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Monday, 30 June 2014

The Siege: the Chalke Valley front reopened

Last year I was invited to speak about Worlds of Arthur at the Chalke Valley History Festival.  I turned it down ... and later regretted it but they were full by then.  I turned down the invitation because I looked down the list of speakers and, apart from Amanda Vickery, could not see anyone that I recognised as a historian rather than a writer, broadcaster or media celebrity who dabbles in writing about history.  I had a horrible feeling that I would not be able to resist opening my talk by paraphrasing a line from a Rowan Akinson monologue and saying 'there comes a moment in every history festival when an actual historian gets to say a few words...'

Here is the news from this year's festival.  Oh dear.  Poor old Dan Snow.  I used to be relatively tolerant of Snow jr.  Then came his Royal Navy series.  Quite apart from the mind-numbing stupidity of the comment about Elizabethans gathering 'under the dome' of St Paul's, the story was just a triumphalist, jingoistic master-narrative - no mention (that I noticed) of the mutinies at Spithead and The Nore, no mention (that I noticed) of the fact that British captains were paid enormous bounties for capturing French or Spanish vessels because they were so much better built than British warships; just hearts of oak and jolly tars.

Then I noticed his Twitter moniker as 'the history guy' - 'the', not 'a'.  THE history guy.  L'histoire, c'est lui.  Regardless of the fact that he has no historical qualification beyond a BA.  A bit of humility perhaps?  It is all very revealing of what I have called 'the Siege', the taking over of historical discourse by untrained or barely trained amateurs, its reduction to the lowest intellectual common denominator - 'who we are and how we got here' - and their promotion of the most conservative national master narratives.  Snow's piece 'debunking' the so-called myths of the Great War was the summation of this (see also here for my general ire with this piece).

Oh but poor Dan has allegedly received hate mail because of this.  What, in his delusion (to be generous) he appears to think is that he was debunking these myths.  Note the reference to 'the work I was doing'.  In reality, Snow has done nothing but paraphrase the writings of a small, linked, not disinterested, coterie of reactionary military historians (most of whom I don't hold in high regard but they are at least historians, discussed in the previous post), amateur enthusiasts and retired army officers.  The military historians have done the actual historical research here, parroted and paraphrased by the popularisers.  Maybe he hasn't even done that, but left it to his researchers.  Leaving aside the strange comment about 'glorifying awfulness' (how does one do that, Dan? And isn't it you or rather the writers you are piggy-backing on who is/are putting glory into the war?) and the factual error ("I've got people saying for example, the first day of the battle of the Somme 60,000 British soldiers were killed or injured in a day. That's the worst day in the history of the British army.  People would say to me, emailing tweeting, saying 100,000 people were killed in a day. I'd say actually they weren't, 60,000 were."  No Dan, about 20,000 were, the rest were injured, missing or captured), how does he think actual historians, actual people who have got their hands dirty in actual historical research feel about his posturing?  I doubt he cares.  I doubt his audience does.  If I were sending him hate mail it'd be about that pretentious stance rather than the First World War (or World War One as he likes to call it, à l'Américaine).  

While I am on this subject, recently-outed one nation Tory Jeremy Paxman has also been touring 'his' book about the First World War, doubtless also researched second-hand by BBC employees.  He had the nerve, while correctly castigating Cameron for suggesting that there be street parties to celebrate the war, to refer to someone who could have been a great historian but instead was a charlatan.  Whom could he mean?  Not our old chum Fire His Ass Ferguson, surely?  I'm not often in the frame for defending Ferguson, or whoever, but it seems to me that writing and publicising a book, written parasytically off other people's research, as 'history' and a status as a 'historian' while having no qualification is the very definition of charlatanry.

That is the threat actual history is under.  As government cuts threaten to slash history departments' coverage down to the 'popular' areas, any chance that historical research might be able to serve the purposes it is there for is stifled by the likes of these fraudulent media "historians" who dominate public access to the subject.  

We Were All in it Together. A Brief (and basic) further historiographical reflection on the Great War debate

The piece I wrote on interpretations of the Great War in January has become the second most popular post on this blog.  Since then I have been doing a fair amount of reading of Great War history, on which more anon, time permitting.   I may indeed update and add to this post in the following days.  For now, let me recommend Hew Strachan’s The First World War as an antidote to the sheer oceans of second-rate or worse tripe available.  In particular, allow me to draw your attention to the blurb on the back cover, which describes the mud, blood and futility, not as a ‘myth’ put as ‘only part of the truth’.  I think that alone serves to mark it out from the Haigiography.  OK, I think the conclusion drawn at the end, that it was not a war ‘without purpose and meaning’, is a tad ambiguous and the phrase ‘objective truth’ appears on p.xix without evident irony but it is a book that anyone taken in by the Haigiographers ought to read as a corrective.  It is subtle and aware of material and historiography in several languages, unlike the almost entirely Anglocentric and Anglolexic (to steal a term from the late Tim Reuter) Haigiography.  Indeed it goes some small way to reassure me that – at least on occasion - people with prestigious posts in the Oxford history faculty may actually indeed deserve their resources and prestige.

My point today is simply a very basic historiographical one.  The currently fashionable narrative sees the critical position taken towards the First World War as inevitably located in the liberal culture of the 1960s.  ‘The most disrespectful decade’, Gary Sheffield dubs it, in a comment which surely seems pretty revelatory of his own political stance.  Take the tooth-spitting, mouth-frothing ire directed at ‘Oh What a Lovely War’, a ‘fatuous burlesque’ one wargames writer calls it in a gratuitous comment.  These people seem incapable of either comprehending the concept of satire or of seeing the film version at least in context - as an anti-war production that drew a lot of its popularity from the fact that it was released during the Vietnam War.  Be all that as it may, there is one point that ought to give us pause when considering Haigiographic revisionism as somehow representing the Truth, correcting ‘myth’.  Take the following list of soi-disant revionist (reactionary) authors : Steve Badsey, Gordon Corrigan, Christopher Duffy, Paddy Griffith, Richard Holmes, Alan Mallinson, Ian Passingham, Gary Sheffield. What do they all have in common (apart from sharing historical capabilities ranging, in my estimation, from ‘poor’ to ‘not particularly good’)?  No?  They are all retired army officers and/or have at some time been involved in teaching army officers, whether at Sandhurst or Cranfield.  Another raft of work (including, and I am not making this up, a PhD that shows that even the cavalry was well handled and made an important contribution in the Western Front) comes from the same stable.  To be fair, Strachan also taught at Sandhurst, proving that such points cannot ever be taken as having automatic, predictive, formulaic validity.  But be that as it may, surely that ought to calibrate their work and its claims to represent the ‘truth’ at least as much as the vague claim that work critical of the conduct of the war was produced in the permissive, ‘disrespectful’ ‘sixties.

Pursue the point.  If it is relevant that critical work stemmed from a particular ‘progressive’ moment in British history, when the post-war settlement furthered the welfare state, free education, proper health care and a general sentiment that ‘patriotic’ national wars of the old type, led by the traditional ‘Old Etonian’ social elite, were rather less than desirable, is the historical context of Great War revisionism not also significant?  Is it irrelevant that this work, seeking to rehabilitate the officer class, the Edwardian social elite, while denigrating liberal politicians, should be produced when Thatcherite and sub-Thatcherite (New Labour) governments were unpicking that post-war settlement, attacking the welfare state?  Is it insignificant that a political attack on critical attitudes to the war should be led by the government that is promulgating an insidious ideology of ‘we’re all in it together’ while making the rich richer and the poor poorer, while distracting the working class by creating out-groups of foreigners, whether immigrants or ‘Europe’, while promoting the entirely misleading ‘blame the Germans’ reading of the war’s causes and trumpeting patriotism and British values?

The old lie.

I will have more to say on this.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

It was 100 years ago today

That Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand ... And the rest is history.  Food for thought and especially, as Hew Strachan says in the introduction to the new edition of his history of the First World War, reflection on the wisom of escalating individual acts of terrorism into national acts of war.

Friday, 27 June 2014

An Interview with Giorgio Agamben

Can be found on the Verso blog here.  It is extremely interesting for all sorts of reasons and regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will see why I am drawn to Agamben's way of thinking, although as yet I have not read all that much of his work (for, as with so many continental philosophers, there is a lot of it).  But what, in particular, I would like to highlight is his statement that man (in the sense of homo rather than vir) has to measure up to his past.  This seems to be so much more helpful a way of approaching history and its value than the usual tosh (no pun intended) about learning who we are and how we got here.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Shockingly Emotional?

