Thursday, 26 August 2010


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Thursday, 5 August 2010

Prof Bartlett on BBC

Few recent historical studies have been as influential, or as comprehensible as Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe (Penguin, 2003). His erudite little vignette, The Hanged Man (Princeton, 2006) is gem too. So it was with eager anticipation that I switched on The Normans, fronted by the Professor of History at St Andrews, which began on BBC2 last night.

I was not disappointed; it was proof that all you need to do to make good history telly is to find a person who knows what he’s on about – Prof Bartlett is certainly that – take him to the locations where the events happened and point a camera at him. It was riveting, especially the passages that concentrated on William the Bastard’s troubled minority and his final vanquishing of rival claimants to the duchy and assorted French predatory French princes. The familiar tale of the Conquest was told with the unparalleled aid of the Bayeux Tapestry. I look forward to Bartlett’s telling of the less familiar stories of the Normans’ relations with the Celts and their adventures in Sicily. But even he may find it hard to explain how the Normans made the name Roger fashionable.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

History in pictures

An interesting new history blog is worthy of attention. Res Obscura, the work of a graduate student based in Austin Texas, is devoted to the visual culture of the 17th century.

On that subject, there’s a fascinating volume just published by Ashgate entitled Printed Images in Early Modern Britain. Edited by Birkbeck’s Prof Michael Hunter (who writes on the Royal Society in the forthcoming October edition of History Today), it complements Hunter’s great labour of love, the online digital library of British Printed Images to 1700 . With contributions from the likes of Margaret Aston, Justin Champion and Matthew Hunter, it represents early modern scholarship of the highest order.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Albigensian Crusades and finance today

It’s quite common for journalists to create forced parallels between contemporary concerns and historical events. But one has to admire John Thornhill who, in the Financial Times on Friday, asked what the 13th-century Albigensian Crusades can tell us about the modern dispute that sees deficit spending Keynesians squaring up to advocates of fiscal austerity.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Dispute between Polonsky, Service, Figes and Palmer settled

The author and Russianist Rachel Polonsky has released this statement:

I am very glad to report that the legal dispute that Robert Service and I have had with Orlando Figes and Stephanie Palmer has now been settled.

This dispute began in mid-April when Orlando Figes denied responsibility for the ten Amazon reviews signed 'Historian' in a circular email to colleagues, and threatened to sue Robert Service for having suggested that he was the author.

I hope it will be clear to everyone (despite some misleading headlines and news reports) that our cause of action was not the pseudonymous Amazon reviews themselves. Our objectives in pressing this case were to recover the considerable costs we had incurred in fending off Professor Figes's legal threats to Robert Service; to gain a contractual undertaking from Professor Figes not to use fraud, subterfuge or unlawful means to attack or damage us or our works in the future; and to require Professor Figes to circulate a formal apology and retraction to all the recipients of his email of 15 April.

I would like to thank most warmly all the friends and colleagues who have offered moral support during these trying months, and to thank our legal representatives, Nigel Tait and Kate Pantling of Carter-Ruck, and Justin Rushbrooke of 5RB, for all their excellent work, decency, and good humour.

Here is Robert Service's personal statement on the affair:

I am pleased that this squalid saga is over. I never wanted to go to law, but the behaviour of Prof. Figes over three months made it impossible to let matters rest. He lied through his teeth for a week and threatened to sue me for libel if I didn’t say black was white. His wife, herself a lawyer, took up his cause and lied that she was the culprit and not he. At the end of the second week he was forced by the incontrovertible evidence to admit that he had written the anonymous reviews posted on the Amazon website. There followed weeks of grinding, needless altercation as he tried to tamp down the wording of his apology and retraction and avoid paying the full legal costs incurred by myself and especially by Dr Rachel Polonsky.

I am grateful to lawyers Nigel Tait, Kate Pantling and Justin Rushbrooke for their help in dealing with this matter. Their expertise and equable discretion are much appreciated. My thanks also go to Dr Polonsky who shared the determination to see off the miscreant and generously shouldered the financial risk of the legal counter-action. Her resilience and decency have my admiration. I relied, above all, on my wife Adele who provided indispensable support in trying circumstances for the entire family.

