Thursday, 9 July 2015

The 30,000th Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres

Writing my book on post-WW1 Ypres has led to some fascinating discoveries. Did you know that Winston Churchill, no less, wanted the entire city left as a ruin? He said, 'I can think of no more fitting monument to the dead...'

Needless to say, the people of Ypres disagreed. But they did leave a large swathe of the city untouched until the British decided what they wished to build by way of a memorial - and where.

Ultimately, what they built was the Menin Gate, designed by Reginald Blomfield (who was also responsible for the sword/cross of sacrifice that adorns almost all British war cemeteries). The monument was unveiled by General Plumer who had commanded V Corps and was later in charge of the Second Army responsible for the overwhelming victory at Messines. The ceremony was relayed live back to Britain by the BBC - the second outside broadcast ever - and concluded with the Last Post being sounded by buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry.

Since then - and with a brief hiatus during WW2 - the Last Post has sounded beneath the memorial arch every night at 8p.m. It is a tribute maintained by members of the Ypres Fire Brigade. And this evening, at 8p.m., they will sound the Last Post for the 30,000th time.

Anyone who has ever been to the ceremony knows how simple and how moving the whole thing can be. We took Charlie there a couple of years ago when I was researching Known unto God and despite his tender years he was keen to understand what was happening and why, as well as to show his respects.

At eight o'clock tonight local time (GMT+2) the Last Post Association is asking people all over the world to join this milestone ceremony online or at participating fire stations. The event will be televised live and you can follow it by logging on to

The huge arch contains the names of over 50,000 of those killed but whose remains were never found. Even that number wasn't enough to account for all those men recorded missing in the Salient. Tonight, as every night, traffic will stop and crowds will fall silent and the Last Post - that simple, soulful, musical lament - will sound for an astonishing 30,000th time.

Lest we forget...

Friday, 22 May 2015

Known unto God

The cover of my latest book is here.

It's only a draft but seeing it at least makes you realise that the book itself - and three years labour - is at last closer to becoming genuine, physical reality.

It's about the Great War. Here's the blurb. And you can read the first three chapters - and leave a comment should you want to - here. I'd love to know what you think.


When the guns stop firing, JACK starts digging - not trenches now, but graves. But will those like him who bury the dead also lay to rest their own wartime ghosts? And what secrets remain to be discovered on the abandoned battlefields of Flanders? 

Amid the ruined city of Ypres, one enterprising local has opened what he cleverly calls the British Tavern, and Jack and the men quickly become regulars. The landlord’s daughter, FRANCOISE, takes a romantic interest in Jack as he makes faltering attempts to learn the local language. But Jack’s interests lie elsewhere until the girl becomes another victim of the winter 1919 outbreak of Spanish ’flu and he at last begins to realise that the living matter more than the dead that he is still burying.

But even a year after the Armistice, the Western Front is still claiming its casualties. And when the youngest member of the party, FULLER, is killed by an unexploded bomb during a mysterious night time exhumation, their officer, Lt INGHAM, seems to know more about the incident than he will admit. Jack and an Australian straggler, OCKER, take it on themselves to find out the truth and to administer summary justice.

Finally the British Army packs up and the last few demob papers are issued. But on the morning of his departure, Jack is suddenly confronted with the secret of his own past when a visitor to the cemeteries comes searching the battlefields - for Jack’s own grave.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Opera properer

A conversation about opera with a friend who cheerfully admits 'not getting it' promoted an introspective moment wondering what it is I get about it.
I haven't always got it. And there are still things k don't - like overlong recits, for example, or sets that contort the singers into ridiculous, semi-hidden poses.

But that's not the point. I hugely enjoy opera. The magical blend of music - usually the best music written - and high drama, extreme emotion, passion - usually succeed in making any opera experience worthwhile. There was a time, though, when I didn't get it. And so I wondered what it was that did it and whether it might do the same for other people.

I came to opera piecemeal. I grew acquainted with, and grew to love, the tunes - the arias - and knew little of the story or the context in which they were sung. Get a classical opera highlights CD - one sung by the really best singers - and you're on your way. Next, narrow  your composers.

Opera is a big beast (that's the art-form - not the singers) and there is a huge range of periods, styles and flavours. It doesn't have to be restrictive: you can, as I do, love Mozart as much as Benjamin Britten. But there will be certain composers whose music your prefer, whose language speaks louder to you than the others - go with him. And it will, unfortunately, almost certainly be a him.

Now, choose some of your favourite arias by this composer - and identify just one opera. Maybe the one with the most of the best-loved tune or the one blockbuster aria that you can't get over. It doesn't matter. A small amount - not too much - research into the plot (if there is one - plot isn't usually very complicated in opera) and you're ready. Now, choose a performance - the best you can afford tickets for. And sit back, relax, and wait for those arias you love. You'll probably hear them first in the overture, then maybe little snippets at different junctures, before - wham! - you'll be hearing it for the first time in context, sung beautifully and with what should be a wonderful orchestral accompaniment.i almost guarantee you'll be bowled over. Almost, becausr opera may not be for everybody. But if you'd like it to be for you, try my tried and trusted technique and... wallow!

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Only Heineken can do this...

On this day, April 7th, back in 1770 the iconic English poet William Wordsworth was born at Cockermouth in Cumbria.

Now we all know Wordsworth wrote that famous poem about daffodils, the one where he wanders 'lonely as a cloud'. In the good old days of English teaching children learnt it off by heart.

Wordsworth inspired a large-scale move to Romanticism in English poetry, making introspective meditations on the commonplace and on the world of nature fit subjects for great verse. He also inspired that most creative of literary genres, the modern ad campaign - none more so than this wonderful old telly ad for Heineken lager... refreshing the poets other lagers cannot reach!

I'm sure the old boy would have approved.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury about Palestine

There's a whole lot of stuff I have to blog about at present (like product reviews, opinions, plugs, books and much more) but I can't, at the moment, consider writing about anything other than this:

Which is a tad tricky, when you think about it. Because, quite frankly, it leaves me speechless!

To give you some background, a friend of mine who worked for many years in the middle-east and is a regular church-goer (chorister, then lay-clerk as myself) wrote to the Archbishops of both Canterbury and York to ask what the Church was doing about the plight of the Palestinians.

Having received a helpful, sympathetic and supportive letter from John Sentamu he hoped for something similar from the nation's senior bishop, head of the Established Church and holder of the most ancient Christian office in this country.

And that (above) is what he got.

Quite apart from the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury is a member of the British Establishment with a seat in the House of Lords - the utter lack of Christian charity, ignorance of the all-compassing nature of Christian involvement in world affairs and simple absence of love for one's neighbour is, quite frankly, astonishing.

I certainly am. (Astonished, that is!)

The Rt Rev Justin Welby clearly chooses to pass by on the other side, to 'wash his hands', and like Dives, keep the problems of the world at arm's length.

Meanwhile, in the real world...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Time Flies!

... especially on this day in 1752 when Britain changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

If you'd gone to bed last night a little over 260 years ago it would've been September 2nd. Then, at dawn this morning, it's suddenly the 14th September and you're 12 days older than you were the night before!

Except you aren't, of course: not really. Only the names (in this case, the numbers) have been changed. 

And changed in order to synchronise our human written calendar better with the only one that really matters - the calendar of the skies and the sun and moon and seasons.

Even that isn't 'right' of course, given that the earth inconveniently takes 365-and-a-quarter days to orbit the sun (which is why we need a leap year every so often).

All of which brings home how artificial this human construct, 'time', is.

Tell that to the boss next time you're late!