Saturday, 8 November 2014

Funeral in Maidenhead

“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
George Orwell, 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.

As a child, I loved Gerry Anderson's puppet shows. They were part of an optimistic, science-led vision of life in the 21st century that drew on the Jet Age, the Atomic Age and the Space Age; Concorde, the Moon landings, and a future where power would be "too cheap to meter". I loved the various planes and rockets of International Rescue in Thunderbirds, bankrolled by billionaire philanthropist Jeff Tracey from his secret Pacific volcano island (a set-up which under other circumstances could easily have been a Bond villain headquarters). I loved the slightly dark and sinister world of Captain Scarlet, missing as I did at the time all of the 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' undertones and focusing instead on the cool cars and planes, the flying aircraft carrier of Cloudbase. I had a model of an Angel Interceptor on my windowsill. And I especially loved Joe 90, as it seemed (as it was no doubt supposed to) to be almost within reach even of a slightly nerdy kid in the West Midlands - a boy (in NHS glasses!) who gets to be a real secret agent courtesy of his professor father's strange machine, which can implant any knowledge in his mind from a bank of magnetic cassette tapes (hey, it was the 60s, okay?)

I hadn't seen an episode of Joe 90 for more than 30 years, but YouTube brings all our yesteryears back to life, and so in a slight 'gin and tonic just before bed' kind of mood, I found myself watching the first episode last night, and, bringing my adult knowledge and range of cultural references to it, it was a very different experience from the one I had had as a child. As a young boy, I hadn't appreciated Anderson's future set-up, with its World Government and World Intelligence Network, or that, as is revealed in the closing scene, that the USSR is now (the programme is set in what was then the distant future of 2013) allied with the West against an insidious threat from the East (ie China). But most of all, I hadn't realised just what a rip-off of the Ipcress File it all was! It seems blindingly obvious now; an agent with dorky NHS glasses and an east London accent is brainwashed by a massive, psychedelic machine. The ground-breaking film of the Ipcress File, Len Deighton's downmarket jab at James Bond, had been released in 1965, just three years before the first episode of Joe 90 hit the screens. Joe is, essentially, Harry Palmer Junior, and the BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer) is just a slightly more benign rendering of the IPCRESS (Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS) process. The clincher is that the original book mentions secrets about the first Soviet atom bomb test, codenamed 'Joe 1' by the West - 'Joe' there being Josef Stalin, of course. The leap from Joe 1 to Joe 90 is not a large one. The Harry Palmer films continued with more conventional plotlines like Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, and Gerry Anderson's Maidenhead-based Century 21 Productions turned instead to alien abductions with his live action 'UFO', but for a moment at the end of the 60s there was a strange crossover between spy fiction, sci-fi and psychedelia.

Because of course Gerry Anderson, like Len Deighton, were both just tapping into a wider zeitgeist about 'brainwashing' that had occupied the late 50s and early 60s. Its origins go back much further, as the quote from Orwell at the top indicates. Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in 1948, but Winston Smith's conditioning in the Ministry of Love is based on a kind of Pavlovian training whose research goes back to the Soviet Union of the 1920s. The idea burst into popular western consciousness during the Korean War, when some US prisoners of war were found to have cooperated with their Chinese captors, and some even defected. China at the time believed wholeheartedly in the kind of 're-education' that Orwell described just a couple of years earlier, and they described it in Mandarin as xi nao, which translates as 'mind cleansing'... or of course, 'brainwashing'.

The fear that China had stumbled across the way to 're-programme' human beings to behave as obedient automata seemed, to western governments of the time, to explain the success of an ideology like communism in infecting even the minds of dutiful US G.I.s. The idea reached its logical conclusion in 1961's The Manchurian Candidate, where a US prisoner of war from Korea is brainwashed into assassinating the US president. The fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had spent time in Russia seemed to confirm how prophetic the film had been when two years later he shot JFK. The only twist that Joe 90 makes is to try and imagine how brainwashing might be used for good, rather than evil. The psychedelic nature of the sounds and images of IPCRESS and the BIG RAT are also a nod towards the explosion of use of LSD that had occurred in the 60s, and the use of LSD as part of brainwashing experiments became very much a trope of the time, and even seriously experimented with for a while by the CIA as part of their MK-ULTRA programme.

And this is where the story turns dark, because although the psychological research behind it has been comprehensively discredited, and although LSD proved to be useless for pretty much anything other than appreciating early Pink Floyd and making you stare at the patterns in your jeans for 12 hours, brainwashing never quite went away. The allure of being able to turn your enemies into your own assets is so appealing that it is still a carrot dangled in front of intelligence agencies and military special operations groups to this day. There is, as Jon Ronson discovered in The Men Who Stare at Goats, a thread running from Big Sur and the Esalen Institute through MK-ULTRA and the bizarre psychic theories of Lt Col Jim Channon's First Earth Battalion all the way to Abu Ghraib and  Guantanemo Bay, interrogation by "disorientation techniques" like sleep deprivation, loud, repetative sounds and waterboarding. What is Homeland, if not a latter-day Manchurian Candidate, where Al Qaeda captive Brody is turned from a US Marine into a deadly terrorist?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A surfeit of peaches

"[The King] on the following night travelled to the abbey which is called Swineshead. There, as it is thought, he was seized with so much sorrow of mind at his baggage being destroyed by the waves, that being attacked by acute feverish symptoms he began to be very ill. But his very hurtful gluttony increased the troublesome nature of his illness, who, having indulged too much in eating peaches and by drinking new cider, strongly intensified and inflamed the fevered heat within him."
Roger of Wendover

