Five Questions for Henry Midgley of Westminster Wisdom

Henry Midgley of Westminster Wisdom fame was kind enough to answer a few questions recently about himself and his blog that would only be asked by incredibly nosy people like myself. I hope you get the same enjoyment I do out of hearing people talk about what they love and hope for: thanks so much to Henry for participating and basically writing this blog entry for me.

1. Have you always been fascinated by history, or was it an interest that came forth late?

Yes, I have been interested in history since I was eight. I began being interested in history because I found the stories interesting: we had a teacher who would get us up on tables to act out Robin Hood and I loved the excitement of the story. As I became more interested in politics I began to use those stories as exempla in arguments – much say as the classic historians of the ars historica tradition did in the 16th and 17th centuries – so for instance I became interested in the ways that courage or pity or even classical economics were expressed in the past.

I’d say my interest now is less in that and more in the way that people in the past felt. I’m fascinated by what pompously I might call the problem of other minds, but if you like the distance between me as a person and you, working out how you might think and why you might think what you think is something that I see as intrinsically fascinating. History and in particular the history of political thinking which is what I practise allows me to do that – and it allows me to grapple with people with whom I have nothing in common, enthused radicals from the seventeenth century – but people who were intelligent and interpreted experience in a certain way. I find all sorts of things like that interesting, which is why say one of my favourite books now is Montaillou, the account of a French village of Cathars from the Inquisition records in the 12th Century which tells you about the daily lives of these peasants and how their beliefs influenced those lives. I suppose I’ve become more of a historian as I have grown up – more interested in difference and particularity than generality.

2. What were the strengths and weaknesses of your education, you feel?

Well from my own choices my education has two weaknesses: the first is that I am poor at languages. I have a smattering of French, no more, and though I have an A-Level in Maths and an amateur interest in Physics no more science than that. It’s all my own fault and I do think that it is a major problem.

The system in England encourages you especially if you go somewhere like Oxford to specialise early. I have a very rigorous understanding of history and the way texts work. I think probably I have a very good understanding of the way that societies in the past have worked and thanks to my education with loads of other bright people at Oxford I have a fair grounding in literature and philosophy. I think of myself as pretty competent when it comes to the arts subjects, though of course I could be better. But I do wish I had more mathematics – and if I have an ambition for retirement its to go back and do a degree in mathematics in order to appreciate that language which ultimately seems to be the best language for us to interpret nature by.

3. What do you think people should be more aware of? Does your blog address or allude to those issues?

There are so many things… ultimately I should be aware of [more] as well. But I think there are two things that instantly spring to mind – one is a political point. People especially Europeans (I don’t know the States well enough to say) should be more aware of religion. I try to write about religion and though I slip often when discussing conservative Christianity largely because I argue about politics with conservative Christians I know, I try to provide a rather sympathetic account of religion. I think that religion is for many people the central part of their lives and without it their lives wouldn’t make sense. Whether you share religious views or not, if you live with those people in a community you have to make an effort to understand where they are coming from and I think in Europe both with reference to Islam and Christianity our understandings are too simplistic (not to say I bow before religious people but I do try and analyze religion as well).

The other thing is that we are sitting as I know you know on a vast reservoir of cultural artifacts: I think sometimes we forget that there are vast numbers of great films, great music, great books out there. I try and give a brief snapshot [of these] on my blog- I try and review a film a week – this week’s was Rebecca by Hitchcock. But I do feel that too often people rush past things because they are occupied or indeed just don’t know and ignore things that have happened in the past, and I think that is very sad because [what] culture has is one of those ways by which we can understand other people and understand how their minds work – and it’s also something that can provide a great deal of joy.

4. Who is doing interesting intellectual or academic work that you think is being neglected?

Again so many people. I think lots of the old masters are neglected – people like Plato and Aristotle need more readers. As far as today goes, well [the] seventeenth century history needs more readers – hint!

Seriously for a moment I think that our biggest problem is perhaps that we are all in these little academic or professional igloos of what we know about: the Renaissance ideal of a universal man might not be possible but because its not possible now there is no shame in being a lawyer who never reads a history book, a historian who never talks about science, a scientist who never reads a philosophy book. There are readable people out there: Quentin Skinner the historian of ideas at Cambridge, Thomas Nagel the philosopher whose readable volume on Godel’s proof that mathematical systems are inherently incomplete has just been republished and others are examples, but to be honest I think there is so much that is being neglected that its invidious to mention any one example.

I’d hope that anyone reading this would go out tomorrow to their local bookshop and find an introduction to something they had never looked at before by an academic in the subject and just go and read it. In my area of speciality which is history, I’d recommend five books which are on very different eras with very different tones: Peter Heather’s latest history of the Decline and Fall of Rome, Helen Castor’s recent book on the Paston family [a 14th c. English family], Jonathon Scott’s tome England’s Troubles (a flawed but great work on the English Civil War) and Chris Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World (an innovative account of the nineteenth century), and Olivier Roy’s book Globalised Islam, an account of radicalized Islam today. All should make you think and all represent good scholars doing good work – but if you are a historian just go and read some biology or nuclear physics!

5. Please point back to a post of yours you think everyone should read, and feel free to comment on it.

That’s a hard question – my blog tends to range across subjects. I suppose at the moment the one post I refer back to most is this one about Islam. I get very upset because people assume wrongly that Islam has had a single history and that its right to say “all Muslims are x” – when of course just like Christianity there are many varieties of Muslims both through time and regionally and indeed within times and regions.

One of the posts I am most proud of is this one which reflects on the way that fundamentalists seek to create an essence of Islam (completely without warrant) and uses a story by Jose Luis Borges to suggest how that’s a foolish enterprise.

3 Comments

  1. Fisrt, thank you Ashok for sharing this interview. Now, we know a bit more on Gracchi/Henry. Although, I dont comment so much on Westminster Wisdom, I try to read all what he writes, even the philosophy stuff (sorry for stuff).
    “a scientist who never reads a philosophy book” He is so right. That’s me. I am ashamed when dicussions turns philosophical in his blog. Fortunately, he talks about other issues. Very interesting, I learn much from his cinema reviews and I am glad to see and read his clairvoyant regards on political issues.
    Really one of the best blog out there.
    Orined, formerly Pappusrif (in case Gracchi comes by)

  2. This is a good interview, AK.

    I’m going to go look at the books you mentioned.

    Also…. “working out how you might think and why you might think what you think is something that I see as intrinsically fascinating”

    ..And important!

  3. Your blog is very informative and enlightening. I don’t always leave a comment when I visit, so I want to tell you that I really enjoy your posts on poetry and on blogging. Also, I stopped by your friend, Henry Midgley’s blog after reading this interview. Thanks.

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