Posts Tagged ‘writing’

A short guide to the London Library

October 21, 2017

Given that numbers of membership is falling I offer this post in the spirit of my (surprisingly!) popular Short guide to Southwark jury service to encourage people of letters to join the London Library. Such august institutions (the Library dates back to 1840 and counts a Who’s Who of literary genius among its past and present members) can seem rather intimidating to the outsider and my aim is to acknowledge that the Library definitely has higher expectations of its members’ behaviour than most contemporary libraries (yeah, I’m talking about you, the BL) but also offers delights not to be found anywhere else.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Isn’t it expensive?’. Well, it’s not cheap. At £510 per annum for old farts and £255 for the under-25s it’s not a negligible sum. However, I hope that I can persuade you, dear reader, that at less than the price of a cup of coffee a day if you’re of an intellectual inclination you get plenty of bang for your buck. I would also point out that if, like me, you’re occasionally outside the perimeter of the academic community membership at Senate House is not cheap, and is far less salubrious than the digs in St James’s Square.

Of course this guide is my own, partial, opinion. Other members will value some services (for example the postal loan system for those outside commuting distance of Central London) that I rarely use if never. So where should one start? Oh yes,

Books

IMG_2837.jpg

Books in the idiosyncratic London Library shelving system

Yes, they have books at the London Library. Big deal you might think, I can get books for free at my college/university/Senate House/BL. I have to say, however, that the LL’s collection is outstanding. Its strengths lie in its antiquity and its scope. While not as broad as some (and I emphasise, some) university library collections its acquisition policy is rigorously academic and keeps abreast of the latest scholarship.

As a historian though I value the way in which you can trace the genealogy (to borrow a Foucauldian term) of a subject over time. For example, over the past year I’ve been conducting two research projects. The first, on Marivaux, I’ve discussed elsewhere in these posts. The second, on the history of the West India Committee, was greatly aided by the fact that the library has holdings of first editions by the WIC’s Chairman, published in the 1900s, which I could borrow and peruse in the comfort of my own home while prepping a (failed) application for a research grant.

Having such historic books on open access means that you can serendipitously stumble upon things in the library’s collection that are relevant to your research but of which you may have been entirely ignorant given the focus of most reading lists and scholarship on the up-to-date. And old books smell great. Yes, that’s a thing. The idiosyncratic shelving system is also, once you’ve mastered it, a pleasure to use.

IMG_1421.JPG

Old books. You gotta love ’em.

Journals

If you’re a student or hold an academic post you can take the fact that you have on-line access to thousands of journals rather for granted. As someone who has occasionally fallen out of the legit academic community the London Library’s e-library has proved a godsend with university department sized access to essential resources (for me) like JSTOR, the DNB, and the Bibliography of British and Irish Historiography. They also have access to some resources that aren’t on offer elsewhere, such as digital access to the Guardian and Observer archives. If you take a look at what there is in their e-library you’ll probably find plenty to get stuck into that isn’t on my radar.

Magazines

The reading room is a joy for the magazine and journal browser. If you want to keep up with new scholarship there are physical copies of the latest big journals there to consult. If you’re reading for pleasure you can pick up, say, Sight & Sound, Private Eye, the LRB etc etc. Laptops are barred (at the moment) in this room so it really is a place of peace and tranquillity, in which to read or snooze if you’ve an idle hour waiting for an appointment in town.

Desks

Every library member will have a favourite spot, my own is next to Who’s Who? up top in the St. James’s building where people rarely go. Though it can be a bit galling to toil up the stairs and find the desk occupied. Traditionalists will like the old school wooden desks dotted around among the history and literature collections.

IMG_2944.jpg

A trad desk by a window that opens. Luxury.

Modernistas my prefer the up-to-date environment to be find in the writing room, the art room or the lightwell in the basement. The point is that you get to choose your writing environment, which will be more intimate and calming than the vast plains of Humanities 1. And the earlier you get to work the likelier you are to find your optimal spot.

