Or, where was I…. when the dead woman smiled at me? It was last week, on Rotten Row, cycling to work.
Sometimes you start writing something, put your pen down because it’s not really playing out, or other things intervene, and then you never pick it up again.
Where was I… when I put the pen down? istr it was about the time I went to the Wyndham Lewis ballet and was listening to a lot of improv jazz.
Where was I? Well never mind. Where am I now? Here are some good things I read in the last week.
Everyone has now read the piece on the apparently pointless footbridge across the interstate in Minneapolis, but it is good, so I’m bookmarking it here. why’s it good?
it’s good because it shows the productive value of asking questions about the detail of history, and doesn’t give up until its as satisfied as it can be that the detail and reasoning is correct; look at all the responses and memories the writer’s quixotic journey has produced! it’s also good because it shows how our built, social, emotional, intellectual environments are littered with items just like this – bridges connecting spaces for no apparent reason, oxbow lakes of irrationality that once were connected with the flow of meaning around them.
Finally it’s good because, connected with the first point really, it’s what I might call proper history. It does the spadework. It’s stubborn. It doesn’t take the easy reason when one is available. Where matters are undetermined, it keeps going, where they are overdetermined, it looks for the vital threads and sifts.
That connects it with this other good piece, by Anton Howes, on the reproducibility crisis in history:
Taken to an extreme, the implications of this piece might be considered too puritanical for any history to be conducted at all. After all it is an interpretative discipline, based on available evidence. And, as Burrow details well in his historiographic book, A History of Histories, that interpretation and presentation is like most things subject to explicit and implicit expressoins of ideology. Or as the classic GCSE marginal comment on primary evidence goes: It is bias.
It had me nodding and agreeing with vim, though; not only do factoids litter the path of historical understanding and clog up the channels of its thought, they often come, as the article details, from inside the house. This is particularly the case with the more popular and journalistic efforts in the field, whose mode gives them every latitude for intellectual sloppiness.
Generally it’s fair to say I read extremely warily and on the alert. For what? For stuff that isn’t right, for stuff I think needs examining further by customs before being deposited in my brainpan. A search for contraband epistemic goods being snuck in amidst otherwise innocuous freight.
It’s generally the tone that first sets you going. Your antennae start vibrating, you become wary. You start saying things like really? says who? Every invisibly asserted generalisation only makes things worse.
As I say, the journalistic mode seems particularly culpable: shortcuts, avoiding asking the hard questions, bypassing mental inquisition by using description, only going two layers down, whatever.
So, to balance it out, two very good recent features (and good feature writing, as William E Blundell’s excellent The Art and Craft of Feature Writing shows, is a skill, and not just with the typrewriter, pen or laptop):
Jennifer Williams is disliked by some on the left for occasionally expressed Opinions but does good journalism (inability to separate the two, always vexed tbf, and made worse by some of its practitioners, does seem for many online to have come decisively down on the side of journalism being entirely tainted by the fact there’s a person behind it): recently the Teesside Freeport corruption scandal, and this excellent piece on a year at Newman Roman Catholic College secondary school in Oldham.
And a Thing I Learned or relearned or something recently – and you may not have heard this – is that The New Yorker is really a very good magazine with consistently high quality features. I felt it strongly while and immediately after reading this feature on Country Music’s Culture Wars and the Remaking of Nashville.
The dead woman was Hilary Mason, recognised immediately as one of the two questionably malign psychics in Don’t Look Now, named later with a quick google. She was cycling towards me, and turned a very sunny smile on me and me alone as she passed. As if to say ‘you shall be with us soon’. Or perhaps, ‘With our special insight of the future from our vantage point of the dead, we can see unforeseeable fortune coming your way.’ Either way, I remained pre-occupied with the experience well into Holland Park.