Sunday, May 20, 2007

David Edgerton

David Edgerton is the Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London where he was the Founding Director of its Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.

His latest book is The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900.

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Going through the pile of books next to my bed to remind myself reveals a more interesting selection than I had expected. I can share it without shame, if I pass over my current obsessive interest in The Statistical Digest of the War (a book made up almost entirely of numbers, published in 1951), and similar works. My current leisure reading is Robert Winder’s Bloody Foreigners, a passionate and to the point history of immigration into Britain. A key theme is the racism, hypocrisy and forgetfulness of the authorities and the people. At the same time it stresses that Britain has indeed become a richer society as a result of immigration.

Still in other respects things have got worse: for the last ten years Britain has had its most mendacious Prime Minister ever. Yet Tony Blair is so overrated by so many that they blind themselves to this, and to the disaster he contributed to in Iraq. As he leaves office it is good to have one’s critical faculties fortified by the splendid polemic of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s short Yo, Blair! Like me he despises the man’s deep dishonesty and ignorance, particularly of history. Unfortunately, as Ken Alder’s The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession tells us, even if we could have strapped him down and stuck electrodes on his head we would not either find out the truth, or get him to tell it. While not quite the page turner that was The Measure of All Things, this book is a wonderful example of how modern history of science can be brought to a wider public.

Lies about bombing figures prominently in Ian Patterson’s Guernica and Total War, published to coincide with 70th anniversary of the destruction from the air of the Basque town in 1937 – it is really a pair of well-crafted and suggestive essays, one on the bombing itself, the other on the place of bombing in our imagination and military practices. The resonance with recent events is inescapable.

Patrick Cockburn of the Independent is the only foreign correspondent in Iraq to have known the country for years, and one of the very few to stray outside the press rooms of the Green Zone. His memoir The Broken Boy tells how as a child in the 1950s he became a victim of one of the last polio outbreaks, and along the way gives rich insights into the British radical elite of the past, especially his extraordinary parents, Claud and Patricia Cockburn. Claud claimed, and I paraphrase from memory, ‘Times leaders always lie, but the closing prices reported in the Financial Times never do’. Wise words.

George Monbiot, Britain’s most important green intellectual, is one of the few British writers of any stripe on the tail of corporate power in the modern world. He has a good go at showing how we could reduce carbon emissions, if we really want to, that is, in his Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning.

The public sphere may be particularly toxic at the moment, but the domestic has not necessarily been a refuge. I hardly read any fiction, but recently enjoyed Carmen Laforet’s Nada. Published in Spain in 1945 and now translated, it is a wonderfully economical and dark story of the miseries of the family and the domestic in post-civil war bourgeois Barcelona.

If you want to know why Barcelona football fans hate Real Madrid, and why and how Real Madrid differs from Atlético Madrid, and Montevideo’s Nacional from its Peñarol, and even the intricacies of Viennese football, you will love David Goldblatt’s astonishingly rich (and often gloriously funny) social and political history of football. But even if you don’t, this scholarly blockbuster will tell you more about global history than most books on the topic. A great book, graced by a brilliant title: The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football.
Read John Sutherland's interview with Edgerton and his Q & A at the OUP blog.

The inscription to The Shock of the Old:
I stood on a hill and I saw the Old approaching, but it came as/ the New./ It hobbled up on new crutches which no one had ever seen before/ and stank of new smells of decay which no one had ever/ smelt before.
--Bertolt Brecht (1939) from 'Parade of the Old New'
David Edgerton's scholarly works include Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, Science, Technology and the British Industrial 'Decline' 1870-1970, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation, and a long list of other publications.

The Page 69 Test: The Shock of the Old.

--Marshal Zeringue