IMG_2834.jpg

A modern roost overlooking Masons Yard

Librarians

They offer expertise and courtesy. The best of their profession.

Food & Drink

Of course you can’t eat in the stacks. And why would you? If you’re frugal you can eat a packed lunch in the Members’ Room at the top of the building. However, there are plenty of places to go in the vicinity if you want to get refreshed or fed.

Personally, I’m happy to go to Eat for food if I’m aiming to go back to work afterwards, or Waterstone’s Café if I can’t get a seat in there. If it’s booze you’re after The Chequers in Masons Yard is a peerless pub in this part of London. ‘Hearty’ pub food, cheerful barmaids and good beer at a reasonable price for the area. Or if you’re feeling more lizardy why not snaffle along to Royal Opera Arcade?

IMG_1387

The Chequers, perfect for al freso supping in the summer. Cosy in cooler climes.

Events

The Library hosts a full programme of literary events throughout the year. With a good tranche of the leading lights of literature and the arts (for example, incoming President Sir Tim Rice) you won’t need to go to Wye to hear talks by leading writers.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the pluses of joining but I hope that it’s piqued your interest. If you want to dip your toe in the water the Library will arrange for someone to show you around to see if it’s the place for you. I urge you to give it a go and soon, like me, you’ll be putting aside the money for membership week by week.

Go here to see their membership page for details of how to join. If you’re a member of the Library already why not add a comment on your experience of being a member.

#London #Literature

 

Marivaux Pt. 2

April 22, 2017

EPSON002.jpg

A bit of repetition of a previous post but I recently wrote this for the French History Society blog:-

Adapting Marivaux’s L’Ile des Esclaves in 2017

One of the things that never occurred to me until this year was that I might end up adapting a play by Marivaux for the stage. Marivaux’s LIle des Esclaves is a one-act play first performed by the Comédiens Italiens in 1725. It tells the story of two ancient Athenian aristocrats and their slaves who are washed after a storm wrecks their ship to discover that they have landed on an island run by the descendants of former slaves. A role reversal comedy along the lines of the 80s cinema classic, Trading Places, it sees the masters become slaves and the slaves become masters at the behest of the Island’s leader, Trivelin.

imgresI’d become interested in Marivaux having noticed a succession of reviews of productions of his work in Le Monde. In an idle moment in the library I saw Marivaux’s name and thought I’d check him out. My sole previous experience of classical French theatre was being made to study L’Avare for A-level. And I mean study in the loosest sense. The pursuit of knowledge being strangely absent from our school’s ethos, even in Sixth Form, my familiarity with Molière’s text was based solely on having watched a BBC production starring Nigel Hawthorne in the title role. I thus approached Marivaux cautiously and chose L’le des Esclavesas my introductory text, which weighs in at an easily digested 60 pages of text.[1]

The language wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. Some archaisms apart I could follow the dialogue well enough and the classic role reversal plot was very entertaining. I was interested to see if there had been any translations and was delighted to find an edition of his plays in English in the excellent Skoob Books of Bloomsbury.[2] The Island of Slaves had been translated by William Gaskill for a performance at RADA in 1986 and I rattled through it very quickly.

imgres-1While reading it in classical French I hadn’t been especially bothered by the very eighteenth century social and gender attitudes of the text. However, reading it in modern English made it seem rather anachronistic, especially the ending. Although Marivaux’s comedy was quite radical for its time in positing a situation where aristocrats are taught to improve their morals by their social inferiors it struck me that the play’s resonance with the twenty-first century was let down by the docility of the female characters and the socially conservative message embodied in the restoration of the hierarchal status quo at the resolution of the plot. I just couldn’t see how you could play the text straight in the modern world. So it seemed odd that RADA had chosen to do so. At least on the page, it may be that their staging undermined the socially conservative resolution.

