Monthly Archives: February 2013

From troubles of the world, we turn to …

… not, on this occasion, Frank Harvey’s Ducks:

When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured suns
He turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones;
Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and then
He made the comical ones, in case the minds of men
Should stiffen and become
Dull, humourless and glum,
And so forgetful of their Maker be
As to take even themselves — quite seriously.
Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns:
All God’s jokes are good When God had finished the stars and whirl of coloured suns
He turned His mind from big things to fashion little ones;
Beautiful tiny things (like daisies) He made, and then
He made the comical ones in case the minds of men
Should stiffen and become
Dull, humourless and glum,
And so forgetful of their Maker be
As to take even themselves — quite seriously.
Caterpillars and cats are lively and excellent puns:
All God’s jokes are good — even the practical ones!
And as for the duck, I think God must have smiled a bit
Seeing those bright eyes blink on the day He fashioned it.
And he’s probably laughing still at the sound that came out of its bill! 

Frank Harvey was a prisoner-of-war and inmate of Holzminden Prison when he composed that. And, yes, Malcolm has been this way before.

Similarly, yesterday, Malcolm was incarcerated in a metal box (made in Wolfsburg) and whisked from Harrogate to York, and then on to London.

At several points along the road there were cheering glimpses of ducks. More often there were mole-hills. Lots of.

So, from troubles of the road (and a fine late lunch at the George in Stamford) Malcolm turned to matters talpine (Talpa: Latin, “mole”). Actually, Malcolm was on the point of congratulating himself on formulating a “new word”, only to find that the spoilsports at the Oxford English Dictionary had a precedent:

talpine adj. pertaining to the moles, of the sub-family Talpinæ.
1860   R. G. Mayne Expos. Lexicon Med. Sci.,   Talpinus,..talpine.

Yorkshire moles seem to prefer the grass banks of roads, and build on a linear principle. There are stretches of the A59 which seem particularly well-excavated. Have the moles learned, by bitter experience, to avoid the tilled fields, and now seek a safer, if not quieter life along the verge?

Yet the greatest proliferation of moles (or rather their mole-hills) seemed to be further south, in Lincolnshire. Areas around Colsterworth, and the upper reaches of the River Witham apparently amounted to moley metropolises.

black mole hungryLast autumn there were reports such as:

An explosion in mole numbers threatens to turn thousands of lawns into mountain ranges overnight, uprooting prized flowers and burying manicured turf beneath unsightly mounds of soil.

Soggy weather in late spring and early summer created ideal breeding conditions for the garden pests, softening the ground for males to dig tunnels just below the surface in search of mates.

Redfellow Hovel, with its far-from-sprawling acres, is free from such disturbance: no self-respecting mole would take on solid London clay.

Even so, to extrapolate Frank Harvey’s theology, if God had intended clipped suburban lawns, he would not have created the mole.

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Filed under Britain, leisure travel, Literature

20th February 1472

James_III_and_Margaret_of_DenmarkThis is the anniversary of the Northern Isles, Orkney and Shetland, being added to Scotland.

It wasn’t a conquest. It was in lieu of a dowry.

They were the security for the King Christian of Denmark paying 60,000 crowns of the bride-money for his daughter, the Princess Margaret.

Remember: this was in effect putting the islands into pawn — though the debt has never been redeemed. But that is because of the resistance of the Scottish and then the British authorities.

In the Treaty of Breda, 1667, the status of the Scottish tenure was “unprescribed and unprescribable” — which amounts to an admission that the status has not been changed — indeed, under treaty law, cannot be changed.

Two years later, 1669, Charles II tried to rationalise the situation with his Act of Annexation, which made the islands his personal responsibility:

It is not only fit in order to his Majesty’s interests, but will be the great advantage of his Majesty’s subjects dwelling there, that without interposing any other Lord or superior betwixt his Majesty and them, they should have an immediate dependence upon his Majesty and his Officers.

By the 1707 Act of Union, the islands were transmogrified into counties of Scotland.

