Monthly Archives: October 2019

Revenge for Sir Lionel Sackville-West?

Name ring a bell?

Probably not, except for a curious and scandalous Edwardian case of mass illegitimacy, and as the great-uncle of the more horticultural Vita. Look him up.

I remember Sir Lionel from Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. That used to feature as a regular moment in the weekly routine. At least two episodes are indelible in my mind: this one and Cooke’s eyewitness account of Bobby Kennedy’s shooting.

Here’s the key bit with the present connection:

1888, then, the year of a presidential election. The British minister — it was before the days when the United States was thought worthy of having a full-blown ambassador — the British minister was one Sir Lionel Sackville-West. The election campaign, which was a hot one, was between President Cleveland, renominated by the Democrats, and an Indiana lawyer, Benjamin Harrison, nominated by the Republicans.

In those days and for quite a while afterwards, New York state was often decisive in the November election. The Republicans redoubled their efforts to discredit President Cleveland with New York’s Irish voters who’d been shaken four years before by the admission of Cleveland that he had an illegitimate son. They were not, however, quite as shaken then as they were by the Republican candidate’s howling characterisation of the Democratic party as a party of rum, Romanism and rebellion.

Cleveland, in spite of his private lapse, was elected president but he presided over a very negative, lacklustre administration for four years and now, the Republicans, proclaiming that an Irishman’s religion was no impediment at all to his voting as a patriotic, thoughtful citizen, wooed and flattered him.

It might have been a tight election, but an Englishman in California, a naturalised American, wrote in good conscience to Sir Lionel Sackville-West in Washington asking for guidance through the exotic jungle of American politics, which of the two candidates, the Republican Harrison or the Democrat Cleveland, did the minister think a first-time voter ought to choose.

Sir Lionel wrote back, ‘Mr Cleveland is the man’. The Republicans got hold of Sir Lionel’s letter. Not surprising, since they’d put the innocent Englishman up to the original request for guidance. Two weeks before the election, they published the letter far and wide. It was a shocker. The Republicans carried New York State handsomely. Mr Harrison went into the White House. Sir Lionel was recalled.

Ever since, and well into my time, British ambassadors in Washington were well acquainted with this cautionary tale and made a point of being conveniently out of the country — a much-needed rest or pressing private business or whatever — on the verge of a presidential election.

Yet today President Donald J Trump took time out from his other pressing business to exchange smooches with Nigel Farage. Here I have, at some length, to pillage The Guardian:

Donald Trump has intervened in the UK’s nascent election campaign, calling on Boris Johnson to team up with Nigel Farage to form an “unstoppable force” and claiming Jeremy Corbyn would be “so bad for your country”.

Speaking to Farage on LBC Radio, the US president also said that Johnson’s Brexit deal could prevent the UK from agreeing a trade deal with the US.

Trump said the US “can’t make a trade deal with the UK” under “certain aspects of the deal”, despite Johnson’s claims that it would allow the UK to have an independent trade policy.

One of Labour’s main attacks against Johnson has been that the prime minister would be too close to Trump and allow a sell-off of public services to US companies as the price of a trade deal, with the NHS potentially on the line.

Trump told LBC listeners that he was not interested in buying the NHS, and criticised Corbyn as “so bad for your country”.

“He’d be so bad, he’d take you in such a bad way. He’d take you into such bad places,” he added.

Trump told Farage that he had reservations over Johnson’s deal, because it could prevent trade with the US, but he denied Corbyn’s claims it would mean the NHS is up for sale to American health corporations.

“I don’t even know where [it] started with respect to us taking over your healthcare system. I mean it’s so ridiculous. I think Corbyn put that out there, but to even think, it was never even mentioned I never even heard it until I went over to visit with the Queen,” he said.

During that trip, Trump had fuelled speculation that the US would want access to NHS contracts for US corporations by saying that “everything is on the table”. He later backtracked by saying: “I don’t see [the NHS] being on the table.”

