Monday 29 April 2024

I-Spy Turin: memorial to a forgotten front

In the old days before we had the EU, European countries used to fight wars with each other. We know a lot about the horrors of the Western Front in the First World War, but there were other equally dreadful theatres we hear much less of.

The war memorial in Turin, pictured above, commemorates soldiers killed in one of them, the conflict between Austria and Italy, much of which was fought on the Alpine Front.

Italy entered the war late, in 1916. Having been an ally of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it switched sides to join Britain, France and Russia. Austria and Italy would lose a million men - 600,000 Italians and 400,000 Austrians - many of them in the mountains. One war correspondent said conditions there were worse even than 'in the blood-soaked mud of Flanders'.

In addition to the cold and the usual hazards of war, there were avalanches, sometimes set off deliberately as a weapon, sometimes triggered accidentally by artillery, and sometimes occurring naturally. After heavy snow in December of 1916, avalanches buried 10,000 soldiers in just two days.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

I-Spy Paris: war memorial to the Tsar's troops

In 1916, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia sent 20,000 Russian troops to help France fight the Germans on the Western Front. Above is the memorial in Paris to the 5,000 who were killed.

Tsarist Russia was part of the Triple Entente with France and Britain, lining up against the Central Powers of Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. 

Tsar Nicholas would be killed by the Bolsheviks as the Russian Empire collapsed. The First World War also brought an end to the German Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were dismantled.

Thursday 29 February 2024

The true history of Brexit Britain: the real coalition

 I've been busy with the glue and paste and I've manged to piece together another section of the New Oxford History of Brexit Britain written some time after 2050. Read it ONLY HERE:

When people talked about ‘the coalition’ in the 2020s, they invariably meant the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that ruled from 2010 to 2015, but the real coalition in British politics was the one between two ostensibly bitter rivals, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. And although, the Labour Party was an enthusiastic participant, this coalition was fiercely conservative, resolutely blocking the changes that Britain needed, to solve its deep-seated, long-standing problems.

The Labour-Conservative coalition obstinately defended Brexit even when most British people had long ago realised it was a terrible mistake, and that it had been imposed on them by a political process that could most kindly be described as ‘unsatisfactory’, and which had effectively been ruled illegal.

The Conservative-Labour coalition also fought like tigers against any reform of the undemocratic ‘First Past the Post’ voting system, which constantly awarded virtually absolute power to politicians most voters had rejected.

So more than 63 per cent had voted against the notorious Conservative government of 2015 that implemented the disastrous Brexit referendum, while more than 56 per cent had opposed Boris Johnson’s vacuous ‘get Brexit done’ regime in 2019, and in the three supposed Thatcher 'landslides' of 1979-1987 she never won more than 43.9 per cent of the vote. But Labour also benefited from this undemocracy, with Tony Blair gaining his first ‘landslide’ in 1997 with only 43 per cent of the vote, and his last election victory in 2005 with just 35 per cent. In other words, nearly two-thirds of voters opposed him.

As the 21st century progressed, there was more and more agonising and hand-wringing from Labour and Conservative politicians about how voters were ‘alienated’ from the political process and about how dangerous this was. Yet it seemed to occur to few of them that constantly imposing on the British people governments they did not want would surely cause ‘alienation.’

As we now know, this fierce conservatism over Brexit and the electoral system would have severe consequences for both parties, and, sadly, for the people of Britain.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

I-Spy Turin! Roman remains + thank you Stanmore!

The Palatine Gate (above) is pretty much what is left of Roman Turin. The northern entrance to the old city, it has been, as you might guess, substantially restored, with extensive works during the 15th century. It was due to be demolished in the 18th as part of a major redevelopment, but an architect and engineer saved it. Fortunately - because it is one of the most impressive sights in the city, and you can see it free. You might even get a nicer day than I did.

* Belated thanks to Stanmore & District u3a for hosting my talk on my book Assassins' Deeds. A history of assassination from ancient Egypt to the present day (Reaktion books)There was a good audience who asked some interesting questions.

Saturday 16 December 2023

So Farewell then, 'Question of Sport'. My part in its downfall

So after 53 years,
Question of  Sport is being axed by the BBC because of the squeeze the Conservatives government has applied to the corporation's finances while it let inflation rip.

Back in 1969 or 70, I took part in the pilot programme that led to what was then A Question of Sport  being commissioned. At the time I was working as a radio outside broadcasts producer in the BBC's North Region, based in Manchester. Out of the blue, I got a phone call asking if I could go to what were then the corporation's television studios in the city at a converted church in Dickenson Road (pictured), which was also the birthplace of Top of the Pops.

The programme was presented by David Vine, and among my fellow panellists was the distinguished football reporter Dennis Lowe.

I remember getting a question about a piece of film featuring a runner, who I correctly identified as the great Czech athlete Emil Zatopek and also correctly said that at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki he had won the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres and the Marathon in his first ever run over the distance. No one, incidentally, has ever managed to repeat his treble.

In spite of my stunning performance I was never invited to take part in one of the many transmitted programmes, with the producers unaccountably preferring panellists such as Henry Cooper, Brendan Foster, Fred Trueman, Emlyn Hughes and Princess Anne.

Monday 11 December 2023

Assassins' Deeds: Hit the Road, John!

Assassins' Deeds roadshow reaches Stanmore on 15 January as I talk to Stanmore & District u3a about my history of assassination from ancient Egypt to the present day.

Expect stories about the earliest assassination known to history, the killer in a bear's costume, the president whose bodyguard went for a drink while he was murdered, the near misses that spared Napoleon, Hitler and Queen Victoria, and much, much more.

Assassins' Deeds is published by Reaktion Books

Tuesday 21 November 2023

Brexitwatch: Leave Planet Earth! How the Tories' "stop the boats" slogans evolved 2016-30

The Conservatives pretended, with some success, that the best way of improving the quality of life for the British people was to stop those so desperate that they had abandoned their homes and travelled thousands of miles in constant danger, from trying to reach our country. This seemed all the more bizarre as we had a desperate shortage of workers

As each initiative to 'stop the boats' failed, the Tories' slogans evolved:

2016 Vote Brexit to STOP THE BOATS

2023 Quit the ECHR to STOP THE BOATS

2030 Leave Planet Earth to STOP THE BOATS

Leaving the EU failed. Treating its member countries as our enemies proved not to be a good way of getting the help we desperately needed from them if we wanted to 'stop the boats'. Leaving the ECHR was, if anything, even more disastrous, as it resulted in Britain becoming a pariah nation with its trade agreement with the EU torn up. The Conservatives talked up a new deal with North Korea as an alternative, but when mutual trade in its first year amounted to only £22.30, even some Tories began to have doubts. Leaving the ECHR also failed to 'stop the boats'.

The 'Leave Planet Earth' scheme was originally floated by the NatCons, or National Conservatives who were extreme right wingers even by Tory standards, and rejected by the party leadership, but by 2030 it had become official policy in spite of its obvious practical difficulties. Former prime minister Boris Johnson dismissed its critics as 'the woke Green liberal elite Remoaner Blob.'

During the early 2020s, incidentally, the Conservative government kept referring to those trying to seek asylum in the UK as 'illegal immigrants'. They were not, because it was not illegal to seek asylum, and the civil service refused to adopt this mendacious terminology, referring instead on official government websites to 'irregular immigration'.