New Labour’s ‘Earned Citizenship’

Is a bit like this:

Thanks to Martin for the reminder.

Published in: on September 24, 2008 at 3:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A new bill of rights for Britain?

My article, over on the New Statesman’s website.

The British Library – ‘Taking a F**king Liberty?’

Taking a facking liberty

Taking a facking liberty

As Catherine Tate might say…The British Library’s ‘Taking Liberties‘ exhibition – co-curated by Linda Colley and Shami Chakrabati – isn’t open yet, but judging by the advance publicity there’s already some cause for concern.

Outside the main building, a large poster displays clenched fists (grrr! militant!) surrounded by text which declares that more young people now vote for contestants on the X-factor than do in general elections. The problem is that this is a much-repeated urban myth which doesn’t take into account the very different nature of voting in a reality-tv competition (namely, you can vote more than once and, unlike in a general election, each individual vote counts.)

Why has the BL persisted in trotting out this lazy cliché? The next piece of text probably gives a clue.

‘In some countries you wouldn’t have the right to visit an exhibtion about your rights.’

Or, ‘if you like Iraq so much, why don’t you go and live there?’

This statement smacks strongly of the Blair government’s much repeated line at the time of the massive protests against the Iraq war: that protestors should be jolly grateful that they could express their opposition – they wouldn’t be allowed to by Saddam. The suggestion is that the British public somehow ‘luxuriate’ in their capacious freedoms (by exercising them) and so don’t understand how terribly lucky they are.

Underlying all of this, and much of Labour’s recent rhetoric on rights and citizenship, is the repellent idea that fundamental human rights like freedom of expression and association are somehow in the gift of our generous politicians and that we, as citizens, have to ‘earn’  them.

Some newspapers have suggested the ‘Taking Liberties’ is one in the eye for Brown, who reportedly wanted the BL to mount an exhibition on Britishness instead. I’ll reserve full judgment until the exhibition opens, (I’m slightly reassured by Chakrabati’s statement to the press:

“Liberty has been delighted to work with the British Library on its exciting new “Taking Liberties” project. The oldest unbroken democracy has become rather complacent about hard-won rights and freedoms. This important exhibition will remind us how much we have to lose.”)

but from the advance publicity at least, it looks as if it’s actually right up this government’s street.

Booya! How you like me now, Patrick Dillon?!

Over here.

Published in: on September 21, 2008 at 11:16 am  Comments (1)  
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Writing the Glorious Revolution: The Goldilocks Effect

So, I’ve noticed more traffic recently on this blog of people looking for ‘Edward Vallance Glorious Revolution’ and going to the specific posts here on that. Anxious to find out what was causing the sudden rash of activity, I did a quick ego-search, only to find this new review of my book posted from Kirkus.

England’s Glorious Revolution was far more sanguinary and disruptive than traditional histories and the popular imagination would have it, argues Vallance (Early Modern History/Univ. of Liverpool).The author hasn’t entirely shed dissertation-ese in his first [sic] book, a sometimes stodgy and generally humorless, though otherwise sensible and sturdy effort. Britain’s King James II, converted to Roman Catholicism, endeavored to liberate Catholics around the British Isles, causing many to wonder if the Isles were slated for more rounds of heresy-hunting, burnings and forced conversions. The birth of James’s son with his Catholic second queen prompted the final crisis, since it would prevent the throne from passing to James’s Protestant daughters from his first marriage. When William of Orange, husband of elder daughter Mary, invaded England from Holland, many Britons cheered. James raised an army of opposition but little other support; even his younger daughter, Anne, slipped out of London and allied with William and Mary. James declined his chance to fight – hence the revolution’s reputation as bloodless. He ran, was captured and practically had to be forced to “escape” by his Dutch guards, who simply wanted James out of the country so William and Mary could assume the throne without messy complications. Anne returned to reign following their deaths; after her, George I established the Hanoverian line and kept Britain safely Protestant, not to mention newly considerate of Parliament. Vallance excels at showing how the emerging press played a pivotal role in the transition, wryly noting the influence of both booze and coffee on the populace’s fiery political fervor. The author also reminds us that the revolution was far from bloodless in Ireland and Scotland, where religious passions ran deep and the ultimate political settlements were “far more divisive.” Among Vallance’s few light moments: a funny word portrait of famously ugly King William.Provocative dissenting view on a major historical event, but it could have used a lighter touch and a breath of wit. (Kirkus Reviews)

‘Stodgy and generally humourless’? – ouch! But scroll down the Amazon page to the one (genuine) reader review of my book. This complains that my style is ‘perhaps too racey for this heavyweight subject.’ (The same accusation was put against the book in a review by my old doctoral supervisor in History Today. Cheers Robert.)

So my writing is too cold for some, too hot for others. I suppose what this shows is that there is a very delicate balance to be struck in writing non-fiction for a general audience. Editors (I think rightly) tend to push authors away from the kind of humming and hawing, ‘on the one hand, but on the other’, style that comes naturally to most academics. What they, and the audience, are looking for is someone tell them how it is (or was): this is what happened and this is why. The ‘magisterial’ mode.

And yet, adopting the persona of an all-knowing historical God can not only make a doubt-filled academic feel uncomfortable, but also put off the reader. ‘Magisterial’ can easily become school-masterish. General readers buy books to be entertained, not to be lectured at. So the ‘what happened’ needs to be gripping, the characters vivid and the analysis, the ‘why’, deft and concise.

But go too far in the other direction, deliver your narrative as if it was a pulp thriller, and you are in danger of losing your audience again. Non-fiction readers expect a certain amount of seriousness from their books. After all, if they had wanted to buy the latest James Patterson/Patricia Cornwell/Kathy Reichs they could have gone and done just that (and at a fraction of the price of your expensive hardback.)

A delicate balance, and one that very few serious non-fiction authors (myself included, obviously) get right.

PS. Small note to Amazon. When you insert a new review, please can you do it in such a way that it doesn’t b**ger up all the other (much more positive) reviews on there? Thanks.

Passports to follow?

Over here, news that Lewes, sometime home of Thomas Paine, will soon be issuing its own currency. Glad to see the radical tradition continues – here’s to a Passport to Pimlico-style declaration of full independence soon.

Some nice pics of the note over here.

Published in: on September 9, 2008 at 6:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Cromwell – the Podcast

Over at BBC History Magazine, John Morrill discusses Cromwell’s controversial legacy.

Published in: on September 9, 2008 at 10:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Tom Reilly: Cromwell, My Declaration of War

Below, Tom Reilly, author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy throws down a challenge to Irish historians over their treatment of Cromwell. Over here, you can listen to Tom on RTE 1’s Ryan Tubridy show, debating whether the Lord Protector was hero or villain with Professor Ciaran Brady.

I would like to declare open warfare on the seventeenth century experts of Ireland please, or perhaps even challenge them to a duel. Cheers. Thanks

Please allow me to explain. A primary school teacher somewhere in Ireland faces a classroom full of eleven-year-olds. The teacher reaches for the textbook Earthlink 5th Class published by Folens in 2004. (Earthlink is a textbook series from junior infants to sixth class that incorporates the integrated approach outlined by the primary school syllabus on the Irish school curriculum.) On page 87 the following words are printed: ‘Cromwell captured Drogheda. About 3,000 men, women and children were killed.’

That’s the reason for my declaration of war. There’s no other. Just that.

Cromwell has remained the historian’s Hamlet, to be re-interpreted by each succeeding generation, as the founder of liberty or military dictator, the scourge of tyrants, or tyrant himself, the champion of parliament or its betrayer, God’s executioner or God’s reformer.

In Ireland the very name Cromwell has become shorthand for a complex set of attitudes, all resting not so much on the man himself, but on him being symbolic of a defining moment of Irish history. In the demonology of that history, pride of place, without a shadow of a doubt, goes to Cromwell. Because he left such a bitterly divisive legacy, he also left an equally divisive historiography.

Primarily as a result of the work of nineteenth century nationalists (notably John Prendergast and Fr Denis Murphy), Cromwell has for most Irish people become the personification of barbarity, religious intolerance and English conquest. He has been accused of being a war criminal and of being an early ethnic cleanser. They recount tales of thousands of defenceless Irish citizens, men, women and children, all put to the sword at the hands of “Old Ironsides” and his men during their scorched earth campaign.

In actual fact Cromwell was framed.

Cromwell – An Honourable Enemy first saw the light of day in 1999 and has been largely dismissed by most scholars. Although some academics welcomed it with a certain ambivalence, it has certainly not been adopted by many – although it has been received more generously outside Ireland. Yet – and this is most remarkable – it has never been seriously challenged by any historian anywhere.

Michael O Siochru leads the charge of protesters. Yet his recently published God’s Executioner falls abysmally short of presenting a serious challenge to Honourable Enemy. Amazingly he engages in wild speculation. I’m still shocked by his incredible assertions on this matter, with nothing solid whatsoever to back it up. The facts are there for all to see. This is not rocket science.

In fact one wonders at the erudite author’s motivation in making such assiduous efforts to interpret the well-known and oft-quoted contemporary sources in such an inequitable, some might say biased, way. Instead, Ó Siochrú and his ilk should be running to the printing presses to (at least) temper the school textbooks in order that they promulgate a balanced view of the events.

The promotional literature accompanying the book highlights the fact that the same author has scripted the two-part documentary series on Irish television station RTE this September about Cromwell in Ireland.

In this book he has gone out on a limb, put his reputation on the line so to speak, and if this is the best shot he can take to justify a civilian massacre on a large scale, it looks like he will live to regret it. Several experts of the period come to mind who might be inclined to take a different, more even-handed, view of the available evidence.

Of course civilians could have got caught in the crossfire in Drogheda and Wexford, killed as a result of collateral damage, etc. etc. etc. Well, duh! But there was no policy to kill the innocent, nor is there any concrete evidence that suggests such a thing occurred.

Historians have taken a wide birth of my book because I have entered their world and proved them (generations of academics) wrong. I have in fact taught my granny how to suck eggs. First they castigated me, then they dismissed me, then some of them (Taidgh O Hannrachain) even said they said that they knew this all along – it was nothing new!!!.

If they knew this all along, then why in the name of all that is holy are we still delivering nineteenth century propaganda to children in the 21st century?

The historian James Graham Leyburn has said of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland: ‘What Cromwell did deserves to be ranked with the horrors perpetrated by Gengis Khan. His pacification of Ireland has left scars on that country which have never been forgotten or forgiven.’

Oliver Cromwell is completely innocent of killing the ordinary unarmed people of Ireland and I defy anyone to prove otherwise.

But before I finish, here’s the thing…ask yourself this question…if the facts are open to interpretation (which at the very least they most certainly are) then why do people like O’Siochru, Jason McElligott, Padraig Lenehan etc not take a balanced view?

Contrast this with John Morrill who agrees with me that no civilians died in cold blood at Drogheda but believes some may well have got caught in the crossfire.

And the difference? He’s English. No inherent bias. I rest my case.

Tom Reilly

Good grief, yet, yet more Cromwell 350th anniversary fun

It seems the world cannot get enough of Oliver Cromwell. This morning, Today filled their ‘and finally slot’ with a brief discussion between Martyn Bennett and Michael O’ Siochru over Cromwell in Ireland. Martyn Bennett’s staff page also reveals that he has been advising an exhibition based around the theme of Cromwell’s head at the Musee des Beaux Artes in Nimes. (I’ve only been the Musee Carre d’Art – which has a very nice rooftop cafe were overhead pipes blow little jets of cool mist at you.)

Hampton Court Palace and Sidney Sussex, Cambridge (home of Cromwell’s head) both host Cromwell-themed visitor days next month.

Finally, you’ll all be relieved to hear that Hamo Thornycroft‘s statue of Cromwell outside of Parliament has been given a good wax, polish and buff in preparation for the anniversary.

Cromwell 350 cursed – Yet more things noted

Phew! The fun just doesn’t stop. This coming weekend those with an interest in the life of Oliver Cromwell are literally spoilt for choice with 350th anniversary events. Over at Basing House, (or what’s left of it after Oliver’s notorious 1645 assault) there will be a series of talks on Cromwell’s military career. £2 for adults, £1 for children.

Over at the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon, there’s a new exhibition on his life and an accompanying programme of events, including various historical re-enactments, some of which involve leeches.

And at Oliver Cromwell’s House, Ely, there is a special lecture on Cromwell’s life tomorrow (3rd Sept) and on Saturday, a civil war re-enactment which promises a guest appearance from the man himself on horseback. Remember to bring a brolly though. Local white witch Kevin Carylon has hexed the event in protest at Cromwell’s persecution of pagans during the 1640s.

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 9:43 am  Comments (1)  
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