So I began to turn over in my mind how one could update the piece for a modern English audience. Firstly, I did this as a kind of academic exercise. I was commuting to Leicester for a VL job at De Montfort once a week and Stella time on the train back seemed more productive if engaged in a bit of translation for pleasure. Then it occurred to me that with members of the Crouch End Players among my circle of friends and the Crouch End Festival coming up, I might be a bit more ambitious and actually get it staged.

I began by going back to the French original, trying to put all thoughts of the English translation out of my head. Attacking the text I soon came up against a problem which has long been recognised – to what extent should I place the translation in the context of the time of its production? Should I attempt to replicate the eighteenth century terms in like for like English? Or should I rather place the translation in the context of the audience for which I intended it, a non-specialist festival crowd likely to be assembled in the function room of a pub?

At De Montfort I’d noticed that the ‘Centre for Adaptation Studies’ occupied a corridor along the way from the historians. Adaptation Studies was a new term for me so being an academic I thought this sounded like something that might be able to help me formulate a structured approach to adapting Marivaux for the English stage. I was wrong – Adaptation Studies is concerned more with the adaptation of texts from one form to another, for the most part novels to films. What I was looking for was Translation Studies, which has its home in this country at UCL and has a much longer-established methodology.

In Western culture Translation Studies’ founder (although like all firsts this is disputed) is St. Jerome, who coined the concept of sense-for-sense translation as sound practice compared to literal translation with the former using sentences rather than individual words as the basic units for making a new text. Cicero put this more pithily in his De Opitimo Genera Oratorumwhen he explained that in translating from Greek to Latin, he ‘did not hold it necessary to render word for word, but … preserved the general style and force of the language.’[3] Which seems a bit of a no brainer to me.

A more thorny issue might be that defined by Lawrence Venuti in the 1990s as the issue of whether to take a ‘domesticating’ or ‘foreignizing’ approach to translation.[4] That is, whether to keep the original cultural context or move it to that of the target language. Again, this seemed straightforward to me, I wanted to not only translate but update Marivaux and make it not just relevant but topical. Which is where I wanted to go beyond the translation that I knew, Gaskill’s, and also one that I was aware of – Neil Bartlett’s.[5] His translation was for a production at the Lyric Hammersmith and I definitely wanted to steer clear of his version as I suspected that he might have wanted to make a more radical intervention to the original than Gaskill for RADA. However, from skimming the introduction and the opening few pages it seemed that Bartlett too had largely respected Marivaux’s concept and resolution. His introduction was very informative, especially in its notes on performance style in Marivaux’s day, outlining how actors would be expected to add in their own songs and jokes to liven up a show for the audience. So I took this as carte blanche to do my own bit of embellishment for the Festival crowd.

imgres-2I felt the field was clear for a radical revision of L’Ile des Esclaves for the post-Crash generation. The island is now Corbyn Island and our castaways are not Athenian aristocrats and slaves. For present times I felt that a Premier League football manager and his youth team coach on one hand, and a media-savvy interior designer and her PA on the other, would have something to say about contemporary class relations. And they get washed up on Corbyn Island, the last refuge of socialism in a post-UK dominated by Theresa May.

Rather to my surprise the play is happening! It’s been the most interesting piece of writing I’ve ever done, going from a straight translation through rewrite after rewrite taking on the advice of an experienced writer for the theatre (my friend Phil Woods) and my fellow director, Anna Rogers. Speaking with my academic hat on I’d say that I’ve learnt two valuable things in the process of going from translation to rehearsal. The first is that however obscure are some of the rabbit holes I’ve been down as a historian none have so far been as obscure as wading through the literature on Adaptation and Translation Studies. Though each has been fascinating I’ll be glad to get back to the dry ground of archive-based research for the SSFH Conference in June. Secondly, I’ve never had to work so collaboratively on a piece of writing before. I’ve been through the editing process for articles and books but taking something you’ve written and then rewriting it in the light of how an actor says the line is something altogether different and quite rewarding for being a shared experience.

