Category Archives: reading

Sagittarius Rising, revisited

John Bull (@garius) is editor of London Reconnections. He also provides all kinds of tweeted distractions. Today, for instance, he set us up with a thread on wing-walkers. Wing-walking, of course, was seriously impaired when biplanes were no longer the thing.

However, his references to wing-walkers (in this case, particularly females of the species) drove me back to one of the earliest books I have on flying. Cecil Lewis wrote Sagittarius Rising in the mid-1930s — and it’s still in print (as right). By then he had a wide reputation. Apart from his MC, he had been one of the first executives for the embryo British Broadcasting Company (and an innovator of its Children’s Hour). He would serve as a squadron leader in the second unpleasantness, and live into his nineties to be the oldest survivor of the RFC.

Cecil Lewis enrolled in the Royal Flying Corps at an illegal early age. He survived two years of war-time operations:

Did I, in fact, fly all through the long months of the Somme battle? Did I dive headlong, guns stuttering, into the Richthofen Circus that night Ball was killed? Did I range over darkened London, nervous under the antennae of her searchlights, hunting for Gothas? And did I, all that behind me, celebrate my twenty-first birthday four months after the Armistice? It seems I did.

Two episodes in Sagittarius Rising continue to catch my mind.

The first is the opening of the Battle of the Somme.

July the 1st, the zero day of the Somme offensive, dawned misty and bright. Before it was light I was down in the sheds looking over my machine — an extra precaution, for I had been over it minutely the evening before. I was detailed for the first patrol, and soon we got the machine out and ran it up.

We were to watch the opening of the attack, co-ordinate the infantry flares (the job we had been rehearsing for months), and stay out over the lines for two and a half hours. Before we left, a second machine would overlap us, stay out its two and a half hours, and so continuous patrols would run throughout the day.

We climbed away on that cloudless summer morning towards the lines. There was a soft white haze over the ground that the sun’s heat would quickly disperse. Soon we were in sight of the salient, and the devastating effect of the week’s bombardment could be seen. Square miles of country were ripped and blasted to a pock-marked desolation. Trenches had been obliterated, flattened out, and still, as we watched, the gun fire continued, in a crescendo of intensity. Even in the air, at four thousand feet, above the roar of the engine, the drumming of firing and bursting shells throbbed in our ears.

” Keep clear of La Boisselle” were my orders. There was a small but heavily fortified salient there. It was to be blown up. Two huge mines, the largest ever laid, were to lift it sky-high at the moment the attack was launched. Weeks before, I had taken the officer in charge of the tunnelling up over the spot, and had heard stories of how the men worked down there in the darkness with pick and shovel, stopping at intervals to listen whether” Keep clear of La Boisselle ” were my orders. There was a small but heavily fortified salient there. It was to be blown up. Two huge mines, the largest ever laid, were to lift it sky-high at the moment the attack was launched. Weeks before, I had taken the officer in charge of the tunnelling up over the spot, and had heard stories of how the men worked down there in the darkness with pick and shovel, stopping at intervals to listen whether enemy miners were tunnelling under their galleries. But all was well, the mines were complete, wired, the troops had been retired clear of them, and the officer in charge was waiting, hand on switch, to set them off. Once they were fired, the infantry were to sweep through Boisselle and on up the Bapaurn road to Pozieres, their first day’s objective.

Now the hurricane bombardment started. Half an hour to go! The whole salient, from Beaumont-Hamel down to the marshes of the Somme, covered to a depth of several hundred yards with the coverlet of white wool-smoking shell bursts! It was the greatest bombardment of the war, the greatest in the history of the world. The clock hands crept on, the thrumming of the shells took on a higher note. It was now a continuous vibration, as if Wotan, in some paroxysm of rage, were using the hollow world as a drum and under his beat the crust of it was shaking. Nothing could live under that rain of splintering steel. A whole nation was behind it. The earth had been harnessed, the coal and ore mined, the flaming metal run; the work-shops had shaped it with care and precisio ; our womenkind had made fuses, prepared deadly explosives ; our engineers had designed machines to fire the product with a maximum of effect; and finally, here, all these vast credits of labour and capital were being blown to smithereens. It was the most effective way of destroying wealth that man had yet devised ; but as a means of extermination (roughly one man for every hundred shells), it was primitive and inefficient.

Now the watch in the cockpit, synchronized before leaving the ground, showed a minute to the hour. We were over Thiepval and turned south to watch the mines. As we sailed down above it all, came the final moment. Zero!

At Boisselle the earth heaved and flashed, a tremendous and magnificent column rose up into the sky. There was an ear-splitting roar, drowning all the guns, flinging the machine sideways in the repercussing air. The earthy column rose, higher and higher to almost four thousand feet. There it hung, or seemed to hang, for a moment in the air, like the silhouette of some great cypress tree, then fell away in a widening cone of dust and debris. A moment later came the second mine. Again the roar, the upflung machine, the strange gaunt silhouette invading the sky. Then the dust cleared and we saw the two white eyes of the craters. The barrage had lifted to the second-line trenches, the infantry were over the top, the attack had begun.

At 7.28am Captain James Young of the 179th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, detonated two mines, a total of sixty thousand pounds of ammonol, to form the Lochnagar Crater.

The second is the following year:

One jolly June morning the peace of London Town was disturbed by the unexpected arrival of about twenty German bombers, who laid their explosive eggs in various parts of that comfortable metropolis. They did not do very extensive damage; but their appearance was quite enough to scare the civilian population very thoroughly, and raise an outcry. Barbarians! Dastards! Bombing open towns! Waging war against defenceless women and children! The daily hymn of hate rose to a frightened scream. England was, as usual, un- prepared. The arrangements made for home defence were quite inadequate. True, a few old 2c’s had staggered into the air to attack, but they could not climb up anywhere high enough. They might be all right for Zepps; but against Gothas they were a joke — worse than useless! The complete German squadron returned home triumphant.

Agitation in the press! Scandalous neglect of the defence of dear old England ! Questions in theHouse! Panic among the politicians! Lloyd George acting quickly ! Result: a crack squadron to be recalled for the defence of London immediately, and twelve elated pilots of 56 Squadron packing a week’s kit into our cockpits. God bless the good old Gotha!

That first raid was on 13 July 1917. The SE-5 aircraft, withdrawn from France, and improved early-warning systems, inflicted growing casualties on the Gotha G-IVs, forced the Germans into night raids. Accidents and anti-aircraft fire ensued caused after 61 losses, and the raids were abandoned by May 1918.

The Ulster Museum has a John Lavery painting, Daylight Raid from My Studio Window, 7 July 1917:

Lady Hazel looks none too perturbed.

Lewis’s account of flying over London by night deserves repetition:

In the starlight the earth was almost featureless, a black opaque expanse against the blue-black translucent sky. The flares on the aerodrome dropped below as I circled, climbing steadily to get on my beat. Other pin-points of light shone from neighbouring aerodromes and witnessed that they too were in action. To the east, far down the Thames estuary, two searchlights roved the heavens, impatiently hunting for that white flash in their beams — the wings of an enemy machine. Evidently the invaders were just crossing the coast. Flashes of anti-aircraft bursts could be seen winking for a second like yellow low-hung stars. London was dark and silent, not a searchlight showing, but presently, as if at some order, a number of them opened up together. Their long stiff tentacles began combing the night sky.
Archie began to get busy. The Gothas were evidently passing through that belt of country between the outer and inner ring of Home Defence, and were running the gauntlet of the barrage.
I was now all eyes, peering through the night trying to spot the black silhouette of an enemy, but it was futile; like trying to see a fly in a dark room. Soon the barrage grew heavier: thirty or forty batteries on both banks of the river were speaking; pin-points of greenish-gold on the ground, and, after about fifteen seconds, a smoky yellow flash a bit below me in the sky. The gunners were as blind as I; but they at least had the advantage of being able to hear the Gotha’s engines. I wished I could hear those engines, but the roar of my own made such a thing impossible.
Now the anti-aircraft batteries in London proper were beginning to open up, and suddenly a big flash — Crrrrrump! — down in the city told that the Hun was dropping his eggs. The searchlights were wheeling and flickering excitedly like the antennae of monstrous butterflies, but they failed to locate the raiders.
More bombs! Smouldering heavy flashes down by the river. Suddenly I realized that the only person I cared about was down there somewhere in that blackness among those gun flashes, behind that grille of light beams, and that perhaps one of those bombs might fall on her. For the first and only time in the war, I saw red. I wrenched over the stick, and went in, through the gun fire, right off my patrol beat, to get into the centre of things where those bombs were falling. I was, for about two minutes, mad with rage, mad with the impotent rage of a blind man who knows his enemy is near and cannot find him. I circled over London, while Archie, thinking I was a Hun, took pot shots at me. But I could find no Gothas, so I wheeled sharply and swung off down to the river, thumb on the triggers of the guns, grinding my teeth. How ludicrous it sounds l A single madman, alone, up there in the darkness, bent on vengeance for one among those millions who cowered in the roots of the lights below! But it was all useless. I could find nothing, so I wheeled north again, back on to my beat. The A.A. fire grew less.
My anger wore itself out. If she had been killed, well, there it was. Some one had to be killed by falling bombs. If she had escaped, so much the better. Anyway, I could do nothing about it. Now I was tired. For two hours I had been at strain, peering into darkness, screwed up for an emergency. It had not come. Mental alertness could not last at that pitch. Petrol was running low. I was cold, and seeing, far below, the welcome ” L ” of the flares, shut off, and came down.
“Any one have any luck?” I asked my sergeant rigger.
” No, sir, no one ain’t seen nothin’. But ,judgin’ by the row, them Huns must have been goin’ through it good and proper.”



