Thursday, 27 December 2012

Favourite photos

These are some of my favourite photographs of places I have visited over the years

The first is the dome of the 15th-century Gur Emir, the tomb of the great conquerer Tamerlane, as seen from our hotel in Samarkand. The old local saying was; "If the sky should fall, the dome of the Gur Emir could replace it".

At the other end of the Islamic world we have the Alhambra in Granada, the last great flowering of Moslem architecture in Spain. Moslem forces overran almost all of Spain in the 8th century, and established a separate Caliphate at Cordoba. The Christian reconquest began in the 11th century, and Granada was the last city to fall, in 1492, to the armies of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Next are two landscape pictures, the first being a sunset over Corfu. I think the sky colour is worthy of a Claude Lorrain painting; though Claude would have included in the foreground some very tiny figures acting out a Biblical or Classical scene.

This one is the view down from Dracula's castle in Romania. When I looked down into this deep, mist-shrouded valley, I was not surprised that Bram Stoker thought the place was haunted. However, it turned out he never ventured anywhere near, but got all his information from guide-books!

Next are two pictures from France. The first is the great Renaissance staircase in the chateau of Blois, on the Loire. It was in the upstairs room here that in 1588 the Duc de Guise, leader of the Catholic League, was stabbed to death on the orders of King Henry III. The King did not enjoy his triumph for long, being himself assassinated by a Catholic fanatic the next year.

Less than a century later, this is the first of the great baroque chateaux: Vaux-le-Vicomte. It was built in the 1650s for Nicholas Fouquet, the minister of finance early in the reign of Louis XIV. The King was invited to the grand opening in 1661. Nineteen days later Fouquet was arrested, charged with embezzlement, and sentenced to imprisonment for life; and his architects, decorators and garden designers were taken to work on the new royal palace at Versailles. (Some people have suggested that Fouquet in prison was the original "man in the iron mask", but this seems to be incorrect)

Finally two pictures of religious sites. The first is Delphi, known to the ancient Greeks as "the navel of the world". Here we are at the top row of the theatre; the building immediately below being the great Temple of Apollo, where for centuries the priestesses would transmit oracles from the god. The road to the temple snakes up from the gulf below, and in ancient  times would have been lined with shrines and monuments. Up above us is the Stadium; the setting for one of the four great Games festivals of Ancient Greece; of which the one held at Olympia is, of course, the most famous.

The last picture is St Peter's cathedral in Rome. You need a high vantage-point to really appreciate the great dome, so this is taken from the Castel San Angelo; the ancient tomb of Hadrian which was adapted to be the fortress of the Renaissance Popes. In 1527 Pope Clement VII barely escaped with his life to the Castel as the armies of the Emperor Charles V stormed into Rome, and one can imagine him looking across at his still-unfinished cathedral while down below the Imperial soldiers sacked and pillaged the city. The Papacy was never again as powerful as it had been before this disaster.

I hope to show more pictures later.

Saturday, 15 December 2012


Christmas is fast approaching. We are all familiar with the traditional Christmas story, but often do not realise how contradictory are the scriptural accounts of the birth of Jesus, and how much of the story is based on tradition alone.

The gospels of Mark and John make no mention of the nativity at all, and Luke and Matthew tell wholly different stories. Neither puts a date on the year of Jesus's birth, presumably because they did not consider this to be very important. Indeed, Matthew confuses things by bringing King Herod into his story, since by Roman chronology Herod died in 4 BC! Luke tells us that John the Baptist began his preaching "in the 15th year of the Emperor Tiberius" (AD 28-29), and that Jesus met him "when he was about 30 years old". The only point of agreement about the nativity is the Jesus was born in Bethlehem; which is in itself a little puzzling, since Jesus clearly began his ministry in Nazareth, by the Sea of Galilee, a long way to the north of Bethlehem. Matthew and Luke give completely incompatible genealogies for Jesus. They cannot even agree about the name of Joseph's father (Matthew gives it as Jacob; Luke as Heli) - which in any case seems a bit pointless, since both stress that Jesus was not Joseph's son anyway. Neither of them says at what time of the year the nativity took place: it is only a tradition that it was at the end of December; though it seems fitting that the God-child should be born just after the shortest day of the year: a time of renewed hope.


It is Luke's account which is the best-known. He begins his story with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to Mary's elderly "kinswoman", Elizabeth. Then we have the Archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary; "the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed", "when Quirinius was governor of Syria" (which appears to refer to a census taken in 6 AD) causing Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem; the lodging in the stable, and the adoration of the shepherds after they have seen the angel. After the nativity we have the circumcision of the baby Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by various prophesies, and the return to Nazareth.

Matthew's story is quite different. There we have an angel appearing to Joseph, and there is no mention of a stable for the birth in Bethlehem. The most famous part of Matthew's story is the appearance of the "wise men" or "magi" before King Herod, enquiring about the Christ-child, since they "have seen his star in the east". Matthew nowhere calls them kings, nor does he even tell us how many they were: the notion that there must have been three of them is only a deduction from the fact that they presented the baby Jesus with the three symbolic gifts. There seems to be some confusion about the whole story of the star. Around 6 BC there was a major conjuction of the planets, which astrologers would have interpreted as predicting an event of major importance. (Some scholars have speculated that it might refer to the appearance of Halley's Comet in 12 BC). The New English Bible translates "magi" as "astrologers", which is appropriate. Herod, angry and alarmed, orders the slaughter of all children in Bethlehem (an action which, though lacking support from any other historical source, would have been quite in accordance with what is known of Herod's character!), but Joseph and Mary are forewarned in a dream and escape into Egypt. They do not return till Herod is dead, when they decide to settle in Nazareth, because it is safer. This appears to contradict Luke's story that they came from Nazareth in the first place, and does not tally with Luke's account of the circumcision in the Temple, which Matthew does not mention at all. (Neither, incidentally, makes any reference to the Holy Family travelling on a donkey, which forms such a touching scene on so many Christmas cards)

It is clear that we have here two completely different accounts of the nativity, which cannot be reconciled.
I have been told that, for a Jew, the notion that God could descend from the heavens to beget a child on a human mother would be horribly blasphemous. The Greek and Roman gods, by contrast, did this sort of thing all the time; which perhaps helps to explain why the early Christian missionaries met with great hostility from Jews, but were more successful in converting gentiles.

The Nativity has inspired great art over the centuries. The first picture here is by Piero della Francesca (c.1420-92), the second by Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510), the third by Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), and the fourth by Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1407). All have certain features in common, quite apart from the rustic setting. The Virgin Mary wears her traditional colours; a blue cloak over a red dress; and Joseph is an old man; often rather detached from the scene. The baby Jesus, oddly enough, always appears to be several months old; certainly not a newly-born infant!

At a very much lower artistic level, illuminated Santa Claus figures are going up all over buildings even as I write, but I have yet to see any portrayal of the Christian Nativity at all. Perhaps this is as it should be: we are celebrating a consumerist festival called "Xmas", and for this Santa Claus is a suitable multi-faith symbol: perhaps the only supernatural figure that all children are encouraged to believe in. Every year around this time there are reports of teachers being officially censured for telling their little charges that he doesn't really exist! So Santa's red and white (the Coca-cola colours!) have rightly replaced the Virgin Mary's red and blue as the colours of the festive season.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Henry VII: a disturbed childhood

Henry Tudor, the future King Henry VII, had the misfortune to be born in 1457, and thus grew up in the most turbulent period of the Wars of the Roses between the rival families of Lancaster and York. His formative years were haunted by violent death.

His mother, Margaret Beaufort, through whom he inherited his distinctly sketchy dynastic claim to the throne, belonged to the family of the Dukes of Somerset: firm Lancastrians. Her father had committed suicide following dubious conduct in the wars against France when she was one year old, leaving her a great heiress. In consequence at the age of ten her marriage was arranged to Edmund Tudor, half-brother to King Henry VI. She was still only thirteen when Henry, who was to be her only child, was born.    

Henry was never to see his father, who was captured in battle and imprisoned in Carmarthen castle, where he died of the plague two months before Henry's birth. Margaret  then married Henry Stafford, the son of the Duke of Buckingham.
     In 1461 Henry's paternal grandfather, Owen Tudor, found himself on the losing side at the battle of Mortimer's Cross and was beheaded. The new Yorkist King, Edward IV, granted his supporter William, Lord Herbert, guardianship of young Henry. In May 1464 Margaret's cousin, the Duke of Somerset, was also defeated in battle and executed.
     Henry seems to have got on well with his guardian, but disaster struck again in July 1469, when Lord Herbert's forces were defeated at Edgecote, near Banbury. He was beheaded the next day. Henry, aged twelve, witnessed the battle, and not surprisingly was terrified. In autumn 1471 the Lancastrian forces were defeated at Tewkesbury and the deposed King Henry VI was murdered in the Tower, leaving Henry Tudor, now Duke of Richmond, the only remaining Lancastrian claimant to the throne. He managed to flee to Britanny, where he stayed for the next thirteen years, constantly fearing kidnap by English agents. His mother did not see him at all during this time: meanwhile her second husband, Henry Stafford, died of wounds received at the battle of Barnet; and she again remarried; this time to Lord Stanley.
     Margaret proved to be a great survivor. Despite her strong Lancastrian links, she managed to stay on friendly terms with the Yorkist regime, and was even given the honour of being a train-bearer for Queen Anne Neville at the coronation of Richard III in 1483. But soon after this she became involved in plotting. In 1485 her son Henry, with the backing of the King of France, landed in south Wales and mustered supporters. His victory over Richard at Bosworth was largely due to the fact that the forces of his stepfather Lord Stanley changed sides in the middle of the battle. Richard was killed and Henry was crowned King, essentially by right of conquest.

Henry once told the chronicler Philippe de Commynes that most of his life had been spent as a captive or fugitive, as a result of which he had become extremely (we might nowadays say pathologically) suspicious. No modern psychologist would be in the least surprised at this: the wonder is that he didn't turn out far worse!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Relations with Islam: how things have changed!

This is a propaganda poster which I saw on a visit to the Soviet Union back in 1984. In those days the western powers were arming Islamic fighters in the war to drive the Communists and their Soviet mentors out of Afghanistan: so here we have Mujahadeen warriors, all of whom look very like Ousama bin Laden, charging beneath their banner, which is, of couse, the dollar! (My Russian isn't up to translating all the caption: can anybody help?).
The anti-communist campaign was successful. After heavy losses, Gorbachev withdrew the Red Army and in 1991 the Soviet Union disintegrated; the Afghan disaster having played no small part in the collapse. In Afghanistan itself the Communist government was overthrown, and soon afterwards the Taleban came to power, with results that are familiar to us all.
How different things are now! I cannot help but ponder that if our aims in Afghanistan were to stop the heroin trade and curb militant Islamic fundamentalism, we should have left the Communists in control. They would have dealt very effectively with opium growers and people who wanted to stop little girls from going to school: they'd have shot them! But our priorities were very different back in the 1980s!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Dickens and Disraeli on discontent

I recently read “Hard Times” (1854), Charles Dickens’s only attempt at a novel about the industrial north of England, set in a cotton-manufacturing city he calls “Coketown”. Opinions of the novel have differed widely: in George Orwell’s long essay on Dickens we are told that the great Victorian historian Lord Macaulay refused to review the book because of what he saw as its “sullen socialism”, whereas Lenin was revolted by Dickens’s “bourgeois sentimentality”. In my opinion, Lenin was much closer to the mark than Macaulay. I found it a deeply irritating book, with a ramshackle plot, ridiculous characters, and a complete absence of any ideas for remedying the faults and abuses Dickens portrayed. As a corrective I reread a contemporary novel covering similar ground: “Sybil” (1845) by Benjamin Disraeli. I would like here to compare and contrast the two books.

Dickens always excels at memorable descriptions of scenes and characters. His weaknesses, apart from the improbable plots, are that the characters tend to be one-dimensional caricatures, that he has neither knowledge nor interest in how things actually work, and that the only remedy he can find for abuses is that everyone should be nicer to each other. All this is apparent in “Hard Times”. The “bad guys”, Gradgrind and Bounderby, especially the latter, are simply comic clowns, far too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Bounderby is a bully, but also rabbits on endlessly about how he dragged himself up from the gutter by his own efforts. It transpires that this is totally untrue, but his motive for doing it remains a mystery. Louisa, the daughter of Gradgrind and unwilling wife of Bounderby, is, like many Victorian heroines, too wet to be interesting. The central working-class figure, Stephen Blackpool, who is “sent to Coventry” for refusing to join a Trades Union and then unjustly accused of being involved in a bank robbery, merely comes across as pathetic, making little effort to defend himself. Then there is the Trades Union and Chartist leader, Slackbridge, who is portrayed mercilessly; ludicrous name, ludicrous appearance, ludicrous speeches; yet with the workers of Coketown eating out of his hand. When Blackpool is unjustly accused of the robbery, Slackbridge actually believes Bounderby rather than Blackpool, and urges the workers to catch him and hand him over! (Lenin and Stalin, I feel sure, would have marked out a working-class bank robber as a man of spirit and a good recruit for the revolutionary cause!) Dickens plainly has no sympathy for Trades Unionism.

I thought there were faults of construction. The local dialect of Blackpool and the lisp of Sleary the circus-owner are given phonetically throughout, which I found a very irritating distraction, forcing us to decipher every word. Gradgrind changes in character very abruptly when Louisa runs away from her husband, and has no difficulty in accepting that his son is a bank robber, despite the extreme flimsiness of the evidence against him. James Harthouse, an upper-class idler, is the only character with any sex-drive: I felt sure he must be involved in the robbery, but instead he simply disappears form the story. The pages of “pathos” describing the death of Stephen Blackpool are simply awful; and at the end, his friend Rachel is portrayed as simply working on at the factory until she is too old to continue.

What does Dickens want to happen? He has no plan at all for the relief of industrial abuses he describes. He is contemptuous of reason, and despises Parliament (calling M.P.s “National dustmen”). There is no trace of anything specifically Christian in his writings, which is perhaps not surprising, since he was essentially a pre-Victorian, born in 1812: none of his characters shows any sign of Christian belief - or, indeed, of any other religious faith. Dickens was writing twenty years before the enforcement of compulsory primary schooling, and one generally expects that education will be seen as a hope for a better society in the future. But in the unforgettable school scene which opens the book, the children are crammed with “facts” at Gradgrind’s insistence, and forbidden ever to exercise their imagination. The best that can be said for the teacher, the splendidly-named McChoakemchild, is that he is a more useful person than J. Wackford Squeers in “Nicholas Nickleby”; and yet Dickens had so little in the way of positive ideas about education that he sent his own son to Eton! I think this typifies Dickens’s limitations as a thinker.

Let us turn to Benjamin Disraeli: the only British Prime Minister to have been also the author of several novels. In the 1840s, when he was already a Tory Member of Parliament (at this point representing Shrewsbury, in Shropshire) he produced a trilogy: “Coningsby”, “Sybil” and “Tancred”; the third being the least satisfactory. His motives for writing were mixed. In the first place, he needed the money: for most of his career he was plagued by debts, which at this time amounted to about £20,000 - at least half a million in today’s terms. Secondly, there were political ideas he wished to put forward, and which he does at length in the trilogy. He was associated with a group of youthful aristocrats known as “Young England”. Their theories sound very silly nowadays, but at the time they were considered important enough for Karl Marx to jeer at them in the “Communist Manifesto”. Particularly they were hostile to their Conservative party leader, Sir Robert Peel (Prime Minister 1841-46), whom they accused of betraying old Tory principles. Disraeli, who was neither an aristocrat nor young (he was born in 1804, eight years before Dickens) produced such ringing phrases as “A Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy”, and, in “Coningsby”, “A sound Conservative government - Tory men and Whig measures”. In 1846 Disraeli was to play a leading role in splitting the party and bringing down Peel’s government: an action which left the Conservatives without a Parliamentary majority for the next thirty years.

Most of Disraeli’s novels centre upon an upper-class young man making his way in politics and high society; “Sybil” being the only one where he ventured to set scenes in the industrial north. The hero, Charles Egremont, is indeed a young aristocrat, but is saved from the vapid existence led by many of his class by his love for Sybil, the daughter of the radical Chartist leader, Walter Gerard. The full title of the book is “Sybil, or The Two Nations”; the latter phrase being explained by a scene in Chapter 5 where Gerard tells Egremont that Queen Victoria rules over “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws. ……. THE RICH AND THE POOR.” (it is printed thus, in block capitals, to ensure we get the message).
Part of the plot is romantic and improbable, but it is firmly anchored into a clear chronology of historical events: the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837, the formation of Peel’s government in 1841 and, as a climax, the “Plug Plot” riots of 1842.

Disraeli outdoes Dickens by describing four different communities, each with its own problems and grievances: a decaying rural town, a factory town called Mowbray, a coalmining village, and, most memorably, the settlement he calls “Wodgate” (believed to be Willenhall, near Birmingham), where there is no constituted authority at all and the people are totally illiterate (which makes one realise that the children at Gradgrind’s school were actually quite privileged!). Disraeli had not visited such places, but he got his information from the “Blue Books” of government statistics, which were also extensively used by Marx and Engels, but which Dickens ridicules. Disraeli knew, for instance, that a principal grievance in the mining communities was the system of “tommy-shops”: the miners were not paid in cash, but in tokens which could only be used in certain shops, where they were given low-quality goods at inflated prices. One of Disraeli’s best scenes depicts Master Thomas, who runs the tommy-shop, bullying and humiliating the miners’ wives.

Disraeli’s characters, though not as memorably depicted as Dickens’s, are much more believable as people. The selfish reactionary nobleman, Lord Marney, comes across as a genuinely sinister and dangerous person, as does his friend, Lord de Mowbray, unlike the ridiculous Bounderby. It is interesting that the Chartist leaders, Gerard and Stephen Morley, are given far more sympathetic treatment than Dickens gives to the ludicrous Slackbridge; and Disraeli’s young working-class figures, Dandy Mick and Devilsdust, are infinitely more positive characters than the pathetic and passive Stephen Blackpool: indeed, all these men play important heroic roles in the plot. Devilsdust, incidentally, has genuinely risen from the gutter, as Bounderby pretends to have done, but has learnt to read and write and has absorbed a good deal of left-wing class-conscious ideology, concerning capitalists and workers, several years before the writing of the “Communist Manifesto”. Rather surprisingly, there is more overt Christianity in Disraeli’s novel than in Dickens’s: Disraeli portrays Walter Gerard and his daughter as dedicated Catholics, and among his minor characters there is a strong-minded vicar who is prepared to stand up to the upper-class bullies.

As an experienced politician, Disraeli knew how things actually worked, whereas Dickens never bothered to find out, but simply took refuge in satire. Dickens is contemptuous of Parliament and dismisses M.P.s as “national dustmen”; though many today would see the time as a golden age of political giants: Palmerston and the young Gladstone, as well as Peel and Disraeli himself. Dickens is thus incapable of matching the lethal scene where Disraeli portrays Peel (called simply “the gentleman in Downing Street”) instructing his factotum, who is given the thoroughly Dickensian name of Hoaxem, to give two completely contradictory messages to two different visiting delegations, and particularly to be “ “Frank and explicit”: that is the right line to take when you wish to conceal your own mind and to confuse the minds of others.” This is far more damaging than Dickens’s crude abuse! (Incidentally, many historians view Sir Robert Peel as one of the greatest of all British Prime Ministers)

Unlike Dickens, Disraeli brings his novel to a dramatic climax in the “Plug Plot” riots, in which the bad characters duly get their comeuppance: Master Joseph perishes as his tommy-shop is destroyed by the striking miners, Lord Marney is stoned to death by a furious crowd, and Lord de Mowbray’s bogus-mediaeval castle is plundered and burnt to the ground by the “hell-cats” of Wodgate. The plot necessitates that Gerard and Morley should both be killed by the militia, though both of them die heroically. Finally, Charles Egremont rescues Sybil from the chaos and they live happily ever after, with Disraeli assuring us that times are now getting better for everyone. Although no-one could pretend that Disraeli could ever be Dickens’s equal as a novelist, I thought this book to be a far better portrayal of the times they lived in.
 I think "Sybil" would make an excellent film! I'm surprised no-one has attempted it.

1. Benjamin Disraeli served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8, and as Prime Minister in 1868. On none of these brief spells in government did the Conservatives hold a Parliamentary majority. It was only in 1874-80 that he was Prime Minister in a majority government. He was created Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 and died in 1881.
2. 1845, the year when "Sybil" was published, also saw the publication of "The Condition of the Working Class in England" by the young Friedrich Engels (born 1830, living in England since 1842). Engels used the same official statistics as Disraeli, but it is unlikely that Disraeli knew anything of Engels's book, since it was initially published in Germany and did not appear in English for several decades.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Inherit the Truth, by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

This is the autobiography of a German-Jewish lady who survived the Holocaust thanks to her skill as a cellist. Anita Lasker, as she was then, was born in Breslau in Germany in 1925, one of three daughters of a prosperous, musical middle-class Jewish family. She showed great early promise as a cellist, but her childhood and youth witnessed increasing anti-semitic discrimination and persecution. One of her sisters, Marianne, managed to escape to England, but in April 1942 her parents were deported to Poland and never seen again; and that autumn Anita and her other sister, Renate, were arrested for trying to flee to France. They were imprisoned, which paradoxically could well have saved their lives, because it meant they were not deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau until autumn 1943.
      On arrival there she was saved from "selection" for the gas chambers by letting slip that she was a cellist. Although she was still only 18, and had not been able to practise since her arrest, she was immediately recruited into the Auschwitz orchestra: a bizarre organisation of internees which gave concerts for the guards and played marching tunes for the slave labourers as they were driven out to their work. Again, her life was saved.
     Auschwitz was run down in late 1944 as the Red Army came near. In October of that year, Anita and Renate, together with countless others, were taken westwards to Belsen. Here there were no mass gassings, but instead gross overcrowding, starvation and typhus epidemics as Nazi Germany collapsed. Why the guards did not simply throw away their uniforms and lose their identity in the turmoil of refugees remains a mystery: instead they kept the camp going, with an ever-mounting death rate, until British troops arrived in April 1945. Nothing could have prepared the soldiers, battle-hardened though they were, for the appalling sights that met them: the heaps of emaciated copses, and even the survivors little more than walking skeletons. Anita and Renate remained on the scene to give evidence at the trials of the Belsen guards, which resulted in the hanging of eight men and three women.
      After some bureaucratic delays, Anita managed to move to England, where she married and began her career as a cellist.

I was fortunate enough to meet Anita Lasker-Wallfisch when she gave a very moving lecture about her experiences. I asked her to comment on what I had read; that the most brutal guards in the concentration camps were often not Germans, but people drawn from minority groups in Eastern Europe, such as Lithuanians and Ukrainians. She agreed with this: her view was that for most Germans, antisemitism was essentially intellectual or academic; whereas for many of these other peoples it was much more visceral: they simply hated all Jews.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Wordsworth's Daffodils

The opening verse of this poem must be one
 of the best known in the English language:-

"I wandered, lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle in the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay;
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed - and gazed - but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood'
They flash upon the inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."

The first line of the poem is not strictly accurate, because when Wordsworth saw the daffodils, he was not in fact alone, but walking with his sister, Dorothy. She recorded the incident in detail in her journal. The date was Thursday April 15th, 1802; a wet and windy day; and the two of them were walking along the north-western shore of Lake Ullswater, through Watermillock and under Gowbarrow Fell, when they saw the daffodils:-

"Under the boughs of the trees, wesaw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; an dthe rest tossed and reeled and danced, and it seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew over them and over the lake."

William and Dorothy Worsworth are clearly writing about the same incident, but Dorothy is giving an immediate description, whereas William, writing some time afterwards, is more directly concerned with the effect the memory of the daffodils have had on him.

The daffodils still flower on the same spot beside Ullswater every spring, as is shown in these photographs, taken by my father. They are wild daffodils, with much shorter stalks than the garden variety. These are prevented from growing near them for fear of cross-pollination, so that the Wordsworth legacy may be preserved.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Lambert Simnel

A quiz question: who was the only person ever to be crowned King of England in Dublin?

