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

Monday, 27 May 2013

A Very Irish Victory

There is an old saying that if you want to find an Irishman, look for the nearest fight.

A bit unfair really as I remember Ireland as the most peaceful and safe place I've ever lived.

However the Irish do fight. Mostly though they fight abroad.

The Wild Geese were a unit of Irish mercenaries that fought for various European monarchs after the Battle of the Boyne. Rather less romantic were the Blueshirts sent to Spain to fight for Franco and who seem to have spent their time drinking and occasionally shooting their own side.

Rather more Irish though served in the British Army, mainly the Royal Irish Rangers, a unit of which burnt the White House in the War of 1812, and which more recently served in Oman and Bosnia.

Those who choose not to go abroad could join the Irish Army. Not usually considered one of the world's elite units, it can however say that whilst it has only ever fought one war, this was against the IRA and they won a clear victory, something the British Army never achieved.

Funnily enough they don't actually like to boast much about fighting other Irishmen, and instead like to talk about their record of UN Peacekeeping missions. This is a pretty impressive and has included service in Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, East Timur, Liberia and Chad.

Most of these have been fairly routine blue hat duty, but things did a bit hairy on occasion in Lebanon and Somalia, and in Liberia the Irish Army Rangers got to do a spot of SAS-style hostage rescue.

However their first major UN mission, to the Congo in 1960, was even more dramatic.

The Irish soldiers found themselves plunged into the middle of the chaos of Congo's independence. Having elected the nice guy Patrice Lumumba to be Prime Minister the country was then ripped apart by civil war. A cabal of Belgian mining companies clubbed together to create the breakaway province of Katanga, which was guarded by Belgian soldiers and white mercenaries. Within seven months of independence Lumumba was dead, having been kidnapped, tortured and killed by Katangan soldiers under Belgian officers.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
The United Nations Security Council met amidst a seething anti-colonial feelings and passed Resolution 143, demanding the removal of Belgian troops and authorising a UN force to bring stability to Katanga. Britain, France and Taiwan abstained. The next day 1200 soldiers from 24 countries arrived in the Congo.

Amongst them were the Irish. They were blessed by the Archbishop as they boarded giant US transport planes at Casement Aerodrome. Most had no idea where the Congo was. In all about 700 flew out in the first wave, heading for the tropics wearing woollen tunics. Hastily armed with new rifles, they were off to patrol an area several times the size of Ireland.

The United Nations organisation was totally unsuited to what was to become a small war.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
Nine Irish soldiers were killed in a village called Niemba after they were sent out on patrol with inadequate intelligence and no back up. Meanwhile 156 of their colleagues, under the command of Commandant Pat Quinlan from Kerry, found themselves in a place then called Jadotville, now Likasi, where they waited for the chaotic logistics system to bring up supplies and heavy weapons.

However the Katangan puppet state was not going to allow the UN time to sort itself out. They counter attacked with their army of native gendarmes, tribesmen and European mercenaries led by another Irishman, Colonel "Mad Mike" Hoare.

I once tried to read this man's terrible book about his service in the Congo. The only bit of any interest was his evident revulsion when, after advertising for a bunch of butch soldiers to join him in an all-male barracks in the middle of nowhere, he found a large number of those applying were gay.

So anyway Quinlan and his men - whose sexually is not recorded - where out there in the middle of Africa at the end of a long, precarious and somewhat shambolic supply line. Local Belgian settlers - the people the UN were supposed to be there to protect - tipped off Hoare's men that the Irish attended Mass every Sunday morning. The Katangans then planned a surprise attack on the UN soldiers with a force of at least 3000 men.

But it didn't go to plan.

