Guest post from an old contributor to this site
Well, this has been a sickening episode.
Let’s be clear first. I am a Labour Party member. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn last year and I have done so again this year.
I awoke this morning to an alert about this article, by one Tony Greenstein. It requests that people block and defriend one Natasha Allmark. It compares her to World War 2 era Nazi informants. Her crime? Threatening to call the Labour Party Compliance Unit on a group of professed Corbyn supporters with whom she had been arguing on Facebook.
“Nazi Informant”. Let that sink in for a bit. Consider the implications.
Natasha is an expectant mother and a student, and a supporter of the Liberal Democrats. She has children already. In the course of that discussion people publicly discussed calling social workers to her house. The behavior of those attacking her was akin to a shoal of piranhas. She was in distress, and not infrequently in tears.
In the course of one such row she told her interlocutors that if they did not desist then she would contact Compliance. She never did so. It was a defensive reaction from a distressed woman under attack. This is why Tony Greenstein compares her to informants who betrayed Jewish people to the Nazis. That’s it. He also uses her picture in the article, without her permission. Just so reader can be sure of exactly who he is accusing.
She is now afraid for her family. And I think as a left we have questions to ask of ourselves here? Do we want a political sphere where self appointed Torquemadas go around using public platforms to shriek accusations of betrayal at ordinary citizens? Do we want squads of online police telling people what is or is not an acceptable political view, and publicly flogging them if they dissent? I know what sort of “left” that sounds like, and it’s one that died in Europe in 1990.
It is beyond shameful that a veteran left wing activist would think it is OK to do this to anyone, let alone a heavily pregnant woman who he does not know. If I thought that were the real nature of the left in this country, I would want no part of it. It is sickening behavior.
So yes, unblock and friend Natasha Allmark. It is an act of basic solidarity, and we owe it to her to show her that this is not how the left does business.
We stand with you Natasha.
I’d like to be magisterial and say The Railways: Nation, Network and People by Simon Bradley is the definitive work, or as comprehensive a book as you can find on the history of Britain’s railways. I’d like even more to be the happy pedant, pointing out lacunae in the description of how Britain adopted the standard gaurge against Brunel’s broad gauge. But I know almost nothing of railways, though I love travelling by train, so have to come to this book as the general reader of a well-written, entertaining piece of social history that cites novelists and poets as well as engineers. Simon Bradley quotes the book-making Victorians – Dickens, Trollope and Surtees as well as films like Brief Encounter, The Railway Children and the opening scene of a Hard Day’s Night, where the Beatles dodge their screaming fans “behind poster hoardings and into telephone boxes and photo booths” in the cluttered concourse of the 1960s.
Bradley’s book tells a big story – the technical development of the railways and their social impact, and embroiders it with fascinating details eg the contents of the luncheon baskets and the placing of toilets, the slight ring underfoot on the Southern Railway’s preferred concrete over timber platforms. He devotes a whole chapter to signals, which doesn’t stoke my boiler, however, his writing flows and he never loses sight of the human beings – in this case, the solitary signal-man on duty in his box. He explains the sensible height of British platforms (set at 915mm i.e. 3 feet) with a step or two to the train compared to the steep climb on the Continent. He gives the reason why Cambridge station is such a trek from the town centre because the dons feared loss of control of undergraduates and pulled strings to ensure that the station was built well over a mile away from the town.
Former platform on National Cycle Network 1
The railways created their own kingdom “a physically separate domain, in thousands of route-miles fenced off from the rest of the country and ruled by their own mysterious rhythms and laws.”
Cyclist on National Cycle Network 1
Simon Bradley was a young train-spotter – not just of the locomotives but of those working on them. “Driver and ganger alike belonged nonetheless to the world of proper work, visible and practical and comprehensible – a world away from the office-bound lives of most of our own fathers.” He conveys the excitement of the Victorians as this great force entered into their lives, as transforming as computers and the internet in ours. The landscape was altered with embankments and tunnels and viaducts.
