Monthly Archives: December 2019

Crevices in life’s pavement

Here we are, about the step over another invented marker of our lives. We jump from 2019 (a bad year all round) to 20/20 (in the hope of new perfect vision).

My first wonder is, “I should live so long?” The essential element there being the final query. I fetch back to a distant childhood, when I wondered what a future of Dan Dare and unlimited, free nuclear power would be:

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Or perhaps not.

For now I repose, au Rees-Mogg …

… and notice that the post (only one delivery a day in these degenerate times) has brought the new London Review of Books. From a threepenny comic to a standing-ordered subscription — the progress of seven decades.

This issue bodes well to be a cracker.

For a start there is Alan Bennett’s Diary of the Year just going. Here at his tartest:

7 July: Sam Barnett has been on the Pride march. ‘Four and a half hours! I wouldn’t have agreed to be homosexual if I’d known it was going to take that long.’

30 July, Yorkshire. Thunder, which is somehow old-fashioned.

Two more memories:

  • venturing along the marsh-side path, eastwards from natal Wells-next-the-Sea. Yellow furze to right, pouce sea-thrift to the left. Huge black thunder-clouds threatening behind, and no shelter in sight.
  • the Liverpool ferry out of North Wall, the night I left a wasted university life behind. All round the horizon lightning flashes and distant rumbles of a distant electrical storm. A female Dublin voice calling for her daughter: ‘T’ray sa!”.

Here comes another crack in the paving:

Make the leap from Denis Thatcher to the Great Political Shambles of 1961-1963?  Here it is, courtesy of Andrew O’Hagan:

… hidden in the biography [by Charles Moore], and too little remarked on in the reviews, is news of a friendship that sprang up at that time between Denis and Mrs Foreman, alias Mandy Rice-Davies…

It happened like this. Denis was for years the vice-chairman of a waste-management company called Attwoods, whose head office was in Florida. The chair of the company, Ken Foreman, was married to Rice-Davies, and Denis used to go there for meetings and stay with them, and over time he and Rice-Davies grew close. Denis was always more sociable than his wife. He loved long lunches at his club with his ‘chummoes’, and he had, as Moore puts it, ‘many expressions indicating the need for a drink without delay’. These included ‘blow the bugle’ and ‘let the dog see the rabbit.’ Anyway, many drinks were had, and Rice-Davies came to feel that Denis was ‘rather lonely’. Something was missing from his life. ‘He liked strong women,’ Rice-Davies told Moore, ‘quite bossy women, which is why he liked me.’ The Foremans had a house in Lowndes Square. ‘He’d just ring the doorbell and come in,’ Rice-Davies said.

Back in a dimly-lit past, the joined-up Connections of James Burke were — to me — immensely rewards.

The episode that particularly stuck with me was Burke taking technology from Cistercian monks deriving the use of waterpower from Roman technology, through German silver mines, Gutenberg’s printing press, the Jacquard loom, to card-index files and so to computer programming. Easy when one is shown the links, and jumps the cracks in the historical pavement. As for the Thatcher tie to Randy Mice-Davies, it merely reminds that this is a small world, London ‘society’ (even more so, its demimonde of waste disposers and politicians) is smaller still.

And for the rest of this hopeless/hopeful juxtaposition of two years, I intent to remain Rees-Mogg-like horizontal, with some excellent reading. Starting with Jean McNicol doing LRB‘s in-house account of Red Clydeside. Which I see starts from reviewing a re-issue of Maggie Craig’s When the Clyde Ran Red — which has been on my shelves since 2011.



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To kēdos

Homeric Greek: ‘grief”.

Not many people know that (thank you, Maurice Micklewhite: don’t call us — we’ll call you!)

But I know because:

  • the High School in Dublin, in my day, had excellent Classics teaching;
  • I was a whit better in Greek than in Latin (through I relished those Ciceronian triple expressions);
  • I didn’t waste all my ill-spent youth.

And for a non-Ciceronian fourth:

  • Not only did I find Homer seeping into the synapses, my last starring rôle was as the goddess Athene in Φιλοκτήτης.

