Silent, upon a peak in Darien


Darien: A Journey in Search of Empire      

by John McKendrick QC (Birlinn Publishers, 2016)

This review begins, I’m afraid, with an apology. The Law’s delay (to paraphrase the Bard) is one thing, but a year for a book review? My bad.

Unlike this review, however, news travels fast these days. Instantaneously in fact. But there’s so much of it that items are easily overlooked. Good quality news can be missed.

Take Scotland’s own John McKendrick QC, senior counsel at the Bar in England but also (more significantly) an Advocate at the Scottish Bar. Now I’m a little surprised John’s appointment last summer as Attorney General for the amazing Caribbean Island of Anguilla went somewhat unnoticed here at home – something I hope this little review might help remedy.

John’s sunshine and palm tree life as Attorney General can be viewed in all its glory on twitter @JohnMQC – easily the most transcendent twitter account you will ever come across, especially when it’s raining sideways back here in Blighty. John has the best job in the world, I tell myself, but even paradise has its problems from time to time, as Anguilla’s devastating storms reminded us. Those must have been difficult times for those charged with good administration, and no doubt the clear up work is ongoing: but having followed John on this, he deserves enormous credit for the way he has risen to those challenges – so if you’re reading this, John, I take my rain drenched hat off to you.

But back to the review and… what was I talking about again? Ah, news. Back in the seventeenth century news took days or weeks to arrive, even from elsewhere on these islands. But it took months to arrive from more distant shores. Such as the West Indies. Such as Darien.

Darien: a name to fire the imagination. Who, having read it, can ever forget Keats’ glorious poem, where he compares opening George Chapman’s translation of Homer to the experience of seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time? Darien is like Xanadu, Avalon, Atlantis or El Dorado. It conjures a lost paradise, a place so perfect it can only exist in the imagination.

There is something really deep in the Scottish character, I think, that draws us toward Darien: this distant place of perfection which – much like the 1978 World Cup in Argentina  – was ours for the taking! Practical too: the idea of a great canal was in the minds of the colonists, even then. And yet how bitter the experience of that paradise proved to be.

Scotland’s doomed bid for Empire in modern day Panama is one of the defining moments in our history. Its story has been covered by a number of writers, perhaps most notably by the great John Prebble in his work The Darien Disaster. McKendrick’s, however, as the title of his work implies, is not only a superb history of the Darien Scheme, it is also the author’s own journey to Caledonia and the spine-tingling experience of standing where those brave Caledonians stood. Amazingly, there are still artefacts, the evidence of their presence long ago, fading like a lost lament.

This is a wonderful, haunting and beautifully written book.

Go on. It’s nearly Christmas.


Marshall Hall: A Law unto Himself

Scottish Legal News

Advocate Stephen O’Rourke is impressed with a new biography of the great barrister Marshall Hall. 2 September 2016

This life of ‘The Great Defender’ and Conservative MP Sir Edward Marshall Hall KC (1858-1927) is a fascinating read, beautifully written by another English silk, Sally Smith QC.

Smith has researched every facet of Marshall’s life (as he was always known), from his childhood in Brighton and public school days, to his plethora of correspondence and the minutiae of his famous cases. But whereas detail can often cloy a good narrative Smith brings a lightness of touch and leads you on through Marshall’s extraordinary life and work, his rebellious nature never far below the surface. Smith, herself a highly accomplished advocate in criminal and medical law, paints the entire canvas in its Edwardian glory: cognac in smoke filled London clubs, night sittings in Parliament then straight to court, and black tied theatre impresarios interrupting the evening’s performance to announce the verdict in Marshall’s latest trial. And then there’s his intriguing private life including two marriages, many mistresses and the ghastly death of his first wife and the trial of her killer.

Smith’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious, and the book is all the more readable for it: and what a character he is to consider – because for the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century Marshall was quite simply the most famous trial counsel in England, beloved by the public and bewitching to jurors, but all too often clashing with the bench and then roasted by the press. His wit was legendary (Judge: “Mr Marshall Hall, is your client familiar with the doctrine res ipsa loquitur? Marshall: “My Lord, in the remote hills of County Donegal from where my client hails they speak of little else.”), but it came at a price.

Was Marshall Hall the greatest advocate of them all? Certainly Lord Birkett included him in his roll call of history’s six outstanding advocates (together with Patrick Hastings, Edward Clarke, Rufus Isaacs (who in 1898 took silk with Marshall), Charles Russell and Scotland’s own Thomas Erskine): and while in the final analysis he may not have been in the first rank of legal minds, he was certainly the consummate trial counsel.

Smith shows us every angle of this complex man, but most interesting of all are his cases: the ‘Brides in the Bath’, the Green Bicycle murder, murder at the Savoy, the Poisoning of Mabel Greenwood and the Crumbles murder; the names alone read like an Agatha Christie novel. These cases enthralled the nation, and Smith’s narrative affords us the best seat in the courtroom. One striking photograph, which seems to encapsulate just how the justice system operated in those times, shows a workman laying down sawdust in order to silence the passing traffic; and meantime the public both in and out of the courtroom knew it was Marshall ‘the Great Defender’ who held the brief.

After Marshall’s death in 1927 aged 68, Edward Marjoribanks brought out a wonderful albeit rather romanticised biography which was published in 1929 and went through eleven reprints in three years such was the interest. Since then, however, there has been relatively little on the man himself, though much has been written of his cases.

With the distance of time therefore and its scope, Smith’s book is the definitive work on Marshall, and deservedly so. Nevertheless the last words go to Lord Birkenhead who provided the foreword to Marjoribanks’ 1929 The Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall (and I’ll leave you to discover Clive Anderson’s entertaining foreword to Smith’s work), which in their proximity convey so much.

‘Courage was Marshall’s outstanding characteristic. He was utterly fearless in what he conceived to be his duty, both as a lawyer and in other, less vicarious parts of life… the elan with which he swept down upon a doubtful jury, brushing aside their prejudices, and persuading them against their will, sometimes possibly against their better judgement into accepting his own sanguine view of his client’s innocence won many a day which a more timorous, if not less skillful advocate must have given up for lost… To watch him in court was an educational process in the study of human nature.’

Stephen O’Rourke

Marshall Hall: A Law Unto Himself by Sally Smith QC, foreword by Clive Anderson. Pub by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill, 302pp. £25 (Hardback).

A Childhood In Scotland

A Childhood In Scotland, by Christian Miller (1981, John Murray Limited, reprinted by Canongate Books)  

As the sun finally shines again over the rain drenched Lothians, summer seems to have returned, albeit momentarily; and thoughts of happy, lazy holidays drift back to mind.

Some books about childhood, as well as certain children’s books when revisited in adulthood, work magic on the memory and imagination; and recall to mind a world of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations which, as adults, we have painted over many times like kitchen walls – but what if we could gently remove those layers, back through cornfield yellow, candy stripes, silver (what were they thinking?) and 1970s brown sunflower prints; and what if we could travel back through the years and return to the original patterns: what might we remember then?  In the words of English writer Leslie Poles Hartley, in the first line of his own childhood memoir The Go Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

There are many classics of this kind of course, such as Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, or my own favourite from childhood, Denys Watkins-Pitchford’s Brendon Chase written under his pseudonym ‘B.B.’– which I have only just discovered was made into a children’s television drama in the early 1980s, and can be viewed on You Tube here.

In this admittedly rather mixed genre I would also include Stevenson’s Treasure Island, his prolific fellow Scots writer and artist Robert M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and Laurie Lee’s magisterial Cider with Rosie, which contains the fabulous encapsulation of his reasons for recording childhood memories, for fear that otherwise looking back, all that he might recall would be a ‘salt caked mud flat’.

There is much of the summer in these books of course: rock pools, sand between the toes, camp fires, thirsty gulps of lemonade and going home tired but happy; and no doubt much that is pure nostalgia.  Written as these all were, however, in different times and places, they can remind us that childhood is always going on all around us and that we, just like children of today, are shaped by our snatched freedoms and imaginative experiences.  Has North Berwick really changed that much from Stevenson’s description of his own summers there in The Lantern-Bearers?

“…you might climb the Law, where the whale’s jawbone stood landmark in the buzzing wind, and behold the face of many counties, and the smoke and spires of many towns, and the sails of distant ships.  You might bathe, now in the flaws of fine weather, that we pathetically call our summer, now in a gale of wind, with the sand scouring your bare hide, your clothes thrashing abroad from underneath their guardian stone, the froth of the great breakers casting you headlong ere it had drowned your knees.  Or you might explore the tidal rocks, above all in the ebb of springs, when the very roots of the hills were for the nonce discovered; following my leader from one group to another, groping in slippery tangle for the wreck of ships, wading in pools after the abominable creatures of the sea, and ever with an eye cast backward on the march of the tide and the menaced line of your retreat…”

And again, like Stevenson, is it not the free and idle times of our youth that we savoured the most, as in his essay An Apology for Idlers?

Christian Miller’s ‘A Childhood In Scotland’ (1981), a part of which first appeared in the New Yorker, has been reprinted and is now available here, is a short classic about childhood from the point of view of a girl, the youngest of six, growing up in her father’s Highland castle in the 1920s.  I tracked down one of the original copies, read it the same day and found it utterly absorbing.  Better than Downton Abbey, this is a genuine and beautifully written account of the vanished life of a thriving Highland community, at the centre of which is the author’s family and their ancient ancestral home.

Christian Miller’s book paints a portrait of her childhood, describing the interiors of the castle, the ghosts, her noble parents and wild siblings, the serried ranks of maids, gillies and gamekeepers, the animals both domestic and wild: but most importantly, she does it all with an immediacy and poignancy that brings her lost world not only to her own mind but also to the reader’s.  There’s no sentimentality, only an honest and fascinating picture.

This book is ideal for a deckchair, possibly after cutting the grass or trimming the hedge; and if you get the chance to read it (or even if you don’t), you might ask yourself what books and stories shaped your own youth?  Why not share them here?

(published at Think Scotland)


In praise of John Buchan

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1855)

It’s August 1939 and war in Europe is less than a month away; but you’re in Ottowa’s stately Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s official residence, in the midst of a cocktail party.  A hubbub of polite conversation and chamber music wafts through the Long Gallery, and the late summer heat drifts through the open doors from the elegant gardens beyond.  The circling guests chatter about the King and Queen’s triumphal visit just two months earlier; the machinations of Herr Hitler; that strange man Mussolini; and as the sun sets, everyone drifts through the doors to watch the fireworks on the lawn.

For once, eschewing the formal garb of his post in favour of demure black tie, the relaxed viceroy Lord Tweedsmuir stands to your right, a cigarette at his lips: but you, newly arrived in Canada and two gins to the better, have not yet been introduced.  “And who are you?” you ask him politely.

Amid the din of the first fireworks exploding in the sky he smiles and introduces himself; and within moments you are in the comfort of his affable company.  Yet in truth, echoing through the decades after his sudden death in February 1940 aged 64, the question is a good one: for who was this son of the manse John Buchan, First Baron Tweedsmuir, fifteenth Governor General of Canada, sometime schoolboy at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and President of the Oxford Union, barrister, First World War spymaster, member of Parliament for the Combined Scottish Universities, Chancellor of Edinburgh University, and writer?

Well, as I hope is obvious from that introduction, John Buchan is someone who defies the pigeon hole.  He simply will not be put in a category, except to say that like Andrew Carnegie, James Clerk Maxwell, Elsie Inglis, James Watt, Mary Slessor or David Livingston, he is one of those Scots who belong not just to Scotland, but to the whole World.  Like them, Buchan still shows us today that Scots who believe in themselves can cry out along with Archimedes: “give me a place to stand and I will truly move the Earth.”

Despite a life which would stretch the bounds of credulity if featured in one of his own novels, John Buchan is a relatively unrecognised figure in modern Scottish life; indeed, if it were not for the enormous fame of The Thirty Nine Steps, even his name would perhaps have faded entirely.  For instance you will search in vain for a statue of Buchan anywhere in Britain (although there is admittedly a fine bust in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery), while the rest of his literary output, not to mention his political life, is surprisingly overlooked – something that the good people at the John Buchan Society hope to put right when an exciting new museum – The John Buchan Story – is unveiled in Peebles’ Chambers Institute next month. Here’s their website:

All of a sudden there is something very modern about Buchan: perhaps it’s a product of our austere times, that heroic characters once again seem appealing?  And there was certainly much that was heroic about Buchan, both in real life and in the characters he created.

A recent review of Buchan in the Independent stated:

“[he] knew that you can’t buck the consequences of your actions, and that your life is what you make of it. Perhaps his peculiarly Scottish combination of Romanticism and Calvinism – daring living and high thinking – is due to return to fashion.”

An anthem for the credit crunch perhaps?

As regards politics, Buchan was a Tory; but a rather unusual one.  Politically he believed in the Union, but had strong nationalist sentiments, stating in Parliament, in the midst of the depression of the 1920s:

“I believe every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist. If it could be proved that a Scottish Parliament were desirable… Scotsmen should support it.” 

In the same speech, Buchan reflected on the high emigration from Scotland of the time:

“We do not want to be like the Greeks, powerful and prosperous wherever we settle, but with a dead Greece behind us.”

The issues Buchan wrestled with resonate today; but his were very different times, and it would be simplifying his position to conclude that he was a nationalist in the modern political sense: for Buchan was someone who believed in a strong Scotland within the British Empire of his times; something which he viewed as a great community of nations with shared ideals and principals.  For example, after he was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1935 he quickly established himself as a stout promoter of the country’s national identity.  In 1937 he stated that a Canadian’s first loyalty is not to the British Commonwealth of Nations but to Canada and Canada’s King.” a pronouncement that saw him denounced as ‘disloyal’ in some quarters, when he was in truth anything but that.

Whether Scots, British or Canadian, Buchan believed in the power and identity of the individual, and respected it – something which sometimes caused fear in the hearts of the controlling political class of his day.  He liked people and nations to be true to themselves and reflect their singular characteristics, stating that the diverse ethnic groups within Canada should retain their individuality and each make its contribution to the national character,” because “the strongest nations are those that are made up of different racial elements.  Old fashioned language perhaps, but a clear and modern message in the world of the 1930s.

He was a tireless worker in the ethic of his upbringing, and overcame the natural shyness of the Scot to show the world his mettle.  Between 1896 and 1940 he wrote more than fifty historical works on subjects as diverse as Julius Caesar, the Somme, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Walter Scott, while his fictional output was hardly less prodigious.  Aside from The Thirty Nine Steps and his hero Richard Hannay’s continued adventures in Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Three Hostages and The Island of Sheep, many of Buchan’s novels are Scots historical masterpieces like Witchwood (Buchan’s favourite of all his works), an eerie thriller set in a seventeenth century village, focusing on the moral dilemmas faced by the newly appointed minister David Sempill, when he encounters dark forces in the primordial forest which looms above his parish.

 Reading Witchwood recently, it struck me that the book demonstrated just how much Buchan followed in the style and pace of Stevenson, whose short story Thrawn Janet must surely have been a key influence.  Buchan is credited with the creation of the modern thriller, but was he not in turn borrowing from Stevenson’s Kidnapped?  Is Buchan’s work not in fact a natural progression from his eminent Scots forebears in the nineteenth century?

One thing that is undoubtedly true of Buchan is the fluency of his prose: he writes as he was – a wise and natural storyteller at ease in himself and his subject; and I heartily recommend revisiting his novels, many of which have now been attractively reprinted by Edinburgh’s own Polygon Press.

Buchan, today, remains fascinating and enigmatic:  you never quite get the feeling that you know him entirely; and like the chase sequences in his thrillers he is always two steps ahead and vanishing around a corner. A collection of political and personal contradictions to rival Whitman, he is nonetheless in the end very human: an honest and good humoured friend, and an optimistic tonic for the cares of modern living.  He deserves to be read much, much more.


This article was published on 9 July 2012 on the ThinkScotland website:

Tortilla in a Hammock


Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck (Penguin Modern Classics, but first published 1935)

Of all the pleasures of being in a warm climate on holiday (or even when it’s raining, but just a little), lying under the shade of a pergola in a hammock is certainly one of the best – particularly after lunch, I’ve found.  This particular hammock, the one I managed to hoist (is that the right word?) between two stout trees, was a classic of its type; and I had found it covered in cobwebs, rolled up behind the temperamental boiler in a store room off the kitchen, just where the owner said it would be.

It was made of that kind of stiff canvas material, like sail cloth, with weighted tassels all down both sides so that it could be wrapped around you like a cigar – and the canvas connected with cords, drawn together into a single point like a triangle at both ends, to two wooden bars.  Both bars then connected to a stout chain with a clip, so that it could be secured to whatever you chose to sling it between.

After a few failed attempts in various places around the garden (no lasting damage I’m glad to say), I managed to secure it just about elbow height between two trees in the shade of a clambering rose bush which had been trained across some cross beams.  Perfect, I thought, as I stood back to admire my work so far – but what this really needs is two chairs and a tray balanced across their backs as a makeshift table, so that everything you might need is close to hand.  Two minutes later I had my handy hammock–side table assembled, and a few odds and ends to provide essential creature comforts (but no Blackberry I’m glad to say).  Nearly ready now, I thought, as the afternoon sunshine distilled its warmth: silence, other than the crickets chirruping and the bees flitting from flower to flower.

There is then, however, the rather tricky business of getting into the hammock – a particular test for land-lubbers like myself – but after a few nervous attempts and at least one calamity involving the makeshift table, I was finally on board and drifted off into a world created by legendary American author John Steinbeck.

The first Steinbeck book I read was East of Eden (for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature), and it remains in my list of the best 5 novels of all time – but shamefully I have neglected reading any of his many other novels ever since.

Tortilla Flat – a copy of which was on the shelves in the house – is one of his earliest novels, and the one which really first put him on the map, so to speak.  It’s also a relatively short book, easily read if you’re prepared to put in the hard work of a good few hours in a hammock, for example.

Set in the coastal town of Monterey, California in the early 20th century, the book follows the lives of a handful of down at heel paisanos, with the hero Danny in the centre.  The fairly loose plot is gentle and funny, following the comic-tragic events of each of the main characters in turn – but the real star is Steinbeck and the quality of his writing which shines through on every page.  Steinbeck later revisited Montery for one of his other classics Cannery Row – but as you know I haven’t read that yet!  The book – Tortilla Flat that is, was also made into a 1942 Hollywood movie starring Spencer Tracey and Hedy Lamarr.

This is a great old holiday book, and you can get it here (sorry for the long link) – or why not try Biblocafe in Glasgow’s West End? – but best of all, here’s a bona fide hammock site!


On the Crimean War

No war in all the history of the British Army (or for that matter British Imperial History) managed to capture so much of what is best, of what is worst, what is intelligent, what is stupid, what is courageous and what is foolhardy, what is important and what is infinitely insignificant, than the extraordinary and downright bizarre military campaign which was the Crimean War, of October 1853 to February 1856.  It stands in history as a testament to British folly – and yet there was much learnt from the dire experience, and which led to the successful reshaping of Britain’s military organs, rendering them fit for the practice of Empire in its hayday between 1860 and 1914.  Indeed, the Crimean War still has lessons for us today.

I should tell you how it came to be that I developed an interest in the Crimean campaign.  As usual, the story begins in the ancient world, and this time with my reflecting on the extraordinary fact that one of the greatest poets of the late Roman Republican age, Publius Ovidius Naso, for reasons which have remained an entire mystery to posterity, was exiled in his fiftieth year from the splendour of Rome to the very fingertips of its dominions on the shores of the Black Sea, just south of where the mighty river Danube empties out into its waters.  For ten long years Ovid lived in piteous exile on that shore, in the town of ancient Tomis, now known as Constanza, in Romania.

While researching his exile, and in particular the ancient trade routes which were followed from Rome to Corinth and beyond (and which I hoped would have supplied the poor fellow with olives and dates), I discovered that ships would regularly sail from Greece through the Dardanelles, up the western shores of the Black Sea until they would reach the large peninsula at the north end of the Sea, which they knew as Taurica.  This peninsula, about half the size of Denmark, and which is very roughly a rhombus or sidelong four sided diamond in shape, had in ancient times a very large greek colony at its southern end, known as Chersonesos.  To this day, the ruins of Chersonesos are only marginally less extensive than those of Pompeii.

It was in the tenth century, however, and after the year 988 AD when Saint Vladimir of the Kievan Rus converted to Christianity, that this beautiful corner of Europe joined the Russian family, becoming known as the Crimea.

The Crimea then began a long and distinguished history in the life of greater Russia. It was a place of great churches, monasteries and cathedrals. It became a centre of Russian culture and learning. It became a summer resort to which the frozen citizens of St Petersburg and Moscow would flock every year. In 1783 the mighty harbour city of Sebastopol was founded by Admiral Thomas MacKenzie (of Scottish decent, of course, and a sailor in the service of Russia like his father before him). It quickly became the home port for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, established by Prince Potemkin in the same year. It remains to this day as Russia’s only ice-free harbour. In the aftermath of the Second world War, the Crimea was the location for the momentous Yalta conference of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill. It is a breathtakingly beautiful place, with dark and snowcapped mountains, cliff faces plunging to the coastal sea below and yet a number of sheltered and deep water bays.  It has, overall, a temperate, continental climate which is very pleasantly warm in the summer, but bitterly cold in the winter.

And so the Crimea has a claim to be one of the most historic and interesting parts of the continent of Europe, quite apart from being the amphitheatre for one of the most astonishing military campaigns in history.

No one ever seems, properly, to understand what the Crimean War was all about – suffice to say, that it involved an urgent need to remove the Russians from what was, on any view, one of the somewhat more Russian parts of the world, I hope you would agree from my simple summary.

By the beginning of the 1850s, Russia was extremely powerful and Turkey – or to give its proper title, The Ottoman Empire – was increasingly weak.  Russia was encroaching ever more onto Ottoman territory, and had even sought to extend its territories along the western Black Sea shores, lands which bordered those of Austro-Hungary.  In short, it was felt across Europe that Russia was ‘getting rather big for its boots’.

In an unrelated incident, there had, in June 1853, been a riot outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Catholic monks, who had been given a key to the church, placed a silver star over the Manger (but quite why this was happening in June always rather puzzles me – if anyone has an insight I’d be glad to hear from them).  Russian Orthodox monks tried to stop their Catholic brethren fixing it there, and a heated and then violent struggled quickly ensued. Some of the Orthodox monks were killed.  Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman Empire at that time. The Russian Tsar, enraged by the death of the Orthodox monks, hurled blame on Turkey for the death of his monks. The Tsar even went so far as to suggest that the Ottoman police in Jerusalem had been involved in the monks’ murder. Within days of the incident a Russian Army was marching towards the Danube on a crusade to protect the Holy Places from Islam. The situation was becoming very serious.

Tension between Russia and Turkey escalated. Meanwhile diplomatic dispatches flew across Europe from St Petersburg to Paris, from Constantinople through Vienna to London, and even crackled across the new fangled electric telegraph wires.  The Tsar was hopeful of keeping Great Britain out of any war with the Turks, but the rumblings of war were growing louder.

By October 1853 Russia was at war with Turkey.  On St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1853 (Saint Andrew being the patron saint of the Russian Navy, under whose reversed saltire they sail) the Russian Black Sea Fleet under Admiral Nachimoff sailed out of Sebastopol. He encountered a Turkish flotilla on the south shore of the Black Sea at Sinope, and sank every single ship.  Nearly 4,000 Turkish sailors were lost and many of them, so it was widely reported in the press at the time, were shot by Russian gunners as the floundered in the water.

British opinion was outraged by the massacre. Driven on by the war bellowing of Palmerston, Lord Aberdeen (the Prime Minister) decided he had no choice but to recommend to Queen Victoria that war be declared upon Russia in order to defend the independence of the muslim Ottomans.  France declared war on Russia the day after Great Britain.

Now, the last successful war which Great Britain had waged had been the long and bitter Napoleonic campaign against France which culminated in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo.  Now, less than 30 years later, the British and French were waging war together, and this time against the Russians.  As the British were soon to discover to their cost, however, there had been a great deal of sitting on a large quantity of laurels since Wellington had trodden those glorious Belgian fields in victory.

At Waterloo, Wellington had a brave and distinguished aide de camp by the name of Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the youngest of the Duke of Beaufort’s eleven children.  Fitzroy was always a young man marked for greatness – and in the words of Crimea Historian Christopher Hibbert:

“Captain Lord Fitzroy Somerset… had the ability of preserving in the midst of confusion, irritation, danger or abuse a quite astonishing serenity.  He was also extremely tactful, industrious and discreet.  He promised, indeed, to be an ideal Military Secretary; and [Wellington] found him to be one.”

Fitzroy was at the Duke’s side on the field at Waterloo, but toward evening a musket ball from a sniper smashed his right elbow.  He walked to a forward hospital and showed his lacerated arm to the surgeon in charge.  The surgeon told him to lie down on the table and then he cut the arm off between the shoulder and the elbow.  Fitzroy did not so much as murmur; and The Prince of Orange, lying wounded in the same small room, was unaware that an operation had been performed until the remainder of the arm was tossed away by the surgeon and (by now, Colonel) Fitzroy called out – “Hey, bring my arm back.  There’s a ring my wife gave me on the finger.”

After Waterloo there followed a brilliant military career, and in due course a peerage, which led to Fitzroy being ennobled with the title, Lord Raglan.

And it was Lord Raglan, in the years after the iron duke’s passing, it was the same dashing young Fitzroy who had been Johnny to Wellington, that took up the post of Commander in Chief of Her Majesty’s Brittanic forces.

There have been few commanders in chief who have been subjected to the levels of criticism which Lord Raglan has suffered at the hands of history – and in the opinion of this humble essayist, he has been very greatly maligned.

Imagine, if you will, the whole British army and navy departing from Plymouth: gunners rolling cannon, quartermasters counting stores of oats, thick woollen socks and worsted jackets, horses being led up gangplanks, Scotchmen with bagpipes, women and children waving frantically from the docks, and the glittering regalia of the officer class winking in the sunlight.  It was described as the largest army ever to leave our shores – but it was also an army of many regiments, each the self governing little entity of its colonel in chief (who had often literally bought his position) and egos the size of Bass Rock – all one needs to hear are the names of the army’s senior officers, in order to sympathise with Lord Raglan in his task of asking these men what to do (since Raglan would, at times, consider it rather un-gentlemanly to issue anything so crude as an ‘order’.)

Oh yes, the names, a role call of the British aristocracy:  the 7th Earl of Cardigan, commander in chief of the Light Brigade, surely one of the most courageous and yet difficult men ever to sit a saddle; the 3rd Lord Lucan, who bought his command of the 17th Lancers regiment for the princely sum of £25,000, and was the father in law of Cardigan with whom he was barely on speaking terms through the entire campaign; General Richard Airey, who rarely left Raglan’s side but whose personality seems to have been a perfect match for his surname; the magisterial and mutton chopped Glaswegian General Sir Colin Campbell (later the first Lord Clyde), commander in chief of the terrifying Highland Brigade; the Duke of Cambridge (grandson of George III), Sir George De Lacy Evans, Sir Richard England (that last two both Irishmen, as is of course obvious from their surnames) and a sprinkling of other knights and Lords completed the top table of command.  In short this was at its inception less a military campaign and more, an enormous outing for overgrown schoolboys to practice using their pea shooters.

After some weeks voyaging around Spain and through the Mediterranean, the British met up with their French counterparts, and this enormous joint armada reached Constantinople – like some vast Crusade in reverse, defending, not fighting the Turks.  The soldiers were universally greeted as heroes by the citizenry and their leader Omar Pasha, with the usual decline in popular feeling after about a week, by which time the local populace were no doubt royally sick of finding Scotsmen dead drunk in their latrines.  The vast caravan moved up the Western Black Sea coast, ever closer to the Crimea.

But why?  The short answer to that question is that he who controlled the Crimea, and in particular the harbour city of Sebastopol, could control the entire Black Sea Fleet and thus in one fell swoop disable the naval power of Russia throughout the Black and Mediterranean Seas.  Russia would be dealt a short, swift smack on the nose, and firmly reminded that it should stick to playing within its own front and back gardens, rather than gallivanting around Europe and the middle east.  And as we all know from our history books, that is of course a tactic which tends to work quite well with the Russians… and in no way reflects an attitude among the British Officer Class – which some inferior minded and hyper-critical people might suggest – that was somewhat out of touch with reality…

By this time, as our gallant troops tramp north from Constantinople, their woollen socks and heavy jackets cooking them in the mid day sun – the enemy was fast becoming Cholera, not Russia:

“It was reported that men began to suffer from diarrheoea, and a feeling of constant lassitude and nausea, and there were occasional cases of cholera.  The camp was moved, but the sickness increased.  A hot wind blew almost daily from the west, covering the grass and the tents and the food with a white limestone powder and a clutter of dead flies.  And then it became known that a serious epidemic of cholera, prevalent all over the south of Europe that summer, had broken out in the French camp.  Three days later the British camps were infected.  Once more the tents were moved, but the sickness followed.”

Thousands died, and it was not until Raglan once again had all the men aboard ships and set sail across the Black Sea heading into the lion’s jaws of the Crimean peninsula itself, that the winds changed and fresh air filled the lungs of the troops.

I need hardly add, of course at this point, that every history of the Crimea records that the French troops were better equipped with lighter and more modern kit, that their supplies and rations were better and that their officers made swifter and more co-ordinated decisions – each time the French and British, for example would dismantle a camp, march and then pitch camp again, invariably the French were hours ahead with the British watching their dust in the distance.  And this superiority, as we shall soon see, was to be replicated on the field of battle.

The key to understanding the Crimean War, in the opinion of this essayist, is to understand that the next two years essentially involved the British and French forces making repeated, unsuccessful attempts to capture the city of Sebastopol, whose determined and astoundingly courageous Russian inhabitants held out valiantly against one of the most determined sieges in military history.  Together with the Siege of Sebastopol, all of the major battles of the Crimean War took place within an approximate radius of twenty five miles of that city – including the Battle of the Alma, fought en route from the Allied landing site at Eupatoria, the Battle of Balaclava (and the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which took place the same day) and the Battle of Inkerman.

With the exception of Balaclava, the battles are unfortunately littered with examples of miscommunications, poorly worded or executed orders, bloody minded or arrogant decision making and stunning incompetence (on the British side).  Of course the responsibility for all of this must ultimately fall on the shoulders of Raglan (who had, incidentally, the charming habit of confusing the French with the Russians, and so for example would turn to General Airey, saying “Airey, present my compliments to Lord Lucan, and ask that he advance his regiment slowly along the Sandbag Battery, keeping the French on his right – what? Oh yes, the Russians of course, silly me, keep thinking we’re still against Boneparte, what?  Yes, Russians on the right, French on the left, of course…”

With hindsight, you perhaps wonder how they even made it to Plymouth to get on the ships!

Mention must be made, however, of the truly heroic actions of the Highland Brigade under Sir Colin Campbell at Balaclava, which was perhaps the high point of the campaign (among admittedly a number of very heroic moments in the War).

Balaclava was a small harbour about 20 miles south of Sebastopol, and had become the main supply route onto the peninsula for the British troops.  On 25 October 1854, fierce fighting was taking place involving the French, British and Russians in a valley plain no more than 3 miles to the north of the harbour (the very plain along which the Light Brigade charged – which is a story in itself for another day).  About a mile from Balaclava, along the only road from the harbour, were the men of the 93rd Highland Brigade, while Balaclava itself was held by only a handful of marines from the ships moored there.

Suddenly, a mile and a half in front of them, running pell mell, were hundred of fleeing Turks who had lost their nerve and were fleeing toward Balaclava shouting Ship! Ship! Johnny! Ship!  They dashed past the camp of the highlanders, the last line of defence above Balaclava, stopping on their way to pick up anything which looked inviting.

Stretching their gaze into the mid-distance, the Highlanders began to make out hundreds of Russian cavalrymen swarming down the sides of the hills to the south of the valley and forming themselves up on the Balaclava road.

Raglan and the rest of the army could only look on through their spyglasses, helpless, more than a mile and a half in the distance, as the powerful Russian cavalry began to quicken its pace in the direction of the Highlanders who were entirely outnumbered and completely off guard.  Raglan held his breath.

Sir Colin, in his rich Scots accent barked to his men – who, the Times correspondent noted “would gladly follow him into the jaws of hell.”

“Remember, there is no retreat from here men.  Remember, there is no retreat.  You must die where you stand.”

“Aye Aye! Sir Colin,” one man was heard to reply. “We’ll do that.”

Then suddenly a curious and oppressive silence which had been noted before the battle of the Alma once again settled across the field.  The Times correspondent reported:

“The silence is oppressive, one can hear the champing of bits, and the clink of sabres in the valley below.  The Russians on their left draw breath for a moment and then in one grand line dash at the Highlanders.  The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet; gathering speed at every stride, they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel.”

Prevented by Sir Colin from charging (yes, astoundingly the Highlanders had wanted to charge the Russians, and had to be ordered down by him with the cry “93rd, 93rd! Damn all that eagerness!”) Prevented, the Highlanders fired their rifles instead.  No Russian rider fell from his saddle, but a few were wounded, and the leading squadron immediately wheeled to the left.  Sir Colin then reorganised his line to face the new direction of the Russian advance and again the Russians wheeled to the left.  Their determined stand alarmed the Russian commander, who then ordered his men to retire.  As they did so the Highlanders opened fire on them in retreat, and then the Highlanders began throwing their bonnets in the air, cheering excitedly.

At this point, I’m conscious that this essay could quickly descent into a kind of verbal parody of the worst kind of military bore – and, unless physically, restrained I might find myself resorting to the employment of various items of furniture in the recreation of graphic battle scenes.  And so it is at this point that I seek to judiciously withdraw from the smoke and cordite of the field, and return to the relative calm of the page.

In September of 1855, amid scenes of terrible confusion and panic, involving some of the most embarrassing and rank cowardice in the history of the British Army, the French succeeded in seizing the Malakoff Kurgan and Redan Heights, the main defensive positions of the Russian defenders of Sebastopol.  As the smoke cleared the Tricolor flew, and the War in the Crimea was all but over.  Just 3 months earlier, Lord Raglan, tired out, overworked and vexed from every side during the protracted campaign (and which had brought down Aberdeen’s government 8 months earlier, ushering in the bombastic Viscount Palmerston) had passed away in his field quarters.  It was the end of an era.

In the aftermath of the War, when the Allied forces had finally limped home, a number of changes were brought about in the order and regulation of the Army.  The common practice of purchasing commissions was abolished.  The chain of command structure was reformed.  The kit of the standard infantryman was entirely reviewed and updated, as was that of the cavalry and others.  It was firmly resolved that lessons would be learned.

Much of this was driven by the fact that the Crimean was really the first War in which the public at home, and the government, were kept appraised of developments on a daily basis – mainly through the Times Correspondent.  This ushered in a new era of instant critical appraisal of a kind previously unheard of, and during the Crimea on a number of occasions nationwide campaigns were taken up “to provide our ill-supplied soldiers with hats, coats and scarfs”, and other campaigns of that kind – at relatively short notice – and of course Florence Nightingale became the famous ‘Lady with the Lamp’ – and while her field hospitals (which were in fact at Scutari on the western Black Sea shore, with patients shipped there mainly from Balaclava) had appalingly low survival rates, it was in the hospitals back home in England and the improvements there where she really went on to make her mark upon the page of history.

25,000 soliders are estimated to have lost their lives during the Crimean, a tiny figure compared to the Great War, but significant for the times – as was the estimated cost to the exchequer, a sum of about £70 million.  Sebastapol which had been so hard fought for and wrestled from the hands of the Russians, was promptly handed back to the Tsar less than a year later after the Congress of Paris – however the balance of power shifted in Europe, in a manner which would lead inexorably to the conflict of 1914 and beyond.

As we bid farewell to the Crimean War, the swirling Victorian Fog closing in around, and as we move forward again, far forward almost one hundred and fifty years, we see that little has really changed.

The army continues to be engaged abroad in controversial and at times poorly thought out campaigns, in circumstances where the common soldiery are ill supplied – and the very reasons why the campaign was begun have become a little befuddled.  We must always be vigilant, and prepared to change.

Europe is still torn, and the slightest shifting in the balance of power can potentially have enormous implications.  There still remains the haunting feeling with this continent that War lies at the base of a greasy pole which we all valiantly scramble to keep climbing.

And Russia, always Russia.

Cowboy justice in the wild west

The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter van Tilburg Clark (Penguin, 1940 – my dad’s copy, photo attached below) is, I readily admit, a book rarely read these days – at least on this side of the Atlantic; for years, however, it has been a staple text in many American high schools, for the simple and powerful insight it gives into a world where justice and patient inquiry are left behind by anger, retribution and mob rule.  It’s as gripping a read as Truman Capote’s fabulous ‘In Cold Blood’, and just as raw.

The weekend before Easter I was visiting my parents in Donegal, and playing a few rounds at the breathtakingly beautiful Ballyliffin golf course, during that spell of great weather we had then.  I was accompanied by my Italian friend Roberto, to whom the experience of playing an Irish golf course was entirely new.  “They tend not to have sheep on golf courses in Italy,” he frowned, as the sheep meandered about on the links; but he seemed to enjoy it nonetheless.

My parents’ house is stacked with old books and before dinner, to distract myself from all the golf balls I had lost earlier, I rummaged through a few.  My dad appeared and pressed an old Penguin classic into my hand.  “Read that,” he said smiling, “then tell me what you think.”  Well, I read it and thought it superb.

Set in Nevada in 1885, two cowboys mosey into the sleepy town of Bridger’s Wells and quickly settle in at the whiskey saloon.  There’s been cattle rustling, and the townspeople are suspicious of everything and anyone.  Nerves are jangled and tempers frayed, when suddenly news of a killing at a nearby ranch spills through the swing doors.  Despite the uncertainties, the menfolk quickly form themselves into a posse.  The aim: to lynch the perpetrators – and so off they set, deaf both to the local judge’s warning that the law should prevail and the opposition of a vocal minority, stated with courage.

The pursuit and capture of three men suspected unfolds with great power and pace, while the character and motivation of each man involved is brought starkly to life.  Will any of them have the guts to do it, when it comes to the rope and a tree? Could any one of them live with the consequences of their actions, … or inaction as a passive observer?

In the modern world, this brilliant novel is a reminder of the extent to which we can take the systems of law and order for granted, and how ultimately we must each stay awake and bear witness to truth and justice.

And if you like good old fashioned cowboy stories, you’ll love it.

It’s available on Amazon or can be sourced in a good second hand shop, like Caledonia Books on Glasgow’s Great Western Road. The book was also made into a 1943 Oscar shortlisted film, starring Henry Fonda; and don’t worry dad, I’ll be sure to return it: after all, it’s a good reason to get back over to glorious Ballyliffin.

 … from the days when books were books!

Essay writing for the idle

We all have comfort books that we revisit from time to time.  One of mine is George Orwell’s collection ‘Inside the Whale & Other Essays’, a book I revisited the other day in response to a comment that Tolstoy was not a particular fan of Shakespeare.  The collection includes ‘Lear, Tolstoy & the Fool’, a simple yet brilliant deconstruction of Tolstoy’s carping criticisms of the Bard.  Here it is here.

It’s not my favourite essay in the collection though – that place (just pipping ‘Shooting an Elephant’ to the post – sorry King Juan Carlos) is reserved for ‘Politics & the English Language’, which is as true in its insight into the condition of the English language today as it was in 1946, surely the hallmark of a timeless classic. Here it is here.

Then of course there are other giants of the art such as William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Thomas Carlyle, G.K. Chesterton, Michel De Montaigne and Francis Bacon to name just a few… but my all time favourite essay and comfort read is Stevenson’s ‘Apology for Idlers’ – good to know we’re appreciated! Here it is here –  happy reading!

On republics and republicanism

Various musings on republics & republicanism

‘Republicanism’ is a word which holds a special terror in the collective British psyche – and hardly surprising really, given the two greatest republican movements of modern times – the American and French Revolutions – posed and continued to pose enormous threats to the British national interest and established order.  So great was the terror inspired by republicanism, that it immediately conjured (and for some continues to conjure) images of rivers of blood flowing through streets of terrified fleeing citizens, the established class structure of aristocracy and monarchy torn to shreds and ruthless, jilted academic types (with bad breath, worse clothes and steel rimmed spectacles) revelling in their new found power over their erstwhile political masters.

The first blow was struck by our American cousins on 4 July 1776 with their unilateral declaration of Independence from King George III’s British government, and the foundation of a new republic in which all men are created and remain equal, with the inherent right to life, liberty and, of course, the pursuit of happiness – oh, and guns.  Lots of guns.  Britain was shaken to its core: the established civil order with the Sovereign at its head had been openly defied.  And yet at home the popular feeling was not a turning away from the King and his government, but rather a profound shock that a colony of the mother country would act so… tastelessly.  However it was in France that republican fervour led to a revolutionary coup of truly seismic proportions.

Great Britain was plunged into a state of terror in the wake of the French revolution.  The utter destruction of the established social order in that country put our nation on the very highest level of alert, creating a culture of real fear among subjects.  Then, as now, Scotland was among the most radicalised parts of Britain, and Pitt’s government (under the significant influence of the then Lord Advocate Henry Dundas, later first Viscount Melville) gave no quarter.  The Egyptian needle standing on Calton Hill is a testament to the memory of Thomas Muir of Huntershill, tried for sedition in Edinburgh in September 1793 before Lord Braxfield and a jury (in a manner most repugnant to fairness and justice) and sentenced to 10 years transportation to the Australian penal colonies – all for the distribution on the streets of Paisley of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet ‘On the Rights of Man’, published in England two years earlier.  The troublesome colonies in America were swept out of mind in the face of a greater crisis, and republicanism at home, and its inevitable arrival by armed and violent revolution, had to be scotched at inception, even if that required the suspension of civil liberties.  The calm, regal, demure image of Brittania, with lion and shield, would prevail, by any means necessary, over the appalling character of barebreasted Liberty, with her flag hoisted in the act of rousing (if not arousing) a bloodthirsty rabble of troublesome insurgents.

Then, of course, there was England’s own and rather bizarre experience of republicanism under the protectorate of Cromwell – a man who, whatever one’s perspective, made John Knox seem a benign and tolerant liberal.  Cromwell’s was the kind of state in which sex while standing would have been outlawed, lest god mistakenly think it dancing.  This cheerless and austere period gave way to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and the colourful reign of Charles II, but the experience left a bitter taste, and no doubt only aided the perception of republicanism as harsh and bitter, preferred by the kind of people who enjoy cold baths and wearing loose fitting underpants.

Given the circumstances in which the American and French republics were conceived, as well as the era of Cromwell, it seems hardly surprising that British attitudes to the notion of republican society might be rather sceptical (although I accept, of course, that there are many in this country today who would support radical reform of our constitutional monarchy).  But do these relatively modern experiences belie a deeper unease about the very nature of republicanism itself? It is this deeper unease which I seek to consider, the question of why republicanism came to have such a tarnished reputation in the British Imperial psyche.  That it did, I would suggest, is beyond peradventure – but what are the origins for this horror?  It seems to me that it cannot be a horror of revolution alone, which in truth is merely the unpleasant tool often used to nail republicanism into place.

It seems to me that in order to look republicanism in the face and acknowledge our deep distrust, we must undertake a lengthier journey, back to the time of its birth and death: because republicanism was not only born among the ancients, but also died in that world, before the days when Peter was a simple fisherman in Gallilee.

The Republic (‘politeia’ in Classical Greek), the res publica or ‘public thing’ the ‘city state’, was born, I would suggest, from Athens’ astounding defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490BC.  The fallen few among the Athenian troops were buried and commemorated on the field itself, rather than at individual and private ceremonies which previously marked the passing of her people.  Athenians developed a sense of their public selves, that their lives were not wholly private and self serving, but instead bound up one with another in the noble pursuit of a way of life worth dying for, and dying gloriously at that.  This was their vision of society, realised on the battlefield against multitudinous hordes of slaves and mercenaries compelled by the lash of a Persian tyrant.  To die for Athens was to defend liberty, and freedom from tyranny.

It was sixty years later, after the first and disastrous conflict of the 26 year war with Sparta, that Pericles, in the course of a lengthy mass funeral oration to mark the fallen brave, memorably encapsulated Athens in the following words:

“Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbours’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.”

Courageous words, in the autumn of the golden Athenian age: and the defeat at the hands of Sparta which followed marked the decline of that great city.  However the spirit of Athens lived on, inspiring the early citizens of Rome after the overthrow of its royal line of kings.  Less perfect, less equal, more militaristic and perhaps more violent than its Greek cousin, Rome nevertheless defined itself as a republic; and accordingly no man was above the power of the State.  Time and again through its history great, powerful and ambitious citizens would put themselves at the front of vast armies in the service of Rome; and having returned successful, would then discharge themselves from their military command and return to the status of private Roman citizen – often to face legal challenges or even prosecution for the discharge of those very military offices!  To lead an army into the City, triumphant or otherwise, was simply an act of treason (unless following the specific grant of a ‘Triumph’ by a majority of the Senate to the victorious general).  The will of the individual man, however great, must accordingly bend to the will of the State.

The heroes and acts of heroism fostered by the republic are legion; and the role call is impressive.  Lucius Junius Brutus, Marcus Brutus’ august ancestor, who overthrew Rome’s last king, Tarquin the proud, and was the founder of the republic and first consul in 509BC; the legendary Lucretia, raped by Tarquin’s son, an event which shocked Rome, engendered hatred of the king and directly led to his expulsion from the city; Horatius Cocles, who heroically saved Rome at the Sublician Bridge by holding it against the besieging army of the vengeful Tarquin; Gaius Mucius Scaevola, after he fearlessly plunged his right hand into the fire to demonstrate his utter disregard for physical pain or torture, having been caught red handed (no pun intended) in the act of trying to assassinate the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna; Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, the famous victor over Rome’s neighbouring Volscians in the early struggles for ascendancy in the region; and Scipio Aemilianus Africanus, who finally defeated Hannibal, the greatest of Rome’s enemies, at the battle of Zama in North Africa, marking Rome’s transformation into a truly imperial power; the Gracchi brothers Gaius and Tiberius, both assassinated for their attempts to reform the land laws in favour of the plebeians; Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, whose power struggle in the early first century BC plunged Rome into its first civil war and nearly brought the Republic to an end; and then of course the warrior Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, (Pompey the Great), the stubborn and tenacious senator Marcus Porcius Cato, the millionaire statesman and general Marcus Licinius Crassus who ruthlessly quelled Spartacus’ slave revolt and Marcius Tullius Cicero, lawyer, philosopher statesman, and father of the nation for his handling of the treacherous uprising of Lucius Sergius Catalina.

