Self-Determination and the Man to Blame/Credit (delete as applicable)

Exactly a century ago, an American politician, whose career seemed to epitomize the old cliche about biting off more than you can chew, had his great moment. Nine months after the declaration of war on the Central Powers, America’s president, Thomas Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress, setting out his preferred formula for an honourable peace settlement for Europe and the wider world as soon as the fighting could stop. In his 8 January 1918 speech, Wilson compared and contrasted his ideals … Read more

Remembering a Modest Proposer

The writer and essayist George Orwell was not a man who was generous with his praise for anything, so when he wrote in a review that ‘If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver’s Travels among them‘, that’s about as high a recommendation as could come.  Its author, Jonathan Swift, born exactly 350 years ago, was arguably the first writer to master the … Read more

The Mugger who Became a Global People’s Hero

Fans of heroic, swashbuckling adventures, take note: today is Robin Hood Day!  I bet you didn’t know that, did you?  How do I know this?  Well, because of an inscription on his grave – specifically, on Robin Hood’s Grave, in the grounds of Kirklees Hall in Clifton, West Yorkshire.  It states that he died in the year 1247, on “24 dekembris” – which, in the modern calendar, equates to 8 November.  The inscription on the stone, written in the local … Read more

Election time and the Age of Entitlement

Historians, like journalists, feed on drama like lions on meat. This general election, in case anyone has forgotten, is the most important general election since…well, the last one, actually… Drama infuses elections like most historical events, and, as every history buff knows, every century has its dramatic moniker. The 16th Century was the Age of Conquest/Discovery/Exploration (delete as appropriate), the 17th was the Age of Revolution (per Christopher Hill), the 18th the Age of Enlightenment, and the 19th the Age … Read more

March of the ex-PMs

With the amendment-free Brexit Bill now assured of receiving the Royal Assent, there is now nothing to stop Theresa May’s imminent invocation of Article 50, at least in theory. Then the two-year-maximum process of extricating the UK from the various articles and clauses binding the state to the European Union will get underway, and the reality of Brexit will slowly transpire. The nature of that reality, however, and just what Brexit will ultimately mean (with Mrs May’s declaration that ‘Brexit … Read more

Controversial US President Inaugurated Despite Dictatorship Fears (80 years ago)

I know many people dislike the phrase ‘We’ve been here before,’ but every now and then the cliche is true. All this week BBC Radio 4 are running a series on the historical precedents for the rise of Donald Trump – no easy task, since so many aspects of the man and his rise are, frankly, unprecedented. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in for his second term at the White House exactly eighty years ago, he did so amid … Read more

On an influential music producer (Many Happy Returns)

When it comes to musical tastes, it’s fair to say that beauty is very much in the ear of the beholder. As if any proof were needed, Gary Barlow and Take That’s biggest fans include the Manic Street Preachers’ bassist Nicky Wire, among millions of others. What’s more, the record producer Pete Waterman has said his and his team’s influences when producing music have included classic compositions of composers such as Mozart and Pachelbel. Pete Waterman himself, who turns 70 … Read more

Why we are still mad as hell…but will probably keep on taking it

The scene is one of the most iconic in cinematic history. The ex-newsreader, wearing an overcoat with his pyjamas underneath, walks nonchalantly into a television studio, apparently unaware that he is soaking wet, having walked through a rainstorm to the studio straight from his home. He then calmly sits down, and addresses his eager audience: We know things are bad — worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We … Read more

Q. How to get away with inciting violence? A. Have plenty of flags and friends in high places

We’re exactly two weeks away from the United States’ latest presidential elections. It has become a quadrennial tradition in and of itself to call the elections The Most Important in America’s History, but for once the hyperbole really is justified. The 2016 presidential poll will surely go down in history as America’s most rancorous and divisive – certainly the most violent, if the scenes at some of Donald Trump’s bigotry-flecked rallies have been anything to go by. Trump himself has … Read more

Why the pictures really are better on the radio

‘I love radio,’ said the barrister-turned comedian Clive Anderson, in an interview he gave to Media Guardian in 2002, ‘I tend to have speaking radio on in the background. Someone gave me a digital radio and it’s fantastic. It’s one of the great inventions of our times – though my knob fell off after a few weeks.‘ I know what you’re thinking. Some of you clicking on this will be chuckling loudly at that quotation, while others will find it … Read more

The man who died from “an overdose of police”

Heard the one about the comedian whom the police seemed duty-bound to keep arresting whenever he swore on stage? Just thinking of such a scenario seems utterly incredible in our times. For all the complaints about political correctness and how We Can’t Say Anything in This PC Age, the truth is that speech today is considerably freer than many realize. It is certainly freer for stand-up comics than it used to be. Although he would not live to enjoy the … Read more

‘Doctor Fact is knocking at the door! Someone – please – let the man in!’

