Scholars who should know better: (1) Max Beloff

In an essay on the history of France, contained in a collection published in 1992, Max Beloff recalls his childhood reading, saying he cannot remember which of Quentin Durward and The Three Musketeers he read first. He then adds a footnote:

As far as I can make out, neither Scott nor Dumas are read by English schoolchildren today. Instead they are fed, when they read at all, on a diet of books especially written for the juvenile market, of no literary value and offering no entry into the world of history… Even Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1905),… while not great literature, is better than what the young read now.

The first thing to observe about this note is that it is gratuitous. He had not the slightest need to digress on the subject of children’s reading today, and would seem just to have felt a sudden urge to pontificate. It would have been better resisted. A second observation is that it contains half-hidden rhetorical devices intended to make the reader accept contentious points as truths. “fed” implies that the books children read are not of their choosing but are foisted on them, and that they have no opportunity or inclination to discover anything else. “when they read at all” implies that most children don’t and that this is generally known. “especially written for the juvenile market” implies that children’s writers are hacks working to order, who lack any purely literary motivation – indeed “market” implies a nakedly commercial one.

And a third observation is that it is all nonsense. “As far as I can make out” – but Beloff cannot have looked at all at what children read now – and they do – if he really believed that it has no literary worth. Come to that, he cannot have looked properly at what children read in the past. Books “especially written for the juvenile market”, if we must put it like that, existed in Scott’s and Dumas’s day; they became more numerous as the nineteenth century progressed, were a distinct subgenre in the first half of the twentieth century and exploded in the second half. I do not believe Beloff had not heard of Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Ransome and Noel Streatfeild, nor that he had not read at least the first two. Children’s authors of literary merit from about 1950 onwards are too numerous to mention (and many of them have specialised in offering an “entry into the world of history”). They, and their qualities, have been well publicised, for example by many a children’s librarian, by Puffin Books in the 1960s and 70s, and over fifty years by the Federation of Childrens’ Book Groups, whose annual conference I shall be attending this weekend. Yet he writes as if books especially written for children were a recent arrival; almost as if they were a regrettable modern phenomenon introduced like myxomatosis, and intended to prevent young people’s appreciation of the classics. This is sad stuff for a historian.

Do children today read Scott and Dumas (or Baroness Orczy)? Probably not, but this is a consequence of the general, unending repatterning of literary tastes and evaluation. I remember one of my A level English teachers, a man with a Cambridge degree, drawing our attention to this process nearly forty years ago. Had anyone in the class, he asked, ever read any Scott? No one had. He then told us he hadn’t either, and that that would once have been a shameful admission for someone in his position to make. But he was quite unruffled – he had after all volunteered the information. If adult readers with English literature degrees no longer read Scott, why should the young do so, especially when they have so much of their own – we cannot at all jib at the word – literature?

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Slow attrition of a patchwork palimpsest

Note: none of the properties directly referred to below is depicted here.

Waldegrave Park is a residential road which adjoins the estate I grew up on in Twickenham. The pleasing thing about its appearance has always been the diversity in age and style of the houses in it: large late Victorian;

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1930s suburban;

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1960s modern;

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and two styles of the 1970s, one described by the developer as “regency-evoking”,

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the other the work of a company called Focus 21 whose houses, with their characteristic look,

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can be found all over the district. The result is a comfortable and eminently likable patchwork.

But in recent years this patchwork has been marred as developers have acquired a taste for pulling down houses of any of the above styles and replacing them with pastiche late Victorian. This is easily distinguishable from the real thing,

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Pastiche Victorian (left) and the real thing (right)

and although it imitates the genuine Victorian houses in the road the various attempts at it have altogether lacked their charm.

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(The “regency-evoking” houses were not an attempt to copy the regency style but firmly twentieth century, as indeed the description tacitly admits.)

The typical 1930s detached house where half a century ago I went to nursery school was pulled down after the death of the proprietor. A developer’s proposal to build four or five houses on the site was objected to by several local residents. Among these was the next-door neighbour, who said in effect: we pulled down a banal 1960s house and built a much sounder and more handsome one, but now we are to be overshadowed. Yet the house they built is a Victorian pastiche; by replacing a 1960s house it has contributed to the creeping uniformity. The real objection to the developer’s proposal in my view is that it took this process further. The original scheme was turned down; a fresh one was accepted with only two houses – but they are still Victorian pastiche in style.

