Sunday, 26 December 2010

Heinrich Himmler

It is widely known that Himmler, chief of the S.S. and the Gestapo and architect of the Holocaust, was heavily into astrology and fringe medicine as well as extreme racist theories, but it is less well known that he also had strong ideas about porridge. One of his plans was to produce the master-race of the future through the "Lebensborn" breeding homes for the purest specimens of Aryan manhood and womanhood. He thought the mothers' diet was very important, and insisted they should eat porridge for breakfast. When the women complained that porridge would make them fat, Himmler wrote back as follows:-
"I want them to be told that Englishmen, and particularly English lords and ladies, are virtually brought up on this kind of food.... To consume it is considered most correct. It is just these people, both men and women, who are conspicuous for their slender figures. For this reason the mothers in our homes should get used to porridge and be taught to feed their children on it. Heil Hitler!"

This letter was dated December 12th 1941: in other words, at exactly the same time as Himmler was overseeing the construction of the first gas chambers in the death camps in Poland. You cannot describe someone like this as second-rate, or third-rate, or even tenth-rate: but simply as his appalling unique self.

(Source: Manvell & Fraenkel: "Heinrich Himmler")

Holy Relics

In the early 16th century, Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, possessed 19,000 holy relics. These included a thorn from the Crown of Thorns, a crumb from the Last Supper, a twig from the Burning Bush and 204 bits of the children massacred by King Herod. Anyone who viewed these on the correct day of the year and made the necessary gitfs of money would be spared two million years in Purgatory. One can see why one of Frederick's subjects, Martin Luther, began to have doubts on the subject!

(Source: B. Gascoigne; "The Christians")

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Glasgow 40 years ago

I once spent three months in one of the small towns which surround Glasgow. I can boast that during this time I taught the 8th stream in a Glasgow comprehensive school and survived to tell the tale. Actually it must have been quite a well-run school, since nobody actually threw anything at me. On the other hand, I was booed the first time I walked up the school drive. I thought this was strange: after all, for all they knew I could just have come to read the gas meter; what had they got against me? Then I thought; I'm wearing my college scarf; What colour is it? green and white! the Celtic colours! Whoops! These things matter in Glasgow! I hid the scarf for the remainder of my stay. This proved wise: the art master at the school asked me, “Didn’t I think Catholics must have a warped view of life?” and also said, “Celtic have sometimes had to play Protestants in their team, ‘cos Catholics aren’t all that good at football; but Rangers have never played a Catholic, and they never will!” (Sadly, this no longer applies).

I had to teach a history syllabus that I regarded as somewhat odd, because it was exclusively English history, not Scottish; so I was teaching Henry VIII's Reformation to a class containing not a single memebr of the Church of England, one of whom had never previously come across the word "vicar". Two days before the end of term, myhead of department approached me first thing in the morning and asked, "What are you and Mr Thompson doing with the third form first period today?" "Nothing, really", I replied, "It's their last period with us this term and we've covered everything we intended doing". "Well, you'd better think of something", she told me, "because an inspector's coming!" I hastily cobbled something together, being materially assisted by the said Mr Thompson, who contrived to take twenty minutes collecting in the dinner money, including spilling it all over the floor and sending a boy with a severe limp to change a £10 note at the school office; after which he hissed, "I've helped you all I can: it's up to you now!" I just about kept going till the end of the period. The inspector complained that the lesson hadn't been very interesting. He was right too.

On the whole I think I did better than my friend Jimi. He was a Nigerian, a splendid chap who spoke like a negro in an old-fashioned film, and who had volunteered to go to Scotland because he wanted to learn to ski, not realising that Glasgow was a long way from Aviemuir. He ended up teaching biology at a very puritan school in the city centre, where he wasn’t allowed to teach sexual reproduction of hydra. (One pupil looked it up in the textbook and asked about it. “Oh”, said Jimi, “I haven’t bothered to do it, because it only happens in very cold winters at the bottom of deep ponds!”) When the inspector came to visit Jimi, he conducted a lesson revising what the class had learnt about spirogyra. "Can anyone tell me how they breathe?" he asked. A forest of hands shot up, because they all liked him. "Och, shmtbchkltf sir!" a boy answered. "Yeah, that's very good!" said Jimi, "Now, can someone else tell me how they move?" "Och, khlnmdctr sir!", "Yeah, I'm really pleased with your work this term!" This continued for the whole lesson, at the end of which the inspector said, "This is all very well, Jimi, but why don't you build the lesson round their answers a bit more?" "Oh", said Jimi, "That's because I can't understand a word they say!" However, they passed him. I think they passed everyone.

On Saturdays I used to take the train into Glasgow city centre. On my first visit I walked the wrong way down St Vincent Street and ended up somewhere around the Broomilaw before beating a hasty retreat. The strangest Saturday was when, with a masterpiece of timing, the university Rag coincided with Celtic meeting Rangers in a cup-tie. Total mayhem prevailed. I realised it was going to be an unusual occasion when I found a male striptease being conducted at Glasgow Central Station. I travelled on the city underground, which had rather charming little toy trains. In my compartment was a Celtic supporter, already hopelessly drunk, swaying around the compartment singing obscene songs attacking Rangers and falling onto someone’s lap every time the train went round a corner. Fortunately everyone was too amused to thump him. I wonered whether he got to the match at all.

Leaving Glasgow for the last time, I drove through Hamilton, where there was a sign proclaiming the town to be "Bingo Capital of Scotland!" I felt this was somehow appropriate.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

More Clerihews

Steinbeck: "The Grapes of Wrath"

John Steinbeck's family Joad
Should have taken a different road
They received only brutal kicks
Travelling on Route 66

Index under:-
Jagger, Mick; travel recommendation of; refuted

(A photograph of a displaced family, by Dorothea Lange)


Heller: "Catch 22"

Adolf Hitler once read Joseph Heller
But he didn't think much of the feller
He thought there was no way Yossarian
Could ever have passed for an Aryan

Index under:-
Criticism, literary; irrelevant
Point; missing the

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Ghosts of M. R. James

If you glance at any anthology of classic ghost stories you are likely to find in the table of contents “Count Magnus”, or perhaps “The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral”, or “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad”. These are just three of the stories of one of the great masters: M. R. James.

Motagu Rhodes James (1862-1936) hardly seems a likely author in this genre. He was above all a scholar; an antiquary, mediaevalist and church historian whose particular expertise was Apocryphal texts (Jewish and early Christian religious writings not accepted into the Authorised Bible). He served as Provost of Eton and Fellow and Provost of King’s College, Cambridge; but is best known to the general public as the author of ghost stories, which he originally wrote to read at Christmas to his friends. I have heard it alleged that they would threaten to lock him in the cellar until he wrote one! He produced his first story in 1894: thirty of his stories were published in collections between 1904 and 1931. In the 1970s dramatisations of his stories were televised every year under the appropriate title of “A Ghost Story for Christmas”. We can be confident that some of his best stories will continue to appear in anthologies for as long as these continue to be published.

James’s stories are almost all set in the England of his own day, though frequently they refer back to manuscripts or other writings from an earlier period. For the most part they are not, strictly speaking, ghost stories, since very few ghosts as such are involved: they most typically involve malignant spirits or demons whose essence is never explained or accounted for. Usually the “spirit” (for want of a better word) seems to have been raised by someone in the past, perhaps to guard buried treasure, and is awakened by an incautious man of the present day who is investigating a manuscript, tomb or painting (as in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”; my personal favourite), or even casually inviting the spirit to appear to him (“Count Magnus”). We are never told precisely how the spirit was invoked in the first place, since James avoided any detailed “occultism” such as we find in the stories of, for instance, Algernon Blackwood; nor are we told how to get rid of the spirit once it has reappeared, except by such time-honoured methods as burning the particular manuscript or picture. The usual solution is simply to flee the scene, leaving the impression that the spirit is still lurking somewhere. The general message is that we should leave well alone. James is not a bloodthirsty writer; although several of his stories do lead to a death, he usually refrains from gory details, and in many other stories the incautious heroes escape intact.

James has several strong points. He is very good on his descriptions of the spirits, where the information is usually sparse but effective. The spirits are almost always entirely non-human; thin, hairy, dwarfish, dirty. Often they are initially sensed or touched rather than seen. Sometimes they take bizarre forms: a roll of dirty flannel with eyes (“The Uncommon Prayer-Book”), a bed sheet that shapes into “a face of crumpled linen” (“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad”), an engraving that changes every day (“The Mezzotint”), or grotesque carvings that come to life (“The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral”). In many stories (such as “Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance”), the horror occurs in a dream. James is almost invariably successful in building up a dark and threatening atmosphere in preparation for the appearance of the spirit. (I remember reading James for the first time when I was still at school. It was dark, I was alone, because my parents had gone out for the evening, and after reading several of James’s stories I felt very uneasy going outside to get the coal! Of course, I told myself that there was nothing there, but even so ……..!)

Naturally, James has his weaknesses. Modern readers might find his stories slow to get going; and he is far too fond of introducing characters who are made to talk at length in lower-class dialects, often making stupid and irrelevant comments, which can often be irritating to the reader. But very few of his stories fail: he has always had an audience of appreciative followers, and will continue to do so.

The BBC has, over the years, attempted manydramatisations of James's stories, under the general title of "A Ghost Story for Christmas". The classic production was in 1968: "Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You. My Lad", directed by Jonathon Miller and starring Michael Hordern. The Christmas we are promised a new version, starring John Hurt. It is a little disconcerting to learn that the story will be "modernised" (how can you have really sinsiter ghosts under electric light? Surely much of the atmosphere should depend on the light being limited to a single flickering candle, which duly goes out at the crucial moment?). But if a TV adaptation leads to more readers for M. R. James, it can only be a good thing.

For many years now, Rosemary Pardoe has edited a magazine called “Ghosts and Scholars”, devoted to material about M. R. James and to new stories in the James tradition. This can be found by entering her name into the Google search engine.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Appearing on "Mastermind"

My only appearance on television was on the BBC quiz “Mastermind” back in 1981. I would never have got on the show without the good advice from a neighbour, Mrs Horrocks, who had won the final in an earlier year (she was a Tolkien specialist). She told me two very important things when making an application: firstly, that it was useless to admit to being a teacher, since a clear majority of the applicants were teachers; and secondly, that it was necessary to choose an unusual special subject to be tested on. (She had given up teaching to have a baby just before her own application, and was thus able to describe herself as a "housewife") So I duly described myself on my application as a “sportswriter” (I had actually published a number of articles on gymnastics in various magazines), and nominated as my special subject, “The gangster age in the USA, 1919-41”, which I thought might be sufficiently eye-catching. Before I knew it, I had been summoned for an interview!

This took place at a hotel in central Birmingham. I met Roger Mackay, the producer of the show, who told me I was the first sportswriter to apply, and the first person to want to answer questions on the gangsters (thank you, Mrs Horrocks!). Then he asked me twenty general knowledge questions, of which I got about sixteen right, and said they would, in the time-honoured showbiz phrase, “let me know”. A few weeks later I received a letter telling me I’d been accepted. This appeared in retrospect such a hit-and-miss selection process that I’m surprised they didn’t end up with a number of complete duds.

My programme was filmed at Bradford University at the end of August. Actually, two episodes were filmed on the same day, to be broadcast on successive weeks. We all had a number of tickets for the audience, to be given to friends. We met Magnus Magnusson, who was then the quizmaster. All I can really remember about him is that he had enormous hands, like wicket-keeping gloves. In the afternoon we had a rehearsal, which was actually for the benefit of the sound and lighting technicians, but which had the benefit of making us feel less nervous. It involved sitting in the famous black chair, whilst Magnus asked us a series of very easy questions, and said, “Correct” regardless of what we answered. The actual programmes were shot that evening.

I was first one up in the first programme, which was fine as far as I was concerned, since I hate hanging about waiting for anything. People afterwards always asked me if I was nervous, and I always said it was like being in a big sports match: the most nervous moment is when you walk out onto the pitch and wait for things to start: once you’ve touched the ball, you stop feeling nervous (it’s much the same in a play, while you wait to deliver your first line). One important thing about the quiz is that although the TV audience can see the scores up on the screen, the contestants have no idea how many they’ve got until their time is up. As it happened, I scored 13 and the gangsters and 17 on general knowledge, for a total of 30. And I lost by one point! This was especially annoying since my last question was, “Who built the dome on Florence Cathedral?” and all I could remember was “It’s B-somebody!” I should have known it! Incidentally, the contestants in my round were three teachers pretending to be something else, plus a lorry-driver - and since the lorry-driver won, I had my doubts about him too!

When my round had finished, the audience was shuffled around, Magnus Magnusson was given some fresh makeup, and then after a pause the opening sequence was played again and he announced to the cameras, “For the second week running, we’re at the University of Bradford”, and the next episode to be broadcast started. Even when this had been completed it wasn’t quite the end. I had to return to the chair for a second attempt to film the section when I was told the answers to the questions I’d passed on. Then the producer decided the opening sequence with its portentous music wasn’t quite up to standard, and we had to have four or five retakes before he was satisfied. The two programmes were to be screened in October, and we were all sworn to secrecy about the results until then. There was, of course, no prize money, only travelling expenses.

The special subject questions are set by someone who is considered an expert in that field. I found out afterwards that mine had been set by Professor Adams of Keele, an American History specialist. But I didn’t really approve of his choice of questions: when I was revising for the quiz over the summer I read half-a-dozen books on organised crime in New York, but he didn’t ask me a single question about New York. I did ask the producer about a rumour I’d heard that a contestant was once invited to set his own questions, and apparently this did once almost happen. As I recall the story, there was a contestant wanted to answer questions on the life and work of the composer Chopin, so the BBC contacted the Chopin Society to ask for a well-qualified question-setter. They were given the name of a certain man and duly wrote to him - and he told them he was actually the contestant! I wonder whether he ever felt tempted to dishonesty there?

I have no record of this, my solitary TV appearance, because at the time I did not know a single person who possessed a video recorder. That in itself is enough to show the difference between those times and today!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

The Renaissance Papacy, Part 2: Catastrophe

This is the second part of this essay, and deals with the disaster that befell Rome and the Pope

After the death of Julius II, the next pope was Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, younger son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of the great Florentine family, who now became Pope Leo X at only 37 years old. He had always been destined for the church, and was given the livings of various rich churches and monasteries from age of eight, and became a cardinal at just sixteen. He was undoubtedly a clever man, and it was hoped he would bring in more peaceful times after turbulence of Alexander VI and Julius II. Also it was probably suspected that he wouldn’t be there for long: the Medici tended to be short-lived, and indeed it proved so in his case, because he died aged only 46.

During Leo’s pontificate, the papacy rose to unprecedented heights of luxurious living. His main aims seemed to be to live a life of pleasure and to boost the careers of his relatives. “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it”, he said. It was a time of unparalleled splendour in papal Rome. The are reports of banquets lasting four hours, of 65 courses featuring rare and costly food, such as peacock’s tongues, served to the accompaniment of music from the finest orchestras. A banker named Chigi once invited the Pope to his home, and when congratulated on his sumptuous dining-hall, replied, “Your Holiness, this is merely my stable!” The same man impressed his guests by throwing all the silverware out of the window into the river Tiber after each course - though it was said he had prudently hidden nets there to catch them!
Pope Leo did not get on with Michelangelo, but patronised Raphael, who now finished his frescoes in the Vatican apartments. The building of St. Peter’s continued.
There were problems to be dealt with. In 1517, the Pope was threatened with a plot to poison him, headed by two cardinals; but it was discovered in time. The conspirators were arrested and tortured in the dungeons of the Castel san Angelo: the two cardinals, who had powerful friends, were released after paying vast fines, but the lesser plotters were gruesomely executed and their bodies hanged on the San Angelo bridge.

Internationally, the Pope faced a new and ambitious king of France. Francis I was born in 1494, and in 1515 succeeded his second cousin, Louis XII, whose daughter Claude he married. He was the first great Renaissance king of France; a patron to Leonardo and Titian; a collector paintings, including the “Virgin of the rocks“, now in the Louvre; and a great builder, whose memorials include the palace of Fontainebleau and the Loire chateaux of Blois and Amboise.
Francis was hailed as a second Charlemagne, and was keen to renew French claims in Italy, especially Milan. But by now the Spaniards were strongly entrenched there; in full control of Naples and Sicily. The position was made more complicated by the dynastic marriages of the Habsburg family. The heir, Charles, was born in what is now Belgium in 1500, his father dying when he was six years old. Through his mother, Joanna “the Mad” he inherited the throne of Spain, through his paternal grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian, who died when Charles was nineteen, he was Archduke of Austria, and through his grandmother was Duke of Burgundy, which included the Netherlands. Charles became ruler of the Netherlands at fifteen, King of Spain (including much of southern Italy and the newly-discovered American lands) at sixteen, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes in 1520, aged nineteen. Not surprisingly, it was all to prove too much for one man. Charles was immediately sucked into war with the French, who had regained control of Milan. Pope Leo allied with Charles against the French.

As it happened, something that was to prove an even more serious problem for both the Empire and the Papacy was taking form back in Germany. The lavish expenditure of the church, and particularly the vast cost of the building of St. Peter’s, caused the Pope to fall back on the expedient of raising funds by licensing the sale of Indulgencies: documents promising release of souls from Purgatory in return for cash payment. This caused great theological distress to an Augustinian friar and university lecturer in Saxony, who was already undergoing a profound spiritual crisis. His name was Martin Luther. In 1517 he felt moved to make public protest; nailing his “95 Theses” against Indulgencies to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and going on t defend his point of view against papal delegates. The Emperor Charles ignored it at first, as a mere quarrel amongst monks, but the matter soon escalated, and in 1521 Luther summoned to a meeting of the Imperial Parliament, the memorably-named Diet of Worms, where he was ordered to recant his opinions, but refused to do so. Luther was outlawed, but since he had been promised a safe-conduct by the Emperor, was permitted to leave. Luther was taken by sympathetic nobles and hidden in the castle of Wartburg, where he translated the Bible into German and formulated the original Protestant theology.

By this time, Pope Leo no longer in position to care, because in 1521 he died, aged only 46. There now followed a hiatus in the Renaissance papacy. The young Emperor, justifiably unhappy at the lax state of the church, decided the right man to clean things up was his old tutor from Belgium, whom he now forced the cardinals to install as Pope Adrian VI. The high dignitaries looked on with horror as this austere old man slashed papal expenditure and spent only one ducat a day on food. His attempts to reform the papacy met with no success at all, since he died after less than two years in office, to sighs of relief from the College of cardinals. His demise was apparently caused by kidney failure, but poison was naturally suspected. (he was, incidentally, the last non-Italian Pope until John Paul II in our own time)

There was a return to normality with the election of Clement VII, at the age of just 45. He was formerly known as Cardinal Giulio de‘ Medici; though his precise Medici parentage is uncertain. What follows is a great moral tragedy of classical proportions: in the words of a contemporary, “How a great and respected cardinal became a small and contemptible Pope”, and brought appalling suffering upon thousands of his innocent subjects in the process. Not only did Clement make no progress in checking the growth of Protestantism, but he proved hopelessly at sea in politics.

There was war in northern Italy between King Francis and the Emperor Charles, and the Pope seemed unable to make up mind about what to do. He appeared to support first one side, then the other, and as a result became universally mistrusted. In 1525 the Emperor’s forces completely defeated the French at battle of Pavia, and King Francis himself was taken prisoner. Still Clement persisted in what seemed like double-dealing, thought it was probably only a fatal indecision. In spring 1527 a huge, ill-disciplined and virtually starving Imperial army of Germans, Spaniards and assorted mercenaries approached Rome. Charles was not with his army, because there were other problems confronting his vast empire. On May 6th, the attack on the virtually defenceless city of Rome began, with Pope Clement still paralysed with indecision. Just to create further confusion, the commanders of the Imperial army were killed early on, leaving their troops without any direction or restraint. Next day, the attackers burst in. Pope Clement barely had time to flee to the Castel Sant’ Angelo and pull up the drawbridge, leaving his city to face the most savage assault since the days of the Normans. Uncounted thousands were killed out of hand, or tortured to make them reveal their hidden treasure. Nuns were raped and churches pillaged. An unknown German soldier scratched the name of Martin Luther on one of Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican. Sant’ Angelo held out, with Benvenuto Cellini directing the defence (or so he tells us). Only when sheer shortage of food forced most of the soldiers to leave Rome was Clement able to escape in disguise and flee to Orvieto. Meanwhile Florence had once again risen in revolt and driven out the recently-restored Medici.

Clement survived, but for the remainder of his pontificate was little more than a prisoner of the Emperor. This proved to have the most crucial consequences for English history, because it was precisely at this time that Henry VIII requested the Pope to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. There had been doubts about the validity of this marriage 20 years earlier, when Henry had sought the then Pope’s permission to marry the widow of his dead brother; a union apparently forbidden in the Scriptures. Julius II had duly given the marriage his blessing, but Catherine’s failure to produce a son had led Henry to suspect this had been wrong. He therefore asked, not for a divorce, but an annulment: a Papal ruling that the marriage had never been valid in the first place, and that technically Henry and Catherine had been living in sin for two decades, and their daughter Mary was illegitimate. The tangle of dynastic marriages meant that Catherine was the Emperor’s aunt! There was no way that Charles would tolerate such an insult to his family. The unfortunate Pope could do nothing to help Henry, who had to seek other paths out of his difficulties. So a train of events was set leading to the Church of England breaking away for the Church of Rome.

Charles promised Pope Clement to restore to Medici to Florence, and sent a Spanish army of 40,000 to achieve this. Thanks to new fortifications designed by Michelangelo, the city withstood a siege of ten months before being driven by starvation to surrender in autumn 1530. Leading anti-Medicians were executed, tortured or exiled: the nineteen-year-old Alessandro de’ Medici was installed in power, and married to the Emperor’s even younger illegitimate daughter Margaret. In October 1533, the Pope himself conducted the marriage of the fourteen-year-old Catherine de’ Medici to Henry, second son of King Francis of France, but soon to be the heir.

In autumn 1534, Pope Clement died. Rome rejoiced. As the corpse lay in state, someone transfixed it with a sword. His official Latin superscription, “Clemens Pontifex Maximus” was altered to “Inclemens Pontifex Minimus”; rightly so, since he had been a complete failure.It was in the dark spirit of the times that Michelangelo returned to Rome to paint his terrifying Last Judgement in the Sinstine Chapel, with Christ hurling sinners down to hell. It was a fitting image of the disaster that befallen not just Rome, but much of Europe.

King Francis I died in 1547, by which time France was already being torn apart by religious divisions. His son now became king as Henry II, so Catherine de’ Medici was unexpectedly Queen of France. Later as a widow she continued to dominate the government of her three sons until her own death in 1589. Charles V ruled his vast empire till he abdicated in 1558. His own failure was due to having to take on too much: he won a dominant position in Italy, but could barely contain the spread of Protestantism in Germany and the Netherlands. He was also threatened from the east, because in 1526 the Turks, under the great Sultan Sulemain the Magnificent, advanced through the Balkans and annihilated the armies of Hungary at the battle of Mohacs. Soon Budapest fell and Turkish forces were swarming up to the gates of Vienna itself. This collapse left Charles’s brother Ferdinand as heir to what little remained of the Kingdom of Hungary, and also the Kingdom of Bohemia, through his wife. At his abdication Charles therefore divided his possessions, leaving the central European lands to Ferdinand, who was duly elected Holy Roman Emperor by the German princes, and Spain, plus the Netherlands, the Italian territories and the new American conquests, to his son Philip.

We can see the death of Clement as marking the end of the Renaissance papacy. The popes whose careers we have followed were great men in many ways; they were diplomats, administrators; soldiers, even; they were great builders and had impeccable artistic taste. But it cannot be said that any one of them was particularly pious. The Italy they tried to dominate acquired a European-wide reputation as a hotbed of treachery and murder. We can see in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries how it was assumed that this was the way people behaved in Italy. Soon the popes were obliged to be less blatantly pleasure-seeking and more serious-minded about religion: the popes of the Counter-Reformation. Everything would be different. Nevertheless, the terrible period we have covered, of little more than a single generation, witnessed the entire working career of Raphael and almost all the major work of Leonardo and Michelangelo, as well as many others of almost equal talent. Why this should be is one of the great debating-points of history.

A note on St. Peter’s.
The original basilica of St. Peter’s was built under the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, and after a thousand years it is unsurprising that it was found to be in a dangerous state. A complete demolition and rebuilding was first contemplated by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s, making the significant comment, “If the authority of the Holy See were visibly displayed in majestic buildings, all the world would revere it”. But it was only half a century later that Julius II decided to take such an irrevocable step of building an entirely new cathedral. The project was given to the great architect Bramante, who conceived the daring plan of “putting the Pantheon on top of the Basilica of Maxentius”. Julius himself laid the foundation stone on April 28th 1506. Such an enormous work took many decades to complete. It is quite wrong to assume that when the plundering Imperial forces stormed into Rome in 1527 they would see anything like the present building. In fact, St. Peter’s would have been a vast building site: even the drum to support the dome was nowhere near completion. After Bramante’s death in 1514, he was succeeded as chief architect by Raphael, by Sangallo and by Michelangelo, who climbed the scaffolding for the last time just three days before his death in 1564. All of them made significant changes to the original plan. The cathedral was consecrated by Pope Urban VIII in 1626, but even after this changes continued to be made. The great Square of St. Peter with its colonnades was the work of Bernini in the 1660s. Only the would the cathedral be recognisable to modern eyes.
St. Peter’s is only the most spectacular part of the rebuilding of Rome that began in the 15th century, to produce the splendid city centre that we see now. This had one very unfortunate consequence. A visitor to the city today may wonder why so little remains of the huge palaces, temples and baths which would have dominated the city in the days of the Roman Empire. The answer is that they were cannibalised to provide convenient building stone for the new cathedrals and churches. The marble facings were even burnt to make lime for mortar! Although Bramante incorporated some old features into the new St. Peter’s, particularly tombs and monuments, it was said of him that “he destroyed more than he built”. The Coliseum survived only because the pope decided to preserve it as a memorial to the Christian martyrs who suffered there - though in fact most of the martyrdoms took place in the Circus Maximus, of which hardly any stonework survives. So a tourist who wonders what became of the imperial palaces on the Palatine hill could well find the answer in St. Peter’s!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Renaissance Papacy: Part 1: Glory

This essay will cover the glory and catastrophe that was the Renaissance papacy. This is Part One: the years of glory

In 1492, Rodrigo Borgia was chosen as the new pope, taking the name Alexander VI. He was a Spaniard, or more strictly a Catalan, from a line of minor gentry, born in 1431. His elevation was due to his uncle, who had risen to become Pope Calixtus III. During his brief pontificate (1455-58), Calixtus appointed his nephew a cardinal and then vice-chancellor of the Holy See at the age of just 26. Rodrigo Borgia rapidly became one of the richest and most influential men in the College of Cardinals, noted for his great intelligence and ability, and lived in enormous luxury. He fathered at least six children by several different women, the most famous being the sons Giovanni and Cesare and the daughter Lucrezia. At death of Pope Innocent VIII, he contrived to be chosen as the next Pope by means of intrigue and colossal bribery, to the fury of his great rival Cardinal Giuliano delle Rovere, who was backed by the French and was himself the nephew of the late Pope Sixtus IV.
The Rome he inherited was described by Lorenzo de’ Medici as “a sink of iniquity”. For the first half of the 14th century the popes had resided not in Rome but in Avignon, and were little more than puppets of the King of France. From 1378 there followed a disgraceful period known as the “Great Schism”, when there were two, or for a while even three rival Popes, all hurling anathema at each other. Only with the election of Martin V in 1417 had the papacy returned permanently to Rome, and in the remainder of the 15th century the once-great city had barely started to recover. The population had fallen to about 50,000. There were an estimated fourteen murders a day in the city, the killers not being deterred by the sight of the rotting corpses of criminals hanging from the Castel Sant’ Angelo, since it was easy, if sufficiently influential, to bribe one’s way to freedom. (A later Pope said, “The lord does not desire the death of a criminal, but that he should pay and go free!”) There were said to be 7,000 prostitutes working the city, many in brothels licensed by church, and very profitable! Resulting from this, a new disease was sweeping the city: syphilis: “Very common among priests!” noted Cellini, who caught it himself. The former papal territories in the hinterland of Rome, the so-called “Patrimony”, had descended into complete lawlessness and banditry.
Pope Alexander wished to rebuild the city, to restore order and regain papal territories, and not least to advance his children to wealth and power - but first he had very great peril to cope with.

