Writing Portfolio

12.6.17

Kentish landings

To Kent, where on a twenty-mile stretch of coastline you can find the locations of not one but four sites commemorating famous landings in England, all of which have played a key role in shaping the world in which we live today.

The first one is in the woods near Dover Castle, that fortress atop the White Cliffs that overlooks the UK’s busiest port. The castle, said to be England’s largest, has for centuries existed with the purpose of preventing hostile forces from landing on our shores; it was used by the military until the 1980s, and not for nothing has it been called the ‘Key to England’! Dover, of course, was part of the Medieval confederation known as the Cinque Ports, established to ensure that men and ships were available to defend that part of our coast that was closest to Europe in the event of an invasion. Dover is of course older – its status as the gateway to Britain goes back to Roman times, when it was called Portus Dubris and was the principal means by which Roman troops and traders arrived in the province of Britannia.


Anyway, somewhere in the woods just to the east of the castle is the concrete outline of an old aeroplane. This commemorates the first (and historically the most recent) of our landing-spots, the place where Louis Blériot landed in July 1909, having completed the first flight over the English Channel. Actually, it wasn’t the first flight, for a Frenchman and an American had crossed the Channel in a hot-air balloon in 1785, but it was the first flight in an aeroplane. This was just six years after the Wright brothers had done the first powered flight, and public interest in who would be the first to fly across the Channel was high thanks to the Daily Mail which had in 1908 offered a prize of £500 to anyone who could complete the feat. When 1908 ended with the money unclaimed, the paper upped the prize to £1000. Apparently the paper’s owner reckoned that one the Wright brothers – Wilbur – would be the first, but in the event he had already amassed a fortune from prize money from duration and altitude flights, as well as from sales contracts, and thought the cash on offer to be not worth the risk. Several days before Blériot took off, a rival had attempted the crossing, only to become not the first person to fly an aeroplane across the Channel but the first person to a crash-land an aeroplane on water (he survived).

Blériot flew without a compass, planning instead to take his course from a French destroyer which was sailing across the Channel as his escort, however he hit low cloud and the wind blew him off course; when he did land, it was a crash-landing which damaged his craft’s undercarriage and propeller. But he had successfully flown across the Channel all the same, even though the Mail’s correspondent didn’t witness the landing (he’d been expecting Blériot to land on the beach, and on being told that the intrepid aviator had actually landed above the cliffs near the castle he quickly got hold of a motor-car and headed up there). Louis Blériot’s place in history was assured, and today he is commemorated by the concrete outline of his aeroplane – his own design, called the Blériot XI – on the spot where he landed, which is a few minutes’ walk through the trees from Upper Road (just off the A258); there were no trees there when he landed, which just goes to show how landscapes can change over time.

Along the coast in a northerly direction there are castles – Walmer, which to this day is the home of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (now entirely ceremonial but the position does still come with a castle!), and Deal, built as a defensive fortification by Henry VIII (it’s got round walls, thus eliminating the corners of square keeps which were the most vulnerable points once cannons started to be used, and has three levels from which cannons faced out to sea). Between the two is a plaque commemorating the oldest of our landing-sites, that of Julius Caesar in 55BC.

This is the event that is often said to mark the beginning of British history – although the Romans and others had certainly traded with Britain before (the Phoenicians are known to have bought tin from the West Country), the British Isles were very much on the edge of the known world and Julius Caesar’s visit was the first time anyone had come over in a military capacity. He’d just conquered Gaul, and his invasion of Britain was, according to Winston Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, “an integral part of his task of subjugating the Northern barbarians to the rule and system of Rome.” Caesar, who suspected the Britons of having aided their fellow-Celts the Gauls in their struggle against Rome, regarded the people of the south-eastern corner of the island (modern-day Kent) as being the most civilised on said island on account of their being the closest to mainland Europe.  Not that that was saying much, for they were nevertheless “a tougher and coarser branch of the Celtic tribes whom he was subduing in Gaul” (Churchill again), and he appears to have regarded their pre-battle preparations, which consisted of taking their clothes off and painting themselves blue, with some distaste (he was even less keen on their priests, the Druids, who he’d heard performed human sacrifices).

Caesar judged Dover to be unsuitable for a landing (those blue-painted warriors standing on top of the cliffs must have been off-putting), so he opted to land on the beach between Walmer and Deal instead. His troops were able to fight off the natives and establish a beach-head but they were beset by bad weather and the tides, not something they’d ever had to worry about in the Mediterranean. Unable to advance further inland, he returned to Europe after a couple of weeks. He was back a year later, better prepared and with a larger force, and this time he was able to advance inland and indulge in a bit of dividing and conquering by setting one of the British tribes against another, but when he heard of a revolt in Gaul Caesar left once again, never to return. The Roman conquest of Britain would not happen until 43AD, when Emperor Claudius sent Vespasian over with an army (which, interestingly, included elephants) to subjugate the Britons and establish a new Roman colony, Britannia.

Further along the coast, beyond Sandwich but not quite as far as Ramsgate, is Pegwell Bay, once the location of a major hoverport from where big vehicle-carrying hovercraft departed for Calais. The hovercraft have long gone (the hoverport closed in 1982), but there is one very large piece of evidence that points to an older sea-crossing. Back in 1949, a group of intrepid Danes sailed a life-size replica of a Viking longship from Denmark to Kent. They actually landed at Broadstairs, but the ship, called the Hugin, was put on display at Pegwell Bay to commemorate a landing which took place at Ebbsfleet, a hamlet at the head of Pegwell Bay marking the eastern end of the channel which once separated the Isle of Thanet from the Kentish mainland, in the year 449. This arrival would have a profound effect on the course of our history; indeed, the island of Britain would never be the same again.


Although a Viking longship commemorates this landing, those who landed weren’t Vikings. The arrivals of 449 were two brothers, Hengist and Horsa, warriors apparently invited over as mercenaries by a warlord known as King Vortigern. They brought with them a motley crew of Angles, Saxons and Jutes who hailed from what’s now Denmark and northern Germany; in due course, more of them followed. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede records that they “were granted lands in the eastern part of the island on the condition that they protected the country: nevertheless, their real intention was to subdue it.” This they did, becoming the ancestors of the English, for as Bede continues: “From the Jutes are descended the people of Kent and the Isle of Wight … From the Saxons … came the East, South and West Saxons. And from the Angles … are descended the East and Middle Angles, the Mercians, all the Northumbrian stock … and the other English peoples.” A plaque close to the Hugin thus commemorates this landing as the ‘beginning of English history’.

Not far inland, there is commemorated an arrival of a more spiritual kind which also changed Britain for ever.  Over a century after the arrival of Hengist and Horsa, the Anglo-Saxons (as they became known) had come to dominate much of the island of Britain, establishing several kingdoms – an arrangement known to historians as the Heptarchy. By the 590s, the kingdom of Kent was ruled by one Ethelbert (sometimes referred to as Æthelberht), who according to Bede was a descendant of the afore-mentioned Hengist. In the year 597, a missionary arrived from Rome. Christianity had come to Britain before, when the Romans had converted to it, but the Anglo-Saxons had arrived after the Romans had left and were very much a pagan people.

That changed with the arrival on the Isle of Thanet of St Augustine, the missionary sent by Pope Gregory to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to the true faith, starting with the ones in Kent since they were the closest to Europe (like Caesar before him, Gregory appears to have regarded the people who lived in Kent as the most civilised in Britain, probably for the same reason). Ethelbert, who according to Bede “had already heard of the Christian religion, having a Christian wife of the Frankish royal house called Bertha, whom he had received from her parents on condition that she should have freedom to hold and practice her faith unhindered”, went out to meet him. He listened to Augustine preach a sermon, following which he allowed him to establish a base in Canterbury (which is why to this day the most senior Anglican clergyman is the archbishop of that fine city). He even converted to Christianity himself, which gave Augustine “greater freedom to preach and to build and restore churches everywhere”; thus did the English become a Christian people. The spot where Augustine preached his first sermon on English soil is, therefore, of great historical importance, and it is today commemorated by a cross – St Augustine’s Cross, the last of our Kentish landing commemorations.


