Thursday, 28 November 2013

Catastrophe by Max Hastings

Earlier this month was Remembrance Day, and in honour I read 'Catastrophe' by Max Hastings (who received a knighthood in 2002), on the history of WWI. The book describes the complex lead-up to and opening weeks of the First World War, before analysing the actual war itself. As a historian, Hasting's objective is not only to pin the principal blame for launching the catastrophic conflict where it rightly belongs (on Austria and Germany) but also to argue that Britain was politically and morally right to fight WWI.

Hastings shows how the Austrians coldly set out to destroy Serbia; how Berlin gave Vienna a “blank cheque”, assuring it of German support; how both countries ignored the certainty that Russia would pitch in on the side of its Slav protégé Serbia; and how Germany’s autocracy, under its mentally unstable Kaiser, deliberately pushed Europe over the edge. Germany recklessly gambled that Britain would stay out of the war, and that even if it did not, they could, anyhow, win it within weeks by knocking out France, before turning to deal with Russia at leisure: the same pipedream pursued by Hitler a quarter of a century later.

Hastings demonstrates the parallels between the two world wars, showing that atrocities such as the Kaiser’s armies as marching through Belgium , though smaller in scale than the Nazis’ crimes in 1939-45 (6,000 civilians murdered rather than six million), were inflicted in the same wanton spirit. With irrefutable logic Hastings argues that if it was right for Britain to wage war in defence of Poland in 1939, then it was also correct to take up arms in defence of Belgium in 1914.

Coming to the war itself, Hastings is also brilliant. He looks not just at the fighting in France and Flanders, but instead across the whole of Europe, describing half-forgotten campaigns on the Drina and Danube rivers with the same spirit that he brings to the more familiar clashes at Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and Ypres.

The book is also incredibly touching because he uses the stories of ordinary people which resonate loud and long with the reader: the conscripted clerks and scholars torn from their ledgers and books, never to return; or the wives and children, suddenly wondering where their next meal would come from, such as the family of the Russian soldier Ivan Kuchernigo. “His five-year-old daughter sat in his arms, pressing against him and saying, 'Daddy, why are you going? Why are you leaving us? Who’s going to earn money and get bread for us?’ She embraced and kissed her father whose own tears were soon flowing.” This is a magnificent and deeply moving book and Hastings has once again show his incomparable skills for writing history.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

50 Years of Doctor Who

50 years ago today, a children's teatime sci-fi show made its debut on the BBC - and went on to change the world, both in terms of television and the imaginations of viewers for generations. To celebrate I thought I would tell you all a few interesting facts about the show which you probably won't have heard of before!

Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show in the world; the 50th anniversary special will be the show’s 799th episode since it began in 1963.  The nearest rival doesn’t come close – with Superman’s youthful adventures in Smallville achieving 218 episodes across 10 series.

The BBC started colour transmission on November 15th 1969. That meant that the first colour Doctor Who episode was 1970’s Spearhead from Space which introduced the Third Doctor. The record highest viewer figures for an episode of Doctor Who is taken by part four of 1979’s The City of Death – also part of the first Doctor Who serial to be filmed abroad.  16.1 million viewers tuned in, although strike action on the ITV network may take some of the credit. 

Being the mother of Doctor Who is quite a claim, but original producer Verity Lambert was also the first ever female producer at the BBC. Sadly the BBC’s short-sighted decision to junk black and white episodes in the late 60s and early 70s has robbed us of classic episodes of the First and Second Doctors. But fans haven’t given up hope that these episodes survive somewhere in the world.  Those searches have yielded results. The recent discovery of copies of 1968 serials The Enemy of the World and the Web of Fear in Nigeria mean that only 97 episodes of Doctor Who remain missing - that figure stood at 137 in 1981.

The word TARDIS has made the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the Doctor’s famous time and Space machine, but it’s also a recognised word. Noun. 1. Time machine. 2. A building or container that is larger inside than it appears to be from outside.

Coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy delayed Doctor Who’s first broadcast. Doctor Who’s first episode was broadcast the day after President John F Kennedy was assassinated. Popular opinion has it that news coverage delayed the first screening by 10 minutes, but in fact it was only 80 seconds. The show’s first episode was repeated again the following week to make sure it wasn’t missed.

Doctor Who is one of the BBC’s Top five Brands. Last year’s annual report showed that Doctor Who and the Beeb’s other top brands (Top Gear, Lonely Planet, Dancing with the Stars and BBC Earth) made up 30% of their headline sales. The 50th anniversary special the Day of the Doctor has been described as the biggest event in BBC Drama’s history and it’s easy to see why. Scheduled for 7.50pm this Saturday, the episode will be simulcast across the world to almost 80 countries - just imagine viewers in Melbourne Australia who’ll be watching at 6.50am on Sunday morning!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

50 Years Since JFK's Assassination

Fifty years ago yesterday a momentous political and historical event shocked America and the world, when, during a trip to Texas the President, John F. Kennedy was shot as his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza on 22nd November 1963. To this day there remains some questions surrounding the assassination.

The sequence, number and direction of the shots that were fired in Texas remains a subject for debate with many believing the official government version of events to be implausible and pointing to the existence of a second shooter. Through studying the Zapruder film the Warren Commission concluded that of the three shots that were fired one missed Kennedy completely, another hit him in the neck causing a non-fatal injury, and another - the fatal shot - hit him in the head. Conspiracy theorists claim the Single Bullet explanation put forward by the Commission to explain timing discrepancies in the Zapruder film is implausible and indicates Oswald didn't act alone. It is also the case that around 40 witnesses claimed to have seen gunshots or smoke from the infamous grassy knoll in the northwest corner of Dealey Plaza. Indeed, even the murdered president’s niece, former Maryland Lt. Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, recently questioned whether her uncle’s killer acted alone.

In one of the most memorable scenes in Oliver Stone's film 'JFK', based on the book 'On The Trail of The Assassins' by Jim Garrison, the lead character is shown watching the Zapruder film - in particular frames 312 and 313. The footage appears to show Kennedy's head snapping back and to the left. According to Stone, and many other critics of the official version of what happened in Dallas, the footage is evidence that Kennedy was shot from the front. Interviewed recently on CNN Stone remarked that "Most of the witnesses saw a huge exit wound on the back of his right skull, huge. They described the cerebellum falling through the skull in the Parkland Hospital." Many theorists claim during the subsequent autopsy the back of the President's head was patched up.

In his recent book, End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, James Swanson claims that Robert F Kennedy, who was later assassinated himself, took his brother's brain in a bid to hide the true extent of President Kennedy's illnesses. Others have claimed that the brain would help to come to a final conclusion about the direction of the fatal shot that killed Kennedy - hence its disappearance. What happened to the brain remains a mystery.

Thousands of pages of documents related to the investigation of Kennedy’s death remain classified prompting further speculation and allowing unanswered questions to remain unanswered. However in 2017 they will all be released, putting an end to many questions surrounding the President's death.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The Other Boleyn Girl

I recently finished reading, and then watching, The Other Boleyn Girl (book by Philippa Gregory). I found the book absolutely fascinating and enjoyed the movie just as much, despite many critics arguing the Hollywood film 'butchered history'.  I have decided to answer some questions on accuracy that people have had with the film

In the film Mary Boleyn was depicted as desiring a quiet country life, devoted to her new husband.
In reality, Mary lived in France for several of her teen years, at court in attendance on Mary Tudor (wife of Louis XII and sister of Henry VIII) and on Queen Claude (wife of Francis I after Louis's death). She was reputed to have had several affairs at the French court, possibly with King Francis himself. Mary was recalled by her father to England in 1519, possibly because of her promiscuous behaviour, and became a maid of honour to Catherine of Aragon, Henry's queen. Mary wed Sir William Carey, a notable courtier (not a simple merchant as portrayed in the movie), in 1520. King Henry attended their wedding. She became Henry's mistress very soon after her marriage, and there is no indication that she was unwilling.

There has also been some controversy over who was oldest, Anne or Mary. The film suggests Anne is the oldest Boleyn child, however most historians agree that Anne must have been younger.  Anne and Mary were at the French court during an overlapping period, though the dates when each first came to France are sketchy. It is known that Mary returned to England first, to be married, in 1519. Anne did not return to England for her own marriage until 1522. Mary's earlier marriage is very strong evidence for her being eldest. In those days, younger sisters just were not married off before elder sisters. Girls had no choice but were contracted in marriage to increase family status; as the eldest girl had the most status, she was always married off first. Also, in 1596 Mary's grandson claimed the family title of Ormonde, based on the fact that Mary was older than Anne (since their brother George died without children). In the absence of male heirs, the title would go to the eldest sister and her children, so it would have been claimed by Elizabeth as Anne's child, had Anne been older than Mary.

The film shows Anne's anger that Mary won Henry's interest, however in actual fact Anne was sent abroad in 1513, whilst only twelve, and did not return from the French Court (where she went in 1514) till 1522, two years after Mary's wedding to William Carey and her subsequent affair with King Henry.

Mary was also not Henry's only mistress (as the film suggests). Henry had a mistress, Bessie Blount, an unmarried woman who served as maid of honour to Catherine, in 1514, years before Mary Boleyn. He acknowledged her son Henry Fitzroy, born in 1519, as his son. "Fitzroy" means "son of the king." Henry honoured his illegitimate son with the title of Duke of Richmond and Somerset. Henry was known to be unfaithful to his established mistresses as well as to his wives.

There is also some debate over whether Mary's son was indeed fathered by Henry (as the film shows). He may well have been; her affair with Henry ended in mid-1525, and her son was born in early March 1526. His resemblance to Henry was remarked upon, and he was widely assumed to be the king's son. However, Henry never acknowledged him so there is doubt. Henry had acknowledged Bessie Blount's illegitimate son so the fact that he did not claim Mary's son argues against it. But there are reasons he might not have: (1) Bessie Blount was unmarried, so there was no other claimant to be the father, while Mary had a husband who could have been the father and gave the boy a legitimate name. (2) Henry was in love with Anne and may have felt awkward acknowledging a son by her sister. Queen Elizabeth granted her cousin-possibly-brother the title Lord Hunsdon late in his life.

Anne did also not secretly wed Henry Percy, as the film does. She did enter into a secret betrothal with him, which was broken off when his father refused to support it. It is unlikely that their relationship was consummated.

Henry also trusted Anne over Mary (not the other way round, as shown in the movie). In fact, when Mary's first husband William Carey died in 1528, Henry promptly gave guardianship of two-year-old Henry Carey (who may have been his son) to Anne. Henry's surviving love letters to Anne indicate that he was worried about Mary's "easy virtue" (meaning she was promiscuous) and that is why he made Anne the guardian of her nephew. The child was raised at court under Anne's care.

The film lacks a sense of the passage of time. Henry courted Anne for seven years and they were married
for three years before she was beheaded.

In the movie Henry never smiled at Anne once he agreed to annul his marriage. Anne and Henry had a long courtship and a short affair before their three-year marriage. Henry first became attracted to Anne in 1526. They did not wed until seven years later in 1533. He was devoted to her for many years despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they did not have a sexual relationship for most of that time. All evidence - including Henry's love letters to Anne - indicate that they did not have a sexual relationship until shortly before their wedding, when Anne became pregnant with Elizabeth. He certainly began to lose interest in her sometime around her first or second miscarriage. His worry that she would only bear him a daughter as Catherine had, and the knowledge that he had already weathered one very messy and unpopular shed-a-wife scandal, led him to think of replacing her with another wife as well.

