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Second Reading

One of the joys of retirement is having more time for reading.  There’s many books, new and old, which are piling up for me to read but there is also a special place for rereading some old favourites, including, earlier this year, The Lord of the Rings.

I first read Tolkien’s epic when I was 16 at the of the 1970s.  I was entranced then by the story which formed a very important part of the development of my imagination.  The second reading did not disappoint.  There was less need to think about the plot and more space to focus on the characters and the wonderful atmosphere which Tolkien builds up across the three books.  I even enjoyed the poetry which as a teenager I had, impatiently, skipped over.

Over the years I have also had the opportunity to learn more about Tolkien, the man enjoying Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent biography and also John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War.  I have also visited some of the places associated with Tolkien’s childhood in the West Midlands.  Ironically, without any idea at the time of what it was, I realised I had routinely passed his childhood home in the 1970s on the way to watch rugby at Mosely.  

Despite Tolkien’s own injunctions about the dangers of using an author’s biography as a tool of literary analysis, discovering more about Tolkien the man does provide some powerful clues about some of the influences which helped shape his work. 

The first is his obvious emotional closeness to his mother and the impact of her death (from the complications of diabetes in the days before insulin treatment).  It is no surprise that he married another orphan and that his close friend at Oxford, CS Lewis had also lost his mother as a child.   His deep loyalty to the Catholic faith also has much to do with his mother, whose conversion to Catholicism was such as a significant part of his childhood.  This loss feels as if it provides the background to Tolkien’s seriousness of purpose in the book.

The second is the influence of living in what was then the Warwickshire countryside near Sarehole Mill, a place where he enjoyed a brief period of childhood paradise.  It was a place where he could wander with freedom and indulge his imagination.  It is unsurprising that this place reappears in some of his descriptions of the Shire.

Finally, there is no doubt about the impact which the Great War had on Tolkien.  He references it at the start of The Lord of the Rings.  Not only does it influence his imagination in scenes such as Frodo and Sam’s progress across the Dead Marshes it also provides a great authenticity in his descriptions of the psychological impact of warfare and of the loss of one’s friends on the battlefield.

At one level the specifics do not matter.  Tolkien thought of his writing emerging from the leaf mulch of his life experiences and perhaps it is not important to go beyond that.  What is certain is that The Lord of Rings is an enormously genuine act of creation.  Tolkien said himself in a letter to his publisher “It is written in my life blood, such as that is, thick or thin; and I can do no other.” While he did write other things it is no surprise that nothing else matched up to the world he created in the Hobbit and The Long of the Rings.

Tolkien was very clear that The Lord of the Rings was not a work of allegory, however tempting it might be to assume that given the times in which it was written.  It is however a genuinely epic story of good and evil which asks big questions about the state of the world, the meaning of life and the key qualities of courage, loyalty and resilience.

However, my conclusion is that the special triumph of The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s ability to weave together seamlessly the ordinary and extraordinary.  As part of this he links together into a single narrative his profound knowledge of mythology with the sense of fun and excitement of the children’s stories he enjoyed making up and relating to his children.  Turn a page in Tolkien and you move from a serious reflection on the possible triumph of evil to an equally serious comment on the quality of beer or the shortage of pipe tobacco.

It is this multi-layered quality of Tolkien’s writing that, more than anything else, makes this great literature and which makes it accessible to so many audiences.  If the story was one only of elves and warriors it would be far less readable, one reason which I have never got round to reading the Silmarillion, however important its mythology is to the integrity of the world which Tolkien has created.

So, on rereading The Lord of the Rings I was drawn most closely back to the hobbits.  As Tolkien admitted they are characters drawn from the soil of his native West Midlands.  Their ability to combine small imaginations with great courage, epitomised so specially in the character Sam Gamgee, would seem to recall the ordinary soldiers Tolkien had known in the Great War.  In the end they provide the moral presence which despite all his power overcomes Sauron.  It is a wonderful evocation of the belief in the role of ordinary people in the shaping of events, one which I share.

Tolkien admitted to weeping when he wrote the description of the heroes’ welcome given to Frodo and Sam at the Field Cormallen.  For me it was the last line of the story which moved me the most.  Sam has returned back to his family at Bag End after saying farewell to Frodo at Grey Havens.  The epic events in which Sam has played such a distinguished role are over and he returns, without a hint of pomposity or regret to his ordinary life.  Quietly Tolkien draws the story to a conclusion.

He drew a deep breath.  “Well I’m back.” he said.

A Generous Talent- the life of Felix Mendelssohn

In my Bach pilgrimage to Leipzig, last April, there was an opportunity to honour another musical hero, Felix Mendelssohn who was Director of its famous Gewandhaus Orchestra and who died in the city at the age of only 38.  The connection with Bach is, course, more than an issue of geography.  Starting with his performance of The Matthew Passion in 1829 Mendelssohn played a key role in the revival of Bach’s music after a century of neglect.

Mendelssohn is a less popular composer today than he was in his own lifetime, considered perhaps too 19th century in his approach or to use a quote from the French composer, Hector Berlioz “too fond of the music of the dead.”  Personally, I disagree with that assessment and for me his music combines technical excellence with lyrical beauty and a powerful sense of drama and emotional depth.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on 3rd February 1809, the son of a successful banker Abraham Mendelssohn and the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn a leading Jewish intellectual and famous figure of the German Enlightenment.

