De Montfort University students’ union is calling for a name change, to rid the institution of its association with Simon de Montfort (c.1205-65), the sixth earl of Leicester, leader of the barons’ revolt against Henry III and a key figure in the prehistory of parliamentary democracy. He also happened to be a hater of Jews (antisemitism wouldn’t exist as a term for another six hundred years) who expelled the Jewish community from Leicester. His supporters assaulted and murdered Jews across the country.
‘The elections in the United States have been watched with an interest rarely felt in the domestic concerns of a distant country,’ Walter Bagehot and Richard Holt Hutton’s National Review declared in 1857. ‘Not for the first time – perhaps for the last – the terrible problem of Slavery, long the secret haunt, has become the open battle-field of American politics.’ The 1856 presidential election had ‘emphatically declared in favour of extension of slavery’, with ‘disregard of positive engagements both national and international’. Armed bands in Kansas had carried the polling booths ‘at the point of the bowie knife’ and laws had been enacted ‘on behalf of slavery’, ‘suppressing all liberty of speech, of the press, or of political action’. The review feared that Europe (where slavery had come from) was unaware of the gravity of the situation: ‘this very hour’, a special committee was reporting on the ‘reopening of the African slave trade’.
Joe Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, was overseer at the Ballina Union Workhouse in County Mayo from 1848 to 1850 during the Great Irish Famine. Many died in the workhouse and others perished in the temporary fever hospital built against one of its walls. With his family, Blewitt emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1851. He did well, despite the political power of the anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Know Nothing movement, a nationalist and Protestant political party, which in the 1850s had a hundred congressmen, eight state governors, and a controlling position in half-a-dozen state legislatures. Before his job at the workhouse, Blewitt had been an engineer for the Irish Ordnance Survey; in Pennsylvania he helped to lay out the new mining town of Scranton.
In 1519, eight years before Martin Luther wrote Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague, the Swiss preacher and reformer Huldrych Zwingli faced a deadly outbreak of plague in Zürich. It would have been safer to flee the city, but Zwingli stayed to minister to the sick and dying among his congregation, caught the disease himself, and nearly died. He wrote a poem, later set to music, chronicling his experience. The ‘Pestlied’ is a rare and visceral first-hand account: ‘Ich mein, der tod | sey an der thür’ (‘I think that death | is at the door’). The lines are both alien and familiar, out of time but topical, the archaic Swiss-German rhymes lyrically captivating but linguistically confusing (Luther once dismissed Zwingli’s dialect as ‘churlish, shaggy German’).
My mother recalls seeing the ‘no coloureds’ notices as a child in newsagents and sweet shops. Often they were written on the backs of envelopes; sometimes they were placed on removable boards outside. She used to read them when she was queueing with her sister for sherbet lemons in the postwar sugar rush. They didn’t deter her, on the brink of the 1960s, from marrying my Sri Lankan father. He docked at Tilbury in June 1953, when he was 22. He saw the ads not in sweet shops but at railway stations, on the noticeboards next to the telephones and ticket offices at Greenford, Ealing Broadway and West Ruislip, where British Rail gave him his first job as a ticket collector. One landlady, he told me, asked him to describe the precise colour of his skin: how did it compare to a cup of coffee, for example? She was pleased to establish he was ‘not black but brown’, someone who could be accommodated as part of a wider system of exclusion.
By March 2019, at least sixty councils had obtained the power to issue £100 fines for rough sleeping, begging and loitering. If you don’t pay the fine, imposed for asking for money you don’t have, you risk a £1000 penalty. What happens then? If you get a criminal behaviour order for asking for money on the streets and you ask again, you can go to prison for five years. ‘How could you bear it yourself?’ William Morris asked in 1883.
The First World War and the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire brought an end to Central Europe’s place at the forefront of biomedical science. As the Allies’ wartime blockade continued into the peace, hunger and disease gripped Central and Eastern Europe. Vienna, Berlin and Moscow saw a dramatic spike in deaths after 1918. The Spanish flu has received a great deal of attention recently. At the time, people were just as – if not more – preoccupied by the risks posed by typhus and tuberculosis. In Vienna, one in every four deaths was caused by TB. Dr Siegfried Rosenfeld, of the Austrian Department of Health Statistics in the Volksgesundheitsamt, called it the ‘Viennese Disease’.
Quarantine has always been a political tool, imposed on citizens by governments. In 1631, Charles I received a report from one of his physicians, Théodore de Mayerne. The king had asked Mayerne to look into how England’s quarantine procedures, especially in London, could be updated to meet current standards in the more civilised cities of France and Italy. Mayerne pulled no punches. People infected with plague in London should no longer be isolated either with their families at home or in makeshift sheds elsewhere. There should be new hospitals for the sick and separate ones for their contacts. Above all, Mayerne called for the creation of a metropolitan board of health, properly funded and with ‘absolute power’ in time of infection. Only that could guarantee ‘order’, the ‘soul and life of all things’, and so safeguard ‘the public health of all’.
The Life in the UK handbook boasts that Britain ‘became the largest empire the world has ever seen’ with railways ‘built throughout’, producing ‘more than half of the world’s iron, coal and cotton cloth’ (nothing on who provided the labour and who died doing so, or where the cotton came from) while reformers ‘led movements to improve conditions of life for the poor’. It goes on to say that ‘some people began to question whether the Empire could continue’ but gives no information on colonial resistance or movements for independence, or the work of Black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, Joseph Knight and Samuel Sharpe (or if anyone questioned whether it should continue).
In the thirty years since Francis Fukuyama declared that history had ‘ended’ with the decisive victory of Western liberal democracy over all other ideologies, his thesis has been mocked as facile, triumphalist or just plain wrong; but it has never quite gone away. This year it could even be said to be having a moment.
The first V2 to hit London fell on Staveley Road, Chiswick, on the evening of Friday, 8 September 1944. There was a small gathering to commemorate the 75th anniversary at the site last Sunday. Unlike the V1s, which you could hear coming with the buzzing of their pulsejet engine – Iris Murdoch described watching them ‘tottering past the window’ – V2s gave no warning at all. Fired from continental Europe and tracing out a parabola into space, they fell at supersonic speed from at least fifty miles up.
Eighteen people were killed when soldiers charged the meeting at Saint Peter’s Fields, Manchester, on 16 August 1819. Elizabeth Gaunt tried to hide in a hackney coach. She was grabbed by special constables who beat her with their truncheons. Covered with blood, she was dragged to a house nearby and flung before the magistrates. She spent a day and a half in jail without food, before being remanded on a charge of high treason. She was eventually released without charge after eleven days, during which time she had miscarried.
It looked so unlikely to rational-minded commentators a few months ago as to make one wonder whether the entire historical process might, in fact, be governed by mere irrational chance. That would be anathema to most academic historians, who like to think that we can perceive order in events where ordinary folks can’t. Johnson’s elevation, however, suggests that anything can happen.
The accidental factors contributing to this astonishing outcome are obvious. That it should have come down in the end to a vote among fewer than 160,000 of the most reactionary people in Britain – the rump of the Conservative Party – is the most egregious.
After Sir Kim Darroch resigned as the British ambassador to Washington last week, everyone from leader writers in the Times to George Galloway on Russia Today was quoting Sir Henry Wotton’s line about an ambassador being ‘an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’. Wotton wrote it in Latin in 1604 in the album amicorum (a sort of early modern autograph book) of a German acquaintance, en route to the Republic of Venice for his first embassy: ‘legatus est vir bonus peregre missus ad mentiendum reipublicae causa.’ It isn’t a pun in Latin, unfortunately: the verb mentior means ‘lie’ as in ‘deceive’ but not as in ‘lie down’.
Seventy-five years ago, on 13 June 1944, a pilotless aircraft flew over the south of England in the early hours of the morning. Its engine buzzed loudly, giving off flames in the moonless night, until it cut out somewhere over the East End of London at 4.25 a.m., and crashed in Mile End along with nearly a tonne of explosive. The blast destroyed a railway bridge, killed six people, injured 42 and made two hundred homeless.
Of the 156,000 British, Canadian, American and other Allied troops who sailed from Portsmouth for the Normandy beaches in June 1944, fewer than 1500 are still alive. They are all in their nineties, at least. My grandfather, a D-Day veteran who died in 1998, would be 103.
British politics now looks more like that of Weimar Germany, postwar Italy or the France of the Third and Fourth Republics. It has become quite hard to believe that for much of the 19th and 20th centuries the properties of the elusive British constitution were a subject of sustained, serious and intense intellectual inquiry.
In the grey corner of north-east London where I grew up, there was a station, and by it, the closest among many, a newsagent. Like everything where we lived, the newsagent’s shopfront was unassailably urban and plain, a green plastic fascia and glass. The story went that a young woman, herself local, had entered the shop just after eleven o’clock one night. She asked for cigarettes. The owner, who was Gujarati, told her that he didn’t have a licence to sell cigarettes after eleven o’clock.
In an 11th-century English life of Saint Margaret, or Marina, of Antioch, there is a moment when she gets the devil in what martial artists call a ‘submission hold’.
An exhibition split between the Jewish Museum and the Photographers' Gallery revisits the work of Roman Vishniac, best known for recording the lives of Eastern European Jews in the years immediately before the Second World War.
Last year, a walker in the hills west of Guadalajara, Mexico came across a large hole that looked like the entrance to a railway tunnel. (The Mexican Guadalajara is named after the city in central Spain; the word is Arabic, meaning ‘valley of stones’.) He walked inside it a long way, noticing that every eleven metres there was a hole in the ceiling admitting sunlight. He had found a qanat.
When Islamic State moved into Mosul in 2014, Omar Mohammed observed and documented everything he could, from public executions to the inner workings of the hospitals. And even though it put his life in danger, he posted many of his observations online using the handle ‘Mosul Eye’. He is now concerned that the history of the city under IS could be compromised. After the 2016 operation to drive out the caliphate, the New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi took nearly 16,000 documents produced during IS rule – everything from birth certificates to judicial rulings – stuffed them into bin bags, and flew them back to New York. In Mohammed’s view, the history of Iraq, and of Mosul in particular, has too often been told and controlled by outsiders.
In the second century BCE, Liu An, king of Huainan, asked the scholars of his court to prepare a book that would outline everything a wise monarch should know about statecraft, philosophy, and general world knowledge. The result was the massive 'Huainanzi', which runs to nine hundred large pages in English translation. Here are some excerpts, based on the translation by Sarah A. Queen and John S. Major: If a ruler rejects those who work for the public good, and employs people according to friendship and factions, then those of bizarre talent and frivolous ability will be promoted out of turn, while conscientious officials will be hindered and will not advance. In this way, the customs of the people will fall into disorder throughout the state, and accomplished officials will struggle.
‘There are people,’ Roland Barthes wrote, ‘who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport.’ It is possible that those who put together the recent successful nomination to make the Lake District a Unesco World Heritage Site are just such people. The bid made much of the paintings and poems inspired by the landscape, but gave little attention to Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling, which was said by Sir Walter Armstrong in 1890 to be ‘productive of the most unparalleled excitement in the Northern counties’.
A Thomas Bewick woodcut, thought to have been produced in 1776, shows two wrestlers engaged in the distinctive C&W back-hold.
The IRA bomb that went off in the Grand Hotel, Brighton in the early hours of 12 October 1984 blew half the building to bits, killed five Tory high-ups, including an MP, and seriously injured 34 others. The security forces really should have sniffed it out before Margaret Thatcher and most of her Cabinet moved in. It had been set up, with a timer, several days in advance. As an assassination attempt directed against Thatcher, however, it failed, having been placed in the wrong room. ‘The cry went up: “Maggie’s safe!”’ Jonathan Aitken remembered afterwards. ‘Such was the relief that strangers shook hands, and clasped each other’s shoulders.’ (How ‘British’! No hugging or kissing!) It also failed as an act of terrorism. Terrorism is supposed to terrify. The Brighton bomb didn’t. If anything, it had the opposite effect.
Donald Trump’s tone may be unprecedented in American politics, but his policies aren’t. Barack Obama restricted the movement of citizens from the seven Muslim countries that ended up on Trump’s travel ban list. The wall that Trump wants to build along the Mexican border is an extension of Bill Clinton’s Operation Gatekeeper. Trump’s rampaging deportation machine was bequeathed to him by previous administrations, including Obama’s. And Trump is hardly America’s first racist president. Even his ‘shithole countries’ comment is not new.
In a death row appeal soon to come before the US Supreme Court, Robert McCoy will ask whether it is unconstitutional for defence counsel to tell a jury that his client is guilty, in defiance of the accused’s express instructions that he is innocent. McCoy’s lawyer did this in his 2011 murder trial in Louisiana, in a misguided attempt to get his client life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. The lawyer had rejected the opinions of psychiatrists who had found McCoy fit for trial, believing that he was insane and delusional, and that the only way to save his life was to tell the jury he had committed the three murders with which he was charged, in the hope of leniency. The jury promptly convicted McCoy of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death.
