Friday, 18 December 2009

American gangsters, part 2: conditions

American gangsters, part 2

(In this section of the essay, I shall attempt to define organised crime, and describe what conditions allow it to flourish)

Organised crime is an operation to make money. It is thus different from the aimless violence of street-level hooliganism. Almost all successful gangsters began as juvenile delinquents, with petty thefts and muggings, battles over territory and punch-ups in dance-halls, but then moved on to something much larger-scale. A top gangster in a capitalist entrepreneur who uses methods abnormal in a law-abiding society. Bertrand Russell once pointed out that free-market capitalism as we understand it is actually heavily circumscribed in its activities: you are allowed to bankrupt your competitor by undercutting his prices, but you aren't allowed to shoot him. The Mafia, if you like, doesn't recognise this last restriction! But for a serious criminal, the violence is only incidental to the main activity, which is moneymaking.

There are various ways the criminal can make money; the simplest being theft. But theft is not only heavily punished by law, it is also unpopular in the community. If thieves wish to stay in business, they must be careful only to rob outsiders, or those perceived as the enemy. In primitive societies, where almost all people are poverty-stricken peasants, becoming a bandit is almost a rational career-choice, and bandits may even acquire romantic and heroic status (the Robin Hood image). But in reality, they are unlikely to stay in business for long.

Slightly more sophisticated is extortion, going under the names of blackmail, "protection", or "rackets": demanding money for alleged services with the threat of violence for non-payment. (The word "blackmail" is actually Scottish in origin, meaning the "black" (illegal) "mail" (tax) which Lowland farmers had to pay to the Highland clans to preserve their cattle from being raided) Rackets depend on the state authorities being too weak to enforce the law, usually because the victims do not inform the police. They work best where the businesses under threat are themselves are not legal: dealers in smuggled goods or banned substances, or such typical slum operations as brothels, unlicensed moneylending, drinking and gambling dens. Such businesses may escape the attentions of policemen, or simply bribe them to look away, but they can hardly avoid the demands of local thugs out for a quick buck. Even legitimate concerns in the ghetto may not escape, because their businesses are usually precarious, and the whole ethos of the ghetto is to see the police as an enemy, not to be trusted. The only way to escape the attentions of the extortionists is to be stronger yourself: to have patrons powerful enough to scare off the thugs, or to hire your own thugs in self-defence. An intelligent hoodlum could easily double his career as a strong-arm man: demanding protection money on the one hand, or fighting off the racketeers for a reward; or indeed both. Many top gangsters began their careers this way. The overall effect of rackets is of course to raise prices for the consumer, to cover the cost of paying off the gangsters. In some ways the extortionist is thus comparable to the role played by the capitalist in simplified forms of Marxist doctrine: someone who skims money off the top of the operation without contributing anything useful to it.

The best method of making money is buying and selling; crime as trade: dealing in contraband or illegal commodities. Smuggling was the earliest form of this, and still persists. The best goods to trade are things that people want to buy, but are illegal; or better still, on the borderline - illegal without necessarily being seen as morally wrong. Examples would be pornography, prostitution, gambling, drugs, illegal immigration, and in 1920s America, alcohol. There are several advantages here for the criminal. Firstly, it avoids the obloquy attached to robbery or protection rackets. Secondly, it drags within the criminal orbit people not normally associated with crime (the consumers) who will have nothing to gain by driving their supplier out of business by having him prosecuted, and may indeed be a fruitful target for blackmail. It all presents a conundrum for Free Trade theory: if person X wants to sell an item to person Z, who is willing to buy if the price is right, what justification does the state have for intervening to prevent the deal? There will be certain inevitable results of intervention: the price will fluctuate wildly, all possibility of quality control will be lost, and sooner or later the trade will fall under the control of the men of violence. The reasons for this are plain. Criminals have their overheads too, but also tend to destroy a free market by using violence to put competitors out of business. Supplies can seldom be guaranteed. Neither side has the normal legal safeguards against being swindled: if the purchaser is sold inferior goods or the vendor does not receive payment, the defrauded party cannot bring the defaulter to court; all he can do is threaten violent retribution. The vendor may evade the attentions of the police, but his only defence against the violent extortionist is to command greater violence himself. Trade in illegal substances always ultimately puts money into the pockets of the men of violence. (My personal view is that almost anything is preferable to this outcome)

Before organised crime can really take off, certain social and poltical conditions are needed. The most important is that there should be a population who see the police as the enemy. This condition is found amongst minority groups subjected to racial or religious discrimination, are confined to ghettoes, can't get decent jobs, and view the forces of law and order as instruments of oppression. The American cities of the early 20th century, with their teeming immigrant communities, were like this. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was said to be the most densely inhabited area on the planet. But why did the early gangsters tend to be Irish, and the later ones Sicilians or Jews from the Russian Empire, rather than, say, Germans or Swedes? The answer surely is that the Irish, Sicilians and Jews came from homelands that regarded themselves as living under foreign occupation, with the police seen as alien oppressors rather than as protectors of citizens' rights. Even law-abiding ghetto inhabitants might identify with the gangsters rather than with the police. Crime is the normal state of ghetto society. Often the police may prefer simply to leave the ghetto alone. Furthermore, for an able and ambitious ghetto youngster, facing an impenetrable wall of poverty and discrimination, crime may be the only way to make money. Traditionally, in a society without a proper system of free education to enable social mobility for those with talent, the only routes out of the slum were music and professional sport. But there can be a third route: organised crime.

The other main condition for successful organised crime is the existence of a corrupt political system, where the men in power prefer to take bribes from the gangsters rather than fighting them. Indeed, without such venality, extending from officialdom down to the rank and file policeman, no criminal can last very long. The American cities at the turn of the century were extremely corrupt. They were of very recent growth, without any traditions of disinterested public service, amd officials used their positions to acquire great wealth; for instance by taking backhanders on public building contracts. (It is characteristic of primitive societies that the quickest way to become rich is to get into government and then divert public money into your own pocket: in England it only became unacceptable in the 19th century) So in Chicago Capone estimated that payoffs to police and politicians ran at $30 million a year; police captain Michael Ryan was dubbed "the world's richest policeman" through his bribes, and when Mayor "Big Bill" Thomson died his house was found to contain $1.3/4 million in used banknotes. At ward level, Chicago politics was run by sordid characters like "Bathhouse John" Coughlin and Alderman "Hinky Dink" Kenna: they took a cut from all the brothels and gaming-houses in their districts and gave political protection to the gangsters, who in return would help to keep their political allies in office by organising the immigrant vote (often fraudulently) and intimidating opponents, even to the level of firebombing their offices. The 1928 Chicago campaign saw so many firebombs thrown that it was nicknamed the "Pineapple Primary"! Judge Lyle in his memoirs wrote of Chicago politics, "Each ward committee-man of the ruling party was a dictator in his own district, able to remove unco-operative police chiefs". A serious defect of the American federal structure was that the central government had very little power to intervene to prevent local corruption. County sheriffs, and local judges like Lyle, were elected, not centrally appointed; which sounds democratic, but which in practice made them mere hirelings of the party machines.

Dion O'Banion, founder of the North Side gang, was an influential figure in Chicago politics. The saying went, "Who carries 42nd and 43rd wards? Dion O'Banion, in his pistol pocket". In 1924, shortly before he was shot, O'Banion was given a dinner by the Chicago Democratic party, attended by the County Clerk, a nominee for the Senate, the candidate for Mayor, and deputy police chief Hughes, who explained to the press that when he recognised some of the notorious hoodlums present at the dinner, he left "almost immediately". O'Banion was presented with a platinum watch for his services to the party - but then switched to the Republicans anyway!

The gangsters frequently escaped justice not because they intimidated witnesses, or even because, having plenty of money, they were able to hire the very best lawyers who could run rings round the prosecution, but because they had important contacts with top police and politicians, who could pull strings on their behalf. In Chicago the links were very close. Al Capone was a deputy sherrif, and his chief bodyguard Philip D'Andrea a county court bailiff! And what are we to make of "Big Tim" Murphy, who ran the Gasworkers' Union and the Building Trades Council, served a term in the State legislature as well as a term in the penitentiary for robbery, and coined the phrase, "Take him for a ride!"? He was eventually murdered in 1928. If all else failed, the Illinois State Governor, Lester Small, could often be relied on to issue pardons for notorious gangsters.

Sometimes things got very grotesque. In June 1925 two professional gunmen, John Scalise and Albert Anselmi (the killers of O'Banion the year before) shot down two policemen in broad daylight on a Chicago street. Their lawyer successfully argued that it was a matter of self-defence, since the police were attempting an illegal arrest, and they were convicted of manslaughter only. They were released on bail in 1926, and their conviction overturned a year later. It comes as a relief to learn that they were both murdered by Capone in May 1929.

Capone could not have flourished without Big Bill Thomson as Mayor of Chicago. In general it can be said that corrupt politicians always steal more than criminals, just as soldiers kill far more people than do terrorists.

The third factor in helping the rise of organised crime wasthe state of labour relations. It was law of the jungle, especially in the New York clothing business; an industry with cut-throat competition and starvation wages for immigrant workers. In strikes, employers would hire thugs to beat up picket lines, and trades unions would hire other thugs to beat up blacklegs. This kind of activity, where the favoured weapon was a lead pipe wrapped in newspaper, was known as "schlamming", and could provide even the stupidest thug with a living. These low-level hoodlums were known as "goons" (Spike Milligan learnt the word from American soldiers during the war, and thought it had comic possibilities). From here it was an easy progression for ambitious gangsters to take over the unions and extort money from employers under threat of strikes. The leading lights in New York were Jake "Gurrah" Shapiro and Louis Buchalter, "Lepke the Leopard", working in partnership. By 1927 they had control of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers' Union, and then moved in on the Furriers and the Bakers. A Mafia hitman, Albert Anastasia, "The Mad Hatter" was powerful in the New York docks, and a psychopathic killer, Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as "Dutch Schultz", controlled both the Waiters' Union and the Restaurant Proprietors' Association, through which he tried to dominate the New York catering trade by operating a two-way "closed shop". A little later, Willy Bioff put the squeeze on Hollywood by his control of the Scenery Erectors' Union. The main impact of all this extortion on the general public was, of course, to raise prices.

By the First World War, the foundations for large-scale organised crime were already in place. The typical future gangster was a Sicilian or a Russian Jew, born around the turn of the century, perhaps American by birth, perhaps having entered the country as a small child. He would be brought up in a slum in a big city, where he would see his parents, who perhaps never learnt to speak English properly, earn pitiful wages by sweated labour. Such submissiveness was not for him: he grew up in the turbulent violence of the streets, knew that the police and the politicians were corrupt, that official morality was a sham, and that only money and power really mattered. By his late teens he would already have a string of convictions for minor offences, but also a reputation for toughness and cunning in the seamy underworld of drinking dens, brothels and labour goonery. All he needed was an opportunity to make it really big.

And then came Prohibition!

(This essay will be continued later)

Friday, 11 December 2009

American Gangsters, part 1

American gangsters and organised crime, 1919-41
An essay in several parts. Part One

Let's begin with the most famous single incident in gangster history. The place is the garage of the S.M.C. Cartage Company at 2122 North Clark Street on the north side of Chicago; the time, soon after 9 a.m. on February 14th, 1929. A Cadillac pulls up, from which four uniformed police officers and a plainclothesman enter the building. Inside they find six members of Bugs Moran's North Side gang: the brothers Frank and Pete Gusenberg, Adam Heyer, James Kashellek, Al Weinshank and Jack May; plus Reinhart Schwimmer, a doctor who liked hanging around with gangsters (It will be noticed that none of these are Italians: this is a Jewish-Polish-Irish gang). The men have gathered to receive a shipment of bootleg whisky arranged over the phone. When they see the police, they do not resist (major gangsters seldom fought the police, expecting that if arrested they would soon be released on bail); instead they allow themselves to be disarmed and stood against the wall. Doubtless much to their surprise, they are then blasted with shotguns and Thomson submachine guns. The attackers then leave. When the real police arrive, alerted by reports of gunfire, they find Frank Gusenberg still alive with fourteen bullets in him. In answer to the obvious question, he replies, "Nobody shot me. I ain't tellin' no copper", and then dies. But soon afterwards, Bugs Moran, leader of the North Siders, who has avoided the slaughter by the good fortune of turning up late for the meeting, is more forthcoming. "Only Capone kills like that!" he announces.

Moran and all Chicago knew exactly what this was: yet another battle in the great Chicago gang war that had been waged for the last five years. Dion O'Banion, the founder of the North Side gang, had been gunned down in his flower shop in November 1924. In revenge, Johnny Torrio, Al Capone's mentor, had been shot and seriously wounded in January 1925 and had gone into retirement, handing over his organisation to Capone. Five chiefs of the Unione Siciliana, the local Mafia umbrella organisation, had died in as many years. Three of the five Genna brothers, the booze-bosses of the "bloody 19th" ward, were killed, and the others fled the city. There were regular public gun-fights, given suitably military names by the press: "the State Street ambush", "the siege of the Hawthorne Inn", "the battle of the Holy Name Cathedral", "the battle of the Standard Oil Building". "Slaughter Week" was still to come, in 1930. In 1924 Cook County, which includes Chicago, witnessed 350 murders, rising to 399 in 1928. Few gangland killings were ever solved by the police, and insurance rates were three times higher than in Milwaukee. Chicago was gaining a worldwide repuation for gangland violence, which it retains in legend to this day. "Hell, folks are crazy there!" said Lucky Luciano, chief of the Mafia in New York, "It ain't safe to walk the streets!"

So Al Capone was the obvious suspect for the St. Valentine's Day massacre. However, he had an alibi: not only was he in Florida that day, but at the very moment of the killings he was being interviewed in Miami by County Solicitor Robert Taylor. A reward of $100,000 was offered for information on the killings, but without effect. A leading Capone gunman, Jack McGurn ("Machine-gun Jack") was arrested on February 27th, but also had an alibi and was eventually released in December and never brought to trial. The guns were traced to the shop of an arms dealer called Peter von Franzius, but the trail was then lost in a tangle of false names. At the end of the year, police searching the home of a bank robber called Fred "Killer" Burke, from the "Egan's Rats" gang of St. Louis, found two Tommy guns which were declared to have fired some of the bullets used in the massacre. But Burke was never charged with the crime: soon afterwards he was sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder in Michigan, and eventually died in prison. Many people in Chicago thought the killers might have been real policemen, and the State's Attorney ordered ballistic tests to police firearms, just to be sure.

So technically speaking there is no hard evidence linking Capone to the crime at all. Neither he nor anyone in his gang was ever charged. But Jack McGurn was shot down in a bowling alley on February 14th 1936, the anniversary of the massacre, and a comic Valentine card was left on his body. Many years later a retired gunman named Alvin Karpis, after serving 33 years in prison, named five contract killers; Burke, Maddox, Ziegler, Winkler and Nugent, all long since dead, as the murder-squad; but a Chicago magistrate, Judge Lyle, named in his memoirs Burke, Scalise, Anselmi, Goetz and Lolordo. So the St. Valentine's Day massacre remains an unsolved crime.

In later chapters of this essay I shall attempt to show how this deplorable state of affairs came about; but I shall also argue that the massacre was not really typical of the higher reaches of organised crime, actually represented not the epitome of gangsterism but its failure, and for Capone personally led to his doom.

Stories: Winterwood


Jinna scrambled over the stones of what had once been a wall and looked down the slope to the snow-covered wood below. Not a single print of any kind disturbed the whiteness, and only a gap like a low archway through the trees showed her where the path ran. The light was lowering and gloomy beneath the leaden sky and the prospect filled her with deep uneasiness. But she patted her coat and felt the slight bulge from the inner pocket. There it lay, the great jewel. She must carry it safely through the wood to the other side, and whatever her fears she could not turn back now. Setting her face in determination, she half walked, half slithered downwards, and ducking under the laden branches, entered the Winterwood.

Inside it was very quiet. The trees were packed so densely that there was little snow underfoot, but the darkness was greater. She could trace where the path wound about, and there were dimples in it, as if feet had already passed that way: feet too small for humans, but making patterns unlike any animal Jinna had ever seen. She continued downhill until she reached the bottom of a valley, and saw there was a frozen stream that she must cross. She listened carefully for the sound of trickling water, which would mean thin ice that might break under her weight. If she got her feet wet, they would freeze. But there was no sound. Jinna realised that since she had eneterd the Winterwood, the silence had been broken only by the sound of her boots and her own breathing. Somehow this was more even more oppressive than any noises of living things moving around her. She sensed that here in the wood it was always winter, and nothing that she would recognise as a living creature ever came there. Fighting back her mounting fear, she crept across the ice and up the bank on the far side.

The path now climbed until she came to the summit of a low ridge where the trees opened out. There was nothing in the clearing except an immense log, the remains of some tree fallen long ago, looking like the body of a frozen dinosaur beneath its covering of snow. The light was better here, and Jinna paused for a rest. For reassurance she patted the lump in her coat, and then acting on sudden impulse reached into the pocket and pulled out the great jewel. She held it up, and even in this dimness it burned and sparkled with its internal radiance. Never had she seen anything so dazzlingly beautiful. She must save it, at all costs! But its glory only made her surroundings seem more threatening. The trees appeared to close in on her. She sensed that the Winterwood hated and feared the jewel; would smother its light if it could. Over to her left came a sound, and then another: the first she had heard since entering the wood. Maybe it was only the soft thump of snow falling from overburdened branches, but Jinna feared it might be ....... she knew not what, but something immeasurably threatening. She realised she had made a serious blunder. Quickly she returned the jewel to her pocket and pressed on.

The path twisted right, then left. Fear stalked behind her, and she walked faster and faster, panting with weariness and mounting anxiety, never daring to glance back. Then after an age, up ahead, amidst a thicket of smaller trees, she glimpsed another archway and knew that this was the end of the wood at last. With her escape in sight, panic finally overcame her. She ran. Through the archway she ran: branches clawed at her face and snow cascaded over her head and back, but she escaped, freed from the Winterwood for ever, out onto the grassland beyond.

For a while she simply stod there, panting with relief, and then once again she felt for the little bulge in her pocket. There was nothing. She tore open her coat and plunged her hand into the pocket. It was empty. In mounting desperation and terror she searched every pocket; every inch of her clothing, uselessly; once, twice, many times. Nothing. There could be no doubt: the jewel was gone.

Gradually she managed to subdue her terror, and steeled herself. She knew what she must do. Somewhere, somehow, she had dropped the jewel, and she must find it again. Trembling with fear and reluctance, she forced herself back to the archway between the trees and re-entered the Winterwood; retracing her steps, examining the snow on each side, stumbling with weariness and terror, tears frozen on her cheeks, until at last her strength gave out and she fell forward on the snow and she died.

But then the clouds rolled away and the snow melted. Flowers blossomed in the grass. Jinna felt warm sunlight on her face, and looked up in wonder to see birds playing on the budding branches. Then a Voice, so enormous that it filled the horizons but was at the same time gentle, spoke to her.
"You have done well", said the voice.
"But I failed", said Jinna. "I lost the jewel in the Winterwood".
"No. You were victorious. There never was a jewel. There never was a Winterwood. But you fought on till the very end. You have triumphed. We can now proceed to the next test".

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Memories: "The Bus"

The Bus

When i was teaching at the High School, someone in authority decided that, rather than always having to shell out good money to the local coach hire firm every time we had a school outing or sports fixture, it would make sense to buy our own transport; and so we obtained THE BUS. It was a truly awe-inspiring vehicle: the year's latest model - the year in question being somewhere around 1948. Truly it would have graced a museum of transport history, but this did not make it any easier to drive. There was no power-assisted steering or synchromesh on the gears, which led to one of the geography teachers acquiring the nickname of "Captain Crunch" for his efforts behind the wheel. Max, my head of department, who was a keen motorist, described changing gear as resembling trying to stir a cricket stump in a bucket of marbles. He was a little chap, and sometimes had to employ both hands in wrestling with the gear-stick. "Christ! Bloody Hell!" he would exclaim as he did battle with it in heavy traffic going through Stoke. Once, when he was having a particularly torrid time on the way back from the Gladstone pottery museum, a boy foolishly made some sarcastic comment about his driving. "If you think you can do any better, you come and have a go!" snarled Max as he sweated to find third gear. The boy was rash enough to reply, "Okay then!" Max was so enraged that he stopped the bus and charged down the central aisle with every intention of thumping the wretched youth, but before any blow could land the handbrake started to slip, and Max had to race back to the controls. By the time we arrived back at school, Max was far too preoccupied with the tricky problem of parking the bus in the quad (which could only be done in reverse, after first edging the bonnet up the drive of the house opposite, at the risk of doing irreparable damage to the flowering cherry) to take any further action.

The most memorable journey I experienced came near the end of one summer term, when we took the first formers on the annual history trip into Shropshire. The first stop was Ludlow, which we reached without mishap; but when we stopped in front of the castle we were approached by a policeman. "You can't park here", he told us, "You'll have to go to the coach park". Mark, who was driving, pleaded with him: we'd come a long way and we wouldn't be there for more than an hour. The policeman eyed the bus narrowly. "I wouldn't like to have to give a full roadworthiness check to this vehicle, sir", he said meaningfully. We went to the coach park. The stop for lunch at Stokesay castle passed without mishap, though Nick, our youngest teacher, had with typical lack of organisation neglected to bring any sandwiches and was reduced to begging for contributions from the pupils (fortunately one boy had been provided by his mother with no less than nine chicken legs, and was able to come to the rescue). But then there was an untoward incident in the grounds of Buildwas Abbey, where one of the boys had his shoe subjected to a sexual assault by a randy little puppy. "Sir, it's weed on me!" he said, inaccurately. The crowning moment came as we drove back through Hodnet. One of the boys complained that he felt sick. We were travelling along narrow, twisty roads unsuitable for stopping, and were in any case behind schedule, so I passed him a plastic waste-bucket already half full of bent Coke tins and screwed-up crisps bags. He chundered voluminously into this receptacle, and then a little later approached me again in some distress. "Sir!" he said, "The brace from my teeth fell in!" I told him that if he imagined I was going to go fishing for it, he was mistaken. "But the dentist will be mad at me, sir!" he moaned. When we finally arrived back at school, I made him and another boy who had annoyed me empty the foul bucket into one of the huge grunions by the gate. During this operation, I observed that they contrived to get it all over both their jackets, but I decided I had done quite enough for the day and went home.

The old bus was still there when I left the school and I never found out what happened to it. Presumably it has long since departed this life for that great multi-storey car park in the sky - assuming, of course, that it was allowed to enter.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Admiral Anson: part 2

Admiral Lord Anson (part 2)

After his return from his voyage round the world in 1744, Anson was not only a national hero and a very rich man, he also became a figure of political importance. Walpole's government had fallen in 1742, but after a period of political confusion the Whigs remained in power. The new Prime Minister was Henry Pelham, with his brother the Duke of Newcastle as Secretary of State and their close friend Lord Hardwicke as Lord Chancellor. Anson was quick to identify himself with the new regime. He was appointed Vice-Admiral and a member of the Admiralty Board, with administrative responsibilities, and was also elected member of Parliament for Hedon in Yorkshire, a constituency controlled by newcastle and his friends. (In the 18th century it was quite common for senior military officers to be elected as M.P.s: in Parliament they would naturally be expected to give their support to the government)

The War of Jenkins' Ear had been forgotten, subsumed in a far greater conflict now raging: the War of the Austrian Succession. In those days, the Austrian Empire was a vast but vulnerable state, whose territories included not only the modern Austria, Hungary and the Czech lands, but also Milan and Belgium, and it was for control of these territories that Britain supported the Austrians against France, with Frederick the Great of Prussia a maverick, changing sides more than once to suit his own advantage. It can be seen as a world war, with fighting not just in Europe but also between the British and French bases in India and America too. It was as part of this war that Charles Edward Stuart, "Bonnie Prince Charlie", staged his rebellion in Scotlabd in 1745 and marched his little army of Highland clansmen down through manchester and as far as Derby before turning back and suffering defeat at Culloden the next year. Thomas Anson remained at Shugborough throughout, and sent his brother details of the revolt. Like many other contemporaries, he grossly overestimated the size of the rebel forces.

Meanwhile George Anson was given command of a fleet of 14 warships in the Channel: his flagship the "Prince George", with 90 guns and a crew of 770. For weeks he kept his ships at sea off Britanny, occupying them by practising manoeuvres while they waited for the French to venture out of the great port of Brest. Eventually in May 1747 De la Jonquiere's fleet did emerge, and Anson scattered them and hunted them down in the Battle of Cape Finisterre; capturing 10,000 troops and immense amouts of money intended for the French wars in the colonies.

Anson's reward, apart from his share of the plunder, was to be promoted to full Admiral and given a peerage and a coat of arms. Next year he cemented his alliance with the government by marrying Elizabeth Yorke, the daughter of Lord Chancellor Hardwicke; and when in 1751 Henry Pelham reshuffled his cabinet Anson was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty; the minister responsible for the navy. He modernised the "fighting instructions" to captains, created the first permanent Corps of Marines, devised the first proper naval uniforms and began the process of sheathing ships' bottoms with copper, thus safeguarding the timbers against the ravages of shipworms, a menace in tropical waters.

Anson was now a great man, and to befit his status he bought himself a suitably grand house: Moor Park in Hertfordshire (now a golf club and not normally open to the public). He is said to have spent £80,000 improving the estate: an immense sum. But much of his wealth went back to Shugborough in Staffordshire, where his brother Thomas began to rebuild the house, shifting a village of his tenants across the river Trent to make space for a romantic parkland. We can still see at Shugborough the Chinese pavilion, designed by Piercy Brett, a future Admiral who had been with Anson in Canton.

Thomas was also elected M.P. for Lichfied in the general election of 1747: naturally he supported the Whig government, which otherwise did badly in Staffordshire.

In 1754 Henry Pelham died in office, and his brother the Duke of Newcastle succeeded to the Premiership. It all looked plain sailing for Anson and his Whig friends, but it was not to be. The War of the Austrian Succession had effectively ended in a draw, and many issues had been left unresolved both in Europe and the colonies. A replay of the war looked imminent. Suddenly in 1756 Newcastle's complex diplomatic schemes collapsed in ruins; France, Austria and Russia signed an alliance, leaving Frederick of Prussia as Britain's only friend. Then Britain's navy unexpectedly failed, with Admiral Boscawen unable to prevent the French from sending reinforcements to their bases in North America. But the blow which brought down the government could be linked directlt to Anson.

Britain had been granted the island of Minorca back in 1713. In April 1756 the French launched an attack, without any declaration of war. Admiral Byng was sent to relieve the island, but failed to bring the French fleet to battle, and Minorca fell. The unhappy Byng was made a scapegoat for the disaster: on his return home he was courtmartialled and sentenced to death for cowardice and disobeying orders. (We should remember that Byng was not only an Admiral; he was also a Member of Parliament and came from a proud naval family: indeed, his father was none other than Sir George Byng, who had commanded the fleet at the battle of Cape Passaro back in 1718, when Anson had his first experience of action) Anson cannot escape his share of the blame for the Minorca fiasco, and was upset by Byng's sentence, but made no effort to save him, and the unhappy Admiral was executed by firing squad on his own quarter-deck in March 1757.

By this time Anson was out of office. With Britain humiliated by the French and apparently facing ruin, the popular demand was for William Pitt to take power and save the country. In October 1756 Newcastle resigned and Pitt formed a government; Anson was sacked along with the rest of the ministers and replaced at the Admiralty by Earl Temple, Pitt's brother-in-law. But this arrangement could not last long; Pitt lacked sufficientfollowing in Parliament and the king, George II, did not like him. In April 1757 Pitt was forced out, and for a whole month britain had no effective government at all, until Lord Hardwicke was able to negaotiate the formation of a wartime coalition ministry. Newcastle returned as nominal Prime Minister, but direction of the war was firmly in the hands of Pitt as Secretary of State, and Anson returned to the Admiralty.

The navy was central to Pitt's plans. In Europe, British money, raised with loans borrowed through the Bank of England, would pay Frederick and other German princes to fight the French on land, while the superior British fleet would first of all neutralise French sea power and then take out the French bases in Canada, the West Indies and India one by one.

1759 was the turning point of the war. The final result was still in doubt, and Choiseul the French Prime Minister pinned his hopes on an invasion of England. A large flotilla of barges was assembled in the French Channel ports, by which an army of at least 50,000 would be convoyed across by the french navy. It should be remembered that at this time the population of France was at least four times that of Britain, and her army very much larger; and that under Pitt's grand strategy two thirds of the navy and almost all the regular troops were fighting overseas: Britain lacked modern coastal fortifications and was defended only by the part-time soldiers of the militia. Choiseul could hardly have expected an invasion would lead to the seizure of London, but a more rea;istic and equally useful result could be that a successful landing would cause a run on the Bank and a collapse of Britain's financial structure. At the very least, the mere threat of an invasion might force an abandonment of Pitt's colonial strategy and the withdrawal of forces to defend the homeland. Lord Lyytleton wrote, "We talk of nothing here but the french invasion; they are certainly making such preparations as have never been made to invade this island since the Spanish Armada, but I trust in God and Lord Anson".

