The Loyalists

This July 4th spare a thought for the losers of the War of Independence, those Americans who stayed loyal to King and Empire.

They were colonial government officials and aristocratic landowners, lowly tradespeople and farmers, descendants of the Mayflower and recent immigrants, White and Black and Native American, free, indentured, and enslaved. They were the Loyalists, about a third of all Americans, who for a variety of reasons chose the side of the King in what contemporaries called “a bitter civil war.” We catch only brief glimpses of them on the sidelines in the triumphalist histories of the American Revolution, but American historian Maya Jasanoff centers their stories in this first global history of the Loyalist experience from war to exile.

More than just a work of first-class scholarship, Liberty’s Exiles is a deeply moving masterpiece that fulfills the historian’s most challenging ambition: to revivify past experience.  

Niall Ferguson

The book is crammed with facts and statistics gleaned from the archives but enlivened by the intimate experiences of individuals, often in their own words.

During the war the colonies established Patriot “committees of safety” that administered loyalty oaths. Those who refused to swear could be jailed and their property confiscated. They were often subjected to mob violence, torture, and tar and feathering. Loyalists went into hiding or, as the war went on, sought refuge in the British held cities of New York, Savannah, and Charleston.

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How I Learned To Speak American

A recent online discussion in a group for Brits living in America concerned how our accents evolve over time. It reminded me of an embarrassing incident from my first weeks in America. This piece was first published in The Dabbler in November 2012.

What linguistic traps are lurking in this gutter?

Americans still hear my English accent, but in England people think I’m an American. In truth my accent must be hovering somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic after so many years immersion in the American dialect. It takes a long time for an accent to change. I still say “ban-ah-na” and “tom-ah-to” much to my grandsons’ amusement. But after being put in charge of library work schedules years ago I did quickly change over to saying “skedule.”  I had to say the word so many times in the course of a day that “shedule” just began to sound pretentious to my own ears. As a new supervisor there was no advantage in conforming to the stereotype of a haughty, condescending Brit. But for the most part accents change unconsciously and imperceptibly like rocks polished to smoothness over millennia of tumbling in a riverbed. You land on a foreign shore speaking precise, clipped BBC English and then journey back years later to find yourself taken for a foreigner in your own hometown. 

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Biden’s Twelve Days of Christmas

For Christmas 2018 I wrote Trump’s 12 Days of Christmas. Now it is Joe Biden’s turn.

On the first day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Joe Manchin’s lump of coal, not really shocking!

On the second day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

On the third day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Three obstructive Republicans
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

On the fourth day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Four Fox hosts a lying
Three obstructive Republicans
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

On the fifth day of Christmas Biden found inside his stocking
Five COVID variants
Four Fox hosts a lying
Three obstructive Republicans
Two piqued Progressives
And Joe Manchin’s lump of coal.

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What is History?

In this edition of On My Bookshelf I rediscover a history lesson.

This little paperback was published by Pelican Books, an imprint founded by Penguin Books in 1937 to offer intellectual nonfiction to ordinary people for “no more than the price of a packet of cigarettes.” The books were very popular in the postwar period, The Guardian calling them an “informal university for ’50s Britons.” My copy of What is History? by E. H. Carr was published in 1965 and shows its age. The pages are not so much yellowed as nicotine colored but the spine has held up. When I open it, for the first time in decades, I see a dedication written inside. A friend gave it to me for Christmas in 1965. She signed it with her schoolgirl nickname which I will refrain from sharing with the world to preserve her dignity. She is one of the few friends from that long ago time I am still in touch with.

What led me back to this book after so long? I remembered it and thought it might shed light on the current controversy over the teaching of history, particularly the history of slavery and race in America. I was not disappointed. This is one of the first relevant quotes I came across:

“There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.

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The Plains of Abraham

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham

One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.

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Across America by Greyhound Bus

Fifty years ago this month I arrived in New York on a student charter flight and traveled to San Francisco on a Greyhound bus. This is my account of my 1970 trip, first published in The Dabbler in June 2012.

The kiss was the longest, most passionate I had ever seen outside a movie. The passengers craned their heads above the seats for a better view while the driver tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel. The young couple stood in the bus doorway, he on the dusty ground, she leaning into him from the bottom step. We were somewhere in America, the land spreading flat and empty and endless all around. The scene might have had all the emotional drama of a classic movie lovers parting, but we all knew these lovers had met a mere 24 hours before.

This is one of the most vivid memories of my cross-country journey, New York City to San Francisco, in the fall of 1970. I wish I could tell you that I travelled in a painted, Continue reading “Across America by Greyhound Bus”

Fons Americanus – Art For This Time

The events of the past several weeks, the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer, the protests that swept the nation and the world, and President Trump’s attempt at brutal “domination” brought to mind an art work I saw in London this March.

I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Viewed from the top of the long sloping floor of the former power station it looked like an enormous tiered wedding cake. Perhaps it was the effect of the bland white surface that brought cake frosting to mind. The sculpture stood at the far end of the cavernous Turbine Hall in Tate Modern, where on previous visits we had seen other art installations, none particularly memorable. This would be different. As we came closer we heard the water. The tiers formed not a cake but a fountain, water Continue reading “Fons Americanus – Art For This Time”

An Impromptu Health Seminar

An unusual place for a health seminar

One recent morning I attended a health seminar. In the waiting room of a car service center in Gaithersburg. It was an impromptu kind of thing. Certainly not what I expected when I checked my car in for its 40,000 mile service, then settled down in the spacious lounge for the usual tedious wait. On the muted television CNN relayed the latest alarming news of the world but no-one paid attention. Vehicle anxiety and international crisis don’t mix well. We stared at our phones or worked on our laptops and avoided eye contact as strangers thrown together in public spaces tend to do. But we were about to be nudged out of our cocoons.

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A Good Guy With A Narwhal Tusk

Unidentified men use a narwhal tusk and a fire extinguisher against the London knife attacker

According to Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” But in London on November 29th a bad guy with a knife was stopped by a good guy with a narwhal whale tusk. And another with a fire extinguisher. And a few more with just their bare hands. The incident reveals much about the difference between the cultures on either side of the pond.

First, the attacker used a knife. He managed to kill two people and seriously injure three others before he was subdued. But here in America he would undoubtedly have been Continue reading “A Good Guy With A Narwhal Tusk”

Can You Say Poulsbo?

How would you pronounce the name of Poulsbo, a tiny town on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State? This is a trick question, because unless you live there or you know someone who does, you are certain to get it wrong. That’s because Poulsbo may be the only town in the United States, or perhaps the world, that ended up with the wrong name. All Continue reading “Can You Say Poulsbo?”