“With sociology one can do anything and call it work.”

~~ Malcolm Bradbury ~~

The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury is one of the seminal books in my life; it introduced me to the wonderful world of sociology, and cemented a lifelong interest in the inner workings of humanity in all of it`s infinite variety of making the simple, ridiculously complex, and the complex utterly unworkable for those not in on the mechanics of not being part of an elitist clique, intent on protecting it`s self perceived superiority. Indeed, it could be well argued, that sociology itself is made up of a magic circle of academic illusionists, who use complicated language and theory to explain what should really be quite simple: but that is the way of elites of all kinds; human society is actually rather easy to understand once you recognise it`s acute potential for absurdity on all levels, but we don`t want the hoi polloi in the street muscling in on our hard earned intellectual territory, so we`l talk them into a mental cul-de-sac with linguistic acrobatics and leave them there gasping for air. Meanwhile, this leaves the road ahead free of obstacles to indulge ourselves in a spot of mutual, mental masturbation.

Without Bradbury, I may still have gone to university to study sociology, but he really sexed the subject up for me to such a hair razing extent that I was hooked by the whole ethos and mystical aura surrounding the subject: to be perfectly frank about it, I wanted to be a modern witch doctor, a doyen of mumbo jumbo, a “Lord of Misrule” like the main man himself in Bradbury`s book, Howard Kirk.

“Marriage………the most advanced form of warfare in the modern world.”

In a world which surrounds them with renewed fighting in Vietnam, trouble on the Falls Road, uncertain change, new, unwelcome developments and seismic social upheaval everywhere, causing worry and dislocation of all kinds, the Kirks decide to hold a party; not just a “party,” but one which is so suitably, determinedly unstructured and unpredictable, that it requires a Soviet style, five year plan to bring it to triumphant fruition. Howard Kirk is a sociologist at Watermouth University, but in keeping with his sociological ideals, not just any sociologist, but a liberated consciousness – conscious Marxist. Wife Barbara is also a free thinking radical like husband Howard, but the passage of time has not been as kind to her: her vision of a leftist march into a brighter, socialist future of succulent, verdant uplands, on which graze large herds of a well fed and mentally stimulated proletariat, have been shunted onto the back-burner of life by needful sprogs requiring her attention.


“…..get out of the frame and on with the flow of history.”

On the surface, Howard Kirk presents an impish, playful face: he encourages his students to express their individuality and free themselves from the manipulation and control of an elitist capitalist system, which looks upon the common man as fodder to feed into the engine of it`s unquenchable greed. But in reality, he hides a darker face: he is just as manipulative and controlling as the system he is apparently trying to bring down; he is essentially a part of that system, and at heart, although he may not at this stage realise his destiny, he wishes to become more than an influential cog, but actually stand up there on the foot plate steering it down the railway track into his own vision of paradise on earth. Rather than supporting and encouraging individuality, he is a self serving, amoral bully who uses, and abuses others to “big up” his own ego.

Watermouth is one of those new (at the time) residential universities built in England in the 1960`s on landscaped pastures, on the edge of cathedral cities, which were seen as culturally and educationally trendy places, committed to educational innovation, which left them wide open to the influence of the new, radicalized counter culture. Into this intellectual maelstrom stepped the young Howard Kirk, determined to be one of the main movers and shakers of this brave new world of limitless possibilities for career advancement and self interested gratification.

“There`s always something or someone to do. But don`t you ever find it too much work , Howard? All this dressing and undressing, all these undistinguished climaxes, all this chasing for more of the same, is it really, really, worth the effort?”


Howard finds a pleasure ground of limitless possibilities laid before him like a garden of Eden full to bursting with students herded together and removed from parental control, ripe for ideological awakening, political repositioning and sexual experiment: so much fruit to pluck, indoctrinate and exploit; a new world to be moulded into his own image……….What a devilishly naughty man.

As I read through the book, I realised that I was reading a modern Richard III: minus the murders, but with a magnificent, manipulative Machiavellian protagonist who “capers nimbly in a lady`s chamber to the lascivious pleasing of a lute,” as he hops from one student`s bed to the next, gathering up his little apples to place in his basket of pleasure, to use as ammunition against a university authority weak on discipline and moral direction.

So it`s autumn, and the student hordes are migrating back to university where Howard awaits in party mode: the Lord of Misrule is laying the ground to bed his student Felicity Phee, while continuing to sleep with his colleague Flora Beniform and trying to entice Miss Callender between the sheets as well; a busy man is our Howard as he plots and schemes; always giving help – at a price, discriminating against students who don`t see things his way, and therefore, are dispensable; the conservative viewpoint has no place in Howard`s universe.

What does come across quite forcefully in the book, is that the representatives of liberal humanism are a pretty spineless lot; tolerance and self-doubt is always vulnerable to those who think they hold a monopoly on the truth, which will always make them prey to a ruthless predator like Howard Kirk. It has been argued that the book destroyed sociology, because of a potent portrayal of it`s hi-jacking by right-wing radicalism from it`s original liberal humanist position. If that`s the case, it`s only a very small step along the political evolutionary path to voting for that arch-conservative, Margaret Thatcher in 1979……Or maybe that is a little too far fetched.

The History Man is still as relevant today as the day it was written: times and fashions have changed, but it`s portrayal of a radical, liberal counter culture superseded by a right-wing radicalism, still warns us of what can happen when the best of intentions are left in the hands of selfish, opportunistic, personal agendas. Mr Spock once said that, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” which can be reversed in Howard Kirk`s case; the Lord of Misrule sets the party agenda and holds the key to the door if you wish to escape……….But only on his terms. The History Man Rules, Okay? 


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