Hans Sloane – cataloguer of curiosities, maker of modernity



Collecting the World – The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane

James Delbourgo, London: Allen Lane, 2017, hb., 504pps., £25

Sloane Square, Sloane Street and Hans Place contain some of London’s most desirable addresses, but what do the occasionally resident Qatari princelings and Russian oligarchs, or retreating English “Sloane Rangers”, know about the man after whom their chic streets are named? Hans Sloane sometimes seems to be hiding in plain historical sight, forgotten despite these street names, and others through that district. And his legacy extends infinitely wider than these prosperous purlieus, helping shape England’s intellectual life and the history of science, and so the modern world. It is Rutgers-Harvard historian James Delbourgo’s task to extricate Sloane from relative obscurity, absolve him from accusations of amateurism, collectionitis, connoisseurship and dilettantism, and examine the sometimes troubling origins of British identity, and epistemology then and now.

Examination is overdue. There have been spasmodic academic investigations into Sloane – Delbourgo contributed to one 2012 essay collection – but no biography since 1954. Sloane rarely merits even footnote mention in histories of medicine or science, although he was Secretary to the Royal Society for twenty years and its President for fourteen, was central to the foundation of the British Museum and its Natural History and Library offshoots, and provided incomparable source material for the likes of Linnaeus. Sans Sloane, anthropology and ethnology would have taken longer to emerge. Why is he not better remembered? What was it like to be an intellectual in late Stuart-early Enlightenment England? What is the precise nature of his legacy? How does the science of then differ from today’s? And, as the author asked in The Atlantic last year, “Who owns antiquity?” Delbourgo seeks answers to all kinds of interesting questions, and happily provides them.

Sloane was born in 1660, in the Down town of Killyleagh. His Scottish father and English mother were Plantation stock, helping root Protestantism in unruly Ulster. His father worked as agent for his relative the 2nd Viscount Clandeboye, and prospered in his own right, but died when Sloane was just six. At sixteen Sloane nearly succumbed to a “violent hæmorrhage”, making him unusually mindful of his health, abstemious and moderate, although this may also stem in part from his theology. He early manifested interest in the natural world, exploring the landscape around Strangford Lough and bird-nesting on nearby islands, and was able to avail of Killyleagh Castle’s library. Details of his youth are sketchy, but he probably assembled his first finds in emulation of aristocratic “cabinets of curiosities”, of the kind that can still be seen in country houses – improbable assemblages of collected or come-across objects, artificial and natural oddments arranged as decorative conversation-pieces for the leisured. Anticipating his own and others’ criticisms of privileged enquirers, Delbourgo reminds us that Sloane’s comforts and freedoms were obtained at the expense of dispossessed Catholics – cultural appropriation derived from territorial expropriation.

He went to London in 1679 to study medicine, and became acquainted with John Ray and Robert Boyle. He gathered botanical specimens in France (Ray utilised these for his Historia Planetarium) and gained his MD at the Huguenot University of Orange. He was admitted to both the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal Society before going to Jamaica in 1687, as physician to the incoming Governor, the Duke of Albemarle. He spent fifteen formative months there tending to mostly English patients, including the privateer-politician Henry Morgan and of course the Duke, and exploring the safer parts of the island’s interior. He accumulated things indefatigably, not to say indiscriminately, from minerals to bones, insects to plants, antiquities to folk art, and shell-encrusted pieces of shipwreck to musical instruments, which he catalogued in near-obsessive detail. He was fortunate to find, in that enervating environment, painstaking draughtsmen to draw his finds, later published as the lavish, two-volume Natural History of Jamaica, which Delbourgo calls “a hybrid of providentialism, profit and savagery designed simultaneously to enlighten and beguile”. The title page was emblazoned with an evocative verse from the Book of Daniel, that had been used by Francis Bacon – “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased”.

He took an interest in almost everything, accepting of whatever he found but in so doing being effectively exploitative. Like most of his contemporaries, he was purblind about slavery – ironic because English Protestant imperialists felt morally superior to Spanish Catholic ones, and made agitprop use of Iberian inhumanity. He treated sick slaves, but rather as a vet would treat valuable livestock, less empathetic to their sufferings than to those of the English, holding them to different standards. Yet paradoxically he noted aspects of their lives that would otherwise have remained unrecorded; for example, he was responsible for the earliest transcription of African music in the Americas. It is only fair to remember that the newly imperial English were in global rivalry with equally unscrupulous others, intoxicated by the world’s new wideness, more interested in money-making and naval strengths than in contemplating navels. He also met his future wife, married to a plantation owner but who would soon be widowed, whose slave and sugar-derived funds would prove vastly useful (more reason not to notice slavery), and gave him daughters to carry his genes into gentlemanliness.

He returned to England with Albemarle’s badly-embalmed body, accompanied by portmanteaux of exotica, materia medica and live animals, including a seven foot snake. He resumed his practice, promoting the use of quinine, inoculation against smallpox, and the drinking of chocolate, earning a reputation for discretion and urbanity which allowed entrée to the capital’s bon ton, ultimately including royalty. So greatly did he prosper that he naturally attracted resentments, with Tory satirists calling him “Dr. Slyboots”, and Isaac Newton descending from rarefied heights to call him “villain and rascal”. But Sloane kept on imperturbably, from his Bloomsbury home furthering all kinds of scientific enquiries and transactions, with a global correspondence and an open wallet. Among celebrated visitors was Handel, who supposedly enraged him by placing a buttered muffin on a rare book. Having outgrown one house, he bought the one next door, and then the manor of Chelsea as country retreat. He covenanted the site of the Chelsea Physic Garden in perpetuity to the Worshipful Company of Apothecaries – for which alone he ought to be honoured by moderns.

When he died in 1753, he was the owner of a unique treasure-trove, mostly natural history items, but including 23,000 coins and medals, 50,000 books, prints and manuscripts, and 1,125 “things relating to the customs of ancient times”. He willed it should be made available to the nation for just £20,000, on condition it became “a musaeum, visited and seen by all persons desirous of viewing the same and rendered as useful as possible”. And it did, the British Museum opening not far from his old houses – its existence helping codify the still-settling national identity just seven years after Culloden, and furthermore solidifying European civilizatory claims to global dominance, and all of modernity. Who owns antiquity indeed, and why it matters…territory increasingly fought over.

For all its liberal protestations, our age can be arrogant, treating history as irrelevant, or the past as another country populated by ignoramuses, oppressors and retrogrades. It is accordingly easy to overlook a man whose wide angle lens could imply inability to focus, and whose energies were expended across so many fields of enquiry. For all his assiduity and organising intelligence, maybe Sloane was simply outshone by even more brilliant stars – his labours less quantifiable than Boyle’s Law, Linnaean nomenclature or Newton’s Principia, less obviously engaging than Pepys or Evelyn, less tangible than St. Paul’s or the Royal Hospital. Yet even incomplete intellectual interest is surely always better than bland incuriosity, while accusations of historical insensitivity miss the point. As you leaf through these pages, it becomes clear just how culturally central a figure Sloane was, and is – that this unassuming and even unimaginative man made a more useful contribution to the stock of scientific understanding than many better known figures. Delbourgo has given us an unforgettable portrait of a quiet man in full, recorder of a vanished world that in many ways is still with us, whose unflagging, unpretentious additions of fact upon fact, specimen upon specimen, helped make our universe.

This review first appeared in Spiked in November 2017, and is reproduced with permission


Homing in – review of The Story of England by Michael Wood



The Story of England – A Village and Its People Through the Whole of English History

Michael Wood, London: Penguin, 2011, 440 pp.

Michael Wood begins with a quotation from Blake: “To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.” This summarises his aim, which is to zero in on one small English place and use its specific saga to tell the tale of all England from prehistory to present.

The place is Kibworth, an outwardly unremarkable assemblage of three settlements – Kibworth Beauchamp, Kibworth Harcourt, and Smeeton Westbury – nine miles southeast of Leicester. It was chosen because it is close to the geographic centre of England and because, since 1270, parts of the township have been owned by Merton College, Oxford. Centuries of busy bursars have therefore kept voluminous records on their every transaction with their outlying asset. Such completeness is rare and, when combined with other evidence, BBC money, the author’s imaginativeness, and the interested involvement of residents, allows an unusually intimate glimpse into the private life of a place inhabited continuously for at least 2,000 years. Kibworth is “emphatically England in miniature” – a representative locus whose triumphs and travails mirror those of the rest of the country, and which will share England’s fate, for better or worse.

Even in today’s swollen settlements bestriding the busy A6, the alert chorographer can find trace elements of dizzyingly distant times – the spoor of ancient Britons, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans somehow surviving into the pedestrian present, persisting in road routes, hedge lines, field names, and local lore.  Prehistoric people gravitated to Kibworth because of its good soil and its location straddling the watersheds of two major rivers. The Stone Age became Bronze, and the Bronze Agers elided into Iron, almost unnoticed except for the mounds that mark the graves of their important. A huge hoard of Iron Age gold and copper coins bearing “the resonant names of shadowy Corieltauvian kings” was found nearby in 2000. Romans and Romanized Kibworthians living at this “outermost edge of the known world” in their turn mislaid coins, potsherds, and tesseræ. After the Eagles were recalled to deal with sudden home emergencies, Jute and Angle ‘barbarians’ quit their stemlands and breached the Saxon Shore in earnest, turning Rome’s most peripheral province into an outpost of the Germanosphere.

Wood clearly relishes the ‘Dark Ages’ combination of imperial overthrow, natural disasters, and English national nascence. He cites The Ruin, a fragmentary eighth century poem, to indicate with what wonder more imaginative newcomers must have regarded the Roman remains they found:

Wrætlic is þes wealstan; wyrde gebræcon

burgatede burston; brosna enta geweorc

Hrofas Sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,

hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime

(“Wondrous wallstones, broken by fate; the courtyard pavements smashed, the work of giants; their roofs fallen, the cement on their gates split by frost”)

Britannia’s new “plunder-lords, deed-doers, ring-givers, leaders of men”,  who fought one another and fell on long-forgotten fields, were Germans but they incidentally invented England. One arriver, an otherwise obscure homesteader called Cybba, bequeathed his name to his worth (an Old English word meaning ‘enclosure’) and what would become the Leicestershire landscape. These pocket potentates also ensured that England would one day become a Christian country, with enormous consequences. Wood notes,

The Christian narrative is so wedded to the English story, to English culture and, till only recently, to the English sense of identity that we have tended to think it was both inevitable and a good thing . . . from the eighth century until the twentieth English history to a greater or lesser degree will be Christian.

He alludes to the apocryphal Frisian monarch

…who at the last moment stepped away from the baptismal font saying he would rather spend the next life with his brave pagan ancestors, even though in hell, than with the pallid Christians in their heaven

to make us ponder what might have been, had other rulers rejected rather than accepted the teachings of Augustine, Chad, and others. There is an amusing anecdote of Archbishop Tarsus, who was so disgusted by the understated evangelizing of Saint Chad that he lifted him onto a horse and “told him brusquely to get on with it”. (Quotations in this book are too often unattributed.)

Scandinavians in search of plunder or pasture faced off against the Britons of Wessex along this shifting ethnocultural frontline. Kibworth was just inside the Danelaw, and the numbers of the newcomers were smaller than was long imagined; recent DNA studies suggest that even in the East Midlands epicentre of Viking visitations, only around ten percent of the population were of Danish or Norwegian stock. (Elsewhere, it was between one and five percent.) The region long remained “poised on the cusp of history, between the no longer and the not yet.”

Then came other Northmen from Normandy, in small but significant numbers, to plant chivalry and feudalism largely against the wishes of the English – the latter collective noun increasingly incorporating Britons, Irish, and Scots as well as Saxons and Vikings. There commenced contumacious centuries – dynastic struggles, barons’ wars against monarchs, peasants’ revolts against barons, local risings against London, and intra-Christian disputes. Wood illustrates all these complexities through shrewdly chosen anecdotes, like those surrounding the highly symbolic figure of Simon de Montfort – a French-speaking Norman who became an exemplar of English liberties for presiding over the first English parliament. His early trajectory was full of promise, his very name hinting at a great fate. There was a Frenglish chant:

Comment hom le nome?


He’s called MON-FORT!

He’s in the monde and he’s big and strong;

He loves what’s right and he hates what’s wrong;

And he’ll always come out on top!

Wood juxtaposes Montfortmania neatly with the post-Evesham reality, the ex-hero’s head daintily dispatched to Lady Mortimer, his testicles affixed to his nose, while his tarred limbs were placed above Gloucester’s city gates.

It was not only war that would winnow England. The Gloucester gates that sported de Montfort’s disjecta membra in 1264 would be barred in 1348 in a forlorn attempt to keep out the Black Death – the rat-flea borne buboes that spread at almost a mile per day in that ill-starred year. The January 1349 entry in one Kibworthian’s “omen book” shows dark, hooded figures firing arrows and the inscription “The arrew smites thorow the cloth / That makus many men wel wroth.” About that time the plague announced itself, and Kibworth Harcourt suffered an estimated 70% fatality rate, the highest known in England. It left profound psychic scars; even now, the purported plague pit is unploughed.

