The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485

Writing a book by day at an august institution like The Huntington, and re-reading Lucky Jim (1954) by night, it’s hard to be seduced by self-importance.  Here, our lucky Jim Dixon considers the article he’s desperately trying to get published in the hopes of being renewed as a lecturer at a red-brick university:

It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool.  “Let’s see,'” he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: “oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.

There’s another great line in which his fellow-boarder at his rooming house asks him what got him interested in medieval history in the first place, and Dixon responds to the effect of, “I’m not interested in this.  I hate it!  Don’t we all do what we hate?”  But I don’t have my copy of the book with me now, and I couldn’t find the quotation on the internets.  

While most of the book seems eerily familiar to those of us working in academia 60 years later, there are some stray comments and set-pieces that remind us that the book was written in the shadows of war, when Britons lived under rationing and the postwar economic slump.  Some of the book’s quirks also fix it in the mid-twentieth century.  For example, Dixon is always attempting and failing to self-ration his cigarettes (for reasons of economy and not better health or longevity.)  While dreamgirl Christine becomes his excuse to leave academia and take a chance on London, the book’s love for tobacco is perhaps its most convincing romance:

[H]e opened the cupboard that contained his smoking engines and accessories — monuments, some of them costly, to economy. As long as he could remember he’d never been able to smoke as much as he wanted to. This armoury of devices had been assembled as each fresh way of seeming to smoke as much as he wanted had come to his notice: the desiccated packet of cheap cigarette-tobacco, the cherry-wood pipe, the red packet of cigarette-papers, the packet of pipe-cleaners, the leather cigarette-machine, the quadripartite pipe-tool, the crumbling packet of cheap pipe-tobacco, the packet of cotton-wool filter-tips (new process), the nickel cigarette-machine, the clay pipe, the briar pipe, the blue packet of cigarette-papers, the packet of herbal smoking-mixture (guaranteed free from nicotine or other harmful substances. Why?), the rusting tin of expensive pipe-tobacco, the packet of chalk pipe-filters. Dixon took a cigarette from the packet in his pocket and lit it.

In any case:  discuss.  Be specific!  And if anyone can find me that quote from Jim about how we all end up hating what we specialize in, toss it in the comments.

11 thoughts on “The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485

  1. Thanks Historiann, I have to read this. There is a twenty year gap in my life where I didn’t read any novels, much less Kingsley Amis, or any Amis. This looks good. It suits my mood.

    I hope the writing is going great and the family is happily ensconced in SoCal. Have you started referring to the freeways by the definite article yet? The 405, the 101…


  2. The term “pipe-tool” jumped out at me, but I can’t picture the “quadripartite” part. I drafted the thing that led to the thing that led to my first book in a cloud of some ancient-sounding and certifiably maritime Dutch tobacco smoke, (“Sail?!?”), then just said, goodbye to all that. So, maybe I had a pipe-tool? In my first graduate seminar, in Ledge Hall, the prof. would sit at the end of his little seminar table in his office and quickly disappear into a head-enveloping cloud of blue smoke that made his occasional observations somewhat more oracular (than not being oracular at all). He had a terrifying mini blow torch of a pipe lighter that might have qualified as a pipe-tool.

    All of this was well after 1485, too, although you would sometimes wonder about this considering how far away it seems now. o.k., I’ve got the hook now. These swift new Dutch ships brought so much tabaccky back to Amsterdam that it became economically sensible to assemble a small range of individual metallic devices together into something called a “pipe-tool.” ?

    Leonard Cohen was quoted in the NY Times yesterday as saying that when he turned 80 (which he just did) he was going to resume smoking, because by that point, actuarially, why not?


  3. End of Chapter 3. You’ve got it about right: “Haven’t you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?”

    But what’s really striking to me is how thin “specialization” is conceived as being:

    the reason why I’m a medievalist. . . is that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them. Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific. . . . But I never guessed I’d be landed with all the medieval stuff and nothing but medieval stuff.

    I may be wrong, but this doesn’t sound like writing a book-length work on a medieval topic; it sounds like having a few extra orals topics, or a few extra courses or tutorials on the subject.

    And as for the tobacco–surely it’s no more a passion than alcohol? The novel has what is probably the best description of a hangover in all of world literature at the beginning of Chapter Six:

    Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way. . . . He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.


  4. @Flavia: My dim recollection (I don’t have the book to hand at the moment) is that Dixon doesn’t have a doctorate, so in that passage he’s probably referring to his undergraduate work. Until the 1970s or so it was still fairly common for some university teachers in Britain not to have doctorates, or to go into “real” jobs with intentions of getting a doctorate later–after having written something very like The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485.


  5. Emily:

    You’re probably right (I don’t recall if it’s specified what degree Dixon has, but I never had the sense that his training was as extensive as that of a present-day academic). My point, to Historiann, was just that “hating” one’s “specialization” doesn’t really mean the same thing if one hasn’t devoted years and years to work in the field.


  6. Emily is right: in post-war Britain, it was quite common for scholars not to have a doctorate, and indeed there was some contempt for those who worried about degrees. The old idea was that you proved yourself with your scholarship. (Among the historians who shaped my thinking, Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill both lacked doctorates.)

    I read Lucky Jim as an undergraduate, and I just remember the haze of alcohol and cigarettes. Maybe it’s time to go back! My first year in grad school my adviser — then a smoker — allowed smoking in his seminar, so one of my classmates ostentatiously sat next to him with a silver cigarette case. It was the most pretentious thing in the world. It truly was a different world!

    And I’m grateful to Western Dave for saving me from providing the image of the quadrapartite pipe tool. That I know what it looks like without following the link is a result of having been married to someone who was (for a time) a pipe smoker.


  7. Oh, yes–loads of drinking in LJ, but it’s the fanatical smoking that dates it as a period piece. There’s still a lot of drinking in academic culture, FWIW.

    Pace the drink, one of the lines that gets quoted at least a dozen times a year in my household is the one about Jim being given “the smallest drink he’d ever seriously been offered” by the stingy and withholding Professor Welch.


  8. Thanks to Flavia for quoting my favorite passage from chap. 6. Dixon would probably have received a First on his “soft course” and been hired on the basis of that. As I recall, Amis himself received a First, submitted a B.Litt. thesis which was failed by his examiner, and was still hired to teach at Swansea, two years or so out from his BA. So he might have been imagining a similar career for Jim Dixon. Still a great book.


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