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#insomniacademics

One of the interesting side-effects of spending a reasonable amount of time on Twitter is the sense it gives you of the rhythms of global activity. Of course one gets an inkling of this from the way that the internet gets unmistakably slower from mid-afternoon in the UK, when the bulk of the US East Coast has woken up, and almost unusable by the time California logs on, but it’s far more noticeable when you follow a decent number of people and can get a sense of the timing of their bursts of activity. I’m sure there must be exciting ways of rendering my Twitter feed in graphical form (albeit well beyond my technical capabilities), so I could see shifting colours and patterns as the twittering line follows the dawn westwards, with new voices waking up and then fading away fourteen hours or so later – until the dead hours, around 5 am, when most of the US people I follow have gone to bed and the Europeans haven’t got started yet. Which is really a sign that I need to start following more people in Australasia and Asia, to keep the feed ticking over and give me something to read once I’ve finished catching up on the Yanks – any recommendations?

Of course, the dead hours are not wholly dead in the UK; they’re roamed by those whom I decided some time around 6.30 this morning, two hours after giving up on trying to sleep, to name the insomniacademics Continue Reading »

Personally Speaking

Given that they possess astonishingly super-sensitive, multi-directional hearing, as detailed in a series of television programmes this week, you might think that the sodding cats would hear that it is pouring with rain this morning, and so go back to sleep for a bit rather than prodding me at 5 am until I get up and open the catflap so that they can poke their noses outside, stomp around angrily for half an hour because it’s raining and I’m refusing to do anything about it, and then go back to bed. I find it more or less impossible to go back to sleep once I’m awake, whatever ghastly hour of the morning it may be, and so I’ve already had two cups of tea, caught up on Twitter, cleaned up the kitchen after yesterday’s brewing session and transferred the experimental Blackcurrant Stout into the fermenting bin before sitting down to contemplate Tony Keen’s fascinating piece yesterday on the personal voice in classical blogging.

Okay, quick readers’ poll: did your reaction to the previous paragraph tend more towards “for goodness’ sake stop wittering and talk about something with a bit of substance” or towards “please tell us more of the home life of a professor of ancient history and his cats”? Continue Reading »

An Exemplary History

Passing name-check for Thucydides in this morning’s Grauniad, as the first example of a historian seeking to draw general lessons for the present from the past, in David Armitage‘s plea for politicians and government to pay more attention to historians in making sense of the world and hence make better policy. The effect was slightly spoiled, at least for me, by the fact that the next sentence mentioned Cicero’s line about ‘history the teacher of life, as it instantly brought to mind Reinhart Koselleck’s brilliant article about the dissolution of the historia magistra vitae topos in the modern era – an article I tend to reference at the drop of a hat partly because of the wonderful Thucydides anecdote with which it opens (which I’ve now quoted often enough to give it a rest now) but partly because of its incisive analysis of the modern consciousness of time and change – which, sadly for Armitage’s article, explains precisely why politicians don’t feel much urge to consult historians on anything important, and tend to get annoyed with them when they do. Continue Reading »

As readers of my Twitter feed will have been unable to ignore, I’ve spent the last two days at a conference in Cambridge in honour of Paul Cartledge, How to Do Things with History: a fantastic occasion with a glittering line-up of speakers – just a small selection of all Paul’s former students, colleagues and friends (overlapping categories, obviously) – engaging with a range of topics that reflected different aspects of his work, from Sparta and Marxism to Athenian political thought and practice, always with a hefty dose of theoretical sophistication. I was very flattered to be asked to chair a session, and so able to feel that I was in a very small way contributing to the event – including, once it became obvious that all the sessions were going to over-run even when the discussion was policed as rigorously as possible, being very self-restrained in not abusing chair’s privilege to trot out my own anecdotes and personal tribute. Then, during Paul’s speech after dinner, it was time for the discreet use of a handkerchief when he actually alluded to one of these incidents; and, as it does add a little to the wealth of examples of his extraordinary generosity to pretty well everyone he ever taught, I thought I’d take the opportunity to tell a fuller version of the story here… Continue Reading »

Parting of the Ways

Unlike certain other historians and classicists, I’m not proposing to offer my ha’penny worth on the Scottish Question, for all that it would probably do temporary wonders for my visitor stats. Rather, I run the risk of annoying people on both sides by declining, and/or being unable, to choose. I can see merits in the arguments of both sides, as well as serious flaws; I can feel something of the emotional and cultural charge of both; I have been inspired and energised, in quite contradictory ways, by passionate voices on both sides; and I am all too aware of how far my own situation and interests influence my evaluation of the debate – which is to say that, if I were living in Scotland and so actually had a vote, I suspect I would still be undecided, even at this late stage, but in rather different ways from my current uncertainty. It is, one might say, the stance of the typical historian; congenitally incapable of not seeing how complicated, ambiguous and uncertain everything is.

What I did want to comment on was a remark in one of the letters in the Grauniad this morning, addressing the article on Scotland and its relation with the Tories by Tom Devine.

Tom Devine seems to show that while historians are good at analysing the past, they are no better than the rest of us in making political judgements about the present or the future.

Well, yes. Continue Reading »

I Have A Dream…

I dream of a better world. A world in which academics can be trusted to take a visiting speaker out to dinner without blowing the entire school budget on hookers and gin, or indeed inventing entirely fictional visiting speakers in order to create a plausible opportunity to spend the university’s money irresponsibly on personal pleasure. Sadly we do not live in such a world, or at least that’s the only reasonable conclusion from the fact that I have had to fill out a load of forms to prove the existence of each visiting speaker, establish his/her academic credentials and explain why we’re wasting valuable time inviting them to the department, and justifying giving them dinner – and another set of forms to beg for an exemption from using the university catering service, who wouldn’t be in a position to provide a quick dinner for such a speaker in any case. Academic behaviour in the past must have been pretty dubious to have inspired the creation of these rules; we can only try to control our appetite for luxury and self-indulgence in future…

Tip of the Tail

The thoroughly wonderful avant-pop-electro-folk duo Trwbador have just released their second album, Several Wolves (which you should all rush off and buy*), and I was struck by a remark from guitarist and producer Owain Gwilym: “I know this album has done way better than the last because it was pirated within 24 hours and is now on about 300 pirate websites“. And that’s good? I asked him. Apparently yes: unless you’re a really successful mega-band, record sales are basically a loss leader: the real sources of income come either from things that can’t easily be copied (live performance) or from people who can’t get away with not paying (national media, advertisers). The record is now a means of advertising the product rather than the product itself.

Partly because I’m in the final throes of getting a book ready for publication (the 600-page Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides), this led me to reflect on parallels and comparisons with academic publishing. One obvious conclusion is that we academics were well ahead of the game; while there are still plenty of musicians complaining loudly that music piracy is robbing them of a living, I doubt if we academics have ever thought that royalties on academic publications would give us a steady income, or recompense us for even a modicum of the time and labour invested in writing and editing them. Continue Reading »

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