Me and Debbie McGee – or, Life and Death in West Ruislip

I know what you’re thinking. What does Debbie McGee, diminutive relict of the late pint-sized prestidigitator Paul Daniels, have to do with anything? And, more specifically, what does she have to do with me?

Just a few weeks ago, I’d have wondered the same thing. And then she turned up at the auction of my parents’ furniture with a camera crew in tow. Also with Chesney Hawkes – you know, the one and only – although I could care less about him. He has no pizzazz. This, strangely, is relevant. The pizzazz, I mean. I’ll come back to that later.

I must admit, I was in two minds about attending the auction. Watching people dismantle my parents’ home – my childhood home – had been a strange and wearying experience. Everything in it had its own memories, or its own place in the background of remembered familial dramas, consequential sometimes, mostly not.

And I suppose I should have spotted the warm tide of absurdity beginning to lap around my feet when I discovered that the man leading the removal team was the founder of the UK Don McLean fan club. I gather he has a large tattoo of Don’s face on his back, but sadly I cannot confirm that. (I can confirm that his ring tone is, of course, American Pie.)

Still, there were other things on my mind.

It had been over a year since my father died and I suppose this was a moment we had all known was coming. And, since everything in the house was still more or less as it had been when my mother died in 2009, we had all known it was coming a long time. All of us except my father, perhaps, who had refused to countenance moving until it was too late, and whose last months were a dementia-fuelled cycle of shock, horror and anxiety – repeat to fade – about his rapidly declining physical and mental health.

I don’t think I had realised quite how much Alzheimer’s takes from you, how punishing its sleight of hand. I still lie awake remembering his disbelief. Like Freud’s patient with his absurd dream, I still regularly dream that my father is still alive – ill, but alive – and then remember, inside the dream, that no, he died already, and wonder how I am going to break the news to him. The details vary; those elements are constant. Perhaps death is like the sun in that respect; it cannot be looked at directly.

And now the bed he is still -ridden in in my dreams has gone. My parents slept in separate beds – as far as I know, all their married lives – in the same two beds for sixty-odd years. My mother’s bed, which I remember creeping into when I was small and scared in the night, is gone too. It’s also the last place I saw her meaningfully alive, early in 2009 when I cooked a meal for her. I saw her again later, at the hospital, after the end, but she never stirred from unconsciousness.

She had cancer of the oesophagus – it had been diagnosed about eight months earlier. She was weak, but wanted to climb the stairs to bed unaided. My father let her. Let’s just say the choices they made are not those I would have encouraged had I been consulted. I was angry with my father for this for a long time, and for other things too. The tumour ruptured shortly afterwards. I don’t think she was conscious for long. To the last day, climbing those stairs I would think, these are the stairs that killed her.

But then, walking down them, I would think, these are the stairs I used to jump down when I was little, half-landing to half-landing, delighting in the discovery of energy and flight each time. This is where I remember sitting with my mother – heaven knows why there – and talking about Auden and Wallace Stevens. To one side is – was – a window seat where my sister and I used to watch the neighbourhood fireworks on November 5, waiting for our father to come home from work.

The multiverse is a fashionable idea, these days, but really, this world is multiple enough for the most of us. The simplest things in our lives exist in their own prodigious universes of meaning – the drunkenness of things being various, as MacNeice said – that it is more than most of us can cope with. We tamp meaning down, lest it explode in our faces.

Everything is gone. The chairs my mother reupholstered by hand – slaved over, she might have said. The hostess trolleys wheeled out at Christmas for chicken liver pate or smoked salmon, and bowls of nuts I don’t recall anyone eating. The bowls we ate breakfast cereal out of. The stores of unwritten birthday cards. The chair my dad sat in when I shaved his beard for him after a month in hospital towards the end. The razor. The shaving brush. The plastic bowl that held the hot water. The dry towels I wiped his face with.

Usually when you empty a home it is to move into another. This was, simply, an end. Nothing new will come of it. Not for us, at least; the house itself will begin another life with another family. For my family, it was – or seems to have been – the last thing that kept us together and involved with one another’s lives. The death of my father exposed a lot of tensions between us in different ways, and relationships are much more precarious than I – perhaps we – had previously realised.

I had never seen the house bare before; my parents bought it when I was two months old. All that was left after Don McLean had done his work were the books – mountainous, tumbling stacks of them in every room – waiting for me to take them to Oxfam, and my father’s papers, which I drove to the Modern Records Centre at Warwick University the day the house sale went through. (I leave things to the last minute, me.)

I had taken a few things: my mother’s Heals dressing table with its trifold mirror for my daughter; an old wooden trunk my father brought back from the East after the war, its surfaces decorated with appliqué boats and fishes and island temples that I remember exploring in wonder with my fingers when I was a child; a couple of glass-fronted bookcases; a few things more.

My sister took some things for herself, too. I think we would have taken it all, if we could have done. Letting go of it seemed disloyal, but what else was there to do?

An auction seemed a respectful choice – a way, perhaps, to assure a kind of longevity for all these things: furniture, gardening tools, glassware, lights, LPs, and on and on. And attending the auction seemed appropriate too. A final look at all these things, in the process of becoming something else, transitioning through inventory into a place in the lives of others.

But then there was the team from Antiques Road Trip.

I don’t watch Antiques Road Trip, to be honest, so I am not au fait with the personalities. But everyone knows Debbie McGee, don’t they? And you’d probably think, like me, that the opportunity for her kind of showbiz shtick would be somewhat limited at an auction room in West Ruislip. Dear old Chesney didn’t belt out any of his hit. So what could Debbie do?

What she could do, it turns out, was put an old red military jacket into the auction – that’s how the show works: celebs buy things in antique shops and try to make a profit from them at auction – and then leap up when the item comes under the hammer and model it for a bemused audience of octogenarians, septuagenarians, my partner and me. And for the camera, of course.

By ‘model’ I mean vamp and shimmy. Or, more precisely, and to my appalled amusement, vamp and shimmy in front of my family’s beloved and beautiful 1970s rosewood dining table, which was probably the most valued thing they had, only used for important occasions and looked after as if it were made of glass.

Debbie didn’t drape herself on it, which I rather feared she might. But there the moment was, nonetheless. My parents tended more to earnestness than frivolity. I’m not sure they would have seen the funny side of a middle-aged dancer shaking her stuff for the camera in front of something they took such pride in.

And I don’t know how they would have processed that strange distorting thing the glamour of even minor celebrity does to a room, as if it were a Tardis, intruding into reality at an indiscreet angle, always larger than itself somehow, and awkward, too, for everything around it.

I’m not sure how well I processed it myself. I think you just have to accept life’s lovely irregularity and disorder, and walk forward into its surprises. Life will keep flicking its cards at you, whether you like it or not. Sometimes, just sometimes, it’ll be the Ace of Hearts. More often, it’s from a B&Q loyalty scheme.

The expert who caught my eye most was a forty-something man in a waistcoat and what I think was a white fedora. (My parents didn’t have The Observer Book of Hats when I was growing up, so my knowledge of such things is a little thin.) He seemed rather charming, in that slightly awkward way some men have when they are trying too hard. Energetic and excitable in front of the camera, he relaxed once shooting was over, sat back in his chair and rested his hands on his crotch. It seemed an instinctive gesture of comfort and self-reassurance; young boys do it a lot. I wouldn’t, of course, call the ball-cupper a young boy, but we all retain things of childhood inside us. Perhaps that was one of his.

And maybe – just maybe – he had the right idea.

Once the auctioneers’ expenses and percentages were taken into account, we were left with, well, why don’t you guess? I’d bet it’s lower than you thought. Or did you hit £47.44 on the head? It’s lower than I expected, and my expectations were rock bottom.

I can see the black humour in it, of course, although I know that whatever dark comedy there is also masks – intends to obscure – the sense of that sum as a reckoning on childhood, family, my parents’ tastes and judgement, on me for not simply giving everything to charity in the first place.

I know it isn’t true, that sense of a small reckoning in a big room. But there it is: £47.44 and a smattering of C-list showbiz glitter was what the day gave us. The surprise is, it’s the glitter I’m grateful for.

Re-mapping the world: grief and its aftermath

Marius Goring, the heavenly messenger, in Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death

Marius Goring as the heavenly messenger in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life & Death

I want to think of it like this: that learning to live with death is the last gift our parents have for us.

When we were spring, they were already summer. Now their year is over we can see the full extent of life’s horizon before us for the first time. We have a chance to understand, to absorb the loss of those we loved before we knew there were words for what we felt, and in the same moment to see our own deaths rising to meet us like a road. It is not comfortable, often. Often we loved them ambiguously, with difficulty, I know, and it was aching work to set aside the ways they hurt us, to tease out the love that bubbled beneath.

And it is true that for many of us our parents’ deaths came too soon, when we were young and unprepared, some of us still children, some barely more than that, just over the threshold of adulthood, wondering what, if anything, maturity was, and whether it would suit us if we found it. Our lives turn on their axes when our mothers and fathers die; when it comes too soon, we can struggle to find north again. Some of us never do. We become homing birds with no direction home.

When we close our parents’ eyes after death, many things end. We lose an emotional resource, a bottomless well of contentment and discontent. We lose a presence. A doorway to the past, to our childhoods and our younger selves. We lose maps to realities whose mere existence we relied on all our lives. But we also lose a fact, perhaps the first, most vital fact we ever learned, the first and most fixed of points on our compass.

How we define that fact will vary for each one of us. But loved or unloved as we may have been, that fact doesn’t stop being true; it is nonetheless transposed when it becomes so abruptly historic and joins the present of things past. We hear unfamiliar parts in our melody.

It remains inside us, our fact, like the lodestones songbirds use for their migrations; it pulls us towards a destination we will never find again. But is externalised too, abstracted. It becomes a thing we can slowly disinter from our grief, hold up to the light, that we can anatomise and chart, burnish and tend as we choose — and that we can never dispose of, try as we might. It becomes an artefact; totemic, yes, however much we may learn about its provenance, the pre-history of our parents’ lives.

While they live, we learn to see our parents more clearly because we age ourselves. As we go through the same sad and lovely transformations they endured before us – often that they conspired to hide from us, as those who love us do – we begin to comprehend them as people as well as parents: lucky and unlucky, cocky and afraid, uncertain captains of their crafts, learning the cruelty and wonder of the sea as they go. Our parents establish a climate for us we will never outrun.

Later, after death, we slowly see that climate more surely for what it is. We can identify its streams and currents and storms, and through them learn more about our own systems, where our pressures and depressions are and what they lead to.

At death, our parents become ageless. We continue to age, to catch them, outstrip them even. If we are lucky, and they have grown old before us, our road is more known for having seen them light the way. We know a little of what is like for mind and body to decay, what enemies we have to expect by nightfall, with what ferocity they attack, and where and how. A little knowledge is a sobering thing. But that little knowledge is also a comfort because it comes wrapped inside the ordinary courage of the loved, who hid their horrors from us as best they could, and lived, as best they could, until life had enough of them, or them of life.

I suspect most of the little wisdoms I may ever have are in this last gift. I have only just begun to grub away the hurt and find them.

The Kiso Road (for William Scott Wilson)

I
Kiso: clear as a bell among the mountains.
Write me, the river says,
Witness the road beside me.

II
The clouds are still tonight.
The sky is smoke-blackened
But the fires here are cold.
The children grow and leave
And do not come back
Time claims the haiku
The rain on the water

The temple floor is charmed though:
Each step across it
Stirs another nightingale to song

At dawn, an old dog fox breaks
The hermetic line of the field
Holding in his mouth
A stone of nothingness
To lay at the shrine

He sniffs the violet air
As if to confirm a thought.
Go and come back, the fox says,
Watching where you slide the day open.

