Tuesday, 26 December 2017


After listening to the usual selection of Christmas carols and readings, I thought it would be interesting to investigate how much of all these was based upon the actual Gospel accounts, and how much was tradition accumulated since.
  St. Mark's Gospel, which is generally reckoned to be the earliest, does not mention the Nativity at all, but instead opens with Jesus meeting John the Baptist. St. John's Gospel, which is quite unlike the others in general character, equally ignores the Nativity. Instead John opens with the mighty passage (traditionally read at the conclusion of the service by the senior man present), starting "In the beginning was the Word", which seems to me to resonate more of Neoplatonism or Gnosticism than of simple Christianity. This leaves us with just Matthew and Luke to describe the Nativity; and they tell completely different stories. Their stories have been combined in Christmas readings, but certain parts are simply omitted. It is often pointed out, of course, that neither Matthew nor Luke give us any reason to think that the Nativity took place in late December. But the winter solstice is an obvious time of year for the God-King to be born. 

   Luke's acount of the nativity is best known. He was a gifted story-teller, and it is from Luke that we have the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the jorney to Bethlehem for the census, the birth in a manger, "Because there was no room at the inn", and the shepherds summoned by an angel to worship the baby Jesus. But Luke's full account is actually much more complex, with other, less familiar, details.
   Luke begins with the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zecheriah, a priest. He and his wife Elizabeth, described as an elderly couple, have no children, but Gabriel announces that Elizabeth will soon bear a child: the future John the Baptist. Only after this, "in the sixth month", does Gabriel appear to Mary in the well-known scene where the future birth of Jesus Christ is announced. Mary then goes to meet Elizabeth, who is her cousin, and together they sing praises to God. The chapter end with the birth of John, which inspires a prophecy from Zecheriah.
   It is in Book 2 that we have the "decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed", Jospeh and Mary's journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the baby in the manger, and the coming of the shepherds. Luke then tells us that eight days later the infant Jesus was circumcised, and then presented in the Temple, with an appropriate sacrifice (a pair of turtle doves or young pigeons was usual, we are told); and the appearance of the baby inspires two pious old folks, Simeon and Anna, to utter prophesies. In Book three we pass to the work of John the Baptist and the bginning of Christ's ministry. Later in the chapter we have a genealogy of Jesus: son to father, through David, Abraham and Noah, all the way to Adam.     

St. Matthew opens with a genealogy, father to son, from Abraham to Joseph, which is completely different from Luke's. There is not even an agreement on the name of Joseph's father! (In any case, we might wonder what the point of these genealogies is, since Luke and Matthew both insist that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. *See footnote). Matthew's story of the nativity involves the wicked King Herod, the wise men with their gifts, and the flight into Egypt to escape the slaughter of the children. But Matthew begins with Joseph, whilst betrothed to Mary, realising that she is pregnant, and deciding to end the marriage contract. He is deterred from this when an angel (not named) appears to him in a dream, and tells him that the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, in accordance with a prophecy.
   Chapter two begins with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (with no mention of a manger, or reason for the family being there), and the appearance of the wise men (the Magi) to King Herod. They seek the newborn King of the Jews, for they have "seen his star in the East". Herod calls his scholars, who tell him that, according to a prophecy, the Christ child will be born in Bethlehem. The wise men go there, and the star stops over the place of birth. They present their famous and symbolic gifts; but are then warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and make their way home. Next, Joseph is warned, once again in a dream, to flee with the Holy Family to Egypt, thus escaping Herod's enraged massacre of all the babies in Bethlehem. It is only after Herod's death that Joseph is told (yet another dream) that it is now safe to return, and he goes to live, not in Judea, but in Nazareth; despite to suggestion that he had previously lived there.        In chapter three we pass to John the Baptist and the start of Christ's ministry. It is a little odd that Luke, who is believed to be a Greek, mentions Jesus's circumcision and presentation in the Temple; whereas Matthew, who is supposed to be a Jew, does not. Or perhaps to a Jew they were too obvious to be worth mentioning? 
It can be seen that these two accounts have practically nothing in common save for two points: firstly that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and secondly, that he grew up in Nazareth, in Galilee, which is a long distance away to the north. (One way of accounting for the obvious discrepancies is the tradition that the Magi only arrived in Bethlehem several days after the birth, hence "the twelve days of Christmas")  Also, the gospel accounts, especially Matthew's, have been much embroidered by later additions. He does not even tell us how many wise men there were: the tradition that they were is only a deduction from the fact that they presented three gifts. At no point are they called Kings: the New English Bible calls the astrologers! In the Middle Ages they were provided with names, and sometimes they were depicted as, respectively, a European, an Arab and a Negro, to symbolise the three continents of Europe, Asia and Africa cknowledging Christ. And since Matthew nowhere mentions a stable or a manger, paintings showing magnificently-dressed monarchs with vast trains of attendants kneeling before the infant Jesus in a rickety old stable, although gorgeous and dramatic, lack any Biblical basis. 
Image result for The-magi Nor, for that matter, is there any basis for the charming pictures of an ox and an ass looking down on the baby Jesus: these animals are nowhere mentioned.
   We are told practically nothing about Joseph, except that he is descended from King David (by two incompatible genealogies). The tradition that he was much older than Mary is no more than a tradition; nor is there any reference in the nativity stories to him being a carpenter. But there is no reason why Jesus should not himself have been a carpenter before embarking on his ministry: it was quite common in the Jewish world for rabbis to come from humble origins and support themselves by everyday trades.

Both Matthew and Luke make an attempt to place a date on the nativity. King Herod plays an important part in Matthew's story, and Luke also places the story of Zechariah in the reign of Herod; though he confuses the picture by putting the census "when Quirinius was governor of Syria", which suggests a date as late as AD 6. He then says Jesus began his ministry "in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius": that is, AD 28 or 29. But this presents another problem, because in the Roman dating Herod died in 4 BC! This difficulty came to be realised in later centuries, which is why Bishop Ussher famously dated the creation of the world in 4004 BC rather than simply 4000; in other words, four thousand years before the birth of Christ. 

When examining these different accounts, we should bear in mind the lack of any surviving independent evidence. Very few documents survive from the Ancient World, and states then were not run bureaucratically: they did not compile information just for its own sake. Historians in Greek and Roman times did not approach their work with the degree of rigorous research and evaluation that would be expected of a modern PhD thesis. The great Greek historian Thucydides tells us that he did not attempt accurate reporting of speeches, but instead tried "to have speakers say what, im my opinion, was called for by each situation".  As R. G. Collingwood put it, "We start from the wrong premise by assuming that Greeks and Romans looked upon the study and writing of history essentially as we do". The same assessment can be made of the gospel writers.         

A Jewish friend once told me that, for an orthodox Jew, it was a horribly blasphemous thought that God should come down to earth and beget a child on a human woman. The Greek and Roman gods, of course, were doing this all the time. 
   I remember a radio discussion about the Nativity between A. N. Wilson and a bishop. Wilson asked, "Look here, bishop: do you believe these things actually happened?" The bishop started talking about allegory and metaphor, but Wilson cut him short, saying, "Then you don't!" To my mind, Wilson had easily won this exchange, yet the studio audience gave much greater applause to the bishop! 

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

A Happy Christmas to all!


Mary with the infant Jesus and John the Baptist, by Raphael. The iconography on pictures like this is always standard. Mary, as ever, wears a red dress and a bue cloak. John the Baptist always carries a cross with a very long shaft and short cross-piece. As an adult, he would have dishevelled hair and beard, and would wear a tunic of animal-skin. If Jesus is on the picture, John will point at him; otherwise he will point heavenwards.

Monday, 11 December 2017

Grinshill under snow

We've had hardly any snow here in north Shropshire for many years, but this changed dramatically at the weekend. We climbed to the top of Grinshill and were rewarded with these views, looking towards the Wrekin, Shrewsbury and the road to Wales.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Tolkien's Last Story

When  "The Lord of the Rings" was finally published in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien was already sixty-three years old. With the help of enthusiastic endorsements from the likes of C.S. Lewis and W.H. Auden, the enormous work was an immediate success, and really took off when Ace Books put out an unauthorised paperback edition in the U.S.A. in 1965. Tolkien, who had always been worried about money, unexpectedly found himself a rich man, and was able to retire from his Oxford professorship in 1959.
    His publishers, Allen and Unwin, were naturally eager for more books from him; partcularly the "Simarillion", which recounted the earlier history of Middle Earth, which Tolkien had been working on spasmodically ever since the First World War; but this was to prove elusive. Tolkien had always been a productive but disorganised writer: he would begin a story or a long poem only to become dissatisfied with it and start again, perhaps several times. His papers therefore included many different drafts of the same story, often with the names of the characters changed. Two of the central stories in the "Silmarillion" cycle, "The Lay of the Children of Hurin" and "The Lay of Leithian" (about Beren and Luthien) were even recast as poems; the first in Saxon-style alliterative verse, the second as rhymed couplets, and neither had been completed! One suspects that "The Lord of the Rings" would have fared no better without the encouragement of C. S. Lewis and the other Inklings: certainly early drafts of the book are very different from what eventually emerged. 
   Reducing the mass of "Silmarillion" drafts into a single coherent story would clearly take a great deal of work, and for the moment his publishers had to be content with two minor works: "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil" (1962), an anthology of poems, and "Tree and Leaf" (1964), a combination of the text of a lecture on fairy stories, and a short story, "Leaf by Niggle". Most of the material in these had originally been written much earlier.
   Meanwhile Tolkien was subject to all manner of distractions. He began to receive enormous quantities of letters from fans, and for a while tried to reply to them all, often at considerable length. He worked on his translation of the great mediaeval poem, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", which was only published after his death. He was badly shaken by the death of C. S. Lewis in 1963, and increasingly worried by the deteriorating health of his wife, Edith. They celebrated their Golden Wedding in 1966, in an occasion made memorable by the performance of "The Road Goes Ever On", a setting to music of Tolkien's poems, with the composer Donald Swann at the piano. Then in 1968 they left Oxford and retired to Bournemouth, where Tolkien felt increasingly lonely and cut off from his intellectual roots. He commented, "Find it impossible to work - beginning to feel old and the fire dying down". Edith died in 1971.

