Tuesday, 21 July 2015


I visited Rhodes with a school party several years ago. This is a report.

Originally there were three ancient Greek cities on Rhodes: Kamiros, Ialyssos and Lindos (the third being the only one we visited, and the only one with significant archaeological remains from the classical period), but in 408 BC the three came together and built the new city of Rhodes on the northern tip of the island. It soon became a great trading centre, with a population much bigger than today.
Everyone knows about the Colossus of Rhodes; a gigantic statue of the sun-god Helios; one of the “Seven wonders of the world”, though no-one knows what it looked like, or even exactly where it stood, though imaginative Renaissance drawings of it straddling the harbour are highly improbable. It was erected to commemorate Rhodes’s survival in a siege by Demetrios in 304 B.C. in the wars that followed the death of Alexander the Great. It was said to be 35 metres tall, made all of bronze, the work of the sculptor Chares of Lindos, but it survived no more than 70 years before collapsing in an earthquake in 227 B.C. To the Romans, and indeed to most Greeks, it would be known only as the monstrous ruins which lay untouched on the site for more than eight hundred years.
Rhodes attempted to remain neutral in the wars between the Hellenistic states and the rising power of Rome, but in 164 B.C. became a “permanent ally” of Rome, and its independence was effectively at an end. It was for centuries a centre of learning, famous for its schools of philosophy, rhetoric and science: Cicero studied there, and Tiberius, the future Roman Emperor, spent several years studying on the island. But the artistic glory of Rhodes never recovered from when in 44 B.C. it was pillaged by Cassius (famous as one of the assassins of Julius Caesar) who stole most of its treasures and slaughtered many of the inhabitants.
For centuries Rhodes was contested between the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs. It was in the seventh century A.D., during a period of Moslem occupation, that the remains of the Colossus were finally removed by the Arabs and sold to a Jewish scrap-metal dealer. It is said that 125 tons of bronze were taken away, loaded onto 900 camels. Today no trace remains.
Rhodes town today bears little remembrance of classical times. It is far more redolent of the Middle Ages, because for 200 years it was the centre of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, an order of fighting monks left over from the Crusades. The Grand Master of the Hospitallers, Foulkes de Villaret, bought the island in 1309 and turned it into a base against Islamic forces.  The Old Town of Rhodes is still encircled by vast ramparts and a triple moat built by the Hospitallers, 

enclosed within which is a real rabbit-warren of tiny alleyways and heavy stone buildings. Some of the main streets have arches over them. 

Only a few parts have been taken over by tourist shops; the rest can scarcely have been changed for centuries. The most famous street is the Hippoton, where the Knights lived, 

with each “tongue”, or nationality, of the Order having its own “inn”, marked by distinctive coats of arms.

In 1522 the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, the greatest of the Ottoman Sultans, launched an attack on Rhodes. A stout defence reduced the Hospitallers to just 180 knights, at which stage they surrendered and were allowed to withdraw to their new base of Malta, though many of the native Rhodians were slaughtered. The Turks then ruled Rhodes for the next four centuries, and their era is marked by the occasional mosque and derelict burial ground.

The population of Rhodes was mostly Greek, but it was not joined with the newly-created Greek state in the 19th century. Instead in 1912 Rhodes was seized by the Italians in a war with the disintegrating Turkish Empire (as was Libya at the same time). Much of old district, particularly the Palace of the Grand Masters, was aggressively restored by Mussolini during the period of Italian occupation.

 I found a plaque commemorating restoration work done “in the 13th year of the Fascist Era”. According to our guide, the locals still hate the Italians even more than they do the Turks, which must be something of a record for Greeks anywhere.
There used to be a large Jewish colony in Rhodes, dating back to the earliest years of the Christian era, and Mussolini ignored them as long as he ruled. But when the Germans took over in 1943 after Mussolini’s overthrow, all the Rhodian Jews were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. The train journeys across the Balkans took so long that most of them were dead of starvation before they arrived.
In 1947 Rhodes was at long last reunited with Greece.

