Through a glass darkly – 75

Family matters

We went south for Peter’s funeral. Lucky to find a train given the growing chaos on Scotrail. which has just substantially reduced train numbers because of the shortage of drivers and threatened industrial action. We stayed with Jem and Anna in Watlington, the first time that we have seen them since they moved into their brand new house

Watlington is an attractive market town, a bit south of the M40, close to the Chilterns and to the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. It is often said to be the smallest town in England. But the historical records go back to the 8th century, and the town features as Watelintone in the Domesday Book of 1086. It was once distinguished for a large number of inns, owned by a local brewing family; but in the 19th century a wealthy Methodist bought six of them and promptly closed them down. In their place there is a flourishing artisan bakery and a well-stocked delicatessen and cafe. Watlington is also the red kite centre of southern England. A small group of Swedish and Welsh kites were introduced in 1989, and there are now said to be over 150 breeding pairs.

On the Ridgeway

From Watlington there is easy access to the Ridgeway, an ancient track, part of the longer Icknield Way. The Ridgeway, which is sometimes described as Britain’s oldest road, runs for 100 or more miles across the chalk uplands of Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, and Buckinghamshire. On the Friday I walked down the Ridgeway to St Botolph’s church at Swynbrooke, a 1000-year-old church connected to St Botolph, a 7th century Benedictine monk and missionary. The church building dates from the late 11th century, but was extensively restored in the 19th century. The stained glass windows show links to the Benedictine abbey at Bec in Normandy. I met two cyclists in the churchyard, but otherwise the church showed little sign of visitors.

St Botolph’s church, Swynbrooke

On the Saturday I walked, again partly on the Ridgeway, to Ewelme, to meet up with the family for lunch [excellent] at The Shepherd and Hut. It was a very hot day [it seems to be generally warmer down south], and we  had to move from the garden to a table inside.

Pub lunch at Ewelme

Disgracefully I had got lost when my footpath disappeared close to Ewelme, and I ended up walking in a circle on field edges and had to hitch a lift from a passing farmer in a battered Land Rover.  I re-met the farmer, Mr Mearns, the following day, when we went to an evening Rogation service in the adjacent village of Britwell Salome. The service was held in his large barn behind the farm shop. About 70 people sat on hay bales, facing an array of tractors, and were joined by a cow and calf, a noisy cockerel and clutch of hens, an enclosure of piglets, another enclosure of young lambs, and another of adult sheep.  This is Vicar of Dibley country, and the service might well have featured in that series. I thought it was great; earthed, engaging, and quite short. And followed by excellent sausages and home-made cup cakes. All of which would encourage Oskar to go to church on a regular basis.

Rogation service, Berrick Salome

Jem drove us up to Sun Rising burial ground, between Banbury and Stratford, on the Monday. It was a dry, clear morning for Peter’s funeral. About 30 of us stood around the grave for the [humanist by choice] interment, but with a reading from Ecclesiasticus and a prayer of John Henry Newman. The pall-bearers were dressed in pink and lime green, mates from recent golf tours abroad. .And a lark sang overhead. Afterwards there were about 150 people at Compton Verney arts centre for a buffet lunch and ‘Celebration’. Dave, the humanist celebrant and MC, spoke well in his Eulogy, and other poems and memories followed. It was a colourful occasion with a lot of laughter.

Sun Rising burial ground

Susie and I trained back to Edinburgh after a couple of days in my other brother’s very comfortable house in Birmingham. When we got home we watched a programme on the tele about two people who had no known family or living relatives; one a woman in her late 70s who is the daughter of an unknown GI; the other a Jewish man of a similar age who had survived an early childhood in a Nazi concentration camp. The programme took DNA samples from them, and was able  to introduce both the people to cousins and family whom they never knew existed. We are fortunate to be part of a loving family network. Which is too easy to take for granted. And we are going away with the children and grand-children again next week, on a twice-postponed family holiday in Normandy. Of which more anon.

May 2022

Through a glass darkly – 74

A gloomy few months

As I’ve already indicated it has been quite a gloomy few months.  The news from Ukraine continues to be depressing; an unknown number of civilians including children are still trapped in bunkers beneath the giant steelworks, and the Russians seem unwilling to abide by the promised cease-fire and the humanitarian corridors. Closer to home there is a huge looming financial crisis. For families, I mean, not for energy companies. Shell have posted an unprecedented three-month profit for the last quarter of some £7 billion. Meanwhile our monthly energy bill threatens to rise to the level of mortgage repayments on a small house. Government policy seems to amount to no more than purchasing a small hotel in Rwanda and, thanks to George ‘Useless’ Eustice, advice on how to economise by buying own-brand baked beans at the supermarket.  In a generous gesture [forced on her by her husband’s colleagues] the Chancellors’s wife is now to pay UK tax on her significant overseas and investment income. But not to pay it retrospectively. No wonder that Blustering Boris looks like a decorative candle left on a radiator overnight. This morning there are rumours that a person in Scotland voted Conservative in yesterday’s elections. But that rumour is not yet substantiated.

Escaping the gloom

Personally I have retreated from the gloomy news by painting our very handsome new shed with Cuprinol. For the first coat I used a ageing, square tin [jerry-can] of Cuprinol which I found in the garage. Sadly I failed to ‘Shake well before use’. So the first coat began as akin to transparent nail polish, but at the bottom of the tin it morphed into something like old mushroom soup.  A second coat of nut brown has restored some kind of equilibrium.

Susie and the new shed

After a lengthy exposure to the grim history of twentieth century Ukraine [see TaGD, passim], I turned back to the pleasure of Donna Leon. Beastly Affairs, is the 21st [I think] of her Brunetti books. A dead man is found in a canal with no identification. He has Madelung’s disease. a rare disorder of fat metabolism. And is identified as a vet from the mainland. The trail takes Brunetti and his colleague Vianello to Mestre, to an uncomfortable encounter with the widow and her small son. And then on a nightmare visit to a slaughter-house, all blood and guts and sadism, described in uncomfortable detail. As ever with Leon’s books it is a story of private greed and institutional corruption. Which she takes as normative in the Italy which Brunetti inhabits. The final chapter, in which Brunetti and Vianello attend a funeral mass for the dead vet, and are  distracted by a variety of unusual and unexpected noises is an engaging and whimsical event. Very unusual for Leon.


Her books give a pleasure for a mix of reasons. Yes, there is the Venice backdrop. But more important is the depth of Brunetti’s relationships: with the solid Vianello, now a vegetarian and ecologist; with the striking Signorina Elettra, flower lover and computer sleuth, brilliantly able to seek out a lot of supposedly secret information; with Elettra’s boss, Vice-Questore Guiseppe Patta; and with his wife Paola, daughter of a noble Venetian family, university teacher, and passionate admirer of Henry James. I wonder how much Paola is based on Donna Leon herself, who has lived and taught in Venice for some thirty years.

Keeping Mum

Scanning The Times one Saturday, I came across an obituary for Brian Thompson, a writer of whom I had never heard, with high praise for his book Keeping Mum: A wartime childhood, published in 2006.I found a copy in the central library on George IV Bridge. [Along with Patrick Marnham’s War in the Shadows, of which more another time.]

Brian Thompson: Keeping Mum

Thompson grew up on the outskirts of Cambridge during the Second World War. He was the first child of a loveless [dysfunctional] marriage. His dad, Bert, was a Post Office engineer [linesman], from a poor London background, but determined to get on in the world. Which he does in 1940 by volunteering for RAF aircrew. As he explains to his young son:

I realised he was giving me his Clark Gable. My mother [a rather crazed Vivien Leigh] joined us with two flowered tea cups. There was much more of this suppressed danger in the adult conversation that followed. I utterly failed to register the importance of what was being said and wandered away … … Soon , what had been promised arrived. The shouting began and there was the sound of breaking crockery.”

With his father gone, the radio is turned to dance music, tea is sweetened with jam, and his mum sleeps in her fake fur coat. And takes up with Yanks from the base. Thompson is farmed out to aunt Elsie in New Malden, whose house has an Anderson shelter erected indoors. They spend the nights there with a bottle of tap water, and the family Bible, and a first aid kit in a pink biscuit tin. A flying bomb, a V1 rocket, lands uncomfortably close, and they are dug out the following morning by the emergency services. “The house had been cut in half as if by a bread knife.”  Thompson returns to the house in Cambridge, now smelling of Lucky Strike tobacco and a cheap perfume called Blue Moon. He helps to draw seams down the back of his mum’s legs with an eyebrow pencil. “She was probably at her happiest in the three or four brief years the Yanks chased after her. She loved dancing, wore clothes with a wild, untutored flair, and milked the men she met unmercifully for love and romance. Her sense of her own worth was non-existent.

Cambridge in the 1940s

Away from Cambridge the boy visits his father’s parents; Jockie and Queenie Thompson who live in a tiny house crammed with bicycle gear in Lambeth Walk. Laid out in empty tobacco tins are odd nuts and bolts that his grandfather had scavenged from the gutters of Lambeth Bridge Road. Jockie had served in a cycle battalion in the Great War, and sang the songs of that war still “in a voice like a choking dog.” He has an occasional job bundling up copies of the Evening Standard. From which he is wont to return ‘a bit aeriated’.

Thompson acquires a bicycle and is offered a place at the County High School for Boys.

I consulted Gloria Wilkes, the girl who considered me common.  She gave the grammar school the thumbs up, since it was her uncle’s old alma mater and Uncle Richard, as she called him, had gone on to be an assistant harbour-master in Dover. Gloria was aiming higher: she was going to be a doctor when she grew up.”

He goes to the grammar school, discovers books, joins the library. He and Gloria hang out in the evenings, swapping notes about school, leaning on their handle-bars. His education progresses in other ways when Gloria invites him into her father’s shed one Saturday morning. She tells him how her grandfather was killed falling out of a car in Snowdonia. The romance does not last. “Thank you for coming to see me on Saturday. I learnt a lot about you. Yours sincerely, Gloria Wilkes.

What might have been a ‘misery memoir’ is rescued by Thompson’s humorous depiction of his younger self. And by a series of set-piece comic moments. Such as his school dance:

A five-piece band was hired, of elderly men in claret blazers, their hair pasted down with Brylcream … … The pianist was at least my grandfather Jockie’s age.  The quicksteps were poorly supported but there was much pleasure in watching the staff arise en masse for the waltz and the foxtrot. This was the first school dance since the winter of 1940 … … As [the Headmaster] spoke, the swing doors opened silently behind him, and my mother slipped into the hall, her hair pinned up, wearing a button-through floral dress. On her feet were the famous Cuban cork sandals. With the genius of the deaf, she had caught the mood of the moment and was smiling demurely. As the headmaster finished with a command to the band to let rip, he glanced round, saw her standing there, and walked towards her with both hands extended …” A triumph for them both.

The first ever family holiday, in a boarding house in Clacton, with his father in knee-length khaki shorts and a copy of the Daily Telegraph under his arm, is a major disaster. “Have you come far ?,” the Good Samaritan asked me. ‘From Paris’. “Lucky chap. And what did you like about it best ?” ‘The Eiffel Tower’ … …’ The man patted my shoulder and lit a Gold Flake.”

Thompson gropes a beefy backstreet girl, Sonia, behind the garden shed. He plays rugby for the school against other local schools, including the feared Bedford Modern. He is beaten by the headmaster for mistreating a young probationer science teacher known as Voodoo Lil. Forming a school jazz club widens his horizons. Mahalia Jackson is booked to appear at the No. 3 touring theatre in Cambridge. When the curtain goes up, the audience comprises seven schoolboys, and she bursts into tears. She is persuaded to sing one song. “Hop it, boys”, says the stage manager.

Thompson’s screen heroes are Robert Mitchum and, supremely, Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High. “Are you American ?’, asks a woman outside the cinema, “staring at my newly purchased zoot suit and a haircut that was known to the barbers as a duck’s arse.” He looks carefully in the mirror at his Cecil Gee suit. “This was a suit made for homicide on the sidewalk . … … In Cambridge, modelled by some skinny kid who had yet to shave, its magic was diluted.”

Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High

Suddenly O levels are on the horizon. He falls for a girl with grey eyes called Figgie who barges into him in Boots, and he takes her to Joe Lyons. Figgie likes Al Martino and worships Gregory Peck. Together they have an almost adult night out, down in the West End, at South Pacific.

When the exams are over he sets off by bike with Teeth Harris, planning to take the ferry to Calais and to cycle down to Paris. Their first day in France is severely curtailed by an encounter with four drunk Swedish sailors. After which they wobble onwards to camp in a potato field, pausing only to buy two bottle of peach brandy “which we supposed to be the drink of Parisian sophisticates”. They never get to Paris, defeated by cobbled roads and cheap alcohol. 

The lowest point of the trip came when we wandered through a stand of pines by the coast and found a sandy hollow to our liking. It was night and we pitched the tents at least to the extent of inserting the poles and spreading out the stained cotton. In the morning we were woken by three polite Frenchmen who pointed out that we were in a fairway bunker of the very prestigious Le Touquet golf course. One of the player’s balls was trapped under our bikes.”

Le Touquet golf course

Read it if you can find a second-hand copy. I’m now looking out for the sequel which is called Clever Girl. It’s certainly more fun than watching the tv news or reading about blustering Boris.

May 2022

Through a glass darkly – 73

My younger brother died on Tuesday evening. Peacefully in a hospice some two miles from their home in Leamington Spa. In the middle of the twentieth century about 14 million people were killed in Eastern Europe; today’s Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia. I guess it may be a preaching cliché to say that one death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.

Peter, in Montmartre, 1975

When we were in Kyiv at Christmas [it starts to seem a long time ago], a friend in Lyon said that I ought to read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. I have just finished reading it, and it is one of the gloomiest books that  have read for a long time.

Timothy Snyder is an American writer and historian, born in 1969 in Dayton, Ohio He did a doctorate at Oxford, subsequently held fellowships in Paris and in Vienna, and is now Professor of History at Yale. He is said to speak five languages and to read ten, and he specialises in the history of Eastern Europe. His best-known book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, was published in 2010. Reviews rated from the rapturous – “An original, wonderful, and horrifying book … … this beautifully written and superbly researched work is undoubtedly one of the most important to emerge for a long time”, wrote Antony Beevor,  to the highly critical. One Holocaust scholar, Andrew Ezergailis, thought the title was eye-catching and the writing good, but maintained “it is not a book of high scholarship”.

Snyder’s ‘Bloodlands’ extended from central Poland to western Russia, embracing Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. During the consolidation of National Socialism and Stalinism [1933-1938], the joint German-Russian occupation of Poland [1939-41], and the German-Soviet War [1941-45], mass violence was visited on this region on an unprecedented scale. Snyder calculates that the Nazi and Soviet regimes together murdered some 14 million people. The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts. The majority of them were the victims of murderous policy rather than casualties of war. The majority of them were women and children, and the elderly; none were bearing weapons, and many of them were stripped of all their possessions, including their clothes. The worst of the killing began when Hitler betrayed Stalin, and the German forces invaded the recently enlarged Soviet Union in June 1941.

Snyder acknowledges that the sheer scale of the killings can blunt our response. Compassion fatigue. “I’d like to call you all by name”, wrote the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in her Requiem, “but the list has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.” Snyder’s book looks at the Nazi and Soviet regimes that perpetrated the atrocities; it describes the ideologies and the plans, and the systems employed, for killing on an industrial scale. At the same time, by calling as witnesses some of the survivors, such as Anna Akhmatova and Hannah Arendt and Günter Grass and Vasily Grossman,  it seeks to give a voice to the victims and their families.

Hitler and Stalin

In the early 1930s both the Soviet and Nazi governments seemed to offer a response to the world economic collapse; a more dynamic vision than liberal democracies who seemed unable to rescue people from poverty. The Nazis proposed to address Germany’s shortage of foodstuffs by exporting its farmers to a new eastern empire, by taking agricultural land from Polish and Soviet peasants. Stalin’s first Five Year Plan was based on the expansion of heavy industry, which in turn depended on collectivised agriculture. The policy was a disaster, especially for the Soviet Ukraine. Famine was widespread; a boy born in 1933 had a life expectancy of seven years. Rafal Lemkin, the international lawyer, called the Ukrainian action “the classic example of Soviet genocide”.

Stalin’s second revolution in the Soviet Union, collectivisation and the subsequent famine, was overshadowed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Both Stalin and Hitler worked to build one-party states with a powerful police apparatus capable of massive violence. Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia declared war on internal enemies. For the Nazis this meant the Jews, and also “asocial elements”, homosexuals, vagrants, alcoholics and drug addicts, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The repression of these undesirable groups led to the creation of a network of concentration camps. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Stalin and Yezhov embarked on the physical liquidation [shooting] of the entire ‘counter-revolution’,  prominently the kulaks and Ukrainian nationalists.

People belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs”. This is not an SS officer speaking, but a communist party leader in the spirit of Stalin’s Great Terror. Stalin was a pioneer of national mass murder and Poles were the leading victims among the Soviet nationalities. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union found common ground in their shared desire to destroy Poland. In the twenty-one months that followed the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, the Germans and the Soviets would kill Polish civilians in roughly equal numbers as the two allies each sought to master its half of occupied Poland.

Things in eastern Europe got even worse in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. Some ten million soldiers died fighting on the eastern front. And during this war Snyder estimates that the Germans killed another ten million civilians, including five million Jews and three million prisoners of war. The German prisoner-of-war camps in the East were deadlier than the German concentration camps. Ivan Shulinskyi, a Ukrainian prisoner, the son of a deported kulak, kept himself alive in German captivity by singing a Ukrainian song:

If I only had wings,

I would lift myself to the sky

To the clouds

Where there is no pain and no punishment.”

As many Soviet prisoners of war died on a single day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners over the course of the entire Second World War.

Belarus was the centre of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Its cities were battlefields for advancing and retreating armies; its towns contained Jewish settlements destroyed in the Holocaust. Minsk was a centrepiece of Nazi destructiveness. German policy in occupied Minsk was one of savage and unpredictable terror. The Nazis planned to level Minsk to the ground and to replace it with a new city, Asgard, named after the mythical home of the Norse gods. But Jewish resistance in Minsk and in Belarus was stronger than elsewhere in Europe, and young people were caught in a deadly confrontation between German forces and Soviet partisans.

The centre of urban resistance to Nazi rule in occupied Europe was in Warsaw. Both Poles and Jews led uprisings against Nazi rule, separately and together, in April 1943 and August 1944. The Warsaw Uprising of August 1944 was planned as part of Operation Tempest, a national uprising that would give Poles a prominent place in the liberation of pre-war Polish territory. Neither the British nor the Americans were in a position to offer any meaningful support. Stalin appeared to encourage the uprising, but then declined to provide any Soviet assistance, as the Red Army halted operations at the Vistula. Both George Orwell and Arthur Koestler protested: Orwell wrote of the “dishonesty and cowardice” of the Allies who refused to become involved; and Koestler called Stalin’s inaction “one of the great infamies of the war”. No other European capital suffered as Warsaw did: the city was destroyed physically and lost perhaps half of its population. Churchill seemingly did ask Stalin to help the Poles, but received no response. Snyder points up the irony with great precision: “Great Britain had gone to war five years earlier on the question of Polish independence, which it was now unable to protect from its Soviet ally”. 

Many years ago, as a would-be cineaste, I sat in the Vogue cinema in Tooting to watch  the Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s war trilogy. [As I recall the Vogue still had usherettes selling Kia-Ora drinks from trays in between films. And I think the usherettes also sold cups of tea. It was certainly a very draughty cinema. But I may be confusing it with the Tooting Classic.]   A Generation [1955] is about a group of young men and women fighting in Occupied Poland; Kanal [1956] is the terrible story of the Warsaw Uprising; and Ashes and Diamonds [1958] is about a bungled attempt to assassinate a newly arrived Communist party official. Derek Malcolm calls the trilogy “one of the finest achievements of Eastern European cinema”. The films are characterised by a deep sense of a fractured national identity, yet pay tribute to the resilience of the human spirit and the struggle for personal and national freedom.

I didn’t enjoy reading Bloodlands. There were just too many acts of bestiality and too many killings. But Robert Gerwarth, in the Irish Times, thought that “the book brings back to life some of the forgotten voices of those who died in the bloodlands. The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers, but Snyder reconnects the broad narrative of Eastern Europe’s unparalleled tragedy with its intimate impact on the lives of individuals.


Sadly, the book reminded me that the recent atrocities and war crimes committed by Russian forces in places like Bucha and Chernihiv and Izyum, and above all in the wastelands of  Mariupol, are nothing new in that part of Europe. We pray on, for peace for the people of Ukraine, and for a better world.

April 2022

Through a glass darkly – 72

Passion Week

Question:   What’s the difference between a lawyer and a wounded buffalo ?

Answer: A lawyer charges more.

A well-dressed man goes into a pub with a crocodile on a lead and asks ‘Do you serve lawyers here ?’ ‘Yes, certainly, Sir’, says the barman. ‘In that case, I’ll have a pint of bitter for me and a lawyer for my crocodile.

Man with a large crocodile

That was how the minister began his reflection this morning on the latter verses of Mark 12, the condemnation of the scribes by Jesus. The minister in question was himself a lawyer before his ordination, so I guess he knows what he is talking about.

By tradition Newington Churches together have a shared service daily at 7.45am during Passion Week. Held in Craigmillar Park Church of Scotland. The local ministers take it in turns to offer a bible reading and a short-ish reflection, and we sing a couple of hymns. And there is breakfast in the hall afterwards; muesli or cornflakes, white rolls and butter and marmalade, tea and coffee. All served by an efficient team from Craigmillar Park. There are familiar faces from the local congregations, and it seems an appropriate way to mark the transition from Lent into the Passion Story. Although it sometimes feels as if there is a table marked ‘Ministers and scribes only’ !

Palm Sunday 

Palm Sunday has always felt like a significant festival to me. The liturgical colour is red. Which is appropriate for the story of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the crowd waving palm branches as they shouted:  

Hosanna to the Son of David. 

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Palm Sunday procession

We never managed to source a donkey [or two] for the service, neither in Duns nor in Lyon. And I suspect that too often our Palm Sunday liturgy failed to do justice to the excitement and the sense of anticipation and the raw energy of the original entry into Jerusalem. I am reminded of David Leitch’s account [in God stand up for bastards]  of his covering the very dramatic, eleven-hour visit of Pope Paul to Jerusalem in 1964, at a time when the Vatican did not officially recognise the state of Israel. A visit attended by hysterical crowds.

But the red also signifies danger. As Harold Wilson once said, ‘A week is a very long time in politics.’And we know as we gather on Palm Sunday that the coming days will bring rejection and betrayal, arrest and a trumped up trial, and [almost] finally a very public execution. Which is why we pray the Palm Sunday Collect:

True and humble king,

hailed by the crowd as Messiah:

grant us the faith to know you and love you,

that we may be found beside you

on the way of the cross,

which is the path of glory.

Passion Week

It was good to be at Melrose Sevens last Saturday afternoon, though cold in the sunshine. I realise that I have been going there on and off, on the second Saturday in April, since 1979. When Stewart’s Melville FP beat Kelso in the final. In recent years the number of guest teams has increased, as has the number of catering outlets. There were certainly some very classy guest sevens on Saturday.

At Melrose Sevens, 2022

Rugby apart, I am finding Passion Week difficult this year. Partly because of the continuing bad news from Ukraine. The encouragement of the withdrawal of Russian troops from the north and from menacing Kyiv has been totally negated by the uncovering of a succession of war crimes, perpetrated by [very young] Russian soldiers against civilians, Ukrainian women and children. We are doing a talk at a local church tomorrow on our time in Kyiv. And it almost seems indecent to propose to show a lot of photographs of the city and the country as it was prior to the invasion.

Closer to home my younger brother has been in a hospice since last Thursday. His life seems to be drawing to a close, but we have no idea how many days, or possibly weeks, are left. We were very pleased to see him down in Warwickshire last month. And we have no plans to dash down and see him. But his wife and their two daughters are much in my thoughts and prayers. Perhaps relatedly I feel a sense of heaviness in recent days, and find that is much easier to fall asleep after lunch. Meanwhile, I will be taking Communion to Bob this afternoon in the Royal Infirmary where he is recovering from invasive surgery.

Peter in Berwick-on-Tweed, 2021

I may not make the Passion Week early service tomorrow. But I very much doubt if there will be any jokes about crocodiles.

Collect for Good Friday

Eternal God,

in the cross of Jesus

we see the cost of sin

and the depth of your love:

in humble hope and fear

may we place at his feet

all that we have and all that we are,

through Jesus Christ our Lord.

April 2022

Through a glass darkly – 71

All religions will pass, but this will  remain,

simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.”

Vasili Rozanov

This aphorism prefaces the opening chapter of Richard Holloway’s 2004 book Looking in the distance. Richard notes that the words served as a prompt to his own life; as he was drawn from his first encounter with romantic, incense-filled religion in his hometown in the west of Scotland into a heroic quest for something that remained too often elusive. The story is told in his 2012 book Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. A beautifully written memoir which drew admiring reviews from Christians and non-christians alike. “So compelling and so intense. Nobody, whether interested in religion or not, could fail to be intensely moved”, wrote Mary Warnock in the Observer, “… What a deeply lovable man; and what a wonderful book.” 