Unexpectedly in early 1965 he was asked by an American publisher to write a preface to a reissue of a story by the late-Victorian fantasy writer George MacDonald. Tolkien did not share Lewis's enthusiasm for MacDonald's writings, but he took up the offer, and began by explaining the notion of Fairy; not as a twee little lady with wings and a diaphonous dress, but as something strange and powerful, which may perhaps be glimpsed in a tale. To illustrate the point, he would tell the following story.... The story grew until it became "Smith of Wootton Major", the last story he ever wrote, which was published in 1967. The preface to George MacDonald's book was never completed.

"Smith of Wootton Major" is a very short book. Even with the full-page illustrations it runs to just over 60 pages. The setting, as with Tolkien's earlier work, "Farmer Giles of Ham", is a vaguely-defined mediaeval England. The gist of the story is how the central figure, who is never given any name other than Smith, was as a boy given a token, a star, which enables him to visit the land of Faery (Tolkien's preferred spelling). He travels there many times, and sees a variety of strange, wonderful and sometimes terrifying things, most of which he fails to understand. Eventually after almost fifty years he is obliged to give up the star so it can be passed on, and has to settle down to a mundane life as the village blacksmith.
   Tolkien always maintained that he disliked allegory in stories, but he acknowledged an allegorical element here, with religious obsevation in Wootton Major being reduced to just regular feasting. It is also clearly an autobiographical tale, by an old man who knows his creative powers are waning (Smith can no longer visit Faery once he has given back the star). It also illustrates Tolkien's fundamentally pessimistic attitude towards the modern world: the only other significant character in the story is Noakes, the village cook, who is vain, greedy, ignorant and refuses to believe in Faery at all.

After Edith's death, Tolkien retuned to Oxford, but was unable to make much progress in sorting out the "Silmarillion". He died in 1973, and it was left to his son, Christopher, to publish his own selection of the "Silmarillion" stories in 1977. 


Thursday, 23 November 2017

The unification of Italy, part 1.

Image result for Italy-1815
In the post-Napoleonic settlement, Italy continued to be divided in a mosaic of petty states. The kingdom of Naples and Sicily (known as the “Two Sicilies”) was restored in the south, as was Papal rule in Emilia and Romagna. In the north, the ancient republics of Genoa and Venice were simply abolished; Genoa being given to the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia and Venice to the Austrian Empire. North of the Papal States lay a collection of petty kingdoms and duchies: Tuscany, Parma and the like. In actual fact, almost all of Italy was dominated by the Austrians, who ruled Venice and Milan directly and dominated most of the smaller states through relatives or dependents on the Habsburg imperial family. Only Piedmont in the north-west, with its capital at Turin, could claim to be fully independent.
In 1848 most of the cities of Italy were convulsed by revolution. The Austrians were driven from Milan and Venice and the Pope Pius IX, who had initially appeared to be a liberal, fled from Rome. King Charles Albert of Piedmont tried to seize the initiative by declaring war on Austria. But everywhere the revolutions failed. The Austrian army reoccupied the lost cities, and the unfortunate Charles Albert, defeated, abdicated the throne. In the south, King Ferdinand II shelled Palermo into submission (a feat that earned him the nickname of “King Bomba”), and then dismissed and imprisoned the liberal ministers whom he had only recently appointed. Gladstone, on a visit to Naples, memorably denounced his conduct as “A negation of God erected into a system of government”. Meanwhile a French army of 30,000 men, supported by Austrian and Neapolitan troops, was sent to restore Rome to the dubious benefits of Papal rule. Leading the defence of the city was Garibaldi.
Guiseppe Garibaldi was born in Nice (then part of Sardinia-Savoy) in 1807. He had qualified as a naval captain, but in 1834 had been sentenced to death in absentia for his part in a nationalist insurrection and had fled to South America. There he had learned to be a brilliant guerrilla commander in the civil wars in Uruguay before returning to Italy. It was in South America that he first dressed his followers in the famous red shirts, obtained from a company that supplied slaughterhouses. In 1849 he won the admiration of liberals throughout Europe for his defence on the Roman Republic against overwhelming force, before being obliged to withdraw in July. For months he evaded the Austrian forces before escaping overseas, though those of his followers who were captured by the Austrians were shot, and his beloved wife Anita died in the marshes near Ravenna. Garibaldi never forgave the Austrians. For the next few years Garibaldi was treated as a hero in Britain and the U.S.A., but the dream of Italian unity was still no more than a dream in the minds of idealistic republicans. Then in 1859 a new opportunity in Italy presented itself.

