Gove gives his opposite number an A* in the Times, but the Mail gives him grade U

Janet Downs's picture
What a gift it was for The Times* – to ask Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education (and ex-Times journalist) to review a newly-published book by his opposite number, Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt.

Ten Cities That Made an Empire is a history of the British Empire as told by the cities the Empire left behind. And Michael Gove, rewriter of the History national curriculum, has written a generous review. Hunt's book is an “exemplary read” which enters controversial territory yet allows the author to “emerge with honour, and objectivity”. The book is “clever, stylish, carefully balanced ideologically…and a pleasure to spend time with”.

Gove was so amused by Hunt’s description of the future William IV showing the Bullingdon Club has royal pedigree that he described it as “one of the funniest passages of nonfiction you’ll read all year”.

Unfortunately for Hunt, however, there was the “odd factual slip” or “schoolboy errors”. Ouch. Gove gave two. The Daily Mail, however, listed all 14 under the headline:

“Back to school: Labour's shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt publishes history book riddled with errors - discovered by his Tory rival Michael Gove.”

The Mail is being hypercritical. A few of these mistakes could be typos (eg “Powerhouse” instead of “Powerscourt”). But someone must have gleefully given the list of errors, allegedly found by Gove himself, to the paper. Perhaps it was the “Tory source” who said:

'Just like Labour’s education policy, Tristram is all style and no substance. He can boast all he likes about his "deep and sustained reading" of history, but none of that matters if he can’t get his facts right.’

Gove might like to distance himself from “Tory source” and his remarks about getting facts right. After all, Gove hasn’t always got facts right himself (see here, here and here for three examples out of many).

Gove’s review of Hunt’s book was erudite, thoughtful and elegantly written. But Gove’s tendency to demonstrate his wide-reading veers into showing-off. To list more than three historians, however “brilliant”, risks breaking the rule of alliteration – bang, bang, bang, CRASH:

Wi’ “Niall Ferguson, Jan Morris, Thomas Pakenham,
Saul David, Michael Burleigh, John Darwin”
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

And why, when describing Hunt’s ability to pause (like a “practised tour guide”) does Gove write “vaut le détour”? Surely “worth a detour” would do (and obey Orwell’s rule never to use foreign expressions when there is a perfectly good English equivalent).

But these criticisms are nit-picking. Gove’s review of Ten Cities that Made an Empire has persuaded me to buy a copy…when it comes out in paperback.

*The Times, Saturday Review, 31 May 2014, available on-line to subscribers only.
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