We stayed at Faliriki, a popular resort on the east coast. Our hotel was mostly occupied by middle-aged Germans, who insisted on wearing the most unsuitably brief bathing costumes. Most of the island looked typical of rural Greece: very rugged and barren (though with lots of wild flowers in spring), some primitive little villages and towns with brightly painted walls, and the ubiquitous reinforced concrete skeletons of partially built hotels and apartments. As well as visiting Rhodes town, we had a day in Lindos, now a little seaside town with steep cobbled streets nestling beneath a towering acropolis. This was converted into an impregnable fortress by the Hospitaller Knights,

 but still contains parts of a classical temple to Athene and propylaea. These were swathed in scaffolding for our visit, but there was a fine view from the top.

Our trip coincided with the Greek Easter, and on the Saturday evening we went into the cathedral in Rhodes town for the service. This proved very strange. There was an incomprehensible and interminable litany chanted amidst deep gloom, during which more and more people pushed their way in with little sign of reverence. At 11.45 pm the archbishop and other priests suddenly emerged from behind the iconostasis, presumably to proclaim the Risen Christ, because the chandeliers suddenly blazed, lights were transmitted from candle to candle, and everyone processed out to the square, where the service resumed under a canopy. Precisely at midnight rocket flares were launched, fireworks were set off, the police band struck up, and all the ships in the harbour sounded their hooters. I believe the service continued, though of course nobody could now hear a word.
On the last night we staged a fancy dress party. The Germans in the hotel had annoyed us by complaining about the noise, and one of the boys decided to disguise himself as Hitler. With a false moustache and carefully combed hair he managed a remarkable resemblance: so much so that he lost his nerve at the last moment and had to cross the foyer pretending to read a newspaper close to his face. This was the only disappointing moment on our holiday.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

England vs. Australia: Ten Great Ashes Tests

I have selected ten matches in which there were very close finishes, dramatic changes of fortune, or new records set

1. The Oval, August 1882. Australia won by 7 runs

Australia 63 (Barlow 5-19) and 122 (Massie 55, Peate 4-40)
England 101 (Spofforth 7-46) and 77 (Spofforth 7-44)

This was the match which gave birth to the term "the Ashes", though it was in fact the ninth between the two countries. It was an exceptionally low-scoring game, resulting from the wet weather and a pitch which would probably nowadays be deemed unplayable. (It should be remembered that until the 1950s pitches were left uncovered during a match, and in consequence some surfaces made batting extremely difficult). Massie, opening Australia's second innings, was the only batsman to reach 50. England, needing only 85 to win, were destroyed by Frederick Spofforth, the original "demon bowler". The great W. G. Grace scored 32, but only two other Englishmen reached double figures.

2. Sydney, December 1894. England won by 10 runs

Australia 586 (Gregory 201, Giffen 161, Richardson 5-181) and 166 (Darling 53, Peel 6-67)
England 325 (Ward 75, Giffen 4-75) and 437 (Ward 117, Giffen 4-164)

This is the first of only two occasions when a team following-on has won a test match (for the other one, see later). Australia opened the match with a huge total, and England set them only a modest target to win; but then it rained overnight, producing a classic "sticky wicket", on which the Australians found Bobby Peel's left-arm spin almost unplayable. Giffen's immense all-round performance went unrewarded.  

3. In summer 1902 there were two great matches within a few weeks! At Old Trafford in July, Victor Trumper scored a century before lunch on the first day, and England's last man in, the unlucky Fred Tate in his only test match, was bowled second ball to enable Australia to snatch victory by 3 runs. Then next month, this happened:-

The Oval, August 1902. England won by 1 wicket

Australia 324 (Trumble 64, Hirst 5-77) and 121 (Lockwood 5-45)
England 183 (Trumble 8-65) and 263-9 (Jessop 104)

England, set a moderate total to win the match, collapsed to 48 for 5. Gilbert Jessop then smashed his way to what is still the fastest century in Ashes tests, but when the 9th wicket fell, England were still 15 short of their target, and it was left to the Yorkshire pair of Hirst and Rhodes to see them home.

4. The Oval, August 1926. England won by 289 runs

England 280 (Sutcliffe 76, Mailey 6-138) and 436 (Hobbs 100, Sutcliffe 161)
Australia 302 (Gregory 73) and 125 (Rhodes 4-44)

This match could have been influenced by the weather, but wasn't. The England second innings had to begin on a very dangerous drying wicket, but Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe defied the conditions with an opening partnership of 172, and eventually England won easily. Wilfred Rhodes had been recalled to the team at the age of 48, and responded with six wickets in the match. This victory gave England their first series win against Australia since before the First World War.

5. Lord's, 1930. Australia won by 7 wickets

England 425 (Duleepsinhji 173) and 375 (Chapman 121, Grimmett 6-167)
Australia 729-6 declared (Bradman 254, Woodfull 155) and 72-3

England witnessed the awesome run-scoring power of Don Bradman for the first time. Despite scoring 400 on the first day, with a brilliant century from the young Indian prince Duleepsinhji, England were overwhelmed as Bradman then reached 250 in less than six hours. In the second innings Grimmett chipped away at the England batting with his leg-spin, while Percy Chapman, England's captain, threw caution to the winds with a hard-hit century. Sir Neville Cardus, looking back on it many years later, described it as "the ideal cricket match". It was certainly action-packed: 1600 runs being scored off almost 500 overs in less than four days of cricket!

6. Adelaide, January 1933. England won by 338 runs

England 341 (Leyland 83, Wall 5-72) and 412 (Hammond 85, O'Reilly 4-79)
Australia 222 (Ponsford 85, Allen 4-71) and 193 (Woodfull 73, Bradman 66, Allen 4-50, Larwood 4-71)

This is immortalized as "the bodyline test". To counter the menace of Bradman, Harold Larwood, England's fastest bowler, was instructed to pitch short and aim at the batsman's body, with no fewer than six short-leg fieldsmen clustered round for a catch. (We should remember that batsmen in those days had no helmets and no body-armour). The Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, was struck several times, to the disgust of the crowd, and the wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield suffered a fractured skull when he top-edged a pull shot onto his forehead. Bradman was too quick on his feet to be struck, but it reduced his run-scoring to merely mortal levels. (Oddly enough, England's most successful fast bowler in the match, Gubby Allen, did not bowl bodyline). The whole episode led to an angry exchange of telegrams between Australia and England.

7. Leeds. July 1948. Australia won by 7 wickets

England 496 (Washbrook 143, Edrich 111) and 365-8 declared
Australia 458 (Harvey 112, Loxton 93) and 404-3 (Morris 182, Bradman 173 not out)

England thought they had a chance of defeating Bradman's all-conquering team when they set a target of over 400 on the last day, but in vain. This was Bradman's last great innings, in his penultimate test match. What is remarkable by today's standards is that England bowled well over 100 overs on that final day, making no attempt to waste some time as Bradman and Morris destroyed the attack, adding nearly 200 runs between lunch and tea. It couldn't happen nowadays! (In Bradman's final innings, at the Oval a month later, he was bowled by Eric Hollies for 0, thus reducing his career average to less than 100!)

8. Manchester, July 1956. England won by an innings and 170 runs

England 459 (Richardson 104, Sheppard 113)
Australia 84 (Laker 9-37) and 205 (McDonald 89, Laker 10-53)

This match was one-sided from start to finish, but is remembered for Jim Laker setting a record unlikely ever to be beaten, with 19 wickets. The Australians were wholly unable to cope with his off-spinners on a helpful surface.

9. Leeds, July 1981. England won by 18 runs

Australia 401 (Dyson 102, Botham 6-95) and 111 (Willis 8-43)
England 174 (Lillee 4-49) and 356 (Botham 149 not out, Alderman 6-135)

This is only the second occasion in which a team following-on has won the match. After losing the first test badly and drawing the second, England recalled Mike Brearley as captain. The position appeared hopeless as England were reduced to 135 for 7 in their second innings, but then Ian Botham and the tail added more than 200 with some vigorous hitting, enabling Bob Willis then to blow away the Australian batting. This is always remembered as "Botham's match", but Willis's role at the end was just as important.

10. Birmingham, August 2005. England won by 2 runs

England 407 (Trescothick 90, Warne 4-116) and 182 (Flintoff 73, Warne 6-46)
Australia 308 (Langer 82) and 279 (Flintoff 4-79)

The 2005 series is generally reckoned to be the best of recent years. Australia won the first match, and almost won this, the second. England were well ahead for the first four days, and the fifth looked to be of short duration, with Australia on 175 for 8: over 100 behind. But then Warne, Lee and Kasprowicz brought them within three runs of victory, before finally Kasprowicz gloved a ball from Harmison down the leg side and was caught behind. (To add to the interest, later video analysis suggested he shouldn't have been given out!). Andrew Flintoff was adjudged "man of the match", but if the result had gone the other way the award would surely have gone to Shane Warne.

Saturday, 4 July 2015


The city of Cracow in southern Poland is a popular tourist destination, and rightly so, since it is one of the very few cities in eastern Europe to have survived the war without being devastated. It was the capital of mediaeval Poland; it has a well-preserved centre with several fine churches and an old university. The future Pope John Paul II lived here. On Wawel hill you can see the magnificent tombs of the old kings of Poland in the cathedral of St. Stanislaus. There is also a Jewish quarter, called Kazimierz, where you can identify some of the settings used in the shooting of the film “Schindler’s List”, though little trace now remains of Schindler’s factory. In the war, Cracow was the administrative centre of the German-occupied "General Government" of Poland, headed by Hans Frank, who was an extremely nasty character even by Nazi standards. If you sign up for a package holiday in Cracow, you will find one day is devoted to an outing to Auschwitz; but this will always be billed as “optional” - understandably so, since many people would find the experience too upsetting.

Historians remain divided on when the decision was made to exterminate the European Jews (or, indeed, whether there was ever one single decision, as distinct from a general spasmodic intensification: see notes at the end). Of course, it is possible that Hitler always intended extermination, though there is no documentary evidence for this (indeed, there is not a single reliable document to show that Hitler even knew of the existence of Auschwitz). The suspicion is that a decision was made either in the spring of 1941, before the invasion of the Soviet Union in “Operation Barbarossa”, when the mass killing really started, or that autumn, when the Einstazgruppen (hit-squads) in Russia began to shoot large numbers of Jewish women and children as well as men. The Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where the aim of extermination throughout Europe was announced, only explained a policy already decided upon, for the gassings in the camps had already started.
There were six death-camps with facilities for gassing, as distinct from simple concentration camps. All six were in Poland. Four of them, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, were built in 1941-42 for the purpose of killing the Jewish population of occupied Poland. These were extermination centres pure and simple, and comparatively little is known about them, for there were hardly any survivors and the Nazis demolished them thoroughly in their retreat before the advancing Red Army later in the war. The two remaining camps were Majdanek, near Lublin, and the most famous of all, Auschwitz. They had facilities for work as well as gas chambers: for instance, the Italian writer Primo Levi worked in Monowitz, part of the Auschwitz camp complex, where he and other slave labourers manufactured artificial rubber known as “Buna”. He survived, as did various others, such as the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who was a member of the Auschwitz orchestra (see notes at the end).

The buiding of the Auschwitz complex began in spring 1940, and its first prisoners were Polish. It was greatly expanded in autumn 1941 to house Russian prisoners-of-war, who were used in the first experiments with cyanide gas (Earlier camps like Chelmno and Belzec had used carbon monoxide from diesel engines). Mass murder of Jews began there in early 1943, and the vast gas chambers built the next year. The complex continued to expand until it was evacuated in early 1945.

Auschwitz is about an hour’s drive from Cracow, across flat, swampy and rather uninteresting countryside with occasional areas of forest, thinly inhabited. I visited three times with school groups. The whole Auschwitz complex eventually came to cover more than 20 square miles, with numerous sub-camps, but only two are open to the public: the original camp which is “Auschwitz I”, and a mile or so away across the railway line, “Auschwitz II” or Birkenau (derived from the Polish word for a birch-wood).

Auschwitz I is actually quite small, and is now maintained as a museum, crowded with parties having guided tours. The barbed wire is intact, with over the gate the famous slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei”: “Work sets you free”, expressing the notion found under many different regimes that labour is somehow morally improving and can save you from falling into wickedness.

 The camp mostly consists of identical barrack-blocks, two stories high with attics, and a parade-ground complete with a gallows. We saw photographs of the camp taken by the Russians when they occupied it in January 1945, and tins which contained the crystals for the Zyklon-B poison gas.

 We saw Block 11, the Gestapo torture centre, with its isolation cells down below, in one of which there is a memorial to a Polish priest who was starved to death there. Others were mere tubes, rather like chimneys, a yard square at the base, in which recalcitrant prisoners would be made to stand all night. Outside this was the “Wall of death” where shootings took place.

