Silly season story – those ‘Nazi’ salutes.

July 20, 2015

After the story about the Sun front page story about a home movie showing the future Queen, her mother and her uncle doing raised-arm salutes, all sorts of implications have been read into it. I’m quite sceptical; with scientific training, I can understand all sorts of complicated theories without necessarily believing them to be true.

I started from the vague idea that such a salute derived from the Roman Empire and then was revived in Italy by Mussolini. Even that is doubtful. The earliest documented example is apparently an eighteenth century painting of a Roman scene by the French artist JL David. From that it began to be incorporated into other art works such as later paintings, right down to films and TV programmes in our time.

Mussolini wasn’t the first Italian nationalist to use it, either. There are earlier examples, but not much earlier.

We have views of history that are overlaid by later events. Our views now are not how people saw it at the time. Though we now see Hitler as the dominant partner in what was to become the Axis, we forget that Mussolini was the senior partner for about 10 years from the early 1920s, when he seized power within the Italian monarchy. So the Nazis adopting the Fascist salute was a natural development. The period between the wars had examples of ‘Strong Man’ regimes in many European countries, so that, in that spectrum Hitler and Mussolini did not seem as outlandish as we recognise them to be now. In the same period, there were a number of examples of extreme left revolutions savagely put down. Right-wing authoritarians played on the fears of those disruptions to the hilt and portrayed themselves as bringers of order, albeit ones who stabilised by depriving people of human rights. There are books and articles written at the time that embody what now seems a dangerous toleration towards such movements. John Buchan’s novel ‘House of the Four Winds’ describes a coup that is backed by a rather fascistic movement against a communist government. P.G. Wodehouse created, in Sir Roderick Spode, a comical and incompetent fascist leader; his attitude served him ill when he himself fell into the hands of the Nazis. (John Buchan, by the way, devoted his last years, as Governor-General of Canada, to strengthening relations between the UK, USA and Canada in the vital run-up to World War II.)

There is a parallel story of the raised-arm salute. The so-called Bellamy salute was widely used in the USA from 1892 to 1942 to salute the flag and the national anthem, especially in schools. Twelve months into the war with the Nazis, it became an embarrassment and was replaced by the hand-over-the-heart salute that we see many presidents using in our era.

So what was the lead-up to that piece of film? It could have been something like:

What is that funny salute that the new government in Germany is insisting on? Let’s see if we can do it.


How do American schoolchildren salute the flag?


It may have been a matter of role-play. As a grandfather, I know how small children indulge in role play, and they may insist on their adult companions joining in too. Sometimes they are quite happy to take the role of people or animals that they fear, such as scary monsters.

My three explanations may not be true, but I think their just as likely as more sinister explanations I’ve heard.

We must not make bricks without straw about the events of 1933. And we must remember that all three of the people in the film learnt a lot since, especially in the succeeding ten years. In that they were typical of their contemporaries.

Altogether, a stereotypical silly season story, manipulating emotions and selling newspapers, but of little consequence.


In memoriam Charles Kennedy

July 10, 2015

At the Social Liberal Forum conference, in the Amnesty HQ in Shoreditch on Saturday 4th July, there was an act of Remembrance for Charles Kennedy.

It had been decided that a minutes silence was too glum an act for the outgoing, empathetic and sociable Charles, so we were asked, instead, to applaud for a minute. Very appropriate.

Every Liberal Democrat leader has his own special gifts. Perhaps we don’t appreciate all their qualities when they are in office, but seeing them in action later is often a moment of recognition of what made them so special.

Charles had sympathy, quick wit and judgement of what was right. He clearly cared for people. He was unique and he established a rapport with many inside and outside the party.

I haven’t seen my favourite Kennedy moment quoted anywhere else. It was his first conference speech after he was elected as one of five candidates. Following LibDem principles, we were asked to put the figures 1 to 5 opposite the candidates; this allows 2nd and lower preference votes from eliminated candidates to be transferred, so that the eventual winner has definitely more votes for him or her than the runner-up. (Even in the present 2-candidate race between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, we vote using 1 and 2)

Charles started his speech:

‘I would like to thank all of you who voted for me as Leader, whether as First Preference, or Second Preference or Third….”

I think that was as far as he got, because he was drowned out by the reaction of audience applause and laughter.

It showed modesty, a connection with his audience and a wish to reconcile with those who had stood against him. Before that, we had liked and admired him, but then we loved him.

Sir Nicholas Winton and the Kindertransport

July 5, 2015

It was very sad to hear this week, that Sir Nicholas Winton had died. He was 106.LiverpoolStStatue

Until 1938 he seemed to be just another City of London businessman with interests in Prague.

For those not in the know, although he did more good work, that’s what he was for another half century. However, his memorial is what he did in 1938-9 as the Nazis tightened their noose around Czechoslovakia and Austria. He foresaw what was barely imaginable to most ordinary people that this would result, over the years that followed, in deadly peril for all those Jews who lived in Nazi controlled territory.

It is hard for us, with hindsight, to imagine that Hitler was seen as a fairly normal national leader. So people who warned of the danger to Jews were thought to be exaggerating. Winton used his contacts to approach the British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, and eventually got agreement for this country to accept Jewish children, initially from Czechoslovakia. He organised the trains that brought them to the Hook and thence to Harwich and Liverpool St. He also arranged that families in this country would accept them and care from them. The process went on right up to the start of World War II and was extended to Austria and Poland.

Notice however, that the immigration concession was for children. It did not extend to their parents. Some of the parents, underestimating the Nazi threat, may not have wished to leave. But parents, who could have left, were not automatically accepted as refugees. Many of those who remained were ensnared by the Nazi machine and ended up in death camps. A few were lucky and escaped in other ways or managed to evade their hunters.

Although the death camps were reported at the time of their liberation, interest in them waned in the decades post-World War II. In Communist Czechoslovakia, the official narrative was to emphasize the Communist anti-Fascist struggle and to snopake out the efforts from the West. This even went as far as imprisoning returning Czech airmen who had served with the RAF.

After 1990 Czech exiles could try to reconnect with their families and Czechs in their homeland could discover what the west had done for them. Everyone could hear for the first time what the modest Nicholas Winton had done. He received several British and Czech honours, including being knighted by the Queen in 2002 and receiving the Czech Order of the White Lion in 2014. There are statues of him at stations in Maidenhead and Prague. There are memorials to the Kindertransport children at stations in Gdansk, Vienna and Prague, and at Liverpool St. in London.

The picture shows the statue in Liverpool St near the ticket office. It shows two waiting children and a suitcase, as if they had just arrived from Prague in 1938. The inscription on the plinth says, in Czech ‘for the child’. For some months last year, one of the children was missing; I never found out why, but was cheered when they were reunited.

After my son met his Czech girlfriend in 1997, I started to talk to people about Czech history. One of the things that came out of this was that I found two women whose fathers had come to England on the Kindertransport – you might call them granddaughters of the Kindertransport. One of them was someone I already knew in Harold Wood. The second was a doctor I met at a wedding we attended in Bristol.

(Kindertransport is German for children transport. Many Czech Jews were among those Czechs who spoke German as their first language; you can imagine the difficulty this could cause for some of the refugee children in the UK after 1938.)


June 20, 2015

A couple of weeks ago Prince Charles visited Mullaghmore in County Sligo, where his great-uncle Lord Mountbatten was murdered, along with several other people in his boat, by the IRA in 1979.

The first Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, Featured imagewas a large landowner in Co. Sligo and started building a house in Mullaghmore called Classiebawn. He died before it was finished, but it was inherited by his stepson, Lord Mount-Temple and eventually through his family, by Edwina Ashley, who married Louis Mountbatten. After the war, and their time in India, the Mountbattens made Classiebawn usable again and started spending their summers there. Mullaghmore is built on peninsula which sticks out northwards from the south shore of Donegal Bay. The village, harbour and strand are on the east, or lee, side of the peninsula and are reached by a branch road from the main trunk road. On the hillside above the village were a number of crofts, some abandoned and some used as holiday cottages. Classiebawn stands at the top of the peninsula exposed to the Atlantic winds – the next land to the west is Labrador. No buildings were to the west of Classiebawn. The land slopes down to the rocky shore. Due to its exposed position, Classiebawn was the first house I ever saw with double-glazing!

When I was at school in Enniskillen, Mullaghmore was one of three favoured seaside resorts for a day at the seaside. Bundoran was a proper town – but the town wasn’t very close to the shore. There was a strand, an outdoor pool and amusements. Also a large golf course encircling a railway hotel, where Charlie Chaplin holidayed once. Rosnowlagh was harder to define; the strand was more spectacular and open to the Atlantic. The churches, houses and other building were very scattered.

It was possible to drive to one of these three resorts after a Saturday or Sunday morning spent in Enniskillen. Of course, it was an international journey, and in those days you had to have car documents stamped each way by the Eire customs. Our family favoured Mullaghmore, with its safe strand backed by sandhills for changing and picnicking in.

Some Enniskillen people moved their whole family to the seaside for the summer, to a caravan at Rosnowlagh or a cottage in Mullaghmore. One summer, gales wrecked several Enniskilleners’ caravans at Rosnowlagh. For my first two scout summer camps, we went to a site on the Classiebawn estate. On the second of these camps the then patrol leader was to become the uncle of one the victims of the bomb.

We heard the news of the bomb on holiday in Norway (after staying in Haderslev – see ‘1864’). The reports came through NRT radio and through the Oslo paper ‘Aftenposten’. Doing some clearing out on Friday, I found that copy of Aftenposten – see picture.

‘1864’ – background

June 15, 2015

I was out of the country on the 6th June, so I couldn’t watch the last two episodes of the Danmarks Radio 8-part series television series ‘1864’ on BBC4. It actually spanned the period from 1851-1866 in Danish history, which resolved, until 1920, the ‘Schleswig-Holstein Question’. So I made it my business to watch it on BBC iPlayer before it left that medium after a week. It didn’t quite go right – it was not possible to work out which episode was which in the listings, so I saw Episode 8 before Episode 7, but no matter.

I first became aware of this issue in the 1970s. We had been having a camping holiday, which started from the ferry to the Hook of Holland, followed by several days in a camp site near Bremen. We then proceeded toward Denmark. However, our small daughter was then taken ill, and we took the emergency decision to spend the next night in a motel in Hadeslev, the first sizeable town in Denmark we came to. A morning walk in the local park revealed a war memorial of the First World War and I puzzled out that the soldiers had died in places such as France and Russia. This didn’t at first make sense – Denmark was neutral in World War I – so why were Danes dying in it? Then I worked out that Hadeslev was in what to Germans is North Schleswig and to Danes is South Jutland. From 1866 to 1920 it was part of Prussia, and became Danish after a plebiscite in 1920. Later I read the board outside the Lutheran Cathedral where it became clear that they held services then in both Danish and German.

The series started at the conclusion in 1851 of the First Schleswig War – perhaps as the Danes won that, I should say the First Slesvig War! For a long time up to 1863, the King of Denmark was also Duke of Schleswig-Holstein. Such personal unions were not unusual. From 1714 to 1837, the King of Great Britain (later United Kingdom) was also Elector or King of Hanover. And from the treaty that established Belgium in 1839 until 1890, the King of the Netherlands was also Grand Duke of Luxembourg. The complicating factor in all three cases was that each of the two realms had different rules of how the succession was passed on and when a King or Grand Duke died this could lead to the splitting of the personal union, as happened when Victoria became Queen here in 1837 and Wilhelmina became Queen in the Netherlands in 1890.

Something similar happened when Frederik VII of Denmark died in 1863. Schleswig-Holstein counted as a German state, in spite of the fact that the people in the northern part were ethnic Danes. After 1848, Danish nationalism and liberalism wanted to integrate the whole Duchy with Denmark and give the whole realm a liberal constitution, whereas German states at the time had a more authoritarian bias. The First Slesvig war was won by Denmark, over the troops of the Duchy, but different men would inherit the thrones of Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein, leading to the crisis of 1864.


May 11, 2015

It was early on Friday morning, at the election count in Hornchurch Sports Centre. I was there, with my agent and supporters, as Liberal Democrat candidate for RomCountBadgeford.

As I moved around from counting station to station, I found myself standing next to Andrew Rosindell, who was clearly about to be re-elected Tory MP for Romford.

He was pleasantly tanned and chose this moment to tease me that I was not. He suggested that was because he had been outdoors more campaigning than I had.

My (true) retort was that I had been using Sunblock.

I think my surname gives a clue why, as it probably of Nordic origin. Originally my hair was fair and would be further bleached by sunlight. My eyes are blue, and I need to wear a cap or hat with a brim to shade them. My father had sandy hair, before he lost it, so I may have some red-haired ancestry; my genes are against a becoming tan.

As a child, exposure to the sun would invariably result in reddening, followed shortly afterwards by peeling. Later on, careful management could result in slight tanning, but not a lot. Sometimes this would be followed by peeling, and then I could start again….

About twenty years ago I sat for some hours in the shade on a hotel balcony in Penang. What I hadn’t realised until too late was that the sun reflected off the white-washed wall caused my skin to burn.

Twice dermatologists have decided than sun damage to my face and neck has been threatening enough to require removal by surgery.

The sun and suntan are not my friend.

Election results for Havering constituencies:

Birdsong in the dark

March 12, 2014

February 14th 2014

Mid-evening after nightfall. We were walking through the car park to the footpath that leads to the pedestrian gate to Belfast Boat Club. Suddenly we were aware that all around songbirds were singing. In the dark? In sodden February?  In Belfast?

But then we became aware that for the birds it wasn’t dark. The Boat Club is also one of the oldest and largest tennis clubs in Northern Ireland. Many of the courts are covered by the sort of bubble or dome which allow play and practice to continue in bad weather. There are all translucent and at that time they were all lit. So for the birds close by, it wasn’t dark. It was probably brighter than most February days!

When we left later, some of the domes were no longer lit, but some were still on. There was still birdsong, but less.

Reminder of the Holocaust.

March 12, 2014

pamatce8th February 2014 Brno, Czech Republic
Several tram routes pass close to the family house where we stay in Brno. One tram stop where we often wait to get a tram into the city centre is on a major road and there are platforms for people waiting for and getting off trams. As we stand there waiting we face a primary school building. This building is 3 or 4 stories tall and, like a lot of buildings in Brno, is built round a central courtyard. The front is about 2 metres back from the pavement and has a hedge. But if you stand to wait for the back of the tram, you see a gap in the hedge and through the gap you see a memorial tablet on the school wall. It has a Star of David, an image of barbed wire, and an inscription. “Památce 9397 židových občanů kteří byli v letech 1941-2 z této budovy odvlečeni na smrt.” “To the memory of 9397 Jewish people who in the years 1941-2 were taken away from this building to their deaths.”
It doesn’t say where they went from here, but I think most of them would have been taken to Theriesenstadt, and those who survived the journey and that camp, would have gone on to the extermination camp in Auschwitz. Think of about 10,000 people from a city not much bigger than Havering being imprisoned and sent to their deaths within a few months.

Friends of Harold Wood Parks AGM

March 14, 2013

IMG_1381I was very happy to attend the AGM of the Friends on Tuesday 12th March, and like everyone else not on the executive, stay on as an observer at the subsequent committee meeting. I was deeply impressed by the commitment, hard work and enthusiasm of the people there and the amount of detailed work that they had done and were planning. The meetings were chaired ably by Nicky Simmons. Geoff Pepper, the relevant council officer, was a vital and helpful participant in the meeting. Two ward councillors (Pam Light (Con) and Brian Eagling (RA)) were also present.

Some years ago, Harold Wood Park was in a sorry state. No flowers had been planted for a long time, sports and play facilities were run down and vandalism was an ongoing problem. Liberal Democrats in Romford had been involved in the Friends of Cottons Park there and spoke well of the community spirit and volunteering it had aroused. Also Friends groups can apply for grants not available to the Borough Council, which, of course, owns the parks. The local Liberal Democrats decided that Harold Wood Park could really benefit from a Friends group and called, and paid for, the two public meetings which launched it. Pamela Coles, a long time Liberal Democrat chaired the initial meetings and has been secretary of the Friends most of the time since. My personal contribution has been attending some meetings and a bit of litter picking. But my most important contibution, even before first public meeting, was to add the ‘s’ to the name. There were, I thought four pieces of council parkland in Harold Wood ward. Harold Wood Park, Paines Brook Land, Guys Field and bit behind the flyover on the A127 near the Ardleigh Green lights. Hence the plural of park. It turned out that the council had already sold the fourth of these, and nothing has really been done to Guys Field. The Friends have concentrated on Harold Wood Park and Paines Brook Land. These have acquired play area equipment for smaller children. In Paines Brook, the children of the nearby Harold Court School were involved in the choice of equipment. As you see it today a lot of the planting, equipment and maintenance in the parks has either been inspired by or actually done by the Friends. Paines Brook, being smaller and wilder has tended to lag a bit behind Harold Wood Park, but recently a group of local people has become very active in that area, which bodes well for the future.

Altogether, a very satisfying example of how citizens can work together for their local community.

The picture is the Green Flag awarded to Harold Wood Park in a national scheme.

Bob Russell of Ardleigh Green and Nelmes Church

January 5, 2012

On 18th November, I attended the Thanksgiving Service at Nelmes URC for Bob Russell, who I had counted as a friend for over twenty years. Bob had passed away on 7th November, very shortly after being diagnosed with terminal cancer a few weeks before his eightieth birthday. He was a key elder of Nelmes, and was the church treasurer. He was a talented Lay Preacher – he took his last service at Nelmes on October 2nd – and many churches around here have benefitted from his entertaining and well-thought-through sermons. Bob very much carried his beliefs and faith into practice. He and Enid supported and worked for many things he believed in, including human rights, through Amnesty and Action by Christians Against Torture (ACAT), Citizens Advice, Christian Aid and nuclear disarmament. He was an active supporter of the Labour party. We heard at his service of his work as an insurance surveyor, in Christian CND council and in family life. I remembered that when the Eastern Region of Amnesty held its meeting at Harold Wood Methodist Church, Bob had been the keynote speaker.

I shall miss him as someone to talk to, always wise and understanding. I shall miss his enthusiasm for good beer, and his chuckle when something touched his sense of humour. His family – Enid, his daughters, their husbands and his grandchildren – must miss him much much more. A great man and a great friend much to be mourned but also greatly to be given thanks for.