Category Archives: Times Literary Supplement

‘The Despard conspiracy’

I wasn’t greatly enthused by first sight of the current issue of The Times Literary Supplement. The cover seemed to promise all things feminist and African. Within, though, are two reviews of history books. Both have, if looked at properly, Irish implications. We’ll perhaps come to the second later.

The first (page 26) is a review by Professor Marianne Elliott. If that name doesn’t ring bells, it should. She is one of those scholars who created at Liverpool University the highly-influential Institute of Irish Studies. Here she is taking large lumps out of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Hot Burning — A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard. That ponderous title alone suggests something OTT, more Mills and Boon than product of a respectable academic press. The book seems to be account of the lives of

Edward Marcus Despard and his Jamaican wife Catherine, daughter of a freed slave. Despard was a minor member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, whose career in the British army had takeneito Jamaica, Nicaragua and, in 1786, to British Honduras, as its military superintendent. In Central America he took up the cause of the indigenous people and fell foul of the Baymen, or loggers. Recalled to England in 1790, he became involved with the English and Irish “underground”, was twice arrested, and executed inLondon in 1803 for his part in the so-called Despard Conspiracy (allegedly to overthrow the British government).​

On the basis of this review I shall not be rushing to buy the book.

And yet … ‘the Despard Conspiracy’. I had an echo lodged in a disused braincell, but I needed a refresher.

The Oxford Companion to Irish History is no great help:

Despard, Col. Edward Marcus (1751-1803), born in Queen’s County, a naval hero executed 21 February 1803 for an alleged revolutionary conspiracy in London. His activities, long dismissed as a wild personal venture, are now seen as part of the clandestine plotting still kept up, despite defeat in the insurrection of 1798, by the United Irishmen and their radical allies in Great Britain, with possible links to Robert Emmett’s venture later the same year.​

It is unsigned. That, to me, feels little more than a place-marker, waiting to be amplified by developing scholarship. Which may explain why, although I must have heard of the ‘Despard Conspiracy’, I wasn’t up to speed.

The DNB doesn’t quite concur with Professor Elliott:

In June 1786 Despard took up an appointment as superintendent of Honduras. Though he handled relations with the Spanish authorities well he was notably less adept as a civilian governor. His unswerving support for settlers displaced from territories recently ceded to Spain (many of whom he knew from San Juan and the Black River) led him into repeated conflict with the established British settler community, who complained repeatedly to London of his ‘visible Spirit of Self-importance and uncontrollable Domination’ (TNA: PRO, CO 123/6, 21 Feb 1788). Events culminated in his annulment (June 1789) of the colony’s police and magistracy; Despard ruled by direct decree until, suspended on half pay, he was ordered to return to Britain, where he arrived in May 1790, accompanied by his African–Caribbean wife, Catherine, and their son James.​

What comes before and after that DNB snippet is interesting.

There is a link to his older brother, John Despard, another of the colonial administrators who sprang from the lower echelons of the Ascendancy class, and rose through army connections. Much of John’s service had been in the American campaigns, and he was duly rewarded with O/C the Cape Breton colony. Time and circumstances put him running the reception committee for 25,000 Scots evicted by the Highland Clearances.

Caribbean daring-do

From the DNB we find Edward Marcus as an engineer with Nelson, capturing Fort San Juan (1779) from the Spanish (annepisode plundered by CS Forester for Hornblower) , running the occupation of Roatan and the Honduran island (1781), at the defence of Jamaica against the Franco-Spanish assault (1782). Then something of interest:

Despard headed an expedition of Jamaican settlers, assisted by British artillery, to recapture Spanish-occupied Black River territory in south-western Jamaica. For this he received royal commendation and was made a colonel of provincials.​
​In June 1786 Despard took up an appointment as superintendent of Honduras.

As if someone higher up has spotted Despard ‘deals well with the locals’.

Back in Britain, after the Honduran problem:

Despard had to wait until October 1791 to learn that, while complaints against him were dismissed, he was not to be reinstated as superintendent of Honduras. In pursuit of compensation he grew increasingly irascible, while the combination of enforced idleness and grievance against authority led him to both the London Corresponding Society and the overtly revolutionary United Irishmen (UI). He quickly became an intimate of the leading United Irishman and French secret agent William Duckett and in 1797 was reported to be co-ordinator of a proposed rising in London planned to coincide with one in Ireland and a French landing there. In 1798 Despard was pivotal in negotiations between the United Irishmen and a broader conspiratorial group, the United Britons, to foment simultaneous English and Irish risings to assist a French invasion. When O’Connor and O’Coighley, the principal leaders of the conspiracy, were apprehended in February, while hiring a boat to take them to France, habeas corpus was suspended and further arrests followed. Despard’s was predictably among them.​
​Despard seems to have been aware that the revolutionary threat had been contained by the government when, in June 1799, he petitioned for his release in return for voluntary transportation. Among political prisoners at this time he seems to have received the harshest treatment—’more like a common vagabond than a gentleman or State Prisoner’, complained his wife, Catherine (TNA: PRO, HO 42/43)—and Sir Francis Burdett made Despard’s case the centre of a campaign against the ‘English Bastille’.​

Alas! At that single bound our hero was not yet free.

He retreated to the family stamping ground at Camross, seemingly convinced to stay out of politicking. But, get this:

… in February 1802 he returned to London at the behest of the UI leader William Dowdall. After the collapse of the Irish rising of 1798 the United Irishmen had reconstituted itself as a small, centralized military body. Though Britain was now at peace with France food shortages and industrial unrest created a climate in which talk of revolution flourished. Despard now concentrated on enlisting the support of militant Irish labourers and guardsmen stationed in Windsor and London but intelligence sources also show him to have been in contact with Irish and French emissaries during the summer. Disaffected guardsmen tried to force the issue with a rising on 6 September but Despard restrained them, arguing that such action could be effective only if it coincided with an Irish rising and a French invasion; but then, on 16 November, Despard was arrested at the Oakly Arms, Lambeth, apparently planning a coup d’état to coincide with the opening of parliament later that month.​

Much of that sounds remarkably familiar. In the subsequent trial, the prosecution pulled its punches, reluctant to reveal the sources of intelligence, and particularly protective of any evidence against:

a significant number of London Jacobins in the conspiracy, of whom the motley dozen soldiers and workmen tried with Despard were far from typical.​

Instead Despard was depicted as:

a psychotic maverick who had enticed a small band of unfortunates into supporting a futile plot.​

That was when synapses closed; and I realised where Despard had appeared in my past reading. He gets incidental references in EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

The rest of Despard’s story follows a predictable pattern:

… the only incriminating evidence found at his arrest was a printed card calling for ‘the independence of Great Britain and Ireland. An equalization of Civil, Political, and Religious Rights; [and] an ample Provision for the families of the Heroes who shall fall in the contest’. An oath of allegiance to the United Britons was appended. Identical cards circulated in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Such points led Edward Thompson to argue, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), that Despard was the leader of a nationwide revolutionary conspiracy […] His arrest was simply an opportunist move by a government acting on fragmentary evidence.​

As far as I can see, that is how the notion of an overarching plot, led by Despard, remained current. Though Marianne Elliott (I now see) made an earlier effort at resurrecting Despard’s memory in her Partners in revolution: the United Irishmen and France.

Despard’s defence was circumspect, wishing perhaps not to incriminate others but also aware that the prosecution case was uneven. He enjoyed wide popularity and Nelson himself gave evidence as to his good character: ‘no man could have shewn more zealous attachment to his Sovereign and his Country’. Though finding him guilty the jury recommended mercy ‘on account of his former services’. The government, however, was not inclined to clemency. Whatever the truth of the conspiracy an exemplary verdict had been secured and punishment was enacted accordingly. On 21 February 1803, having taken leave of his wife and refusing all religious consolation, Despard was drawn on a hurdle to the Surrey county gaol, Newington, where, before a crowd reportedly of 20,000, he delivered from the scaffold a speech that was loudly cheered. Along with six co-conspirators he was hanged and his corpse decapitated, whereupon the executioner held up the head, declaring: ‘This is the head of a traitor’. His widow received the remains, which on 1 March were buried in the churchyard by St Paul’s Cathedral.​
In my humble opinion Edward Despard is another victim of the nationalist struggle:
  • Is there any Irish memorial of him, or to him?
  • Perhaps I should take time out to trace any genealogical link between him and Charlotte Despard ((1844-1939, née French), the pacifist, socialist, suffragette, and Irish nationalist, sister of Sir John French, through her husband, Maximilian Carden Despard (1839–1890).


Filed under History, Ireland, Times Literary Supplement


Those pre-Christmas book-puffs are repellant enough — the most heart-warming spin-off being Private Eye‘s annual list of mutual back-scratching log-rollers.

Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile.

Look it up. You have a hot-link there.

At least we can assume those Christmas listings are recommendations by critics who have actually read the things.  Then, for something different, there are three pages (pp10-12) in the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement where:

Twenty-six of our reviewers discuss the books the’d like to read on holiday.

Got that? We are being recommended stuff the recommenders admit they haven’t read. This amounts to vapourware. Inevitably, the entries radiate of self-congratulary self-admiration (and I paid £3 for the dubious benefit).

Why do I not feel inspired to read, — and here goes for just two examples pulled at random:

Leonie Swann’s Garou: Ein Schaf-Thriller … Swann’s plucky sheep detectives (led by the brilliant ewe, Miss Maple) as they gambol into thriller territory?


a novel about immigration, dislocation, nationalism and PTSD … Olga Grjasnova’s Der Russe ist Einer, der Birken liebt?

So, here’s my immediate plan:

9781444760873Taking a couple of idle hours to finish the last third of Jill Paton Walsh’s re-treading of Dorothy L. Sayers, The Late Scholar, now available in paperback, and a two-for-one-and-a-half at Waterstones.

Dibdin_AndThenFollow that with a re-read of  Michael Dibden’s And Then You Die, which must be the shortest of his Aurelio Zen techies. Yeah, yeah, I woke at two in true morning, and have already knocked off the first 46 pages. The joy there is amplified by a well-produced Faber hardback still, a dozen years later, in excellent mint condition.

There’s an Adam Furst, Midnight in Europe, UK publication just this week, which I haven’t yet read, an omission which needs instantly to be rectified.

Perhaps something a bit more “demanding”?

Well, it won’t be any of the stuff the TLS critics have lined up for themselves, apparently on hearsay and sight unseen.

I see here there at my elbow are several demanding paperbacks, topped by:

To be honest, I have pecked at both, but need an extended run at either.

Then there’s:

  • Chris Skidmore on Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors. I guess that one will get priority, not because of the current vogue for Richard, ever since he was extracted from the Leicester car-park. No: there’s a distant ancestor, Henry Pigott of Abington, Cambridgeshire, recorded as being killed at Bosworth. His father, Thomas, died the following day — could it have been as a consequence of receiving the news?

That seems better justification than much of what those TLS types offer.

And why does one need to be “on holiday” to find time and reason to read?

1 Comment

Filed under fiction, History, Times Literary Supplement

City(e)scape 2

Still with the Times Literary Supplement, Malcolm recognised many locations in J . Mordaunt Crook’s review:

InteriorsLondon: Hidden Interiors — sponsored by English Heritage, in all the glory of digital polychrome … With 1,700 images of some 180 buildings, it guides the reader from Central London to the suburbs; spiralling out from Westminster, the West End and Mayfair to Soho, Covent Garden, Fitzrovia and Clerkenwell; then on to the City and its eastern fringes, winding clockwise around the capital’s southern suburbs, before moving westwards and terminating in the north. The text by Philip Davies is crisp and informative; the photographs by Derek Kendall are a revelation.

In short, a glossy coffee-table book, but none the worse for that. £40 on the label, but Amazon are knocking it out for £28. Malcolm is severely tempted.

Industrial majesty and might

What got to Malcolm wasn’t necessarily those grandiose palaces (which he has, in many cases, passed through) but the lesser, more unapproachable, even more domestic places. There is, for example, the alternative splendour of Battersea Power Station (which Christopher Fowler featured when he reviewed, briefly, this book):


Of this Crook says:

Battersea Power Station is only too well known. Outside, it is the biggest brick building in Europe. Inside, its mighty Control Room — all switches, buttons and flickering dials — seems like an Art Deco vision from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Yet, in a way, its electronic marvels are eclipsed in memory by engineering of quite a different sort. Crossness Engine House SE2 — the greatest achievement of the Metropolitan Board of Works — survives today as a cathedral or iron. It was opened in1865, and its throbbing machinery is guarded by sinuous polychrome grills and powered by the largest rotative beam engine in the world. It was designed to pump thousands of gallons of sewage into the ebbing tide of the Thames. This is function carried to the level of sublimity.

One thing is sure: millions of tourists visit London. How many will see such temples of industry? Indeed, how many Londoners have ventured to Crossness? They should. They really should:

A sense of déjà vu all over again?

When we see these images, even those who have never, ever, been in London, feel there is something familiar. There’s the Midland Bank vault on Poultry, just opposite the Bank of England:


Now, err … where do we see that? Ah! Goldfinger!

And again:

Masonic Temple, Liverpool Street

That’s the Masonic Temple, hidden in the depths of what used to be the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street (now the Andaz). Cit gents could nip in for a quick roll-up of the trouser leg before heading back to the sticks of East Anglia. You are told, when you penetrate this holy-of-holies that it was rediscovered by accident by the renovation works in 1997. Now it hired for weddings, hoolies, fashion shows and film shoots.

The 134 bus route to Redfellow Hovel

There’s a couple of these interiors, far less grand but worth the visit, on Malcolm’s road home:

In Muswell Hill Broadway [Davies] drops in on Martyn’s family grocers: its barrels of biscuits, its sacks of coffee, all marshalled with military precision.

If Martyn’s don’t have it, it’s not worth the tasting. When coffee is being roasted, the whole neighbourhood knows about it.


In Kentish Town Road, he even marvels at the droopy garments in Bluston’s window: “frocks and gowns for the older woman” (also listed Grade II).

That’s the shop-front, one trusts. Not the “older woman”. The star “frock”, laid out now for some long time, has been a red-spotted outfit, which always reminds Malcolm of Minnie Mouse.

An afterthought

By a strange symbiosis, there’s another attraction on the 134 bus route in this week’s TLS. It’s the very last item on the back page, from that NB Londoners page noted previously:

61eC-Wd-mnL._SL500_AA300_We know that people say weird things to people who work in bookshops, which is the premiss of More Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops

All are related by Jen Campbell, who works at Ripping Yarns, a secondhand bookshop in London …

Now, let’s be precise here. Ripping Yarns is on the corner where Southwood Lane becomes Muswell Hill Road, and intersects with the fag end of the Archway Road. Right opposite Highgate tube station and the Woodman pub.

Malcolm knows it well. Once there, pubs not intervening, he’s nearly home.

1 Comment

Filed under History, London, Muswell Hill, Times Literary Supplement

City(e)scape 1

SHARP_336770hThe current issue of The Times Literary Supplement, despite the exotic and even scary cover (Beauty and terror), has something of a metropolitan theme (and will keep Malcolm happy for these couple of posts)


With both The Guardian‘s  Doonesbury strip and the TLS rear-gunner NB (initialled J. C., so assume James Campbell) Malcolm starts at the back and works forward. Since J.C. subtitles NB as ‘Londoners’ we know where we’re heading. It’s a subtle sophistication: NB‘s first and main item concerns James Joyce in London  (‘Londoners’ — geddit?)

This includes the quite perverse statement:

In an article in the current James Joyce Quarterly, Gordon Bowker writes that the Irish writer’s link with the former ruling power “has not received the attention it deserves”.

Really? Really?

Malcolm diffidently suggests that Bowker revisits Oxen of the Sun. What Joyce does there is filter the authentic voices of Dublin through the tradition of ‘English’ authors, or rather those represented by a couple of contemporary collections: William Peacock’s The English Prose: From Mandeville to Ruskin (1903) and George Saintsbury’s The Anthology of English Prose (1912). Anyone who, like Malcolm, studied the snippets anthologised for Leaving Certificate (1960) will see where this sub-litcrit is coming from.

Those who wrestle Joyce’s Episode into submission may well do so with help from the explanatory letter Joyce sent Frank Budgen on 20 March 1920:

Am working hard at Oxen of the Sun, the idea being the crime committed against fecundity by sterilizing the act of coition. Scene, lying-in hospital. Technique: a nineparted episode without divisions introduced by a Sallustian-Tacitean prelude (the unfertilized ovum), then by way of earliest English alliterative and monosyllabic and Anglo-Saxon (‘Before born the babe had bliss. Within the womb he won worship.’ ‘Bloom dull dreamy heard: in held hat stony staring’) then by way of Mandeville (‘there came forth a scholar of medicine that men clepen etc’) then Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (‘but that franklin Lenehan was prompt ever to pour them so that at the least way mirth should not lack’), then the Elizabethan chronicle style (‘about that present time young Stephen filled all cups’), then a passage solemn, as of Milton, Taylor, Hooker, followed by a choppy Latin-gossipy bit, style of Burton-Browne,  then  a  passage  Bunyanesque  (‘the reason was that in the way he fell in with a certain whore whose name she said is Bird in the hand’) after a diarystyle bit Pepys-Evelyn (‘Bloom sitting snug with a party of wags, among them Dixon jun., Ja. Lynch, Doc. Madden and Stephen D. for a languor he had before and was now better, he having dreamed tonight a strange fancy and Mistress Purefoy there to be delivered, poor body, two days past her time and the midwives hard put to it, God send her quick issue’) and so on through Defoe-Swift and Steele-Addison-Sterne and Landor-Pater-Newman until it ends in a frightful jumble of Pidgin English, nigger English, Cockney, Irish, Bowery slang and broken doggerel. This progression is also linked back at each part subtly with some foregoing episode of the day and, besides this, with the natural stages of development in the embryo and the periods of faunal evolution in general. The double-thudding Anglo-Saxon motive recurs from time to time (‘Loth to move from Horne’s house’) to give the sense of the hoofs of oxen. Bloom is the spermatozoon, the hospital the womb, the nurse the ovum, Stephen the embryo.

Letters of James Joyce, vol. 1, ed. Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1966), pp. 139-40.

Hardly hidden in there is the Anglo-Irish thing that plagues us all: Swift (born Dublin, 1667), Steele (born Dublin, 1672), Burke (born Dublin, 1729), Goldsmith (born Roscommon or Longford, probably 1730) — all who made their reputations in London. In fact the ‘nationality’ crisis is implicit throughout: Mandeville was really Jan de Langhe from Ypres, a Fleming writing in Norman-French, Sir Thomas Maleore may have been Welsh … Newman, the London High Anglican who translated himself from London to Dublin(at the request of the Irish bishops) establishing the Catholic University of Ireland.

Anyway, back to J.C. filleting that James Joyce Quarterly:

EarwickerThe English were generous to Joyce, Bowker says: he received a grant from the Society of Authors and a pension from the Royal Literary Fund. In 1923, T.S.Eliot, who would later publish Finnegans Wake at Faber, took him to see (in Eliot’s words) “some of the waste lands around Chichester”. On a gravestone in Sidlesham churchyard, Joyce read the name “Earwicker”. Thus, Bowker writes, “an ancient English name stands at the centre of Finnegans Wake and winds through it”.

Nora Barnacle, who loved London, went shopping while Jim And Anna Livia set about enlarging basic Irish-English. He and Nora were married at Kensington Register Office in 1931 (Pound was married at the church next door). In the Electoral Register for 1931-2, James Joyce of 28b Campden Grove is listed as eligible for jury service. The other tenants were Nora and May Joyce … A neighbour was called Miss Gertrude Stein.

Quite what all of that ‘proves’, beyond West London being then, as now, cosmopolitan and liter-arty, is beyond Malcolm’s comprehension.

1 Comment

Filed under Dublin., History, James Joyce, London, Times Literary Supplement

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.

Leave a comment

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


The Times Literary Supplement Crossword, number 957: 11 across — Drayton’s blackbird in grouse location.

Got it?

blackbirdWell, you ought not to have done, because what Drayton actually wrote was:

The woosel near at hand, that hath a golden bill …

Which was a direct rip from what ol’ Bill Shakespeare wrote for Bottom to sing in Midsummer Night’s Dream (III.i.118):

The Woosell cock, so blacke of hews,
With Orange tawny bill.
The throstle with his note so true,
The wren with little quill..

O.K., Titania: wakey! wakey!

Now, here’s a low thought …

How did Great Literature go from there to the bus, circa 1966, carrying Stockton Rugby Club‘s II and IV teams back from Newcastle City Colleges? It had been a bitterly-cold day, and Malcolm a particularly useless wing-forward.  Anyway, the bus was redolent with Newcastle Brown and entr’actes of The Wild West Show 

We are off to see the Wild West Show
With the elephants and the kangaroo [Chorus interposes: … Cor blimey!].
No matter the weather
As long as we’re together,
We’re off to see the Wild West Show.

Recitative: And in this cage we have the Ousel-Woozle Bird …
Amazed audience: The Ousel-Woozle Bird?
Recitative: Yes! Indeed! Yer actual Ousel-Woozle Bird!
These birds fly in a single line.
The biggest bird leads in front, followed by the next largest and so on down to the smallest at the … err … rear.
At the first sign of danger, the smallest bird flies up the behind of the bird in front.
And so on up the line.
The single remaining bird then flies round and round, faster and faster, in every decreasing circles until it disappears up its own fundamental orifice …
From which advantageous position,
It continues to pour life-giving nutriment
Upon the earth beneath.

Ladeez and Gennelmen!

We give you the ousel-wousel bird’s after-life … the Liberal Democrat Party!

See previous-but-one posting.

Leave a comment

Filed under Lib Dems, Literature, Shakespeare, Times Literary Supplement, Uncategorized

Smile and simile

Redfellow Hovel is convenient for the Olympian heights of Muswell Hill, where there is a branch of W.H.Smith. Fortunately there is also an excellent newsagent.


Hence, this very morning, Malcolm was faced with a choice:

  • The London Review of Books with John Lancaster considering The Shit We’re In. Well, Malcolm reckons he knows about that already.
  • The New York Review of Books, though not the latest issue, still seems preoccupied with how Obama was re-elected. Clue: he got more votes. What too often goes unrecognised is the natural majority for decency and fairness (which currently amounts to the moderate Democrats) — even in the House elections, the Dems outpolled the GOP by a million votes across the nation. Only the gerrymandered redistricting after the 2010 census skewed the popular will.

In stead Malcolm reached down and lifted his customary Times Literary Supplement, seduced as much by the prospect of an hour with the crossword as by the fetching Ingres on the front page. Which, as above, he now shares with you.

Not all was thereby lost, for Hugh Muir’s Guardian Diary column provides a small gem:

 Finally, to Alan Bennett’s Diary for 2012, which appears in the latest edition of the London Review of Books, specifically the entry for 2 May . “Jeremy Hunt has the look of an estate agent waiting to show someone a property,” says Bennett, ever wise. He does, doesn’t he?

 Helpfully, in the web edition, we find that aptly illustrated:

Jeremy Hunt

“… and the downstairs loo is this wide!”

However, that leaves Malcolm with a lit. crit, puzzlement.

Does Alan Bennett’s shrewd comparison, “has the look of”, amount to a full-blown simile?

1 Comment

Filed under Alan Bennett, London, London Review of Books, Muswell Hill, New York review of Books, Times Literary Supplement