25 November 2015

In hoc vexillo vinces

New Zealand has begun a process to decide whether to keep the old 'blue ensign' or to substitute another design. The voting will be a two-step exercise, first to select from a set of alternative designs, and then to have a run-off between the winner and the current flag. There has been some controversy over a consultation exercise about alternative designs that received many submissions opposed to the process generally, and specifically to the need for a different flag. The first round will conclude on 11 December.

Of the four Commonwealth settler colonies, two have already changed their flags. South Africa's current flag dates to 1994, after the old apartheid regime had been brought to an end. However, South Africa had more traditional British Empire flags in the shape of a red ensign, then a blue one, until in 1928 a flag that was less obviously related to the British one was adopted. The flag debate was tinged with controversy, as the change was seen as an attempt by descendants of the original Dutch settlers of the Cape, the Afrikaners, to reduce the visible significance of the Imperial tie, while raising that of the old Boer republics. The annoyance of the British-descended settlers was tempered by placing a smaller-sized Union flag in the central white stripe.

Canada, by contrast, replaced its old red ensign with a design that eliminated the symbolic representation of the British connection altogether. The Maple Leaf Flag was not the first choice of the prime minister who pushed for this change, but the parliamentary flag committee offered it as a compromise. The new flag was the product of a particular generation of Liberal party politicians who came to maturity between the world wars. It is important to remember that this period was marked by Canada moving from an autonomous domininion to a fully-fledged independent member of the international community following the Balfour Declaration of 1926. Besides this political transformation, Canada was also undergoing a significant economic change. Between 1922 and 1930 the US supplanted Britain as the largest holder of Canadian foreign debt. Yet the symbols of the old Imperial connection remained, despite being emptied of any practical authority. The challenge to the symbols began after 1945, with Britain burdened by the debt of the war against Nazi Germany and in retreat from the most prestigious parts of its empire in South Asia.* C P Champion's book on British Canada during the middle 1960s suggests that they symbolic recognition of the end of British authority over Canada allowed Liberal Canada to assemble a nationalistic narrative of a rise from mere colony to vibrant post-dominion. However, at the same time this narrative's climax coincided also with serious political questions about Britain's long-term commitment to any of the settler dominions. The crumbling facade of Imperial leadership was being torn down by the US assertion that Britain was strictly a European power, and one that should be in the Common Market, itself committed to 'an ever closer union'.

Despite the tremendous success of the Maple Leaf Flag as a national symbol, the retirement of the old red ensign in Canada does raise some questions about whether the accompanying narrative was genuinely appropriate to Canada. It is hard to divorce it from the Liberal party's older political agenda of trying to make Canada more like the United States than like Britain. As the power of the United States grew during the nineteenth century, Britain became wary of antagonising the country and arguably neglected Canadian interests in treaty negotiations with the administration in Washington. A commitment to ensuring the independence of Canada through military action grew inconvenient as the European balance of power was threatened by a Germany frightened of an encircling alliance, thus suggesting that the American analysis of Britain's true place in the world was far from unsound. The victory over Germany in 1918 can above all be presented as a victory of the Britain, its empire and the dominions. However, during the decade after that victorythe empire had unravelled, with the dominions asserting more independence and India achieving a national cohesion it perhaps did not possess in 1757. Canada did not need a national liberation struggle. Britain quite willingly handed over increased autonomy whenever asked by the Canadians, culminating in the repatriation of the constitution, when the Thatcher government ignored the link between provinces and the British Crown in order to privilege the demands of the federal government. What has been described as 'the other Quiet Revolution' was as much about creating an imagined community as any myth about Founding Fathers or the Norman Yoke. Reviewing Canadian history it can seem that the Past, in J H Plumb's formulation, is as much a tool of liberation as it is of oppression. In this Liberal narrative, throwing aside the maternalistic symbols of the Mother Country allowed Canada to be 'itself', and led to decades of fretting over Canada's national character, which has still not stopped.

Flags are vital national symbols, and it is not my place to comment on the New Zealand referendum more than to place it in context of comparable moments within the Anglosphere. However, I would say that changing the flags in South Africa and Canada raised very real issues that in the former case were only resolved in time for the current banner, and in the latter have not been solved in any practical way still, although the problem is gradually going away. And all that is a blog post for another day.

PS-In researching this post I was surprised to find out who the current largest foreign direct investor in New Zealand is Canada has almost as much as Australia and the US combined. Britain, by contrast, has less invested than Hong Kong.


* We should be wary of interpreting Indian independence as a sign that Britain was beginning a general retreat from empire. At this point some British politicians believed that the empire could persist in some form in other parts of the world, especially Africa.

18 November 2015

The (British) Face of God

Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of my favourite comedy films. It conveys some sense of mediƦval life. ('He's not covered in [muck] like the rest of us.' '...married to a girl whose father owns the biggest tracts of open land in Britain'.) And it also has the kind of surreal humour that I love. ('You've got two empty halves of coconut and you're bangin' 'em together.')

However, my interest today is in some of the work by Terry Gilliam, the genius of Monty Python's animation. Gilliam was born in Minnesota and grew up in California. Gilliam, however, had been living in Britain for about a decade by then. In one scene, God appears to King Arthur in the form of a Gilliam animation. What is interesting is the choice of face to represent God the Father.

Some of my readers might recognise that face, which is that of a major celebrity of his own day.

It is, of course, the great cricket W.G. Grace. Grace might be recognised by quite a few in the Anglosphere, but he would pass largely unrecognised to the audiences of Canada and the United States. I doubt very much that Gilliam had much interest in who the face of God would be. The face itself was what counted. But, honestly, if there was a God of Cricket, he might be W.G. Grace. But I did wonder what North American might have filled the role best. I might give it to the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant, although I couldn't find a photograph that really matched the head-on angle that Grace offers.

17 November 2015

Framing History

Kevin Gannon, who blogs under the pen-name 'The Tattooed Professor', recently wrote a post suggesting that, at least as far as the teaching of US history went, we should think about framing it in a 'continental approach'. He contrasted this with the traditional narrative describing the advance of the frontier from the east coast, which disregards such useful facts as the settlement of St Augustine in Florida by the Spaniards before the Pilgrims arrived, or even the apparently radical notion that the American Indians got here first, and went from northwest to south and east.

While it is an intriguing as opposed to a silly idea, I'm going to need more convincing that it is a good one.

Gannon's agenda becomes apparent when he characterises the traditional narrative teaching of the history of the United States in a rather negative light:

...it imprisons us in a nationalist framework of analysis without our even realizing it. If we approach US history as “the history of the United States as a distinct national entity,” we adopt all sorts of implicit assumptions about what is significant, what is historical–indeed, even what is human.... We may not see it, but we work from the same agenda that the most militant slaveholders, Indian-hunters, and xenophobes pursued. If we norm the “nation,” all else becomes abnormal.
The problem here is that Gannon is starting from the point of rejecting the traditional foundation of all historical study, not merely that of slaveholders and xenophobes. The Western tradition of historical scholarship is rooted in exactly the adoption of implicit assumptions about significance that will exclude people from the narrative, even if they had some relevance to it. I could go back to Herodotus or Thucydides to illustrate this point, but instead I'll stick with the English-speaking world and look to Bede.

Bede's preface to his his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, addressed to King Ceowulf (ruler of Northumbria, Bede's home in the northeast of England), refers to the monarch's 'eager desire to know of the doings and sayings of men of the past, and of famous men of your own nation in particular' [my italics]. Bede's understanding of 'nation', however, is rather different to ours. Bede's nation encompassed all those who spoke English, including people who lived in Essex, Sussex, Wessex and Mercia, distinct kingdoms each. Despite that quite explicit assumption that he is writing about his nation, Bede manages to race through about seven hundred years of history of his 'continent', in this case the island of Britain, in a few pages.

But it is only a few pages. Because he writes an ecclesiastical history, Bede is not much concerned with a pagan pre-literate history he cannot access, nor with the interaction of the Roman province of Britannia with the rest of the empire. He devotes more space to St Alban than to the emperors Claudius, Severus or Constantine, who in different ways all had claims on great significance in the history of Britain. Yet St Alban and St Germanus, important to a history of British Christianity, remain minor figures in Bede's narrative. He is writing about the English, and so his ecclesiastical history really begins with the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury, who sought to convert the pagan Angles and Saxons. Would Bede's account of the English people and their church been improved by integrating a longer narrative about British Christianity? Probably not, because Bede's interest was in how things came to be, not how they ought to be. He includes those interactions between the two he thinks are important to the history of English Christianity.

Gannon's proposal would be an excellent one for a course about the United States in North American history, but it defeats the objective of teaching US history. Indeed, I don't quite understand Gannon's resentment of a nationalist framework. It was exactly this pursuit of a nationalist framework that did much to advance the causes of African-American and American Indian history. In those cases, though, the nationalism was of those peoples and, at least in the case of the former, stopped short of embracing separatism. Gannon's course would undermine the very concept of the United States as a polity capable of addressing external forces because it reduces the polity to a hateful elite. Indeed, it would assist those forces that are creating our future world of networked global nodes overseen by a corporatised transnational elite. Polities like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and Guiana are the vehicles by which ordinary working people have some hope of influencing this global elite on their behalf. Besides slave-holders and Indian-hunters, that US history includes other aspects that should provide food for thought to progressives like Gannon. The United States is also a history of oppressed white workers, in the indentured servants from the British Isles who laboured in the fields beside Africans in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia. It is a history of religious liberty, whether of the Pennsylvania Dutch who found sanctuary outside of Europe but within the dominion of a Hanoverian monarchy or Mormons moving teleologically westwards. It is a history of resistance to a racist political structure. These people are just as much part of a nationalist framework as the villains listed by Gannon. History courses are the major means of constructing a coherent political identity from people who might care to look beyond red, white, black and brown.

Indeed, if we are going to pin labels on people, why can't we accuse the American Indians of being eco-terrorists for contributing to extinctions, of being anti-immigrant and being slave masters themselves. It just becomes an absurd game influenced by politics rather than scholarship. It is systems, not people, for historians to hold to account in this context. What we need to do is acknowledge our assumptions and understand why they are necessary, rather than throw out old assumptions for new ones.

Back to Bede, to whom I will give the last word. He goes on, after the quote I cited earlier, to give some good advice to all practitioners of history, although let us excuse this faithful religious his eighth-century assumptions about morality -- 'For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows is good and pleasing to God.'

[Quotes from the Penguin Classics edition of Bede, translated by Leo Sherley-Price.]

16 November 2015

Araby Calling

Ian Bremmer, a professor at New York University, posted a link to a graphic using Brookings Institution data, and graphically credited to The Independent (a British newspaper) and Statista, showing the top locations claimed byTwitter users supporting ISIL.

I thought it was interesting that the two leading Anglosphere countries stand out on a list of Near Eastern ones. I haven't done the exact maths, but as a proportion of population the United Kingdom Tweeters are about twice as many as a proportion of the population as the US ones. You can find the full report here. I'd hoped to find more data for other Anglosphere countries, but there was no table beyond the countries in the graphic. I do wonder how Canada, Australia and New Zealand fared in this ranking. Of course, this is self-reported data, so there are questions about how trustworthy it is.

Is this another small example of how Britain has more in common with its settler colonies than with its European neighbours? Six per cent of the Tweets were in French, the third-highest ranked language behind Arabic and English. So why doesn't France appear somewhere? Or maybe the rankings mean nothing at all. Just something to think about.

05 November 2015

The Future Is Nodal

A while ago I made a post at the end of which I suggested:
London is already a key member of a network of global cities which are the organisational centres of the global economy. These metropolitan areas include New York, the Bay Area in California, Tokyo and Toronto. What would be interesting would be to establish whether, like London, these all are developing a politics that to a greater or lesser degree diverge from those of the country in which they are situated. More importantly, are they resembling one another's politics more than they do those of the rest of their country's.
This fell in line with an opinion I have expressed on other occasions that we should recognise that borders are going to be irrelevant in the globalised world. In keeping with the scheme of Immanuel Wallerstein's World-Systems Theory, the core is no longer going to be demarcated by national boundaries, but rather a network of Global Cities, better represented by a point-to-point map in which the lines can be seen as communication links or airline routes.

In keeping with this, we are increasingly confronted in historical scholarship with works that bypass old national boundaries. Kevin P. McDonald's recent book on the position of New York within an Indo-Atlantic network is a good example of this. As the reviewer puts it,

By studying the trade connections that ran via Madagascar between New York and the Indian Ocean, McDonald opens a world that defies modern categorization. It is a world that is not “Atlantic,” but can best be described as Indo-Atlantic. And although he does not make it explicit, the ventures he describes are not just British, but might well be described as Anglo-Dutch....an informal trading empire was created that directly connected colonies across imperial boundaries without passing through the metropolitan “core.” Goods and people, as McDonald shows, moved directly from the production centers in the Indian Ocean to the Anglo-American colonies.
I would reject the idea that this world defies modern characterisation at all. We have New York as a "node" in a network of commerce. We have a hybridised political identity that struggles to conform with nineteenth-century notions of Romantic naitonalism, but works perfectly well under a quaintly named "transnational" monarchy. We have a core that is located not within a nation, but in the tie between two trading and financial nodes on the Thames and the Hudson. I don't think the twenty-first-century graduate student would find those kinds of categorisations at all challenging.

I am going to wager that more and more we shall see historical and literary studies that supplant our traditional 'national' histories with these newfangled 'networked' histories until eventually they dominate future scholarship. Looking at the history of a now-peripheral node like Detroit or Sheffield in a national context will seem hopelessly backward, and not where the grant money is to be found.

18 September 2015

Before the Teds

The other day I caught Simon Heffer's televised essay on British war films of the 1950s. Although originally from 2013, it had been rebroadcast in August and showed up on the BBC's iPlayer for about a month. In the way of these televised essays about culture, it was a bit superficial in that Heffer would show us a clip from a film, followed by an interview with a personage associated with it, and then would lead us to his conclusion. There was no attempt to explore alternative interpretations. This is fair enough given an hour to play with, and a requirement to cover the whole of an era running from about 1951 until 1961. (I did think he could have made a bit more of Jack Hawkins and The League of Gentlemen.)

I would like to pick on one point Heffer made. He introduces the idea that from 1951 (perhaps not so coincidentally the year the Conservatives returned to power) to about 1955, the British war film reigned supreme over a country that was 'at ease with itself', as Sir John Major put it. Then came the scourge of American rock 'n' roll, which unleashed the barbarous Teds, who liked nothing better than to rip up cinema seats to a rock 'n' roll soundtrack of films like Blackboard Jungle The British war film reinvented itself somewhat in the face of this threat, but the great dams of British culture had been breached, and the hedonistic Sixties spoiled much that was good. (For some reason, partisan columnists like Heffer always overlook the hedonistic Eighties, made possible by their beloved Mrs Thatcher.)

The problem for this aspect of Heffer's thesis is that the pass may have already been sold to American culture before Bill Haley rocked around the blackboard jungle. When reading a book like Dominic Sandbrook's Never Had It So Good, one is regularly reminded that the guardians of British culture stood constant watch against the threat posed by America. (Another interesting book on this topic is Adrian Horn's Juke Box Britain, which starts the story of the American threat during the years of the Attlee government.)

The history of the influence of American pop before 1953 is the absence of 'pop chart' information. But have a listen to The Stargazer's 1953 #1 'Broken Wings'. I would suggest it isn't so far removed in character from American hits like Jo Stafford's 'You Belong to Me' or Les Paul's and Mary Ford's 'Vaya Con Dios'. One of the two founders of The Stargazers was Dick James, whose short American obituaries did not go far enough in explaining how he was a key figure in British music, with a performance lineage going back to Henry Hall. The Stargazers were founded in 1949 (or maybe 1950), a half-decade before Heffer's arrival of Americanisation.

And let's leave the trad jazz fad of the postwar period with just a mention, or this post will get far too long.

The sort of popular 'historiography' on display in Heffer's programme is simplistic, and arguably reflects more of a focus on a kind of 'living memory'. Heffer's parents will certainly have remembered the 1950s scaremongering about the Teds. He and I were born a matter of weeks apart, and Teds were still a bit of a 'thing' in the 1970s and 1980s. It might be more interesting to think about the fears of Americanism in 1950s Britain in the context of the American presence from 1942 until 1944. Are we seeing a fear of allies turning into occupiers? Or are people like Heffer and myself projecting into the past concerns about the way globalisation is destroying the local, at least how it is viewed through the kind of mass culture distributed by major corporations?

08 September 2015

A Last Call for a Bit of Old Soho

You have about a week left to catch a radio dramatisation of Keith Waterhouse's famous play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. It has an amusing moment or two, but more in the nature of tragi-comedy than side-splitting slapstick. I strongly recommend giving it a listen if you want gain an idea of an eccentric corner of London Life during the postwar era. It could be considered a sort of parody of the Algonquin Round Table, a place where civilly vicious quips were replaced by out-and-out drunken insults and so will pass largely unmemorialised.

Bernard is the sort of person who disproves my fundamental notion that the English-speaking world has a culture that transcends the national boundaries that divide it. He drifted from job to job within journalism, eventually fetching up in Alexander Chancellor's version of The Spectator, a magazine long associated with the Conservative Party in Britain. Bernard wrote a weekly column under the characterisation, 'Low Life'. In this, he described a life largely empty of middle-class achievement, but one full of the kind of incident that could amuse, such as the story of the racing cats featured in the play.

My recent hiatus was due in part to the necessity to leave Canada, and during the journey to my new location (Boca Raton, FL), I bumped into the Waterhouse play while lying in bed one morning in Lexington, SC. Wherever I had wifi and time, I would listen to it. I have heard parts of it multiple times during the past month, and it has sent my memory (and my internet searches) back in time to 1980s London. for some of that time I was working for a publishing company just off St Martin's Lane. I had also been, for some years already, a loyal Spectator reader, and would read Bernard's column on occasion. Of the men I met who knew Jeffrey Bernard, apart from his brother Bruce, they seemed an insecure lot ready to intimidate with shouts and words in order to establish some kind of pecking order. Bernard does not come across like that here, but I have to believe he could give as good as he got from the likes of Graham Mason.

So, I encourage you to have a listen to this play (or you can look for a filmed version on YouTube; there used to be a few) before its iPlayer time is up. Many people see Bernard as something of 'a man's man', for those of you interested in issues of gender. His Anglospheric connection is made through the Canadian author Elizabeth Smart (here presented with a cringe-worthy accent), who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and worked for Queen magazine. That bohemian Soho of which Bernard was a part will surely, before long, become a popular subject for academic research (if it hasn't become so already). Because, apart from the drunkeness, metropolitan intellectuals kind of all live like that now.