Saturday, 10 December 2011


I have just finished what will almost certainly be my last book. Oddly it is not the writing I will miss. This blog uses up a week’s intellectual energy. The great joy of authorship is researching, gradually assembling the building blocks of books. The excitement of discovering gems of information which others have missed; of gradually bringing your subject to life.

The best time was researching my book on Owain Glyndwr when for two years or more I immersed myself in medieval life. I share the Buddhist belief that there is no such thing as death. Everything else in nature recurs. Why not the human spirit? Since it has no physical substance it cannot decay as the body does. I think we have lived in every age since time began so that researching the lives of people in the fourteenth century was more remembering than discovering.

Living in the Middle Ages was pure joy. There was something deeply endearing about its inhabitants. It is like living in Christmas before it became a vulgar sales opportunity. Even the carols are better and plain song is music at its most harmonious.

The medieval Chronicles were pure tabloid journalism. Adam of Usk’s writings were a series of the sort of page leads the Mirror used to produce in the days when it was a newspaper. He described the ceremony of proving the Pope was a man by examining his private parts whilst he was seated on a commode like seat, before an audience of thousands. When th Priest announced “ He Has Balls” the congregation roared back “ God Be Praised”,He wrote of a hound devoted to Richard II until he was deposed when it left him for his successor Henry IV.

So obsessed did I become with Medieval monk artists that I made a collection of facsimiles of their breath-taking illuminated manuscripts; the books of hours with lively pictures of peasant life; the Psalters where the margins are filled with drawings of piety and the scribbles of fornicating monks at play. But above all I loved the Bestiaries in which the fact they hadn’t seen so many of the beasts did not prevent the scribes from describing them.

Thus the beaver, whose testicles are used in medicine and eagerly sought.When it is pursued it bites them off and throws them to their hunter. Chased a second time, it stands on its back legs to demonstrate it no longer possesses them.

Elephants, which are unable to bend their legs, sleep leaning against trees. Hunters are advised to partly saw the trunks of trees so that they will break under the elephant’s weight and the beast fall over.

The panther, which is prey to all creatures because of the sweetness of its breath, eludes capture by throwing crystal balls as it flees. The hunters pause and, mistaking their reflection for a rival, stay to fight it whilst the panther breathes a perfumed sigh of relief. The ibex has two horns which are so strong that when it falls from a high precipice its horns bear the weight of its body and it escapes unhurt. Or my favourite:

“The unicorn, which is also called the rhinoceros in Greek. It can be caught in the following fashion; a girl who is a virgin is led to the place where it dwells and left alone there. As soon as the unicorn sees her it jumps into her lap and embraces her and goes to sleep there; then the hunters capture it.”

My most exciting find was a sort of medieval “Health and Safety” regulations for waging war.It was an insert folded into the Black Book of the Admiralty . Making war on holy days is forbidden and the discomfort of being under siege can be eased. The siege is lifted until an agreed date. If the town is not relieved by that date it surrenders.

War was taken very seriously. When Edward I captured a Scottish castle he invited its constable to a sumptuous feast.

But when he saw the amount of supplies in the castle Edward decided that the Constable could have opposed him more vigorously. He had him beheaded for not resisting the king’s attack.


Today six dozen ex-matelots and their families are gathering at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to witness the unveiling of a small memorial to the survivors of the battleships “The Prince of Wales” and ”The Repulse” which were sunk by the Japanese off Singapore on December 10, 1941, three days after Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour is commemorated with parades and services. The Prince of Wales has declined an invitation to attend the Staffordshire gathering and the Royal Navy is represented by a Petty Officer. The £13,000 cost of the memorial has been met by families and well wishers.

I am no fan of Churchill who I believe was the Alastair Campbell of his day. A gifted spin doctor. As a war leader he was abysmal. He over ruled the First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound, who favoured a slow build up in the Indian Ocean. Churchill insisted on a more aggressive strategy and sent the two battleships into the thick of battle without air cover. The ships were attacked by 85 Jap fighter bombers. More than 800 sailors were drowned or burned to death. Gallipoli, which he also master-minded, had taught Churchill nothing.

Writing in the Spectator some years ago, the historian Noble Frankland pointed out that Churchill, the architect of the debacles of Gallipoli and Norway, thought that air supremacy on a battlefield would add complication without advantage; that the Germans would be unable to break the French on the Western Front. (He also sacrificed the entire Highland Division by insisting it fought on at St Valery after the evacuation of the BEF in a silly attempt to keep France in the war). He thought the Japanese would be too cautious to enter the war. If they did Singapore would be invulnerable. He thought that neither submarines nor aircraft would pose a serious threat to battleships. He despatched the battleships "Prince of Wales" and "Repulse" to Singapore without air cover and both were sunk.

I think the Prince of Wales might have spared time to honour his namesake or the Navy which has more admirals than ships might have spared one.


To our nephew Rutti Lucas who has just been appointed to a new job with British Oxygen. He will be devising computer models (???) to optimize energy use in chemical production facilities (???).

The question marks because none of the family, which includes a raft of Oxbridge scholars, has the slightest idea what it is.