Thursday, August 20, 2009

Love it, hate it - just don't you dare spread Marmite's dark secret

Marmite may be proverbially loved and loathed in equal measure, but there is one village in Derbyshire where the locals definitely can't stand it.

Who can blame them when they have been forced to put up with a rather nasty stink hanging over them - a smell which has been traced back to the dumping (albeit perfectly legal) of liquid waste from Britain's main Marmite factory.

'The smell was unbelievable,' says Jeff Tully, 43, who led the campaign to stop the dumping on farmland outside the village of Sawley. 'You'd go outside and it would knock you over.'
Jar of Marmite.

While those opposed to the 'Sawley Stink' have been successful in getting Marmite to agree to stop the dumping, and the smell has now dissipated, one pressing question remains: what on earth is Marmite putting into its spread to cause such a stench?

Some villagers likened it to rotten eggs, while Jeff Tully describes it more as 'a combination of sewage and sick'.

To find out the truth, the Mail decided to hold its nose and venture to the Marmite factory in Burton-on-Trent. For fans of the salty spread, this is sacred ground. It was just down the road in 1902 that Marmite first went into production in a disused malt house, and ever since 1954 (when the firm moved here - bringing Bovril, too) most of the Marmite bought and consumed in the world has come from this site.

When you first arrive at the gates, however, it's a bit disappointing. From the outside, the factory looks more like a storage depot than the home of a classic global brand - but the strong smell of hops and beer fills the air.

'We make Marmite from the surplus yeast from brewing,' says 34-year-old factory manager Martin Beckford, who, like some savoury Willy Wonka, drives a taxi cab painted in yellow and red and emblazoned with the Marmite logo.

Indeed, beer is the reason Marmite set up shop in Burton-on-Trent. With the area's beer-making heritage, there were numerous breweries where Marmite could buy waste. The company still gets a significant amount of yeast from the nearby Coors and Marston's breweries.

Not that Marmite is in any way alcoholic. With the spread becoming increasingly popular with Muslims, Martin is very keen to point out that any alcohol in the yeast evaporates off during the Marmite-making process.
Martin Beckford

While there may be something vaguely puritanical in this insistence, it is in keeping with the slightly religious awe with which Marmite workers talk about their product. Even entering the factory feels like submitting to a religious ritual.

This is confirmed by the presence of a bio-chemist and analytical manager called St John Skelton. He's in charge of 'keeping the Marmite flavour right'. Tall and decked out in a lab coat, the 57-year-old is part high priest, part mad scientist - and utterly devoted to Marmite.

Having worked in the labs since he graduated 34 years ago, he's the man who ensures the Marmite we spread on six million slices of toast each year tastes the same. He says: 'We do our best to maintain the flavour, but we cannot be exact, as yeast is a living organism.'

To guarantee each pot contains a product within a range of acceptable flavours, he leads a team of 30 'tasters' who are trained to pick up any deviation. 'Some of our tasters don't even like Marmite,' he smiles, 'but they can recognise what is and what isn't Marmite.'

Tastings are carried out in a kitchen, where a spatula of Marmite is added to a beaker along with hot water. The staff smell, swig and then ponder the aftertaste. Spitting is not encouraged.

Marmite was created in 1902, 16 years after a German chemist called Justus Liebig discovered that the yeast waste from brewing could form the basis of a protein-rich food. The spread was the brainchild of Frederick Wissler, a Swiss, George Huth, a German, and Alexander Vale, an Englishman.

Apart from technological advances, little has changed to the principle behind the Marmite Food Company. Taking its name from the French word 'marmite' (pronounced 'mar-meet'), the name of a cooking pot similar to the one pictured on the label, the product became a staple diet of soldiers in both world wars, and one of the most popular brands in Britain after 1945.
Marmite factory

Pregnant women swore by it because of its rich folic acid content, and its Vitamin B content and numerous health benefits were widely advertised.

Like HP Sauce, Marmite is one of those brands that remind us of a strong Britain of yesteryear. Boss Martin Beckford says: 'We employ 80 people at the factory. Much of the process has been computerised, so we operate 24 hours a day, and only shut on Christmas Day.' Operating one computer is Graham Brown, 57, a Marmite veteran of 34 years' service. Most employees have an average of 15 years' standing.

The yeast slurry arrives in tankers. It takes 50,000 tonnes of yeast a year to make 6,000 tonnes of finished Marmite. Hoses are connected to the tanker and, like petrol, it is pumped into vats. Next, it is stirred and slightly heated and it begins to break down until it becomes a bitter-tasting protein soup.

The yeast is pumped through hot centrifuges at 70C, which causes the cell walls in the yeast to separate from the liquid, which is siphoned off to form the basis of Marmite. The separated waste is then pumped off into vats, and it is this material that caused such a stink in the village of Sawley.

Martin approaches a bucket of the sludge. Brown and smelling slightly of hops, it's hard to see or smell what all the fuss was about, until you realise that it might not smell so pleasant once it is left out in the sun for a few days.

'The problem was the contractor was spreading it on top of the land instead of burying it,' says Martin. 'When it's buried, it's good for the farmland.'

That mystery solved, we are introduced to the most secret and mysterious step in the production process.

It is in a large room at the top of the factory where what is referred to by the workers as 'the secret ingredient' is added to the mix. For lovers of Marmite, this is the holy of holies, the inner sanctum where a base protein product is transformed into Marmite. So what is this secret ingredient?

'If I told you, I would have to kill you,' says operator Phil Harvey. Although he's smiling, I'm not sure he's joking.

'The secret ingredient is a mixture of things,' says St John. 'There are dire consequences for revealing it.'

Thirty million bottles of Marmite are filled here every year, and 27 of them are bought every minute. About 15 per cent of the pots are exported to former colonies such as Hong Kong, with half of all exports going to Sri Lanka, where it is used as a seasoning for porridge.

The company was bought by Bovril in 1924 and underwent a sale to new owners every decade from 1970 - with the latest buyer in 2000 being global corporation Unilever. Unilever has introduced an array of products including crisps and the squeezy bottle.

But Marmite is such an established and - yes - beloved part of British life that it is bigger than any of its owners. One of the Queen's most senior advisers compared the British monarchy's enduring quality with Marmite. That high praise, though, probably won't be shared by the residents of Sawley.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Berlin dedicates museum to street-corner snack of wurst cuisine

The colours hit your eye even before the meat concoction hits your stomach: a gory red and yellow, a sprinkling of radioactive orange powder.

In the view of critics, Berlin’s fabled currywurst resembles a particularly vivid car crash. Yet the pork sausage, covered with chilli powder, cayenne pepper and syrupy sauce, is considered to be Berlin’s culinary triumph — and, from today, Berlin has a museum dedicated to the snack. It is rather as if Glasgow were to establish an exhibition centre for deep-fried Mars bars.

Vienna has its schnitzel, Brussels its mussels but Berlin has the messy wurst that regularly sends unwitting tourists hurtling towards the city’s public lavatories.

Plainly, the hope is to create a site of currywurst pilgrimage. There will be an interactive guide through the sausage’s controversial history and, to entice the hoped-for 350,000 annual visitors, a currywurst stand in the basement so that the smell of animal fat can waft through the building.

The museum has the enthusiastic support of Berliners, who consider the strange sausage to be a test of love for the German capital.

Gerhard Schröder, the former Chancellor — once married to a strict vegetarian — used to have his chauffeur stop at a currywurst stand on the way to the office. The former US President Bill Clinton bit into the sausage on his trips to Berlin. Every candidate for the city’s mayoralty needs to be photographed by a currywurst stand.

Even the New York chef Anthony Bourdain has sung its praises — but then he has also sampled the beating heart of a cobra in Vietnam and the rectum of a Namibian warthog.

The museum’s aim seems to be to proclaim that the currywurst is the quintessential Berlin pavement food, despite strong competition from the kebab — a strong contender in a city with a 300,000-strong Turkish community.

It is promoting the food at the museum with pictures of film stars holding the sausage.

So rather than admit that the city is losing one of its institutions, Berlin has established a museum in its honour. Every filmstar who has ever been photographed holding the sausage is now featured in the museum to prove that the food is not only urban and authentic but also glamorous.

Berlin also has to make clear to the world that it really is the city that gave birth to the currywurst. The novelist Uwe Timm claims in his 1993 book The Invention of the Curry Wurst that he first tasted one in 1947 — in Hamburg. And there are rival claims from the Ruhr that it first saw the light of day there as a snack for workers.

