Reassessing The History Man
Seminal campus novel resonates in 2019’s climate activism
by Jake Roslin
Not because its protagonist, the egocentric, misogynistic, Sociology lecturer Howard Kirk would be anyone’s hero. Not because the socio-political context of a novel set in 1972 and written in 1975 is very relatable today. But because it shows a university community for what it can be, a place where passionate ideals can be expressed, where a new and fairer world seems possible, where the atmosphere is heady, and every day seems full of possibilities.
The History Man, which was also faithfully dramatised by the BBC in the 1980s and has now, somewhat belatedly, become available on DVD, encapsulates a very particular era through the increscent lens of a university campus. The optimistic, inclusive 1960s had seen a British government (clearly very different in motivations to today’s) expand of higher education to all social echelons, via six brand new plate glass and concrete institutions on greenfield sites around England. Bradbury, who as well as being a novelist, taught at one of the six, The University of East Anglia, also created a seventh fictional campus, the University of Watermouth (geographically Bournemouth). It is here that trendy, flare-wearing chat show Marxist Howard Kirk pursues his manipulative agenda, radicalising and bedding both students and colleagues alike, provoking and alienating those who disagree with his politics, in particular the bourgeois George Carmody, ‘the only student in this university with a trouser press’.
But the spirit of sixty-eight which soundtracked Kirk’s own undergraduate days is dying, and the Zapata-moustached academic must, by means of rumour, the moulding of events and the persuasion of the post-coital pillow, create - like any bad situationist - the conflict he desires. A geneticist whose appearance is guaranteed to cause unrest is contrived to be invited on campus to speak, wide-eyed female undergraduate Felicity Phee is installed in the Kirks’ house as babysitter-come-concubine and the hapless Carmody, a diligent undergraduate who unfortunately stays politically loyal to his comfortable upbringing, is hounded from the university. Although only after our protagonist has used him to pursue Carmody’s tutor: the apparently unseducable, demure new English lecturer Miss Callendar.
It is a tribute to Bradbury’s skill as a novelist, and in the BBC adaptation to Antony Sher’s acting dexterity, that Kirk, a character so entirely callous and self-centred, not only mesmerises the viewer but stirs a strange sort of empathy too. Kirk’s wife Barbara, unlike her husband who is thoroughly disillusioned with further extending the free love hangover of the 1960s, is played on screen with great sensitivity by Geraldine James with Veronica Quilligan in the role of Phee, one of the few characters who does discover the real Kirk and turns against him, is hypnotisingly well cast.
It was at the six real-life equivalents of Watermouth that socialism, demonstrations, occupations and sit-ins thrived for a long time after the student uprisings in Italy, Germany and especially France during May 1968 made a whole generation of undergraduates agitprop. Solidarity with workers, campus overcrowding, the Vietnam war, the legalisation of drugs - every student newspaper of the era earnestly reported a new concern. Whether this was because the new universities were big in the teaching of sociology, psychology and political theory. Whether it was because of the greater demographic mix of students they actively pursued. Whether it was even due to the rain-stained oppressiveness of those concrete slabs from which they were constructed. The most political university, Essex, even had twenty storey tower blocks as student halls. But one way or another student unrest simply did not take off at traditional places like Aberdeen. And by the nineties it was dead everywhere - apathy replacing activism, recruitment fares superseding midnight revolutionary talk over joss-sticks under posters of Che Guevara. Any remaining Howard Kirks about campus were wistful anachronisms, now in leather patched tweed jackets with their well-thumbed copies of the Little Red Book in a pocket.
But the availability of The History Man on DVD is not the only reason this cleverly written and thoroughly engaging novel is apposite today. Because it’s increasingly difficult to avoid the fact that campuses, not only in the UK but across the world, are stirring once again - here in 2019 - with the sight of banners, marches and concerned undergraduates, no longer content with the status quo. Even in sleepy Old Aberdeen. But this time it’s not about sex, or war, or drugs, but something even that progressive couple Howard and Barbara didn’t think about - the environment. And the events of recent months, with Ms Thunberg being a far more worthy agitator than Dr Kirk, are stirring students to come together, to make plans, to paint.
But the availability of The History Man on DVD is not the only reason this cleverly written and thoroughly engaging novel is apposite today. Because it’s increasingly difficult to avoid the fact that campuses, not only in the UK but across the world, are stirring once again - here in 2019 - with the sight of banners, marches and concerned undergraduates, no longer content with the status quo. Even in sleepy Old Aberdeen. But this time it’s not about sex, or war, or drugs, but something even that progressive couple Howard and Barbara didn’t think about - the environment. And the events of recent months, with Ms Thunberg being a far more worthy agitator than Dr Kirk, are stirring students to come together, to make plans, to paint banners and to be a movement. Not just a summation of undergraduates following their own paths.
Despite its antiquity, the scene in The History Man where geneticist and racist Mangel is finally due to speak on campus to a lecture room full of angry banner-wavers, doesn’t look so very different to the road in front of Marischal College over the last few weeks. Perhaps in the course of the inevitable progress of history, students have finally tired of apathy, and have regained something of the spirit of the fictional, but highly worthwhile discovering, University of Watermouth.
Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man is published by Picador Classics. The BBC’s four-part dramatisation of the novel by Christopher Hampton is now available as a Simply Media DVD.