part-time musings

Tag: Historians

A lesson in writing simply. Also hoopoes

Things have moved on a little since you last caught me moaning about the horrors of taxes and January gloom. It’s now February which is slightly less gloomy and I’ve progressed from editing one mega-chapter to editing a different mega-chapter. There are some days when only genuine fear of the General Editor keeps them from merging into the same thing in my mega-chapter-befuddled brain. I feel I may be rambling. Which is a not altogether inaccurate reflection of my current writing style.  Anyway, there are some things I should tell you about the current mega-chapter:

1. The hoopoe Yes, it may surprise you to hear that this chapter in the field of Business History featured a hoopoe.  This is what a hoopoe looks like in case you’re wondering:

For reasons that are obscure even to myself, I accepted a dare from some of my colleagues to try to sneak a hoopoe past the amassed ranks of senior academic editors who hold the mega-chapter even closer to their hearts than I do. I succeeded for a while through the use of an extended although fairly strange metaphor about King Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, and a distant land that may or may not have been Equatorial Guinea.  However we all eventually grew tired of the hoopoe and he had to go.

2. Simple. The hoopoe-hating senior academic editors managed somehow to persuade an eminent historian to comment in detail on the mega-chapter.  No doubt this was the highlight of his working week. I’ll spare you the full horror of the dissection and give you a generalizable snippet of advice that I gleaned from the experience:  write more simply. The eminent historian made a large number of suggestions about changing complicated language (I try) to more simple language. Such as negatively affected to harmed, and provide an account to describe. There’s some useful point there somewhere about writing, meaning, and confidence. If you know what it is maybe you could let me know in nice simple language.

Historian smackdown!

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to discover the wonderful site,  While I have no idea why it was developed or what other people do with it, I’ve put it to use resolving some longstanding historiographical debates. So, fight fans, here are three great historical smackdowns brought to you live and conclusively by googlefight. Bring it!

1. The ‘gentry controversy’: Hugh Trevor-Roper and Lawrence Stone disagreed over the role of the gentry in relation to the causes of the English Civil War.  Whatever. In a googlefight, Lawrence Stone has the clear upper hand.

2. Russian history book reviews controversy:  Orlando Figes apparently wrote some nasty book reviews on amazon about Bob Service’s books. And blamed these on his wife. But who cares ‘cos on googlefight, it’s Service that lands the punches.

3. The ‘Mfecane debate’: This debate between Julian Cobbing and Elizabeth Eldredge over the causes of the Mfecane conflict in nineteenth century Southern Africa divided African historians. However, in a googlefight things were decided conclusively in Edgredge’s favour.

How to stop worrying and love interviewing

This morning a colleague and good friend of mine sent me a link to an interview with Brian Eno in an email she had called ‘How Not to Interview’. She knew I’d like it because we’ve recently worked together on a project where between us we interviewed around 70 people. Many of these were Very Important People and frequently – particularly when we were conducting interviews on behalf of other colleagues – the interviews dealt with subjects on which we had only the most superficial prior knowledge. Also, because of the nature of the project, we’d not infrequently be conducting several of these interviews a day, in circumstances that Introduction to Oral History 101 would describe as less than ideal. Believe me, when it’s nine o’clock at night and you’re on your sixth interview and you’re in a crowded hotel lobby bar in Nairobi, you find yourself struggling through even the routine formalities of the paperwork and the equipment checks.

But looking back on these interviews and others I’ve done – probably around 200 in the course of my career now – I gained two important insights that I’ll share with you. The first is that no matter how good your equipment the sudden appearance of a brass band will almost certainly ruin your interview.  The second is that its listening that makes good interviews.  The interviews where I felt under-prepared frequently turned out to be the most interesting.  This is because I was forced into a position of having to truly listen and build my questions around what the interviewee was telling me.  Seems like an obvious point doesn’t it? But having heard, read, and transcribed a lot of interviews I can tell you that it usually doesn’t happen. This interview with Brian Eno is an excellent example of what I’m talking about and should be compulsory viewing on any Introduction to Oral History course.

The first rule of Fight Club…

I hope you’ve seen Fight Club because it’s relevant to what I’m about to say and will tell you a lot about historians.  You see, historians are a little like the white-collar pugilists portrayed in the film. Mild-mannered, tea-drinking on the outside, but deeply distrustful of societal norms, and, on paper and in their heads, regularly engaged in brawling encounters that are a reflection of an underlying predisposition towards intellectual anarcho-primitivism.

Now picture Gandhi. Like an historian, he was externally affable and yet undeniably radical in his commitment to challenging wrong-thinking.  So I was surprised – that’s historian-speak for fairly annoyed really – when I read that @Sentletse had suggested in his twitter feed that Gandhi had supported Hitler.

Of course, being a thorough journalist, @Sentletse wouldn’t make such an outrageous claim without evidence, and he very helpfully provides his readers with the link to the full archive of Gandhi’s writings online.

So that’s all right then? Well not really. And let me put my teacup down while I say this because I really am rather annoyed – @Sentletse, you have quoted SELECTIVELY from Gandhi’s writings which creates an inaccurate impression of what he wrote to, and about, Hitler.

Gandhi doesn’t of course really need me to defend him.  He did, after all, beat the British Empire decisively by knockout, an achievement that despite years of boxercise classes I’ve resigned myself to never matching.  But seeing as Gandhi isn’t here at the moment, I shall be so bold as to briefly stand in his corner and ask you to read more of his letters to Hitler and his writings on the subject to form a more rounded view.

The 7th rule of Fight Club is that the fights go on as long as they have to, but for the edification of any readers that are still with me, I’ll quote from just ONE of Gandhi’s letters that offers a little more context.  More can be found at

[Mohandas Gandhi: Letter to Adolf Hitler]


December 24, 1940

Dear Friend,

That I address you as a friend is no formality. I own no foes. My business in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friendship of the whole of humanity by befriending mankind irrespective of race, colour or creed.

I hope you will have the time and desire to know how a good portion of humanity who [are] living under the influence of that doctrine of universal friendship view your action. We have no doubt about your bravery or devotion to your fatherland, nor do we believe that you are the monster described by your opponents. But your own writings and pronouncements and those of your friends and admirers leave no room for doubt that many of your acts are monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity, especially in the estimation of men like me who believe in universal friendliness. Such are your humiliation of Czechoslovakia, the rape of Poland and the swallowing of Denmark. I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts. But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity. Hence we cannot possibly wish success to your arms.

But ours is a unique position. We resist British Imperialism no less than Nazism. If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny. Our resistance to it does not mean harm to the British people. We seek to convert them, not to defeat them on the battle-field. Ours is an unarmed revolt against the British rule. But whether we convert them or not, we are determined to make their rule impossible by non-violent non-co-operation. It is a method in its nature indefensible. It is based on the knowledge that no spoliator can compass his end without a certain degree of co-operation, willing or compulsory, of the victim. Our rulers may have our land and bodies but not our souls. They can have the former only by complete destruction of every Indian—man, woman and child. That all may not rise to that degree of heroism and that a fair amount of frightfulness can bend the back of revolt is true but the argument would be beside the point. For, if a fair number of men and women be found in India who would be prepared without any ill will against the spoliators to lay down their lives rather than bend the knee to them, they would have shown the way to freedom from the tyranny of violence. I ask you to believe me when I say that you will find an unexpected number of such men and women in India. They have been having that training for the past 20 years.

We have been trying for the past half a century to throw off the British rule. The movement of independence has been never so strong as now. The most powerful political organization, I mean the Indian National Congress, is trying to achieve this end. We have attained a very fair measure of success through non-violent effort. We were groping for the right means to combat the most organized violence in the world which the British power represents. You have challenged it.  It remains to be seen which is the better organized, the German or the British. We know what the British heel means for us and the non-European races of the world. But we would never wish to end the British rule with German aid. We have found in non-violence a force which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all the most violent forces in the world. In non-violent technique, as I have said, there is no such thing as defeat. It is all ‘do or die’ without killing or hurting. It can be used practically without money and obviously without the aid of science of destruction which you have brought to such perfection. It is a marvel to me that you do not see that it is nobody’s monopoly. If not the British, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leaving no legacy to your people of which they would feel proud. They cannot take pride in a recital of cruel deed, however skilfully planned. I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war. You will lose nothing by referring all the matters of dispute between you and Great Britain to an international tribunal of your joint choice. If you attain success in the war, it will not prove that you were in the right. It will only prove that your power of destruction was greater. Whereas an award by an impartial tribunal will show as far as it is humanly possible which party was in the right.

You know that not long ago I made an appeal  to every Briton to accept my method of non-violent resistance. I did it because the British know me as a friend though a rebel. I am a stranger to you and your people. I have not the courage to make you the appeal I made to every Briton. Not that it would not apply to you with the same force as to the British. But my present proposal is much simple because much more practical and familiar.

During this season when the hearts of the peoples of Europe yearn for peace, we have suspended even our own peaceful struggle. Is it too much to ask you to make an effort for peace during a time which may mean nothing to you personally but which must mean much to the millions of Europeans whose dumb cry for peace I hear, for my ears are attended to hearing the dumb millions? I had intended to address a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini, whom I had the privilege of meeting1 when I was in Rome during my visit to England as a delegate to the Round Table Conference. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.

I am,

Your sincere friend,