Short Cuts to My Thoughts

I get a number of these: emails from school students hoping – in effect – that I’ll write their essays for them. I imagine she’s contacted other historians too.

Doesn’t it occur to them that we might have expressed our ‘opinions and ideas’ in books? Or are requests like this intended to relieve them of the necessity of reading? I’ve written back kindly, simply recommending the latest and shortest of my own works on British imperialism. Let’s hope she knows what a ‘book’ is.

I don’t mind, incidentally, specific questions that have occurred to students after  they’ve done a bit of work on the subject. But this is different.

Good evening,

I am currently in Y12 and am starting to think of coursework ideas and am thinking of doing it on the British Empire, I saw you were a historian who specialises in this area and was wondering what your thoughts were. I was thinking of doing it on what factors affected the growth and decline of the British Empire in the 19th century (1800s) and would love to hear your opinion and ideas.

I appreciate in these difficult times you may not be able to get back to me but I would love to hear your views

Thank you for taking the time to read this email and I hope to hear from you in the near future,

Many thanks, ********

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Walking Slow Behind You

When I first published books I used to eagerly check all the papers for reviews of them, usually taking hours to leaf through all the likely ones in my university library. (This was before Google Search, of course.) Now I rarely bother, which is why I must have missed this one in the LRB four years ago, despite being a subscriber and indeed a contributor to that distinguished journal myself. Maybe I was in Sweden at the time? I’ve also come to reconcile myself to the fact that no-one – except a few academics – is really interested in my stuff; which is OK because I mainly write to please myself. (You might call it literary masturbation.) Of course I’d like to influence others, but have now given up on that. The book reviewed here was my final effort to spread my ideas about British imperialism in a more ‘popular’ way to a wider audience, but so far as I can tell it failed in that. At any rate it never went into paperback.

So I was surprised suddenly, while crouched over my computer this morning, to hit on Ferdinand Mount’s rather good four-year old piece on British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t; ‘good’ because he’s clearly read and understood the book, which not all reviewers do. (Incidentally: isn’t Mount a Tory?)

Here it is: I also quite like being described  there as ‘both pugnacious and good-humoured’. Perhaps they could put that on my gravestone? (Until now I’d favoured ‘He Made a Mean Mashed Potato’.)

Not that I’ll have a gravestone. I’ve asked Kajsa and the kids to have me cremated and my ashes scattered in the park by St Albans Abbey. The funeral, if there is one, will start with this: before coming on to the Elgar, of course. Black humour at its African-American best.

But I’ve wandered off the topic.

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Help Wanted

I’m greatly missing the Swedish summer, and my beloved sambo. Can anyone advise me how to get from Hull to Stockholm during lockdown?

Strictly speaking, as a vulnerable oldie I shouldn’t leave my house; and even then of course there’s the ‘two metres’ self-isolation rule. As well as this, I understand that there are no longer any  flights from the UK to Sweden; and in any case I wouldn’t feel comfortable being crammed into a plane for two hours with hundreds of potential infectees, or – for that matter – into a train taking me to Gatwick or Manchester airports. I could go by boat from Hull to Rotterdam, isolating myself in my cabin; but then I’d need to catch a train through Holland, Germany and Denmark before reaching Sweden, and couldn’t bank on getting a socially-distancing carriage. Kajsa could meet me in Rotterdam in her car (I don’t have one, and am no longer allowed to drive); but it’s an awfully long way, and likely to be interrupted by national anti-virus frontier controls. (I should be OK at the Swedish frontier, with my new Swedish passport.) A friend has offered to build a Viking boat to take me all the way from the Humber across the North Sea and around Norway to the Swedish east coast, but – as she tells me – she has to learn how to sail first. So it looks as if I’m stuck here in Yorkshire. Kajsa’s friends are working on the problem; but it might tax even the Great Brain of Dominic Cummings.

Mind you, Sweden might not be all that safe a place to move to. It currently has a death rate from the coronavirus, per head of population, only a little lower than Britain’s. Kajsa suggests it’s because their welfare system means that more old people live long enough to be struck down by it; but whatever. Frying pans and fires come to mind. But I’d be willing to risk it. Apart from anything else, I too need a haircut. Any ideas?

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Dominic and Niccolo

Renaissance Florence isn’t ‘my period’ – to trot out the familiar historian’s defence – but I do wonder whether the Medicis don’t provide the closest precedent for present-day British politics; not in their bloodiness, of course, but in the amorality of their political discourse. I did study Machiavelli as an undergraduate (for ‘Political Theory’), both the Prince and the Discourses, and remember writing an essay where I argued that he wasn’t really commending the low tricks he described there, but was merely making his readers aware of them so that they could avoid being influenced by them.