There was a new king of France, Charles VIII, aged twenty; small, ugly, deformed, unable to speak clearly, but active and ambitious, and possessed of a large army. He was keen to rule an empire, and cast his eye on Naples, now under Spanish control, but where the French monarchy had a dynastic claim. When King Ferrante of Naples died in January 1494, Charles decided to invade. He was encouraged in this by the effective ruler of Milan, the sinister Lodovico Sforza, known as “Il Moro“. The Sforza family had been mere mercenary condottiore two generations earlier, but had risen to succeed the Visconti dynasty in Milan. The dreadful tyrant Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza had been murdered in 1476, leaving only a seven-year-old boy of feeble intellect, Gian Galeazzo, with the boy’s uncle Lodovico as regent; and, as with all wicked uncles, eager to seize power himself. (Despite the extreme brutality of the city’s politics, these were great days for art in Milan: Leonardo da Vinci came to the city in 1482, to paint the “Last Supper” and to plan a life-size equestrian statue of the late Duke, which he modelled in clay but never actually made)
In September 1494 a French army of 30,000 men, featuring the first fully mobile cannon-train to be seen in Italy, crossed the Alps, with Cardinal della Rovere providing spiritual support. They were welcomed at Milan by Lodovico, where the unfortunate young ducal heir conveniently died. Lodovico Sforza then arrested the remainder of the Visconti family and proclaimed himself Duke of Milan. The French army trundled on into Florentine territory, where Piero de’ Medici, the wholly inadequate heir to the great Lorenzo “the Magnificent”, acted with fatal indecision, first promising to support Naples and then proclaiming himself neutral. The French, unimpressed, seized the Florentine fortress of Fivizzano and slaughtered the entire garrison. For some time the Dominican friar Savonarola had been preaching fiery sermons prophesying the doom of Florence, as punishment for its sins, and now that doom had arrived!
In November 1494 Piero de’ Medici fled the city, and Medici rule collapsed. The family’s palace was pillaged by the mob, and Medici bank assets were seized. A republican government was set up, with Savonarola as its inspiration, though he held no office. King Charles and his army entered city, to be hailed by Savonarola as “minister of God”. There was little violence, and the French were promised a vast sum to persuade them move on. Savonarola’s sermons grew ever more apocalyptic, provoking Florentines to stage great “bonfires of the vanities”, publicly burning all their luxuries. On one such occasion, a visiting Venetian, seeing all the perfumes, robes and ornaments piled up ready to be burnt, offered a large sum for the lot. The Florentines showed what they thought of Venetian frivolity by quickly having his portrait sketched and placing it on top of the bonfire!
Meanwhile Charles marched on through Rome, where the Pope took refuge in the Castel Sant’ Angelo, and the French army took Naples without opposition. Charles stayed there for a while, but the Pope built up a coalition to oppose him: a Holy League of King Ferdinand of Spain, the Emperor Maximilian of Germany, Venice, and Milan, where Duke Lodovico changed sides - but not including Florence, which was now supporting the French. In July 1495 there was a great battle between the French and the forces of the Holy League under Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua. Despite heavy casualties the battle was inconclusive, but French were now greatly outnumbered and had to retreat from Italy leaving most of their baggage and plunder behind. King Charles died childless in 1498, and was succeeded by his distant cousin, Louis XII; but the French had no intention of abandoning their Italian ambitions.
Pope Alexander was now determined to deal with Savonarola, or at least to silence him. He tried first to buy him off with the promise to make him a cardinal, but without result. By summer 1497 Alexander had had enough, and excommunicated him. The Florentine economy now in a weak condition, Savonarola’s popularity was declining and his enemies began to make moves against him, especially the Franciscan friars, the rivals of Dominicans. A week before Easter 1498, Savonarola was challenged to prove his divine inspiration by a trial by ordeal, running between two huge bonfires. The spectacle was set up, then inexplicably called off. Riots followed, and Savonarola and his leading supporters were arrested. Savonarola was tortured to get him to confess to heresy and other crimes; he was hanged and burnt in the Piazza della Signoria and his ashes scattered to leave no relics. Florence continued as a republic without him. His reputation remains ambiguous: Michelangelo said that for the rest of his life he could always hear the voice of the Friar ringing in his head; and there have since been occasional moves to declare him a saint.

The Pope’s other great aim was to establish his children in power and wealth; so his son Giovanni became Duke of Gandia. The second son, Cesare, was destined for the church: he had become a priest at six years old and was now made a Cardinal at eighteen. The rest were married off, notably Lucrezia, who was married, at the age of just twelve, to Giovanni Sforza of Milan, and when this proved inconvenient, divorced and married to Alfonso, bastard son of king of Naples. But in June 1497, Giovanni, Duke of Gandia, was mysteriously murdered and his body dumped in Tiber. A local man testified that he saw several figures drop a body in at night: asked why he hadn’t informed the authorities, he said he had witnessed at least a hundred similar incidents! Cesare now renounced the priesthood and set out to conquer the Romagna (the region around Bologna) for the papacy and for himself; and proved notably successful, employing a mixture of military skill, treachery and assassination that was praised by Machiavelli. In 1500 Lucrezia’s second husband was murdered, possibly with the connivance of Cesare, and she then married Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara for political reasons. Alexander’s foreign policy was now moving closer to France. In 1498 the French were in Italy again, under their new king, Louis XII: this time to press a dynastic claim to Milan, with the aid of Venice and the Pope. Duke Lodovico raised a force of Swiss mercenaries to fight them, but he was no soldier: his army deserted him at the battle of Novaro, and he ended his days in prison in France; the last independent Duke of Milan, leaving his duchy to be contested between foreign powers.
Alexander was called upon to adjudicate on a new and unique question. This was the time of Columbus’s voyages across the Atlantic, and by the Treaty of Tordesillas in May 1493, Alexander allotted all the new lands just discovered. An imaginary line of longitude was drawn 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands: everywhere west of this was awarded to Spain, and east of it to Portugal (which is why Portuguese, rather than Spanish, is spoken in Brazil). But the treaty was soon being ignored by the English, French and Dutch.

In 1500 Alexander organised a Jubilee (a festival held every 50 years): the most grandiose one yet. By time of his death in 1503, Alexander had been successful politically, but the flagrant immorality of his family brought the papacy to new low in moral terms. Machiavelli commented, "The soul of the glorious Alexander was now borne among the choir of the blessed. Dancing attendance were his three devoted handmaidens: Cruelty, Simony and Lechery".

The next Pope, Pius III, lasted a mere three weeks before dying, and then the great enemy of the Borgia family, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, was elected Pope as Julius II. (This is his portrait, by Raphael)

He had been born in humble circumstances in 1443, and like Alexander, owed his rise through the hierarchy to the nepotism: literally so, since his uncle had become Pope Sixtus IV. Julius was famous as the soldier-Pope; telling Michelangelo, who was working on a memorial to him, “Do not show me with a book: I am no schoolman! Show me with a sword!” He was always happiest wearing armour. Despite his advanced age, he was often found leading the papal armies personally. One immediate result was the rapid collapse of Cesare Borgia’s power: he was arrested, then fled to Spain, where he died 1512. Julius now wished to recover papal territory encroached on by Venice, so he formed League of Cambrai in 1508, allying France, Spain and the Empire with the papacy against Venice. But his aim was not the destruction of the Venetian Republic, but a new balance of power in Italy; so once the Venetians had been defeated and driven back in 1510, Julius made peace and instead brought Venice into a new anti-French Holy League with Spain. The French were completely defeated and driven out of Italy. Julius allied with the Swiss, and created the original Swiss Guard for the Pope. He now turned his attention to reclaiming the lost cities papal cities in the Romagna. In 1506 he personally led troops to recapture Perugia, and Bologna then surrendered. Next Julius personally directed the siege of Mirandola in 1511, but failed to take Ferrara. He left the papal states in a strong position; but a fragmented Italy was unable to do much about the increasing intervention of the major powers; France, Spain and the Empire.

Florence had remained neutral in war against the French. She remained a republic, taking great pride in her independence. It was during these republican years that Michelangelo carved great statute of David. The leader of the city was the Gonfaloniere, Piero Soderini; but he was overshadowed for posterity by a subordinate official, Niccolo Machiavelli, who tried to revive republican virtue by organising the defence of Florence by a citizens’ militia, mostly consisting of peasants from the countryside. But now the Pope decided to restore the Medici to power. A Spanish army was organised to attack Florence, and in August 1512 reached the town of Prato, 12 miles from Florence. Prato was an ancient walled city, defended by Machiavelli’s militia, but no sooner had Spanish forces made a small breach in the defences than the militia threw down their weapons and ran away. The Spaniards entered town and for two days staged an orgy of killing, raping, looting and torturing. The contemporary Florentine historian Guicciardini wrote “More than 2,000 men died, not fighting, for none fought, but fleeing or crying for mercy”. Women were only spared because Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who accompanied the troops, gave sanctuary within the cathedral and forbade the Spaniards to enter.
As the Cardinal calculated, the terrible example of Prato was sufficient to cause Florence to surrender without a fight. The Medici emblems were restored and all traces of the republic were removed from public display. Soderini fled, Machiavelli remained behind, to be later arrested and tortured before going into retirement and calling upon his experiences in writing his classic masterpiece of political thought, “The Prince”. The book is based on the career of Cesare Borgia.

Pope Julius died a few months later. As well as his political battles, his pontificate had been of enormous artistic importance. Not only did he employ Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael to paint the frescoes in the papal apartments, but he took the decision to demolish the old cathedral of St Peter’s and build a completely new one. The foundations were laid in 1506. But plans for an enormous tomb by Michelangelo had to be scaled down, and can now be found in the form of a statue of Moses in St Peter ad Vincula.
Julius was also vitally important, though unwittingly, for English history. He wished to be allied with the new king, Henry VIII, who came to the throne aged nineteen in 1509 and requested permission to marry Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the King and Queen of Spain. She had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother Arthur while both were teenagers, but Arthur had died shortly afterwards. Marriage to a dead brother’s widow appeared to be forbidden in the Bible, but England wished to continue the Spanish link. Julius duly gave the marriage his permission. Twenty years later, Henry wished to annul the marriage, and therefore attempted to persuade a later Pope to reverse Julius’s decision!

Guicciardini wrote of Julius, “He would have been a Pope worthy of the highest renown if the care and diligence he showed in glorifying the church in the temporal sphere and through the arts of war had been used to glorify it in the spiritual sphere”. Yes indeed: what more can one say?

(The next essay will describe the great disaster later suffered by the Renaissance Papacy)

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Political Vocabulary

Having followed the course of the recent American congressional elections, I am struck how the same political terms mean quite different things on the different sides of the Atlantic. Take, for example, the word “Liberal”. In the USA it apparently means an extreme left-winger seeking to expand the powers of central government. In Britain it implies someone who is moderate, middle-of-the-road between Labour and Conservative. Many Americans would thus be surprised to learn (assuming they are at all interested in British politics, which is doubtful) that the Liberal and Conservative parties are now in a coalition government together. In economic terms, “liberalism” implies a belief in the free market; thus Mrs Thatcher was often described as a “neo-liberal”. In this context, I always find it mildly surprising that Churchill is so idolised by Conservatives. As a young politician before the First World War he was a leading member of a reforming Liberal government, during which time he was the subject of particularly virulent hatred by Conservatives, and even when he rejoined the Conservatives he was very much on the Left of the party on social issues. There is a nice story that Churchill, near the end of his political career, met a young M.P. whom he did not recognise and, learning that the man was in the Labour Party, told him, “I’m a Liberal. Always was!”
Then again, many Americans think Obama is a “socialist“. All I can say to that is that we in Britain haven’t had a socialist government since the days of Clement Attlee immediately after the Second World War. Certainly Messers. Blair and Brown were careful never to let slip the dreaded “s-word”, and the financial collapse was to a great extent due to their unjustified faith in the rationality of the market.

About 60 years ago, T. D. Weldon wrote a book, “The Vocabulary of Politics”, arguing that most political debate is intended not to convey information but to provoke audience reaction. He divided political vocabulary into “Hurrah-words”, (which would win audience approval) and “Hiss-words” (which would have the opposite effect). The clearest example of a “Hiss-word” is “Fascist”: it has no clearly defined meaning nowadays, and is employed merely as an adjective placed upon an exercise of power that you detest, and expect your audience to detest. By contrast, “Democratic” is a “Hurrah-word”: everyone nowadays professes to believe that democracy is the only legitimate form of government, and even the most flagrant dictatorships style themselves "democratic". The American Founding Fathers, incidentally, never mentioned democracy: in those days the word was not in common usage; but they were, however, imbrued with 18th century ideals of liberty, particularly religious freedom and individual independence. In America today, “Liberal” has clearly become a “Hiss-word”, which has never been the case in Britain, except on the extreme left. (I came across an amusing example of this in the movie of John Le Carre’s spy-novel, “The Russia House”. Quoting from memory: two C.I.A. men are questioning an Englishman who appears to have important information, to check on whether he might be a plant. One of them asks him, “Would you say your family background was very Liberal?” “Certainly not!” the Englishman retorts, “My father was a Communist! He despised Liberals!”)

Republican voters in America appeared to want two things: firstly, a low-tax American state; and secondly, an America that could lead the world. But these two are not compatible. America can be a low-tax state if it has an isolationist foreign policy (as it had in the 1920s), or it can be a world-imperial, interventionist state, as it has been ever since the post-war Truman Doctrine. Obviously, America is free to make its choice. But it cannot be both. The two are simply not compatible.

One theme of the Tea Party movement was “Taking back our country” from the government in Washington. This could never be a theme in Britain, because it implies that the mass of the people did once control the country, and that was never the case over here. Until less than a century ago, Britain was very much under the control of the traditional landowning aristocracy, and the same applied throughout Europe. Indeed, with the first Old Etonian Prime Minister since 1964 now in office, it could be argued that Britain has indeed been “taken back” by its natural rulers: namely, the toffs! Did you know that between 1916 and 1945 not a single British Prime Minister went to Eton or to Oxford University? In the post-war period we have had no less than nine Prime Ministers from Oxford. Between 1955 and 1964 the Prime Ministers were all Etonians, but from then until this year we have been ruled by a succession of jumped-up scholarship-boys (or in Mrs Thatcher’s case, a scholarship-girl): “grammar-school twits”, in Alf Garnet’s memorable phrase. But now the upper classes are at long last back in the driving seat, as is only right and proper!

As a Cambridge man, I would start a different cry: why do we always have to be governed by Oxford graduates? Oxford’s a dump, a decaying motor-manufacturing town; a kind of Detroit with colleges! We haven’t had a Cambridge-educated Prime Minister since Stanley Baldwin! It’s high time for a change! End this discrimination NOW!!!

Monday, 8 November 2010

Clerihews: Jean-Paul Sartre, etc

In collections of the original Clerihews by E. C. Bentley, there is always a splendidly silly index. I have tried to enter into the spirit of this.


One Christmas, a friend of Sartre
Invited him to visit Chartres
But he preferred to spend the festive season
Writing "A Critique of Dialectical Reason"

(Index under:-
Windows, rose, failureto appreciate
Christmas, Bah! Humbug!)


At a cricket match, George Orwell
Neglected to keep the score well
But this brought him no reproof
From the ministry of Truth

(Index under:-
Wisden, inclusion in, unsuitability for)


Mahler's "Fruits of the Earth"
Had its premiere in Perth
But the audience of Diggers
Greeted it with sniggers

(Index under:-
Classicism, in music, Australian insistence on)

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Lockerbie bomb

In 1988 I had gone to spend Christmas with my parents, who lived in Penrith in the Lake District, about 25 miles from the Scottish border. On December 21st we were watching the local television channel, Border TV, which was not something we usually did. Suddenly and without any prior warning, a message was flashed up across the screen: “Major air disaster. All medical personnel report to Dumfries infirmary”. Shortly afterwards, there was a police notice, telling us that certain roads across the border were closed until further notice. We wondered what on earth had been happening. It was, of course, the bomb that blew up the airliner over Lockerbie. The next day I met a man who had been on a train going south, which had pulled out of Lockerbie station moments before. He described how they heard an enormous roaring sound behind them, and it was only when the train reached Carlisle that they learnt what had happened. (For those unfamiliar with the geography; all trains coming up on the west coast route from London and Manchester run through Penrith and Carlisle and over the Scottish border. Lockerbie is the next major junction on the line, with the western branch of the line running to Glasgow and the eastern branch to Edinburgh. Incidentally, Penrith is very close to the flight path, and if the bomb had detonated minutes earlier, it could have landed on us.)

It was not long before all sorts of conspiracy theories were emerging, outlining all sorts of elaborate and often wildly improbably stories about who might have been responsible, and these have continued to circulate ever since. I have no personal knowledge as to who was responsible for the Lockerbie bomb, but did experience a few interesting

It is often forgotten that around Easter 1986 American bombers took off from British airbases to bomb Tripoli, the capital of Libya, in retaliation for a terrorist bombing against American troops in Germany. The raid managed to kill President Gaddafi’s little stepdaughter, amongst others, but it was denied that the intention was to kill Gaddafi himself (“Why not? Why kill his subjects but not him?” would be my reaction). I happened to be on a school visit to Athens at the time, and I was reading an account of the bombing raid in an English-language newspaper when a young American peered over my shoulder and exclaimed, “Oh, I just LOVE that!” He seemed surprised that we didn’t all share his enthusiasm. One of the boys asked him if this could serve as a precedent for bombing Dublin in retaliation for any future IRA atrocities, but he didn’t get the point. “I think you already do enough against the Irish”, he said. I felt that if that was his level of political perception, there was no point in arguing with him. From this moment on, I expected some kind of retaliation: perhaps an air hijacking. Athens airport early the next morning was surrounded by armoured cars and guards with automatic weapons, but fortunately nothing untoward happened. It is surprising that, in the debates over the Lockerbie bomb, everyone seemed to have forgotten the bombing raid on Libya.

In the summer of that year I went on a tour of Egypt. Our guide was a Tunisian; very erudite but also extremely cynical. He did not at all approve of Islamic fundamentalism, but his comments about the American bombing of Libya were worth remembering. “Reagan’s a genius!” he exclaimed. “Everybody knows the Iranians and the Syrians cause a lot more terrorist attacks, but Iran’s too sensitive a place to go for, and who’s ever heard of the Syrian leader? But everyone hates Gaddafi. So you bomb Libya. Then all the Americans cancel their holidays abroad for fear of reprisals, and you save millions of dollars. I tell you, the man’s a genius!” (The comment about Americans cancelling holidays was correct. My parents up in the Lake told me that American tourists had been afraid to visit Wordworth’s Dove Cottage, for fear of Libyan reprisals.) The Lockerbie bombing was only a couple of years away…….

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Unusual Heroes

Wellington College has a hall dedicated to the memory of all the former pupils who fell in the two World Wars. Their names are all inscribed there, together with the year when they entered the college. The list for the first World War is dauntingly long. Once when I was having to supervise a particularly boring exam there, I filled in the time doing a rapid survey of the names, and from the dates of entry I calculated that about a hundred of them did not live to pass the age of 20. They would have gone directly into the front line of the trenches as junior officers, who suffered the most appalling casualty-rates: no less than 75% on the first day of the Somme offensive. One name that stood out was John Kipling.

He was the son of the great writer Rudyard Kipling. He should not have been in the army at all, because he had extremely poor eyesight, but he was determined to serve, and his father pulled strings to get him into the Irish Guards. He was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915: his body was never identified. Not surprisingly, Rudyard Kipling was always haunted by the death of his son; his whole attitude to the war changed; and afterwards he attempted to exorcise the memory by his work on war graves and war memorials and a history of his son's regiment, and by writing a short story called “The Gardener”, which is clearly about his son and which is the strangest and most moving short story I have ever read.

A name from the dead of the Second World War is Roger Bushell. Hardly anyone will recognise this name, but everyone will know the context, because he was the model for the Richard Attenborough character in the film “The Great Escape”. Bushell was a barrister before the war; he did actually plan and lead the mass breakout from the prison-camp, and was shot by the Gestapo after recapture. We were told of this in a talk by Sidney Dowse, one of the survivors of the “great escape”, who amazed us with his stories of the hazards of tunnelling through sand, of trying to cross enemy territory with inadequate German, and of eventually being brought before Kaltenbrunner, Himmler’s deputy, who decided not to shoot him. But alas, it turned out that the Steve McQueen character in the film was entirely imaginary: there were no Americans in the “great escape”, but it was decided that the movie needed a big-name American star to ensure success!

The oddest story from the Second World War concerns Esmond Romilly, a scion of the traditional upper classes. After three years at Wellington he decided he’d had enough and he ran away; but instead of simply going home he joined friends in London, where they produced an anti-public-school magazine called “Out of Bounds”. This was smuggled into Wellington and other establishments and inserted between the pages of the hymn books in chapel, in the hope of spreading subversion. All this created quite a stir nationally, since Romilly was the nephew of Winston Churchill! Romilly announced that he was a communist, and went off to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. He then married another upper-class left-winger, Jessica Mitford, and they spent the next few years in the U.S.A. and Canada. They had a child who unfortunately died. When the war came, Esmond Romilly joined the Canadian Air Force, and in 1943 he was shot down and killed. He was 23 years old: a short life, but an eventful one. He is the most atypical of the Wellington College heroes.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

The Road to Samarkand - and back

The best trip I ever went on was a school visit back in 1973, to the Soviet Union. John, a teacher of Russian, organised it at a cost of £170 for 3 weeks, which sounded expensive at the time, but was very well worth the money.
    It began on Friday August 10th, with a boat from Dover to Ostend, from where we caught an overnight train to Berlin. It was quite appalling, with six people having to sleep in a compartment in tiny couchettes. In consequence of inadequate sleep, we hardly appreciated our tour of Berlin the next day. This involved first being taken through Checkpoint Charlie for a tour of East Berlin. Our guide, a young East German girl in a leather skirt, explained how the wall was necessary to prevent spies getting through from the west. (I wonder what she is doing now?) On our return the coach was thoroughly searched, including a mirror being slid underneath to check for refugees who might be clinging to the drive-rod. In the afternoon we saw the wall from the western side. I was amazed at how squalid it was. Part of it was simply old houses with their windows filled in with crudely laid breezeblocks. The Potsdamerplatz was like a deserted Piccadilly Circus with a wall right across the middle. Here we could climb up scaffolding and look across the wall, or wave at the East German guards. We could see it wasn’t a single wall, but a whole no-man’s-land with barbed wire, tank traps and presumably minefields. The scaffolding we climbed up seemed to be riddled with bullet-holes. Wreaths were laid where victims had been shot trying to cross, and along the Bernauerstrasse someone had sprayed “Murder!” (in German) on the wall.
    We left Berlin at midnight, which involved taking a train from a ridiculously short journey from West to East Berlin, and then catching the Moscow train at the Fredericksburg station. Surprisingly, the Russian train was much more comfortable than the Belgian one had been. We spent the night and next morning crossing Poland without stopping. When we reached Brest Litovsk the entire train was hoisted up in the air to change the wheels, since Russian railways are on a different gauge. This operation took some time, and in the course of it one of the boys needed to be conducted to the railwaymen’s lavatories. His very long hair, floral shirt and flared white jeans in best 1970s style caused some suspicion and doubt cast upon his gender. We then spent the rest of the day and all night riding through Minsk and on to Moscow. The region we covered was mostly birch forest and marshland, and sometimes we travelled for ages without glimpsing a single human habitation. I wondered how Hitler, or for that matter Napoleon, had brought vast armies through this desolate wilderness. However, the journey wasn’t tedious, because here we met Alla, our guide for the tour, a splendid lady who was utterly unlike the standard cartoon figure of an Intourist gyide: very attractive, intelligent, fluent and westernised. She was to prove the dominating personality of the group: indeed, easily the best guide I have ever come across.

In Moscow we stayed at the Ostankino hotel out in the suburbs, but had our meals at the Hotel Pekin (The name was spelt outside in Cyrillic letters made of imitation bamboo). We managed to cram an amazing amount into our three days in the city: the Kremlin, Lenin’s tomb, Lenin museum, Tretyakov and Pushkin art galleries, Park of Economic Achievement, Young Pioneers centre, plus drives around the city and trips on the metro and the trolley-buses. The fare on the metro was no more than 5 kopeks for any distance (about 3 or 4 pence), and the trolleys were even cheaper. Many of the metro stations looked like palaces: incredibly clean, with mosaics of heroic workers and peasants over the ceilings, and sometimes even chandeliers instead of strip lighting. But from a utilitarian aspect the metro had drawbacks: the name was only written up once per station, and if you failed to spot it you could be in difficulties. We noticed even the locals navigated by counting stops. Furthermore the stations tended to have ideologically-based names which gave you no idea were you actually were in the city: not “Leicester Square”, but “Red October” or “Komsomol”. On one trolley-bus ride we met a hopeless drunk who invited us all round to his home for a drink. The passengers were angry at his causing them embarrassment in front of the tourists, and at the next stop they threw him off. At one point our coach driver got lost trying to drive us back to the hotel, and kept stopping to consult a map. “Kutusov is still thinking!” said Alla after yet another delay. Finally he did a U-turn across eight lanes of traffic to ask the way.
The Kremlin cathedrals were marvellous, especially with Alla to explain the meanings of the icons. We saw a bell which was too big ever to be rung, and a cannon which was too big ever to be fired, and I felt there was something very Russian about this. Beside the Kremlin was Red Square, with the History Museum at the top, the river at the bottom, and in the middle the great pile of St Basil’s cathedral, looking for all the world like a Disneyland mock-up in painted cardboard. Lenin’s tomb was a slab of red marble in front of the Kremlin wall. Two cadets from the military academy were perpetually on guard there, and every hour, on the hour, a fresh pair replaced them, parading in and out with an elaborate goose-step (which of course amazed us, since we would always associate it with the Nazis). There was a huge queue at the tomb, though as tourists we were allowed to push to the front. We had to file quickly past his body beneath its glass dome, and were not allowed to take pictures. He was surprisingly small, almost hairless, and unnaturally pink: we thought he was probably a waxwork. I noticed a bust of Stalin in the Kremlin wall near the tomb, but when I asked Alla where Khrushchev might be found, she replied, “Who cares about Khrushchev nowadays?” The Lenin museum had approximately one million portrayals of the leader, in feathers, grain, semi-precious stones and any other media you could imagine. “Every feature of his face is sacred to mankind and he will live forever” was the inspiring inscription. The museum also featured multiple copies of Lenin’s party card. Apparently whenever party cards were reissued, Lenin was posthumously given card No.1 (which he never had when he was alive). Some of the photographs were obvious fakes, with embarrassing people like Trotsky or Stalin being painted over. Alla was also irritated when some of the boys drew her attention to this, saying, “That picture’s in our history books, but it’s got Stalin in it there!” “Meester Shilston!” she confronted me, “Why do you cram the brains of your pupils with all this roobish? It will be a long time before Anglo-Soviet relations improve!” The interesting thing was that Alla was certainly old enough to remember when Stalin was still on the picture (it showed him and Lenin sitting side-by-side, but Stalin had been cut out and his right hand, beneath Lenin’s left elbow, replaced with an arm-rest). So what was a highly intelligent person like her supposed to make of it? Later on in the tour, we persuaded some gullible chap to let us have several of the little plastic holders that people were supposed to stick their Party cards in. Graham rather incautiously said to Alla, “It’s a pity you’re not a Party member, or we’d have given you one!” She threw him an exceedingly filthy look: I don’t know what that betokened. The Tretyakov gallery was full of appalling Soviet pictures: my favourite was called “The End”, and showed Hitler in the bunker, receiving the news of the latest Soviet victory with an all-purpose coarse acting gesture of despair. Needless to say, Stalin did not feature. The Pushkin had a huge collection of more modern art; Impressionist and Post-Impressionist; Matisse and so forth; and practically no visitors were there. (Before the Revolution, Russia had been a great centre of modern art. Many of the avant-guard artists had supported the Bolsheviks, but when it had quietened down, Lenin told them to start producing revolutionary art. They replied that their art was revolutionary, but of course what Lenin had meant was pictures of workers and peasants in heroic attitudes. So Socialist Realism came in, and many of the artists left the country. Our guide explained it this way; “Before the Revolution there was the idea of “Art for art’s sake; then it was replaced by a superior concept: “Art for the people’s sake”.) Departing from the official schedule, John persuaded a very reluctant Alla to let us go to a still-functioning Christian church. It was full of candles and incense, a congregation mostly of old ladies, and a priest who looked like Rasputin. But perhaps what Alla hadn’t wanted us to see was the collection of cripples and blind people begging at the gate, because when we got back to the coach we were given a lecture on the wonders of the Soviet welfare system. We also got our introduction to the “Berioska” system: hard-currency shops just for the tourists, with much better quality goods and better prices than in the shops for the natives. I could not imagine British people standing for this. In the evening we went to the circus and saw the famous clown Popov. He was amazingly multi-talented, doing juggling, acrobatics and impromptu drawings of people in the audience as well as comic turns. His showpiece act, however, was when his stooge entered brandishing an object labelled “atom bomb” with maniacal laughter, and Popov repulsed him with a dove of peace, to tumultuous applause. The stooge was strangely garbed in top hat and tailcoat, and it was only afterwards I realised that he was, of course, dressed as a capitalist.
Also in Moscow we encountered the Russian public for the first time. A tremendous number of them seemed to be on the cadge. At the lowest level were little children who wanted chewing gum in exchange for badges. We soon built up a large collection. Most of these were just little plastic affairs that they had been given to mark some anniversary, but some were more serious: “Hero of Socialist Labour”, “Outstanding Member of the Red Army” – they must have pinched them from their fathers. When we were queuing up at Lenin’s tomb, we saw a party attending the World Gynaecological Congress, wearing the most splendid official badges. Alla said, “Give me all your chewing gum!” and then walked along the line of these eminent doctors calling, “Chewing gum for badges? Chewing gum for badges?” Alas, none of them were trading. It was incidents like this which convinced us that Alla must have been very high up indeed in Intourist. The more adult cadgers wanted foreign currency or clothes. One boy was offered 50 roubles for his jeans. The nicest incident of our stay in Moscow happened at the Hotel Pekin, where we shared the dining room with a party of East Germans. At our first meal, we heard a fat and pompous man make a speech in German and Russian about how pleased they were to be in the socialist motherland, and all his party drank a toast. At our second meal, the man made a similar speech and his party drank another toast, but with rather less enthusiasm this time. When at our third meal we had to endure the man making yet another speech, we decided we had had enough. Graham got to his feet, rapped on the table for silence, and with great feeling and emphasis recited the Newcastle school song in Latin. “Floreat, o floreat!” he concluded, raising his glass, at which we all leapt up and shouted “Floreat Castellum!” The fat pompous East German stormed out in disgust, but the rest of his long-suffering party turned round and applauded. The waiters told Alla that they thought it was very funny.

After three days in Moscow we took an overnight flight to Tashkent, in Uzbekistan, which was actually the first time I had ever flown.

Most of Tashkent fell down in an earthquake in the 1960s, and so what we saw was a very modern city; concrete and skyscrapers in the middle of the desert; but spotlessly clean and surprisingly attractive. We particularly liked the central plaza, where we could walk under a row of fountains, get soaked, but then be dried off by the intense heat before we’d walked back to the hotel. We were taken round museums and silk factories, and bought Uzbek skullcaps and embroidered waistcoats at the Berioska. Out in the countryside we saw cotton and maize fields, and went swimming in a local lake. The local Uzbeks were very distinct from the Russians: a dark, Turkish people with fierce moustaches and shaven heads under their skullcaps, and the women all in headscarves and brilliant multicoloured dresses. A man tried unsuccessfully to seduce, Dave, one of our boys. “Heem … pleasure … kiss heem … Five minutes!” he attempted. “Eh, Alla”, said Dave, “How do you say ‘Get stuffed’ in Uzbek?” Another local offered to sell two girls to the youngest of our boys, aged only 13. “Uzbek twits!” said Alla. I suppose it is nice to know that traditional trades are still being practised in these parts.
Then we flew out over a patchwork of irrigated fields to Samarkand. The first person I saw in the city was a man wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt (a very old one: it still had Brian Jones on it). We were pleased to see British culture making an impact in such remote parts. Samarkand was marvellous. Our hotel room looked out on the blue dome of Tamerlane’s tomb. When we toured the city, it was every bit as exotic as I had imagined. We visited the tomb itself, which was called the Gur-Emir (The local saying went, “If the sky should fall tomorrow, the dome of the Gur-Emir will replace it”). In the centre of the city was Sandy Square, around which were three huge mosques and midrasas. The most exotic of them had mosaics of huge faces like half-moons, and also animals (all very unIslamic) and was known as the Midrasa of Fantastic Lions. The biggest building was the mosque of Bib Khan, Tamerlane’s wife, which had been shattered in an earthquake, leaving just the remains of a huge drum which had supported the dome, and a vast stone lectern for the Koran. Outside the city were the observatory of Ulugh Begh, the most famous astronomer of his day but an inept ruler, and a complex of mosques and tombs called the Shah-i-Zindah: the place of the living kings. The predominant colour everywhere was a deep, brilliant blue. Then there were the people. Tashkent had appeared quite westernised; Samarkand looked unchanged for centuries. We saw three little girls outside a still-functioning mosque and bribed them with chewing gum to pose for a picture. None of them spoke any Russian. We visited a market for fruit and spices where hardly anyone was wearing European dress, and some of the farmers looked as if they had come straight out of the desert. The food in the hotel was good: rice, lamb, local bread and all kinds of melons. (It was said that in the old days the Caliph in Baghdad would give a slave girl for a single Samarkand melon: we decided he had a point) We were even given melons on the planes.
Then it was on to Bokhara, which was even more Asiatic. Kirov Park was an endless avenue of fruit stalls, with carpet-covered platforms in the shade where Uzbek men in their kaftans lounged, smoking and drinking tea. We were taken to a surviving fragment of the ancient city wall, the Spring of Job mosque and the Ishmael Samna building; a structure in white open brickwork which was the only part of the city to survive destruction by Genghis Khan. In the city centre was the Khalyan mosque and its enormous minaret, which was also known as the “Tower of Death”, since enemies of the Emir used to be thrown off the top. On the outskirts of the city was the summer palace of the last Emir, “The Place of Moon and Stars”. The Emirs ruled here, as feudal underlings of the Tsar, until they were thrown out by the Revolution. The palace was a fantasy of alabaster and mirrors, full of lavish carpets, embroidered clothes, and enormous Chinese vases. In the grounds was the harem. Peacocks were nesting in the trees around a shady pool. The Emir had an observation platform from where he could watch the concubines coming down to bathe; and it was even equipped with a billiard table, in case he found the whole procedure too boring.
Here might be the time to mention the Uzbek drivers, who were quite the worst I ever came across. They would cut corners and overtake blindly, and the only control they seemed to use was the horn. We had one narrow escape from death in Bokhara, but the worst experience was when driving out of Samarkand, on a narrow, twisty road blasted through cliffs. Our driver tried to overtake a lorry on a bend, and as we rounded the corner side-by-side we saw a third vehicle approaching us at speed. All three drivers sounded their horns, but apart from that appeared to take no action. I was in the front seat, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them I was surprised to find I was still alive, and our driver was laughing. I do not know how we survived.
In Samarkand we found ourselves sharing the hotel with a film crew. A poncy Yugoslav actor spent much of the evening chatting up Alla in a most cringe-making fashion, and with little visible success. In Bokhaha at an open-air cinema we saw our only film, a fairly grisly production called “Laurel-wreaths”, in which a young Soviet girl in a steelworks discovers the joys of operating the Bessemer converter. Not one of our best fims, was Alla’s verdict. She told us she had volunteered to come with our group to Central Asia because of her memories of how her husband once shot a movie there. One of her first jobs, she told us, was looking after a party of visiting Soviet dignitaries on a trade mission to London. She prepared an itinery of the main tourist sights and asked which they wished to visit first. “We would like to go to a strip club”, they said.
We were supposed to fly on to Khiva, which apparently was even more exotic, but for some unrevealed reason this part of the tour was cancelled, and instead we had to go back to Moscow. When we reached Bohkara’s little airport it was immediately obvious that there wasn’t a single plane there; but Alla rose to the occasion. “Don’t worry, boys!” she announced, “I’ll find you a plane!” Two hours later she reported that she had indeed found us a plane, and there on the runway was a little Yak-40 executive jet just for us. Apparently what had happened was this: in Tashkent two of the boys had gone down with the usual holiday tummy-trouble and were rushed off to hospital and given blood tests. We were told that if anything nasty showed up, we would all be isolated and shipped back to Britain forthwith. The authorities were clearly very scared of epidemics. After a day they were in fact let out and we were reprieved. But from Bokhara airport Alla rang up Intourist in Moscow, and told them that half the party had suspected dysentery and unless they brought us a plane the whole region would have to be placed in quarantine. This was the advantage of having a high-level guide.
Our last stop in the Soviet Union was Leningrad. Anywhere else would have been an anticlimax after Uzbekistan but Leningrad had so much to see that it could not possibly be a disappointment. The former capital was full of splendid 18th century architecture by Rastrelli and Rossi, and their followers. We stood in Winter Palace Square (which is not a square at all, but a huge semi-circle where the Winter Palace faces Admiralty Arch), scene of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in 1905, and of the Bolshevik coup in 1917. We saw the equestrian statute of Peter the Great and St. Isaac’s cathedral, and the Peter-Paul fortress and the “Aurora” gunboat which fired shells at the Winter Palace in the October Revolution. Some of the best statues were by a sculptor called Klodt, which greatly amused everyone, and we had to explain the joke to Alla. “Sculptor Klodt” ought to be a character in the “Beano”: one can instantly foresee some of his misadventures. In a modern exhibition we saw a model of the “Lenin” atomic-powered icebreaker, which had forced a passage round the north of Siberia. When exploring on my own, I found the Kazan cathedral which had become a “Museum of Atheism”, featuring waxworks of Spanish Inquisition torturers. Alla took the only possible course in the endless treasure-house of the Hermitage; marching us briskly through several rooms in order to concentrate on just one particular picture. (I was surprised at one point to be confronted by a Van Dyck portrait of Archbishop Laud. It must have been part of the Walpole collection bought by Catherine the Great). Then we went out of the city to Peter the Great’s palace at Petrodvorets, and the classical palace built for Tsar Paul at Pavlovsk, and the vast blue-and-white monstrosity which Rastrelli created for Catherine at Tsarskoye Selo (now Pushkin). We were told how these palaces fell into Nazi hands during the war, and were stripped bare and almost destroyed. Catherine’s palace once had a room wallpapered in Chinese silk, and another room tiled in amber. When Soviet troops reoccupied the palace, all this was gone. Ever since then, designers and builders had been painstakingly reconstructing it, but only a very small number of the rooms were as yet completed. Our hotel in Leningrad was the Astoria, an impressive building were Hitler planned to hold his celebratory banquet before he had the city destroyed. Our local guide was a nice little girl called Ludmilla, who had just completed her university exams. She was fairly sure she had done well in her language papers, but was less certain about the compulsory paper on Marxism-Leninism, which she would have to pass in order to graduate. Leningrad was also Alla’s home city. By the end of the German siege, she told us, almost all her relatives were dead.
The legendary bad Russian plumbing was certainly true here. There was also a shortage of loo paper, which meant that the lavatories were supplied with copies of “Pravda” torn into little squares. One of the boys searched through for the picture of Lenin which was always on the front page of the paper – but he couldn’t find one! They’d all been removed!

We went to the ballet and the opera. Alla was rather apologetic in advance, saying that the artistes were only provincial companies, and probably not very good, but I felt I couldn’t tell my parents I’d been to Russia and turned down an invitation. So in Moscow we saw “Gariya” by Khachaturian, about the collectivisation of farming in Armenia, in which the plots of fiendish kulaks were duly thwarted, and in Leningrad a production of “Der Fledermaus”. In the ball scene, there was a gauze curtain pretending to be a mirror, with the dancers on the far side moving in exact mirror-image of those in front. It was well done, but seemed unnecessarily complicated. Some of our party left after this scene, thinking it was the end, and had to hang around on the streets outside in the rain for ages.
We finally departed after two weeks in the Soviet Union; but it wasn’t quite the end of the holiday, because we were to return to Britain by sea, on board the “Nadezhda Krupskaya” (alias Mrs. Lenin). We boarded late in the evening. There was a huge queue at visa control, but again Alla dominated the situation. “Go to the front, boys!” she commanded. A party of Americans shook their fists at us as we overtook them. “We’ve been here for ages!” they protested. “Roobish!” said Alla, and turned to the official at the desk. “Serve my boys first!” And he did. We sang “The Red Flag” to Alla as the ship circled away in the gathering gloom.
It took us four complete days to sail home across the Baltic and the North Sea. The ship was actually quite comfortable. But we felt it would have been more exciting to travel on the “Lenin” icebreaker with an Uzbek captain: he probably wouldn’t have bothered to turn right at Denmark; simply got up a good head of steam and seen if he couldn’t plough straight across Jutland. Some fairly dreadful Russian films were shown, though one had an unconscious touch of humour: it was a documentary which opened with shots of travellers on a train. “These people are going to Siberia”, the commentary began, “The makers of this film wanted to find out why it is so easy to go to Siberia, but so difficult to leave”. We had a day in Helsinki, which was amazingly and spotlessly clean after Russia. We saw the Temppeliaukio church, built in solid rock, and Dipoli University, which was a building with no right angles, and Tapiola suburb, which demonstrated how to make tower-blocks attractive. When we got back to the ship, we found the harbourmaster, the chief immigration officer and the young lady transport controller, all totally sloshed, having been boozing at the bar ever since we docked. (“Very nice Finnish girl”, said our purser, suggestively.) The harbourmaster tried to give us some Finnish coins as a souvenir, but succeeded only in dropping them all over the floor. Apparently it was so difficult to get a drink in Finland that they had to rely on the Russians for their alcoholic needs. (Alla had told us a story about a Finn on holiday at the Astoria in Leningrad: he spent all day lying in bed drinking vodka, then decided to go down for dinner in the evening. Since it was a smart hotel, he thought he had better put a tie on, and it was only after he had walked down the corridor he realised that, although he had put a tie on, he hadn’t put anything else on.) Our final port of call was Copenhagen, where we saw the Organ church and the Little Mermaid statue (placed in a very insignificant site) and were amazed by the pornography shops. When we passed through Dover customs, an official got suspicious of our collection of posters, and wanted a look at them. “These aren’t from Copenhagen”, John explained, “They’re Russian ones. They’re just urging the working classes to rise up”. “That’s all right then”, said the official. Somehow this seemed a suitable end to our tour.
This will always rank as my best-ever holiday.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

My father remembers his childhood

When I was two years old, my family moved to Hartlepool, where my father worked as a marine engineer and shipping inspector. I was the youngest of seven children, so apart from Ruth, who was five years older than me, my brothers and sisters had left home by the time I was growing up, and I only saw them occasionally.
Hartlepool is still well-known throughout the north-east as “the town where they hung the monkey” (see note at end). We rented a big semi-detached house on the main Stockton road, with the trams running outside the front door. I remember it as always being very dirty. We could sit in the garden and watch the smuts from the Seaton steelworks falling around us. Sometimes the night sky would glow as the slag was tipped. Ruth and I discovered that if we rubbed our hands on the trees and then wiped them on our faces, we became completely black; which did not please Mother. One night an enormous dump of tens of thousands of wooden pit-props near the railway caught fire. The flames were so bright that you could read a book by their light, and the intense heat buckled the rail track.
We didn’t often go to the seaside, although there was a good beach quite close. The sea was always cold, and I don’t remember ever bathing in it with any degree of pleasure. Further up the coast, at Black Hall Rocks, you could find coal dust washed up on the beach from an undersea seam, and the unemployed men would come to rake it up and take it home in sacks. We preferred to have picnics up on the moors at Hobhole, where I could go fishing from the footbridge. Once, when I was about 8 or 9, I proudly told Mother that I had caught two cod and five kippers.
Father was only able to take us on longer outings on Bank Holidays. For three or four summers we stayed in a farmhouse in Kildale, up in the Cleveland hills. This was a very traditional little settlement, with a pub, a church, a local squire, and even a village idiot. The farm was run by a family called Tait: a husband and wife with a son and daughter in their 20s. This was a period of severe depression in farming, and the Taits must have been very poor. They had no motor-vehicle, and just one horse to provide all the pulling-power. It was a dairy farm, and they had their own creamery, which I remember as being the only clean part of the farm. We once bought local cheese (though I think it was from another farmer) which weighed 14 pounds! The farm had no gas or electricity, water came from a spring into a trough, and the only lavatory was a hole in the ground in an outbuilding. We enjoyed our time at the farm, though I suspect Mother would have preferred something more sophisticated.
When I was about ten, Father bought me a second-hand bicycle for £3.10/-. He took me on cycling tours, stopping for bed & breakfast overnight; up Teesdale or Weardale; to Richmond or Barnard Castle. Later I went for rides with a school friend: once we did a day’s run to Whitby and back, which must have been about 80 miles.
When I was 13 I went away to boarding school, where I became a close friend of Francis Crick, who later won the Nobel prize for his work in the discovery of DNA. Then, three years later, Father retired and moved to Bexhill in Sussex, and we never returned to the north-east.

Note: Hartlepool is known throughout the north-east as “the town where they hung the monkey”. The story goes that during the Napoleonic Wars a French ship was wrecked off the coast, and the only survivor to be washed ashore alive was the captain’s pet monkey, which had been dressed in a little military uniform. The people of Hartlepool had never set eyes on a Frenchman, and they assumed the monkey must be a French soldier, so they hanged it! Hartlepool still takes a perverse pleasure in the story of their stupidity: to this day, the mascot of the town’s football team is called “H’Angus the Monkey”

(My father died this summer, at the age of 93)

Friday, 24 September 2010

The American Declaration of Independence, paragraph 2: a fundamental document of political philosophy.

(Notes and queries at the end)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident (1), that all men (2) are created equal (3), that they are endowed by their Creator (4) with certain unalienable rights (5), that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (6), that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (7), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed (8), that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it (9), and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness (10)”


(1) Obviously these “truths” cannot be proved in any way, however desirable they might be!

(2) What about women? Are they included?

(3) The obvious question that arises here is “what about the slaves in Virginia?” Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of this document, was a slave-owner, and it led Dr. Johnson to remark in his anti-American pamphlet “Taxation no Tyranny”, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Indeed the whole question of slavery was buried for the time being, for how else could slave-owning Virginia unite with free New England against British rule? But there is more to the question than just the slavery issue. In what sense is everyone equal? It is quite obvious that some people are bigger and stronger than others, some are cleverer than others, some have more musical talent than others, and so forth (for that matter, women as a class are physically smaller and weaker than men as a class. It is no longer accepted that black people as a class are less intelligent than white people, though there may be empirical evidence that they are better at certain sports). How much do these differences matter, and what should result from them? It is generally accepted that people of superior talents may justifiably claim commensurately greater rewards, such as higher pay, and it would be wrong for untalented people to earn the same rewards as the gifted (“Equality of outcome“). But all should have an equal chance to make the best use of their talents (“Equality of opportunity“), with all forms of racial or sexual discrimination being inherently wrong. Furthermore everyone, regardless of race, gender, wealth or talent, must have an equal claim to justice, and in principle no-one without good cause may claim preferential treatment, or natural authority over another person. (The last political creed to deny fundamental equality was Fascism) How far real equality can ever exist is debatable: the Marxists, for instance, maintained that equality was a sham as long as society was divided into rich and poor - especially since both riches and poverty tend to be hereditary. Thus, how can there be equal justice for all when rich people can afford better lawyers? How can there be equality of opportunity through education when rich people can afford to send their children to expensive fee-paying schools?

(4) There is virtually no mention of God in the entire document. The 18th century was not an age of faith. Thomas Jefferson was at best a Deist rather than a Christian believer; that is, he accepted the likely existence of a God, but not any more detailed religious doctrines. The USA was from its inception an entirely secular state. At the same time, however, it does seem that these human rights stem ultimately from God. This revives the famous mediaeval doctrine of "Natural Law". So a philosopher like Thomas Aquinas might have put it this way: it cannot possibly be in accordance with God's will that innocent people should be executed or imprisoned, and states which behave in this unjust fashion are clearly going against God's command. John Locke (see below) derived his doctrine of "Natural Rights" from "Natural Law", and therefore ultimately from God.

(5) This means “rights which may not legitimately be taken away from you”. (But see note 9)

(6) Most of the rest of the paragraph is lifted directly from John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”, written in England a century before. Locke’s three basic human rights were life, liberty and the possession of property; the Americans changed the last one to the rather vague phrase “the pursuit of happiness”.

(7) As the European explorers ventured overseas in the 16th and 17th centuries they discovered Stone Age tribes who had no towns, no metals, no written languages and even no agriculture. This was something new to the Europeans: nothing in Classical literature, or the Bible, or their contacts with the Islamic world had prepared them for this. It set the intellectuals wondering whether their own ancestors had once lived like this, and they coined the term “State of Nature” for life before civilisation. But how had the first governments emerged from the State of Nature? It could only be through the people getting together and agreeing to have a government, because they believed that their lives would be better as a result. This hypothetical agreement was called the “Social Contract”, or the “Original Contract”. The most famous writers on the Social Contract were Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

(8) “Government by consent”. Governmental authority is only legitimate insofar as the people agree to it. As one 18th century radical, John Wilkes, put it, the people only “lend” their rulers the authority to govern. This loan may be recalled! But notice also that the word "democracy" appears nowhere in the document. This is because it was not then a word in common use. Rousseau revived the word in his "Social Contract", but used it to mean a type of government where the mass of the people take all the key decisions, and pointed out that this was extremely rare and probably impractical. He called our system of government "elective aristocracy". (See my essay on "Rousseau definitions" for more on this point)

(9) The sole justification for government, Locke argued, is that the people’s right to life, liberty and property is better protected under government than in a state of nature. For this reason we agree to restrain our natural freedom by living under laws. Those who break the laws may justly be deprived of some of their natural rights: for instance, those who commit crimes may thus forfeit their right to liberty (suffering imprisonment) or to property (fines) or even their right to life (execution). This is necessary in order to protect the rights of the peaceful, law-abiding citizens. But it is quite different if a tyrannous government imprisons or executes citizens without good cause or due process of law, because in such a case the citizens are worse off than they would be in a state of nature, which is illogical. A tyrannous government has broken the social contract, and the citizens have every right to rebel and institute a new social contract in the place of the old one. In answer to the crucial question, “Who decides whether the government has broken the social contract?” Locke gives a truly radical answer, “The people shall decide” The American Declaration of Independence follows this doctrine. The remainder of the document consists of a long series of complaints against King George III personally (“He has done this” …. “He has done that”) in order to justify the argument that the king has broken the social contract and his American subjects therefore have the right to renounce their obedience and start again.

(10) In Britain, theories of natural rights, a social contract and the right to resist were the basis of the political creed of Whiggism, in opposition to Toryism, which stressed the duty to obey the king and the established church. Dr Johnson, a lifelong Tory, once said that the first Whig was the Devil!
There is a story that, some years ago, an airline security guard heard a hippy-looking passenger reading out loud something about the right to rebel. Fearing that this man might be a terrorist or hi-jacker, the guard confronted him and asked, "What's that Commie trash you're reading?" and was informed that the man was reading the United States Declaration of Independence! The guard spoke truer than he realised!