V.G. Kiernan

V.G. Kiernan, who died in February 2009, was an emeritus professor of history at Edinburgh University and the author of The Duel in European History and Tobacco: A History.

The Unrewarded End: Memories of the CP

V.G. Kiernan, 17 September 1998

Studies of the Communist Party of Great Britain and its troubled history proliferate. An attraction for some must be that it is now safely dead and buried: there is no live bear to break out of its cage and retaliate.

Grains and Pinches

V.G. Kiernan, 9 July 1992

A ‘covenant of salt’ meant to the Hebrews an inviolable pledge, most likely because salt has served through ages as a preservative. Early Christians were taught to think of themselves as ‘the salt of the earth’. No other chemical has found its way into the common sayings of so many lands as sodium chloride has done. It has been an emblem of human relations and loyalties. A man should be ‘true to his salt’, or faithful to the superior who has provided him with a living. In Russia bread and salt, khleb-solya, has meant welcome or hospitality. Sowing of a defeated enemy’s fields with salt, to render them sterile, as at Carthage by the Romans, was a symbolic proclamation (it cannot have been more) of triumph.

Diary: Leningrad Renamed

V.G. Kiernan, 24 October 1991

Four years ago in November, when the 70th anniversary of the Revolution was being celebrated, I was in the procession moving slowly along the Nevsky Prospekt in Leningrad. Placards everywhere hailed perestroika; the atmosphere, as well as I could make out, was of good-humoured hopefulness, rather than vibrant enthusiasm. In the evening a multitude gathered to watch the fireworks over the river, close to the Winter Palace. A few juvenile rowdies were in evidence, no police. It is melancholy now to learn of that city, with its heroic record, renouncing its name, and going back not even to its last, Russian name of Petrograd, but to the original German one; and of the return of the flag of the Tsars, which was flying over the Winter Palace when the workers were massacred outside it in January 1905.

Highland Hearts

V.G. Kiernan, 20 December 1990

‘Just inside the fir-dusk a hollow oblong of stones now showed, brown and damp with that stupefied or browbeaten look of an abandoned croft-house … Here was Unnimore.’ Here, too, was David Craig, groping through a wilderness in Morvern in search of a long-abandoned hamlet; his treasure-trove the remains of eight little houses, their stones covered with ‘whiskery grey lichens’. A hundred pages on, our intrepid explorer is being driven across the shingle of Hudson Bay by ‘a sturdy black-eyed woman of Highland Cree descent’, in a three-wheeler with a rifle aboard in case of polar bears, on the track of a lost settlement of folk cleared from Kildonan. His reward this time is a crumbling gravestone, with a name and a date – 1813 – still legible, probably the furthest-north relic left by any exiled Highlander.’

Evil Days

V.G. Kiernan, 10 May 1990

Lord Rosebery described Luther, with Victorian blandness, as ‘the German apostle of light and freedom’. Professor Oberman is another admirer, but a judiciously critical one, not a hagiographer. He begins by summing him up as ‘a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon’. Further on, he modifies this by saying that Luther was ‘no longer medieval, but neither had he become modern’. We may indeed see him in his later years of corpulent dogmatism as a whale washed up on the beach, stranded between two tides. He saw himself as a soldier fighting in a desperate if shadowy conflict between heaven and hell. He had no doubt, Oberman reminds us, of the reality of witchcraft, even of its power to kill by casting a spell. In the record of his table-talk, where we see or overhear Luther at his most spontaneous, he abounds in tales of sorcery as grotesque as the fables he accused Papists of swallowing, and has no doubt that witches must be burned. After his marriage he occupied the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg where he had lived as a monk – a symbol of his only partial, imperfect emancipation from the past.’

Holland’s Empire

V.G. Kiernan, 17 August 1989

Jonathan Israel seeks, as few before him have done, to explain the phenomenal rise and then fall of the Dutch commercial hegemony by viewing it against a global background. His theme is its centrality ‘for over a century in the making of the Early Modern world’. His big book comes close to being a history of Europe, even of the whole world, or at least of commercial relations everywhere and the bearing of these on political relations. A copious supply of maps, tables, graphs, bolsters the epic story that he has to narrate. He tells it in sober language, but it is dramatic enough by itself to be in little need of adornment. The statistical evidence drawn upon is remarkable in its extent, and often requires expert judgment for its interpretation. His conclusions differ at various crucial points from generally accepted views. Some of these derive from Braudel, ‘the French grand maître’ as Israel calls him, whose ideas he takes as ‘landmarks to help plot our course’. Not seldom, nevertheless, he finds the master at fault; most frequently he convicts him of underrating the effectiveness of governmental measures against foreign trade.

Magic Circles

V.G. Kiernan, 4 May 1989

The fountainhead of the world’s two main families of religions was a small Near Eastern people, the Jewish. In the modern world Jews have been prominent among the creators of its arts and sciences and its politics. To define or delimit the history of this unique people is difficult, since for two millennia it has been scattered over the continents, always externally involved with alien, usually hostile neighbours, but in its inner life turned in on itself. It has fed on a remote past and a remoter future, the glorious days of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, and the longed-for advent of the Messiah.

Slavery has been ubiquitous in history, with innumerable forms and functions: something of the truth of human nature is revealed by this fact. Horace saw nothing wrong in it, though himself the son of a freed-man and sensitive about his origins. Debt-bondage has been very widespread in Asia; some Red Indian tribes kept slaves, and were glad to add negroes to their stock. Peer Gynt as slave-dealer was a representative money-making European of the 19th century. White men acquired slaves wherever they went, in India, South Africa, Java: but the Americas were the real New World of slavery, the new Dark Continent. This was servitude geared to the capitalism that was bringing European economies under its sway from the 18th century. A sugar plantation with its mill, and its businesslike organisation and rhythms of work, bore, as Robin Blackburn points out, a clear resemblance to the factory that emerged with the Industrial Revolution; and its labour force was ‘more intensively exploited than any group of this size in history’. By a kind of poetic justice, of the three commodities Europe extracted from its plantations by such atrocious methods – cotton, tobacco, sugar – two have turned out to be semi-poisons. And now the Third World is revenging itself by flooding the West with drugs.’

V.G. Kiernan on treason

V.G. Kiernan, 25 June 1987

Some drooping memories of Cambridge before the war have been revived of late by various writings. One is an autobiography, Reading from Left to Right, by a Canadian, Professor H.S. Ferns. Few socialists of the Marxist persuasion – practically the only sort of people I got to know at college – seem to write memoirs; most of them probably feel that there are always more useful things to be done. Henry Ferns deviated from socialism long ago, but became a distinguished historian. His book, both entertaining and informative, looks back over a lifetime of abrupt, unforeseeable changes of outlook. Then there have been three books concerned with another Canadian of our time, Herbert Norman, a Cambridge Communist who turned into a respected member of his country’s diplomatic service, was hunted by the Cold War pack, and ended, a suicide, at Cairo. He has become something of a symbol of Canadian independence from America, but scholars from both countries took part in a conference held a few years ago to assess his life and work: I was invited to speak about his time at Cambridge. The conference papers, edited by Roger Bowen, have been published, and Dr Bowen has also written an appreciative biography. Japanese studies being his subject, he is well qualified to weigh up the writings on modern Japan of Herbert Norman, a missionary’s son who grew up there. Very different is a viciously McCarthyite attack on him by an American, J. Barros (who has had the bad taste to thank me for some small assistance I gave him before I discovered what he was up to). This has stirred up some controversy, and Barros was very effectively dealt with in a long review in the Canadian Forum (November 1986) by Reg Whitaker of York University. Henry Ferns, too, had a word to say about him in the same issue of the paper.

England rejects

V.G. Kiernan, 19 March 1987

Robert Hughes has written a full-scale study, often nightmarish yet objective and well-balanced, of something second only to the slave trade as a blot on Britain’s record in the world – something that was at the same time the birth of a nation. It was ‘the largest forced exile of citizens at the behest of a European government in pre-modern history’; we may compare it with the uprootings of peoples by Assyrian or Mongol conquerors. His book is massively researched, with the fullest use of official papers, but with the greatest weight attached to the convicts’ own testimony, surviving in letters, petitions, memoirs, largely unpublished, and plentiful enough to dispel the common notion of the unfortunates as ‘a mute mass’. It is, in fact, very much an essay in ‘history from below’, and must be one of the best that has appeared. The author is not a historian, but an art critic, which helps to explain the range and quality of the illustrations, a veritable art gallery. It may also have something to do with his command of style, both narrative and descriptive – his artist’s vision, for instance, of Pacific waves as ‘towering hills of indigo and malachite glass, veined in their transparencies with braids of opaque white water, their spumy crests running level with the ship’s cross-trees’. His picture of the virgin continent, in two early chapters, has the same graphic quality.’


V.G. Kiernan, 18 September 1986

In the early days of June two years ago the Indian Army was storming the Golden Temple at Amritsar, chief shrine of the Sikhs, and hundreds of lives were lost. To imagine such a thing happening anywhere else in India is nearly as hard as to suppose a band of armed Methodists holding out in a Cornish chapel, or Druids in Stonehenge. The Punjab, Land of Five Rivers, was always an exceptional province, forged on the anvil of India by the hammer of Muslim invasion. In British times its peasantry were the backbone of the sepoy army, and it came to have the biggest irrigation system in the world. More remarkably, in this century it came to be the cradle of some of India’s or Asia’s greatest poetry. Strife and massacre disrupted it in 1947, but since partition its western half has been the driving-belt of Pakistan, its eastern the principal military base and richest agricultural district of India.

Scenes from Common Life

V.G. Kiernan, 1 November 1984

J.F.C. Harrison has recently told us ‘about the people who are usually left out of history’ – such people as the maid-of-all-work in 1909 whose duties kept her busy from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Christopher Hampton gives us, in an anonymous 15th-century poem, a lament over women’s perpetual drudgery. His extract from the early feminist Mary Astell, writing in 1721, acknowledges that by comparison with Eastern women, who ‘are born Slaves, and live Prisoners all their Lives’, Englishwomen have an easy servitude, but ‘Fetters of Gold are still Fetters.’ By 1839 there was a ‘Female Political Union’ at Newcastle. Women and their uphill struggle are among leading themes common to both books. Hampton’s is an anthology of writings, stretching from Peasants’ Revolt to Great War, designed ‘to provide material for an alternative history of England which would put the radical progressive views of the people themselves at the centre of the narrative’.


V.G. Kiernan, 4 August 1983

Jay Winter’s introduction to the work in honour of Henry Pelling points to a shift that has been taking place in the writing of labour history – from concentration on militant strivings towards interest in the ordinary existence of working men and women. The first approach was pioneered by a number of Marxist scholars. Marxism has always been drawn to the more active phases of history, and its volcanic eruptions, the moments of revolution. But most of history has been far more static, even regressive, for reasons among which human nature must rank high, or what Peter Clarke in a scrutiny in this volume of the British ‘social-democratic’ tradition calls the ‘deadweight of social conservatism, in all classes’. Part One of the collection, though entitled ‘The Working Class in British Politics’, shows it in mainly passive roles – acted on, by its leaders or misleaders, more often than it acted. Part Two, ‘The Working Class in British Society’, is more faithful to its title.–

Royal Mysteries

V.G. Kiernan, 10 January 1983

What is history, asks Dr Johnson, but ‘a record of wars, treasons and calamities?’ This may be too brusque a summary, but there is really not much history worth cultivating on its own account, or for the sake of keeping alive an industry made up of a swarm of academic grubbers each hidden inside his own molehill. It is only worthwhile if there is something to be learned from it. This book, by one of the most eminent of living historians, is a remarkable demonstration of how past and present can and should be studied side by side. It will be written down in some quarters, transatlantic especially, as propaganda, and dismissed by many moles as ‘moralistic’, a term dear to them, meaning that historians should not try to impart to their fellow-citizens anything useful, but should ‘stick to the facts’: in other words, be content to select and arrange facts in tacit harmony with the prevailing outlook prescribed by the powers that be. Professor Barraclough has written a penetrating historical study which is also a genuine tract for the times, a warning that our world is in deadly and imminent peril. ‘No historical parallel fits neatly and tidily,’ he is well aware, but the affinities he brings out between 1911 and today are many, and disturbingly clear. There is the same atmosphere of universal suspicion, the same ‘almost infantile preoccupation with prestige and an ingrained habit of secrecy and prevarication’. In 1911 a colonial wrangle brought Europe within sight of war: our world resounds with White House sabre-rattling, eagerly echoed by a clattering of knitting-needles from Downing Street.

V.G. Kiernan writes about the Marx sisters

V.G. Kiernan, 16 September 1982

In a fond description of her three daughters when the eldest was 19, Marx’s wife said that Laura’s eyes shone ‘with a continual fire of joy’. All three had a happy childhood, however materially pinched, like the ‘Little Women’ they sometimes compared themselves with. One was to die of cancer before reaching 40, the other two died by suicide. There was bad health in the family, afflicting all its members, two of the girls with insomnia among other ailments. This state of affairs owed much to poverty, as Marx could not help seeing. If he had to start again, he declared, he would choose the same life of a revolutionary, but he would not marry: his wife had undergone too much, and he was distressed at his daughters exposing themselves to the same fate.

Lifting the Shadow

V.G. Kiernan, 15 April 1982

The common reader may feel inclined to lay the same embargo on his writers as the Duke in the Elizabethan tragedy on his courtiers. Great tact, and a sustained intellectual animation to balance the much that is repulsive in the theme, were needed to make a very long book about it as attractive, as well as instructive, as this one is. It is a study of birth as well as death, and among what it shows perishing, besides human victims deserving or undeserving of their fate, are gangrened beliefs and ossified customs, leaving room for a fresher air to blow in. Though an ecclesiastical historian and an Anglican canon, its author treats his anything but lively subject in a lively fashion that helps to dispel its glooms. ‘The stolid battalions of the theologians and the irresponsible cavalry of hell-fire preachers and menacing apologists who skirmished on their flanks’, and their opponents, the philosophes and the esprits forts who were prepared to die without the Church’s aid, are treated with equal tolerance and insight.

Vietnam’s Wars

V.G. Kiernan, 3 December 1981

It was a happy inspiration for a writer who has spent many years studying Africa to transport himself to the other end of the world and look at the evolution of a totally different society, though one equally in the end herded by Western guns into a new era. Hodgkin brings to his task a mind trained by long observation of pre-modern communities, and sensitive to the divergences and novelties pointing towards a dénouement far removed from anything to be found in Africa, south of Algeria at any rate. He has had the benefit of much expert guidance and counsel, both Western and Vietnamese, but he is conscious of multiple difficulties, and ready to admit puzzlement at many of the things he encounters on his long road, instead of professing to have explanations for them all. It is valuable to have obscurities in the record identified, even if they cannot at present be cleared up. The result is a fine achievement, an outline and analysis of Vietnam history such as Jean Chesneaux’s Contribution à l’Histoire de la Nation Vietnamienne, with a similar viewpoint, provided for French readers a generation ago, but enriched by subsequent research.

Joan and Jill

V.G. Kiernan, 15 October 1981

In 1870, Daumier drew a cartoon of soldiers filing past a monument of the fatherland, with the caption: ‘Ceux qui vont mourir te saluent.’ Wandering about quiet French churches, one always comes on a dusty tablet with a list of long-forgotten names, and the brief valediction: ‘Morts pour la France’. Close to it very often stands Joan of Arc, in armour, sword in hand, as if pointing young men to the battlefield, to die for France, or whatever France has fought its wars for. It was tragically appropriate that she was canonised in 1920, just after a million men had died for France; she was wafted up to Heaven on a gale of high explosive and poison gas. A woman burned by the Inquisition for insubordination to Holy Church was not a person the Church could easily bring itself to honour, but towards the end of five centuries of waiting her promotion was rapid. She was made Venerable in 1903, a bizarre title for a girl of 19, and Beatified in 1909, when France was drifting towards war; drifting also into infidelity, which might be checked by a distinction conferred on the embodiment of French patriotism.

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 drawing peoples out of their separate existences, pulling the world together into one jarring and explosive whole. Its expansion had transforming effects on Britain itself, and through it on Europe. How much it altered the world outside, or altered it for the better, is disputable. If it destroyed many old, worm-eaten things, it reinvigorated others, partly by rousing so much resentment against Europe and all its ways, and later on by patronising conservatism in its colonies as a safeguard against revolt. Today the Third World is asking whether imperialism, British in particular, did more to pull it forward or to push it back.


The Unrewarded End

17 September 1998

H.V.F. Winstone gives an encouraging response to my report of Alison Macleod’s memories of life as a Daily Worker journalist. His tribute to Harry Pollitt as an orator and a personality could not be better deserved. Nor could his praise for Claud Cockburn, the Party’s jester, one of its too few humorists. All the same, a party cannot be made up of a few giants alone; most of us must be...


25 June 1987

V.G. Kiernan writes: Professor MacGregor-Hastie is the author of a recent biography, dedicated to Mrs Thatcher, of a popular hero of Victorian imperialism. From this the rest of his thinking might easily be deduced. It belongs to an atavistic ideology in which Britain has for too long been cocooned and suffocated. From the distance of Osaka it may be possible to believe that ‘under Thatcher Great...

Booze and Fags

Christopher Hitchens, 12 March 1992

When the effects of drink are not extremely funny, they do have a tendency to be a bit grim. For every cheerful fallabout drunk there is a lugubrious toper or melancholy soak, draining the flask for no...

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Knowing more

Rosalind Mitchison, 14 September 1989

Victor Kiernan is here presenting essays produced over the last 45 years: the texts are only occasionally given recent additions. The topics include three essays on literature but are otherwise...

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The point of it all

Linda Colley, 1 September 1988

In 1759 the future Viscount Townshend challenged the Earl of Leicester to a duel. But Leicester refused to fight. He was, he claimed, too old and too ill; he could not hit a barn door with a...

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Eric Hobsbawm, 3 June 1982

Is it a good thing that a country, after almost forty years of accelerating decline, has nothing more satisfactory to look back upon than a victorious world war with relatively modest casualties?...

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Peter Burke, 5 March 1981

Every student and every teacher knows the importance of the ‘seminal article’, which packs into a few pages more ideas than many books. In the field of European history, one such...

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