The View From Here

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What is it like to win the lottery? Almost certainly I shall never know, although I devote pounds l a week to it and, like every other player, I have made the occasional mental list of how I would dispose of the odd pounds l0m (a 1948 Jaguar XK120 for me, a few research studentships for the department, that kind of thing).

In a professional sense, however, since the first day of the current term I have been behaving as though I really have received a golden windfall, because I am on sabbatical.

It's the first I have ever enjoyed. Though The Times in its old incarnation did have a sabbatical scheme, I was never there for quite long enough to qualify for one (foolishly, I had been tempted away briefly to become one of the kept men and women in the corps of parliamentary lobby correspondents at Westminster).

Since the start of term I have missed the colleagues and the fun of teaching, although I don't miss the administrative side. Who would? But the intensity of the pleasure cannot be explained by this alone. What fuels it?

I have not succumbed to torpor and climbed into that sleeping bag which Philip Larkin once claimed that, until the early Eighties, was always in reserve for those members of the educated middle class who did not want to work (he had the pre-Keith Joseph universities in mind, interestingly enough). I started the sabbatical running - in the sense that the research flow was exactly where I wanted it to be - on day one.

I have to deliver a sizeable book to the publisher by 31 December. It's on the job of being prime minister since 1945, and HarperCollins wants to launch it during the party conference season in 1998 - though I have never understood why publishers think those ghastly weeks of fruitcakes- and-hucksters by the seaside freshen up the market for political books. The three months' sabbatical should mean that my friend Stuart Proffit won't be on the phone on 2 January 1998 asking where the manuscript is.

There is still more to the pleasure of the weeks between now and the end of March than a boost to the confidence about delivery dates and something in the bag for the research assessment exercise, in whatever form it takes, in the spring of 2000.

I think I caught its essence during week one, in the Public Record Office (PRO) at Kew, when I found myself wallowing in a deeply fascinating run of prime ministerial documents which have only recently begun to flow from No 10.

They deal with ministerial appointments and you find here, interlaced with wonderfully gossipy pieces from chief whips and others about the suitability or otherwise of candidates for high office, some fascinating constitutional material.

Given the scattered and evanescent nature of much of our constitution, the gems are often embedded in the apparently mundane seams of regular business.

In a strange way the PRO, too, is like a club. Its chummy staff are the only civil servants whose job it is to pass documents to you, and there is a new openness to records policy. It is genuinely exciting when one of our MA students, Tom Dibble, shows me the runs of once super-secret intelligence material on which he is now working.

Here, too, lies the focus of sabbatical-induced pleasure. For once I don't have to rush the files and dash to and from the PRO's photocopying section before tearing off for a seminar or a meeting. It is as if I'd joined an austere and, I hope, productive version of Veblen's leisure class without its overlay of languor and conspicuous consumption.

Another bonus is that guilt does not accompany this kind of pleasure. Busy colleagues are covering for me back down the Mile End Road. But we all do it for each other, or most sabbaticals would be impossible in the current climate.

Nor do I feel unadventurous because I am not in some foreign archive attached to a very different kind of university from my own. Kew is my gold mine, and the fact that it's linked to home by the Underground is an advantage (as, for me, is being at home, as opposed to living apart from the family for 12 weeks).

Is it true that the only problem with sabbaticals is the ending of them, when the prison doors of routine clang once more behind you? I shall no doubt discover for myself.

But I suspect not. Because though I am still in touch with the department, I miss the daily gossip which is perhaps the great running bonus of an academic lifen

Peter Hennessy is professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, and Gresham professor of rhetoric at Gresham College, London. His latest book, 'Muddling Through', is published by Gollancz, at pounds 20.

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