To contine our tale of King John, we move now to October 19th 1216 - the day of his death (or possibly 18th or even 17th, depending on which chronicler you believe). As you may recall, John had had a difficult journey to Swineshead Abbey on the 12th, during which some of his baggage train seems to have been lost in quicksand. He spent the 13th at Swineshead, according to Royal papers, the 14th and 15th at Sleaford, and on Sunday 16th reached the Bishop of Lincoln's castle at Newark.
More problematically for John, however, he was also extremely ill, which probably accounts for the slow pace of his movement over that week. Once again, there is more than one version of this. Roger of Wendover, as quoted above, puts his night at Swineshead as the start of his troubles. Although he mentions acute feverish symptoms, he says it was exacerbated by John's "gluttony", in this case a surfeit of peaches and "new" cider. Peaches were not unkown in Europe at the time, although they were not known to be cultivated in England for ranother 60 years or so. This being October, it would presumably make the peaches pretty over-ripe, although they may have been already cooked into some dish or another. Swineshead Abbey was famous for its pears, and there are some who have suggested that that was more likely than the exotic dish of peaches, and Wendover, as he had with the accident crossing the Wash, may have been exaggerating for sake of effect. On the other hand, if anyone could get hold of peaches in England in October, it would surely be the King. Anyway, the fact that Wendover mentions John's food making him ill, and the fact that he died a week later, have led many to suspect poisoning. Shakespeare repeats the allegation that a monk at Swineshead poisoned the King in his play King John, almost as an aside. There are sources as early as the 13th century which repreat the gossip (attributed to a "Brother Simon"), although it remains one of history's imponderables. Certainly John had faced assassination plots before; he was warned of a plot to kill him in 1212, allegedly orchestrated by Eustace de Vesci and Robert fitzWalter, who later became leaders of the Barionial opposition, and by 1216 he was even more unpopular. The poisoning story grew in the telling over the centuries, acquiring details about the monk using the poison of a toad, a falling out over John wanting to sleep with the monk's sister, or a dish of pears with all but three poisoned so that the monk could partake of the same dish, and even of Brother Simon being a Templar in disguise, but these are all later accretions, and no more reliable than the story of Friar Tuck being responsible, in revenge for the killing of Maid Marion.
Our other major chronicler, Ralph of Coggershall, who seems to have been more contemporary than Roger and who writes in more understated fashion, says instead that John's illness, which he names as dusentary, began at Lynn, before he even set out for Swineshead, although he also attributes it to John's gluttony and over-indulgence in drink at a feast there. Still another writer, the unnamed Barnwell annalist, puts the onset of the illness to John's stop at Sleaford, when he learned that the garrison of Dover was negotiating surrender terms. Again, we can't be sure - only that John was clearly in pain with stomach complaints during the last week of his life, and given the exigences of medieval hygiene on campaign, even for a King, tales of dysentary are perhaps the most plausible.
Ralph also mentions one other little snippet - a tale told him by John de Savigny, a monk travelling to Newark, who arrived at night in the midst of a great gale, and who saw suspiciously heavily laden men, some of them part of John's household, leaving after John's death. It is quite likely that these were some of John's servants and possibly mercenaries escaping with valuable items, and puts a different complexion on the 'lost in the Wash' story of John's treasure. John had up to 400 Flemish knights serving him at the time, most of who made themselves scarce in the wake of his death, as well as sundry mercenary companies led by John's captains like Philip Mark and Robert de Gaugi, men who had risen by their service to John, but who were unlikely to see much favour after his death (indeed, the previous year Magna Carta had named nine mercenary captains and their retinues who were to supposed to leave England as part of the deal).

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Lost in the Wash

"John finally demonstrated his utter incompetence by losing the Crown and all of his clothes in the wash and then dying of a surfeit of peaches and no cider."
Sellar & Yeatman, '1066 And All That'

King John was, as we all think we know, a Bad King, and apparently a careless one too, managing to lose first Normandy, in 1204 - some people think this is why he was called 'Lackland' (Sans-terre), but that was actually due to him not having any lands assigned him by his father in his early years, at a time when he had three surviving elder brothers. After Normandy he lost his nephew Arthur (probably actually murdered earlier by John's own hand in late 1203), then during his ill-fated attempt to recover Normandy in 1214 he also lost his ancestral lands of Anjou and Poitou, and finally in October 1216, just a week before his death, he lost the Crown Jewels during an attempted crossing of the marshlands of the Wash, west of Kings Lynn. Today, October 12th, marks the 798th anniversary of that disaster.

Losing the Crown Jewels in the Wash is one of those things that everyone knows about John, and that's why Sellar and Yeatman jokingly mention it in '1066 And All That', but did he really lose the Crown Jewels, and if so, how? Our evidence of this comes from two contemporary chroniclers; Abbott Ralph of Coggeshall, in Essex, and Roger of Wendover, one of the keepers of the great chronicle of St Albans Abbey. Ralph's note, in his Chronicon Anglicanum, reads:
"The greatest distress troubled him, because on that journey [from Lynn] he had lost his chapel with his relics, and some of his pack horses with diverse household effects at the Wellstream, and many members of his household were submerged in the waters of the sea, and sucked into the quicksand there, because they had set out incautiously and hastily before the tide had receded."

Roger of Wendover puts it as:
"Then, heading for the north, he lost, by an unexpected accident, all the wagons, carts and pack horses, with the treasures, precious vessels, and all the other things which he cherished with special care; for the ground was opened in the midst of the waves, and bottomless whirlpools engulfed everything, together with men and horses, so that not a single foot-soldier got away to bear tidings of the disaster to the king. The king, however, barely escaping with his army, spent the following night at the abbey called Swinehead."

Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? And yet and yet, neither of them actually mention the loss of the Royal coronation regalia (which you would have thought would be something of a big deal), and John himself makes no mention of the incident at all. John was travelling with his army, probably some 3,000 men, plus their logistical 'tail' of wagons, and no doubt various funds and valuable items, and of course the nucleus of Royal administration - although the country was in civil war, he had to keep running it, and there are frequent dispatches arriving and being sent which are preserved in the Royal patent rolls - the scribes' version of Hansard. We know from letters that John sent that he was at the major seaport of King's Lynn (then just called Lynn) on the 11th of October, and that he was at the small fishing port at Wisbech on the 12th, where he ordered a ship to take some 'goods and merchandise' - possibly supplies for the army - on to Grimsby, and that he had reached the abbey at Swineshead, southwest of Boston, some 15-20 miles away (the coastline is uncertain at that time and has receded since) by nightfall on the same day. This doesn't sound like a man burdened by losing half his army and most of his baggage train to the waves and barely escaping with his life. It's also not clear why it would matter whether anyone escaped to tell John, as Roger puts it, if the King had been there personally. It's also notable that Roger of Wendover's account is rather more apocalyptic, or perhaps Biblical, than Ralph's own rather understated and credible retelling. Is there a touch of God's vengeance upon Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea in Roger's version?

Perhaps one of the strongest arguments in favour of some kind of accident is one of absence; the crown and regalia were certainly missing when John's son Henry III was crowned in Gloucester on October 28th - the boy king had to make do with one of his mother's old bracelets as a diadem. The Royal regalia and a variety of other gifts John had received during his reign were also still missing during an inventory taken in 1220, so they hadn't just not yet arrived at Gloucester. And after all, this was the coronation of a 9 year-old boy during a civil war, with a rival claimant already crowned at Westminster - it would be difficult to imagine a time at which symbols of Royal authority like the crown would have been more important to display in public, so we must conclude that they had gone missing. This led early historians to link the account of being caught by quicksands in the Wash with the absence of the Crown Jewels. But is that the best explanation? We also know that John had died - most likely from the dysentary that had been plaguing him for a couple of weeks - only a week after crossing the Wash on October 19th at Newark, just 20 miles away. At that time, Sidney Painter has calculated that around 75% of John's barons were in open revolt. Prince Louis, the French Dauphin, who had been invited over by the baronial party, controlled London and most of the southeast (with a few important exceptions like Dover Castle, in which a loyalist garrison was still holding out) and was in alliance with the Welsh and Scots. The History of William the Marshall, who became Regent on October 29th, paints a bleak picture of Royal fortunes at the time. Marshall's own household suggests he should decline the job and retire to Ireland, and Marshall himself admits tearfully that; "I have embarked upon an open sea.. from which it is a miracle if [a man] reaches port and a safe haven." Such is the measure of the man that he takes the seemingly impossible task anyway, out of loyalty to the Plantagenets, but as the History tells us, under similarly difficult circumstances in 1189, the still warm body of Henry II, John's father, had been stripped of its jewels and finery by his own fleeing servants. If John did have the Crown Jewels with him - which is by no means certain in itself, but given the state of the country at the time not a bad hypothesis - it is not so very hard to believe that John's gold and jewels mysteriously 'vanished' in much the same way as his father's had done. We needn't invoke some of the conspiracy theories that have been postulated since about a plot to murder John and steal the Crown Jewels, or an attempt by John at explaining away how he had pawned the Jewels to foreign merchants to raise cash for his struggle for power. Simple greed and fear among John's largely mercenary army would have done the job.

Ralph's account does sound quite credible, and it may very well be that there had been a mishap during October 12th by part of John's baggage train during its crossing of the Wisbech estuary which had carried away part of it. Perhaps, indeed, as Ralph of Coggeshall puts it, including some pack horses bearing church plate and relics from the Royal chapel. We know that Roger of Wendover had seen Ralph's chronicle (which ends in 1218 with Ralph's death) and in various places he re-hashes parts of it. This may be another incident which he has borrowed and elaborated upon, with his whirlpools and swept away foot soldiers, to draw a Biblical parallel with Pharaoh. And it is probably true that John's treasures and much of his army did indeed go missing at this time, but we needn't invoke natural disaster for that, merely desertion and self-preservation in the face of what probably seemed - after the  King's death - like a lost cause.

So did John lose the Crown Jewels in the Wash? It's possible, but no more than that. No-one mentioned it at the time, and while some items may well have ended up in the sinking sands, given the chaos that England was in at the time, a more likely explanation is just that they were appropriated by various servants, courtiers and mercenaries after his death, never to be seen again.

A curious footnote is that according to Gerald of Wales, during the reign of Henry II, graves purporting to be King Arthur and Guinevere had been unearthed at Glastonbury Abbey. This was almost certainly a put-up job by the monks, designed to flatter Henry and gain kudos for Glastonbury, but among the artifacts recovered was - allegedly - Arthur's sword, Excalibur. "Excalibur" most likely travelled with the Royal regalia, and so may also have been part of the consignment lost in the Wash or subsequently looted (although another story has Richard I giving it away as a gift to the King of Sicily, which may show that Richard was, shall we say, not convinced about its provenance).

Friday, 19 September 2014


Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:
"Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone."

William Butler Yeats, 'Parnell'

So, the United Kingdom endures, although it nearly didn't. Independence is one of those strange and fickle things. It's seductive, because you can hold up a blank sheet of paper, and like one of those vacuous motivational posters or an aspirational advert, you can say: "your dreams here", "just imagine", "be all you can be", "just do it" etc etc. That way you can be all things to all people, and handwave away the potential problems as "not being positive enough". But it also dodges some of the harsher realities of life post-independence, which Yeats alludes to in the above poem. Charles Stuart Parnell was the charismatic Irish independence campaigner who nearly achieved Home Rule for Ireland in the 1880s - perhaps the Alex Salmond of his day, or at least the Donald Dewar. But when Irish independence was finally achieved, in 1922 (25 years after Parnell's death), it proved to be a traumatic and dislocating time; civil war was followed by partition, the great depression and a trade war with the UK in the early 30s. Yeats wrote his little two-line poem in 1937, and it's portrayed as a warning from the past about the disillusionment that inevitably follows independence; Parnell is cautioning a road mender breaking stones by the side of the road that he'll still be doing his poorly paid and back-breaking job whatever happens to the country's governance. This was the flip side that the Yes campaign in Scotland tried to brush aside in favour of the promise of the clean sheet of paper; no, not a civil war, but that you'll still get a government that you disagree fundamentally with 50% of the time, that EU accession would likely have been protracted and painful, that taxes would probably have to go up or benefits be cut in order to shore up Scottish monetary reserves - an independant Scotland, as the Irish Free State did in the early 20s before it introduced its own (Sterling-pegged) currency in 1926, would probably be using Sterling but without a formal monetary union, at the mercy of Bank of England rate setting. This was not just "fearmongering" but real and very serious issues that it suited the Yes campaign not to engage with.

It puts me in mind of UKIP, which likes to wave a similar magic wand over UK membership (or otherwise) of the EU. It was quite amusing to see Nigel Farage making all of the arguments in favour of the Scots staying in the Union that he uses against the UK doing so in Europe. Like the SNP, UKIP has some good points to make about democratic deficit. But like the SNP, it doesn't really have any answers beyond walking away and hoping for the best. A lot of the Scottish Yes vote came, I suspect, not from a romantic yearning about "A Nation Once More" and the re-creation of a state that was abolished by mutual consent (for all of the 'Parcel of Rogues' grumbling) in 1707, but from a Scottish, largely socialist disillusionment with the neoliberalism that has become the default option for successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative. And UKIP likewise depends on a southern English neoliberalism at odds with the generally centre-left welfare-ist and 'green' tone of European politics. They're assisted by the fact that the three main British political parties certainly haven't engaged their own core voters - the Tories have a leader who understands that elections are won on the centre ground, but who is thereby far too liberal for the tastes of most of his party, the Liberals have discovered that the kind of coalition politics they have been pushing for for decades actually involves messy compromises in real life and occasionally having to backtrack on campaign promises, and Labour have somehow managed to pick the blandest leader I can ever recall in an attempt to paper over the Blairite-Brownite cracks.The contrast between Milliband's panicked exit from a scrum of Yes supporters and Brown's defiant speech in favour of the union last week was a very striking one. God knows Brown has his myriad faults, but he wasn't the strange personality vacuum that is Ed Milliband.