Like all the East Midlands, Kibworth was prone to Protestantism. Wycliffe was a Leicestershire man, and some of the earliest Lollards came from Kibworth. “I smelle a Lollere in the wind,” wrote Chaucer disapprovingly. Chaucer was a courtier, and the anti-episcopal urge was always associated with political revolution, like the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt or Sir John Oldcastle’s abortive revolt of 1417. Wood demonstrates that rebellions against ecclesiastical and political authorities are a kind of national tradition. He pays tribute to the archetypal awkward Englishman who may be censorious, but knows his rights and is “eager . . . to lead his own spiritual life – and to help others find theirs”.

However, the author is susceptible to the magic of the highly colored Catholic universe, writing of

…the shrine of St Wistan with its little painted statue of the royal prince and martyr, whose golden hair, it was said, waved each year at the end of May in the long grass of the water meadows below Kibworth.

He is highly critical of some of the consequences of Protestantism – “[N]o sooner is Purgatory fading away than a possessive individualism is making itself felt”. Many felt cut adrift from their past and even their family history:

One of the more profound effects . . . was in the long term to sever the relationship between the dead and the living. . . . [D]ead Protestants were now beyond the reach of prayer. [T]he Reformation thus radically revised not only the rituals but the process of salvation itself; as one might say, its conceptual geography.

Then there were some of the flawed exemplars of the Reformed religion, for whom “helping others find their own spiritual lives” meant forcing them. The 1650 Act against “Atheistical, Blasphemous and execrable opinions” also forbade such horrors as “Whitson-Ales, Wakes, Morris Dances, May-poles, Stage-plays . . . or such like Licentious practices.”

One Protestant Pecksniff was the Civil War-era Puritan vicar of Kibworth, John Yaxley, described as

…a great disturber of the peace, by day and night, searching for cavaliers and making great havoc and spoil of people’s goods.. . . [H]e constantly preached and prayed.

Even as Charles Il arrived triumphantly in London in 1660, Yaxley, still desirous of destruction after nearly 20 years of bloodletting, was hyperventilating:

Hell is broke loose, the devil and his instruments are coming to persecute the godly.

Anglicanism eventually squared the circle, but nonconformist currents persisted in Kibworth as elsewhere and informed the eventual emergence of the English Left, which famously in England “owes more to Methodism than Marxism”. There are conceptual and temperamental connections between Lollards, Puritans, Quakers, Wesleyans, temperance campaigners, suffragettes and politically correct politicians. Wood is part of that generic Left, evincing admiration for Engels and E.P. Thompson and their “great works”. The Independent’s reviewer Nick Groom applauded the author’s “democratic zeal”. But he is a liberal rather than an authoritarian leftist. He may be guilty of wishful thinking – but if so it is caused by a quiet kind of patriotism.

Ancient associations entrance him as well as us. An atmospheric photograph shows the site of the “Spear Tree”, the former Bronze Age burial mound on the Roman road north of Kibworth, which became the place where Anglo-Saxons would gather in wapentake (their assent to decisions signified by brandishing their spears) and continued to be the meeting place of local juries until the 1720s. Wood’s passion for connections leads him to draw parallels between past and present, sometimes slightly forced. For example, it seems anachronistic to aver that “the genetic makeup of the early Anglo-Saxons was especially mixed”, and “that the England of the early eleventh century was ‘a diverse, multi-ethnic society’”. He may be trying to rationalise the recent immigration that has made Leicester England’s most diverse city. In so doing, he overstates the dissimilarity of the Anglo-Saxons, contradicts his own testimony that the Viking component of the English population was small, and understates the unifying effects of the English language and Christianity. He also omits to mention that there was virtually no immigration into England between the eleventh century and the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The Independent‘s Groom homed in on this, recommending that Wood should revisit too-white Kibworth soon

…to see how imaginatively a traditional English identity, already rooted in Roman-British, Anglo-Saxon and Viking settlement, has accommodated the Asian and Caribbean communities.

That should be if rather than how. Can Leicester’s sundry soup of nationalities ever imagine themselves into the English narrative? It seems unlikely. The “mysterious crystallization” that Wood says gave everyone England appears to be undoing itself. His “givenness of the past” has been taken away. Today, England probably seems more real at Kibworth than in Leicester, or London.

Wood also claims that, during World War Il,

Kibworth people . . . saw a higher purpose than Churchill’s narrow rhetoric about empire; namely a community of interest with the people of Europe to counteract Germany’s ‘New Europe’

Did they really? Were they not fighting mostly because Hitler had given no choice, plus British imperialism mixed (contradictorily) with what many would now see as ‘intolerant’ nationalism.

These imperfections registered, we are left with a lyrical and learned appreciation of one of the world’s most fascinating countries, seen through the eyes of a very few of the ‘ordinary’ people who carried England’s accumulating weight onward against extraordinary odds. Whether they can continue to do so is yet to be seen, but at any rate Wood’s exercise in particularization is a success story.

The review first appeared in Chronicles in January 2012, and is reproduced with permission

Letter from Indo-Portugal – irreducible India



When Vasco da Gama’s three battered little ships dropped anchor off Calicut on May 20, 1498, after a voyage of over ten months, they had finally found the sea route between Europe and India so long sought by Portugal’s kings and explorers. Apart from the desire for knowledge, Da Gama’s tatterdemalion miniarmada had come for two reasons – one mystical, one practical – summed up in the famous exchange between resident Moors (who had long been trading here) and Lusitanians: “What the Devil? What brought you hither?” “We came in search of Christians and spices.”

The Christians da Gama found were not the Prester John types the Portuguese had envisioned but Nestorians who had never even heard of the pope. Da Gama chose to overlook this awkward fact. He also long believed that the local Hindus were Christians, too, albeit with unorthodox practices and curiously multi-limbed idols.

The main reason for Da Gama’s, voyage was more prosaic. The Portuguese had long wanted to be able to obtain Indian spices without having to go through Arab and Venetian intermediaries. Not only did they want to save money, but they hoped to remove this highly profitable trade from the hands of Arab merchants and so weaken their erstwhile cruel occupier. (The Moors had been expelled from Portugal in 1253.)

Da Gama’s gifts to the zamorin, the Hindu ruler of Calicut – which included striped cloth, nuts, and honey – were hopelessly inadequate. This caused the zamorin to doubt Portugal’s importance and hearken to the intrigues of the Moorish merchants, who wanted their new rivals expelled. The situation was not helped by da Gama’s temperament. (Indignado is an adjective often used by Portuguese historians to describe him.)

Portugal’s machinations were assisted by other factors. They were not the only ones anxious to rein in Muslim military aggression and economic might. As well as fighting among themselves, Muslim armies were engaged in constant wars against their infidel neighbours while, as Cornell historian H. Morse Stephens noted in his 1897 biography Albuquerque:

The concentration of all commerce in the hands of the believers in the Prophet was not favourably regarded by the wisest of the Hindu rulers, who were therefore inclined to heartily welcome any competitors for their trade.

Almost as soon as da Gama had returned to Portugal with his report, King Dom Manuel started to organize a much larger expedition under Capt.-Maj. Pedro Alvares Cabral, and this set sail from Belém on March 9, 1500, with the blessing of the Pope, who had by now conferred upon the kings of Portugal the optimistic title of “Lord of Navigation, Conquests and Trade of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India”.

The expedition was blown off course in the Atlantic and eventually found itself off a strange shore, to which Cabral laid claim on behalf of Portugal and gave the name Vera Cruz (today’s Brazil). Tristan da Cunha, Angola, and Mozambique were other by-products of the Indian explorations, and Portugal’s Indian bases at Goa, Diu, Daman, Bassein, and Bombay would eventually be used as springboards to colonize Ceylon, the Malaccas, and Macao. Like other empires before and since, Portugal’s grew like Topsy.

More gales off the Cape of Good Hope sank four ships, with their complements, including Bartholomew Dias – who, appropriately, had originally named the cape Cabo Tormentoso, or “Cape of Storms”. Eventually, six ships arrived at Calicut. Cabral ingratiated himself with the new zamorin – the old one had died – with carefully chosen gifts and was granted permission to found a Portuguese trading post. But finding that the Moorish merchants were preventing the Portuguese from obtaining worthwhile cargo, he seized a Moorish vessel. In retribution, the Moors attacked the trading post, killing the factor and 53 of his men. A furious Cabral destroyed ten large Moorish ships in the harbour and then bombarded the city of Calicut for two days.

The rajah of Cochin, 100 miles southward, was hostile to Calicut and so welcomed the Portuguese navigators. Cochin became the site of the first permanent European settlement in India, with a major trading post, staffed by seven Portuguese. Today, it is still one of Asia’s busiest ports, with great ships passing up and down the strait between the fort and Vypeen Island, through the mats of water hyacinth, beyond the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that are one of the characteristic sights of what is now called Kochi.

Fishing net at Kochi

Fishing net at Kochi

Upon Cabral’s return to Lisbon in July 1501, he gave a highly partisan account of his travails, and the king accordingly developed a desire to “punish” Calicut. He prepared a powerful armada and chose da Gama as admiral. After various en route excesses, including the burning and sinking of a Moorish ship filled with unarmed pilgrims, da Cama bombarded Calicut and removed the ears and hands of some traders unlucky enough to be entering the port at the time (after which they were tied to the masts of their ships, which were set alight and pointed toward the shore). An armada sent by the zamorin was defeated easily, and da Gama returned to Lisbon in October 1503 with a hugely valuable cargo. (Da Gama was to make a third, final voyage to India in 1524, and he died on Christmas Eve that year at Cochin, where his stone may still be seen in St. Francis’s church – although his body was returned to Portugal in 1538.) It had become clear that the Portuguese would need to establish permanent military base on the Malabar Coast if they wanted to protect their mercantile interests. The place chosen by the leader of the 1510 expedition, Affonso de Albuquerque, a highly experienced soldier and sailor, was Goa.

Goa had been an important seaport since the third century B.C. and had been fought over by Hindus and Muslims since 1312. Eventually, it fell into the hands of the rajah of Bijapur, Yusuf Adil Shah, the lucky and talented son of a sultan of the Ottoman Turks. (Saved by his mother from being put to death upon the accession of Muhammad Il, he was educated secretly in Persia and rose from slave to army officer, governor, and king.) Under his rule, Goa became prosperous, but he taxed non-Muslims punitively, and his Turkish garrisons were notorious for their cruelty to nonbelievers. More mystically, an influential sadhu had prophesied that “a foreign people coming from a distant land” would conquer Goa. Augmenting this prophecy was the persistent appeal to the Indians of fairness of complexion, which gave the Portuguese automatic high-caste status (a preoccupation that is still very strong today).

Goa was ripe for regime change, and, when Albuquerque’s troops took the city on March 3, 1510, locals supposedly showered him with “flowers made of gold and silver”. But two months later, the Portuguese had to abandon Goa, as Adil Shah advanced to recapture the town. Because of the weather, they could not leave the harbour, so they remained at anchor in the mouth for almost three hungry and difficult months – during which time Adil Shah offered to provision the ships, saying that he wanted to beat the Portuguese in battle rather than by starvation, which offer Albuquerque spurned in a manner fully as indignado as da Gama, receiving the emissary on his flagship, to which the flotilla’s entire food supply had been brought as a bluff.

By November, Albuquerque was back, supported by 28 ships and both European and local troops. The ensuing battle gave rise to many anecdotes, such as Albuquerque’s comments to one of his lieutenants, who had carried on killing mounted enemies despite having an arrow sticking out of his face and blood all over his armour:

Sir Manoel de Lacerda, I declare to you that I am greatly envious of you, and so would Alexander the Great have been, had he been here, for you look more gallant for an evening’s rendezvous than the Emperor Aurelian.

Upon conquering the city for the second time, Albuquerque ordered that any Portuguese who had gone over to the Muslims should have their ears, noses, right hands, and the thumbs of their left hands removed and their hair plucked out. He also ordered the massacre of all the Muslim inhabitants, as the clemency he had extended after the first invasion had not been repaid with loyalty. Interfaith dialogue was never one of Albuquerque’s strong points. When first visiting Cochin, he had been shocked to find Jewish merchants in residence and had asked permission of the king to “exterminate them one by one”. (He did not succeed; there are still about twelve Jews living in Cochin, with a poignantly atmospheric 16th century synagogue, sole survivors of one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the world.) Yet he could be pragmatic and was adroit at exploiting divisions between foes. foes. With him as viceroy, Goa’s relations with its neighbours were marked by skill and ruthlessness. For example, Albuquerque suggested to one disaffected prince that he should facilitate his accession by means of poison. While on an expedition to the Persian Gulf, he ordered the immediate assassination of a hostile advisor to the king of Hormuz in front of that startled monarch, who subsequently became satisfactorily compliant.

He also fortified Goa and took steps to concentrate the whole trade of the coast in the harbor, to the extent that it soon became a hugely wealthy city, nicknamed “Golden Goa” and “Pearl of the Orient”. He founded a mint, reformed local government, and allowed native customs to continue as before, with the exception of suttee (not banned in British India until 1829). He also encouraged Portuguese of inferior rank to intermarry with the locals so as to bind the populations together. In his 1851 Goa and the Blue Mountains (a sparkling companion for long Indian train journeys), Sir Richard Burton blamed the eventual disappearance of Portuguese India squarely on this last policy – “a most treacherous and delusive political day dream”.

