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.

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.

Young academics: the great betrayal

This piece first appeared in the September 2015 issue of History Today. I discussed the issues it raised with Catherine Fletcher in a related podcast which can be heard here. Catherine wrote a THE blog in response to my article and the disagreements it aroused, which can be read here.

Supporters of the status quo in higher education are about as common as authentic autographs from Abu Qatada. Yet I am not sure many of those who have attacked successive governments for the short-sightedness of their policies are aware of how systemic the problems are.

Let us look, for example, at those at the very beginning of their careers. One of the great pleasures of my role as a public historian is getting to meet PhD students and early career researchers in both History and the broader humanities. Their intelligence, creativity, ambition, energy and dedication is extraordinary and leaves me, for one, deeply humbled.

It also leaves me acutely aware of my good fortune in having been born a couple of decades earlier, because today it takes a brave person to undertake postgraduate study in the humanities – and then to seek a career in academia – without the security of a private income, or rich parents, or, more commonly, both.

Increasingly, early-career researchers are offered only poorly paid nine-month teaching contracts. They receive little or no support from their faculties. Indeed, in many cases they are essentially non-people within the faculty, denied access to office space, telephones, email addresses and all the other facilities one might take for granted in any other organisation. They are offered no career development or pastoral support either.

Naturally, because many if not most academics disdain teaching themselves, these young historians receive little or no pedagogical training. Which is doubly a shame, because most are far more committed to providing a high-quality education to their students than many of their supposed superiors.

These people represent the future of the academy, if there is such a thing, but not only are they invisible within their faculties, they are invisible within academia. They appear to be – and often are – invisible tout court to administrators and academics alike, who prefer to pretend they do not exist, because to admit there is a problem might require them to do something about it.

As with the introduction of student fees, there is something deeply nauseating about a generation which benefited from free education to degree level and generous support into postgraduate study denying precisely those same opportunities to their children. This is not a new phenomenon. There are none who guard their position in society so jealously as the nouveau riche.

By the time the second term of the early-career researcher’s contract begins their minds will be focused on gaining the next nine-month job. It is an intellectual environment in which publication, that perverse desiderata of today’s academic world, becomes almost impossible. Never mind the fact that publication in a ‘good’ journal can take up to 18 months.

Again and again, talking to early-career researchers, I hear the same stories. Four moves in five years. Five moves in seven. Young academics are expected to uproot repeatedly, often internationally, too, in order to maintain the hope of a career. For most, this is destructive of their personal lives and their ability to develop research that will help them progress. For some, who have families or other dependents to care for, it is impossible.

Then there is the money. As a University and College Union survey recently revealed, over 40 per cent of higher education and further education staff on short-term or zero-hour contracts have struggled to pay bills. Some 30 per cent earn less than £1,000 a month. This is in a sector where the average senior academic salary in the UK for 2013-14 was £82,545 for men (women averaged £10k less). It is a sector in which the amount spent on administration – £4.7bn – dwarfs that spent on the humanities at £0.9bn.

To what end has such a system developed? No end. That is what is most contemptible about it. To save a little money, perhaps. More generally, to satisfy some well-paid administrators and civil servants that all is well, when all the evidence that cannot be fed into Excel spreadsheets suggests that the opposite is true.

The decline and fall of Twyford Abbey

This article first appeared in the November 2015 London Historians newsletter. Since I wrote it, the abbey has been sealed away behind high metal fencing, as if to confirm the purposeful neglect of its current owners. 

I grew up in Kingsbury, North West London. I now live in Ealing. Between those two places lies a stretch of the North Circular I must have driven hundreds if not thousands or times.

But it was only recently I noted a wooden fence close to Hanger Lane – on the left as you travel east and roughly opposite the Hoo-Hing Chinese food emporium. Behind the wooden fence, is wilderness – characterised most obviously by an array of Giant Hogweed that more than amply live up to their name. They tower ponderously over the fence like watchtowers or searchlights.
And, it turns out, they hide a secret.

Behind that fence lie the ruins of the Grade II-listed Twyford Abbey, an early 19th-century Gothic revival mansion designed by William Atkinson. Actually, ruins is an overstatement: the building was only really abandoned in the late 1980s. But it will become ruinously impossible to save soon.

At first sight of the name one instinctively assumes the building must be a relic of Henry VIII’s enthusiastic plunder of the Catholic Church. There has been a house on the site of Twyford Abbey since around 1290. It has, at times, been a manor house, a farmhouse and a mansion surrounded by a moat. But there wasn’t a religious order here until around 1902, when the Alexian order of monks took it over and began to use it as a rest home for the elderly.

Ironically, then, the name Twyford Abbey predated its use as a religious house. The man who had the house built in 1806 – Thomas Willan – also responsible for filling in the moat – simply thought the Abbey suffix added a suitably gothic touch to the already gothic vision he had for his grand new home. Which is why he employed William Atkinson. Gothic revival was what Atkinson did.
His is best known now perhaps, for his work on Chequers, the prime minister’s country residence. But he also has many other houses to his credit, among them Lismore Castle, Scone Palace, Bretton Hall, and Hylands.

And it seems appropriate that he worked for Sir Walter Scott on Abbotsford, too. Atkinson’s historicity, like Scott’s, was sentimental and sweeping, unfettered by what we might now call granularity – a true desire to replicate in any detail the forms of Gothic architecture – but deep in romantic sensibility and therefore truer to his own time than perhaps he knew.

It is now sandwiched between the North Circular and the A40, with Diageo’s headquarters and the Central Middlesex Hospital hemming it in closer. Its grounds as much as its buildings, are much fallen from what they were. Parcels have been sold periodically for perhaps 150 years. The Willesden Workhouse, the Royal Agricultural Society and Guinness – hence the presence of Diageo – have all benefited from the desperation of the Abbey’s owners at different times.

And its story speaks sadly to the neglect that comes to property that falls between the cracks of the planning and heritage systems. The house was listed in January 1973, most likely in response to a request from the Alexian order to have it demolished. The order abandoned it in 1988, and it has slowly fallen into neglect ever since.

I recently spoke to architectural historian, writer and urban regeneration specialist Denna Jones, who is passionate about the neglect of Twyford Abbey. Jones was initially drawn to the building by its status as a lost gem of gothic revival architecture.

“In terms of Gothic architecture,  I love it because despite popular and admired sites like Strawberry Hill, I think there’s still a bit of an attitude that gothic revival architecture is de trop. It isn’t,” she said.

But she recognizes that its importance is more than architectural: put to proper use, the regeneration of Twyford Abbey could have a transformative effect on the local community. “Twyford Abbey is a Grade II listed building with central London location on an undeveloped 5.4 hectare site,” she said. “There is huge potential to not only save a fine gothic revival building but to do something imaginative with the site that will address in part London’s housing crisis.”

It is hard to see how that might happen. The site is currently owned by Twyford Properties Ltd, a shell company registered in a tax haven whose owners – in common with far too many property developers in London, are unknown.

Twyford Properties Ltd has applied to Ealing Council on several occasions with different plans for the property. All have included partial demolition. The most recent, in 2012, was to turn the site into a luxury hotel and spa. All its applications have been turned down.

The company has shown no interest in maintaining or preserving or developing the site ever since. All it seems to have done since acquiring it is to put a large fence around those areas that provided access and to put a sign across the gate asserting its ownership.

I asked Denna if she could see a way forward for Twyford Abbey. “The first task is to save it from further deterioration,” she said. “Lack of duty of care by its owners clearly demonstrates their interest in the site is financial not heritage, not history, not as a community asset. There are thousands of examples of historic buildings disappearing because owners relied on benign neglect to do the dirty work for them. Immediate enforcement is called for and the council must issue an Urgent Repair Notice to the owners.

“The second task is to recover this community asset from its current owners whose actions or lack of actions demonstrate they are not suitable care takers of a heritage and community asset. What seems to be missing is a campaign to save the house and property. It’s critical that a third party of enthusiasts steps up to negotiate the future of the site along with the council and owners.
“Given the owner’s failure to maintain the site in even a perfunctory manner, I ask whether there is scope for the Council to pursue either a CPO or EDMO? Or if an Urgent Repair Notice is issued and the owners fail to make good on it, does that open the door to force a sale? I don’t know the answers but these are questions that must be raised and answered.

“The Council’s principles of development include a clause that where there is evidence of deliberate neglect or damage to the heritage asset, the deteriorated state should not be taken into account in the planning decision.”

My personal wish for the site – beyond restoration – would be for it to become a working arts space – part gallery, part studios, part theatre. West London needs an equivalent to, say, Whitechapel Gallery in the east. Twyford Abbey has excellent transport links, after all. What West London very much doesn’t need is another property being renovated and turned into luxury apartments.

Denna’s preferred solution, however, is both contemporary and rooted in the history of urban London. “If we could think beyond traditional housing,” she said, “then I would advocate considering how the site could accommodate light industry with attached artisan housing. These sites are  being lost across London. Peter Guillery’s book The Small House in Eighteenth Century London demonstrates how the London we know was built by small artisans and builders. I’d like to see if we could adopt aspects of that model as the spokes around the hub of Twyford Abbey.”

Whether we can do anything to effect change is questionable though. Again, perhaps more radical and creative thinking is needed. It’s a question I put to Denna. “The site needs community advocates – and I don’t just mean people in Ealing,” she said. “I mean a global community of advocates. Would a new kind of social media ‘public subscription’ work, for instance? Public subscriptions were once common. They allowed for the building of sites such as Devonport’s Column. The Statue of Liberty was built in part by public subscription. “Maybe Kickstarter is the new style public subscription and we could use it save Twyford Abbey.”

Whatever the answer, we urgently need to create a sustained campaign to save this site from the neglect of nature and developers alike.

Denna Jones’ most recent book was Architecture: The Whole Story, published by Thames & Hudson in 2014.

The future is ours to write: some thoughts on Britain after Brexit

Like most of my friends, I was heartbroken by the vote on Thursday. Heartbroken but not wholly surprised.

Let’s leave aside the dishonesty of the campaign.

This was a vote that has been brewing since the crash of 2007/08 when across the developed world governments supported the financial and political elites who created the conditions that allowed the crash to happen – and then demanded that the wider populace pick up the tab.

Elites can only command respect when their expertise and ability work for the common good. When they so clearly and catastrophically fail, and are not called to account in any way, if is not unreasonable for people to become cynical and distrustful.

The EU is an elite entity. It is not the Europe we are broken-hearted at being cast out of. That Europe exists as long as we want it to, as long as we are prepared to fight for it.

But for many, I think the EU – as with governments generally across the West – represented a failed and broken compact. One which looked after its own in the financial sector and punished the people of Greece and Italy and Spain rather than let the failures in the system be felt by those who designed and profited from it.

People feel powerless and a vote against the status quo is a way of expressing that. But it isn’t the EU that robs them of agency, far from it. It is globalisation.

At a local level, change is generational. Globally, by which I mean among the global financial elites, change is technological, and fast.

Globalisation inevitably means that skilled and non-skilled labour will be contracted out to the lowest bidder. The working class of the West will be – and are – the biggest losers.

A vote to “take back control” was a vote against that : against a no-opportunity economy, with low security jobs for now and worse on the horizon, against hollowed out communities starved of resources and starved of attention, which cannot compete with migrant workers in a race to the bottom.

These communities feel voiceless, their concerns unmet in parliament and scorned by many to whom they look for support and representation.

Anti-immigrant sentiment derives in large part from communities which are fearful, insecure and impoverished by forces which benefit the middle and upper classes but strip them of all protection.

Yes some leave voters are racist. Yes most of them were lied to – despicably – by the politicians. And yes, many will find that the EU – flawed as it is – was a bulwark against globalisation, not part of its vanguard. And yes, vote Leave was an emotional decision not a rational one.

But so was Remain. Europe is an idea that transcends the EU. We are still European. The future is far from decided yet. If we want England / Britain to be an open, outward-looking, tolerant force for good in the world, then it is still in our power to make it so.

Some Leave voters may be hateful. But many if not most voted out of fear, fear of a now that offers them little and a future that offers them less.

It is down to us to build the future that we want. It is our future. It is not about institutions and models of government. It is about habits of heart and mind, the generosity and kindness we bring to debate, the hope we believe in and enact.

Fuck what the nation voted one rainy day in June. If we want to pass on the nation that we grew up in to our children, we can still do so. We do not need the EU for that. We need each other.

We can do it – but not by despising those who made the wrong choice on Thursday. But by keeping in our hearts the values that are dear to us, and that we believe are worth fighting for.

The future is unwritten. Europe is a powerful idea of which the EU is a very poor expression – just ask the people of Greece. Let’s write a better future than either the old status quo or this new reality can offer.

Venceremos, my friends. Onwards into the dawn.