As an Etonian and a Classicist, Boris Johnson may well not have read anything as modern as Machiavelli; but the Discourses, of course, were based on ancient Roman history, which he did steep himself in. The conduct of both Boris and Dominic Cummings – who will almost certainly have ‘done’ Machiavelli in his ‘Ancient and Modern History’ course – is reminiscent of the great Florentine, in its apparent underlying assumption that politics is a game to be won or lost by fair means or foul, and without much concern for ideology, except insofar as it might attract the people you need to support or (in a democracy) to vote for you. ‘Principles’ and ‘values’ are similarly unimportant, except as tools. Hence Cummings’s famously technocratic approach to politics, moving on from Machiavelli to employ the latest clever means of influencing the outcomes of elections and referenda, like the now notorious Cambridge Analytica. If lies and tricks can win power for you, then so be it. ‘Playing the Game’ is an outmoded English concept.

I’ve known people like that in ordinary life: who if questioned on their conduct would have less regard for the ‘truth’ than for ‘what they can get away with’. That has been Boris’s habit all along, and seems to be Dominic’s too. Sometimes they’re found out, if they’re stupid enough; which is why Boris has his deserved reputation as a rogue and a liar; the cleverer ones however, like Dominic, keep it better hidden. But the stigma of dishonesty has stuck to both of them; and is the reason why Dominic’s extraordinary explanation for his out-of-lockdown Durham trip yesterday was so widely doubted – and indeed much mocked.

The extent to which this will damage either of them can’t be known at present. They could survive – like Trump has done. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Cummings is out quite soon; or Johnson, with that other unprincipled Machiavellian, Michael Gove, taking his place, and Cummings staying on as his Svengali. Mikey is no better than Boris. This is not a prediction, but a warning – of the kind that I used to attribute to Niccolo.

The most recent of Dominic’s lies is his claim yesterday that he anticipated coronavirus a year ago in his blog. In fact some clever blog detectives have established that the reference to coronavirus was inserted into that blog retrospectively. So he’s perhaps not so clever after all. Ultimately the tragedy of the ‘Cummings affair’ may be that it undermines trust in Boris’s and Dominic’s government even further. So ‘character’ – the sort of thing the Public Schools were supposed to impart, but clearly do no longer – may after all be important in politics.

In the meantime it’s reported that the UK has now come out top of the international scale of deaths by Covid-19, measured as a proportion of her population; higher even than the USA and Brazil, and up there with – sadly – Sweden. A world-beater, you might say.

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Classic Dom

Boris can’t get rid of Dominic. He’s his brain. Boris on his own is glib, lazy and fundamentally stupid. Dominic by contrast is – not exactly intelligent, I would say, but cunning. He read History at University: a more cerebral subject than Johnson’s Classics, which is chiefly a matter of having a good memory. (That at any rate was its reputation at my University; and I’ve seen no evidence since from ex-Classical scholars to prove me wrong.) Apparently Dom’s History essays at Oxford were highly ‘original’; which may testify to his cleverness, but not necessarily to his judgment.

Obviously that rather let him down during his latest escapade – breaking his own government’s ‘stay at home’ injunction to drive up to Durham – unless it was part of a very cunning plan to – I don’t know – undermine his present patron, so that he can take over; or perhaps to further his original scheme – ‘herd immunity’ – to infect oldies, like his parents, in the North-East with the virus he’d picked up in London. (Can it be a coincidence that the mortality level in County Durham, quite low before he went there, soared soon afterwards?) In any case, he’s clearly indispensible to the duffer Johnson, who wouldn’t have won either the Brexit campaign or the last General Election without Dom’s Machiavellian scheming.

It’s hard to see where either of them goes from here. Even Tories are dismayed that Dom is still in post. There are even choppier waters coming up, what with Brexit, a new Great Depression, and all the rest. Boris’s schoolboy bluster – painfully exhibited in his ‘defence’ of Cummings at his televised press conference this afternoon – won’t get us through all that. And Cummings’s ‘scientific’ approach to politics, if he can find another patron after Boris – Gove, perhaps? – looks positively dangerous.

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Sixth Edition

I’m working just now on the copy-edit of the new edition of my The Lion’s Share, due out in September. It’s very little changed from the 5th edition (2012), apart from a new concluding chapter on ‘Brexit and the Empire’, which will constitute my final thoughts on the question of British imperialism; or so I imagine, unless Boris succeeds in his old Etonian wet dream of restoring Britain’s glory to its former heights. The first version was published by Longmans 45 years ago. Since then it has passed through the hands of several publishers, as each was bought up by another, with no say in the transaction by its poor authors, who were simply dragged into their new stables as ‘property’.

