Monday, May 31, 2010

Santorini as Atlantis

Picture your dream home on a Mediterranean island. The walls are whitewashed and sun streams in through wide olive-wood windows. The view as far as the eye can see is a stretch of perfect blue water.

In the evenings there are the most magnificent sunsets imaginable. The doorways and stairs in your three-storey house are decorated with the vivid red, black and cream rocks of the island.

Fragrant herbs grow in the courtyard. On the walls there are exquisite paintings: antelope leaping through exotic landscapes, lithe young men, their bodies glistening with oil, catching fresh fish or hoisting the sails on richly decorated boats and beautiful, bare-breasted women walking through fields of saffron flowers.
Wonder of the ancient world or fantasy? The story of the fabled Atlantis has captivated humanity for centuries

Wonder of the ancient world or fantasy? The story of the fabled Atlantis has captivated humanity for centuries

Outside, the delicate lilac crocuses from which saffron comes, their yellow stamens more precious than gold, carpet the hillsides, nodding and dancing in the sea breeze.

And now imagine the horror as, one fine spring day, the earth beneath your dream house starts to groan and shake. The ground cracks. Steam vents scream and hiss - the bowels of the earth are on the move.

And then the real onslaught begins. Spewing out of the centre of the island comes a plume of pumice and ash, a staggering 35 kilometres high. One hundred and fifty billion tonnes of the earth's guts (equivalent in power to 600 megatonnes of TNT, 40,000 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb) is released into the atmosphere.

Electric storms rip through the sky. Lava bombs - solid rocks as big as trucks, weighing up to eight tonnes each - obliterate everything you have worked your whole life to create.

What makes this scenario even more horrifying is that it's not a fantasy. It's real - a catastrophe that struck Europe's first civilisation more than 3,500 years ago.

What's more, as a new television documentary shows, the sequence of events endured by the island of Thera (modern- day Santorini), bears an uncanny resemblance to the famous story of Atlantis.

Just like in the Atlantis legend, over a long, dark day and night, a whole culture was swallowed up by the sea.

Even if Thera's unfortunate inhabitants had tried to run, the ash in the air combined with the fluids in their bodies would have turned their lungs to cement.

Blisteringly hot rocks and gas hurtled down at speeds of up to 180 kilometres per hour. For those who were not instantly vaporised, death was agonising. But the nightmare didn't stop there.

Huge swathes of the island sank into the sea, and pulse after pulse of tsunamis were sent juddering out across the known world.
Bettany Hughes on the island of Santorini - which is believed to be one of the possible sites of Atlantis

The sonic impact of the explosion was so great that everyone within a radius of 80 kilometres was immediately deafened. As far afield as Egypt, eastern Turkey and Ireland the sky turned black, temperatures dropped and crops failed.

In just a few days, this wholesale destruction brought to an end the Bronze Age culture of Thera. Here, beautiful women - their eyes piercing beneath their smoky kohl make-up, hair oiled and perfumed and bare chests decorated with semi-precious stones - laughed together as they harvested flowers or made offerings of incense to their gods. Men leapt over huge bulls for sport - a prehistoric breed called aurochs that stood six feet high at the shoulder and had a horn span to match.

Engineers developed the first sailing ships and life centred around the buzzing harbour, where as many as 15 languages could have been heard - including the islanders' native form of early Greek.

Situated in pole position between three continents - Africa, Asia and Europe - Thera was a linchpin for all trading nations.

Luxurious goods passed through its harbours and the Therans were famous for their precious saffron crop - used as a painkiller and as highly prized then as it is now. Theran sailors travelled far and wide - the antelopes, palm trees and big cats painted on the walls of their houses are so perfectly represented that they surely must have been seen first hand.

Architects made advanced models of the homes they planned to build. Children played board games and toddlers drank out of beakers of exactly the same design as our Anyway-up cups.

Men and women, their gauzy clothes dyed saffron-yellow or a rich purple, shared herbal teas in stylish patterned mugs - of precisely the same dimensions as the coffee cups we use today.

Evidence suggests that the tyrannical aristocracy so often found in other ancient societies did not exist in Thera. Instead, the merchants met together in large public spaces - men and women mixing together.

There's no getting away from it - the evidence from the elegant works of art they left behind suggests that women in Thera were very special.

They sit proudly on elegant daises and are shown in the presence of gods. Unlike almost everywhere else in the ancient world, they are conspicuous in their presence. But while Theran society is recognisable to us in many ways, it was also strange and distant.

Some wall decorations depict giant bull horns painted above doorways - and in one case the doorway appears to drip with blood. Bone evidence from the island of Crete suggests that at times of crisis this was a civilisation that may have indulged in human sacrifice or even cannibalism.

But all this was to be destroyed. Over a period of a few days, this largely sophisticated population was wiped out and a fabulous civilisation was forced to its knees.

We know this happened thanks to new evidence coming fresh from out of the earth. Excavations in the ghost town of Akrotiri on the island have uncovered - buried under 30 metres of solid ash and pumice - what many have described as a Bronze Age Pompeii. But this does not do it justice.

Here you can walk through perfectly preserved streets between rows of houses, two and three storeys high.

Wooden furniture has decayed to leave perfect imprints: a comfortable, roomy bed, an elegant three-legged table that wouldn't look out of place in the Palace of Versailles, a favourite vase wrapped in cloth to protect it from the devastation.

The humanity that dreamt all this up was exterminated in a space of between one and five days. Elsewhere on the island, all life was utterly destroyed, buried deep under up to 100 meters of pumice and ash as the sea boiled and rushed into the void left by the collapsing crater.

Sound familiar? In the Atlantis myth, a brilliantly sophisticated world is punished by the gods for becoming overbearing and arrogant. Their penalty - a massive geophysical disaster designed to wipe the Atlanteans off the face of the earth.

There are other startling similarities. Like Atlantis, Thera was destroyed in a matter of days. We are told that after the catastrophe in Atlantis, ' shoalmud' made the ocean impassable - the Theran volcano would have thrown out rafts of volcanic pumice, some of them three feet thick, making the oceans all around impossible to navigate.

Just like Atlantis, Theran homes were decorated in 'red, black and white stone'.

The Atlanteans were said to host 'bull-games' in the central sanctuaries of their city and we know now that the inhabitants of both Thera and Crete practised bull-leaping - almost certainly in their central courtyards and perhaps even in the hearts of their palaces themselves.

Just as in legendary Atlantis, in the world of Bronze Age Crete and Thera the god most feared was Poseidon - the mighty lord of the sea and storms - he who could bring so much pain and destruction to mankind.

I have often wondered about the possible connection between the Atlantis myth and the Bronze Age eruption of Thera, but cutting-edge science is now making that connection impossible to ignore.

Underwater vulcanologists have, since 2000, been studying the sea bed around modern-day Santorini.

The latest data shows that the eruption was two times, possibly even three times, larger than was previously thought. This was the greatest natural disaster ever in the human experience. The volcanic deposits reveal that a bed of super-heated steam carried the deadly cloud of gas and rock a full 30 kilometres out to sea.

Even today if you dive here you can see volcanic deposits on the seabed up to 260 feet thick. Walk on the nearby headlands of Crete and you might pick up Bronze Age pumice deposited by the tsunamis, which, in the space of a few hours, killed at least 75 per cent of the population l iving along the coastline.

Archaeological evidence reminds us, too, of how devastating this event really was. At the Cretan palace of Knossos, the setting sun's slanting rays reveal a secret sign on one of the perimeter walls. The carved double-axe head, a symbol of the island, has been mutilated - into its side three-pronged trident is now rammed - Poseidon's lethal weapon.

The vases here are decorated with ghoulish creatures of the deep; octopuses, squid and shell-fish - almost as if by immortalising these slithering animals the islanders can somehow face down their demons.

For me, one of the most poignant pieces of evidence is an ancient craftsman's workshop, half-a-mile inland on Crete.

Half-used paint pots with their pigment and brushes have been scattered and left. Sea-shells are flung about the room. This was truly a world turned upside down.

The destruction came out of the blue. The scale of the eruption that devastated this unique lost world, we now realise, was 400 times the size of the current activity in Iceland.

Surely this was a cataclysm - an apocalypse that could never be forgotten.

Plato was first to set down the story of Atlantis. This classical Grecian, the 'father of Western philosophy,' was not composing a history or an eyewitness account, but using the tales he'd hear on the backstreets of his hometown Athens (just a day's sailing from Thera) and at his local port to write a moral fable.

His story of Atlantis was meant to teach a lesson: that pride comes before a fall, and that even the mighty can be brought down through greed and ambition - a stark warning that is only too familiar to us today

For him, the Atlanteans were a useful example, a vivid morality tale he could use to educate and entertain his followers.

But inadvertently, it seems certain to me that he was passing on the oral history of a terrible event that shocked the ancient world. A nightmarish tale passed down through generations as a warning of the dreadful power of nature and the gods - and the uncomfortable truth that all great civilisations must come to an end.

Plato's myth is, if you like, history by accident.

Some of his story is clearly simple fantasy. Herds of elephants roam free, magical metals sparkle like fire, the city-state itself is laid out on a complicated system of interconnecting circles.

But what rings absolutely true are the extraordinary achievements of his plucky island civilisation.

Because, against the odds and despite living in a seismic landscape with saltwater all around, the real inhabitants of Thera and Crete, 3,600 years ago, made a wonderful life for themselves.

They traded, they worshipped their gods, they laughed and loved in the Mediterranean sun.

They draped themselves in fine jewellery, they made their homes beautiful, they gathered together on grandstands to shout and roar at nail-biting sporting events and they clambered into sailing boats to reach out beyond the horizon to other societies.

They forged the notion of civilisation itself.

The human tragedy of the Thera eruption is unimaginable. So far no bodies have been discovered in the remains. One theory suggests that the islanders, warned by the initial earthquake, managed to flee. It is improbable though that they had a fleet conveniently waiting idle at one of their ports.

Head of the excavations Professor Christos Doumas says: 'God only knows where these people are. I believe they were camped somewhere on the island waiting for the earthquakes to finish. And one day we will find them.'

The modern-day excavations have had their own tragedies. One of the first archaeologists to work on the site was killed by collapsing masonry. Just three years ago the same happened to the partner of a visiting British tourist.

There have been many mavericks, lunatics and treasure- hunters who have gone in search of the fabled Atlantis.

But I think, at last, those speculations can be put to rest. Now science has come to the aid of history.

Thanks also to our own experience of recent natural disasters, we appreciate more acutely the global impact a volcano can have and the horrors just one tsunami wave can bring.

For me - cradling the delicate cups last touched by a Bronze Age woman 3,600 years ago, staring into the face of a raven-haired beauty who seems to have had significant standing in society, piecing together the swallows, lilies and dolphins used to decorate their walls and feeling the warmth of the filigree fine gold earrings, necklaces and ankle-bracelets used to make their world a more beautiful place - this really is a magical lost world.

Whether or not I am staring at Atlantis, I am certainly face to face with a glittering, powerful, sensuous and utterly ravaged civilisation.

These progressive people were truly the ancestors of our Western civilisation and their story deserves never to be forgotten.

Atlantis: the Evidence is shown on BBC 2, 9pm, 2 June. Bettany Hughes' book Helen Of troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore is out now in paperback. see www. for details

Corner of Scottish island that is forever Italy

The Orkney Italian Chapel as it stands today

In a moving letter, written 50 years ago, an Italian craftsman gifted his greatest work to the people of Orkney. Domenico Chiocchetti, a painter and sculptor of extraordinary talent, wrote: “Dear Orcadians, my work at the chapel is finished. In these three weeks I have done my best to give again to the little church that freshness which it had 16 years ago.

“The chapel is yours, for you to love and preserve. I take with me to Italy the remembrance of your kindness and wonderful hospitality.”

With these words, Chiocchetti encapsulated one of the most poignant symbols of the Second World War, and this week a new book, Orkney’s Italian Chapel, commemorates an extraordinary tale of reconciliation.

“The chapel in Orkney reaches out from the past,” said Philip Paris, the author, from Tain in Ross-shire. “It is a symbol of hope and peace from people long gone for those yet to come.”

Between 1942 and 1945, Orkney was home to 550 Italian prisoners, captured in North Africa. Their task was to construct concrete causeways — the Churchill Barriers — linking four islands, to stop German U-boats from attacking ships at anchor in Scapa Flow. These men were housed largely in Camp 60, on the island of Lamb Holm, in a compound of 13 huts, whose sole remains today amount to the lovingly preserved chapel and a concrete statue of St George killing the dragon. Today these relics draw 90,000 visitors a year and represent the most popular tourist attraction on the islands.

The exterior design of the chapel oozes the Renaissance style of Tuscan churches and symbolises the spirit of all those who lived at the camp. On closer examination, the tales of craftsmanship are testimony to the great skills of a handful of prisoners.

In the early days of his confinement, Chiocchetti had fashioned the statue of St George from concrete and barbed wire, while his fellow inmates worked on the creation of paths, flowerbeds and vegetable gardens. But with no place of worship, the prisoners lobbied Major TP Buckland, the camp commandant, and then, with his permission, set about converting two Nissen huts, joined end to end, into the chapel.

Much of the interior was the creation of Chiocchetti. In 1944 he created the focal point, his painting of the Madonna and Child, which sits above the altar, by copying a prayer card he had been given by his mother.

“I carried a little picture of the Madonna with the Olive Branch with me everywhere, and this was the inspiration for the central image,” he said. “The rest of the picture, the head of the angel, the four evangelists and, at the sides, angels kneeling in adoration, I created myself. The war was still going on and naturally the motif which inspired me was peace.”

The same man made the altar, using clay shipped from mainland Orkney, to fashion the shape for a plaster mould. This he filled with concrete and cast the high table. To the left of the altar he created an image of St Francis of Assisi, and to the right a painting of St Catherine of Siena.

Others had a hand in the interior beauty. The prisoners made use of all kinds of scrap material. A lantern was made from Bully Beef tins and candlesticks from reinforcing metal rods. Giuseppe Palumbi, from Teramo, used similar materials for the candelabra and the magnificent rood-screen and gates. The building’s exterior was designed by Giovanni Pennisi, an artist.

The overall effect remains overwhelming, but in the 15 years after the war the chapel was left untouched and it was more by luck than judgment that it survived.

The driving force behind its restoration was Father Joseph Ryland Whitaker, the Catholic priest of Orkney and Shetland, who helped to establish the Italian Chapel Preservation Society. By then, urgent repairs were needed to stop water entering the building and to make the façade safe. In the longer term, significant work was required to its beautiful interior.

A BBC radio programme helped the restoration committee to find Chiocchetti, who returned to complete three weeks’ crucial restoration work on the chapel in 1960.

He returned just once more to Lamb Holm, before his death in Moena in May 1999. A Memorial Requiem Mass was held at the Italian Chapel, attended by his wife and daughter. He had asked them to say goodbye to the friends in Orkney.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Victory soaked in blood: No monument will ever come close to capturing the utter carnage of the British Navy's finest hour

Blasted from the French guns at the speed of sound, the 32lb cannonballs could punch their way through the solid oak hulls of the English warships. But, during the opening, blood-spattered salvoes of the Battle of Trafalgar, many found much softer targets in the form of human flesh.

One of the first to die aboard the flagship HMS Victory was John Scott, secretary to lord Nelson. One minute the two men were pacing the decks together amidst the deafening cacophony of gunfire, the next Scott was lying dead in a pool of his own blood, his body cleaved into two ragged halves, courtesy of the French.

If Nelson felt any fear for his own life, as he watched Scott's mutilated remains being heaved overboard, he didn't show it.

'I'll give them such a dressing down as they never had before,' he said of the Franco-Spanish forces ranged against him. And he was true to his word - although he'd sacrifice his own life in the effort.

This week, a new tribute was paid to Britain's most celebrated naval victory with the unveiling of the latest artwork to be displayed on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The 1:30 scale replica of HMS Victory, inside a huge acrylic bottle, has been painstakingly created by Turner Prize-winning artist Yinka Shonibare, who says he designed the work 'to celebrate Nelson's legacy'.

It is a worthy tribute. But no monument, including Nelson's Column itself, can come close to capturing the full drama of the butchery and bravery seen off the Spanish coast on that historic day in October, 1805.

'As we advanced, destruction rapidly increased,' recalled lieutenant Paul Nicholas of HMS Belleisle, who reported seeing one young recruit's head shot clean off in the early stages of the fighting. 'My eyes were horror struck at the bloody corpses around me, and my ears rang with the shrieks of the wounded and the moans of the dying.

'At this moment, seeing that almost every one was lying down, I was half disposed to follow the example and several times stooped for the purpose, but a certain monitor seemed to whisper, "Stand up and do not shrink from your duty." '

That sense of obligation was famously encouraged by Nelson shortly before the slaughter began, with the issue of a signal which originally read 'England confides that every man will do his duty.'

When the signaller pointed out that the word 'confides' was not in the signal dictionary and would have to be spelt out letter by letter, Nelson agreed to replace it with 'expects' instead. As it would have to be repeated down the fleet, (and Nelson next wanted to send what turned out to be his last signal, 'Engage the enemy more closely'), he agreed to the change.

As the Victory flagged his immortal message to the fleet, a great cheer went out from ship to ship. But as hinted at by the ship in a bottle in Trafalgar Square, not all of those expected to serve so faithfully were actually English, or indeed British.

The model ship's 37 sails are decorated with African motifs, reflecting the cosmopolitan nature of the English fleet. More than a third of the Victory's crew was recruited from countries at the very ends of empire, including Africa, America, and the West Indies.

Some were press-ganged, others joined the Royal Navy for a life of adventure or to escape slavery in their own countries. But all found themselves fighting in a common cause, to thwart the military ambitions and tyranny of Napoleon Bonaparte.

After crowning himself Emperor of France in 1804, Napoleon was determined to conquer much of Europe, including Britain. He spoke contemptuously of the English Channel as 'the ditch which will be crossed when anyone has the audacity to attempt it,' and he had already made several attempts to land his troops on British soil by other routes.

In 1797, a French expeditionary force had actually managed to disembark on the Pembrokeshire coast before being repelled and, by 1805, there were two huge French armies gathered in garrisons at Boulogne, ready to cross the Channel.

With fears of invasion growing as Napoleon bullied Spain into an uneasy alliance with France, the Royal Navy mounted a blockade of the major French ports, preventing their ships from putting to sea. It was overseen by Napoleon's implacable opponent, Horatio Nelson, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet.

Despite suffering severe seasickness throughout his life, and losing his right arm and the sight in his right eye during previous heroic actions against the French and Spanish, Nelson was revered as a national hero and a naval genius.

Then 47, he had spent 35 years of his life at sea and led from the front, inspiring great devotion among his sailors and helping forge a Royal Navy which was highly disciplined, welltrained and, just as importantly, wellfed. By contrast, the French navy was beset by sickness and low morale and had been hit hard by the Revolution which helped bring Napoleon to power.

Many of its officers had been minor aristocrats who fled France in fear of the guillotine, leaving a second-rate division of less experienced men to take their place. These over-promoted replacements included Admiral Pierre de Villeneuve, a timid and cautious man who had narrowly escaped being killed by the British at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and had lived in fear of Nelson ever since.

It was Villeneuve's misfortune to be pitted against his nemesis at Trafalgar. Since 1803, his fleet had been holed-up in the port of Toulon, on France's Mediterranean coast, but in March 1805, much to Villeneuve's disquiet, Napoleon ordered him to evade the British blockade and sail out through the Straits of Gibraltar and on to the Caribbean.

Napoleon hoped this would lure the British into a chase, taking them away from home waters. He proposed that Villeneuve should then give the British the slip and join up with their Spanish allies to mount an invasion of England while Nelson was still looking for them in the Caribbean.

After several attempts, Villeneuve finally managed to escape Toulon and meet the Spanish ships as planned but, after a long chase which indeed took them to Martinique and back, Nelson blockaded them into the port of Cadiz in south-western Spain.

He resolved to deal their combined navies a final and fatal blow and his chance came when Napoleon accused Villeneuve of being too cowardly to leave Cadiz and ordered him to set sail for a naval base in French-controlled Naples.

On the evening of October 20, Villeneuve's fleet ventured south out of Cadiz towards the nearby Cape of Trafalgar. Waiting for them nine miles over the horizon, Nelson had only 27 ships compared to Villeneuve's fleet of 33, and half as many men. But he also had a surprise tactic in mind.

Since ships' guns were mostly along their sides, battles were generally conducted with the vessels in each fleet lined up end to end, firing 'broadsides' at the enemy. The Franco-Spanish fleet was arranged in exactly such a way and expected the English to sail towards them at a right angle and then turn to face them in parallel.

Instead, Nelson proposed to sail straight through the enemy line, firing through the length of their ships from bow to stern and causing far more damage than hitting them sideways on. 'It will bring forward a pell-mell battle and that is what I want,' Nelson told his officers. Pell-mell meaning rushing chaotically, but in the event it was to be more of a slow and steady annihilation.

At dawn on October 21, the British fleet divided into two. One squadron of 15 ships, led by Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign, would attack the rear of the enemy line. The remaining line of 12, headed by Nelson on HMS Victory, would aim for the vanguard.

As they sailed towards the enemy, the order to prepare for battle was given. The crews were given small firearms to use in close combat and the decks strewn with sand to absorb the blood that would soon flow.

A storm was due to break later that day so Nelson knew that he had to act quickly to engage his opponents, but just now there was little breeze and the British ships could only creep towards their targets with unbearable slowness. Until they had reached the Franco-Spanish lines, their unarmed bows were vulnerable to the devastating fire of the enemy broadsides and, as the French and Spanish opened fire, the English butcher's bill soon reached triple figures.

Those men not dismembered by cannonballs were crushed under tumbling masts or speared by flying splinters of English oak, as deadly as shrapnel.

On HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson and his Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy had a near miss when a cannonball shot so closely between them that a splinter took the buckle off one of Hardy's shoes. Ignoring this warning, Nelson persisted in parading around the deck in his full regalia, despite the pleas of his aides who argued that it would make him an easy target for the French.

At ten minutes past midday, the Royal Sovereign became the first English ship to breach the Franco-Spanish line. Finally able to retaliate, she let loose a pitiless barrage of cannonballs into the Spanish flagship Santa Ana, the largest of its kind in the world, under the command of Admiral Ignacio Alava.

With 340 casualties, including the Admiral, the Santa Ana soon surrendered to the Royal Sovereign. Further along the enemy line, however, HMS Victory was still under sustained fire from the French.

Fifty of her men had been killed or wounded, and she was still not in a position to open fire but she sailed menacingly onwards. One French observer described her as 'like some phantom, unassailable by mortal men, the mute slow-footed minister of fate.'

At 1pm she finally crossed the enemy line, pouring fire into the stern of the French flagship Bucentaure, commanded by Admiral de Villeneuve. He survived and later surrendered, but the English onslaught brought death and destruction to the entire length of his ship, killing dozens of its men at a time.

One cannonball was said to have ricocheted around the hull like a deadly pinball, killing or wounding some 40 men, and soon the Bucentaure was a smoking wreck, with nearly 200 of its sailors killed, a quarter of its crew. 'The dead, thrown back as they fell, lay along the middle of the decks in heaps, and the shot passing through had frightfully mangled the bodies,' recalled one account.

Next the Victory turned its attention to the French vessel Redoubtable, ramming it with a resounding crash so that their riggings jammed together and their cannon were almost touching. The two ships pounded each other at close quarters.

'Every gun was going off,' remembered Lieutenant Lewis Rotely who was on Victory's middle deck. 'Reports louder than thunder, the deck heaving and side straining. I fancied myself in the infernal regions, where every man appeared a devil. Lips might move, but orders and hearing were out of the question. Everything was done by signs.'

Both ships were so enveloped in smoke that it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe, but at 1.25pm the thick black clouds parted for a few seconds. This was long enough for a sniper high in the rigging of the Redoubtable to spot Lord Nelson on the decks of the Victory and fire a musket ball which hit him in the top of the shoulder, perforating his lung and smashing his spine.

'They have done for me at last, Hardy, my back bone is shot through,' he said and, as he was carried down to the surgeon on the lower deck, he placed his handkerchief over his face, resigned to his fate.

As he lay there in the dim candlelight, surrounded by the torn limbs, terrible burns and agonised cries of the men under his command, the fighting continued above. The Frenchman who had shot him was himself hit by musket-fire from a midshipman from the Victory. He fell to the deck shortly before the shattered wreckage of the Redoubtable disappeared into the depths, taking most of its crew with it.

Up and down the Franco-Spanish line, battles of similar ferocity were fought out until one by one the enemy ships lowered their colours as a sign of surrender.

Nelson's spirits appeared to revive as he heard cheer after cheer from the victorious English ships. But at 4.30pm, assured of Villeneuve's defeat, he died of his injuries.

During the fighting, some 4,400 French and Spanish sailors were killed, ten times the number of British casualties. Although 18 enemy vessels were destroyed, the Royal Navy did not lose a single ship and the Battle of Trafalgar established Britain as the world's pre-eminent naval power for more than 100 years to come.

Back in Britain, public joy at this triumph was dampened by news the death of the much- loved and respected Lord Nelson. When his body was brought back to Britain, preserved in a barrel of brandy, it was laid to rest in a wooden coffin made, as he had requested, from the mast of the French flagship L'Orient which had been destroyed during the Battle of the Nile.

He was given a state funeral at St Paul's Cathedral and in 1840, 35 years after his death, work began on Nelson's Column, which features four bronze reliefs cast from captured French cannon and shows the victorious admiral facing towards the Admiralty, and Portsmouth, where HMS Victory is still docked.

As for the model of HMS Victory in a bottle, it will be replaced in 18 months with a work by another artist. For now, however, it stands as a very modern memorial to the Royal Navy's finest hour, and the brave British souls swallowed by the deep.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Among the brightest and the best: the Magdalen men cramming the cabinet

RW Johnson

Of the 12 Oxford graduates who are full members of the new coalition cabinet, or are entitled to attend it on occasion, five are from just one college: George Osborne (chancellor), William Hague (foreign secretary), Chris Huhne (energy), Dominic Grieve (attorney-general) and Jeremy Hunt (culture, Olympics, sport). All went to Magdalen; and another Magdalen man, John Redwood, sits on the back benches in judgment on them.

Given that I was a tutor at Magdalen for 26 years — I taught William and Chris — I’m often asked “How come?”

True, Andrew Knight, when editor of The Economist, asked me to send along my best PPE (politics, philosophy and economics) people, which helped to account for the large number of Magdalen graduates on that magazine. But I’m afraid I can’t point to any giant conspiracy.

The heart of the matter lies instead in the two areas where Magdalen has often led Oxford since 1945: its modern history and PPE schools. Hague, Huhne, Hunt and the Tory MP Nick Boles were all PPE products, while not only were Osborne and Redwood products of the modern history school but so was the top law officer, Grieve. What made those subjects so strong was not just that the college had good tutors to teach them but also that it attracted such talented undergraduates.

In all my time as a tutor I never saw a more obviously first-class applicant for admission than Chris Huhne. He came from Westminster, an elite private school, but William Hague came from a comprehensive and was also clearly in the “must take” bracket.

Oddly enough, neither man seemed to fulfil that promise at first. Chris was far too busy rushing around being a student journalist, dressed from head to toe in blue denim, while William often seemed to be coasting — he was doubtless devoting much of his time to his career in the Conservative club and the union.

Both fitted easily enough into the general student milieu, which was considerably left-of-centre, Chris because he was then a strong Labour man, William because he was so amiable, pleasant and engaging that nobody of any political hue could possibly dislike him.

But not long before finals both of them went into overdrive and achieved very easy firsts. Only some 10% of Oxford graduates get firsts and both Chris and William were probably in the top 5%.

So it is not a matter of an old boys' network imposing its clients on the public as a form of outdoor relief. Most of the names above were, and are, exceptionally able people.

Hague, Huhne and Hunt were among the best we had. Boles also got a first in PPE while Redwood not only took a first in history but also won an All Souls fellowship and is a distinguished historian of 17th-century science.

And while these are all men, Magdalen has been co-educational since 1979 so it’s probably only a matter of time before Magdalen women start showing up in the cabinet too.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Stately homes for top British politicians

Chequers, the country retreat of Prime Ministers since Lloyd George took up residence there in 1921

Dorneywood, the grace-and-favour home of former British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescot

Chevening House in Kent is traditionally available to the Foreign Secretary

One is a 16th-century retreat with a heated swimming pool, another a 115-room mansion set in 3,500 acres of rural Kent, while the third was a Georgian farm and has a croquet lawn. The question that has remained unanswered amid the formation of the Lib-Con coalition is: which ministers will stay where?

Last night Downing Street aides suggested that David Cameron had made his decision over the allocation of grace-and-favour homes — with interesting implications for the fragile political alliance.

Mr Cameron, as is customary, awarded himself Chequers, the country retreat of Prime Ministers since Lloyd George took up residence there in 1921. But it was a trickier proposition to find a place for Nick Clegg.

In a compromise that may test the Lib-Con relationship, the Liberal Democrat leader and Deputy Prime Minister is to share a house with William Hague, the Conservative Foreign Secretary. The strain of being under one roof at Chevening may be alleviated by having 115 rooms to divide between them. The complicated sub-let will work, aides say, because Mr Hague will be abroad on government business so often.

This leaves George Osborne, the Chancellor, with Dorneywood, the 21-room house where John Prescott was photographed playing croquet with his aides when he was in charge of the country while Tony Blair was abroad.

Dorneywood has traditionally been at the disposal of the Chancellor since it was gifted to the National Trust in 1947, but it became a retreat for the Deputy Prime Minister when Gordon Brown declared that he had no wish to live like a 19th-century aristocrat.

Mr Brown also avoided Chequers when he first became Prime Minister because he felt uncomfortable with an English stately home staffed with a platoon of butlers and cooks and replete with four-poster beds. His resistance waned, however, when he was obliged to return from holiday that August to manage the response to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. He warmed to the mansion and its 1,000-acre estate like his predecessors.

Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, would roam the grounds of Chequers in Lovat tweed plus-fours. Neville Chamberlain relaxed by measuring the girth of its trees.

The mansion costs £500,000 a year to maintain. The bills so appalled Margaret Thatcher that she ordered staff to turn off the swimming pool heater.

Mr Osborne, who is understood to be still undecided about whether his family will move from their Notting Hill home to 11 Downing Street, will enjoy a more modern country retreat. Dorneywood, in Buckinghamshire, was built in 1920.

Chevening, a Neo-Classical house designed by Inigo Jones and built in the early 17th century, is traditionally available to the Foreign Secretary, but was considered by Downing Street to be a logical choice as a shared residence because of its size. Mr Hague and Mr Clegg will arrange to stay on alternate weekends.

Mr Hague will also be offered 1 Carlton House Terrace, a five-bedroom town house used by Foreign Secretaries as their London residence. The house, designed by John Nash, has a ballroom and sits between The Mall and Pall Mall.

Other grace-and-favour dwellings include three flats in Admiralty House, in The Mall, and South Eaton Place in Belgravia, which is usually reserved for the Home Secretary.

There are also the Lord Chancellor’s Apartments at the southern end of the Palace of Westminster, which Lord Irvine of Lairg famously redecorated with handmade wallpaper at a cost of £59,000. It was for a noble cause, he explained. “We are not talking about something down at the DIY store that might collapse after a year or so.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quiet but costly Routemasters poised for return to London’s streets

I thought the old Routemasters were great buses -- even though I did inadvertently fall off one once. So I am pleased to see the return of something that is at least similar

Boris Johnson hailed the return of the Routemaster today as he promised a cleaner, greener bus for London — albeit at a hefty price tag.

Mr Johnson, the Mayor of London, unveiled the first images of the futuristic-looking bus, which has two staircases and a “hop-on, hop-off” feature.

It marks the widespread return of the open platform to the capital’s buses, after the Routemaster was banished by Mr Johnson’s predecessor, Ken Livingstone, in 2005. The return of the Routemaster was a key aspect of Mr Johnson’s election campaign, promising Londoners a “new icon” for their city.

Launching the new design at a bus depot in Battersea this morning, Mr Johnson said he was sure that passengers would appreciate being able to hop on and hop off the buses “in a free and enjoyable way”.
Times Archive, 1956: New London bus

The 64-passenger Routemaster will go into public service on route 2 next week

* Advertisement: The Routemaster

* London Bus Week

Related Links

* All aboard for London's new Routemaster

* Routemaster retirement: a sad day for London?

* Winning designs for new Routemaster bus unveiled

“This iconic new part of our transport system is not only beautiful, but also has a green heart beating beneath its stylish, swooshing exterior. It will cut emissions, and give Londoners a bus they can be proud of.

“I expect to eventually have hundreds of these on London’s roads, and for cities around the globe to be beside themselves with envy for our stunning red emblem of 21st century London.”

There will be a second crew member on the bus whenever the open platform is in use. It is expected to be closed during the night and quiet periods.

The price tag for the new Routemaster has raised eyebrows and the mayor has been accused by the Labour opposition at City Hall of wasting taxpayers’ money on a “vanity project”.

Transport for London has budgeted more than £11 million for the project and the first five buses will cost £7.8 million. However a TfL spokesman said that amount included design, development and building costs.

Mr Livingstone’s much-maligned bendy buses, the 18-metre articulated vehicle that runs on several of London’s most popular routes, cost about £250,000 each. They are being withdrawn by Mr Johnson and will be replaced by the Routemaster on some routes.

Future buses in the Routemaster fleet are expected to cost about the same amount as existing hybrid doubledeckers, at roughly £300,000 apiece.

The first bus is expected to be delivered this autumn. The others will follow in early 2012. The contract for design was awarded to Wrightbus, a busbuilder in Northern Ireland.

TfL said that the new buses would use the latest green technology and would be much quieter on the streets. The transport body said the new Routemaster would be 15 per cent more fuel efficient than existing hybrid buses and 40 per cent more efficient than conventional diesel double deckers.

Peter Hendy, the Transport Commissioner, said: “This beautifully designed, environmentally friendly vehicle built for the capital will be loved by Londoners for many years to come.”

Cameron and Clegg: who is more upper crust?

It’s an intriguing, very British – and entirely pointless – pastime to work out which of our leaders is the posher

It is most odd,” said my friend, a Frenchman now living, like most sensible Frenchmen, in London. “Your country has given birth to twins. This Cameron and Clegg, he is the same person, no? They are both, how you say, posh?”

“Yes,” I explained. “But they are different sorts of posh.”

He looked confused: “But both went to private school, both are rich, both are sons of financiers. Even the hair is similar.”

“True,” I conceded. “But they are not the same species of posh. David Cameron is Eton-Oxford-country- clubby-cutglass-shooting party sort of posh, whereas Nick Clegg is Westminster-Cambridge- metropolitan-foreign-glottalstop-trustfund sort of posh. Cameron is upper-upper-middle class with a dash of English gentry, but Clegg is middle-upper-middle class with a hint of European aristocracy. These are quite different things.”

From the look on his bemused Gallic face I could see I was not getting through. So I started from basics.

In British society there are not three classes, but an infinite variety of sub-classes, governed by a multiplicity of minute distinctions, invisible and incomprehensible to anyone outside the system. These are partly dependent on wealth, geography and education, but also on lineage, accent, pastimes, parsimony and where you buy your shoes.

In France, there are just two classes: the ruling and the ruled. The revolution made very little difference to this. In Britain, as pointed out by John Prescott (working-middle-class- peer-to-be), there is only one class, the middle one, to which we all belong. All members of the middle class are equal, but some are more equal than others.

“Aha,” said my French friend, Frenchly. “Then who is more grand, Cameron or Clegg? Who is plus posh?”

This is a tricky question, and one worthy of Anthony Powell, the great observer and chronicler of the English class system. An insatiable snob, Powell understood better than any other novelist, with the possible exception of Evelyn Waugh, the minute gradations of British class and social placement that once separated, say, a baronet who has joined the middle class from a self-made peer who buys his own furniture.

The drawing of such distinctions, not just between but also within classes, is a peculiarly British urge. As Lord Robert Cecil once wrote: “Directly Man has his most elementary material wants, the first aspiration of his amiable heart is for the privilege of being able to look down on his neighbours.” So who, in the new Cameron-Clegg ménage, is looking down on whom? Which was born with the longer silver spoon?

Cameron would seem to be posher, genealogically. He is a descendant of William IV and distantly related to the Queen. His mother is the daughter of a baronet. His mother-in-law is a viscountess. Samantha Cameron is authentic old money county posh, being the eldest daughter of Sir Reginald Adrian Berkeley Sheffield, 8th Baronet and a descendant of Charles II.

But there is blueish blood in the Clegg veins too. His grandmother was a White Russian baroness. His great uncle was clubbed to death by his own peasants, which carries a certain aristo-cachet. His great aunt was a spy: it is well known that before about 1992 MI6 did not recruit anyone who was not directly out of the top drawer. On the other hand, his ancestors on the other side were Dutch colonial entrepreneurs: yes, trade.

Cameron’s manners are exquisitely upper-class. Unlike Clegg, who did not hesitate to barge in during the televised debates, Cameron fell silent when interrupted, and when asked to be quiet, he was. This may explain why he didn’t triumph in the debates.

Cameron is said to enjoy shooting pheasants, whereas the closest Clegg has come to blood sports is at the Liberal Democrat annual conference. “Eton and Oxford” still sounds immeasurably grander than “Westminster and Cambridge”, which sounds merely clever. Cameron is clubbable (Whites, the Bullingdon) in a way that Clegg is not.

Cameron eats fish and chips and enjoys reading cheap paperbacks, which is itself a mark of extreme poshness. Only the very grand are instinctively frugal, as demonstrated by this week’s revelation that the Queen Mother rented a television set for her Scottish castle.

Clegg’s accent is fluent BBC, with a hint of the Estuary twang perfected by Tony Blair (lower-upper-middle class). Cameron’s accent, according to friends, used to be rather more “fruity and patrician”, and his vowels have grown flatter as he has ascended higher.

George Orwell once said of Winston Churchill that the Prime Minister was “too old to have acquired the modern ‘educated’ accent ... he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds like Cockney”. Today, Clegg has the “educated” accent and Cameron the Edwardian remnants, but to the average man (and Frenchman) they sound identical.

And that, finally, is the point. Clegg and Cameron occupy very slightly different niches on the social spectrum, but it matters not a jot. In earlier times, it is easy to imagine Clegg being dismissed by the likes of Anthony Powell as a jumped-up nouveau riche, or Cameron being lampooned by Evelyn Waugh as a member of the Bollinger Club, “crimson and roaring”, brought up to “the sound of English county families baying for broken glass”.

(Waugh’s own snobbery was matched by the snootiness of others towards him: “a silly little suburban sod with an inferiority complex and no palate – drinks Pernod after meals,” sniffed his history tutor.) Today, the infinitesimal gradations of class are of anthropological interest, but of no political relevance whatever. The election result has offered conclusive evidence that voters know that there are more important considerations than where someone went to school, how they speak and whether they like to kill animals at the weekend.

Peter Mandelson, among others, tried to get the class war going by insisting that Cameron was looking down his “rather long toffee nose”. But it failed to ignite, for the same reason that the Clegg-Cameron alliance will be seen not as some upper-class, public school conspiracy but as a genuine transformation of the political landscape.

British social distinctions are now merely interesting, rather than important. We are still conscious of class, without being paralysed by class consciousness.

“I think I get it,” said my French friend. “These two people are posh in different ways, but it makes no difference.”


“How very English.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Dictionary mistake goes unnoticed for 99 years

Those who take the dictionary to be word-perfect should take the time to look a little harder.

It has taken the keen eye of a Queensland University of Technology physicist to spot a 99-year-old mistake in the Oxford English Dictionary. The error may be slight, but it's an error nonetheless, according to Stephen Hughes.

Doctor Hughes claims he has discovered that the dictionary's definition of the word 'siphon' has been incorrect since 1911. The definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, and many other dictionaries, stated that atmospheric pressure was the force behind a siphon.

But in fact it is the force of gravity at work. "It is gravity that moved the fluid in a siphon, with the water in the longer downward arm pulling the water up the shorter arm," Dr Hughes said.

When Dr Hughes stumbled across the mistake he alerted the dictionary's revision team, which had just completed revising words beginning with the letter 'R'. "I thought, 'Oh good, just in time,' because S is next," he said.

The senior lecturer in physics discovered the error after viewing an enormous siphon in South Australia, transferring the equivalent of 4000 Olympic swimming pools from the Murray River system into the depleted Lake Bonney.

"I thought this example would make a great education paper ... but in my background research I discovered there was much contention about the definition of the word siphon," Dr Hughes said. "I found that almost every dictionary contained the same misconception that atmospheric pressure, not gravity, pushed liquid through the tube of a siphon."

The Oxford English Dictionary currently defines a siphon as: "A pipe or tube of glass, metal or other material, bent so that one leg is longer than the other, and used for drawing off liquids by means of atmospheric pressure, which forces the liquid up the shorter leg and over the bend in the pipe".

The dictionary's review team has agreed to re-examine the definition.

Dr Hughes is now determined to set the record straight, and says the issue should not be taken lightly. "We would all have an issue if the dictionary defined a koala as a species of bear, or a rose as a tulip," he said.

He has now turned his attention to dictionaries in other languages. "I would like to know if the siphon misconception exists in dictionaries in other languages, and also if there are incorrect definitions of siphon in school text books," he said.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wee Frees ponder a new age of worship with hymns

For more than a hundred years the Free Church of Scotland has been governed by a strict Calvinist tradition — the singing of hymns has been prohibited. The austere but hauntingly beautiful sound of unaccompanied psalms has been the only music permitted in a Church which believes in maintaining the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Now, in a move which could divide its congregations, the Church — known as the Wee Frees — is considering overturning the ban in a belated bid to move with the times. Not only might hymns be sung, it is suggested, but they could even be allowed a musical accompaniment. A report is due to be published in the next few days, which will then be discussed at the Church’s General Assembly later this month.

The Rev Iver Martin, a spokesman for the Church, said he knew of up to a dozen ministers who backed a move towards relaxing the ban, and believed there could be many more. But he conceded the change might produce “mixed feelings” among followers.

“Some will be dead against the change, some will be in favour, some will be split 50:50,” Mr Martin said. “This is where wisdom comes in because you need to be sure you don’t divide people unnecessarily.”

Hymns and musical instruments were banned by the Church in 1910 under legislation which stated that worship must consist of “inspired materials of praise” — drawn mainly from the Old Testament.

Some ministers now believe that singing hymns would provide a means of celebrating the New Testament as well. They also point out that, despite the long-standing ban, there are references in the Old Testament to accompanied singing, so there is no biblical argument against doing it now.

Yet these progressive views are unlikely to hold much sway with the Church’s traditionalists. One of them, the Rev Kenneth Ferguson, a minister in the Isle of Lewis and a former Moderator of the Church’s General Assembly, said that two thirds of churches had voted to maintain the status quo. “With the unaccompanied singing, there is a natural harmony to the voices in Gaelic that really appeals to a lot of people,” he said. “I really love it.”

There may also be fears that relaxing the law could jeopardise one of Scotland’s great traditions. Emotive and haunting, the sound of unaccompanied psalms is redolent of the Highlands and Islands. The practice also inspired black American soul music, after white slaves from Scotland shared their psalms with African slaves tending the plantations of the Deep South.

Professor Donald Macleod, principal of the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, said the psalms were part of the Scottish psyche and culture, but he claimed it was time for the Church to modernise.

“The Church will always sing psalms, but the issue is should it sing psalms only?” he said. “We all love the psalms, including me, but some of us feel they don’t express the New Testament. We want to recognise that Christ lived among us, died and rose again.”

Professor Macleod insisted that it was not a “split issue” for the Church, which has already been through a number of schisms and was formed after splitting from the Church of Scotland in 1843.

“The rest of the Christian world sings hymns as well as psalms, so I feel we are on the margins of Christianity and I don’t want to be on the margins.”

The Free Church of Scotland, with about 1,000 members, claims to be the largest Calvinist congregation in Scotland. Although the Highlands and Islands are still its heartlands, the Church has 100 branches across Scotland, as well as two in London and five in North America.

Defending the change, Mr Martin added: “We are trying to raise a question that needs to be raised. And that is whether psalm singing is the right way — or the only way — to worship God.”