Letters: History lessons

How history teaching reached this parlous state
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The Independent Online

It takes a bit of history-bending for Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to overlook the past 12 years of Labour government in order to blame the Conservatives for the appalling state of history teaching revealed by the recent Historical Association report (Opinion, 14 September).

In 2007 I chaired the group that advised the Conservatives on history teaching and we specifically set out to avoid the "dreary facts – dates, kings, wars and treaties – or embellished tales of glory" she is assuming, on no evidence, that the Conservatives are planning to bring in. Anyone wishing to see what we actually proposed is welcome to view our proposals at www. historypractitioners.org.

For the record, it is quite misleading to say the Tories were "the dunces who decided to make this subject optional". History has never been compulsory in school. There was a brief period during the construction of the National Curriculum when it was proposed – by the Tories – that it should be compulsory to 16, along with other subjects, but teachers understandably protested at such an overloading of the timetable, and the compulsory subjects were reduced to a small core.

By 1997 history was widely studied in schools for the first three years of secondary schooling; Labour, with its obsession with the new and rejection of the past, has squandered this legacy and overseen the disastrous erosion of the subject the Historical Association has highlighted. New Labour is a far more proper target for Ms Alibhai-Brown's anger than the Old Tories.

Dr Seá*Lang

Senior Lecturer in History, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

Delusions damage your health

I must attempt to defray the dangerous fallacy that Matthew Norman is propagating in his article "Smokers should praised, not banned" (17 September). The one thing that he will not be given is a choice as to how he will die (whether he smokes or not). By smoking he increases enormously the likelihood of coming to an end in particular ways.

I am happy to hear that he is ready to meet his maker, and would welcome a sudden death from a heart attack, though I would remind him that this may occur at 35 years or 48 years, rather than later, as he seems to think. There are plenty of smoking-induced diseases that may lead him to the dribbling in plastic chairs he dreads: strokes and vascular dementia to name but two.

Smoking also increases the chances of oral and other cancers. Or perhaps he will struggle with slow suffocation (over years) from various forms of lung disease. Even if he avoids these and other illnesses but hits hard times, he and his family may struggle with the not inconsiderable cost of his habit.

Of course I would not wish these ends upon anyone, but smokers must be aware that they are playing a dangerous game of chance and stacking the odds against themselves. Kidding oneself as to outcome is the classic defence of an addict, and should not be encouraged.

Gemma Stockford

Consultant Pathologist

Burgess Hill, West Sussex

Tennis players behaving badly

Nicholas Lezard (Opinion, 15 September) celebrates the fact that Serena Williams threatens to force a tennis ball down a lineswoman's neck; he apparently wants his tennis stars to be flamboyant. I might use that adjective to describe Oscar Wilde, but a more appropriate description of Miss Williams would be arrogant and petulant.

Mr Lezard states that her behaviour is somehow good for the game; a perverse view indeed. In the postmodern cynical world that he inhabits, our heroes should clearly be foul-mouthed, aggressive and nasty.

What we really should really be celebrating is the fact that Kim Clijsters, a non-seeded wild card, who happens to be a mother and thoroughly "nice person" – that is to say decent and worthwhile – is the new US champion.

Jeff Hebblewhite

Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Alan Clark and anti-Semitism

Dominic Lawson is quite right to draw attention to the late Alan Clark's dubious views on the subject of the Third Reich (Opinion, 15 September). Indeed, there is reason to believe that Clark's opinions were even more sinister than Mr Lawson suggests.

The late Frank Johnson once told me that he stayed at Saltwood Castle with Alan Clark early in June 1982, some days after the attempted terrorist murder in London of Shlomo Argov, the then Israeli Ambassador. Both Clark and another guest (unknown to Frank Johnson) were jubilant about the attempted murder and made comments to the effect of, "There's another one gone." (Mr Argov in fact lived until 2003).

It is not surprising that one who was so enthusiastic about Hitler and his regime should have been capable of speaking in blatantly anti-Semitic terms; what is odd is that there is no direct anti-Semitism in his published diaries.

Lord Clark, Alan Clark's father, was deeply opposed to appeasement in the 1930s. One wonders how far Clark's more rebarbative opinions were formed in childish rebellion against his father.

C D C Armstrong


Visa rules keep pupils out of UK

Concerns about illegal migration have led to criticism of colleges, especially low-cost language schools, that provide an easy entrée to the UK job market.

However, it would seem that visa requirements for teenage students attending UK independent schools where annual fees are often above £25,000 have now been altered to the point that a number of overseas pupils have not been able to process their visas to enrol at UK schools this September.

It is difficult to see what purpose, commercial or otherwise, this serves. The UK's independent-school sector has a very attractive product that appeals to many non-EU families who pay not just annual school fees, but also spend on supplementary services such as private tuition and guardianship. In short, this sector is an export earner and one where the UK has a competitive advantage internationally. Perhaps via your pages we can flush out the Government's reasoning as to why it is making it so difficult to enrol non-EU teenagers in our fee-paying schools?

Thomas F Maher

Director, British Home Tutors, London SW6

Should the Proms be compulsory?

If, as David Lister suggests (9 September), tickets for the Proms should be allocated to schools, would the pupils' attendance be voluntary?

If it was voluntary, the children who think of classical music as "not for them" wouldn't go, and if it was compulsory, I suspect that they would be so annoyed at being forced to go that they would be hopelessly prejudiced against the music. Worse, they might show their resentment by disrupting the performance.

I agree with I and K Watson (Letters, 11 September) that the source of the problem is a "cultural thing" (not only British, as there is plenty of evidence that it also applies to the US) and that The Independent, like many other papers, is contributing to it by referring to "music" and "classical". This gives the impression that popular music is the important kind and "classical" is something to dabble in if you have nothing better to do.

Carolyn Beckingham

Lewes, East Sussex

Channel 4 under threat

You wrongly state that Channel 4 has been arguing for a "slice of the BBC licence fee" (report, 16 September). We have never asked for that, or for a direct subsidy in any form. Instead we have argued for new forms of indirect support, to replace the gifted analogue spectrum that Channel 4 has enjoyed throughout its 26-year history and which will be valueless by 2012.

It also seems perverse, to say the least, to illustrate an article about a not-for-profit public-service broadcaster with a chart illustrating falling profits. Channel 4 is not looking to maximise profits, because it has no shareholders. Instead, we aim to invest the most money possible each year in programmes and other forms of creative content while maintaining break-even. It is this investment that is under threat from the downturn in advertising and the migration of audiences and revenues online.

Matt Baker

Head of Press & Publicity, Channel 4 Television, London SW1

Product placement compromises art

The regulatory framework that is expected to follow the lifting of the ban on product placement in television programmes (report, 14 September) would do well to make a clear distinction in the case of TV drama between product placement which is associated with some plot-related justification (no matter how tenuous), and that where there is no obvious justification.

In the latter instance, the motive is overtly a commercial one intended to give a product exposure on the small screen, but at least the integrity of the story is unlikely to be compromised. In the former, the advertising value of inclusion of a product comes across as incidental, because it derives from dramatic necessity.

However, manufacturers in such instances will probably stipulate conditions on the depiction of a product. For instance, a car company whose vehicles feature prominently in a soap opera, as German brands did in Dallas (underlining their upmarket appeal by association with the preferences of the affluent Ewing family), may well draw the line at depicting an accident in one of their cars. In other words, at some cost in terms of artistic freedom. This deserves close attention from those responsible for the new regulatory framework.

Professor David Head

Dean, Faculty of Business and Law, University of Lincoln

Elitist sneers at popular fiction

Writing about the Independent Woodstock Festival John Walsh (11 September) betrays himself as suffering from the malady of selective elitism that seems to be blight so many "literary" journalists. Walsh writes: "Giles Foden and D J Taylor are distinguished novelists of the past – not the over-researched cliché-strewn past of 'historical fiction', but the past of just-about-living memory."

Ouch! So Walsh thinks that there is good fiction about the past and "historical fiction". It is a desperately sad snipe at the vast majority of readers and writers to assert such nonsense.

The thing about genres, all genres, is that the texts which are ascribed to them are broadly populist or literary. The same goes for non-fiction. Andrew Roberts represents the populist wing of historical writing, as opposed to serious history. That's all that really needs to be said, and not many people will carp at that. However, to pick on historical fiction and slap those knowing quote marks around the term smacks of the worst kind of snobbery and short-sightedness.

Simon Scarrow



New offence?

I have been a magistrate for several years and have never heard of a prosecution for "driving with undue care and attention" (leading article, 17 September). Is this a case of writing without due care and attention?

Peter Oliver

London NW11

Keith Floyd vilified

I am inclined to take more cognisance of the opinions of TV producers and fellow chefs on Keith Floyd's abilities as a television presenter and chef than Paul Levy's miserable hatchet job of an obituary (17 September). But there again, perhaps they were all just being kind about a flawed bon viveur who just happened to give enormous pleasure to those fortunate enough to catch his programmes. Something no one could accuse Mr Levy of doing.

John Adkins

St Austell, Cornwall

Antipodean time

I think I can see where David Markham is going wrong (letters, 15 September). He is staying up until midnight awaiting outcomes to occur "at the end of the day" and is disappointed that they fail to materialise. As he is a resident of Canberra, Australia, the end of the day in the UK is 12 hours after the end of the day there. He's just going to bed too early.

Alan Lewendon

Fordingbridge, Hampshire

Truly honour Turing

Apologising to Alan Turing 50 years after giving him breasts and driving him to suicide is shutting the stable door after the horse has well and truly bolted. What would truly honour his memory are actions. In the world today there are human-rights abuses against homosexuals which make Alan Turing's treatment seem like a day at the seaside. Perhaps the Government would like to do something about these? They could start by trying to do something about the execution of homosexuals under Sharia law.

Daniel Emlyn-Jones


Animal instincts

If money can buy you a bitch (Christina Patterson, 16 September), what does it say about the old dog making the purchase?

Helen Keliris

Harrow, Middlesex