Writing Portfolio


Garden bird-watching round-up, 2017

The Spring 2018 issue of Nature’s Home, the RSPB members’ magazine, arrived in the post a couple of days ago with the form for the RSBB Big Garden Birdwatch which takes place over the last weekend in January. I take part in this every year, although for the last two years I have had nothing to report as my front garden received a grand total of no avian visitors during the one hour I had designated for the survey (despite the various options that were available on the feeder), and back in 2015 two Ring-necked Parakeets who scared everyone else away. But one hour on a January weekend doesn’t tell the full story.

The bird-feeder in the front garden, situated so that it can be seen from the armchair in the corner of the lounge, actually gets a nice range of visitors. Over the past year, I have seen four kinds of tit (Blue, Coal, Great, Long-tailed) and two types of pigeon (Feral, Wood) on it, as well as Chaffinches, Robins, the odd Carrion Crow and the very occasional Greater-spotted Woodpecker. Ground-feeders have included Blackbirds and Dunnocks (and more pigeons), while I’ve seen Starlings and a Redwing perched in the tree.

Less welcome have been the squirrels, and I have tried various tricks to deter them. I thought that I had hit on a winning squirrel-deterring method by greasing the pole with some WD-40, and the resulting attempt by a squirrel to climb up the pole was admittedly hilarious. But then, of course, after several attempts enough of said lubricating oil had been wiped off to ensure a successful ascent, so an upturned plastic flower-pot with a hole in the bottom was deployed instead. I’m pleased to report that no squirrels have been seen on the feeder since.

Oh, and the parakeets visit too. Interesting birds, Ring-necked Parakeets. They’re not a native species to Britain, of course – but they have been a visible (and vocal) presence in the London area for a few decades now and are very well-established. Their exotic brightness has led to a couple of rather fanciful urban myths about how they got here; that the first pair in London were released at some point in the late Sixties by either Jimi Hendrix or Mick Jagger, or that the first ones escaped from Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen back in 1951. There are a few question-marks over the extent to which they have affected native species (are they taking nest-sites from Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers, whose numbers are in decline?), although any queries about how a species from India manages to survive the winters here should be directed to the fact that their range includes the Himalayas; these birds may look tropical, but they can do cold. And, as they have shown, they are highly adaptable.


Harlech Castle

To Wales, where among other place to visit was Harlech, a small seaside town in Snowdonia best known for its castle which, by virtue of its cliff-top location, really dominates the surrounding area. It was built at the orders of Edward I during the 1280s, a time when that king also ordered the construction of the castles at Conway, Caernarfon and Beaumaris in order to secure his hold on North Wales; today, those castles (along with the town walls at Conway and Caernarfon) are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, described (by UNESCO) as the “finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe”. It was the work of one James of Saint George, a master mason from Savoy who became Edward I’s castle-builder-in-chief.

If you’re coming down from the north, Harlech can be approached by two roads. There’s the high road – the B4573, which takes you into the town at the top – or you can stick on the A496 to approach it from the bottom. The latter, I reckon, gives you a better idea of how well the castle is situated as you approach the place, which I was very keen to explore. Well, it is one of the finest castles in a country which is renowned for having many, many castles! It just so happened that I was there on a quiet day, meaning that after I’d paid my entrance money at the café and visitor centre (the castle is run by Cadw, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) I basically had the place to myself. That doesn’t happen very often but it really is the best way to look around a castle!

From the top of the south-west turret of the gatehouse, the view is spectacular – across the bay (the tidal estuary of the Glaslyn and and Dwryd rivers), over places like Porthmadog and Portmeririon and towards the mountains inland – Snowdon, the tallest of the lot, can be seen from Harlech on a clear day. 

The bay itself used to be much bigger; nowadays, the castle is some distance from the sea but when it was built the sea came up to the cliff on which the castle stands. Harlech is not the only place to bear witness to the fact that coastlines change over time.

I had fun climbing the towers and exploring those narrow stone passages, some of which end rather abruptly at wooden barriers which look out onto courtyards where there were once floors (generally speaking, back in Medieval times the higher-status guests got the higher-up floors). 

A walk along the battlements, with more scope for the views of the coast and the mountains, was something that had to be done. At the gatehouse, I noted the grooves for the portcullises (Harlech Castle had three) and the murder-holes above the passageway and even arrow-loops to the sides, so that the castle’s defenders could fire on any attackers who got that far.

There were plenty of attackers over the years. Harlech Castle was besieged not long after it was built, during a Welsh rebellion against the English in 1294, and again during Owen Glendower’s rebellion in the early 1400s; after he managed to capture it in 1404, Glendower (or, as his name is written in Welsh, Glyndwr) used it as his headquarters for four years – it would fall to the English forces under the command of the Prince of Wales (the future Henry V) in 1409. It was also besieged during the Wars of the Roses, when it was held by the Lancastrians during the 1460s, becoming the last major Lancastrian stronghold to hold out against the Yorkists before it finally fell in 1468 after a seven-year siege; it was this event which inspired the song ‘Men of Harlech’. It was besieged again during the Civil War, becoming one of the last major Royalist fortresses to hold out before it fell to the Parliamentarians in 1647.

