Monday, 27 August 2012

Etna: Mount Doom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am refusing to follow the example of Empedocles!

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 August 2012

Problems of colloquial English

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

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

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Benny Siegel and Hermann Goering

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

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

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Greatest Revolution in History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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