Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Five Cases of Unrequited Love That Inspired Songs

Rock songs inspired by women? Well I could easily done a top one hundred here, or it might have been easier to do a list of songs not inspired by women. To limit the list a little I'm only going to include women who the songwriter, at the time of writing the song at least, failed to actually get off with.

5. Lillie Langtry inspired Pictures of Lily by The Who

 'Pictures of Lily made my life so wonderful'

A "ditty about masturbation and the importance of it to a young man".

Usually the women who inspire rock songs are people the songwriter has actually met. However in this case Pete Towshend is writing about a woman who died sixteen years before he was born.

The inspiration in this case appears to be a music hall actress whose picture one of Townshend's girlfriends had. Langtry is probably better described as an 'adventuress', as she appears to have done most of her 'acting' between the sheets of various royal beds. Amongst her conquests were apparently the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII of England), the Earl of Shrewbury (then the owner of Alton Towers) and Prince Louis of Battenberg (Prince Philip's granddad). Not a bad little list.

Apart from Townshend, she also appears to have inspired George MacDonald Fraser, who names her as one of the conquests of Sir Harry Flashman VC and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who made her into Irene Adler, "The Woman" who Sherlock Holmes had a bit of a crush on.

As Ms Adler and the great detective never got it together you wonder whether the celibate Sherlock, like the boy in this song, also 'enjoys' her pictures?

4. Suzanne Verdal inspired Suzanne by Leonard Cohen

'Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river'

A much covered song, including by the early Fairport Convention, Suzanne has a melody that is one of the few that can properly be described as haunting.

Then inspiration was one Suzanne Verdal, then the partner of sculptor Armand Vaillancourt, whose most famous work is a giant fountain in San Francisco dedicated to Quebecan independence. Cohen says that 'everyone was in love with Suzanne', including him, although, as the song says, he could only 'touch her perfect body' with his mind.

Cohen met her in Montreal, and they would walk by the St Lawrence River before popping back to her place for 'tea and oranges'. An early eco-activist, she was big into recycling, which wasn't terribly fashionable at the time and so probably explains the line ‘you know that she’s half crazy but that’s why you want to be there.’

She travelled the world as a dancer and by the late nineties she was living in a home made shack with her seven cats and working as a dance instructor and massage therapist. However a serious accident ended her dancing career and she ended up broke and homeless.

The song appears in the soundtrack of last year's Reeth Witherspoon film Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed, as Verdal was a friend of the author's mother.It seems everyone really did love Suzanne.

3. Pattie Boyd inspired Layla by Derek And The Dominoes

 'Layla, I'm begging, darling please.'

The bible warns us against coveting our neighbour's ass, but far worse is coveting the ass of your neighbour's wife. In this case the bottom in question belonged to Pattie Boyd, then the wife of Beatle George Harrison and good friend of Eric Clapton, who was the one doing the coveting.  

Pattie was a model in the sixties who had one line in the film of A Hard Day's Night. Harrison asked to either marry him or have dinner with him, and she ended up doing both.

It was Pattie who persuaded the Fab Four to meet the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Eastern mysticism worked for Harrison, but the marriage was a bit of a car crash, literally. Pattie was seriously injured when Harrison decided to drive his Mercedes at 90mph during a blackout along a road still under construction. She survived,  but was soon relying on alcohol and cocaine to get through life with her womanising husband.

Clapton meanwhile had the serious hots for Pattie, and after she turned him down he embarked on three years of heroin addiction, which is a bit of an overreaction in my opinion. What was worse is that he then did the 'sleeping with her sister' thing by moving in with Pattie's younger sibling Paula. Once Paula heard Layla she realised what was going on and moved herself out.

(Pattie and Paula had another sister by the way, called Jenny, who inspired Donovan's , Juniper and married Mick Fleetwood. They appear to be that kind of family.)

Clapton eventually quit the drugs,and the pro-Enoch Powell rants, and Pattie quit Harrison. They married in 1979 but it was a very similar story and soon Clapton was sleeping with other women whilst Pattie hit the bottle. They divorced in 1989.

Sometimes unrequited love is best left unrequited.

You'd think this would have put her off men for life, but instead she married again just last month to a property developer. However you can't accuse her of rushing into things the third time, as she has been with Rod Weston for twenty five years.  

2. Debbie Bone inspired Disco 2000 by Pulp

'Your name is Deborah. Deborah. It never suited ya.'

Someone who certainly knows a thing or two about getting nowhere with women is Pulp front man, and coolest dude of the 1990s, Jarvis Cocker.

The Deborah in question here was family friend Debbie Bone. The song apparently pretty much tells it as it was and "the only bit that isn't true is the woodchip wallpaper."  

Bone went on to a career as a mental health nurse and innovator in the field of children's mental health. She was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours list just this year. Tragically she died of bone cancer in January, just hours before she was due to receive news of the award. She was only 51.

She and Cocker may never have been more than friends, but they stayed in touch and he sang Disco 2000 for her at her 50th birthday party last year. The song is a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman.

1.  Danae Stratou inspired Common People by Pulp

'She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge'

Another failure to the 'lanky northern git' that turned into a Britpop anthem.

(Lets forget about the William Shatner spoken word version).

There must be a little bit of doubt about the identity of the identify of the Greek student who told him 'that her Dad was loaded' as BBC3 tried and failed to get Cocker to pick out her picture a few years ago, and a Grek-Cypriot artist called Katerina Kana believes it was her. As she does claim to remember Cocker, unlike Stratou, she has a good claim.

However as the only Greek student who 'studied sculpture at Saint Martin's College' at the time Cocker was there, Ms Startou is currently the most popular choice. In reality Cocker didn't take her to a supermarket, or anywhere else. In fact she appears to have turned him down flat and forgotten about the entire incident. A certain amount of artistic license has therefore gone into the song, especially as the middle class Cocker can't really claim to be one of the 'common people' either then or now.

Stratou herself has gone on to be an internationally renowned installation artist specialising in very big outdoor, errr, things. She eventually married a Marxist Professor of Economics by the name of Yanis Varoufakis.

When the left wing Syriza party swept into power in post-austerity Greece, Varoufakis was invited to become finance minister and champion of the common people of Europe's most unfortunate nation.

Stratou and Varoufakis recently had an encounter with some of those common people whilst out for a meal in Athens' Exarchia district. Exarchia is the home of Athen's arty-intellectual-lefty types and is regularly engulfed by anti-government riots that resemble small wars. During the stand-off Ms Stratou stood her ground and protected her husband, showing she is no more phased by balaclava wearing anarchists than she is by amorous 'lanky northern gits'.


So there we are, the moral of the story? Self abuse can be inspirational, there's nothing wrong with tea and oranges, nice girls should never marry racist guitarists, sometimes it's good to just stay friends and don't worry too much if you are an ultra-cool rock star and the girl you fancy dumps you for an economics teacher.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

How to save the Human Rights Act

In 1215 King John met a group of his barons by an ancient yew tree, a meeting place since Anglo-Saxon times. There he signed a document that outlawed absolute monarchy. Ancient freedoms that dated back to the fall of the Roman Empire had been violated by the king and so the barons demanded these rights were now preserved in writing. The Magna Carter, signed at Runnymede, was the first human rights act.

 Eight hundred years later I am in London for the 70th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, watching some very old soldiers parading proudly in the sunshine. These men, and women, had grown up in the aftermath of the Great Depression in a country where no job meant no home and no healthcare. They then fought Nazi tyranny and celebrated victory by creating the Welfare State and giving liberty to the people of the greatest empire the world has ever seen.

Meanwhile Britain's new government is to celebrate these historical events by abolishing the 1998 Human Rights Act. This is seen as quick and popular move by the Prime Minister, a sop to our billionaire owned right-wing press that is already celebrating that "Human Rights Madness" is over.

The Act requires British courts to "take into account" judgements of the Human Court of Human Rights. It does not bind us to the court's decisions, but nor does abolishing it completely free us; the only way we could do that would be to leave the Council of Europe.

The Act is to be replaced with a 'British bill of rights'. These have not been published, mainly because they don't exist. The committee that was to draw them up broke up three years ago when it couldn't agree. Anyone who believes this as yet unfinished bill will give us the same rights has more faith than I have in a Prime Minister who is willing to say without irony:
"For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone."
The European Convention on Human Rights, which underpins the Human Rights Act, was draw up in 1950 by a continent recovering from the ravages of total war and the brutality of the Nazi regime. Deriving from the UN Declaration of Human Rights passed two years early it aimed to make 'never again' really mean never again.

However whilst the Act remains a backstop against totalitarianism, it's main beneficiaries have been people in society who are usually forgotten, even by Human Rights champions.

Thanks to the Act council's can no longer require women fleeing domestic violence be separated from their families, the army can't sack you for being gay and victims of human trafficking are treated as people and not just contraband cargo.

