Monthly Archives: July 2018

The icing on the cake

There a letter in today’s Guardian:

During the period of post-War rationing (so I was around the age when I’m not supposed to remember such things), my mother finally fulfilled her ambition to make a christmas cake.

This had taken some ingenuity, rounding up the ingredients from various family members — and presumably some would have been substantial vintage. Oddly enough, in those days there were very few ‘best before’ dates.

My Dear Old Dad had somehow sourced icing sugar: my guess would be some dodgy boozer in the East End of London. Since he was then a copper of Thames Division’s river police, he would have been ‘on the spot’. None too many questions asked, alas.

The cake was made and iced. Applause all round.

Only then did the whole project hit the wall.

That icing sugar was, it seemed, bulked up with plaster-of-Paris. The whole cake was impenetrable.

Hence my memory of Dad on hands-and-knees hacking at the cake with a cold chisel and hammer.

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We went to Zermatt …

Amazed they went to the trouble of building a mountain to mimic the chocky bar …

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Continuing from a previous:


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Those intertwined snakes appear across millennia, cultures and continents. New Agers assure us they represent the duality and unity, the yin and yang of polar opposites. Also known as Manichæism.

And then an image like this one pops up:


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Timing …

Kudos to Amazon.

As that previous relates,  Leanda de Lisle’s review of Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain prompted me to made an order. That was late on Saturday.

Before lunch on Sunday, today, Amazon had delivered. With six quid off the cover price, and free postage. That’s why I visit my local Waterstones, browse and buy the 2-for-1½ paperbacks on offer, and despite guilt, go for on-line stuff. There used to be a large Borders bookstores, one on the opposite side of the Norf Bleedin’ Circ’lar to Brent Cross, another in Islington. They went some long time ago.

There’s a large new show-room going up on the trading estate, north from here. The Lady-in-my-Life drove me past this morning, and we wondered what it would contain. So many of the outlets are closing: Maplins stands vacant none too far away. The trading estate is a line of car-showrooms. One recent addition is a sofa emporium. Beds, cars, sofas, builders merchants seem about the only growth area.

So, I have my copy, and it’s a ‘1st edition, first impression’, and it gives me a decent excuse to settle down, sprawl against a muggy afternoon, and read.


It’s no bad thing for an author to play with the reader — there are few, if any, thinking writers who don’t enjoy the sport. It is, after all, a two-way relationship.

What I see here is Akkerman indulging in taunts.

As early as pages xxi/xxii (so we’re still in the Introduction) she throws us a curve-ball on dates. The period she deals with (mid-17th century) had both Julian and Gregorian calendars in use (it was mainly a denominational thing), and we have to be prepared for that:

Both calendars were in use in the Dutch Republic, for instance, the location of not one but two alternative Stuart courts on the continent: those of Elizabeth Stuart, sometime Queen of Bohemia, and her niece who married William I in 1641, Mary Stuart. […] Most Royalist refugees, from diplomat to spy, also adapted to their surroundings: they used the Julian calendar when in England, but the Gregorian when visiting Queen Henrietta Maria’s exiled court in Paris. As explained, an added difficulty when dealing with British correspondents is that the civil year in England began on 25 March, and not on 1 January. So 18 March 1634 and 28 March 1635 were in fact the same day, but one was in London, the other in the Hague.

For that reason, William of Orange’s invasion fleet arrived in England on 5 November 1688, days before he had sailed from from Hellevoetsluis (and that included a feint towards Harwich before doubling back to Devon). Let’s not go into that, nor consider how William of Orange was also Willem Hendrik, William II of Scotland …

The Irish dimension

Leanda de Lisle’s review provoked my interest with what appears to be little more than an aside:

In Ireland captured she intelligencers were transported as slaves to Barbados.

So far I don’t see Akkerman expanding much on that. Here on page 111 I find:

In Ireland male spies were hanged until 1653, but sentences for women were ‘increasingly commuted from death to transportation to Barbados’. 

The quotation is footnoted to:

Micheál Ó Siochrú, ‘Military Intelligence in Ireland during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms’, Historical Studies, ‘Special Issue: Intelligence, Statecraft and International Power’, Eunan O’Halpin, Robert Armstrong and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds), 25 (2006): 48-63 at 58, referring to ‘Minutes of Court Martials held at Dublin, 1651/2’, Marsh’s Library, MS Z3.2.17(2).

