Monthly Archives: April 2020

Some heavy lifting needed in Belfast?

One essential truth that hasn’t got through the boneheadedness of Boris Johnson’s Brexiteers: don’t mess with the Six Counties.

Yesterday’s Guardian had a significant story:

Brussels and UK at odds over proposed EU office in Belfast

Clashes expected over plan which Britain says would sow division in Northern Ireland

Brussels and UK officials will clash over the increasingly fraught question of whether the European Union can open an office in Belfast.

At the inaugural meeting on Thursday of a special committee of officials charged with enforcing a de facto Irish Sea border, the European commission is expected to press the case to open “a technical office” in Belfast, three days after the government rejected an EU “mini-embassy” in the Northern Irish capital

The EU is refusing to drop the issue, amid fears Boris Johnson’s government could renege on the Brexit withdrawal agreement that requires Northern Ireland to follow EU single market and customs rules.

Moreover, the first name on that by-line is Jennifer Rankin in Brussels. This is no Telegraph or Daily Mail hysteria: Rankin has a track-record of cool, clear reporting.

Most London ‘sources’ report on Brussels, out of London kitchens and offices, and amount to froth and fury (much of it invented over a bottle of good Bordeaux). The Guardian, bless its little liberal heart, does the business properly.

Compare the coverage in The Times: as far as I see, that one-time ‘newspaper of record’ had given us just two stories on the UK approach to #Brexit thesis week:

We won’t need an extension to our Brexit transition time, insists Gove (Tuesday)

Ministers have stood down the government’s no-deal Brexit planning operation, Michael Gove said yesterday as he claimed that the chances of striking a deal were now at least 2-1.

Giving evidence to MPs, Mr Gove revealed that about 50 civil servants who had been working on Brexit negotiations had been re-deployed to deal with coronavirus and that there were no active preparations for leaving without a trade deal in December. […]

That one by-lined to Oliver Wright, Policy Editor — so a straightforward Little Shard desk job, as likely as not gleaned from watching the BBC Parliament feed from #Brexit Select Committee. And:

Northern Ireland ‘needs Brexit clarity’ (today)

Northern Ireland needs Brexit clarity from a UK government “consumed” by the coronavirus emergency, the Belfast civil servant in charge of its preparations said.

Two scenarios have been drawn up at Stormont depending on whether or not Britain secures a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU.

Andrew McCormick, the director-general of international relations, said that without a deal, the border protocol surrounding compliance with aspects of the Irish system is expected to apply.

“Time is tight but what is needed from London is clarity on these issues,” he said.

Michael McHugh, by-lined there, would seem to be standing closer to the horse’s mouth, and let’s note:

Mr McCormick told the Stormont committee of Assembly members yesterday that the UK government’s focus was on Covid-19, and not Brexit.

McCormick is director-general of international relations. While:

The chairman of the group charged with consulting Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales on Brexit is Michael Gove, the minister for the Cabinet Office, who has also had to devote his time to the virus crisis.

Got that, chaps? The NI Executive is allowed  ‘international relations’. Read the self-descriptor for this International Relations Team (and, yes, they do award themselves capitals):

Under devolution legislation, international relations and relations with the EU remain the responsibility for the UK Government. However, it is recognised that the devolved administrations will have an interest in international policy making in relation to devolved powers.

Under the Belfast Agreement the duties of the First Minister and deputy First Minister include co-ordinating the work of the Executive Committee and the response of the Northern Ireland administration to external relationships.

That decodes as: the EU must be kept at the end of a barge-pole. Everything has to go through London, where Chipmunk Gove is marking his own homework.

But here’s a funny-peculiar thing, also from The Guardian:

A narrow majority of Northern Irish MPs, it has emerged, back the EU plan for a Belfast office. Ten of 18 MPs elected to Westminster reject the government’s argument, including Sinn Fein, who do not take their seats. The Democratic Unionist party, who make up the remaining eight, support the government, whose position was outlined by the paymaster general, Penny Mordaunt, on Monday.