On Johnson, the US president said: “We want to do trade with the UK but to be honest with you, this deal, under certain aspects of the deal, you can’t do it. You can’t trade. We can’t make a trade deal with the UK. I think we can do many times the numbers we’re doing now right now, and certainly much bigger numbers than you’re doing under the EU. Boris wants to be very careful with it. Under certain ways we would be precluded, which would be ridiculous.”

In remarks that are unlikely to be welcomed in Downing Street, Trump said Johnson was a “fantastic man and [the] exact right guy for the times”, and added that he could form an “unstoppable force” by pairing with Farage.

Trump also told Farage that Johnson “has a lot of respect and like for you”.

“He respects you a lot, I can tell you that, he respects you a lot, I don’t know if you know that or not,” Trump told Farage. “But, cause I have no idea I have enough to do over here without having to worry about the psychology of two brilliant people over there, frankly … I wish you two guys could get together, I think it would be a great thing.”

Those pained groans are from Battersea and by the professional diplomats at the US Embassy.

Look, folks, my post-WW2 childhood was in Norfolk, at a time when much of East Anglia was US-occupied. One of the main local employers, and a major source of revenue, was the American Air Force base. Convoys rumbled down our rural roads, and we kids had learned the mantra, ‘Got any gum, chum?’ The sky above us resonated with US bombers. One crashed, and there were strong rumours it was carrying a nuke. From an American Master Sergeant I learned the trick of smelling beer before tasting,

That was then. We are no longer up for coca-colonisation.

My expectation is Fromage/Farage has gone too far. Certainly Trump has.



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The Grenfell fall from grace

The Grenfell Tower disaster properly appalled all of us — especially if we have ever lived above the second floor. Now the first official report is out — and, true to form, the Tory press and tabloids knew whom to put in the dock: the London Fire Brigade.

Odd — or perhaps not — that this was derived from inspired leaks. After all, this first report runs to over 830 pages, in four volumes, and says a great deal more than merely pointing the finger.

In essence, it’s all there in the first three paragraphs of the introduction:

In the early hours of Wednesday 14 June 2017 a fire broke out in the kitchen of Flat 16 Grenfell Tower, a high-rise residential building in North Kensington, West London. Grenfell Tower was owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and managed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (the TMO). Kitchen fires are not uncommon and in terms of its origin and magnitude this one was nothing out of the ordinary. However, the fire, which should have been contained within the confines of Flat 16, escaped from the kitchen into the external envelope of the building. The building was constructed of reinforced concrete, to which there had recently been added a cladding system comprising insulation boards attached to the outside of the concrete structure and protected from the weather by aluminium composite material rainscreen panels. The rainscreen panels contained a polyethylene core. Polyethylene is a highly combustible substance. The material from which most of the insulation boards were made, polyisocyanurate foam, is also combustible.

1 .2  Firefighters from the London Fire Brigade (LFB) attended the fire and within minutes of their arrival had extinguished the fire within the kitchen of Flat 16, but by that time the fire had already escaped into the cladding where they were unable to fight it successfully. Once established within the cladding the fire spread rapidly up the outside of the building. Within 20 minutes a vertical column of flame had reached the top of the building on the east side from where it progressed around the rest of the structure, so that within a few hours it had engulfed almost the whole of the building.

1 .3  The fire claimed the lives of 71 people who were present in the tower that night, including the life of Logan Gomes, a child who was stillborn shortly after his mother had escaped and had been admitted to hospital.

In a sentence:

the principal reason why the flames spread so rapidly up, down and around the building was the presence of the aluminium composite material (ACM) rainscreen panels with polyethylene cores, which acted as a source of fuel.

That is a criminal failure. But it is a failure of government, which allowed fire safety regulations to be slackened, which privatised research and enforcement, which failed to invest properly in the infrastructures of public safety.