In the present case this has meant that the present ‘owner’ has been unable to use any of the type-setting of the previous edition, or the art-work, without seeking and paying for ‘permissions’ again. My biggest disappointment here concerns the cover; which has gone through several versions; my favourite of which by far was the first one:


That was modelled and painted in-house by Longmans. I pleaded to have it restored to the new edition, but nothing doing. So instead I chose this one from a number of ‘Getty Images’ the publishers sent me. I think it’s of the sculpture in front of the Rhodes Memorial in Capetown. It doesn’t really represent the main argument of the book, which is far less macho; but it should be striking enough. (The subtitle should say ‘1850-2020, by the way.) I think you’ll need to click on to it to see it.

Porter cover suggestions (Porter cover suggestions (dragged) 2

The copy-editor whose work I’m checking is terrific, by the way. Copy-editors have the most boring job in the whole literary world.

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I’ve been watching the rather prescient 2011 film Contagion (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow…). Quite incidentally, I was struck by this statement, from the mouth of the character played by Elliot Gould: ‘Blogging isn’t writing. It’s graffiti with punctuation.’ That’s put me in my place.

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The Ultimate Sacrifice?

Of course I have no informed opinion about when to shut down the Lockdown, or any of the other matters surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. I’m the last person to ask about matters of the body, for years having confused my stomach with my bladder. From this position of ignorance, I understand that much seems to depend on whether people who have had it once are thereafter immune and non-infectious. If they are, then obviously they should be allowed to wander, hug and congregate at will. But I don’t think the scientists have established that yet; and even if they do it will require a mass programme of testing to separate the healthy sheep from the sickly goats. The sheep could then be given badges or tattoos to wear in public. Any goats found among them would of course be rounded up and locked in cells.

As is usual in circumstances like this, when you’re dependent on others’ expertise, the temptation is to question the motives of the experts and their mouthpieces (in this case the politicians) rather than the evidence itself: the old ‘ad hominem’ approach. That after all is how most of Donald Trump’s supporters appear to proceed: by simply doubting or even rejecting out of hand everything that is said by the ‘fake’ media, or by the Democrats, or by experts, or by ‘the elite’, and anything that was done by Obama, simply because of who said it or did it, without stopping for a moment to examine the evidence or the arguments per se. (Sorry about the Latinisms, which won’t endear me to this kind of person.) We on the (British) Left tend to do this as well: to dismiss anything coming from the mouth of a Conservative, for example, as bound to be affected by prejudice or evil motives. ‘Look who’s saying it.’ ’Nuff said.

One of the motives being attributed to the Johnson Government by the Left is some version of ‘herd immunity’ (in Sweden, incidentally, it’s called ‘flock immunity’), which, by letting the disease run amok, will weed out the vulnerable leaving only the healthy surviving. I think that’s what Boris meant when initially he advised us to ‘take it on the chin’: a striking phrase, even Churchillian, but – like all his metaphors – it’s not entirely clear what precisely it’s supposed to mean. It’s said to have been suggested to him by Dominic (Demonic) Cummings, though there are of course precedents – TR Malthus and A Hitler being the most obvious ones. At present the ‘losers’ would include the elderly, and those with ‘underlying conditions’; which is why the disease is currently so rampant in retirement and care homes. The elderly, of course, tend to be thought of as economically ‘useless’, and even a ‘burden’ on society, which is why culling them would be of benefit to the nation, especially with the prospect coming up – we are told – of the worst trade depression in 300 years.

That would include me. I’m over 70 and with an ‘underlying condition’, which means I would be one of the first for the chop. Up to now I’ve rather basked in the position of doing my  patriotic duty by staying indoors and lounging on my sofa, with supplies being brought to my door by Tesco’s and good neighbours, so that I don’t get infected and infect others. But perhaps I should re-think. I might be doing more for my country by allowing myself to be culled.

Well, I’ve had a good, lucky life, and a longer one than I ever imagined possible (with my ‘underlying condition’). So perhaps I should volunteer. If so, however, I’d like to make a condition: that I take down certain others with me. I could make a list; headed of course by Boris, Nigel and Rupert, but probably a few hundred names long. My £950 p.m. pension would be a bit of a saving for the State, but probably not enough to make my death alone worthwhile. So: only if I can take those other bastards too. Is it a deal?

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VE Day

I have no memory of VE Day, though I was four and bit years old at the time. (The ‘and a bit’ is of course important at that age.) I do remember some things about the War years themselves, including the silhouette of a German parachutist coming down in a garden near to ours; but that must be a false memory because – although it happened – I was actually being born (feet first) at the time. Then I remember the blackouts; sheltering under our iron-reinforced dining room table as the bombs exploded around us, with my mother telling me ‘not to worry, they’re only fireworks’; and later being evacuated with my mother to a farm in Staffordshire, where the farmer’s wife insisted we only eat our ‘rations’ – I remember powdered egg in particular – rather than any of the fresh food that came from the farm. We were evacuated because we lived close to one of the Battle of Britain airfields. My father stayed behind to look after his school. Recently I saw a contemporary map showing where the V1s and V2s landed around us. Some of them were very close, and later we got compensation (I presume from Germany) for minor bomb damage to the house.

But my main memories are of the immediate aftermath: returning servicemen; bomb sites to mess around in; bits of shells to collect; rationing still – no sweets for sale for years afterwards; Dennis Compton’s glorious, cavalier batting, reminding us of those brave British and Polish Spitfire pilots who had stopped Goering in his tracks in 1940; Attlee’s surprise election victory in 1945 – sorry, Winnie, we needed you in the War but it’s now time for the people to take over; and – mainly – the hope that sprang from all this. (I wrote about this in the TLS, 23 December 2016.)

The TV programmes about VE Day shown on BBC1 last night brought it all back to me, and, I have to admit, had tears welling up in my eyes at one point. That was when two Spitfires, lovingly preserved from the War years, were shown flying over the white cliffs of Dover (cue Vera Lynn) in tribute to those brave pilots who, 70-odd years before, had taken off from our local Airfield to push Hitler’s monstrous invasion back. That left us in Britain still alone and vulnerable, but free to fight another day, and to wait for the might of America and the USSR to finish the job. I still find Spitfires iconic.

That early experience has defined the War for me; together with the bravery of ‘ordinary folk’ during the monstrous Blitzes on London, Coventry, Hull and elsewhere, and the little boats that brought our soldiers back from Dunkirk. Yes, as a historian I realise that’s only part of a picture that by rights should also include the black market in Britain, famine in India, and the bombing of Dresden. But I like – could almost say ‘am proud of’ – the fact that it’s these aspects of World War II that appeal to most of us who are sometimes criticised for ‘going on’ about it; rather than our military victories, such as they were.

For people like me it was a democratic war – the pilots and the little boats; and with a democratic outcome: the Welfare State. Don’t let the Right take that from us.

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Tragedy and Farce

If Boris Johnson thinks that Churchill’s main contribution to Britain’s War effort was to keep people’s spirits up, then I go along with him. Churchill was not a great military strategist (viz. Gallipoli, and a string of hair-brained ideas during World War II), and as a peacetime politician made a number of dreadful misjudgments (Gandhi, for example, and Tonypandy); but he was great orator, and by that means helped bolster ordinary people’s morale, possibly crucially, during an existential national emergency.

Boris is of course one of Churchill’s many biographers, and known to be a huge admirer. From the way he’s bounced back from his ‘brush with death’, and his girlfriend’s brush with birth, all chippy and cheerful and reprising his former colourful  way of talking, as well as the war metaphors he’s always been so fond of, it looks as though it’s this aspect of our heroic War Leader’s career he’s modelling himself on.

But he forgets. One of Churchill’s advantages in 1940 was that, despite having been so wrong about India and the British working classes in the interwar yeas, he had been right all along about the threat from Hitler (albeit possibly for the wrong reasons!), and in opposing his own party’s flirtation with ‘appeasement’; and so was bound to be more trusted  on these matters than were any of his Tory rivals. Boris lacks this advantage, as his own initial disastrous response to the Coronavirus threat clearly shows; and indeed his whole public reputation as a serial liar and deceiver must undermine any trust that people might otherwise have in him. He’s also nowhere near as serious  a public speaker as Churchill was; in fact he’s a very poor one, hesitant and bumbling. He’s known as a ‘card’, but even his jokes are pretty feeble – mainly public-school juvenile. So he’s got a lot of work to do before he can emulate his great hero convincingly, and be seen as the ‘saviour’ of his people in their present hour of need. – And that’s quite apart from his having a cabinet made up of lickspittle loyalists chosen only for their Brexitism, and who aren’t the most competent men and women that even the Conservative party has to choose from.

What was it Marx wrote – comparing Napoleons I and III? – ‘History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.’ That seems to fit.

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