The two sides in the Cold War, finding each other irresistible, ended up in a contrapuntal relationship where, as George Urban put it, ‘they marched in negative step, but in step all the same.’ They had their spies, we had ours. They had their files, we had ours. True, we didn’t have gulags. But what kind of democracy is it that congratulates itself on not having gulags? Never mind the dragnet surveillance, the burglaries, the smearing of reputations, the bugging of public telephone boxes, cafés, hotels, banks, trade unions, private homes, all this legitimised by the thesis that everyone is a potential subversive until proven otherwise – the problem is that the defenders of the realm took on the symptoms of the disease they were meant to cure.– In the essay Stuck on the Flypaper historian and journalist Frances Stonor Saunders goes through the recently released MI5 file on Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm [previously] to explain how the British secret service surveilled and interfered with the lives of British citizens during World War II and the early part of the Cold War.
Above all, what these experiences demonstrate is that there isn’t really an alternative to talking to the terrorists if you want the conflict to end. Hugh Orde, the former chief constable in Northern Ireland, rightly says, “There is no example that I know of, of terrorism being policed out” – or fully defeated by physical force – anywhere in the world. Petraeus said that it was clear in Iraq that “we would not be able to kill or capture our way out of the industrial-strength insurgency that was tearing apart the very fabric of Iraqi society”. If you can’t kill them all, then sooner or later you come back to the same point, and it is a question of when, not whether, you talk. If there is a political cause then there has to be a political solution. [more inside]
On 16 April 1746, the Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart fought loyalist troops commanded by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland near Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. In 1964, Peter Watkins wrote and produced a docudrama for the BBC, from the perspective of a documentary crew on the ground, depicting the battle and its aftermath: Culloden. [1:12:14]
First world war – a century on, time to hail the peacemakers "On the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, we should remember those who tried to stop a catastrophe" [more inside]
The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records is a radio series on BBC written and narrated by Stuart Maconie. Each episode focuses on one particular pop song and tells the story of the song as well as what social trends it mirrored, for instance the episode on Telstar by The Tornadoes focuses on the technological progress, especially in space travel and music, and the story of songwriter and record producer Joe Meek. 25 episodes have been broadcast, including ones on Dizzee Rascal's Bonkers and 21st Century Britain, Cornershop's Brimful of Asha and the British-Asian experience , and Serge Gainsbourg's Je T'aime and sex. There are 25 more to come. There is also a blog and profiles of the songs already discussed. [Previously on MeFi]
In the mid-1920s, Claude Friese-Greene filmed The Open Road, a record of his journey through Britain, using the 'Biocolour' technique first developed by his father William. Eighty years later, the BFI produced a digital version of the preserved and restored film. We've seen London in 1926 previously on MeFi, but there's plenty more of The Open Road to see, including weavers in Kilbarchan (1:16), farmers harvesting with oxen in Cirencester (0:52), Glamorgan coal-miners (0:46), and more. [more inside]
Mau Mau to Midnapore: Confronting the brutality of empire There are certainly some Britons, including academics, journalists and human rights lawyers, who are aware of the realities of colonialism. However, in the society as a whole and in the media in the UK there are still far too many who seem strangely reluctant, even after so many decades after the end of the British empire, to come to terms with the true nature of colonialism or learn from the perspective of former subjects who had rebelled against it.
The British Film Institute's YouTube channels offer a staggering amount (previously) of content on historical cinema, shorts, and discussion. Some short selections from the early and silent period of note - The Sick Kitten (1903) - How Percy Won The Beauty Competition (1909) - Tilly The Tomboy Visits The Poor (1910) - Suffragette Riot In Trafalgar Square (1913) - The Fugitive Futurist, in which a man on the run shows a device that can see far into the future (1924) - Vaudevillian legend Billy Merson Singing 'Desdemona'. Widely considered Britain's first sound film - (1927) Charley In New Town - part of an animated series from the Central Office, this one explaining the need for "New Towns." (1948) - Growing Girls, a filmstrip guide to puberty for young women (1951).
As a companion to his fascinating Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, Tim Hannigan has a blog — Footnotes and Sidelights from the Story of the British Interregnum in Java, wherein he shares interesting stories that could not find space in the published book. [more inside]
As you turn eyes to London to watch this year's Olympics, you might be surprised to find out that the City of London has a population of about 11,000 and is only one square mile. [more inside]
Railway termini are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return.
Network Rail virtual archive Original drawings and plans of Britain's railway infrastructure from Network Rail, including the Forth Bridge, Bristol Temple Meads station, the Tay Bridge and lots more.
Here is Coffee: The Greatest Addiction Ever and other neat videos by C.G.P. Grey who explains non-obvious aspects of science, history, geography, elections, and economics in entertaining and clear ways. [more inside]
The Reel History of Britain, a BFI/BBC co-production, brings archive film into the nation’s living rooms. The footage shown in the series has been selected from the hundreds of thousands of films and programmes preserved in Britain’s film and television archives. We are complementing the series by making many of the films featured in The Reel History of Britain available online in their entirety, alongside expert commentary from the nation’s archive curators.
The British Film Institute has a youtube channel with rare footage going back over 100 years, covering many aspects of British life. Highlights include: 'Solarflares Burn For You' (1973) (featuring a soundtrack by Robert Wyatt); Rush Hour, Waterloo Station (1970); London Bridge (1926); Productivity Primer (1964); Today in Britain (1964); Snow (1963); Holiday (1957).
Dr Beachcombing is curious about the strange and the unexpected in records of the past. This is his engaging blog.
Recreate a part of history in High Tea, a game where you trade Indian opium in China to supply tea to England. Part of the High Society exhibit at Wellcome Collection. [more inside]
Robert F. Gallagher served in the United States Army's 815th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion (Third Army) in the European Theater during WWII. He has posted his memoir online: "Scratch One Messerschmitt," told from numerous photos he took during the war and the detailed notes he made shortly afterwards. [more inside]
Stephen Fisk runs a website called Abandoned Communities, which documents unsettled settlements around Britain. Some were huge, like Sarum, between (roughly) the eleventh and fourteenth centuries a royal city with its own cathedral, while some were never bigger than a few dozen people. There are places that have been swallowed by the sea, places that have been swallowed by London, and some that simply dwindled into nothingness. Some you may have heard of already, like St. Kilda or Capel Celyn (cofiwch Dryweryn!). There's also a handy map that links straight to any particular location, and collections of painting and poetry pertaining to these vanished places
London Lives 12 London archives – digitised, marked up and tagged – to "create a comprehensive electronic edition of primary sources on criminal justice and the provision of poor relief and medical care in eighteenth-century London". The Lives page is a good place to start browsing. [related]
Educational gamesmaker Preloaded has recently made two strategy games for English TV station Channel 4. 1066 is a mix of tactics, insult-typing, bowmanship, rhythm-game and narration by Ian Holm. Trafalgar Origins is all Napoleonic high seas derringdo all the time, as you sail your English ship in real time against the damnable French and Spanish. Whether you want to hoist the sails or call your opponent a stench weasel, they are fun little games which have the added bonus of teaching you about British history. Both games can be played solo or multiplayer. [via Rock Paper Shotgun, where they like those games quite a lot]
Ever since Pat and Diane Farla moved into the detached Victorian building three years ago, they'd wondered what lay behind the metre-long rectangle which lay alongside a wall.
In 1937, the London News Chronicle published a photograph of five boys at the gates of Lord's cricket ground; two stood aloof in top hats and tails, with their backs to a group of three working-class lads. The resulting photograph became famous as a metaphor for the class divide in Britain, appearing in newspaper stories about school reform, inequality and bourgeois guilt and on the covers of books. The photograph appeared in the Getty Images archive as "Toffs and Toughs", and even was printed on a jigsaw puzzle in 2004. The identities of the three working-class boys were unknown until a journalist tracked them down in 1998; here is an article on the history of the photograph and the lives of the five boys in it.
(NSFW) So Much For the Stiff Upper Lip. Slate writer gets jiggy wit the history of Georgian Britain's aristocratic sex clubs.
Norman Centuries is a new podcast by Lars Brownworth, best known for his podcast series 12 Byzantine Rulers (previously). Norman Centuries, as the name suggests, recounts the history of the Normans, those literal vikings who gained Normandy and then England, Sicily, Malta, Antioch and, well, a whole heck of a lot of other places too. They were a conquering bunch. First two episodes are out with more to follow. [iTunes link]
Utopia Britannica is a collection of stories and a gazetter about utopian communes in the British Isles from the 14th Century up until the end of World War II. There are some incredible tales in here, such as 'Free Love' in 19th Century Somerset, St. Kilda, Death of an Island Republic, Percy Bysshe Shelley's attempted communes, Augustus John, the King of Bohemia and many more.
Field Force to Lhasa 1903-04 Captain Cecil Mainprise accompanied General Sir Francis Younghusband's expedition to Tibet in 1903. He wrote 50 letters home which trace the expedition’s progress into Tibet. Read this insider's account on the day they were written some 105 years later. Final post is 18 November 2009. [Via]
It is the central, most eyecatching feature of the modern Oval Office. But for over a year, abandoned by a captain said to be harsh and venereal, it drifted slowly, its huge frame creaking, locked in ice, in the land of endless night. [more inside]
The sections of britishbattles.com about The First Afghan War have apparently been quoted verbatim in Al-Qaeda propaganda. Site author, amateur historian John Mackenzie, told the press "It's exactly appropriate to use the account of the first Afghan war to point out the pointlessness of the current operations and the dangers that they run of a similar disaster," [more inside]
Christmas in the London Blitz, 1940; Making Christmas Crackers, 1910; Santa Claus, 1898; Christmas is coming, 1951: short films from the British Film Institute's wonderful Youtube Channel (including excellent playlists), which you can also explore through Google Earth using the kmz file found here.
Smuggler's Britain tells "the fascinating story of smuggling in 18th and 19th century Britain, when high taxes led to an dramatic increase in illegal imports. As the 'free trade'" grew, smugglers openly landed contraband in full view of the customs authorities: columns of heavily-armed thugs protected the cargoes." Includes a gazetteer with Google maps links so you can scope out some lonely cove to land contraband of your own in the footsteps of your forefathers and introduces you to famous smugglers like Isaac Gulliver, who never killed a man in a long career. Though of course, it was an enterprise where things often would turn ugly.
Physicist Howard Wiseman has a hobby, history. On his website he has three history subsites, filled with lots of information: 1) Ruin and Conquest of Britain 2) 18 Centuries of Roman Empire 3) Twenty Centuries of "British" "Empires". Especially informative are his many maps. As he says himself: "Drawing historical maps of all sorts has been a hobby of mine since my mid teens. Now I can do it digitally, and inflict it upon the world!"
If you like 'fantasy' art (as opposed to comics :) and you're in DC I'd highly recommend checking out the JMW Turner exhibit at the NGA! [more inside]
The Exploring 20th century London project draws on some 8000 items from the Museum of London, Transport Museum, Jewish Museum and the Museum of Croydon. Material includes photos, drawings, posters, artefacts, sound files etc. Browse/search by theme, timeline and location. [sitemap]
After the Romans left Britain was divided into a number of Celtic kingdoms that fought with each other and, increasingly, with the Germanic invaders we know as "Anglo-Saxons." The most famous alleged defender of Celtic Britain, of course, is King Arthur, but he's more myth than history. What catches my imagination is The Gododdin (Welsh original, by Aneurin), an epic lament for the band of men who gathered at Eiddyn (Edinburgh, main town of Gododdin) around the year 600 and headed south for a last-ditch battle against the Saxons at Catraeth (probably Catterick in northern Yorkshire), where they were wiped out. One contingent was from Elmet (Elfed in the poem), a kingdom that had been holding the line against the invaders in what's now Yorkshire; once Elmet was conquered, there was no stopping them. And all of this history was basic to the poetry of David Jones, one of the best unknown poets of the previous century, and important to one of the best known, Ted Hughes (book with photos). "Men went to Catraeth, familiar with laughter. The old, the young, the strong, the weak."
Phisick - Beautifully presented historical medical instruments. Check out the French Nasal Rectificateur. Take a look these ear trumpets too: 1, 2, 3, 4. [Click on the images in the top strip for alternate views and close-ups]
Love's guide to the church bells of the City of London (with sounds, peals and pictures).
90 years ago today, whistles blew around the river Somme in France as British troops prepared for an attack on German trenches. By the end of the day they had suffered 57,470 casualties. By the battle's end in November, there were over 600,000 Allied casualties, with perhaps the same number of German casualties. The Imperial War Museum has launched an online exhibition, where you can find out more about how the battle was planned, personal stories of those involved, and myths about the attack. Elsewhere you can find copies of Army reports on the first day, look at film of the attack, diaries and letters home from the troops, go on tours of the trenches, listen to contemporary songs and music inspired by the battle, and see some more modern responses.
Ever wondered what old amounts of money would be worth today? Or what you could buy with your current salary if you went back 200, 400, or 600 years? Now you can find out with a tool that converts English currency from 1270 onwards into today's prices. Based on Treasury records, it tells you that Mr Darcy's £10,000 a year would now be worth nearly £350,000, or that your house would only have to be worth the equivalent of £500 now to qualify for the vote after 1832.
10 Worst Americans? Hot on the heels of BBC's list of the 10 worst Britons of the past 1000 years, people are calling for nominations for the 10 worst Americans. (a nice? change from all the "best" lists floating around the end of each year)
Thanksgiving sucks. The English went on setting fire to wigwams of the village. They burned village after village to the ground. As one of the leading theologians of his day, Dr. Cotton Mather put it: "It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day." And Cotton Mather, clutching his bible, spurred the English to slaughter more Indians in the name of Christianity.
The worst jobs in history. Channel 4 takes you on a journey through 2,000 years of British history and the worst jobs of each era for minions like you and me. If you are curious whether you are best suited to be an Anglo-Saxon guillemot egg collector or a Georgian loblolly boy, take the career guide quiz. (via Malbec.
The Digital Mirror: Treasures of the National Library of Wales. Online collections related to Welsh history and culture - the Mary Dillwyn Album (a Victorian family photography album), autobiography of a smuggler, Lloyd George's 1886 diary, witchcraft in 17th century Flintshire, the 'Black Book of Carmarthen', a letter in the hand of Ann Griffiths, hymn writer, the Book of Taliesin (14th century), and more.
Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture A major UK archive of all things cinema-related, ranging from magic lanterns and transparencies to games and cigarette cards. Registered users can build and display their own exhibitions from the website's images.
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