Islamic dynasties: 1, Orthodox Caliphs

July 11 2014

The  Orthodox or Rightly Guided Caliphs, 632-61

The age of the pristine Islamic virtues

Abu Bakr (Abdullah ibn Abi Quhafa)

Umar (Umar ibn al-Khattab)

Uthman (Uthman ibn Affan)

Ali (Ali ibn Abi Talib)

Mnemonic: Arab uniters underestimate adversity

Capitals: Medina, Kufa

The leaders of the Muslim umma or community, all related to the Prophet by blood or through marriage. I won’t go into relationships. Muslim Arabs had not yet moved outside the Arabian peninsula when Muhammad died. He himself had fought in military campaigns within Arabia.

But by 641 they had conquered Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt from the East Roman Empire. The southern part of Iraq was conquered from Persia.

By 651 they had conquered Persia, as far north-eastward as Merv inclusive, extinguishing the Sasanian Persian Empire. Merv is now in Turkmenistan (one of Iran’s three eastern neighbours, along with Afghanistan in the middle, and Pakistan in the south).

In 653 the Armenians and Georgians (both ex-Roman and ex-Persian Armenian and Georgian subjects) had surrendered.

Between 647 and 698 they conquered north west Africa from the East Romans – who under Justinian had reconquered it from the barbarians.

Khalifa means “he who follows behind”. The Orthodox Caliphs ruled from Medina, the city previously called Yathrib which Muhammad had renamed.

Abu Bakr imposed the authority of Medina over outlying parts of the peninsula after the Bedouin tribes had renounced their personal allegiance to Muhammad (the Ridda Wars, ridda meaning apostasy).

Umar attacked the Byzantine territories of Syria, Palestine and Egypt and the Sassanid territories of Persia and Iraq. He adopted the title Amir al-Muʿminin, Commander of the Faithful, implying a spiritual as well as political element in his leadership.

Uthman was assassinated.

Ali moved his capital to Kufa in Iraq in order to confront Muawiya, the recalcitrant governor of Syria, in battle at Siffin on the Upper Euphrates. He was later killed, and his son, al-Hasan, was persuaded by Muawiya to renounce all rights to the Caliphate. Ali had been the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad. Shia Muslims believe that the succession should have continued through him. The martyrdom of one of Ali’s other sons, Husayn, in 680 is taken as the beginning of the Shiite split.

See Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The Islamic Dynasties, A Chronological and Genealogical Handbook, Edinburgh University Press, 1967, revised 1980. There have been subsequent revisions. It contains complete lists of rulers. I will follow it in this series, but will leave out most diacritics used in romanisations of Arabic.


Kufa Great Mosque, 1915


July 11 2014

Some posts on the Caliphates in order of posting:


Sunni and Shia

The Indian merchant

Ghosts of universal states

A tea-party in Delhi

Roads to Mecca

Hashish 2

The end of the Abbasid Caliphate

The Arab Kingdom of Syria

The Indian summer of the Caliphate

The resilience of the Caliphate

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) declared a new Caliphate in Mosul on June 29 2014 (the first day of Ramadan) with its Sunni leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as the new Caliph.

Wikipedia article.

The exile of Thucydides

July 11 2014

A greater luminary in Toynbee’s “Pleiad” of captured or exiled historians (last post).

Thucydides (vivebat circa 454-399 B.C.) was a citizen of Athens who lived through the Twenty-Seven Years’ War of 431-404 B.C., and who was overtaken by the outbreak of the war in his early manhood. He thus belonged to a generation which was just old enough to have known the pre-war Hellenic World as an adult member of the pre-war society; and at the same time he lived long enough to see the denouement of the great catastrophe that brought the growth of the Hellenic Civilization to an end and set in motion the long and tragic movement of decline and fall. The definite breakdown of the Hellenic Civilization was, in fact, the challenge which the generation of Thucydides had to encounter and the experience through which they had to live; and Thucydides was fully alive to the significance of the catastrophe. “This war”, he says in the preface to the first part of his work, [footnote: Thucydides’ History of the Twenty-Seven Years’ War is in two parts, each introduced by a preface. [...] Part II is unfinished. (The work was apparently interrupted by the author’s death.) The narrative breaks on abruptly in the middle of the record of the twenty-first year of the war (411 B.C.) out of the total of twenty-seven years (431-404 B.C.) which the author intended to cover.] “was … the greatest upheaval ever experienced by Hellas and by a part of the non-Hellenic World (it would hardly be an exaggeration to say: by the Human Race)”; and he informs his readers in the same passage that, “in the belief that this war would eclipse all its predecessors in importance, he began to write as soon as war broke out”. In the Athens, however, of Thucydides’ day an able-bodied adult male citizen was constrained in peace-time, and a fortiori in war-time, to devote the best part of his time and energy to public service if the State made the demand; and we may suppose that, as soon as war broke out, this “practical” demand upon Thucydides became exacting. At any rate, in the eighth year of the war, we find Thucydides serving as one of the ten Athenian Generals: a board of public officers, elected annually for a twelve months’ term, who exercised the chief executive authority in the civil government in addition to their command over military operations.

It was in this position of “practical” responsibility, which Thucydides held in 424-423 B.C., that he suffered the break in his career which was the turning-point in his life-history. In the winter of 424-423 B.C., when Thucydides was in command of an Athenian naval squadron stationed at Thasos [north Aegean], he failed to prevent a Lacedaemonian expeditionary force commanded by Brasidas from capturing Amphipolis [Thracian mainland]. The lost fortress was a key-position, since it commanded the passage across the River Strymon on the land-route leading from Continental Greece towards the Dardanelles: the only route along which it was possible for the Peloponnesians to strike, with their superior land-power, at a vital point in the Athenian Empire, so long as Athens retained her command of the sea. The Athenian People sought relief for their feelings of chagrin and alarm at the news of this reverse by cashiering Thucydides and sentencing him to exile. And it was thanks to this personal mishap to Thucydides the soldier that Thucydides the historian at last obtained the opportunity to accomplish his life-work.

He never returned to Athens. Where did he live?

“I lived”, he writes in the preface to the second part of his work, “through the whole of [the Twenty-Seven Years’ War] [bracket in original], and I was not only of an age of discretion, but I took special pains to acquire accurate information. It was my fate to be exiled from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and in this situation I was enabled to see something of both sides – the Peloponnesian as well as the Athenian – and to make a special study of the War at my leisure.”

Thanks to this fortunate misfortune, Thucydides was able to complete rather more than two-thirds of his projected work, though he seems to have died a premature death before he was out of his fifties. What is more, he has triumphantly achieved his ambition, declared in the preface to the first part of the work, to produce “an everlasting possession” – a permanent contribution to knowledge – “rather than an ephemeral tour de force”. In his own austere intellectual way, this cashiered Athenian officer has anticipated the injunction

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon Earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;

“But lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal;

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” [Footnote: Matt. vi. 19-21.]

The passing agony of one unhappy generation of Hellenes who dealt their own Hellas a mortal blow and knew that her blood was on them and on their children has been transmuted by Thucydides, in a great work of art, into an ageless and deathless human experience.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934


July 10 2014


Toynbee names a

Pleiad of historians – Thucydides and Xenophon and Polybius; Josephus and Ibn Khaldūn; Machiavelli and Clarendon and Ollivier – who [...] started life as soldiers or statesmen and [...] made the transit from one field of action to another in their own life-histories by returning as historians to a world from which they [had] previously been expelled as prisoners-of-war or deportees or exiles.

Émile Ollivier (1825-1913) is, he admits, its dimmest member – but why, even in a second edition, is he writing about a Pleiad? He even mentions “eight lives”. Somervell omits the section in his abridgement.

Ollivier started as a republican opposed to Napoléon III, but pushed the Emperor toward liberal reforms. He entered the cabinet and was prime minister when Napoléon fell.

His father had opposed the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe (1830-48) and was returned by Marseille to the Constituent Assembly which established the Second Republic (1848-51). He opposed the coup d’état of the head of state Louis-Napoléon, as he was then called, and was exiled for nearly a decade.

Émile Ollivier started to rise during the Republic. He re-entered politics, still a republican, but prepared to work with the Empire, in 1857 after a period in law.

He was one of the early Parisian champions of Wagner. His first wife, Blandine, was the daughter of Liszt and Marie d’Agoult (who wrote as Daniel Stern). She died in 1862. In 1869 he married Mlle Gravier.

Early in 1870 Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen revived his candidature for the Spanish throne. The French government instructed its ambassador to Prussia, Vincent, Count Benedetti, to demand from the king, Wilhelm I, that he withdraw it.

Ollivier was won over by the war party. On July 15 he declared in the Chamber that the Prussian government had issued a note, the Ems Telegram, announcing that his envoy had been rebuffed. He accepted the responsibility of the war, the Second War of the Spanish Succession, “with a light heart”, since it had been forced on France. But on August 9, with the news of its first disasters, his cabinet was driven from office. He sought refuge from the general rage in Italy.

He returned to France in 1873, but his political power was gone. During his retirement he employed himself in writing an apologia in the form of a history of L’Empire libéral in seventeen volumes (1895-1915). (Toynbee counts as far as the sixteenth, which appeared in 1912.)

Josephus, in his latter-day literary work, is in some sense pursuing his previous “practical” activities in a new medium. And this fault is still more conspicuously apparent in the literary work of the French member of our Pleiad: Émile Ollivier.

Ollivier is not without excuse for his frailty, for his personal identification with the disaster that overtook his country in his day was much more intimate, and much more serious, than Thucydides’ identification with the fall of Athens or Josephus’s with the fall of Jewry. Ollivier was a Frenchman who lived through the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. For France, this war, which brought to an end a French political and military hegemony of two centuries’ standing on the European Continent, was not only a supreme national catastrophe; it was also a supreme national humiliation, since the war was lost by no honourable defeat but by a lamentable débâcle. And for Ollivier this tragic experience of France was a personal tragedy of equal magnitude; for, at the moment when the disaster occurred, Ollivier occupied in France the principal position of political responsibility next to the Emperor Napoleon III himself. While the Emperor was saved from the fury of the French people by falling into the enemy’s hands, his minister had to fly the country. Ollivier took refuge in Italy, and when he ventured to return to France in 1873 his life was in ruins. Born in 1825, engaged in politics from 1848 to 1870, and virtually Prime Minister in the Imperial Government during the fatal days between the end of 1869 and the 9th August, 1870, Ollivier now found himself, at the age of forty-eight, a scapegoat in the wilderness, with all the transgressions of the Second Empire heaped upon his devoted head. [Footnote: Ollivier applies the simile of the scapegoat to himself in L’Empire Libéral, vol. i, p. 30.]

Ollivier’s retort to the outrageous Fortune which had felled his country and himself by the same terrific blow was to write, on the grand scale, a history of the whole unhappy chapter in French history in which he had played his own unhappy part. The prologue to the drama, as he presents it in L’Empire Libéral, [footnote: L’Empire Libéral: Études, Récits, Souvenirs, par Émile Ollivier (Paris 1895-1912, Garnier Frères, 16 volumes] begins with the morrow of the peace-settlement of 1815; the curtain descends upon the débâcle of 1870 after Ollivier’s fall from office on the 9th August of that year and his subsequent abortive private mission to Italy. The first volume was published in 1895, a quarter of a century after the catastrophe, when the author himself was already seventy years old; [footnote] and thereafter volume followed volume year by year until the sixteenth and last volume was published in 1912, when the author was eighty-seven and when the greater war of 1914-18, which was to reverse the result of the war of 1870-1, was only two years ahead in the future. [Footnote: The writer of this Study, who was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time when the last volumes of L’Empire Libéral were appearing, can well remember the interest which their publication aroused.] In thus transferring to historiography the energies that had been expelled from the field of politics twenty-five years earlier, Ollivier was not achieving a spiritual catharsis and was not pursuing the path of “etherialization”. To parody a notorious maxim of his Prussian enemies, [footnote: “War is only a continuation of State policy by other means” (Clausewitz, General Karl von: On War. Translated by Colonel J. J. Graham from the third German edition (London 1893, Trübner), p. vii).] he was rather taking up the historian’s pen in order to pursue the politician’s aims by the best alternative means that still remained at his disposal. The driving force that impels him to write and write from his seventy-first to his eighty-eighth year is a burning desire to vindicate France and to vindicate Ollivier.

Second footnote in that paragraph:

The final and effective decision to write seems to have been taken by Ollivier as a consequence of Bismarck’s outright avowal that he [Bismarck] had deliberately precipitated the war by tampering with the text of the famous “Ems Telegram”. This outright avowal was not made until 1892, after Bismarck’s dismissal from the Chancellorship of the German Reich by the Emperor William II. Ollivier appears to have been stirred by this revelation in two ways. He was elated to see the responsibility for the outbreak of the war transferred from the shoulders of France to the shoulders of Germany by so conclusive an authority as Bismarck himself; and he was outraged to find that Bismarck’s confession was not being taken by public opinion as an exoneration of Ollivier for his own part in those transactions. L’Empire Libéral seems to have been committed to writing under this twofold stimulus. The context in which Ollivier gives his account of Bismarck’s avowal is illuminating. (See L’Empire Libéral, vol. i, pp. 24-31.)

The dispatch was an internal message from the Prussian King’s holiday site to Bismarck in Berlin, reporting demands made by Benedetti; it was Bismarck’s released statement to the press that became known as Ems Telegram.

Back to main text:

The first of these two motives is proclaimed at the beginning of the book:

“À la veille de disparaître de ce monde, je veux donner une dernière preuve de dévouement à la patrie bien aimée à laquelle j’ai consacré toutes mes pensées. Je veux la laver devant la posterité de la tache d’avoir déchaîné parmi les hommes la misère, la défiance, la haine, la barbaric Je veux démontrer qu’en 1870 elle n’a pas été plus agressive qu’elle ne l’avait été en 1792 et en 1806; qu’alors comme autrefois elle a défendu son indépendance, non attenté à celle d’autrui. Laissant aux contempteurs de son droit les gémissements dont depuis tant d’années ils affaiblissent son courage, je lui tends la coupe où l’on boit le cordial qui rend la foi, la force, l’espérance. Si elle l’accepte, tant mieux pour elle!” [Footnote: Ollivier, E. O.: L’Empire Libéral, vol. i, pp. 32-3.]

The patriotic motive, here confessed, is plain to read; but the personal motive, which Ollivier is at pains to deny, is equally unmistakable. It is revealed in the author’s chagrin that Bismarck’s avowal of his responsibility for precipitating the war has not served to vindicate his own – Ollivier’s – reputation. [Footnote: Ollivier, op. cit., vol. i, p. 30.] It is revealed in the ostentation with which he abstains from vindicating himself (for “on s’excuse même en renonçant aux excuses”). Above all, it is revealed in his grand finale, which is not the débâcle at Sedan and is not the fall of Metz and is not the fall of Paris and is not the signature of the Peace of Frankfurt, but is – at the end of sixteen volumes – the fall of the Ministère Ollivier!

Bad Ems

Benedetti and Wilhelm I at Ems; Ernst Engelberg, Bismarck, Akademie-Verlag Berlin, 1985 via Wikimedia Commons, no more information given

A second-rate practitioner of a dangerous trade (old post).

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

Argentina and Holland

July 9 2014

Alberto Ginastera, Harp Concerto (1956-65), Remy van Kesteren, harp, National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands (NJO), Clark Rundell, Nijmegen, August 14 2011.

Old post.

Brazil vs Germany

July 8 2014

England vs Germany in 1966 was, at some level, a reenactment of the war. France vs Germany was, perhaps, for some, even in 2014. Brazil vs Germany will, one assumes, have no historical charge to it, but Brazil did declare war on Germany and Italy on August 22 1942.

Increasing cooperation with the Allies had led the government to announce at the Pan American States Conference in Rio on January 28 1942 a decision to sever diplomatic relations with Germany, Japan and Italy, though Brazil remained technically neutral.

As a result, 21 German and two Italian submarines sank 36 Brazilian merchant ships. 1,691 Brazilians drowned, and there were 1,079 other casualties. Berlin Radio pronouncements made the population increasingly nervous. Ultimately, the government declared war.

The Brazilian Navy and Air Force acted in the Atlantic from the middle of 1942 until May 1945.

Brazil was the only independent South American country to commit ground troops in any theatre. It sent an Expeditionary Force to Italy, which lost a thousand people across all three services between September 1944 and May 1945.

Brazil had also declared war on Germany in 1917, and sent troops to Europe, and nearly sent them to fight the Turks in Mesopotamia. Was it the only South American combatant then as well?




In 1943 Villa-Lobos wrote an Invocação em defesa da pátria for soprano, choir and orchestra on a text by Manuel Bandeira.

Orchestre national de la Radiodiffusion française, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Chorale des Jeunesses musicales de France, Maria Kareska, recorded 1956:

Marcha solene brasileira

July 8 2014

More Gottschalk, and a more interesting piece than the last, though it uses the anthem in the stormy coda. Performers not stated. As far as I know, he orchestrated this himself. He composed it during a visit to Brazil in 1869, where he died in November.

It is sometimes called Humaitá, after the site of Brazil’s victory over Paraguay in 1868 in the War of the Triple Alliance (Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay), the bloodiest war of the nineteenth century.

Grande fantaisie sur l’hymne national brésilien

July 8 2014

Actually, Grande fantaisie triomphale sur l’hymne national brésilien.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk was a francophone pianist and composer from New Orleans who performed in Europe in front of Liszt, in the US (on the Union side) in the Civil War, and in the Caribbean and South America as a gallant and idolised musical ambassador of North to South. His Notes of a Pianist are worth reading. I must return to him.

The anthem still has the original tune composed by Francisco Manuel da Silva in 1831. The lyrics have changed. Gottschalk’s Fantasy (1869) was written for piano. This orchestration is by Samuel Adler. Eugene List and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra under Adler:

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Glorious Hector

July 7 2014

I have celebrated Villa-Lobos occasionally in this blog. One day I will write a long article about him, the last great twentieth-century composer to receive his due if that is what is happening now. Here, in homage to Brazil, are a few works of his which speak for themselves. They do not show his full range.

Charm (I do wish Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could pick up a guitar): the Gavota-choro in Suíte popular brasileira, more often called Suite populaire brésilienne, because he published it in France in the ’50s as a collection of pieces written in his youth. This is from 1912. I love Fabio Zanon’s playing; Bream is too artful here:

Modernism: Chôros 7, 1924. Chorões were street musicians in Rio at the turn of the century. Instrumentalists without voices. Choro means weeping. I think I am getting the Portuguese accents right. Villa-Lobos wrote a series of compositions in the ’20s called Chôros (in the plural even when one is referring to just one of them). They are for anything from one instrument to orchestra with voices and can last for anything from a couple of minutes to over an hour. No 7, called Setemino (Seventh), is for seven players – violin, cello, saxophone, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon (Daniel Guilet, Bernard Greenhouse, Vincent Abato, Paul Renzi Jr, Paolo Renzi, Bernard Portnoy, Elias Carmen) – and offstage tam-tam (William Blankfort; it doesn’t sound offstage here) under Izel Solomon (US ensemble, I think):

The grand pianistic manner, although this is restrained, and fine, playing by Isabel Mourão, Brazilian, in 1953. Impressões seresteiras (Impressions of a Serenader) from the Ciclo brasileiro of 1936:

And a bassoon concertino of which Richard Strauss would not have been ashamed, the Ciranda das sete notas of 1933. That means round dance on seven notes. There are three identifiable sections. Lobosian string harmonies. As with all good bassoon writing, the soloist seems to be a human voice, the instrument is saying things that we can almost understand as words. I like the delicacy of this performance. Others drive it too hard. Orquesta de Cámara del Conservatorio Superior de Música de Aragón, Zaragoza, under Rolando Prusak, Stefano Canuti bassoon; this is worth your calm and alert eleven minutes:

Why should we not end with the remarkable and haunting, however tired we may be of hearing it, fifth Bachianas brasileiras? Plurale tantum. It was composed for soprano and eight cellos. The first movement, called Ária (Cantilena), is the well-known one, from 1938. It starts as a vocalise. Then there are some words about the moon, by Ruth Corrêa. Then the soprano returns to the tune and hums. It must all have irritated Stravinsky.

The second, less Bachian, part, from 1945, is called Dança (Martelo), with lyrics by Manuel Bandeira. But let’s have the Ária. I am not sure that it has ever had its ideal interpreter. There are the two sopranos with whom Villa-Lobos recorded the piece: Bidu Sayão and Victoria de los Angeles. You can hear it with Joan Baez, who is led by Maurice Abravanel. Or with Natania Davrath, who is led by Leonard Bernstein. Some versions use more than eight cellos. Here is Bidu Sayão:

Afterthought: opening credits of O Índio de Casaca (The Indian in a Tailcoat), director Roberto Feith, a documentary shown on Rede Manchete, 1987, give a sense of the man and of his presence in Brazilian society. Start at 1:55 and watch the first minute. At 2:50 he is coming out of hospital near the end of his life. The music is a sultry passage from the second Bachianas:

Sebastião! Protetor do Brasil

July 6 2014

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Dean Frey in The Villa-Lobos Magazine:

“‘[The Brazilian composer Heitor] Villa-Lobos found that his concerts were often poorly attended because of the public’s preference for soccer. This led him to denounce the sport violently. [...] “Soccer causes human intelligence to detour from the head to the feet!” The Brazilian soccer fans responded vigorously [...]. In one town they bombarded the touring musicians with rotten eggs, and the threat of similar treatment caused the group to leave another town in the early morning hours.’

David E. Vassberg, Villa-Lobos as Pedagogue: Music in the Service of the State, Journal of Research in Music Education, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Autumn, 1975), p. 165.

No matter what Villa-Lobos thought about the game, I’m cheering big for A Seleção!

There was actually a movement in the third, lost, A prole do bebê suite called Futebol.

St Sebastian may be watching Brazil vs Germany in Belo Horizonte. The pierced saint is the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro and, according to Villa-Lobos, of Brazil.

The names of the sections of Villa-Lobos’s a cappella Missa São Sebastião juxtapose the ecumenical and the local in the same way as the names of the sections of his Bachianas brasileiras:

Kyrie (Sebastião! O virtuoso)

Glória (Sebastião! Soldado romano)

Credo (Sebastião! Defensor da igreja)

Sanctus (Sebastião! O mártir)

Benedictus (Sebastião! O santo)

Agnus Dei (Sebastião! Protetor do Brasil)

He wrote the Mass in 1937, at roughly the same time as his huge score for Umberto Mauro’s rather inept film O descobrimento do Brasil, which derives all its dignity from Villa-Lobos’s music.

That film ends with a tableau which in the fourth Descobrimento suite is called Primeira missa no Brasil. On a shoreline five hundred miles northeast of Rio, in 1500, the Portuguese sailors and crew sing a polyphonic Mass against the juxtaposed incantations of the newly found Amerindians.

In 1933, with the help of the orfeonic choirs Villa-Lobos was assembling in the service of the national ideology of Getúlio Vargas, he had given the Brazilian premieres of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli and of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Now he decided to write his own Mass, his second (if you discount the unrelated film music). Simon Wright, notes to a Hyperion recording of the Missa São Sebastião:

“In the Mass, raw nationalism gives way to an idealized and serene view of the powerful Catholic heritage of his country. Subtle glances at the chants of macumba (as at ‘et sepultus est’ in the Credo) are, however, reminders that in Brazil even the rites of Roman Catholicism have been (and still are) tinged with elements from the magical beliefs transported to Brazil by the millions of black slaves brought over the Atlantic by the colonists [...]. The Missa São Sebastião stands unique and radiantly beautiful in Villa-Lobos’s huge output.”

It is a touching work if you know the whole story. It will not overwhelm a listener who doesn’t bring any culture to it. There is an over-reliance on sequences at times. Here is an incomplete YouTube performance posted by Wellesz, sung by the Associação de Canto Coral, directed by Cleofe Person de Mattos.

We have the Kyrie and the Gloria, then the last two lines of the Creed, then the Sanctus and Benedictus. And no Agnus Dei. (So the blurb under the video is wrong, as well as self-contradictory. The captions in the video are wrong at one point as well and they also contradict the blurb: they show the Sanctus starting when what we are hearing is the end of the Creed.)

The Hyperion performance with the Corydon singers under Matthew Best is more polished, but less earthy and Catholic.

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Of course, the real protector of Rio is Christ the Redeemer.

Photos via the Flickr channel of the Arquidiocese de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro.

Sebastião! (old post).

Russell, Palmer and Bridcut

July 5 2014

Ken Russell’s, Tony Palmer’s and John Bridcut’s films about English composers (two early ones by Russell anyway) have a special place in English affections. Russell’s Elgar (his first one: there was a bad remake) is the nations’s favourite documentary, at least in “middle England”. His Song of Summer is a work of art.

