Thursday, February 28, 2013

Which reminds me...

I wrote about all this somewhere else a few years back.
 John Martin Fischer has said that knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification. This is perfectly true and important, but you cannot attack the second limb of this without first having mastered the first.

Quarts into pint pots

I had a look at the proposed new history curriculum. I think it's a fair comment to say that it may be too comprehensive in its sweep of what British history needs to be covered by the age of 14 (when history, sadly, ceases to be compulsory), but I'm not sure that the critiques of this approach really hold out. Take Robert Shrimsley in the FT today. His major beef appears to be that in the proposed curriculum for 8-14 year olds there isn't room for discussion of the growth of Prussia, the Risorgimento, and the nineteenth century expansion of the continental United States.

It's probably worth pointing out at this point that in the current history curriculum, Prussia, Italy and the United States do not appear either. The only non-British countries to get a name check are India and China (although there are mentions for 'Europe', the 'Islamic World' and 'West African Kingdoms').

For what it's worth, I studied history up to post-graduate level, and I've never studied the birth of Italy, or American history at all, although I did cover Prussian history for A-level (and ended up writing a Finals paper on it, in the absence of any subject I'd actually covered coming up in the paper). I think it's effectively impossible for there to be a comprehensive syllabus for British and world history which can be covered in six years. I also think that if there is to be any part of history which should be compulsory, that part is British history, for all that Aaronovitch dismisses this as "bastard civics".

A curriculum to 14 can only ever be a bare minimum of what ought to be taught. For those who are interested in history, GCSE, A-Level and undergraduate studies can provide an unimaginable breadth of study - my undergraduate degree ranged from a discussion of warfare in post-Roman Britain to a dissertation on a shot down plane in Zimbabwe's Bush War. A young age curriculum is not about setting a limit on what can be learned - it is about setting a basis for what children ought to know. Gove's proposed currriculum may be too prescriptive and too comprehensive, but I don't think that a focus on British history is a drawback for this stage of learning.

Women on top

As a corollary of my post yesterday on women in Westminster, Penelope Trunk has an interesting (if rather depressing) post on the official death of telecommuting at Yahoo.
People telecommute so they can decrease the conflict between work and personal life. Brigham Young University shows that people can work sixty hours a week as a telecommuter and still maintain low conflict in this area because of the flexibility that telecommuting enables. 
Mayer doesn’t want to work with anyone who is working sixty hours a week. She is in Silicon Valley where an 80-hour week is full-time and 50-hours is part-time. In fact, women who have taken the mommy track at big law firms have been saying for a decade that at top firms, 50 hours is a part-time week. 
You can draw two conclusions from this, one cheering and the other less so. The first is that the gender wars are pretty much over:
Women graduate college at a higher rate than men and women earn more money than men. Until there are kids. 
But the second is that once there are kids, you have a choice. You can get to the top of your profession. Or you can see your kids grow up. When I joined a Magic Circle law firm (all those years ago) I looked at the partnership and saw that most partners had two things in common: their wives stayed at home; and they weren't their first wives. Getting to the top means sacrificing pretty much everything in your life except your job (whether that's corporate law or international cricket). For whatever cultural or biological reason, women are currently much less prepared to accept this sacrifice.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013


This is a new one on me: a hatchet obituary:
But interviewers found that a sense of irony was not one of her strong points, and concluded that her banalities were not written out of a desire to amuse, but merely reflected the fact that she had nothing to say and could not write. The Diary of a Nobody explored a pedestrian mind, but the exploring was by a writer of great intelligence. Misadventures, by contrast, was entirely authentic.
If the unexamined life is not worth living, where does that leave a life both painstakingly examined and fundamentally empty?

Iraq, WMD and John Snagge

There's a fascinating Marbury post about Iraqi WMDs and those two lying liars Bush and Blair.
Woods was surprised to find that many of the Iraqi officials had drawn the same conclusions about Iraq's WMD as the West had done. Saddam constantly signalled that he was playing the West along when he denied he had WMD.
Woods asked the regime's head of research into WMD whether he had ever thought it possible there was a secret WMD programme that even he didn't know about. The official nodded. Yes, he had thought it a possibility. After all, he explained, the government was extremely compartmentalised and secretive, and everyone lied to everyone else. Only one man knew everything.
"Also", he continued, "Your president said it was so!". Iraqi officials had been impressed by Bush's certainty, and thought of the CIA as an intelligence service of legendary prowess which wouldn't make a mistake like this. (This raises the Heller-esque possibility that some Iraqis were telling Western intelligence that the WMDs existed because they believed Western intelligence when it said they existed).
This calls to mind another perfect illustration of the dangers on relying on intelligence from sources that are too in awe of you to be entirely objective. John Snagge was, for many years, the voice of the Boat Race on the BBC. In the days before swooping overhead television cameras, it could be hard for the launch following to tell precisely who was in the lead (perhaps most famously in 1949, when the launch broke down, and Snagge was reduced to shouting hoarsely "I can't see who's in the lead - it's either Oxford or Cambridge").

In Duke's Meadow, on the Middlesex bank, a chap used to run up a dark blue and a light blue flag - the gap between them being an approximation for the lead between the boats and John Snagge, who was usually quite a way behind at this stage, used to rely on this for his commentary. One year Snagge met the chap who used to do this, and asked him how he figured out the leads from that distance. "Oh," he said, "it's quite easy. I listen to John Snagge on the radio".

The perils of recursive intelligence.

What women want

Damned if I know. But there's a very interesting article in the Times today by Alice Thomson about why women don't want to be MPs. There are essentially two reasons why women don't want to be MPs: the job sucks, and you don't get to see your kids.
Women now expect to spend more time with their children. They are not prepared to miss crucial child-rearing years staring at Pugin wallpaper unless they feel that what they are doing is worthwhile.Increasingly, it feels like it isn’t.
Being an MP has become less interesting with more scrutiny but less significance. Ministers are ground down by the daily cycle of petty news stories; backbenchers find their jobs time-consuming but often unfulfilling. While they are expected to act as social workers in their constituencies and keep their heads down in the Commons, decisions are made by small, powerful cliques. It’s no wonder that a sixth of the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs have divorced or separated since they were elected.
Being a backbench MP gives you very little real power, but demands that you work bloody hard as a constituency case-worker, and hang around interminably in the Commons. It's just not that attractive a proposition - especially given that the age of politicans seems to fall all the time, so that the time when peak effort is required is also the time that you're most likely to have young children.

This strikes a chord. Another area where low female representation is deplored is at the top jobs in the law and in the City. But the same problem applies - they are for the most part shitty awful jobs, with unbelievable hours, compensated by very large salaries. To get a chance at one of these, you must also have spent your twenties and thirties doing unbelievable hours, usually on very tedious work. Why aren't there more women at the top? The jobs suck, and you don't get to see your kids.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pictures worth a thousand words...

Look, sometimes pictures can tell you more than mere words. I give you David Cameron playing cricket:

And Ed Miliband doing the same:



I think we're done here.

Handbags over @Toryeducation

Crikey, these journalists are a thin-skinned bunch. Toby Helm's four (count them!) identikit stories about Michael Gove's Spads, in which a left-leaning journalist on a left-leaning paper reacted furiously to suggestions that he was a Labour stooge (here's fun - Journalisted contains the fact that "Toby Helm has written more about Labour than anything else"and "a lot about labour in the last month"), were a simply marvellous over-reaction. For the Observer to splash on a spat between an anonymous Twitter account and the paper's political editor was hilarious.

But clearly, the story has legs. We know this because the Independent is involved, with a truly fabulous display of pearl-clutching - an emailed aside about "speaking to Chris Cook about a good therapist" becomes an investigation-worthy breach of the civil service code. You'd think the Independent would have a higher tolerance for insult - this is how Matthew Norman described Ed Balls in the paper:
Cocky, fake, slimy, inelegant, ineloquent, charmless, witless, weird, sinister, glacially cold and luminescently remote, he may be the most chillingly repulsive politician of even this golden generation.

There's something rather touching about the vision of poor sensitive journalists being so deeply hurt by nasty things said to them by horrid Spads. They presumably see themselves as boldly speaking truth to power, and standing up against the Man. From here it looks a lot more like people used to dishing it out with impunity suddenly realising that they don't like it coming back at them.


On balance I think David Cameron was probably right to describe the massacre at Jallianwala bagh as a shameful event in British history. That said, I think he was also right not to apologise for it - I'm unconvinced of the value of historical apologies. They seem to me to smear the intricate patterns of history with an unhelpfully broad brush. Look at the Indian sub-continent - it was variously invaded, conquered and ruled by Mongols, Mughals, and Mahrattas before the British. India as it is today is the end-product of all these invasions. Who should apologise to whom?

It's also why I think William Dalrymple's line that "the British empire was built on skulls" is pretty unhelpful. History is built on skulls. The British Empire was not notably more bloodthirsty than any other empire in history - including empires that aren't thought of as such. Germany was an empire in itself in the 19th century - the Prussian conquest of central Europe. France was an empire in itself in the 10th century. When will President Hollande apologise to the people of the Humber for the Harrowing of the North? Should David Cameron return the favour by apologising for the slaughter of prisoners at Agincourt? Does this really get us anywhere?

