What is a university now?

I wrote this for the TLS last week:

In normal times, autumn for me means new beginnings. With the first damp chill in the air and the leaves fading, and just as our avian summer guests are heading south, the students arrive in a wave, hugging each other and screeching like swifts returning from Africa. This self-replenishing tribe of mostly young, loose-limbed, voluble people makes me wonder where the years have gone. I have files on my computer older than most of them. Still, I find their eagerness catching. That first day of a university term feels like a fresh start: the blackboard wiped clean.

This seasonal migration is also potentially lethal. Hundreds of thousands of new students travel up and down motorways in parents’ cars and then flock together, exchanging germs. Timetabling software moves them around buildings in minutely synchronized mini-migrations, forming corridor bottlenecks on the hour. Just walk into a recently emptied classroom and smell the stale sweat and perfume in the humid air. Here is a convivial habitat for those vampiric beings, viruses, that thrive by leaping on and off other living bodies. Most university lecturers have had several iterations of fresher’s flu.

Gradually over the summer it dawned on me: come September, everything would have to be different. Universities would offer “blended learning” – more online teaching, fewer contact hours. Instead of the usual lively mingling, there would be face masks, one-way corridors and desks a regulation distance apart.

Meanwhile the news about universities was depressing. The huge market for students from China and India, who pay the higher international fees, had collapsed overnight. The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that thirteen British universities or colleges were at risk of going bankrupt. Several universities asked staff to take pay cuts. Others announced closures of humanities degrees. Many lecturers on short-term contracts, who supply as much as a third of university teaching, were laid off before the end of the academic year. In July, Gavin Williamson’s Department for Education published a “restructuring regime”, outlining the conditions for universities seeking emergency loans. It amounted to a new higher education policy, including a sharp shift towards STEM and vocational courses, a threat to end funding for arts and humanities courses deemed poor value for money, and a warning that universities would not be saved from going bust.

Even in hard times, universities receive little sympathy. They inspire a persistent, low-level hostility in political and public life. As William Whyte argues in Redbrick: A social and architectural history of Britain’s civic universities (2015), we tend to focus on the university not as a place but as an ideal. This engenders, he argues, “a constant sense that the university is in crisis, failing to live up to this exalted, fixed, and fictive idea”. In recent years universities have been denounced as havens of hidebound practices, anti-market thought, smug Remainerism and woke politics – “left-wing madrassas”, in Toby Young’s words.

But a university is not any of these feverishly imagined things. It is, first of all, a building, or a group of buildings, made of bricks, glass, carpet tiles and dropped ceilings stuffed with pipes and cables. It houses not just students and lecturers but also office staff, cleaners, counsellors, caterers, librarians, accountants. Inside its classrooms you find people talking about contract law or King Lear, or singing in Gospel choirs, or rehearsing plays, or kneeling on prayer mats, or lying on yoga mats. The people and the buildings come together in millions of small acts that make up an intricate, evolving, collective organism. A university is as full of human virtues, quirks and flaws, and as difficult to summarize, as a small town.

In How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built (1995), Stewart Brand sings the praises of a sprawling, ramshackle edifice at MIT known only as Building 20. Building 20 was a temporary structure erected during the Second World War for radar research. By the time it was finally demolished in 1998, this unpromising space had housed groundbreaking research on linguistics, acoustics, microwaves, video games and high-speed photography. Its horizontal layout, with lots of corridors and a lone vending machine to which everyone gravitated, forced people to meet and share ideas. It was a low-rent environment, free from turf wars because the turf – leaky, draughty, dilapidated – wasn’t worth warring over. The nuclear physicist Jerrold Zacharias, working on the first atomic beam clock, simply cut holes in the floor to make room for his equipment. Just by existing, Building 20 made creative things happen.

What is a university when it is not a building? We now have some idea because, in March, universities stopped being physical spaces with flip-down lecture seats, polypropylene classroom chairs, acoustic panelling and laminated notices about fire assembly points. They turned into data packets passing through fibre-optic cables and wireless routers on their way to kitchen tables, back bedrooms and garden sheds. Lectures were recorded, webinars held, essays submitted and marked online.

It worked, more or less – but, speaking for myself, it was a desiccated and lonely business. I felt especially sorry for our final-year students, ending their university careers with a single click to submit their last assignment, perhaps after leaving a brief note to their tutor in the comments box (“I am aware that this file is called ‘nearly done’ but I assure you it is indeed finished”, said one of mine). And with that their student days were over. Into the cold winds of a Covid-19 job market they were decanted, without the warming rituals of farewell hugs and degree ceremonies.

What made the online university possible is that the past two decades have seen a gradual digitizing of teaching. The first baby step was PowerPoint, which British universities adopted fairly late. My hard drive tells me that I only started using it in 2003, the same year that the Yale professor Edward Tufte complained that PowerPoint presentations “too often resemble the school play: very loud, very slow, and very simple”. But PowerPoint had one big selling point: its bullet-point templates and off-the-peg designs allowed content to be easily slotted in. In a more market-led university system, it ironed out the individual idiosyncrasy of the lecturer and met basic standards of presentational competence. Lecture slides could also be added to VLEs, “virtual learning environments”: electronic portals full of teaching resources. Recently these resources have included not only slides but also lecture recordings. VLEs respond to the same demand as TV catch-up and streaming services: the individual consumer’s desire to access content asynchronously and at their convenience.

Used alongside face-to-face teaching, the new technology works fine. The sacred form of the hour-long, real-time lecture probably needed shaking up. This teaching method was invented before the printing press, when books and paper were scarce and texts had to be read aloud to be discussed. In his memoirs, Siegfried Sassoon describes his brief time studying law at Cambridge, dutifully attending “droning lectures” in which “note-taking seemed to be physical rather than mental exercise”. In Oxford Triumphant (1954), a recent graduate, Norman Longmate, argued that this medieval invention, the lecture, “has lingered on into the twentieth century to become the biggest time-waster in Oxford”. During one lecture, Longmate noticed a fellow student composing a sonnet and another sketching the woman next to him. The only student showing real concentration turned out to be filling in a pools coupon.

The golden age of universities never existed. I was a student in the dying days of full maintenance grants and light-touch government intervention in higher education. That world had too many inattentive, complacently dull lecturers who saw teaching us as an imposition. A purgative dose of student consumerism certainly seemed in order. Except for one recalcitrant detail: students are not consumers. They don’t pay for their degrees (if they did, their degree certificates would be worthless), but for their tuition. Students are assessed, marked and graded, which doesn’t happen to most consumers. Teaching is not a client-facing service but an inevitably hierarchical activity. It is also communal and collaborative. As catch-up and streaming services have transformed our TV-watching habits, all that has been lost is the diasporic, live viewing community scattered across millions of living rooms. But when students consume class material at their leisure, the agora of the classroom is impoverished. What was a shared pursuit becomes, in the student satisfaction survey, a statistical aggregate of individual preferences.

Every lecturer knows this routine: the first thing students do when they enter a classroom is plug their phones into the room’s available sockets. Like Bedouins carefully calibrating how far the water in their goatskin bags will stretch between wells, they are always on their way to or from a recharging point. I have come to think of classroom teaching as a corrective to their device-driven lives. A timetabled class is inescapably analogue. It can’t be watched at double speed (a common student hack with recorded lectures) or split into bite-sized chunks. It teaches them to be truly present in a room and to know that thoughts and words carry real weight when they come out of this concentrated bubble of shared attention.

All human communication is embodied. The headache you get after a day of Zoom meetings tells you as much. Even thinking burns calories. We are sensual and tactile animals. That is why recorded music has not killed off the concert, why fans gather in city squares to watch football matches on big screens when they could easily watch them at home, why friends prefer to see each other in person than on FaceTime. We engage most intensely not with avatars or talking-head rectangles but with the physical presence of other breathing bodies. Why should teaching be any different?

Teaching is not a commercial transaction but an innately human act. Unlike most animals we are born prematurely, with our brains and nervous systems still developing. It takes years for us to master even simple motor functions. So we rely on our elders to teach us what to do and how to live. This turns us into needy, imitative creatures, easily bruised by a mere glance from another person, or raised aloft by the barest nod of approval. Teaching depends on gesture, body language, eye contact, vocal tone – those barely noticeable things that make every conversation different. A good university class hinges on what Elizabethans called “lively turning” – surprising links, embellishments and leaps of thought, made in the moment. Talking to your laptop camera while recording a lecture isn’t the same, any more than reading lines is the same as live theatre.

University planners have begun to talk about the “sticky campus”: one with lots of social spaces so that students stick around before and after class. Talk about reinventing the wheel. Some of us remember the sticky campus as “the campus”. The plateglass universities that opened in the 1960s, such as York, Sussex and Lancaster, had very sticky campuses, partly by accident. They needed sites of at least 200 acres, and land prices in city centres were too high. So they were built on green fields out of town. The redbrick university student had often lived at home or in lodgings scattered around the city. But when my parents arrived at Lancaster in 1964 as part of its first cohort, they encountered a revival of the medieval ideal of the university as a self-sufficient society of scholars. After bed and breakfast in their digs, they were expected to spend their waking hours on campus.

Today’s students, many of whom live at home and subsidize their studies with paid work, do not have this luxury. But because their lives are more fragmented, it matters even more that the university offers them a sense of belonging and community. Online teaching is often sold as a way to give students flexibility and accessibility, with everything a click away. But it also throws them back on their own unequally allotted resources. One thing lockdown has revealed is how many students have no access to a computer or a quiet place to work at home. Anyone who teaches young people will also have spotted the symptoms of an epidemic of anxiety and depression. A common characteristic of a distressed student is that they live inside their own head – a whirring, wired mind that has become estranged from the shell of a body that they lug around. Routines and timetables help: getting enough sleep, eating regularly and well, and forming part of that ad hoc student community carved out of class time, corridor chats and coffee breaks. Students may be surgically attached to their phones, but that does not mean they should live their whole lives online, or want to.

University managers tend to be techno-optimists, attaching an incantatory magic to the word digital. The timetabled routines of a university can feel, by contrast, boringly old-school. And yet showing up at the same time every week is a vital life skill. It allows you to ride out the tedium, fatigue and loss of heart that comes with any attempt to learn something difficult over time. The scaffolding of habit shores up the patient, incremental effort that real learning requires. A timetable is also a peg on which we hang our loyalty and commitment to others. In a lecture at Oxford in 2001, Margaret Drabble told a heartbreaking story about the novelist Angus Wilson, a professor of English at the University of East Anglia. Long retired, in poor health and living in the South of France, he would sometimes rise from his bed at night with a start and hurriedly collect a pile of papers, saying he had to “go to give a lecture”. His partner Tony Garrett would eventually convince him that there was no lecture to be given, and persuade him to go back to sleep.

I worry that this may soon be me. Will I ever lecture to a packed room again? I fear that the pandemic will accelerate an underlying trend: the reinvention of the university as a virtual, atomized, hollowed-out space. The government’s restructuring regime says that adjusting to a post-Covid world may mean “maximising the potential for digital and online learning that the crisis has revealed to increase accessibility”. Online teaching needs fewer staff, cuts overheads and has vast economies of scale – at least if it is done on the cheap. The digital university, necessitated by a public health emergency, may come to seem like an improvement on its labour-intensive predecessor.

What would be lost are those unquantifiable aspects of a university education that can’t be reduced to packageable, downloadable content. Students are not merely human capital but creative, cussed, non-algorithmic, irreducibly unique human beings. They need time and space to develop their particular gifts in ways that feel true to them and useful to others. The ancient Greeks called this educational ideal eudaimonia, or “human flourishing”. As a justification for the university, it is a line of defence that fell several trenches back, being hard to audit or compute and easily caricatured as woolly-minded. But most university teachers still subscribe to it in some samizdat form. They believe that, without recognition of the value of the university as a series of organic and serendipitous encounters, the narrow pursuit of market efficiency is likely to prove both joyless and self-defeating. They think of the university as a place, and they hope that, when all this is over, it will be one again.