So I’d like to hear from other historians who have worked in the same area, whether as specialists in eighteenth century France or in doing something similarly off beam to the regular grind of being a historian. As much as I’ve strayed from Marivaux’s source material I can’t wait to get back into reading more of his work now that I’ve discovered how rich his work is.

Corbyn Island will be showing on 16th and 17th June 2017 as part of the Crouch End Festival. Go to www.crouchendfestival.org for further details.

[1] Marivaux, L’Ile des Esclaves (Folio Classique, Paris, 2000)

[2] Marivaux, Plays (Methuen, London, 1997)

[3] Cicero, De Optimo Genere Oratorum, Translated by H. M. Hubbell (Loeb Classics Library, Harvard, 2017) pp. 364-5. Although Hubbell himself is doing quite a bit of conveying meaning here himself rather than translating! Another translation I have read rendered the original, ‘I did not think I ought to count them (words) out to the reader in coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were.’

[4] Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. (Routledge, London, 1995).

[5] Neil Bartlett, The Island of Slaves (Oberon Books, London, 2002).

 

Houellebecq, ‘Soumission’ and the value of a PhD

September 15, 2015
Soumission

Soumission

I bought Soumission by Michel Houellebecq back in Spring when I was in Paris for a day trip. It joined a pile of books that I intended to get round to reading (quite a pile) and it was only when I heard a profile of the last week on Radio 4 that I thought to catch up with it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b068lst2

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and HyperCacher attacks it’s inevitable that a lot of the coverage of the book will focus on its controversial thought experiment about a possible Islamist victory in a future French presidential election. The profile too focused on this aspect of the novel, on Houellebecq’s previous novel’s dealings with religion, and the decadence of contemporary western society. It also went into great detail about the supposedly pornographic aspects of Houellebecq’s books.

All this sounds very serious. What the profile failed to get across was that Houellebecq is also a very funny writer. Yes, one might say that his writing about sex is pornographic but pornographic in the sense that he writes about it in an entirely unsentimental way. He describes it in the same way that one might describe somebody washing a car or putting the bins out. As a Naturalist in the mould of Zola. It’s not pornographic, neither is it erotic. It is quite often comic in its depiction of sex as a banal act.

One of the funniest sections of Soumission comes at the very beginning and was picked out by the profile. It might make uncomfortable reading for those about to embark on a PhD, or who are in the course of doing one now. The central character is a lecturer in French literature at the Sorbonne and has a very sour view of the value of doing a doctorate,

Les études universitaires dans le domaine des lettres ne conduisent comme on le sait à peu près à rien, sinon pour les étudiants les plus doués à une carrière d’enseignement universitaire dans le domain des lettres – on a en somme la situation plutôt cocasse d’un système n’ayant d’autre objectif que sa propre reproduction, assorti d’un taux de déchet supérieur à 95%. Elles ne sont cependant nuisibles, et peuvent même présenter une utilité marginale. Une jeune fille postulant à un emploi de vendeuse chez Céline ou chez Hermès devra naturellement, et en tout premier lieu, soigner sa présentation; mais une licence ou un mastère de lettres modernes pourra constituter un atout secondaire garantissant à l’employeur, à défaut de compétences utilisables, une certaine agilité intellectuelle laissant présager la possibilité d’une évolution de carrière – la littérature, en outre, étant depuis toujours assortie d’une connotation positive dans le domaine de l’industrie de luxe.

Basically he’s saying that the study of Literature (one might extend it to History or the Humanities in general I suppose) at university is pretty much worthless. Its object is to train people to teach the subject to another cohort of students of the same subject and in that aim it fails 95% of the people who take it up – only 5% will ever make it to be lecturers in the subject. But a postgraduate qualification does have its uses for those looking to work in the luxury industries. Such people must as a minimum present themselves well. Showing a little knowledge of literature beyond the commonplace has a certain intellectual cachet and shows a potential to go further in a company that can enhance employability.

Michel Houellebecq

Michel Houellebecq. Not a fan of luxury goods.

It’s enough to put off anyone from taking up the study of the Humanities! And surprising coming from a man who stuck it to the modern art world in his last novel (and my favourite), La Carte et le Territoire, castigating it for its shallow obsession with monetary rather than artistic value. Its ‘hero’, Jed Martin, is a beautifully realised character who takes up art because he has an aptitude and a vision of the world. When he makes a colossal amount of money he barely knows what to do with it, indeed lives largely as if he didn’t have it.

In Soumission Houellebecq’s (and yes, it is the central character speaking but one feels the author’s voice coming through) pessimism on the value of postgraduate research is entertaining but misplaced. In fact he falls into the trap of considering a Masters or a doctorate as merely a functional thing, as something that is only useful if it gets you a job. I think this is a trap that many PhD students fall into themselves, as shown by the recent debates over the number of people gaining doctorates who can’t get a job in academia. I would especially recommend Brodie Waddell’s blog The Many-Headed Monster if you want to explore the debate and how it has developed.

Because you study for, or have, a PhD you don’t gain the right to work as an academic, you gain the opportunity. And if you go into it thinking that if you don’t get an academic job at the end of the process  you’ve either failed or (more illogically) the system has failed you then you’re quite likely in for a shitty time of it. Any research/writing should start from a position of being done for its own sake, for the love of it, otherwise it’s very quickly going to become a burden rather than a comfort when your career ambitions aren’t being met.

So Houellebecq on this one thing is wrong. But Soumission is very good, not so much in its controversial aspects (Islamism v Western decline … I think he’s fundamentally wrong) but in the details of urban v rural life, the homogenisation of corporate culture, the ennui of being a middle-aged man and the shitty side of trying to be an ‘intellectual’, amongst others. Kind of like Ballard, Larkin, the Flaubert of Bouvard et Pécuchet and who else, who else? Not sure who else. Well, he’s unique. And that’s unusual. And as a historian of France (on a very minor scale) I found continual thought-provoking passages with resonances to the revolution, to the 1870s and to the 1930s.

On a rugby conference

September 13, 2015
Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Falmer Campus, University of Brighton

Frankly, conferences can be something of a bore. But they’re necessary to the academic. I’ve often thought I might write a blog about how they could be improved but still being in post-conference mode I don’t want to to rake over the negatives of the weekend just yet. And the conference at the University of Brighton on rugby union was of unusually good quality in the world of sports history. So it would be unfair to subject conferences as a whole to a thrashing this particular week.

Going to a conference, while it can sometimes induce dread, is actually nearly always a positive experience. It’s where you get to try out your ideas in front of your peers, and where you get to meet people informally whose writing you admire; you can chat through your ideas and talk about how you’ve been influenced by their work.* It’s always worth suffering a few longeurs in the pursuit of fresh ways of thinking. And as you can see from the picture of the Falmer Campus the Sussex Downs isn’t a bad place to spend a few days, even if you spend much of that time indoors discussing the history of sport.

Oh well, the peril of being called Levett is the variety of ways it can be misspelled.

My own talk was a canter through the 1905 tour by the All Blacks to Europe and America, a paper based on parts of my PhD thesis that I hadn’t intended to develop much further. Now, thanks to talking to Tony Collins among others, I find that I have a few more ideas that may enable me to write an article based on my research that might even be original!**

As is the way with conferences though the most interesting ideas occurred to me while attending something that wasn’t of immediate relevance to my own work. On Friday evening we had a showing of Invictus, the Clint Eastwood film about the triumph of the Springboks at the 1995 World Cup. I had no real desire to see the film (I had a massive headache from being stuck indoors all day!) but was interested in the panel discussion beforehand which featured historians of South Africa (Philani Nongogo, Albert Grundlingh, John Nauright and Derek Catsam) and three time World Cup winner Farah Palmer.

Much of the discussion centred on the distance between the Hollywood version of the tournament and the real events. For reasons of concision, political convenience or the demands of narrative cinema the film necessarily tells a skewed version that leaves out a lot of things and foregrounds certain individuals at the expense of significant others.

One of the players the panel felt was neglected in the film (and I won’t try to sum up why as I’m not familiar with the story enough myself to retell it) was James Small, a South African of English heritage who one panellist described as being an ‘insider-outsider’ within the team in that he was South African yet not felt to be as South African in a rugby union context as as an Afrikaner.

The way in which Afrikaners captured rugby as a symbol of Afrikanerdom in the years after their first tour to Europe in 1906 is a fascinating historical process.*** Small’s perceived position as insider-outsider has resonances with my own recent work on another South African sporting figure, Percy Sherwell, who captained the cricket team that came to England in 1907.**** Following the work of John Lambert (among others) I’ve analysed him as a forgotten man of South African sport, forgotten because he was a British South African, whose ability to be either English in England or South African in South Africa was ambiguous. He is condemned to live in the shadow of the über-South African Paul Roos, the Afrikaner captain of the 1906 Springboks.

And then I noticed that the liminality of the British South African identity, which I think continues to exist to the present day, was laid out there in the panel in front of me. Two South Africans (one Afrikaner, one Xhosa), two Americans and one Kiwi – where was the British South African?

It really encouraged to think that I might be on to something with my line on Sherwell …

* On this occasion I was fortunate to meet Greg Ryan, who challenges myths about the history of New Zealand rugby eloquently and perceptively.

** Tony’s book, The Oval World is published shortly. If you want to hear more about the book direct from the man himself he’ll be speaking at the IHR seminar at Senate House on October 5th.

The Oval World

The Oval World

*** I hope that some of the popular coverage of the game during the 2015 World Cup will at least give some attention to the political-historical aspects of rugby.

**** Yeah, I know, I bored on about him already didn’t I?

On chanson

June 7, 2015

iu

This week promises a trip to Paris during which I hope to catch up with some research that I didn’t have time to do during the course of my thesis. One of the people I wrote about in my chapter on sport in France was the sportsman-journalist, Franz Reichel. A joy of researching can be coming across unexpected little stories and fragments of archive that don’t really fit into what you’re writing on at the time but that you know may prove to be useful at some point in the future. Having finished a piece of work for a book on South African cricket this week it’s now perfect timing for me to look into the statue of Reichel that was put up after his sudden death in 1932.

IMG_1868

But this post isn’t really about Reichel, as you can tell from the title. I’ll save him for another post, maybe when I’ve got back from Paris. The nature of his death does give him something in common with the man whose picture is at the head of this column. Reichel died of a heart attack at his desk at Le Figaro and Boris Vian, pictured playing quite an unusual cornet, also died suddenly at the premier of a film adaptation of one of his own novels.

Vian was more than a trumpeter. He wrote novels both foul and elegant, under many different names. He was a thinker, a translator, a jazz man and a great songwriter who wrote one of the most eloquent anti-war songs of the twentieth century (‘Le Déserteur’) and a song that expresses the joy and sadness of drinking (‘Je Bois’) better than any other work of art that I know. I could write about Vian a lot.

So the fact that he was omitted from the BBC’s ‘Story of French chanson‘ typified the cack-handedness of the show in trying to present a compelling subject to a supposedly intelligent audience. It wasn’t that it was a terrible show, it did after all have some wonderful archive and interviews.** With such material it would be impossible to make something completely without value. It came across, however, as a sixth-form project with a BBC budget. It was too often shallow, when it wasn’t being outright dishonest. 1940-44? Yeah, that didn’t happen because it didn’t fit in with twinkly old Trenet and tragic Edith. But of course the Occupation was fundamental to Vian, Barbara and all those left-bank singers. And it underplayed the influence of America while not even bothering with German cabaret (because only the French did cabaret in the twenties apparently) … flamenco … tango … Africa etc etc etc***

Elsewhere on the BBC there’s a short clip from Jonathan Meades’ series on France that shows more imagination, more intelligent analysis and more interest in script and pictures (isn’t that what tv is for?!) in 1’51” than ‘The Story of French chanson’ does in an hour. What it made me realise was that the story in the documentary was told very much from an anglo point of view. It pretended to insider-ness but in fact was a history of French music as it was received in the UK. It wasn’t genuinely interested in the genealogy of the genre but merely on its product as consumed this side of the Channel. Hence the focus on Trenet, Piaf, Gainsbourg. And also the neglect of Vian (too obscure), Distel (too cheesy for the snobs of BBC4 when in fact he was a very fine jazz musician before he ever became a housewife’s favourite) and numerous others.

index.php

And yet, and yet. While I was feeling all smug about trashing the show at the same time it provoked a certain amount of anxiety about my own work on France. A feeling that was reinforced this week after reading the first piece in Richard Cobb’s collection of articles, Paris and Elsewhere.* Cobb describes how he came to study France almost by accident. In the year between leaving school and going to university he had first gone to stay in Austria, intending to learn German. But finding the place unsympathetic he came home, found a family to stay with in Paris and lived the rest of his life as a man who could pass between England and France and appear a native of both.

The grounding for his life’s work was that initial year when he was completely immersed in the life of Paris. The depth of experience of the culture, the magisterial view it gives when looking at the archive, is somewhat awesome. After reading Cobb’s book I questioned whether I could ever aspire to write a decent piece of work on France (in my case sport and culture in the Belle Epoque) with the result more likely that I might turn out something just as trite as the BBC4 documentary. Or worse! Self-doubt is a crippling thing when you’re trying to write. So how to overcome the fear of being a phoney, say when writing about someone like Reichel? And I write this in the light of Cobb’s own piece.

The most important thing of course is to be as comprehensive as possible in analysing sources and footnote everything. As a historian you’re not expecting to give the absolute definitive version of something, just a version that is grounded on solid research. That way your opinion as a historian can be questioned but not your integrity. 

Then of course there is the fact that my grasp of what a middle-class Parisian journalist like Reichel was like is only marginally less secure than that I have on the nature of the man I want to compare him with, C. B. Fry. The fact that I’m English doesn’t really give me a privileged insight into who Fry was; his background and upbringing was entirely different to mine. So really, all history is a research into the unfamiliar. In fact it’s better to look sceptically at events, people, places and to remain aware of your fundamental ignorance in order to base what knowledge you have on sound sources and extensive secondary reading.

And finally to let the mind wander around the fringes of what you’re researching, to let the unexpected more easily be stumbled upon. Unexpected things are often the basis of originality, sparking fresh ideas, fresh lines of research. While the internet is amazing for showing us what we want it’s not very good at showing us what we didn’t know we wanted. Which is why the archive will always trump the database. In the archive you stumble across the most amazing things – like the picture of the statue of Reichel, which I found in a bundle of papers in an archive. The story that goes with it may not come to much, it might only make a paragraph of an article or chapter, but until I’ve chased it up I won’t know.

So the first task in Paris is to find the statue.

* R. Cobb, Paris and Elsewhere: Selected Writings (London, 1998). I can’t recommend this book enough.

** I don’t want to mention P****a C***k. I assume the producers had no choice but to let her front it because they were being blackmailed.

*** I guess we should be grateful that the documentary was made at all in this Eurosceptic world. It was while watching this extraordinary video by Falco that the impossibility of any English broadcaster ever making such a film about German pop brought a little sadness to my heart. Most English people have heard of Rock Me Amadeus but Der Kommissar was really his masterpiece.

iu-1

On coachwork

May 25, 2015

IMG_2949

Hyde Park, early evening at the beginning of the tour.