As to Amritsar itself, it's an issue that has received its fair share of academic attention. It's not, however, an entirely unambiguous example of British cruelty and bloodlust. A controversial revisionist view of it is set out here, with the take-away for me being that Amritsar ought to be seen in the context of a widespread national insurrection, and the total breakdown of order in Amritsar itself. On this reading, Dyer's behaviour after the massacre looks almost more blameworthy than his behaviour leading up to it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


Christ. The whole furore surrounding Hilary Mantel's speech at the British Museum is a perfect snapshot of British journalism and politics at its most depressing.

The first depressing thing was the Mail's auto-outrage. This takes extracts from Mantel's lengthy and well-argued speech and turns them into an "attack" on the Duchess of Cambridge. This is so much the Mail's operating procedure that I wonder that anyone bothers to get outraged on their behalf. It led neatly on, however, to the next depressing stage - leftie broadsheet journalists decrying the Mail for its (and its readers') stupidity in not reading the speech properly. The apotheosis of this is in a piece by Zoe Williams:
If the tabloids are outraged, well, maybe they shouldn't have been earwigging while the grown-ups were talking.
If ever you're looking for a perfect example of a 'liberal elite' condescending to the lower orders, it'll be hard to do better than that.

So, the story so far: the Mail picks up lines from a speech that are critical about the Duchess, the "grown-ups" say that the Mail clearly hasn't bothered (or is too stupid) to read the speech, which was actually sympathetic to Princess Catherine. To add to the general hilarity, someone takes the opportunity of David Cameron's trade visit to India to ask him what he thinks, and rather than the ideal "don't know, don't care" response that my (and Tom Chivers's) beau ideal of a Prime Minister would come out with, he said that Mantel was "completely misguided". This of course sends Twitter into raptures on how stupid he is for saying such a thing, which causes a hasty reverse ferret when Ed Miliband waits long enough to see the reaction that Cameron has got, before saying pretty much exactly the same thing.

But here's the thing: Hilary Mantel's speech was actually pretty nasty about Catherine - rude and personal in a way that the point being made by the speech simply didn't require. It's a good speech. It's well argued, it's well written - I'm sure it was well spoken. But it's a bit silly to deny that it includes an attack on Catherine personally - not on the role she plays, but on her. Here's the bit:
Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character. She appears precision-made, machine-made, so different from Diana whose human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture.

That's not a dissection of media attitudes towards her (as an earlier paragraph definitely was); and it's not a dissection of her role as a princess. It's a description that's rude about her appearance, and her character. It's also, for what it's worth, a dismissal of the possibility that William might have chosen Catherine because he was in love with her. They met at university and were together on and off for eight years before getting married. In a piece that describes (and argues against) the reduction of royalty to their form and function, this paragraph quickly and brutally dismisses Catherine as a person in her own right.

In what looks like a supreme irony, the critics who dismiss the Mail as not having read the speech, turn out themselves either not to have read it - or not to have understood it. Lawks eh?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The toddlers of politics

Perceptive piece in the Guardian:
There is an intelligent debate on the optimal levels of public spending to be had. We can never have it while prominent commentators continue to poison the discussion with selective half-truth. Let them propose some alternatives if they don't like a particular cut, instead of opposing any and all cuts to public spending with invented counterfactuals. Otherwise they risk becoming what comedian Marcus Brigstocke splendidly described to me the other day: "The toddlers of politics – I want, I want, I want."

Hard to disagree with that really.

(Note: one or two words may have been changed)

The Kernel of Truth

Phew, that was a bit serious. To remedy that go here immediately. The internet at it's most gloriously self-referential.

John O'Farrell

Oh dear. I like John O'Farrell, and I very much enjoyed the book that's sparked all the controversy (although Jack Dee's endorsement pretty much sums it up "The whingeing memoirs of a snivelling leftie. The man should be shot"). But there are two lessons that can be drawn from this.

The first is another reminder of how difficult it is to combine politics with humanity (honesty perhaps). If you'd canvassed Labour activists in 1984 I suspect that a sizeable minority would have agreed with O'Farrell's slightly guilty regret that the bomb had missed (hell, you could get a pretty fair number agreeing that another bomb should be sent across now). To see O'Farrell castigated for it now could be seen as unfairly selective. Moral: if you want to be a politician, learn to self-censor.

But the second lesson is more profound. O'Farrell is (or certainly sees himself as) a nice, decent chap. He was chairman of governors at his local school, he's married with kids, and he positions himself squarely on the cuddly, jumper-wearing British left. In Things Can Only Get Better he writes about how much nicer Labour people are than the braying, posh Tories:
Complex political debate is all very well, but generally most issues can be sorted out simply by deciding who are the nicest people. So that's all that Socialists needed to say: 'Vote Labour because we're nicer'.

Armoured by this niceness, O'Farrell (and this is by no means particular to him) is then free to dismiss his political opponents as wicked, malign people who are actively trying to harm people. For another example of this see Johann Hari, who wrote a matter of weeks after the death of David Cameron's first born son:

If Cameron announced the slaying of the first born, he would be applauded for having a great policy for second children.

It's no great step from here to no longer see your opponents as really being people at all. Possibly the left's greatest hero, after all, famously said that Tories were lower than vermin. Everyone knows that line, but the full quote is even more interesting:

No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.

For a party that has 'niceness' embedded so deeply in its self-image, there's a disturbing amount of hatred on the left. And the way to square the contradiction is to refuse to see your opponents as properly human. That way, you can hate them, wish them dead even, without it meaning that you're not the nice guys. I do wonder though whether O'Farrell would be able to keep this up in person. If Norman Tebbit sat down with John O'Farrell and talked him through how he looks after his wife, paralysed by the IRA bomb in Brighton, would O'Farrell be able to keep up the line that they're nothing more than the enemy?

So it's not really a question of whether Ed Miliband should repudiate John O'Farrell, it's whether a whole section of the left should re-evaluate their core political beliefs - and that's rather more of a stretch.

The good old days

Having been appalled at what the scales were telling me in January, I've adopted a rather depressing new lifestyle - much more fish and vegetables, and mostly booze-free during the week. Next thing to do is to get back on the exercise routine. We do know, you see, what it is that makes us fat, and what we need to do to remedy it.

Joan Bakewell has an article in the Telegraph today saying pretty much exactly this:

We all know what we ought to be doing: more exercise and a total revision of our eating patterns; no snacking; a nourishing breakfast and two lighter meals to follow; fresh fish, meat, veg and fruit; fewer prepared foods, less alcohol. It’s easily said. So why don’t we do it?

Well quite. The thing that made me think about her article though, was its opening:

I grew up during the war and I recall being almost perpetually on the edge of hunger; obesity wasn’t an issue. Rations were just enough to keep you going, and food was seen merely as fuel.

I'm currently reading a fascinating book by David Edgerton, Britain's War Machine, which takes apart a lot of the mythology of World War Two - particularly the idea that Britain went into the war under-equipped and the whole concept of "standing alone" in 1940. As David Frum says:

Did the defeat of France in 1940 leave Britain "alone"? Only if commanding a global alliance that included all of South Asia, Malaya, the future Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, most of the Middle East, most of Africa, not to mention the dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand is "alone."

As to rations being "just enough to keep you going, this simply isn't true. Britain was the only European country where basic foodstuffs weren't rationed. Bread, potatoes and vegetables were plentiful all through the war (although the bread did change from white to brown). Although total foodstuffs imported into Britain during the war were cut by half, the overwhelming majority of this was animal feed and 'exotic' fruit and vegetables. Rationing was really driven by the increased prosperity of thee working classes that the war brought - a massive expansion in demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour saw the purchasing power of the working classes expand significantly. The products that were rationed were precisely those (meat, sugar and dairy) that such an expansion would cause substantially increased consumption. As it was, for the bulk of the population calorie intake fell only a little, and protein consumption actually increased.

Quite apart from anything else, restaurants and staff canteens were off-ration all through the war. The real reason that Joan Bakewell remembers being hungry during the war is that she was born in 1933 and was thus 6-12 during the war years. The major reduction in consumption during the war years was sugar - something that must have been particularly hard on children. It's all very well having all the potatoes, carrots and bread that you can eat, but it doesn't make up for no sweets, cake or biscuits.

For what it's worth I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, and I remember being permanently hungry from 6-12 as well. I can assure you that this was nothing to do with rationing...

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

More on Milne...

In a review of Milne's collected columns at (where else) the Guardian, there's this rather fabulous line:

Milne's somewhat vague, ambiguous view of the Soviet Union means at least that he is one of the rare western journalists to have dared to point out how anti-communism in contemporary Europe often spills over into direct rehabilitation of domestic fascists and even, in Latvia and Lithuania, Holocaust perpetrators.

Milne's view of the Soviet Union may be many things, but I'm not sure vague is one of them:

For all its brutalities and failures, communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment, captured even by critical films and books of the post-Stalin era such as Wajda's Man of Marble and Rybakov's Children of the Arbat. Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards in the west, boosted the anticolonial movement and provided a powerful counterweight to western global domination.

Seumas Milne on...

Today's chutzpah award goes to fellow alumnus of my alma mater Seumas Milne. Milne, who has written columns defending such luminaries as Stalin, Gaddafi, Assad, Mugabe, Ahmadinejad, Chavez, Putin and Castro*, has found a proper target for his righteous anger: Michael Gove.

What is his major complaint? That Gove is an "ideologue". From an unreconstructed Stalinist, that really takes some nerve.

* Researching this quite easy. Simply think of a monstrous tyrant, google him together with Seumas, and bingo. Provided said tyrant is a Communist (or at least sufficiently 'anti-American') you'll find a piece by Seumas sticking up for him.