Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Lost Words - Celia Rees

‘Once upon a time, words began to vanish. They disappeared so quietly that almost no-one noticed. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conkers – gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words are becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.’

It is this perceived loss that is so eloquently addressed in the current exhibition at Compton Verney by writer, Robert Macfarlane, and artist, Jackie Morris. In this magnificent exhibition and in the wonderful book that they have produced, they draw attention to the danger that these words might be lost to children forever and they endeavour to make good the damage, conjuring back these lost words by the magic of their painting and poetry.

I grew up in the 1950s  and  was lucky enough to be one of the last generation to enjoy a ‘wild childhood’, free to roam woods and parks looking for conkers, pick blackberries in the hedgerows, wade in brooks and ponds looking for newts. I was intensely aware of the passing seasons and what they would bring: the conkers and turning leaves of autumn, bryony beading the hedgerow; the prospect of snow in winter, watching robins and bluetits feed in the garden; snowdrops, celandine and coltsfoot promising spring and the summer to come. We were free to be out all day, only returning when hunger called us home. We were in tune with the world around us: the plants, trees, birds, animals. We took it for granted. I saw ‘the elm tree bole in tiny leaf’ and knew what the poet meant, but that life has gone with the elm trees themselves.

Today’s children rarely go out unsupervised, some rarely go out at all. This exhibition is a response to the shocking research findings that British children are more familiar with Pokemon characters than British wildlife and, as  Robert Macfarlane points out in his article: Guardian - Badger or Bulbasaur - have children lost touch with nature?, all the centuries long associations that native flora and fauna have acquired through legend, myth, folklore and story are lost, too.  

Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris explore The Lost Words from Acorn to Wren. Each bird, plant or animal is shown in the same way. No matter how humble or ordinary, each is reverenced in  an icon: a numinous depiction in gold leaf and exquisite jewellike water colour. It is then  shown within the wider context of its natural world and then, finally, by its absence. This last is particularly powerful and poignant. Starlings are shown by an empty wire,  raven and heron by a fallen feather, the magnificent otter by a line of paw prints. An achingly eloquent expression of loss and impoverishment, both to the world: if this creature had never been, or if we were to lose it, how much poorer would we be? And to the individual: if you don’t know something is there, then it does not exist for you and your world is somehow diminished. 

Jackie Morris’ pictures are accompanied by Robert Macfarlane’s acrostic poems or ‘spells’.

My companion at the exhibition, friend and fellow writer, Linda Newbery , observed that:

'Robert Macfarlane's 'spells' are clever, striking and energetic - not a lazy phrase to be found. As well as being acrostics they also use a formal patterning of repetitions and echoes which makes me think of the Welsh 'cynghanedd' found in Gerard Manley Hopkins. It's especially lovely to hear Robert Macfarlane reading them aloud - they are meant to be spoken, after all.'

Should green-as-moss be mixed with
blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold
you'd still fall short by far of the -
Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and
gloss of starling wing.

The two artists make a powerful conjuring.  Not least, because they invite the viewer, child or adult, to go out and do something. To look. To learn.To draw, paint, write what you see. Jackie Morris’ sketch book, watercolours, gold leaf and burnisher are there. As are Robert Macfarlane's pens, pencils, notes and notebooks.

There are drawing and writing materials, paper, crayons and pencils, so young visitors can take inspiration and make their own books. Robert Macfarlane's desk is in the last but one room. When I went in, a child was sitting on a little chair, leaning on this desk, hard at work with crayon and pencil. I'm sure that both the artist and writer would smile to see her there, and consider part of their work done, for the exhibition is an inspiration, an invitation, not just to admire their work, but to go outside and pay attention. 

The Words are not lost, they've gone into  hiding and are still there, waiting to be re-discovered. This exhibition invites us to do just that. Like all great ideas, it is simple.  It contains its own solution. It is no mystery. All you have to do is go out and see what’s there in front of you and around you. To look. Not just down at the ground but up at the sky; not just in the countryside but in every park, garden, on every road, alley, avenue, canal, stream, river and urban wild space. It’s all there. We just have to notice and teach our children to notice. Take a photo. Look it up. There’s bound to be an app...

