It would be entirely unfair to compare Simon Schama with Arthur Bryant. Schama is much too serious an historian for that. But sometimes his prose stylIt would be entirely unfair to compare Simon Schama with Arthur Bryant. Schama is much too serious an historian for that. But sometimes his prose style here did kind of remind me of the pompous old reactionary. But this is a book to accompany a BBC programme, so allowance should be made, and the writing is good, is almost like reading ‘literature’. Sometimes though I felt that Schama might just be carried away with style over substance. I know that he calls the work ‘A history’ rather than ‘The History’. I know that the subject is here being simplified for a general readership, but that is exactly why someone of Schama’s stature needs to be very careful. Nowhere perhaps should an historian be more careful than when dealing with the centuries between the withdrawal of the legions and the establishment of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the later 1st Millennium. It will not do to say, as Schama does, ‘For many generations Romano-Britons and North Sea warriors must have lived alongside each other, as neighbours rather than implacable foes. Since the Saxons, Jutes and Angles were themselves looking for already-worked land with in situ peasantry (for they had no intention of stooping to farming themselves) and since the only interest the unfree country people had was in calculating which kind of overlord offered the more secure protection, there was an easy fit between the new and the old.’ Where on Earth is the evidence to support this? Mostly Schama illustrates this British history (actually don’t bother with it too much if you’re Scottish by the way – you won’t believe what he says about Wallace anyway) with well-written cameos. Nothing wrong with that and some of them are truly excellent – Henry II’s dispute with Becket and the Peasant’s Revolt are examples. But sometimes Schama lets his prose lead him into statements which may well mislead others and this is a problem with someone with his high profile. What are we to make of this line from his account of the reign of Henry II – ‘Machine-based processing, in the shape of watermills and even the occasional windmill, was appearing on the landscape’? Must we suppose that he has never come across the Domesday Book? The Book of Llandaff? Any Anglo-Saxon archaeology? There’s some good stuff here – true. But on the whole, watch the programmes and read Norman Davies’ ‘The Isles’.
According to the IHT, pupils from public schools are 55 times more likely to be admitted to Oxbridge than a pupil who has been in receipt of free schoAccording to the IHT, pupils from public schools are 55 times more likely to be admitted to Oxbridge than a pupil who has been in receipt of free school meals. This rather puts the latter children at a disadvantage when it comes to treading the corridors of power (other than to clean them). Of the 28 ministers who currently attend cabinet meetings, no less than 18, or two-thirds, are Oxbridge graduates. (No less than 8 of these ministers read PPE at Oxford.) Although there are some other background, Ian Duncan Smith from Sandhurst and Dr Liam Fox from the University of Glasgow Medical School, the only person with any first hand experience of working class life is Tory Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin , ex miner and agricultural worker. True, not many old Etonians by the standards of Macmillan or even Attlee, and several ministers are ex comprehensive school pupils. Most English and Welsh people I would guess think that our educational experience was fairly normal. (Even I do, although with more expulsions than the average it’s true.) The basis for this commonality of experience lies in the 1944 education act which introduced secondary education for all. Although commonly called the Butler Act, Roy Lowe points out that in fact it was very much the artefact of the national Board of Education, and that R A Butler as education minister in the wartime coalition, was an unenthusiastic participant in the affair. What it didn’t do was introduce the eleven-plus. In fact it left the actual organisation of schooling to the LEAs. (There would be fewer of these, at a county rather than a borough level.) The tertiary system of grammar, technical and secondary modern education was a result of inter-war educational theory. This was variously implemented by the LEAs, most of which had nowhere near sufficient resources in those lean post-war years to adequately implement the new policy, and would not have for many years. This book is of course out-of-date. UK educational policy is dictated by political unreality and increasingly by the strident voice of the right-wing press. The idea that education should be left to educationalists is anathema. Only foreigners let their educational systems be independent of politics! Consequently every change of UK (and now national assembly) government means a change of policy. It is well to be reminded that comprehensive schools are an old idea – pre Second World War, and that some were introduced in the 40s. Their spread was intended largely to move more educational benefits to the working class which selection at eleven had been seen to disadvantage. The result was of course the opposite. The middle class children who may have failed the eleven plus moved into the upper streams by twelve and thirteen. The working class kids, with fewer books at home and parents who weren’t quite able to offer the extra support, fell back. Comprehensives disproportionally benefitted the middle classes, and didn’t cost them (except for extra tuition when required). When this was written such New Labour innovations as tuition fees or moving schools from the aegis of LEAs were undreamt of. Nonetheless it is worth reminding ourselves about how the system which educated us (except for you very young ones) came about. A book that may well have you shaking your heads in sorrow. ...more