In 1906 Norway become independent of Denmark. An official missive from Shetland went to King Haakon VII:

Today no ‘foreign’ flag is more familiar or more welcome in our voes and havens than that of Norway, and Shetlanders continue to look upon Norway as their mother-land, and recall with pride and affection the time when their forefathers were under the rule of the Kings of Norway.

Even into the late twentieth century the Scottish judiciary was wrestling to reconcile the status of the islands. Only in 2005 was the white-cross-on-blue flag of Shetland (the same banner as the Hvítbláinn of the Icelandic republicans) authorised by the Lyon King of Arms.

Even if the SNP were to win their referendum, they may find they have secession problems of their own.

For true wranglers, the issue is debated at length and in detail here.

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Filed under Devolution, History, Scotland, SNP

Give me land, lots of land …

… under starry skies above,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me ride through the wide-open country that I love,
Don’t fence me in.
Let me be by myself in the evening breeze,
Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever, but I ask you please —
Don’t fence me in.

There’s a story in how Cole Porter, of all unlikely metrosexuals, came up with that one (as wikipedia will tell you, he didn’t). Equally, there’s scope for historical sociology in why it became the hit of post-D Day 1944.

That, however, isn’t relevant now. That retort by Doubting Thomas to the earlier thing is:

Unlike you, I’m a thorough-going land reformer and if you had a spare few moments, and of course if you had not come across it before, there is a blog on http://www.andywightman.com which although scottish in emphasis is nevertheless aimed at exposing the influence of the landowners in politics.

 Well, actually no: Malcolm hadn’t encountered that before; and it was (and is) worth the trip.

So, Malcolm, are you a thorough-going land reformer?

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

A long while back, and he cannot quite recall the context, Malcolm did a spot of research on land-ownership in Norfolk. It surprised him that the number of big land-holders and the acreage they held were not greatly changed since the tithe maps of the 1840s. What was the squirearchy then is agribusiness now.

Hence a heave of Malcolmian spleen, and throttled yells of The expropriators must be expropriated!

Across the whole UK, 0.6% of the population (36,000 persons) still own some half of the rural land [Source: Country Life, 10 November 2010]. The top ten landowners named in that article were:

  1. The Duke of Buccleugh;
  2. The Duke of Atholl;
  3. The Duke of Cornwall;
  4. The Duke of Westminster;
  5. The Duke of Northumberland;
  6. The Laird of Invercauld, Captain Alwyne Farquharson;
  7. The Earl of Seafield;
  8. The Countess of Sutherland;
  9. Baroness Willoughby de Eresby;
  10. The Viscount Cowdray.

All good sons (and a daughter) of the soil. Of the earth, earthy. Significantly, a bare majority of those names are big in Scottish lands.

On top of that, the “State” owns vast tracts of land. The biggest single holdings are by the Ministry of Defence (241,100 hectares — over 930 square miles — across the whole UK) and the Forestry Commission (260,000-hectares in England alone — around 1,004 square miles). On the whole they have been “good” landowners: we may quibble, but … well, Malcolm recalls a sentimental summer stroll across MoD land to Lulworth Cove, with small blue butterflies aplenty, wild orchids, and a ginormous adder dozing in the sun.

Quite how the situation would be improved by delegating responsibilities down to local councils is difficult to appreciate: the continuing scandal of Cotswold Water Park and Cotswold District Council (see Private Eyes for months back) should be an awful warning. Yet that is what seems to be in Andy Wightman’s mind:

I wrote an article for the Observer at the time arguing that if folk want public forests they needed to think about ownership and consider a new model of public ownership that is removed from Government and is more local and accountable to “the public”. I cited the example of public forests in France, for example, where 20% of public forests are owned by 11,000 communes (30% of France’s 36,700 communes or municipalities).

