People keep asking me how I got involved with Henry John Hatch and Thomas Smethurst. I relate the story of my great x3 grandmother Ann Hatch and her five illegitimate children… Having now produced two books on similar themes, I’m casting around for a new subject.
The book on Smethurst was hard work; following up the angles, driving to Chester to find one short line in a baptismal register, worrying about making howlers with the chemistry and toxicology and endless iterations weeding out typos and other errors.
One possibility for a new book, very much in a similar vein, is the story of Maria Marten. I came across her history many years ago when I was living in Wivenhoe in Essex. My housemate Sarah had been helping in a house clearance, and found an old book she thought I might be interested in. It was the sad tale of Maria Martin of Polstead. She was the mole-catchers daughter, and having been impregnated by the squire’s son, William Corder, she was found murdered and buried in the Red Barn. Corder disappeared, but was tracked down and arrested in Ealing. He was tried for murder, found guilty and hanged at Bury St Edmunds in 1828.
There were a number of mysteries associated with the case, not the least of which was that the Red Barn was searched after Maria’s stepmother, who was not much older than Maria herself, dreamed that Maria, who had disappeared, had been murdered and buried there.
The story was headline news and eventually spawned the Victorian melodrama “Murder in the Red Barn”.
Several books have been written about the case, and there are various conspiracy theories to explain how it was that Maria’s stepmother’s ‘dreams’ led to Maria’s discovery. It may be though, that as with the Smethurst case, modern genealogical methods can uncover new information.
The story has always had resonance for me; my PhD supervisor at Essex University lived in Polstead, and I grew up in Ealing. Watch this space.
I am not a fan of cricket. I find the game tedious in the extreme, and must confess to bewilderment with those whose life is dominated by it during test matches.
I do though feel sorry for the English fans following the latest humiliating defeat by the Australians.
Nothing much has changed. I am reading Fred Hoyle’s The Nature of the Universe published in 1950. He describes the 100,000,000 galaxies within the then range of observation, each with, he estimated, around 1,000,000 planetary systems; more than a hundred million million in total.
“I find myself wondering,” he says, “whether somewhere among them is a cricket team that could beat the Australians…”
I have been sorting through some old books and came across a volume called The Modern Text-Book of Astrology, by Margaret E Hone. I bought the book years ago when I became interested in the possibility of there being some truth in astrology, that idea having been mooted in another book, Supernature, by Lyall Watson. He reported a number of investigations apparently proving, by statistical analysis, that the position of the planets, notably Mars, at the moment of birth affects the personality and abilities of the infant.
Astrology was practiced by Galileo, Kepler and others, and it’s likely that modern astronomy owes as much to astrology as it does to the mapping of the stars and planets for navigational purposes.
It is interesting to quote a passage from the introduction of Hone’s book:
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of 1829 include those who practice astrology as ‘charlatans, rogues and vagabonds’, and imply that ‘fortune telling’ is illegal…Until these acts are altered, the astrologer is advised to preface all his remarks with a statement which shows that he realises the position, and conforms with the law of his country in making it plain that he is not dogmatically stating that the events will happen, but that, from his point of view, the likelihood is that tendencies of a certain nature may bring about results of that nature.
A most convenient disclaimer. Who, after all, can argue with an act of Parliament even if it is over 200 years old.
A Google search shows that astrology is alive and kicking, and continues to provide a large number of people with a living. This is surprising considering that it has been thoroughly discredited as pseudoscience, with no more correlation with reality than would be expected from pure chance – see, for example, A double-blind test of astrology, Shawn Carlson, Nature, Vol 318, 5 December 1985.
Naturally, astrologers reject these tests, citing bias and arguing with the statistics. In any case, why would they concede that their ‘science’ is nonsense, when they have customers queuing up to purchase expensive horoscopes?
So astrology remains a refuge for the gullible and the weak-minded. I was tempted to burn Hone’s book for the hokum it is, but book-burning is the province of Nazism. I will, therefore, keep it as a reminder that there are few boundaries to human foolishness. I am tempted though to enquire of my MP whether the two acts of Parliament referenced above remain, and if so, to insist that the letter of the law be rigorously enforced.
It seems to me that clarity in written English should transcend all other considerations. Style, syntax, even mathematical precision (except in a scientific treatise), should be subordinate to the expression of an idea in a clear, simple and unambiguous way.
I am reading a book by Sir Arthur Eddington, published in 1935, called New Pathways in Science. Eddington was a great populariser of science in the 1930s, and he was writing only a few years after science was turned completely on its head by the discovery (or invention) of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Even though the book is 80 years old and science has moved on, much of it is still relevant, and it has the exciting revolutionary freshness of a master of his field explaining modern fantastical ideas.
One of the philosophical and scientific issues of the 18th and 19th century was the concept of free will. Newtonian mechanics had shown that both the orbits of the planets and the path of a billiard ball could be predicted with complete mathematical precision. Questions arose. If every effect has a cause, and those effects can be calculated (determined) from the cause, does anyone truly possess free will? Surely, it was said, our lives are preordained, and what will be, will be, regardless of any human intervention. The idea was called Determinism.
Quantum Mechanics and thermodynamics replaced certainty with probability. The Uncertainty Principle sets a limit to the predictability of any system. In the sub-microscopic world of the atom, the ‘billiard ball’ does not necessarily go in the direction expected from classical mechanics.
Eddington produced three definitions of determinism, one from Laplace (1749 – 1827), one from Omar Khayyam and one from a philosopher, C D Broad (1787 – 1971). I had never heard of Broad, and perhaps his definition of determinism explains why:
“Determinism” is the name given to the following doctrine. Let S be any substance, ψ any characteristic, and t any moment. Suppose that S is in fact in the state σ with respect to ψ at t. Then the compound supposition that everything else in the world should have been exactly as it in fact was, and that S should instead have been in one of the other two alternative states with respect to ψ is an impossible one. [The three alternative states (of which σ is one) are: to have the characteristic ψ, not to have it, and to be changing.]
I have read this statement a dozen times. I think I understand the point, but is it clear? Is it necessary to resort to Greek letters and compound brackets to express the simple idea of cause and effect? Should one have to read a sentence many times in order to understand it? I think not.
Someone once said – it might have been Douglas Adams – that anyone offering themselves for high public office, should under no circumstances be allowed to take on that role. I think that it is perfectly legitimate, therefore, to ridicule those with the arrogance to assume to rule over the rest of us.
I was reminded of this today when I found a whole pocket full of £1 coins in my trousers. Remember what we used to call them? Maggies – after Thatcher – because the coin is thick and brassy and it thinks it is a sovereign… Remember “We are a grandmother...” Well Margaret Thatcher has gone the way of all flesh, and there is no virtue in poking fun at her any more. I do wonder though how many people in this country had a quiet chuckle when the song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” climbed to No 10 in the hit parade during the week of her funeral…
What really started me on this thought process though, was listening to members of the House of Commons last week praising Jack Straw to the rooftops. Straw-Man has decided to retire at the next election, and even the Speaker was eulogising over his qualities. Well, I have not forgotten Straw’s trenchant support for Blair and his policies during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
I dare not criticise Blair for that business because my furious indignation and the laws of libel would pretty soon land me in court. But during the weeks leading up to the war, when millions of people in this country were against it, Straw-Man was Blair’s avatar, the man on the radio with his clever lawyer’s-speak, twisting and turning, ducking and diving, diverting the difficult questions, obfuscating and sounding oh so plausible. A dozen times or more I heard him on the Today programme and elsewhere defending the indefensible. He was of course speaking to his parliamentary colleagues as much as to the public, and it was a triumph of rhetoric which culminated in Parliament approving the intention of going to war.
Still, the country learned its lesson; who can doubt but that the recent vote against military intervention in Syria was carried with the memory of that other vote for war ten years earlier…
Apparently then, Parliament really do hold Straw-Man in high regard. Perhaps he has mellowed since. Even though he was Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq adventure and it was not his ultimate decision, he, along with Campbell, Blair’s attack-dog, was crucial in persuading the country to go to war. A war predicated, as we now know, on an “intelligence failure”.
So can we look forward to his memoirs: “Memories of a Man of Straw”? It will be interesting to see how he justifies his actions of ten years ago.
Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs