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Say No To Slavery

Today is Anti-Slavery Day.

In spite of the work of William Wilberforce and many others to abolish it, slavery is still alive and well, and not only in the Third World.

Across the planet, millions of children are forced to work for a pittance, or for nothing at all, some of them sold by their parents to unscrupulous traffickers in human beings. Young women are fooled by promises of lucrative work into lives of drugs and prostitution.

What better way to say “NO” to slavery than by recalling six important classic works of literature that have slavery as a theme:

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Two boys, one of them a black slave, strike up a firm friendship.

2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

A bittersweet look at American slavery portrays typical attitudes of the day.

3. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Slavery of a different kind, the Workhouse system, and the lot of orphans are the subjects of one of Dickens’s most enduring novels.

4. Spartacus

Actually, there are two classic novels with that title, the better known by Howard Fast, but also an earlier one by the Scottish writer James Leslie Mitchell. Both tell of the slave revolt in Rome in the first century BC.

5. Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is the story of Kunta Kinte, Haley’s ancestor, kidnapped from Africa and transported as a slave to the United States of America.

6. Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

The memoir of a free African American kidnapped by slave traders and sold to a plantation owner in Louisiana.

Let’s abolish slavery for good!




The Legend of the Su-asti

(adapted from my novel The Dark Side of the Fylfot. Fourteen-year-old Gretl is eager to hear the story behind the talisman her grandfather wears at his throat)


‘Jemshid, son of Tahmuras, ruled Persia for seven hundred years. He was a wise and just monarch, skilled in forging weapons, weaving fine cloths, and shaping ornaments from silver and gold. They say he discovered medicine and knew cures for all the sicknesses suffered by the people of his country. His most valued possession was a seven-ringed cup, one ring for each of the planets, a gift of the gods, in which he was able to see the whole world, past, present and future.

‘King Jemshid had two daughters, whom he loved equally, and spoiled equally with lavish gifts. Their names were Shahrinaz and Arnawaz. Both were beautiful in their own way; but whereas Shahrinaz had fair skin and golden hair, Arnawaz had a complexion and hair as dark as a starless night.

‘When the girls were sixteen, Jemshid gave each of them the most wonderful present of all – a gold necklace made by his own hand. On each gold chain hung a talisman of well-being – one of the su-asti, crosses on which each of the four arms was bent at right angles. To Shahrinaz he presented the cross with arms bent to the right. In its centre was engraved the emblem of the sun god, Ormazd. To her sister he presented the left-handed cross, which carried the engraving of a crescent moon, symbol of Ahriman, god of darkness. For Jemshid honoured both gods and was afraid of offending either.

‘As it happened, the adjacent country was ruled by a prince named Zohak, who had been tricked by a demon into murdering his father and stealing his throne. Zohak was determined to seize the throne of Persia too and, at the head of a huge army, crossed her borders. King Jemshid was a proud man, blinded by his love and by his daughters’ charms. He took no account of their different characters. A seventh part of his magic cup was dark and he did not see the danger until it was too late.  Because Zohak was handsome, Arnawaz fell in love with him and came under his influence. She conspired with him to kill her father so that she could become queen herself.

‘Whereas Jemshid had been a just ruler, Zohak used magic to oppress the people, and they lived in fear of him. On his shoulder and that of his queen, where once they were kissed by Lord Ahriman, grew two black snakes that consumed human brains, and each day the pair offered two of their subjects as sacrifice to these monsters. As for Arnawaz, because she wore the emblem of the dark god round her neck, she held the real power in the kingdom and through her Zohak ruled for a thousand years.

‘Shahrinaz was determined to avenge her father. She was patient, and prayed to Ormazd to help her.

‘The sun god answered. “Is light not always greater than darkness? When the sun rises, does not the moon flee? You already have the means to lift the shadow of your sister from the land. She is Ahriman’s creature, and cannot bear the sunshine. Take the su-asti, the cross your father gave you, and go to the palace. Hold my image in front of your sister, so that the daylight is reflected upon it, and the power of the one she wears will be broken. Then you will see Arnawaz as she really is.”

‘Shahrinaz hesitated. “And what of Zohak? Even if my sister is destroyed, he is still king.”

‘ “His time will come,” answered Ormazd. “I have chosen your son, Faridan, to be the instrument of his fate.”

‘Shahrinaz protested. “My son is just a child!”

‘ “Have faith,” answered the god. “He will grow. When Arnawaz is no more, give him the su-asti so that he will be protected from evil, and can accomplish the task I shall set for him.’

‘Shahrinaz did as she was asked. When she held up the su-asti of the sun, Arnawaz screamed in terror and her human form shrivelled up until all that remained was a black serpent. Then Shahrinaz said to her, “Because you were once my sister, I will spare your life, but from today you are banished from human company. Crawl away to the desert, to the wild places of the earth where you belong.”

‘When Faridan was sixteen, Shahrinaz placed the cross of Ormazd around his neck. “Now you are ready to fulfil your destiny,” she said. “Go and break forever the power of Zohak. Lift the shadow of fear from the people and restore justice to the land.

‘ “But remember! Because the su-asti was a present to me from my father Jemshid, and because I now give it to you, it should always be passed from father to daughter and from mother to son, down through the generations.

‘ “And tell your children this: the su-asti of the sun god will protect them as long as they do not allow evil into their hearts. For, should that happen, it will be as if they wore the left-hand cross of Arnawaz.

‘ “Goodness will be despised, and the creatures of the night will rule again in the world!” ‘


(The Dark Side of the Fylfot, a novel of the Black Death, is available from Amazon as an e-book.)


The Man in the High Castle

Philip K Dick’s Hugo Award-winning science fiction novel is a novel without a hero or villain.

Instead, the various characters mill around somewhat aimlessly, doing meaningless jobs (or none at all), consulting the I Ching and reading yet another novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Several are not what they seem or claim to be.


The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate reality where Japan and Germany have won World War II and have carved up North America – and most of the rest of the world – between them. “Our” USA is divided into three states, Pacific Seaboard America, ruled from Tokyo, the East Coast, ruled from Berlin, and a sort of no-man’s land, the Rocky Mountain States, sitting inconveniently between. The Nazis have carried their racial policies to new extremes of barbarity. In Europe, Jews have gone (more or less) and other non-Aryans are on the way to slavery or extinction. Africa has been ethnically cleansed.

” … it had taken two hundred years to dispose of the American aborigines, and Germany had almost done it in Africa in fifteen …”

Japanese rule is relatively benign, but even in San Francisco, where the story begins, black people are slaves and Jews are in danger of arrest prior to being handed over to the Reich. Mr R Childan owns a store selling Americana and is on the lookout for a piece to please his Japanese contact, Mr Tagomi. Tagomi, part of a trade mission, is expecting a client from Europe, a Mr Baynes, who is coming to America to do a deal in injection mould plastics. Frank Frink is an American Jew who has just lost his job and is persuaded to go into business with a former colleague, making and selling original jewellery.

Frink’s estranged wife, Juliana, lives in Colorada and is a judo instructor. She picks up Italian truck driver Joe at a hamburger joint and together they embark on a trip to find Hawthorne Abendsen, author of The Grasshopper and eponymous man in the high castle. To complicate matters, this novel within a novel – banned in the East – posits a world very like ours, but with unpleasant variations.

How all these characters react and interact is the basis of Philip Dick’s intriguing tale. Although the plot seems aimless, The Man in the High Castle has much to commend it. Dick’s characterisation is brilliant. His style when handling Mr Tagomi, and to a lesser extent Childan, shows a real understanding of Japanese society and literature. He knows the importance of “face”, or “place” as he calls it here, and he has perfected the art of introspection through monologue. Indeed, he gets inside the head of all his characters and shows them to be real people caught up in a nightmare scenario much worse than that of Orwell’s 1984, published thirteen years earlier.

But The Man in the High Castle is not a nice novel. Had it been written today, it might never be published. It is black satire, for Dick’s audience of the nineteen sixties a horrific insight into what might have been. For the reader of 2014, the book’s language and wholly revolting fictions are horrors of a different kind. Although we might cringe at times from them, we know that, with the wrong catalysts, there are no depravities of which we human beings are incapable. The novel has violence, both expressed and implied, both institutional and personal, but the author neither justifies nor condemns. The universe is governed by yin and yang, where everything is connected, consequences are inevitable and resistence is futile.

At the end, we are left with questions: which is the real world, that of Tagomi and Baynes or that of Abendsen? is reality itself disruptive, as Abendsen suggests to his wife? have Dick’s characters grown, or are they in fact unchanged by their experiences?

“Could this, Mr Tagomi wondered, be the answer? ….. Or is this the Inner Truth now, this that is happening to me? I will wait. I will see. Which it is. Perhaps it is both.”

The Man in the High Castle is one of the few science fiction works that has risen above its genre and has become literary. Even if not nice, it is very readable.


Jane the Historian

A few weeks ago, I visited Winchester Cathedral and the tomb of Jane Austen. Jane died in the city on July 18th, 1817 at the age of only 41.