Suburbs have often been condemned as monotonous. I think this is unfair in general, but the patchwork here has in its totality always made a delightful pattern. Genuine victoriana is delightful in itself, but it is a retrograde step to turn the patchwork into even Victorian uniformity, especially when its new version is a debased modern imitation.

The 1930s houses, as a comparison of the 1915 and 1934 Ordnance Survey 25-inch maps makes clear, were built on vacant lots. As they are detached, a developer would have had nothing to gain by demolishing older houses to put them up: the recent development has invariably built two or more houses where there was formerly one. The Focus 21 houses, though they were built in the late twentieth century, are not modernist in character, and I remember that some Victorian and some 1930s houses came down for their construction. But they are definitely twentieth century, and whatever preliminary destruction was wrought, both they and the remaining 1930s houses do contribute to the patchwork. This, the chief charm of the road, is not what it was. It should not be eroded further.

Long-distance paths and written records: the London Countryway and the Greensand Way

In this year which is now nearing completion, I completed the London Countryway. Like the Capital Ring and the London Loop, the London Countryway is a long-distance path which encircles London, but it differs from them in two ways. The Capital Ring and the London Loop are both within Greater London; the London Countryway is indeed in the country outside it. And the Capital Ring and the London Loop are official long-distance paths; the London Countryway is not.

The London Countryway is some 205 miles long, enclosing an area bounded by Box Hill, Marlow, St Albans and Tilbury. It was devised pretty much by one man, Keith Chesterton, who published a short guide to it in 1976, and later a book. I have not seen the book, but my mother bought the guide when it appeared, more or less as a curiosity and without thought of doing the walk, at least in full. It sat on the family shelves for 40 years until I, enthused by the other two circular walks, took it down and decided to walk the route. In format the guide shows its age: it was produced on a typewriter, photocopied and stapled. The outline map of the walk is hand-drawn. The front cover photograph of Ranmore Common was, like the text, reproduced on a photocopier, a process which, to put it politely, removes all subtlety from a photograph. But cottage-industry publication could do little else back then.

This guide was the only guidance I had; being unofficial, the route is not shown on maps or signage. So the night before I walked each section I had to co-ordinate the directions it gives with the paths on the map and commit to memory the paths I should use. What surprised me was how relatively straightforward this was – the paths have changed very little in forty-odd years. The completion of the M25, and some lesser road-building, sometimes required me to negotiate junctions and footbridges where Chesterton referred only to a track or minor road. Some fields in south Essex can now be crossed by a more direct route than the more circuitous one specified by Chesterton (which appears no longer to be usable). Chesterton recommends using Brookmans Park station (Hertfordshire) to reach the starting point of one section, but Welham Green station, a good deal nearer the route, has been opened since he wrote, so I used this.

The rights of way the London Countryway uses have remained rights of way for the most part. But I wonder how far the route can be said still to exist as a unified long-distance path when it is unmarked, guides to it are rare and obtained only by chance unless you know anyway what you are looking for, and it appears few people walk it nowadays. Is a written record of something such as this necessary to reify it, even when the tracks which make it up still exist, so that to constitute the route as a whole we need only keep their connections in mind?

We might compare the London Countryway in this wise with the Greensand Way, on which I have now embarked. This is an official long distance path. It is marked on maps and is well signposted. But there is currently no guide to it in print. In this it contrasts with the North Downs Way, to which it runs parallel, and from which it is never more than a few miles: chalk is more obvious, and so more glamorous, than glauconite. I had to search for guides second hand. So while many people living near the route or exploring the countryside there must be aware of the Greensand Way because of the signposts and map legends, how many people have a sense of it as a whole? How many people walk it end to end compared to those walking the North Downs Way? Again, is its existence less definite because a written record is hard to come by?

