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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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

More Interesting than Learning how to Make Brandy Snaps

Bernard Porter: Stella Rimington, 18 October 2001

Open Secret: The Autobiography of the Former Director-General of MI5 
by Stella Rimington.
Hutchinson, 296 pp., £18.99, September 2001, 0 09 179360 2
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... Secret service memoirs are invariably rubbished. When Robert Anderson’s Lighter Side of My Official Life appeared in 1910 – Anderson had headed a counter-Fenian agency – Winston Churchill lambasted it in the House of Commons for its ‘gross boastfulness’: ‘It is written, if I may say so, in the style of “How Bill Adams Won the Battle of Waterloo” ...

‘This is Africa, after all. What can you expect?’

Bernard Porter: Corruption and Post-Imperialism, 26 March 2009

It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower 
by Michela Wrong.
Fourth Estate, 354 pp., £12.99, February 2009, 978 0 00 724196 5
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... You can’t just march into someone else’s country, give it entirely arbitrary boundaries, decide to rule it with only the minimum of resources, settle an alien population on its best land, brutally suppress any sign of resistance, then scuttle before you’ve properly prepared it for self-government – and expect everything to turn out OK. That’s with the best will in the world; of which there was some, but not enough, in the British Empire ...

Mule Races and Pillow Fights

Bernard Porter: Churchill’s Failings, 27 August 2009

Warlord: A Life of Churchill at War, 1874-1945 
by Carlo D’Este.
Allen Lane, 960 pp., £30, April 2009, 978 0 7139 9753 8
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... Carlo D’Este, a retired US army lieutenant-colonel much admired in military history circles for his books about World War Two, knows a real soldier when he sees one, and on most counts Churchill doesn’t measure up. He was certainly fascinated by soldiering from an early age – it was his toy soldiers, he claimed, that did it – but he seems to have gone to Sandhurst only because his father thought he was too dumb for Oxford, and to have mainly relished the Boy’s Own side of war ...

Not the Brightest of the Barings

Bernard Porter: Lord Cromer, a Victorian Ornamentalist in Egypt, 18 November 2004

Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul 
by Roger Owen.
Oxford, 436 pp., £25, January 2004, 0 19 925338 2
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... The recent revival of military imperialism has had many commentators rummaging in history for precedents. The occupation of Egypt in the 1880s is a favourite one, largely because its imperialist character was similarly denied at the time. The British government was going in to rescue the Egyptians from tyranny and mismanagement; it had no desire for territory, and as soon as it had set up a ‘reformed’ local administration its forces would move out again ...

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 ...

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