Place And Culture

by Andrew Crumey

Talk given at the European Parliament, Brussels, April 2004


The word culture has the same root as "cultivation". It's concerned with growth and land. We can cultivate our gardens, like Voltaire's Candide, and we can also cultivate our minds. The land I'm concerned with is the North East of England, where I've lived for many years. In post-Roman times, this was part of the kingdom of Northumbria, which spread across most of what is now northern England and southern Scotland. Its greatest intellectual figure was the Venerable Bede, a monk who lived and worked in Jarrow in the 8th century AD, and is buried in Durham Cathedral.

Bede is perhaps the closest thing we have to a British Aristotle. He was interested in everything. He's mainly remembered now for his History Of The English People, describing how an assortment of tribes from mainland Europe settled in Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire, bringing new contributions to British culture, including what became the English language. But as well as being an historian, Bede also wrote about theology, literature, science. He preserved poetry by his contemporaries that would otherwise have been lost. He did astronomical measurements in an attempt to improve the calendar.

We live in an age of specialisation, yet Bede was universal. For that reason, he's one of my personal heroes.

I've been publishing novels for the last ten years, but before that I was a schoolteacher, and before that I was a scientist, doing research in theoretical physics. In Britain, one often hears about the "two cultures" of art and science - two different ways of looking at the world that are supposedly disconnected or even incompatible. But Bede, like Aristotle and many others, worked quite happily in both.

So really, you could say that my theme today is multi-culturalism. When we cultivate our minds, it might be through literature, or it might equally be through music, astronomy, geometry - all of which were core subjects of ancient Greek learning, collectively termed "mathematics". Or we might cultivate our mental gardens with something else entirely. The important thing is to plant sensibly, water regularly, and beware of weeds.

My upbringing was working class and not particularly bookish, and the thing that interested me most as a child was space, thanks to the Apollo Moon missions and Star Trek. I decided that when I grew up, I was going to be an astronaut. Then I found out that being an astronaut was actually pretty dangerous so I reckoned I'd be an astronomer instead. And when I realized that what I really wanted was to know how the universe works, not stay up all night looking at it, I settled on physics, which I studied at university.

At school, I had an English teacher who was a very cultured man. What I mean is that he was a lover of "high" culture as opposed to "popular" culture - another kind of "two culture" issue. He used to tell us that pop music was rubbish and Beethoven was wonderful, and that we shouldn't waste our time watching television but ought to read Dostoevsky instead. You could call him elitist, but there was actually a very important egalitarian message in what he was saying. Culture - high or low - belongs to everybody.

The most important part of cultural development is giving people access to the widest possible variety so they can make their own choice. In the present-day book world, I confess that the market driven monoculture of the "sure-fire bestseller" is not something I find heartening. In my work as literary editor at a newspaper, one of my main aims is to try and make sure that readers get to know about books they might never come across through browsing the recommended titles in any high street bookstore.

Thanks to my English teacher, I sat down and started reading Crime And Punishment, and it changed my life. Nineteenth-century Russia maybe wasn't particularly "relevant" to a 1960s British kid, but being transported to another time and place is precisely what is so wonderful about reading, and Dostoevsky's moral themes, and the immediacy of his writing, made a huge impression on me.

I told my teacher I was going to write a novel one day, and he said don't bother, there are already far too many writers around. I still think this was the wisest piece of literary advice I ever received, and I've passed it on to many other aspiring authors, fully confident that they'll ignore it just as I did.

When I was in my late twenties and doing physics research, I made a trip to Poland for a conference. It was in the institute of theoretical physics in Wroclaw, and the interesting thing about the building was that up until only a couple of years previously, it had been the local Communist Party headquarters. What, I wondered, had gone on in these rooms and corridors, before Communism fell and the physicists moved in? This experience inspired my first novel, Music In A Foreign Language.

It's about a physicist and an historian, living in an imaginary Communist Britain. The historian dies mysteriously, and after the fall of Communism, his son tries to find out the truth of what happened.

I've returned to a similar theme in my fifth novel, Mobius Dick, which is about to be published in Britain. Partly it's the debate between art and science. Can history be a science? Marx said yes; postmodernism says that not only is history not a science, but science isn't really science either - it's some kind of cultural narrative.

My thoughts on this were sparked by an idea of physics which I learned as a student. According to one view of quantum mechanics, if you toss a coin you create two universes: one in which the coin lands heads-up, and another in which it's tails. Both are real: we see only one of them. Leibniz proposed something similar - his "best of all possible worlds" is mocked by Voltaire in Candide. Jorge Luis Borges used the same idea in his celebrated short story The Garden Of Forking Paths. My novels owe much to these, and to many other authors I love, such as Proust and Thomas Mann.

I get called an intellectual writer, and I take this as a compliment, though I get the feeling some people see it as a problem. Art touches both the heart and the mind, but we live in a therapised age when the heart is seen as being the more important of the two. I think there's room for books that attempt to win readers' hearts by first of all stimulating their minds.

I also get called a European writer, which is no surprise given the sort of influences I've mentioned. And yes, I am a European writer. If my work has a message, it's the one I learned at school. The European cultural tradition belongs to everyone.

I began with Bede, the North East's greatest intellectual figure. I compared him with Aristotle, though of course I would not pretend that Bede's place in the history of ideas is anything like Aristotle's. But Aristotle was at the centre of civilization, Bede was on the margin. His library was not large, and communication with other scholars was difficult. He had every reason to fail, but his curiosity, his passion and his faith enabled him to succeed. We have no such excuse. We may not be Bedes, but we can at least learn something from his example.


©Andrew Crumey