Views, Variety, and Traffic Jams: An Interview with Judith Herrin

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Self described ‘war baby’ Judith Herrin was born in 1942 and lost her father, who was serving in the Air Force, a year later. Her mother, a general practitioner, never remarried. Regardless, Judith remembers a happy childhood and had a very close relationship with her mother, who took her on many holidays to places like Scotland and France. These trips, frequently including forays to ancient castles and other iconic sites, were partly responsible for Judith deciding to become a historian. While studying in Cambridge, the Byzantine era in particular caught her attention. The rest, as they say, is history – today she is the Professor Emerita in the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London.

Like many other first time visitors, Judith didn’t have the most favorable first impression of King’s and thought the concrete structure of the Strand campus was ‘quite hideous’. In fact, when Judith first arrived at King’s in the 1980s (to work in the very same office she’s in today), the College didn’t even have a reception. However, during the time she worked in a more permanent position (from 1995-2008), other changes haven’t been as welcome.

Before that Judith was the first to occupy the Stanley J. Seeger Chair of Byzantine History at Princeton University (1991-5) and notes a stark comparison in the resources the two universities are willing and/or able to allocate to the humanities. She is particularly unhappy with the decreasing amount of funds and resources available for her department due to KCL’s expansion.

‘Arts & Humanities is a very poor relation and it’s being squeezed’, Judith says. ‘I think the way that the value is designated is completely wrong. It’s always seen in functional terms – okay so you know Modern Greek, what can you do with it? As if there wasn’t a very important element in the learning of foreign languages, for people – whatever their nationality – simply to be aware of how other people write, think, and what they’ve written and thought in the past. It is quite inadequate, indeed pathetic, to suggest that the study of the past is of no use today. When you hear about ignorant, ill-informed people making policy for the government, for example, you do wonder whether they’ve had exposure to anything of that sort …You begin to think that this notion of the all-rounded person is dying out.’

Fortunately, however, Judith has been able to meet many such individuals through her job as she says the most rewarding and stimulating part of working at King’s has been collaborating with her colleagues in the department. Over the years, many people have left lasting impressions. (Listen to audio excerpt 1 for more). One particularly memorable event was an international conference at King’s (the theme: studying the history of Alexandria through time), which was attended by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Petros IV, and his clergy.

But however involved Judith has been at King’s, her connection to the Strand goes back even further, seeing as she has lived here since 1968. Judith and her family resided in a maisonette in Goodwin’s Court, Covent Garden ‘back when it was still a market’ and parking in the area was relatively easy. While Judith doesn’t think the Strand itself is especially attractive she does feel like it is home, and she has enjoyed watching Covent Garden become the tourist hubbub it is today. She was even a member of the Covent Garden Community Association and took part in projects to preserve the area; for instance, campaigning successfully against a three-lane highway that was to run through Covent Garden in the 1980s and saving the Jubilee Hall from demolition. ‘It was very exciting to live so centrally and to be part of the conservation and preservation of a historic area of London’, she says. (Listen to audio excerpt 2 for more of Judith’s thoughts on the Strand and its buildings).

Of course, over time Judith has seen many changes in the area, especially the steady encroachment of chains and the decreasing number of independent stores, which she regrets. She remembers one in particular, the Civil Service store on the corner of Garrick Street: ‘It was a very large store obviously set up for people who worked for the civil service and it had a basement with a food department in which they had a very wide range of delicatessen. It was a very nice shop…we still have some of the paté bowls they used to sell for 50p, nice big round ceramic bowls – very useful!’ But such changes are, naturally, par for the course in a metropolitan city like London, which Judith loves. In fact, she isn’t even bothered by the tourists. She comments, ‘We should be delighted that they’re here spending their money and enjoying London.’ Unlike others, Judith doesn’t mind the drunks that occasionally roam Covent Garden singing and thinks the football crowds are more disruptive than anything.

And despite the occasional noise, Judith also had no problem raising her daughter in the heart of London; she attended St. Clement Danes on Drury Lane. Judith notes that not only were the children able to enjoy the history of central London (what with being within walking distance of the British Museum, for instance), but the staff of the school made do with the facilities they had. Judith fondly remembers children playing hopscotch and skipping to old rhymes on the roof the building (since they had no playing fields). And even while living in a modern capital, the school was able to keep a bit of tradition; once a year the students were taken to St. Clement Danes Church for the oranges and lemons ceremony.

But not all of Judith’s Strand experiences are connected to positive things. She points out that lack of housing for people sleeping rough has always been a problem the Strand hasn’t been able to resolve. And when asked about the most unusual and memorable event she recalled Judith was quick to note the IRA bombing attempt on a Strand bus in 1995, which closed the main entrance to King’s. Afterwards, most of her determined students still made it to her seminar. ‘Everybody was very calm and persisted in carrying on,’ Judith says, ‘not in the sense of ‘keep calm and carry on’ as the poster says that everybody has these days, but a determination to show that they weren’t going to be cowed by a group of maniacs.’ (Listen to audio excerpt 3 for the whole story).

On what characterizes the Strand for her generally, Judith says, ‘I think it’s quite interesting that it is an area which has been constantly renovated and sometimes the renovations are all in character and historical and other times they involve demolishing the lot and putting up something new. But it is a street that is being constantly renewed. And of course some of the less interesting shops may give way to more interesting ones, who knows?’

At the end of the interview it was no surprise to hear the three words Judith would use to describe the Strand: ‘Views, variety, and traffic jams.’

Stouro Patov

Stouro Patov

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