28.5.17

Avebury

The county of Wiltshire has long been noted for its ancient landmarks and monuments – there’s much more to it than just Stonehenge. To the north – just off the A4 as opposed to the A303 – is a village called Avebury, and that is home to the largest ancient stone circle in all of Europe. It may not have the immediate impact of Stonehenge – the number of stones has over the centuries been greatly reduced – but it has a distinct charm of its own, which is helped by the fact that part of the village actually lies within the stone circle. Plus, unlike Stonehenge, it’s free to visit and you can actually go up and touch the stones.


In fact, it could be said that the stone circle at Avebury, which dates back to the third millennium BC, is more of a circular enclosure with various arrangements of standing stones (including two smaller circles) inside, and that it’s merely a part of a whole complex of ancient structures in the vicinity, “one of a cluster of major prehistoric works,” according to the book Mythology of the British Isles by Geoffrey Ashe which I have been dipping into recently. Other stones form an avenue leading away from the Avebury circle towards a smaller site known as the Sanctuary, an easy-to-miss site close to the A4 which is not far from the burial mound that is the West Kennet Long Barrow and Silbury Hill, which looks man-made because it is (it’s the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, similar in size to the smaller pyramids at Giza); it dates back to around the same time as Avebury and apparently took several centuries to make.

The stone circle at Avebury, which as well as various other standing stones also encloses part of the village (including the pub, the Red Lion, which can therefore claim to be the only pub to be located within an ancient stone circle), is itself enclosed by a henge – a ditch and earth bank which would appear to have served as a means of restricting entrance to the site to certain key points (rather like, I suppose, the doors of a cathedral).


Quite a few of the stones are no longer there. Over time, some were broken up for use as building materials while others were removed to allow for cultivation of the land. It’s also been noted that even though there has been a Christian church at Avebury since the seventh century (it is located outside the stone circle), superstition about the stones led to the removal and burial of quite a few of them in the fourteenth century. It was this removal of the stones that led to the only known death to have been directly associated with them. “About 1320,” states Ashe, “a man who was helping to smash one of the stones was crushed to death when it keeled over on top of him. In 1938 his skeleton was found, with the tools of his trade – he was a barber-surgeon.” One imagines an itinerant trader unexpectedly getting roped into helping out with some heavy lifting while he was passing through the village, with fatal results.

As for what it was built for, that is a mystery that continues to fascinate – and the Neolithic people who built it left us no clues, as they were of a pre-literate age. The lack of human remains that have been unearthed precludes the notion of Avebury having been a place of death or sacrifice, and the best guess is that it was a temple used for ceremonies of some sort, in which the path of the sun played a key role, for the stones’ astronomical alignment has been remarked upon (light-heartedly as well as seriously; in 2014, the National Trust claimed that they were planning to move one of the stones at Avebury in order to align the circle with British Summer Time – a claim that was, of course, made on April Fools’ Day).


In the eighteenth century, the antiquarian William Stukeley pioneered archaeological investigative techniques at Avebury – taking notes, making drawings and doing careful measurements in a bid to unlock the mystery of the stones (at the same time as some of the local farmers were busy removing some of the stones, not out of superstition but in order to obtain building materials and clear the land for the plough). Stukeley figured out that there were two stone avenues extending out from Avebury – one, the Kennet Avenue, heading south-east to the Sanctuary and another, the Beckhampton Avenue, heading south-west (few stones from the latter had survived even in Stukeley’s time, and for many years archaeologists reckoned he’d got it wrong although buried stones have recently been unearthed along its route). He theorised that Avebury had been built by the Druids (who actually post-date the construction of the site) and that the avenues formed a ‘solar serpent’ and he reckoned that to be similar to symbols used in ancient Egypt. 

Wishful thinking, probably (as Ashe states, a “past guess at serpent-worship had no basis but the fancy that the Avebury-Avenue-Sanctuary formation was serpentine”) – although in Stukeley’s favour he was right about the Beckhampton Avenue, and by studying Avebury at a time when quite a few of the stones were being dismantled his contribution towards our understanding of the site is invaluable. He also seems like a fascinating chap, as antiquarians often do, being from a time when men could get away with having multiple scholarly interests (as well as digging around at Avebury and Stonehenge, he was a biographer of Newton, no less, as well as being a C of E priest who was obsessed about the Druids).

Further theorising came in the early twentieth century with the development of the notion of ley lines, the idea that prehistoric sites are not located at random points but are arranged in straight lines. Avebury plays a part in this. “One of the longest and most impressive leys in the country,” state Janet and Colin Bord in their book Mysterious Britain, “cuts through the southern edge of the Avebury circle … This ley or ‘dragon line’ stretches from Land’s End to Burrow Mump and Glastonbury Tor, thence on to Avebury, and eventually reaches Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, touching en route many hills and churches dedicated to St Michael”. Mysterious Britain is a work from the Seventies which focuses on Britain’s ancient monuments with a strong emphasis on the weird and the wonderful, and seems to take a lot of it at face value (I suspect that Stukeley would’ve loved it). Ley lines are a good example of people making way too much about what is essentially a couple of coincidences, and in the case of the example mention it falls flat when you look at a map and realise that the places mentioned aren’t really aligned on a straight line, although Ashe hedges his bets by stating that the St Michael Line (as he calls it) is “not perfectly straight, but good enough to be significant”.


More seriously, the early twentieth century saw an archaeologist by the name of Alexander Keiller working at Avebury. His excavations led to the reconstruction of some of the stone settings, for he was able to find quite a few of the stones that had been buried and re-erect them in their original positions (or as close as possible); in addition, he marked the positions of stones that had been lost for good with concrete posts which he’d designed specially for this purpose. It was he who found the remains of the unfortunate barber-surgeon. It’s also thanks to Keiller that the site is the way it is today, for he was a wealthy man who purchased much of the land in Avebury so that he could carry out his excavations, and he later sold it to the National Trust – which runs the site today. It is most definitely worth a visit.

19.5.17

Curried ox kidneys

What do you do, cooking-wise, with ox kidney? Aside from steak and kidney pie or steak and kidney pudding, of course. Determined to have this piece of offal for dinner, for it had been taken out of the freezer and was calmly defrosting in the fridge, I took a look in the recipe books to see what I could find.

I would not be finding anything relating to what to do with an ox kidney in our latest acquisition, a slim hardback called The Curious Cookbook by Peter Ross. Peter Ross is a senior figure at the Guildhall Library down in the City, and it has the largest collection of historical cookery books of any British public library; turns out they did an exhibition on this very subject the other year. Mr Ross has been trawling this (doubtless fascinating) collection and has come up with over a hundred recipes from all points between the late fourteenth century and the Second World War. These are from the bizarre or absurd end of Britain’s long culinary history; if you’ve ever wondered how to make ‘porpoise with wheat porridge’ (a delicacy from 1450, that one), ‘stewed sparrows on toast’, ‘a pint of gruel for invalids’ or that medieval dish where you sew the front end of a cockerel onto the rear end of a pig (a ‘cokyntryce’, in case you were wondering), then this is the book for you.

If, however, you’re just after tips on what to do with hedgehogs, badgers (“there are very few recipes for cooking badger, which has been said to taste like gamey beef”) or squirrels, or if you want to know ‘how to avoid a bitter rook stew’ (that one being from 1940, a time when ‘eating crow’ was clearly more than just an expression) then the answers can be found within these pages. It just goes to show, as they saying goes, that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there – as Mr Ross says in the introduction, “what we ate in the past now seems extraordinarily strange, intriguing, revolting, or just plain curious”. He’s not kidding, and having read this engrossing and thought-provoking book, I am drawn to wonder what people in the future might think about what we in the present eat, and how they might in their own minds judge us for our culinary choices. Hopefully they will have a food historian who, like Mr Ross, manages to use the commentary to put the recipes in the context of the time when they were written.

As for ox kidneys, I would need to find a recipe of a more recent vintage although as far as offal is concerned Mr Ross hits the nail on the head with his comment that “the decline in the eating of offal can be mapped in direct relation to the increase in wealth of the British population who, given the choice, will often opt for more expensive and simply prepared cuts of meat”.

I found an ox kidney recipe courtesy of Delia Smith, who explains (in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course) that, as well as being “an essential ingredient for steak and kidney pie or pudding” because “no other type of kidney will give it the proper, traditional flavour”, ox kidney is “not recommended for grilling or frying”. However, Delia goes on to state that “it is excellent stewed, braised, or especially curried”. Curried? Hmm. Curried ox kidney (“another very economical, yet rather special, curry”) it would be, then. Most of the ingredients for that were already in the house. The ox kidney is cut into pieces and any bits of fat removed; it’s then browned and put to one side. Then some chopped onion is fried, and to that is added ground coriander, ground turmeric and cumin seeds – followed by natural yoghurt, tomato purée, water and garlic. To this, the kidney parts are added with some chopped-up green chilli and the lot is then brought to be boil and then put on simmer. Easy enough.

But what to have with it? Rice is the obvious accompaniment for curry, but I’d had enough of rice because I’d been working my way through a leftover risotto which had been my lunch for most of the week. So what else? Potatoes? I turned to Camellia Panjabi’s 50 Great Curries of India which has a tried-and-tested recipe for potatoes with peanuts – boil the potatoes in water with some salt and turmeric, then heat up some oil, add cumin seeds and a chopped green chilli, then add the potatoes and roughly-ground peanuts and stir. That would do nicely.

And as a side? How about something involving carrots, since there were some of those kicking around? I found in the Panjabi book a recipe for carrot koshumbir. What is that, I hear you wonder, is that? Well, it’s a type of cachumber which, Ms Panjabi explains, “is to an Indian meal what salsa is to a Mexican one. It provides raw vegetables with a tangy touch … In Western India, in Maharashtra and along the west coast, cachumbers are particularly popular and varied, and are known as koshumbir … They are sol tasty that they can be served as a salad or side vegetable.” I must admit I was a bit unsure about serving myself a raw vegetable as a side, but I figured I might as well have a go. All I had to do was grate up some carrot, mix it in with a small amount of dessicated coconut and add lime juice, sugar, salt and yet more roughly-ground peanuts. Then heat up some (more) cumin seeds and green chilli (to be honest I just used some of the cumin and chilli from the potato recipe) and add those.




So that’s what I did – curried ox kidney, served with potatoes with peanuts and a side of carrot koshumbir. And it was delicious.

6.5.17

The Capital Ring: summing-up

So what to do after finishing the Capital Ring? Write about it, of course – for The Archer, our local volunteer-run newspaper here in East Finchley for which I have been writing for the past half-a-dozen years. Appropriate, really, for I only found out about the Capital Ring by virtue of living in East Finchley which is on the route. My write-up, which made it onto the back page, can be found here:

2.5.17

Looking around, and atop, Bath Abbey

To Bath, originally founded by the Romans as Aquae Sulis and later rebuilt in the eighteenth century (like the Romans before them, the Georgians saw the city as a place to go and take to the waters which are said to have healing properties). Unlike many a Roman settlement, it was actually built as a spa town not as a garrison, and the idea of going to Bath for one’s health, or for pleasure, was one that was as enthusiastically embraced by well-off people in the eighteenth century as it had been by well-off Romans. Today, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and my general rule of thumb is that if a place has been given that status, it’s got to be worth a visit.

I was particularly interested in the abbey – or, to give it its full name, the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul. Old churches are always worth looking around, and this one is particularly impressive – and, indeed, bigger than some cathedrals (although like the cathedrals it does have plenty of enthusiastic volunteers who are always there to answer any questions you may have, however obvious). And yes, even though it does not have a cathedral Bath is still a city (the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand; Guildford and Southwark, for example, have cathedrals but are merely a town and a London borough respectively). Despite the name, Bath Abbey is in fact the main parish church for Bath – the ‘abbey’ part doesn’t mean that it’s a monastery (it isn’t, although it used to be prior to the Reformation) but the church is allowed to call itself an abbey due to its historical significance.




Principally, this significance is because in the year 973 a coronation took place there. King Edgar, sometimes known as Edgar the Peaceful, was in that year crowned as King of England at Bath Abbey. Somewhat unusually, he’d already been the king for 14 years so one wonders how St Dunstan, his Archbishop of Canterbury and principal advisor, was able to persuade him to wait for so long. The great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar is sometimes referred to as the first King of England, but I’m not so sure about that – although his reign was a period in which England was consolidated as a unified kingdom under the Wessex dynasty, the honour of being the first Anglo-Saxon king to rule over the whole of England must surely go to his uncle, Athelstan, who had conquered the Viking kingdom of York.

Edgar’s coronation is significant because it was the first time when records were taken of what had happened at an Anglo-Saxon coronation; thus did the service carried out by St Dunstan in 973 form the basis for all subsequent coronations of English, and later British, monarchs (for example, Handel’s Zadok the Priest, based on the bit in First Kings about said priest anointing King Solomon and the people rejoicing, was written for George II’s coronation in part because that particular Biblical text had been used at previous coronations because it was known to have been used at Edgar’s). The ‘peaceful’ tag, by the way, is not due to his personality – he is said to have killed one of his noblemen who had the temerity to marry a noblewoman who Edgar himself had wanted to marry (and after killing said nobleman, he did indeed marry said noblewoman) – but the nature of his sixteen-year reign, which was unusually peaceful with no foreign invasions or internal rebellions.

Before entering the abbey, there’s plenty to look at if you observe the building’s west front from the Abbey Churchyard (that being the name of the square where you can also find the Roman Baths). To the sides of the window are representations of Jacob’s Ladder, referring not only to Jacob’s dream in Genesis but also to a dream that was had by Oliver King, the Bishop of Bath and Wells (a title that always makes me think of Blackadder) who rebuilt Bath Abbey in or around 1500; the twin ladders show angels climbing Heaven-ward, although if you look closely it really does look as though some of them are actually making their way down. Peter and Paul, the abbey’s patron saints, flank the wooden door which, like many a west door of many an English church, is almost always closed (the entrance door is on the left).



Inside, there’s a great fan-vaulted ceiling made from the local Bath stone which also provided the building-material for much of the city; while the modern abbey building dates from the rebuild that was initiated by Bishop King in the sixteenth century (it wasn’t completed by the time of the Reformation, when the monks were kicked out, and it wasn’t until 1572 that it became the parish church of Bath), the ceiling we see at the abbey today is actually the result of a Victorian restoration job – the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott, no less.



More fun is to be had on the tower tours, which are £6 and take place every hour on the hour when the abbey is open (except when there’s a service or special event on) – these have to be paid for in advance on the same day, and can be booked out quite quickly at weekends, but they’re well worth going on if you can get a place.

You’re led up a narrow spiral staircase onto the roof, and thence to the bit above that fan-vaulted ceiling (you can see where they put the keystones, and there’s even a small hole in which you can peep down to the nave below) and the bell room. 







Then it’s up to the bell-ringing room for a lesson in this history of bell-ringing at the abbey (the quarter-hourly chimes are automated, nowadays) before ascending higher still to the belfry. Of particular skill is change-ringing, which is where the bell is manipulated via the rope until it’s hanging upside-down, which then makes it easier to ring in a pre-ordained sequence (this is where the expression ‘ringing the changes’ comes from). Bath Abbey has ten bells, the biggest of which is the 33 cwt (just over 1½-ton) tenor bell, which carries a rather nice inscription:


All you of Bathe that hear me sound
Thank Lady Hopton’s hundred pound

This refers to a seventeenth-century benefactor who paid for the bell, although it doesn’t tell the full story. The bell actually cost £160 (a small fortune in those days), and although it was agreed that Lady H. could pay for it in instalments she had in fact paid barely £20 by the time she died; she did, however, promise in her will that her family would pay the rest! More drama occurred in 1869 when the bell cracked during ringing-practice, resulting in it having to be (very carefully) taken down to ground level and transported to London via canal to be recast. Unfortunately, when it returned to Bath and was put back in place, it was found to be out of tune and so had to be removed and sent back to London for another recast. It wasn’t the foundry’s fault, though, for the abbey’s long-serving organist had gone to London with the bell to supervise the tuning process, but he was by that stage going deaf and hadn’t told anyone.



From there, it’s over to the clock face – the inside of the clock face to be precise. The clock looks out over to the north, and from ground level you would think that the face itself is all a single pane of glass. This is not the case – for the Roman numerals also act as the edges of several panes of glass, which is pretty clever if you ask me. Today the clock is lit from behind by electric lights but in the nineteenth century, the clock was lit by gas-lamp, and in order to prevent accidents a man was paid to sit in the small space behind the face and check on the lamp; monotonous, but at least it was indoors (there were worse jobs to be had in times past, as anyone who’s ever seen Tony Robinson’s superb doco The Worst Jobs in History will know).



So that, along with some fantastic views of the city from the roof, was the tower tour of Bath Abbey!




23.4.17

St George of England

Today is St George’s Day, which usually passes with a re-heated article in at least one newspaper lamenting on why the English don’t celebrate being English much, and with another (equally reheated) one about the fact that St George was not, in fact, English.

Both are, in their own way, onto something. Celebrations of English identity have not really been the done thing, which might explain why some people to this day confuse being English with being British (there is a big difference!), and I think we all know by now that St George existed before England did, and he wasn’t even widely known about in England until several centuries after he’d died.

He was a Roman soldier, born in the province of Syria Palaestina (the city of his birth, Lydda, is now called Lod and is located about nine miles south-east of Tel Aviv), who was born a Christian and refused to renounce his faith when the Emperor Diocletian embarked on the Roman Empire’s last and most severe persecution of Christians in the year 303 AD; he was beheaded on 23rd April 303 in Nicodemia (modern-day Izmit in Turkey).

He was venerated as a saint in the Eastern Roman Empire, and his reputation spread to England as a result of the Crusades (the English soldiers who went to fight for Christianity in the Holy Land being inspired by stories about an old Christian soldier). Although use of his emblem – a red cross on a white background – has been attributed to Richard the Lionheart, the first properly documented use of this particular heraldic device by an English ruler is usually credited to Edward I. St George’s Day was declared to be a feast day in England in 1222, and in 1348 Edward III put the (then new) Order of the Garter under George’s banner.

It’s been theorised that his rise to prominence in England was helped by the fact that, unlike this country’s home-grown saints (Alban, Cuthbert, etc), he wasn’t closely identified with a single location or region within England – that and the fact that St George’s Day somehow survived the curtailment of saints’ days that came with the Reformation. In any case, his symbol was so identified with England that when a combined Anglo-Scottish flag was created in 1606, three years after James VI of Scotland became James I of England (but still just over a century before the Act of Union), the Cross of St George formed the English part of the original Union Jack.

Looking further afield, St George is perhaps the most international of saints; as well as England, he is also the patron saint of Ethiopia (jointly, with local man St Frumentius), Georgia (obviously), Greece, Malta (jointly, with St Paul), Moldova, Palestine and Portugal (one of several, admittedly) – as well as the cities of Beirut, Genoa, Ljubljana, Moscow, Reggio di Calabria and at least two major international organisation (the Scouts and the Girl Guides), alongside agricultural workers, archers, butchers, saddlers, shepherds and just about anyone who rides horses.

Anyway, happy St George’s Day!

14.4.17

The new pound coin

As of last month, we have had a new coin to deal with. I have only received one of the new pound coins in my change once so far, and I haven’t spent it yet as it’s a pretty good conversation-piece because not everyone else has seen one yet, but since the old one is scheduled to be phased out by October it’s clearly something we’re about to see a lot more of. This is the future, so let’s get used to it.



The new pound coin is bi-metallic – just like the £2 coin, the euro coin, the Canadian ‘toonie’ and the old French ten-franc coin which was, prior to the euro, worth (roughly, depending on exchange rates) £1. The reverse shows plants representing the four Home Nations – the rose of England, the leek of Wales, the thistle of Scotland and the Shamrock of Northern Ireland – bound by a crown, while below the Queen on the obverse there’s a little hologram which, depending on the angle at which you’re looking at it, shows a little £ sign or a number 1. 


This is intended to make the new coin really difficult to forge; the main problem with the old one is that forgery’s relatively easy, with it having been estimated that between one in eight and one in ten pound coins currently in circulation are forgeries (and, given that knowingly passing on forged money is a criminal offence, most people who end up with one that they reckon might be a fake probably don’t bother to look too closely as proving the coin in question to be a fake would render it worthless, leaving you out of pocket if you try to be honest).

The new one is ever so slightly bigger than the old one (by less than a millimetre, noticeable if you have one of each to compare and contrast), and a little bit lighter (using the digital kitchen scales, I can confirm that the new one weighs in at nine grams, while the old one is ten). 


It’s also twelve-sided, another anti-forgery initiative although for older Britons this could make it slightly reminiscent of the old threepenny bit (which was also twelve-sided); Private Eye has already got in with a joke about how the new pound coin has the same spending power as three old pence did back in the day, so no-one else has to.


In terms of British currency, the pound coin is a relatively new thing (not counting gold sovereigns), having first been introduced in 1983, a year after the 20p coin (pound coins were intended to replace pound notes, which were phased out by the Bank of England in 1988 although they continue to be issued in the Channel Islands and by one of the Scottish banks that’s allowed to print money). Although they were only introduced last month, the new ones all bear the date ‘2016’, which should confuse any future historians who feel inclined to study the history of post-decimal British coinage. Actually, coins being minted before they enter circulation (done by the Royal Mint in order to ensure that there are enough of them) are nothing new. The bi-metallic £2 coin was first minted in 1997 prior to its introduction the following year, and going a bit further back the old 10p and 5p coins had been minted in decimal form since to 1968, and the old 50p coins since 1969, even though decimalisation didn’t come about until 1971 (it’s worth noting, though, that the pre-1990 5p and the pre-1992 10p coins were the same size, and the same value for that matter, as the old shilling and two-shilling coins, which continued to appear in change until the sizes of said coins were reduced in the early Nineties).

12.4.17

Historical English crime: 'Stand and deliver!'

Even today, the mention of the word ‘highwayman’ conjures up a certain image – that of a masked, well-dressed man astride a horse, brandishing a pistol and demanding that rich travellers in a stage-coach ‘stand and deliver’ (in other words, hand over whatever cash and assorted valuables they might have on them) somewhere on an open road at some point in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. Having made off with the loot, he would of course outwit the authorities if they sent anyone after him. It can be a rather romantic image even though the reality was far from romantic – these were brutal, violent men operating in a brutal, violent era.

In a very real sense, there was nothing new about highway robbery even though it only really became a thing in the seventeenth century. Thieves who operated on foot – footpads – had been robbing travellers for as long as there had been roads. However, the gun-toting thief on horseback was something new to the seventeenth century. This was a violent age, and the increased availability and effectiveness of firearms combined with the proliferation of men, often former soldiers, who either lacked or didn’t much care for gainful employment and knew how to use a gun while riding a horse (the latter being vital to ensure a quick getaway). They were helped by the ineptitude of the law enforcement system of the period; in the days before organised policing, the job invariably fell to the parish constable who was usually under-equipped to deal with anything other than minor crime, and who was often thought of as being lazy or incompetent (Shakespeare having set the standard for that particular stereotype with Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing).

The mounted thieves started to become known as ‘highwaymen’ in the mid-seventeenth century; they were also known as ‘gentlemen of the road’ on account that many of them dressed smartly enough to pass for gentry even if they were of more humble birth. The famous demand to ‘stand and deliver’ goes back to that time, while the earliest references to the follow-up ‘your money or your life’ are from trial reports dating back to the mid-eighteenth century. The growing print industry produced pamphlets detailing their crimes, which brought them to the attention of the public (this would continue in the eighteenth century with publications like the Newgate Calendar and plays like The Beggar’s Opera, followed by the ‘penny dreadfuls’ of the nineteenth century).

One of the earliest highwaymen to become well-known in England was James Hind, who had fought for the Royalists in the Civil War and took to highway robbery during the time of the Protectorate, preying in particular on those associated with the Parliamentarian cause (he once tried, and failed, to rob Oliver Cromwell himself). Others followed, some becoming famous in their time. Claude Duval was a Frenchman who operated just north of Restoration-era London; one of the first highwaymen to dress in fashionable clothes and put on gentlemanly airs, he’s said to have once agreed to only take some of his victim’s money, as opposed to all of it, if the man’s wife agreed to dance with him by the side of the road (which she did). William Nevison was a former soldier who rode from Kent to York in less than a day (a previously unheard-of feat) in order to establish an alibi, a tale that greatly amused Charles II. Robert Congden was an Old Etonian gentleman-farmer by day and a highwayman by night who held up the Earl of Dorset for a thousand guineas.

Most famous of them all, though, was the Essex publican’s son Dick Turpin, who had started out as a butcher before turning to crime; in addition to being a highwayman he was also a poacher, a burglar and, like many of his fellow-highwaymen, a cold-blooded killer. Such was Turpin’s fame that acts performed by other highwaymen, such as Nevison’s ride to York, ended up being attributed to him. Despite their often-violent behaviour some highwaymen – Turpin in particular – were to a degree idolised in that way in which criminals are sometimes, and somehow, made out to be popular heroes (a point picked up in an episode of Blackadder, wherein Baldrick describes a highwayman as “halfway to being the new Robin Hood … he steals from the rich, but he hasn’t got round to giving it to the poor yet”).

From the mid-seventeenth century onwards, the main roads of England became hunting-grounds for the highwaymen and as such very dangerous places – especially the bits that ran through what was then open country on the outskirts of London (although robberies in London itself were not unknown; it was partly concern about highwaymen in Hyde Park that led William III to ensure that Rotten Row, the road between Westminster and Kensington Palace, became the first road in the country to be artificially lit). Highwaymen often chose isolated areas that the main roads passed through; Bagshot Heath, crossed by the roads to both Portsmouth and the West Country, was popular. To the north, Finchley Common on the Great North Road acquired a certain reputation, while to the south on the Dover Road Shooter’s Hill was the venue of choice for hold-ups (it had already got its name from being a place where archery was practiced in the Middle Ages). Many such places had gibbets where the bodies of executed criminals were displayed in metal cages to deter others from a life of crime, and these were well-known to people who often travelled out of London; Samuel Pepys, for example, once mentioned riding past “the man that hangs on Shooter’s Hill”.

Quite a few highwaymen ended up on the gallows, having either been captured in the act or found out later (when people noticed that they’d suddenly started spending a lot more cash than they usually did, for example). Hind was done for treason rather than highway robbery because of his overt support for the Royalist cause, resulting in his being hanged, drawn and quartered. Congden had shot and killed his first victim when he tried to resist (they really did mean the bit about ‘your money or your life’) and Nevison had murdered a constable who’d tried to arrest him; both were hanged for murder. Duval, somewhat unusually it would seem, was actually hanged for no more than highway robbery. Turpin, meanwhile, was arrested for horse theft which was a capital offence at the time – and although some in the government wanted him to stand trial in his native Essex, his trial and subsequent hanging took place at York.

The ‘golden age’ of the highwayman is usually considered as having been the period between the Restoration (1660) and the death of Queen Anne (1714), although Turpin’s ‘career’ post-dates this (he is thought to have turned to crime in the early 1730s, and was hanged in 1739 at the age of 33). Yet there were still some fairly audacious highway robberies being carried out well into the eighteenth century; in 1774, no less a person than the Prime Minister, Lord North, wrote of being “robbed last night as I expected … at the end of Gunnersbury Lane”. For much of the eighteenth century, travellers along England’s roads took to preventative measures – Horace Walpole, the writer (and son of Britain’s first PM), wrote of being “forced to travel, even at noon, as if one was going into battle”. When encountered by two highwaymen outside London, the Duke of Montrose shot and killed one of them (the other escaped, with the duke declining to give pursuit on the grounds that enough blood had already been spilled). The subject of whether or not one should shoot a highwayman, regardless of whether or not he’d shot first, is one that Samuel Johnson (who defined ‘highwayman’ in his Dictionary as simply “a robber that plunders on the publick roads”) had few doubts about. Boswell records that, when it came up in conversation, the great man of letters stated: “I would rather shoot him in the instant when he is attempting to rob me, than afterwards swear against him at the Old-Bailey … I am surer I am right in the one case than in the other. I may be mistaken as to the man, when I swear: I cannot be mistaken, if I shoot him in the act. Besides, we feel less reluctance to take away a man’s life, when we are heated by the injury”. Boswell retorted that Johnson “would rather act from the motive of private passion, than that of publick advantage”, to which Johnson replied: “Nay, Sir, when I shoot the highwayman I act from both.”

In such an atmosphere, it became a matter of routine for coachmen, post-boys and the like to travel either armed or accompanied by someone who was, the weapon of choice usually being a brace of pistols – as guns back then were of the muzzle-loading, single-shot variety it paid to have more than one loaded and ready to fire – or a blunderbuss (an early form of shotgun with a flared muzzle, easier to load while on the move but only effective at close range). Rich travellers, particularly those heading along the Great West Road to the fashionable resort town of Bath, took to travelling with as little money or jewellery in their coaches as possible – the wealth could go on ahead, stuffed in the pockets and saddle-bags of a single servant on horseback, preferably carrying a gun of some sort for his own protection.

Sometimes, a lone rider confronted by a highwayman could get the better of him; one story is of a servant carrying his master’s money who, when confronted by a highwayman, said he’d willingly hand over the cash but asked if the highwayman would be so kind as to put a bullet through his hat first, so that he later could show that he’d put up some sort of resistance before standing and delivering. After the highwayman had obligingly fired, the clever servant produced his own pistol who had been concealed in his coat! As the highwayman had only been armed with a single pistol, the servant now had the advantage and took his opponent to the nearest town to hand him over to the authorities (and, presumably, collect any reward that may have been on offer).

Some highwaymen responded by forming gangs, although many of these were short-lived as they invariably fell out over how to divide the spoils. One of the more notable gangs of highwaymen operated in and around Cherhill, a Wiltshire village on the Great West Road, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; being poor men who only owned one set of clothes each (clearly highway robbery was not always lucrative), they became (in)famous for doing their robberies naked so that no-one would be able to identify them by their clothes.


Highway robbery in England died out in the early nineteenth century. Some would assume that it was killed off by the railways, but it would appear there were a number of factors at play. Highway robbery had actually become quite rare by the time that century began, and the last recorded one took place in 1831 (two years after Stephenson built his Rocket). The increase in the turnpike system with its tolled and gated roads had combined in the mid-to-late eighteenth century with the increased enclosure of farmland to limit highwaymen’s activities (there was, quite simply, less open space), and in the early nineteenth century they were limited further by the expansion of cities (especially London) into what had been open countryside. As the cities grew, policing became more effective, and the increased use of banknotes helped too as they were easier to trace than gold coins. The ‘gentleman of the road’ had had his day.

5.4.17

The Last Kingdom (the second series, three episodes in)

“I am Uhtred, son of Uthred…”

So begins each episode of The Last Kingdom, the BBC’s adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Saxon’ novels which has deservedly returned for a second series. In this, the real-life struggle of Alfred the Great’s Wessex (the kingdom of the title, it being the only one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that hasn’t fallen to the marauding invaders from Scandinavia) is intertwined with the adventures of the fictional Uhtred, a warrior whose life’s ambition – to retake the northern coastal stronghold of Bebbanburg which is his by right but his villainous uncle’s by possession – is frequently put on hold so that he can either fight for Alfred or chase after women. He’s the one saying that he’s Uhtred, son of Uhtred, of course – although I cannot for the life of me figure out what accent he’s saying it in (the actor who plays him, Alexander Dreymon, was born in Germany and has appeared on stage in Paris and London but knowing that doesn’t leave me any the wiser; but hey, at least he’s well-spoken).

In a world of sharply-defined loyalties – for late ninth-century Britain, it’s generally Christian Anglo-Saxons versus pagan Vikings – Uhtred is a curious mixture of the lot; a Saxon raised by Vikings and a pagan who, as he reminds us at some point, has been baptised not once but twice. His enemies fear him, while his allies are somewhat wary of him as they can never be entirely sure of his loyalty. His weakness (or, if we’re using a fictional warrior analogy, his Achilles heel) is women; were he to put them from his mind, or at least stop trying to sleep with every other one that he encounters, he would probably be warming himself in front of the fire with a flagon of ale in his hand following a slap-up feast for himself and his motley band of followers in Bebbanburg’s great hall by now.

At the end of the first series, having helped Alfred secure his great victory at Ethandun, Uhtred rode north to retake Bebbanburg. However, we weren’t that long into the first episode of the new series when he’d been easily distracted from this ambition that he keeps going on about, not even making it half-way through Mercia before a woman with whom he had shared a one-night stand tried to make off with his money and his sword, only to be thwarted by Hild, the nun-who-wants-to-be-a-warrior (her reward was to have Uhtred try to look at her while she was washing herself in a river). As Father Beocca wisely noted, Uhtred would probably fancy a goat if someone put it in a skirt.

Back down south, Alfred was busy thinking of the future – for it is he who is laying the foundations of what will become England. His latest plan is for an alliance with Mercia (the kingdom to the north of Wessex) by way of marrying off his daughter, Aethelflaed, to a Mercian noblemen. Watch out for her; the Lady of the Mercians, as she is known to history (although she has tended to get airbrushed out of some accounts of the creation of England), is going to matter a big deal as this series progresses.

Next up for Uhtred, however, was a madcap scheme to turn Guthred the slave into a king, which was actually going rather well until Uhtred slept with Guthred’s sister Gisela; for this, he was sold into slavery and ended up on the rowing-deck of a galley bound for Iceland. He was released thanks to his foster-brother Ragnar (son of Ragnar) and Hild, the latter of whom had to remind him that he was indeed Uhtred, son of Uhtred (since some people had started referring to him as Osbert, which was his original name, perhaps he needed reassuring). Our hero then managed to make a rod for his own back by killing the evil Abbot Eadred – over Gisela, of course – which ultimately gave him no option but to swear an oath to fight for Alfred once again in order to avoid facing trial for killing a priest in a church. Bebbanburg, it seems, can wait (and it’ll have to, for the TV series is only on the third novel of Cornwell’s series; there are now ten, with the latest – published late last year – focussing on, you’ve guessed it, a much older Uhtred’s continuing ambition to capture the place).


It’s been noted by various critics that this show – what with the muddy fight scenes, men with beards claiming to be kings, regular killings-off of characters and all that – is very much a British version of Game of Thrones; the same idea but done on a smaller scale, with less overtly naughty stuff (swearing, nudity, etc). That’s as maybe, but what that somewhat easy analysis overlooks is that The Last Kingdom is no fantasy epic – this is historical drama, based on a series of novels which are themselves about stuff that (mostly) really happened. It’s very well acted, with – get this – Scandinavian actors having been cast in the Viking roles, and I’m prepared to forgive the whole thing about what accent Uhtred’s speaking with as there have been far worse accent-related transgressions on the box; at least the viewer can clearly understand Mr Dreymon even in the fight scenes!

19.3.17

Endeavour (the fourth series)

What with the excitement over the new series of Sherlock earlier this year, I criminally managed to overlook the latest series of Endeavour. Both shows had their fourth series on the telly back in January, and for what it’s worth some of the episodes of said series were broadcast on the same nights, and while the BBC’s modern-day reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes is the one that’s been getting all the attention (as well as more viewers) it has to be said that ITV’s depiction of a young Endeavour Morse as a junior police officer in Sixties Oxford is one of the best things on television.

[At this point, a spoiler alert is probably in order; if for some reason you’ve not yet seen the fourth series of Endeavour, please be advised that this blog-post contains information that you might not want to look at just yet. You have been warned.]

As well as making use of the central characters’s first names (even though Morse’s one in particular is hardly ever used, to the point where most of his colleagues don’t even know what it is), both shows take a format consisting of short series of long episodes (ninety-minute ones in both cases). In terms of British crime drama, this was a format pioneered, back in the late Eighties, by Inspector Morse and subsequently followed by the likes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Jonathan Creek and many others. Sherlock started back in 2010 and now has thirteen episodes under its belt, while Endeavour began in 2012 with a one-off pilot and is now seventeen episodes old. Sherlock is full of references to the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and subsequent adaptations, while Endeavour’s focus of reference is the enormously popular original series, Inspector Morse, which was based on the novels by Colin Dexter and ran from 1987 to 2000. Both centre around gentleman-detectives, socially awkward but very clever individuals who can infuriate others as well as catch the criminals. Both are very well-acted – in terms of the support cast as well as the leads. Yet, for all that there is to say about Sherlock, I’m finding myself preferring the more understated Endeavour. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. When I was a teenager I read and greatly enjoyed Conan Doyle before I discovered Colin Dexter, but when I read the latter I found Morse – the beer-drinking opera buff who was allowed to get it wrong and have romantic feelings about the women he encountered on his cases (however unrequited they may have been) to be a much more rounded, human and in his own way likeable individual than the emotionally cold, cocaine-taking Holmes.

A recap of Endeavour is perhaps in order. The third series, which aired last year, skipped over an immediate follow-up to the second series which ended with Morse’s mentor Fred Thursday getting shot and Morse himself getting arrested; it was instead briefly explained that the former survived, the latter spent a month or so in prison before being released without charge and the institutional corruption they’d uncovered got brushed under the carpet. Instead, writer Russell Lewis used the third series to experiment with pastiches of The Great Gatsby (with a disillusioned Morse in the Nick Carraway role), Dirty Harry (all that running around between phone-boxes) and Jaws (although, what with Oxfordshire being landlocked, the man-eating animal at large was a tiger rather than a shark) which were much more enjoyable than they had any right to be. A minor character in the tiger episode happened to be the father of James Hathaway, the sergeant in that other Inspector Morse spin-off, Lewis. The last episode was dominated by a bank robbery which went wrong; Morse and Thursday’s daughter Joan were among those taken hostage in the bank. On borrowed time in all sorts of ways, Thursday literally coughed up the bullet that had been in his lung (in the plausibility stakes, that’s right up there with a man-eating tiger on the loose in the Thames Valley, but it didn’t seem to matter as much as it should’ve done) before tooling up and storming the building, leading to a tense denouement in which he opted to arrest rather than kill the villain (whose eventual funeral is depicted at the start of the Inspector Morse episode where Morse and Lewis go to Australia). Traumatised by those events, Joan, who’d been making eyes at an oblivious Morse even though she clearly had a thing for bad boys, left Oxford.

In a departure from the previously-established format, the fourth series was set mere weeks after the third rather than the following year, so in the Endeavour universe it’s still 1967. This allowed Endeavour to fully explore the impact of Joan’s disappearance on her family (young women leaving home without telling their parents where they were going was a common enough feature of the time to inspire one of the songs on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album, released in 1967); being of the stoical, buttoned-up generation that came of age in the Second World War, Fred and Win don’t handle things well as their once-happy family falls apart. Morse, who belatedly realised his own feelings for Joan, is badly affected too but he’s also not the type to go in for heart-to-heart discussions about said feelings, and Joan’s eventual return doesn’t really resolve this by any means. We viewers know, though, that for Morse and Joan there won’t be a happy-ever-after, for like many a great literary detective Morse is fated to be unlucky in love (and besides, she doesn’t even know his first name while he can’t bring himself to address her by hers even when he’s proposing to her).

Another story arc is the ongoing development of Morse’s simmering resentment against the powers-that-be, be it via his ongoing alienation from the conformist careerist Jim Strange (his future boss) or his anger over his missing sergeant’s exam paper (he, and everyone else, was convinced that he’d aced it, but his paper mysteriously got lost in circumstances that one assumes have a lot to do with his having got on the wrong side of those in high places) which resulted in a will-he-leave-Oxford sub-plot in which he was offered (via Strange, interestingly) a guaranteed promotion and pay-rise in return for transferring to a police unit in London. We viewers know that Morse will stay in Oxford (and not marry Joan Thursday or anyone else); although Shaun Evans could never be accused of merely impersonation John Thaw, it is however important for there to be markers for the viewer to see how this intellectual junior officer becomes the gruff, curmudgeonly DCI we all know and remember from the old show. But, what with that show having run its course some seventeen years ago, there may well be viewers of Endeavour who have no knowledge of what the young Morse will become (although I doubt that; as Inspector Morse gets regularly repeated on ITV3 it wouldn’t be hard for viewers who’ve been drawn to Endeavour with no prior knowledge of the original series to watch the late, great John Thaw as the older Morse).

Did I say the acting was first-rate? Shaun Evans as the young Morse and Roger Allam as Fred Thursday are both superb in their respective roles and deserve all the praise they can get. The support cast does a thoroughly good job too, notably Abigail Thaw as the journalist (who deserves better than to be referred to as John Thaw’s daughter every time her being in Endeavour is mentioned), James Bradshaw as the pathologist (getting the best lines and clearly enjoying himself more than he ever did in The Grimleys) and Dakota Blue Richards as WPC Trewlove. Some minor characters have developed a lot as the show has progressed, not just Joan Thursday (Sara Vickers is brilliant in her scenes with Shaun Evans) but also the straight-laced, old-colonial Chief Superintendent Bright who has become a more rounded character than the usual bewildered police chief trying to keep his detectives in order (which is what he was, more or less, in the first two series). He’s played by Anton Lesser, a solid character actor who’s been in a lot of stuff in recent years – he was also the boss in that sadly short-lived BBC series The Hour, Sir Thomas More in Wolf Hall and Fagin in Dickensian, and he’s really good in Endeavour (in which he shot the man-eating tiger, and how many actors can say they’ve played a character who’s done that?).

The fourth series saw an emphasis on aspects of the Sixties which moved more towards the popular perceptions of the decade than has hitherto been the case in Endeavour. The ‘white heat of technology’ was represented by a very big computer (designed by some Oxford boffins to beat a visiting professor from the Soviet Union at chess, although Morse also used it to find someone’s address) and a nuclear power-station (which was the focus of the climax in the last episode), while at the local hospital some Carry On-style goings-on between a doctor and a student nurse soon gave way to something much more sinister. The Cold War put in an appearance, what with the Russian professor and references to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the prospect of nuclear fall-out in the episode with the power-station. Morse, we learned, can speak Russian which I don’t think ever came up in the original series. 

Then, of course, there was the culture clash of the second episode as pop music interrupted the classical music which Morse prefers. A caricature of Mary Whitehouse locked horns with the Wildwood, a rock band which was a fictional composite of various real-life outfits (there were nods to, among others, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and early Pink Floyd). Both were of interest to the Oxford City Police’s finest – the former had been receiving death threats while the latter popped up on the police radar when some dope was found in a dressing-room they’d used, but they were later connected to a dead builder who’d become more involved with them and their groupies than anyone was prepared to admit to. The uptight Morse – seen as an oddity by the band members, what with his being a young man in a suit – was shocked by a gem of a revelation from Thursday about smoking dope during the North African campaign. The Mary Whitehouse character’s daughter – a smoker and a vodka drinker behind her mother’s back – declared her love for Morse (he, being pre-occupied with Joan, didn’t reciprocate) and then fell out with her bigoted, domineering mother. The band’s manager’s alibi fell apart when it was revealed that the Kinks were banned from playing in the USA, so he couldn’t have been on the phone to someone in New York discussing their forthcoming tour (nice try, thinking the police wouldn’t know that; good thing WPC Trewlove’s got her finger on the pulse). Bright and Thursday, their status as men from a bygone age emphasised more than ever in this episode, got to discuss the changing times and the nature of hatred. The pop music, brilliantly, was all done specially for the show by the people normally responsible for the classical music in Endeavour. The highlight of that episode, though, had to be the bit when Morse was forced to face his inner demons when he got drugged and started hallucinating (no Sherlock-style mind-palace for him, alas, although in Morse’s case it would probably be more of a mind-pub). 

The series concluded with an investigation into the disappearance of an academic in a rural village which seemed at first glance to be going the way of The Wicker Man (not a good setting for an earnest and determined copper) although in the event the villagers’ neo-paganism was a red herring; it was actually good old-fashioned jealousy that did for the academic, and in any case the nearby nuclear power-station was where the action really was. It was as a result of the finale in the power-station that Morse finally got his promotion – Hornblower-style, on the basis of action above and beyond the normal call of duty rather than by way of the exam – and he and Thursday both got medals, leading to a fine cine-footage-style shot of Fred and Win smiling outside Buckingham Palace. Does a well-deserved retirement now beckon for the character who’s been played so well by Roger Allam? With Morse having finally made sergeant, maybe it’s time for Inspector McNutt, named as Morse’s old boss in the original TV series, to enter the stage – although maybe not, as it’s already been announced that Roger Allam will be in the fifth series which is in the pipeline. There were a few questions that viewers might raise (the Thursdays’ son not being mentioned at all amid the furore of Joan’s disappearance, the Wildwood’s sleazy manager not being arrested for perverting the course of justice, Bright’s wife not visiting him in hospital, the lack of follow-up regarding the discovery of a Scottish hit-man’s body in the boot of a car, how the GPO was able to replace or repair Morse’s phone so quickly after he threw it against the wall), but all in all I found the fourth series of Endeavour to be thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable viewing (once I finally got round to viewing it) and I am now looking forward to the next series. In the meantime, I might as well work my way through some old Inspector Morse episodes via the ITV Hub.

This year being thirty years since Inspector Morse first aired, there were nods a-plenty to the original show and it was fun trying to spot those in addition to trying to work out who the murderer was. I once again managed to miss Colin Dexter’s background appearances, but then I’ve always had as much success at spotting those as I have had solving cryptic crossword clues (in any case, author-spotting has been much harder this time around as the old boy’s now 86 and doesn’t appear in person any more). What with getting kidnapped by one of Oxford’s many serial killers and sneaking Morse into the power-station, Abigail Thaw’s character had more to do this time (I’d like to think that that was because Russell Lewis realised he was under-using such a good actress), and her father’s second wife Sheila Hancock made a much-publicised appearance as the Tarot-reading old lady in the last episode. There was a reference to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (the first film that John Thaw starred in), while I presume that the unnamed London unit which offered Morse a job was a nod to The Sweeney. I took a reference to what someone was ‘last seen wearing’ as evidence that they were attempting to do something silly like crow-barring all of the Morse novel titles into the dialogue in some way, although this turned out not to be the case (Thursday did mention Cain but not any daughters he many have had, and no-one spoke about a jewel that had been theirs or death having recently become their neighbour). When Bright was hospitalised it was with a bleeding stomach ulcer, the same as what Morse had in The Wench Is Dead (both the novel and the TV adaptation). Actors who’d previous been in either Inspector Morse, Lewis or both were in evidence (the obvious one – Roger Allam – aside, there was among others James Laurenson, who’d been in the first-ever episode of Inspector Morse and who now played the wheelchair-bound professor in the computer episode). As with Sherlock, even the most trivial things are deliberately placed, such as lines and sub-plots which refer to minor characters from Inspector Morse (including Susan, the woman who Morse fell in love with as a student), music (always an important aspect of anything Morse-related), the made-up yet very plausible Oxford college names and all sorts of little puzzles; my favourite (now that it has been pointed out to me) is the name of the Abigail Thaw character, Dorothea Frazil – the word ‘frazil’ means ice crystals, so ‘D. Frazil’ means de-ice or, of course, thaw.

The latest series of Sherlock was good, after a mediocre start. But Endeavour is better.

15.3.17

The last, unfinished adventure of Horatio Hornblower

There is, sometimes, something to be said for the unfinished novel. Some, it is true, can be sorry affairs, finished off by someone other than the author (either at the request of said author, or for commercial reasons). Others end at around the half-way point and if they do get published they become are the subject of ongoing fascination among fans – just who did kill Edwin Drood, for example?

The latter was what happened to the last work of C.S. Forester, who is best remembered these days for being the creator of Horatio Hornblower, a naval officer at the time of the Napoleonic Wars who has been portrayed by the likes of Gregory Peck (in a 1951 movie) and Ioan Gruffudd (in the TV series). When Forester died – fifty-one years ago, at the age of 66 – he was working on Hornblower and the Crisis, the eleventh novel to feature that character.

Forester had been an author with over a decade’s-worth of novels under his belt when he introduced Hornblower to the reading public in 1937. The first Hornblower adventure, The Happy Return (published as Beat to Quarters in the USA), was set in the Pacific and drew inspiration from the fact that in the early nineteenth century, it could take several weeks for news of a cessation of hostilities to reach combatants out on the other side of the world (as happened in the War of 1812, when fighting continued in America for two months after the peace treaty had been signed in Europe); Forester was nothing if not a thorough researcher when it came to planning his historical novels, and the level of historical detail in them reflects this.

Basically, the plot of The Happy Return is that Hornblower’s ship, HMS Lydia, has been sent to the Pacific to assist rebels fighting against Britain’s enemy, Spain. Thanks largely to her captain’s tactical brilliance, the Lydia attacks and captures a bigger Spanish warship which is handed over to the rebels. Alas, Hornblower subsequently finds out that since he set sail with his orders Britain has become allied with Spain, meaning that he has unknowingly weakened his country’s new ally and therefore has no option but to find said ship again and, this time, sink it. Hornblower subsequently returned in A Ship of the Line (where he was attacking the French in the Mediterranean) and the follow-up Flying Colours (dealing with his daring escape from captivity in France after being forced to surrender). Coming out as the world prepared for war once again, they were huge hits, with the likes of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway and P.G. Wodehouse counting themselves as fans.

When he first appeared in print, Hornblower was already a captain. Later adventures focussed on his earlier career, as a midshipman on the Indefatigable under Sir Edward Pellew (a real person, who really was captain of said ship) and later as a lieutenant and a junior commanding officer. Forester was always careful not to have Hornblower take part in the big battles of the era; these, he felt, had already been documented enough without authors messing around by inserting fictional heroes and ships into the narrative. Thus, Hornblower isn’t in the thick of things at the Nile or Trafalgar, and although numerous real people are in the books as supporting characters (none more so than Pellew, although Hornblower also meets with such luminaries as Admiral Jervis, a young Lord Palmerston and even George III), the only time we encounter Lord Nelson is when Hornblower is involved in his funeral procession (which forms the opener to Hornblower and the Atropos).

Many of the authors who were influenced by Forester in the historical fiction genre (and his influence on this was immense) have not been so restrained. The likes of Lord Ramage, Richard Bolitho, Matthew Lawe (the cowardly protagonist of Nicholas Monsarrat’s last work, The Master Mariner) and even the soldier Richard Sharpe would all later find themselves at Trafalgar.

The run-up to Trafalgar, though, is the setting for Hornblower and the Crisis – the unfinished work of the series. Perhaps because it was unfinished, this has never been included in the omnibus editions of the Hornblower novels, with the same going for the five or so separate short stories that Forester wrote for various magazines. I don’t know why this was the case, and it is a shame that the publishers have made the decision they did, although two of the short stories – one featuring Hornblower as a recently-promoted lieutenant, the other as an elderly retired admiral – are included in Hornblower and the Crisis, presumably with a view to padding it out a bit.

The story, such as it is, follows on directly from the ending of Hornblower and the Hotspur, the last complete Hornblower novel that Forester wrote, and it goes thus: Having been relieved of his command of the Hotspur due to his being promoted by Admiral Cornwallis (another real person), Hornblower has to make his way back to the Admiralty in London in order to get his promotion confirmed before he can be put in command of another ship. This is easier said than done, but thanks to an encounter with a French ship on the way home (when Hornblower’s around, it rarely ends well for the French) he is able to bring along some captured dispatches that turn out to contain a new seal being used by Napoleon Bonaparte as well as his new signature (having proclaimed himself as Emperor, he now signs his orders as ‘Napoleon’ rather than ‘Bonaparte’). The Secretaries to the Admiralty (William Marsden and John Barrow, both real people) are pleased. While Hornblower’s in London, the news of Admiral Calder’s indecisive engagement with the French Admiral Villeneuve reaches the Admiralty; as a result, the French fleet, which Bonaparte will need if he’s to stand any chance of invading Britain and which the British therefore wish to destroy, is intact and safe in Ferrol, a Spanish harbour that’s difficult to blockade – as Hornblower knows only too well, having previously been a prisoner there (for this, please refer to Mr Midshipman Hornblower).

Despite thinking that he may be acting rashly, something that this most introspective of fictional heroes is constantly chiding himself for, Hornblower proposes a plan to send fake orders – bearing a facsimile of Boney’s new signature – to Villeneuve to get him to leave port; this is what Nelson, who’s been chasing Villeneuve across the Atlantic, wants. After a meeting between the Admiralty secretaries and a convicted forger who agrees to create the fake orders in exchange for his life, Hornblower is somewhat taken aback to learn that, addition to confirming his promotion, the bureaucrats want him to carry out the mission.

He’d like to refuse, because all he really wants is to be given command of a warship so that he can go and fight the French at sea, but he can’t. Fictional military and naval heroes do not, as a rule, tend to like the business of spying – whatever the era in which their adventures are set. But orders are orders, and if they’re told to do it, they’ll do it. It’s at this point, with our hero coming to terms with the fact that he’s about to become a spy, that the story abruptly ends. Shame, because it was shaping up to be a belter (and it wouldn’t have been the first time Hornblower went out of his comfort zone and had had an adventure mainly on land, either). There follows a very brief summary which tells the reader that, according to Forester’s notes, the plan was for some more introspection followed by the mission in France and Spain, which would result in the French fleet putting to sea, leading to the decisive British victory at Trafalgar.

So there we have it – Horatio Hornblower doesn’t fight at Trafalgar, but he does play a key role in getting the French fleet to put to sea so that the battle can take place. Or rather, he would have done. That was to have been C.S. Forester’s great plot twist, but he never lived to finish it.