Leaving Alexandria

In Looking into the distance, Richard claims to recognise himself in the A.S.J. Tessimond poem Portrait of a romantic

He is in love with the land that is always over

The next hill, and the next, with the bird that is never

Caught, with the room beyond the looking-glass 

… … 

He is haunted by the face behind the face

He searches for last frontiers and lost doors

He tries to climb the wall around the world.

He gave his life to that search, becoming successively an Anglican priest, a bishop, and then  Primus {presiding bishop] of the Scottish Episcopal Church. “Now forty years, and many battles later, it has passed and I am left sitting in the chair and looking into the distance.

Richard Holloway

Clearly Richard doesn’t spend all his time sitting in a chair gazing quizzically into the distance. Since he retired as Bishop of Edinburgh in 2000 he has written almost a dozen books, many of them looking at the Christian faith from a sympathetic, fellow-travelling stance. Some have liked to label him as a post-Christian bishop. Though I think that may be a bit simplistic. He was my bishop during the twelve years that I served in the Edinburgh Diocese. It is a small enough diocese to have direct contact with the bishop. I liked him a lot, but I found myself out of sympathy with his generally liberal views abut all sorts of issues. And his frequent declarations of support for gay and lesbian Christians, and for the recognition of same-sex relationships, didn’t play well in my own parish in the predominantly conservative church culture of the Scottish Borders. But I recall he wrote me a very nice letter when we went off to Lyon in autumn 2000.

Shortly before we left for France he came down to preach in Duns. And used as a text something he had found on a fridge door in New York. “I get most of my theology from fridge doors nowadays”, he said.  And later “ I’ll read you a couple of lines from a poem by Philip Larkin, and I’ll bowdlerise them in case there is a reporter from the Daily Mail present.” [There was. Lord Palmer’s brother] The Duns congregation loved him.

A couple of weeks ago Richard came to speak, at St John’s, Princes Street, to an occasional meeting of SARAC. An association of retired Anglican clergy in Scotland, which was encouraged into [a precarious] life a few years ago by the late Ken Gordon from Aberdeen. The topic was Forgiveness. The turnout was very modest, and we sat round a couple of tables as Richard spoke before we moved into a general conversation.. 


Much of what he said was in his 2002 book Forgiveness. He wanted to believe that scripture has given us many of the best stories and metaphors. He quoted from Hannah Arendt; to the effect that things [and relationships] remain stuck until forgiveness takes place. He distinguished between corporate forgiveness and individual forgiveness. He didn’t suggest that any of it was easy.

There was the inevitable question about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the unfolding war crimes. Richard pointed to what had happened in South Africa, the work of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission, inspired by Desmond Tutu, and to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, as examples of intractable problems being turned around by a willingness to forgive. There was more discussion about individual forgiveness. And about how difficult it can be to forgive ourselves. Richard encouraged us not to set impossibly high standards for ourselves. Acknowledging that we will always fall short. He acknowledged too that, even when we forgive ourselves, our dream life does not always get the message !

The attendance was disappointing. And some of the problems continue to be difficult. But Richard is an excellent communicator; wise, humane, and, as Mary Warnock noted, lovable. Which is perhaps not something that you could say about a lot of Anglican bishops.

April 2022

Through a glass darkly – 70

Starting from home

It is two days short of the winter solstice. The temperature is five degrees below freezing. At dusk it snows steadily for five hours. When the snow stops the writer leaves his desk to go for a walk. He clears the suburbs, finds a hole in the hawthorn hedge, and follows the field path east-south-east, rising towards a long chalk hill-top, visible as a whale-back in the darkness. Dry snow squeaks underfoot. A fox crosses the adjacent field at a trot. The path is a grey snow alley flanked on one side by hawthorn, and on the other by a mix of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, and dogwood.  In the forty-acre field the snow is densely printed with the tracks of birds and animals. “I found a line of fox-pugs, which here and there had been swept across by the fox’s brush … … I discovered what I supposed were traces of a pheasant taking off: trenched foot prints where it had pushed up, then spaced feather-presses either side of the tracks, becoming progressively lighter and then vanishing altogether.”

The walker pauses for a drink of whisky. He steps onto the county’s most exclusive golf course, walking straight down fairway after fairway. On the fifth green he lies on his back and stares at the stars. Most of the tracks on the course had been made by rabbits. “If you’ve seen rabbit prints in the snow, you will know they resemble a Halloween ghost mask, or the face of Edward Munch’s Screamer: the two rear feet are placed laterally to make elongated eyes, and between them and behind them fall the forefeet in a slightly offset paired line, forming nose and oval mouth.” There are occasional headlights from the road to the west. He follows rabbit tracks through another blackthorn hedge and onto the Roman road that runs for miles over the low chalk hills. The Roman road passes the end of an avenue of beeches and skirts the earthworks of a large Iron Age fort. “At the down’s top, under the moon, near the outline of a Bronze Age burial barrow, I sat in the snow and drank whisky again”. The walker looks back at the line of his own tracks leading up to the hilltop. And then picks out one of a dozen other print-trails, following it downhill to see where it will lead.

This is a book about walking. And about a host of other things too. Robert Macfarlane follows the tracks, drove-roads, and sea paths that form part of an ancient network of routes criss-crossing the British Isles and beyond. His conviction is that, while walking feet leave their mark on the landscape, so too does the landscape imprint itself on the mind of the walker. Walking the old ways opens up a word of pilgrimage and ritual, and stimulates our imagination and our senses.

The Outer Hebrides

In a later chapter Macfarlane quotes Richard Kearney: insisting that Irish scholars practised the habit of navigatio, of undertaking circular journeys by boat as an apprenticeship that would enable them better to  appreciate their own intellectual and spiritual context. In the same spirit he undertakes a journey in a small boat to the bare rock islet of Sula Sgeir. This is a jagged black peak of gneiss some forty miles north of the Butt of Lewis, the same distance from the Outer Hebrides as St Kilda. It is the topmost summit of an undersea mountain and is home to around 10,000 pairs of gannets. And for a few years to the only black-browed albatross in the northern hemisphere. In big storms the seas break right over the top of the island. This is the place to which men come from Lewis every year to hunt the guga , the gannet chicks. The first recorded mention of the guga hunt dates to 1549, when the men rowed out in an open boat to cull the gannets and brought the bodies back as ballast. This annual expedition is central to Peter May’s The Black House, the first book in his Hebridean trilogy [see Through a glass darkly – 52]. For centuries men reached Sula Sgeir in an open boat, by rowing or by sailing. Since the 1950s they have travelled in fishing trawlers, but it is still an arduous five-hour journey. Macfarlane sails from Port of Ness in the elderly Lewis boat Jubilee; gannets are feasting on a shoal of sand eels. They see a minke whale. And a single dolphin. 

Sula Sgeir

He recalls that Mark Twain trained as a river-pilot on the Mississippi, as an apprentice to Horace Bixby, the veteran steamboat captain. “The face of the water “, wrote Twain, “became in time a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve …

Back on land Macfarlane goes in s search of a path that was thought to run south-east from west Lewis down into Harris. It was a path that existed in folklore before it existed as terrain, and like a folk-song its route subtly altered its each retelling. The path was unknown to the Ordnance Survey. It was called the Clachan Mhànais, Manus’s Stones, and the cairns had been laid by a crofter called Manus MacLennan.  Finlay MacLeod, naturalist, novelist, and local historian, drives him down past the great sands of Uig to the road-end, the remains of the crofting settlement of Mealasta. He pitches his small tent on a peninsula overlooking the bay. Above him a golden eagle is roaming on a late-day hunt. As he drinks his tea a seal surfaces ten yards away. In the morning he follows the deer tracks that run beneath the north face of Griomabhal, searching for the elusive path.  At last he spies the cairn sequence running up from the Dubh Loch shore, and he follows the path east over the slopes of gneiss. As the day warms up he pulls off his boots and socks, and walks barefoot for an hour or two on the cool and slippery peat. He quotes Nan Shepherd approvingly. “Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion”, she wrote in 1945, “but sensible people are reviving the habit.” 

Huisinish, North Harris

In the evening he crawls into a dome-roofed rock shieling, constructed of overlapping gneiss slabs turfed over to act as windbreak and insulation; and cooks the trout he caught earlier. No midges. An enormous sky.  And a sensation of huge emptiness. During the night he is woken only once, by the hoarse coughing of a deer. The next day he walks south-east all day, following shieling path, croft path, drover’s road, and green way. He spends the night in the youth hostel at Rhenigdale. The next day he continues towards Tarbert on what has been described as ‘the most beautiful path in Britain’. “The track contoured above sea coves … … after a mile the path dropped down into a sheltered coastal glen called Trollamaraig, and here, protected from the sea wind, I found a flourishing dwarf forest of willow and aspen, `honeysuckle, foxglove, and woodrush. Then it was up, zigzagging the east face of a hill called  the Scriob until the path eased and led due west between two pap-like peaks with Norse names, Trolamal and Beinn Tharsuinn. “ Macfarlane descends under rainbows to Tarbert, and makes his way to the house of Steve Dilworth, artist and path-maker; “in whose house I stayed for several days. days which have in my memory taken on the texture of a fairy tale: the traveller on foot welcomed in off the path for a pause in his travels, to a house of dark wonders, the strangest energies, and an apparently  self-replenishing tumbler of gin”.

Rhenigdale Hostel

Chanctonbury Ring

Many pages later Macfarlane sets out in the footsteps of Edward Thomas.He plans to follow the ridge line of the South Downs east from Winchester until the chalk dips into the sea near Eastbourne. He spends the first night in a forestry plantation called War Down, tucked into his cocoon-like tent. The next night he [mistakenly] decides to spend in Chanctonbury Ring; a prominent circle of beech trees planted in 1760 by a local aristocrat on the site of Bronze and Iron Age fortifications and a Roman temple. When I was at school in Sussex in the 1950s-60s Chanctonbury Ring was a prominent landmark on the South Downs. Up to which we once climbed on what must have been a school whole holiday.

It turns out to have been a mistake. “I heard the first scream at about two o’clock in the morning. A high-pitched and human cry … … It came from the opposite side of the ring to where I was sleeping. My thoughts were sleep-muddled: A child in distress ? A rabbit being taken by a weasel or a fox ? … … an owl surely. But it was like no owl I had ever heard … … I lay there for two or three minutes listening to the. screams. Then  I realised, with a prickling in my shoulders and fingers, that the voices had split and were now coming towards me … … “

Chanctonbury Ring

When he gets home he researches the folklore of Chanctonbury Ring. And discovers it has a reputation of being one of the most haunted places of the Downs. If you ran round the Ring on a moonless night, the Devil would come out of the wood and offer you a bowl of soup.  “The ghosts that had been summoned in this way, apart from the Devil, included a Druid, a lady on a white horse, a white-bearded treasure seeker, a girl child, and Julius Caesar and his army. It clearly got crowded up there on busy nights.”

Edward Thomas

One of Macfarlane’s inspirations was the poet Edward Thomas. From an early age he had been a compulsive walker, He kept a diary of natural events, and collected wild flowers and birds’ eggs. In 1906 Thomas moved with his wife and young children into Steep, a village in Hampshire; into a house called Wick Green, at the end of an ancient track. The house was high up on the plateau and looked across to Chanctonbury Ring and the ridge-line of the South Downs. Suffering from recurrent depression Thomas responded by walking, long distances in all weathers, Paths and tracks are prominent in his writing. And weather is integral to his thinking. “Other people talk about the weather”, noted Eleanor Farjeon, “Edward lived it.”  In the course of 1913 Thomas becomes friends with Robert Frost, and they walk together in the woods near Dymock in Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas

In July 1915 Thomas draws up his will and enlists as a private in the Artists’ Rifles. He trains in Essex, and then volunteers to go out to the batteries in France. He is posted near Doullens, where the wooded chalk hills remind him of the South Downs. He looks up from his observation post to see kestrels hovering in pairs. And above them wheel five planes. Easter Monday, April 9th, is the beginning of the Battle of Arras. It begins with a massive artillery barrage from the British. As the first wave of British troops moves forwards towards the German lines, a stray shell drops near to Thomas’s dug-out. His body is untouched. But he is killed instantly by pneumatic concussion. A photo of his wife and a slip of paper are found in his pocket:

“  Where any turn may lead to Heaven

Or any corner may hide Hell,

Roads shining like river up hill after rain.” 

The Old Ways

The Old Ways is a magnificent book. Which was chosen as Book of the Year by more than a dozen critics and periodicals when it was first published in 2012. Macfarlane is a polymath, who discourses knowledgeably on geography, geology, ecology, flora and fauna, landscape and literature.  And he also writes beautifully. “An extraordinary book …”, wrote Jan Morris in the Daily Telegraph, “… it made me feel that I myself am always walking some external track, sharing its pleasure and hardships with uncountable others, treading its immemorial footprints, linking me with all the generations of man and beast, and connecting in particular the visionary author of the book, as he unrolls his sleeping bag beneath the stars …”

The Old Ways

The smudgy black-and-white photos do little for me. My only caution is that the book is dense, a rich read. I tried to read it in Ibiza in the sunshine in 2015. And failed. It is best taken in small doses. Like the Collin Street bakery Corsicana Cake that my brother generously sends us every Christmas. I am very glad to have at last come back to it. And/but, when I can find the time, Macfarlane has written half a dozen books since this one. Including Landmarks and Underland.

April 2022

Through a glass darkly – 69

It was Susie’s idea. For a belated birthday celebration. As a change from watching all the depressing news on the television, we would go walking with alpacas. No trip to the altiplano of Latin America was needed. Instead we went with our friends Mike and Wendy to Bobcat Alpacas at Bonaly, just south of Edinburgh, a few minutes walk from the terminal of the number 10 bus.

Mike & Wendy & Susie & ‘The Boys’

Bob, who runs the business with his wife, worked for many years for the prison service. But he fell in love with alpacas a few years ago down in the Borders. The business has now been running for a decade or so, and they have about 50 alpacas. With another dozen crias [baby alpacas] expected later this year. Their mothers are called hembras and fathers are called machos. Bob and his wife Cat take groups out walking several days a week. A walk is about an hour and a half, on the edge of the Pentlands and across the bottom of Torduff  Reservoir, the oldest of the several reservoirs in the Pentlands. The alpacas that we walked with were all male, mostly six or seven years old. Bob, who knows all the herd by name, started with an introduction to the animals in our group; which animals liked to be together, which walked at the front, which dawdled at the back etc.

Susie & Milo

The alpaca is a member of the camel family. They are natives of the Andes mountains and live at an elevation of several thousand feet above sea level. The great majority of animals are Huacaya alpacas. If I understood correctly, they were in origin the result of cross-breeding between llamas and vicuna, tens of thousands of years ago.

Chris & Ignatius

 One white alpaca looks very like another to me. Susie and I started by sharing Milo, a biggish animal of some 85 kilos. All the animals are very calm and gentle, and seem to enjoy having their photos taken. They are sociable animals, and like to walk as a group. But they like to decide exactly when and where they want to walk. It was said that alpacas can run at a top speed of about 20 mph. But this is only when they are impatient for lunch and there is a following wind. Milo’s best friend was Ignatius, better known as Iggy. But I couldn’t really tell the two of them apart. It seems that the easiest way to tell them apart is by the variations in their distinctly punk hair-cuts.

Most of our walking group were white. But two of the animals were brown with different coats and long, silky ringlets. These were Suri alpacas, and they were known as ‘the Rastas’. 


Like camels the alpacas do spit occasionally. More at each other than at their handlers. Mainly gobbets of semi-digested grass. Guttural warning noises come first.

As we walked we gleaned odd facts from Bob. Alpacas are prized for their wool. We could sink our fingers deep into their soft fleeces, and they are sheared annually. Only one mill in Scotland is currently equipped to spin the alpaca fleeces, and this is at Duns in Berwickshire. Skeins of alpaca wool were on sale back at base at £15.00 per 100 grammes. Alpaca meat is said to be good for eating, but they are never bred for slaughter.

Curiously alpacas only give birth between [about] 9.30am and 4.30pm. This sounds as if it might be in accordance with NHS guidelines, imposed at the demand of the health-workers’ unions. In reality it is because pregnant alpacas can determine when to initiate the delivery of their babies. And they know that in their native environment it is too cold, and therefore dangerous, to give birth at night.

Susie & Milo

In addition to the organised walks, Bob said that his alpacas can be rented out as guard animals to protect sheep and chickens against foxes. And also as novelty guests at wedding parties. He also said that they had a valued role as thera-pets, being very gentle and non-judgemental. It would be good if more humans were like that too ! In times of stress I can greatly recommend walking with alpacas.

March 2022 

Through a glass darkly – 68

It has been a  rather dispiriting few weeks. Apart from France, the quality of rugby in the Six Nations has been pretty poor. Scotland have got steadily worse as the Six Nations progresses. It now seems as if their opening win over England was a false dawn. My younger brother, Peter,  is terminally ill. But it was very good to spend time with him, and with Alice, and with Paul and Jean, down in England last week.

with Peter and Paul at Baddesley Clinton

And then there is the news from Ukraine … 

Bad pictures from Ukraine

We came back from Kyiv on January 11th, our 47th wedding anniversary. The Russian troops invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24th, incidentally Susie’s birthday. Three weeks later we are alternately angry and despondent, shocked and silent, as we watch the images on our television. As the story of the invasion unfolds. With a succession of attacks on civilians, on schools and hospitals and apartment blocks. Tens of thousands may have died. Two million women and children, perhaps three million, have fled Ukraine into Poland and beyond.

Stalin and Putin

During our six weeks in Ukraine we knew that Russian troops were massing on the borders, in both Russia and Belarus. But I did not believe that they would invade. I thought that Putin could gain all his objectives by the threat of invasion; Europe and America would take him seriously as a world statesman. Western leaders would seek to ‘do business’ with him. Russia’s place on the world stage would be strengthened. Concessions could no doubt be extracted as regards Russian authority over the disputed areas, the Crimea and in the Donbas. Now it seems that I was totally wrong. Three weeks after the invasion it seems that Putin is prepared to destroy the country that he was claiming to liberate. It reminds me of an American in Vietnam, I don’t remember who, claiming, ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’.

For blustering Boris the events in Ukraine are the ultimate dead cat. All that stuff about Partygate – a drinking culture at no 10 Downing Street, civil servants sent out to fill suitcases with wine bottles, a whole raft of people who thought that the rules didn’t apply to them, a Prime Minister with a disregard for the truth, lying to the Commons and obstructing a police enquiry – all that is now forgotten. The Russian invasion has offered him the chance to don his tin hat and to polish up his Churchill impersonation. Next it will be siren suits and a big cigar. Neither posting photos of Liz Truss in a tank, nor putting Chelski football club up for sale, is likely to bring much comfort to the people of Ukraine. The Ukrainian President, a clown who became a politician [rather than the other way around], would like NATO and the Europeans to intervene with a no fly zone. Sadly perhaps, no western leader is prepared to do anything that might result in an escalation of the war.

We are happy to pray for peace with friends at Priestfield and at St Peter’s and elsewhere. There is a worldwide prayer initiative, of which we are please to be a very small part. We pray for friends from Christ Church, Kyiv, who are now scattered. Some but not all have fled the country. And I pray too that Putin will be removed from office by one of his own people, aware of the damage his actions doing to a country that neither understands nor wants what he is doing in their name. As we have been waiting for the peace initiative to gain some traction I have been reading Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, another book by Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish historian. It is a book that sets what is now happening into a historical context, showing that Putin is following in Stalin’s footsteps.

Anne Applebaum: Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

The Ukrainian Revolution, 1917

The book offers a magisterial account of the famine in Ukraine in the mid-1930s, a deliberate attempt by Stalin to suppress any idea of Ukrainian nationalism. The story begins in April 1917, when, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, there seemed a real prospect of a free Ukraine. But the spread of national consciousness, foreign recognition, and even the Brest-Litovsk treaty were not enough to build a Ukrainian state. There was a great divide between those who supported a Ukrainian national government and the Bolsheviks. All the Bolshevik leaders were raised in the Russian empire and shared a contempt for Ukraine. And they were ambivalent about nationalism.

The Bolshevik leaders were obsessed with food supply. Imperial Russia’s centralised food supply system was in chaos. The policy of ‘War Communism’ involved taking grain from the peasants at gun-point and distributing it to the industrial workers in the cities. Linked to food collection in Ukraine, the Bolsheviks banned Ukrainian newspapers and the use of Ukrainian in schools. 

Famine and Truce, the 1920s

The Ukrainian peasant revolution of 1918-20 led to widespread anarchy and chaos. The Bolsheviks forced an uneasy truce on Ukraine in 1920-21. There was mandatory grain collection. But bad weather and incompetent food collection policies led to a huge drop in the yield; which fell to just 5% of the former harvest. Widespread famine resulted. Unlike what happened later, this was no secret. Aid came from the American Relief Association [the ARA], under Herbert Hoover. In 1922 they were feeding 11 million people daily. Yet Lenin continued to put pressure on Ukraine peasants to supply more grain,

By 1927 it was clear that Lenin’s New Economic Policy had failed.  Living standards in the Soviet Union were lower than they had been under the tsars. All food was rationed and scarce. Stalin, who had succeeded Lenin in 1924, used the  grain crisis as a weapon against his political rivals. He brought back ‘extraordinary measures’ and declared a state of emergency. All trading in grain was now a criminal activity. The Ukrainian peasants were in an impossible situation: if they worked hard and built up their farms, they became ‘enemies of the people’; the other option was to remain bedniaks, poor peasants. The Soviet Union comprehensively destroyed their incentive to produce more grain.  Instead they favoured large state-owned farms; collectivisation matched Stalin’s plans for Soviet industry. The ‘Great Upheaval’ was a return to the principles of War Communism. Someone had to be blamed for the slow pace of Soviet growth. Ukrainian intellectuals and all who favoured Ukrainian independence became the scapegoats. Show trials followed. The Ukrainian Bolshevik [newspaper] commented: “the proletarian court is examining a case not only of the Petliurite scum, but also judging in historical retrospect all of Ukrainian nationalism, nationalistic parties, their treacherous policies, … … , of Ukraine’s independence.”  From  1927 onwards the Soviet press continued to denounce ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism’.

In the 1920s the presence of the Soviet state in Ukrainian villages was minimal. Ten years after the revolution people were disappointed. The Bolshevik triumph had been a hollow victory. But in 1929 new faces appeared: the ‘Twenty-Five Thousanders’ were outsiders, urban activists, who were recruited to manage the drive towards collective farms. Collectivisation was Stalin’s personal policy, driven from above. But the Twenty-Five Thousanders knew nothing about agriculture. Their aim was to eliminate the class of kulaks, small independent farmers. Especially Poles and Germans. The policy degenerated into plunder, with the collectivisation brigades resorting to intimidation and torture. Large numbers of deported kulaks were sent to the Gulag.

Soviet soldiers confiscating grain

Collectivisation: Revolution in the Countryside

During the winter of 1929-30 all across the USSR local leaders, successful farmers, priests, and village elders were deposed, arrested, and deported. The policy led to massive and widespread resistance, often chaotic. Peasants slaughtered their animals rather than hand them over to collective farms that they did not trust. Between 1928 and 1933 the number of cattle and horses in the USSR dropped by a half. Stalin blamed the failure of collectivisation on local party members. OGPU counted some 2,000 mass protests in Ukraine, many of them by women. There was organised resistance to a much hated policy. “Moscow’s paranoia about the counter-revolutionary potential of Ukraine continued after the Second World War, and into the 1970s and 1980s. It was taught to every successive generation of secret policemen, from the OGPU to the NKVD to the KGB, as well as every successive generation of party leaders. Perhaps it even helped mould the thinking of the post-Soviet elite, long after the USSR ceased to exist.

In autumn 1932 Stalin twisted the knife further in Ukraine, launching a famine within a famine. The result of the Holodomor was to extinguish the Ukrainian national movement. Moscow was determined to squeeze grain, and other foodstuffs, out of Ukraine. They could give up their grain reserves and risk starvation; or keep some reserves hidden and risk arrest or even execution. Blacklists were vigorously applied to reinforce grain collection policy. Farms and villages that did not meet their targets were blacklisted. Increasing numbers of refugees began to flee from Ukraine into neighbouring Poland. It was clear that a widespread famine was coming.

During winter 1932-33 teams began operating across Ukraine searching not just for grain but for anything that was edible. They took fruit from the trees, seeds and vegetables from the gardens, as well as honey and beehives, butter and milk, meat and sausages. In many places they also took away the family cow. The searchers used iron rods to seek out buried food.. During the searches violence was often used. Just being alive attracted suspicion, suggesting that a family had food. A grain confiscator wrote: “I persuaded myself, explained to myself … We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the five-year plan.”. The teams used beatings, confiscation of belongings, and other forms of violence and torture. The brigades had good reason to believe that the party leadership at the highest level sanctioned extreme cruelty and supported the removal of all  food and possessions from the peasantry.

Starvation: Spring and Summer 1933

Survivors recalled the physical effects of starvation and of the related conditions – scurvy, joint pain, night blindness, dropsy, swollen bellies and body sores. Personalities were changed by hunger and normal behaviour ceased. Many families were driven to unimaginable decisions. There was suspicion of strangers and outsiders. Honest people were transformed into thieves. Adults were driven to killing their own children. The dead were buried without coffins. Some very ill people were buried alive. There were multiple reports of cannibalism; where parents had eaten the flesh of children who had died of starvation, or where starving family members had killed weaker ones. In March 1933 the OGPU in Kyiv were receiving 10 reports of cannibalism every day.