So I’m totally unimpressed that preening Boris Johnson can manage, and mangle, a few lines of the Iliad. My party piece would be Odyssey, Book 6:

ἡ μὲν ἄρ’ ὣς εἰποῦσ’ ἀπέβη γλαυκῶπις Ἀθήνη
Οὔλυμπόνδ’, ὅθι φασὶ θεῶν ἕδος ἀσφαλὲς αἰεὶ
ἔμμεναι. οὔτ’ ἀνέμοισι τινάσσεται οὔτε ποτ’ ὄμβρῳ
δεύεται οὔτε χιὼν ἐπιπίλναται, ἀλλὰ μάλ’ αἴθρη
πέπταται ἀνέφελος,  λευκὴ δ’ ἐπιδέδρομεν αἴγλη·
τῷ ἔνι τέρπονται μάκαρες θεοὶ ἤματα πάντα.

That’s the famous bit, admittedly (which is why I can rattle it off). And do a simultaneous mental translation to keep me on track, guided by Samuel Butler, Alexander Pope and all comers.

So speaking, the grey-eyed Athene arose,
And went toward Olympus, where they say,
The gods’ eternal thrones stand forever,
Never shaken by wind nor drenched in rain,
Where snow never falls, but the air is ever cloudless,
And clear light shines over.
There the gods have always joyful days …

Yeah: rough and ready.

More to the point, that’s where Tennyson borrowed the punchline for the death of Arthur:

” … But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seëst — if indeed I go —
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadow’d, happy, fair with orchard-lawns
And bowery hollows crown’d with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.”
Grief! But Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is a puffed-up poseur.
Says he.

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Prescient prognosis




Christmas jollies involved an entertaining book of political cartoons — good value at that — and a lack of other involving fiction. It was back to the research of times lost. Starting with the back history of Slough House.

So, it’s the early hours of St John’s Day (don’t tell me December 27th hasn’t a particular name), but I’m awake, and reading. Being awake so early involves heavy napping through the previous afternoon. Can’t think what induced that.

I’m still reading, and into Mick Herron’s Chapter 10. Hobden, the disgraced far-right former journalist comes visiting Peter Judd’s exclusive pad the fashionable part of Islington. I quickly pass over the description:

Peter Judd. PJ to his friends, and everyone else. Fluffy-haired and youthful at forty-eight, and with a vocabulary peppered with archaic expostulations—Balderdash! Tommy-rot!! Oh my giddy aunt!!!—Peter Judd had long established himself as the unthreatening face of the old-school right, popular enough with the GBP, which thought him an amiable idiot, to make a second living outside Parliament as a rent-a-quote-media-whore-cum-quiz-show-panel-favourite, and to get away with minor peccadilloes like dicking his kids’ nanny, robbing the tax-man blind, and giving his party leader conniptions with off-script flourishes. (‘Damn fine city,’ he’d remarked on a trip to Paris. ‘Probably worth defending next time.’) Not everyone who’d worked with him thought him a total buffoon, and some who’d witnessed him lose his temper suspected him of political savvy, but by and large PJ seemed happy with the image he’d either fostered or been born with: a loose cannon with a floppy haircut and a bicycle.

Yeah. Got it.

And so arrive at this, Hobden speaks first here:

‘Because we both know the tide’s turning. The decent people in this country are sick to death of being held hostage by mad liberals in Brussels, and the sooner we take control over our own future, our own borders—’

‘Are you seriously lecturing me?’

‘It’ll happen, and within the lifetime of your government. We both know that. Not this Parliament, but probably the next. By which time we both know where you expect to be living, and it won’t be Islington, will it?’ Hobden had grown alive again. Eyes bright. Breathing normal. ‘It’ll be Downing Street.’

‘Yes. Well.’ The effing and blinding PJ of ten minutes ago—the PJ who’d slapped Hobden—left the room; in his place was the bumbly figure familiar from countless broadcasts and not a few YouTube moments. ‘Obviously, if called upon to serve, I’ll leave my plough.’

I draw that to wider attention.

Slow Horses was first published in 2010.

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Doggy determinant

The preamble

We used various games to occupy youngest daughter as we drove the length of vacationing France. One was based on the obvious truth that all dogs in France had to be classified as rat, rug or demi-cheval.

Literati will recognise that as blatantly ripping-off Bill Shagsper’s Scottish Play:

Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men;
As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,
Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, are clept
All by the name of dogs …

Another proof positive, by the way, that clever old Bill was no dog-lover.

The simple classification rapidly evolved: so ‘hairy rat’ and similar hybrids had to be allowed.

The actuality

Early today I found myself in an out-of-town shopping desert, waiting the Lady-in-my-Life’s return with the car-keys. The nearest life-form was a small, but over-active hairy rat leaping up and down in the car rear-window. Small car. Small dog. I being the only offence to which it could take.

Obviously I had to play the game. Fixed the yapper with a steely gaze. Which aggravated the leaping and noise-level remarkably, and provided me with a few moments of satisfied distraction. More steeliness. More frantic leaping. At least one of us was getting physical and vocal exercise.

When the Lady-in-my-Life deigned to roll up, I was required to answer for my behaviour.

Easy: “It started it. It invaded Poland.”

The product

Which cultural attribution I now offer for inclusion in a Life in the UK citizenship test.

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Ex Caledonia semper aliquid antiquum

There was a twitter exchange between Alex Massie and @Peatworrier (a.k.a. Andrew Tickell) — both persons of intellectual heft, for whom I have respect. Their essential difference was how to address Boris Johnson’s blank refusal to accept a second Scottish referendum — in short, the long-standing mutual incomprehension of unionist versus devolutionist.

In another place and time (the centenary is about due) we might see that as played out between the boneheads of Ulster Unionism and the thrusting nationalists of Sinn Féin (c. 1920-1922). Though that one involved more blood and tears. I most sincerely hope.

Glue: protein colloids prepared from animal flesh

One way I see the prospect of eventual ‘independence’ (however that looks when it arrives) is the glue holding the SNP together.

For the SNP is, as it always has been, a construct with two different traditions.

Back in 1934 the Scottish Party merged with the National Party to give the embryo of what was only properly born in the Hamilton by-election of 1967. 1967, of course, was when Harold Wilson’s Labour Government was beginning to ship water.

Malcolmian aside:

Certain amount of conclusion-jumping or over-concision there.

That suggestion ignores William ‘Billy’ Wolfe. Billy had been around awhile, but came to general (including my) notice in the 1962 West Lothian by-election. Tom Dalyell was set up for a walk-over against a nugatory Tory: the constituency had always been a straight Labour-Tory fight — though more of a ‘bum-of-the-month’ contest. This was a by-election, and at a moment when the Macmillan government were on the ropes.

What happened was the motivated student hordes of Edinburgh University piled in on behalf of Billy. The result was still a Dalyell stroll-in-the-park, but he had to work for it — and dropped 10% of the valid poll. Out of nowhere Billy and the SNP pulled 23% of the vote — mainly at the expense of the Tories.

Flash-back to the 1930s

The Scottish Party sprang out of Glasgow’s Unionists, and specifically out of Cathcart — the snootier end of hardscrabble Govan. The implication I would draw is the National Party were socially-conscious (that was the early 1930s, after all), but tended to a ‘Tartan Tories’ pattern.

The National Party also originated in Glasgow, more precisely Glasgow University, tending more to the left. As such they involved the arty-literati Home Rulers, types such as Murray Grieve (a.k.a. Hugh MacDiarmid, who had to be expelled for his communism), Eric Linklater and Neil Gunn.

And back to now

For reasons beyond me, any assembly of Scottish politicians will be riven by feuds and jealousies. Yeah, yeah: that’s endemic to all politicos anywhere — but Scots of all colours develop it into a national sport. We are still living through the fishy difficulties between Salmond-ites and Sturgeon-ites.

