively. In my view, it would have been best for him to restate a firm rebuttal of Hexter. But Hill would probably have responded, not ‘who cares?’ (he did), but ‘read my books and judge for yourselves’.

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Single-word replies, of the ilk of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, should thus be avoided as a general rule. They generate an initial laugh, especially when following an over-long and tedious question. Yet single-word replies are not playing fair with the questioner or the audience. They appear to give but don’t really. It is ok to start with a single brisk word, on the other hand, provided that the speaker then justifies that verdict.

So … not too short but also … not too lengthy. In my experience (and it’s a fault that I share) most answers are too long. It’s tempting to give a reprise of the paper or lecture. But that’s a mistake. A crisp reply: to the point, and nothing more, is best. Also gives time for more questions.

Three specific tips for respondents. When first listening to a question, it can be difficult to grasp the real point and simultaneously to formulate a good answer. The best way to cope is to start with a ‘holding’ reply: such as ‘That’s an interesting question’ or ‘I’m glad that you raised that point’. During the brief postponement, it’s amazing how often a reply formulates itself in one’s mind. But it’s best to use many variants of such ‘holding’ replies. It sounds too saccharine if every question is welcomed with the same apparent rapture. Incidentally, the reverse also sounds false. A former MP of Battersea was prone to start every reply with ‘I welcome your criticism’ even if none was offered. It eventually became something of a joke, which was counter-productive.

A second tip is to have a sheet of paper discreetly to hand and always to jot down a short note, summarising the topic that’s been raised. Having that reminder is especially useful in the event of two-pronged questions. When answering one half of a query, it’s too easy to forget about the other half. A short note concentrates the mind. In the long run, too, awareness of the points raised is personally invaluable. A free consultation with experts. Soon after every public presentation, I turn the list into a personal debriefing, noting all points that need clearer explication next time; and especially noting all criticisms of my main argument, so that I can decide how to refute them next time (or, sometimes, to amend my own case).

Which brings me to the third and most important piece of advice. It’s fine to give way graciously to challenges on all sorts of points, especially if one is in the wrong. Yet if the critique is focused upon the absolute core of one’s argument, it is essential to stand fast. I once heard the historian Lawrence Stone, another well-known ‘lumper’, confront a fundamental criticism of his latest publication.5 He began frankly: ‘Oh, dear, I think I’ve been holed below the water-line’. Then, with a cheerful laugh (shared with the audience), he rallied, with words to the effect that: ‘Your evidence/argument, although important, does not invalidate my central case’. Stone then, on the hoof, thought through his response to the fundamental (and valid) criticism, without rancour or any sign of being flustered. It was a sparkling moment.

Sometimes, there is not one single ‘right’ answer; but a there is a right process of debate. That’s the aim. And it’s nice to win the argument as well. Which means keeping on one’s toes intellectually. Having given the presentation, don’t relax too soon. Keep replies crisp and pertinent. And, basically, enjoy the dialectic. Out of reasoned argument comes … knowledge.

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1 From Icon Archive, at www.icongal.com: downloaded 22 February 2013.

2 Elizabeth I’s non-reply was nonetheless gracefully worded: ‘[I] pray you to accept my thankfulness, excuse my doubtfulness, and take in good part my answer, answerless.’

3 ‘Christopher Hill with Penelope Corfield’ (1986), in series DVD Video Interviews with Historians, available from London University’s online store: www.store.london.ac.uk.

4 J.H. Hexter, ‘The Historical Method of Christopher Hill’, Times Literary Supplement, 25 Oct. 1975, repr. in J.H. Hexter, On Historians: Reappraisals of Some of the Makers of Modern History (1979), pp. 227-51; with riposte by C. Hill, ‘The Burden of Proof’, in Times Literary Supplement, 7 Nov. 1975, p. 1333.

5 See Lawrence Stone (1919-1999) and J.C.F. Stone, An Open Elite? England, 1540-1880 (1984); and alternative view in S.E. Whyman, ‘Land and Trade Revisited: The Case of John Verney, London Merchant and Baronet, 1660-1720’, London Journal, 22 (1997), pp. 16-32.

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MONTHLY BLOG 27, ASKING QUESTIONS POST SEMINAR PAPERS/LECTURES

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

What?

What? what? what? Always good to ask questions. Not always easy to manage a good one. In the debates following the thousands of public lectures and seminar papers that I’ve heard, a few examples stand out.

One was simplicity itself. It caught out a senior figure on a point of detail that refuted her argument – which she should have known but didn’t (or had forgotten). The question took five words: ‘What about the Quebec Act?’ Under this legislation (1774) Britain allowed freedom of worship to the French-speaking Quebec Catholics and enabled them to swear allegiance to the British crown without reference to Protestantism. It was a major factor in preventing the potentially rebellious province from joining the American colonial revolt. This flexibility ran contrary to the speaker’s stress upon the immovable Protestantism of eighteenth-century British state policy. There were various possible replies, such as: it was the exception to prove the rule. But she fell silent and the chair took the next question. Since then, I often think, when listening to a lecture: Is there a Quebec Act equivalent knock-down? Often there isn’t. But, if there is, it should always be done with great simplicity.

Another was a question that I asked after a public lecture (not necessarily the best; simply one that I remember). In fact, interventions from the floor are much more forgettable than the preceding oration, which is one reason not to worry too much about what to ask. In this case, a polemical speaker had castigated all historians who used anachronistic terms instead of sticking exclusively to the language of the relevant past period. Then, oblivious of his own strictures, he defined the eighteenth-century European states (including Britain) as ancien regimes. But – whether ‘ancien’ be translated as ‘old’ or ‘former’ – this descriptive term is clearly retrospective. From the floor, I argued that the historians’ art entails not only studying past societies but also communicating their findings about the past in the language of a later day. So yes to linguistic care and attention to definitions; but no to linguistic obscurantism and a quest for the impossible. Otherwise historians of pre-Conquest England would have to delete all words derived from Norman French; historians of the pre-speech era would have to grunt; and so forth. In the light of his own retrospective terminology, would the speaker like to reconsider his criticisms of others? He replied; but, it was generally agreed, not convincingly.

Those two examples reveal two possible approaches to asking questions: either working from prior knowledge; or generating a debating point from the content of the talk. Both approaches are equally valid. The point of asking questions is constructive: to probe the case that has been presented and to extend the collective discussion. A good debate helps speakers by giving them a free consultancy, allowing them to refine their arguments before bursting into print. And ditto: good discussions help listeners to stretch their minds; to learn how to joust intellectually; and to contribute to the advancement of knowledge.

Obviously enough, beginners giving their first paper should be treated comparatively gently, but not to the extent of allowing serious errors to pass unchallenged. And senior performers should be given the compliment of a bracing set of questions, which they will expect.

Most enquiries start from a wholesome quest for further information or clarification. What did you mean by statement A? How do you define concept B? Did you also check source C? … How good is the evidence for X? Can that proposition not be tested against Y? And what are the implications of Z? All of those approaches are useful. Another substantial range of questions focus upon the speakers’ methods of classification, selection, or organisation of research material. Challenges are especially required if the criteria have not been well explained in the presentation. Social classification systems, in particular, always benefit from debate, whether focusing upon class; ethnicity; nationality; or any other special identities. One phenomenon that is often under-studied is the extent of intermarriage between ostensibly different groups: ask about that.

Meanwhile, a minority of questions, which are often the best, take the form of a conceptual or philosophical depth-charge or counter-argument. Listen to the general argument and think: could the reverse or something very different be the case instead? That may mean playing devil’s advocate. But, intellectually, ‘opposition is true friendship’, to quote William Blake.1 Above all, it’s good to listen closely to the speakers, in order to identify their often-buried fundamental assumptions – and then challenge those. It’s rare that such interventions fail to stimulate. Sometimes speakers are surprised; sometimes indignant; but they are generally gratified to have been listened to with serious attention.

2013-2 Marriage Heaven and Hell 1790 Bodl p.20

From William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Bodleian Library copy, 1790, fo. 20)
showing the writhing serpent of knowledge and the enigmatically faded words ‘Opposition is True Friendship’

My former supervisor, Jack Fisher, the economic history guru of LSE, was famed for provocative depth-charges, which he signalled with the opening words: ‘I know nothing about this but …’. However, his formula is best used sparingly. I have heard others bodge the same tactic, leading audiences to wonder why such a self-declared ignoramus is wasting everyone’s time with fatuous questions.

Given the above range of possibilities, postgraduate students should be encouraged to start with short, punchy wholesome-quests-for-information. In that way, they get used to the invariable stir of people turning round to look at the questioner, which can be disconcerting for beginners. Then, in time, students should progress to making longer enquiries and eventually to offering counter-arguments. My own system also requires that, after the first term at a new seminar, postgraduates ask at least one question per term, rising to a specified larger number as they move through their four years of study. That instruction sounds a bit mechanical. But it’s actually easier to ask a question when one has determined beforehand to do so. Otherwise, a lot of time is spent dithering: shall I, shan’t I? Yes, go for it.

Coda: I’ll end with a personal anecdote on heckling. It’s not something that I often do. But once I heckled, unintentionally, and found that I had posed a great question or, rather, prompted a great response. It happened in the early 1970s, at a public debate in the University of London’s Beveridge Hall, with perhaps two hundred dons in attendance. Two eminent historians, Keith Thomas and Hugh Trevor-Roper, had jousted fiercely in print about seventeenth-century witchcraft. They were invited to a special debate to continue the argument. But face-to-face, as often happens, the antagonists were very polite to each other. The occasion as a whole proved to be a damp squib.

There was, however, a moment of excitement. One of the speakers, referred rather contemptuously to ‘useless old women’ and, without intending to do so, I found that I had cried out ‘Shame!’ Everyone around me recoiled. The speakers said nothing. But the chair of the meeting, the historian Joel Hurstfield, responded with aplomb: ‘Madam, contain your just indignation!’ His old-fashioned courtesy effectively rebuked my uncouthness. Yet he upheld my complaint, accepting that the tone of the debate had been too dismissive of the women accused of witchcraft. Immediately, the people around me smiled with relief and reversed their physical recoil. The debate was resumed, and I don’t suppose anyone else remembers the exchange. Nonetheless, I have waited ever since (both in politics and as an academic) for someone to heckle when I’m in the chair, to see if I can respond as brilliantly. It hasn’t happened yet; but maybe one day … In the meantime, let there be questions: what? what? what?

1 From William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), fol. 20.

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MONTHLY BLOG 26, WORST AND BEST ACADEMIC LECTURES THAT I’VE HEARD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2013)

Apart from the routine lectures that form the bread-and-butter of an academic’s job, we constantly give special lectures and/or papers. These presentations are made to a miscellany of research seminars, public meetings, specialist societies, academic conferences and other outlets, at home and overseas. From the early 1970s onwards my private log tells me that I’ve given almost 300 of these extra performances.

At the same time, I am a seasoned listener to presentations from fellow academics. During my career, I must have heard many thousands. Trained by my incisive supervisor to have a critical response up my sleeve, I decided early on always to ask a question. Which I do – almost invariably, provided that the event allows for audience participation. Preparing a range of potential questions, from a dolly to an underwater torpedo, keeps the mind focused. It’s not hard to respond to a good paper. But what’s the best way to critique a dull or weak or off-beam interpretation, without being rude or dismissive? It’s a good challenge.

Over time, the standard of papers and lectures has undoubtedly risen. People are more professional and time-keeping is much more reliable. There are things that still could get better. Talking from notes (but not reciting a list of points on a screen) is much more engaging for the audience than reading aloud from a prepared script. William Hogarth long ago indicated how boring a droned lecture-from-text can be.

William Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture, 1736

William Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture, 1736

On the other hand, it can be hard for beginner-historians to manage without a script. They generally have to convey a great deal of factual information and quotations, which have to be accurate. So there is scope for progression. I usually recommend starting with full scripts but then, with greater experience, expanding the amount of free-speaking.

Ultimately, however, it’s not the style of an exposition but the content that counts. The two worst presentations were similar in format and outcome. Both were intended sincerely, by speakers who were so entranced by their material that they had lost sight of the need to explain it.

One was a seminar paper, given by an eminent professor of eighteenth-century political history, who decided to branch out into the history of political thought. As a first foray, it was not a success. Announced as ‘The Debate between Edmund Burke’s Conservatism and Thomas Paine’s Radicalism’, Professor Ian Christie itemised at length the differing views of these two hegemonic political thinkers. His conclusion was unequivocal. It consisted of the simple observation: ‘Well, there you are! Burke was right’. A deep silence fell. I felt very sorry for the chair. We struggled to coax a debate from the speaker. But he merely replied: ‘Well, you’ve heard Burke’s views’. The unsatisfactory session drew to an early close. Alone among those present, the speaker remained serenely happy.1

A second dreadful session was of the same ilk. A famously combative professor of the fifteenth-century English economy offered a seminar paper on ‘Continuity in History’. The title was one that I found especially attractive, since I love macro-sweep. Obviously others agreed, because crowds assembled. Tony Bridbury’s paper, however, consisted of a close exposition of the fifteenth-century history of the Paston family, buttressed by readings from the well-known Paston Letters.2  There were no new insights. We were supposed to understand that family life and the small concerns of daily existence are universal preoccupations. Even that point, however, was not stated explicitly. Nor was there any conclusion, other than a gleeful: ‘You see? Nothing changes’. The following discussion spluttered briefly but got nowhere.
2013-1 Paston Letters

A first select edition of the Paston Letters was published by John Fenn in 1787, with new edn by A. Ramsay (1849)

Was there anything that the seminar chairs could have done to retrieve these situations? Perhaps they might have organised rival groups from the audience, to argue the respective cases for and against the core propositions. That manoeuvre would have been possible in an established class, where the course director has more control over the format. In a seminar, with a changing attendance from session to session, it would have been more tricky. But worth a try. Certainly more positive than the disgruntlement that actually prevailed.

Needless to say, the seminar/lecture norm has always been much better than either of those examples. And I have heard many very good and some completely outstanding presentations. How to pick one from the pack?

My choice is a master-exposition by the historian E.P. Thompson. His first degree was actually in English at Cambridge. On this occasion, he regaled an adult education conference in Preston with a lecture which combined the English-literary technique of close-reading with a historian’s detective work and attention to context. It showcased Thompson’s distinctive style at its very best.
E.P.Thompson

E.P. Thompson at Glastonbury Festival 1986, by Giacomino Parkinson,from www.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk.

In Preston, the lecture began with his quiet reading of a poem by William Blake: ‘The Garden of Love’ from The Songs of Experience.3  Thompson then launched into his analysis, entirely without notes. At the end, he recited the poem again, with added emphasis. The result was startling. In the second reading, all the meanings and allusions within the poem sprang intensely to life. It was like stepping from a monochrome world into a world of vivid colour. Whether his general exposition of Blake was sustainable remained to be tested when, later, Thompson published his Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law.4  But, as a single lecture, it was exemplary in its entirely original mixture of literary detail and historical breadth.

The thirty-odd people who had assembled on a cold November afternoon in the mid-1980s for a routine local-history conference were challenged in true Blakeian style ‘to see the world in a grain of sand’. It was an inspiration that revealed what a great lecture can do.
2013-1 Blake garden of Love

1 This session, chaired by John Dinwiddy, occurred in the later 1970s. Subsequently Ian Christie (1919-98) amplified his study of the ‘intellectual repulse of revolution’ in his Ford Lectures, published as I.R. Christie, Stress and Stability: Reflections on the British Avoidance of Revolution (Oxford, 1984).

2 This session, chaired by F.J. Fisher, occurred in the early 1970s. In other contexts, A.R. Bridbury (1924- ) was happy to detect change: see variously his Economic Growth: England in the Later Middle Ages (1962; reissued Brighton, 1975); The English Economy from Bede to the Reformation (Woodbridge, 1992); and his Medieval England: Its Social and Economic Origins and Development (Leicester, 2008).

3 W. Blake, ‘The Garden of Love’’, from his Songs of Experience (1794).

4 E.P. Thompson (1924-93), Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge, 1993). For more on EPT and bibliographic references, see my earlier Blog/14, dated Dec. 2011.

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MONTHLY BLOG 25, CHAMPIONING THE STUDY OF HISTORY

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

How do we champion (not merely defend) the study of History in schools and Universities? Against those who wrongly claim that the subject is not commercially ‘useful’.

Here are three recommendations. Firstly, we should stress the obvious: that a knowledge of history and an interconnected view of past and present (cause and consequence) is essential to the well-functioning not only of every individual but also of every society. The subject roots people successfully in time and place. Individuals with lost memories become shadowy, needing help and compassion. Communities with broken memories, for example through forced uprooting, exhibit plentiful signs of trauma, often handed down through successive generations. Civics as well as economics thus demands that people have a strong sense of a sustained past. That entails learning about the history their own and other societies, in order to gain an understanding of the human condition. All knowledge comes from the past and remains essential in the present. Nothing could be more ‘useful’ than history, viewed broadly.

december003The second recommendation links with the first. We should define the subject as the study not of the ‘dead past’ but of ‘living history’.

In fact, there’s a good case for either usage. Historians often like to stress the many differences between past and present. That’s because studying the contrasts sets a good challenge – and also because an awareness of ‘otherness’ alerts students not simply to project today’s attitudes and assumptions backwards in time. The quotation of choice for the ‘difference’ protagonists comes from an elegiac novel, which looked back at England in 1900 from the vantage point of a saddened older man in the 1940s. Entitled The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953), it began with the following words: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

It’s an evocative turn of phrase that has inspired book titles.1 It’s also widely quoted, often in the variant form of ‘the past is another country’. These phrases draw their potency from the fact that other places can indeed be different – sometimes very much so. It is also true that numerous historic cultures are not just different but have physically vanished, leaving imperfect traces in the contemporary world. ‘Ancient Ur of the Chaldees is covered by the sands of southern Iraq. … And the site of the once-great Alexandrian port of Herakleion lies four miles off-shore, under the blue seas of the Mediterranean’.2

december002On the other hand, while some elements of history are ‘lost’, past cultures are not necessarily inaccessible to later study. Just as travellers can make an effort to understand foreign countries, so historians and archaeologists have found many ingenious ways to analyse the ‘dead past’.

There are common attributes of humanity that can be found everywhere. We all share a living human history.3 Ancient cultures may have vanished but plenty of their ideas, mathematics, traditions, religions, and languages survive and evolve. Anyone who divides a minute into sixty seconds, an hour into sixty minutes, and a circle into 360 degrees, is paying an unacknowledged tribute to the mathematics of ancient Babylon.4

december001So there is an alternative quotation of choice for those who stress the connectivity of past and present. It too comes from a novelist, this time from the American Deep South, who was preoccupied by the legacies of history. William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun (1951) made famous his dictum that:
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

No doubt there are circumstances when such sentiments are dangerous. There are times when historic grievances have to be overcome. But, before reconciliation, it’s best to acknowledge the reality of such legacies, rather than dismissing them. As it happens, that was the argument of Barack Obama when giving a resonant speech in 2008 about America’s festering ethnic divisions.5

Historians rightly observe that history contains intertwined elements of life and death. But when campaigning for the subject, it’s best to highlight the elements that survive through time. That is not romanticising history, since hatreds and conflicts are among the legacies from the past. It’s just a good method for convincing the doubters. Since we are all part of living history, for good and ill, we all need to study the subject in all its complexity.

Thirdly and finally: historians must make common cause with champions of other subjects. Obvious allies come from the Arts and Humanities. But we should appeal especially to the Pure Sciences. They too fail to meet the test of immediate economic ‘usefulness’. There is no instant value in a new mathematical equation. No immediate gain from the study of String Theory in physics. (Indeed, some physicists argue that this entire field is turning into a blind alley).6 But the pure sciences need essential scope for creativity and theoretical innovation. Some new ideas have become ‘useful’ (or dangerous) only many years after the initial intellectual breakthrough. Others have as yet no direct application. And some may never have.

Humans, however, are capable of thinking long. It is one of our leading characteristics. So we must not be bullied into judging the value of subjects to study solely or even chiefly in terms of short-term criteria. The Pure Sciences, alongside the Arts and Humanities, must combat this blinkered approach. There are multiple values in a rounded education, combining the theoretical and the practical. In the case of History, the blend must include knowledge as well as skills. In the sciences, it must include the theoretical as well as the applied. One without the other will fail. And that in the long-term is not remotely useful. In fact, it’s positively dangerous. History confirms the long-term usefulness of the sciences. Let the scientists repay the compliment by joining those who reject crude utilitarianism – hence in turn championing the study of History.

1 Notably by David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1983)

2 Quoting from an essay by myself, entitled ‘Cities in Time’, in Peter Clark (ed.), Oxford Handbook on Cities in World History (Oxford, forthcoming May 2013).

3 See Ivar Lissner, The Living Past (1957), transl. from German So Habt Ihr Geleb = literally Thus Have They Lived; and my personal response in PJC Discussion-Point Nov. 2011.

4 For the social and intellectual context of Babylonian mathematics, see Eleonor Robson, Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History (Princeton, 2008).

5 For Barack Obama’s speech ‘A More Perfect Union’, delivered at Philadelphia, PA, 18 March 2008: see video on www.youtube.com.

6 See references to the usefulness or otherwise of pure maths in PJC Blog Oct. 2012.

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MONTHLY BLOG 24, HISTORY AS THE STAPLE OF A CIVIC EDUCATION

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

Politicians have a duty to attend to civics as well as to economics. Indeed, we all do. So talking about whether the study of History is ‘useful’ for the economy is a very partial way of approaching an essential component of human’s collective living. We all need to be rooted in space and time. Politicians should therefore be advocating the study of History as the essential contribution to individual and social connectedness. In a word, civics in the full meaning of the term. Not just learning how to fill in a ballot paper – but learning how communities develop over time, how they cope with conflict and with conflict-resolution, and, incidentally, how they struggle to create truly fair and democratic societies.

Praise of the study of History as a means of learning essential skills is all very well. Lots of useful things are indeed achieved by this means. People learn to evaluate complex sources, to make and debate critical judgments based upon careful assessments of often contradictory evidence, and to understand continuity and change over the long term. So far, so good.

Yet it is seriously inadequate to recommend a subject only in terms of the skills it teaches and not in terms of its core content. It’s like (say) recommending learning to sing in order to strengthen the vocal chords and to improve lung capacity. Or (as the ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi notoriously did in 1988) recommending a visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum in order to enjoy a nice egg salad in its ‘ace caff’ – with some very valuable art objects attached.
november004By the way, so notorious has that advertisement become that it is strangely difficult to find the originals image on the web. It seems to have been self-censored by both the Museum and the ad agency – probably in shame.

When recommending History, there is a crucial Knowledge agenda at stake as well as a supporting Skills agenda. Of course, the two are inextricably linked. Historical skills without historical Knowledge are poorly learned and quickly forgotten. But learning History has a greater and essential value purely in its own right. It is not ‘just’ a route to Skills but a subject of all-encompassing and thrilling importance.

All of human life is there; and all humans need access to this shared reservoir of knowledge about our shared past. People always glean some outline information by one means or another. They pick up myths and assumptions and bits and pieces from their families and communities.

But people learn more and better when they learn systematically: about the history of the country that they live in; and about the comparative history of other countries, both nearby and far away; and about how a myriad of different developments around the world fit into a long-term human history, which includes continuities as well as change.

Needless to say, these perceptions are hardly new. ‘Histories make men wise’, as Francis Bacon long ago observed. Thinkers and doers from classical Greece to Winston Churchill have agreed and recommended its study.
november003Why then has the subject matter of History been comparatively undervalued in recent years? It can’t just be the power of the Skills agenda and the influence of ministers fussing about every subject’s contribution to the economy.

Nor can it be that History teachers are ‘boring’ and that they teach students nothing but the dates of kings, queens and battles. Ofsted report after Ofsted report has stated otherwise. The subject is considered to be generally well and imaginatively conveyed. Moreover, the sizeable number of students choosing to take the subject, even once it has ceased to be compulsory, shows that there is a continuing human urge to understand the human past.

Nonetheless, the public reputation of History as a subject of study is currently poor. It is often dismissed as the ‘dead past’. Why should students need to know about things that have long gone? The pace of technological change in particular seems to point people ‘onwards’, not backwards. What can the experience of the older generation, who notoriously have trouble coping with shiny new gadgets, teach the adept and adaptable young?

Well, there are many answers to such rhetoric.

In the first place, things that are ‘dead’ are not necessarily lacking in interest. It is valuable to stretch the mind to learn about vanished cultures, as some indeed have. Impressively, archaeologists, historians, palaeontologists, biologists and language experts have together discovered much about the long evolution of our own species – often from the skimpiest bits of evidence. It’s a highly relevant story about adaptation and survival, often in hostile climes.

Meanwhile, there is a second answer too. It’s completely fallacious to assume that everything in the past is ‘dead’. Much – very much – survives and develops through time, to create a living history, which embraces everyone alive today. The human genome, for example, is an evolving inheritance from the past. So are the dynamic histories, languages and cultures that we have so variously created.

We need more long-term accounts of how such things continue, evolve and change over the very long term. The recent stress by historians upon close focus studies, looking at one period or great event in depth, has been fruitful. Yet it should not exclude long-term narratives. They help to frame the details and to fit the immediate complexities into bigger pictures. (My own suggestion for a secondary-schools course on ‘The Peopling of Britain’, in which everyone living in Britain has a stake, is published in the November issue of History Today).1  In sum, we all need to learn systematically – and to continue learning – about our own and other people’s histories. It’s a lifetime project, for individuals and for citizens.

• My December Blog will consider further how historians can advance the public case for studying History.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Our Island Stories – The Peopling of Britain’, History Today, vol. 62, issue 11 (Nov. 2012), pp. 52-3.

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MONTHLY BLOG 23, WHY DO POLITICIANS UNDERVALUE HISTORY IN SCHOOLS ?

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

Isn’t it shocking that, in the UK, school-children can give up the study of History at the age of 14? Across Europe today, only Albania (it is claimed) shares that ignoble distinction with Britain. A strange pairing. Who knows? Perhaps the powers-that-be in both countries believe that their national histories are so culturally all-pervasive that children will learn them by osmosis. Perhaps Britons in particular are expected to imbibe with their mother’s milk the correct translation of Magna Carta?

Despite my unease at David Cameron’s embarrassing displays of historical ignorance, my complaint is not a party political one. As a Labour supporter, I’ve long been angry with successive Labour Education Ministers between 1997 and 2010, who have presided uncaringly over the long-running under-valuing of History. (Their lack of enthusiasm contrasts with continuing student demand, which indeed is currently booming).

For critics, the subject is thought to focus myopically upon dates, and upon kings, queens and battles. Students are believed to find the subject ‘boring’; ‘irrelevant’; ‘useless’. How can learning about the ‘dead past’ prepare them for the bright future?

New Labour, born out of discontent with Old Labour, was too easily tempted into fetishing ‘the new’. For a while, the party campaigned under a vacuous slogan, which urged: ‘The future, not the past’. Very unhistorical; completely unrealistic. It’s like saying ‘Watch the next wave, forget about the tides’. Yet time’s seamless flow means that the future always emerges from the past, into which today’s present immediately settles.

It seems that the undervaluing of studying the past stems from a glib utilitarianism. Knowledge is sub-divided into many little pieces, which are then termed economically ‘useful’ or the reverse. Charles Clarke as Labour Education Minister in 2003 summed up this viewpoint. He was reported as finding the study of Britain’s early history to be purely ‘ornamental’ and unworthy of state support. In fact, he quickly issued a clarification. It transpired that it was the ‘medieval’ ideal of the university as a community of scholars that Clarke considered to be obsolescent, not the study of pre-Tudor history as such.1

Yet this clarification made things worse, not better. Clarke had no sympathy for the value of open-ended learning, either for individuals or for society at large. The very idea of scholars studying to expand and transmit knowledge – let alone doing so in a community – was anathema. Clarke declared that Britain’s education system should be designed chiefly to contribute to the British economy. It was not just History, he implied, but all ‘unproductive’ subjects that should be shunned.

The well-documented reality that Britain’s Universities have an immensely positive impact upon the British economy2 was lost in the simplistic attempt to subdivide knowledge into its ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ components.

By the way, it’s this sceptical attitude which has pressurised the Universities, much against their better judgement, into the current Research Excellence Framework’s insistence on rating the economic impact of academic research. An applied engineer’s treatise on How to build a Bridge becomes obviously ‘useful’. But a pure mathematician’s proof of a new theorem seems ‘pointless’.

How does contempt for learning originate in a political party whose leaders today are all graduates? It seems to stem from an imaginary workerism. Politicians without ‘real’ working-class roots invoke a plebeian caricature, as a sort of consolation – or covert apology. Give us the machine-tools, and leave effete book-learning for the toffs! They can waste their time, chatting about ancient Greece but we can build a locomotive.
'Crewe WorksÕ, LMS poster, 1937.

Illustration 1: The male world of skilled railway engineering, proudly displayed in a 1937 poster from Crewe © National Railway Museum, 2012

Such attitudes, however, betray the earnest commitment of the historic Labour movement to the value of learning. From the Chartists in the 1830s, the Mechanics Institutes, the Workers Educational Society, the trade unions’ educational programmes, the great tradition of working-class autodidacts, the campaigns for improved public education, up to and including Labour’s creation of the Open University in the 1960s, all have worked to extend education to the masses.
2012-10 Marsden (Yks) Mechanics Institute 1860

Illustration 2: Mechanics Institutes, like this 1860 edifice from the textile mill-town of Marsden, West Yorkshire, offered education to Britain’s unschooled workers. While not all had the time or will to respond, the principle of adult education was launched. In Marsden this fine landmark building was saved from demolition by local protest in the 1980s and reopened, after restoration, in 1991. © English Heritage 2012

No doubt, educational drives require constant renewal. In Britain from 1870 onwards, the state joined in, initially legislating for compulsory education for all children to the age of 10. And globally, similar long-term campaigns are working slowly, as education reforms do, to banish all illiteracy and to extend and deepen learning for all. It’s a noble cause, needed today as much as ever.

Knowledge meanwhile has its own seamless flow. It doesn’t always advance straightforwardly. At times, apparently fruitful lines of enquiry have turned out to be erroneous or even completely dead ends. Many eighteenth-century scientists, like the pioneer Joseph Priestley, wrongly believed in the theory of ‘phlogiston’ (the fire-principle) to explain the chemistry of combustion and oxidisation. Nonetheless from the welter of speculation and experimentation came major discoveries in the identification of oxygen and hydrogen.3  Today, it may possibly be that super-string theory, which holds sway in particle physics, is leading into another blind alley.4  But, either way, it won’t be politicians who decide. It’s the hurly burly of research cross-tested by speculation, experiment, debate, and continuing research that will adjudicate.

There’s an interesting parallel for History in the long-running debates about the usefulness of knowledge within mathematics. The ‘applied’ side of the subject is easy to defend, as constituting the language of science. ‘Pure’ maths’ on the other hand …? But divisions between the abstract and the applied are never static. Some initially abstruse mathematical formulations have had major applications in later generations. For example, the elegant beauty of Number Theory, originally considered as the height of abstraction, did not stop it from being later used for deciphering codes, in public-key cryptography.5

On the other hand, proof of the infinity of primes has (as yet) no practical application. Does that mean that this speculative field of study should be halted, as ‘useless’? Of course not.

My argument, in pursuing the ‘usefulness’ debates, seems to be drifting away from History. But not really. The mind-set that deplores the ‘useless’ Humanities would also reject the abstraction of the ‘pure’ sciences. But try building a functioning steam locomotive, without any knowledge of history or of formalised mathematics or of the science of mechanised motion, let alone the technology of iron and steel production. It couldn’t be done today. And we know from history that our ever-inventive ancestors didn’t do it in the Stone Age either.

1 Charles Clarke reported in The Guardian, 9 May 2003, with clarification in later edition on same date.

2 The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) commissioned an independent report, which calculated that Britain’s Universities contributed at least £3.3bn to UK businesses in the 2010-11 academic year, as part of a much wider economic impact, both direct and indirect: see www.hefce/news/newsarchive 23 July 2012.

3 J.B. Conant (ed.), The Overthrow of Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775-89 (Cambridge, Mass., 1950).

4 For criticisms, see L. Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (New York, 2006); and P. Woit, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (2006).

5 See the debates after G.H. Hardy’s case for abstract mathematics in his A Mathematician’s Apology (1940): see ‘Pure Mathematics’ in www.wikipedia.

  • My November Blog will discuss the relevance of History not only for economics but also for civics.
  • And my December Blog will consider how to ensure that all students study History to the age of 16.

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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 ; 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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