So now where? Probably the optimal solution for the UK, as it is for Europe, is more devolution of powers from the centre. The telling difference, I suppose, is that the UK seems up for a more federal constitution at the moment, but in spite of the warning shots delivered by the past round of European elections and the chaos caused by the euro's straightjacket on Mediterranean economies, I'm not sure that Brussels is just yet. The next election, and the next parliament, promises to be a very interesting one.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

The Ronseal Psycho

I went on a trip around the Wye Valley with my girlfriend a couple of weeks ago. It was very pleasant - lots of nice rolling green scenery and historic towns, old inns and pubs and the like. One day we stayed in Hay on Wye - she shares my love of books and yet had never been to the country's second hand bookshop capital. So of course I ended up buying a few books - just musty paperbacks of a certain age. All four were, in some way connected with my love of early 20th century 'weird fiction' and the HP Lovecraft writing circle; two Robert E Howard, one Ramsey Campbell, and one Robert Bloch. All were part of Lovecraft's circle of correspondents; Campbell was, like Stephen King, a conscious imitator of Lovecraft, albeit filtered through a childhood on the wrong side of the tracks in Liverpool. Bloch was arguably the most talented of the circle and of course later went on to find fame and fortune in Hollywood by writing 'Psycho'.
The Bloch book I picked up, American Gothic, was not one I knew anything about, but just his name on the cover was sufficient. I've finally got around to reading it in the past week, and it's an interesting read. Set in 1893 during the Chicago World's Fair, it concerns a pharmacist with a shady past, G. Gordon Gregg, who has managed to have built for himself a weird 'castle' on the fringes of the fair, with numerous hidden rooms and passages that he has disguised by getting several different builders to work on the project and keeping the full plans to himself. He manages a succession of inventively grisly murders, mainly of heiresses for insurance money, and is foiled only when a local newspaper reporter, Crystal, takes an interest in him via her insurance clerk fiancee, and starts to unravel his past and crimes. Of course she nearly falls for Gregg's charms herself, and is at one point only narrowly rescued.
Well, the book is called 'American Gothic', and like the Ronseal advertisements, it certainly "does what it says on the tin". There is a haze of Edgar Allen Poe and his 'Murders in the Rue Morgue', a dash of 'Phantom of the Opera', and the weird castle folly is about as Gothic a setting as you could wish for, but there is also a large dose of American can-do pioneer spirit, and 'modern' devices like electricity, the telegraph and new chemical compounds. The trope - a mad doctor preying on gullible young women - in some way feels well worn - the staple of a dozen Hammer films, from House of Wax to the Abominable Dr Phibes. Indeed, finally, at one point the book's sheer preposterousness exhausted my patience, and I was ready to set it aside, but then, as I Googled others' opinons of the book, I discovered to my great surprise that it was, in fact, all - or very nearly all - absolutely true...
Yes, true. What Bloch was writing was not fiction, but a fictionalised life of a real American serial killer; H. H. Holmes. The weird castle, the multiple builders (some of whom he also murdered), the disappearing heiresseses and insurance scams - all true. Bloch, who had a lifelong fascination with serial killers, was writing the book in 1974, fourteen years after 'Psycho', and may have come across Holmes while researching his masterpiece (itself a fictionalised treatment of serial killer Ed Gein).
I was, it must be said, flabbergasted that the things about the narrative that had frustrated me had turned out to be the true ones. I guess that Holmes, like another of Bloch's obsessions Jack the Ripper, had existed just at the end of the period when it was possible to get away with that kind of thing, when uncertain communications and the difficulty in cross-correlating files and evidence between different police forces allowed criminals to play with what we would now call identity fraud, when a forged signature and a confederate willing to answer a telephone were enough to bamboozle an insurance company. The capture of Dr Crippen in 1910, after a radio message overtook him on his escape by fast ship to America, marked the start of a new era, when technology could outpace criminals and fraudsters in a way that had not been possible beforehand. Holmes is known to have killed 27 people, but may plausibly have murdered as many as one hundred. The only real anachronism in the book is Crystal, the spunky heroine, who is far more a creation of the 1970s (via His Girl Friday) than the 1890s.
And talking of anachronisms, I guess that buying a yellowing paperback from a heaving shelf of second hand books is something of that these days too. But how is the digital age ever going to duplicate that thrill of the serendipitous find that such places - dying as they may be - are able to provide? All the internet knows how to offer us is more of the same. People who purchased this book also liked... Will we ever find books like American Gothic that are out of print but not out of copyright, not scanned by Google's or Amazon's ever-widening maw, but simply lying on a few shelves around the world, waiting to be discovered?

Thursday, 26 June 2014

How soon is now?

In my quest to read Every Time Travel Story Ever(TM), I recently passed through Greg Benford's Timescape. I quite enjoyed it, certainly enough to actually engage me to the point where I had to read the final few chapters just to see what happened, which is actually quite rare in books these days, but at the end of it I felt that sensation, like when you've enjoyed something like a MacDonalds or a whole bottle of wine, but you know at the end of it that it hasn't actually been a very satisfying experience. Somehow, in spite of the addictive quality that kept you turning the pages, there's something empty about the whole thing - something missing.
The book is about a future time - in this case 1998 (the book was written in 1980) managing to send messages back to the past, in this case 1962/3. The 1998 world is centred around a research project in Cambridge, UK and the 1962 world around various physics labs in southern California. Greg Benford is a physics professor in southern California, and so there's no prizes for guessing which bits come across as the most well realised, although actually I quite enjoyed his future England as well. The 1998 world is in the grip of one of those eco-catastrophes that used to occasionally break the surface during the 80s, when we could tear our attention away from The Bomb, like Ben Elton's Stark, and Alternative 3. In fact, there is something very old fashioned about the futuristic Britain in Timescape, even taking into account that it takes place among upper middle class suburbia, academia and civil servants. There's something very 1950s, John Wyndham, Quatermass-like about this slow apocalypse, although I also suppose that the idea of Britain ravaged by social disputes, power rationing and a general feeling of impending chaos will be familiar to anyone who lived here during the 1970s. Still, for all of his actually fairly credible nods towards future technology, bookshops closing because everyone does everything on screens and so on, it does all feel a bit twee.
The physics is quite well done, moderately interesting, probably quite scientifically valid (at the time) - he is a physics professor after all. But the book is let down by the characters and their relationships. Maybe we live in a different era now, but they all feel a bit perfunctory, and the women especially so - none of them have any agency within the plot. In spite of this I came to empathise with some of the characters by the end - even uptight 60s physicist Gordon Bernstein (with a New York Jewish mother straight out of central casting by way of Woody Allen), who does the right thing by his grad student (if not his free love, free thinking Californian girlfriend) and whose dogged insistence that the messages are from the future kills his career and social life. I also liked Markham, the brilliant but oblivious uptime physicist who works it all out just too late, and Peterson, the philandering Man from the Ministry who knows it's all going to end badly and who is determined to have a good time while there's enough of a world to have a good time in.
But the problem with the resolution of the book concerns its central paradox. If you're from a doomed future trying to tell an unsuspecting past about the mistakes you've made, then what possible effect can you have? If you successfully changed the past then you wouldn't be in this situation now, so clearly you failed. It's the Grandfather Paradox writ large. Benford devotes a lot of time to theories about tachyons and standing waves and interference effects, but even as he builds the tension, he goes for the obvious solution, and it was quite a disappointment as I saw it coming several miles away - although this may be as much a symptom that I've been reading too much time travel fiction recently as anything else. Still, as Gordon's Californian girlfriend might say, 'I was like, yah, multiple parallel worlds - like, duhhh!' Also, weirdly, in the light of the fact that I read Stephen King's present-day-to-1963 time travel story 11-22-63 recently, he makes the Kennedy Assassination one of the big nexus points (or at least the point where it becomes obvious you're now in a parallel past).
You know, I really do have to finish The Once And Future King (Uh Huh Huh) soon.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Remember Magna Carta - did she die in vain?

We've just had the anniversary of the first issuing of Magna Carta, and next year will be a major milestone - 800 years from a fractious meeting in a meadow by the Thames in the summer of 1215. Recently David Cameron used it as an example of 'Britishness' that everyone should learn about, in the wake of the so-called 'Trojan Horse' affair in Birmingham schools (don't get me started), but in saying that Cameron apparently fails to appreciate that even the idea of 'Englishness' was still in its infancy in 1215, in a land where the nobility spoke French, and an inclusive version of 'Britishness' would presumably involve Wales and Scotland, neither part of a unified country with England until 1283 and 1707 respectively. Mind you, on the David Letterman show two years ago Cameron didn't even know what Magna Carta meant, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised.
Indeed, as Cameron shows, Magna Carta is one of those historical things that everyone thinks they know about but about which there are actually many misconceptions. Some of the US members of the William Marshall group that I mentioned a few blog posts back also love to prove that they are descended from "the 25 barons that signed Magna Carta". In actuality no-one signed Magna Carta - that's not how medieval documents were authenticated; they were sealed with the seal of the issuer. Magna Carta was a charter - a grant of rights and priviliges by a landowner to his tenants - in this case by the King to his subjects, so it was sealed by King John. The original 1215 version (only) lists 25 people in the most contentious of its clauses, number 61, the so-called 'Security Clause', but these were not witnesses - they were the leaders of the rebel party, and the 25 are listed as 'enforcers' of the charter - at the point of a sword - making it clear John was being strong-armed into signing. If they disagreed with the King's implementation of the charter the Security Clause allowed them to overrule him. It effectively subordinated Royal authority to this self-appointed junta. In 1215 that was not just radical, it was heretical. Kings were appointed by God, anointed at their coronation by Bishops to signify God's favour. Defiance of a crowned king was defiance of the will of God - rebels (including the Magna Carta rebels) were routinely excommunicated. The Security Clause was the excuse that the Pope needed for annulling the charter, and when William Marshall, the regent, reissued the charter in 1216 after John's death, the Security Clause was conspicuous by its absence. (By the by, although Marshall stayed loyal to John to his death, one of the named rebels is his son, also called William, who had been effectively told by his dad to join the rebels so that - whichever side won - the family would have someone in the winning camp. Marshall may have been a paragon of chivalry, but he was no man's fool!)

So what was Magna Carta? It was at its heart a peace treaty, the outcome of negotiations designed to head off civil war, and it failed. Within weeks of its issuing, the King and Barons were fighting. But it was not just, as the other piece of conventional wisdom goes, solely "a baronial document that meant nothing to the serfs". Yes, the prime movers were wealthy nobles in what amounted to a tax revolt against the King. Yes, the first dozen clauses dealt with inheritance and noble tax obligations, which had been systematically manipulated by John to squeeze the wealthiest in his kingdom to finance his war to regain lost lands in France. But - the commercial hub of London being the main rebel stronghold - the merchants of London also had their say - the Mayor is one of the 25 'barons' listed in the Security Clause. Some of the more baffling clauses concern fish weirs on the Thames and Medway (impediments to river traffic), fixed hire rates for carts, standardisation of weights and measures - these are not noble concerns. And the most enduring clauses, the ones still on the statue book today are the most timeless; statements of principle: "To no-one will we sell, to no-one deny or delay right or justice." "No free man shall be deprived of his liberty save by the law of the land or the lawful judgement of his peers." These sprang from the ideals of the English Common Law - invented by John's father Henry II, and amazingly popular by 1215, increasingly coalescing as a common system of justice available to all, a reassertion of old Anglo-Saxon legal traditions in a Norman wrapping.

At Magna Carta's heart was an idea - the idea that even Kings can be brought to account. In the Middle Ages such a radical idea needed solid theological underpinning, and this came from Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. Langton was an old schoolmate of the Pope, to whom he owed his promotion, and like Pope Innocent he was a lawyer by training. At Paris, where both men had studied, Langton had written a dissertation on the limits of royal authortity, stuffed full of Biblical references, discussing when it was right and just to take up arms against a tyrannical ruler. Langton's lawyerly fingerprints are all over Magna Carta - he may not have been responsible for every detail, but he was almost certainly behind the very idea of a Royal charter of rights. It began in January 1215 as the 'Unknown Charter' - in effect an attempt to get John to confirm the rights already granted by Henry I in his Coronation oath in 1100. This was important as it meant it was not an innovation, it was something already granted by John's great grandfather - and medieval people were suspicious of innovation. But by June 1215 these 14 succinct points had expanded to become a grab-bag of 48 grievances which we call the Articles of the Barons, bearing all the hallmarks of being drafted by committee. This seems to have been the working draft for the Runnymede negotiations. Even then, though, it expanded during the days of argument, ending up 61 clauses long. The final one, the Security Clause, was a clear statement of Baronial mistrust of John, but it was also a step too far, and it was the excuse John needed to tear the charter up. By December Magna Carta was a dead letter and the country was at war.

And that might have been the end of Magna Carta, except that when John died in October 1216 the royal party was losing. Prince Louis of France, the Dauphin, had been crowned by the Barons in Westminster, and with the Franco-Baronial army he held most of the southeast, while the Scots and Welsh took advantage of the chaos to make a grab for lands in the borders. William Marshall, elected as Regent to the 9-year old Henry III, had to split his opponents. He did so with a bold gesture - he reissued Magna Carta under his own authority, now pruned back to 42 clauses, as it was shorn of the most contentious parts (especially the Security Clause). Now the barons had gained pretty much all that they were fighting for, he argued, and he made clear that he was also willing to discuss any points still at issue. So who would they prefer as King - the innocent child Henry, or a French pretender? The gesture worked. The baronial party melted away. Marshall's forces were now enough to twice defeat Prince Louis, on land at Lincoln, and by sea at Sandwich, and Louis returned to France. Marshall reissued Magna Carta again in 1217, now following some renegotiation with the rebels, and although Marshall died soon after, Henry III found it prudent to confirm a fourth variant of Magna Carta in 1225 when he came of age. Even then, though, the final, definitive version did not appear until Henry's son Edward I needed to raise taxes in 1297 and he offered a fifth and final version as a sweetener to his grumbling lords. Nevertheless, by then the idea that the laws of the land, agreed by both King and people, stood higher than the authority of either one alone, was firmly established in England. Three clauses of the 1297 version of Magna Carta (including the two I quoted above, on rights and liberty) remain statue law in the UK.

We owe Magna Carta to a strange combination of people and circumstances - an Anglo Saxon legal tradition that placed all under the law, a king who had bent the rules in his desperate search for cash, a top flight Papal lawyer concerned with the limits of royal authority, and a shrewd Regent looking for a way to rescue a dismal military situation. But out of it came something not seen before - something radical. That is Magna Carta's importance, and its legacy. And I am sure that that is the germ of the idea that Cameron, in his historically confused way, is trying to articulate. When New Labour, in one of its fits of authoritarianism, tried to abolish trial by jury for some crimes, my MA tutor from Kings College, Professor David Carpenter, probably the country's leading expert on Magna Carta, was actually called in to testify about the present Magna Carta clauses on the statute books and how they might be interpreted. The fact that even today, 800 years later, this remarkable medieval document still stands as a bulwark against arbitrary state authority, is a truly amazing thought. So yes, by all means let us celebrate it, not as some kind of convenient rallying cry about a concept of 'Britishness' that no-one can agree on, but as the Americans do, as the beginnings of an ideal of liberty and justice that we must still be prepared to fight for.

Monday, 28 April 2014

You are sleeping; you do not want to believe

I was listening to 'Rubber Ring' by the Smiths recently, one of my favourite Smiths songs. It was originally just a B-side (wow, remember those?) on the back of 'The Boy With A Thorn In His Side', one of the singles from 'The Queen Is Dead', but it got an album release on the 1987 compilation 'Louder than Bombs'. Anyway, as it played out there are several samples intercut with the music. One is a man with a bit of a plummy BBC Received Pronunciation accent saying something like; "everybody's clever nowadays", and then as the music finishes there is a woman with an equally cut glass accent clearly intoning; "You Are Sleeping; You Do Not Want to Believe. You Are Sleeping."

Now as I say it is obviously sampled from somewhere, and as you do, I began to idly wonder where Morrissey might have got it from. I've probably wondered that dozens of times, every time I've listened to the track, but in previous decades that would be as far as it went, as unless you had the album to hand and it was credited on the sleeve notes you'd just never know. Now, however, for better or worse the internet has liberated us from that kind of idle speculation and 30 seconds' Googling led me to a Smiths fan forum, where the truth was laid bare, and it turned out to be more interesting than I had thought.

In fact the woman's voice was from a 7" flexi-disc (those were thin, floppy, disposable vinyl records for those of you below the age of 35) distributed with the English translation of a book called; 'Breakthrough: An Amazing Experiment In Electronic Communication With the Dead', by a Latvian parapsychologist called Konstantins Raudive, then working in Sweden and Germany. The book was published in 1971 but detailed work conducted in the 1950s with what is now known as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). The woman is - I imagine - an actress or staff member paid to read transcripts of what the 'dead' are 'saying' for greater clarity, as the recordings themselves are very indistinct, and intriguingly the message that the Smiths purloined for Rubber Ring actually purports to be one from Raudive's dead Swedish colleague, Dr Gephardt Frye (although given that Raudive spent his entire life pursuing this ephemeral pseudo-phenomenon, as a judgement upon him from beyond the grave it seems a bit harsh, frankly). The full version of the flexi-disc can be found at this illuminating site, with its sleeve notes, and makes for mildly diverting listening. The woman speaking the piece used on the Smiths track is about 60% of the way through the first side.

I first became aware of EVP after reading 'Legion', by William Peter Blatty, at a time when I was devouring occult books of any description. Blatty was the man who wrote The Exorcist, and Legion, published in 1983, was the 'official' sequel. There had been a rather hammy sequel film in 1977 called The Heretic, where Linda Blair reprised her role as Regan, the possessed child, now all grown up, and with Ri-Chard Bur-Tonnn as a priest trying to help her deal with Pazuzu, an African spirit who is in the film identified as the 'demon' from the first film. The Heretic, is, however, fairly terrible, and Blatty wisely disassociated himself from it.

Legion, though, is a much more subtle book which takes the police detective from the first book/film (William Kinderman, written as a kind of Jewish Columbo) and Father Dyer, a friend of Father Damen Karras (the priest from the first film), and takes them through the realisation that the demon is still around, now possessing the body of Father Karras, and using it to commit terrible crimes as the 'Gemini Killer', an obvious reference to the 'Zodiac Killer' who terrorised San Francisco and parts north in 1969-71 and who was never caught. Legion eventually got made into a film as 'The Exorcist Part 3' in 1990, but while it's ostensibly about demons and the fight between good and evil, the book is actually mostly Blatty, a committed Catholic (no great surprise there), working through his own personal theology via the mouthpiece of Detective Kindermann. At one point Kindermann becomes interested in EVP as a way of unlocking the murder of a doctor who was into the phenomenon, and starts trying to recreate it, although he eventually decides it's the works of dybbuks (oy!) and throws the apparatus away. Interestingly, not only was the Zodiac Killer active at the same time that Blatty was writing the original Exorcist, it was also the same time that Raudive's book came out, and I suspect there's no coincidence they both make it into Blatty's sequel.

Anyway, as an impressionable 17/18 year old as I was, having rejected religion but keen on finding meaning in the cosmos, and experimenting (dabbling, I guess is the word) with the occult, this seemed to me to be something worth exploring, and so I started making EVP tapes myself. Unfortunately this tended to involve setting a tape machine to record nothing, and then spending hours with a pair of headphones listening back to see if you could hear anything. Hours of tape hiss (Dolby in or out? Another one to baffle the youngsters) and the occasional squeak of a tape wheel, straining to hear something. And of course eventually you do. I convinced myself I could hear a man saying "a warm welcome" at one point, and a woman saying dismissively "stupid". Of course these voices are not on the tape - they are in your head. The random noises of the tape become an audio version of a Rorschach ink blot. Just as our eyes are built to recognise faces and objects, and so tend to impose such order on random visual input like flames and clouds, so our ears are built to recognise human voices most of all, and can sometimes hear them where they don't exist. I swiftly grew bored with EVP, discovering that, like the occult, it was a load of old bollocks, and left it behind me, but listening to the mp3 version of the 'Breakthrough' record brought it all flooding back. Most interesting of all to me is the thought that Morrissey might have been doing exactly the same thing as me in a room in Salford at almost exactly the same time, as Rubber Ring was made just two years after my own brief flirtation with EVP, although it has to be said that the song itself is not about anything like that, it's about nostalgia and the way we cling to old songs as time goes by like a novice swimmer clings to a rubber ring. A post-modernist might try arguing that Morrissey is clinging in the same way to the hope of life after death, but I wouldn't go that far.

And besides, just go back to the tape of Breakthrough and listen again to those 'voices', without the pre-judgement of deciding that they are voices, and what do they really sound like? Like the random tape noises that they are; electrical and mechanical graunches and groans that are an artifact of the recording process (remember these were made in the 50s, so presumably with an old reel to reel recorder), almost impossible to duplicate with modern digital recording methods. In a way they are almost the inverse phenomenon of the camera 'orbs' - dust motes caught in a flash that are only picked up now we all use digital cameras. It seems to me that it is no coincidence that interest in EVP has declined in the digital age, just as it is no coincidence that interest in 'orbs' has increased. Each is an artifact of the technology being used.

So maybe the woman is right; perhaps I Do Not Want To Believe, but I would argue that, unlike the adherents of EVP, I am not sleeping.

Monday, 31 March 2014

One in a billion

I've recently joined a history website about William Marshall - the knight and sometime Regent of England after the death of King John. But it does seem to have a lot of Americans on it who keep on telling me that they are related to William Marshall, often in the 30th generation or so. Here's the thing about geneology; I enjoy it, but I'm dubious about how much it actually means. I think a lot of people try to read things into it that aren't supportable, probably because they have no real grasp of statistics. The following is a genuine quote:

"Hey that's great - you know I feel a great affinity for your country because I am actually descended from King Henry II."

And this irritates me. I shouldn't let it irritate me, but it does. Now I know that we all like to look for things that make us special, and there's no shame in that. But unfortunately being descended from Henry II doesn't make you that special or unique. It's you and everyone else, buddy - that's just maths (or 'math', if you insist).

Look - if you go back 800 years, and you assume a spacing of 25 years on average per generation (we have kids later now, but they tended to have them much earlier as you go back), then you are talking about 32 generations that separate you from King Henry. That means that as well as Henry II, you have 2^32 other ancestors in that generation, and like the apocryphal Chinese emperor who offered the inventor of chess twice as many grains of rice per square as for the previous one, once you start doubling and redoubling, you soon discover that that is a very large number indeed. How large? Well it's 2.1 billion, actually. Yes, that's right, Henry II (or William Marshall, who was part of Henry's retinue at one stage) may well be one of your ancestors in that generation, but he is only one of 2.1 billion ancestors in that same generation who you also share *exactly* the same amount of DNA with. You are also descended from Jane Johnson the merchant's daughter and Wat the serf and probably Vladislav the stable boy and Aisha the slave girl. In fact there weren't even 2 billion humans alive then - the figure was more like 400 million, according to recent estimates, so in theory it's just about possible that you are related to everyone who was alive on planet Earth back then, but actually it almost certainly doesn't work like that. We didn't travel much before the modern era and it is mathematically more likely that you are related to the same person several times over via various different routes and chains of descent - you may well have 50 different chains of ancestry linking you to back Jane Johnson and a dozen to Wat, maybe 4 or 5 to Vladislav and 2 to Aisha (and one to Henry II), but none at all to Warragul the Aboriginal hunter, Ahuatl the Aztec stone cutter or Xie Ming the potter. But Royals being what they are, it is likely that over 90% of people of English descent can manage to find at least one line of ancestry from Henry II.

So what does it mean to say you are related to Henry II? If he is everyone's ancestor, then maybe you shouldn't feel too proprietorial about just one two billionth of your DNA that you share with tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of others - that's not even a single gene, it's not even a single base pair. You know the genetic code of thymine, guanine, adenine and cytosine amino acid bases which form the rungs of the DNA ladder? AGTTTGCACGAGTACA? It goes on for 3 billion letters in each of us - longer than 1,000 Bibles - and you might have shared just one of those letters with Henry II. OK, I admit that actually you'll share 99.9% of them as you're both human beings rather than dolphins, oak trees or bacteria, but those are the meaningless ones - you also share all of those 99.9% with Warragul, Ahuatl and Xie Ming as well, and about 50% of them with your chicken dinner, for that matter. Of the small proportion of base pairs that make up the full range of human diversity, you'll share at most one, but statistically you'll probably share no ancestral DNA at all with Henry. His contribution to your genetic makeup was most likely edited out somewhere in the intervening 800 years, replaced by a strain from Wat or Aisha, of whom you know (and presumably care) nothing.

So yes, geneology is fun, and yes, once you hit a noble or royal chain of descent then it becomes trivially easy to pursue that one particular chain because some herald has already done the work for you centuries ago, but just remember that chain is only one of hundreds of millions, and that the phrase; "I am descended from Henry II" has no real meaning. Once you get beyond 200-300 years you have so many ancestors (325,000 after 300 years) that pursuing any one particular chain is essentially meaningless other than as an academic exercise in how you came to inherit your surname. Unless you are Boris Johnson, you do not have the blood of kings flowing through your veins.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

The 'Old Lie'

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, 'Dulce Et Decorum Est'

As someone interested in history, I always enjoy it when history itself becomes news. It is interesting to see our interpretations of the past argued in the full glare of media attention, reinforcing the fact that history is a continual process, as each period is re-evaluated by a new generation and old certainties and assumptions challenged. In the past year we've had two periods of history argued over - one recent; the 1980s, following the death of Margaret Thatcher - a period I can speak on with reasonable authority, as I remember it very well - and the other more distant; our verdict on Richard III, his winter of obscurity made glorious summer by the rediscovery of his bones (and the subsequent argument about where we should bury them). Now we have the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War approaching, and even eight months ahead of that our attitude to the conflict has already become a political football. Some on the right, with Education Secretary Michael Gove as their cheerleader, apparently feel that the national narrative has been hijacked by bleeding heart liberals, war poets and 1960s lefties who produced 'Oh, What A Lovely War!' and - eventually - 'Blackadder Goes Forth', and that we ought to reclaim the war from this pacifist tosh and celebrate our victory over Hunnish Militarism, or somesuch nonsense.

It seems to me that there are two separate arguments here, one about the causes of and justification for the war, which I call the 'Beastly Hun' argument, and the other about its conduct, and whether Lions really were led to the slaughter by Donkeys, stalwart Tommies walking slowly towards machine-gun emplacements while incomptetent toff generals swilled port twenty miles behind the lines, and so on, which might be called the 'Blackadder' argument. The Blackadder argument has definitely been broadened by so-called 'revisionist' historians, who have demonstrated that a lot of Britain's reaction to the war was based on shock of the mass casualties on the Somme, themselves the result of being bounced into action ahead of time by Von Falkenhayn's Cunning Plan to split the Allies by attacking Verdun, forcing Britain to commit masses of untrained troops on a large scale for the first time. British tactics evolved rapidly over the subsequent two years, it is argued, with greater use of mines (as at Paschendale) to destroy emplacements, more reliable use of tanks, greater coordination of artillery fire with advances etc. Battles were conducted as well as they could be under the circumstances, certainly not as stupidly as often portrayed, Germany was, in the end, largely defeated in the field, and much of the preceived futility of taking trenches only to immediately lose them to a counterattack came from inevitable communications problems during battles caused by relying on fragile telephone cables, meaning it was hard to reinforce success where it occurred. I think that this is the kernel of truth that the likes of Gove feel we have lost; a more nuanced appreciation that the soldiers were by and large led by professionals who did the best job they could under difficult circumstances.

Now this is all fair enough, but I do think it's possible to go too far down this road, with some revisionist historians arguing that the War Poets were just over-sensitive young men suffering from PTSD who happened to be the literate ones, and their voices have sounded over-loud down the decades compared to the silent majority who did their job and got on with it. There are various arguments as to why the revisionists may have gone too far, and they don't just rely on casualty figures or the debacle of Gallipoli. British tactics did change, it's true, but much more slowly than French and German. By 1915-16 the French army had developed the 'fire team' tactic of advancing in two leapfrogging groups, one covering the other as it moved, and the Germans likewise had developed 'stormtroopers', advancing in dispersed formation behind a creeping barrage, to destroy machine-gun posts and command positions in advance of the main infantry assault. The British Army proved more resistant to change and did not improve its small unit tactics in this way until 1917, and surely much of this was down to the attitude of the General Staff, who didn't think that conscripts were capable of mastering more involved tactics. This undoubtedly had an effect on casualty levels. And the dissatisfaction with the war and how it was being waged was not just the province of a few handkerchief-sniffing Brideshead Revisited types (by the by, Siegfried Sassoon won the MC after all) - all of the major armies had large scale mutinies, in a way that didn't happen in the Second World War, which was just as long and bloody. The French Army mutiny of 1917 affected half of the divisions on the Western Front. The British mutiny at Etaples involved 50,000 men. The Russian Army effectively ceased to exist as a fighting force during 1917 and the country suffered two coups d'etat. The conduct of the war may have become a charicature in the popular imagination, but there is still some truth in the charicature as well as the revisionist view, and I'm not sure Gove accepts that sufficiently. Richard Evans has also pointed out in the Guardian that a lot of the criticism of the conduct of the war actually has come from the right, people like Max Hastings, Alan Clark and Niall Fergusson.

Perhaps a lot of the dissatisfaction with the war was down to whether it was perceived to be a necessary one, and here the Beastly Hun argument about the war's justification is a much harder one, although that hasn't stopped people trying to make it.There seems to be an attempt to play up Imperial Germany's "aggressive, militarist" stance, lack of democracy (how so unlike our ally Russia...) and generally portray it as being somehow proto-Nazi. I'm far from the first to point out that there is far too much hindsight in this argument, and that it neglects Britain's own "aggressive, militarist" imperial past (to quote Blackadder - "the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganyika. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front"). The causes of the war were far more about grand imperial rivalries than they were about Plucky Little Belgium, raped nuns or Hunnish Militarism, and the impetus was all the greater for no-one really being aware of what the terrible consequences of their actions would be. August 1914 was all cheering crowds and white feathers for cowardice, and it took the reality of the Western Front to make people re-examine the reasons for which they were fighting, and find them wanting.

The last word, I think, should go to the much denigrated Blackadder for summing it all up as succinctly as it is, I think possible:

Captain Blackadder: "You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war."

Private Baldrick: "But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?"

Captain Blackadder: "Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan."

Private Baldrick: "What was that, sir?"

Captain Blackadder: "It was bollocks."