Monthly Archives: February 2013

The emergence of Western Kurdistan?

UPDATE: This event is CANCELLED owing to illness. We’ll endeavour to reschedule it in future.

We’re running a double event next Tuesday (5 March) with Robert Lowe from the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics. Bob will be giving a public talk (followed by Q&A) on ‘The Kurds and the crisis in Syria: the emergence of Western Kurdistan’, at 5.30pm.

Earlier in the afternoon, at 4.15pm, Bob will be giving a careers talk for current students on working for think tanks: before moving to the LSE, he worked at Chatham House for some years.

Both events take place in the Poynting Building, small lecture theatre, and attendance is open.

Map of west Kurdistan

Western Kurdistan?

Click image for source.


Ray’s a laugh

Richard Billingham, exhibition photo at The Public, West Bromwich

Not long ago I was watching the DVD of the excellent documentary series The Genius of Photography. In the episode ‘We are family’, there’s a section on Richard Billingham, who became famous (insofar as any photographer is actually famous) in the mid-90s with the publication of his book Ray’s a Laugh, a set of photos he’d taken of his own parents—his alcoholic father Ray and his impressively tattooed mother Liz.

I didn’t realize, watching the documentary, that Billingham is actually a local boy: the setting for these photos is Cradley Heath, in the Black Country. There’s an exhibition of his photos currently taking place at The Public in West Bromwich. They’re beautiful photos—go and see them for yourselves.


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Week 8 seminar

Our seminar speaker this week is Aashish Velkar of the University of Manchester. Time and place as usual—all details below.

Aashish Velkar seminar poster, Birmingham Centre for Modern and Contemporary History

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Imperial Humanitarianism

We’re holding a round table this Friday on ‘Imperial Humanitarianism’, with speakers including Alan Lester (Sussex), Matthew Hilton (Birmingham, talking about something we’ve posted about here recently), and—following a late change of programme—Ben White (also Birmingham). Full details are below; attendance is free, but please email to reserve a place so we can order enough tea, coffee, and cake. Yes! There’ll be free tea, coffee, cake…

Imperial Humanitarianism poster

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Shattering evidence of the absolute decline of English civilisation

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, from WIkimedia Commons

Looks like decline to me

“Beautiful and ancient buildings which recall the life and customs of the past,” Lord Curzon wrote in his will, “are not only historical documents of supreme value but are part of the spiritual and aesthetic heritage of a nation, imbuing it with reverence and educating its taste.”

“To compare such a sentence with any utterance of any contemporary politician,” John Martin Robinson writes in The Spectator, “is shattering evidence of the absolute decline of English civilisation.” He’s reviewing a new book by Amicia de Moubray—I know, right?—on twentieth-century castles in Britain, which apparently includes major restorations of the kind that Curzon carried out (and bequeathed to the nation: not just Bodiam Castle, above, but Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire too) as well as more recently-constructed piles like Corrour Lodge, built at the turn of the twenty-first century at the eastern end of Loch Ossian.

Curzon had cut his preservationist teeth as Viceroy of India—the Taj Mahal was one of the buildings he had restored—and the legislation he introduced there to protect historic buildings became the model for similar legislation in Britain. Unsurprisingly, the Spectator’s reviewer is less interested in Curzon’s inaction in the face of a famine that killed at least a million people; but Nehru himself praised Curzon “because he restored all that was beautiful in India.”

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex
(c) Antony McCallum, used under a Creative Commons licence
Click for source

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Wilderhope Manor, Shropshire, photographed by Humphrey Bolton

Historical novels are often a better way of getting a feel for the past than history books, especially academic ones. Here’s Adam Mars-Jones in the LRB on Jim Crace’s Harvest, ‘a historical novel that takes place outside history’:

There is a manor house, there are villagers (58 of them), there is barley to be harvested. The settlement isn’t particularly remote, except that for a modern readership remoteness itself has been abolished, to the extent of disappearing also from its idea of the past. One of the plot points of the Spielberg-produced summer blockbuster of 2011, Super8, set in the late 1970s, was the delay caused by the time it took to process film. Whole days! Teenagers gazed at their parents, not exactly with respect, but with sorrowing wonder at a deprivation they couldn’t have imagined for themselves. When we read about the past most of us fall prey to the same empty amazement, though historical novelists are generally in the business of soothing their readers with continuities rather than admitting the psychological inaccessibility of the past.

The absence of institutions is the most startling thing about the world of this book. There are law courts and civil authorities somewhere, with relevant powers and responsibilities, but they’re so far out of reach they might as well not exist. There’s no church, although a site has been set aside for one. The nearest place of worship is a long day’s travel away, as is the nearest alehouse. […]

Some things are rationed or unobtainable that it’s hard for modern people to imagine doing without. There isn’t a looking glass in the parish, ‘though no doubt there are some wives who have a secret sliver with which to horrify themselves and which they wisely do not seek to share.’ The nearest reflection is two days distant. ‘We close an eye and see no more than the side of the nose, or possibly some facial hair, the outer regions of a beard. We know our hands and knees but not our eyes and teeth.’

The past is imagined here in all its richness, or paucity, though neither alternative seems right. The richness of its paucity perhaps. Poor relative to what, when there is no point of comparison available to those labelled impoverished? Having no conception of other periods or ways of living, they exist in time but perhaps not in history.

Update: just to emphasise the point, the TLS reviewer thinks that the period of the novel’s events “might be the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century”, up to three hundred years later than Mars-Jones’s guess of some time in the Tudor period.

Image (c) Humphrey Bolton, licensed for reuse
under the Creative Commons License  – click for source

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Luc-Olivier Merson, Quasimodo at Notre-Dame

Fiction and Film for French Historians is an online cultural bulletin for historians working, and teaching, on France. It’s an offshoot of the scholarly discussion network H-France, which anyone working on French history should be signed up to (tip: get the daily digest, it’s a very active list). Each issue contains shortish, approachable articles on films and novels that have something to tell us about French history, or that can be used for teaching it. The bulletin is published six times a year, on a slightly irregular schedule that fits US teaching semesters. Although it’s only been running since 2010, the bulletin already has articles on a wide range of novels and films about aspects of French history ranging from Louis XIV to Vichy, from the Haitian revolution to the Algerian war of independence—check out the previous issues page.

The current issue has two pieces about Victor Hugo: one on the recent film adaptation of [the musical of] Les Misérables, which we’ve already discussed here, and one on the vision of Paris’s medieval past that Hugo presented in Notre-Dame de Paris, better known in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The books were written at quite different times: Notre-Dame de Paris in the unrestful early years of the July Monarchy, in 1831, when Hugo wasn’t yet 30, and Les Misérables in 1861, under the authoritarian Second Empire—the climax of the later book is an abortive insurrection that took place in 1832, just after the first had come out.

The other article in the current issue is about Alexis Jenni’s novel L’Art français de la guerre (‘The French art of war’), which came out in 2011 and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. This book isn’t out in English yet, though it’s been translated into several other languages. It traces the history of what Jenni calls the ‘twenty-year war’, from France’s own resistance to German occupation through its postwar attempts to reassert and retain control over its colonies in Indochina and Algeria—when former résistants became torturers. The novel is also about the formative impact of that period on contemporary France: if you want to know why policemen in modern-day Paris, Lyons or Marseilles go about like so many Darth Vaders, this—Jenni argues—is it.

So, it’s worth keeping an eye out for updates to FFFH. But really this whole post is just an excuse to include the gorgeous image above, an engraving by Luc-Olivier Merson from an 1881 edition of Notre-Dame de Paris. It’s so wonderful that my admiration of it survived the discovery that Merson was responsible for the mosaics over the chancel in the basilica of Sacré-Cœur, one of the ugliest bits of the one of the ugliest architectural manifestations of 19th-century French Catholicism, though the golden statue of a freakishly huge Virgin and Child on the tower of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseilles (where the basilica itself is less grotesque) perhaps beats it. Apologies if this is something of a derail to end on, but yuck. See below.

Notre Dame de la Garde, Marseille

This is what the Saviour looked like in 1860s Marseilles

This is what the Saviour looked like in 1860s Marseilles

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Week 7 Seminar

Our week 7 seminar speaker is Janet Hunter, professor of economic history at the London School of Economics, who’ll be speaking about the economic impact of Japan’s Great Kanto earthquake of September 1923, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama and killed some 140,000 people. (There’s a decent Wikipedia page about it, which also describes the widespread violence against Koreans in Japan that followed the earthquake—Korea was then a Japanese colony, and rumours spread that Koreans were preparing a rebellion, committing arson, or poisoning wells.)

Time and place are as usual; poster below.

Birmingham Centre for Modern and Contemporary History, spring term 2013 seminar series, week 7

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Scraps of Paper

Writing a PhD on the French mandate in Syria, I often ran into the problem of missing archives. As German tanks approached Paris in the early summer of 1940, the secretary-general of the foreign ministry Alexis Léger* had his staff burn all current political records: this was a wise move, but it meant that all the documents on the ministry’s negotiations with Syrian nationalists in the 1930s were destroyed. Copies of much of this material might have been kept at the French mission in Damascus, but there it was the approach of a British/Free French invasion force in 1941 that provoked a Vichy official to burn the sensitive political paperwork. When France grudgingly (and hastily) left Syria and Lebanon after the war, meanwhile, shifting thousands of boxes of documents wasn’t the top priority: among the things that appear to have been mislaid in the rush for the exit is the entire documentary record of the Hygiene and Public Assistance Service, a mandatory agency that dealt with everything from planning sanitation in towns and cities to running refugee camps (what I’m working on now) and anti-malaria campaigns. This may be gone forever, or it may turn up one day in a warehouse outside Marseilles or Toulon.

Wikimedia, General Gouraud in Aleppo, 1920

Turning to the Syrian archives, even when I was doing my research in Damascus between 2003 and 2007 the surviving material from the mandate period was exceedingly patchy. At that time the handwritten inventories of the markaz al-watha’iq al-tarikhiyya, the Historic Documents Centre, were remarkably complete for the Ottoman period, very patchy for the mandate, relatively rich for the early independence period (from 1946), and stopped completely with the Baath takeover in 1963. What the state of the archives is now, I have no idea: it’s almost a year since I heard from a friend who worked there. (Update: a well-informed friend tells me that that part of Damascus, as a regime stronghold, has not yet witnessed serious destruction—but it’s “only a matter of time”.) Syrians have more pressing things to worry about than the fate of their national archives, but if they’re destroyed they would be a significant casualty: recovering from the intense divisions of the present will be all the more difficult if the documentary record of a shared past has been lost.

Historic Documents Centre, Damascus, lintel

Historians need archives. So it was dismaying to read this post on the History Workshop Journal website about the destruction of significant archives in the UK: not because there are Panzer divisions sweeping towards them, or Syrian airforce jets bombing rebel-held areas nearby, but simply because the institutions that hold them can’t afford—or, worse, simply can’t be bothered—to protect them.

Are they worth keeping? Or are they just scraps of paper?

*Léger, who was not only dismissed from his post but also stripped of French nationality by the Vichy government, spent the next quarter of a century in the USA. He’s better known to posterity as the Nobel prize-winning poet Saint-John Perse: as you can see from his Wikipedia page, he knew how to rock a polka-dot bow tie.

Save the Children, sue Ken Loach

A guest post from Matthew Hilton, ahead of our forthcoming round table on ‘imperial humanitarianism’ (brief details here, more details to follow, but keep the afternoon of Friday 1 March free):

In the run-up to its fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 1969, the humanitarian agency Save the Children (SCF) commissioned a film. Surprisingly for this rather conservative charity, it approached the overtly left-leaning film-maker, Ken Loach, fresh from the success he had had in highlighting the plight of the homeless in Cathy Come Home.

Loach was given free reign by SCF to make the film that he wanted. He picked on some surprising themes. Focusing first on a children’s home run by SCF in the UK, he depicted the staff as extolling all the worst patrician aspects of Victorian philanthropists. Turning to the fund’s work in Kenya, he implicated SCF in a system of neo-colonialist exploitation symbolised by its creation of what effectively amounted to an English public school in Nairobi. Warming to his theme, Loach then forgot about the SCF altogether and chose instead to undertake a wholesale attack on the very principles of charity. Linking the causes of poverty around the world, the film ends with a call for a global socialist agenda.



To suggest that SCF didn’t like the film would be to put it mildly. Senior executives and trustees were appalled at the private screening. But the lengths they then went to to bury the film were quite extraordinary. Loach and his film company were sued, and the film was eventually deposited at the British Film Institute on the understanding that no one could view it. Only in 2011 did the SCF finally permit a public screening.

Thanks to a deposition of the archives of SCF at the University of Birmingham, Loach’s accusations can now be tested. Researchers can explore the hundreds of boxes of material to see whether Loach was correct to argue that SCF was overly paternalist, too politically moderate, too connected with political and social elites to be able to offer an alternative point of view, and too hand in glove with governments to be able to speak truth to power.

Ken Loach


Have things changed since? Certainly the organization’s CEO thinks it took a while. At the screening of the film in 2011 he made the extraordinary claim that from the 1960s to the 1980s aid did ‘more harm than good’. Unfortunately, we are not yet in a position to ask this of the SCF. Although the papers reside in the Cadbury Research Library, the NGO’s lawyers have blocked access to any papers after 1972. It is to be hoped that this decision will be changed soon and SCF’s archives will be made available to researchers, like those of Christian Aid, War on Want, the Red Cross, and Oxfam (from 2014).

The Save the Children Fund archives are held at the Cadbury Research LibraryThe available inventories aren’t complete, but you can get a preliminary look by searching for ‘SCF’ in the catalogue. (At least one third-year Birmingham undergraduate is already writing her dissertation using earlier material from these archives.)

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