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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)

Clenched Fist
© Victor-Portal-Fist (2019)

 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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MONTHLY BLOG 92, HISTORIANS AT WORK THROUGH TIME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)
Historians, who study the past, don’t undertake this exercise from some vantage point outside Time. They, like everyone else, live within an unfolding temporality. That’s very fundamental. Thus it’s axiomatic that historians, like their subjects of study, are all equally Time-bound.1

Nor do historians undertake the study of the past in one single moment in time. Postmodernist critics of historical studies sometimes write as though historical sources are culled once only from an archive and then adopted uncritically. The implied research process is one of plucking choice flowers and then pressing them into a scrap-book to some pre-set design.

On such grounds, critics of the discipline highlight the potential flaws in all historical studies. Sources from the past are biased, fallible and scrappy. Historians in their retrospective analysis are also biased, fallible and sometimes scrappy. And historical writings are literary creations only just short of pure fiction.2

Historians should welcome scepticism this dose of scepticism – always a useful corrective. Yet they entirely reject the proposition that trying to understand bygone eras is either impossible or worthless. Rebuttals to postmodernist scepticism have been expressed theoretically;3 and also directly, via pertinent case studies which cut through the myths and ‘fake news’ which often surround controversial events in history.4

When at work, historians should never take their myriad of source materials literally and uncritically. Evidence is constantly sought, interrogated, checked, cross-checked, compared and contrasted, as required for each particular research theme. The net is thrown widely or narrowly, again depending upon the subject. Everything is a potential source, from archival documents to art, architecture, artefacts and though the gamut to witness statements and zoological exhibits. Visual materials can be incorporated either as primary sources in their own right, or as supporting documentation. Information may be mapped and/or tabulated and/or statistically interrogated. Digitised records allow the easy selection of specific cases and/or the not-so-easy processing of mass data.

As a result, researching and writing history is a slow through-Time process – sometimes tediously so. It takes at least four years, from a standing start, to produce a big specialist, ground-breaking study of 100,000 words on a previously un-studied (or under-studied) historical topic. The exercise demands a high-level synthesis of many diverse sources, running to hundreds or even thousands. Hence the methodology is characteristically much more than a ‘reading’ of one or two key texts – although, depending upon the theme, at times a close reading of a few core documents (as in the history of political ideas) is essential too.

Mulling over meanings is an important part of the process too. History as a discipline encourages a constant thinking and rethinking, with sustained creative and intellectual input. It requires knowledge of the state of the discipline – and a close familiarity with earlier work in the chosen field of study. Best practice therefore enjoins writing, planning and revising as the project unfolds. For historical studies, ‘writing through’ is integral, rather than waiting until all the hard research graft is done and then ‘writing up’.5

The whole process is arduous and exciting, in almost equal measure. It’s constantly subject to debate and criticism from peer groups at seminars and conferences. And, crucially too, historians are invited to specify not only their own methodologies but also their own biases/assumptions/framework thoughts. This latter exercise is known as ‘self-reflexivity’. It’s often completed at the end of a project, although it’s then inserted near the start of the resultant book or essay. And that’s because writing serves to crystallise and refine (or sometimes to reject) the broad preliminary ideas, which are continually tested by the evidence.

One classic example of seriously through-Time writing comes from the classic historian Edward Gibbon. The first volume of his Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire appeared in February 1776. The sixth and final one followed in 1788. According to his autobiographical account, the gestation of his study dated from 1764. He was then sitting in the Forum at Rome, listening to Catholic monks singing vespers on Capitol Hill. The conjunction of ancient ruins and later religious commitments prompted his core theme, which controversially deplored the role of Christianity in the ending of Rome’s great empire. Hence the ‘present’ moments in which Gibbon researched, cogitated and wrote stretched over more than 20 years. When he penned the last words of the last volume, he recorded a sensation of joy. But then he was melancholic that his massive project was done.6 (Its fame and the consequent controversies last on today; and form part of the history of history).

1 For this basic point, see PJC, ‘People Sometimes Say “We Don’t Learn from the Past” – and Why that Statement is Completely Absurd’, BLOG/91 (July 2018), to which this BLOG/92 is a companion-piece.

2 See e.g. K. Jenkins, ReThinking History (1991); idem (ed.), The Postmodern History Reader (1997); C.G. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians (Harlow, 2005); A. Munslow, The Future of History (Basingstoke, 2010).

3 J. Appleby, L. Hunt and M. Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York, 1994); R. Evans, In Defence of History (1997); J. Tosh (ed.), Historians on History (Harlow, 2000); A. Brundage, Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing (Hoboken, NJ., 2017).

4 H. Shudo, The Nanking Massacre: Fact versus Fiction – A Historian’s Quest for the Truth, transl. S. Shuppan (Tokyo, 2005); Vera Schwarcz, Bridge across Broken Time: Chinese and Jewish Cultural Memory (New Haven, 1998).

5 PJC, ‘Writing Through a Big Research Project, not Writing Up’, BLOG/60 (Dec.2015); PJC, ‘How I Write as a Historian’, BLOG/88 (April 2018).

6 R. Porter, Gibbon: Making History (1989); D.P. Womersley, Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and his Reputation, 1776-1815 (Oxford, 2002).

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MONTHLY BLOG 91, PEOPLE SOMETIMES SAY: ‘WE DON’T LEARN FROM THE PAST’ AND WHY THAT STATEMENT IS COMPLETELY ABSURD

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

People sometimes say, dogmatically but absurdly: ’We don’t learn from the Past’. Oh really? So what do humans learn from, then? We don’t learn from the Future, which has yet to unfold. We do learn in and from the Present. Yet every moment of ‘Now’ constitutes an infinitesimal micro-instant an unfolding process. The Present is an unstable time-period, which is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the Past. Humans don’t have time, in that split-second of ‘Now’, to comprehend and assimilate everything. As a result, we have, unavoidably, to learn from what has gone before: our own and others’ experiences, which are summed as everything before ‘Now’: the Past.

It’s worth reprising the status of those temporal categories. The Future, which has not yet unfolded, is not known or knowable in its entirety. That’s a definitional quality which springs from the unidirectional nature of Time. It does not mean that the Future is either entirely unknown or entirely unknowable. As an impending temporal state, it may beckon, suggest, portend. Humans are enabled to have considerable information and expectations about many significant aspects of the Future. For example, it’s clear from past experience that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die in their current corporeal form. We additionally know that tomorrow will come after today, because that is how we habitually define diurnal progression within unilinear Time. We also confidently expect that in the future two plus two will continue to equal four; and that all the corroborated laws of physics will still apply.

And we undertake calculations, based upon past data, which provide the basis for Future predictions or estimates. For example, actuarial tables, showing age-related life expectancy, indicate group probabilities, though not absolute certainties. Or, to take a different example, we know, from expert observation and calculation, that Halley’s Comet is forecast to return into sight from Earth in mid-2061. Many, though not all, people alive today will be able to tell whether that astronomical prediction turns out to be correct or not. And there’s every likelihood  that it will be.

Commemorating a successful prediction,
in the light of past experience:
a special token struck in South America in 2010 to celebrate
the predicted return to view from Planet Earth
of Halley’s Comet,
whose periodicity was first calculated by Edward Halley (1656-1742)

Yet all this (and much more) useful information about the Future is, entirely unsurprisingly, drawn from past experience, observations and calculations. As a result, humans can use the Past to illuminate and to plan for the Future, without being able to foretell it with anything like total precision.

So how about learning from the Present? It’s live, immediate, encircling, inescapably ‘real’. We all learn in our own present times – and sometimes illumination may come in a flash of understanding. One example, as Biblically recounted, is the conversion of St Paul, who in his unregenerate days was named Saul: ‘And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus; and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”’1 His eyes were temporarily blinded; but spiritually he was enlightened. Before then, Saul was one of the Christians’ chief persecutors, ‘breathing out threatening and slaughter’.2 Perhaps a psychologist might suggest that his intense hostility concealed some unexpressed fascination with Christianity. Nonetheless, there was no apparent preparation, so the ‘Damascene conversion’ which turned Saul into St Paul remains the classic expression of an instant change of heart. But then he had to rethink and grow into his new role, working with those he had been attempting to expunge.

A secular case of sudden illumination appears in the fiction of Jane Austen. In Emma (1815), the protagonist, a socially confident would-be match-maker, has remained in ignorance of her own heart. She encourages her young and humble protégé, Harriet Smith, to fancy herself in love. They enjoy the prospect of romance. Then Emma suddenly learns precisely who is the object of Harriet’s affections. The result is wonderfully described.3 Emma sits in silence for several moments, in a fixed attitude, contemplating the unpleasant news:

Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley, than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!

I remember first reading this novel, as a teenager, when I was as surprised as Emma at this development. Since then, I’ve reread the story many times; and I can now see the prior clues which Austen scatters through the story to alert more worldly-wise readers that George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse are a socially and personally compatible couple, acting in concert long before they both (separately) realise their true feelings. It’s a well drawn example of people learning from the past whilst ‘wising up’ in a single moment. Emma then undertakes some mortifying retrospection as she gauges her own past errors and blindness. But she is capable of learning from experience. She does; and so, rather more artlessly, does Harriet. It’s a comedy of trial-and-error as the path to wisdom.

As those examples suggest, the relationship of learning with Time is in fact a very interesting and complex one. Humans learn in their own present moments. Yet the process of learning and education as a whole has to be a through-Time endeavour. A flash of illumination needs to be mentally consolidated and ‘owned’. Otherwise it is just one of those bright ideas which can come and as quickly go.   Effective learning thus entails making oneself familiar with a subject by repetition, cogitation, debating, and lots of practice. Such through-Time application applies whether people are learning physical or intellectual skills or both. The role of perspiration, as well as inspiration, is the stuff of many mottoes: ‘practice makes perfect’; ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again’; ‘stick at it’; ‘never stop learning’; ‘trudge another mile’; ‘learn from experience’.

Indeed, the entire corpus of knowledge and experience that humans have assembled over many generations is far too huge to be assimilated in an instant. (It’s actually too huge for any one individual to master. So we have to specialise and share).

So that brings the discussion back to the Past. It stretches back through Time and onwards until ‘Now’. Of course, we learn from it. Needless to say, it doesn’t follow that people always agree on messages from former times, or act wisely in the light of such information. Hence when people say: ‘We don’t learn from the Past’, they probably mean that it does not deliver one guiding message, on which everyone agrees. And that’s right. It doesn’t and there isn’t.

One further pertinent point: there are rumbling arguments around the question – is the Past alive or dead? (With a hostile implication in the sub-text that nothing can really be learned from a dead and vanished Past.) But that’s not a helpful binary. In other words, it’s a silly question. Some elements of the past have conclusively gone, while many others persist through time.4 To take just a few examples, the human genome was not invented this morning; human languages have evolved over countless generations; and the laws of physics apply throughout.

Above all, therefore, the integral meshing between Past and Present means that we, individual humans, have also come from the Past. It’s in us as well as, metaphorically speaking, behind us. Thinking of Time as running along a pathway or flowing like a river is a common human conception of temporality. Other alternatives might envisage the Past as ‘above’, ‘below’, ‘in front’, ‘behind’, or ‘nowhere specific’. The metaphor doesn’t really matter as long as we realise that it pervades everything, including ourselves.

1 Holy Bible, Acts 9: 3-4.

2 Ibid, 9:1.

3 J. Austen, Emma: A Novel (1815), ed. R. Blythe (Harmondsworth, 1969), p. 398.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Is the Past Dead or Alive? And the Snares of Such Binary Questions’, BLOG/62 (Feb.2016).

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MONTHLY BLOG 67, WHAT NEXT? INTERROGATING HISTORICAL EVIDENCE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

First find your evidence and check for provenance; reliability; and typicality.But what next? Here are three golden rules; and three research steps.

Rule One: Approach every source with a keen mixture of critical excitement. That is, embrace new evidence whilst being prepared to understand all its flaws and omissions. At all times, you need to sustain a vigorous mental debate between your research theories/hypotheses/questions/arguments – and your critical interrogation of the sources.

Rule Two: Think of the obvious ways to use any given source … and the not-so-obvious. Historical evidence can be used for many purposes, including those for which it was not originally intended. Be prepared to improvise and to think of different ways of using material.

Rule Three: Play fair with the evidence. That is, don’t use it to show things that it doesn’t show. Don’t misquote or mangle. Don’t use quotations taken out of context. And, while taking note of what the sources don’t say (as well as what they do), don’t let the practice of ‘reading the silence’ turn into an exercise of castigating the past for not being the present – or of interpolating your own issues into historic sources. Playing fair with the evidence means playing fair with research methods too. Keep a constant check to ensure that you don’t, unintentionally, pre-build your answers into your research procedures.

Then, when focusing upon a specific source or group of sources, there are three steps to consider in sequence.

Step One: understand the source’s context. This step is really important and requires work. Evidence gains meaning in the context of time and place. There are many handy guides to the different types of sources and their contexts.2 But, if none are available, researchers should investigate for themselves.

Finding a sheet of paper inscribed with five words, ‘William, son of John Shakespeare’, would not get a researcher very far. But finding them in the parish book of Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon, dated 26 April 1564, provides good evidence of the baptism of the world’s most famous William Shakespeare. [The actual source contains four words in Latin, as shown in Fig.1; and a later hand marked the entry with three crosses – a rather endearing sign of research excitement but one which would rightly attract the wrath of archivists today].

2016-07 No1 1564 Baptism of W Shakespeare

Fig. 1 Baptismal record of Gulielmus filius Johannis Shakspere [sic] on 26 April 1564 in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon – entry marked in R margin by three crosses in a later hand. There is no evidence for Shakespeare’s actual birthday, but a patriotic tradition dating back to the eighteenth century ascribes it to 23 April – St George’s Day.

Step Two: understand the source’s characteristic style (or ‘Register’, in the terminology of literary scholarship). This step entails identifying and allowing for the characteristic style of the source(s) under examination, including their strengths and weaknesses. Again, there are guides to the common characteristics of (say) different literary genres, such as autobiographies, diaries, letters. But again, where none exist, researchers should work it out for themselves.

At a very basic level, there are obvious differences in written texts between fiction and non-fiction. Poems, stories and songs are not intended to be taken literally. And within the ranks of non-fiction, there are many different types of writings, and levels of specificity. Private thoughts expressed casually, in (say) letters and diaries, do not necessarily constitute people’s final considered views. By contrast, signed and sealed legal documents may be taken as formal statements, even while the conventional legal language brings its own restrictions.

When Shakespeare bequeathed to his wife Anne Hathaway their ‘second best bed’, he was not comparing her to a summer’s day. He was leaving her a specific item of household furniture. It can be debated whether the legacy was a considered snub or a tender personal testimonial or a utilitarian disposal of family assets or a casual after-thought.3 But the terse legal language expresses absolutely nothing about motivation.

2016-07 No2 Shakespeare's will p3

Fig.2: Extract from p. 3 of Shakespeare’s will dated March 1616, penned by a lawyer but signed by William Shakespeare. (from original in Probate Registry, Somerset House, London). The bequest I gyve vnto my wife my second best bed with the furniture, is contained in the interpolated line of text (seventh from top), indicating that it was a late addition, made after the first draft, and hence inserted very shortly before Shakespeare’s death in April 1616.

Step 3: after assessing both context and register, it’s time to savour in full the contents of any given source or set of sources. That includes every last detail. In a written text, it’s essential to study the choice of language, as well as its content(s) and meaning(s). As my former research supervisor Jack Fisher used to say: squeeze every last drop of juice from the lemon.

Moreover, while it’s wrong to read too much cosmic meaning into every passing fragment of evidence, it’s always worth remembering that some information will turn out to be more telling than others. Keep an eye open for sources which have a significance beyond their immediate remit. (Sometimes that becomes apparent only upon later reflection, sending the researcher scurrying back to the source material for a fresh appraisal.)

The possibilities are bounded by the availability of evidence. We cannot rediscover everything about the past. So, without fresh finds, it is unlikely that researchers will ever know Shakespeare’s actual date of birth. Nonetheless, the multiplication effect of multiple sources, multiple methodologies, and endless research ideas/debates, in the context of changing perspectives over time, means that historical understanding is always expanding and always being tested. The critical assessment of bounded evidence is the launching pad for unbounded knowledge. ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …’

1 This BLOG is the pair to BLOG/ 66 (June 2016) and is equally dedicated to all past students on the Core Course of Royal Holloway (London University)’s MA in Modern History: Power, Culture, Society.

2 For a super-exemplary analysis of sources and their context, see The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674-1913 on-line, co-directed by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker: www.oldbaileyonline.org.

3 See J. Rogers, The Second Best Bed: Shakespeare’s Will in a New Light (Westport, Conn., 1993); M.S. Hedges, The Second Best Bed: In Search of Anne Hathaway (Lewes, 2000); G. Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife (2007); and BBC report www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/what-will-s-will-tells-us-about-shakespeare (2016).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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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MONTHLY BLOG 9, WHAT HAS GONE WRONG WITH THE AUDIT CULTURE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

june001As the sorry tale of FIFA currently implies, oligarchies without external audit and accountability sooner or later get corrupted. So there was a serious principle as well as praxis behind the late Labour Government’s extension of the audit culture to so many aspects of public administration.

The result was a state of close watchfulness. And the government, relying upon good intentions and a mountain of audited data, used the mantra of ‘accountability’ to micro-manage swathes of local government and public administration by setting targets and penalising those who fell behind.

Excluded from the process was the economy, which was left to ‘light touch’ state regulation and to commercial auditors. The result was paradoxical. It was the economy, and particularly the financial sector, which turned out to need more attention. Yet, conversely, the target culture was overdone. There was no happy balance, either in economic or social governance.

Labour’s targets included supervising the professions, which since the early nineteenth century had evolved the ethos of professional self-regulation under parliamentary sanction. Labour also emulated the previous Tory administrations under Thatcher and Major by increasingly subjecting local government to central direction. The traditional partners in the country’s governance, with their own democratic mandate, were undermined. Not surprisingly, turnouts in local elections began to fall, although a stubborn percentage of the electorate do continue to support the historic pluralism of the British system.

Many earnest New Labour supporters have repeated to me their favoured mantra: ‘If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it’. The argument seems yet another extension of the dire posthumous influence of Jeremy Bentham, who thought that the essence of government was calculation. But the measurement mantra needs critical questioning. It seems to make sense but actually doesn’t.

For a start, successful (and indeed failed) managements in earlier times have long preceded the mass supply of measured and audited data. Good information certainly provides a sound basis. But the art of management requires more than that – including qualities such as leadership, enthusiasm, wise policies, sensitivity to context and public opinion, and the capacity to forge a team.

Furthermore, the proposition can also be faulted by noting that today’s massive supply of information has not obviated many cases of weak or poor management. ‘Drowning in data’ can even be a prime cause of failure.
june002Alternatively, the quest for measured information can insensibly become itself a substitute for effective management. The false impression is gained that managers can organise everything if only they have a large enough database. That way, vast sums of money are wasted only to find that giant systems don’t work.

So it is worth repeating every time that: ‘Data is only as good as the people using the data’. And, especially: ‘Information is not knowledge’. Advanced management means being able to cope with things that cannot easily be quantified and with the moving processes of real life.

Too much of the audit-and-target culture becomes excessively directive from on high. Assessors assume ever greater importance, thus generating a new technocratic elite which creates yet one more tier of apparent authority between the citizens and the state. Auditors are greeted with outward servility but secret resentment. Their often subjective judgements, once pronounced, are turned into apparently objective outcomes without any easy check upon their own performance. Auditors become a new vested interest in their own right, hence colluding with power and tending instead to pick upon the weak.

Service providers who are subject to constant and often subjective measurement and invigilation feel resentment and alienation. Rational people are pressurised to work towards the targets, since tangible rewards for their business (and sometimes for individuals personally) depend upon meeting the targets. That applies whether the targets are well chosen or not. All too often, the measurements seem to take priority over the services being measured. The number of exam passes seems more important than the content of what is taught and examined. Through-put of hospital patients seems more significant than the nature of the healthcare provided.

In these circumstances, public service threatens to become a risk-averse culture of diligent and generally joyless conformism. Professional knowledge and initiative seems to be undervalued and undermined. As a result, individual enthusiasm and commitment risks being lost. People’s moods are often unproductive, ranging from anger to bitterness or cynicism and/or (in some cases) to destabilising fear.

There is every incentive for service providers to massage the figures, if they can, in the interest of their services. And in certain circumstances, the stage is set for collusion. When providers are marked by clients who depend on good reports from the providers, implicit deals may be struck: good marks in return for good reports.

Hostility to this ethos contributed to the fall of New Labour, not least by alienating the professionals who traditionally formed an important constituency for Labour. These people will not, however, be appeased by the Coalition. Its reforms of the audit culture are very hit-and-miss. Indeed the Coalition is even more hostile to public service providers than was New Labour. The current Tory preference is for contracting out services to commercial businesses and charities – all bodies that need more public scrutiny than they currently get. Some private-sector scandals have already emerged. More are bound to follow.

What is to be done? The route of endless centrally-directed audit-plus-targets undermines the public sector and creates a top-heavy state. We need scrutiny. But audit should not be turned into an extra layer of management by another guise. Instead, we need due proportionality, accepting common sense, understanding local variations, allowing for operational discretion, and extending true participation by both providers and clients. Let’s keep the long arms of Jeremy Bentham under control. We have to do more than count!
june003

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MONTHLY BLOG 6, RECONSIDERING REVOLUTIONS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Revolution – metamorphosis – transformation – disjunction – diagenesis – dialectical leap forward – paradigm shift. Marvellous long words and phrases, such as these (and many more), collectively express the sense of drastic upheaval that is contained within the concept of macro-change.

And yes, great turbulent upheavals occur not only in the natural world (earthquakes, volcanoes, tempests, floods, fires) but in human societies too. Not surprising, really. We are part of the whole and so subject to the same intricate mix of continuities/gradual changes/ and macro-changes that interact seamlessly throughout the cosmos.

But, talking of great transformations, three distinctions can be made.

Firstly, language. The term ‘revolution’ is far too often over-used. It has become tired, lacking the punch and clarity that such a concept should retain. So we need a smarter vocabulary to differentiate between the different categories of radical upheaval.

My own advice is to reserve ‘revolution’ for violent and/or transformational upheavals of systems of government. (Here the reference is to something more drastic than a coup, which changes the leadership without changing the regime). Political revolutions are distinctive. They are characterised by mass action, which aims at rejecting, with violence if need be, an established system of rule with its associated power structures, and at installing something qualitatively different. Political revolutions accordingly differ from other forms of macro-change.

After all, is it analytically helpful to name the process of industrialisation as the Industrial Revolution, when it unfolded over decades, even centuries? The shift from a human- and animal-powered economy to one dependent upon mechanical power was truly epic. But its advent incorporated both dramatic innovations and slower evolutionary adaptations. So why not call it a Technological Transformation? Such a name acknowledges the magnitude of change but does not confine change to one revolutionary moment or movement.

For example, the first steam-powered cotton-looms were truly remarkable. They dramatically increased productivity as well as changed patterns of working, as the male handloom weavers in their homes were ousted by machine-minders in large factories [shown below in an early nineteenth-century illustration]. Yet the clerical inventor Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823), who patented his steam-powered loom in 1785, failed financially. It took decades for his pioneering invention to be adopted, adapted and further upgraded; and centuries for mechanical power to become so essential in so many human activities world-wide, as it is today. Technological transformations need therefore to be analysed with a different set of terms and concepts.
march004Secondly: political revolutions also need to be located within a spectrum of different sorts and degrees of change. It is very rarely, if ever, that everything is transformed all at once. The rhetoric of dramatic metamorphosis is both fearful and hopeful: ‘All changed, changed utterly;/ A terrible beauty is born’, as Yeats saluted the Irish Easter Rising in 1916. Yet, when the dust dies down, continuity turns out to have dragged at the heels of revolution after all. What is known as admirable heritage to its fans is deplorable inertia to its critics. Thus Karl Marx once denounced with righteous passion: ‘the tradition of all the dead generations [that] weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’.

There are other forces within history as well as the desire for radical change. Accordingly, theories of history which assume revolution to be the sole mechanism of change are one-sided and need correction. That criticism applies both to Hegel’s dialectical combustion of conflicting ideals, which each time led to the emergence of a new historical stage; and to the Marxist version of revolutionary conflict in the form of dialectical materialism. For Karl Marx and his loyal co-thinker Friedrich Engels the growing tensions from class conflict would eventually ignite great political revolutions, each one propelling a new social class into power.
march002Yet no. Not only does fundamental change frequently develop via evolutionary rather than revolutionary means; but revolutions do not always introduce macro-change. They can fail, abort, halt, recede, fudge, muddle, diverge, transmute and/or provoke counter-revolutions. The complex failures and mutations of the communist revolutions, which were directly inspired in the twentieth century by the historical philosophy of Marx and Engels, make that point historically, as well as theoretically.

Thirdly, therefore: revolutions are not all the same and are not all automatically successful. Drastic upheaval through direct action is sometimes the only way to effect change.
1revollusion

A youthful enthusiast at the Berlin Wall before its fall –
trying some revolutionary spelling for good measure.
Copyright© NasanTur 2008

The concept can exert a radical charm all its own, especially in prospect – before any bloodshed. ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’. ‘O brave new world’. Yet rosy dreams may turn to horror. Brightness can turn to night. ‘Musing on roses and revolutions,/ I saw night close down on the earth like a great dark wing …/ And I heard the lamentations of a million hearts’, as the African American poet Dudley Randall wrote sombrely in 1968, aware that radical hopes would not easily transform the long after-history of African slavery.

So within the revolution, remember that it is easier to unite against what is not wanted than to agree on what is wanted instead. When the old regime has gone, it is important to keep talking rather than to switch to fighting one’s own side. Don’t let the revolution consume its own children. Don’t let the new regime mimic the faults of its predecessor. Use the great heroic power of revolutionary transformation to break from violence into new dialogue and new construction, taking time to engage with evolution and to tame old continuities.Celebrations-TahrirSquare

Celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on 12 February 2011 after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as Egypt’s President. Copyright ©nebedaay’s photostream 2011

Lastly, is there a periodicity to political revolutions? Do they come in any predictable pattern? In fact, again no. History would be tidier and easier to understand if it were so. Nonetheless, there is often a chance (not an inevitability) of a political uprising, even under the most repressive regimes, with each bold new generation of young people – every twenty years or so. We are currently witnessing the opportunity for real political transformations in the Arab world. Let it be beauty and not terror that forthcomes.

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