Blog 7

Nov 04

In November 2004 Blog Seven was a blog about the dead

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In November 2004 Blog Seven was a blog about the dead

The Long Game

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The Long Game

Repentance – of the non-trivial – strikes me as a human rarity. Read a piece in the Guardian about Josef Mengele the other day, living out his days eating with a dwindling band of ex-pat sympathisers, grousing about the poor reputation his monstrosities had won him, still adamant he was right. Name a villain of today and they’ll be the same, especially if their crimes are – and they likely are – a good deal more subtle than his. Nobody believes they’re evil.

Read something else, on a blog. Some neo-con – Wolfowitz? Rumsfeld? – talking about history. They were making history, you see, the liberals would be the people (imagine the lip curling) discussing it afterwards. Set yourself up as one of history’s actors and the consequences of those actions recede. “At least he has a plan”. The election seems longer than 28 days ago: time the great healer? No, just a competent anaesthetist.

Discussing it afterwards: this is the historian’s job. “History will judge me” – well that’s exactly what I want history to do, and what it does too little. I can’t believe in a god or an afterlife but I can put some faith in hindsight. Let’s never be afraid to speak ill of the dead.

History Today

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History Today

Wanting to ‘take the temperature’ of the discipline I picked up the latest issue of this worthy magazine. Wasn’t very impressed. Very dry, very British, rather too military. The best article by far was on conscientious objectors in the Second World War – and it still wasn’t great. That’s a rich topic – WW2 has been generally accepted* as a just, indeed heroic, war, so an examination of why men refused to fight is intriguing. But all you get is an arid overview, some smatterings of personal recollection, and barely any attempt at analysis at all. And the rest of the magazine is much the same – a nervousness pervades it, a dancing around any attempts at humour, let alone judgement, and an apparent fear of making anything seem too interesting. When I started work in market research, one of the first maxims I encountered was “If it’s interesting, it’s probably wrong”. History Today seems to work to a similar principle. A vibrant subject deserves better.

*And rightly so, but if I had had more time this month I might have talked about the terrible albatross the memory of WW2 seems to have become, a justified war that has been used ever since as a justification for war.

The Romans

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The Romans

The Romans is another Dr. Who historical story, as clownish and clumsy as The Aztecs is weighty and intelligent. The show is a wretched mix of leaden drama (the most unconvincing gladiator fighting you’ll ever see) and feeble slapstick which never remotely gels: a sitcom which lacks a laugh track, so William Hartnell supplies his own, cackling with glee after almost every line. Fun to make, then (probably) – but dreadfully dated, even for 60s Who.

Of course the whole thing ends with Nero setting Rome on fire. This is history as every schoolboy knew it – a series of unfortunate events, so to speak. It’s also the version of history that lives on in Terry Deary’s excellent Horrible Histories books, which mix comedy and fact to much more posed effect. Deary’s premise is sensible: children will remember history better if you highlight the gruesome or exciting bits. It’s a sharp contrast to the ’empathy’ method of teaching, whose books are not called things like Terrible Tudors but boast lid-lowering titles like Life In A Medieval Town.

My adult taste in history has generally run to ’empathy’ – I like books which try and grasp or glimse the mentalities of the past, even if that makes them ‘history’ only obliquely; I like the recent boom in popular history and am delighted that it hasn’t focussed on kings and plagues but on the apparent trivialities of salt, cod, dyes and compasses. But I have no doubt that teaching ‘event’ history is the best way to get kids interested in the past. Though these days they don’t have to make do with a load of character actors larking about of a Saturday teatime, they have Rome: Total War instead.

Nov 04


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The Ukrainian election coverage by the BBC surprised me. Lead item for the last two nights and highly detailed in terms of context.

Why is this? Other elections in former Soviet Republics this year received far less BBC coverage. Georgia (where an old plutocrat was ousted) and Belarus (where one wasn’t) barely raised a murmur, but Ukraine dominates our headlines.

At first it seemed to be a nostalgic Russia vs the Imperial West contest. Putin wasn’t slow to congratulate the pro-Russian candidate, then about-faced after two nights of popular protest. The ‘western’ candidate seems confused about how to proceed. Exit polls suggested he would win, official polls didn’t, the people are braving the snow in protest and he isn’t lacking advice from the rest of the world. To aid confusion, both candidates have long names beginning with Y! Even allegations of drugs have surfaced. The Americans have derided the election process and somehow managed to keep straight faces as they said this.

