Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Literary Calendar: April

This is amazing. It turns out that April in years past has been quite a month, from Jane Austen telling the Prince Regent that she could 'not sit down to write a serious romance' to the publication of The Great Gatsby and the birth of Vladimir Nabokov. Inspiring stuff. Must be something to do with sap rising.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Was WW1 the Biggest Error in British History?

My latest book is about the end of the war, the period post-Armistice when the pieces - literally, in terms of battlefield debris and unburied bodies, and psychologically in terms of the lives of the men who had served - were being picked up and a broken, shattered world was slowly being reassembled.

But no book on any aspect of the First War can hope to be complete without at least being informed about its causes, and by the debate that still seems to surround them a century later. For those involved, for the families affected, for the industries and economies ruined and not least for the men (and woman, and children - as early as December 1914 British children were being added to the casualty list) who lost their lives, knowing they were fighting, suffering, dying for a purpose, for a just cause, made the hardships understandable on some intellectual level even if emotionally they were scarcely bearable.

It's not unlike the argument that still surrounds the UK's involvement in Afghanistan and the legacy our troops will leave once their mission is complete. We owe it to the 500 servicemen and women killed as well as the thousands injured to make sure their sacrifice was not in vain.

In hindsight, of course, we know that the 'war to end all wars' was nothing of the sort and that many of the millions who died between 1914 and 1918 did die in vain. We know that thousands of men went to an almost inevitable but wholly unnecessary death as the result of the failures and folly of those in command right up through the forces to the War Ministry and the British Government and the aristocracy.

But should Britain have even gone to war in 1914? What would have happened if we hadn't fought? And what would the map of Europe have been like if, at 11.00p.m. on August 4th 1914 Britain had not declared itself to be in a state of war with Germany?

That's the fascinating question posed by historian Niall Ferguson who refers to World War One as 'the biggest error in modern history' in a recent article in The Guardian. Not that he argues that Britain should never have gone to war. Just that, with a relatively tiny army and without much by way of the resources necessary for a major land-based conflict, we shouldn't have rushed into the conflict as early as we did.

Ah, but the treaties - guarantees of Belgian neutrality and verbal assurances that we would support the French. Well, as Ferguson says, it wouldn't have been the first time (nor the last) that pragmatism, realism or merely blatant self-interest had overridden international obligations.

It's a fascinating thought - the notion that we might still have gone to war with Germany - just later when we were better prepared, perhaps, and with a clearer idea both of what we were doing and why we were doing it. Yes, there were at the time vague designs on parts of the British Empire and some sabre-rattling on the Oceans, but Germany in 1914 didn't pose a serious threat to Britain's homeland security and - arguably - might never have done so.

Of course, such retrospective raking over historical coals is a luxury we can afford. Those fighting, those who had fought and those for whom the Armistice wasn't the end of the war but rather the beginning of a lifetime's struggle to return the land and themselves to normal (or as near as possible) hadn't the opportunity to seriously question what they were doing or why they were doing it. They had to believe they had fought the good fight.

It is their story I am trying to tell. And of course it's a story that knows no future beyond battlefield clearances, beyond a halting resumption of family life, beyond the slow and careful creation of the monumental cemeteries designed to stand for eternity as a symbol of a war that was still thought to have been an end to all wars.

Lest we forget!

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Radio Four Theme… RIP

Hard to believe it's almost a decade since this wonderful medley was what gently roused those of up who had to wake up early and whose radios were tuned to BBC Radio Four from our blissful slumbers.

Starting the station's day with a theme was thought something of an anachronism is the new, streamlined Birt-ian BBC. Now, instead of music, we get 'news briefing' which more often than not is a blatant infringement of Trades Description legislation. Most mornings, at five-thirty (following the Shipping Forecast) we early morning listeners are patronised with a main headline about something that hasn't actually happened yet, a second item about what they think someone might say later on that day and then, in other news, a cheerful list of things that happened 'on this day' several years ago.

Well I was listening this morning. And they didn't report the most momentous, monstrous and malign event to have happened 'one this day', in this case back in 2006. Anyone else lament the passing of this wonderful piece of music?

