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The Riot Police who Revolt France

Revolting: members of the CRS throw grenades during student riots in Paris, 1968.The gilets jaunes (yellow vest) movement has reopened old wounds in France, and also resurrected some old chants. During the 1968 student uprising there was one refrain above all others that reverberated through the rues and boulevards of Paris as protesters battled with police: ‘CRS = SS’. Half a century later a new generation of demonstrators is drawing the same comparison between the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité [CRS], France’s elite police unit – which describes itself as ‘specialists in the maintenance of order’ – and the Nazi’s protection squad, the Schutzstaffel, as they vent their fury against rising taxes and falling wages.

Gavin Mortimer | Published 12 March 2019
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Volume 69 Issue 3 March 2019

A Short History of Sushi

The Japanese dish of humble origins that conquered the world. 

Sushi.On the morning of 5 January 2019, gasps of amazement rippled through Tokyo’s cavernous fish market. In the first auction of the new year, Kiyoshi Kimura – the portly owner of a well-known chain of sushi restaurants – had paid a record ¥333.6 million (£2.5 million) for a 278kg bluefin tuna. Even he thought the price was exorbitant. A bluefin tuna that size would have normally cost him around ¥2.7 million (£18,700). At New Year, that could rise to around ¥40 million (£279,000). Back in 2013, he’d paid no less than ¥155.4 million (£1.09 million) for a 222kg specimen: a lot, to be sure. But still a lot less than what he’d just paid.   

Tasty and fresh

It was worth paying over the odds, though. It was, by any standards, a beautiful fish – ‘so tasty and fresh’, as a beaming Mr Kimura told the world’s press. It was also a rarity. Though not as critically endangered as its southern relatives, the Pacific bluefin tuna is classified as a vulnerable species and, over the past six years, efforts have been made to limit the size of catches. Most of all, it was great advertising. By paying such a colossally high price for a tuna, Kimura was telling the world that, at his restaurants, the sushi is made from only the very best fish.

Boredom and the British Empire

Erik Linstrum | Published 08 March 2019
Was the British Empire boring? As Jeffrey Auerbach notes in his irreverent new book, it’s an unexpected question, largely because imperial culture was so conspicuously saturated with a sense of adventure. The exploits of explorers, soldiers and proconsuls – dramatised in Boys’ Own -style narratives – captured the imagination of contemporaries and coloured views of Empire for a long time after its end. Even latter-day historians committed to Marxist or postcolonial critiques of Empire tend to assume that the imperialists themselves mostly had a good time. Along with material opportunities for upward mobility, Empire offered what the Pan-Africanist W.E.B. DuBois...Read more »
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On the Spot: Daisy Dunn

‘I’d be disappointed if I didn’t meet Emperor Claudius in the afterlife.’

Why are you a historian of the Classical world?
Because I enjoy the creativity involved in piecing together fragments to create a bigger picture.

What’s the most important lesson history has taught you?
That even the sharpest minds can be flawed.

Which book has had the greatest influence on you?
H.H. Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero.

What book in your field should everyone read?
The History of Greek Vases by John Boardman.

Which moment would you most like to go back to?
I’d love to have been with the Bishop of Verona when he came across Catullus’ poems in the tenth century.

Which historian has had the greatest influence on you?
Barbara Levick. She writes with such verve on the emperors of Rome and imperial women.

Which person in history would you most like to have met?
I’d be disappointed if I didn’t meet Emperor Claudius in the afterlife.

How many languages do you have?
I read Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian.

What’s the most exciting field in history today?
Maritime archaeology.

What historical topic have you changed your mind on?
The young Octavian – who became the Emperor Augustus – probably had more forethought than I used to give him credit for.

Marshall Myths

Britain received more Marshall aid than Germany, but spent much of it propping up a delusion. 

George Marshall defends his European Recovery Programme before the Senate.Perhaps the most persistent and enduring myth in modern British history is that the country did badly, in comparison with its European neighbours, out of the Marshall Plan, the scheme of American largesse that funded the reconstruction of war-ravaged western Europe. But it is simply not true.

West Germany received $1.7 billion of postwar aid from the United States, which it invested primarily in capital and infrastructure, paving the way for the Wirtschaftswunder, the postwar economic miracle that turned the country into a manufacturing powerhouse, which, even after the considerable cost of reunification in 1990, it remains.

Britain, as victor, had an understandable sense of entitlement – and let us not forget the nature of the regime that it and its Empire had helped defeat – but, as an indication of the sacrifice it had made, it ended the conflict with an economy more like that of a defeated or occupied nation.

It had already borrowed $4 billion to maintain its global status, following the withdrawal of its Lend-Lease arrangement with the US. That vast loan had all but run out by 1947, the year that George Marshall, the US Secretary of State, put forward his European Recovery Programme.

Kafka: The Trial Continues

Devorah Baum | Published 01 March 2019
When Franz Kafka claimed ‘I am made of literature’ it wasn’t a metaphor, it was a metaphysical proposition. In his own case, he was suggesting, nothing distinguished between literature and life. Kafka’s case, however, was always much more than just his own: ‘Had one to name the artist who comes nearest to bearing the same kind of relation to our age that Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs’, wrote Auden, ‘Kafka is the first one would think of.’ For many, Kafka is not only representative of the modern age, but its foremost prophet. His life in letters has had...Read more »
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Waste Not, Want Not

A medieval masterpiece has much to say about the modern preoccupation with greed.

Word up: the demon Titivillus, medieval wall painting, St Mary, Melbourne, Derbyshire.William Langland’s 14th-century poem Piers Plowman opens with a vision, witnessed by a dreamer as he slumbers on the Malvern Hills. He sees before him a ‘fair field full of folk’, of many classes and professions, ‘working and wandering as the world asketh’ – a vision of the whole of human society. But almost the first thing he realises is that this labour is not fairly distributed: some people work hard yet barely have enough to eat, while others selfishly squander what the labourers toil for.

A wise teacher appears and explains to the dreamer that the root of this injustice is greed. Over-consumption by some people means there isn’t enough to go around, she says; the bountiful resources of the earth can provide enough for everyone, but only if people do not consume more than they need. Her solution is to remember that ‘measure is medicine’: moderation is healthy for the soul and the body, for the individual and for society at large.

In a time when famine was a real danger, this poem’s anger about immoderate consumption and waste of food was a challenging response to a pressing social problem. But Langland’s radical poem is concerned with injustice of all kinds and greed forms part of its diagnosis for many contemporary social ills, including corruption in the law, government and church. Over-consumption and excessive desire for anything, even things good in themselves, can cause problems – not only food but money, power and pleasure, too.

Brexit Forever

History suggests that Britain’s relationship with Europe may never truly be resolved.

Illustration by Ben Jones.Brexit is a historical reckoning for the United Kingdom, not least because of the country’s frequent aversion to engaging with its past. That Brexit is rooted in the evasions, divisions and contradictions of Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU) has played remarkably little part in the last two years of national political discourse. But the issue also reaches back deep into episodes of English history: when a political elite in London, preoccupied with European affairs, provoked domestic rebellion, as in the Peasants’ Revolt; or found itself helpless, as Henry VIII’s court was, to influence the centres of continental power. These histories show that there can be no resolution of Britain’s relationship to continental Europe, nor any escape from the problems of the British political order that the European question has long amplified; there can be only temporary respite.

Weight of the World

Lucy Inglis | Published 22 February 2019
The word ‘fat’ carries burdens of social, cultural and visual expectation, but also a historical one. Size is usually described in terms of bigger equating to better: from America, where the ‘Great Nation’ conveys both vast and peerless, to the Indian subcontinent, where ‘big people’ and ‘little people’ refer not necessarily to physical attributes but to wealth and social class. Our history with this nutrient, which, along with proteins and carbohydrates, represents one of the three basic elements of our diet, has evolved alongside agriculture, religion, culture, medicine and now the modern media, as Christopher E. Forth tells us in...Read more »
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Travels Through Time #5 – Matthew Biggs, 1905


For centuries plant hunters had been drawn to nature's unexplored margins in search of prize new specimens, often travelling at significant personal risk through hostile environments and contested political spaces. George Forrest's 1905 expedition was one of the most fraught of them all.

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History Today | Published 20 February 2019
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