Through a glass darkly – 41

Rayner Unwin’s report [as a school-boy] on The Hobbit

George Allen & Unwin

After not quite five years at Pergamon Press [see TaGD – 37], in January 1972 I was invited to join George Allen and Unwin as one of their Sponsoring Editors. There was no merit in my appointment. I was approached by Allen and Unwin with a view to taking over from Victor, one of my predecessors at Pergamon, who was leaving them to work for Charles Levinson, Secretary General of the IMF in Geneva. So it was an inside job. I drove over to Hemel Hempstead for a formal meeting with Rayner Unwin and Charles Knight. Rayner Unwin was the son of [Sir] Stanley Unwin, the energetic founder of the family firm. He was the Chairman of A&U, the senior figure at the London office in Museum Street. Charles Knight had apparently been Stanley’s one-time office boy. He was Managing Director in charge of the Hemel Hempstead office, which included production, sales and marketing, accounts, and warehousing. The A&U warehouse was a talking point in the book trade; all orders were dispatched on the day they arrived. This was the wondrous achievement of a former management consultant who had now moved on to CUP.

I think I may have thought that I had ‘arrived’ in publishing.  A&U certainly promised to be in a different class from Pergamon. The eponymous George Allen was a Victorian craftsman and engraver, who became a friend of and assistant to John Ruskin; and when he took to publishing Ruskin’s works were a major part of his business. Stanley Unwin [1884-1968], was an energetic, entrepreneurial publisher, who began work with his publishing uncle T.Fisher Unwin, but then bought George Allen & Co. in 1914. George Allen and Unwin had been one of the most successful London publishers during the middle years of the century; the firm’s authors included Bertrand Russell, R.H. Tawney, and Sidney Webb. They also published books of eastern philosophy including works by Mahatma Gandhi. The early years of the publishing house were solid rather than spectacular.  Then, according to office legend, when the unknown J.R.R. Tolkien [1892-1973] submitted the manuscript of The Hobbit in 1936, Unwin paid his son Rayner one shilling to read and comment on it. Rayner’s enthusiastic response encouraged Stanley to publish the book. In due course Lord of the Rings followed, and was published in three volumes in 1954-55. Lord of the Rings became immensely popular in the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic, and its sales accounted for a significant chunk of the staff’s profit-sharing bonus. 


Personally I find Tolkien unreadable. I gave away my signed copy of the Lord of the Rings. [I think my daughter has it in High Wycombe.] There is a lovely story told by Humphrey Carpenter in his book The Inklings. A group of academic friends that included Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams used to meet on Saturday mornings in the back bar of The Eagle and Child, known to Oxford alumni as The Bird and Baby. And read their work in progress. It was all tweed jackets and draught beer and pipe smoke. Tolkien produced a bulky manuscript from his bag, an early draft of The Silmarillion, and started to read from it. When he paused for breath a voice, probably Charles Williams, was heard to say: “Oh no, not more ‘effin elves !”.  

The other big post-war best-seller had been Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition. Kon-Tiki was an enormous success, selling almost half a million copies in hard covers. Both Tolkien, now retired, and living in Bournemouth, and nearing the end of his life, and Heyerdahl were regular visitors to the Museum Street offices.

Thor Heyerdahl: The Kon-Tiki Expedition

It all started well enough. My office was a glass-walled cubicle in the A&U offices, just across the road from The Museum Tavern and just down the road from the British Museum. I inherited responsibility for a list that embraced management, trade union studies, social studies, media studies, and a few assorted bits and pieces. Compared with Pergamon I at least understood the contents of some of the books that I was working on. And in marked contrast to Pergamon, Allen and Unwin was very much on the visiting list for American publishers passing through town. Not that any of them seemed very interested in my bit of the list. It was standard policy for Sponsors to be given a company car, usually a Ford Cortina. [It was said that Charles Knight’s brother had the Ford dealership in Hemel Hempstead. Which may or may not be true.] I asked for, and  was given, a Fiat 124 in Monza red. The colour was the best thing about it. The clutch fell apart within a year. And since I was living in London SW19, it was generally faster and cheaper to take the underground via Earl’s Court  to Tottenham Court Road rather than fight my way through Clapham and Vauxhall in the rush hour.

It seems to be standard for publishers to tell stories about their predecessors. I certainly read Stanley Unwin’s classic The [Half] Truth abut Publishing. With mounting horror. He was clearly a man of great energy with a beady eye for figures and a concern for the bottom line. It was said that Lord of the Rings had been published at his insistence on a profit-sharing contact; meaning that the author was paid nothing until the initial production costs had been covered. And thereafter he shared the profits equally with the publisher. Which would have made Tolkien a rich man, and would have lost Allen and Unwin a lot of money. In latter years Sir Stanley travelled round the world more than once, taking great trouble to visit remote bookshops who might owe the firm some money. It is difficult to know where frugality becomes meanness. In his book The Publishing Unwins, Philip Unwin recalls that Stanley always insisted on buying [cheaper] season tickets on the trams at the Frankfurt Book Fair. And on saving any that were left over for the following year. Is it Philip Unwin or someone else who tells the story of Sir Stanley berating his office boy for buying him an iced bun “full of expensive air” instead of something more plain and wholesome ?

Along with Victor’s list I also inherited his advisor. Malcolm was  an OB [Organisational Behaviour] specialist who taught at the London Business School, but his eye ranged far and wide over the academic world. He wrote to me at least once a week with a list of of mainly junior academics whom I should contact, expressing interest in their research and making encouraging noises about the possibility of publishing their work. Some were no doubt flattered. And some even replied. We would meet for lunch every two or three weeks, next to the phone boxes on Gerrard Street being a regular meeting point. And I also drove with Malcolm and his French wife to Geneva for a meeting with Victor and with Charles Levinson, now an A&U author. On the way out to Geneva we stayed at the Hotel du Cheval Blanc in Langres, the birthplace of Diderot, the encylopaedist and philosopher. Of the meetings in Geneva I remember nothing. On the Sunday I had my first glimpse of the lovely lakeside town of Annecy. We came back via Paris, staying in a small hotel on the Left Bank, and trying to pin down a couple of potential authors at UNESCO.

For the next eighteen months I chased up a lot of manuscripts and had lunch with a lot of authors. In London I ate most frequently at the Spaghetti House in Sicilian Avenue, who did an excellent antipasto misto and equally good profiteroles. I once went there with a visiting author from Sheffield who mistakenly ordered lasagne after the generous plate of antipasto, but couldn’t finish it. More exotically I had lunch a couple of times at Blooms, almost certainly salt-beef, with Bill Fishman of whom more anon.

Bill Fishman

Most authors were pleased to come to London. But I also went to visit people, usually academics, involving trips to Oxford, to the University of Kent at Canterbury, to the University of Essex, and to Cardiff and to Edinburgh. In January 1973 I went somewhat improbably to the Theatre Royal at Stratford-on-Avon to see the pantomime along with the School of Management from the Cranfield Institute of Technology.  Was the Professor of Marketing wearing an IS [International Socialists] badge ? And, if so, why did I not ask him about it ?

It all ended in tears. As things in publishing often do. Where did it go wrong ? Partly I suppose I never really put my own stamp on my list. The management stuff frankly bored me. A journalist came to see me from The Times, and I airily told him, “Of course no-one actually reads this kind of stuff. But ambitious managers like to have these books on their shelves.” It may well have been true. But it didn’t look good when I was quoted verbatim in his subsequent piece the newspaper. 

I remember going to Cardiff to talk to the author of a very dull book on The National Giro. [What other kind of book could there have been ?] But I was more interested in meeting up with an old man, who had had his balls shot off in the Spanish Civil War, and who was now writing his story in an exercise book in pencil. When I arrived he made me tea in a jam-jar,  keeping it warm next to the coal fire. Sadly his memories were unpublishable. I might have been able to turn it into a book, but it required more work and time than I could give it. All I could do was buy him a pie and a couple of pints in the pub, after which he went to visit his aged wife in the psychiatric hospital.

In a similar vein I went north to Edinburgh, travelling on the sleeper and staying a night or two at the NB, the Scottish Baronial hotel over the station. I think two people at the university were offering us something on AI [Artificial Intelligence]. And a lecturer at Heriot-Watt was writing something for our management list. I didn’t know Edinburgh at all, and he kindly gave me a guided tour which included driving me round Arthur’s Seat, which I can now see from my window. But I was much more interested in meeting up with Mrs Nan Milton, who was offering me a life of her father, John Maclean, schoolteacher, revolutionary socialist, and legendary Red Clydesider; who was named by Lenin as the People’s Commissar for Glasgow. We had tea at the NB, but it was a very thin manuscript and no book ever materialised. 

So, I didn’t really fit at Allen and Unwin. And the firm was in a state of flux too. The small group of men who had built A&U in the middle years of the century were growing old and retiring together. The market for their kind of general books was changing, if not declining. There was a growth in academic and educational publishing. But A&U’s marketing and sales departments were not really geared for that form of publishing; they were still thinking in terms of trade reps visiting shops to gather pre-publication orders. Rayner Unwin was urbane and friendly, but a somewhat remote figure. And there was a growing dis-connect between the activities of the sponsoring editors in Museum Street and what was happening up at Hemel Hempstead. In an attempt to regain control of things, a new layer of senior editors were brought into the firm. I found myself now reporting to Morgan,  a grey-faced, academic economist with a mournful Welsh accent. I resigned and was happy to walk away with six months, tax-free salary. Within a decade Allen and Unwin was taken over by Bell & Hyman. Who in turn  sold them to Harper Collins, who in turn sold the academic list to Routledge. Allen & Unwin lives on only as a [successful] publishing house in Australia.

East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914

I have few memories and no contacts from those years. For a bit I was in touch with Bill Fishman, whom I got to know through the Acton Society. Bill was a historian, the son of East End Jewish immigrants, one-tine schoolmaster fellow at Balliol, where he was a great admirer of Richard Cobb, the anarchic historian of the French Revolution. Bill was a revolutionary socialist, an expert on the history of immigrant communities of London’s East End, who led guided tours of the local streets featuring the stamping grounds of Jack the Ripper.  [And not just stamping.] Bill was writing for us, albeit rather slowly, a book called East End Jewish Radicals, 1875-1914. When I left A&U he took the book elsewhere and it was published eventually by Duckworths. I still have a copy on the shelves here. If lockdown persists, I’ll get it down and have a look at it.

February 2021

Though a glass darkly – 40

The Mediterranean

For me the words ‘The Mediterranean’ are wonderfully evocative. Heat, sand, sunshine, the smell of sun protection cream and of Gitanes; the clink of ice-cubes in pastis or in citron pressé. I’m not sure how much the images owe to Scott Fitzgerald or to Françoise Sagan. And how much to my own memories. I first saw the Mediterranean in 1961, at La Ciotat, east of Marseille, having hitched across France with my older brother. We stayed in the youth hostel, smeared ourselves with thick, brown Ambre Solaire, lay on the beach all day, and shed several layers of skin by night. Over the years I’ve stayed at various times at Vsar, on the Istrian peninsula, where Susie and I spent a delayed honeymoon staying with Bostjan;  at Taormina, staying with Saro’s parents; at Cassis, at Peniscola, at Cavalaire [where we swam reluctantly alongside a dead rat], at San Pedro Pescador on the Costa Brava, at Beziers-Plage, and in Nice. The last time we stayed on the Mediterranean we were doing a [not wholly satisfactory] locum chaplaincy in Ibiza a few years ago.


David Abulafia: The Mediterranean in History

With snow and ice outside I’ve been reading this book which I was given by Mike and Wendy for my birthday last year. It is a sumptuous illustrated Thames and Hudson book; more suitable for skimming the pages than for reading. It tells me that the term ‘Mare Mediterraneum’ only came into existence in the sixth century. The Mediterranean climate is essentially hot and dry summers; warm and wet winters. It includes both the driest place in Europe, Almeria in south-east Spain; and the wettest, Crkvice in Montenegro. Throughout its history there has been a population shift from mountains to the coastal settlements. Watercourses run typically only during the rainy season. There are small and beautiful deserts, in Spain and on Crete.

Of the staple crops, olives and some vegetables are native. Wheat and barley were introduced at an early age from the Middle East. Vines were imported from central Europe. Centuriation was the Roman practice of dividing land into exact squares. Cultivation terraces are the most characteristic feature of Mediterranean landscapes. Mediterranean peoples generally settled near water sources. In the absence of springs or wells, water was stored in stone cisterns. The Mediterranean with jagged promontories and few natural harbours was dangerous for ancient shipping; as Xerxes and St Paul both discovered. Piracy was a hazard, on land as well as at sea.

The first trading empires and the battle for the sea routes

How languages developed and how different ethnic groups emerged in Italy, Spain, and Greece remains a mystery. Concentrated settlements, the earliest cities, are found in the Levant and in Anatolia, from about 10,000 to 7,000 BC. There were four ‘Bronze Age Empires, c.4,000-2,000 BC’: Hittite Anatolia, Pharaonic Egypt, the Minoan Aegean, and Mesopotamian civilisations. Of these Hittite is the least known. The Mycenean and Phoenician trading networks were the first to master  the Mediterranean.

