Paradigm, Vol. 2 (1), (January, 2000)

 Paradigm: an editor speaks

John Wilkes


Should History enquire (as surely she will) how and why John Wilkes became the founding editor of Paradigm, she need do no more than ask any drunk what he is doing at the top of a flagpole. ‘It seems a good idea at this time’, he will advise, before plunging rapidly downwards. Interrogation thereafter will reveal nothing further. So it is with the editorship. One does remember being seduced by Ian Michael’s tone at the founding meeting of the Colloquium; quiet, measured, authoritative, above all reassuring. (I’ve known half-a-dozen Vice-Chancellors, every one a master of the well-prepared Mickey Finn, yet I always drain the cup.) The next thing I recall is sitting in front of a computer thinking how to get the first number out. Halfway to Shanghai and no lifeboat!

The good part &emdash; one of many &emdash; is that no one told me what to do. This was unquestionably because the founders had unlimited confidence in my abilities. Only Beachcomber’s Prodnose, of blessed memory, would wish to add that, while having no burning ideas on how we should proceed with a journal, I was able and willing to operate the word-processor. There being nobody else in the Cambridge region to call on, the work of production fell to me. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: or in this case men: editor, copy editor, compositor, proof-reader and circulation manager combined in one.

Paradigm’s life cycle in the early years coincided with the development of the colloquia themselves. Publication was ad hoc at first, subsequently settling at three numbers a year. Most contributions were accepted as they stood or after minor changes. Anything that seemed questionable went to one or more members of the Editorial Board for further opinions. Few offerings were rejected outright, mainly because material was clearly good enough for publication, but also on the grounds that editorial selection was inappropriate, Paradigm being a journal of report rather than criticism.

Once sufficient material had been accumulated, one tried to select the right combination of contributions to make up a balanced issue. This was not always easy. A good journal has leading and other articles, reviews, news, letters and comment. Articles we always had. News varied in quantity and interest, as news always does. Many of the interesting items came from Dabchick, a wise old bird from the West country. Reviews always remained a problem even though we were exceptionally lucky in the reviewers we had. Paradigm had a small circulation and did not advertise. We received few review copies from publishers. Reviewers had therefore to go above and beyond the call of duty in providing their own copies. I should have found a reviews editor, or gone about seeking review copies rather as the roaring lion walks about seeking whom he may devour. However, lions have more time available for walking, seeking and roaring &emdash; or indeed reviewing &emdash; than remained to me after the demands of a full-time job in a new subject and a family.

Contributions were input soon after they were received, using Word. In the early years there were too many submissions in varying shades of grey typescript, notwithstanding endless reminders to splash out on a new black ribbon. The most intractable offerings were rekeyed immediately: a horrible chore. The rest were scanned into the computer. Optical Character Readers are better now than in the early nineties, when one had to spend endless time removing products of the machine’s unhealthy mind. (The repeated appearance of ‘bordel’ for ‘border’ gave one contribution an entirely new slant.) A convinced Europhobe, the scanner disliked accents and other foreign frivolities, as well as having small Latin and less Greek. Disks were better, even those that came in Locoscript and similar long-dead formats. Microsoft Word, then as now, reflected its master’s megalomania by refusing to acknowledge the outside world with reliable file-translation formats. The result was further retyping. Amalgamating graphics and text in Word was such a nightmare that one turned to a Desktop Publishing program called Ventura Publisher when making-up. The results were respectable, but Ventura was a pig to use. Paradigm could never afford to pay for printing, so that the final appearance of both text and graphics depended on a succession of Hewlett Packard laser printers and photocopiers.

All the material for each number went to the Editorial Board. Each member took it in turn to act as ‘quality controller’, looking to see that the contents as a whole were up to standard and serving as long-stop proof-reader. The sheets always came back peppered with corrections, mainly of the ‘how on earth did I miss that’ variety. (Some people need only four hours sleep a night. Others can read their own proofs. The two groups should be interbred, genetically modified, cloned and turned into magazine editors.) The corrected sheets were photocopied at the University of Wales, Swansea, under Chris Stray’s all-seeing eye. Chris made up the sheets into booklets, using the giant stapler that constitutes the Colloquium’s most expensive purchase. Finally Chris and John Fauvel distributed copies to members and corresponding institutions. We were well served by Phil the Print at Swansea until technical problems in the print room meant that sheets could not be printed evenly. Printing was then transferred to Anglia Polytechnic University, Cambridge. We received excellent service there, although the lack of a large enough collating machine meant that we could not go above forty-four pages.

I was never satisfied with Paradigm’s overall appearance. There were modest issue by issue improvements and later numbers benefited substantially from the advice of Professor Michael Twyman and his students at the University of Reading’s Department of Typography and Graphic Communication. However, there is a brutal limit to what any individual can do, using only his own equipment, under pressure of time and with no spare money. One was always trying for better reproduction, especially of illustrations, and a more varied, open layout. Recent numbers have demonstrated that John Issitt is getting on top of these problems.

Dr Edwina Burness’ arrival as Assistant Editor in 1992 was the most beneficial change in the journal’s fortunes from the point of view of production. Her advice over the following four years was invaluable. She was a fine scholar and editor, who saved the journal and its contributors from many mistakes, not only in her several specialisms, but across the board. Afternoons spent making up the journal in her company were immensely enjoyable, especially for her wickedly acute wit, never sullied by cruelty or condescension. Her premature and tragic death in October 1996, and that of her husband, the art historian Nigel Gauk-Roger, was by far the most distressing event in the whole history of the journal and a sad loss to scholarship and teaching.

