Winch on conversation

Last week I mostly sat at home, watched books by Donald Winch that I’d ordered online pop through the letterbox, and then started to read them. And today I’ve discovered that his 1995 Carlyle Lectures, ‘Secret Concatenations: Mandeville to Malthus’, are available on the web, thanks to the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History. So that’s my Sunday afternoon sorted out.

This is from the opening discussion of the first lecture [pdf] as, following John Burrow, he presents a view of intellectual history as ‘eavesdropping on the conversations of the past’.

An attractive feature of conversations is that we can continue them at the point where our predecessors left them. The only restriction I would place on such freedom, speaking as an intellectual historian, is that the conversations should be between interlocutors who were genuinely aware of each other’s existence and arguments. This rules out those encounters in which the historian acts as ominiscient host at a kind of celestial cocktail party at which those invited only speak to one another through the intermediation of the host — indeed, can only speak through the host because they had no common language in life. I shall appear to break this rule in one respect only, namely by posing some counter-factual questions of my cast in some crucial instances. In other words, having established that a genuine conversation was taking place, I shall sometimes seek to reconstruct what their responses might have been when more direct evidence is unavailable.

Interesting conversations are usually free from the coercive dualisms that tend to be an occupational hazard of much intellectual history devoted to political thinking. Whigs and Tories have long since been replaced by debating teams bearing more sophisticated labels such as contractarians and anti-contractarians, liberals versus classical republicans, civic humanists versus natural jurisprudentialists, and so on — to mention only those dualisms that are current among students of the period and authors I shall be considering. Narratives that purport to be dealing with past social scientific conversations often attempt to enforce another powerful dichotomy — between positive and normative propositions, between statements of fact and statements of value or rights. As already hinted, one of the negative conclusions I would like to emerge from these lectures is that none of my cast was foolish enough to allow their conversations to be constricted by these dualisms. That is something we have done to them in retrospect and for our own purposes, taxonomic or ideological.

One Hundred Things Norman Geras and I Corresponded About Over the Last Decade

Country music (including but not limited to Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss, and its relationship to suicide) — Marxism — The war in Iraq — The case the British government made for the war in Iraq — Media coverage of the war in Iraq — Differences between British and American media coverage of the war in Iraq — Dead socialists (including the question of whether or not Paul Sweezy was in fact dead: he wasn’t when we began corresponding on the question, but later he was) — Favourite novels — University admissions — Boycotts of Israelis — Blog technology issues — The paradox of democracy — Paul “The Thinker” Richards — Defamation law — French headscarves laws — International rugby partisanship — New Zealand and whether it is a dull country — Amnesty International — Italian anti-war demonstrations — Christopher Hitchens — The precise distance from Boulder, CO to Birmingham, AL — My Normblog Profile — The number of Red Sox supporters who have Normblog profiles — Where the Wild Things Are — Bob Dylan — Favourite films — A Mighty Wind — Nashville — Joan Baez — George W. Bush — The Hutton Inquiry — Lucio Colletti — Why the film Life is Beautiful is so terrible — The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — Mobile telephones — Cricket — The various ways in which my students used to pronounce the name “Geras” — Rock stars — Exam marking — Arnold Lobel and his Mouse Tales — The Butler report — The Campo de’ Fiori in Rome — Shakespeare plays — Obnoxious right-wing writers (including Mark Steyn and Andrew Bolt) — American airport security checks — Terrorist threats — Socialist Register — The 2004 US Presidential election — Baseball — Visiting Oxford — Thomas Hobbes — Roman libraries — Classical composers (especially Schubert) — Jokes about rational choice theorists — The Tour de France — Etienne Balibar — Favourite actors — The excellence of kittens (and, more generally, cats) — American street names — Wendy Cope — Footnotes in Capital — Umpiring — Passport applications — Margaret Thatcher’s resignation — Margaret Thatcher’s poetry —  Jews for Justice for Palestinians — Chavez and anti-Semitism — Academic plagiarism — David Aaronovitch as marathon runner — x-RCP front organisations — Robert Wokler — Academic jobs — Musicals — Australia — The rubbish-collection regime in Oxford — Tony Judt — Whether or not the Euston Manifesto was part of a “common, hysterical defense of the Anglo-Dutch financial system, and their permanent right to loot the economies of the world” — American practices of memorialization on campus — Flooding in Oxford — The Beatles — Jerry Cohen’s valedictory lecture — The New Left Review — Loyalty oaths — A Dance to the Music of Time — Merton College, Oxford — Visiting Manchester — Critical opinions about America — Puzzles involving marbles — Traffic robots — The Beach Boys — Tony Blair’s relationship with God — Bernard-Henri Levy looking funny in photographs — Authorisations to use military force — John Stuart Mill on international intervention — The Eurovision Song Contest  — Adam Smith — Nick Cohen’s views about torture — Alfred Hitchcock films — The thorny question of whether seven-times Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was on drugs — The problems of travelling between Oxford and Cambridge.

Biggest regret? In July 2004, Norm wrote, “Might you have an interest in watching a Test or some part of one with me?”, and I never took him up on the suggestion.

His final words of the correspondence, from the start of this month: “My own care from the NHS has been exemplary.”

Lewis Carroll, Photographer

Anne, in comments below, reminds me that this weekend is, apparently, Alice Weekend here in Oxford. That would explain why there’s a rather good picture of the Mock Turtle just inside the Bodleian Library this week.

Lewis Carroll didn’t just write the Alice books, of course. He also liked to take photographs of young girls–a subject on which Kate Middleton, curiously enough, is an authority, as it was the subject of her undergraduate dissertation at St Andrews. Here’s one of them:

And these are three of my great-great aunts: Honor, Evelyn, and Olive Brooke. (Photo reproduced from over here.)

Honor, the oldest girl here, is the one I’m interested in. She first crossed my radar screen when I came across a footnote in Yvonne Kapp’s classic life of Eleanor Marx, reporting that Brooke, Marx and Edith Lees (later Mrs Havelock Ellis) addressed a rally to support the strike in Silvertown on 29 November 1889. I don’t know anything else about any connection she had to Marx, outside of the information reported in this post, but she was for a time very close to Lees, with Havelock Ellis writing that, “I do not know how they met, but I know that Miss Brooke, with a self-sacrificing devotion and skill that called out Edith’s deep love, nursed her back to health” after a nervous breakdown. And she features in a passage by Lees that is occasionally reprinted in studies of late ninteenth-century feminism:

How well I remember, after the first performance of Ibsen’s drama [A Doll’s House] in London, with Janet Achurch as Nora, when a few of us collected outside the theater breathless with excitement. Olive Schreiner was there and Dolly Radford the poetess, Dr. Alice Corthorn, Honor Brooke (Stopford Brooke’s eldest daughter,) Mrs. Holman Hunt and Eleanor Marx. We were restive and impetuous and almost savage in our arguments. This was either the end of the world or the beginning of a new world for women. What did it mean? Was there hope or despair in the banging of that door? Was it life or death for women? Was it joy or sorrow for men? Was it revelation or disaster? We almost cantered home. I remember that I was literally prostrate with excitement because of the new revelation.

Edith Lees / Ellis later wrote a novel, Attainment, with a lightly fictionalised account of the Brooke family in it, ‘Stanley Evans’ a barely disguised Stopford Brooke–who, I have now come to realise, was basically the Rev. Giles Fraser of his day (though he doesn’t come out of the novel especially well).

It’s not, however, a terribly good novel, all things considered. Here is a typical passage, from one of the heroine’s letters home, after she has recently fallen in with ‘Robert Dane’, i.e., William Morris:

I came to Stanley Evans to help to reform the masses. I must be on the verge of delirium, for I feel that the masses are reforming me. I am ashamed to go and offer my patronage any more to these desperately tired people. I try to shake myself free from the convictions that are creeping over me, but they won’t go. Who is Karl Marx, Daddy? What does he know about the poor?

Bonus Kate Middleton-themed bit of trivia (since this has ended up being a post about Victorian feminist aunts): she’s Harriet Martineau’s great-great-great-great-great niece. (Ah–I see in fact that the Daily Telegraph has covered this already, reporting that there is ‘more than a passing resemblance’, apparently.)

Oxford West and Abingdon

Like many other people, I thought Evan Harris was safe in Oxford West and Abingdon. There was a reason for thinking he might not be: the constituency boundaries had been redrawn to include less of Oxford and its student-heavy city centre, and more of the outlying Tory villages, but I was inclined to discount the importance of this. In general, the Lib Dems looked good in the polls, and, in particular, polling in marginals suggested that their vote was holding up well against the Tories. Harris’ majority was a healthy 7,683. And the Conservative candidate clearly looked like a bit of an idiot. So, as I say, I thought he was safe.

If I’d really thought he was in danger, I might have voted tactically on the day to try and save him. After all, I’m a not-terribly-tribal tribal Labour person (just as Andromache – who left a dead mouse in our bed this morning – is a not-terribly-wild wild animal). I voted in the Compass ballot to endorse the issuing of a statement in support of anti-Conservative tactical voting, and, more generally, I think the Lib Dems are a less toxic political formation than the Conservatives. If politics really were just about choosing between them, then it wouldn’t be difficult to choose.

But I voted Labour instead, and I learned later in the evening that – basically – it’s people like me who denied Harris his victory. Harris lost by a minuscule 176 votes, and there were almost six thousand Labour votes, so only 3% of those Labour supporters had to switch their votes, in order for him to be safe. And, as time passes, I’m more and more glad I cast the vote I did.

I’ve heard that on election day, the Lib Dems were sending their local activists into Oxford East to help defeat the local Labour MP Andrew Smith, thinking that Evan Harris had the OxWAb election in the bag. And Labour supporters in OxWAb who might be tempted to vote for the Lib Dems need to be clear about this. If we cast an effective anti-Tory tactical vote in this constituency by voting for Evan Harris, what we are doing is helping to provide support for the Lib Dem anti-Labour campaign in the next constituency along. It’s much better for the Labour Party in Oxford that OxWAb is highly marginal between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and that this constituency sucks in as much campaigning effort as possible from the Lib Dems, so that we can concentrate on the important stuff, like winning Oxford East and controlling the City Council. (And, yes, both goals were achieved in Thursday’s election.)

There’s a tweet going round that reads like this:

A curious statistic: Oxford’s combined vote: LD: 41087 Con: 33633 Lab: 27937. One Con MP, one Lab MP. #electoralreform

On the face of it, that’s not a bad argument in support of some kind of reformed voting system — and, in general, I support some kind of reformed voting system. But appearances can be misleading. The Lib Dem raw total, for example, includes both those Labour supporters who cast a tactical pro-Harris vote in OxWAb and those Tory and Green supporters who cast a tactical anti-Smith vote in Oxford East. And so on. We live in a system that encourages tactical voting, as first-choices will so often not be available – so it’s tricky to use the numbers thrown up by that system straightforwardly as evidence for its unfairness.

What we can say is that a set of elections were held on Thursday in Oxford – in two parliamentary constituencies and in every ward for the City Council. The parties fought the elections on the same terms as each other, and under the same rules, and all of the local parties had plausible aspirations: the bigger parties to win parliamentary seats, and the Greens to win seats on the City Council. Those local parties pursued particular tactics and strategies to try to maximise their electoral gains, and the choices they made shaped the outcome of those elections. And those elections threw up a very clear winner — the Labour Party — and a very clear loser — the Lib Dems. The Oxford Lib Dems misunderstood what was going on around them and they over-reached, making a set of bad political choices. They thought they could win everything, and instead they won nothing. And, yes, the voting system has punished them, but not – it seems to me – unfairly.

I’d reach for the language of hubris and nemesis, but these are the Lib Dems we’re talking about, and for them (especially today, of all days, as they engage in talks with the Tories to put David Cameron into Downing St) the appropriate language isn’t that of tragedy.

It’s comedy: hahahahahaha.

People’s Republic of Jericho

Votes in the Jericho & Osney ward here in Oxford have just been counted:

Susanna Pressel (Labour) 1793 votes ELECTED
Catherine Hilliard (Lib Dem) 769 votes
Bill Wilson (Conservative) 513 votes
Kaihsu Tai (Green) 311 votes.

And, once again, results in Oxford are going against the national trend, and it looks as if the local Labour party is going to be consolidating its grip on the City Council.

If you’re curious about why Andrew Smith held on comfortably in Oxford East (despite the fact that the Lib Dem challenger was really quite good) and the Lib Dems crashed and burned in OxWAb (where the Tory challenger was clearly bonkers), then Don Paskini has a very plausible explanation. It certainly rings true to me: in two decades or so of writing to MPs, Evan Harris has been easily the worst correspondent with whom I’ve ever had to deal, and constituents remember this kind of thing.