At the end of the Bronze Age several powerful states in Greece and Anatolia, the Hittite Empire and the Mycenean kingdom, all collapsed. Greeks began settlements on the shores of Asia Minor. The emergent powers were the Tyrrhenians of the Aegean and the Phoenicians. The Phoenician trading model and their maritime trade routes were rapidly imitated by the Greeks. By the eighth century BC Corinth had come to occupy a dominant role. These commercial links did much to diffuse Greek culture as well as goods. There were trade wars between Greek cities snd Carthage and Syracuse. But a giant was emerging from the Italian peninsula.

The creation of Mare Nostrum: 300 BC – 500 AD

Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC. After his death Macedonia and Egypt struggled for control of the eastern Mediterranean. But  the clash in Sicily with the Phoenician colony of Carthage led Rome into becoming a major sea power. “In response to their rivalry Carthage created an army, which invaded Italy and came close to conquering Rome, and Rome in turn created a  navy.” [Geoffrey Rickman] By 146 BC Rome had become dominant; and Roman forces destroyed the city of Carthage in the west and Corinth in the east. When Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the great sea battle of Actium [off the west coast of Greece] in 31 BC, Rome annexed Egypt; and the circle of Roman control of the Mediterranean was now complete.

Under the rule of Imperial Rome the whole Mediterranean was united for the first [and last] time. Between 200 BC and 200 AD the volume of sea traffic had an intensity that would not be matched again for a thousand years.  For the Romans the sea was ‘Mare Magnum’, or Mare Internum, or simply ‘Mare Nostrum’ [the ‘great sea’, the ‘internal sea,’ or ‘our sea’]. 

Mare Nostrum

Roman sea trade was exemplified by cabotage, tramping from port to port. Which necessitates harbour or refuges every 50-70 kms. Rome in the time of Emperor Augustus had an estimated population of 1 million, demanding the import of massive amounts of grain, oil, and wine from all around the southern Mediterranean. Navigation was customary from May to September; the winter was a closed season for sailing. Rome had long made use of the natural harbour at Puteoli in Campania. But the Emperors Claudius and Trajan subsequently built a huge, artificial harbour near the mouth of the Tiber. And the Romans built a number of smaller harbours, close to settlements, around the Mediterranean; in southern Gaul, in Spain, and in the eastern Mediterranean.

As the Roman Empire came under attack from the barbarian invasions from the north, large-scale trade on the Mediterranean collapsed. The population of Rome fell rapidly, to around 300,000 by AD 450. The imperial court retreated from Rome to Milan, and then to Ravenna, sheltered behind protective marshes. Such trade as continued was small scale cabotage. By AD 500 the situation in the Mediterranean was very different: “not because the sea was divided off at any point but because the changed world was no longer a cohesive unit”.  [Geoffrey Rickman] The Roman Empire, described as ‘built on water’ was gone. The Mediterranean sea was no longer a Roman lake.

Trogir, Dalmatia

The Mediterranean breaks up: 500-1000 AD

After the Roman Empire in the west came to an end in 476, new invaders, the Lombards, came to dominate the Italian peninsula. From the early seventh century Muslim forces swept across the eastern Mediterranean, and on across north Africa and Spain before being defeated by Charles Martel at Tours in 732. In the ninth century the Mediterranean began to suffer incursions by the Vikings. The Byzantine Empire was increasingly threatened, first by the Bulgars, a Turkish people; and then from the north by Scandinavians who had settled along the Dnieper river, known as the Rhos, who attacked Constantinople in 860 and again in 1043. As the Byzantine Empire loses ground, the emergent powers are the Christian cities of Venice and Pisa and Genoa.

Rumeli-Hisari, The Bosphorus

A Christian Mediterranean 1000-1500 AD

During these five centuries of the Middle Ages the expansion of the Western powers was balanced by the decline of Muslim power in the Arab countries; but also by the rise of Turkish power in the Ottoman Empire. It was the initiative of the Italian merchant republics that brought a new stimulus to Mediterranean trade. Traffic was mainly consumer goods and raw materials; but also slave trade, and luxury items – silk, spices, perfumes, precious stones and pearls.

The Albigensian Crusade brought the northern French into Languedoc. For the first time French royal authority reached the Mediterranean; and Louis IX built the new town of Aigues-Mortes. Developments in Italy took on a new character with the creation of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The growing strength of the Western powers contrasts with the increasing debility of the eastern Mediterranean states. The Crusades mark the start of European colonisation in the eastern Mediterranean. With ports at Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli, and Antioch. Pilgrims and crusaders chose to take up residence in the newly created kingdom of Jerusalem.


The Black Death swept through the Mediterranean in 1347 and 1348, killing a third or more of the population. Christopher Columbus’s setting foot in the New World in 1492, and the circum-navigation of Africa, thus reaching India, by Vasco da Gama six years later, gave rise to wider trading horizons; and threatened to undermine the Mediterranean spice trade.

The Mediterranean as a battleground for the European powers: 1700-1900 AD

In the eighteenth century Islamic power in the Mediterranean declined. In 1768 France purchased the island of Corsica from Genoa [Napoleon Buonaparte was born the following year.] In 1797, Venice, a long-standing centre of trade and power, lost its independence. And in 1797 Napoleon, after conquering northern Italy, decided to attack Egypt.

In August 1798 a British fleet under Nelson defeated the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, off the coast of Egypt. The battle decisively affected Mediterranean history for the next century. From 1798 to the post-1945 decline of British naval power the British navy dominated the Mediterranean. Which was now the front line in a clash between two imperial powers’ struggle devised by strategists in distant, northern capitals. The Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 gave Britain Malta and the Ionian Islands to add to Gibraltar. In the 1830s France occupied Algeria. [By 1846 there were 108,000 French troops in Algeria.] In 1859 the Suez Canal was a joint Franco-Ottoman enterprise, but in 1875 the British government bought the shares of the Ottoman Khedive. In 1882 Britain invaded Egypt and established a protectorate there [though this was not confirmed until 1914].

The world of Islam was in retreat. The British Navy dominated  the Mediterranean.

A globalised Mediterranean: 1900-2000 AD

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the total expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor by the new secular Republic of Turkey; and the forced repatriation of Turks from Greece and the Greek islands. The First World War also ended Ottoman influence in Palestine and Syria. These countries were entrusted to Britain and to France by the League of Nations. The French believed in exporting French civilisation across the Mediterranean. So Algiers became a French city on the edge of Africa. But the Algerian Civil War, 1954-62, ended with Algerian independence; and with a mass migration of French Algerians to France, especially to Montpellier, and Marseille and Toulon.

The major consequence of the Second World War was the creation in Palestine of a Jewish state, Israel. It was originally sanctioned on the basis of a two nation state, Jewish and Arab. But after 1948 fighting the Palestinian Arabs fled into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Soviet support for the Arab world was demonstrated by their funding for the Aswan Dam. Nasser championed the cause of Arab unity. But the Six Day War in 1967 was a massive humiliation for the Arab world.

The conflict between Israel and the Arabs is not the only source of tension in the Mediterranean at the end of the twentieth century. There is an unresolved tension in Cyprus between Greece and Turkey. And the tiny territory of Gibraltar continues to sour Anglo-Spanish relations.

Cultural tranformation

Until the end of the nineteenth century the Mediterranean was a place for travellers, not tourists.

With the development of the Cote d’Azur at the end of the century the coast around Nice and Menton became a playground for the rich. Things changed after the Second World War as travel became easier. The real transformation came with the advent of the aeroplane and charter flights. Britain led the way because there was no direct rail link to the Mediterranean. Thomson Holidays began charter flights and package holidays to Majorca in the 1950s. Palma is now one of the busiest airports in Europe. And tourism now accounts for 84% of Majorca’s economy.

Holiday-makers were not generally in search of culture. A deep Mediterranean tan became a badge of prosperity and health. The supposed immorality of the bikini led Franco’s Spain to ban them from beaches. There was a culture clash about [lack of] clothing between liberal France and the more conservative countries such as Catholic Malta or Muslim Tunisia.

Two inventions, as far apart in technology as can be imagined, have transformed the relationship between the Mediterranean and northern Europe in the second  half of the twentieth century: the aeroplane and the bikini”.  [David Abulafia]


Hotel Les Roche-Blanches, Cassis

One of the idle pleasures during this time of lock-down has been planning trips that we are not currently able to make.  So I planned for myself a hybrid day on the shores of the Mediterranean, limiting myself to places where we have been. Breakfast will be on the terrace of the San Domenico Palace Hotel in Taormina. With splendid views out across the Ionian sea, and the rooms [converted monks’ cells] evoking memories of Edward VII and of Audrey Hepburn. After breakfast some gentle exercise: walking from Soller up through the olive and orange groves to Fornalutx, often described as the prettiest village in Mallorca. Coffee in the square and time to buy an artisan T-shirt. Lunch caused me much debate and head-scratching. But I have settled for Trogir, which we visited all too briefly driving up the Yugoslav coast many years ago. Jack Cuddon, who once taught my brother English, describes it as a “small medieval town of tanned and weathered stone, congested with palaces, monasteries, and churches”. The afternoon would be mainly for swimming and sun-bathing. Probably at Vsar, further up the same coast on the Istrian peninsula, trying to avoid the sea urchins.   And then dinner and overnight at Les Roches Blanches in Cassis. It is ridiculously more expensive than when I once stayed there. But the setting and panorama across to the port are splendid. So – dream on. In the real world we are planning to book a Car Club car later this week and drive out to a cafe in East Lothian. Which will be good. But not quite the same.

February 2021

Through a glass darkly – 39

Out of my comfort zone

In 1982 I travelled outside Europe for the first time; two weeks on a market research trip to Jakarta, followed by a few days in Singapore. Before I left I called at Blackwells in Oxford and bought a street map, a Falk Stadtplan, of Jakarta. The map showed a lot of canals; and, knowing it was a former Dutch colony, I thought it might be a bit like Amsterdam. Jakarta was a revelation: I was staying in a very comfortable, high-rises hotel, the Sari Pacific. Any clothes left on the floor were immediately carried away and returned washed and ironed. In the bar attractive hostesses rushed up to take my order and offer me cigarettes and bowls of peanuts. But outside the hotel, beyond the hooting traffic of Jakarta’s one dual carriageway, the people lived in great poverty. And the canals that looked so attractive on my map were more-or-less open sewers, from which people drew their drinking water and in which they washed their clothes and bathed their small children. As a newcomer to the Third Word I was quite shocked. And uncomfortable.

Jakarta ‘canal’

Some of that memory came flooding back recently as I read Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums. The book came out in 2006, and I knew of it from reading for an MTh in Mission in an Urban World at ICC, Glasgow,in 2006-08, but I’d never read it before. Some of the statistical information is now two decades old. But the book, like my visit to Jakarta, made me feel uncomfortable. Or, to put it differently, it made me feel too comfortable here on the south side of Edinburgh,

Davis: Planet of Slums

Much at the time the book was publishedthe urban population of the world was bigger than the rural population for the first time. The speed and scale of Third Word urbanisation dwarfs that of Victorian Europe. In the twenty-first century we have new megacities with populations of 8 million plus, and also what are called  hypercities with more than 20 million inhabitants. In addition there are new urban networks and corridors; e.g. the Gulf of Guinea, and the Pearl River [Hong Kong] and the Yangtze River [Shanghai] deltas. At the same time we have increasing inequality between cities of different sizes and specialisations.

There is no correlation between the economy [wealth] of the city and its population. “Over-urbanization is driven by the reproduction of poverty, not the supply of jobs.” Africa’s slums are growing at twice the speed of their cities. Between 1989 and 1999 an incredible 85% of Kenya’s population growth was absorbed in the densely packed slums of Nairobi and Mombasa. “Instead of light soaring towards heaven, much of the twenty-first century urban world squats in squalor, surrounded by pollution, excrement, and decay.

The Prevalence of Slums

Slums are characterised by an amalgam of dilapidated housing, overcrowding, disease, poverty, and vice. Residents of slums form 6% of the urban population in developed countries; but 78% in the least developed countries. Davis estimates that here are more than 200,000 slums on earth, ranging in population from a few hundred to more than a million. Some slums have long histories, e.g. in Rio de Janeiro; but most mega-slums have grown up since the 1960s.

More commonly population growth has been in slum communities on the periphery of Third World cities. Essentially squatters occupy no-rent land of little value. But even peripheral land has a market value; and entrepreneurs acquire property rights on undeveloped land and sub-divide them. “Pirate urbanisation is, in effect, the privatisation of squatting.” Much of the scholarly literature concentrates on squatters and ignores renters. But large peripheral slums, especially in Africa, are made up of an elaborate network of kin networks, tenure systems, and tenant relationships. The common reality in Nairobi’s slums is tenancy and exploitation. As the slum periphery grows, urban waste and unwanted immigrants end up together, creating such infamous places as Smoky Mountain, Manila.