The cumulative index to volume one records virtually everything published during Paradigm’s first ten or so years. It may be of interest to record a few of the changes in thinking that went on over that time. The consensus at the earliest meetings was that we should focus on the colloquia themselves, although it was also intended from the beginning that we should produce occasional publications. Paradigm’s initial tasks were therefore to record what had gone on at colloquia for the benefit of those who had been absent and to tell members about forthcoming attractions. The first number, consisting of eight pages, set the tone when it appeared, in November 1989, with abstracts of ten papers, announcements and miscellaneous information.

Opportunities and demands on Paradigm changed as the Colloquium attracted greater attention. We received unsolicited contributions, some of them from people who were not members of the Colloquium. Paradigm was always intended to be as open as the colloquia themselves: therefore all offerings of the requisite standard were accepted happily. More profoundly, contributions to Paradigm came to reflect a growing ‘academicisation’ of the colloquia themselves. Those who brought books and talked about them informally were &emdash; wholly unintentionally &emdash; eclipsed by the familiar ‘specialist speaker delivers set paper to rows of listeners’ approach. (One wonders here how far what misguided persons call the ‘modalities’ of meetings affected our business. Most of the early colloquia were held in university or school libraries and other fine buildings dedicated to books and where a single table large enough to seat everyone was easily found. Shortage of money meant that we had to accept meeting-places where they were offered, mainly in modern rooms designed &emdash; when they were designed at all &emdash; exclusively for lecturing.) The problem with that remarkable knowledge-engine the specialised formal paper is that others can rarely add much to what the speaker has said, so that discussion after a lecture soon tails off. Furthermore, the informal exchange of useful knowledge that a successful seminar can produce is rarely achieved except among groups of specialists, whereas the Colloquium is a broad church.

Matters came somewhat to a head when I received a contribution from a textbook collector, discussing his own collection. The piece itself was excellent, being well-written and informally informative. It was sent to the Editorial Board, where it provoked strong objection, as being in effect ‘chat’, without significant academic content. Eventually it was printed, whereupon discussion petered out because it happened that no comparable contribution came along thereafter. However, Paradigm had also been described some time previously by the most acerbic (and acute) of early members as resembling ‘the Ambridge Parish Magazine’. The remark stung, while provoking the rethink its author had intended. Paradigm subsequently moved towards the conventional model of an academic journal, while striving to avoid the leaden touch that turns so many of them into insomnia remedies.

My decision to bring in referees, rather than continue with open house (modulated by informal advice-taking) resulted from changes in the wider world. Everyone knows that in recent years university teachers have been under pressure to publish so as to boost their departmental ‘research’ ratings. (God alone can see how high are the piles of rubbish that have appeared as a result.) I became concerned that if Paradigm could not offer refereed status, then potential contributors would perforce publish elsewhere. On the other hand, refereeing might send the wrong signals to Paradigm’s other constituency of book-loving amateurs. We welcomed and wished to encourage informal papers, work in progress, contributions from non-academic persons and others who might be frightened off by the formalities of refereeing.

I decided to divide Paradigm into two halves, with contributions in the first half only being refereed. Authors were asked to choose whether they wanted a referee or not. The system worked because, to my relief, everyone appeared to accept that anything appearing in the second half was in no way inferior to the rest, simply different in kind. Nevertheless, I should have coupled the change with a still greater effort to encourage ‘second half’ contributions; itself part of a general campaign to prevent Paradigm becoming wholly ‘academic’.

Speakers generally were happy to offer beefed-up versions of their talks for publication in Paradigm. Even those few who preferred to publish elsewhere were usually willing to provide an abstract. The handful of contributors who have so far escaped publication altogether should remember that their names are known and Paradigm’s official memory is long. One day in the next millennium an electronic post-person will deliver bits from a musical husband and his grammatical wife, accounts of renaissance humanists, Greek texts, or nineteenth-century Oxford University textbooks (the last being particularly shame-making).

All editors obviously rely on getting enough worthwhile material to fill their journals. The supply of contributions available to us at any particular time depended mainly on how many speakers had taken part in the last colloquium but one. Happily, we were never either critically short of material or overwhelmed with copy. Nothing was published merely as make-weight or rejected for lack of space. We always published as quickly as we could, rather than holding back material to fatten up a later number, or grouping like articles together so as to produce a ‘themed’ issue. I have never been keen on ‘themes’. Paradigm rarely had two or more articles on the same subject at the same time, even after the few occasions when a colloquium was themed. Nor would it have been easy to persuade contributors to read each others’ work and write commentaries or rejoinders quickly enough to publish a properly integrated product. (There is now a way forward. We could publish papers in print, debate them on the Internet and then print a considered commentary on the debate in the next issue.)

I came to feel, sometime in 1996, that the journal would benefit from a fresh infusion of ideas and energy. Having decided to retire at sixty from Anglia Polytechnic University, July 1977 therefore seemed the right moment to go.

Whatever degree of success Paradigm achieved during its first eight years of life would have been lower by far without the constructive criticism and unfailing support of the Editorial Board, Edwina the assistant editor, contributors, referees, correspondents and everyone else who took an interest in the journal. Many thanks to them all. Here’s to a successful volume two, and more thereafter.


Paradigm Catalogue Textbook Colloquium