Higher stages of enlightenment

Roy Porter has been the least donnish of historians, and the most prolific. Now the future beckons...
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The Independent Culture

It's safe to say that Professor Roy Porter, the distinguished historian and polymath, is unlike any other professor you will ever meet. Forget the high-table mandarin, the carpet-slippered don, the gimlet-eyed pedant on Any Questions. Porter is different. His burly frame encased in straining denim, his sleeves rolled up, his chin ablaze with docker's fuzz, his fingers adorned with six fat rings, his neck and wrist a-rattle with biker's chains, he is perhaps not the visual epitome of ivory-tower aloofness. You could easily imagine him swinging from the back of a dodgem car, counting out change, in a rackety coastal funfair.

It's safe to say that Professor Roy Porter, the distinguished historian and polymath, is unlike any other professor you will ever meet. Forget the high-table mandarin, the carpet-slippered don, the gimlet-eyed pedant on Any Questions. Porter is different. His burly frame encased in straining denim, his sleeves rolled up, his chin ablaze with docker's fuzz, his fingers adorned with six fat rings, his neck and wrist a-rattle with biker's chains, he is perhaps not the visual epitome of ivory-tower aloofness. You could easily imagine him swinging from the back of a dodgem car, counting out change, in a rackety coastal funfair.

"As a way of life, being donnish has a very limited appeal for me," he sagely admits. "I had a wonderful 15 years at Cambridge, but one day I thought, 'I wanna get out.' I didn't feel to the manner born as an Oxbridge historian. I wanted to be laddish or Londonish. I wanted to be in a world where there were more than dons around me in the supermarket and cinema."

His base for the last dozen years has been the Wellcome Trust, near London's Euston station, where he holds the cumbersome title of professor in the social history of medicine in the Wellcome Institute at University College. From here he has deployed his awesome capacity for hard work, publishing 80 books, several on medicine (especially madness), many more on London or geology or auto-eroticism or Gibbon or wherever the whinnying thoroughbred of his restless mind has galloped off to next.

The bibliography of his new book Enlightenment: Britain and the creation of the modern world (Allen Lane, £25) cites 40 of his own books, essays and articles. You might wonder if the book represents a climactic pulling-together of the threads of a staggeringly busy career; but, as we shall see, the truth is a lot stranger.

The English Enlightenment is a subject that suits Porter. The 100-year reign of radical modern thought between Restoration and Regency, the breaking of forms and taboos, the triumph of reason, learning and communality are meat and drink to his voraciously questioning spirit. The burly presence of this Bermondsey scholarship boy in the groves of academe seems satisfyingly to mirror the shift of the intellectual vanguard in the 18th century, from court, church and aristocracy to the coffee-houses, clubs and societies where the new wave of thinkers democratically converged.

Porter writes with rapture about the new world of talk and debate, of microscopes and telescopes that brought both germs and planets into sudden focus, of the explosion of reading - novels, plays, pamphlets - among ordinary people, the effect of newly lit streets and newly opened eyes. He brings out the cascading, teeming, self-congratulatory bustle of a society no longer in turmoil but in sudden chattering harmony.

"After the horrors of the Civil War, you got this massive imperative, this demand that people should get along. There was a massive knocking of heads together, as if to say: 'You may be Tories or Whigs or Catholics but get on with each other, sit down together, eat, drink, talk, follow each other's fashions.' And they found modes of urban living that would allow people to do this - the coffee-houses, the pleasure gardens, the Stock Exchange - places where people could sink their differences and see what they had in common."

How did he square the period's communal obsession (sometimes it seems as if the terms "clubbing" and "networking" were invented in the 1750s, not the 1980s) with the apotheosis of the individual, the man of feeling, the new Voltairean exaltation of the self? "It was the print revolution. Print brought everyone together in a shared culture. What The Spectator wrote today, everyone read tomorrow; everyone was thinking those thoughts and sharing these clothes. But consuming print is a private act. It's the double-edged nature of reading. And the novel - which of course began in the 18th century - was a peculiarly private thing that engaged the imagination in a way no reading had done before. One of the great fears... was that people would use the novel as a masturbatory device."

Porter identifies a hundred correspondences between then and now, from the six-times-a-day postal service as a form of e-mail, to 18th-century politics adopting a Blairite "third way" - "because they wanted neither a Hobbesian world of dog-eat-dog, nor the old world of church and king and divine right; the way Blair combines a vestigially socialist vision of humanitarianism with a strong moralising individualism fits the Enlightenment very well. And I always thought Gordon Brown and Robert Walpole would have got on tremendously well." But he is wary of having his book co-opted by any political movement as a patriotic pamphlet. "I hate the idea of William Hague holding it up at the Tory party conference and saying, 'Look, we were first, we didn't need the Europeans, we didn't need the French, we were first, we were better philosophers - why join the euro?' That's not the point. The book is about integrating British and European minds and showing how we were part of the great enterprise of modernisation."

A child of the welfare state, his father a Bermondsey jeweller ("It may explain all the rings"), Porter says his eyes were opened by his English teacher at Wilson's school in Camberwell. "A brilliant guy called David Rees took me and some others in hand and invited us into the world of thought and culture, took us to the National Theatre, took us to hear Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn, took us punting in Cambridge and on holidays in the Lake District, and opened up an intellectual world that had never existed in a home where there were no books." Porter was a student of J H Plumb at Christ's, Cambridge, and was launched upon 18th-century studies by the great historian's magnetic influence.

And now Porter is giving it all up. He's retiring at the end of this year. "I've never done so many of the things I want to do before I'm dead," he says plaintively. "I don't play any musical instrument. I don't speak anyone else's language properly. I've a desperate desire to go abroad and integrate with people who have different styles of life. I'd like to see if there's another side to me, more touchy-feely, sociable and integrative, someone who could do creative things."

Go on then: what is it you've always secretly wanted to do? "There's one thing," says Porter, sheepishly, "which I'll never do because I don't have the capacity, and that's act. I'm lost in admiration for anyone who can act, even at amateur level. The envy I have for people who can mask and mimic and perform, who can sing, tell jokes, put on funny voices, is illimitable. As soon as I retire I'll start auditioning for 17th spear-carrier... I'd just love to stop being myself." Right, then: if anyone is casting Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night, and neither Bob Hoskins nor Brian Blessed is available, you can reach Roy Porter on 020 7611 8888.

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