Berlin’s story is that, after the war women, many war widows, kept the city going by setting up small businesses to feed their fatherless children. One was Herta Heuwer who, in September 1949, set up a sausage stand in the middle of the red-light district that was so successful that currywurst became a cult foodstuff. By 1959 she had patented the sauce as Chillup.

Since the 1950s, a proper currywurst etiquette has developed. The customer has to specify whether he wants the sausage with or without skin (made specially out of pig’s stomach), sharp (with cayenne pepper on top of the curry powder) or extra sharp (with the seeds of a chilli), or with a mixture of diced raw onion and chilli.

At its most fashionable, along the shopping boulevard Kurfürstendamm, for example, it is served with champagne. Late at night, after the theatres have closed, a prominent actress can often be seen feeding her two Afghan wolfhounds with the sausage. So far they seem to have survived.

An East German version was developed in the 1960s. Konnopke’s currywurst stand, in East Berlin, was a classic rendezvous point for Eastern and Western spies during the Cold War. They, on the whole, did not survive.

Babies' brains are more sophisticated than we ever believed

A baby’s mind is quite brilliant, a psychologist says in her new book. Far from being irrational, children are more astute than many adults

Alison Gopnik

In the past 30 years we’ve learnt more about babies and young children than in the preceding 2,500 years and that has given us new ideas about human nature itself — about knowledge and imagination, truth and consciousness. Thirty years ago most psychologists and philosophers thought that babies and young children were basically defective adults — irrational and egocentric, unable to think logically, take another person’s perspective or reason causally.

If you just looked cursorily at babies and young children, as generations of philosophers did, you might well conclude that there was not much going on. If you looked carefully, as generations of mothers and the great psychologist Jean Piaget did, you would start to appreciate how philosophically significant, fascinating and profound children are.

It is this sophistication that I hope to reveal in my book, The Philosophical Baby. For those of us who are intrigued but, equally, sometimes frustrated by a baby’s apparent lack of reason or awareness of the outside world, I hope that the latest ground-breaking research will explain just how brilliant a baby’s mind really is. Neither mothers nor even Piaget had the recording tools and experimental techniques that we have now that show babies and young children know much more than we ever believed.

One reaction to this research has been to say that all that knowledge must be built into our genes and that, therefore, experience and learning play only a small part.But studies show that this is not the case. Far from being irrational and illogical, in some ways children are brighter than adults. Even the youngest children turn out to have remarkably sophisticated and powerful learning abilities.

This was evident in three very recent experiments. First Professor Fei Xu, of the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, took a group of one-year-old babies and showed them a box full of mixed-up ping-pong balls — 80 per cent white and 20 per cent red. The babies were more surprised, and looked more intently at the researcher when she pulled four red balls in a row out of the box, a statistically unlikely though possible event, than when she pulled out four white balls. The babies concluded that the researcher must like the red balls more than the white ones as when she held out her hand, they gave her a red ball rather than a white one. Far from being illogical and egocentric they could learn from statistics and use the logic of what they saw to figure out what someone else wanted.

In a second experiment, Laura Schulz, assistant professor of Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, showed that when young children play they are really experimenting with cause and effect. Pre-schoolers saw a toy with two levers and a duck that popped up on top. One group saw that when you pressed one lever the duck appeared, and when you pressed the other it didn’t. The second group saw that when you pressed both levers at once, the duck popped up, but they never got a chance to see what the levers did separately. This left the causal relation between the levers and the duck a mystery. When given the toy to play with, the children spontaneously played more with the puzzling toy and figured out how it worked. Schulz’s research suggests that when babies and young children are “into everything” they are really exploring and discovering.

In my own laboratory at Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development, my colleague Tamar Kushnir and I discovered that pre-schoolers can use probabilities to learn how things work. We showed them two blocks that were likely, but not certain, to make a box light up. These children, who couldn’t yet add or subtract, were more likely to try a block themselves when it made the machine light up two out of four times than when it only made it work two out of six times. All these experiments show an astonishing capacity for statistical reasoning, experimental discovery and logic beyond the knowledge babies are born with.

Although young children have remarkable learning abilities, they have even more remarkable imaginative abilities. Even great psychologists such as Piaget thought that young children were confused about the difference between reality and fantasy, hardly surprising for anyone who has walked into a nursery full of imaginary princesses and superheroes who politely serve you non-existent tea and ward off non-existent monsters. But new studies show that children actually understand the difference between reality and fantasy very well, they just think the imaginary world is more interesting than the real one.

The new research also shows that imagination and learning are closely linked. For example, consider imaginary friends. The psychologist Marjorie Taylor found that most pre-schoolers have had an imaginary companion at one time or another. Moreover, although the children loved to talk about, and with, their imaginary friends they knew quite well that they were non-existent. Taylor discovered that imaginary friends, and pretend play in general, help children to understand the people around them. Children who pretended a lot were better at understanding how other people’s minds worked.

So imagining peculiar people isn’t a sign that children are confused, it’s a sign that they’re clever.

Just as Einstein imagined different ways in which the world might be, so these little scientists are trying to imagine all the ways in which the people around them might be. For example, my own niece grew up in literary Manhattan and she had an imaginary friend who was too busy to play with her. She would bump into Charlie Ravioli at a coffee shop but he would have to run, and she would leave wistful messages on his imaginary answering machine. She was using her imagination to explore the folk ways of busy Manhattan city life.

The reason for many of these abilities is that the young brain is remarkably flexible and, as the neuroscientists say, “plastic”, with many more neural connections than the adult brain. It is awash in chemicals that make neurons especially good at learning. The disadvantage is that it is much less efficient. A baby’s brain is like a map of old Paris with many small winding streets. Over time, we prune away the connections we don’t use and the connections we do use become faster and more automatic. In the adult brain, these winding pathways are replaced by fewer, but more efficient, broad neural boulevards.

In fact, many scientists have started to think of the baby brain as an exceptionally powerful kind of computer. Developmental psychologists, myself included, are collaborating with computer scientists who design machines that can use statistics and probabilities to learn and imagine. Many of these systems use something called Bayesian learning, and we think that babies may be doing something similar. One of the best ways for a system to learn, whether it’s a computer, a brain or a baby, is to start out by imagining and exploring many different possibilities. As you gather more evidence you should start to believe that some of these possibilities are more and more likely to be true. Quite rationally, once you’re pretty sure you’re right, your strategy should be to make decisions based on that knowledge, and to become increasingly reluctant to give those ideas up and try something new.

Understanding those incredibly powerful learning machines may even tell us something about a baby’s consciousness. What is it like to be a baby? I think babies may be more conscious than we are. At the least, they are conscious of more than we are. Adult consciousness is often compared with a spotlight, beaming in on just the relevant parts of the world around us. But baby consciousness is more akin to a lantern, illuminating everything.

These remarkable results lead many parents to think that they need programmes and products to make their babies smarter, and there are millions of pounds to be made by exploiting parents’ ambitions for their children. Like the equally popular dieting books, though, the very profusion of parenting books should make you question their efficiency. In fact, the message of the research is just the opposite. We don’t need to make babies brighter because they are already as intelligent as they can be. Instead, we need to give them rich surroundings that they can explore. But those surroundings may be rich with simple things, cardboard boxes and mixing bowls, bean plants and goldfish. And the new research shows that, above all, babies are learning about, and from, the people who surround them. It’s ironic that as a society we spend millions on useless “educational” enhancements for babies but very little to support the carers who actually make a difference.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forget Hitler - it was America that snubbed black Olympian Jesse Owens

Throughout the tortured history of sports and politics, one moment has always stood above the others: Jesse Owens's performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

A black man entered Hitler's Coliseum and destroyed the theory of Aryan physical supremacy by winning four gold medals in track and field.

The Fuhrer, according to legend, was so horrified by Owens's triumph, he stormed from the Olympic stadium rather than shaking his hand, as he had with every other medalist.

Baldur von Schirach, the leader of the Nazi Youth movement at the time, supposedly suggested to Hitler that he let himself be photographed with Owens. Hitler replied: 'The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by negroes. I myself would never shake hands with one of them.'

However, 73 years later, the veracity of these accounts is being challenged. It is particularly timely, for on Saturday memories of Owens will be rekindled at the athletics World Championships in Berlin.

As a mark of respect to Owens, who won gold medals in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay, the U.S. team will have the initials JO embroidered on their vests.

One of Owens's grand-daughters will walk with the U.S. team at the opening ceremony. She and the son of Luz Long, Owens' German rival in the long jump, will jointly present the long jump medals.

But, returning to the 1936 Games, a moment of seeming moral clarity, of good versus evil, is now starting to look more complex. A German sports reporter, Siegfried Mischner, has claimed Owens carried a photograph of himself shaking hands with Hitler and called it 'one of my most beautiful moments'.

Mischner, 83, says he and several other reporters saw the handshake behind the stands at the Olympic stadium but never mentioned it. Owens and other eyewitnesses always maintained that the story of Hitler's snub was exaggerated.

Owens said he thought Hitler waved at him at one point. But he never corroborated Mischner's story before his death from lung cancer in 1980, at the age of 66.

Whatever the truth, Owens always resisted his role as a political symbol. Having grown up in the segregated American South, the grandson of slaves, he was impatient with American claims of moral superiority over the Nazis.

'After all those stories about Hitler and his snub, I came back to my native country and I couldn't ride in the front of the bus,' Owens recalled. 'I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. Now what's the difference?'

Owens was given a tickertape parade in New York. But when he arrived at the Waldorf Astoria hotel for a reception in his honour, he was instructed to take the service lift rather than the normal guest lift, which was reserved for whites.
Owens powering his way at the start of the 200m event, which he won, during the Olympic Games in Berlin where he captured four gold medals

Owens powering his way at the start of the 200m event, which he won, during the Olympic Games in Berlin where he captured four gold medals

President Franklin Roosevelt never congratulated Owens or invited him to the White House. 'Hitler didn't snub me - it was FDR who snubbed me,' Owens said.

And Owens had his own memories of Berlin which differed starkly from the propaganda version. While the Nazis vilified the black American athletes, the German people cheered on Owens and his team-mates, clamouring for photos and autographs.

Owens later said that his greatest memory of the Games was not the races, the medal ceremonies or the politics. It was of his German rival in the long jump, Luz Long. On the surface, Long was the embodiment of the Aryan dream: tall, blue-eyed and blond.

The American was struggling in the early rounds of the long jump contest and risked going out before the final. Long introduced himself. He said he had been watching Owens's jumps and made a mark a few inches before the take-off board and suggested Owens jump from there, to ensure he qualified.

Owens took his advice and made it to the finals, which he won. The first person to congratulate him was Long.

The two men exchanged letters after the Games. 'It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,' Owens said. 'You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-carat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.

'Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace. The sad part of the story is I never saw Long again. He was killed in World War II.'

Owens was also witness to the U.S. Olympic team's decision to replace two Jews on its relay squad with two African-American runners. The Americans were accused of acquiescing to Nazi demands not to humiliate them by letting Jews beat them as well as blacks.

Instead of the endorsements or acclaim a modern athlete might expect, Owens was expelled from the American Amateur Athletics Union after he went home to try to cash in on his post-Olympic fame rather than star for his country in a tournament in Sweden.

He was reduced to becoming a kind of circus act to support his family. Owens had married his high school girlfriend, Ruth, and had a daughter, Gloria.

After the Olympics, the couple had two more girls. Owens would run sprints against athletes from other sports, even against cars, motorbikes, dogs and horses. He worked as a janitor at a children's playground and petrol pump attendant.

'People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?' he said. 'I had four gold medals, but you can't eat four gold medals.' 'Sure it bothered me,' he said later in life. 'But at least it was an honest living. I had to eat.'

He became a partner in a dry-cleaning business in his native Cleveland, but the other two partners were conmen and Owens was forced to declare bankruptcy three years after his Olympic triumph. He was also charged with tax evasion. For a while, he was the front man for a travelling band.

'After I came home with my four medals,' he said, 'everyone wanted to slap me on the back, shake my hand or have me up to their suite. But no one was going to offer me a job.'

He wrote: 'For a while I was one of the most famous people on earth, but I soon discovered how empty fame can be and how easily it could be exploited by those who would use it, and me, for gain.'

It took several years for him to find his footing as a public speaker and public relations man, which eventually turned into a comfortable career. He also became a jazz DJ.

His post-Olympics experience, and the reality of being hailed as a hero in public, yet treated poorly in private, made him deeply suspicious of politics. Yet he was constantly being solicited for his opinions.

At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, two black American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, used the moment after receiving their medals to give the black power salute. 'The black fist is a meaningless symbol,' said Owens. 'When you open it, you have nothing but fingers - weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there's money inside. There's where the power lies.'

Later, he retracted his criticism and said that militancy was the only option for American blacks. 'Any black man who wasn't a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.'

By the time he died, Owens was financially comfortable. Presidents and governments in America and beyond were competing to honour him as a symbol of athletic wonder and of opposition to fascism.

In reality, his life and the way his myth has been exploited is not nearly so straightforward.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

AA Gill turns his eloquence to a description of the Morris men

Twenty minutes from the airport is Thaxted. It crawls up a hill. Georgian and Victorian rural cottages and shops lean on each other for support. The streets are free of the cloned monopolies of building societies and mini-supermarkets. There is an overindulgence of pubs, and a church that is too grand for this market town, and beside it a windmill. It was paid for by the great post-feudal wool boom. This neat and congenial town, with its greens, a clock mender and merchants’ houses, is surrounded by a vale of gently decrepit farmland. It is everything the vile Cotswolds aspire to plagiarise. But it’s a little more than it seems. This big church is a cradle of unconventional radicalism. It had a famous vicar, Conrad Noel, who preached Christian socialism, and another, Peter Elers, one of the first openly gay vicars in the Church of England, who blessed a lesbian “marriage” in 1976 on the understanding that, if the church blessed battleships and budgerigars, it ought to find it in its heart to bless men and women in love. Gustav Holst lived here, and a couple of doors away, so did Dick Turpin.

Early on a blissful blue and bright morning, Thaxted is quiet and elegantly somnambulant. Stepping out of the long shadows, I catch sight of two men in white — unusually early cricketers perhaps — and then another man, in a coat of rags, talking to a pantomime dragon. In the distance I can hear the rhythmic timpani of sleigh bells. There are more men lifting their beer-blown faces to the sun. Men in straw hats with ribbons, men with bright waistcoats.

Thaxted’s insurgent heretical secret isn’t canonical bolshevism or buggery, it’s folklore.This glorious weekend is the annual coming together of Britain’s morris men. Not just a run- of-the-mill summer ritual line-up of hanky wavers and broomstick bashers, but the 75th anniversary of the Thaxted Morris Ring — the quango of morris dancing and mumming. This little market town is the heart of the mysterious cult of the morris. This will be the largest get-together of morris men in living memory.

The day starts with various teams going out to Essex villages and doing their jiggy business as a pub crawl before converging on Thaxted high street. We start off in Finchingfield, a village of idiotic prettiness. There’s a green, a pond with ducks, a church, cottages, burgeoning flowers, simple yokels leaning on sticks, tow-haired children in smocks delivering wholemeal bread, and an antique shop with a prominent welcoming message pointing out that this isn’t a museum, everything is for sale, and if you don’t want to buy stuff then sod off. And there’s a pub, a real pub-on-the-green called the Fox.

Inside, the moment it opens, there is a gimpy collection of morris men in stripy waistcoats and straw hats with plastic flowers, sinking the first pint like fire engines taking on supplies. They tip out onto the lawn and, after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and bad-breath backchat, a team of blokes arrange themselves in a ragged line with a fiddle, an accordion and a penny whistle, and strike up the familiar sound of summer weekends in rural Middle England. Their bright and gaudy costumes make the picture complete as they go after each other like fat, rheumatic game hens, chaffing and puffing and heavily skipping through routines that would bore an infant school. Morris dancers are one of the most riotously risible and despised groups in Britain. Yet they caper on regardless. To be a morris man is to live a regardless life. These are men apart, oblivious of or immune to the mockery and the curled lips. They keep alive an uncared-for and unwanted tradition — simply for the pleasure of a thing itself, and their own company, and bladder-deforming quantities of beer. Sir Thomas Beecham’s advice to try anything once except incest and folk dancing has wrapped the morris in a received wisdom of disdain. For most people it is the bizarre and tasteless Terpsichorean graffiti, like animated garden gnomes.

A pair get up and do a jig with each other. Nobody watches. I notice that one of them is wearing Velcro comfy-fit shoes of the sort advertised in the back of The Sunday Telegraph. Behind the dancers there is that eternal punctuation mark of English villages, the comforting war memorial that chimes the knell of passing days, the names resonant of another England; Ernest and Tom Purkiss, Portor Choat, Tom Juniper, Percy Wiffen, T O Ruggles-Brice. They seem to belong to the accordion and the tinny roundelay, the clack of wands and the beery “ya” of bucolic voices. The pub is advertising a Neil Diamond tribute evening.

