‘British Day’

So our leader-in-waiting wants Remembrance Sunday to become ‘British Day’, modelled on US Fourth of July celebrations.

All I can say is: he can try to manufacture a national day if he wants, and I’m not opposed in principle (though I’m not convinced it’d work), but he should leave Remembrance Sunday alone. Surely the point is that that’s an international day, a day when we should put nationalism to one side: indeed, when we might do well to reflect on its dark side, the ways in which it’s contributed to conflict and destruction in the modern world.

You know, I fear that we’re going to be subjected to a stream of Tony-ish bright ideas over the next couple of years as Gordon tries to show us that he isn’t really boring after all. Please, please, spare us…

The new virtual To Read pile

So I read eb’s comments on new forms of online-database serendipity (made in response to this post at Cliopatria).* You might remember that I posted about RSS feeds for e-journals last week. Now, I’ll check out the TOCs for several history journals to which the university has subscriptions, and I make a point of regularly downloading articles that sound interesting and aren’t in my immediate research area. (Right now I have this intriguing article to read about the meanings of “1066” that I’d probably never have spotted otherwise.) I do the same kind of thing with JSTOR when something catches my interest. Great, eh?

The only thing is that I’m starting to accumulate the PDF file equivalent of that pile of books sitting over there that I know I’m never to going to get round to reading…

*I know this is heresy, but personally I think that this business of physically browsing the stacks is much overrated. Continually being interrupted by those annoying people who have the nerve to want to get to the same shelves as you in a library that’s either hot and stuffy or freezing cold (depending on which floor you’re on and which way the windows face, our library manages both) and lugging around piles of heavy journals to find a desk where you can take notes (many of our journals are reference only) or to the photocopier (and so many journals are so tightly bound with such tiny margins – bloody cheapskates – that you can hardly open them wide enough to get a readable photocopy anyway) where you run out of credit on your photocopying card with one page of the article left so you have to go down two flights of stairs to the nearest slot machine and you’ll probably forget to take the photocopying away out of the copier when you’re done anyway… pfffffft.

Nothing new

Nearly forgot this. That annoying twit Simon Hoggart had this to say last week:

One sign of the infantilisation of our national life is the growing tendency to anthropomorphise inanimate objects. Blackpool buses which are not picking up passengers say: “Sorry, I’m not in service”, as if they were Clara the talking bus from Thomas the Tank Engine…

As plenty of archaeologists and medievalists would be able to tell him, there is a very long and widespread tradition (from ancient civilizations through to the early modern period) of inscriptions on artefacts that will say, for example, “A made me”, or “B owns me”.

It’s common on medieval and early modern church bells. I particularly like a more unusual one from Helmdon Parish Church in Oxfordshire, dated 1679:


Or you could have the 1834 inscription on one of its neighbours. Same general idea… somewhat different tone.


The Telegraph on what it means to be British

I may or may not edit this post over the weekend. I have a feeling I should write something about The Telegraph’s poll on British identity (and some other articles and stuff).

But when you start by reading the line “[British] People also know how much they owe to the fact that Britain has not been invaded since 1066”, you can’t help thinking you’re in fairly dodgy territory. Admittedly, the French effort to invade via south-west Wales in 1797 was a bit of a farce, so alright, we could put that to one side. (Don’t know that contemporaries were quite so dismissive though. And they did land on the British mainland.) And 1688 – well, there was a sort of ‘invitation’ to William, with his Dutch troops, so perhaps that’s different too.

But what about 1485? Or even 1470-71 (twice)?* Or perhaps none of these count, since the armies were not led by ‘foreigners’ (even if they contained a lot of them, and were largely backed by foreign money). And it doesn’t count either, I suppose, that English armies invaded and occupied Wales in the thirteenth century, and ‘visited’ Scotland on an almost regular basis well into the sixteenth century (and, yes, Scottish armies on occasion returned a few favours too). A bit of Rough Wooing, anybody?

The Telegraph can get very worked up about British people’s ignorance of ‘their own’ history sometimes. But clearly not when that ignorance suits the purposes of a set of articles like these. It looks to me like they’re going to be the usual lazy anglocentric (and southern-anglocentric at that) thou-shalt-never-criticise-or-question-Britain’s-greatness kind of shite to me. I just look at them and start to feel very, very tired. I know I should engage. I should do something. But don’t be surprised if I can’t get up the energy.

But if anybody does read them and gets some pleasant surprises, let me know.

*1485: Henry Tudor and a French-backed army, landed in south-west Wales and marched east to England and you know the rest, right? 1470: the French-backed army of Henry VI (Lancastrian, deposed in 1461) and his son, throwing out Edward IV, who escaped to Burgundy. 1471: Edward IV (Yorkist) and his Burgundian-backed army chucked the Lancastrians out again. (I used to know all the details of those ones too. I had this Wars of the Roses thing going at one time.)


NB: If I don’t update on this over the weekend, there might be a different reason. The necessary piece of kit has arrived in the shop and I’m planning on going wireless. So there’s always the possibility that I might break my internet connection completely in the process and not be able to fix it until Monday.