Which inspired my frustrated obscenity.

Then, at the end of this promising book, I run into the Index proper, followed by ‘Index Occulus’.


It’s the list of code-names under which the agents operated, and which were used to disguise their subjects.

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There are a few redeeming features in the Murdoch press, notably the Saturday and Sunday book reviews.

I would expect it to be the fiction that gets to me. But no.

Take this week.

There are two — even three — reviews that are well-written, and suggest the book that’s the subject of the review might well be worth pursuing.

The third is Gerald DeGroot on JH Elliott (and I hadn’t realised he was still in the saddle) comparing — even forcing the comparison — Scots and Catalans.

DeGroot, predictably, irritates the ‘usual suspects’ by vamping on the sense of nationality. His disrespect for that mistaken obsession

starts with those foundation myths that nationalists love. The Scots trace their monarchy back to Scota, the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh, while the Catalans identify their founder as Tubal, son of Japheth and pal of Hercules who sailed from Jaffa to Catalonia in 2157BC.

When Wilfred the Hairy, who ruled Barcelona in the 9th century, was hurt in battle, the Carolingian Emperor Louis the Pious moistened his hand with blood from the wound and made four vertical stripes on Wilfred’s golden shield in recognition of his bravery. From that came the distinctive Catalan flag of alternating red and gold bands. It’s all fake history, but the people gobble it up. As most historians accept, nations are simply “imagined communities”.

Promising! He gets better:

In 1856 The Times described Scotland as “a country in want of a grievance”. Elliott agrees. He’s quick to condemn the paranoid self-obsession evident in Scotland and Catalonia. “As memories accumulate,” he writes, “they create a mentality of victimhood that goes looking for some fresh grievance to add to the store.” Yet criticising this grievance culture is rather like telling a chronic depressive to cheer up because there’s so much that’s wonderful in the world.

Elliott clearly has trouble understanding popular passion. In one unfortunate paragraph he argues that faith in the Union was reinforced by the shared experience of the Great War — all that volunteering and dying for Blighty. Yet that’s not the way Scots I know think of the war. For Glaswegians, the fact that Field Marshal Douglas Haig was Scottish is less important than the fact that Winston Churchill sent tanks into George Square in January 1919 to suppress rioting strikers. With ordinary people, feeling always trumps fact. At the Waverley Bar in Edinburgh I once listened to a Scot recall the Highland Clearances as if they had occurred the day before. He was drunk, but that’s beside the point.

So that’s where Wodehouse acquired his famous line! Similarly, around 1962, a survivor (?) from the Connaught Rangers, in a pub in Galway, regaled Bob and me with the ‘true’ story of the July 1920 Mutiny and decimation. I think it cost us his next pint.

As I said, there are two better prospects.

Fergus Butler-Gallie rattles through King of the North Wind by Claudia Gold. Anything decent on Henry II is going to grab me, ever since I sat through Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn tearing chunks out of each other. And this review is fun:

Henry, like so many of our greatest monarchs, was never meant to rule. The death of his uncle William in a drunken shipwreck incident (the famed White Ship disaster) in 1120 made his mother, Matilda, the only legitimate heir to Henry I. Matilda’s husband, the Holy Roman Emperor, conveniently died, allowing her to marry Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, a man grand enough to have land and power, but not grand enough to threaten the widowed empress’s status as heir in her own right.

Unfortunately for Matilda, her cousin Stephen of Blois had some retrograde ideas about the right of women to rule and so seized the throne when Henry I died in 1135. The ensuing civil war, the Anarchy, was an age, one chronicler said, “when God and his saints slept”. So, from the age of two, Henry Plantagenet found himself fighting, a theme that would continue throughout his life. Eventually, after years of stalemate, Stephen (whose heir, Eustace, had gone the way of all flesh in 1153) agreed that Henry could succeed him on his death, which occurred after a horrid bout of diarrhoea in 1154.

Doubtless a promising title, but at nearly 10p a page I’ll wait for the discounted paperback, while savouring Butler-Gallie:

The impressively manipulative Eleanor used her impatient, sociopathic children to seek revenge on her brash, adulterous husband. Foolishly, Henry not only failed to keep his own near-constant marital indiscretions under wraps, but also sought to consolidate his personal power across England and France at the expense of the autonomy of his wife and sons, who were supposed to be landowners in their own right.

The Angevin dynasty had a particular penchant for treachery, with alliances being made or broken at the drop of a crown. Their capacity for backstabbing make contemporary political shenanigans look like a Sunday School session — what would our prime minister give for an elaborately staged shipwreck off the French coast?

Best of the lot, Top o’ t’ Hill, as book and review, seems to me to be Leanda de Lisle on Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain by Nadine Akkerman. As I understand, this one is already in a re-print.

Akkerman’s material is juicy, and de Lisle gives us full squishiness:

The real Charles I was no maiden aunt. He liked sex. He had pursued secret assignations with women before he married, his misogynistic father having a strong antipathy to any risk of his son producing royal bastards. When he did marry, he expelled the French priests who advised his wife against having sex on the Catholic church’s many holy days and went on to sire a brood of children that the supposedly macho Henry VIII could only have envied. By 1648, when he was imprisoned at Carisbrooke, Charles had been parted from his wife for four years, and was understandably impatient to “embrace and nip” Jane Whorwood.

Beyond that, of course, is the feminism:

The Roundhead press dismissed “She intelligencers” — the pejorative term they used to describe women agents — as mere gossips. The royalists were more open-minded, but they still warned Charles only to use women for the lowest level work, judging them “vessels too weak for the retention of strong liquor”. Charles ignored all such advice, and as Nadine Akkerman reveals “wove a web of invisible agents around himself”, an entire spy ring of “she intelligencers”.

De Lisle’s review makes much of Jane Whorwood and:

[t]he famous “killing beauty” of the age, Lucy, Countess of Carlisle, who became the model for Dumas’ Milady de Winter in the Three Musketeers, was an expert femme fatale, and one who spied for both sides during the civil wars.

I’ll happily admit Whorwood is new to me, and my acquaintance with Lucy Carlisle only in passing. But a decent offer of a discount may persuade me to spend good money on a copy. But there’s more!

Take Anne, Lady Halkett, who, along with her bigamous husband, helped the future James II to escape imprisonment. She was master of disguise and appears to have known James well, because she organised women’s dress for him in just the right size. “It was of mixed mohair . . . and underneath was a scarlet petticoat”, and she thought the teenage boy “looked very pretty in it”. It was quite a coup to get him out of the country, but when she wrote an account of her actions she felt that she had to justify her work as being carried out only as the dutiful wife she had believed herself to be.

The truth is, some of them at least very much enjoyed the work. Elizabeth, Lady Carey, who used bribes and hard cash to dispose of a key witness in a treason trial, thrived on danger, and a friend observed: “I know how much you prefer that to lazy quiet.” But it was not work they boasted of and we are privileged to be given glimpses of it.

Hold on a mo’ … there may be Careys up in the loftinesses of my family tree. And I want to know more about the ‘local’ connection:

In Ireland captured she intelligencers were transported as slaves to Barbados.

Dammit! Where’s the wallet and the credit card?

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It’s a wise man who knows his own father

I blame Bimpe Archer of Irish News for starting the ball rolling:

“So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Isaiah 55:11 was not the Bible quote chosen by DUP MP Ian Paisley to conclude his statement to the House of Commons yesterday, but it might sum up the hopes he had for it.

It was the speech of his life, the speech that may define not just his future as an MP, but his political legacy, and he put everything he had into it.

The son of one of the most extraordinary orators ever produced by Northern Ireland struck a less strident tone than his fire and brimstone preacher father in his heyday.

With the prospect of a 30-day suspension from the House hanging over him and the possible by-election that could trigger, contrition was the only option open, and contrition he gave.

Sure enough, what Baby Doc did say was far from Isaiah. This — after all — is he who made theatrical gestures indicating he and his DUP colleagues had the government by the wind-pipe, and to hell with the rest of you. But yesterday he went sheepish and compliant. I think it requires something like 7,500 signatures in North Antrim to force a by-election (in which Paisley could stand). In North Antrim in 2017, the Sinn Féin vote alone was 7,878. Get canvassing.lads.

