Through a glass darkly – 22

After finishing the Zeldin book [see TaGD – 20], I thought that I would look again at Alistair Horne’s book The Fall of Paris: the Siege and the Commune. Horne was a journalist, biographer, and European historian, who died in 2017. 

My copy of the book first published in 1965 is a bit water damaged after a long spell in the garage. Unfortunately the subsequent two books in Horne’s trilogy, The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 [1962] and To Lose a Battle: France 1940 [1969] have both disappeared; I think they too both succumbed to water damage.

The Siege

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was a disaster for the French. In July 1870 France declared  war on her neighbour; partly because the countries fell out over the vacant throne of Spain, and partly because France felt threatened by the growing power of Prussia. On July 28th Louis-Napoleon rode forth in command of his armies. Within six weeks the divided French armies were defeated on both sides of the Vosges, at Woerth and at Spicheren; Bazaine’s army was besieged at Metz; MacMahon’s army surrendered at Sedan; and Bismarck imposed harsh terms on Louis-Napoleon who was sent into imprisonment in Germany. The Prussian armies under Moltke advanced  rapidly on Paris, and by the end of September the city was under siege. It was now cut off from the rest of France. “It is in Paris that the beating of Europe’s heart is felt”, wrote Victor Hugo, a vigorous septuagenarian, “ Germany extinguishing Paris … Can you Germans become Vandals again; personify barbarism decapitating civilisation.”

General Trochu, aged fifty-five, had been recalled from an obscure command in the Pyrenees to form the new XII Corps, and then to become Military Governor of Paris. When in September amid chaotic scenes at the Hotel de Ville Gambetta, standing on a window sill, proclaimed the Republic, the post of President was offered to Trochu. Who accepted it with no great enthusiasm. The city of Paris was surrounded by an enceinte wall, some thirty feet high, divided into ninety three bastions linked by masonry ‘curtains’; and behind the moat were a chain of powerful forts equipped with powerful guns. The line of forts filled out a circumference of some forty miles. Within the city there were some 60,000 troops, some of whom had escaped from Sedan and elsewhere. And there were, very soon, some 350,000 members of the National Guard; a great mass of untrained [working] men, attracted by the pay of 1.50 francs a day, and the right to elect their own officers. Notionally Paris was a powerful armed fortress. But there was no strategy as to how their considerable assets were to be managed. Trochu himself was a military theorist rather than a man of action. Washburne, the American Minister, who was received by the new President in his slipper and dressing-gown, thought “he did not look much of a soldier”.

Prussian siege guns

All one ever remembers of the siege of Paris are the balloonists and the rats. Balloons had always been a French thing. Since De Montgolfier’s first hot-air balloon of 1783; a perilous device in which the passengers had to stoke a fire of straw and wood directly below the highly inflammable paper envelope. When the siege of Paris began there were only seven existing balloons, but a series of balloon making workshops were set up across the city and a highly profitable Balloon Post was established.

Balloon factory

Balloons took off at the rate of two or three a week, either from Montmartre or from outside the Gare du Nord. The problem of course was this was a one-sided means of communication. And that the balloons were blown to every corner of France. When the idea was mooted in September of ballooning a delegate to Tours, Gambetta, the Minister of the Interior, was one of the few volunteers. Gambetta left Paris on October 7th and after an eventful flight arrived forty-eight hours later in Tours where he declared himself Minister of War. Altogether some 65 manned balloons left Paris during the siege; six landed in Belgium, four in Holland, two in Germany, one in central Norway, and two were lost at sea. The knowledge that the city was not entirely cut off from the rest of the world served to restore some Parisian morale.

As half-hearted attempts to break out of the city failed, the lack of news was replaced by a lack of food. Hunger became a real problem. Goncourt noted “People are talking only of what they eat”; and found Théophile Gautier lamenting that “he has to wear braces for the first time, his abdomen no longer supporting his trousers”. Cheese, butter, and milk were all little more than a memory; the cattle and sheep had vanished from the city; and fresh vegetables had run out. The zoos were forced to surrender their precious inmates: Hugo was sent some joints of bear, deer, and antelope by the curator of the Jardin des Plantes; and two young elephants, Castor and Pollux, were bought by Roos, the wealthy proprietor of the Boucherie Anglaise. Horse-meat became commonplace, as even valued race-horses ended their days at the butchers. Horne records that the signs ‘Feline and Canine Butchers’ made their debut. The journalist Henry Labouchère reported without comment that he had met a man who was fattening up a large cat for Christmas Day, intending to serve it “surrounded with mice like sausages”. The rat was the most fabled animal of the Siege of Paris, and from December a good rat-hunt was a favoured occupation of the National Guard.

German bombardment of the southern forts began in January. The nightly bombardment did relatively little damage, but there was great anger when six small children were killed by a single shell. Fuel shortages in the winter months, malnutrition, and diseases, both smallpox and typhoid, began to take their toll. Another projected sortie at Buzenval failed dismally, for which the leadership was violently criticised by the Mayors, led by Clemenceau of Montmartre. While the pious Trochu prayed for deliverance, his influential deputy, Favre, now favoured capitulation. On January 27th Favre secretly met with Bismarck in Versailles to negotiate a cease-fire, pending the drawing up of a definitive peace treaty.

The Commune

Favre’s armistice was received in Paris with a mixture of rage and stupor. Needed foodstuffs poured into the city, but Republican Paris felt betrayed by the capitulation, and further betrayed by a February election which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the ‘list for peace’. A rift had opened up between Paris and the provinces, and this was aggravated by every step taken by the new administration headed by Thiers. On February 26th, the day that Thiers signed the Peace Treaty, mass demonstrations of the National Guard erupted across the city, and two hundred cannon were hauled from the artillery parks to Montmartre. An attempt by the French Army to retrieve the cannon failed, and General Lecomte and the elderly General Thomas were lynched by an angry mob. When Clemenceau saw what had happened he burst into tears; the only time the tough doctor-politician wept in public until the victory of 1918.

The government move on Montmartre and the killing of the two generals took everyone by surprise. But a group of National Guards led by Brunel marched on the Hotel de Ville, and, as the gendarmes and government troops melted away, 20,000 National Guards took possession of the building. As the government withdrew, legal authority in Paris passed to the Mayors of the twenty arrondissements. Heated discussions between the Comité Central and the mayors ensued, fighting broke out on the streets of the city, the rift between Paris and Versailles widened, and on Tuesday, March 28th, the Commune was officially declared at the Hotel de Ville.

Now that our Commune is elected”, wrote Corporal Louis Péguret of the National Guard, “we shall await with impatience the acts by which it will make itself known to us. May God wish that this energetic medium … will procure for us genuinely honest and durable institutions”. All Parisians wondered what the Commune would do. In fact, what was the Commune ? Contrary to what many bourgeois believed, it had nothing to do with the Socialist International. The Commune came to power in 1871 with no ideology and no programme; other than looking back over its shoulder to 1793. There was certainly a sense that the working class had been swindled out of their inheritance of the Great Revolution. It was born partly out of general discontent with the poor social conditions under the Second Empire. “What is it to me”, someone asked in Goncourt’s hearing, “that there should be monuments, operas, cafe-concerts, where I have never set foot because I have no money ?” And there was also an element of demanding municipal independence for industrial Paris from the rest of predominantly rural France. In consequence the Commune was invariably riven with disputes between Blanquist socialists and radical Jacobins; between anarchists, intellectuals, Bohemians, Gambettists, and disgruntled petit bourgeois. 

Disunity was the death of the Commune. The brave and capable Louis Rossel, a professional soldier, son of a Breton father and a Scottish mother, was appointed Minister of War, but was soon accused [wrongly] of treachery and deposed. A Parisian mob tore down the massive Vendôme Column erected by Napoleon I on the sight of the former equestrian statue of Louis XIV. The Paris house of Thiers was demolished and his belongings and works of art were carried away by the mob. Raoul Rigault the unsavoury Police Chief ordered the arrest of a number of ‘hostages’ including the Archbishop of Paris. Clemenceau and his fellow mayors, and other bodies including the Paris Freemasons, tried to open negotiations between Paris and Versailles. But all failed. Thiers’ unvarying response was: “Do you come in the name of the Commune ? If so, I shall not listen to you; I do not recognise belligerents … I have no conditions to offer”.

On May 21st Government troops entered the city through an unguarded gate at Point-du-Jour. Ten days of bloody fighting followed. A frenzy of energy seized the Commune and hundreds of street barricades were thrown up as the Versailles troops advanced steadily through the west of Paris. Small pockets of Communards fought bravely. Rumours of mass terror spread swiftly through the city’s inhabitants. It was widely believed that an army of pétroleuses were at large in the city flinging fire-balls through the windows of bourgeois houses. On the evening of May 24th the aged Archbishop of Paris and four other priests were shot in La Roquette prison. National Guards ripped open his body with bayonets, and threw it into an open ditch at Père-Lachaise cemetery.

The Communards were forced back towards Montmartre and towards Belleville. The leaders of the Commune were falling. The sixty-one year old Delescluze, moral leader of the Commune, an old style Jacobin, now dying of consumption, made his way to the Avenue Voltaire dressed in top hat, black trousers, and frock coat with a red sash round his waist; and was promptly shot on an abandoned barricade. There were savage killings on both sides. Many captured Communards were shot on the spot. The Prussians obligingly moved up 10,000 troops behind the Communards’ rear to cut off any possible escape eastwards. On Whit Sunday morning, May 28th, Thiers’s army moved in for the kill. On that day when they discovered the unburied body of the murdered Archbishop, 147 captured Communards were lined up and shot against the eastern wall of the cemetery.

Government soldiers advancing into Paris to suppress the Commune, 24th May 1871. The Paris Commune was established when the citizens of Paris, many of them armed National Guards, rebelled against the policies of the conservative government formed after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The left-wing regime of the Commune held sway in Paris for two months until government troops retook the city in bloody fighting in May 1871. From a private collection. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On June 22nd the Paris-Journal implored:  “Let us kill no more, not even murderers and incendiaries !  Let us kill no more !” The remaining Communards surrendered. But casual, incidental killing continued for several days. The estimated number of deaths during La Semaine Sanglante varies wildly. But responsible historians suggest that between 20,000 and 25,000 people were killed. Far more than in any battle of the Franco-Prussian War. Far more than were killed during the Great Terror of the French Revolution. All this killing in a city that had regarded itself just a short time  earlier as the very Citadel of Civilisation.

The myth of the Commune

The siege of Paris fundamentally altered the balance of power in Europe; France was diminished alongside a resurgent, and united, Germany. And would not be restored until she regained the surrendered industrial areas of Alsace and Lorraine. The consequences of the Commune are harder to identify. The social achievements of the Commune during the brief two months of its existence were minimal. Frankel, one of its leading reformers, could point only to the abolition of night-work in Parisian bakeries. 

But out of the fabric of the Commune Karl Marx created an enduring myth. In his powerful tract The Civil War in France, written from a safe distance away in north London, Marx celebrated the French working class as “the advance guard of the modern proletariat”. Marx’s whole-hearted support for the Commune split the International movement down the middle. On the one side, the nascent, moderate British Labour Party and the German Social Democrats; on the other, Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks. The widely-read pamphlet transformed Marx from being an obscure German-Jewish professor to being the ‘Red Terrorist master-mind’. He helped create a heroic Socialist legend. The Mur des Fédérés in Père-Lachaise,  where the 147 Communards were shot, is the focal point for left-wing demonstrations on May 28th every year.

The story of the Commune inspired a host of writers, including Emile Zola, Arnold Bennett, Jean Vautrin, and Umberto Ecco; and a variety of playwrights including Brecht and Adamov. I was fascinated to learn that, among the Commune inspired films, there is a 6-hour epic  [unwatchable ?] by Peter Watkins called La Commune, shot in 2000 in a deserted factory on the outskirts of Paris. In a distant echo of the Commune balloonists, Alistair Horne notes that in 1964, when the first three-man team of Soviet cosmonauts took off, they took with them three sacred relics; a picture of Marx, a picture of Lenin, – and a ribbon cut from a Communard flag.


Is there a museum in Paris dedicated to the history of the Paris Commune ? If so, I have never seen any mention of it. And the Institut Français in Edinburgh hadn’t either. If anyone who reads this knows better, do please let me know. I’d definitely make a pilgrimage to go and see it.

September 2020

Through a glass darkly – 21

Going North

Scotland is a bigger country than many people realise. And crossing the country is not quick. To get from Edinburgh [where we live] to Wick, not far from John o’Groats, a distance of about 260 miles, is a minimum of five hours driving, and takes roughly eight hours by train and bus. To get from Edinburgh to Durness, on the north-west coast, on public transport takes two days; a bus to Inverness on the first day, and then train and bus onwards the following day. I did the journey two years ago in the early autumn testing the limits of my Senior Citizen [free] bus pass. 

We are going up north again shortly. The plan is to have a couple of nights in Inverness, then three nights at Armadale up on the Pentland Firth, and then two nights at Laide, on the west coast near Gairloch. It will be the first time since lock-down began that we will have been beyond Edinburgh and the surrounds. And it will be the first time since 1974 that Susie and I will have been together north of the Great Glen, the geological fault line that runs south-west from Inverness on the Moray Firth to Fort William at the head of Loch Linnhe . The glen which contains Loch Ness and which separates the North West Highlands from the Grampians.

On our original trip north we hired a brown Ford Escort somewhere in Edinburgh and set off with an ageing tent intending to travel anti-clockwise round the north coast. It was about forty years before the creation of the North Coast 500. Before we started I had to go and buy an anorak on Princes Street; as an ignorant southerner I didn’t realise that Scottish summers are rarely warm and dry. I think we also went to ASDA to buy provisions and a small camping stove.

It didn’t seem sensible to camp in Aberdeen. So we stayed at the Treetops Hotel, and got up early in order to visit the fish market before breakfast.

Susie at Aberdeen Harbour

Aberdeen is where Susie had been at uni [curiously we both have Master’s degrees from Aberdeen], and so for her it is a place of memories. [I guess we all have some attachment to cities/towns where we were at uni. Back in the summer of 1964 I spent a couple of lunchtimes walking in St James Park with the wife of the Bulgarian press attache, who told me what  an attractive town Sofia was; as she described it, a cross between Heidelberg and the stage-set for The Student Prince. When I got there a couple of months later it looked more like Cumbernauld New Town.] And it didn’t seem sensible to camp in Inverness either. We stayed in a hotel on the edge of town, of which I remember only that it had a tartan carpet, tartan wallpaper, and a matching tartan ceiling. Or maybe the tartans didn’t match. It was a pretty gloomy place.

Then on north. We had coffee with Susie’s cousin Charlie in Evanton. We stopped in Lairg to buy a copy of The Times; it might be the last opportunity for some time. I think the headlines concerned a major storm in the Irish Sea which had severely disrupted the Plymouth-Fastnet yacht race. In which Ted Heath was a competitor.  On a minor road ten miles south of Ben Hope,  we stopped to look at the impressive ruins of Dun Dornadilla. A bit further on we got out of the car to look at Ben Hope, thereby inviting half million midges to share the car with us.

Near Ben Hope

And then, as it started to get dark, we pitched our trusty tent on a gentle, grassy slope overlooking the waters of Loch Eriboll, a deep sea loch on the shores of the Pentland Firth. It was where the remaining German U-boat fleet surrendered in 1945. It was apparently known to British servicemen during the war as Lock ‘Orrible, on account of the frequently inclement weather. But I didn’t know that at the time.

When we woke up at about four o’clock the next morning, water was streaming through the tent. We had no built-in ground-sheet in those days. So the water simply flowed in under the walls at the top end of the tent and out at the bottom. We put a very wet tent in the car, retrieved our belongings from the shallow stream, and went in search of breakfast in Durness. Or more precisely in the Craft Village at Balnakeil; a collection of local enterprises housed in the huts of what had originally been built after the war as an RAF early warning/listening station. 

Phone box on Loch Eriboll

It took two or three gusty days camping at Sheigra to dry out the tent. We swam a couple of times, bought sausages and a frying pan in Kinlochbervie [the pan stayed with us for years, the sausages didn’t], and failed to walk the four or so miles to the famed Sandalwood Bay. After that we put the tent away in the boot. We stayed in the Summer Isles Hotel at Achiltibuie, which at that time had quite an elderly clientele, many swathed in tartan rugs. The proprietor was Robert Irvine, an ex-actor, who wore knee-breeches and buckled shoes,. His daughter was Lucy Irvine, the author of Castaway [later filmed by Nicolas Roeg with Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe]. Much more economically we stayed in an isolated caravan, next to naval gun emplacements overlooking Loch Ewe. The owners were reluctant to let us away, preferring not to handle money on the Sabbath. After which we rushed to Eilean Donan to take photos of sunset over the castle, and took the ferry across to Skye, Where we stayed in a very run-down caravan in a field somewhere near Portree.

Eilean Donan Cstle

Things looked up when we had a night at Kinloch Lodge Hotel at Isle Ornsay. It was newly-opened in 1974, very comfortable, very luxurious, with an excellent restaurant. [Claire Macdonald subsequently became a well-known cook and cookery writer.] We ate well, and then made the mistake of doing some serious malt whisky tasting in the bar with the Portree dentist. Which made it difficult to face the black pudding at breakfast. After that we took the ferry back to Mallaig, and made for Arisaig. Alistair at Port na Doran, where Susie’s family had camped for many years gave us one of his vans, and a message to ring a number in London. So we spent the next morning in the Arisaig phone box, clutching a handful of pennies and trying to make a person-to-person call to someone in London.

Sunset over Eilean Donan

It was a good trip. Which had lasting consequences. Susie and I got engaged while we were at Isle Ornsay, which was a big plus, though we have not drunk whisky since. And the phone call was the offer of a job in Paris, where we spent the next few years. Happy days !

September 2020

Through a glass darkly – 20

Summer seems to be over here in Edinburgh. But I walked from Musselburgh to North Berwick yesterday; 19.5 miles according to the John Muir Way website. So today I am feeling a bit pleased with myself. And rather less like walking ! Optimistically I was sustained for part of the walk by the thought of lunch out at North Berwick. But it was 5 o’clock by the time I got there.

Regular readers will know that my knowledge of history is very patchy. Although I am very fond of France, my knowledge of French history was largely limited to the coronation of Charlemagne, on Christmas Day 800, the accession of Hugh Capet in 987, and on more familiar ground the story from 1940 onwards. Which leaves a very big gap. So with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension I started to read Theodore Zeldin’s  France, 1848-1945: Ambition, Love, and Politics. Anticipation because I have owned the book for years without opening it. Apprehension because it is 790 pages. Which is a lot of reading, even with an orange marker pencil.

In spite of its length, there are several things the book doesn’t do. It doesn’t offer any coherent story of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war of 1870, nor of the siege of Paris by the Prussian armies. Nor of the Commune that followed, and its bloody suppression. Nor of the horrors of Verdun in 1916. Nor of the extraordinarily rapid fall of France in 1940. [All of which are dealt with in three excellent, very readable, books by Alistair Horne.]

Zeldin makes it clear at the outset that he is not writing a chronological history of events, of which there are already many. [The book was published in 1973.] Instead he sets out to study the  role of different groups of French society; the bourgeoisie, industrialists, bankers, bureaucrats, workers, and peasants. A second section looks at marriage and morals, and the roles of children and of women. And the  lengthy third section looks at a whole host of different political grouping; kings and aristocrats, republicans, bonapartists, ‘solidarists’, radicals, and socialists. .Zeldin cautions against the traditional view that French history is the unfolding of a struggle between revolution and reaction. Equally he is cautious about the notion that power and health are concentrated in the so-called ‘two hundred families’, who were the real beneficiaries of the Revolution; and that all subsequent history is largely about their struggle to hold onto and consolidate their power. In fact he is cautious about all generalisation, preferring to stress the wide regional variations which complicated and sometimes transformed every movement and every change. It is not always clear, Zeldin writes,  that Brittany, Alsace, Provence, and Paris were parts of the same country.

Summarising the book would be even duller than most of these blogs. But here are a couple of things, a couple of sections, that caught my attention. The first is about the role of family life, and notions of childcare. The second, very differently, about the role of intellectuals in politics.

Children and family life

Zeldin notes that a very large proportion of French children did not have a full family life. Only 54% of marriages lasted longer than 15 years; 45% of children were orphans in their teens. Things were made significantly worse  by the First World War: in 1931 there were 646, 000 families who had lost their fathers in the war; and a further 1,322, 000 with fathers who were mutilated or injured. When I first visited France in 1961, there were signs in the Paris metro indicating priority seating for femmes enceintes et mutilés de guerre. When did they disappear, I wonder ?

There was widespread disagreement about how to rear children. [According to a book by David Hunt, adults played publicly with Louis XIII’s penis when he was a baby; but it was six months before his mother embraced him, and his relations with her remained cold until his father died.] Broadly conservatives believed that values should be transmitted through exercising authority; and that the father exercised power as God’s representative. Moralists were worried about excessive familiarity. Holidays were especially dangerous. Among the bourgeoisie, there was fear of children’s friends; so it was always better to invite one’s cousins and one’s own family. Holidays in the mountains with nature study were morally safer than holidays by the sea.

Writing in 1861, Paul Janet thought that parents spoiled their children more now. But that they also looked after them better. Both Jules Michelet and Paul Janet saw children as instruments for the gratification of parental aspirations, producing either higher social status or the promise of affection. A comparative study of American and French children suggested that French children were better able to accept the formal requirements of their elders because they were more skilled at entering into their private world where they remained free.

In the 1950s a poll of French people were asked which was the most important commandment. ‘Honour your parents’ won easily. Zeldin notes that 70% of respondents thought that  discipline was extremely important, and more than  50% wanted greater severity towards children. According to the same poll, 52% of parents were opposed to sex education at school.

The genius in politics

One of the more interesting [to me] sections is called ‘The genius in politics’. Zeldin insists that in the 19th century the emergence of the genius [the utopians] influenced French politics; and challenged the traditional centralised authority. “The genius was a prophet, but a prophet in the wilderness.” The utopians [such as Fourier and Proudhon]  became popular because they tried to give expression to the people’s widely felt aspirations. One characteristic of the utopians was the desire to unite mankind; they represented a longing for order and peace after the Revolution.

Saint-Simon [1760-1825] was an unhinged genius. He preached fraternity: “love one another and help one another”. He was not interested in party politics. Progress was about building roads and massive investment in public works. He wanted to abolish inheritance; his slogan was “To each according to his capacities, and to each capacity according to his works”. The disciples of Saint-Simon, of whom Enfantin was the most influential, laid stress on religion, financial investment, and the emancipation of both the proletariat and of women.

Charles Fourier [1772-1837] also preached a complete transformation of the social order. Harmony and co-operation were to replace vicious competition. The world was to be re-organised into phalanstères, mixed communities of about 1600 people; living on a farm with a communal kitchen; work being done by small teams of people working together; dirty jobs done by the children, as they like getting dirty,  who would be educated in comprehensive schools to eliminate class prejudices. Leadership in the communes would be by election. And armies would undertake great public works; such as the digging of the Panama and Suez canals, and the irrigation of the Sahara Desert. Fourier’s followers proposed the nationalisation of industry, of railways and canals.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon [1809-65] was the most plebeian of the early socialists, the son of a rural artisan. He was an  autodidact compositor, becoming a polemicist and a journalist. Proudhon cared most for social equality; he wanted the masses to achieve independence, self-respect, and a sense of their own dignity. What was needed was justice, equality, and liberty. His best-known slogan is ‘Property is Theft’, but he had no wish to abolish property. He favoured replacing money by a system of exchange. He wanted a loose federation of communes to replace the centralised state. He had no talent as an active politician. But his ideas were influential after his death.

The effect of the utopians on public life”, Zeldin concludes, “was … … to uproot tradition, to sow confusion, to stimulate hope, and to construct dream-worlds which alienated Frenchmen from the present and consoled them for its shortcomings.”

Intellectuals and Society

As I reflect on this section of the book, I wonder whether the public role of intellectuals in France is more prominent than it is in Britain. Offhand I can’t think of many examples of British politics being influenced by writers and intellectuals, who might roughly correspond to Zeldin’s use of genius. Are intellectuals merely the servants of special interests or do they have a wider responsibility to society ? I think that Edward Said addressed some of these questions in his Reith Lectures in the early 1990s. In his lectures Said insisted that the intellectual is an exile and an amateur whose role it is “to speak truth to power”.  The lectures were published in 1996 as Representations of the Intellectual. I’ve never seen the book, but I’ll look out for it.

Meanwhile I wonder if I could interest the local LibDems in some of the ideas of Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier. They [the LibDems] are certainly short of ideas. But I won’t be holding my breath.

August 2020

Through a glass darkly – 19

When I began writing these things [blogging] some five months ago, I thought that the main focus would be on our dwindling contacts with the European mainland, and an occasional foray into contemporary politics. So I wrote and posted things most weeks, which were read by a small group of people, some doubtless reading them by mistake, and usually without comment. In practice I found that I was most often writing about whatever book[s] I had been reading. Which was a good, weekly discipline for me. But pretty dull, I guess, for anyone else. And now I realise that I haven’t written anything for almost a month. So – why not ?

It’s partly that we have had visitors, a rare occurrence in these days of lock-down, our first visitors for twenty plus weeks. It was Jem and Anna, our son and daughter-in-law, and their two children, Freya and Oskar. They were passing through on their way north to collect a hired motor home from somewhere near Forres. [After which they made for Skye, well populated with midges at this time of year, and then for Arisaig.] We were very pleased to see them for the first time since February. Talking to them brought home to me how privileged we are in lock-down here in Edinburgh; we have a spacious house and garden, plenty of books, and very few calls on our time from one week [or month] to the next. These months have been very much more difficult for younger families, with one or both parents working from home, and Zoomed work calls competing for attention with restless children who are missing school, or more precisely missing seeing their school friends.

Our other guest was Peter, a school friend from Gloucestershire who runs a small postcard publishing business. We went out for a Turkish meal, swopped a few stories, and tried not to reminisce too much about school life some sixty years ago.

It’s also partly that I have found my current book, Theodore Zeldin’s France, 1848-1945: Ambition, Love, and Politics, slow going. I have now finished the book – it is some 790 pages ! But arguably I don’t know enough about nineteenth century France to really benefit from reading it. Zeldin offers a fascinating portrait of the various sectors of society – the bourgeoisie, the bankers, the bureaucrats, the workers, and the peasants; and of the various political groupings – kings and aristocrats, republicans, bonapartists, radicals, and socialists. But I have to keep reminding myself which were the legitimists and which the Orléanists. And I get confused as to whether Directoire was a pre-Napoleonic form of government or a kind of vintage knickers.

But the main reason is that I had been intending to write something about blustering Boris on the anniversary of his election as Theresa May’s successor. And I find it very hard to do. Not because there is a shortage of things to say. But because almost all of it has already been said. And because amid the lies and the bluster there seem to be no redeeming features. Yes, he is capable of the occasional memorable phrase. And yes, he has some gifts as an electioneer. But that is not really what is needed from a prime minister, not  at this time; when the fight is with a COVID pandemic rather than the parliamentary opposition. In a struggle against the virus, focus groups and slick slogans are of no value.

Blustering Boris, 2019-2020

It was on July 23rd, 2019 that Boris became leader of the Tory Party with a convincing win over Jeremy Hunt. In a characteristically flippant acceptance speech, he conceded that even some of his own supporters may “wonder quite what they have done”. Certainly those who are not his supporters wonder that. His campaign mantra was:  “Deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn.” Thus far he has managed only the third objective.

Johnson’s defenders stress that he has had a difficult year: the switch from the relative obscurity of the back-benches to the leadership and to 10 Downing Street; serious schisms within the Tory party; divorce from his [second] wife; setting up home in Downing Street with his new/current girl-friend; the birth of a baby, ‘out of wedlock’ as they used to say;  the ravages of the COVID virus; and his own near-death experience. But in reality most of his misfortunes have been self-inflicted. Before his election as leader, Boris had few supporters and fewer friends in his party. It was generally known that he was a serial liar and a serial adulterer. He was best known by the public for his vanity projects: a new London Airport on ‘Boris Island’ in the Thames Estuary; a cable-car to link the City of London with the Olympic stadium; a new ‘garden bridge’ across the Thames; a new fleet of ‘Boris buses’ for London; an expensive water cannon for crowd control in London; another ‘Boris bridge’ to link Scotland and Northern Island. All these projects cost vast sums of money; none have come to fruition and most have been abandoned.

Johnson’s election as party leader was solely due to his commitment to BREXIT. As is well known, he had no fixed views on Europe prior to the 2016 referendum, but decided that BREXIT would best serve his own political ambitions. Within weeks of his becoming leader of the Tory party, he removed  the whip from 21 MPs who voted against his government; a group that included such leading Tories as Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart, and Nicholas Soames. Several of this group decided not to stand in the subsequent general election. After the Tories’ convincing election victory, Johnson systematically cleared all dissenters out of his second administration. The sole qualification now was to be a ‘loyal’ Brexiteer. In consequence we have an unprecedentedly right-wing government, made up of political novices and intellectual pygmies. 

The new cabinet included Priti Patel, the right-wing, pro-Leave, anti-gay marriage, pro-death penalty MP, who had been sacked from cabinet in 2017 for holding unauthorised and undeclared meetings with Israeli politicians while on holiday. She became Home Secretary. Dominic Raab, a lawyer and a karate black belt with a background history in workplace bullying, became Foreign Secretary. Matt Hancock, formerly economic advisor and bag carrier for George Osborne, became Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Gavin Williamson, a former fireplace salesman [he left the firm after acknowledging an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a colleague], best known as the proud owner of a Mexican tarantula, returned to the cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. The previous year Williamson had been forced to resign as Defence Secretary after the leaking of military secrets. Robert Jenrick, another lawyer, an ambitious corporate lawyer with murky connections in Moscow, became Communities and Housing Secretary.

Johnson’s much-repeated  BREXIT slogan ‘Just get it done’ has not materialised. To date there has been neither breakthrough nor breakdown. Michel Barnier said in July that a trade and security deal with Boris Johnson’s government by the end of the year appeared “unlikely”, as he complained that Britain was demanding “near total exclusion” of European fishing boats from its waters. After the latest round of negotiations in London, Michel Barnier said that there had been “no progress” on the two most difficult areas: the rights of European fleets in British waters; and ensuring neither side drives down regulatory standards or is able to unfairly subsidise their businesses. In a statement, the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, agreed that there were “considerable gaps” while insisting that an agreement could still be reached in September. [For those who wonder why these negotiations have been entrusted to a dead, and not very funny, comedian, I should explain that this David Frost is a former career diplomat turned Scotch Whisky salesman. Which reminds me for no good reason that Von Ribbentrop was a champagne salesman.]

The sad truth is that:

  • we have an impoverished and ill-equipped  cabinet

*  as noted, there is a total reliance on BREXITEERS and yes-men

*  Boris is unwilling to fire people whose behaviour is an embarrassment [Robert Jenrick]

*  Boris is unwilling to fire those who are incompetent [Matt Hancock, Gavin Wiliamson]

  • the BREXIT negotiations are stalled and going nowhere
  • the government’s record of managing COVID has been abysmal

*  the government were too slow to react at the beginning

*  Boris is known to be unwilling to take decisions which might be unpopular

*  there was a striking failure to monitor incoming travellers at airports until it was too late

*  inadequate supplies of PPE, which was then sourced wastefully without quality control

*  the fiasco of Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham destroyed any government credibility

*  chaos of test and trace system [after Boris’s boast of a “world-beating system”]

*  there is an obsession with organisational change [killing PHE] in order to deflect blame

*  choosing to prioritise opening pubs over schools [see recent Private Eye cartoons]

  • we have government by cronyism

*  Hurd minor, an old Etonian chum, is to run a ‘COVID intelligence’ centre

*  Baroness Dido [married to a Tory MP who has called for the abolition of the National Health Service], is to run not only test and trace, but also the replacement for PHE

*  Boris who complains about the ‘unelected men’ of Brussels, has sent a bunch of chums to the House of Lords, including  Ian Botham, onetime cricketer who lives in Spain; a wealthy Russian oligarch who has helped finance Boris’s  lifestyle; and his own brother.

Carrie on Camping

The only light relief has been Boris and Carrie’s camping trip to Scotland. Plus baby and dog, and three security men. It is not clear that any of them are experienced campers. And the Applecross peninsula on the west coast is notoriously heavy with midges. According to the Daily Mail, not a wholly reliable source, they rented the old school-house for £1,500 a week, climbed over the fence to pitch a bell-tent in the adjacent field without asking the farmer’s permission. And further upset him by lighting a camp-fire in what were [by Scottish standards] dangerously dry conditions. A visit that may not have helped to counter the rising demand for Scotttsh independence.

Looking ahead

Predictions in this time of pandemic are difficult. Rumours are that ‘secret’ Cabinet papers raise the very scary prospect of a significant second wave of COVID coinciding with a no-deal BREXIT. Producing significant food shortages in the supermarkets and the prospect of civil unrest on the streets. Recent opinion polls suggest that Keir Starmer is now regarded as better fitted than Boris to tackle the pandemic, and better fitted to be prime minister. But there is no general election in sight.

I was interested to see something that Max Hastings wrote last weekend:

I have a hunch that Johnson will come to regret securing the prize for which he has struggled so long, because the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it.

I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister.”

Next time, back to France.

August 2020

Through a glass darkly – 18

John le Carre

Our  son gave me a copy of John le Carré’s latest book, Agent running in the field, for my birthday.  I am delighted, as Le Carré has given me more pleasure than any other writer over the past fifty years. For the moment I’m reluctant to start on the book; it’s a question of enjoying the anticipation or perhaps of saving the pleasure. But I have sneaked a look at the first couple of chapters. Nat is in his late forties, the son of a father in the Scots Guards, seconded to NATO in Fontainebleau, who died when Nat was just twelve, and a white Russian mother. After twenty five years in the Secret Intelligence Service he is back in London with Prue, his long-suffering lawyer wife, and Steff, his rather stroppy daughter. In his Battersea club he is challenged to a badminton game, or series of games, by the solitary and introspective  Ed,  who hates BREXIT and Trump with an equal passion.

As [both] readers may well know, David Cornwell [le Carré is a pen name, significance unknown] was born in Bournemouth in 1931. His father, Ronnie,  was a fantasist, a wheeler-dealer, a confidence trickster on an industrial scale, a one-time parliamentary candidate, a serial bankrupt, a lover of fast women and less speedy horses. His mother left home when he was only five. Unhappy at his public school [Sherborne], he ran away to Berne. There he enrolled in classes at the university and was  enrolled locally as an occasional by the Secret Service. After national service and a Modern Language degree at Oxford he taught languages, including a spell at Eton. Which would have supplied some of the background for his second book, A Murder of Quality. Unusually he then worked for both MI5 and for MI6. [The relationship between the two services is complicated. MI6 were thought of as upper class, public school poseurs, with generous living allowances; MI5 were lower middle-class, grammar school boys, with biros in their top pockets and chips on their shoulders.]

If a gun were held to my head and I had to choose a subject for Mastermind, I guess the answer would be the novels of John Le Carré. And if  a gun were held to my head and I had to choose a topic for a DPhil, an extremely unlikely scenario, I would probably choose to write on Circus to Control: Love and Loyalty in the le Carré corpus. But I can’t now remember exactly how and when I first came across his books. 

His first book, Call for the Dead, came out in 1961, shortly after le Carré, then working for MI6,  had been posted to Bonn. The book introduces several characters who would reappear in later books: George Smiley, the owlish and unobtrusive intelligence officer; his wife, Lady Ann [Sercombe], the policeman Mendel, and the villain Mundt. On his own in Bad Godesburg, waiting for his wife and children to arrive, he returned to an earlier book, A Murder of Quality, a rather old-fashioned murder mystery set in a classic English public school. [Le Carré himself had been unhappily at Sherborne, and had taught Modern Languages for a short time at Eton.] This was published in 1962. The first two books were published by Gollancz, and received favourable notices from the reviewers Julian Symons and Maurice Richardson. Penguin paid a modest advance for the paperback rights, and both books appeared in their re-vamped ‘Penguin Crime’ series with the distinctive green covers. I was at school at the time, preoccupied no doubt with medieval history and Greek irregular verbs, and didn’t notice either book. My first encounter with le Carré came with his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was published in September 1963. It was his big break-through. My recollection [memory is fallible] is that I read the book in the hard cover edition during my first year at uni, possibly borrowed from the Union library. Then as now I would be extremely reluctant to buy a novel in hard covers !

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

It is the early 1960s. Alec Leamas, fifty-ish, part-Irish, fluent in German, more-or-less fluent in Dutch, one ex-wife, one unacknowledged, illegitimate son, has been out in the cold for many years, spying for his masters in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. His networks have been rounded up and his agents have gone silent. Then his best agent is shot at the Wall, crossing into the west. Leamas is recalled home to the Circus, and is given an inferior role. He is downgraded to a clerical job in accounts. When some money goes missing, he is out on his ear without reference or pension. He struggles to find a job, and ends up in a batty library, at the Institute for Psychical Research. 

At the library he is befriended by Liz Gold,  an unassuming dark-haired colleague, a member of the local branch of the Communist Party. The job is unrewarding. He drinks too much, assaults a local shop-keeper, and does a spell in prison. When he comes out he is picked up by the opposition; and flown with a fake passport to Holland. After interrogation he is escorted east to the German Democratic Republic, where he finds that he is a key witness in an internal power struggle within the East German Intelligence Community; between Mundt, the ruthless head of the department, an unreconstructed Nazi, and Fiedler, his bright, young Jewish assistant. What is Leamas’s role ? Who is on which side ? And what happens when Liz appears unexpectedly in the Tribunal ?

It is a bleak book. Spying operates within a dour, chilling world, where motives are unclear and things are not always what they seem to be. It is light-years removed from the glitzy glamour of James Bond. The bleakness of the book is maintained in the black-and-white film of Martin Ritt [1965]. The greyness works well both for the London back-street corner shop where Leamas assaults the owner and for the East German prison camp where the concluding  tribunal takes place. 

Claire Bloom is excellent as the naive young Liz, Oskar Werner is well cast as Fiedler, and Richard Burton at his best as Alec Leamas, betrayed, hoodwinked, and terminally fatigued. [The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is, in my opinion, the only le Carré book that has translated well to the cinema screen. The Deadly Affair [1967]  looked like [was ?] an average British low-budget film of the period, in spite of the presence of James Mason and Simone Signoret.  And The Looking Glass War was a disaster with a mis-cast Christopher Jones and a badly re-hashed plot.The much acclaimed BBC television productions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness as George Smiley, are both wonderful. But that is another story.]

I have just been re-reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for the first time for a decade or two. The book stands up very well. Le Carré is a superb story-teller. [Incidentally I am reading the Penguin Classic edition of 2010. In which there is an Introduction by William Boyd which gives away the complexities of the plot. Which seems senseless.]  The book conveys equally well the brutalising, depersonalising effect of the English prison and the confusion and fear of the later imprisonment in East Germany. Re-reading the book I understood better things that I hadn’t really understood before. The collusion of the Circus in brutality and murder. And the significance of the title. Leamas comes in from the cold, from the world of lamplighters and scalp-hunters, to one final job for the Circus at the centre. And ultimately he comes in from the cold emotionally to sacrifice himself for a girl who loved him. It is, according Graham Greene, the best spy book ever written.

A Legacy of Spies

Some fifty years later came A Legacy of Spies. Peter Guillam, ‘young Peter’, a protegé  of George Smiley and one-time colleague of Alec Leamas is living in retirement on his second-generation farm in southern Brittany. From where he is abruptly summoned to a meeting in the new brutalist Secret Service building on the south bank. He negotiates the armoured glass welcome desk, and is greeted in a distinctly cool manner by two members of the legal team. Bunny is a fresh-faced public schoolboy of indeterminate age in shirt sleeve and braces, the Service’s chief lawyer; Laura an expressionless young woman with short hair and no make-up is his side-kick. Estuary English is their common language. Their concern is to pump the uncooperative Guillam about a long-ago Operation Windfall. Bunny explains that legal action is now being brought by the legal descendants of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold. Their civil-rights lawyers allege a five-star cock-up by the Service, and specifically by George Smiley and by Peter Guillam; and are insisting on full disclosure, punitive damages, and a public apology. With full press coverage.

Under pressure from the service legal team, Guillam reluctantly offers up some of what he recalls. In a left-over safe house, whose existence was not publicly known, he re-visits the files that he had filched from the Circus five decades earlier.  He is led back into the days of the internal schism between H/Covert Marylebone [George Smiley] and Joint Steering [Bill Haydon et al]. He is also forced to recall his exfiltration of Agent TULIP via Prague, and their short-lived passion. The book moves backwards and forwards between a long-ago Circus operation and present-day London where Guillam is being harassed by his own memories, by the service lawyers, and by Christophe Leamas, a bulky, potentially homicidal, man in a long dark coat and a black Homburg hat.

For a le Carré fan A Legacy of Spies is a late-flowering delight. I owe my copy, and my thanks, to Peter Ludlow who gave me his second copy. It is an exciting story in its own right. And it also throws new light both on Alec Leamas’s ill-fated last mission, and on the highly disruptive search for the Circus mole that followed. That story is told first in Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy, and is then developed further in The Honourable Schoolboy and in Smiley’s People. Together the three books make up what has been marketed as The Karla Trilogy. The books range across the Circus building in St Giles Circus, Chelsea, South London, North Oxford, Czecho, Hong Kong, and most of South East Asia. But the overarching presence is the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. Abandonment, the intelligence struggles of the Cold War, latent anti-Americanism, British class distinctions are all there somewhere. The books might be said to reflect the search for Britain’s new role in a post-imperial world. Or they might just be about love and loyalty.

If this lock-down goes on for ever, I may well have more to say about Le Carré. Meanwhile I am enjoying putting off starting on Agent running in the field. While at the same time looking forward enormously to reading it.

August 2020

Through a glass darkly – 17

Woodward’s History of England

Regular readers [if such exist] may recall that my long-ago study of history left me with a rather large lacuna; from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the outbreak of the First World War, that is about seven centuries. So, several decades later, I have been reading E.L. Woodward’s History of England. Sir [Ernest] Llewellyn Woodward was an Oxford historian, for many years a Fellow of All Souls and subsequently Professor of Modern History. His books range from an early publication on the Roman Empire to later books on the First and Second World Wars. He died in 1971.

His History of England is a single volume of 240 pages published in 1947. It is essentially  a chronological account, what might be called old-fashioned history, with the emphasis on political and diplomatic activity. It is a ‘top-down’ approach. Compared with a lot of contemporary historians, he is admirably disciplined.  Meaning brief. Which is immensely helpful if what you want is an overview of several centuries. The original book ended in 1939, but my paperback edition includes a couple of later chapters on the mid- twentieth century. What follows is a digest of the story as he tells it.

The Tudors and Stuarts

After the upheavals of the War of the Roses, the arrival of Henry Tudor in 1485 brought greater stability. The Tudor monarchy was the greatest effective concentration of power in England since the Norman Conquest. But they never had a large army. Henry VIII [1509-47] was the first king since Henry V who did not have to fight or win a battle to secure his throne. “He was a prince after the fashion of his age – …  politic, selfish and intensely national.” Divorce from Catherine of Aragon  was necessary because there was no male heir. And there was no precedent for a female ruler [except the unhappy one of  Matilda]. Once the breach was made with Rome doctrinal revisions followed. The king married Anne Boleyn in 1533 without papal approval. And was proclaimed Supreme Governor of the Church in England in 1534. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1536-39 was a logical consequence by a king in need of money.

Henry’s death in 1547 meant a regency. The young king’s uncle, the Duke of Somerset, held ‘advanced’ views on theology. The 1549 prayer book in English inclined towards Lutheranism. In 1552 the second prayer book, largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, was more Protestant. Edward VI was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister Mary [1553-58]. She repealed the statutes of Edward VI; enabled the persecution of heretics, including Cranmer and Ridley. This Catholic persecution produced Protestant martyrs. After Mary’s death, the Elizabethan Settlement was a very effective compromise. Elizabeth reissued the second prayer book of Edward VI. The settlement was both aided and hampered by violent attacks on England from catholic Spain supported by the Papacy. This was ultimately the reason for the execution of Mary Queen of Scots [1542-87].

Woodward describes Elizabeth as “a handsome, auburn-haired woman of 25; intelligent, practical, speaking Latin and French, as well as some German and Italian“. She had no brother or male relative, but chose good counsellors. War, diplomacy, and trade were closely connected. At first England did not try to rival Spanish trade in the Indies or South America. Humphrey Gilbert established a first colony in Newfoundland in 1583. Raleigh tried to establish a colony in Virginia, but was not successful. John Hawkins and Francis Drake and other plundered Spanish galleons. The Spanish Armada of 1588 was defeated, largely by the weather. But Spanish power was unbroken.

Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleight

Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign the monarchy could not meet expenses. Both James I and Charles I tried new ways to increase their revenues. Which meant summoning parliament more often. If the commons were asked for subsidies to pay for the king’s foreign policy, they would claim the right to criticise the policy. Scottish affairs were the cause of the calling of the ‘Long Parliament’, but the problem of Ireland indirectly led to the English civil war. An Irish rebellion in 1641 needed to be put down. But the Parliament would not give the money for an army under the king’s control. Charles responded by seeking to arrest the most hostile members. In return Parliament set out a programme for control over the council, the Church, and the militia.

Christopher Hill has taught us to label the seventeenth century as ‘The Age of Revolution’. But Woodward skates quite smoothly over the breakdown of royal government, the victory of the parliamentary army, the execution of Charles I in January 1649, and the establishment of the Commonwealth. He notes that Cromwell’s power rested on the army alone, and that in the latter years of the Protectorate he became king in all but name. The restoration of monarchy with Charles II in 1660 was no counter-revolution, but more a reversion to what had been before the misuse of power by Charles I. Charles II wanted toleration of Catholics, but Catholicism in Europe was the religion of absolute rulers. After Charles, James II was more openly Catholic. In May 1688 his Declaration of Indulgence would have suspended penal laws against catholics and dissenters. The clergy disobeyed, as did the bishops. The birth of a son to James II raised the danger of a catholic regency and a catholic monarch. So in June 1688 an invitation was sent to James’s daughter, Mary, and her [protestant] husband, Prince William of Orange. Civil war was avoided by allowing James to escape to France.

England in the Eighteenth Century

The ’Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-89 did not establish a new constitution. But it created the possibility of peaceful constitutional change. Throughout the 18th century the English failed to conciliate Irish feelings. But they were saved from serious problems in Scotland by the negotiated Act of Union of 1707. Bot sides  gained: Scotland did not lose its identity nor its national pride, and made great gains economically. On the death of Queen Anne  [1702-14], George, Elector of Hanover [and grandson of Elizabeth, daughter of James I], came to the throne in accordance with the Act of Settlement. The Act of Union of 1707 had weakened support for the Stuarts [as was made clear by the failed Jacobite rebellions in 1715 and 1745].

The full effects of the settlement of 1688 were now felt; as a balance of legislative, executive, and judicial power emerged. The king had to choose ministers who could obtain parliamentary support. The development of a Cabinet, and the emergence of a Prime Minister, reflected the new constitution. George I and George II did not attend Cabinet meetings. The leading servant of the Crown had no official title. But first Walpole, and then Chatham and Pitt the Younger, had an ascendancy in the commons and in the country which justified the term ‘Prime Minister’. “King, Prime Minister, and parties now began to take their modern alignment.” John Locke’s philosophy was a justification of the 1688 revolution; he saw government as a contract between ruler and subjects for the defence of property.

The Seven Years War [[1756-63] was to decide whether England or France should control North America and India. In North America English colonies stretched from Nova Scotia to Georgia; but the French had Louisiana, and the Spanish had Georgia. Within 20 years of this victorious war, England had lost the American colonies. The English complained that the colonies did not contribute to their own defence against the French, and attempted to impose taxes. Tea was thrown into the harbour at Boston in 1773. And in July 1776 a Congress at Philadelphia declared American independence.

The Boston Tea Party

From 1793 to 1814 England was at war with France; fighting for the most part against a military genius who had defeated the lumbering armies of Austria and Prussia. English sea-power was significant in countering the power of France and saved them from invasion. There were dangerous moments in 1797 and again in 1802, but Trafalgar in 1805 was a decisive victory. Wellington countered French aggression in the Spanish peninsula. Waterloo in 1815 was the final victory.

England in the Nineteenth Century

After victory at Waterloo contemporary opinion was not optimistic about the prospects for England; few people foresaw the increase in general prosperity over the next 50 years. But the growth of railways transformed life: they benefitted agriculture, and allowed poorer classes to maintain contact with the family home. Railways were private enterprises, not under government direction. There was little appetite for government controls. At home there was generally little interest in social conditions. Water supplies and sewage disposal were primitive. Liverpool in 1847 was the first city to appoint a medical officer. The population of England and Wales rose from c.9 million in 1801 to 21 million in 1851 to 32 million in 1901.

There was some improvement in labour conditions; by 1850 the trade unions had secured a ten hour day and a sixty-hour week. After 1870 there was an improvement in social services; in elementary schools and in hospitals. Improvements were secured through trade unions. Chartism arose out of frustrations with the reform act of 1832. The ‘People’s Charter’ asked for universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, abolition of property qualification, payments of members. The first TUC met in 1868. Socialism was introduced to England in the 1880s. The Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893. The ‘Labour Representative Committee’ with Ramsay MacDonald as its first secretary came into being in the 1890s. In 1906 it won 26 seats in the Commons.

Cartist demonstration, 1848

Abroad the foreign policy of Lord Palmerston, who sat in 16 parliaments, and was in office almost continuously from 1807, was directed at maintaining Britain’s status in the world. Diplomacy was about securing peace, mainly through ensuring a balance of power in Europe. The importance of India made British foreign policy very nervous about growing Russian power. Especially in Turkey. Russian control over Turkey was the cause of the Crimean War. Which justified the high reputation of the fighting capability of the British army, but not of its commanders.

Closer to home, Ireland was a continuing source of instability. The population of Ireland rose from 6 million in 1815 to 8+ million in 1840. The standard of living was very low; most peasant families lived on potatoes. The failure of the potato crop in 1845 and 1846 brought terrible famine. Two million Irish emigrated, mainly to America, between 1847 and 1861. Gladstone became convinced that home rule was the only solution to the Irish question.But he couldn’t carry his party with him. The defeat of a second home rule bill in 1893 led to Gladstone’s retirement in 1894.

England in the early Twentieth Century

TheGreat War, Woodwardmaintains was largely a consequence of the way Germany used her growing power; both to challenge British sea power, and to expand her influence south-eastwards thereby endangering British links to India. He rehearses the diplomatic consequences of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Emperor Franz-Joseph, at Sarajevo in June 1914; and he argues that the Germans effectively lost the war when they failed to capture the Channel ports in 1914. During four years of trench warfare that followed, the defence always had the upper hand. Interestingly he claims that the Boer War had brought cavalry officers to prominence in the British army; and they were neither bright nor imaginative. It was their rigidity and their lack of imagination led to loss of life on an unprecedented scale.

King George V and General Sir Douglas Haig

PS on England’s relationship with Europe

At the end of this short book, after a very brief look at what he calls the Second German War and at post-war Britain, Woodward looks prophetically into the future “The next stage”, he writes, “ – a closer integration of Great Britain with the states of continental Europe – may be less easy for a nation which still thinks of itself as an Island Power, with its own particular ways, and is still fearful of the consequences of any surrender of national sovereignty.” But Woodward insists that this transition will have to be made.

Woodward was writing at much the same time as Churchill’s speech at the University of Zurich, in 1946, in which he advocated a ‘United States of Europe’, urging Europeans to turn their backs on the horrors of the past and look to the future. He declared that Europe could not afford to drag forward the hatred and revenge which sprung from the injuries of the past, and that the first step to recreate the ‘European family’ of justice, mercy and freedom was “to build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living”.

Sixty years on, in order to curry favour with the ignorant and xenophobic faction of the Tory party, we have an untrustworthy and self-seeking prime minister who is taking us in precisely the opposite direction. Future historians will be incredulous. And will doubtless find BREXIT almost impossible to explain or to justify.

Through a glass darkly – 16

Albert Camus

During this eighteenth week of lock-down it seemed a good idea to look again at Albert Camus’s The Plague [La Peste]. Camus was a name to conjure with when I was growing up in the 1960s; a French writer, philosopher, and journalist. He was often labelled an existentialist, a label that he always rejected.  He was born of pied noir parents in Algeria, then a French territory, in 1913, and was brought up in North Africa. As a young man he had a variety of jobs, including playing in goal for the Algiers football team. When he moved to Metropolitan France he took up journalism, and was active in the Resistance during the German occupation, becoming editor of the clandestine paper Combat.  After the war he abandoned journalism and politics to become a full-time writer. 

Albert Camus

In 1957 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was killed in a car crash early in 1960. He was in a fast car being driven by his publisher, Michel Gallimard, on the old Route Nationale 5 when the  car hit a tree on a fast, straight stretch of road. Two of his better-known published books are L’Etranger [The Outsider] in 1942 and  La Peste [The Plague] in 1947. Unusually I have these books in both English and French; and I thought to read them in French, but made only slow progress so I changed my mind.  

The Plague [La Peste]

The novel is set in Oran, a large French port on the Algerian coast. It is made clear at the outset that this is not a pretty town.

The seasons are discriminated only in the sky. All that tells you of spring’s coming is the feel of the air, or the baskets of flowers brought in from the suburbs by hawkers; it’s a spring cried in the market-places. During the summer the sun bakes the houses bone-dry, sprinkles our walls with greyish dust, and you have no option but to survive those days of fire indoors, behind closed shutters.In autumn, on the other hand, we have deluges of mud …”

Oran. the station

As he leaves his surgery on an April morning, the narrator, Dr Bernard Rieux, feels something soft under his foot. It is a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. Over the next few days the porter, old M.Michel, complains that young scallywags have been dumping dead rats in the building. One of Rieux’s patients comments “they’re [the rats] coming out good and proper, have you noticed ?” Rieux’s wife has to leave him for a sanatorium, and his mother comes to keep house for him. Within a few days the door-porter is dragging himself around with his head bent and his arms and legs splayed out. And he feels pain in his neck, armpits, and groin. A few days later he is dead; an early victim of what Dr Castel, one of Rieux’s older colleagues, recognises as the plague. Recalling what he knows of the disease, Rieux recalls that seventy years earlier, at Canton, forty thousand rats died of the plague before the disease spread to humans.

The response of the authorities is to close down the city. Totally. 

One of the most striking consequences of the closing of the gates was in fact this sudden deprivation befalling people who were completely unprepared for it. Mothers and children, lovers, husbands and wives, who had a few days previously taken it for granted that their parting would be a short one … all these people found themselves, without the least warning, hopelessly cut off, prevented from seeing each other again, or even communicating with each other.”

As the deaths mount in the locked-down city, sentries are posted at the gates, and the townsfolk seek to come to terms with their sudden isolation. Rieux as a practising doctor is busy injecting serum, lancing buboes, checking the statistics, and making afternoon rounds of his patients. The church authorities call for a Week of Prayer, culminating in a High Mass under the auspices of St Roch, the plague-stricken saint. The cathedral is full for the service, at which Father Paneloux tells the congregation very clearly that God has ordained good and evil in everything, and that this pestilence is punishing them for their sins and pointing them their future path. It is hard to know what effect this has on the townsfolk.


The book conveys powerfully the sense of hopelessness within the stricken city. Strong winds and summer heat drive up the number of victims. The plague has obliterated colour and vetoed pleasure. A small group of acquaintances cluster round Rieux and work with him to combat the plague; cordoning off the worst affected areas and keeping accurate records of deaths. Funerals are reduced to the bare minimum, and take place not in churches but as perfunctory rites by the grave-side. The illness, incurable and implacable, continues to strike down innocent people. Acceptance of the rising deaths  does not overcome a dogged determination to fight the plague. 

Is it about the German occupation  ?

Camus’s novel is said to be loosely based on a cholera epidemic that erupted in Oran in 1849, not long after French colonisation. But it is not a book about a medical condition; it is rather about how individual men [and they are all men] react to a lethal enemy that they cannot see. Unlike our own COVID pandemic, there is no television news and no daily press conferences by blustering Boris and hapless Hancock. Explanations of what’s happening have to be worked out on the spot.

It is often said that Camus’s plague is an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France. We know that Camus tried to flee France after the German occupation. [Just as the journalist Rambert tries to flee the plague-ridden city.] He fled from Paris to Lyon, and then to Oran, before returning to  France and to Paris, where he joined the Resistance and edited the magazine Combat. The book  asks the question, ‘How would you react in this situation ?’. When we find ourselves in an appalling situation which we cannot control, what qualities emerge in people ? It is now customary to pay tribute to the courage and the suffering of the French Resistance. But Le Chagrin et La Pitie, Marcel Ophuls’ documentary of 1969, showed that there were many different reactions in France to   the Vichy government and the Nazi occupation. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The Plague doesn’t offer easy moral answers. And it doesn’t deal with heroism, at least not of the conventional kind. The authorities initially seek to dismiss the plague as a false alarm. [Shades of President Trump and President Bolsonaro.] Rieux is a practical man; he offers no ideology, but stubbornly applies his medical skills. Others gather round him. Joseph Grand, the government clerk. is struggling with the first sentence of his intended novel [a wonderful running joke] , but works tirelessly to record the statistics of the plague with careful precision. I don’t always agree with Ben MacIntyre, but I think he is right to conclude “Albert Camus’s 1947 novel suggests quiet courage and decency are the greatest virtues at times like this”. And there is an ominous coda, as the jubilant crowds finally celebrate an end to the plague: 

Rieux knew what the jubilant crowds did not know … … that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves … … and  that perhaps the day would come when it roused up the rats again …”

On the Emmaus Road

As a student I never associated Camus with Christianity. But David Smith in his 2007 book Moving towards Emmaus: hope in a time of uncertainty sees Camus as one of a number of contemporary humanists who are companions in dialogue on the Emmaus Road. Writers and thinkers who seek to balance faith and unfaith, oscillating between expressions of despair and the recovery of hope.

Thus Camus writes, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death:

How to live without grace … that is the question that dominates the nineteenth century. ‘By justice’ answered all those who did not want to accept absolute nihilism. To the people who despaired of the Kingdom of Heaven, they promised the kingdom of men. The preaching of the city of humanity increased in fervour up to the end of the nineteenth century when it became really visionary in tone and placed scientific certainties in the service of Utopia. But the kingdom has retreated into the distance, gigantic wars have ravaged the oldest continent in Europe, the blood of rebels has spattered walls, and total justice has approached not a step nearer. The question of the twentieth century … has gradually been specified: how to live without grace and without justice ?”

In the epilogue to Moving towards Emmaus, David Smith retells the story of Camus’s friendship with the Methodist minister Howard Mumma. Camus had come into the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay in the late 1950s to hear the organist Marcel Dupré, but then came back to church to listen to the preacher. From this initial contact a close friendship developed between Albert Camus and Howard Mumma, and [according to the latter’s book] their wide-ranging conversations about the meaning of human existence culminated in Camus’s request for Christian baptism. It doesn’t happen; Mumma returns to the States, and shortly afterwards Camus is killed in a road accident.

This then is perhaps the question that the COVID pandemic raises for church leaders: Are we willing and able in times of great uncertainty and suffering to respond to the spiritual and intellectual questions of honest seekers ?  People who are far from being church members. Are we willing to walk with them and to listen to them ? Before we think to enrol them on Alpha courses or the equivalent.

July 2020

Through a glass darkly – 15

Being seventy five

I was seventy five two days ago. What does that event signify ? When I googled the number [except that I don’t use Google, I use Duck Duck Go Go], it told me that seventy five was the number one above seventy four. Which is certainly true, if not very helpful. And it also told me that seventy five was the departmental number for Paris, where we lived when we were first married back in the 1970s and I was working for OUP. Our daughter was born in Paris, and may occasionally think of herself as  ‘une vraie titie Parisienne’, but in truth we left before her first birthday. The A75 is a trunk road in south west Scotland which leaves the A74 (M) near Gretna, and runs south-west past Dumfries, Castle Douglas, and Gatehouse of Fleet before ending at Stranraer. One stretch of it is said to be haunted. If blustering Boris’s lunatic scheme to build a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland were ever to happen, then the road would presumably be upgraded to motorway standard. In France the A75 is the dramatic motorway that runs south from near Clermont-Ferrand across the Massif Central to near Beziers. It includes the extraordinary, terrifying to me, Millau Viaduct. Incidentally construction of that motorway began in 1975, but I think the number is just a coincidence.

In the Bible Psalm 90 tells us [in the Authorised Version], 

The days of our years [are] threescore years and ten; 

and if by reason of strength [they be] fourscore years, 

yet [is] their strength labour and sorrow; 

for it is soon cut off, and we fly away”. 

Generally I’m not a huge admirer of The Message, but I do like Eugene Peterson’s version:

We live for seventy years or so

[with luck we might make it to eighty]

And what do we have to show for it ? Trouble.

Toil and trouble and a marker in the graveyard …

Oh! Teach us to live well !

Teach us to live wisely and well

So, seventy is taken to be our allotted span in this life, an idea picked up [retweeted one might say] by Shakespeare in Macbeth.

Susie thinks that blogging is just a way of trying to put your life into order. As dreams do when you are asleep. Bruce Chatwin wrote a book called ‘What am I doing here ?’  Perhaps the more appropriate, birthday related question is How did I come to be where I am ? So what follows is an unashamedly self-centred retrospect on how the decades have gone over the past seventy years. Maybe the only justification for writing it down is that I know the story better than anyone else.

July 1950

To be honest I don’t remember a lot about 1950. I was living with my parents and my older brother in a big, unheated house in  Southfields, an anonymous suburb of south-west London. My mother thought [rightly] that the house, which spread over three floors, was ‘very inconvenient’. I was about to start school at St Michael’s, a local Church of England primary school. Happily I could already read quite well, and one of my pre-school activities was to sit under the dining table declaiming stuff from Poems for Patriots, and to pretend that I was on the BBC. My first primary school teacher was Miss Kavanagh, who wore a fluffy pink bolero. She is the only person I have ever met who came from Hobart, Tasmania. For writing we used a small wooden-surround blackboard and a squeaky slate pencil. A bit like Bill the Lizard in Alice in Wonderland.

Minety station

My father was a teacher and we spent all our school holidays with my grandparents, my mother’s parents. My grandfather, known to us as Fa, was station master on the GWR [God’s Wonderful Railway], at Minety, a small station between Swindon and Cheltenham. So during the school holidays we lived in a world that was very similar to that of Thomas the Tank Engine.

July 1960

In the wider world the newly independent former Belgian Congo was about to explode into violence and anarchy. And a young boy was the first person to survive being swept over the Niagara Falls. It seems that I wasn’t aware of that. I was four years into a single sex, boy’s boarding school in Sussex, Christ’s Hospital, and I was doing GCE O levels. [As I recall, I passed in seven subjects, doing best in classical Greek and worst in Elementary Maths.] My 1960 diary, which I found in a shoe box the other day, meticulously records my marks in Latin grammar tests and French unseens. And also my scores in various house games [cricket].  The entry for my birthday records, laconically: “My birthday. Seven cards. Physics and Chemistry, Chemistry Theory. Catalytic oxidation of ammonia.”  Clearly a man of few words. And none of them very interesting.

The Quad, Christ’s Hospital

What I think the diary demonstrates is that, as Philip Larkin and others have already observed, ‘the Sixties’ didn’t really begin for another few years, round about 1963. Certainly for me, medieval history and modern jazz, and hitchhiking, and France, and involvement with the Putney Young Socialists, and talking to girls, were all in the future. Like the Beatles first LP.

July 1970

School was half a decade past. My aspirations [pretensions] as a historian had disappeared after three unprofitable years at Oxford. Now I was working for Robert Maxwell’s Pergamon Press. [Photos of Ghislaine Maxwell following her recent arrest show how very much like her father she is.] Maxwell is now largely derided as the bouncing Czech and an overweight crook. But in the day he was the great [white] hope of British scientific and technical publishing; decorated during the war, married to a wealthy French woman, and Labour MP for part of Buckinghamshire, After eighteen dull months as a college rep, I was now Editor of the Commonwealth and International Library, a one-thousand volume series of  books on science, technology, engineering, and liberal studies. A very Maxwellian concept ! In practice I was the in-house editor for several series of textbooks, all of which were assessed by outside academics. I worked in an enormous open plan office with very few windows, which had formerly been the Pergamon warehouse, and the indoor plants and the carpet were watered every night by the cleaners.

Robert Maxwell, Chairman of Pergamon Press, talking to reporters

The content of most of the books I handled was beyond me. But I got to learn something about print runs and production costs and profitability. I also took a lot of authors out to lunch. On one memorable occasion I took three Professors of Spanish out to lunch at Schmidt’s, a German restaurant in Charlotte Street. It was said to have the rudest waiters in London, and was like something left over from The Music of Time. One of the academics, an irascible Northern Irishman, ordered Steak Tartare and insisted to the incredulous waiter that he wanted it “well done”. It was my job to smooth things over..

July 1980

Susie and I had been married for five years. After a couple of years in Paris, I had come home to work for OUP in the ELT [English Language Teaching] department. And then I moved on to the smaller English Language Teaching Development Unit [ELTDU]. We couldn’t afford a house that we liked in Oxford, so we bought a house up the road in Woodstock. Thankfully it wasn’t as expensive then as it has now become. We had a great view over the Glyme valley from our bedroom windows. And our two small children both learned to walk in Blenheim Great Park. There was an excellent bridge for playing Pooh-Sticks. But you had to stay away from the swans.

Blenheim Great Park

ELTDU was a very small business, with great potential but a running cash-flow problem. Much like our domestic finances. The election of Margaret Thatcher the previous year had driven me to get involved with the nascent SDP, for whom I campaigned in the West Oxfordshire constituency. Douglas Hurd was the sitting MP. Later replaced by David Cameron. More significantly in the longer term, we had found our way to St Andrew’s church, Linton Road, North Oxford. And the course of my life was being substantially changed by Colin Bennetts, the newly-arrived vicar, who became both a mentor and a good friend. And, subsequently, Bishop of Coventry

July 1990

After my training for ordination at Wycliffe Hall in Oxford, Susie and I had moved to Edinburgh two years earlier; and from summer 1988 I had been Curate at St Thomas’s church, Corstorphine, on the west side of Edinburgh. It was a good church in which to begin ministry. We lived next to the church on the busy Glasgow Road. My training rector, Dennis Lennon, a former OMF missionary in Malaya and Thailand, was the best preacher week-in, week-out that I ever heard. [Though some of the congregation were bit confused when Dennis preached three Sundays running on the Parable of the Unjust Steward.] Dennis taught me a lot about preaching, but failed to encourage me to share his enthusiasm for  the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

It was Dennis’s view that in church ministry you should move on every seven years, and he was leaving St Thomas’s that summer to become Diocesan Missioner in the Diocese of Sheffield.. We were on the move too. Bishop Richard Holloway asked us to ‘look at’ Christ Church, Duns, down in the Borders, a church with an evangelical tradition which was struggling with some internal schisms. I was very respectful of bishops then, and we went down to Duns to meet the Vestry, and they invited us to go there. The 19th century rectory, with too many rooms and too little heating, was put on the market. So we moved that month into a farm cottage at Duns Mill surrounded by fields. Both the children started at Berwickshire High School. For our daughter Joanna it was her fourth school in four consecutive school years.

July 2000

A decade later we were about to move again. Christ Church, Duns, had been a very positive experience. We had some hereditary Episcopalians;  the families who had planted the church 150 years earlier were buried in the churchyard, and some of those families were still in the congregation. .  But there was also a swathe of the congregation who had worked on Christian mission in Africa. And we benefited from links with two local Bible colleges, the Northumberland Bible College in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and the more recent King’s Bible College, up the road at Whitchester.

Christ Church, Duns

A decade can seem a long time in a small town of 2,000 people. Our children had completed schooling in Duns, and then first degree courses in Edinburgh. Joanna was about to go and teach in a mission school in Nepal. Where her then boy-friend [and now husband] was doing a medical elective, in a hospital in Katmandu. And Jeremy was about to fly out to Australia and explore that vast country with two mates from uni. No less adventurously, or so it seemed to us, Susie and I were returning to France. I had been offered the job as Chaplain of the Lyon Anglican Church, part of the Diocese in Europe, and linked to the Intercontinental Church Society. In July we were busy making lists and getting quotes from removal firms. And doing a holiday chaplaincy in Brittany.

July 2010

Under the misapprehension that I would be asked to leave Lyon, and church ministry,  punctually on my 65th birthday, I applied for a post-retirement job back in Scotland. Which would have brought us much nearer to my [then] nonagenarian mother-in-law. Applying for the job for all the wrong reasons was clearly a big mistake. A bit chastened we went back to Lyon and stayed another three years.

One of the highlights of the year was going to visit Joanna and Craig, our daughter and her husband, in South Africa. A country that I never thought I would visit when I was younger. We were based with them in Pretoria in a gated community. We had two nights in a luxurious hut at Sabi Sands game reserve, on the edge of the Kruger National Park. Open vehicle game drives brought us close to an amazing variety of animals, including the Big Five. Back in Pretoria an afternoon at Loftus Versveld watching the Blue Bulls showed us an equally wild bunch. Then the train down to Cape Town: the cable-car up Table Mountain [not for me], a drive out to Boulders Bay to see the penguins, a night in a Hout Bay hideaway, and on our last night a Cliff Richard and the Shadows Golden Anniversary tour concert in Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens.  It was all wonderful.

Sabi Sands game reserve

July 2020

So here we are in [I think] the 17th week of lock-down. For the time being summer has gone away from Edinburgh, replaced by grey days and wind and rain. The garden looks glorious, thanks to a gardening wife. My role is to dig holes as directed. And to cut the grass occasionally, but not too often. It is better ecologically to let it grow, and the bees love the clover. Birthday celebrations were Zoom calls over breakfast with the children and grand-children. And lunch, not in the garden, with two good friends; Mary Berry’s cold salmon and raspberry pavlova. . We hope to get away, up north, in September, provided that there is no second wave of COVID cases..

Meanwhile the same old questions remain. Why am I unable to sing in tune ? What is the real relationship between the synoptic gospels ? Why do we have as prime minister a Balliol man who is patently inadequate, seemingly xenophobe, and a serial liar ? Why do/did so many American Christians vote for Donald Trump as president ? Will I live long enough to read Thomas Piketti’s Capital ?  And, less challengingly, The Maisky Diaries ?  If you think you know the answers to these questions, feel free to tell me. Otherwise I’ll get round to them one of these days.

July 2020

Through a glass darkly – 14

Out to lunch.

So, bars and restaurants are opening again down south. It seems an extraordinarily stupid act by blustering Boris to fix a Saturday in July as so-called Liberation Day. The distasteful scenes on the beaches at Bournemouth in recent days show that managing the easing of lock-down promises to be a difficult job. A metre and a bit may prove to be an unworkable concept. And the earlier Dominic Cummings fiasco  has merely encouraged a lot of people to think that they too can make their own decisions regardless of what the government guidelines seek to enforce.

Up here in Scotland the cautious Nicola looks statesman-like by comparison. Is that sexist usage, I wonder ? And while we are finally allowed to travel more than five miles from home, bars and restaurants still remain out of reach for most of us. So, as I walk round the hill every day, I have been compiling a list of places to go out to lunch. In my head. This is emphatically not intended as a Michelin guide substitute. More as a reminder of happier times. The list inevitably reflects where we have lived and been in the past couple of decades. But some of these places we haven’t been to for a few years; so please don’t complain to me if you arrive and find it no longer there. The order is pretty random, and does not indicate any relative merit.

L’Entrecôte, Lyon

There are [at least] two restaurants of this name in Lyon, both good. The one I am thinking of is in the centre of town just down from Place Terreaux. OK the tartan decor is a bit naff, and there is virtually no choice on the menu; it is entrecôte with ‘its famous sauce’ with a pile of pommes allumettes. And they bring you as second pile of chips halfway through your steak. I’ve been there lots of times. And the steak is always brilliant. Desserts are nothing special, but who cares.

L’Entrecôte, Lyon

Cafe Marlayne, Edinburgh

A distinctly French bistro style restaurant in Thistle Street, in central Edinburgh. They serve an attractively priced prix fixe lunch with a choice of three or four starters and mains. Dinner is a more extensive menu. The wine list is all French. When I was last there in January, the restaurant was full at lunchtime. Good food and efficient service. My recollection is that the owner is lyonnaise. Not to be confused with the Cafe Saint-Honoré, another Edinburgh bistro, a few minutes walk away, where we celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary earlier this year.

Café Marlayne, Edinburgh

Restaurant de Fourvière, Lyon

On top of Fourvière, on the south side of the Basilica, opposite the entrance to the Chapel of St Thomas Becket. The situation is incomparable as you look out east, through a plate glass window, across the cathedral and the city and the two rivers, all far below.  It was our preferred place for taking visitors for lunch during our decade in Lyon. The food was serious and the prices honest. Especially the daily menu des pelerins. Very sadly, word is that the restaurant may now be closed. If that is true then I think we would instead try Les Retrouvailles in the rue de Boeuf. 

The view from Fourvière, Lyon

Can Gata, Soller, Majorca

Susie and I were on a week’s package holiday in Puerto de Soller, on the north coast of Majorca. We didn’t stray very far because I was nervous about the buses on Majorca’s mountain roads. One day we took the tram into Soller, and walked up to Fornalutx, bought a couple of tee-shirts and walked back down to Soller to find the Can Gata. You go through a dark, unprepossessing cafe/bar into a nicely planted garden with half a dozen well-spaced tables and umbrellas. And a few sleeping cats. Simple food: gazpacho, croquettes, tapas, salads. An oasis on a hot day. Decent service and prices.

Can Gata, Soller

The Fat Fox, Watlington

Watlington is an attractive village in east Oxfordshire, not far off the M40. A few minutes drive from where The Vicar of Dibley was filmed. It’s probably now best known for the high class bakers. The Fox is in Shirburn Street, very close to the centre and the market square. Pretty standard pub food: battered cod, steak, lasagne, steak and kidney, good sausages. Good food. Good desserts. And good beer. Slightly different lunchtime menu. Apparently there are rooms too. But our son and daughter-in-law and their children live a few miles up the road. Which is what takes us to Watlington.

The Fat Fox, Watlington

Chez Janou, 75003 Paris 

Most of the restaurants that I once knew in Paris are no longer there. But Chez Janou has been our favourite for about a decade. It’s small place near the Place des Vosges, a bar at the front, always crowded, and quite tightly packed tables behind. Lots of artwork on the walls, tiled floor, bent-wood chairs, and provençal colours. I’ve read some very mixed reviews on line, mainly complaining about long waits and poor service. But we’ve been here a few times spread over a decade, most recently with three generations for Susie’s birthday lunch a couple of years ago, and I’ve always  found the staff helpful. Excellent food. Beware of the industrial size portions of chocolate mousse. When we get back to Paris we’ll certainly make a bee-line for this place.

Chez Janou, Paris

The Loft, Haddington

Haddington is a small town about half an hour’s drive east of Edinburgh, formerly the county town of East Lothian. Although there is a lot of new building on the outskirts, the town has retained its central historic street plan around the former market place. The Loft is a straightforward cafe that concentrates on serving simple food well. Entrance up the steps. I’ve never been there early enough for breakfast. At lunchtime they do home-made soups, quiches, filled rolls, mackerel pate, toasties, and summer salads. And coffee and cake. Not fast food. All home made. Afterwards walk it off by the river Tyne, and visit St Mary’s Collegiate Church, the longest parish church in Scotland.

Cafe de la Place, Rontalon

Rontalon is a village in the Monts du Lyonnais, about twenty minutes west of Lyon going towards St Martin en Haut. It is surrounded by fields of fruit trees. For a decade or so the Lyon congregation walked at Rontalon on Good Friday, up a very steep hill to a hill-top cross for a short service. And back via another cross.The circuit was about 8kms.The weather was variable; from snow one year to clear skies and spring sunshine. Afterwards we had lunch in the cafe. I think the food usually is pretty basic. But we invariably had roast pork, wonderful gratin dauphinois, and big steel bowls of green salad. And fromage blanc à la crème. And plenty of wine. Good Friday has never been the same since. But there are rumours that the cafe may have transmuted into an Italian bistro.

La Porteuse d’Eau,  Saint-Gilles, Brussels

A corner cafe on two floors rather than a restaurant. A bit away from the historic centre in the Saint-Gilles district. It’s named after a nearby statue of a water carrier. Major attractions are the stained glass windows and the spiral staircase. Fairly standard collection of Belgian dishes. Service and food OK when I’ve been there. If all you really want is frites then I think Maison Antoine in the Place Jourdan is your best bet. It has been there since 1946, and is [was ?] housed in a shack left behind by the German army after the war. You can enjoy your frites sitting at any of the local cafes for the price of a beer. 

La Porteuse d’Eau, Saint-Giles, Brussels

Merlevi Sofrasi, Konya

Konya is is best known as a place of pilgrimage for the Muslim world, a city that is dear to the heart of pious Turks. It was the adopted home of Celaleddin Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic known as the Mevlana [the Master], and founder of the Mevlevi sect, better known as the Whirling Dervishes. This sprawling restaurant overlooks the Mevlana Museum, a very dignified complex of buildings that cluster round the tomb of Celaleddin Rumi.

Merlevi Sofrasi, Konya

We were there on a very cold day in December. Lots of local specialities. Service was slow as most of the staff were at prayers. But the waiters were friendly, and the food was excellent. There is a lot of meat [like everywhere in Turkey]. I had the slow-cooked beef, served in an earthenware dish. Excellent. No alcohol. Drink yoghurt.

Dream on !

July 2020

Through a glass darkly – 13

As we move towards our 15th week of lock-down, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that my reading consisted solely of academic history and German theology. After lunch and before going to sleep I have turned the pages of a number of thrillers. I started with Colin Dexter’s Morse books. There is no doubt that [Endeavour] Morse is an engaging character, with a taste for Wagnerian opera and decent beer. He has an attractive vulnerability which shows in his wistful fondness for [usually unsuitable] women, particularly Sister Janet. And Dexter is thoroughly familiar with Oxford streets and Oxford pubs. When his first book Last Bus to Woodstock came out in the 1970s we were living in Woodstock, which was an added attraction. But on looking at the books again I feel that from, say, Mystery of the Third Mile [published in 1983], Dexter’s plotting becomes over-complicated [Dexter was of course a very high class crossword puzzler], and it can feel as if the characters are taking second place to the demands of the increasingly ingenious plot.

Donna Leon’s Venice

On the other hand, since we shan’t be going to Venice, nor anywhere else, in the foreseeable future I’ve been enjoying turning the pages of Donna Leon’s early Brunetti books. Donna Leon is an American who used to teach English to university students in Venice, and there are now [I think] some twenty-nine books that feature the Venetian detective Guido Brunetti, He is a Commisario working out of the Questura on the Fondamenta di San Lorenzo, at the western end of the sestiere Castello,  just across from San Giorgio dei Greci. [The police have now moved to the Piazzale Roma.]

The Questura, Venice

Brunetti’s boss is the Vice-Questore Patta, a pretentious bureaucrat from the south, given to arriving late and early lunches. Patta’s glamorous secretary, Signorina Elettra, who formerly worked for the Bank of Italy, is a genius at digging stuff out of her computer, often with the help of a network of unidentified contacts. Brunetti’s other partner is the dependable and honourable Vianello, for long a Sergeant but finally promoted to Ispettore. The burly Vianello develops into an accomplished computer hacker and a concerned critic of environmental pollution.

A Noble Radiance, the 7th Brunetti book, published in 1999, starts with the discovery of a badly decomposed corpse in a small village at the foot of the Dolomites. A valuable signet ring leads Brunetti to the heart of aristocratic Venice, to a family still grieving the loss of their abducted son. Fatal Remedies, published in 2000, starts with an early morning phone call and a pre-dawn act of vandalism. Then Brunetti discovers that the perpetrator is not a common criminal, but none other than Paola Brunetti, his wife. Apart from the domestic crisis the book embraces sex tourism, a daring robbery with possible Mafia connections, and a suspicious death. The unheralded visit of a young bureaucrat to the Brunetti apartment is the starting point of Friends in High Places, also first published in 2000. The young man is investigating the lack of formal approval for building work done many years earlier. But when the man rings Brunetti at work, obviously scared, and then is found dead after a fall from scaffolding, it is clear that something more serious is going on. The murder of two clam fishermen on Pellestrina, an island in the lagoon, is the starting point of A Sea of Troubles, first published in 2001. The highly knit community are suspicious of all outsiders especially the police. But when the boss’s PA, Signorina Elettra, volunteers to visit the island where she has relatives, and then when a woman’s body is washed up, Brunetti is in a very difficult position. Torn between his duty to investigate the murders and his not entirely straightforward feelings for his attractive colleague. Most of these books won CWA Macallan awards. And there are other twenty or so books to follow !

The police cases, usually a murder or two, are cross-cut with Brunetti’s home life in San Polo. He has been married to the lovely Paola for twenty plus years. She teaches English Literature at the university, and is a devotee of Henry James; the other man in their marriage. There are two teenage children; Raffi, now taken up with playing his stereo very loudly and with his girl-friend, and his younger sister Chiara, given to a sequence of touching enthusiasms. Paola cooks mouth-watering meals for the family, lunchtime and evening; invariably a pasta dish and a main course, and a sliver of cheese and a pudding.  If the children can be persuaded to do the dishes, Guido and Paola then recline with a small grappa or a Calvados. Guido sometimes resents the presence of Henry James in their marriage. Paola is sometimes suspicions of Guido’s closeness to Signorina Elettra.

Grand Canal and Santa Maria della Salute, Venice

Why do I appreciate Donna Leon so much ? It is partly her delight in the city surroundings in all weathers, ranging from clear spring mornings to the oppressive heat of summer and on to the damp and cold winter days. And it is partly the idealism of both Guido and his wife, as they search in different ways for a better world. In marked contrast to the world around them. Brunetti’s boss is lazy and self-seeking.  Paola’s colleagues are vain and career minded. Donna Leon takes for granted that the great bulk of Italian society is riddled with corruption; greedy politicians, dysfunctional families, corrupt bureaucrats and lawyers, dishonest businessmen, all happy to cut deals in dangerous chemicals and out-of-date drugs if there is a profit to be made.


For me, it was love at first sight. I first arrived in Venice in the summer of 1963, hitchhiking from Lljubliana on the way back from Istanbul, and stayed for a few nights at the splendidly situated youth hostel on Giudecca.

Youth hostel, Giudecca, Venice

I knew there were canals. But I hadn’t realised that there were only canals. No streets and no cars. What did I do on that first visit ? I bought a guide-book. And I made a dutiful visit to St Mark’s. And I walked a lot. And I peered at the vast Tintorettos in Scuola San Rocco. And I played chess on Giudecca with a man I met in the hostel. And then I re-met some friends from the hostel in Istanbul, three students from the Edinburgh School of Art, and I accepted their offer of a lift to Ravenna to look at the mosaics at San Vitale. I’ve never been back to Ravenna since. But I’ve been to Venice many times.

In the late 1960s I was there in August, very hot and very crowded. We were camping at the Lido di Jesolo, all tourists and campsites and carry-out pizzas. But there are boats to Venice, and you approach San Marco from the sea. The extraordinary skyline emerges from the water in the way described on the opening pages of James Morris’s Venice.  Then Susie and I were there in the summer of 1975, again on the way back from Yugoslavia. This time we stayed in a dark pink washed hotel on the Grand Canal, a hundred yards or so from Rialto Bridge. It was a lot cheaper then than it is now. One afternoon we made a first boat trip across the lagoon to Torcello, to the mysterious cathedral of  Santa Maria Assunta, part Byzantine, part Gothic, with its striking mosaic of the Teotoca Madonna, the God-Bearer. And afterwards to Burano, strangely deserted, where we met some small children and took their photos.


After that there was a long gap. Susie and I were there again thirty years later. This time we stayed in a hotel in Piazza San Margherita, the biggest open space on Dorsoduro. The hotel was small, and the walls so thin that you could hear both parties to the telephone conversation in the adjoining room.  Breakfast, not a very good breakfast, was in a cafe across the piazza. But there was a good, busy, student-filled restaurant close by.

Then for a few years I went there by myself for a few days in November. Once I took a square-wheeled night train from Dijon. Otherwise I flew there, from Lyon or from Edinburgh, and caught the airport boat direct to Rialto. Each time I stayed in the Hotel Da Bruno, a few minutes walk from Rialto. It was generally quiet in November. The staff lent me an umbrella when it was raining, which it often was. And offered me gum-boots if there was flooding because of the Acqua Alta. On each visit I returned to Torcello, very old and very lonely, the tower swathed in scaffolding, the island largely inhabited by a myriad of cats. “Mother and daughter”, commented Ruskin from the top of the campanile, “you behold them both in their widowhood – Torcello and Venice”.


Afterwards I hopped back to Burano on the boat, walked over the bridge and ate several times at a very quiet trattoria near the boat stop on Mazzorbo, an island that deals in vegetables rather than tourists. In Venice itself I just visited a lot of churches. I would make a trip to San Pietro i Castello at the eastern end of the city, with its mysterious Bishop’s Throne. Legend associates it with St Peter and Antioch, but the inscription on it is from the Koran. The long ignored church is supported by the citizens of Los Angeles.  I discovered the tiny, jewel-like S Maria dei Miracoli, a few minutes walk behind the hotel. I visited San Giovanni in Bragora, where  Antonio Vivaldi was baptised.  I discovered the gloomy, candle-lit  church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli with its  poorly-lit, complex tableau. And I once only got into San Giovanni Elemosinario, close to the Rialto bridge, with the mysterious, undated carving of the Nativity scene and a devout ox licking the face of the baby Jesus. Ever since the church has been shrouded in scaffolding.

Eating can be a problem. It is often said that the unending procession of tourists has made it difficult to eat well in Venice. Osteria La Zucca is an excellent mainly vegetarian restaurant near San Giacomo, but you need to be prepared to book in advance. On a very cold and wet November day I was greatly cheered by a restaurant on Giudecca, who produced half a litre of sharp white wine and a big bowl of fried courgette as a starter followed by a baked whole fish with boiled potatoes. Possibly a gilt-head bream. It was excellent. Also on the Giudecca is the cafe in the former Boat Builders’ Canteen, which seems to have been there for ever, and which serves student-like meals to crowds of students at student-like prices.


I suspect that both my readers will know Venice. If not, then I would urge you to go, preferably out of season when there might be fewer tourists. And before those behemoth cruise liners return. Before you go read James Morris’s Venice [I know she is now Jan Morris, but he was James Morris on my original copy of the book], incomparably the best book on Venice ever written. And maybe have a look too at Toni Sepeda’s Brunetti’s Venice: walks through the novels. The book offers a dozen walks through the city, most lasting an hour or two, all referenced to the first sixteen Brunetti books. I’ve only done one of them, from the Questura to the quiet and lonely Celestia boat-stop. It must be time for me to go again.

June 2020