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Filed under Hazel Lavery, History, London, reading, Uncategorized

He might have bought me at a common price

— Diana in All’s Well that Ends Well [V.iii., if anyone cares to check me out].

How come I ended up with two copies of Mick Herron’s The Drop?  Or of Alan Johnson’s The Long and Winding Road? Or the odd Alan Furst? Or of Peter Stanford’s Pope Joan? Actually, that last is forgivable: it’s American and UK editions of same text, under different titles. Aha! There’s the clue: hard-back and pper-back: sea book, different appearances — different shops.

Then I got half-a-dozen pages into Malcolm Pryce, The Case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste. Something familiar here? Head turns right, and to top shelf: next to Thomas Pynchon (strange bed-fellows, indeed). And that in hard-back (both the Pryce and the Pynchon).

It would irritate, were it not for the seven editions of Hamlet, and the six of Lear. But in those cases, the editing all.

Then, further right, next to the door, Yeats, Auden and Heaney (perhaps others) in various editing and editions. All those anthologies tend to be repetitive.

At least I can claim to be keeping the publishing industry afloat. With overspill to Oxfam Books.

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Filed under Detective fiction, Literature, reading


Intriguing history, that word.

Original Greek meaning, says my Shorter Liddell and Scott (1909 reprint), a neuter noun:

  1. a cloth, sheet, web, sail-cloth
  2. a wide, loose cloak or mantle, worn as an outer garment, also used as a shroud

Not many people know that.

As a feminine and proper noun (these things are important, you see):

an island in the bay of  Alexandria

I suspect something a bit adrift there. ‘Alexandria’ as a place was founded by — guess who? — Alexander in 332BC. I’d reckon from its position there was a pre-Hellenic settlement there long before. So along comes the Great Man, and does a re-branding. The Pharos, the lighthouse, came along fifty years after, was built in the reigns of Ptolemy I and II, partially destroyed in one earthquake in AD956 with the wreck completed by a second quake before Ibn Battuta’s visit in AD1349.

Because Alexandria was so important for Mediterranean trade, and because the Pharos (feminine and proper — unlike its priapic shape) was an original concept, all pale imitations tended to adopt the generic name. So the Greek ϕάρος is Latinised as pharos or pharus to survive into Romance languages: Spanish faro, Portuguese faro (and so the Algarve town), Italian faro. And early modern English as phare. Even that last one has its crunchiness:  it seems that French had Far de Messina as early as c.1442 — except the term referred to the Strait of Messina rather than any guiding light.

Anyway, by 1616 William Drummond of Hawthornden bashes out Sonnet 31:

Looke on the wofull Shipwracke of my Youth,
And let my Ruines for a Phare thee serue
To shunne this Rocke Capharean of Vntrueth.

You want me to remind you about the Rocke Capharean? Easy! The Greek hero, Ajax, had severely thumbed his nose at the goddess Athene, not least by raping Cassandra in the temple of Athene (say non-Homeric sources) and had to come to a sticky end. Inevitably almost home, he was wrecked on the coast of Euboea. That wasn’t enough to assuage the Olympians: Poseidon had also taken the hump, had him caught by a whirlwind, impaled by a bolt of lightning, and transfixed on the rocks. Better believe it: It’s in the Odyssey IV, 502, and Virgil tells us those rocks were still called after Ajax.

Be grateful, please: I had to endure a classical education, to spare others for less important stuff.

