What’s Wrong with Liberalism?

‘The greatest good for the greatest number’ flounders when society cannot agree on what is ‘good’ – or ‘bad’. 

Caricature of John Stuart Mill, by ‘Spy’, Leslie Matthew Ward, in Vanity Fair, March 1873.In 1826 the 20-year-old John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown. He had been raised by his father, James, as a utilitarian. Consequently, he had believed that all that mattered in life was pleasure and pain. Suddenly, nothing gave him pleasure anymore. Having been taught that his purpose in life was to spread happiness, he now realised, as he later reported in his Autobiography, that making other people happy would not bring about his own happiness. He emerged from this crisis when he realised that happiness is peculiar: it is a byproduct of doing something you care about, something you believe in. Paradoxically, he was now free to devote himself once more to making other people happy. His recovery began when he read the historian Jean-François Marmontel’s account of the death of his father and wept. Mill, having imagined the death of his own father, had begun to think and feel for himself.

Lisbon After The Earthquake

Iona McCleery | Published 20 November 2018
There are several ways of writing the history of a place. There is the personal approach, in which history is interspersed with experiences and anecdotes; Bill Bryson is the master here. There is the focused thematic approach: a city viewed through one lens, as in Jim Chevalier’s history of food in Paris. There is the monumental approach; see Peter Ackroyd’s biography of London in over 800 pages. A key factor should be knowing your audience and making it accessible to them. This new history of Lisbon is a readable, if rather breathless, chronological whirlwind. Hatton tries to pack everything into...Read more »
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On the Spot: Helen McCarthy

‘People can surprise you. They often don’t fit into the categories we impose on them.’

Helen McCarthy.Why are you a historian of modern Britain?
I like how exploring the recent past of one’s country makes the seemingly familiar unfamiliar.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
People can surprise you. They often don’t fit into the categories we impose on them.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
Ross McKibbin’s Classes and Cultures (1998) for how it elucidates the deep structures that shape people’s ‘everyday’ assumptions.

What book in your field should everyone read?
Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (1986).

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
Interwar London, stopping at a Lyons Tearoom or visiting a Palais de Danse.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Vic Gatrell, my first undergraduate supervisor.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
Beatrice Webb.

What foreign languages do you speak?
Despite learning French for years, I’m one of those terrible monoglot British historians.

The Invention of World History

Today, it is taken for granted that ‘World History’ exists. Muslims, Jews and Chinese each have their own calendars and celebrate their own New Year’s Day. But for most practical matters, including government, commerce and science, the world employs a single common calendar. Thanks to this, it is possible to readily translate dates from the Chinese calendar, or from the Roman, Greek or Mayan, into the same chronological system that underlies the histories of, say, Vietnam or Australia. 

S.Frederick Starr | Published 13 November 2018

The History of Knowledge

Peter Burke | Published 13 November 2018
In recent decades there have been so many intellectual turns (global, emotional, material, performative) that it becomes difficult to think about them without feeling dizzy. All the same, the ‘informational turn’ and the ‘archival turn’ are worth reflecting on. The sudden rise of interest at the start of the century in the history of information, or the history of knowledge, is surely connected to current debates about the kind of ‘information society’ in which we are living. Also linked to this interest is the ‘archival turn’, in which historians, who have long studied in archives, have begun to take them...Read more »
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Behind the Scenes at the House of Commons Library

The ‘C Room’ in the Members’ Library.What began as a collection of journals and Victorian bookshelves has evolved into a major source for politically impartial information on matters affecting the UK. For 200 years the House of Commons Library has been a rich archive for MPs and, increasingly, the public.

In 1818, 22-year-old Benjamin Spiller became the first House of Commons Librarian. A newly designed suite for a collection which had outgrown a small room was completed by the architect John Soane in 1828, but was to last less than a decade.

While attempting to dispose of disused tally sticks on the evening of 16 October 1834, the Clerk of Works accidentally set the Palace of Westminster ablaze. The library and two thirds of its collection were destroyed, including a set of Commons records dating back to 1547. Staff inside saved what they could by throwing books out of the window.

The new building, designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, opened in 1852. The new six-roomed suite was one of splendour, overlooking the Thames, with gothic Pugin furniture and towering windows of the ‘Oriel Room’ marking the entrance which is still used today.

Eleanor Davis | Published 08 November 2018
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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 11 November 2018

Romania’s Wartime Queen

Returning from a whirlwind visit to France and England during the first months of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Queen Marie of Romania proudly proclaimed she had successfully given her country a ‘face’. Romania’s uncompromising prime minister Ion Brătianu – derided as desperate, ‘beetle-browed’ and byzantine by Western politicians – had the nous to realise that, in their eyes, his English-born, thoroughbred monarch was the perfect antidote to his perfidious Balkan traits, hence Marie’s invitation to Paris.

Tessa Dunlop | Published 06 November 2018

To Each, Their Own God

Matthew Leigh | Published 02 November 2018
Julius Caesar launched two abortive invasions of Britain in 55-54 BC: he came, he saw, he went home. In AD 43, during the reign of the Emperor Claudius, the Romans got serious about conquering the Britons. They were to rule the new province until the early fifth century, when the emperor Honorius effectively threw in the towel. In an intriguing and beautifully illustrated study, Miranda Aldhouse-Green examines the meeting of Iron Age British and Roman religious traditions and some of the surprising marriages that resulted from the encounter. To speak of ‘the Romans in Britain’ can itself be rather misleading...Read more »
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Snoopy Remembers the Great War

The millions of readers of the Peanuts comic strip first encountered Snoopy as the First World War Flying Ace in 1965, when Charles Schulz drew the lovable beagle pretending his doghouse was a Sopwith Camel biplane. Dressed in scarf and goggles, Snoopy imagined that he flew in hot pursuit of the Red Baron, a reference to the legendary German fighter pilot Manfred von Richthofen. In later strips, Schulz enlivened Snoopy’s wartime fantasies with allusions to battle sites, planes, guns and popular songs of the Great War. The Flying Ace imagery – at times including barbed-wire trenches and mention of missing comrades – seemed especially grim, considering that Peanuts’ characters were all children. The Flying Ace persona prompted Mort Walker, creator of the military-themed comic strip Beetle Bailey, to ask: ‘What does a dog know about World War I and the Red Baron? Where did he get the helmet?’ And of the bullet-riddled doghouse, Walker declared: ‘Good golly, this has gone beyond the tale.’

In 1966, the Flying Ace storyline went even further ‘beyond the tale’ in the televised CBS Halloween cartoon It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. The main narrative centres on Linus, an ever-optimistic boy who, in the face of his friends’ doubts, waits in vain for the mythical, godlike ‘Great Pumpkin’ to appear on Halloween.

Carrie Allen-Tipton | Published 31 October 2018
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Published in
Volume 68 Issue 11 November 2018

Thoth and Khepri

The ancient Egyptian gods of creation and knowledge vanquish the ‘Lord of Chaos’.

Thoth and Khepri, on board a barque, defeat the serpent Apep in this detail from the Book of the Dead of Imenemsauf, written during the 21st and 22nd dynasties (1069-716 BC) and now in the Louvre.

Just seen at the bottom of this image, Apep, also known as Apophis, was the embodiment of chaos. He battled daily with Ra, the sun deity, seeking to devour him as he descended below the horizon – where Apep lived – into the underworld. Night would fall, but Apep, never managing to swallow Ra whole, would spit him out and the sun would rise again.

Khepri, the scarab-headed god second from the right, is the morning manifestation of Ra, associated in particular with creation: the eggs of the scarab beetle are laid in dung and so emerge fully formed, their incubation hidden from the world. Because scarab beetles roll dung, they also became associated with the movement of the sun across the sky.

Thoth, who stands at the prow of the barque, with the head of an ibis, was married to Ma’at. She was the god of order and so inextricably opposed to the serpent Apep, the ‘Lord of Chaos’. Thoth was the judge of the dead, who had overseen three epic battles between Good and Evil. He was also an engineer, associated with science and knowledge, and, as scribe of the gods, he was the creator of language.