Tag Archives: London

I’m Back

It might be a few days later than planned, but I’m finally back from Dusseldorf having got caught up in the all the weather travel chaos. After our flight was cancelled on Sunday evening we hired a car, and drove from Dusseldorf to Calais, from there on the ferry to Dover, train to London, then train down to Portsmouth. I finally got in the early hours of this morning, over 24 hours late. Which isn’t bad, considering people who were on our flight and stayed put at the airport are still there now… I’ll write a full report when I’ve thawed out a bit!

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Angry protestors attack Royal Coach… dateline 1795…

There have been a lot of historionics recently about the student protests, and in particular about the incident in which the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were caught up in ‘the mob’ in Regent Street. This interesting article in the Guardian got me thinking, as well as this one on the BBC website.

One correspondent in my local newspaper even suggested that the protestors who harrangued the royal couple’s car were committing a treasonable act. Please… I thought we’d dispensed with the divine rights of Kings when we cut off Charles I’s head. Assault? possibly. Treason? no chance.

In fact, I would quite like to know what Charlie boy thinks, as the father of an ex-student, and another son who did so badly at A-Level he could never have got into Uni (even though he did make an officer in the Household Cavalry, but that is another class-based story for another day). Charles himself managed to get to Cambridge with very dubious A-Levels results, and hardly distinguished himself when he was there, so it would be interesting to know what his thoughts are – he’s got something to say about everything else that seems to happen in society.

Even well-thought-of national figures are by no means immune to protests. The Duke of Wellington, who ‘in retirement’ turned to politics, was more than once the target of the mob, including when the windows of his Apsley House residence were smashed by angry protestors while he was Prime Minister. It didn’t mean that they were ‘desecrating’ the Duke – many of the same protestors no doubt revelled in his victories and were tearful at his death – they were just mightily pissed off at that moment in time.

And for all the hysteria about students urinating on statues of Winston Churchill, it was the same kind of conservative Government that brought in the national curriculum years ago, which pretty much erased meaningful british history from education. No wonder people of my generation know so little about Churchill and the World Wars, they’ve not been allowed to learn about it. And… on a more biological level, if the Police cordon people off for hours at a time with no toilets, then maybe they might just go against anything that they can? Just a thought.

I’ve even read the usual opinions that we should ‘bring back national service’ to teach the wayward students a lesson in discipline. National Service was never about discipline, it was viewed as a necessary evil to plug a chronic manpower shortage while Britain slowly withdrew from its imperial commitments after the Second World War. It was unpopular, with the Government, with the armed forces, and with society. All it seems to have taught was how to drink and how to smoke, and a conscript military does not equal a professional military, which the modern age calls for. Britain has never really ‘done’ conscription, and an overblown moral panic is no reason to start now.

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The Ashcroft Gallery: a review

Front of the Imperial War Museum London

Imperial War Museum (Image via Wikipedia)

I was up in London yesterday after seeing Biffy Clyro at Wembley Arena on Saturday evening, so popped into the Imperial War Museum to take a look at the New Lord Ashcroft Victoria Cross and George Cross Gallery.

To sum up, I’m disappointed. The medals, the heroes, the stories are legendary… but the Gallery itself – is that it? I can’t believe it took £5 million – yes, £5 million! – to do that. The interactive touch screens and use of media is very good, but hardly ground-breaking. The medals themselves are displayed in simply wooden boxes, that any reasonably skilled DIY enthusiast could knock together in their garden shed. The room itself is not large at all, and I can’t understand why its on the fourth floor and not the ground floor. There’s no rhyme or reason as to how the gallery is laid out, and its difficult to find any given individual’s medals. I’m told that the 241 medals are arranged in terms of qualities such as leadership, sacrifice, aggression, skill, initiative, endurance, and boldness, but it didn’t seem that logical to me.

It’s disappointing that Britain’s principal military museum cannot do better. I work in local museums and I’ve seen how inventive Exhibition designers have to be and can be with shrinking budgets and rising expectations, and I can’t see for the life of me how the exhibition itself cost £5m. Consultants, feasibility studies, options appraisals, sub-contractors, researchers, over-the-top marketing maybe. But the largest collection of the world’s most hallowed medals deserves an almost spiritual experience, not just another exhibition.

I was there to look for the George Cross and medals of CPO Reg Ellingworth, the Portsmouth Mine Disposal rating killed in 1940. Me and my mate spent a good twenty minutes hunting for his medals, and without the aid of any kind of plan or index it was hard going. We finally found Ellingworth’s display, and on the multimedia screen I found several photos of Ellingworth that I had never seen before, including one of him in tropical white uniform and a rather hazy photo of him at work on a mine – neither of which I had seen before, or even appear on the IWM’s online catalogue of images! But it is nice to see a brave man such as Ellingworth being remembered in such a prominent place – now to make sure that Portsmouth recognises him and his peers too.

Back to the Exhibition, I disagree quite strongly with the way ‘Ashcroft’ gets crowbarred into everything – it should be about the (extra)ordinary medal winners, not a dubious tax-exile whose meaningful contribution to humankind is, errm, hang on a minute… nothing. If he had any kind of humility he wouldn’t insist on plugging his name at every opportunity. Even the Gallery’s website is full of pictures of the man himself, and links to his books. Tasteless. Plenty of philanthropists donate money to causes such as this without demanding that their name is emblazoned everywhere. Just an observation.

I’ve never understood this blind obsession with VC’s and GC’s either. There are plenty of incredibly brave men who were only awarded DSO‘s or DCM‘s. There are also stories of men performing incredibly brave deeds and receiving no recognition at all because their officer did not write the act up properly. My thoughts, as someone who has done a fair bit of research into thousands of men who were killed in the First and Second World Wars, is that bravery is not limited to medals alone.

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The student protest: a historical perspective

I’ve found it quite amusing watching and reading some of the historyonics regarding Wednesdays student protests in London. Witness the howls in the blue-rinse broadsheets, and one newspaper even launching a name-and-shame the students campaign. At the risk of marking myself out as Brother Daly, or Red Jim, these are my thoughts.

Lets get this in perspective. Out of 50,000 students, about a hundred kicked off. And even then, I doubt many of them were actually students, more like rent-a-mob. Look at the film of the incident at Tory Party HQ – more photographers than protesters and police put together. Funny that, isn’t it? An angry mob always makes for good pictures and definitely sells papers.

A few windows got kicked in, the reception got trashed. We’re talking tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage – nothing to somebody like Lord Ashcroft. The damage being wreaked to this country – higher education, education in general, the nhs, the armed forces, welfare – goes way way beyond any sum of money. We’re talking about society, and peoples lives here. The problem is, the Tory party love to claim the moral high ground when it comes to angry mobs of erks rampaging. But if they weren’t hell-bent on wrecking British society from every direction, there would be nothing to protest about in the first place.

The problem is, nowadays protest-inspired damage is pretty alien to us. Yet hundreds of years ago – particularly in class-fraught periods such as the Nineteenth Centuryworking class people would routinely protest if they felt wronged. In the early Nineteenth Century the Luddites protested against the introduction of machinery by smashing it up. By and large, protests were against the wage labour system, and the class control system in particular. Property has always been one of the most visible symbols of class – think in terms of the haves and the have nots – so damaging property has always been a primal way of normal people making their feelings obvious.

Its funny also how the establishment is more concerned about damage to property than to people. This is almost a medieval, victorian attitude – one peasant can murder another peasant and nobody cares, but if a peasant steals a loaf of bread from a rich persons kitchen, then there’s hell to pay. So as well as working class people feeling a need to protest by damaging the property of the middle and upper classes, those classes in turn are ultra-sensitive about their class-symbolism being challenged. The fear of ‘the mob’ after the French revolution was electrifying.

So essentially, what we have seen this week is a return to early Nineteenth Century society – an embattled working class, and a middle class attempting to exert its control. Its all very well complaining about people protesting and getting angry, but think about WHY they are protesting, and WHY they are angry. If you try and shaft people, limit their options in life, restrict their social mobility and condemm them to a life of debt, you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re not too happy about it.

Forget taking us back to the 1980′s, this Government is taking us back to the 1800′s. ‘Tory scum’ is an ancient cry in British class struggle; right back to the Duke of Wellington and the Corn Laws. And as much as I admire the Iron Duke as the greatest British field commander in history, do we really want to go back to that archaic age?

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Myths of the Blitz

Firefighters putting out a blaze in London aft...

Image via Wikipedia

Theres an interesting piece from historian Correlli Barnett in the Independent on Sunday Today, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz. I can’t say I’ve always agreed with Barnett – particularly over his opinion on Montgomery – and sadly from such a prominent Historian, I find his writing pretty disappointing.

Over the past 70 years something of a myth has grown up around the Blitz. True, we did go on to win the war, but did this fact, in retrospect, shape perceptions of the blitz? I think so. If we had lost the war, it might have been a different argument altogether. There is evidence that civilian behaviour and morale did not hold up quite as well as popular belief thinks. There were very serious concerns in national and local Government that mass panic would ensue. Initially people were banned from going into Tube stations during air raids, for fear that they would never come up again and would evolve into a race of ‘underground people’. There were also cases of looting, but these were largely hushed up at the time – Portsmouth magistrate records during the war record a large number of people who appeared in court, but with no crime entered – we strongly suspect that they were charged with looting, but that this was kept quiet so as not to harm morale. The blackout was also a great cover for crime, as Juliet Gardner has recently written in the Guardian.

The other issue is the perception of the Blitz as a distinctly London phenomenon. The Independent on Sunday‘s pullout is very much a case of ‘…and other cities’, which I feel not only does injustice to other cities which suffered heavy punishment, it is also inaccurate. True, London was the most bombed city in terms of the number of raids, and the amount of ordnance dropped. Yet, even in 1940 London was a sprawling Metropolis of millions of people. It was also the captial, so of course it was always going to be a target. Yet smaller cities such as Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Liverpool were heavily bombed too. And when we consider the size of these cities, and that in some cases most of the damage came in a handful of raids, they underwent what was in many ways a heavier ordeal. Yet the Blitz has become an overhwelmingly London phenomenon, filed somewhere between Barbara Windsor and Jellied Eels.

Barnett writes that morale did not collapse in Britain during the Blitz, and neither did it during the Allied Air Forces strategic bombing assault on Germany later in the war. This, Barnett argues, is a lesson for modern warmakers who think that shock and awe undermines the enemy’s resolve to resist. Yet this is a poor argument – societies have changed immeasurably, sense of community and togetherness is not quite what it was. And the waging of war, and the munitions that can be used, have changed too. Strategic Bombing was imprecise and indiscriminate. Yet Cruise Missile strikes send the message ‘we can target you, anywhere, anytime’ – something that can hardly make one feel like putting up a fight. Morale in the Ruhr and Berlin may have ‘held’ in 1943 and 1944, butt holding on is not the same as thriving. Albert Speer, the Nazi Armaments Minister, was quite clear in his opinion that allied bombing severely hampered the German industries. What more evidence do we need than that?

I would not think of myself as a revisionist when it comes to the Blitz, far from it. It’s amazing to think the kind of ordeal that our ancestors – including my Grandparents – went through in those dark days. But at the same time I am also very cautious about buying into myths that have more to do with drama and popular culture than with reality.

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