The Wicker Man – a very British horror



The Wicker Man (1973) is widely regarded as the best British horror film ever made, and has earned the dubious compliment of having been the sub­ject of a Hollywood remake starring Nicholas Cage. Whether one agrees with this analysis or not, few would dispute that it is the best film ever to feature Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward or Britt Ekland.

The Wicker Man’s cult status is appro­priate – because it is about what might happen in an isolated community that reverts to pre-Christian practices. Lord Summerisle (Lee) is the hereditary laird of a Scottish island. His deceased father persuaded the islanders of his genera­tion to reject Christianity, and return to (or reinvent) Druidic paganism. Summerisle has therefore inherited not just ownership of the island, but also the mantle of the island’s religious leader—a potent combination.

Enter police sergeant Neil Howie (Woodward), a devout Christian, after he receives anonymous reports that a young island girl has gone missing. The film begins with Howie’s plane pass­ing over a gleaming archipelago to the accompaniment of a haunting score by Paul Giovanni. One of the film’s great­est strengths is its plangent music, including some reworked folk tunes and Robert Burns poems, performed by the ad hoc band Lodestone.

From the moment he arrives, Howie is met with polite obfuscation, and every­where confronted with what are to him appalling blasphemies – naked women in unkempt graveyards, un-roofed churches with posies, impaled birds and libations instead of crucifixes on the al­tar, very young children saying “penis” and being given magic lessons, naked girls dancing in circles and jumping over fire, and the clientele of the island’s only pub (where Howie is compelled to stay after his plane malfunctions mysteriously) singing along lustily to a rib­ald song called The Landlord’s Daughter (Willow, played by Britt Ekland).

O, nothing can delight so

As does the part that lies between her left toe

And her right toe!

the respectable-looking lo­cals (including Willow’s twinkling-eyed father) bellow joyously, while Willow wriggles lasciviously. Later that night, a nude Willow dances in her room, which is adjacent to Howie’s, drum­ming on the dividing wall and calling to him to come to her (“Heigh ho I am here / Am I not young and fair?”), while he prays, perspires and wraps the pillows around his head to drown out her song. (He has vowed not to have sex until he is married.)

Howie is predisposed to dislike the islanders, and becomes increasingly convinced that the missing girl has been abducted, and that the islanders, from the unhelpful Lord Summerisle down, are complicit in a cover-up. Not only that, but he fears she will be used as a human sacrifice in a magic May Day ceremony—in an outlandish but insu­larly consistent attempt to improve the island’s failing (and economically essen­tial) apple crop.

He tries frantically to find her while the island is fizzing with anticipation for the big festival—ornate costumes being made, special breads and cakes being baked, shop windows being decorated with sexual symbols, songs and dances being practiced in dark corners, furtive conversations stopped when they see him coming, giggling children playing him tricks, costumed conspirators glimpsed for a split second down dark alleys.

Exhausted, he lies down in his room for a while—then jerks awake to the repulsive sight of a smoking narcotic ‘Hand of Glory’ (a dead man’s hand), on the bedside table, seemingly left there by Willow. He dashes it to the floor in horror, and rushes into the streets, to find the islanders all grotesquely customed and dancing out of the village. He knocks out the landlord and purloins his Fool costume so he can infiltrate the procession. Eventually, they arrive at the place of sacrifice—whereupon Howie discovers that his ‘disguise’ had fooled no-one, and he has been trapped. The missing girl comes running laughingly from where she has been hiding, while a stunned Howie struggles to comprehend.

Summerisle explains with bland charm that he had been specifically targeted to come to the island, because his Christian faith and sexual abstinence mean that he will be an especially powerful offering to gods. Even as Summerisle is talking, the pinioned Howie is being dragged along the top of the cliffs to see—terror of terrors—a huge wicker semblance of a man filled with caged chickens, pigs, goats and combustible material. “Come” says Summerisle—

…it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man.

Howie alternately tries to reason with Summerisle, prays and screams as he is carried up the ladder and tied in his place, and as the flames rise and the dying animals squeal—while the arm-linked, swaying islanders smile gratefully, even kindly, up at him and sing

Summer is icumen in, Loude sing cucu.

The howling flames rise to the head and the screams stop; the flaming head falls into the sea and left behind on the horizon is a wintry orange sun sinking in the boundless West, where the Celts believed lay Tír na Nóg, the Land of Eternal Youth.

As well as Paul Giovanni’s soundtrack, the acting is impeccable. Edward Woodward later recalled that he had momentarily felt real terror when he first saw the Wicker Man set up on the cliff. There is also stunning Dumfries & Galloway scenery and a driving sense of impending disaster expertly created by Frenzy screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy’s assured direction. But what makes The Wicker Man unique and also much more disturbing than most horror films is the way in which uncomprehending cruelty and the bas­est superstition are so deftly interwoven with domesticity.

The kindly sweetshop owner, the no-nonsense schoolmistress, the cheer­ful landlord, the joking fishermen, the tweed-wearing pensioners, the shy chil­dren—all wearing normal clothes, liv­ing in normal Victorian and Edwardian houses, holding down normal positions in society—such people could be found almost anywhere. Except that when peo­ple everywhere else are going to church or the superstore, these perfectly believable and even likeable people are harking back to a time not just before Christianity but before rea­son, when all of Nature was populated by demanding daemons and everything was ‘explained’ through sprites instead of science.

It was a real past—Hardy and Shaffer researched the rites from James George Frazer’s magisterial 1890 survey of European magical practices The Golden Bough, while the Romans recorded the Celts immolating animals and men in giant wicker figures. That remote time and sensibility in many ways have never left us, with ‘old religion’ symbols and sites co-opted but not captured by Christianity, and retaining a coherence of their own. Pagan place names and topography persist in hundreds of thou­sands of wells, woods, waters, henges, forts and mazes. Green Men, wild men, fantastical monsters and Sheela-na Gigs look down on us from cathedral roof bosses or pub signs. Ancient iconogra­phy is seen again by holidaymakers idly watching the Padstow Hobby Hoss or the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. Pre-rational reasoning is found in perenni­ally popular astrology columns, New Age healing, ‘deep ecology’ and people who have been exposed to centuries of science still being afraid of the night-time. Much of our folk-music is immeasurably old, containing melodies and sentiments that have recurred over centuries (“Summer is icumen in”, for example, supposedly dates from the early 1200s). And perhaps paganism may even make a comeback as Christian belief goes down in the West like the sun in the last frame of the film. It is our sense of the persistence, and the strange familiarity, of our pre-Christian past which makes The Wicker Man so plausible, so powerful and possibly even predictive.

This piece was first published at in January 2011

The Lincolnshire Marsh – an unloved landscape


Here, you can see almost forever. It is a great green plain bounded by low wolds to the west and the North Sea to the east, by the River Humber to the north and the shining mudflats of the Wash to the south. It is a landscape for seven-league boots and ten-league thoughts, as the sun falls behind the small, blued summits and shadows rush away eastward.

It is a desirable, debatable territory maintained and menaced by countless capillaries—creeks, inlets, havens, estuaries, outfalls, deeps, lakes, meres, ponds, bogs, swamps, waters, rivers, streams, becks, brooks, ditches, drains, dykes, sykes, cuts, sluices, holes, lades, gowts, and gulls – which may at any time rise up and overtop the embankments, tops, rises, sills, bridges, lanes, ways, droves, pullovers, and gaps. At the lowest tides can be seen the stumps of trees among which animals and men hunted and were hunted 10,000 years ago, and the more recent ribs of ships left behind on seal-haunted sandbanks – and there are the semi-remembered, semi-fabulous stories of Great Storms, important ports drowned, wharves washed away, straightened waterways torn out of alignment, masonry dredged up by nets, kingly landing places laid low, abbeys annihilated, church bells heard tolling underwater.

The ancestral antediluvian experience and the ever-present apprehension of dangers and drownings inevitably to come are just aspects of a complicated and continuing saga, because the high tides and inundations have also deposited a dirty gold of salts-rich silt attractive to animals and cereals, as well as to the keen-faced men who for millennia have strewn seeds into the welcoming clay and released long-fleeced sheep to snuffle and snaffle for rich facefuls of grass and clover across the pastures and cotes, fitties and fields, nooks, gallops, and rides.

Prehistoric pedestrians, Roman soldiers, Saxon merchants, Anglian anchorites, Danish overlords, motte-and- bailey building Normans, harassed monarchs, tax collectors and customs men, journeymen, tinkers, Dutch engineers, countermarching Cavaliers and Parliamentarians, itinerant Protestant preachers, horse-traders, navvies, farm laborers, and tourists escaping modernity have passed this way, and looked down in idle curiosity or admiration at this great sweep of England’s edge—at this contour map without contours, this child’s dream landscape of big fields lined with hedges, strung-out villages, ships curving in through sea-haze towards Hull and Immingham, narrow twisting roads, coverts and holts, fluorescent rape, imperial linseed, glittering water, old houses of plum-red bricks fashioned out of the earth on which they stand, and, raised above everything else, the squat, sometimes slightly out of true towers of medieval churches in cow-parsley choked churchyards in parishes whose euphonious names go back to otherwise obliterated Danish landowners and even the Celts.

The Ordnance Survey maps, with their Gothic-lettered sites of deserted villages, monastic foundations, earthworks, and cultivation terraces, can read like the score of a thus-far unwritten North Country Symphony – Aby, Addlethorpe, Alford, Austin Fen, Gayton-le-Marsh, Grainthorpe, Grimoldby, Humberston, Marshchapel, Orby, Saltfleetby, Skegness, Theddlethorpe, Wainfleet, Willoughby. It is a wind- borne music audible to those who have discovered some of this place’s secrets, who have stood there, in that lane, and peered through a brake of hawthorn at hares boxing, weasels playing, the sycamore-studded Norman mound, the toppling 18th-century manor with the Venetian window and wrecked cars littered across the lawn.

The sparse, staccato spires – Perpendicular monumentality at Louth and Decorated stateliness at South Somercotes – and the elegantly Italianate dock tower at Grimsby (up crumbling iron ladders, and out finally into jacket-plucking wind and an arc of creeping ships and cloud-chased immensity) merely accentuate the fabulous flatness of this ocean of green leading to the ocean of blue beyond.