After all, it’s not that Grenfell was the first:

  • That could be Huyton’s Knowsley Heights in 5 April 1991. An arsonist fired rubbish: the gap between the cladding and the concrete core swept the fire up all eleven stories. In that case the blaze was limited to the outside, and nobody was injured.
  • After that, 11 June 1999, there was Garnock Court in Irvine. A dropped cigarette butt set off the cladding (anyone spot a pattern developing?) which spread up the top nine floors (of twelve). A further complication was PVC window frames. The only casualty was the fag-dropper.
  • On 2 February 2005 it was Harrow Court in Stevenage. Up on the fifteenth floor (out of seventeen) a tea-light set off the plastic case of a tv case. Again the fire spread to the building’s cladding. Smoke alarms were not working. The dry-riser was padlocked against vandalism. Two firemen and one resident died.
  • Another tv caused a fire at Lakanal House, Camberwell, on 3 July 2009. The only exit was the central stairwell, which filled with toxic smoke. Here the design fault was the interlocking maisonettes. Six dead, twenty injured.

Within months of the sinking of the Titanic, blues singers had variants of It was sad when that great ship went down. Depending on one’s predilection, the emphasis was on class or race. One version has:

They put the poor below —
They were the first to go …

Except now we put the poor up high. They are the first to fry.

The craze for tower blocks was a phenomen of circa 1960-70. Grenfell Tower was completed in 1970, months after Ronan Point partly collapsed because of bad architecture. Except for luxury erections, sold off to Singaporeans and the like as ‘investments’, we have learned all that was a mistake. It is one we as a society are still lumbered with. Inevitably, any remedial action is being done on the cheap.

Quite how cheap human life is priced can be seen at Grenfell. The total cost of re-cladding and up-grading the tower was £10 million. Making sure the cladding was properly fire-resistant would have added a whole £5,000 to that cost. The contractor who carried out the works undercut a competitor who would have delivered the whole job, but at an additional 15% cost. The sub-contractor that installed the inflammable panels maintained there was no connection between the tragedy and the materials used. As party of the up-grade, the fire alarms were enhanced: they did not work. There was no sprinkler system, either in the flats nor in the stairs.

Despite all that, the Tory and tabloid media zoomed in on the inadequate communication between the emergency services (a fair point, but another example of cost-cutting), the lack of training for new fire-fighters (ditto), and the non-existent evacuation planning.

All in all, a perfect storm of incompetence. But never the fault of the fire-fighters who did their level best.


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A moveable feast

I suppose that ought to refer to Ernest Hemingway’s early effort at autobiography, based on his meetings and greetings in Paris and other venues. It’s not about laden tables so much as people and locations.

Let’s leave that for another occasion.

More to the point, as I write, it looks as if the next British General Election will happen on our wedding anniversary. So there’s the necessity for movability. But will it be a feast, a fest, or a famine?

I don’t like prognostications. I don’t trust opinion polls, or sage professors of the highly-unpredictable ‘science’ of psepholology (making a decent living out of being ‘talking head’ gurus). Above all, I don’t trust any common sense from the mass of the British people: thanks to monopolistic media (even in this digital age), they are easily confused and fooled.

An old college friend, a historian, recognised that, while the British are not inclined to revolution, there are revolutionary moments. In the last century there were magnificent swings in public opinion, resulting in major turn-overs of the system: 1906 (Liberalism triumphant); 1945 (Attlee’s reforming Labour administration), 1979 (Thatcher coming to power), 1997 (Blair’s moment of missed opportunity)…

Notice I don’t include 2010 (Cameron squeaking home with the eager poodling of Clegg’s LibDems). Although the aim was to ‘shrink the state’, although it involved ferocious ‘austerity’ and cut-back of public service, it never seemed to have a clear single end in view — other than, of course, political survival.

Should the 2016 Referendum be such a moment?  The #Brexiteers would dearly love it to be. Alternatively, surely, the finest recent example of mass-foolery. In reality, apart from curdling British economic development for the subsequent years (a price still to be paid in jobs, income and security), and a lot of screaming and yelling, it hasn’t yet amounted to a climactic turn-over.

On the other hand, a numerologist might suggest we are about due for such a sea-change. If a General Election returns a Tory government (by no means likely), there would be merely a continuance of the same entropy, more heat-death of our local political universe. After all, the whole point of #Brexit is to step aside from what is actually happening out there, to twiddle our thumbs while the world wags.

This weekend, The Sunday Times was editorialising:

Our future is not determined solely by our relationship with Europe. As Cassius put it in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault … is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” We must not allow Brexit drift and deadlock to prevent us doing the things that will guarantee this country a successful future.

At the time I was thinking, ‘Ho hum. Something not quite pukka there’.

The exact quotation is in the mouth of Cassius, the prime conspirator, the ambitious self-seeker, inveigling his way into the more-tender conscience of the patriotic, republican Brutus:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Yes: that sounds too like the machinating and manipulating Murdoch for comfort. Uncle Rupe and Boris Johnson understand the need for underlings.

On second thoughts, scrub all that.

It’s not Cassius in Julius Caesar I need to hang a hat on. The revolutionary play is Coriolanus. Or better still, Günter Grass’s revision, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising:

The belly spoke unhurried, confidently —
For one who has good bowels can be patient:
Well now, my precious members, arms and legs,
Head upon neck, two thumbs, eight fingers —
Where would you be, I pray you without me?
And the eleventh too would be impotent
To draw the nourishment from celery.

Food, control and power; I have an inkling where that could take me:

Back to a bit of horizontal reading, meditation, digestion and making sense.


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Various Dianas

For no obvious reason — other than the sun is well below the yard-arm and I’m going to need a decent bottle to help with the wife’s curry — I am reminded of Jasper Fforde’s Seven Wonders of Swindon. Anyone who hasn’t studied the lore and logic of Fforde’s Thursday Next and other works may be a trifle lost here.

Here’s the full skinny:

Any resemblance to Swindon’s (the late) Diana Mary Fluck has to be entirely coincidental.

Somehow that crossed my mind with another chryselephantine erection (a.k.a. a huge and ornamented prick).

Malcolmian aside (we haven’t seen one in a while):

As a matter of fact, I’m not wholly convinced that word’s definition should depend entirely on ‘gold’ (the Greek χρῡσός) and ‘ivory’ (derived from Greek ἐλεϕάντινος). The second element there must also suggest size. At least to me, because I first and memorably encountered the term in the Classics Department of Trinity College, Dublin, in connection with the gigantic image of the Olympian Zeus.

The other monstrosity involves Ms Fluck’s namesake Diana Ditch.

Back in early September, Prime Minister Johnson went on record:

He vowed not to go back to Brussels to request a delay to Brexit beyond 31 October, despite the likelihood of him being obliged to do so by parliament, via a bill expected to pass the House of Lords on Friday. “I’d rather be dead in a ditch,” he said.

Which means, come this Thursday (see how these ideas come together), no dyke (ahem!) is safe (hat tip here due to

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In the beginning was the Word …

I feared the onset of reading block. So this review is my attempt at self-diagnosis.

I see last couple of weeks have knocked off:

