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

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Parnell: The Empire Strikes Back


Inspired by Geoffrey Wheatcroft's article on Gladstone in The Guardian today, here is a little story of sex and unintentional revenge.

The story begins on the morning of the 28th February 1881 on a hilltop in South Africa. A British Army led by one of the best and brightest of its Generals has been defeated by a bunch of farmers. General Colley and 91 of his men lie dead and 59 bewildered survivors are marched off into captivity. The Boers have only lost one man dead on the field.

Back in the British camp, General Sir Evelyn Wood, an experienced and successful commander in many of the Empire's small wars, is plotting how to extract revenge using the large army that is even now marching to his aid. Wood is a veteran of the Empire's small wars, who had turned the course of the Zulu War with his victory at Khambula. However, before he can put his plan into action, word comes from the Prime Minister, William Gladstone, that he is to seek peace instead.

When Wood met the Boer leaders though, most of the talking was done by one Alfred Aylyard. An Irishman qualified as a solicitor and a surgeon, the talented Mr Aylyard was officially there as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, but he was really engaging in his primary occupation, that of professional revolutionary, and taking great delight in humiliating the British.

Aylyard wasn't the only Irish Nationalist jubilant at the Boer triumph. The Irish World declared, "Give thanks to God, ye starving Irish...the Boers and Basutos (referring to the recent revolt of Sekukini) of South Africa are fighting the battle of Ireland, although they don't know it."

Wood signed the peace treaty and his mentor, Sir Garnet Wolseley - the very model of a major general - was so incensed it was effectively the end of Wood's career.

As the 1880s wore on it seemed that Ireland would indeed finally get Home Rule. but without any fighting at all. O'Connell having won them the vote, Irish Catholics then used their votes to elect Charles Stuart Parnell to Parliament and to give his Irish Party enough seats to make them kingmakers in Westminister.


Unfortunately for Aylyard, Parnell and the Nationalists, the Wood family were to have their revenge, for the unfortunate General Wood had a sister, Katharine.

Known as Kitty, she had married one of Parnell's supporters, a Major O'Shea and it is as Kitty O'Shea that she enters history.

Like O'Connell before him Parnell fancied a bit on the side, and Kitty was his mistress. The Major was not impressed and when he sued for divorce Parnell was exposed and fell from power.

The Empire had stuck back.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

After Copenhagen: Have We A Prayer?


The protesters protested - and got nicked for their trouble.

The NGOs lobbied - and many of them were nicked too, or barred from the conference like Friends of the Earth.

Lazy people like me blogged and emailed.

But all to no avail. COP15 was a disaster and a damp squib at the same time (if that's possible).

So what do we do now?

We can lobby for another meeting next year, we can boycott goods from the two countries most responsible for the impasse: China and the USA, we can.......

Can anyone think of anything that we can do that will actually work??

Perhaps divine intervention is what we need. But which deity should we invoke?

As far as I can see there is one glimmer of hope in the science of climate change, one factor which may slow, if not halt, the rise in global temperatures that appears to spell the end of civilised life as we know it. It's a bit of a long shot, but here it is.

When I was an undergraduate Astrophysics student my final year project was observing the sun and measuring solar flares. I didn't see many. The telescope was positioned in such a way that after midday the sun was obscured behind the Social Sciences building and what student worth his Newcastle Brown is up and about before midday? However I can't blame the sun for not doing its bit as the late 1980s were a bit of a high for solar activity.

Since then though it's all been downhill for our nearest star. Solar activity has steadily reduced and sun spots are disappearing. This variation in solar output is tiny really, and hardly likely on its own to counteract the effect of pumping millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. However there is some evidence (well, not much more than speculation really) that there might be an additional mechanism that multiplies the effects of solar activity on climate.

Reduced solar wind from a less active sun allows more cosmic rays to get through to the earth. Cosmic rays are high energy particles formed in the heart of distant exploding stars. The hunch is that when they hit our atmosphere they in some way 'seed' clouds. More clouds mean more sunlight reflected back into space and a cooler climate. The reduction in solar activity since I graduated is small at the moment, but the disappearance of sun spots over the last few years has led some astronomers to speculate that we may be at the start of a big downturn in solar output.

This possible link is currently being examined by the CLOUD project at CERN, next to the Large Hadron Collider. The latter hopes to unlock the secrets of the Higgs Boson, the so called 'God particle' which defines mass. The Higgs particle may be a funny sort of god, but our dear old sun is a deity that pagans can identify with.

To the Ancient Egyptian the sun was Aten, and was revered with the song we know as the Great Hymn to Aten. The Christians borrowed this an it became Psalm 104.

On Monday its the longest night of the year, the day the sun is reborn. and so as a sun worshipping Druid I feel it is only my duty to call upon our nearest star to do its duty and give us a bit of a break so that humanity can get its collective act together and kick its carbon addiction.

Well, I said it was a long shot!

Friday, 18 December 2009

My message to Jonathan Pershing, US Climate Negotiator

Dear Mr Pershing

Many environmentalists blame the USA for the current crisis. They say that it is the 'frontier spirit' of old that is the problem, America's view that the natural world is there to be exploited and used.

However my view is that it is a lack of such spirit that is the problem. For the first time in its history America is afraid of a new frontier. The 'can do' optimism that has seen your nation rise to be the world's only superpower has gone. Your nation would rather cling feebly to old certainties than embrace a brave new world.

Please, show me I am wrong. Just as your namesake led his brave soldiers to Europe's rescue in 1917, please save these climate talks with a magnanimous offer. America may think it has much to loose in leaving behind the carbon economy, but is there any other nation with the scientists, the business people and the drive to better exploit the new world of renewable energies?

Yours sincerely

Martin Porter
Glossop
Derbyshire
England

Send your own message to a climate negotiator.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Lond Monckton helps the BNP


It's been a bad week for Climate Change activists, with several hundred banged up by the Danish police, but it's been a worse one for Climate Change deniers.

The shy and retiring, not to mention barking mad, aristo Lord Monckton was ambushed by rather polite climate activists whilst in Copenhagen. He responded by branding them all Hitler Youth.

The brunt of his attack calmly explained to the peer that as a Jew whose grandparents had had to escape Hitler he didn't know quite how to take this.

Well it turns out the one with the Nazi connections may actually be Monckton himself.

The evidence is in the British National Party's 40 page anti-Global Warming rant.

That it's a load on denier b*llocks is no surprise - it would be embarrassing for eco-warriors if it wasn't. But what does raise one's eyebrows is on page 36. It seems the BNP haven't just done a cut and paste job from Monckton's website, but that the peer has been in correspondence with them.

Monckton was an advisor to Mrs. Thatcher and has recently joined UKIP. Flirting with the nasty end of the hard right is clearly the next stage in his reverse political evolution.

They say politics makes strange bed fellows, but perhaps we shouldn't linger too long on the image of Monckton and Nick Griffin disappearing under the climate change denial duvet with Sarah Palin, Ian Plimer and the rest of the sad circle of right wing nutters.

Hmm, I think that's just put me off my tea.

Plimer versus Monbiot: Points victory to Monbiot.


So the big match has finally occurred, live on Aussie TV.

Climate change denier, spokesperson for an Exxon funded think tank and Spectator cover boy Ian Plimer appears to have finally met his Waterloo.

Having wimped out of an earlier debate by refusing to answer some basic questions on his book, he has finally found himself face to face with his nemesis in a televised debate.

Straight questions from our George, evasion and random facts from Plimer. In particular he failed to answer the question as to why, as a geologist, he doesn't seem to know how much CO2 volcanoes admit. Actuallyhis failure to stand by his claim suggests he does know how much CO2 they emit, but that he also knows that to say so will leave his credibility lower than the submarine volcanoes he erroneously claimed weren't in the US Geological Survey figures.

He also ducked, dodged and weaved over his claim that global warming stopped in 1998, a claim he makes no less than 16 times in one chapter. This is simply a bit of legerdemaine: 1998 remains the hottest year ever recorded, but 8 of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since then and this is the hottest decade ever recorded. Again, Plimer's evasion would suggest he knows this.

Plimer also rather amusingly called Monbiot, who is descended from French aristocracy, "ill bred". I guess that may be an Aussie thing. He also waved his book to the camera a suspicously large number of times.

No knockout blow, but the shows emails appear to give Monbiot a clear victory, with Plimer seen as the fact dodger he clearly is. Nice one George.

One person who really should watch this debate and hang his head in shame though is the new presenter of Radio 4's flagship Today program. Webb had Plimer in the studio last month and gave him the lightest grilling anyone on the program has ever had. Webb, an LSE educated economist, clearly doesn't do science.

But then, neither does Plimer.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Saving Swallows Wood: The Indirect Approach


I've tried to avoid putting up trivia about my life on this blog, but as a certain amount of useless personal tit tat is almost compulsory in the blogosphere I would like to mention that last night I had a very pleasant evening in the Bulls Head in Tintwistle with our local anti-road activists, The Campaign to Save Swallows Wood.

Possibly this will be the last festive gathering of this fine body of people as they seem to have done what very few such campaigners have managed and actually won. After a two year public enquiry it seems that there is no money for the road and if any bypass is ever built it will be somewhat reduced in size and will go nowhere near the titular forest. Bravo and all that.

When I first considered moving to Glossop nearly ten years ago it had a number of points going for it: work, Kinder Scout on the doorstep, live music, a haunted valley, and most importantly it wasn't in Yorkshire. It also offered the possibility of a real live road protest right on my doorstep. No more burning up fossil fuels running up and down the country to lie down in front of bulldozers, when they come to build the A57/A628 bypass I would be able to D-lock myself to a JCB and still be home for tea.

Alas it wasn't to be. Thanks in small part to the campaigners the money has been spent on something less controversial and Swallows Wood appears safe. How a disparate, and frequently feuding, group of campaigners stopped a road that had the support of the Department of Transport, Tameside Council and the local MP, not to mention overwhelming, in the beginning at least, local support is an interesting study.

They lobbied and protested, wrote letters and made Freedom of Information requests. They received help from the Campaign to Preserve Rural England, who took time out from opposing wind farms to actually do something useful. However possibly the most important thing they did was adopt, unknowingly, what the military strategist Basil Liddell Hart called The Indirect Approach.

Liddell Hart had studied the slaughter of the First World War to see if there were better ways to do things. He had also read the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu and his conclusion was|

"In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance."

Unfortunately for Liddell Hart the only people who read his work were the Germans, who used his ideas to bypass the Maginot Line and knock France out of the Second World War.

The Campaign to Save Swallows Wood didn't have any tanks, but they did have considerable lobbying power and following Basil's strategy they briefly turned their fire away from the DoT and its backers and, like Romell sending his tanks to attack neutral Belgium, they set upon the previously uncommitted Peak District National Park Authority.

The National Park weren't in favour of the road, but they'd agreed not to oppose it when the DoT promised in return to drop other plans for road building elsewhere in the Peak District. However faced by some vigorous lobbying form the campaigners they were forced to shake off their neutrality and step in to oppose a road that would mostly be built through open country in the National Park and which would increase lorry traffic.

The result was that when the Public Enquiry opened, the Department of Transport wasn't just faced by a bunch of amateur activists, but by a fully constituted legal body in full war cry. We'll never know exactly which way the chairman of the enquiry was really leaning, but in the bits of the enquiry I personally endured he certainly seemed to be taking the National Park seriously.

All campaigns are different, and like Generals constantly re-fighting the last war it doesn't pay to copy previous successes too faithfully, but any campaigners out their tackiling a seemingly invincible foe could do worse than try to find their own way of following Liddell Hart's doctrine.

Just keep your tanks out of Belgium.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Bhopal Plus 25


I wrote this five years ago.

Tragically very little has changed.

Bhopal: Still Waiting for Justice

Pagans are not on the whole the sort of people who care much for large organisations. Although it’s not an easy thing to say who or what a typical Pagan is, they are rather more likely to be found out on their own repairing dry stone walls or plying their trade as alternative therapists rather than being chained to a desk in a large corporation. When two or three Pagans gather together to discuss the Pagan Federation, its size and omnipotence are not generally considered to be amongst the organisation’s virtues. Indeed one suspects that should ever a McCrystals plc emerge to buy up all the New Age shops in Britain, most Pagans would then choose to look elsewhere for their herbs and incense.

However, like it or not, we live in a corporate world. Multinational corporations account for about a
quarter of world trade and many have a turnover equivalent to a medium sized country. For many environmentalists and social justice campaigners, as well as the ragged assortment of people who the media call ‘anti-Capitalists’, the increasing globalisation of financial markets and world trade is a cause for concern. Demonstrations, peaceful and otherwise, now accompany any large international gathering of ministers from rich nations.

There is a counter argument that Globalisation doesn’t actually exist, and all we have is the old problem of the rich West and an impoverished rest-of-the-world. Working in a Nike factory in Indonesia may be pretty grim, the argument goes, but it’s better than being an Indonesian farmer or working in a local factory. Whilst campaigners get angry when factories and jobs move south in order to pay less and pollute more, the corporations claim they actually help the locals more than they harm them. Whilst working in a call centre in Britain is for unemployed northern ex-steel workers who don’t want to take up stripping, in India it’s a prestige job for graduates.

At the core of many of these arguments is whether or not these big corporations can be held to account for their actions. It’s something of a truism that all governments in power like to suck up to the rich and powerful whilst having a go at the weakest in society. We may not ever see the day when the Prime Minister makes a speech blaming the nation’s ills on rich white men whilst inviting social workers and asylum seekers round for tea at number 10, but is that just politics or are the corporations now more powerful than national governments?

Perhaps the most graphic story of big business getting away literally with murder is the continuing tragedy of Bhopal. If terrorists were ever to release a deadly gas in a built up area in Britain they would be hunted down and brought to justice. If a foreign country were to shelter them then the very least we could probably expect would be a cruise missile or two directed their way.

However nineteen years after a toxic gas release in the central Indian city of Bhopal killed 4,000 people the victims are not just still waiting for justice, but also still drinking contaminated water. Some estimates are that four times as many people have died since the accident as died on the fateful night, and up to 500,000 may have become ill.

The factory responsible was owned and run by the Indian branch of the US multinational chemical company Union Carbide. They may not have deliberately released the gas, but the accident was the result of serious errors by the company. A faulty valve allowed water to enter a chemical storage tank where a corroded stainless steel wall provided the catalyst for a reaction that produced 40 tons of a deadly cyanide compound. The plant lacked the basic safety features that could have contained the gas and so the deadly chemical escaped into the crowded slums of Bhopal. The sleeping residents could not be warned as the alarms had been switched off.

Pretty damning stuff, but Union Carbide’s HQ still claimed it was nothing to do with them. First they said the disaster was the result of sabotage and then they added that the plant was wholly designed and operated by their Indian subsidiary. No evidence of sabotage has ever been produced, and even if it were this would not excuse the lack of safety devices at the site. Their second point has also looked a little weak after a New Scientist investigation last year turned up leaked documents showing how Union Carbide in the USA not only approved all designs for the plant, but knowingly cut costs in building it.

Despite the clear trail of evidence leading to Union Carbide’s US offices, the US legal system refused to hear a case brought by the victims and their families. Instead a settlement was reached in the Indian courts where they received compensation amounting to about $500 per victim. Seeing as how you can get a small fortune for scalding yourself on hot coffee in the US, this seems a little miserly.

The Indian authorities for their part tried a more direct approach, and in 1991 they charged Union Carbide’s boss Warren Anderson with 14,000 cases of murder. But Mr Anderson failed to appear in court to answer the charges, and the Indians were told that the US government didn’t know where he was. That appeared to be that, he’d done a Bin Laden and no-one could find him.

But Mr Anderson, it turned out, was not hiding in a cave on some disputed frontier, and in August last year, right in the middle of the Johannesburg Earth Summit, he was found. Casey Harrell, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace USA, tracked him down to his country club in Hampton, Long Island, New York state. He was shown a copy of the warrant for his arrest, but he decided not to turn himself in. The local police don’t seem too keen on popping round to arrest him, and so far no cruise missiles have been seen heading towards the Hampton Country Club.

So justice has proved frustratingly elusive for the victims of Bhopal. Should we be under any illusions that this is purely an American problem, four years ago a British court threw out a case against Cape plc, a British mining country. They had used children to mine asbestos in apartheid South Africa with scant concern for Health and Safety, but the court decided that there was no case to answer in this country. Multinationals, it seems, are not liable under international law, but local courts do not have the jurisdiction to pursue claims across international borders.

What can be done to about this sorry state of affairs? Well the first thing is for us not to forget those who died, and who continue to die, in Bhopal. The survivors of Bhopal and the families of the victims continue to press for justice. Dow chemicals now own Union Carbide, and they are being told quite clearly that they have inherited Union Carbides liabilities. To drive home the message their website has been the target of a virtual sit-in.

Such actions may not be about to bring Dow to their knees, but it all helps. If you’re well off enough to have a pension plan and a bank account with a positive balance, you can wield some measure of power over the corporations by investing your money ethically, the new growth financial market. If you’re someone who has more time than money you could invest in a single share in a dodgy company, as it allows you to go to their AGM and annoy them in person. I personally can vouch for the hospitality you receive from the road and pipeline builders AMEC and the arctic oil drillers BP. And if we do nothing else we can always remember Dow and Union Carbide in our own rituals. As James Pengelly and others have said, Pagans don’t do nearly as much cursing as they should these days.

But real change will only take place when international justice accompanies international trade. Friends of the Earth are campaigning locally and internationally for governments to pass laws to make companies accountable for their actions. Many other organisations are doing so too. Big business is still accountable to government, and governments are accountable to the people. If enough people make enough of a fuss we might be able to offer the people of Bhopal justice. Better late than never.


The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has a website.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Did Piers Morgan do for Dubai?


I came to Dubai to find out if it really is all it’s cracked up to be, and the answer, if you like sun and fun, glitz and glamour is a resounding ‘yes’. As for the credit crunch, everyone I have met here says the same thing, Dubai won’t just survive, it will thrive and that’s because it’s bursting with ambition and drive all lead by one man’s extraordinary vision and utter determination to turn this place into the biggest and most successful city in the world.”

In January this year the Britain's Got Talent judge Piers Morgan produced a program where instead of interviewing rich but vacuous celebs he went off to meet the rich and vacuous non-celebs of Dubai.

Dubai resembles what Albert Speer might have come up with had he teamed up with Walt Disney to make a New Berlin in the Persian Gulf. Its architecture and interior design is of such monstrous bad taste that it does a lot to reinvigorate the notion of art having a moral dimension.

Piers though gushed about the seven star luxury hotels, he gawped at the huge skyscraper, he marvelled at the artificial archipelago called The World. He missed completely the slave labour camps where the indentured Indian migrant workers lived in squalor. He also missed the censorship of the press, a bit bizarre for a former editor of a couple of British tabloids. Whether or not he also missed the equally dubious sex industry that thrives amongst the pleasure domes we don't know, but it didn't appear in the program anyway. However what's all that when you're having fun in the sun with a lot of ex-pats looking to rake it in tax free.

Well, now the wheels appear to have well and truly come off this bandwagon. It's been quite a week for crashes. We've had Tiger Woods and an Italian Police Lamborghini, but biggest of all has been the Dubai stock exchange, which has just closed after its worst ever day's trading.
All the signs are that this is the start of an economic shock that will echo around the world. The recently bailed out British banks are trembling at the thought of having even more of their assets wiped out. Other small countries with economic troubles are terrified of what this might mean for them. If the fall of Lehman Brothers showed that no company was too big to fail, Dubai might be about to tell us that even countries can go bankrupt. Other small countries with dreams of wealth above their means must be worried. Ireland must be very scared.

Piers Morgan's views on this are not known, but shortly after Dubai he was gushing over Jordan. Ms Price has just quit the I'm A Former Celebrity jungle after the public voted to make her eat half the bugs in Australia. Piers is apparently back with a new series soon, so anywhere else he lands should perhaps be worried.

Nothing is inevitable until it happens, but with Dubai it always seemed like it was going to be a race to see whether the ecological crunch or credit crunch got them first. Here the neo-liberal dream tried its hardest to defy reality. Artificial islands like The World were build a few inches above sea level as if Climate Change wasn't happening and the ice caps weren't melting. Skyscrapers were built on the never-never as if the economic bubble was going to keep on expanding forever. Each citizen now effectively owes the rest of the world over $400,000. It's going to be hard to see how they can afford to carry on importing fresh water, let alone avoid inundation by the ocean.

Perhaps in years to come an alternative to a tour of the pyramids will be a cruise round the drowned metropolis of Dubai. Inevitably the tour guides, like Simon Jenkins, will be quoting Lord Byron:


In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,

Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

The only shadow that the Desert knows:

"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,

"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows

"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,

Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose

The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder, and some Hunter may express

Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness

Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,

He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess

What powerful but unrecorded race

Once dwelt in that annihilated place


Sunday, 29 November 2009

Climategate - Nothing To See Here


Nothing lights up the Climate Change denial blogosphere more than the whiff of righteous indignation when they feel they're on to a scandal, and it was no surprise that the hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit set fingers twitching in darkened rooms across the English speaking world.

The concrete jungle of UEA seems a strange place for a global conspiracy to have its HQ. It's probably full of lovely people, but looking at it you imagine that after dark Alex and his fellow droogs from Clockwork Orange run riot in its concrete passageways. Blofeld for sure would have had something rather better. However just such a conspiracy is what the deniers believe they've found.

It's still early days for figuring out what exactly was in the emails, but it does appear that material was hacked for several weeks in a sophisticated operation and that what has been published is a selective and partial version of several conversations, some a decade or more old.

Some of the allegations of conspiracy are derived from single words int he messages; "trick", "fudge" etc, whilst others relate to alleged professional misconduct; the suppression of controversial papers, the displaying of data in misleading way and the subversion of Freedom of Information requests. As well as the emails computer code used to make climate models was hacked and this too is the subject of controversy.

Interesting though is what is not in the emails. Had anyone hacked the account of my old physics department I suspect they'd have found that 90% of the messages were about Dungeons and Dragons and most of the rest would have revolved around futile attempts to get laid. There's none of that ere. There's also no references to One World Governments, gravy trains of government funding or Shape Shifting Reptiles from outer space.

What is also missing is any context for these messages, and this is very important. An important strand of the allegations is the alleged nobbling of professional publications and scientific papers by Climate Change sceptics. Specifically this refers to the journal Climate Research , which is alleged to "encourage the publication of crap science". Seeing as how the editor and half the board subsequently resigned after the publication of one such paper, the CRU people may well have had a point.

Not that everything in the emails can be discussed quite so lightly. If a Freedom of Information request has been dodged that may actually be illegal and if relationships between warmist and sceptical scientists are as bad as they seem then maybe some of them shouldn't be involved in the peer review process. Also the computer code, whilst not shown to be fixed, is certainly complicate and opaque. There is an argument for suggesting that scientists should standardise their software and put code up for review when papers are published.

A conspiracy though there is not, and neither has the basic science of Climate Change been dented. The tea cup is currently experiencing a Force Ten gale, but that's all.

The denier blogosphere is still buzzing, but increasingly the deniers are now asking why the mainstream media has dropped the story. The leaks have become like Desdemona's handkerchief; conclusive proof of infidelity to those already maddened by paranoia. Just a handkerchief to everyone else.

Monday, 12 October 2009

How Sex Set The Date For Easter

Oswy
For a notoriously prudish nation sex seems to crop up quite a lot in British history.

How different things might have been if Edward the Confessor had been a bit less pious and spent a bit more time making babies with his Queen; possibly no crisis of succession on his death and no Norman invasion. Then there was Edward II whose preference for young men over his French wife led to an unfortunate encounter with a red hot poker. The illegitimacy of another Edward, Edward IV, may well have been covered up. If it hadn't been our King today might be an Australian republican.

The Georgians were a notoriously randy lot, and sometimes even elevated the offspring of their mistresses to the aristocracy. The current leader of the Conservatives owes his poshness to being the descendant of an Irish actress who was the mistress of the young William IV.

In more modern times Edward VIII's amour for the American divorcee Mrs Simpson led to an abdication which fortunately meant we went through the Second World War with a Head of State who was willing to eat spam off his gold plates, and defend Buckingham Palace to the death with his trusty revolver, rather than a Hitler admirer who preferred to spend the war in the Bahamas laundering money.

Sex too, it seems, may have been the main reason why we ended up with the Church of Rome in these islands and not our own home grown Celtic Christianity. The Celtic Church has almost become a mythical entity amongst modern druids and the like. Professor Ronald Hutton may claim it never actually existed as a coherent entity, but we certainly did have a Christianity, based on the teachings of Patrick and Columba, that appeared rather closer to Nature and rather less likely to go off and commit genocide. Certainly pagans feel more at home in places like Iona than amongst the columns of Rome, and have rather more sympathy for Saints like Kevin of Glendalough, who charmed wild boars and turned water into beer, than Cyril of Alexandria, who murdered Jews, pagans and Hypatia, head of the city's great library.

Whitby Abbey
The demise of the Celtic Church came at the Synod of Whitby in 664 and the casus belli was the innocuous subject of the dating of Easter. The patron of the synod was King Oswy of Northumberia.

The death of Penda of Mercia a few years earlier had left Oswy the most powerful king in England, so what he did mattered. The conflict between two Churches may have had its origins in Oswy's domestic arrangements.

Oswy spoke Irish and was of the Celtic Church, who celebrated Easter on the date of the Jewish Passover. However he'd married Eanfled who, coming from Kent, was of the Roman Church and used the new Augustan calendar. The result was, according to the Venerable Bede "that Easter was kept twice in one year, so that when the King had ended Lent and was keeping Easter, the Queen and her attendants were still fasting and keeping Palm Sunday"

To us this would just be a good laugh and a chance to eat twice as many Easter eggs, but for devout Christians like Oswy and Eanfled it could be very frustrating. This was because the Church forbade carnal relations during Lent.

High Cross at Jarrow
Saxon Kings were expected to be fight like demons on the battlefield, drink like fish in the mead hall and perform like stallions in the marital bed and Oswy appears to have been no exception. So every Easter when, after 40 day of abstinence, the King was hoping for what the Celts euphemistically called "the friendship of the thighs" it must have been a tad frustrating for him to find the Queen's legs still locked together for up to another four weeks.

As ever when a man has this sort of problem, he turns to a woman to sort it out. That woman was Hilda, the Abbess of Whitby, who convened a Synod to sort out once and for all when the King could have his oats, although that wasn't given as the reason publicly. As we know, the Church of Rome won the argument. Marital harmony was restored in Bamburgh Castle and the representatives of the Celtic Church went off back to their islands in a huff.

England became part of the Church of Rome and so we stayed for another 869 years, until another king with marital problems came along, but that is another story.

That it was sex that set the date for a festival which Bede tells us is named after the pagan deity Eostre, who was almost certainly a goddess of fertility, is though extremely apt. So perhaps this Easter you might celebrate, in addition to the chocolate eggs of course, in the way Oswy and Eanfled did. 

Friday, 2 October 2009

Druids: Deluded but loving it


Type "Druids delusions" into Google Scholar and you'll find a link to a 1999 paper by a gaggle of psychologists from University College London.

The paper is the result of their experiment to find out if the sort of wacky ideas that could get you banged up in a psychiatric hospital are common in the general public. Using four groups of people; ordinary punters, Christians, Hare Kishnas and Druids, they assessed them all on how happy they were and how wacky their views were.

The results were quite interesting. Ordinary folk were, as you might imagine, neither happy nor deluded. The Christians, interestingly, were mildly deluded but also mildly less happy than the ordinary bods. The Hare Krishnas and the Druids meanwhile turned out to be both deluded enough to be diagnosed as schizophrenic but happy enough to pass as normal.

The Druids and the Hare Krishnas scored pretty much the same on all points, except that the psychologists reported the Druids as having "higher levels of self reported delusional idealation". In other words the difference between a Druid and a Hare Krishna is that the Druid knows he's mad!

So there we go. Ordinary folks may poor scorn, the Christians may say we're going to hell, but we can look them both in the eye and carry merrily on our way - until they cart us off to the funny farm.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Plimer withdrawn before he's counted out.

Well it was never going to live up to expectations, but the Monbiot/Plimer fight has unfortunately ended in a damp squib.

As Plimer had failed to answer Monbot's simple questions about his own book (not hard you'd think. If my finals had been asking about a book I'd written I may even have got a decent grade) Monbiot gave him ten days to reply or the debate was off.

Four days before the deadline expired The Spectator, the right wing rag sponsoring the debate, pulled the plug. In doing so they, and their star columnist Rod Liddle, launched into a tirade against Monbiot.

Bizarrely the injustice of this led to Monbiot being defended by people who normally attacked him. This is from The Spectator's own blog:

Not that I am a fan of Monbiot. From what little of his material I have read, I think he is a pompous ass. And I think that the global warming crowd have largely failed to make their case, have probably faked or fudged at least some of the numbers, and may well be proven wrong in time.

But unless Monbiot has fabricated the email exchanges with The Spectator and Plimer on his website (which would be pretty easy from The Spectator to expose), Plimer is just dodging reasonable questions and The Spectator is backing off from commitments already given.

..........................................................................................................................................

Hang on. I dislike Monbiot as much as the next man; but surely he is saying the opposite of 'let there be an end to the debate.' I think he's entitled to ask why Mr Plimer why he won't debate. If Plimer's view is correct, you can hardly say Monbiot hasn't handed the fellow enough on which to sharpen his teeth.


So what is The Spectactularlyboring playing at? And why is Liddle: ex-Radio 4 editor, wife beater and Millwall fan, joining?

The magazine championed Andrew Wakefield and the campaign against the MMR vaccine, so being anti-science appears to be in their blood, but Wakefield was at least a real GP whilst Plimer is in no way a climate scientist.

I guess Boris isn't coming back to take over again any time soon, so I wonder what their next great lost cause will be?

Saturday, 5 September 2009

How Socialism Won The War


The tabloids and I agree on one thing: the Britain that won the war is very different to the one that we live in today.

True, kids generally respected their parents, who were generally married for life and Policemen were not afraid to give a miscreant a clip around the ear. But equally we were a country where child abuse was rife, homosexuality was illegal and possibly up to 5% of the prison population was actually innocent of the crime they were convicted of.

The tabloid press isn't too fond of digging up the dark side of 1940s Britain, but they are also usually ignorant of the good side too. We were as much a nation of immigrants then as now, only the Poles were pilots rather than plumbers. We respected human rights, even though the word wasn't used, and we neither waterboarded captured Nazi spies nor turned a blind eye whilst others did so. We had a Home Guard, but it was founded by a communist and conscientious objectors were treated well.

Perhaps the most striking difference between what we remember and the reality though was in how we ran the wartime economy. The Second World War may have been a victory of freedom over tyranny, but it was hardly a victory for free market capitalism. The Britain that won the war was not only the more socialist than we've ever been before or since, we were one of the most socialist countries that has ever existed.

Britain had tried to fight the First World War on Victorian principles. Laissez faire economics would provide the money and a volunteer army led by aristocratic officers would do the fighting. However by the end of 1916 it was clear this wasn't working. The military actually weren't the weak point. More volunteers signed up than could be equipped and the aristocratic top brass didn't do quite as bad a job as most people think, although their numbers had to augmented by the brighter members of the middle class.

The problem instead was the economy, and once Lloyd George was in charge the Welsh Wizard set about a policy of nationalisations that effectively turned us into a command economy. The Labour Party joined the coalition and did exactly what they said on the tin, putting the working class pretty much unanimously behind the war effort.

For the Second World War the same system was tried again, only this time it worked even better. The country was effectively run by an alliance of civil servants, industry and the trade unions. The mandarins were now rather more practical men with a knowledge of the real world that extended beyond the Classics, the Capitalists weren't just robber barons but were modern managers and the trade unionists weren't just soap box orators but skilled administrators. Laissez faire was well and truly dead and the economy was run on Keynesian lines.

Nowhere else before or since has there been such an alliance, and the results speak for themselves. Despite the Luftwaffe and the U Boats, the British war economy surged ahead, outstripping the Germans even though the Nazis had slaves and the plunder from occupied Europe. Until the Americans joined the fighting and introduced their own form of war socialism we were the arsenal of democracy.

We continued in this vein once the war ended, when we not only had to retool to a peacetime economy but also feed occupied Germany and garrison an Empire. The post war years are normally seen as a fall from greatness for this country, but in truth that was already gone by 1945. Instead it was Attlee's job to rebuild from almost utter ruin.

Then in 1950 Churchill was reelected and put us back on the Gold Standard. The great experiment with Keynesian Social Democracy was over and we started the march towards the world as it is now.

Sources: A.J.P. Taylor "Politics and the First World War" and "English History 1914-1945" and various essays by George Orwell.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Monbiot versus Plimer: Round 1


Just as the Aussie cricketers have rallied to deliver a damn good thrashing to floundering England, Ian Plimer has responded to George Monbiot's questions.

It is a response though that is harder to read than one of Warne's googlies. Plimer has sent Monbiot a list of questions that if nothing else make the mind boggle. They consist of a series of increasingly bizarre and probably nonsensical requests for Monbiot to make a series of calcualations "from first principles" and including all data used.

The Internet is currently buzzing (well humming slightly) with baffled warmists trying to figure out what Plimer's grand strategy is. One theory is that he is using the famous Chewbacca defence as featured in a certain South Park episode.

Perhaps it's an act of desperation, perhaps he's playing to his fans who are convinced he has a brain the size of a planet, perhaps he's taking the piss. Who knows?

Monbiot's repost is "you're asking the wrong person" which is a bit lame though. Surely the answer is 42?

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Stuff Wot I Like: Jefferson Airplane

I have be a bit careful what I say sometimes as the eco-warriors I've hung around with over the years have tended to be a fairly punkish lot. At Wild Garlic if you were caught playing a penny whistle you were likely to see it nailed to a tree, and if you hummed a Bob Dylan song the same was likely to happen to you. However my tastes have always been much more hippyish and largely formed by the decade before I was born.

Actually the 'sixties' really began in about 1966 and ended in about 1974, so I was born slap bang in the middle, and the band that can most surely claim to be the most hippyish of them all was at its peak during this time.

Okay so The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, the Doors and The Who may have been better musically, but they just didn't walk the walk the same way as Jefferson Airplane. Songs about sex, drugs and flying saucers, a hot hippy chick on lead vocals who was sleeping with most of the band, an acrimonious split up and reincarnation, Spinal Tap style, as a second rate heavy metal band all make Jefferson Airplane the flower power band to measure all flower power bands by.

They played Woodstock, although their performance being delayed to the next morning sort of took the edge of things: great moments in psychedelia don't happen at eight in the morning. They courted controversy when a comment about a mud encrusted audience being "dirty jewels" was misheard as something anti-Semitic (as opposed to just pretentious). They were seen as being far more radical than they were: "Volunteers" sounds like it's calling on the fans to join the Viet Cong but was really inspired by a refuse collection lorry. And yet they still produced great music.


Perhaps only Crosby, Stills and Nash stand comparison in the league of all time hippy bands. Indeed, if you want to rouse a couple of old hippies to a heated debate (a very laid back heated debate admittedly) you could ask who's version of "Wooden Ships" is the best (the song was joint written so both are considered the original). Listen to the Airplane version in a chilled out mood and you can almost smell the weed. Listen to it in the wrong mood and you're bored before the end of the second verse.

So as fragile as a sand mandala, as coherent as an acid trip and as hippy as Donovan's paisley shirt, I present Jefferson Airplane.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Fight of the Year: Monbiot v Plimer



Any antipodeans who are watching the Ashes in the hope of seeing the usual slaughter of the England lemmings must be a little disappointed, but if you want your fill of defenceless animals being led to the slaughter the speactalce is still on offer in the form of Monbiot versus Plimer; a debate coming to somewhere, sometime.

George Monbiot is a legend in his own lunchtime, a fellow veteran of the Direct Action protests of the 1990s. Our paths never actually crossed as whilst I was hiding in slimy northern tunnels he was proudly proclaiming in parts of the home counties that This Land Is Ours. He is now Britain's foremost environmental columnist by a considerable margin.

Plimer is Ian Plimer, a hitherto unknown Australian geologist who has written a book called Heaven and Earth - Global Warming: the Missing Science. He is a climate change denier and less charitable people than myself might suggest that 'the missing science' refers to the numerous errors in his thesis.

In his book Plimer claims arctic ice is expanding and that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than humans. On the way he also claims that we orbit the core of a supernova explosion - which would make the sun a neutron star or black hole, and that termite farts are more potent to greenhouse gases than the emissions of 6 billion fossil fuel consuming humans.

There's more, and more, and more.

Anyone following that link will find 38 pages of why Plimer is wrong.

However this hasn't stopped Plimer becoming the poster boy of climate change deniers and the cover story for our own Spectator magazine last month. Judging by what they've written about the book I would presume the Spectator is the traditional sort of publication thta only employs chaps from good schools who studied classics and doesn't let grubby scientists over their threshold.

Somewhere along the line Plimer got a bit cocky and challenged our George to a debate. Monbiot initially turned him down, not wanting to share a platform with a man who can pull imaginary statistics out of a hat, some of which can take up to a minute on Google to prove wrong. However Monbiot had second thoughts and agreed to the debate provide Plimer answered some written questions on some of the more startling claims in his book.

Plimer initially turned the challenge down but then, possibly because word of his refusal to answer questions had got as far as his Wikipedia entry, he accepted. Monbiot printed his 11 questions in the Guardian today.

I don't know if the debate will ever actually happen, but if it does it will probably be a lot less interesting than Plimer's response to these questions. Some, like the termite gaff, he could just claim are typos, but I don't know how he will get round the others.

Like most deniers our antipodean friend enjoys playing the outlaw martyr and in picking a fight with Monbiot this would be Ned Kelly may be about to make his last stand. Is his armour up to it?

Watch this space.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

We've been to the Moon, now lets save the Earth



On 20 July 1969 several events took place that were to change the world.

In New York the organisers of a music festival, banned from their chosen venue of Middletown, Orange County, had a meeting with a farmer called Max Yasgar to discuss renting his 600 acre farm at Woodstock.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate was stepping off the Queen Elizabeth having returned from Britain.

In Northern Ireland they were clearing up after the previous week's riots whilst the family of Samuel Devenny were mourning his death three days earlier from injuries caused by a police truncheon.

And a quarter of a million miles away from all this two all American boys called Neil and Buzz were about to stroll briefly on a barren and airless Moon.

What strikes me about these events is how they were all in their own way endings. Woodstock was the pinnacle of the hippy ideal of peace and love. The death of Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson's cult a week earlier had already fatally injured this dream. In Northern Ireland the upcoming Battle of the Bogside would spell the end of the squalid little Loyalist police state of Northern Ireland and mark the beginning of a conflict that would involve the rest of the United Kingdom for nearly 30 years.

The moon landing meanwhile marked not the beginning of humanity's voyage to the stars, but the end of the Space Race. Once Armstrong and Aldrin were back on earth the public lost interest in space unless there was an accident. NASA had shown them the moon, the fey and inconstant companion of poets, lovers and Wiccans, and revealed her to be a boring and monotonous lump of rock of interest only to geeky scientists.

It marked the end of a period when, in defiance of logic and good taste, clothes were fastened with Velcro, TV dinners seemed like the future and cars spouted more wings than a jet fighter. A period when an ex-Nazi who'd used slave labour to make weapons of mass destruction could become an American hero on account of his knowledge of rocketry and in which devout boys from the mid West found God, but little else, being blasted into orbit as ballast in tin cans.

It was also the end of the idea that science and technology could solve any problem. The seventies were going to be very different.

Instead of Woodstock we had Altmont, instead of hippies we had punks, instead of British soldiers fighting for the remains of the Empire we had them patrolling the streets of the UK and instead of the Space Race we had the Oil Shock.

This was the background to the rise of the environment movement, a movement that would reject the technocracy that had been behind the moon landings. The environmentalists imagined a very different future from the technocrats and to be honest neither were right. There was no mass mobilisation of talent and resources to travel to the planets, but neither has there been one to save the earth. The future was defined neither by the rocket scientists nor the hippies, but by the neoliberal economists.

NASAs vision may have been flawed, but that doesn't mean a better world isn't possible. My favourite story of watching the moon landings was by a chap who watched the TV whilst working in a nursing home in the mid west. The people he was caring for had arrived in that part of America in covered wagons and here they were watching one of their own walk on the moon.

What sort of world will I be watching on TV when they cart me off to the care home for terminally cynical eco-warriors? Will I be watching the Amazon burn and Africa starve, or will at be marvelling at the driver-less electric cars and superfast trains? The seeds of both futures are being sown right now. We shall see which one wins out.

Monday, 6 July 2009

RIP: Robert MacNamara



Another sixties icon has passed on, although one that perhaps not many flower children will want to mourn.

Robert MacNamara was the architect of the 'bodycount' in Vietnam, the Defense Secretary who applied the scientific management of the motor company to the US military machine. The war, he thought, boiled down to a simple balance sheet of bombs dropped against communists killed. In his defence he appears to have admitted in later years that he was wrong (or rather he admitted that other people were wrong and he went along with them out of loyalty) but I guess if I was a Vietnamese villager whose family were napalmed I'd still be a little cross with him.

Another legacy of his is still very apparent in Iraq and Afghanistan today: the guided bomb. When they were first invented the Navy and the Air Force were sceptical. They could buy ten ordinary bombs for the cost of one of the new fangled bombs, and as the new bombs weren't ten times better they considered them a waste of money.

MacNamara's systems analysis disagreed. The cost of a bomb, he thought, should include the cost of the plane that carries it, the cost of the pilot that flies it and the cost of the airfield that the plane flies from. Hence the addition of a guidance system doesn't just make a $10,000 bomb twice as effective, it makes a $2 billion aircraft carrier twice as effective.

So as America continues to try to bomb its opponents into submission, secure in the belief that all it needs to triumph is more and better bombs, let us remember for a moment the man who led the way.

p.s. seeing as the guy has just died I will say one good thing about him: he desegregated the US army. Not an insignificant move given the climate of the times.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

How Vietnam Was Lost

Thanks to BBC4 I have now been able to see the 2005 documentary How Vietnam Was Lost: Two days in October.

The idea that a war that lasted for more than ten years had a pivotal moment, other than the one when the US fled from Saigon, is a bit of an iffy one, but David Maranis, who wrote the book They Marched Into Sunlight, makes a pretty good case for suggesting that mid October 1967 was fairly important.

On 17th October Lieutenant Colonel Terry Allen Jnr let two companies of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Infantry into action in Vietnam's Iron Triangle whilst on the other side of the world students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison were preparing for a protest against Dow chemicals. In Vietnam the 'Black Lions' were ambushed and practically wiped out whilst in concrete jungle of Wisconsin the peaceful students were left clubbed and bleeding after being attacked by the police.

The mistakes that led to these tragic events were well covered. Colonel Allen, who'd just been received a 'Dear John' letter from his wife, was goaded by impatient senior officers into sending his men blind into an area of jungle know to contain Viet Cong. He died whilst staring at a picture of his three daughters. his command of 142 men suffered 58 dead, 75 wounded and two missing. In Wisconsin the head of the University called in the police and, heavily outnumbered by the protesters, the working class coppers decided to take out their frustrations on student heads.

The media response to both events was very similar. High command called the battle a decisive victory and the press duly reported that the Black Lions had in fact saved Saigon, whilst back in the Wisconsin the police were praised for their calmness in the face of a rioting students. Nothing changes it seems.

The film had a good selection of talking heads from students outraged at how the authorities were treating them to utterly unrepentant Madison police officers. The soldiers were interesting too, cynical about both their commanders and the public back home. They described the terror of the battle ("those in the sunlight die, those in the shade survived") and their rejection on their return home. One Sergeant wrote a letter home to himself as he knew nobody else would be there to welcome him. Finally we had the late Colonel's wife. An obviously intelligent women who having bagged a General's son was expected to stay at home and bake apple pie and not bother her head about the why and wherefores of the war. Shocked by what she saw on the TV she asked for a divorce, but became a widow instead.

How typical these two days were is an interesting question. It was claimed that the protests at the university were the first campus demonstrations to turn violent. Afterwards riots were commonplace at Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere.

As for the battle, it was probably typicalish of the combat at that time. The Americans bumped into a lot of large Viet Cong units and often got ambushed, part of General Giap's plan to knock America out of the war by inflicting unacceptable casualties on them. However US firepower usually turned the tables Giap and came close to inflicting unacceptable casualties on himself. Crucially he realised this and changed his tactics - which shows who was calling the shots in this war. Meanwhile the frequency of these large battles helped to sustain in the US high command the delusion that South Vietnam was facing an invasion and not an insurgency.

That was the reason they failed to win the military conflict. Like Generals in the First World War, Westmoreland and his staff believed that with just one more big push, a few more men and a few more bombs they could declare victory and quit. The destruction of the Black Lions didn't dent this belief, nor did the protest in Wisconsin. It would be another eight years before America started to address the reason for its failures in Vietnam.






Saturday, 23 May 2009

Books not read: Futurecast 2020

Letter to Resurgence magazine

Many thanks for Tony Juniper's review of Robert Shapiro's Futurecast 2020 in Resurgence 254. Most Resurgence reviews make me want to rush out and buy the book, leading to a rather major reading backlog. However, as Mr Juniper makes clear, here is a book I need never bother with.

As a futurologist Mr Shapiro, who failed to spot the Credit Crunch even whilst it was happening, clearly leaves a lot to be desired, but he is an interesting case study in how clever people can be extremely daft. George Orwell was also very interested in this. He wondered why, whilst the ordinary person in the street never doubted that the allies would win the war, most intellectuals were betting on Hitler.

It's appropriate that this review appeared in an issue subtitled "Countering the Tyranny of Trends" because what Orwell saw was a form of power worship where people simply took the forces that appeared to be in ascendancy (Hitler's tanks in 1940, neoliberal economics in 2007) and imagined them carrying on for ever.

An example of futurology to rival Shapiro's appeared in the The Book of Predictions in 1980. A CIA expert on the Soviet Union confidently predicted that the USSR would win the Cold War and go on to dominate the world. By contrast this same volume contained an article by a Catholic priest who predicted that by 1990 Communism would be overthrown from within.

Sometimes the people who know what's going on are not those who claim to be experts, so I think I'll carry on taking my predictions for the future from Resurgence and not the likes of Mr Shapiro.


Monday, 20 April 2009

Sir Alan and the Anglo-Saxon disease

Last Friday I watched television, which is for me actually rather usual. The main reason was an excess of beer and curry and inertia, but the second reason was that The Apprentice was to feature contestants making New Agey scented soaps and things for their challenge. This being the sort of thing we buy a lot of in our house my wife wanted to watch. It wasn't a terribly romantic way to spend an evening - but I can probably blame the beer and curry for that.

I've never watched the program before, but I found it extremely enlightening. As far as I was able to understand the program the contestants were divided into two teams and had to make as much money as possible by flogging home made soap and other smellies to people in a hurry. Team A managed to make something that resembled a partially melted ice lolly, but managed to sell most of their stock for a few quid and came out with a slight profit. Team B made something that actually resembled soap but failed to sell enough and so lost. Team A were sent off to be wined and dined at a posh restaurent whilst selected members of Team B were hauled up in front of Sir Alan where upon they sold each other out like a prize group of stoolpigeons.

Coming at a time when the world's economy is crashing thanks to the mistakes of "blue eyed white men" this demonstration of the Anglo-Saxon business model was quite enlightening. For making some yuck in a packet Team A were rewarded with perks that cost considerably more than they took off the gullible commuters. Team B, despite actually managing to make what they were supposed to, and despite admitting to having had fun and been a happy team, were pilloried and, rather than sticking up for themselves, they tore into each other and their hapless leader.

So here we have the Anglo-Saxon way of doing business. We produce rubbish, we reward ourselves for making rubbish with money we don't have, and when it all goes tits up its everyone for themselves. Apparently in France black berrets are now proving popular, a way, apparently, of showing respect for Gallic traditions and to make absolutely clear that the wearer is not in any way, shape, or form Anglo-Saxon. Meanwhile Sir Alan, and the rest of our disgraced economic elite, still have their blackberries but no respect whatsoever.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Incomplete and Utter History of Pagan Opera Part Three: Arias in Avalon

The first Glastonbury Festival was a bit of shock for the sleepy Somerset market town. Suddenly the conservative townsfolk were confronted with the whole panoply of counter-culture alternative types. There were long haired bohemians, advocates of free love, spiritualists and vegetarians. Even worse, many were rumoured to visit the Tor after dark, get their kit off, and engage in idolatrous pagan rituals. It was all rather too much for them all, especially as it was 1914.

Ninety five years later, despite rumours of it selling out and becoming middle aged and middle class, the spirit of Gwyn Ap Nudd, Lord of the Otherworld, still rules the Glastonbury Festival. In 1914 the tickets may have been a bit cheaper and the security less intrusive, but the same rebellious subculture would appear to be at world. However whilst todays festival goers came to hear up-tempo beat-combos, those first festival goers actually came to see an opera.

It’s difficult to associate the world of British classical music with the neo-pagan hedonism of the Glastonbury Festival. However, over the last hundred years or so, there has been a seam of paganism running through British classical music, and every now and again it broke the surface. Even our most revered composer, the stately figure of Sir Edward Elgar, whose whiskers adorn the Twenty Pound note, turns out to have dabbled with non-Christian deities.

Whilst Elgar never actually composed an opera, he did write choral works, which I suppose are operas with no costumes or scenery (or acting - but then there’s often little enough of that in a real opera). His foray into pagan territory was Caractacus, the story of the Celtic anti-Romanisation protestor. This being Elgar there is lots of pomp and patriotism, but there are also tender, melodic moments celebrating the beauty of the Malvern hills. The pagan highlight of the piece is Lord of Dread, sung as Caractacus visits the temple of Taranis to ask for some divine help in smiting Romans.

Written in 1898, a time when Elgar was approaching, but had not yet reached, his peak, Caractacus is a little bit forgotten nowadays. However it is the sort of piece that local choral societies like to put on, so you may be lucky enough to catch a local performance in your neck of the woods. Choral societies being what they are though, you might have to live with balding ‘Celtic Warriors’ and greying ‘Druid maidens’.

Elgar went on to greater works, and was soon performing in London, then the beating heart of a great industrial empire. The dawning of the twentieth century though, saw many British composers turning their backs on the metropolis to seek their inspiration in the countryside. Men like Ralph Vaughan Williams were raiding the repertoire of folk musicians for tunes, whilst others like Gustav Holst, whose Planets Suite is more about pagan gods than astronomy, were discovering spirituality, in his case Hinduism.

To the high brow music snobs this has become known as the ‘cowpat school’ of music. Some of these cowpat composers weren’t afraid to use the P word in public. Granville Bantock (1868 - 1946) wrote something he called a Pagan Symphony. This was inspired by Classical Greece but for his later and better works he was inspired by Scotland.


Sir Arnold Bax (1883 - 1953) went even further, openly called himself a pagan - although he probably didn’t mean it in quite the same way as me. The titles of some of Bax’s works give you an idea of what he was into: Tintagel, The Garden of Fand, In The Faery Hills, Nympholept - although this last one was actually about woodland spirits, not what you may be thinking.

This was the time of the literary movement called the Celtic Twilight, after W.B. Yeats’ book of the same name, and being a Celt was suddenly cool. So with music and literature both becoming all Celticy and Otherworldly, it was only a matter of time before someone put them both together and made an opera.

The man who did the surgery was a grocer’s son from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, one Rutland Boughton. His influences were Marxism and the music of Richard Wagner.

Since his death in 1883 Wagner’s memory and his music had been kept going at the annual Bayreuth festival. Boughton, a self taught musician and card carrying communist, wanted to create an English Bayreuth, where the legends of England could be set to music and Glastonbury was the perfect spot.

The result was the first Glastonbury festival, which kicked off at 8PM on 5th August 1914 in the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms. Not put off by the fact that Britain had declared war on Germany the previous day, the audience watched dances and listened to a few songs and a spot of Wagner. The grand finale of the festival though was Boughton’s Celtic masterpiece, the opera The Immortal Hour.

The Immortal Hour now has it’s place in the history books as when it eventually moved to London it was performed for a record breaking 216 consecutive nights. By then it had a full orchestral score and scenery. In 1914 the vanguard party of Boughton’s musical revolution consisted of a handful of friends, some local amateurs, a costume designer he later married and a single piano for accompaniment. The original idea though was that it should be performed out of doors, with the chorus that starst the second act sung by a party of druids as they made their way through the trees towards the stage.

The story had come from the poem of the same name by Fiona McLeod, who was one of the more interesting Celtic Twilight writers. She was actually a bloke from Scotland called William Sharp, a moderately successful writer who suddenly found the need to write in a completely different style under a completely different name. Sharp always maintained that McLeod really existed, and in a sense she did. Sharp paid a high price for living this dual life, but as McLeod he produced some inspiring, and very pagan, poetry. As well as bringing back to life the Old Gods, McLeod added a few new ones for good measure, and such was her mastery of the myths that you can’t really spot the join.

Boughton was the sort of naive communist who continued to believe in Potempkin Villages long after everyone else had read Animal Farm and realised Stalin was a mass murdering psychopath. Working away in his cottage in the woods at Grayshott, Hampshire, Boughton appeasr to have been rather more influenced by the gentle, rustic English socialism of William Morris.

He tidied up McLeod’s poem dramatically, and the result is the story of Etain, a lady of the Sidhe, who is found wandering in a daze by Eochaidh, King of Ireland, who marries her. But after a year and a day of wedded bliss she is claimed back by Midir, a Prince of the Sidhe. Etain can’t resist his faery charms and returns to the Land of the Ever Young. Eochaidh, overcome with grief, loses his life to Dalua, the Fairy Fool and Lord of shadow whose machinations have brought all this about.

Musically, although there are influences of Wagner, the opera is very English. Compared with the full-on assault on the senses that is a Wagnerian opera, Boughton tells his story by means of folksy songs and choruses. The most popular of these is the Faery Chorus, the haunting tune that follows Etain from the land of the Sidhe and then lures her back. Over the course of the opera practically ever major Celtic deities gets a name check in one song or another.

The proletariat liked it and the festival was a success. Rather to Boughton's annoyance the aritocracy liked it too, although they generally got completely the wrong idea of what it was about. Boughton, it seems, felt rather sorry for poor old Eochaidh, dumped for no better reason other than his parents weren't immortals, but opera loving ladies generally preferred Etain, perhaps in the hope that they too would hear a fairy chorus summoning them back to the Otherworld.

After a break for the Great War the festival was back in 1920. This time Boughton unveiled The Birth of Arthur, the first of what he hoped would be his ‘Ring Cycle’; a series of five linked Arthurian operas. As the 1920s went, on some serious high-brow names started to show up, including George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Another regular was a devout Christian mystic from London who had a second home in Glastonbury.

This was Dion Fortune who, once she had put the false-consciousness of a moralising Christianity behind her, was to do more than anybody else to restore the Old Gods to Glastonbury. Hitherto Glastonbury had only attracted Christian mystics, who came to encounter ghostly monks in the Abbey or to pray at the Chalice Well, but from Boughton’s time onwards we start to hear of pagan rites being performed at Glastonbury.

In her book Avalon of the Heart it is Dion Fortune who gives us the most evocative description of a performance of The Immortal Hour “The first scene started with broad daylight shining in through the uncurtained windows of the Assembly Rooms. But as it progressed the dusk drew on, till only phantom figures could be seen moving on the stage and the hooting laughter of the shadowy figures in the magic wood rang out in complete darkness, lit only by the stars that shone strangely brilliant through the skylights of the hall."

The festivals continued three times a year until 1926, when it all went horribly wrong. Ironically, given the patronage of CND and Greenpeace that the current festival enjoys, it was radical politics that did for them. This being the year of the General Strike, Boughton decided on a gesture of solidarity with the workers. Bethlehem, his take on the nativity, was performed in modern dress with Jesus being born in a miner’s cottage and being hunted down by a top-hatted, capitalist Herod.

The festival audience were now fairly bourgeois, so after the socialists on the stage had finished complaining about the capitalists, the capitalists in the audience complained so loudly about the socialists that the whole thing was wound up. Boughton tried to revive the festival at Stroud and Bath, but neither town had the magic of Glastonbury and nothing took root.

But whilst he may have failed to make his Avalonian Bayreuth, Boughton did inspire a brief fashion for Celtic operas. Joseph Holbrook (1878-1958), the 'Cockney Wagner', produced a series of three linked operas, The Cauldron of Annwn, which were as dark and sinister as you’d expect from someone who’s chief influence was Edgar Allen Poe, whilst Iernin was a hit in 1935 for the young George Lloyd (1913-1998). Lloyd was from Cornwall and once said that such an opera could only be written by someone who at least half believed in fairies, piskies and ‘knockers’.

Apart from Sir Michael Tippett’s enigmatic and very Jungian Midsummer Marriage in 1955, this brief fashion though had long come to an end by the time Rutland Boughton died, on 25th January 1960. He had enjoyed in his lifetime popular success and critical acclaim.

Despite this, or more likely because of this, his work was soon forgotten.