In Honor of Hilary Mantel

September 24, 2022

Dame Hilary Mantel, the great historical novelist famous for the “Wolf Hall” books about Thomas Cromwell has died at the age of 70. She will be sorely missed. The following is one her most valuable lessons for all historians:

“Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.”


And Then The Blitz Began

September 7, 2022

The German Luftwaffe attacks against London known as the Blitz began on the afternoon of September 7, 1940 — eighty-two years ago today.  They went on essentially uninterrupted for 79 days, and expanded across Great Britain.  Here can be found the Guardian‘s report of the first night’s bombing.

The German airmen apparently have orders to loose their bombs whenever they feel they are over the area called Metropolitan London.  Certainly 90% of all the damage done was to non-military objectives.

About 43,000 civilians died during the Blitz. Almost 140,000 more were injured, and more than a million homes damaged or destroyed. Even when the Blitz itself was over, the Germans continued to bomb London  for several years.  My parents spent much of their teen-aged years running to air shelters, sleeping in the Underground stations.  My mother went to the school which suffered the first V2 rocket attack.  Thousands of younger children were evacuated from London to “safer” country towns.  A dozen or more years later, when I was a kid in the early 50s in west London, all my “playgrounds” were bomb sites that still hadn’t been rebuilt.

Those of us who are lucky to live in North America have no conception of what this could be like. Imagine, perhaps, the events of 9/11 happening all over the country every day for two months and more. And all of this just one lifetime away from us.


Nixon Resigns!

August 9, 2022

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It seems hard to imagine for those of us who lived every minute of the post-Watergate saga, but it is 48 years ago today that Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States.

He was indeed a crook (in a far more deep sense than, say, Donald Trump) and the system finally worked to eliminate him. Gerald Ford, to his everlasting shame, was quite wrong to pardon him.


Orange Crate Art

June 10, 2022

Jstor.org has a great article about the history and development of the art we all recognize from the sides of orange crates.

Soon after the first railcar of oranges came out of California in 1877, “orchardists and fruit associations across California were using brightly colored box labels to build an identity for their orchards and advertise their produce.”

Well worth the read, with many more examples of the art.


The Invasion of The Dominican Republic

April 24, 2022

Fifty-seven years ago today, in order to protect the world from “a second Cuba”, US President Lyndon Johnson — obviously not distracted enough by losing the Vietnam War — ordered the US Marines to invade that Caribbean superpower, the Dominican Republic.  Operation Power Pack was launched on April 28th, 1965 and the occupation by the imperialist forces lasted until September 1966 after a pro-Trujillo, pro-American president was elected.

About 3,000 civilians are thought to have died to save the American Empire.

Lest we forget.


Death of the King

April 6, 2022

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On 6th April, 1199, King Richard I of England died of gangrene from a wounded shoulder. Although he has come down through history with a glorious memory, he was, in my opinion, perhaps the worst king that England ever had.

He won the throne by rebelling and taking up arms against his mortally-ill father Henry II. He probably did not speak English, and he spent all but six months of his 10-year reign fighting wars for personal fame and glory in Europe and the Middle East. Onerous taxes on the poor were needed to pay for his campaigns and for the ransom demanded by the Holy Roman Emperor after Richard was captured.

Frankly, I think the crossbow bolt that struck him in the shoulder at the siege of Chalus-Chabrol did England a favour.


Kluckner on Hippies

March 15, 2022

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This evening I ZOOM-attended a Vancouver Heritage Foundation presentation given by Michael Kluckner on Vancouver in the 1960s and 1970s. It was a marvelously fluid talk, brilliantly illustrated with art, photographs, newspaper clippings and magazine covers. Michael is not only a fine artist and heritage writer, he was also involved in many of the events that he discussed.

The range of topics from the 1965-1975 period that he covered was broad and varied: hippy culture and lifestyle; music; publishing (Georgia Straight etc); the politics of the freeway, the Stanley Park entrance proposals, and False Creek, the development of Granville Island; the introduction of strata title and condos; civic and Provincial politics; and much else including the early careers of people well-known today.

One of the key take-aways is that little has really changed in terms of development pressures and affordability. He quoted a 1967 report that only 40% of residents could reasonably afford the housing available, and that the vacancy rate in Vancouver in 1971 was almost exactly the same as it is today.

It was particularly gratifying for me to better understand the earlier lives and deep involvement in important issues of several people I have come to know quite well here in Grandview.

Much of this will, I gather, be captured in Michael’s new book The Rooming House: West Coast in The 1970s which is soon to be published.

An evening well spent.


The History of Trousers

February 1, 2022

We all take trousers as a given, something that almost everyone uses. They have become ubiquitous all around the world. But like everything else around us, someone had to invent them and work out how to make them.

This is a fascinating video that examines the earliest trousers yet discovered. They are more than 3,000 years old from the deserts of central Asia, and their story illustrates the history of sheep rearing, weaving, and clothing manufacture in an entertaining fashion.


The Bogside Massacre

January 30, 2022

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Bloody Sunday victim 'humiliated by soldier threatening to shoot him  again,' court told - BelfastTelegraph.co.uk

Fifty years ago today, the British Parachute Regiment shot more than thirty unarmed protesters in the Bogside neighbourhood of Derry, Northern Ireland, killing fourteen. Those killed and injured had gathered to protest anti-Catholic discrimination in housing and employment that was being enforced by British colonial forces.

This was the worst mass killing in Ulster’s modern history.

An inquiry — considered by most to be a whitewash — determined that the solders were “justified” in shooting. However, the later Saville Inquiry, finally published in 2010, proved that those shot were all unarmed, were of no danger to the soldiers, and that soldiers lied about their actions.

Far from quelling the protests, the Bogside Massacre led to a significant increase in IRA recruitment.


The Coup In Hawai’i

January 17, 2022

Today is the 130th anniversary of the takeover of the Hawai’i Islands by American trading interests, overthrowing the native kingdom.

America already had a long history of violent and genocidal imperialist annexation (“Manifest Destiny”) on the mainland.  The coup in Honolulu was a logical, if long, step of the same impulse into the Pacific.


Rosa Parks Day 2021

December 1, 2021

Rosa_Parks_BookingIt was sixty-six years ago today that an experienced activist named Rosa Parks chose to say “No” when told to give up her bus seat for a white passenger on a rainy night in Montgomery, Alabama. Later, repeating her refusal to a police officer, she was arrested and became an historical figure.

Not withstanding the scores of millions of volunteer hours that went into the Civil Rights movement, and the billions of words crafted to defend the principles of equality and anti-discrimination, movements are often characterized by individual actions: Rosa Parks refusal being a classic example.

Never underestimate the ability of very small groups of people to start movements that develop into landslides of social change.


The Five Sandwiches that Made America

November 21, 2021

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I always find the Conversation has an eclectic mix of essays, many of which will pique my interest. A recent case in point: the history of five sandwiches — tuna salad, the chow mein sandwich, club, peanut butter & jelly, Scotch woodcock — and what they say about American social history.

The histories of these foods run through the 1890s for the club sandwich — perfectly described as “a blend of elegance and blandness” — through the early years of the 20th century for tuna, pb & J, and the woodcock, and much more recently for the chow mein sandwich of the 1970s.

Image: Alena Haurylick

“As food historian Bee Wilson argues in her history of the sandwich, American sandwiches distinguished themselves from their British counterparts by the scale of their ambition. Imitating the rising skylines of American cities, many were towering affairs that celebrated abundance.

Well worth the read.


Exactly One Thousand Years Ago

October 22, 2021

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L'Anse aux Meadows - Evidence for Vikings in Canada

Exciting new research has proven that Norse explorers were cutting timber in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, in the year 1021, exactly one thousand years ago.