The Portuguese introduced the Goans to potatoes, peppers, and garlic. (The word vindaloo is from the Portuguese for “garlic wine”. ) Most notably, they began to build Southern European-style churches, convents, seminaries, gateways, forts, barracks, mercantile buildings, and houses, which today give parts of Goa and Cochin a distinctly Mediterranean architectural appearance, with wrought-iron balconies overlooking narrow streets, flaking pastel facades, bowing pantiled roofs, and verandas slowly collapsing under the combined onslaught of sun, rain, and insect. Goa’s massive churches, with their high, cool, empty interiors, could easily be in Lisbon or Oporto, except that the ornate baroque styling has been given an exuberant twist by local artisans, with local motifs and an occasional sinuousness of carving more reminiscent of Buddhist or Hindu sculpture than of Western  – for instance, Mary nursing the Holy Infant in the branches of a golden palm tree, a host of badly painted, brown-eyed angels erupting out of gilt ectoplasm on a reredos. Many of the religious carvings are very crude –

…of the most grotesque description . . . saints, whose very aspect makes one shudder and think of Frankenstein

thought Burton – yet they are executed with great verve.

After Albuquerque’s death in 1515, Goa gradually became an important religious centre, with St. Francis Xavier using it as a base for missionary work in the Far East. (His body is in the Basilica of Bom Jesus at Goa and is the object of a major decennial pilgrimage.) Later, it became a notorious stronghold of the Inquisition, with regular autos-da-fé; the imposing, if clumsily carved, table used by the Inquisitors is on display in the Goa State Museum.

Old Goa, and the estuary of the Mandovi

Old Goa, and the estuary of the Mandovi

Standing in front of the fungus-spotted Chapel of Our Lady of the Mount, I had an achingly beautiful view down over the Mandovi River and the luxuriant jungle, with the white churches of Old Goa shining incongruously above the coconut palms as the sun was setting. In the foreground, a sea eagle flapped lazily in the superheated updrafts, while I cooled down after the climb and looked out over the remains of Indo-Portugal.

Apart from the confectionery-white upper stories of Se Cathedral, the churches of St. Cajetan and St. Francis and the shard-tower of St. Augustine’s, the only signs of human activity were a small ship heading out to sea in the far distance and occasional plumes of smoke, rising straight up in the heat-blued stillness. For about twenty minutes, I had a simulacrum of Golden Goa all to myself, as Albuquerque must have seen it – a safe, handsome harbour, a military stronghold, a fertile place where a gleaming city might be built and lived in and loved, a Camp of the Saints on the heathen shore. Here, where I stood, Adil Shah had placed his unavailing artillery in 1510. Now, his successors’ landmark chapel was itself sliding into graceful dissolution.

Goa started to go into decline after the Portuguese and Spanish crowns were united in 1580. Spain’s Dutch and British enemies now saw Portugal’s Indian territories as legitimate targets and started to expand commercial and military operations in South Asia. But more fundamental was the dysgenic depletion of Portugal, with thousands of the best and bravest products of the tiny kingdom being sent out year after year to perish in shipwrecks and battles or of disease, with the survivors encouraged to settle in India and marry Indian women. It was now the turn of the Dutch and English to exchange national health for imperial wealth. In 1661, Bombay was part of the marriage dowry of Catherine of Braganza, wherein lies yet another epic of ambition followed by hubris.

Goa’s few remaining grand Portuguese houses are very nearly not there at all. The floor of the blue ballroom of the famous Pereira-Braganza house undulates gently; a termite-infested piano is quietly collapsing in on itself in one corner; you can hear birds through holes in the silk-lined ceiling; and, in the rippling old glass of the white framed Flemish mirrors, the chairs given by a Portuguese monarch to a Braganza progenitor look like they are in some long-lost submarine kingdom.

The best things in Goa’s Architectural Museum are the outsize bronze statues of Portugal’s national poet Luiz de Camoes (his epic Lusiads were translated by Richard Burton) and Albuquerque, removed from public display in Panjim after Nehru finally sent his troops across the scarcely defended frontier in 1961, and a collection of paintings of Goan viceroys and governors.

The poor execution of many of these paintings (most were painted by Indian artists) is curiously appropriate, as it emphasises Goa’s isolation and unhealthiness, a province of a provincial empire. Many of the inhabitants of these alternately sickly, stern, and refined faces – the owners of ancient Estremaduran names, the lords of mountainside estates and old vines, wearing black cloaks and blue uniforms festooned with sashes and the crosses of the Order of Christ, the Order of St. James of the Sword, and the Military Order of St. Benedict of Aviz must have disliked being sent to India.

Portuguese arch at Goa

Portuguese arch at Goa

They would have been given the keys to the city at the Viceroy’s Arch, before passing in under the statue of da Gama into a hive of frenetic activity, where there are now just overgrown fields, crumbling walls, drifts of litter, and a few aristocratic, white churches on empty lawns. Many of these dignitaries now lie beneath the granite slabs decorated with their family crests in the broken nave of St. Augustine’s at the top of the hill, the stylised stone castles, wolves, eagles, trees, and mailed fists evoking the faraway homes they would never see again. How curious it must be to be a scion of one of these families, visiting from the old country, and see your family’s crest baking beneath the sun. Richard Burton again:

It is always a melancholy spectacle, the last resting-place of a fellow countryman in some remote nook of a foreign land, far from the dust of his forefathers . . . the wanderer’s heart yearns at the sight. How soon may not such fate be his own?

Such bittersweet reflections are impossible to avoid when among ruins, especially the ruins of an empire created by people a little like oneself.

On our last day, wilting after an early flight from Cochin, we took a slow, packed suburban train far out into Mumbai’s northern shanty suburbs. Alighting at the busy Vasai Road station, we found an obliging auto-rickshaw driver and lurched and hooted through squalor for twenty minutes in search of Bassein Fort.

Ceded by the sultan of Gujarat to the Portuguese in 1534, Bassein became the site of a powerful Portuguese fortification and, soon, the administrative centre, “Court of the North”, for all of Portuguese India. It was sacked in 1739, and its garrison extirpated. After bombardment by the British in 1780, it was never rebuilt. Now, mud-caked water buffalo loll in what were once refectories, spiders with six-inch leg-spans stretch their snares between palms in what were once the aisles of churches, and banyans force their twisting roots through the old masonry. Trees have sprouted, lived, and died on the top of what were once strong bastions and give a furry, indeterminate shape to once-imposing walls. Here and there on the dark walls, or hidden under surging ivy, one can still see European memorial slabs, carved window tracery, baroque curlicues, and scrollwork bordering gigantic archways leading into nothingness, crouching stone animals and Latin inscriptions above double doorways into roofless edifices.

This picturesque desolation makes for a fascinating contrast with the bustling and indescribably filthy fishing village nearby, with its daubed Madonnas, cobalt and jasmine walls, fly-encrusted Bombay duck drying in the sun, piles of fish guts lying on the ground, and young people rushing past on motorcycles, staring at our European faces as, probably, their ancestors stared at other European faces long ago. In India, it feels irresistible to draw parallels between the fate of Bassein and the possible fates of today’s “Courts of the North” – the European nations that have exhausted themselves in search of chimeræ and are now imploding. The Portuguese – and Dutch, French and British – came, saw, and conquered India, and now are being overwhelmed in turn. The old Occidental urge to explore, and imprint on others’ landscapes has moved very close to home. Goa, Bassein and a hundred other Indian places show us there is always more than one possible end to history.

A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 edition of Chronicles 

George Borrow revisited



George Borrow’s Second Tour of Wales in 1857
Edited by Ann M. Ridler, Wallingford, Oxon.: Lavengro Press, 2017, £15 paperback or as PDF from www.lavengropress.co.uk

George Borrow’s 1862 Wild Wales is a classic of a peculiar kind – the record of a bombastic, exhibitionist philologist’s 1854 cross-country peregrination to gratify a boundless curiosity about Welsh. The author of 1843’s hugely successful The Bible in Spain, which described his traipses across Spain during the Carlist Wars trying to wean Spaniards from Catholicism, was also trying to revive his writing career after the muted receptions given to his Gypsy books Lavengro and The Romany Rye.

He failed in this, although as with the Gypsy books later readers would prove highly receptive, grateful for Borrow’s powerful personality and entertained by his craggy humour, bathetic anecdotes, abrupt endings and self-aggrandisement. He also incidentally offers valuable vignettes of generally unrecorded and now largely vanished modes of life. We stride beside him (maybe under his large green umbrella) as he apostrophises the air, engages strangers in discourses about bards, monsters and psychic powers, execrates modernity, extols ale, provokes doctrinal disputes, makes ponderous jokes, brags about his linguistic skills, physical prowess and travels, or amazes all with (often mangled) attempts at Welsh – and when his odyssey comes to its end we feel bereft. But now the road-trip can resume, courtesy of specialists motivated solely by love of their subject, who have created something simultaneously augmentative and unique, a small but scintillating adornment to nineteenth century and Welsh studies.

In 1857, the man his old friend Theodore Watts-Dunton would later dub “prince of literary egotists” re-crossed Offa’s Dyke, his curiosity clearly unassuaged, as restlessly as any Romany to roam from Shrewsbury to St. David’s and back. The present volume is culled from Borrow’s notebooks, transcribed and annotated by the apparently indefatigable Ann Ridler. These have never been published in full before, although some observations were incorporated into Wild Wales and his Celtic Bards, Chiefs and Kings. It is a signal achievement to have consolidated them, considering that one notebook is held in Edinburgh and the other in New York, and both were written in pencil with whole sections almost illegible or obliterated. Much research was required to identify places mentioned but misspelled. Dr. Ridler suspects some locals deliberately misled Borrow, suspicious of this exotic and overly inquisitive outsider.

Unlike Wild Wales, literary references are almost absent, but he retains his energy and spirit of inquiry, his fascination with what is outmoded, his sturdiness and hatred of cant, including Dissenter cant. On Sabbaths, he keeps walking, more interested in river sources or druidic altars than rustic homilies. The text is frequently fragmentary, crazed and surreal as broken grave-slabs, but this does not impede understanding. If anything, it adds to the impression that this is a fugitive text about a fading culture, as fleetingly evocative as the “wind on the heath” eulogised by Lavengro’s Jasper Petulengro. Some extracts read like modern poetry –

…the dark miller

The kind offer — the

hill surmounted — the

dim vista

– while his sketches are amusingly abstract (“rarely enlightening”, Dr. Ridler opines kindly).

Notwithstanding all lacunae, and Borrow’s oddly limited landscape vocabulary, we are transported to his part pre-modern road, the “dusky russet moors”, “wild lanes” and “toilsome ascents”. We swat away the same flies, likewise endure “insufferable heat”, rain, torn clothes, sore feet, stomach pains, bad beer, loneliness and brusquerie, like that of the cowherd he asked for water who was “not civil till I had given her a penny”. Snatched from utter oblivion are the Shrewsbury nailmaker who had never crossed the border even though “he believed that Wales was a better place for nailmakers” – “the Bar girl with the Flemish face” – the chimney sweep “blind of one eye – long hair leather sleeves scarcely the look of a human being but very intelligent” – soldiers who’d stood at Waterloo – “railroad ruffians” – the black American butler in company with “English vagabonds” – farmers who spoke of enormous pike – reapers who knew Welsh but conversed in English – “handsome girls in singular dress milking cows in the street” – the mother at the river bank, with children “who were frightened but at last smiled”.

We share Borrow’s amusement at “the talking gentleman who proposed his own health” in Builth. We realise the Essex-born salesman who fulminated that the Welsh were “all liars and there was no getting money from them” was extrapolating ethnically from one bad client, and may have been further embittered by toothache he had “caught at Aberystwyth”. We will never know what had so incensed the Montgomery man that he “hoped the entire Sepoy force would be exterminated” (the Indian Mutiny was ongoing), but it is salutary to be reminded of the array of Welsh opinion, and Wales’s involvement in wider stories. With its myriad small meetings that evoke an age, and gritty texture, this is a brilliantly suggestive curio of a complex country as seen by an engaging and incomparable observer.

This article first appeared in the New Welsh Review in October 2017

Letters from antediluvian Europe

Romanian graveyard, 1930s - painting by Gheorge Opriz

Romanian graveyard, 1930s – painting by Gheorge Opriz


In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Edited by Charlotte Mosley, London: John Murray, 2009, 416pp.

In times of texting and sexting, Twittering and wittering, there is something antediluvian about epistolary collections – a whiff of fountain pens and headed notepaper, morocco-topped escritoires in long-windowed drawing rooms looking out over lawns studded with cedars and peacocks. Such evocations are lent depth and body when the letters in question have passed between lifelong friends Deborah Devonshire [89, when this book was published – she died in 2015], last of the Mitford girls and chatelaine of Chatsworth, and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor [94, when this book was published – he died in 2011], war hero and gentleman-chronicler of an interwar, largely vanished, traditional Europe with which he lived on unusually intimate terms.

Leigh Fermor’s dangerously unsettling account of his peregrinations between 1933 and 1939 (in A Time of Gifts, and Between the Woods and the Water (1) evokes a Europe that was even then anachronistic and which has since been almost entirely swept away by war and communism, or gnawed by the worms of globalism. Portents were present to this observant walker (at least in retrospect – Gifts was published in 1977 and Woods and the Water in 1986) as he tramped solitarily from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, an 18-year-old romantic, amateur historian, folklorist, and philologist, carrying in his rucksack a few letters of introduction, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and Horace’s Odes. He noted flambeaux-toting SA processions in Germany, and everywhere encroaching suburbanisation and industrialisation, improving transport and communications, fading folk memories, shrinking estates, shrivelling patrimonies, crumbling chateaux – rumours everywhere of rationalisation and reordering, dissent and diminution.

But there was just time for him to sample Europe almost as if he had been a medieval traveler, in all its centuries-accreted colour, ruins and runes, relicts and survivals, folk tales and prejudices, arcane wisdom and archaic dialects, intricately quartered coats of arms, unbuilt horizons, unmechanised agriculture, moonlit highways, hostels and Schlösser, white cathedrals and forlorn wayside shrines, churls and countesses, leprosy and libraries, wolves in the hills and giant catfish swarming in dark Danubian depths.

His evocation of an eclipsed Europe in those sometimes showy but piquant books long ago made him a literary figurehead for nostalgists and would-be Wandervögelen. Subsequent adventures have only augmented his status. Max Hastings observed in 2004 that Leigh Fermor was a man who “consciously sought Byonic experience”. This may be why, in 1935, he rode with royalist cavalry putting a republican uprising in Macedonia, and in 1944 abducted a German general and smuggled him across Crete while pursued by whole Wehrmacht divisions (which latter exploit formed the basis of the 1957 film Ill Met by Moonlight, starring Dirk Bogarde as Leigh Fermor). He spent months in French monasteries searching for spiritual enlightenment (recorded in A Time To Keep Silence, climbed and delved in South America (Three Letters From the Andes), tried earnestly to understand the piled-up nonsense of voodoo (The Traveller’s Tree), and mote a lurid novel about an island’s extirpation (The Violins of Saint-Jacques). Philhellene non-pareil (more “Byronic experience”), he went on to write acclaimed books on Greece (Mani in 1958, and Roumeli in 1966) and build a house for himself and his wife, Joan (she died in 2003), on the Peloponnese at the southernmost tip of mainland Europe.

Mani contains the perfect Leigh Fermor passage, the ouzo-fuelled “Byzantium Restored”, a pattern-book reverie, but one rooted in reality, lush and learned, suffused longing and full of the poetry of proper nouns, and a passage that incidentally might now be dismissed by many as “Islamophobia”. (Elsewhere, Leigh Fermor explicitly bemoans the Turkish presence in Europe. He has escaped this censure, although he has had a few pursed-lip critics, such as the Times Literary Supplement’s Mary Beard, who, in 2005, criticised his “laddish tales”, “blokeish tone”, “intricate and outdated disquisitions”, and disdain for mass tourism.

His In Tearing Haste interlocutor is equally beguiling. It is not just that Deborah Devonshire is a duchess, with all that dust-mote-filled word connotes, inhabiting a Wodehousian ambience of great houses and garden parties, Labradors and Purdeys, Old Masters and Gloucester Old Spots, but also because she, the last of six gilded sisters and one brother who alternately graced and scandalised British gossip columns from the 1920s onward, possesses all the Mitford directness and panache.

She is very different from, but also strangely like, her siblings Nancy  1904-73), socialist, biographer, and author of Love in a Cold Climate; Pamela  1907-94), the quietest, called “the rural Mitford” by her admirer John Betjeman; Thomas (1909-45), a fascist sympathizer who refused to fight Germany but died in action against the Japanese; Diana (1910-2003), who married Sir Oswald Mosley; Unity (1914-48), a Hitlerite who tried to commit suicide upon the outbreak of war, and Jessica (1917-96), a communist who eloped to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and later became involved with the U.S. civil rights movement, and refused to speak to Diana in later life. By contrast, Deborah’s only foray into politics was as a supporter of the bland Social Democratic Party in the 1980s. She certainly did not share Unity’s adoration of Hitler, whom they both met in 1937; she informed an amused Daily Telegraph journalist in 2007 that she would much rather have chatted with her musical idol, Elvis Presley.

Deborah, fundamentally practical and outdoorsy, might have been content to have been a second “rural Mitford”, but her marriage to one of Britain’s leading aristocrats – Andrew, the 11th duke of Devonshire, who died in 2004 – has ensured that she has been a participant in many of the great public events and private dinners of the period covered by these letters (1954-2007). She has also been instrumental in saving Chatsworth, one of England’s most remarkable houses, from financial difficulties through tireless writing and merchandising, even operating a cash register in the estate’s gift shop.

Her and Leigh Fermor’s remembrances of some of the places, personalities, and events of those decades, which saw Britain turn from imperial power to E.U. province, Fairest Isle to Cool Britannia, workshop of the world to hedge-fund haven, and Anglo- Celtic to multiracial are fascinating because their authors know (or knew) ‘everyone’ and understand the way Britain operates, or used to operate. Although essentially apolitical and sometimes even seemingly slight, these exchanges lend proportion, depth, and texture to the frequently told, but often superficial, saga of prolonged decline management.

“Debo’s” letters to “Paddy”, which are generally shorter than his to her, are a-brim with astute, arch observations on royals, prime ministers (Harold Macmillan was a relative by marriage), presidents (she sat beside J.F.K. during his inauguration , artists, writers, musicians, sculptors, academics, and designers – as well as a bucolic cast of hunters, farmers, pig breeders, butchers, and gardeners, even horses and chickens. She writes economically but to great effect. As Leigh Fermor noted in the Daily Telegraph in 2000, “She writes with ease and speed, and wonders what all the fuss is about” – her facility, a source of wonderment to a notoriously painstaking writer, luring him often into capering verse and cartoons, revealing an unexpected impishness.

Her comments are often amusing. Jackie Kennedy seems to her “a queer fish. Her face is one of the oddest I ever saw. It is put together in a very wild way”. About the “Troubles” in Ireland, she writes “I do love the Irish, but I wish they’d stop shooting people’s knees. It’s such a horrid trick”. She recalls a very elderly friend who spends her dotage “doing the three Rs – Reading and Remembering Rogering”. Sometimes she makes penetrating points in an understated way, summing up trends and types in devastating phrases, such as when she notes of the Queen Mother’s funeral:

What a poke in the eye for the MEDIA that all those people queued night and day in the freezing wind to see the lying in state . . . we had a wonderful view of everything. Bang opposite that wretched little Prime Minster & the frightful Cherie. Prescott looks like a bareknuckle fighter of Sackville Glove fame from the East End.

At other times, and increasingly as “the FOULNESS of old age” strikes family and friends, the letters become “unbearable memories of the olden days”. For example, on the death of Diana Mosley – for many, a monster, but for Deborah, a beloved sister – she remarks,

It is so odd to have lost someone who was always there. The childhood cry of the seventh, straggling to keep up on stubby legs, of WAIT FOR ME, lives with me. She couldn’t.

Leigh Fermor is more obviously political. In between typically dazzling descriptions of his latest exploits, he winces at the tedious “booming” of Simone Weil and occasionally comes out with things like

The present government obviously plans to quietly strangle English history in all its aspects.

These letters, perfectly edited and annotated by Diana Mosley’s daughter-in-law, and including a necessary glossary of nicknames, are not a history nor even a diary, but an enlightening account of how two twitchingly alert, highly cultured people reacted and related to a maelstrom of eccentric and brilliant relatives and friends and, beyond them, to revolutionary social upheaval. They are a window into a vanishing ambience what Richard Davenport-Hines called “a lost world of glamour, intelligence and personal scruples”. The world the two remember and regret was a small but significant planet, with a shared style, filled with in laws and in-jokes, common experiences and tastes, lightly sitting authority and noblesse oblige; its revolving cast of strong personalities viewed against a taken-for-granted cultural backdrop that gave a context to the players and grounded them in a time and place. Even “non-U” interlopers tried to be “U”, ditching serviette in favour of napkin and replacing toilet with loo, while a certain grocer’s daughter from Grantham thought it necessary to exchange her flat Midlands tones for a strangulated variant of Received Pronunciation. (These days, R.P. may sometimes be an actual drawback in some careers.)

The star recalled to life in this collection has gone supernova and is exploding indefinitely outward, its cool architecture of class and control dymamited by death duties, inheritance taxes and democracy. Its constantly changing, but curiously consistent, leadership cadre has now been almost entirely superseded by a new aristocracy of career politicians, celebrities, and oligarchs – a group that is looser, less rooted, less substantial, and as gauche ideologically as it is socially. There are still generals, masters of foxhounds, clubmen, aesthetes, and Old Etonians – David Cameron, Boris Johnson, and George Osborne are all O.E.s – but they are no longer the default power in the land and have little context or corporate personality. The kind of houses lived in by Deborah and aspired to by Leigh Fermor are mostly now beautiful shells, roped-off walkways along which tourists troop respectfully but bemusedly. Meanwhile, the Elizabeth Frinks have metamorphosed into Damien Hirsts, the Maurice Bowras into Terry Eagletons, the John Betjemans into Benjamin Zephaniahs, and the Benjamin Brittens into Britney Spearses.

“Dr Oblivion comes to see me a bit too often”, Deborah repines in 2004, speaking of the fell practitioner laying waste to her contemporaries. This is not to say that there are not many cultured and elegant people left in England; there are including Deborah’s children and grandchildren , but they are outnumbered, outgunned, and increasingly irrelevant. Sir Patrick once recalled how, during his youthful journey across Europe, he might sleep one night in a hayrick and the next in a chateau:

I suddenly found myself in some tremendous castle with banners flying and horses galore.

Modern European adventurers are more likely to bed down in chain hotels with mints on the pillow, the banners and horses available only on DVD.

But despite what has happened to the Old Continent, the knight and the duchess at least have discharged their duties, bequeathing us noble literature and a great estate still defying debasement. They have also left in these letters a memento of a modus vivendi that in some ways is still with us, but which in most ways that matter has vanished as utterly as the England of Emma.

This review was published in the October 2009 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission


1. A third installment of what was always envisaged as a trilogy was published posthumously as The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates to Mount Athos in 2014 (edited by Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper). My review can be found here

Outré Europe – review of Basile’s Tale of Tales

Basile pic


The Tale of Tales, Giambattista Basile, trans. Nancy L. Canepa, London: Penguin Classics, 2016, pb., $20

Like most Western children, I was reared partly on fairy-tales. Presented in beautifully illustrated Ladybird books, these were as much a part of my early childhood as the house decor, encouraging me to read, and arousing inchoate ideas of an ur-Europe of forlorn beauties, wandering princes, vindictive stepmothers, dangerous fruits, fabulous treasures, ravening beasts, warty witches, magnificent chateaux, and thorn-swathed castles lost in trackless forest. When I encountered the Disney versions I swiftly lost interest in them, boyishly repelled by song-and-dance numbers and tweeness – but still the stories stayed, lodged in my image of myself and the civilisation to which I felt I belonged. It was years before I realised that fairy-tales were much darker and more interesting than Disney or Hans Christian Andersen had led me to believe – and years more before I heard of Giambattista Basile, the most inventive of all fairy-tale writers, and to whom we owe such kindergarten classics as Rapunzel and Cinderella. This beautifully translated, superbly annotated new translation of his Tale of Tales which Benedetto Croce called “the most remarkable book of the Baroque period” – should therefore be of abounding interest to anyone who has any proprietorial regard for European culture.

Establishing the origins of traditionary tales is often impossible, stemming as many do from before written history, and the commonalities of the human condition leading to adventitious parallels even in widely separated cultures. For example, the ninth-century Chinese folk tale of Yeh-hsien is reminiscent of Cinderella – a girl ill-treated by step-relations but aided by a giant fish to attend a great ball attired in kingfisher-feather dress and gold shoes, one of which she mislays, and which is too delicate to fit anyone else until at last the lovelorn royal suitor finds her in a scullery. Tales have also interpenetrated each other to some extent through borrowings and translations. The Arabian Nights, for example, has partly Indian origins, compiled by Ashokan folklorist-intellectuals in the 3rd century B.C. as the Panchatantra, from stories that were old even then (they would not be translated into Arabic until the 8th century). The cities of the Mediterranean littorals have always been interfaces as well as flashpoints, and one of the oldest and greatest was Naples, where Giambattista Basile first bawled lustily for attention circa 1575, newest addition to a socially ambitious middle-class Posillipo clan.

The youthful Giambattista was reared in a rich-historied, Vesuvius-conscious, lushly-grown, staggeringly vital city of around 200,000 souls, caught between unquietly sleeping pagan past and splendid Catholicism, Commedia dell’arte and Counter-Reformation, Harlequin and the Holy Ghost. In summer, he probably swam, as one day I swam, in the swelling Bay beneath the ruins of a Roman summer-house – perhaps that of ogre-like Vedius Pollio, a 1st century B.C. equestrian who fed slaves to lampreys – and doubtless attended High Mass at the Cathedral of San Gennaro where thrice yearly throngs come to see the magical liquefaction of the city saint’s ichor. Etruscan, Greek, Western Empire, Byzantine, Ostrogoth, Lombard, Saracen, Norman, Hohenstaufen, Angevin, Spanish and Near Eastern influences vied in everyone’s ether, while overlapping visionaries like Giordano Bruno, Bernardino Telesio, Caravaggio, and St. Joseph of Cupertino augmented the sensory-intellectual banquet.

