Dr Martin Webb’s research engages with active citizenship, ethical politics, transparency and accountability, urban governance, and most recently, access to public goods such as clean air and water in urban settings.
Gavin: Have you changed your shelf for this interview?
Martin: You only asked me if I would submit 10 minutes ago and I only said ‘yes’ a minute after that.
Gavin: I see that you have ‘civil society’ there and ‘development’ there (pointing at consecutive parts on bookshelf)… is it alphabetical?
Martin: No, no it’s not it’s just that side there is India-related and South Asia – but mainly India. And some fieldwork related stuff. That’s actually corruption related stuff <points to shelf above desk>, that’s basically corruption related stuff over there <points to shelf on opposite wall> and this is like anthropology, development and then Bourdieu, De Certeau, Foucault, Marx, Weber, Orientalism and stuff in a social theory bit. <Points to shelf above> That’s old-school anthropology – like Evans-Pritchard, Mauss, Asad, Small Places, Large Issues. They’re not tidy but I know where they are.
The weird thing is once upon a time when I had an office at Sussex. There was a time when I had two offices – in London and Sussex – my books were always in the Sussex office which was where I used to write. When I got the job at Goldsmiths I had this big symbolic sorting out of the box and moving of them to London but actually I don’t write in London I write in Brighton.
I’ve got a desk at home which is covered in another stack of books. When I am not home I very often go to the University of Sussex library to this hive place which is for postdoctoral researchers and faculty. Because I have access I actually spend more time writing there than at home.
So the massive pile of books at home is still not necessarily next to where I write.
Gavin: Do you lend your books to students?
Gavin: So there is no reason for them to be here whatsoever?
Martin: No. If I’ve got something I know somebody can’t get access to I’m quite happy to photocopy them the relevant bit. But I find if I lend them to people they disappear.
Gavin: There’s an awful lot of pieces of paper sticking out the top. So do you write in your books or is that how you keep your notes?
Martin: That is how I keep my notes. I don’t like to write in my books in fact I really find writing in books super annoying when you get library books that people have scribbled in. Those are the notes that stick out of the top. Some of them have got notes written, some are just bookmarks.
Gavin: Do you have you first anthropology book that you ever read or owned here?
Martin: It’s probably that or that… [get’s out Eriksen’s Small Places, Large Issues and Barnard and Spencer’s Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology]
I also inherited a couple of books from Jens. He’s one of my best friends. I met him at the funeral of a mutual friend of ours. He’d just finished his development undergraduate degree at Sussex and had done very well. Probably in 1998 or something and then got a job working for Buzz Harrison and Jock Stirrat doing fieldwork on a project they had in Sri Lanka. They liked him so much they took him straight from undergraduate and sent him into the field without a PhD and he did a very good job. Then when I met him in ’99 he had basically thought ‘Actually I don’t want to be an academic, I want to go and be a hippy in the south of Spain’. And so when I met him I was about to start my degree, he was leaving and I was coming in – so he gave me a couple of books. The copy of Escobar’s Encountering Development was his. And then I ended up working with Buzz – so we’ve got this connection.
Gavin: Do you have any other books with nice biographies?
Martin: That one. This is a beautiful book and it took me ages to get it. If you have a look inside it it’s beautiful. It’s Chronicles of Corruption published in India – one of the authors is Shiv Visvanathan. I really like his work and I met him when I started my fieldwork in India. I had a meeting with him and he told me a load of stuff that I should do which I then probably ignored and then about two years later I realised that he was correct about everything. I was trying to get that book for ages online – and finally Abebooks produced one and I was so happy to get it.
Gavin: I know there’s lots of reasons to go with prestigious UK-recognised publishing houses but [looking at publisher of Chronicles of Corruption] Banyan books of New Delhi produce much better work.
Martin: It’s gorgeous isn’t it! Each page has got an annotated or illuminated corner.
Gavin: It’s very monk like.
Martin: Speaking of which – another Indian book – this one is called Golu Devata by C.M. Agrawal and this is really beautiful. We’re looking at a book where each page is surrounded by orange bells. The reason I’ve got this book is that in the foothills of the Himalayas in one of my favourite places in India there is a temple to a god called Golu – a local god in the Kumaun hills. The temple to Golu is in a bit of the country where I’ve spent a lot of time. And it’s a place where I’ve always wanted to do a quick couple of months of discrete research. Golu is known as the Lord of Justice – basically people turn up at the Temple when they’ve got a particular bureaucratic problem or they’ve got a job interview or they’ve got an exam coming up or they’ve got a court case. They buy either a small or a large brass bell from the village shops. And then they go to the temple and they do a ritual with the bell in the temple with the papers attached. And so the temple is completely covered in brass bells. When the wind goes through them there’s this amazing tinkley noise. You can go round reading all of the different appeals to Golu and you can go around reading them. This guy published a book about it and I thought ‘yeah I’ll just buy it’. And then it arrived and it turned out to be this beautiful thing.
It smells of Indian Bookshop [both sniff book] … I don’t know what it is it just takes me back.
Interview by Gavin Weston