Blessay 38: The Quintessential Polymath

Last week’s Archive Hour on BBC Radio 4 was devoted to the historian Asa Briggs. Tristram Hunt presented an affectionate portrait of Briggs as a considerable cultural force. Briggs was born in 1921 in Keighley in the West Riding of Yorkshire and came from a lower middle class background. Brigg’s father ran a fruit and veg shop. He was often ill so Asa had to take over. This didn’t prevent him from continuing with his studies, for he obtained one of the few scholarships available in the 1930’s to get to Cambridge. Asa was a clever lad who got on. This will to succeed was inspired by the zeal of Samuel Smiles the Victorian writer whose philosophy was one of positive self-help. What also motivated the post war thinking of Briggs was the idea of a liberal education for the common man. Brigg’s wasn’t a theorist – unlike his illustrious contemporaries E.P.Thompson and Eric Hobsbaum. Briggs was a doer. Dennis Healy was a close friend. Yet despite having socialist principles Briggs didn’t pursue a political career with the other young men, who in 1945 wanted to transform British society after the Labour Party landslide. It was education not politics that fired up young Asa.

What are some of Briggs’s major achievements? As an undergraduate he studied for two degrees (history at Cambridge and Economics at the LSE) at the same time and got a first in both! During WW2 he worked at Bletchley Park as a code breaker in the company of Alan Turing. Between 1961 and 1995 he wrote five volumes of the first authorised history of the BBC from 1922 to 1974. Briggs supported the WEA, was a governer of the BFI and chancellor of the Open University (1978-94).  When he died (aged 94) in 2016 he’d written over forty books. Apart from his history of broadcasting the most important works are probably Victorian Cities, Victorian People and Victorian Things. His research for these books paved the way for the establishment of Victorian Studies on University syllabus of the 1970’s. (This was after decades of an anti-Victorian spirit fuelled by such writers as Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf). And of course he was one of the founding fathers behind the idea of the New Universities set up in the late fifties/early sixties. His own education baby was The University of Sussex, where he re-imagined university as a place for students to have a radically different student experience.

“The quintessential polymath, Professor Asa Briggs was eminently qualified to bring a new idea for a new university. It was organised into schools of studies, each based on a unifying theme, such as geographical area or a cluster of related subjects. Professor Briggs coined the phrase “redrawing the map of learning” to describe this innovatory approach to teaching and research.”

“…he said that he leapt over the frontiers of academic disciplines with as much joy as he crossed national borders.”

Asa Briggs obituary – The University of Sussex website.

Let me re-wind to 1965 when aged 16 I left school (A Secondary Modern in Toxteth) with 5 ULCI’s. Or to give them their full title – Certificates of Education from The Universities of Lancashire and Cheshire Institutes. Basically GCSE’s before they were invented – meagre qualifications (I suspected they were not recognised 20 miles outside of Merseyside) and a ‘recompense’ for the bright few who’d failed the Eleven Plus and were stuck in a secondary modern churning out factory workers, labourers and shop assistants. Frustrated by the lack of academic stimulus at school I went to evening classes in order to acquire some O levels and an English A level. My “Night School” studies proved to be exhausting and very badly taught. I managed to get an O level in English Literature, then for a few years forgot about studying. Yet I was always chomping at the bit for Higher Education and discovered that you could get to University without the usual qualifications.

Fast-forward to 1973 when I applied (through the mature students’ entry scheme) to do a combined English / Philosophy degree at Liverpool University. Owing to a misunder -standing, over my examination, I failed to get a place. Yet Professor Kenneth Muir’s letter of rejection altered my academic direction for the better. Some two months later, still heavily disappointed by the failure of Liverpool, I read an article in a Sunday Times magazine supplement about Sussex University. I liked the colour photographs of the campus, their policy statement and what Asa Briggs had to say. I wrote a short letter to him explaining what had happened. Within a week I received a typed letter back (personally signed by Briggs) expressing sympathy for my situation and suggesting I apply to Sussex under their mature student scheme. I did and after filling in their application form I had to write a 3000 word essay on a novel to be chosen from a list of ten English novels in the academic cannon I can’t remember all the titles except the one I chose – Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. I was already a fan of Dickens and this was a Dickens novel I knew nothing about.

Our Mutual Friend is a flawed but great book. Dickens last completed novel contains some of his most powerful writing. Perhaps the narrative of the Podsnaps and the Veneerings contrasted with the brooding story of Bradley Headstone and Eugene Wrayburn doesn’t quite convincingly fuse. Yet I was enthralled. My enthusiasm and analysis must have conveyed itself to Sussex as I was asked to come and attend an interview. That meeting with a tutor in English and American Studies went very well. It was an eclectic and enjoyable forty minutes. Our conversation ranged from the paganism of D.H.Lawrence, Nietzsche’s moral philosophy and then (of all things!) the creative role of the film producer as exemplified by Val Lewton (that auteur of low-budget, horror/fantasy cinema). I’ve no idea how we got onto Hollywood but it certainly pleased my interviewer (I discovered much later that he was a passionate cineaste). The other half of the day was a 90 minute sit down exam to critique samples of English poetry and prose. Here I only did fairly well (formal sit down exams intimidate me. I just freeze up.)

Within a week I received a letter to say I’d been awarded an unconditional offer of a place to be a student for a B. A. in English. I was awarded a grant from the local Education Authority in Liverpool. That autumn I moved, with my wife and two children, to Brighton and found a decent flat in Hove. This was 1974. I was then 25 and could just about manage on the money.

I thrived at Sussex. Its structure of small tutorials, extended essays, take-way papers and dissertations was up my street. The sit down exam component was small (about 15%) so I realised that the Briggsian developed learning plan was for me. I studied with such lovely freedom. Indeed the big hard work really only began in my 3rd finals year. Six essays per term were demanded for years 1 and 2 with attendance at least at two thirds of the tutorials. All this I was more than happy to comply with. Indeed at one of my contextual courses called “Modern European Mind” my tutor never got round to marking my essays (I think he was too busy writing a book) and marked me solely on my performances in tutorials alone.

The inter-disciplinarian nature of Sussex began to turn me into a polymath druggie. One autumn term I was asked to read Great Expectations, Crime and Punishment, watch a Western on my American Cinema course and explore a little Sartre on the side – all to be done in two weeks with two essays to be handed in. This was a typical Sussex overload. You did as much as you could under the intellectual stress. The courses shook you up to stimulate ideas. And my tutors were very aware of their role to stretch you.

From 1969-71 Penguin Books published The Penguin Companions to Literature in four volumes. A fair number of Sussex academics, who taught me, contributed to the series. Anthony Thorlby, Angus Ross, Gabriel Josipovici, David Daiches, Gamini Salgado, Michael Jamieson, Rodney Hillman, Stephen Medcalf and Sybil Oldfied all passed on their learning and wit.

Three other guys stand out – Ernest Goldstucker who delivered a brilliant series of lectures on Freud, I.Mezaros’s whacky talks on witchcraft and many exciting tutorials with Anthony Nuttal (Philosopher, Professor of English, legendary Shakespearean scholar and brother of the anarchist poet Jeff Nuttall). I will never forget Tony Nuttall giving a hilarious lecture on Sterne’s Tristram Shandy whilst imitating the walk of Uncle Toby.

After listening to the archive hour tribute to Asa Briggs I felt proud and privileged to be part of the Sussex alumni; delighted that such a man as Asa Briggs had encouraged me to study at his special university. Briggs left Sussex in 1976 at the end of my second year. I regret that I never got to meet him and thank him his encouragement. Forty years on since my graduation, it’s not too late. Thanks, Asa! R.I.P. If there’s a heaven then let it have places of polymath learning run on the lines of your Yorkshireman vision.

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