In a letter to senior EU officials including the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, Mordaunt said a special EU office would be “divisive in political and community terms” and was not required by the Irish protocol agreed last October.

Immediate question: why is Penny Mordaunt speaking for the DUP?

She is either too simple (read that as you wish) or too complicated for most thinking souls. She is currently ‘Paymaster General’, which is a parking place for either up-and-comers being kept on a string, or giz-a-job types who might otherwise go rogue. Beyond that, ‘Paymaster General’ is anything up to and including minister for paper-clips.

So the questions are:

  • Is Ms Mordaunt going out on a limb? She has a track record: a previous outing (insisting that Remain meant Turkish entry to the EU) had to be slapped down by PM Cameron. Indeed, although tied to a hard-Brexit constituency (Portsmouth), one wonders just how deep Ms Mordaunt’s Brexiteering runs: she is none too far from opportunism at any time.


  • Has she been put up to this, being ‘deniable’? There’s a further layer to that onion: Brandon Lewis was a familiar TV figure before the latest Johnson re-shuffle. I doubt many at Westminster, outside his close circle of friends, could instantly name him as SoS NI. Just another ‘safe pair of hands’?

Anyway, on current form it’s difficult to see any kind of realism in Tory thinking on relations with the EU. Added to which, there seems to be underlying Tory grievances aimed at all things Dublin, and at Leo Varadkar especially (particularly so after the three-way party split for the 33rd Dáil).

Spitting in the eye of the EU is standard operating practice for Boris Johnson’s Tories: it is an item on Michael Gove’s job description. Sharing cuddles with the DUP was the mode until the December General Election: now it’s more lack of social distancing. Poking sharp sticks at Tithe an Rialtais is a well-established Tory sport, but no longer so one-sided. Upsetting the whole apple-cart in the Black North is totally misguided.

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British Railways

I now realise I lived through the entire existence of British Railways, and its privatised after-life.

At the end of the Second World War the railway network was 17,500 miles of routes. My small natal town (Wells, on the top arch of the Norfolk coast) had two lines: one south to Norwich, the other west to Heacham to join the King’s Lynn line. Both were antiques.

The Heacham line went early: June 1952 (even before the devastating floods the following year). When I went to grammar school, we were pulled by a 4-4-0 Claud Hamilton. There’s one, pulling past the signal box: a real man reduced to the job of a snivelling apprentice. Soon the Clauds were replaced by Derby-built DMUs, which we thought modernity indeed.

Then, of course, came Dr Beeching:

After which thirty-odd lost years. By then I was a regular commuter along the north London line from Gospel Oak to Barking. There were any number of days without any service at all: the message was the Thatcher government wanted nothing more than the railways to go away. Instead we got privatisation: subsidies were lavished on private operators, who gave way to foreign nationalised companies milking the tax-payer. Conditions improved. Fares went stratospheric.

Yesterday I caught a BBC Yorkshire TV news-item. It was the state of services from Sheffield to London. Trains, it seems, are running — even on a reduced service — with an average of eight passengers. Most of the time East Midland trains are shuttling fresh air from St Pancras to Sheffield, and back again. Government pays the operator, and collects the minuscule income.

We have a transport system operating entirely as a social service.

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Filed under History, Norfolk, railways, Wells-next-the-Sea

Woe is me! Shame and scandal in de familee …

In 1942 Columbia Pictures put out Two Yanks in Trinidad. One of the minor uncredited characters, except as ‘Trinidad man’, was Lancelot Victor Edward Pinard. Thanks to Hattie McDaniel (Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, 1940, in Gone With the Wind), being black not longer was a total no-no in Hollywood.

Pinard came from a respectable Trinidadian family, who were somewhat miffed he was a successful performer, as ‘Sir Lancelot’, introducing — even in part inventing — calypso at the Village Vanguard club.

