Archive for the ‘Quotes’ Category

The Spanish-born American philosopher George Santayana said in 1905 ‘those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it’. This concise thought (or aphorism) has been much quoted and has been re-phrased as ‘those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ or ‘those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them’. The meaning then is that one should look back in history to see the mistakes that were made and avoid repeating them.

But like many subjects such as science, sociology, archaeology and so on, facts are open to interpretation, and in the case of history, it is the job of the historian to research the facts and put forward an argument for the whys and wherefores of events from the past. But what if the facts themselves are distorted? Does this diminish the worth of history? Two quite different instances come to mind, of how history can be twisted.

first world war, joan littlewood, richard attenborough, musical film, satire, music hall, tommies

Oh! What a Lovely War was a musical film directed by Richard Attenborough and based on the stage musical of the same name developed by Joan Littlewood as a satire on the First World War at the Theatre Workshop in 1963. The title was a popular music hall song written originally in 1917. Many of the songs were the witty and cynical ones sung by British soldiers, ‘Tommies’, during the war. The film was released in 1969 and the cast included Dirk Bogarde, John Gielgud, Jack Hawkins, John Mills, Kenneth More, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Maggie Smith.

On 2 January 2014, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, wrote an article about the First World War published in the Daily Mail titled ‘Why does the Left insist on belittling true British heroes?’. In his article Gove wrote of the government’s efforts to restore the importance of history in the school curriculum and give children ‘a proper rounded understanding of our country’s past and its place in the world.’ and in referring to the war he said that it’s important that we don’t succumb to some of the myths which have grown up about the conflict. He said:

‘The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled   Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.’

In particular Gove criticised Professor Sir Richard Evans, the Cambridge historian, for arguing that the men who enlisted in 1914 were wrong to think that they were fighting for civilisation, for a better world, a war to end all wars, a war to defend freedom.Gove argued that whilst the First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, it was a just war. The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the aggressively expansionist war aims of Germany and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified. He said that it was also a noble cause, that those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order. Gove added that:

‘Evans’ case is more reflective of the attitude of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.’

Unfortunately Gove in acting as the scholar shows his ignorance of history and his own preference for myth-making. In saying that the war was a ‘just war’, a ‘noble cause’, which was ‘fought by men to defend the western liberal order’, he forgets that one of Britain’s main allies was the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, whose brutal autocracy was far more ruthless than that of Germany’s authoritarian Kaiser Wilhelm. And what was the western liberal order? Germany was certainly more democratic electorally than Britain. 40% of adult males in Britain didn’t get the vote until 1918, whereas every adult man in Germany had the right to vote since before the start of the conflict, and the largest political party, the Social Democrats, unsuccessfully opposed annexations and the militarism of the German elites.

british empire, queen victoria, global power, london, exploitation, first world war

This map shows the British Empire in 1901 on the death of Queen Victoria. By this time, Britain had been the foremost global power for more than a century and London was the economic capital of the world. This was derived in large measure from the exploitation of the natural resources and cheap labour in its colonies. The empire reached its largest territorial extent in 1922, though because of the impact of the First World War it was no longer the only major industrial or military power.

The German elite was certainly expansionist, they envied Britain and France with their vast colonies overseas. By the early 1900s, Britain had become the largest empire in history, and by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population. It was ‘the empire on which the sun never set’ because its expanse across the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories. Germany wanted its ‘place in the sun’. But were these British colonies, dominions, protectorates, and mandates, obtained by peaceful means? Were they governed benignly? They were not. For example, in the period 1896-97, about five million people died from famine in British-ruled India as colonial officials enforced the export of food to Britain. In the period 1901-02 in British concentration camps in South Africa, 28,000 Boer people died from starvation, 22,000 of them children, which is about 10 per cent of the Boer population, and about 20,000 black people died in other camps. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in south-east Asia became part of French Indochina between 1887 and 1893, France’s motive being to exploit the countries’ resources, raw materials and cheap labour. The French seized vast swathes of land and reorganised them into large plantations, with millions of people forced to work long hours for wages that were pitifully small in debilitating conditions for the benefit of their French overlords. Up until the First World War, and beyond, thousands upon thousands of native people died through malnutrition and disease on the plantations.