At the end of this list of great Romans, it occurs to me that it may be appropriate to explain some of the broader points about the Roman naming system.  For those of you unfamiliar with the subject, I will endeavour briefly to explain.  By the time of the Republican era, the name of a male Roman citizen consisted of three parts: the praenomen (or ‘given’ name); the nomen gentile (being the name of the gens, tribe or clan to which he belonged) and the cognomen, being a particular family line within the clan (akin to that commonest of questions in polite British society, “are you one of the Dorset Marjoribanks or Sussex Marjoribanks?”).  Rather differently from modern times, however, the cognomen was usually a nickname of some kind or other, acquired by an ancestor.  One thing is certainly true: the Romans loved nicknames.  And so if we take the poet Publius Ovidius Naso, for example, he was ‘little Publius’ to his mater and pater.  ‘Ovidius’ indicated he was sprung from the Ovidian clan (which may be a reference to ‘ovis’, a sheep, which would be consistent with the high pastoral valleys of modern Abruzzo from which his people came) and ‘Naso’, ‘those of the big nose’.  To close friends he would be referred to as Publius, but to others he would have been referred to as Ovidius Naso, or simply Ovidius once his fame was secured.  Other Romans, for example Cicero or Cato, were widely known by their cognomen or nickname alone.  My personal favourite is Marcus Valerius Corvus, who earned his nickname fighting a giant Gaullish warrior outside the walls of Rome in the third century BC.  Immediately before the fight, a great, jet black crow settled on his helmet and proceeded to set about the hapless Gaul to his inevitable distraction, while our intrepid Marcus dealt the final blow.  The nickname ‘Crow’ in this instance, perhaps, rather highlights another famous Roman quality: at times, a disappointing lack of imagination.

But I digress.  Returning once again to the main theme and in particular armed service to the Republic, it must be noted that power, and particularly the kind to be found at the front of a well disciplined army, can be irresistible, no matter what greater principles there may be in the world.  Gaius Julius Caesar, at the head of an army returning from his conquest of Gaul, saw this all too clearly.  Thus it was in 49BC that, by crossing the river Rubicon, Caesar (of course meaning “baldy”) committed himself to the unthinkable, and marched in the manner of a foreign tyrant on his home – a city which for centuries had survived by the principle that no one man is greater than the republic.

Caesar was a clever and ambitious man, and undoubtedly had grown tired of all the talk without action that the Republic’s senators seemed to indulge in.  Throughout his civic life Caesar had always allied his cause with the people and he had masterfully painted the Roman Senate as a collection of self interested patricians; however the passage of time has perhaps inured us to the enormity of Caesar’s crime.  To every free citizen waiting powerless in Rome, each tramp of Caesar’s infantry sounded a deathknell for the Republic.  Six years later, Caesar (by this time Dictator of Rome) was dramatically assassinated by men who saw his actions as a threat to the very survival of the Republic they loved: and yet their actions would lead inexorably to the downfall of that beloved republic, ushering in the Narnian winter, the Stalinist authoritarianism, which typified the worst aspects of Imperial rule.

And so the last Republic came to die and pass from the ancient world.  It had a noble birth, a glorious life, but struggled in the end to preserve its existence against the vaulting ambition of one of its own.  It is perhaps true to say that the Roman Senate had ceased to be an effective means of governing the growing territory of Rome: however every dictator would no doubt rely upon the political expediency of one man rule – in the end, I suppose, one either agrees or disagrees with Pericles’ vision of an ideal society.

It seems truly ironic to me that whereas the popular cry of the people behind Caesar brought down the Roman Republic, the same popular cry justified the creation of every republic thereafter.  Why is it, however, that republicanism came to be so reviled?  The short answer, of course, is that the victors write the history books.  Here, however, is my own theory on the matter.

The assassination of Julius Caesar came to be an event of the greatest significance.  Far from being the betrayor of the republic, Caesar was now in point of fact a prince, betrayed by smaller, petty rivals.  The people had been robbed of their glorious leader and only another such leader would suffice.  The Roman people, however, could not countenance the idea of a king, and so it became expedient to create a new title for the position of absolute hereditary ruler: namely emperor.  In time, after Octavian’s crushing victory over Mark Anthony in the waters off Actium in 31BC, ‘emperor’ became synonymous with ‘Caesar’ as the title for Rome’s absolute rulers, eventually even giving us ‘Kaiser’ in Germany and ‘Tsar’ in Russia, in echo of that ancient title.

The greatness of Rome thus became the power of the Imperial State and the army.  The citizens were left to concern themselves with their petty lives, revolving around ‘bread and circuses’, as Juvenal sardonically reminds us.  A republic is no way to run an empire: best leave that to the ruthless whim of one man, backed by an army of civil servants as well as soldiers.

And so it seems to me that the assassination of Caesar was the first and most significant factor in marking out the Republic as a spent form of civic society.  But the cult of Caesar combined and intertwined itself with something else, equally potent and hostile to republicanism: namely Christianity.

Christ was born in poverty, but his death on a cross marked him out as a king, the king of the Jews, the son of the one true God.  When Christianity later combined with the Roman imperial cult, a heady brew of kingship, royal lineage, divine right and untrammelled authority was the inevitable result.  In this world order, it was the Imperial Caesars whose lineage was claimed, and Julius Caesar himself came to have an almost Christ like status which survived the ancient world and remained the received wisdom through the middle ages and beyond.

If such a suggestion, that Caesar was Christlike, seems far-fetched, then consider his treatment by Dante in the Divine Comedy.  Caesar himself, being unbaptised, must logically be placed outwith Paradise and indeed Purgatory, and so Dante has him in Limbo, the very outmost circle of Inferno suffering ‘the spiritual torment of forever seeking God in vain.’  Dante then, of course, takes us in ever decreasing circles of monstrous vice to the very centre of hell, where Lucifer lurks, imprisoned in the frozen waters of Cocytus.

Here, at the very epicentre of the world’s misdeeds, Dante places three tortured souls and describes them thus:

“That soul up there which has the greatest pain, The Master said, is Judas Iscariot; with head inside, he plies his legs without.  Of the two others, who head downward are, the one who hangs from the black jowl is Brutus; See how he writhes himself, and speaks no word.  And the other, who so stalwart seems, is Cassius.  But night is reascending, and ‘tis time That we depart, for we have seen the whole.”

It is deeply revealing of the place given to Caesar in the mediaeval world, I would suggest, that his betrayers rank alongside Judas as the greatest wrongdoers in history.

Interestingly, and digressing again but just for a moment, it probably also marks the last time the Republicans ever had a two to one majority in any assembly at any time and in any place.

(Judas, as we now know, joined the Democrats two days after Ted Kennedy).

This perception of Caesar is of course advanced upon by Shakespeare, leading, I would suggest, to the most enduring reason why the Roman Republic has remained so out of favour in Britain (despite generations of the classically educated) – I refer of course to his play, Julius Caesar, in which the republicans are cast in the most villainous of lights, and afforded the deeply sarcastic epithet of ‘honourable men’ in comparison to ‘noble caesar’.

It was therefore a society based upon Christian kingship which rose to pre-eminence from the ashes of the ancient world and grafted itself onto the Roman substrata, leading to Edward Gibbon’s moment of insight, which he recorded thus:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Juppiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

And so finally, where does this brief consideration of Republics and republicanism leave us?  What conclusions can we draw and what lessons are there to learn?

It is of course trite to say that the republics of Rome and Greece bear no comparison to the modern notion of republic, or indeed any other form of modern civil society: however we still recognise those nations which are more rigorously republican in their form.  France and America have already been mentioned: to these could be added, for example, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and many, many more.  However other systems such as our own constitutional monarchy, have not remained untouched by republican values and institutions.  Most recently we have the proposed reforms of the House of Lords and the creation of a new Supreme Court for the United Kingdom, both of which might appear more or less ‘republican’, in a broad sense.  Perhaps, rather like ‘facism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘society’, the words ‘republic’ and ‘republicanism’ have simply come to mean less and less, to the point where anyone and anywhere can stake a claim to their employment.

The truth, perhaps, is that republicanism is an ideal like any other, and one which has inspired some of the finest values in human society; and we need not have the rubber stamp of ‘republic’ in order to reflect those values in who we are today, in this country, at this time.  We are all (or can be) republicans in our hearts and in our minds.

Therefore, dear reader, I propose that we all take some inspiration from those great and noble republicans like Pericles, like Cicero, like Cato, like Pompeii the Great for whom discussion and argument showed strength not weakness, for whom war was a reality but not a necessity, for whom peace was not indolence but industry and prosperity, for whom life was a journey of service to one’s country and doing justice to one’s self and one’s fellow man.

To show there truly are no hard feelings, I give the last words to Shakespeare from the mouth of Marcus Brutus:

“If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.  Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?… Who is here so base that would be a bondman?  If any, speak for him have I offended.  Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman?  If any, speak; for him have I offended.  Who is here so vile that will not love his country?  If any, speak; for him have I offended.  I pause for a reply.”

The Time Ball

The Time Ball

Nora McDonald, tea tray gripped in her hands and calling good morning, bustled round the door like a boxer at the bell. She stomped across the swirling Axminster, then edged the tray onto the desk with the delicacy of a hummingbird.

She threw open the curtains, then crossed to the mantelpiece and turned off the gas lamps on either side. The professor’s reading lamp was left overwhelmed by January light.

“Now, there’s your breakfast and the first post, sir,” she said briskly. “There’s a few letters – oh, and a postcard –  from Miss Margaret, with a pretty picture of Brighton, I think it is.”

The housekeeper set a new fire, humming all the while, and in a trice smoke was rising. Then reminding him she was visiting her sister in Musselburgh that afternoon, she wished him a good day and left.

Professor Mungo Lyon was sixty-three. Aside from Mrs McDonald, he lived alone.  Their mother hadn’t survived Margaret’s birth, and their father had passed soon after.  There was no longer even a cook – not since Margaret moved to Eastbourne, on account of her Emphysema.

He lifted the postcard with a smile. ‘… and I hope you found time to read your Christmas present. It lay beside him – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

He turned to the letters. There was a copy of the Minutes of the Marine Society’s December meeting. There were invoices from the coal merchant and Margaret’s physician. There was a notice from the University Senate.

There was a letter from Jamaica.

Its mottled brown envelope bore a crust of sea salt, and the handwriting was fine. He turned it several times, his curiosity wakened, opened it and read it. Then he laid it to one side.

He chewed his breakfast with a frown. Then he sipped his tea and gazed at the mantelpiece. There was a bust of Vasco Da Gama for which, in a moment of youthful abandon, he’d paid three guineas at Buchanan’s auction rooms.  His eyes then travelled to a copy of Mercator’s map of the known world.  He could still remember unwrapping it – a fourteenth birthday present from his father. His father: who named him for Mungo Park, Scotland’s famous explorer.  They’d passed countless joyous evenings together reading Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa.

He snapped from his reverie and peered at his watch.  The new term began today and he’d a lecture to give at eleven.

It was a bracing walk from Morningside to Old College.  With every stride his breath met the crisp air, swirled, then condensed on the tip of his nose. The rheumatism in his left leg lifted a little, and by the time he turned through the College archway he felt vital. Fresh faced students thronged the doors to the lecture hall, then followed at his back in a great scrum.

“Gentlemen,” he began, and their chatter faded. Silence fell. “What do we mean by the Tropics?  Well, to begin our studies, let us first consider the Equator.  Now, the World is fierce hot in places, but nowhere hotter than in those arid places we call the great deserts.  Around the midriff of the World, however, there is more than just desert sands. There are great expanses of Ocean too, looked down upon by the relentless Sun. In those waters lie many wonderful islands with congenial climates.  Let’s consider a few of them. Travelling East, we encounter the Seychelles, then Mauritius in the waters of India. Then Madagascar, then the thousand islands of Indonesia, pride of the Dutch. Then we have New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tahiti – and then there are the Pitcairns, home to the Breadfruit, and colonised by the crew of the Bounty. Turning West, gentlemen, we have the Caribbean’s fifteen hundred documented islands, with hundreds or even thousands yet uncharted.”

A hundred pairs of eyes transfixed him at his podium: the engineers, commercial traders and financiers of the coming age.

“These islands, gentlemen, enjoy the pleasantness of location between the Tropic of Cancer to the North of the Equator, and that of Capricorn at an equidistance to the South.”

As Professor Lyon warmed to his science, he pictured in his mind’s eye the golden sands and swelling surf of those exotic locations. The pillars of the hall became wound with jungle creepers, palm fronds and coconuts. His eager students were natives, peering from the undergrowth at this new arrival from a northern shore. A salt tang filled his nostrils and he could feel grains of sand between his toes as the surf surged round his calves. He could feel the equatorial sunshine warm his back all the way through his shirt, waistcoat and jacket. A sea breeze seemed to stir the folds of his gown. Turtles darted through blue water and he thought of pirates, Zanzibar, and gold moidores; and when he closed his eyes for a moment in mid speech he saw red, not black, as in boyhood summers stretched out on the sands at Portobello.

“The Tropics are named from the Greek ‘Tropicos’, meaning ‘turn’…” and as he spoke he recognised his own voice but as if from far, far away.

When the lecture finished his chattering students streamed out into the noonday sunshine. The professor carefully re-arranged his papers and placed them back in his satchel.  Then donning once more his gloves, scarf and hat, he walked to the Post Office to place his regular money order for Margaret.  The errand complete, he called at his club where he read the papers and took some soup. Then he started back across the North Bridge, the smoke from the trains curling up over the parapets.  About half way across, he stopped and drew out his watch. He was just in time to see one o’clock come round – but rather than looking to the Castle and the sound of the gun, he looked to the Time Ball on the Calton Hill.  Every day at one, the Time Ball dropped twelve feet down the pole above Nelson’s Monument. This was the signal to captains sailing from Leith to re-set their marine chronometers.  He waited, watch in hand. The Time Ball fell. The report of the gun followed a split second later. Here was enterprise, he thought: here was innovation. But the exercise, he noted, revealed his own watch was now twelve seconds slow.

The professor passed the rest of the afternoon on his latest paper, ‘On the influence of Iodine in the North Atlantic waters’. He worked until seven, then rose from his labours and donned his outdoor things. A sea of darkness awaited him – but studded with gas pearls to light his way home.

He called good night to Mrs McDonald and closed his study door.  A new fire blazed, and velvet curtains held out the night.  The clock ticked, the lamps glowed.  The alabaster bust stared out with calm resolution, and he imagined for the thousandth time the exotic beauty of India’s Malabar Coast.  He tried to picture it as first seen through the eyes of the Portuguese adventurer, with the sun setting in a purple sky and the waves crashing on golden sands.  But then he felt a twinge of pain in his left leg and moved closer to the flames.

He returned to his desk, lit his pipe, and once again took up the letter from Jamaica.

   Dearest Mungo,

   Forgive the brevity of this note, my friend, but good news!  We received word from the Royal Society and the committee, at long last, has agreed to extend our funding.  With the money we can broaden our researches beyond the coastal shelf and, already, I have in mind a dozen new schemes.  There is as yet much to see and learn and, if you were willing to undertake the passage, we would be honoured to have you with us for however long you could manage.  The climate here is pleasant, and our quarters in the grounds of Government House most congenial.  The Frenchman La Patrie joined our little group in September and speaks highly, as we all do, of your theories on the cycle of the Atlantic’s waters.  He says he will stay a year, such is his interest in what might be achieved.  I will continue to keep you fully updated on all our findings – but write, once again, to extend to you a warm and ready welcome.  I must go now, for tonight we dine with the Governor.  Write soon, my friend, and I trust dear Margaret is well.



The tick of the clock filled the room. He set the letter down, then stared into the fire, watching its flames slowly settle to glowing embers.  There’s life there yet, he thought, and reached for his pen.

Stephen O’Rourke, 2012

Did the Professor ever visit this one time Morningside gem? Victorian shop sign revealed during recent demolition work… sic transit gloria mundi!