Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival last night, Professor David Edgerton had some fun dispelling a number of long-established “myths” about Britain in World War II. Several of the “myths” were really cases of competing truths. For example, he attacked the idea that Germany’s submarines substantially reduced British imports during the war. Yes, imports went down when measured by volume, but the value of imports went up.
This paradox is easily explained. With the Nazi occupation of Europe, Britain had to shift the primary source of her imports from the continent to the Americas and Australia & New Zealand, making freight journeys much longer. Before the war, the country had imported large amounts of animal feed and iron ore, both low value raw materials. With freight much more expensive, it made sense to switch imports to low-volume finished goods. So imports of canned meat, finished steel, machine parts and engines increased dramatically, while imports of maize were eliminated. Instead of growing our own cows we got the Uruguayans to do it for us.
The truth that Hitler’s U-Boats contributed to a general reduction in imports (by volume) was helpful to Churchill and successor politicians trumpeting Britain’s ability to stand alone. The truth that imports (by value) actually increased during the war is probably more relevant.
Edgerton’s book, Britain’s War Machine, is here.
If you’re getting on a bit and find it takes longer to remember something, you will be cheered by Frontiers’ shaping of the reality of ageing. We are invited to “reframe” our understanding of data retrieval in the brain by thinking about all of the extra information (memories) that an older brain contains. Put simply, a younger person has fewer memories to search through for the required information and consequently is bound to find it more quickly. This was likened to a brand new computer which runs faster than it ever will once it’s been filled with all your data. So taking longer to remember the name of an acquaintance isn’t a sign of mental deterioration — it means you simply have more hay to search through for the needle than that sharp youngster beside you.
This model of mental data processing may or may not be accurate (and it is disputed). But the same programme offered another, unqualified case of shaping reality. In mental agility tests, people who held a negative view of the effect of age on the mind performed worse than those who did not. If you believe age is slowing you down, it will slow you down. How’s that for a reason to choose your truths carefully?
A thoughtful analysis of the English Working Class has just aired on Radio 4. Historian Jon Lawrence struggled with definitions of the traditional class categories. He observed that, perversely, the English tend to associate being “middle class” with being posh. Why? Surely if you’re in the middle, you’re… average (and few would claim that posh means average). Consequently, people tend to avoid calling themselves middle class. Equally troublesome is the definition of “working class”. Lots of British people claim to be working class on the grounds that they work for a living. Well, you can’t fault that logic, but it’s hardly what the term historically implied. Are the millionaires of the City or those aristocrats who run wedding businesses out of their stately homes also to be considered working class?
In surveys, when given a straight choice between upper, middle and working class, the majority of British people declare themselves to be working class (see the British Social Attitudes Survey, 2013). This, despite the assertion of the British Sociological Association that the traditional working class has fallen to just 14% of the total population. Yet if another option is offered — “lower middle class” — apparently most survey respondents will opt for that. Average, without the danger of seeming posh.
Change the question and you change the standing of a nation in a second.
Class in Britain is a famously complex and messy business. Some of us prefer to pretend it no longer exists at all. But even these few examples show how many different truths are available to anyone wanting to indulge in a little class warfare.
Mike Lynch, one of the founders of Autonomy, tells a story of the early days of the software corporation. Back in the 90s, the fledgling business was operating out of a single room in Cambridge, and Lynch was concerned that potential clients might be put off by their visible smallness. So he put a sign on the door of the broom cupboard marked “Authorised Personnel Only”, and told visitors they couldn’t go past that door “for security reasons”.
‘I like to think they imagined thousands of computer scientists coding frantically, tapping away at machines behind the door, rather than the reality of an old mop and a bottle of detergent,’ says Lynch.
Was he deliberately misleading? Yes, certainly. Was he actually untruthful? Not necessarily: it was his right to determine who was and was not allowed in that broom cupboard. The ploy was both harmless and a masterful example of shaping reality, and it helped give those early clients just enough confidence to turn a tiny start-up into one of Britain’s greatest tech success stories.