There are local precedents, though, for small communities having democratic control of their environment. There is the Isle of Rum Community Trust, in Kinloch village, a functioning community of fewer than a score enfranchised souls. But, seemingly, flourishing. How that could be applied to urban and suburban communities, where one is ignorant of the neighbours three or four doors way, would stretch any imagination.

And none of us actually own our plots without qualification. There is, by necessity, a superior power — what in the UK is called “compulsory purchase” and in the US “eminent domain”. That, too, is right and proper — in extremis, the needs of the whole community must take precedence over any property rights of the individual. Those whose origins lie in Tyneham and the Elan Valley are entitled to differ. Similarly, nobody about to be expropriated by HS2 or a nuclear power station feels any rightness or propriety applies: suddenly it all comes down to that magic word, “compensation” — and when the compensation has been spent, all that remains is the grievance.

Now, to the practical: what can be done about next door’s creeping bamboo, which is infesting the bottom corner of the Redfellow Hovel garden? Or that damned crapping cat?

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National Sisterhood Week continues …

For poison in your sabbath morning porridge, there’s no better source/sauce than the Murdochian Sunday Times [£]. With added brimstone.

What seems to be a straightforward partisan piece, from only the first paragraph and the second sentence, turns into precisely the opposite:

Tory victim of by-election ‘dirty tricks’

The Eastleigh by-election battle turned personal yesterday after Labour and the Liberal Democrats were accused of dirty tricks over the Conservative candidate and her family. Opponents of Maria Hutchings, who is running for the Tories, questioned why her house still had a lit-up Christmas tree in its window long after Christmas.

Which decodes as either ‘absentee’ or ‘nutter’.

Then we get the recital of William Hutchings (age 11) and his ambition to be a cardio-respiratory surgeon, which can only be satiated outside the state system of education. Now back to the Great Christmas Tree riddle:

Supporters of Hutchings pointed out, however, that both the Christmas tree and her comments about education should be seen in the context that she has autistic children with special educational needs.

Conservative campaign HQ said Hutchings kept the tree up until it died for the benefit of one of her children, although neighbours said it was there all-year round.

Immediately from there, into a very odd semi-sequitur:

Diane James, the UKIP candidate, said she felt she had to justify publicly why she did not have children in the face of a Tory campaign focusing on the fact that Hutchings is an accomplished mother of four.

James said: “I couldn’t have children. It’s a big regret of my life, but I can’t do anything about that. I presume the Conservatives are mentioning that their candidate is a mother because they want to focus on family values.

If that seems odd, it is because it is — to the extent of weirdness. Even more so, when Mike Thornton, the front-runner Liberal Democrat (who, like O’Farrell for Labour, is never mentioned by name) features himself as a parent whose daughter went through the local schools to become a medical student. One might feel such a contrast is more relevant than Ms James’s aside.

After a side-track (three paragraphs on the betting odds — LibDems 8-13, Tories 7-4 and Labour on 8-1), we are back to the complex private life of Mrs Hutchings:

Some Tory activists have privately expressed concerns over the selection of Hutchings as their candidate.

In the run-up to the last general election in 2010, in which she was battling to unseat Chris Huhne, the Lib Dem MP whose resignation sparked the by-election, Conservative headquarters was warned that she faced “severe financial problems” and desperately needed more support for her campaign. A confidential file submitted to Tory central office described her as being “at breaking point”.

The party eventually agreed to help Hutchings with mobile phone, petrol and other costs. A source said: “There was a serious worry about Maria last time. She was under a huge amount of strain and the party had to be strong-armed into supporting her.”

The source said Sir George Young, the chief whip, would have been alerted to concerns held on file.

Curiouser and curiouser. Why Sir George? It’s not immediately in his remit; and wouldn’t be unless Mrs Hutchings wins the seat. Why is he dragged in, rather than — say— Greg Shapps, who is currently responsible? Obviously the mobile phone, petrol and other costs are to do with private life: otherwise they would be part of the statutory electoral expenses. And as far a candidate in a highly-marginal seat, up against a star-player from the other side, not being under a huge amount of strain … words fail.