Take away the categorical imperative of ‘independence’. Not long after the SNP declares a modus vivendi, inside or outside the Union, one can happily predict a civil war, and a split between the two traditions.

For the time being, I really cannot foresee any great use or purpose for the Scottish Labour Party. Apart, that is, for providing home and shelter for the decent Ian Murray (your distance may vary). So the SLP could profitably shut up shop, become entryists into the SNP, and enjoy the fall-out thereof. Sooner or later a radical, left-of-centre (even socialist) force will burst out of the SNP.

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She and Toi

Charles Aznavour was one of the greatest tear-jerkers around. There cannot be many personal playlists which haven’t got She:

Aznavour had luck: almost young enough to escape the post-War reappraisals of the Occupation (though his parents were better than squeaky clean), having Piaf as his mentor, and more than a quantum of talent. He, almost uniquely, managed the break-through from French chanson into the Anglophone pop culture.

And here am I with iTunes shuffling at me the French version of She — Tous les visages de l’amour. As I understand it, the original was She, composed specifically for the title credits of ITV’s series of one-hour plays, Seven Faces of Woman. In itself that suggests the truth of  French never using a single word when a crashing rush of articles and prepositions can serve. It’s also a test of my very poor French:

Toi, parée de mille et un attraits,
Je ne sais jamais qui tu es —
Tu changes si souvent de visage et d’aspect.
Toi, quel que soit ton âge et ton nom,
Tu es un ange ou le démon,
Quand pour moi tu prends tour à tour
Tous les visages de l’amour

Toi, si Dieu ne t’avait modeler,
Il m’aurait fallut te créer
Pour donner à ma vie sa raison d’exister.
Toi qui est ma joie et mon tourment,
Tantôt femme et tantôt enfant,
Tu offres à mon cœur chaque jour
Tous les visages de l’amour

Moi, je suis le feu qui grandit ou qui meurt.
Je suis le vent qui rugis ou qui pleure.
Je suis la force ou la faiblesse.
Moi, je pourrais défier le ciel et l’enfer;
Je pourrais dompter la terre et la mer —
Et réinventer la jeunesse

Toi, viens fais de moi ce que tu veux,
Un homme heureux ou malheureux.
Un mot de toi, je suis poussière ou je suis Dieu,
Toi sois mon espoir sois mon destin.
J’ai si peur de mes lendemains
Montre à mon âme sans secours
Tous les visages de l’amour.
Toi, tous les visages de l’amour.

Oh, dammit. Never too much of a good thing:

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A greatest hit?

Back in March some Nazi ‘table ware’ (a.k.a. cutlery) came up for auction in Belfast. Immediate guess: a bit of looting.

The auctioneers, wisely, pulled the sale. The result was a small susurration on social media. Quite proper, too: anything that fuels the spew of anti-semitism should be suppressed.

I took a passing interest in the term — and found the OED recognises it as tableware. What is a smidgeon more interesting is the first citation: from 1772, in a letter by Josiah Wedgwood, no less. Not quite an eponym, but adjacent. Still, it did — then and now — seem a strange term, more Hyacinth Bucket than necessary.


I see  I was on on the topic, at the time. Which — out of the blue — has lately been ‘liked’, so brought back to my mind.

Not surprisingly, it reminded me of  Stephen Ambrose’s account of Easy Company:

It was to the Berchtesgaden area that much of the loot collected by the Nazis from all over Europe had come. The place was stuffed with money, in gold and in currency from a dozen countries, with art treasures (Goering’s collection alone contained five Rembrandts, a Van Gogh, a Renoir, and much more). It was bursting with booze, jewelry, fabulous cars.​
So Berchtesgaden was really two magnets: the symbolic home of Hitler’s mad lust for power, and the best looting possibilities in Europe. Everybody wanted to get there — French advancing side by side with the 101st, British coming up from Italy, German leaders who wanted to get their possessions, and every American in Europe.​
That’s from Chapter 17 of Ambrose’s book. It’s worth recalling that the book arose from interviews Ambrose collected from survivors of E Company. The interviews were made at a re-union in New Orleans. New Orleans is the location of The National D-Day Museum.
The Museum is part of a complex just off the Pontchartrain Expressway. Alongside the Museum runs Andrew Higgins Boulevard — and there is an eponym, for the Higgins boats of the D-Day landing craft. By no coincidence Stephen Ambrose was an inspiring genius behind the museum — and he was a New Orleans resident.
The Pert Young Piece pointed to the continuation of that snippet:
With lodging taken care of, and having looted more than they could carry or could ever hope to get home, the next thing these young Americans needed was a set of wheels. No problem: in the vehicle parks in and around town there were German army trucks, sedans, Volkswagens, and more, while scattered through town and in the garages attached to the hillside homes were luxury automobiles. Sergeant Hale got a Mercedes fire engine, complete with bell, siren, and flashing blue lights. Sergeant Talbert got one of Hitler’s staff cars, with bulletproof doors and windows. Sergeant Carson got Hermann Goering’s car, “the most beautiful car I have ever seen. We were like kids jumping up and down. We were Kings of the Road. We found Captain Speirs. He immediately took over the wheel and off we went, through Berchtesgaden, through the mountain roads, through the country with its picture-book farms.”​
As more brass poured into Berchtesgaden on May 7 and 8, it was more difficult for a captain to hold on to a Mercedes. Speirs got orders to turn it over to regiment. Carson and Bill Howell were hanging around the car when Speirs delivered the sad message.​
Carson asked Howell if he thought those windows really were bulletproof. Howell wondered too. So they paced off ten yards from the left rear window, aimed their M-1s and fired. The window shattered into a thousand pieces. They gathered up the broken glass and walked away just as a captain from regiment came to pick up the car.​
Before Talbert turned over his Mercedes, he too did some experimenting. He was able to report to Winters that the windows were bulletproof, but that if you used armor-piercing ammo, it would get the job done. Winters thanked him for his research, agreeing that one never knew when this kind of information would come in handy.​
The men tried another experiment. They drained the water from the radiator of the Mercedes, to see if it could run without it. With a third luxury car, they decided that before turning it in they would see if it could survive a 30-meter crash, so they pushed it over a cliff.​
So the brass got luxury automobiles without windows or water, or wrecks (Talbert’s Mercedes burned out the engine trying to climb the road to the Eagle’s Nest). The men ended up with trucks, motorcycles, Volkswagens, scout cars, and the like, which were good enough, and anyway the fuel came as free as the vehicle. The Americans would just fill up and drive off.​
A retired English-teacher reflects:
My immediate thought there: it would have ‘sold’ even to a particularly-recalcitrant, nominally mixed, but entirely male, Year 10 class, with whom I was doomed to spend last double period on a Friday. Plus, I could have used the DVD as an extra. A quick ‘comprehension’ exercise for homework (with that class dogs ingested every homework).
And to the saucy stuff:
From there it was a short leap to this:
The bathing beauty is Lee Miller, photographed by David Scherman. Scherman gave an account of how that image came about:
During the war, Lee and I were mostly inseparable. We were together at the linkup with the Russians, and we were together at Dachau. We moved into Hitler’s headquarters in Munich. Lee and I found an elderly gent who barely spoke English, and we gave him a carton of cigarettes and said, “Show us around Munich.” He showed us Hitler’s house and I photographed Lee taking a bath in Hitler’s bathtub. . . . We found Eva Braun’s house, and we moved in there and lived there for four or five days before the Americans discovered it. We got quite a few amusing souvenirs of Eva’s and Adolf’s. . . . [At Hitler’s mountain retreat in Berchtesdgaden] I looted everything I could get my hands on, including a complete set of Shakespeare with Hitler’s initials, in gold, on the binding, which I sold a few months ago for 10,000 bucks.
Miller’s second husband, Roland Penrose, made an addition to that, pointing to one significance that gets omitted from the too-often cropped version of that image:
I think she was sticking two fingers up at Hitler. On the floor are her boots, covered with the filth of Dachau, which she has trodden all over Hitler’s bathroom floor. She is saying she is the victor. [Source: Lee Miller: In Hitler’s bathtub]​
Yeah: that’s a barely adapted revisit of the post I made months ago. It wears well.

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Not up my Street

Chilly day. Stay in the warm. Feet up. Second cup of tea.

All well in the world …

Reach down The Prado Guide, to remind myself of days in warm Madrid. Need both hands for this one: 470-odd pages, fully illustrated in gorgeous living colour … and therein lies the rub.

The good news first: my pencilled note tells me I was there on Wednesday 4th September this year. I see I tucked into the front flap the gallery plan and a couple of leaflets. All fine stuff.

I caught up with Vermeer’s Het Straatje/The Little Street which was on its travels when we’d been at the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam a while earlier:

Star of postcard, tea-tray, and much more. Probably among the Top Ten most recognised paintings in anyone’s list. Certainly mine.

No: I’m not getting into the academic squabble as to which house, in which street, in Delft it represents. All I know is — Delft has to be in my most favourite places. While we were there I was recovering from a thrombosis, and not greatly enamoured of too much hiking, especially anything that involved ups-and-downs or uneven surfaces. Yet, with Delft, what’s not to like? That house, represented by Vermeer, may be long gone — but its co-evals and variants are round any corner of the old town.

There has to be a but …

For me, that but is the Prado’s taste for restoration. There is — and this personal taste, no more, no less — something slightly repellent when a oil-painting has been restored or ‘improved’ to Technicolor© gloss and gaudy brightness.

So, when I hear that the National Gallery, or whoever, has sent a loan to the Prado, I wince, and wonder how the item would look on its return …

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Books, history, for the shelving thereof …

It’s that time of the year.

All the periodicals fill pages with ‘Books of the Year’. Next up: Private Eye will reveal how many of the recommendations were ‘log-rolling’ for the nominee’s literary mates. I have already spotted one obvious mutual back-scratching.

I’m sticking here to history books (fiction is a wholly different, and more expensive topic). Starting with the irritating Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times. Why ‘irritating’? Why not? The man walked out of Sheffield University history school, mid-year, for a better-paid job in journalism and reviewing. Fair enough: except that left high-and-dry a batch of students who had committed time and substantial finance  to his post-graduate courses. And, of course, because so much of his output seems partially and irredeemably (small-c) conservative in tone.

OK: got that grief out in the open. To business …

Sandbrook’s list of ten-plus-one includes just one book I have read, and two that I intend to read.

The one I have here on the shelf behind me is Simon Winder’s LotharingiaAs Winder himself says, this is the completion of a trilogy, to complete Germania and Danubia. None is ‘straight’ history: they are a loose narrative, with a historical sweep, of places and events. The best is the first, original_400_600.jpgGermania, which is an outright hoot. Danubia, by the nature and extent of its subject (the extraordinary, inchoate, and ultimately doomed Habsburg empire of Austro-Hungary) is less cohesive.

iu.jpegIn passing, I am intrigued how the covers of the American editions of these books offer very different treatments to the UK originals. Above, right, is the rather jokey Brit effort. Here, left, is the US variant — still retaining the ‘disconnects’, but more staid.

Intriguing, too, is wondering why Winder’s is one of the very few books, hard-backed, newly-published, for which I have put out real money — rather than wait the year or so for the cheaper paperback edition. A glance over the shoulder reminds me the only other ‘new’ history book added this year might be Tim Bouverie’s Appeasing Hitler.

On Sandbrook’s list — all worthy — are just two other texts I’m probably going to acquire, at least in paperback: Dan Jackson’s The Northumbrians and (Sandbrook’s ‘History Book of the Year’) Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.

Take those in order:

  • The Jackson is subtitled, North-East England and Its People: A New History. Here I am living in the City of York, more specifically ‘Bootham’, one of the names which may perpetuate the city’s Scandinavian past:

Bootham provides an example of the difficulties of interpreting the placename evidence. The termination -um found in all its early medieval occurrences has led the whole word to be tentatively connected with O.W.Scand. búdum, the dative plural of búd. It has been suggested that it derives from some such expression as farmanna búdum—’merchants’ booths’—and thus has its origin after 1089 when St. Mary’s Abbey was founded and the abbey’s weekly market developed there. But a more ancient market may well have developed in this suburb, as markets certainly did in the eastern suburbs. Moreover búd is a term of wide application and may refer to almost any kind of dwelling or building and has no necessary connexion with merchants’ booths. Similar caution has to be observed in other cases, but in general it is clear that York’s place- and street-names are more pronouncedly Scandinavian than those of any other major town in Britain.

That’s from the scholarly Victoria History, but the circumspection there doesn’t deter the general assumption, made by a wall-plaque, that the area was the market street in ancient times. Jackson, then, will go alongside Thomas Williams, Max Adams and the like.

  • Holland takes ‘generalist’ history to ever-wider dimensions. After late-classical stuff in Rubicon, there was In the Shadow of the Sword, on the origins of Islam. I have a bit of a problem with Holland: he is thoroughly readable, who butters his toast with fiction, but seems to spread his stuff once over, lightly.

Again I’m looking at how marketing of books works. The ‘native’ market is being sold Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. For the Americans that becomes: How the Christian Revolution remade the World:


While I’m reasonably adjacent …

I had to admire the concision of Marc Morris summing up how France happened, in little more than a page (bottom of p.44 to top of 46) of The Norman Conquest:

Strictly speaking, though, ‘France’ did not exist in the eleventh century: the earliest reference to the ‘kingdom of France’ does not occur until over a hundred years later, and the kings of France did not style themselves as such until the thirteenth century. Prior to that point, the title they used was Rex Francorum — king of the Franks.

The Franks, originally, were one of the barbarian tribes who had dwelt beyond the fringes of the Roman Empire. After that empire crumbled in the middle of the first millennium, it was the Franks who eventually made themselves Europe’s new masters. Under the leadership of a succession of warrior rulers, they expanded from their homelands in what is now north-eastern France and conquered more or less everything in their path, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to the Elbe. This expansion reached its zenith during the reign of the celebrated Frankish king Charles the Great, or Charlemagne as he is better known. Charlemagne’s power was such that in AD 800 the then pope crowned him as a new emperor, and by the time of his death fourteen years later, his empire stretched 1,500 miles from north to south and a similar distance from east to west. Historians call it the Carolingian Empire, from Carolus, the Latin for Charles.

But very soon after Charlemagne’s death his empire began to collapse. For all its imperial pretensions, it was a dominion founded on predatory warfare: plunder, booty and tribute. While the treasure and the slaves kept pouring in, the Franks willingly turned out to swell their emperor’s armies. Once there was nothing left to conquer, and only a hostile frontier to defend, they tended to stay at home. Added to this was the problem of dynastic rivalry. Rather like we do today, the families of early medieval Europe expected inheritances to be shared, at least among the male descendants of the deceased. In 843, barely a quarter of a century after Charlemagne’s death, his feuding grandsons agreed to split the empire into three. A few decades later, having been briefly reunited (by Charles the Fat), it was divided again, this time into two, and this time for good. The eastern part would eventually become Germany, the western half France.

But in the meantime West Francia (as historians call it) continued to disintegrate. Denied the ability to plunder their neighbours, the Franks took to fighting against each other. They also found themselves in the uncomfortable situation of being attacked, by Vikings from the north, Saracens from the south, and even Magyars (Hungarians) from the east. There was no sense in summoning great imperial armies against such fast-moving, hit-and-run raiders, so Frankish kings delegated the responsibility for defence to their great men in the localities— their counts and dukes. But, of course, such power and authority, once relinquished, is hard to claw back. The great counts and dukes of France still governed in the king’s name, but increasingly without reference to him.

As Mr Punch would say: “That’s the way to do it!”

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