Lyttleton's trust was justified. Pitt and Anson kept their nerve and refused o modify their plans. French success would depend upon the two fighting fleets,at Brest in Britanny and Toulon in the Mediterranean, somehow uniting and seizing control of the channel. Anson created a "Western Squadron" to protect home waters and blockade French ports, but in the days of sail no blockade could ever be total. Bad weather, or the need for restocking with fresh water and food, would force a withdrawal and provide the French with an opportunity to break out.

As it happened, 1759 became the great "Year of Victories" for Britain.In summer of that year, the French Toulon fleet managed to sneak past the blockade and out of the Mediterranean, but Boscawen caught them off Lagos, on the coast of Portugal. In November, ferocious storms forced Hawke’s fleet, which was keeping a watch on the great harbour of Brest, in Brittany, to take refuge back in Torbay. The French admiral, Conflans, rashly assumed the coast was clear for the rest of winter, and set out, but Hawke pursued him and destroyed his fleet in a savagely-fought battle at Quiberon Bay.

Meanwhile Rodney had attacked and smashed the French barges at Le Havre. The colonial struggle remained unaffected. Already in India, Robert Clive had gained control of Bengal. In Canada, Saunders sailed his ships up the St. Laurence to take part in Wolfe’s capture of Quebec; the French West Indian islands, such as Martinique and Guardaloupe, fell one by one; and when Spain belatedly entered the war on the French side, British expeditions took Manila in the Philippines and Havanna in Cuba in the summer and autumn of 1762.
It was as comprehensive a victory as could have been imagined, and the superiority of the British navy was the chief contributor. It was to honour the navy that the famous actor and impressario David Garrick (another Staffordshire man!) celebrated the year of victories by writing the great patriotic ballad, “Hearts of Oak”. Anson’s contribution, apart from planning these expeditions, was to organise an enormous expansion of the navy, now up to 70,000 men (from a population barely one tenth of what it is today), with many new warships being built: most famously HMS “Victory“, whose keel was laid in 1759, but the ship not launched until after the war had finished. All this, naturally, proved extremely expensive; the National Debt increased 50% to pay for the war, and the country was faced with interest payable on the debt absorbing 33% of all taxation revenue.

Anson did not live to see the seizure of the Spanish bases, or the final end of the war in 1763. In 1760 King George II died and was succeeded by his young grandson, George III. The new king chose as his bride Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in Germany, and Anson was given the honour of escorting her to England, in a ship specially renamed the “Royal Charlotte” in August 1761. But next year he caught a cold, never recovered his health, and died that June at Moor Park. He is commemorated locally only by a simple plaque in Colwich church.
    Anson had no children, his wife having predeceased him in 1760, and so his property devolved on his brother Thomas, who used it for further elaborations at Shugborough. Amongst other things, he erected a replica of the Arch of Hadrian from Athens as a monument to his brother, containing effigies of the admiral and his wife. But Thomas never married, and when he died it all passed to the brothers’ nephew, the son of their sister Jeanette. This man, George Adams, changed his name to Anson, and inherited not only the property but also the parliamentary seat at Lichfield; and the Anson peerage was later revived for his son. But the true founder of the family’s fortunes was their greatest member, Admiral George Anson.

Not everyone liked Anson. Dr Johnson always belittled his achievements; for although Johnson was a Lichfield man, he was also a diehard Tory and a Jacobite sympathiser and despised all Whigs. Horace Walpole thought Anson reserved and proud, and recorded a wisecrack that “He was so ignorant of the world that though he had been round it, he had never been in it”. But William Pitt, who was best placed to know Anson’s qualities in government, said, “To his wisdom, to his experience and care, the nation owes the glorious success of the war”.

Ansons of Shugborough

Thomas Anson, 1695-1773 (unmarried)
M.P. for Lichfield 1747-70

George Anson, 1697-1762 (brother, childless): the Admiral
M.P. for Hedon 1744-47
Created Baron Anson, 1747
First Lord of the Admiralty 1751-56 & 1757-62

George Adams, 1731-89 (nephew: changed name to Anson when inherited)
M.P. for Saltash 1761-68, & for Lichfield 1770-89

Thomas Anson, 1767-1818 (son)
M.P. for Lichfield 1789-1806
Created Viscount Anson, 1806: the ancestor of the later Earls of Lichfield

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

History: Admiral Anson, part 1

Admiral Lord Anson, 1697-1762

(This essay will be in 2 parts: Part 2 can be found as a separate entry on this blog)

Admiral Anson is best remembered as the man who sailed round the world in the early 1740s, but there is much more to his career than that. His real importance can be summed up in a comment made by Lord Lyttleton in 1759:- "We talk of nothing here but the French invasion: they are certainly making such preparations as have never been made to invade this island since the Spanish Armada, but I trust in God and Lord Anson". We shall see how this faith was justified.

The Ansons were said to be an old Staffordshire family, but the founder of the family's home at Shugborough, on the confluence of the Trent and Sow near Stafford, was William Anson, a rich and successful London lawyer who built a large brick house there in the 1690s. He was not a particularly significant figure compared withthe families who dominated mid-Staffordshire; the Bagots, Chetwynds, Pagets and Gowers; and his house was far less grand than their mansions like Tixall and Beaudesert, but his family were clearly moving up in the world, and he had useful political connexions through his wife. When William Anson died in 1720, Shugborough was inherited by his eldest son, Thomas; a cultivated man with a deep interest in music and classical architecture, but it was his second son George, born in 1697, who was the true founder of the family's fortunes.

An early historian of Staffordshire, William Pitt, informs us that "the bent of Mr Anson's genius was directed towards an active rather than a studious profession", and that after only "the rudiments of a classical education" he went to sea at the age of 14, as servant to Captain Chamberlain on board the "Ruby". Young George must have decided this was the life for him, because in 1716 he was commissioned as a Midshipman, learning the art of navigation, and then as Lieutenant, on the warship "Hampshire".

These were uncertain times. Ten years of the mighty conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession had recently ended with a decisive triumph for Britain and her allies over France, but many nations were dissatisfied with the terms of the peace settlement negotiated at Utrecht in 1713. In Britain the Hanoverian George I had come to the throne in 1714, but many at home and abroad supported the excluded Jacobite line and their claimant, the exiled James Edward Stuart. In 1715-16 James had attempted a rising in Britain, which had failed through incompetent leadership; but the way was open for any country quarreling with Britain to stir up trouble by encouraging the Jacobites. Hence Asnon's ship was sent to the Baltic, where Admiral Norris's fleet hoped to deter any hostile action from the Swedes, who had a territorial dispute in Germany with King George, and also to keep an eye on the new and alarming power in the north: Russia under Peter the Great.

Another discontented country was Spain, which had lost its empire in the islands of the western Mediterranean, and now tried to regain it with an invasion of Sicily. In 1718 Anson served on a fleet under Admiral Byng that was dispatched to prevent this. The Spanish fleet was defeated at the battle of Cape Passaro, where Anson had his first taste of action. Sicily was saved, and next year a Spanish landing in western Scotland, intended to spark off another Jacobite rising, was easily crushed.

In 1724 Anson was promoted to Captain, with his own warship. Peace had returned, and Sir Robert Walpole, the leader of the pro-Hanoverian Whig party, was now Prime Minister and firmly in control. Captain Anson spent most of the next decade across the Atlantic, guarding against the pirate threat to the American colony of South Carolina, where Anson County still bears witness to his presence. He was given no long-term leave till 1735, and then two years later was sent on a similar mission to protect British trading interests in West Africa.

For almost twenty years, Walpole managed to presrve peace in Western Europe, but a downside of his policy was that, to save money and balance the books, he allowed the armed forces to decline significantly. In consequence when war did return, Britain was perilously ill-prepared. This was exposed in 1739, when allegations of Spanish mistreatment of British merchants in South America led to the magnificently-named "War of Jenkins' Ear" against Spain. It is certain that Walpole did not want this war, but was hustled into it by divisions in the cabinet and a skilful propaganda campaign on behalf of the London mercantile interests. He was an aging man now, and beginning to lose his grip on events.

It was decided to fight this war entirely overseas, not in Europe, so Admiral Vernon was sent to attack Spanish bases in the Caribbean, and Anson was chosen for a particularly grandiose plan in the best traditions of Francis Drake: he was to sail round Cape Horn and plunder Spanish trade in the Pacific. The hub of Spanish power in the Far East was the Philippines, from which annual treasure ships sailed across to Panama, and thence back to Spain. All well and good, but then there were delays, the plan kept being changed, and instead of regular troops Anson was only given the services of 500 Chelsea Pensioners! Half of these, the ones who were still physically capable of running away, promptly deserted, and were very wise to do so, since of those who stayed with the expedition, not one returned alive.

Anson eventually set sail in September 1740, in his flagship the 60-gun "Centurion", with seven other ships and 1,500 men. He was already too late to reach the Horn in good weather. Furthermore, the Spaniards had learnt of his plans and sent out a fleet to intercept him, which fortunately was destroyed by storms. After noting the potential usefulness of the Faulkland Islands as a future British naval base, Anson rounded the Horn in appalling weather in March 1741. The crews were decimated by scurvy, and only three ships survived to rendezvous at the island of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile in June. (This was the island where the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk had been marooned from 1704 to 1709, thus inspiring Daniel Defoe to write "Robinson Crusoe") The island was currently uninhabited, but had good supplies of food and water, and the expedition spent the next three months there, recuperating. Anson won the lasting affection of his men by the way he shared their hardships and took his turn in the hard labour.

When they were sufficiently recovered, Anson was able to go on the attack. He captured a number of Spanish merchant ships and seized the treasure of the town of Patia. He then set out to cross the Pacific. They were becalmed, the expedition was reduced to just one ship,scurvy struck, with Anson himself laid low, until in late summer they reached the little island of Tinian, east of the Philippines and south of Japan. This formed part of the Spanish empire, but was almost uninhabited. Only 72 cewmen were still fit enough to anchor the "Centurion" and come ashore for supplies. This almost led to disaster, because while Anson and most of his men were on land their ship was blown away in a typhoon, and for three weeks they faced the prospect of being marooned, before eventually the skeleton crew were able to find their way back to the island. (Tinian is now part of the North Marianas islands group. It was from here that in August 1945 the American B29s took off to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki)

What was left of Anson's force reached the Portugese base of Macao on the coast of China in November 1742, and then set off for the Philippines. They knew a Spanish treasure-ship would be sailing at this time of year, and for three weeks they lay in wait out of sight of land near Cape Espiritu Santo. Their patience was finally rewarded in June 1743 when they intercepted the galleon "Nuesta Senora de Cabadongo", out of Manila, bound for Acapulco. She was a much bigger ship than the "Centurion", but they took her after a sharp fight. An immense treasure in silver bullion and coin was captured, including 1.3 million "pieces of eight": all worth several million pounds in today's money.

The next stop was Canton in southern China. Anson was the first Royal Navy captain to land there, and initally the Chinese Emperor's viceroy and his mandarins received the new arrivals with suspicion; but there were British merchants on hand to translate for them, and when fire broke out in the city the sailors won the admiration and gratitude of everyone by the courage and efficiency with which they extinguished the blaze. Anson was presented with a dinner service decorated in Chinese style, which can still be seen at Shugborough. He sold the Spanish galleon to the Chinese and released all his prisoners (though 95 of them chose to stay and serve with him). The "Centurion" then set out for home.

It took three months to sail through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra (the site of Krakatoa) in what was then the Dutch East Indies, and across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town, another Dutch base. There they halted for another month, taking on supplies and engaging fresh crew, before setting out on the final lap of the voyage. They narrowly avoided being intercepted by a French fleet in the Channel, thanks to fog, and eventually landed at Spithead in June 1744. They had been away from home for three years and nine months.

The treasure was sent to London in a covoy of 32 wagons, guarded by 139 sailors. It was the greatest wealth ever brought back in a single ship. Anson became a national hero, lauded by the press. He was also now a very rich man, since by custom of the time a captain was allowed to keep 3/8 of any treasure he managed to seize. An account of the expedition, written by Richard Walter, chaplain on the "Centurion", was published in 1748, became an instant best-seller, and has remained in print ever since. The last surviving sailor of the expedition, George Gregory, died in 1804 at the age of 109. The figurehead of the "Centurion", a lion rampant, was eventually by order of King William IV installed in the "Anson Ward" of Greenwich hospital.

(The second part of this essay, describing Anson's pivotal role in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, is available, also under the heading of History: Admiral Anson)

Stories: "In the Gardens"

"In the Gardens"

I left the crowds milling around near the entrance, picnicking on the lawns or lying by the flowerbeds in the warm sun, and wandered off into the glades. After a while I came upon a long avenue of great chestnuts in bloom, all scarlet and white, and at the end stood the Crimson Pagoda. I walked towards it and saw it was very tall. But it was not what I had come to see.

There were fewer people in this part of the gardens, and they were mostly middle-aged or elderly. Some were walking about with a purposeful air, but most were sitting silent and alone on benches under the trees. I approached one greyheaded man, and when he showed no sign of acknowledging my presence, coughed discreetly to attract his attention.

"Excuse me", I ventured apologetically, "Could you tell me the way to the Queen's House, please?"

He glanced up. There was an annoyed expression on his aquiline face. "Over there through the trees", he said, making a vague gesture with his left hand, and then closed his eyes to indicate the interview was over. Somewhat daunted by this abrupt reception, I walked quickly away.

There was a path that seemed to run in the direction indicated, but it proved to be very serpentine and confusing. No-one had bothered to putup signposts in this part of the gardens. After a while I became convinced that the path was doubling back on itself, so I abandoned it and tried to cut across country. The grass was long and damp. Bluebells carpeted the shady places and there were snowy islands of cow-parsley. Huge clumps of holly and rhododendron loomed up to block a straight path. After I had wandered for some time I caught sight of the Crimson Pagoda, and realised I must have walked in a circle.

I felt hot and tired as well as irritated by my mistake, but I did not intend to be defeated so easily. A glance at my watch told me that it was only ten minutes past three, and I did not need to leave the gardens for quite some time yet.

I tried asking the way again, this time from an old lady with a stick, but her reply was not very helpful. Now my travels took me into untended thickets of willow, where I soon became hopelessly disorientated; then I found my way barred by dense hawthorn all strewn with may-flowers. There was still no sign of the Queen's House. I wished I had taken the trouble to map of the gardens before setting out. Soon the familiar outline of the Crimson pagoda came into view again.

I lost track of how many times I wandered around in these meaningless circles, and after a while I was no longer certain I could even find my way back to the entrance. My feet were burning and I badly needed a rest. There was a secluded wooden bench beneath a gigantic copper beech. The leaves cast dappled shadows and the air was very still. I saw down, stretched out my legs, turned my face skywards and closed my eyes. The Queen's House would just have to wait .......

I snapped awake suddenly and looked at my watch. It still said ten past three and had plainly stopped, but this caused me no great alarm. Even if I was completely lost, I would be rescued eventually. The park-keeper must surely come round and usher everyone out before locking up for the night. Meanwhile the day was still warm, and it was very pleasant just to sit and let the scents of spring waft over me. When I had rested I could resume my search, if I wished. What was so special about seeing the Queen's House anyway? No doubt it was worth a visit, but it would be empty: everyone knew it was many years since the Queen had lived there .....
The sun hung motionless in the sky and the warm afternoon lasted for ever .....

An unwelcome noise disturbed my reverie. It was a young fellow asking his way to the Queen's House. His face, his tone of voice, his whole manner irritated me. "Over there through the trees", I said, waving my arm at random. "You can't miss it" I was glad to be rid of him.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Holocaust snapshot: one day in Josefow

The Holocaust; a snapshot: One Day in Josefow

At dawn on July 12th 1942, the 500 men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 from Hamburg stood by for special duty in the village of Josefow, south of Lublin in German-occupied Poland. Their unit formed part of the Order Police (ORPO), a non-elite body who usually performed ordinary constabulary work but who during the war were often sent on duties outside the Reich. Their task this day would be to round up the 1800-odd Jews who lived in Josefow, select 300 adult males for forced labour and kill all the rest; men, women and children alike.

Their commander, major Trapp, was visibly distressed at the orders he was to carry out, and according to some accounts was reduced to tears, but managed to overcome his scruples. He detailed his men to surround the village, load onto lorries those Jews unfit for work, drive them into the forest and shoot them. Many of his battalion were also upset. A few refused to take any part in the action, and, contrary to popular beliefs about discipline in Nazi Germany, were sent to other duties and suffered no punishment. The rest were issued with whips and despatched to their first task, which was to round up all the Jews from their homes and assemble them in the village square. This took a long time, because of the men's inexperience, and some children and old people were shot on the spot, or even in their beds, rather than being assembled. Once the young men selected for labour had been segregated, the rest were taken into the forest, made to lie face-down and shot in the back of the head.

When it came to the actual killing, some of the policemen drew the line at murdering children, and some cried off after firing a few shots. Others became so agitated that they could not shoot straight, and succeeded in only maiming their victims. Firing at close range caused the men's uniforms to be spattered with blood and brains. Liberal quantities of vodka were provided for the firing-squads, and many soon made themselves very drunk. A few must have been surprised to hear themselves roundly denounced in German: the victim in question being a former colonel from the army of the pre-war Austrian Empire; but neither his words nor his campaign medals saved the old soldier or his non-Jewish wife. But despite all the problems, Major Trapp's operation was successfully concluded by nightfall, by which time some 1500 Jews lay dead. The bodies were left where they lay, for the local Polish mayor to arrange disposal. A handful of Jews from the village survived by chance.

Battalion 101 went on to take part in similar actions over the next few weeks, such as at Lomazy on August 19th, where many of their victims were not even Polish Jews, but Jewish deportees from Germany. By then some of the men had acquired a taste for the work, or perhaps alcohol and the experience of the previous surrender to savagery had overcome all qualms,because here the victims were treated with gratuitous cruelty, being beaten and humiliated before being shot. Much of the dirtiest work was done by the "Hiwis" (the nickname for volunteer militia recruited from the Ukraine and other occupied territories), who were to alarm even the Germans by their savagery towards Jews.In spring 1943 the battalion took part in "Operation Harvest Festival" against the Jews of the Lublin resgion. Altogether it has been estimated that the men of the battalion shot around 3,800 Jews and help deport 45,000 others to the camps.

In the 1960s, the story of Battalion 101 was subjected to detailed investigation, with evidence taken from its surviving members. The most remarkable fact to emerge about the men was their extreme ordinariness. They had mostly been of early middle age,in their thirties and forties, and because of this had been drafted into the police rather than into the front-line army. They were drawn from the working class or lower middle class. They were old enough to remember Germany before Nazism, and might therefore have been less susceptible to its propaganda. Almost all were married, and most had children. Only a quarter were members of the Nazi Party, and before 1933 many would perhaps have supported the Social Democrats, Catholic Centre or Communists, since their home city of Hamburg was notoriously a place where Nazi support was amongst the lowest in Germany: it was a cosmopolitan city, much influenced by Britain, and traditionally regarded Berlin as somewhat provincial. In other words, these men were hardly the sort of people likely to have committed mass murder of helpless victims. Yet they did, and so did thousands of other ordinary men, both in Germany and the occupied territories. But why did they do it? That question remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable.

There is a strange and grotesque coda to the Josefow story. After the war, Major Trapp, who was reduced to tears by the order to shoot Jewish children, and who allowed his men to drop out from such an unpleasant duty, did pay the supreme penalty for his crimes. He was extradited to Poland, where he was convicted of having ordered the shooting of 75 Polish civilians in September 1942, and executed in December 1948. At his trial, the massacre of the Josefow Jews was not mentioned at all!

(Much of the detail here had been taken from "Ordinary Men" by Christopher Browning)


Monday, 23 November 2009

Quiz: sport

Quiz: Sport

In what sports or indoor games might you attempt, use, play or otherwise come across the following?

1. A Yurchenko
2. A chinaman
3. A short corner
4. A Yarborough
5. A Ruy Lopez
6. A tight end
7. A pelaton
8. A parry riposte
9. A toe-loop
10. A garryowen

The answers to this and to the earlier quiz will be given if wanted.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Politics/Philosophy: Engels explains Marx

Friedrich Engels summarises Marxism in one paragraph!

In his preface to the 1883 German edition of the "Communist Manifesto", Engels summarises Marxist thought in a sigle paragraph:-
(The text is taken from the Penguin Classics edition: the numbers inserted are mine, and refer to notes at the end)

"The basic thought running through the Manifesto - that economic production and the structure of society of every epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of the epoch (1); that consequently (ever since the dissolution of the primeval communal ownership of land) all history has been the history of class struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social development (2); that this struggle, however, has now reached a stage where the exploited and oppressed class (the proletariat) can no longer emancipate itself from the class which exploits and oppresses it (the bourgeoisie) (3), without at the same time freeing the whole of society from exploitation, oppression and class struggles (4) - this basic thought belongs solely and exclusively to Marx (5)"


(1) A philosophical & psychological concept. Human consciousness is not innate and unchanging, but is determined by the social and economic environment in which we live. Hegel, a generation before Marx, had recognised that people in the middle ages thought differently from modern people (e.g. they might be more concerned with the salvation of their souls than with making money). Mill and other liberal and utilitarian philosophers saw man as essentially a self-seeking competitive individualist, but Marx denied this was innate: it was merely that possessive individualism was the attitude best suited to success in capitalist society. People had thought differently in the past, and in the future, if social and economic conditions changed, people would think differently again. It does appear that Marx thought the working classes had a different consciousness; motivated by class solidarity and co-operation rather than individual competition. In any case, possessive individualism was ultimately a false consciousness, since the vast majority of people were doomed to fail in such a competition.

(2) A theory of history. Society is divided into classes whose interests are irreconcilable. Thus, in the middle ages, when society was divided into lords and peasants, it was in the interests of the former that the peasants should do the maximum of work for the minimum of reward, whereas the interests of the peasants was precisely the opposite. At any given stage, there is a ruling class, which holds political power and uses it to further its own class interests, and an oppressed class. History is the story of struggle between the classes. All important events since the end of the middle ages have been caused by the rise of a new class, the urban bourgeoisie, which eventually managed to wrest political power from the old landed nobility: the most spectacular case being the French Revolution. Now the bourgeoisie (the capitalists) hold power and run society in their interests, against those of the new oppressed class, the urban workers (proletariat), who do all the hard work for inadequate reward. Marx always saw history as progress: he always portrayed capitalist society as a vast improvement on mediaeval feudal society, but he denied that it was the final stage of human development; the coming stage, communist society, would be much better.

(3) The coming revolution. The proletariat will overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels were confident this would take place in the near future, though they never gave much detail of the actual process of the revolution, or even whether it would necessarily be violent. The intense competition for profits would compel capitalists to reduce their wage-bills in order to save money, thus not only driving the workers to despair, but also resulting in people being unable to afford to buy the products that capitalism produced. There would thus be increasingly deep ecomonic slumps and business bankruptcies until eventually the whole capitalist system would collapse; brought down not so much by its brutality as by its inefficiency. In 1848 when the "Communist Manifesto" was written, revolution seemed imminent. By 1883, when Engels wrote this preface, Marx was dead and Engels had noticed a number of significant social and political changes which he described in a later book, "Socialism, Utopian and Scientific". General prosperity had increased, and the state was starting to provide social security systems for the masses. nevertheless, engels never wavered in his belief that revolution would come.

(4) A prediction of future society. After the revolution there will be "communist society", with only be one class (the proletariat), and consequently no more class conflict or exploitation. This will last for ever, and human history as we know it will stop - though Marxists would argue that true human history coild now start: mankind will at last be the master of his own destiny, instead of being pushed around by blind social and economic forces. The coercive state will "wither away". (It should be stressed that no Marxist governments ever pretended they had achieved Communism; they merely argued they were well on their way towards it) Human nature will change: possessive individualism will disappear and be replaced by something more co-operative. (Interestingly enough, Mill had argued that communism was bound to fail because he regarded possessive individualism as innate in human nature. At present, the advantage seems to lie with Mill)

(5) Engels adds the following footnote:- "This proposition ..... is destined to do for history what Darwin's theory has done for biology". Just as Darwinism enables us to understand life on earth, so Marxism enables us to make sense of what happened in history: to perceive a theme in what would otherwise appear as a meaningless collection of random events. It also enables us to predict what will happen in the future, and perhaps 'help it on a bit': not something that Darwin would ever have claimed for his theories, though many of his followers did!

Monday, 16 November 2009

Literature: "The Great Gatsby": a footnote

"The Great Gatsby": a footnote

Halfway through F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", that classic 1920s novel of the immensely rich at play in their summer palaces on Long Island - the first darkly sinister note is introduced with the appearance of the mysterious Meyer Wolfshiem. This character is modelled on a real person: Arnold Rothstein.
Rothstein was already well-known in New York before the First World War as the "king of the gamblers"; a man-about-town with contacts throughout smart society. He then made a fortune from a racket involving war bonds, and was believed to have fixed the 1919 Baseball World Series (both these being referred to in "Gatsby"). But his real importance as the "Moses of the underworld" and original godfather of organised crime was still to come.
When Prohibition was imposed, Rothstein at once saw its money-making possibilities; but not for him the sordid peddling of rotgut homebrew: he thought on an altogether grander scale. In 1920 Rothstein's agents in Britain bought 20,000 cases of Scotch whisky and shipped them across the Atlantic. The documentation said the destination was the West Indies, but in fact the ship anchored off Long Island, where the cargo was transferred to a fleet of fast speedboats and run ashore on a lonely beach at dead of night. There a team from the Dockers' Union offloaded the booze into trucks, which drove through the country roads into New York. Rothstein had paid off the cops all the way along the route. Rothstein made eleven such runs before he was shot and killed in 1928.
Rothstein's operation would expect little trouble from the authorities: the main danger was from other criminals who might try to ambush and seize his supplies (the word "hijacking" was coined at the time for this very operation). So for protection Rothstein turned to the street gangs: to Owen Madden of the Gophers, to Benny Siegel and Meyer Lansky of the Broadway Mob, to rising young stars of the Mafia like Lucky Luciano, to psychopathic killers like Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz. They provided Rothstein with muscle; he showed them how to make serious money and also taught them some much-needed social graces. This was the sort of operation for which a real-life Jay Gatsby would have worked.
Had Gatsby been a real person, his parties would surely have included the family of George Herbert Walker, a bucaneering businessman from the Midwest who had his own summer palace on Long Island. In 1921 Walker's young daughter met and married another rich young holidaymaker, but from a very different background: Prescott Bush. They became the parents of President George Herbert Walker Bush, and grandparents of George Walker Bush.
Walker was too old to be a model for Gatsby, and Prescott Bush would certainly have refused to have anything to do with bootlegging: he was a young man of high moral principles who later rose to be a Senator. Someone more likely to have been involved was a Catholic from Boston, of humble origins but rising to great wealth: Joseph Kennedy. Was he involved in operations of this kind? Almost certainly nothing can now be proved, but there have been occasional allegations. In the movie "Mobsters" (by far the most historically accurate film about the gangsters), the Rothstein character exclaims "Next year I lose my Scotch distilleries to Joseph stinking Kennedy!", and Richard Nixon is said to have complained of his victorious rival Jack Kennedy in 1960, "His goddam bootlegger father bought him the presidency!"
Rothstein was in reality quite unlike the ugly, uncouth Wolshiem of "Gatsby". Also, Wolfshiem is portrayed as a fairly small-time crook; but Fitzgerald could hardly have known about the vast scale of Rothstein's activities.
By far the best book on the subject is "Tough Jews" by Rich Cohen.


Sunday, 15 November 2009

Quiz: Pseudonyms

The following are the real names of people better known by their pseudonyms (e.g. Vladimir Ulyanov = Lenin). What are the pseudonyms of these people? They include political figures, authors, singers and film stars.

1. Eric Blair
2. Josef Djugashvili
3. Issur Demsky
4. Jan Ludvig Hoch
5. Arthur Flegenheimer
6. Francois-Marie Arouet
7. Edson Arantes do Nascimento
8. Charles Dodgson
9. Lev Bronstein
10. Harry Webb
11. William Henry Pratt
12. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus
13. Marion Robert Morrison
14. Margaret Hookham
15. Josef Ratzinger
16. Domenikas Theotokopoulos
17. Garik Weinstein
18. Bernie Schwarz
19 & 20 (always go together) Robert Leroy Parker & Harry Longabaugh


Saturday, 31 October 2009

Historical Fiction: The Old Man's Dilemma

The Old Man's Dilemma

Paul sat upright in his chair, as rigid and motionless as a statue, but inside his head thoughts spiralled endlessly around without reaching any conclusion. In the past he had always had confidence in his judgements; it had been one of his strengths; but not now. Was he doing the right thing? Was it too late to change? How was he to know? He had always done his duty, and had never doubted that his function was to command, but he had never pretended to great intelligence. Throughout his long career others had always done the detailed and difficult work for him: his function had been to provide stability and dignity and to calm down those brainy chaps when they got over-excited, as they often did. And he had been respected, and generally successful. But now here he was: alone. The brainy chaps had gone. He should have gone too; he realised that. More than once he had retired and then allowed himself to be called back. He should have resisted that last call; in his heart he had known it all along. It had been the only time in his life that he had ever acted weakly. Surely at the age of over eighty he should have been allowed to live in peace! It had brought him nothing but uncertainty, with every course of action seeming distasteful.
Now there was this man he had to meet: a man young enough to be his grandson. Not that he would have wished any grandson of his to turn out like that! He had already met him more than once, and had disliked him intensely. The fellow as common beyond belief, obviously risen from the gutter, ill-mannered, disrespectful, dishonest and consumed with violent ambition. Paul's oldest friends had warned him against having anything to do with this person. Where were the friends now that he needed them? Gone, all gone. For the first time in his life, Paul felt helpless; a mere cork drifting on the tide of events.
The door opened to admit the unwelcome visitor. Paul rose ponderously to his feet, and maintaining dignity to the last stood as ramrod-straight as if still on the parade ground. The other man was plainly ill-at-ease. He had taken the trouble to dress formally for the occasion, which only served to make him look more ridiculous than ever. The two exchanged a few stilted and unmeaning compliments, scarcely bothering to disguise the contempt they felt for each other. But the formalities had to be gone through; so the older man and the younger shook hands, and Field-Marshal-President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor of Germany.