Poem for a crisis

Never let a crisis go to waste.

Now is the perfect time

to repaint your dining-room chairs

organise your kitchen cupboards

colour-code your spice rack

clear out your desk drawers

and repair your bird box.

 

These are strange times

but even stranger

is why you’ve left it so long

to go through every thing in your closet

and put it in piles:

sell, customise, upcycle.

 

When you walk up the stairs

pretend you are climbing the Pyramids.

Run a marathon on your patio.

You can knock up a barbell

from bamboo and biscuit tins filled with rice.

And while you’re at it

why not build a climbing wall in your garage

and then ride to Berlin on your exercise bike?

 

Make a delicious meal from your pantry staples:

soba noodles and furikake.

It’s amazing what you can do

with half a fennel bulb.

Can’t get hold of seeds?

Pick them out of a pepper.

 

Draw up a learning contract with your pets.

Now there’s no excuse

not to read Infinite Jest.

Teach yourself to code.

If not now, when?

 

Police are patrolling in your area

issuing on-the-spot fines

to anyone who hasn’t learnt to make sourdough bread.

This is the new normal:

Get used to it.

Reset your life.

Appraise you

We’ve had a long, long year together

Through the hard times and the good

I have to line-manage you baby

I have to appraise you like I should

 

We’ve had a long, long year together

Through the hard times and the good

I have to ask you about your training needs

I have to appraise you like I should

 

I have to appraise you

I have to appraise you

I have to appraise you like I should

 

We’ve had a long, long year together

Through the hard times and the good

I have to identify performance shortfall

I have to appraise you like I should

 

I have to appraise you

I have to appraise you

I have to appraise you like I should

Modern blessing

May your inbox always be empty.

May your wifi never be down.

May you keep your charging points close.

May your screen never break should it fall even on the hardest ground.

 

May your passwords stick in your head like the memory of your first kiss.

May Alexa finish your sentences for you and understand them all.

May your Ryanair flight land in its advertised destination,

your Uber rating always be five,

your Ocado order have no substitutions,

and your mansplainer be shamed into silence.

 

And until we meet again,

may your signal bars rise up to meet you,

the wind be always at your Deliveroo rider’s back,

your fake tan stay forever upon your face,

the rains fall soft upon your glamping pod,

and as lovingly as you caress your iPhone X,

may God hold you in the palm of Her hand.

 

 

 

What you missed in class today

I wrote this for the Times Higher a few weeks ago:

A student who emails me after missing a class will sometimes say: “Did I miss anything?” Or, more pointedly: “Did I miss anything important?” Or, more casually: “Did I miss much?” It’s hard to know how to answer these questions, with their unmissable suggestion that there is lots of missable stuff that happens in my classes. How, I wonder, should I respond?

I suppose, as an English lecturer, I could run them through the main points of the discussion we had about the set text for that week. But if the class were reducible to some “too long; didn’t read” résumé, then why ever come at all? Why bother to meet once a week, for a few hours, in grey-painted rooms with tiered seating, or tables and chairs arranged in a hollow square?

In humanities subjects it can be hard to quantify what you’ve missed by not being in class. You don’t get to use expensive lab equipment, or practise on patients, or do field work, or come away with pages of indispensable notes about contract law. Instead you get to draw on what seem to be everyday aptitudes: thinking, reading, looking, listening, speaking, writing. It’s easy to persuade yourself that this can be done at your own convenience.

