Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Sare...Ghamidh

A Review of: Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. (Cambridge University Press, 2008). An extended version of a panel discussion delivered at the North American Conference for British Studies in Cincinnati on 4 October 2008.

Perhaps surprisingly, this book starts with a single word. Perhaps equally surprisingly most books don’t. Most books begin with a story, perhaps a compressed but effecting tale of a single individual’s tragic experience; or an image, a word portrait of a single room to set the scene; or with a question, a beautifully crafted conundrum drawn from a lifetime setting too many undergraduate essays; or a mere statement of outrage, a recognition of the crackbrained foolishness of the academy, and the many errors of its denizens – a preface to a quixotic foray into tilting at the windmills of historiography.

But instead this book starts with a word, and that word is ‘Sare’.
Of course, ‘Sare’ is not just an everyday, over a cup of coffee sort of word, it is a word full of ambiguities. Personally, I have never heard it spoken, and never used it. The quote with which Lost Londons begins is: ‘The World is Sare Changed’ and within this slight but telling linguistic wrapper ‘Sare’ seems to mean ‘very’, but could also mean, severely, or dangerously, or, to have recourse to the equally gossamer protection of the OED, ‘with much suffering’, or ‘against ones will’, or ‘grievously’.

In other words, the starting point for the journey taken by this book is a studied ambiguity that challenges the reader to pay attention to words. And some hundred and fifty thousand individual words later, and with equal distain for convention, this book also ends with a word. By now, the subtle suggestion of ambiguity has become a stentorian claim to uncertainty. The word at the end is ‘Ghamidh’; an Arabic word Anthony Shadid uses to mean ‘mysterious’, ‘ambiguous’, ‘unclear’, ‘uncertain’; and which denotes a state of mind in which uncertainty is a sustainable intellectual perspective.

Between this beginning and end is the story of Bridewell’s archive, of the dead paper and parchment husk of that most verbose and loquacious of London’s hospitals, itself the product of a prolix Protestantism seeped in civic humanism, and dedicated to the furtherance of the word; a word which was then written into the stones of a prison and a workhouse.

The story is familiar enough; and tells of a new found summary justice, at the disposal of competing civic elites; of old Catholic pride and new found Protestant displeasure. Of a court and a prison for the sexually incontinent and the simply troublesome, for the ne’er do well, and the e’er do bad; of art masters and their wayward apprentices; of constables and beadles, marshals and watchmen.

In the process of telling this story Griffiths substantially revises important elements of it and of the history of London more broadly. In his hands, the much lauded stability of sixteenth century London becomes a lurching stumble through a landscape filled with fear and danger. An overwhelming rush of vagrants and vagabonds, of migrants and the simply unfamiliar, are depicted as challenging the sensitive souls of late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Londoners - people still attached to old Stowe’s London, with its warm beer and cricket, its landscapes of charity and community.

But, in its most revisionist mode, this book depicts London as an essentially successful City, coping effectively with a series of profound challenges.
Constables and watchmen are raised up from the squalor of their ill-deserved historical reputation as placemen and fools, to the more honourable status of detectives in waiting – Dogberry and Elbow are transformed into Dixons of Dock Green, if not quite into Morse and Grissom.

Parishes and wards, the City and its companies, are likewise, rescued from the infinite condescension of early modernists, and re-instated as efficient organisations manufacturing an archive of surveillance, to help police the dark streets of a newly modern city.

And a criminal justice history, that has traditionally emphasised the importance of individual victims in prosecuting crime, leading to a kind of scatter gun justice; that in turn produced the travesty of almost random judicial murder at Tyburn, is redrawn to include the sensible officers of a newly efficient set of old institutions. For Griffiths, these responsible servants and neighbourly men and women, were concerned primarily to keep the streets clean, and the traffic flowing; to gently restrain the enthusiasms of youth, and the unwelcome strategies and makeshifts of the poor. The night is efficiently lit by candles and lamps made bright by civic pride. The kennels and lay stalls made sweet by hard working men, while good citizens slept, fearful, but essentially secure in their beds.

Some of this welcome revisionism is slightly overdrawn. In a bout of middle aged cynicism, I could not help but doubt the evidence of the constable who claimed to be on the case, undercover, and only ‘feigning’ drunkenness, when he agreed to accompany Dorothy Morton to a private chamber at the Blue Boar Inn in Gutter Lane, late one night in December 1627 for the purposes of commercial sex(p.392). Dorothy Morton later found herself under arrest and tried at Bridewell; the accusing constable claiming that they never got past the stairs. Griffiths deploys these events as evidence of constables’ sharp-eyed commitment to searching out criminal activity, but it seemed to me more likely that the principals were engaged in a simple argument between a punter and a prostitute; and possibly says more about the casual power of a male constable in a patriarchal society, than anything else.

This sort of quibble apart, there can be no doubt that Griffiths has shifted the historiographical ground significantly, and in a way that we should welcome. Early modern institutions did work, and most constables were constables. Record keeping, kept records; and nightsoilmen, collected the night soil. And while historians can sweat blood and tears over felony crime; as Griffiths details, the vast majority of everyday effort went on implementing what we might now think of as community policing and zero tolerance.

Griffiths is also certainly right to re-insert and re-emphasise the impact of the problem of vagrancy, in driving the evolution of the urban quotidian. A fear of vagrancy powered the evolution of London and its institutions in a way that neither war nor ideology could.

But I don’t actually think these revisions form the most important or interesting facets of this book. They engage with a literature that has spent a century exploring the interstices of state formation. Weak state, strong state, European state, medieval state, Catholic state, Protestant state, police state, welfare state, surveillance state. Each has gone and come back again; and it seems to me that the explanatory power of this particular meta-narrative has largely run into the sands of a kind of post-nationalism. And with it, the importance of our arguments about how well past systems worked, how ‘modern’ they were, how efficient they were, have to some extent lost their intellectual purchase.

Instead, the core and centre of this book lies not in its claims to a revised history of London, but in its literary practises. Like most historians, Griffiths moons, love sick and romantic, after his archive. The physicality of the court books, the scratching intelligence of every line, is palpably present in these pages. With a whole cadre of fellow historians, Griffiths practises a certain romaniticisation of the archive, and the historians’ journey into it.

But, where most historians, once there, are held captive, forced to play the role of the ventriloquist dummy for the archival clerk, seduced by the world view of their long dead interlocutors, Griffiths, escapes this fate. Where other historians use their archives to retell stories and lives that would be familiar to long dead scribblers; Griffiths doesn’t. Where others cut their archives into individual pieces of historical cloth, prior to sewing them back together in a patchwork of explanation; Griffiths unpicks every strand, in an attempt to fully weave a new fabric.

What Griffiths has done is to refuse to simply repeat the stories found in the Court Books, and instead has re-ordered the text as a series of individual words and phrases. For Griffiths each paragraph, each legal encounter ceases to be a story that happened to a single individual, and becomes instead a series of single words and phrases; literary artefacts ground to their smallest dimension. His substantial appendix provides statistical underpinnings for the changing use of individual words, but the over-arching impression given is of a simple love affair with the grit of sixteenth and seventeenth century language.

A measure of this granularity, this balking at narrative, is that through the course of almost 500 pages of text, there is not a single contemporary quote long enough to warrant a separate indented section. Instead, there are words:

A quote whore unquote quote drew unquote men quote into lewd houses unquote and took money when their guard was down. Mary Lewis, an quote old unquote Bridewell quote customer unquote, was arrested in Cheapside in 1631, quote enticing a man to drinke with her unquote ...(p.153)

It reads wonderfully on the page, by the way.

Words pile onto words in a cascade of text that is compelling; and makes the point more fully than any simple argument could, that as Griffiths claims: ‘Bridewell... became ... London’s label factory’.

To put it another way, Griffiths uses a literary style that is essentially pointillist. Where others use broad strokes, Griffiths builds a picture word by word. In the process he escapes the narrative of his own archive, and arguably escapes the love traps set for historians among the dusty folios.

And this is a wonderful thing to have done. It is dramatically innovative, and fresh. It makes this book something very different, and something we need to pay attention to. It is a facet of the experimental literary process that historians need to participate in. Academic history has, in my estimation, gone well past its sell by date, and unless we are willing to re-invent it, we might as well call ourselves antiquarians and be done.

But each experiment has its own costs and raises its own questions. In this instance, the clear cost is to narrative itself. The creation of a story, disciplined by time, or person, or theme or institution, is a hugely powerful thing that allows the historian to create something new in the reader’s mind. It is impossible to lose yourself in passive prose analysis in quite the way you do when reading a story.

And there are innumerable stories to be told in these records. In a discussion of how seventeenth-century clerks used the archive to know about people, Griffiths observes that: ‘It did not take too long to piece together a biography from Bridewell’s books, especially with handy name indexes lining one side of each page’(426). But nevertheless, he chooses to build not a single biography, of either a vagrant or a constable. Even the institutional biography is left largely untold, leaving in its stead a wild swim in a sea of words; at the end of which the reader knows the water, its temperature and its saltiness, but is still ignorant of its tides and currents, its sharks and fish, its bottom.

This pointillist literary style also tends to de-emphasise perspective and conflict. The object of study becomes the ‘label’ or the process of imposing a label rather than the experience of being labelled. The word ‘Vagrant’ for instance is used throughout the Bridewell books, and is the key word in this text. But no individual ever described themselves as a ‘vagrant’. People are travelling, or selling, or just trying to get from A to B; and the process of being labelled a ‘vagrant’ is a violent act perpetrated by smug authority on a weak individual. In this instance, the labelling process is a form of assault. By emphasising the word, at the expense of the narratives of those being rebranded as vagrants, however, it becomes impossible to re-imagine their experience.

I suspect that I have more faith in the power of narrative than does Paul Griffiths. I think that to abandon narrativity entirely would be to fundamentally disempower history as a genre. But the pointillism of this book, its overwhelming emphasis on words, forms a vital strategic intervention in history writing to which we need to pay mind.

Having ground Bridewell’s many stories into their individual words, however, I think we need to re-invest them with a relationship one to another. And we need to see Bridewell not as a ‘factory of labels’ as Griffiths does, with its nineteenth and twentieth century denotation of a system and a product; but as a seventeenth century ‘factory of labels’ – as a trading compound where one thing is exchanged for another, where value and meaning is created by the simple process of shifting goods from outside to in, from one place to another.

To end, this book challenges us to rethink our relationship to narrative and text, to live with the ambiguities of text, and pay attention to its textures. I thought this book was ‘Sare...Ghamidh’. And all the more important for being so.

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