We need to talk about Winston

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From nationalgeographic.com.au

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Apologies for the juvenile title of this (lengthy) blog entry, but I’m writing it in response to some juvenile goings-on.  A few days ago Ross Greer, Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Scottish Greens, tweeted his opinion that Winston Churchill was ‘a white supremacist mass murderer’.  This upset many people, including Piers Morgan, who described Greer as ‘a thick ginger turd’ whilst in the same breath (well, same tweet) inviting Greer to debate the issue with him on Good Morning Britain.  Greer replied by calling Morgan as a ‘honey-glazed gammon’ but agreed to the invitation.  There followed an unedifying confrontation on Good Morning Britain that climaxed with Morgan and Greer trying to talk and shout over each other.  Talking and shouting over people is pretty much Morgan’s modus operandum so I have slightly more sympathy for Greer in this.

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There should be considerably less heated and more nuanced debate about Churchill, about the opinions he held and decisions he made, and about the influence he’s had since his death.  This is especially so as Churchill seems to have become a totemic figure for the half of the British electorate who in June 2016 voted to leave the European Union.  Indeed, in this era of all-pervasive social media, when everybody seems to have a twitter and Facebook account, if not a website and a blog, I sometimes feel there’s been more written about the man since the Brexit vote that was ever written about him before it.

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So what to make of Churchill?  A hero?  A villain?  Or a fence-sitting ‘something in between’?  Well, here are the facts for both the prosecution and the defence.  Those for the prosecution, I have to warn you, are numerous and varied.  Those for the defence are brief – but weighty.

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In his correspondence as a young man attached to the Malakand Field Force, which fought Mohmand rebels in the Swat Valley in Northwest India in 1897, Churchill comes across as racist and bellicose.   He said of the Pashtun tribespeople: “in proportion that these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated.”  Admittedly, the tribespeople were brutal towards anyone who antagonised them, but the British more than matched them for cruelty.  In a letter in September 1897, Churchill wrote approvingly that: “After today we begin to burn villages.  Every one.  And all who resist will be killed without quarter.”  Later, in his autobiography, he noted how “every tribesman who was caught was speared or cut down at once.”

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A decade later, when he was British Home Secretary, one of Churchill’s more alarming enthusiasms was for eugenics.  He wrote about his fear that the “unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes… constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate” and advocated sterilization as a solution.  Writing in a departmental paper in 1910, he suggested the solution of labour camps alongside that of sterilization: “I propose that 100,000 degenerate Britons should be forcibly sterilised and others put in labour camps to halt the decline of the British race.”

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Incidentally, Churchill’s views on sexual equality were no more enlightened.  Of the women’s suffrage movement, he once commented: “Nothing would induce me to vote for giving women the franchise.  I am not going to be henpecked into a question of such importance.”

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Churchill saw World War I, when he was in charge of the British Admiralty, as an opportunity for glory: “I have it in me to be a successful soldier,” he boasted.  “I can visualise great movements and combinations.”  Unfortunately, the great movement he visualised – sending the fleet up the Dardanelles and grabbing Constantinople and the waterways that linked the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, thus enfeebling the Ottoman Empire, improving access between the Allies and Russia and drawing Greece, Romania and Bulgaria into the war on the Allies’ side – resulted in the bloody, nine-month stalemate of Gallipoli in 1915.  This ended with a death toll of 65,000 Turks, 26,000 Britons, 8,000 French, 7,800 Australians, 2,445 New Zealanders and 1,682 Indians.  Churchill stayed unrepentant about what he’d tried and failed to achieve at Gallipoli: “The Dardanelles might have saved millions of lives.  Don’t imagine I am running away from the Dardanelles.  I glory in it.”  However, the site www.historyextra.com gives the scheme a damning assessment: “…far from being a brilliant, potentially war-winning strategy, it was a piece of folly that was always likely to fail.”

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To give Churchill his due – after the Gallipoli fiasco, he joined the British Army, became a battalion commander and served with the Grenadier Guards and Royal Scots Fusiliers.  According to his Wikipedia entry, this service included 36 ventures into No Man’s Land.  If only every politician who makes a military blunder was forced to pay for it by becoming a soldier in a warzone.  There’d surely be fewer military blunders by politicians.  There’d be a hell of a lot less military adventurism by them too.

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1917, of course, saw the Russian Revolution.  No sooner had the 1918 Armistice been signed than the British establishment had something new to worry about: Bolshevism.  Churchill was dismayingly inclined to blame it on a Jewish conspiracy: “With the notable exception of Lenin, the majority of the leading figures are Jews.  Moreover, the principal inspiration and driving power comes from the Jewish leaders…  Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every whit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing.” 

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From socialistpartyscotland.org.uk

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In February 1919, the fear that Britain was on the cusp of a workers’ revolution helped Churchill, as Secretary of State for Air and War, and his cabinet colleagues decide to send 10,000 troops into Glasgow to deal with striking workers.  Churchill already had form in this area, because as Home Secretary in 1910 he’d sent in troops to deal with striking miners in Tonypandy in South Wales.  Unsurprisingly, today, Churchill is not quite as widely revered among the Scots and Welsh as he is among his fellow English.  His disdain for the labour movement hadn’t abated by the time of the General Strike in 1926.  While Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was trying to reach agreement with the Trade Unions, he was strongly opposed by Churchill, who was desperate for a no-holds-barred fight with them.

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Elsewhere on these islands, Churchill is not remembered with much affection in Ireland.  In 1920, he oversaw the deployment in Ireland of the Black and Tans, the police force who soon became notorious for their unrestrained brutality and whose memory poisoned Anglo-Irish relations for decades afterwards.  Churchill ignored warnings about the great damage that the Black and Tans were doing.  Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson commented: “I warned him again that those Black and Tans who are committing very indiscriminate reprisals will play the devil in Ireland, but he won’t listen or agree.”  As for the Tans’ habit of killing suspected troublemakers without bothering to arrest them and put them on trial, Wilson said, “Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me.” 

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(Churchill is better thought of among the pro-British Protestant community of Northern Ireland, but this was not always so.  It’s said that in 1912, when he visited Belfast, thousands of Protestant workers from the Harland and Wolff shipyard lined the streets wanting to pelt his car with rivets, on account of his support for Irish Home Rule.  And though Ulster Protestants often express pride about Northern Ireland’s part in the UK’s war effort from 1939 to 1945, while southern Ireland opted to remain neutral, it must rankle that Churchill offered Eamon De Valera a united Ireland if he agreed to bring his country into the war on Britain’s side.)

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Churchill also found time to leave his mark on Iraq: not in a good way.  As convener of a conference in Cairo in 1912 to draw up the boundaries of Britain’s Middle Eastern mandate, he unwisely lumped together three warring factions – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – within the borders of the new country.  And when Shiites and Sunnis rebelled against British colonial rule there in 1920, Churchill ordered military oppression and retribution on par with what he’d seen in the Swat Valley 23 years earlier – villages burned, civilians as well as combatants killed – as well as employing some deadly new technology.  He approved the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, having opined earlier: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas.  I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…  It will cause great inconvenience and spread a lively terror.”  Also causing great inconvenience and lively terror was his use of ‘aerial policing’, i.e. getting the RAF to bomb Iraqi villages.  Unsurprisingly, these bombings – still within living memory – didn’t put the Iraqi population at ease when, in the early 2000s, they saw British troops arrive again in their country thanks to the actions of George Bush Jnr and Tony Blair.

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Churchill also sent planes and chemical weapons to attack Bolsheviks in northern Russia in 1919.  Again, he was flippantly unrepentant about his use of the latter: “Why is it not fair for a British artilleryman to fire a shell that makes the said native sneeze?  It is really too silly.”

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The biggest stain on Churchill’s record is surely his role in the Bengal Famine of 1943 that claimed three million or more lives.  Let me quote the Indian writer and politician Dr Shashi Tharoor: “Not only did the British pursue its own policy of not helping the victims of this famine which was created by their policies.  Churchill persisted in exporting grain to Europe, not to feed actual ‘Sturdy Tommies’, to use his phrase, but to add to the buffer stocks that were being piled up in the event of a future invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia…  Ships laden with wheat were coming in from Australia, docking in Calcutta and were instructed by Churchill not to disembark their cargo but sail on to Europe.  And when conscience-stricken British officials wrote to the Prime Minister in London pointing out that his policies were causing needless loss of life all he could do was write peevishly in the margin of the report, ‘Why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?’”

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Another charge against Churchill during World War Two is the way he threw the Greek resistance movement – the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) and the National Liberation Front (EAM) – under the bus in 1944.  Previously, they’d fought alongside the British, against the Nazis.  However, afraid of the Communist Party’s influence within the resistance, and wanting to restore the monarchy and general pre-war status quo in Greece, he chose to abandon the partisans and place British support behind elements who’d collaborated with the Nazis – officers, for instance, in the Security Battalions and SS-affiliated Special Security Branch.  These were soon incorporated into the post-occupation army, security forces and judiciary.   The result was the gunning down of unarmed protestors in Athens on December 3rd, 1944, which marked the beginning of the five-week conflict in the city known as the Dekemvriana; which in turn helped lead to the three-year Greek Civil War, estimated to have cost some 158,000 lives.

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From greekcitytimes.com

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Churchill was voted out of office in 1945 but returned for a second term as Prime Minister from 1951 to 1955.  It was on this watch that he responded to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya with characteristic sledgehammer style.  By the uprising’s end, it was calculated that colonial forces had killed 10,000 Africans, roughly four times the number killed by the Mau Mau – indeed, if you were a white settler in Kenya, you stood a better chance of dying in a road accident than at the hands of the rebels.  The techniques employed by British troops for dealing with the Mau Mau included mass arrests, mass trials, mass hangings, torture, whippings, mutilations, the burning of villages, ‘free fire zones’ where any African person could be a target, forced labour and huge detention camps where disease and maltreatment were rife and conditions were scarcely any better than they’d been in German and Japanese camps a decade earlier.  It’s hardly surprising that when Barack Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather Hussein Onyango Obama had been among those arrested and tortured, became US president in 2008, Churchill’s bust did not last long in the Oval Office.

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That’s a damning charge-sheet.  What’s to be said in Churchill’s defence?  Well, it’s a trite observation, but though the man’s opinions and decisions were frequently rotten, they were nowhere near as rotten as those offered by the other side between 1939 and 1945.  No doubt Churchill’s idea of utopia was a British Empire where the sun never set.  There’d be a catastrophic famine here, and a bloodily put-down insurgency there, but he’d regard that as the regrettable but unavoidable price of the White Man having to shoulder his civilising burden (while, quietly on the side, Britain’s coffers continued to be filled with the trade and plunder of its colonies).  Among the Empire’s ‘subjects’, life for many would be humiliating and wretched, and for some pretty hellish.  But compare that with Hitler’s idea of utopia, which…  Which doesn’t bear thinking about, really.

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And he was in possession of good qualities – courage, determination, intellect, a rhetorical flair – that enabled him to galvanise the British population to make a stand against Nazism and prevent all of Western Europe from falling under Hitler’s influence.  (Of course, saying he won the war for Britain is different from saying he won the war full stop, which is what many of his modern-day fans in Britain seem to believe he did.)  As the saying goes, cometh the hour, cometh the man.  That the man happened to be an asshole in most other ways doesn’t denigrate his achievements during the hour itself.  I’d like to think that if I’d been an adult in Britain during World War II, and knew about Churchill what I know about him now, I wouldn’t have let the old git into my house.  But I’d still have been (secretly) relieved that he was running the country at the time.

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Following the Greer-Morgan rumpus, the Times columnist Alex Massey – who, though right-wing and fogeyish, is much more perceptive and decent that the ridiculous, self-important (and Trump brown-nosing) Piers Morgan – penned an article on the subject.  I can sort of agree with its title: CHURCHILL WAS A GREAT BRITON, NOT A GREAT MAN.  I don’t, however, agree with some of Massey’s sentiments.  He claims that Greer wrongly applied the value judgements of the 21st century to a historical figure whose views happened to be typical and acceptable among the British ruling class of his time.  But in fact, there were plenty of people alive when Churchill was alive who detested him too.  However, they tended to be Indians, Kenyans, Greeks, Irish, Iraqis, etc. – people whose opinions rarely get much coverage in British history books. 

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Come to think of it, Britons would find it enlightening if they got their history from sources from a wider and more international pool than they do now.   In these Brexiting times, unfortunately, with World War II the only bit of history that many British people seem to know about, and with British politicians talking misty-eyed about creating a trading ‘Empire 2.0’ after withdrawal from the EU, I don’t think British awareness of history is going to get any wider.  It’s going to get even narrower. 

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And that won’t be good for Britain’s place in the world in the future.

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From historyextra.com

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Remembering

 

 

Like so many other things in the Anglo-Saxon world recently, the First World War and the way we remember it seem to have been subsumed into a culture war between left and right.  Therefore, if you decide not to wear a poppy, or decide to wear a white one rather than a red one, or voice distaste for the masses of poppy-related tat on sale in late October and early November – like a 75cm x 50cm poppy tea towel (“handy in any kitchen, as well as looking gorgeous”), or a giant glass poppy-shaped bird-feeder, or a cotton / polyester poppy onesie – or even question the political decisions that sent so many young men marching off to their deaths between 1914 and 1918, you risk having a baying mob chase you on social media and accuse you of being an unpatriotic, nay traitorous, dis-respecter of the fallen.  See the abuse that Kevin Maguire, the Daily Mirror’s associate editor, has received on Twitter today for pointing out the uncomfortable fact that half the men serving in the British Army during World War One weren’t actually allowed to vote.

 

Well, with today the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War on November 11th, 1918, it’s time for me to stick my head above the parapet and say that I’ve felt uneasy about the more ostentatious ways that the war’s centenary has been marked in the UK these last four years: starting in 2014 with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw a huge crimson torrent of nearly 900,000 poppies (each representing a fallen soldier from Britain and its then-colonies) filling the moat at the Tower of London; and ending now with the Shrouds of the Somme, whereby 72,000 shrouded figurines (symbolising the soldiers from Britain and the colonies who died at the Battle of the Somme and were never given a proper burial) have been laid out at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.  Both displays seem to turn commemoration of the war into something that’s part massive art installation and part transitory tourist attraction; which, despite the best intentions in the world, doesn’t convey what was surely its most important feature for the people involved in it, its absolute bloody hellishness.  I wonder what World War One veterans themselves would have made of these showy centennial commemorations – but of course, we can’t know that because the very last of them passed away in 2011.

 

Indeed, a few days ago, the journalist Ian Jack wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian entitled Conceptual Art Can Never Capture the Tragedy of the Great War, which mirrors my feelings.  The comments thread below the online version of the feature predictably has Jack being berated by a baying mob for his lack of patriotism, for treading “a fine line between risible and insulting” and being a “privileged liberal smughole.”  But Jack simply observes that he finds the old, traditional means of remembering the fallen — the monuments, statues, plaques, services and ceremonies that were established after World War One — more moving and more informative.

 

I agree.  At least those things were largely erected or initiated by the generation who’d been there.  No doubt there was a fair amount of spin added by the establishment, mindful of what’d happened in Russia in 1917, worried about the thousands of demobilised soldiers who’d come back expecting but not finding the ‘land fit for heroes’ promised by Lloyd George, and desperate to channel those men’s energies towards something patriotic and away from something revolutionary.  But still, for me, those monuments and rituals have always had a sad, sombre authenticity that strikes an appropriate chord.

 

When I was a kid, I had a paradoxical relationship with the First World War.  On one hand, I was born into a Protestant community in Northern Ireland, over whose shared sense of heritage the Great War and especially the Battle of the Somme loomed incredibly large.  (During the first day of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division was the only UK division to achieve its objectives, overcoming a sizable chunk of the German line; but by the end of its second day, 5500 men in the division were dead, injured or missing.)  Yet despite the yearly gathering on Remembrance Sunday at the big commemorative plaque in the local church, and like a lot of a little boys in the 1970s, it was actually World War Two that filled my imagination, thanks to the countless movies and series about it shown on TV and the slew of World War Two-themed comics on sale every week at the newsagent’s.

 

I only properly became acquainted with World War One in the mid-1970s when the BBC repeated its legendary 26-episode documentary The Great War (originally made in 1964, the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s start), narrated by Michael Redgrave and with music by Wilfred Josephs.  The BBC aired it on Sunday afternoons.  As a result, staid, God-fearing, not-much-happening Northern Irish Sundays got indelibly linked in my mind with melancholy, black-and-white film footage of the trenches.

 

It wasn’t until much later that I realised how the war’s tragic influence had seeped across the decades into, or almost into, my own memories.  For instance, a few old spinsters, well into their 70s by then, lived in lonely seclusion around our village, and only years after did it occur to me that they’d never married because the war had culled so many young men from their generation that there’d been nobody left for them to marry.  Meanwhile, my Dad would recall how, up till the 1960s, there’d been a World War One veteran living in the village who’d been shell-shocked and had never recovered from it.  The village still had a functioning railway station then and, supposedly, every morning the poor man would visit it, march along the platform and salute the guards on the trains – believing from their uniforms that they were army officers.

 

And it wasn’t until 2008 that I went back to Ireland with my Dad and finally visited Ballyconnell Parish Church in County Cavan, on whose wall is a Roll of Honour commemorating the local men who served in uniform during the two world wars.  The names of two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Walter, are recorded there for World War One.  Both of them survived it.

 

 

In 1977, my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland, where World War One was less loaded with historical significance on a collective level; but was still remembered poignantly on a local level because it’d reaped a dreadful harvest among the populations of Scotland’s cities, towns and villages.  Peebles, the town nearest our new home, had an impressive cenotaph commemorating the fallen, which had been unveiled in a ceremony in 1922 by none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of the war.

 

(The Edinburgh-born Haig was massively popular at the time and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning.  Which seems hard to credit now, given that historical revisionism in the form of, say, Alan Clark’s 1961 historical volume The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth has made us less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent with such posthumous nicknames as ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’.  As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode of Blackadder, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”)

 

Less fancy than the cenotaph in Peebles was the small statue of a soldier, head bowed in remembrance, that’d served as the war memorial in the nearby village of Walkerburn since 1920.  The statue made the news in 1998 when it went missing, presumably stolen to be melted down for its metal.  As a result, Peebles’ Beltane Studios were commissioned to make a similar (but bigger) statue as a replacement.  Then, after the new statue had been installed, the old one was retrieved by the police, still intact, and returned to Walkerburn – so that now it has two war memorials.  The original was placed in a different location, opposite the town’s old mill building.  During World War One, Walkerburn lost a higher percentage of its men on the battlefield than any other settlement in Scotland.  So it certainly deserves its two war memorials.

 

My favourite memorial, however, is the one pictured at the top of this entry: the one commemorating the men of the picturesque Slitrig Valley a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick, which also stands near the entrance of a former military camp.  It indicates how even the remotest, most tranquil-looking communities couldn’t escape the baleful reach of the war.  And for me that still has more impact than floods of ceramic poppies or plains of shrouded figurines.

 

Glasgow trades

 

 

The Trades House of Glasgow was created in 1605 during a period of local-government reform and was designed to give leaders of the city’s craftsmen more say in Glasgow’s running.  It incorporated 14 distinct trades or craft-guilds.  These were: bakers; barbers; bonnet-makers and dyers; coopers; cordiners (makers of boots, shoes, jerkins and other leather goods); fleshers; gardeners; hammermen (blacksmiths, goldsmiths, armourers and other metal-workers); maltmen (brewers); masons (builders and stonemasons); skinners and glovers; tailors; weavers; and wrights (carpenters).

 

Today, technology, automation and mechanisation are consigning professions to the dustbin at a frightening rate.  Filing clerks and telephone switchboard operators have probably already gone and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before farm-labourers, check-out cashiers and fast-food chefs go too.  Thus, I find it strange and sad that if you had to pick one of the above 14 trades to recommend as a career to your children, you’d probably opt for the barbers.  The last time I counted, my home-town of about 8000 people contained at least a dozen hairdresser’s or barber’s shops – so I guess that profession is safe for the foreseeable future.  (Of course, being a barber a few centuries ago involved more than being able to trim someone’s hair.  As the red-and-white barber’s pole reminds us, barbers then were also regarded as surgeons and as well as offering the proverbial short-back-and-sides they were available to do ‘bloodletting, cupping, tooth extractions, lancing and even amputations.’)

 

Anyway, the trades had already made their presence felt in Glasgow before 1605, particularly with their support for the city’s most venerable building, Glasgow Cathedral. They helped finance major extensions made to it during the 13th and 14th century.  And according to the Undiscovered Scotland website, it was also the city’s tradesmen who helped to save the cathedral during the Reformation.  In the 1560s they defended it against ‘reforming’ mobs who would have ransacked and wrecked it, which was the sad fate that befell most other medieval-built churches in Scotland at the time.  As a result, Glasgow Cathedral was the only cathedral on the Scottish mainland to survive the Reformation intact.

 

Visit Glasgow Cathedral today and you’ll see how the support of the 14 trades has been rewarded.  Their titles, mottos, symbols, banners and tools are commemorated in stained glass in the south wall of the choir area.  Here are a few pictures I took of the glass-work whilst exploring the building a few months ago and I hope my lack of skill as a photographer doesn’t diminish its gorgeousness.

 

 

Deep in the heart of Texas: the Alamo

 

 

Originally a Roman Catholic mission, later a military fort and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Alamo is found in the Texan city of San Antonio.  Today much of the site is parkland where long-trunked deciduous trees cast dappled shadows and provide shelter from the unrelenting Texan sun.  The atmosphere there is infinitely pleasanter than it was between February 23rd and March 6th, 1836, when, amid a ruckus of cannonballs, rifle-shot, bayonets, flames, smoke and blood, a hundred Texan defenders held out against a besieging Mexican force of 1500.  The siege ended with the deaths of the Texans – who were then known as ‘Texians’ and whose number included such personages as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis – but it had an important legacy, inspiring many to join the Texian army and hasten the success of the Texas Revolution and the formation of the Republic of Texas.    

 

 

The few buildings there, such as the chapel and barracks, seem to be kept in pristine condition.  But I have to admit that on the day I was there, I made a mistake common among many visitors.

 

What happened was, I wandered into the Alamo gift shop, housed in a historical-looking building that, according to www.thealamo.org, was “built in 1937 as one of nine Texas Centennial Museums honouring the hundredth anniversary of Texas independence.  Dedicated in 1938 the Alamo Museum held historical artefacts until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas decided to also use the space to sell souvenirs in order to raise money for care of the mission.”  And as the website notes, this building is “often mistaken as part of the original Alamo compound.”  That’s certainly what I thought.  I went into the eighty-year-old gift-shop building and assumed I was somewhere that’d seen heavy-duty action back in 1836.

 

 

Confronting me at the entrance was a sign that urged me to “shop and support”, in order to “preserve the Alamo and its legacy for future generations”.  Fair enough, I thought, but it seemed a bit tough that such stout-hearted defenders of Texan, or Texian, liberty as Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William Travis had to depend on hard-core capitalist retailing for the memory of their sacrifice, and the scene of it, to survive into the 21st century.

 

As I wandered among the wares on sale inside – flags, T-shirts, Davy Crockett-style raccoonskin hats, cuddly-toy eagles, lots of things emblazoned with the defiant old Texian slogan ‘Come and take it’ (which, when you think about it, is actually what the Mexicans did) – I still mistakenly believed that the building containing this shop had existed during the 1836 siege and Texians and Mexicans had really died here.  I got a bit cynical about it.  I found myself thinking sourly: “Here’s where William Travis went down, bravely battling to prevent the Mexicans from taking the Alamo’s supplies of fried-egg shapers…  And here’s where Davy Crockett heroically gave his life whilst holding off the Mexicans from the Alamo’s stock of hoodies…  And over here is where Jim Bowie was bayonetted to death as he tried and failed to stop the Mexicans from getting their hands on those boxes of delicious Alamo fudge.”

 

 

Anyway, I later discovered I was wrong.  So while you’re spending money in the Alamo gift shop, don’t feel you’re desecrating a site of the fallen.  The only thing that fell there was the occasional Alamo souvenir, falling off a rack.

 

 

In the centre of the shop is big glass case containing a model of the 1836 Alamo and a depiction of the siege with toy soldiers, horses and cannons.  Mind you, the siege is much better represented by a diorama that’s featured in San Antonio’s Briscoe Western Art Museum.  There’s also a selection of Alamo-related DVDs on sale, including films like 2004’s The Alamo with Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patric and Patrick Wilson, and 1960’s The Alamo with John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey and Frankie Avalon, and the mid-1950s Disney TV mini-series Davy Crockett with Fess Parker as the raccoonskin-wearing frontiersman.  No sign, though, of the 1969 comedy Viva Max!, in which a rogue Mexican general played by Peter Ustinov leads a small company of Mexican soldiers into present-day Texas and retakes the Alamo.  The original plan was to shoot some of Viva Max! in the real Alamo but the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, its then caretakers, were so outraged that instead it had to be filmed at a replica Alamo elsewhere.

 

 

Outside, the most interesting feature for me – being something of a Japan-o-phile – was an inscribed stone from Japan that commemorated the medieval soldier Suneemon Torii.  He’s sometimes known as the ‘Bonham of Japan’, after James Bonham, an Alamo defender who was sent out to get military aid for the garrison, only to have his requests for help turned down.  Bonham finally returned to the Alamo three days before the culmination of the siege, even though in doing so he doomed himself to the same fate as his comrades.  Suneemon Torii performed a similar feat of heroism / martyrdom at the siege of Nagashino Castle in 1575, which has been dubbed ‘the Alamo of Japan’.

 

I also saw the name ‘Bonham’ sculpted into one side of a square, stone fountain.  As I walked around the fountain, I saw that three more names were sculpted into its three other sides: “Travis… Crockett… Bowie.”  I have to confess that, as a Led Zeppelin lover, I would have been pleasantly surprised if instead the names had read: “Bonham… Page… Plant… Jones.”

 

From www.musiclipse.com

 

Dr Dee’s in the house

 

 

It’s a chilly afternoon in February and I’m wandering through a London neighbourhood north of Great Portland Street tube station, in search of the Royal College of Physicians.  Not only is the RCP the oldest medical college in England, but it’s also England’s oldest named museum.  The college’s history as a museum dates back to 1656 when William Harvey, the first man to describe the systemic circulation of blood, donated his library and collection to it.

 

Finally, on the edge of Regent Park, I encounter this imposing and historical-looking statue.  I sense that I’m close to the college; which, presumably, is housed in a similarly imposing and historical-looking building.

 

 

It turns out that I am close to the RCP, but I’m surprised to find that this glass-and-concrete, big-box-on-top-of-a-small-box structure serves as its headquarters.  The current RCP building was opened in 1964.  It was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, the uncompromisingly modernist architect responsible for the campus of my one-time alma mater, the University of East Anglia, and for the National Theatre building on London’s South Bank.  In 2001, the year of Lasdun’s death, Prince Charles remarked that the latter building was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.”

 

 

Lasdun’s RCP building, with its brutalist lines and angles, is not where I expected to find an exhibition devoted to the sixteenth-century mathematician, astronomer, bibliophile, cartographer, numerologist, alchemist, astrologer, teacher, traveller, ancient historian, amateur physician, royal advisor and reputed occultist Dr John Dee.  Mind you, when Dee was in his early twenties, he lectured at the University of Paris about the geometry of Euclid; and as a geometer he might’ve admired the starkness of Lasdun’s lines and angles.

 

Like many a learned man from the medieval and Renaissance eras, Dr John Dee got a bad rap.  Because in spite of being a brilliant scholar and scientist, he ended up with a reputation for being a magician.  In fact, thanks to popular culture, he’s regarded these days as a black-magic badass – so badass that he’s been namechecked in songs by Iron Maiden and the Blue Oyster Cult.  No doubt he’d be dismayed to know it, but poor old Dee is now in the pantheon of occult greats, alongside the usual suspects: Nostradamus, Robert Fluud, Helena Blavatsky, Grigori Rasputin, Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner and Anton LaVey.  (And possibly Jimmy Page.)

 

 

In Dee’s time, the majority of people were uneducated and to them magic seemed indistinguishable from science.  It was probably inevitable that he got the reputation he did.  And actually, for the educated elite, the situation wasn’t that different – for back then the likes of astrology and alchemy were viewed as legitimate sciences.  Insatiably curious about all strands of knowledge and inquiry, Dee naturally applied himself to areas we now see as pseudo-scientific or mystical; as much as he did to areas still seen as properly scientific.

 

Also, as an unquestioning Christian – and Christians were unquestioning in the 16th century – Dee wouldn’t just have believed in God.  He’d have accepted the whole belief system of Christianity, about an afterlife, the soul, angels, demons, miracles, etc.  No wonder Dee spent as much time poring over cabalistic angel magic or peering into crystals trying to communicate with the spirit world as he did writing treatises on the geometry of triangles or giving navigational advice to mariners wanting to travel to the New World.

 

Still, it probably didn’t help Dee’s reputation that the privy council of Queen Mary I had him arrested on charges of witchcraft.  When Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne, however, the establishment’s view of Dee changed.  He became a courtier and was so trusted that he was allowed to give the first Queen Elizabeth advice on her health.

 

What I like most about Dee was his love for books and the fact that, for a time, he owned a library of 3000 books and 1000 manuscripts.  Late in his life, he wrote, “The divers bookes of my late library, printed and anciently written, bound and unbound, were in all neere 4000… of my getting together… from divers places beyond the seas, and some by my great search and labour gotten here in England.”

 

 

I can imagine the anguish that Dee felt when, after journeying in Europe in the 1580s, he returned home and discovered that his library had been decimated.  He’d entrusted its keeping to his brother-in-law, Nicholas Fromond, who’d promptly started selling it off.  A number of his books ended up in the library of Henry Pierrepont, the Marquess of Dorchester, which was donated to the RCP after Pierrepont’s death in 1680.  Presumably it’s those items from Dee’s once-massive collection that form the core of the exhibition today.  (Some even bear Dee’s annotations on their page-margins.)

 

As well as showing the books, the RCP exhibition tells Dee’s story with a series of information-panels, timelines and pictures.  The sober tone of the written information is at odds with the pictures, which are the work of artists and illustrators more interested in the idea of Dee as a magician than in the idea of him as a scientist and book-lover.  Hence, you see the famous drawing – atmospheric but wildly sensationalist – of Dee and his long-time associate Edward Kelley raising the spirit of a dead woman in a nocturnal churchyard.

 

 

You also see Henry Gillard Glindoni’s painting of Dee performing a magic ritual in front of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I.  Recently, it was reported that x-rays of Glindoni’s painting have found a circle of human skulls around Dee, which were depicted on the original work but were then painted over.  Possibly Glindoni covered the skulls at the request of a squeamish Victorian customer. 

 

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/17/john-dee-painting-circle-of-human-skulls-exhibition

 

Dee’s books are fascinating to look at but inevitably, during my visit, it was a section near the exhibition’s end that attracted the most attention and the most taking of photographs.  On display here are some of the more esoteric items associated with the learned doctor.  For example, there’s Dee’s ‘magic mirror’, through which he allegedly ‘called his spirits’ – though evidence that the mirror, which was acquired by the historian, antiquarian and gothic author Horace Walpole in 1771, really belonged to Dee is thin on the ground.  Then there’s his magical disc, used to attempt to communicate with angels.  This “Is engraved with the ‘Vision of the Four Castles’, seen by Dee’s medium Edward Kelley on Wednesday 20 June 1584 while travelling through Poland with Dee.”  Also used for contacting angels is a crystal ball, although again it isn’t certain that this was once in Dee’s possession.

 

 

The bulk of the exhibition is located on the RCP’s first floor, though it continues to the second floor too.  And upstairs you’ll find a section entitled The Afterlife of John Dee, dealing with his legacy in popular culture.  Indeed, barely were Dee’s remains in the ground – he died in 1609 – when William Shakespeare wrote The Tempest (1610-11), which may well have drawn on Dee as inspiration for the character of Prospero.  Among the other artistic works with a Dee influence that are shown here are Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic-book series (1989-1996) and Damon Albarn’s 2012 rock opera Dr Dee: An English Opera.  I was surprised, though, that Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee (1993), the novel that first introduced me to the man, wasn’t featured.

 

 

Neither did I see any mention of the two pieces of Dee-related literary trivia that I find most fascinating.  Firstly, in H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories about Cthulhu and the Elder Gods, Dee has the dubious honour of being the person who translated into English the Necronomicon, the fabled and fearsome grimoire that informs the whole mythos.  Secondly, it’s been claimed that Ian Fleming got the idea for using 007 as James Bond’s code number from Dee, who wrote the same three numbers on correspondence meant only for the perusal of Queen Elizabeth I: 007 signified ‘for your eyes only’.  That makes Dee the missing link between H.P. Lovecraft and Ian Fleming.  What a star!

 

But Dee, I imagine, would have preferred to be remembered as a star of science, learning and books.  The exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians goes some way to celebrating his role in those things whilst reclaiming his reputation from the world of the occult and supernatural.  It continues until July 29th.

 

A rude end to rood screens

 

 

One of my favourite parts of England is East Anglia.  Too far north to be part of the London commuter belt, and removed from the main transport routes between north and south (e.g. the East Coast rail line running through Peterborough), the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk often seem to exist out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the rest of the UK.  But they are choc-a-bloc with delightful things.

 

Sutton has its tracts of ‘Constable Country’ and the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ground, while Norfolk has the Broads in its east, the Fens in its west and the greatly underrated city of Norwich.  Both counties’ coasts are dotted with hamlets, villages and towns that, in their different ways, are picturesque and often spookily atmospheric: Felixstowe Ferry, Orford, Aldeburgh, Dunwich, Happisburgh, Wells-next-the-Sea.  (Parts of that coast, alas, are disappearing or in danger of disappearing due to coastal erosion.)  Also, as you wander about the countryside, you quickly realise that there is a bewildering array of small but gorgeous churches tucked away in the region’s rural — often remote — parishes.

 

East Anglia’s little country churches are also of historic value, maybe no more so than for their rood screens.  These are the ornate and painted partitions that in late medieval times separated the nave from the chancel, forming a symbolic barrier between the public area of the church, used by the congregation, and the clerical area of it, used by the priest.  The rood screens in East Anglia’s churches were usually made out of oak in the 15th and early 16th centuries, often had images of saints, kings and Christ’s disciples painted on their panels, and could stand three or four metres high.  Estimated to number about 400, these rood screens somehow survived the destruction wrought both by the Reformation and by the English Civil War.

 

The rood screen in the photographs stands inside St Mary Church in Worstead, which is an uncommonly large church by East Anglian standards and which I understand dates back to the late 14th century.

 

 

It was a shock, then, to read an article in the Guardian at the end of last month that claimed many of East Anglia’s rood screens are under threat.  Half of them are apparently in a ‘serious’ condition.  Not surprisingly in an area like East Anglia, which at times can seem pretty waterlogged, damp is partly to blame.  Sudden shifts in temperature, with church heating systems being switched on and off to accommodate congregations, don’t help.  Other culprits include ‘fungal attacks’, ‘bat faeces’ and ‘death-watch beetles’, and unwitting damage caused by church staff, worshippers and workmen who often don’t realise the value of the screens.  Meanwhile, because congregations at many of these churches are shrinking, it is becoming harder to raise funds locally to carry out much-needed repairs to the buildings and their contents.

 

There is now a project underway, with the involvement of the Church of England and the Hamilton Kerr Institute, aimed at conserving the region’s rood screens.  However, its current funds — £40,000 — are a drop in the ocean compared with what is needed.  I’m afraid it doesn’t bode well for the future of these 400 little-known, but historically and culturally precious, pieces of Britain’s national heritage.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/dec/27/east-anglian-rood-screens-decay

 

Honest Abe in Edinburgh

 

 

I didn’t know it until I was wandering around Calton Hill the other day, but Edinburgh actually boasts a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States.  Lincoln, of course, was the man who delivered the Gettysburg address and preserved the American Union during the Civil War, and he’s surely a contender for the title of Most Awesome US President Ever.  (Not that he’s had much competition for that title recently.)  Honest Abe’s statue is to be found in the Old Calton Cemetery, the entrance to which is on the opposite side of Waterloo Place from the entrance to Calton Hill itself.  He stands magisterially atop a memorial to Scottish-American soldiers while the clock-tower of the Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street is just visible in the background.

 

Standing next to Possibly-the-Greatest-President-Ever in Old Calton Cemetery is the cylindrical mausoleum of Possibly-the-Greatest-Philosopher-Ever, David Hume – the 18th-century Edinburgh thinker who rejected causality, claimed that God’s existence could neither be proved nor disapproved and argued that morality was based upon man’s benevolence rather than upon reason.  Clearly, Mr Hume still has at least one admirer in Edinburgh, because when I was there I noticed that the bolt-and-padlock of his mausoleum’s door had been decorated with a cluster of violet flowers.

 

 

The other inhabitants of Old Calton Cemetery are less illustrious than David Hume, but some of them were notable figures in their day.  It is the resting place, for example, of Thomas Hamilton, the architect who designed the Royal High School building a little further up the road, which was once earmarked to house Scotland’s new devolved parliament – it would have spared the Scottish political establishment an awful lot of expense and embarrassment if they had put the parliament in the Royal High School, rather than in the white elephant that ended up being built, massively over-budget, at the bottom of the Royal Mile.  Hamilton was also responsible for the Martyr’s Monument, the obelisk that rises from the centre of the cemetery, erected in honour of the members of a universal suffrage group called the Friends of the People, who were persecuted in 1793.

 

 

Also interred there are the publishers William Blackwood, founder of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, which during its 163-year history published contributions by the likes of James Hogg, Thomas De Quincy, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and John Buchan; and Archibald Constable, who was involved in the Ballantyne Press, the company whose collapse in the 1820s bankrupted Sir Walter Scott.  And the cemetery contains the remains of classical and historical painter David Allan, who at one time was likened to a ‘Scottish Hogarth’ (although he certainly wasn’t the satirist that Hogarth was).

 

 

Allan’s visage, carved on his tombstone, adds a decorative flourish to a graveyard that is, on the whole, rather austere-looking.  However, it is spectacularly situated, with Calton Hill to the north and the skyline of the Old Town to the south.  And at its there’s a striking alleyway lined on either side with hulking stone sepulchres.

 

 

If you follow the tomb-flanked alleyway to near its bottom end, you’ll find this mausoleum for a certain Robert Burn.  That’s Robert Burn, not Robert Burns, although the inscription mentioning ‘twelve children’ brings to mind the famously promiscuous ploughman-poet (who’s actually buried in Dumfries).  At the sides of the entrance to Burn’s tomb, these cowled faces stare blankly and disturbingly from the stonework.

 

 

Another feature of the cemetery that is uncharacteristically decorative is the headstone on the left-hand side of the entrance that, on its crest, bears the name of Captain John Gray. Mention is made too, down the stone below, of Elisabeth Wilkie, Thomas Gray and Michael and John Swan.  It also features a sturdy-looking galleon, sculpted near the top, while lurking on either side of the inscriptions are two of the most grotesque skeletal figures to be found on any Edinburgh headstone.  And on its back there’s a Masonic-looking carving that resembles a compass straddling a gallows (or a turned-around Freemason’s square).

 

 

I read somewhere that Captain Gray placed the headstone in the cemetery in memory of his parents, but I haven’t been able to find out why some visitors feel obliged to add to the pile of coins nestling on its summit.  Is it a Masonic custom?  Perhaps somebody out there could enlighten me?

 

Scotland’s disgrace

 

 

If you’ve been in Scotland recently, you’ve probably noticed that there’s an important referendum coming up.  Next September, Scots will either vote ‘yes’ to become an independent country or vote ‘no’ to remain a part of the United Kingdom.  You’ve also probably noticed that many grim, nay, apocalyptic warnings are being made by supporters of the ‘no’ option, which are then magnified by the headline-writers of Scottish newspapers like the Scottish Sun, the Daily Record, the Scottish Daily Mail, the Scottish Daily Express and the Scotsman (none of which, incidentally, are owned by Scots), about what will happen if Scotland goes for independence.

 

Lately, I’ve seen bloodcurdling predictions that food prices will ‘soar’ in an independent Scotland (as if food prices, and utility prices too, haven’t already soared in the UK these last few years).  I’ve seen warnings too that an independent Scotland will immediately be booted out of the European Union because the Spanish won’t like us.  (This was enthusiastically reported by right-wing newspapers who normally hate the EU and normally portray the Spanish as being the sort of workshy, subsidy-dependent southern Europeans who symbolise everything that’s rotten in the organisation.  But I suppose the moment they slag off the idea of an independent Scotland, they become wise, good Spaniards.)  It’s even been reported that in an independent Scotland, people will – horror! – no longer be able to see their favourite television programmes, like Coronation Street and Doctor Who.  (This came as a shock to me, as I’ve seen Doctor Who on TV in places as far afield as Romania and Thailand.  But maybe Romania and Thailand would be beacons of wealth and culture compared to the hellhole that an independent Scotland would be.)

 

I’m sure that as the referendum draws nearer, the warnings will become even direr.  How can we be sure that in an independent Scotland the crops won’t wither in the fields, the children won’t starve on the streets and Arthur’s Seat won’t erupt and bury Edinburgh in lava?  Meanwhile, any half-wit who voices an anti-independence opinion will be treated in the newspapers as having uttered an unassailable truth.  Boris Johnson only has to announce that during the night he had a dream in which he saw an independent Scotland visited by a Biblical plague of boils; and the Scottish Daily Mail will no doubt report it with the headline: EXPERT CASTS DOUBT ON HEALTH CARE IN INDEPENDENT SCOTLAND.

 

What these doomy warnings are doing, in fact, is tapping into and exploiting the well-observed, well-recorded and well-discussed phenomenon of the ‘Scottish cringe’: an age-old inferiority complex among Scottish people that has them believe their country isn’t just rubbish, it’s at least fifty shades of rubbish.  And I have to admit there are a few pieces of evidence to support the notion that Scotland is a mighty embarrassment.

 

Politically, there was the fiasco of the Scottish Parliament building, which was constructed between 1999 and 2004.  Originally supposed to cost £109 million, it ended up with a price tag of £414 million, nearly three times as much, which caused much gnashing of teeth and cries of “Can’t we do anything right?”  Meanwhile, in the sporting world, there are the Scottish national football team’s woeful attempts to make an impression on the World Cup competition, dating back to Ally Macleod’s squad in the 1978 tournament in Argentina – Ally and co went with high expectations and then were humiliated by the humble likes of Peru and Iran.  (Scotland did manage a 1-1 draw with the latter, but it was only thanks to an own goal by Iranian centre-back Andranik Eskandarian.)  On the media front, the fact that Scotland’s most famous newspaper is the Sunday Post, a publication seemingly unaware that society has developed beyond 1934, surely induces cringes.  And you only have to mention the words ‘Scottish cuisine’ to an outsider for that outsider to sneer and respond: ‘Deep-fried Mars Bar!’  And the Scottish entertainment scene has been rife with figures who’ve made Scots want to moan in despair and bury their heads under the nearest cushion, including Sir Harry Lauder, Andy Stewart, Lulu, the Bay City Rollers, Sheena Easton, Wet Wet Wet, Ian and wee Janette Krankie…  But I can’t go on.  My hands are shaking and tears are rolling down my face.

 

For me, however, there is one Scottish embarrassment that looms far larger than all the others.  It is monstrous in size, is fixed permanently in stone, has survived for nearly two hundred years and stands in plain view of many parts of the Scottish capital.  I’m talking about the National Monument, which occupies a prime position on Calton Hill in central Edinburgh.  Ostensibly built to honour the Scottish soldiers and sailors who’d died in the Napoleonic Wars from 1803 to 1815, this was clearly also a vanity project for Scotland generally and for Edinburgh in particular.  The fact that it was modelled on the Parthenon in Athens suggests that the capital was in the middle of an early rebranding exercise.  No longer was it content to be seen as the crowded, smoky, sewage-splattered and stinky ‘Auld Reekie’ of yore.  Rather, it was going for the more cosmopolitan title of ‘the Athens of the North’.

 

To be fair, Scotland and Edinburgh had reason to feel good about themselves at the time.  Following some rocky experiences in the late 17th century / early 18th century, including the failed Scottish attempt to establish a colony at Darien in central America (which would be the country’s biggest disaster on Latin American soil until Ally Macleod’s World Cup campaign) and 1707’s Union of Parliament, when Robert Burns would have you believe the Scots were ‘bought and sold for English gold’, the later 18th century saw an unexpected Scottish renaissance.  Suddenly many areas of science, art, economics and philosophy were being heavily influenced by brainy Scots such as Robert Adam, Thomas Carlyle, Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Lord Monboddo, Henry Raeburn, Thomas Reid, Sir Walter Scott and Adam Smith.  Meanwhile, Edinburgh had seen the development of its New Town, which today surely ranks as the most gorgeous and extensive district of Georgian architecture in Britain.

 

When you approach the National Monument on Calton Hill, you see eight Grecian columns standing along its front, two more columns standing at either side… and that’s it.  The structure doesn’t have a back.  It’s truncated, incomplete, unfinished.  Yes, work on the National Monument came to a halt in 1829 because the project ran out of money – and the part of it that was left standing was soon dubbed ‘Scotland’s disgrace’.  To me, it has the effect of symbolising a nation’s neurosis.  Scotland, this laughably half-built, faux-Greek monument seems to warn, don’t get ideas above your station.  Don’t get too big for your britches.  Ken your place.  Don’t think you’re good because, in truth, you’re a bit rubbish.  Someone – possibly Tom Stoppard – made a famous jibe about Edinburgh not being so much ‘the Athens of the North’ as it is ‘the Reykjavik of the South’, but as far as I know Reykjavik doesn’t have an architectural symbol of incompetence on the same, hulking scale as this on display in its town centre.

 

There are lots of cool things to see up on Calton Hill, such as the City Observatory, the Donald Stewart Monument, the Nelson Monument and a rather natty cannon whose barrel is pointed in the direction of Princes Street.  Sometimes I wish somebody would turn that cannon around, though, and use it to lob a few shells in the direction of the National Monument, Scotland’s disgrace, and reduce the bloody thing to rubble.  Then the Scots could get on with the job of building a better country for themselves (inside or outside the United Kingdom) whilst being prey to fewer doubts about their own worth and abilities.

 

 

My pub’s older than your pub

 

 

You might not think it while you survey the brutalist architecture of the multi-storey car-parks, Travelodges and concrete 1960s-esque colleges littering its centre, but Nottingham is a historic city.  Particularly historic are a trio of pubs in central Nottingham: the Bell Inn on Angel Row, whose outside sign dates it to 1437 while the blurb on the neighbouring wall identifies it as ‘Nottingham’s Oldest Pub’; the Salutation on Maid Marion Way, which claims to have done business since 1240; and snuggling by the rock beneath Nottingham Castle just off Castle Road, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which, supposedly founded in 1189, boasts that it’s ‘the oldest inn in England’.  That last hostelry, popularly known as ‘The Trip’, gets its name from a story that Richard I stopped there for some liquid refreshment before embarking on a crusade in the Holy Lands.  And in fact in those days the word ‘trip’ didn’t mean a journey, but a stop-off during a journey.

 

 

Inevitably, there have been arguments about which of the three pubs is really the most venerable.  Investigations by historian Dr David Cross in 2012, which looked at the tree rings in the wooden beams within the buildings, suggested that the Trip only dated back to the 17th century while both the Bell Inn and the Salutation originated in the first half of the 15th century.  In other words, the Bell Inn had been the most honest in its claims.  However, Cross was only calculating the pubs’ ages in terms of the buildings standing now.  Supporters of the Trip’s claims to antiquity point out that there were caves in the pub’s vicinity, which may have been used as Nottingham Castle’s ‘brewhouse’ from the 12th century.  Therefore, there could indeed have been a functioning pub, a subterranean one, operating on the site at the time of the crusades.  Then again, the Salutation has caves underneath it that supposedly go back to the 9th century, so in the cave stakes it might actually predate the Trip.

 

 

Desperate to drink in Nottingham’s (and possibly England’s) oldest pub, but confused as which pub was actually the oldest, I took no chances – I went and drank in all three of them.  The Trip is beautifully situated at the base of the castle (although the view from it is damaged by the hulking concrete presence of the City College across the road) and makes a pleasant place for an afternoon pint.  However, the small size of the bar-counter-areas means that the place isn’t particularly well equipped to deal with the volume of custom it attracts – which includes tourists who’ve just been on the nearby Robin Hood tours and, at the weekends, hen and stag parties limbering up for the drunken evenings ahead.  The Bell Inn is a slightly less touristy pub.  As you enter it, you realise that the entrance corridor was once an alleyway.  What had been three separate premises on the sides and at the end of the alleyway have been converted into the pub’s three bar-rooms.  I assume it’s the low-ceilinged, wooden-beamed room on the right that claims to date back to 1437.

 

 

Meanwhile, the Salutation is, in the 21st century, an unashamedly rock-and-roll pub.  The juke box plays heavy metal music and, when I was there, the snug bars off the main bar area were populated with Goths.  As such, I believe it has the greatest claim to antiquity – after all, in medieval days, with the clink and clash of sword-blades, lances, shields and knights’ armour, life was undeniably metallic; and the era was also unquestionably gothic.

 

Greyfriars Kirkyard — minus the silly wee dug

 

 

Nearly a quarter-century ago in Edinburgh, I worked occasionally in a shop that sold art books.  I got the job through an old schoolmate of mine, Roger Small, who worked there regularly but needed someone to fill in for him on the odd afternoon.  The shop looked somewhat out-of-the-ordinary.  It stood just before the junction where George IV Bridge, descending from the Royal Mile, met Candlemaker Row, climbing from the Grassmarket; and because it was at the end of a terrace and stuck between two converging streets, it was weirdly tapering and triangular in shape.  Also, most of its frontage on the George IV Bridge side was glass.  I was on the dole at the time and for the afternoons I spent working there in Roger’s place I was paid cash-in-hand.  The bookshop has long since vanished and the premises are occupied by a pizzeria now, so I guess I can say that without getting anyone into trouble.

 

On my first afternoon there, having briefed me about everything else in his shop, the owner reached over to the counter, where there was a pile of flimsy, softcover books – untypical of the shop’s stock of big, handsome, hardback tomes about the fine arts.  He lifted one with a sheepish, embarrassed air, as if he was about to show me a secret batch of pornography.  The cover of the book, which was little more than a pamphlet, was illustrated with a picture of a small, hairy and scruffy animal.  “If a coachload o’ tourists roll in,” he said, “ye can flog them some copies o’ this book aboot the silly wee dug.”

 

That silly wee dug was Greyfriars Bobby, whose statue stood a few yards beyond the end of the shop at the very corner between George IV Bridge and Candlemaker Row.  Bobby was, and still is, famous for being the ultra-loyal Skye terrier who, in the 19th century, belonged to a police constable called John Gray and then, after Gray died, spent every night of the following 14 years sleeping on his grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard – the entrance to which stands across Candlemaker Row from his statue.  The story of wee Bobby’s loyalty to his master has made him both a Scottish icon and a historical canine superhero, the subject of a couple of movies (including an inevitable Walt Disney one in 1961) and an enduring tourist attraction.  When I walked past my former, now-pizza-filled workplace a few weeks ago, a squad of people were crowded close to the diminutive statue, clicking pictures of it with cameras and phones.

 

(c) STV

 

But recent research has suggested that the legend of Greyfriars Bobby is, frankly, a load of guff.  In 2011 Jan Bondeson, a Swedish academic based in Cardiff, produced convincing evidence that the dog alleged to be Bobby was really a stray that’d become a ‘graveyard dog’ – back then it was common for dogs to inhabit cemeteries, surviving on morsels given them by groundskeepers, mourners and visitors.  When James Brown, the Greyfriars sexton at the time, began to embellish his yarns about where this particular little dog had come from, making out that it kept watch over its old owner’s grave, there was a surge in the number of visitors coming to the kirkyard – and stopping for a bite at a local restaurant run by one John Traill.  People, Brown and Traill realised, wanted to see this remarkably loyal wee beastie.

 

With the sexton getting extra tips and the restaurateur getting increased custom, it was in both their interests to keep the tale going.  It seems likely that after nine years the original Bobby died and, to maintain the flow of visitors and visitors’ cash, they found a new dog, substituted him for the old, deceased one and passed him off as Greyfriars Bobby for a further five years.  Bondeson said his suspicions were initially stirred by the claim that Bobby had guarded John Gray’s grave for 14 years – Skye terriers are a breed of dog that normally don’t live longer than twelve years.

 

So the Greyfriars Bobby story was a myth, one pitched at gullible tourists with the intention of parting them from their money.  Thank heavens such unsavoury practices don’t occur anywhere else in Scotland.  Not at Loch Ness, for example.

 

You can see Greyfriars Bobby’s own grave in the kirkyard today – presumably the grave of the second Bobby, as I imagine the original was buried somewhere less conspicuous.  You can also see the graves, beside one another, of his supposed master John Gray and of the crafty old sexton James Brown, whose headstone bears the epitaph, ‘Friend to Greyfriars Bobby’.  ‘Show-business agent and publicist to Greyfriars Bobby’ might have been more appropriate.

 

Greyfriars Kirkyard deserves to be better known for things other than Disneyesque dogs.  Imposing and atmospheric, it’s one of the few tourist sites in Scotland worth visiting when the weather is cold and dreich (as it often is on 364 days of the year) because then it acquires a memorable bleakness and gloom worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story.  With its crowds of headstones and obelisks, coloured in dark, lugubrious hues and sometimes leaning at tipsy angles, and with its memorial stonework, much of which is adorned with sculpted skulls and crossbones, prancing skeletons, sinister figurines and psychotic-looking angels, it’s no surprise that the kirkyard is a fixture on the itineraries of Edinburgh’s lucrative ghost tours.

 

 

The southern end of Greyfriars has a population of vaults and sepulchres, some positioned right up against the back walls of the houses standing along its perimeter – a feature that once prompted Robert Louis Stevenson to marvel that “only a few inches separate the living and the dead.”  I’ve often wondered myself if the living residents of those houses are troubled by their knowledge of the deceased residents of the structures just on the other sides of their walls.

 

One mausoleum you’ll find there is that of George Mackenzie, who became Scotland’s Lord Advocate in 1667.  He set about the persecution of the Scottish Covenanters, who’d incurred the establishment’s wrath by defying the Stuart kings’ attempts to meddle in and ‘Episcopal-ise’ the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, with such sadistic enthusiasm that he earned the nickname ‘Bluidy Mackenzie’.  The irony is that, in the kirkyard, Mackenzie’s tomb stands just yards away from an enclosure known as the Covenanters’ Prison, where over a thousand Covenanters were incarcerated in appalling conditions for four months in 1679.  Many perished and the little prison has since been dubbed ‘the world’s first concentration camp’.

 

The mausoleum of the bloodthirsty Mackenzie has a reputation for being haunted.  Supposedly, after it was broken into by a homeless man desperate for somewhere to spend the night in the late 1990s – the sort of activity that in horror movies is guaranteed to raise an evil and unforgiving spirit from its slumber – there have been incidents of poltergeist activity in the vicinity, with visitors being subjected to buffeting and battering from unseen but obviously malevolent forces.  Wikipedia claims that during the past two decades Greyfriars Kirkyard has seen 350 such supernatural occurrences.

 

For the sake of objectivity, I should mention that I have drunk a pint in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar with a guy, connected with the city’s walking tours, who claimed that the Mackenzie poltergeist story was an utter sham.  It was a sham, he insisted, because he invented the story in order to get more people signing up for the tour he ran at the time.  Then the story was ‘borrowed’ by another tour company, who hyped it up to the point where Greyfriars Kirkyard was being visited by crews from TV shows like Scariest Places on Earth and Extreme Ghost Stories.  So, when it comes to spinning a far-fetched yarn that’ll lighten the wallets of visiting tourists, those folk around Greyfriars Kirkyard clearly have form.

 

 

Running through the eastern part of Greyfriars Kirkyard is a remnant of the old Flodden Wall, which Edinburgh’s flustered population erected after the Battle of Flodden in 1513 – the English had inflicted such a disastrous defeat upon the Scots that it was feared an English army could appear on the city’s doorstep at any time.  Now the roofs, chimneys and turrets of nearby George Heriot’s School rise beyond this surviving section of the wall.  George Heriot, the 16th / 17th century goldsmith who established the school, isn’t buried in the cemetery – he lies in St Martin-in-the-Field in London – but the founders of two other prestigious Edinburgh schools, George Watson and Mary Erskine, are.

 

 

Among the other famous tenants of Greyfriars Kirkyard are architect James Craig, who was responsible for the layout of Edinburgh’s New Town, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Captain John Porteous, captain of the Edinburgh Town Guard, whose death at the hands of a mob in 1736 became a key incident in Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Heart of Mid-Lothian 78 years later; and the notoriously dissolute Colonel Francis Charteris, who was the inspiration for characters in some of William Hogarth’s paintings.  Nicknamed the Rape-Master General for the sexual assaults he carried out against his female servants, and allegedly an early member of the Hell-fire Club, Charteris was so hated that, during his funeral, his coffin was attacked while it was being transported to the kirkyard.  His interment was probably no more dignified for it’s said that dead cats were flung into his grave.

 

Greyfriars is also the resting place for a brace of literary figures, including the legendary Gaelic bard Duncan Ban MacIntyre, who for the 88 years of his life was illiterate and had to commit all his works to memory; the 18th-century poet, and wig-maker, Allan Ramsay; Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling; and William McGonagall, who is probably Scotland’s second-most famous poet and certainly its first-most terrible one.

 

Affectionately remembered for such versification as ‘…the stronger we our houses do build / the less chance we have of being killed,’ McGonagall was born in Dundee but died a pauper in Edinburgh in 1902.  He was buried here in an unmarked grave, although a plaque now commemorates him with the lines ‘I am your gracious majesty ever faithful to thee / William McGonagall the poor poet that lives in Dundee.’  Before the plaque was put up, the kirkyard also contained a bench that was dedicated to the poet’s memory.  It bore the following inscription – the lines weren’t, I think, penned by McGonagall himself, although they look like they could’ve been: ‘Feeling tired and need a seat? Sit down here and rest your feet’.