Tag Archives: British Empire

Civilisation, the Sistine Chapel of BBC documentaries

23 Feb

1969 was the year British media changed forever. It was the year Rupert Murdoch bought The News of the World. More than any other press baron, he is responsible for the culture that still pervades the newspaper industry to this day. But 1969 should be remembered for a more important reason. It was the year Sir Kenneth Clark produced Civilisation, the greatest documentary ever aired. It was as if high culture had let out its final gasp, and what a heavenly gasp it was.

David Attenborough, controller of BBC Two at the time, commissioned the series. It was to be an overwhelming 13 episodes long, 50 minutes each. It set the blueprint for future programmes such as Alistair Cooke’s America (1972), Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man (1973) and Sir David’s own Life on Earth (1979). It was David Attenborough’s bold move and the series’s subsequent popularity that made these three stirring oeuvres possible. If there has to be a hero of anti-elitism, it should not be Rupert Murdoch for his tawdry rags that insult the intelligence of the great British public; it should be Sir David Attenborough, the man who believed high culture should be made accessible to everyone, not just toffs.

What makes it so enjoyable to watch is the thought that it couldn’t be made today. If you pitched the idea of a series on the history of Western civilisation that was in toto nearly half a day in length, the BBC commissioner would sling you out before you could say Lorenzo de’ Medici.

And the style is completely different. Watch a clip: the camera stays focused without cutting away for far longer than any TV clip today. Television today – be it Come Dancing, reality TV, documentaries, dramas – is cut to such an extent it’s like watching a 24-hour Adam Curtis doc. The camera cannot stay still. Anyone would think humans had the attention span of an adolescent carp.

That’s what I love about it: it’s slow. I reckon half the film consists of Sir Kenneth Clark pausing, strolling, then pausing; the other half consists of the camera panning along some work of wonder as trumpets parp or choirs wail.

Sir Kenneth makes the film. Just so you know, Sir Kenneth is not the Tory rotundity in government today; he is the art historian and father of dirty diarist Alan Clark MP. He has plummy vowels, wears tweed in every clime and is unsure about next to everything. He starts most sentences with “I suppose”. He pronounces iron as “ahr-rn”. He is the private school tutor of every chap’s dreams.

He has quirks of genius. Which other BBC presenter would say, “Please allow me two minutes’ digression on the subject of tulips”? Who else could say with such de-haut-en-bas conviction, “Opera… is one of the oddest inventions of Western man”? He adds, “Why are people prepared to sit silently for three hours listening to a performance of which they do not understand a word?” He calls the upper classes of previous generations “ignorant as swans”. How many times have I wanted to say in a debate, “At this point I reveal myself in my true colours as a stick-in-the-mud.”

Wisdom seeps from his skin. I shall post up my favourite clips tomorrow. But for now, these words should be quoted to every economist, historian, commentator and ideologist. Perhaps they could be in the foreword to Mr Ferguson’s similarly-titled book:

We have no idea where we are going and sweeping, confident articles on the future seem to me the most disreputable form of public utterance.  Scientists who are really qualified to speak keep their mouths shut.

His thoughts on economics are most intriguing. He says, “I don’t say much about economics in this programme, chiefly because I don’t understand them.” But he does have an opinion. He pronounces capitalism as one might pronounce capitulation. And that is broadly his view.

He visits the Queen’s House in Greenwich, the edifice now overshadowed by Canary Wharf. “Every civilisation has its nemesis,” he says, looking over the empty space where the cathedrals of capitalism now lie. By chance Sir Christopher Wren founded the white wonders of Greenwich the same year the Bank of England was established.

And the light of experience narrowed its beam so that the grand design of Greenwich became simply a waste of money.

We come to a final question, one which niggles even the oldest of viewers: can we, in the 21st century, properly speak of “civilisation”? It seems to be one of those out-of-date words used primarily by British colonists to justify the expansion of Anglo-Saxon power. It marks the boundary between those the elite considered barbarous (Indians, Africans, Aborigines) and those considered civilised (mostly white, mostly educated, mostly tea-drinking sorts). Lefties would say the boundary between civilisation and barbarity, order and chaos, good and evil, lies not between nations but in our own hearts.

I have a great deal of sympathy with this position. But are we really to conclude from this, like Mrs T in her oft-quoted line, there is no such thing as civilisation? Surely not. I can think of many real and imagined bodies of men which are barbarous: a society which represses all forms of intellectual and personal freedom – that is barbarism; a nation which whips itself into bloodthirsty frenzies for war and conquest – that is barbarism; a people whose only goals in life are short-term gratification – that is barbarism. And if barbarity exists, so must its opposite: civilisation.

Let us not forget what Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: “I think it would be a very good idea.” Gandhi is not denying civilisation exists. His point is that it does exist: and the West isn’t one of them. How then do we define it? Sir Kenneth Clark defines civilisation in terms of “creative power” and “enlargement of human faculties”. That sounds like a good definition to me.


Memo to Yanks: China could make you the #6 top nation. Here are 4 good reasons to celebrate!

1 Nov

This is supposed to be the Asian century. Just as the 20th century saw the rise of American power, just as the 19th century saw the British Empire paint the world red, so this century will see Asian countries grow in global stature. As the wealth of the East rises, so will its might – in international, military, perhaps even cultural terms. Just as the British taught the world footie, rugger and cricket, Dickens, Wilde and Shakespeare, just as the USA spread its love of fast food, films and blue jeans, so may we soon feel the influence of Oriental culture.

Niall Ferguson is the most prominent figure to proclaim the Decline of the West. It is a sinking feeling which has gripped much of the commentariat. When I recently discussed the matter with a friend, I found – to my amazement – that she was thinking of moving to China. She had visited on a cultural exchange, and she loved the bright lights, the language, the mise-en-scène. After further questioning, she said that the West was going down the swanee anyway: the EU and US are doomed to either financial collapse or inevitable decline; British prospects aren’t too sunny either. China, she thought, was the future.

Not so very long ago, young people across the globe would dream of starting a new life in America. It is damning that some are starting to think the other way.

I could say that the Chinese future is far from certain: that there is an instability which lies in the union of despotic state and bulky populace; once growth dips, living standards drop or recession bites, there will be a large unhappy population, minds a-buzz with the thoughts of that Arab Spring. I will not go down that route. I write this post not to do down Eastern prospects, but to raise Western spirits. It’s not all that bleak. As they say in Latin, Niall Desperandum! Niall should not despair!

This is a memo to America. We Brits have been number one before, so trust us: being number six isn’t that bad. Here are four good reasons why Americans shouldn’t worry:

1.) Relative GDP isn’t everything.  China may be getting richer relative to the US, but this doesn’t mean that the USA won’t get any richer. The British experience is a good example. Our GDP rankings may have fallen in the past century, but the average Brit is substantially wealthier. Many of us possess our own homes, cars, TVs; we go on more holidays, live longer and aren’t consigned to the same degree of poverty. American dominance has made us no worse off. In fact, due to the brilliance of American innovation, it has probably made us better off.

2.) Your politicians might actually fix stuff at home.  The British Empire acted as a silken red blindfold. Victorian politicians talked grandly of how they could civilise every corner of the globe. What they failed to see was the barbarity at home. As that great Liberal Winston Churchill put it, “For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.” After the Second World War, the war that crippled Britannia financially, politicians cast India aside and made a concerted effort to better a Brit’s lot. A fight against ignorance, destitution, idleness, squalor and sickness began. The fight hasn’t stopped since. Perhaps when America is forced to turn inwards, similar miracles will happen.

3.) You get a better sense of humour.  At the height of the British Empire, George Orwell said, “Every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” At the dawn of modern Britain, every man’s life became one long struggle not to laugh. Humour boomed, with the rise of satire, sketch shows and sitcoms. Comedy has never been so ubiquitous. This may be down to the new technologies of radio, TV and YouTube. But humour has also taken a different tone: sardonic, dark, self-deprecating. Every sitcom hero – from Hancock to Blackadder, from Rigsby to Partridge, from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew – is a half-despairing man who is in some way fundamentally trapped. They still follow this pattern: think of the heroes of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners, The Thick of It, The Office. Sod the chirpy tits off Friends and beckon in the far richer comedy of human misery! Perhaps America is already there. Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Daily Show could be the first tottering steps into a world of post-imperial gloom…

4.) Everyone will no longer hate you.  This is phrased unfairly, but the sentiment is true. The world hates a bully who wages ceaseless war to prove its might. The hubris of Britannia caused a lot of resentment (and still does, as recent wars show). When one’s national stereotype changes to bumbling twit, one becomes a lot harder to hate.

In all, we have less power and more glory. Modern Britain is a sort of King Lear. We have been cast off our throne, forced to wander in the bleak wilderness of impotence, with no-one to accompany us but a Fool. We have lost everything, but at least we can laugh about it.

Niall Ferguson vs Jeremy Paxman: a tale of two Empires

17 Oct

Jeremy Paxman has recently been grimacing his way through a round of daytime talk shows, in order to promote his new book, Empire. There’s nothing like bemused frowning to boost the book sales, every publisher knows that. After watching Paxman scoff at Alex Jones for a bit, which must have been the highlight of my week – by the way, by “scoff”, I mean “derisively laugh at a One Show host’s existence”, not “stuff Alex Jones’ face quickly into his gob” – he then launched into a defence the British Empire.

Paxman was asked if the Empire was a Good Thing. He refused to answer the question. He said something along the lines of, “You cannot say it is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, it is just a Thing, and it just happened.” It is a curious answer, an answer worthy of Michael Howard. Yet it is an answer which most historians accept nowadays. Kwasi Kwarteng echoes the sentiment in his new book; as does Niall Ferguson.

Niall is the ultimate advocate of this view. His inventively-named book Empire is the imperial apologist’s Bible. While it condemns the most wicked excesses of imperialism, it revels most in totting up the good the British did. Ferguson writes a list of the Good Things including team sports, the idea of liberty and – at number one – the English language. So, to paraphrase: cricket, the dearth of liberty, and – at number one – irritating, irritating twangs. Unsurprisingly this didn’t persuade me.

Cricket is a god-awful game that was made purposefully Byzantine to make the cretins that play it feel they have some sort of noggin. Its pointless complexity somehow makes cricketers think they are less dunderheaded than footballers, as if cricket is some kind of Hegelian philosophy, some kind of Heisenbergian science, and not a game whose chief aim is, er, to thwack a ball with a bat. In the end, you are alone with a sunburnt neck on a pitch for three hours squatting, in the vain hope the ball to come vaguely near you. In the five-minute period when it does come your way, you either fall over apologising, or it socks you in the testicles. I cannot think of a more preposterous game.

Cricket is not any great accomplishment of mind. Nor is the feat of creating Canadian or New Zealand accents. The rest of Ferguson’s list is similarly ridiculous. The spread of Protestantism will not seem like a major achievement of the British Empire, unless your name is Martin Luther. But the silliest are these: the idea of liberty, and good government.

The former will sound hollow if you were one of the British Empire’s curmudgeonly subjects. In a democracy, it is easy to be a rebel: you mark a cross on a bit of paper and you can kick your rulers out. Empire is no democracy. Empire by definition is run from the centre and pays little attention to the whims and wishes of the periphery. As such, it is slightly more difficult to be a rebel. Sudanese rebels were bumped off because they disagreed with their rulers (and because, y’know, they might have been Muslim). A rebellion in India was averted by killing 379 of the trouble-makers in ten minutes. Assad would be proud of that.

As a consolation, Ferguson says that whenever the British acted despotically, there was always a “liberal critique” from within British society. Innocent citizens may have been shot, but, well, at least their families could read some Orwell. It’s a bit like urging families of massacred Libyans to read Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis on democratic institutions. Throughout Empire, Ferguson is keen to point out that it is wrong to compare British imperialists to Nazis or Soviets, because of the idea of liberty at the heart of the enterprise. I suppose that’s an achievement: at least we’re not Nazis.

The evidence Ferguson gives of good government is as follows: a lot of the subjects rallied round the British. Many who fought for the British in the Indian Mutiny and the American Revolution were natives. 1 in 6 of the British Army in World War One were Indian; the figure rises to 1 in 4 in World War Two. This is supposed to be evidence that the natives were grateful to their rulers. I am not convinced. Comrades of the USSR rallied round Stalin in World War Two, even though he was one of the most brutal dictators of the twentieth century. Many came out to mourn his death. Bountiful support does not necessarily mean good government.

Moreover it is often the rebels, not the contented citizens, that have most impact on a country’s politics. The future of Zimbabwe changed forever because of the antipathy of one rebel – Robert Mugabe. While we cannot say the British are responsible for Mugabe’s brutality, it is fair to say that foreign occupation inevitably breeds discontent. This is particularly true in places like Zimbabwe, where there was such a perceived unfairness in how the rulers treated the citizens, and where there was no democratic accountability. These things can only give credence to a Marxist nutjob’s hostility. Perhaps an uprising was only inevitable.

Ferguson’s Empire and Paxman’s Empire are both thoroughly well-written, absorbing, pulse-racing, clear-headed accounts of British imperialism. The latter is clear, concise and full of hilariously sardonic Paxman-isms. The former is simply a masterpiece. What is wrong is not the description, but the ethics. There is no will to say, even on balance, imperialism is a bad thing. Instead, there is a curious condemnation of the sheer ability to make a judgement. This helps no-one.