Us and Them

‘The Valley that Waits for Drowning or Reprieve’: Capel Celyn, Merionethshire, 27 February 1957.

In 1965 a new reservoir opened at Cwm Tryweryn in north-west Wales. It was created to provide Liverpool with water, but its construction involved the destruction of the Welsh-speaking village of Capel Celyn. The affair created significant ill-feeling and anger in Wales.

Although there were some in Wales who saw the reservoir as an economic opportunity, it also created a sense that the country was powerless when its interests came into conflict with those of England. Wales’ natural resources had been taken, against majority opinion, to benefit a city in another country; a Welsh-speaking community was destroyed at a time when the language was in retreat. As a result, questions began to be asked about the nation’s place in the United Kingdom.

Martin Johnes | Published 13 May 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 5 May 2019

The Not-So-Special Relationship

The much-vaunted 'special relationship' between Britain and the United States obscures another history of rivalry and suspicion between the two allies.

Whenever relations between Britain and the United States are discussed, mention of the so-called ‘special relationship’ is never far behind. Like all relationships, Britain and the US have endured peaks and troughs, but few would argue with the view that for many years the nations have enjoyed mutual friendship and broadly shared interests. Yet at the onset of the Second World War the relationship appears to have been regarded by many in Britain as decidedly less than fraternal and anything but ‘special’. So concerned was the British government that, in 1941, the Ministry of Information [MOI] deemed it necessary to plan a campaign aimed at countering the prevailing negative British view of the US government and its people.

The scheme, ‘America in Britain’, was to be implemented by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark who, between 1939 and 1941, was Director of the MOI’s Films Division, Controller of Home Publicity and, for the duration of the war, Chairman of the War Artists’ Committee. British propaganda during the Second World War was initially aimed at Europe, the Empire and the Home Front. The British government sometimes bought as much as 30 per cent of newspaper advertising space. The focus was soon overtaken, however, by the desire to develop closer links with the US. On April 28th, 1941 a report was submitted to the MOI entitled ‘Outline for a Plan for the Presentation of the USA to Britain’. The report claimed that:

At the present stage of the war it is a matter of urgency to bring about the closest possible collaboration between the British Commonwealth and the United States of America. With this end in view, mutual misunderstandings and suspicions, which tend to hamper a co-operative war effort must be done away with.

Cohn the Canary

The work of the historian Norman Cohn has taken on a new resonance. We should heed his warnings.

Inner demons: the execution of Anabaptists at Münster, 1536.

There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people.

When the historian Norman Cohn wrote those words in his 1967 study of antisemitism, Warrant for Genocide, he did so in the shadow of the Holocaust and the Gulag, when human depravity had sunk to industrialised depths. The Vietnam War was at its height, Israel was about to win a crushing victory over its Arab enemies and the Soviet Union was firmly ensconced, trading blows with the West in a potentially catastrophic arms race. Yet despite such crises and conflict, a world carved out between two rival superpowers had a strange sense of stability, especially from a western perspective, its people made comfortable by a consumer boom. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a wave of near millenarian optimism capped the end of history and the victory of liberal democracy. Happy days.

Speaking her Mind

Touching the divine: Shiva as Lord of the Dance, bronze, Chola period, 10th-11th century.

Until the last century, Lal Ded had remained almost unknown beyond the niche corners of Bhakti resistance and poetry. The Bhakti movement, which began in south India in the eighth century and spread north until the 17th, started as a resistance against the caste system and Brahmanical supremacy. It later also became tied to the complexities of nationalism and Indian responses to colonial power. The Bhakti poets, or saint-poets as they were often called, favoured the informal over the formal, the spontaneous over the routine and the vernacular over Sanskrit (India’s then formal language). The poets inspired by Bhakti (which comes from the word bhaj, meaning a sense of reverence) expressed themselves either lyrically, towards a personal god, or philosophically, with an abstract devotion that worked as a critique of religious institutions. Bhakti, with its advocacy of individual free will, access to knowledge, rightful living, eclectic faith and liberation from all existential and material forms of bondage, led to the emergence of spiritual and poetic geniuses from the lower classes.

Neepa Sarkar | Published 07 May 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 5 May 2019

The Two Prices of Soy

Who cares whether China stops buying soy from the United States? History suggests we all should.

Illustration by Ben Jones.

Last autumn, US silos and grain elevators brimmed with a bumper crop of soybeans, yet soy farmers were decidedly not brimming with joy. They were anxious because their biggest market, China, had vanished. So many unsold soybeans needed storage that latecomers to the grain elevators, or those whose beans were less than perfect, were turned away. There just wasn’t enough room. Some farmers had no choice but to pile their beans on the ground, at the mercy of nature, or give up and plough them under to rot.

The trade war descended on these farmers on 6 July 2018, when US tariffs on Chinese goods, designed to punish China for unfair trade practices, went into effect. China retaliated by placing steep tariffs on its US agricultural imports. Foremost among those imports are soybeans. The tariffs made US soybeans an expensive choice for Chinese businesses, so they found other options.

Travels Through Time #10 – Jonathan Phillips, 1187


For the Christian crusaders of the 12th century, Jerusalem was the ultimate prize. The holy city had been captured from the Muslims in 1099 as part of the First Crusade to the Holy Land. In 1187, the counter-crusade, led by Saladin, was at last poised to take it back.

In this episode of Travels Through Time, Jonathan Phillips, author of The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin (Bodley Head, 2019), is our guide to some of the bloodiest events of the Middle Ages. He takes us to watch Saladin’s decisive victory at the Battle of Hattin, which culminated in the dramatic capture of the True Cross. Then we watch as Saladin – one of the supreme military leaders of any age – marches on Jerusalem to complete his conquest of the sacred city. 

History Today | Published in
History Today | Published 30 April 2019
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Jerk, an Authentic Taste of Jamaican Liberty

Travelling the world with the diaspora, jerk is an artefact of Jamaica’s troubled colonial history and a powerful testament to the island’s centuries-long quest for freedom.

Roadside stand at Boston Beach on Jamaica’s north-east coast.

People don’t come to Boston Beach – on Jamaica’s north-eastern coast – just for the waves lapping at the sand, or the palm trees swaying in the breeze. What really draws them in is the jerk. Lining the road to nearby Fairy Hill are countless stalls cooking great slabs of chicken, pork or fish on homemade grills made from old oil cans. Part of what makes it so special is the flavour. Unlike in many other parts of Jamaica, the stallholders here have no time for sauces or marinades. Instead, they season the meat liberally with allspice and Scotch bonnets and grill it slowly over a glowing bed of pimento wood, sometimes for as long as six hours. This not only makes it uncommonly succulent, but also amazingly smoky and hot. Much more important, however, is the link with the past. Though none of the stalls in Boston Beach are more than a few decades old, the recipe they use has remained virtually unchanged for almost 150 years. Handed down from generation to generation, it is not only an artefact of Jamaica’s troubled colonial history – but also a powerful testament to the island’s centuries-long quest for freedom.

Genius Collaborates

Darran Anderson | Published 25 April 2019
In 1948 Irving Penn undertook a series of portraits of celebrities in a corner he’d assembled in his New York studio. The aim was to provoke the subjects into revealing something of themselves. Of all the figures, from Marcel Duchamp to Marlene Dietrich, the hardest to read was the architect Walter Gropius. Where others had responded with an element of theatricality, Gropius remained as impassive as the façade of his Bauhaus building in the German town of Dessau. The portrait adorns the cover of Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of the enigmatic Bauhaus founder. Her approach is engaging and surprisingly nimble given...Read more »
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The Other Zionism

In the late 1800s, a new church promised to reshape human bodies into a redeemed race, transcending biology and ethnicity. Inhabitants of the dirty, sick slums of the world’s recently industrialised cities were increasingly drawn to the call of Zion.  

Zion Tabernacle, 31 August 1894, courtesy Flower Pentecostal Heritage Centre, Springfield, Missouri.

Zion Tabernacle, 31 August 1894, courtesy Flower Pentecostal Heritage Centre, Springfield, Missouri.

Looking up the rickety stairs of the run-down building on Melbourne’s Pitt Street, Mrs Spinks was deeply afraid. She had been suffering near-uncontrollable vaginal bleeding for months, accompanied by dizzyingly painful cramps in her stomach. She had consulted a number of Melbourne’s physicians – including the notorious Dr James Beaney, whom Melbourne society whispered had murdered a bar-maid when he had operated upon her blind-drunk – but none of these eminent male physicians had been able to help her. They had only prodded her painfully with terrifying metal implements and recommended grizzly sounding surgeries. She was left penniless and hopeless.

At the end of her tether (she had consulted – unsuccessfully – a mesmerist who boasted he could heal her through the power of electricity), Mrs Spinks had unexpectedly received a recommendation from her neighbour in the cramped building she lived in in Collingwood – one of Melbourne’s new urban slums – who swore by a marvellous new ‘faith-healing’ doctor. All of Collingwood was supposedly now seeing ‘the Dr Alexander Dowie’, a charismatic Scot who had left the Presbyterian church to found his own ‘Free Christian Tabernacle’. Any Sunday, and on several evenings during the week, shabbily dressed invalids could be seen pouring into the Tabernacle on Pitt Street in order to experience what the tabloids breathlessly recounted: the electrifying experience of Dowie or his wife, Jane, laying hands on them and praying for their bodily healing in the name of ‘Zion’, or the coming Kingdom of God.

Is empathy an aid or a hindrance to historians?

Leading historians discuss one of the burning questions of the day.

Illustration of Mary Walcott at the Salem witch trials.

Empathy can help us understand an uncomfortable culture

Helen Parr, Professor of History at Keele University and author of Our Boys: The Story of a Paratrooper (Allen Lane, 2018)

In November 1981, some paratroopers in recruit training gang-raped a 15-year-old girl in an Aldershot barracks. The girl met one of the soldiers in a local pub, who took her to his dormitory. There a group of drunken paratroopers tied her to a bed with elasticated cord and five or six of them raped her. They kicked her, urinated on her and stole her underwear as a trophy. Two years later – after some of the soldiers had fought in the Falklands – six men were convicted at Winchester Crown Court of rape, indecent assault and common assault. Two of them pleaded guilty. The longest sentence was five years.

Why did these recruits of an elite regiment, many teenagers themselves, do something so terrible? One explanation suggests it was a consequence of training young men to kill and to dehumanise others. Another might see the perpetrators as isolated psychopaths: ‘bad apples’.

It might be impossible to know exactly why, but the climate in which the rape took place seems worthy of attention. In training, men sorted themselves into informal hierarchies. They talked of some women as ‘sluts’. Some were attracted to violence and wanted to prove their toughness by dominating and humiliating others. The greatest sin was to inform on comrades. Training instilled discipline, but the rape suggests it had broken down.