III.
Write me, the forest says,
Cypress, pine and cedar,
As if the road were blocks of ink
The mist a white brush wet with the river
And the air were paper
Partitioning you from the dead

The road asks for nothing
Remembering the curve of your life
As trees remember the shape of the rocks and stones.
The fields are damp with story.
Metaphor drips from autumn’s leaves.

Go and come back, the poets say.
Bridges burn by torchlight;
The barriers are where we meet
Shuffled together on our different travels
Lives and languages weaving together
Like the long dry grass of a sparrow’s nest
Or a ball of cedar hanging in the street at night

IV
Rest your feet, traveller,
Watch the swallow’s flight through the mountains

Go and come back, your book says:
What was first a gateway has become
A meeting place among us.

 

Note: I don’t usually post my poems here, but given this one’s provenance, I thought it more fitting than most.

One of the best things about being a writer is how generous and supportive other writers can be – both those you come to know personally and those who you have never met.

Just before Christmas, the author and translator William Scott Wilson got in touch with me on social media with some very kind words of praise for my book, Impossible Journeys. He also sent me, by way of a thank you, his own recent book, Walking the Kiso Road, an account of his travels on the ancient Japanese thoroughfare.

Walking the Kiso Road – and William’s generosity – was the inspiration for this poem. I recommend the book highly. It’s a beautiful, subtle, meditative journey through Japanese landscape, culture, history and myth and William makes the best of literary companions: erudite, passionate, self-effacing and insightful. I was going to review it, but this wanted to be written instead.

Books are many things, but they are also where many of us meet to share a little of ourselves, sometimes unexpectedly. They surprise things from us, including friendship.

The library of lost conversation

My father died in May, seven years after my mother. We are slowly emptying the house the two of them lived in together since the autumn of 1966, a couple of months after I was born.

The house contains my childhood, of course, and those of my older brother and sisters – but mostly now it embodies my parents’ lives together, the choices they made, together or singly, the things they loved, the things they could afford, the things they could not afford but bought anyway, good furniture followed by worse once children required accounting for, my mother’s resilient DIY eventually supplanted by an old age of greater ease and comfort.

To break it up, this life, seems strangely disloyal. Should their choices and tastes mean so little to us? Do photographs, which we will keep, say more about them than the LPs they collected, the pictures and prints on the walls, the vases and lamps, the glasses and the linen?

People are fond of saying, in the social media age, that we are all curators of our own lives these days. But weren’t we always? Aren’t the undispersed houses of the dead always museums of a kind, suspended in time – because both finished and unfinished – in just the way Pompeii is? The ghosts that inhabit the homes of the lost are not merely those of the past – they are also the ghosts of the future, the lives unlived, the films unseen, the thoughts unarticulated, the food uneaten, the books unread.

Death ends our dialogues with the dead, but the conversations want to go on.

For me, that talk is almost always about the books.

The best books – the ones we carry with us always in our hearts – find the words for things that we feel within us already but cannot express – sometimes have not even known we wanted to express.

I look around at the packed shelves at my parents’ and think of all the emotions they contain. Perhaps I cannot capture how my mother felt on a given day one April or September, say. But I can know something of her in the words she read, in her radical’s surprise at the humanity of Queen Victoria’s letters to her children, or her profound identification with the Vera Brittan of Testament of Youth.

Every time I read the court martial scene in Catch-22, I can hear my father, wheezing and snorting with laughter as he read it out loud to us as children, tears of laughter – the only kind or tears I remember him shedding till the last years of life – slipping quickly down Saturday-stubbled cheeks, landing warm on my arm. He almost choked on it, too breathless with the absurd, savage logic of Heller’s humour to read at all.

But most of the books on my parents’ shelves resonate more quietly, words exchanged in distant rooms, things glimpsed behind us in a folding mirror. A good many I read myself as I grew up, often with my parents encouragement, occasionally their distaste; I don’t think Mum ever developed a liking for Ian Fleming, for example, although I find myself repeating even now her opinion that he wrote well, if not as well as his brother, Peter, despite the fact I have yet to read – or indeed see – even one of Peter’s books.

The galleries – museums, memory houses, what you will – those intimate spaces we curate in our own minds begin in our childhood reading as much as in our childhoods per se. For me the iconic Bond images aren’t Connery or Moore or Craig, but the covers of the 1960s Pan paperbacks that still sit on the shelves in the hall: the faux bullet holes in the cover of Thunderball; the scorpion clutching a pearl on You Only Live Twice; the blood-spattered snow of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

And so it is across every shelf. Many of the paperbacks’ brash colours have faded with sunlight and time. The hardbacks, stripped long ago of their jackets, have grown old too. They have not discoloured so much as acquired a patina of disuse; their bindings are stiff, their typesetting demodé. They smell tired, like baked dust.

Growing up, each book to me seemed to promise so much, each an unfamiliar world of its own wrapped inside the mystery of my parents’ hearts. Those I have never read still catch the eye, but this time with guilt: Eastern Approaches; Lust for Glory; Old Men Forget; The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists; Angel Pavement; The Man-Eater of Malgudi; and on and on. They are the among the earliest landscape of my life, I suppose; these enticingly unexamined vistas are somehow more evocative than the posters and prints that hung on the walls, like doors opened just a little onto shadowed gardens. The doors are still there; but to open them now would, I think, make my parents’ absence all the more painful.

These books stand for much of my parents’ emotional lives. For bookish people, that’s what books are. They aren’t mere stories or arguments or theses: they are aspirations. They are possibilities. They express the inquisitive longings of my parents: the kind of world they wanted to create for themselves and their children, of course. But it’s more than that. To buy a book is to express a desire. To want to think and feel something new; to see without seeing and know without knowing. Books fulfill us. To read a book is to open ourselves, to invite different lives into our own most private spaces. It follows that to leave a book unread behind us is its own kind of sadness: an opportunity stifled, a chance untaken.

I know there are many books here my parents never got round to reading. I can only guess at which. Each one seems to suggest a diminished life in a way, or poignant evidence of death’s broken continuities, the sense of lives not finished with, even though life itself has gone.

It is one of the strange qualities of books that the words they contain live for the reader as much as the writer – and they live for readers other than ourselves, too. We get a frisson – at least I do – when we hear someone speak about a book we know intimately ourselves – as if the depth and delicacy of our connection to the words it contains connects us to them also. The web of words vibrates a little and we feel it, the pressure of another person’s life, their thoughts and experiences humming through the threads and wires. So you heard it too, I think to myself. You understood the music that moved me so.

So much of my relationship with my parents was expressed through such connections. We lived through books. We exchanged them as gifts; we exchanged thoughts about them endlessly, books we had read, books we wanted to read, books we had read about. So to be in an empty house lined with shelves is to be in a library of lost conversations with them.

I look up at them, lined up beside each other, in no other order than that made by a random choice on a random day, subjects flitting erratically, seamlessly from one topic to another, book to book and shelf to shelf, the way intimate talk does when it seems to be endless.

I want to hold on to each one, but there are too many for my lifetime too.

Between fact and fiction

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of History Today.

What does it mean to write history today? What claims can historians make about their work? These are just two of the questions that sprang to mind after listening to Niall Ferguson tussle with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley on Radio 4’s Start the Week in October.

Ferguson was attempting to clarify the distinction between historians and writers of historical fiction. ‘What happened and how it felt are not separate things’, he said:

Historians are as much concerned with how it felt – the difference is, we are actually basing it on research rather than our imaginations. People who write historical fiction are telling you what it must have felt like. But that’s not what it felt like, because essentially they’re projecting back, in [Jane’s] case early 21st century ideas. 

Ferguson, Harvard’s Laurence A. Tisch professor of history, has long been a proponent of the counterfactual, which – whatever its virtues and vices – is at heart an imaginative project. Indeed, Ferguson edited one of the leading books on the subject, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997).

Yet how do historians justify what they do? Certainly they can no longer pretend to Olympian distance and uninterested authority. We are all a product of the times we live in, fed by the oxygen of our experiences, and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. We live in a multi-channel, multi-vocal era, which is sceptical of singularity and authority, but paradoxically attracted to narrow certainties and averse to self-doubt. How should historians adapt their practice to reflect these competing tensions? Doubt is central to intellectual enquiry, but by the time a work arrives in print, doubts have usually been effaced. The goal of historical research is to work our way out of doubt towards authority; perhaps work that articulates explicitly that process would better represent to the wider public what historians actually do.

Likewise, do historians challenge themselves enough to find an appropriate form for their ideas? They strive for originality of research and analysis, but how often do they strive for originality or inventiveness of form? The book or long-form essay may still be the best format historians have for sustained and rigorous argument. But do they default to it out of admiration, laziness, or cultural deference? After all, today’s cultural and technological fragmentation and diversity offers enormous opportunities for generically – and therefore intellectually – satisfying creativity to those with the requisite talent, ambition and desire.

To take two examples in different media: Ruth Scurr’s My Own Life (2015) might best be described as an autobiographical biography of John Aubrey, piecing the great antiquarian’s life together out of the voluminous chaos of his published and unpublished writings. Elsewhere, and largely unmarked in the press, BBC television’s Footballers United, an innovative historical drama, recently won a Prix Italia for Best Digital Storytelling. It used its medium to create a touching and thoughtful narrative illuminated by archive materials actually embedded in it. Rather than a drama-documentary, it was a new thing: a documented drama.

To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.

Certainly, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is more porous than we like to think. Perhaps an approach to non-fiction historical writing that was more comfortable in acknowledging its subjectivity, its contingency and its intellectual frailties would challenge readers to think more deeply about the nature of history and its place in our culture.

Safe spaces and comfort zones

This piece first appeared in the July 2015 issue of History Today. While I still think this makes some good points, on the whole it feels a good deal more ancien regime than I intended it to be, and fails to address some important aspects of the debate. Rachel Moss wrote a blog post in response which I think is a much better – more thoughtful, nuanced and perceptive – take than mine.

The Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board at New York’s Columbia University recently recommended trigger warnings be placed on Ovid’s Metamorphoses – and implicitly other classic texts in the western canon – because it contains material that is difficult for ‘a [rape] survivor, a person of colour, or a student from a low-income background’.

For those who do not know, a ‘trigger warning’ is akin to the descriptive notes that accompany DVD classification ratings. So, for instance, my copy of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is described as containing ‘intense scenes of verbal and physical abuse’.

The immediate cause of this pronouncement was a female student who had been sexually assaulted finding a discussion of the Persephone and Daphne myths traumatic in the classroom environment, which is entirely understandable.

Yet it is not to demean her pain when questioning whether the anxiety and distress she felt is sufficient reason to remodel the course for all students; or whether, more generally, we have the right to go through life without encountering texts, opinions and experiences that we find too emotionally difficult to deal with. As individuals we are surely entitled to evade distress. Whether we are entitled to demand society remodel itself around our trauma, to expect absolute public obeisance to the private tyrannies of our hurt is much less certain.

It is only a matter of time before such sensibilities are brought to the study of history, where we do not have the comfort of fiction or the consolations of literary aesthetics with which to distance us from the darkness.

The advisory board at Columbia was well intentioned, but to avoid discussion of sexual violence, racism and oppression is not to fight such evils; it is to pretend that there are public spaces in which they cannot exist. To live in a prison of your own design does not make you any less of a prisoner.

Is this not contrary to what the study of literature and history is about? Surely both are at least in part concerned with understanding how and why horror rises in the human heart, about the ebb and flow of power and resistance, of humanity against inhumanity, the moral and political struggles of individuals and societies, the fight of hope and faith against hunger, fear and death? Are not both subjects ultimately about the infinitely complex varieties of experience flowering endlessly into events, patterned yet unique, as we all are?

This desire to dissociate from reality is not a problem unique to education. It seems endemic in society, from the section of the US population which turns to Fox News or the Drudge Report for information, to the echo chambers of the bourgeois political elite which led the UK Labour party to its worst electoral defeat since the war. No party has a monopoly on moral squalor. It is a human characteristic, not a political one.

Characteristic of the mindset is the othering of your opponents, delegitimising contrary and challenging opinions by demonising those who hold them. There seems to me little intellectual difference between those who consider Barack Obama a socialist dictator because he believes in the efficacy and virtue of government and those who privilege the most reactionary elements of Salafi Islamic thought over women’s rights because opposition to any aspect of Islam is de facto Islamophobic. How far are we from declaring parts of literature or history hate speech? Not far enough.

It is the historian’s duty as much as the novelist’s or poet’s to understand what people think and why. We must resist anything that pushes us towards the comfortable and the familiar rather than challenges us with the arbitrary and exceptional.

Neither serenity nor strength come from avoiding difficult thoughts and feelings. Experience inures us; only by accepting reality can we begin to change it. Safe spaces and comfort zones, whether emotional or intellectual, may be invaluable for dealing with personal trauma, but they diminish us all if they do not equip us for the multiplicity of the world as it is.

Humanities without humanity

This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of History Today.

The British government’s vision for university funding – as outlined by Jo Johnson, minister for universities and science – seems both promising and alarming. That it seeks to elevate teaching to the same level of importance as research is to be welcomed. But to do so via a model based on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), as promised in the Conservative party manifesto, would seem to exacerbate many of the problems the government wants to address.

A great deal of university funding in the humanities is based on the REF, most recently undertaken in 2014. It is officially said to cost £250m, but it has been estimated by some critics to come in at four times that figure, or much if not more than is spent annually on all the humanities.

I turned to it – and in particular to the report from the 2014 History Sub-Committee – for a sense of clarity and intellectual rigour with regard to university finance and the reward of excellence. I did not find it. If there are measurable criteria that can be used to judge the quality of research in the humanities, they are not readily apparent. Rather, one forms the impression that, in the absence of such criteria, proxies and ersatz benchmarks have had to be found.

According to the latest REF, 31 per cent of the submissions in the UK’s history departments are ‘world-leading’, which is defined as:

1. A primary or essential point of reference.
2. Of profound influence.
3. Instrumental in developing new thinking, practices, paradigms, policies or audiences.
4. A major expansion of the range and depth of the research and its application.
5. Outstandingly novel, innovative and creative.

Points 1, 2 and 3 are self-evidently not measurable in anything like the time frame within which REF operates.

More generally, these are large claims that are being made. Is there anyone who thinks nearly a third of all work in UK history faculties reaches such an exalted level?

This is not a criticism of the work itself, merely of the absurd process by which individual excellence is distilled, refined, sieved, ground and otherwise reduced to a heap of lifeless data by the very funding body which should, in fact, be nourishing it.

I doubt whether many History Today subscribers have read the REF report. I cannot encourage you to do so. Take this sentence, picked at random:

In the case of impact and environment, the same materials were used in both the sub-panel and the main panel calibrations to ensure that sub-panels calibrated material from across the main panel UOAs [units of assessment] as part of the calibration exercise for impact and environment.

Possibly the report was outsourced to Google Translate, but it is hard to respect the judgment of anyone who could write – or sign off on – that kind of sentence.

Our higher education institutions are bureaucratised to an absurd degree. Managerialism and corporatisation are rampant. The quality of both education and research in the humanities is being seriously undermined as a result. The REF is fond of outputs, impacts, calibrations and other wildly inappropriate nomenclature. Yet this is not the language of the humanities. It is as if some benighted administrator has stumbled across the Dummies Guide to Mechanical Engineering and energetically rifled its index to gussy up his or her vocabulary. It is, in short, pseudo-science of the highest order, the intellectual equivalent of the spray-on tan.

All of which leads me to wonder whether the future of the humanities in Britain is in the public sector at all. Perhaps smaller, student-centred institutions modelled on the kind of liberal arts colleges found in the United States are the next stage in the evolution of higher education in the UK. If the sector is not soon radically restructured, it is very hard to see it being capable of fulfilling any meaningful purpose whatsoever.