Don’t Mention the War

I read that Duxford is in a bit of trouble for funding, and may have to cut its educational budget. That would be a shame.

Duxford, for those who do not know, was for many years a military airfield, from which spitfires flew in WW2 and various fighter jets during the Cold War, and is now part of the Imperial War Museum. Located just to the south of Cambridge, it hosts regular airshows of historic aircraft. I haven’t been for a while, but the last time I went I saw, among other things, a B-17 and a Fairey Swordfish (which I was pleased about, because my father flew in them in the war).

Here one of the IWM’s historians tells something of the history of the airfield.


We do not send our students to Duxford as a matter of course, but some find there way there anyway (there is a regular bus service from the centre of town). The history of armed conflict between nations is a potentially sensitive issue for a language school (and occasionally a formative one – I have a memory that the Bell School in Cambridge started life as an educational charity in the founder’s conviction that the promulgation of a common language would lessen the chances of conflict in Europe and the world).

Peoples remember their wars as they remember their histories, and WW2, especially, tends to come up a fair bit in conversation. We date things from it – yesterday, I was talking about something or other happening ‘after the War’. Over the years I have found myself apologising for the bombing of Lübeck (‘not to worry’, said the student; ‘we started it’), and to an Italian admiral for the torpedoing of the Italian fleet at anchor at Taranto – an action carried out not by my father, but by my father’s squadron, as it happens. I have also  congratulated a Mitsubishi engineer on the excellence of his ‘Zero’ fighters, which sank the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse of the coast of Malaysia, I think, in 1941.

Duxford is not a museum of war, of course, but of a certain sort of technology. Aeroplanes fascinate in the same way that steam trains fascinate. And if that fascination is tied in with a nostalgia of old men for their youth, then that is passing too. Not many veterans get along to Duxford these days I shouldn’t think. And as memories get less personal, so language schools get less idealistic and political, and more commercial. And that it is a good thing, because doing a bit of trade and business with other nations is often the best way to be at peace with them.

Although, having said that, perhaps I should take the opportunity to apologise again for the Opium Wars.


Sorry about that

I found myself apologising a couple of days ago to one of our students, Weijan, for the Opium Wars. This is partly a reflex courtesy – I once also apologised for the RAF bombing of Lübeck – and partly a reasonable acknowledgement that British history is not free of agressive intent.


The Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) were provoked by Chinese Imperial resistance to the wholesale import of opium by the British, who had long been searching for an alternative commodity to exchange for the object of their own addiction – Tea.

Actually it was not tea to which the British were addicted, but sugar. Tea was a better vehicle for sugar than coffee (you can drink much more of it at a sitting), and the British had developed plantations in the West Indies (a whole other story) of cane sugar, on which they were now very pleasantly hooked. The British therefore took to importing tea in vast quantities from China (as well as a good deal of porcelain, used as ballast in the tea trade, and silk), but since the British had no commodity which the Chinese wanted in return, that meant a drain on bullion.

From the eighteenth century on, however, Europeans (chiefly British, under the auspices of the East India Company) began importing opium mixed with tobacco for smoking into China (which already knew the medicinal virtues of the drug) in ever-growing quantities. The Chinese authorities resisted, ineffectually, until by 1838, on the eve of the first Anglo-Chinese war, over 40,000 crates annually were imported from the British East India factories in Patna and Benares.

The two Anglo-Chinese wars effectively settled the matter in the British interest, and secured Hong Kong (and various indemnities and assorted concessions) into the bargain.


I should stop apologising, however. There simply isn’t time. A couple of years ago Stuart Laycock caused a considerable furore when he tallied up the number of countries Britain had invaded in its history – it turns out only 22 modern-day countries have escaped our civilising attentions.

France, it seems, is our favourite country to invade, but in fairness to us, they started it.


Here we go again