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Sunday West 39
Saxons vs Vikings, history's replication crisis and me in Lycra
Morning people, and hope you’ve had a jolly summer. Apologies if I have not been actively replying in the comments but I was in Germany and France and only occasionally obsessively rewriting the posts I’d scheduled (I took the accompanying picture of the Dordogne from the town of Domme).
Thanks to everyone who has recommended Wrong Side of History to friends – I’m getting close to 20,000 subscribers now, which is exciting.
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Since the last newsletter I’ve written about the power law of crime, about the gloriously debauched Georgian aristocracy, on the dangerous dog breed terrorising our streets, on Britain’s border people and their influence on American politics, on comedy in the Soviet Union, part one and two, on my dislike of national service, in praise of European laziness, on how the British became white, on East Germany, part one and two, and on cycling.
On the subject of cycling, I’m happy to accept when I’m wrong – one of the maddening things about newspaper commentary is the reluctance to acknowledge either bad judgement or gaps in their knowledge – so I accept the point made by Andrew Fisher and a couple of others that Amsterdam and Copenhagen aren’t realistic models for London. Also, more importantly, I was only joking about wearing Lycra – I don’t actually do that, and my sincerest apologies for putting that image into your heads. I hope you, or your psychiatrist, can successfully wipe it.
Finally my most recent piece was on JRR Tolkien and Anglo-Saxon England, and this a good chance to mention that the UK version of my short book Saxons vs Vikings is being published in November. It’s based on the 2017 US edition, but is substantially different and rewritten (I will probably mention this multiple times in the next few weeks).
Elsewhere, I can highly recommend the new science podcast The Studies Show with Stuart Ritchie and Tom Chivers. (Yes I am friends with them, but it's genuinely good.)
Christopher Caldlwell on India.
The Indian Constitution, one of the world’s longest, was ratified in 1949. It managed the relationship between faiths much as the British raj had, giving each of India’s major religions the leeway to run its own affairs. So an Indian Muslim, even today, has the liberty to practice polygamy, while an Indian Hindu does not. What was most innovative about the constitution was that it invented the modern practice of affirmative action. Its great conceptualizer and drafter was B.R. Ambedkar, a social-science polymath, a lecturer at Columbia University, a radical political reformer, and a dalit, or “untouchable,” from the lowest reaches of India’s complex caste system, against which he held an understandable grudge. One of the things that made the constitution so long is that it laid out a “schedule” of 1,109 castes and 775 aboriginal tribes who would be eligible for “reservations,” or quotas, securing them a quarter of the seats in India’s parliament and granting them a quarter of government jobs. But only government jobs—in this respect, India’s affirmative-action system, however much it may have been belittled for its complexity, was actually less intrusive than the American one, with its litigation-fueled undermining of meritocracy in the private sector.
Based on their clothing and accents, I’d bet money on both of these men being graduates, probably working in professional creative jobs of some kind, meaning that they’ll be on salaries of £40-50k, which puts them in the top third of earners nationally.
And yet, given that they got off the train at Peckham Rye, an inner London suburb that is now home to a large number of millennial graduates made downwardly mobile by housing costs, they’re probably spending about half of their after-tax income on a dingy flat share, while also experiencing the highest level of taxation since world war two on top of their student loan repayments.
I doubt very much that they realise that this is happening to them in a Labour-run borough in which 40 per cent of housing units are allocated to social housing, with roughly half of those tenants out of work, and many having arrived in the country only recently: in London as a whole, one fifth of social housing tenants were born overseas.
Helen Lewis on Goodreads
When the complaints are more numerous and more serious, it’s known as “review-bombing” or “brigading.” A Goodreads blitzkrieg can derail an entire publication schedule, freak out commercial book clubs that planned to discuss the release, or even prompt nervous publishers to cut the marketing budget for controversial titles. Last month, the Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert withdrew her upcoming novel The Snow Forestfrom publication because of the backlash she received after revealing it was set in Soviet Russia. The Goodreads page for The Snow Forest, which has since been taken down, accused her of romanticizing the Russian soul. “I’ll cut the job for you—they don’t have any,” wrote one reviewer. Another wrote: “Just like her characters in this nover [sic] are unaware of the events of WWII, Elizabeth Gilbert herself seems to be unaware of the genocidal war russia is conducting against Ukraine RIGHT NOW, because I’m sure if she knew, she’d realise how tone deaf this book is.”
Chalk that characterization up as writerly understatement. “It’s not enemies to lovers if you use it to excuse racists,” a typical one-star review read, referencing a common romance-novel trope. “Some authors shouldn’t be authors bc wtf is this!?” another offered. “i haven’t read this book nor do I plan to but having read the synopsis, I’m rating it 1-star,” a third confessed.
I know this isn’t very helpful advice, but as with all these people making totally unreasonable demands, couldn’t you just tell them to sod off?
Aris Roussinos on museums
For the Uduk, James’ careful work of ethnography preserved an orally-transmitted cosmology they are even now in the process of discarding. Just as British anthropologists in Sudan either moonlighted as colonial administrators or worked within the stable regime colonial order provided, British colonial administrators governed what is today South Sudan almost as a real-world ethnographic museum, banning Arabs from what is now Sudan from entry and preserving a complex constellation of tribal societies from the enforced Arabisation which, following Britain’s departure, they only shook off through a long and bloody conflict. The Uduks’ greatest lament is not that Britain kept South Sudan in tribal stasis, but that their tribe was unfairly disbarred from colonialism’s curatorial care…
Yet this ambiguous record of cultural engagement and preservation is threatened by today’s moralising postcolonial discourse, and it is anthropology’s outward-facing showpiece, the ethnographic museum, that is its fiercest contemporary battleground. Consider the sad case of Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum, until recently a museum of museums whose lovingly-preserved Victorian layout functioned as a visual expression of the discipline’s early theoretical worldview. Its great crowd pleaser, the South American shrunken heads that have delighted generations of shrieking children, have now been removed from view, their display case literally shrouded in an expression of the fearful new taboos now governing our society. For curators like the archetypal Twitter don Dan Hicks, the Pitt Rivers is barely distinguishable from a serial killer’s collection of trophies: “brutish museums like the Pitt Rivers where I work have compounded killings, cultural destructions and thefts with the propaganda of race science, with the normalisation of the display of human cultures in material form. An act of dehumanisation in the face of dispossession lies at the heart of the operation of the brutish museums.”
Fun fact: the George Floyd protests were very profitable to firms supplying police equipment.
In particular, firms producing surveillance technology and police accountability tools experienced higher returns following BLM activism–related events. Furthermore, policing firms’ fundamentals, such as sales, improved after the murder of George Floyd, suggesting that policing firms’ future performances bore out investors’ positive expectations following incidents triggering BLM uprisings. Our research shows how—despite BLM’s calls to reduce investment in policing and explore alternative public safety approaches—the financial market has translated high-profile violence against Black civilians and calls for systemic change into shareholder gains and additional revenues for police suppliers.
Anton Howes on history’s replication crisis.
Take the oft-repeated idea that more troops were sent to quash the Luddites in 1812 than to fight Napoleon in the Peninsular War in 1808. Utter nonsense, as I set out in 2017, though it has been cited again and again and again as fact ever since Eric Hobsbawm first misled everyone back in 1964. Before me, only a handful of niche military history experts seem to have noticed and were largely ignored. Despite being busted, it continues to spread. Terry Deary (of Horrible Histories fame), to give just one of many recent examples, repeated the myth in a 2020 book. Historical myths are especially zombie-like. Even when disproven, they just. won’t. die.
Or take the case of the 12,000-franc prize instituted by Napoleon for an improved method of preserving food for the use of his armies, which prompted Nicolas Appert to invent canned food. It’s frequently cited to show the how prizes can have a significant impact. Except that, despite being repeated hundreds of times, it literally never happened. Appert was given money by the French government, but it was a mere reward in recognition of his achievement, given over a decade after he had invented the method. The myth of the food canning innovation prize is a truly ancient one, which I traced back to a mis-translation of a vaguely-worded French source all the way back in 1869. That’s over 150 years of repeated falsehood, and I see no signs of it slowing.
A few years back I read a hugely interesting article on ‘narrative selection’, explaining why the most popular stories on social media tended to be obviously made up. The same is true of much history, especially as we go further back; with medieval history, for example, all the most popular stories, from King Alfred burning the cakes to the plague origin of Ring a Ring o’ Roses, let alone figures such as Arthur and Robin Hood, are untrue. But even with modern history untrue stories enjoy a narrative advantage.
Lawrence Newport on why the RSCPA is defending dangerous dogs. I seem to see these animals everywhere now. What’s interesting to me is that, since I’ve been politically aware, the Dangerous Dogs Act has been cited by everyone across the political spectrum as an example of a hastily-written bad law made in response to public outrage; yet it seems to be pretty good, and (I believe) could be applied to stopping this dangerous breed.
Samuel Rubinstein on imperial miasma theory.
Like Empireland, Imperial Nostalgia is written with considerable flair, but one cannot help but feel as though Mitchell is trying to push Sanghera’s game of word-association to breaking point. It seems at times that he is testing the limit of how much he can get away with; perhaps he had lost a bet. Empire really does explain everything, including things that, perhaps for good reason, have never so much as entered your mind. When Boris Johnson took a ‘much younger partner into Downing Street’ and ‘had a baby with her as proof of his virility’ – this was really about Churchill and ‘imperial nostalgia’, you see, because ‘manhood was a favoured ideological tool of empire’. And why, Mitchell wonders, is Rory Stewart, ‘with his intense gaze and rubbery androgyny’, a focus of ‘queer desire and identification’? Apparently, because he is an ‘Imperial Wonder Boy’. The subtitle of Mitchell’s book is ‘How the British conquered themselves’. Did the Empire ever conquer anything as comprehensively as the depths of Mitchell’s own mind?
Seems bizarre. I’ve said before, but the main reason that the empire has become increasingly central to public consciousness is because we have created a second empire at home.
Sam Dumitriu and Ben Hopkinson on why it’s so expensive to build in Britain.
The Elizabeth Line is a roaring success. Only months after opening, it has become the busiest railway in Britain. At peak time, it moves around 36,000 people per hour. Building the Elizabeth Line (also known as Crossrail) was undoubtedly the right decision. Yet at a cost of £15.8bn (£18.1bn in 2023 prices) for just the core central tunnelled section from Paddington to Abbey Wood and Stratford, it is one of the world’s most expensive metro systems. Only New York can beat its staggering £1.392bn per mile cost.
The recent Northern Line Extension to Battersea was less expensive, but at a cost of £1.1bn (£1.26bn in 2023 prices) for just two miles of track it certainly wasn’t cheap.
After adjusting for inflation, a few places standout. New York in the US is by far the world’s most expensive place to build. Yet, Britain does not do well either. At a cost of £676m per mile, British projects are 2 times more expensive than projects in Italy or France, 3 times more expensive than Germany, and a whopping 6 times more expensive than Spain.
Guy Dampier on immigration as a solution to the fertility crisis:
As one Twitter poster pointed out, the UN projection would require more than one million immigrants every year, with Britain reaching a population of 136 million in 2050, of whom 80 million would be recent immigrants or their descendants. Such an economic rescue plan would completely and permanently alter the nation; rather “it became necessary to destroy the country to save it”.
Even then, that wouldn’t solve the problem – because immigrants, too, get old. Assuming standards of medical care persist (or improve, as the science advances), it would only exacerbate the underlying problems. Rather like a Ponzi scheme, enormous movements of migrants would be constantly required in order to pay the bills of earlier waves.
Finally, Fred Skulthorp on why we can’t build beautiful:
Something of an answer lies in the last time the country was forced to build at scale. The post-war building boom was unprecedented in Europe, creating 22 new towns that became home to 2.7 million people. Northstowe’s predecessor, Milton Keynes, now feels like an infrastructural marvel from a more confident age, the post-war equivalent of the Victorians’ Crystal Palace. It was conceived in 1967, progressing (unlike Northstowe) through the austerity of the Seventies to offer its new population an idiosyncratically English hodgepodge of the garden city movement and the car-friendly suburban utopias of Fifties America. Its legacy has always attracted a seam of snobbery: a “bland kitsch, Thatcherite reality”, wrote the architecture critic Owen Hatherley, “the non-place it was planned to be”. Despite this, Milton Keynes grew and grew, and has become one of Britain’s most economically successful cities. Now, by way of grim irony in 2023, both the scale of its conception and the pace of its execution seem a much needed luxury.
I’m quite in favour of Starmer’s plans to build new towns, on condition that the King is put in charge of the project.
Thanks for subscribing, and have a nice day! To any Polish readers, I’ll be in Warsaw towards the end of the month, so give me a shout.