Saturday, November 04, 2017

Saturday Morning Musings - cleaning out my library

It is almost two months since my last report (Writing preoccupations - Vikings, History awards, Native Title, Roman villas and New England architecture) on my current reading and writing preoccupations. I thought that I should provide you with an update, recognising that my blogging continues to be a little irregular. I also thought that it might be a break from some of the current political preoccupations.

I have been cleaning out my books. Those books are the joy of my life as well as a key professional resource, but I am probably moving and cannot take them all with me. While my library is well down from its peak, I had the best part of 10,000 books, it is still very substantial in multiple bookcases and book boxes. Many of those books have been badly damaged in multiple moves, but they are still precious.

Have I read all those books? No, but that's also been part of the fun. Many of the books are older, some quite old, because they come from my father's and grandfather's libraries. There is a lot of fiction, but the collection is mainly non-fiction, a melange of authors and topics spread over two hundred years. Both topics and writing styles vary enormously, reflecting the interests and cultures at the time of publication. In some cases, I can take a single topic and compare attitudes and writing at multiple points in time over time.

My train reading series of posts began because I was picking books from my shelves at random that I had not read and then making myself finish them, The finishing part was important. I had to do that even when I disagreed with the ideas or found the writing boring because it was part of the game. The result was something of an education, an increase in tolerance, an understanding of difference.

In my current book sort, I have been putting books in piles for possible throw-out. One was Wing Commander Asher Lee's Blitz on Britain, a second Oluf Reed-Olsen's Two Eggs on My Plate.

Blitz on Britain (Four Square paperback, 1960) was published to coincide with the telemovie of the same name. The photo shows pilots running to their plans.

I almost put this book into the bin without re-reading, but then thought that I should read it. I am glad I did. Asher Lee know his stuff!

 The tone of the book is reasonably unsentimental. The writer's sentiments are clear, but the dedication shows that he could stand aside from some of the emotion that surrounds the events of the time.
This book is dedicated to the pilots of both air forces, those of the German Air Force and those of the Royal Air Force. On different days and in different ways they fought against odds with skill, courage and devotion.  
I found the book interesting Lee is able to show events in context on both sides of the Channel. He includes statistical data on things like relative aircraft production. Perhaps the most unexpected message is that the Battle of Britain was by no means the uneven fight, a triumph against overwhelming odds, as conventionally presented.

On the German side, the Germans had to bring their air force up to newly created bases in occupied territory to allow sustained attacks on Britain. This took time. The Luftwaffe was also involved on several fronts, making it more difficult to concentrate resources, a difficulty compounded by strategic confusions. The total number of German planes was substantial, but these were spread across multiple types meaning that the number of a particular type was limited.

The feared Stuka Dive bomber with its iconic siren was used to effect early in the war but suffered from a major weakness, its slow speed compared to fighters. It was used over Britain, but high losses meant that it had to be defended by fighters. This lead to its withdrawal from service in that theatre, reducing the number of available German planes.

On the British side, British military aircraft production had been increasing to the point that it was matching German production. The British also developed air defence systems that allowed them to track in-coming German planes. The big initial problem was shortage of trained pilots. Planes could be replaced, experienced pilots were in short supply.

Here Lee makes a very interesting point about the German experience. The Luftwaffe began with a larger solid cadre of experienced pilots. As the war proceeded, accumulating pilot losses began to degrade the Luftwaffe's offensive capacity quite quickly.

I put Lee's book in the bin.  I was glad that I had read it, but could always borrow it.            

Oluf Reed-Olsen's Two Eggs on My Plate is a more personal story, a story of a Norwegian resistance fighter during the Second World War. The title comes from the habit of giving people who where about to go on mission from England into occupied Europe two eggs on their plate at the final meal. Eggs were in short supply, so this was seen as a signal and reward.

I had read this book many times, but many years before. I read it again with enjoyment (it's a boys own style yarn) and then put it in the bin.

Reading both books reminded me of two things in particular. The first was the passage of time.

I grew up in an era when the Second World War was very close. War stories were common and popular. Now the war has receded into history and become the subject of nostalgia pieces such as ITV's Home FiresFoyle's War and The Halcyon. Perhaps nostalgia is the wrong word, but you know what I mean,

There is something a little odd in the way that so many of the decades from the forties on have progressively become the subject of nostalgia. Nostalgia for particular periods is not new, but we do seem to make a welter of it today. Is it just because populations are aging in many countries, creating a desire to reach back?

