Monday, 28 April 2014

Intellectual floor-sweepings…

Hi everybody. I hope you all had a restorative Easter break. I certainly did: a few days in Ireland with every electronic device switched off. Newspapers, books, country and beach walks, the Rás Mumhan and country cooking. Then it was back to the office to hold the hands of various dissertation students feeling the pressure: the theses are due in today. Mostly they were fine, though I did have head desk moments on Thursday and Friday, on being forcibly confronted with evidence that some people, given a year and extensive tutoring, either haven't started or don't understand what a dissertation is.

But as I say, the vast majority will do excellently: I'm really looking forward to reading lots of them.

Talking of reading, I've been inhaling books rapidly as usual. On the ferry to Ireland, I proof-read my ill colleague's forthcoming book Original Spin: Downing Street and the Press in Victorian Britain which is a fascinating history of politician's relationship with the press. It was all a lot easier in those days: parties either openly controlled or secretly bankrolled newspapers in the early days, though a gentleman would never allow an editor to cross his threshold. It turns out that lots Irish newspapers, for instance, entirely depended on payoffs from British politicians, who didn't mind the bribes, but objected to the uselessness of the product. Unsurprisingly, readers preferred the nationalist newspapers to the loyalist propaganda of The Patriot, the Clonmel Herald and the Belfast News Letter (still going, though presumably un-bribed these days).

In other ways, things have changed little. Politicians then briefed against their opponents, particularly those meant to be their friends, while holding their noses and pretending to be above the fray. They professed democracy in public and suborned it in private, as did the newspapers. The Times in 1835 saw 'press management' as a curse:
…if the attempt had been carried on to success, it would have ended in a rotten representation of public opinion, similar to the rotten representation of the people before Parliamentary reform…The Editorship of one paper was as much a Government appointment as a seat at the India Board or the Admiralty. A committee…used to hold daily sittings in a Government office, and contrive things for the reward of the servile and the damage of the untractable. 
My, how things have changed, going by the memoirs of Alastair Campbell and his counterparts in the other parties. Even the dirty tricks have changed little. 1834 saw the leak of a ripped-up letter between Althorp and Brougham considering 'whether we should declare open war upon The Times': someone picked it out of a bin, stuck it back together and helpfully posted it to that paper. The politicians, newly exposed to a (very) limited degree of democracy, were very unhappy that newspapers now saw themselves as conduits of the public's opinion to the elite, rather than the other way round.

What I rather liked about the 18th and 19th-century newspapers was their rumbustious offensiveness: while slavishly following their paymasters, they doled out abuse to their opponents in some style, much like Hogarth and Co. in their cartoons a generation previously. Here's The Times on the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, whom it suspected of feeding juicy stories to other papers:
What an offensive union is that of a dull understanding and an unfeeling heart! Add to this the self-satisfied airs of a flippant dandy, and you have the most nauseous specimen of humanity – a sort of compound which justifies Swift in the disgusting exhibition of the Yahoos. 
A comment we could fairly apply to rather a large number of the current Cabinet.  The Daily News described a speech Lord Russell as 'scarcely one degree above twaddle', which reminds me of David Cameron's embarrassing exploration of theological matters and Blair's latest exhortation to make an Iranian and Syrian desert and call it peace. Later on, the Prime Minister the Earl of Derby (last words: 'bored to extinction') was attacked for his rhetorical flights by The Times:
Last night the House of Lords heard…with considerable pleasure one of those ingenious and even impassioned orations which Lord Derby is able to… deliver on almost any subject, and perhaps we might add, on almost any side. 
Shades of Blair, certainly. Not that the politician's were entirely the victims: Russell told Clarendon that 'if England is ever to be England again, this vile tyranny of The Times must be cut off' a sentiment shared by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (the latter being accused by the newspapers of committing treason: they wanted him locked up in the Tower). Albert remarked in 1861 that Lord Derby was powerless without a helpful press: 'The country is governed by newspapers, and you have not a newspaper'. He excluded the Times from this, though Victoria said it was 'as corrupt as the rest'. With Murdoch at the helm, that sentiment can be redoubled a thousand times, though we lack the politicians – with the partial exception of Ed Miliband – to do it.

The last words go to Derby, who had a warning for all putative press barons and politicians: '…there is no more unsatisfactory mode of spending money than the purchase of a second class newspaper' – perhaps he knew what Humbert Wolfe put into verse:
You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God!
the British Journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.
The other book I read with rapt fascination is Friedrich Heer's The Medieval World: Europe 1100-1350, which I bought in Hodges Figgis in 2002 (a formerly great bookshop which gets a mention in Ulysses). I'm sorry I left it on the shelf for so long, because it's a fascinating read and one likely to make Nigel Farage choke on his insular cornflakes. A translation of a 1961 German book (Janet Sondheimer deserves respect for retaining Heer's dry wit), it's probably way out of date factually and critically, but I admired the book's huge sweep: politics, war, faith, heresy, crusades, city life, economics, philosophy, literature, art, science, architecture and ethnicity. Most of all, I admire the book's attitude to the Cold War. Heer was a very open-minded Catholic and left-winger who was part of the Austrian resistance during World War 2, and encouraged liberal resistance inside the USSR and the Catholic church. As such, The Medieval World is determined to paint a picture of a Europe which was open to the ideas and civilisations of the world in the early period, before nationalism, religious sectarianism and rigid authority conspired to shut it off. In Heer's view, early medieval Europe drew strength from Jewish and Islamic thought, science and philosophy, art and politics were informed by travellers and invaders from as far afield as China and India, while Russia was a place to trade and exchange ideas. Only when the Catholic Church and various monarchies became absolutist did Europe become crabbed, suspicious and reactionary.

So it's a plea for ecumenism, internationalism and tolerance. Heer has his favourites, particularly the Cathars, the 'Spiritual' wing of the Franciscans who were suppressed by the church for their embarrassing insistence on poverty and humility, Siger, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham (very interesting ideas who seems to have anticipated structuralism and semiotics), and the early Universities of Paris and Bologna before the church cracked down. Not sure I should show my students this bit:
The people who counted were the students, secular in their interests and completely self-assured, the majority of them already mature and experienced men. The students… would tolerate no sermonising, whether from Rome or from their university professors; the university belonged to them [and they] owed their masters no moral or spiritual obedience… the mediaeval student took to quarrelling as readily as he took to drink. The students, who had the whip hand, kept their professors to a punctual observance of the lecture timetable, under threat of financial penalties, and revenged themselves on unpopular teachers by boycotts.
Has university life changed much?
Many were very poor. Then miserable lodgings were poorly heated and ill-lit. Their life was turbulent and often dissipated; brawls with the townsfolk and artisans, assassinations and excesses of all kinds were a regular part of it. Discipline in the colleges was often harsh and gloomy, distinctly parsonical  in tone, and accompanied by a highly-developed system of informing… lectures started at a very early hour, six o'clock in winter, in summer even earlier, and often lasted for three hours. Famous teachers attracted large crowds, which the antiquated rooms serving as lecture halls could barely accommodate.
For Heer, the medieval university, however squalid, was heaven. In it, students and lecturers 'criticised everything', including each other. Nothing was out of bounds, in a world where the slightest whiff of heresy could otherwise lead to excommunication and execution. For a brief period, he says, intellectual disputation was the definition of freedom. Now, of course, universities are valued – by their own management – for their 'business-friendliness', 'entrepreneurial' attitudes and customer service: disputatious, disobedient departments are harshly disciplined, silenced or closed down. Is there room now for Clarembald of Chartres, who said that 'Hell is ignorance'? For the disciples of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Siger of Brabant or the rationalist Boetius of Dacia, who proclaimed in the midst of the deeply religious age that 'if there is anything divine in man then it is in the intellect'.

Heer's history is as revealing of his position in 1960s Europe as it is of the medieval age. He clearly sees the Cold War and the Catholic Church's crackdown on liberalism, ecumenism and argument as the equivalent of the closing of Europe in the 1300s. Then, Jews were expelled, Islam repelled, dissent and debate closed down by over mighty bureaucracies and centralised powers. Now, he implies, freedom of thought has been replaced once more by secularism. It's hard, in places, to work out whether he's voicing the intellectual traditions of the medieval period or making a plea on behalf of enlightened post-War intellectuals. Here's his summary of Aquinas:
The better the use man makes of his intellect, the more open he becomes… A well ordered society is that in which free and reasonable men, speaking a common language, set up a community on the basis of common understanding. But Aquinas realised that men in fact no longer understood one another… his fundamental conviction [was that] in intellectual argument the common interest demanded the victory not of one side or the other but of truth. One should be grateful even to those proved to be in error, since error has its part to play in making truth plain…'We must love equally those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have made the effort to discover truth, and both, in so doing, have assisted us'. 
Imagine a Prime Minister's Question Time adopting those principles… though I hope my own classes go some of the way to encouraging this approach. Dated as it is, I recommend The Medieval World, for its liberal values, sweeping narrative and conscious insight into the stresses of intellectual life in post-War Europe.

Oh yes. I've been reading James Callaghan's astonishingly dull – and paradoxically interesting –autobiography. Written in 1987, nice Mr Callaghan remarks on how little Prime Ministers had to do, and expresses his satisfaction that despite Margaret Thatcher's best efforts, immigration is no longer an issue voters and politicians worry about. If only…

Now and then, in between doggedly uninteresting explanations of minor decisions, he drops in little anecdotes of what he did in his leisure hours. Picture the scene: a nightclub in New York, 1965. Seated around the table: James Callaghan, doggedly worthy Chancellor of the Exchequer, Richard Nixon, failed Presidential candidate and future disgraced President of the United States, and Ginger Rogers, actor, dancer and Hollywood star. What on earth did they talk about?

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