The whole world knows of Austen from her masterpieces, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and others. However, I suspect it is not widely known that she was also an historian – of sorts. She was! Her history of England, written in 1791 when she was just sixteen years old, contains some fine examples of her biting wit and flair for satire that were rarely bettered in her more mature works. The title page alone is enough to set the scene for this crazy, mixed-up attempt to ‘send up’ the monotonous, heavy tomes which, during her childhood, passed for scholarly history:

The History of England

from the reign of

Henry the 4th

to the death of

Charles the 1st

By a partial, prejudiced and ignorant Historian.

To Miss Austen eldest daughter of the Rev

George Austen, this book is inscribed with

all due respect by

The Author

NB There will be very few Dates in

this History.

The dedication was meant for her older sister, Cassandra, who later filled spaces in the text with amusing sketches of  the monarchs in question.

Here are five gems from the book, which says all that needs to be said about Jane’s genius:

 1) (Edward the 4th) – This monarch was famous only for his Beauty & his Courage, of which the Picture we have here given of him, & his undaunted Behaviour in marrying one Woman while he was engaged to another, are sufficient proofs.

2) (Richards the 3rd )- It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been asserted that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive [sic] true;

3) (Henry the 8th) – The Kings [sic] last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it.

4) (James the 1st) – Though this King had some faults, among which & as the most principal, was his allowing his Mother’s death, yet considered on the whole I cannot help liking him.

5)  …. my principal reason for undertaking the History of England being to prove the innocence of the Queen of Scotland, which I flatter myself at having effectually done, and to abuse Elizabeth, tho’ I am rather fearful of having fallen short in the latter …

Over a century later, this remarkable piece of juvenilia might well have been an inspiration for another ‘send-up’ by two Oxford graduates called Walter Sellar and Robert Yeatman.

I wonder. Their book was entitled 1066 and All That.

Waverley – Not Great Scott

I wrote this review of Walter Scott’s classic novel about two years ago, before I signed up to Classics Club. I decided it was time I reposted here, though I’m not going to count it towards by Classics Club count!


‘The story of Waverley has the potential to excite and inspire, whether one tends to the Hanoverian or to the Jacobite side during that sad and turbulent period in which the novel is set. It is a potential never fully realised.

‘The plot, like its central character, wanders aimlessly through the land of Great Britain without a central driving theme. It is a love story of a sort but a sluggish one; as an historical epic, it lacks the fire, drama and tragedy that events of 1745 could so easily have provided. The novel is cluttered with classical references and with Latin, French, Gaelic and `Scots’ English dialogue, all of which slow the pace as, unless one is proficient in these languages, continual reference to the notes is essential. Though brought up in Scotland, I found the last of these at times almost incomprehensible.


‘The main characters (with the possible exception of the Baron of Bradwardine, notwithstanding his Latin obsession) are pale shadows of Scott’s later heroes and heroines. Edward Waverley is no Ivanhoe; neither Rose nor Flora has the appeal of Rebecca or Jeanie Deans. Charles Edward Stuart sparkles for a short while but too soon disappears into the mists of history. McIvor, for me, is unconvincing as a warlike Highland chieftain. The theme of friendship and love across the political and religious divide is handled much better three quarters of a century later by Stevenson in his portrayal of David Balfour, Alan Breck and Catriona.

‘That Waverley is a `bad’ novel does not mean that it is bad writing. There are many descriptive passages worthy of Scott, the master storyteller, at his best. The evening of wine and Scotch at the Baron’s castle, followed by the obligatory alcoholic romp into the nearby village is surely an example of binge drinking to vie with any such in the twenty-first century. The mustering of the clans too is as colourful in print as it must have been in reality. There are flashes throughout of Scott’s unique dry humour, and moments when one feels, at last, that the narrative is about to take off. It never does. The problem is that it does not hang together in the way that, say, The Heart of Midlothian, Ivanhoe and Kenilworth do. These three, for me, are among the greatest novels ever written in the English language. Although, in Kenilworth, we know that Amy Robsart is to be murdered, the pace, suspense and emotion of the writing have us believing, for a space of time, that history will be defeated and she will be saved. In Waverley, I detect none of that. It seems as if the author tires occasionally of his task and, instead of spiking it with new emotion or drama, lets the momentum tail away.

‘For all its faults, Waverley is worth reading for a foretaste of the much greater Scott works to come. However, of all the novels that are classed in the Waverley series, it is one that should most definitely not be read first.’