The second thing thing was the extent and nature of changing sensibilities. I chose that now old fashioned word quite deliberately. It has two almost contrasted meanings. One is the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity. The second encapsulated in that Jane Austen title Sense and Sensibility is a quality of delicate sensitivity that makes one liable to be offended or shocked..

Each generation has its own sensibilities using both meanings.Each generation assumes that its sensibilities are correct, an assumption challenged by subsequent social and cultural changes. The current age is one of high and complex sensibilities with an especial focus on the second meaning. There are just so many things that offend or shock us. .
My type of reading forces me to confront differing sensibilities. The sensibilities displayed by Asher Lee or Oluf Reed-Olsen are familiar, if different from today's. J L Myres' The Dawn of History is a little different.

The book was first published in 1911 and proved very popular. My copy, a Home University Library edition from 1933, is the tenth reprint. The first page shows it was a second hand book originally owned by M Broadhurst  and sold for 1/6. The writing on the first page in my father's hand says J Belshaw, NEUC (New England University College), Armidale NSW Sept 38.  So it was purchased by my father in his first year in Armidale and just one year before the Second World War broke out.

I had not heard of J L Myres and therefore had to look him up.

Wikipedia records that Sir John Linton Myres (1969-1954) was a British archaeologist who conducted excavations in Cyprus in 1904. In 1910 he became the first Wykeham Professor of Ancient History at the University of Oxford, having been Gladstone Professor of Greek and Lecturer in Ancient Geography, University of Liverpool from 1907. At Oxford, he highly influenced the British-Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe.  In addition to his academic writings, he contributed to the British Naval Intelligence Division Geographical Handbook Series that was published during the Second World War.

I almost gave this book up in Chapter One. "We have only to glance at a globe or a general map", Myres wrote, "to realise that as matter of fact almost all historians have confined their attention to a few quite small regions of the world "  Very large areas have little or not historical literature. The reason for this, Myres suggests, "is obvious; there is little or nothing there in the way of human achievement for the historian to write about." Myres then presents a stylised version of cultural types - hunter gatherer, pastoral and agricultural/industrial; civilisation begins, history dawns, with the last beginning in the Middle East. Myres is a geographical determinism and a believer in the big man school of history. He also uses racial descriptors.    

Most current readers would have put the book aside at this point as I was tempted to do. I still use the now old fashioned term prehistory to distinguish between history based primarily on written records and that based primarily on other sources where written records are not available, but this is a methodological distinction.

In my own writing on the history of New England, the first part of the draft book deals with Aboriginal New England up to 1788. In evidence terms, this relies particularly on archaeological evidence supplemented by the ethnographic record. In my mind, this is just as much history as later sections. However,  in writing, I do use the term prehistory at spots where it has particular relevance to the previous study of New England history.    

I digress. I think that part of the reason I objected so strongly to some of Professor Myres' early remarks is that simplistic models of human society are still around and deeply embedded, including especially ideas about the "primitive' nature of hunter gather societies  Like Childe and indeed me, Myres is a synthesizer and model builder. This aids interpretation and the asking of new questions, but in the end new evidence makes fools of us all.

Take this review by  Kambiz Kamrani in Anthropology,net, Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.  In 2009 the first DNA was extracted from the bone of a Neanderthal, In the eight years since, everything we thought we knew about the human past has been turned on ts head. A line has been drawn in fire though multiple compendiums of human thought and belief.

I kept reading because I had to, my rules required it, and in the end was glad that I did. This was partly because my reactions reflected my own sensibilities. Take the racial categorisations. So far at least, they appear to be used as descriptors that reflect prevailing views, but without any overlays of superiority or inferiority. More importantly, Myles' focus on geography and on relationships between groups is in some ways quite modern and creates clear pictures that I found interesting and helpful.

I will reread earlier sections of the book because I am interested in changing thought patterns. However, I want to look again at the way he approaches geography  I am not a geographic or environmental determinist. However, geography is important, and I have been wrestling with the question of the best way of bringing it alive, of integrating it into the narrative in a way that makes it part of the story for readers who know nothing about the area I am writing about. Given all this, I have added the book to the keep pile, at least for the moment.  .  


marcellous said...

Moving? Oh no!

Anonymous said...

There is an annexe of JDB books at Queanbeyan. Thoughts?

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Sue. There is indeed. Will email you. No firm date yet marcellous, but at some point. Getting myself ready so that I can move when the time is right