Belatedly on Tribble

And this is all I intend to say on the matter of Tribble v Academic Bloggers (the subject of much controversy over the last couple of weeks, for anyone who didn’t already know; catch up here, if you’re really bothered).

What she said. I thought the article was entirely ignorant about the reality of academic blogging, and of concern only if significant numbers of people on search committees (and fortunately for me, the CHE is virtually unknown amongst British academics…) were to take it seriously and, on finding that any job applicant has a blog, simply dismiss that person out of hand without actually reading it.

Having said that, I think that bloggers are responsible for what they put out online under their own names; it’s a public sphere and it’s a good idea to behave accordingly (with courtesy and fairness and so on); and if you want to blog regularly on very controversial and sensitive, or very personal and intimate, topics, then it’s wise to go pseudonymous. Think about what you write.

But saying that you should blog carefully and responsibly is not the same as advising you never to put your name to an opinion on academic and/or social issues on a blog (or any other online space). All forms of conventional academic publication involve taking risks. If you write a book, it could get bad reviews, which a potential employer can read. If you publish articles in journals, the potential employer can read them and might hate them. A colleague of the potential employer might have met you at a conference and thought your paper was half-baked rubbish. You don’t try to prevent these situations by not publishing. Instead, you do your best to produce good quality, professional work.

What a time…

To be away from your internet connection and your TV.

At 8.50am Thursday morning I was on a train somewhere in mid-Wales on my way to a conference in Oxford on… violence.

Getting into Birmingham just after 10.30, the only clue to what had happened, if I’d known how to interpret it, was that the next London Euston train had been cancelled (but this is not such a rare occurrence as to arouse extraordinary suspicions). But then came the announcement once I was on the Oxford train: We strongly advise you not to travel to London; because of the security situation, there is no public transport running in the city.

And only when I arrived in Oxford and started talking to others attending the conference did I really start to find out what had happened.

But we were there for business, and we got on with it. We stepped into the peculiar social bubble that is an academic conference and we talked about history and violence and politics, and the food and the weather, and academia and gossip and sex, and books and our research obsessions… and all the things academics talk about at conferences.

Occasionally we got reports and numbers from people who’d gone to the TV room to watch the news, and I made it to a computer for a while, but didn’t really try too hard to learn too much; what had happened a few miles away from us was a lurking presence, we were all aware of it, all too aware of it. I think I didn’t want to know more than was absolutely necessary. I certainly didn’t want to start in on the bloggers’ analysis. And most of all, I think I didn’t want to fill in details; I didn’t want to know names and faces, because if I started on that path, what would happen?

We carried on. We kept what was happening out there at a safe distance. And when I finally opened a paper on Saturday afternoon on the train home, I cried. For the deaths, and for the still alive, frantically scouring the city for missing loved ones.

But I was proud too.

Now, I’ve never exactly been in love with London in the way that many people are. And most of the time I consider myself far too cynical to be a patriot. (And, yes, let’s not get it too much out of proportion: this is not the worst thing that’s ever happened to London, where bombs and terror are not new; but it is the worst thing for a very long time.)

But yes, I am proud: of the responses of those who were there and caught up in this horror. Of their calmness and courage through terror and shock and pain. Their generosity and willingness to help each other. Their defiance. Proud of the emergency services and the hospitals and their staff. Proud of those who are even now deep underground facing a little hell on earth.

And proud of the message they’ve sent out by their deeds and words:

Fuck You.

Fuck you, wherever you are, you cringing cowardly little pieces of scum: don’t you know that adversity draws us Brits together as nothing else can? We will argue for the next 7 years and beyond about the bloody Olympics. But on this we stand together. We will mourn and we will remember. When we get you, we will ensure that you have justice; we will give you a fair trial. We won’t even kill you. On both of which counts, we will prove that whatever our faults, we are better than you.


PS: We also reserve the right to take the piss.

Academics and their big words

Robert Fisk has a column in today’s Independent; unfortunately it’s one you have to pay to read online. So no link. (*UPDATE* I found a free access version at Fisk’s website. So you can read and decide for yourselves whether what follows is a fair representation.) Anyway, the headline is “Let us rebel against poisonous academics and their preposterous claptrap of exclusion”. Which pretty much sums up the tone of the contents.

Words or phrases that Fisk thinks are just too big and hard include:

metaphorical constructs
fundamental dialogic immediacy
prosocial tendences
exilic spirituality
political and mythic interdependencies
ubiquitous human psychological process of othering
meaning system
cognitive dissonance
dialogic injuries
cultural envelope
family psychodynamics
social intercourse

Keep Out, these words say to us. This Is Something You Are Not Clever Enough to Understand.

(And don’t suggest that he should try expanding his vocabulary by looking them up. He says firmly, early on: ” ‘Matrilineal’ doesn’t exist in my dictionary. Nor is it likely to.”)*

This “language of exclusion”, he thinks, “must have grown up in universities over the past 20 years; after all any non-university educated man or woman can pick an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or ’30s and – however Hegelian the subject – fully understand its meaning. No longer.” (That just seems such a challenge: pick some random Hegelian philosophy theses from the early 20th century and see what my mum and dad make of them. Or me, for that matter. Yeah, I can see us now, full of enlightenment, chatting about Hegel over the Sunday roast.)

I know, most of those words I’ve listed (but ‘elite’?) are not exactly what you’d find in everyday speech or even in a broadsheet newspaper. And I often struggle with ‘theory’ people’s writing; but, very often, less because of individual words or concepts than the clunking, convoluted manner in which the buggers string them together. (In other words it’s not the language/vocabulary that’s the problem, it’s a lack of writing skills. And it’s quite true that poor writing + heavy theory (tends to) = extreme violence to language.) I’m not defending bad writing here.

But how about an alternative list of academic words for you?

ventral ectoblasts
nematode cell lineages

Know what any of those mean? (PZ, sit down.) They were picked at random from PZ Myers’ beautiful blog Pharyngula; they’re all terms from biology, and I think are all evolution-related. I could equally turn to online conversations between physicists or chemists to find incomprehensible terminology. Or what about the impenetrable thickets, to most of us, of economics and statistics? Do you know what the following mean: linear regression, multivariate regression, loess smoother…? (Randomly picked up at Crooked Timber.)

My point is not to complain about these disciplines for using language I don’t understand. Quite the opposite, in fact. (And, just to make this clear, PZ is a marvellous writer.) We have no problem recognising that many academics in science fields need specialist language in order to do their job, and that frequently means impenetrability to the majority of people outside their fields. When someone like Fisk talks about ‘academics’ in this kind of article, he doesn’t mean all academics, does he? I don’t notice him demanding that mathematicians stop using all those secret algebraic symbols which others (read: journalists, despite a few rhetorical flourishes about the little people) don’t understand. Mathematicians, stop doing that, you make us all feel stupid!

No, of course not. What Fisk is talking about are anthropologists, political theorists, literary theorists, linguists and so on (the ‘soft’ social sciences and ‘theoretical’ humanities, if you like). And I object strongly to the idea that in these fields it is “poisonous” and “snobbishness” for us to do what is regarded as normal for other academic fields (and, of course, many non-academic specialist fields too): to develop our own concepts for our own use, which are complex because the subjects they are used to describe and analyse are complex; and which have to be learned.

Of course, at times we also need to communicate beyond our highly-trained colleagues and speak to wider audiences (including journalists with inadequate dictionaries). But, then, so do the scientists. If Fisk were simply saying that we should do more of that, fair enough. But what he actually does is to argue that humanities academics should not use any language beyond the capacities of the average a) journalist or b) first-year college student. Not in books, not in the classroom, not in lectures.

If the general public doesn’t understand what scientists are talking about, obviously it’s because the subjects are really hard. If it doesn’t understand what humanities scholars are talking about, blame the scholars for inventing a “secret language” that makes everyone else feel inferior and stupid. Because, of course, the subject of humanities (human beings and all their works…) isn’t at all hard to understand, is it?

* By the way, the first appearance of ‘matrilineal’ given in the OED is from 1904.

Am I reaching out?

I’ve just read this piece in the Guardian. It talks about the need for academics to engage with people outside academia, to reach out to the wider public. So it got me thinking again about what I do in this blog.

Blogging is not mentioned (I don’t know if it’s even occurred to any of the academics interviewed*), but one of my goals here has been to create a space to talk about what I do to a wider audience than just other academic historians. Am I succeeding? I’ve had, it needs to be said, less time recently to write posts about my own research interests, although you can easily find (what I consider to be) the best stuff via the ‘Favourite Posts’ section in the sidebar. And it’s not part of the blog, but I’m particularly proud of this section of the main website, and I hope to do more like it at some point in the not too distant future. If I do, you’ll hear all about it here.

Anyway, I’d like it very much if you the readers – especially people who don’t usually comment, perhaps – could leave a few lines telling me a little bit about yourselves and what you do get out of reading this blog. You don’t need to identify yourselves (pseudonyms will be just fine), but if you could say a bit about whether you’re an academic/student (and if so, which discipline), or you do something else altogether (if so, did you ever study history at university/college?); what sort of interests in history you have; what you like best here. Perhaps you just come for entertainment; that’s fine (in fact, it’s great). But it’d interest (and gratify) me a lot to know if you feel that somewhere along the line you’ve learnt something new too, and even in an entertaining way.

(And if you feel too shy to do this online, you could send me an email to sharon@earlymodernweb.org.uk)

* At least one of them would probably be sniffy about what goes on here anyway, since his idea of engaging with the public seems to revolve primarily around confrontation: ‘fighting your corner’ and ‘rebutting argument’. I like my dialogues, on the whole, to be in a gentler mode. (I’m more interested in being a scholar who finds new ways to communicate my scholarship than in being a ‘public intellectual’ who loudly debates current affairs, I suppose.)