Personally I have been affected in two ways. After I was found not guilty of Criminal Damage to six acres of Genetically Modified maize the Human Rights Act meant the police had to destroy the DNA sample they'd taken off me. Meanwhile at work, if I decide a person with dementia isn't safe to live in the community an independent person checks my decision.

If we do not take act these rights will go. Now is the time to fight.

Governments can make very bad decisions when trying to please the tabloid pack, witness the Dangerous Dogs Act. Once they get going they can also stick with even worse decisions rather than look weak, such as the Poll Tax.

The best way to save the Human Rights Act is to convince the government as quickly as possible that this will not be the quick victory they hope, but a long and difficult campaign. We have four lines of defence; the Scots, the Irish, the Lords and the backbenches.

1. Scotland

The Human Rights Act was incorporated into Scottish law when the devolved parliament was set up in Edinburgh. It is far from clear if Westminster has the authority to change this without the consent of the Scots, which is most definitely not going to be given.

In the complicated language of devolution this covered by the Sewel Convention, and legal experts are divided on the issue. Scotland has just returned a record number of Nationalist MPs to Westminster, where they have no power whatsoever. Furthermore instead of the second vote on independence they want, they are about to get a referendum on leaving the European Union, which they don't want. 

Abolishing the HRA north of the border could cause a massive legal battle and political revolt, neither of which a government elected primarily by the south of England will really want.

2. Northern Ireland

Across the Irish Sea are similar problems. The HRA is part of the Good Friday Agreement which brought to an end nearly 30 years of The Troubles. Replacing it would require cross party agreement from Nationalists and Unionists in a parliament where arguments about innocuous things such as flags can quickly escalate into international incidents.

Furthermore The Province has good reason to be grateful to the European Commission on Human Rights. In 1976 the court ruled that the use by the British Army of hooding, wall-standing, sleep deprivation, starvation and subjection to noise, known as the 'Five techniques', amounted to torture. Greece under the Colonels was the only other EU country to have been found to have tortured it's own citizens.

The Irish, of whatever colour, are unlikely to want to rewrite the agreement that brought them peace or to lose rights that within my lifetime have stopped torture.

3.The Lords

The Conservatives now have a majority in the House of Commons, but as they are no longer in
coalition with the Liberal Democrats no longer have one in the House of Lords.

Principles dating back over a hundred years mean that the Lords can't oppose manifesto commitments, but they can delay them for up to two years. What's more the Lords take their responsibilities as guardians our mostly unwritten constitution seriously.

The Lords can prevent this being a quick win for the government, will expose the proposals to expert scrutiny and demand the Prime Minister expend valuable Commons time if he wishes to get them through.

4. The Backbenchers

The government majority in the Commons is only twelve. The non-appearance of Sein Fein at Westminster and Ulster Unionist support makes this a little more in practise, but it's still not much.

The Conservative Party seems to care more for the rights of corporations than individuals, but there are backbenchers who still value individual liberty, and even some who like European institutions like the Commission on Human Rights. One such in Kenneth Clarke who has said:
"I personally think it is unthinkable to leave the European convention on human rights. It was drafted by British lawyers after the second world war to protect the values we fought the war for."
Ex-Chancellor and Home Secretary Clarke, the model for the smoking Minister of Health in Yes Prime Minister, has no future in this Eurosceptic Cabinet so can basically say what he wants.

That it has come to relying on a man whose day job is selling cigarettes to Vietnamese kids to defend our human rights says a lot about the parlous state of UK politics, but unless we plan on giving up on being human, now is the time to fight with whatever weapons we have.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Human Rights Act: A letter to my MP

Letter to my MP on the plan to abolish the Human Rights Act:

Dear Andrew,

Congratulations on your re-election. No doubt it will mean plenty more emails from me.

At the weekend I was down in London for the Glossop North End's FA Vase Cup Final. The result was disappointing, but it did mean I was able to stay overnight in order to see the VE Day 70th Anniversary parade. Watching the veterans parading down Whitehall, many of them older than my clients at work, was a moving experience and reminded me of how we need to protect what they fought for.

One legacy of the war is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in 1948 to ensure that what the Nazis did would never happen again.  I understand the Prime Minister's frustration with the European Court of Human Rights, which has left behind its main mission to concentrate on trivia like prisoner's voting rights, but we must not let this distract us from how important Human Rights are, and how vital it is to have them integrated into domestic UK Law.

What's more getting rid of the Human Rights Act will cause major problems within the UK. They are
a part of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, a deal which I, as someone who lived in Ireland in the 1990s, regard as John Major's greatest legacy. Abolishing the Act will also cause a further rift with Scotland at a time when we really need to be doing everything we can to persuade the Scots to stay in the Union.

Please right to the Prime Minister, with either your words or mine, asking him to reconsider this hasty action and to concentrate instead on the more pressing problems of the country.

Yours sincerely

Martin Porter

Sunday, 29 March 2015

My Address to Election Candidates

I was invited to address General Election candidates standing in the constituency of Cheadle in Stockport, Greater Manchester at a hustings organised by 38 Degrees and held in Stockport Art Gallery. This is what I said:

I am very pleased to be here today to ask the Candidates a question on energy policy, because you can’t talk about energy without discussing Climate Change, and there is surely no issue in the world right now which is more important to the future of human civilisation, yet where political leadership is so obviously lacking. 

The integrity of the science that warns of the danger is constantly being reinforced, whilst those that deny the problem are regularly shown to have none. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, led by a Climate Change sceptic and partly funded by Climate Change deniers, confirmed the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whilst the astrophysicist Willie Soon, a prominent critic of the scientific consensus in the media, turned out to be fully funded by the fossil fuel industry.

We have been aware of this problem for more than a quarter of a century, yet our efforts to deal with it have come to nothing. Market based solutions have conspicuously failed. Indeed, Sir Nicholas Stern has called Climate Change the  greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”.

The politicians have done a little better than the business leaders. In 2008 the previous UK government passed the Climate Change Act which requires an 80% reduction in Greenhouse Gas emission by 2050, but then this year the current government passed the Infrastructure Bill which includes the legal requirement to ‘maximise economic recovery of UK petroleum.’

Meanwhile the fossil fuel industry continues to benefit from billions of pounds of state subsidies much of it hidden. British companies mine the tar sands of Canada, explore for new oil in the pristine wilderness of the Arctic or look to exploit the shale gas in the rocks beneath our feet in Greater Manchester.

Internationally the politics is stalled. Negotiations to get a global deal come of age this year with the COP21 meeting in Paris, yet we are no nearer a stalled. Few people would argue with George Monbiot’s description of the process as “hundreds of intelligent, educated, well-paid and elegantly-dressed people wasting their lives”.

And it’s not as if we don’t know what needs to be done. Renewable energy, better public transport and more insulation in our homes is pretty much all that is needed. What’s more, whilst a cleaner air, less traffic and warmer houses are all desirable things in their own right, the Campaign Against Climate Change has shown that making this happen will create one million new jobs, meaning the solution to our climate crisis can also be the solution to our social crisis. 

It will take a fair bit of investment, but less than it took to save the financial system after the Credit Crunch. If the banks were too big to fail, then the climate definitely is.

So what is to be done?

The Guardian newspaper, our only newspaper not owned by a billionaire, is putting its weight behind the fossil fuel divestment campaign and efforts to keep the carbon in the ground the case for which, says editor Alan Rushbridger, “is becoming an overwhelming one”.

So my question to the Candidates is in three parts; do they accept the science of Climate Change, do they agree that what we have tried so far to solve the problem has failed and most likely will continue to fail, and will they support the campaign to keep fossil fuel fuels in the ground by saying no to imports of Canadian tar sand oil, stopping British companies drilling in the Arctic Ocean and ending the rush to frack for shale gas?

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

How Britain Made Greece Free

Revolt in the Levant

A revolution breaks out in the east of the Mediterranean. Volunteers from Western Europe rush to join the rebels lured by romantic dreams of a noble cause, but when they arrive they find themselves in the middle of a genocide, fighting alongside religiously inspired fanatics with a taste for beheading their opponents. The Great Powers consider intervention but decide to stay neutral. At first they ignore their citizens who go to fight, but eventually they fear trouble at home and take steps to stop the volunteers leaving.

No, not Syria today, but Greece nearly 200 years ago.

The Greek Revolt, which broke out 194 years ago today, was a curious business. Although it only concerned the fate of a small population on the fringe of Europe, it was always an international affair. The flames of the revolution were fanned not from within Greece, where the Orthodox Church was on friendly terms with the Ottoman Empire, but by Greeks living abroad who wanted the Byzantine Empire back, and by the non-Greeks who supported them and dreamed of a return to the glories of the days of Pericles, the Philhellenes.

Greece and Britain are at opposite ends of the European Union and politically seem to have little in
common. We send them our tourists and in return they send repeated requests to return their Marbles.

Yet it is strangely the case that probably no-one did more to create the modern Greek state than the British. I suppose I should add "except for the Greeks themselves" but, as we shall see, that may not actually be the case. Britain produced more Philhellenes than anywhere else and, in one of the many ironies of the situation, it was in no small part because we had the Parthenon Marbles that so many were inspired to help Greece.

This is a part of our history we have largely forgotten for far too long, so here is the story.

British Greece

A ship of the East India Company in Corfu harbour
Britain had acquired the Ionian Islands from the shattered Venetian Empire after the Battle of Waterloo. They were the last outpost Christianity before the Moslem world began. Corfu was the largest and most heavily fortified, but they also included Ithaca, the legendary home of Odysseus, and Lefkada, from whose cliffs the poet Sappho is supposed to have thrown herself to her death.

It was always unfortunate that for the Classically trained Englishmen than ran the show that the British Empire mostly consisted of places they'd never heard of. However in the Ionian Islands they were in their element. Unfortunately the reality of a marginal life on a small island meant that the actual Greeks they bumped into rarely fitted their preconceptions of Homeric heroes and Sapphic beauties. "The constant use of garlic and the rare use of soap, impress an Englishman very disagreeably," wrote one disappointed administrator.

British rule was mildly benevolent despotism. The enlisted men of the garrison seemed to spend most of their time drunk on the local wine, thus setting the trend for the British tourists that would arrive 150 years later, whilst their social superiors promenaded in the sunshine. Enough Greeks tries to copy the latter that new Orders of Chivalry were created to reward them and the rules of cricket were translated into Greek (απο ξυλα means 'bowled' apparently).

Lord Guilford
Some of the Brits who travelled out to the islands did though put some serious effort into improving the lot of the locals. Lord Guilford, a convert to the Orthodox Church and fluent speaker of both ancient and modern Greek, was so shocked that there was no university in Greece that he founded one in Corfu. It opened its doors in 1824 and had a library of 25,000 books.

Guilford, like most of the other Brits in the Ionian Islands, was sympathetic to the Greek cause, but maintained the strict neutrality that his government demanded. The islands provided a haven for thousands of refugees from the fighting and a postal service that allowed the beleaguered Greek rebels to communicate with the outside world.

Commodore Gawan Hamilton

HMS Cambrian by Jack Sullivan (1976)
The British government though was not prepared to just follow the action from the sidelines in Corfu, they wanted a man on the spot.

That man was the Royal Navy's Commodore Gawan Hamilton. Hamilton is a bit of a mystery to the historian. He breezes in on his frigate HMS Cambrian, spends five years sailing round the war zone, turning up when most needed, dispensing sage advice to both sides, and keeping his head when all about him are loosing theirs, sometimes literally. He then puts down a nest of pirates in Crete and then disappears from history. We know very little about him, but he appears to be a remarkable man even in a navy that was, at that time, full of remarkable men.

In 1823, for example, he arrived in Napflio just as the town has fallen to the rebels and the victorious Greeks were getting ready to massacre the Turks. Hamilton persuaded them to let the Turks leave in chartered ships, taking 500 to Smyrna in his own frigate.

Edward Trelawny
In 1824 Lord Byron's friend Edward Trelawny was lying seriously wounded in a cave on Mount Parnassus, having been shot in the back by an insane fellow countryman. His life was saved by a Doctor dispatched from the Cambrian.

The next year Hamilton was back in Nafplio. The revolt had just suffered a major defeat and the army of the Turkish vassal the Pasha of Egypt was closing in on the seat of the revolutionary government, which was paralysed with fear. But when the Egyptians arrived they found three ships bearing the White Ensign moored in the harbour and a rumour sweeping the countryside that the British had orders to fire in the defence of the town. The Pasha withdrew, the revolution survived and Hamilton sailed away again.

By 1827 there were two main factions each claiming to be the legitimate government of Greece, each with their own base. The leadership of the revolt was again paralysed, with neither party prepared to back down. Once more the Commodore arrived to sort things out, arranging a meeting at a neutral venue where, even though they failed to sort out who ran the country, they at least managed the vital task of agreeing who was to lead the Army and the Navy.

The Legion and the Regiment

The Battle of Peta
For all the help that Hamilton gave the revolt, he always kept to the letter of the law of strict neutrality. For many across Europe though, this just would not do. The romance of the Greek adventure was too much for many, especially the thousands of demobilised soldiers from the Napoleonic wars knocking around with nothing to do.

Volunteers from across Europe flocked to the Peloponnese with dreams of fighting alongside a modern Leonidas in a new Battle of Marathon. When they got there they found themselves in a confusing guerrilla war alongside bandits-turned-rebels, who often as not turned back to bandits again, who cared nothing for chivalrous warfare and even less for military discipline.

In the mountains of Greece these methods worked well, whereas the standing-bravely-shoulder-to-shoulder tactics of the volunteers proved suicidal in the face of superior Turkish numbers and artillery. The first Regiment was wiped out gloriously in battle in an insignificant village called Peta. A few disillusioned survivors returned to Europe to warn of the futility of it all, but still people volunteered. Proving that the krauts did used to actually like the Greeks once upon a time, the next unit formed was called the German Legion. It went out six months later and suffered the same fate as the Regiment.

When this disaster failed to stop the exodus of hopeful heroes the French authorities took action and shut the port of Marseilles to volunteers.

The Crown and Anchor Committee

The Crown and Anchor
Whilst these naive romantics were fighting and dying in Greece, a far more organised group were meeting in the Crown and Anchor Tavern in The Strand, London. Long since demolished, the pub was then a home to meetings of Radicals and other reformers.

The London Philhellenic Committee meant business. They had access to vast quantities of cash in the form of loans and bonds and they would eventually end up sending to Greece both Britain's greatest poet and her most famous sailor, as well as commissioning the most potent fighting ship then afloat.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron lands in Greece
Lord Byron was on the face of it an unlikely choice to send to Greece, but to be fair to the committee they never actually asked him to go there, just to help them distribute its money. However nobody who knew him could have believed he would have been happy just to be the banker of the revolution. Stopping off in the Ionian islands on the way, where he contemplated buying Ithaca, he eventually landed in Missolonghi, where one of those claiming to be leading the revolt had his HQ.

Byron soon acquired an entourage of Albanian bandits who were happy to take his money and strut their stuff, but who all promptly ran away when he tried to use them to attack the Turkish fort at Lepanto. He was contemplating the utter failure of his plans when he fell ill and, after bloodletting failed to make him any better, he caught sepsis and died.

Whilst it was certainly a death in Greece and probably a death because of Greece, it was hardly a death for Greece. Byron had absolutely no desire to pop his clogs in such a depressing manner. But it was a death, and the Hellenic Republic still celebrates Byron as the foreigner who died to free their country; a pity really, because there are many better candidates, the chief one of which we are about to meet.

Frank Abney Hastings

A quick look at a map shows that anyone who wants to fight in Greece must have a navy. If there's one thing the Greeks can do apart from fall out amongst themselves, it's sail. The sea is part of their heritage and when I started learning the language I quickly realised they have as many words for boat as Inuits allegedly have for snow.

The Greek Revolutionary Navy was a nautical version of the guerrillas of its Army; small, lightweight vessels that could run rings around the lumbering Turkish men-o-war. The leaders of the Hellenic Navy were a colourful bunch, the most outlandish of which was a woman called Laskarina Bouboulina who was supposedly so ugly she had to take her lovers at gunpoint. Well, that's the story, but I suspect in reality she just used vast quantities of retsina like everyone else.

Frank Hastings
Joining her at sea was one Frank Abney Hastings, formerly of the Royal Navy. He had served at Trafalgar whilst eleven years old and had spent fifteen years in the Senior Service, rising to the rank of Commander, before being sacked for challenging a fellow officer to a duel. He wasn't short of money and went to Greece purely for the adventure.

He got use to the regular beheading of captured Turks on the deck and the democratic nature of the Hellenic Navy, where everyone shouted orders but nobody obeyed them and each ship voted on whether to follow the orders of its Captain. He had some success in a small, borrowed Greek vessel, and when no ship at all was available he used an island, laying siege to the Turkish forces in Napflio from an off-shore fort.

However Hastings had grander plans than that. He wanted the most powerful warship afloat, and thanks to the money from the Crown and Anchor Committee he was going to get it.

Thomas Cochrane

Thomas Cochrane
A modest man, Hastings never had any ambitions to lead the Hellenic Navy. He just wanted his ship.Instead the Greeks, via the London Philhellenic Society, looked to recruit Britain's most flamboyant sailor to the post.

In Nelson's navy of brilliant but eccentric sea captains, Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, was the most brilliant and eccentric of them all. As a frigate captain he had made more prize money out of capturing French ships than anyone else. He was the inspiration for the heroic captain in Master and Commander, written by one of his midshipmen, and so effectively ended up being played by Russell Crowe.

Buying himself a seat in the House of Commons as a Radical he made himself unpopular by railing against corruption in the navy. When in 1814 he was the only person to make money out of a hoax that Napoleon had died he was imprisoned for fraud. He was dismissed from the navy, expelled from parliament and lost his knighthood.

Still protesting his innocence he served in the wars that freed South America from colonial rule, commanding the navies of Chile and then Brazil. He performed heroic feats of arms for both, and then argued about the money afterwards.

The second siege of the Acropolis
Wild and red-headed, Cochrane was the opposite of the calm Hastings in demeanour and also in motivation. Whilst Hastings went to Greece for the love of adventure, and stayed for the love of Greece, Cochrane fought only for cash. His fee for the job was equal to the total annual tax revenue of the country. Unfortunately the nation did not get good value for its money.

Cochrane arrived as the crisis was approaching. The rebels had assembled their largest army yet and, under the command of an Irish General called Church, were trying to relive the siege of the Acropolis. They had captured the port of Piraeus from which they could approach the citadel under cover of olive trees, safe from Turkish cavalry and cannon. Pretty hard to believe now, but that's how it was then.

Rather confusingly Church, the General, was at sea on a yacht and Cochrane, the Admiral, had come ashore. Not surprisingly this unorthodox command system failed miserably. Church and Cochrane tried an alternative route and the Greek army was mown down in the open. The two leaders escaped by wading out to waiting boats, but most of the soldiers weren't so lucky. The rebellion looked doomed.

SS Karteria

SS Karteria
At sea though things were going a lot better, for Hastings had finally got the ship he wanted. Twenty years after Trafalgar the navies of the world still consisted entirely of wooden ships propelled by sails and firing solid iron shot. Hastings though was looking to the future.

At his direction the London Philhellenic Society had launched the SS Karteria, an iron ship powered by steam engines and equipped with monster 68 pounder cannons firing explosive shot. It's difficult to appreciate how far ahead of its time this ship was. Even getting the vessel to Greece had probably broken several records for an iron ship.

The Karteria was soon in action. In a series of hit and run operations Hastings wiped out Turkish forts, transports and warships. His opponents probably had no idea what they were fighting. Belching smoke, steaming straight into the wind and firing shells that reduced wooden warships to splinters it must have seemed like they were being attacked by some malevolent Greek god of old.

Hastings' ambition was to catch the Turkish fleet becalmed at sea, wipe it out and win the war in an afternoon. Had luck been with him he could probably have done it. As it was he did contribute to the end of the war, but not in a way he could have imagined.

Sir Edward Codrington

Sir Edward Codrington
The Great Powers were now starting to take an interest in Greece. Initially they were reluctant to get involved in what they saw as the internal affairs of the Ottomans, and even more reluctant to be seen to be supporting a revolt against an established empire.

However an Egyptian army marching across Greece laying waste to entire provinces was something they couldn't ignore. Hamilton was still around bring home tales of Greeks hiding in caves and surviving by boiling grass. Something would have to be done. Britain, France and Russia, each worried that either of the others would act alone and thus acquire a bit of valuable strategic real estate, together put forward a peace proposal called the Treaty of London.

The Greeks accepted it, as they were done for if they didn't, but the Turks refused. The three powers then sent fleets to Greece to make the Sultan comply. This called for very delicate diplomacy. Unfortunately for the Turks they gave the command to Sir Edward Codrington, the youngest captain to command a ship in the Battle of Trafalgar.

He found the Turkish fleet holed up in the harbour at Navarino, formed in a defensive horseshoe covering the entrance. The Turkish Admiral was understandably miffed that Codrington was asking him to lay down his arms whilst Cochrane's navy was still attacking him. Codrington explained that the Greeks had accepted the treaty and so weren't his problem.

The allied fleet entering Navarino harbour
Things would probably have remained at an impasse had Hastings hadn't picked that moment to try out some new ammunition in the Karteria. He wiped out nine Ottoman gunboats in a night raid and when the Turks tried to send out a squadron to deal with him, but they were blocked by Codrington. The French and the Russians arrived, as did Hamilton in the Cambrian.

Codrington now decided that there had been enough diplomacy and tried a tactic that even Nelson might have felt was a bit rash. He sailed into Navarino Bay and moored his ships inside the horseshoe, right under the Turkish guns. He was outnumbered, outgunned and trapped by an unfavourable wind. It was an amazing bit of chutzpah, as if he was daring the Turks to try something. 

And sure enough they did.

The Battle of Navarino
It was the last battle of the Age of Sail, although all the ships were actually at anchor. Codrington's fleet blew the Turks to pieces. He lost one hundred and eighty men and no ships. The Turks lost over 3000 men and sixty ships.  

He had done what Byron, Hastings, Cochrane and Church had all failed to achieve and won the war for Greece.  To the British public he was a national hero.

To his own government though he was an embarrassment. British policy then was to preserve the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russia. Now Codrington had just destroyed their fleet. When the public clamour had died down he was dismissed from the service.


So Greece was free. Ruined, diseased, bankrupt and indebted, but free. Or at least some of it was sort
of free. Athens, along with two thirds of the Greek population of the Ottoman Empire, was not part of the new kingdom.

However, there was no denying that for the first time in history a small nation had come into existence based on a unique ethnic mix, a model that was to be followed around the world in the next century as the Age of Empires came to an end.

The Ionian Islands remains British until 1864, when they opted for enosis with the rest of Greece, a decision which their colonial masters couldn't understand.

Guilford's Ionian University though is still there. For the first twenty years of the Greek state almost all the doctors, lawyers, academics and senior civil servants were its alumni.

HMS Cambrian eventually foundered of Crete and, although he survived, Hamilton disappears from history afterwards.

Statue of Byron in Athens (Jennifer)
The loans organised by the London Philhellenic Society turned out not to be the great investment they had promised. Most weren't repaid until the 1870s and their existence caused many problems for the Hellenic Kingdom.

Lord Byron posthumously became the hero in Greece that he never was at home, and today there are more statues of him there than there are here.

Hastings, the most useful Philhellene of them all, continued in the service of his adopted nation. In the year after Navarino he fired what may have been the last shot of the war at a Turkish fort near Missolonghi. Following up through the marsh he was shot in the arm and died of blood poisoning, aged 33. It would be another 25 years before the Royal Navy would launch a ship comparable to the Karteria.

Cochrane returned to Britain where he was forgiven and reinstated in the Royal Navy, had his honours restored and was eventually buried in Westminister Abbey.

Codrington spent the rest of his life defending his actions at Navarino and denying he was a secret Philhellene. Like Byron, he is now better remembered in Greece than at home, having several roads named after him.

Greece meanwhile is once again bankrupt and indebted, although still free. Let us raise a glass of Greek wine to them today - or maybe they should raise a glass of English beer to us?


Heaven's Command by Jan Morris (1973)
The Greek Adventure by David Howarth (1976)

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Time to Act 2015

Well done to the 10-20,000 people who came to Time to Act 2015.

This is planned to be the start of a series of actions that will both lead up to the COP21 Climate Change conference in Paris in December, but more importantly will carry on after the conference to force our leaders into real action.

This is a big battle. Apartheid was ended and the Berlin Wall fell, but neither involved messing with the oil fueled capitalist system that owns the world.

They will fight, and so must we.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Why you need to be in London on March 7th

This is important.

Last September as part of Frack Free Greater I helped organise a Manchester People’s Climate March. It wasn’t as large as the one in New York (400,000 people) or London (40,000) but Labour Party leader Ed Miliband noticed us as he watched from his car. Last week he appointed John Prescott as an advisor on Climate Change with the brief to “raise ambition on this crucial issue”. I disagree with a lot of Labour policy, especially their support for fracking, but I'm glad they’re talking about the subject.

Instillation dubbed "Politicians debating Climate Change"
What this means is that this general election campaign will be very different to previous ones. In the
past Climate Change campaigners, and other environmentalists, would shut up shop whilst the politicians argued about immigration and the EU and the other issues that the press distracts the public with. This time though Climate Change will be part of the debate. Politicians will not be able to get away with ignoring the issue any more.

This year is also a crucial year for the international attempt to reach a deal on preventing Climate Change. We don’t expect much from the meeting in Paris in December, but once again we will not be letting the politicians get away with inaction. The big demonstration is planned for the day after the talks finish. We want this to be the start of a global insurgency that forces world leaders to act.
In the UK this starts in London in just under two weeks time.

But the demo is also about the right to protest. In Manchester we saw at Barton Moss last winter how far the authorities will go to stop us. However at least in Manchester they let us have our Solidarity Days and marches in the city centre. The London Metropolitan Police though initially refused to unless The Campaign Against Climate Change pays for private security with money it doesn’t have.They backed down eventually, but the message was clear.
allow the Time to Act march

But whether we can make the politicians take Climate Change seriously, or withdraw their threat to make us ‘pay to protest’, depends on a good turnout on 7 March.

As I said, this is important.