John Aubrey. Photo: Wikimedia
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In feather light sentences, antiquarian John Aubrey captured the spirit of an age

Ruth Scurr's biography of the draughtsman, archeologist and diarist is a moving, delicate record of a man - and an era.

John Aubrey
Ruth Scurr
Chatto & Windus, 544pp, £25  

John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian, historian of architecture and England’s first archaeologist, is best known for Brief Lives, a collection of portraits that catches, in a matter of brushstrokes, the spirit of his age. “A life,” as Aubrey put it with his usual clarity, “is a short history in which minute details about a famous person should be gratefully recorded.” Thus John Selden, praised by Milton as “the chief of learned men reputed in this land”, is memorialised by Aubrey for getting “more by his prick than ever he had donne by his practice”.

A lover of minutiae, Aubrey had no in­terest in the eulogies of conventional biography. “Pox take your orators and poets,” he declared. “They spoile lives & histories.” Lives and histories, he said, should get at “the naked and plaine truth”, exposed “so bare that the very pudenda are not covered”. It is easy to forget that biography, like the novel, was born raffish – that those Victorian volumes were the joyless offspring of bohemian parents.

He was friends with Thomas Hobbes, Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Elias Ashmole and Lord Rochester; he took Charles II to see the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, which are named after him; he lived through the Great Fire of London, the civil war, the Interregnum and the Restoration. Aubrey, who taught us to date buildings by their windows, is not a man we see so much as see through: he lends us his eyes. So rich is the tapestry of his life, writes Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge historian and biographer of Robespierre, that he is in danger of disappearing into the background, of being “crowded out” by both his companions and historical events.

What, then, is his biographer to do? How, with so much going on around him, can we glimpse Aubrey’s own “pudenda”? His was the great age of the journal and Scurr, in an act of nerve-racking boldness, has chosen to get at the naked and plain truth of John Aubrey by turning the tables on biography altogether and giving us his life as a series of diary entries. “No one,” as she puts it, “gets crowded out of his or her own diary.”

As with Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (which was really the biography of Stein), Scurr’s idea is joyously witty. The diary is a form perfectly suited to Aubrey, a collector of fragments. And as a man less interested in the present than the past – “This searching after antiquities is a wearisome task,” one entry reads, “yet nobody else will do it” – he can look backwards while we look down into his soul.

Lifting his voice from manuscripts and published sources such as Monumenta Britannica and The Natural History of Wiltshire, Scurr gives us Aubrey in as many of his own words as possible. “I have made my first address to Joan Sumner,” he notes after several failed courtships, “whom I hope I shall marry and thereby rescue my finances.” At first, things go well: “Joan has given me a recipe to stop dogs barking which, she tells me, thieves used to use. It involves mixing boar’s fat and cumin seeds in a horn.” But then, disaster: “There are treacheries and enmities in abundance against me. Joan Sumner is now claiming that she never agreed to marry me.”

Sumner’s litigations are never given too much space. Despite his problems with women and the debts he inherited, Aubrey saw himself as a fortunate man. He thought deeply but never about himself. “Mr Hooke and I watched the eclipse of the moon,” he notes of 19 October 1678. When he looked at the moon, it was the moon he was looking at and not his mortality. It was the thingness of things that Aubrey loved.

The principal effect of this paring away of narrative is that Scurr, rather than Aubrey, disappears into the background. These days, it is rare to find a biography in which the author does not interrupt the reader’s journey like a Tannoy system on a train, or elbow their way in to tell you how they feel about the subject. John Aubrey: My Own Life has no evident narrator, nor any narrative tension. Diaries are great levellers of experience. What is important to Aubrey – “My fine box has been stolen from me” – and what is important to us – “On this day the King summoned Parliament for the first time since 1629” – rub shoulders in parity.

Scurr’s voice is heard only in the opening section, in which she gives us a brief life of the man: the dates (1626-97), the facts, the curriculum vitae. We are then, in the slow motion of the diary entries, reminded of the stillness of his days. His father, a gentleman, was “born for hawking”, Aubrey notes as a child, “whereas I know already that I am made for books and drawing” – which is exactly what he did. He never married or travelled; he explored Surrey and Wiltshire with a pencil and paper and his topological and architectural drawings, generously reproduced here, are exquisite.

For all this walking and riding and digging, John Aubrey trod softly on the earth and this is what is caught in these feather-light sentences. “Life,” as Virginia Woolf put it, “is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” It is precisely Woolf’s sense of a life that is captured in this moving and delicate book. 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist