Like most of the world I was greatly saddened by the news on Thursday night of the passing of Nelson Mandela.
Great men and women are in part made great events and the struggle against Apartheid was undoubtedly in that category. To liberal opinion there was no essence of doubt about the justice of the cause of the majority black population in South Africa. Furthermore, while with hindsight the Apartheid regime might have been intrinsically unsustainable, that was not the impression at the time. Victory was not guaranteed and that it should come without a bloodbath was certainly not assured. It is Mandela’s unique achievement to have enabled the end of such a great injustice with the minimum of recrimination or retribution.
Mandela’s strength, it strikes me, was a product of both personal qualities and experience. This was a man of great principle, willing as he once famously said to die for the things in which he believed. His political career was clearly defined by those issues of principle and not, as with lesser men in lesser times, by personal ambition. He was inspiring, a great public speaker but also determined, compelling and charming in private, as many of those paying tribute in the last couple of days have attested. He had, even from early days, a quality of even handedness in his dealings which would stand in great stead in the crucial years around the end of Apartheid.
Mandela was also defined by what he had been through and survived. He had, on two occasions, been put on trial for offences carrying the death penalty. For 27 years he was a prisoner in Robben Island, largely isolated from the outside world, living in conditions of great hardship, unable to attend the funeral of his own son and uncertain of whether he would ever be released. His suffering and his understanding of suffering were crucial additions to his legitimacy both in securing the end of Apartheid and in ensuring that the transition to the new South Africa was a peaceful one.
When Mandela left captivity on 11th February 1990 he was 71, an age most people would have been happy to pass on the challenge to a future generation. But Mandela had to rise to his greatest challenge as the opportunity eventually emerged to end Apartheid and achieve black majority rule. In doing so not only had he got to manage negotiations with the National Government of President FW de Klerk but also had to deal with the disruptive challenge of the Inkata Freedom Party and its leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In 1993 the assassination of Chris Hani, leader of the South African Communist Party demonstrated the genuine threat of a descent to violence. Mandela’s address to the nation calling for calm was a first hallmark of his ability to reach out to all sections of South African society.
Despite all of this April 27th 1994 the day of freedom did dawn. The pictures of the queues of black voters waiting to catch their ballots remains the most powerful of images, a timely reminder to those of us in the west who have become cynical and mistrusting of democracy. Mandela was duly elected as the first black President of South Africa.
Given its history South Africa could not be sure that the euphoria of April 1994 would last and Mandela had much still to do to ensure that the transition to majority rule was successful and worked too for white and minority populations. Two things stand out. First the amazing images of Mandela appearing at the Rugby World Cup Final in a Springbok jersey. It was a political gesture of the most profound kind. On other backs it would have appeared opportunist. On Mandela’s it epitomised his ability to reach out and make peace with former enemies. I cried then when seeing it and will cry every time afterwards.
The second measure was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a process of holding to account the perpetrators of atrocities on both sides under Apartheid outside the normal processes of justice and escaping calls for vengeance. Though not without its critics, it is widely seen as having made a major role in cementing the peaceful transition to the new South Africa.
20 years on South Africa is far from perfect, enormous economic inequalities remains and the country is still waiting to make a proper transition to genuine political plurality. But it has a future and it still stands as a beacon for the values of the multi-racial society. Without Nelson Mandela neither would be the case.
Like all the sons of earth Nelson Mandela has passed on from this world. He has been an icon of my generation and I hope profoundly he will continue to remain so for future generations. There is no better example than of a man who can be deprived of 27 years of freedom and who then, rather than seeking revenge for his hurt, instead reached out to his oppressors for the greater good not only of his own people but of that of the whole nation. There are many situations in life when that example is worth remembering.
As a contemporary (50 myself this year) it’s great to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of Dr Who, the best thing to come out of British television in my lifetime. But who exactly is Dr Who and what is the real significance of the narrative of his never ending travels through time and space.
Enigma is of course at the heart of his character and its appeal. 50 years on, despite hundreds of weekly encounters with the Doctor, we know scant little about his background and life history. We know he is a Time Lord from Gallifrey. We know nothing of his parents. We know he was a talented but troublesome pupil in the Academy of the Time Lords. We know he ran off with a Tardis but not really why. We know he was grounded for a while on earth by the Time Lords. Later on we know he was traumatised in the Dalek Wars and became the last of his people. Over 50 years we have begun to become familiar with some of his beliefs and preferences but there is still much we do not know. His very name “The Doctor” is designed to put us off the scent of finding out who he really is. Furthermore the ingenuous devise of regeneration deliberately allows him to display different aspects within a single character.
Long may that continue but let me hazard three ideas about what underpins the character of the Doctor.
First he is exile, a character without fixed abode and indeed without the desire, it seems, to settle in any one place. One could see him as a modern Odysseus or Gulliver but both Odysseus and Gulliver had a home and were eventually prepared to return to it. Even Earth, which if anywhere seems to be the place he is happiest to stay, cannot hold him to the chagrin at times of his human companions who when the most feel they are getting to know the Doctor are deserted by him.
The narrative of exile is of course a convenience for the story writers because it allows for an ever changing range of locations for the Doctor’s adventures. At the same, whether intended or not, there is something disturbing about the Doctor’s restlessness. Seen through human psychology this is a character who has experienced some great trauma, who is reluctant to commit or settle and who seeks solace for his inner suffering by constantly moving on. Perhaps his trauma is the consequence itself of travelling both through time as well as space bringing with it, as it does, the forbidden fruit of knowledge of the future as well as of the past.
The second idea is that of the Doctor as an intellectual hero. The majority of the Doctor’s triumphs are the product of brain not brawn. His highest compliment is to call a friend or a foe a “scientist” and he is admirable both of what he knows but also in his capability to resolve issues through process of thought and logic. Indeed although at times the Doctor is shown having special skills such as “Venusian aikido” his fundamental quality is his intelligence. There is not a small resemblance between the Doctor and the character of Sherlock Holmes – I always thought that Benedict Cumberbatch would make an excellent Doctor. For a country which, at times, can be contemptuous of intellectuals and intellectual values it is admirable that we have created and sustained a hero of this nature, even if he is one who has fallen out of the system of formal education!
The final aspect of the Doctor to highlight is his moral compass. This is sometimes more complicated than it might at first seem. It is clear that the Doctor will seek to defeat the obvious “bad guys” of the universe such as the Daleks or the Cybermen but he can often display a great sensitivity to some of his opponents and may be prepared to go the extra mile to seek a peaceful resolution to a situation. Very often he fails in these attempts, in part because the demands of drama demand a more exciting ending to events but in part perhaps because, despite all his great powers and intelligence, the Doctor can only play the part of a bystander in the events he tries to influence. At times too he can show a level of partiality, in particular in his relations with humans, which can distort his judgement. Some of my favourite stories are those relating to the Silurians and Sea Devils which include the Doctor’s vain attempt to broker a peaceful co-existence between humans and the previous masters of the Earth.
The Doctor’s conduct is also influenced by the burden of his powers to travel through time and the danger of knowingly interfering in the course of history. One of the best moments ever in Dr Who is the scene in the Genesis of the Daleks where he has the opportunity to destroy the Daleks for good before they come into existence. In seems obvious to us that he should go through with the act and rid the universe of the malign influence of these creatures but the Doctor hesitates knowing that in changing the course of history he will create both negative as well as positive consequences which even he is unable to judge the balance of. The Time Lords have a reason for their doctrine of non-interference.
At one level Dr Who is an excellent childrens’ television series but I would argue that at its best it has created, by accident, design or evolution, a fictional character whose depth and intriguing qualities put him alongside some of the great heroes of literature. Like all such heroes the Doctor is both a source of entertainment but also creates a lens through which we can view the moral dilemmas of our own age and perhaps of ages to come. Perhaps the story of Dr Who is like the TARDIS – bigger on the inside.
Next Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas. No politician must have been talked about more in the intervening 50 years. A public life cut short in this way inevitably casts a longer shadow but there is something unique about the mythology which has developed around JFK. His image is still regularly seen, his speeches are regularly quoted and there is endless ongoing speculation about the circumstances of his death.
For 3 months in 1997 I lived a few blocks away from the street in Brookline, Massachusetts where JFK was born and spent the first 8 years of his life. I had the chance to visit his birthplace, a relatively modest house given the wealth the Kennedy family was later to have access to. I learnt from that visit about the strong sense of family which pervaded Kennedy’s upbringing and the issues in his family, for instance the mental health issues experienced by his sister, which would inform later political actions. I also learnt about the fearsome sense of ambition held by JFK’s father Joe and his mother Rose for their children. Young Jack Kennedy and his elder brother would sit for dinner at a little table alongside their parents where they would be expected to behave as little adults.
Finally I learnt how central politics was to the family with both JFK’s Grandfathers John Fitzgerald and Patrick Kennedy already having made an impact as major local political figures. Joe Kennedy senior was determined that his children would go even further. Jack of course was the second son and for a while the focus of his father’s ambition was Joe his older brother. Joe however was killed in action during the Second World War and Jack, who himself served in the US Navy and had a very narrow escape from death, emerged after the War as the one to have the political career. He entered the House of Representatives in 1946, the Senate in 1952 and 1960 secured the Democratic nomination for the Presidency.
Kennedy, the first and only Catholic President of the USA, won the narrowest of victories over Richard Nixon. The first televised debates in US presidential elections, where Kennedy’s relaxed good looks scored well, were seen as crucial.
Kennedy has defined much of what across western democracies are still seen as the qualities looked for in a political leader. Young, good looking, intelligent, eloquent, confident and hopeful, Kennedy cut a strong contrast with the gerontocracy in power in many other countries at the end of the 1950s. With his beautiful wife and young family and his talented entourage the Kennedys emerged as the royalty which America was never supposed to have but actually quite likes. The story of Camelot was readily accepted.
The reality of Kennedy’s presidency was more mixed than the image. On foreign policy, the Bay of Pigs was a disaster, Berlin a victory on points to Khruschev but Kennedy undoubtedly rose to the hour in his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On domestic policy his scope was limited by a hostile Congress but by the end he was making progress on civil rights and had he had a second term it is likely that he would have passed the legislation on this and issues such as Medicare which in the end were the achievements of the Johnson Administration. The Peace Corps, one of the most successful and lasting initiatives of his presidency epitomises the spirit of his famous Inauguration Address “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Finally it was his ambition which put a man on the moon.
Had Kennedy not be assassinated and won a second term he may have gone onto greater domestic triumphs but he would have also had to face up to the consequences of his fateful decision to become involved in Vietnam. Kennedy apologists highlight that at the time of his death he was beginning to have second thoughts about Vietnam but the record in history of leaders drawing back from conflicts of this kind is not an inspiring – just look at Iraq and Afghanistan. He might have also had to face up like Bill Clinton to a growing awareness and criticism of failings in his private morals.
So 50 years on there are some positive things to celebrate about the memory of Jack Kennedy but may be this is the time for the mythology of Camelot to finish and for him to take a more measured place in the lexicon of US and wold history.
In my professional life I am acutely aware of the power of personal stories to bring alive crucial issues like that of mental illness. As we approach the centenary of the start of the First World War there appears a welcome interest in the publication of further first-hand accounts of the conflict to add to the already extensive canon of such work.
Indeed the quantity of such material is, from the perspective of the historian, one of the distinctive features of the First World War. The War was a common experience which affected millions of people but it was also an experience which impacted on the first generations to have benefitted from universal primary school education, on both Britain and across Western Europe and therefore able to express their own version of events.
This autumn I’ve had the chance to read a number of such accounts, all of them very powerful, but telling the story of the War from different viewpoints.
The first of them, Private 12678 by John Jackson is the story of a private in the Highland Camerons who joined up in 1914 and fought his way through most of the major battles of the War. The second, Somme Mud is the account of another private, the Australian Edward Lynch who arrived in France at the end of 1916 and fought through to the end of the War. The third Home Fires Burning is different. Rather than a description of life at the front it covers the wartime diary of Georgina Lee, a middle to upper class resident of Chelsea. Its contemporary insights into the impact of the war on civilian life are equally fascinating.
Only one of the accounts (Georgina Lee’s diaries) is strictly contemporary, the other two being written down in the 1920s. None of them were published in the author’s own lifetime despite attempts to do so. The generation which fought the First World War did not share our penchant for instant disclosure. Indeed the very horror of what many went through meant that it was some time before even the most famous early accounts of the War such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Goodbye to all that appeared.
The value of personal accounts is just that. They provide the individual perspectives of individuals caught up in these momentous events. They may not have the intensity of language of the great poetry of the War but nonetheless they capture the depths of a set of experiences which are hard to appreciate from the perspective of those who have lived our lives in the shallows of peacetime.
I strongly recommend all of these accounts for anyone with the slightest interest in this period. They cover many aspects of the war but three wider impressions stand out.
First one has to be amazed by the phenomenal bravery of those who took part in the conflict. Whether rushing a machine gun position, digging a grave while under fire from a sniper, crawling out into No Man’s Lands to mend telephone lines or withstanding the most infernal bombardments the combatant writers describe situations where death is a fraction of a second away. Even those occasions where a decision to retreat is made are fraught with danger. Any why are these men so brave? Military discipline and the instinct to obey orders play their part. Patriotism and concepts of manly behaviour are important too. However more than anything else is the sense of solidarity amongst the troops, what Edward Lynch describes as “mateism”. Men joined up because their mates did. They likewise face danger because their mates do.
Second there is no mistaking the absolute brutality of this conflict. Many of the pictures of the War capture vividly the destruction of places and landscapes but these accounts also bring out the horrific damage to the soldiers themselves. The human frame is not designed to withstand high explosives and some of the descriptions of the injuries experienced by those caught by a shell or the deadly fire of a machine gun are completely chilling. What also is left of man who has been run over by a tank?
In addition there is the horror for the living soldiers of being constantly surrounded by the fallen who lie in No Man’s Land or trenches unburied. One writer describes the dead soldier buried in a trench wall whom you have to pass every day, the hair and skin on his head rubbed off to a bone.
The final impression is of the ambivalence of attitudes towards the enemy. Views are much clearer in Georgina Lee’s diaries, full of firm condemnation of German atrocities to Belgian civilians or the brutal loss of life on passenger ships sent to the bottom by German U-boats. For those writing as combatants the picture is more subtle. The enemy is always referred to in the singular “Fritz” or “Jerry”. Yes at times soldiers can be filled with an almost feral hatred especially when motivated by the loss of one of their own comrades. At other times there can be genuine sympathy for those who, on the other side, are going through the same experience as them. Occasionally this can take truly heroic proportions as when one soldier risks his own life to rescue a wounded German soldier from No Man’s Land.
I very much hope such first-hand accounts dominate the coverage of the Great War in the next year building up to Centenary. They cast, as in many other areas of human experience today, a true light on the reality of events and on the consequences of decisions taken by nations and their rulers.
It is the most famous date in English history but what is the real significance of the Battle of Hastings the anniversary of which falls on 14th October. And what did the Normans ever do for us?
This was a day which definitely changed the outcome of history. The England which would have emerged if Harold Goodwinson had been victorious would have been very different to the one we know today. I have a number of suggestions of how.
First the Norman Conquest initiated an 850 year long period of almost continuous hostility with our neighbours across the Channel. At least officially, this only finished in 1914 when the dispatch of the British Expeditionary Force at the start of the First World War represented the first time a substantial British army had been sent to France in its defence, rather than for its conquest.
This rivalry with France drew Britain much more, than might have been the case, into the orbit of European affairs and, in large measure, has helped define the axis of our relationship with the Continent.
The second and most striking contribution is to the development of the English language. Without the Normans we (and a lot of the rest of the world) would be speaking something closer to Dutch. English’s amazing breath of vocabulary is, in large, the product of a fusion between Old English and Norman French.
The Welsh, Scots and Irish have less to thank the Normans for than most. It is perhaps over optimistic to claim that the Anglo-Saxons would have been content to leave their Celtic cousins in peace for ever but there is no doubt that the Normans brought a new aggressiveness to English imperialism, first through the activities of the Marcher Lords and in later times through the actions of conquering monarchs such as Henry II (who started the conquest of Ireland) and Edward (1 (about whom we Welsh know all too much).
The Normans could be claimed to the authors of the deep sense of class consciousness which is so central, even today, to character of England. They changed the system of land ownership to a feudal model which embedded the rights of aristocrats (mainly those who came over with William the Conqueror) and the definitely subservient position of those in serfdom to them. Not that Anglo-Saxon England who exactly the land of the free but the social gradients of that society were undoubtedly less marked and may have led to a different evolution of social relationships in this country.
Finally the Normans and their successors did leave a very significant architectural legacy. The Normans were greater builders, both of castles and cathedrals. Who can fail but to be impressed with creations such as the White Tower of London and Ely Cathedral.
So 14th October 1066 was a defining day in British history and it could, easily, have gone the other way. Despite the exhaustion which followed a forced march down Ermine Street (aka the A1) from York where they had defeated the Norwegian army of Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold’s crack troops, the housecarls held their ground on the top of Senlac Hill for most of the day. It was only a clever feint from William’s cavalry which tempted them to leave the security of their position and rush down the hill in pursuit of the supposedly fleeing Normans and which then turned the fortunes of the battle. On such a narrow thread the fortunes of history can hang. A visit to the battlefield site at Battle is thoroughly recommended as, even now, it’s possible to get a strong sense of the dynamics of that eventful day.
So this anniversary of the Battle of Hastings it’s worth remembering what might have been and pondering the contribution which the Norman invasion has made, for better or worse, to the history of these islands. Yet another example of why history is a subject worth studying.
The row about the Daily Mail’s story about Ralph Milliband has been big news this week. For me, as well as the specific issues around the inappropriateness of the Mail’s criticism of Ed Milliband’s late father, this has for me opened up a wider issue about the nature of patriotism. What does it mean to love or hate one’s country?
There are two points which stand out. First there are as many as stories for why people love Britain as there are people in this country. This is a small country with large differences. Many of us have a different stories of who we are and where we come from. Some of us, myself included, are proud to be able to speak other languages besides English. Even amongst English speakers we can at times celebrate the mutual incomprehensibility of those who come from different parts of the same island. Our countryside is wonderfully different with major changes in landscape in the space of a short journey.
So diversity is in our genes as a nation. The Britain I love tolerates and indeed celebrates diversity. If Britain as nation state has had a single defining quality over the centuries it has been the ability, in general, to manage differences and avoid the worst excesses of sectarian or political conflict which have been so common in parts of mainland Europe. There are exceptions and the history of Ireland illustrates many of them.
My second point is that a love of country does not imply a blind acceptance of all its qualities. It is possible to love Britain but hate some of the injustices which have been carried out its name. As a Welshman I hate the historic repression of the welsh language. As a mental health campaigner I hate the negative attitudes towards people with mental illness which have pervaded our society. As a criminal justice reformer I am profoundly ashamed of the fact that we have the largest prison population per head in Western Europe.
There is an important sense in which history defines a nation and I am a strong supporter of young people learning the history of Britain. But history must not be a straitjacket and within our history there are many different and, at times, conflicting narratives. History is not just about kings and queens and indeed it is one of the most positive contributions of Marxism to the study history to shift its emphasis more onto the stories of ordinary people. Those different stories do inspire a love of nation but they also highlight some of what we ought to change in our country.
A patriotism which also dreams of a brighter and better tomorrow is entirely possible. Indeed it is ironic that one of our best patriotic songs, Jerusalem, is based entirely on such a vision. How many “lovers of Britain” sing with gusto:
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Earlier in the week I had 10 minutes waiting in Liverpool Street Station standing by the moving Kindertransport memorial. That made me very proud to be British. That is the Britain I love.
Yesterday was one of those very important landmarks in life as I took my elder son to start his university career in Leicester.
Yesterday is the right word as of course it only seems yesterday since I started at University myself such is the speed with which, as the psalm states, “Time, like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away.”
I look back with particular fondness at my time at University. In those days it was a more unusual experience with less than 10% of the population going to higher education compared to the 40% that do so today. Indeed I enjoyed the special distinction, even in 1981, of being the very first member of the Jenkins family to go and was acutely aware of the privilege I was enjoying which had been denied to my parents, both of whom were more than capable of having benefitted from a university education.
For me university opened my world, introducing me to new ideas, tastes but above all to enjoying the company of other bright young people on the same journey as me. I am lucky to have kept a number of very good friends from that time and there is something which is special about the shared experience we have together which it has been difficult for later relationships to emulate.
In recent years there has been much discussion, in the context of the debate about tuition fees, about the value of university education. It always seem a shame to me to see this debate cast in purely utilitarian terms. Yes it is right that society should expect some return from its investment in university education but if this is missing the point if this is limited too narrowly to a focus on vocational qualifications. I can’t think of too many days when I put to direct the use the details of late Roman history but at the same time the habits of thought, inquiry and expression which I learnt at University are fundamental to why I have had a successful career and been able, I hope, to make a meaningful contribution to society.
So I believe the opportunity, along with a range of other choices, should be there for all who feel they can benefit from it and as a society we should celebrate the contribution which our universities make to the development of a young people and to the wealth, knowledge and cultural life of our country. Universities, like all human institutions are not perfect, but I despise the philistine tendency, which sadly surfaces from time to time in our national conversation, to devalue intellectual activity which cannot immediately be valued in pounds, shillings and pence.
That is not to say that the financial burden for paying for the privilege of going to university shouldn’t be bourn proportionately by those who benefit from it. I have long been a supporter of the idea of a graduate tax and actually believe that is, in essence, after all the controversy of the tuition fee debate, is what we have ended up with. However university education is funded though it is clear that there is much more to do to make sure it is an opportunity that is open to all, whatever their background. My parents’ experience in a different generation makes this clear to me.
University while an exciting opportunity is still a time of vulnerability for many young people. Student welfare has developed enormously since I was at university but there is much to do to help support those young people who develop problems, for instance with their mental health.
So as he starts his university career I wish my son and his contemporaries all the good fortune and excitement I had when I was a student. I hope he will feel the same when, in turn, he perhaps takes my grandson or granddaughter to start their university career