Detail of former railway bridge, now carrying cyclists and pedestrians
He points out that bridges were a relatively rare sight before the railways came. Oldest bridges were almost all bespoke structures. Only when canals arrived were bridges multiplied to standard engineers’ design. Now their striding arches are one of the splendours of the British landscape. (For cantilevered iron, the Forth Bridge beats the preening Eiffel Tower any day of the week, and how much finer the Glenfinnan Viaduct is than pompous static showoffery like the Arc de Triomphe.)
Viaduct on the National Cycle Network 1
“Part of the fascination of the railways is their permeation with memories and traces of obsolete working routes, and the human lives and destinies they shaped. The physical record is often patchy, because different aspects of the system have changed and developed at wildly varying speeds. The modernised freight network envisaged by Dr Beeching is already utterly lost; the diffuse small-scale system which he knocked for six is more remote still. Yet the bridges, tunnels and earthworks that carry the twenty-first century traveller are still predominantly those the Victorians witnessed take shape.”
Bradley moves beyond the Victorians and their share-owned competing railway companies through to British Rail and to today’s mess of ownership – state subsidy of dividends to share-holders:-
“The old British Rail system was subsidised between 1 billion and 1.5 billion. Subsidies since this time have reached as high as 6.3 billion….Much of this money comes nowhere near the operating side of the railway, but is sucked straight out again in dividends, administrative and legal costs ,inflated salaried and bonuses. Nor is the system cheap for its users. [Grossly expensive, and Byzantinely complex in fact.] All of these features are intrinsic, not accidental, parts of the business model under which the railways were privatised – a process that,… was meant to address the supposed scandal of a public opened system which required high subsidies in order to operate. It has proved an extremely expensive way of saving money.”
Though Bradley does follow to the modern age via the marshalling yards and the change to diesel, it is the Victorians and Edwardians who dominate from when the technology was innovative and exciting.
The new words such as stoke, shunt, siding, running out of steam, on the right lines. Time, once set by the “guildhall and town hall and church steeple” was set by the “power of capital”. The landowners were challenged and there would be battles between the surveyors and navvies and estate workers where theodolites would be smashed. (In Middlemarch there’s just such a scene – not quoted by Bradley.)
As the railways developed they were felt at the time to be as unstoppable and transforming as our own digital revolution. So in Trollope’s Rachel Ray set in Devon, which was late to be connected, the timid matron Mrs Ray says of her journey to Exeter:- ‘“I thought the train never would have got to the Baslehurst station. It stopped at all the little stations, and really I think I could have walked as fast.” A dozen years had not as yet gone by since the velocity of these trains had been so terrible to Mrs. Ray that she had hardly dared to get into one of them!’ ‘ There are obvious comparisons with the elderly of today who once wondered at the young’s sci-fi interweb thing now complaining of the speed of their Skype.
The railways have been with us for long enough to have created their own archaeology. I live across the road from the busy Edinburgh to Glasgow line, which I walk or cycle under every day. My commute goes past an embankment which was once a line and is now the National Cycle Network 1 cycleway. On the route are ghosts of platforms and you are riding unaware over a viaduct which is visible from the street a hundred feet below. There was a railway yard, now a place for billboards (advertising was a huge feature of Victorian stations). Another part of it is scrubland which the Council is planning to turn into a further cycleway, restoring a bridge or two.
Once a railway line, now scrubland, future cycleway
The living railway, Glasgow to Edinburgh line
When I see the great nineteenth railway structures – the viaducts, the Forth Bridge, the grander railway stations, I feel that we are lesser beings living in the half ruin of a mightier civilisation. We don’t build such grandeur any more but conserve with our heritage industries, our endless touristing.
Bradley’s last chapter is about the volunteers running old lines. He describes a “steam-hauled express arrives from a visitant from the another world, a sort of industrial unicorn or dragon.” Crowds gather to view this icon of another age, as beautiful and obsolete as a full-rigged man of war.
