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Saturday, 27 June 2020

Lost for words

Mark Dawson, author and entrepreneur summed it up. If you can’t explain your book/pitch in one sentence forget it. With that in mind, and for the first time, I thought I’d attempt it on the front cover of the new book coming out soon.
And here it is. 

And yes, it is exactly what the story’s about. 

But then doubt sets in. ‘Straddling/draining’ is that one too many words ending in ‘ing’? And what about ‘Time and Space’ – is that too Dr Who derivative? If it is derivative of anything, it’s the long standing Sci Fi tradition of pitting ordinary people against something beyond their experience, John Wyndham being one of the earliest exponents.

And you can’t get anything more ordinary than two Newport teachers:

The back blurb though  allows a little more space and here the human element slips through:

Quantum virus. Inter-dimensional parasite—labels to define an unknowable force, straddling galaxies, draining worlds and apparently unstoppable.

Five moguls, who between them control much of the earth’s wealth, explore the blurred distinctions between exploitation, collaboration and appeasement.

Two Welsh teachers and a self-confessed loser stand in their way

Any views or suggestions would be much appreciated. I swear, such things are more difficult than writing the damn book.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Rubbed by snails

At the start of lockdown, I went off social media, abandoned the blog and lost myself on vacation in the C16th: Thomas Cromwell’s England. It took about a day to switch off my magpie’s love of distraction that a click here and click there immediately satisfies; it’s a life-draining itch. Settling down to read Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’ demanded much and gave in return. It's both compelling, subtle and dense. This for example:

‘Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and sasy, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbours conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped into eternity like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well?’

Sitting with a fine Madeira* – a half-bottle left over from Christmas – was one of many golden moments and knocked Twitter into a cocked hat.  

As with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, I was struck with modern day parallels. Then the burning issue of the day was breaking with the Universal Church of Rome and the vested interests within England that sought to maintain our connection. Today it is Brexit.
Today it is Covid 19. Then it was the ‘Sweating Sickness,’ which appeared out of the blue and within a century burnt itself out.  Reputedly it came into the country via French mercenaries fighting for the future Henry VII, although where they’d contracted it from remains still a mystery. It was called the ‘English Sweate’ precisely because it appeared nowhere else. How come we got to be so lucky?
The disease itself was devastating, its victims dying within the day by . . . sweating. In anyone outbreak it would kill thousands and is graphically described by a French physician in England.

We saw two prestys standing togeder and speaking togeder, and we saw both of them dye sodenly. Also in die—proximi we se the wyf of a taylour taken and sodenly dyed. Another yonge man walking by the street fell down sodenly.”
And this sickness cometh with a grete swetyng and stynkyng, with rednesse of the face and of all the body, and a contynual thurst, with a grete hete and hedache because of the fumes and venoms.

The 1485 outbreak began in September and had gone by October. It reappeared in 1507, then again in 1517. In 1528 it also hit parts of Europe but to a much lesser extent. The last great outbreak was 1521 and then it ceased to be.
Thomas Cromwell lost his family to it, and the king was so terrified of catching it, messengers were sent ahead on any Royal Progress, and he’d change direction immediately at the merest hint of its presence, even – during the 1528 outbreak—abandoning trysts with Anne Boleyn at the height of his ardour. She, apparently, survived the ‘sweating sickness’ but not the axe.

The king had reason to be cautious. Unlike Covid 19, sweating sickness was a young man’s disease. The very old and the very young were normally spared. It was also, for some reason, a rich man’s disease and severely affected nobles living in London and the students of Oxford and Cambridge. In the words of the Chronicler Edward Hall:

“Suddenly there came a plague of sickness called the sweating sickness that turned all his [the King’s] purpose. This malody was so cruel that it killed some within two houres, some merry at dinner and dedde at supper. Many died in the Kinges courte. The Lorde Clinton, the Lorde Gray of Wilton, and many knightes, gentleman and officiers.”
In theory, an affected house would be in isolation for 40 days but there is no real evidence of serious lockdown. With no social welfare or furlough schemes, business continued as normal.
Another passage I particularly liked illustrated the harsh reality of Cromwell at work, along with a description of a particularly loyal servant, the young Rafe Sadler:

Never in time for meat or sleep or prayer; always leaving and arriving in the dark, heaving himself onto a steaming horse: a winter of fog and wet wool and rain cascading from slick leather. And Rafe Sadler as his side, drenched, frozen, and shivering like a greyhound whelp, nothing but ribs and eyes; bewildered, bereft, never complaining, once.
It is another foggy day, and it has not lifted by afternoon: rain just holding off, but the air as damp as if the afternoon has been rubbed by snails.’ 

That last line in particular.

The book is full of insights, in particular the nature of continuity and change.  Hackney now, is not particularly pretty, then it was a place of green meadows and crystal-clear springs – and also the site of the older and wealthier Rafe Sadler’s fine new mansion ‘Bricke Place.’ You can still go to ‘Bricke Place.’ Yes, is now called Sutton House, has a Georgian frontage and some beautiful Jacobean panelling inside, but the building is essentially the same that Rafe Sadler had built.

The kitchen with two models - Hackney then, and the house

A much later painting of the house

Sutton House today

The Great Chamber
Tudor politics were brutal, loyalties changed with a blink and a smile. You know Cromwell’s ultimate fate, its undercurrent as relentless as any Greek tragedy, but it still hits you with a shock, partly because of the sociopathic treachery of those largely responsible. Politics is still treacherous but for the moment less brutal.

*The Madeira ran out quickly and was followed by tea. Not so good. 

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Symbols and Playthings

"Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right" George Orwell. 1984

The study of history has much to offer. One of the best things about it is that it allows you to smell bullshit from some distance away. What happened to George Floyd was abhorrent and seen to be so by most of the world, but in subsequent events, the man himself has disappeared to be replaced by a symbol.

Some, with ulterior motives, will highlight George Floyd's criminal background, in one case, forcing his way into a house and pressing a gun against the stomach of a pregnant woman. He served five years for that. But people mature and redemption is everything. I like to think he was turning his life around until it was brutally cut short. But the point remains, he was flawed. It is the nature of humanity. But now, akin Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, George Floyd has become a symbol.

And symbols are dangerous as the fates of memorials and statues testify.

The most important thing a historian learns is that people in the past cannot be classified as ‘bad’ based upon our standards otherwise the whole discipline becomes worthless. People in the past were simply different and acted according to the mores of their time.

In an age of religion, Islam following the example of the prophet and slave owner, Mohammed, killed and conquered in the name of Allah. The First Crusade took place because ‘God willed it,’ and the streets of Jerusalem were awash in blood as a result.

Hawkins, Drake and Edward Colston had their virtues and faults but none of them deviated from the mores of their time. Slavery was a given and practised throughout Africa and the Arab world as well as the newly colonised America. 

Cecil Rhodes similarly embodied the culture of his time. Victorian England believed the Empire to be a force for good, a divinely inspired mission to civilise the barbarous. Rhodes is now a convenient symbol, easier to attack than the subtleties of an entire heritage but at the expense of understanding both the man and his world. 

The majority of the pilots and soldiers we now laud as World War II heroes would be seen as 'racist' by our standards.  Churchill though, is the more convenient symbol, but 'convenience' isn't necessarily 'meaningful.'

Understanding is everything. When, in a different life, I taught history, a favourite topic was ‘The Hundred Years war partly because it involved ‘bashing the French’ in victories such Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt: Tactics, longbows Vs heavily armoured knights, schoolboy stuff. But then you went on to examine the massacres, the brutality of the English – how The Black Prince dealt with Limoges where three thousand men, women and children were massacred. Here the narrative becomes complex, discussions ensue, judgements made. But then, even in those pre-google days, the Hundred Years War was quietly erased from the syllabus and with it a colourful episode in our history along with its moral complexity.

Erasure is the enemy of learning. It’s the enemy of truth.
But then in the immortal words of Pilate: what is truth?

Moral relativism has been for a long time fashionable. Is the pendulum now turning back to a world of ‘absolute truths’ ? For example, Islamic fundamentalists destroying Buddhist statues, or the ancient artefacts of Palmyra were roundly condemned even though, according to the logic of relativism, their abhorrence of pagan works is just as valid as our present abhorrence of slavery. Are we now turning our backs upon such relativism? Are we now, like the Victorians, proclaiming one ‘truth’ is more important than another? It’s alright for us to destroy statues but not those  fundamentalists. 

Absolute truths did for Galileo, along with millions in Russia, China and Cambodia. Books have been burned—Beatle albums, too, in Georgia and Alabama. And long, long ago iconoclasts did a grand job in old Byzantium.

We don’t change.

In this highly charged time, statues have become not only become symbols for those who would make capital, but also convenient distractions. It may be that the symbol George Floyd becomes a battering ram to capture the White House for Joe Biden. Alternatively, the symbol George Floyd may be the means by which Donald Trump actually gains a second term. Whether it be American politics, or a statue thrown into river, men become symbols and symbols become playthings or means to an end. And they may yet release darker forces. 

Friday, 5 June 2020

Horror in Osbaston

What have the Chinese ever done for us? The thought occurred someway down Osbaston Lane. There’s no getting away from it. China has history; it has millions of bright and inquisitive minds, their students the lifeblood of British private schools and the source of indecent salaries for those who run our universities.  

But what have the Chinese ever done for us: apart from giving us, Silk, Dim Sum, gunpowder and paper, kites, a wall that can be seen from the moon, 5G, Huawei, Wuhan flu,  Fu Manchu — and now Asian hornets.

They arrived here from France, perhaps via garden plants, and have colonised large swathes of Southern England, perhaps even Wales. We’re a multi-cultural society, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and that my friend is the Asian Hornet, Vespa Velutina to its friends.   

They devastate hives. These Asiatic marauders lie in wait and attack, decapitating the hapless bee and bringing back what’s left as food for the nest. Our bee population is endangered. But resistance is growing in the form of a new Home Guard, posses of beekeepers scouring the countryside for the first signs of an alien nest. They hide behind bushes—some camouflaged—tracking these hornets in an effort to locate their nests and destroy them before the queen flies off and begins all over again somewhere else.

With these thoughts in mind, I turned a corner in the lane and came across . . .


A member of the new Home Guard cunningly disguised as a tree stump, the fungus accessories a nice touch, I thought. I saw the face at once, a face set in bark, sternly scanning the forest for hornets.

But so, unnaturally still.

And then I realised. This had once been human, a fellow traveller like myself before impregnation by alien spores.  Osbaston hides secrets darker than any in China.