Not past his sell-by date

November 30, 2001

Recently retired academic Roy Porter tells Christopher Wood why we - and his bank manager - can look forward to more books.

When writing about the historian Roy Porter, the convention is to refer to his denim jacket, ear stud, gold neck chain and heavily ringed fingers and conclude that never has a don looked less like a don.

Now new cliches must be found - for Porter is a don no longer, having retired from academia earlier this year aged just 54. For the time being, he retains an office at the Wellcome Institute, over many years the base for his prolific writing career and where he became professor of the social history of medicine in 1993, but he does no teaching and supervises no PhDs. And he receives no salary. "I wanted to make a clean break, but I can't afford to stop writing books," Porter says. "I feel like the proverbial person with two monkeys on his shoulder. One is saying, 'It would be really good for you not to write a single word for the foreseeable future, because you'll either discover you never really liked writing, or you'll find you have an itch to compose words and sentences on a subject you really want to do.' Another monkey is saying, 'Remember the overdraft.'" Since his first book was published in 1977, Porter has been keeping the overdraft at bay with a steady string of publications as either writer or editor - lists an impressive 99 of them. "I've always edited two or three books a year," he says, "and I usually write one or more, too." As if that were not enough, he undertakes a hefty whack of book reviews, "probably three a fortnight" - the whole feat made possible by help from a research assistant (whose salary Porter will now have to pay himself) and a constitution that can happily survive on just five hours' sleep.

That first book was The Making of Geology , and although geology is not a discipline many would associate with Porter nowadays, he still regards it as central to his work. "There's always remained in my way of looking at the world a sense that there are three different bodies," he explains. "There's nature - the body natural; society - the body politic; and the inner body as well. All thinking and experience is an attempt to relate nature, society and self, and if you like I got the nature bit out of my system first. But it's always been there as rock solid."

The two areas that have come to dominate Porter's output are the 18th century and medical history, often combined in a single volume, such as last year's acclaimed celebration of the neglected English Enlightenment, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World . While that book successfully appealed to a general readership, other Porter volumes - such as English Society in the 18th Century , part of the Penguin Social History of Britain series edited by Porter's one-time teacher J. H. Plumb - were deliberately conceived as textbooks. After all his years in academia, the creation of books for students remains close to Porter's heart.

"I think it's crucial they should be readable, in the sense of usable," he says. "A student ought to be able to find his or her way about the book. It ought not take too much for granted. Accessibility is the sine qua non of a good textbook. And it ought to be fascinating. There's no reason why a textbook should be read only by people doing a course or writing an essay. I try hard when writing a book to make it something people at a station bookstall would want to dip into. The two things are not dead easy to integrate, but it seems to me it's the duty of a writer to be absorbing and original as well as useful."

Not that Porter always succeeds. "I remember an occasion I was on a train," he recalls, "and I sat next to someone reading my book. I said, 'Ah, I see you're reading Porter's English Society in the 18th Century . I'm Roy Porter. What do you make of it?' He said, 'It's really boring.'" I thought I was being lively, but obviously not lively enough for him. I decided I could write books that are more accessible than that, and that's one of the things I'm trying to do now."

Even textbooks that do succeed are useful only in the short term, according to Porter, as new scholarship inevitably renders previous work obsolete. "It would be terrible if that didn't happen," he says. "If you're a historian, you believe that change is the most important thing of all, and you hope to be superseded rather quickly, which shows the healthiness of history. I don't believe in classic texts." Although Porter revised English Society in the 18th Century (first published in 1982) in 1990, he would take a different line today. "If someone asked me now I'd say 'No way'. The book is sufficiently obsolete to require starting from scratch. I would rather have a new sock than darn an old one. It's like the world record at 1500m. For a time someone holds it, and then someone else breaks the record. There's no point in being last year's record holder."

Rather than breathe new life into old publications, Porter is keen to pursue alternative directions - a recent case being his exploration of images in Bodies Politic and a new illustrated edition of Quacks (both 2001). In Bodies Politic , Porter lamented that "we historians have always been Gutenberg's children, trapped in webs of words", and attempted to effect an escape with a fascinating analysis of medical cartoons, diagrams and paintings from the period 1650-1900. "Pictures as historical evidence often say things not said in the words of the time," he claims. "Sometimes censorship prevents mention of topics that pictures can allude to. And often pictorial evidence presented to a reader is extremely stimulating as the reader finds he or she can participate in the decoding of the evidence, whereas a historian using words serves it all up and says, "Take it or leave it." With pictures, the reader can see things the author hasn't seen."

Concern over whether such books call into question his academic respectability is something Porter is glad to have left behind on retirement. "One of the things about no longer receiving my money from an institute of medicine is that I can pursue areas I might have felt slightly embarrassed about while I was a fully paid-up historian. One of those is looking at images. That's the problem with specialisation or compartmentalisation - we all end up wearing blinkers, which is a great shame."

Retirement will also permit Porter to do some of the travelling he has been too busy to undertake up until now. "I'm just off to Japan for the first time ever," he says excitedly. "And I'm going in what would have been term time. I look forward to doing more things like that. I'm terribly parochial, I've never been to anywhere in Asia or Australia." His dotage will be spent not in his birthplace of London, whose contemporary condition he excoriated in London: A Social History , but his new home of St Leonards, near Hastings, "home of the British drug-smuggling industry, a very strange place, full of failed artists, unpublished writers and retired professors, hippies and Kosovans".

But the historian seems unlikely to become part of the coastal detritus. His next book, provisionally titled Flesh - which will deal with the "symbiosis or interface of body and soul" - is under way. The writer just cannot stop writing, it seems, whatever the monkeys on his shoulder are telling him. "It keeps my mind alert," says Porter. "I have a rather childlike desire to explore new things, and the excitement has never flagged."

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