The Sunday Times piece concludes with a paragraph of ritual praise from Eric Pickles (why him?) and another ticking off Mrs Hutchings’ merits as an opponent of gay marriage, her Euroscepticism and that she is “not a Tory toff” but a local mother who has “campaigned tirelessly for special needs children”. Which neatly overlooks that she was parachuted in, from Essex, for the 2010 election, as a ‘Cameron cutie’.

One other mystery persists about this Sunday Times piece. On-line it is counterpointed by two graphics. One is the latest YouGov opinion poll (Labour 43%, Conservatives 32%, Lib Dems 12%, UKIP 9%). The other is a grimacing Nigel Farage with his candidate, both with rosettes and against UKIP posters. In the print edition there is an extra: a singularly unflattering upward-shot portrait of Mrs Hutchings’ treble chins.

You don’t need a semiologist to detect a strong sub-text in all this.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., Elections, Greg Shapps, Sunday Times, Tories., UKIP

National Brotherhood Week … not!

All the other versions are blocked on copyright. But there it is:

It’s fun to eulogise
The people you despise,
As long as you don’t let ’em in your school.

Which would sound well from a certain Anglo-Maltese Tory lady:

On the first day of her campaign, Maria Hutchings was asked about one interview in which she was quoted as saying she did not care about refugees and another in which she allegedly claimed that Labour had done more for “the immigrants, the gays, the bloody foxes” than for children with special needs. She claimed she had been misquoted.

Who flung dung?

Sure, enough, the cow pats are flying in Eastleigh. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, so uplifting as a LibDem (“a yellow bastard“) wafting a ripe splatter at an opposite number of the ConDem coalition. Unless, of course, it’s vice versa.

Fortunately for the future of political mud-wresting-in-a-recently-vacated-cattle-pen, it’s already getting down-and-dirty:

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Whereupon the Tories — specifically the unspeakable Harry Phibbs (by name and nature) — at ConHome, swiftly shuffle sideways:

However is the Lib Dem attack so smart? Their leader Nick Clegg says he may send his eldest son to an indepedent [sic] school. Why should he be able to exercise the choice and not Maria Hutchings?

Iain Dale points out that the child in question may well be autistic.

If so the view that existing state provision is inadequate is shared by the National Austic [sic, again] Society. That is why they are involved in helping to start specialist free schools for children with autism. That will provide a choice for parents who can’t afford fees.

HutchingsWhatever truth or not there is in that remains unclear. What is clear is that some Tory-run local authorities have absolutely no intention of willingly providing proper facilities in state schools for autistic children.

Which is why North Yorkshire recruited the self-proclaimed “ABA-killer” for the appeals procedure.

Airbrushed for change

There is, by the way, a bit of the old Cameroon Photoshopping going on.

Compare and contrast the image of Mrs Hutchings above (on the leaflet, from in action at the B&Q presser) with the ‘official’ version (as just above).

With luck, the air will remain blue (though not, perhaps, politically) — in Westminster and Eastleigh, alike —  for at least the next twelve days.

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Filed under ConHome, Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., David Cameron, Elections, Lib Dems, Tories.

“I’m an estate agent. Trust me!”

The Lady in Malcolm’s Life coughed and spluttered her way to and from a City appointment. She brought back the Evening Boris Standard.

Page 2 has a post-Huhne pop-survey (dignified by Ipsos-MORI) on page 2. This tells us:

  • 41% of interviewees “generally trust” (and 57% distrust) business leaders to tell the truth;
  • which is more than 24% who trust (and 70% who distrust) estate agents;
  • and more than the 23% who trust (and 70% who distrust) MPs in general.

Since the bottom of the reliability pile involves “Politicians generally” (18% trusted, 77% distrusted) it would need a keen logician to untangle in what ways the general public differentiate them from their sub-set “MPs in general”.

Remember and despair: one in four of our fellow citizens trusts the snake-oiled property shark.