It’s proving to be another crowded year for anniversaries, not all of them Great War- or Ireland-related. Two 25-year ones in the coming week that are particularly worthy of attention may well pass unnoticed amid the above themes. In four days’ time it will be exactly a quarter of a century since the Geneva-based British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee switched on his patented information network, whereby computer users from all over the globe could access and share information simply by … Read more

Brexit and the politics of diversionary tactics

Ever a philosophical type, Harold Macmillan wrote in his memoirs that he never thought of sabotaging matters for his successor, Lord Home, following his decision to resign as Prime Minister in October 1963, commenting ‘E finita la commedia. It is tempting, but unrewarding, to hang around the Green Room long after the final retirement from the stage.‘ At least Supermac only had the fallout from the Profumo scandal to think about when he departed No 10. Many of his successors … Read more

Fuelling ignorance – the key to success in modern politics?

We can’t say that we weren’t warned. In his 1928 book Propaganda, the pioneering Austrian-American publicist Edward Bernays unblushingly wrote: The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. Bernays also coined the term “public relations”, and among his most lucrative coups as a publicist was his … Read more

Passing sentence on capital punishment

Next Sunday is International Anti-Death Penalty Day. OK, I’d better qualify that one: it won’t actually be International Anti-Death Penalty Day, but to my mind it ought to be. On that date it will be exactly eighty years since an immigrant German carpenter was sent to the electric chair in Trenton, New Jersey. The previous year, 36-year-old Bruno Richard Hauptmann had been convicted of the kidnapping and murder in March 1932 of Charles Lindbergh jr, the 20-month-old son of popular … Read more

Commemorating the archetypal History Man

The sub-title of a 1995 TV documentary said it all: he was an unusual kind of star. In his heyday he was capable of emptying pubs on a Friday night, simply by going on television and speaking his mind and explaining things clearly in plain, uncomplicated English. And how did this man make waves? By studying, writing and debating history. Alan John Percivale Taylor was born exactly 110 years ago. Amid the various anniversaries being marked throughout this year, that … Read more

Terrorism: A few notes on a word

There really is nothing like a dictionary when it comes to defining and explaining words. Some words are more controversial than others when it comes to definitions, however, and few are more controversial than one in particular. Take a quick look at collinsdictionary.com, and you can see that site’s definition of Terrorism: 1.systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve some goal 2.the act of terrorizing 3.the state of being terrorized So far, so uncomplicated. ‘The systematic use of violence … Read more

Bombay mix-ups: the politics of placename changes

A few days ago, before hitting the headlines with the news that his newspaper would stop printing next month and become an online-only publication, the London Independent‘s editor Amol Rajan announced that henceforth the paper would stop calling India’s most populous city, Mumbai, and revert to using its previous name of Bombay. Explaining the move to Dan Damon on the BBC World Service, Rajan said that he wanted to use the name Bombay as a symbol of the city having … Read more

A sobering reminder of the power of our planet

Happy New Year, one and all. Let’s hope it truly is so this time, eh? As if to remind me not to expect too much change on the first day of a new year, when I woke up late this morning after an evening’s revelling I opened my window to the sight of rainfall – yet again. Storm Frank may well be taking its time to recede. The recent rain storms, floods, and obligatory mentions in the media of (insert … Read more

Bond is back! (Northern Irish storyline still awaited…)

He’s back, to save the world once again. Daniel Craig today returns to the big screen as MI6’s best-known fictional intelligence officer, amid another colossal media fanfare. Today the latest instalment in the Eon franchise (there have now been 24 movies from the Broccoli/Wilson stable), “Spectre”, hits our cinemas, and another huge box-office hit is all but certain. For how much longer, though, can James Bond go on? Ian Fleming introduced his best-known creation in his debut novel “Casino Royale”, … Read more