27 January 2014

Russo-Japanese War in Colour

I recognise some of these as black-and-white images. Have these been colourised somehow? The original post does not explain.

Lava me, Domine, ab iniquitate mea?

The messy truth is that a country’s economic specialism is, if not ingrained, then certainly the expression of its particular history, culture and circumstances. It is path-dependent, and hard to change with anything as temporal as public policy. Political maturity lies in recognising that Britain’s specialisms are in services, especially banking, and some sophisticated corners of industry. Its competitive advantages are openness, ease of doing business, world-class universities, the English language and – here is the warning to Westminster’s increasingly hectoring and interfering politicians – a lack of ministerial caprice.
That's from an opinion piece that appeared in the Financial Times last week. What it presents is a properly conservative understanding of public policy. Before more radical groups in the United States hijacked the word 'conservative', it was broadly understood in the English-speaking world as a political stance that recognised change was an inevitable fact of life, but that change could be channelled, rather than dammed. Gradually, as change flows around the landscape, natural erosion alters shapes. Treating change as water, rather than as a shattering earthquake or volcanic eruption, limits the stress on the surrounding built environment. Even so, I find the article imperfect. The fact is, the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 challenged the structure into which the British economy had been shaped during an era that began with the rise of the EuroDollar market, and really took off with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s. The water-levels were rising, but policymakers in Britain neglected to construct all the requisite barrages and weirs needed to deal with the coming flood.

But, continuing this blog's move away from 'war' and towards culture, the article does suggest that Cultural History is a guide to big issues of public policy. One could argue that the contrasts between the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Roman Church in Ireland go some way towards explaining the different attitudes towards the European Union in those countries. Scotland's presbyterian national church keeps much closer to its European models than England's. The English were less keen to let go completely of elements of the Catholic church and made for themselves a hybrid that foreshadowed the cultural hybridities of the passing Post-Modern Age. This Post-Modern movement of hybrid forms was one that English popular culture stood in the forefront through its musical contributions. The American media are noticing a similar process has been going on within their own country, a process that is highlighting an obsolescent perspective on racial problems, but once again calls into question the nature of a cultural entity called 'America'. (As if Americans could ever escape questions of their essence.)

For historians, the problem is that while History is lived going forwards, History is written looking backwards. In looking at how hip-hop culture is used by non-blacks, it at least superficially resembles the familiar 'appropriations' of White America, going at least as far back as Minstrelsy. Only time will tell if that is indeed the case, but applying the traditional concerns about 'appropriations' may not itself be helpful. It certainly did not readily apply to the white English working class males who gave us 'pop music'. If the old racial system is eroding, there is the potential that a new hybrid is emerging, one that could be more fair to all participants.

And, while Janan Ganesh is quite right to argue that Britain's enduring history of a dominant financial sector is not actually a problem to be fixed, but as a crucial part of the solution, he is wrong to highlight politicians as capricious administrators breaking with British traditions. They are responding to a real demand for changes that may, in fact, be impossible to deliver without creating some kind of 'Church of England' hybrid.

21 January 2014

The Great War (BBC)

Just before Christmas, I began working my way through the old BBC documentary television series on the Great War. I finially finished this about a week ago. Whereas today such a series would likely be made with an American production partner, in 1964 the BBC went to the equivalent national broadcasters in Canada (the CBC) and Australia (ABC). Thus the series does its best to include as high as possible a quotient of 'Commonwealth content', and its treatment of the United States is unusually 'off-centre' compared to what audiences of today might expect to see.

The series' producers faced a tremendous challenge, in that they had to fill about seventeen hours of programming with very little filmed material, all of which was silent. They seemed to have used three tricks:

1) Re-use. Time and again we see the same shots of guns bombarding, or troops running out of trenches. Sometimes, the same film will appear three times in forty minutes.

2) The rostrum camera. This ingenious device allows a still photograph to be 'put in motion'.

3) Movies. While I don't know this to be a fact, I'm fairly confident that some of the 'action scenes' were not merely staged for newsreels, but were in fact scenes from silent films. I should double-check this by reading a couple of the scholarly articles written about the series, such as this one.

One particular sequence stood out in my mind, of a column of cavalry who were either going up to the front or coming back, which if memory serves was either in episode thirteen or fourteen. While some action sequences were staged, it seemed likely this one was not, as there are a couple of shell bursts around the column, which continues on, leaving two or three fallen riders and horses. That clip is not reused.

Two episodes struck me as very important in terms of teaching tools. Episode 8, about the British home front, shows the crucial significance of Lloyd George to the war, but also suggested the reason why government intervention in the British economy really became respectable as a political programme. In a crisis, the government can take measures that are, though imperfect, highly effective in setting goals and, in fact, achieving them. Something like this, refined over the years, eventually brought us to the 'Labourist' solution that was finally killed off by Mrs Thatcher (although we didn't know that at the time, and arguably was finally killed off by Neil Kinnock after the 1987 general election).

The second episode I would want to show would be Episode 23, which eventually gets round to covering the effects of the blockade on Germany. Somewhere in a box I have a sample chapter I wrote about the British bombing campaign on Germany during 1940-41, intended to be part of a longer book about Britain in the Second World War. I don't think enough is made of the link between the collapse of the German empire from within in 1918 and the precedent this established for British strategic thinking in 1939-40. I suspect anyone who thought about it in early 1940 believed that an effective bombing campaign would accelerate the process that occurred in Germany during 1914-1918. 'Blitzkrieg' solved the real problem that defeated Germany in 1918, which was that the country ran out of time. Its economy could no longer sustain the war effort.

13 January 2014

Rip Van Blogpost

Well, the MA work overwhelmed my blogging, and then I went on to a PhD. The incredible thing is that under the influence of that stimulating course mentioned in the 'Stress Test' post, I ended up moving into cultural history and away from military history. I am approaching the end of the PhD, and so I thought I'd dust off the old blogs and resume posting. Over time, I hope to describe some of the other goings-on that influenced my decisions and studies over past years.

I still keep my hand in a bit about military history, but my main interest is actually on the interactions between the world of business, the world of culture and how social changes transform both. And at the moment my specific interest is in the business of baseball.

However, I have a couple of side issues, too, especially on how the English-speaking world needs to be thought of more as a unity than it has in the past. And I hope to resume exploring this heady mix in posts to come.