That nice Tony Blair is telling western leaders that they should intervene in Syria. The man who took us into war in Iraq, possibly the single act in the last ten years most likely to radicalize Muslims here and elsewhere, now wants us to do the same in Syria.
I remember thinking that making Blair Middle-Eastern Envoy for the quartet – UN, EU, USA and Russia, was an act of such supreme irony that the Greek tragedians, and indeed all playwrights since, would never have thought up a plot line so outrageous.
One hears that Blair is concerned about his place in history. Well, if his associations with that epitome of rectitude, the Murdoch press, are added to his political record, he certainly is giving future historians plenty to write about. Must be worth dozens of PhDs; probably hundreds…
Last night I had a most unnerving experience. Channel 4 news, at seven o’clock in the evening is in my opinion the best news programme on television by a very long way. Channel 4 is, after all, a public broadcast service; it does show advertisements, but they are mercifully short.
Yesterday, immediately after the news, at eight o’clock, I watched a programme called Embarrassing Bodies. I have seen it advertised but never watched it. Last night I did watch it, because my wife told me there was a piece about alcohol consumption in adults. I had been told off by my GP yesterday morning because I drink too much…
The programme was set in a studio with a roving lorry-based surgery – in Manchester yesterday – presided over by a short-skirted doctor with the unlikely name of ‘Pixie’ and an engaging persona; ‘Hi guys’, she said, as she was introduced by the duo in the studio, at least one of which was, I think, also a doctor.
The item that caused me to do a triple take was a middle-aged lady in the Manchester lorry complaining that she had a ‘fat fanny’. Did I hear right? Was she an American? (Americans call backsides ‘fannys’). Er no, she was English, and she proceeded to lift her skirt, and show said offending article, full-front, on prime-time evening television… This was followed by a gentleman with a foreskin problem which Pixie probed with gloved hands. Now I was sweating... Then there was a 31-year-old lady who complained that her breasts kept growing. Yes, they were put on show (via a poor Skype connection), and yes they were large… But then someone came on and said, ‘…my problem is that my breath smells like faeces…’ I had to leave the room.
I should add, that in case anyone should suggest that this was the very worst kind of voyeurism dressed up as a ‘serious’ medical programme, there was also an adolescent boy who sweated too much, and another middle-aged lady with discoloured legs and feet.
Did the journalists responsible for this farrago of bad taste all migrate to Channel 4 from the News of the World? Have the programme-makers of Channel 4, a so-called serious public broadcast channel, entirely taken leave of their senses? Or is this the way television is going, with members of the general public apparently ready to humiliate themselves, full-frontally, just to get two minutes of fame on prime-time television? I am seriously considering emailing Jon Snow on Channel 4 News to see whether he approves of this ordure (in both senses of the word) adjacent to his excellent news programme.
I have just finished reading David Copperfield. The first time I read the book, more than forty years ago, I thought it was wonderful – I couldn’t put it down. This time, although I sort of enjoyed it, I was far more aware of its faults.
It is darker than I remember, with fewer lighter moments than I recall from the first reading. I was conscious of Dickens’ extremely unpleasant treatment of ‘fallen’ women. ‘Little Em’ly’, Copperfield’s childhood love, runs off with his greatest friend, Steerforth. They go to the Continent living as man and wife but do not marry. When Emily finally leaves Steerforth, refusing an offer of marriage from his sinister manservant, Copperfield tracks her down in London and sends word to her uncle to come and look after her. But he (Copperfield) never meets or speaks to Emily on her return; neither do any of his ‘respectable’ friends and family. As a fallen woman she is beyond the pale. Instead he overhears Steerforth’s family companion, Rosa Dartle, herself infatuated with Steerforth, subjecting Emily to the most brutal, humiliating and unrelenting abuse. It is clear from Copperfield’s description of Steerforth that he was an extremely attractive man, physically and personality-wise. He swept Emily off her feet, yet she was to blame…
David Copperfield was written in the late eighteen-forties. Just a few years later, Dickens, having subjected his own wife to extreme and consistent humiliation, took up with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, and had a secret affair which may have resulted in a child. It is very difficult to reconcile this behaviour with Dickens’ literary treatment of Emily. His breathtaking hypocrisy certainly coloured my reading of the rest of the book.
One also has to admit that the book is wordy, and the criticism ‘pot-boiler’ comes to mind. All of Dickens’ major works were published in weekly episodes in journals. The requirement to fulfil a weekly quota of lines becomes obvious at times. This is not such a problem for a story consumed in weekly chunks, but jars when the parts are combined with no editing. No doubt at the time, no-one would have dreamed of suggesting that the great man’s work be edited, and it is, of course, impossible to suggest such a thing now. It does though explain why his works transfer so well to the small screen, where editing is essential and the important characters and events can shine through the padding.
Charles Dickens was, nevertheless, a great teller of stories and a peerless inventor of characters. The efforts of other novelists of the period, pale into insignificance against people like Wilkins Micawber, Mr Pickwick, Samuel Weller, Smallweed, Scrooge and so on.
Yesterday I presented my talk on Brunel to the Kings Langley Probus Club. For an association of retired professional men, many of whose members are in their eighties, they are a sprightly group. I have spoken there twice before, and on each occasion I have found them to be lively but attentive, and knowledgeable but generous in their appreciation. They ask questions which are searching and intelligent. I think that of the nearly 100 groups I have spoken to over the last four years, they are one of the associations that have given me the most pleasure in their reception.
If one adds to the Probus Club the presence in Kings Langley of the excellent Dalling & Co Delicatessen in the High Street, where I had both breakfast and lunch yesterday, then visits to that town measure very highly in my personal pleasure-index of travelling around the Home Counties.
Yesterday, quite by accident, I discovered a little known treasure in Maldon (Essex). The Blue Boar Hotel is tucked in at the top of the high street next to the second church (Maldon appears to have at least three…)
I stayed there after a dinner in Tollsbury, and needed a bed for the night. The Blue Boar Hotel is a gem. It’s an old fashioned country-town hotel full of oak panelling, heavy oak furniture, Georgian paintings on the wall and floors that creak in a reassuringly old fashioned and comforting way.
My room was eminently comfortable – with a bath! And the breakfast this morning – full English but hold the meat – was quite possibly the best and most satisfying I remember ever having had in a hotel.
The pity is that since I live only a dozen miles away, the opportunities for staying there are limited. However, any sailors who fancy a trip to Maldon with the flood tide and don’t fancy staying on the boat overnight in the mud, the Blue Boar is a mere ten minutes walk away. I promise you it is worth it.
I recently visited Colchester Castle, site of the temple to the Emperor Claudius. When people think of Roman Britain, many think of the invasions of Julius Caesar. However, his adventures of 55 and 54 BC were half hearted affairs; no garrison was left in Britain and a Roman presence was not established until the Emperor Claudius rode into Colchester on an elephant nearly 100 years later.
Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus was emperor of Rome and the world from AD41 until AD54. His history, and that of his mixed bag of imperial predecessors, is well-known to readers of Robert Graves’ faux-autobiography in two parts, I Claudius, and Claudius the God. The books were also televised, very successfully, as I Claudius in the late 1970s with Derek Jacobi in the title role. Graves drew on his knowledge of the Roman histories of Tacitus, Suetonius and others, and painted a sympathetic portrait of the Emperor Claudius, known elsewhere for his stammer and lameness. In early life, Claudius’ contemporaries thought him simple. His grandmother certainly did. Claudius, who was related both to Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, managed to avoid being murdered by Livia (his grandmother, Augustus’ wife), who had killed so many others to smooth the way for her son, Tiberius, to become emperor after Augustus’ death. As well as outliving Augustus, Claudius survived the reigns of his uncle Tiberius and his mad nephew Caligula, both murdered, only to be murdered himself in the end, poisoned, probably by his fourth wife Agrippina, who also happened to be his niece.
Claudius was a reluctant ruler. Following Caligula’s assassination, when he believed that the entire imperial family were being hunted down, ‘Uncle’ Claudius was found by the Praetorian Guard hiding behind a curtain in the Royal Palace. They summarily proclaimed him the new emperor. Graves’ Claudius was a shrewd, liberal-minded administrator but he was prone to be gullible in matters of the heart. His third wife, Messalina, ‘given’ to him by Caligula, famously had a public contest with a well-known Roman prostitute to see who could service the most men in a night; this happened after Claudius had become emperor. According to the historians, Messalina won. She finally went too far though, divorcing Claudius while he was away at Ostia, and marrying a Senator, Gaius Silius, with the intention of murdering Claudius and making Silius emperor. The plot failed and Messalina paid with her head.
In AD 40, Caligula, by now descending into madness, is supposed to have ordered his troops to attack the sea at Boulogne in a failed invasion. He then ordered them to collect seashells as ‘booty’. Claudius’ invasion of Britain took place three years later. He stayed for only 16 days, but Camulodunum (Colchester) became the capital city of Roman Briton, an occupation or annexation that lasted for 400 years and had a profound effect on all aspects of life in the country.
Some time later a temple dedicated to ‘The Divine Claudius’ was built on the hill at Colchester. According to Graves, Claudius had sanctioned a temple to ‘The Divine Augustus’, Augustus having been deified on his death. In the event, the temple was dedicated to ‘The Divine Claudius’. Perhaps this was due to a misunderstanding of the original instruction, one of Claudius’ honorary imperial names being Augustus; possibly the sight of Claudius riding into town on an elephant had started the myth that he really was a god.
Unfortunately the temple lasted not very much longer than Claudius himself. In 60 AD, Boudica (Boadicea), Queen of the East-Anglian Iceni tribe, sacked Colchester and burned it to the ground. The Romans had been unwise enough to have her flogged and her daughters raped in the process of annexing the land of her dead husband Prasutagus. No doubt the temple of Claudius, as an icon of Rome, received Boudica’s particular attention; only the foundations avoided destruction and they were reused for the Norman castle built in the eleventh century. The foundations consist of a series of vaults, filled with sand, constructed using the only ‘stones’ available in the area, a form of compacted mud dug out of the sea, as can be seen by the barnacles still attached to some of them. Modern reconstructions of the temple suggest it had a double row of eight pillars at the front in the classic double portico style with pillars at the sides and rear. There being no marble available locally, the pillars were probably constructed of brick rendered with mortar. A large bronze statue of Claudius would have been positioned inside.
The Roman Emperors were a rum lot, but if Robert Graves is to be believed, Claudius stands out as a sane, just, liberal-minded and efficient ruler. Certainly, compared with Tiberius and Caligula before him and Nero after him, he was a good leader of most of the known world. His triumphal entry into Colchester astride what must have seemed to the local population to be a mythical monster must have been talked about for decades afterwards. It is amusing to reflect on the perplexity of subsequent archaeologists on encountering large amounts of elephant dung in the area.
Yesterday morning I had a talk on Brunel to do to the Diss U3A. Diss is on the main line from London to Norwich and the inter-city trains are fast and comfortable. Since Brunel was a railway pioneer, it seemed appropriate to take the train. It was a few minutes late, but there was plenty of room, and it really was a pleasure to whistle through the countryside at 100 miles an hour in a comfortable seat without worrying about traffic jams.
Not so the 'other' direction. The 8.09 train to Liverpool Street was cancelled, and I watched from my platform as the other side filled up to an almost dangerous extent. I have heard it said that Chelmsford station is one of the busiest through stations in the country; I have also heard it said that 20% of its population travel to London every day.
Chelmsford station is almost in the middle of the city, and seems to be operating very close to saturation during the rush hour. When it works, it works, but any delay or cancellation during that busy period and the build-up of frustrated commuters can be quite terrifying. And it will get worse. Dwellings are being built around the city centre at an alarming rate, and these are clearly designed for commuters. The extra traffic that the station will have to deal with seems to me to be entirely unsustainable.
What is the solution? There are some improvement works at the station going on on, but since it is virtually surrounded by buildings, there is very little room for expansion. Car-parking is a nightmare with barely ten places available, although there is a multi-storey park close by. The only way out of the conundrum is to put more trains on during rush hour. Currently, the cost of a second class annual season ticket to London is £3,600. It is entirely unreasonable to ask commuters to pay that amount of money, and then subject them to the levels of stress I observed yesterday.
And here's another thought: since the 1820s, railway stations, with the exception of terminuses, have been entirely open to the elements, a practice that is carried on today. Yesterday I stood at Diss station for about 20 minutes waiting for my train. The weather was not too bad, but Diss, whose platforms are the length of an inter-city train, has around 20 feet of roof over the platform on each side, with more than 90% of the platform having absolutely no shelter whatsoever. In the winter, when the north-easterlies are blowing and it's raining, it must be a nightmare waiting for a train. Most stations are the same. We would never dream of asking passengers to wait on rain and wind-swept runways for a 'plane, why do we continue to do it to railway passengers?
Regular readers of this blog – if, indeed, there are any… will be aware that I am researching ‘Beauty’ Smith, one of the sinister characters in the Red Barn affair. He was transported to Australia, and I have spent some time looking at Australian convict records.
The National Library of Australia (NLA) has put reams of material on line, accessible by ‘Trove’, their on-line resource. A recent enquiry of mine to Trove generated a timely and detailed response, and the person who made that response was interested enough to put a request, on my behalf, for more information to the NLA itself.
The reply from the NLA was received within two days. It was long and detailed and to say that it opened up a gold-seam is to underrate it. Last week I made another enquiry to NLA for more assistance. Once more, within two days I received a long and detailed response answering my question, and in a more complete way than I could have wished possible.
So I am a confirmed Australiophile. And if, in my youth, I relished the Monty Pythons and their Australian Philosophy Student's drinking song and offended any antipodeans,
Immanuel Kant was a real pissant who was very rarely stable,
Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar who could drink you under the table,
David Hume could out-consume Shopenhauer and Hegel… etc
…then I profoundly apologize to all Australians.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs