Friday, 22 February 2013


The Nineties were 'Naughty', the eighteenth century was the 'Enlightenment'. Whatever word is chosen to sum up the present I fear it is not 'Caring'. How about 'Massacre'? We may not have invented it but, by golly, we introduced massacre by mass production. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did their best to wipe out the Native American, the Aborigine and the Maori but they lacked not only our expertise - they just didn’t have the technogology.
In the nineteenth century we invented the flame gun;  in the twentieth, the atom bomb, germ warfare, bombing defenceless women and children from the air, and we set the tone for the twenty-first...........Oh we are the devil’s golden boys.
There was no sense of race discrimination about us. We slaughtered Jews, Chinese and Russian peasants by the millions, street children in South America, anyone we could lay our hands on in the Balkans. Blacks almost anywhere. We weren’t fussy. If there were no outsiders handy we slaughtered each other. We invented the death camp, the blazing necklace of a rubber tyre. When our soldiers were reluctant to shoot that stranger, the enemy, we shot them instead. In the First World War when a sergeant in my regiment disobeyed an order not to reprise a Christmas football match with the Germans, he was sent for a morning stroll with a firing squad.
In the fifteenth century a woman called Christine the Pisan wrote a book called The Art of War. It was an instant best-seller. No prince planned a campaign without it. In it she pleaded with them not to harm the peasants. She wrote:
“They would full gladly always live in good peace and they seek no more. So ought they then, as it seems to me, be free thereof....because their estate is not to meddle in war...and have no other office but, poor innocents, go to plough and work on the land and keep the beasts.”
Fugh. We will have no truck with that sort of rubbish in these enlightened times. “Bring me your hungry and your homeless......and I will wipe them out.”
No, 'Massacre' is my nap selection, with anything to come on 'Just Plain Evil'.
Since Hilary Mantel, who looks like a badly painted plastic doll, was so rude about the Duchess of Cambridge I have discovered yet another reason for banning literary prizes. It confers on nonentities the right to make pronouncements on subjects for which nature has failed to qualify them.
If there was a best novel in the past twenty years I must have missed it. It certainly wasn't Mantel's turgid accounts of one of histories dullest politicans. A frequent winner of such prizes  is Eco's Name of the Rose. A  good enough read, I grant you; dripping with meaning, though basically about a search for dirty books in a monastery. All gloom and, in the inevitable film, a spectacularly  unshaven Sean Connery. Bond in bondage, desperate for flagellation. All shadows and sweaty monks. Monks and mayhem. A sort of Brother Cadfael in a Bolognese sauce.  I was happier about the choice of biography in the same awards. Juang Chang’s merciless Wild Swans was much more successful than Eco in showing how evil man can be if he really puts his mind to it. Mandela’s biography came second.
 I have to say I think  it would have come second even if no-one had written it. Nothing I have read this week about the South Africa he founded has redounded to the honour of the highest paid statesman in the world.
Ackroyd’s Dickens came third. I would have put it first, though, as Ackroyd justly remarked, Dickens’ best biography was in his novels. I thought the prologue the best thing ever written about him, though I seem to remember being embarrassed at Ackroyd’s conversations with his subject. And I certainly won’t quarrel with the Book Guide’s choice of Ellerman’s Oscar Wilde.
I prefer biography to fiction. Biography, indeed life, can be fanciful in ways that fiction wouldn’t dare.
John Julius Norwich’s account of murderous Byzantium, the bad empress Theodora, and chapter headings like “The Emperor who lost his nose”alone would entitle his three volumes on that empire to a place at the top of the history list. Though I would also include The History of the Cavalry, which was the work of his cousin the Marquess of Anglesey and won him the Chesney Gold Medal, the highest accolade of a military historian.
But there I go making lists.
If I were to make one of obsessions, Railways would come high. My railway notes last week provoked much interest.
Chum Revel Barker offers this:
"You correctly (of course) refer to variant village times "before the railways came", but do you know how they did it?
"They created Railway Time.
"So if the first train of the day was due at your local station at, say, 0730, when the train drew in to the station the station master set his watch... and the platform clock, at 0730. Even if the train (probably less likely in those days than in these) was 10 minutes late.
"The thinking was that if the first train of the day ran (say) 10 minutes late, so would the rest of them, throughout the day.
"And the trains with which your local one connected would have to wait... so they would be 10 minutes late, too, and the time would be adjusted all the way down the line.
"The other (slightly) interesting factoid about railway time is that if the clock at Moscow Central station shows (say) 8am, so does the station clock at Vladivostock -- although the local time there would be 3pm (7 hours ahead). This is because Russian trains run on Moscow time... otherwise, with so many time zones in the Soviet Union, they'd be having trains arriving in some places before they left the last one. And the timetable would be crazy.
"Of course, in the days before BR, people actually trusted (and relied on) GWR, LNER, LMS, etc to get things right, more or less.
"And, more or less, so they did.
"Oh... the station master's watch was a large shiny metal thing kept in the breast pocket of his jacket with the 12 on the face at the top where the winder, and the leather strap, was. So it was the right way up when he pulled it out. A gentleman's vest (or waistcoat) pocket watch was much smaller and came out sideways, so the winder was at 3 on the dial. My dad, former railwayman, had one of the former, I still have one of the latter.
"Oh... I used to go to school by train. The child's day return fare was three-ha'pence.The station near my old school (like the school) no longer exists.However the child's day return fare to the next stop is now 13 quid (10 pounds, single)."
A surprising number of readers have been kind enough to enquire whether I am dying. What is happening now, whatever it is, certainly ain't living. Indeed as I climb onto my eighty-fifth year dying has come with the territory. But, subject to what the doctor might find on Tuesday, it certainly is not imminent.
A dear friend, the geologist Margret Wood, one of the team that investigated Moondust, defended God's timetable for Creation.  She wrote:
"Just live life to the full - as much as you can. None of us is immortal and we know not when or where. So cheers and hope it is a long time yet before anything else gives out.
"Incidentally my father who could speak Hebrew said the 'days' translation was wrong and it actually should be translated as 'periods' of time not days."
Sorry, God.