Paul Driver on Palmer’s film on Arnold: “An amazing film, the most rawly truthful of its kind that I’ve ever seen, though full of artistic subtlety. It’s a totally dramatic entity, because from start to finish you’re aware of two antithetical Malcolm Arnolds tugging in opposite directions and feel the tension between them constantly – yet the film manages somehow to be celebratory in the end. I think it must surely set the country alight when broadcast.”

AntPDC has got away with posting a monochromised low-resolution version of Bridcut’s The Passions of Vaughan Williams on YouTube and writes, in the continuing absence of a commercial download or DVD:

“One is impelled to share art when it can’t be appreciated by any other means. It’s been almost five years now since this marvellous film first aired on BBC Television, and it was until recently available to UK viewers via the BBC’s i-Player, in glorious HD. No longer alas, and given the many requests I have seen here and elsewhere for a viewing, I have uploaded it, at the risk of upsetting some parties. I seldom upload entire videos on my Channel which contain no original content of my own, but I felt this case should be another of those few exceptions.”

Bridcut makes us look afresh at composers we think we know (not that I ever think that). He did this in a remarkable way with Elgar and Parry. He made the Parry film in a kind of partnership with Prince Charles. He shows the English royal family as less philistine than we are usually told they are, especially when he writes about their relationship with Britten.

His film Britten’s Children is also a book. It is impossible nowadays for people to believe that paedophiles can have beneficent friendships with children. The Oliver Knussen interview in The Guardian last year echoes everything in that book, which does not mention Knussen.

Here’s a checklist. As far as I know, all the films were made for television, but I haven’t given release details in most cases. Tippett is missing! Who is working on him? Palmer or Bridcut?

Elgar (1962, for Monitor, BBC television documentary series), KR

Benjamin Britten and His Festival (1967), TP

Song of Summer (1968, on Delius, Omnibus, BBC television arts series), KR

A Time There Was (1979, on Britten), TP

At the Haunted End of the Day (1980, on Walton), TP

Toward the Unknown Region (2003, on Arnold), TP

Britten’s Children (2004), JB

“O Thou Transcendent …” (2007, on Vaughan Williams), TP

The Passions of Vaughan Williams (2008), JB

The Man behind the Mask (2010, on Elgar), JB

In the Bleak Midwinter (2011, on Holst), TP

The Prince and the Composer (2011, on Parry and Prince Charles), JB

Delius: Composer, Lover, Enigma (2012), JB


May 11 2014

Back July 5.

Extended absence merely pressure of work.

Venetian memories

May 10 2014

The Times, December 9 1929 (the “Correspondent’s reminiscences” are in the last post):


December 9

Four gracious ladies

May 10 2014

I mentioned Lady Radnor in the last post.

The Times, October 11 1929:

October 11


September 12:

September 12


September 13:

September 13

English Suite

May 9 2014

In July 1914 (date according to this source), Parry was working on a suite for strings whose movements, except for the last?, are named after baroque dances or musical forms: Prelude, In minuet style, Saraband, Caprice, Pastoral, Air, Frolic. The performers here are not named.

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4.

Jeremy Dibble, C Hubert H Parry, OUP, 1992 (text via Questia, my links and subbing):

Emily Daymond undertook the editing of those completed works which, because of the war, had not achieved print. [...] The bulk of the English Suite dates from 1914 and 1915, though some movements were written much earlier. The Pastoral dates from about 1890 appearing in a different key (B flat) as a piano piece and also as a piece for violin. [What key is used in the suite?] The Saraband is also earlier and includes a quotation from the Lullaby of the Twelve Short Pieces, Set 1 No 4 for violin and piano written in 1894. This was probably the date of the movement’s composition and it may well have been a rejected movement for the Lady Radnor Suite which dates from the same year. The last of the movements to be written (sometime between 1916 and 1917) was the Air – originally entitled Intermezzo by the composer but altered by Daymond ‘to match the other names’. Similarly the Caprice and the last movement Frolic were chosen and given titles by the editor since the composer had not decided on any definite names, nor had he settled on any definitive last movement. The movements of the English Suite are generally larger in scope than those of the Lady Radnor, and the harmonic language is more capricious, particularly in the jocular Caprice and Frolic. The Air attempts to recapture the serenity of the earlier suite’s Slow Minuet but never quite achieves its sensuous intimacy. In Minuet Style is distinguished by particularly imaginative string writing and a colourful mixture of tonality and modality. Most distinctive of all is the stately Elgarian Saraband with its broad diatonicism and liberal dissonance. After two semi-private performances under [Hugh] Allen’s direction, one at a [Royal] College [of Music] orchestral concert [in 1920], and the other at the Bach Choir’s Parry Concert on 10 May 1921, the Suite was given its first fully public hearing on 22 October 1922 at a Promenade Concert under Henry Wood.”

That date looks wrong: there were no Sunday performances. The BBC Prom archive says October 17. I sense generally that Dibble’s book, although indispensable, needed a better editor.

There was a fashion for neo-baroque and neo-classical suites before the launch of modern neo-classicism (which is usually dated to the premiere, in 1920, of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella).

An English Suite is occasionally im alten Stil, but the music is all Parry. The best recording is with the LSO and Boult on Lyrita.

The exulting, complaining, torn Saraband is one of his finest tunes and should be ranked as a hit with Blest Pair of Sirens, Repton, I Was Glad and Jerusalem. The slight but moving Air may also belong in that group. It has a Celtic rather than English lilt.

Why did he do nothing with the saraband for twenty years and perhaps even reject it for the earlier suite?

In English terms, An English Suite looks forward to Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite (1926), which is loosely based on tunes in a French Renaissance manual, but amounts to an original work.

Marion M Scott, review of An English SuiteThe Christian Science Monitor, July 17 1920 (as cited here):

“It is paramountly English, as English as a Shakespearean comedy or a Herrick poem, and the stately prelude and sarabande, the delicious quasi menuetto, the pastoral with its touching yet happy charm, the expressive intermezzo [air] and lively finale might well stand as incidental music to ‘Twelfth Night’ or ‘As You Like It.’

“The suite [...] was designed for one of his most brilliant pupils, Dr. Daymond, who amongst other musical avocations, conducted a string orchestra. [...]

“Another point that strikes one in the suite is the strong ease, almost Handelian, with which Parry could deal with a string orchestra. He evoked rich, pure-toned masses of sound, or a singing and sympathetic quality from the instruments in combination as naturally as he wrote vital contrapuntally moving parts for each. There is never any stuffing in a score of his.

“The suite was played con amore by the college orchestra (many of whom had been under Sir Hubert as students) and was conducted by Dr. – now Sir Hugh – Allen, director of the Royal College of Music.” According to the article, the performance was on June 4.

Female conductors were rare in Parry’s day. Emily Daymond was one. The Countess of Radnor (1846-1929), for whom he had written the earlier, and less interesting, suite known as Lady Radnor’s Suite, was another and had an orchestra charmingly called Lady Radnor’s Band. He was not, as far as I know, romantically involved with either of them, though his marriage was not especially happy.


May 3 2014

I’ll continue this little 1914 music sequence on May 9.

Ravel’s piano trio

May 2 2014

Ravel began composing it in March 1914. During the summer of 1914, he worked in the French Basque commune of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. He had been born across the bay in the Basque town of Ciboure. His mother was Basque.

At the same time he was working on a piano concerto based on Basque themes entitled Zazpiak Bat (The Seven are One, referring to the seven traditional Basque provinces). Although abandoned, it left its mark on the trio.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 spurred him on to finish the trio so that he could enlist. He finished it in September. He was accepted as a nurse’s aide by the Army in October. In March 1916 he became an ambulance driver at the Verdun front (Vaughan Williams did the same job with the Royal Army Medical Corps in France and in Salonika). He fell ill at the end of that year and was demobilised in March 1917.

Movements are marked Modéré, Pantoum (Assez vif), Passacaille (Très large) and Final (Animé).

Yehudi Menuhin, violin, Gaspar Cassadó, cello, Louis Kentner, piano, 1960:

Not an ideal recording technically, but nor is the equally musical Jeanne Gautier, André Lévy, Vlado Perlemuter, 1954, also on YouTube.

A good student performance is by Iason Keramidis, Felix Drake and Lidija Pavlovic, Hochschule für Musik Karlsruhe, July 13 2012:

At the beginning of this work, aren’t we close to the world of On Wenlock Edge? Vaughan Williams had studied with Ravel, who was his junior by two and a half years, in Paris for three months in early 1908. In February 1912, he attended the French premiere of On Wenlock Edge in Paris at which Ravel played the piano part. Isn’t it possible that the influence went both ways?

In music in the German-speaking world there was jitteriness in these years, but not the stillness and vulnerability which one hears in some French and English music on the eve of 1914.

Ravel, Ciboure

Ravel, Ciboure, 1914

George Butterworth dances

May 1 2014

This post contains a remarkable YouTube discovery.

George Butterworth is famous for having written music of extraordinarily high quality which seems to be about AE Housman’s land of lost content.

“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.”

And for having died, at the Schubertian age of thirty-one on August 5 1916, in the Battle of the Somme. We may call Housman second-rate (I like second-rate poetry of this period), but I do not think we can use that word about Butterworth, limited though his range may have been.

I wrote about him in this post on Housman. Butterworth is the ghost of English music. A presence, an absence. Would he have been able to develop or was his whole style formed by a presentiment of war and of his death?

Housman wrote the poems in A Shropshire Lad twenty years before the end of the peace. Nearly all the music of Butterworth which survives is from 1910-13.

It is startling and moving to find him on film.

The film is taken from Kinora spools made in 1912 which are now in the possession of The English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Who said or did not say “Try everything once except incest and Morris dancing”? Beecham probably. It is, on the whole, the world’s least sexy dance. But this delightful film would incline me to exclude only incest. Here, at least, performed by the leaders of the folk revival, it does not look ridiculous. First we see (the silent film tells us)

Maud Karpeles dancing part of Princess Royal (Bampton version), then

George Butterworth dancing extracts from Molly Oxford (Field Town jig), then

Maud and Helen Karpeles dancing extracts from Lumps of Plumb Pudding (Bampton version), then

Maud Karpeles dancing the first part of Jockie to the Fair (Headington version), then

Cecil Sharp, George Butterworth, Maud Karpeles and Helen Karpeles dancing Hey Boys Up Go We, and at the end

Butterworth dancing something which is not identified.

The YouTube poster, pabmusic1, tells us that

“the music (which of course has been added later) is Ribbon Dance (rec. 1933), The Triumph [my link] (rec. 1927), The Queen’s Jig (rec. 1934), Sellinger’s Round (rec. 1938) and Hunt the Squirrel (rec. 1938). The music bears no relation to what they are dancing, but there’s no record of what music was being used.”

Cecil Sharp was the founding father of the folklore revival in England. Many traditional dances and much folk music owe their continuing existence to his work in recording and publishing them. I’ll say more about this and about Morris dancing in another post.

I can’t say much on the esoteric subject of the dances and tunes, but Sellinger’s Round is famous from Glenn Gould’s recording of William Byrd’s variations on it and from the modern variations written collaboratively in 1952 by Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Oldham, Humphrey Searle, Michael Tippett and William Walton to celebrate the coming coronation of Princess Elizabeth.

The music is, anyway, charming, and as a commenter says: “even though the film and the accompanying music as we are receiving it in this video have no direct relationship, whoever put these two elements together did a marvelous job of it so that the feeling we get is that of total compatibility.”

The moment in the film where Sharp comes in (to Sellinger’s Round) is especially delightful. Maud Karpeles was his collaborator and biographer (not wife, though he was married), Helen was her sister.

Butterworth went to Eton (like Thomas Arne and Hubert Parry) and met Sharp while at Trinity College in Oxford. He became a close friend of Vaughan Williams.

“Whether any of Butterworth’s friendships were more than platonic is uncertain; although he seems generally to have preferred the company of men, his sexual orientation remains unclear. His modesty, kindness, and natural gifts of leadership were commented on as early as his prep school days. He was a good-looking man, of medium height and build, dark-haired and with the full moustache fashionable in his day, and the most notable feature of his face in photographs [there are really only two] is the sensitive and humorous cast of the eyes.” Sensitive remarks by Alain Frogley in the Dictionary of National Biography.

The cobbler and the nightingale

April 30 2014

… or, The last season

It is impossible to imagine two composers more different than Stravinsky and Henri Rabaud (1873-1949), who was known for his tirades against modernism.

The phrase “Stravinsky and Rabaud”, and the other way round, does not appear on the internet.

Yet the two notable operatic premieres in Paris in the last season before the outbreak of the Great War were oriental fairy-tales by them. Rabaud’s five-act Mârouf, savetier du Caire was performed at the Opéra-Comique on May 15. Stravinsky’s Debussyan three-scene Le rossignol at the Palais Garnier on May 26.

The Rabaud, which was revived at the Opéra-Comique last year, was based on The Arabian Nights, with a libretto by Lucien Nepoty. The Stravinsky, which is set in ancient China, on Hans Christian Andersen, with a libretto by the composer and Stepan Mitussov. Stravinsky had begun working on it in 1908, but put it aside to work on the three Diaghilev ballets. 

The premiere of The Rite of Spring (surely the most overrated work of the twentieth century) had taken place at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on May 29 1913.

The two operas do not inhabit entirely different worlds. Music has become marooned in a kind of static orientalism. Charles Friant, tenor, Dans le jardin fleuri, from Mârouf, a beautiful example of a style of French singing, now lost, which gives meaning to an opera like this:

Le rossignol, scene 1, performers not stated:

Géori Boué (still living), soprano, 1948, Pourquoi ces mots inattendus, from Mârouf (will open in a new window):

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 18.30.14

André Gaudin, tenor, 1930, A travers le désert, from Mârouf (will open in a new window):

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 18.15.18

Spring 1914

April 29 2014

Darius Milhaud’s third string quartet, opus 32 (1916) is subtitled En souvenir du printemps 1914 and has two movements, both marked Très lent.

The second movement contains a setting of words from the journal of his Catholic friend Léo Latil, also from Aix-en-Provence, who was killed at Souain in the Marne on September 27 1915. I’ll quote them in a comment when I find them. The first quotes from his own earlier setting of Latil’s poem Le rossignol.

“My adolescence was lit by the glow of two wonderful friendships.” One was with Latil. The other was with Armand Lunel, a Juif du Pape and the last known speaker of the Judeo-Provençal Shuadit language, a now-extinct Occitan.

Latil was the first of a trio of Catholic poets who influenced Milhaud, a Jew. Latil presented him to Francis Jammes, who in turn introduced him to Paul Claudel.

From Notes without Music, quoted at The Eastside View (my links):

“Leo … attended the Catholic school [...]. We became firm friends. He worshipped music and admired my early efforts with passionate conviction; he made me share his admiration for Maurice de Guérin, and we loved to discover contemporary poets together. I think Leo would probably have become a country priest. The infinite tenderness in his gaze betrayed a tendency to melancholy and a tormented sense of anxiety. He kept a diary that was one long lamentation in which spiritual weariness and painfully intense religious feeling, dominated ever by a deep spirit of sacrifice and absolute resignation, were interwoven with a passionate love of nature, of flowers, and of the exquisite blue lines of the horizon at Aix. He was a dreamer, in love with solitary brooding, but he accepted my presence. We often went for walks together; he would always take the same direction, toward the Étang de Berre, west of the town, where the softly curving hills merge into the immensity of the plain, on the edge of which stood Cézanne’s property, Jas de Bouffan, with its famous row of poplars gently suffused with the colours of the setting sun. [Milhaud himself is often called a musical Cézanne.] We never wearied of walking along between the fields of wheat, blue-green in spring, bordered with almond trees in bloom, dwarf oaks, and pines, through exquisite landscapes, some of which, like the Château de l’Horloge, evoked historical memories: according to Chateaubriand, it was in this solid, roomy farmhouse that Napoleon spent the night on his return from Elba. Sometimes we went as far as Malvalat, the Latils’ estate near Granettes, a village that took its name from the painter Granet, who lived there […].”

Same source (I have the book, but not to hand):

“Léo was stationed at Briançon in the Chasseurs Alpins. He looked on the war as a mission, a solution to his personal problems, and got himself sent to the front as soon as he could.”

“On September 27, 1915, as I was going across the Place de Villiers [in Paris, where he was studying], I felt an exceedingly acute physical pang, which lasted several seconds. I immediately thought of Leo and feared that some disaster had befallen him. Later I was to learn that I had felt this pain at the very moment of his death. It was at the height of an offensive in Champagne; he had been wounded, but though no longer able to handle a rifle, he refused to be evacuated, so that he might take part in the attack with his comrades. He was mown down by the German machine guns at the head of his company while encouraging his men. His family sent me a copy of his will; he had left me his diary. He had deposited it, together with my letters, in an old wooden chest, an eighteenth-century sailor’s trunk; I added the letters I had received from him. Subsequently Dr. Latil [Léo’s father, a doctor; George Butterworth’s was a solicitor] had a selection of his letters and extracts from his diary published by Plon. This supreme testimony of his pure Christian faith and spirit of self-sacrifice was singled out for mention by Barres on account of the nobility of its thought. While I was in Brazil I had a hundred copies of Leo’s poems privately printed. A few months after his death, I wrote my Third String Quartet, dedicated to his memory. This consists of two very slow movements, in the second of which I introduced a soprano voice singing a page from Leo’s diary, ending: ‘What is this longing for death, and which death does it mean?’ This sentence had haunted my imagination ever since I had read it.”

Milhaud also composed:

Trois poèmes de Léo Latil, opus 2 (1910-16, Prière à mon poète [Jammes] et à la petite Bernadette, sa filleClair de luneIl pleut doucement)

Quatre poèmes de Léo Latil, opus 20 (1914, L’abandon; Ma douleur et sa compagneLe rossignolLa tourterelle) and

Poème du journal intime de Léo Latil, pour baryton et piano, opus 73 (1921).

He wrote other works with printemps in the title, including one for violin and piano probably in the spring of 1914. He set texts by Lunel, Jammes and Claudel in many more works, in each case up to the ’60s.

The death of Latil was the end of Milhaud’s youth. A rheumatic illness exempted him from fighting. It would confine him to a wheelchair for the second half of his life. But he did a different war work. Brazil entered the war in April 1917. A few weeks before that, he arrived in Rio to take the post of secretary to Claudel, who had been appointed France’s ambassador (ministre plénipotentiaire) to Brazil in the previous year.

He dedicated his second string quartet, opus 16 (not 12 as stated on YouTube, 1914-15) to Latil, perhaps on hearing the news of his death. The movements are marked Modérément animé, très animéTrès lentTrès vifSouple et sans hâte – assez animé et gracieuxTrès animé. Here it is, played, like the third, by the Quatuor Parisii:

Both paintings by Henri Le Sidaner.


April 28 2014

A remarkable, little-known, bittersweet early piece by Heitor Villa-Lobos, Sonata-fantaisie for violin and piano no 1, Désespérance (Rio de Janeiro, 1912). Much disturbance under an at times Brahmsian (at the beginning even Bach-through-Brahmsian) surface.

A good performance of this not very despairing work, but the magical violin harmonics after 3:47 should be more delicate and the piano should have introduced that moment better.

Emmanuele Baldini (Italian living in São Paulo), violin, Pablo Rossi (Brazilian), piano, Sala Palestrina, Brazilian Embassy in Rome

Brazil declared war on Germany and Italy in 1942 and sent 25,000 troops to Italy.

There is a CD with Jue Yao, violin, and Alfred Heller.

Absit omen

April 27 2014

Pan-Islamism is dormant – yet we have to reckon with the possibility that the sleeper may awake if ever the cosmopolitan proletariat of a “Westernized” world revolts against Western domination and cries out for anti-Western leadership. That call might have incalculable psychological effects in evoking the militant spirit of Islam – even if it had slumbered as long as the Seven Sleepers – because it might awaken echoes of a heroic age. On two historic occasions in the past, Islam has been the sign [under] which an Oriental society has risen up victoriously against an Occidental intruder. Under the first successors of the Prophet, Islam liberated Syria and Egypt from a Hellenic domination which had weighed on them for nearly a thousand years. Under Zangi and Nur-ad-Din and Saladin and the Mamluks, Islam held the fort against the assaults of Crusaders and Mongols. [In] the present situation of mankind [...] Islam might be moved to play her historic role once again. Absit omen.

Civilization on Trial, OUP, 1948

Former peers of the Minoans and Vikings

April 26 2014

The Polynesians [...] ventured upon the tour de force of Oceanic voyaging. Their skill was to perform these stupendous voyages in frail open canoes. Their penalty has been to remain in an exact equilibrium with the Pacific – just able to cross its vast empty spaces, but never able to cross them with any margin of security or ease – until the intolerable tension has found its own relief by going slack, with the consequence that these former peers of the Minoans and the Vikings have degenerated into incarnations of the Lotus-Eaters and the Doasyoulikes: loosing their grip upon the Ocean and resigning themselves to be marooned, each in his own insular paradise, until the Western mariner comes at last from the ends of the Earth to exterminate them as he exterminates the Arctic hunters’ seals or the prairie hunters’ bison. [Footnote: The decimation of the Polynesians by the Western “beach-combers” has not, of course, been deliberate; yet the bullet and the harpoon which have done such execution among the non-human [he might have added human] fauna of North America are not so deadly to Primitive Man as the germs of contagious diseases which the Westerner involuntarily brings – not to speak of the profound devitalizing influence which the Westerner’s very spiritual presence exerts upon the Primitive who suddenly comes into social contact with him.]

A strenuous Victorian is uncomfortable with tropical ease and prefers the Minoans and Vikings.

He might as well use Charles Kingsley further and call the Polynesians water babies. He is using the word Polynesians in its old-fashioned sense of Pacific islanders generally. Which devitalised them more: the idyllic islands or the intruding Westerners? Of course, the latter.

Old posts:


The temptations of Odysseus.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

Îles Marquises

April 25 2014

Of all major Pacific island groups, the Marquesas, 850 miles northeast of Tahiti, suffered the greatest population decline from diseases brought by Western explorers: from over 78,000 in the eighteenth century to about 20,000 by the middle of the nineteenth and 4,000 by the beginning of the twentieth.

The population had increased to 8,548 by the time of the 2002 census, not including Marquesans residing on Tahiti, and 9,264 at the 2012 census.

The island furthest from any other inhabited place is Tristan da Cunha in the bleaker south Atlantic. But the Marquesas, like other Pacific islands, are further from a continent than Tristan: 3,000 miles from the nearest continental landmass (Mexico).

The Polynesians arrived before AD 300. Ethnological and linguistic evidence suggests from the region of Tonga and Samoa. The islands were given their European name by Álvaro de Mendaña, who reached them in 1595. He named them after his patron, García Hurtado de Mendoza, 5th Marquis of Cañete, Viceroy of Peru.

Cook visited them on his second voyage. An American maritime fur trader, Joseph Ingraham, visited the northern Marquesas while commanding the brig Hope in 1791 and called them the Washington Islands.

In 1813 Commodore David Porter claimed Nuku Hiva for the US, but Congress never ratified the claim. France took possession and established a settlement there in 1842, abandoned it in 1859, re-established control 1870 and later incorporated the islands into French Polynesia, which is now a pays d’outre-mer of France.

“The race is perhaps the handsomest extant [...] yet death reaps them with both hands” (Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas, posthumously-published memoir of a visit to the Marquesas and other islands in 1888).

Marquesas 1.

Some Marquesans feel neglected by politicians in Tahiti. Some favour a direct link with Paris instead of depending on Papeete. Some Marquesan political leaders, fearful that Tahiti might proclaim independence, have declared themselves in favour of separating from French Polynesia. Pro-independence Tahitian leaders have accused the French central government of encouraging the separation of the Marquesas.

Melville’s Typee is about the Marquesas. Gauguin died on Hiva Oa, Jacques Brel is buried there. In Huxley’s Brave New World, the Marquesas are a place of exile for those considered dangerous to the World State. Thor Heyerdahl spent a year on Fatu Hiva and wrote about his disillusionment.

British accents

April 24 2014

Or rather, accents of the British Isles. A brilliant but not exhaustive tour:

No Brummie (Birmingham), Geordie (Newcastle), Manchester, Cumbria, Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent), Derbyshire, Black Country (between Birmingham and Wolverhampton). The first three are big omissions. There are more variations within regions. He does Scouse or Liverpudlian.

He deals with some regional, but not class or “ethnic” or English-diaspora nuances. His Devon-Cornwall needs some polishing.

Voice of Andrew Jack, a dialect coach. He should do another, five-minute, take.

Recent post.

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