Since the settlers’ village was discovered in the 1960s, it has been known that Norse sailors reached the continent around the turn of the first millennium, and the date of 1000 AD is often used as a reasonable estimate. However, a new technique of tree-ring counting has provided a precise date of 1021 for at least three pieces of felled timber at the site.

The new method uses evidence of a solar flare that occurred in 993; a flare that has been found to have affected tree rings all over the world. Counting out from that date to the bark left on the discarded wood provides the exact date on which it was cut — 1021 AD. Other marks on the wood show that they were cut with metal tools, which local indigenous peoples did not have at that date.

“It adds some intrigue,” says John Steinberg, an anthropologist at the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “If the Vikings left Greenland around 1000, as the sagas suggest, L’Anse aux Meadows was occupied at least sporadically for perhaps 20 years, rather than just three years as has been assumed. On the other hand, it may be that it was only occupied for three years but those years were 15 years later than we thought.” Steinberg raises another possibility as well—that the Vikings went back and forth between Greenland and Vinland more commonly than has been believed.”

For historians studying an event that is best known from old sagas and legendary tales, achieving such precision in dating is a grand achievement.


In Praise of Jimmy Carter

October 1, 2021

On the occasion of his 97th birthday, I want to re-post this from 2019:

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Regular readers will no doubt know that I am not a fan of politicians, especially senior American politicians.  However, I have always admired and been impressed by Jimmy Carter. The following profile is from an email newsletter from Mother Jones. I hope they won’t mind me reprinting it in full as it says exactly what I would like to say:

“He has never sought great riches, or to capitalize on the presidency for personal gain. He lives in a home that is assessed for a lesser value than the armored Secret Service vehicle that sits outside it.

Last week, at 94, Jimmy Carter became America’s oldest living former president, prompting praise for the human rights champion and Navy veteran. When in power, he looked ahead, installing solar panels in the White House and promoting a slew of judges of color and women to the federal bench, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Out of power, he oversaw election monitoring in many tight votes worldwide and has spent decades volunteering to build homes with Habitat for Humanity.

“We…are grateful for his long life of service that has benefitted millions of the world’s poorest people,” said the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based nonprofit focused on public policy.

As a public servant and after the presidency, Carter embodied the traits we feature each week in this newsletter. He thought of others and refused to take credit for the daring rescue of six US diplomats in Iran (an episode later made famous by the movie Argo). The reason? Carter didn’t want to endanger the lives of other US diplomats held hostage there.

Carter took the hard road internationally, seeking to burnish America’s standing by refusing to coddle strongmen, such as Chile’s authoritarian leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet. As a young reporter in neighboring Argentina, I witnessed testimony from Carter’s human rights chief, Patricia Derian, on how she directly confronted a leader of that military government on torture. (Busted, Argentina’s naval chief rubbed his hands and replied: “You remember the story of Pontius Pilate, don’t you?”)

Although reviews of Carter’s presidency have been mixed, political scientist Robert A. Strong writes that “some consider him to be the nation’s greatest former President,” and that his work is admired by people on both sides of the aisle.

In a Washington Post interview last fall, the former president said it was difficult to abide President Donald Trump’s constant lies, and he called the current presidency a “disaster.” Carter recalled that he would have been expelled from the Naval Academy for a lie, and hinted that his father, who whipped him six different times with a peach tree branch, would not have tolerated mistruths, either.

“I always told the truth,” he said simply.”


And Then The Blitz Began

September 7, 2021

The German Luftwaffe attacks against London known as the Blitz began on the afternoon of September 7, 1940 — eighty-one years ago today.  They went on essentially uninterrupted for 79 days, and expanded across Great Britain.  Here can be found the Guardian‘s report of the first night’s bombing.

The German airmen apparently have orders to loose their bombs whenever they feel they are over the area called Metropolitan London.  Certainly 90% of all the damage done was to non-military objectives.

