15.8.14

Fantasy football

This season, for the first time in many, many years, I will be taking part in a fantasy league. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about this sort of thing (a bit too anorak-ish for me, I’ve always thought), but there’s one at work this season so I decided to give it a go.

I have no idea how I will get on, having tried to base my selection on whether someone has previously played for Watford and given up after finding four Premier League players thus qualified (Ben Foster, Adrian Mariappa, Ashley Young – no relation – and Andros Townsend) before going for a couple of big names (Sturridge, Yaya Touré) and then getting stuck for ideas and impulsively buying a Swansea City defender.


If nothing else, it should make watching Match of the Day more interesting.

7.8.14

Back to Southwold

Last weekend, for an all-too-brief time, Allison and I went back to Southwold. We’ve been going there for several years now, originally as a day-trip while staying in a nearby village but more recently staying in the town itself. What with its back alleys, art galleries, occasional antique markets, the pier, the lighthouse located in the middle of the town, the iconic painted beach huts and those old cannons overlooking the sea, it’s rather old-fashioned in some ways with its emphasis, as a holiday destination, purely on the British seaside experience without the mass crowds. It is, let’s face it, a small town and the fact that holiday-makers seem unusually prone to jay-walking is better explained by the narrowness of the pavements than the sheer number of people.

This Suffolk town has a refined, almost genteel air to it not present in some of the larger seaside towns, which has led some to nickname it Hampstead-on-Sea; appropriately, one of its most famous residents was a certain George Orwell, who also lived in Hampstead for a time. Literary connections aside, the fact that Southwold is home to the Adnams Brewery is an added bonus, with many having commented on how the smell of malt from the brewery somehow blends with the sea air. The pubs, needless to say, are excellent.

On the birding front, I was on the look-out for the swallows after what we saw last year; this time, we were a bit early to see the baby swallows all lined up and ready to fly, but we did see them poking their heads out of the nests high in the rafters of the car park roof.



Down on the part-sand, part-single beach it’s clear that there are some aspects of the British seaside experience that never change. Windbreaks, sand getting everywhere, cups of tea, beach cricket, gulls on the lookout for spilled food and loud children are all present and correct. Some folks rent out the beach huts to keep all of their stuff in (I always wonder how many people decide to break the rules and spend the night in these huts in order to save on accommodation costs), while the rest of us lug our things from the car, the hotel or the B&B. Even the relative lack of mobile phone reception on the beach lends the place a timeless air.



But it cannot be denied that Southwold itself has changed in recent years as more holiday-makers discover its rather quaint charms. Tellingly, what was once a rather good second-hand bookshop on Pinkney’s Lane is now a letting agent, while a couple of independent booksellers closed down a few years ago (one cannot help but imagine Orwell turning in his grave at the very thought). In recent years, Tesco and Costa Coffee have both opened up shops in the town – the latter in particular attracting opposition from the residents of a town that already has several places where one can drink coffee – while Waterstone’s has gone down a slightly different route and opened an outlet with no company branding present (it’s simply called Southwold Books).


What hasn’t changed, though, is the inescapable fact that when you leave, you find you’re already missing the place by the time you’ve made it to the A12.

29.7.14

Evensong

London, being London, is home to many places of great historical interest, some of which can be found in the most unexpected places. Yesterday, I found myself in an oasis of (relative) tranquillity just yards from the bustle of Fleet Street which is home to one of London’s oldest churches. This area is known as the Temple, and it has the feel of a sleepy, old-fashioned university college. I, it seems, am not the first person to think this; back in the 1920s, H.V. Morton commented that the Temple "brings into the heart of a great city the peace of some ancient university town and the dignity of a past age."

It’s not really sleepy, of course – it’s one of London’s major legal districts and those seemingly quiet (and, in most cases, listed) buildings are for the most part barristers’ chambers. At its heart, though, is the Temple Church, rare among English churches on account of its being round (well, the original nave section is) and famous for its effigies (not tombs) of medieval knights. It’s a beautiful old building, and this first-time visitor was most impressed.

It dates back to the 12th century when it was built by the Knights Templar, who modelled it on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (which is why the nave is round); although the Knights Templar were abolished in 1307, their legacy lives on in the name of this particular part of London, and the curious fact that the priest-in-charge is not called the vicar but the Master of the Temple.

History has been made in the Temple Church, for it was the venue for negotiations between King John and the barons, which led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. William Marshal, the knight who ensured that the Magna Carta was reissued after John’s death, is buried there. It has featured in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 and The Da Vinci Code (that last one led to a vast increase in the number of tourists coming to have a look around; the Master has even written a book debunking the myths propagated by Dan Brown). It survived the Great Fire but was badly damaged in the Blitz, after which it was restored.

Unusually, the Temple Church is a peculiar, meaning that it is a church that does not come under the jurisdiction of the diocese in which it is located. This is not due to anything concerning the Knights Templar but because the Temple Church is the chapel of two of the four Inns of Court (the two with ‘Temple’ in their names, naturally). The most visible sign of this unusual status is that the Master and his acolytes get to wear scarlet cassocks.

So what was I doing there yesterday? The answer can be summed up in one word: Evensong.

I’ve not been to evensong since I was a chorister at John Keble Church; back then, evensong was an occasional Sunday evening affair (more often than not, evening prayers were a ‘said’ service and so did not require the choir); Temple Church, by contrast, has a cathedral-style choir that does regular choral music performances in addition to services, and has even featured on the Proms.

This particular evensong was held to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Although Britain didn’t enter the war until 4th August, 28th July marked the anniversary of the first declaration of war, that of Austria-Hungary on Serbia; five days earlier, the former had presented the latter with a series of demands that were intended to allow their authorities to investigate the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, although some of them were so unreasonable that they invited rejection. In fact, the Serbs accepted all but one demand, the request that the Austrian police be allowed to operate within Serbia itself. The result of this rejection was the outbreak of war.


And so, to the accompaniment of some truly lovely choral music (including the Last Post, the Magnificat, an anthem based on the 90th Psalm and the Old Hundredth, the last of which I remember singing as a chorister, at evensong most likely), we commemorated the start of the war.

16.5.14

What if...

Theorising about what might have happened had certain historical events gone the other way has long been a popular subject-area for authors, with Robert Harris’s Fatherland, a detective story set in the Berlin that Albert Speer would have built had the Germans won the Second World War, being the lead example in an increasingly crowded market.

Into this arena has stepped C.J. Sansom, author of the best-selling Shardlake series of thrillers set in the reign of Henry VIII. These have cemented his reputation as an historical novelist par excellence, but now he has moved into the field of alternative history with Dominion, a thriller set in 1950s London – the twist being that this is an imagined London, in a world in which Hitler won.

Like Fatherland but unlike, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, Sansom’s alternative world is not one in which Operation Sea Lion was successful – citing Richard Overy’s factual work The Battle of Britain in the historical notes at the end, he reckons it would’ve failed – but one in which Lord Halifax became Prime Minister in May 1940 instead of Winston Churchill. Rather than fighting on as really happened under Churchill, in this alternative reality Halifax sued for peace after the fall of France, signed a humiliating peace treaty (referred to in Dominion as the Treaty, always with a capital ‘T’) and was replaced by an ageing David Lloyd George who took on the role of a British Pétain. Britain got to keep the Empire, but otherwise became subservient to Nazi Germany.

The bulk of the novel is set in 1952, by which time the collaborationist government is headed by Lord Beaverbrook, with the likes of Oswald Mosley (whose fascist party has been the main beneficiary of rigged elections), R.A. Butler and Enoch Powell in the Cabinet. The Conservative and Labour parties have both split into pro-Treaty and anti-Treaty factions – as has the Church of England. The police have become heavily politicised – the violent Special Branch Auxiliaries are for the most part little more than Blackshirts given official licence – and captured subversives are routinely handed over to the Germans for interrogation in the basement of Senate House (which has become the German Embassy). The press, radio and TV (the post-war reintroduction of the latter having happened much earlier than in the real world) are under tight government control. Britons of the Jewish faith have been increasingly persecuted, and the government has recently given in to German demands to have them deported. Among the collaborationist elements of this dystopian society are the Scottish nationalists, whose support has been ensured by vague promises of devolution and national revival.

Elsewhere, America has been isolationist for over a decade, there is mass unrest against British rule in India, Hitler is dying and the war against Russia, although initially successful (with Operation Barbarossa starting earlier than in reality, Moscow was captured and Stalin publicly executed), has become an unwinnable, drawn-out conflict on an unimaginably vast scale.

Churchill is on the run as the elderly figurehead of the Resistance – which, like the resistance movements of Occupied Europe, contains people of many political persuasions (from crusty retired colonels to ardent communists) whose only unifying factor is opposition to the Nazi-friendly government.

One Briton living in this world is David Fitzgerald, a civil servant at the Dominions Office who has for the past couple of years been covertly passing confidential information to the Resistance – and that’s not the only secret that he has been keeping from his wife. David, it turns out, is an old friend of Frank Muncaster, a timid geologist who unwittingly learns of a great and deadly secret that would be of vast benefit to the Germans – provided they can get hold of him. He has been committed to an asylum, and the main part of the plot concerns a plan by the Resistance to ensure his escape before he gets sent to Senate House for interrogation – while trying to stay ahead of the Gestapo’s top man-hunter Gunther Hoth, aided and abetted by a pro-fascist British police officer. As this cat-and-mouse sequence plays out, the Great Smog of ’52 envelopes London.

Sansom has done a fantastic job of imagining an alternative, terrifyingly dystopian version of 1950s Britain. It is a highly convincing account of the dark forces (most notably, anti-Semitism) that may have been unleashed had a key moment in British history gone another way, combined with a good, solid spy thriller that will keep the reader guessing until the last few pages. If you want my honest opinion, I reckon that, as far as alternative history thrillers go, this is actually better than Fatherland.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, no work of historical fiction can be truly detached from the time in which it is written, and the same is, I think, true of works of alternative history as well. The present always has an influence on those who are writing about the past, both the real and imagined versions of it. In Dominion, a key point that Sansom wants to make is of the dangers of nationalism as a force of division and potential destruction – now as well as in his reimagining of the recent past. 

Specifically, as a supporter of the Better Together campaign, the Edinburgh-born Sansom has a warning about the dangers of a ‘yes’ vote in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. It is no coincidence that the SNP is depicted as collaborationist in this novel (it had opposed conscription in 1939, and Sansom notes that in occupied Europe nationalist movements were encouraged by the Nazis in return for their support, with puppet governments being established in, for example, Slovakia and Croatia). In his historical notes at the end, Sansom states that: ‘A party which is often referred to by its members, as the SNP is, as the National Movement should send a chill down the spine of anyone who remembers what those words have often meant in Europe.’

A warning from history...

16.4.14

Walking the line of history

Paris is a city for walking – much more so than, say, London. When we go to Paris, we do a lot of walking, sometimes because the distance between two places doesn’t look to be that much on the map (indeed, Paris is, generally speaking, a more compact city than London), sometimes because a lot of walking is required merely to change lines at your average Métro station. Either way, a visit to Paris tends to involve a lot of walking, and I have the statistics from my pedometer to bear this out.

There are many walks that you can do around Paris, and I don’t just mean the one in the morning to the nearest boulangerie. When we were in Paris last weekend, we purchased a book containing the routes for twenty walks in the city (one for each arrondissement) which I look forward to reading in advance of our next trip there!

The focus of this post, though, concerns a straight-line walk that takes in several prominent landmarks and a lot of French history. I refer to the Axe historique (‘historical axis’), the line of monuments, squares and thoroughfares that stretches out from the centre of Paris to the west.

It begins at the Louvre, the former royal palace (built in the seventeenth century to replace the old medieval fortress) that became a museum during the 1790s and is today the most visited museum in the world. Oddly, it’s one that I’ve never felt the inclination to visit, probably due to the vast crowds and the notion that the sheer size of the place means that I probably wouldn’t know where to start. It is said that it would take nine months to see every piece of art in the place, so surely a mere afternoon can’t do it justice? But I’ll go there one day; after all, we’ll always have Paris, won’t we?

The main entrance to this mega-museum is the Grande Pyramide, the glass structure in the courtyard that was built as part of President Mitterand’s expansion project for the Louvre in the 1980s, and is today surrounded by queues of tourists all wanting to get in so they can see the Mona Lisa. By the way, the Grande Pyramide (which does indeed have an inverted counterpart below ground) does not actually have 666 panes of glass – this was an urban myth perpetuated when it was built, and was later popularised by The Da Vinci Code.


Moving away from the Louvre, the axe heads west towards the Jardin des Tuileries, but just before you get there you have the first of three arches, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. This was Napoleon Bonaparte’s original arc de triomphe, built to commemorate his victories up to 1805 when he triumphed over the Austrians and the Russians at Austerlitz (the British are not alone in naming a railway station after a famous military victory) and modelled on the Roman Arc of Septimus Severus, which can be seen today in the Forum in Rome. Subsequently, the diminutive Corsican decided that he wanted something bigger and embarked on the construction of a much larger triumphal arch, although that would not be completed until the 1830s.

From the smaller, original arch, the axe continues through the Tuileries, the formal garden originally created by Catherine de Medici in 1564 and which became a public park after the Revolution (although it had in fact been open to the public since 1667). The queen of Henri II and the mother of three more Kings of France, Catherine de Medici was a political intriguer (well, she was a Medici) and a great patron of the arts – most of what she collected is now in the Louvre. She is also credited with giving French cuisine a kick-start by bringing in her own cooks from her native Florence – a cultural import continued by her cousin, Marie de Medici (the wife of Henri IV). French chefs took on the recipes and sophisticated cookery styles of the Italian upstarts, and the rest is history.

The Tuileries used to be the gardens of another royal palace, which stood in what is now the space between the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and the gardens. This, the palace to which Louis XVI was moved in 1789 so that the revolutionaries could keep a closer eye on him and which was the residence of the kings and emperors of the nineteenth century, was burned down by the Paris Commune in 1871. This in turn left an empty space between the northern and southern wings of the Louvre, thus opening up the courtyard to the Axe historique.


The gardens remain, however, to be enjoyed by tourists and promenading Parisians. Here can be found many sculptures amid the trees, while those looking for a museum on a smaller scale than the Louvre can take in the Musee de l’Orangerie (of which more in a future post). There are also various snack-stalls where you can get a croque-monsieur or a crêpe and have lunch amid the flower-beds and the statues before continuing through the park, looking ahead along the Axe historique while trying not to think about how dusty your shoes are getting.


Standing directly on the axe as one leaves the Tuileries is the Egyptian obelisk nicknamed ‘Cleopatra’s Needle’, although this one has nothing to do with Cleopatra, having been made over a thousand years before she was born. Nor is it really connected with the one in London (or, for that matter, the one in New York); this one dates from the 19th Dynasty (1292-1189 BC) and originally adorned the Temple of Rameses in Luxor before the rulers of Egypt presented it to France in 1826, and when it arrived in Paris in 1833 the king, Louis-Philippe, placed it close to the site of ... well, I’ll come to that in a moment, but while we’re on the subject of the Citizen King it’s worth noting that he was also responsible for the nearby Fontaines de la Concorde, which were heavily influenced by the fountains of Rome.

Both obselisk and fountains are located on the Place de la Concorde, the square laid out in the mid-eighteenth century. The eight female statues in the corners of the square represent what were at the time the eight largest cities in France (aside from Paris itself): Brest, Rouen, Lyon, Marseilles, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lille and Strasbourg. During the period between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, when Alsace-Lorraine was occupied by Germany, the latter was covered in black on state occasions.


Despite its peaceful name, the Place de la Concorde has a violent history, being one of the key locations of the guillotines during the French Revolution. It was in this square that Louis XVI met his end in 1793; subsequently, the likes of Marie Antionette and Charlotte Corday (the woman who killed the revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat while he was having a bath) lost their heads here, and then it was the turn of the revolutionaries Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulines (among many others) as the Revolution became the Reign of Terror – which ended with another execution, that of the arch-revolutionary Maximilien de Robsepierre.

After braving the traffic, it’s onto the Champs-Élysées. Initially, this wide boulevard is bordered by trees and it has a peaceful air that almost (but not quite) belies the large amounts of traffic on the Place de la Concorde and the six lanes of the street itself. Before long, though, the trees give way to the (very) high-end shops and the vast crowds of people who’ve come to look at them.

Originally intended as a tree-lined extension of the Tuileries Gardens, it became a fashionable avenue by the late eighteenth century, with the current buildings owing much to Baron Haussmann, the man who redesigned Paris during the period of the Second Empire (1852-70). Much-described as “the most beautiful avenue in the world”, the Champs-Élysées is certainly one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. The street’s size and proximity to several major landmarks has long made it the venue of choice for military parades, including (notoriously) the German victory parade in 1940 and (famously) de Gaulle’s parade to mark the Liberation in 1944. It still hosts one every year on Bastille Day, while since the 1970s it has been the street on which the Tour de France ends.

If the Champs-Élysées is the most beautiful avenue in the world, then the roundabout at its north-western end must surely be the most insane roundabout in the world. A total of twelve roads meet at the Place Charles de Gaulle (after whom it was renamed in 1970; originally, it was the Place de l’Étoile, which explains the name of the nearby Métro station). This was planned long before the invention of the motor-car as part of Baron Hausmann’s redesigning of Paris, which did away with the old medieval streets and introduced the grand, straight boulevards that we know and walk along today.


At the centre of this place is the Arc de Triomphe – or, to give it its full name, L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Étiole (there being, as previously stated, an earlier triumphal arch). Bonaparte commissioned this massive monument in 1806, and it took three decades to build. The reliefs depict key battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while the names of French victories of that period are engraved on the pillars. So big is this arch that, in 1919, an aeroplane was flown through it.


Appropriately given the military theme, directly beneath the arch is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which commemorates the many soldiers of the First World War with no known grave. This is topped by an eternal flame, said to be the first such flame to have been lit in Europe since Roman times.

This was where our walk along the line of history ended, but from here the Axe historique stretches out beyond the city itself to the business district of La Défense, in particular its Grande Arche which was built to commemorate the bicentenary of the Revolution in 1989. The approximate shape of a cube, this is the third, largest and final arch of this particular line of history.