Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Ludlow Town

Ludlow was a planned town with a grid pattern. It grew up at a crossing of the river Teme on the border with Wales, with a Norman castle (see my previous entry) and the magnificent church of St. Laurence; the largest parish church in Shropshire.

From the tower of the church you can trace much of the original plan of the town, as you look westwards over the Butter Cross to the castle in the distance

and then southwards down Broad Street to the one remaining mediaeval town gate (with an 18th century building on top of it), beyond which is the bridge over the Teme.

North of the church is Corve Street, running up to a crossing of the river Corve, which joins the Teme just north of the castle.

Apart from the castle and the church, the most famous sight in Ludlow is the Feathers hotel by the Bull Ring at the top of Corve Street.

It was built in 1603, and contains some very fine plasterwork and carved oak panels. This one is the royal coat of arms from the time of King William III.

It's also an excellent hotel, by the way!

Monday, 23 April 2012

Ludlow Castle

The building of Ludlow castle in Shropshire began in 1085, within 20 years of the Norman Conquest. It occupies a strong strategic site, with steep cliffs on three sides, overlooking the River Teme westwards into Wales.

It consists of an inner and an outer Bailey, separated by a dry moat.
The picture below shows the entrance to the inner Bailey. The large building in the centre was originally the Gatehouse, which was later strengthened to form a Keep. The present entrance and the buildings to the right of it were extensively altered in Tudor times, as can be seen from the large square windows.

For centuries, central Wales was a "wild west", where the English kings exercised little or no authority. The local nobles on the English side, known as the "Marcher Lords", were given extraordinary powers to maintain law and order, but this in turn made them very hard to control. The most famous of the Marcher Lords was Roger Mortimer (1287-1330), the owner of Ludlow and other castles in the region. In 1327 he overthrew and murdered King Edward II (in a particularly gruesome way, according to legend), and then ruled England alongside his lover, Queen Isabella (known as "the she-wolf of France"), until he was in his turn captured and executed as a traitor by the new King, Edward III.
The Yorkist and Tudor monarchs established the Council of the Marches of Wales, based in Ludlow castle, with special powers to govern the region. The Council was often under the nominal leadership of the Prince of Wales, or some other member of the royal family, to give it prestige and authority.
The picture below is a view down from the Keep into the inner Bailey. It shows the most unusual round Chapel, and behind it the Great Hall (with the ramp leading up to it) and the buildings which housed the lawyers and senior officials of the Council. Inventories of the time show that the rooms were furnished with great luxury. (The scaffolding outside the hall is to support a stage. Every summer a Shakespeare play is produced in the castle, with well-known professional actors)

Ludlow castle featured several times in the history of England. In 1459, early in the Wars of the Roses, Richard, Duke of York, was surprised in Ludlow by Lancastrian troops and forced to flee. The victorious soldiers then plundered the town. In December 1501 Arthur, Prince of Wales, came to live in Ludlow castle as the representative of his father, Henry VII. Arthur brought with him his new Spanish bride, Catherine of Aragon; but in April 1502 he died, at the age of just 16, and his heart was buried in the parish church. Since the king wanted to maintain the link with Spain, it was arranged that Catherine should then marry Arthur's younger brother, who in 1509 succeeded to the throne as Henry VIII. Such a marriage arrangement was highly irregular, and permission from the Pope had to be secured. But when after twenty years of marriage Catherine had failed to produce a son, Henry VIII came to feel that the whole process had been illegal and sought an annulment - with revolutionary consequences for the English church and crown when the Pope refused to help.
In 1646 Ludlow, the last Royalist base in Shropshire, surrendered to Parliamentary forces without a shot being fired. Cromwell then abolished the Council, and over the next century and a half the castle was left uninhabited and gradually fell into decay.

Sheepdogs in the Bible

The other day I was reading a book about Palestine in Biblical times, where I found the information that, although the Bible contains a great many references to sheep and to shepherds, there is never any mention of sheepdogs. I suppose I should have noticed this for myself. Dogs are still regarded as unclean animals in parts of the Near East today, possibly because of the danger of rabies. (When dogs lick the sores of Lazarus the beggar in St. Luke's gospel, this is intended to show, not the kindness of the dogs, but the utter degradation of the man). The parables of Jesus do not include one single story about a faithful dog: something inconceivable in the modern West, where dogs are regarded in a much more sentimental spirit!

Monday, 16 April 2012


This is one of the strangest places I have ever visited. We drove for hours across the central Anatolian plain; as flat as the Fens, though three thousand feet above sea level. I have no idea how the Crusaders or other travellers navigated their way across it. Nowadays it is a huge and completely treeless barley field, with a scattering of depressed-looking mud-built villages which served only to deepen the monotony. Then suddenly we came to the Goreme valley, in what in Classical times was called Cappadocia. The region consists of a very thick layer of soft volcanic tufa, which has been heavily eroded away by the weather; but in places boulders of harder rock have protected the tufa beneath them, and “fairy chimneys” have formed. These are innumerable, and in all shapes and sizes: spires and towers of every conceivable pattern; some isolated, some packed densely together in regiments.

The tufa is very fertile, and the rare bits of flat ground were covered with vines and melons. The strangest feature, however, was that for thousands of years the fairy chimneys had been inhabited, with homes and even churches cut out of the rock.
We spent several days there, going first to the open-air museum at Zelve, where the rock dwellings are particularly closely packed, and where an optimistic movie director was vainly trying to shoo the tourists away so he could shoot a scene involving Mongol hordes. Next we came to the great rock at Uchisar, towering grandly above the village with, amazingly, a cemetery on top.

Greek Christians had lived in the area in large numbers. Their ancient churches survive, complete with murals of Christ and the saints going back to the 9th century, but nowadays they are without worshippers. After 1923 the Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk had had them all “sent back to their homeland”, as our guide put it.

Since the Greeks had lived in the region since the time of Alexander the Great, whereas the Turks only appeared after the battle of Manzikert in 1071, I contemplated asking when the Turks would return to their homeland, which was in Central Asia - but I thought it best to remain silent: the Turks are still extremely sensitive to accusations of ethnic cleansing (especially in the case of the Armenians)

Finally we came to the “underground city” at Ozonak. Here a small gate in the hillside led to a maze of subterranean passages and rooms on several different levels, with much more still to be excavated and explored. There were huge millstones positioned at intervals, to be rolled across doorways in the event of an attack. The occasional ventilation holes were cunningly positioned and screened with piles of rock so as to be invisible from the surface. I was reminded of Tolkien: not so much of the Mines of Moria as of Bilbo lost in the goblin-tunnels beneath the Misty Mountains. It was not a place for the claustrophobic, or indeed for the very fat.

In one odd way Turkey reminded me of my visits to the Soviet Union. Instead of finding statues of Lenin everywhere, there was an equal profusion of statues of Kemal Ataturk, and Ataturk’s tomb in Ankara was far more massive and elaborate than Lenin’s in Moscow. Ataturk was also highly successful in crushing Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey. With reference to this, I once asked a professor, an expert in 20th century history, why he thought Ataturk succeeded where the Shah of Iran failed. He came back with a counter-question: why had Ataturk succeeded where Lenin had failed. I thought this was a most interesting notion.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Unhappy Anniversaries

I went to the city of Lichfield, in Staffordshire, the other day and quite by chance found myself in the Market Square when an outdoor service was being held to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Edward Wightman, the last man in England to be burnt at the stake for heresy; an execution which took place on that very spot in 1612. The local vicar read funeral prayers, since none were said for Wightman at the time. I was not sure how far this was appropriate: Whightman was a convinced Arian, denying the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, and was also something of a fanatic, always drawing attention to himself and getting into trouble by his very public pronouncements on the subject. His burning was a very messy business, since he recanted his beliefs whilst actually on the bonfire and was rescued, but then unrecanted and was sentenced anew. Once again he tried to recant amidst the flames, but this time no-one believed him, perhaps not surprisingly, and he was duly burnt.

I'm not certain exactly why there were no more burnings in England following this. Various speakers after the service talked about the right to free speech, but this was surely anachronistic: such ideas were essentially products of the 18th century, when those in authority in England no longer took religion seriously enough to sentence anyone to death, or even to lock them up. Lichfield was Doctor Johnson’s home city, and an appropriately heavy statue of the great man looked down on the scene. I wondered what he would have made of the proceedings, since he was always a strong supporter of religious orthodoxy and would never have tolerated heterodox pronouncements concerning the Holy Trinity.

Another anniversary falling at the same time was the sinking of the “Titanic”. The park opposite Lichfield Cathedral contains a life-size statue of Edward Smith, the captain who sailed the “Titanic” to its doom. Nobody seems to know why the statue is there: Smith was a Staffordshire man, but actually came from Stoke-on-Trent and had no connection with Lichfield at all. One strange detail is that the statue was the work of the sister of Captain Scott of Antarctic fame. That’s two disasters together!

Lichfield Cathedral

Postscript: A friend has suggested that burnings were discontinued because they were redolent of such legendary Catholic atrocities as the Inqisition, the auto da fe in Spain and the martyrdom of Archbishop Cranmer under Mary Tudor, and therefore caused uneasiness to Protestant Englishmen. But burnings for heresy and witchcraft continued for some time in Scotland, where the laws and the traditions were rather different.

Saturday, 7 April 2012


Whenever I travel to London I always try to find time to visit the British Museum, in order to see the Assyrian reliefs, which were excavated in the 19th century from the ruins of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh in northern Iraq. They were carved on slabs of alabaster, and were originally painted. Some show kings and monsters, often more than life-size, with inscriptions in cuneiform writing.

The most famous carvings show King Assurbanipal hunting lions, depicted with savage realism.

Others show battle scenes. The Assyrians created the first great empire of the Iron Age, and an extremely brutal one. From their base on the upper Tigris river after 900 B.C. their armies conquered all the surrounding lands of Iraq, western Iran, Syria and Palestine, down as far as Egypt. When cities which resisted them were taken, the nobles were gruesomely executed and the common people deported to distant parts of the empire, as happened to the "lost ten tribes" of Israel.
The next slab is one of a series depicting the storming of the city of Lachish, south of Jerusalem, as recorded in the Bible.

The names of the great kings from the mid-8th century are like a splendid litany: Tiglath-Pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Assurbanipal. (In fact these are only Biblical approximations of the kings' real names in the Assyrian language, but they have become familiar to us through the Bible, and so continue to be generally used even by scholars)

In 621 Nineveh fell to Nebuchadnessar, King of Babylon, in alliance with the Persian and Mede clans of northern Iran, and the empire came to an end. The Assyrian cities were buried and forgotten, though their names lived on in the Bible. They were excavated in the 19th century and their treasures discovered, including the royal library of 22,000 clay tablets. Among these were fragments telling the story of Gilgamesh; an epic far older than Assyria, dating back to the ancient Sumerian civilisation of southern Iraq almost two thousand years earlier. The tablet shown below caused a sensation when it was deciphered, because it told of how Gilgamesh met Utnapishtim, the only man to survive a great flood which the gods sent to destroy the earth. They had found the Assyrian account of Noah's flood!

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

W.G.'s Birthday Party, by David Kynaston

This is the best book I have ever read on the history of cricket. It is centred round the occasion when in July 1898 a match was scheduled to coincide with the fiftieth birthday of Dr. William Gilbert Grace (universally known simply as “W.G.”), the greatest sportsman of the later Victorian era. The match was the traditional annual contest at Lord’s cricket ground between the “Gentlemen” and the “Players”; that is, amateurs versus professionals.

One of the most notable features of the second half of Victoria’s reign was the extraordinary growth of spectator sports, with huge crowds turning up especially to watch football and cricket. In this development the role of Grace was central. A superb athlete, he could no doubt have excelled at any sport, and he had dominated cricket ever since he burst onto the scene as a teenager. Attendance at any match where he was due to play was guaranteed to be massive. For years he had been one of the most famous men in the country, and his trademark beard made him a gift to the cartoonists; instantly recognisable to all. He always particularly enjoyed the annual Gentlemen vs. Players fixture, and on the minority of occasions when the amateurs won, it was usually as a result of his contributions. It was thus most fitting that his birthday should be honoured in this way. He would, of course, captain the amateur team.

The book gives a detailed report of the match (in which Grace himself, though handicapped by an injury, remained undefeated at the end, but could not prevent his team from losing), but there is much more to it than this. Kynaston investigates every participant in the match, including even the umpires, and tells us about their future careers, how long they lived, and even how much they left in their wills, and in this way he gives us a snapshot of late Victorian society.

Cricket was a unique sport in one particular respect. The main tennis and golf tournaments of the time were exclusively amateur, and so were the Olympic sports. Football had by this time become dominated by the professional teams, and rugby was shortly to split into the two codes of Union (amateur) and League (professional), separated by a strict apartheid. But in cricket amateurs and professionals played side-by-side, and had done so ever since the game was first organised back in the 18th century. (Nor, incidentally, was there ever any colour bar in English cricket. The Indian prince, Ranjitsinhji, played his first match for England in 1899 and was universally hailed as a genius. By the 1920s the England team was playing matches against the West Indies, where most of the star players were black and often from very humble backgrounds. My mother, who was brought up in Yorkshire at that time, once told me that the first black man she ever saw was a professional cricketer from the West Indies). True, the county teams were always captained by amateurs; amateurs and professionals stayed in different hotels, changed in different rooms, and were even indicated differently in the scorebooks; but despite all this, the Honourable Alfred Lyttleton, the son of a nobleman and himself a future cabinet minister, and Richard Barlow, the Lancashire factory-hand, played together in the England team, and this could not have happened in any other sport at the time.

Professional sportsmen of the time were invariably drawn from the working classes. (Indeed, before the coming of free universal education, professional sport was practically the only way in which a boy of real talent could find a route out of the slums). A professional cricketer, footballer or boxer could expect to earn higher wages than a skilled artisan, and those who reached international standard would be well rewarded (though with nothing like the immense sums received nowadays), but sporting careers were beset with hazards. A bad injury or loss of form could mean that income suddenly stopped, and even the best players would pass their peak while still comparatively young. Top sportsmen were, and still are, always under temptation to spend freely whilst earning well, only to wind up penniless later in life. A really good professional cricketer might continue to earn a decent wage into his forties, but what then? The best he could hope for would be that, provided he was presentable enough and behaved himself, he might be taken on as a coach at one of the great independent schools or colleges. Professional sport, therefore, was a purely working-class matter. (When in an early novel by P. G. Wodehouse, "Psmith in the City", his hero, Mike, an ex-public school boy, is so extremely bored with his job in a bank that he seriously considers resigning and becoming a professional cricketer, this is intended to show how desperate he was to escape. And, as we might have expected from Wodehouse, a sudden stroke of luck enables Mike to avoid the grave loss of caste resulting from such a step)

Despite Grace’s enormous fame and prestige, his position was ambiguous, for he was a notorious “shamateur”: that is, whilst retaining the status of an amateur, he actually contrived to earn far more out of his cricketing career than did any of the professional players. Also, he was hardly a “gentleman” in the normally accepted sense of the term: he was not a product of the traditional independent schools and universities (he had qualified as a doctor only after twelve years of part-time study); he was too unwashed, too much a Gloucestershire yokel, he was without any intellectual or cultural interests, and his keenness to win frequently verged on outright cheating or intimidation of umpires. It was perhaps for these reasons that he was only occasionally invited to captain England. But at the same time, he was always kind and encouraging to youngsters, and always did his best to help the professionals; so as well as being admired for his talents, he was also liked and respected by his fellow-cricketers.

It comes as no surprise to learn that, of all the men who played in this match, the amateurs as a class lived longer than the professionals, and also died richer, but there was still a significant overlap. Two of them, one amateur and one professional, committed suicide by shooting themselves (for some reason, there has always been a significantly high suicide rate among cricketers). One of the professionals died completely destitute, and two others became bankrupt and dependent on the help of friends. On the other hand, one of the amateurs left only £137 at his death, whereas one of the professionals became a successful businessman, leaving over £57,000; a very considerable sum for the time. W. G. Grace himself finally retired from first-class cricket in 1906, and even after that he continued to play in local club games up to the outbreak of the First World War. He died in 1915 at the age of 67, leaving a disappointing £7,278, despite a lifetime of high earnings. After the war, the Grace Gates were erected at Lord’s as a memorial, with the simple inscription (suggested by F. S. Jackson, a member of Grace’s team in the 1898 match, but now Sir Stanley Jackson, chairman of the Conservative Party and future Governor of Bengal); “The Great Cricketer”

In January 1963 the cricket authorities finally announced the abolition of the distinction between amateurs and professionals, and the annual Gentlemen vs. Players match thus ceased. It could long have been seen as a ridiculous anachronism, but many people, including some illustrious old professionals, were sad at its passing.

George Orwell; Life and Writings: part two

(This follows on from my previous entry, which deals with Orwell's life before 1939; especially his life-changing experiences in the Spanish Civil War)

1939 Orwell declared unfit for military service because of bad condition of lungs. Joins Home Guard
1941 Works for the BBC, especially on broadcasts to India
1943 Resigns from BBC; becomes literary editor of “Tribune”
1945 His wife Eileen dies. Publication of “Animal Farm”
1946 Goes to Jura, a remote and thinly-populated Scottish island
1949 Publication of “1984”. Now very famous, but in very poor health. Marries Sonia Bromwell in University College Hospital
1950 Dies from a burst artery in the lung

“Animal Farm” hardly needs an introduction: millions of people are familiar with the novel; half parable, half fairy story; of how the farm animals drive out their human oppressor and attempt to set up a utopian society, only for it to decline into a totalitarian dictatorship run by the pigs, and by one pig in particular, named Napoleon. The story follows the history of the Soviet Union very closely, though this sometimes looks contrived; the revolution and civil war, the struggle for power within the Communist Party, the Five Year Plan and the Great Purge, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Second World War, at which stage the book ends.
I am sure Orwell, a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party, would have been surprised to have found himself adopted by conservatives, because the message of “Animal Farm” is not that revolution is wrong, but that this revolution has been betrayed. There is nothing in “Animal Farm” implying that the animals should have stuck with their human masters, and Snowball, the hero of the first part of the book, is fairly obviously modelled on Trotsky, just as Napoleon is modelled on Stalin. In the end the pigs betray the revolution by behaving more and more like the old human masters. Recall the final scene, when Napoleon and the other pigs meet with the neighbouring farmers and it is difficult to tell them apart. I have always wondered what this represented: Stalin meeting Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta, perhaps?

Orwell never departs from the ideas he formed in the Spanish Civil War: he supports the working classes, but is disgusted by the way the Communist Party has turned revolution into dictatorship, and also by the way the British Left sucks up to Stalin. This view would have been intensified by his difficulty in getting the book published: most publishers fought shy of making any criticism of the Soviet Union during the wartime alliance. (There is an interesting parallel here in the way the cartoonist David Low was urged to tone down his attacks on Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. Orwell sees this type of behaviour as cowardly appeasement and moral blindness, whether exercised by the Right or the Left)

“1984” is a novel written by a dying man, which must at least partly account for its despairing note. Orwell captures and intensifies the greyness of London in the later 1940s, with the nation bankrupted after the Second World War, everything rationed and bombed areas not yet rebuilt; but even under these conditions he can hardly have imagined Clement Attlee’s Labour government degenerating into totalitarian dictatorship. Once again, a revolution appears to have been betrayed, though we do not know the circumstances (Britain in 1984 appears to be merely an offshoot of the United States, so perhaps there had been a revolution in America too, though nothing is said about this). Orwell’s nightmare vision is of an entirely paranoid world, dominated by spying, denunciations and lies, where citizens are in perpetual danger of arrest and torture. Again we are harking back to Stalin’s purges (“Big Brother”, the dictator who appears only as a picture, bears a strong physical resemblance to Stalin, and his opponent Goldstein, the hate-figure, is clearly based on Trotsky). The purges were about to be renewed in the “Leningrad affair” in the Soviet Union and a series of treason trials in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. Orwell did not, of course, live to see that this situation was not destined to last much longer. Stalin died in 1953, and Khrushchev denounced his memory three years later; and when Khrushchev defeated the last of the old communists, Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich, he did not have them shot but merely exiled them to managerial positions in remote areas. Although the Khrushchev reforms were not followed up, the long, dreary Brezhnev years that ensued merely saw low-level oppression and economic inefficiency rather than full-scale totalitarianism. History continued to be rewritten in an Orwellian fashion under Brezhnev, by the simple process of avoiding mentioning Trotsky, Stalin and Khrushchev whenever possible.
Orwell also imagines a world of permanent war, but with ever-changing allies and foes. What he doubtless had in mind here, which was developing even as he wrote, was the way the Second World War was being succeeded by the Cold War, and America and Britain, fresh from having been allied with the Soviet Union against Germany, were now rapidly rebuilding Germany for alliance against the Soviet Union. I wonder what he would have made of the present situation, where the western powers abruptly switched from supporting militant Islam against the Russians in Afghanistan to supporting post-communist Russia in its bombing of Islamic rebels in Chechnya! The book ends with a short philosophical comment on the 1984 language of “Newspeak”, which is designed to reduce the ability of humans to communicate complex ideas: Orwell had already written on this theme in an essay, “Politics and the English Language”. Some of his Newspeak coinings, like "doublethink" have now entered our language, though there is a curious reluctance to use the word "prolefeed", meaning low-grade entertainment aimed at the lower classes!

Orwell was a much better essay-writer than he was a novelist; and it is there that he reveals an astonishing width of reading and interest. His early essays were straightforward accounts of personal experiences, but he then diversified into long critical discourses on Dickens, Kipling, Swift and others, into surveys of such diverse topics as literature between the wars, boys’ comics and murder stories, and into thoughts on the state of England. What he has to say is always worth reading, and I would strongly recommend anyone to read a collection of his essays.