Letters to the Editor - January 2013
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
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The Other Cromwell
Derek Wilson’s article on Thomas Cromwell (Brewer’s Boy Made Good, December 2012) was both right and timely. Back in the 1960s my history teacher asked: ‘Why was the divorce done by statute? Henry could have done it by decree.’ The question was left unanswered at the time, but later, as a history teacher myself, I pondered it anew. It came to me that Cromwell deliberately increased the importance of Parliament. Henry, like Hitler an idle dilettante, did not mind as long as the job was done. Later again, as a supply teacher, I put the point to a history teacher in the staff room. He replied: ‘Henry’s Parliament was pretty much like Saddam Hussain’s.’
Neglected No More
I welcome the reassessment of Thomas Cromwell and, though not a great fan of historical fiction, I am delighted that Hilary Mantel’s series of novels, which began with Wolf Hall, has restored Cromwell to his rightful place in English history. For too long this brilliant man, who rose from the humblest of beginnings, has been in the shadow of Thomas More, a learned figure, certainly, but far from the saintly stereotype made famous by Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.
Painted Out of History
What a blast from the past is Chris Darnell’s article on the Derryard Attack (December 2012). I had thought the King’s Own Scottish Borderers had long since vanished together with other vestiges of a sad history.
They were best, if that’s the right word, remembered in Ireland for firing on unarmed Dubliners, killing four and wounding others, including Luke Kelly (whose son, also Luke, won fame with the folk group The Dubliners) at Bachelor’s Walk in the city, on Sunday July 26th, 1914. I don’t know whether the regiment commissioned a painting of the incident, à la Derryard, but the funeral of those killed can be seen on British Pathé newsreels accessible on the Internet. Nine days later Britain went to war with Germany. Nine days before Britain went to war with Germany again, in 1939, an IRA bomb left in Coventry killed British civilians. A year later two IRA men were hanged for that incident. Assymetrical justice seems to have applied as no soldiers suffered for the first incident. Assymetric commemoration, too, as there is no painting of that event.
Palmers Green, London
Though it may be my own memory failing me, I’ve recently noticed an increased breadth of coverage for global history in History Today, coupled with fascinating articles in certain lesser-known areas of historical enquiry. I am definitely finding History Today a particularly rewarding read of late, so please keep up the good work.
The photo of Port Arthur in 1904 was superb (A Game of Battleships, November 2012). I think that your series of double-page photos has been a real success.
Grant J. Smith
Tristram Hunt is usually a reliable commentator on all things historical, so I was very surprised that he chose the reopening of the restored Cutty Sark in Greenwich as one of his picks of the year. It is a shambolic affair and I can only agree with the comments of the Victorian Society’s Chris Costelloe, who said of it: ‘The new design has obscured the Cutty Sark’s distinctive shape at the quayside. Even the part of the ship we can still see includes an obtrusive lift tower looming over the deck.Restoring heritage buildings for the 21st century doesn’t have to mean misguided attempts to fit the corporate hospitality market.’ At least Hunt’s championing of the Staffordshire Hoard suggests he has not completely lost his marbles.
Voice of the Silent
I greatly enjoyed Janet Ravenscroft’s article on attitudes to disability at the Spanish Habsburg court (December 2012). One of Philip II’s early court painters was the deaf-mute Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, always known as ‘El Mudo’. He’s an interesting character, who was educated and literate and welcome in the salons of his peers in the capital; it seems he was a good lip-reader. In spite of his ill health he retained the king’s support and was (uniquely for a deaf-mute) permitted by the monarch to write a will. There’s an interesting chapter on his court career in Rose Mulcahy’s book Philip II of Spain: Patron of the Arts (2004), which also discusses which of the family servants were dignified with portraits.
Contrary to the Truth
Tim Stanley’s argument (Contrarian, December 2012) is trite. Apart from George Monbiot, who else has claimed that British atrocities (that’s the right word, isn’t it?) in Kenya were comparable to the Holocaust? Monbiot is certainly misguided, but should we also take issue with the title of the definitive study of decolonisation in Kenya: Caroline Elkins’ Britain’s Gulag (2005)? Why is ‘rewriting history to suit contemporary political needs’ necessarily a risky venture? Reinterpreting history in the light of evolving social and moral standards is what historians do all the time – and rightly so. Does Stanley want us to revert to the moral standards at the time of the now defunct colonial power? Or perhaps he would propose that we adopt the shrill racist tones of Enoch Powell, who denounced the treatment of African detainees at the Hola Camp because their captors had behaved too much ‘like Africans’.
Time for Tey
Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time was my favourite book when I did A-level History and so I am delighted that it is being championed by the editor of History Today (Richard III and the Historian's Quest) as well as Peter Hitchens and Mary Beard. I hope this revives interest in Tey’s other novels.
No Third Way
It is a misleading oversimplification to say that Eric Hobsbawm was a ‘pathfinder for New Labour’. In his ‘Forward March of Labour Halted’ (1978) he showed in empirical fashion that the traditional social basis of the Labour Party and the left generally was in terminal decline. He was never a proponent of the ‘Third Way’ and had little time for Blair and his acquiescence before the forces of globalisation. It is helpful to read his articles in Marxism Today in 1991 and in its final one-off edition in 1998.