If you can't get to the exhibition, you can buy the book: The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, published by Hamish Hamilton. It is beautiful and would make a handsome Christmas present for anyone. 
Celia Rees


Friday, 17 November 2017


How does one start to hunt for plants? My own love of plants began with Cecily Mary Barker’s picture-and-verse Flower Fairy books, Yet the works are not pure fantasy: Barker’s charming fairies, first appearing in 1923, were based on drawings of real children in her sister’s kindergarten, while the detailed flowers and settings are painted with meticulous, botanically-accurate skill. The Flower Fairies taught me- and no doubt many others – to find and identify common plants, even though some of those flowers are rarer than they used to be.

However, Barker’s pretty fairies - still hovering around today – can surely only charm a very particular young audience. There’s space for bolder books about the history of the plants and stories for older boys and girls who would welcome tales of adventure.

I was very pleased to come across JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY, a novel for 8-12 year olds, written by fellow History Girl Sue Purkiss.

Inspired by the lives of 18th century plant-hunters, Sue has written a fast-moving historical adventure story.  Jack Fortune, the young hero, is energetic and most interestingly naughty. Bored, and not allowed to attend school, he can’t resist devising tricks that shame his stern widowed Aunt Constance and horrify her genteel guests.

As a character, Jack is immediately likeable - and trouble! When he accidentally damages a priceless object, Constance summons her  brother, Uncle Edmund, insisting that he take responsibility for his young nephew.

Uncle Edmund refuses; not only is the scholarly bachelor unused to children but he is about to depart on his first plant-hunting trip to India. Jack, hearing this exciting news, wants to accompany the expedition so Uncle Edmund reluctantly agrees, while Aunt Constance, unable to face any more disobedience, agrees despite the dangers.

From this point on Jack and his uncle  and the reader – experience a new life full of challenge and interesting people and places. They sail to Calcutta, cross the Great Plain and travel through the jungle before reaching a high mountain kingdom with a hidden valley. All the way, Jack and his uncle face setbacks and dangers: vagabonds, wild animals, “mountain sickness” and, at last, reports of a huge, legendary being who brings death to any intruders in the Hidden Valley. Moreover, Jack soon realises that an unknown traitor is spoiling the expedition’s food supplies and stirring up problems with local villagers.  Who wishes them ill? Is it Sonam, their guide or Thondup, the heir to the throne who accompanies the party, and whom Jack has begun to admire?  

Sue Purkiss’s plot moves along with plenty of pace and action and just enough description to fix the story in its historical time and place without overloading her young reader’s enjoyment. She also touches lightly and skillfully on darker issues such as servants and colonisation, but lets the bold adventure end as happily as it should.

However, I felt the book was about more than the plant-hunting quest: Jack and Uncle Edmund make a wonderfully odd and warm partnership, and the hardships met on the expedition teach them more about the other.

Bookish Uncle Edmund slowly reveals his bravely determined nature and his passion for plant-hunting. Gradually, Jack sees the burning passion that lies behind Uncle Edmund’s search, and his desperate hope that the plant will bring him fame, fortune and the approval of the influential Sir Joseph Banks when - and if -  they ever return to London.

Meanwhile, faced with real demands and responsibilities rather than endless tea-parties and polite manners, Jack becomes the boy-hero he was meant to be and is even able to accept his own inherited artistic gifts and inheritance.

One of the particular reasons I enjoyed JACK FORTUNE AND THE SEARCH FOR THE HIDDEN VALLEY was that, despite the difficulties Jack and his Uncle face, the adventure is a positive and hopeful experience and one that might encourage children to look beyond everyday life and issues in school and out into a much wider world with all its interweaving histories.

Penny Dolan
ps. Years after the Flower Fairies, my gardening interests led to a set of children’s stories based on the history of British gardening, written for re-telling at RHS Harlow Carr gardens.

NB. Alma Books have also created some downloadable activities to support of this title:  as well as an interview with the author Sue Purkiss:                                                                  

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Guy Fawkes - and an awful lot of light bulbs... By Sue Purkiss

We've just had some friends staying, and as we drove one day from Cheddar to Wells, Rosie noticed a sign warning that roads would be closed in a week's time because of the carnival.

"What an odd time of year for a carnival!" she said. "What kind of carnival is it?"

"Oh," we said, with a touch of understatement. "The carnival's quite a big thing in Somerset..."

Here, to explain, is a post I wrote a few years ago. For some reason, the carnivals are a week later than usual - so if you want to catch one, you still can.)

You've probably all heard of the Carnival of Venice. But down in Somerset, we have a carnival of our own, and this is its season. It starts in Bridgwater, close to the 5th November, and then it travels in succession to Weston Super Mare, North Petherton, Burnham on Sea, Shepton Mallet, Wells and Glastonbury. For the evening of carnival, the town centre is closed, and no matter what the weather, the route is lined with crowds of people, watching as upwards of fifty brilliantly lit carts (called 'floats' in other places) roll through the streets, drawn by tractors. Each cart has a theme, which is illustrated by performers - some have a tableau, but most have dancers, all gorgeously costumed and made-up (Strictly, eat your heart out!). The music's loud and the lights are dazzling - a cart may have 22,000 light bulbs.

Perhaps it all sounds a touch excessive - but this is a tradition which began over 500 years ago, deeply rooted and much treasured. It began when James 1 ordered his subjects to celebrate the discovery and punishment of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators by lighting bonfires all over the land. The towns of the south west, staunchly protestant, set to with alacrity. In Bridgwater, they built a huge bonfire right in the centre of town. To start off with it was built out of an old wooden ship (Bridgwater is a port), with 100 tar barrels to get the flames leaping. (Eventually they ran out of ships and had to collect wood, like everyone else.) There were special fireworks called squibs, attached to long sticks, and a hundred 'squibbers' stood in line in the High Street and let their squibs off as a triumphant finale.

The townspeople streamed through the town to the bonfire, many of them dressed in masks and costumes. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope, and anyone who'd managed to get on the wrong side of the Bridgie populace were slung onto the fire, and there was merry-making till the early hours. Eventually, in 1880, the merriment tipped over into a riot. The town dignitaries cogitated. There was no question of banning the carnival: instead, they formed a committee (what else?), which decided that henceforth there had better be a procession, which would wind through the town so that everyone would be able to see it, and the high jinks would not be concentrated in one small area.

And so began the formation of the carnival clubs, rejoicing in names such as the Masqueraders and the Gremlins. Each cart costs thousands of pounds, much of which is raised from sponsorship. The clubs spend the whole year raising money and building the cart; to do this they need costume makers, make-up artists, electricians, mechanics, tractor drivers, artists, painters, carpenters, sound engineers and more besides. Friendships are formed, marriages are made (and possibly broken); whole lives are lived within the ambit of the club. Thousands and thousands of pounds are raised for charity. After the carnival, the floats are dismantled and it all begins again - as you travel through Somerset, you may see the remnants: a giraffe grazes in a field near Glastonbury, a camel and a dinosaur gaze at each other from opposite sides of the M5.

In 1685, the Bridgie people were still staunchly protestant, as were many others in the south west. But now, unfortunately, the king, James 11, was not. The people of Bridgwater, along with many others from the south west, took part in the Monmouth Rebellion - also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion - and they paid a severe price for it at the Battle of Sedgemoor and in its aftermath. Presumably during the three short years of James' reign, the great bonfire was not lit on the Cornhill: and presumably when James was deposed and William and Mary came to the throne, the merrymaking was even more heartfelt and more riotous than before.

But perhaps Bridgwater's finest hour came in 1938, after Britain and France had shamefully let down Czechoslovakia by signing an agreement at Munich which allowed Hitler to invade unopposed and take the Sudetenland. Shortly afterwards, there was a by-election in the town, and it was won by an independent candidate, a journalist named Vernon Bartlett (left) who fought the election on a single platform: opposing the Munich Agreement, standing up to Fascism and defending Czechoslovakia. His victory sent a clear message to the coalition government; once again, Bridgwater had stood up for what it believed in. During the war, the carnival did not take place, but one William Henry Edwin Lockyer walked the route each year. The tradition was kept alive, and it continues.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Of Ships and Churches

by Marie-Louise Jensen

Churches can be a fascinating reflection of their local community and history. I have grown up visiting churches in the North of Jutland (Denmark) and taking for granted that in each church, there will be at least one model ship suspended from the ceiling.

In a community where almost every family made their living from the sea, mainly from fishing, the sea and its dangers were part of life. In Skagen, fishing was done from the beach until the harbour was built in 1904. On the west coast, fishing from the beach continued for much longer and there are still small communities like Lønstrup, where fishing boats are still winched on and off the beach today.

Lønstrup Boathouse
The North Sea is big and dangerous and without modern navigation tools, engines or weather forecasting, many persished at sea. This was the same for fishing communities the world over, of course. But here it has been integrated into the churches. The ships are there as a reminder that every family has lost members to the sea, that many may have loved ones at sea even as some sit in church. Perhaps they are also a form of thanksgiving - a reminder that the sea provides food and - for some - prosperity.
This is Skagen's Kirke:

 As one might expect of such a grand church (by local standards) it has a sophisticated interior. And some smart ships. Here is one of them:

Råbjerg kirke
But the ships are in all the coastal churches (and right up in the north, almost everywhere is on the coast). This church is in the middle of a dune, grass and farmland landscape, not far from the west coast. It has an interesting history of its own; it stands alone because the village around it had to be abandoned during a bad spell of shifting sand. But the church endures, solitary and charming. It underwent major restoration in 1931 and is now on a busy summer route to the beach so, for a few weeks a year, it has plenty of visitors:

The interior is low ceilinged and beamed and painted the traditional white. And of course, there are beautiful model ships suspended down the middle of the church:

It is impossible not to know you are in a coastal community when you sit in the churches here and look around. (For copyright : all photos are my own, taken summer 2017)

Follow me on Twitter at @jensen_ml

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The World’s First Novel by Lesley Downer

One day, a little over a thousand years ago, a Japanese court lady picked up her writing brush. In those days Japanese noblewomen lived in seclusion. The only men they could expect to see throughout their entire lives were their fathers, brothers, sons and, if they had one, their husband. The woman - no one knows her name but she has gone down in history as Murasaki Shikibu - was a lady-in-waiting at the imperial court.
Lady Murasaki at her desk
by Utagawa Kunisada (1786 - 1865) 1858

Some time around 1006 - sixty years before the Battle of Hastings, a couple of hundred years after Beowulf and a couple of hundred years before Chaucer - she started writing a story to entertain her mistress, the empress. Like the sultan listening to The Thousand and One Nights or the readers of the instalments of Dickens’s novels, the court ladies clamoured for more.

Murasaki Shikibu was unlikely ever to have a love story of her own, so - perhaps a bit like Jane Austen - she dreamt up the ultimate man and fleshed him out. Prince Genji, the result of her imaginings, was handsome and charming, but also kind-hearted. He was human and flawed. As she told his story he developed and changed and grew older. He suffered terrible losses and tragedies. What Murasaki wrote was amazingly modern, all about relationships and character and feelings. It is moving and gripping and spellbinding and reads like the freshest of page turners. It was the world’s first novel.

In The Tale of Genji Murasaki recounts Genji’s adventures, travels, love affairs and tragedies. A breaker of hearts and fatally prone to falling in love, he’s an adept in the arts of perfume mixing, poetry writing and calligraphy. In his society court ladies keep themselves hidden inside their palaces. He exchanges poems with women he’s never seen and decides if they’re worth meeting on the basis of their handwriting and the quality of their poems. It’s a world quite Proustian in its delicacy and beauty and eternal leisure.
Ox carts - The Tale of Genji
by Tosa Mitsuoki (1617 - 1891) 

This was a society with a very different ethos from our own. Women were never openly seen by men. Noblewomen lived in vermilion-painted palaces (the aristocracy were the only people who counted, as far as Murasaki was concerned) and when visitors called, they received them hidden behind screens. When the women went out they trundled around the tree-lined boulevards of the capital, Heian-kyo, in magnificent ox-drawn carriages, hidden from view, though they made sure there was an exquisite silk sleeve dangling gracefully out of the window so the passing crowd could imagine just how beautiful and cultured the hidden lady was. There was much standing on tiptoe and peeping through lattice fences, not just by the men, trying to catch a glimpse of these elusive creatures, but also by women, when someone like Prince Genji passed by.

In The Tale of Genji men regularly enter ladies’ palaces at night, make love to them in the pitch dark without ever having seen their face and leave at daybreak. The servants, being well trained, studiously ignore the intruders though they are well aware of who they are, as each man wears a distinctive perfume which he has mixed himself.
Spot the lady - hidden behind the screens
Tale of Genji by Kano Hidenobu (late 17th/early 18th century)

Some of the most memorable episodes in The Tale of Genji are humorous. At one point, Genji hears about a princess who lives all alone (apart, of course, from her maids, who don’t count). One day he happens to hear her playing her zither with such skill he assumes she must be very beautiful. He sends her poems, but she is so shy she doesn’t answer, which only piques his interest further. Finally he sneaks in. There is a delicious scent of sandalwood emanating from her clothes, surely evidence of extraordinary beauty. But when he wakes up the next morning and finally sees her he discovers that, far from being beautiful, she has a huge red nose and, worse still, wears very old-fashioned clothes. He’s so horrified he doesn’t even send the customary morning-after poem until evening. But in the end his tender heart is touched and he takes her too under his wing.
Heian Shrine, Kyoto, modelled on Heian Palace 
(794 - 1227), which Lady Murasaki knew.

The early part of the tale is full of stories like these, poignant, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, detailing Genii’s youthful indiscretions and misadventures, at the end of which he has gathered a brood of women who each live in an apartment in his palace. But as Genji gets older, the story gets darker; in all it is some 54 chapters and 1000 pages long. He suffers, he has terrible failures and disasters and in the end loses the person dearest to his heart - Murasaki, after whom the author is named.

By the time I sat down and read the whole novel I’d been living in Japan for several years. I knew Heian-kyo, Genji’s and also Murasaki’s city, very well. It exists like a ghostly presence underlying the streets of Kyoto, its modern name. The vermilion buildings and green-tiled roofs of Heian Shrine are an exact replica, scaled down a little, of the imperial palace that Murasaki knew, which stood until 1227. In spring the gardens, lake and delicate pavilions are swathed in clouds of cherry blossom. And you can still imagine the ox carts with their huge wooden wheels rumbling up and down the long straight streets of the City of Purple Hills and Crystal Streams, as the poets called it.

The Tale of Genji suffuses Japanese culture and Japanese society. It features in everything from art to the incense guessing game, and episodes from it form the plots of many Noh plays. It enormously coloured the way Japan looked to me. Japanese, I should add, are usually amazed to hear that I’ve read and love The Tale of Genji. For them it’s like Beowulf, so difficult that they too can’t read it in the original and rely on modern Japanese translations.
Lady Murasaki might have glimpsed
yamabushi mountain priests like these from
 the window of her oxcart as she passed
Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto (first built 656 AD) 

As a postscript, if you’re inspired to read The Tale of Genji, you should borrow, buy or steal the Arthur Waley translation. Scholars will tell you it’s not impeccably accurate. Waley took liberties, he changed details. If what you want is a precise, perfectly accurate translation, you could try Edward Seidensticker’s version or Royall Tyler’s magnificent two volume set with copious footnotes and a very interesting introduction. But if you read either of those you won’t be swept off your feet and fall madly in love with Genji and be transported away and unable to stop reading. For that you’ll have to go to Arthur Waley.

Lesley Downer’s latest novel,The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see

Monday, 13 November 2017


For some time now I've been hailing the Stuarts as the new Tudors. Last year saw a number of publications set in the seventeenth century, among others we had Linda Porter's excellent Royal Renegades on the children of Charles I, Andrew Taylor's hugely successful The Ashes of London, a thriller set during the Great Fire and my own The Girl in the Glass Tower, about Arbella Stuart who might have been England's first Stuart queen.

The trend shows no signs of abating with the publication of several more intriguing works of both fiction and non-fiction including the winner of the 2017 HWA Debut Crown, Beth Underdown's brilliant debut novel The Witchfinder's Sister, a beautifully written and chilling story woven around the Manningtree witch hunts.

Another dark offering comes in the shape of Katherine Clement's The Coffin Path, an eerie and compelling gothic ghost story set in the wilds of the Yorkshire moors. Other seventeenth century set fiction includes Jemahl Evans's This Deceitful Light, which continues his English Civil War series with great aplomb and Deborah Swift's Pleasing Mr Pepys, which shows explores the drama and intrigue of Pepys's world through the eyes of his wife.

In non-fiction Benjamin Woolley's fascinating portrait of the Duke of Buckingham, The King's Assassin: The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I, not only charts the rise of James I's most successful favourite but also explores the accusation made by a doctor at the King's deathbed that Buckingham had a hand in his benefactor's demise – all very juicy stuff indeed. Looking forward the immensely talented Leanda de Lisle has a new biography coming in January: The White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr, which is every bit as thrilling as its title suggests. 

If you're looking for Christmas presents for friends and family who have read everything there is to read about the Tudors, then look no further.

Elizabeth Fremantle's The Girl in the Glass Tower is published by Penguin.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Suicide in Rome - by Antonia Senior

This week, I have been thinking about suicide.

Not, I promise, my own. I have been thinking about Roman suicide. There was a surge in suicides among Roman aristocrats under the Julio-Claudian Emperors. Suicide was a political act; and in imperial Rome, all politics must be understood in relation to the Emperor. Historian Paul Plass argues that this was game theory suicide, in which execution masqueraded as suicide. The victim could undermine the potency of the Emperor’s intent by claiming libertas – freedom - in the act of self-killing. It was a complicated dance, understood by all, in which the “first and central axiom in the political logic of suicide is the Emperor’s power”.

For the self-killing to fit into this exchange of power and agency, it was necessary to stage a "good” death. The contrast between a noble death and a deluded death is a pre-occupation of Seneca’s, and is visible in a constant theme in his drama and his philosophy.

This impression of an age with a morbid flavour is compounded by the sources. Our primary sources for the suicides in the reigns of the early emperors are Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio; all of them writing significantly later than the events they describe. Tacitus, in particular, is pre-occupied with political suicide.

It is clear, however, that for both early imperial writers and the later chroniclers, there were some familiar tropes that distinguish a good death. The first is the notion that death reveals the man. It is not enough to die, one must die well.

Bravery is crucial. Tacitus labours the duration of certain suicides, including that of Seneca, who takes an age to saw sufficient wounds in his wrists. He reveals a begrudging admiration for Petronius, whose subversive, drawn out death is a riot of feasting and excess.

Seneca: took his time

For Seneca, emulating Cato who himself emulates Socrates, it is important to die a thinking, philosophical death. Suicide is a reasonable response for a stoic who wishes to lay claim to freedom. “Do you ask where the path to freedom lies? It flows through every vein in your body,” says Seneca in his work On Anger. Historian Miriam Griffin argues that philosophy provided the etiquette and style for suicide, as well as a justification.

But how do you tell the difference between a virtuous free death and a deluded death. A “protocol of death” should be followed, to reinforce the notion that the self-killer is reclaiming freedom and virtue, rather than succumbing to morbidity. A good dinner, calm words with chosen friends, calmness in the act; all are ingredients. But there must be an audience. How else can witness be borne that reason triumphed despair? There is a theatricality necessary, then, to the political suicide.

To kill yourself in Imperial Rome meant comparing yourself to those who had gone before. For Seneca, a habitual user of exempla to define and encourage moral behaviour, it was not sufficient to emulate Cato and Socrates, he had to outdo them and become himself an exemplum.

The ultimate witness for the act of self-killing is the Emperor. Suicide was an important pre-emptive strike to avoid the Emperor’s humiliating offer of clemency. Clemency, as understood in its imperial context, was to be avoided – it is a pointed expression of the Emperor’s power and the powerlessness of the pardoned. To deprive the Emperor of a chance to offer or withhold clemency, is to assert freedom in the face of power.

This attempt to carve a vestige of virtue and freedom out of an imperial system which denies their possibility is the key to understanding stoic suicide. Stoics faced a fundamental tension between their commitment to nature and wisdom, and their necessary involvement in the public life of the state. A rational death allows this tension to be resolved. The details matter. Form matters; in part to resolve the central paradox of Roman political suicide. If suicide is the free choice of a free man, then what is suicide if the Emperor orders it?

Nero’s suicide escapes this central paradox –,at the moment of his death, he was still, theoretically, the Emperor. No-one ordered his death, although events suggested it as a rational course of action. The sources are hostile to Nero, and it is no coincidence that he bungles his suicide. No calm dinner for him, no noble witness. A ditch, a freedman, a failure of nerves. Nero begs his freedman to do the job for him, and thus shouts to posterity that he is less than a man. 

Nero: botched job


Saturday, 11 November 2017

Churchill's secret army - a visit to Coleshill

In October I went on a guided walk put on by the National Trust at Coleshill in Oxfordshire. The house itself no longer exists, but during the Second World War, Coleshill was the top-secret General Headquarters (GHQ) of Churchill's 'secret army' . 

This was not a regular army, it was one made up of ordinary civilians who had volunteered to serve as Britain’s last line of defence in the event of a Nazi invasion.

Coleshill House in the Second World War

The secret army was formed in the dark days after the fall of France and the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk. Most of the British Expeditionary Force had been saved, but the BEF had lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and nearly all of its tanks, vehicles and equipment had been abandoned in France. German troops were massed a mere twenty-three miles away across the English Channel and Britain steeled itself for German invasion.

The Battle of Britain had not yet begun and the fate of Britain hung in the balance. Hitler had conceived 'Operation Sea Lion', by which he intended to land more than a quarter of a million troops, 60,000 horses, up to 40,000 motor vehicles and 650 tanks on British shores. His aim was to eliminate the British homeland as a base for operations against Germany.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill had made it clear that in the event of invasion surrender was not to be considered. Instead the people of Britain were to "defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender …”

Defensive measures against invasion were in place, such as barbed wire, anti-tank measures and mines on beaches. 

The country was divided up into defensive sectors by ‘stop lines’, continuous anti-tank obstacles – natural or man-made – which would block or hinder the progress of German armoured columns and allow an easier counter-attack by British defending forces. 

The stop lines were backed up with minefields, concrete pillboxes housing riflemen and machine gun emplacements. 

It is sobering to read Home Forces Operation Instruction No.3 (submitted to the War Cabinet on 25 June 1940), which states: “This system of stops and strong-points will prevent the enemy from running riot and tearing the guts out of the country as had happened in France and Belgium.”

Such measures were designed to assist regular soldiers and, at a pinch, the Home Guard, to defend the country. But what if the impossible happened, and the German invasion was successful, or even partially successful? How were the British people supposed to defend their island?  

In 1940 Britain had an advantage over the nations in Europe that had fallen so quickly to the German blitzkrieg - it had time to create a resistance movement in advance of an invasion.

Colonel Colin Gubbins, a British Intelligence Officer who was later the head of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was asked to put in place a network of British resistance fighters to operate a resistance movement behind enemy lines. It was known by the deliberately vague title of Auxiliary Units and was comprised of civilian men and women (known as Auxiliers), who were usually in reserved occupations, but who were expected in the event of German invasion to engage in a guerrilla war. They would blow up bridges and trains, report on possible fifth column activity and discourage collaboration with the Germans. 
These were the men and women of Churchill’s secret army, and their training in sabotage and mayhem was given at Coleshill House.

There were two branches of the Auxiliary Units. The 4,000 ‘Special Duties’ Auxiliers were trained to be spies in their own country, to be the ‘eyes and ears’ of the organisation. They were people whose work allowed relatively free movement, such as doctors, district nurses and vicars. 

In the event of invasion they were expected to continue their normal lives, but to gain and communicate intelligence about the deployment of enemy forces. They learned how to identify vehicles, high-ranking officers and military units and objectives. Once they had gathered intelligence they were to prepare a short report and deposit it in a secret ‘letter box’ or 'dead letter drop'. 

These letter boxes were in unusual places, such as under rocks, in hollowed bricks or gate-posts or in holes in trees. At Coleshill I was shown examples of 'dead letter boxes'.

The reports would be collected by runners and taken to one of more than 200 civilian wireless operators, who would use secret radio transmitters to transmit the information to military headquarters. 
These radio transmitter might be hidden under the outside toilet on a farm, or in a secret compartment in a chicken shed. One such wireless, manned by the local vicar, was hidden under his church's altar; its antenna cable ran up the side of the bell tower. 
At Coleshill they had a reproduction secret wireless transmitter to show us. The dummy priest, who is a secret wireless operator, is secreted in a little room behind the far wall of this chicken shed.

 Auxiliary Unit Patrols were the second branch of the Auxiliers. They were the combat units who had been highly trained in guerrilla tactics. Each patrol was made up of a small group of six to eight men who operated on a ‘need to know’ basis as a self-contained cell, so that the members of one unit did not know the identity of any members of other units in their area.  
They were instructed to cause maximum disruption to the invading German forces by engaging in sabotage operations behind enemy lines, specifically to deny mobility to the attacker and to disrupt supply lines. Their prime targets were aircraft, fuel dumps, railway lines and depots, together with senior German officers.
The Patrols were provided with hideouts, known as operational bases (OBs) or 'funk holes', which were built in local woodland and stocked with plastic explosives, incendiary devices and ammunition, and with enough food to last for two weeks
Each OB had a camouflaged entrance and an emergency escape tunnel. 
The replica 'funk hole' at Coleshill is hidden beneath the soil, invisible until the top is lifted to reveal the entrance and a 30 foot ladder. 

Inside, the OB was fairly commodious, with four bunks (pulled up against the wall when not in use), a separate compartment for an Elsan toilet, a kitchen area and storage for tinned food and explosives. 

A real OB exists in Sussex, and is still in pretty good shape after 70-odd years.
Each OB had an emergency escape tunnel, leading to an exit some distance away.

This is an example of a 'how to blow up things' in a secret booklet given to Auxiliers, disguised as a Countryman's Diary.

As a sober note to such 'boys' own' adventures, it was accepted that, in the event of German invasion, the life expectancy of an Auxilier was only 10-14 days. The men anticipated being shot if captured. Many were determined not to be taken alive.

The Auxilier Unit Patrols were comprised of part-time volunteers, often recruited from the Home Guard. Former Boy Scouts, gamekeepers, foresters, hikers and mountaineers were preferred, because they knew their local area and had good survival skills. Game keepers were prized recruits as they were used to moving quietly through the countryside and they were used to killing things. All had to sign the Official Secrets Act and not even their families knew what they were trained for. As cover for their activities, they were given Home Guard uniforms.

Auxiliary Unit Patrol recruits were trained in secret at Coleshill, usually on a weekend so as to avoid interfering with their other work. Recruits were asked to check in at Highworth Post Office, where they were vetted by the postmistress, Mabel Stranks. After screening them she telephoned ‘Highworth 85’. The recruits were then blindfolded and taken by army transport on a circuitous route to Coleshill House. There they were taught close combat, self-defence, use of fire-arms, map reading, stealth, night fighting and camouflage techniques, and training in explosives, which were to be used for attacking enemy transport and supply lines. 
The men were also issued with sub-machine guns, hand guns and the deadly Fairbairn Sykes double-edged dagger.
The services of the Auxiliers were never needed in Britain. In September 1940, after defeat in the Battle of Britain and fearing the might of the British navy, Hitler postponed his invasion. Instead he turned his forces towards the Soviet Union. Operation Sea Lion was officially cancelled in March 1942.
What of the Auxiliers? They were stood down  in late 1944, when the tide of war had moved decisively in favour of the allies. Most of them slipped back quietly into their former lives. However, one group was determined to use the skills they had been trained in at Coleshill. These men were parachuted behind enemy lines for Operation Bullbasket in July 1944, but were captured in Verriers Forest near Poitiers and killed by lethal injection.
The Auxiliary Units had no official recognition. It is only now that we are aware of the desperate measures taken to prepare Britain for the expected invasion, and of the work of this ‘secret army.’
As I walked through the countryside following our guide, enjoying the beauty of the autumn colours, I thought about what had motivated those ordinary men and women in 1940 to volunteer for this secret army. 

Coleshill House burned down in 1952. A few years ago a small hedge was planted to mark the perimeter of the house and inside it were planted wildflowers and shrubs. 
I visited on a day of sunshine and shadow, when the flowers were in their last flush but still bright and beautiful. It is fitting, perhaps, that the headquarters of such a secret and chilling organisation should now be open to the sky and enclosing only flowers.

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