Writing Portfolio


Bank holidays

Why do we have a bank holiday at the end of August? This came up in conversation in the pub the other day; I reckoned that it was something to do with the Heath government but that was just a guess because I thought I knew that that administration had designated May Day as a public holiday.

Evidently I needed to do a bit of research on this.

Some of our public holidays - Christmas Day, Good Friday - correspond with religious festivals, which is appropriate as the word 'holiday' derives from 'holy day'. The idea of a bank holiday - a day other than Sunday on which the banks don't open, effectively forcing other businesses to do the same - is a Victorian one, and they were legislated by the 1871 Bank Holidays Act. This specified that in addition to Christmas and Good Friday (which it was felt didn't have to be included as they were traditional days of rest), Easter Monday, Whit Monday (the day after Pentecost, also known as Whitsun) the first Monday in August and Boxing Day would be days on which people in England and Wales wouldn't have to work.

It is said that the MP responsible for this Act, Sir John Lubbock, chose the date for the August one because it coincided with an important cricket match. Lubbock lived in Kent, and Canterbury Cricket Week was (and still is) usually held in the first week of August, so this is just about plausible. 

In 1965, the Wilson government decided to trial moving the August bank holiday to the end of August, possibly because the one at the beginning of the month invariably coincided with the traditional two-week summer shutdown of major industries. This was done on an ad-hoc basis until 1971 when the Banking & Financial Dealings Act was passed (so my guess about the Heath government was right, albeit not for the reason I had assumed). As well as officially replacing Whit Monday with the Spring Bank Holiday (fixed as the last Monday in May, the date of Pentecost being dependent on when Easter is), it specified that the August one should be on the last Monday in August as far as England, Wales and Northern Ireland are concerned. Scotland still does the first Monday in August.

As for the others, New Years' Day became a public holiday for all of the United Kingdom in 1974 (it had already been a public holiday in Scotland), and in 1978 the Early Spring Bank Holiday (the first Monday in May - to all intents and purposes, May Day; so that one was the Callaghan government) was added to the list as well. 

So ... the August Bank Holiday. Possibly created so a Victorian MP could go and watch cricket, possibly switched so that it didn't coincide with a time when a lot of people weren't working anyway, and different depending on where you are in the country. 


London Canadian

Following on from my spotting evidence of a Canadian presence in the City, I was inspired to track down more about London’s Canadian heritage. My findings can be read on Londonist via this link:


The big charter

In many ways, it is a document that made history. In June 1215 in a muddy field by the Thames just outside Windsor, King John affixed his seal to an agreement known by its Latin name, Magna Carta (literally, 'big charter').

At the time, it was essentially a peace treaty; John was widely discredited by 1215, having lost Normandy eleven years earlier and subsequently levied excessive taxes to fund his unsuccessful attempts to get it back. His barons were in open revolt, and faced with the prospect of a French invasion John had little option but to agree to their demands. The charter that he sealed (not signed) regulated the administration of justice and established the principle of due legal process. 

John, of course, was not one of England's more reliable kings and he went back on his word as soon as he could. What saved Magna Carta was his death a year later; after that, a revised version was issued to win support for the new King, Henry III, who was just nine years old. Subsequent reissues in 1217 and 1225 ensured that Magna Carta was imprinted on the consciousness of the nation; among its key points were the right to a fair trial - which is still on the statute books to this day: 

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land."

This was one of the first steps taken in England towards the establishment of parliamentary democracy. Over time, it was used by those wishing to restrain royal power (those who drew up the Petition of Right and the Grand Remonstrance in the run-up to the Civil War were inspired by it, and it was cited at Charles I's trial), and it greatly influenced the American colonists' Declaration of Independence in 1776. In the twentieth century it inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its influence has been truly widespread, to the extent that it is said to compete with the English language as this country's greatest export.

To celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, there is an exhibition at the British Library which includes the four original surviving copies and looks it its long legacy. It's definitely worth going to see, although it closes at the end of the month. Go now, while you still have the chance.


Two of London's more unexpected statues

London has many, many statues. Some are famous, some are old, and some are just plain weird. Then there are those that you wouldn't expect; did you know, for example, that London's most famous square contains the statue of a man who fought a war against Britain, and the statue of one of our least successful kings?

You may not have noticed them on Trafalgar Square, the most famous statue on which is Lord Nelson on top of his column with the four lions to guard him at the base. Then there are the two Victorian generals whose names no-one remembers (Charles Napier and Henry Havelock) and the equestrian statue of George IV; that last one was meant to have been complemented by a similar statue of his brother, William IV, but after he died there wasn't any money for an equestrian statue - the result being the famously vacant fourth plinth which has of late been occupied by various works of modern art (my favourite was the time when members of the public were able to apply for hour-long slots on it - one bloke apparently took a chair and a newspaper up with him and just sat and read the paper for his allotted time).

The two statues that I'm interested in here are right at the back, so much so that it would probably be more accurate to say that they're in front of the National Gallery rather than on Trafalgar Square (indeed, we probably wouldn't have said that they were on the square at all before the north end got pedestrianised). 

The first, up in the north-eastern corner, is of the man who fought a war against Britain: George Washington. This, which probably really surprises the American tourists who notice it, was given to Britain by the "Commonwealth of Virginia" (so it says on the plinth, a reminder that not all of the United States officially refer to themselves as states) in 1921, and it's one of many copies of the Washington statue by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon which stands in Richmond, Virginia. Apparently it came with some soil from Virginia, because the first President had vowed that he would never set foot on British soil and it was felt that erecting a statue of him in Britain would violate that promise, so the statue actually stands on American mud.

It may seem odd to have a statue of a man who fought a war against this country in the capital city's most famous public space, but there is a certain mad logic to it. After all, at the time not everyone in Britain supported war against the Colonists; in fact, it divided political opinion as much as Iraq has done in more recent times. Some thought that the Colonists were onto something with their complaints about being taxed without being represented, and reckoned that the Declaration of Independence was very much in the spirit of the Magna Carta. 

To give two examples: Pitt the Elder, the man who had led the country in the war that had consolidated British power in North America, collapsed in the House of Lords while attacking government policy towards America (quite literally the last thing he ever did, as he died without recovering) and in the Commons the famously radical Charles James Fox was hardly a lone voice (Lord North, who led that war on George III's behalf, became the first British PM to be forced out of office by a motion of no confidence, brought about by MPs opposed to the government's conduct of the war). Tellingly, Fox would go on to become a key agitator for parliamentary reform and one of his followers, Earl Grey, would be the PM when the 1832 Reform Act was passed.

Washington is not the only US president to have a statue in London; you can also find Abraham Lincoln on Parliament Square and FDR (standing up, weirdly), Eisenhower and Reagan on Grosvenor Square. 

Over in the north-wetern corner is a man dressed as a Roman soldier but, unlike the statue of the Emperor Trajan near the Tower, this one isn't a statue of an actual Roman. Depicting a statesmen or politician in Roman costume used to be a popular thing (down on Parliament Square, short-lived 19th century PM George Canning can be seen in a toga); this one dates back to 1686 and has been attributed to Grinling Gibbons, better known as one of this country's most famous wood-carvers. The plinth has a Latin inscription: "Jacobus Secundus, Dei Gratia, Angliae, Scotlae, Franciae et Hiberniae, Rex" - James the Second, by God's Grace, of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, King. Usually ranked as one of this country's least successful rulers.

The younger son of Charles I (whose statue on a traffic island just south of Trafalgar Square, the point from which distances from London are traditionally measured, looks out onto the sight of his execution), James had acquitted himself well during the Great Fire of London (he had organised the knocking down of buildings to stop the fire from spreading further) and as Lord High Admiral, but by converting to Catholicism he made a lot of enemies; in post-Restoration England, the memory of what had happened under Mary I ('Bloody Mary') over a century earlier cast a long shadow. 

There were some who, fearing that he would try to rule as an absolutist monarch, opposed the very idea of James becoming king; they were nicknamed 'Whigs' (the term derived from the word 'whiggamore', meaning cattle-driver, which had been applied to Scots who were opposed to Charles I a generation before), while those who were in favour of his remaining in the line of succession were derided as 'Tories' (which derived from the Irish toraidhe, meaning outlaw or robber); both terms were originally used as insults. 

When he ascended the throne as King James II (or VII as far as Scotland was concerned) in 1685, he had to deal with a popular but poorly-led rebellion by one of his illegitimate nephews, the Duke of Monmouth. This was defeated, but James's reign was far from stable. Charles II had been clever in his dealings with Parliament, and had hidden his true religious inclinations while taking money from Louis XIV of France in return for a promise to convert to Catholicism; James, alas, was not blessed with his brother's subtlety and he quickly alienated his (mostly) Protestant subjects by enlarging the Army and appointing Catholics to senior posts; when Parliament objected, he prorogued it.

The turning-point, though, came when his wife gave birth to a son. Until then, the Whigs had assumed that the Crown would pass to James's (Protestant) daughters from his first marriage. The birth of a son, and with it the prospect of an heir who would be raised as a Catholic, changed everything. 

(The son, by the way, would be known to history as the Old Pretender, and his 65-year 'reign' as pretender to the throne was longer than that of any actual British monarch.)

The Protestant aristocracy now moved against James, inviting his daughter Mary and her husband, the Dutch prince William of Orange (who was also James's nephew) to reign as joint sovereigns. James tried to resist this, but he lost the support of the Army; John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough), the man who'd defeated the Monmouth Rebellion, now sided with Parliament in what is now known as the Glorious Revolution.

James fled the country, his apparent last act as king being the throwing of the Great Seal of England into the Thames. He would try to get his crowns back (this being prior to the Act of Union, there were three - the claim on the French one, as listed on the plinth along with his actual titles, was by this time a mere historical curiosity), but a military campaign in Ireland backed by Louis XIV was defeated by William at the battle of the Boyne - an event commemorated to this day by the Protestants in Northern Ireland.

A man who fought against the crown, and a man who wore the crown and then lost it; both adorn London's most famous square.


How did the Tube lines get their names?

I wondered about this myself, and decided to find out. The result can be seen on Londonist via the following link:


The Tower

There are many places in London that most Londoners are happy to leave for the tourists, and I’m not just referring to a certain chain of steak restaurants in which no-one who actually lives here has ever dined.

I refer instead to the museums, the galleries, the churches, the monuments - those things that make the place what it is (they're called ‘attractions’ for a reason). How many people who actually live in London have been round Westminster Abbey or the Houses of Parliament, or climbed up the Monument or the dome of St Paul’s? These are some of the best things that London has to offer, but most of the people who visit them are, well, just visiting.

The Tower - or, to use its full title, Her Majesty’s Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London - is such a place. Recently, some friends from Canada came to stay with us, so I had the perfect excuse to buck the trend and see some of London from a tourist’s point of view.

I had a really good time, and I even learned a few things – yes, I who reckoned I knew most things historical already!

I marvelled at the Crown Jewels (for which, the queue doesn’t take as long as everyone thinks), and took note of the packing-cases which are also on display by the exit, probably to emphasise that this is very much a working collection (although most of the implements on display haven’t been used for the past 62 years).

Afterwards, we checked the time and headed over to the moat (grassed over, these days) for one of the half-hourly guided tours. These are conducted by one of the Yeomen Warders, and they are full of information about the Tower’s long and often bloody history.

It so happened that the Yeoman who did our tour was the Raven Master; like all of the other Yeomen, he had to serve in the Forces and receive the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal in order to be considered for a position at the Tower, but his particular responsibility is looking after the ravens. There are six of these, and legend has it that the kingdom will fall if they ever leave; in order to protect against this, the Raven Master advised us that they have a seventh, reserve raven who can take the place of any that go AWOL.

The tour ended in St Peter ad Vincula, the Tudor chapel that serves as the parish church for the Tower community (the Yeomen and their families live within the precincts of the Tower). This outwardly pretty-looking building has a sinister past, for it was here that the headless corpses of those who had been executed on Tower Hill were buried (the heads were stuck on spikes and displayed on London Bridge). The Raven Master described this place, rather accurately I thought, as the opposite of the likes of Westminster Abbey; this was where those who had fallen from grace ended up. Among those buried there are three queens (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey) and notables like Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, several members of the Dudley family and the Duke of Monmouth.

We then took in the centre of the complex, the White Tower. First off was the Line of Kings, a frankly massive display of armour which ranged in size from the mens’ extra-extra-large (the suit made for Henry VIII, complete with an overly prominent codpiece) to the boys’ small (the one made for Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son). Elsewhere were exhibits about coins and weaponry – in its time, the Tower has served as the base for the Royal Mint as well as London’s principal armoury – throughout the ages, and amid all of the displays of swords and guns there’s a calm little room which the tourists fall silent as they traipse through it. This room is the Chapel of St John, which dates back to when the Tower was first built in the 1170s and 1180s, which makes it (in structural terms) London's oldest church, and a fine example of Norman ecclesiastical architecture.

Back in the 1960s, the architecture critic Ian Nairn had seen through the touristy bits and got straight to the root of the White Tower’s significance: “Perhaps no other building in the whole of England conveys such an overwhelming effect of early Norman steamrollering mass, the force that produced the Domesday Book and fixed the shires.” He’d touched on a key point about the building itself. It was a key - for London, the key - symbol of Norman power. It is with this symbolism in mind that Boris Johnson (who has a good view of it, from City Hall) has more recently described the Tower as “a Lubyanka, an expression of power, a horrible bully of a building ... It told the English that they had been beaten ... conquered by a race of people who built great donjons and keeps on a scale that had never been attempted on the island.”

But the Tower’s long and bloody history has always extended beyond the Normans who built it. The headless bodies buried in the chapel tell part of the Tower’s gruesome history; for centuries it was the most notorious prison and torture-venue in the country, the place where the boy-king Edward V and his brother (known to history as the Princes in the Tower) were imprisoned and then murdered, the place where countless prisoners were subjected to the rack. These and many other dark deeds form a long shadow over the Tower. Anyone with even a passing interest in this country’s history should visit. Even if they are from London.

One last thing, which has got me thinking. Near Traitor’s Gate at the moment is a series of billboards that tell, among other stories, of Samuel Pepys's unsuccessful hunt for £7000-worth of gold coins that had been buried in the grounds of the Tower. These billboards were obviously covering up some construction work but I was intrigued as I didn’t know that story. I knew the great diarist had once fallen asleep during a sermon at the Tower (presumably in St Peter ad Vincula) and that years after giving up on the diary he’d been imprisoned there on trumped-up charges of spying for the French because of his support for James II, but digging for gold? Another story, I think, for another time.


A little piece of Canada in the City

Strolling down Bishopsgate a few weeks ago, I happened to look up, and in doing so I noticed something unusual. One of the buildings was topped by a weather vane; nothing unusual there, but what was unusual was that the animal depicted on said weather vane was a beaver.

The beaver is the national animal of Canada (and is as such depicted on the five-cent coin), and that set me wondering about whether the building in question had a Canadian connection. Naturally I went over to have a look.

The gateway on the ground floor of the building under which the beaver weather vane stood led into a courtyard, but before I got that far I looked up again and saw yet more evidence of a Canadian link; a coat-of-arms depicting a Cross of St George with a beaver in each corner. This I knew to be the cost-of-arms of the Hudson's Bay Company, set up in 1670 to capitalise on the fur trade in North America. 

At its height, it more or less controlled the fur trade in English (and later British)-controlled North America and was actually the world's largest landowner, having been granted control over the Hudson Bay watershed. Today it is one of Canada's largest department store chains which also owns stores in Germany and the USA.

But what is its coat-of-arms doing on a building in the City of London? Turns out that the building in question used to be the HBC's London headquarters; it was in fact a London-based company until 1970, although it moved out of this particular building in 1948.

Through the gateway is St Helen's Place, which is owned by the Leathersellers' Company, one of the City's Livery Companies which was founded in 1444 to regulate the leather trade. The link between these two historic companies can be seen in the HBC's motto, pro pelle cutem ('skin for leather').


The enduring appeal of The Thirty-Nine Steps

This month sees the centenary of the publication of one of my favourite novels, The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1875-1940). That it is still readable today is testimony to the skill of the author, who was nothing if not prolific – he wrote over a hundred books in addition to a political career that culminated in his ennoblement as Lord Tweedsmuir and his appointment in 1935 as Governor General of Canada, where one of his achievements was the instigation of the Governor General’s Literary Awards.

The Thirty-Nine Steps was not only thrilling, it was highly topical for its time; it was set in the months prior to the outbreak of the First World War and dealt with an attempt by a German spy ring to steal Britain's war plans. It was a phenomenal success which in time spawned three films and a stage play, as well as setting the benchmark by which future spy novels would be judged. I have written an article on it   which has been published by the New Statesman; it can be accessed via the following link: