Following the publication of his new title, Arthur Mee: A Biography, we were able to catch up with Keith Crawford to ask him some questions about himself and his work!
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I came across Arthur Mee by accident. I knew that he had edited the Children’s Encyclopaedia but that was about it really. Then I came across the Children’s Newspaper that he also edited.
I was reading copies in preparation for some articles I wanted to write on how on the politics and ideology of educational materials for children were constructed. The more I found out about Mee the more intrigued I was by a man who today is largely forgotten but who in the early decades of the 20th Century was something of a media personality and a brand name.
I suppose what grabbed me was when he told his friend John Hammerton “I know nothing about children.” Things really took off from that point and I abandoned my original plan to focus on writing the book.
2. What does your writing process consist of?
I like to research quite a bit before I put anything down on paper. Once I have a sense of what I think a chapter might be about I then try to come up with a structure and begin writing. Each chapter is then modelled so that I can see whether or not they link together in something approaching a coherent manner.
Once I start writing I begin somewhere in the chapter, not always the beginning, so I can get something down. I’ll then shape what I have written, move text about, leave it alone for a few days and go back and read it again. I’ll then move about the chapters and watch the thing grow. One thing I do is to change the way the thing looks on the page by altering the font and the formatting; that makes me think I might be reading something for the first time. I’ll also print out chapters and edit them manually, I prefer it that way.
I don’t set myself daily or weekly targets of how much I write but I do prefer to write in the morning rather than the evening. I think I am pretty forensic at dumping stuff and editing material. For this book I think I wrote four drafts before I convinced myself that I wasn’t making any more progress.
3. In your experience of studying Arthur Mee so closely, did your understanding and relationship with the subject develop over the course of the book? If so, how?
I suppose one of the issues that biographers might have as they get close to their subject is to avoid the difficulty of liking or disliking them. I made a conscious effort to try and not fall into that trap so that, as objectively as I could, I could write something that explored his strengths and weaknesses both professionally and personally. I also tried to avoid anachronism by not judging Mee and his values from a 21st Century perspective. I suppose we had a relationship, I was never entirely sure what it was although we were never friends; I found him intriguing and interesting and at times a man full of what seemed to be obvious contradictions.
4. What are the main ideas that the book explores?
I was interested in trying to relate how Arthur Mee saw his world within the social and political context within which he lived. The material I used was rich enough to help critically investigate how Mee saw the nation in the first decades of the 20th Century.
So, I found myself exploring his religious values, his unfettered devotion to all things English and his total commitment to the British Empire as, in his view, a benevolent source of good. Those three issues really did guide the manner in which he described and interpreted his world and they run through much of the book.
Mee had a lot to say about how his Victorian and Edwardian view of the world was challenged by the demands of cultural and social change. He was fascinated by scientific and technological change and appalled by aspects of social change that threatened his core values. How he came to terms with what he thought were disturbing cultural and social change during in the 1920s and 1930s is a theme within the book.
5. Which writers or academics do you think have had the greatest impact on you and why?
I guess I’ve read so much over the years that identifying what writers have influenced me is quite difficult. As an academic I was influenced by the writing of Michael Apple and other writers that were exploring the social construction of knowledge.
Like many academics I had a dalliance with postmodernism and wrote a few things about it but frankly became quite bored with the whole idea. I also enjoy reading biographies of writers, politicians, cultural figures etc. I very much enjoyed Samuel Hynes’ The Edwardian Turn of Mind for the way it tried to unpack the mind set of Edwardian England. But I suppose it is ideas rather than specific writers that interest me most.
6. Who do you think the book will appeal most to?
I was trying to write a book that might appeal to an academic and a general audience. I was conscious of that the fact that my background might lead me to write something that had an academic thread within it but I also was conscious that there are still many people who remember reading an Arthur Mee publication and I wanted to write something that people would find interesting.
So, the book has endnotes for those who want to go through them but I am hopeful that it will also appeal to those who want nothing to do with endnotes but are just interested in the man’s story. It was the story that interested me.
7. What are the most obscure notions the book explores?
As I worked my way through the resources I was using it quickly became clear that although there was a powerful sense of romanticism attached to Mee’s work and that he could rightly be labelled a romantic, the professional world within which he worked was far from romantic.
He functioned with a highly competitive environment where the necessity to make profits from the publications he wrote was paramount. He never lost sight of that fact – making money was always important to him.
First and foremost he was a journalist and in a sense he stumbled into writing and editing for children because they represented a huge market. But he did find himself under pressure to edit things that would sell and there was always a tension between what he wanted to do, what he was interested in and what his employers told him he had to write and edit. There was at least one magazine he edited that he wanted nothing to do with.
7. Who are your favourite authors?
This is difficult, there are too many. But when I think about it is topics and ideas I like reading about rather than following a particular author. There are exceptions; I still enjoy reading and re-reading Jane Austen, the use of language is stunning. I also enjoyed Scott Fitzgerald’s writing.
8. From your author questionnaire, you detail being very involved in the theoretical and practical sides of education. How do you think this has influenced your writing career?
I think it was probably taught me some discipline when it comes to writing and I think it has honed whatever research skills I may have. I also try to adopt a methodical and organised approach to the writing.
I also sense in my writing that it may have led at times to an excess of precision or at least a writing style- for better or worse- that has been developed within an academic culture – I’m the first to admit that this can often be really dull. There were times when I thought I needed to drag that back a bit to make things more accessible. I guess it was the tension between writing for an academic and a general audience that occupied my thoughts at times.
9. What is the most interesting fact that you have discovered about Arthur Mee in the process of writing the book?
I found myself being interested in his approach to modernity, or how the world as he knew it began to change beyond all recognition in the 1920s and 1930s. I think Mee found that a problematic couple of decades. He was very much a Victorian and Edwardian in the way he thought and to see the social and cultural world re-shaped caused him unease. On one hand he was a man with a strong social conscious with values associated with aspects of Christian socialism.
On the other hand he was conservative and authoritarian when it came to social tastes, manners and attitudes. He was quite happy to support the banning and censoring of films, books and some material on the BBC. Jazz and the use of slang were an abomination to him! Like many of his generation I do not think that he ever fully came to grips with social and cultural change.
10. Alongside having taking a diverse interest in the world of academia, we have learned that you also have an array of hobbies- tell us about these!
Hobbies, it’s been Arthur Mee for a while! Well I suppose I’m a bit of film buff; I read a lot, usually history and biography although I do unashamedly admit to enjoying good detective fiction! Music is really important to me; I’ll listen to classical music most days, I enjoy jazz (Arthur Mee hated it!) and I’ve got a soft spot for soul music. Theatre and opera also figure in my interests and I am perfectly happy stretching out on the couch watching a western or 1950s Ealing comedy.
11. Having successfully completed your first biography have you got any projects lined up for the future? Could you tell us about these?
Well I’m beginning to think about writing another biography of a Victorian figure but I’m not saying anything about it right now in case it all comes to nothing.
I’m thinking through what it might look like and I’ve begun to research it. I have another project that really interests me; all I want to say at the moment is that it will, if I write the thing, explore what within a contemporary context might be considered a controversial aspect of the cultural and social history of Edwardian England.
Keith Crawford (PhD) is Adjunct Professor of Education in the School of Education at Macquarie University, Sydney. His current research focusses upon the social construction of national identity mediated through school history, geography and civic textbooks, school magazines and newspapers in Australia and the UK. He is the author and editor of numerous articles and books on education, including, with co-editor Stuart J. Foster, What Shall We Tell the Children?: International Perspectives on School History Textbooks.
Arthur Mee: A Biography is available to purchase now! Click through here for more details: http://tinyurl.com/h5bclmj