“Made vivid again, here is something that transcends Nature, an amazing work of man; what H.G Wells, writing in 1901, proposed as the best symbol for the century that had just passed, ‘a steam engine running upon a railway.”
The Flying Scotsman
This time of year when we think of time passing.
Enter CHRONOS, with a scythe in his hand, and a great globe on his back, which he sets down at his entrance
Weary, weary of my weight,
Let me, let me drop my freight,
And leave the world behind.
I could not bear
The load of human-kind.
From Dryden’s The Secular Masque
Written for the seventeenth century rolling over to the eighteenth. It has the New Year resolution flavour about it at the end:-
All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
‘Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.
The Three Ages of Man by Titian in the National Gallery of Scotland
A poem which fits the weather as well as the time of year and one of my favourites by Thomas Hardy, who wrote beautifully about time passing and opportunities missed:-
They sing their dearest songs—
He, she, all of them—yea,
Treble and tenor and bass,
And one to play;
With the candles mooning each face. . . .
Ah, no; the years O!
How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
Time, time, time
See what’s become of me
While I looked around for my possibilities
I was so hard to please
But look around Leaves are brown
And the sky is a hazy shade of winter..
Look around, leaves are brown,
There’s a patch of snow on the ground
(Simon & Garfunkel – they were young things when that came out)
Who knows where the time goes? Sandy Denny, who died far too young.
And from he who was born middle-aged:-
Chard Whitlow by ”T S Eliot”
As we get older we do not get any younger.
Seasons return, and today I am fifty-five,
And this time last year I was fifty-four,
And this time next year I shall be sixty-two.
And I cannot say I should like (to speak for myself)
To see my time over again— if you can call it time:
Fidgeting uneasily under a draughty stair,
Or counting sleepless nights in the crowded Tube.
From The Hobbit – one of the riddles
This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.
And a picture from the 1976 Soviet edition of The Hobbit.
Have a good time while we mark time passing.
Christmas is the season for potted histories of the festival. Bolted on to the pagan solistice, celebrated for twelve feasting days in the middle ages, half stamped out by the Puritans under Cromwell, which caused pro Christmas riots. Christmas was fading from the scene under the Georges and then revived by the Victorians. Prince Albert brought the Germanic Christmas with him, the emphasis being on a family celebration. Charles Dickens turned it into the season of “hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness” via A Christmas Carol and the country Christmas among snow in The Pickwick Papers. The commercialising civilisation of the Victorians invented crackers and Christmas cards and left us with the mish-mash of goodwill and purchasing, feasting and family we enjoy today.
The 12 days of Christmas have been extended to 30 or so of less concentrated celebrations with pantomimes, Nativity plays, concerts, work dos and Christmas jerseys. I took part in all of these this December and thoroughly enjoyed them.
The awful family Christmas, bleakly comical or merely bleak – the antithesis of Slade’s cheeriness in Merry Christmas Everybody – has become a tradition in its own right (a very recent example of the genre is Tom Wrigglesworth’s A Christmas Not Special).
It turns up in literature a good deal, Christmas being a time when characters get together and do their worst.
As well as exalting the ideal Christmas, Dickens could show an unhappy one at the Gargeries with the bully Mrs Gargery, and her victims, her husband Joe and her orphaned brother Pip.
We were to have a superb dinner, consisting of a leg of pickled pork and greens, and a pair of roast stuffed fowls. A handsome mince-pie had been made yesterday morning … and the pudding was already on the boil.
It is a ceremonious occasion. Guests come through the front door – locked for the rest of the year– and sit in the parlour – in wraps for the rest of the year.
Pip is kept very much in his place as an orphaned dependent, nagged and lectured by the rest. He is also sick with anxiety because he has stolen food for Magwitch the convict:-
Among this good company I should have felt myself, even if I hadn’t robbed the pantry, in a false position. Not because I was squeezed in at an acute angle of the tablecloth, with the table in my chest, and the Pumblechookian elbow in my eye, nor because I was not allowed to speak (I didn’t want to speak), nor because I was regaled with the scaly tips of the drumsticks of the fowls, and with those obscure corners of pork of which the pig, when living, had had the least reason to be vain…..
Joe, his ally, does his best:-
he always aided and comforted me when he could, in some way of his own, and he always did so at dinner-time by giving me gravy, if there were any. There being plenty of gravy to-day, Joe spooned into my plate, at this point, about half a pint.
Pip’s misery is interrupted by soldiers who visit the house when searching for Magwitch, and this chance of a hunt enlivens the company:-
As I watched them while they all stood clustering about the forge, enjoying themselves so much, I thought what terrible good sauce for a dinner my fugitive friend on the marshes was. They had not enjoyed themselves a quarter so much, before the entertainment was brightened with the excitement he furnished.
It is one of the most powerful scenes in the English novel, that Christmas dinner at the Dedaluses. Present:- Mr and Mrs Dedalus, Dante the aunt, young Stephen Dedalus, Uncle Charles and Mr Casey. Mr Dedalus carves, of course (always the man’s job).
the warm heavy smell of turkey and ham and celery rose from the plates and dishes and the great fire was banked high and red in the grate and the green ivy and red holly made you feel so happy and when dinner was ended the big plum pudding would be carried in, studded with peeled almonds and sprigs of holly, with bluish fire running around it and a little green flag flying from the top.
The green flag is for Irish nationalism. Tension starts rising between the devoted followers of Parnell and the devout Catholic Dante:-
Mrs Dedalus laid down her knife and fork, saying:
—For pity sake and for pity sake let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year.
(As the host carves, the hostess tries to keep the peace).
He heaped up the food on Stephen’s plate and served uncle Charles and Mr Casey to large pieces of turkey and splashes of sauce. Mrs Dedalus was eating little and Dante sat with her hands in her lap. She was red in the face. Mr Dedalus rooted with the carvers at the end of the dish and said:
—There’s a tasty bit here we call the pope’s nose. If any lady or gentleman…
He held a piece of fowl up on the prong of the carving fork. Nobody spoke.
It ends with Dante angrily leaving the table and the two Parnellites, Mr Casey and Mr Dedalus, weeping over the disgraced Parnell.
An atheist, Elizabeth Taylor had no time for Christmas at all, regarding it as something Christianity forced on the rest of society.
Richard, the young businessman, trapped with his wife and mother-in-law wishes despondently Christmas might be over. On Christmas Day he walks through the dull village “Lighted trees in the little houses, holly wreaths on front doors already looked old stuff. Christmas was petering out.”
He has a glum time while his wife has a childish enjoyment for Christmas including a stocking by her bed. Meanwhile their friends are depressed in London. Patrick waits in for his capricious boyfriend, “it should be possible.. to ignore the dismal Christmas scene outside, groups of people homing fast, back to Mother and Father, until they were all cooped up in their families, leaving the streets deserted. . . the deadly silence of the day.”
The boyfriend turns up, with a present of a tie that his uncle had given him, and he has his own memory of deadly family Christmases .. “It was a true sacrifice to this spirit his mother tried to foster when he, year after year, offered his cracker to his cousin. Taking one end, she would turn her head away and screw up her eyes, ready to give a little cry of alarm at the bang. Playing her part too he guessed. Wearily, but wearing his fixed, Christmas grin, he would read out the motto, put the paper hat on his head.”
1976 Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
It was adapted for television in 1989 and the Christmas scene starts at 31:00. (H/t JD)
The five main characters would in an allegory be called Malevolent; Boring; Affected; Put-upon; and Drunk. They live together in a cold cottage. Their accumulated years are strangling their bowels and hearts and brains. The grand-children and great-grand-children of Affected have turned up for a much begrudged duty visit. They sing carols and then:-
.. they had the presents. Those from the guests to the hosts were chiefly a disguised dole: tins or pots of more or less luxurious food, bottles of hard liquor, wide-spectrum gift tokens. Hosts showered guests with diversely unwearable articles of clothing: to Keith from Adela, a striped necktie useful for garrotting underbred rivals in his trade; to Tracey from George, a liberation-front lesbian’s plastic apron…
Christmas dinner was something of a success; it passed off, at any rate, without bloodshed.
