Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

This week, an alliance of bodies concerned about 'heritage', led by the National Trust and including English Heritage and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, launched a campaign called History Matters. It is designed to 'raise awareness of the importance of history in our lives', with the strong implication that our public culture -- and our current government -- ignores this. As if to confirm their view that history is pushed to the sidelines, the media preferred to concentrate on football and Wimbledon, and gave the star-studded (Boris Johnson, David Starkey, Tony Benn, Stephen Fry) opening presentation little attention. I have a local story which confirms the problem. As befits the town which commemorates our nation's most famous date, Battle in Sussex has its own historical society. At the beginning of the year the society decided to sponsor a £100 prize for a history essay on any subject, local, national or European, of 1,000 words to be open to pupils aged 15 and 16 in all the secondary schools in the district. The chairman duly wrote personal letters to the heads of the 16 schools, both state and independent. He received no replies at all. By chance, he met the headmistress of one of the schools at a party, and raised the matter with her. She said she was not surprised by the lack of response, because no pupils that she knew of now wrote essays: their exams consisted of answers in boxes, or in single paragraphs.

No teacher would want to encourage them in this outmoded skill. But she suggested telephoning the other 15 heads and having another go. This the chairman did. He was not put through to any of the heads, and only one called him back.

Ninety years after the battle of the Somme, shouted one tabloid this week, British soldiers are 'still being used as cannon fodder'. It was referring to the deployment in Afghanistan. So far, five British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in an operation which has gone on for several weeks. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme 19,240 British soldiers were killed. History matters.

Further light on the difference between 'may' and 'might' (see Spectator's Notes, 17 June) comes from my original correspondent, Mr J.D. Tunnicliffe. He writes: 'One has to bear in mind that might, whatever non-grammarians may think, is either a past or conditional tense and cannot be anything else.' In a postscript to another recent letter to me he adds, crushingly but correctly, 'I cannot recall ever finding a misuse of may/might in the writings of Bill Deedes.' I am relieved to find, though, that I am not alone in having found the subject confusing. The distinguished novelist Philip Pullman has written to me to say, 'This was something that puzzled me till I got the hang of it.' 'The point, ' Mr Pullman goes on, 'is simply this: "may" means that we're still uncertain, "might" means that there was uncertainty once, but it has passed.' He exemplifies the difference: 'If it hadn't been for the work of Bletchley Park, Germany might have won the second world war'. If one wrote 'Germany may have won the second world war', it would suggest one was unsure whether she did or not. Perhaps, in modern secondary schools, they are unsure about this. History matters.

At Christmas I planted the germ of a rectory club in the minds of readers of the Daily Telegraph. …

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