I have talked, on this blog, before about the issues involved with discussing atrocity in the past and the 'statute of limitations' that evidently exists in using particular language to describe the horrors of the past - the double standards that involves an expectation of condemnatory language when relating modern European massacres and the disapproval of 'emotional' language when describing such events in the more remote past, or outside the West.

I have recently been thinking about this again and especially about the use of affective language in historical writing.  What my previous posts on this topic have moved towards suggesting, I think, is that there should be no statute of limitations and that an ethical demand within history requires the use of the same sorts of condemnation for all such acts in the past - which is not to say that they should not be explained within their historical context too.  What that moves towards is the acceptance of such language as a part of historical writing, not its pooh-poohing as a breach of the historian's supposed duty to be impartial and objective (an impossibility as we all know).

But … today I wonder whether such an acceptance of this language would not defeat the object.  [What follows also stems from some of my scepticism about the history of the emotions, by the way.]  If it became standard practice to evaluate the morality or otherwise, to condemn or approve, of past actions in the past, the risk would be that eventually such language, however 'emotional', would, because it had become a normal element of historical discourse, cease to provoke any reflection on the event, in both its historical singularity and in its iterability in the world (the grounds for Derrida's discussions of justice).  One would eventually skim over the account just as one does in current sterilised, unemotive academic historical language.  

So, perhaps the suggestion would be to use language that is currently considered inappropriate precisely to force this sort of punctum - this moment where an event in the past can reach through the medium of its representation to pierce the reader.  There would be writing strategies here to accomplish that effect, even in the discussion of modern atrocity, where emotive language is accepted (and thus ignored?) - perhaps in these cases the use of sterile unemotive language, with subsequent reflection, can produce a similar effect?  When certain language ceases to provoke ethical reflection, then maybe the time is to employ a different strategy.  Here  we would return to the issues of the moving present of discussion and debate in which I have located the point of 'pointless' history: a constant dialogue employing the evidence of the past for reflection in the present, seeing no consensus, end-points or final answers.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Worlds of Arthur in York

At the Festival of Ideas, this coming  Staurday (tomorrow).  Details here: http://yorkfestivalofideas.com/2014/talks/worlds-of-arthur/

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Chance of a Lifetime...

I got this e-mail today.  Drink it in, and wonder no more why people like me are leaving the Labour Party.


Guy, [apparently I don't merit a 'Dear']
There are few people in Britain more courageous, determined and inspirational than Doreen Lawrence. We are enormously privileged to have her as a Labour peer — and I am more than a little jealous of your chance to join her table at our annual gala dinner.

If you'd like to have dinner with Baroness Doreen Lawrence, all we ask is that you make a £3 donation to help us beat the Tories at the next election, and you'll automatically be entered to win a pair of gala tickets.

In the spirit of our party, we're keen to make this opportunity open to all, so we will also arrange travel to London and a night's accommodation for you and your guest.

I'll also be at the gala, alongside many of my Shadow Cabinet colleagues, and we hope to see you there on the night. Best of luck!

Gloria

Gloria De Piero
Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities

P.S. You can enter without donating here, but if you want us to beat the Tories at the next election, we'd be grateful if you could donate something alongside your entry. 

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

It was 199 years ago today...

... the Little Corporal lost his last throw of the dice, at Waterloo, where he didn't surrender, pace Benny and Bjorn.  It is salutary (or at least it is to me) to think that it's still (just) less than two centuries ago (or put it this way: without stretching the bounds of possibility too far, you could still meet someone [born, say, 1930] who had met someone [born, say, 1860] who had met someone who had fought at the battle) and think about the change since then.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Education Reform

I think I posted this before.  It is excellent.  And it is no less pertinent today than it was when it was first published (in 2010).  In fact it has become more so.  Because the leaders of British HE institutions have done nothing to oppose it.  I don't mean 'not enough in my humble opinion'.  I mean nothing.  With a big N.  Followed by a big O,T,H,I,N, and G.  Indeed, so far from opposing it, they have encouraged it, and made sure that every cell - faculty, school, department, centre - in their organisation is headed by the sorts of thuggish apparatchiks that will also further these changes in the interests of short-term local advantage.  And we have people like Mr/Dr/Professor/Sir/Lord Christopher Thompson making comments - comments, it has to be said, that make absolutely no practical sense at all if you think about them for more than about, ooh, seconds, for all that they sound superficially radical, democratising, free-thinking and 'forward-looking' - that encourage us to embrace the elimination from UK education and culture of anything not sufficiently subsidised by the market principle.  So read Charlie's piece again, people, because we are on a bus headed to 'boh-bah-land' at very high speed unless we - and especially the leaders of UKHE and opposition politicians, which means 'us' again because 'we' have to force 'them' to - do something radical and significant soon.

Bah.

Monday, 9 June 2014

A Little D-Day Reflection

Maybe it is just me but, apart from the fact that last Friday will have been the last ten-year anniversary when a sizeable number of Operation Overlord veterans were around to mark the occasion, the saddest thing about the 70th anniversary of D-Day was the European political situation in the context of which it took place.  Even by the latter part  of 1940, most people were aware that this was not just another national war against Germany but something (unlike the First World War - let's be quite clear about that) far bigger: a war for a better world.  Let's also not forget that the bulk of the Conservative party establishment (Churchill being viewed by them as a maverick), and much of the British establishment overall, had actually been fairly open to making peace with Hitler after Dunkirk and maintaining an isolation from occupied Europe.  The British and, later, American war-effort  became - in a very real sense - pro-European.  D-Day was intervention in Europe to crusade - in Eisenhower's words - against fascism and Nazism and the nationalist, racist,  intolerant ideas wrapped up in that.  As the 1945 Labour landslide made very clear, this, for most participants, had become a war for social justice not just a national, patriotic war: for me, something much more deserving of remembrance, pride and gratitude.

How sad, then, that the anniversary should come so soon after the successes of right-wing, xenophobic parties across Europe: the FN was established by a holocaust-denier; Golden Dawn have come right out singing the Horst Wessel Lied and making overtly antisemitic statements, UKIP is essentially a party of intolerance, overtly blaming hardship on immigrants but riddled with people holding xenophobic, racist, homophobic, even eugenicist views.  How sad to see this celebration against the backdrop of the dismantling of the Welfare State under the smokescreen of the demonisation of the poor (Channel 5 starts another benefit-bashing series this week), while the rich (the people really taking the bread out of the working class's mouths)  get richer, more children are living in conditions of poverty, education becomes ever more the privilege of the well-off, education as a social good and free thinking in universities are all under attack.  Tragic to see this against what looks like a re-run of the 1930s.  Saddest of all is the knowledge that, so effective has the politics of fear become that even some of the participants of June 1944 apparently voted for UKIP.  (Of course the impending world cup will inevitably be an excuse in some quarters for all the usual Engerlaaaand, Jeeermany, 'we won the war' stuff.  *sigh*)

I'd like to think that we might pause to consider what the sacrifice of the Second World War (especially the period between mid 1940 and mid-1941when Britain and its empire stood alone in defence of that greater cause rather than making a peace that might have been economically beneficial, preserved the Empire for longer, etc. etc.) was really about, and it wasn't about chest-thumping, sabre-rattling  nationalism, prejudice and certainly not Little Englanderish isolation from Europe.

Friday, 6 June 2014

It was 70 years ago today.

Spare a thought today for the men and women of the D-day landings and the Great Crusade, the non-Nazi fallen of both sides, and the civilians killed too.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

CAMRAb

So King Juan Carlos is abdicating in favour of his son.  This makes him, I think, the third European monarch in ?2 years to abdicate.  It's officially A Craze! As usual, though, I doubt our own monarch will follow a mere trend.  And she is quite right, too.  I don't like all this fashionable modern abdicating.  What was wrong with a good old traditional abdication at the insistence of a cabal of disgruntled aristocrats and/or churchmen?  I preferred the old days, when rulers who abdicated went, or were forced to go, into a monastery.  Or got shut up in a castle, to die 'in mysterious circumstances' a few years later, perhaps during an unedifying hand-to-hand brawl with a relative.  Mutilation too.  Perhaps Juan Carlos could have his nose cut off to stop him from making an ill-fated come-back bid.  As it is he'll doubtless go off on a yacht or engage in some ill-advised shooting of endangered species and enjoy a privileged retirement.  No - they knew how to do it better in the Olden Days.  Join my CAMpaign for Real Abdications today!