It is what Joseph Conrad would have called “an insignificant foothold on the earth . . . ignored between the hills and the sea” (Tales of Unrest). It is a place for silence and thinking, and listening breathlessly to the geese as they fly heavily over, their calls numinous with a sense of illimitable space, countries unseen, seas unnavigated, strands untraversed, marshes unexplored. It is also preeminently a place to bring joyful Jack Russells down expectant bosky paths and across morasses populated by marsh harriers, owls, bitterns, rooks, dragonlies, hoverflies, bumblebees, water spiders, hares, badgers, weasels, natterjack toads, newts, birds-foot trefoil, lords and ladies, cuckoo pint, rose bay willowherb, great mullein, Aaron’s Rod, a roe deer standing on its hind legs feeding from a tree, an angler-fish skeleton marooned hundreds of yards above the tideline, a washed-up 19th-century ship’s door, lichen-encrusted fortifications thrown up hastily in 1914 to pin down Wilhelmine shock troopers who never came. It is a place of subtle, unconventional beauty and recondite charms for a small number of cognoscenti – a place of escape, a place that has escaped.

Until now. For here, pricking once-unsullied horizons, rising dizzyingly up and up above the churches, there suddenly are gigantic white aluminium and PVC pillars, atop which sit three enormous sweeping scythes, harvesting the high winds as tiny earthbound men have for so many centuries tilled the prostrate land so far below.

The wind turbines are finally bringing industry and the city to the Lincolnshire Marsh, one of England’s last “empty” spaces – foreshortening vistas, filling fields of vast vision with flickering metronomic movement, kicking contemptuously away the pretensions of the churches, dragging unwilling minds away from Pan towards plasma TVs, turning open skies into Sky Sports and green places into Green Parties.

They are grandiose toys, as falsely friendly as the giant rubber balls that bounced across Portmeirion to capture and choke The Prisoner – avuncular stelæ pinning down, like fading beetles to cardboard, the formerly untrammeled vistas loved by Tennyson, adding a plastic surreality to the ghost-filled east coast that always, as W.G. Sebald observed,“stands for lost causes.”

That melancholy, reactionary seaboard may now itself be lost because of Whitehall’s self-imposed frantic rush to obtain 15 percent of national energy needs from “sustainable” sources by 2020 – to which end they are subsidizing electricity producers to the tune of £485 million per annum and centralizing planning powers to over- rule those peasants who are presumptuous enough to want to protect their areas. Our ever-increasing, ever more gadget-dependent population every year requires more and more megawatts to keep its Blackberries, iPhones, laptops, palmtops, satnavs, and net-books powered up and Chinese factories ticking over. And our government, in its lamentably lackadaisical way, instead of gently slowing population growth, altering our assumptions, and challenging our consumption, has opted to throw the people the fell meats they demand even though they know deep down that the diet is making them sick.

For the government it is business as usual, stoking the same old engine in the same old way: gorging on gigawatt gobbets to keep the lights on always in our police stations, courts, prisons, sex shops, sex clinics, needle exchanges, all-night bars, floodlit bungalows and executive homes, old people’s homes, sports stadia, expanded airports, supermarkets, shopping malls, job centres, business parks, closed factories, regulatory offices, equality commissions, bailed-out banks, and government departments – and to make brilliant the motorways that carry ever-thickening traffic to ever-shrinking destinations.

Sixteen turbines loom up above the Earls’ Bridge at Mablethorpe, the scene of an apocryphal duel in which two earls died, that sad-bungalowed sea- side resort made yet meaner; twenty at Conisholme, showing the tiny tree-surrounded church with its Anglo-Saxon crucifix its true importance; two at Croft, whose church contains one of England’s earliest brasses; and fifty- two offshore – all visible for over 20 miles from any angle. And more are planned—many more offshore (1), six at Langham, twenty at Orby, two at Tetney, ten at Gayton-le-Marsh, eight in the Wolds at Baumber (2), and yet others, marching like H.G.Wells’ Martians across supposedly protected spaces – powering not just houses but also a subsidiary demand for pylons, sub- stations, access roads, fencing, and security lights. And these are merely the planning applications that have been lodged; there are other landowners pondering the trade-off between money now and beauty tomorrow – an all-too easy decision for some, a decision others will probably live to regret.

The Lincolnshire Marsh has already paid exorbitant Danegeld to the god of global warming and more than fulfilled its regional targets on green energy, losing much more in attractiveness than it has so far gained in protection or even gratitude. Although turbines are springing up all over the country, guilt-reducing magic bullets aimed at a complex problem, many neighbouring areas have so far fought off applications – local politicians and planners there being perhaps longer-sighted or just wilier.

In January 2008, Dale Vince, the founder of the turbine operator Ecotricity, said,“We need every bit of green energy we can get and those who say otherwise are simply wrong and selfish.” In March, Energy Secretary Ed Milliband upped the political stakes, saying that opposing wind turbines should be “as socially unacceptable as not wearing a seat belt.” Such comments are simultaneously setting the agenda and going with the moral flow, with turbine skeptics now being routinely accused of selfishness, narrow- mindedness, ultraconservatism, and even “Duelling Banjos attitudes” (according to a letter attacking this writer in the Lincolnshire press). Naturally, the finger-pointers rarely offer their own backyards for the turbines, but are content for others to bear the burden of their bad conscience. (Similarly,Ted Kennedy is protesting a scheme to erect turbines that would be visible from his Cape Cod home.)

These “Greens,” for whom the countryside is a “resource” rather than a place of beauty, are in bed with an electricity industry now able to obtain positive headlines while simultaneously securing impressive profits. According to Jonathan Leake of the Sunday Times, writing in January 2008,

Lavish subsidies and high electricity prices have turned Britain’s onshore wind farms into an extraordinary money-spinner, with a single turbine capable of generating £500,000 of pure profit per year. According to new industry figures, a typical 2 megawatt (2MW) turbine can now generate power worth £200,000 on the wholesale markets – plus another £300,000 of subsidy from taxpayers. Since such turbines cost around £2m to build and last for 20 or more years, it means they can pay for themselves in just four to five years and then produce nothing but profit.

Nonrenewable fuels also face a climate-change levy, from which renewable producers are exempted. Meanwhile, electricity bills have increased by approximately 15 percent in the last year. One would like to ask Mr. Vince who is really being the most “selfish.”

Yet all this investment, and all of Britain’s 211 operational wind farms (totaling 2,434 turbines, according to British Wind Energy Association figures), still only power around 1.9 million homes – and even this quotient needs to have conventional plants to back it up because wind power notoriously cannot be stored. (A system is being developed to solve this problem, but sadly it requires an old mine to house the necessary machinery.)

It is less obvious why local planners and politicians are often so compliant. Local councils do have limited and diminishing powers, but one might have thought they would have been putting up more of a fight for the area and the people they are elected to represent. There certainly seems to be too little understanding that Whitehall is not a friend, but a hostile power that must be outwitted.

A deeper reason affecting this part of the country specifically may be the conventional prejudice against flat landscapes as being somehow “boring” – a prejudice that has survived since earliest times, when marshes were places of disease and banishment, metaphors for marginalization, attracting saints like Guthlac, who built a small cell in the reeds at Crowland, in defiance of the “wilde menne” who plagued him, from which grew a great but now diminished abbey and today’s tiny town with its unique three-way bridge crowned by a weathered Christ the King.

It is simply too much trouble for these presently allied groups to encourage other renewable energy methods (solar power, tidal power, or biomass), or to outfox London bean-counters trying to offload their headaches, or to court unpopularity by asking people to change their habits. They have their “easy answer,” and they are going to stick to it, just as the town planners of the 1960s stuck resolutely to their tower blocks. In 20 years, when everyone will want to know who allowed all these turbines to be built, the monomaniacs or idlers responsible will be retired or retiring, encrusted with habit and self-justification and OBEs, weighed down with pension schemes and presentation clocks – Lilliputian facsimiles of the national politicians given peerages as a reward for lifetimes devoted to decline management.

Against the combined weight of administrative inertia and Green fervour are scattered individuals or small, fragmented groups short of money and time (there are some 140 anti-turbine campaigns in the United Kingdom), trying to galvanize local politicians and members of the public to fight for such life-enhancing intangibles as character, beauty, heritage, and quality of life. Even the recession has not yet stopped the march of the pillars and pylons – with Gordon Brown, like Barack Obama, trying to use investment in the green energy sector as a means of kickstarting the economy. Including the Lincolnshire turbines enumerated above, a further 846 turbines are presently being erected, another 1,837 have been given planning consent, and planning permission is being sought for 3,244 more (British Wind Energy Association figures).

There are heartening counter-developments: increased emphasis on offshore rather than onshore turbines, greater professionalism and coordination of anti-turbine groups, a new ten metre high turbine that is more efficient and less obtrusive, and developments in solar, tidal, and biomass technology that will soon make these commercially viable. The danger is that these longer-term solutions will arrive too late – and the lovely, lonely, taken-for-granted Lincolnshire Marsh will have drowned under a tsunami of towers before most people have even noticed it exists and is worthy of defence.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in August 2009, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner


  1. There are now over 100 offshore turbines off the Lincolnshire coast, with more planned.
  2. Gayton le Marsh has since been approved, despite overwhelming opposition from local people and the county and district council. The Baumber scheme was, however, eventually refused. Local councils have become strongly anti-wind farm, but their awakening was slow and they are in any case weak vis-a-vis Whitehall. The “localism agenda” promised by David Cameron has not so far  materialized.


Sustained magnificence – Max Hastings’ Winston’s War

Sustained Magnificence

Winston’s War: Churchill 1940-1945

Max Hastings, New York: Alfred A. Knopf 576 pp., $35.00

Sixty-five years after the last guns ceased firing on the last Pacific atoll, Britons of all political persuasions are still wallowing in tepid World War II nostalgia.

For Atlanticists, neoconservatives, and classical liberals, the war was a great Anglo- sphere achievement, a landmark en route to social mobility plus mercantilism. For nationalists and romantics, there is a lump- in-the-throat quality about the hyperclear image of the sceptered isle, standing alone against an armoured upstart, asserting individuality against conformity, “the Few” against the militant many. For nostalgists, the war represents the last gasp of the British Empire, compelled to destroy itself in order to save itself. For modern leftists, in all other circumstances bitterly hostile to national pride, the war was an inevitable confrontation with racism and antisemitism (la lotta continua, for them).