Then there are parlour games which bring out the vicious hostility or bewildered stupidity of Malevolent and the rest. This grinding celebration is seen mostly from the point of view of the young relations who experience it as “boredom – a poor word, for the consuming, majestic sensation that engulfed him, comparable in intensity to a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience”. The young are full of repulsion and fear of the sight of “age, and then the only end of age.”
2001 Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is structured around whether the mother Enid will manage to gather her grown up children to enact the rituals of Christmas. I haven’t got the book to hand, but here’s a summing up:-
The fetish she makes of Christmas has uncomfortably recognisable comedy and pathos. (Her seasonal round-robins – laboriously written out on hundreds of cards, doing their best to spin the family’s numerous disasters into sunny good news and looking forward to a “heavenly” family celebration – are a classic example of the transparent denial so common in these missives.) When she finally wheedles her reluctant brood into attending, the event is hobbled by the accelerating decline of her husband and the cross-currents of resentment and misunderstanding between the family members. Mistletoe and wine this is not.
Any other examples of the bleak Christmas in literature?
Is that you all organised then? Have a nice Christmas!
Orwell originally wanted to be a poet and did keep writing verse.
A Dressed Man is a neat, sharp piece.
His Memories of the Blitz is new to me. As the editor of his poems, Dione Venables says of his poetry in general, “It has its moments.” The Blitz has not figured much in poetry though it is prevalent in films and novels. I can recall some lines of Louis MacNeice’s:-
As sometimes in the blackout and the raids
One joke composed an island in the night.
World War I, a war fought by most able-bodied men, not just professional soldiers, produced many poets. But as for the civilian experience of the World War II, many writers – like C S Lewis (Home Guard) and T S Eliot (fire watcher) took part without turning their experience into verse.
Memories of the Blitz
Not for pursuit of knowledge
Only the chances of war,
Led me to study the music,
Of the male and female snore
That night in the public shelter
With seats no pillow could soften,
Where I fled, driven out of my bed,
By bombs too near and too often.
And oh, the drone of the planes,
And the answering boom of the gun,
And the cups of tea in the dawn,
When the flames out-did the sun.
That was a long time ago,
Three years ago, or nearly,
And more has perished than gas-masks,
I could not tell you clearly,
What there can be to regret,
In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.
But the guns have changed their tune,
And the sandbags are three years older,
Snow has kissed the flesh,
From the bones of the German soldier.
The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.
For the song that the sirens sang,
Is sunk to a twice-told story,
And the house where the chartered accountant,
Perished in headland glory,
Is only a clump of willow-herb,
Where I share my sorrow
With the deserted bath-tub
And the bigamous sparrow.
That has some very good lines, especially:-
In a time of casual slaughter,
When the windows were empty of glass,
And pavements running with water.
With the abstract “casual slaughter” against the particularities of the blown out windows and the broken water mains.
Also these relics of an urban war with a high civilian death count:-
The blimp has a patch on its nose,
The railings have gone to the smelter,
Only the ghost and the cat,
Sleep in the Anderson shelter.
Which is evocative, like those grey concrete pillboxes you still find on the coast, sunk into sand. Three years ago “a long time ago” for Orwell who of course did not have much time left himself.
The other day a boy of eleven told me the that his class had been to see an Anderson shelter in someone’s garden. It was very damp and mossy, he said.
George Orwell in the Home Guard
I have a few conspiracy theorists on my timeline. Scottish nationalists are prone to this and I’ve picked up a few flakes. I don’t bother clicking their links about “ISIS has not attacked Israel yet. GOTCHA!!” as I know they won’t clarify the complexities of the Middle East. However next time I see something like that I’ll post this video.