At a single bound …

… we leap to page 59 for the letters, and the main focus is the “Mansion Tax”. As we might expect from the Evening Boris Standard, this is the usual balanced viewpoints:

  • a no-no from “Trevor Abrahmsohn, Glentree Estates”;
  • a no-no-no from “M Truman, Taxation Magazine”; and
  • a severe snipe from “Andrew Pearmain, author, The Politics of New Labour“.

We shall not, on this occasion, pause to marvel that a magazine (a glossy?) survives on the topic of licensed mulcting alone, nor a self-proclaimed “author” who needs his magnum opus soldered to his moniker. Well, perhaps for just a moment of mockery.

Let us instead hang on the words of Mr Abrahmsohn. Here is one with considerable North London street-cred (though it’s more “avenues” and “gardens” in Abrahmsohn’s refined world):

Meet the man who holds the keys to Billionaires’ Row

He has sold the world’s most expensive house and rubbed shoulders with the political elite – but life was not always so glamorous for the keeper of keys to Billionaires’ Row.

His office on the edge of Hampstead Garden Suburb, adorned with letters from prime ministers and press cuttings from national newspapers, is a far cry from the shabby hotel room in Golders Green where Trevor Abrahmsohn forged his reputation as estate agent to the globe’s glitterati.

Armed with nothing but a temperamental phone line and a photocopier, the 58-year-old went on to enjoy 35 years selling “trophy mansions” on The Bishops Avenue to Saudi princes, Chinese businessman and Russian oligarchs.

That’s a recent puff-piece from the Ham & High.

And, finally, we have Mr Abrahmsohn’s missive to the Evening Boris Standard:

Mansion tax will never happen

Labour’s announcement of a mansion tax and reinstatement of the 10p tax band yesterday is headline-grabbing before the Eastleigh by-election. What are we to make of the two Eds’ integrity, given they were thew joint architects of Labour policy at the time Gordon Brown abolished the 10p band?

If Miliband had any sense, there is no way he will actually implement a mansion tax that would alienate an important element of middle-class Labour support. In the London property market, the likely £2 million threshold is hardly a fortune: perhaps buying a two-bedroom flat in a leafy, but not super-prime, inner London area, and there are plenty of properties in this bracket that were bought for relatively little years ago.

A mansion tax would have a profound effect on the dynamics of the market: a lot of people would sell up and court cases would be certain as others try to revalue their property. Foreign investors have already been hit by the Coalition’s clumsy levy of 15 per cent stamp duty in the last Budget, and a mansion tax would only magnify their problems; why are we trying so hard to repel them? A far more plausible, consumer-friendly approach is to bring in a range of higher council tax bands above Band G.

Trevor Abrahmsohn, Glentree Estates.

Kettling the pot

Spot the mutually-conflicting assumptions and statements there. Malcolm will tick just three.

For what it’s worth, the average price of a two-bed flat in NW11 (Mr Abrahmsohn’s home patch of Golders Green) is around £400,000. Only in five tight super-prime, inner London areas — W1 (Piccadilly), W8 (Kensington), SW3 (Chelsea), SW7 (South Ken)  and the Brompton Road (SW10) — would one readily hit on a £1 million plus two-bed pad. Those are not areas of solid middle-class Labour support.

Moreover, doesn’t any decent heart bleed for the misfortunes of those foreign investors who plump Mr Abrahmsohn’s portfolio? Malcolm regularly passes down the eternal building-site that is The Bishop’s Avenue (a.k.a. “Billionaires’ Row”). Its very existence involves tearing down perfectly-good (and hardly-offensive) granges, and erecting, in their place, over-sized but tawdry glass sheds — which, in turn, are gone in half-a-decade or so for something even more glitzy and ghastly.

There is a sound — nay, urgent — argument to be made for reforming the Council Tax. It was designed by Michael Heseltine as a regressive tax. It has become far more oppressive with subsequent postponements of revaluation — most recently, and seemingly twice, with malice aforethought, by Eric Pickles. What Abrahmsohn also elides is the distinction between national and local taxation: Council Tax is just that, local.

Bottom line

We should be looking at how we tax property. Since it is even more static than parked cars (which we tax and fine), it’s not rocket science to evaluate its worth and slap a duty on it. The over-inflated property market in London and the more-bourgeois areas of the South-East is ripe for plucking. Only the most self-interested Tory fails to recognise that. Doing so (and improving transport links) could and should encourage “trickle-down”, first to those crumbling areas adjacent to London, then further afield.

Once we’ve agreed the need, it’s only method that matters. Miliband and Balls have taken aboard the ‘mansion tax’, with due acknowledgements to the likes of Vince Cable. Why not go a step further, and snuffle around site-value/land-value taxation? Which was amply dealt with recently by George Monbiot in The Guardian and taken further by Alex Hern in the New Statesman.

If nothing else, it’s guaranteed to raise the Abrahmsohn blood-pressure.

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Filed under economy, Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Evening Standard, Guardian, Hampstead, House-prices, London

Who owns Pythagoras?

Or photosynthesis? Or 9 x 7 = 63?

Daft, isn’t it?

Then we hit upon this, from Stephanie McCurry, in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

It has become increasingly difficult to say anything new about the American Civil War or even just to tell a different tale … [with] … a marketplace with seemingly inexhaustible demand for another version of the familiar story and the understandable desire of experts to shape public history.

As a well-bred Belfast girl, Professor McCurry will know all about the problem of who owns history. And that ‘history’ is not just a recital of Great Dead White Men.

The lustre of lucre

Note, though, she also brings in the commercial aspect: the gurus who have cornered the media market in their particular expertise. Tudors without Starkey? Unthinkable! The last word on Hitler? Well, Kershaw must be into the quarter-finals!

A couple of weeks on from the Old Vic production, Malcolm’s mental sound-track goes on full volume:

From Ohio, Mister Thorn
Calls me up from night till morn:
Mister Thorn once cornered corn and that ain’t hay!
But I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my fashion —
Yes, I’m always true to you,
Darlin’, in my way!

Read between Cole Porter’s lines, and Lois would do anything for her Great White Men.

More hay

So, this afternoon, there was Malcolm at the old-reliable London Pride in the Famous Royal Oak (well, it’s famed within a quarter-mile of Muswell Hill’s St James’s Lane). He has Professor McCurry flitting about his consciousness when he reaches the Comment & Debate page of the Guardian, and another contender for Ms Lane’s transient affections:

Harvardian Ferguson
Says I’m really quite très bonne:
If that’s the Harvard ton, and he’s really on … Okay!

… well, mainly on his own status and importance. As here:

It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

Only someone living in a dreaming Oxonian spire could be unaware of how badly this has turned out, despite the best efforts of thousands of hard-working teachers. I know because I have watched three of my children go through the English system, because I have regularly visited schools and talked to history teachers, and because (unlike Evans and Priestland, authors of rather dry works on, respectively, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia) I have written and presented popular history. 

The new national curriculum is not flawless, to be sure. It runs counter to the advice I gave Gove by being much too prescriptive. The 34 topics to be covered by pupils between the ages of seven and 14 already read a bit like chapter titles and, if there is one thing I hope we avoid, it is an official history textbook (even if it’s written by Simon Schama).

Nothing like putting the boot (alongside a personal puff) in, Niall!

The rest of the piece has at least three other conditional clauses (if … if … If), four rhetorical questions, and rather more subjective first person singulars than is truly tasteful.

Yet, Ferguson has a point

It isn’t that history doesn’t sell. As Prof Steph (see above) opened that TES review:

Last December, thousands of Americans filed into cinemas to watch Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln. While Congress was stuck in its usual deadlock, a disgusted public was momentarily delivered by the large-screen image of a heroic figure and a heroic America. As the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was passed and slavery abolished, people cried. They applauded.

Meanwhile, as both main UK channels (and many others) exploit shamelessly, costume drama and a bit of pseudo-history writ small (Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife) put bums on family sofas. Rescuing ‘Richard III’ (perhaps) from under the Nissans and Fords of the Leicester car-park played a PR blinder.

So a kind of “history” excites, enthuses, entertains. What is ‘taught’ in school fails miserably by comparison.

But what should it be? Let’s try and decode Ferguson:

If you want to understand what’s really wrong with history in English schools, read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay in the latest issue of Standpoint. As Hunter rightly says, it’s not just the defective content of the old national curriculum that is the problem. It’s the way history has been taught in British schools ever since the advent of the schools history project in the 1970s and the rejection of historical knowledge in favour of “source analysis” and “child-centered” learning (“Imagine you are a Roman centurion …”).

and (this is the on-line version, [not all of which made it into print]):

Among other things, the national curriculum explicitly aims to ensure that all pupils “know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires”; that they “understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance”; and that they “understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims”.

[At key stage 1, children will be introduced to “basic concepts” such as nation, civilisation, monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace. At key stage 2, they will study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome.] As for “the essential chronology of Britain’s history”, to which Evans and Priestland object so strongly, it is a model of political correctness: not only Mary Seacole makes the cut, but also Olaudah Equiano – hardly escapees from Our Island Story.

What is missing there is: who owns history?

For those “basic concepts” are intensely and inescapably partial and ideological. Try a couple of thought experiments:

  • Reconcile Cromwellian England into an approved primary-school perception of monarchy, parliament, democracy, war and peace.
  • And how does the average eight- or ten-year-old meaningfully study the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome? In the Goveian world-scheme, were Greece and Rome essentially slave-societies, or is the slavery thing a mere incidental to the cultural glories?

Docking churchWhat sticks in Malcolm’s craw is, about the only time Roman slavery cropped up at Wells County Primary School, it involved Pope Gregory I and his Non Angli, sed angeli. Which may feature as every-window-tells-a-story in St Mary, Docking, as elsewhere, but as far as a critical observer can determine is as verifiable as Star Trek.  And, no, it’s not in Bede.

Two remaining issues

They’re in Ferguson, and implicit in the more cerebral McCurry:

  • What is the authentic ‘scheme’ (which is what — in any sense of the word — a syllabus amounts to) for that overview of English and European history? Is it Anglocentric or Eurocentric? At the age of fifteen Malcolm switched from GCE “English and European history” to Irish Leaving Certificate “History”; and it was a painful re-appraisal, indeed.
  • What is Ferguson’s gold standard of ‘historical knowledge’? Can he kindly provide, as a solid example, one single, absolute, indisputable, uncoloured ‘fact’? For, were he to do so, a whole phalanx of equally-eminent ‘historians’ would happily exhibit how that ‘fact’ could be, and has been ‘spun’. As Malcolm’s pert Young Piece never fails to repeat, a historical ‘fact’ is one which has been cited by a quantum (say, four) of historians. And a ‘historian’ is … precisely how qualified?

End piece

Consider, then, how Stephanie McCurry, in her shrewd Ulster way, presents ‘values’  rather than certainties, a basis of ‘interpretation’ rather than Ferguson’s ‘facts’, humanely and self-effacingly, warning but with a populist touch, and so concludes her extended review:

Civil War history is a growth industry. For authors, the opportunities are great, but so are the temptations — to repetition, over-reaching and jockeying for market share. There are valuable new interpretations emerging from the field, including a focus on the Civil War as a humanitarian crisis, and there are important voices cautioning against an embrace of war stories as the romanticisation of war itself. But in the fever of sesquicentennial commemoration nothing sells quite like President Lincoln and the war for emancipation. It makes the fantasy of Django Unchained to make the public focus even for a minute on the other America, the one that for so long had no problem with holding people as slaves.

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Filed under Comment is Free, education, Guardian, History, Ian Kershaw, Michael Gove, Niall Ferguson, Norfolk, Times Literary Supplement