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david attenborough, naturalist, overpopulation

Sir David Attenborough, Naturalist (b1926)
‘The human population can no longer be allowed to grow in the same old uncontrolled way. If we do not take charge of our population size, then nature will do it for us.’

Governments seem unable or unwilling to face up to the alarming consequences of an ever-increasing world population – projected by the United Nations to increase from 7.2 billion today to 9.6 million by 2050 (source) – and ever-increasing consumption. Climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels; water and food shortages; the destruction of forests, species extinction and loss of biodiversity; competition for dwindling mineral resources, as well as the inevitability of increasing human conflict.  Is this because voters in developed  (democratic) countries usually vote their governments in or out on the basis of whether they are able to deliver economic growth. Growth that has to be achieved at almost any price, and which at present relies on the exploitation of unsustainable resources?

So what chance is there that the governments of developing countries, with 5.9 billion people who like us will want cars and will want to fly to distant places, what chance is there that their governments will be able to act differently? For us as individuals, is it a case of out of sight out of mind? Are we expecting that technology will come to the rescue, that something will turn up?

This brings to mind the oft-quoted lines:

Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak, and the couplings strain.
For the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And Sleep hath deadened the driver’s ear:
And signals flash through the night in vain.
Death is in charge of the clattering train!

winston churchill, gathering storm, second world war, house of commons, nazi

The Gathering Storm, the first of six volumes by Winston Churchill on The Second World War in which he recalls warning the House of Commons in 1935, to little avail, of the growing threat from Nazi Germany

This short poem was quoted by Winston Churchill in the first volume, The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, of his six-volume history, The Second World War. On page 110, he recalls a debate in the House of Commons on 19 March 1935 on the air estimates (ie. money to pay for the production of aircraft) when as a back bencher he challenged the government’s assurances that the budget was adequate to meet the growing threat from Nazi Germany, who had reached parity with Britain in the number of aircraft. He wrote ‘Although the House listened to me with close attention, I felt a sensation of despair. To be so entirely convinced and vindicated in a matter of life and death to one’s country, and not to be able to make  Parliament and the nation heed the warning  … was an experience most painful’.

Reflecting on the debate, he said ‘there lay in my memory at this time some lines from an unknown author about a railway accident, I had learnt from a volume of Punch cartoons which I used to pore over when I was eight or nine years old at school at Brighton’. He then quotes the lines above, and ends ‘However, I did not repeat them’. In this clip from the 2002 TV film, The Gathering Storm, which stars Albert Finney as Churchill, and Vanessa Redgrave as Clemmie, his wife, Churchill angrily quotes the lines following his warnings being ignored by the government.

The poem was in fact taken from a much longer poem titled Death and His Brother Sleep which appeared in Volume 99 of Punch magazine published on 4 October 1890 and which was attributed to ‘Queen Mab’. The poem was written by Edwin James Milliken (1839 -1897) who, as well as being a poet, was an editor of Punch, a journalist and satirical humorist. The shorter poem is made up of the first two lines and last four lines of Death and His Brother Sleep, but how Churchill came to use only these lines is not known, though they do have a dramatic effect.

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PointofViewIn the UK, the BBC is often seen to be the protector of the English Language and in particular how it is spoken. It is not unusual for listeners and viewers to contact the BBC to express their dismay about one programme or another because the characters have not spoken clearly enough.

It’s interesting to learn that the new BBC DG, Tony Hall, has taken to heart viewers’ criticisms of actors mumbling their words in TV productions, and generally not speaking clearly.

tony hall, director-general, bbc, actors, lines, mumbling

Tony Hall, the new Director-General of the BBC, has declared war on actors who mumble

It might be said that it’s not unrelated to age, but I increasingly find it difficult to keep up with the dialogue in dramas and films etc., which, in some cases, is of no great loss as I can usually catch the general drift by simply watching the visuals.