Despite this distinguished Jewish heritage, Mendelssohn’s parents converted to Christianity and brought their children up in the Christian faith.  Both Felix and his sister Fanny were childhood prodigies.  Felix made his public debut at the age of 9 and between the age of 11 and 14 he wrote 100 compositions.  At the age of 12 he was introduced to the poet Goethe who rated his ability as similar to that of Mozart whom Goethe had heard perform as a child in 1763. 

After Napoleon’s capture of Hamburg, the Mendelssohn family moved back to Berlin and Felix’s professional career was largely split between that city and Leipzig where he took up the Directorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835.  He also travelled widely and held a number of other posts as Director of the Lower Rhine Music Festival and Intendant of the Dusseldorf Opera.

Mendelssohn was a frequent visitor to Britain where he and his work was loved including by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for whom Mendelssohn was a particular favourite.  Amongst other places he went was the up-and-coming town of Birmingham, performing at its triennial Musical Festival on three occasions and premiering his oratorio Elijah to great acclaim in its Town Hall in 1846. Mendelssohn left a number pen and ink sketches of the town and was clearly fond of Birmingham and its inhabitants.  He was, at the time, probably its most illustrious visitor.

Mendelssohn’s musical output was prodigious and covered a wide range of formats.  Despite a number of attempts, an opera was the one thing he did not manage to produce.  Like all composers there is some variability in what he wrote but within his oeuvre there are pieces of profound quality and beauty.  His Violin Concerto is one of my favourites and is a piece which I rarely listen to without more than a tinge of emotion.

Mendelssohn was also the first modern conductor, a pioneer in the use of the baton and systematic rehearsal techniques.  He was popular with performers managing through technique and charm to coax performances out of any group of musicians at his disposal.  As an early biographer said of him “Mendelssohn understood as no other director has how to enlist his singers’ whole enthusiasm.”

As I highlighted at the outset of this blog Mendelssohn’s reputation declined after his death.  In part this reflected changes in musical taste but some of it also is the result of antisemitism.  In this Richard Wagner has a particular responsibility with the publication in the 1850s of his volume “Jewishness in Music” which he promotes a racist critique of Mendelssohn’s music.

The Nazis banned his music, took down his memorial statue in Leipzig (featured in the picture at the front of this blog) and even got the composer Carl Orff to rewrite the music for The Midsummers Night Dream, Mendelssohn’s music for which had been a significant item of the German musical canon.  It was almost as if the level of integration into German society achieved by Mendelssohn made him a particular target.

In modern times there has been much interest in Felix’s relationship with his elder sister Fanny.  Fanny Mendelssohn (or Hensel by her married name) was a very talented musician in her own right.   The two siblings were very close, emotionally and indeed musically.  Felix often consulted Fanny about his own compositions and did much to encourage her as a musician. However, it is also true that he took a view that it was not appropriate for her to become a professional musician as he had done.  Whether this reflects wider views at the time on gender stereotypes or something specific to the Mendelssohn family it is hard to tell, he did for instance help other female musicians such as Clara Schumann.  In the end he did support the publication of some her works and he was devastated by her death in May 1847, one of the factors which may have contributed to his own premature passing 5 months later.

Not all geniuses make the loveliest of figures in real life but there is something very attractive about Felix Mendelssohn and in particular the respect and generosity he showed to others.  As well as reviving the reputation of JS Bach he did much to give greater prominence to the music of Franz Schubert and to encourage contemporary musicians such as Robert Schumann.  To me his music is full of joy, a joy which he clearly shared with those who listened to his music and with whom he performed.   In our world today that is something to celebrate.


I spent the first 20 years of my life in Birmingham and for much of the subsequent 40 years I have kept a close connection with the city. 

I have just read Richard Vinen’s excellent book Second City on the history of the city, and just as importantly, that history’s connection with wider developments in the UK.

One of the book’s key themes is the sense of the invisibility, by design or accident, of history to Birmingham’s residents.  “History was something that happened somewhere else”.  Despite a lifelong connection with Birmingham and a love of a history I was struck myself by how little I knew about the place I was brought up in.

Perhaps some of this reflects the unevenness of the historical narrative relating to the city.  There was little until the end of the 18th Century to put it on the historical map, and it is, in many ways, the city’s relationship with the Industrial Revolution and the changes it has unleashed which, even to this day, gives the story of Britain’s second city its wider resonance.

In this blog I wanted to pick out three themes.

The first relates to the industrial history of the city on which its growth and development is based.   More than some other of the cities of the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham is a manufacturing city.  It emerged in the 18th Century as the centre of the “toy trade”, a term which refers to the manufacture of small items which are cheap to transport but which require skilled labour in their production.  This was supplemented in the 19th Century by the development of a wider range of manufacturing industry and in the 20th century by the production of cars which, for good or bad, was central to city’s identity in the decades when I was growing up. 

Throughout these developments its industrial success was due not to the availability of natural resources or any other natural advantage of geography.  Rather the critical factor was the ability to attract skilled labour which could move across industries depending on their economic fortunes.