The Last of the Mitfords

Debo – An Obituary

Deborah Vivien Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who died a few days ago at 94, was according to common opinion, one of the nicest of the six Mitford sisters. Only Pamela, the quiet, private sister can be regarded as her equal in that respect. I never met any of them and thus have no way of knowing if this was true. Moreover, niceness is not a quality generally associated with this eccentric and sometime notorious British family.

Diana, married first to a Guinness heir and then to the fascist leader Oswald Mosley, spent part of World War II in gaol as a possible threat to the British state. Unity too was a fascist and intimate friend of Adolf Hitler. Jessica supported the Communist Party and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Nancy, the eldest, achieved fame as a socialite, competent novelist and creator of the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. Indeed, three of the Mitford girls achieved success as writers.

However, when history finally passes judgement on the sisters, it may be Deborah who will be deemed the greatest. This was the lady who, by her own efforts, saved Chatsworth.

In 1941, Deborah, (Debo) married Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire. The couple had no expectation of the title. Indeed, by Debo’s own assessment, they were poor; poverty is of course a relative term. However, Billy Cavendish, Lord Hartington, heir to the dukedom, who was also the husband of Kathleen Kennedy, sister of JFK, was killed in action in Belgium, and Andrew became Duke on his father’s death in 1950.

Chatsworth was in a poor state of repair through neglect. When Debo first saw it she thought it more like a barracks than a country home. Moreover the estate was subject to punitive death duties introduced by Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government. The late Duke had already made over the estate to Andrew in order to avoid a tax of up to 90% but had not survived the five years required to mitigate the law. 80% duty was now due on all the family’s possessions.

Chatsworth House, one of the most beautiful stately homes in England, was built by Sir William Cavendish and his wife Bess of Hardwick in the 16th century. Two of the best-known women in history had lived, or spent time there – Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, an occasional “guest” of Bess herself between 1573 and 1582, and of course Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, famous society beauty and the fifth Duchess.

Acres of land and many works of art had to be sold to pay the debt to the Treasury. But in the fifties, Debo Mitford and her husband set to work to repair and restore Chatsworth House to its former glory, and to improve the amenities of the park and gardens. Debo has turned Chatsworth into a proper business, opening a farm shop and restaurant as well as a shop and tearoom at the house itself. In 1982, Debo wrote her first book about Chatsworth, The House, which was a commercial success not only at the house but around England. It also sold well in the United States. By 2012, she had published six more. Her efforts over nearly sixty years culminated in 2011 when BBC cameras were welcomed to Chatsworth by the present Duke and Duchess to film a series about the estate, its villages and farms, and the many events that take place there.

Chatsworth is the Devonshires’ family home, but it also belongs to the nation and is a major employer of over seven hundred people.

Thank you, Deborah, and long may Chatsworth continue to delight and inspire those of us who value your legacy!



Dan’s Hymn to Dante


by Dan Brown

In his latest novel, Dan Brown sends his unlikely hero, Harvard professor Robert Langdon on a romp round Florence. Accompanied by Sienna Brooks, a young doctor with an IQ of 208, Langdon embarks on a quest to find and destroy a deadly virus.

Planted by a misguided idealist Bertrand Zobrist, the virus when exposed to the atmosphere threatens to cut world population by half. Langdon believes it to be some kind of plague like the Black Death, but the only clues to its whereabouts are to be found in the pages of Dante’s greatest work, The Divine Comedy, in a paragraph of writing on the back of his death mask and in a painting by Botticelli. Pursuing Langdon and Sienna as they follow the trail from one museum to the next is a mysterious organisation called the Consortium, a would-be female assassin, a squad of sinister men in black, and representatives of the World Health Organisation. Langdon has lost his memory, you see, and doesn’t really know why he is running.


Botticelli’s Hell

‘Lasciata ogne speranza voi ch’entrata’

Inferno is vintage Dan Brown, a fast-paced thriller in the mould of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. Fans of his writing will find everything that led to the popularity of the earlier  stories as both books and movies. However, he writes to a formula – a successful formula admittedly, and good luck to him – which I find too predictable.

Inferno, like the other novels, contains much information dump of an artistic kind which I feel overloads the plot with unnecessary detail. If I want to study mediaeval art and literature, I will pick up a non-fiction book on the subject. The other negative for me is the improbability of the scenario; Langdon, the James Bond-like adventuring professor does not quite convince me.

That said, I did find myself turning the pages with haste and expectation as the plot unfolded and the hero approached the final showdown.

As it turns out, none of the characters in Inferno are quite what they seem. Brown, by some clever cheating, keeps their true identities and purpose to himself until quite late in the novel. By then, we – and indeed Professor Langdon – are aware that the answer to the puzzle does not lie in Florence at all. To say more here would be a dastardly spoiler.



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