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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

...or, Confessions of a Reluctant Blogger

It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that I've been dragged kicking and screaming into the blogosphere, but it wouldn't be far short. Until now, I've looked on blogging as a suspiciously self-indulgent activity that also leads to a huge amount of unsourced, prejudiced or simply wrong information getting onto the Internet. BUT...I've finally been persuaded that a blog might be a useful adjunct to my writing, e.g. as a way of promoting my books and, much more importantly, as a means of communicating with my readers and a wider audience. I hope that in a very small way my blog might also give me an opportunity to challenge some of the absurdities about History and related matters that regularly crop up on the Web. I taught History for the best part of 30 years, so in some senses the blog - like my books - will be a natural development from teaching. As far as possible, I always tried to make my lessons interesting, informative and fun (cue comments from ex-students who were bored stiff, no doubt), not always adhering to the strict confines of the curriculum, so I hope to do the same with this blog. The discipline of History - and as I'm fast coming to realise, the writing of fiction as well - seems to be treated too often as a matter of deadly seriousness by many of its practitioners and acolytes, leading to pretentiousness and pomposity on a grand scale. I'll try my best to provide a corrective to those tendencies and to some of the dafter myths that are circulating unchallenged in cyberspace.

Two brief examples to begin with, both of which fall within my alleged area of expertise. Quite a few bloggers seem to want to claim Samuel Pepys as one of their own, in other words as an early proto-blogger - some, indeed, explicitly compare themselves to Pepys. (I won't denigrate them directly by linking to specific examples, but set up a Google Alert for 'Pepys' and you'll find them quickly enough.) Let's leave aside the fact that Pepys was witty, self-aware, perceptive, literate and deeply interested in the world around him, qualities that seem to be absent in many of his would-be successors. More importantly, blogging is all about publishing one's thoughts and deeds to the widest audience possible. What Pepys did was the exact opposite of that. Encoding his diary in shorthand, and then doubly encoding the more intimate passages in an invented hybrid of several European languages, ensured that it would have been almost impossible for any contemporary (particularly his wife) to access his musings. True, he provided a key by which future generations could eventually unlock the code; Pepys had as broad a streak of vanity as many bloggers, but he was determined that only posterity would read his words; and blogs, including this one, by definition aren't written for posterity. So can we please drop the Pepys / blogger comparisons? Secondly, for many months now a story has been doing the rounds of the Internet. It goes something like this: to overcome sailors' superstitions about Fridays, during the 19th century the Royal Navy deliberately build a warship called HMS Friday, launched it on a Friday, sent it to sea on a Friday, etc etc ad nauseam, ending (of course) with the punchline that it set off on its maiden voyage and was never seen again. Sorry, surfers. I've spent far too many days in UK naval archives looking at the original sources that would contain such a story if it was true, and far too many inches of shelf space in my Lair are taken up by the key reference books listing all the ships of the Royal Navy for the last five centuries or so. In a nutshell, then: it didn't happen, it's a complete fiction, it's simply untrue. The person who originally put this story online should be ashamed of themselves; this is probably the most extreme sanction I can advocate for him or her, as in certain quarters hanging people from lampposts or putting them against a wall and shooting them is not necessarily looked upon as politically correct.

Finally, most of the posts in this blog will probably be about matters like these, and hopefully will be considerably shorter. But as an increasingly grumpy fiftysomething, I'm not going to guarantee that I won't occasionally (and, yes, hypocritically) launch into one of the self-indulgent digressions that turned me off blogging for so long. I promise that there won't be much politics (and certainly no overt party politics on one side or any other) and there'll be even less religion. There'll be no crackpot conspiracy theories, unless it's in order to debunk them. There'll be no endless detail about what I did on holiday. But I might sometimes stray into some of life's other important matters, such as the state of Welsh rugby, the decline of the pub and the quest for the perfect toasted cheese sandwich. Who knows?

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