Monday, 27 January 2020

Obituary - Roy Porter (2002)

Obituary: Roy Porter
Written By: Liz Willis
Date: April 2002
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 15: Summer 2002  

Roy Porter, 31 Dec. 1946 - 4 March 2002

A Socialist Historian’s Historian

In the Guardian of 5 March 2002 Sarah Dunant’s letter about Roy Porter was headed “Passionate Democrat of Learning”, while John Ezard referred to him as a “tireless historian”. The obituary by WF Bynum in the same edition went into his academic achievements and personal qualities, mentioning in passing that although he “had great sympathy with the underdog, he kept his own political beliefs hidden.” So his heart was in the right place, and he didn’t wear a manifesto on his sleeve. Fair enough, but without seeking to conscript Porter into the ranks of any followers of party lines, there is more to say about the significance of his work from a left perspective. 

The breadth and variety of his interests, thoroughness of his research and honesty of its presentation ensure that there is a rich, lasting store of information and comment to draw upon. To take a recent example, among the longest index entries in his Enlightenment are those for Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, as well as, more generally, “working class”, and “women”. His many themes related to social class, gender relations, economic inequalities, cultural changes - in general, the diversity of human experience. - though not as antiquarian anecdotalism or heterogeneous hodge-podge, still less empiricist eclecticism. And he did more than stock-pile the ammunition. Not afraid of ideas, he could argue cogently and uninhibitedly, producing (evidence-based) theories and generalisations with the best while acknowledging complexities and nuances. Having things to say, he went ahead and said them, often firing a well-aimed shot (if the metaphor is not too bellicose for such a genial character), from throwaway lines about the “Treadmill of pious gratitude” endured by inhabitants of charitable institutions, to the pages devoted to his denunciation of Thatcherite policies, in particular the abolition of the GLC, in his Social History of London (the book on which he gave an LSHG seminar). He was prepared to undermine stereotypes, look at things from another point of view than that of the winners, or the rulers, and counter with equal vigour the view of great-man-driven progress, or post-modernist denials of validity or meaning.

Known as a populariser - someone who made history of medicine sexy and relevant, super-star of the genre through its flourishing in the 1980s and ‘90s - he was to be found expounding his subject in TV sound-bites, on radio review panels, in prestigious lectures or at students’ seminars. This did not entail dumbing-down - he routinely enlivened his narratives with exuberant phrase-making, unabashed alliteration and an erudite vocabulary as well as jokes - but an evident taking for granted that history was for, about, potentially by and accessible to everyone. There are plenty of reasons for socialist historians to appreciate having his extensive output to nourish and stimulate our own efforts, and to regret its having come to so abrupt an end.

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