The movie also showed Anne pushing for annulment or divorce. This is true, at least partially. Anne certainly refused to get into his bed until he could marry her. However, it is also true that Henry was already obsessed with having a male heir and very distressed by Catherine's failure to produce a living son. Catherine was six or seven years older than Henry and suffered several miscarriages, still-births, and two short-lived sons. She also bore him Mary, who would later become Queen of England as the famous Bloody Mary. By 1529, the doctors declared that Catherine (about age 42) would have no more children. Henry, who had studied for the priesthood at one point, began to reflect on the verses from Leviticus stating that a man who took his brother's wife would be childless. At this point, Henry was also becoming more and more enamoured of Anne Boleyn. It is possible that he had considered annulment before Anne's arrival, since he was obsessed with the idea of having a male heir. Anne's resistance to his overtures only strengthened his resolve to dissolve his first marriage. The pope stalled on granting an annulment, and Anne stalled on sleeping with Henry. Catherine was banished in 1531 and Anne installed in her rooms in the palace. Sometime between 1531 and 1533, Anne and Henry began a sexual relationship. Anne was soon pregnant, and Henry again had hopes of an heir. He declared his marriage null on the grounds that Catherine had been his brother's wife and therefore the marriage was unlawful, and he married Anne in secret in 1533. The break with the Catholic church was inevitable after that.

The film shows Mary pleading with the king and visiting Anne, however she did not actually intervene on behalf of her siblings. Mary did not visit either of her siblings in prison. There is no evidence that she wrote to them or communicated in any way; certainly she did not approach King Henry on Anne's behalf. It is known that her second husband was overlooked when Henry was passing out favours to Anne's male relatives, and she tried to seek Henry's favour for her husband through highly placed people at court, not by approaching him directly. Henry had already removed her son (and possibly his) from her custody, when her first husband died, and given him into Anne's custody. There is plenty of evidence that Mary had absolutely no influence with the king.


Monday, 11 November 2013

75 Years Since Kristallnacht

On the 9th November Germany marked the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht with solemn ceremonies and touching tributes to the victims. This year, instead of one central memorial event, many smaller commemorations are taking place including art projects, Twitter initiatives and silent vigils.

The attacks of November 9 and 10, 1938, saw Nazi  smash up Jewish businesses throughout Germany, torch synagogues and round up about 30,000 Jewish men for deportation to concentration camps.

At least 90 Jews were killed in the night of violence, also known as 'The Night of Broken Glass', which historians say ushered in the start of the Nazis' drive to wipe out European Jewry.

As part of the unconventional memorials, Berliners and tourists during the day polished around 5,000 "Stolpersteine" memorials for Jews in their neighbourhoods. The "stumbling blocks" are small plaques bearing the names of Holocaust victims embedded in the street in front of their last known address, along with their dates of birth and facts about their deportation.

Meanwhile around 120 retailers in Berlin have affixed adhesive film to their shop windows depicting the jagged pattern of broken glass to commemorate the destruction levelled against Jewish merchants. The stickers were concentrated in areas of central Berlin that were targeted by the Nazi looters in 1938, with participants including Germany's most famous department store KaDeWe.

President Joachim Gauck paid his respects at a synagogue in the eastern city of Eberswalde near Berlin which was destroyed in the rampage, and where there is now a memorial made from the building's rediscovered foundations and freshly planted trees.

Churches in Berlin have planned a silent march to the site of an obliterated synagogue in the city centre in which Mayor Klaus Wowereit was due to take part. The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, had called for "honest, emotional concern" on the part of Germans on the anniversary and urged continued vigilance against hatred. 

Remembrance Day

I hope you all found a chance to mark Remembrance Day today with a two minute silence and any other marches or tributes your school/ youth movement may have organised.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013


Today I visited Westminster on a Politics school trip. We had a fantastic day, beginning with a tour of Parliament in the morning before watching the House of Commons Questions to George Osbourne, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Of course we went out for lunch (Wagamamas), before visiting the Supreme Court and then watching the select committee on Home Affairs deal with the 'Plebgate' issue and tobacco smuggling.

Combining my passion for history and interest in politics I have decided to do a timeline of the history of Parliament (summarised, of course, or we would be here all day), up until James I in 1603.

1215 - King John agreed to Magna Carta which stated the right of the barons to consult with and advise the king in his Great Council

1236 - Earliest use of the term Parliament, referring to the Great Council

1254 - Sheriffs were instructed to send elected representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) to consult with the king on taxation

1258 - At a Parliament at Oxford, the nobles drafted the "Provisions of Oxford" which calls for regular Parliaments with representatives from the counties

1265 - Simon de Montfort, in rebellion against Henry III, summoned a Parliament which included for the first time representatives of both the counties and towns

1278 - The Clerk of the Parliaments began to compile the Rolls of Parliament, the records of proceedings, particularly the petitions and acts passed

1295 - Model Parliament was made up of nobles and bishops, and two representatives for each county and for each town - the model for future Parliaments

1327 - From this date representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) and of the towns (burgesses) were always summoned together to Parliament

1332 - Knights of the shire and burgesses met together and were called the Commons

1341 - The Commons met separately from the Upper House for the first time

1352 - The Commons began to meet in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey

1362 - A statute established that Parliament must approve of all taxation

1376 - In the Good Parliament the Commons, led for the first time by an elected Speaker, prosecuted, or impeached, before the lords some of the king's advisors

1397 - Commons moved from Chapter House of Westminster Abbey to its Refectory

1399 - Parliament deposed Richard II and Henry IV's reign started

1401 - During the reign of Henry IV the Commons claimed the right to grant taxation (supply) only after their complaints had been addressed (redress of grievances)

1407 - The Commons successfully asserted its right that it should originate all new taxes in its own House

1413 - Statute insisted that burgesses should reside in the borough for which they are elected. Over the following years, this provision was almost completely ignored

1414 - 
Henry V acknowledged that the approval and consultation of both Houses was necessary to make new laws

1429 - Statute limited the right to vote in county elections to those owning freehold property worth 40 shillings a year

1497 - The Clerk of the Parliaments was no longer a Chancery official and began to keep the acts passed in Parliament (the Original Acts) in Parliament's own archives

1510 - The Clerk of the Parliaments started keeping records of proceedings in the House of Lords - the Lords Journal

1512 - Henry VIII moved the royal family out of the Palace of Westminster after a fire, and left it to the use of Parliament and some government offices

1523 - Speaker of the Commons Sir Thomas More made the first known request for freedom of speech in Parliament

1529-36 - The Reformation Parliament passed legislation touching on every aspect of people's lives and made King-in-Parliament the sovereign lawmaker in the realm

1536 - A statute joined Wales to English administration and allowed its counties and boroughs to return members to Parliament

1539 - Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries and the abbots and priors could no longer sit in the House of Lords, making the Lords Temporal the majority there

1547 - Edward VI handed St Stephen's Chapel over to the Commons for their use

1547 - The Clerk of the Commons started keeping records of proceedings - the Commons Journal

1576 - Peter Wentworth made a speech in the Commons arguing for freedom of speech in Parliament, for which he was punished and committed to the Tower of London

Monday, 4 November 2013


Yesterday was Diwali, the Indian festival of lights. Diwali has been celebrated since ancient times and many different people have different opinions on its origin. Rama, Lakshmana, Sita and HanumanThe most well known story behind Diwali is in the Ramayana, a Hindu myth. According to Ramayana, Rama, Prince of Ayodhya was ordered by his father, King Dasharatha, to live in the forest for fourteen years. So Rama, his wife, Sita, and brother Lashmana left in exile. However Ravana, the demon king of Lanka abducted Sita and took her away to his island kingdom of Lanka. Rama fought against and killed Ravana, rescued Sita and returned to Ayodhya after fourteen years. The people of Ayodhya were so happy to hear of their prince's homecoming that they celebrated by lighting up their houses with earthen lamps (diyas), burst crackers and decorating the entire city beautifully.

This is believed to have started the tradition of Diwali. Year after year the homecoming of Lord Rama is commemorated on Diwali with lights, fireworks, bursting of crackers and merriment. The festival gets its name Deepawali, or Diwali, from the rows (avali) of lamps (deepa) that the people of Ayodhya lit to welcome their King. 

Sri Krishna and Arjun