The European historical period is by common agreement divided into three parts – Ancient, Medieval and Modern. There is rather less agreement about thThe European historical period is by common agreement divided into three parts – Ancient, Medieval and Modern. There is rather less agreement about the dating of when the dividing lines between these periods are. The fall of Rome is conventionally the beginning of the medieval period (in Britain this is often the withdrawal of direct Roman authority in 410 AD). The conventional date to end the middle ages is 1492 and Columbus’s discovery of the new world. Yet in itself this is fairly meaningless – other events would be more profound in the shaping of the individual nations of Europe – the fall of Granada in the same year, the destruction of Feudal England precipitated by Bosworth Field in 1485. But as J R Hale points out so lucidly, there were many themes which interplayed during the years 1480 to 1520 and signalled quite clearly the beginning of the modern western world. The centralization of government, as in the case of Henry VII’s England, and the growth of professional civil servants, are clearly ‘renaissance’ movements, in that they hark back to the classical, or more precisely the Roman age. Similarly, intellectual thought, more directly inspired by the ancients, was being freed of many of the constraints of medieval Christianity - by 1496 it was possible for a Christian humanist like John Colet to lecture at Oxford on St Paul’s epistles by means of the Greek texts rather than Medieval Latin commentaries. In the 1490s Pico della Mirandola’s would rubbish astrology. Scientific analysis was more readily carried out - Leonardo realized that the presence of fossil shells in the Apennines meant that the sea had once been present there. Professor Hales also cites, as an example of the ‘rigorous commonsense’ the Inquest on the alleged suicide of Richard Hunne in 1515. But there was more than just the returning to intellectual processes and governmental systems which had in fact been possible in the past. There was also the new. Foremost was surely printing with moveable type. By 1500 there were 73 places with printing presses in Italy, 50 in Germany, 45 in France and 4 in England. Possibly six million books had been printed by then. The spirit of modernism is epitomised by the Emperor Maximilian having himself portrayed in a printer’s workshop. The range of this book is impressive, and occasionally overwhelming. But it certainly clearly makes the case that these forty years were critical, the turning point that led to the modern west.
UKIP makes me want to vomit, although the BNP is worse. Reading again Hugh Thomas’s gripping history, I was more moved than I expected to be by the grUKIP makes me want to vomit, although the BNP is worse. Reading again Hugh Thomas’s gripping history, I was more moved than I expected to be by the great tragedy which befell Spain in the late 30s and which the liberal democracies allowed to happen by their fear of provoking fascist Italy and Germany. Putting ones country first whatever the circumstances is a peculiar thing to do. To put ones own vision of what that country means before any other considerations crosses the borders of mental illness. There can be fewer more ridiculous figures than the childish and poisonous, maimed and bizarre, general Millan Astray shouting the Spanish Legionaries nonsensical motto – ‘long live death!’ (When, in the great hall of the University of Salamanca, the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno pointed out how stupid this was, he could vary – ‘death to intellectuals, long live death!’ he cried.) The republic was not innocent, there were bad men, and bad things were done; but these were not policy. For Franco and the nationalists murder was policy. But the right was disciplined: anarchist units were handicapped by the necessity of holding meetings before going into action. Squabbling on the left was rife and sometimes murderous. Thomas’s book is long, at over a thousand pages, but is so worth reading again. I was gripped enough to suspend disbelief (or do I mean belief) and to hope as I turned the pages, that the ending would be other than that which I knew it to be. Seventy years is a long time and the right all over Europe still hopes that the rest of us will forget. The International Brigades are rightly famous and this month Spain will give the elderly survivors Spanish passports. These people fought for what they believed in rather than for their country. The Garibaldi battalion fought much better than the regular Italian units on the nationalists’ side did. (Germans, of course, were different and the Condor Legion made a major contribution to the nationalist victory: Spain was the Wehrmacht’s training ground for Poland, France and Russia.). Largely by the influence of McCarthy and his henchmen, the Abraham Lincoln battalion was declared subversive in 1946. European democracy did not behave like that, (we should not forget Greece however). Those of us who believe that Europe is more important than its individual states should read this book. Read it, and vote against UKIP and its ludicrous identification with a nationalist pseudo-history and false Churchillian imagery. ...more