James Comey has confirmed that he's the man who's been calling himself Reinhold Niebuhr on Twitter. David Bromwich wrote about Niebuhr (1892-1971) and his book The Irony of American History in the LRB in 2008: Irony can turn into tragedy, and Niebuhr addressed that possibility in the last sentence of his book: ‘If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.’
On Sunday, Mike Pence walked out of a football game between the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers when players knelt on the field during the national anthem. ‘I left today’s Colts game,’ the vice president said in a statement issued by the White House, ‘because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem.’ His walk-out reignited a controversy that has been smouldering for weeks.
The photographer Marc Atkins and I are working on a project called Fields of England. We go into fields we have known for a long time, and others we just know about, but have never seen: battlefields, minefields, deserted village fields, fields undersea, gathering places, burial grounds, places of execution, places where treaties have been signed – but this is a list of field-genres. If we have learned one thing, it is the limitation of genre. There are as many genres as there are fields. And almost as many Englands.
If the left didn’t find a constructive policy to tackle Britain’s economic problems at root, Leonard Woolf warned in the Political Quarterly in autumn 1931, the right would go on ‘triumphing until it has created conditions which almost inevitably result in violent revolution’. A global slump, soaring unemployment and a run on the pound had brought about the resignation of Ramsay Macdonald’s Labour Cabinet in August, swiftly followed by the formation of the emergency, cross-party National Government, which immediately pushed massive spending cuts through Parliament.
My historical centre of gravity, so to speak, is the 1890s, and has involved research into the London Metropolitan Police; so I’ve been a keen watcher of Ripper Street on BBC2, starring Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Reid, a fictional detective in Whitechapel around then. It takes a strong stomach to watch it; but historically it’s pretty accurate, despite the occasional (unsurprising) anachronism. This week’s episode centred on the Thames Ironworks factory in the East End; and in particular its football team. Thames Ironworks FC was the original name of West Ham United, a.k.a. the Hammers or the Irons. I've followed them for decades. On Monday night, we saw them playing, convincingly (i.e. roughly but skilfully), in late-19th-century strip. The plot involves the murder of one of the star players – with a hammer. It also features the Arsenal. But I don’t want to give too much away.
The story of a village is inscribed on its tombstones. Families are listed by names and dates, their marriages, births and declines, the work done and the long struggle; how someone was shot accidentally, walking across a field, or succumbed to illness, or simply fell asleep. The village’s history is in its street signs and buildings, the etymology of its name and what might be left of a mill or forge, and the church, with its one good stained glass window, its few marks of distinction, coats of arms and hassocks embroidered with local signifiers. In the church or by the roadside, the names of another set of the dead are inscribed: those whose bodies never returned to their parish; the war dead. But 53 villages in England and Wales have no First World War memorial because all their men returned. In his King’s England guidebooks of the 1930s, Arthur Mee calls them the Thankful Villages. Fifty-three doesn’t seem like very many. Only 14 are ‘doubly thankful’, and lost no men in the Second World War either.
In its last week in print, the Independent carried a piece under the headline: ‘One more thing imperialism has to answer for: dysentery.’ It’s a striking statement, but is it true?
There are many ways of defeating a nation. One is by destroying its ‘values’. If they are liberal, it can be difficult to defend and preserve them in time of war. Modern terrorism, we are told, is a kind of war. The French republic is struggling to maintain its founding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity in the face of it. Other nations have been through the same experience, and quandary, in recent years. The United States was only half successful at keeping its ideals intact after 9/11. Norway was much admired for its determination to do better after the Utøya massacre of 2011.
A lot of journalists (and others) have been calling Jeremy Corbyn a dinosaur. They should beware of the label. At the turn of the 20th century, the dominant political discourse – at least in what today would be called the ‘Westminster bubble’ – was that liberalism was passé, that the future lay with great empires and imperialist societies, and that anti-imperialists were doomed to ossify. ‘Imperialism’ infected all political parties, including the ‘Lib-Imp’ wing of the Liberal party, and even some Labour MPs. Yet within five years of E.T. Reed’s depiction in Punch in 1900 of the remaining Liberal anti-imperialists of his time (shown here), imperialism had lost its attraction to voters, the ‘imperialist’ party was hammered in an election, and a new, quite old-fashioned looking Liberal government came to power.
Legend has it that every English schoolboy knows three things about the battle of Waterloo. Each turns on a supposed remark by the Duke of Wellington. The battle was ‘won on the playing fields of Eton’; English footsoldiers were ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink’; and, in a charge near the battle’s end, when his cavalry commander had his right knee puréed by French grapeshot – ‘By G_d, sir, they have shot off my leg’ – the Duke responded with puckered sangfroid: ‘By G_d, sir, so they have.’
The men who carried an industrial drill down a lift shaft to break into Safe Deposit Ltd last month were joining a long tradition of Hatton Garden thieves. Late in the 18th century, a Bedfordshire labourer called William Smith (just over five feet tall, with grey eyes and a ‘fresh Complexion’ according to the criminal register) was tried for a ‘Singular and daring Robbery Committed on a Bankers Clerk in Hatton Street’. And a 17th-century pamphlet, Strange and Wonderful News from London: or, A True Narrative of Several most Remarkable Occurrences there, tells the story of an earlier heist.
A few days before telling Shami Chakrabarti to ‘shut up’ about the Human Rights Act, David Starkey gave a lecture on Magna Carta at the British Library. Asked his opinion on Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he said that it was historically inaccurate and ‘lady novelists need a hero’. (Earlier this year he called the novel a ‘deliberate perversion of fact’.) To hear Starkey tell it, you’d think Wolf Hall was full of scenes of a shirtless Cromwell scything in the summer heat. His view isn’t only misogynist, but completely misses the point. It’s a bit like saying Shakespeare’s history plays are bad history.
The German word Historikerstreit, meaning a quarrel between historians, gained popularity in the 1980s, to describe arguments over whether Nazism represented a continuity or rupture in the German story, or over the comparative evils of Fascism and Stalinism. Historical debates over questions bearing on political decision-taking – such as Greece’s debt to Germany (or vice versa), or whether Turkey is a European country – have kept the practice going in the 21st century. The British historical guild has been slow to emulate the European model, but the self-styled ‘Historians for Britain’ in October last year launched a manifesto using a selective reading of the past to argue for British uniqueness and superiority vis-à-vis the EU.
One day in 1982 I got home from school to the phone ringing in the kitchen. It was my mother calling from work. ‘The neighbours called. Your grandfather’s in the tree tied to a rope.’ I ran to the back garden. He was six feet up the old oak, a fifty-footer, twice the height of our 1950s suburban ranch house. The tree was infested with oakworm, and my grandfather had been monitoring its lean towards the house. But every time he mentioned cutting it down himself, my mother would dissuade him. She didn’t point out that he was 76 years old with angina, high blood pressure and arthritis, but bemoaned the American legal system’s permit and insurance requirements.
Fernand Braudel began work on The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1923. He finished it in 1946. Three years later it was published in Paris, and a revised and expanded second edition appeared in 1966. In 1972, almost fifty years after he started it, an English translation was published.
In André Maurois's 1930 children's novel Patapoufs et Filifers (translated by Rosemary Benét as Fattypuffs and Thinifers in 1940), Terry and Edmund are the children of Mr and Mrs Double. Terry, like his father, is thin; Edmund, like his mother, isn't. One day, the inseparable brothers descend into an underworld where you're either a Fattypuff or a Thinifer. The brothers are therefore divided, one packed off to Thiniville, the other to Fattyborough.
Escalope de foie gras à la Cambacérès, roughly speaking, is a piece of toast covered with an apple purée and a slice of foie gras placed on top, the escalope already dusted with flour and briskly fried without oil or butter. A Madeira sauce – reduced beef stock with some of that fortified wine – is poured over it all. (A warning: this completely misrepresents the dish. There shouldn't be anything rough about it. A Madeira sauce isn’t something you can rustle up in moments.)
If the passion of David Cameron, the Saltire flying over Downing Street and the threatened departure from Scotland of major business houses do not between them dissuade Scots from their interesting proposal, what remains of the United Kingdom will require a new name. This would not have been a question a hundred years ago. Conservative politicians and journalists for sure, and many others, rarely if ever spoke of 'Britain' or 'Great Britain', still less of the 'United Kingdom' or 'UK'. It was invariably 'England'.