We shall probably never know why the French Emperor, Napoleon III, decided to sign a treaty committing himself to war with Austria, on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel II of Piedmont and his brilliant, Machiavellian Prime Minister, Count Cavour. Quite probably the Emperor was psychologically a prisoner of the name he had inherited from his famous uncle.  After the French monarchy was overthrown in the revolution of 1848 he had been elected President of the Republic for no visible reason other than his name, and then a few years later had staged a coup and proclaimed himself Emperor.  But ten years after his election, he had failed to do anything “Napoleonic”, unless joining with Britain in the Crimean War is deemed to count. So why not intervene in Italy? This was where his great uncle had first made his name, fighting and defeating the Austrians back in the 1790s. In his younger days Louis Napoleon had been associated with republican Italian societies like the Carbonari, but so far his only intervention there had been to send a French army to reclaim Rome for the Papacy in 1849. Then in 1858 he was lucky to survive a bomb thrown in the street by an Italian extremist named Orsini. But despite this he met secretly with Cavour at Plombieres that summer, and, without the French foreign minister being informed, they plotted for war in Italy. Some means would be found of provoking a war between Austria and Piedmont, following which 200,000 French troops would intervene to drive the Austrians from Milan and Venice. This secret treaty was made to resemble some deal from an earlier century by the additional provisos that Savoy and Nice would be handed over to France, and King Victor Emmanuel’s 16-year-old daughter Clotilde would be given in marriage to Napoleon’s cousin, who was 19 years her senior and rejoiced in the strange nickname of “Plon-plon”. (The unfortunate Clotilde was labelled by cynics “The first casualty of the war”. The marriage was not a great success)
   Yet no sooner had Cavour begun to engineer a confrontation with Austria than the Emperor got cold feet and tried to renege on his promises by suggesting that the dispute should be solved by international arbitration. Cavour was in despair, but the situation was saved by the Austrians, who not only insisted on punishing the Piedmontese but then moved their troops so slowly that they had failed to crush them before the French armies had crossed the Alps. The Emperor accompanied his armies as nominal commander-in-chief, but once more revealed his un-Napoleonic side by looking on appalled by the slaughter and the suffering of the wounded as the Austrians were defeated in the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino in June 1859. Garibaldi meanwhile led a guerrilla campaign along the Alpine foothills that successfully outflanked the Austrians, driving them from Brescia and Bergamo. The superstitious peasant soldiers of the Austrian army feared him greatly.
  But Louis Napoleon, much shaken by his experience of battle, now signed a separate treaty with the Austrians at Villafranca. King Victor Emmanuel gained Milan for Piedmont, but the Austrians were left in possession of Venice. Many Italian nationalists regarded this as outright betrayal. On the other hand, it is clear that neither Cavour nor Napoleon was thinking in terms of Italian unification: the Catholic Church in France would never have accepted any loss of the Pope’s temporal power; the Russians and Prussians were deeply hostile to what had happened, and even Queen Victoria was alarmed at what looked like a major extension of French power’

   Under the terms of the Plombieres agreement, a plebiscite was now held in Nice, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody it was announced that there had been a large majority in favour of a transfer to French rule. Garibaldi was furious at the handing over of his native city and he had not forgiven the French for crushing the Roman Republic a decade earlier. He seriously contemplated a war against the French to recover Nice, but was persuaded by his friends to look elsewhere. Next year an opportunity presented itself.

(To be continued)

Thursday, 16 November 2017

For My Grandfather: Respectable and Not-Respectable

Something which tends to be ignored or overlooked in modern socio-political discussion is the profound division in late-Victorian times between the respectable and not-respectable working classes. The respectable working classes (which meant primarily, though not exclusively, the skilled workers), clung obsessively to their status, and were always painfully aware that they could so easily slip from it. Districts of cities, and even individual streets, would be dismissed as definitely not-respectable. My grandparents lived in Keighley, in Yorkshire, in a part of the town that was respectable working-class, but if I dressed scruffily my grandmother would say I looked like "A top-o'-town kid"; that being where the poor Irish lived. Certain types of behaviour from children would lead to a family's respectable status being called into question; such things as spitting, swearing or, far worse, getting in trouble with the law or giving birth to illegitimate children being definitely low-class. Boys from respectable backgrounds read books and worked hard at school instead of playing games in the street, and joined the Scouts or the Boys' Brigade; but joining the army was definitely not for the respectable; army pay being too low to attract anyone except unskilled workers, farm labourers from the countryside, and of course the Irish. The respectable working classes attended church or chapel on Sundays, dressed in their best clothes for the occasion. Getting drunk in public was irredeemably not-respectable; and the skilled workers were the backbone of the Temperance or Prohibition movements. It was difficult for children from the not-respectable classes to break free from the stigma, though schools tried hard (often by means of brutal punishments) to outlaw non-respectable behaviour. But for a youth to be taken on to be trained for a skilled craft, he had to be "spoken for" by a family member or friend, and those from non-respectable families simply did not have these contacts.  
   Karl Marx famously dismissed the unrespectable working classes as the "Lumpenproletariat", useless from a revolutionary viewpoint because they had no economic muscle and could not be educated in socialist ideas. It was to the skilled working classes that he looked; and indeed until very late in the 19th century only the skilled workers were formed into Trades Unions. One of the great political shifts in British history occurred in the twenty years before the First World War, as the Trades Unions were taken over by socialists and the working classes transferred their allegiance from the Liberals to the new Labour Party.

(The finest book on the question of working-class respectability is Robert Roberts's autobiography, "The Classic Slum", about his upbringing in Salford before the First World War. Kellow Chesney's "The Victorian Underworld" is a splendid read, and Arthur Morrison's novel "A Child of the Jago" shows the obstacles facing a boy brought up in a semi-criminal slum)


My grandfather and grandmother came from the respectable working class. I wrote this poem in my granfather's memory:- 

I never knew him
he died when I was five
but I have his watch and chain,
silver, made by a local firm 
in Keighley, where he lived his entire life,
"Presented to Thomas Midgley
on his 21st birthday
Oct. 25th 1903"

He was, I'm told
a man of the highest moral standards;
he disapproved of pubs
and scruffy dress;
he played the piccolo in the town orchestra,
he had a windup gramophone
and some good books
(Dickens, Walter Scott, Dumas),
he was an early member of the
Independent Labour Party,
he knew Philip Snowden,
the first-ever Labour Chancellor,
and he read the "Daily Herald"
the Trades Union paper 
(now defunct)

His wife, my grandmother, was
a mill-worker, very houseproud,
and a vegetarian (unusual in those days).
Before getting married they
saved up for years
in order to buy good furniture.

He would have described himself as
proud to be
working-class, Yorkshire, 
and respectable.
Do people like him exist today?

I found a recent picture of his house
(terraced, outside loo, near the railway)
It looked sadly run-down.

The watch runs erratically.
Nowadays it would be valued
solely by its bullion content.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Royal Cousins at War

In the decades before the First World War, the monarchs of Europe were all closely related to each other, but this did not necessarily mean they held each other in high esteem: often quite the opposite.    King Edward VII of England always had a low opinion of his nephew, the Kaiser William II of Germany. After enduring his presence at Cowes Week for the yachting, he dismissed him as "Nothing but a nuisance", lacking "the feelings of a gentleman". He also commented, "Trust him? Never! He is false, utterly false!" The Kaiser's opinion of Edward was no more polite: "You can never believe what a Satan he is", William complained, after Edward worked hard to improve relations with France: "He's utterly a Satan!" When Edward died in 1910, William attended the state funeral, but commented, "No-one will miss him except the French and the Jews". 
   Russian opinions of the Kaiser were little better. Tsar Alexander III referred to him as "A rascally young fop", Nicholas II said, "He was never sincere, never for a moment", and the Tsarina Alexandra neatly summed him up thus: "He thinks himself a superman, but is little more than a clown". 
   Edward VII had a low opinion of the abilities of Nicholas, who was the nephew of his wife. He assessed the Tsar as being, "Weak as water, deplorably unsophisticated, immature and reactionary".
   Kaiser William attempted to overwhelm Nicholas with his bumptious personality; but never really grasped that foreign affairs were no longer determined by monarchs acting as individuals. On the occasion of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, William urged Nicholas to "Defend Europe from the great Yellow Peril!", and attributed his own political problems to "Socialists in the Reichstag, egged on by the Jews; fit to be hanged!" When the two met at Bjorko in July 1905, they signed a Russo-German military alliance, in clear contradiction to both their countries' existing treaties, only to find it promptly rejected by their respective ministries!
   Tsar Nicholas dismissed the British as "Yids" (by which one presumes he meant that they behaved like Jews; Nicholas being strongly antisemitic), but he was on friendly personal terms with his cousin, George V. They closely resembled each other physically; their mothers being sisters. (George is on the right here)    
Image result for Nicholas-II-and-George-V
However, this amity did not prevent George from vetoing the suggestion that Nicholas and his family should be given refuge in Britain after the Russian revolution; a veto that was to have tragic consequences.
   The Kaiser grossly overestimated George's political influence. After he had received a friendly letter from George V as the crisis of 1914 escalated, William apparently believed the King of England would intervene to stop the outbreak of war between their countries; and when Britain did declare war on Germany in August, he blamed the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey: "The dirty bastard! He's made his own King a liar!"
   Neither William II, Nicholas II or George V was particularly intelligent, and none was a suitable leader for a major country in the 20th century. But whereas William attempted to dominate events in Europe, and Nicholas was dedicated to maintaining the Tsarist autocracy (and in consequence both overacted their chosen roles), George knew perfectly well that he was only a figurehead for a Parliamentary government, and throughout the many crises of his reign always behaved with the strictest constitutional propriety. In consequence he was the only one of the three to keep his throne.  

Friday, 27 October 2017

The Shard

Last week we were invited to the birthday reception of an old friend on top of the Shard building. 

Image result for The Shard

The weather was clear and bright, and there were marvellous views over the Thames and the East End of London! (These are from postcards)

I volunteered for the "virtual reality" experience of tobogganing down the outside of the Shard. I first had to sign numerous forms, guaranteeing that I wouldn't sue them if I suffered a heart attack. I then donned the headset and was strapped into a kind of cradle, which twisted and swayed to make the trip more realistic, and off I went. It was indeed very thrilling, and to avoid outright panic I had to keep telling myself that it wasn't really happening. My friends told me that I uttered sundry loud noises and exclamations. I would recommend this experience to everyone! 

   One word of warning, though: entering the Shard is just like going through an airport: you have to hand over bags, empty pockets and take off belts to walk through a screener, have your shoes examined, etc. I wonder how many intended terrorists have been caught so far?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Yugoslav Holocaust, 1941

It is not generally known that the first deliberate massacre of Jews and other civilians in the Second World War actually took place in Yugoslavia; before the building of the death-camps in Poland; before even the Einsatzgruppen began their campaign of mass killings in Russia. Furthermore, the Yugoslav holocaust was apparently spontaneous, and started without any definite instructions from the Nazi occupation forces. This essay describes how it came about

In December 1940 the Nazi leadership discussed the war plans for the coming year. Goering, Goebbels and Ribbentrop wanted a renewed anti-British campaign, centred on the Mediterranean, but Hitler ignored them and set in train the planning for “Operation Barbarossa”, the invasion of the Soviet Union; the greatest military campaign the world had ever seen. However, events in the Balkans were to prove an unwonted distraction.
   Over the winter of 1940-41, Hungary, Romania and then Bulgaria joined the Tripartite Pact of Germany, Italy and Japan. Parallel with this, Mussolini, jealous as ever of Hitler grabbing all the headlines, quite unnecessarily declared war on Greece, and launched an invasion which, as with all his military interventions, proved entirely unsuccessful. Hitler was obliged to intervene to save his ally from humiliation.
   Yugoslavia was simmering with violent tension. The country had only been created from the ruins of the Austrian Empire at the end of the First World War (see my earlier blog essay), and hostility between Croats, Serbs and other racial groups ran deep. The leader of the Croat People’s Peasant Party had been murdered in the Parliament building in Belgrade in 1928, and King Alexander, of the Serbian royal family, was assassinated by the Croat Ustase faction on a visit to Marseilles in October 1934. Alexander left as his successor an eleven-year-old boy, Peter II, with a cousin, Prince Paul, to act as Regent.
   In the late 1930s Yugoslavia became increasingly economically dependent on Germany, and Paul’s government was inclined to follow other Balkan states into the Nazi camp, signing the Tripartite Pact on March 25th 1941. But just two days later a group of military officers staged a coup, deposing Paul and proclaiming Peter to be of age to rule. The clear implication was that the new regime would be less friendly towards the Nazis. The Soviet Union responded by sending Belgrade a goodwill message. Faced with this crisis, Hitler struck immediately, launching massive attacks on Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6th. Croatia immediately proclaimed its independence from Belgrade, and Yugoslavia surrendered before the end of the month. Greece, despite being reinforced by British troops from Egypt, did not last much longer.
 Greece was placed under Italian control, but Yugoslavia was partitioned, with Croatia and Bosnia formed into a puppet state run by the pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic Croat Ustase movement under Pavelic, and Italy was compensated with Montenegro, part of Slovenia and the Dalmatian coast.

If the Nazi victories in the West did not have immediately disastrous consequences for the local Jews, the same cannot be said in the Balkans. There was no immediate action against the 75,000 Greek Jews left under Italian control; the holocaust there being only initiated by the Germans after the fall of Mussolini and surrender of Italy in 1943; but in Yugoslavia, where there were 70,000 Jews, terrible things began to happen immediately after the German conquest. Unlike the situation in other occupied countries, violence and murder by Nazi troops and S.S. was enthusiastically supported and extended by local anti-Semitic groups. Within a matter of days, the Croat government had passed a whole raft of laws very much on Nazi lines, banning interracial marriage, imposing badges of race and excluding Jews from official positions and from economic life. A concentration camp was established at Dancia, near Zagreb, and another at Kruscia, west of Sarajevo, in May 1941, and the roundup of Jews began. Jasenovac camp, opened a few months later on the banks of the Sava, became known as “the Auschwitz of Croatia”; a centre of torture and murder from which echoed the screams and groans of victims. But even the German occupying forces were shocked by the violence of the Ustase militias. Their regime was a curious mixture of Catholic puritanism and mass slaughter. The German plenipotentiary in Zagreb, Edmund Glaise von Horstenau, reported that they had gone raving mad. Men, women and children alike were gunned down in mass graves, hacked to pieces, thrown off cliffs, or burned alive in their villages. The Narentva and Sava rivers became choked with bodies, and local peasants had to be employed to pull them out in order to prevent flooding. Meanwhile the Germans watched the “blind, bloody fury” going on around them. It was, Glaise thought, the worst revolutionary violence he had seen since 1918. There is no reason to believe that the S.S. specifically planned these massacres, but they could hardly disapprove of them, and they certainly served the extremists’ purpose. Heydrich therefore instructed local Einsatzgruppen leaders to encourage such violence, provided it could not specifically be traced to the Germans. It seems in any case that the Ustase scarcely needed encouragement.
     By the end of 1941, the Jews of Bosnia were virtually all murdered or had fled; and the Banat region, north-east of the Danube and Tisa rivers, was officially declared Jew-free in October: most of its three thousand Jews having been shot in the Tasmajdan camp near Belgrade. In some respects, antisemitism was almost peripheral to the actions of the Ustase: some 25,000 Jews were massacred in Croat territory, but so were about as many gypsies, and perhaps as many as 400,000 Serbs. One feels sure that there would have been massacres even if not a single Jew had lived in Croat territory, and the hatreds created remain all too obvious decades later, when the Yugoslav state disintegrated in the 1990s.  But of the local Jews, only 7,000 remained to be taken to the death camps in Poland after 1942.
     Croatia thus provides the first instance of organised genocide in modern Europe, anticipating Nazi actions by several months. It is even possible that the Nazis learned something from Ustase actions, or were encouraged by them. The Nazis would also have observed the ambivalent stance of the church in this strongly Catholic state. Some church dignitaries deplored the massacres, but many local priests seem to have been enthusiastic participants. Archbishop Stepinac contrived to remain silent on the massacres, though he was able to comment approvingly on the new Croat state’s strong stance on abortion and contraception. This silence of the church was also to have later parallels.

     Serbia was placed under direct German military rule. Its leading functionary was Harald Turner, a civil servant who had risen under the patronage of Goering, and was unusual in the S.S. leadership in that he was not a full-blooded German; his father being English. Turner had plans to set up a collaborationist movement amongst the Serbs, which did not win the approval of Heydrich in Berlin; and like many Nazi functionaries, he was always looking over his shoulder at Meyszner, the S.S. and Higher Police Leader for Serbia, and at Fuchs the local Einsatzgruppe chief, and needed to prove that he could be every bit as brutal as them. He thoroughly approved of the elimination of the Serbian Jews. Violent attacks began immediately, concentration camps were established, and Turner unsuccessfully applied to have all the Serbian Jews deported to Poland.
     By summer 1941, serious partisan activity had broken out in Yugoslavia, and massive reprisals were ordered, involving the shooting of a hundred local hostages for every German killed. Turner found this a golden opportunity to rid himself of local Jews. He reported in mid-October that he had ordered the shooting of two thousand Jews and two hundred gypsies in retaliation for partisan violence: he acknowledged that he should really have had only Serbs shot (some of his victims had been Jewish refugees from Austria, who had no links whatsoever with the partisans), but added that “the Jewish question solves itself most easily this way ...... and besides, they have to disappear”. After a meeting with officials of the S.S. and the German foreign office, Turner was authorised to go ahead with the extermination of all Jews and gypsies in Serbia, and a gas van was sent to the camp at Semlin to assist with the task. By summer 1942, the Jewish problem was said to have been “totally solved in Serbia”.

     Not all the Yugoslav Jews went quietly to their deaths. At least two thousand joined Tito’s partisans. Many more fled to the Italian-controlled areas, where they were treated with tolerance, to the disgust of German observers. These Jews, and their compatriots in Greece, survived until the Holocaust reached its final stages.
   It is said that between 1941 and 1945 there were at least half a dozen different wars going on in Yugoslavia, of which the least significant was the struggle against the Germans. Hatreds were created that resurfaced in our own times, once the iron hand of Tito had been removed.

Footnote: The name “Ustase” can be found spelt in a variety of different ways.

(Sources:- Friedlander, "Nazi Germany and the Jews", and many other books)

Friday, 29 September 2017

A.E. Housman and Heroin!

Did you know that the poet A.E. Housman,best known for his "Shropshire Lad" cycle of poems, once took heroin?
   When he was in hospital with serious heart trouble over Christmas 1935, it was given to him as a soporific; which shows how very different medical procedures were eighty years ago! From this experience of the drug, Housman made the interesting comment, "I learnt what it is to be totally deprived of intellect".
   As far as is known, he felt no inclination to renew the experience, and he died the following spring.

(Source: Peter Parker: "Housman Country")

Monday, 18 September 2017

Wales: Gorse and Heather

Last week we went for a walk in the hills to the west of Conwy. The sky was clear and the colours of the gorse and heather were magnificent.

This is the view looking eastwards, with the Conwy river and the castle on the near bank; and the village of Deganwy on the far side.

Looking northeast, we find the Great Orme as a peninsula, with the seaside resort of Llandudno nestling below it.

The view to the north shows the village of Dwygyfylchi (if you're not a Welsh-speaker, don't try to pronounce this!), and in the distance a corner of the island of Anglesey, with Penmon Point and Puffin Island.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Report on Resistentialism, by Paul Jennings

Resistentialism is the name given to a school of philosophy which postulates that inanimate objects hate us, and strive to make life difficult for us at every opportunity: a theory invented by the humorous writer Paul Jennings in the early 1960s. Without doubt, all of us have been struck by this thought at times, but Jennings's inventive genius amplifies it with a mass of baroque detail.
   He begins by tracing the origins of the Resistentialist theory to such figures as a 19th century philosopher named Martin Friedegg, who first coined the word and developed the concept of "Thing-hatred" - but "In the confused terminology of this tortured German mystic we are never sure whether it is the Things who hate us, or we who hate the Things". He also refers to the "Clark-Trimble experiments", in which pieces of toast and marmalade were dropped on a series of carpets, ranging from coarse matting to priceless antique Chinese silk, and it was found that the proportion of pieces landing marmalade-side-downwards varied precisely with the value of the carpet - "except when a carpet was screened from the rest, in which case the toast didn't know that Clark-Trimble had other and better carpets".
   The central figure in Jennings's account is, however, a French intellectual called Pierre-Marie Ventre, who coined the phrase, "Les choses sont contre nous": "Things are against us". His gloomy philosophy sees man as a "neant", literally a "nothing", in futile opposition to the "derniere chose", the ultimate Thing, which is the hostile universe. Ventre thus breaks with "all previous thinkers, from the Eleatics to Marx, who have allowed at least some legitimacy to human thought and action". Ventre has written a play, "Puits Clos", about three old men who live at the bottom of a well, where there are also some bricks; "These symbolise Things, and all the old men hate the bricks as much as they hate each other. The play is full of their pitiful attempts to throw the bricks out of the top of the well, but they can of course never throw high enough, and the bricks always fall back on them".
   The "Theatre Jambon" (!) on Paris's Left Bank has now, we are told, staged a new Resistentialist drama by Blanco del Huevo, in which the two main characters are a piano and a medicine cabinet, which always contrive to frustrate the lives of their human owners, who are reduced to the status of mere "Pousses": literally "pushed-arounds". The machinations of the Things lead to both humans perishing miserably.
   Other followers of Ventre have attempted to reduce or eliminate the impact of Things in their fields. A Resistentialist composer produces a symphony for solo timpanum and thirty conductors, and an artist sits before a blank canvas meditating on natural disasters, such as earthquakes, and sometimes then finds his canvas has been covered with paint. Ventre, however, regards this as a dangerous compromise, since Things should ideally be eliminated altogether, including the canvas and paint.
   Recently, we are told, a heretic has emerged within the Resistentialist group in the form of a dramatist called Qwertyuiop. His plays feature a Nietzschean hero called a "geant", who intervenes, "often with great comic effect", to save humans from suffering disaster at the hands of Things. The hard-line Ventrists have reacted by violently interrupting performances of his plays at the "Theatre des Somnabules", and there have been scuffles and subsequent arrests all over the Left Bank.
   It all goes to show, Jennings concludes, that "Paris still maintains her position as the world's intellectual centre". 

Saturday, 26 August 2017

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 youve just done. So what is your name? Tristan? Oh, SIR Tristan! I do apologise: no offence intended. And my name? Well, men once called me Chrysophylax: Chrysophylax the Golden, whose wings beshadowed the sun. Rather poetic, dont you think? If a touch overblown. My real name, of course, I couldnt possibly pronounce in your language, so I wont even try. And while were on the subject, Sir Tristram: that sword youre 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 have ancient lineage, made by the dwarves or whatever, or were even said to be magical. Absolute tosh, of course; but still quite romantic. Ah well; times change.
   "Now, if we want to do this properly, you should challenge me to fight. Denounce me as a thief and murderer, and tell me youre going to kill me and take away my ill-gotten gains. But I must point out that, although the accusation is by and large true, I havent actually done any plundering and slaughtering for a great many years. It was all a very long time ago; and in any event, I dont see why it gives you any right to take my treasure for yourself. Or you could be more up-to-date, and talk about the serious deflationary effects of keeping all this gold locked away out of circulation, and how international liquidity would be greatly improved by releasing it onto world markets .. What? Youve never even heard of economics, or monetary theory? No, clearly not. Forget about it; its my fault. I just presumed things out there must be more advanced than they actually are. Heigh-ho.
   "Moving on from there: may I ask, Sir Tristan, why you decided to come? Because dragon-fighting is a game for young warriors, or at least it was. Teenage heroes: many of whom, frankly, were just kids with more guts than sense. Dont say theyre letting the oldies in on it nowadays: that would NOT be a great idea! Im no expert in humans, I admit; but its obvious youre not exactly in the first flush of youth. Take the way you swung that sword at me when you came in; quite an effort, wasnt it? I can tell youre not as fast as you once were. Shoulders getting stiff, are they? Bit of the old back trouble? Knees start to hurt if you stay en garde too long? And maybe the mailcoat feels rather tight around the waist, but getting a bigger one would be too much of an admission? So what made 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 perhaps a bit of both? Thats my suspicion anyway.Now dont get offended; I quite understand; because Im getting old too. Im not sure quite how old, but it must be hundreds of your years, if not thousands. But the notion that dragons are immortal is mythical. We age, just like everyone else, though it takes much longer. Look at me: I havent been outside this cave for I dont know how long. Im amazed anyone even remembered I was here. And these wings, which once beshadowed the sun; I dont know whether theyd fly at all now. Not so much golden as rusty these days! Hah!
   "So there you have it: were both of us past our best, arent we? All washed up. Headed for the scrap-heap. Here we both are, together in my lair under the hill, but at the same time were over the hill! Thats a nice ironic little paradox for you, isnt it?
   "Im not going to fight you, Sir Tristan. Maybe Id beat you, maybe youd beat me; but either way, itd be an embarrassment. Two old cronks bashing away at each other till they both run out of breath or one of them drops dead with a heart attack! Not good! So Ive got a better suggestion for you.This treasure, now. It took a lot of looting, burning and general rapine to accumulate it all, and I wont pretend I didnt enjoy doing it: in fact it was tremendously enjoyable. But, as I told you, that was all over long ago, and nowadays I dont seem to do anything except lie here and count it. And I can tell you for a fact, hunting down and collecting something is much more fun than spending years just owning it: its not the same thing at all. Sometimes I do wonder why I bother to keep it all, and do you know, I really cant think of an answer? When you look back on life, you realise that you set yourself various goals, and some of them you achieved, only perhaps they werent quite as exciting as you expected, and the rest you realise youll never achieve now. So what Im proposing to you is this: instead of fighting for my gold, why dont you just take as much of it as you can carry, and go home? You can tell people youve killed me, for all I care. Theyll probably believe you, and I doubt very much whether anyone will actually come up here to check. If you want, you could make the story more exciting by saying I put a dying curse on the treasure, or something like that. And who knows, when youre really old, you might come to believe yourself that you once actually killed a dragon. And if everyone, including you, believes it happened, then its just as good as if it really did, isnt it?
   "So go ahead; take what you want: I won't stop you".


Some time later, the dragon awoke from a doze and thought to himself, Really, that all got pretty tedious, didnt it? I sometimes wonder what the worlds coming to, when I 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 dont get more patient and tolerant, but less! But then he thought, No, its not fair to blame poor old Tristan; its not really his fault he was so ignorant: its just that no-one ever bothered to teach him anything.
   In any case, he may have been a bit over the hill, but he still tasted quite nice!