Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Farewell to the Hardy Tree

In the 1860s, Thomas Hardy, the famous novelist, was learning the ropes as a young architect in London, and was given the unenviable task of digging up graves at Old St Pancras Church to make way for the railway about to power its way from St Pancras Station to the East Midlands and beyond.

He tried to give a decent burial to the human remains and stacked the gravestones around an ash tree, creating what became known as the Hardy Tree. Sadly, weakened by last year's storms, the tree has now fallen.

Two decades later, Hardy wrote a poem about another churchyard where remains had to be dug up and reburied, and included the lines:

We late-lamented, resting here,

Are mixed to human jam,

And each to each exclaims in fear,

'I know not which I am!'

You wonder how much that was inspired by his own experience of the daunting task at St Pancras. 

Friday, 6 January 2023

John Stonehouse: my part in his downfall

If you’ve been watching the ITV drama series
Stonehouse https://www.itv.com/watch/stonehouse/10a1973/10a1973a0001, you’ll know the Walsall Labour MP John Stonehouse faked his own death in November 1974, creating the impression that he’d been drowned off a beach in Miami, only to turn up later in Australia where he was arrested. Later he was gaoled in the UK on various fraud charges.

At the time, I was a reporter at ATV, then the ITV company for the English Midlands, and I covered the story extensively. Shortly after his disappearance, I remember interviewing (sadly only by telephone) an American detective who told me he thought someone might have made Stonehouse ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse’ and that the MP might currently be ‘wearing a concrete overcoat.’

The detective turned out to be wrong, but the most surprising thing about the affair for me was that I had done a discussion programme with Stonehouse shortly before the General Election of October 1974 in which he and a Conservative MP had knocked lumps off each other in the customary manner. I’ve always wondered whether Stonehouse already knew he was going to fake his death a month later.

I did a number of interviews with his election agent, Harry Richards. This is one from May 1975:


Monday, 2 January 2023

Be careful using Travelex’s ‘buyback guarantee’

Once upon a time foreign exchange company Travelex used to offer a proper ‘buyback guarantee’ when you bought foreign currency from them. For an additional few pounds on top of the normal commission charge, you got a guarantee that they would buy any foreign currency you had left on your return at the same rate you paid for it. It was a service I often used when changing money at airports.

I hadn’t used Travelex for some time when I went to Denmark at the end of October. At Heathrow, as I had done so often in the past, I went to Travelex to buy, on this occasion, Danish kroner. I asked for a buyback guarantee, paid over the usual additional fee, and was told this would mean I would be able to change my money back at the ‘spot rate’ on the day. I assumed this meant the rate might move a bit in my favour or a bit against me.

Imagine my surprise when I tried to change back my remaining currency using the buyback guarantee, and found I was facing a loss of 27% (!). When I remonstrated with Travelex staff, they told me that a thrusting new CEO had moved into the company and that this virtual destruction of the buyback guarantee was one of his initiatives.

I wrote to Travelex to complain and said I felt I should have been warned at the outset that the ‘buyback guarantee’ no longer protected the customer, but they dismissed my comments, saying only that they would in future ask staff to ‘clearly communicate exchange rates before a purchase is confirmed’. If this means anything, it should require staff to say something like: ‘please be aware that purchasing this buyback guarantee will not protect you from suffering a substantial loss of perhaps 25% or more on any money you change back.’

Has anyone else had a similar experience to me?

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Brexitwatch: my New Year's honours list

Human Being of the Year Brexit-wise for 2022: my award goes to Chris Grey, author of the blog https://chrisgreybrexitblog.blogspot.com/.  Though to be honest he probably also deserved the award for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Emeritus Professor of Organization Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, he blogs most Fridays on Brexit, cutting through the lies, deceit and confusion that have plagued the UK during the Brexit years. He writes authoritatively, soberly and fairly, but also readably. It is consistently the best thing I have read on the subject.

One of his many illuminating insights is that both Conservatives and Labour are trapped in what he calls 'performative' policies on Brexit. That they constantly advocate courses of action that are not designed to benefit the British people, courses of action indeed that they know will damage the British people, and whose only point is that they appeal to the prejudices of Brexiters and make them feel better.

Leaver or former remainer, right wing or left, if you want to really understand Brexit, invest 10-15 minutes of your time each week in reading Chris Grey.

Tuesday, 13 December 2022

History of Assassination: my North London talk in January

I'm honoured to have been invited to speak again at the Crouch End & District u3a in North London, this time on the history of assassination.

Drawing on my book Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day (Reaktion), I'll be talking about murder by poisoned umbrella or booby-trapped toy or killer disguised as a bear.

The most notorious assassinations will, of course, be there - Julius Caesar, Good King Wenceslaus, Thomas Becket, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, JFK, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Kim Jong-nam, as well as the ones that got away: Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin, Queen Victoria. How might history have been different if their would-be killers had succeeded?

Because dynastic ambition was so often the motive, perpetrators were often spouses, parents, children or siblings. One Turkish sultan had 19 of his brothers strangled. The powerful have always tried to protect themselves, but that can misfire as a dozen or so Roman emperors were murdered by their guards. On the other hand, many victims seem to have been surprisingly careless. Abraham Lincoln had let his bodyguard go for a drink. 

I'll also be examining the thorny question of whether assassination works.

The talk is on 19 January at 1030. https://cedu3a.org.uk/monthly-meetings/


Saturday, 10 December 2022

The mysterious and terrifying Assassins sect: new article draws on my book

An interesting article on the history of the Assassins sect, who murdered their way through the Middle East from the late 11th to the 13th century, quotes my book
Assassins' Deeds. A History of Assassination from Ancient Egypt to the Present Day (Reaktion).

A breakaway sect of a breakway Muslim sect, the Assassins killed many prominent Muslims, sometimes in cahoots with the Crusaders then trying to establish a Christian kingdom in the region. Even the great Saladin was afraid of them.

But they also murdered Crusaders such as Conrad of Montferrat, who had just been elected king of Jerusalem. The Assassins later apologised to Conrad's successor for their deed, and, to make up for it, offered to murder any enemy he chose to nominate. The order was eventually destroyed by the terrifying Mongol hordes led by the descendants of Genghis Khan. 

Marco Polo, without any first-hand knowledge, told racy tales of how young men were recruited to the order in a valley like paradise inhabited by the world's 'most beautiful damsels' whose favours could be enjoyed by those prepared to commit murders when ordered. He also said they did their killings under the influence of hashish, a story which led to them being dubbed 'hashishin' which morphed into 'assassin'. There's not much sign that any of this was true, and, if anything, the Assassins' regime was probably rather puritanical. 

You can find the article here: https://history.howstuffworks.com/world-history/order-of-assassins.htm

Sunday, 4 December 2022

I'm out in Chinese! With the strange tale of the assassin who cut off his own hand

The Chinese translation of my history of assassination, Assassins’ Deeds (Reaktion Books) is out. So Chinese readers can now marvel at the astonishing story of the assassin who cut off his own hand.

About two and a half thousand years ago, Helu, ruler of the Chinese kingdom of Wu, decided to book an assassin to kill off a rival who wanted to steal his throne. He was surprised when a trusted adviser recommended Yao Li, who was barely four feet tall, but the king was assured that anything the assassin lacked in stature he would more than make up for in commitment.

And that seemed to be confirmed when Yao’s first demand was that the king should cut off his hand and kill his entire family. The assassin argued that this would convince Helu’s rival that Yao Li was the king’s sworn enemy. And sure enough, the now one-handed assassin was able to worm his way into the rival’s confidence and, once there, use his surviving hand to plunge a spear into his back as he tried to mount his bid for the throne.

The story goes that the victim was so impressed, he congratulated Yao on his daring and with his dying breath, ordered his soldiers not to punish the killer, but Yao was overcome with remorse at what he had done to his own family, and threw himself into the Yangtse River never to be seen again.

Or if Chinese readers prefer, there is the giant assassin who learned the skills of haute cuisine to open up a path to his target, but that is another story.