Put Out More Flags

This year of all years, one might hope that Remembrance Day would encompass all the dead of the First World War – not just in the carefully orchestrated public ceremonies at national level, where diplomatic protocols will play a role, but across Britain. Judging by the flags around the town where I live, that’s a bit of hopeless liberal idealism. I’m not actually objecting to the waves of union jacks, with a sprinkling of the flags of the home nations; of course this will be primarily a commemoration of ‘our’ dead – and it still always strikes me how many of the surnames on the war memorial are familiar from the locality today.

No, it’s the other flags. Continue Reading »

Diplomatic Impunity

I do it to myself, I do – but WHY can’t people provide references to their sources? I’ve just spent over half an hour tracking down a couple of Thucydides quotes which, as is often the case, weren’t immediately familiar but looked plausible. Now, if someone is citing the Melian Dialogue, it’s understandable why they might not bother to give the precise reference, since everybody already knows it – but when clearly the whole point is that this isn’t a well-known line but a newly-extracted bit of wisdom and enlightenment that others won’t have heard before..? Continue Reading »

Ah, history. To quote Catherine Morland, “I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.” The reasons are familiar: not just a tendency to focus on content rather than form, as if the two can be separated, but also a determination to deny or obscure its invented nature by being as dull as possible. And even as some professional historiography has become more interesting and adventurous in its techniques of representation, history written for students or for a general audience defaults time and again to good old-fashioned naive realism, with predictable results. Continue Reading »

Time Bandits

Thucydides is The Most Fabulous Author In The World. I don’t mean this as a compliment, but rather as an evocation of Terry Gilliam’s wonderful film Time Bandits, in which a motley band of dwarves and an 11-year-old boy called Kevin – you know, it has only just occurred to me, thirty-seven years later, that this is a snarky Hobbit reference – embark on a quest to find The Most Fabulous Object In The World, concealed in the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness (which of course demonstrates its desirability). The two key attributes of this Object are, firstly, that everyone sees it differently, as suits their own conception of Fabulousness, and, secondly, that the whole set-up is a trap. Continue Reading »

The Undateables

I’ve joked before that I gravitated towards economic and social history because I have a terrible memory for dates. That’s not entirely true – it’s rather the case that I think that, most of the time, longer-term structural factors are more important than short-term l’histoire événementielle in shaping human life, and of course that applies to politics as well – but I *do* have a terrible memory for dates, and hence tend to get defensive on the subject, given that a lot of people assume that history is basically about dates so this must be what I do.

Given this proclivity, you might expect my reaction to this week’s news story about a Pompeian graffito that potentially changes our view of the date of the eruption of Vesuvius would be basically negative: whoop-di-doo, as I once remarked of the fuss over the discovery of Richard III’s bones. Not at all! Continue Reading »

Western Lights

I spent a chunk of Saturday evening marshalling traffic; only four vehicles, granted, and mostly this involved standing around waiting for them to show up so I could tell them where to park (while inwardly steeling myself for the possibility of having to tell other people that they couldn’t park in the designated area), but it was still a great source of satisfaction to play even a tiny part in the complex enterprise that is a Somerset Illuminated Carnival. Not least because Carnival is very much a local thing; anyone can watch, of course, and there’s always a need for volunteers to stand around in hi-vis jackets, but actually having a role in the organisation (albeit one acquired by marriage, as my wife is actually on the committee) is a sign of having been here long enough to be counted as part of the community, despite being one of those rootless cosmopolitan academics… Continue Reading »

Patent Absurdities

There’s a long essay in today’s Grauniad by James Miller, offering a broad-brush overview of the history of democracy, focusing mainly on what political theorists have had to say about it. I’ve come to think of this as rather an odd sub-genre; these essays are almost invariably condensed versions of books rather than written as essays for a specific publication, and they unite the desire of the author and publisher to hype the book and the desire of the newspaper to be publishing Big Provocative Ideas – hence, in this case, the claim of the title and sub-heading that this essay is all about arguing that maybe populism is essential for democracy rather than a threat to it, a thesis that is only touched on in passing in the actual piece.

The process of editing a book down to essay-length may account for a certain tendency to non-sequiturs: Continue Reading »