20 April 1653:

Alas! When an ‘honourable member’, like all ‘honourable men’ — Shakespeare’s Antony got that one aright —  makes a ‘personal statement’, it is by convention heard in silence, and there is no follow-up.

Were there to be a response, one might hope the words of the former Member for Cambridge might echo from the rafters:

You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, — go!

I’ve always liked that one. Not — essentially — format original Cromwellian context, but more because it marks the moment when Tory back-benchers broke with Neville Chamberlain in the Norway Debate. Around 8.40pm on 7th May 1040, Leo Amery wound up his powerful dunciation.

He pointed directly at the Government Front Bench:

We are fighting to-day for our life, for our liberty, for our all; we cannot go on being led as we are. I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.

The Drogheda connection

And there I would have end, except an awkward image came across my mind. More of a comparison, really:

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Swiss rocking-and-rolling

Thanks to a well-employed daughter, lately the Lady-in-my-Life and I have been able to shack up occasionally in the city of Basel. Since said daughter is now on her way back to the US of A, we made a quick in-and-out as the removal men were packing up.

We took a three-day pass (in truth, a delayed anniversary present) on Swiss Railways, and put it to good use.

Day One:

Basel through Bern to Zermatt, changing at Visp (have to lurve these Swiss names). That took us through all 35km of the Lötschberg tunnel. One way or another I have this fantasy of Swiss engineers boring holes through the country, in imitation of Emmental cheese.

At Visp it gets exciting, for one changes to the metre-gauge BVZ and rack-and-pinion sections at up to 12.5%.

We arrived at Zermatt in time for a leisured lunch (bottle of wine included) before the Gornergrat — 35 minutes of rack-and-pinion to rise to 3,089 metres. Or to the unreconstructed (like me) that’s 10,135 feet above sea-level. And leaves me breathless — both from the view and the altitude.

We had asked which of the two ascents to do — the complicated Klein Matterhorn (three different gondolas and lifts) takes one even higher, to something like 12,750 feet — but we were told the view from the Gornergrat was the more spectacular. I’m prepared to believe it. And — ooh, look, here comes that train …

Back down again to a wander through Zermatt. It was around now that I realised my three-day rucksack was deficient of spare shirts. So, after general closing time, a swift outing to a souvenir shop: which is how I now possess two discounted tee-shirts, both advertising Zermatt.

Nothing in Zermatt comes cheap — but I rate the Schlosshotel Life & Style, down a side-lane, and near the two railways stations.

Day Two:

The big one: the Glacier Express.

We missed out on the morning operation, which starts in Zermatt and goes all the way to St Moritz. I had worked out that it was possible to do the route on service trains, with several changes. The daughter, though, played a blinder. She discovered the powers that be have decided on an afternoon version, billed as the Sunset Express, arriving at St Moritz at just on 9pm. This starts from Brig, so we headed off on the BVZ regular service for the first stage, but not missing any of the 91 tunnels and 291 bridges on the 180-odd miles. It’s also very new to the schedules, so we shared the panorama car with just one other couple (and they debouched at Cher).

Yes, it is as spectacular as they promise. There’s something divinely decadent about a three-course meal, with white wine, served as the scenery slowly passes.

Day Three:

Back to Basel, the long way.

We’d played with the notion of heading on to Tirano, and taking the Bernina Express posts across to Lugano, then back up to Luzern on the Gotthard Express. A fine notion, but the only timing for the postbus out of Tirano was early afternoon — which seemed very much a waste of a day.

Instead we did service train from St Moritz to Thusis (and a second helping of the Landwasser viaduct), postbus to Bellinzona, then service trains to Erstfeld and Flüelen. This meant slow-and-easy ‘over the top’ rather than through the long Gotthard tunnel. At Flüelen we transferred from train to paddle-steamer Gallia for the full length of Lake Luzern — and another dining experience. We were kicked out of the first-class lounge, but the fodder and service among the lower orders is just as good.

Finally a walk from the port to Luzern’s railway station and the non-stop train back to Basel.


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