(This seems from the sources to be a likely description of Hindenburg's feelings on that momentous day in January 1933)

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Historical Fiction: "After Dinner in New York"

After Dinner in New York: April 15th 1931

The two men remain at their table in the restaurant long after the other diners have left. Umberto the proprietor would also doubtless like to shut up shop and go home, but you don't argue with customers like these, and in any case he expects to be well paid for the inconvenience. The food is good: Joe attacks it with his usual greed and uncouthness; Charlie is more abstemious. After the meal is over. Joe reminiscences volubly about old times, and when they are alone in the room, the two talk business. Eventually Charlie excuses himself to go to the lavatory.
As he rises his hands and sliks back his hair, he contemplates his reflection in the mirror above the washbasin. He is only in his early thirties, but his face looks much older: a result of the pressures of his work. The livid scar down his cheek, which gives his right eyelid a permanent and sinister droop, aches with the tension, but he forces himself to ignore it. he bears the nickname "Lucky", which he dislikes: his success has been due to careful planning and determined application, not to luck. he glances at his watch: it's three o'clock.
There is a sharp retort of gunfire. Charlie retreats into one of the cubicles, wher ehe pulls the chain and then waits awhile. Only when he is sure the coast is clear does he venture back into the restaurant. There he finds his careful planning has once again paid off: Joe is dead.

(This is a description of the assassination of Joe Masseria ("Joe the Boss"), New York Mafia chief, at the instigation of Lucky Luciano)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Story: "Over the Hill, Under the Hill"

Under the Hill - Over the Hill

Look,you might think me very old-fashioned, but I always understood there were certain formalities to be gone through on these occasions. You should tell me your name and then boldly challenge me to come forth and defend my hoard; not try to sneak in like you've just done. So what is your name? Tristan? Oh, SIR Tristan! I do apologise: no offence intended. And my name? Well, my real name of course couldn't possibly be pronounced in your language, but I seem to recall that at one time, very long time ago, it would be, men called me Chrysophylax. Chrysophylax the Golden, whose wings beshadowed the sun. Rather poetic, don't you think? though perhaps a trifle overblown. And while we're on the subject, Sir Tristan: that sword you're swinging about: does it have a name too? No? Not even something crude and vulgar, like "Skullsplitter"? Sad. In my younger days, the warriors who came to challenge me all had swords with names, and some were supposed to be of ancient lineage; made by the dwarves or whatever; or even to be magical. Absolute tosh, of course; but still quite romantic. Ah well; times change.
Now if we want to do this properly, you shaould challenge me to fight. Denounce me as a thief and murderer, and vow to kill me and take away my ill-gotten gains. But I must point out that, although the accusation is by and large true in substance, I haven't actually done any plundering and slaughtering for a great many years. It was all a very long time ago; and in any event I don't see why it should give you any right to take my treasure for yourself. Or you could be more up-to-date and talk about the serious deflationary effect of keeping all this gold locked away out of circulation, and how international liquidity would be improved by releasing it onto world markets ...... What? You've never even heard of economics and monetary theory? No: clearly not. Forget it: it's my fault. I just presumed things out there must be more advanced than they actually are. Heigh-ho.
Moving on: may I ask, Sir Tristan, why you decided to come here? Because dragon-slaying used to be a game for young warriors. Teenage heroes: many of whom, frankly, were just kids with more guts than sense. Don't say they're letting the oldies in on it nowadays: that would not be a great idea! I admit I'm no expert on humans: but it's obvious to me that you're not exactly in the first flush of youth, are you? Take the way you swung that sword at me when you came in: quite an effort, wasn't it? I can tell you're not as fast as you once were. Shoulders getting stiff? Bit of the old back trouble? Knees start to hurt if you stay in the en garde position too long? And maybe the old mailcoat feels a bit tight round the waist? So why did you come here and try to get your hands on my treasure? Do you need the money? Or are you trying to recapture the glories of your youth: prove to yourself you can still do it? Or maybe a bit of both?
Now don't get offended. I quite understand, because I'm getting old too. I'm not quite sure how old, but it must be hundreds of your years, if not thousands. The idea that dragons are immortal is a myth: we age just like everyone else, though it takes much longer. Look at me: I haven't been outside this cave for I don't know how long. I'm amazed anyone even remembered I was here. And these wings, that once beshadowed the sun: I don't know whether they'd fly at all now. Not so much golden as rusty these days! Huh!
So there you have it: we're both of us well past our best, aren't we? All washed up. Headed for the scrap heap. Here we are together, in my lair under the hill; but at the same time we're both of us over the hill! That's a nice little ironical paradox, isn't it?
I'm not going to fight you, Sir Tristan. Maybe I'd beat you, or maybe you'd beat me; but either way it'd be an embarrassment. Two old cronks bashing away at each other till they both run out of breath or one of them drops dead from a heart attack! Not good! So I've got a better suggestion for you.
This treasure now. It took a lot of burning, looting and general mayhem to accumulate it all, and I won't pretend I didn't enjoy doing it: in fact it was tremendously enjoyable. But as I said, that was all a long time ago, and nowadays I don't seem to do anything except lie here and count it. And I can tell you; hunting down and collecting something is much more fun than spending years just owning it. Sometimes I wonder why I bother to keep it; and do you know, I really can't think of an answer? When you look back on life, you realise you set yourself various goals, and some of them you achieved, only perhaps they didn't prove as exciting as you hoped, and the rest you have to accept you'll never achieve now. So what I'm proposing to you is this: instead of fighting for my gold, why don't you just take as much as you can carry and go home? You can tell everyone you've killed me, for all I care. They'll probably believe you, and I doubt very much whether anyone will bother to come up here to check. And who knows, when you're really old, you might come to believe yourself that you'd really killed a dragon. And if everyone including you believes it happened, then it's just as good as if it really did happen, isn't it?


Some time later the dragon woke from a doze and thought to himself: Really that all got pretty tedious, didn't it? I sometimes wonder what the world's coming to, when you have to explain the most obvious things; practically spell them out word for word; not just to children but even to adults! I think that as I get older I don't get more patient and tolerant, but less!
But then he thought: No, it's not fair to blame poor old Tristan; it's not really his fault he was so ignorant; it's just that no-one ever bothered to teach him these things.
In any case, he may have been over the hill, but he still tasted quite nice!


Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Story: "A Letter"

A Letter

The envelope had fallen face downwards on the mat. Nigel ripped it open without bothering to turn it over. Inside was a single sheet of paper. There was no sender's address at the top, and the writing was in careful block capitals.
"Mister Williams", he read. But that wasn't him: Mr Williams had been the previous occupant of the house. Really, the man should have informed the Post Office he was moving, not to mention telling his correspondents!
"Mister Williams, you still haven't paid us the ten thousand. We will be sending someone round to collect it".
He read the message three times, after which he was shaking with fear. What had this man Williams been up to? He knew nothing about him at all; had never even met him. The property was vacant when he moved in; the letting agent had shown him round an empty house. Now Williams's misdeeds, whatever they might have been, were catching up with him. That must have been why he'd left without a forwarding address. And here HE, Nigel, was; trapped and helpless, having to answer for someone else's crimes! A chill crawled up his spine as he imagined what would happen: a couple of thugs would come to the door and he'd try to explain that he wasn't Williams but they wouldn't believe him and ......... No, he couldn't bear even to think about it! They were probably watching the house even now! He must escape! There wasn't a moment to lose!
Without even bothering to pick up his coat, he ran to the kitchen door and outside to the rear garden, with some thought of getting away through the back hedge. But he was too late! There was a man, dark under the shadow of the trees, coming round the corner of the house and advancing towards him! Nigel stood there, tembling and quite incapable of movement, as time froze, and then the figure spoke.
"Morning, Nigel! How are you?"
"Michael! Oh thank goodness! You can't imagine how relieved I am it's you! But it was a rotten trick to play with that letter. You know what my nerves are like!"
"What trick? What letter?"
The cold panicky feeling started again, but at least he wasn't isolated and on his own any more.
"I got a letter just now, threatening me. Or not me exactly, but ......... Wait; I'll get it and show you".
But the letter wasn't there. He scrabbled around ineffectually for a while, and finally said, lamely, "I don't seem to be able to find it. But it was here!"
"That's all right, Nigel", said Michael. "I am your doctor, and I quite understand". Yes indeed: it was becoming more complex and fascinating by the day, the case of Nigel Williams.


Monday, 19 October 2009

Story: "Gifts"

It was a bright day in October, with the autumn sun glinting off leaves left damp by recent rain, when Jennifer came to visit her aunt in her cottage on the Somerset coast. They had not met for some time. After tea, Jennifer was taken into a small sitting-room looking out onto the sea. The tide was coming in.
"Now", said her aunt, "I've asked you here for a purpose. You're not my nearest relative, of course, but I've followed your life with interest, and I think you're sensible and strong-minded enough for what I'll need you to do. You see, my dear, I'm going to die soon".
Jennifer, caught by surprise, could only utter some kind of gasp.
"Oh, it's all right", said her aunt,"you needn't feel sorry for me. I'm not in pain or anything. But I know these things, you see: I know I'm not going to last much longer. And it's very inconvenient, because I know all sorts of things are likely to happen very soon; probably very unpleasant things; and I won't be here to deal with them. That's where you come in. You'll have to take over from me when I'm gone. Now come over here".
She led a bemused and silent Jennifer to a glass-fronted display cabinet containing a random-looking collection of small objects: just the sort of collection a middle-class maiden lady might be expected to have accumulated during a long life.
"Now take a good look", she said, "You won't be getting anything from my will, but you can have some of these now. Which would you like?"
Jennifer felt an inexplicable sense of dread come over her; so much so that she was hardly conscious of making a rational decision; but finally she said, "The ring. I'd like the ring, please". Why she had chosen that, she wondered. It wasn't a special-looking ring at all. It had a blue stone, but it probably wasn't a genuine sapphire. Her aunt smiled.
That's good", she said, "You shall have the ring. Now for your second gift?"
"The litttle horse", said Jennifer. Again, she couldn't precisely say why she had made the choice. It was a small earthenware animal, Chinese in inspiration, though probably not in manufacture. Once again, her aunt looked pleased.
"Not much to look at, is he? But it's the right choice again. Now just one more to pick".
Jennifer knew what she would have to choose next, but by this time she was feeling positively frightened. She hesitated a long time before finally saying, in no more than a whisper,"The suffbox". Why did it alarm her so? There were peculiar decorations on the lid, and it probably wasn't even real silver.
Her aunt unlocked to cabinet and removed the three small objects. "Actually, it's not a snuffbox, but never mind. There! You've made the right choice three times running: it's a very good sign. I knew I was right to call you down here.
"You can wear the ring if you think you're strong-minded enough, which I think you are; but you must be prepared to see some very strange things if you do; often quite disturbing things". She walked across to the window, where twilight was already descending on Bridgewater Bay, and lights were twinkling away northwards on the Welsh shore. "I've seen a lot of very strange things out there. Some of them I was able to help deal with ....."
Her voice faded, then strengthened again. "The horse will help you. You'll find out how to summon him when you need to.
"As for the box, it must never be opened. I can't stress that too strongly. I'm not precisely sure what's in it, you understand, but I'm certain it's something very nasty indeed. You must think of yourself as the guardian of the box. I've guarded it for more than forty years, and now I'm passing it on to you.
"Now you really must go. I've booked you into a hotel in Taunton for the night, and it wouldn't be at all a good idea for you to be driving along little country roads in the dark with these things on board".
Jennifer was past asking for explanations, but she did say, "Hadn't we better wrap them up?"
Her aunt smiled. "Oh, you needn't worry about them bashing into each other and getting broken: they can look after themselves! But you're quite right: we should treat them with proper respect".
So they wrapped up the three gifts very carefully in tissue paper and put them in a shopping bag.
"Now you can kiss me goodbye", said her aunt, "You won't be seeing me again. It's up to you now".


Wednesday, 14 October 2009


Homage to Rupert Brooke
(To be sung to the tune of the Prelude to Act III of "Carmen", by Bizet)

The boy who sang by Granta's stream
of spires and fenland, games and laughter in the morn,
is taken by a wider dream;
out eastwards sees the golden sun of blazing dawn,
and hears a voice singing proudly now of songs of war and duty


youth and honour lie in Flanders field
and by the banks of Somme and Yser seek for fame;
a sword to draw, a lance to wield,
a shield to bear the man who dies to win a name;
and hear him sing, now may God be thanked who matched us with his hour


loud rejoicing as the boat sails away
to sun-baked islands, sead that once were dark as wine,
where heroes fought a burning day
and deeds as brightly as the Hellene sun will shine
and so he goes, seekin Ilium's walls and Hector's martial story

for the

boy who sang by grana's stream
in storm and glory
to the war
is gone.


The Days: a creation myth

The first day was golden with the radiance of pure light as the Sun rose. Creation began. But behind the radiance was the Anti-light, the false creation, which is the greatest sin.

The second day was glittering silver beneath the Moon; and it was a day of mysteries, of hidden things, and of the waters. And the sin of the second day was magic, and forbidden knowledge.

The third day was blood-red, and it was the day of Mars. A day of struggle and fight; a day of iron. The sin of the third day was violence, and blind rage.

The fourth day was black as the infinite void; but from the blackness rose swift Mercury, the Quicksilver, who made it a day of buying and selling, of coming and going, and of messages. The sin of the fourth day was greed.

On the fifth day the firmament was painted bright blue, and its lord was Jupiter. So great was he that some confused him with his Maker. And the sin of the fifth day was pride.

The sixth day was the shining green of verdigris. Here lay the naked form of Venus, who commanded it to be a day of lovemaking. And so the sin of the sixth day was lust.

The seventh day was rich imperial purple, robing ancient Saturn as he yawned on his leaden throne of unendurable weight. On this day all creatures rest from their labours. So the sin of the seventh day was idleness.

So the first week ends.


The mask of Agamemnon

Pale gold, thin as card, shaped to a face,
heavy-lidded eyes like cowries, and a smile.
Not the faint ironic smile of a skull,
but a grin of power, satiated,
having laid conscience to rest.
This face, not Helen's, launched the thousand ships,
murdered Iphigenia, burned Troy,
to avenge an insult to the family,
to not lose face.

Then, fixed in eternal gold,
sent into darkness, out of sight of man,
unrotted in the grave, for endless years,
only the gods could see. To them it showed its grin
and the message, "This face was not lost:
through heroic genocide and towns laid waste, this face was saved".

And now is saved indeed
since Schliemann dug it from the earth:
placed now behind bullet-proof glass
stronger than stone walls and Lion Gates,
under fluorescence far brighter
than any sun of Hellas:
Agamemnon: great king
of mighty Mycenae
once more in state:
trriumphant over death as over morality,
immortalised in story as in gold,
still grinning. We repeat: this face was saved
- though nothing else was. Troy was lost
and soon after, Mycenae also was lost; but this face was not lost.
What more could any king desire?


poems 2

Sanctuary Wood, Ypres: School Visits

How can they understand a war poem? How can we?
wars were far away and long ago
and nothing seen on television ever really happened.
Now the woods are full of children
running through the muddy trenches
dodging round the water-filled craters gawping at, or completely failing to notice
the occasional unexploded shell
and squeaking when their nice new jeans
(fashionably ragged and torn at the knee)
are stained with filth in the communications tunnel.
Below the woods the fields are grey with mist
shrouding the view to the sinister places
the Menin Road, and up to Passchendaele,
behind us, Messines Ridge and Plugstreet. The children
have been told, but already they've forgotten
and soon they'll be off for hamburger and chips
(They're looking forward to their succulent Belgian chips),
leaving the trenches and the shattered stumps,
the rusty barbed wire and all the iron harvest of war,
and arching over all, the chestnut trees
- none more than seventy years old
but spouting strongly, because well fertilised
by someone who in happier circumstances
might have married my grandmother
or yours

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair"
(An answer to the poem by Shelley: to be recited in a silly voice)

Last summer I saw Ozymandias
it was on the left bank of the Nile
across from Luxor. His visage
was even more shattered than when Shelley's friend saw it
but the archaeologists had stuck it back on
his patched-up shoulders.
I didn't see any inscription
but maybe it had been removed to
the Cairo museum.
The bit about there being nothing around but sand
is however completely wrong, since these days
the whole area is thick with hucksters selling
the most appalling junk to the parties of tourists
so when you think of it, the natives really should be grateful to Ozymandias
because if he hadn't taken the trouble to put up the statue
the region would be even poorer than it is
and it set me wondering how Adolf Hitler
might be perceived a few thousand years from now
and all the other tourists seemed to be having
equally solemn thought as they gazed on
what is styled the "colossal wreck"
and I even saw genuine despair in some faces
though maybe they were only wondering how long
they would have to last out
until they found the
next lavatory.


I would like to believe in unicorns
the swift form, silver as the moon,
shyly lurking in deep woodlands, seen by few

The horn like sparkling barley-sugar, the neat cloven hoof
and the dark unplumbable eye, speaking wisdom
from remotest ages.

Saying that romance and adventure live yet
and will return, in an enchanted world
undreamed of by science

Where visions can teach truth, and gods or demons
once more speak to men, and there is wild exaltation
or black terror

And reason will fall from its usurped throne
leaving faith and magic to point the way
incomprehensible and glorious.


Dog: or, Hegel was right, Bentham was wrong

He has nosed around
and now he proposes
to lie in the sun and do nothing
until dinner.

There is a lot to think about.

The puppies have been ignoring his advice.
His career as a watchdog is threatened by new technology, in the form of a birglar alarm.
The spaniel next door has a much better basket than him.
And should he show solidarity with persecuted pit-bull terriers,
threatened with racial discrimination?
Meanwhile in the Far East, it is said, dogs are still being killed and eaten:
surely some action must be taken?

But none ofthese things concern him at all
as he lies in the sun doing nothing
which is why, whereas we are human,
he is only a dog.


Romanticism fails again!

When I was a boy, I found a book in a cave
in complete darkness: by touch alone I found it,
sodden and cold. It dripped as I bore it to the light
- not without trepidation;
since had this been an H. P. Lovecraft story, I would have held
a tractatus of occult knowlege
ancient, arcane, and damned. But it proved to be an electricians' manual
scarcely occult even to the least technically-minded.
How it came to be in the cave, far from any power-scource,
might make a story in itself
if I could be bothered.