The result of this unusual unanimity is that we are all daily bombarded with images, anecdotes, and evocations of the period. So my immediate reaction, as I lifted yet another book about 1939-45—even one written by Max Hastings—was to sigh. Hastings, foreseeing this likely reaction, disarmingly cites Boswell:

[Johnson] had once conceived the thought of writing The Life of Oliver Cromwell . . . He at length laid aside his scheme, on discovering that all that can be told of him is already in print, and that it is impracticable to procure any authentick information in addition to what the world is already possessed of.

As Cromwell, now Churchill; Hastings acknowledges,

We have been told more about Winston Churchill than any other human being.

He nevertheless feels constrained to augment this biographic Gondwanaland, because “much remains opaque.” He is be- sides fascinated by the “sustained magnificence” of “the largest human being ever to occupy his office.” Hastings has a happy knack for marrying strategic and tactical insights with apposite anecdotes—such as the touching fact that among British officers’ luggage landed at Norway in 1940 were fishing rods and sporting guns, or that the ever practical New Statesman, at the height of the British Expeditionary Force’s May 1940 debacle, was insisting that

…the government should at once grapple with the minor, but important problem of Anglo-Mexican relations.

Churchill was an aristocrat and an imperialist, an anachronism even in the 1930s and one, furthermore, with a deserved reputation for being impulsive, excitable, sentimental, vain, bombastic, and unreliable. As First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1915 he had made the disastrous decision to seize Gallipoli. He was an intemperate anti-Bolshevik long after the Whites had been vanquished. He was an opponent of self-government for Indians (the “stinking babus,” he called them) and a fanatical supporter of Edward VIII. He crossed the floor of the House of Commons not once but twice, and appeared to have an obsession with Germany. He was, besides, half-American, and drank and smoked too much. He cried in public, and had disreputable friends like Brendan Bracken and Lord Beaverbrook. Had the war not come, he would now be scarcely remembered. But of course it did, as he had predicted, and suddenly his colour and charisma—as well as the fact that he had been right all along—marked him out as the “obvious” war supremo.

Churchill’s chief leadership qualification was that he was supremely focused. Hastings observes,

He governed on the basis that all other interests and considerations must be subordinated to the overarching objective of defeating the Axis.

In this, he differed utterly from Hitler, who spent more time dreaming about a “Greater Germany” than thinking about how to win the war.

Churchill fizzed with energy, symbolized by his famous “Action This Day” rubber stamp, and once told his private secretary that at night

I try myself by court martial to see if I have done anything effective during the day.

Isaiah Berlin noted perceptively that

Churchill sees history – and life – as a great Renaissance pageant.

This boyish trait led to the extraordinary speeches, among the finest ever delivered in the English language; his crowd-pleasing stunts — the V-sign, the cigars, the tommy guns, and his infatuation with special forces and “setting Europe ablaze.” Hastings is dismissive of the achievements of Churchill’s cherished commandos, but such escapades aided morale when the “Second Front” was still unfeasible.

Churchill predicted, incorrectly, that the Nazis would not invade Norway and that U-boats would pose no major threat to the Atlantic supply routes; demanded the Allies invade the Balkans; and sought to siphon off D-Day forces for ill-advised Italian incursions. But such errors were amply outweighed by his central strategic insight that the war could not be won without the United States, and by his achievement in dragging in that reluctant country against majority public and political opinion. It was in Greece alone that Churchill’s interventions eventually proved successful, but that was only after the killing of almost 200 British troops by the communist partisans they had just liberated. Later, Churchill was outraged not to have been consulted about Germany’s unconditional surrender, which he knew would prolong the war and cause unnecessary suffering (including to Germans).

Winston’s War provides a salutary reminder of just how unspecial the ‘special relationship’ can be. Wall Street made a killing out of Lend-Lease and the short-selling of British companies, encouraged by an administration so distrustful that it insisted on all British assets being audited. Churchill grumbled,

As far as I can make out we are not only to be skinned, but flayed to the bone.

In 1942, Felix Frankfurter wrote to Stafford Cripps, deploring

…a lack of continuing consciousness of comradeship between the two peoples.

And as late as 1944, the American journalist John Gunther repined that

Lots of Americans and British have an atavistic dislike of one another.

Many Britons regarded America superciliously; wartime ambassador Lord Halifax, according to Hastings, found it “too much” to have to sit through a Chicago White Sox game or eat a hot dog.

For his part, Roosevelt actively sought to subvert the empire. This intrigue included attempts to hold secret meetings with the Soviets, through intermediaries like pre-war ambassador to Moscow Joseph E. Davies, a man who saw nothing wrong in amassing an art collection looted from murdered dissidents, and explained to his wife that the incessant noise she heard from their Moscow hotel was the sound of jackhammers, when he knew it was firing squads.

Roosevelt routinely undermined Churchill’s attempts to provide postwar guarantees to Eastern European countries, once referring in front of a smirking Stalin to Poland (for whose independence Britain’s war was ostensibly being fought) as “a source of trouble for 500 years.”

In one notorious episode at Tehran in 1943, Stalin talked about shooting 50,000 German officers out of hand after the war. Roosevelt rejoined jovially that 49,000 would suffice, after which his son Elliott said he agreed with Stalin’s proposal and was certain the United States would endorse it. Churchill walked out in disgust. If Roosevelt hoped he was forging a progressive partnership with Stalin, he was mistaken. In an anecdote that sheds light equally on Roosevelt and the Soviets, Molotov recalled what a colleague had said of Roosevelt:

What a crook that man must be, to have wormed his way to three terms as president while being paralyzed!

While Washington and London desisted from espionage activities in the Soviet Union during the war (Stalin was amazed they could be so naive), the Soviets spied enthusiastically on both allies. Stalin would sometimes brag to advisors “We f–ked this England!” – but this “joke” was also on America. In 1945, exasperated by the failure of his hopes for Eastern Europe, Churchill had plans drawn up for “Operation Unthinkable”—what now seems like a fantastical scheme for American and British forces, plus reactivated Wehrmacht formations, to attack the Soviet Union and cast down the “iron curtain,” a phrase he was using as early as May 1945.

Winston’s War reminds the mistier-eyed reader how insecure Churchill’s political position could be, how tenuous his grip on occasion—not just on Parliament but even on the public affections. The Britain over which he presided was a place of profound class tensions that, pace the propaganda, were not magically resolved by a spasm of self-sacrifice. For example, in 1940, the year of Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, 163,000 working days were lost through strikes, a figure that worsened as the war wore on. Churchill had critics on the right and the left—the latter encouraged by Stalin—and endured continual carping from the press, which paradoxically became noisier as military fortunes improved. In such circumstances, a lesser man would have abused the dictatorial powers available to him, but, as Churchill once remarked to Sikorski, he regarded himself as

…a privileged domestic, a valet de chambre, the servant of the House of Commons.

Hastings notes that

Many misunderstandings of Churchill’s conduct of government…derived from the promiscuity of his conversation. Every day…he gave vent to impulsive and intemperate judgements.

The widespread notion that Churchill was a Germanophobe is undercut by his revulsion at the Tehran proposal, his disapprobation of unconditional surrender and the Morgenthau Plan, and gentlemanly statements such as

Germany should remain in the European family. Germany existed before the Gestapo!

The firebombing of Dresden (and other cities) is more difficult to excuse, and Hastings acknowledges that it was Churchill’s fault that bombings of civilians continued into 1945. But he insists it was by oversight that Churchill had not countermanded orders he had made in the heat of 1940 and 1941, in the context of the Blitz, “Coventration,” and the “Baedeker raids” by the Luftwaffe on non-strategic sites like Exeter and Canterbury.

Hastings also defends Churchill against accusations that he was indifferent to the plight of the Jews, pointing out that London was unaware of the death camps until late in the war, and that even when stories started to emerge, they had to be viewed as part of the wider horror — while, in any case, even the RAF could have accomplished nothing toward saving the inmates. Hastings has harsh words for those who think that Britain could have avoided entanglement in the war by allowing Germany and Russia to destroy each other. Such critics, he feels,

…ignore the practical difficulty of reaching a sustainable deal with the Nazi regime, and also adopt a supremely cynical insouciance towards its turpitude.

A lasting deal would not have been possible with a man who clearly could not be trusted, whatever friendly Berchtesgaden table talk may sometimes have occurred about the British and their empire. Had Hitler beaten the Soviets, he would have had vast new energy resources available to him and would have formed an alliance with Japan. Nothing could then have stopped the Axis from dominating Eurasia, and a deadly struggle with both Britain and the United States would inevitably have ensued. Perhaps Britain should not have guaranteed Poland’s frontiers; having done so, however, she had no choice but to fight, regardless of the consequences.

The many bad things that happened in Britain after her Pyrrhic victory were undoubtedly avoidable, and some of it occurred on Churchill’s watch, but by then he was too old and too tired to comprehend the full extent of Attlee’s fecklessness. As a peacetime prime minister, Churchill was like the Fighting Temeraire — an impressive but antiquated hulk, powerless to prevent his rudderless country from being towed to the breaker’s yard of history. Younger Conservatives ought to have stepped up to the mark, but they were smaller men, myopic and humdrum heirs to a bankrupt heritage, prisoners of choices made years before and increasingly representative of an angst-filled, levelling culture that made conservative values seem indefensible. Life, for the Macmillans, Lennox- Boyds, Maxwell-Fyfes, and Heaths, was less Renaissance pageant than refinancing packages; to these men, Churchill was Colonel Blimp, worthy of admiration but not of emulation.

Winston’s War covers overtrodden ground. Nonetheless, Max Hastings succeeds in reminding us, as the war generation’s flags are finally furled and put away, how things were, and how they seemed then to a uniquely engrossing and perfectly placed patriot, and how much we all still subsist in his debt and shadow.

This review appeared in Chronicles in September 2010, and is reproduced with kind permission


Homing in on England – Michael Wood’s The Story of England

Homing in on England

The Story of England—A Village and Its People Through the Whole of English History
Michael Wood, London: Penguin 440 pps, £20

Michael Wood begins with a quotation from Blake:

To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.

This line betokens his aim, which is to zero in on one small English place and use its specific saga to tell the wider 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 mon- ey, the author’s imagination, 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. Ro- mans 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; brosnaðenta 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 Germanic kings may have been “plunder-lords, deed-doers, ring givers,leaders of men,” who fought one another and fell on long-forgotten fields, 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 other visionaries. 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 the 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 insouciant 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 ironic 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? WHAT’S HIS NAME?

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 Montfort’s disjecta membra in 1264 would be barred in 1348 in a forlorn at- tempt 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 percent 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 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 coloured 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 excrable [sic.] 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 II 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 what we call “the left,” which famously in England “owes more to Methodism than Marxism.” The Lollards became Puritans became Quakers became Wesleyans became temperance campaigners became suffragettes became politically correct politicians.

Wood is arguably of that left, because he sees the island story through the prism of working people rather than courtly chronicles. The Independent’s Nick Groom applauded the author’s “democratic zeal.” Wood also evinces admiration for Engels and E.P. Thompson and their “great works.” But he is a liberal, in the positive English meaning of that word. He may be guilty of wishful thinking – but if so it is caused by quiet patriotism.

Ancient associations entrance. 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,” that the England of the early 11th century was “a diverse, multi-ethnic society,” and to accuse eleventh-century governments of “playing the race card.” He is clearly trying to rationalize 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 homed in on this, too, 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 magically gave everyone England appears to be undoing itself. The “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 II,

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.’

This is over-intellectualizing. The English fought like tigers mostly because they had no choice, but also because of imperialism admixed (contradictorily) with ‘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 forward against extraordinary odds. Whether they can continue to do so is a moot point, but to date at any rate Wood’s exercise in particularization is a success story.

This review appeared in Chronicles in January 2012, and is reproduced with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner


As I went walking down Broadway…

As I went walking down Broadway…

Cities, like men, are embodiments of the past and mirages of unfulfilled dreams

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Matrix of Man, 1968

The subway train clanked and screeched out of the darkness at last into stretched autumnal sunshine. I rattled northwards in an emptying carriage gazing down on nameless nondescript streets, and sometimes straight into ex-offices within which the same endeavours had probably been carried on from when the building had been erected in the early 20th century up until the last family firm member had locked up for the last time before heading out to suburban superannuation. There was a final rattle and squeal, a glare of water, and I was on the platform thirty feet above 225th Street watching the Bronx-bound train pull complainingly away.

Then I was down on the street, and the sun was bouncing back at me from off the River, and there were leaves turning to gold, and sparrows screaming in the tangled ironwork of the bridge. I was curiously aware of crowding ghosts – memories of the freebooters who had claimed this broad new territory for their crowded Netherlands, its proudly Protestant Stadtholder and their Dutch East India employers. My back was to the Bronx and Yonkers – to my right was Spuyten Duyvil Creek – below the bridge the Harlem River – and beyond the bridge, my chosen companion for the next 14 miles, the Heerestraat or Breede Weg of Nieuw Amsterdam which had gradually become the Broadway of New York.

I crossed the bridge and was back on the island, standing at Manhattan’s northern tip with the famous road already threatening to run away with me, diagonally down more than 200 blocks towards its glamorous terminus, where the tourists stand in lines for hours to board the boats that haul them across the harbour to where the huge, haloed woman holds up a torch to evoke opportunity and America.

Here at Broadway’s little known other end, in Inwood, the streets undulate – mostly down from Manhattan’s spine west towards the Hudson, but even Broadway buckling occasionally as if it can barely hold the topography in check. You get a sudden sense of the old Wickquasgeck Road that ran this way before the whites came.

A 1930s guide to New York said of Inwood,

Rivers and hills insulate a suburban community that is as separate as any in Manhattan

– a turn of phrase simultaneously redolent of security and the proximity of wilderness. Inwood is no longer insulated. The huddled masses of Mesoamerica have overflowed up here, reclaiming the island sold by their distant genetic kin in 1626 for 60 guilders (the agreement was concluded in what is now Inwood Hill Park) – and they have taken over from the Irish and Jewish prewar residents, some of whom must still live in the Art Deco apartment blocks, longing for gentrification.

Lately, the Mesoamericans have been joined by Muslims – all of them jumbled up together in a welter of squalid shops, parking lots, auto-body repair joints, bulldozed spaces where buildings once stood and the graffiti-tagged twisting iron ribbon of the subway track with its screeching stock. Here they are recreating Dominica, or increasingly Algeria, inside the shells of the Anglos’ edifices – selling things that only the most desperate or debased could desire.

In Inwood’s genteel west, they cling onto illusions – fragments of forest and saltmarsh, the Dutch colonial Dyckman House and views of The Cloisters, but east of Broadway Inwood is real and relevant, rich in nylon T-shirts and jogging bottoms, Day of the Dead decorations, plastic statues of the Virgin, latex Halloween masks in the form of multi-eyed Rastafarians or axe-cloven heads, pallid meat from sheep that would have died slowly swinging by their back legs as their throats were sliced open, and tremulous Thanksgiving thighs from the turkeys I saw standing bent-necked in bare metal cages, in a dank, dripping, excrement-ammoniac sub-hell populated by smoking, spitting, swarthy camp guards.

Judging from all the election posters that no-one had troubled to translate, the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano – seemingly sated with statesmanship at home – was making a determined play for control for the Sector Externo New York, while for the less public-spirited, layers of over-pasted posters advertised such all-American entertainments as Joe Veras, Toque Dequeda and El Negro. The badly lettered signs in some shop windows announcing “We Accept Food Stamp/Nosotros Aceptamos Cupones de Comida” showed that not all the Rockefellers-manqué had made it.

Great roads have their own logic and pace, and Broadway carried me on out of Dominica Externo into an intersectionland of traffic lights and offices, allowing short detours to examine enticements like the gleam of green at the pleasingly named Swindler Cove, or to watch a fat black traffic warden slumped on a doorstep trying to catch her breath after a gentle stroll, buying a Coke from an African couple pushing a presumably purloined supermarket trolley piled high with Coke cans – where had they got those? I itched to make a citizen’s arrest.

By the time I got down to around 197th, Catholicism-cum-Santeria had given way grudgingly (with occasional relapses) to Judaism. Cohen’s Gentle Dental was advertised by a smiling tooth wearing blue boots, yarmulke-sporting students asked me for directions to the yeshiva, and an ancient scowling man with a twisted back and a smell of rancid clothes took time out from gathering bundles of free newspapers to ask in a heavy Yiddish accent if I could give him a dollar for the bus.

Then Judaism gave way to a braggart non-conformism, with the “Rev Ike” on every Sunday at 2.45pm at the Christ United Church, in what looked like a 1930s cinema – a suitably hideous setting for such a must-miss missionary.

There was no such vulgarity at 155th, where there was set an Episcopalian church in grandly Gothic style to convey the impression of hyperboreal antiquity – set in a neat little garden of well-behaved grass and upright tombstones marking the remains of upright people, with a tasteful sign advertising decorous services to passers-by who would probably prefer to watch the Rev Ike. All New York Episcopalian churches give the same impression of good. gloomy Gotham taste combined with deadness.

Rather than either Ike or Episc, I would always prefer the most joyful sight of the whole walk – a harsh scream above the cars, outstretched claws and a blur of azure, as a blue jay hurled itself argumentatively into a tree in the middle of the road, like its ancestors had been doing hereabouts long before even Wickquasgeck.

I was surprised to notice that the iron gratings on the drains had “Made in India” stamped on them – as I had earlier noticed that almost all Big Apple souvenirs are manufactured in China. But then New York now has an increasingly tenuous relationship with America – let alone the Europeans who founded the city and the country the city once represented. The little man who sat mending clothes in the window below a shop sign advertising “Nordic Cleaners” may well have been a cleaner, but he was no Nordic – and it suddenly occurred to me I had not noticed any Nordics for hours.

And so I passed interestedly across the island, past huge buildings of the strictly functional type so admired by Ayn Rand, and handsome ones in pastiches of European styles, like the American Geographical Society, which looked like it had been plucked from South Kensington – an institution whose staff no longer need to venture far in search of exotica.

At 116th was the little proud universe of Columbia University, where future leaders lolled confidently before neo-classical porticoes, and security guards spoke into handsets below statues presented by the well-rounded sounding 1890 Class of Arts & Mines. By now, Broadway had become more or less tame, because more familiar. Even the topography had flattened out, as if the road was feeling weighed down by buildings that grew steadily taller, and the rare shop windows were selling such essential items as Halloween costumes for dogs. By the time I had reached Columbus Circle, the effigy of the robed discoverer looked absurdly puny against the bulk of the buildings.

There was welcome green relief of London plane trees at 107th with the tiny triangle of Straus Park, named in honour of the Macy’s founder – with its sad 1913 memorial to Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who insisted on staying aboard the Titanic to drown with her husband.

Lovely and pleasant were their lives, and in death they were not divided

runs the inscription from the Book of Samuel, below an unsuitably languid Art Nouveau female bronze. Civilized-looking people sat on benches and read books while traffic thundered past just a few feet away – the racket muffled somehow by the trees.

At Times Square, the neons were blazing details of fizzy drinks and frothy shows, and Broadway heaved with technology-hung drifters wearing refugee chic of T-shirts, anoraks and jeans – the lackadaisical livery of individualists everywhere. Even the mixed-sex, multicultural and frankly unfit-looking police in Times Square seemed to be falling out of their uniforms – the antithesis of the tall stern Irish cops of yore.

But there were more focused presences – an orange-tabarded trade union demonstration, hundreds of capable-looking men bearing placards reading “Proud to be Union”, who looked extraordinarily out of place in this epicenter of indulgence. And there was an even more surprising irruption, as with a Harley-Davidson howl bounced back from the buildings, Broadway was captured briefly by 70-80 bikers, all young black men, helmetless, some wearing rubber gorilla masks, coming at speed into the Square, led by three riders abreast doing wheelies as they stared about arrogantly, like a combination of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes. The police gaped, normal traffic scrambled to the side and phone-cameras were flashed by weakly-grinning watchers who did not realize that this was intended as intimidation, a play for dominance and a defiance of the cops – who indeed had no time to respond before the phalanx had passed out of sight, if not out of hearing. Two minutes after the rumbling bikes had gone, a lone police car headed off in insincere pursuit, its thin siren a gnat-noise compared to the ruckus of the riders.

Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) liked New York, particularly Broadway, although chiefly only by comparison with the rest of America, which she eviscerated in her dyspeptic 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans. Even while lavishing praise, she could not resist a waspish aside:

This noble street may vie with any I ever saw, for its length and breadth, its handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent trottoir, and well-dressed pedestrians…If it were not for the peculiar manner of walking, which distinguishes all American women, Broadway might be taken for a French street.

She was less susceptible to Broadway’s thespian amusements, saying of the non bon ton Chatham Theatre:

I observed in the front row of a dress box a lady performing the most maternal office possible, several gentlemen without their coats, and a general air of contempt for the decencies of life, certainly more than usually revolting.

I wondered what she would make of Broadway now. She might have enjoyed the “farmers’ market” in Union Square – not real farmers but organic campaigners, but bringing a glad smell of hinterland to the city’s over-angular heart. The closer one gets to Wall Street, there is a semblance of civilization in the shape of well-dressed bankers (although Mrs. Trollope would have loathed their employment) and there are a few buildings that would have been standing when she was in the city – including the Dutch-gabled “Deutsches Haus” ar Washington Square (so human-scale I wanted to touch it), the Fraunces Tavern and St Paul’s Chapel.

She probably entered the Trinity Church that then stood on the site of today’s well-mannered building, and would have curled her lip superciliously at the orthography on Obadiah Hunt’s monument, who had died in 1760 at 84 –

From Birmingham in Warwick Shire With his wife Susannah from Credley in Heartford Shire In Oldingland

These Oldinglish are lost in the graveyard loam, along with Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton, thousands of remains banked up behind a restraining wall that looms over passers-by oblivious to the proximity of so many predeceased.

Even the generally nil admirari Mrs. Trollope might have been quietly moved in St Paul’s Chapel, where 9/11 is still raw to the touch. The first time I had been in St Paul’s had been during my first visit to New York, just a month after the attacks, when every surface was covered with photographs of the terrible day, portraits of missing people, anguished appeals for information, ribbons, flowers, flags and pieces of dead firemen’s uniforms. Even my non-American eyes had been pricking, and it had been strangely hard to swallow, as a group of teenagers came together as an impromptu choir, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner with tears streaming unashamedly down their fresh faces.

After nine years, the Chapel still has a similar capacity to move strangers, with its folk art 18th century US Seal above Washington’s Pew, a crudely lettered banner reading


and its permanent display of photographs and a fireman’s uniform surmounted by a police helmet, almost hidden beneath badges donated by emergency services from across the world – recalling those amazing weeks when almost the entire world felt, like Le Monde, that “We Are All Americans”.

Just behind the Chapel lies a sere bone-yard of smashed and standing stones, old trees that outlived the WTC, and a bronze cast of the root system of one tree that did not. Just across the road, Ground Zero sits and steams, while cranes hoist huge girders in pursuance of a vast rebuilding that feels like it will never be complete.

On again I went at last, the road running away with me again, compelling me to finish what I had started – backwards through American history between cliffs of glass and the Canyon of Heroes. Then at last I came to Battery Park and Castle Clinton and beyond a wideness of sky and Bay. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine da Verrazano’s ship tacking up the reach to anchor off the wooded island, the first of many to realize the potential of this prize. What he set in motion in 1524 would reach its denouement for the Alonquians in 1626, for the Dutch in 1664, for the British in 1783, and if the northern end of Broadway was anything to go by, might someday see the overthrow of the Anglos.

Straight ahead, several miles away, Liberty’s vast verdigris virgin was framed perfectly by mooring posts topped by seagulls. Crowds of other travellers were there in the park at the end of the road, talking, laughing and photographing each other with the statue as clichéd backdrop. I took my own to prove that I too had been there, and as a coda to my Broadway album. Suddenly tired, I sat down for the first time in seven hours and stared out across the storied waters, dreaming of arrivals and departures.

This article appeared in Chronicles in October 2011, under the title of “An Englishman in New York”, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner


Soulcraft as leechcraft – A. N. Wilson’s Our Times

Soulcraft as Leechcraft

Our Times: The Age of Elizabeth II

A.N. Wilson, New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 496 pp. $30.00

The photographs on the jacket of Our Times provide a pointed reminder that the British past is not just another country but another continent.

The newly crowned Queen looks self-conscious yet confident in Cecil Beaton’s celebrated photograph of 1953, holding the sceptre and orb of state in steady hands, her slender frame enveloped in ermine and brocade, on her head the crown of the monarchs of England, set there by the Archbishop of Canterbury during a rite harking back to King Edgar. Behind her is a receding prospect of fanes and flags, numinous light pouring through the medieval tracery to pick out the arches of Westminster Abbey studded with the banners of Britain’s hereditary peerage.

The photograph beneath shows the Queen in her 80s—still elegant and dignified but wrinkled, weary, and wary-looking, haunted, perhaps, by what Britain has become while she looked on, nominally in charge but actually almost helpless.

Our Times is the concluding part of a trilogy, following The Victorians (2002) and After the Victorians (2005). It is an entertaining, evenhanded, unsentimental, usually compelling popular history that combines solid research and skillful storytelling with apropos anecdotes, catty animadversions, and some audacious assertions.

The Coronation, with its near-mystical mélange of young woman and redolent racial symbols, inspired polemics about how splendiferous things would be under Good Queen Bess the Second. The preeminent example of this short-lived genre, Philip Gibbs’ New Elizabethans (1953), expresses the view that the Hakluyts, Drakes, and Shakespeares of the future were even then being born in hygienic hospitals, educated in new, comprehensive schools with big windows to let in the light of truth, and employed for life in state-of-the-art factories. Nothing, Gibbs and others intimated, could prevent a new Anglo-Saxon Protestant upsurge of innovation and derring-do. Instead, as Wilson notes, Elizabeth’s reign has been the one “in which Britain effectively stopped being British.”

He cites multifarious causes and effects—mass immigration, loss of religious faith, neglect of traditions, a decline in deference, the European Union, “tinkering with the constitution,” globalization, family breakdown, “worship of things and products,” devolution, and “the virtual dissolution” of the Church of England. A pivotal political development was the Suez debacle of 1956, when the United Kingdom’s powerlessness vis-à-vis the United States was made shockingly plain.

Wilson sees the Britain of 1953 as an “awful place” in many ways and acknowledges subsequent improvements in technology, medicine, personal freedom, wealth, and choice. But he rues the profounder, subtler changes—

For T.S. Eliot, we had Andrew Motion; for Winston Churchill, we had Jacqui Smith.

Our Times commences with an ingenious discussion of The Lord of the Rings, with Tolkien’s great vistas of passing grandeur colliding with a new literature of “perky, cheeky chappies” like Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and John Braine. This new literature stemmed from the fact that, somehow, many Britons had simply stopped believing in the moral worth of their civilization and country. All institutions, traditions, and conventions had become attainted or ludicrous. The growing influence of Foucault and his followers was accompanied by a bombardment of criticism and ridicule, emanating from Royal Commissions as much as Monty Python. Aristocracy, aesthetics, patriotism, conservatism, even old buildings—all were exposed as mere prejudices, and prejudices had caused history’s wars, persecuted inoffensive homosexuals, and kept women in the kitchen. Even those bastions supposed to be most supportive of “tribal magic” were overthrown by a mood of sullenness mixed with satire. Michael Ramsey, the archbishop of Canterbury who, as bishop of Durham, had stood beside the young Queen as she intoned her oaths into the enchanted hush of the abbey, said after his retirement,

I hate the Church of England . . . it would not be a grief to me to wake up and find that the English establishment was no more.

But the die had been cast long before 1953, as scientific determinism and “open society” ideologies edged out faith and custom. There is a certain shambling inevitability about Wilson’s unfolding narrative of politicians, economists, academics, cultural arbiters, and technocrats—many intelligent, many sincere—slouching toward Gomorrah more or less at the mercy of what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events.” None was ever fully in command, or realized what was happening, even after it had happened. Wilson concludes,

Attempts to draw up an order of prime ministerial incompetence during the period . . . would be invidious.

Even Churchill did nothing; he was typified in his redundancy by his 1954 decision that, although it mattered hugely, it was “too soon” to take action on immigration. But he had at least been a great man, whereas Eden was merely “the only male British Prime Minister known to have varnished his fingernails . . . and the best-looking person of either sex to occupy that office during our period.” Wilson heaps up whole Alps of bitchy and scornful commentary and aside. Liberalizing home secretary Roy Jenkins was “puffed-up, pompous and vacuous.” The “stubborn and weirdly disengaged” Heath’s chancellor Anthony Barber reminds Wilson of “a man playing the vicar in a suburban amateur dramatics society.” Lord Mountbatten was “an elderly popinjay, with his offensively arrogant manners and his fondness for naval ratings.” Wilson even accuses Mountbatten of allowing a million people to die during India’s partition because he was more interested in attending the Queen’s wedding than in attending to his viceregal responsibilities. It is passing strange that there should have been such mismanagement during the era that saw the arrival of the career politician.

Wilson exonerates the Queen of blame, although he feels she could have exerted influence in relation to the Church of England and the ennoblement of “scoundrels” by prime ministers. He hopes for more political courage from the Prince of Wales, almost the only person for whom Wilson has no barbed remark.

Wilson is excellent in describing how churches emptied, communities came apart, and crime skyrocketed because too few people in authority felt sure enough to make a stand, and those who did (and do) were (and are) undermined by others in authority, and by “events.” This disintegration has had a massive psychic effect on Great Britain. Europe’s prosperity has always had an aftertaste of angst; Wilson likens today’s Britain to a banquet during which a sudden silence descends, giving diners the dyspeptic feeling that all is not well.

Raymond Baxter's words seem at odds with his real feelings

Intuiting this, recent governments have tried clumsily to promote new “values” derived from the philosophies à la mode — secularism, human rights, classlessness, internationalism, and relativism. They have also tried, halfheartedly, to control the more exuberant manifestations of social alienation—the muggings, drive-by shootings, and race riots of the inner cities, and, more recently, terrorist acts emanating not from Helmand madrasas but Yorkshire schools. When these proved largely intractable, the authorities turned their attention to the middle classes’ smoking, drinking, eating, and driving habits, or gun ownership, or white-collar crime, or ‘offensive’ sentiments. The period under discussion has accordingly seen the rise in Britain of anarcho-tyranny — the bipolar state as incompetent as it is intrusive.

Wilson is highly respected for his knowledge of 19th-century literature, but rather laughed at for his highly public theological tergiversations (Anglican ordinand, Roman Catholic, Anglican, atheist, and, as of April last year, Anglican) and feuds (in his new book, he renews an old grudge against his literary rival Bevis Hillier). He often writes for effect in Our Times—and sometimes misfires. For example, he compares the launch of the First Crusade in 1095 with—drum roll—Keith Joseph speaking on monetarism to Preston Conservatives. There is evidence of hastiness. Wilson writes “diffusing” when he means “defusing” and “disciplines” for “disciples.” He alludes to “the greatest historian of Berlin” without vouchsafing his identity, and once puts “married clergy” when he means “celibate clergy.”

Serious cavils include stating that intelligence agencies precipitated the Iraq war, whereas As Any Fule Kno it had more to do with politicians who wished the world to conform to their postmodern pattern book. He finds Blair “essentially conservative,”and even compares him with Burke for reforming rather than revolutionizing the House of Lords. He has a camp fixation with Princess Diana—whom he considers also “essentially conservative” for her role in “democratizing” the monarchy. After acknowledging that mass immigration has been, and will probably continue to be, problematic, he claims that Enoch Powell was motivated mostly by “the desire to cut a dash,” that his plans to stop immigration would have been “cruel and brutal,” and even implies that Powell was deranged. It seems ungracious so to dismiss one of the very few politicians of the period who really wanted to do something for his country (although, as we know, he never did). And of course, like most conservatives, Wilson is much more interested in describing than prescribing; there are no positive suggestions as to how we might even yet recover from the bumbling leechcraft that has brought a self-confident nation-state to teeter on the cusp of dissolution.

Our Times will be of considerable utility to anyone seeking to gain a rounded view of the past 50 years in Britain, and to understand how, through mistakes more than malice, Britain has arrived in such strange and disconcerting circumstances. A half-century hence, the book will be an interesting period piece for the inconceivable country of 2060, a record of how early 21st century people of taste reacted to decades of quietly revolutionary events— reacted, but failed ever to respond.

The review appeared in Chronicles in May 2010, and is reproduced with kind permission. Photo of Raymond Baxter by Derek Turner

Sympathetic magic – Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die

Sympathetic Magic

Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World
Barbara Ehrenreich, London: Granta, 256 pp., £10.99

Endorsements by Christopher Hitchens and Nora Ephron do not inspire confidence in Smile or Die. Nor does Barbara Ehrenreich’s website, with its list of soporific- sounding previous publications, which includes Long March, Short Spring: The Student Uprising at Home and Abroad and Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers. Her enumerated interests also threaten tedium—healthcare, peace, women’s rights, and economic justice. But despite these contraindications, and despite the fact that the author fires wide of the most obvious target, Smile or Die contrives to be both worthwhile and original.

America is regarded, and regards herself, as a “can-do” country where almost anything is achievable, and everyone can aspire to “the American dream.” As Ehrenreich states,

In the well-worn stereotype, we are upbeat, cheerful, optimistic, and shallow, while foreigners are likely to be subtle, world-weary, and possibly decadent.

Like all stereotypes, this one contains a degree of truth. In all kinds of ways, from rapturous religiosity and utopian philosophies to cheerleading and effusive customer service, there are smiley-face stigmata across all of American life. Europeans do tend to be less demonstrative, less likely to  have religious faith, less patriotic, and less likely to affect interest in the clients we secretly despise. For some of us at least, enthusiasm retains its older connotations.

The Founding Fathers were acutely conscious of history, and their republican idealism was tempered by cultural memories of the fate of Rome and of more recent European discontents. But as the 19th century galloped headlong toward the “American Century,” social mobility, economic growth, and the sense of possibility offered by the frontier persuaded Americans that, if they worked hard enough, they could achieve virtually anything. Territorial acquisitions, waxing military might typified by Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet,” and a rejection of dour Calvinism made many Americans believe in manifest destiny— and there seemed no obvious reason why America should not continue climbing the upward way.

From out of individualistic prosperity came new theories of psychology and personality, and “New Thought” cults like Transcendentalism and Christian Science, that insisted on self-esteem and offered opportunities for self-improvement. In parts of Europe there were comparable phenomena, but they were always counterbalanced by conservatism and the sheer fact of living in geographically and culturally constrained territories.

A belief became slowly predominant in American business, medicine, and religion (and politics, of which more later) that “optimism improves health, personal efficacy, confidence, and resilience.” There is a complementary superstition that negativity—which Mary Baker Eddy dubbed “malicious animal magnetism”— has a countervailing effect. One “New Age physicist” cited in the book believes that “the mind is actually shaping the very thing that is being perceived.”

Ehrenreich also cites the charming recommendation given by a best-selling “self- help” screed, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind:

Identify a situation or a person who is a downer in your life. Remove yourself from that situation or association. If it’s family, choose to be around them [sic] less.

Ehrenreich first developed an interest in positive thinking through the discovery that she had breast cancer. By this misfortune, she had fortuitously located

an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before—one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.

She was surprised, and offended, to keep coming across the same advice: be positive. It was almost as if having the right attitude were as important as having the right medical treatment. As a woman of intelligence and taste (not to mention considerable medical knowledge), she felt profoundly insulted to be offered psychic pabulum—bromides, exhortations, and a “breast cancer teddy bear.”

I didn’t mind dying, but the idea that I should do so while clutching a teddy and with a sweet little smile on my face—no amount of philosophy had prepared me for that.

She shakes her head in sympathetic wonderment at sufferers like cyclist Lance Armstrong, who declared, “Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me.” False cheerfulness in the face of illness is, the author feels, more beneficial for family members than for the sufferers, who must conceal their natural anger and fear and make the considerable effort of maintaining the requisite inanely cheerful façade. Positive thinking is hard work at the best of times, requiring continual self- evaluation and causing guilt when it fails to effect change (in these respects, a little like the Calvinism it rose to oppose). When their condition deteriorates, some cancer sufferers will blame themselves for having “a negative attitude.” Far from being an aid to healing, for some patients it may be an effort too far at a time when they need all their resources and faculties.

Positive thinking has also been transmuted into the “prosperity gospel,” preached by “pastorpreneurs” in mega-churches empty of all discomfiting reminders of sin, sacrifice (most lack even crosses), or Hell. The author quotes a televangelist, Joyce Meyer:

I believe that more than any other thing, our attitude is what determines the kind of life we are going to have.

Economics has always been as much a delusional science as a dismal one. From the South Sea Bubble and “tulipomania” in the 18th century all the way to today’s pyramid salesmen and bankers, there has always been a substantial minority of otherwise sensible people willing to suspend disbelief when presented with a sufficiently plausible get-rich-quick scheme. Thousands of charlatans cater to our avarice and naiveté, making millions by telling others that they can make millions by pinning up pictures of dollar bills and chanting repulsive mantras like the one Ehrenreich mentions:

I admire rich people!

I bless rich people!

I love rich people!

And I’m going to be one of those rich people too!

As the author points out, this is little more than primitive ‘sympathetic magic’, a species of fetishism that would not be out of place amongst Papuans. There is a strong conceptual connection between this private foolishness and the public foolishness that made supposedly shrewd economists believe, pre-2008, that the boom would never go “boom!”

Many large corporations have embraced positive thinking, realizing it encourages dedication to the creation of wealth, causing employees to think of themselves as sales representatives, even if they are not. In one nasty case recorded by the author, an employee was actually subjected to waterboarding pour encourager les autres. He was taken outside, ordered to lie on his back with his head pointing downhill, and held in place while the supervisor poured water into his nose and mouth. Afterwards, the supervisor said,

You saw how hard Chad fought for air right there. I want you to go back inside and fight that hard to make sales!

For middle-class employees, positive thinking has increasingly become “a substitute for former affluence and security,” with counseling, motivation and “team- building” exercises used to cover up modern corporations’ lack of commitment to quality, customers, or communities.

Ehrenreich makes a promising start when she brings the discussion around to politics. She shows how the Pollyannaish neoconservative projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused by geopolitical ignorance and wishful thinking combined with sycophancy, and cites Condoleezza Rice’s remark about George W. Bush:

[T]he President almost demanded optimism. He didn’t like pessimism, hand-wringing or doubt.

When it came to Iraq, the “reality-based community” was (and is) sidelined. Brilliantly skewered—but then her argument goes badly adrift. Although she acknowledges that positive thinking can raise its hideous head anywhere, “[e]ven on the liberal news site the Huffington Post,” she makes the cardinal mistake of assuming that positive thinking is a right-of-center phenomenon:

The real conservatism of positive psychology lies in its attachment to the status quo, with all its inequalities and abuses of power

In fact, positive thinking runs directly counter to genuine conservatism. From Plato to The Anatomy of Melancholy, from Baltasar Gracián (who sought the “dis-illusionment” of men) to Samuel Johnson (“most schemes of political improvement are laughable things”) and Ronald Reagan (“Trust, but verify”), down to John Derbyshire’s recently published We’re All Doomed, genuine conservatives have always been profoundly pessimistic, sol- idly skeptical, and acutely aware of human limitations. In fact, they often err so far in this direction that their pessimism becomes a vice, producing an “uncertain trumpet” that few people are inspired to follow.

The real self-delusionists are Ehrenreich’s ever-gullible allies on the political left, whose views are based on the most flagrant ignorance of human nature and rejection of reality. It is the left, not the right, that is responsible for egalitarianism, socialism, welfarism, “anti-sexism,” tolerance of crime, mass immigration, multiculturalism, and so-called ethical foreign policies. Historically speaking, it is only in the last ten minutes or so that some on the right have moved into this barren territory.

This myopia on the part of its author turns what might otherwise have been a forensic classic like Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds or The Revolt of the Masses into something very much blander. Smile or Die is a partial analysis of a noteworthy phenomenon.

This review appeared in Chronicles in August 2010, and is reproduced with kind permission


With Wallenstein in High Germany

With Wallenstein in High Germany

It is a small town in Bavaria, and it is at least 32 degrees C. The camera weighs heavy in my hands, and I can feel speckles of sweat accumulating beneath my black rucksack, as it soaks up the sun like a square and sinister sponge. All around us are people similarly suffering, but good-tempered withal – a Sol-worshiping Mare Germanicum of blonds and blondes as far as we can see in all directions. They, too, have cameras (and speckles of sweat), and they, too, are looking along the road in the same direction. As the vehicle comes around the corner beside the Elefanten-Apotheke, dozens of fingers depress camera buttons, and an admiring “Ooh!” can be heard from the finger-chewing children.

There is a large horse pulling the heavy covered cart, a hairy-hoofed behemoth like an English shire horse, or the steed of the famous Bamberger Reiter. It is not this magnificent beast that has elicited the response, however, but its yoke-mate, a massive ox, its cable-like muscles surging beneath its supple and shiny skin, as he and his equine assistant take the strain of all that wood, together with the weight of the four men who sit inside, clad in the most festive fashions of the first half of the 17th century. “It is the Prince of Denmark!” a black-clad woman announces excitedly through a microphone, to the enthusiastic applause and excited chatter of engrossed Bayerische families.

And then the characteristic noise of the parade bursts out again, as yet more pike-hefting mercenaries pass along the road, to the hackle-raising, foot-tapping accompaniment of massed fifes and drums (and occasional bagpipes). We have been hearing this noise all weekend, interspersed with musket- and cannon-fire, as some 5,000 re-enactors crowd into Memmingen for the quadrennial evocation of the summer of 1630, when all of Europe was drowning in denominational ichor, and the great Habsburg general Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein was uneasily encamped outside the town.

Here comes the man himself – in plain, black armour, his visor down, riding with his sable escort, their lances fluttering with pennons. It must be uncomfortable in that armour today, as it must have been uncomfortable to have been in the real Wallenstein’s skin during those dreadful Thirty Years in which around one third of all Germans (estimates vary wildly) were slaughtered and Wallenstein’s fortunes ebbed and flowed according to the vagaries of Emperor Ferdinand’s Holy Roman temperament.

Wallenstein (with his great fellow general, Tilly) had proved his worth to the Catholic cause time and again as Bavarians, Prussians, Mecklenburgers, Holsteiners, Austrians, Moravians, Danes, Swedes, Spaniards, French, and Poles – and their proxies – all surged repetitiously and confusingly north and south through Europe, at such battles as Lübeck (1629), after which the Danes had sued for peace. But in the summer of 1630, Wallenstein was about to be dismissed under suspicion of disloyalty, and the Swedish Protestant vanguard was ranging southward as the Catholic forces fell back in disarray deep into Habsburg territory. The people of Memmingen – which had been a Protestant town since 1522 – must have wondered what Wallenstein was planning and worried what his army might do to an heretical town in the center of a continent in chaos.

In the event, Wallenstein simply went away again, following his mar- tial star back northward. He was recalled to the Catholic colours in 1631 after the death of Tilly, but the following year was defeated by the Swedes at Lützen (although their king, Gustavus Adolphus, died in the battle). As if this were not bad enough, he was now under suspicion again of plotting with the Protestants and seeking to usurp the Habsburg throne. His enemies highlighted the fact that Wallenstein had been born Protestant (although he had converted in his 20s), his wealth and influence (even Ferdinand owed him money), his modest Bohemian lower-nobility roots, and his possession of a large private army as reasons why the emperor should not trust him. Their slanders (or well-founded insinuations) operated all too successfully on Ferdinand, and in 1634 Wallenstein was charged with high treason. He lost the support of his soldiers and fled to find sanctuary with the Swedes. At Eger (now Cheb, in what is now the Czech Republic), dragoons under the command of Scottish and Irish officers killed Wallenstein’s few remaining followers while they were dining. A few hours later, an English captain named Walter Devereux broke into Wallenstein’s bedroom in the middle of the night and ran his sword through the un- armed, entreating general. It was a sad and shabby reward for sterling service, even seen against the backdrop of those decades.

But the history that must have been so vile at first hand has transmuted into a joyous pageant, when seen at a distance of almost 380 years in time and from aeons away in degrees of religious commitment. The memory of the Thirty Years War is now an excuse for respectable Germans to doff their Hugo Boss suits and don handmade 17th-century-style garments in a bewildering range of styles and tastefully muted colors.

So back in 1630, here they come again, role-playing reactionaries all, along toward the 15th-century Rathaus, fifes and drums going again – the tramping and profane ghosts of 400 years ago realized in the persons of sweating Swabian accountants, wilting Westphalian bank managers, and melting Memminger mechanics.

Here, mingling with the flamboyant princelings and somber tacticians, are modern men and women with mortgages and cradle-to-grave healthcare, in the guise of lancers, uhlans, halberdiers, bombardiers, fusiliers, musketeers, arquesbusiers, crossbowmen, pikemen, farriers, gunsmiths, cooks, sutlers, tinkers, falconers, acrobats, dancers, contortionists, jugglers, tumblers, troubadours, clergymen, dwarves, wives, and children – followed by the wounded, by lepers, beggars, deserters, drunks, thieves, and female “field mattresses.” Some 60 Englishmen from the Civil War-reenacting Sealed Knot Society are also in Memmingen today. (Later that day, I would overhear one luxuriantly whiskered man who looked eminently Germanic saying to someone in a homely Cockney accent, “Sorry, I don’t spreche the German.” Such exchanges must also have taken place in 1630, when High Germany was the stomping ground for all of Europe’s ardent spirits and many of her reprobates.) There are even – an exotic but probably authentic touch – a few “Hungarian” hussars, as if just arrived from the Great Plain, wearing fur hats or exotic, almost Oriental-looking armor, riding small but tough ponies, blowing horns as they come, wielding falcons on their wrists.

The troopers bear a forest of vanished, vaunting vexillography, the shadowy chivalry of eclipsed or extinct families – crosses and chalices, crowns, stars, trees, swords, shields, fantastic animals, and of course the Wittelsbach blue-and-white. This is much more than a fancy-dress party; those in the procession all look wonderfully at home, congruous and dignified, as if merely putting on the clothes and coming together has turned them into different people. They walk as if they know they belong somewhere in space and time – participants in a völkisch festival so uncommercialized that you cannot even buy postcards of the parades. Their comfortableness is a reminder of how close they are, not to that period, but to the people of that period. The expressive faces in the long files, whether burly cannon loaders or pretty dancers, could have been copied from medieval German paintings by such Bavarian masters as Dürer or Altdorfer. There is a fitness and familiarity about their physiognomies that blurs the barriers between then and now. Men who look like that 20-stone gunner in his black buckled hat and striped hose are probably now serving with NATO in Afghanistan, maybe hefting shells to bombard the mujahideen just as an Hungarian army including a young captain called Wallenstein once saluted oncoming Ottomans with cannonades.

Before and after the parades, there are craft demonstrations – hatters, printers, paper makers, coppersmiths, silversmiths, gunmakers, tanners, cobblers, candle makers – and, below the surviving medieval fortifications, sprawling tented encampments which only appropriately attired people are allowed to enter, on pain of being ducked in a waiting water butt. These encampments are lit only by firelight and lanterns and heated only by fires, and laughing children are being tossed in blankets or climbing trees in bare feet, while their parents laugh and carouse around the hearth and play guitars and flutes, singing such 17th-century standards as “Wenn die Landsknechts trinken” (“When the Mercenaries Drink”) or “Das Leben ist ein Würfelspiel” (“Life Is a Game of Dice”), or watch puppet-theatre performances of folk tales that long predate even the lost summer of 1630.

All around the edge of the encampments are heaving beer tents and wurst stalls, selling Fleisch of questionable but tantalizing taxonomy. Every evening, there are events – the Lagerspiele, or camp entertainments, a mélange of dulcimers and dancing, hurdy-gurdys and human pyramids and fixedly smiling gymnasts whose spinal columns can describe S-shapes. Arguably even better are the Reiterspiele, or riding demonstrations – with quintain tilting, jousting, picking things up from the ground in mid-gallop, wooden pig-sticking and bareback riding at top speed, while fighting off “opponents” or leaping across a trench of fire.

The town is suffused with the seductive smells of cooking meat and woodsmoke, and the sweet tang of horse dung, while pipers and drummers march and countermarch constantly through town, the drumming shaking the windows, the fifes shrilling thrillingly. Singing and shouting goes on till the small hours, when the last few cheery drunks subside, only to start early again the next day, while last night’s heroes snore heavily on open- air palliasses as horses walk gingerly around their heads. But no one minds the noise or the hangovers, because it is safe and never rowdy, because it is only for a week every four years, and, besides, everyone here is part of an inchoate conspiracy of consanguinity and culture.

When the Wallensteinfest ends, Memmingen is suddenly sad and dull. Through some black anti-magic, the oxcarts have turned into Skodas, the pikemen have reverted to being builders or traffic wardens, and the tented encampment where we drank beer while we drank in the atmosphere is revealed as wholly false, with the modern lights stripped of their kindly hessian disguises, and just pale circles to show where tents of roisterers once stood, and charred circles to show the sites of their hearths. It is once again just a quadrangle of municipal park, with flower beds of annuals running rapidly to seed.

The townspeople seem half relieved and half sorry to be given back the town they loaned, heaving a sigh as they roll up the shutters of their shops, while all the shimmering roads towards the prosaic north are chock-a-block with trailer-hauling BMWs driven by Franzs or Lieselottes, and populated by children once again more concerned with Playstations than with pikes. It’s back to the offices, the schools, the credit-card bills, and the mass-produced furniture, the PVC-framed windows and the television – but also to baths and beds, pensions and good food, in immaculate suburbs where it doesn’t matter too much if your neighbour is a Catholic or a Lutheran.

It has been a very enjoyable game, but much more than a game: it has been an affirmation of Bavaria’s zealously preserved personality, and a salute to fine people of different denominations who stood and died almost 400 years ago for reasons we can scarcely now recall.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in July 2009, under the title “A Living Past”, and is reproduced with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner

Leicester – the arrhythmic heart of England

Leicester – the arrhythmic heart of England

The city of Leicester is about as far from the sea as one can get in England. But one sweltering August day, when everyone else was heading down to the beaches, we were driving in the opposite direction so that I could fill in a long-troubling gap on my mental map of England. I had wanted to go to Leicester not just because I had never been there, but for a much more important reason – because it is projected to be the first city in England that will become majority-ethnic minority.

As we progressed west, the land got warmer, as if we were driving into a moderate oven. Marshland became wolds, wolds fens, and fens the gently rolling Vale of Belvoir, Stilton-making and fox-hunting country, dominated by its neo-Gothic castle. We skirted the untidy edge of Melton Mowbray, the official home of the pork pie, and so on along increasingly congested roads into an unprepossessing Leicester city centre.

We disembarked in a multistory car- park on Abbey Street, which commemorates the vanished Augustinian foundation of St. Mary of the Meadows, where Cardinal Wolsey arrived on the morning of November 26, 1530, telling the no doubt flustered abbot, “I am come to leave my bones among you”—which was astute of him, because he died that night. The abbey itself would not outlast him long.

John Wycliffe had previously left his bones in the county, George Fox would be born in Leicestershire some time later, and the industrious local Baptist missionary William Carey (1760-1834) translated the Bible into 40 Indian dialects. Leicestershire has an unusual concentration of former religious sites – and retained a reputation for religiosity up to the 19th century, when Leicester was “the metropolis of dissent.” It may be not just the centre of England but the centre of Christian England.

The map machine digested a pound coin without disgorging the map. So far, very unpromising – but a helpful woman showed us where we needed to go, and the city started to reveal its character.

A hideous but handy Victorian clock tower marks the city’s center, from which wide, pedestrianized streets hosting the usual brands radiate in all directions. But one can discern handsome frontages above the 60s to 80s plate glass and plastic brand-name signage – the legacy of architects informed by taste, who had designed and built to last. Looking along the streets we saw glints of arts and crafts, Tudorbethan, and neoclassical, and a couple of spires to make the feet fidget. I had to keep telling myself I was here on a kind of mission, to see what effects immigration was having on the city, and what might be at stake as the city’s indigenous population voluntarily relinquished control over its ancient territory.

This significant event is scheduled for as early as this year, according to figures from the former Commission for Racial Equality based on ethnic minority growth between the censuses of 1991 and 2001. These figures have been disputed by academics at the University of Manchester, who point out that minority members also leave the city. One may disagree with the schedule, but no one disputes the general direction of travel.

There had been a little immigration into Leicester before the war – it was the second-richest city in Europe in 1936 – but it became a major destination for Asians from the 1960s onward, to fill actual vacancies and projected “skills shortages” in the factories turning out hosiery, footwear, and engine components. Soon afterward, many of these factories became outmoded and closed or moved overseas, leaving behind not just workless indigenes but thousands of unassimilated immigrants with high birthrates, high levels of welfare dependency, and low levels of academic achievement. In Leicester, as in so many other places in England, evanescent economic considerations won out over long- term thinking—and the demographic die was cast. The city’s motto of Semper Eadem(“Always the same”) was destined to become an historical irony. One can only speculate what the factory owners and local politicians of the 1950s would think of the present and future they inadvertently shaped.

In recent years, Asian immigration has slowed and been partially counterbalanced by Eastern European immigration, but Leicester is still an exotic island in the otherwise mostly English East Midlands. The latest available figures are from the 2001 census, but 2006 extrapolations by the Office of National Statistics suggest that, of the urban-area population of approximately 293,000 persons, white Britons make up 58.3 percent; other whites, 3.7 percent; Asian British, 29.4 percent; black or black British, 4.6 percent; mixed race, 2.6 percent; and Chinese or other, 1.5 percent. Gujurati is spoken by around 16 percent of city residents, and Punjabi, Somali, and Urdu, by between 2 and 4 percent each. English is “not the preferred language” of 45 percent of primary-school pupils.

On first impression, the city seemed much less subcontinental than I had expected, with even the traders in the city’s famous outdoor market being almost completely white British, bawling out their special offers cheerfully from below chalked signs carrying English names – even if a few of the stalls offered such exotica as lemongrass, okra, sweet potatoes, and yams. Upstairs in the indoor part of the market, surprisingly well-stocked fishmongers carried red grouper from the Caribbean and rubbery-looking beasts from the Bay of Bengal among the more usual fare, while the butchers (including the unappetizing-sounding “Leicestershire’s Oldest Tripe Stall”) stocked goat meat between the bacon and sausages. There were Rastafarian market stalls and people selling Polish specialities, but the overall impression was one of unchallenged Englishness.

A sense of continuity was also evident in Leicester Cathedral, an externally plain, internally intimate former parish church that was only granted cathedral status in 1927, adjacent to a half-timbered 14th- century guildhall. This is the smallest cathedral I have ever seen (1), almost square, and was much “restored” (to put it politely) by the Victorians. But it is highly attractive, despite a temporary exhibition that had blocked the south aisle with several large lumps of wood collectively called “Humanity. Inhumanity.” These interfered with inspection of the humorous medieval carvings called “The Ailments” – near- life-sized, pained-looking figures with ear trumpets and empty eye sockets.

In the chancel, there is a large memorial slab to the still-divisive Richard III, who was killed at nearby Bosworth in 1485 and buried in the churchyard of the now-vanished city church of Greyfriars. There is an apocryphal story that his bones were disinterred and precipitated into the River Soar, but more likely they were just forgotten when the church was dissolved (2). A few remember and even seek to rehabilitate this subject of Shakespearean traducement; there was a fresh wreath on the slab from the Richard III Society.

St. George’s Chapel in the cathedral contains the faded fustian of The Tigers, the Royal Leicestershire Regiment, who earned their emblem and soubriquet, plus the superscription “Hindoostan,” by battling against the ancestors of those now colonizing Leicester in their historic turn. The regiment, which was originally founded in 1688, was subsumed into the Royal Anglian Regiment in 1964, whose uniform buttons retain the tiger but not the Hindoostan.

Back along fine streets and a busy inner ring road in quest of the so-called Jewry Wall, actually part of a third-century basilica. This is a 73-feet-long remembrance of the 400-year presence of the legions who left Leicester its name – although they had merely taken over the site from Celtic tribesmen, now almost forgotten, like their relict trackways leading to the ford over what they called the Legro or Leire (Leire-castra—the fort on the Leire).

That name Leire recalls an even more tenebrous past, during which legends became men, and men legends. According to agreeable tradition, the city was founded by a mythical king of the Britons called Leir. Leicester is still Caerlyr in Welsh, or “the fort of Leir.” According to that same folk- tale, his youngest daughter, yclept Cordelia, buried him in a chamber beneath the river – and from such Mercian archetypes the same Midlands dreamer who so disliked Richard III wove an equally famous story, of a mythical monarch hagridden by suspicion and madness.

All these tribal trackways became the Roman roads of the Fosse Way and the Via Devena, leading appropriately to and from this hub city devoted to Janus. It was curious to consider that some of the people walking around must be lineal descendants of those overlaid Celts – or their Italic overlords – or more recent blow-ins, like the Angles, first recorded in this area in the sixth century.

Beside the wall, inside the footprint of the fallen basilica, huddles Leicester’s oldest church, the Saxo-Norman St. Nicholas, with Saxon window openings and sturdy Romanesque arches carrying massy brown-grey stonework in a randomness of irregular angles and odd perspectives. The organist was glad to have company and played us an Elizabethan dance tune from Warlock’s Capriol Suite to demonstrate both the acoustics and his prowess—the product of five decades’ service to this church, abutting this invaders’ wall and ghostly masonry courses recalling hypocausts, the forum, the medieval ghetto, and the precinct of Holy Bones. He was concerned about the shrinking number of congregants and half smiled, half sighed, “I don’t know where all the years have gone,” as we said goodbye. Then he sat down again to play, this time the tune from The Dambusters, engrossed in the misplaced martial Englishness of the air as we heaved open the oaken door to admit briefly the hideous drum and bass of the ring road.

So we processed to Leicester Castle, originally a Norman motte-and-bailey later lived in by Simon de Montfort, one of several celebrated earls of Leicester, who in 1265 forced his brother-in-law Richard III to hold the first elected English parliament, which included two citizens from every borough in England, so introducing the “knights and burgesses” into British constitutional history. More parliaments followed in Leicester, some overly exciting affairs like the 1414 “Fire and Faggots Parliament,” so called because it passed the Suppression of Heresy Act against Wycliffe’s Lollards – or 1426’s “Parliament of Bats,” to which attendees were not allowed to bring their swords and had to rely on cudgels. As if that were not enough of a claim to a place in Holinshed or Bagehot, John of Gaunt lived in the castle, Lady Jane Grey visited, and here Robert Dudley feared and then desired the Virgin Queen.

A 17th-century earl of Leicester gave the castle’s riverside elevation a lamentable brick frontage. But on the land side, there is what feels like a cathedral close, as the road racket is muffled by the 12th-century bulk of the castle and the 14th-century crocketed spire of St. Mary de Castro (where Chaucer was supposedly married) and the high, silent, shuttered houses of the Newarke, or New Works. Beyond, there is a 15th-century gatehouse, and beyond that again yet more handsome houses, and finally a magazine of around 1410, this outpost marooned unhappily on a concrete plain above a confusion of charging cars – the mayhem oddly apposite for the hometown of the man who invented the Hansom cab. It was a picture-perfect juxtaposition of ancient and modern, stability and flux – of firmness surrounded by ferment.

Leaving the city at last, tired and uncharacteristically thoughtful, we headed eastward and home past a long, unlovely line of sari shops, halal butchers, and kebab establishments – the new Leicester, the new England springing up around the edges of the old, not to support but to supplant her. It is a revolutionary act – one not of violence but indifference, a mild metamorphosis effected by inoffensive newcomers, to resist which stampeding lambs seems to many too difficult.

And yet in some way it matters that one of England’s greatest cities, a history-haunted place central not just geographically but imaginatively, is passing permanently out of the English orbit. When and how exactly may be open to question, but what is certain is that this place which originated in such poetic obscurity is moving ineluctably toward an even more obscure tomorrow.

The essay first appeared in Chronicles in January 2011, and is reproduced with kind permission


  1. Britain’s smallest (and plainest) cathedral is actually that at St. Asaph’s (Llanelwy) in north Wales.
  2. Richard’s remains were of course sensationally discovered in 2013 under a car park on the site of the old Greyfriars church.