It was instructive too that the guides I found were published by the Surrey (1989) and Kent (1992) county councils. This sort of thing was once a common local government activity, one means among many of promoting the well-being of an area and so of improving its economy. Would such guides be published today?

Well, memory and tradition too can preserve the vitality of a thing – but a written record spreads knowledge widely, preserves and hands on memory, can both keep alive traditions and establish new ones. In their turn written records themselves need to be remembered and kept alive. So here is a written record of sorts to help all this.

I need only add that the London Countryway is well worth walking. It will take you through the North Downs, the River Thames in both its placid and its estuarial manifestations, the Chilterns, and rolling Hertfordshire with a seamless transition to Essex, before that county gives way to flat marshland. You will also pass through the middle of some towns, most notably Windsor, Marlow, St Albans, Broxbourne, Waltham Abbey, Brentwood and Gravesend. Seek out the guide if you can. Start and finish at any point on the circle, but start soon!

And indeed sir ’tis true sir

If you go into the waiting room on platform 6 at Derby railway station you will see a large colourful display board. It was placed there by Derby College, and recounts how the college has restored the old railway roundhouse and associated buildings to the east of the station and converted them for use as college buildings. It is worth quoting from the board at length (emphasis in the original):

THE ROUNDHOUSE: Breathing New Life into Derby’s Historic Railway Quarter

Open to the Public

You don’t have to enrol as a student to visit The Roundhouse Campus. Derby College extends a warm welcome to all at The Roundhouse where you can enjoy the cafe and social facilities, take part in special events and guided visits…

This iconic building now has a new lease of life as part of Derby College and will bring lasting benefits to the people of Derby. The Roundhouse is open as a visitor centre and social hub where people can discover more about Derby’s proud industrial heritage with iconic and interactive images and information…

The site… focuses on The Roundhouse which is the social hub of the site – open to students and the general public.

Now that surely is a tempting thought for one interested in railways and cityscapes. But it’s lies, all lies. Leave the station on the east side with a view to visiting the Roundhouse and you will find it closed off by an ugly steel security fence which obscures the view of the complex and ruins the perspective of the variegated buildings, preventing proper appreciation even from outside of the architecture of this large piece of Derby’s history. The only entrance even to the courtyard is through a staffed hutment, and entry is only permitted to those who can show college ID or state definite business. This sealed fortress brings no wider benefit whatever to the people of Derby. And the students, who could have mingled with the public at the college and courtesy of the college, are kept apart from the society in which they should be mingling and taking their place as citizens.

If I find this policy detestable, as I do, I recognise that it is not altogether the college’s fault. The problem is the unsatisfactory state of the law, which continues to regard 16 and 17 year olds as children when they no longer are, and so in need of protection from a threat which does not exist; and this is one of many ways in which we are nowadays officially encouraged not to trust each other, to the detriment of civil society. But if this must be the policy the college has no business showing publicity saying in as many words that the college is open to the public when it is not. Yet the display board remains, extolling the college’s openness and public spirit, “And if you had been in Derby / You’d have seen it as well as I”.

The University of Leeds and a wasting disease of the heart

Perhaps the finest perk I have ever had is that, as a graduate of the University of Leeds, I am entitled to a ticket for the university library for no more than the payment of a small annual fee.  This is more than just a great privilege: I simply could not have carried out much of the scholarship I have without this access to one of the country’s largest research collections.  So I was dismayed this autumn to find that the library has had its budget cut, and that the cut has been applied by having the Brotherton library, where the main collections in the arts and humanities are kept, bring its weekday closing time forward from midnight to 20.30.

 

University budgets may have to be reduced but I wonder why it is the library that suffers.  It should surely be at the heart of a university.  It is a device for independent working – the chief way university is supposed to differ from school.  It is a place to explore any subject.  My tutor at Leeds told me early on that you did not come to university only to take a degree in your subject.  Throughout my formal education I never felt constrained by a syllabus, and as an undergraduate I spontaneously explored many subjects.  As well as my degree subject of linguistics I borrowed books in English, education, politics and music amongst others.  And even in your own degree subject you are likely to have special interests and find unexpected delights in the library that your lecturers don’t mention.

 

I find it difficult to believe, even with the advance of technology, that books are no longer in fashion with the young as tools of study and enlightenment: all complaints of this kind tend to be exaggerated.  And whether or not it is true the university ought to be, as it surely is, urging books on undergraduates.  The main reason why I won’t use Twitter is that first thoughts ought to be refined before they go public.  Extensive, careful exploration of a subject such as a library affords helps this process, helps bring a view and analysis of a subject that is as good as it can be for the time being.  (The books in the library have, one hopes, been created this way by their authors.)

 

That is why I feel dismay that it is library hours that have been chosen to be cut.  It is true that the university’s other libraries, the Edward Boyle (sciences and social sciences), the Health Sciences library (medicine and allied subjects) and the Laidlaw (undergraduate collections) have had their hours preserved.  But undergraduates, if they are to delight in their studies and to have some feel for the frontiers of knowledge, should be moving beyond the main undergraduate collections and should not have their ability to do so restricted.  And the arts and humanities of all disciplines rely most on libraries for research.  Why is it they that have suffered?

Put your litter in a Lister bin

Lister litter bin

Some decades ago – certainly in my youth – probably the most common type of litter bin to be found in parks was this design by Lister of Dursley, Gloucestershire. These bins consisted of wooden slats arranged conically, with a metal bin painted red or green inside, and were to my mind a classic of industrial design because they mingled the industrial with the bucolic in perfect proportions. (The rarer green-painted bin tilted the look towards the bucolic.) They were thus able to take their place neatly in the urban park scene, contributing to its aesthetics even while fulfilling their necessary but unlovely function.

It is a pity, therefore, that the design is no longer used. Today most litter bins seem to be made entirely of fibreglass, which does not lend itself to the bucolic, even the urban-park bucolic. Amid the greenery of a park it is conspicuous for the wrong reason. It is also all too easily set on fire; and there can be few things uglier than burnt-out fibreglass.

So let us keep alive the memory of the Lister bins. Let us remember what is possible in the design of everyday things. The bins are hard to find now, but if they are history let it be recorded history.

What is it about queens and roads?

Millicent Bell, in her notes to the Penguin edition of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, tells us that Bayswater station, on the Circle Line of the London Underground, and Queensway station on the Central Line, were both formerly called Queen’s Road. (Both stations stand in what is today Queensway.) According to Douglas Rose’s The London Underground: a Diagrammatic History Bayswater was opened by the Metropolitan Railway as Bayswater in 1868, renamed Bayswater (Queen’s Road) and Westbourne Grove in 1922 – after Henry James’s time – and reverted to plain Bayswater in 1933. Queensway station was indeed opened as Queen’s Road in 1900 and renamed in 1946. It is a name which seems to have caused trouble for railway authorities.

When British Rail were eradicating the last of the totem station signs (a subject I have discussed before) one of the stations to get this attention was Queen’s Road Battersea. According to Dave Brennand’s exhaustive documentation of British Railways Totem Station Signs (1991) the three words of the station name were arranged in two lines in the central section of the totem, and as was customary in capitals. About 1980 the totems were replaced by black on white Gill Sans upper and lower case saying simply Queen’s Road – no Battersea. Within months these signs were themselves replaced by new ones saying Queenstown Road, with Battersea in much smaller letters underneath.

Now Queenstown Road had long been the name of the road: it was shown as such in my parents’ Atlas of Greater London, which was published before 1960 since it did not show our road which was built in that year. So was the road ever just Queen’s Road? It had in any case been Queenstown Road long enough that British Rail should either have changed the name of the station when the totems were replaced or should boldly have kept the discrepancy: there can be no excuse for the waste of two changes of sign within a few months.

The current signs, put up by South West Trains, say only Queenstown Road – once again Battersea is omitted. This does mean that the station cannot be confused with the nearby Battersea Park station, but it would be helpful to know which district it serves. (It would anyway be difficult to confuse one station with Battersea last and one with Battersea first.) And today the booking hall at Queenstown Road is got up in a reproduction of the green and cream of the former Southern Railway, from which those who remember can catch a faint ironic mockery of the relentless replacement of totems over three decades ago.