Answer: Lambert Simnel, said to have been the son of a carpenter from Oxford, who in 1487 was crowned as "King Edward VI" in Christ Church cathedral in Dublin - not, obviously with a crown, but with a golden chaplet taken from a statue of the Virgin Mary. He had the support of Ireland's premier nobleman, Gerald Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare, of the Archbishop of Dublin and of the Irish Parliament. How did this come about?

According to the story, Lambert Simnel was born around 1475. His strong physical resemblance to the Yorkist royal family, whose dynasty had been brought to an end when Henry Tudor defeated and killed Richard III at the battle of Bosworth in 1485, was spotted by a local priest named Richard Symonds. Symonds took the boy under his wing and taught him how to behave like a royal prince, and then took him to Ireland. There he was proclaimed to be the young Earl of Warwick, the son of that Duke of Clarence who, according to legend, had been "drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine" in the Tower of London. The boy was therefore the nephew of Edward IV and Richard III and the last direct male descendant of the Plantagenet line of kings. The real Earl of Warwick was the same age as Simnel, and was currently held in the Tower by Henry VII. Simnel's claim received powerful support in Ireland, and also from John, Earl of Lincoln in England,  and from Margaret, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy. From her base in the Netherlands, where she was acting as regent for her stepdaughter, Margaret sent a fleet to support Simnel's cause, with a regiment of mercenary soldiers under a war-hardened veteran, Martin Schwarz. A force of some 8,000 men was assembled for the invasion of England. Meanwhile the real Earl of Warwick was brought out from the Tower and paraded round London so that everyone could see that Simnel's claim was fraudulent.

It will immediately occur to us that there must be more to this than meets the eye. How would a mere country priest recognise a boy as resembling a royal prince, or train him to behave like one? How could such a vast and ludicrous imposture ever fool such people as Lords Kildare and Lincoln and Duchess Margaret? It seems likely that they were not fooled. Ireland had always been strongly Yorkist in the Wars of the Roses, and as long as the Tudor hold there was weak, the Earl of Kildare and his clan (known as the Geraldines) remained in effective control. The Earl of Lincoln was the cousin of the Yorkist Kings, Edward IV and Richard III; he was Richard's nominated heir, and his dynastic claim to the throne  was far superior to Henry Tudor's. It has always been suspected that, had the revolt succeeded, young Lambert Simnel might have soon vanished from the scene, leaving Lincoln to take the crown. As for Duchess Margaret; she was the sister of Kings Edward and Richard; she doubtless regarded Henry Tudor as a mere usurper,and would support any attempt to get rid of him.

The rebel forces landed in the northwest of England.They made first for York, picking up support as they went, but were unable to take the city, and then headed south through the east midlands. By the time they encountered Henry's army at Stoke, near Newark, they probably numbered about 8,000 men. The battle which followed was much bigger than Bosworth, two years earlier, when Richard III was killed, and marks the real end of the Wars of the Roses. After a hard-fought contest, the untrained Irish levies broke and fled, Lincoln was killed and the mercenaries fought on to the last man. Total deaths were perhaps 6,000, compared with about 1,200 at Bosworth. The priest Richard Symonds disappeared into the Tudor gulag, but Henry showed commendable good sense as well as mercy in dealing with Lambert Simnel: he was forgiven and employed in the royal kitchens. Because of the perilous situation in Ireland, Henry had little option but to pardon Kildare for his manifest treason, and the power of the Geraldines in Ireland was only broken under Queen Elizabeth a century later.

The person who suffered most from the episode was the entirely innocent young Earl of Warwick. He was returned to the Tower, but when a decade later there was another rebellion by another pretender, Perkin Warbeck (who claimed to be Richard, Duke of York, the younger of the "Princes in the Tower"), Henry decided Warwick was too dangerous to be allowed to live. The young man was accordingly convicted of treason and executed. He was 24 years old and had been held in the Tower since the age of ten. So perished the last descendant of the Plantagenets in the direct male line.
    Warwick's sister, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, was more fortunate, at least in the short term. She was permitted to live until the age of 68 before Henry VIII decided it was high time she had her head hacked off, and accordingly arranged it. One of her sons had preceded her to the scaffold; another was condemned to death but reprieved after agreeing to plead guilty and give evidence against his family. During the reigns of the first two Tudor Kings no fewer than seven nobles who had the misfortune to bear Plantagenet blood were convicted of treason and executed. It is surprising that so much debate has always raged about the supposed murder of the "Princes in the Tower" by Richard III (which at this late time is unlikely to be resolved either way), but this series of flagrant judicial murders by the two Tudors is ignored.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Border Ballads

The Border Ballads are poems and songs, anonymously composed between the Middle Ages and the 17th century, which reflect the turbulent, violent life on the frontier between Scotland and England during this period (The two kingdoms not being united under a single monarch till 1603). There were several major invasions from either side, but also endemic lawlessness, with constant local raids and feuds. The raiding-parties were known as "reivers". The monarchs in London and Edinburgh had no effective control over the border lands; what authority there was being in the hands of the great lords: the Howards, Percies and Nevilles, the Douglases and the Homes. Since to be isolated and alone in these lawless conditions was to be "every man's prey", the people banded together in extended families or clans; Armstrongs, Eliots, Grahams, Nixons and others; who in turn formed alliances or conducted feuds which might last for generations. Those who could afford it built themselves little castles for protection, known as "Pele" towers, the ruins of which still dot the borders.

One of the most amusing accounts of Borders life in the 15th century was written by an Italian priest, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini (later to become Pope Pius II). Whilst on a diplomatic mission to Britain, he stopped at a farmhouse on the English side of the river Tweed. When nightfall approached, the  men took refuge in a nearby tower, for fear of Scots reivers, but left the women behind. They explained that the reivers did not kill women: the worst that could happen to them was rape, which didn't matter. Aeneas was also left in the farmhouse: it was explained that, being a stranger, he was unlikely to have his throat cut. During the night, two of the women asked Aeneas if he wanted sex. He turned them down; reflecting that if the reivers did then cut his throat, he would have died in a state of mortal sin! He preferred to spend the night bedded down in the straw with the farm animals.

The Border Ballads tell of the lives lived by the border people. Most of them tell of actual historical incidents. They tell of robberies and murders, feuds and betrayals. The atmosphere is entirely pagan: there is little trace of Christianity there, or indeed of any moral code other than the virtue of courage and the necessity of exacting revenge. As the great historian G. M. Trevelyan (who was himself brought up in the borders) says of the border people in an essay "The Middle Marches",

"Like the Homeric Greeks, they were cruel, coarse savages, slaying each other as the beasts of the forest; yet they were also poets who could express in the grand style the inexorable fate of the individual man and woman, and infinite pity for all the cruel things which they none the less perpetually inflicted upon one another."

These ballads were collected and written down in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, most assiduously by Sir Walter Scott, who wrote several poems himself in this style, as did another contemporary Borderer, James Hogg, "the Ettrick shepherd".

My favourite Border Ballad tells of the Battle of Otterburn, which took place in 1388. Like many of the ballads, it is quite long; but here are the first few verses (I have retained some of the archaic spelling, which I think is quite evocative):-

"It fell about the Lammas tide
When the moor-men win their hay
The doughty Douglas vowed him ride
Into England, to drive a prey.
He chose the Gordons and the Grahams
The Lindsays, light and gay
But the Jardines would not with him ride
And they rue it to this day.

Now he has burned all the dales of Tyne
And parts of Bamburghsire,
Three tall towers on Redeswire fells
He left them all on fire.
He marched up to Newcastle
And rade it round about,
Crying, "Wha's the lord of this castle?
And wha's the lady o't?"

Then up and spake proud Percy there
And oh, but he spake high!
"I am the lord of this castle
My wife's a lady gay."
"If thou art the lord of this castle
Right well it pleaseth me,
For ere I cross the border fells
The ane of us shall die!"

And then he took a long spear in his hand
Shod with the metal free.
For to meet the Douglas there
He rade right furiously.
But oh! how pale his lady looked
Frae off the castle wall,
When down before the Scottish spears
She saw proud Percy fall."

(But Percy wasn't killed! He was Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland, and he survived to be better known as "Harry Hotspur" of Shakespeare's history plays)

For more information about the Border reivers, see "The Steel Bonnets" by George Macdonald Fraser.

This is Hermitage Castle, latterly a stronghold of the Hepburns, up in the desolate lands of Liddesdale, north of Carlisle. The peculiar low arch on the left led to a local legend that the castle had sunk into the ground under the weight of its own wickedness!


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Days of the week

These are pictures I took of a Roman mosaic in Spain. It was made up of hexagons, six grouped around a central one, showing the heads of gods and goddesses.  Our guide didn't appear to know what they were all about; but looking at them now, it seems clear that they illustrate the gods who signify the days of the week.

The days in a week are named after the sun and the moon and the only five planets visible before the invention of the telescope: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn; which were identified with Roman gods (including one goddess: Venus). This gives us seven, which, being a prime number, has magical significance. In English, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus are replaced by the Germanic gods: Tiw, Woden, Thor and Freya.

If we look at the picture below, starting at the top and moving anticlockwise, the sun-god and the moon-goddess are easy to identify, giving us Sun-day and Moon-day. The third figure in the war-helmet is obviously Mars, giving us Mars-day, or "Mardi" in French. In German mythology the wargod was called Tiw or Tiwaz or Tyr, giving us Tiw's-day.

The next picture anticlockwise is Mercury, messenger of the gods with the rather cute little wings. He gives us "Mercredi" in French. Tacitus tells us that the German equivalent of Mercury was Woden, so this gives us Woden's-day                                                                                                           

The next figure, continuing anticlockwise, is Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, wielder of thunder and lightning. The thunder-god in the German pantheon was Thor; so we have "Jeudi" in French and Thor's-day in English. But the last part of the mosaic is a little puzzling.

The cowled figure who completes the circle would appear to be Saturn, the god of old age; hence Saturn's-day; which would mean that the goddess in the centre must be Venus ("Vendredi" in French; the Germanic equivalent being Freya, goddess of fertility; hence Freya's-day). But why is she in the centre, out of sequence?   Was the Roman who had this mosaic made perhaps a particular devotee of Venus? 

P.S. I have since learned from Mary Beard's book on Pompeii that traders in the town referred to markets as being held on "Saturn's day", "Sun's day", "Moon's day", Mercury's day" and so forth. The Romans did not officially have a seven-day week, but perhaps found the idea more convenient to use than their official very cumbersome system of dating.                                                                                        

Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Russian Empire

Perhaps the most unexpected achievement of Lenin and Stalin was their success in holding together the vast multiracial Russian Empire created by the Tsars, so that in the end it outlasted all the other European world-empires.

In the two centuries before the First World War the Tsars expanded their empire enormous distances from its ethnic Russian base around Moscow. It now stretched all the way across Siberia to the Pacific, and took the Amur provinces from the Chinese Empire. The Baltic provinces, Finland and most of Poland were incorporated, as were the Christian kingdoms beyond the Caucasus, and the Moslem lands of Central Asia, with their ancient cities of Samarkand and Bokhara. By 1914 ethnic Russians made up less than half the population of this vast empire. Everywhere the Tsars encouraged the local ruling elites to work within the imperial structure in return for their wealth being guaranteed: Baltic German nobles, Cossack warriors, Georgian clan chiefs, even Moslem emirs. In only a few cases did the Russians meet long-term resistance. It took half a century to compel the Chechens and other tribes of the Caucasus mountains to accept Russian rule, and the Jews, of whom great numbers lived in the western regions of the empire, were always subject to discrimination and occasional persecution, with the result that hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated, and others became revolutionaries. The Poles never accepted Tsarist rule, and  from time to time they rose in rebellion and were crushed with great ferocity. (I once visited a Polish museum in Berkshire. The theme was entirely anti-Russian: you would never have learnt from it that Germany had twice overrun Poland in the past century; nor was there any mention of the once-great Jewish community in Poland)

Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, but initially they controlled only the ethnic Russian heartland around Moscow and up to Petrograd. Vast areas had to be surrendered to the Germans by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918, but after a vicious and enormously costly civil war, and the collapse of the German Empire, it turned out that almost all the old Tsarist empire had been recovered. Finland and the Baltic lands had been lost. The trans-Caucasian territories of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan attempted to break away, but wasted their energies quarrelling amongst themselves, and were forcibly incoporated into the Soviet Union a few years later. Poland, however, successfully beat off an invasion. By this time, however, the empires of Germany, Austria and Turkey had collapsed, but the Russian Empire was still there, albeit now in Communist garb. The national minorities in the frontier areas, particularly in the Ukraine, suffered particularly in Stalin's collectivisation of agriculture and Great Purge.

The end of the Second World War saw Stalin not only regain almost all the territories lost earlier, but also establish a cordon of client-states in central Europe, where any sign of independence was ruthlessly crushed. Only Finland of the old Tsarist empire now remained outside Soviet control. What was left of the ancient Russian Jewish community was once again persecuted in Stalin's last years, and several of the more awkward racial minorities; Chechens, Crimean Tartars and others; were deported to Siberia, where enormous numbers of them died before Khrushchev eventually let them return to their homelands. Local nationalism was a topic never to be officially discussed in the Soviet Union.

In the end, the Tsarist-Soviet Empire outlived even the British and French empires, and only came to an end with the collapse of communism in 1989-91. But the behaviour of Putin's government in Chechnia, Georgia and the Ukraine suggests that Russia's rulers are even now not fully reconciled to their empire's demise.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

John Stuart Mill on Liberty

John Stuart Mill (1806-73) was the son of James Mill, a disciple of Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the political philosophy of Utilitarianism; being the theory that all actions should be judged solely by whether they promote “the greatest good of the greatest number”. John Stuart Mill (hereinafter referred to simply as “Mill”) was brought up according to his father’s unique educational theories, with the result that whilst still a teenager he was writing articles on economics for serious journals, and then at the age of 20 suffered a nervous breakdown which caused him to modify his beliefs. Before this, he had been arrested for distributing pamphlets on family planning and briefly imprisoned as a pornographer. In 1865 Mill was the only philosopher ever to be elected to Parliament, during which time he introduced a motion calling for votes for women, which attracted little support and much ridicule. His advocacy of this, and other deeply controversial matters such as easier divorce, resulted in him losing his seat in the 1868 general election. His most famous work, “On Liberty”, was written in 1859 as a tribute and memorial to his wife, Harriet, who had died the year before.

In this book, Mill advances a powerful plea in favour of a very wide degree of freedom, both of ideas and of lifestyle, but many of his arguments seem rather strange nowadays. Right at the start he announces that he will not attempt to argue that there is any “right” to freedom. “Human rights” was considered by the utilitarians to be a meaningless metaphysical concept (“Nonsense on stilts” according to Bentham): instead, Mill hopes to show that freedom is in the interests of man as a “progressive being”. The whole notion of “progress” is central to Mill’s thought: I shall deal with it at the end of this essay.

Mill shows his Victorian optimism by maintaining that there is no longer any need to defend freedom against a tyrannous government, but instead he detects new dangers in the more democratic society which was beginning to emerge, particularly what he calls “tyranny of the majority”. Society itself, he argues, now exerts powerful pressure upon us to make us conform to certain norms of behaviour, which are frequently mere prejudices without any rational base, thus fettering not only personal development but also changes in society. A democratic society, says Mill, has no more right to compel me to obey than does a single dictator. Mill’s other central tenet is that the only justification for coercing me is to prevent me from doing harm to others (what he calls “other-regarding actions“). “Self-regarding actions”, which affect only me (such as, what clothes I choose to wear) must be absolutely free. Coercing someone “for their own good” is justifiable only when dealing with children or lunatics; it is no way to treat civilized adults.

The second chapter of the book consists of a lengthy argument in favour of free speech and discussion. Nobody, says Mill, ever has the right to suppress new ideas, because that implies infallibility by the censor, and no-one should ever claim to be infallible. On the contrary, new ideas should always be welcomed, since without them there would be stagnation. There is, of course, no obligation to accept new ideas as true, but provided we give them serious consideration before deciding to reject them, something useful has been achieved, since we have been exercising our “mental muscles” in the process. Thus, even erroneous ideas can have an educative effect. Now this is all very well, but I do not see how it could be employed in an argument about, let us say, the censorship of pornography. Also, one will search in vain in Mill’s book for any discussion of how far the state may impose censorship in the interests of “national security”. The mid-Victorians felt so secure that they had no need for an Official Secrets Act!

Mill then moves on to discuss what we might call “liberty of lifestyle”, and which he calls “experiments in living”. He produces a number of different arguments in favour. Man, he says, is not a machine, but should be like a tree, allowed to develop and grow after his own nature. Pressure to conform to custom tends to produce mere “ape-like imitation”, and has no educative effect, whereas “genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom”. We should not therefore worry too much about what the neighbours think of us. He goes as far as to call the English middle classes “a collective mediocrity”. The main argument, of course, is that without people who dare to live their lives in an unconventional manner, society will tend to stagnate and progress will come to an end.

In the remaining chapters Mill discusses a number of specific problems, such as alcohol, gambling and even (rather tentatively) deviant sexual behaviour. In each instance he is against any outright prohibition. The argument about alcohol may stand as typical. Undoubtedly, drunkenness is a matter of public concern; it leads to crime and accidents; alcoholics may be unable to hold down a job and so their families will have to be supported from public funds. Does it therefore follow that alcohol should be totally prohibited, and I should be forbidden to have an occasional glass of beer? Certainly not! Most people who have an occasional drink do not become alcoholics, any more than most people who have a flutter on the Derby every year become compulsive gamblers. Perhaps confirmed alcoholics (or compulsive gamblers) should be treated differently from other people; but otherwise prohibition would be a gross interference with the freedom of the purchaser. We may wonder whether Mill’s arguments are applicable to modern concerns which he does not discuss, such as drugs or firearms. Mill also opposes the enforcement of Sunday Observance laws, and says that the Mormons should be allowed to live their own lives in Utah free of persecution. For deviant sexual behaviour, Mill would appear to side with the lady who said, according to legend, “Just as long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses!” He thinks anything should be permitted, provided it takes place in private and only freely consenting adults are involved. It is not easy to see how these freedoms can be defended without some postulation of “human rights”.

Finally Mill gets himself into a dilemma over the question of education. It is clearly highly utilitarian and conducive to progress that all children should go to school; but this will involve some coercion (since many parents would prefer their children to be out earning money), it will cost a great deal of money, which will have to be met from taxation, and will involve a massive extension of state power, which Mill always opposes. Furthermore he does not trust the state to run schools: no state could resist the opportunity this would provide for indoctrination through propaganda, and state schools would inevitably become “a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”. Mill would have had in mind the schools of France under the Emperor Napoleon III, but his fears can well be applied to later and more totalitarian dictatorships.

The central concept in Mill’s ideology is “Progress”, and this obsession he shared with many contemporary intellectuals, not least Karl Marx. The mid-Victorians were aware that the society they lived in had changed very fast over the previous half-century, and that it had developed unprecedented manufacturing power which was enabling them to take over the world. Other civilisations have been left far behind. How and why had this happened? And how to ensure that this progress continued? Mill believes he has the answer. Progress, he thinks, can only come through individuals who dare to think and act differently from the masses around them: conformity is likely to bring stagnation and an end to progress. He clearly has no faith in the ability of the state to plan and implement progress, and he specifically cites China of his day as a dreadful warning of how societies which are too dominated by tradition will fall behind their more dynamic neighbours. Marx in the “Communist Manifesto” sings a hymn of praise to capitalism, which has taken mankind onto a higher level of civilisation than anything seen before. But Marx believes that capitalism will soon form a drag on any further progress, and will be replaced by a superior form of civilisation, namely, “Communist society”. Forty years later, Marx’s friend Engels (in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”) outlined how after the revolution the new Communist state would plan progress. This was not a notion which would have met with Mill’s approval.

Mill's intention, I am sure, was to create a new basis for morality, which would not be founded on the traditional base of "God commands this." Like all Utilitarians, Mill was an unbeliever. The foundation of his moral code was that the only actions which can be proved to be wrong are those which injure other people - and do them actual harm; not simply offend their religious and moral standards. This is not a foolproof standard of judgement, but is probably better than any other.

In another book, "Considerations on Representative Government", Mill discusses the issue of democracy and freedom. In a democracy, "tyranny of the majority" takes on a political form. Mill argues that a democratic majority has no more right to restrict my personal liberty than does a single dictator. I hope to deal with this matter in a future essay.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Emma Pooley

Although I know very little about cycling, I would like to express my admiration for Emma Pooley, a key member of the British team in the last two Olympic Games.
Emma was born in October 1982, brought up in Norwich and educated at Trinity Hall college, Cambridge, where she graduated in Engineering. She was originally a cross-country runner, and gained a “Blue” for triathlon; only taking up cycling seriously after a foot injury forced her to train on an exercise bike. She hardly has the physique of a top cyclist, being very small (5 feet 1 inch high, and weighing less than 8 stone), which means that she sometimes has difficulty generating the sheer power needed on the flat, but has the compensation of making her one of the very best hill-climbers in the world.

Emma currently lives in Zurich, where she is studying for a Ph.D. in geotechnical engineering at ETH university. Her supervisor (Sarah Springman, herself a noted triathlete) is, she says, is “very understanding”, allowing her to spend the winter training in Australia.
She joined a professional team in 2005 and first represented Britain at the 2007 World Championships. In the 2008 Olympics her role in the road race was tactical, setting it up for Nicole Cooke to win the event, but Emma then came into her own in the Time Trial, where she took second place and a silver medal. There was a reprise of this in London this year, where she again helped to protect the sprinters (we all remember Emma leading the peloton over Box Hill) and thus set up Lizzie Armistead’s second place. But Emma was unable to match her Beijing success in the Time Trial: the terrain was too flat to play to her strengths, and she finished sixth.
At the World Championships in Holland in September, Emma was extremely disappointed with her performance (4th in the time trial, 15th in the road race, and leading her sponsorship team to 3rd place in the team event), though in fact this was far better than was managed by any other senior British cyclist, male or female. She said she felt she had “disimproved” over the past year, and began to talk about taking a year off from the sport, or even retiring completely, to concentrate on her academic studies; which, she tells us, concern mining waste and related matters.

She is very forthright at interviews. Her disappointment at not winning comes through strongly, though she has never ever voiced a word of criticism at a team-mate, or even complained about the conditions; instead she invariably places the blame on herself, for not doing better. On the other hand, she does not hide her anger at the lack of official encouragement for women’s cycling, and with good cause: her many successes outside the Olympics have generally been ignored by the media, all the teams she had joined have quickly folded, and the financial rewards for the women are pitifully small compared with those available for the men (though cycling, sadly, is by no means unique in this discrimination: see also women’s cricket, football, etc).

Emma is clearly a serious-minded and highly intelligent lady. As well as her academic achievements she speaks several languages, and has made a video for Amnesty International, appealing for help for Fatima Hussein Badi, held without trial in the Yemen accused of murdering her husband, and threatened with rape if she does not confess. We could do with more people like Emma in professional sport! If she does retire, her motives will be understandable, but she will be greatly missed.

Here are a few pictures of Emma.
Postscript: Happily, Emma decided not to retire quite yet! She won two silver medals at the Commonwealth Games this summer, and also completed her Ph.D. Only now has she decided to give up competitive cycling. Instead, she intends to concentrate on Triathlon!

January 2015: Emma was on the winning team of "Celebrity University Challenge" for BBC television, representing her old college of Trinity Hall, Cambridge!  

Friday, 21 September 2012


This is a tribute to my father, who lived for almost half a century at Penrith in the Lake District, a few miles from Ullswater. He took a great many photographs of the lake, of which this is a very small selection As you can see, he was particularly interested in trying to capture the effects of light on and around the lake at different times of the year. I hope you like them

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Edward Heath and Madame Furtseva

Yekaterina Alexeyevna Furtseva was Soviet Minister of Culture in the days of Nikita Khrushchev, and, incidentally, the only woman in the history of the U.S.S.R. ever to reach the dizzy heights of the Politburo. When this appalling woman visited London, Harold Macmillan decided that Edward Heath was the most appropriate minister to arrange an itinerary for her. But all did not go according to plan. When Heath incautiously asked a question about Stravinsky's ballets there was a prolonged debate in the Soviet camp as to whether Stravinsky would ever become ideologically acceptable enough for performance in Moscow. Worse, he proposed a visit to Henry Moore's studio. This brought some urgent questions. Was Moore a "modern" sculptor? Yes. Did that mean his sculptures had holes in them? Again, yes.
"In that case", Heath was informed, "It would be quite improper for a Soviet Minister of Culture to visit Henry Moore's studio! I think it would be better if we cancelled all the arrangements for the rest of the week!"