The Holodomor

To survive people ate anything: rotten food, horses, cats, rats, squirrels; moss, acorns, leaves; wild birds. Many peasants owed their survival to having held onto the family cow. People sold their possessions to buy food. Bartering with city-dwellers who had received food coupons allowed some to survive. Many country dwellers turned their children over to the state. Many orphanages more than doubled in size.


The famine reached its peak in spring 1933. Statistics about deaths are hard to establish. Before the famine life expectancy for rural men was 42-44 years. Males born in Ukraine in 1933 had a life expectancy of 5 years. Life never did return to normal. But the grain procurement plan for Ukraine was reduced for 1934. In 1934 no vegetables were requisitioned. And Ukrainians slowly stopped dying of hunger. There was now a drastic shortage of labour in the Ukrainian countryside. In late 1933 came the first resettlement ;programme; 117,000 peasants arrived from Russia and from Belarus. Subsequent programmes followed. They were a form of Russification.

Between 1959 and 1970 over a million Russians migrated to Ukraine, drawn to the republic by the opportunities that a population depleted by war, famine, and purges had created for new residents.

By the 1970s and 1980s the idea of a Ukrainian national movement seemed  dead and buried.

In the official Soviet world the Ukrainian famine did not exist. There was a taboo on speaking of the famine in public. The first indications which came in the 1937 census were shocking. But Stalin ordered the statisticians to be shot. Many foreign diplomats and journalists were aware that things were going wrong. But the USSR imposed strict controls on reporters. And both European and American politicians were anxious not to jeopardise their friendly relationship with the USSR.

Epilogue: The Ukrainian Question Reconsidered

Those who lived through the famine always understood it as an act of state aggression. Starvation  was the result of  forcible removal of food from people’s homes. Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians; but he did seek to eliminate the most active and  engaged, in both the cities and the countryside. Should this be called an act  of genocide ?

NB The term genocide was invented by Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar from the University of Lviv. “The city had been Polish until the 18th century, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It became Polish after the First World War, Soviet after the Red Army invasion of 1939; German between 1941 and 1944; part of Soviet Ukraine until 1993; and the of an independent Ukraine.” 

The famine is a unifying national memory for Ukrainians; seen by many as a Russian crime against the country. Conversely in 2008 the Russian press denounced the commemorations in Ukraine as Russophobic. So – the Ukrainian famine continues to shape the thinking of Ukrainians and Russians about themselves and about each other. The Russification that followed the famine has left its mark. Many Russians do not accept that Ukraine is a separate country with a separate history. 

The Holodomor popularised hate speech. Those who organised the famine felt justified because the victims were ‘enemies of the people’. In 2014 when Russian special forces invaded the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russian state media portrayed them as patriots fighting against fascists and Nazis from Kyiv. Eighty years later there are still echoes of Stalin’s fear of Ukraine, or rather the fear of unrest spreading from Ukraine to Russia. If Ukraine were to become more integrated with western Europe, Russians might want something similar for themselves. “Today’s  Russian government” [Applebaum is writing in 2017] “uses disinformation, corruption, and military force to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty just as Soviet governments did in in the past.” Seeing young Ukrainians demonstrating against corruption and in favour of the rule of law greatly disturbs Russian leaders. So the talk of war and enemies is very useful to these leaders who cannot explain stagnant living standards, nor indeed their own wealth and power. As Putin persists in a senseless and vicious invasion it does feel as if history is repeating itself.

Stalin and Putin

March 2022

Through a glass darkly – 67

The Boys’ Crusade

I used to think I knew quite a lot about the Second World War. Certainly more about the Royal Air Force than about the Army. And more about the Army than the Royal Navy. I guess that I know a lot more about the activities of SOE, especially in France, than I do about more conventional forces. Something that is certainly reflected on my bookshelves. And, like a lot of people of my age and stage, I know quite a lot about Colditz, and about D-Day, and about Operation Market Garden, the doomed attempt to shorten the Second War by dropping air-borne troops into the Netherlands in order to force a bridgehead across the Rhine into Northern Germany.. A Bridge Too Far.

But apart from watching Saving Private Ryan some twenty years ago, a film that begins with an extended, bloody, gut-churning sequence of American GIs landing on Omaha beach in June 1944, I realise I know very little about the role of American troops in the Second World War. And very little about what they did between D-Day in June 1944 and the end of the war some eleven months later. So, although I should be reading a small pile of books on the Ukraine, mainly by Anne Applebaum, I have been reading a very slight book, The Boys’ Crusade by Paul Fussell. Unlike books by Max Hastings, which get longer and longer, this is a small book with no footnotes and no bibliography.

The Boys’ Crusade

Paul Fussell [1924-2012] was an American academic, a professor of English literature, the author of  more than a dozen books, including The Great War and Modern Memory [described by Joseph Heller as “the best book I know about World War One”]and Abroad: British Literary Travelling between the Wars. What I didn’t know is that he landed in France in 1944 as a twenty-year-old lieutenant in the 103rd Infantry Division, and remained with them until he was wounded fighting in Alsace. After the war he became an academic, and several of his books seek to disentangle the romantic myths about war from the painful reality.

The Boys’ Crusade is essentially a tribute to the young men with whom Fussell served. He stresses their youth; reminding us that the bulk of the infantry were boys who were seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen years old. You could enlist at seventeen with your parents’ permission. Most waited to be drafted at eighteen. Of the millions of Americans sent overseas during the Second World War, only 14% were infantry-men. And they accounted for 70% of the casualties. For nearly all of them it was their first time overseas. In the UK the cars were tiny, the food was bland, and the beer was lukewarm; the bathroom facilities were archaic. And it rained all the time. The only compensation was the reception they had from British women. Who found that the GIs had better hygiene, better uniforms, and were substantially better paid than their British equivalents. Hence the joke: ‘Have you heard about the new utility knickers, One Yank and they’re off’.’ The American army calculated on 22.5 sheets of toilet paper per man per day. The British estimate was 3 sheets. British troops complained that the Americans “were over-paid, over-sexed, and over here”. The Americans retorted that the British were “under-paid, under-sexed, and under Eisenhower”.

Over-paid, over-sexed, and over here

Fussell notes that the American policy of strict racial segregation was another source of friction with the British. Who found the policy unlawful and distasteful. Race riots broke out in several cities. Including Bristol, where the black soldiers were convinced that they had been allocated the less desirable public houses. A major fight broke out there involving some four hundred black and white GIs, and more than a hundred MPs with truncheons were needed to break it up. 

Many British civilians found the blacks GIs more polite and more decent than the whites. George Orwell commented that “the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes”. One wit remarked: “I don’t mind the Yanks, but I don’t care for those white chaps they’ve brought with them”.

As a boy the young John Keegan, subsequently a distinguished military historian, was enraptured by the sight of the American GIs. By their  habitual sloppiness; the way they chewed gum, leaned against buildings, and drove their jeeps with one leg outside, ostentatiously steering with one hand.

For the vast majority of American solders, France was a very foreign country. [General George Patton was an unusual commander in that he knew France well and spoke the language.] A pamphlet advised the GIs not to refer to the French defeat of 1940. In fact they had neither the knowledge nor the language to have done this. Most could manage only a few cliches about food and about sex. Fussell writes of a GI on a truck heading for Paris shouting joyously: “we’re all going to get laid, French style”. In truth the Americans resented having to equip an almost non-existent French army with Sherman tanks and American uniforms. Many GIs resented the fact that for the second time in half a century they had come to pull the French chestnuts out of the fire. And the French for their part resented the huge black market in Paris run by some two thousand American deserters.

D Day and beyond

The Normandy Landings

Much of Fussell’s book is given to episodic snapshots of the subsequent advance of the American GIs. The horrors of the landing on Omaha beach, hampered by sea-sickness of the troops in their landing craft off-shore, inadequate naval bombardment prior to the assault, imperfect navigation, and heavier than anticipated German fire, both automatic weapons and artillery, are disturbingly depicted here, as in the opening sequences of Saving Private Ryan. Breaking out from the landing beachheads took most of a month. After which the inexperienced GIs were fighting in the Normandy bocage, small agricultural fields delineated by thick hedgerows, too often concealing German soldiers with rifles and machine guns, grenades, mortars, artillery, and Tiger tanks. When General Omar Bradley called in airstrikes, of fighter-bombers and heavy B-17s, to open the way for a ground advance, Operation COBRA, the planes got the message wrong; and 111 US infantry soldiers were killed and a further 500 were wounded. Many of the boys mangled or killed by the bombing were green replacements, only recently arrived from their training camps.

Omaha Beach

After Omaha beach the episode most feared by the American infantry was the battle of the Hürtgen Forest. A story that was completely new to me. Fighting went on through the month of November 1944 in an area of some fifty square miles, an area of dark woods, deep gorges, and stone walls, not far from Aachen. Of the 120,000 American troops who fought there, some 33,000 were killed or wounded. For those who fought there the name ranks with Passchendaele or Verdun from the previous war. Russell Weighley wrote about “a witches’ caricature of a forest”; while John Ellis spoke of “attacking a particularly intractable maze …  inhabited by a malevolent breed of troll”.

Hürtgen Forest

Fussell writes admiringly of the work of the medical orderlies, the American aidmen, unarmed and protected on the battlefield only by a red cross on their left arm. Aidmen soon learned to sport a similar cross on their right arm. Albert Cowdrey, a historian of army medicine, wrote: “The damage that weapons could inflict on the human body was varied and spectacular. Veterans remembered – and sometimes dreamed of, years after the war – bodies literally torn to pieces, of intestines hung on trees like Christmas festoons”.

In autumn 1944 with Germany staring defeat in the face, Hitler made a momentous decision; the Germans would launch a major offensive from the Ardennes, aimed at Antwerp. The objective was to split the British and American forces. In the hope of destroying the coalition and turning his attention to the Russian front. The brunt of the offensive was borne by the US Third and First Armies, under General Patton and General Hodges. And by the men of the 101st Airborne Division under Brigadier Anthony ‘Nuts’ McAuliffe., who were besieged in Bastogne. The Battle of the Bulge, as it became known, was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American troops in the Second World War. Of the  600,000 American troops involved in the fighting, some 90,000 were casualties, with over 10,000 killed or missing. Many of them are buried in the cemeteries at Bastogne, which also houses the Mardasson Memorial, erected in 1950 to honour the memory of Americans killed or wounded n the battle.

Mardesson Monument, Bastogne

Fussell himself was profoundly affected by his army experiences. His book is dedicated “to those on both sides who suffered”. It concludes with a quotation from Martha Gellhorn, the American reporter, who was at Dachau on the day the war ended: “Surely this war was made to abolish Dachau and all the other places like Dachau and everything that Dachau stands for … We are not entirely guiltless because it took us twelve years to open the gates of Dachau. We were blind and unbelieving and slow, and that we never can be again”.

February 2022

Through a glass darkly – 66

I watched The Searchers on the tv last weekend. Or to be more precise, I watched it on DVD having missed the daytime television showing. It is now generally recognised as one of the Best Westerns, if not the best American films ever made. Number 10 in a list of the 100 Best Films ever according to the Cahiers du Cinéma in 2008. Although it was a commercial success when it came out in 1956, I don’t remember it gaining such recognition. But I was only 12 at the time !

The Searchers

I think I first saw the film at school, at CH, one Saturday evening in the late 1950s. Films were shown in Big School, a big barn of a building otherwise used for concerts, school plays, Speech Day etc. There was no heating as I recall. And we were encouraged to take blankets with us. There were four film nights in the autumn and spring terms; but no films in the summer. Probably because there was no way of blacking out the light. I don’t know who chose the films. Or what the criteria were. There certainly wasn’t any Brigitte Bardot stuff. I remember seeng a 1949 Marx Brothers film called Love Happy. [Wikipedia tells me that there was a walk-on part by the unknown Marilyn Monroe. Which I don’t recall.] And a rather unfunny 1959 Boulting Brothers film called Carleton-Browne of the FO, starring Ian Carmichael. And I think we saw Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys. And a 1954 film called Knock on Wood, memorable only because Danny Kaye played a ventriloquist with a dummy called Clarence. Which happened to be the name of the Headmaster – Clarence Milton Edwards Seaman. Known to his family and friends, but not to us, as George.

For those who don’t know The Searchers is a an epic technicolour Western directed by the great John Ford. Based on a book of the same name by Alan Le May. The setting is western Texas in the 1860s. The film opens with the return of Ethan Edwards, returning after eight years away fighting with the Confederates in the Civil War and in the Mexican Wars. He returns to the isolated homestead of his brother, Aaron, and his sister-in-law, Martha, and their three children. Soon afterwards Ethan is recruited by the Revd Samuel Clayton, part-time preacher, and Captain in the Texas Rangers, to go in pursuit of an Comanche raiding party. In their absence the Comanches raid the homestead. The adults and their son Ben are killed and scalped, the buildings are burnt down, and the two girls, Debbie and Lucy, aged 8 and 12, are abducted.

Monument Valley, Utah

For the greater part of the film Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne, goes in search of the girls, assisted only by Martin Pawley, their part-Indian adopted brother. Ethan Edwards is laconic, a loner, a misfit, good with a gun. Marty is younger, and vulnerable. As the years go by the search becomes a desperate obsession. They find the body of the older girl, Lucy, brutally murdered and presumably raped, but her younger sister is reported as being still alive living among the Indians. 

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards

After five years they trace Debbie, now an adolescent, to New Mexico, where she is living as a Comanche, as one of the wives of a chief called Scar. There is now a powerful tension between Ethan and Marty. Ethan believes that Lucy has been defiled, contaminated, by her living as an Indian squaw. He would rather see her dead than living as an Indian, and his plan is to kill her. But Marty wants only to rescue her and to take her home. The two men come to blows. Marty shields Lucy with his body, Ethan is wounded by an Indian arrow, and the Comanches make their escape.

The Searchers

Meanwhile back at home, at the Jorgensen ranch, Laurie Jorgensen, Marty’s long-standing and long-suffering girl-friend starts to lose hope. Finally a letter arrives telling how Marty has [inadvertently] bought and married a young Indian squaw. Which pushes Laurie into the arms of Charlie McCorry.

After years away Ethan and Marty return in the midst of Laurie’s and Charlie’s wedding celebrations. Marty and Laurie are reunited. At which point Ethan’s half-crazy friend, Mose Harper, reports that Scar and his band of Comanches have been located. Captain Clayton leads his men on a direct attack on the Comanche camp. Martin is allowed to sneak in ahead of the assault to find Debbie. Martin kills Scar, and Ethan scalps him.

The ending is powerful. Lucy is brought home to the homestead of the Jorgensens, the Swedish-American couple. Marty and Laurie are finally together again. But as the door of the homestead closes, Ethan is left on the outside. A man on his own. With a gun. But with an uncertain future.

The Searchers

Not everyone liked the film. Some critics thought that the romantic sub-plot, Laurie and Marty and Charlie, and the almost comic accent of the Jorgensens, detracted from the main story line. More importantly, there is something profoundly unattractive about the racism of Ethan; for whom native Americans are simply an inferior species. He is seemingly less interested in rescuing Debbie than he is in wreaking vengeance on the Comanches for the slaughter of his brother’s family. [One of the unclear sub-themes is the relationship between Ethan and his sister-in-law, Martha. Could it be, as some have suggested, that Debbie is not his niece but his own daughter ?] 

And miscegenation is another theme that runs through the film. Near the beginning Martin gets a very disapproving look from Ethan when he admits that he is one-eighth Cherokee. Even the gentle Laurie tells Martin: “Ethan will put a bullet in her brain.I tell you Martha would want him to”. 

 When I was a bit younger John Wayne was extremely unfashionable. We thought he was a simple, right-wing, gun-toting Republican. Good only for playing cowboys and Green Berets. But this is one of his great roles. “Wayne is plainly Ahab“, wrote one critic. “He is the good American hero driving himself past all known limits and into madness, his commitment to honour and decency burned down to a core of vengeance.” And the character, and his performance, undoubtedly influenced a later generation of American cinematic loners.

Gooseneck Canyon, Utah, 2016

The other great star of the film is Monument Valley, on the edge of Utah and Arizona. Which I was thrilled to see on our one-and-only trip across the States in 2016. When we had lunch an a Navajo restaurant. And the opportunity to see the trailer in which John Wayne slept during the making of his movie. [Unfortunately I can’t at the moment find the photos; so instead here is a photo of the nearby Gooseneck Canyon, Utah.] I was so impressed by the film that I nearly bought a biography of Wayne in an excellent bookshop in Denver. But then I thought – there are limits.

February 2022


For those who like to know these things, it was after the film was shown in Lubbock, Texas, that John Wayne’s repeated line ‘That’ll be the day’ became the inspiration for the Buddy Holly track That’ll be the day that I die.