Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Rethinking? -- part two

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes 1746-1828
Que pico de Oro! (What a golden beak!)
Aquatint. Plate 53 of Los Caprichos,  1799
This looks a bit like an academic meeting. Perhaps the parrot is speaking about medicine? However, don’t believe a word he says. There is many a doctor who has a ‘golden beak’ when he is talking, but when he comes to prescriptions, he’s a Herod; he can ramble on about pains, but can’t cure them: he makes fools of sick people and fills the cemeteries with skulls.
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes
Research and writing are mostly solitary activities, ideally suited to the introvert. But unless serving only as a mental exercise, their product must be shared. With academic subjects, books, articles and journal papers are the preferred mediums. Second to those are the presentation of papers at academic conferences, and these papers can then be gathered together and published in book form. Most often, the cart is put before the horse and after a conference is planned there is a "call for papers" along the conference theme. A very common theme is to honour one of the giants of the subject upon whose shoulders, as the saying goes, we all stand. I have a number of such books on my shelves. Sometimes, the conference stage is omitted and authors are invited to contribute papers or essays for a planned book. Other times, papers are presented at conferences, but only the audience gets to experience them as no subsequent publication ensues. It is all part of the academic culture,  its social and political structures and its business models.

The amateur has a tougher time of it -- he or she cannot work fully apart from others with similar interests and when I was researching and writing my book on the coinage of the Celtic Coriosolite tribe in those dark days before the Internet, I wrote letters to specialists in my general subject area -- mostly academics, and mostly the giants whose names were blazoned on the books in my shelves. Some of these were imposters, but I do not use that word in a derogatory way. Instead, they were true amateurs in heart and mind but existed, sometimes precariously, within the walls of academia. I can think of no better representative of them than Martyn Jope, as this obituary clearly reveals. The following excerpt says it all:
This account of his academic achievements would be one-sided without an appreciation of Martyn Jope the man. He had far more charm than can normally be accommodated in a personality. He was utterly opposed to any form of time-serving administration, pomposity or narrow-mindedness. A student with an idea was sure of the same welcome and courtesy as a fellow professor. Power and the outward trappings of fame left him cold, and he was ill- equipped for the empire-building of academic politics; it was very rare to hear him say anything malicious about anyone.
The "Glastonbury"
spindle whorl
But even this glowing account does not acknowledge that his generosity of spirit extended far past the university and its students. In a 1989 autograph letter to me about unique decorated spindle whorl in my collection he included "Yr. spindle whorl seems an excellent piece. I know of no elaborately decorated lead spindle whorl of this type, though plain ones of this type were in use at Glastonbury, as you have probably already noted..." He finished the body of the letter (there was a PS and 2 PPS's) with "What a pleasure to find so deeply informed an interest in Celtic antiquities in far off-Calgary!" My letter and package (photographs, drawings and a plaster-cast) had originally been sent to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford where Andrew Sherratt had handed it over to Professor Jope. I had also sent the same package to another museum in England and had received back a tiny piece of paper with a pompous and dismissive typewritten message dismissing it as "Roman" and "commonplace". I found the contrast most interesting: the depth of knowledge being matched, perfectly, with the spirit of companionship. It foreshadowed my experiences with the academic world after the arrival of the Internet. Both sides were still there, and while Martyn Jope has gone, Vincent Megaw continues Jope's tradition. As for the the other side, they are still there too, as they were in Goya's time.

Tomorrow, something less subtextual.

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