Let's all write in and demand they bring it back!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Hull named UK City of Culture 2017

I grew up in Hull; I left at the age of nine but returned aged nineteen to study at the city's university. It's a very special city and I know of no other city quite like it.

Philip Larkin liked the end-of-the-line remoteness; as a child I thought the city was the world. It's flat in Hull and so the streets go on forever. When they do eventually give out it's to the gentlest, rolling hills that ever had the name - The Wolds - or to the sea. And the sea is always special.

The sea, of course, is what made Hull. Lining up at the end of break at Appleton Road Primary School if the wind was in the right (or wrong) direction you could smell the fish docks. Fishing, fish and fisherman were the beating heart of Hull.

Until the coronary that was the Icelandic cod wars and then EU quotas. Now, there's next to no fishing out of Hull and - like other cities which have lost their major industry - it's taken time for it to recover. But recover it has, and recover into something of a cultural icon.

Apart from Larkin (and a host of other poets who followed in his wake) there's William Wilberforce, Andrew Marvell, John Godber, David Hockney and many many more with an association with the city and the wider area. It's a place where things are happening and - from today - a place other people will start noticing.

Well done Hull! Or rather, King's Town upon Hull. City royalty at last...

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

On this day...

In 1917, with the USA just a short month from entering the war, the first ever Jazz (or 'Jass') record was released.

The splendidly-named Victor Talking Machine Company (who survive in the form of RCA Victor) was responsible, having a month earlier established a recording studio in - not New Orleans or Chicago, but New York.

And the band? An all-white five-piece called The Original Dixieland Jass (late changed to Jazz) band and the tracks - Livery Stable Blues (the 'B' side) and Dixie Jass Band One Step.

The record took New York by storm. And the rest, as they say, is history...

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

World Radio Day

I love the wireless. Really I do. I could happily (or at least, comfortably) do without the telly but the radio is indispensable whether for keeping up with the Test Match, listening to a concert or just 'having on' in the background. And as a sometime-insomniac, BBC World Service is a lifeline in the long nights of little sleep. I can even listen without moving my head off the pillow (or having those annoying little bud phones in my ears) thanks to a wonderful gadget my wife bought for my birthday, which broadcasts the sound through my pillow!

All-in-all I'd say I'm a radio addict. And as such, I'm delighted that discover that the United Nations has decreed that there should, each year, be a World Radio Day to 'celebrate radio as a medium; to improve international cooperation between broadcasters; and to encourage major networks and community radio alike to promote access to information and freedom of expression over the airwaves.'

And it's today! Yes! So to celebrate, here's yours truly making his radio debut a long, long time ago... Don't laugh. I was only seven.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Great Flood

Sixty years ago tonight, the North Sea Flood (or Dutch Watersnoodramp, which literally translates as 'flood disaster') occurred. A combination of extreme events conspired to send tidal surge racing down the East Coast and wreaked particular havoc in the low lying areas of Lincolnshire and Norfolk where the sea encroached up to two miles inland. In the UK over 300 lost their lives; in The Netherlands, almost 2000 people died.

In all the events, services, broadcasts and features taking place today the numbers, measuring the scale of the disaster, seem to have taken on a greater significance when set alongside the personal testimonies of the survivors. Thanks to BBC Lincolnshire's Scott Dalton for these figures and to William Wright for some memorable personal testimonies today:

Forty-two. The number
Numbered with the living
on this night, sixty years ago.

Forty-two whose number
Came up on that evening;
Forty-two falling victim
to the numbers:

Three, extremes of weather;
Twenty, feet of water;
Two, miles inland flooded;
Twenty thousand, houses ruined.

On the coast today
A sunken century's bell tolls
for their number:

One, Anderby;
Trusthorpe - two;

Four, Saltfleet;
Mablethorpe - eight;

Sutton-on-Sea - eleven;
Ingoldmells, sixteen.

The forty-two.
Make them to be numbered
With Thy Saints, O Lord -
Poseidon, Neptune.

And pray that it should never come again.