Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Train Reading - Introducing C R Fay's Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century

Traditionally, my train reading has focused on books that I haven't read before selected almost at random from my shelves. It's a way of breaking out of immediate thought patterns, forcing me to look at something old (many of my books are quite old) but still new to me.

In recent months, my focus has narrowed to immediate preoccupations. One morning, dissatisfied, I grabbed C R Fay's Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century Life, being the substance of lectures delivered at Cambridge University in the year 1919 to students of economics, among whom were officers of the Royal Navy and students from the Army of the United States, (Cambridge University Press, 1920).

The book is, as the title suggests, based on a series of lectures. It reads that way. It's more a series of essays. Its also a somewhat pedantic, even fussy, book. Or perhaps its Professor Fay who was a little fussy and pedantic. Certainly he seems to have had a somewhat difficult personality.

You get a good feel for this from Professor Doug Munro's well written review of Hugh Gault's 2011 biography of Fay, The Quirky Dr Fay: A Remarkable Life. The photo of Fay comes from the much later period when he was invited to give a series of lectures by the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Munro's review begins:
Old historians, like old soldiers, don’t die; they simply fade away. A paradox of the historical profession is the widespread disregard shown towards ancestors. We all aspire to write groundbreaking work that will pass the test of time, but the sad truth is a given monograph will have a short shelf life and quickly join what G. M. Trevelyan called ‘the great unread’
To support this view, one that I agree with, he quotes Neil Jumonville::
History is really, ironically, the least grateful of disciplines … it’s difficult for a historian to be remembered for his history. Historians tend to after 20 or 30 years, after a book is published, to throw it on the proverbial dust bin. And we don’t read our old historians like those in literature read their old greats. I mean in the field of history, we’re far more embarrassed by our past than we should be. You know, we don’t look back to our Melvilles or to our Emersons like those in literature do. And so really ironically, history is one of the least historical of the humanities in that respect.
I think that there is a simple reason for this great forgetting. History is written in and of the present.The topics we select and the questions we ask are determined by present concerns and attitudes. Old things are put aside, rejected as no longer relevant, outdated, even embarrassing.  In that way, history is indeed the most a-historical of the disciplines.  

In a way, I struggle with this every day as I try to break free from the bounds set by current thought patterns. Of course, this is not true just of history. It holds equally true for public policy, for example, something I often rail about. The present acts as a deep drag on new thought. However, it is especially true of the writing of history.

In researching and writing, I often find myself saying I don't want to write about that. People expect me to do so because the topic or question is seen as relevant, important, to current concerns, whereas my reaction is that its just not important to what I want to say. If  don't mention it I will be criticised, my views may simply be rejected out of hand. But if I do focus on it, my story will be distorted.

I didn't start reading the older histories such as Fay's with conscious intent. I just decided that I had a lot of older unread books that had belonged to my father or grandfather. Many I had thrown out or lost in multiple moves, something I now deeply regret. With those remaining, I decided to train read them to force myself to look at something new (old).

This proved to be one of the better decisions of my life. From history books through memoirs to polemical and biased travel books, I have found myself wending my way along paths that I would never have found. I accept that this is very much a minority sport; you have to have a strange mind to go this path, to read and try to understand something that now seems so dated.

In all, its been remarkably liberating. Fay's book is a case in point. The questions he asked, the views he took for granted as self-evident at the time, are different from those holding now. However, they proved to be still relevant today, perhaps more relevant because so much has been dropped out. 

Consider a very small point. Today we talk about the importance of evidence based public policy. It is, it seems, a very new thing, something that we have recently learned to do, if not always very well. Well, blow me down, Fay talks specifically about the importance of evidence based public policy. Indeed, his whole book is, in a way, focused on just that topic. An economic historian, he looks at change over the nineteenth century through a lens set in part by the interaction between trends in thought and official inquiries. 

Well, time to move on. I haven't finished with C R Fay, but that's all I have time for this morning.   




Anonymous said...

I remember this guy from my adventures in economic history; rather offbeat.


Jim Belshaw said...

He is indeed, DG,but he actually writes rather well.

Dr Purva Pius said...
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