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.

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What wild ecstasy?

The new Library of Birmingham is the city’s third central library. The old Victorian building (which I do not remember) was replaced in the early 1970s by a concrete brutalist structure, which at the time of writing still stands but has now been replaced by the new building a short distance away. Brutalism is coming to be admired again, with justice I think, although we no longer admire the practice of sweeping old buildings away in its favour. This combination would perhaps have been the ideal one forty years ago.

Still, I like the new library very much, and for this reason. Its design is a quirky and idiosyncratic one which can be taken as a symbol of the idiosyncrasy and eccentricity with which individual minds work, and for this reason it is also a symbol of scholarship and learning, which are products of the ways individual minds explore and transmute the world of knowledge and of thought. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIts asymmetry, the way its metal cladding catches the light in both silver and gold and its geometrical decoration – all hold a promise of the play of thought. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe decoration frames the view from every window.  When we go inside we are similarly beguiled by the variegated matrix of shapes in the stairwell, SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAand the sweep of the escalators and travolators that carry us to the top of the building floor by floor.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA There are echoes of Victorian library design in the shelves around the stairwell housing bound volumes of periodicals, and in the metal staircases – they’re got up to look like iron, but I suppose they are steel – which link floors of shelves.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

One piece of the actual Victorian library has survived in the Shakespeare room. SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe ornate panelling, ceiling and bookcases of this room were transshipped intact from the Victorian to the brutalist library so that the room survived though the building did not. Nearly thirty years ago I studied local studies librarianship in that room in the brutalist building. Now the room has been transshipped once more. The effect of being in the same room but in a different building is startling enough to one who has been in it in two buildings. What must it be like to someone who has known it in all three? Or to one who knew it in the Victorian building and has rediscovered it now but who never knew it in the brutalist building?

And then there are the terraces with their gardens. Having roof gardens at all might be thought a luxury, a distraction from the library’s utilitarian purpose, but they are surely places to stand and gaze, an activity conducive to creative thinking. What can we gaze at? Well there are the plantsSAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA – and these range beyond the merely decorative to take in tomato plants.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA Then there is the city with its clustered array of buildings.

Note the brutalist library building of the 1970s in the foreground here.

Note the brutalist library building of the 1970s in the foreground here

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAAnd there is the view of the city’s suburbs and the distant hills beyond, SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAa draw to anyone like me who loves suburbs; who, seeing the characteristic landscape of a suburb, its meld of terracotta and green, thinks instinctively of the individual lives lived in them, at oblique angles to each other but still perpetually combining, re-combining and interlocking.

Individual lives, individual minds: the Library of Birmingham is a place to savour.

This historic historian is a voice worth reviving.

C G Crump’s History and Historical Research, published in 1928, is a guide to the practice of the subject for novice historians. Manuals on how to study are common nowadays, and nearly all of them suffer from a hortatory tone, making scholarship sound like an endless grind or parade-ground drill of arranging notes just so and of using time only in overtly productive ways, and all seemingly done for an examiner’s benefit rather than your own.

Crump is different. His tone can be old fashioned (“…the curiosity of the enquirer was thoroughly inflamed… the advocate of an abbey was the man who presided over the courts held in the liberty of the abbey… The earl’s third penny of the pleas of the shire swept from his mind the French advocates and German vogts…”) but he acknowledges the strange terrain our minds so often travel and the circuitous ways they travel it; acknowledges too that this is half the delight of research, and that our methods are very much our own. What seems inefficient to the writers of study guides is thoroughly efficient to us because it is ours so we know our way about it.

On notetaking for example:

It is often suggested that all that is required… is to select a subject and that the student may then… collect his materials, make his notes and finally expand his notes into the form of a treatise. Those who work in this way will produce a result of a kind… All the necessary facts will be there… but one thing will be lacking, the skeleton of thought needed to make the book an intelligible whole… [T]he writer, absorbed in perfecting the mechanism of his process, has never perfected the art of thinking… The remedy is… a paradox. Write your treatise first, and make your notes afterwards.

In other words, write what you know of the hunches you have which have led you to your subject and see what patterns they make even at this early stage. That will guide you as to the notes you really need to take and to their form and extent. And your early hunches, since they are yours alone, will give the work the individual flavour which will delight a reader in the end. Notetaking will be the servant of creativity and not the other way round; it will thus cease to be a grind or rather, it will be the sort of grind you can gladly bear.

Or take his view of systematic and unsystematic minds:

The systematic mind will have its stock of events ready to hand… Its disability [is] that the discovery of new relations involves the disturbance of the familiar order so carefully achieved. All the stored events must be turned out and sorted and re-sorted… The old habit of order will of course resist this process… [T]he possessor of the disorderly mind [has had] to be continually turning over his stock of events… to keep his knowledge in any kind of control [so that] accidental juxtaposition is always a possible source of new views to him [yet he] must acquire the power to impose order when order is needed… Just as the owner of the systematic mind must acquire the power to break up the array of his ordered knowledge, so the owner of the disorderly mind must try to introduce some neatness into the disorder… [T]hese extreme cases are, like all extreme cases, imaginary. No minds are completely orderly; few are in complete disorder. The normal mind probably lies nearer, a good deal nearer, to the disorderly type than to the orderly. [But] most students think that the latter type is the right thing to aim at… and many critics and teachers share this view. And yet though the luckless possessor of an untidy mind is always conscious of his own sins… in his heart he knows very well that he gets far more fun out of his work than the other fellow, and thinks, possibly with some justification, that he finds out more things, even though he makes more blunders.

This kind of high-spirited subversiveness is calculated to confound any inscrutable advice on “study techniques”: cultivate your particular eccentricity, and not only will that be your kind of efficiency however seemingly convoluted, but you will enjoy yourself more and may well write better history. The customers for study guides are usually too much in awe of authority and all too ready to be burdened by their authors with a great weight of puritan conscience. I commend Crump to them instead – whether or not they are historians – for an example and an injection of a boldness which would enable them to repudiate that burden.