I saw an interesting TV programme about the Vikings recently, leading up to the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition of Vikings – Life and Legend.  The Vikings have been in and out of fashion more than skin-tight jeans.  One year they are cold-blooded plunderers, destroying the jewels of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Christian civilisation.  The next they provide a vibrant culture of poetry, exploration and crafts.  Under explanation 1, they kill the locals, under explanation 2, they integrate and combine a diverse population.

We can now find out which is true by DNA analysis. Scientists have studied the genetic make-up of the inhabitants of the Scottish isles, and find that – here’s a surprise – the Viking strain is dominant, and there isn’t much of the original blood line left at all.  The Daily Telegraph tells us that “The work backs archeological, place name and linguistic evidence that suggests complete Norse cultural dominance of Shetland and Orkney during the Viking period”.

So, how can we put this, it seems they weren’t very big on celebrating diversity.

Gove and WW1

There will be fewer posts over the next few months as I am trying to write a book (and have a life).  Nevertheless, I shall be diverted now and again, and the current debate is about attitudes to the First World War.  The appalling Michael Gove, confident that he knows more about everything than anyone (is this a natural result of being a newspaper columnist ?) has managed to get into a debate about the First World War, with the usual conclusion that the lefties have got it all wrong.  They have betrayed the gallantry of the UK and allied forces by espousing a “Blackadder”/”Monocled Mutineer” (one might add, war poet) view of history.  He is such an expert that he can rebuke the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, whose response is kinder than is merited.  And so the media/twitter storm starts, with predicable battalions lined up on each side.  Now, where do you think the Daily Mail will be placed, eh ?  And Owen Jones ?  Hmm, thought so.

I’ve just finished reading Max Hastings’Catastrophe”, which is a long and well regarded treatment of the events of 1914.  His view (here’s me summarising 500 pages) was that WW1 had to be fought, to resist German dominance of Europe.  Given the toll in death, disability and destruction, one might feel that more energy should have been put into peace efforts in 1914, but you can argue that we tried that in 1938 and it didn’t get very far.  Here’s my two-penn’orth.

The problem with the current debate is that it is between those who feel that we fought a just war, and those who assert that the incompetent blundering of generals and politicians caused a dreadful price in human suffering and economic loss.  But these views are not incompatible.  A war can be just and a shambles, or unjust and efficient.  Think of a grid for a moment, and place wars into one of four categories:

Just Unjust





Wars which were justified and efficiently conducted.  With all its faults, I think we could place the US Army’s record in Europe in 1944/5 in that category.



Battles and wars which were unjust but were efficiently conducted – like the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and France and the Low Countries in 1940, or the Japanese conquests of 1941/2.  You can even add Agincourt if you fancy being controversial.









Wars which were justified or unavoidable but were inefficiently conducted – where I think we can place much of the First Word War (Yes, I am aware of the assertion that by 1918 the British were an effective and well-organised force in France, but the 1914-17 record doesn’t look too good, does it ?  And elsewhere – Dardanelles, Salonika, Kut, anyone ?)






Wars which were unnecessary and a cock-up.  Isandlwana ?  How about the Crimea – I mean, what was that about ?

I think part of the British problem with war is that we have not been invaded in recent history.  No one has fought battles over out towns and countryside in the way that happened in the Balkans, in Russia and Germany and the Eastern Front.  So a politician can carry on with the old ‘dulce et decorum’ line, which Wilfred Owen, who should know, described as the ‘old lie’.

p.s. A war memorial has just been erected on the chapel in our village in Brittany.  Out of 20 households, 11 men died.  As I said in my 11 November blog, many of the surnames are familiar.

It makes good radio

There was a discussion on BBC radio yesterday about proposals to ban smoking in cars, particularly if there were children involved.  Pretty uncontroversial, you may feel, and already the law in Australia and much of the USA.  However, being talk radio, the pro-smoking pressure group FOREST- which has few members, and is in fact a paid-and-packaged tobacco industry mouthpiece – was invited to contribute.  This is par for the course.  Producers seek ‘good radio’, which seems to mean a blazing row.  The way this is achieved is to invite someone who disagrees with any proposals or report to the studio to attack proponents.  A friend was asked, when an Education Officer, to come on local radio to discuss some proposals for reorganization: knowing he would not be allowed to calmly explain the factors behind the decisions, he cannily asked “and who have you got to argue with me”.  If broadcasters cannot find anyone to create an argument, the presenter will start one him/herself.  “Well, you say that, minister, but surely …”  The appalling John Humphreys is the master of this technique, often using the expression “That’s all very well, but some would argue …”, carefully avoiding saying who ‘some’ might be, because the objection is normally nonsensical.

