Among Historians

I’ve just spent three days at the Inter-War Rural History conference. I booked into it for a couple of reasons. First, I thought it was somewhere that I could try out my ideas about the symbolism of landscape in twenties novels, and second, I thought I could do with a crash course in inter-war social history.

So I’ve had three days among historians, and it’s been productive. Royal Holloway College is in Egham, a part of the world I’ve never explored before. It’s essentially a London suburb now, though my taxi driver assured me that London stops several miles further in. The campus is big, and there are vast building developments in progress.

The college began its life as the first women’s college of the University of London, and my room was in the original building (now called the Founder’s Building). This is a huge exuberant Victorian fantasy of a building – but Victorian fantasies were solid – and a joy in comparison with the neat bits of modern architecture on the campus, of which the best one can really say is that they are neat and tidy. This conference was held in the rooms of the Geography department, and if you took a wrong turning you could find yourself face to face with a cupboard full of geological samples.

It was one of those conferences where papers are packaged in bundles of three. You go to a session because you like the sound of one paper, but it’s often the one with the title you wouldn’t progress beyond if you found it in a journal that turns out to be a winner. I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d be interested by a paper on Welsh nationalism, but I was. Looking through my notes, I’d say that 80% of the papers I heard were useful and/or interesting, which is pretty good going, for me, as I can have rather a low boredom threshold when being talked at.

I was actually tempted to skip the main speaker on the first evening, because she was talking about agricultural shows in Australia, which was not a subject that I could see myself getting excited about. In the event, the paper turned out to be very good, and extremely relevant to my interests, with a details about the ex-servicemen from England who were given assisted passaged so that they could settle in Australia and lessen the labour shortage there. There was stuff about the Soldier Settlement schemes, by which ex-soldiers were given small areas of land in marginal areas at a nominal cost, because there was a belief (a myth?) that soldiers had developed skills that would help them as farmers. By 1940, half of them had failed.

There were several papers about other European countries, which helped me to get England into perspective. There are several features of twenties fiction that get tutted over as right-wing or semi-fascist – snobbery, anti-semitism, idealisation of the rural at the expense of the urban, idealisation of the past, a desire to bring back old social patterns, etc. Various papers made clear that all these were factors shared with other European countries – but England was the one where fascism made least headway. Was this because of special ideological factors at work in England? – or was it, as Alan Howkins suggested, because fascism only succeeded where it filled a gap – where there were no other institutions that addressed the problems that fascism promised to solve?

I gave my paper on Rural Landscapes and Post-War Nightmares, and a couple of people made kind comments about it afterwards, but I wasn’t altogether happy with it. In this context it would have been more useful to have expanded the first half – about returning soldiers’ dreams of Arcadia – and shortened the second, about later fantasies of malign landscapes, a more literary topic, and one where I was sliding away, not very logically, from social history into psychology (and sometimes rather vague psychology, it struck me, as I read it out). Maybe I’ll do a rewrite. Still, in one way, that’s what conferences are for, to try out some ideas and see how they sound.

It was a very international conference. As usual, it was humbling for an essentially monoglot Englishman (who can just about stumble through a very simple conversation in French) to hear a Finn, a Belgian and a Dutchwoman talking about complex matters in an English whose precision would put many of my countrymen and women to shame.

It’s interesting to see the spread of PowerPoint. At least half the talks I heard were accompanied by Powerpoint slide shows, and others used illustrative material on OHTs. At the literary conference I went to in September there were very few uses of PowerPoint, and many talks without any visual accompaniment to speak of. Maybe social history is perceived as a more visual subject (I don’t think it is, necessarily.)

I was looking at uses of PowerPoint because my nephew, who is researching a Ph.D. on problems of educational representation, gave me an excellent book for Christmas. It’s one that he rightly admires, Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte. This book is all about how to make visual presentations of all kinds beautiful and informative, and contains a sustained attack on PowerPoint.

What he objects to in PowerPoint, though, is the simplifying habit of mind encouraged by its standard templates of title and three or four lines of simple text, arranged in fixed hierarchies. As he says, this is a format that is most useful to those who want to make an impact, but have little to say, such as salespersons or educational administrators.

At Royal Holloway, only one person used her PowerPoint in this way, and her talk came over to me at least as rather rigid and schematic, though others who knew more about her subject seemed to like it. Other speakers used PowerPoint in a way that I think Tufte would have approved, as a way of projecting pictures, maps and diagrams that would help the audience to understand the developing argument.

So it’s been a stimulating and useful weekend. I’ve met some pleasant people, and I’ve learnt a lot about social history, and about the current concerns of social history. And I think I’ve learnt as much as I’ll ever need to know about traffic organisation in inter-war Herefordshire.


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