 What really shook everyone, however, were the grotesque collections of goods taken from victims that the Russians found stored in a part of Birkenau known as “Canada” (so named because to the inmates, who were mostly from Eastern Europe, Canada was a legendary land of plenty), and which now formed huge displays in one of the blocks. There was a whole wall of human hair (two tons of it, according to the guide), another wall of suitcases, a third of artificial limbs; great dumps of brushes, of shoe-polish of spectacles, and (what was most distressing) baby-clothes. One lady burst into tears at the sight of the baby-clothes, despite the fact that she had visited before and knew what was there. The overall effect of this monstrous exhibition can only be described as surrealist. We were also taken round the only surviving crematorium and gas chamber, which simply looked like a large, gloomy cellar. It survived because later in the war it was used as an air-raid shelter, and the little trucks for transporting corpses to the furnaces actually came from elsewhere.

 In fact, the gassings almost all took place at Birkenau: nobody knows how many, because the victims were mostly taken directly there from the trains without ever being registered or counted. Just outside the wire of the camp stood the house of the commandant, Hoess, who after the war was brought back there to be hanged. On one of my visits I noticed a school party of children who looked no more than 10 years old being taken round. I could not understand the reasoning behind this: either the experience would give them appalling nightmares or it would have no effect at all: neither would serve any useful purpose.
Birkenau is quite different. It is a vast howling wilderness of over 350 acres, surrounded by barbed wire, within which little now survives except a few barrack-blocks in a desolation of rough grass: the other blocks are marked only by their foundations and brick chimneys.

 The four huge gas chambers and crematoria which once stood at the far end were blown up before the Nazis retreated, and are now mere heaps of concrete rubble.

(This has enabled Holocaust-deniers to ask what evidence there is for mass gassings). The entrance to Birkenau, known as the “Gate of Death” is still intact, with a railway line built through it in 1944 to take the huge shipments of Hungarian Jews direct to the gas chambers.

We were able to look round the few surviving barrack-blocks, single-storey here, and built of wood or very crudely mortared brick, each of which would hold up to a thousand people in fantastically overcrowded communal bunks while they waited to be gassed.

 This hut held Ukrainian women; ten to each of the three levels of each tier. One of our girls took just one look, exclaimed “Oh, God!” and fled. In one corner of the camp I found a small wooden hut in which, the sign informed me, the S.S. killed babies born in the camp by lethal injection.

 Even in sunny weather the effect was overwhelmingly depressing, and everyone was very silent as we drove back to Cracow. One of the boys announced that he didn’t want to revisit Berlin after this. I could well understand him - and understand those who would prefer not to visit Auschwitz at all.

Notes: (1) I once had a very intelligent colleague who was one of those who doubted whether there was ever any one single decision to begin extermination. I said to him, “But surely someone, somewhere, must have made a decision?” “I don’t think that follows”, he replied, “I used to work for the B.B.C. No-one there ever made any decisions at all!”

(2) Some years ago I attended a talk by Anita Lasker-Walfisch, who had survived Birkenau because she was a cellist in the camp orchestra. Their jobs included staging concerts for the guards, playing marching tunes to send off the slave-labour squads in the mornings, and performing on the platform to greet each new trainload of victims, who would conclude that the place couldn’t be too bad if there was a band. She finally escaped when the surviving inmates were marched off westwards as the Russians approached in January 1945 (Primo Levi was left behind in the hospital by mistake). I asked her about the comments I had come across, that the most brutal guards at the camp were not actually Germans, but Ukrainians or Lithuanians. She agreed. Her interpretation was that for the Germans, anti-Semitism was always something academic or philosophical rather than visceral, whereas many of the peoples of Eastern Europe simply hated Jews, and relished an opportunity to kill them.

(3) I do not know what the Poles today make of the camps. Outside Reading there used to be a Polish museum, run by a group of exiled Polish monks. The whole tone of the museum was anti-Russian: anti-Tsarist in the earlier sections, anti-Communist in the more recent exhibits. You would not learn from a cursory glance that Germany twice in the 20th century invaded and devastated Poland; still less that there was once a huge and vibrant Jewish community there. I once taught Politics to a Polish student who had come to Britain to do his A-levels, and I asked him, “Back home, what were you taught about the fact that all the Nazi death camps were in Poland?” “Nothing!” he replied firmly