Vita nova (iterum)

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My garden and this blog are uniting in a complaint against me: I have failed, they say, to attend to them. I have left them unloved. The garden points to the bindweed and the brambles which are competing for dominance and harangues me with how I have let it become unkempt and overgrown. ‘Overgrown?’ interjects the site, ‘if only anything had grown here, apart for the number of days when he has ignored me’. This site is like a ghost-town, its posts delapidated tenements lining abandoned streets.

They are right: I plead guilty on both counts. My mitigating circumstances may not impress them but for the past few weeks I have been preparing for this, the first day of my new life.

Three years ago today I started a fixed-term contract as Lecturer in History at the University of Essex. That contract ended last night. The Department had talked of their good will towards me and their hope there would be a way for me to stay but, as it turned out, my research — too many books — does not fit their strategic needs. ‘Too many books’ is perhaps also what my long-suffering wife thinks as she sees the piles of spines return from my office (plus interest, in the form of those I was sent in the interim and, yes, some I bought) to overcrowd our house, overflowing nearly into the garden. Perhaps, there is a solution: cut down the weeds and build a labyrinthine library in its place.

My association with Essex is not completely at an end — they have given me the honour of being an Honorary Lecturer — but I will not be making the weekly commute from Oxford to Colchester. That I will not miss, even though I found it useful time to prepare lectures and keep on top of administration. What I will miss is the friendly department, with its excellent administrative team, as well as warm-hearted colleagues elsewhere on campus, both in academic and support sections, and, perhaps most of all (though it is unfashionable to say this), the teaching. All that and, I suppose, the pay-cheques and the pension contributions — but if I had been travelling to work simply to ensure the money came in, it would have been time to leave anyway.

And Essex has changed me. First of all, it has made me more theoretically conversant. Before I started in a department which can be proud of its radical tradition, the one theoretical writer I truly respected was Michel de Certeau. That has not diminishted; I still have not learnt to love Foucault (though reading him in the original, I now realise, helps) and I am not persuaded by much of what I have read by Bourdieu. I do welcome the challenge of Bruno LaTour but, like many, finding a way to apply it coherently to my work remains problematic. With several of these, however, I would not have engaged as fully if teaching had not demanded it and if I had not been in an environment which respected the tradition with which they engage. I now realise that my empirical Oxford training had made me underestimate the continuing Marxist legacy. It has not made me more sympathetic to it — it remains too reductive to me — but the richness of the world of marxisant thinking is something I can no longer avoid, or would want to avoid.

More than that, what Essex did to me as a person — and for this I am grateful — is that it released my  inner workaholic. Soon after I started, I ended my double life; that is, I stood down as a city councillor. I do not think I had appreciated how many hours it took, even when I was a backbencher. ‘What will you do with all that spare time?’ my constituents said to me — as if there were to be any. Instead, those hours were sucked into my life of teaching and research and I begin a new double life. I would spend half the week in Colchester and work twelve-hour days to ensure I was on top of the requirements of teaching and administration. I would return home and expect to do an equal amount in preparation and my own research. It was, I admit, a recipe for schizophrenia and debilitating exhaustion but, I also admit, I relished it.

What has also happened is that the demands of a university concerned about league tables and thus about ranking in exercises like the REF has affected how I work. It has made me more strategic, which perhaps is a euphemism for more brutal, prioritising and thus dispensing with other commitments. This is a skill which, in my experience, many academics, as decent human beings who do not want to say ‘no’ to colleagues, find difficult to master. A skill it is, though I cannot help thinking that it is often misdirected. For many in post in universities, it has to be used in service of the REF, or of an assumption of how the REF will be that is yet more draconian and intellectually bankrupt than the system itself — and a system which defines research only as research when it has been disseminated as the written word, and expects that research to be churned out on a five-year cycle is one which a future generation will look back upon and wonder: how could they do so damage to their intellectual credibility? How could they commit themselves to such ill-advised and over-hasty publication? It was, then, with some sense of liberation that I spent some of this summer writing a 9,000 article for a collection of essays to be published by OUP – something which I would have been told, because it was too short and not for a journal,  would not be valid to be considered for ‘research excellence’.

Yet, the workaholism and the prioritising have left their trace, most evident in the decrease of posts I have placed on this site. I have found it difficult to justify to myself, let alone anyone else, what I am achieving by sharing thoughts in this format. This post, then, is my apology to this website.

What happens now? My new life begins but it is also a return to an old life, pre-Essex, in which I balanced research, often travelling abroad, with some teaching in Oxford (not as much as I would like) and some administrative duties. I actually enjoyed that existence, even if it did not provide for my retirement (who wants to retire?). I return to it a little older, a little balder (but not so bold, perhaps) and hopefully a little wiser. And next? The only promise I will make is that you will read about it here first.

That EU Referendum: the limits of history

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However far one goes to try to escape the febrile atmosphere of Britain at the moment, it is impossible to run from the referendum. I was in Padua the other week, to speak at a conference entitled ‘Shakespeare and Padova’ organised by the exhaustingly energetic and molto simpatica Alessandra Petrina. Most conversations while I was there turned at some point to the possibility of Brexit. The Italians I spoke to were worried but, all the more, bemused. In a café where I sheltered from a thunder-storm, the waiter recognised I was English (I wonder how) and expressed himself a lover of all things British but, he added, ‘does Britain think it can stand up to China and to States on its own? I’m sorry…’. In the conference hall, it felt as if we are talking about the referendum even when, ostensibly, we were discussing events four or five centuries older.

You may, gentle reader, have already stumbled and wondered what on earth I could have had to offer to an event devoted to Shakespeare. I was not – you will be relieved to learn – attempting to extend my repertoire into what is called ‘the English Renaissance’ (erroneously so – but that is another story); rather I was providing a comparison with the fifteenth century. The theme of my opening lecture to the conference was to encourage the delegates to consider the possibility that the English perception of Padua had, in the plays of Shakespeare, lost the sharpness of focus that it had in the 1460s and 1470s: at that earlier point, English graduates of Padua were perceived as providing unwelcome imports which threatened the English ‘way of life’ but, I argued, by the 1590s, Padua had become less dangerous because it was, in effect, more distant. Closing the conference, the true expert on the English in Padua, Jonathan Woolfson, suggested something which appears diametrically opposed, emphasising an increase in contacts in the 1540s and 1550s as the backdrop to the sustained Elizabethan and Jacobean existence of a community of Englishmen passing through Padua for education and entertainment. What united our talks was the clear sense that there had been a significant shift – and I would suggest the contrasts over the nature of that shift are reconcilable. The question remains of the causes of that shift. The impression hung in the air that the destabilising effects of the Reformation were a prime source, though this surely needs to be linked with other economic and cultural factors. In Jonathan’s discourse, the very instability released new possibilities and new perspectives, where mine dwelt on the diapositiva of that: let us recall what was lost as much as what was gained.

You may already have sensed how we were liable to read our own interventions in the light of present events. I teased Jonathan after his paper that he had made the case for Brexit: short-term unrest and economic pain might create a period of isolation but one which could be the precursor of a rediscovery of ‘Europe’ on new terms. Jonathan certainly did not intend such a parallel and it has an obvious central flaw. Those in the reigns of Henry VIII, his son and his younger daughter who looked to continental innovations and urged a purging of the state and a break with tradition did so because they believed the losses were not just acceptable but essential for the salvation of themselves and their neighbours. What was at stake was nothing less than God. That is motivation indeed but where, in the Brexit campaign, is there anything similar? There is surely a duty on them to provide a commanding vision for a future Britain. What we hear instead is, on the economy, the counter-intuitive and unsubstantiated claim that it will be fine; what we hear asserted would be a gain is that there will be fewer foreign faces in the community – even though immigration would become more ‘in your face’ when the camps into which refugees are concentrated would be placed on our shores. If this is a vision, it is a nightmare. Is this the Britain we would want it to be?

That is the fundamental question and one which shows how high the stakes are. The interventions of historians in the debate has, on both sides, been too often ‘history teaches…’, suggesting that there is something elemental about a British identity. As has been pointed out, Britishness is itself a short-lived concept, masking a plurality of identities defined by country or region, by social status, by gender and by ethnic background. Yes, there are some factors we cannot undo, just as, in Padua, I could not avoid the identification as British and so be associated with the referendum that has been placed upon us. One of those factors is undeniably that, for at least the English (and, the polls suggest, most Eurosceptic) part of the United Kingdom, its traditions have been shaped by its time as a Roman colony, and by its continuing place within – and intermittent struggles to be without – the shared civilization of Europe. Even that, though, allows much room for manoeuvre: it is not history that will determine our next step, it is our free will.

What history also does not teach, as any academic knows, is that there is a grand march of progress. For some, in the nineteenth century, the nation state was the apogee of civilization, an achievement beyond what their ancestors could have dreamt of achieving (Charlemagne clearly not being thought of as an ancestor). In the later twentieth century, understandably disillusioned by the evils wrought by those same states, the natural evolution was seen to be supranational structures. We can believe that those structures, whether across Europe or embodied in the United Nations, are welcome, but we cannot assume they were inevitable. Progress does not march; improvements stumble forward, uncertain on their feet. They are piecemeal, hard-won and fragile. When we recreate ourselves, we can also make ourselves worse. This is where we surely stand now. This Thursday, our nation has the opportunity to stand up and shout ‘Britain first’ in the face of immigration; we could let loose humanity’s baser instinct. We need not hold on to the self-image of ourselves as a nation where decency rules and where we pride ourselves in standing up for the underdog. We can – but at what cost to our souls?

Tagged: Alessandra Petrina, English Reformation, John Tiptoft earl of Worcester, Jonathan Woolfson, Padua, William Shakespeare