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Too Glorious for Words

Bernard Porter: Lawrence in Arabia, 3 April 2014

Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East 
by Scott Anderson.
Atlantic, 592 pp., £25, March 2014, 978 1 78239 199 9
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... also have fed his illusion about the efficacy of ‘heroes’ in history. Back in England, George Bernard Shaw tried his best to set him straight: ‘like all heroes, and I must add, all idiots, you greatly exaggerate your power of moulding the universe to your personal convictions.’ But he must have been aware of this before then, especially when he got to ...
The Struggle for Civil Liberties: Political Freedom and the Rule of Law in Britain 1914-1945 
by K.D. Ewing and C.A. Gearty.
Oxford, 451 pp., £50, February 2000, 0 19 825665 5
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... This book’s most startling revelation – if true – concerns the state of legal education in Britain today. We are told that from their ‘first days at law school’ our young lawyers are taught that civil liberties in this country are ‘protected by the common law’ and that ‘their violation has been the fault of Parliament’. The hero of the story, law students learn, is an ‘independent judiciary’, standing steadfastly between the citizenry and tyrannical politicians ...

Iniquity in Romford

Bernard Porter: Black Market Britain, 23 May 2013

Black Market Britain 1939-55 
by Mark Roodhouse.
Oxford, 276 pp., £65, March 2013, 978 0 19 958845 9
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... Britons on the home front in the Second World War bore the sacrifices the war imposed on them without too much complaint. In particular they accepted the need for market controls and rationing, which were intended to constrain the demand for precious consumables, ensure their quality and allow them to be shared out equally. This in a society which before then had been notably inegalitarian, and whose dominant economic ideology had taught that anyone was entitled to what he or she could afford ...

It Just Sounded Good

Bernard Porter: Lady Hester Stanhope, 23 October 2008

Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope 
by Kirsten Ellis.
HarperPress, 444 pp., £25, August 2008, 978 0 00 717030 2
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... She was a wonder, a legend. The writer Alexander Kinglake said that when he was a child in the 1820s Lady Hester Stanhope’s name was as well known to him as Robinson Crusoe’s, though he thought Crusoe was more believable. A century later, her table-talk (retailed in six volumes by her doctor-companion, Charles Meryon, and first published in 1845-46) was still being studied for the School Certificate ...

Still Their Fault

Bernard Porter: The AK-47, 6 January 2011

The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War 
by C.J. Chivers.
Allen Lane, 481 pp., £25, November 2010, 978 0 7139 9837 5
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... The Kalashnikov automatic rifle is light, portable and cheap. It scarcely ever jams, even in the most extreme conditions – tropical heat, Arctic cold, bogs, deserts. It can be disassembled and reassembled ‘by Slavic schoolboys in less than 30 seconds flat’. Millions have been manufactured and distributed worldwide. The gun has become iconic, especially among anti-colonial freedom fighters and terrorists: its distinctive silhouette is even to be found on the Mozambique national flag ...

All about the Beef

Bernard Porter: The Food War, 14 July 2011

The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food 
by Lizzie Collingham.
Allen Lane, 634 pp., £30, January 2011, 978 0 7139 9964 8
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... It isn’t true that starvation is just like being hungry, only worse. ‘Victims of starvation die of nutritional dystrophy,’ Lizzie Collingham writes in The Taste of War, a process whereby, once the body has used up all its fat reserves, the muscles are broken down in order to obtain energy. The small intestine atrophies and it becomes increasingly difficult for the victim to absorb nutrients from what little food he or she is able to obtain ...

Wild Enthusiasts

Bernard Porter: Science in Africa, 10 May 2012

Africa as a Living Laboratory: Empire, Development and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge, 1870-1950 
by Helen Tilley.
Chicago, 496 pp., £18.50, April 2011, 978 0 226 80347 0
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... British imperialism may have been oversold. Anti-imperialists tend to blame it for most of the problems of the modern world; a rather smaller band of apologists credits it with spreading modernity. These views are not incompatible: either way it is seen as crucial. Most of the popular debate centres on whether it was (or is) a force for good or for ill ...

What Nanny Didn’t Tell Me

Bernard Porter: Simon Mann, 26 January 2012

Cry Havoc 
by Simon Mann.
John Blake, 351 pp., £19.99, November 2011, 978 1 84358 403 2
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... In Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War, Sir James Manson hires a mercenary called ‘Cat’ Shannon to stage a coup in the tiny West African state of Zangaro – Equatorial Guinea thinly disguised – and replace its tyrannical president with one who will, perhaps, be less tyrannical, and will definitely grant Sir James the highly profitable platinum-mining concession he wants ...

Strew the path with flowers

Bernard Porter: Cannabis and empire, 4 March 2004

Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition 1800-1928 
by James Mills.
Oxford, 239 pp., £25, September 2003, 0 19 924938 5
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... Narcotic drugs taken for recreational purposes were, until comparatively recently, mainly associated with the ‘Orient’. They were used in Europe only by ‘Orientals’ and some adventurous and transgressive literati, though they were also hidden in patent medicines and tonics. In Asia and Africa, however, their use was fairly widespread, and they became part of the language of empire, helping to define the Other in contrast to the West, and to justify the latter’s self-proclaimed superiority ...

Rotten, Wicked, Tyrannical

Bernard Porter: The Meek Assassin, 5 July 2012

Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die: The Assassination of a British Prime Minister 
by Andro Linklater.
Bloomsbury, 296 pp., £18.99, May 2012, 978 1 4088 2840 3
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... citations, repetition, and some errors, including the crediting of one of my books to the wrong ‘Porter’. (I can live with that: it was more Roy’s period, after all.) But as a popular account of a unique event in British history – the real puzzle, surely, is why more of our prime ministers haven’t been assassinated – it stands up well. We probably ...

Palmerstonian

Bernard Porter: The Falklands War, 20 October 2005

The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. I: The Origins of the Falklands War 
by Lawrence Freedman.
Routledge, 253 pp., £35, June 2005, 0 7146 5206 7
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The Official History of the Falklands Campaign. Vol. II: War and Diplomacy 
by Lawrence Freedman.
Routledge, 849 pp., £49.95, June 2005, 0 7146 5207 5
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... In 1982 Britain’s continued possession of the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands was ridiculous. Even at the British Empire’s height they had been one of its least important and favoured colonies. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 they were represented by a showcase containing some tufts of wool and dried grasses. Dr Johnson’s famous description of them in 1771, which Lawrence Freedman uses to open this history, has scarcely been challenged: a bleak and gloomy solitude, an island thrown aside from human use, stormy in winter, and barren in summer; an island which not even southern savages have dignified with habitation; where a garrison must be kept in a state that contemplates with envy the exiles of Siberia; of which the expense will be perpetual, and the use only occasional; and which, if fortune smiles upon our labours, may become a nest of smugglers in peace, and in war the refuge of future buccaneers ...

Quiet Sinners

Bernard Porter: Imperial Spooks, 21 March 2013

Empire of Secrets: British Intelligence, the Cold War and the Twilight of Empire 
by Calder Walton.
Harper, 411 pp., £25, February 2013, 978 0 00 745796 0
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... It’s pretty obvious why British governments have been anxious to keep the history of their secret service secret for so long. In the case of decolonisation, which is the subject of Calder Walton’s book, revelations about dirty tricks even after fifty years might do irreparable damage to the myth carefully cultivated at the time: which was that for Britain, unlike France, say, or the Netherlands, or Belgium, the process was smooth and friendly ...

Who was the enemy?

Bernard Porter: Gallipoli, 21 May 2015

Gallipoli 
by Alan Moorehead.
Aurum, 384 pp., £25, April 2015, 978 1 78131 406 7
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Gallipoli: A Soldier’s Story 
by Arthur Beecroft.
Robert Hale, 176 pp., £12.99, March 2015, 978 0 7198 1654 3
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Gallipoli 1915 
by Joseph Murray.
Silvertail, 210 pp., £12.99, April 2015, 978 1 909269 11 8
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Gallipoli: The Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs 
by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers.
Bloomsbury, 344 pp., £25, March 2015, 978 1 4088 5615 4
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... From the time​ of the Crusades onwards, Western military interventions in the Near and Middle East have nearly all been disastrous; in the long run – just look at Iraq today – but usually in the short term too. The Gallipoli adventure of 1915, a disaster in every way, was dreamed up after Turkey sided with Germany in the Great War. Churchill’s cunning plan was to cut through the ghastly stalemate of the Western Front with a morale-boosting attack where Germany expected it least ...

Manly Voices

Bernard Porter: Macaulay & Son, 22 November 2012

Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain 
by Catherine Hall.
Yale, 389 pp., £35, October 2012, 978 0 300 16023 9
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... Thomas Babington Macaulay – later Lord Macaulay, and ‘Tom’ to Catherine Hall – was the most influential of all British historians. Sales of the first two volumes of his great History of England, published in 1848, rivalled those of Scott and Dickens. The main reason for his popularity, apart from his literary style, was that he flattered the English by crediting them with a unique history of evolving ‘freedom ...

How bad are we?

Bernard Porter: Genocide in Tasmania, 31 July 2014

The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania 
by Tom Lawson.
Tauris, 263 pp., £25, January 2014, 978 1 78076 626 3
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... It’s​ well known now that contact with British settlers in the early 19th century led to the extinction of the native Tasmanians; it was pretty well known at the time too. But much about that extinction is obscure, including the numbers involved: most estimates suggest that in 1803 between five and ten thousand aborigines lived on the island, and that by 1876 there were none – only mixed-race Tasmanians and those deported to the Australian mainland survived ...

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