Austronesia: Madagascar to Hawaii

April 24 2014

The widest term for the languages and cultures (rather than racial identities) of Malaya and the islands from Madagascar to Sumatra, Java, Taiwan (before China), the Philippines, Borneo, Micronesia, Melanesia, New Zealand, Polynesia, Hawaii is Austronesian.

Austronesian languages are not to be confused with the much older Papuan and Australian languages. (New Guinea is outside the Austronesian space.)

It used to be thought that they had originated in Taiwan, from where large-scale migrations began after 5000 BC. The first Austronesian-speaking settlers were said to have landed in northern Luzon, where they intermingled with an older population.

Recently (2009) their origin has been placed further south, in Sundaland, the peninsula, before the end of the last Ice Age, that had extended the Asian landmass as far as Borneo and Java. Under this scenario, refugees from the rising seas migrated north to Taiwan.

Austronesian-speakers spread eastward to the islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia and westward to Madagascar. Sailing from Melanesia and Micronesia, they had discovered Polynesia by 1000 BC, Easter Island by AD 300, Hawaii by AD 400 and New Zealand by AD 1280. They reached South America and traded with Native Americans.

By the beginning of the first millennium CE, the Austronesian inhabitants of maritime Southeast Asia had begun trading with India and China. Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced and Indianised kingdoms established. By the tenth century Muslim traders had brought Islam, which gradually displaced the older religions. The Austronesian inhabitants of Polynesia were unaffected by these cultural migrations and diffusions and retained their indigenous culture.

Map of the Austronesian migrations, Wikimedia Commons, opens in a new window; a couple of the dates differ slightly from ones I have given:


Migrations of Homo sapiens

April 23 2014

Simple map (many places online) of first migrations of Homo sapiens on the main landmasses of the Old World.

He reaches the Bering Strait circa 12000 BC.

Hom sap

The map also shows the maximum range of Homo erectus. The first fossil evidence of Homo erectus dates to circa 1.9 million years ago, the most recent to 143,000 years ago. One hypothesis is that Homo erectus migrated from Africa. Another is that he evolved in Eurasia and migrated to Africa. If the former is correct, then he may be another name for Homo ergaster and the direct ancestor of later hominids such as Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens.

Homer, Milton, Yeats

April 23 2014


Pirie MacDonald (US) photographed 70,000 men and no women, not even his wife or daughter. Several other of his portraits have eyes in shadow. Yeats wasn’t blind. His eyes here are closed. 1933.

Blind musicians (old post).

London’s creeping

April 22 2014

… or, The binding force

Helen to her sister Margaret towards the end of Forster’s Howards End (1910).

“‘All the same, London’s creeping.’

“She pointed over the meadow – over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust.

“‘You see that in Surrey and even Hampshire now,’ she continued. ‘I can see it from the Purbeck Downs. And London is only part of something else, I’m afraid. Life’s going to be melted down, all over the world.’

“Margaret knew that her sister spoke truly. Howards End, Oniton, the Purbeck Downs, the Oderberge, were all survivals, and the melting-pot was being prepared for them. [...]

“‘Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,’ she said. ‘This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest on the earth. All the signs are against it now, but I can’t help hoping, and very early in the morning in the garden I feel that our house is the future as well as the past.’”


“Margaret was silent. Marriage had not saved her from the sense of flux. London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!”

The wych-elm


April 13 2014

Back April 22.


April 12 2014

Why do Scandinavians use the Christian name Magnus?

Because Charlemagne conquered and christianised the Saxons and brought a sort of civilisation to the pagan Scandinavians’ border. Whether that was or was not connected with the start, immediately afterwards, of the Scandinavians’ raids and conquests to their east, south and west is another matter.

Chesterton speaking on Canada

April 11 2014

At the Canadian lunch in London in 1933 at which Kipling proposed the toast (last post), the seconder was Chesterton. No film (or none that I am aware of), but here is a complete sound recording.

Is there a complete recording of Kipling? The YouTube poster and commenters wrongly assume that Chesterton is speaking in Canada. Also, he is not “introducing” Kipling.

He refers to the President of the Royal Society of Literature, Lord Crewe.

I like his phrase “our more fatigued society” about Britain compared with North America.

When he reads poetry, Chesterton’s voice sounds almost classless, but there is an occasional lower middle-class twang here. Kipling’s accent is that of the broad English educated class, of which the Oxford accent and the BBC accent were distinct offshoots.

Kipling on film

April 10 2014

Who even knew that there was film of Kipling, and with sound?

July 12 1933, Claridge’s, London, luncheon of the Royal Society of Literature for visiting members of the Canadian Authors’ Association:

Full text here (the Kipling Society has the year wrong and contradicts itself as to the day), with a link to notes. It’s a subtle set of remarks and a fine tribute to Canada.

The metamorphosis of Boudica

April 9 2014

William Cowper wrote an ode on Boadicea in 1780. There is no doubt that he had the American war in mind and he manages to enlist Boadicea (Boudica, last post) as a heroic model on the side of the British!

In the first century, he is saying, the future belonged not with Rome, but with her subjects and enemies. In short, with the British Empire. (Belongs “with”?) It does not occur to him that if in 1780 Boadicea is the British, then the Romans are really the Americans and are likely to win.

British imperialists are good, but so is a British anti-imperial rebel. Roman imperialists are bad, but so are Roman (ie American) anti-imperial rebels.

“When the British warrior queen,
Bleeding from the Roman rods,
Sought, with an indignant mien,
Counsel of her country’s gods,

Sage beneath a spreading oak
Sat the Druid, hoary chief;
Ev’ry burning word he spoke
Full of rage, and full of grief.

Princess! if our aged eyes
Weep upon thy matchless wrongs,
’Tis because resentment ties
All the terrors of our tongues.

Rome shall perish – write that word
In the blood that she has spilt;
Perish, hopeless and abhorr’d,
Deep in ruin as in guilt.

Rome, for empire far renown’d,
Tramples on a thousand states;
Soon her pride shall kiss the ground –
Hark! the Gaul is at her gates!

Other Romans shall arise,
Heedless of a soldier’s name;
Sounds, not arms, shall win the prize –
Harmony the path to fame.

Then the progeny that springs
From the forests of our land,
Arm’d with thunder, clad with wings,
Shall a wider world command.

Regions Cæsar never knew
Thy posterity shall sway,
Where his eagles never flew,
None invincible as they.

Such the bard’s prophetic words,
Pregnant with celestial fire,
Bending, as he swept the chords
Of his sweet but awful lyre.

She, with all a monarch’s pride,
Felt them in her bosom glow;
Rush’d to battle, fought, and died;
Dying, hurl’d them at the foe.

Ruffians, pitiless as proud,
Heav’n awards the vengeance due;
Empire is on us bestow’d,
Shame and ruin wait for you!”

Text from HS Milford, editor, The Complete Poetical Works of William CowperHenry Frowde, 1905.

To give Cowper his transatlantic due, he also wrote poems against the slave trade.


Boudica’s husband, Prasutagus, had been an ally of Rome and a Roman citizen. Was she one too? He died and gave half his kingdom to Nero and half to his wife and two daughters. Rome refused to acknowledge her inheritance, Romans flogged her and raped the daughters.

Her subsequent rebellion caused Nero to consider withdrawing all Roman forces from Britain, but Gaius Suetonius Paulinus eventually defeated her. Boudica then either killed herself to avoid capture or fell ill and died: the sources, Tacitus (Latin) and Cassius Dio (Greek), differ. There are no archaeological sources that say anything about her directly and no native British written sources.

Dio says that she was “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women”, was tall and had reddish hair hanging below her waist and a harsh voice and piercing glare, and habitually wore a large golden necklace (perhaps a torc), a many-coloured tunic and a thick cloak fastened by a brooch.

Tacitus gives her a speech in which she exhorts her troops from her chariot, her daughters beside her. She presents herself not as an aristocrat avenging lost wealth, but as an ordinary person avenging her lost freedom, her battered body, and the abused chastity of her daughters. Their cause is just, the gods are on their side, the legion that had dared to face them had been destroyed. “Though a woman, my resolution is fixed: the men, if they please, may survive with infamy, and live in bondage.”

Effeminate Nero versus masculine Boudica.

In Roman inscriptions, she is Boudica in Lusitania, Boudiga in Bordeaux, Bodicca in Algeria. By the Middle Ages she was forgotten. She makes no appearance in Bede, the Historia Brittonum, the Mabinogion or Geoffrey of Monmouth. (Geoffrey believes in the Trojan origins of the British.) But the rediscovery of Tacitus during the Renaissance allowed Polydore Vergil to reintroduce her into British history as Voadicea in 1534.

Holinshed calls her Voadicia in his Chronicles. James Aske’s poem Elizabetha Triumphans compares Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury to Vodice’s speech from her chariot. Spenser calls her Bunduca in The Faerie QueeneJohn Speed gives a positive portrait of her as Boudicca in his Historie of Great Britaine (1611). John Fletcher has her as Bonduca. (Many writers use more than one variant of the name – there are about thirty – in a single work.) The later, more euphonious Boadicea may derive from a medieval mistranscription of Tacitus. The best manuscripts of Tacitus have Boudicca. We call her Boudica.

Bonduca is a Jacobean tragi-comedy in the Beaumont and Fletcher canon, but probably by Fletcher alone. The main hero is not the unattractive Bonduca, but “Caratach”, who is anachronistically depicted as her general. The resistance led by Caratacus or Caractacus of the Catuvellauni was earlier than that of Boudica of the Iceni. Nennius, the legendary British opponent of Julius Caesar, is included still more anachronistically.

Two Roman officers, Junius and Petillius, fall in love with Bonduca’s daughters. Petillius is a version of Quintus Petillius Cerialis. Fletcher’s Britons may in part stand, by allegory, for the savage native Americans of Virginia. Nevertheless, the play invites the audience to sympathise with their resistance to Rome.

In 1695, Purcell composed his last music for an adaptation of Fletcher, Bonduca, or the British Heroine. Suite from it – Overture, Hornpipe, Air, Trumpet tune; Quintette de cuivres Ars Nova, Marcel Lagorce and Bernard Jeannoutot, trumpets, Georges Barboteu, horn, Camille Verdier, trombone, Elie Raynaud, tuba:

Engraving of John Opie’s Boadicea Haranguing the Britons of 1793, the year Britain joined the First Coalition:

Boadicea, John Opie

The first of several HMS Boadiceas was launched in 1797.

Boadicea becomes another Britannia (the female personification of Britannia goes back to Roman times) and an earlier Victoria, since, it was discovered, her name derived from the Proto-Celtic word for victory, bouda.

Tennyson, in his Boädicéa, too long to quote in full, gets carried away and is rather shocking in his violence (lines broken into two to fit column width):

“Cut the Roman boy to pieces in his lust
and voluptuousness,
Lash the maiden into swooning,
me they lash’d and humiliated,
Chop the breasts from off the mother,
dash the brains of the little one out,
Up, my Britons! on, my chariot!
on, my chargers, trample them under us!”

Typically choppy Tennysonian rhythms.

Text from WJ Rolfe, editor, The Complete Poetical Works of Tennyson, Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Riverside Press, 1898.

Among novels, two for children, Beric the Briton, A Story of the Roman Invasion (1893) by GA Henty (that cheerful imperialist) and Song for a Dark Queen (1978) by Rosemary Sutcliffe.

The subject would have suited Donizetti or the young Verdi, but there is no opera.

In Our Time discussion with Melvyn Bragg, BBC Radio 4, March 11 2010. With Juliette Wood, Associate Lecturer in Folklore, Cardiff University; Richard Hingley, Professor of Roman Archaeology, Durham University; and Miranda Aldhouse-Green, Professor of Archaeology, School of History and Archaeology, Cardiff University.

On the Victoria Embankment opposite Parliament is Thomas Thornycroft’s bronze statue, commissioned by Prince Albert but not cast until 1902, of Boadicea, now the veritable goddess of empire, in a scythed chariot with her daughters, with Cowper’s lines on the plinth:

“Regions Caesar never knew
Thy posterity shall sway.”

The discovery of Roman London

April 8 2014

The bombing that ravaged Victorian London brought Roman London to light. When, after the end of the Second World War, the debris of Victorian London were being probed in order to find solid ground below them to carry the foundations for ponderous new buildings, these soundings revealed almost the whole of the tracée of the Roman city-wall, of which, previously, only a few fragments, here and there, had been located, and a Roman temple, dedicated to the god Mithras, was uncovered [1954] close to the starting-point of Watling Street, the Roman road that ran diagonally across Britain from Thames-side to Mersey-side. These excavations gave the measure of the rise in the level of the surface of the City of London within a span of eighteen centuries. It is impossible to estimate how much of this rise was due, before the Second World War, to deliberate destruction and how much to natural decay and to the excess of intake over discard which is a normal feature in the life of any city. The fate of London after the Roman evacuation and during the English invasion is unknown, and we also lack precise information about the extent of the destruction that was the price of London’s defeat, in A.D. 895, of a Danish armada’s attempt to force a passage, past London, up the Thames.

Wikipedia: “The first extensive archaeological review of the Roman city of London was done in the 17th century after the Great Fire of 1666.”

Roman London corresponds to the present City. It was mainly a civilian initiative, not a military base.

It was founded c AD 50 after the Claudian invasion. Ten years later it was sacked by the Iceni led by their queen Boudica. It was at its height in 122, when Hadrian paid a visit. The Wall was built between 190 and 225. By then, it was declining somewhat, perhaps as a result of the Antonine Plague. There were Romano-British as well as post-Augustinian bishops of London.

London passed from Middle Saxons (whence Middlesex) to the Kings of the East Saxons (Essex, regnabant 527-825) and/or their overlords, the Kings of Kent (regnabant fifth century-871) or East Anglia (regnabant sixth century-869) or Mercia (regnabant 527-918, but as client kings of Wessex from c 879).

The 895 armada was neither the first nor the last Danish attack. London was at the southern edge of the Danelaw. The Danes controlled it directly between 871 and 886 and later under Cnut. After the first occupation, London was reincorporated into Mercia. Mercia was then absorbed by Wessex (durabat 519-after 925).

Cities on the Move, OUP, 1970

London in the 1890s

April 7 2014

I used to watch, after breakfast, to see Mr Hale, the solicitor who lived in the opposite house across the street, ride off to his office on the horse that his groom had brought to the door. I used to linger by the cab-ranks to look at the horses drinking from the troughs and the sparrows scuffling with each other for the bran that had been spilled from the horses’ nosebags.

He is living at 12 Upper Westbourne Terrace.

A life in London

The arc light.

Cities on the Move, OUP, 1970

New Delhi and Simla

April 6 2014

It is significant that the Indian regime that has now succeeded the British regime in India has abandoned the British practice of transferring the seat of government from Delhi to Simla in the hot season. One motive for this change from migratoriness to stationariness has been financial. The present Indian Government of India has, reasonably, cut out of its budget a debit item which can be dispensed with now that the personnel of the Government of India consists of native inhabitants of the country who have been inured from birth to enduring the Indian summer heat. A more cogent reason, however, is that the functions of the Government of India have now become the multiple functions of a present-day “welfare state”, and the physical scale of the apparatus of administration has expanded proportionately. Visit New Delhi today; measure the area now covered there by the Government of India’s administrative buildings; calculate the total figure of their cubic content; watch the locust-like hordes of civil servants bicycling slowly, twice a day, between those administrative buildings in the centre of New Delhi and the new governmental housing-estates on the outskirts in which they and their families live; note the building-activities in these housing-estates that are providing ever more living-space for an ever-increasing host of government employees. When you have completed this reconnaissance of present-day New Delhi, you will realize that, even if the Government of India were to be endowed miraculously with the revenue of the Government of the United States, no amount of money would avail to carry New Delhi to Simla and to fetch it back. Even if the move could be financed, it would not be able to get under way. The quantity of conveyances required would choke all the roads and railways on the route, and magic carpets are not available in the prosaic present-day world. The twice-a-day flow of bicyclist commuters between the centre of New Delhi and its suburbs is already almost overwhelming.

Cities on the Move, OUP, 1970


April 5 2014

“Although the summer sunlight gild
Cloudy leafage of the sky,
Or wintry moonlight sink the field
In storm-scattered intricacy,
I cannot look thereon,
Responsibility so weighs me down.

Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.”


Yeats, from Vacillation, not in the collection called Responsibilities, but a later one, The Winding Stair.

New truths about nature

April 4 2014

“Yours has been a noble life dedicated to art and teaching us new truths about nature every year you have lived.”

Muirhead Bone, whom Kenneth Clark, in his autobiography, called “the greatest virtuoso of architectural drawing since Piranesi except, perhaps, for Meryon”, to George Clausen (last post), June 16 1943.

Allotments, Evening


September Morning, The Fields

The Houses at the Back, Frosty Morning

(c) Mrs Jane Smith; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Clark himself wrote to Clausen on D-Day proposing a retrospective of his work at the National Gallery. It never happened. The first proper retrospective took place in 1980 (last post).

Top to bottom:

Allotments: Evening, RA 1928. Lost December 16 1929 when SS Manuka sank off New Zealand en route from Melbourne to Wellington. RA Collections, silver gelatin print given by Hugh Clausen, the artist’s son, 1970.

Hoeing, lithograph, c 1895.

September Morning: the Fields, c 1928, Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork, Ireland.

The Houses at the Back: Frosty Morning, RA 1913, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Photograph I think from The Studio.

The Valley, RA 1915, Leeds City Art Gallery.

Oils except for Hoeing.

Tony Benn and The Building of Britain

April 3 2014

Tristram Hunt in his Benn lecture (last post) quotes from a chapter called How I Became a Philistine! in Benn’s Dare to be a Daniel:

“During my childhood and growing up no attempt was made to develop the artistic, musical and literary side of life.”

I had an encounter with Benn which suggested that. The magazine Artists and Illustrators interviewed him for its March 2006 issue to ask him about a favourite painting. He chose one by my great-grandfather. The Wikipedia article on George Clausen isn’t very good, so that is a link to one of my own posts.

The English People Reading Wycliffe’s English Bible, by Sir George Clausen. It’s part of a series of murals entitled The Building of Britain that were commissioned for St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster and painted in 1926-27. I think it was my father who pointed out the original to me, when I first visited St Stephen’s Hall in 1937. I passed it regularly after I was first elected as an MP in 1950. I have two copies of it, one of which hangs in my bedroom.” I once had it in mine.

“On the surface it looks like a peaceful rural scene, but when you look closely you realise it tells the story of a group of people – a lawyer, some women and farm workers, one of whom is looking out in case they are spotted – meeting in secret to listen to a reading of the Bible. In the 14th century it was a criminal offence to read the Bible, which was then a revolutionary document, if you were not a priest.

“The painting reminds me of things that are important today. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha all taught us how to lead our lives in peace, but the painting symbolises how a religious group that gets control can use their power to kill and persecute others – Guy Fawkes, for example, whose 400th anniversary was in 2005, was protesting against the persecution of Catholics.

“[...] Any one of the people in the painting, if they were caught, could have been burnt at the stake. In my view it’s rather like the Terrorism Act today – anyone thought of being [sic] a Muslim extremist will he held in prison without a trial. [...]

“I am not a great collector of art, but I do have various things that people have sent me. The Yorkshire miners gave me one of their banners, which hangs in my back corridor. On it are the words ‘Out of the darkness cometh light and heat’. [Source?] It’s a reminder that the coal that keeps us warm and lights us comes from the depths of the earth. I find it very moving and that’s the sort of thing I like.

“I rarely dip into art galleries and don’t claim to be an art critic but I have put up quite a few things in the House of Commons. I put up a plaque in a broom cupboard to mark the place where a suffragette called Emily Wilding Davison [post here] hid on the night of the census in 1911. She wanted to be able to say that she lived in the House of Commons to make her point about women’s right to the vote.

“Something else I like is a statue of Lord Falkland, again in St Stephen’s Hall. One of his spurs got broken off after a suffragette [Marjory Hume in 1909] chained herself to it [...] it is the social, historical and political interest in art that I find useful. [...]”

He might have been interested to know that a suffragette named Maude Smith, alias Mary Spencer, attacked a Clausen painting, a nude called Primavera, as it hung in the Royal Academy in the early summer of 1914. Clausen supervised its repair and then it disappeared from public view and knowledge until last November, when it was auctioned in Connecticut. It will probably turn up soon, close to the centenary of its first hanging, in a more important auction in London.


St Stephen’s Hall is the neo-Gothic public approach to the public Central Lobby which separates the two Houses. It stands on the site of the royal Chapel of St Stephen’s, where the House of Commons sat until the Chapel was destroyed by the fire of 1834.

The only structures of the old Palace of Westminster to survive the fire were Westminster Hall (old post), the cloisters of St Stephen’s, the chapel of St Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower. The Queen gave permission for Benn’s body to lie (not “in state”) in St Mary Undercroft on the eve of his funeral.

In 1843 Sir Charles Barry suggested that panels be commissioned for St Stephen’s Hall on events in British history. Daniel Maclise was approached in 1857, but nothing resulted. Both sides of the Hall were lined then with marble statues of statesmen. Are any still there? Where did they go?

In 1909 work started on a scheme directed by the Royal Academy. One painting was completed by Andrew Carrick Gow (Speaker Finch Held in His Chair by Holles and Valentine, 1629) and was hung in 1912. By 1924 only two more had been added, by Seymour Lucas and Frank Salisbury. Of what, and where are they now? Presumably none were real murals.

In 1925 the Speaker, John Henry Whitley, proposed a new series and spoke to Salisbury and to Frank Dicksee, President of the Royal Academy. Sir David Young Cameron was appointed to find eight artists.

It was to be called The Building of BritainSir Henry NewboltGM Trevelyan (whose first book had been about Wycliffe), AF Pollard and others advised on the history. A working committee included the Speaker, Lord Peel, the First Commissioner of Works, Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission and Newbolt.

The eventual series:

Colin GillKing Alfred’s long-ships, newly built for defence of the realm, attack vessels of the Danish invaders storm-beaten in Swanage Bay. 877.

Glyn PhilpotKing Richard the First, afterwards called Cœur de Lion, leaves England with an expeditionary force, to join the Crusade in Palestine for the recovery of Jerusalem from the Saracens. Dec. 11. 1189.

Charles SimsKing John confronted by his Barons assembled in force at Runnymede gives unwilling consent to Magna Carta, the foundation of justice and individual freedom in England. 1215.

George ClausenThe English people, in spite of prosecution for heresy, persist in gathering secretly to read aloud Wycliffe’s English Bible.

Vivian ForbesSir Thomas More, as speaker of the Commons, in spite of Cardinal Wolsey’s imperious demand, refuses to grant King Henry the Eighth a subsidy without due debate by the House. 1523.

Alfred Kingsley LawrenceQueen Elizabeth, the Fairie Queen of her Knights and Merchant Venturers, commissions Sir Walter Raleigh to sail for America and discover new countries.

William RothensteinSir Thomas Roe, envoy from King James the First of England to the Moghul Emperor, succeeds, by his mingled courtesy and firmness at the Court of the Ajmir, in laying the foundation of British Influence in India. 1614.

Walter Thomas MonningtonThe English and Scottish Commissioners present to Queen Anne at St James’s Palace the Articles of Agreement for the Parliamentary Union of the two countries. 1707.

The original choice for the last had been William Orpen.

Two of the painters, Philpot and Rothenstein, also did portraits of the Speaker.

Donors were found for each of the works. The donor for the Clausen was the Duke of Portland.

The pictures were large canvases in wooden mounts set into stone bays, not strictly murals, but in part the product of a revived interest between the wars, not only in Britain, in mural painting. It had pre-1914 roots, and in England pre-Raphaelite roots. The fresco colours of medieval wall painting, applied with the pre-oil medium of tempera, were imitated in oil. My grandfather owned magnificent volumes by EW Tristram on English Medieval Wall Painting which were like buildings themselves.

McConkey calls the series an “imperialist fanfare”, but it was that grafted onto a domestic constitutional fanfare. The sense of “the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire” was powerful between 1918 and 1945, and was sharpest when Churchill used those words in 1940.

“Mingled courtesy and firmness.” Thus might the British have described their conduct abroad. Alla marcia quasi andante. Through courtesy and firmness they chanced upon their Empire.

King George V and Queen Mary were given a private view of The Building of Britain on June 26 1927.

Stanley Baldwin unveiled the eight paintings with one pull of a cord on June 28. He declared that Clausen’s canvas represented “… the incident fullest of imagination and possibilities for the future of any of the pictures which we have here today”. The Times, June 29. McConkey speaks of platitudes, but surely Baldwin was thinking of the fragility of freedom and parliamentary democracy in Europe. (Toynbee quotes from a speech by him in the Albert Hall on December 4 1924 on that. See The World after the Peace Conference, Being an Epilogue to the “History of the Peace Conference of Paris” and a Prologue to the “Survey of International Affairs, 1920-1923”, OUP, 1925.)

“At the end of the ceremony Mr. Baldwin announced that the King, in honour of the occasion, had been pleased to confer a knighthood on Mr. George Clausen, R.A., as representing the artists concerned in the work.” In the illustrations on the back page are the Philpot and the Clausen and a recent Clausen self-portrait.

Clausen was knighted at Buckingham Palace on July 7.


Herbert Furst reviewed the series in ApolloThe Building of Britain, With the Speaker in St Stephen’s Hall, Vol 6, No 33, September 1927.

Benn would have agreed with Furst’s “Pictures should have a concrete relation to life”.

Furst was buffeted by a crowd which had come to see the paintings. It was a Saturday and the House was not in session. As he was making notes, the policeman in the Hall asked him: “Which is the best picture here?” Furst equivocated, but the constable pointed a finger at the fourth, The English people, in spite of prosecution for heresy, persist in gathering secretly to read aloud Wycliffe’s English Bible, then walked away and came back with the Speaker.

“This was an unexpected honour and good fortune, for the Speaker was, in Sir Henry Newbolt’s words [where?], ‘the initiator and sympathetic director of the whole scheme.’”

“I ventured to comment on the fact that all the subjects seemed remote and hardly in contact with the present at any point. In reply to this criticism Mr. Whitley told me that the committee [...] had [...] decided that the eight subjects should illustrate eight main incidents symbolic of the building of Britain. First comes the beginning of the British Navy [under Alfred, defending us against Vikings]; next expansion of power [Third Crusade]; then the foundation of the British constitution based on individual liberty [Magna Carta]; after this the freedom of religious faith [Wycliffe]; then the control by the people of the purse of the nation [More as Speaker]; then the beginning of colonial enterprise [Raleigh in the Americas], and thereafter the spirit in which England deals with an ancient civilization ‘destined to mingle with ours under a constitution unexampled elsewhere’ [Thomas Roe with the Mughals]; and, finally, the union of ‘our two nations at home’.” (Speaker’s words?)

“[...] The Speaker assured me that Mr. George Trevelyan, the historian, had described the pictures as historically unexceptionable and, if I remember rightly, had pronounced the hall as now the most beautiful in Europe. We then discussed the medium in which the pictures are painted and its durability. And here I record with satisfaction Mr. Whitely’s statement: ‘No, the paintings will not be glazed. We think it is better that they should last a hundred years and be enjoyed during that time by all who come to see them, than that they should be for ever under glass and be enjoyed by no one. A future generation may have some other pictures when these have perished.’” They were worried about their exposure to crowds. There was nothing wrong with the medium, oil.

“‘Many people,’ he continued, ‘are rather startled by the bright positive colours, but they are in keeping with the decoration of medieval churches; and although this particular building is not ancient, it is in the Gothic style, and stands upon the old crypt and exactly follows the outline of the old chapel.’ [...]

“Coming now to the critical part of my duty, I must confess that the first impression of the pictures is: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Conservatism, perhaps, but sameness? The Sims is out of place and does not have the “static quality” necessary in a mural. The Gill combines “a certain restlessness in design with a timidity in draughtsmanship” which comes from a lack of confidence in the project, not of skill. In the Philpot, on the other hand, “there is [...] an unexpected stiffness and staginess, and a lack of linear rhythm. But this picture keeps its place, like Mr. Gill’s, and is, moreover, relieved by some quite enchanting detail [...].” “The Forbes is – of the paintings we have so far considered – the best. Mr. Forbes has cleverly utilized the Holbein portraits, and there is dramatic action without staginess.” “Professor W. Rothenstein has also had recourse to contemporary documents, Moghul illuminations to wit [...].” “Mr. A. K. Lawrence had obviously the frescoes of the Italian Quattrocento in his mind [...] and has admirably succeeded in his task.” Monnington, the youngest in the group, is only twenty-four. His painting is still unfinished, but promises to be one of the most successful.

“Sir George Clausen is the doyen of the team, and all things considered one must agree with the aforementioned policeman that his picture is the best of the series. It has its faults: it is not unexceptionable qua illustration, for there is really no secrecy at all about this meeting in the open, which could easily be espied from the tower of the little church in the delightful distance. Nor can one honestly say that the grouping is free from staginess. Against this, however, must be set its overwhelming merits. It is simple in arrangement; each of the four times three figures can be easily seen, and each, particularly the charming maid in the centre, is worth looking at. The landscape setting is of singular beauty; the treatment of the foreground, the care bestowed upon each little flower and plant, deeply moving. The colour-scheme, but for its one brilliant red note in the cloak of the man, is cool and reticent. The linear rhythm is most satisfying. The picture, as a whole, sits comfortably on the wall, though it is by no means a flat pattern. For this picture alone, not counting his long and honourable career as a virile protagonist of English painting, Sir George deserved his knighthood.”

The Times, anon, St Stephen’s Hall – The New Mural Paintings – An Artistic Unity, June 28, praised the picture’s “architectural stability of design, depth of sentiment, and [...] full interpretation of the national character in the lovely landscape.” The reviewer again finds the Sims below the level of the others. (I find it quite interesting, especially in the context of his other late paintings.)

Frank Rutter (a champion of the suffragettes) agreed with Furst and with the policeman and wrote in Art in My Time, Rich and Cowan, 1933:

“Justice would demand homage to Sir George Clausen, that Grand Old Man of English painting, who when nearing eighty had so clear an eye and so steady a hand that he could conceive and execute his Wycliffe panel in firmer line and in fresher and younger colour than any of his juniors could attain. For sheer beauty the Clausen must be awarded the palm.”


Clausen had had some experience in mural painting in 1918-19, when he painted four lunettes for a house near Huddersfield. He had experimented with a mural-like scale in his canvases before the war.

His Wycliffe studies are mainly at the RA: you can see the design evolving. Artists were required to submit studies for approval. A monk appears in some of them.

The final caption does not include a date. It had been commissioned as The Wycliffe Bible read in secret meetings, 1390. By the time the full scheme was presented to the Commons in January 1926, 1390 had been revised to 1400-1430, in order to relate the picture to the Heresy Act of 1401.

On the Lollards, see letters patent of 1382 of Richard II, the Heresy Act 1401 (De heretico comburendo) of Henry IV and the Heresy Act 1414 of Henry V. The 1401 Act was repealed under Henry VIII (1533, or 1534 Act of Supremacy?), the others under Edward VI; all three were revived under Mary and repealed again under Elizabeth in the Act of Supremacy 1559.

While completing the painting (with help from his daughter Kitty), Clausen was called in as a caretaker Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools following the sudden departure of Charles Sims. Sims killed himself in the following year.

McConkey: “The scene opens out to an idealized English summer derived from Clausen’s deep immersion in the fields around Tilty and Clavering [in Essex].”

In several early paintings, the “one brilliant red note” had been the neckerchief of a peasant.

Furst is right about the absence of any feeling of secrecy. Clausen could paint the drama of nature, and the drama of field workers struggling with heat, wind or rain. Political and psychological drama were outside his range.

There are older pictures by William Frederick Yeames, painter of “And when did you last see your father?”, perhaps at the Suter Art Gallery in New Zealand, of Wycliffe giving copies of his Bible to his followers; and by Ford Madox Brown of The Trial of Wycliffe, A.D. 1377, a mural in Manchester Town Hall in which Wycliffe is defended by John of Gaunt, while Chaucer, another protégé of Gaunt, acts as recorder.


Benn grew up on Millbank, next to the Tate Gallery, but the family never went inside.

As I read the magazine piece, I thought: “I bet he doesn’t know that the artist who painted this favourite painting of his also painted his grandfather.”

If he had heard of a portrait somewhere in the collections of the defunct LCC and GLC, I was sure he had not connected it with the painter of the panel in St Stephen’s Hall. There was nothing about it on the internet then, certainly no image.

It is, I now know, in the Guildhall Art Gallery. It’s not bad, but official portraits did not bring out the best in Clausen. He painted fine ones of peasants early in his career and of family members and higher craftsmen of one sort or another later.

Bored at work, I rang the House of Commons. The switchboard answered instantly, with no menu. A man, without apparent searching and without asking questions, gave me a number which was Benn’s home.

Benn had, after all, retired in 2001 (“to devote more time to politics”). The Data Protection Act had been passed in 1998. Was this ease of access because the House of Commons still had proper rules for a democracy or because Benn had given special instructions?

He answered immediately. “Astonishing! I had no idea! I must look it up.”

As to the Wycliffe painting, “I thought it was eighteenth century!”

Was I disabusing him of that idea then and there or had the magazine already done so? They had probably edited the dates into his remarks after interviewing him.

I asked whether he remembered my uncle Paul Derrick. He said he remembered him well. Paul, a Christian Socialist and an unremitting lobbyist for the Cooperative movement, shared with Benn a strong consciousness of his own archive, but Benn’s, I think, was more organised. I thought Paul had sent his papers – tomato-trays full of typescripts, cuttings and pamphlets – to New Lanark itself, but some of them, I see, are at the Bishopsgate Institute in London.


This isn’t the only Clausen in a legislature. In 1918, Lord Beaverbook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund (established November 1916) commissioned eight artists to paint scenes in France and Flanders. The paintings are now in the Senate chamber in Ottawa. Were they originally intended for it or for a war museum?

Edgar Bundy. Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915.

Algernon Talmage. A mobile veterinary unit in France.

Leonard RichmondRailway construction in France.

James Kerr-LawsonArras, the dead city.

Clare Atwood. On leave.

James Kerr-Lawson. The Cloth Hall, Ypres.

William Rothenstein. The watch on the Rhine.

George Clausen. Returning to the reconquered land.

Clausen was expected to paint agriculture behind the lines. Having recovered from influenza, he set out on January 28 1919 to visit the snow-covered battlefields of Arras, Bapaume, Cambrai and Lens, and returned on February 7. The visit affected him. The large picture which he eventually painted showed a line of refugees returning through the snow to their homes after the Armistice.

McConkey: “A young mother, wrapped in a shawl and carrying an infant calls to a girl in a red scarf [another “brilliant red note”] at the front of the cart, gesturing towards an elderly woman who has slumped down in the snow. Melodrama was not his forte. In other hands, this incident might be played to effect, but here it merely passes with the flow of humanity. When shown in Canada [at an exhibition of war paintings] in 1920, the picture was associated with Frederick Varley’s Some day the people will return, a complementary picture of a [French] war-torn graveyard [which] carried the caption: ‘Some day the people will return to their village which is not; they will look for their little church which is not; and they will go to the cemetery and look for their own dead, and even they are not – in a land pounded and churned and poisoned, that once was fertile and rich with golden grain and good things for the welfare of the race.’”

Clausen’s canvas was despatched to Canada on March 26.


Britain had no propaganda department at the war’s outbreak. A War Propaganda Bureau was established at Wellington House under Charles Masterman in 1914, but for most of the war responsibility for propaganda was divided between various agencies. The Bureau turned into the Department of Information in 1917 and a Ministry of Information in 1918, the last under Beaverbrook.

In 1917 the Department of Information commissioned nine artists to produce six lithographs each on aspects of the war “Effort”, and a further twelve to produce a single image (or “up to twelve”, McConkey) representing the “Ideals” for which the war was fought. Clausen’s son-in-law, Thomas Derrick, an instructor at the Royal College of Art, was in charge of the series, having been assigned to assist Masterman at Wellington House. It belonged to the initiatives which, it was hoped, would bring the US into the war.

Clausen’s Efforts were six monochrome lithographs called Making Guns. His Ideal lithograph was The Reconstruction of Belgium, which contained no more drama than the Canadian painting.

A War Memorial Committee was formed by the Ministry of Information on the Canadian model to give out more substantial commissions. Derrick set strict briefs which discouraged artistic fantasy. Derrick’s own mural-like American troops at Southampton embarking for the Western front, 1918 (Imperial War Museum, oil) certainly had the “static quality” which Furst misses in Sims, and perhaps the “lack of linear rhythm” which he finds in Philpot.

The Committee commissioned the large and sonorous In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal from Clausen in 1918 (Imperial War Museum, oil). It was intended for a large Hall of Remembrance which was never built. Clausen based it on one of his Efforts lithographs.

A later Derrick from this time was Canadian troops crossing the Rhine. Its history is obscure, at least to me. Could it have been rejected for the Senate? It was shown in Canada in an unfinished state (why?) at the same exhibition of war paintings that showed Returning to the Reconquered Land. What happened to it after that? I have only ever seen one photograph of it and don’t have it to hand. The 1st Battalion, 1st Canadian Division, crossed by the Suspension Bridge at Cologne on December 3 1918. The twin spires of the cathedral made a pattern with the Canadian bayonets.


Westminster behind Closed Doors, 50-minute BBC documentary by Benn on the 700th anniversary of Parliament, defined not as the Parliament of Simon de Montfort, unrecognised by Henry III, but as the Model Parliament of Edward I:

1995 seems a long time ago here. Can one imagine anything as eccentric, as expert, as light-hearted and as deep done about the German Bundestag? This is in a fine tradition of English documentary-making and institution-exploring.

Benn mentions (without naming the artists) the Clausen and the Philpot.

He calls the Third Crusade the First Gulf War because it was a war between Christianity and Islam. Leaving aside the things wrong with that statement, he makes a comment which was wise in 1995, if not quite accurate in what it foresaw: “Unless we are very careful the religious war between Christianity and Islam will curse the next generation as the Cold War did the last.”

It was provoked by the assertion in that year by Willy Claes, Secretary-General of NATO, that the new threat to the West, with the passing of Communism, was Islam.

A dreary BBC radio series some years ago explored the art of Parliament as something dusty and oppressive. But I can see no reason why the walls of St Stephen’s Hall should not be covered in 2025 with a new series. Would Speaker Whitley not have given that idea his blessing? The old paintings could be rolled up whether they have perished or not and kept in an archive or preserved digitally. Digitisation and holograms can be our liberation from monuments. If a series were commissioned now, it would be about immigration.

McConkey does not mention the Benn accounts I refer to, but another, in this footnote:

“For its insistence on ‘the right to read what you wanted to read’ the [Wycliffe] picture has been a seminal influence on the thinking of the Labour politician Tony Benn. He stated in 2006, ‘I … have a copy of it at home and draw comfort from the courage of those who have risked their lives by defying the law as the only way to enjoy the freedom in which they believed passionately’ (The Guardian Magazine, 2 September 2006, p.78.).”

I can’t find a good colour image of the Wycliffe painting. I once gave up doing a Clausen blog because I wasn’t happy with the way scans were coming out or how I could adjust them.

In the Hall, front right; Flickr, source lost:

St Stephen's Hall

Royal Academy Collections, silver gelatin print with pencil doodling, given by Hugh Clausen, the artist’s son, 1970:

Clausen, Wycliffe

“McConkey” here refers to Kenneth McConkey, George Clausen and the Picture of English Rural Life, Atelier Books, 2012; or his catalogue for the Clausen exhibition organised in 1980 by Bradford Art Galleries and Museums and Tyne and Wear County Council Museums and held at Cartwright Hall, Bradford; Royal Academy, London; Bristol City Art Gallery; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

On Thomas Derrick’s war work, see also Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists, Michael Joseph, 1983.

Old post:

London in 1927.


March 24 2014

Back April 3.

Tony Benn’s career

March 23 2014

A good account of Tony Benn, the veteran English socialist who died on March 14, is Tristram Hunt’s Speaker’s Lecture from 2011. Video.

(On the centenary of the 1911 Parliament Act the present Speaker of the House of Commons set up some annual lectures with invited audiences in the State Apartments, his Palace of Westminster residence. Other apartments are used by the Lord Speaker, the head of upper chamber since it ceased, in 2006, to be the Lord Chancellor. The 2011 series was on twentieth-century parliamentarians.)

Hunt places Benn in the English Puritan and dissenting tradition. Much of what he says had been said by Benn himself in interviews and books, especially in the rather charming early chapters of his 2004 autobiography, Dare To Be a Daniel, whose title quotes a Salvation Army hymn.

His background contained religion and politics. On his father’s side, he came from a line of radical Dissenters: Congregationalists. His mother became a Congregationalist later in life, having been Anglican. He himself was an agnostic, but with sympathy for religion in its inward form, including Islam.

Antecedents (apologies if there is too much detail here, but it matters):

An ancestor, William Benn (1600-81), was an ejected minister.

His great grandfather, the Reverend Julius Benn (c 1826-83), was a Congregationalist Minister in Manchester and then in the East End of London. He nominated James Bryce, Toynbee’s friend, as the Liberal MP for a Tower Hamlets constituency (not the one I’m about to mention).

His grandfather, Sir John Williams Benn, (1850-1922), sat on the London County Council from its foundation in 1889 until his death, in the Progressive Party. Was active in the 1889 Dock Strike. Liberal MP for St George in Tower Hamlets 1892-95 and for Devonport 1904-10. Chairman of LCC 1904-5 and leader of the Progressives on the Council 1907-18. Knighted 1906. Created baronet 1914. Married Elizabeth (Lily) Pickstone, who was distantly related to Josiah Wedgwood, though, as Hunt says, the scholarship on that is unclear.

The Wedgwoods produced, in Tony Benn’s father’s generation, a notable Parliamentarian in Colonel Josiah Wedgwood, great-great-grandson of the potter. His work led to the establishment of the History of Parliament Trust.

Tony Benn’s father, William Wedgwood Benn, 1st Viscount Stansgate (1877-1960), born when Disraeli was Prime Minister, was Liberal MP for St his father’s old constituency in Tower Hamlets 1906-18. Government whip under Asquith 1910-15. Served in the war in Near East and Italy. Member for Leith 1918-27. In opposition to Baldwin in first part of 1924-29 parliament. In 1927 resigned from the Party and from Parliament. Came back as Labour member for Aberdeen North 1928-31 in Ramsay MacDonald’s second government. Secretary of State for India 1929-31. Refused to follow MacDonald into National Government coalition with the Conservatives. Lost seat in ’31 election. Member for Gorton near Manchester 1937-42. Raised to peerage as Viscount Stansgate 1942. Vice President of Allied Control Commission charged with reconstructing democratic government in Italy 1943-44. Secretary of State for Air under Attlee 1945-46. Then backbench Labour peer. Like his son, he became more left wing as he grew older. For a charming snippet of a BBC interview with Lord Stansgate and the young Benn in 1959, start at 6:30 in this BBC Radio 4 portrait of Benn by David Davis.

Tony Benn’s father and grandfather were effervescent characters. The strongest religious influence on him was his mother, Margaret Wedgwood Benn (née Holmes), 1st Viscountess Stansgate (1897-1991), a Scot and daughter of a one-time Liberal MP. Although from a Calvinist background, she became an Episcopalian as a child. Her family moved to London before the First World War. There she became an Anglican. She married the much older William Wedgwood Benn in 1920. In the ’20s she was member of League of the Church Militant, predecessor of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. In the 1940s she moved from the Anglican Church to Nonconformity. In doing so, she embraced the dissenting Benn tradition. In 1972, at the age of seventy-five, she became the first President of the Congregational Federation.

She read him Bible stories night after night. Taught him that the stories were about the struggle between prophets and kings and that he ought in his life to support the prophets. Righteousness over power. Emphasised individual autonomy and the priesthood of all believers. Whatever her nominal affiliation, “Tony Benn was nurtured a Dissenter.” (Hunt.) “Dissenters think for themselves and claim the right to do so, even in matters of faith.” (Dare To Be a Daniel.) “I was brought up on Bible stories – I absorbed the Christian ethic by a form of osmosis. It was a real influence in my life.” (Catholic Herald.) Religion was sharply to be distinguished from power structures of religion.

The Benn household on Millbank was teetotal and full of clocks. All time was God’s time. For Dissenters, keeping a diary was a kind of daily accounting, a literary opening-up to God, a profit and loss account of supposed shortcomings and achievements. The agnostic Benn kept one obsessively for most of his life and felt uneasy if he went to bed without having written it.

“Two competing inheritances: Parliament and Puritanism, the constitutionalism and the crusading, were apparent from the start.” (Hunt.)

The Labour Party, which his father had joined in 1927, had strong roots in Nonconformity. So did the Trade Union movement. Michael Foot had a religious and political background that was similar, but with a more bookish vein.


Westminster School in its countryside exile. Oxford. RAF. His brother Michael was killed in 1944. Brief stint as BBC radio producer. Married Caroline Middleton DeCamp in 1949. “My socialist soul-mate.”

He entered Parliament in a by-election in 1950 (Stafford Cripps had stood down in Bristol South East on grounds of ill-health) and had nearly a year of Attlee’s abortive second term before the Conservatives came back for thirteen years. He was the Baby of the House for a day (succeeded by an Ulster Unionist, Thomas Teevan, who was two years younger but took his oath a day later and died at the age of twenty-seven). He never became its Father.

He defended the right of free thought and free speech in Parliament, unfettered by the party system and the whips.

His father died in 1960. Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn inherited his peerage, became the 2nd Viscount Stansgate and was deemed to have vacated his seat in the Commons. (He was not “blue-blooded”. His father got his peerage in his sixties and held it for eighteen years.) A by-election was held. Benn stood. A Conservative came a poor second. Benn arrived to take his seat, but was physically prevented from entering the House.

“I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner,” he said at a press conference in November 1960. He had known that his term in the Commons was limited by the duration of his father’s life, but he now fought to renounce his peerage. His campaign (to which Toynbee sent a letter of support) led to the Peerage Act of 1963 (not to be confused with the Life Peerages Act of 1958). It was, as Hunt says, an epic constitutional struggle, an extra-parliamentary campaign fought for the right to remain an MP, exposing a fault-line which ran through Benn’s career. He revered Parliament and much of his politics was done outside it.

In the Wilson Labour Government of 1964-70 he served as Postmaster General and later as Minister of Technology. In the Heath era, when Labour was in opposition, he was chairman of the Party for a year.

In 1973 he announced that he wished to be called not Anthony Wedgwood Benn, but Tony Benn.

In the Labour Government of ’74-79 he was Secretary of State for Industry, then for Energy. He campaigned strongly against EEC membership in the referendum of 1975, though he had been pro-European a few years earlier.

Harold Wilson resigned as Leader of the Party and Prime Minister in March 1976. Benn withdrew from the second ballot of the leadership contest and supported Michael Foot. James Callaghan eventually won, but kept Benn in his ministerial post.

Thatcher came into office in 1979. Benn’s cabinet career (1964-79 with a break) was over. During Labour’s years in opposition (1979-97) he was the party’s most prominent left-wing figure.

His early politics, as Hunt says, though he embraced all the Labour orthodoxies of 1945, were not far removed from the practical municipal socialism of his grandfather. His later politics were nourished by his discovery of the seventeenth-century radicals. He paid homage to Marx, but on Desert Island Discs in January 1989, the start of the year which would do so much to undermine the traditional left, chose Das Kapital as his book, not having read it in full. The Bible was already there. How much the leftist movements of the ’60s and ’70s all over Europe owed and did not owe to Marx is an interesting question, but it seems to me that Benn’s debt was indirect, and less than his debt to Christianity.

He never used the word “revolution”.

Benn’s political legacy, some think, was to have kept Labour out of office between 1979 and ’97. Many of the most generous comments on his death came from Conservatives.

He was an internationalist, but, by the early ’70s, anti-EEC. He believed that the world could be made better, and that the engendering of pessimism was a tool of entrenched interests for keeping people down. And that improvements had happened before as a result of struggle. Perhaps he underestimated how happy most people are now – or how stupefied by entertainments which are foisted on them to make sure that they remain docile consumers. The well-fed majority in Western societies don’t want leftist ideologies any more than religion. And are aware of the failure of the Left elsewhere and prefer to trust in the likes of Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus.

Nevertheless, Benn did appeal to people to whom so-called traditional politics are alien. His connection with a new generation was an achievement of his post-Parliament years. Perhaps he left some ideas about where the Left can go from here.

The experience of Cabinet office pushed Benn to the left, from technocrat to radical socialist, and strengthened his distrust of patronage and power structures. He came to regard Parliament as “a means to an end, a weapon in a broader political struggle” (Hunt). Politics was a campaign.

“During the Labour Party’s period in opposition in the 1950s our other great dissenting hero, Michael Foot, had sought solace in the literature of the eighteenth century, writing of the great political tussle between the Duke of Marlborough and Robert Harley, with Jonathan Swift, his great hero, centre stage. Tony Benn in the 1970s returned to the seventeenth century, and there he found the true meaning of his Puritan inheritance. In the words of John Lilburne and the Levellers, of Winstanley and the Diggers, and the English radical Reformation of the late 1640s, Benn found a profoundly prescient political voice. [...] Benn immersed himself in the Putney Debates, the New Model Army and the Agitators, the struggle over the franchise between the grandees and the Levellers and the inspiration of Colonel Rainsborough. [...] Benn started to quote from the Levellers’ 1649 manifesto, An Agreement of the Free People of England. [...] Part of the Levellers’ critique was that Parliament was as dangerous a power as King Charles I [...].” (Hunt.)

Other random Bennite sympathies: Thomas Paine, Luddites, Robert Owen, Tolpuddle Martyrs, Chartists, Charles Bradlaugh, Taff Vale railwaymen, suffragettes, minersPentonville Five, Greenham Common women.

“He recalled that back in 1900 his grandfather John Benn, Liberal Home Ruler, was even then being denounced as supporting ‘terrorism’ because of his Gladstonian and Parnellite sympathies.” (Catholic Herald.)

What role did Parliament have in a world controlled by the WTO, the IMF, GATT, America, NATO and the EU? And the whips? The power of prime ministers now exceeded the divine right of kings. Where was the Parliament of Speaker Lenthall?


Callaghan resigned as Labour leader in October 1980. His deputy, Michael Foot, was elected as his successor. Denis Healey beat Benn to the deputy leadership by less than 1% of the vote. Neil Kinnock and some others abstained.

In 1981 Benn developed Guillain-Barré syndrome. He recovered, but it left permanent effects. Some suggested he had been deliberately poisoned.

A secession of four right-leaning former Labour cabinet ministers from the shadow cabinet in 1981 led to the formation of the SDP, the Social Democratic Party. (The Liberals formed an alliance with them in the same year and merged with them in March 1988 to form the Social and Liberal Democrats. A minority of Social Democrats refused to join the Liberals and survived as a rump until June 1990. Since October 1989 the merged party has been called the Liberal Democrats.)

In line with Bennite thinking, the 1983 Labour manifesto, which Gerald Kaufman called “the longest suicide note in history”, called for unilateral nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from the EEC, abolition of the House of Lords and the re-nationalisation of recently denationalised industries. Thatcher got her second term.

Benn lost his Bristol constituency (now reorganised as Bristol South) in the election, but he won Chesterfield in a by-election in the following year.

He dissented, in the House of Commons, from the general celebration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which was seen by Parliamentarians as the foundation of modern parliamentary democracy. 1688 was “a plot to get rid of a Catholic king”, and it had left out Catholics and women. It had no popular element to it. (Catholic Herald.) Did he think the people wanted Catholics enfranchised?

The long Conservative ascendancy (1979-97) ended with the election of Labour under Blair – which meant the virtual abolition of Labour. Consistent Thatcherite conviction politics were followed by the wan era of Major and then by the New Labour years of focus groups at home and feverish conviction politics abroad.

His wife Caroline died in 2000.

He decided not to stand at the 2001 general election. “I am leaving Parliament to devote more time to politics.” He became a fixture on protests and demonstrations.

He was President of the Stop the War Coalition from its foundation in 2001, ten days after 9/11, until his death.

He had rooted oaken strength in the face, like Vaughan Williams, another English pilgrim. His first choice of music on Desert Island Discs in 1989 was Bunyan’s To Be a Pilgrim as set by Vaughan Williams: I presume that this will be played at his funeral. But with that plainness he was, one feels, not free of self-love. But so what? Others on the left had the same combination. He was sentimental and, judging from the diaries, much given to tears. He was a happy man. His jokes, when he made them, were good.

Is it possible to get right to the top in politics if you are so interested in your own archive? If you constantly write a diary, tape every interview you give, sometimes even carry a tape recorder into the House of Commons and cabinet meetings? (Benn filed papers like his father, using the Dewey decimal system.)

Benn was admired for his honesty and courage, but seemed, like most of the old Left in Britain, to be living in a world of his own. Does economic sophistication ever belong to socialism? He had not been free of admiration of Stalin, Mao, Castro and others, but one’s final impression is of a good man. There was a simplicity and naivety and a tendency to ramble. At the end of his life he seemed to become more concise.

He published nine volumes of diaries, running from 1940 to 2009, when he stopped. From 1966, instead of dictating them to a secretary, he started taping them. The published volumes contain only a small fraction of the whole.

“‘Who are your heroes?’ SIMON OSBORNE, EALING, LONDON. ‘Teachers. Kings, prime ministers, presidents and emperors come and go, but teachers including Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha, Galileo, Darwin, Marx and Freud explain the world, help us to understand it and encourage us to think it out for ourselves.’” (Independent.)

Home in Holland Park Avenue: “a room crowded with the artefacts that touch the heart of Tony Benn: Keir Hardie’s chair, busts of Marx and Lenin, decorative plates commemorating Gladstone, folksy miners’ lamps galore, and laughing photographs of Tony and Caroline Benn with their five grandchildren.” (Catholic Herald.)

Moving late BBC interview: a state of grace. Last public appearance.


History of the British Labour Party

History of the socialist movement in the United Kingdom

Trade unions in the United Kingdom.

Benn diaries, published by Hutchinson:

Years of Hope, 1940-62 (1994)

Out of the Wilderness, 1963-67 (1987)

Office without Power, 1968-72 (1988)

Against the Tide, 1973-76 (1989)

Conflicts of Interest, 1977-80 (1990)

End of an Era, 1980-90 (1992)

Free at Last!, 1990-2001 (2002)

More Time for Politics, 2001-07 (2007)

A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine, 2007-09 (2013)


Dare To Be a Daniel (2004)


Letters to My Grandchildren (2009)

Articles, manifestos, polemic, essays

Shanghai Rainy Night

March 22 2014

“Into the rainy street I came
And heard the motors swiftly splash away.
Cascades from the eaves like ‘water from a high mountain’ – ]
With my Hangchow umbrella perhaps I’ll saunter forth. …

Water has drenched the endless pavement.
Aloft in a lane there is somebody playing the nan-hu,
A tune of abstract long-forgotten sorrow:
‘Mêng Chiang Nü, to seek her husband,
Has gone to the Great Wall.’”


Lin Kêng, Shanghai Rainy Night in Harold Acton with Ch’en Shih-Hsiang, translators, Modern Chinese Poetry, Duckworth, 1936.

As in some shin-hanga prints in Japan, a modern element, here cars, is added to a scene observed with an older sensibility. Chinese and Japanese poetry is more pointillist than Western; the motors create not a jarring note, but a frisson.

The quotation in the third line isn’t explained.

The nan-hu is a southern form of the erh-hu, a two-stringed violin. Is that line rather awkwardly translated?

Mêng Chiang Nü was the heroine of many popular ballads and legends connected with the building of the Great Wall. Her husband was pressed into a labour-gang and sent north to build the Wall. No word came from him, and she set forth alone in search of him.

Lin Kêng was born in Peking in 1910 of a Fukienese family of scholars. “His father, Mr. Lin Tsai-p’ing was an authority on Chinese and Indian philosophy, which he taught at Tsing Hua and Peking National Universities. Mr. Lin Kêng studied Chinese literature at Tsing Hua University and graduated in 1933.” The book prints a note by him about his ideas on modern poetry.


March 22 2014

“Say it’s the sadness of the lonely autumn
Say it’s a longing for the far-off sea.
If people ask the cause of my anxiety,
I dare not speak your name.

I dare not speak your name
If people ask the cause of my anxiety,
Say it’s a longing for the far-off sea,
Say it’s the sadness of the lonely autumn.”


T’ai Wang-shuAnxiety in Harold Acton with Ch’en Shih-Hsiang, translators, Modern Chinese Poetry, Duckworth, 1936: a palindrome.

“T’ai Wang-shu is now in his early thirties studying European literature in France. His volume of poems entitled Leaves of Wang-shu (Wang-shu T’sao) has had a great influence over the younger generation.” The book prints a note by him about his ideas on modern poetry.

Summer Rain

March 22 2014

“Through morning rain
Come cries of flower-vendors in the lane;
Dew on the petals,
Mushrooms by the trees,
Along the door-steps, moss.
A tiny snail is creeping up the wall.”


Lin Kêng, Summer Rain in Harold Acton with Ch’en Shih-Hsiang, translators, Modern Chinese Poetry, Duckworth, 1936.

According to it, Lin Kêng was born in Peking in 1910 of a Fukienese family of scholars. “His father, Mr. Lin Tsai-p’ing was an authority on Chinese and Indian philosophy, which he taught at Tsing Hua and Peking National Universities. Mr. Lin Kêng studied Chinese literature at Tsing Hua University and graduated in 1933.” The book prints a note by him about his ideas on modern poetry.

“The Rest I Will Tell to Those Down in Hades”

March 21 2014

“Indeed,” said the proconsul, closing the book,
“this line is beautiful and very true.
Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.
How much we’ll tell down there, how much,
and how very different we’ll appear.
What we protect here like sleepless guards,
wounds and secrets locked inside us,
protect with such great anxiety day after day,
we’ll disclose freely and clearly down there.”

“You might add,” said the sophist, half smiling,
if they talk about things like that down there,
if they bother about them any more.”


“The Rest I Will Tell to Those Down in Hades”, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

The scene is imaginary. The title is a quotation from Sophocles’s Ajax, the protagonist’s last words before his suicide.

Grünewald to Borromini

March 20 2014

After-comment to a recent post on Peter Maxwell Davies:

“When Max dramatises Borromini in his symphony with a baritone setting of his last testament, one thinks of operatic dramatisations of Renaissance, Reformation, Counter-Reformation minds and consciences: Pfitzner’s Palestrina, Krenek’s Karl V, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler about Grünewald and his Die Harmonie der Welt about Kepler, Max’s own Taverner.

I don’t particularly want to add Philip Glass’s Galileo here, but perhaps I should.

And of Britten’s and Shostakovich’s Italian settings of Michelangelo and Henze’s of Bruno in Novae de infinito laudes.

There’s no opera about Luther, but he is a protagonist in Karl V.

Could Sessions’s Montezuma be brought in, via the mind of Cortés?

Birth dates:

Grünewald 1470

Michelangelo 1475

Luther 1483

Cortés 1485

Taverner 1490

Charles V 1500

Palestrina 1525

Bruno 1548

Galileo 1564

Kepler 1571

Borromini 1599”

Tchaikovsky’s four surviving letters to his wife

March 19 2014

Letter 720a – January 8/20 1878, from San Remo

Letter 822a – May 1/13 1878, from Kamenka

Letter 1168a – April 30/May 12 1879, from Kamenka

Letter 4019 – January 30/February 11 1890, from Florence

All are drafts. The first, third and last were not sent; the second may not have been.

And one photograph, by Ivan Dyagovchenko, July 24/August 5 1877, Moscow:

Tchaikovsky and A Miliukova

Sixteen letters from Antonina Tchaikovskaya to the composer, dating from 1877 to 1890, are preserved in the Klin House-Museum Archive.


War Cloister

March 18 2014

Winchester College War Cloister, memorial to the Wykehamist dead of the two World Wars:

War Cloister, Winchester 2

War Cloister, Winchester

Flickr credit, first image: Alwyn Ladell. Credit, second image: hantsphere.

Architect: Sir Herbert Baker. Dedicated 1924 and 1948. West side has bronze bust of Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding.

The school also has a South Africa Gate, built 1902, commemorating Wykehamists who died in the Boer War (Toynbee was at Winchester September 1902, start of the first academic year after the war’s end, to summer 1907), and a memorial called Crimea in the entry chamber to Chapel, bearing the names of its alumni who died at the siege of Sevastopol.

The Spires of Oxford

March 17 2014

Another bad poem that good people enjoyed, and took to the trenches, appeared in Winifred LettsThe Spires of Oxford, and Other Poems, New York, EP Dutton, 1917 and in A Treasury of War Poetry, British and American Poems of the World War, 1914-1917, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1917. The latter was extended in a second volume to 1919. What were the English editions?

WM, or Winifred Mary, Letts (1882-1972) was English-born, but lived in Ireland. She wrote other popular poems, including one called The Deserter, which was in her The Spires of Oxford, but not the Treasury. Stanford set some of them.

The Oxford poem might (even in its modesty) have had a meaning for Toynbee, who was an Oxford don when the War began and felt the guilt of a survivor (and was probably a draft dodger on top of it). To the end of his life he kept pictures on his mantlepiece of his friends who had died, and for his Ad Portas speech at his old school, Winchester College, in 1974, his last public appearance, he paid homage to them in Latin. (The phrase “dreaming spires” is from Matthew Arnold’s Thyrsis.)

“I saw the spires of Oxford
As I was passing by,
The gray spires of Oxford
Against the pearl-gray sky.
My heart was with the Oxford men
Who went abroad to die.

The years go fast in Oxford,
The golden years and gay,
The hoary Colleges look down
On careless boys at play.
But when the bugles sounded war
They put their games away.

They left the peaceful river,
The cricket-field, the quad,
The shaven lawns of Oxford,
To seek a bloody sod –
They gave their merry youth away
For country and for God.

God rest you, happy gentlemen,
Who laid your good lives down,
Who took the khaki and the gun
Instead of cap and gown.
God bring you to a fairer place
Than even Oxford town.”

Music in Oxford Street

March 17 2014

Wordsworth’s poem on Venice (post before last) may not be great. Power of Music must be one of his worst, but I am tolerant of the lesser products of men of genius:

“An Orpheus! an Orpheus! yes, Faith may grow bold,
And take to herself all the wonders of old; –
Near the stately Pantheon you’ll meet with the same
In the street that from Oxford hath borrowed its name.

His station is there; and he works on [vulgar] the crowd,
He sways them with harmony merry and loud;
He fills with his power all their hearts to the brim –
Was aught ever heard like his fiddle and him?

What an eager assembly! what an empire is this!
The weary have life, and the hungry have bliss;
The mourner is cheered, and the anxious have rest;
And the guilt-burthened soul is no longer opprest.

As the Moon brightens round her the clouds of the night,]
So He, where he stands, is a centre of light;
It gleams on the face, there, of dusky-browed Jack,
And the pale-visaged Baker’s, with basket on back.

That errand-bound ’Prentice was passing in haste –
What matter! he’s caught – and his time runs to waste;
The Newsman is stopped, though he stops on the fret;
And the half-breathless Lamplighter – he’s in the net!

The Porter sits down on the weight which he bore;
The Lass with her barrow wheels hither her store; –
If a thief could be here he might pilfer at ease;
She sees the Musician, ’tis all that she sees!

He stands, backed by the wall; – he abates not his din;
His hat gives him vigour, with boons dropping in,
From the old and the young, from the poorest; and there!]
The one-pennied Boy has his penny to spare.

O blest are the hearers, and proud be the hand
Of the pleasure it spreads through so thankful a band;
I am glad for him, blind as he is! – all the while
If they speak ’tis to praise, and they praise with a smile.

That tall Man, a giant in bulk and in height,
Not an inch of his body is free from delight;
Can he keep himself still, if he would? oh, not he!
The music stirs in him like wind through a tree.

Mark that Cripple who leans on his crutch; like a tower
That long has leaned forward, leans hour after hour! –
That Mother, whose spirit in fetters is bound,
While she dandles the Babe in her arms to the sound.

Now, coaches and chariots! roar on like a stream;
Here are twenty souls happy as souls in a dream:
They are deaf to your murmurs – they care not for you,
Nor what ye are flying, nor what ye pursue!”



From Oxford Street to Oxfordshire.

A fiddler gets less attention in the last of Hogarth’s Humours of an Election, oil paintings and engravings illustrating an Oxfordshire election in 1754. An Election Entertainment, Canvassing for Votes and The Polling show corruption. Chairing the Member shows the celebrations of a Tory and his supporters (each constituency elected two MPs). The blind fiddler is a sublime commentary. Sir John Soane’s Museum.

William Hogarth


Haydn completed his Symphony no 92 in G, the Oxford, in 1789. He conducted it there in 1791 at a ceremony in which he was awarded an honorary doctorate, but it had been commissioned by the Count d’Ogny for performance in Paris. Vienna Philharmonic, Bernstein:

[March 19: this has been taken offline already, so here is the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, Adam Fischer:]

[What is the picture there? It looks like the Louvre.]

Carnegie Hall, November 14 1943

March 17 2014

The first item, Schumann’s Manfred overture, in the event, reported on the front page of The New York Times on the following day, that launched Leonard Bernstein’s career. The CBS radio introduction tells us what we need to know (the words “American-born” are key); the heady wartime singing of The Star-Spangled Banner is moving (you can hear that they are winning), the Schumann thrilling:

Venice votes on splitting from Rome

March 16 2014

BBC, and on the day of the Crimean referendum.


“Once did she hold the gorgeous east in fee;
And was the safeguard of the west: the worth
Of Venice did not fall below her birth,
Venice, the eldest Child of Liberty.
She was a maiden City, bright and free;
No guile seduced, no force could violate;
And, when she took unto herself a Mate,
She must espouse the everlasting Sea.
And what if she had seen those glories fade,
Those titles vanish, and that strength decay;
Yet shall some tribute of regret be paid
When her long life hath reached its final day:
Men are we, and must grieve when even the Shade
Of that which once was great, is passed away.”

Wordsworth, On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic.

Two Confucian princes

March 16 2014

The Indic philosopher Siddhārtha Gautama exerted his influence upon the Mauryan Emperor Açoka after a Time-interval of more than two centuries, if the Buddha died in 487 B.C. and Açoka came to the throne in 273 B.C. But perhaps the most extraordinary example of this exertion of influence at long range is Confucius’s effect upon the minds and lives of the two [long-reigning] Manchu emperors K’ang Hsi [the Kangxi Emperor, regnabat 1661-1722] and [his successor but one] Ch’ien Lung [the Qianlong Emperor, regnabat 1735-96].

The first of these two Confucian princes did not begin to reign until more than two thousand years had passed since his mentor’s death; the Far Eastern Society into which K’ang Hsi was born was sundered from the Sinic Society, in whose bosom Confucius himself had lived and taught, by a social interregnum which deepened the gulf dug by Time; and K’ang Hsi himself was not even a native-born son of the Far Eastern Civilization, but was a cultural convert from a horde of recently installed barbarian conquerors. The influence of Confucius upon K’ang Hsi was a brilliant posthumous consolation prize for the disappointment, in Confucius’s own lifetime, of the hopes of a Sinic sage whose offers of service had been rejected by the Sinic princes of the day; and this posthumous reversal of fortune was as ironic as it was extreme, for, in offering himself in the role of mentor, the Sinic sage had not just been making a half-hearted compromise with an importunate conscience in the manner of his Hellenic and Indic counterparts. In Confucius’s eyes the role which Confucius never succeeded in playing effectively until long after his death was no grudgingly paid debt to the ineradicable human nature of the social animal under the sage’s cloak: it was for him the only role in which a philosopher could properly follow his spiritual calling. [Footnote: In Confucius’s view the ultimate purpose of self-cultivation, which was the Superior Person’s first duty, was the purification of his neighbour and of the entire community. Confucius thought of himself, not as a happily detached sage, but as an unfortunately unemployed man of action (see Maspero, H.: La Chine Antique (Paris 1927, Boccard), pp. 466-7 and 543).]

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

The shape of Chinese history

March 16 2014

The “Far Eastern Civilization”, according to Toynbee’s scheme, emerged before AD 500, during a post-Han interregnum, out of a disintegrating “Sinic” civilisation. It began to break down in the late ninth century, at the end of the Tang (618-907). Its Time of Troubles was followed by successive universal states founded by barbarians: the Mongol or Yuan (1280-1351) and Qing (1644-1912) empires, with a Chinese restoration under the Ming (1368-1644).

The “Sinic” civilisation had originated in the Yellow River basin c 1500 BC (Shang, Western Zhou, Eastern Zhou). Its Time of Troubles was the period of the Warring States, which produced Confucius and Lao-tse. The universal states which followed were the Ts’in (Qin) (221-207 BC) and Han (206 BC-AD 220) empires. Under the Han, Mahayana Buddhism arrived from India.

Sinologists scorned the two-civilisation idea and Toynbee’s forcing of Chinese history into his Hellenic model of civilisations. See Wayne Altree, Toynbee’s Treatment of Chinese History in MF Ashley Montagu, editor, Toynbee and History, Critical Essays and Reviews, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956.

Neo-Confucianism, incidentally, was an attempt, starting under the Tang, to reinterpret Confucius in the light of the Mahayana and at the same time to rid Confucianism of superstitious and mystical elements of Taoism and Buddhism that had influenced it during and after the Han.

Return of the beard

March 16 2014

The Victorian beard has returned at last. It started to die out c 1890 as a cleaner-cut military look came in.

Then, it was often adopted with a certain maturity. Now it’s worn by young men. Last autumn I reckoned that a quarter of young Greeks, who seemed neither especially fashion-conscious nor religious, had real beards. Was that simply traditionally Greek? Is this an unconscious echo among non-Muslims of the Muslim beard?

The Elizabethans and their Stuart successors had worn goatees.

The modern Victorian beard, when it is Parnell-like, is subtly transgressive.

Mahler in his beard phase; first photo looks earlier than second, which was taken in Kassel, where he worked for two years from summer 1883, aged 23-5, when he might have been expected to be clean-shaven:

Gustav Mahler

Gustav Mahler 2

The Herd-Boy

March 16 2014

Benjamin Britten, fourth of six Songs from the Chinese for voice and guitar, opus 58, 1957; texts from Arthur Waley, translator, Chinese Poems, 1946; Lu You, twelfth-century Southern Song; Peter Pears, Julian Bream, 1963:

“In the southern village the boy who minds the ox
With his naked feet stands on the ox’s back.
Through the hole in his coat the river wind blows;
Through his broken hat the mountain rain pours.
On the long dyke he seemed to be far away;
In the narrow lane suddenly we were face to face.
The boy is home and the ox is back in its stall;
And a dark smoke oozes through the thatched roof.”

Playlist for the cycle, same performers:

The Big Chariot, from The Book of Songs, eleventh to seventh centuries BC

The Old LutePo Chü-i, Tang

The Autumn WindWu-ti, Han

The Herd-Boy

DepressionPo Chü-i

Dance Song, from The Book of Songs.

Pax Manchuana

March 15 2014

In the main body of the Far Eastern World the Manchu restoration of a Mongol-built universal state was more to the credit of the forerunner Nurhachi (regnabat A.D. 1618-25), who never set foot inside the Great Wall, than it was to the credit of his fainéant successor Shun Chih (imperabat A.D. 1644-61), in whose reign the seat of the Manchu power was triumphantly transferred from Mukden to Peking.


The [beginning of the] “Indian Summer” which the main body of the Far Eastern World enjoyed under the Pax Manchuana [...] is to be equated with the definitive subjugation of the South by the Emperor K’ang Hsi in A.D. 1682, and its end with the death of the Emperor Ch’ien Lung in A.D. 1796.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

Reading the world in 2012

March 14 2014

A provincial capital in China, 1910-53

March 14 2014

“The year was 1910. The scene was a provincial capital in the heart of China. The city was over 2,000 years old and was proud of its history and its conservatism. Around it was an ancient wall mounted with obsolete cannon. It was criss-crossed with narrow streets which in the day-time were thronged, were redolent with the odours of opium, night soil, and the frying foods of street vendors, streets which resounded with the cries of the hawkers of various wares and the bearers of sedan chairs, the squeak of ungreased wheelbarrows, the squeal of pigs being carried to market, and the pleas of beggars. As one passed along the streets he could look in upon numerous handicrafts – the making of shoes, the dyeing of cloth, the manufacture of paper money for burning on behalf of the dead, and huge pestles operated by human feet for the hulling of rice. Hidden behind blank walls were the courtyards of the mansions of the rich, some of them with treasures of books and of paintings of old masters. Narrow side alleys led to the crowded tenements of the poor. Trade, handicrafts, and even beggars and thieves were organized by guilds. In the city was the yamen of the provincial governor, representative of the imperial power of distant Peking and of the Confucian state, a set of political institutions under which, with modifications, the Chinese had lived for over two millenniums [sic]. There were Confucian temples, symbolic of the moral and intellectual ideas which had been dominant for twenty centuries and the scene of ceremonial gatherings of the scholar-officials who, nurtured in Confucianism and its exponents and guardians, were the élite who by precept and example set the standards of conduct of the country. Near the heart of the city was an open space which until a few years before [1905] had been occupied by rows of small covered stalls in which were given periodically the highly competitive examinations based upon the Confucian classics through which entrance was had to the coveted ranks of the scholar class and the civil service. At nightfall the gates in the encompassing battlements were closed and the streets were empty. The city then seemed like a vast house, with 200,000 or more inhabitants enclosed within a wall which was about a mile wide and a mile and a half long, in rooms of various sizes separated by narrow halls which echoed to the gong and bamboo drum of the night-watchman as he made his rounds.

“Outside the city were countless graves, some of them dating from before the Christian era. Across the river, on the slopes and at the summit of a mountain were a Buddhist and a Taoist monastery, representative of religions which had long been present in China, the one an importation and a channel of Indian influence, and the other native to China.

“Life went on much as it had for untold generations. Here was a great civilization with a long history, the creation and the possession of a proud people who traditionally had regarded all foreigners as crude barbarians. Here was a world seemingly as apart from the rest of mankind as though it were on a distinct planet. [Several clichés.]

“Yet in that year there were evidences of an invasion from another world. On an island in the river were the houses of consuls of Western Powers, the homes of merchants, and the dwellings of British subjects who were managing the customs service, a system imposed on China from the outside half a century and more earlier. On the river bank were the offices of European and American business firms. British and Japanese steamers connected the city with down-river marts through which flowed the products of the factories of the industrialized Occident and of Japan. Lamps fed by the kerosene refined and imported by foreigners were supplanting older forms of lighting. From time to time foreign gunboats lay in the river as a protection for the invaders. Within the walls were homes, churches, schools, and an incipient hospital and medical and nursing school of Christian missionaries from Europe and America [mainly Protestant at this time], vivid evidence that this other world was already effecting an entrance. To the east and south were the beginnings of cuts and embankments which were designed to carry a railway which would form the path for the iron horse, ‘the fire-wheel wagon’, to form a road for additional penetration. The vacant plot where once had been the examination stalls was mute evidence that the old order had been dealt a mortal blow at its very heart.

“Here was an early stage of a vast revolution, a revolution as great as though men from Mars had forced themselves and their civilization upon the inhabitants of the earth.

“By the 1950’s the revolution had proceeded much further. The crenellated wall had long since disappeared. The railroad had been completed, a trunk line between the north and south, with gateways to the invaders at both ends. New streets had been driven through the city. Electric light, the telephone, and the automobile had appeared. The Confucian monarchy had been abandoned and with its going the local representatives of the central government had shifted again and again. In place of the monarchy there had come what was called a republic, but the Chinese had floundered in their attempts to adopt and adapt institutions and ideals with which they were unfamiliar. Civil war had racked the country. In a prolonged Japanese invasion the battle lines had more than once moved back and forth across the city, leaving much of it a smoking ruin. Rebuilding was rapid, but had not been accomplished when a new and even more revolutionary invasion, that of Communism of the Russian pattern, took possession. In all of these changes the schools shared and through them successive student generations were moulded. Confucianism as the standard of education was swept into the dustbin and its passing created a void which for a growing minority was filled by Christianity, but which left the majority empty and dissatisfied, potential converts to the dogmatic ideology of Communism. Social customs, including the relations between the sexes and marriage, were kaleidoscopic. The river still ran and opposite loomed the familiar hills, but had those returned who had known the city only in 1910 they would have been left breathless and bewildered [...].”


Kenneth Scott Latourette was one of those American missionaries (Baptist) and later taught at Yale. This is the opening of his A History of Modern China, Pelican, 1954, the first volume in The Pelican History of the World, a series of national histories that was abandoned. Some volumes detached themselves from it and remained in print on their own or never got into it. As far as I can see, it contained only this and (for those who like old Pelicans)

RB Nye and JB Morpurgo, A History of the United States, 2 volumes, 1955

Alfred CobbanA History of Modern France, 3 volumes, 1957, 1961, 1965

Keith Sinclair, A History of New Zealand, 1959 and

William C Atkinson, A History of Spain and Portugal, 1960.

Tiananmen Square

March 13 2014

The Tiananmen Gate (Gate of Heavenly Peace) to the Forbidden City (last post), on the north side of Tiananmen Square, was built in 1415 under the Ming Dynasty.

Attached to it, to this day, is a large portrait of Mao Zedong, wart and all.

Tiananmen Square was laid out in 1651, under the Qing. At its original southern end (where the Mao Zedong Mausoleum now is) stood the early-fifteenth century Great Ming Gate, renamed Great Qing Gate (“Daqingmen” in the map in yesterday’s post), the old southern ceremonial gate to the Imperial City. Gate of China under the Republic.

A short way south of that and built at the same time was Qianmen Gate (or Front Gate; Ch’ien-men, Wade Giles; also called Cheng-yang-men, Wade Giles, and Zhengyangmen, pinyin) into the Outer City. See last post.

The Square in the early twentieth century viewed from Qianmen Gate; Qing Gate in middle distance; beyond it the Imperial Way leading to Tiananmen Gate in the far distance; flanking the Imperial Way on each side is the “corridor of a thousand steps”:

Peking, Blick vom Chienmen auf die Kaiserstadt

The British and French troops who invaded Beijing in 1860 during the Second Opium War considered burning down the Qing Gate and the Forbidden City. They decided ultimately to spare them and to burn instead the emperor’s Old Summer Palace a few kilometres away.

The Qing emperor was forced to let the foreign powers barrack troops and establish diplomatic missions in the area, resulting in the Legation Quarter to the east of the modern square.

The Legation Quarter was besieged and damaged during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

In 1954, the Gate of China was demolished, allowing for the enlargement of the square. The Qianmen Gate survives.

Modern square, map at (please visit):


Mausoleum of Mao Zedong

Monument to the People’s Heroes

Great Hall of the People

National Museum of China

The square in 1900 (old post).

The walls of Peking

March 12 2014

Beijing as a national capital grew out of the Yuan (Mongol) capital Dadu or Khanbaliq. The Ming moved their capital there from Nanjing in 1421.

The walls in the photographs below, built under the Ming, are those of the Inner City. Under the Manchu or Qing Dynasty rulers (1644-1912), it came to be called the Tartar City, in the loose sense of Tartar, because only Manchus were allowed to live there.

The Han Chinese, whose businesses depended on the imperial households, lived in the Outer City, which had its own wall.

The Imperial City was the collection of gardens and shrines in the Inner City which surrounded the Forbidden City under the Ming and Qing.

Historical names of Beijing (Wikipedia).

Beijing city wall map

The Inner and Outer walls were damaged during the Boxer Rebellion, punctured in various places after 1911 and almost entirely dismantled by the Communists.

Walls of the Tartar City via

Peking wall 3

Peking wall 2

Peking wall 1

The celestial ichor of the Children of Han

March 11 2014

“Chinese blood” would somehow not be the same: fine example, in the last post, of the ornate alias.

Chinese Gordon

March 10 2014

In the middle of the nineteenth century of the Christian Era, when the T’aip’ing insurrection was on the point of sweeping a degenerate successor of Ch’ien Lung off the Imperial Throne at Peking, the Ts’ing Dynasty obtained a fifty years’ reprieve thanks in large measure to the prowess of a general who came in consequence to be known among his own compatriots as “Chinese Gordon”, but who really – to confess the shocking truth – was a “South Sea Barbarian” whose sword-arm had been hired by the Emperor in his dire extremity though the Son of Heaven knew very well that this mercenary saviour’s barbarous blood had not in it even a tincture of the celestial ichor of the Children of Han.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939


February 28 2014

Back March 10.

Harold Acton

February 27 2014

Sir Harold Acton died twenty years ago today.

Tribute by Luca Vidmaker. L’ultimo grande inglese sull’Arno. Music Schumann, Piano Quartet.

I visited the great aesthete at La Pietra, above Florence, the villa in which he was born and died, twice in the ’70s: a story for another time.

A bibliography:

I  History

The Last of the Medici, Florence, G Orioli, 1930 (translation of a lubricious eighteenth-century memoir, by whom?, of Gian Gastone de’ Medici, the last Medici Grand Duke of Tuscany, introduction by Norman Douglas)

The Last Medici, Faber and Faber, 1932 (a study of the later Medici Grand Dukes and the first of his own historical works)

The Bourbons of Naples (1734-1825), Methuen, 1956

Ferdinando Galiani, in Art and Ideas in Eighteenth-Century Italy, Rome, Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 1960 (lectures by various people given in English at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Londra in Rome, 1957-58)

The Last Bourbons of Naples (1825-1861), Methuen, 1961

The Pazzi Conspiracy, Thames and Hudson, 1979

Three Extraordinary Ambassadors, 1983 Walter Neurath Memorial Lecture, Thames and Hudson, 1984 (Sir Henry Wotton in Venice, Sir Horace Mann in Florence, Sir William Hamilton in Naples)

II  Florence and Tuscany

Florence, Thames and Hudson, 1960 (photographs by Martin Hürlimann)

Tuscan Villas, Thames and Hudson, 1973 (photographs by Alexander Zielcke)

Edward Chaney, editor, Florence: A Travellers’ Companion, Constable, 1986 (Introduction to anthology)

III  Translations from the Chinese; Acton lived in China from 1932 to 1939

With Ch’en Shih-Hsiang, Modern Chinese Poetry, Duckworth, 1936 (young poets)

With LC Arlington, Famous Chinese Plays, illustrated with a drawing by Thomas Handforth and with photographs, Peiping, Henri Vetch, 1937 (thirty-three plays, ancient and modern)

With Lee Yi-Hsieh, preface by Arthur WaleyGlue and Lacquer: Four Cautionary Tales, illustrated with drawings by Eric Gill interpreted on copper by Denis Tegetmeier, The Golden Cockerel Press, 1941 (selections from the seventeenth-century writer Feng Menglong’s Tales to Rouse the World)

With Ch’en Shih-Hsiang and Cyril Birch, The Peach Blossom Fan, illustrated [detail tba], Berkeley, University of California Press, 1976, apparently not earlier (K’ung Shang-jen’s play)

IV  Poetry

Aquarium, Duckworth, 1923

An Indian Ass, Duckworth, 1925

Five Saints and an Appendix, Holden, 1927

This Chaos, Paris, Hours Press, 1930

V  Fiction

Cornelian, The Westminster Press, 1928 (prose fable)

Humdrum, The Westminster Press, 1928 (novel)

Peonies and Ponies, Chatto and Windus, 1941 (novel about expatriate life in China)

Prince Isidore, Methuen, 1950 (novel)

Old Lamps for New, Methuen, 1965 (novel)

Tit for Tat, Hamish Hamilton, 1972 (stories)

The Gift Horse
A Modern Vestal
The Operation
“A Sketch, Lent by Miss Temple”
“O Thou I”
A Monopolist
Resting on His Laurels
An Old School Pal
Tit for Tat
Palladian Pizzicato
The Machine Is Broken Down
His Serene Highness

The Soul’s Gymnasium, Hamish Hamilton, 1982 (stories)

The Marchesa Carrie
Leo’s Ivory Tower
St Gabriel
Fin de race
Flora’s Lame Duck
The Soul’s Gymnasium
Codicil Coda
A Phantom Botticelli
A Morning at Upshott’s
The Narcissus Elegy

VI  Autobiography

Memoirs of an Aesthete, Methuen, 1948

More Memoirs of an Aesthete, Methuen, 1970

VII  Biography

Nancy Mitford: A Memoir, Hamish Hamilton, 1975


Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie, editors, Oxford, China and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on His Eightieth Birthday, Thames and Hudson, 1984 (contributions by John A Wood, David Rundle, John Betjeman, Iris Origo, Sacheverell Sitwell, Anthony Powell, Joan Haslip, John Lehmann, Antony Lambton, Cyril Birch, Charles Wilson, Peter Quennell, Christopher Sykes, AL Rowse, Laurence Sickman, Amanda Lillie, Nicolai Rubinstein, Anna Maria Crinò, Maurice Cranston, Peter Gunn, Edward Chaney, Michael Grant, John Fleming, Francis Haskell, Carlo Knight, Hugh Honour, Denys Sutton, John Pope-Hennessy and Neil Ritchie)

Kamikaze letters

February 27 2014

Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, BBC news, February 26.