Which, at a stretch, brings us to oddities of the English upper crust

I am constantly amazed how slippery are our public ethics. I know that should not be the case: after all, Oscar Wilde nailed it in 1895:

Algernon.  Good heavens!  Is marriage so demoralising as that?
Lane.  I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir.  I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present.  I have only been married once.  That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.
Algernon.  [Languidly.]  I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.
Lane.  No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject.  I never think of it myself.
Algernon.  Very natural, I am sure.  That will do, Lane, thank you.
Lane.  Thank you, sir.  [Lane goes out.]
Algernon.  Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax.  Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?  They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

So we have as First Lord of Her Majesty’s Treasury (not that royalty is a great qualification on these matters) a serial adulterer, an inciter of abortions (remember Petronella!), an inveterate liar, a pilferer, one who denies his own progeny.

All in all, early twenty-first morality is as seedy and septic as anything in the Restoration period.

In the corner is sitting Diana. All the men are beginning to pant …

Two birds.jpegThe sainted Diana Spencer/Wales/whatever (who had, let’s admit, something of a thing with different men) was — as is well known — twice directly descended from Charles II Stuart’s cavortings. First from Charles Lennox, 1st Duke of Richmond, by Louise Renée de Penancoët de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth (right, above). The second from Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton, by Barbara Villiers (left, above). Hmmm … Charles obviously went for a certain look.

Saucy Diana had another line of pedigree from the Restoration court: from the notorious John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, and his legitimate wife (now there’s a surprise!), Elizabeth Malet.

And thereby hangs quite a tale

Sunday, 28 May 1665, Samuel Pepys was busy. In the morning he had visited the Duke of Albemarle to hear a little musique, met his professional rival, John Creed at chapel, lunched at William Wilkinson’s choice diner on King Street — he was then troubled with winde. Even so, it was only midday, so he repaired to the home of  Sir Philip Warwickethe MP for Westminster. There he found time to admire one pretty piece of household stuff who was setting the table, before dining and heading off to my Lady Sandwich’s. This would be something of a duty call: the husband, Edward Montagu, was Pepy’s patron at the Admiralty.

Here, upon my telling her a story of my Lord Rochester’s running away on Friday night last with Mrs. Mallett, the great beauty and fortune of the North, who had supped at White Hall with Mrs. Stewart, and was going home to her lodgings with her grandfather, my Lord Haly, by coach; and was at Charing Cross seized on by both horse and foot men, and forcibly taken from him, and put into a coach with six horses, and two women provided to receive her, and carried away. Upon immediate pursuit, my Lord of Rochester (for whom the King had spoke to the lady often, but with no successe) was taken at Uxbridge; but the lady is not yet heard of, and the King mighty angry, and the Lord sent to the Tower. Hereupon my Lady did confess to me, as a great secret, her being concerned in this story. For if this match breaks between my Lord Rochester and her, then, by the consent of all her friends, my Lord Hinchingbroke stands fair, and is invited for her. She is worth, and will be at her mother’s death (who keeps but a little from her), 2500l. per annum. Pray God give a good success to it! But my poor Lady, who is afeard of the sickness, and resolved to be gone into the country, is forced to stay in towne a day or two, or three about it, to see the event of it.

Elizabeth Malet was an heiress, aged just fourteen when brought to London to be put on the marriage market. John Wilmot was about three years older, and in need of a wealthy wife. Somehow, despite the episode Pepys narrates, she fancied him — or was impressed that he was prepared to protect her ‘honour’ by being arrested well away, and being three weeks imprisoned in the Tower of London the Tower for her sake.

Their child was another Elizabeth who went on to marry Edward Montagu, 3rd Earl of Sandwich. Their grandson was John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, for whom the Sandwich Islands (i.e. Hawaii) were named by Captain James Cook. But the 4th Earl’s main gift to posterity — because he was a card addict, and demanded his meat be presented, at the card table — came between two slices of bread. Edward Gibbon, the historian, records that item in his Journal, 24 November 1762.

In all that, it’s a wise man who knows his own father (and a luckier one whose father acknowledges it). Which brings me back to Sir Lancelot’s ditty.

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Too nice for words

This on-line parliamentary stuff is unbearably tedious. And largely because it has all become so polite, so consensual.

We need blood-on-the carpet.

PMQs began:

Each subsequent speaker had to ‘congratulate ‘. So, some kudos to the loon, Desmond Swayne, for not doing so.

The Beast of Bolsover has never been more needed.

Then, this afternoon. I passed a tv screen where the eternal gerbil, Michael Gove, was mincing his word-salads.

Why do we need a ‘Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’ in this day and age? Does the Duke of Lancaster (Her Maj, if one has forgotten) need someone to mind the petty-cash from the royal domains in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Lincolnshire? Is there not a swarm of royal factors and bean-counters well up to the job? Does anointing High Sheriffs and Lord Lieutenants of Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire amount to a full-time job? What is the job-description of a ‘High Sheriff’

Anyone of any sense wouldn’t let Gove anywhere near the savings jar.

To add further bits of the bizarre, I realise we still have a ‘Lord Privy Seal’ — she just happens to be the Tory leader in the Lords. I thought Barry Took and Marty Feldman had mocked ‘Lord Privy and his Performing Seal’ to extinction. Government Whips are ‘Baronesses and Lords in Waiting’ — waiting for what, precisely?

But then I have a daughter whose Labradoodle was referred to a ‘dog psychiatrist’.

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Filed under BBC, Britain, politics, Tories.

‘PM and fiancee announce birth of son’: BBC website headline

The precise marital status between Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, Marina Claire Wheeler QC, and Carrie Symonds is less than certain. What is certainly not clear is whether one can be properly and decently ‘affianced’ while still married elsewhere.

Moreover, that fiancée usage can be dated precisely to 1853 (says the OED), and that jocularly. It wasn’t properly domesticated until three decades later.

So I’ll try to help the BBC:
arm-candy, bag, bawd, bed-mate, bed-warmer, bint, bird, bit-of-fluff, bit-on-the-side, bitch, blowen, chippy, concubine, consort, courtesan, date, donna, doxy, dutch, fancy piece, fancy woman, flame, flirt, floozy, heater, hoochie, honey, hoor, hoyden, hussy, girl-friend, inamorata, Jezebel, jilt, kate, kept-woman, kitty, lady-love, live-in, lorette (though that one might be specific to Paris 9e), lover, made, minx, mistress, moll, mot (very Dublin. that one), odalisque, other, patootie, pullet, quean, paramour, POSSLQ (person of opposite sex sharing living quarters — US Census bowdlerisation), skronk, slacken, sloven, squeeze, steady, sugar, sultana, sweetheart, sweetie, tabby, tart, tootsie, tramp, trollop, trouble-and-strife, wench, Wag …
etc.; etc.


Filed under BBC, Boris Johnson, Literature, Oxford English Dictionary, sleaze., Tories.

Lighting-up time

Today the weather changed.

We’ve had days of bright, blue skies — none too warm, but tempting many to break the social distancing and venture out.  Tuesday has been solid overcast and gloom. This evening, for the first time in a while, York had a dampening drizzle. Tomorrow, we are assured, it will be more insistent rain.

Meanwhile, there some kind of escapism in the reading coming my way. The daily LRB ‘Diverted traffic’ — a pick from the archives — was Katherine Rundell on ‘Night climbing’:

A while ago I climbed up the side of Battersea Power Station, up the great smoke stacks, to look at the world as it lay below. It’s the largest brick building in Europe, and I wanted to see it before it disappeared.

Rather you than me, love: my acrophobia sets in atop a small kitchen ladder. But each one to her, or his bent. Still, good to know that:

Giles Gilbert Scott believed in thoroughgoing industrial beauty. We found as we explored that the insides of the four great smoke stacks are lined with green-grey iridescent ceramic tiles. I’ve seen few things as beautiful; you could build a wall in them and outdo a king. Scott must have known that almost nobody would ever see them, but their presence is a bold and lovely fact. There are, too, flourishes built onto the walls, constellations of bricks like the work on the side of a cathedral, up near the top and too high to be seen from the ground. It’s this, the hidden life of buildings, that makes climbing seem a reasonable wager, to bet your safety against the promise of beauty.


There’s a different type of escapism, another ‘high’, in the On London blog: Jack Brown does a piece, I want to be lit up in London again.

Don’t we all?

Brown starts very much better than he develops, but in that beginning is its very purpose:

I’ve got a new favourite song. It’s called I’m Gonna Get Lit Up When The Lights Go Up In London, and it dates from 1940. It’s about the London-wide street party that the song’s writer, the illustrious Hubert Gregg, was anticipating at the end of the Second World War and his intention to celebrate by getting so “lit up”, so “pickled”, so “canned” and so “stinking” that he would barely remember a thing.

GibbonsThe version that I recall, originally from a well-scratched 78rpm on a wind-up player, was Carrol Gibbons.

I’m not sure Jack Brown has the complete story.

The impeccable Hubert Gregg

Hubert Gregg had an early career as a radio announcer. That, and his enunciation, went with regular work as a straight thesp, including The Old Vic. In 1937, though, he was on Broadway, with in Terence Rattigan’s French Without Tears.

Unlike some, come the Second Unpleasantness, he was back ‘to do his bit’, as a private in the Lincolnshires. The Army needed to exploit his talents: he was plucked from the ranks, given the swift wipe-over War-time Officer Training, and commissioned in  the 60th Rifles — an odd regiment, originally recruited in British North America as the Royal American Regiment. But Gregg wasn’t long for that: next stop the Political Warfare Executive and broadcasting to Germany.

Some how in all that, he turned to song-writing:

His first published song, I’m Going To Get Lit Up When The Lights Go Up In London, written in 1940, and initially performed by Gregg in an army concert, was incorporated into the 1943 George Black show Strike A New Note, and sung by his first wife, Zoe Gail. To begin with, it aroused considerable criticism, not least in the Commons. Churchill replied characteristically that “we shall celebrate in a manner befitting”; the tune came to be broadcast in 1944 as a radio signal to the resistance that D-Day was imminent.

The song may even have been banned in Australia. Where ‘getting lit up’ isn’t just a problem for large areas of the bush.

Gregg, post-War, was a regular feature in supporting roles in film (he was Disney’s Prince John against Richard Todd’s Robin Hood in 1952), TV and — above all else, Friday night on the BBC Light Programme. That last ran up to his death in 2004.

Can’t but muse: that song looks fit to have a new relevance, a surprise renaissance.



Filed under History, London, Music, Uncategorized, World War 2

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium.

Yeats orates

Yeats, 1926. The oul’ fella knew little of Byzantium that he hadn’t read in an Edwardian history of the sixth century. Being another product of The High School, then at the top of Harcourt Street, I declare my personal interest in a passing remark by Norman Jeffares:

R. Ellmann has suggested that J.B.Bury the historian, who was Latin master for a time at the High School, Dublin, may first have interested Yeats in Byzantium.

Except Yeats hadn’t:

sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

His wife had taken him to recuperate in Sicily. There he saw the mosaics in the Palatine Chapel in Palermo, which — since it’s an early twelfth century construction by Roger II of Hauteville — is some time and space from Byzantium. Impressive, though …


Here’s one I made previously:

Constantine gave his name to Constantinople (11 May AD330), but its antecedent, Byzantium, had been around for the previous millennium. Byzantium, after all, had been paying fifteen talents to the Athenian treasury since Darius was seen off. That implies a place of some wealth and importance, which then revolted from Athenian control in 440BC and again in 411BC.

Look at the location of Byzantium/ Constantinople/ Istanbul, and recognise it had to be a place of settlement, and an important one, through any period of human development. Over there, just a day-trip south and east, is the site of ancient Troy — and the Greeks didn’t destroy that one for the love of a none-too-honest woman, so much as it could strangle commerce through the Hellespont.

And that was why Constantine fixed on this spot. H.G.Wells’s The Outline of History (1921) includes an outline map by J.F.Horrabin (page 518), showing the world as then appreciated by the western mind:


Malcolmian aside:

Socialistic Wells, with that book, was arguing his political point against American ‘exceptionalism’ and the Republican Party’s ‘isolationism’, which he saw as subverting any hopes of a peaceful world.

Some things don’t greatly change.

Herodotus narrates

The Bosphorus, at its narrowest point, is little more than a mile wide. Herodotus described Xerxes bridging it:

They joined together triremes and penteconters, 360 to support the bridge on the side of the Euxine Sea, and 314 to sustain the other; and these they placed at right angles to the sea, and in the direction of the shore cables. Having joined the vessels, they moored them with anchors of unusual size, that the vessels of the bridge towards the Euxine might resist the winds which blow from within the straits, and that those of the more western bridge facing the AEgean might withstand the winds which set in from the south and from the south-east. A gap was left in the penteconters in no fewer than three places, to afford a passage for such light craft as chose to enter or leave the Euxine. When all this was done, they made the cables taut from the shore by the help of wooden capstans. This time, moreover, instead of using the two materials separately, they assigned to each bridge six cables, two of which were of white flax, while four were of papyrus. Both cables were of the same size and quality; but the flaxen were the heavier, weighing not less than a talent the cubit. When the bridge across the channel was thus complete, trunks of trees were sawn into planks, which were out to the width of the bridge, and these were laid side by side upon the tightened cables, and then fastened on the top. This done, brushwood was brought, and arranged upon the planks, after which earth was heaped upon the brushwood, and the whole trodden down into a solid mass. Lastly a bulwark was set up on either side of this causeway, of such a height as to prevent the sumpter-beasts and the horses from seeing over it and taking fright at the water.

And now when all was prepared — the bridges, and the works at Athos, the breakwaters about the mouths of the cutting, which were made to hinder the surf from blocking up the entrances, and the cutting itself; and when the news came to Xerxes that this last was completely finished — then at length the host, having first wintered at Sardis, began its march towards Abydos, fully equipped, on the first approach of spring. At the moment of departure, the sun suddenly quitted his seat in the heavens, and disappeared, though there were no clouds in sight, but the sky was clear and serene. Day was thus turned into night; whereupon Xerxes, who saw and remarked the prodigy, was seized with alarm, and sending at once for the Magians, inquired of them the meaning of the portent. They replied: “God is foreshowing to the Greeks the destruction of their cities; for the sun foretells for them, and the moon for us.” So Xerxes, thus instructed, proceeded on his way with great gladness of heart.

Herodotus, so generally an annoying gossip, comes up with precise detail there. And, of course, in ancient history every crucial event deserves an eclipse.

Byron natates

That bridge would have run between modern Çanakkale and Kilitbahir:Canakkale.jpeg

The aerial shows the site of Troy. A bit north and it’s ancient Abydos, where legendary Hero had her tower, directly opposite across the strait from Sestos, where Leander pined for his inamorata.

Inevitably, that’s where George Gordon, Lord Byron, felt driven to repeat Leander’s swim (3 May 1810). And, the braggart rehearsed it in verse:

If, in the month of dark December,
Leander, who was nightly wont
(What maid will not the tale remember?)
To cross thy stream, broad Hellespont!

If, when the wintry tempest roared,
He sped to Hero, nothing loath,
And thus of old thy current poured,
Fair Venus! how I pity both!

For me, degenerate modern wretch,
Though in the genial month of May,
My dripping limbs I faintly stretch,
And think I’ve done a feat today.

So it became, two hundred years on, an annual effort. Good luck with that, say I, having observed the shuttling of rust-bucket freighter and tankers through the Bosphorus.

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Filed under Dublin., High School, History, leisure travel, Literature, WB Yeats