Saturday, 27 April 2013


Does this sound familiar? You’re thoroughly absorbed in reading a biography or historical work, lost in admiration for the author’s ability to bring the past alive, when suddenly, perhaps in the final chapter of the book, you experience a rude shock. All of a sudden, the spell is broken: the essential relationship of trust between writer and reader has been undermined, and you feel traduced, irritated, sullied even.

What has happened? The author has committed what I’m tentatively calling a POOPCAN (though if anyone can come up with a better acronym, I’m open to suggestions). A what, you may ask? A POOPCAN. A Politically Objectionable Out of Place Contemporary Analogy. Departing from his or her brief, and straying from their acknowledged expertise as a biographer or historian, the author has unexpectedly drawn a tendentious parallel between historical events and current concerns, and worse, has attempted to see ‘lessons’ in the past for contemporary debates. And let’s be honest: it's especially grating when this parallel-drawing serves to reinforce political positions that the reader finds objectionable.

The most egregious example of this sort of thing that I’ve come across is in the closing pages of Carmen Callil’s devastating account of anti-semitism and pro-Nazi collaborationism in occupied France. For me, the book was almost ruined by her concluding (and deeply offensive) claim that the Jews of Israel were now ‘passing on’ to the Palestinians what they had experienced at the hands of the Nazis.

Much less offensive, but still extremely irritating to this reader, was Jenny Uglow’s attempt, towards the end of her richly enjoyable book about the Restoration, to compare Charles II’s high-handed behaviour with the strategy of a recent British prime minister. Discussing the king’s controversial negotiation of the Treaty of Dover in 1670, Uglow writes:

It was the secrecy of the treaty that was so significant. For a king who had intended to be so open and accessible, this was an admission that he must now rule in a different way. His assertion at the Restoration that he wanted to rule with his parliament was implicitly denied, and his actions were the forerunner of many later deals, when heads or cabinets of allegedly democratic states commit their nations to action without the knowledge or full agreement of parliament and people. To modern eyes, the treachery may lie less in ‘the design about R[eligion]’, which so shocked his contemporaries, than in Charles’ committing his country to fight a pointless war in which thousands of lives might be lost.

Uglow was writing in 2009, and it’s not difficult to see which recent events were in her mind. The analogy is both anachronistic (there's a world of difference between a 17th century monarch ruling as if by divine right and an elected 21st century leader) and deeply flawed. If it’s the decision to go to war in Iraq that Uglow is referring to (and I’d bet good money that it is), then she is conveniently forgetting the fact that the decision, whatever you think of it, was supported by a majority in Parliament and that the debate was conducted very much in public. Then there is the lazy use of the hackneyed terminology of what Norm Geras calls the verkrappt Left: ‘allegedly democratic states’, ‘pointless war’. At this point carefully-evidenced historical narrative gives way to political grandstanding.

My most recent experience of POOPCAN-spotting came a couple of weeks ago. We spent a few days in Barcelona over Easter, and one of the books I took with me was Michael Eaude’s cultural history of Catalonia. It’s an informative and wide-ranging introduction to this stateless nation, covering history, literature, the visual arts and sport. But it was almost spoilt for me by a single throwaway remark. Writing about the expulsion of Muslims from Catalonia in the Middle Ages, Eaude adds in brackets: 'the War on Islam is nothing new'. Hang on: what war on Islam? Does such a thing even exist, outside the paranoid ravings of fundamentalists, or their apologists on the aforesaid verkrappt Left? And what’s with the capital ‘W’, lending this tendentious coining a semi-official status? OK, so it's literally a parenthetical remark, but what I found objectionable was the lazy recycling of the slogans of clerical fascists, in a way that can only give comfort to their spurious claims of victimhood. 

Like Uglow’s nudge-nudge reference to the Iraq war, Eaude’s use of the unexamined assumptions of a certain section of the Left appeals to a set of supposedly shared assumptions – ‘we all think this way, don’t we?’ - which is both objectionable and out of place. POOP, in fact. I shall be on the lookout for further examples and would be pleased to have any others pointed out to me.