I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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What Was Lost

Jim Smyth
The Nostalgic Imagination: History in English Criticism, by Stefan Collini, Oxford University Press, 246 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198800170 Stefan Collini is a public intellectual who writes about English public intellectuals, mostly of the middle decades of the twentieth century; that is, loosely, the period stretching from the 1920s into the 1960s and characterised by Noel Annan as Our Age. It was an age of “mandarins” (like Annan himself), literary magazines, and a bullish aversion to theoretical abstraction, in the English empiricist tradition. In the 1950s that received hostility towards grand theory melded smoothly into the so-called “end of ideology” proclaimed by cultural cold warriors, not least in the pages of their house journal, Encounter, a literary magazine covertly subsidised by the CIA. Historical studies was perhaps the most implacably empirical among the academic disciplines at the time, although a small but brilliant cohort of Marxists persistently ignored that party line. The predominant professional historical mode was narrowly specialised, archive-bound, and, as Hugh Trevor-Roper put it, “desiccated”. Kingsley Amis parodied current academic obscurity in his novel Lucky Jim, whose eponymous anti-hero is writing an article on “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485”. Little wonder then that the number of history titles published during the 1950s flatlined. Instead, the reading public were catered to by the likes of the hugely popular “last Whig”, GM Trevelyan, the best-selling Tory blimp Arthur Bryant and the first “tele-don”, the irrepressible AJP Taylor. Collini argues, however, that yet another type stepped into the space opened up by the professionals’ “retreat” from “general History” ‑ the literary critic. If in retrospect that proposition sounds improbable, that may be because back then certain literary critics achieved such a high public profile, and the practice of literary criticism possessed such range and analytic ambition, and enjoyed such intellectual authority, that it is now hard at first to credit. Historians, in full flight from the supposedly discredited grand narratives of “The Whig Interpretation of History”, contented themselves, in GN Clark’s crisp formulation, with the pursuit of “truth about this or that, not about things in general”; literary scholars meanwhile loftily delineated whole epochs in single sentences. And if that seemed cavalier (in more than one sense of the word) to this or that “fact-grubber”, that is because the “evidence” on which the critics drew was not the official record, but literature itself. “The claim that I am making,” states…



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