Gentlemen and Players: Further Thoughts from the State of Maritime Historical Research Conference 2017
One of the issues floating around at the fringes of the Greenwich conference on 9 September, the thrust of which can be found in my previous blogpost, was that of the perceived division in maritime history between ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ practitioners. This came up in one form or another in some of the papers, but more so in the chat around Queen Anne Court during the conference breaks. I hesitate to summarise genuinely held beliefs to what may be the point of caricature, but at least some so-called ‘amateurs’ in the maritime history world sometimes regard themselves as marginalised, excluded from peer-reviewed journals and academic conferences, looked down upon by a distant, aloof elite holding university posts, or else with comfortable sinecures in certain national museums. In the Society for Nautical Research, the co-host of the conference, much of this sense of exclusion has focused on the society’s journal, The Mariner’s Mirror, which, since its inception in 1911, has been the UK’s, if not the world’s, most distinguished outlet for maritime historical research. In its early days, and in some respects up until the 1980s, the Mirror published pretty well anything that was submitted to it, and thus contained a fascinating range of material, from the globally important to the unbelievably arcane and obscure – and, it has to be said, to the downright wrong as well. But the arrival of peer review changed the nature of the Mirror, and many regret the passing of its old breadth (and, yes, sometimes wildly variable quality) in favour of much greater, but arguably blander, academic rigour.
Now, of course, this perceived division between amateur and professional practitioners, the ‘gentlemen’ and the ‘players’ in sporting terms, isn’t unique to maritime history, nor even to History per se, but it’s not far off: by definition, it’s not really possible to be an amateur nuclear physicist, nor an amateur brain surgeon, nor an amateur psychiatrist. (Although in the latter case, as we all know, that rarely stops the bloke next to you in the pub, nor your hairdresser, nor your significant other.) But History is a subject which everybody, without exception, can approach, can get something from, and perhaps, in the fullness of time, can become expert in. If I had five pounds for every conversation I’ve ever had which went along the lines of ‘I hated History at school, but now I read nothing else’, I’d be a very rich man indeed; while the person I’ve met in my lifetime who’d read the most History books – and I mean everything, from every period, or so it seemed to me at the time – was not some Regius Professor, but an old guy (i.e. probably the age I now am…) with no formal qualifications whatsoever, who worked in the scrap recycling plant where I earned some spare cash during one of my summer vacations. When he learned that I was an Oxford History undergraduate, he was keen to engage me in debate about the views of Tawney and Hobsbawm, only to be bitterly disappointed to discover that he might have read all of their work, but I hadn’t…
Coming back to the present debate, several of the most formidably expert naval historians I know have no doctorates, in some cases no degrees at all, and/or have never held posts at universities. I’m not going to embarrass them by naming them, but they’ve made themselves world authorities in their fields by dint of sheer hard work over a long period of time, and to describe such individuals as ‘amateurs’ is, frankly, a gross insult to them, and an equally gross misuse of the word. Moreover, let’s not forget that on what seems to be the modern definition, several of the greatest practitioners of maritime history who ever lived would now also be classified as ‘amateurs’. Sir Julian Corbett had a degree in law, not History, wrote several novels, worked as a journalist, and never held an academic position at a university; neither did R C Anderson, whose astonishingly wide-ranging work would put any modern scholar to shame. Although some will dismiss such examples as ancient history, not relevant to the modern academic world, it is at least possible that other times had a rather healthier attitude to the definition of a ‘historian’ (and other professions too, come to that), and certainly lacked the modern obsessions with possessing a certain set of qualifications, holding a particular type of day job, and publishing only within a narrow set of journals, or for a narrow range of publishers, thereby ticking boxes for assorted vacuous targets.
Now, I could continue to write this post by referring to rather abstract groups, but instead of that, and donning my ‘author of fiction’ hat pro tem, let me introduce you to two characters who are based on absolutely no real people whatsoever. Well, except him, obviously. And, yes, her.
Horatio lives in an idyllic rural cottage in Blimpshire, and is a retired corporate fraudster (undiscovered). Over the course of the last fifty years, he has collected and researched absolutely everything there is to know about the design, construction and voyages of the floating brothels of the Khasi of Kalabar.* Horatio wears a blazer, even in bed, and reads the Daily Telegraph, especially in bed. Horatio is thus an amateur maritime historian.
(* Big wave at this point to all fans of the Carry On films, who I hope will have spotted the reference.)
Agrippina lives in a commune in Islington, and has just started in her first academic post, a junior lectureship in the Cross-Disciplinary Institute of Stuff and Things at the University of Shadwell. She is currently working on a book on gendered space in the floating brothels of the Khasi of Kalabar. Agrippina wears something that appears to be a sack, even in bed, and reads The Guardian, especially in bed. Agripinna is thus a professional maritime historian.
