David Allen

David Allen most recent book is The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History.

Paradises

David Allen, 5 August 1993

In its salad days, late last century, the first wave of social anthropologists, headed by Tylor and Frazer, sat firmly in armchairs, speculated grandly and wildly on the strength of second-hand reports from missionaries and travellers, and wrote for a lay readership in works of captivating prose. Then came Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, total immersion in single exotic cultures and increasingly unreadable monographs addressed to fellow-professionals. And then, in or around the Sixties, well and truly purged of that earlier baseless generalising, the discipline suddenly sprang out of the jungle and began to speak to the outside world once more, armed with a wealth of insights into human behaviour grounded in first-hand observations made all around the globe. Out, in, out: a magnified version of the subject’s own rhythmic alternation between reading-up, fieldwork and writing-up. Perhaps there is a further phase yet to follow, when the professionals will return to the wilds en masse and again prefer to discuss their findings only among themselves. For the time being, we must be grateful that they are content to share them with the rest of us.

Homage to Rhubarb

David Allen, 8 October 1992

Not before time, historians are turning their attention to the often remarkably involved careers of the more familiar fruits and vegetables. For long, Redcliffe Salaman held this field alone, with his justly-renowned History and Social Influence of the Potato. Smaller-scale and little-known by comparison, but in its unambitious way hardly less fascinating, is N.W. Simmonds’s monograph on bananas, with its thought-provoking insights into early human migrations derived from the study of present-day distributions of the banana’s varieties, each of them reproducible only vegetatively and so totally dependent on human beings for their spread.

Rethinking the countryside

David Allen, 22 January 1987

Since the 1950s a loose coalition of scholars has brought about a radical transformation in our understanding of how the countryside of England and Wales came to acquire its salient features, a transformation which, it now seems, may also bring about some fundamental rethinking in rural planning policies which have long passed unquestioned. The front-runner was W.G. Hoskins, an economic historian by training, who since the Second World War has inspired a great new army of local historians with a series of writings which have demonstrated, among much else, how the landscape can be ‘read’, while hammering home the fact that most of it remained unchanged for much longer than has generally been supposed. Later on, a cluster of young historical ecologists based at Monks Wood Experimental Station, outside Huntingdon, deepened and widened some of Hoskins’s pioneer perceptions, adding support to them with biological data. Beginning to overtake all of these in practical effectiveness, however, is the remarkable figure of Oliver Rackham, a throwback to earlier centuries in his solitary, single-minded endeavours made at the expense of an orthodox – and secure – career.’

Minute Particulars

David Allen, 6 February 1986

One of scholarship’s more obvious last frontiers, a stretch of terrain that remains substantially uncolonised, is the borderland between those two uncomfortable neighbours, the history of art and the history of science. The reason for this neglect, of course, is that there are next to no scholars around who can penetrate the area with any confidence. The languages spoken in the territories that abut on it are so sharply different that little traffic has been able to develop. It has therefore been left a largely trackless wilderness, a wilderness in which the timid all too easily imagine a savage specialist lying in wait behind every boulder or bush.

Plantsmen

David Allen, 20 December 1984

Gardeners and, even less, flower painters are not usually thought of as leading adventurous lives. Their pursuits above all others are suggestive of peacefulness, of contented days quietly tucked away in hothouses and arbours, with no greater dangers to contend with than pricks from rose-bushes or stings from wasps. Yet it has never been like that entirely. Someone had to seek out that great variety of plant life in the first place, and the best people to do so were the plantsmen themselves: they alone knew what was most likely to flourish in the particular conditions they were able to offer back at home, they alone had the motivation to penetrate the more unpleasant portions of the wilds and the patience to emerge with the necessary cultivable material. Not a few of them, in consequence, have fallen prey to the hazards and suffered injuries, disease or even death.

Patria Potestas

David Allen, 19 April 1984

One of the great, undercelebrated spurts in individual freedom to have occurred in recent years is the lightening of the age-old pressure on sons to go into the family business regardless of their suitability. Many lifetimes of misery have thereby been eliminated – and at the same time much avoidable inefficiency. For the tradition of equating proprietorship with management and treating both as heirlooms never had much logic, inasmuch as entrepreneurial (or, for that matter, professional) skills are by no means a matter of upbringing or heredity. What the tradition in effect provided was a convenient myth to justify and to sustain paternal striving: for many a concern, the building-up or maintaining of something to pass on to one’s sons – or, in default of sons, some other close relations – has been its principal driving-force. The stronger-willed the father, the less inclined he has always been to fight back that eternal temptation for parents to fashion their children in their own image. Moreover, the ability to hold out the promise of a well-buttressed livelihood – or, better still, a limitless horizon of wealth – in return for a mere modicum of labour has long been the ideal way of prolonging patria potestas into one’s offsprings’ maturer years.–

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