And civil war is being mentioned, which is a shame as (from purely selfish reasons), I quite fancied a trip to Kiev next year.

I just saw a man with a Hitler moustache!!!

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POST INTRO 1: I just saw a man as I got off the bus with a tiny little moustache shading the philtrum twixt nose and lip but no wider than his actual nose. I do not believe I have ever seen a moustache like this on a live human being.

POST INTRO 2: I just saw a man with a Hitler moustache!!!

Does anyone believe that the monstrosity of Hitler’s acts in the 20C were due to his moustache? Is there any suggestion that his moustache in some way contributed to the final solution? I think any right thinking person would probably mark the connection as tenuous at best. Nevertheless the so-called Hitler moustache (note, not Little Tramp moustache) is out of currency in the facial hair world. It may be that the tache is a ridiculous thing, a fussy piece of garden furniture on a clean shaven face. From a shaving point of view its one more stroke. And yet the exactness, the fussiness may well have been its appeal – Roger Hargreaves Mr Fussy had such a moustache after all. Nevertheless, with the exception of the bold man I saw this morning, this look has gone out of fashion. And I know it loses the argument, but I blame Hitler.

Nov 04


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back in the 19th-century anthropologists and other colonial social scientists made studies of the various native societies and cultures that imperialism was smashing: religions which revolved round animism and the fetish object and lots and lots of little godlets were rarely if ever given a clean bill of health

ok well i wz killing time yesterday and i popped into forbidden planet to wander round the toys’N’figurettes franchise section and BLIMEY!! if we haven’t been cursed w.lots and lots and LOTS AND LOTS of lovingly fashioned little godlet statuines ourselves – i guess the dying words of some name-unknown witch-doctor have come home to roost for we are surely all doomed and serve us right!! Anyway here courtesy kidrobot is yr LITTLE ANDY WARHOL IDOL (60s model)

Nov 04

Modern Archaeology may seem a contradiction in terms

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Modern Archaeology may seem a contradiction in terms, but its a big thing in acadaemia at the moment. Maybe its because students like rummaging through landfills. Fact of the mattr is with the disposable aspect of everyday culture there are aspects of human society and behaviour which is next to impossible to get any evidence on at all, once their time has past and everything is junked. Take bus tickets in London.

There was a time when buses used to have tickets given to you by the driver. This became such a littering hazard that the buses used to have special bins on board, small onese by the doors for Used Tickets, which your rolled permit to travel would get flicked into. Then all of a sudden a nasty man called Ken Livingstone wrote a death warrant for all those Used Tickets boxes, and suddenly no-one had tickets at all. So the boxes were removed from the buses as if they werer never there.

You can still see UT bins in other cities, but they are nigh on dead in London. In the future, what will they think happened? An extinction event I daresay.


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RIP VHS: Marky Mark Lawson on the downfall of VHS. I can’t comment on the ‘common culture’ stuff as I was just a kid back then, but his evocations of overwritten and thick-piled videotape labels obscure one key aspect of the video: in my experience, at least, nobody ever watched the things. Oh, certainly, there were rare occasions when you would miss a program, tape it and actually watch it later, but what the VCR mostly brought was the possibility of “time-shifting”, not the reality.

For one thing it brought television closer to the sphere of cultural guilt-tripping, where the books on your shelf are reminders of an intellectual lack (i.e. you haven’t read the buggers) rather than mementos of intellectual journeys. Taping a programme that you “meant to watch” was a handy compromise between missing it and watching it. For another the bar of what was (theoretically) worth keeping was lowered – it was a short step between making sure you didn’t miss a particular Panorama and taping six-part documentaries on the Gobi desert ‘just in case’. And it introduced the collector mentality to television – I used to have videotapes of every episode of Star Cops taped while I watched. I knew it was drivel, but maybe, just maybe, I might want to watch it again. The result was mountains of never-watched tapes (and as someone who owns rather a lot of Dr Who videos, I know exactly how bulky they can be). So no, I won’t mourn it.

Nov 04


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“[Ewing] insisted he and his team had nothing but respect for Kennedy and for history”