I have a hunch that Mr Hall’s decision to tackle this trend is touching on a wider problem and not just the mumbling. Is it just coincidence that the popularity of European, and particularly Scandinavian, crime dramas like Wallander and The Bridge, has grown enormously?  Is this connected to the use of sub-titles? I know that some people hate having to rely on sub-titles, but personally I find them a boon and they allow me to keep pace with the dialogue despite the characters speaking an obscure Danish dialect understood by just a few rural pig farmers in northern Denmark? It’s no exaggeration to say that I find it much easier to keep pace with Inspector Montabello as opposed to Midsummer Murders, the UK’s closest equivalent.

life of brian, film, cheesemakers, monty python

‘What’s so special about the cheese makers?’
Life of Brian (1979)

Then there is the issue of music superimposed over dialogue in the questionable quest to enhance the emotional impact of a programme. Sometimes the accompanying music almost obliterates the sound of voices and the viewer is left to guesswork and speculation about what exactly the actors were saying. It reminds me of one of my favourite comedy scenes from Life of Brian, where the crowds have gathered of the hillside to listen to a sermon by Jesus. The people at the back can hardly hear what Jesus is saying and a growing murmur spreads with people asking each other ‘what’s he saying’. Some bloke straining to hear says ‘I think he’s saying blessed are the cheese makers’ adding to the general confusion and to the annoyance of others. Someone asks what’s so special about the cheese makers. What about the tailors and the cooks? What Jesus was actually saying was ‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’. It just shows what confusion can flow from a misunderstanding of what some character said.

Maybe producers and directors are regressing back towards the silent era where whole films needed to convey a story by just visual depiction and the limited use of sub-titles. Maybe they think that the words spoken by characters are not so important and that mumbling and music are not issues to be overly concerned about.

Perhaps the answer is to turn on the sub-title option on your tellys, even for English spoken programmes, and then provided you can read them, you won’t need to worry. I must also add that US-produced programmes are often much worse than UK ones in their excessive use of music and mumbling.

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Food bank, operated by charities, for people affected by cuts in welfare benefitsLord Freud, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions speaking in the House of Lords on 2 July 2013 rejected a suggestion that the government’s austerity policies had led to an increase in food banks, and said that the increase was ‘supply led’.

‘If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly, food from the food banks is a free good and by definition with a free good there’s almost infinite demand.’

Tim Thornton, the Bishop of Truro, responded in the Lords saying that ‘the anecdotal experience that I have and the stories that I hear make it clear that there are some real benefit issues, which is why many people are driven to go – they do not choose to go; they have to go – to food banks.’ And Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, questioned the minister’s claim on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, saying that 35% of referrals to church-run food banks came from social services departments, who had assessed users as in need of emergency food aid. The Trussell Trust said that more than 350,000 people turned to food banks for help last year, almost triple the number who received food aid in the previous year.

Lord Freud, who owns an eight-bed mansion in Kent and a four-bed house in London, was responsible for introducing the ‘bedroom tax’ in April 2013, whereby tenants receiving housing benefit, who are deemed to have a ‘spare bedroom’, have their benefit reduced. Since the tax was introduced, large numbers of council tenants have gone into arrears with their rent. Some councils are trying to help residents by re-classifying spare bedrooms as having another use. But Lord Freud is not having it. He has warned councils who re-classify such bedrooms that they risk having their housing benefit budget cut.

Petition asking Iain Duncan Smith, Department of Work & Pensions, to live on £53 a week

Signatories of the petition outside the Department of Work & Pensions. The petition was hosted by Change.org.

Earlier in April 2013, Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, was defending on the Radio 4 Today programme, the array of welfare reforms being introduced as part of the government’s deficit reduction plans. Mr Duncan Smith was asked by market stall-holder David Bennett whether he could survive on £53 a week. This was the amount Mr Bennett was left with to live on after the new round of reductions to his housing benefit and council tax assistance, and which is roughly equivalent to the lowest rate of job seeker’s allowance given to adults under 25. Mr Duncan Smith replied ‘If I had to I would’. This prompted an online petition signed by 460,000 people asking him to prove that he could live on £53 a week by doing it for a year. The Secretary of State dismissed the petition as ‘a complete stunt which distracts attention from the welfare reforms which are much more important. … I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this. I know what it is like to live on the breadline.’

Duncan Smith is a millionaire, he earns £134,565 a year as a cabinet minister, and he lives rent-free in a £2 million mansion on an extensive estate in Buckinghamshire owned by his father-in-law, which has at least four spare bedrooms, a swimming pool and tennis courts.

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