The British Empire’s latest crime – to have ended the Enlightenment

What is the Enlightenment, and when did it come to an end? Neither are easy questions to answer. The Enlightenment, as a historical phenomenon or a phenomenon of ideas, coalesced into an attempt to rid humanity of rigid superstitions and fanaticism and liberate it from tyranny of every sort. Its first movements were discernible in Europe in the 17th century, and it became a continent-wide experiment of thought in the following one. But when did it end – as the title of Richard Whatmore’s book takes for granted? There’s a good case for stating that it never came to an end. Once tyranny and religious certainty were dismissed as universal

The balance of power between humans and machines

The twin poles of the modern imaginarium about technology and society can be represented by two masterpieces of popular culture. In James Cameron’s film The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, a global computer system called Skynet becomes sentient and proceeds to try to exterminate the human race by means of time-travelling Austrian bodybuilders. In Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels, by contrast (beginning with Consider Phlebas, 1987), a space-faring humanlike species has created superintelligent machines, known as Minds, which automate all the labour of production, leaving people free to pursue artistic activities and extreme sports. As our tech-bro overlords race to create proper AI, then, the present question is whether engineered

George Osborne’s midlife crisis

There should be a term in anthropology for what happens to a certain type of Tory male in middle age. The type who after decades of espousing often unpopular causes suddenly attempts to ingratiate himself with the masses. Ordinarily this breakdown expresses itself in a desire to legalise drugs, but it can take other forms. If you become the chairman of the British Museum, there is one rather obvious way to try to please people Anyway, the moment that George Osborne was made chairman of the British Museum I expected what has come to pass. Osborne has long been a prime candidate for a Tory midlife crisis. He always had

Our great art institutions have reduced British history to a scrapheap of shame

Let’s indulge in some identity politics for a second: I am from Hong Kong, born as a subject of the last major colony of the British Empire, minority-ethnic, descended from Chinese refugees, now living here in exile. This summer, both the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain are presenting new displays that are meant to reflect the ‘inclusive’ and ‘diverse’ identities of Britain. Supposedly, I fit nicely among their target audience. In reality, as an immigrant looking to be included in this nation, I am perplexed by my visits. For two publicly funded museums tasked with telling the story of this country through the portraiture of its eminent figures and

The rise of conspiracy history

Readers would doubtless find it hard to believe that the late Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh kidnapped and killed indigenous children while on a state visit to Canada in 1964. Yet this story circulated for years in Canada along with other horror stories of the rape, torture and murder of indigenous children at the hands of depraved priests and nuns. The bodies, it was said, were thrown into furnaces or secretly buried at dead of night. These accusations were linked to boarding schools run by various religious bodies first established in the 19th century and finally closed in the 1990s. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in

Roman politicians were the ultimate gossips

The ancients were as fascinated by rumour as, to judge by recent events in Russia and the BBC, we are. Homer called rumour ‘the messenger of Zeus’, with a fondness for racing through crowds. Virgil described it as a winged monster, with an unsleeping eye under every feather, a mouth and tongue never silent and an ear always pricked, combining truth with lies and distortions. Ovid saw it as a sort of clearing-house ‘from which the whole world is in view’ – a structure of echoing brass, with thousands of entrances and exits, echoing back, and so increasing the volume of, the ‘murmured whisperings’ it picked up. Roman politicians were

Ancient lessons in oracy

It is encouraging to see Sir Keir Starmer taking a leaf out of the ancients’ book by putting oracy (from Latin orator) on the curriculum. Indeed, on the ancient curriculum, there was little else of such importance. State education did not exist. It was an entirely private operation, designed to supply the elite with the skills necessary to win arguments in political and legal forums. (They alone had the time for such an activity; our ‘school’ derives from scholê, the Greek for ‘leisure’). It began with the young relentlessly analysing language in minute technical detail, e.g. dividing words into syllables, pronouncing, spelling and parsing them, learning grammatical terms, parts of

What, if anything, have dictators over the centuries had in common?

Big Caesars and Little Caesars is an entertaining jumble with no obvious beginning, middle, end, or indeed argument. But there is an intriguing book buried underneath it which asks more or less this: where does Boris Johnson stand in the historical procession of would-be strongmen or, as Ferdinand Mount calls them, ‘Caesars’? How successful was Johnson’s attempt – overshadowed by the Brexit noise, his personal scandals and his Bertie Wooster act – to turn Britain into a more authoritarian state? Even when Caesars are kicked out, they weaken a country’s institutions Mount, now 84, comes at this from a long Tory past that in recent years he has seemed to

Jeremy Clarke would have felt at home in Pompeii

Classical literature has the reputation of being pretty serious stuff, far removed from the world that Jeremy Clarke inhabited. But he would have felt perfectly at home in Pompeii. Take the conversation decorating the grave monument of the bar-owners Lucius Calidius Eroticus and Fannia Voluptas (beat that, Frankie Howerd!): ‘Innkeeper! The bill!’ ‘You’ve had a sextarius of wine, and bread: one as. Relish, two asses.’ ‘Right.’ ‘The girl, eight asses.’ ‘Right.’ ‘Hay for the mule, two asses.’ ‘That mule – it’ll be the ruin of me.’ Jeremy would also surely have admired the lifestyle and works of the scandalous author Petronius, whom the historian Tacitus described as follows: ‘He slept

King Charles and the implications of oaths

After much debate it was decided that the people would not be ordered to reciprocate the King’s oath of allegiance. This was wise. As ancient Greeks knew, oaths have serious implications. For them, to take an oath was in effect ‘to invoke powers greater than oneself to uphold the truth of a declaration, by putting a curse upon oneself if it was false’. The Trojan war – the subject of the West’s first work of literature – happened only because Tyndareos, stepfather of Helen, compelled all her Greek suitors, on oath, to go to war on anyone who seduced her from her husband – which the Trojan Paris proceeded to

What happens when coronations go awry

Despite weeks of preparation and rehearsal, coronations don’t always go according to plan. Indeed, a botched coronation or one plagued by misfortune can be taken by the superstitious as a poor augury for coming reigns – sometimes justifiably. Case in point: the celebrations of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna in Moscow’s Dormition Cathedral on 14 May 1896. While the hours-long ceremony for the last Tsar and Tsarina went off without a hitch, the following national holiday and public feast in Khodynka Field led to a stampede where at least 1,300 died and 1,300 more were left with serious injuries. The cause? A day later, the Russian government gazette issued the following anodyne

For sale: Jane Austen’s birthplace

‘There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort,’ wrote the eminently quotable Jane Austen in Emma, in 1815. ‘Nobody can be more devoted to home than I am.’   If the incomparable Regency writer and social critic could see Steventon House, on the site of her birthplace and childhood home in Hampshire, she would doubtless approve. Although it’s not quite on the scale of the manicured estates that feature so largely in her property-obsessed novels, the Grade II listed 1820s home is all Georgian elegance, with 7,000 sq ft of living space, beautifully proportioned high-ceilinged receptions and fine period features including decorative fireplaces, cornicing, and working shutters.   The six-bed

The legacy of Chaim Topol

In 1969, for my seventh birthday, I was taken – dragged, probably – ‘up west’ to the theatre to see a musical. As I recall, it didn’t fill me with joy to be going, but it turned out to be fantastic. The songs, the acting, the dancing: it was great fun. Then we went for pasta in Soho, which was also a special event in those days. More importantly, though, I think it was the first time I became truly aware of a vital part of my identity: that I was here because decades earlier my great-grandfather had arrived on these shores, driven out of his native Russia by a

The dangerous myth-making in the Banshees of Inisherin

I never made it to the end of Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin, which won four Baftas on Sunday and has been tipped for further success at the Oscars next month. Inisherin is a fictional place that apparently translates as ‘Island Ireland’. I know it’s probably churlish of me, but, being Irish, I was turned off by the film’s maudlin sentimentality mixed with self-obsession, self-harm, child abuse, wanton violence, dead pets and suicidal ideation. It bothered me that the film trotted out as many Oirish stereotypes as were in Gone With the Wind, released in 1939. Let me list some of the most obvious of these at the outset.

How the British saved India’s classical history

In India, a generation has been brought up on the academic Edward Said’s unhistorical prejudices towards the British and what he called the ‘colonial gaze’. In his eyes, British Orientalists were guilty of what is now termed ‘cultural appropriation’.  To his followers it therefore may come as a surprise to learn that it was British Orientalists who in fact rediscovered India’s classical history and heritage and made it available to the rest of the world.  Sir William Jones, a brilliant polymath, contributed more than any other individual to India’s national renaissance. Alongside his day job as a judge in Calcutta, Jones mastered Sanskrit, translated Indian classics and used it to

Is this Britain’s most historic house?

Hyperbole in estate agents’ brochures isn’t unusual – but when it comes to a write-up for Great Tangley Manor, which has gone on the market for £8.95 million, overkill is almost impossible. Believed to be the UK’s oldest continuously inhabited property – its Saxon foundations date from 1016 – the Grade I-listed moated manor house, in the village of Wonersh in the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, comes with an extraordinary roll call of associated famous names. From the spheres of royalty, art, literature, garden design and even America’s Gilded Age, all have played their part in shaping secluded Great Tangley into a country house with a compelling story.  The

Why war museums matter

On Christmas Day 1942, the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst, along with five destroyers, left its Norwegian base and headed for a series of Arctic convoys, the British fleets transporting material and support to the Soviets. The townclass cruiser HMS Belfast, used to escort the convoys through some of the most dangerous seas in the world, played a vital role in the Royal Navy’s clever game of bait-and-blast that resulted in the destruction of the Scharnhorst, a monster that had already sunk a British carrier and two destroyers. Belfast, the most powerful cruiser in the Navy at her relaunch in 1942 (she hit a mine in 1939 and needed three years of repairs),

Shamebridge: why is Cambridge so embarrassed about its past?

Finding Cambridge’s ugly side isn’t easy, but a walking tour of the city promises to show you it. Uncomfortable Cambridge, which bills itself as the ‘perfect introductory tour’ of the city, suggests tourists are wrong to think this is a place of beauty. Rather, Cambridge is a place we should be ashamed of – or at least feel a bit awkward about. The university is at the heart of the one-and-a-half hour tour, which costs £14 per person. Our guide begins by telling us that Cambridge isn’t as guilty as Oxford, which is good news – but it’s mostly downhill from there. St John’s College, where William Wilberforce and Thomas

The pomp and pageantry of the Lord Mayor’s Show

The Lord Mayor’s Show is a mix of traditional buttoned-up pageantry and let-your-hair-down carnival. A bit like the state opening of parliament without all the MPs, and Notting Hill without the jerk chicken. I am a Freeman of The Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors, one of the ‘Great 12’ livery companies of the City of London. The Lord Mayor’s Show is an occasion in which the City’s livery companies – there are some 110 in all – have prominent place. What’s more, the incoming Lord Mayor has a special link to the Merchant Taylors as a member of the Company’s Court. Which is all a roundabout way of saying: I have been roped

The truth about the curse of the pharaohs

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito some time in early March 1923. The bite became infected. By April he was running a high fever, had pneumonia in both lungs and his heart and respiratory systems were failing. He died in a Cairo hospital on 5 April. His death came less than six months after Howard Carter, the Egyptologist whose excavations Carnarvon was funding, first discovered evidence that there was an undisturbed tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Thebes. That was on 4 November 1922 – 100 years ago this month. A few days later, Carter, Carnarvon and his