This week I was taught a very good lesson by a Dutch coach driver. Coachwork – providing a commentary on a bus tour (or panos as they’re more commonly known in the trade) – is not my favourite part of guiding. Or at least that’s what I always, rather snobbishly, say. Compared to walking tours, where you can do interesting research and put together a considered narrative through the streets, a coach tour is a repetitious bunfight with the content constantly being switched from one topic to another to suit the buildings and landmarks that one is driving past.

The route rarely varies (Westminster, a bit of Southwark/Lambeth and the City of London, occasionally Docklands and the Olympic Park – I rarely go out of town) and thus your patter tends to have a core content of royals, wars, shops and celebrities with the amount you can devote to a particular anecdote dependent on the stickiness of the traffic. Due to the constant gridlock around Knightsbridge I know far too much about Harrod’s (a place I’ve only visited once (once is enough, isn’t it?)). For example that the Shakhtar Donetsk football team were refused entry for wearing shell suits. I tell this anecdote to help me to feel warmer about the place. It doesn’t work.

So, it’s with a rather heavy heart that I prep for the coach. However, there are certain aspects of coachwork that I do enjoy, chief among them the feeling of working in a team. This week’s driver, a Dutchman, introduced himself as Rien, ‘Like the French for nothing’. ‘But you’re everything to me this evening,’ I jokingly said.

There was an element of truth lying behind the gag – the guide depends on the driver to get the coach round safely, to slow down when going past the major TVPs (Top Visual Priorities – more guiding lingo), and sometimes to calm down the rabble at the back. Similarly, the driver relies on the guide – to know the route, to give clear directions, and to entertain the clients (or at least to avoid making them positively hostile).

My prep for the coach tour (because I avoid them it means when I do do them I have to prep a lot more than I would for something that I do regularly, like a Westminster walk) was stressing me because I have two writing deadlines at the moment. The nearest one isn’t a definite deadline, it’s more of a self-imposed deadline for a chapter in a book on South African cricket. This will be volume two of a work that I’m collaborating on with a group of authors for UNISA Press. (Volume 1 is here.) And because it’s for people who have become good friends I care very much that I do a good job. Stress and tension in the house.

I think it’s quite common for academics to feel that they have too much on their plate – it was certainly a feeling I had while writing my thesis and trying to combine that with working, and that returned while teaching at Luton and trying to write papers and articles. Having more than one project on the go can feel overwhelming and in trying to do everything at once one often finds that one advances very little on any front.

What does this have to do with coachwork?

Rien was one of the best drivers I’ve worked with. While I was prattling on about the Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner I hadn’t registered that Rien was in the lane to head down the Mall rather than round the back of Buckingham Palace until it was nearly too late. The Mall costs for coaches so it is to be avoided for the budget conscious group leader. I asked Rien if he could get in the right lane. ‘Yes, no problem,’he said as he gently nudged across two lanes of traffic incurring angry honking horns from angry gesticulating cabbies.

Rien was magisterial in his calm at the wheel (this wasn’t the only time that I had to give him a late nudge in the right direction), and I complimented him on it at the end of the tour. ‘I drive the bus to the end of the day and when I bring the bus home I’m happy. Why be worried along the way if you do a good job?’ Wise words. 

So now I’m thinking of my chapter as a big bus. And it’s my job to get the bus home. Why be worried if along the way I do a good job?

Looking at the photos on my phone after the job I thought how lucky I am to do coachwork. The first was of Hyde Park where I was waiting for the coach to arrive. Peace, joggers, grass and trees in the soft evening light. And the next was after being dropped off at Lambeth, the Palace of Westminster in the last glow of the sun. Coachwork isn’t so bad.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.


%d bloggers like this: