Through a glass darkly – 101


Confession is said to be good for the soul. So I must start by confessing that, although Susie and I lived in the 14ème arrondissement in Paris back in the 1970s, I never visited the Musée de la Libération at Denfert-Rochereau. And, more reprehensibly, although Susie and I later lived in Lyon for thirteen years, I never, ever visited Place Castellane up in Caluire. It was here, on the corner of the square, in a house belonging to Dr Frédèric Dugoujon, that ‘Max’ was arrested in June 1943. ‘Max’ was of the cover names of Jean Moulin, a Prefet suspended on half-pay by the Vichy government, who had been named by General de Gaulle as the political head of the Resistance. The circumstances of his arrest are enigmatic. Who was it that betrayed him to the Gestapo ? At the time of his arrest Jean Moulin was a little known figure. But for complex reasons he has been retrospectively anointed as France’s greatest hero of the Second World War.

I have been reading Army of the Night by Patrick Marnham, a gripping and detailed account of the life of Jean Moulin. Marnham himself has a CV of which I am mildly envious: after Oxford he became a reporter on Private Eye, wrote for a variety of newspapers including The Times, and The Guardian, became literary editor of The Spectator, and was the first Paris correspondent of The Independent. He now lives [in retirement] in Woodstock, in Oxfordshire. Where we lived in the 1980s.

The making of Jean Moulin

Moulin was born in 1898, in the very dull town of Beziers, in the south of France. His father, Antonin, was a republican, anti-clerical schoolmaster, who taught French history and literature in the same classroom for fifty years. The young Jean was a rebellious student, but in 1921 took a law degree at Montpellier. He promptly joined the corps préfectoral, and rose swiftly through the ranks becoming in 1925, at the age of twenty-six, the youngest sub-prefect in France, at Albertville in Savoy. The following year he married Marguerite Cerruti, a professional singer from Paris, described by his sister Laure as “pretty but a bit fat”. The marriage lasted a little over a year. In January 1930 Moulin was transferred to Chateaulin in Brittany. It was a dull posting from which he was rescued in 1933 by Pierre Cot, the dynamic and ambitious young government minister. Cot was an excellent public speaker who valued Moulin’s administrative skill and application. Aged thirty-four, Moulin was a successful young administrator, a divorcé with a crowded social life; notionally neutral in party political terms, but anti-monarchist, anti-clerical, and probably a freemason. For the remainder of the 1930s, the careers of Pierre Cot and Jean Moulin ebbed and flowed as successive French governments came and went. In March 1937, at the height of the Spanish Civil War, Moulin was nominated Prefect of the Aveyron, becoming at thirty-seven the youngest prefect in France.

In September 1939, with the signing of the Nazi Soviet Pact, all the hopes of Moulin and Pierre Cot, and of the anti-fascist Front Populaire collapsed. When the Germans invaded France in the summer of 1940, Jean Moulin was behind his desk in Chartres, to where he had transferred the previous year. It was not a promotion, but it was an advantage to be much closer to Paris

The War

In June 1940 Moulin ignored an order to abandon Chartres. When the city was surrendered to the Germans, he was arrested and beaten up for refusing to sign a document that incriminated French troops. He decided he could take no more beatings and cut his throat with a piece of broken glass. But he was rescued by a guard and the wound slowly healed. Was it a suicide bid ? Or an attempt to engineer an escape ? Marnham is happy to sit on the fence on this question.

In November 1940 Moulin was relieved of his post and began to build a new life. He returned to St. Andiol, the family home, in unoccupied France, and busied himself with his two mistresses and with opening an art gallery. It is perhaps surprising that over the coming months Moulin made very little attempt to associate himself with the growing movements of Resistance in the Vichy zone. He lived quietly as Joseph Mercier, holder of a false passport and a false exit permit, for almost a year. And then in September 1941 he left to travel via Spain and Portugal to London. It was only the third time in his life that Jean Moulin had left France. Ski trips to the Tyrol and a weekend in London were his only previous trips abroad. In London he threw in his lot with the head of the Free French, Brigadier-General Charles de Gaulle; a man nine years older than Moulin, but whose rank in the republican hierarchy was inferior [a Prefet counts in rank as a Major-General]. De Gaulle was impressed by Moulin’s rank and by his experience; in 1941 de Gaulle was dangerously isolated and many well qualified French exiles [such as Jean Monet and Raymond Aron] had turned their backs on him

The arrest of Jean Moulin

In January 1942 Moulin was parachuted back into France. Armed with a document from de Gaulle giving him plenipotentiary powers, his task was to unite the disparate strands of the French resistance. His only assets were money [which the resisters needed urgently] and regular liaison with London. There now began a year-long struggle between Moulin and the three principal leaders of the southern resistance groups, Henri Frenay of Combat, Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie of  Libération, and Jean-Pierre Levy of Francs-Tireur. For the last year of his life, Moulin sought to unite and direct their competing interests and explosive personalities, while being pursued by both Vichy and the Gestapo. His mission was both to dissolve the Resistance as it existed in January 1942, and to remould it as an instrument to serve de Gaulle’s project for the liberation of France.

By June 1943 it seems that Jean Moulin had reached the end of his strength. He habitually wore dark glasses, hardly a disguise, a brown trilby, and a scarf to hide the distinctive scar on his throat. By now he was heartily disliked by many resisters in France; seen by some as the agent of a potential Gaullist military dictatorship, by others as a crypto-communist .On June 9th General Delestraint, named as military commander of the Secret Army, was arrested in Paris. On June 21st, Moulin now code-named ‘Max’ was arrested with six other Resistance leaders at the house of Dr Dugoujon in Caluire. One of the seven René Hardy of Combat escaped from custody. [After the war Hardy was twice tried on suspicion of betraying Jean Moulin, and was twice acquitted.] All those who were arrested were interrogated and beaten up in custody. Nobody knows when and where, and how, Jean Moulin died. He was last seen alive in France in June. But his dead body was formally identified in Germany, in Frankfurt, two weeks later. It is widely believed that, having refused to talk to his captors, he was beaten into a coma on the orders of the senior Gestapo officer in Lyon, Klaus Barbie. [Subsequently protected by none other than François Mitterand.] And that he died a hero. 

The resurrection of Jean Moulin

In December 1964 the ashes of Jean Moulin were transferred to the Panthéon, the resting place of heroes of the Republic. [And a symbol of republican anti-clericalism.] The move was proposed by the socialist parliamentary opposition, who wanted to underline on the twentieth anniversary of Moulin’s death, under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle, that the left had played an important part in the Resistance. But de Gaulle himself adroitly postponed the ceremony until the twentieth anniversary of the liberation; and, taking his place centre-stage in military uniform. demonstrated his own role as the living embodiment of wartime victory. While enjoying left-wing  support.

Tribute to Moulin was paid by the writer and politician André Malraux. “Crouched over the microphone with wild eyes and a beaky nose”, writes Marnham, “he resembled an elderly vulture”. In a powerful address, Malraux evoked the spirit of what the Resistance [wanted to believe it] had been. “Think of his poor battered face, of those lips which never spoke. That day, his last day, it was the face of France.” It didn’t seem to matter that the coffin was virtually empty. And that Moulin’s body had never been found. Jean Moulin was resurrected from wartime obscurity and became, through Malraux’s oratory, the personification of the Resistance, and the Resistance became the emblem of the whole of France.

It’s a good story. And a good book.


We are two weeks back from Ankara. We enjoyed being there, and were warmly greeted by the small but welcoming congregation. On our final Sunday in Lyon, Susie and I were pleased to attend the Coronation Garden Party at the British Embassy. And I had the privilege of being one of the judges of the Scone Baking competition. Something for which theological college never prepared  me. 

Since we have been home we have attended three church fund-raising events: first, St Peter’s [Lutton Place] summer fete last weekend; followed by a garden opening in Murrayfield in support of St Salvador’s, Stenhouse, with music from No Strings Attached, Susie’s band; and then a coffee morning for Christian Aid at Priestfield yesterday. On Tuesday we go south to High Wycombe and Watlington. From next weekend we shall be in Normandy for a week, at Barneville-Carteret, with the children and grand-children. It will be strange being there without Joanna. But she will be much in our thoughts and in our conversations.

May 2023

Through a glass darkly – 100

Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

My accompaniment in Istanbul was reading Orhan Pamuk’s melancholic, but seductive, memoirs of growing up in the city, Istanbul: memories and the city. He was born in 1952, so the dilapidated Ottoman city which he describes is more-or-less the city that I dimly remember. It was a city of maybe half a million inhabitants, living surrounded by reminders of past imperial glory; everything now broken, worn out, and past its prime. Pamuk writes evocatively of men returning home under street lights carrying plastic bags; of the old Bosphorus ferries moored by deserted stations in the middle of winter; of house facades discoloured by dirt, rust, and soot; of broken seesaws in empty parks; of ships’ horns booming through the fog; of city walls in ruins since the fall of the Byzantine Empire. He writes of seagulls perched on rusty barges caked with moss and mussels; walls covered with frayed and blackened posters; tired old dolmusses, 1950s Chevrolets that would be museum pieces in any Western city, but which here huff and puff up dirty thoroughfares; buses crammed with passengers for the mosques; little children in the street trying to sell a single packet of tissues to passers-by; underpasses and overpasses at crowded intersections where every step is broken in a different way; the man who has been selling postcards in he same spot in the city for forty years. And the packs of dogs, commented on by every Western visitor in the 19th century. [Word is that some of these dogs are now in the habit of taking the metro.]

Hüzün, which apparently has an Arabic root,is the Turkish word for melancholy. Orhan Pamuk insists that hüzün is the key to understanding the city of Istanbul and its inhabitants. He writes of his family, who all lived in the same apartment block: his father, who frequently disappeared on unexplained trips to faraway places; his mother, who embraced her children warmly but was much given to issuing detailed instructions, about what to say and how to behave; his grandmother, who spent half the day in bed and never made herself up, but who had positioned the dressing-table mirror to give her sight of the long corridor, the servants’ quarter, the sitting room, and the windows that gave onto the street; and assorted aunts and uncles who took it in turns to fall out with each other. As he recreates the city of his childhood he evokes four lonely melancholic writers whom he never met. Their common theme was the decline and fall of the great empire into which they had been born; and their great strength, he asserts, was their exploration of the tensions between the past and the present, or between what Westerners like to call the East and the West.

Pamuk, writing in 2008, never left the city of his childhood. And when the book was written he was living fifty years on back in the Pamuk Apartments in which he grew up.

I tell myself that this the city that I first encountered in 1964. It was certainly run down. In those days there was only one bridge, the old Galata bridge across the Golden Horn, which burned down decades ago. [There are now at least four bridges across the Golden Horn and three huge bridges across the Bosphorus.] Noisy trams rattled around the city then, but I chose to walk everywhere. For reasons of economy. I went barefoot part of the time. A sure sign of juvenile madness.

 I visited Hagia [Sancta] Sophia, and the Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace. And I don’t recall any queues or admission prices at any of these tourist attractions. In between I sat and drank glasses of tea in a cafe near the youth hostel. And swopped stories with other travellers and hitch-hikers. Including a trio of students from Edinburgh Art College, whom I later met again in Venice. And with whom I went to camp at Ravenna. To look at the mosaics.

Forty eight hours in Istanbul

It wasn’t like that last week. We went down from Ankara on the very comfortable high-speed train. And stayed in a very comfortable [and budget=breaking] four star hotel in Sultanahmet, the old part of town. The great attraction of the hotel is an amazing buffet breakfast on the sixth floor with magnificent views across the Golden Horn towards the Galata Tower. I think the youth hostel was once there, but there is no sign of it now. The whole area is full of hotels and restaurants. Many with ‘greeters’ on the pavement outside to drum up business. The ‘art shop’ adjacent to the hotel had a novel pitch: ‘Come into my shop and spend some money on something you don’t want !

The population of the city now is said to be around 17 million. But I’m not sure if anyone really knows. The streets in the centre are jammed with traffic. There are tourist buses, and a lot of yellow taxis,  and a lot of hooting. The day we arrived, May 1st, was a public holiday with crowds of people on the streets and strolling along along by the water of the Golden Horn. And stalls selling simit, [bread rings with sesame seeds], and corn on the cob, and roast chestnuts.

We did what tourists do. We had dinner, lamb and salad, in Güvenç Konyah, a Konya restaurant. We went on an excellent cruise up the Bosphorus, as far as the castle and the second bridge. And paused for coffee at Uskùdar on the Asian shore.. We had dinner in the Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi Seilm Usta, which has been serving meatballs and salad to customers since 1926. But which still doesn’t accept credit cards. We made an early-ish morning visit to the Roman Cistern. Which I had previously only known from a scene in From Russia with Love.

We stopped for tea at Caferaga  Medresesi, a courtyard cafe, a former madrassa turned arts centre, in the shadow of Hagia Sophia. We joined hordes of people to revisit Topkapi Palace. And were disappointed that the wonderfully-sited up-market cafe overlooking the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus  has disappeared. [All that remains is a railing with lots of Russians taking photos of themselves.] But in the Court of the Janissaries we had a chance encounter with John and Barbara Drake, who worship at Holy Trinity, Norwich, and who run Boundary Breakers,  an organisation that promotes better Christian-Muslim relations in Jerusalem. 

It was only two days. And it was lively and noisy and hectic and wonderful. But it was tinged with sadness too. Back in 2002, a few months before her wedding, Joanna came here on a Euro-Railing adventure. She and a friend came to visit us in Lyon, and they then trained on to Florence and to Rome. The friend went home, and Joanna continued by boat across to Athens and then up via Thessalonica to Istanbul. I don’t know where she stayed and how she spent her time here. Only that afterwards she flew home with Lauda Airlines to go to [I think] a James Taylor concert in Musselburgh. In a different world we would have rung her up, and enjoyed exchanging e-mails and photos. It’s not exactly Pamuk’s hüzün. But it was a running sadness not to be able to have that contact with her.

May 2023

Through a glass darkly – 99

Back to Istanbul

The summer of ’64 is a long time ago. As long as from the outbreak of the First World War to the Beatles’ first LP ! But now that we are about to go to Istanbul, on a short, three-day visit from Ankara, it seems a good time to recall what I can of my first visit to that captivating city.

For the first half of 1964, after leaving school in December ‘63, I was working at County Hall, the headquarters of the then London County Council. It was a daily commute on the District Line from Southfields, where my parents lived, to Westminster, just across the river Thames. It wasn’t a glamorous job. I worked in EO/GP1, which was mainly concerned with administering the Common Entrance [11 Plus] exam. Outside my County Hall job I was a more-or-less regular member of the Putney Young Socialists, who were campaigning to overthrow the sitting Conservative MP and to elect Hugh Jenkins [not Roy Jenkins] in his place; I listened to my small collection of LPs on my father’s record player; and I went to the cinema a lot with Tina, whom I had met just before Christmas. She was a film enthusiast. And I occasionally looked at my reading list for Oxford, which beckoned the following autumn. But not very seriously, and not for very long !

Some of my CH friends had already set off overseas. John Gregory was working in a bookshop somewhere in the west of France, possibly in Angers. Clive and Howard were first somewhere in Sweden, reportedly lumber-jacking, but then later in Malta. [They were friends; not a gay couple. Both sadly now dead.] Walter was tutoring a distinctly upper-class Italian child in Italy, possibly in Genoa. Ian who had called on Walter in Genoa, most probably in search of a good meal, was now apparently in Rome, finding his way around by asking Catholic priests for directions in Latin. It seemed that the only people left in London were Chang Young and John Mitchell, whom I bumped into at Battersea Fun Fair, where they were working on the ghost train. And me.

Constantinople was the target. It looked a long way, but it was as far as you could travel without needing to take a boat. I had a map in the back of my pocket diary which showed where it was.  If there were any student trains or flights, I wasn’t aware of them. So the answer was hitch-hiking. I had hitched a few times before: down the A4 from my grandparents’ house to London; around Sussex on school half-holidays; and, memorably, to the Mediterranean and back with my brother, Paul, a couple of years before. But this was a more challenging, more ambitious trip. I said good-bye to Mary, whom I’d met at the Putney YS, and bought a Michelin map of Europe, a canvas grip bag, and a single ticket from London Victoria to Calais.

Maybe the journey is always more memorable than the destination ? My first night was in the youth hostel at Dunkerque, where I splashed out on a tomato omelette in a cafe. The next afternoon I met a man by the roadside in Belgium who told me he had seen the German army come across “that field there” twice in his life-time. I spent that night, uncomfortably, in Köln railway station. The next day I was offered a lift to Marienbad in a Ford V-8 Pilot by a Czech who was returning home from London. Briefly I had visions of conversations at Oxford, “Last year in Marienbad …” . But when the Pole ran out of petrol and started to refill the tank from a jerry-can with a lighted cigarette in his mouth, I thought better of it. Fortuitously, there on the hard shoulder, I trod on the toes of a rather nervous Indian, who asked the way to Bombay. I showed him carefully on my map. But he couldn’t read. And so I spent a day travelling with him and his wife and son, and a large cooking pot, down German autobahns. It did cross my mind to stay with them for the whole journey. But I got nervous about the eating arrangements and got out in Munich.

After that it is all fragments. I spent an evening in Munich with a Jewish girl from Canada, all of whose family had died in concentration camps. In Vienna I got drunk in a subterranean wine bar along with an American girl. We extricated ourselves with some difficulty. And rode home to the hostel on her scooter. In Klagenfurt I ventured into a restaurant by myself, and ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, which turned out to be egg mayonnaise. I may have been the only customer. And the staff watched as I ate it very slowly.

From there the road turned south over the Loibl Pass. Had I not then acquired my rampant acrophobia ? Which makes all mountain roads a trial. A Yugoslav family took me from the top of the Pass all the way to Belgrade. We arrived very late at night. They let me sleep in the car and brought me sugar on brown bread and plum brandy for breakfast. A German car picked me up going south from Belgrade. I exhausted my very limited German speaking to the driver until we realised that we were both English. It was my first ever two-day lift. We spent the night in a hotel in Sofia. Back in London the wife of the Bulgarian press attaché had told me, as we walked in Kensington Gardens, that Sofia was a magical town, a sort of cross between Heidelburg and Schwerin. My recollection is that it looked more like a cross between Slough and Livingstone, West Lothian.

As we approached Constantinople things became more foreign. Fewer cars on the road. The Dragoman pass between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria was not tarmac but loose stones. The village markets contained nothing but water melons. Between the villages we passed people in ox carts. The frontier guard at the Bulgarian border carefully inspected my visa upside-down. And he wanted to hold onto my passport. From Edirne [Adrianople] mosques and minarets replaced churches.

My driver took me out to dinner when we arrived, in a restaurant that gave onto the Bosphorus. I have a dim memory of eating stuffed vine-leaves and drinking ouzo. It was too late to find the youth hostel. He rang the bell of a cheap hotel, and the owner ushered me in darkness into a room. When I woke upon the morning I was sharing it with half a dozen Turks and a hundred flies, all competing for space on a naked light bulb.

I think I probably did the usual things in Constantinople, as I continued to call it in my head. I certainly made my way to the Hagia [Sancta] Sophia and to the Blue Mosque and to the Topkapi Palace. And I wandered, a bit lost, in the Grand Bazaar. Without buying anything. Did I spent time with other people ? Perhaps I did, as I re-met people later in the trip when I got to Venice. My long distance driver took me out to dinner again, in the same restaurant. But rich food gave me the runs, always difficult when you are travelling. An educated Turk who claimed to know Arnold Toynbee [I still had some pretensions then as a future historian] took me on a boat trip up the Golden Horn. Did he squeeze my arm over-much ? I think perhaps he did. But most of the time I was on my own. Living in a youth hostel somewhere in the old town, and drinking lots of tea in a local cafe. One day I took a metro train to what had been recommended to me as a local beach. Going barefoot during my time there was, with hindsight, not a very good idea. 

My recollection is that for everyone else in the hostel Constantinople was just a resting place on the way to somewhere else. A young German with whom I spent some time told me about his adventures hitching to and back from Pakistan. Some Australians suggested that I press on through Turkey and Syria to Jerusalem, and then come back round the Mediterranean via North Africa. But I think that I knew I had gone far enough. Had reached my limit. After maybe a week, and after sending the necessary postcards, I packed my bag and headed back towards Italy. I think I thought that I might catch up with Tina in Perugia, where she had been learning Italian.

It’s not much when I write it down. But it was an epic journey for me at the time. Next week, when we return to Istanbul, as I have now learned to call it, it is only four hours down the high-speed line from Ankara, where I am writing this. It will have changed quite a bit. But then so have I …

April 2023

Through a glass darkly – 98

We are halfway through our time here in Ankara. I continue to be amazed by the steepness of the streets and the amazing proliferation of high-rise buildings. To be horrified by the aggression of  many Ankara drivers, who regard traffic lights as merely advisory. And to be delighted by the helpfulness and friendliness of the Turkish people we speak to – in spite of our language difficulties. 

A day out in Konya

According to Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas visited Iconium on the first missionary journey. They spoke in the synagogue there quite powerfully, but were run out of town by Jewish agitators and fled to Lystra and to Derbe. I went to Iconium, now known as Konya, for the day on Monday. There is little trace of Paul and Barnabas, nor is there any visible Christian presence now.

Konya is the sixth biggest city in Turkey. The high-speed line from Ankara makes the journey of 300 kilometres in just under two hours. It is a comfortable, modern train and the single fare [for someone as old as me] is 56 Tl. Which converts to about £2.50. For the return journey the train was almost full, and I paid four times as much for a ‘superior, executive’ seat, the equivalent of a boxed pew in church. Four of us sat behind a frosted glass sliding door, and were served a glass of tea and an acceptable boxed meal by a uniformed attendant. 

 Once you get clear of Ankara, the train speeds across the brown, treeless Anatolian plateau. There is very little grass. No cows. A single flock  of sheep. There are mountains in the distance, but little water and no rivers.. And an anonymous town with a sprinkling of high-rise, concrete blocks. I stared out of the window, dozed a little, and read Eugene Rogan’s The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. Rogan is an American historian, whose great-uncle John McDonald, from near Perth, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915.

Konya has the reputation of being a conservative, Islamic city. It is a place of pilgrimage for the Muslim world, a city that is dear to the hearts of pious Turks. [And not just Muslims and Turks. I am told that Prince Charles on a visit to Ankara was particularly anxious to visit Konya.] For this city was the adopted home of Celaleddin Rumi, the 13th century Islamic prophet,  poet, and mystic. Rumi is also known as the Mevlana [the Master], and as the founder of the Mevlevi sect, better known as the Whirling Dervishes.

Susie and I were here just after Christmas three years ago, and were predisposed to be a bit unsympathetic  because of the closeness of the word dervish to the word devilish. But Rumi’s writings major on the need for humanity to seek God’s love; and encourage us all to use music, poetry, and dance as ways of reaching out to God. “Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries”. And the whirling of the dervishes became a ritual form of communal prayer.

I walked from the station past election posters and a large Atatürk banner to what is now called the Mevlana Museum. It is a complex of dignified stone buildings set in a small park close to the centre of town. The original building dates from the 13th century but has been much added to. The main gate leads into a marble-paved courtyard. This courtyard contains seventeen cells for dervishes and an elaborate ablutions fountain. The mausoleum itself contains Rumi’s sarcophagus, covered with a very fine gold-embroidered brocade all set under a fluted turquoise spire. There is an adjacent Ritual Hall, where the community performed their whirling dance, and a small mosque.

Extracts from Rumi’s writings speak of an ascetic, prayerful rule of life. Not unlike, say, an early Cistercian community. The whole complex was filled with visitors, many of the women in Islamic dress, all behaving in a restrained manner. We all donned plastic overshoes to enter the mausoleum. I was glad to be back in Konya. Rumi’s writings and the teaching of the Mevlevi Order offer an attractive alternative to, say, the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia or the horrors perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Things to ponder over a glass of tea and a baklava on my way back to the station. 

Next week – a brief trip to Istanbul …

April 2023

Through a glass darkly – 97


On Tuesday we went with Elizabeth and with Juanita to Anitkabir, undoubtedly the major tourist attraction in Ankara. Elizabeth is the doyenne of the congregation at St Nicolas, married to a Turkish geologist, and has lived in Ankara since the 1970s. Juanita is a Ghanaian, who trained as a doctor in Kiev, in the Ukraine. but teaches here in a primary school. Anitkabir is the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Everything is on a gigantic scale.

When Atatürk died in 1938, in Istanbul, his body was brought here and placed in the main hall of the Ethnography Museum. In 1941 a competition was organised to design a fitting memorial, or mausoleum. The Mausoleum sits in a Peace Park of some 750,000 square metres, containing almost 50,000 trees donated by some 25 different countries. Approach to the Mausoleum is via the Road of Lions, a 250 metre pedestrian path flanked by 12 sculpted lions in Hittite style. This path leads into the Ceremonial Square, built to hold some 15,000 people. The Museum comprises some of Atatürk’s belongings – ceremonial daggers and swords, expensive pens, military uniforms, pyjamas and dressing gown [everything except his truss and his tooth-brush]; lively paintings and representations of the major battles of the War of Independence; and an exhibition of some of the major achievements of his presidency. We paused at this point for coffee in what may be the world’s most chaotically organised museum cafe. Presided over by two charmless young women.

The culmination of the tour is the Hall of Honour. You mount 42 steps from the Ceremonial Square to enter a rectangular building. with an elaborate 17 metres high ceiling. The hall is empty except for a massive 40 tonne red marble sarcophagus. And crowds of Turkish families taking photographs on their phones. The intention is that every Turk should visit the Mausoleum, at least once. Atatürk was undoubtedly as great man, who made possible the emergence of modern Turkey.  But it all smacks of emperor [ancestor] worship. The whole complex looks like an Osbert Lancaster cartoon [from his Pillar to Post] to illustrate ‘Monumental Totalitarian Architecture’. 

Election time

There are big posters on the streets for next month’s elections. Both municipal and presidential. For President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the coming election is of major importance. This year, 2023, is the centenary of the creation of the secular Republic of Turkey under the direction of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. If Erdogan wins, he will be empowered to put even more of his stamp on the government; to break with Atatürk’s heritage and to press for an increasingly conservative religious model. It is not clear to me whether Erdogan is a genuinely religious man. Or just a politician who wants to play the Muslim card to his advantage.The results of the election will have a significant impact on Turkey’s role within NATO; on Turkey’s future relationship with the States, the EU, and Russia; and on Ankara’s policy towards the war in Ukraine. 

There are four presidential candidates. The main challenger to Erdogan is Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, nicknamed the’Turkish Gandhi’, who is promising big changes. The opposition is confident it can unfreeze European Union accession talks — at a standstill since 2018 over the country’s democratic backsliding — by introducing liberal reforms;  in terms of the rule of law, greater freedom for the media, and depoliticisation of the judiciary. In the event of a close result, it is not clear whether Erdogan would willingly stand aside. We shall see soon enough.

On the streets

It seems to me that there are fewer police on the streets than three years ago. And that they have swopped blue blouson jackets for all-black outfits. By contrast the vast number of taxis are an almost luminous orange. The taxis have vigorous competition from what seems to be an efficient bus service and a network of dolmuss, communal mini-buses. Few people talk on the bus, though some whisper into their phones. Young people are quick to offer a seat to Susie and to me. For which we are grateful. The driving is mainly aggressive with much use of the horn. It is quite common to see a car with its bonnet up at the side of the road with four or five men peering at the engine. And perhaps an older man as back-up on his mobile phone.

The pattern of commerce, of shops, is puzzling. On Rabindranath Tagore Caddesi., the nearest shopping street, there are innumerable cafes and restaurants, most of which are generally empty. And there are numerous ‘[super]markets’, with a limited stock of cold drinks and some basic groceries. There are several pharmacies and two flower shops. And a sprinkling of shops that sell electrical appliances and mobile phone covers and mobile phone chargers and similar accessories. But there is nothing that looks like a traditional baker’s or butcher’s shop.  

Yesterday was the end of Ramadan, a holy day for Muslims. There were crowds of people in town; families with children, gangs of young boys, gaggles of young girls. In the sunshine it felt like August Bank Holiday. And there was free travel on the buses. Tomorrow we shall be back in church for the third Sunday of Easter. The gospel reading is the encounter on the Emmaus Road. Which for me is one of the most evocative of all Bible stories.

April 2023

Through a glass darkly – 96

Dave very kindly gave us lift to the airport in Edinburgh, and it was mid-afternoon when we took off. But it was 22.30h local time when we landed in Istanbul. The flight with Turkish Airlines was excellent: comfortable seats, good food, and we arrived ten minutes early. The new Istanbul airport is about the size of East Lothian. The onward flight is little more than an hour. We are back in Ankara, doing locum work with the congregation of St Nicolas in Myra.

We arrived at Ankara airport at 3.25am, a pretty uncivilised time. The driver who was to meet us at the airport [or so I understood] did not materialise. Thankfully we were bailed out by a very helpful taxi driver, who took us to the front gate of the British Embassy to collect the keys, and then brought us on here to the apartment. And was very happy to be paid in £ sterling. For which I was very grateful. [The alternative would have been euros.]. We are in a very comfortable apartment in Çankaya, with a technical college and a mosque across the road.


Ankara is an enormous city of some 5 to 6 million people, all built since 1926. When Atatürk chose to make this remote, primitive railway junction, high up on the Anatolian plateau, the capital of the new secular Republic of Turkey. In place of historic Constantinople which was too closely associated with the [bad old days of] the Ottoman Empire. Our apartment is high up on the south side of the city, and looks out across rolling hills of modern, pale-coloured apartment blocks. There is a huge amount of building going on.

Where the ground is too steep to build on, vacant plots of grass and stones are inhabited by packs of big, but friendly,  wild dogs. They are handsome Anatolian sheepdogs. And they are not available for export.

Saint Nicolas of Myra

Saint Nicolas of Myra is an attractive, stone-built, modern, single storey chapel. It is in the grounds of the British Embassy, which means that access is through a double security gate where a guard checks your passport against the list. Those who wish to attend church have to  register, with their passports, by the previous Thursday. Which rather militates against casual church going ! The church is about half an hour’s walk from the apartment, mainly downhill, down the busy Rabindranath Tagore Caddesi. Which is full of eateries and small supermarkets.

There has been an Anglican presence in Turkey for centuries. But the Ankara chapel dates from about sixty years ago. It was built within the Embassy compound with most of the money donated by Americans. We had lunch with Ron, one of the founding fathers, yesterday. The congregation has gone up and down over the years. Susie and I were last here for Advent and Christmas 2019. When the church was recovering from a schism caused, in part,  by the influx of a large number of Iranian refugees. But there were tensions among the Iranian diaspora, and eventually all Iranians were banned from the compound. Which dramatically reduced the size of the congregation.

Yesterday morning there were 18 of us, variously from the UK, from South Africa, the United States, the Netherlands, Ghana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The service was Common Worship Holy Communion. Singing is from Anglican Hymns Old and New. The organist is Zeynip Balkanli, Turkish, a Muslim, and delightful. She has been playing at church for about 15 years. The diversity of the Diocese in Europe is always a delight.

Everyday life

Some nights we are wakened in the dark by the call of the muezzin. But not this morning. Instead the day began with a power cut, happily not too long. And some communication issues centred on the church mobile phone, an Android. I know my limitations and don’t go near it. But Susie is wrestling with it to communicate with the local congregation What’s App group. 

This afternoon we took the bus down into town, about 25 minutes, all downhill, in order to buy an Ankara travel pass. The flat rate for all bus journeys is 9.5Tl, a bit less than 50p. The alternative is to take a dolmuss, a communal mini-bus. For which the standard rate is 10 Tl. On the way home we were caught in a sudden and violent thunderstorm, with hail and heavy rain. Not foreseen by the BBC weather forecast. But generally the last few days have been warm and sunny.

While we are here we plan to visit Atatùrk’s enormous mausoleum, And the Roman Baths. And to return to the old quarter around Ulus and the Citadel. And possibly to go down to Istanbul on the train. I was first there as a hitch-hiker some 60 years ago.

April 2023

Through a glass darkly – 95

Passion Week

Ich habe angst was the phrase that caught my attention. Denis Lennon used to say that there may be just one thing in sermons through which God speaks to us. And we should concentrate on that phrase or that verse. [And ignore the rest ?] During Passion Week there is by tradition a Newington Churches Together service each day at Craigmillar Park church at 7.45am.  Just a hymn or two and a reading and a reflection by one of the local ministers. Followed by a simple breakfast in the adjoining church hall. I like to try and get there when I wake up in time. And when it’s not raining. It is a tradition whose days are numbered; as the Church of Scotland is currently reorganising itself into a smaller number of linked charges. And Craigmillar Park is one of the churches that has not made the cut. [My suggestion is that it should be water-proofed, filled with water, and then turned into a Diving Centre. But not everyone agrees. It’s more likely to become a block of flats.]

On Wednesday morning the reading was from Mark 11, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John along with him to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is deeply distressed and troubled. He prays to the Father, “… everything is possible with you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” After praying he returns to the disciples and finds them sleeping. He chides them for not being able to stay awake at this critical moment. And then the whole thing happens all over again.

[The Revd Dr] Sandy Forsyth, the minister at Mayfield Salisbury, asked us what we understood when we exchanged the Peace in a Sunday service. Clearly peace is something to which we as Christians aspire. And it is clearly linked to the presence of Jesus. But the Hebrew word shalom means so much more than the absence of fighting. And it is not simply a peace that is guaranteed by the deterrence of two powerful people or two blocs of countries. If Macron’s visit to China encourages the Chinese to broker a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine, which at the moment seems very unlikely, it is not at all clear that a meaningful peace would ensue.

Ich habe angst

On the Tuesday night I was dreaming about Joanna. I was trying to get to a church service in which she was involved. Possibly her wedding ? And I was running late. The church for no obvious reason was underground, beneath the surface life of a busy city. I had to find an entrance down to the underground, and then to find the right tunnel in a series of subways. When I eventually arrived, something was not right. Joanna was wearing a long dress, which might have been a wedding dress. But there was no sign of her husband. And no indication of any service about to start. When I woke out of the dream, the overall feeling was one of disconnection, And disappointment.

There are things in this life, Sandy said, of which we are afraid. Things which disturb us. And that is as true for Christians as for anyone else. He told us about a Jesuit church, St Peter’s in Köln, [the church, I think, where Rubens was baptised], where there is an altar with the inscription Ich habe angst. Meaning, I am fearful. Which some people think is not a very Christian message. But it is a reminder that anxiety, apprehension, insecurity are all common aspects of the human condition. Which are best countered by prayer, and by seeking “the peace of God which transcends all human understanding, and which will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”. [Philippians 4:7]

St. Peter Koeln

I guess that my Tuesday night dream was preparation for Sandy’s Wednesday morning message. Ich habe angst.  Which is something that will not go away quickly. Closure is an unhelpful concept. Which suggests letting go of an event and forgetting it. When the more Christian response is, I think, to invite God into our apprehension and disappointments and fears, and to ask for his peace in our hearts.

Maundy Thursday, 

April 2023

Through a glass darkly – 94

Heavyweight boxing

I’ve never had any real interest in boxing, not at any weight. I think the last fight in which I showed any interest was in February 1964, when Cassius Clay, as he was then known, a glib, fast-talking challenger from Louisville, Kentucky, got in the ring with the fearsome Sonny Liston. And won the world heavyweight title for the first time when Liston failed to come out of his corner at the beginning of the seventh round.

Several years before that, when I was still at primary school, there was what must have been a very modest bookshop in Replingham Road, in Southfields, the suburb in south-west London where I grew up. Other shops on the same street included Thorpe’s, a tobacconist and  sweet-shop [Charlie Thorpe once gave my brother and me a cigar each for Christmas, which rather miffed my father.] And Christmas the chemist. [Who gave Paul and me some screw-top aluminium containers for tea and sugar when we went hitch-hiking in France in 1961. Did his daughter become a journalist on The Guardian ? Or did I dream that ?]

Anyway this little bookshop had some paperback books outside on a display rack. Which I assumed were there for me to read. So I read quite a lot of The Scourge of the Swastika, a best-selling history of Nazi war crimes by Lord Russell of Liverpool, a former Judge Advocate.   And I also read most of a book on world champion heavyweight boxers. From which I learned that the two greatest champions  [the term GOAT was still several decades in the future] were Jack Johnson, the ‘Galveston Giant’, the American world champion in the early years of the twentieth century, and Joe Louis, another Afro-American heavyweight, who was world champion from 1937 to 1949.

In black and white

Donald McRae is a South African journalist who used to live in Southfields. Much more recently than me.  He wrote a book Winter Colours, about South African and New Zealand rugby, and about the professionalisation of rugby in the 1990s, which was described as “the best book about rugby ever written”. That may have been the book that encouraged us to call one of our Lyon cats Josh, after Josh Kronfeld, the New Zealand back-row forward. It won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award in 1998. The book, not the cat ! And last autumn I enjoyed reading his book In Black and White, the story of the first two black American super-stars, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. But I didn’t write anything about it at the time because I was preoccupied with other things; with Joanna, and the Men’s Retreat, and preparing for a locum spell at St Peters, Chantilly.

Jesse Owens was a slim, 5”10”, 165 pounds, born in 1913 into a sharecropping community in northern Alabama. James Cleveland [J.C.] Owens was his parents’ tenth and last child, sickly as a baby from repeated bouts of pneumonia. His grandfather was a slave. In 1923 the family fled from fraught, black life in Oakville, Alabama, and headed north to Cleveland, Ohio. At East Tech High School in Cleveland Jesse won seventy eight of the seventy nine races he ran in. Jesse was signed up by Ohio State university and became a stand-out member of their athletics team. In June 1935 at the national collegiate meeting, Jesse won the 100-yard and 220-yard sprint, the 220-yard low hurdles and the long jump. He scored forty of Ohio State’s forty-one points; and single-handedly earned more points than such college teams as UCLA, Notre Dame, Princeton, Yale and Harvard. A month later he married his childhood sweetheart, Minnie Ruth Solomon.

Joe Louis was another young black American, the same age as Jesse Owens. His family too had moved north from the dangerous rawness of Alabama. In 1934-35 Joe Louis won twenty two consecutive fights, eighteen by knock-out. His support team was a rare all black entourage; Roxy was a cultured hustler, who ran a numbers racket in Detroit; Mr Black was a qualified embalmer who ran a speak-easy in Chicago. The poker-faced Joe was quickly taken up by a posse of Hollywood stars; Bojangles Robinson, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Mae West. In June 1935, at the Yankee Stadium in New York Joe demolished the giant Italian Primo Carnera [aka The Man Mountain, The Gorgonzola Tower]. He had won his first big fight in New York. People were on their feet screaming his name. For the International New Service, Davis Walsh wrote: “Something sly and sinister and perhaps not quite human came out of the African jungle tonight to strike down and utterly demolish Primo Carnera, the giant …”.

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis had suddenly become national stars and role models. “If athletic greatness was a gift to be bestowed at will”, Bill Henry wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “the coloured race couldn’t have chosen two more remarkable men than Jesse Owens and Joe Louis to be its outstanding representatives. Owens … as the greatest track-and-field athlete of all time … Same goes for ‘Dead Pan’ Joe Louis whose decisive defeat of Carnera has sent scribes scurrying to their dictionaries in search of superlatives … … it is a pretty tough test of character. Owens arrived at the threshold of notoriety achieved by few young men, Now Louis, another Negro, is thrust in front of the gawking, staring world, eager to hail him, spoil him, and, if possible, ruin him.”

August in Berlin

In July 1936 Jesse Owens set sail for Berlin on the SS Manhattan, one of nineteen Negroes on the US team. For nine days the athletes lived in Third Class on Deck D below the water line, while the team officials cruised far above in First Class. During the voyage Eleanor Jarrett, the beautiful twenty two year old swimmer from Brooklyn, the femme fatale of the team was expelled from the team by Avery [Slavery] Brundage for being very publicly drunk on champagne. Brundage was an autocratie ex-Olympian decathlete who had made a fortune in the construction industry,

Hitler opened the Olympic Games on August 1st, 1936. They were to be an international showpiece for the German Reich; recorded for posterity by the young film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, best known for her luminous depiction of the Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Hitler and his entourage attended the games each day in anticipation of celebrating the triumphs of German athletes. On August 2nd, Hitler and his contingent left their box hastily as Jesse Owens and Dave Allbritton, both Negroes, won gold and silver medals in the high jump. On Saturday, August 8th, the US 4 x 100 yards relay team, with Jesse running the first leg, won the gold medal and broke the world record. Jesse Owens had become the first man in history to win four gold medals.

Joe Louis and Max Schmeling

In June 1937, at Comiskey Park, Chicago, Joe Louis knocked out James Braddock to become the new heavyweight champion of the world. And the second black champion in history. Across Chicago and all of America black crowds clustered around radios and loudspeakers shouting ‘Joe Louis … champion …  Joe Louis … champion’.  A year later, in the Yankee Stadium, New York, Joe fought the experienced and dangerous German heavyweight Max Schmeling. Who had knocked out Joe in a brutal fight two years earlier. The rematch in June 1938 attracted enormous publicity, and gave rise to unpleasant taunts of nationalism and racialism. In a ghosted, syndicated newspaper column, Joe Louis declared: “Tonight I not only fight the battle of my life to revenge the lone blot on my record. But I fight for America against the challenge of a foreign invader, Max Schmeling. This isn’t just one man against another, or Joe Louis boxing Max Schmeling; its the good old USA versus Germany”.

It was a massacre. Joe Louis crushed Max Schmeling in just two minutes and four seconds. The Nazis abruptly shut down the live broadcast in Germany. Duke Ellington was one of many at the ringside who was bewildered by the speed of the victory: “I dropped my goddamn straw hat … it was rolling around by my feet. I was just trying to pick it up so I can sit down and watch Joe … And then all of a sudden  they all start jumping and hollering. I can’t fucking believe it. The goddamn fight is over”. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

Black days

After the Berlin Olympics Jesse never raced again. He and the other amateur athletes made thousands of dollars for the AAU. Commercial sponsors made Jesse all kinds of offers. And the millionaire Avery Brundage had him suspended for breaking the rules on amateurism. So he spent the next few years racing against ice skaters and greyhounds and in Havana, Cuba, a thoroughbred racehorse called Julio McCaw. The Olympic champion had become a circus act. He was almost as fast as he had been as Olympic champion, but he was reduced to racing against motor-cycles and double-decker buses. In May 1939 with the collapse of his Jesse Owens Dry Cleaning Company [his partners took him to the cleaners] he was declared bankrupt.

Joe Louis was in a similar situation. After defeating Schmeling in 1938, he had a busy two years fighting a series of forgotten challengers, who came to known as the ‘Bum of the Month Club’. But his appetite for food and for showgirls was insatiable. His annual income was $250,000, but by July 1941 he was $100,000 in debt to his promoter and manager, and he owed the tax-man almost another $100,000. And Marva, his long-suffering wife, left him.

Both Joe and Jesse served in the US army in the Second World War. When Joe was discharged  from the US army in 1945 and fought Billy Conn, he was $210,000 in debt, a mix of taxes and alimony payments. In September 1950, at the age of thirty six, Joe was humiliated by the younger and lighter Ezzard Charles. A year later, in an ill-advised come-back he was badly beaten by the young slugger Rocky Marciano. Sugar Ray Robinson and Josephine Baker wept openly in his dressing room. Joe never got in the boxing ring again.

Donald McRae tells the story well; the meteoric rise and slow fall of two black super-stars. By 1954 Jesse had been voted by an Associated Press Poll as the greatest athlete of the past fifty years and was now Secretary of the Illinois State Athletic Commission. But J. Edgar Hoover was ordering an urgent investigation into him as one of the “commies, reds, pinkos, and niggers” who were plotting America’s downfall. And in the 1960s the federal government accused him of failing to file income tax returns and of several years of systematic tax evasion.

Joe meanwhile had hit the skids; owed over $1,000,000 in taxes, and had a brief and unsuccessful spell as a professional wrestler. A low point from which he was eventually rescued by his third marriage to Martha Jefferson, a black attorney from California, who became his wife, lawyer, cook, mistress, press agent, valet de chambre, and tax consultant.


Joe Louis and Jesse Owens both died at the age of sixty-six. Jesse died of cancer in Tucson in March 1980. Later that day Simon Wiesenthal proposed that the avenue leading to the Olympic Stadium in Berlin should be renamed Jesse Owens Avenue. Joe died in March 1981. His body ‘lay in state’ at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas; Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr sang at his funeral, and the eulogy was pronounced by the Revd Jesse Jackson. 

After Jesse’s death, the Detroit Free Press reprinted an article by him:

After the Olympic Games in Berlin, I came back to my country and I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door … … and of course Joe Louis and I were the first modern sports figures who were black. So neither of us could do any national advertising because the South wouldn’t buy it … … when Joe and I came along, blacks in America had no image … … We agreed the only way to help our people was by deeds. We didn’t make waves. We were called Uncle Toms later. But the 1960s were something else. Back then, our way was the only way.”

Is everything different now ? As this book wants to suggest. Certainly Obama was the first [very impressive] black President of the United States. And here in the UK, the three most important offices of state are held by [the rather less impressive] Rishi Sunak, James Cleverly, and Suella Braverman. Respectively the son of African-born parents of Punjabi descent, the son of parents from Britain and Sierra Leon, and the daughter of parents of Indian descent who were immigrants from Mauritius and from Kenya. [Which makes me wonder how many of them would have been welcomed into the UK under present rules by this present government.]

But the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013, came into being specifically to highlight and to combat racism, discrimination, and racial inequality suffered by black people. While here in the UK the Casey Report, published only last month found the Metropolitan Police guilty of institutional racism, misogyny, and homophobia. 

Jesse Owens and Joe Louis gained victories that raised a banner for the disenfranchised black population of America. But I guess the struggle is by no means over.

April 2023

Through a glass darkly – 93

A walk along the Western Front

When my younger brother Peter was diagnosed with a brain tumour, a couple of years ago, I thought I would go on a long walk as a kind of pilgrimage. The Camino to Santiago de Compostella was the obvious choice. I got as far as buying a couple of guide books, and I signed up for a group from the Edinburgh Diocese who were walking the [significantly shorter] Camino Ingles last May. But it didn’t happen because it clashed with a twice postponed three-family holiday in Normandy. Which with hindsight was our last ever holiday with Joanna.

Our son Jem gave me Anthony Seldon’s 2022 book The Path of Peace: Walking the Western Front Way for Christmas. A perfect gift as it  combines walking, France, and the First World War. And I have just finished reading it. Seldon is a shameless self-publicist and seemingly driven by ambition.  He was successively headmaster at Brighton College and then at Wellington College, and then had a job at the [private] University of Buckingham. Along the way he has written, or co-authored, a good number of books, including biographies of most recent prime ministers, from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson. As the book starts in 2021 Seldon has lost his wife Joanna to cancer, and stepped away from his job at Buckingham and the house that went with it. No wife, no job, no house. So the walk, of about a thousand kilometres, is a challenge and a personal odyssey.

From the Swiss border to Verdun

He chooses to walk northwards from the Swiss border and the Vosges mountains towards the sea. Which means starting in Alsace, where very few British and Allied forces were involved.  And which was the only part of the Western Front where fighting took place on [what was after the annexation of 1871] German soil. The first French and German soldiers be killed in the war, Corporal Jules-André Peugeot and Lieutenant Albert Mayer, were both killed in a skirmish near Illfurth on August 2nd, 1914, even before war had been officially declared. The Vosges saw brutal and sustained fighting from late 1914 to late 1915, though these battles are little known in Britain. Here there fighting took place not in trenches but on exposed rocks and in extensive pine forests. Hartmannswillerkopf , a summit which changed hands regularly in 1915, is one of the four National Monuments that the French built after the war; the others being at Verdun, on the Marne, and at Notre Dame de Lorette, north of Arras in Artois.

Seldon generally is walking alone. But has back-up support from Sarah, a teaching colleague and French speaker, who will become his second wife. And he uses his phone to check regularly on the Test score at Lords, where Sam Curran a former pupil at Wellington is making his England debut. At night his sleeping is patchy; alcohol helps him to sleep, dehydration keeps him awake. He reflects that soldiers survived in the trenches for several days with very little sleep. He reflects that 449 British soldiers were sentence to death for sleeping on watch. But only two were carried out. But 346 soldiers were court-martialled and ‘shot at dawn’ for a variety of crimes, including cowardice and disobedience to lawful command, and most often for desertion.

In Lorraine Selsdon is troubled  by blistered feet. At Saint-Mihiel there is mention for the first time of the American Expeditionary Force [AEF] under General John Pershing. Some 116,000 American soldiers died during the First World War, far more than the numbers killed in Vietnam. But the United States is more attached to the memory of the Second World War; and it was only in 2021 that a memorial to the First World War was unveiled on the National Mall in Washington DC. Not far away is where Alain Fournier, author of Le Grand Meaulnes, was killed in September 1914.

From Verdun to the sea

Verdun for the French symbolises the tragic cost of the First World War, as do the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele for the British. Ringed with a cluster of forts to the north and east Verdun was the strongest defensive position on the whole of the Western Front. But in February 1916 Douaumont, the strongest of the forts, fell bloodlessly into German hands. Nearby in March 1916 Charles de Gaulle was bayonetted in the thigh, gassed, and take prisoner. On the day Douamont fell, General Philippe Petain was recalled to take command at Verdun. He had a reputation for not wasting French soldiers’ lives. For months the city and the whole Verdun salient was supplied with food and ammunition by heroic convoys along the Voie Sacrée from Bar-le-Duc. In 2006 the [narrow and winding] road was renamed RD1916. Above the cemetery at Verdun stands the ossuary, a bleak building containing the remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers recovered from the battle-field in the early post-war years. At Verdun Seldon is bitten by a farm dog, and recalls that his mother’s first husband died of a rabid dog-bite in India.

Douaumont ossuary, Verdun

In spite of badly blistered and raw feet, Seldon presses on through Champagne-Argonne. Near the ossuary at Navarin is Souain, where four French corporals were shot for cowardice in March 1915. It was this shameful episode that inspired the 1935 anti-war novel Paths of Glory, which was subsequently filmed by Stanley Kubrick starring Kirk Douglas. From Rheims Seldon takes two days off for his daughter’s wedding down in the Dordogne. On his return he limps on towards the Aisle and the Marne. Robert Nivelle succeeded Joffre as Commander in Chief in December 1916. His ambitious offensive, the Second Battle of the Aisne, the following year had allowed for some 10,000 French casualties. In the event the toll was 130,000. And Nivelle was sacked and replaced by the more cautious Pétain. Near Berry-au-Bac the National Tank Museum occupies a large roundabout in the middle of a trunk road. This is close to the beginning of the Chemin des Dames, which follows the D18 along a ridge above the Aisle. Craonne is a village détruit, which inspired the song Chanson de Craonne, which gained fame among the exhausted poilus:

Goodbye to life, goodbye to love, goodbye to all the women,

Its all over now, we’ve had it for good with his awful war,

We’ve had it for good with this awful war …

We’re the ones they’re sacrificing …

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to explore this terrain last September [see TaGD, 82]. On that occasion I visited the underground museum at the Caverne du Dragon, and even have a hoodie to go with it.

Victory on the Marne

The feet are worse as Seldon limps on into Picardy. He passes the Chateau de Blérancourt, the headquarters of the American Committee for Devastated France, founded by the feisty Ann Morgan, daughter of J. Pierpoint Morgan, the American banker. It is now a museum dedicated to Franco-American relations down the centuries. [It was very firmly closed the last time I was there.]

As Seldon moves north the place names and the battle-fields become more familiar to the British. The Battle of the Somme in July 1916 was conceived in part at Joffre’s request  torelieve the pressure on Verdun. Douglas Haig seemingly believed that a preliminary seven-day shelling of the German trenches would massively weaken the enemy defences and destroy their guns. It didn’t. The opening day of the Somme saw 19,300 British soldiers dead and 60,000 casualties. The worst day in British military history. Seldon stays in a hotel in Albert, known for the golden statue of Mary with the infant Jesus on top of the basilica. When a shell struck the statue leaving it hanging precariously, the British believed that if it fell the war would immediately end. The poet Ivor Gurney marched past the statue in 1916. After the war he was institutionalised in a mental hospital, where he died in 1937. He is buried in the churchyard at Twigworth, outside Gloucester, next door to a B&B where Susie and I stayed a few years ago, Few people visit his grave.

In September 1916 the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, visited the Somme battlefield. At Fricourt he met up with his son Raymond, who was killed nearby at Ginchy one week later. There is a monument to him in the cathedral at Amiens. [See TaGD, 91.] Seldon notes that four British Prime Ministers fought in the First World War: Clement Attlee, who fought at Gallipoli; Churchill, who following his demotion after the Dardanelles served as  lieutenant colonel in the Royal Scots Fusiliers; Antony Eden, who fought at Delville Wood, on the Somme; and Harold Macmillan, who was severely wounded at Ginchy on the day that Raymond Asquith was killed. He wonders whether Blair and Cameron might have been more reluctant to intervene in the Middle East, or whether Boris Johnson would have been so eager to tear up international treaties, if any of them had experienced the horrors of war themselves. [And it is worth noting that the only two Prime Ministers who fought in the Second Word War, Ted Heath and Jim Callaghan, were both strongly pro-European.]

Thiepval memorial, The Somme

Seldon also reflects on he way in which the Somme influenced the imagination of many writers.

“‘There are dead things, dead faces in the water”, he said with horror. “”dead faces … they lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep under the dark water. I saw them; grim faces and evil, ad noble faces and sad … But all foul, all rotting. all dead.”’

These are the words of Sam Gamgee and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Presumably inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s four months fighting on the Somme between July and October 1916.


I enjoyed the book. But I found Seldon difficult to like. The journey is punctuated by requests for interviews from Radio Four [about Prince Charles’s valet among other things !] and by the need to correct proofs for his articles for e.g. The Times Literary Supplement. The impression is of a man shamelessly ambitious and spreading himself a bit thin. But I admire the way he presses on with severely raw and blistered feet, and a couple of unhappy visits to French hospitals. On Day Thirty Eight, he arrives at Nieuwpoort, smothered in antiseptic and plasters, Lynx deodorant and insect repellent, now walking in company with the UK Ambassador to Belgium and his Defence Attaché. And then he rushes home on Eurostar to speak at a literary festival.

For several years I have wanted to take a careful look at the First War battlefields. In May 2015, just after leaving Holy Trinity, Brussels, I joined a small group of Old Blues to lay wreaths at the graves of Old Blues who were killed in the war. We started at Ypres, where we attended the evening ceremony at the Menin Gate, and from where we visited Tyne Cot and Passchendaele. And then we drove south to visit the monument at Thiepval, and the Ulster Tower, and thence to Arras and Cambrai. A year earlier I had guested on an outing to Flanders with the Belgian Branch of the National Trust under the leadership of Nick Fern.  We had lunch in Poperinghe, followed by an excellent tour of Messines with a local New Zealander as our guide. Much more recently, last September, I had a day exploring sites on the Chemin des Dames.

Wreath laying at Tyne Cot, 2015

Would I be up for walking the Western Front Way ? Sadly, probably not. It’s too far for me to walk, and I do not have Seldon’s drivenness. But I’d be happy to do bits of it. If we go back to Chantilly at some point, which is not a given, perhaps I could find a group of people to walk for a day or two along the Aisne battlefields, maybe starting near Craonne. But, according to Seldon, the way is better sign-posted in Belgium. Perhaps the Holy Trinity walking group might organise a day or two walking north from Ploegsteert [Plug Street to the British troops] towards Ypres and the sea. If they ever do, I’d be up for that.

March 2023 

Through a glass darkly – 92

Coming home

I got back home to Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, after spending a bit over a couple of months in Chantilly, doing locum ministry at St Peter’s Church. Susie got home a week later. She had spent from September to January down in Wycombe, close to Joanna and Craig, and to Jem and Anna, and their families. And then she was back down in Wycombe again in February helping with the grand-children during their half-term.

With hindsight I am a bit ambivalent about my time in Chantilly. Susie and I had committed months earlier to being there from Advent Sunday through to the middle of February. But she stayed in Wycombe so I went by myself. I think I wanted to feel that I was doing something useful. And the congregation at St Peter’s were appreciative and hospitable. But outwith Sundays I spent quite a lot of time walking round the race-course and along the canal. And listening to Lectio 365. Should I have come back to Wycombe to be with Joanna sooner ? The answer is probably yes. Joanna Trollope’s phrase comes to mind: “A vicar is a man who is aways away being wonderful somewhere else.”

Direct fights from Paris to Edinburgh were all full, so I flew back via Amsterdam. On the second leg a KLM air-hostess to whom I’d spoken briefly on the first leg made a point of bringing me a cup of tea and a slice of cake. For which I was very grateful. By contrast Edinburgh’s very good public transport system was a bit lacking. My tram from the airport threw us off at Shandwick Place because of works on the track in the town centre. After which the driver of my 30 bus failed to stop when requested at Marchhall Crescent. And when I  remonstrated he was abusive. Very unusual since most Edinburgh bus drivers are friendly and very patient.

The house felt a bit cold and unfriendly when I arrived. Which isn’t surprising since neither of us have lived here much since last September. I am grateful for a heating system that works. We were customers of the now defunct Bulb energy supplier, but have transitioned to Octopus without any visible change. Before Susie’s return I was living off Sainsbury’s packet asparagus soup with croutons. With the occasional treat of fish pie. The ultimate comfort food. And reading Donna Leon, who is the fictional equivalent. I think she is an excellent writer. Apart from the delights of the Venetian background, I love the dynamics of Brunetti’s relationships with his wife and children, and then with his colleagues at the Questura. Most prominently with Signorina Elettra. 

A day out

Susie’s train from King’s Cross was over two hours late, problems caused by a signals failure at Morpeth. So she was re-routed via Carlisle. I walked round Princes Street and George Street noting the shops that are no longer there. Jenners of course has been empty for some time, and a fireman was killed in a blaze there while we were away. The Edinburgh Bookshop [more recently Waterstone’s] has gone from George Street. And I am sorry that Fopp’s has gone too..

For Susie’s birthday we took a Car Club car down to Berwick on Tweed, taking the scenic route through Gifford and over the Lammermuir Hills. I remember walking several times from Longformacus up past the reservoir to Twin Law Cairn. And we also remembered Joanna doing her Duke of Edinburgh award scheme hike, camping up there on a very cold November night. As we came though Duns I reflected that Joanna spent nearly a quarter of her life here.

In Berwick we ate in The Maltings, the cafe attached to the theatre and arts centre. Good food and a good view over the roofs of the lower town. The last time we were here, about eighteen months ago, we were with my younger brother, Peter, who died last year. And there was time after to call at Northern Edge, a high-class coffee roaster, and to walk round the town ramparts in a cold east wind.

The state of the nation

I haven’t wanted to write anything about UK politics since the demise of blustering Boris and the, thankfully short-lived, era of the gormless Liz Truss. Now the departure of the saintly Nicola has occasioned a lot of comment. I think Sturgeon was a hard-working and sympathetic politician, who handled COVID well, and was a huge improvement on her predecessor the shifty Alex Salmond. But I fear that standards in education and in health-care have gone backwards under the SNP. My best guess is that enthusiasm for independence has peaked, and that Sturgeon’s departure will ultimately benefit the Labour party. Part of me is delighted that Kate Forbes, a professing Christian who is happy to voice her Christian beliefs, may be the next [very young] leader.

The stop press news is that Rishi Sunak is selling the new Windsor Agreement on the grounds that Northern Ireland will benefit enormous from gaining access to the Single [European] Market. Which makes me wonder why the rest of the UK can’t enjoy that benefit too ! Wycombe’s MP, the ardent Brexiteer Steve Baker, has seen the light. I wonder if other ERG members, the unspeakable Rees-Mogg and Lance Corporal Mark Francois, will vote against the deal. And, if they do, whether Rishi will remove the government whip from them.  Just asking. Hopefully.

February 2023