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Letters - October 2004

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Peter Furtado selects some thoughts from our readers.

Studying Absurdity

 George Watson's otherwise interesting article on the Hitler-Stalin Pact (September 2004) contains some wildly inaccurate statements. He asserts that, 'the call for racial purity is widely found in socialist literature'. No, it is not. He asserts that no right-wing parties in Europe ever advocated forced euthanasia. In fact, the Nazis not only advocated it but carried it out. His end-note includes claims that Karl Marx, H. G. Wells, Havelock Ellis and George Bernard Shaw had 'genocidal views'. Not true.

 During the period in question, segregation was the law of the land here. Lynchings – torture and murder of people because of their race – were commonplace. The Centre and Right (with a few, rare, honourable exceptions) thought this was just as it should be. The Left did not. Police agents searching for Communists would look for white people who had non-white friends. The Communists did many evil things, but they always struggled for racial equality, regardless of the twists and turns of the Party line, and often at great personal risk.

The people who apologised for the Hitler-Stalin Pact were not motivated by racism. If they were, they would have welcomed it. But any serious study of the context shows that it was an embarrassment to them – a nasty fact that had to be explained away. The very inconsistency of the rationalizations show how the Pact shocked their beliefs. They were motivated by faith in the Soviet economic system, which they honestly believed to be better than the capitalism that they lived in, and which had to be defended at any cost.

Today such a belief seems absurd. But history is full of beliefs that seem absurd today. There have been times when the smartest people in the world believed that the earth was flat, that sickness was caused by evil spirits, that astrology could predict the future. I hope someday to see an article in your publication that would help understand the absurd beliefs of the recent past.

Edward Jahn

Leesburg, Virginia, USA.

 Tolerating Ideas

The interesting article by Mark Goldie on John Locke  (October 2004), made no reference to the similarity between Locke’s ideas about toleration and those of Sebastien Castellion, the Protestant Reformer who died in 1563. Locke advocated a complete toleration of Castellion’s works, and the arguments he used in favour of toleration were drawn from Castellion, a man ahead of his time. The Rev. Iorwerth Jones pointed this out several years ago, adding that Stefan Zweig called him the ‘unknown soldier’ in the struggle for human liberation.

Rev. William Shackleton

Burnisde, Glasgow

 Emily Mayhew's article (September, 2004) has, perhaps through brevity, oversimplified the story of the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, and Archibald McIndoe. Geoffrey Edmonds may have been East Grinstead's first ‘Airman’s Burn’ but he was not the first. That dubious honour falls to Lieutenant Lumley, RFC, who suffered petrol burns on July 14th, 1916, and was among nearly fifty burns victims whose notes we possess, from all services treated during the First World War at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup. It is perhaps notable that Lumley's photographs show him in uniform and not in ‘hospital blues’; the same is true of the pioneering burns casualty, Able Seaman Vicarage, burned on HMS Malaya at the battle of Jutland, on whom the principle of the tube pedicle was first applied. The chief surgeon at Sidcup, Sir Harold Gillies, and his accompanying team from the UK and the Dominions, developed many of the techniques used in the Second World War not only at East Grinstead but also at Rooksdown House, Basingstoke, Hill End Hospital, St Alban's and Queen Mary's Hospital Roehampton; Rooksdown was primarily the Army plastic surgery centre, while all three took RAF casualties.

Harold Gillies was himself appointed Plastic Surgeon to the RAF in 1938, with McIndoe as his deputy, and McIndoe did not formally succeed him until 1940.  While the work that McIndoe did, not only in his surgery but also in his attitude to his patients, as Mayhew describes, was exemplary (and many would admit that McIndoe was a better and faster surgeon than his mentor, Gillies) it was nevertheless largely derivative.  That there was no major provision for large scale burns management cannot be denied (because there was no demand).  However the development of plastic surgery services in the Second World War was little to do with McIndoe, but mainly the work of Gillies and his erstwhile colleague at Sidcup, Kelsey Fry, who conducted the pre-war planning on behalf of the Ministry of Health.  Likewise it was Gillies who narrated the first wartime publicity film, based on his cases at Rooksdown.

I do not seek to denigrate the remarkable achievements of McIndoe, but his work needs to be properly set in its historical perspective.  Without the seminal work of Gillies and his colleagues at Sidcup during the First World War the successes of McIndoe twenty years later would have been unthinkable. Indeed, had it not been for a misunderstanding, over a job that turned out not to exist, that brought McIndoe to England in 1930, a distant family connection to Gillies and Gillies' own generosity in offering him an assistantship, he would never have been a plastic surgeon at all.

Dr Andrew Bamji

Queen Mary's Hospital, Sidcup, Kent

Crisis, What Crisis?

David Nicholls (August 2004) overstates the problems facing history in schools and colleges. There are major issues to be addressed, but they do not constitute a crisis. Moreover, the narrowly political focus of the remedies proposed are counterproductive. A strategy which involves giving history special consideration in curriculum planning is highly dubious.

There is no accurate picture of the state of history in schools and colleges because no full survey  has been undertaken. However the exam statistics and anecdotal evidence suggests a mixed picture. There is a slight decline in exam entries, and in some institutions serious problems undoubtedly exist. But in others the subject is flourishing, and in most the situation is probably stable. History does not appear to face the problems confronting mathematics and modern languages

Nicholls is also over-egging the pudding in suggesting that the Curriculum 2000 changes have been bad for history. They have provided considerable opportunities which have benefitted some institutions at least. In the college where I am head of history, student recruitment is at an all-time high.

Negotiations in Whitehall have produced some useful developments, but the Historical Association appears to want Ministers to make history compulsory in the 14-19 curriculum. This is not feasible, now that citizenship is compulsory 14-16. Nor is it educationally desirable. Nicholls admits that even at the height of its popularity, only one third of the cohort opted for GCSE history. The figure is now forty percent. Forcing the sixty per cent who do not opt for history to do it cannot be sensible.

Nicholls discusses no other factor other than the creation of the National Curriculum from 1988 onward. But a longer perspective, going back to Mary Price’s 1968 article warning of the problems faced by history, indicate much more deep seated problems rooted in public ambivalence about history. The Historical Association is now mobilising the academic community to support its campaign via a conference next spring. I fear that the current indications are that this initiative will be an redundant exercise unless the wider issues surrounding the status of the subject in our culture are confronted.

Trevor Fisher, Stafford

Yellow Peril

With reference to Latha Menon's article (August 2004) on the Hindutva movement and Indian history, I would like to point out that the terms 'saffron brigade' and 'saffronization' have nothing whatever to do with the spice saffron, which has sometimes been used as a dye. Presumably these terms refer to the yellow colour of the robes worn by Buddhist monks – not Hindus – though they are dyed with the wood of the jackfruit tree.

B. Dove

Rehovot, Israel

Embedded Empire

What a remarkable article by Bernard Porter (October 2004)! So interest in Empire was ‘thinly spread’ and ‘Britian was never a truly imperial society’. How could this be, when about one-third of Britain’s exports and over 40 per cent of investment went to the Empire in the late 1880s? If this interest was confined to the merchant class, then the Imperial Institute, formed in 1887 to propagandise empire, ensured more widespread interest. Tens of millions visited the Empire Exhibitions and many thousands the various displays of ‘native’ peoples. These, together with most forms of popular culture as well as school texts, served to embed the notion of White, especially English, racial superiority. After all, what the population needed to know was that the Empire’s ‘natives’ were inferior and in need of Britain’s Christian civilising mission. In 1920, for example, the diplomat Sir Harry Johnston’s tract The Backward Peoples and our Relations with Them was published by Oxford University Press. Without Whites, these natives would relapse into ‘unprofitable barbarism’, he believed  – as did many others. To take another example of the many available, Professor J.W. Gregory, recently retired from the University of Glasgow, in a Lecture for the South Place Ethical Society in 1931, advocated the segregation of races in the colonial Empire as ‘cross-breeding produces inferior and unreliable progeny’. I would argue not only that notions of Empire and of White superiority were widespread and well-embedded, but that we are contending with this destructive legacy today.

Marika Sherwood

Black & Asian Studies Association



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