Terence Blacker: Go easy on your critics, professor. A letters-page spat is surely enough

The way we live: Ferguson seems to have been in a particularly bad mood recently


At any one time, there will usually be a controversial right-wing historian near the centre of Britain's cultural life. Part thinker, part court jester, he will tickle up debate and provoke occasional outrage in the cosier corners of the liberal media. Hugh Trevor-Roper and Max Beloff once played the part. In recent years, the hilariously huffy David Starkey has kept the traditional alive.

Given the tendency towards safe, centralist views, these aggressively conservative thinkers can provide a useful corrective to conventional wisdom but, just now and then, argument morphs into something altogether nastier.

Professor Niall Ferguson, very much the right-wing academic of the moment, has told the press that he is considering whether he should sue the London Review of Books over a review of his book Civilization by the writer Pankaj Mishra. He claims that Mishra's long essay was "libellous and dishonest" in that it contained "a vile allegation of racism".

The normal way these writerly spats are conducted is in the form of a series of long and infuriated correspondence in the letters page of the magazine. Amusing as it is to see intelligent people insulting one another in public, readers soon lose interest and the row peters out.

On this occasion, Ferguson has not been content to make his point in print. Every time Mishra has seemed to concede some ground, he has spoilt the effect with another disrespectful joke. The professor has had enough. "I spoke to the [LRB] editor Mary-Kay Wilmers and said: 'Don't force my hand by forcing me to put it in the hands of lawyers.' All I have had back is weasel words," he told The Observer.

At this point, neutral readers will find themselves moving sharply towards Pankaj Mishra. There may be something nigglingly smug about the comfortably liberal worldview of the LRB, but threatening it with a libel suit is the behaviour of a bullying businessman of the James Goldsmith or Robert Maxwell type, not a writer or an academic.

Perhaps one should blame Ferguson's defection to America for this unseemly response. Whereas in this country, literary disputes are resolved by lengthy sulks and bitchy backchat, American writers are rather more proactive in their approach. Norman Mailer decked Gore Vidal during a TV interview. Richard Ford responded to a bad review from a fellow writer by sending her one of her own books with a bullet-hole shot through it.

In recent months, Ferguson seems to have been in a particularly bad mood. He has appeared on cable television to say that protesters' tents outside St Paul's were empty, although that story had been entirely discredited. In a newspaper interview, he sneered at some length at the country he has left. "Britain is in the grip of a strange mania in which 95 per cent of the public wants to watch the other five per cent making fools of themselves."

Even our celebrities were people of whom he had never heard, unlike the "proper stars" of America, Brad and Angelina. As for his own persona, "The real point of me isn't that I'm good-looking. It's that I'm clever."

Frankly, these remarks are not worthy of a Harvard professor of history. From his vantage point across the Atlantic, Prof Ferguson has recently pronounced that "social and cultural decay, the decline of civilisation, is pretty advanced in western Europe". He may be right, but he might also ask himself whether a senior academic using his position of power to sue a literary magazine for a bad review does not contribute in a small but significant way to the process.

Let's welcome energy from beyond the grave

One of the more surprising items of information in the week's news has been that up to 16 per cent of the mercury currently emitted in Britain comes from the fillings of human teeth being burnt in the furnaces of our crematoria. Even when we are dead, it seems, we are harming the environment.

Sensibly, new furnaces are being introduced. Not only will the new models emit less harmful gas but, rather satisfyingly, they will also provide the living with power. Durham crematorium, a pioneer in this unconventional form of new energy, will soon be selling electricity to the National Grid.

"We don't want to become known as a power station rather than a crematorium," its manager has said, before pointing out that selling energy will allow them to keep fees down. The electricity generated could power 1,500 television sets.

What an excellent plan this is. It must surely make sense to bring environmental awareness into death as well as life. Those who are buried contribute to the cycle of nature; now the cremated will soon be able to play their part, too.

terblacker@aol.com twitter.com/@TerenceBlacker

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing