‘In 1943 the War Department closed Tyneham village near Lulworth in Dorset for D-Day training preparations.
The villagers never returned as the War Department kept the village as a post-war training area and tank artillery range for nearby Lulworth and Bovington camps.
Today most of the buildings are gaunt and empty, like a war zone, but the Army does allow visitors to return to the village on a regular basis.’
A really interesting question at the cassandra pages: ‘If you were recommending, say, five to ten books you most felt would “explain America” to a foreign person who had never been here in person, what would they be?’ You can read people’s answers there.
I’m not about to try and pick ten books about America, for obvious reasons. I suppose that, as a foreigner, I’m in a position to name books that I felt gave me an insight. But I’m not going to do that. I might try to come up with ten books for the UK. It’s difficult, though; for a start, how much historical background do you need to touch on? I don’t see much need to go too far back ino the Middle Ages, but the Reformation, the Civil War, the Glorious Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the growth of the Empire, the loss of the Empire, the growth of unionism and the Labour party, the Suffrage movement, and the two World Wars are all to some extent relevant to what Britain is now and what British people are like. Oh, and I almost forgot the battle of the Boyne, the Potato Famine, the Irish Question*, the Easter Rising, partition and the Troubles.
But if anything, people’s perceptions of Britain seem to be mired in the past – Americans always seem to be convinced that we’re still obsessing about the loss of empire, for example, which I really don’t think is true. So perhaps the history should be downplayed and more emphasis placed on the past 30 or 40 years. And for the curious visitor who wants to get inside the head of the British, is lots of historical background better than one really insightful novel anyway?
Anyway, I’ll try to think of some interesting choices.
* according to 1066 And All That: ‘Gladstone spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question.’
During the American War of Independence, the British promised freedom and land to any slaves who left their masters and served with the British. Many thousands did so, and after the war they were taken first to Nova Scotia and then settled in a colony in Sierra Leone. This book tells that story.
Among the slaves who decided that their best hope of freedom was with the British were some who had belonged to George Washington. At times I got the feeling that Schama, as a British historian working in the US, got a degree of mischievous pleasure from writing about the War of Independence from an angle that shows the British as the defenders of liberty and equality in the face of American tyranny.
It’s not that simple of course. The original decision to offer freedom was pragmatic rather than a principled, and in practice the implementation of it was consistently undermined by the greed, paternalism and piety of British administrators. The book does include some genuinely heroic British figures, but there are no shortage of complete shits as well.
It’s an interesting story and a moving book.
Something Todd Swift said pointed me to an article in the Guardian about the lack of public intellectuals in Britain, written by Agnès Poirier, a French journalist working in London. It’s worth reading just for the culture-clash exhibited in the comments.
I noticed that the unspoken assumption, from both sides of the argument, was inevitably that an intellectual is a philosopher, a cultural theorist, a littérateur and not, for example, someone like Richard Dawkins.* So I started digging around for this quote from C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures:
I remember G. H. Hardy once remarking to me in mild puzzlement, some time in the 1930s, “Have you noticed how the word “intellectual” is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me? It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”
The point being, of course, that Hardy was a mathematician, Rutherford (no relation), Eddington and Dirac were physicists and Adrian was, Wikipedia informs me, a physiologist. Three of them won Nobel prizes. I remember being very struck by that quote when I first read it, and I still think Snow’s basic point about the wilful scientific ignorance of those in the humanities is a good one, even if some of the other things he says in the essay don’t stand up very well. Indeed Wikipedia led me to an essay by Roger Kimball titled “The two cultures” today, published in 1994 in the New Criterion. Kimball does an excellent and largely deserved demolition job on Snow’s essay, but in the process demonstrates exactly the depressing indifference to science that Snow was complaining about.
Snow’s argument operates by erasing or ignoring certain fundamental distinctions. He goes to a literary party, discovers that no one (except himself) can explain the second law of thermodynamics, and then concludes triumphantly: “yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?” But, as Leavis notes, “there is no scientific equivalent of that question; equations between orders so disparate are meaningless.” The second law of thermodynamics is a piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done; the works of Shakespeare provide a window into the soul of humanity: to read them is tantamount to acquiring self-knowledge. Snow seems blind to this distinction.
“A piece of specialized knowledge, useful or irrelevant depending on the job to be done”. It just makes me want to cry. An insight into the fundamental workings of the universe reduced to a tool, a mathematical spanner, something of no possible interest to anyone who doesn’t need it to do a job. An indirect and second-hand insight into ‘the soul of humanity’ meanwhile is of such obvious value that it apparently goes without saying.
Such arrogance. Not just the intellectual arrogance that is willing to dismiss physics as just a tool for getting jobs done, but the arrogance to assume that ‘self-knowledge’ is of more value than the attempt to understand everything that exists. This isn’t an argument, it’s just an assertion of self-importance.
And yes, I do know that scientists are sometimes just as arrogantly dismissive of the value of the humanities. For the sake of even-handedness, and because it amuses me, here’s a quote from Dirac: “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”
* Just a note to say that when I wrote this, Dawkins hadn’t yet published The God Delusion; he did write articles about atheism but was primarily known as a writer about evolutionary theory.
I got back to England to find, appropriately enough, that some food blogs, English or otherwise, celebrated St George’s Day (Apr 23rd) by cooking English puddings, cakes, biscuits and other sugariness.
Why British food has such a bad reputation, and whether it’s deserved, is a question for another day. One kind of British food that has always been easy to defend is the baking; and one of the nice things about it is that it seems to be a genuinely popular tradition. Despite the good work done by Tea Shoppes in the Lake District, to a large extent, the cake-making tradition of Bakewell tarts, fruit cakes, tea cakes, spice cakes, lemon drizzle cakes, oatmeal biscuits [etc etc] is passed on through local charity cake sales and coffee mornings. I almost feel moved to make some parkin. Mmmm, parkin.
Another British tradition that is perhaps less lively is the steamed suet pudding. And yes, that is indeed a dessert made with beef fat and steamed. With central heating, we just don’t have the same appetite for piles of calorific stodge any more. But excitingly, two food bloggers tried particularly noteworthy steamed puddings: Sussex Pond Pudding (which I’ve wanted to try for some time) and Figgy-dowdy (particularly vital reading for fans of the Patrick O’Brian novels). Both of those bloggers do a far better job of explaining the dishes than I could.
A round-up of other entries can be found at Becks & Posh.