Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.


A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Party in the Overberg

Alongside a bazaar, a braai, and dancing, a speech by Sir De Villiers Graaff is the selling point of this poster advertising a United Party (Verenigde Party) get-together in the beautiful Overberg region of the Cape.

“Sir Div” was the inheritor of one of only twelve South African baronetcies and led his party from 1956 until 1977 when it merged with the Democratic Party of verligte ex-Nationalists to form a new entity.

The broadly centrist party had lost power to the republican Nats (creators of apartheid) in 1948, and suffered splits that led to the creation of the Liberal Party and the United Federal Party in 1953, the National Conservative Party in 1954, and the Progressive Party in 1959.

The party’s emblem was a happy little citrus tree.

October 12, 2016 3:45 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Botswana and Hereditary Power

To any observer it must be obvious that hereditary power of some kind is natural and most of the time inescapable. It’s not that you need to be born into power to wield it, but experience shows it doesn’t hurt. Since I was born, there has been just one American presidential election (2012) in which a member of either the Bush or Clinton families was not either the official candidate of their respective party or a significant contender for that role.

In Canada, the current prime minister has sailed into office solely on a combination of good looks and being the son of a previous prime minister. In Ireland there are no fewer than forty-one families who have had three or more members elected to the Oireachtas (or to the Commons before it). The relatives and descendants of Timothy Sullivan managed to elect thirteen members between 1874 and 2016 as MPs, TDs, senators, or MEPs. Sullivan’s son and great-grandson both served as Chief Justice of Ireland to boot.

Sir Seretse Khama

Botswana — the most succesful state in Africa by many gauges — today celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its assuming the mantle of sovereignty after eighty-one years as a British protectorate. Given that the United States, Canada, and Ireland are generally viewed as succesful countries, the hereditary aspect of power might help explain the comparitive success of Botswana, a multiparty state with free and fair elections, relative to its neighbours. The fourth and current president is Ian Khama, formerly a lieutenant general in the Botswana Defence Force. President Khama is the son of Sir Seretse Khama, the Balliol man who led his country and its people to independence fifty years ago and served as Botswana’s first president. Sir Seretse in turn is the grandson of King Khama III, last kgosi of Bechuanaland before the protectorate and leader of the Bamangwato tribe.

When Sir Seretse Khama became leader of Botswana it was the third poorest country in Africa — now it is the sixth richest on the continent in terms of GDP per capita. In a continent not known for good government Botswana, though not without its problems, is an oasis of stability and order.

At today’s celebrations for the fiftieth year of independence, President Khama wasn’t taking any credit for his country’s success: “Where we may have failed we take the blame. Where we succeeded we thank God.”

September 30, 2016 1:20 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

The Spina di Borgo

The Baroque is a style of joy. It is often hailed (or derided) as the most Catholic of styles and in some sense this is true. The festivity and physicality of the Baroque reflect the God that Catholics worship — “the Love that moves the Sun and other stars” as Dante put it — but a Love made incarnate, made man, in a very real and tangible world.

The Baroque is also the style of the surprise: the corner turned to an unexpected vista or the jet of water sprinkling a king’s unsuspecting courtier.

One of the most superb examples of this was the great basilica church of Saint Peter in Rome where prince, pilgrim, and pauper alike moved in a dark warren of palaces, hovels, churches, and alleyways, perhaps catching an occasional glimpse of the great dome looming as they closed in on San Pietro, finally to emerge from the shadow into the great light of the piazza.

That warren of buildings was the Spina di Borgo (“Spine of the Borgo”) but this experience is now sadly lost to us since the 1930s when the Kingdom of Italy’s fascist premier Benito Mussolini decided to raze the neighbourhood. Instead we now have the long boulevard called the Via della Conciliazione, named in commemoration of the Lateran Treaty establishing formal relations between the Holy See and the Italian state.

While Il Duce ostentatiously took credit for this urban crime by symbolically swinging the pickaxe beginning commencing demolition the concept, though flawed, was in fact an old one. Leon Battista Alberti submitted proposals during the reign of Pope Nicholas V (mid fifteenth century), and numerous other architects — Carlo Fontana, Giovanni Battista Nolli, Cosimo Morelli — drew up similar plans. The Piazza San Pietro only took its now instantly recognisable form in the 1650s when the curved flanking collonades enclosed the space like great welcoming arms superbly framing the basilica’s façade.

Mussolini turned to Marcello Piacentini — an accomplished if sometimes uneven architect — assisted by Attilio Spaccarelli. Piacentini favoured closing off the view from the avenue with a closed collonade, echoing Bernini’s own plans for the piazza, but was overruled.

The razing of the Spina presented a problem in that the undemolished buildings left flanking the Via della Conciliazione were now mostly at odd angles to the new boulevard. Piacentini attempted to solve this by flanking the road with two rows of obelisks that doubled as streetlamps providing a line directing the viewer towards the great basilica beyond, otherwise unimpeded by any visual interruption.

Overall the construction of the Via leaves a rather boring and clinical feeling. The charm and chaos of the Spina has been replaced by a clean and dull boulevard, useful for little more than traffic efficiency and crowd control. The loss of the Spina di Borgo is mourned.

September 14, 2016 10:10 am | Link | 1 Comment »

An Old Name Returns to Banking

or: What Daniel O’Connell has to do with the 2008 Banking Crisis

Daniel O’Connell was a remarkable man by any stretch of the imagination, and is most often recalled for his part in bringing about the Relief Act of 1829 which emancipated the Catholics of Great Britain and Ireland from an officially oppressed legal status. Among his many achievements, however, was in London in 1825 founding the National Bank of Ireland.

As the RBS Group’s website notes, O’Connell:

…helped draw up the agreement that established it, spoke at public meetings to drum up support for it, invested in it, attended its first board meetings and, in 1836, was appointed its governor. He became an important figurehead for the new bank and there was even a proposal, not implemented, to put a bust of O’Connell on the bank’s notes.

The National Bank was created with the aim of injecting cash into the rural economy in Ireland, and its charter ensured that half of its returns would accrue to local shareholders in the country. O’Connell, not the best manager of financial affairs, ended up accruing huge personal debts to the bank and had to be quietly bailed out by several others (commencing a tradition of surruptitious banking amongst the nation’s major politicians).

Anyhow, the National Bank expanded across Britain and Ireland. In 1966 its Irish core was sold to the Bank of Ireland, and the English and Welsh branches were acquired by the National Commercial Bank of Scotland (which was a 1959 merger of the National Bank of Scotland and the Commercial Bank of Scotland). This, in turn, merged into the Royal Bank of Scotland in 1969, with the superfluous National Bank branches being turned into Williams & Glyn’s Bank the following year. (more…)

April 15, 2016 4:00 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

A Land, not a Republic

Bohemians seek to rename Czech Republic as ‘Czechia’

What are we to make of the growing movement against the name ‘Czech Republic’? It seems a welcome development, although one has a certain hesitancy in adopting the name ‘Czechia’ which somehow just doesn’t ring true from the English tongue.

Many will still automatically recall ‘Czechoslovakia’, an artificial country invented in 1918 which lasted a surprising seventy-four years. Its two successor states will celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary of independence next year, and perhaps this landmark event has provoked some introspection regarding the country’s name.

It’s not that the Czech Republic is alone: there are plenty of countries whose official names included an adjectival demonym — the French Republic, the Italian Republic, and the Hellenic Republic spring to mind. But these three examples all have names that more readily spring to mind — France, Italy, Greece — and which are used more frequently then the official state names.

Besides the Czech Republic, the only other example of a country known only as ‘the [demonymic adjective] Republic’ is the Dominican Republic, which cannot be known as Dominica owing the nearby sovereign island of the same name. (The island Dominica was named after Sunday whereas the DR was named after Saint Dominic, the patron of its largest city.) Even the Central African Republic is often referred to as Centrafrique (in French, at least).

Is it a move against republicanism? Not especially. When neighbouring Hungary adopted its new constitution it dropped the state name ‘Hungarian Republic / Republic of Hungary’ in favour of just plain ‘Hungary’ while maintaining a republican form of government. More influential perhaps is that it’s often viewed as a bit tinpot-dictatorship to have the word ‘republic’ in your country’s everyday name. (more…)

April 15, 2016 2:30 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

Flag of an African Slaver

Flag of an African Slaver
c. 1862-1866; hand-sewn cotton; 9 ft 2 in x 15 ft
National Maritime Museum
Greenwich, London

The simple image of an African, garments aflutter, on a plain background provides a strikingly modern design as the commercial emblem of a firm engaged in the trade in human misery.

This flag was captured by Commodore Arthur Eardley-Wilmot while on anti-slavery operations off West Africa and given to his friend William Henry Wylde who supervised anti-slave-trade efforts at the Foreign Office in Whitehall.

The eradication of the slave trade is arguably the greatest peacetime achievement of the Royal Navy as well as powerful proof that the supremacy of economics can be overcome and made subject to morality. This is not just a possibility, but a necessary precondition for any humane and civilised order in society.

February 10, 2016 8:45 am | Link | No Comments »

Smuts at Leiden

For quite some time, Leuven — in what is currently known as Belgium — was the only university in the Netherlands. It is still (barely, some argue) a Catholic university, and after the Protestant revolt sealed its rule over the northern part of the Dutch realms, William the Silent founded a university at Leiden as a Calvinist academy in 1575.

Leiden University has had strong links with South Africa from the earliest days. Ds. Johannes de Vooght — in the 1660s, the second leraar of Cape Town’s Dutch Reformed congregation — studied here, as did numerous predikante of that period and onwards, including Ds. Petrus van der Spuy, the first NGK minister to be born in South Africa.

South African politicians studied here aplenty: Sir Christoffel Brand (first Speaker of the Cape Parliament); Jan Brand (fourth president of the Orange Free State); Marthinus Steyn (sixth and final president of the O.F.S.); and Nicolaas Diederichs (third staatspresident of the Republic of South Africa).

Probably the first South African to be granted an honorary degree by Leiden (c. 1830) was Antoine Changuion, the founder of the Dutch language movement which advocated preserving Dutch as the cultural language of the Afrikaners against the emerging Afrikaans.

It was in 1948 that Leiden granted the greatest Afrikaner — Field Marshal Smuts — a Doctorate of Law honoris causa. Smuts was on his way back from Cambridge where he had been granted the honour of being installed as Chancellor of the University. Even Die Burger, a Nationalist paper opposed to his Verenigde party, found the event worthy of a caustic near-compliment:

“We may differ from him on many issues, but the honour which he has won for the Afrikaner does not leave us untouched.”

February 5, 2016 9:25 am | Link | 5 Comments »

Keeromstraat 14

Keeromstraat 14, Kaapstad

This Cape Town house was built in 1751 for Hermanus Smuts who sold it on to Johan Jacobus Graaff, the woodworker who collaborated with South Africa’s greatest architectural duo, the sculptor Anton Anreith and the architect Louis Michel Thibault.

Thibault is believed to be responsible for the addition of the upper story and the current façade, seen above through an archway of the High Court.

The building next door was designed by the pioneering Afrikaner architect Wynand Hendrik Louw (1883-1967) for De Nederlandsche Club te Kaapstad, the city’s club for Dutch businessmen and expatriates. Louw was also the architect of the Dutch Reformed Church at Napier in the beautiful Overberg.

February 2, 2016 8:45 am | Link | 3 Comments »


I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:
And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,
The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,
The habitations of all things which dwell,
Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d,
And men were gather’d round their blazing homes
To look once more into each other’s face;
Happy were those who dwelt within the eye
Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:
A fearful hope was all the world contain’d;
Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour
They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks
Extinguish’d with a crash—and all was black.
The brows of men by the despairing light
Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits
The flashes fell upon them; some lay down
And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest
Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil’d;
And others hurried to and fro, and fed
Their funeral piles with fuel, and look’d up
With mad disquietude on the dull sky,
The pall of a past world; and then again
With curses cast them down upon the dust,
And gnash’d their teeth and howl’d: the wild birds shriek’d
And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,
And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes
Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl’d
And twin’d themselves among the multitude,
Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.
And War, which for a moment was no more,
Did glut himself again: a meal was bought
With blood, and each sate sullenly apart
Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;
All earth was but one thought—and that was death
Immediate and inglorious; and the pang
Of famine fed upon all entrails—men
Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;
The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.
The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame
Which was a mockery; then they lifted up
Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld
Each other’s aspects—saw, and shriek’d, and died—
Even of their mutual hideousness they died,
Unknowing who he was upon whose brow
Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—
A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr’d within their silent depths;
Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,
And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp’d
They slept on the abyss without a surge—
The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,
The moon, their mistress, had expir’d before;
The winds were wither’d in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need
Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

— DARKNESS, Lord Byron, July 1816

This year — 2016 — will be the two-hundredth anniversary of the Year without a Summer, caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies the year before. The extremely high levels of volanic material in the atmosphere led to darker skies which meant colder temperatures and failed harvests. Brown snow was reported in Hungary and red snow in Italy.

But the abnormalities in the sky were also responsible for the spectacular sunsets that inspired artists like Caspar David Friedrich and J M W Turner and the unceasing rain that provoked Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and Lord Byron to write ‘Darkness’. It’s no coincidence that, soon after this year of darkness, John Polidori published his book The Vampyre and the modern concept of this undead creature began to haunt the gothic imagination.

Topmost: Cathedral in Winter by Ernst Ferdinand Oehme, 1821; Above: Sunset (Brothers) by Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1835.
January 26, 2016 10:20 am | Link | No Comments »

The Accession

Henry Harris Brown, Proclamation of the Accession to the Throne of His Majesty King George V at Dublin, June 1911
c. 1911; Oil on canvas, 68 in. x 76.9 in.

A triumphant painting, but a last hurrah. The central figure is Sir Nevile Wilkinson, the last ever Ulster King of Arms & Principal Herald of Ireland, exercising the duties of his office by proclaiming the accession of the new king at Dublin Castle.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty and its legislative acts neglected to make provision for transferring this ancient office to the new Irish Free State, but Sir Nevile carried on regardless for nearly two decades, even issuing two dozen grants of arms on the day before his death in 1940.

After his death, the Oireachtas created the office of the Chief Herald of Ireland to continue the granting of arms, and in some sense the Chief Herald is a spiritual successor to the Ulster King of Arms.

(Image copyright of the Fusilier Museum, London; via Fr Guy)
January 22, 2016 11:20 am | Link | No Comments »

Die Staatsrede

Staatspresident Jacobus Johannes Fouché giving the staatsrede from the throne of the Senate within the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town.

What is now the State of the Nation Address has its origins in the speech from the throne (in Afrikaans staatsrede meaning “state reasoning/rationale”) setting out the Government’s legislative programme for the year. The high point of the State Opening of Parliament, it was originally given by the Governor-General (or, in 1947, by the King of South Africa himself) but with the abolition of the monarchy in 1961 the sovereign’s vice-regal representative was abolished and replaced by the Staatspresident as chief officer of the South African state.

Giving a speech from an actual throne was considered too monarchic for a republican polity, so – like in the Boer republics of old – presidents gave their staatsredes standing. Here, State-President Fouché is flanked by the chiefs of the defence staff and police, the Serjeant-at-Arms with the mace, and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

Of course, much of this was abolished in the 1980s with the constitutional innovations as a last-ditch attempt to entrench apartheid. South Africa is now on its third constitution since the above photo was taken.

It reminds me of how in Ireland almost all the traditions of the Viceroy (viz. the Viceregal Guard of Battleaxes, etc.) were abolished not by the Saorstát or Éire but by the British themselves – in their case by penny-pinching Victorians who found Dublin an easy target for cost-cutting.

January 21, 2016 12:00 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

The Rova of Antananarivo

The Rova of Antananarivo

The Tranovola (left) and Manjakamiadana (right) in the Rova of Antananarivo.

The Manjakamiadana (“Where It is Pleasant to Rule”) was the royal residence, later pretentiously clad in stone by Protestant missionaries, while the Tranovola (“Silver House”) was where the nefarious Rainivoninahitriniony received foreign diplomats after the nobles’ coup of 1863.

His complicity in the supposed regicide of that year — no one’s really quite sure what happened to Radama II — eventually led to his downfall two years later. His younger brother Rainilaiarivony proved a more skilful political operator, succeding Rainivoninahitriniony as prime minister and arranging his own marriage to the last three queens of the Merina kingdom of Madagascar.

January 19, 2016 9:00 am | Link | 2 Comments »

Letter to the Editor

SIPPING a postprandial Coke last week while flipping through the Irish Times, my wandering eye was drawn towards that newspaper’s report on the Madrid congress of the European People’s Party, the grouping of Christian-democratic and centre-right political parties across the European continent (Madrid congress provides forum for delegates from EU centre-right parties, Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 22 October 2015). The correspondent first elucidates some of the purpose of these pan-European gatherings before going on to summarise a number of the issues raised. She ends, however, on a bit of a downer by describing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “lurch to the far right”, evidenced by his “clampdown on media and internet freedoms, apparent support for the death penalty and hardline approach to refugees”.

This breezy litany of crimes is little more than shoddy journalism. The alleged “clampdown” refers to proposed internet legislation which has been withdrawn while other media laws requiring balance reflect the U.S. broadcasting rules rescinded under Ronald Reagan. The “apparent support” for capital punishment is another damp squib: Orbán called for it to be debated as intellectual speculation — a canny “dog-whistle” political move to gain votes without requiring any legislative action or serious challenge to the E.U. ban on the death penalty. (It was abolished in Hungary at the fall of communism and there are absolutely positively no government plans to bring it back.)

The refugees allegation was the most interesting, however. As it happened, I had attended a small meeting of British MPs and Hungarian foreign ministry officials the day before Ms Lynch’s report was printed. The Welsh MP David Davies gave his first-hand account of visiting the refugee camps near the Hungarian-Serb border and reported that refugees were being well-looked-after, with the quality of the facilities on the whole at least as good as when he was in the British Army, often better. An advisor from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry briefed us on the general situation, which has calmed down immensely since the Serb border has been more or less closed. He noted that broadcast media across the continent showed footage of Budapest police’s treatment of migrants gathered at the railway station without pointing out that the police were responding to violent attacks from a small minority of migrants.

Proprotionate self-defence for officers of the law is the norm across Europe, but this has mattered little when it comes to depictions of Hungary: the bien-pensant official groupthink is that anything Hungary does is wrong, so long as Fidesz is in power. Luckily some voices of dissent have emerged. The novelist Tibor Fischer — no conservative — described in The Guardian the media treatment of Hungary as “hysterical” and “ignorant nonsense”.

Anyhow, I felt obliged to send off my “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” to the Irish Times and it’s very good of their letters staff to print a diverging (if abridged) opinion. The last letter to any editor I succeeded in having printed was in the Times Literary Supplement in 2008 about P.G. Wodehouse’s career in banking at H.S.B.C. Who knows what the next shall bring…

October 27, 2015 11:42 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

In Old Rio

The city’s administrative and electoral units were its parishes, and the tallest buildings were all church towers. The day of the colonial port began with the cannon shot announcing the beginning of harbour commerce, at half past five.

This was followed by the opening of shops and homes of merchants and tradesmen. Early mass was signalled by church bells, and it was church bells which marked the day’s turn as they sounded the day’s regular prayers as the sun rose and set. …

One of the first, common sights in the city was that of Catholic brotherhoods seeking alms in the streets and shops, or, perhaps, a lady, humbly barefoot, seeking to fulfil a vow by begging alms with a heavy silver tray covered with rich cloth — accompanied by her servant, of course.

— Jeffrey D. Needell, The Party of Order:
The Conservatives, the State, and Slavery in the Brazilian Monarchy, 1831-1871

August 25, 2015 9:45 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Evolution of a Napoleonic Parliament

The Salle des états in the Palais du Louvre

Among the numerous rituals of the ordinary visitor’s pilgrimage to Paris — trip up the Eiffel Tower, lunch at a tourist-trap café — braving the teeming hordes in the Louvre to view da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ ranks near the top. What very few of the camera-toting hordes realise is that they are shuffling through the room that once housed France’s parliament. The history of the Palais du Louvre is long, exceptional, and varied.

Originally built as a stern castle in the 1190s, the Louvre’s secure reputation led Louis IX to house the royal treasury there from the mid-thirteenth century. Charles V enlarged it in the fifteenth century to become a royal residence, while François Ier brought the grandeur of the Renaissance to the Louvre — as well as acquiring ‘La Gioconda’. In 1793, amidst the revolutionary tumult, part of the palace was opened to the public as the Musée du Louvre, but the Louvre has always housed a variety of institutions — the Ministry of Finance didn’t move out until 1983.

Napoleon III took as his official residence the Tuileries Palace which the Louvre was slowly enlarged towards over the centuries to incorporate. The Emperor needed a parliament chamber close at hand so he could easily address joint sittings of the Senate and the Corps législatif (as the lower house was called during the Second Empire) which opened the parliamentary year. By doing so at his residence, the Bonaparte emperor was following the example left by his kingly Bourbon predecessor Louis XVIII. (more…)

March 4, 2014 9:05 am | Link | 4 Comments »

Les jours heureux du Liban

Being an omnivore of nations I’m not short of favourite countries, but the Lebanon is towards the top of my list. I’ve spent some weeks there each summer for the past few years and we’re hoping to return this July (God willing). Friday night B. invited a few of us round for an impromptu supper and in the kitchen I happened to mention that I had met his ambassador the day before — the Lebanese ambassador.

This provoked a lament on B’s part as he relayed the history of his family’s service in the diplomatic corps and of Lebanon in the old days: black-tie dinners, summer in the mountains, the casinos and the glamour of the Beirut he was born too late to experience.

It’s become a cliché for foreigners to cite Beirut’s former glory as ‘the Paris of the Orient’ and Lebanon ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Civil war wreaked its devastation on the country but its revival in more recent years has still been remarkable. Everything, of course, is exceptionally tenuous, but despite the clouds of uncertainty there remains a lot for which to be grateful.

We both wished, however, that today’s ordinary culture in Lebanon was a bit more informed by the style of the past. While old buildings are often restored, far too many of the new buildings are horrendously bland or offensively modern. Perhaps most unfortunately, a large proportion of Lebanon’s women — already endowed with a natural beauty unparalleled in the Middle East — are too mimicking of American styles: nosejobs and dyed blonde hair.

For my part, however, the conversation provoked a little dip into the photographic archives, seeking out some images of Lebanon in its halcyon days. (more…)

January 27, 2014 1:20 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

A Bunny Rampant

The carto-heraldic creativity of MacDonald Gill

If anything, I am a lover of maps, and as a cartophile it’s a fine thing that I spend half my life in South Kensington. Here you will find two of the best antiquarian map merchants around: the Map House on Beauchamp Place and Robert Frew across from the Oratory and right next door to Orsini. Milling about in front of church after mass today I received a tip-off from a friend suggesting I have a look at the window of Robert Frew, as there was a London Underground map with coats of arms of mostly abolished boroughs.

“Sounds like the sort of thing MacDonald Gill would do,” I said, and sure enough upon investigating earlier tonight it is the work of that inventive designer (and brother of Eric Gill).

The most splendid and ridiculous aspect is that in the central place among the municipal heraldry was a putative coat of arms MacDonald Gill thought up for the Underground: a rabbit rampant. Indeed, given the twin characteristics of being speedy and digging the earth, the rabbit is a perfect animal avatar for the London Underground to adopt. Don’t go looking for this design anywhere in the rolls of Garter King of Arms, though: it’s merely the invention of the creative mind of master map-maker MacDonald Gill.

January 5, 2014 11:20 pm | Link | 2 Comments »


Ghost town of the Namib

NAMIBIA IS A LAND that fascinates me, which is perhaps surprising. This arid land is sparsely populated — just 6.6 people per square mile — but its deserts are believed to be the oldest in the world. Those who haven’t experienced its harsh beauty may wonder why this land has attracted its odd and varied collection of peoples, but here the Ovambo, the Kavango, the Herero, the Afrikaner, the German, and the Bushman all call home.

I have already written somewhat about Lüderitz and beyond it the Diaz Point. As you speed down the B4 from Keetmanshoop to Lüderitz — a four-hour drive passing through just the one small village of Aus — you can turn off just before you reach the coastal town and pay a visit to the eerily ghost town of Kolmanskop: Kolmannskuppe in the original German. (more…)

December 13, 2013 3:15 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

‘Bon Voyage’

Bon Voyage
Jean-Paul Rappeneau
2003, France
1 hour 54 minutes

Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s ‘Bon Voyage’ (2003) is one of those superb films that come around all too rarely. It manages to balance perfectly all the elements of drama, comedy, action, and romance, set in a convincing historical context.

In 1940, Viviane Denvert (played by Isabelle Adjani) is a fickle, self-promoting film star who enlists her childhood friend, Frédéric Auger (Grégori Derangère), to extract herself from a compromising situation. As war creeps upon France, Auger finds himself behind bars for Viviane’s crime, but in the confusion of battle he manages to escape with the seasoned ne’erdowell Raoul (Yvan Attal). All of Paris is fleeing the German advance, and on the train to Bordeaux the two come across physics student Camille (Virginie Ledoyen) who helps them reach the western city by car when the train is stopped on the line.

In Bordeaux we come across government minister Jean-Étienne Beaufort, Viviane’s lover whom she uses to get Frédéric out of a sticky situation resulting from her own manipulation of him. Meanwhile, with all of Paris in Bordeaux, Viviane comes across another ex-paramour, Alex Winckler (Peter Coyote), keeping an unnatural interest in the affairs of the government, while the physics student Camille and her mentor Professor Kopolski are harbouring an important cargo they are determined must not fall into the hands of the Germans.

For fear of spoilers, that is all I will say about the plot, but it all comes packaged in a score by Gabriel Yared, better known for his scoring of ‘The English Patient’, ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’, and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘Das Leben der Anderen’. The film was nominated for eight César awards in 2004 — best costumes, best director, best editing, best film, best original score, best sound editing, best supporting actor, and best writing — while it won three Césars that year for photography, best set design, and, for Grégori Derangère, best promising actor.


November 20, 2013 9:08 am | Link | 2 Comments »

Some Aspects of the Fall of the Fourth Republic

(Only interesting, I’m afraid, to those reasonably acquainted with the situation of France in May 1958)

• When the Gouvernement Général was stormed during the 13 May protest, the enterprising businessmen of Algiers took the opportunity to destroy all the police files relating to “economic crime” (smuggling, tax-dodging, and the like).

• The French-Algerian instigators of the military rebellion led by Salan didn’t know what to make of him when he was first appointed to Algeria so they decided, just to be on the safe side, to assassinate him on his first day on the job. Salan survived the bazooka attack on his office but his ADC was killed. The general later became the only socialist freemason to lead a right-wing terror group (the OAS).

• Once the Algiers rebellion commenced and travel between Algeria and metropolitan France was cut, many supporting figures made their way across the Mediterranean by whatever means at hand. Soustelle managed to escape his police guards and get to Algiers via a secretly chartered Swiss plane, but the more romantically inclined Roger Frey — later Minister of the Interior — first tried to get to Algiers on the actor Errol Flynn’s yacht. It didn’t pan out, and instead he was forced to hire the boat of an English ex-naval officer turned smuggler.

• The man in charge of wiretapping French telephones was unsure which side would emerge on top so cautiously refrained from giving the government the full picture of the information his wiretaps revealed.

• When Corsica was seized by the rebels, Moch, the Interior Minister, decided to send in the elite of the police force, the CRS. He was afraid, however, that military transport planes would fly them directly to Algeria, so he was forced to commission Air France planes instead. Upon landing in Corsica, the entire CRS contingent was met by the rebel parachute regiment and immediately defected to the rebellion.

• So widespread was the reluctance to support the government against the military rebels that even the meteorologists send false warnings of storms in the Mediterranean in the hopes of keeping the French Navy from moving against the rebels in Algiers.

• The air force was particularly keen for de Gaulle to take power, and took to flying planes in a Cross of Lorraine formation, as well as sending troop transport planes to Algeria in case they would be needed to invade mainland France.

• Regional military commanders in France varied in their loyalty to the government and sympathy for the rebels. One commander is alleged to have told the regional prefect “M. le Préfet, I am not here to defend your préfecture, but to take it.” Other prefects warned the cabinet that any orders for the police to arrest those suspected of aiding the rebellion might result in the prefects instead being arrested themselves.

• The government had sometimes ordered firemen to unleash their water hoses against rioters in the past. As popular support for the cabinet faded away, the head of the fire brigade felt compelled to inform ministers that his men would not take part in any anti-riot measures but would merely put out any fires that erupted. “And,” he said, referring to the home of France’s National Assembly, “in the Palais Bourbon, they wouldn’t bother.”

• As Philip Williams reports in his article “How the Fourth Republic Died”:

At that night’s cabinet Pleven summed up: “We are the legal government, but what do we govern? The Minister for Algeria cannot enter Algeria. The Minister for the Sahara cannot go to the Sahara. The Minister of Information can only censor the press. The Minister of the Interior has no control over the police. The Minister of Defence is not obeyed by the army.” Said a left-wing Gaullist in the Assembly, “You are not abandoning power — it has abandoned you.”

June 14, 2013 1:40 pm | Link | 5 Comments »
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