What’s wrong with this, you may ask.  We want policies to be tested so we can see what makes sense.  Well, there are several problems.  The first one is that it is difficult to understand the nature and complexity of proposals or problems if two banshees are howling at one another.  Not every problem has two clear oppositional solutions; indeed, I would argue that few issues can be resolved that way.  There is actually little ideological difference on many issues – what we want to know are the facts (how many immigrants, what is the growth of GNP) and what works to achieve goals that everyone, right or left, seeks (who gets the best results for hospital patients, school-kids).  These facts are, as a wag once said, rarely pure and never simple; they are more easily concealed if two advocates spend their allotted eight minutes noisily interrupting each other.  Worse, oppositional voices are chosen for their stridency not their representativeness.  Recently, an extreme Islamist with few followers, even in the Muslim community, was invited onto the BBC to argue that hacking Lee Rigby to death in the street was OK.  You wonder whether they would get a pro-malaria organisation to argue against Bill Gates.

Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England gave a speech about the monetary aspects of Scottish independence, which included a passage on the advantages and disadvantages of currency independence.  This is a key issue, and also bears upon the Euro debate; it has relevance too to the whole economic policy of our government at the moment (briefly, no country with its own currency can ‘go bankrupt’).  However, as soon as the topic was broached, the programme switched away from his presentation, saying “He’s getting very technical now”.  This is code for “our audience is dim, with the attention span of a goldfish”.  At present there is almost a prejudice against explanation.  When breakfast TV started up, it was derided for claiming a ‘mission to explain’ (and, to be fair, it found few viewers to receive the explanations).  But surely what the media must do is develop a way in which they can explain – one thinks of Robert Peston as an example of how it can be done.  In the old days, the Daily Mirror tried to do this – present the issues of the day in a way that the man in the street could understand.  This is the real mission of journalism, and may be the way that hacks can rebuild their reputation post-hacking and post-Leveson.

Historically PC

This post is about historical novels and plays, which I like.  Placing an appealing character in an interesting plot amid times of historical significance, as Hilary Mantel has shown, can be a winning formula. But a thought came to me whilst watching “Foyle’s War” on TV last night, which is that authors often place modern sensibilities into historical characters in a way which may be sympathetic, but might also be unrealistic.  Some examples:

  • In a recent edition set in 1946, Foyle discovers that the senior intelligence officer was attacked as he was leaving a gay bar. He begs Foyle not to reveal his sexual orientation to work colleagues, and Foyle agrees.  Now then.  Would a Detective Chief Superintendent working in 1946 with sensitive espionage case feel gay relationships were OK, and that a world of blackmail and double-cross, feel it was right to conceal them ?
  • Jack Aubrey, Patrick O’Brian’s gallant naval captain of Napoleonic times, is also sympathetic to gay colleagues. He dislikes flogging as a punishment, and uses it as little as possible.  Further, he has a relationship with a black lover in Mozambique, and acknowledges and values the son who is the result of this union.  It would, of course, be admirable for a man of this generation to have progressive views on sexual orientation and race, but one wonders how often it happened.
  • Bernie Gunther, Philip Kerr’s German detective of the 1930s and 40s, is anti-Nazi. Almost as anti-Nazi as John Russell, David Downing’s Berlin based journalist in the splendid ‘station’ series, who works to help Jews to freedom and provide information to the Allies.  The Danes had a wonderful record of resisting anti-semitism and helping Jews to escape, but I’m not sure how common it was in mid-war Berlin. And left-wing detectives ? Hmmm.
  • Matthew Shardlake, hero of J. Sansom’s Tudor detective books, raises issues about attitudes to disability in his adventures. Mind you, he suffers from curvature of the spine, and so must come to the problem on the basis of his own experiences.

Let’s be clear.  I’m not one of those people who rail against “the PC brigade”, and I know there have been principled individuals in every era.  I just ask whether characters who wear period clothes, drive period vehicles, speak with period expressions would really have 2013 social attitudes.  Can any readers let me know of a novel where the central character carries with him attitudes which, though current in the era of the plot, would be considered unacceptable today.