Peace Breaks Out! at Sir John Soane’s Museum focuses on the celebratory mood in London and Paris in the summer of 1814, following Napoleon’s abdication. Around Britain, Peace Fêtes were organised in cities, towns and villages. Everyone was celebrating, and some were travelling. Parisians watched the British return in droves, after a 12 year absence, caricaturing them as portly gluttons or drab country cousins. Soane was one of the first to rush over to Paris, where he had last been as a student in the late 1770s. (His wife, Eliza, meanwhile went to Dieppe.) He returned with illustrations of a new generation of Parisian buildings to use in his lectures. He was also avidly collecting ephemera and artefacts of the moment, and his possessions, amplified by the collection of one of the exhibition's curators, Alexander Rich, make up a remarkable cabinet of curiosities, a window onto those euphoric summer weeks.
This week the European Union, with Angela Merkel at its head, fired off a communiqué over the signatures of José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy slapping sanctions on Russia after last month's downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine. In the self-important way of these texts, it bemoans Vladimir Putin's failure to accord the EU the respect that it sees as commensurate with its sense of its own importance. Apropos the dusty greeting that the Russians have given its previous communiqués, the Union tut-tuts that our call has been, in practice, left unheeded. Arms and fighters continue flowing into Ukraine from the Russian Federation. Strong Russian State sponsored nationalist propaganda continues supporting the illegal actions of armed separatists. In a parallel world, recognisably similar to but at some distance from our own, EU gnomes behind their plate-glass kraal in Brussels solemnly debate sanctioning Israel for wrecking hospitals and the wholesale murder of civilians, such as blowing children playing beach football in Gaza to pieces.
The hashtag was invented by Chris Messina, a programmer and open source advocate, in August 2007 as a way of flagging up the salient features of a tweet. He took the hash sign, which had meant ‘number’, and made it mean ‘important concept-alert’. The hashtag’s use in tweets has now developed a style and language of its own. They’re everywhere, punctuating Twitter and Instagram jokes, Facebook posts and other forms of communication. I like making stupid hashtag neologisms, but I’m probably not alone in feeling uneasy about the way they boil large bodies of information down to a couple of words. There is, of course, something brutally reductive about them, and the word ‘tag’ has overtones of criminality or pricing: available for search, available for purchase.
Histories of roguery tend to the tricolon (alliteration optional). Last summer’s Criminal Investigators, Villains and Tricksters followed Of Tricksters, Tyrants and Turncoats, and Rogues, Rascals and Other Villainous Mainers will be published in October. Paul Martin’s Villains, Scoundrels and Rogues: Incredible True Tales of Mischief and Mayhem, out this week, showcases a group of ‘lesser-known Americans’ who are ‘undeniably memorable’. It's a follow-up to Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, which gets several mentions in the introduction of his new book, alongside ‘English poet John Milton’ who knew, like Martin, that ‘it’s easier to recognise good by knowing evil.’
According to Michael Gove writing in the Daily Mail last week, the First World War ‘has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles’. We watched Blackadder Goes Forth at school. Digging out my old exercise books to find out what else we did, I see that I studied the First World War for a few months in year 9, when I was 14, covering four areas: the causes (plural) of the war, trench warfare, government propaganda and ‘those who wouldn’t fight’ – all no doubt evidence to Gove of the left-wing hijacking of history.
Are British governments the most secretive in the ‘free’ world? The contrast between Downing Street’s response to the Snowden revelations and others’ suggests so. Almost every European and South American leader has expressed shock at the degree and extent of surveillance Snowden uncovered, and set in motion measures to limit or at least oversee it. There are popular movements against it. I observed one this summer in Halle – but then the East Germans have had experience of this kind of thing. In Britain there’s almost no public protest; just Hague’s assurance that ‘if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear’ (didn’t Goebbels say something like that?), MI5 splutterings about ‘national security’ and condemnations of Snowden et al from the prime minister on down to the Daily Mail. Now we learn that British governments have been hiding our history from us, in the same spirit.
You never know what might happen when you write for the LRB. A recent piece of mine has caused a bit of a stir – unwittingly, so far as I am concerned. I was reviewing Calder Walton’s Empire of Secrets, which is about the part played by the British secret services in decolonisation. One of the questions is whether they got up to any dirty tricks. One that is sometimes attributed to them is the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, in 1961. Walton doesn’t rule this out, but has found no evidence for it; so ‘at present we do not know.’ Then came the surprise: a letter from David Lea, who said that Daphne Park, the head of MI6 in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) at the time, told him a few months before she died in March 2010 that she had organised Lumumba's assassination.
The news that archaeologists had found, or thought they’d found, the body of Richard III under a council car park in Leicester ought to have been cause for celebration. He (or presumed he) is exactly where he ought to have been according to historical sources. He had an arrow in his back and his head had been bashed in. There could be no clearer physical proof of the complete ruthlessness of Henry Tudor. Apparently the body has curvature of the spine, so Thomas More and Shakespeare weren’t too far off when they called Richard crook-backed. History seemed to have been vindicated. But somehow I just didn’t feel good about it. Partly it was the solemn University of Leicester press conference, where men in suits tried to hold in sober academical check their triumph at a great historical find. They had discovered, after more than 500 years, a body that had been killed in a very nasty way, then dumped with the minimum of decorum required to avoid a public outcry. I wondered how archaeologists in the future might reveal that they had discovered the bones of bin Laden.
It may be because I’m a professional historian, and so proprietorial towards my subject, but I’ve always objected to British history’s being used – ‘prostituted’, would be my word for it – in order to inculcate patriotism, as Theresa May’s latest idea for a citizenship test for immigrants seeking British nationality appears to envisage. For a start it must be questionable how far our history ‘defines’ us as a nation, as opposed to our present-day circumstances, and influences from abroad. Second, history taught in order to teach patriotism must be ‘patriotic’ history, which is bound to be selective at best. Third, I rather like the Swedes’ view of their national identity, which is defined much more in terms of their aspirations – equality, and the like – than of their history. Just as well, perhaps; Sweden has quite a number of skeletons in its historical cupboard: as of course does Britain.
Their proposed route would have led them past the labour exchange, but, as the leader of the procession wheeled to the right towards a side street, the policemen in front about faced and formed a cordon. The column halted: drum and bell were silenced. The organiser stepped forward desirous of an explanation, receiving scant courtesy of the inspector, who, pointing his stick down the road and staring elsewhere than at the man to whom his remarks were addressed, said: ‘Keep straight on.’... The police farther down the line behaved strategically, breaking up the column into several small portions, preventing further augmentation of the crowd blocking the roadway higher up. The Battle of Bexley Square took place on 1 October 1931,
The general impression of the Blitz, fostered by war movies and many books, is of a period when intense national solidarity reigned supreme and class was transcended as everybody sang songs and went about their work. But Alexander Cockburn in Counterpunch draws attention to a piece by Gavin Mortimer (author of The Blitz) in the First Post on looting during 'our finest hour':
In the 19th century it was virtually impossible to extradite anyone from Britain. In the first place there had to be a bilateral extradition treaty with the country concerned. These were very few and far between. All of them specified very precisely what a person could be extradited for. It had to be a serious crime, recognised as such in Britain too; there had to be a formal charge; a prima facie case needed to be established that a prosecution would probably succeed; no one could be extradited for one offence only to be tried for another; and the crime could not be ‘political’. ‘Political’ at that time embraced politically motivated crimes, including those that might have been extraditable if they weren’t committed for political reasons, such as murder, and what today we would call ‘terrorism’.
‘I invite anyone who has a copy of this book to bring it into Piazza Bra for a public burning.’ The man speaking purported to be a priest. He was phoning a local radio station in Verona. The book in question was my exploration of Italy through football, A Season with Verona (2002), translated as Questa pazza fede (‘This Mad Faith’). But the priest wasn’t concerned about heresy. Italian football fans constantly refer to their ‘faith’. The first chapter, an account of an all-night bus trip from Verona to Bari, offered examples of the fans’ obsessive use of blasphemy to establish their credentials as bad boys, their opposition to a mood of political correctness that was seeking to ‘clean up football’.
Well, nothing much there. But then we’ve only, so far, been given a few tasty morsels picked by the editors of the newspapers that were favoured with a preview of all this stuff: selected by criteria of their own (usually what would make the most interesting headlines in their countries); and apparently heavily ‘redacted’ by the editors themselves. What more is to come we can’t yet know. (I’ve tried to get into the Wikileaks site directly, but can’t. Is it my ageing computer? Or internet traffic congestion? Or is someone blocking it?) But it is unlikely to be the really damaging ‘top secret’ stuff, which apparently is more secure.
It is difficult to know how to take recent reports that Niall Ferguson has been recruited to overhaul, or to help overhaul, the history syllabus in schools. For a start it seems an odd way for the new education secretary, Michael Gove, to announce it, from the audience at a talk given by Ferguson at the Hay Literary Festival last month. It clearly took Ferguson by surprise: ‘I am looking forward to your call.’ It sounds as if it was a spur-of-the-moment idea of Gove’s, taken without consultation, which was surely improper. Ferguson’s enthusiasm for the idea is hardly less so, bearing in mind his lack of experience in this field.
Tomorrow at dusk, to mark the 1600th anniversary of the departure of the Romans from Britain, flaming torches will be lit every 250 metres along the length of Hadrian's Wall, starting at the North Tyneside end, to create a 'line of light from coast to coast'. It will take about an hour for the light to reach Carlisle, where it will be greeted with a variety of neopagan festivities: Led by the stirring sounds of street band Tongues of Fire and impressive fiery engines (from Pandeamonium) and lit by thousands of flickering flames, a parade of costumed characters and musicians will follow the elusive and beautiful airborne Heliosphere through the streets. It should all be very pretty, as long as it doesn't rain. You may be wondering, though, how the date of the end of the Roman occupation of Britain can appear to be known so precisely.
With the historical memory of the country virtually non-existent it's good to know there are a few wise heads still around at the BBC who are, at least, aware of what's going on in the world even if they can't share this knowledge with viewers who pay to keep the BBC going as a public service. Adam Curtis's documentaries are usually very good but he makes only one or two a year. Why on earth he isn't given a weekly late-night history slot escapes me. Time surely for BBC viewers to organise a petition or threaten a licence-fee boycott if the Corporation continues to degenerate. In the meantime read Curtis's blog and learn about Yemen.
David Brooks professes to know the deep undercurrents of American life, and in his latest column for the New York Times he tries to explain why Jimmy Carter is wrong to say that the rhetorical attacks on Barack Obama are motivated by race: My impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts. For example, for generations schoolchildren studied the long debate between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power.
At the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, history seemed firmly on the side of the demonstrators. The Soviet Union was on the verge of cracking apart, and soon after its fall most other one-party states would collapse as well. Many in the Square, and most outside observers, assumed the Communist Party of China would soon take its place in the dustbin. Beijing’s leaders certainly feared so: as revealed in books like The Tiananmen Papers and Zhao Ziyang’s memoir Prisoner of the State, Deng Xiaoping knew that the Party could well collapse. Even after the regime crushed the Tiananmen protests, the idea persisted that the Communist Party could not possibly survive. ‘China remains on the wrong side of history,’ Bill Clinton said in 1998. Two years later, he warned that the Party’s attempts to control the internet in China would be like ‘trying to nail Jell-O to the wall’. And yet, sixty years after its founding, the Communist Party has done just that – defied history and nailed the Jell-O down.
Among the many very interesting Russian documents published in today's Times is a conversation between Thatcher and Gorbachev on 23 September 1989, when Thatcher declared she and George Bush were against the reunification of Germany.
In 1880, David Barbour, a member of the Indian Civil Service, published a pamphlet called Our Afghan Policy and the Occupation of Candahar. Barbour argued that the British war in Afghanistan was both morally unjustifiable and politically inexpedient. One of his more striking assessments was that 'the thorough occupation of Afghanistan, including the Provinces of Cabul, Candahar, Herat, and Afghan Turkestan by troops who could under all circumstances be depended on, would require the services of 60,000 English troops'. At the end of July this year there were approximately 64,500 Nato troops in Afghanistan.
When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, years of civil war had destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Constant political turmoil, dating back to the late 19th century and the collapse of the Chinese Empire, had torn apart China’s intellectual class, and driven millions out of the country. The Communist Party promised a period of peace and stability. Many in the West feared that China would come to dominate Asia, and possibly the world. Those fears only grew after the Korean War. It wasn’t to be. Mao Zedong’s disastrous economic and social policies, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, not only killed millions but upended China’s social order far more than the chaos of the early 20th century. Only in the past three decades has China begun to fulfil the potential promised in 1949.