One answer to this is that the humanities hone and refine these vital human skills which we can all do, but could always do better. That class you missed, I want to say, was teaching you how to listen and how to talk. You may think you can do those things already. But to properly converse, to thread words together in a way that responds sensitively and tactfully to the presence of others, is a rare skill, as hard to master as playing a musical instrument. And just as a musician must practise scales, so a human must practise conversing. Nor can this be done alongside some other activity, such as scrolling down your phone – any more than you’d expect a concert pianist to be daydreaming at the keyboard.

That class was teaching you how to be wholly present in a room. It was a tiny corrective to the endless noise of modern life, and that state of distracted overstimulation we can all too easily reach when our mobile devices are constantly pinging with alerts and updates. It was a brief holiday from that touchless other world, online, which eats up our lives and regurgitates them as a waking dream. It was a small island of shared attention, where the minds of relative strangers meet once a week, sharing the same air and the same egalitarian ideal that together we will understand something better.

That class – I want to say, warming to my theme and risking pretentiousness now – was a piece of immersive, extempore, collaborative, site-specific art. If you missed it, there is no catch-up service. And just like going to a gig rather than watching a band on YouTube, it carried the risk of investing your time in something unpredictable and incalculable. You might even have been a bit bored. There are worse fates. Boredom, wrote Walter Benjamin, is “the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience”. Boredom is the occasional price we pay for being in a state of suspended possibility, on the other side of which we might find more creative ways of being human.

That class was teaching you that there is a correlation between hours spent doing stuff and stuff getting done. The word student derives from the Latin studium, meaning “eagerness, painstaking application”. A good student takes pains. German has a nice word for such persistence: sitzfleisch. It means “sitting flesh”: putting your arse on the chair. To have sitzfleisch means being able to stay in the same place for long enough to be truly productive, even if you are not always certain what the end product might be. Someone with sitzfleisch knows that, if they keep putting their arse on the chair, something useful will happen, and if they don’t, nothing will.

Above all, that class you missed was a collective avowal of some basic tenets of the humanities. First, that humans are social beings, who respond most intensely to other humans, not avatars or algorithms. Second, that we are meaning-making animals, and those meanings are so rich and layered that we must unravel them carefully together. And third, that to be fully human is to be a mind and a body, and communication works best when we use them both. In these days of lecture capture, virtual learning environments and email back-and-forth, that class spoke up for the endangered art of just being in the room.

I’m too big a wuss to say any of this, of course. I know that there may be things going on in that student’s life that make such pained attentiveness, even turning up at all, hard. And when they ask “Did I miss anything?” they only betray an anxiety that they have mislaid some vital piece of information, the absence of which might cause them to fail. Maybe they don’t need another nag from some old grump stuck in twentieth-century analogue mode. Sorry you couldn’t make it, I type. I attach the seminar handout and lecture slides, throw in a few pointers. “See you next week!” I write breezily, and click send.

Job advert

We invite applications

from inspiring and dynamic scholars

for this exciting and prestigious position.

 

As well as holding a PhD

you will have a world-leading profile

for your creative and cutting-edge work.

 

You will also have

an exceptional track-record of teaching,

demonstrable leadership skills

and a proven ability to secure funding

and generate additional income streams.

 

You will also bring with you

highly-developed external networks

and experience of stakeholder management.

 

In addition you will have one or more

of the following superpowers:

levitation, shapeshifting, teleporting,

walking through walls.

 

You will be faster than a speeding bullet,

more powerful than a locomotive,

and be able to change the course of mighty rivers

and bend steel with your bare hands.

 

The capacity to leap tall buildings

in a single bound

may be an advantage.

 

Possessing powers and abilities

far beyond those of mortal men

is desirable

but not essential.

 

This four-month post

is non-renewable

and we are an equal-opportunities employer.

That is a thing now

Herbal Tea for Dogs is a thing now.

Leaving Class Halfway Through to Vape is a thing now.

Melting Gold at Room Temperature is a thing now.

Getting Lobsters High is a thing now.

Vegan Avocado Beer is becoming a thing now.

 

Adding Vegemite to Your Smoothie is now a thing.

Sliced Ketchup is a thing that people want to eat, apparently.

