Friday, 19 February 2021

TALK - Plagues, Pandemics and Covid 19

Yesterday I have my talk on "Plagues, Pandemics and Covid-19" to a History Club in Sussex via Zoom. 

This is - inevitably -  a fairly grim talk but fascinating nonetheless. And in the end it has a message of hope to us all. Humanity has survived far worse diseases than Covid-19. Have a look at this map of the spread of the Black Death across Europe. Up to half the people in Europe were wiped out, and the population did not recover for 400 years. Compared to that, Covid-19 is barely a ripple on the story of humanity - tragic as the disease is for those who suffer from it. 

The talk also looks at how sciene and medicine has struck back on disease. We cover the micro-organisms that cause disease, how they affect a human body and how they spread. That allows the talk to look at pre-modern efforts to combat disease - be it prayer, quarantine or witchcraft - before looking at the first vaccinations against smallpox - as caricatured here by a contemporary print.
The talk also looks at the first outbreaks of what are now familiar diseases, such as when measles [below] first came to Europe. As a new disease hitting a population with no immunity, measles caused millions of death and untold misery. I also explain who such a devastating deadly disease could settle down to become a relatively mild childhood disease.

 But this talk is really a historical overview of the impact disease has had on humanity. The mass deaths of the Black Death and recurrant outbreaks of plague [below] radically altered society, government, religion and the economy of Europe. It changed the direction of history, and we are still living with the consequences. Similarly the cocktail of diseases that European explorers brought to the Americas caused a massive death toll among the Native Americans - up to 95% - and opened the way for European settlement of the New World far more than did guns, technology or numbers.

 The group I spoke to yesterday were particularly interested in the way that disease organisms are subject to the same evolutionary pressures as other plants and animals. Generally this works in the direction of making diseases milder in their impact on the human body, but more infectious. That has been the story of nearly all diseases to afflict humanity - with the noticeable exception of Spanish Flu which became more deadly as time passed because of the way human doctors treated it. A warning for the future. 

Offer a range of over 20 talks, mostly on history subjects. Find out more on my website.

Thursday, 18 February 2021

BOOK REVIEW - The Reckoning by John Grisham


Well, that was a pile of misery!

I can't say that I enjoyed this book. Pretty much every character ended up bankrupt, homeless, dead - or all three. Being Grisham, this is a very well-plotted book with gripping court room scenes and some interesting legal twists and turns to the plot.

I'll try not to give too much away, but the central section is a flashback to the Second World War when one of the characters fought heroically against the Japanese. I can't say that this bit worked very well. The action scenes came across as a bit pedestrian. You can tell Grisham is a writer of legal novels, not an action writer.

Overall, one of his weaker novels though not without some interest. But as I said at the start - a complete pile of misery from start to finish.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Who was the Real St Valentine?

 St Valentine's Day is on the horizon, so today I gave my talk on St Valentine for the first time this year, and for the first time on Zoom. The group of 40 odd folks were a lively audience. I've spoken to this group before, but again this was the first time on Zoom. 

This is a wide ranging talk that covers the various other saints named Valentine - not just our 14th February chap - before going back to the years of the Roman Empire when the early Christians were persecuted for their faith by the pagan Roman Emperors.

The patron saint of love was, in reality, anything but romantic. This talk looks at the real Valentine, who was martyred on the orders of the Emperor Claudius Gothicus on 14 February 269. It then traces his career after his death as his holy reputation became mixed with spring fertility customs to produce the romantic patron saint of love that we know today. In passing we cover great medieval writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Jacob Voragine. And the talk looks at where is relics are eto be found today - including some rather unexpected places for his feet and hands!

Among the lesser known characters the talk covers is Joseph Ritson. If you look Ritson up in an encyclopedia it will tell you that he was the founder of vegetarianism. But so far as St Valentine's Day is concerned he more importantly wrote a card to his beloved that included the rhyme:

"Roses are red, Violets are blue,
the Honey is sweet, so are you."

Shakespeare eat your heart out. 

The audience today seemed less interested in the historic St Valentine than in how his day had become associated with romantic love, how poets had taken up the chalenge and the way the custom of celebrating your love and lover on 14 February spread around the world. 