In the nearby village of Cornish Hall End, the morris men mill about, unclipping their personal tankards from their elasticated belts to sink pints through Lovelace-gaping gullets before forming up in a ragged square and skipping their simple circular pattern. In the beer garden, families lounge, children run in mobs, nobody takes much notice. The Horse and Groom is having a Blues Brothers tribute evening.

The Morris Ring rules the dance. It has been based in Thaxted for all its 75 years. This year is its three-quarter century, and promises particularly splendid meetings of the nation’s dance troupes. They are all based in villages, and vary in their particulars, but like football teams, they obey the niceties. Each has a leader, a treasurer and a coach. They dance traditional dances identified by their places of origin. They also have fools who caper with bladders — theirs and pigs’. There are men on hobbyhorses, men who dress up as women, often representing Maid Marian or Queen Victoria, and sometimes they “go molly” — that is, in blackface.

There are also men who are animals — deer, dragons and horses — and it’s always men. There are no women in the Ring. Nobody knows the origins of morris dancing — the name probably comes from “Moorish”. It may have been born in North Africa or Spain, it may have come back with the crusades. There was certainly Elizabethan morris dancing. Shakespeare’s comic actor Will Kempe famously took nine days to dance from London to Norwich.

Seventy-five years is really not that old for a governing association for an ancient rural folk art. Ping pong is half a century older, and the rugby football association is nearly twice as old as the Morris Ring. What we see is a recreation — or, perhaps better, a resurrection. The great fire-and-brimstone, steam-and-grind of the industrial upheaval of the 19th century dislocated, and in many places extinguished, a whole canon of frail, delicate, English rural culture.

Factories and mines broke the legs of the Celtic and Saxon patchwork of time and magic. The mass march of the working classes from hoes to picks, moved from village greens to the satanic mills and smog of back-to-backs. But just as the morris faded to white, so a few urban middle-class musicologists and folklorists stepped out back down the rutted lanes to the extremities of green England and began to piece together the vanished life. Cecil Sharp collected thousands and thousands of folk tunes. They were used by composers such as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Holst and Britten. The Arts and Crafts movement enthused hundreds of Hampstead socialists to get in touch with their pointy-toed roots and to look to a new medievalism of weaving and pottery, husbandry, cottage gardens and vegetarianism. They grew unironic beards and dressed their children in homespun smocks, and occasionally, like Eric Gill (no relation), they lived entirely recreated medieval lives and slept with their children. The folklore of the Morris got a worthy and self-conscious kiss of life. It got polite, and a hierarchy, and snobbery, and rules. Like the druid and bardic movements in Wales, a few proselytising enthusiasts became the bottomless butt of jokes for the metropolitan masses.

Writers such as Orwell, Waugh and Betjeman mocked the beer and beards, the lentils and earnestness of the morris. The dance became emblematic of a certain sort of Fabian —humourless and sexless, worthy socialism. But nobody really knew what the original meanings or intentions of the dance had been, and they didn’t seem to care much. It was enough that they could make it fit this Hardyesque and patronising vision of a peasant, elfin England.

Anthropologists tend to explain all rural ritual, craft and culture as “fertility”, or harvest thanksgiving. They’re the catch-all explanations for rude behaviour that doesn’t come with a manual. It seems that there may well be connections with ancient mystical characters and pre-Christian beliefs — the Green Man appears and Herne the Hunter, lord of the forest. There are animistic spirits of flowers and green things, but it never really gets let out from under the tasteful and picturesque hey nonny nonny of pub bores and country tourist posters.

At the next village pub, something quite different happens. They release the beast. In the car park by the wheelie bin, the Saddleworth Morris Men from Yorkshire arrive, trotting like pit ponies, bells on their black clogs, wearing hanging baskets of flowers and feathers on their heads, led by a meaty man with a whip. There is none of the hop, skip and whack about this troupe. They have a muscular, purposeful swagger. Their dance is physical and masculine, and beautifully aggressive under their great flowered hats. They have the gimlet-eyed, tuber-featured faces of the north, and suddenly the morris is captivating. The rhythm stamps out darker motifs and bellicose camaraderie. The patterns they make stay in the mind’s eye. You can see them weave spells.

My small boy offers a swan’s feather he found to one of the dancers, who takes off his hat to put it in. The boy’s mother asks if she can see the hat. “You mustn’t put it on,” the dancer warns like a woodland troll in a fairy story. “I don’t like to say in front of your man, but if a lass wears the hat she has to have… you know… go to bed with the morris man. That’s the rule.” Nicola thinks about it for a moment, and hands back the hat with an apologetic, maybe-next-time smile.

For all its fecund heritage and its promise of seed time and harvest, morris dancing is incontrovertibly the least sexy jigging in the world. Unlike the folk dances of the rest of Europe, with their silly dressing up and geometric patterns, or the leaping reelers of the Celtic edges of the British Isles, the morris is perversely and defiantly not the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. They not only do not dance with women, but they don’t dance for or at women. Indeed, you get the feeling they don’t really dance for anyone but themselves.

There is something admirable about this — the absence of showmanship. Nobody could accuse these men of overt displays of vanity. Their vast stomachs held in by sweaty nylon shirts like warm mozzarellas, their blotched faces, the pallor of lives lived on a slow bar stool. They exhibit the stamina and grace of shopping trolleys, with beards that loom like badly eaten Weetabix and hair that has given up under the torture of middle-aged ponytails. Morris dancing never had a golden age. It never grasped the zeitgeist. There was no morris Woodstock or summer of love. It was reborn beyond the aesthetic pale and contrarily, there is something wonderful about that, something brave and properly, collectively eccentric.

While the bien pensants snigger and change their beliefs and preferences with the season, the morris dancers skip on, knowing that every year will be like the year before, knowing they will always be the back marker of the least “now” occupations on Earth, just ahead of incest, yet continuing, convinced of their own inverted rightness, free of whim or caprice, excused riches, vanity, ambition, celebrity or cachet. And then, as if to prove the utter imperviousness to aesthetics, along come the Britannia Coco-nut Dancers of Bacup.

You’ve never heard of them, or seen them, unless you’re from north Lancashire, and even then you might have given them a wide berth. They rarely travel from their home village — this is the first time they’ve been to Thaxted, and they only came because the Saddleworth team was here to look after them. They are small, nervous men. And so they might be, for they are wearing white cotton night bonnets of the sort sported by Victorian maids, decorated with sparse ribbons. Then black polo-neck sweaters, like the Milk Tray man, with a white sash, black knee-breeches, white stockings and black clogs. As if this weren’t enough, someone at some point has said: “What this outfit really needs is a red-and-white-hooped miniskirt.” “Are you sure?” the dancers must have replied. And he was. But it doesn’t finish there. They have black faces, out of which their little bright eyes shine anxiously. On their hands are strapped single castanets. A single castanet is the definition of uselessness. The corresponding castanet is worn on the knee. To say you couldn’t make up the Coco-nutters would be to deny the evidence of your astonished eyes.

The dance begins with each Nutter cocking a hand to his ear to listen to something we human folk can’t catch. They then wag a finger at each other, and they’re off, stamping and circling, occasionally holding bent wands covered with red, white and blue rosettes that they weave into simple patterns. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever. It is, simply, awe-inspiringly, astonishingly other. Morris men from southern troupes come and watch in slack-jawed silence. Nothing in the civilised world is quite as elementally bizarre and awkwardly compelling as the Coco-nutters of Bacup. What are they for? What were they thinking of? Why do they do these strange, misbegotten, dark little incantations? It’s said that they might have originally been Barbary corsairs who worked in Cornish tin mines and travelled to Lancashire, and that the dance is about listening underground, a sign language of miners. And then there’s all the usual guff about harvest and spring and fecundity, but that doesn’t begin to describe the strangeness of this troupe from the nether folk world.

At tea time in Thaxted, the crowds stumble out of the pubs and line the main street that dips down the steep hill and escapes out into the countryside, which glints with the shimmering gilt of nostalgia, waiting for the return of haystacks and corn dollies and scarecrows. This is distant Albion in the afternoon. From the top of the hill, the morris men parade en masse with their attendant fiddlers and accordionists, drummers and whistlers, hobbyhorses, mystical animals, female impersonators and capering fools. From the bottom of the hill a corresponding group starts up. It’s like the final illustration from a compendium of nursery rhymes and cautionary tales. A scene of the day of judgment from a half-forgotten, half-recreated lexicon of English folklore and fairy stories. The vivid swag of all the bright pomp and rhythm drags you along, exorcises the ridicule and the patronage, the lifelong received metropolitan wisdom of disdain. This is a lost part of what we once were, and who we still are. The two groups meet and dance their dances, turn swords into pentangles, sticks into eaves, and hankies into hankies. They prance and skip and jig, the bells jingle, they shout and clack and cheer and canter, calling up the great lost way of being. The morris twitches like an amputated limb from a body that has been long since buried. It is the last rite of a belief that nobody can recall. The movements and the tune and nonsense, an ancient language that’s bereft of the life that formed it.

But as you watch, there is a tingle, a spasm of recognition, a lightness in the stomach, a tightness in the throat, and the faint spark of connection. A distant echo, a folk memory, of what all this once was, what we once were. In the great, Gadarene dash for progress and industry, for the brick and stone and concrete, for the iron and smoke, we broke something vital, severed a link in the chain of ourselves, and there was no going back. There is a realisation that the dislike and the mockery of the morris is not wholly rational or deserved — that if this was some other nation’s rural culture we’d watch with polite interest and inquisitive enjoyment. But because it’s so close, it comes with the buttock-clench of embarrassment, the guilt and the squirm. Like seeing photographs of ourselves in foolish fancy dress at drunken student parties, this is not who we grew up to be.

But the morris men dance on anyway, propitiating they know not what, an awkward family heirloom that doesn’t go with anything else and is all we have left of our preindustrial heritage. The dance is a kiss on the forehead of a skull that has sunk back into the earth and the dappled fields, that in turn have become the ring roads, roundabouts, runways, shopping centres and starter-home cul-de-sacs of the postmodern age. They dance anyway. No longer for us, but despite us. The sun goes down, the accordions play on, the pewter tankards slop, and at 11, the clamour and the shouting and the clapping and singing fade away, as if someone has pulled a plug, letting out all the noise. The lights of the town go out, and under the heavy, early summer moon there is the faint sound of a distant violin.

Down a winding cobbled street from the church trips the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, the most evocative and strangely dramatic of all morris dances, performed for perhaps hundreds of years, conceivably for thousands. They are led by a single fiddler, dressed in a rag coat, playing a tune that is childlike and simple, but also full of sadness and an ethereal, mordant power, like the soundtrack of a dream. Behind him come men carrying antlered fallow deer heads in front of their faces. Behind them, a man-woman, a hunter and a hobbyhorse. They dance in silence, slowly. The hunt turns and turns, casting patterns in the moonlight. You feel its mossy, shadowed meaning beyond understanding. A ghost dance, a silently keening sadness. The things we misplace always bear a heavier loss than the things we choose to grasp with white knuckles. And in the darkness, quite unexpectedly, I feel tears of mourning on my cheek.


Friday, August 7, 2009

The real history of Calvin Coolidge

Robert Sobel's absorbing new biography, Coolidge: An American Enigma, has just been published by Regnery. And on Sunday, the late president's sudden inauguration was reenacted at the Calvin Coolidge Historic Site in Plymouth Notch, Vt.

That summer night, back in 1923, was one of high drama. As President Warren G. Harding lay dying in San Francisco, Vice President Coolidge was visiting his father and stepmother in the lonely Vermont village where he had grown up. There was no electricity in the house, no plumbing, no telephone. Light was provided by a kerosene lamp.

Word of Harding's death reached White River Junction, the nearest sizable town, by telegram. By the time someone got the news to Plymouth Notch, it was extremely late. John Coolidge, the vice president's father, answered the knock at the door. In a trembling voice he called upstairs to his son.

"Coolidge and his wife returned to the bedroom," Sobel writes. "They washed, dressed, and knelt by the bed to pray. Then they went downstairs, where Coolidge dictated a message of sympathy to Mrs. Harding. The house was now crowded with reporters and others."

The attorney general urged Coolidge to take the oath of office without delay. He "went across the street to the general store and telephoned Secretary of State [Charles Evans] Hughes, who informed him the oath could be administered by a notary. Coolidge told Hughes his father was a notary. Coolidge returned home, and in the downstairs sitting room John Coolidge, using the family Bible, swore his son in as president. The time was 2:47 a.m."

The modesty of Coolidge's inauguration befit his style. He was a frugal man, with words no less than with money. Indeed, about all he is popularly remembered for is his reticence. As the story goes, the matron seated next to him at a dinner said that she had wagered she could get the famously nontalkative president to say more than two words. Coolidge replied: "You lose."

The story may have been apocryphal. But it was certainly true that Coolidge didn't believe in wasting words. In a profile written when he was still governor of Massachusetts, the New York World called him a "sphinx." He "talks little," the paper noted. "It is his silences which seem to speak loudest, for when one ventures to put a question to him, the answer comes in a tightening of the governor's lean face and the closing of his lips."

Yet he wasn't shy when he had something to say. He delivered more speeches than any of his predecessors. He held 520 press conferences. He was the first president to address the nation by radio and did so about once a month, paving the way for FDR's fireside chats.

In fact, he was a superb politician. He stands as one of the great vote-getters in Massachusetts history -- he was elected state representative, state senator, lieutenant governor, and governor -- and one of the most popular men ever to run for president. After finishing Harding's term, he was elected in his own right in a landslide in 1924. A second full term would have been his for the asking. Never, perhaps, has anyone been so admired while in the White House -- and so disdained afterward.

Coolidge's reputation plummeted after 1929 because the first reviews of his career were written by hostile New Deal historians. Lionizing Franklin Roosevelt for sharply expanding the role of the federal government in Americans' lives, they painted the conservative Coolidge by contrast as a do-nothing who had failed to foresee the Depression. Unable to defend himself -- he died in 1933 -- Coolidge slipped from the ranks of the nation's most esteemed figures to the level of its most disparaged.

Now, belatedly, his fine record is getting the clear look it deserves. The first hint of a Coolidge rehabilitation came in 1981, when Ronald Reagan ordered Coolidge's portrait to take the place of Harry Truman's in the Cabinet Room. At the Kennedy Library conference, Time columnist Hugh Sidey recalled the buzz that went through the press corps when the Coolidge painting appeared. Reporters thought the custodian must have fetched the wrong portrait.

But Reagan's instincts were solid. In the judgment of Robert D. Novak, the veteran political commentator, Coolidge's "personal integrity, faith in the market system, and concern for the ordinary citizen" made him "the model of American conservatism." His White House years were distinguished not only by unstained honesty but by a fierce drive to reduce taxes and slash the national debt. Coolidge was the last president until Reagan who grasped in his bones the importance of limiting government. "It is much more important," he insisted, "to kill bad bills than to pass good ones."

Quiet, modest, careful, the thoughtful New Englander raised to the presidency in that hasty ceremony 75 years ago turns out to have been one of the most honorable public servants ever to hold the job. What a pity that he has gone so long without the credit he deserves. What a blessing it would be to have his like in the White House again.


Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear


LET’S say you have what you believe to be a healthy marriage. You’re still friends and lovers after spending more than half of your lives together. The dreams you set out to achieve in your 20s — gazing into each other’s eyes in candlelit city bistros when you were single and skinny — have for the most part come true.

Two decades later you have the 20 acres of land, the farmhouse, the children, the dogs and horses. You’re the parents you said you would be, full of love and guidance. You’ve done it all: Disneyland, camping, Hawaii, Mexico, city living, stargazing.

Sure, you have your marital issues, but on the whole you feel so self-satisfied about how things have worked out that you would never, in your wildest nightmares, think you would hear these words from your husband one fine summer day: “I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They’ll want me to be happy.”

But wait. This isn’t the divorce story you think it is. Neither is it a begging-him-to-stay story. It’s a story about hearing your husband say “I don’t love you anymore” and deciding not to believe him. And what can happen as a result.

Here’s a visual: Child throws a temper tantrum. Tries to hit his mother. But the mother doesn’t hit back, lecture or punish. Instead, she ducks. Then she tries to go about her business as if the tantrum isn’t happening. She doesn’t “reward” the tantrum. She simply doesn’t take the tantrum personally because, after all, it’s not about her.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying my husband was throwing a child’s tantrum. No. He was in the grip of something else — a profound and far more troubling meltdown that comes not in childhood but in midlife, when we perceive that our personal trajectory is no longer arcing reliably upward as it once did. But I decided to respond the same way I’d responded to my children’s tantrums. And I kept responding to it that way. For four months.

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.”

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t.

He drew back in surprise. Apparently he’d expected me to burst into tears, to rage at him, to threaten him with a custody battle. Or beg him to change his mind.

So he turned mean. “I don’t like what you’ve become.”

Gut-wrenching pause. How could he say such a thing? That’s when I really wanted to fight. To rage. To cry. But I didn’t.

Instead, a shroud of calm enveloped me, and I repeated those words: “I don’t buy it.”

You see, I’d recently committed to a non-negotiable understanding with myself. I’d committed to “The End of Suffering.” I’d finally managed to exile the voices in my head that told me my personal happiness was only as good as my outward success, rooted in things that were often outside my control. I’d seen the insanity of that equation and decided to take responsibility for my own happiness. And I mean all of it.

My husband hadn’t yet come to this understanding with himself. He had enjoyed many years of hard work, and its rewards had supported our family of four all along. But his new endeavor hadn’t been going so well, and his ability to be the breadwinner was in rapid decline. He’d been miserable about this, felt useless, was losing himself emotionally and letting himself go physically. And now he wanted out of our marriage; to be done with our family.

But I wasn’t buying it.

I said: “It’s not age-appropriate to expect children to be concerned with their parents’ happiness. Not unless you want to create co-dependents who’ll spend their lives in bad relationships and therapy. There are times in every relationship when the parties involved need a break. What can we do to give you the distance you need, without hurting the family?”

“Huh?” he said.

“Go trekking in Nepal. Build a yurt in the back meadow. Turn the garage studio into a man-cave. Get that drum set you’ve always wanted. Anything but hurting the children and me with a reckless move like the one you’re talking about.”


“How can we have a responsible distance?”

“I don’t want distance,” he said. “I want to move out.”

My mind raced. Was it another woman? Drugs? Unconscionable secrets? But I stopped myself. I would not suffer.

Instead, I went to my desk, Googled “responsible separation” and came up with a list. It included things like: Who’s allowed to use what credit cards? Who are the children allowed to see you with in town? Who’s allowed keys to what?

I looked through the list and passed it on to him.

His response: “Keys? We don’t even have keys to our house.”

I remained stoic. I could see pain in his eyes. Pain I recognized.

“Oh, I see what you’re doing,” he said. “You’re going to make me go into therapy. You’re not going to let me move out. You’re going to use the kids against me.”

“I never said that. I just asked: What can we do to give you the distance you need ... ”

“Stop saying that!”

Well, he didn’t move out.

Instead, he spent the summer being unreliable. He stopped coming home at his usual six o’clock. He would stay out late and not call. He blew off our entire Fourth of July — the parade, the barbecue, the fireworks — to go to someone else’s party. When he was at home, he was distant. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He didn’t even wish me “Happy Birthday.”

But I didn’t play into it. I walked my line. I told the kids: “Daddy’s having a hard time as adults often do. But we’re a family, no matter what.” I was not going to suffer. And neither were they.

MY trusted friends were irate on my behalf. “How can you just stand by and accept this behavior? Kick him out! Get a lawyer!”

I walked my line with them, too. This man was hurting, yet his problem wasn’t mine to solve. In fact, I needed to get out of his way so he could solve it.

I know what you’re thinking: I’m a pushover. I’m weak and scared and would put up with anything to keep the family together. I’m probably one of those women who would endure physical abuse. But I can assure you, I’m not. I load 1,500-pound horses into trailers and gallop through the high country of Montana all summer. I went through Pitocin-induced natural childbirth. And a Caesarean section without follow-up drugs. I am handy with a chain saw.

I simply had come to understand that I was not at the root of my husband’s problem. He was. If he could turn his problem into a marital fight, he could make it about us. I needed to get out of the way so that wouldn’t happen.

Privately, I decided to give him time. Six months.

I had good days, and I had bad days. On the good days, I took the high road. I ignored his lashing out, his merciless jabs. On bad days, I would fester in the August sun while the kids ran through sprinklers, raging at him in my mind. But I never wavered. Although it may sound ridiculous to say “Don’t take it personally” when your husband tells you he no longer loves you, sometimes that’s exactly what you have to do.

Instead of issuing ultimatums, yelling, crying or begging, I presented him with options. I created a summer of fun for our family and welcomed him to share in it, or not — it was up to him. If he chose not to come along, we would miss him, but we would be just fine, thank you very much. And we were.

And, yeah, you can bet I wanted to sit him down and persuade him to stay. To love me. To fight for what we’ve created. You can bet I wanted to.

But I didn’t.

I barbecued. Made lemonade. Set the table for four. Loved him from afar.

And one day, there he was, home from work early, mowing the lawn. A man doesn’t mow his lawn if he’s going to leave it. Not this man. Then he fixed a door that had been broken for eight years. He made a comment about our front porch needing paint. Our front porch. He mentioned needing wood for next winter. The future. Little by little, he started talking about the future.

It was Thanksgiving dinner that sealed it. My husband bowed his head humbly and said, “I’m thankful for my family.”

He was back.

And I saw what had been missing: pride. He’d lost pride in himself. Maybe that’s what happens when our egos take a hit in midlife and we realize we’re not as young and golden anymore.

When life’s knocked us around. And our childhood myths reveal themselves to be just that. The truth feels like the biggest sucker-punch of them all: it’s not a spouse or land or a job or money that brings us happiness. Those achievements, those relationships, can enhance our happiness, yes, but happiness has to start from within. Relying on any other equation can be lethal.

My husband had become lost in the myth. But he found his way out. We’ve since had the hard conversations. In fact, he encouraged me to write about our ordeal. To help other couples who arrive at this juncture in life. People who feel scared and stuck. Who believe their temporary feelings are permanent. Who see an easy out, and think they can escape.

My husband tried to strike a deal. Blame me for his pain. Unload his feelings of personal disgrace onto me.

But I ducked. And I waited. And it worked.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

August 1st, 1943 - The Ploesti Raid

Good in theory

When one heads north out of Bucharest (by either road or rail), it takes a considerable amount of time for the city to “fall away.” When that finally does happen, you find yourself out on the Wallachian plain – which is very flat, now nearly treeless, and (in summer) very hot. The cityscape and traffic of Bucharest are replaced by scenes of peasant farmers transporting wood, hay, and other agricultural substances in horse-drawn carts – often doing so while chatting on their mobile phones.

But between Bucharest and the Carpathian foothills, just 35 miles north of Bucharest, the transportation corridor runs just by the western edge of the small city of Ploesti. Just to the west of the road and the rail line looms the large and venerable Ploesti oil-refining complex.

Today, Ploesti and its environs are peaceful – and almost bucolic.

But on this day 66 years ago, Ploesti was anything but peaceful. In the short span of 30 minutes, the Ploesti refinery was engulfed in flames, and the cornfields of the Wallachian plain were littered with the burning remains of aircraft – following one of the most unusual and brutally-courageous air attacks in history.

Europe is famously devoid of petroleum resources. When the “petroleum age” dawned in the latter part of the 19th century, crude oil could be found in only one place in all of Europe – outside the small town of Ploesti.

During the early years, the methods for the collection of crude oil at Ploesti were, well – crude. This was done mostly with hand-dug pits, which were allowed to fill up with crude oil – which was then collected by hand with buckets.

As demand for petroleum products grew, the more sophisticated methods that were being employed around the world for collecting crude oil came to the plains around Ploesti. However, the Romanians pioneered much of the chemical engineering innovation that really made petroleum a multifoliately-useful material – one that could be “cracked” and refined into a much wider variety of products. Ploesti saw the development of what was arguably the world’s first modern refinery operation.

By the time that World War 2 broke out in Europe, Romania was already a key German ally – thanks to the ideological sympathies and inclinations of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu.

But the Germans were equally anxious to have Romania as a close ally for an obvious reason – unique in Europe, only Romania could supply crude oil and other petroleum products for German industry and the German military. Romania (via the Ploesti oil fields and refining complexes) supplied near all of Germany’s “normal” petroleum products – with the balance largely coming from “synthetic” methods of producing close-enough products from other starting resources (such as coal, which Germany had in abundance).

Gasoline, oil, and other petroleum products were obviously very critical to the highly-mechanized German military – on land, at sea, and in the air. This need was so critical – and the vulnerability to problems was felt so keenly in Berlin – that Hitler had directed the German summer-1942 offensive not at Moscow, but at Baku.

All of this made Ploesti a very, very critical facility to the German war effort. As a result, Ploesti was very heavily defended – by large concentrations of anti-aircraft guns (crewed by some of Germany’s best anti-aircraft gunners) and three full squadrons of Luftwaffe fighter planes.

Equally, the strategic importance of Ploesti made it a very tempting target for Allied war planners.

During 1942 and 1943, strategic bombing was still seen as something that could land devastating and crippling blows on key aspects of an enemy’s war infrastructure. As such, American planners gave very high priority to identifying – and attacking – “high-value” targets – “panacea targets” whose destruction would have a catastrophic effect on Axis war-making capabilities.

Not surprisingly, Ploesti appeared high on any such list of targets.

With the defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the complete ejection of Axis forces from north Africa, the Allies moved on to attack Sicily – and then Italy itself. To support these activities, the Ninth Air Force had slowly begun to be set up in North Africa – centered on the Libyan port city of Benghazi.

The Ninth Air Force’s heavy bomber arm consisted mostly of B-24s – in contrast to the situation with the Britain-based Eighth Air Force, which was built mostly around the more famous B-17.

The B-24 was a strange aircraft. Its wings – an innovative, low-drag design – were long and narrow. They were mounted along the top (rather than the bottom) of the plane’s fuselage; the design also included a very distinctive twin-ruddered tail. The fuselage was almost bulbous; many of the flyers derisively noted that in flight, the B-24 had the appearance of a pregnant cow.

The B-24 could not fly as high as its more famous cousin, the B-17. But it could carry a heavier load, and – crucially – it had a longer range.

Given the range of the B-24 and the temptation of Ploesti as a “panacea” target, it was inevitable that those two factors would converge. If a B-24 could be tweaked slightly – to carry an extra fuel tank in the bomb bay, at the cost of carrying a slightly-decreased bomb load – Ploesti was within range of the American air base at Benghazi.

By June of 1943, in great secrecy as “Tidal Wave,” plans were made for a strike on Ploesti – and B-24 squadrons were marshaled at Benghazi. In addition to the Ninth Air Force’s B-24 squadrons, several Eighth Air Force B-24 squadrons were transferred from Britain to Benghazi. In addition, several other brand new Eighth Air Force B-24 squadrons, fresh from flight school in the United States, were sent to Benghazi rather than to Britain. For these completely-green flight crews, the attack on Ploesti would be their first combat mission.

During July, the aircrews began their training – with absolutely no knowledge of what the target was that they were training to attack. But their training had one very odd feature about it. The B-24 was a four-engine strategic heavy-bomber – designed to fly to its targets at an altitude of some 20,000 to 25,000 feet. The flyers now found themselves practicing for a mission which would have them flying at very low altitude – no more than 200 feet off the ground. Before their July training, it wasn’t even known if there would be unforeseen complications that would render efforts to fly a massed formation of B-24s at such low altitude impossible; it wasn’t until the intensive July training was nearly over that such a strategy was even considered feasible.

This novel approach was one that was beginning to be developed, and which would continue right up into the 1980s, with the B-1 – which was designed to penetrate Soviet air defenses by flying at a ground-hugging (and computer-controlled) altitude of some 100 feet.

It was hoped that by flying at such a low altitude and using a careful flight path, the attacking force would be able to slip in unnoticed and achieve complete surprise. In addition to taking the target area by surprise – and getting in and out before German and Romanian fighter planes could get into the air – it was hoped that a surprise, low-level attack would leave too little time for the German anti-aircraft crews to reset the air-burst elevation on their shells from high altitude to low altitude.

These expectations indeed seemed far-fetched. But given the comparatively remote location of Ploesti, American planners had clearly underestimated the defenses that the attacking B-24 crews would face.

The plan of attack was relatively simple, as this map shows:

The first leg of the journey would carefully cross the Mediterranean to avoid German-occupied Greece – with its many islands and observation posts. Instead, the plan was to make landfall on the Albanian coast just north of Korfu, and then to turn inland over the sparsely-populated mountains. Crossing those mountains would bring the attacking force out over Wallachian plain, where one more small turn would bring them roaring into Ploesti.

That, at least, was the plan…

As the first hints of dawn broke over Benghazi on the morning of Sunday August 1st, 1943, 178 B-24s – carrying a total of some 1780 flyers – prepared to take off for the 2700 mile round to trip to Ploesti. With the extra fuel tanks in their bomb bays, each plane carried 4000 pounds of bombs – less than a normal bomb load, but still a combined collection of more than 350 tons of explosives.

Burdened to their carrying limits with fuel and bombs, the ungainly B-24s struggled into the air and formed up for the long and dangerous journey ahead.

Of the 178 aircraft that took off, 10 soon encountered mechanical problems that forced them to turn around and return to Benghazi.

But of more serious import, over the Mediterranean the lead aircraft for the mission – carrying the critical lead mission navigator – suddenly dropped out of formation and plunged into the ocean. The second-in-command aircraft, carrying the second navigator dropped down to make a pass to look for survivors – to whom a life raft could be dropped; but found nothing but a smoke plume. Worse, the still-overloaded B-24 couldn’t climb back up and rejoin the formation; this plane was also forced to return to Benghazi.

Still on course, the attacking force reached Korfu and the Albanian coast, and made its turn inland. Not surprisingly, it was spotted by coast-watchers – who relayed that information up the command channel. At that point, it was clear that a big raid was underway, even if the target remained unknown; however, some German air defense officers already had suspicions that Ploesti might be the target.

Moving inland, the attacking force would have to gain altitude to clear the mountains that ran down the middle of the Balkan peninsula. With the crest of the ridge reaching some 9,000 feet, the attacking force split into two vertical groups to keep apart. Again, things went unexpectedly wrong; the group that climbed up to 16,000 feet caught an unexpected tail wind and was wafted over the mountains, while the group that went over at 12,000 feet ran into strong head winds and was badly slowed down. Maintaining radio silence to avoid detection, the attacking force had now inadvertently been split in two.

Even more ominously, as they crossed the mountains, the lower, slower group noticed that they were being shadowed by a small group of Bulgarian fighter aircraft. Though no direct threat to the big bombers, their presence meant that there was now no chance for surprise. The German and Romanian air defense would be alert and ready – waiting for the B-24s to appear over Romania, no matter what the unknown (to the defenders) target might be.

Finally leaving the mountains behind, the B-24s followed the contour of the decreasing elevation of the land as they flew out over the Wallachian plain – and began to drop down to their attack altitude of some 200 feet.

The target was drawing closer, but things continued to go wrong – as they always do in war.

There was one final navigation checkpoint – a small town – ahead; here, the attacking planes were to make one final small right turn and head straight for Ploesti.

Unfortunately, the navigator of what was now (due to the weather problems in the mountains) the lead element of the attack force mistook the wrong small town for the turning point; turning too soon, the first half of the attack force turned and headed directly for Bucharest – rather than for Ploesti. When what was now the second part of the attack force came along, they picked out the correct ground checkpoint, and headed (properly) for Ploesti.

As the lead force roared low over the flatlands toward Bucharest, they began to encounter the unexpectedly-thick concentrations of anti-aircraft guns – and B-24s began to fall from the sky. Visibility was restricted at that low altitude, but when the skyline of Bucharest – rather than of Ploesti – came into view ahead, the navigational error became cruelly apparent.

Improvising and using their maps well, the pilots turned their B-24s in a sharp left turn – intending to follow the rail line running north from Bucharest, to guide them right into Ploesti. But now they would be coming at the target from a completely unexpected direction – and were now not properly lined up for their intended targets.

After all of these difficulties and problems, around noon the B-24s coming up from the south finally began to reach Ploesti. An atrocious and heart-rending 30 minutes was about to begin.

As the B-24s approached Ploesti, the anti-aircraft fire they faced – and the losses they suffered – grew worse and worse. Unable to properly find their intended targets and with no opportunity to set up as planned, the order went out to aircraft crews to attack whatever “targets of opportunity” presented themselves. So the lead wave of aircraft attacked whatever targets seemed most suitable.

Meanwhile, what was now the trailing force was rapidly closing in on Ploesti from the west, as planned – coming into the target at right angles to the direction taken by the improvising lead force.

As the “trailing force” flyers approached Ploesti, they were surprised to see low clouds and rain over the target – the meteorologists in Benghazi had assured them that fine weather prevailed over southeastern Europe. It was only as they drew closer that they realized that the “low clouds and rain” were actually the acrid smoke rising from the strikes of the inadvertent lead force.

Due to the navigation errors and the “targets of opportunity” order, the lead force actually attacked many of the targets that had originally been assigned to what became the trailing force. The trailing force aircraft were now going to have to try to find their targets through the smoke and fire left by the lead force – and do this while the aircraft of the now-exiting lead force were zipping across in front of them from right to left.

By now, the carefully planned and well-thought-out plan-of-attack against Ploesti had turned into total chaos. Coming in low, many of the B-24 gunners fought virtual duels with anti-aircraft gun crews on the ground only some 200 feet below. The heat from the fires was so intense that many pilots, strapped to their seats in their cockpits, had the hair singed off their forearms. In the eloquently-descriptive words of the great historian of World War 2 in the air, Edward Jablonski:

The great B-24s, twisting and turning to avoid balloon cables and chimneys, wallowed like so many winged whales in a fiery sea.

The close-in intensity of the attack is well-recounted by Edward Jablonski in his description of the events that would earn Lloyd Hughes the Congressional Medal of Honor – posthumously:

Hughes’ [B-24] Liberator had been struck by flak as it approached the drop point. A wide stream of fuel poured out of a ruptured bomb bay tank, twisting and flashing under the big plane like a liquid ribbon of fuse. Now on his bomb run, Hughes did not attempt to land or evade the wall of flame which stood in his path. In an instant Hughes’ Liberator was set afire. The bombs fell into the target, but the stricken plane, a white sheet of pure fire streaming from the left wing, had no chance. Obviously still under control, Hughes seemed headed for a streambed for an emergency landing. A bridge loomed ahead in the path of the burning plane, but the plane rose above the obstruction, lowered again – and then a wing tip brushed the riverbank. The blazing Liberator whirled across the earth, spattering molten wreckage and scarring the meadow in its scorching death throes; all but two men in the plane died in the crash.

As B-24s became stricken around the target area, the pilots who were still able to control their aircraft did their best to belly-land their damaged planes in the corn and wheat fields around Ploesti.

Local Romanians rushed to the scenes of many of the crashes, attempting to extricate survivors. And despite the fact that Romania was at that time formally at war with the United States, many of the Romanians attempted to hide the American flyers from the German and Romanian troops who were coming to take them prisoner – as this remarkable story recounted by the then-six-year-old Corneliu Iliescu attests:

While my father and I were heading northwest toward Ploesti, we scanned the sky for bombers. As we were approaching the village, my father spotted a smoking B-24 bomber flying at low altitude. It looked like the plane was going to crash-land on the highway right in front of us. As it descended, the plane veered toward a cornfield that ran alongside the highway. The B-24 crash-landed, but there was no explosion or fire. My father jumped out of the car with me in his arms and rushed to the wreckage. He placed me on the B-24 outer wing so he could go into the plane to rescue any crewmembers who needed help. He was able to extract three aviators and rushed us all into the wooded area nearby.

My father then went back to the aircraft to see if he could save the rest of the crew. As he returned, he saw - too late - that Romanian soldiers had arrived at the crash site. I was now hiding in the woods with the three American crewmen. One of them gave me a pair of pliers to play with and then told me to be very quiet. I did as I was told, and he rewarded me with my first Hershey’s candy bar. We were still hiding when my father and the rest of the crew from inside the bomber were arrested. We four were eventually found in the woods by a Romanian army search party and arrested, too. The Americans were taken prisoner and I was taken to the local police station to spend the night.

My father was released the next day and found me - still at the police station with my new American friends and the pliers they had given me as a toy. (I still have those 15th [sic – ed.] AF pliers today) After a few minutes of talking to my father in the police station, one of the Americans told me in English that I “was a tough kid.” I did not understand what he said until one of the Romanian officers translated it from English for my father. In turn, my father explained to me that the Americans had given me a high compliment.

By 12:30pm – scarcely 30 minutes after the attack had begun – the last bombs were dropped into Ploesti. The surviving B-24s fled west with all the speed they could muster, trying to form up as best as they could for the long return voyage back to Benghazi.

Many of the aircraft were too badly damaged to make the trip all the way back to Benghazi; some managed to reach Allied bases in Malta, Sicily, and Cyprus, while a few resorted to the desperate measure of landing in neutral Turkey.

Meanwhile, much of the Ploesti complex was in flames; but by early afternoon, the Wallachian plain was once again quiet.

It was evening before the surviving B-24s began to reach Benghazi, landing as best they could. Many of the planes had flown so low that back in Benghazi it was discovered that they had cornstalks stuck in their bomb bays.

It was only after the last planes had landed that the total cost of the Ploesti mission could be tallied.

Of the 178 B-24s that had taken off from Benghazi that morning, 164 had managed to reach the target area. Of these, 41 were lost due to enemy action. Six aircraft had been lost due to non-combat-related causes, while 8 others were in neutral Turkey – where they and their crews were to be interned for the remainder of the war. In addition, 23 B-24s had landed – in various states of disrepair – in Malta, Sicily, and Cyprus. Of the aircraft that had managed to make it back to Benghazi, fewer than 30 were now airworthy.

In total, 310 American airmen were killed in the attack. The official tally counted 50 wounded – but that did not include airmen who were now either interned in Turkey or prisoners of war in Romania. In total, some 100 surviving airmen were taken prisoner on the ground in Romania, and spent the rest of the war as POWs there.

The flames and smoke produced during the attack had given the impression that the attack had been a great success. But sadly, this was actually not the case. Much of the smoke and flame had come from the ignition of storage tanks that held finished products – not from the destruction of the main capabilities of the facility itself. The Ploesti complex had indeed been hit hard – and it was badly damaged. But the damage was reparable – and by that time, the Germans had available as labor a nearly limitless pool of POWs from the eastern front. The damage at Ploesti was rapidly repaired, and the complex remained in operation until it was overrun by advancing Soviet troops – in August 1944, a year after the American raid.

Edward Jablonski summed up the Ploesti raid this way:

In short, the men who undertook Tidal Wave had attempted the impossible. Their true achievement could be measured only in courage and not in decisive results. For the tragedy of Ploesti is that there were no decisive results.


But it seems that this was actually a case of “Right church, wrong pew.”

Up to that point, “strategic bombing” had been perceived as a way to strike cataclysmic blows at the enemy’s few most critical holdings – basically, the idea was that if you could knock out just a few such ultra-high-value targets, the damage to the enemy war effort would be immediate and almost decisive.

That was tried – at Ploesti, in the celebrated British “dam-busters” attack in the Ruhr, and in the horridly-costly Eighth Air Force B-17 raids on what was thought to be the panacea target of the German ball-bearing-production facilities at Schweinfurt.

But it quickly became clear that this strategy was wrong. The losses were far too excessive (they would quickly render the bombing squadrons inoperable due to lack of men and planes), and the attacks were unable to produce anything even close to the expected decisive results.

But the sinews of modern, industrialized warfare run broad and deep in a belligerent country. There are a vast number of important facilities in play – and a well-functioning transportation network is required to move supplies, equipment… and men.

Chastened, American strategic bombing commanders completely changed their strategy. Rather than hitting the big “glamour” targets, they began to hit seemingly less-important targets. By suffering much lower loses in the effort, the bomber groups were able to maintain a very high tempo of operations – and aircrews gained experience and became very, very good at what they did. The vast European transportation network – so critical to the Axis war effort, and so obviously critical to Germany, with its “inside position” – was so vast that it was in toto indefensible.

The new strategy, while not spectacular, was frightfully effective – and the Germans soon realized this. As Edward Jablonski notes,

But inside Germany, unknown to Allied air leaders arguing about the cost of daylight missions and the foolishness of panacea targets, there was serious consternation. The bombing was taking on a serious pattern, no longer the derring-do of knocking out a dam, or a foolhardy low-level attack on an oil field. The bombing was beginning to look more business-like, less haphazard.

In particular, although Ploesti (and the German “synthetic” facilities) continued to operate, Allied (chiefly American) air action so disrupted the transportation network that the Germans found it increasingly difficult to simply get fuel to their units. The German Luftwaffe was increasingly hard-hit by fuel shortages, and found it more and more difficult to get planes into the air. Naturally, this process fed back on itself – the less the German planes could fly, the more the Allied air forces came to dominate the skies over Europe; due to that domination, the transportation infrastructure was squeezed even further.

By the time of the Normandy landings on June 6th, 1944 – barely ten months after the Ploesti raid – the main fear of Allied invasion planners was that there would be so many Allied planes in the air that they were more likely to shoot each other down by mistake than to be shot down by German aircraft. As a result, all Allied aircraft were garishly painted – on wings and fuselage – with broad black and white stripes, so that they would be clearly identifiable to all their friends. Such a notion would have been almost suicidal had the Luftwaffe been able to fly. And indeed, the fuel shortages suffered by the Luftwaffe were so great that on the day of the Normandy invasion, exactly two German aircraft got into the air – making one quick flight over the beaches (where they did no damage) and then returning to their base.

The strategic bombing campaign against Germany had (at first) been badly-thought-out – and had been able to accomplish anything at all due solely to the courage of the airmen who flew the big bombers. But once the strategy had been adjusted and the airmen got the knack of their tasks, the results were – finally – catastrophic indeed.

It was a long way from the 164 B-24s that had appeared over Ploesti on that hot August day in 1943.