Wasn’t expecting this to go down so well: I’ve needed a several ‘goes’ at recent Harris efforts. It’s an intriguing experiment in apocalypse fantasy (at least, I hope fantastical). The young priest is sent to the isolated parish, falls from grace (and seemingly from his faith), solves the mystery of what caused the calamity — but also could be setting up a recipe for a follow-up story.​
I can see why some critics felt the end-piece was less successful than the extended ‘set-up’.​
Amazon delivered on publication day. I was through the whole thing by late Friday: the perquisites of retirement.​
Classic le Carré, even if not quite up to his ‘sixties best (but that would be ridiculous). Seems to be almost a inversion of The Spy that Came from the Cold. My expectation is to see it as a mini-series in short order.​
Suddenly I notice there are only twenty-four le Carré books on the shelf, some as far back as 4½in by 7in ‘slightly foxed’ Penguin paperbacks. Which means one is AWOL.​
  • Two on Guadalcanal:
Since the former of those is very journalistic, and the second is an Osprey monograph, that’s no great achievement. What was a personal best involved doing both as e-texts.​
Stille’s effort should be treated as peripheral: most of the fighting was done on land, and in the air.​
OK: I’ve now some outline of what happened; but I need stronger meat. That will involve speeding up on Ian W Toll — and there I’m still in volume 1, adrift between Pearl Harbor and Midway.​
  • One I’m not doing particularly well with:
— the second of Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird series: Wyntertide. I made the mistake of not re-reading the first book, to get back to speed. I can see that this one is as fine, even beautiful, as its predecessor. It is also highly complex. Not exactly what one needs in a bedside book. But I’ll get through it, and out the other end. Hopefully in time for the third volume (paperback edition next March: I can hang off that long).​
In passing, there is pleasure in a well-crafted, well-presented publication. This is one such.

So what’s in my hands right now?

Number four of the translations of Robert Merle’s Fortunes of France series: League of Spies.

I’m a sucker for this sub-genre, more profound than Alexandre Dumas’ s swash-and-buckle, more sophisticated than Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings. I used to have Druon, again in original paperback: three are still here above my head. What happened to the BBC repeat of the French TV stuff, with sub-titles?

Merle certainly gives value for money: this latest runs to 670 pages. What worries me is the translations have only reached good four of (I think) thirteen, and I may not live that long.

I honestly do not know why I’ve bothered with this bit of self-embrocation.

Good luck to all readers everywhere, however. It’s a social ailment easily caught, and should be encouraged.

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Hockley-in-the-Hole, and other resorts of Norf Bleedin’ Lunnun

I keep a watchful eye on Dave Hill’s On London blog. He, and his correspondents, are reasonably OK on London politics — but need to be kept honest. The blog regularly features Vic Keegan’s Lost London, which attempts historical retrospections. Most of these are very good.

His latest is The horrible Hockley-in-the-Hole. This he locates adjacent to what I still think of as The Coach and Horses, convenient to The Guardian‘s old offices:

The Coach at the bottom end of Ray Street, off Farringdon Road, is a delightful gastropub. It is a great improvement on its predecessor, the Coach and Horses, which once served employees of the Guardian when the newspaper occupied a nearby building. Yet Coach and Horses itself was a huge improvement on what used to be there.

In the late 17th and 18th century, the spot was known as Hockley-in-the-Hole, the site of a notorious bear and dog baiting arena, which also featured bare knuckle fights.

Right outside The Coach and Horses there is a metal grate. Somewhere beneath are the trapped remains of the Fleet River. All around are the hangover street namings  which indicate historical industry and activity: Baker’s Yard, Bowling Green Lane.

None too long since, this was not quite a ‘nice’ area. Wander a bit further and find Passing Alley (a bowdlerising switch from ‘i’ to ‘a’) and Cock Lane: in the more explicit thirteenth century, ‘Cockes Lane’ — ahem! This was later famed for the ‘Cock Lane Ghost’.

And here’s a tale worth the repeating. Mr Kent’s wife died in 1757; and he transferred his affection to her sister, Fanny. They lodged in the house of Mr Parsons, the clerk of St Sepulchre’s. Kent went off into the country for a family commitment, and Fanny took to bed with Elizabeth Parsons, the landlord’s daughter. Fanny and Elizabeth were disturbed by strange rapping and scratchings in the night. At first these could be attributed to the cobbler next door — except they persisted on Sunday, the day of rest. 

Fanny took this as an intimation of mortality. And she was correct. On 2 February 1760, she popped her clogs, apparently from smallpox.

A year or so later, the phantom knocking was back: this time around the bed of Elizabeth Parsons. Together with a nurse, Mary Fraser, a code of ‘one knock, yes; two knocks, no’  was evolved. The ghost, it seems, revealed that Kent had poisoned Fanny with red arsenic; and the deceased Fanny wished Kent to be hanged. The ghost of Fanny Kent invited all and sundry to cross-examine her further at her coffin in the crypt of St John’s Church. Dr Samuel Johnson, no less, was in the party that took up the invitation. Nothing was heard.

Back at the home of the Parsons, an experiment showed any knocking desisted when Elizabeth was bound to prevent her movements. She was threatened with the Bridewell, and revealed she had a board hidden beneath her corsets. Kent, who had been seriously impugned, sought satisfaction. The Parsons and Nurse Fraser were arraigned at the Guildhall. Parsons, the father, was sentenced to three doses of the pillory in Cock Lane and two years in clink. Mrs Parsons got a year, and Nurse Fraser six months.

Being pilloried usually meant being pelted with faeces and anything else that came to hand. Parsons was not so despoiled. Indeed, a collection was taken in his benefit.

Odd? Not really. The local pubs and other places of resort had done very nicely, thank you, out of the brief notoriety and the custom of the great and the good who came out of curiosity, or whatever.

As much else, the twenty-first century has gentrified the rogues and loose ladies (not to mention the lefty journalists and fractious printers) out, and the lawyers, architects, and IT types in. This is ‘Little Italy’ no more — though the annual procession of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (next one: 20 July 2020) from St Peter’s in the Clerkenwell Road continues.

Vic Keegan skims over the literary connections of Hockley-in-the-Hole: it:

attracted an unusual mixture of high and low life, including Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. John Gay, also a customer, mentions it in The Beggar’s Opera, when Mrs Peachum says to Filch: “You must go to Hockley-in-the-Hole and Marylebone, child, to learn valour”.

In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens has the Artful Dodger, after a pickpocketing foray, moving “across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; then into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great, along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels”.

This area was just beyond the City Wall, so beyond the scope of the blue-noses of the City. On the other hand, it was convenient to the more couth areas. When Alexander Pope (see the Dunciad, Book 1) wants to satirise Colley Cibber’s appeal across the class divide, alike to the ton of White’s Club and the roughs of Clerkenwell:

This brazen Brightness, to the ‘Squire so dear,
This polish’d Hardness, that reflects the Peer;
This arch Absurd, that wit and fools delights;
This Mess, toss’d up of Hockley-hole and White’s;
Where Dukes and Butchers join to wreathe my crown,
At once the Bear and Fiddle of the town. [lines 219-224]

There is more contemporary fictionalising of Hockley-in-the Hole in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. The main character, Daniel Waterhouse, returns to London to create ‘a sort of annex to the [Massachusetts Bay] Institute of Technologickal Arts’:

A bloke wanting to leave the urban confines of Clerkenwell Green and venture out across the fields toward Black Mary’s Hole would have to contend with a few obstacles. For directly in his path stood the ancient compound of St. James’s, and on the far side of that was a new-built prison, and just beyond that, a bridewell run by Quakers. And the sort of bloke who passed the time of day going up to Black Mary’s Hole would instinctively avoid such establishments. So he would begin his journey by dodging westwards and exiting Clerkenwell Green through a sort of sphincter that led into Turnmill Street. To the left, or London-wards, Turnmill led into the livestock markets of Smithfield, and was lined with shambles, tallow-chandleries, and knackers’ yards: hardly a tempting place for a stroll. To the right, or leading out to open country, it forked into two ways: on the right, Rag Street, and on the left, Hockley-in-the-Hole, which presumably got its name from the fact that it had come into being along a bend of the Fleet, which there had been bridged in so many places that it was vanishing from human ken. Hockley-in-the-Hole was a sort of recreational annex to the meat markets. If animals were done to death for profit in the butcher-stalls of Smithfield, they were baited, fought, and torn asunder for pleasure in the cock-pits and bear-rings of Hockley-in-the-Hole.

As for Black Mary’s Hole (a well, but of course) that was dealt with by the Dabbler.

Oh, and Hockley-in-the-Hole has a more verdant alter-ego, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.


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