I have a range of talks for specific times of the year, including:

The Real St Patrick [March]   [Zoom Friendly]
The Real St George [April]   [Zoom Friendly]
Who was Guy Fawkes? [November]   [Zoom Friendly]
A History of Christmas Foods [December]
The Biography of Father Christmas [December]   [Zoom Friendly]

If you would like to learn more about my talks, or enquire about a booking, see my WEBSITE


Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Talk - Hengist the First English King


Today I gave my talk on "Hengist the First English King" to a WI group.

Under the Roman Empire, Britain was a Christian country where the people spoke Latin or Celtic languages. Just a few generations later paganism had triumphed and most people spoke English. Alone among the former Roman provinces, Britain fell to the pagan barbarians so completely that their religion and language triumphed. The key figure in this massive change was Hengist, a German mercenary from what is now Frisia, who came to what is now Kent. Displaying guile, violence and astonishing ruthlessness, Hengist carved out a kingdom for himself – a lead followed by other warriors who together created England. Although he was such a pivotal figure in the founding of England, the facts about his life are remarkably scanty and much disputed. This talk looks at the fall of Roman Britain and explains how England came into being.

The talk includes a screen presentation and was given over Zoom - though it works just as well in "real life" as it were. 
The audience was very engaged and asked some great questions at the end. One query concerned the Roman Army, which we were all taught at school was invincible, and why it was that the government of post-Roman Britain needed to hire a gang of tough Germanic mercenaries such as those led by Hengist and Horsa. I explained that by the 5th Century the Roman economy was in decline due to a cooling climate, corrupt government and plagues so that the Empire could no longer afford a large standing army. Instead local government bodies were hiring mercenaries or recruiting local, semi-trained militia - a process well under way in Britain by the time Hengist arrived in about 440. 
I always enjoy giving this talk. For a start the career of Hengist is a great story that includes outstanding examples of honour, treachery, sex, lust, violence and adventure. It also includes some wonderful characters such as Vortigern, St Germanus and Ambrosius. It also allows me to explain about the difficulties of trying to work out what was going on in Britain during the 5th century. But also how it is possible to work out the general trends happening and some of what was taking place. 

It is also a great showcase for how power operates within government structures at a time of stress and collapse.

And finally it explains the origin of the symbol of Kent - a white horse on a red field. An origin steeped in violence and bloodshed.

Friday, 5 February 2021

FILM REVIEW - Carry On Henry (1971)


Nobody ever watched a Carry On film expecting accurate history. Which is just as well because you don't get much of it in this offering. 

To be fair to the producers, they don't even pretend. The prologue annonces that the story is based on a manuscript by William Cobbler and so it is a load of old Cobbler's. Having thus set the tone, the film launches into the ribald adventures of the lascivious and greedy Henry VIII [Sid James], the sanctimonious, hypocritical and corrupt Cardinal Wolsey [Terry Scott] and the deviously crooked Thomas Cromwell [Kenneth Williams]. 

In fact the storyline is very loosely - very loosely - woven around some incidents in Henry's life. We kick off with the execution of an unnamed queen [Pasty Rolands] and then lurch into marriage with Anne of Cleves - although here the character of an unwanted wife is not Anne from Germany but Marie from France [Joan Sims]. Her habit of chewing raw garlic puts off the fastidious Henry who tries to avoid consumating the marriage - although the interference of Marie's cousin, King Francis of France complicates the issue. Henry meanwhile is chasing any available busty young lady, with assorted comic slapstick results. 

Next Marie of France transforms into the character of Catherine of Aragon with Henry becoming bored with her just as a new, young lady appears at court - Bettina of Bristol [obviously], played by Barbara Windsor [equally obviously]. Young Bettina displays her assets to get Henry's attention but refuses his advances until they get married - involving Henry in increasingly surreal efforts to divorce Marie. 

But I am being far too serious in looking for historical parallels. This is a bawdy, slapstick farce of the first order. In my view, this is one of the better Carry On movies. 

It is sumptuosly staged - the costumes were left over from the far more serious and high-minded Richard Burton moive "Anne of a Thousand Days". And the exteriors were shot at Windsor and Knebworth. The film has a huge cast - most of them mainstays of British comedy such as Peter Butterworth, Bill Maynard and Margaret Nolan. Though, oddly, most of them get only one or two lines of dialogue. 

A great laugh. Watch it HERE

Note that I have also reviewed the 1933 classic The Private Life of Henry VIII staring Charles Laughton. 

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

FILM REVIEW - The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)


 This is a great movie!

Before I watched it yesterday evening I knew only two things about it:

1 - It starred Charles Laughton.

2 - Charles Laughton was the first non-American to win an Oscar, for his starring role in this film. 

Having now watched it, I can confirm that Laughton absolutely deserved his Oscar for his performance in this movie. 

The plot follows reasonably faithfully the life of Henry from 1536 to 1547. It opens on the day that Anne Boleyn [Merle Oberon] is to be executed. We see Anne preparing herself for a noble death, while Henry is boisterously enjoying himself at Court and preparing to marry Jane Seymour [Wendy Barrie]. We follow Henry through that short marriage to see his childish delight at the birth of a baby son and his short-lived grief when Jane dies. 

Determined not to remarry, Henry gives in to Thomas Cromwell's [Franklin Dyall] pleas for a political marriage to plain Anne of Cleves [Laughton's real life wife Elsa Lanchester]. Anne escapes her unwanted marriage with a ruse, after which Henry falls head over heels in love with beautiful Catherine Howard [Binnie Barnes]. Unknown to Henry, Catherine is already in love with his life-long friend Thomas Culpepper [Robert Donat, who comes close to stealing the show in his scenes]. When Henry finds out about their adultery, he collapses. 

I would bet that it is here that Laughton won his Oscar. The crushing of a proud man and his utter desolation in grief is almost painful to watch. What an actor!

But Laughton also does well with the comedy scenes. I especially like the bit where he sneaks out his bedroom in the middle  of the night to creep off to the bedchamber of a pretty young lady. He tiptoes past everyone, but then his personal bodyguard spot he has gone and run after him to crash to attention with stamping boots and cries of "Make way for the King", while Laughton is desperately trying to get them to shut up. Comedy gold.

Eventually Anne of Cleves persuades Henry to marry the matronly Catherine Parr [Everly Gregg] who mothers him as old age sneaks up on the aging monarch.  

Laughton dominates the film as Henry dominated England, but there are some great performances from other actors too. I've already said Donat is good, but so is Laurance Hanray as Archbishop Cranmer and Lady Tree as Henry's superstitious nurse. 

And there are some marvellous little cameo roles. I loved the redoubtable Wally Patch as the cynical cook, Hay Petrie as the hapless barber who gets everything wrong to comic effect and the merchant couple who attend every execution and bicker over how to get a seat with a good view. 

The costumes are magnificently sumptuous. The casting superb. The sets believable and the exteriors were shot at a variety of stately homes. 

Given that this movie is knocking on for being a century old, it has stood up very well to the passing of time. I give credit to a cracking script and to fine acting - especially by Laughton.

You can watch it here:

Note that I have also reviewed the very different British take on the same story - Carry On Henry

Monday, 1 February 2021

FILM REVIEW - Santa Fe Trail (1940)


 Well, this is a cracking action adventure movie - though what it's got to do with the Santa Fe Trail is quite beyond me. They talk about it a couple of timees, but nobody ever actually goes to Santa Fe. 

This movie is really about the abolitionist John Brown, Bloody Kansas and the Raid on Harper's Ferry. The heroes of the film are a group of young officers, fresh out of West Point Military Academy who are posted to Kansas to try to keep the peace. They get engaged in a variety of escapades, fights and romances. Playing these heroic, dashing soldiers are Errol Flynn, Ronald Raegan and David Bruce. Clearly the producers wanted to spice up the audience appeal so as well as including Jeb Stuart [Errol Flynn] and Phil Sheridan [David Bruce] (who really were there) they include George Custer [Ronald Reagan] who wasn't. They also manager to shoehorn into the story Robert E. Lee [Moroni Olsen] and Jefferson Davis [Erville Alderson]. No doubt it all helped to pack in the audiences.

The villain of the piece is John Brown, magnificently played as a wide-eyed religious zealot by Raymond Massey. Van Heflin plays a suitably sneaky traitor very well indeed. Olivia de Havilland is her wonderful best as Flynn's romantic interest - though it must be said that she is rather unconvincing in her early appearances as a tomboy. The comedy subplot is wonderfully done by Ginn Williams and Alan Hale as a pair of wagon drivers with aspirations to join the army, though lacking any suitable abilities. The film shows its age in the way it treats the slave characters. Ostensibly the entire plot is driven by Brown's abolitionist beliefs and the way that the helps slaves escape north to free states. We see several of these slaves, but they don't say much and are little better than stock characters - a film these days would make much more of them.

The story gallops along a a fast pace with lots of action and twists to the storyline. I'm not a great expert on Brown and his exploits, but I'm told that the film has a lot of inaccuracies in it. Never mind, it is a cracking adventure film. Enjoy. 

You can watch it HERE.


Sunday, 31 January 2021

FILM REVIEW - Zulu (1964)



Made in 1964 to depict the Battle of Rorke's Drift, fought in 1879 as part of the Zulu Wars in southern Africa, this is one of the greatest war films ever made. I was introduced to it by my dad. We watched it on TV whenever it was on, and once he got it as a video tape it became a staple of Christmas. I have lost count of the number of times that I have watched it.

 If you haven't seen it. Watch it now!

So, the plot is fairly straightforward. It opens at the battlefield of Isandhlwana where a British army was wiped out by the Zulu army. The film does not explain why the war was fought - it is about the soldiers and warriors, not the politics. The scene then moves to the main kraal of Zulu ruler Cetewayo [played by the then chief of the Zulu people Mangosuthu Buthelezi] where several dozen young women are marrying an equal number of retiring warriors in a mass wedding ceremony. Also present are the missionary Otto Witt [Jack Hawkins] and his daughter [Ulla Jacobson]. News arrives of Isandhlwana. Witt decides to leave to warn the handful of British soldiers at his mission station at Rorke's Drift that they are about to be attacked. 

Back at Rorke's Drift there is friction between the middle class engineer officer John Chard [Stanley Baker] and the aristocratic infantry officer Gonville Bromhead [Michael Caine in his first starring role]. Chard is using Bromhead's men as manual labour to build a bridge over the river. Chard & Bromhead are given details of the disaster at Isandhlwana by Witt and by fleeing Boer horsemen. After futher bickering over who has seniority and therefore assumes command [it is Chard] they decide to fortify the mission station with walls built of biscuit tins and sacks of grain. This work is still in progress when the Zulu hordes appear over the crest of a hill. The 150 British soldiers [many wounded or sick in hospital] are faced by 4,000 Zulu. 

Among the garrison are well-known British actors as James Booth, Glynn Edwards, Paul Daneman, Patrick Macgee Joe Powell, David Kernan, Gary Bond, Ivor Emmanual and many others.

The rest of the film tells the story of the defence. The battle rages for a day and a night before the Zulus finally retreat - but not before singing a song of tribue to the gallantry of the defenders. 

At the time the film was made it was notable for its realistic portrayal of late 19th century colonial warfare. The producer [Baker] and director Cy Endfield went out of their way to show the Zulu as a great nation and as the highly disciplined fighting force capable of tactics and strategy - as indeed they were. Compared to other movies of the time that portrayed Africans in stereotypical ways this was a great change. Indeed, tribal historians were consulted to get the Zulu side of the battle as the script was being written. The uniforms, equipment and tactics of the British and Boers were also painstakingly recreated. 

There are some great lines in the movie that I quote ad nauseam. 

Of course, the film does take some poetic licence with reality to give the film some more emotional depth. Private Hook is portrayed as a troublemaker who makes good, when in fact his service record was exemplary. Similarly Witt's daughter who in the movie is an attractive young woman who excites the lust of the soldiers was actually aged 5 years old. 

But these details are mere quibbles. This is a great movie. You can watch it HERE.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

FILM REVIEW - North West Frontier [1959]

 I remember watching this film with my dad many years ago. As I recall it, the film was set on a train on which the heroes were racing to escape the villains. I suppose that way back then the subtleties of the plot and certainly I would have missed the religious undertones and post-imperial angst. 

Anyway, the film starts in a fictional princely state on the North West Frontier of the Indian Raj in 1905. The Maharajah and most of his subjects are Hindus living in a generally peaceful agricultural state. The hill tribes are, however, wild marauding pillagers who have been stirred up to a peak of religious fervour by a Moslem fanatic preaching holy war. A somewhat stereotypical background for a film set in the Raj, but let's just take that as read. 

In what serves as a prelude to the main action, Kenneth More's Captain Scott and his men escort the maharajah's little son and heir and his American governess Catherine Wyatt [Lauren Bacall] away from the strife-stricken princely state to a British military base nearby. Soon after they leave the jihadis fight their way in to the palace and kill the maharajah. Now all that stands between the locals and religious civil war is the little boy. 

The Moslem fanatics follow the boy and lay siege to the military base. Convinced that his base will fall, the commander [Jack Gwillam] decides that Scott and Wyatt must take the prince to safety at the city of Kalapur where there is a much larger British garrison. The last train has already gone, but Scott finds a tatty old shunting engine and an equally derelict passenger carriage. The two are patched up and off they go. 

On the train are Scott, Wyatt, the prince, two soldiers plus: a Dtuch journalist [Herbert Lom], a retired British merchant [Wilfred Hyde Wight], Lady Windham [Ursula Jeans] and an arms dealer [Eugene Deckers]. The train driver Gupta is played by Inderjeet Johar, who does a wonderful comic turn as an uneducated engineer utterly devoted to his engine. This is a top class cast, and each of them plays their role to perfection.

 It becomes clear that somebody on the train is in cahoots with the rebels and is intent of killing the boy prince.

As the journey goes on, the train is ambushed, chases, faced by a sabotaged rail and faces all sorts of hazards. It is a dashing and exciting adventure story which in between times does touch upon the role of the British Raj in India, the role of princely states and the play off of religious and ethnic groups. No doubt a modern film [if one were ever made set in the Raj with a Britis hero] would do a better job of explaining these difficult issues, but for 1959 this film makes a pretty good fist of it. 

A great adventure movie. And you can watch it HERE.

Thursday, 28 January 2021

No.43 Squadron, RAF, become world famous


On 21 July the squadron performed a feat that made them world famous, though war time censorship meant that at the time the identity of the squadron concerned was not printed in the newspapers. A convoy of merchant ships was heading up the English Channel for London and had reached Bognor Regis when radar picked up a formation of German aircraft on an intercept course. At Tangmere, Squadron Leader Badger was at readiness along with five other pilots. They were ordered into the air and as their Hurricanes swept out to sea, climbing for height, were given a course to steer that would lead them to the German aircraft. Badger organised his six Hurricanes into two flights of three. He was leading one himself, with Flt Lt Thomas Morgan heading the second. They had not yet reached Bognor and the convoy when Badger spotted the Germans. There was a bombing formation of 40 Dornier Do17 bombers, with a close escort of about 20 Messerschmitt Bf110 twin engined fighters. High overhead was an upper escort of Messerschmitt Bf109 fighters, which Badger thought numbered about two dozen aircraft. The bombers were about 2,000 feet above the Hurricanes, which were now climbing fast.

“Huns ahead, chaps”, called Badger over the radio. “It’s like looking up at Piccadilly Circus escalator. Line ahead, chaps. Let’s upset them a bit.” He sent Morgan and his flight to tackle the Bf110s, while he led his wingmen to attack the bombers. Badger opened fire first, at the rather long range of 250 yards, but his aim was good and pieces flew off the Dornier at which he was aiming. Badger then veered to get a second bomber in his sights and fired again, this time knocking out an engine.  

 Up above, Morgan and his comrades had got in among the Bf110s. Morgan had caused one German to go down with a clearly damaged wing, while another Hurricane pumped bullets into a second German with the result that one of the enemy’s engines caught fire. There was no time to celebrate, for now the Bf109 single engined fighters dived down to join the fray.

Morgan spotted a Bf109 on his tail and flipped his aircraft up to try to evade the stream of bullets coming his way. Instantly the entire cockpit cover of Morgan’s Hurricane was covered in oil. Assuming his engine oil lines had been severed by the German, Morgan pushed his fighter’s nose down and steered north toward land. Unable to see anything through the oil, Morgan flung back the canopy hood and half stood in the cockpit so that his head poked up out of the canopy and he could see where he was going. Finding that the engine still seemed to be running, Morgan headed for Tangmere. When he landed he found that his fighter was totally undamaged, the oil had come from some other aircraft.  

 Back in the fight, Badger was also hit. A cannon shell hit his port wing and tore off the aileron. He too put his nose down and headed for Tangmere. The other pilots continued the fray, and eight more Germans were seen to be damaged by their gunfire. As each No.43 pilot ran out of ammunition or was damaged he dropped out of the fight and headed for home. Their mission had been successful for the German bombing attack so badly disrupted that the bombs were scattered over a wide range of sea and none of the ships in the convoy were damaged.

What Badger and his men did not know, however, was that soon after they had taken off an RAF staff officer from London had arrived at Tangmere with a journalist from the USA in tow. The journalist had been promised a day at a fighter base, and Tangmere had been chosen almost at random. Escorted by the staff officer, the journalist was shown about the base. He was being led to the control room when Morgan’s Hurricane came in to land covered in oil. Soon after that, Badger’s fighter came in with a chunk missing from its port wing. The American asked if he could talk to the pilots. The staff officer agreed, but said it could only be a quick chat at that point since the pilots had to attend debriefing after which they might be free. The journalist scampered across the grass and hailed Badger.  

 “How many did you meet?” the American asked.

“Oh,” replied Badger tugging off his flying helmet. “About 40 Dorniers, I should say. Plus about the same number of Messerschmitts. Yes, must have been about eighty in all.” 

 “And how many squadrons did you have?’ queried the journalist.

Badger laughed. “Not even one. I had six of our boys from No.43. That was enough.” At which point the journalist was hustled away and told he had to wait until the pilots were ready to talk to him at length. Some time later the American was allowed to talk to Badger and Morgan to get the full story, scribbling down details of the battle over Bognor. The story of how six RAF pilots had climbed to attack 80 Luftwaffe aircraft was subsequently splashed across newspapers the length and breadth of the USA, and later was repeated in neutral countries across the world.  

 The incident proved to be a turning point, for it was the first time that many people in neutral countries realised that Britain really was prepared to fight on alone. In the previous months Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland and even the mighty France had all fallen to the German military machine. Some fighting had been intense, but often the panzers had simply stormed through defences as if they barely existed and then rounded up vast numbers of dispirited prisoners too shattered even to fight. Many had expected Britain to go the same way, or to negotiate a hurried peace treaty. Nobody outside Britain had really taken the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill seriously when he had stated the determination of the British to fight it out. Now people began to believe him.


Soon afterwards Morgan was awarded a DFC, the citation stating that “His behaviour in action has been an inspiration to the pilots in his flight.”


A Word about Niall of the Nine Hostages


The mighty warrior king Niall Noígíallach dominates the twilight world between history and legend. He was one of the greatest of the High Kings of Ireland in prehistoric days, but one of the least known to modern historians. He gave rise to the powerful and widespread O'Neil (Ui Neill) dynasty of rulers, but even the century in which he lived is obscure. He was a pagan, but his reign prepared the way for Christianity.

That Niall of the Nine Hostages did live and did rule at least part of Ireland nobody doubts, but how powerful he really was and how he got his famous sobriquet "of the Nine Hostages" remain utterly obscure.

According to legend, Niall was the stepson of a goddess, kissed the Spirit of Ireland and had eight sons - each of whom became a king. On the last point at least the facts seem to confirm the legend. Geneticists have found that no less than 21% of men in the northern parts of Ireland share a common male ancestor who lived about 1,600 years ago. Niall of the Nine Hostages is the prime candidate for this role as progenitor of a people.

But how much of the rest of the legend of Niall of the Nine Hostages can be born out by the facts? Historians have traditionally scorned the tales of his invasion of Britain, attacks on France and assault on Scotland. But in this book I hope to show that Niall was every bit the warrior hero that the legends make him out to be, though perhaps not in quite the same way.

And the facts are there to support this.