About 43,000 civilians died during the Blitz. Almost 140,000 more were injured, and more than a million homes damaged or destroyed. Even when the Blitz itself was over, the Germans continued to bomb London  for several years.  My parents spent much of their teen-aged years running to air shelters, sleeping in the Underground stations.  My mother went to the school which suffered the first V2 rocket attack.  Thousands of younger children were evacuated from London to “safer” country towns.  A dozen or more years later, when I was a kid in the early 50s in west London, all my “playgrounds” were bomb sites that still hadn’t been rebuilt.

Those of us who are lucky to live in North America have no conception of what this could be like. Imagine, perhaps, the events of 9/11 happening all over the country every day for two months and more. And all of this just one lifetime away from us.


The Liberation of Paris: A Racist Whitewash!

August 25, 2021

On this day in 1944, the Allied forces re-captured Paris from the retreating Nazis.  However, a truly despicable  slice of Western history has been revealed:  The Americans and Brits insisted that the troops who were to march through Paris at its liberation in 1944 should be all white, regardless of the sacrifices made by British, French and American black soldiers.

tirailleurs_senegalais1The issue arose, according to this BBC report, because General De Gaulle insisted that French troops lead the march.  However, most French units were a mix of white and black troops and that just wouldn’t do for the Allies.

In January 1944 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, “confidential”: “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.  “This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white” …

A document written by the British General, Frederick Morgan, to Allied Supreme Command stated: “It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco. “Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division.”

A suitable French unit could not be found without removing all the black troops and replacing them with soldiers from other units, many of them not even French.

In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish.  The British and Americans got their “Whites Only” Liberation even though many of the troops involved were North African or Syrian.

We were lucky enough to have large numbers of Africans, Indians, black and Native Americans and others fight and die on our side in that war, but we were too sick in the head to recognize them as heroes when the time came.  What a miserable load of hypocrites we were.


A Good Read

August 17, 2021

I have just finished reading “Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt’s America” by Eric Rauchway.

Published in 2003, it uses the assassination of President McKinley by Leon Czolgosz in 1901, and the subsequent trial and examination of the assassin’s mental state, as the key to understanding Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidency and the birth of progressivism in the United States.

The period and the material presented is fascinating, made even more so by Rauchway’s brilliant story-telling. As one of the blurbs says, it is “a compact masterpiece that explains more about the late nineteenth century than most historians know and yet is readable enough to take on an airplane.”

Well recommended.


A Real Trip Down Memory Lane

August 15, 2021

Neville, Richard, (1968), OZ 11, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 36p.

Neville, Richard, (1970), OZ 31, OZ Publications Ink Limited, London, 48p.

You may have to be as old as me — and possibly brought up in London — to remember OZ, one of the greatest magazines that, between 1967 and 1973, straddled the period from the summer of love to the much harder seventies.

OZ exemplified that era so perfectly with sex, drugs, politics, progressive art, and rock n’roll oozing between its covers, eager to be free. It was in OZ that I first became acquainted, for example, with Robert Crumb’s subversive drawings, and with so much more.

I lived then in a suburb of west London where it was almost impossible to find copies of OZ, and so it also became a great reason to adventure into downtown to find a store that carried it.

Now, Richard Neville, the original editor, has made all copies of OZ available online. Marvelous memories on every page.  We are really lucky to have this artifact of a very different time.


Hijacking Pioneer

May 1, 2021

We rarely hear about plane hijackings these days; for a time there they were a bit of a fad.  But today is the 60th anniversary of the very first US hijacking.

On 1st May 1961, Puerto Rican Antuilo Ramierez Ortiz hijacked a National Airlines plane at pistol-point and ordered it to fly to Cuba where he received asylum. He started quite a craze.


The Remarkable Growth of Cities 1500-2018

March 20, 2021

Regular readers will perhaps recognize that I am a great fan of well done data visualizations of historical issues. Here is another one constructed by the folks at the Financial Times. It follows the growth of the world’s largest cities from 1500 through to 2018.  It lasts about 3 minutes and is quite fascinating.