Vote Remain

This blog is not normally overtly political, but I make an exception for the referendum on British membership of the European Union, which is probably the most significant vote any of us will cast in our lifetimes.

I urge readers of this blog who have a vote to vote today to remain in the EU.

Among many reasons I could cite the single market, which allows British firms to trade with other European nations with a minimum of bureaucracy; the threat to peace in Northern Ireland if the border between it and the Republic of Ireland has to become a sealed national border instead of the county boundary-like thing it is now; the workers’ rights European law has laid down which our national government would be reluctant to preserve; or the problems such as climate change which require supranational action to solve.

But it is the implications for the pursuit of scholarship which concern me here. In the sciences international co-operation in research projects is essential, and the availability of EU grants has made so many research projects possible. Professional scholars are free to seek work in any EU country, and EU membership has brought us easier travel, in its turn making easier the exchange of ideas between scholars through meetings and conferences.

The creative and performing arts – surely the first cousins of scholarship – are big earners of invisible exports; when orchestras and theatre and dance companies can travel abroad with the least difficulty it cannot but improve their ability to contribute to the country’s trade. And do remember the opportunities provided for the talented young in such ventures as the EU Youth Orchestra, a popular attraction throughout Europe, not least annually at the Proms.

But above all there is this. The pursuit of scholarship necessarily involves the qualification of rigid ideas, theories and categories. Archives, to take the principal preoccupation of this blog, can always disclose awkward facts for any pre-existing thesis; we must always be prepared to modify our view of matters we investigate. It follows that as scholars we should not treat nations as monoliths, nor should we wish to see rigid and impenetrable boundaries around them. We should rather look for all opportunities for cross-fertilisation of ideas between nations and engage wholeheartedly in the great construction for the international meeting of minds which is the EU.

Local history in the UK is a pursuit which engages all kinds of people: amateur and professional, and throughout society. It helps to preserve the character of localities against the encroachment of uniformity, including that imposed from the centre by governments. This problem of imposition from the centre would get worse if we left the EU, membership of which spreads power, and so counteracts the overweening power of Westminster. I believe it is not a coincidence that the first person I saw wearing an “I’m in” sticker was at the West London Local History Conference in March. The proprietors of the popular press favour our leaving the EU because they fear European law will curb their monopoly power. They are emphatically against the general improvement of minds which interests such as local history bring about; they want to be free to exploit us with their mind-rot.

I sketched out the above ideas some time ago. I write them up now in the wake of the indescribably terrible news of the murder of Jo Cox MP. A few weeks back I heard someone argue that we should leave the EU because “we want our country back” (I was not aware that we had lost it). But people are now saying in as many words, “I want my country back” in a very different sense: they want its gentleness, tolerance and open-mindedness restored. That includes an openness to other cultures which leaving the EU would negate. They are qualities which the disinterested pursuit of ideas encourages. Those of us who are engaged in the disinterested pursuit of ideas should not shun an organisation which provides so many ways to make that pursuit so much easier and broader.

Update.  See this post by Simon Wren-Lewis for an exceptionally fine defence of remaining in the EU and of reasoned argument.


Brush up your Shakespeare

The floods around Christmas damaged a number of railway lines, among them the South Eastern Railway’s main line at Shakespeare Beach, between Folkestone and Dover. The March issue of the Railway Magazine reports that Network Rail has carefully investigated the construction of the sea wall in planning the repairs to the line. The report, judging by its style, was compiled from a Network Rail press release: Network Rail has had to turn archaeologist… Steve Kilby, senior programme manager for Network Rail, said…”. “The company”, reports the RM, “is having to take this approach because of an absence of any significant maintenance records from the Southern Railway era (1923-1947).” They have carried out a laser survey, and dug trenches and bore holes. “Not only that,” the report continues,

but they have also been spending time in local newspaper archives to try and find any useful information.

They have discovered that the railway here was originally carried on wooden trestles above the beach, but in 1927 the Southern Railway built the current sea wall alongside it. Thousands of tonnes of chalk were then deposited around the viaduct to encase it; the railway being relaid across the top.

Now Edwin Course, in The Railways of Southern England: The Main Lines (1973) writes: “the east end of Shakespeare Cliff Tunnel led out on to the top of the beach, which the railway followed on a wooden trestle viaduct. In 1927, as part of the Southern Railway’s improvements for continental traffic, this was replaced by an embankment supported on the seaward side by a concrete retaining wall.” And C. F. Dendy Marshall’s 1937 History of the Southern Railway (in Roger Kidner’s revised edition of 1963) quotes the Board of Trade’s inspecting officer in 1844, “the two short portions of the railway formed along the beach… have been protected… [at Shakespeare Beach] by a strong timber viaduct”, and adds, “The timber bridge survived until 1927… The line is now carried on an embankment behind a concrete wall.”

I am very glad that Network Rail’s staff used archives in their work. It is likely that in consulting old newspapers they went beyond the bare facts and learned something of the context and historical detail of the times of the railway’s construction and of its reconstruction, which is illuminating in itself. But the essence of the story – the line‘s structure where it runs along the beach – was not their discovery. (Edwin Course, who in his preliminaries mentions having used Dover public library, surely consulted some of the same papers.)

I hope Network Rail’s staff have acquired a taste for archives and their possibilities. But it is a pity they presented as an original discovery something they could have got from a secondary source – and that the Railway Magazine swallowed their press release whole. The Railway Magazine, the oldest publication of its kind, has long been a journal of record, but in this case PR sadly seems to have smothered scholarship.

Did physical exertion kill a living memory?

In September I visited Gloucester cathedral and, after seeing most of the building with great delight, took the day’s last tour of the crypt. As part of his nineteenth-century restoration of the cathedral Sir George Gilbert Scott designed a red granite font which was installed in 1878. This font was moved to the crypt in 1986, when a Norman lead font was acquired. Our guide said that she had no idea how the solid stone structure was moved, down the narrow stairways and passages which would preclude the use of machinery. Now it is understandable that we do not know exactly how, say, the lantern at Ely cathedral was built after nearly seven hundred years have passed. But when it is still not quite thirty years since Scott’s font was moved, someone must know; someone must remember. Our guide had made it her business to be well informed, so the question is whether a record exists. Extraordinary that the matter is apparently a mystery, but it shows that even contemporary events, with today’s procedures and mechanisms for documenting them, may cause uncertainty as to facts as well as interpretation in future chroniclers.

If a record exists it should be brought into the currency of everyday discussion of the cathedral. Since oral testimony cannot last for ever, a record obviously should have been made if it wasn’t. And for the same reason, if there is no original written record oral testimony should be collected and preserved now.

Empiricism and evocation

Reading recently, with as much patience as I could muster, Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp, I reflected that re-creating the flavour of a time and place is not helped by too great an effort to do it. Some objectivity – an objectivity that archives are good at holding us to – is paradoxically far more evocative.

Scarp is a personal exploration of the ridge of high ground to the north of London on the Middlesex-Hertfordshire border. This is the eponymous Scarp, which the author claims to have identified and named. The book recounts some of his explorations of the area and his relationship to it throughout his life. But if his aim was, as the blurb says, “first and foremost a personal inquiry into the spirit of place” the attempt does not at all come off. It is pretentiously written: Papadimitriou strains after effect, over-ornamenting his description to the point of tedium, and recalling for this reader Orwell’s “a tremendous advantage is gained by not trying to be clever” and Samuel Butler’s “I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable”. The central premise is unoriginal: that ridge of high ground has been known for generations as the Northern Heights – a phrase Papadimitriou does use, on page 231, but in passing, and printing it in lower case. The nineteenth century railway engineers who built the main lines north from London all had the problem of penetrating the ridge; the plans drawn up between the wars to extend the Northern Line called the scheme the Northern Heights project; and Northern Heights was a name considered for what became the London Borough of Enfield. Papadimitriou often wanders off into fantasy – acknowledgedly to be sure, but it is difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins and hence what we should take seriously as personal testimony. We have here in short merely one mind’s discursive thoughts and reveries, and although he clearly does know some history and despite some close descriptions of nature I did not at all have a sense of the landscape he reckons to portray.

An instructive contrast is with Alan A. Jackson’s London’s local railways. Jackson simply recounts the story of the construction and operation of these local lines throughout their life, the changes they have seen and their effects on London’s landscape and development. He has quarried the archives very thoroughly. The book is – I suggest in consequence – far more atmospheric. His method is implied in the book’s dedication, “To the suburban traveller”, to which he appends an epigraph from Constable, “We see nothing until we understand it”. Understand your familiar scene, Jackson seems to say, know thoroughly its origin and its function over time, and you will feel more intensely its essence – indeed put like that it is almost a tautology. Jackson visited every one of the lines he writes about, in many instances more than once over decades, and his physical descriptions are commonly his own observations. Though they can be highly coloured he states exactly what he sees and uses it as historical evidence. They are personal, but objective in the sense that he wanted to give an account of what is “out there” rather than an account of his thoughts.

I like to think that the archives both anchored him to objectivity and inspired him to be atmospheric. When we use archives to write history we are bound to convey the knowledge they give us; but it is in giving it to us and as they give it to us that they take us close to the atmosphere of things as they were, an intense sensation which we will also wish to convey, and which we will convey by recounting with feeling what we find. The two things are indissolubly paired.

A three-dimensional archive

I recently visited the museum of the Vintage Carriages Trust, at Ingrow West station on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway in West Yorkshire. The Trust is dedicated to the restoration of old railway carriages to their original condition; some of them when restored may then occasionally run on the railway.

It occurred to me that the collection of carriages constitutes a three-dimensional archive. By showing us not only how old carriages looked but presenting that look in immaculate condition and letting us sit in some of the compartments, as they do, they allow us to get a rather different sense of what travelling in those carriages was actually like than an old photograph gives. Fascinating and indispensable as old photographs are, their technical qualities emphasise the difference of past ages from our own. To sit in one of these carriages emphasises our common humanity: we can get at least a sense of the experience of the original passengers.

I sat in Great Northern Railway no. 589, taking in the tongue and groove panelling, the paint and varnish, the seat moquettes and, in first class, the PVC which has replaced leather, but in the original buttoned design. In an old Metropolitan Railway carriage I took in the luggage racks of wrought iron and plaited string, the wartime posters in Edward Johnston’s celebrated typeface and the engraving on the inside door handles, “Live in Metroland”. But my favourite was one of Oliver Bulleid’s main line carriages for British Railways Southern Region of 1950 with its veneer, plain electric light bulbs, circular mirrors (a very Bulleid touch), chrome fittings and red seat moquette – a replacement, but woven to the original pattern. The appeal of this was that it is only just out of reach of my memory – its working life extended into my own lifetime by a few years but I never travelled on one of its type. So it was enough like carriages I do remember to be familiar, but much was also different. I had the endlessly tantalising sense of drawing on memory and history and trying to reconcile them; and though I made progress towards it I could not quite, and never will quite, “get the feeling”. This is the same sensation I get from examining archives of the more conventional kind, and it is why I constantly return to them.

Now the VCT’s volunteer staff shy away from the idea that they are running an archive; they are clear that it is a museum. Their aim is to attract people who have come for a day out on the railway who are naturally interested in steam engines but have probably never thought about carriages, and arouse in them an interest in carriages. But where do we draw boundaries? I was once shown Samuel Butler’s sheep brand (from his time as a farmer in New Zealand) – in a library, that of St John’s College Cambridge. On the other hand a librarian once suggested to me that an archive holds documents produced for the private use of an organisation: a library is the proper repository only for items which have been published or disseminated, even if on a small scale such as a parish magazine. A railway carriage, intended for public use, obviously was in a sense disseminated, but when the VCT restores a carriage to show how it looked, or how it was made to look, it is a matrix of archival detail on this subject which produces the total effect.

This compares with period-instrument orchestras. These instruments naturally produced the sound of their own era but have survived as tokens of the history of music and of the development of each instrument. This is a kind of archive. But these instruments today also give us, we could well say, oral testimony of the sounds of the past by being used for performance. This is another kind of archive. Period instrument performance has now reached the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This time is contiguous with our own: by then keys had replaced holes and valves had replaced crooks, even if flutes were still of wood and metal strings had not yet replaced gut. So the sound is familiar but not quite our own and is a product of the minutiae of technique and of sound. It is the “archive” which has given us the totality of the effect.

Archives and historical narrative

The recent controversy over history teaching sometimes appeared to turn on whether the syllabus should consist of a chronological narrative of events or of a set of techniques for finding and organising historical data.

I see no point in arguing that narrative should or should not enter into history teaching: whatever anyone intends it is bound to be woven into it. No research technique is learned without being practised; and no research technique is practised without being used to gather material on some historical event which constitutes a narrative. The real question is whether pupils are to be presented with an officially approved narrative which they are expected to learn or whether they are to explore something of the nature of historical narrative. I suggest that historical narrative has two characteristics which make the latter course the only honest one.

First, there are many narratives. Any historical event can be seen from multiple points of view, all of which need to be appreciated. And there are the histories not only of each nation as a whole but of every locality in it, of international relations and of a multitude of human pursuits. All of these are worth studying, and it is not clear that any of them is more fundamental or essential knowledge than any other. Which for example takes precedence, the problems of national government through the ages or the history of the neighbourhood we live in?

Second, narratives are fissile. A narrative as presented by a historian has been assembled from multiple and often fragmentary sources which we can return to. Anyone studying history at any level should be introduced to these sources, and made aware that a narrative constructed from them could take more than one form. Preferably they should attempt to construct a narrative from the sources themselves. Here archives play a proud part in history teaching. A few years ago I was in a party visiting the Lancashire Record Office. Our guide asked how many of us had when at school visited a museum. Everybody had. And how many had visited a library? Again, everybody. And how many an archive? Nobody. But the Lancashire Record Office now regularly hosts school parties who handle the documents and surely learn how a narrative which superficially is a smooth progression of events breaks down into its component parts. This is unquestionably an improvement in the teaching and learning of history since the days when schoolchildren never went near archives, and the educational work of archives and archivists is something we should fiercely defend.

There is another point. Any syllabus in any subject must be negotiated, in the sense that one negotiates a hairpin bend: each pupil must make sense of it and make a pattern from it that is their own. This is something that cannot but happen, human consciousness being what it is, and it is beyond the control of any syllabus designer. The use of archives in history teaching helps to ensure that the study of history is not a frontal advance in a single direction and that it is therefore better suited to the individual mind. From the many and discrete sources we learn to make sense and to judge. This is one way of learning to think. And who will deny that as among the purposes of education?