Naples’ part-Spanish nobility proving slow to patronise the young Basile, like other ambitious Campanians he decamped northwards, eventually becoming a mercenary guarding Venice’s Cretan outpost of Candia (Heraklion). Here he joined a dilettantish society, Accademia degli Stravaganti (“Academy of Oddities”), and started to write letters, verses, songs and anagrams. By 1608, he was back home, where his sister Adriana had won European fame as a singer, fêted as la sirena di Posillipo. Helped by her connections, he began to garner a literary reputation, as well as that of a skilled administrator, becoming secretary to noble families as far afield as Mantua and later a several-times city governor within the Kingdom of Naples. Although he styled himself Il Pigro (“The Lazy One”), in what must have been limited spare time he turned out poetry and plays, and scholarly editions of mannerist classics in Italian – while also authoring, gathering and restyling the mass of dialect material that would transmute into The Tale of Tales. Circa 1624, he was ennobled as Count of Torone, and continued what an obituarist called his “very peaceful tenor of life” until falling to flu in 1632.

It is ironic that Basile’s scholarly works have fallen into obscurity, and that he should be remembered today almost solely for Lo Cunto de la Cunti (also called Pentamerone, because it consists of fifty tales told within a five day period, and as hommage to Boccaccio’s Decameron), which was not even published until four years after his death. Why he did not have it published is unclear. It was not a question of a sophisticate embarrassed by provincial roots, because he always championed Neapolitan artists and writers. It might have been difficult to find a publisher, translator Nancy N. Canepa suggests,

…in a period in which Spain was striving to consolidate its colonialist regime in southern Italy, a literature whose depiction of local realities was often tinged with anti-Spanish and anti-colonial sentiment was regarded suspiciously by official culture.

Maybe he just did not feel it was ready for publication. But in any case these stories were always supposed to be told rather than read – and told within a limited circle. The collection is subtitled “Entertainment for Little Ones”, but the intended audience was decidedly adult – aesthetes, intellectuals and wits, who would appreciate Basile’s ornate language, lavish metaphors, his torrent of classical and contemporary allusions, sly squibs, urbanity, and lugubrious eclogues on courtly life or moral virtue. Then there is surrealism – such as in The Crow, when a king become besotted by a freshly-killed crow whose blood has leaked onto white marble, and searches ever after for a wife with such colouration of hair, lips and skin. In short, the stories are characterised by what Cambridge don E. R. Vincent called “euphuistic sophistication.”

Older children would, however, probably have been shocked-delighted by Basile’s gleeful descriptions of sex, his paragraphs of profanities, and comical conceits such as elderly and deformed story-tellers beguiling the periods between narrations playing chasing games and hide-and-seek. Then of course there are magical transformations, gore and grotesquerie by the cartload – to the extent that it is sometimes a relief to take refuge in Canepa’s pellucid footnotes.

The Tale of Tales went through several partial or complete Neapolitan editions between 1634 and the early eighteenth century, then passed into Bolognese dialect and at last Italian. In 1846, it made it into German and, in 1848, English (translated by John Edward Taylor, and illustrated by Cruikshank). In 1893, came the best-known Englishing to date, by that bourgeoisie-scourging romancer Sir Richard Burton, whose version, said biographer Fawn Brodie, showed that “…he had forgotten nothing of the gutter argot he had learned in Naples as a youth.” It is fascinating to compare his version with Canepa’s – both full of brilliance and vim, but hers has the edge, perhaps because he was a generalist, whereas she has specialised. In this passage from “The Dove”, he describes an ogress,

…the brow was cut out of Genoa stone fit to sharpen the knife of fear, which sickened all breasts; the eyes were comets, which caused by a glance a trembling of the limbs, and tightening of the heart, and ice upon the spirits, sharpening of arms, and looseness of body; and she brought terror in her face, fear in her eyes, trembling in her steps, and threats in her words. Her mouth had tusks like a wild boar’s, and was large as a dog-fish’s…

While excellent, this seems inferior to Canepa’s:

…her forehead was made of Genoese stone, to whet the knife of fear that rips open chests; her eyes were comets that predicted shaky legs, wormy hearts, frozen spirits, diarrhoea of the soul, and evacuation of the intestines, for she wore terror on her face, fear in her gaze, thunder in her footsteps, and dysentery in her words. Her mouth was tusked like a pig’s and as big as a scorpion fish’s.

Last year, some of this highly-seasoned stufato finally made it to the screen, in Matteo Garrone’s Italo-French Il Racconto dei Racconti, starring Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel and Toby Jones – the latter especially well cast as the king who becomes besotted with a flea and feeds it secretly on his own blood and raw meat until it reaches lamb-size, then kills it and offers his daughter in marriage to anyone who can tell him what kind of animal it was. Naturally, an ogre wins the contest, and the stage is set for yet more fantastical bloodiness.

Illustrator Carmelo Lettere, whose freewheeling cartoons well suit this matter, notes how

In Basile’s text an uncontainable, unseemly, and impure world unfolds itself in elegant and anticlassical fashion.

Canepa similarly stresses a post-modern interpretation of the stories, in which 17th century hierarchies are upturned and found wanting – although this is presumably just to make the collection seem more palatable to today’s readers, rather than to make some oblique sociopolitical comment relevant to today. She highlights discrepancies between the conventional happy endings of many of the stories and their actual content. For example, at the close of The Cinderella Cat, Basile avers complacently “Those who oppose the stars are crazy” –  even though his heroine succeeds by doing just that, even committing murder (one cannot imagine the Grimms’ girl doing that, let alone Disney’s). But any unfolding or upturning only seems to go so far. It seems after all unlikely that the peaceful-tenored fabulist would have wished to unsettle the system into which he had been admitted.

Basile was vastly original, obviously, but his urbane auditors would have recognised all kinds of antecedents. Beneath all the phantasmagorical, sometimes disgusting detail – guitar-playing crickets, the decapitated being reanimated, a wizened dyer who bleaches and pins her skin to fool a king into sex, geese being used as toilet paper, cockroach suppositories – lie deep, millennia-old structures, like palaces swallowed by forest but visible from the air. These tales are crammed with traditional tropes, some of the 2,500 enumerated so laboriously (and, one suspects, slightly joylessly) by folklorists Aarne and Thompson.

The book starts with one, “The Supplanted Bride” – the unsmiling princess Zoza forced into laughter by witnessing an argument between an old woman and a boy, ending up with the enraged crone (after a gratuitous flash of her “woodsy scene”!) cursing Zoza for laughing. This curse inevitably involves the princess being cheated out of her prince by an ugly and foolish slave, who marries him instead. But kindly (and apparently inegalitarian) fairies, equally inevitably aid Zoza, and social equilibrium is regained, after a salutary (but un-serious) tossing and goring. These stories are more psychological safety-valves than moral lessons or political messages. As Iona and Peter Opie observe in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974),

In the most-loved fairy tales, it will be noticed, noble personages may be brought low by fairy enchantment or by human beastliness, but the lowly are seldom made noble. The established order is not stood on its head.

Classical and medieval literature are, as Canepa notes, full of fates being circumvented, gods being outwitted, monarchs being lampooned or traduced, heroes who can be monsters, time-slips and bizarre metamorphoses. As these ideas endlessly return, so too do character-types, imagery and styles. Basile’s “unexpectedly modern” heroines are not actually more empowered than, say, Clytemnestra or Salome. Basile’s contemporary-feeling grossness was prefigured in Rabelais, his surrealism in Aristophanes, or works by Bosch and Arcimboldo. The author’s “stylistic hybridity” is a reflection, simply, of unconfinable genius, rather than a model for literature (or society) then or today.

Basile was gleaning in ancient fields, but he added piquant persona to all the things he found, making them his own – but also oddly ours, aspects of an outré Europe that subsists below and still feeds into modernity. Those who wish to know more about Naples, Italy, the 17th century, the baroque sensibility, and the wildest shores of Europe’s identity ought to avail of the rare opportunity to read this foundational, fantastical farrago.

A shorter version of this review appeared in the April 2017 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission


Margaret Thatcher – Everything She Wants by Charles Moore


Margaret Thatcher: The Official Biography – Everything She Wants

Charles Moore, London: Allen Lane, 2015, 821pp, £30

At the end of the first volume of Charles Moore’s lapidary trilogy, we left Mrs. Thatcher standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1982, surrounded by the shades of past national leaders, bathing in public approval and growing global respect as victor of the Falklands and standard-bearer for a new and dynamic kind of conservative politics. This keenly-anticipated second instalment carries on her career from that high point until her last electoral victory in 1987. It was during this lustrum that her style started to become apparent, and her legacy to crystallize, as she dealt, often successfully, simultaneously with systemic problems lesser leaders would never have attempted.

From Hong Kong to Washington, Brussels to Jerusalem, privatisation to perestroika, seething Northern miners to South African sanctions, whether addressing both houses of the U.S. Congress or crawling shoeless away from her bombed Brighton bedroom, Mrs. Thatcher not only clung onto power but became ever more armour-plated. By the time she won her historic third term, she had become, for an adoring social segment, the personification of Britannic pluck, so apparently immoveable that her party was often seen (and saw itself) as “the natural party of government”. For a smaller but more voluble social segment, she was the loathsome “Leaderene”, personification of all that was authoritarian, heartless and philistine. Moore shows expertly with what combination of skill, verve, and good and bad luck this came to pass – also what opportunities were overlooked, which issues mishandled, and what stresses were building below the permanent regime surface.

As if the Falklands were not enough to deal with in the course of a year, 1982 also saw plans to privatise British Telecom and revolutionise welfare and education, negotiations with Beijing about the handover of Hong Kong, visits to newly-elected Helmut Kohl, the death of Brezhnev, and the election of Garret Fitzgerald as Irish Taoiseach. Mrs. Thatcher brought energy and originality to bear on all these disparate matters, frequently against the will of officials and even her own ministers, zeroing in remorselessly on details, often at the expense of the bigger picture, impervious to boredom, sometimes wearing others down, sometimes being worn down herself by institutional inanition.

Her record is more mixed than either her emphatic personality or later mythologising would suggest. She is justly celebrated for her rôle in American-Soviet relations, drawing Gorbachev into play, steering delicately between reassuring a jittery USSR and lecturing its new leader, papering diplomatically over UK-US disagreements over Grenada and S.D.I., and restraining Reagan’s occasional naivety (“It is inconceivable that the Soviets would turn over their last nuclear weapon. They would cheat. I would cheat”). It was characteristic that when she was offered a rare, behind-the-scenes tour of the Kremlin she replied, “Do you think I’ve come here as a tourist?”

Other foreign policies were holding actions, such as in the Middle East, where she qualified strong support for Israel with distaste for the Likudniks, and arranging vast arms deals with the Saudis. Hong Kong was always going to be a defeat, but she played an impossible hand well. One of the obscurer stories herein is her policy on South Africa, which earned her vast opprobrium, and embarrassed her ministers. She disliked apartheid as incompatible with liberty, and never felt comfortable with Afrikanerdom. She was also the first British prime minister to request the release of Mandela. But she also had “personal sympathies” with the white population, which included some of Denis’s relations. She felt sanctions would harm blacks more than whites, and besides believed that Britain had an absolute right to its own trade and foreign policy – views widespread among the British public. She hated the moral grandstanding of countries like France and Canada, which called for sanctions in public but traded in secret – and the Commonwealth, some of whose states were more dictatorial than the R.S.A. South Africa was furthermore a strategically important anti-communist power. Yet she yielded, probably because of pressure from the Queen – “probably”, because the weekly discussions between sovereign and prime minister are private, and Mrs. Thatcher would never breach punctilio.

Argument still sputters about her Irish legacy. Instinctively Unionist, she nevertheless brokered the Anglo-Irish Agreement in conjunction with Garret Fitzgerald, whom she found infinitely more congenial than Charles Haughey, if garrulous (once, she fell asleep during one of his expositions – “Keep talking”, her Private Secretary Charles Powell encouraged the Taoiseach, “I’ll write it all down”). The reasons were manifold. As so often on other matters, she was alone in her Unionism, the chief British negotiators having Irish sympathies to the extent that, as Moore notes, “Ultimately, it was not a negotiation…‘How do you persuade the Prime Minister?’ was the question”. The Unionist political leaders were unhelpful. She saw the Ulster Unionist Party’s James Molyneux as “not a strong person”, while Ian Paisley was “not easy” (a masterly understatement). Enoch Powell, an Ulster Unionist MP as well as small-c conservative mage, might have toughened her resolve had he been more astute, but alienated her forever by accusing her of “treachery”. It was unsurprising that Unionists were effectively excluded from the talks, which disquieted even Green-leaning Foreign Office negotiators. The only aspect of her Irish involvement that all (perhaps even the I.R.A.) admired was her selfless serenity in the aftermath of the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, when she left her damaged room to check on the secretaries across the corridor, coolly went back in to pick up her clothes, and was pleased to be handed the text of next day’s speech as she was being bundled away by police. “The conference will go on as usual”, she told the BBC in the small hours, and English hearts swelled with proprietorial pride. Even this explosive irruption did not alter the pro-Dublin tenor of the talks. Even now, Moore sounds surprised that there was “no attempt to take political advantage”.

But it is on Europe that her ghost is most often invoked, seen then and  now as arch-sceptic, securer of rebates, slasher of red tape, handbagger of Eurocrats, Sayer of Noes, and voice of England. When she was shown a picture of Mitterand and Kohl holding reconciliatory hands at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of Verdun, and was asked whether it wasn’t moving, she replied “No, it was not – two grown men holding hands!” But fond folk-memories of brusquerie and intransigence occlude the untidy actuality. Although she secured a swingeing 66% rebate in the British contribution to the EU at the stormy 1984 Fontainebleau summit, the concession must be viewed in the full light of UK-EU relations.

The Foreign Office customarily viewed negotiations with the rest of the EU in specific, detailed terms, focusing on economic gains and ignoring anything that seemed ‘merely’ theoretical. Mrs. Thatcher likewise had a “congenital anxiety to understand the detail of everything”, and so, like career diplomats, she failed to see the forest for the strangling undergrowth. But EU negotiators took the opposite approach, setting great moral and political store by even the airiest protocols, declarations, directives and resolutions, using each as a kind of building block in an edifice. In 1983, Mrs. Thatcher had signed the Solemn Declaration on European Union, because (as she would rationalise from retirement), “I could not quarrel with everything, and the document had no legal force”. The 1984 rebate came at the cost of acquiescence in higher European expenditure, no reform for the Common Agricultural Policy, and agreement to qualified majority voting. Even her attempts to make the EU more business-friendly had the effect of locking the UK further in, for example by harmonising indirect taxes. In 1986, she signed the Single European Act, something she later greatly regretted. As so often, the English underestimated the incantatory power of theories – and the Conservatives displayed a lack of imagination (the principal small-c conservative vice in every country). As on Ireland, Mrs. Thatcher was almost alone in her distrust of the project, with many of her most senior allies affianced to the European idea. The process of joining the ERM continued on her watch, against her instincts but pushed assiduously by most in the Cabinet. (The UK would join in 1990, and come crashing out disastrously on 1992’s “Black Wednesday”.) Her outspoken anti-Europeanism had the ironic effect of deepening integration, because as Moore observes,

…being a sceptic herself, she could marginalise the sceptics: if she said it was all right, who would listen to their objections?

She remains the only Conservative Prime Minister who has become an ism, and her rule will always be remembered for deregulation, the selling off of state assets from telephones and airlines to council housing, and the radical Stock Exchange reforms of 1986. Behind the latter lay the ghosts of old resentments as well as reason. Just before the 1979 election, Mrs. Thatcher had been given a hard time by bankers at a luncheon. When Cecil Parkinson told her “Don’t worry; they’ll vote for you, and they’ll forget it”, she replied “They may, but I won’t.” The long-term economic effects fall outside the purview of this volume, but the author allows that public share-ownership has never really taken off, that banking liberalisation helped cause the credit crunch by creating banks that combined risky investment operations with high street services, and hints en passant at the direful consequences of the credit revolution. The prudent housewife ironically facilitated the personal indebtedness of millions. Yet Moore is surely right that economic liberalisation was inevitable anyway because of technology, and that “Getting rick, quick or otherwise, is broadly speaking better for a country than getting poor slowly”.

She will also always be remembered/reprehended for the miners’ strike of 1984, during which the ultra-Left Arthur Scargill dragooned National Union of Mineworkers members to strike against the closure of obviously uneconomic pits. But Scargill made the mistake of not holding a national ballot of miners when he could have won it. The result was that miners were divided, with those of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Kent mostly working and those from Yorkshire mostly striking. There were violent clashes between strikers and police, and nasty assaults on “scabs”, culminating in the death of a taxi-driver killed when concrete was dropped from a motorway bridge onto his car, in which he was carrying a working miner. Mrs. Thatcher was horrified by all this – “Scabs?!?” she expostulated. “They are lions!” Scargill also refused to make concessions when these might have saved some pits or at least secured more mitigation, and he accepted money from both the Soviet Union and, worst of all, Libya, whilst Libya was funding the I.R.A. He was ergo part of what Mrs. Thatcher dubbed “the enemy within” (a phrase derived from Methodist hymns). His obduracy fed Mrs. Thatcher’s, and she was always going to win (she was always fortunate in her enemies). It was a battle that had to be won, but there was huge collateral damage in mining communities, the effects of which can still be felt in the North. As Moore says ruefully, “In the struggle to win the strike, no clarity had ever been reached about what ought to happen after”. The “lions” really were betrayed, and the British coal industry is almost defunct, just as Scargill predicted.

A pet project, the poll tax, would lead directly to her 1990 defenestration. The old property rates system was indefensible, to the extent that Labour gave the proposed tax an almost free ride through parliament. The idea was furthermore being pushed by the No. 10 Policy Unit, which saw it as part of an overall drive to make local government slimmer and more accountable. But Mrs. Thatcher, normally so detail-focused, had not considered how big a job it would be to compile new taxpayer registers – nor wondered how those who had never been taxed (including students, pensioners and the disabled) would feel – or how the tax would be collected. Almost everyone else in the Cabinet was against it, including Chancellor Nigel Lawson, but for once she refused to compromise. Her political secretary Stephen Sherbourne noted sadly,

It was the beginning of her losing touch with people, with a real electoral base.

Domestic policies were always impinged upon by intrigue and inter-departmental turf wars. The Westland affair started off as a minor disagreement about whether an American or a European consortium should take over a British helicopter manufacturer, but escalated into a crisis over which two ministers resigned, and the government could have fallen. A barbed footnote summarises perfectly the character of Michael Heseltine, a showman who, Moore relates, wore no fewer than six different ties on the day he resigned. The restrained facades of the London S.W.1 postal district masked mares’ nests, with parts of the Party working against each other and their ostensible leader, while other parts would “respond excessively to whatever they thought might be her will”. Looking back, Norman Tebbit remembered that he “began to understand Tudor history better”. Small wonder she was often indecisive – until she had committed herself to some course of action.

She was part of the problem, because she was no Machiavellian and so was often unaware of what subtexts were seething around her. She rarely flattered or gave public credit to ministerial colleagues, and could be inadvertently rude. At one Chequers meeting, she cut off Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe with “Don’t worry, Geoffrey. We know exactly what you’re going to say!” Unsurprising that even the urbane Howe could at times explode like “a Welsh hwyl”. She was not clubbable; Robin Butler, who was her principal private secretary for three years, likened talking to her socially to “feeding a fierce animal”.

She was exceptionally lucky in some of her officials, like Robin Butler, Charles Powell and press secretary Bernard Ingham, all of whom combined loyalty and respect for her intelligence with a kind of chivalry. There is a touching anecdote of her private detective seeing her just before an operation on her hand –

how lonely she looked in the hospital, clutching a teddy bear that the Garden Room girls had given her.

Nevertheless, she often felt the need to resort to outsiders for advice or encouragement, raffish characters like David Hart, the Old Etonian Jewish banker and novelist who claimed to know “the street” and had an empathy with coalminers (a “surprising impression”, Moore opines wickedly) – and oenophile quidnunc Woodrow Wyatt, who acted as a conduit to Rupert Murdoch and the Royal Family. “She liked dangerous people”, reflected former political secretary Tim Flesher.

And these were her allies. The London N.1 postal district sheltered sworn enemies, with “Islington” Sun shorthand for the “loony Left”. Like David Hart, but maliciously, a preponderance of the capital’s journalists, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers and musicians imagined they had a special understanding of life in Brixton, or Whitechapel, or County Durham mining communities. Mrs. Thatcher was not just wrong on facts, they felt, but motivated by varying combinations of classism, cupidity, homophobia, ignorance, philistinism, racism and selfishness (it was harder to accuse her of sexism, although that was essayed). They felt unbounded contempt for her romantic view of English history – what Moore calls her “grand simplicities” – her unpretentious religiosity, and even her hairstyle and clothes. Anthony Burgess sniffed, “She reads best-sellers”.

On her death, playwright Howard Brenton hyperventilated,

It was as if some kind of evil was abroad in our society, a palpable degradation of the spirit,

while Ian McEwan wrote

It was never enough to dislike her. We liked disliking her.

Other cultivated haters included Julian Barnes, Jonathan Miller, David Hare, Dennis Potter, Alan Bennett and Hanif Kureishi, and they were lavished screen and airwave hours by the BBC, which even gave Doctor Who a Thatcher-like enemy. She was portrayed by cartoonists as cannibal, nuclear cloud, pterodactyl and shark, and by Spitting Image as aquiline dominatrix. She was refused an honorary degree by Oxford (she already had a real one), essentially because of what one anti-Thatcher academic called a strong “aesthetic” objection. The snub hurt her, but backfired, as American donations to Oxford dried up in consequence.

She was scorned as anti-intellectual, but while it is true that she insisted on pronouncing the T in “Godot”, and thought Alan Hollinghurst’s then-lauded novel The Line of Beauty was called The Line of Duty, part of the problem seems to have been that she listened to what Leftists saw as the “wrong” intellectuals – Keith Joseph, Alfred Sherman and Hugh Thomas instead of them. One rare academic fan, John Vincent, felt she had become –

the point at which all snobberies meet – intellectual snobbery, social snobbery, the snobbery of [London club] Brooks’s, the snobbery about scientists among those educated in the arts, the snobbery of the metropolis about the provincial, the snobbery of the South about the North, and the snobbery of men about career women.

As the ’87 election approached, despite a strong economy, the cumulative abuse grew ever louder and more personal, and the strain became obvious. Moore gives a vivid account of the fraught day one week before polling that would afterwards be called “Wobbly Thursday”, when Smith Square witnessed an extraordinary shouting match, the Prime Minister “almost hysterical”, screaming and her eyes flashing – “hatred shot out of them, like a dog about to bite you”, said one shocked observer. As this magisterial account reaches its too-early end, the once indefatigable ironclad is seizing up and starting to run to rust, with back-office and backbench restiveness approaching critical levels, the Cabinet losing the habit of collective responsibility, and public opinion tiring at last of what even Tory loyalists called“TBW” (“That Bloody Woman”). She had said during the campaign that she planned to “go on and on”, but for a growing number she had obviously gone on long enough already. As she stood at the Downing Street window beside Denis and Norman Tebbit on election night, she must have been thinking about her own as well as Britain’s future.

This review first appeared in Chronicles in July 2016, and is reproduced with permission

A watch in the Middle Marches



“O, the wild hills of Wales, the land of old renown, and of wonder”

George Borrow, Wild Wales

I step silent across the flagged floor below weathered slates and beams, sleep-held family breathing behind, the only other sounds the scratching of terriers’ claws as they push past into rain-remembering grass – and somewhere among the waiting trees a blackbird hailing a new day of toil and danger. Then I am tramping through silver, shocking grass, soaking instantly even through army boots, my prints a dark line leading to the dingle that dashes a stream down the valley’s slope in an understorey of moss-stockinged trunks, fragrant ferns and Ordovician erratics.

Aided by an ashplant, I compel my not-yet limbered legs upwards in the pre-dawn, cold hamstrings stretching and breath catching, as I see the way the sun is fingering through the canopy and picking out sub-shades in ‘grey’ lichen, dew-spangles on sphagnum, ichor-hued rowan berries, and a gnat-squadron sparked into electric activity by warmth after the dampness of the darkness. A gate clicks open and closes, then another – old and oxidised, but nowhere near as old as the stone wall that writhes like one of the apocryphal black adders of this area around the head of the tiny valley, differentiating this particular part of Radnorshire from another particular part.

The trees fail after tortured hawthorns, and I find myself on a moor from a dream. My shadow streams uphill, pointing straight at the wind and rain-worn prominence that is one of the highest and steepest of these Carneddau Hills. It looks like a knuckle on a fist, and carries old colours – Cambrian greys, stretched browns, greens of growing thinness. But as I ascend on my second wind, the sun dismisses the last lingering wyverns of the night and lends texture to everything. I notice new-lit lanterns of gorse-blossom, and see that the sheep-gnawed fairway is not just grass, but a mat of mosses, fungi, heathers and tiny Alpines whose names I long to know, among them maybe the Radnor Lily, found (or noticed) nowhere else on earth – spikes, seedheads and florets in star-white, yolk-yellow, and peacock-purple weaving in and out of each other in defiance of exposure, the acid earth, and the acute angles up which I am toiling, masochistically crosswise to the sheep-tracks. Slopes slide away steeply and satisfactorily behind as I make the final ascent, and can stand straight again.

Cwmberwyn Camp is marked Fort on the Ordnance Survey map, the Gothic lettering signifying this is an historic site – although this is perhaps unnecessary to note in a country as careworn as Wales. In any case, there is little specific history that can be attached to this spot, because no-one now can ever know which particular Iron Age patriarch’s people heaped up stones to give some semblance of shelter and security, let alone who or what precisely they were afraid of, out there in the humped and howling wilderness beyond their rampart and fires.

That wilderness seems less menacing on an early morning in August, when all of south-central Wales looks like it has been made for me, a stupendous papier-mâché diorama marching to all horizons, with painterly effects in thousands of shades – peaks above cloud-collars, streamlets like snail-trails, trailing rain-curtains, stray sunbeams searchlighting solitary farms and scattered Hill Radnor sheep. Visible from here on a day like today are the Brecon Beacons, the Black Mountains, the Cambrian Mountains, Plynlimon where the Wye and Severn rise, Rhos Fawr on the high and treeless plateau of Radnor Forest, and beyond that a hint of England. I envy the wild things that know this vantage-point so much better than I ever shall – the mistle thrush, the ring ouzel, the red kites, the buzzards, and the ravens that kronk and coast overhead in vast transparency, or the pair of mountain hares that lollop past, luckily unseen by the dogs, who are watching the feral ponies as they graze up to their fetlocks in gorse.

Radnorshire is one of the thirteen pre-1974 counties of Wales (some exclude Monmouthshire), and the second-smallest in Britain (after Rutland). It abuts Herefordshire and Shropshire in England, and the Welsh counties of Montgomeryshire, Brecknockshire and Cardiganshire. Its location implies geopolitical contention, and this indeed it has experienced – although its remoteness meant that it did not experience as much hardship as more strategic parts of the Marches. Yet occasionally events here have had implications as far away as London – or even Rome, for this was the centre of resistance to Roman occupation, where Caratacus (called Caradoc in Wales) presided over an alliance of Ordovici and Silures that defied the legions even after Caradoc had been captured and taken to Rome.

The Welsh, wrote Gerald of Wales affectionately in his 1191 Journey through Wales, are

…light and active, hardy rather than strong and entirely bred up to the use of arms; for not only the nobles but all the people are trained to war, and when the trumpet sounds the alarm the husbandman rushes as eagerly from his plough as the courtier from his court…they anxiously study the defence of their country and their liberty…for these willingly sacrifice their lives.

The Welsh were renowned for their archery long before the bow became important to the English. Longbow arrows were capable of piercing four inches into solid oak, or pinning riders to their steeds through their leg armour. Its disconcerting effects were described by Philip Warner in his 1997 book Famous Welsh Battles

[I]ts rapid rate of discharge, averaging twelve arrows a minute, could blanket a target on which they descended like a dark vengeful cloud. The recipients would suddenly notice that the sky had gone dark and there was a curious sound like the hissing of geese. In the next moment, all would be  groans, screams and confusion.

Such incoming would often be followed up by seething waves of “dagger-men”, hated and feared even by their allies for their rapacity and reckless cruelty. With such tactics, and in such guerilla-friendly terrain, it is scarcely surprising that Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in the world. The area that would become Radnorshire was as restive as anywhere along this 160-mile frontline, as can be attested by Offa’s Dyke, built to guard against the depredations of generations of Kings of Powys, and the remains of several Norman castles. The Gwynedd prince Lywelyn ap Iorwerth (nicknamed “The Great”) certainly found it a receptive recruiting ground when in the second decade of the thirteenth century he sought to unite the Welsh and rid the Middle Marches of their cruel Anglo-Norman overlords, the Mortimers and de Braoses (the latter family better known in Scotland, as the Bruces). This revolt induced Henry III to decamp from London to Painscastle in Radnorshire, then a thriving town, from where he ruled England for seven hectic weeks in the summer of 1231.

The touching badly-painted mural of Llewelyn the Last in Builth Wells

The touching badly-painted mural of Llewelyn the Last in Builth Wells

His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, has gone down in the plangent tale of Wales as “Llywelyn the Last” – that is, the last leader of a united Wales. All realistic hopes of independence expired with him when he was slain on 11 December 1282 in obscure, inglorious circumstances near Builth Wells just across the Wye – an event commemorated in a touchingly badly-painted mural in that town. The town may even now have a bad conscience in this matter, because its garrison supposedly refused him shelter the night before he was killed, local chiefs may have led him into a trap, and a local resident showed the English army a ford over the Irfon so they could attack the Welsh in the flank. Angry nationalists long traduced townspeople as the “Traitors of Buallt”. The contemporary bard Gruffudd ap yr Ynad Goch wrote in anger as well as anguish,

For the killing of our prop, our golden-handed king,

For Lywelyn’s death, I remember no-one.

Lywelyn’s head was dispatched to London, while the rest of his body was interred before the high altar at Radnorshire’s huge Cistercian Abbey of Cwmhir. Over the following three years, said a laconic observer,  “all Wales was cast to the ground”.

Yet Wales would rise again – with revolts by Rhys ap Maredudd in 1287, Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 and Llywelyn Bren in 1316, and various miscarrying schemes for invasion and subversion dreamed up by the many exiled Welsh fighting on the continent, but still thinking of home. Radnorshire played little or no role in these events, but in June 1402 it was the setting for the greattest ever defeat of the English by the Welsh, when Owain Glyndŵr, the last native Welshman to bear the title Prince of Wales, met the English at the Battle of Pilleth (also called Bryn Glas), near Presteigne.

Accounts are garbled, but it seems the English leader, naturally a Mortimer, leading an array of Marcher gentlemen and levied tenants from his estates, ordered his forces uphill just above the church at Pilleth (the tower still stands, despite having been fired by Glyndŵr’s troops). Suddenly, Mortimer’s levied Welsh archers turned round, perhaps suddenly inflamed by seeing Glyndŵr’s legendary war standard, the Golden Dragon of Cadwaladr, and started to fire on their overlords. An estimated 1,000 English died, their pillaged and women-mutilated bodies being left contemptuously unburied for months. (The site would be left untilled until the 1870s.) Mortimer was captured, and threw in his lot with Glyndŵr to the extent of marrying his daughter and going along with Glyndŵr’s grandiose scheme to topple Henry IV and divide Britain into three – Wales to Glyndŵr, the south of England to the Mortimers, and the North to the Percys. He must have reprehended this decision seven years later, when he died of starvation at the siege of Harlech.

After Glyndŵr’s defeat and disappearance, Radnorshire settled down into pastorality, a place for graziers and especially drovers who passed through endlessly on their way to the markets of England, in a tremendous two-mile-an-hour noise and dust of iron-shod, lowing, black cattle and yapping Corgis, along ancient undulating routes marked out by prominent pines. However, it was also a place for outlawry, and bandits long plagued the hills around Knighton and Presteigne. It took Tudor rough justice to deal with this problem, with the Presteigne assizes (presided over by the bishop who married Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) executing some five thousand malefactors in just eight years in the 1530s. It is hard to visualize such scenes in today’s handsome, hipsterish town, with its dignified church of St Andrews (which incidentally contains a rare and magnificent sixteenth century Flemish tapestry), and the little Lugg which trickles along the eastern edge of the conurbation, dividing Wales from England. Yet a curfew bell is still sounded each evening at eight o’clock, a sonic connection to ancient alarums.

The Tudors were of Welsh origin but this did not stop them treating their ancestral homeland with their usual unsentimentality. Abbey Cwmhir was dissolved, and emparked. The Welsh legal system was swept aside, and the language excluded from official business. In 1536 Radnorshire was fashioned out of two old cantrefi – Maelienydd and Elfael – and two smaller commotes – Gwrtheyrnion and Deuddwr. The redolent antiquity even then of these superseded land divisions may be surmised from the facts that cantrefi often followed the frontiers of Dark Ages sub-kingdoms and even dialects, while Gwrtheyrnion translates evocatively as “the land of Vortigern”.

With such reason to resent the Crown, it is arguably ironic that most of Wales favoured the Royalist cause during the Civil War, and Radnorshire was no exception, at least partly because Charles I had spent much of his boyhood on an estate between Evenjobb and Presteigne. There were only skirmishes in the county, but the embattled monarch passed twice through Radnorshire in the straitened period between Naseby in June 1645 and final defeat at Chester that September, on one especially deflated occasion reportedly complaining that Bush Farm near Old Radnor where the famished royal party once overnighted should be renamed Beggar’s Bush. The glory days of 1642, when Radnorshirers paid generous tribute to Prince Rupert at Radnor Castle, must have seemed impossibly distant –

Some brought him pieces of plate of great antiquity, as might appear from the fashion thereof. The common people brought in provisions for the maintenance of his court such as young kids, sheep, calves, fish and fowl of all sorts and some sent in fat oxen. Everyone was striving for the credit and glory of his country to exceed in several expressions of generous liberality.

Radnorshire was fated never to become fashionable – too infertile, too Welsh, too far from London – and there is an indicative 17th century doggerel –

Alas, alas, poor Radnorsheer,

Never a park and never a deer,

Never a man of five hundred a year,

Save Richard Fowler of Abbey Cwmhir.

But in the eighteenth century, a farmer near Llandrindod cashed in on the Georgian craze for ‘taking the waters’, and sought to attract health tourists with chalybeate cures. This was so successful that the following century the municipality changed its name to Llandrindod Wells. The town today accordingly resembles a transplanted segment of Surrey, with an attractive if faintly dispiriting blend of Victorian/Edwardian red-brick villas, hotels and golf courses. Its Home Counties appearance would probably have dismayed the landscape artist Thomas Jones, born at Cefnllys in 1742, and early inspired by that borough’s rough cow-spattered pastures slanting down to the frothing Ithon, and the Iron Age earthworks on the hill overlooking the ancient circular churchyard with its brooding yews, and the earthed-over town. However, Llandrindod also hosts the interesting Radnorshire Museum with a notable collection of trilobite fossils – which are oddly echoed in the displayed crest of the World War Two Royal Naval ship H.M.S. Scorpion, the building of which was partly funded by subscriptions from Radnorshirers.

As well as sufferers from gout and dyspepsia, the nineteenth century also ushered in walkers, cyclists, fishermen and artists who saw the district as a kind of Brythonic Bavaria. There was also a great engineering scheme of the kind at which the Victorians excelled in the Elan and Claerwen valleys, large tracts of which were submerged between 1893 and 1904 to guarantee a water supply to Birmingham.

Despite these rapid changes, there were still many distinctive aspects to Radnorshire rurality, many recorded by Francis Kilvert, an Anglican vicar who lived in the district between 1863 and 1879, whose diaries are minor classics. On the third of July 1872, for instance, he visited Painscastle, still pawkily conscious of having once been a considerable town, with its royal memories and its own Mayor. Kilvert found the present incumbent of that once important position with “the rest of the village statesmen lounged in the inn porch”. Kilvert found the Mayor marvellously lugubrious –

The Mayor took us to the quarry and discoursed without enthusiasm and even with despondency on the badness of the roads, the difficulty of hauling the stone, and the labour of ‘ridding’ the ground before the stone could be raised…After some talk at the quarry about ways and means, we parted, the Mayor returning to his mayoralty which had no emolument, no dignity and no powers, he ‘didna think’.

His Church was then in occasionally angry competition with Wales’s chapel-going sects, the latter a legacy of post-Civil War Puritanization. The struggle for souls was entered into enthusiastically by another author of minor classics – George Borrow, uncompromising Anglican, scattergun philologist and erstwhile gypsy. His delightful Wild Wales (1862) details dozens of small adventures in long-distance walking, doctrinal disputation, discussions of lake monsters and second-sight, extempore chanting of odes, eulogia of ales and umbrellas, denunciations of sherry and railways, and unbridled showing-off. It was Borrow who (on a later journey) recorded an exchange with a hotel maid in Presteigne who when asked whether he was in Wales or England, replied pragmatically, “Neither Wales nor England, sir, just Radnorshire”.

This has become a kind of local cliché, an idea aided by the hopscotching and hybridisation of English and Welsh people and place-names all along the boundary. But as in most borderlands one culture dominates, perhaps all the more self-consciously for feeling exposed – and in Radnorshire it is the Celtic rather than the Saxon. This impression is aided by the largeness and loneliness of the landscape, the majority of place-names especially as you move westwards, the ring-forts and standing stones, and (is this too fanciful?) even the smell of the drizzle that so often descends, which seems to carry the breath of bracken and the tang of sheep.

Radnorshire may be geographically marginal to Wales, but it is not imaginatively marginal. The locally-made Red Book of Hergest (written circa 1382) was one of the two sources for The Mabinogion, the national epic of battles, blood feuds, castles, dreams, enchantments, giant kings, magic cauldrons, princesses, prophecies and psychopomps instrumental in the revival of Cymric consciousness from the nineteenth century onwards. Radnorshire may be a pragmatic place, but even leaving aside memories of real men like Caradoc, the Llywelyns, or Glyndŵr it also echoes with archetypes. It still somehow seems to look west rather than east, towards the evening rather than the morning. It is impossible to explore these uplands and not fall into vague romantic reveries  – Arthur, Merlin, Gwyn ap Nudd and his underworld, the Black Dog of Hergest (which some say was the model for The Hound of the Baskervilles), or the dragon under Radnor Forest, legendarily pinned in place by a cordon of churches dedicated to St. Michael.

Looking over the boundless panorama from the knuckle of this hill, one thinks too of the early Christians, founders of cells and mission churches out in that desolate remoteness, some of whom actually used the elephantine eighth century font at Old Radnor, the oldest in Britain. Imagine oneself back in that dawn rather than this, and one can easily understand both euhemerism and angelology. It seems cheap to chortle at that world, their innocence – more respectful and appropriate to drift into dream, like the Jacobean virginalist John Bull, almost certainly born in Old Radnor and long a resident of this area, assembling precise pavans and glorious anthems against that wild geography. Did this vigorous man who, according to a priggish Archbishop of Canterbury, “hath more music than honesty” ever think about Radnor from his Low Countries exile? The Church he and so many others served (and all the chapels) are now more often than not empty, and the work of pinning down monsters is carried on by a new kind of priest, whose tedious tirades are diffused by the media mast that surmounts the Black Mixen, transmitting trivia high above the heather, explaining everything away, trying to make everywhere the same, binding Wales to anti-Wales more effectually than the most ambitious Earl of March could have imagined. But despite all they have done and are trying to do, this is still a debatable as well as delectable country, a frontier not just between two noble and now equally compromised nationalities, but also between legend and reality, past and future, sleep and alertness.

Now, back to the hill, and with the sun remorselessly rising, my early escapade is over. There is just time to take one last look over the stirring shire, before starting the long scramble-slide back to earth, down into the valley where mists persist, but everyone will at last have come awake.

This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

“Pity poor Bradford”

Desormais 2


Bolling Hall has squatted on its plot since the fourteenth century, hunched against the wind and rain of the West Riding – a North Country architectural essay in dark yellow sandstone looking warily down a steep hillside onto Bradford’s vale. Old though the building is, the estate’s foundations go deeper than Domesday, when Conqueror companion-in-arms Ilbert de Lacy abstracted it from a Saxon called Sindi, his reward for sanguinary services rendered during the Norman invasion and the subsequent Harrying of the North.

De Lacy’s motte-and-bailey has been overbuilt, and his line is long extinguished, but other owners likewise felt the need to guard against restive locals, rival families, religious opponents, apolitical marauders, wolves, the Great Boar of Cliffe, or whatever other elementals might watch and wait from tangled woods, stony slopes and bog-cotton dancing moors. The family crests of manor-holders, scratched in black-and-white onto a window lighting the stairs to the Ghost Room, constitute a subfusc sort of heraldry, one informed by everyday sights as much as classical or chivalric conceits. There are martlets for the Bollings and Tempests, oak trees for the Thorntons, owls on a bar sinister for the Saviles, cudgel and shield-bearing wodewoses for the Woods, hunting horns and chevrons for Bradford. They feel like the arms and achievements of provincials attuned to rurality, and modest in their pretensions – although Robert Bolling overreached himself during the Wars of the Roses and was temporarily deprived of the estate. (A later Bolling, Edith, married Woodrow Wilson.)

The oldest part of the present building has been identified as a pele tower, although these are more usually associated with points yet further north, in the “Debatable Lands” between Scotland and England. Yet pele towers are likely enough in this valley long accessible only from the north, where the laws of London or even York held only spasmodic sway. Even with later fenestration which streams greyness into the Great Hall, and Adam-style remodelling, Bolling keeps a fortress feel, a sense augmented by dark Jacobean panelling cut deeply with geometric patterns, strapwork, acanthus leaves, flowers, birds and lions’ heads, interspersed with rubicund oils of English faces, and even a death mask of Cromwell. The Hall possesses what the poet-topographer Peter Davidson calls “northern rooms, rooms that expect nothing of the weather”. It could be a Hollywood haunted house, and indeed there is a legend attached to the Duke of Newcastle who slept here in December 1642 on the night before his planned attack on the almost defenceless Parliamentarian town. Bellicose before retiring, he came down palely the morning after, claiming he had been visited by the apparition of a weeping woman begging him to “Pity poor Bradford”. Whether genuinely believing he had seen a spectre, or just hung over, the Duke’s martial descent of that day was marked by relative restraint, with just ten deaths recorded.

The defences of Bolling never needed to be tested but enemies of an odd kind came upon it anyway, creeping up its hill in increments of meaner dwellings, so that now two aspects of the Hall look onto semis and a car park, and there is a noise of traffic where once there would have been bleating or birds. But this civic slight is in its way appropriate, in this region where melancholy falls as readily as rain.

Sometimes it seems almost a requirement to portray the North of England as  a single vast and tragic landscape. The imaginative equation of North with dearth goes back as far as Roman legionaries tramping gloomily up the Great North Road to garrison the edge of the empire at Hadrian’s Wall (although Septimus Severus died at York, and Constantine took the purple there). It gathered pace as the locus of English power slowly migrated south, as monarchs roamed their realm less frequently, ecclesiastical power centred on Canterbury, and parliaments fixed at Westminster. The great families of the North found themselves becoming provincials – and slightly untrustworthy ones. From the London point of view, they had too often been kingmakers or breakers, too often Catholic, too rich, too swaggeringly insolent, and their centres of learning at York and Durham were cultural as well as temporal rivals.

The Tudors unroofed the great Cistercian abbeys of Jervaulx, Rievaulx, Fountains and Byland, gelded the Prince-Bishops, started to centralise the legal system, and house-train the Percys, Howards and Cliffords. The North was just too close to Scotland to feel fully safe, and even after the crowns were united in 1603 longstanding fault-lines remained. Well into the eighteenth century, the North was seen as marginal, outside the English mainstream, a redoubt of recusancy potentially sympathetic to Stuarts, its untrammelled nature offending against both the logic of the Age of Reason and the aesthetics of the Age of Taste. Even when the beauties of Lakeland began to be discovered by poets, aquatinters and garden designers, they were slightly shivered at, seen as unreal, unpeopled, dubbed “Horrid” or at best “Picturesque” – places to be looked at rather than lived in.

The Industrial Revolution eventually made the North central to the English economy, making vast amounts of new money whilst undermining the aristocratic order – in a few cases literally, with landowners delving for coal almost under inherited houses. When the borough of Bradford came into being in 1847, it contained no fewer than 46 coal mines. Encouraged by the Calvinistic municipal motto Labor Omnia Vincit, furnaces blasted day and night, chimneys choked, hammers clanged and cogs clicked, mills clattered and drifted lung-filling fibres – and 30% of all children died before attaining their teens.

The ugliness associated with industrialisation actually reinforced Southern notions of the North as a place apart. Seen from the safe South, Northern towns were increasingly seen as the haunts of grim-visaged Gradgrinds, building themselves vulgar villas while turning sturdy peasants into sickly slum-dwellers. Beyond the ragged edges of the ever-expanding towns, the savage scenery of moors seemed perfect habitations for Heathcliffs, ideal locales for a hundred Dotheboys Halls. The Devonshire-born Nicholas Nickleby’s reaction upon first seeing Wackford Squeers’ appalling academy is one of a Southerner feeling suddenly very far from home  –

As he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.

The names alone of places and people sound stark – Blubberhouses, Mytholmroyd, Uriah Woodhead, Savage Crangle, Hardcastle Crags, the ominous Nab Wood Cemetery and Crematorium, and countless others. Wanderers are furthermore constantly being arrested by disquieting associations, such as the plaque in smart Skipton that indicates the Bull-baiting Stone, or an antlered bronze demon looking saturninely out of a sunny New Age shop window in the same town, faintly disturbing among the trash of tarot. Such things can be seen in the South too, but they seem to have an extra level of significance when backdropped by low-lit moors and sharpened by frost.

Nouveau-riche mill-owners, mine-managers and middlemen aped aristocratic manners and manors, attended ostentatiously at chapel or Low Anglican services, endowed and administered charities, but were always seen as bumptious, unlikeable and unscrupulous. However irreproachable many may have been, even when they were like Titus Salt, they were easy targets for either snobbish satire or socialistic critiques such as the Bradfordian playwright J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, in which a mysterious detective turns up late at night to quiz the inhabitants of a huge new house about the suicide of a local girl, exposing the callousness of the family and their recently-risen class.

Even now, with the old industries at last starting to be replaced, to the Southern English mind, the simple words “The North” as glimpsed so frequently in Transport Medium typeface on roadsigns connote both stonewalled fields and urban decay, poverty, grimness and lostness – to which can now be added vague but not unfounded notions of dangerously alienated Muslims. Anyone who ventures north of the significantly named “Home Counties” soon realises that this stereotypical view effectively means West and South Yorkshire, and Lancashire and Tyneside conurbations. The vaster Yorkshire, comprising the lonely landscapes of the North Riding, and the semi-submarine East Riding with its drowned towns and dreams of the Hanse, not to mention history-clogged York itself, does not really enter into this equation. Nor do the Lakes, Durham Cathedral, the walls and rows of Chester, Carlisle, Liverpool, Newcastle, or Northumberland – all of them of course in the North, but not intrinsic to that particular understanding.

The Industrial Revolution itself has become the object of nostalgia as its rawness mellows into Grimshaw and Lowry tones, and the uncompromising communities that coalesced around milling, mining or steel are seen through a prism of foxing monochrome stills from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Guardian journalists still (and with justification) bewail the economic hollowing-out caused by Thatcherism, the once-powerful industries sacrificed to City speculators, steel, mining and milling workers fly-tipped into an abyss of welfare dependency and social squalor. Leftists take a special interest in the town because of its exploitative past, its innovations in education and medicine, and its role in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1893. (The present government is trying to make political inroads hereabouts by talking of “Northern powerhouses”, with devolved powers and better railways – suitably Victorian solutions for a town of phlegmatic traders.)

Leftists who emote about the North rarely have practical ideas as to how global economic trends can be reversed, and also tend to be uninterested in the Immigration Revolution that accompanied de-industrialisation and exacerbated the area’s social splintering. To them, it seems of little consequence that a quarter of Bradford’s 523,000 residents are Muslims, many cleaving to ultra-orthodox interpretations. Perhaps somewhere now in the city there are a few more idealists like Tanveer Ahmed, who in March went all the way to Glasgow to murder an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had “disrespected Islam” by wishing Happy Easter to Christian customers. Immigrants have long been attracted here by the wool-trade, which once made Bradford “wool capital of the world”, but had gone into irreversible decline by the time the first Asians arrived. The new immigration was therefore badly-timed as well as different qualitatively from the European incursions of the mid-19th century onwards (whose most unlikely product must be that composer of lush tone-poems Frederick Delius, who lived in the district still called Little Germany).

To a certain Panglossian kind of commentator, the race riots of 1985 and 2001, and the public burnings of Satanic Verses in between, were passing epiphenomena, regrettable but understandable products of low education, unemployment, Tory cuts, and social segregation caused chiefly by white racism. They would rather focus on such heartening factoids as that Bradford was declared “Curry Capital of Britain” in 2013 – that nearby Hebden Bridge is louche home to an unusually high number of lesbians – that Heathcliff was a victim of anti-Roma prejudice, and his creator of gender inequality – that the town had critical ethnic mass to host the 2007 International Indian Film Festival awards.

They would also be largely indifferent to the epic echoes of the pre-modern county, its still visible castles, churches, halls and houses, its mental habits and myths. If they were to visit Bolling, they would be most interested in the working conditions of turnspits. At Skipton Castle, they might glance up at the grand gatehouse, with its forward-looking family motto Desormais (“Henceforth”), but they would not find it strangely sad that Lady Anne Clifford, who placed the hopeful word there circa 1649, would be the last representative of a dynasty that had once commanded allegiance

From Penigent to Pendle Hill,

From Lenton to Long Preston

And all that Craven coasts did tell

They with the lusty Clifford came

Well brown’d with sounding bows upbend

On Clifford’s banner did attend.

What could neo-Puritans comprehend of the experiences or motivations of an Anne, who held the Castle three years for the King, or even bloodier-minded ancestors like Robert Clifford who entertained Edward I, and who chose to live in this dangerous zone so that he would never miss an opportunity of fighting the Scots? Another was  John Clifford, who had already earned the nickname “Black-faced Butcher” by the time he fell at Towton aged just 26. Even the most peaceable of the tribe, Henry (called by Wordsworth the “Shepherd Lord” because of his long exile in the hills) led the Craven contingent to victory at Flodden. No doubt all these would be adduced as arguments for historical inevitability, products of the irrational military-aristocratical complex, yet more reasons that order had to end. As for the Saxon high crosses in the church at Ilkley, with their writhing beasts and worn Jesus, they would be seen as stelae marking the resting-places of ancient delusions – a disdainful sort of analysis for some reason never extended to the ideas expressed in the West Riding’s mosques.

And what would urban chatterati make of Yorkshire’s underlying nature, its hard-edged pastoralism, its sudden stabs of beauty, more evident again now that mines have been backfilled, mills become apartments, and waterways transport fewer toxins? What would they think of if they were to walk under the sky-supporting arches of old abbeys drowsing along peaty rivers, knee-deep in summer flowers, their hedges silver-spangled with cobwebs on frosty mornings? Probably just that this was the inevitable end of an unsustainable system. They might smile at Geoffrey Hill’s playful poem, “Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654”, which subverts urban and proletarian associations by projecting Arcadian and Renaissance imagery onto a winter’s day during the endless-feeling English interregnum –

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.

Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.

The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don

bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages

from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun

swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.

We live like gleaners of its vestiges

knowing we flourish, though each year a child

with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down

for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors?

But the best known poet celebrant of Yorkshire is Ted Hughes, whose most relevant collection for these purposes is his 1979 Remains of Elmet, honouring the little kingdom that rose and as unostentatiously expired in what is now West Yorkshire some time between the fifth and seventh centuries. The collection is as elegiac as the title suggests, and in some respects is itself rather dated. But “The Trance of Light” both looks back on a semi-mythical shire where small kings and Great Boars really did co-exist, and forward to a day when the last looms and Low Churchers go down to join the ancient Britons, the pinched life ends, and Hughes’ beloved hawks can once more clutch creation in their claws –

The upturned face of this land

The mad singing in the hills

The prophetic mouth of the rain

That fell asleep

Under migraine of headscarves and clatter

Of clog irons and looms

And gutter-water and clog-irons

And clog-irons and biblical texts

Stretches awake, out of Revelations

And returns to itself.

So superb to think it might, and that something substantive remains among all these layered remains.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in June 2016, and is reproduced with permission