Tuesday, 27 March 2012

John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift Hundred

John Hargrave and the Kibbo Kift Hundred remain largely absent from the collective historical memory of this country; and when the man and his movement do figure it is usually as historical comedic material worthy of the pen of P. G. Wodehouse. Judge Smith, genial co-founder of Van der Graaf Generator, feels this to be an injustice of sorts, and based on the sizeable number of people shoehorned into the room above the Wheatsheaf pub in Rathbone Place to hear him talk on the subject, he is not alone. Judge was speaking to the Sohemian Society, although I am not entirely clear about the precise connection between Hargrave and Soho. Judge offered a succinct history of the KK and its leader, and supplemented his talk with some astounding visuals.

No one should deny that there is much that is comic about this; wearing smocks and stomping about Epping Forest could never be anything other than funny, but there is something else of substance here. To start with Hargrave: he seemed to me to be a familiar figure in some ways - it would be quite wrong to dismiss him as a minor 30s demagogue in an already crowded field, but I have to say that he did seem convinced of the rightness of his cause and was not afraid to use a formidable personality to get his own way. Thus a recognisable personality type, and, on the face of it, a fairly straightforward task to incorporate him into the historical record. Not so the movement he led; it seems to resist the usual analysis, especially in the Green Shirts phase - was it a movement of the Left or the Right? Or both? Judge suggested that among historians the matter was contentious, and I can quite believe it. I personally also detected elements of that long tradition of English pastoralism which persists to this day: think of the Diggers, Thomas Spence and his plans for land reform, William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement; you might even include the astounding punk band Crass with their commitment to communal living and deep attachment to the land and self-sufficiency.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Dr Ian Mortimer and some Krautrock

Of personal note was attending a recent talk at Waterstone's in Picadilly by Dr Ian Mortimer, the prolific historian and author. Dr Mortimer spoke about his new book, The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England, with characteristic fluency and brio, and I believe that a good evening was had by all. His assured performance and command of his subject was no surprise to me: back in the late 1990s I shared an office with Ian when we worked at the Historical Manuscripts Commission in Quality Court. I think back to those days with great fondness; I don't think a day went by without the pair of us vigorously testing our ideas about history, its meanings, sources, the pleasure of research and writing. Ian was always going to do well; allied to a fertile mind (I read several draft chapters from works that have since appeared in print) was that crucial element that is so often lacking in many would-be authors - an iron determination to succeed in his chosen sphere. A generous man Ian, as well; I remember one impromptu gathering at his place in Stoke Newington where he knocked together a fine meal for eight or nine of his HMC colleagues - it must have set him back a small fortune, but he didn't bat an eyelid. All this, and he's a big fan of Krautrock and Can in particular! I'll always be grateful to him for lending me his copy of Julian Cope's Krautrocksampler; a fine read - why isn't it in print?

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Bank of England Archives

Most historians and researchers that I know always find their first visit to an archival repository an interesting experience. Contrary to the usual descriptions in the media (presumably there must be some statute that requires journalists always to use the words 'dusty' and 'archives' in the same sentence) the majority of archival collections are housed in clean and very carefully maintained conditions, but most repositories do seem to have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. A recent research commission took me to the Bank of England archives for the first time, and I felt a keen sense of anticipation about the whole thing. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street did not disappoint, although I was surprised by the discreet entrance; a small and unassuming door and lobby rather than the dramatic Grand Central Station-type glory that I had fixed in my mind.

I am unable to comment on the research I was undertaking because of commercial confidentiality, but suffice it to say that I found the material tantalising rather than revelatory: a series of clues, hints and casual allusions unwittingly left by long-dead correspondents who rather thoughtlessly did not have me personally in mind when writing. There are many differences between the working papers of a business or organisation and the personal papers of an individual, but a key distinction, it seems to me, is the fact that however comprehensive they might be, the former can only ever constitute recorded fragments of a greater commercial process, the nature of which the creators of the records did not need to explain because so much would have been implicitly understood by all those involved. Thus it is that rather than the revealing personal letter or intimate diary that reveals much of the inner mind at a certain point, we are left with documents that are full of cryptic comments, obscure commercial phraseology and baffling columns of figures: only the initiate can really extract the full meaning and infer the importance or otherwise of this stuff; to the rest of us it is hard going to say the least. I also got the sense of incomplete documentary survival (some incredibly rich and full files in places, inexplicably sparse in others), although I don't mean to suggest some sinister plot on behalf of the Bank to deprive the historian of the raw materials of his art. Historians are always apt to grouse about records that deliberately haven't been kept or have been lost, without stopping to think that some papers really are just too routine in nature to retain for ever. And who among the armies of clerks working for the Bank of England in the twentieth century were drudging away with the future writing of history in mind? I'd say that, as with their modern counterparts now, they were more concerned with surviving the essential futility of white-collar work.