Angus Calder

Angus Calder Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the 15th Century to the 1780s will be published in March. He is the author of The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945.

God’s Own

Angus Calder, 12 March 1992

It is no surprise when you arrive in Harare, formerly Salisbury, and a taxi driver recommends the Courtney Hotel. After all, there is still a hotel named after Speke in Kampala, Uganda, and the New Stanley Hotel has remained a well-known establishment in Nairobi. But to discover that the Courtney is in Selous Avenue is more of a jolt It’s over a decade since Mugabe and his guerrillas in effect won the war to liberate Zimbabwe, but its capital’s street names are a bizarre mélange. North of Selous the next avenue is Livingstone; then comes Herbert Chitepo, named after an African leader martyred in the struggle. To the south, Baker and Speke intrude between Samora Machel and Mugabe. Since those two famous explorers never came anywhere near the territory formerly known as Southern Rhodesia, their continued invocation in the centre of decolonised Harare is remarkable testimony to the charisma attached to the myth of the doughty white man worming into the core of a dark continent.

Enemies of Promise

Angus Calder, 2 March 1989

Just seventy years after Friday, 31 January 1919, when troops and tanks stood by to quell a mass rally, in Glasgow’s George Square, of West of Scotland workers campaigning for a forty-hour week, the event was remembered in the People’s Palace, the museum of labour history on Glasgow Green. A bronze bust of Willie Gallacher by Ian Walters was not so much unveiled as proclaimed. It sits at the top of the building, in the room where Ken Currie’s controversial Rivera-style murals of working-class history can be seen around the ceiling: but the speeches were made in the Winter Garden downstairs, where heavy rain dripping through the glass roof and a chill which gnawed one’s bowels did not dismay the two hundred people who had gathered to honour the man who from 1935 to 1950 was Honourable Member for West Fife (Comm.), and an activist long before that on the Clyde Workers Committee.

Collected Works

Angus Calder, 5 January 1989

The Book of Genesis explains that work is a punishment inflicted on humans for Adam’s Fall. In the Authorised Version, God tells Adam: ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.’ The New English Bible translates as ‘labour’ what King James’s scholars called ‘sorrow’ – ‘Accursed shall be the ground on your account. With labour you shall win your food from it.’ A few pages later comes the very odd passage in which Noah’s son Ham sees him naked when drunk. Awakening from his stupor, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan – ‘a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren’ – and this text was used by Early Modern Europeans to justify the translation of black Africans into the doleful state of chattel slavery.’

Cropping the bluebells

Angus Calder, 22 January 1987

Professor Smout has had the difficult task of providing a sequel to a book which now looks like a landmark in Scottish historiography. Published in 1969, his History of the Scottish People 1560-1830 combined economic, social and cultural history to provide a new overview of Scotland in transition which dissolved mythologies and liberated imagination. Its effects have been seen in many valuable monographs published since. As the Scottish landscape was once transformed by lairdly improvers, so Smout and his followers have created fertile fields where there were once intellectual bogs. Thus, while Dr Leneman’s Living in Atholl is not going to shake post-Smout conceptions – it is essentially a conscientious sifting of the Atholl Muniments in Blair Castle and shows signs of necessary deference towards the ducal line whose latest representative honours it with a foreword – it contributes new tinctures and shadows to our picture of 18th-century Scotland. The Atholl estates straddled Highlands and Lowlands. Dr Leneman, who makes enterprising use of Gaelic verse, quotes in translation a poem of 1781 which salutes the Duke’s lovely province:’

Joining up

Angus Calder, 3 April 1986

A major in the Royal Anglian Regiment talks to Tony Parker about battle:

Outbreak of Pleasure

Angus Calder, 23 January 1986

Towards the end of the Second World War, the Common Wealth Party produced a striking leaflet – ‘Again?’ – to play on the widespread fear among British voters that victory over Nazism was merely the prelude to a return to mass unemployment at home and continued international insecurity. The ‘old order’ had failed. A ‘new society’ was necessary. ‘The 60,000,000 colonial peoples, fighting against exploitation’, were ‘our allies in the struggle for a new society’ and must be given self-government at the earliest opportunity. Meanwhile, the war itself was ‘part of a world revolution of the common man, aimed at a new world of plenty and security’.’

A fat old goat lords it over the compound of the Uganda Club in Kampala. Once the preserve of colonial officials, now that of MPs and other top men in Milton Obote’s ruling Uganda People’s Congress, the Club has residential accommodation for official guests, of whom I am one. The goat totters about, browses the lush grass, chomps mango leaves and pieces of paper, or sprawls against a wall, jaws slowly working over (it seems) nothing, its hard-boiled yellow eyes suggesting mystic withdrawal. Its grossness, in profile, makes one think of a cow. But when small boys or bored askaris tease it, it is transformed, it is doglike.

What did they do in the war?

Angus Calder, 20 June 1985

When, in War and Peace, young Nikolai Rostov first rides, into action with his fellow hussars against the French at Austerlitz, he feels that the longed-for time has come ‘to experience the intoxication of a charge’, about which he has heard so much. At first he is indeed elated, but then the unseen enemy suddenly becomes visible, Rostov’s horse is shot under him, there is ‘around him nothing but the still earth and the stubble’. Frenchmen approach. ‘Who are they? Are they coming at me? Can they be running at me? And why? To kill me? Me whom everyone is so fond of?’ His family’s love makes it seem impossible that these people intend to kill him. Then as a Frenchman bears down with fixed bayonet, Nikolai flings his pistol at him and runs for the nearest bushes, possessed by ‘a single unmixed instinct of fear for his young and happy life’.

