Posts Tagged ‘history’

The encyclopedia anyone can [be told to] edit

Friday, February 10th, 2012

A moment of amusement, from the (thankfully) long-distant past:

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which contains more than 100,000 entries and fills fifty-one volumes, includes some distortions so flamboyant as to be beyond belief. These are an old story. But such distortions have importance […]

Almost everyone has heard about what happened to Beria in the Encyclopedia. After his liquidation, subscribers were notified, with full instructions, that they should snip out the article about him and insert in its place substitute articles which were duly enclosed, about the Bering Strait and an obscure eighteenth-century statesman named Berholtz. These were the best available substitutes beginning with ‘Ber’. During Stalin’s day when the party line changed on some matter so important that the Encyclopedia itself had to be changed, subscribers were obliged to turn in the volume affected to the party secretary; it was pulped and a new whole volume, cut and patched, was then sent out to the subscriber. Nowadays the reader is allowed to keep the book, and trusted to make the proper emendation himself. Progress!

Another person ‘expelled’ from the Encyclopedia was a Chinese Communist leader, Kao Kang. To replace him, a substitute page went out dealing with a city in Tibet. […] In their haste to make the revision, the editors overlooked the fact that the same Tibetan city also appeared elsewhere in the Encyclopaedia, spelled differently.

— John Gunther, Inside Russia Today (Penguin, 1964).

Moments of peace

Friday, November 11th, 2011

We think of the Armistice as being a moment of flags, of applause, of music in the silent air. But, for many, it was just a quiet morning; millions of men, sitting in the dust and the frost, looking around them and wondering what to do next. An eyewitness:

November 11th.—There had been so much talk of an armistice that a Brigade message in the morning telling us of its having been signed at 8 o’clock, and that hostilities were to cease at 11, fell somewhat flat. The event was anticlimax relieved by some spasmodic cheering when the news got about, by a general atmosphere of ‘slacking off for the day’, and by the notes of a lively band in the late afternoon. The men betook themselves to their own devices. There was a voluntary Service of Thanksgiving in the cinema which the Germans had built; the spacious building was quite full. […] ‘To me the most remarkable feature of that day and night was the uncanny silence that prevailed. No rumbling of guns, no staccato of machine-guns, nor did the roar of exploding dumps break into the night as it had so often done. The War was over.

November 12th.—Baths were a first concern.

— The War The Infantry Knew, 1914-1919, ed. Capt. J.C. Dunn.

Restorative justice, sixteenth-century style

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

From the evening’s reading:

In 1547 Janet Bruce’s priest told her to go on to the High Street of Edinburgh, donate a wax candle to a chaplain, seek out Isobel Carrington, and say to her, in front of witnesses and in good Scots: ‘I grant here before three honest persons that I have fairly and wrangfully injurit and defamit you, sayand and allegand you are ane common bluidy whore. I knaw nothing but ye are ane honest woman and keeps guid pert to your husband.’
Janet was to say also to Isobel’s husband, Robert: ‘I failit far to you and your wife calling you ane cuckold, whilk I confess is nocht of verity for your wife is ane honest woman.’
For the sake of satisfaction on every side, Isobel was then to go to Janet and say: ‘Ye are ane honest woman, I never knew that ever ye swiffit with the auld official, and insofar as I rehearsed the samen I ask God forgiveance and you.’

Edinburgh: a history of the city, Michael Fry, 2009

Give or take the ‘swiffit’, not much change there in four hundred and sixty years.

Photos: three approaches to memorialising

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

I have been without any working internet connection for a couple of weeks now, so no photographs of the last trip yet. Have some old ones, instead, for the 11th; these are from a trip to Normandy earlier in the year. Three national war graves; three approaches to commemoration.

(…below the cut…)

Vexatious litigants

Friday, August 13th, 2010

From Alan Harding’s A Social History of English Law, 1966:

The chancellors of those days were busy administrators who would stand no academic nonsense: Lord Chancellor Ellesmere in the reign of James I ordered that the Warden of the Fleet should lay hold on an equity pleader who had drawn a replication of 120 pages where 16 would have done, “and shall bring him unto Westminister Hall … and there and then shall cut a hole in the middle of the same engrossed replication … and put the said Richard’s head through the same hole … and shall show him at the bar of every of the three courts within the Hall.”

Firing generals

Friday, June 25th, 2010

This article in the Guardian, on Obama’s firing of McChrystal in Afghanistan, mentions past firings of military officials by US presidents, including MacArthur in 1951. That case was a pretty close match to this one – a field commander had publicly criticised the political direction of an ongoing war. and after a bit of back-and-forth he eventually got sacked.

It seems a good moment to drag out one of my favourite comments by Truman, his retrospective summary of that situation:

I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.

(Incidentally, the comment at the bottom of the page is interesting – one of Truman’s last acts as President was to destroy embarrassing material in Eisenhower’s personnel file. Would you get that now, you wonder?)

Glossing over the past

Friday, May 14th, 2010

I don’t normally take umbrage with the tone of BBC News stories – at least, I usually only get annoyed when they’re actually wrong, not just a bit confused. But this is pretty bad even if unintentional:

The memorial, which should be built by 2012, will commemorate the 55,573 crew of Bomber Command, with an average age of 22, who were killed in World War II.

Its role was to attack Germany’s airbases, troops, shipping and industries connected to the war effort.

During the war the command ensured the damage caused to London’s squares, streets and parks from German bombs was not as extensive as it could have been.

I am all for the memorial. We should remember and honour these men; they died because we asked them to, and in terms of sacrifice for a limited return, the strategic bombing campaign was only a few notches below the Somme; we as a nation kept hammering at a brick wall for the desire to do something, and lost an awful lot of lives unnecessarily.

But… if we are to memorialise it, we should remember the full context, not just cherry-pick the nicer bits. We should remember that when we sent these men out to die, we were, at the same time, asking them to do something that we would now consider beyond the pale.

The description the BBC give is at best misleading. What did we use Bomber Command for? We used it, almost without exception, for strategic bombing of Germany; what that meant was massed bomber raids of urban areas with the aim of destroying industry, infrastructure, and residential areas in equal proportion. To quote Arthur Harris, the man responsible for carrying out the policy:

The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive … should be unambiguously stated. That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.

You don’t get much blunter than that, really.

It’s sixty-five years since the end of the war, almost to the day. Surely we have enough distance, enough perspective, that we don’t need to ignore our history, or to cast it in the one-sided mould of wartime propaganda. We really don’t need journalism which – even unintentionally – suggests the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of entire districts of cities were merely attacks on military infrastructure or, somehow, a way of protecting our own cities from suffering a much lighter version of the same.

That way lies a very worrying relationship with the past.

Thought for the day

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

The lowest vote share a party has taken in a general election and still held a majority is 38% – the Conservatives in 1923. Labour formed a minority government in 1929 on the back of 37.1% of the vote share; and a minority government again in February 1974 on the back of 37.2% of the vote. …35.3%, in 2005. Goodness, do I feel a bit silly for missing that one – thanks cim for spotting it.

It’s likely that whatever result we get on Thursday, we’re going to break that record; barring a sudden Conservative surge, a hypothetical narrow-majority government will have the lowest share of the electorate’s support any majority government has ever had. A minority Conservative government – if the Lib Dems pass up coalition – would quite possibly, again, have the lowest level of support recorded for a sole party in power.

Reassessing: on current polling, it’s likely the Conservatives will either form a majority government on slightly above the 2005 vote-share, or potentially a minority government – if a Lib-Lab coalition fails – on slightly below it. Not the best of omens for making sweeping changes, but it’s remarkable to see the dramatic difference – in seat numbers and in general perceptions of strength – between what the Conservatives would get with 36% tomorrow, and what Labout got with 36% half a decade ago.

The enemies of books

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

Another old book on books, this time from Project Gutenberg:

The Enemies of Books, by William Blades [1888]

It breaks down the various threats to the survival of books by topic (fire, water, neglect, vermin, collectors, children…) and then lists a succession of anecdotes about collections destroyed in this way. Surprisingly interesting, in some cases, if a bit depressing; it’s interesting to know what has been lost over the years but is still known about. I wrote last month about the monastic libraries being dissolved at the Reformation; here is a contemporary writing about what happened to their contents:

A greate nombre of them whyche purchased those superstycyouse mansyons reserved of those librarye bookes some to serve their jakes, some to scoure theyr candelstyckes, and some to rubbe theyr bootes. Some they solde to the grossers and sope sellers, and some they sent over see to ye booke bynders, not in small nombre, but at tymes whole shyppes full, to ye wonderynge of foren nacyons. Yea ye Universytees of thys realme are not alle clere in thys detestable fact. But cursed is that bellye whyche seketh to be fedde with suche ungodlye gaynes, and so depelye shameth hys natural conterye.

I knowe a merchant manne, whych shall at thys tyme be namelesse, that boughte ye contentes of two noble lybraryes for forty shyllynges pryce: a shame it is to be spoken. Thys stuffe hathe heoccupyed in ye stede of greye paper, by ye space of more than these ten yeares, and yet he bathe store ynoughe for as manye years to come. A prodygyous example is thys, and to be abhorred of all men whyche love theyr nacyon as they shoulde do. The monkes kepte them undre dust, ye ydle-headed prestes regarded them not, theyr latter owners have most shamefully abused them, and ye covetouse merchantes have solde them away into foren nacyons for moneye

Plus ca change

Friday, February 5th, 2010

From a Glasgow bookseller writing to The Bookman in February 1895:

…some publishers are doing their utmost to ruin the trade by selling to the drapers, who buy large quantities at reduced prices

(The “drapers” were, of course, the large general retailers. By the 1890s, the term was about as exact as calling Sainsbury’s a grocers.)

That was not the only complaint that could have been lifted straight from last week’s Bookseller. This one from 1905 –

…[the Bookman] was quite relieved to note that recently published children’s books, though dangerously full of humour, were not so absurdly grotesque as in recent years.

Both quotes are from Booksellers and Bestsellers: British Book Sales as Documented by “The Bookman”, 1891-1906 (2001) [JSTOR], a study of the most popular books sold in Britain at the turn of the century. (There were no bestseller lists per se at the time – the bulk of the article was an attempt to retractively construct one based on returns from booksellers. It is sobering how many of them are completely forgotten…)