Writing Radically

Writing History in a Drought Year

In commissioning this feature, I asked contributors: how can we radically re-imagine the writing of history? Over the past few weeks, our contributors replied with creative new methods, sources and forms that they are using to reshape what history writing can look like. In this final piece, I talk about the kindness of radical history, and why just being in this present moment of crisis is, perhaps, doing enough history for any of us.

I was born in a drouth year.  That summer

my mother waited in the house, enclosed

in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,

for the men to come back in the evenings,

bringing water from a distant spring.

veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.

And all my life I have dreaded the return

of that year, sure that it still is

somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul.  Fear

of dust in my mouth is always with me,

and I am the faithful husband of the rain,

I love the water of wells and springs

and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.

I am a dry man whose thirst is praise

of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.

My sweetness is to wake in the night

after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.

Wendell Berry, “Water”, from Farming: A Hand Book, 1970.

I came to History Workshop in a drouth year, when the flow of my paid work had dried up. I was thirsty for employment but also for purpose, having finished a postdoctoral fellowship and stepped out of that comfortable security into a dry plain with limited opportunities on the horizon. The great incentive to join the team as an editorial fellow was intellectual; that I was to be paid for this work felt radical, given how much of this kind of labour in academia is unwaged, a form of service rendered to a profession that no longer pays such service back. To be paid for work done weekly should not be radical –  it should be normal. But the best ambition of radicalism, I am increasingly finding, is to strive for ordinariness: to offer transformation so completely that the end result is “why haven’t we always done it this way?” That which was once radical becomes everyday.

Drought. Image: Red Charlie, Unsplash.

Earlier in this series, Will Pooley wrote his hope that radical writing in history would age terribly, becoming silly and cliched – just as all writing does. It will (this is my reading of his meaning) have served out its radical potential, and made itself obsolete, or at least into a self-conscious curio that only certain kinds of bloody-minded historians will find useful to revisit.

That what I do will not – should not – last is a refreshing sort of perspective in a time of drought, like sorbet on the tongue on a hot day. I hold that lemon-sweetness in my mouth, thinking that perhaps the best kind of work I can do is work that can be used and then forgotten. I do not mean this nihilistically or self-obliteratingly; I believe strongly that what I write as a historian has the potential to matter deeply, and that I want very much to write history that matters. But it should only matter for a little while: maybe strangely for a person working in a discipline all about the recapturing of time, I find it freeing to think of my research washed away in a stream of new work. Work perhaps pouring through a channel I have carved out, but then bursting its banks and finding its own path down to the sea. I want, very deeply, to have a word in the conversation of how to make history better: but God forbid, not the last word. No historian worth the name should ever hope for that.

This is, however, my last word (or last word for now, to hedge my bets) for History Workshop, as my two-year tenure as an editorial fellow comes to an end. History Workshop has been part of my every day, its radical heart becoming part of my own. Through precarity, job interviews, being offered a permanent job, being threatened with redundancy from that job, and other everyday mundanities astonishing in their personal impact: my child’s first day at school, births and deaths among the people I hold dear. Even changing my fringe – now there’s a radical act. Living all these things, the past half-year, in the shadow of the curse may you live in interesting times. Each day with the potential to be lived radically. Some of that potential squandered, some taken up.

My daughter’s birthday cake, made on the hottest day of the year; eaten with gusto, without thought for the heat.

None of that is history; all of that is history. I have been doing the work of history all through this time, in the work of my hands typing meeting minutes and baking birthday cakes and logging into Blackboard for classes delivered to students in person and then not in person and then perhaps – perhaps not? – back again. Doing history is for very few of us just in the luxurious terror of unlimited time to read and write, or even in the breathless rush of teaching history to class after class of undergraduates. Doing history is happening in the uploading videos, breathing into a mask to visit campus for the first time in six months, it is writing ideas down in a journal in a spare few minutes while your child watches TV because you’ve read that this can keep you on track with your research –

It is fragmented and it is hard labour, it is work of the body as much of the mind. Writing radically, the authors I have featured this series say in one way or another, is both embracing the fragmentary and accepting the labour; it is a letting go of perfection.

But of course we do try to model that letting-go elegantly, in line breaks and caesura, in the hop and skip of our stylistic choices that tell our readers how hard this is but try to show them that it doesn’t make us break a sweat. Sweetness like waking in the night, hearing rain on the roof: effortless and inevitable as a change in the weather.

This summer has been a strange one, thermometer reaching a feels like temperature of 37C in the city where I live, a heat that feels unnatural in Britain, out of the order of things. An overheated summer to be working in an industry boiling over with the effects of inequalities in schools, exams, funding, employment, working conditions. A summer when the skies have constantly rumbled with thunder without rain, a relentless promise of change that never comes.

This summer I have been working on making my own changes: to my writing and to myself. I talk a good talk about letting go of perfectionism, when in fact for me the process of writing – the part where it is rough and lumpen – is as uncomfortable as vomiting up a stone, a wrongness that leaves behind it something raw. I write blog posts and magazine articles that hint, elegantly, at that rawness, have it praised as honesty, but it is of course a cultivated truth: no diamond in the rough, but a pearl I’ve cultured inside myself until it’s ready to be born.

When the rains came in late August they were, of course, too much: Birmingham plunged straight into autumn of that deeply British sort, grey air and dampness. This has been a year with no middle ground. It has been exhausting to be in that time, never mind write about it. Yet here I am, trying. Perhaps that is radical. Perhaps for now that is enough.

My colleague and friend Laura Forster has recently curated an excellent feature here on Radical Friendship. This year, she says, has highlighted the “the urgent need and real desire for radical friendship”.  It has been a great joy to drink from the History Workshop cup, and a greater joy to share that cup with others – my fellow fellows, my writers, my readers, my friends. 2020 may be a year that made the veins of leaves run dry, but your radical kindness has helped me remember the sound of rain. What better use of history than that?

Rain falling at night. Image: Liv Bruce, Unsplash.


  1. Moving and inspirational – Thank you, Rachel.
    Thanks too for all you’ve been putting in History Workshop.
    And best wishes for your continuing energies and activities.

    1. Thanks so much, Anna – and for all your encouragement during my tenure here!

  2. This piece has too many sentences that I felt compelled to take a screenshot of and I do anticipate I will revisit them in the dry times to come, times I would find myself yearning to do more than would seem doable. Thank you.

  3. Really felt moved reading this, as it really gave some feeling of passion for history and a feeling of we must keep writing about it to continue to understand History and what it is.

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