If there is one thing that should come out of this, it is the importance of giving people freedom to speak the truth without the menace of financial ruin. Thankfully Figes is a rare bad apple in a large and healthy barrel. Nearly all academics hold their disputes in the open. If they get hot under the collar, it is mainly because they feel strongly about the intellectual analysis they uphold.

There is no harm in robust debate. Since my Trotsky biography appeared last year I have had plenty of disagreements with Trotskyists past and present. They object to any shadow falling across the face of Trotsky while I object to their idolatry of him. We haven’t agreed to disagree: we simply don’t agree and have exchanged opinions in full view at meetings, lectures, in print and online. This is normal, even though I think Trotsky’s sympathisers might consider trying to be a bit less grumpy.

Whatever may have been his motives, Figes was not standing up or even crouching down for the sake of a principle. He used his lawyer and his money and lawyers as self-aggrandising weaponry.

Universities in the UK are under all manner of pressures and criticisms at the moment, and it is terrible that Figes has made it easier for the critics to pounce. He has brought shame on that fine institution Birkbeck College. In my view it is inappropriate that a lecturer teaching about the lies in public life in Stalin’s USSR should himself be so menacing and dishonest. I would also question whether such an academic should soon or ever again be trusted to supply confidential, impartial references or reports for research grant-giving bodies.

At the moment I obviously feel sore about the hundreds of hours of wasted time since mid-April, not to mention the unpleasantness that my wife and I have experienced. Despite being asked, Figes has not yet apologised to my wife, only to his own. In some of his statements according to the press he has come close to depicting himself as the victim. Reportedly he put his image in the hands of the public relations agency Financial Dynamics. If this were not so pathetic it would be comical. To do justice to his cavorting would require the pen of a Lewis Carroll or a Nikolai Gogol. Enough already. The game’s up.

Robert Service, 18 July 2010

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

History in Schools: What is the Future?

On Monday, the Historical Association sponsored an event at the Institute of Education in London called History in Schools: What is the Future? Chaired cleverly by Professor David Cannadine, it was a public debate on the future of the history curriculum and was well attended, with most of those present being secondary school teachers of history. The panel, which included the educationist Katharine Burn, headteacher Steve Mastin and the former Education Secretary Lord Baker, were articulate and consensual, as were many of the teachers.

But two things unsettled me. Firstly, the fact, as it emerged, that less than 30 per cent of schoolchildren take history at GCSE. Apparently, it is seen as a difficult, academic subject, a stigma it shares with the separate sciences and modern languages (i.e. the very subjects that make one educated).

My second concern was the frequency with which both panel and delegates used the word ‘relevant’. One delegate expressed some anger that children in Newcastle were being taught about the Great Fire of London; apparently it had ‘nothing to do with them’. Presumably, according to the logic of this teacher, people from the North-East of England are only interested in coal mining, football and necking down brown ale. God forbid their range of interests should be widened.

Even more worryingly, one of the panelists, Chris Husbands, Professor of Education at the IOE, expressed surprise that ‘kids in Tottenham’, a benighted inner city area of London, were being taught about life in a medieval monastery. Why? I wonder what the distinguished Princeton Professor William Chester Jordan, a world authority on medieval monasticism who just happens to be black, would make of such pigeonholing?

Friday, 16 July 2010

An Aerra Lida

An Aerra Lida, a midsummer festival celebrating the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, is being held at Lichfield Cathedral and Close next Saturday, July 24th, 10am to 4pm. Expect re-enactments, arts and craft displays and, apparently, music.

I doubt, though, whether the songs will be quite as entertaining as ‘Rameses II is Dead, My Love’, a brilliant piece of anachronism by The Fugs, whose leading light, Tuli Kupferberg, died this week. The Fugs, for our younger readers, were one of the first and most controversial flowerings of the sixties counterculture. For all their more than occasional silliness, they offered the odd sublime moment. They set the poetry of Matthew Arnold and William Blake to music and created at least one extraordinary song that was a profound demonstration of historical contingency.

Imagine these lyrics sung in a Nashville twang:

Rameses the Second is dead, my love
He's left from Memphis for heaven
Ptah has taken him in the Solar Barge
And walked him to Nut's celestial shores

Ramses the Second is dead, my love
He's wandering the plains where the blessed live
Ptah and Ra and Sokaris too
Are taking him on th' Celestial Boat

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