The Treason of the State

Why did slums grow so fast in the second half of the 20th century ? Partly because European colonial powers had denied native populations the rights of land ownership and permanent residence. Until 1954 Africans were not allowed to live permanently in Nairobi. The colonial norm was ‘white cities, black home-lands’. In Africa, India, Burma and Ceylon the British refused to provide sanitation or basic infrastructure to native neighbourhoods.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The main barriers to urban growth were removed by colonial counterinsurgency and by national independence. Partition in 1947 and its consequences drove millions into slums in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Karachi, and Dhaka. Colonial warfare in Algeria 1954-61 displaced half the rural population. In sub-Saharan Africa people from the countryside began pouring into the cities soon after independence. The slum was not the inevitable urban future. In the 1950s and 1960s Third World leaders like Nasser and Nehru and Sukarno all promised low-cost housing programmes. But, apart from Singapore and Hong Kong, most governments soon abdicated from any responsibility for combatting slums and redressing urban marginality. 

Middle-class ‘poaching’ of state-subsidised housing became an almost universal problem; in Algeria and Tunisia, in India, and Nigeria, and Mexico. And urban elites and the middle-classes in the Third World have been extraordinarily successful in evading municipal taxation.  Both poaching and fiscal bias underline the lack of political clout of the poor. With a handful of exceptions, “the post-colonial state has comprehensively betrayed its original promises to the urban poor.”

Illusions of Self-help

In the 1970s the World Bank under Robert McNamara increased its global efforts to improve [not to replace] the slums. Massive programmes were launched, e.g. in the Philippines and in India. The international aid institutions largely by-passed the national governments in order to work with NGOs [of whom there are now tens of thousands in Third World cities].  But observers are sceptical as to the effects of the World Bank/NGO approach, which produces some local success stories but leaves the vast majority of the poor behind. The poor are unable to access their notional wealth [land] because they do not possess land rights or property titles. But where land-titling is achieved, many tenants are unable to pay the additional taxes that follow. 

Pirate urbanisation led to slumlordism and to absentee landlords. Land ownership is concentrated in the hands of a small number of families. “Nairobi’s slums are vast rent plantations owned by politicians and by the upper middle class.” Illegal speculation in urban peripheral land has become a major source of corruption in China. The golden age of squatting was over. by 1990. In its place the urban fringes are being systematically developed by corporate firms, legally or illegally.

Kibera, Nairobi

Harassment of the urban poor

Many Third World governments are locked in conflict with the urban poor. There are frequent forced evictions to make way for highways and luxury compounds. In the Philippines under Imelda Marcos thousands of people were forcibly cleared from the parade routes of vanity projects and celebrity visitors. The modern Olympics have a dark history. For the 1936 Olympics the Nazis ruthlessly purged slum-dwellers from much of Berlin. For the 1988 Seoul Games tens of thousands of slum-dwellers and squatters were forcibly relocated in Seoul and Injon. 

During the 1970s it became commonplace for government everywhere to justify slum clearance as a means of fighting crime. In Egypt Sadat wanted the centre of Cairo to be replanned to allow more effective control and policing. In China large-scale slum clearance was co-ordinated with the repression of street vendors and informal workers. From the 1990s there has been an explosive growth in gated, closed suburbs in Third World cities. This ‘architecture of fear’ is commonplace in the Third World. But also apparent in South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, and the United States.

Slum Ecology

An informal settlement outside Buenos Aires is built “over a former lake, a toxic dump, a cemetery, and in a flood zone”. Squatters have settled on swamps, floodplains, volcano slopes, hillsides, and rubbish mountains. In Caracas slum housing is built on unstable hillsides and in deep gorges in a seismically active area. Mania slums are subject to frequent flooding. In the Third World slums that lack drinking water or latrines are unlikely to be covered by disaster insurance.

Nigerian slum

Human excrement is a universal problem. This was the major source of cholera and typhoid  outbreaks in Victorian England. “Constant intimacy with other people’s waste is one of the most profound of social divides.” Post-colonial regimes inherited enormous sanitation deficits which very few have been prepared to confront or remedy. In Kibera and other slums the residents rely on ‘flying toilets’, plastic bags thrown onto the nearest roof or pathway. Jakarta, despite its glitzy skyscrapers, depends on open ditches to dispose of its wastewater. Exercising bodily functions in public is a humiliation for anyone, but in particular it is a feminist issue. Pay toilets are a growth industry throughout the Third World but the [relatively low] user costs are prohibitive. 

Every day around the world, writes Eileen Stillwagon, “illnessses related to water supply, waste disposal, and garbage kill 30,000 people and constitute 75% of the illnesses that afflict humanity.” The ubiquitous contamination of drinking water by sewage and waste defeats the  desperate efforts of slum-dwellers to practise basic hygiene. Water sales have become a growth industry in poor cities. The people of KIbera pay five times more for their water than American citizens. 

SAPing the Third World

SAPs [Structural Adjustment Programmes] were the ‘big solution’ of IMF and the World Bank. As the IMF turned its attention to the problems of Third World countries, it imposed conditions [i.e. structural adjustments] `in return for its lending. These SAPs amounted to a poisoned chalice of devaluation, privatisation, the removal of import controls and food subsidies, enforced cost-recovery in health and education, and a ruthless downsizing of the public sector. 

In Africa the cost of structural adjustments was the collapse of manufacturing, drastic cuts in urban public services, soaring prices, and a steep decline in real wages. Globally indices of inequality reached record heights in the 1980s. In Africa and Asia urban families tried to send dependent members back to the countryside where subsistence was cheaper; thus creating divided families and increased marital breakdown.. And ruthless competition has become the norm in the informal economy for market women and street vendors. Rather than see their families destroyed, slum-dwellers in the late 1970s and 1980s  resurrected the classic protest of food riots.

A Surplus Humanity

Davis concludes:“instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade.” Informal work accounts for the majority of jobs in Third World cities. In most of sub-Saharan Africa formal job creation has virtually ceased to exist. Child labour and other forms of exploitation have become the norm in Third World cities. In Dhaka nearly half the boys and girls aged 10 to 14 were in informal work. One of the biggest employers of child labour is the Indian city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, where the carpet factories employ 200,000 children under the age of 14. Another major employer is the city of Firozbad, also in Uttar Pradesh, where tens of thousands of children work in glass factories in dreadful conditions.

The most ghoulish part of the informal economy is the surging world demand for human organs, After breakthroughs in transplant surgery in the 1980s, the impoverished periphery of Chennai [Madras] has become world renowned for its ‘kidney farms’. Slum-dweller families sold their kidneys for local transplants or for export to Malaysia. In ore recent years the Cairo slums have been mined for human body parts. Most of the clients are wealthy Gulf Arabs.

Kinshasa has become a vast broken city; wrecked like the rest of Congo-Zaire by kleptocracy, Cold War geopolitics, structural adjustments, and chronic civil war. The Mobutu dictatorship was a monster created and sustained by Washington, the IMF, and the World Bank.. “The child witches of Kinshasa, like the organ-exporting slums of India and Egypt, seem to take us to an existential ground zero beyond which there are only death camps, famine, and Kurtzian horror.”


So, the book makes for uncomfortable reading. It is a wide-ranging, pessimistic survey of the world’s slums, set within a Marxist framework. I suppose that a criticism of the book is that, for all the plethora of statistics and academic studies, there is little empirical data here. The slum-dwellers themselves are largely silent. And the book does not explore where hope might lie. 

To put it differently, what is missing is a Christian perspective. But there are some signs that many slum communities are aware of the possibility of a better life, and are working and praying to that end. It may be indicative that in Kibera there are more churches than there are toilets. 

Patmos Fellowship, Kibera, 2007

In his book Seeking a City with Foundations [pub. IVP, 2011], David Smith surveys a broad swathe of literature that treats the birth and growth of the city. He traces the evolution of the city, and of the idea of the city,  from the primitive urban culture of pre-patriarchal Mesopotamia, by way of the Industrial Revolution in 19th century Glasgow, and by way of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities and Le Corbusier’s La Ville Radieuse, to today’s impoverished slums of the global south. The underlying question is the search for meaning.

In the second part of the book, David Smith notes the extraordinary growth of [mainly Pentecostal] churches across the global south; and he calls for a prophetic theology which will demand both deep repentance from the wealthy and privileged world [i.e. us], and justice and dignity for the people trapped in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums.

Since big things have small beginnings, I know it’s time to send another cheque to TEAR Fund.

TEAR Fund publicity

February 2021

Through a glass darkly – 38

Sometimes I think that if I weren’t a Church of England vicar [retired], I’d be an anarchist. Not of the balaclava-wearing, window-smashing kind. And certainly not of the gun-toting, Trump-supporting, libertarian kind. But I can certainly believe in a society where power is devolved to the local level; where, in the absence of multinational companies, a man’s products are directly exchanged for what he needs; and where relationships are organised, not in terms of social media, but  in small units such as the workshop and the family. Plus blustering Boris and his cronies would be out of a job.

POUM militia

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was the first I’d ever heard of the Spanish Civil War, and I’ve always had a soft spot for photos of the POUM militia setting off for the front. So, after reading his book on The Second International, I’ve been reading James Joll’s book on The Anarchists. It was published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1964, and the dust cover of my copy has half-tone photos of William Godwin, Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Kropotkin, Michael Bakunin, Federica Montseny, and Emma Goldman. Anarchist legends. None of whom are smiling.

Joll: The Anarchists

You are miserable isolated individuals. You are bankrupt … Go where you belong , to the dustbin of history”. Thus Trotsky’s denunciation of his Menshevik opponents in October 1917. This is how Marxists look at history; the revolutions which failed are blind alleys. The anarchist movement was a product of the 19th century. The anarchists tried to destroy the increasingly powerful, centralised, industrial state. The anarchists combined a belief in the sudden, violent transformation of society with a belief in the reasonableness of men and the possibility of human perfection.

Joll notes that there have always been movements against established authority; and that these movements generally arose in times of rapid social and economic change. For example, he points to Thomas Müntzer, an ex-priest, who became a revolutionary leader in 1525, the year of the Peasants’ Revolt; and to the Anabaptists, who proclaimed a revolutionary republic in Munster in 1533-35.

Anarchism was also influenced by the Enlightenment; a belief in man’s reasonable nature, and a belief in the possibility of intellectual and moral progress. Anarchism contains an internal clash; between the religious and the rational temperaments, the apocalyptic and the humanist. 

Eighteenth century thinkers who were precursors of the anarchists include Rousseau with his belief in the Noble Savage. Man is inherently good, but is corrupted by institutions. Thus William Godwin [b.1756], who believed that justice and happiness are indissolubly linked. Property is a fundamental cause of discontent and of crime. Therefore property should be abolished. “I am bold and adventurous in opinions, but not in life”, said Godwin.  He was accused of treason by Pitt’s government. But his views had little impact. “Godwin remains an admirable example of the philosophical anarchist, a reminder of what anarchism owes to the Enlightenment”.


Pierre- Joseph Proudhon [b.1809] is the first and most important anarchist philosopher. He was from a lower middle-class family in Besancon; apprenticed to a printer and entirely self-educated. All his life he was an unremitting propagandist and a tireless critic of the existing society. Proudhon envisaged a society in which a man’s products would be directly exchanged for the goods that he needed. Government would be needed only to usher in the new society. Society would be based on small units, the workshop and the family. “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated at, regulated … … by men who have neither the right nor the knowledge nor the virtue.”

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon was not blind to the weaknesses of the workers. He believed in the need for moral reform within each individual. Which brought him nearer to a belief in God than most anarchists. He thought that society might be transformed by peaceful means, and feared that revolution would create a new tyranny. The experience of 1848 left him disillusioned and in deep gloom. He became a fierce critic of the dictatorship of Louis-Napoleon.

Differences between Proudhon and Marx, then a struggling German journalist, anticipated the divergence of thought between the French and German working-class movements. Marx was a better economist and a better philosopher. Proudhon a better phrase-maker; e.g. ‘Property is theft’.

When the First International was founded in London in 1864, the French delegates at the meeting were disciples of Proudhon. But they found themselves at odds with the centralised discipline that Marx was seeking to impose. This tension was reflected later in differences between the French and German working-class movements at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Bakunin and the Great Schism

If Proudhon provided most of the ideas that inspired the anarchist movement, .Bakunin provided an example of anarchist fervour in action. Born in 1814 into the Russian provincial nobility, Bakunin came to Paris in 1840. His thinking was neither subtle nor original; but he expressed himself through acts of conspiracy and revolt. His belief in the revolutionary potential of those who have nothing to lose is strikingly different from Proudhon’s ideal of the self-educated, self-improving peasant. All his life he saw himself as a great conspirator; at the centre of a web of clandestine organisations. From 1851 to 1857 he was in prison in Russia. In 1857 he was banished to Siberia, from where he escaped in 1861. 

Michael Bakunin

Bakunin learnt terrorism from the younger revolutionary Sergei Nechaev, a fellow Russian who had escaped from prison to Geneva. From Nechaev Bakunin learnt the doctrine of le propagande par le fait, which was central to anarchism for the next 30 years. Bakunin was involved in working-class politics in Switzerland, while maintaining contact with revolutionaries in Russia, Italy, and Spain. He shared a friendship with Garibaldi. Like Marx [and unlike Proudhon] he was a convinced  materialist. His founding of a group called the International Social-Democratic Alliance was viewed with great suspicion by Marx and Engels. Who sought to destroy his influence in the International.

Marx advocated state communism based on a centralised, disciplined party. Which was anathema to Bakunin who envisaged a free association of independent communes. “I detest communism”, said Bakunin, “because it is the negation of liberty, and because I can conceive of nothing human without liberty”. And again: “The communists believe that they must organise the working -class forces to seize political power in states. Revolutionary socialists organise in order to … liquidate states”. As Joll comments, communists have owed their effectiveness to their ruthless discipline; while revolutionaries, such as the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, have failed to survive.

Terrorism and Propaganda by the Deed

The Paris Commune left its mark on European politics for thirty years. For the revolutionaries it was yet another revolution that had failed. In industrial  northern Europe the workers began to look increasingly to well-organised political parties or disciplined trade unions. But in the more backward countries, such as Italy and Spain, the belief in direct action never died.

In Italy the doctrines of Bakunin were always more popular than those of Marx. In Italy they developed the idea of ‘propaganda by the deed’.  In 1878 there was an attempt to assassinate King Victor Emanuel II. Within a few months of similar attempts to assassinate the German emperor and the king of Spain. There were frequent attacks on prominent people between 1880 and 1914. The anarchist movement existed on two distinct levels: leaders such as Kropokin and Malatesta, who produced pamphlets and philosophical works; and small groups determined to carry out acts of violence. When in 1894 President Sadi Carnot was stabbed to death in Lyon, by a young Italian anarchist, the climax of a series of terrorist attacks, the police were finally obliged to take action against everyone who was suspected of anarchist views.

It was during these years when ‘propaganda by the deed’ was making anarchism notorious as a creed of revolutionary action that the thinkers of the movement were trying, not wholly successfully, to turn it into a respectable political philosophy”.  [Joll]


One of the most influential thinkers in the closing decades of the century was Peter Kropotkin, a Russian anarchist who settled in England in 1886. He was a respected and much-loved figure; a friend of William Morris; and of trade union leaders like Ben Tillett andTom Mann. Kropotkin had seen in Russia that revolution involved violence and terror, both of which he intensely disliked. For Kropotkin primitive society meant, not Hobbesian conflict, but an innate sense of co-operation and mutual aid if men were left uncorrupted by government. Again and again in his writings he comes back to Darwin’s example of the blind pelican whom his comrades kept supplied with fish.

For Kropotkin what was needed to put into practice a morality without obligation or sanctions was a new economic order, which would allow man’s good instincts to flourish. To achieve this goal a revolution was necessary to produce what Kropotkin called ‘anarchist communism’. In this new order, there would be no private ownership; everything would be freely available to him who needed it. Curiously he saw the British Life-Boat Association as a model society.

The Revolution that Failed

The Russian Revolution, like 1789 or 1848 or 1871, left the anarchists disappointed and disillusioned. Kropotkin was a fierce critic of Lenin: “At the present moment the Russian revolution … is perpetrating horrors. It is ruining the whole country  `It is annihilating human lives.” In 1917 the anarchists were divided among themselves; and powerless against the bolsheviks. “Liberty”, said Lenin, “is a luxury not to be permitted at the present stage of development.”

The Russian Revoution, 1917

Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman arrived in Russia in 1919, after being deported from the United States. They were shocked at the imprisonment of so many Russian anarchists, and at the refusal of new government to release anarchists to attend Kropotkin’s funeral in 1922. Berkman noted: “Dictatorship is trampling the masses underfoot. The revolution is dead, its spirit cries in the wilderness.” Such criticism estranged them from many associates on the left.

Anarchists in Action: Spain

Anarchism became a mass movement in Spain: because it was a backward country; it had a weak government; there was a huge gap between rich and poor; and there was a rural population living at close to starvation level. In Spain the appeal was primarily to the most depressed people – the landless farm workers and small peasants.

After Franco’s revolt in July 1936 anarchist leaders and the CNT took control of Barcelona. During that summer Catalonia became virtually an independent state. [Andalusia, the traditional home of rural anarchism, had been swiftly conquered by Franco’s troops.] But putting anarchist principles into practice in the middle of a civil war was immensely challenging. The anarchist character of the CNT and FAI columns diminished as the war demanded greater discipline and control. The anarchists agreed to share power with the socialists and the Catalan government, but relations with the socialists and the communists continued to deteriorate. In April 1937 civil war broke out between the anarchist POUM and the communist-led PSUC. When Caballero’s government fell, the new government declared POUM illegal and arrested many anarchist leaders. “The failure of the anarchist revolution, the powerlessness of anarchist ministers, and the threat of repression after the Barcelona fighting, all revealed that the anarchists were as far from realising their dreams as ever.

POUM militiaman


The warnings of anarchists that Marxism would lead to dictatorship and new forms of tyranny have been proved right. But the idea of a ‘morality without obligations or sanctions’ is hugely attractive, as is a society without government or governed; and such ideas will have disciples on every generation. Which I guess is for me the fundamental attraction.

But, as repeated failures culminated in the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, it became clear that putting anarchist principles, themselves often inconsistent, into action was extremely difficult. Anarchists rejected the conventional political processes, but were unable to envisage an intermediate stage between existing society and the total revolution of their dreams. They [we] know the kind of ideal society to which we aspire. But it is not at all clear how to get there.

February 2021

Through a glass darkly – 37

At the bus stop

Last week I was sitting at the bus-stop talking to Winston Churchill. I was telling him what an awful paper The Times is now, especially the Saturday magazine. He didn’t seem to know much about the magazine, but otherwise was happy to agree with me. Then this 1950s-style London bus came along, and he got on the bus with a small crowd of people; and I woke up.

London double-decker bus

What does it all mean ? I think that for Winston Churchill read blustering Boris; and I read somewhere recently that even if you think the Prime Minister is a self-obsessed, serially untruthful, narcissist, which I do, people say that he can in private conversations be quite good company. And I think too that this continuing lock-down does funny things to my dream life and my sense of time.

Churchill and Johnson

Fifty years ago

Fifty years ago I was working for Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press at Headington Hill Hall. My history finals were a disaster, which put pay to a notional research degree on the Paris recruitment office for the International Brigades. And I then exhausted all the usual job applications for non-numerate arts graduates: the Diplomatic Service, the Civil Service, the British Council, and Southern Television. So I spent the summer of 1967 working on the local golf course until the weather deteriorated. And then I accepted the offer of a job in the College Sales department at Pergamon. It wasn’t quite like glamorous London publishing. My introduction to the list was the Autumn Sales Conference, at which I gathered the top two coming titles were Pre-Clinical Carcinoma of the Cervix Uteri and The Placenta in Twin Pregnancy. I should add that these are not titles that I read myself. Not then. Not now.

So I spent the first couple of years after graduating driving around southern England [in a Morris 1000] visiting universities and technical colleges.  The strategy was to try to persuade lecturers to recommend Pergamon titles for their courses. It wasn’t hugely successful. Partly because most universities didn’t prescribe a single course book that was a required purchase. Partly because Pergamon’s rather uneven list was geared more towards scientific and technical monographs, some of them translated from the Russian. The hotels were a bit uneven too. These were the days before en-suite bathrooms and individual televisions. I think the low point was a hotel in Chelmsford where you needed to put shillings in the gas-fire, and where there was a stack of well-thumbed copies of Playboy on top of the wardrobe. And I recall an evening in Swindon where a group of excited sales reps organised a sweepstake on the Miss World Competition in the television lounge. And dinner in a hotel in Exeter where I fearlessly ordered half a bottle of burgundy with my meal, and it came with a label saying Serve well chilled. And it was.

As a change from southern England I spent six weeks visiting universities in Belgium and Holland. It was a delight to discover places like Ghent and Delft and Leyden. But conversations with Flemish speaking academics were a bit limited. And with hindsight 1968 was not the time to go in search of the Université Catholique de Louvain. At school  I had understood that Belgium was a French-speaking country ! In Groningen the choice at the cinema was between a Bergman film or Half a Sixpence, both of them dubbed into Dutch. I went for the latter. But maybe it was a mistake. When I got back to the UK, laden with boxes of small cigars and Delft cufflinks, it transpired that my then girl-friend had taken up with an old school-friend.

Life at Headington Hill Hall

So after two years of uncommercial travelling I was pleased to move in house as the Editor of the Commonwealth and International Library, a Maxwellian concept of a library of a thousand textbooks in a variety of mainly scientific subjects. Headington Hill Hall, originally built for Morrells, the brewing family, was leased by Maxwell from the Oxford City Council. Which enabled Maxwell, who was MP for Buckingham, and not yet the Cap’n Bob of Private Eye, to tell his constituents: “Like you, I too live in a council house”. The Maxwell family lived in the big house; the offices were in a modern, two-storey block in the grounds and in the former stable block. Telephone wires were strung between the buildings, with frequent tannoy messages calling someone to the nearest telephone. Communication with the outside world was a bit hit-and-miss. The switchboard were periodically instructed to disconnect all outside calls after five minutes. Which was intended as an economy measure. But sometimes caused more problems than it solved.

Headington Hill Hall

The entrance at the top of Headington Hill was guarded by a red-and-white barrier pole, known to local residents as Checkpoint Charlie. The pole came down promptly at 9.00am, so that late-comers had to write their names in a book. It came down heavily one day on the head of a prominent Oxford physicist, an FRS, who was riding his bicycle. After that the pole disappeared.

Pergamon staff fell into two camps: the old hands, and those who were just passing through. I hoped to be in the latter category. Harry, my first boss, moved on to a technical publishing house in Paris. Pat, at one time the general sales manager, drifted away to pursue a calling as a painter on Gozo. His successor, George, was a dapper man, not very tall. Years later, when he had moved on to Oxford University Press, there was a poster in the OUP canteen advertising a talk on The Problems of the Small Publisher. On which some wit had scrawled Visual Aid: George Depotex. Aubrey was a cricket-loving, Old Malvernian from Singapore; his job was to manage [or perhaps massage] the authors’ royalty payments. Uppy was the union rep: I never discovered his real job, but he had been driving when the oldest Maxwell child was severely injured in a road accident. The boy was in a coma in the Radcliffe Infirmary. And Uppy’s future prospects weren’t very good either.

Maxwell himself was periodically seen. My first Christmas he summoned the staff to a meeting in the then warehouse, appeared as if by magic in a bright blue suit, and announced that there would be no Christmas bonus that year. The workforce all applauded him ! I once drove into the grounds on a Saturday with my parents [what were they doing there ?] to show them where I worked. We met Maxwell, with a rifle over his shoulder, apparently taking pot-shots at the squirrels. He was all smiles and very welcoming to them.

I had a desk made of some wood substitute in the corner of an enormous open-plan office. My desk was next to Peggy, my immediate boss, colleague, and friend. If I stood on the chair I could see a window. On the desk were two telephones; external [for calls of limited duration] and internal. I dictated lots of letters down the internal phone to the typing pool. Their skills were a bit basic. Most letters came back a couple of days later with multiple carbons and multiple errors. The desk and surrounding floor space were piled high with manuscripts; on their way to peer readers, going back to the authors for revision, waiting to be marked up before going to the printers. I lost a manuscript one day, a book on an obscure branch of metallurgy. The author, a middle-ranking academic, swore it was the only copy and demanded silly sums in compensation. I think he settled for £250. 00.

Lunch was generally in the canteen; good value food at formica tables with white walls. A small group of us polished off The Times crossword most days. It was a group effort. I’ve never been very good at crosswords. But the Revd Gordon Hawes, the Managing Editor of the Religious Education Press [another improbable Maxwell acquisition] was a bit of a star. For entertaining authors Pergamon had an account at The Royal Oxford, the rather dull hotel close to the station. If you ordered beef stroganoff, which I often did, the waiter would come and set fire to it at the table in a copper pan. And I think they did the same thing with crèpes suzettes. This was 1970.

Politics, Personalities, pic: December 1965, Robert Maxwell M,P, for Buckingham division, centre, receives an autograph from Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson watched by Jim Cassidy, Bletchley Urban Council chairman Jim Cassidy (Photo by Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)

There are a lot of books about Robert Maxwell now and I’ve read some of them. Many of them concentrate on the later period; the IPC, the Daily Mirror, buying Oxford United, the rampant megalomania, raids on the pension fund. All this stuff came a bit later. During the late 1960s Pergamon was the great [white] hope of British scientific and technical publishing; competing with such American publishers as McGraw Hill, John Wiley, Elsevier, Prentice-Hall etc.  Scientific and technical journals were a growth market. Universities were booming, and university libraries couldn’t afford not to subscribe. British academics wanted to get their work into print, and didn’t expect or require to be paid for having their work published. The journals made money. And the book publishing programme coasted along on the back of it.

It was fun while it lasted. Which Pergamon manager fired a cartographer and allowed him to work his notice ? As a result one of Pergamon’s school atlases appeared with a map of Asian and Chinese mountains and rivers which included the Pu-Ding Basin. I once got an irate letter from an academic complaining that a set of steam tables in one of our textbooks was upside-down. When I looked at the book’s production file, I discovered an undated instruction Change Fig. x the other way up. And every time the book reprinted [it was one our better sellers] the printers did exactly that. Maxwell himself commissioned highly unsuitable stuff from people he sat next to on planes. Peggy had to edit a manuscript by a not quite bilingual Swedish academic and table-tennis enthusiast; he wrote about crossing the Atlantic by liner and enjoying ‘screwing his colleagues every night on the ping-pong table’. Maxwell commissioned an autobiography from the awful Sir Gerald Nabarro, predictably entitled NAB !. George handled the book, and wrote him a letter saying: “I hope the quallity of this letter will demonstate to you the importance that we atach to this book”. Sic.


In late 1969 came the dramatic bust-up between Pergamon and Saul Steinberg’s LEASCO. I was issued with a Pergamon share in order to go and attend the AGM at which Maxwell and his fellow directors were voted off the board of the company. We stopped for drinks on the way and to buy a cigar each. It was a bit like a pre-war Cup Final outing. 

George Chadwick: A Systems View of Planning

I don’t dream about Maxwell. Although in my dream life I am often back, not always happily in the publishing world. I spent three years with the Commonwealth Library. It included launching a  major new series of books on Urban and Regional Planning. In fact, I even thought about going back to college and training as a town planner. But I didn’t. In 1972 I was invited to became Sponsoring Editor at a London publishing house in Bloomsbury. Very close to the British Museum. It sounded like ‘a very good thing’. It wasn’t. But that is another story.

January 2021

Through a glass darkly – 36

Socialists and Anarchists

James Joll

This year  I was going to read James Joll’s book on The Anarchists. But I found an earlier book by him on the shelves, and thought I ought to read that first. James Joll, born in 1918, was a Wykehamist, who read history at New College, Oxford. During the Second War he was involved with European Resistance movements. After the war he returned to Oxford to teach, and was a fellow of New College and then of St Antony’s from its inception in 1950. His books include The Second International [1955], Intellectuals in Politics [1960], and The Anarchists [1964]. I never met him, but I gather that long ago he assessed something I wrote [on Anti-Fascism in the English Public Schools, 1933-39] for a Trevelyan Scholarship, for which I am belatedly grateful.

The Founding of the Second International

The First International, which had been founded by Marx in 1864, was formally dissolved in Philadelphia in 1876. One reason for its failure was the a fundamental divide between Marxists and Anarchists. Anarchists stood for loose structure, decentralisation, and `le propaganda par le fait. They were formally expelled from various congresses, but not finally purged until 1896.

Joll: The Second International

As the demand to re-establish international links grew, the SPD, the German Socialist party, decided in 1887 to plan for an International Socialist congress. There was similar pressure from the British trade unionists. Would it work ? Could differences be overcome ? Would it inevitably be dominated by the German SPD ?

1889 was a natural year for an international revolutionary congress, and Paris was the obvious place. There were predictable differences of opinion about who to invite. So – two conferences opened on the same day: the Marxists met in the rue Petrelle, while the Possibilists and the trade unionists met in the rue de Lancry. The situation was chaotic with many personal feuds. The Congress in the Salle Petrelle was the founding congress of the new International. The Germans had the largest delegation, and Liebknecht was the moving spirit of the Congress.

The practical achievements of the Congress did not match its symbolic value. There was confusion about who had the right to attend and to vote. Three days were taken up with reports from the various countries present. After which there was little time to discuss the topics proposed. 

There were resolutions in favour of an eight-hour working day, and in favour of improved conditions of labour. It was assumed that the interests of the proletariat everywhere were the same. And it was assumed that disbanding of standing armies n favour of national militia would prevent war. The French proposed that May 1st should be celebrated everywhere as a Workers’ Holiday. In France this meant a stoppage of work. But the Germans wanted to protect workers’ job and pay, and saw May Day simply as an occasion for evening meetings and placing articles in the press. 

The Second International had come into being; ending the isolation of the 1870s. But important questions remained. What were the right tactics for a mass party ? Should it aim at revolution or at reform by parliamentary means ? How could Socialists prevent war ?  Who was a true Socialist ?

Struggles with the Anarchists

When ordinary people thought about international Socialists, they thought of an Anarchist with a smoking bomb in his pocket. Outrages were common in the 1880s and the 1890s. The Czar of Russia was murdered in 1881; the President of the French Republic in 1894; the Empress of Austria in 1898; the King of Italy in 1900; the President of the United States in 1901. Such acts provided the governments with opportunities to attack the whole working class movement. 

Assassination of Czar Alexander II, 1881

French Socialists were split between parliamentarians and those who believed in direct action. From the early 1890s the French Marxists were fighting on two fronts: against Socialists on the right wanting to abandon dogmatic Marxism; and against revolutionary Syndicalists on the left who advocated direct action. The German SPD was not seriously bothered by Anarchists. 

The subsequent Congresses grappled with this question. The Brussels Congress of 1891 tried to heal the breach between the two congresses of 1889. The Belgian Anarchists were excluded from the start, and the Spanish Anarchists were ejected on the second day. But disagreements about ehe nature of May Day were unresolved. The Anarchists returned to the attack at the 1893 Congress in Zurich. But there was a growing consensus; that, while waiting for the collapse of the capitalist system, much could be achieved by political means within the existing state. At the 1896 Congress in London the British delegation tried to raise such questions as universal suffrage, the emancipation of women, and education. Which highlighted the differences between British and continental socialists.  Joll notes, approvingly, that “the international Congresses of the 1890s showed that the leading European Socialists had accepted the necessity of political action inside existing bourgeois society.”

Reformism and Revisionism

Jean Jaurès

One of the other great problems was that as socialist parties grew in numbers, they were forced, for the moment at least, to function within a political system which they were seeking to destroy. Jean Jaurès, a teacher of philosophy from a middle-class family in Castres, was elected a Deputy in 1885, and his intelligence and rhetorical gifts made him leader of the Socialists. Under Jaurès the French Socialists collaborated with other parties to defend human rights, and joined forces in support of Dreyfus. But the situation in Germany was different.  The SPD was growing in strength. ‘Reformism’ advocated temporary alliance with other patties, but this was condemned by the SPD leadership. Eduard Bernstein became the spokesman for ‘Reformism’, which criticised some of Marx’s general theories. Revisionism and Reformism were trends which resulted from the success of social democracy in Europe. And the struggle around these ideas  dominated the next two Congresses of the International. 

Socialism and Nationalism

After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, there was renewed pressure on the International Socialist movement to guard against a war. Socialists had to decide what attitude to adopt towards their country’s military arrangements. The cherished aim of the Socialists was to abolish standing armies, and to create a series of popular militia, not unlike Switzerland. 

It is notoriously difficult to interest members of the public in international affairs. The German working class resented the cheap labour of the Poles. The Austrian Social Democrats were anxious about growing German influence. The Czechs wanted to be independent of the Austrians. The British Labour Party remained outside the European mainstream. England and Holland were both reluctant to abandon their colonies. And some German Socialists thought that only by entering the colonial struggle would the German working class maintain its standard of living.

Copenhagen Congress, 1910

Jaurès published L’Armée Nouvelle in 1910, calling for a complete remodelling of the French Army. But it was a patriotic book, making it clear that French Socialists would be right to defend the country against aggression. On the German side Bebel took a similar line.

International Socialist solidarity effectively meant solidarity between the two parties in Germany and France; no other powers had parties of such importance. An emergency Congress met in Basle in November 2013. The mood was confident and optimistic. The Congress was in the Cathedral. Jaurès made a celebrated speech.  “The Basle Conference marks the high point of the International’s optimistic self-confidence, and it reveals how far socialism had become almost a religious movement … and how much blind faith was placed in there actual existence of the International”.

Summer 1914

The crisis of July 1914 came with suddenness on a Europe oddly unprepared. Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia showed that they were determined on war. Alarmed Socialist leaders began to return from their holidays. The Bureau of the International convened a meeting in Brussels on July 29th. Victor Adler declared that the Austrian Socialists were impotent to act. Jaurès declared unequivocal support of French Socialists for the French Government. But within days he was shot in a Paris cafe by a hysterical young right-winger; leaving the French Socialists without a leader. And the International movement without its most buoyant leader when the crisis was at its height.

French trade unionists obeyed their call-up papers, for fear of their homes being overrun by the Germans. German Socialists were swayed by their fear of the barbarous Slav. There was a long and inconclusive debate among the SPD leaders. Finally the 92 German deputies voted in favour of the war credits; they felt it was their duty to resists what was represented as a Russian attack. It is ironic that, when the moment of crisis came, they were the first to disobey their own rules. One member of the SPD wrote: “How is it possible that I, anti-patriot and anti-militarist, who acknowledged only the International, come to be attacking my companions in misery and perhaps shall die for my enemies against my own cause and my own interests ?”

As soon as the French, German, and Austrian Socialists had voted in favour of the war credits, the Second International ceased to exist. The life had gone out of the Second International.


Joyeux Noël

I watched Joyeux Noël a week or so ago. It is a fictional reconstruction of the unofficial Christmas Eve truce of 1914, when front-line troops clambered out of their trenches to share greetings and drinks with their enemies; to play football and celebrate Christmas together.  It is a story about human dignity and kindness against a background of savage trench warfare. For me it raises a nagging question: Why did troops on both sides allow themselves to fight and be killed in a war of which they understood almost nothing ? Bertrand Russell made some pungent comments on that in Education and the Social Order. And James Joll’s book about the failure of the working class movements provides part of the answer. Which is that ugly nationalism was allowed to take precedence over international socialism. A tragedy.

January 2021

Through a glass darkly – 35

Uniformity and diversity in church life

There was a story in the papers at the end of December about a London church where attendance has grown dramatically since they switched their services back to the Book of Common Prayer, the 1662 traditional Church of England Prayer Book. Denis Lennon, my training Rector at St Thomas’s, Glasgow Road, Edinburgh used to say that you could fill the church by targeting your services to appeal to, say, bikers in leathers with a passion for the Book of Common Prayer. People would travel a long way for such a niche product. But, he would add, that is not what church life is about; it is our job to build a congregation that reflects the community where the church is placed.

Anglican Church of Rwanda

When Susie and I moved from Christ Church, Duns, a welcoming but essentially mono-cultural church in the Scottish Borders, to the Lyon Anglican Church [now named Trinity Church, Lyon] we were immediately struck by the diverse, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic nature of the congregation. The majority of the members of the Church Council were [in 2000] expat Brits or native French, but the hundred or so people in church on Sunday morning would come from a dozen, and up to twenty, countries. In the early years we had a steady trickle of Nigerians; as well as Africans from Kenya, Ghana, Chad, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. A few years later we had a steady trickle of new arrivals from Asia; from Hong Kong, from mainland China, from South Korea, and above all from Singapore. In [I think] 2006 there were five new people elected to the Church Council, speaking five different languages; from France, the United States, Nigeria, Singapore, and Taiwan. Very few of these people were Anglicans, which seemed to worry one of our bishops. And there was a constant turnover of members, as students and people employed on short-term contracts went home or moved on elsewhere. But the cultural and linguistic diversity was a great joy. And the congregation reflected, so I liked to think, the “people of God of every race, language, people and nation”,  of John’s great vision in Revelation 5.

That sort of ethnic and cultural diversity is something we miss at home here in Edinburgh. But I am aware that in Trinity Church, Lyon, and in St Nicolas of Myra in Ankara, and closer to home in The Old Church, Smethwick, there have been very significant numbers of Iranians coming to faith and to join in Sunday worship. There has been since 2019 an authorised Farsi translation of Common Worship.  When the book was launched at a service in Wakefield Cathedral, Bishop Paul Butler made the point that whereas on the Day of Pentecost there was no-one present who spoke English, there were undoubtedly people who spoke something very like Farsi. So, remembering Philip Jenkins’ insistence [see TaGD – 33] that it is dangerous for churches to invest exclusively in one ethnic or linguistic group at the expense of others, that “churches survive best when they diversify in global terms”; I thought it was time to read a little book on World Christianity.

Lamin Sanneh: Whose religion is Christianity ?

Professor Lamin Sanneh, who died suddenly at the beginning of 2019, was born in Gambia in 1942, grew up as a Muslim, but converted to Christianity as a teenager. He studied Islam and Christianity in Birmingham and in Beirut and in London, and taught mission and religious studies in the University of Ghana, and in Aberdeen, and then at Harvard. When he died he had been Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale Divinity School since 1989. He wrote a number of books on Christianity and Islam in Africa, on the history of Christian Mission, and this quite small book on the cross-cultural expansion of the Christian faith in a post-colonial era.

Whose religion is Christianity ?

Many writers have assumed that because of irreversible secularisation we are living in a post-Christian culture. But Sanneh sees evidence of a worldwide resurgence of Christianity. He wants to bridge the gap between a robust secularism and a quiescent private piety. The book uses an interactive interview style. Sanneh wants to demonstrate that disagreement is not a barrier to dialogue. We are often “confused by the idea that difference is threatening, fanatical, harmful, and negative while uniform agreement is sound, inclusive, and enlightened”. 

World Christianity and Christendom

Sanneh defines World Christianity as “the movement of Christianity as it takes form and shape in societies that were not previously Christian”. As opposed to Global Christianity which is “the faithful replications of forms and patterns developed in Europe”. This latter is akin to Christendom, which refers to the imperial phase of Christianity when it became a domain of the state.

In World Christianity western Christians can discover the gospel as it develops in futures not shaped by the Enlightenment. African Christianity brings together religious enthusiasm and a widespread disenchantment with political structures. Which is not dissimilar to New Testament Christianity. For organised religion state patronage has been a mixed blessing. In the West Sanneh detects a retreat into isolation; he evokes Sir Edward Grey and the lights going out all over Europe;  “the religious imagination seems to have been hit with a bout of melancholy as it labours with the strains of Abide with me, fast falls the eventide and The day Thou gavest Lord has ended”.

Mission in Africa

Sanneh concedes that the Christian church has a mixed record in Africa; white rule in Zimbabwe, and Calvinist-inspired apartheid in South Africa. But he argues that African Christianity has been significantly different from 17th and 18th century Christendom. Sanneh believes that revival has been driven by the end of colonialism; by mother tongue development and Bible translation; and by indigenous cultural renewal. He sees Christianity as building on the older religions, and their values. It is appropriated into local frameworks, but is still distinctively Christian. Thus the tribes of Namibia speak of Ndjambi Karunga, the God who owns the skies, and who loves everybody and who punishes nobody. Sanneh distinguishes between Africans coming to discover the gospel through the work of missionaries and indigenous people discovering the faith through mother tongue discernment and in the light of their own experiences.

Sanneh wants people to be converted to God rather than to other people’s experience of God. He doesn’t see how Europeans can continue teach the faith without paying attention to Christianity’s successful cross-border  expansion in post-colonial societies. The Yoruba draw on their own heritage of Ifa divination. The Masai speak of a journey of faith in a God who out of love created the world and us; and of how they once knew this God in darkness, but now know him in light. “He lay buried in the grave, and the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day he rose …”.

Masai Community Church

Sanneh introduces us to Bishop Ajayi Crowther [c.1807-91]; sold into slavery in Lagos, set free by a British Naval Squadron, a convert from Islam who rose to a position of leadership in the church. He was a pioneer of the indigenous discovery of Christianity. His Yoruba Bible of 1851 was the first Bible in an African language. He promoted dialogue with Muslims. Bishop Crowther had a dual role as child of Africa and as commissioned agent of a global religion.

Christianity Reappropriated: translation and renewal

Christianity is unique as a world religion that is transmitted a language and culture other than that of its founder. The New Testament Gospels are a translation of the message of Jesus. In later centuries Christians became pioneers of linguistic development, with the creation of alphabets and dictionaries and grammars. All in total contrast with Islam where the Quran is preserved in its original Arabic. And where translations may not be used in public worship.

Traditionally religious language is used to mystify and to intimidate, to exclude people. But Jesus departs from that tradition; he uses clear and simple language. “Jesus rated spiritual deafness, not illiteracy, as the greatest impediment to receiving the gospel”. 

For the Church Fathers the Greek Bible was the authoritative scripture. Which was followed by Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate, in the 4th century. The Council of Trent in 1546 authorised the Vulgate as the authoritative Catholic Bible. For English speakers that status was accorded to the Authorised Version, the King James Bible. Which “acquired an apocryphal reputation as the only Scripture that Jesus knew”. [I think I heard that comment in Duns in the 1990s !] Christianity has felt congenial in English, French, and Spanish; but less congenial in, for example, Tamil or Igbo or Yoruba. But Sanneh insists that “bible translation into the mother tongue has opened the way for worldwide Chrisgian renewal”.

Wycliffe Bible Translators

Sanneh wants to demonstrate that Bible translation stimulates the indigenous narrative tradition. “Bible translation represents a revolutionary concept of religion as something translatable and ambi-cultural”. And Bible translation gives power to ordinary [indigenous] people, including women and children. In Africa it has been a broadening experience for churches; and has facilitated ecumenical co-operation on an unprecedented scale. 

Sanneh concludes:  “Christianity is not a religion of cultural uniformity  …  Bible translation enabled Christianity to break free culturally of its Western domestication to create movements of resurgence that transformed the religion into a world faith”.


Lamin Sanneh is of course not the first person to write about World Christianity. The term had already been in use since 1945, perhaps earlier. And his distinction between World Christianity and Global Christianity is seen by other scholars [including Philip Jenkins, see TaGD 33]  as being contrived and unhelpful. But Sanneh has been influential in moving the subject away from the history of western mission, and focusing rather on the many forms of indigenous response to the gospel. And he has helped us to appreciate the post-colonial context of church growth in Africa, and also the importance of bible translation work.

How might this speak to those who are involved in [what the Church of Scotland calls] Home Mission ? I was very struck by his relating European Christianity to Sir Edward Grey’s ‘lights going out all over Europe’. [Which may not be entirely fair ?] And by Sanneh’s insistence that the gospel has to be communicated in a way that enables the learner to receive it in his or her cultural framework [preconceptions]. In our preaching are we attempting to convert people to to God ? Or simply seeking to replicate in them our own experience of God ? For me those are challenging questions.

January 2021

Through a Glass Darkly – 34

Looking forward, looking back

The words sound familiar. Looking forward, looking back was an enormous hit for the Australian country singer Slim Dusty a couple of decades ago. People queue up on the internet to say that “this was Pop’s favourite record, and we played it at his funeral”. [I’m not sure that Canon John Wilkinson would approve.] We sang it occasionally at the mixed ability choir  Lost and Found,  but that group like many things has been a casualty of the COVID lock-down. The song sounds the right note at the end of one year and the start of another. But I am well aware that I can find it easier to look back rather than forwards. Because there is more of it to look back on ?

Slim Dusty

I have been reading the annual collection of Christmas letters. [Clergy, and retired clergy in particular, are addicted to sending them. There’s nothing wrong with that. I find it exasperating to open a Christmas card that says ‘Best wishes, Sue’ and nothing else. Especially since I know at least five people called Sue.] The consensus among our Christmas correspondents is that 2020 was a bad year. COViD 19 has killed a huge number of people, as governments which might have done better were very slow to respond. As well as the 75,000 or so COVID-related deaths in the UK, the figure is announced on our tv every evening, too many people have lost their jobs, children’s education has been badly affected, and  there is an alarming rise in mental health issues.

Politically it has been a gloomy year. It is increasingly obvious that Blustering Boris presides over a cabinet who are simply not up to the job. Hapless Hancock is clearly out of his depth; he looks like a church treasurer who has been caught stealing from the discretionary fund. Not-so-Priti Patel  is the worst kind of former immigrant turned shrill patriot. With the basic mind-set ‘I’m all right, Jack’. “It affronts and offends me that someone like her can be a senior politician... “, a former Conservative minister is quoted as saying in a New Statesman profile, “She’s jolly, but fundamentally dim, mediocre, insecure and out of her depth in any of the roles she occupies.”  

Dominic Raab takes charge

Dominic Raab “hadn’t quite understood” [his words] that a lot of trade and traffic went through Dover-Calais. Chris Grayling signed cross-channel transport contracts with a company that hadn’t any boats. Gavin Williamson looks and sounds like a middle-ranking salesman of kitchen  equipment who has been accused of sexually harassing his junior colleagues. Robert Jenrick invariably manages to make Michael Gove seem straightforward and honest. Which is quite an achievement ! The saddest story of Christmas was the interview with the small boy who was saving up his pocket money to give to the Tories so that Boris would put him in the House of Lords.

Domestically we have had a very fortunate and healthy year. I took two funerals early in the year, and attended two more, but we do not know anyone who has died of COVID, and only a very small number who have contracted the virus. We had to cancel a return trip to St Marc’s, Grenoble, planned for Easter, and a family holiday in Normandy, planned for the summer half-term. But we are fortunate to have a comfortable house and an attractive garden in what is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. I am working slowly through an accumulation of unread books. And I walk round Arthur’s Seat most days; a walk that has been made more exciting by the arrival of a young otter who has taken up residence in Dunsapie Loch.

Otter, Dunsapie Loch

But I would like to walk further afield,preferably along the John Muir Way in East Lothian. Or possibly on the Fife Coastal Path.  We also managed a week away earlier in the year; going north to Sutherland and the Flow Country, and home via Gairloch. We miss seeing children and grand-children, but speak to them every week or so on Zoom. Which we had not heard of a year ago. And which now enables us to speak to my brothers regularly, and to join in Sunday worship in a variety of services around Europe.

Looking forward

Looking ahead is more speculative. It is a preaching cliché to say that, if you want to amuse God, tell him your plans for the coming year. There were some hopeful signs late in the year just ended. This month should see the removal from the White House of the most narcissistic, the most ignorant, and almost certainly the most corrupt President of modern times. Closer to home a thin BREXIT deal on Christmas Eve must be better than no deal. It seems ironic that Boris, who wouldn’t know a haddock from a halibut, should make such a fuss about fish. Particularly when the BREXIT agreement appears to offer little reassurance for the enormously more valuable financial services sector. There will be months ahead for people to pore over the small print of the agreement. It will be a kick in the teeth for Scottish exporters of seed potatoes. Personally I am sorry to see the end of the Erasmus scheme. The ending of a scheme that enabled university students to spend a term or more in a foreign country, exposed to another language and culture, seems to me to be a cause for regret. And/but I want to believe that now that the BREXIT clock has stopped ticking we may be able to engage in a friendlier and more constructive dialogue with our European neighbours. Too often in recent years English politicians abroad have come across as boorish and ignorant. And wrapped in the Daily Mail. [Think Nigel Farage.] No more welcome than English football supporters, with whom they have much in common.

There is a general consensus that the church has done well during the lock-down. Here on the south side of Edinburgh the local church has worked hard at maintaining some sense of community. And at countering social isolation. Church services on line are a mixed bunch. People miss singing. And not all clergy have understood that sermons over ten minutes are too long. Personally I think that church leaders might have done more to sound a public note of Christian hope. In recent weeks there was much media talk of lock-down policies ‘cancelling Christmas’. But the notion of Christmas that came across was more cultural than religious; the great mid-winter festival of excess and of consumption. I would like to have heard church leaders say that the original Nativity was a fragile story about a young mother and her baby, about life under harsh Roman occupation, and about light in the surrounding darkness. More about blood and mud than M&S vouchers and mince pies. I think I look forward to services being back in church. Simon Jenkins has asked what will happen to the Church of England’s architectural heritage if services stay on line.

On a personal note I look forward to being able to travel a bit. We did locum jobs in Grenoble and in Ankara at the end of 2019, but that was already a year ago. I hope there might be further opportunities for such work when the pandemic recedes. [If any hard-pressed archdeacons are reading this, please take note]. And I would very much like to be able to stay in a hotel by the sea. Something we haven’t done very often.  The last time was at Jem and Anna’s wedding at Angelholm in southern Sweden in 2008. When we stayed in the reception hotel overlooking the beach. [And before that at Tréboul, outside Douarnenez. And, many years ago at Cefalu.]

La Place, Tréboul

As a gesture of good faith [think of Jeremiah buying Hanamet’s field at Anathoth], I have booked four days in Scarborough at the end of February. It won’t be like Paris, which was the alternative destination. And whether we can go or not depends on when we might get vaccinated. But if we do go the room apparently overlooks the North Bay.

And I’d like to go somewhere [anywhere]  we haven’t been before. Two years ago I got a yen to visit Bukhara and Samarkand, which have fascinated me since I first saw the black and white photos in Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches. But I think the moment has passed. Last year I had a great urge to visit Erzurum [shades of Greenmantle]. But I think it is because we were in Ankara at the time, from where it is a mere 27 hour train journey. But from Edinburgh it seems like a very long way. More realistically I think we might look at doing a short tour of the cities of the Baltic, taking in Tallinn and Riga and Helsinki. Once again it depends on our getting vaccinated.


Back at home I still have a few books to read. For some time I’ve been meaning to read a book on the Anarchists by James Joll. And possibly his book on The Second International. And I will get round to reading Max Hastings’s Vietnam.  His books get longer. But do they get any better ? And for a long time I’ve been meaning to read Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon. I bought it when there was thought of our going to Croatia. But the paperback that I have is dauntingly thick. 

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

In a lighter vein I bought four slim books by Gillian Galbraith. She is Scottish, a former lawyer and journalist, the author of a series of books about an Edinburgh [lady] detective called Alice Rice. Hailed as the new Ian Rankin. [I think the Rebus books are greatly over-rated. But I dare not tell my son-in-law, who is an enthusiast and a Fifer.] There are very few new books that I am aware of that I want to read. Apart from Giles Tremlett’s new book The International Brigades: Fascism, Freedom and the Spanish Civil War, which came out in October. But I think I’ll wait for the paperback edition. I already have seven books on the International Brigades on my shelves, and really must look at more of them first. I guess I’ll have to get my International Brigades tee-shirt out and put it on if I want to read them.


This is a terribly self-centred piece at the start of a new year. Come, Lord Jesus was a frequent prayer of the past twelve months. I hope we shall continue to pray regularly in the coming months; first of all giving thanks for God’s many blessings. And continuing to pray for an uncertain world; for people and countries struggling with the pandemic; for doctors and nurses and the National Health Service; for wisdom and vision for church leaders and for politicians. That the decisions they take and the things they say may make things better and not worse. And to pray too for the many countries, Syria and South Sudan come to mind, whose suffering has been largely ignored in the British media as they focus on problems closer to home.

January 2021

Through a glass darkly – 33

Last March, in the very early days of the COVID lock-down [it feels a long time  ago], I read Peter Frankopan’s book on The Silk Road. It is an impressive, wide-ranging book which acted as a corrective to my rather blinkered, Eurocentric version of history. [New readers, if there are any, can consult TaGD -2.] Now I have just been reading what you might think of as an ecclesiastical equivalent, Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity. Sub-titled The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia – and How it Died. For someone like me who thinks that church history is essentially the Roman Catholic Church and then the [necessary] Protestant Reformation, it is an eye-opening read.

Philip Jenkins is Welsh, born in Port Talbot in 1952, a Roman Catholic turned Episcopalian. His first degree was in History at Cambridge, and his early doctoral research was in criminology. But he moved to Pennsylvania State University in 1980, and his research interests switched to global Christianity and to emerging religious movements. Before he left the UK he was the 1979 winner of the BBC’s Mastermind. He is now Professor Emeritus at Penn State, and is Professor of History at Baylor University, a private Christian university at Waco, Texas. He is a prolific author; his twenty-plus books include histories of Wales and of the United States, a book on pedophiles and priests, and a series of books on the changing aspects of global Christianity.

The First Thousand Years of Christianity

Jenkins insists that until the 14th century Christianity was a tri-continental religion, with powerful representation in Asia and Africa as well as in Europe. Much of what today we call the Islamic world was once Christian.  Iraq and Syria were the homes of two great, international churches – the Nestorians and the Jacobites. In the time of the Nestorian patriarch Timothy [c.800 AD] the Church of the East still thought and spoke in Syriac, a language similar to Aramaic.

Nestorian church, Baghdad

It is difficult to grasp the extent of the Church of the East. While in the UK there were/are two metropolitans [Canterbury and York], Timothy presided over 19 metropolitans and some 85 bishops. During his lifetime new metropolitan sees were created in [modern-day] Iran, Syria, Turkestan, Armenia, and on the Caspian Sea. The church operated in multiple languages, but not Latin. In modern terminology, the Eastern churches were thoroughly inculturated. And they enjoyed critical interactions [and good relations] with Islam.

Timothy died in 823 AD. After his death one might have projected a Christian future in which two multi-ethnic churches dominated, one in Constantinople, the other in Baghdad. But this older Christian world perished. In 1050 Asia Minor was predominantly Christian with 375 bishoprics. Four hundred years later, Christians were 10% of the population with just 3 bishops. There was a brutal purge of Christianity in Asia. Christianity did become predominantly European, but only from about 1500; producing “a Europe that was essentially Christian and a Christianity that was essentially European”. Jenkins notes: “De-christianization is one of the least studied aspects of Christian history”. Most African and Asian churches collapsed because of persecution, of pressures placed on them by hostile regimes, mainly Muslim. Around 1300, partly as a consequence of the Mongol invasions, there was a distinct shift to religious intolerance. In some areas, as the church collapsed, there was a remnant of clandestine believers, what Jenkins calls crytpo-Christians.

The Churches of the East

Merv, a dead city in what is now Turkmenistan, was once one of the great centres of Christendom; it had a bishop by the 420s, and was a metropolitan by 544. From the 7th century Merv was under Muslim rule, but the Christians co-existed with Muslims, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians. By the 5th century Christianity had 5 great patriarchs: one, Rome, was in Europe; one, Alexandria, was in Africa; the other three, Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem, were all in Asia. Church festivals such as the Annunciation or the Dormition [Assumption] began in the East, in Syria.

We think of close links between Christianity and the Roman Empire. But the Persian [or Sassanian] Empire was  equally significant. Jerusalem is geographically closer to central Asia than it is to France. Christianity came early to [the lost kingdom of] Osrhoene, to neighbouring Armenia, and to Georgia;  and, in Africa, to Egypt and to Nubia and to Ethiopia. Eastern Christianity had many spiritual  and cultural centres, which remained unchanged between the 6th and 13th centuries. Syriac Christianity found a stronghold in Mesopotamia. By 650 the Church of the East had two metropolitans beyond the Oxus, at Kashgar and at Samarkand. The Nestorian church was established in India, through communities that grew into the Mar Thoma church. And there were missions into China.

Another World

All the eastern churches were strongly liturgical and hierarchical. Their liturgies are some of the oldest Christian liturgies. Monasticism was the highest form of Christian life. Through to the 8th century the Syrian church included stylites. The religious included women as well as men. The Eastern Churches embraced mystical practices that we associate with Gnosticism; theosis was the practice of approaching so close to God as to become divine. Healings and miracles were common.

Aghtamar Monastery, 1923

The Eastern Churches were passionate about learning and scholarship. The primary home of Syriac scholarship was at Nisibis. Which kept much of ancient scholarship alive. By the mid-7th century they were aware of Arabic numerals. These churches had great veneration for the Bible, which they read in their own Semitic languages. The Syriac Bible included the 4 major gospels, but omitted several books retained in the west  [2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude, and Revelation]. They were anxious to integrate the worlds of the Old and New Testaments. In 1287 the Nestorian monk, Bar Sauma, was sent on a mission to Western Europe. His visit was a sensation. Europeans were amazed to learn that the Christian world extended much further [east] than they had ever imagined.

The great tribulation 

The 14th century marks the decisive collapse of Christianity in the Middle East, across Asia, and much of Africa. Jenkins notes that many  books stress the tolerant nature of Islam. Certainly early Muslim regimes were less oppressive than many European Christian states. But the great exception was North Africa, where Christianity disappeared completely soon after the fall of Carthage in 698. Though Egypt remained a majority Christian country for another two centuries.

Ancient empires frequently granted religious minorities considerable freedom. But at the end of the 10th century the Egyptian based caliph Hakim launched an unprecedented persecution of Jews and Christians; and destroyed the Jerusalem church of the Holy Sepulchre. Asia Minor remained Christian throughout the Byzantine era. But things began to change from about 1200. The situation was exacerbated by the Crusades, which led to the creation of short-lived crusader kingdoms in Palestine, the Lebanon, and Syria. The Mongol invasions of the 13th century were initially a threat to Islam; but when later Mongol rulers converted to Islam, around 1290-1330, conditions became very difficult for the Christians in Mesopotamia and Syria. 

In 1304 Turkish forces destroyed Ephesus; large areas Asia Minor were de-christianized. The new Muslim militancy had dreadful consequences for the smaller Christian states on the fringe, Armenia and Georgia, Nubia and Ethiopia. Intolerance was becoming a marked feature around the globe. Climate change, and the coming of the Little Ice Age, caused economic depression and poverty. Europe suffered the Great Famine in 1315-17, and the Black Death in the 1340s. Social unrest led to increased persecution of religious minorities. In the 1360s the war-lord Timur systematically ravaged the ancient cities of the Middle East, and destroyed much of the Nestorian church.

The Last Christians.

Jenkins asserts that the decline of Christianity in the Middle East occurred in two distinct phases. First, the the Middle Ages, as Christians lost their majority status in what then became Muslim-majority countries. And second, in the last hundred years, when Christians have virtually ceased to exist across the Middle East, at least as organised communities.

The Ottoman Turks took over what had been the [Christian] Byzantine Empire. From the 15th century to the 19th century the Ottomans did much to underline the Orthodox Church in the Balkans. Meanwhile the Eastern churches were also under threat from a newly assertive Western Christianity. As Spain and Portugal built their empires from about 1550, the Roman Catholic church was dismissive of the Egyptian Copts and the long-isolated church of Ethiopia. They also sought to absorb [or to take over] the ancient Syriac churches of South India. 

Muslim forces attacked Assyrian and Nestorian Christians recurrently between 1843 and 1847; and again in the 1890s. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the nationalist Turkish state led to the Armenian genocide that began in 1915. The subsequent war between Greece and Turkey led to wholesale population exchange and to ethnic cleansing. Asia Minor, as the state of Turkey, now became a self-consciously Muslim land, cleansed of Armenians and Greeks. [See TaGD – 30 for more details.]

I had never realised that the creation of the Lebanon [proclaimed in 1943 out of the former French protectorate] was an attempt to create a safe Christian  reservation. But the Christian population is shrinking. The Assyrians hoped to form a distinct Christian state, but were lumped into the Muslim-majority Iraq, where the Christian population has now shrunk to perhaps 1%. Leaders of the Palestinian guerrilla movements in the 1970s were predominantly Christians. But the leading forces [Hamas] are now Islamist.

Ghosts of a Faith

Jenkins believes that when religions die they leave remnants which are incorporated into new cultures. And that, even when Christian communities are destroyed, they leave a clandestine presence. He points, for example, to the existence of crypto-Christian communities in the Balkans, which survived under Islam.And to the way in which the architecture of mosques is heavy influenced by Byzantine churches of the 7th and 8th centuries. [Think of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia.]

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

He also suggests that Islam appropriated many Christian religious texts, particularly  from the apocryphal books that were in circulation in the Eastern churches. And he gives some credence to the [controversial] views of the German scholar Christoph Luxenberg that the Koran was in origin a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book. Some minority Muslim sects, such as the Alawites in Syria, have an attachment to Jesus and doctrines close to the Christian church.

How faiths die

History tells us that faiths are resilient and hard to eradicate. But, as the book emphasises, it is also  true that faiths can disappear from regions which they once dominated. Jenkins surveys a number of contributory factors. State protection was critical. By the 16th century the great majority of Christians lived in Christian states; and most of these were in Europe. But demography is also a significant factor. Higher education and access to contraception means that Christian communities [in the Middle East] have much lower birth rates than their Muslim neighbours. Migration is also significant. In Asia Minor Islam grew after 1200 because of the influx of Turkish immigrants.

And language was important for religious transition. The rise of Islam saw the eclipse of Syriac, Greek, and Coptic; and the growing importance of Arabic. Peter Brown writes: “Ultimately it was the victory of Arabic which opened the door to Islamization”. By the 11th century both Syriac and Coptic were declining as major languages.

Endings and Beginnings

The total eclipse of the church in North Africa remains a major setback. Latin Christian traditions developed in Carthage rather than Rome; Africa was the home of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. But within 50 years of the Arab conquest in 698, North African Christianity was in severe decline. And by the 12th century it had disappeared. Interestingly Jenkins suggests that the church had failed to evangelise in local languages. “Christianity remained a colonists’ religion.” By contrast, in Egypt the Coptic church did reach the natives by using the native Coptic language.

Eastern Christianity was founded on a hierarchy of metropolitans and bishops based in cities;  it was an urban, elitist religion. But cities like Antioch and Carthage shrank to nothing; while Damascus and Alexandria lost influence. In Asia Minor fighting destroyed the urban culture. Geography favoured the Coptic church: Egypt escaped much of the invasion and conflict of Mesopotamia and Asia Minor; being protected by the land bottleneck between Palestine and Egypt, between Asia and Africa. Minority faiths flourished only on the fringes and in the mountains. The kingdoms of Armenia and Georgia survived in the Caucasus. Mountainous Lebanon was a home to Maronite Christians. Mesopotamian Christians survived only in the hill regions of Kurdistan.

Maronite church, Chouf

Some people see the disappearance of the great eastern churches as God’s judgement on heresy [by Western, Catholic standards]. More positively, Jenkins asks: “Do churches die ? Or does something positive arise from their ruins ?” He wants us to try and see the global picture. At the same time as [Islamic] Turkish power was reaching its peak in the traditional Christian lands of the Middle East, so the seafaring Christian powers were bringing their faith to the New World and to the Pacific. At exactly the time in 1915-25 when powers in the Middle East were extinguishing the Christian remnants, so then Christianity began its epochal growth [revival] in black Africa, “arguably the most important event in Christian history since the Reformation”. If we believe that God speaks to us through history, then we need to rediscover some of these lost Christian memories.


I am aware of churches in Edinburgh that have died. And others that may only survive for another decade or so. Are there then lessons here for the churches in the West ? I think that Jenkins addresses this question more directly in his later book Europe: God’s Own Continent. My recollection is that the book is rather better than the rather naff title. But I lent my copy to a member of our home group over a year ago. If and when I get it back, I’ll have another look at it.

December 2020

Through a glass darkly – 32


I am an awful wimp about heights. I used to think it was a severe case of vertigo. But now I think it is probably acrophobia; a state of great anxiety on tall buildings, mountain roads, cliffs and big bridges. A Christian psychotherapist once told me it was almost certainly related to child abuse. But whether as a victim or a perpetrator he was unwilling to say. As a child I baulked at going up the Monument in London; and as a teenager I wouldn’t go up St Stephen’s Tower [Big Ben] at the Houses of Parliament. I have never wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower. As for mountain roads, when I was much younger I hitched over the Simplon Pass. But two decades ago I had to have my hands prised off the wheel after driving from Bourg-en-Bresse to Geneva, with its longish elevated motorway section. And more recently on the bus from Interlaken Station up to Beatenberg, and again on the coach from Grand Junction up to Silverton, Colorado, I have had to travel with a covering over my head like an over-stimulated parrot.

So it is odd that I quite enjoy looking at mountains. From a safe distance. And perhaps more odd that I quite enjoy reading books by mountaineers and looking at the illustrations. Even when they make my toes curl. As in other areas of life, my choice of reading seems to be out of date. A bit retro. Several years ago I bought, and read, a second-hand copy of Eric Shipton’s  classic, 1969 autobiography That Untravelled World. Which I have again been looking through on wet December afternoons.

Eric Shipton

Shipton was an interesting character. He was born in Ceylon in 1907; his father died when he was just three, and his mother’s remarriage was short-lived when his step-father died in the First World War.  His mother was restless, and as a small child he moved around a lot between Ceylon, India, England, and France; guarding for the rest of his life valued memories of cross-Channel boats and Continental sleeper trains. He was sent at the age of eight to an English prep school of the era; corporal punishment was the norm, and from her bed the headmaster’s wife interrogated the boys daily on their bowel movements. After failing his Common Entrance Shipton was sent to Pyt House, an eccentric, minor public school in south Wiltshire. [Evelyn Waugh taught at the school a few years later when it had moved to Aston Clinton.] At school Shipton was dyslexic [would that disqualify you for Harrow ?], and excelled only in tree-climbing.

Eric Shipton

In later life Shipton considered that the two luckiest influences that shaped his life were, first, being a complete failure at school, which precluded the choice of a professional career in England; and secondly the Great Slump of the 1920s which ruined his prospects as a farmer in Kenya. In his teens Shipton had developed a lasting love of mountains: he spent a hiking holiday in the Jotunheimen with a Norwegian school friend; did his first guided climbs in Switzerland in 1924; and then embarked on two weeks intensive climbing with the French guide Elie Richard in the Dauphiné. It was his last visit to the Alps for three decades. In 1928 he arrived in Kenya to work as an apprentice on a coffee farm a hundred miles north of Nairobi. From his bungalow window Shipton looked out at the twin volcanic peaks of Mount Kenya. The mountain was first seen by a European in 1849. But it was first climbed only in 1899, by Halford Mackuinder, the only known ascent..

[Major] HW Tilman

After the First World War ex-soldiers were offered [free] plots of land in what was then British East Africa. One of the settlers was HW Tilman, who had drawn a plot 7,000 feet up close to the equator, and forty miles east of Lake Victoria. Tilman was from Wallasey, the son of a prosperous sugar merchant. He had been an outstanding pupil at Berkhamsted school, and might under other circumstances have progressed to Oxbridge. Instead he became, aged 16, a cadet at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich; was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery; and sailed aged not quite 18 for the Western Front. Like many who fought in that war he never spoke of his experiences. When the war ended he was not quite 21, had won an MC and Bar for ‘acts of exceptional gallantry’; and exhibited the shame and guilt of those who had survived when too many friends had died in the mud-filled trenches.

Bill Tilman

In Kenya, as it was now known, Tilman cleared land, built mud-brick houses, put acres under flax and then coffee, and built bridges made of timber baulks lashed together with war-surplus barbed wire. In 1924 he returned home for his brother’s funeral, and spent an enjoyable day climbing in the Lake District. One day at the end of the 1920s Tilman wrote to Shipton whose name he had seen in The East Africa Standard [Dear Shipton … … Yours sincerely, HW Tilman] to ask for some advice about how to go about climbing in Kenya.

Shipton and Tilman

Mount Kenya

After that initial letter Shipton and Tilman joined forces to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, but really little more than a “somewhat gruelling walk”; to make the first traverse of the twin peaks of Mount Kenya, described by Shipton as :”probably the hardest climb I have ever done”; and then in January 1932, on their last African expedition, to climb the highest peaks of Ruwenzori, the mysterious range of mountains above the headwaters of the White Nile, on the borders of Uganda and the Congo.  But this was only the beginning of their shared exploits.

Tilman and Shipton

I have been reading Shipton and Tilman: The Great Decade of Himalayan Exploration by Jim Perrin, a climber, journalist, and mountain historian. It is essentially a joint biography of the two men, but the focus is on their travels together in the 1930s. Shipton is associated in particular with the Himalayas. He had made a first ascent of Kamet in 1931, then the highest mountain ever climbed, in an expedition led by Frank Smythe [another product of Berkhamsted school]. Shipton forged a warm friendship with Smythe, who then invited him to join the Everest expedition of 1933. The expedition ended in failure, turning back in some disarray because of bad weather. The younger climbers were critical of the old guard leadership. Shipton and others took the opportunity to indulge in some local exploration. Meanwhile Tilman had abandoned farming in Africa; bought himself a £6.00 bicycle and set off to cycle home to the UK from Uganda across the Belgian Congo, French Equatorial Africa, and French Cameroon. His map was torn from the back of a magazine. His diet was exclusively eggs, often bad, and coarse baking bananas. 

A decade of exploration

Shipton was persuaded by Tom Longstaff, a choleric, red-haired doctor-turned-mountain explorer, to turn his attention to the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. In 1934 this was the fascinating challenge of the Himalayan region; a precipice-ringed valley which no European traveller had ever entered. Where all previous Everest expeditions had travelled with literally hundreds of porters, bearing Fortnum and Mason’s Stilton and  tinned tongue and quails in aspic, Shipton, influenced again by Tom Longstaff,  envisaged a more Spartan approach, dispensing with elaborate equipment and living largely off local produce. He believed that travelling light would make it easier to make contact with the local people. Tilman, now at a loose end in Wallasey, was an enthusiastic recruit for such an approach. Though his suggestion of bicycling to India was swiftly dismissed. The budget for their five months in India, accompanied by three Sherpas, turned out to be £140.00 each, including their fares out and back on a cargo vessel.

Rishi Ganga gorge

There is a detailed account of the 1934 expedition in Shipton’s Nanda Devi [published in 1936]. [For someone who was dyslexic he wrote six mountain travel books, many of which are still in print, and some forty-odd articles, mainly for the Alpine Journal.] Penetrating the Nanda Devi Sanctuary was a major struggle. The only access was through the Rishi Ganga valley; it was not the paradise they imagined, but a steep-sided gorge covered in dense bamboo forest where they progressed at the rate of a mile a day. After almost five months their boots were ragged and funds were running low. They lived and ate with the Sherpas as equals. “With these allies we hope one day to reach the summit of Mount Everest”, Shipton wrote; “without them we would have little chance of doing so”. The two Europeans continued to address each other as ‘Tilman’ and ‘Shipton’. After seven months almost continuously together “when I suggested it was time he called me ‘Eric’, he became acutely embarrassed, hung his head, and muttered ‘it sounds so damned silly’”. 

The Nanda Devi adventure certainly made their name in explorers’ circles. When permission was unexpectedly granted for an exploratory Everest expedition in 1935, Shipton’s name went forwards as leader. Tilman reluctantly joined a team of six climbers. “I suspected that the root of his objection”, wrote Shipton, “was that, while he had been forced to accept my company, the prospect of having five companions was scarcely tolerable”. The expedition achieved little on Everest because of the snow conditions, but they enjoyed themselves exploring little-known peaks to the north-east of the mountain, and reached some twenty-six summits.

For the full-blown 1936 Everest expedition Tilman was discarded because of his [supposed] low altitude ceiling. He went instead back to Nanda Devi, where he and Noel Odell [also left out of the Everest team on the grounds of age] became the first pair to reach the summit. It was the finest achievement yet in the Himalayas. In his book, The Ascent of Nanda Devi, Tilman writes, after describing the view, “I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it”. On Everest Frank Smythe and Shipton were designated as the first summit pair, but an early monsoon and heavy snow caused the attempt to be abandoned.In a letter to a new lady friend, Pamela Preston, Shipton wished that he had been with Tilman and Odell “instead of wasting my time on this Everest business”.

In 1937 Shipton and Tillman made the second of their epic exploratory expeditions; to the Shaksgam River valley on the north side of the Karakoram range. To add credibility and expertise to the expedition they were joined by Michael Spender, an abrasive surveyor who had already been on Everest, and John Auden, a geologist from the Geological Survey of India. Both incidentally were the brothers of famous poets. The party had to be self-sufficient for four months and they rationed their food meticulously. They earnestly debated whether to take a knife each or one between two. Tilman argued that plates were unnecessary as everything could be eaten out of a mug. But it was agreed that eating curry and drinking tea at the same time demanded two receptacles. In the course of a gruelling four-month trip the party climbed few peaks, but they did much to disentangle the geography of a hitherto unknown region, accurately mapping the glaciers and high passes of an area that had previously been Blank on the Map, the title of Shipton’s 1938 book.

Karakoram range

The final pre-war Everest expedition took place in 1938. This time Tilman was the designated leader, which ensured that there was Spartan provisioning. Tilman chose a team of seven, a lot for a man who described an expedition as “a party with too many people in it”.  Frank Smythe and Peter Oliver complained continuously about the food. After a promising start, an early monsoon and exceptionally heavy  snow defeated the expedition. “A vile waste of time” was Shipton’s verdict.

The following decades

Summer 1938 was the end of their explorations together. When the Second World War broke out, Shipton was in the wilderness of the Karakoram. He joined the Indian Army, and started without enthusiasm at Officers Training School in Southern India. In 1940 he was offered the post of HM Consul-General in Kashgar, in Sinkiang. There were subsequent postings to Persia, and to Vienna, a return to Kashgar, and then a posting to Kunming in southern China. It is not clear to what extent he may have been a player in the Great Game [that is, a spy]. 

By the 1950s Shipton was the most experienced Everest climber alive, and the obvious candidate to lead a British attempt on Everest, which some Britons thought as ‘their mountain’. On his return from China he led an expedition in 1951 to explore Mount Everest from the south, now that Nepal had opened up. The team included, at the last moment, the hitherto unknown New Zealand climber, Edmund Hillary. And he also led a training expedition to nearby Cho Oyu in 1952. But not everyone was convinced by Shipton’s leadership; there was a suspicion that he showed ‘inadequate drive’, that he might not be ‘hungry enough’ for a summit bid that was a matter of ‘national prestige’. In a manoeuvre that is still controversial Shipton was stabbed in the back, and was replaced by the military man, Colonel John Hunt, who was thought to be ‘more of a thruster’. After which he became Warden of the Outward Bound Mountain School in Eskdale, in the Lake District. The job was abruptly terminated when his marriage broken down, after which he was housed by a succession of lady friends. In the late 1950s and the 1960s Shipton made a series of gruelling expeditions to the Patagonian Ice Cap. Which are characterised by Peter Steele, his biographer, as “essays in masochism”. In the final decade of his life he became a celebrity guide and lecturer. He died peacefully in 1977, aged 70, and his ashes were scattered on the Fonthill Lakes.

Tilman rejoined the British Army when war broke out, was evacuated from Dunkirk, was promoted to major [a rank at which he conspired to remain], and led a ‘Jock column’ in North Africa. Finding the Western Desert too quiet for his liking, he volunteered for parachute training and fought with SOE with the partisans in Albania and later in Italy. After the war he turned to Himalayan and Central Asian climbing, which included an under-prepared, and unsuccessful, attempt with Shipton on Muzagh Ata in the remote Kun Lun mountains. For two years he was British Consul at  Maymyo in the Shan Highlands of Central Burma, but his contract was not renewed. In 1953 he came home to Wales, and bought a small boat. For most of the following two decades he roamed the seas in a series of cutters, invariably living off frugal rations. On one occasion s younger crew mutinied at the lack of provisions. He was lost at sea in November 1977, in circumstances that are not entirely  clear, somewhere between Rio and Port Stanley. He outlived Shipton by six months.


They were in some ways an improbable couple. They were both happiest when breaking new ground in remote mountains; both happy to travel light and live off the land. They were both frugal. Their travels earned them recognition from fellow travellers and from the Royal Geographical Society. Tilman was shy and self-effacing; allegedly a misogynist; and taciturn in the extreme. Shipton though introverted was quite gregarious, enjoyed dancing, and had a complicated love life. Women fell for his blue eyes. And he fell for a succession of women, remaining friendly with them when the passion was over. It is not clear that this was a conventional friendship. But they had a quirky, humorous relationship which survived their extended travels together. As Jim Perrin concludes, “this was the greatest exploring partnership in British history”.

December 2020