This raises the question; why are dictatorial regimes always so afraid of the arts?

(Source: Edward Heath: "Music")

Thursday, 6 September 2012

P. G. Wodehouse and Fascism

The great comic writer P. G. Wodehouse was living in Le Touquet when he was captured in the German offensive in 1940. His significance was realised by Doctor Goebbels's propaganda department and, very foolishly, he agreed to make some radio broadcasts for the Nazis. Although the actual content of these was perfectly innocuous, there was a massive popular outcry in Britain, some institutions banned his books, and there were demands that he should be prosecuted as a traitor. In the summer of 1945 George Orwell felt obliged to write an essay, “In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse”, arguing that Wodehouse was no more than a complete innocent in political understanding. Some people, said Orwell, had detected “Fascist tendencies” in Wodehouse’s stories; whereas in fact there were no post-1914 tendencies at all! Eventually the fuss died down, but Wodehouse moved to the United States and took up American citizenship. Near the end of his life he was given a knighthood, showing that all was now forgiven.

However, I do not think Orwell was right. In “The Code of the Woosters”, which is surely the best of the “Jeeves and Wooster” novels (and which, for some reason, Orwell fails to mention at all in his essay), Wodehouse does introduce an actual Fascist character, by name of Roderick Spode. It is instructive to see how he is treated.
Bertie Wooster describes his first impression on seeing Spode:-
“It was as if nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment …… I don’t know if you have ever seen those pictures in the papers of Dictators with tilted chins and blazing eyes, inflaming the populace with fiery words on the occasion of the opening of a new skittle alley, but that was what he reminded me of”.
The exquisite bathos of “skittle alley” sets the tone for how Wodehouse will proceed to demolish Spode throughout the book.

Spode does have ambitions of becoming a dictator. As Bertie’s friend Gussie explains:-
“Roderick Spode is the founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organisation better known as the Black Shorts. His general idea is to make himself a Dictator.”
Bertie interposes: “By the way, when you say “shorts”, you mean “shirts”, surely?”
“No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts”.
“Footer bags, you mean?”
“How perfectly foul.”

Once again, the perfect note of bathos in “footer bags” ("Footer" being the Etonian slang for football). And there is more to come. Spode bullies and intimidates Bertie and Gussie, and at one point is about to beat Bertie up, but Bertie is able to turn the tables and blackmail Spode into submission. Jeeves had discovered Spode’s guilty secret: that he has another career as a talented and successful designer of ladies’ knickers!
“Good Lord, Jeeves! No wonder he didn’t want a thing like that to come out.”
“No, sir. It would unquestionably jeopardise his authority over his followers.”
“You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s underclothing. One thing or the other. Not both.”
“Precisely, sir.”

With this weapon to hand, Bertie is able to tell Spode in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him:-
“It is about time that some public-spirited person came along and told you where you got off. The trouble with you, Spode, is that because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?””

How could anyone who read these words ever imagine that their author was pro-Fascist? There could hardly be a more ruthless, and perceptive, hatchet-job. One can only wish that all would-be dictators could be addressed in this manner!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Americans in London

I was told this story by an American couple I met in Prague. It's an anecdote I would very much like to believe; and I can only hope they weren't talking about themselves.
An American lady in London asked, "At road crossings, when the little green man comes up, why is there a bleep-bleep-bleep noise?"
"That's to help blind people", she was told.
"Ah!" she replied, "But in America, we don't let blind people drive!"

Monday, 27 August 2012

Etna: Mount Doom!

I have been a lover of Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" since I was very young, and as soon as I saw Etna I recognised it: here was Mount Doom itself!

At almost 11,000 feet high, far taller than any peak in Britain, Etna dominates the north-eastern corner of Sicily. It is the most active volcano in Europe, and boils over every few years. In the surrounding regions you can find what appear to be enormous fossilised caterpillars snaking out over the ground, which are trails of solidified lava from earlier eruptions. Sometimes they reach as far as the sea.
Vesuvius looks a very feeble mountain by comparison. I am surprised when I am told that the Romans could not understand what was happening when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, since they must surely have noticed the resemblance to Etna. Virgil in the "Aeneid" describes an eruption, which must surely be based on Etna.

When I visited Etna, some years ago, the cable-car up the mountain was out of action, since the top section had been melted in the last eruption. We were driven most of the way up by Land Rover, and then had to walk the last section. It looked, and felt, like a gigantic heap of coke. The air at that altitude was cold, even in August, but we could sense the heat of the volcano through the soles of our shoes. There were layers of snow left over from a previous winter, preserved by being covered in ash: they resembled an extremely dirty Neapolitan ice cream.

This is a view down into the main crater. We could see the floor deep below us, and were not sure whether it was solid or liquid. If we tumbled down the very steep sides into it, would we sink? Constant smoke and steam rose from the depths, clouding the view to the far side. One could imagine the mouth of Hell looking something like this. It was here, according to tradition, that the Ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles hurled himself in, to prove he was an immortal god.

"Great Empedocles, that ardent soul,
Jumped into Etna and was roasted whole"

("Matthew Arnold wrote a poem on this subject, but, although one of his worst, it does not contain the above couplet." - Bertrand Russell, "History of Western Philosophy", chapter VI)

This is not Frodo and Sam on the brink of the crater of Mount Doom, though it might well pass for such a shot.

I am refusing to follow the example of Empedocles!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was fought between a Frenchman who wasn't really French and an Englishman who wasn't really English.

Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769. The island had long been subject to the Republic of Genoa, but after a protracted struggle for independence, which attracted the admiration of Rousseau and James Boswell amongst others, Corsica was sold to France by the Genoese in 1768. The name "Napoleon" was unknown in France before his time. To this day, Corsicans are seen as being quite different from other French citizens.
   The future Duke of Wellington was also born in 1769, in his case in Dublin. His father was an Irish nobleman and he himself sat in the Irish Parliament before the Act of Union with Britain. When it was suggested to Wellington that he was therefore, in fact, Irish, he replied, "Sir, being born in a stable does not make you a horse!"

This kind of "displaced nationalism" is not unusual amongst great national leaders. George Orwell once wrote that, "One quite commonly finds that great national leaders, or the founders of nationalist movements, do not even belong to the country they have glorified. Sometimes they are outright foreigners, or more often they come from peripheral areas where nationality is doubtful" ("Notes on Nationalism": 1945). As well as the obvious examples, Orwell cited Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian who spent most of his life in Britain as a strongly nationalist newspaper magnate and political intriguer, and Benjamin Disraeli, a maverick Conservative Prime Minister who invented the title "Empress of India" for Queen Victoria, but was at the same time immensely proud of his Jewish heritage.

The two greatest European dictators of the twentieth century certainly fit Orwell's description. Most people know that Adolf Hitler, although obsessed with the notion of a German race, was born a citizen of the Austrian Empire, whose multi-racial character he despised. Although he joined the German army in 1914, he did not bother to take up German citizenship until 1932. Stalin was a Georgian, by name Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, who only learnt to speak Russian at school, but who in 1923 alarmed even Lenin by the brutality with which he compelled his Georgian homeland to be incorporated into the Soviet Union. (Some Georgians have maintained that Stalin was not a true Georgian at all, but was half Ossetian!). Then again, Hendrik Verwoerd, who set up the full apartheid system in South Africa after the Second World War, was not a true Boer, having been born in Holland. Eamon de Valera, the Irish leader who plunged his country into civil war rather than accept the compromise treaty of 1921, was born in New York of a Cuban-Spanish father; hence his very un-Irish surname. In the great crisis over Irish Home Rule before the First World War, the resistance of Ulster was led by Sir Edward Carson, who was not an Ulsterman but a barrister most famous for his demolition of Oscar Wilde in 1895; strongly supported by the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law, who was born in Canada and later became the only British Prime Minister not to have been born in the U.K.

The last word on this subject must go to David Lloyd George, Prime Minister during the First World War and at the Versailles Peace Conference, and probably the most famous Welshman of all time. He was actually born in Manchester, but as he told his son, "Nationality has nothing to do with geography: it is a state of mind".

Monday, 20 August 2012

Problems of colloquial English

My school in north Staffordshire used to play host to foreign students, usually French, who would spend a year there helping to teach their own native language. One year we had a lad called Francois, who reckoned he was pretty good at spoken English. To reach us he caught a train to Stoke station and then found a bus, and the first words spoken to him in Staffordshire were by the bus conductor, who welcomed him on board with the friendly greeting, "Ey-up, squire!" At this point, it dawned on Francois that his command of collquial English was not as great as he had supposed. He had to ask us what exactly "Ey-up squire" meant, and after a little thought we had to tell him that it didn't actually mean anything at all.

That summer, Francois was watching a game of school cricket with some bemusement when John, who prided himself on being a straight-talking, no-nonsense (and foul-mouthed) working-class Yorkshireman, decided to take him in hand. "Here, Francois!" he said, "Come with me: I'll explain about cricket!" We watched them walk around the boundary edge, with John making expansive gestures. Afterwards we asked, "Well, Francois? Do you know all about cricket now?" Francois looked a little downhearted. "I could not understand a single word, except for zee bloodys and zee f***ings!" he said sadly.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Benny Siegel and Hermann Goering

One of the best stories about the American gangsters of the interwar period concerns Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, a notorious killer on the New York crime scene, and Hermann Goering, Hitler's right-hand-man in Nazi Germany. There are several slightly different versions of the story, but my favourite one runs like this:-
Siegel was staying in Rome with one of his mistresses, the Countess di Frasso (actually Dorothy Taylor, who had married an Italian Count) and discovered that Hermann Goering was at the same hotel. As a good Jewish boy, Siegel naturally hated all Nazis; so he carefully stalked Goering and then contacted his friends back in New York to ask, "Should I rub him out?" The other gang leaders, presumably slightly shocked, replied, "You can't shoot Hermann Goering!"
"Why not?" Siegel responded, "It's an easy hit!"
In the end nothing happened and Siegel came home. As one modern commentator puts it, they had lost the chance of killing a far greater gangster. On the other hand, we must wonder how Hitler would have reacted to Goering's murder. When in 1938 an obscure German diplomat, Vom Rath, who was not even a Nazi Party member, was shot in Paris by a Jew, the result was "Crystal Night", when all over Germany synagogues were torched, Jewish property trashed and thousands of Jews arrested. What would have happened if Hitler had realized that his most important follower had been killed by a Jewish gangster?

(For more on Siegel and others, see my various entries on the American gangsters)

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Greatest Revolution in History

Consider the following. If we examine the world around the years 1450-1500 we find half a dozen different civilizations, completely separate from each other or only marginally in touch. These are: Europe (or, as people of the time might have said, Christendom), Islam, India, China, the Aztecs and the Incas: and we might also wish to add Japan and some other places to the list. These civilizations do not differ greatly in terms of technological development or economic structures, and I doubt whether a Martian observer would have predicted what was going to happen. Indeed, such a Martian might have deduced that it was Christendom which was most under pressure: the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople in 1453 and pressed on up through the Balkans, eventually reaching as as Vienna. But the Martian would have been wrong, for if we then fast-forward to around 1900, we find the world-picture has changed beyond recognition. The Aztec and Inca civilizations have vanished, and the Islamic world, India and China are in the process of being penetrated and taken over, European civilizations have been established in the Americas and Australia, Siberia has been occupied by the Russians and Africa carved up between the European imperial powers. Only Japan has retained its independence, and has achieved this by copying European methods as fast as it can. This has been without doubt the greatest transformation of the world in recorded history. How and why did it happen?

By the end of the 15th century certain key inventions had been developed: gunpowder, printing, ocean-going ships, and the blast furnace, which reached temperatures high enough to reduce iron to a liquid. Interestingly enough, none of these could be proved to have originated in Europe, but there is no doubt that the Europeans exploited them far more effectively than did the other civilizations. In the 16th century came entirely new developments, as the Europeans sent the first ships to circle the globe and planted colonies and trading bases in distant lands. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries came the "Scientific Revolution" and the Enlightenment, which produced not only new technical devices, such as the telescope and the microscope, but also new ways of looking at the world. Henceforth everything would become known through observation and logical inference from the data collected, priests lost their power over the human mind and the dictates of the ancient sacred texts could be disregarded. This was a revolution in human thought, and it was unique to western Europe. It had no equivalent in other civilizations, or in the world of classical antiquity. Although this revolution ultimately stemmed from the Italian Renaissance, and the first great voyages of discovery came from Spain and Portugal, by the late 17th century the initiative had shifted northwards, to Britain, France and the Netherlands. It may be a coincidence that at the same time there was the creation of professional armies and fighting navies, which gave the Europeans a huge military advantage.

The greatest change, however, began in Britain in the 18th century and spread from there to Europe, America and right round the world. This was the Industrial Revolution; its most spectacular aspect being the building of the railways in the 19th century. A great economic historian once explained it to me in these terms:

"Only four things have really changed human history. The first is the use of fire, which is the one thing that distinguishes human from animals. The second is the coming of farming in the Stone Age. The third is the use of metals, particularly iron. The fourth is the Industrial Revolution".

Industrialisation transformed society for ever. Before this time, in any civilization, the vast majority of the population lived in the countryside and worked as peasant farmers. This was inevitable, since productivity was so low; and it was also inevitable that they would always be very poor, probably illiterate, and facing the threat of starvation in bad years. The productivity of 17th century western Europe was perhaps twice that of the Roman Empire; scarcely a great advance for 1500 years of history. By the 20th century there had been a complete transformation: the population had multiplied as never before, and for the first time in human history most people now lived in towns. It cannot be stressed too much that the society which emerged, and which we live in today, was unlike anything that had ever previously existed.

It was the Industrial Revolution which enabled the European to take over the world. Their industrially-produced weaponry (rifles, machine-guns and quick-firing artilery, instead of single-shot muskets and cannon) gave them an irresistible advantage over all other civilizations, and wherever the Europeans went, they built railways. At the same time there was an intellectual revolution, centred on the notion of "Progress". In all previous societies, it was generally believed that the past had been better than the present, and that the human race had degenerated over the centuries. A theologian would believe that the absolute truth of the sacred texts must be accepted without question, because the people in the past who wrote them were closer to God. Edward Gibbon, in his monumental history of the Roman Empire, famously thought that Rome under the Antonine Emperors in the early 2nd century was "the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous". But the Industrial Revolution changed this attitude for ever. It was obvious that the achievements of the modern Europeans surpassed anything the Romans had done. Even the blindest reactionary knew that the Romans never built railways, and would be compelled to ask: why not? The new attitude, the gospel of the Victorian age, was Progress. We know more about the world than our ancestors did, we can do things that were wholly beyond them; everything is getting better.

The importance of this development was recognised by two contemporary philosophers of the mid-19th century: Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. The first chapter of the "Communist Manifesto" (1848) is in fact a hymn of praise for the achievements of capitalism. Marx says, "It has been the first to show what man's activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals; it has expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades". Marx also noted that capitalism had rescued the great majority of people from the "idiocy of rural life", and predicted that other civilizations were now faced with a stark choice: they could adopt capitalist systems themselves, or they would inevitably perish. He was, of course, quite correct. In a similar vein, Mill in chapter 3 of his "On Liberty" (1859) looks at India and China and says, "These nations must once have had originality; they did not start out of the ground prosperous, lettered and versed in many of the arts of life; they made themselves all this, and were then the greatest and most powerful nations of the world. What are they now? The subjects or dependants of tribes whose forefathers wandered in the forests when theirs had magnificent palaces and gorgeous temples". It can be seen that Marx and Mill had similar views on Progress and its importance; though Mill thought that free individualism was always crucial in ensuring continued progress, whereas Marx believed that individualistic capitalism would soon be succeeded by a superior system, namely, Communist society.

The debate on the reasons for the European triumph has continued ever since, from classics like R. H. Tawney's "Religion and the Rise of Capitalism" to modern works by such writers as Paul Kennedy, Francis Fukuyama and Andrew Roberts.