Instead of rounding up the Irish whilst they were tucking into their communion wafers, the attackers ran into Sergeant John Monaghan from Offally with a Vickers machine gun. He'd just finished shaving and was returning to his trench when saw vehicles approaching rapidly. John Gorman from Westmeath, then a seventeen year old private remembers “We were always drilled about not commencing hostilities first. We were there as UN, to keep the peace and to avoid causing conflict. ‘Don’t be the first to fire,’ we were always told." Ignoring the etiquette of peacekeeping, Monahan quickly grabbed the old weapon and opened fire.

His quick thinking probably saved the unit.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
Unfortunately for the Irish this was their only heavy weapon. Soon they found themselves under fire from 81mm mortars and 75mm artillery with only 60mm mortars to defend return fire with. They were also deficient in experience. The Irish were mostly young and untested, whilst Hoare's mercenaries were veterans of World War Two and France's colonial wars.

However the Irish were up to the job. Quinlan, a man you didn't argue with, had ordered his men to dig when they arrived in the village, and from their positions they mowed down the attackers whilst their mortar teams amazingly managed to silence the enemy guns.

The battle went on for four days. When the UN asked how they were doing they received the classic reply "We will hold out until our last bullet is spent. Could do with some whiskey".

But Quinlan knew his men were trapped. An attempt to relieve the position by Swedish troops was stopped by the Katanagan air force, which had also destroyed the Irish transport.

The Irish has beaten off every attack. At least 300 Katangans and 30 mercenaries were dead and more Katangans were killed by their white allies when they refused to attack again. But Quinlan knew his men were trapped. Seven had been wounded but none killed, however their luck couldn't last.

Quinlan opted to surrender.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
I'm sure nobody reading this has any doubt that he did the right thing. His men had fought bravely but they had no more ammunition, no more food, no more water and no more hope of rescue. They did not deserve to die for nothing.

Quinlan waved the white flag and became one of the very few officers to have gone to war and brought all his men home again.

But that was not how it was seen back in Ireland.

The whole business was regarded as a humiliation and hushed up. Whilst the soldiers who had died in the Niemba ambush were honoured for their (very real) courage annually, the veterans of Jadotville were forgotten.

No medals were awarded and the battle was removed from the official history. Quinlan never served abroad again and the men who served under him soon learnt that if the wanted to get on with their careers it was best to pretend they'd been elsewhere at the time.

Not for the first time, it seems Ireland preferred dead heroes to living ones. No Irish actually died in Jadotville, but a dozen are believed to have committed suicide after returning home to be ignored by their superiors and taunted by their colleagues.

Military Heritage of Ireland Trust
The situation was only changed thanks to the tireless campaigning of veteran John Gorman, but he was the other side of 60 before he managed to get the army to look again at the siege. In the end they concluded Quinlan had done the right thing and in 2006 the battle received the recognition it deserved, but by then though the Kerry man had been in his grave for nine years.

Jadotville was far and away the fiercest and most skilful battle the army of the Irish Republic has ever fought, and it was fought not for the country's own benefit but for an African nation thousands of miles away.

Yet the nation chose to forget it for more than forty years.


I'm going to have a midlife crisis.

I deserve one. I've played by the rules so far.

My late teens were dedicated to sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. Well drug and rock anyway - I was a Physics undergrad.. My twenties were my years of radical political activism. Then in my thirties I found myself with a job, a wife and a family.

So I deserve a crisis, and I know what I'm going to do.

I'm going to become a Goth.

I've already made a start, having seen Inkubus Sukkubus a few times. However as I've always been wearing a Paisley shirt I didn't quite fit in, being the only person not wearing black - apart from the band.

But I don't just want to be any old Goth, I'm going to go Steampunk.

Now mainly this is so I can hang around with women dressed like Bellatrix Lestrange.

Partly it's because I really like Whitby.

But also it's because Steampunk represents the collision of two things I'm really interested in; Science Fiction and Victoriana.

However there may also be a few elements in the mix that don't sit so neatly with me.

But first, where did this steampunk thing spring from?

It's difficult to find the exact origins. The name originated in the mid-eighties after a cluster of science fiction books appeared that harked back to an earlier age. My favourite was The Anubis Gates,  a menagerie of weird and wacky ideas including sinister stilt walking clowns and an attempt to catch a body-swapping werewolf by opening a hair removal clinic. Terry Gilliam's Brazil came out about this time, heavily influenced by Orwell's 1984 (blatant rip-off would be another way of putting it) and the film that gave us all those retro-computer that are part of the steampunk look.

By 1990 the genre was firmly established, with the father of cyberpunk, William Gibson, producing his own steampunk book The Difference Engine, and the last of the Back to the Future films being set in the Old West.

That film itself in many ways harked back to a TV series that could also be considered the first manifestations of steampunk, The Wild, Wild West. I would disagree as that show was obviously a collision of two other genres, namely the Western and Spy-Fi, a sub-genre of Science Fiction.

Looking further back Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis is another possible precursor, although I have a problem with putting the origins of steampunk before 1939. It's not just that Metropolis is obviously a Modernist piece, but when it was made H G Wells was still alive and writing. If steampunk is a tribute to the glories of Victorian sci-fi, then it can't have started whilst the greatest sci-fi writer of that time (if not all time) was alive and well.

And so as we've got to Wells, lets have a little look at the era that has most influenced steampunk.

The Victorians invented lots of things, including science fiction. Probably this was because for the first time technology was advancing at such a rate that people were able to start to see the world changing almost beyond recognition in their own lifetimes. The advance from small cottage industries to huge factories, from the horse and cart to the steam train, from the muzzle loading musket to the machine gun, was so rapid that by the end of the century it was easy to imagine that in fifty years time we would all be living in cities the size of small countries, traveling at the speed of sound and with the power to destroy all life on earth. And they were right.

But the Victorian world was changing in other ways that weren't reflected in Wells's books.

His heroes, such as the unnamed time traveler in his debut novel, to Cavor and Bedford on their way to the moon, are in the British tradition if talented amateurs. But the day of the amateur was pretty much over.

By the dawn of the Edwardian the world was in the grip of a second Industrial Revolution. New chemicals, electricity and the internal combustion engined car and aeroplane were appearing. The new hero of the day was Thomas Edison. Not an inventor as such, but the head of the world's first, modern scientific research establishment. Science was now a team sport. 

And unlike the first Industrial Revolution, this time Britain wasn't in the lead. We were still in the
running, but it was becoming increasingly clear that Germany and the USA were the new industrial giants. So if the Ether Propeller really had been invented in 1896, it was unlikely to have been the product of a reclusive physicist in Kent, but of a research facility on the Ruhr or in New Jersey.

What we did have by the bucket load though was good, old fashioned, First Industrial Revolution heavy industry. More Dark Satanic Mills than you can shake a swordcane at. The odd green thinker like John Ruskin railed against them, and even considered whether all those smoking chimneys might be damaging the weather, but they remained a part of British life until the 1950s.

Then there was the Empire, obviously. 400 plus million people held in thrall because, amongst other things "we have got: The Maxim gun, and they have not". This asymmetric warfare inspired H G Wells when he wrote War of the Worlds, where the Martian heat-ray is just their version of the Maxim Gun. He also satirised this muscular Imperialism in The First Men In The Moon, but then in The Shape of Things to Come  his 'Dictatorship of the Air', who run the world from an air base in Iraq, engage in just this sort of 'liberal interventionism'.

Perhaps Wells should have paid more attention to George Orwell who, after chucking in a safe job in the Burmese police, decided that life in the Empire was just "one long struggle not to be laughed at". The chap on the left shows why.

Of course there was another side to the Victorians. They were sexually liberated, invented modern socialism (in all its forms), banished the Georgian slums and cared deeply about the environment - at least some of them did. But I don't see much reference to any of that in steampunk.

Instead it does seem to celebrate the alleged British genius for invention and the dominance of technology over Nature and Johnny Foreigner.

Only with style.

So if you can convince me William Morris would have been piloting a floral-pattern Sky Galleon, and not belaboring the government's answer to the Selenite Question, or that George Orwell would have been happy as a Cloud Captain and not given it all up to write Down And Out On Venus and Mars, then I'm there.

Otherwise, I'll regard them as I would people who, one hundred years hence, dress up in a  mixture of City Slickers suits and Iraq War gear, pretend their neural net interface is an iPad, and imagine the world if Climate Change and the Credit Crunch hadn't happened.

So you may not be seeing me drinking snakebite in Whitby too soon.

I'll just have to go to Plan B and buy a VW camper.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Protest Walks #2: Bluebells in Stanworth Valley

This is a five hour walk through Lancashire countryside that takes in a secret Holy Well, a tower celebrating a Victorian right to roam and the scene of Britain's first almost entirely aerial road protest.

The walk starts at the Roddlesworth Cafe and Information Centre Tockholes, Darwen, Lancashire, BB3 0PA. There is a public car park next to the Royal Arms pub and the number 223 bus runs between Blackburn and Tockholes four times a day.

The best map is the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 287.

There is some climbing and, this being Lancashire, it can be a bit wet underfoot.

Actually, very wet.

1. Hollinshead Hall

Opposite the cafe is the Tockholes plantation, an area of broad leaf woodland that surrounds some reservoirs. Cross the road from the cafe and follow the path that descends into the trees. When it crosses a paved path turn left. About a mile and a half further on you come to the back of a car park that is now permanently shut. Continue on about 200 meters and you find yourself in the remains of the enigmatic Hollinshead Hall. 

This is now in ruins except for one building, the Well House.

Little is known about the origins of this hall, which dates from some time in the Middle Ages but was abandoned in the late nineteenth century and then demolished in the twentieth.

The Well House is kept locked today, but inside you can just about make out the sculptured lion's head out of which the water flows, flanked by two stone troughs. Above and behind the building is another stone trough, which is accessible.

This all suggests something important, but what?

The name of the hall may not come from the Hollinshead family, or it may be derived from the Old English haeligewielle meaning holy well, which then became Holy Head and hence Hollinshead. This is backed up by the 1845 book Mansions of England mentions the Well House and says it used to be called 'Thee Holy Spring'.

So we may have an Anglo-Saxon holy well, but that's not all. The building is inscribed with the coat of arms of the Radcliffe family, which used to own the land. The Radcliffe's were Catholics and if the well house dates to the 1680s, as it appears to, they may very well have been using it as secret baptistery.

On top of that the place is apparently haunted, although the time I spent the night here - admittedly in the back of a transit van and not the Well House - I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary.

Whatever you make of it, enjoy the peace of the woods around the halls, as it's likely to get a bit windy as we go on.

2. Jubilee Tower

Return to the closed car park and cross the road. On the other side, a few meters to your right, a large sign welcomes you to the West Pennine Moors. Follow the stone signs which show the way to Jubilee Tower, also known as Darwen Tower, which soon comes into sight in front of you, standing on Beacon Hill like a Victorian space rocket waiting for blast off.

The best time to do this bit of the walk is mid-August, when the heather is purple. I did it in May, when the wind was a tad more bracing.

The tower gets its name as it was completed for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, but it also marks a rare victory in the ancient battle for a Right to Roam.

In 1870 the local absentee land owner had closed the moor to people and turned it over to grouse. A local man, William Thomas Ashton, crossed the moor regularly to deliver coal, and whenever the gamekeepers blocked the path, he cleared it.

Eventually the matter ended up in court, where Ashton won.

The tower is open all year round, although you probably won't want to hang around too long at the top. From there you can see Kinder Scout, Blackpool Tower and on a good day the Isle of Man. However even on a bad day you should be able to see Winter Hill to the southeast. A fairly non-nondescript lump with radio transmitters on top, the hill was the scene of a less successful trespass in 1896.

3. Tockholes

Once you've finished pretending to Saruman in the tower leave Beacon Hill by taking the path north, following signs marked Witton Weavers Way. Once you leave the moor you take a left - but you can't see the sign until after you've passed it. The path then joins a concrete Water Board road. When it joins a tarmaced road keep right on the black stuff, eventually passing Earndale Reservoir on the left (pictured) and Sunnyhurst Woods on the right.

Once past the reservoir carry straight on and once you've gone up the hill turn right. You pass Belstone Stables on the right and the path becomes Weasel Lane, eventually emerging in Tockholes itself just opposite the United Reform Church.

If you've had enough your starting point is a mile down the road to the left.

If you're game to press on turn right and then left immediately after the church, going down Silk Hall. If you have a spare pound you could buy a snack or half a dozen eggs from Julie's Cake Box (pictured). At the end of the short road ignore the sign which suggests the path goes left and carry straight on across the field in front of you. Keep to the left of the wall and cross two styles.

When you reach a Chapels Lane turn right, passing the dramatic entrance to St Stephens Church. Unfortunately behind the fine gateway is a rather disappointing modern building.

Turn left after the church following the sign "Public Footpath" and at the end of the lane, where you appear to be in someone's garden, follow the sign "Rambler's Footpath".

This leads you out into a series of fields, linked by styles, and you should be heading towards the sound of traffic, still following the Witton Weavers Way.

Before you get there you you will find yourself in an area of woodland. I found myself in a field of bluebells, late thanks to snow in April (possibly caused by the premature melting of the Arctic ice) but still a very welcome sign that the season of Beltane was upon us.

On the other side of the woods though you cross a field and find a very different view; the westbound carriageway of the M65 motorway.

4. Canals, Railways and Motorways

Follow the path alongside the motorway, taking care to observe the interesting debris on its verges. When I was there these included plastic bags, fast food containers, a ring-binder file and what looked like a pair of trousers - an unusual thing to loose whilst heading towards Preston at 70mph.

In 1995, as part of the "biggest road building program since the Romans" the motorway was extended eastwards, with this bit being opened in 1997 by Jack Straw and a large contingent of police. One of the most deprived parts of the country received a major new transport link, and the 52,000 vehicles a day now fly through an area of
"Special Landscape Value".

When you reach the road, turn right and use the charmingly graffitied underpass to cross to the north side of the motorway. Mercifully, you are soon on a quiet country road again.  You pass an airgun range on the left. Ignore the Witton Weavers Way as it heads off right and stay on the road. You are looking for a footpath off on the left. It's hard to spot as it's signposted from a short road that joins on the left and is next to Stocklough House. If you get to some industrial units you've gone too far.

As you walk though the wood you cross an old stone bridge that is one of the relics of an earlier transport system; the Blackburn to Chorley line of the Lancashire Union Railway. It closed to passengers in 1960, three years before the Beeching axe fell on other branch lines. By the time the M65 extension was built, British Rail itself was being broken up and privatised and the West Coast Mainline was in such a parlous state seasoned travelers were allegedly getting off Scotland to London trains at Preston and getting buses to Manchester, which usually overtook the frequently held up trains.

The path emerges from the trees next to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, another transport system, and one the dates back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Today, people who oppose new roads look back nostalgically to the heyday of the railways. But when the railway boom was at its height, early environmentalists like William Morris and John Ruskin looked back fondly to the days of the canal. In Morris's Utopian story, The News From Nowhere, goods moved on barges powered by a mysterious clean energy source.

Ruskin meanwhile railed against the Headstone Viaduct at Monsul Head, claiming "The valley is gone, and the Gods with it". Seeing as how this is now subject to a preservation order and one of the most photographed structures in Derbyshire, you wonder what he would have made of what happened to Stanworth Valley.

5. Stanworth Valley

Opposition to the motorway extension started almost as soon as it was announced, but protests stepped up a gear when veterans of the campaign against the M11 in London moved into Cinderpath Woods in May 1994. They were evicted, and after several other preliminary skirmishes the protesters ended up accumulating in Stanworth Valley for a new experiment in direct action - living without the ground.

The valley being low lying, and the Lancashire weather being somewhat inclement, the bottom of the valley rapidly became a 'quog'. So the protesters took to the trees.

Not only would they have to be physically removed from the trees before the road could be built, but after a well-wisher from Cheshire had had a letter delivered to the occupants of a Sweet Chestnut tree standing in the path of a the M11, inhabited trees were recognised as legal dwellings and so formal eviction proceedings had to be held before clearance work could start.

Hidden away from the world in the valley, with less support from the locals than at other protests, the inhabitants of the 40 odd (some very odd) tree houses were mostly in a world of their own. People could loose each other for days along the four miles or more of rope walkway linking the twigloos.

When evictions eventually started the Under-Sheriffs men quickly cleared the ground, but struggled to clear the trees. Until they learnt to cut walkways with knives on poles, this left the security guards living like Morlocks on the ground whilst the elevated protesters moved freely above them.

The Under-Sheriffs men moved in on May morning 1995, after a raucous and skyclad Beltane party by the protestors. Previous tree evictions had used raised platforms called cherry pickers, but for the first time contracted climbers were brought in. This was a move that would eventually see the Sheffield based team who did eviction work ostracised by the rest of the climbing community, but here in Lancashire the main problem they faced was how to deal with people who moved through the trees without harnesses and showered them with pasta and baked beans.

Eventually the inevitable happened and the last protestors was removed and the trees felled.

Two bridge sections each of 270 meters in length and weighing over a thousand tons each were manoeuvred into place a hundred feet above the valley.

AMEC appear to be quite proud of the work, and it's true that the direct destruction only extends 10 meters either side of the road and that wildlife is free to pass under the motorway - not an insignificant fact as one of the worst things about busy roads is the way they divide up eco-systems into tiny islands.

However directly under the span of the bridge no plants grow and litter has rained down from the carriageway above into the beautiful valley.
6. Back to Tockholes

The path picks up the Witton Weavers Way again, which turns left and passes under the motorway on the west side of the valley. A couple of hundred meters further on you turn left again at a style and descend into the valley. 

Away from the M65 it is a pleasant place once again. Amongst the bluebells I found the remains of a firepit. What camping in the lee of a six lane motorway would be like I don't know, but that aside this is a magical spot.

The path crosses the stream at a wooden bridge, and when you ascend again you can see Jubilee Tower in front of you again. Another old bridge
means you've again crossed the trackbed of the Lancashire Union Railway. Continue on to Bradley Farm and turn right in the farmyard, leaving by a farm track that heads due south, again following the Witton Weavers Way.

At a confusingly signposted junction turn right and then almost immediately left. Don't go down the slope. You follow the vaguely marked path across fields staying to the left of the fence. Cross the valley at the footbridge by Red Lea
Farm. On the other side it joins a paved road. You can either turn right on the road, which soon doubles back on itself, or take a shortcut by following the footpath in front of you, but it is a bit steep. 

When the path rejoins the road turn left and head towards Abbey Village. Arrive in the village just behind the Hare and Hounds pub and turn left towards the rake Brook Reservoir. Just after the water turn left, still following the Witton Weavers Way. When you get to the Roddlesworth Reservoir turn left again, even though this puts the Jubilee Tower on your right. However the path follows the edge of the reservoir
back round to the east and towards where you started from.

The Witton Weavers Way eventually exits left, but ignore it and carry straight on on the main path. there are two Roddlesworth Reservoirs, and just after the second one the path you are on is crossed by a footpath. this is where we began and if you turn left you find yourself back at the cafe where we began. 

They sell locally produced produced and fairtrade food and organic pies, so if you've made it this far please treat yourself.