LRB: from June 1996

The LRB does a daily bit of Diverted Traffic, recirculating pieces from its archives. With the rarest exception (and we are now hitting number 79) they are well worth the visit. Peter Hill does a diary piece:

In the early Seventies I worked as a lighthouse keeper on three islands off the west coast of Scotland. I was between art schools and before taking the job I didn’t really think through what a lighthouse keeper actually did. I was attracted by the romantic notion of sitting on a rock, writing haikus and dashing off the occasional watercolour. The light itself didn’t seem important: it might have been some weird coastal decoration, like candles on a Christmas tree, intended to bring cheer to those living in the more remote parts of the country.

It was not an idyllic experience:

I would eventually come, they promised, to the tiny uninhabited island of Pladda, and there would be initiated by three seasoned keepers into the ancient art of keeping watch.

I was greeted by the three of them on the jetty. One was in his sixties and clutched a black Bible in his potato-like fist. Another was middle-aged and wiry. The third, in his thirties, had a little corgi by his side, and was one of the few bachelors I met during my time on the lights. He often blamed the dog for making it difficult to form a lasting relationship with a woman, but I could never see the connection.

The daily life was hard:

We were kept busy and I didn’t complete many haikus or watercolours. The light had to be wound up like a giant grandfather clock every 30 minutes. Every 20 minutes we pumped up the air pressure to the paraffin. This was a subtle ruse to keep us awake and alert, as was the little hammer that banged away on the brass every second through the night. At the highest level the light itself burned and the giant mirrors, the reflectors, turned like a slow-motion merry-go-round supported on a huge bath of mercury. To light the paraffin you had to cause a mini explosion in the light room, allowing a small cloud of paraffin vapour to form in the air, shielding your face while igniting the gas with a burning taper.

Be prepared for the nightmarish account of the storm and the self-destructive migrating birds.

Personal stuff

I’ll confess to a penchant for lighthouses.

I’ve watched the Fastnet Rock on nights when westerlies were thundering up Roaring Water Bay. I’ve stood too close to Mizen Head in a sea-mist, an experience repeated a couple of years ago at Cabo de Sao Vicente — one is the emigrant’s pained last sight of Ireland (if it wasn’t Roche’s Point), the other is the end of Europe and the start of Portuguese exploration of the coast of Africa and beyond. Both are emotive places: the fog-horns, though, are something else.

In this archipelago, the foghorns are not there any more — at least not the ones from land. They were silenced a decade ago. It’s electronics, now, lads — all fine and dandy until something goes wrong.

My first lighthouses were on the North Norfolk coast: Hunstanton to the west, Happisburgh to the east (that’s another testing place name shibboleth for non-Norfolk): top of this posting, respectively left and right. Both are now ‘redundant’ — one now residential, the other Britain’s only ‘independent’ lighthouse.

When dear Old Dad collected his severance from the Met Police, he was at a loose end. He was recruited by the husband of my mother’s friend to paint Hunstanton lighthouse. Which they did. It rained overnight, and they had used the wrong paint, so they returned to find all their work sloughed off.

Not-quite Norfolk’s (they’re across the frontier with the yellow-bellies) other lighthouses are the toy-town efforts either bank of the River Nene outfall. Best known for the Peter Scott connection, and the original for Paul Gallico’s The Snowgoose. Gallico, to make a small boat crossing to Dunkirk half-feasible, had to transport the light to the Essex marshes.


Filed under Gallico, History, Literature, London Review of Books, Norfolk, reading

Summoning the ghost of oneself

Those drear post-WW2 years established the dire reputation of British food. One prime example was Camp coffee essence. Coffee in-so-far as the syrup contained all of 4% coffee.

The label haunted my childhood nightmares. Not because, in its original form, it epitomised the racist and imperialist elements of our society — as time went by, the turbaned servant’s complexion lightened, and he was finally allowed a seat beside the white sahib. No: because there on the original on the tray is a bottle of Camp coffee essence. So, logically, were it magnified, on the label of the bottle would be a diminutive replication of  … Oh! You get it! It’s the Siphonaptera:

So, Nat’ralists observe, a Flea
Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
And these have smaller yet to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum:
Thus ev’ry Poet, in his Kind
Is bit by him that comes behind.

Thank you, Doctor Swift: don’t call us, we’ll call you! And … hey-ho! … I have been this way before.

Then, before the Derby Lightweight 79XXX DMUs put in an appearance on East Anglian by-lines, we eager students were conveyed to daily schooling on antiquated rolling stock, behind a Great Eastern Railways D17 4-4-0 .

And here’s another marvel!

Those carriages often had mirrors above the seats: two mirrors, each reflecting the one opposite. So one could see the back of one’s head. And beyond that, another image of one’s face. A whole tunnel of selfs disappearing into a cloudy distance. In truth, because the mirrors were never wholly aligned, the tunnel would swerve, and always to the left.

Meanwhile …

iuBack in real time, I’m re-reading Gore Vidal’s The Golden Age, the seventh and concluding episode of his account of Narratives of Empire.

When it appeared, in 2000, the book was seen as ‘controversial’ because it drove home the notion that FDR had connived, by acts of omission, at Pearl Harbour, and thereby bringing the USA into the War. The book is ‘of its time’: it covers the years episodically from 1939, through the War and post-war to 1954. Which is also the life of Vidal himself from later teenager to successful novelist.

Vidal, but of course, takes the opportunity to pay off a whole clutch of personal grievances. Here, two of the main characters, Peter Sanford and Clay Overbury are predicting the path of various papabili:

Clay stared at the photograph of himself and Truman. “Why now and not in two years? Because after Truman we’re going to have at least eight years of a Republican president. Probably Eisenhower or MacArthur. Then a Democrat. Someone new. Born in this century, not one of these old folks, these holdovers from the coach-and-buggy era. It’s all going to change. Well, for me to be ready in 1960, I’ll need at least eight years of national exposure in the Senate. So that’s what I mean to have.” […]

Clay was on his feet. He stretched. For an instant, Peter thought that Clay had actually arched his back. “Everything’s now in order for me to start the long march. There’s also no one else, which is a help.”

“Hubert Humphrey?”

“Too far to the left. The South won’t take him.”

“Lyndon Johnson?”

“Texas? A bribe-taker? Never.”

“Your fellow congressman Jack Kennedy? His father can outspend my father any day.”

“He’ll be dead by 1960. He’s got no adrenal function. ‘Yellow Jack,’ they call him. Just look at him. He’s a skeleton. No, the field is clear for me.”

“Ten years is a long time to keep any field clear.”

Ummm …

Somehow, Solon the Wise sneaks in here:

Call no man happy until he’s dead.

And here’s another wiseacre creeping into Vidal’s baggy plot:

Peter realized that they knew each other from Washington. Gene Vidal was several years younger than Peter. Each had been at St. Alban’s; each had attended Mrs. Shippen’s; then war had taken Vidal to the Pacific and Peter to the far more perilous corridors of the Pentagon. Now, to Peter’s bemusement, Vidal had dropped his Christian name and as Gore Vidal had published a first novel; a second novel was on the way. Although Peter would have preferred death to reading a book by a Washington contemporary even younger than himself, he had not realized that the book he had read about—some kind of war novel—was by the boy that he had known prewar.

“My mother insists that Gore writes just like Shakespeare,” said Cornelia, causing the young—twenty? twenty-one?—author to blush.

Peter nodded gravely. “With our new civilization we’ll certainly need a Shakespeare sooner or later. Why not you?”

Vidal shook his head sadly. “I could never manage those rhyming couplets at the end of scenes.”

That’s chutzpah. Wholly Vidal. Very Camp.



Filed under Gore Vidal, History, Norfolk, railways, reading, Uncategorized, United States, US Elections, US politics

The lure of a good romantic thriller

As this holiday weekend impended, and the long lock-down dragged on, I felt an imminent reading-block just around the corner.

This has been a chronic condition since way-back. Once it strikes, I end up with unread books, a few chapters in, littered around the house.

I have a sure-fire remedy: go back to old favourites. For many years, the stand-by was Anthony Hope’s Ruritania. How many know the third volume (it appeared between Zenda of 1894 and Hentzau of 1898): The Heart of Princess Osra? Osra is a prequel — or would have been, had that term been invented sixty years earlier.

What many don’t get is that Hope has a nourish shade. His swash-bucklings are accompanied by an ability to add Gothic gloom. Here’s the opener of Osra;

“Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!”

The impatient cry was heard through all the narrow gloomy street, where the old richly-carved house-fronts bowed to meet one another and left for the eye’s comfort only a bare glimpse of blue. It was, men said, the oldest street in Strelsau, even as the sign of the “Silver Ship” was the oldest sign known to exist in the city. For when Aaron Lazarus the Jew came there, seventy years before, he had been the tenth man in unbroken line that took up the business; and now Stephen Nados, his apprentice and successor, was the eleventh. Old Lazarus had made a great business of it, and had spent his savings in buying up the better part of the street; but since Jews then might hold no property in Strelsau, he had taken all the deeds in the name of Stephen Nados; and when he came to die, being unable to carry his houses or his money with him, having no kindred, and caring not a straw for any man or woman alive save Stephen, he bade Stephen let the deeds be, and, with a last curse against the Christians (of whom Stephen was one, and a devout one), he kissed the young man, and turned his face to the wall and died. Therefore Stephen was a rich man, and had no need to carry on the business, though it never entered his mind to do anything else; for half the people who raised their heads at the sound of the cry were Stephen’s tenants, and paid him rent when he asked for it; a thing he did when he chanced to remember, and could tear himself away from chasing a goblet or fashioning a little silver saint; for Stephen loved his craft more than his rents; therefore, again, he was well liked in the quarter.

“Stephen! Stephen!” cried Prince Henry, impatiently hammering on the closed door with his whip. “Plague take the man! Is he dead?”

Late Victorian anti-semitic prejudice? Possibly — except the only other Jew in the story is Solomon, who offers a kind of pawn-broking out-of-town business. It certainly isn’t the bare-faced prejudice one finds in other, contemporary writers (Kipling, Rider Haggard — add your own name). And the notion that Jews then might hold no property was a sad truth for much of Europe, from the century before Zenda, down to much more recently.

Or, another lesser Hope work, Sophy of Kravonia — the orphan girl who rises from needlework to be, briefly, queen of some Balkan statelet.

No, not Great Literature …

… but light. And fun. Which is what reading-block requires.

As it happened, I didn’t resort to Hope (who had been, I discover, H. H. Asquith‘s law pupil). Instead it was Carl Hiaasen’s Basket Case. This is Hiaasen before he went full-on environmentalist, and when he was still in and of the Miami Herald newsroom.

I feel I cannot go far wrong with Hiaasen: a best selling young-adult novelist, but also banned in Texas prisons. We’ve had to hang around for another adult Hiaasen for a while: it’s due in the autumn, and is promised to involve:

some grinding between the First Lady and a lovestruck Secret Service agent 

Since the President is obsessed by rampaging immigrant hordes, and supported by Floridan lady POTUSSIES, we know approximately where we are.

Now, for the third or fourth time, I must try to get through some Elizabethan hooha in the company of Stephanie Merritt (a.k.a. S. J. Parris).



Filed under crime, fiction, Haggard, reading

The election campaign of 1945: 1

Nowhere were the issues of the campaign more starkly represented than in this, instructive, cartoon by the great Philip Zec:

In essence, the politics were traditional.

The Tories had been in power, except for two brief moments in 1924 and 1929-31, continuously since 1918. Even those short-lived Labour governments were nominally so — in office, but not in “power”: they relied on support from other parties. Hence the odium of a dismal epoch fell on the Tories. However, 1945 had to be an election about change: the change offered by the Beveridge Report and all those White Papers And the Tories certainly didn’t want to talk about their record over those inter-War decades.

M’Lud, Ladies an’ Gennelmen of the Jury, I present you two pieces of evidence:

First, Ronald Blythe’s delicious romp: The Age of Illusion, England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919–1940. I was delighted to find that, half-a-century on from publication still being recommended reading for University courses in history. It’s once-over-lightly, but it hits all the buttons:

All the events of the inter-war years took place against a huge, dingy, boring and inescapable backcloth—unemployment. By 1935 it had existed for so long and had proved to be so irremediable that it came to be regarded as a normality. The chronically unemployed had learned how to make a pattern of idleness and had become conditioned to hopeless poverty. The streets in which they lived breathed an apathy which in the worst areas was a kind of nerveless peace. Paint flaked from woodwork, doorsteps were ritualistically whitened, delicate undernourished children in darned jerseys and clothing-club boots flocked to see Shirley Temple and Tom Mix on Saturday afternoons for twopence, young men, many of whom had reached their mid-twenties without ever having a job, walked or bicycled in groups over the neighbouring hills and meadows; older men crouched on benches on their allotments and gossiped. The women suffered in a different way. It was they who were exhausted by the constant preoccupation with mean economies, they who under-ate so that the children had sufficient, they who answered the door to the debt and rent collectors, the Means Test spies and seedy touts of all kinds — for the extreme scarcity of money and the meaninglessness of time filled the slums with hawkers and spongers — and they who preserved the maleness of their menfolk when everything conspired to turn them into so many little cloth-capped negatives in the dole queue.

The strange thing is that it was both their plight and their salvation that no one came to their aid. Humiliated, degraded and intimidated by the Labour Exchanges, the Means Test, the Poor Law and the police, the British unemployed were a vast malleable force which only needed a leader for it to become a threat. When it marched on London, as it frequently did, like a dark, singing worm, there was an immediate but quite unnecessary tension. The worm, grudgingly allowed its civic rights, would be met and escorted through side-streets if possible to Hyde Park by foot and mounted police, where it would chop itself up into smaller — and safer — pieces and listen to Wal Hannington or Aneurin Bevan. Occasionally it was entertained by Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, a predominantly middle-class movement which was big enough on November 1st, 1936, for its leader to boast that it would put up a hundred candidates at the next general election.

Read that, and see why Zec’s cartoon resonated.

The second snippet is shorter. W H Auden was in New York when Hitler invaded Poland, and the flavour here was the mood of the time:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …

September 1 1939 is not Auden’s greatest. He himself came to see its weaknesses (and Ian Sansom, very subjectively, dissected them — and its enduring strengths).

In short, the Tory campaign of 1945 had to contend against the party’s history: the misery of the Thirties and the stench of appeasement. It had one antidote: adulation of Churchill, the War leader, in the pious hope that would decontaminate the rest.

Except, of course, Churchill’s own history came laced with remembered poisons: his opposition to women’s suffrage, Ulster Unionism, the Tonypandy Riots, the Battle of Sidney Street, the Dardanelles, the Gold Standard, the General Strike …

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Filed under Conservative Party policy., History, reading, Tories.

Second-hand signings

I brushed past John Rentoul’s recent Top Ten:

This list started when Laura McInerney‏ asked: “Has there ever been a transport secretary who once worked in transport?” I said that John Prescott, Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions 1997-2001, had been a steward in the Merchant Navy. Mr Memory added that Harry Gosling, Labour’s first Transport Minister in 1924, had been a waterman. 

Down at number 4 was:

James Callaghan, Chancellor 1964-67, was an Inland Revenue tax inspector. Thanks to Jon Clarke. Norman Lamont, 1990-93, is one of only two chancellors who had an economics degree (no, PPE doesn’t count). The other was Hugh Dalton, 1945-47, who lectured in economics at the London School of Economics. Hugh Gaitskell, 1950-51, lectured in economics at UCL, although his own degree was in PPE.

Years ago I set about collecting Left Book Club editions, and similar stuff that mainly came out of Gollancz.

For all of a few pre-decimal pence I thereby acquired Hugh Dalton’s signature. So he would be in my personal Top Ten, around me here on these shelves. In at number 8 of John Rentoul’s list is:

Alan Johnson, Trade and Industry Secretary 2005-06, which included the Royal Mail in its responsibilities, was a postman.

Since I have the complete (to date) Johnson memoirs, signed by the author, they must qualify. Johnson, though, is a prolific signer — so, in due course, like Ted Heath, the unsigned copies may be the ones that retain any value.

My copy of Michael Foot’s The Pen and the Sword (an original edition from 1957, at that) had a small history: it is signed by a distinguished industrial correspondent for the Daily Express (at a time when Beaverbrook’s Express was still a newspaper and a power in the land) who would have worked alongside the journalist Michael Foot. It came to me, not quite directly from him, at a time (late ’60s) I was putting myself around in Bury St Edmunds Labour Party.

Many of these inscriptions and declarations of ownership are enigmatic:

Philip Williams’ biography of Hugh Gaitskell came my way a few months back. The inscription is “To Jack. Happy Memories and our very best wishes for the future. Ben and Sheila December , 1979”. Since the book was only recently published then, I might assume somewhere in there are decent socialists. (Philip Williams was a follower of Gaitskell and the Campaign for Democratic Socialism, had dealings with Tony Crosland, and was involved in the creation of the SDP.)

Many are worth the decoding.

Just this week York’s Oxfam Books threw up David C Douglas, The Norman Achievementbut in an American edition, published by the University of California, yet “Printed in Great Britain”, and a dead ringer for the Eyre and Spottiswoode UK edition. Consider the former owner “Elizabeth Muir Tyler”, who monikered the book “June 30, 1987 Philadelphia”. Professor (another “no less”) Elizabeth Muir Tyler ended up as  a considerable ornament to literature and history at the University of York . Did Professor Tyler have it already second-hand from the (stamped) “Library of Georgianna Ziegler”? For Georgianna Ziegler was Curator at the Horace Howard Furness Shakespeare Library, University of Pennsylvania, and then a major figure at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Another one is a grandiose book-plate in That Great Lucifer, A Portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh (see right). A quick google turns up an obituary of:

Former consultant psychiatrist Manchester (b Todmorden 1912; q Manchester 1937; MA, DPM, FRCPsych), d 7 January 2003.

Northage Mather was of a generation whose careers were interrupted by war service. He was a medical officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve before taking the Diploma in Psychological Medicine in 1946. He was soon appointed consultant psychiatrist at Crumpsall Hospital, Manchester (now North Manchester General Hospital), and remained there for 30 years, building up a well known department. He had a special interest in forensic psychiatry, was involved in more than 300 murder trials, and was later a member of the Parole Board. A man of wide interests, including music and literature, he leaves a wife, Mabel, and two children.

He “was involved in more than 300 murder trials”. Say no more.


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On the money day

Back in 344 BC, the Kalendae Iuniae, the Romans dedicated the temple of Juno Moneta on the Capitoline Hill. The site is now occupied by the neat (from the exterior)  basilica church of Santa Maria in Arceli.

She was Juno “the warner” because of the legend — or even a verifiable story, since it had happened just forty years earlier  — of the sacred geese giving the alert of the attack by the Gauls.

During the third century BC, Rome started issuing coins. The mint was set up in the temple of Juno Moneta. So, from that came the terms for “mint” and “money”.


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B(r)ought to book

There is a special joy in discovering a new (at least, new to me) novel sequence.

I will have fingered the piles in the local Waterstone’s serially, before taking the plunge. Sometimes it works (those “get second book half-price” offers help). Too often it doesn’t; and a couple of years later I might be, plucking at the shelf, having a second bite.

Then the bitterest gall of all is to find the paperback the tables, while at home lurks the tasted-but-unfinished hardback.

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, I would go for James Runcie’s Grantchester teccies. I’d caught a couple in their TV adaptations.

Finally I took the plunge, making sure I had the sequence in proper order.

So here I am, setting out with Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. The next month, with luck, is going to be booked.

Stout, but not Cortez, here I am willing and wishing to be dazzled by this new planet swimming into my ken.

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Lightening a grim day

I dozed off early (Neil Gaiman can be as soporific as Mr. MacGregor’s lettuce). Only in the early hours did I hear of the Manchester horror.

So, come this morning, it was good to have some light relief:

Catty uncornered

Years ago, we were doing the chateaux of the Loire, and stopped off at La Flèche.

Just as we were moving on, a dispute broke out between two authentic French ladies of certain years. Madame A’s lap-dog had taken offence at Madame B’s cat. The cat had taken refuge in the nearby tree, and was spitting down at the dog.

The cat was not coming down. Words were being exchanged.

The aid of les pompiers was called for.

The first stalwart arrived on a bicycle, with what looked like a window-cleaner’s ladder. Too short. An appreciative audience was growing.

The next reinforcement was a small van, with a longer ladder. The boy apprentice was sent up the ladder. The cat headed higher. The quite considerable circle of on-lookers were warmed by such an act of resistance,

Finally, the full panoply of les sapeurs-pompiers de La Flèche showed up with a resplendent red carriage and extendable ladder. Cheers all round.

As the ladder was being raised, the cat came scampering down the tree, and was quickly purring in Madame B’s bosom.

Excitement over, we headed on our way.

Doggy doo-dah

Perhaps it was on that summer trip we composed the game to entertain young daughters along the kilometres of routes nationales.

The dog on a string is a frequent feature, wherever one goes.

We established that every French dog had to come in one of three types: rat, rug or demi-cheval. Because the daughters, even at that early age, were perceptive creatures, very quickly those simple definitions were not enough. Depending on size and hairiness, long disputations ensued to determine a ratty-rug from a ruggy-rat.

No: I do not claim ownership of this entertainment. We simplified it from Macbeth:

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: the valued file
Distinguishes the swift, the slow, the subtle,
The housekeeper, the hunter, every one
According to the gift which bounteous nature
Hath in him closed.

Sheer Rattiness

When canine distinctions palled, we reverted to the on-going rat-wagon competition.

Those were the days when progress along any route nationale could regularly be impeded by being stuck for long periods behind a trundling and corrugated Citroën van. There were after all the better part of half-a-million of these.

Doubtless those which are not serving moules avec frites along the Belgian coast, or gussied up as crêperies on London’s South Bank, now serve duty as chicken hutches.

Not only were such automotive slugs obstinately slow, they had an even greater propensity to rust than any Lada or Kawasaki.

A true rat-wagon had to be not just rust-streaked (they all came that way) but pitted and — preferably — see-through.

So we designated local champions, provincial champions, and — at the end of the trip — a national champion.

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