A blog before its time
So far exams here seem to be going ahead through the AUT boycott and “revision classes” are in full swing. These can be gruesome affairs. The students hang on your every word for a hint of what’s on the paper. You can’t give it away – but then you don’t want to punish them either, by only talking about things that aren’t going to come up.
A good way to avoid this game of bluff and double-bluff is to give them a intellectual treat. Serving up the author of one of their key textbooks for a grilling usually works brilliantly. Key texts tend to be austere objects, 600 pages or so, squashed between the sombre covers of some university press. If the students get nothing else out of the encounter, at least they discover that the author is a human being.
But in a course I co-direct on Roman Britain (from Julius Caesar to Manda Scott) the textbook of choice is flimsy paperback, privately published – part of no grand academic imprint. It’s almost as if some university course on the Modern British Novel focused on the product of a vanity publisher.
The book in question is a slim volume called My Roman Britain, published in 1988 from “The Apple Loft” in Cirencester. Its author, Richard Reece (now retired from the Institute of Archaeology in London), came to meet his Cambridge student fans and critics last week.
The book was hardly ever noticed by reviewers (indeed Reece actively discouraged reviews). It is supposed to have been banned by at least one Archaeology department in the country (which has, of course, done wonders for its reputation). And it proudly blazons its own idiosyncrasy.
The Preface gives a taste of the style. There are no running page numbers, he explains, so that he can rewrite it whenever he feels like it. So there is no point in trying make any fancy footnote reference to it (“Just say ‘an idea I got from My Roman Britain’ and if editors niggle tell them to get stuffed”). And there is friendly encouragement to photocopy and distribute any bit you choose, “so long as you do not intend to make money out of the process”.
It carries on in this vein. In a faintly Platonic style, an imaginary interlocutor pops up in bold type from time to time to argue with the author. “That is silly” objects the interlocutor on page 95 (confusingly my own copy does have running page numbers!). “Yes I know it is silly,” Reece replies, “it was invented specially to be obviously silly . . .”
Quirky, yes. Irritating occasionally. But it’s high up on our reading list for good reasons. For all his quirkiness, Reece is one of the smartest arguers there is and he fearlessly demolishes scores of myths about Roman Britain that are still being peddled by historians and archaeologists. For most of our students it’s an eye-opener.
Take Fishbourne Roman “Palace” near Chichester. All the standard accounts (not to mention Lindsey Davis’s A Body in the Bathhouse, set partly in Fishbourne) settle for the idea that it was probably the official residence of an up-market native collaborator with the Romans, called King Togi- or Cogidubnus. Actually it’s “total fantasy”, as Reece is brave enough to point out. “There no evidence whatsoever that Fishbourne had anything to do with a named Briton.”
And plenty of other old favourites are also taken down a peg or two. In Reece’s hands Romano-British villas lose their illusory classical veneer (as if Pliny had taken up residence in the Cotswolds) and emerge as a much more debatable category: “TCV”s (“Things Called Villas”). “Towns”, another imposition from classical texts, get their come-uppance too – dubbed, on the same principle, “TCT”s.
Students love, and engage with, the swash-buckling. But for bloggers there’s another side to this book. It struck me after our class last week that My Roman Britain was born before its time. All Reece’s aims – a changeable text, free dissemination and running comment – are exactly what you now get online. As a blog, it wouldn’t have looked quirky at all.