It was a cold day at the castle, though – it was December after all – so I eventually made it back to the café for a cup of tea and some lunch; I needed something warm, and thought it appropriate to order something Welsh; it turns out that the café does a good Welsh rarebit (they even make the cheese sauce themselves)…


Cocktail hour, part four

When getting ready to pour myself a Scotch-and-ginger recently, I grabbed hold of a tumbler which has cocktail measurements on the side. We have a set of four of these – one each for gin, rum, vodka and whiskey (I’ll let the Irish-American variant of the spelling pass); they’re square-shaped and each side has the measurements for a different cocktail marked on it. Out of curiosity, I had a look at the ones for the whiskey glass and found that one of the cocktails listed, the cablegram, wasn’t far off what I was planning to drink anyway. So, naturally, I opted to go the extra mile and turn my spirit-plus-mixer into a cocktail.

I’d not come across a cablegram before, it not being featured in our Vintage Cocktails book. It consists of whisky – over three fluid ounces of whisky if we’re going by the measuring-line on the glass, which we might as well do in the absence of any other instructions – mixed with a teaspoon of sugar and the juice of half a lemon, plus ice, topped with ginger ale. If three fluid ounces of whisky seems like quite a bit, I should point out that that is because it is; for reference purposes, a standard pub measurement of whisky (or any other spirit for that matter) in this country is 25 millilitres, which converts into less than one fluid ounce.

To all intents and purposes, it’s a whisky sour with ginger ale. On second thoughts, make that a pretty stiff whisky sour with ginger ale, for over three fluid ounces is a lot more whisky than I would usually put in a glass! But most enjoyable.


Interesting things in Wiltshire pubs (part 2)

Time to continue our tour of Wiltshire pubs that contain interesting things. From Avebury, let us journey further west (just under 15 miles by road) to Lacock. This village (or is it a town? It was given a market charter in the Middle Ages, which would technically make it a town even though there’s no longer a market) has remained unchanged for many years, with most of the buildings dating back to at least the eighteenth century. Lacock’s remarkably unspoiled appearance has made it a favourite with the makers of TV costume dramas, and it has appeared in plenty of those – Cranford, two versions of Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders and Tess of the d’Urbervilles (to name but a few) were filmed here, while the stately home, Lacock Abbey (“the birthplace of photography”, for that was where William Henry Fox-Talbot took the first photograph, in 1835), was Wolf Hall in Wolf Hall as well as being used as part of Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter films.

Lacock, which is almost entirely owned by the National Trust, has several pubs, including another Red Lion, but the one we’re interested in here is the George. As a pub name, the George also has more than one origin – either from St George or King George. The former has been recognised as the patron saint of England since the fourteenth century, although veneration of him in England goes back further. As for kings, there have been six of those but crucially that was the name of every King of Great Britain between 1714 and 1830 (starting with George I and ending with George IV), which is why the eighteenth century is sometimes known in this country as the Georgian period.

Inside the George in Lacock, we have our second unusual or interesting thing. In one of the rooms, there’s an old fire-place and in front of that is displayed an old spit or roasting-jack, as used for turning big joints of meat in front of open fires in the days before ovens. What is unusual about this one is that it was dog-operated, for it is linked by way of a pulley system to a large wheel in which a small dog was placed – the dog would run in the wheel, and that would in turn power the spit.

While such an arrangement seems odd at first, when you think about it it seems hardly surprising that people would have thought to get an animal to power the roasting-jack, for (as far as humans were concerned) being a ‘spit-boy’ was a low-paid, monotonous and – thanks to being up close to a roaring fire for long periods of time – uncomfortable job (see Tony Robinson’s TV series The Worst Jobs in History for more on this). Getting a dog to do it instead seems to have been a widespread practice by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – widespread enough for there to have been a particular breed of dog, long of body and short of leg, that was called the turnspit. Also known as the kitchen dog or the cooking dog, the breed does not seem to have been particularly well-documented, and it was more or less extinct by the mid-to-late nineteenth century, by which time automated roasting-jacks, powered by steam or by the hot air rising from the fire, were fairly widespread.


