18: Against oblivion

I was at school in the 1950s – Queen Elizabeth Grammar School Darlington – with Ian Hamilton. He went on to Oxford and became a significant and distinguished poet, critic, writer and editor – notable, perhaps, for shunning academia and running his editorial affairs from the Pillar of Hercules in Greek Street in Soho. I can probably claim to be the first publisher of his poetry as Editor of the School Magazine – poems that, to my knowledge, have never been ‘properly’ published. We lost touch after school. He went on to national service and Oxford; I deferred national service and went to Cambridge. I think we only met once in later years – by coincidence on an underground station platform in the 1960s or 70s. However, I did follow his work over the years and I was looking at one of his books recently that gave me food for thought – Against oblivion, published posthumously in 2002. (He died at the end of 2001.) This book contained brief lives of 50 poets of the Twentieth Century – emulating a work by Dr Johnson of poets of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. He also refers to two Twentieth Century anthologies for which the editors had made selections. The title of Ian’s book reflects the fact that a large proportion of the poets in these earlier selections had disappeared from view – and he checked this with friends and colleagues: into oblivion. He took this as a warning about what would happen to the reputations of those included in his selection a hundred years into the future – and by implication, the difficulty of making a selection at all. It is interesting to speculate about what survives – whether the oblivion is in some sense just or unjust. Were those that have disappeared from view simply ‘fashionable’ at the time – cf, Following fashion – or is there a real loss?

This has made me think about ‘selection’ in my own field of urban modelling. I recently edited a five-volume ‘history’ of a kind – by selecting significant papers and book extracts which were then published in more or less chronological order. The first two volumes cover around the first 70 years and include 70 or so authors. Looking at the selection again, particularly for these early volumes, I’m reasonably happy with it though I have no doubt that others would do it differently. Two interesting questions then arise: which of these authors would still be selected in fifty or a hundred years’ time? Who have we missed and who should be rescued from oblivion? The first question can’t be answered, only speculated about. It is possible to explore the second, however, by scanning the notes and references at the end of each of the published papers. Such a scan reveals quite a large army of researchers and early contributors. Some of them were doing the donkey work of calculation in the pre-computer age but many, as now, were doing the ‘normal science’ of their age. It is this normal science that ultimately gives fields their credibility – the constant testing and retesting of ideas – old and new. However, I’m pretty sure there are also nuggets, some of them gold, to be found by trawling these notes and references and this is a kind of work which is not, on the whole, done. This might be called ‘trawling the past for new ideas’, or some such. This would be closely related to delving into, and writing about, the history of fields and in urban modelling this has only be done on a very partial and selective basis through review papers in the main. (Though the thought occurs to me that a very rich source would be the obligatory literature reviews and associated references in PhD theses. I am not an enthusiast for these reviews as Chapter 1 of theses because they usually don’t make for an interesting read – but this argument suggests that they have tremendous potential value as appendices.) There is one masterly exception and that is the recently published book by Dave Boyce and Huw Williams – Forecasting urban travel – which, while very interesting in fulfilling its prime aim as a history of transport modelling, would also act as a resource for trawling the past to see what we have missed! This kind of history also involves selection, but when thoroughly accomplished as in this case, is much more wide ranging.

Most of us spend most of our time doing normal science. We recognise the breakthroughs and time will tell whether they survive or are overtaken. Ian Hamilton’s introduction to Against oblivion provides some clues about how this process works – and that, at least, it is a process worth studying. For me, it suggests a new kind of research: trawling the past for half-worked out ideas that may have been too difficult at the time and could be resurrected and developed.

Alan Wilson

July 2015

One thought on “18: Against oblivion

  1. Here are some personal memories of the London Traffic Survey ( later the London Transportation Study) undertaken by American and British consultants fin the 1960s. I was responsible for organising/supervising the landuse data and population/employment estimates for or London’s CBD which were fed into the LTS model.. The LCC had reservations about the LTS model that was being used and iI was instructed to make a comparisonof London and Chicago – a strange and meaningless study? The outcome led eventually to the London Motorway Box proposal in the GLPD which was subsequently deleted ffollowing the Layfield Panel of Inquiry’s deliberations. Perhaps there is a moral here somewhere?

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