For ever Walsall

Angus Calder, 21 March 1985

There are, of course, purely academic reasons for fresh syntheses of modern British history. The accumulation of new specialist studies must sooner or later compel wholesale revisions of the overall ’story’. But the underlying compulsion is social. There are no ‘pure’ sciences, and even if there were, history would not be one of them. Thatcherism, if it is to survive, needs to reconstruct our sense of history so as to legitimate itself. Its opponents must struggle towards a better understanding of how Thatcherism became possible. The battle is swung in their favour by the paradox that Thatcherism threatens to destroy the very feeling of deep-rooted continuity and steady evolution in British life which has always favoured conservatism – at least with a small ‘c’ But the anti-Thatcherite’s problem is to construct new perspectives which will make sense of the choices for which they ask, and will counteract that fatalism which is the Thatcherites’ best substitute for faith in continuity. How can we revise history so that imitation of the USA and support for US policies does not appear to be the only possible course for a superseded imperial power still on the skids? How can continued emphasis on communitarian values be reconciled with opposition to the state, now exposed as the violent creature that Hobbes claimed it was?’

Sexual Tories

Angus Calder, 17 May 1984

Twenty-odd years ago I was lucky enough to hear the great Jeannie Robertson, then at the height of her powers as a singer in Scots of anything from ‘classic’ ballads to sheer bawdy. During a sunny lunchtime in Cambridge, after giving a formal recital, she sat outside a pub drinking, talking and singing. One of the ‘travelling people’, turned Aberdeen housewife, subsequently ‘discovered’ and launched as a public performer, she spoke of the time when King James had roamed the country as a gaberlunzie man as if it was just a moment before yesterday. What she sang seemed to her to be fact, or at any rate truth, and her historical sense collapsed chronology. I was moved to remember this by J.F.C. Harrison’s ‘coda’ to his fine new book: ‘As writers like Thomas Hardy have noted, there is a certain timelessness about the common people, which means that in the last resort their experience can be expressed by myth as well as by history.’

Bolsheviks and Bohemians

Angus Calder, 5 April 1984

In the middle of the first decade of this century, there were, of course, rumours of wars, and Russia had just been convulsed by revolution. Though German lager was a well-loved tipple in London nightspots, Britons were bound to wonder if Germany wasn’t winning the worldwide battle for markets and whether conflict with her could be avoided: meanwhile, the British Empire seemed at its zenith and Kipling and Newbolt were the most flourishing poets of the day. After ‘much falling’, Lionel Johnson had made his legendary descent to death from a bar stool, and Yeats’s other companions were no longer to be found in the Cheshire Cheese. The ‘Nineties’ were well over; Ezra Pound had not yet arrived in London, but a protean new movement, which would later be called ‘Georgianism’, was spawning in the Edwardian metropolis, where a great newspaper and periodical press, in its heyday before broadcasting and movies, made it possible for aspirants to literary fame to hack their way to a modest living.

The Myth of 1940

Angus Calder, 16 October 1980

On 16 May 1940, when the German Army had just overwhelmed Holland, police swooped to arrest 3,000 men born in the Reich but now living in Britain. Some were billeted in the offices of the Tote organisation. Queuing for lunch, one detainee saw an army officer brandishing a revolver at a boy:



11 March 1993

David Townsend (Letters, 10 June) may well be on firm ground when he challenges my suggestion that approved children’s fiction incites to violence. It could be that Stevenson, Richmal Crompton and Ransome were so successful as children’s writers because they saw very clearly that children had wicked propensities and addressed them on this basis, diverting them from real violence into morally...

The Sadist

12 March 1992

I’m surprised that Doris Lessing should feel drawn to defend Sir Richard Burton so hotly against remarks in my review of Frank McLynn’s careful biography (Letters, 9 April). I did not ‘find it remarkable that he continues to attract biographers.’ I wrote, on the contrary, that the complexity of his personality ‘will always draw biographers towards him’.There are...

Distaste for Leavis

11 October 1990

David Craig writes as movingly and candidly about his personal relationship with F.R. Leavis as Paul Addison, in the same issue, does about his with A.J.P. Taylor. But isn’t the contrast between their two mentors illuminating? Taylor never sought to create a ‘Taylorite’ school. His verdicts on other historians never had the force of anathema.When a group of us arrived at King’s...

The Clearances

22 January 1987

SIR: I respect the feelings which animate David Craig’s objections (Letters, 19 February) to the countenance I give to T.C. Smout’s view of the Highland Clearances in his Century of the Scottish People. I have many friends, Gaels and Lowlanders, who share his outrage, and so do I, when I contemplate certain aspects and incidents of the process. In John Clare’s Northamptonshire the...

A myth now, what is that? ‘A purely fictitious narrative embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena,’ my Shorter Oxford says, adding: ‘Often used...

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Kiss Count

John Campbell, 19 April 1984

The spectacle of members of the upper class setting out solemnly and in a spirit of scientific research to study the lower classes in their natural habitat is a peculiarly Thirties phenomenon....

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Freaks of Empire

V.G. Kiernan, 16 July 1981

‘Revolutionary empire’ is a bold term which may be taken in various senses. Like the Roman and Arab before it, but on a grander scale, the British Empire was a powerful force in...

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