Truth, Archaeology and Fiction (2)

As time passes I find I am more and more interested in what we mean by the terms Truth and Fiction. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more convinced I have become that analysis won’t help me come to grips with the problem. In fact I’m becoming fairly (but only fairly) certain that our modern, western obsession with what I might call the ‘scientific’ approach has its own limitations, too. I think as a culture we place too much emphasis on analytical thought: on observation, hypothesis and test – the three classic steps of science. As an archaeologist I am, of course, thoroughly steeped in this tradition and it affects not just my professional work, but my attitude to life in general. When I was a student at Cambridge in the mid-1960s, archaeology was starting to shake-off an earlier tradition of historical- or narrative-based thought and replace it with something more overtly ‘scientific’. My sympathies still generally lie with the reformers, because the new approaches did inspire hugely improved excavation techniques and an ability to think more originally and to come up with new interpretations which were less hindered by rigid conventions. But there was a cost to this progress.

Today students and academics in archaeology still have to accept what is essentially an analytical climate of thought, or ‘paradigm’ to give it its jargon name. As a consequence, the brightest students tend also to be the most analytical – no surprises there – but often they lack those other, more intuitive, skills which make for a good researcher. In my experience most team leaders and innovators have good degrees, but not brilliant ones. The brilliant people tend to become quite narrow specialists, which a cynic might suggest means they are not brilliant at all. Except that they are, and have starred first class degrees to prove it. The problem lies at the university, where analysis is God. I think you have something similar going on in the field of English Literature, where the great analysts and critics, one thinks here of people like F.R. Leavis, couldn’t write a good novel, even if they wanted to. Similarly, most musicologists are uninspired as composers. Of course there are notable exceptions (one thinks of the Dept of English at the University of East Anglia), but as a general rule, analysis remains at the heart of the western academic tradition. And of course there are good historical reasons for this, going back to the Enlightenment and even earlier, to the Renaissance, and the struggle of people like Galileo with the anti-analytical self-interest of an all-powerful Church. Given the choice between Pope and Professor, I’d opt for Prof. every time.

When I was a student I soon realised that I wasn’t clever in an analytical way. I still can’t do Sudoku or crosswords, but on the other hand I found statistics relatively easy to grasp (largely I think, thanks to a wonderful book by M.J. Moroney: Facts from Figures), but only when I had a good, well-defined reason to employ the knowledge, which happened to be the spatial distribution of objects found in our excavations. At university the emphasis seemed to be on analysis for its own sake, which struck me then, and now, as pointless. So I did other things. I was active on the then rapidly developing rock music scene; I rowed to keep fit; I drank lots of beer to counteract the training; and I read. And how I read: everything from Tolstoy to Henry Miller, via Dorothy Sayers, Conan Doyle, Tom and Virginia Woolf. The thing is, I knew in my heart-of-hearts that I wasn’t much good at analysis and that even if I worked twenty-five hours a day the best I’d manage might be a rather lack-lustre 2/1. So I decided to do a little bit more than the bare minimum and get a workmanlike 2/2 – which is what happened. And I’ve never regretted making that decision. What I didn’t appreciate back then was, that by avoiding the approved, but very limited, academic menu that was then on offer, I was giving myself a real education, as opposed to an over-specialised training.

So the books I began writing later in life, starting with Seahenge back in 2001, were only made possible by the fact that I hadn’t allowed the creative side of my brain to be strangled by academia. Indeed, Seahenge sort of wrote itself. It just poured out. In fact I spent more time editing and cutting it back, than actually putting words on paper. As time passed I learnt how to tame the creative beast and keep her more firmly under control (I’m convinced my muse is a female, because she doesn’t approve of me drinking when I’m at the keyboard). But everything I wrote was motivated by an urge to reveal to myself and my readers what it might have felt like to have been alive in a particular time in the past.

Now I freely concede, my impression of those feelings is based on my past analyses of data from excavations, but it isn’t as simple as that: at the end of the fieldwork stage in a dig, you do more than merely manipulate data. Writing a good and original final report is a creative process, as I think the very best examples illustrate (and I’m thinking here of people like Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Grahame Clark,  Brian Hope-Taylor, Geoff Wainwright, Mike Parker Pearson and Richard Bradley). These reports represent some of the best combinations of analysis and creative imagination you’ll find in any humanity – but it’s only the analysis and techniques of excavation that ever get credited and I think it’s time we redressed that imbalance; what about the imagination that went into the conception and planning of the project, the composition of the specialists and the creative side of the report-writing? Why don’t universities treat this side of archaeology with greater respect, as I consider it every bit as important as mere analysis? In this debate I tend to be more concerned with the emotion than the analytical truth, which doesn’t make me a fantasist, either. Indeed, fiction can be truthful, as any reader of Tristram Shandy will know.

Which brings me back to the fiction/non-fiction/truth business. To be honest I see The Lifers’ Club as a natural successor to my latest non-fiction book, Home and its predecessor, The Making of the British Landscape. In all three books, I had to inhabit worlds and landscapes that were unfamiliar to me. If anything, Lifers’ Club needed less imagination, because it was all around me, all the time. It was almost like writing a diary, or, come to that, a blog. Now I concede that the style of writing is rather different from my other books, and very different from my academic reports, but the imagination and the mind-set behind them all was essentially the same. And I refuse to admit that the short-sentence, rather snappy style of the thriller is somehow easier to do than the more verbose style of the heavy-duty academic report (like my English Heritage volumes on Etton and Flag Fen). Far from it, in fact: academic writing can be very easy to do, simply because one can relapse into meaningless jargon, when the truth is proving difficult to nail-down. But flannel and bullshit stands out a mile in a tightly-edited crime novel, which requires more personal involvement, less posing – and none of the dreaded gravitas (a synonym for bloated pomposity). It also involves a huge amount of mental discipline and total immersion. Indeed, there were times when I was writing Lifers that I became quite convinced I was reporting things that had actually happened. Real life and fiction became confused. Characters in the book got mentioned casually over the breakfast table, as if they were there, beside us, spooning out the marmalade. Sometimes these little incidents could be quite upsetting, creepy even…

Anyhow, I’ve just learned that the ebook version is now published. Trouble is, I’m not sure I’ve got the courage to read it. Maybe later. Some day. And if you Tweet (@pryorfrancis), do let me know what you think of it.

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