Flamingo Pixel Hair is a thing now and the look is going viral.

Lingerie For Men is a thing now because of course it is.

 

Holiday-Flavoured Dental Floss is now a thing.

Did you know that Bespoke Polo Shirts are now a thing?

Glitter Beer is a thing now.

Hey, so Cockroach Milk is a thing now. Let’s talk about that?

Avocado Art is a thing now. Prepare to be obsessed.

Is Green Hair a thing now? Yes.

Heard about Insect Ice-Cream? It’s a thing.

 

Sunburn Art is a thing now: Deliberate sunburn tattoos are being shared on social media.

Do you Disinfect your Toothbrush? Yes, it’s a thing.

New Year’s Resolutions For Your Pets? It’s a thing!

Zombie Skittles? It’s a thing.

Attention Bubble Tea Lovers: Cough Syrup Bubble Tea is apparently a thing.

And you need to know that Facial Recognition for Salmon is a thing now. It’s also getting tested on cows.

This is 2019 and that is a thing now.

Invitation to submit

Dear revered scholar and researcher:

Academic Excellence Centre

is cordially pleased to invite you

to submit your scholarly works

in any of its coming international conferences

held in different seats of the world.

 

Esteemed Doctor Professor

We get to know your published work

and the topic is pretty interesting.

 

So we intend to invite you

to submit other precious papers of related fields.

The journal makes many venerated experts in various areas

closer to the cutting-edge researches around the world.

 

There are following simple steps.

All the papers that meet the general criteria

of significance and brilliance

are welcomed.

If paper is accepted, author need to deposit fees.

 

We sincerely and urgently request you

to submit your papers.

 

International Journal of Journals

provides superlative platform to the finest academicians.

 

Please respond with your acceptance for the same.

Please let us know your feasible time.

We wait for your positive mail

And have a nice and healthy day ahead.

 

New Year’s Resolutions for 1984

Some New Year’s Resolutions for the inauspicious year of 1984, published in The Times on 31 December 1983:

‘My resolve for 1984 is to suffer wtih saintly equanimity the great irritations of our time: the cult of the ugly, the jargon of the fashionable and the assaults of bureaucracy.’ — William Trevor, writer

‘I hope that Roland Rat’s contribution to English literature and drama is recognised for what it really is.’ — Greg Dyke, editor-in-chief of TV-am

‘I hope that 1984 will not prove the sombre year it promises to be – that the people of inhumanity, aggression and barbarism, of confrontation and conflict, of totalitarian desires and a will to instability, will not dominate, and some sense of an end-of-the-century promise will begin to emerge … May we have imagination instead of politics, aspiration instead of history. A pretty vain hope, I think.’ – Malcolm Bradbury, novelist

‘My first good resolution is to accept the process of forgetting things as inevitable and even healthy. After all, in the end we forget everything.’ — William Golding, novelist

‘If the whole world could just be nice to each other for a year I’d be happy.’ — Floella Benjamin, presenter of Playschool

‘Resolutions: zero. Hopes: zero.’ — Samuel Beckett, playwright

Seashaken Houses

Perch RockI wrote this review of two books about lighthouses — Tom Nancollas’s Seashaken Houses and R.G. Grant’s Sentinels of the Sea — for the TLS.

As lighthouses fade into obsolescence, literature about lighthouses flourishes. In a crowded field, both these books succeed in adding something valuable and different. Despite its subtitle, Seashaken Houses is more of a personal journey and meditative essay than a conventional history. Tom Nancollas has visited seven rock lighthouses in Britain and Ireland, from the relative tameness of Perch Rock on New Brighton beach to the godforsakenness of Fastnet, Ireland’s most southerly point, where he spends a week with engineers on a maintenance visit.

His accounts of these journeys, and his dealings along the way with boat skippers and owners of decommissioned lighthouses, are the best thing in the book. One chapter, in which Nancollas sails out to Bell Rock, eleven miles off Arbroath, shows vividly how a mere photograph could never capture the monumentalism of a rock lighthouse. As the boat gets closer, he writes, the tower “grows out of the horizon in stages, like a shoot in soil … details coalesce as the lighthouse produces larger versions of itself”. Throughout the book, Nancollas manages to convey a rock lighthouse’s utter unlikeliness – the way that it seems, on its mostly submerged reef, to rise up so unfeasibly out of the water, a heroic human conquering of gravity, wave power and the elements.

A building conservationist by training, Nancollas is expert on the construction and weathering of these unique buildings. But mainly he is interested in their symbolism, how their “noble simplicity of purpose” masks myriad ambiguities. Lighthouses, he writes, “stand between land and sea, strength and fragility, the defined and the undefined, the mythical and the real”. And their existence is inherently paradoxical, for “there can be few other buildings designed expressly to repel, to emphatically not be seen at close quarters”.

Nancollas has a good ear for quotation (the book’s inspired title comes from a Dylan Thomas poem) and is a watchful and meticulous writer himself. His description of the “requisite perfection” of a lighthouse is just right; on a rock far out to sea, economy of line and exquisite engineering are a matter of pure necessity. The book is filled with such well-fitting phrases. Nancollas describes his attempt to reimagine the lives of the light keepers as “stepping into the curvature of their lives” – for even their beds were curved to fit the rounded walls. He has some nicely eerie depictions of abandoned lighthouses, their windows fogged with saline residue and their floors flaked with peeled paint.

The parts of the book dealing with the history of lighthouses are less compelling, and seem tonally cut off from the first-person segments. Stories about John Smeaton’s success in taming the Eddystone Rock in the 1750s, and Augustin Fresnel’s refinement of lighthouse lenses, feel like well-trodden ground.

These stories also get retold in Sentinels of the Sea, along with other familiar ones about the Lighthouse Stevensons and the Longstone lighthouse heroine, Grace Darling. Not that R.G. Grant’s text, a compact global history of lighthouses from the Pharos of Alexandria onwards, isn’t interesting. We learn how impoverished coastal communities opposed the building of lighthouses, for they viewed the plundering of wrecked ships as “God’s bounty to the poor”. And there is much absorbing detail about the engineering virtuosity that balanced towers on tiny rocks, and about the lonesome vigils of the light keepers.

But Sentinels of the Sea is worth possessing mainly because it is, like the buildings it commemorates, a beautiful object. The book’s 408 illustrations, many in colour, wed beautifully with its words. It has been produced in association with the National Archives at Kew and they have done a great job of sourcing images everywhere from coast guard’s records to maritime museum archives. On every other page there is some arresting picture – of light keepers’ implements, of architects’ floor plans, cross-sections and elevations, or of rock lights lashed by waves. “Miscellany” is right: this is a book to dip into and return to.

Both these books have a valedictory air – in recognition that, in the age of radar and satellite navigation, working lighthouses may not be long for this world. But then, as Grant points out, the lighthouse has been in long decline since the 1920s, when radios and radio beacons arrived, reducing the central importance of foghorns and beams of light. Ever since, lighthouses may have benefited from a wave of technical innovations begun in other fields – telephones, radios, electric motors, radar, GPS – but they have long since ceased to drive such innovation themselves. Britain’s last occupied lighthouse was automated at the end of the last millennium. The valedictories are overdue.

The lighthouse lovers who will be drawn to these books will not mind that the melancholy is a little oversold. For the bare facts don’t register the endless suggestiveness of these buildings as metaphors for human isolation and connection. As Nancollas puts it, rock lights in particular “emit an unprejudiced message of fellowship” and “generosity of spirit”. Even if we know in our heads that they will soon be little more than concrete follies, they feel in our hearts like our common humanity made solid. Their beacons turn and blink eternally because we accept that strangers lost at sea are also worthy of our care and concern, even if we just flash our lights at them in the dark.

Photo of Perch Rock Lighthouse, New Brighton, copyright Graham Robson and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons.