Was it 1969 when I dropped my first tab of acid? Or was it 1970? The answer is crucial
It's a simple enough voicemail, but it takes me the best part of three days to ring back. An affable-sounding chap called David Roscoe wants to know if he might possibly have permission to reprint a 1969 article of mine for a forthcoming volume of critical essays on the American sociologist Erving Goffman.
It is something of a gift-horse in these troubled university times, when academics are endlessly engaged in turning previously unconsidered trifles into learned papers in order to feed the raging appetite of the government's Research Assessment Exercise.
My hesitation is entirely prompted by the date of the article that Roscoe is so energetically pursuing. As the latest book by Eric Hobsbawm (and the long essay by Perry Anderson in the revamped New Left Review) forcibly remind me, there are a group of scholars, in perfect control of their intellectual trajectory, who not only would be able to date every single sentence of their oeuvre, but also would have no difficulty at all in relating it to their overall ideological development. But I know only too well that my own academic career was rather less dominated by a desire for intellectual consistency than a persistent determination to climb aboard any passing theoretical bandwagon. Although I didn't subscribe wholeheartedly to the megalo-maniac architectonics of Parsonian structural functionalism or to the convoluted reflexiveness of Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, I was always diligently respectful to current orthodoxy. ("A fellow traveller with an awayday return in his inside pocket", as an unnecessarily harsh critic of my book on the qualified virtues of Althusser's rereading of Marx remarked in the pages of the British Journal of Sociology.)
Despite having a vague memory of writing a critical review of Goffman in 1969, I could not for the life of me recall whether or not my ideological standpoint at the time had led me to praise him as the precursor of a new and exciting theoretical stance that would revolutionise our view of the significance of microinteraction, or to damn him as a class traitor who'd managed to write several long tomes without once mentioning the vexed problem of false consciousness.
When I finally rang back, I tried to wheedle a little information from my new editor about the nature of my original article without simultaneously suggesting that I was the type of expedient polemicist who had no more commitment to the opinions held the day before yesterday than a feature writer on the Mail.
"Of course," I wheedled, "those were very much early days for Goffman. Hardly anyone predicted the impact he was to make in later years." Roscoe seemed reluctant to bite, as though he'd already scheduled my piece for a section entitled "Those Who Got It Wrong", in which my crypto-Marxist aversion to the presentation of self in everyday life would be compared to Decca's failure to recognise the distinctive talents of John, Paul, George and Ringo. "I'll send the permission form along for signature," he said abruptly and rang off.
When I met Geoff for a quick pint of best in the Lamb & Flag, I came straight to the point. "You can't by any chance remember my ideological position back in 1969?" "Sixty-nine?" he mused. "Wasn't that the time when you took your first tab of acid, moved into that commune in Tadcaster and went round quoting Artaud to the effect that all categories were bullshit?" I was already crumpling the permission form when Geoff magically retrieved the situation. "No. Silly me," he said. "I've got it completely wrong. That was 1970."