Following the post below on Maryam Namazie’s encounter with the cry-bullies at Goldsmith.
It’s not hard to guess whose side the Goldsmith Feminist Society was on.
On one side, a solitary female, feminist, Iranian, fighter for human rights, atheist.
On the other side, a bunch of aggressive males from a patriarchal religion who did their best to intimidate the solitary female.
No need to ask. Of course the Goldsmith Feminist Society took the side of the males.
Y’know, women have an instinctive protectiveness towards other women menaced by men – women who may not even have heard of the concept of feminism (as illustrated in this story A Jury of her Peers). There is such a thing as natural female solidarity which finds comfort in a hospital ward together and which will shelter an abused woman.
What the hell has happened that a body that calls itself the Feminist Society leaps to the defence of the misogynists? .
For a little of what is deemed to be acceptable discourse in ISOC’s own safe space have a look at what stirs Muhammed Patel’s juices. (He’s the President of Goldsmiths Islamic society (ISOC)). He describes an event as “amazing” where the speakers “have made statements advocating the execution of ex-Muslims and blasphemers, advised Muslims to boycott women who marry outside of Islam, said that non-Muslim women will be taken as slaves in the future (of course it is permissible to have sex with these women), creepily remarked that six and seven year old girls are ‘pretty’ and ‘desired’, warned of the dangers when leaving Muslim children with non-Muslims, insisted that women should remain in the house and not venture outside unless it’s a necessity, advocated punishments for Muslims who do not pray, and said that homosexuals are worse than animals. “ (From a post by Harry Matz).
Under the linked post you can find a stream of foully abusive comments, of a gross sexual nature, which is typical of Islamists who love filthy invective.
So mad has feminism become even if the thugs had sexually assaulted Namazie they no doubt would have found excuses for them.
Following recent events on- and offline, we would like to state and show our solidarity with the sisters and brothers of our Goldsmiths ISOC
We condemn AHS and online supporters for their islamophobic remarks and attitudes. If they feel intimidated, we urge them to look at the underpinnings of their ideology. We find that personal and social harm enacted in the name of ‘free speech’ is foul, and detrimental to the wellbeing of students and staff on campus.
In our experiences, members of ISOC have been nothing but charming, patient, kind, and peaceful as individuals and as an organization.
We hope this series of events prompts reflection in all parties involved, but also onlookers. Allyship consists of apologies, bearing with and deconstructing discomfort, respecting the necessary privacy of safer spaces, and opening our hearts to humans unlike ourselves.
We can all stand to improve in this area- which ideally is a daily, humbling practice and not a label.
For all I know Goldsmith Feminist Society and LBGT Society contain about 8 members a piece. But Jeez, their support for an ideology which in its ideal society would keep the women segregated and second-class and execute the gays is absolutely barmy, even for student activists.
There appears, nevertheless, to be something especially potent about Islam in fomenting terror and persecution. Contemporary radical Islam is the religious form through which a particular kind of barbarous rage expresses itself.
So, to understand why jihadis have been drawn into a moral universe that allows them to celebrate inhuman acts, we have to understand why political rage against the West takes such nihilistic, barbaric forms, and why radical Islam has become the primary vehicle for such rage.
Jihadis view themselves as warriors against western imperialism. Yet few anti-imperialists of previous generations would recognise jihadis as ideological kin.
There is a long history of popular struggles against colonialism and empire. While such movements often used violent means to pursue their ends, they were rarely “anti-western” in any existential sense. Rather they worked within a universalist moral framework that stressed freedom and emancipation for all humanity.
Over the past few decades these anti-imperialist traditions have unravelled. The new movements that have emerged in their place are often rooted in religious or ethnic identity, and are sectarian or separatist in form. This shift is linked to the wider decline of progressive social movements, the loss of faith in universalist values, and the replacement of ideological politics with the politics of identity. Moral norms have increasingly become tribal rather than universal. Political struggle for a better world has given way to inchoate identity-driven rage.
I wasn’t going to bother with The Last Kingdom. Saxons vs Danes isn’t a period of history I’m much interested in. However Tom Holland, who is researching the Heptarchy was on Twitter saying that the portrait of Alfred was very good, so I scrolled through Episode 2 till he turned up, and he is good (played by David Dawson). A melancholy intellectual, visionary yet shrewd. Fragile, delicate and only an adequate warrior whereas the Danes thoroughly enjoy the whole business of close combat sword and shield play. His intellectualism takes the form as it would in his time, of theological debate, his politics are cool and ruthless.
“Most prudent, far-seeing in wisdom, and hard to overcome in any crisis’ – Æthelwold on King Alfred & his heirs. “ (stolen from Tom Holland).
So I went back to episode 1 and followed the fortunes of Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) a handsome young man who was born a Saxon and brought up a Dane. We get shots of him bathing – not just for a sight of his nice body but to reassure the audience that our ancestors weren’t the epitome of stench that so repels us now. (They did the same thing for Liam Neeson’s Rob Roy).
Uhtred – quite clean you know
He does choose odd times of the year to bathe though. It has been winter for 5 episodes. Once there was a clump of daffodils suggesting it might be at least be late March then it got back to winter. I was hopeful that we would have changed seasons in episode 5 when Uhtred’s missus was bathing with a pregnant belly, showing time would have passed since their arranged marriage but evidently she conceived in about May, since it was winter again. This is Wessex, the West Country (though it it was shot in Hungary and Wales) and that part of England has early springs and hot summers. This series won’t have done the tourist trade any good.
Uhtred is supposed to be avenging the death of his adoptive father, a Dane, and is also trying to get back the kingdom of Northumbria, to which he is the rightful heir. He has plenty of adventures but he is a dull character not a patch on Alfred. His girlfriend, Brida (Emily Cox), is an early version of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, foul mouthed and playfully cruel which couldn’t be allowed to Uhtred, supposed to be the hero after all. His other companion is Leofric (Adrian Bower) the classic sergeant major rough diamond, obscene-speaking and straight-talking, the kind of part that would normally be played by Sean Bean.
The series is propaganda for paganism. The Danes are buoyant and colourful. They wear wonderful animal skins (though no-one ever scratches for fleas), are finely tattooed, have wild hair, and love a fight, followed by massacre, torture and rape. The biggest, and baddest of them, Ubba (Rene Tempe), has finally been laid low and he really did have the presence of a manic head of a motorcycle gang – The Marauding Mob or the Plundering Pack. Meanwhile the poor Saxons frump about in long drab gowns, go to Church and eat gruel and apples because it is always Lent. And on that kind of diet they have to fight these evil brutes with their ultra cool ships.
The manic Ubba
Some genuine suspense has built up. Uhtred, tired of being pissed over by Alfred, is going rogue and is setting to do a little plundering of his own. With 3 more episodes to go I’m fairly sure Uhtred will be reconciled with Alfred and get Northumbria back. The Danes will be expelled and converted to Christianity. So far when they come up against a priest or devout king they have Richard Dawkins style objections to the faith. The nature of conversion is something that the script-writers in our agnostic age can’t handle.
This is supposed to be the British Game of Thrones which I don’t watch as it has too much explicit torture for me to stomach. Here the violence is knockabout and doesn’t make me wince. It looks good, it’s lively and there’s always the chance of seeing Alfred dragged away from discussing scripture for yet another wretched battle, glumly putting on the chain mail helmet while the Danish roaring boys, in the ninth century equivalent of revving their Harley Davidsons, knock up yet another painted shield wall.
Alfred at yet another sodding battle
Someone on twitter pointed to this, and though I’ve read it scores of times, it still gives the authentic shiver:-
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.