Hungry Heart Roaming
In lockdown, Sherds has been travelling vicariously through the works of various writers, including Charles Moseley, the Cambridge medievalist, whose latest book, Hungry Heart Roaming, has been described by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, as ‘neither a conventional memoir nor a conventional travel book [but], like Patrick Leigh Fermor, a masterpiece of autobiography’.
The praise is well deserved, and the title speaks to our current state of lockdown. It comes from Tennyson’s marvellous poem ‘Ulysses’ (the Roman name for Odysseus), in which the aging Trojan War survivor – a man of insatiable curiosity who had himself lashed to his ship’s mast so he could hear the Sirens’ seductive song – yearns to travel again and enjoy one more adventure before he dies. ‘For always roaming with a hungry heart/Much have I seen and known’, he says, in a speech reminiscent of that moving moment in Blade Runner when the replicant remembers all the great marvels he has seen and expresses his very human love of life.
The 19th-century diary craze
One of many impressive features of Moseley’s book is his apparently total recall of events, journeys, conversations, and feelings that he experienced half a century ago. Did he keep a diary? If so, he follows in a 200-year tradition that owes its origins to the entrepreneurship of the London stationer John Letts (1772-1851). The Continent had just reopened to tourism after the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815), and those who could afford it were flooding across the Channel to visit the sites of British military triumph and wonder at the novel and eccentric manners, food, drink, and housing of our ‘foreign’ neighbours.
In 1816, Letts had the canny idea of publishing the first commercial diary – then, as now, with dated and ruled pages – marketing them as ideal for recording day-to-day travel experiences, with sections for keeping track of expenditure and information on tides, the phases of the moon, and the times of sunset and sunrise (later versions included advertisements for essential travel requisites, from travel-sickness pills to mosquito nets).
The popularity of diary-keeping was given a further boost by the publication of the diary of John Evelyn (1620-1706) in 1818. This was followed in 1820 by the best-selling Diary of an Invalid, being the Journal of a Tour in Pursuit of Health in Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, and France in the Years 1817, 1818, and 1819 by Henry Matthews and, in 1825, by the first edition of Samuel Pepys’ diary, encouraging would-be memoirists to think that recording their everyday emotions and experiences might have some value for posterity.
The craze was satirised by Anna Brownell Jameson (1794-1860) in The Diary of an Ennuyée (1826), a semi-fictional novel in which the heroine confides her most intimate secrets to a ‘morocco-bound diary, regularly ruled and paged, with its patent Bramah lock and key, wherein we are to record and preserve all the striking, profound, and original observations… all the never-sufficiently-to-be-exhausted topics of sentiment and enthusiasm, which must necessarily suggest themselves while posting from Paris to Naples.’
By the time of his death in 1851, Letts was selling thousands of diaries in a variety of formats every year, using the advertising slogan: ‘Use your diary with the utmost familiarity and confidence. Conceal nothing from its pages nor suffer any other eye than your own to scan them.’ Of all the diarists to have confided her innermost thoughts to one of Mr Letts’ products, Queen Victoria was among the most assiduous. She kept a daily journal from 1832 when, aged 13, she wrote ‘this book, Mamma gave me, that I might write the journal of my journey to Wales in it’ until ten days before her death on 22 January 1901, filling 122 volumes in all. The originals were subsequently destroyed after being transcribed and censored by her daughter, Princess Beatrice, to remove the Queen’s intimate reflections on the conjugal pleasures of her marriage to Prince Albert.
A good diary, journal, or memoir oscillates between interior and exterior experience, the vividly described event and the personal reaction to it – and it is the latter that has the most impact on us as readers in terms of empathy, and the new understanding and enlarged imagination that comes from sharing the author’s experiences. Such thoughts are prompted by the announcement by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) of yet another attempt to pin down the value of culture.
This is a game (though they probably would not describe it as such) that civil servants (especially those in the Treasury) have been playing for decades. Faced with lobbying from the cultural sector for an end to constant cuts in government grant-in-aid, and even a modest and much needed increase, civil servants repeatedly responded by saying that the sector needs to provide evidence of its value to society, if it expects society to contribute financially – a polite way of saying ‘no’. Even when evidence has been produced (for example, to demonstrate the financial value of London’s national museums and galleries to the tourism economy), the figures have been disputed or described as statistically flawed.
What is different now is that it is the civil servants themselves who are taking on the task of developing ‘a formal approach to valuing culture and heritage… that will allow for improved articulation of the value of the culture and heritage sectors in decision-making’. It will be fascinating to see whether they succeed where many others have failed – for this is surely a doomed enterprise; if not doomed, then one that will hugely undervalue heritage and culture because there are no accountancy or statistical ways of measuring food for the soul (medieval images of the Last Judgement spring to mind, with St Michael holding the scales, a miniature human in one pan and mischievous devils trying to pull the scales in one direction, while the Virgin places a merciful finger on the opposite pan as a counterweight).
Let us take the wonderful BBC Proms as an example of why the ‘Social Cost Benefit Analysis principles published in HM Treasury’s Green Book on how to appraise policies, programmes, and projects’ may be fine for crime, environment, health, and transport interventions, but not for cultural impact. Yes, you can measure the costs of putting on the festival and you can measure ticket sales and show whether the Proms do or do not cover their costs and do or do not need to be subsidised. You can make some kind of a rough guess at the benefits to hotels, shops, and cafes from people coming to London to enjoy a concert. But how do you measure the impact that the concert has on the minds and lives of the 5,200 people who attend that concert and the millions who hear it via various broadcast media?
The same applies to just about every aspect of culture and heritage – economic methodology is fine for dealing with quantifiable entities, but cannot be used to measure the emotional, educational, psychological, spiritual, health, and social benefits of heritage – all the things that make life worth living – nor to place a value on the distinctive character of a cathedral, village, town, or historic house, and the effect that these have on people’s well-being.
Sherds would make it compulsory for DCMS civil servants to read Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), where all the arguments about the value of culture (which, he argues, cannot be measured ‘mechanically’) were settled 150 years ago. But if they still insist on evidence, then it exists in proxy form: membership of the National Trust at 5.7m is twice the population of Wales and three times the population of Northern Ireland, and far more than the number of civil servants employed in the UK (456,410) or the memberships of all political parties combined. Does the Government need any clearer proof of the extent to which natural and cultural heritage are valued?