Now, common sense dictates that Horatio and Agripinna really ought to talk to each other, as there is clearly a great deal that he could teach her, and, perhaps, even a great deal that she could teach him. Unfortunately, though, it is unlikely that their paths will ever cross. For one thing, Horatio will probably never come across Agrippina’s many articles, all of which are published in peer-reviewed journals that can, from Blimpshire, only be accessed online. This assumes that Blimpshire actually has half-decent broadband, which it doesn’t, and that Horatio is prepared to pay the Sicilian levels of blood money demanded by the Triad-like cartels that hold the rights to academic journals, which he isn’t – even if he knew about the articles at all, which he doesn’t. He also isn’t prepared to pay £95 for Agrippina’s book of 150 pages (with no illustrations), derived from her thesis, even if he knew about it, which – yes, that’s right – he doesn’t. Of course, Horatio could engage with Agrippina on social media, as she’s all over Twitbook, Instachat, Snapgram, and so forth; but he regards all of these, if not quite as the spawn of Satan, then as the deeply questionable pursuits of the young, i.e. anybody under 60 (which is his excuse to cover up the fact that he doesn’t have the first idea of how they work). Horatio could attend the conferences that Agrippina is speaking at, but these are hideously expensive, are a very long way from Blimpshire, and are, in any case, bound to be full of young people who don’t wear blazers and don’t read the Daily Telegraph. Consequently, Horatio stays in his man-cave (i.e. shed) in Blimpshire, quaffing Lidl Merlot and chuntering about out-of-touch academics in their ivory towers, while Agrippina goes to seminars where the apres-ski involves quaffing Lidl Merlot and declaiming about how she’s certain she’s covered absolutely every angle of her subject, little knowing what lurks within the copious folders in Horatio’s shed.
This, then, in a nutshell, is the role that organisations like the Society for Nautical Research should be playing – to bring together the Horatios and Agrippinas of this world in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and with a willingness to learn from each other. As things are at the moment, both ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’ in the field of maritime history are probably right to protest that it’s difficult to engage with each other: but to use another sporting analogy, of course it’s difficult to engage if your teams are actually playing in entirely different stadia. Many ‘amateurs’, like Horatio, are of a generation which, generally speaking, doesn’t blog and isn’t on social media (but, then again, neither are many senior ‘professional’ academics of exactly the same generation); many ‘professionals’ obtain their doctorates and complacently, if not arrogantly, assume that those who don’t have doctorates have nothing to teach them. True, the barriers are breaking down, and it may be, indeed, primarily a generational issue, which will vanish as the barriers between ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’, or, if you prefer, ‘historians’ and ‘antiquarians’, finally collapse – as they’re already doing, slowly but surely, as a glance at many maritime and naval history Twitter feeds will demonstrate. There, people from all kinds of backgrounds interact with each other as equals, exchanging ideas and information, while blogs, and websites like academia.edu, are opening up academic research to all, circumventing the outrageous paywalls of the publishing cartels.
Above all, then, let’s start by respecting what each of us does. As Professor Richard Harding rightly stated in his keynote at Greenwich, maritime history, like military history, depends hugely on its amateur practitioners, who, for example, often provide the volunteers who keep local maritime museums open, who restore historic boats, and who research those byways that ‘professionals’ are unlikely to go down, thereby frequently unearthing new information, and developing new perspectives, that are invaluable to the discipline as a whole. More power to your elbow, Horatio.
Finally – and I crave your indulgence here – I’ll talk a bit about myself. On one set of criteria, I suppose I’d be classed as a professional: doctorate, couple of fellowships, grand-sounding offices held in august societies, several major books published, ditto articles in major peer-reviewed journals (although never, curiously, in the Mariner’s Mirror, either in its previous incarnation or the present one). But on the other hand, I’ve never worked in a university or a major museum; some might say I’ve sold out any academic credibility I might have possessed by writing fiction (but hey, if it was good enough for Sir Julian Corbett, it’s good enough for me); and I’ve published one book where I most certainly was writing as an amateur, that being Blood of Kings, my rush-of-blood-to-head foray into sixteenth century Scottish history and the outermost fringes of downright esoteric, Knights-Templar-hunt-the-Holy-Grail, territory.
So what, exactly, am I? Professional? Amateur? Fish? Fowl?
If I don’t really know which label/s I should be sticking on myself, should I really worry about which label to stick on others? ‘Professional’, ‘amateur’, whatever, we’re all in this for exactly the same reason, and working towards exactly the same end – to uncover and preserve more and more of the countless past layers of the maritime world, and to trumpet the importance of those layers, and that world, as widely as possible.
So – ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’, or, if you prefer, ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’, in the context of maritime history?
I, for one, no longer recognise those terms.
Time to move on.