The second theme is immigration.  Birmingham’s economic prosperity, particularly in the 20th Century,  made it a focal point for waves of those moving from other parts of the country and the world in search of work.  In the 1930s it was the Welsh (my father came at the tail end of that period) when 3% of the working age population of Wales moved to the Midlands.  After the war it was the Irish and then the Caribbean and South Asian and other communities which give modern Birmingham so much of its character. 

Second City gives a realistic and honest view of the history of race relations in the city. Birmingham shares much of the tawdry story of the rest of the country in respect of the direct and indirect discrimination it has shown to people of colour.  There is also a powerful description of the 1974 Birmingham Pub Bombings and their aftermath, an event which is seared into the memory of anyone who was living in Birmingham at the time, and the very significant anti-Irish feelings it generated.

Yet for all of that, Birmingham also shows how places can adapt to welcome new populations and adopt a more diverse character.  My own understanding of diversity is grounded in the journeys I made as a teenager on the 37 bus (as Second City also rightly highlights everything in Birmingham is defined by the buses) from Solihull to “Town” though the inner city suburbs of Sparkbrook, Sparkhill and Digbeth.

The final theme I was led to reflect on relates to the Government of the city and in particular the legacy of the Chamberlain years.  In less than 70 years from 1832 to 1889 Birmingham went from being a manor, without any representation in Parliament, to being a city.  From the 1860s, in part under the leadership of Joseph Chamberlain, a controversial but brilliant politician, it embarked on a programme of urban improvement which saw the “municipalisation” of water and gas supplies and the development of major investment in education, urban development and cultural amenities.

As Second City rightly argues, some of the story of the Chamberlain years is myth.  However, one thing which I was struck by in the book was the description of a locally based urban elite which felt some genuine sense of connection and obligation towards the city where it had made its money.  This is epitomised by philanthropists such as Joseph Moore, whose musical fundraising made a big contribution to Birmingham General Hospital, and Josiah Mason, the penmaker who invested heavily in education in the city including establishing Mason College, the forerunner of Birmingham University.  In contrast the scale of the divide today between those who make money and the places where that money is made is a very dysfunctional aspect of modern capitalism.

As the furore over this week’s announcement in “levelling up” funding demonstrates the future of our former industrial cities outside London remains one of the great social and political challenges of our era, something which is, of course, not unique to the UK.

For a century Birmingham had a rather distinctive journey as one of the first industrial cities in the world. Much of that fell away in with the economic shocks of the 1970s and 80s and is unlikely to return.  Birmingham like other cities of its size and heritage will have to make the most of its future without any specific geographical or environmental advantages.

However, there are lessons form the past which have something to say about its future direction.  First is the lesson that the success of modern cities is based on skills and that a skilled and flexible workforce requires lifetime investment.  Second that successful modern cities are based on their ability to welcome and thrive off the contribution of new arrivals.  Birmingham has positive and negative examples from its past to show how that can be done.  Finally, there is evidence that national and local government need to find a different way of working together to create and exploit the structural opportunities on which future prosperity can be based.

Perhaps a moment for something as bold as the changes which helped reshape the Second City in the late 19th Century.

Christmas – a time of togetherness and common interest

For most of the years I have been writing a blog, I have produced one with a Christmas theme.  In part it’s a good time to reflect on what has happened over the last year but it is also important as Christmas is, increasingly, one of the few shared reference points in our society.

I thought I would continue the tradition this year although the rhythm building up to Christmas this year, now I am retired, has felt pleasantly different.

At one level, with each year passing, I become ever more dissatisfied with the totally commercialised narrative of Christmas which starts now in earnest in November and continues relentlessly to Christmas Day.  While I can accept Christmas as a secular mid-winter festival the relentless focus on acquisition and shallow display is depressing.

There is, however, more to this festival and its messages, whether you subscribe to any belief in Christianity or not, are a genuine source of pleasure and inspiration.  I want to highlight a few, drawing from some of the themes I have explored in my previous blogs.

 A frequent reference point for me has been Charles Dickens’ novel “A Christmas Carol”.  As a narrative it is as popular in 21st century as it was in 19th.  However, behind the well-known story are some deeper messages.

To start with Dickens’ bold description of Christmas as “the only time in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were fellow-passengers to the grave, and another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

At the heart of much of our indifference to the suffering of others is a lack of connection or real understanding of the lives of others.   For many middle-class families, the reality of poverty is remote.  While we all feel affected by the cost of living crisis we do not face the day by day choices between food, clothing and other essentials which, according to research  published last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is the lived experience of three quarters of those in the bottom, 20% of incomes.  

The story of Ebernezer Scrooge is also not just about the lives of those less fortunate.  His encounters with the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future are also a timely insight into the hollowness of his own life and how he has displaced all his psychological energy into the goal of worldly success and the accumulation of wealth.  That is a timely message for us too.

My second theme for this blog comes from the remarkable story of the Christmas Truce in the first winter of the First World War.  While not without precedents it was an amazing set of events in the midst of one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.  It is an example of when the actions of ordinary men transcended the rule of the powers to be and made something truly special happen.  A real example of the Christmas spirit which perhaps also highlighted that, on many occasions, more united the ordinary soldiers on both sides of the Great War than divided them.

So often the manta “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men” is sung at Christmas time with little hope that it will bring an end to the fighting and conflicts which continue to rage across the world.  It is true that after several days the men on the Western Front went back to the business of mutual destruction but for a moment the fighting stops and there was a hope of peace. In a year when we have seen again a terrible conflict on European soil, we must hope again that, however difficult, a way is found of silencing the guns in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world.

My last stop in this Christmas blog is my favourite seasonal movie  It’s a Wonderful Life.  It covers some similar territory to A Christmas Carol, but its special message is that of the importance of community interests compared to a narrow focus on individual benefit.  Interestingly as an American drama, and indeed one produced by a Director, Frank Capra, who was a staunch Republican and critic of FDR, it is a damning indictment of a narrow and soulless version of capitalism which puts profit ahead all other considerations. George Bailey, after all, is no socialist.  He subscribes to the American dream and its vision of material success.  However, the key thing is that he has not lost sight of his fellow inhabitants of Bedford Falls.    

The challenge to rethink the values of capitalism in ways which benefit the majority, support a sustainable future for our planet and diminish the corrosive inequalities of wealth which so threatens social cohesion, is a very pressing issue for our generation.  While also a cosy feel-good “must watch” for Christmas, “It’s a Wonderful Life” contains a powerful challenge about the values of business and making money.

Uniting these three stories is a key massage about Christmas as a time of togetherness and common interest.  It is a moment to remember we are all citizens of the same world, all of us on a common journey to the grave and that our actions have consequences and links with the interests of others.  On top of that, it is also a time, as the story of Christmas itself tells, when special things can happen.

Othello – a play for our age

Along with Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear Othello is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.  It isn’t one I have seen many times, but I recently enjoyed a powerful production at the National Theatre with Giles Terera in the title role and Paul Hilton as his nemesis, Iago.

Othello has all the dramatic power and psychological insight of Shakespeare at his best.  There are two distinctive things about the play on top of that.  First the fact that it has two main characters of almost equal weight in the drama, both brilliantly constructed and developed. The second the explosive topic of race, challenging in Shakespeare’s day but central in our own.

The story, adapted from an earlier play, tells of the Moorish general, Othello, pushed to prominence by Venice when his military skills are of value, his marriage with Desdemona the daughter of a Venetian nobleman and his undermining and downfall at the hands of Iago who persuades him falsely of the infidelity of the Desdemona, driving him, in jealousy to kill her. It is a taut drama that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as the action plays out and as Iago constructs, at times with unbelievable boldness, his dark web of deceit and duplicity.

Rarely does Shakespeare have two such strong and well-developed characters as Othello and Iago.  Othello starts as the hero of the play, a man of undoubted bravery and talents who has come to serve Venice.  In a moment of crisis, the Venetian state overcomes its intrinsic prejudice to entrust into his capable hands the campaign against the Turks at Cyprus, a key battleground at the end of the 16th century in the wars between the Ottomans and the European powers.   At the same time Othello has won the heart of Desdemona a rich and beautiful woman from the Venetian nobility.  His speech and demeanour show a man at the height of his power and authority.  Where and how does it all go so wrong?

Race undoubtedly plays its part.  Othello is “not one of us”.  Despite his track record of service for the Venetian state, his elegant manners and his professed commitment to the Christian faith the loyalty shown to him by his masters is completely shallow.  Once bad weather wrecks the Ottoman fleet and diminishes its threat, the need for Othello’s services is lessened and he is recalled to Venice.

At all points in the play, he remains “the Moor”, the only black man at the top of the Venetian state.  It is lonely position something which the National Theatre production brought out well by having an otherwise all-white cast.

This production brought out how racism constantly simmers below the surface, boiling over explicitly, for instance, in scenes such as that where Desdemona’s father Brabantio seeks to get the Duke’s help in stopping Othello’s marriage to his daughter.  It is only the immediate need of the state for Othello’s services which forces the Duke to take Othello’s side.

There is some dispute about whether Shakespeare envisages Othello as black African or as someone of middle eastern or Arabic heritage.  There were black people living in Shakespeare’s London. There is also evidence that just before writing Othello he performed in front of the Ambassador of Barbary (featured in the picture at the head of this blog) who spent a number of months at the court of the Elizabeth I. 

In some ways it does not matter.  Whatever the specific details of the character there is no mistaking the description of the experience of “otherness” in Othello which Shakespeare captures in such a powerful and modern way.  The play exposes, without the need for historical adjustment, racism in all its ugly horror.

There are other aspects, however, to the tragedy of Othello.  The key one is the figure of Iago presents the most terrible of all Shakespeare’s villains, a man without any moral compass and with frightening skills of manipulation and deceit.  In a shocking series of scenes Shakespeare shows us Iago at work faking evidence about Desdemona’s feelings for Cassio and then brutally playing at Othello’s underlying insecurity in order to get him to believe his story. 

In these scenes Shakespeare’s use of soliloquies to expose Iago’s inner thoughts combined with the way in which, when speaking to Othello, he uses repetition to sow doubts in Othello’s mind are some of the best stretches of dramatic writing I have ever read. Knowing what we know of his evil intentions, the impulse is to shout out Iago’s guilt.  However, on the stage, until the very end of the play when exposed by Emilia, his wife and Desdemona’s maid, Iago continues to be trusted and believed, a source of constancy amidst the chaos of which he has largely been the author.

In a manner which resonates in the contemporary world the play exposes brutally the consequences of when an honest, if flawed, man comes against another who has no respect of the truth and no loyalty to friends, family and colleagues.  In Disney such a villain would meet his just desserts before too much harm has been done.  In Shakespeare, Rodrigo, Desdemona and Othello himself have been led to their deaths before the enormity of Iago’s wickedness leads to his punishment.

Other Shakespeare tragedies end with a cleaner sense of catharsis than Othello.  Here there is no assurance that a good order will be restored now the tragedy has been played out.  However, in a brilliant piece of drama Shakespeare leaves clear messages for us to draw about what the tragedy of Othello is about and the issues in our society, as much as his, it is addressing.

Dulce et decorum est

Last month I found myself once again travelling through the battlefields of the Somme.  Despite the passing of the years, it is still an incredibly moving experience.  The Great War and, in particular the Battle of the Somme, remain for me and many others, the definition of the horrors of warfare. 

This time I took with me in my cycle pannier the collected poems of Wilfred Owen.  While familiar since I was a teenager with some of the best known of his poems, it was very moving to read through his work alongside visiting some of the battlefield sites, and, earlier in my journey, Owen’s own grave in the village of Ors.  He is, for me, the finest of the First World War poets.

In visiting some of the many cemeteries scattered over the battlefield, I was moved by contrast between the terror and chaos of the battlefield, so vividly captured in Owen’s poems, and the amazing order of the cemeteries where the fallen are laid to rest.  More than hundred years on, the cemeteries, both those maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and those of other nationalities are immaculately looked after, the graves in uniform parade ground order and scarcely a blade of grass out of place.

One of the striking things about the cemeteries is that, despite the consistency of design and layout, they each tell a slightly different story.   Two I visited in the village of Fricourt, a site of some of the fighting on of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, exemplify this.  The first a British cemetery (featured in the picture at the head of this blog) is full of soldiers, mainly from Yorkshire, who all died on the first day of the Battle.  It captured vividly the impact of the bloodiest day in British miliary history. 

The second, half a mile away, was a German cemetery.  The burials here extended across the period of the War, reflecting that the Somme battlefield was fought over more than once.  While the design and format of graves was different the feeling of sadness and the sense of the loss of a generation was the same, reminding one that there was often more that united those who actually did the fighting than divided them.  Most moving of all were the distinctive graves of Jewish soldiers fighting on the German side, so poignant when considering what was to come next.

The cemeteries across the battlefield ask the question of what was the object of the fighting. Along the old Roman road from Bapaume to Albert which runs across the middle of the battlefield there are series of road signs which mark the position of the front line at the start of the battle at the beginning of the July, its position on 1st September and its position in November when winter drew the battle to a close.  There is perhaps 5-6 miles between the opening and finishing position, a distance which it took me just over 30 minutes to cross on my bike.  It was a stark thought that the capture of such a small stretch of land cost more than a half a million lives. 

My final impression from the battlefield was its almost total silence.   I visited Mametz Wood, the site of the battle which I attempted to portray in my novel The Lost Summer.  The shape of the landscape is the same but, unlike my hero or the real-life participants in that battle, I looked at it uninterrupted by what Owen refers to in his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” as “the monstrous anger of the guns”.

A hundred years on the Battle of the Somme still has a very powerful story to tell about the destructive impulses of mankind and the futility of war.  Yet it is not a simple story.  As this year’s events in Ukraine have illustrated there are times when, as it is for Ukrainians now, fighting is inevitable and justified. Furthermore, whatever the origins of a particular conflict, there are, in the midst of war, many acts of phenomenal bravery and sacrifice.

In writing The Lost Summer I tried to put myself in the shoes of that generation which, unlike mine, had had to go to War.  In particular, I tried to imagine the impact of having to take the lives of others, something which Owen does so powerfully in his poem “Strange Meeting” which describes a meeting in a dream with a German soldier whose life he has taken. 

For my hero the psychological impact of the conflict and the clash between his liberal values and the brutal realities of war proves too much.  He suffers, like so many soldiers in the Great War, a mental breakdown, his mind, as Owen describes in his poem “Mental Cases” ravished by the dead and by the multitudinous murders he has witnessed.

I still did those things, killed men, and I can’t escape thinking about them. I hope they can forgive me from beyond the grave.”

The guns are now silent but the memory of the Great War and those who took part in it is still worth nurturing.  Some of those who fought in it hoped it would be the war to end all wars.  They were disappointed but, while honouring this weekend those who sacrificed their lives in past conflicts, we must still hope and work for better ways to resolve the disputes between people and nations.

Back in the saddle

I am just back from a very enjoyable 6 days cycling round Northern France.  It was my first trip, post retirement, and my first cycle expedition abroad since the pandemic.  For both reasons, and a few others, this was a particularly significant journey.

I have written before about my wider love of cycling.  Beyond, however, the general pleasure of travelling on two wheels there has been something special about the series of European fundraising rides I have done over the last decade, some with my son and some, like this one on my own.   

They have constituted a cross between an adventure and a pilgrimage and, certainly, something beyond the normal rhythm of a holiday, important though more normal holidays have been for recharging the batteries and having quality time with my family in the midst of a busy job.

Adventures imply an element of the unexpected, some of it desirable, some of it less so.  This year’s expedition passed without mechanical failures, but I’ve been less lucky on other trips, As I was reminded last week when crossing part of a previous route there are a few “corners of a foreign field” where I have had to stop to mend a puncture or fix something else on the bike. There are also memories of several distress visits to local bike shops (they are welcomingly there when you need them), the best of which was in Ennis in Ireland.  On that occasion the only way of staying on the road, when the brake discs on my son’s bike packed in and the bike shop didn’t have any replacements, was to negotiate an exchange on a new bike.

Despite, or maybe because of, the propensity for the unexpected to happen planning is at the heart of a successful trip.  I always argue that a really good expedition is enjoyed three times over: in planning, execution and reminiscence. 

I am somewhat old fashioned, so I still prefer planning my routes using physical maps.  Each trip has warranted an outing to the marvellous Stanford’s Travel Bookshop, a real Aladdin’s Cave of maps and travel guides. The internet also helps and, of course, makes the practicalities of organising accommodation, travel and places to eat so much easier than when I first did long cycle trips when I was at university.

As any cyclist knows the three key variables affecting the ease of any ride are:  hills, road surfaces and wind.  While I struggle these days with steep hills (the days of an electric bike are probably not far off), it is the wind I fear the most, especially on a long ride.  What goes up does eventually go down but a day cycling against a headwind is unforgiving. 

I mentioned that cycle tours have the character of a pilgrimage.  Part of this is tied up in the objective of reaching a destination or completing a specific distance or route.  The fact that the achievement is based on your own efforts and has usually involved at least an element of suffering adds to the sense of satisfaction when the ride is finished.

However, there is something beyond the simple physical achievement that makes a cycle tour so special.  This are journeys where the places you pass through matter as much as the place you are headed towards.  Some of those places you know, many you don’t.  Many of them, however, stick in the mind afterwards and shape your understanding of an area or a country more deeply than the tourist sites you might visit in a capital city.  In so many other modern forms of transport: aeroplanes, high speed trains or motorways we are kept away from the ordinary places in which so many of us live our lives.  In doing so we lose so much opportunity to learn about the lives of others.   The world is smaller place for that.

Whether passing through towns and villages or in the heart of the countryside, the saddle of a bike provides a perfect place from which to look at the world.  The landscape in northern France is particularly open and, last week particularly on the higher ground, I could often enjoy a view of 30 miles in all directions. With the added delight of autumn light and foliage it made for an inspiring spectacle which reaches powerfully into the depth of your being.  Every now and again I would be forced to halt and see if I could capture something of the essence of the view on my phone.

The other great thing about cycling is the time it gives you for reflection, taken out of all the cares and worries of normal life.  Over the years I have sorted out more things on the saddle of a bike than anywhere else and this trip allowed a welcome opportunity to reflect on the start of a new phase in my life as I step down from fulltime work.

My last observation is on how, at times on a bike, the landscape you are cycling through can interact powerfully with your own mood and thoughts.  Last Sunday afternoon I was on the final stretch of my ride back to Calais.  The part of the coast I was cycling along was unexpectedly and, it has to be said at that point in the journey, unwelcomingly hilly.  I put my head down for a final climb and had to stop several times on the hill to draw breath. Finally, though, as a turned a corner to reach the summit a statue of the crucifix, together with St John and the Virgin, came into view.  

Such statues are commonplace in French towns and villages and a vantage point like this was not a surprising location for one.  There was something, however, inspiring and moving in seeing it at this point in my journey and as a symbol of moving on from a demanding phase of my life.  It was definitely a moment “to stop and stare”.  

Working Lives

Last Friday afternoon I turned off my computer and, after nearly 37 years, brought to a close my full-time professional working life.  Now, a couple of days into retirement, it seems a good time to reflect on my experience of the world of work and it how it has changed, for good or bad in that time.

One of things that has struck me in the last week has been the vividness of the memories of starting work, heightened by cycling, by chance, past the offices (featured in the picture at the head of this blog) in which I had my first job.

Starting work was a big shock with a steep learning curve in terms, not just relating to the subject matter I was working on, but about the whole practical and psychological expectations of the world of work.  I remember clearly my first day as a graduate trainee in the Department of Health and Social Security (as it was then), tasked with minuting meetings full of 3 letter acronyms which I hadn’t clue what they meant.  While the initial feeling of bewilderment wore off, it took a couple of years for me to really gain a sense of confidence at work and to get used to the rhythm of full-time working life. 

While much remains unaltered there are some striking differences between the working world of 1985 and that which I have just left.  When I started work there were no personal computers, no electronic communication, no internet, no Microsoft teams. Personal technology has massively extended the speed and quantity of communication (although not necessarily its quality).  It has increased the flexibility of working lives although at the same time making it easier for them to extend into evening and weekends, a trend which has made it harder to manage the boundary between working and private lives with resultant stress for individuals and families.

Alongside this has been a noticeable shift in the fields I have worked in, from the qualitative to the quantitative as the basis for decision making.  The world of modern technology has made the sourcing and presentation of data significantly easier.  For the most part this is a good thing, but it can also get in the way of clarity of thinking and argument.  The sheer quantity of information and data which, certainly in senior jobs, one is presented with, can make it hard at times to see the wood from the trees.  Now I am retired I can share my unreconstructed dislike of the slide deck as the ubiquitous channel of discourse. 

Alongside these technological drivers there is an increasing focus on the objective of efficiency. Our ability to monitor and count what we do is significantly enhanced and this has led to an extension into professional and bureaucratic domains of a focus on productivity which has long been the case in manual occupations.  Like most things this is necessarily wrong but there are real dangers.  Life is messy and efficiency and effectiveness do not always go in step.  A focus on the short term stifles the opportunity to think long enough about significant issues for the future.  Too often the urgent drives out the important.  

Careers are more undoubtedly more flexible than in the past and the kind of expectation which greeted me when I started work that once a civil servant, always a civil servant is no longer the norm.  While I stayed in one overarching area, that of health and care, I had a career spread across central Government, the NHS and the voluntary sector.  I learned enormously from these transitions and the experience I brought with me from one sector to another enhanced my capability in the roles I moved onto. 

The social dimensions of work have also changed.  It is staggering to think that in my first job it was commonplace to go to the pub on a Friday lunchtime with the subsequent consequences for productivity in the afternoon.  That said, I have always been a great fan of the social aspects of work and the ability to deepen relationships with colleagues by getting to know people in a context outside the office.  When I started work there was for the most part a very rigid boundary between home and work lives.  It is for everyone to make their own choice about how much of their wider lives they disclose at work but, for the most part, I think it is very helpful to know something about the lives of those you work with, in particular when there are issues such as bereavement, illness or family issues which create an impact on working lives which if, well supported by line managers and others, can be significantly reduced.  Nowhere is this more true than in the case of mental health where the historic stigma about disclosing problems worked negatively both for individuals, managers and organisations.

After 37 years I have few regrets about stepping back.  Work has been important for me and I have been lucky to enjoy many opportunities and many special moments in my career.  However, there are other things in life and, particularly after some of the challenges I have faced in the last couple of years, it is a relief to lay down the perpetual sense of responsibility and anxiety which goes with senior leadership.  I have much I still want to contribute but perhaps not in the same intense way as I have for the last 15 years as a Chief Executive. 

When I look back on my career my clear conclusion is that the most important thing is the people.  The people we serve, the people we work with, the people we manage.  One of the things which most touched me last week were some of the nice things colleagues said about how I had treated them as people.  More than any of the more traditional achievements of my career that made it all feel worthwhile.

War in Europe

It has been both deeply shocking and, in some senses surreal, watching the coverage of events in Ukraine.  As the French President Emmanuel Macron said earlier in the week “War in Europe no longer belongs to history books” as the Russian invasion has led to the largest conflict in Europe since 1945.

Worldwide, violent conflict has been all too present in the 77 years since the end of World War II.  However, with the exception of the conflict in the 1990s in Yugoslavia, Europe has not experienced a major war in that period, certainly not involving one of the major powers. In the last fortnight all of that has changed with deeply concerning consequences both for the people of Ukraine but, perhaps also, more widely.

The novel The Lost Summer which I published last year was focused on the events of the First World War. A major reason for wanting to write it was to try and envisage what it would feel like to be part of the generation whose was world turned upside down by the outbreak of hostilities which claimed millions of lives. In researching the novel, I read a large number of accounts of the War written by participants, either combatants or civilians. 

The First World War was distinguished by being the first large scale conflict following the introduction of universal primary school education across Europe.  This led to a flowering of personal accounts not just from historians and generals but also from ordinary soldiers.  They bring a graphic reality to the horrors of war, the terrors of battle and the events which writers witnessed either at first hand or at a distance.

Reading the coverage over the last 10 days of what has been happening in Ukraine there is an eerie resonance with those earlier accounts of war and its impact.  However, in contrast to the accounts of the Great War which emerged gradually through the conflict and over the decade or so following it, there is a complete immediacy about the reports of what is happening in Ukraine conveyed through social media posts and real time interviews and coverage.

History never does repeat itself, but it is possible to hear very strong echoes in what is happening today of past events.  Wars have since prehistoric times been all too frequent occurrences.  The destructive power of weaponry has increased but the challenges and questions asked by war have long roots.

Several themes stand out.  Why do we fight wars?  With the long sight of history so many of them seem a pointless waste of life, not leading to what they set out to achieve or like the First World War sowing the seeds of the next conflict in their wake.  And yet, at the time there are many good and noble reasons which bring men to fight.  The determination of Ukrainians to defend their country from Russian forces has been inspiring.  In 1914 many young men were motivated to defend “little Belgium” from the German invader, a feeling enlarged by reports of atrocities by German troops and the arrival of Belgium refugees in Britain.

The second issue is whom are fighting?  In the last week there have been arguments that the struggle does not rest with the Russian people but only with Vladamir Putin and those close to him.  One of the themes I tried to explore in The Lost Summer was the idea, often vividly expressed in the first-hand accounts I had read, of how close soldiers at the Front could feel to men on the enemy side who were going through exactly the same horrors.  That its ultimate expression in the Christmas Truce of 1914 where soldiers from the two armies fraternised in the middle of No Man’s Land.

The final question is when do we stop?  In the First World War my reflection was not that it was wrong to go to war but that, at some time in the war, the enormous carnage and suffering it inflicted on both sides should have been sufficient to warrant a serious attempt to bring the fighting to a close.  That would have inevitably involved some compromises and would have meant it was harder for either side to claim that they had won the war.  It might, however, have saved thousands if not millions of lives.

At present it seems straightforward that the Ukrainians should continue to fight for their independence and liberty and that we in the West should support them if, by necessity, through indirect means.  One hopes that this will lead to some positive outcome, but it is hard to be able to foretell where this war will lead to.  There are enormous risks for all parties in a long drawn out and increasingly desperate struggle.  A plan for peace is as important as a plan for war.

My last observation is that behind all the analysis of military and diplomatic strategy war is a story of ordinary people both combatants and, in modern warfare, inevitably civilians too.  Ordinary people whose plans for their lives, a month ago, were very different from the reality they are living out now.  Ordinary people who have had to face up to the traumas of death and separation and the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. Ordinary people who have stepped up to the challenge of the times with great fortitude and courage.  Ordinary people who have had to face up to the experience of taking the lives of others.

War is the most terrible of all human inventions.  We had thought in Europe that we had put it behind us.  In the last couple of weeks, we have had to realise that that is not the case.   It leaves us with a lot to think about.     

The most sufficient man in Wales – a St David’s tribute to William Morgan

If you’d asked me previously to name the most significant figure in Welsh history, I’d have been inclined to suggest a toss up between Owain Glyndwr, David Lloyd George or Nye Bevan.  This St David’s Day I’d like to suggest Bishop William Morgan, the author of the first translation of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, into Welsh.  In doing so he contributed enormously to the survival and development of the Welsh language and, beyond that, to shaping the identity of modern Wales.

William Morgan was born in the 1540s in Penmachno near Betws y Coed in North Wales and his birthplace is still in the possession of the National Trust. He was the son of a tenant farmer of moderate means.  Like many a Welshman of intelligence in later times his path to prominence was through education.   First when he was invited to be educated at Plas Gwydir alongside the sons of the Wynn family, the local landowners and one of the most significant and ambitious gentry families in Tudor Wales and subsequently at St John’s College in Cambridge.

Morgan spent between 1565 and 71 at Cambridge, being ordained a priest in 1568 in Ely Cathedral and building the skills in Greek and Hebrew which were central to the project of translating the Bible into his native tongue.  Leaving Cambridge, he became vicar at Llanbadarn and later at Welshpool and then Llanrhaedr ym Mochnant where he stayed until 1595.  It was there that Morgan completed his translation of the Bible.

The story of the translation of the Bible into Welsh is a fascinating episode not only into the history of Wales and the Welsh language but also as a window into the wider struggles of the Tudor period.  In the 1560s the fate of both the Protestant Reformation and the regime of Elizabeth 1 were in the balance.  Elizabeth had successfully restored the Protestant religion but its roots, in particular in the peripheral areas of Britain such as Wales and the North of England, were shallow.  The Rising of the North of 1569 had demonstrated the strength of the old religion and was followed by growing international pressure on Elizabeth.

Despite its later image as a centre of non-conformism, Wales was slow to adopt the new religion and retained, in places, a considerable loyalty to Catholicism.  There were fears that Wales might have become a focal point for catholic insurgency in the way which happened in Ireland.

A big barrier was the issue of language.  The impact of the new faith was limited when its channel of dissemination was the English language which was as inaccessible to the majority of Welsh people as the Latin tongue used by the Catholics.  It was a belief of Welsh Protestants like William Morgan that translating scriptures into Welsh would be the key to opening the country to the new teaching.   It was a view that Elizabeth and her Government was prepared to back.  Unity of faith would do more than unity of language to promote support for the Tudors.  In 1563 an Act of Parliament was passed granting the right to read the scriptures and Book of Common Prayer in Welsh and putting a duty on Welsh bishops to arrange translations.

It took 25 years to realise this ambition in full and it was in 1588, the same year as the Spanish Armada, that Morgan’s translation of the Old and New Testament was published.  The book had to be printed in London, due to the absence of a printing press in Wales, and the work was probably financed by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  It was an instant success and became the most important book in the Welsh language.  While others had been involved in the endeavour it was Morgan’s achievement to bring the project to conclusion in a way which brought universal approval from his contemporaries.

Morgan’s talent was to combine high standards of scholarship with a literary understanding of the Welsh language.  Not only did the Welsh have the Bible in their own language, but they also had a translation which modernised and enriched that language in the process.

Following a further edition published in 1628 Morgan’s translation provided the standard version of the Bible in Welsh until 20th century.  His work had a heavy influence on work in the 19th century to standardise the grammar and orthography of the language.  Morgan navigated the complexities of southern and northern dialects and judiciously combined accessible spoken Welsh with the weightier idioms of the literary language.

Welsh was the only Celtic language into which the Bible was translated in the 16th Century and was one of the first non-national languages where this happened.  Both facts have a crucial relevance in the story about the survival of the Welsh language and its ability to make the transition into a functional modern language. A delay of fifty years might have made a crucial difference in whether the language survived or not.

In a broader sense William Morgan contributed signfiicantly to shaping the character of modern Wales, first in confirming its identity as a distinctively Protestant nation and in adding to its cultural and educational identity.

Unlike Ireland and Scotland, the issue of the language has been a defining political issue in Wales.  It is thanks to William Morgan and others working alongside him that we have a language to fight for which still does so much to define the specialness of our land.