Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Taxi

Is there a historian at the wheel?
Photo by Zygia

This weekend, I was at London Paddington Station’s gleaming new taxi rank (completed just in time for the Olympics), where I was directed to an old green cab. Stuck to the glass partition inside the taxi was a laminated sheet showing the covers of at least 5 books, all by a certain Alf Townsend. These, it transpired, were written by the driver himself, and they were largely history books. There was London Taxis at War (2011), an account of the Second World War in the capital based on interviews with old cabbies, the autobiographical Blitz Boy: A Evacuee’s Story (2008), and Heathrow Cabbie (2010), a mixture of driver recollections/stories, set in the context of the airport site’s history, right back to the Iron Age.

As we tried to negotiate the traffic around Regent’s Park, Alf told us about his media work, interviews and TV programmes, many of which draw deeply on the oral history of the London cabbie community. It seemed that we had jumped into the car not only of a bona fide taxi-driver celebrity, but also of a historian. It was a reminder that history-writing is a vocation and a passion which of course flourishes outside traditional institutional or professional contexts. And a London taxi, it transpires, is a pretty good platform for publishing history – Alf Townsend said he had sold over 5000 autographed copies of his books in the black cab itself, to his passengers. There is a gutsy sales approach which academics, whose historical monographs typically enjoy a humble print-run of 200, might well mull over.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Republic on the Isis?

Palace for committees?
Photo by ell brown
Over the past couple of weeks, Somerville has been conducting interviews for a new Treasurer, to oversee the college's finances and physical fabric. As with interviews for academic jobs, the candidates’ timetables include plenty of time to have coffee and lunch with current members of Governing Body (i.e. the committee of Tutorial Fellows and top college officers which is the sovereign decision-making body of any Oxford college). Over Greek salad, quiche and chocolate tart we’ve had the chance to chat about our work, about the everyday life of the college, and the character of Somerville. In particular, I’ve found myself trying to explain how the college’s governance functions. I sometimes think the best analogy is an early modern European one – that Oxford colleges, and indeed the University itself, are best understood as a Renaissance republican city state, perhaps 15C Venice.

When I started teaching the Renaissance Special Subject some 5 years ago, I gained a slightly better understanding of how Oxford's hugely complex governance works, at college and university level. In Renaissance Venice and Florence, the republican liberty of citizens (academics) was of paramount importance - freedom from external domination/occupation (government) and freedom from internal tyranny (powerful administrators?). This liberty was embodied in the Grand Council, or Venetian assembly, a body perhaps akin to Congregation, Oxford's famous 'parliament of dons'. The Venetians tried to defend their liberty by creating a fabulously complex structure of overlapping committees - a system designed to be so baffling that few could grasp it (let alone dominate it), where some committees were genuinely powerful and other only appeared to be so. To prevent chaos or statis, there was a Doge - officially only a ceremonial figurehead with strictly limited authority, but in practice often the only person who understood the system, and who was able to provide leadership. In this kind of republic, power was everywhere and also nowhere. I don't know what last week's candidates, with their diverse career backgrounds, made of our explanations of Governing Body. Living in a republic, in a consensus- and committee-driven system, can certainly have its frustrations. But, like 15C Venetian patricians, I've come to agree (on most days!) that these are ultimately a price worth paying for liberty.