Interesting things in Wiltshire pubs (part 1)

Back to Wiltshire, that county in Southern England well-known for its ancient stone circles, Salisbury Cathedral, several Army bases and the fact that the M4 and the A303 go through it. In recent years it has played host to the reintroduction of the Great Bustard, a species of bird which became extinct in Britain in the 1830s (it’s Wiltshire’s county bird; more on that in the unlikely event of my actually seeing one). What is perhaps less well-known is that a couple of pubs in the county have some rather odd things in them…

First up is the Red Lion in Avebury

That’s a fairly common pub name, the most common in the country in fact. It’s one of those pub names that has more than one origin. A a red lion was the personal badge of John of Gaunt (the “time-honour’d Lancaster” who does the “this scepter’d isle” speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, in real life a younger son of Edward III and the father of Henry IV). It was also the Royal arms of Scotland, which were merged with the Royal arms of England when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. But then again, the Red Lion in Avebury could derive from the coat-of-arms of an eighteenth-century lord of the manor, Lieutenant-General Williamson, which can be seen on display in the local church.

Anyway – the pub. The Red Lion in Avebury does have something that makes it unique, for it claims to be the only pub in the world that’s located within an ancient stone circle. Since I cannot think of any other ancient stone circle which has part of a village inside it, they’re probably right. So if you want to go for a pint in a pub that is truly unique, this one’s worth a visit.

Inside, there’s more. A mural on the wall shows a map of southern England, with the Line of St Michael marked out. This is probably the most famous ley line in the country, running diagonally from Cornwall to Suffolk, passing through such places as St Michael’s Mount, Glastonbury, Avebury and Bury St Edmunds, among others. Its saintly dedication derives from the fact that there are several churches or places dedicated to said archangel on its length – for example, the hilltop church at Brentor in Devon and the ruined tower atop Glastonbury Tor, as well as the afore-mentioned Cornish island. Some people get very excited by this; occasionally at Avebury, you may even run into someone who’s brought his divining-rods with him. Although I regard the notion of ley lines with a degree of cynicism, a journey along this one would certainly make for an interesting travelogue. Reading up on this, I note that I’m not the only cynic, for Geoffrey Ashe (in Mythology of the British Isles) refers to them as “modern myth” although he does note that “Avebury is at the point where it [the St Michael Line] cuts a parallel of latitude distant from the equator by exactly one-seventh of the earth’s circumference”; make of that what you will, if anything.

Of more tangible interest in the pub, though, is the well. Yes, the village well in Avebury – 86 feet deep, dating back to around 1600 and “believed to be the last resting place of at least one unfortunate villager” – is located inside the pub. How many pubs can claim to have a well inside them? And even if they do, how many of those wells have had a glass top put over them so they can serve as a table?

The presence of the well would seem to indicate that there wasn’t always a pub on this site – and there’s evidence for that, in the form of a map of Avebury drawn up by the antiquarian William Stukeley in 1724. His main purpose was to mark the locations of the stones themselves, and the locations of spots where stones had once stood, but he marked out other key points as well – his map shows a pub (“The Inn”) that is located on the other side of the road to the present-day Red Lion, although crucially (as far as this particular study is concerned) he didn’t mark the location of the village well.

To be continued...


Broadway Tower

To Worcestershire, where I was keen to indulge my love of climbing towers with Broadway Tower, an eighteenth-century folly located on the top of Broadway Hill, the second-highest point in the Cotswolds (it’s 1,024 feet above sea level, whereas Cleeve Hill in Gloucestershire is 1,083 feet).

Built to resemble a castle at a time when follies were all the rage among the landed classes, Broadway Tower is 65 feet tall and was the brainchild of the famous landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown although it designed by James Wyatt. It was completed in 1798. The money for the project was provided by Lady Coventry; the second wife of the sixth Earl of Coventry, she was curious as to whether a beacon atop Broadway Hill – a hill on which beacons were lit on special occasions – could be seen from her home in Worcester (22 miles away). The story goes that a fire was lit on the hill and, after noting that she could see it from Worcester, Lady Coventry celebrated by bankrolling the building of the folly (as you do).

In the nineteenth century, Broadway Tower played its part in early moves to preserve historic buildings. In the early part of that century it was owned by Sir Thomas Phillips, a book collector whose ambition was to own a copy of every book in the world; he didn’t achieve that but he was able to amass a collection of over 60,000 manuscripts and printed books, some of which he kept at the tower along with his printing press. Later that same century, it was used as a retreat for people involved with the Arts & Crafts movement like the writer and textile-designer William Morris; even though Broadway Tower wasn’t particularly old, he was so impressed by the place that he founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.

It’s sometimes described as being built in the ‘Saxon’ style, but I find that a bit dubious as stone castles only really started to be built in this country after the Norman Conquest. Up close, it’s a three-sided (and three-storey) structure, and the views from ground level are pretty good. I was there on a particularly windy day, but that didn’t really matter too much; more importantly, there was no rain and the sun was poking through the clouds – a lovely November day, in other words. On the way up (there are two narrow spiral staircases, one designated as ‘up’ and the other as ‘down’), the first and second floors have little exhibits dedicated to William Morris and also to the Royal Observer Corps (nearby there is a memorial to the crew of a Whitley bomber that crashed close to the tower in 1943, and there’s also a Cold War nuclear bunker close by).

From the top, the views are amazing – it’s said that at least a dozen counties can be seen from it (sources vary, though, but that’s probably more to do with local authority boundary changes over the years). As well as the cities of Birmingham and Coventry, you can see as far west as the mountains of Wales and as far east as the Chilterns. My only regret was that I hadn’t bought my binoculars.


The Writers' Museum

Up in Edinburgh recently, I had a walk around the Old Town and, after enjoying the view from Castle Rock and checking out St Giles’ Cathedral, I chanced upon the Writers’ Museum, located in a courtyard just off the Royal Mile.

Well, seeing as I occasionally volunteer at Dr Johnson’s House down in London (and had just chanced upon a pub close to the castle which has a plaque outside saying that Samuel Johnson had dined there with James Boswell in 1770), I had to go in and have a look around. The building itself is called Lady Stair’s House and dates back to 1622 (as can be deduced from that year being carved onto the lintel over the front door) although it’s named after a woman – the widow of the Earl of Stair – who bought it in 1719. Having restored it in the late nineteenth century, Lord Rosebery (briefly Prime Minister in the 1890s; Winston Churchill later quipped that he “outlived his future by ten years and his past by more than twenty”) donated it to the city of Edinburgh for use as a museum in 1907.


The museum is a delightful building whose three floors (accessed by two staircases, one a spiral and the other, main one having uneven stairs – an old anti-burglar trick) are devoted to three of Scotland’s most famous writers (two of whom were born in Edinburgh): Robert Burns (1759-96), Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).

Burns, now regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, collected old folk songs from across Scotland (something that was being done by various writers across Europe at the time) as well as writing his own material, which includes ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Address to a Haggis’ (as recited after the haggis is piped in at a Burns Night dinner) and that poem in which he says that the “best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” do something in the Scots dialect that I can’t pronounce although I do know that it translates as ‘often go wrong’. The artefacts of his in the museum include a cast of his skull (made when his widow, who outlived him by 38 years, was laid to rest alongside him) and a sword-stick – a slim sword concealed in a walking-stick, which he had because he worked as an exciseman as well as being a writer.

I’d already seen the Scott Monument on Princes Street, a large Gothic tower that I was not surprised to learn is the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world (it is not far from Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s mainline railway station which I suspect is the only train station in the world that’s named after a novel). The museum has Scott-related items of a more personal nature, such as his childhood rocking-horse (with one foot-hold higher than the other, for he suffered from polio as a child) and a lock of his hair. I’ve often thought that Scott – who met Burns when he was 15 – is one of those writers I should read more of – I’ve only read two of his books; Ivanhoe many years ago, after watching a TV adaptation of it, while a couple of years back I made heavy work of Waverley. Scott, I was intrigued to learn, was made a baronet not for his writing but for finding the Scottish crown jewels (which hadn’t been used since the seventeenth century and were thought to have been lost), and he was also the man who co-ordinated George IV’s visit to Edinbugh in 1822, a spectacular affair that did much to establish tartan as a potent symbol of Scottish identity (it had previously been banned in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745) and only took three weeks to plan.

The part dedicated to Stevenson is in the basement. This contains a wooden cupboard, once owned by Stevenson’s father, that was made by no less a person than William Brodie, better known as Deacon Brodie, a notorious eighteenth-century public figure in Edinburgh; a respectable cabinet-maker, locksmith and city councillor by day (he had the title ‘deacon’ not out of anything to do with religion but because he was head of a trade guild), he was also a thief and a burglar (many of his victims being people who he had made locks for!) by night. The pub named after him on the Royal Mile, not far from where he was hanged in 1788, plays on this dichotomy by showing both sides of his personality on either side of the sign. Amost a century later,  Deacon Brodie would serve as the main inspiration for Stevenson’s novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There’s also some interesting information about Treasure Island (he came up with the map first, and worked the story around that). Although his literary reputation did for a time suffer at the hand of those snobs of the Bloomsbury Set, Stevenson’s legacy has been enormous – just think of how many stories derive from those two that I’ve mentioned! As for me, I’ve always meant to read some of his travel writing but, as with more Scott, it’s just something I don’t seem to have got around to.

There were some pictures of other Scottish writers on the walls; I was pleased to find a photograph of John Buchan, although the most impressive picture was the tapestry depiction of Burns, Scott and Stevenson.

Finally, there’s currently an exhibition at the Writers’ Museum devoted to a modern Scottish writer – Ian Rankin, for 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Rebus books, the Edinburgh detective having made his first appearance in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Rankin wrote that novel after having the idea of updating Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into then-modern Edinburgh, which is why the reader is for a time led to suspect that the troubled detective is also the villain of the piece (and he could easily have been, for at the time Rankin had no plans to bring him back for more). I like the Rebus novels, to the extent that I made a point of seeking out the Oxford Bar when I was in Edinburgh last year, so I loved that there was an exhibition devoted to them at the museum.

All in all, well worth a visit.


More on Avebury

Writing about Avebury some time ago, I noted that the eighteenth-century antiquarian William Stukeley had theorised that the two stone avenues radiating out from the stone circle had formed a ‘solar serpent’ pattern. He got this idea because the route taken by said avenues (only one of which still partially exists) can be interpreted, and indeed was interpreted by Stukeley, as being representative of the body of a snake, passing through Avebury itself and ending at the head – which took the form of another (smaller) stone circle called The Sanctuary which is located just under two miles from Avebury itself (there are no stones left there, and nowadays their positions are marked by concrete blocks).

I happen to go to Avebury rather a lot, and I’ve found a reference to this notion in an old building in the vicinity of the stones. St James’s church in Avebury dates back to at least the seventh century although the nave of the current building dates back to around 1000, with the aisles, chancel and so on being added later. Rather tellingly, the church itself is located outside the stone circle (after the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, stone circles came to be seen as the work of the devil while many have local legends attached that state that they are people who were turned to stone for dancing or playing music on Sunday), but who knows if any of the masonry that now makes up the church came from smashed-up stones that once formed part of the circle? 

Quite a few old English churches have some special features, and the church at Avebury is no exception. It has a rare example of a medieval rood screen, an installation intended to separate the nave from the chancel; most of these in English churches were done away with during the Reformation, although in the case of the Avebury church it was hidden and later restored. There is also a hagioscope – also known as a squint, a small hole in the interior wall dating back to the fifteenth century, used to ensure that the mass taking place at a side-altar could be synchronised with the mass at the main, central altar (priests back then would have had their backs to the congregation). On the wall under the tower is a Royal coat-of-arms, which all C of E churches were once required to display by law. Quite a few older churches still do; the Avebury one dates back to the reign of George III.

And then there’s the stone font, reckoned to be Norman or perhaps even Saxon, upon which is carved the image of a serpent-like creature being stabbed in the head by a human figure. Perhaps this symbolises the coming of Christianity in the Dark Ages, or perhaps it hints at the notion of the old stone circle being part of a larger, serpent-like structure. Perhaps that’s where Stukeley got the idea from, for although he’s not listed as having been a former vicar of that parish, he was a C of E priest who spent some time in the area, so he must have been aware of what was, and still is, on the font.


The Death of Stalin

To the cinema – our wonderful local one, the Phoenix – to see The Death of Stalin. Earlier this month, we’d managed to miss one of ‘my’ films, Goodbye Christopher Robin which was not in the cinemas for long (that was the one where I got to stand next to Margot Robbie; now we wait for the DVD to come out to see if that scene ended up on the big screen rather than the cutting-room floor), and even though I wasn’t an extra in The Death of Stalin I did want to see it. Well, having studied Russian history (among other histories) at university, I couldn’t have not wanted to see the demise of said blood-soaked Soviet dictator and the subsequent power-struggle as interpreted by the man behind The Thick of It.

While I’m aware that this is not a film to everyone’s tastes, I must say that I really enjoyed it. So what if it has apparently gone down badly in Moscow, and that there are some people in the West who would most likely dislike the film because even today they venerate the man (revered as ‘Uncle Joe’ during the War) whose death is the plot catalyst? Some historical events are perhaps best presented on the big screen as farce, and I’m not sure if the machinations that went with the aftermath of Stalin’s death could be presented in any other way. How else, for instance, could a situation where no-one wants to call a doctor because they’re afraid to make a decision without deferring to a higher authority, even though said higher authority is lying unconscious and incontinent on the floor, he being a man of whom they’re all scared and also a man who has recently sent many doctors to the Gulag, be interpreted? And, prior to Stalin’s demise, what of those dinners that he had those in his inner circle attend, where they were forced to sit through bootleg Westerns, drink vodka (Stalin had his own special bottle, which actually contained water so that he would be able to observe what the others said while under the influence) and dance for his amusement for no better reason than, as Khrushchev later remarked, “when Stalin says dance, a wise man dances”, and woe betide anyone who said the wrong thing or, worse still, passed out? I also liked the accents – or rather, the lack of Russian ones. Actors all trying to do the same accent can be a distraction, especially if it’s badly done (which is usually the case) and I thought it a smart move to do away with attempts at doing so here. Besides, the accents that were used here do actually work with the real-life people who are depicted. Thus, Nikita Khrushchev becomes ‘Nicky’, a street-smart New Yorker (played by the “funny-looking guy” from Fargo) and Georgy Zhukov a bluff, no-nonsense Northerner, while Malenkov sounds like what he was – weak, ineffectual, somewhat colourless and utterly unable to control events even though circumstances have left him in charge, however nominally.

There are, inevitably, several examples where Mr Iannucci is a bit economical with the actualité. Well, he did admit to as much in the trailer, which boldly (baldly?) states that this film is “loosely based on the true story”. Was there really a panic at a Moscow concert because Stalin had heard the live performance on the radio and wanted a recording, and in the absence of an actual recording they had to re-do the whole thing, making the tired performers and the audience who hadn’t already left stay, getting in extra audience-members off the street and getting a second conductor out of his bed because the original conductor had fainted, in order to perform and record a repeat-performance just for the tyrant’s pleasure? Probably not, but to emphasise from the start the paranoia that Stalin was capable of generating among his own subjects after the best part of three decades of purges, show trials and rule by terror it’s a pretty good introduction. There are a few historical liberties with the historical people shown here too, although you can understand why the changes that have been made for dramatic licence were made. Molotov, for example (here played by Michael Palin, a veteran comic actor being somewhat appropriate for a subject who was, by 1953, one of the last remaining Old Bolsheviks), had been removed as foreign minister in 1949, although he would be reinstated after Stalin’s death; that said, his wife had been consigned to the Gulag and Stalin was planning to have the man after whom that most lethal of cocktails was named sent there too, and was only prevented from carrying this out by his own death. Similarly, Marshal Zhukov (Jason ‘hello to Jason Isaacs’ Isaacs, really playing it up) wasn’t the head of the Red Army at the time of Stalin’s death, the dictator having consigned him to the provinces because he was paranoid that the famous general would be more popular than he (there being only  room for one at the top in the Stalinist cult of personality); but he too came back after Stalin’s death, and relished the opportunity to settle some old scores, especially with the secret police chief Beria.

While we’re on that subject, how come Simon Russell Beale (the actor who plays Beria) isn’t on the posters? Perhaps it is something to do with the notion, picked up on in the closing credits, about how once people were purged images of them were removed to the point of photographs being doctored, and this in a time long before Photoshop (there is, for example, a famous picture of Lenin haranguing a crowd which had the right-hand side cropped in Stalin’s time because Trotsky was standing just to the right of the podium from which Lenin was speaking). Maybe it is appropriate that a secret police chief who is very much the dark heart of this film gets the ‘un-person’ treatment.

That Beria, a man who Stalin introduced to FDR as “our Himmler”, got to Stalin’s dacha first once the man of steel’s incapacity was eventually discovered and news of it relayed to the members of the Politburo, is well-known, and his acting quickly to rifle through the contents of the safe while the tyrant lay prone on the floor (did that really happen? If so, how do we know this?) echoes Robert Harris’s treatment of the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death in his superb novel Archangel. An odious individual on many levels (Stalin himself, who had dirt on everyone, never liked the idea of his own daughter being alone in the same room as his secret police chief), Beria subsequently acted as though he had already seized control for himself even though he was really part of a triumvirate or troika with Malenkov and Molotov while consolidating his hold over the security services. That he underestimated Khrushchev is without doubt, for it was Khrushchev who with Zhukov engineered Beria’s denunciation and arrest at a Politburo meeting in June 1953 (although, unlike in the movie, the meeting in question was chaired by Khrushchev, not Malenkov, and Beria’s execution did not take place until December of that year). And it was Khrushchev who, three years later, would move to seize supreme control for himself, denouncing Stalin and Stalinism in the process. Sometimes, it’s the one you least expect.

But I digress, trying to go into the real history after enjoying myself watching The Death of Stalin (as you do, or at least as I do). I liked it. Amusing, and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. Thought-provoking. Worth watching.


Getting my name in print

The other day I got an email advising me of the fact that a couple of articles that I wrote for the excellent Londonist website have made it into print form by way of a new book that they have out.

Well, naturally we had to buy the book. Londonist Mapped is now on display in our lounge; a hardback with 96 pages, it’s a really cool book adorned with lots of lovely and fantastically-detailed hand-drawn maps that accompany some of Londonist’s best articles. On that particular subject, I’m pleased to say that my article about how London’s docks got their names has become ‘A Brief Guide to London’s Docks’ on page 16, accompanied by a map drawn by London-based artists Luke Agbainmoni, while a couple of entries from my one about how London’s castles and palaces got their names have made it into ‘Stately Homes of Southwest London’ on page 64.

It really is a superb book for anyone interested in London … but I say it who shouldn’t, of course!


Recent reads - four second-hand novels

A fascinating quartet of second-hand novels has been receiving my attention recently…

The Path of the King by John Buchan
Fan of John Buchan though I am, I sometimes come across works of his that I have not previously encountered; he did, after all, write a lot of books and not all of them are still in print. This one, The Path of the King (first published in 1921), comes in the form of a smart-looking red hardback which was published by Thomas Nelson (an Edinburgh publisher, which as well as publishing Buchan’s books employed him as a director; the Thomas Arthur Nelson to whom The Thirty-Nine Steps was dedicated was a descendant of the company’s founder in addition to being a friend of Buchan’s). Later described by Buchan himself (in his autobiography Memory Hold-the-Door) as “my first serious piece of fiction”, it is an interesting tale of how greatness in people can be transmitted down the family tree; sometimes, it  lies dormant for generations before re-igniting at the right time. The story begins with a prologue set some time after the American Civil War, in which three men around a remote campfire theorise on how the “spark” of “masterful men” can be found in the most unlikely places: “The things we call aristocracies and reigning houses are the last places to look for masterful men … who is more likely to inherit the fire – the eldest son with his flesh-pots or the younger son with his fortune to find? … The spark once transmitted may smoulder for generations under ashes, but the appointed time will come, and it will flare up to warm the world. God never allows waste. And we fools rub our eyes and wonder when we see genius come out of the gutter. It didn’t begin there.” I guess we modern folk would say it was all about genetics. This story begins with Biorn, a Viking prince, before jumping down a few generations to Jehan, a Norman knight – and so on. Rather like Buchan’s Sir Walter Raleigh, The Path of the King is less a coherent novel than a collection of short stories held together by a unifying thread or theme, which in this case is what happens to Biorn’s descendants down the centuries – men and women, some of them noble, some of them very ignoble indeed, all united by blood and by their possession of a family heirloom in the form of a gold ring, made from the amulet Biorn received from his father and which I suppose acts as the physical manifestation of the “spark”. They get caught up in events like the Norman Conquest, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre and the Popish Plot, and they encounter real people like Joan of Arc, Sir Walter Raleigh, Oliver Cromwell and Daniel Boone. Eventually, the “spark” resurfaces in nineteenth-century America, in the form of Abraham Lincoln who is descended from Biorn on his mother’s side. He loses the gold ring, but it is no longer needed as it is he in whom the long-dormant “spark” will reignite – something his dying mother recognises. The epilogue has three men witness Lincoln’s funeral parade following his assassination; one of them (an American professor) remarks that “there goes the first American”, to which another (a British diplomat) replies: “I dare say you are right, Professor. But I think it is also the last of the Kings.” As novels go, this is very much one for those who are interested in history, and it reflects Buchan’s fascination with the New World and its ancestral links with the Old – particularly in his treatment of Lincoln and the admiration expressed for him by the British character at the end, which can be looked at in the context of people like Buchan looking to promote a spirit of cohesion between English-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic. Reading this as an historical novel, it has to be noted that the the fact that so many real people and events over different centuries can be successfully woven into the plot in a way that it doesn’t feel like they’ve been crow-barred into it is testimony to Buchan’s great skill as an author.

The Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn by Russell Thorndike
Having recently touched on this particular character when looking into smuggling on Romney Marsh, I was delighted to find a couple of old Doctor Syn paperbacks in a charity shop recently; the adventures of this most extraordinary of fictional clergymen, written by Russell Thorndike, ran to seven in total and have long been out of print. They make no claim to be great literature but as adventure stories they are most definitely up there with the exploits of (say) the Scarlet Pimpernel, Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe. Published in 1939, Courageous Exploits was the fifth Doctor Syn book to be written, but if the novels are to be read in sequence it’s the fourth. By this stage in the series, the Reverend Doctor Syn is well established at Dymchurch as the much-loved local vicar and, under the identity of the ‘Scarecrow’, the ruthless leader of the Night Riders, the local smuggler gang (the secret of his identity is known only to a select few). Exasperated by the Night Riders’ continued success, the Admiralty has sent the ruthless Captain Blain down to Romney Marsh to defeat them and bring the Scarecrow to justice; his men are to be billeted in a local barn, while the captain himself moves into the vicarage! There follows a series of cat-and-mouse adventures, which could stand alone as short stories as well as parts of a coherent whole, as Blain tries to do his duty while Syn, or rather his alter ego the Scarecrow, rises to the challenge by growing ever bolder. A real historical person, the Prince of Wales (the future George IV), makes an appearance – as he does, funnily enough, in the adventures of the other three fictional heroes I have mentioned above. As is the case with “that demmed, elusive Pimpernel”, in Courageous Exploits HRH manages to encounter both Doctor Syn and the Scarecrow and respect the pair of them while at the same time remaining blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are the same person. This is good, old-fashioned adventure; a modern version would doubtless dwell more on the duality of Syn himself, the upstanding community leader who is also its most notorious criminal, and there would doubtless be a lot of trying to impose the values of the present onto late-eighteenth-century England which would mean that it would not be anywhere near as much fun to read. The Doctor Syn books may be out of print, but they are still worth looking into.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
As was the case with John Buchan, I first discovered P.G. Wodehouse when I was in my early teens, at first because of the superb Jeeves and Wooster TV series with Melchett and George from Blackadder – sorry, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie – in the title roles. They were brilliant in that, by the way, and it was but a short step from watching Jeeves and Wooster to discovering the books on which the series was based, of which the school library had a plentiful supply. Oddly, though, I never really progressed much beyond the Jeeves stories – the other Wodehouse creations, like Psmith and the Blandings crowd, didn’t really hold much appeal and while I have tried over the years to expand my horizons in the world of Wodehouse I always find myself coming back to the Jeeves stories. Maybe it’s because they are told in the first person, with that upper-class twit par excellence Bertie Wooster as the narrator, he being not so much an unreliable narrator but one who is not in full grasp of everything that’s going on. Luckily, though, he has Jeeves, the incredibly clever manservant who is able to extract his master, and at times his master’s friends, from the most unlikely and desperate of scenarios, allowing them to continue to amuse themselves, and us readers, at the Drones Club and various country houses. There are a lot of things going on in The Inimitable Jeeves, what with Bertie’s chum Bingo Little falling in love with every woman he meets, his rather scary Aunt Agatha trying to get Bertie married off at every conceivable opportunity, the mental-health specialist Sir Roderick Glossop (who, naturally, thinks Bertie’s off his rocker) putting in the odd appearance and his cousins Claude and Eustace (“the curse of the human race”) getting up to all sorts of shenanigans. Unlike some of the Jeeves books, The Inimitable Jeeves is actually not so much a novel as a collection of short stories (they first appeared in The Strand Magazine before coming out in book form in 1923), although some of them do follow on from one another. Some showcase Wodehouse at his best, with the humour deriving from the most unlikely sources. For example, ‘The Great Sermon Handicap’ is all about a group of young men, led by Claude and Eustace, placing bets on which of the local vicars in a corner of rural Gloucestershire will preach the longest sermon on a particular Sunday; naturally, Bertie and Jeeves get drawn into the mayhem that ensues. More of the same can be encountered in ‘The Purity of the Turf’ which involves bets being placed on, and attempts being made to rig, the races in a rural parish’s sports day (Mothers’ Sack Race, Choir Boys’ Hundred Yard Handicap, etc). There are some great set-pieces too, like the time Bertie has Sir Roderick for lunch on the same day that Claude and Eustace hide three cats and the top hat that they have stolen from Sir Roderick in Bertie’s flat, Bingo pretending to be a communist and Bertie actually getting one over on Aunt Agatha when the woman she’s been trying to set him up with turns out to be a jewel-thief. Finally, Bertie’s ongoing claim to be an author of romantic fiction under the pen-name of Rosie M. Banks (originally done in order for him to impress Bingo’s uncle so that he can persuade him to increase the ever cash-strapped Bingo’s allowance) gets exposed as a sham when it emerges that the woman whom Bingo has just married is not a waitress as he had supposed but none other than Rosie M. Banks herself. Only Jeeves can sort out this unholy mess. Hilarious.

Who Pays the Ferryman? by Michael J. Bird
The TV series of this name was before my time, but I’d vaguely heard about it from somewhere – it is set in the mid-to-late Seventies and concerns Alan Haldane, a middle-aged Englishman returning to Crete, the island where as a young man he spent part of the Second World War fighting in the mountains with the andartes of the Greek Resistance. He wants to try and reconnect with his wartime lover, but soon finds out that she is dead although she did bear him a daughter who is unaware of her true parentage. While many see ‘Leandros’ (Haldane’s nom de guerre among the andartes) as a returning hero there are a few who wish him ill because of what happened during the war. Seeing this in a charity shop, I was interested as I have previously read and enjoyed books about occupation and resistance during the War, both fictional (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, The Guns of Navarone, etc) and factual (Ill Met by Moonlight, and for what it’s worth the real-life Kriepe kidnapping gets referred to in Who Pays the Ferryman?, the implication being that the fictional Haldane was somehow involved in this operation along with Billy Moss and Paddy Leigh Fermor). The novel version of Who Pays the Ferryman? is based on the TV series, not the other way round (Bird, whose TV dramas were usually set in the Mediterranean, wrote both). It is pretty good, although there are some annoying typos which might indicate that publication was a somewhat rushed job, the TV series having been very popular in its day (1977). As for the plot itself, a slow-burner of a relationship between Haldane and Annika, the sister of his old love (she being unaware that Haldane is her niece’s biological father, and he being reluctant to commit to her for that very reason) plays out alongside sub-plots like an Australian visitor trying to lay the past (in the form of his late Cretan grandfather) to rest, the sudden appearance of Haldane’s (English) ex and Haldane’s restoration of an old caique (sailing-boat), while in the background a vendetta against Haldane establishes itself. The characters are well-rounded and very believable. It’s a good story which shows us that war casts shadows which continue to fall long after the guns have stopped, and that while actions always have consequences, it can sometimes take decades for the consequences to make themselves known. I liked this book enough to find some episodes of the TV series on YouTube, and very good it is too.