Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Bad TV - Sometimes so Bad it's Good ...

It should be admitted that even bad TV is not always without wisdom. According to "The Water Margin", that bizarre Japanese schedule-filler from the 70's, an ancient sage once said: "Do not despise the snake for having no horns."


I, for one, can honestly say I have always abided by this advice.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Health Warning - Bad TV Rots the Mind

Leading writers, it seems, agree that bad TV rots the mind. This news is worrying enough, given our collective addiction to TV, but the situation may be worse still. It may be that @all TV rots the mind. Even good TV requires nothing very creative on the part of the consumer. This is why, by and large, we writers prescribe good books as the surest antidote.

Here at Carter Towers we are at present stuck in the groove that lies between Christmas Day and New Year's Day, a perfect time to be reflecting on the ghastliness of most TV. My spirits are occasionally lifted as I peruse the Electronic Programme Guide to see some classic film slated for transmission, only to have my hopes dashed by finding that the said film is a recent re-make, for which read: almost certainly an appalling piece of drivel that bears no relation to the original.  And why? Because it will have had every ounce of delight wrung from it by a producer whose sole aim is to make as much money as he can from our cherished memories.

This approach, I refer to as "mining." It's the very opposite of creative endeavour. It's cowardly and exploitative and I hate it with a will. Even as I write, there will be hundreds of maggots in the bowels of Hollywood, trawling feverishly through material we once loved, wondering how they can work up an angle sufficiently palatable to dupe us again.  Anyone who doubts this should compare the original "Bedazzled" with the re-make. Enough said.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Monty's Python? Monty didn't have a python but ...

Rommel was soundly beaten by Londoner, Bernard Montgomery, who was very fond of his pets. Here we see him with his two dogs. A cage of canaries can be seen in the background. He called his dogs "Hitler" and "Rommel."  It is not known whether Rommel had a dog called "Montgomery."

Thursday, 5 December 2013

The Desert Fox

Say "Rommel" and people know immediately who you mean - the charismatic tank commander, the genius general, the "good Nazi."  Since the war there has been a tendency to idealize Erwin Rommel. James Mason played him in a Hollywood movie, and there are stories of U.S. tanks going into battle with a picture of the man taped up inside their turrets. But some of us have been guilty of slack thinking when it comes to appraising the Desert Fox.

To be sure, Rommel was charismatic. He had what modern TV executives call "a high likeability rating." This helps, as that other famously "good Nazi" the extraordinarily avuncular Albert Speer knew, when getting people to do things - usually for no pay. It also helps when historians later try to create a picture of a notable individual. The trouble is, being a general has only one judging standard: winning battles.

Rommel fought against those doughty soldiers, the Italians, during the First World War. There, amid Alpine snows, he won for himself a Blue Max, which was pretty medal reserved for soldiers with a nice smile. When his first attempt at war ended in utter defeat at the hands of real soldiers, Rommel slunk off to pen a military best-seller about how to use infantry against Italians, which put his name about somewhat.

Next, he popped up in 1939, victoriously commanding his panzers against the very best tanks that Poland had to offer - horses. In 1940, he swept through Belgium and France in a brief fight that saw the collapse of (ahem) valiant French forces, who had been trained to Olympic levels in sprinting and rifle throwing. It may not have been Rommel's fault that the British managed to evacuate almost all their troops (and quite a few French) from Dunkirk, but at least he wasn't saddled with any blame by his Nazi pals.

Rommel was not himself quite a Nazi, although he did fight for them without qualm, wore the swastika on his uniform and was best pals with a certain Dr Goebbels, German propaganda minister (a man who could make a military legend out of an old boot, and frequently did.) Oh, yes, and Oberst Rommel commanded part of Hilter's personal protection unit, the so-called F├╝hrerbegleitbataillon. So, not quite a Nazi, but not exactly a conscientious objector either.

The very next year we find a freshly-promoted Generalleutnant Rommel out panzering in North Africa. (Hitler had sent him there to sort out the mess left by those doughty fighters, the Italians - remember them?  They who had been busy in Libya surrendering to the British in vast numbers. Perhaps Mussolini's staff might have been encouraged to read Rommel's best-seller before they set off.) There followed some masterful to-ing and fro-ing along the Libyan coast, ending in utter defeat at the hands of Bernard Montgomery and five hundred borrowed American tanks. Rommel had by now developed a cold-sore on his lip and went back to Greater Germany to recuperate while his men, abandoned
in the desert and with no particular place to go, threw in the towel on his behalf.

It was all starting to go horribly pear-shaped for the Germans and the writing was appearing on the bunker wall. Next, Rommel was put in charge of "Fortress Europe," where he spent 4% of German GDP in having slave laborers pour millions of tons of concrete into places that were never going to be attacked. The wily
American and British Empire forces (let's not forget the Canadians!) waited for Rommel, the master tactician, to get another cold-sore, and as soon as he departed they landed successfully all over the French coast and began smashing the best the Wehrmacht had to offer in double-quick time. Winning, it seemed, was not turning out to be a noticeable German trait - at least when their much-trumpeted army were up against a proper ballsy outfit and not some pack of backward surrender monkeys.

At this point, Hitler, who had recently had his trousers shredded by a sadly underpowered bomb placed under him by another of this trusted officers, promptly pinned the blame for the Normandy debacle on our heroic tank commander. The deal was this: be a good chap and poison yourself for me and you'll get to have a state funeral with a swastika draped over your coffin and as many bunches of flowers as you want - or - fail to do so and we'll kill you and all your family in one of our luxury concentration camps. Nice guys, those Nazis.  Of course, Rommel knew his duty, and duly obliged his Fuhrer. He died with his boots on, and his men loved him.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

V2 rockets - not my department ...

A few years ago, I happened to visit the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama -- yes, Noble Readers, I do get around somewhat - and I saw there preserved, almost as if in aspic, the office of Wernher von Braun.

Now, Wernher von Braun, you may recall, was the German rocket scientist who worked to develop the equipment that would eventually put a man on the moon. A previous blog of mine mentioned some of von Braun's earlier handiwork: the notorious V2 missile, used by the Nazis to kill several thousand people in my city. So you can imagine that I have mixed feelings about the man and my brief moment looking into his office ...

Did America do right by spiriting this Nazi (and he was a Nazi all right) off to Alabama to get the jump on the Russians so far as the next phase of weapons development was concerned? Sure.  No question. Much better than hanging him after a short appearance in Nuremburg. It might even be argued that we (I use the term loosely to include myself) managed to turn a Nazi back into a human being. Personally, I doubt von Braun spent much time confronting himself with moral
questions, but then what do I know?

One of my particular heroes is a guy named Tom Lehrer, part scientist, part piano-playing satirical song-writer, all-round genius. If you don't know of him already, go Google him and you could learn much from his current incarnation on Youtube -- "Lehrer" is, after all, German for "teacher."

For your edification, here's what Tom, writing in the early 'Sixties, said about Wernher:


Friday, 22 November 2013

The Vengeance Weapon

Yesterday, I drove a couple of miles to a local spot that is quite significant in world history. Now, I know what you're thinking, Noble Readers: you only have to poke a pointed stick into the ground in London to have the the black gold of history come spurting out. But my short trip was not of the kind that results in the discovery of some lost medieval king under a car park.  No, it was a sad and poignant little visit to a very ordinary suburban street that for a brief moment within living memory was turned into a living hell.

At about a quarter before seven in the evening of the 8th of September, 1944, an explosion in Chiswick, West London, killed three people. One was 63 year-old Ada Harrison, another was a Royal Engineer called Bernard Browning who was on leave and hoping to see his girlfriend, and the third was a three year-old called Rosemary Clarke. Twenty-two other people were injured.

The explosion made a crater forty feet across and thirty feet deep, and demolished a dozen houses in Staveley Road. More had to be torn down because of the damage they sustained. The authorities said a gas explosion was to blame, but they knew very well that this blast was nothing of the sort. They knew, because they had been told by their military ntelligence people to expect it, that this was caused by a warhead.

Winston Churchill was informed that a rocket had been launched from the Hague in Nazi-occupied Holland, had traveled up to the very fringes of Outer Space, and had then dropped supersonically to earth, completing what was the world's first ballistic missile attack.

In all, more than three thousand V2s were launched on London and, later, Antwerp, killing and maiming thousands of victims. A very sad tale could be told about every one of them. There is a small, recently-placed memorial to the tragedy that took place outside No. 5 Staveley Road. If you wait there long enough, the sight of it will bring a tear to your eye.

You might like to see this video on YouTube   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjFTN-YdK_M


Friday, 15 November 2013

Anyone for Sphairistike?

As a previous blog has vouchsafed to you, Noble Reader, I did my teenage astronomy at Rossall College. This is a private school on the Irish Sea coast in an area known as the Fylde. Believe it or not, this unlikely spot is, after a fashion, the home of one of the world's greatest sports.

Whether or not the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton -- and it's rather doubtful that the Duke of Wellington ever made a remark to that effect -- it's pretty certain that the love of ball games was well established among the children of Britain's ruling elite even in the mid-eighteenth century.

Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Rossall old boy, later served in the Indian army, and on his return to England began to market a set of equipment to allow owners of country houses with neatly-kept lawns to play a new game he had invented. This diversion was more spirited than croquet and required fewer participants than cricket. He called it "Sphairistike." That is what you call a real fifty-dollar word. It's ancient Greek for "skill at ball games." Not the sort of trade mark you choose if you want your product to take off, you may say, but then at the time marketing was in its infancy and most of the people who could afford the kit (and the lawn) would have had at least a smattering of classical languages.

Many rule changes later, the game has evolved into a world sport which gives pleasure to millions and disappointment to English hopes every year. (Yes, Andy Murray, is indeed not English.) But just imagine if old Major Wingfield had opted to name his game after himself. Then, the sporting courts of Wimbledon might have been owned and organized by the All England Clopton Club. Doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Watch out for Comet ISON!

Hi Noble Readers, it's time to turn your attention skyward in anticipation of what might be one of the great astronomical events of the decade. I have been an amateur astronomer for many decades and never seen a comet to compare with the gr...eat comets of history. However, despite our light-polluted skies, we may this December see one such.

Comet ISON is heading for a close encounter with the sun later this month, and if it is not vaporized or torn apart, it should be visible to the naked eye in December. It is expected to pass just about 600,000 miles from the sun's surface on November 28.

If predictions prove correct, the comet should be visible to the naked eye in Earth's early morning skies in early December and throughout the night beginning in January.

So keep those eyes peeled.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The Law Really is an Ass ...

How is it that it takes graduates, supposedly the intellectual cream of society, two years at a specialist school and several further years working in practice, to acquaint themselves with the labyrinthine complexity of our system of law, but a person charged with breaking it will be told that ignorance of the law is no defence?

The only safe course is to assume that everything is illegal and do nothing, but then how can a person who dares even to walk down the street consider themselves innocent until proven guilty?

Two kinds of "Proof"

You often hear debaters talking about proof, and it's pretty clear in most cases they don't know what they're talking about. So as a public service, Noble Readers, I thought I would offer my two pennies worth on the topic. 

As anyone who has a taste for hard liquor will tell you, there are different sorts of proof, but we might, on this occasion confine ourselves to two in particular, and to draw the distinctions between them. First let's look at "mathematical proof."  Mathematical proof is the sort that the Greek geometer Euclid liked to demonstrate. It consists of stating a set of initial assumptions which are regarded as facts, and using logic to build on those assumptions. The result is a new fact which must be inescapably true if the assumptions you begin with are true.

This is all very well in mathematics, which is a subject that lives in its own little idealized world. But what about the "real" world? Science must live in the real world, because the whole idea of science is to describe the real world. Science uses mathematics help it to do this. A lot of the time it uses a branch of mathematics called "statistics" to work out what is likely to be true or false, at other times it will attempt to describe the real world using equations that express physical laws. One example of the latter are the equations that describe the way an object with a given mass falls in a gravitational field when there is no air present to alter its motion. You can, if you feel it necessary, alter those equations to descibe the way the same object moves when there is air present. Or you can alter the equations another way to describe how the same object would move if it were dropped, not on Earth, but say, on the moon or on Mars.

But to return to the idea of scientific proof: science doesn't prove facts like mathematics proves facts. The way science works is by excluding concepts that can be shown to be wrong. Let me illustrate: science does not say things like "the Earth is round," rather it says things like, "the Earth cannot be flat because ..." and then comes a set of observations that show why it cannot be flat. Questions that are amenable to scientific investigation, therefore, have to be "falsifiable," that is, open to being proved false, a condition famously set forth by the philosopher Karl Popper.

So next time you hear someone say "science has proved that" something or other is so, you know they don't know what they're talking about.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Gosh Wow Factor

Anyone who knows me, Noble Reader, will tell you that I am a man of serial enthusiasms. I develop a spike of interest in something which peaks and dies away with a period of perhaps two years: cactuses, steam engines, spiral staircases, &c., all have come and gone. But the one life-long interest that has stayed with me is astronomy.

When I was 13 years-old I used to go along to Rossall College, a minor public school in the north west of England,  where a venerable, and to me, gigantic, telescope had been made available through the kindness of one of the house masters. I would bicycle three miles to the said institution and collect the keys and a box of eyepieces and make use of this neglected observatory which housed a big, brass refractor made by Thomas Cooke and Sons of York.

Picture, if you will, the biblical Saul on his way to Damascus, and the moment when the scales fell from his eyes. Well, I had my own equivalent epiphany of sorts, and it happened in Rossall College observatory.

What happened was this. One particularly crisp, clear night I spent an hour in candlelight (there was no mains electricity) lining the telescope up and setting the clock drive so that it would remain pointed at a particular point in the sky. What I wanted to see was located in the constellation of Andromeda, which was just rising to its highest point. It was the famous M31, a neighbouring galaxy, the only one easily visible to the naked eye, and an object pretty similar to the galaxy we live in, which we call the Milky Way. When I say "neighbouring", I should add that M31 is a couple of million light years away, which means that it's so far from us that light takes a couple of million years to get to us. Considering that light always travels at 186,000 miles per second, that's really quite a long way. Actually, when it coms to galaxies, M31 is pretty well our closest, the furthest that we've measured being more than thirteen billion light-years away.

Anyhow, there was I, all set up with that big six-inch refractor pointing at M31. I positioned myself at the gently moving eyepiece and shut my eyes. The idea was to get "dark adaption." If you shut your eyes, they get used to the darkness, so that when you open them again very faint objects appear momentarily much brighter. I thought I'd give myself twenty minutes. Then I looked.

Gosh? Wow?

A faint patch of haze with a slightly brighter centre. Big deal.  But to me it was a very big deal. While I had had my eyes closed I had been reflecting on what was actually about to happen. The particles of light -- photons -- that were coming down that telescope and would soon be hitting the retina of my right eye had come from more than a hundred million different stars. Those photons had travelled across 2 million light years of empty space and would find their final destiny interacting with the light-sensitive chemicals in the retina of my eye. Amazing enough in itself, but the more I thought about it, the more amazing it became: that photon journey had begun two million years ago -- before my own species had even evolved.

That's quite a thought, and on the whole, I'd say it rates both a gosh and a wow.

These are pictures of Rossall College!

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Moon Madness ... Is there anybody out there?

Once again, Noble Readers, I bring you strange thoughts from afar. This time, it's a "proof" I dreamed up a long time ago, when I was studying astronomy. I was an avid reader of science fiction back then, and still think fondly of the genre. Anyhow, it concerns aliens. Aliens, that is, of the extra-terrestrial sort.

When I say "proof" I don't mean anything quite so hard and fast, but let me run this idea past you. Our solar system contains a major coincidence. Amazingly, of all the moons and all the planets orbiting our sun, only our moon looks as big as the sun when viewed from the surface of a planet. This is because our moon is a quarter of a million miles away, and the vastly bigger sun is 93 million miles away. It is an absolute coincidence that the disc of the moon just covers the disc of the sun, and so it makes periodic total eclipses possible.
With me so far? Good.

Actually this fit is not exact, because neither the earth nor the moon moves in a circle, so there is some small variation in apparent size of both sun and moon, and so sometimes we get a so-called "annular eclipse", when a thin ring of sun shows around the black disc of the moon. Still, all things considered, it is amazingly unlikely that we get total solar eclipses at all. And if other solar systems are, as they seem to be, built on similar lines to our own, then the total solar eclipse will be a very rare phenomenon indeed, not only here, but elsewhere in the universe too.

Having said that, experiencing a total solar eclipse is one of the most impressive things a human being can do, and it's no surprise that people spend thousands on travelling to what's called the "track of totality" just to be there when the phenomenon passes over. I did the very same some years ago, going all the way to Antigua for the purpose, and a couple of years later to Laon in Northern France.

My point is this: if scientifically advanced aliens exist out there, aliens with say a million years of scientific advancement under their belts rather than our own paltry four hundred years, then surely they would be coming here to see the eclipses.
But we don't see them. Ergo: scientifically advanced aliens probably don't exist.

Of course, they might not think eclipses are as much fun as I do, or, for all their advances, they might not have spotted that we have eclipses, or -- and get this -- they might be here amongst us, disguised as people, and watching it all happen through those cardboard eclipse viewers like the rest of us. Maybe, just maybe, the track of totality is the best place to go alien hunting after all.

This is Shirley Heights, Antigua - and this is where I experienced the eclipse in 1998.  Worth it!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Sheer Purgatory “I want to live again. I want to live again. I want to live again. Please God, let me live again.”

Author's Note

Historical novelist, Robert Carter, takes us on a detour into humor with his latest book, Sheer Purgatory. The author offers a glimpse into an afterlife that awaits 95% of us, whether we believe in it or not. Carter says: “I happened to read in the Daily Telegraph that Pope Benedict XVI had abolished Limbo, and I thought, well, if he doesn’t want it, I’ll have it.” The annexation of Purgatory soon followed.

Here is a sample ...


The sight of a semi-naked man flying over the rooftops of South London at nine o’clock on a Thursday morning would normally have struck Dan Trench as a bit odd, but this morning was an exception.

Last night he’d been in the Red Lion with his pal, Kevin Evans. They’d been drinking “inappropriately” — whisky chasers, this time, and so many of them that pretty soon Dan had lost the ability to pronounce his friend’s name, then he had lost the ability to pronounce his own name, then he had fallen over. Judging by the eye-stabbing brightness now pouring in through Dan’s window, they’d carried on from “inappropriate” to “unwise” and very possibly on again to “insane.”

Dan searched his memory without result. Could he remember anything? Anything at all? One thing was for certain, last night remained a disappointingly featureless blank — as was most of Dan’s current field of vision

He held out a hand against the window glare and tried instead to figure out what day it was. Then he saw something that made him doubt not just his wisdom, but maybe his entire grasp of reality. On one of the houses in the next street there was a half-naked man clinging to a chimney. Dan peered hard at the figure as it began flapping its wings. An old TV aerial had come off in its hand and it was toppling backwards in a most theatrical manner.

Dan rubbed his eyes, then looked again. The figure was gone. And so was the TV aerial ...

He put the incident out of what remained of his mind and tried to think what to do about Belinda. The phone now nestling in his palm was his best clue. He’d got a message, just about the most pleadingly urgent message his girlfriend had ever left.

“Dan, please call me. I’m in terrible trouble. You’ve got to help. Meet me at the bottom of Nelson’s Column as soon as you can. It really is a matter of life and death!”

That made two emergencies.

Two? He thought fuzzily. Now, what was the other emergency again?

Oh, yes, of course. The other emergency was that he had lost his balls.

As emergencies went, this one was far from minor. He cursed and began to look under the bed.

“Please, please, please, let them have found their way home,” he begged, diving down and hoping it was all a bad dream. But the box he always carried his balls home in wasn’t there.

He began to look around frantically, a task that didn’t take long because Dan’s salary as a humble Lottery clerk didn’t extend to very much in the way of living space, even in this lowly part of the capital: a bedroom/living room that doubled as a kitchen and a tiny bathroom that you couldn’t rinse a cat in. He began to search. Three drawers, two cupboards and a small wardrobe later he sat down hard again on the end of his bed.

“Oh, damn it,” he told the pile of unwashed pots and pans in the sink. “Damn, damn, damn!”

The cussing was heartfelt, because the balls that Dan had managed to misplace were the ones on which half the nation’s hopes and fears rested twice a week.

Dan’s workmates at the Lottery liked to call him “the Keeper of the Balls.” It was a joke, certainly, but nevertheless a fairly accurate description of his duties. His job was to load the fifty perfectly-balanced plastic balls into the machine before every prize draw and, between outings, it was his responsibility to keep them clean and safe, which he did by nestling each of them into a velvet-lined case. This tender care was lavished so that nothing at all could possibly interfere with the natural operations of fate. After all, it would be terribly embarrassing if the Lottery started making millionaires of the undeserving and failing to make millionaires out of those whose destiny it was to become ludicrously rich.

Ordinarily, Dan took the precious case home after every draw and kept it under his bed. This was the safest place Dan could think of, a place so safe that no one other than Dan had ever been known to go there. Unfortunately, the strategy didn’t take into account the fact that he could be intercepted on his way home and dragged off to a pub by Kevin Evans.

“Damn! Damn! Damn!

He might have left the case at the Red Lion, or at any of a dozen other pubs and curry houses that he and Kevin might have visited. Memories of the evening remained a stubborn blank, but there was one other way to find out ...

As Dan made the call, a fresh pang of anxiety ran through him. He failed to connect with Kevin, so he left a message and tried to sound urgent. To turn up at the office and have to announce he’d lost the nation’s favorite balls was not a prospect to relish. He had to find them, and soon. The trouble was that something large and square and unavoidable was standing in his way: the tantalizing message that five minutes ago had probably hauled him out of unconsciousness. Belinda’s voice boomed in his head, unusually excited and harder than ever to ignore. Whatever danger she was in, it sounded pretty serious.

“‘A matter of life and death,’” he muttered, feeling suddenly weak. “How can I ignore that?”

As he pulled on his jacket and checked his pocket for his keys, his befuddled mind was made up. It would be impossible to get into any pub or curry house to ask questions until later anyhow. The balls didn’t actually have to appear until Saturday. Today was … er … Thursday. No contest. Nelson’s Column it would have to be.

Victor 3157 landed badly in Dan’s privet hedge. As he folded his wings the postman delivering next door’s mail turned round in surprise, then looked him up and down. Vic, wearing only a pair of gold spandex underpants and matching slippers, grinned sheepishly. “Morning.”

“Busy night, was it?”

Vic folded an impressive pair of angel wings and brandished the remains of the TV aerial. “I suppose you’d call it a sort of ... fancy dress party.”

“What did you go as?” the postman asked. “Air male?”

He smiled indulgently, but as the postman moved on, Vic furtively opened his golden satchel and pulled out a long gray emergency overcoat. He put it on before ringing one of several unmarked door bells. Some moments later there came the sound of someone stamping down a long flight of stairs. It was Dan’s upstairs neighbor, a hard-faced, woman, who opened the door. She seemed to have failed her diploma in anger management.

“If you’ve come about the hamster, you’re too late,” she told him. “It’s gone.”

“Did you say hamster? I don’t know anything about any hamster.”

“You haven’t come about the advert in the free paper?”


The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not here  double glazing, are you? If you’ve had me walk down all them stairs for nothing I’ll wring your neck!”

“No, I’m looking for Dan. Uh, Dan Trench.” Vic produced his most winning smile. “Is he in?”

The woman grimaced. “Upstairs — me — bell! Ground floor — Dan — knocker!” she said, jabbing her finger at one of Vic’s coat buttons as if it too was a bell push. “Get it?”

“Got it.”

The door slammed shut.  The knocker knocked once like an afterthought, then all was silent. Vic reached out a dutiful hand to rap again. It’s hard to know whether a door can open viciously, but if it can, this door did just that.

“No point doing that now!”

Vic grinned nervously. “No?”

“No! Because he’s not in!”

Vic felt his anxiety double. “You don’t happen to know when he left?”

The neighbor put her hands truculently on her hips. “I’m not his secretary.”

“Or you wouldn’t know where he went? It’s very important.”

“You’re a pal of his, are you?”

Vic half nodded, half shook his head. “I’m here to help.”

“Help him do what?”

“Help’s probably the wrong word, I have to … sort of … save him.”

“Well, I’ve no idea where he’s gone. Dan and me is neighbors, see? He don’t tell me his business – and I don’t tell him mine. This is London, or ain’t you noticed?”

“Well, thank you, anyway.”

The woman continued to mutter as she watched Vic’s departing form. “Bloody Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

Where Dan had actually gone was two streets away. With a dozen other people he had waited in line at the number 12 bus stop and now he was boarding a big red double-decker. The driver’s eyes registered him briefly, then followed him as he went to stand at the bottom of the stairs. The doors shushed closed and the bus set off with a vicious jerk. The vicious jerk was caused by the driver, someone whose idea of urban transport was to crash savagely through the gears to exact maximum revenge on both his employer’s property and every last one of their customers. Dan, clinging on with one white knuckled hand, juggled his phone and tried Kevin’s number again. It rang for a while then diverted to his answering message. There was no point in repeating himself, so he rang off. He looked around. All the other people were trying hard not to look at one another, so he stopped looking at them and instead fixed his gaze on the blur of shop fronts as the bus leapt from gear to gear.

Right, he thought. Now try Belinda again. The last time he’d actually spoken with her had been a week ago – when she’d stood him up again for the umpteenth time. He didn’t know why, but she seemed constitutionally unable to arrive at cinemas before films began, or to reach bars or restaurants at any given pre-arranged time. And every time she had a different excuse. Some of them were masterpieces of invention, others crude dollops of implausibility. But no matter how unlikely her reasons, he always forgave her, because, well, he loved her, and he knew that, deep down under all that unpleasantness, she loved him too.

He was just getting through to Belinda’s number when the bus began making a strange grinding noise and everyone looked towards the front. The driver pulled the bus over and stopped.

“Three-nine-five-seven to control,” the driver said into his microphone. “Engine malfunction, Westminster Bridge Road, over.”

There was an incomprehensible radio message in reply, then the driver emerged from his cab to address the passengers.

“Right! Everybody off!”

The passengers groaned.

“Don’t worry,” the driver growled back sarcastically. “There’ll be another three along about an hour from now.”

Dan got off along with the rest. Of all the bad luck! It seemed to piling up on him just lately. He checked his watch anxiously, and wondered what to do. Unlike the other passengers, he chose not to wait. Instead, he began to walk, phone clapped to his ear. There was still no answer from Belinda, and he had no option but to leave another update.

“Hi, Belinda. Listen — hang on! The bus, yeah, it’s broken down. I know I said ten. I will be there, but I’m going to be a bit late. Don’t worry. Kiss, kiss.”

Just as he finished speaking a man in a hoodie backed across his path. Dan tried to get around him, but had to step into the bus lane and ...

“Look where you’re going, can’t you?”

Dan’s foot missed the sidewalk. He stumbled. His phone clattered to the pavement and skittered into the gutter as a screech and then the bang of a greater collision drowned it.

The bus that Dan had just got off had run him down. The driver was grinning as he sat there, staring through the windscreen for a moment, then he got out of his cab and began to run across Westminster Bridge.

Up on the roof of the bus, Vic landed with uncertain agility. He walked to the front and peeked over. There was a figure, dressed in Dan’s clothes, arms and legs akimbo, sprawled across the pink tarmac of the bus lane. The figure showed no sign of life, and Vic knew with a sinking feeling that there was a very good reason for that.

He put his angelic face in his hands, covering an expression which, had it been visible at all to the people gathering below, would have been recognized instantly as one of appalled consternation. He had arrived just ten seconds too late. He was in big trouble now.

When Dan came to, he was standing in what appeared to be a thick fog. He shook his head and tried to peer through it, but without success. To his right was a brick wall, to his left a set of iron railings. There were other people here and there, some behind and others in front, but they were only gray shapes. He rubbed his eyes and stumbled forward — and made contact with something soft.

“Hey, will you stop shoving?” a female voice said.

“Who’s there?” Dan asked with trepidation.

A gruff sound came from behind him. “Keep your feet still.”

Dan staggered. “But I can’t see anything!”

“Well, poking me in the back won’t improve your eyesight,” the female voice said.

“I didn’t poke you,” said Dan, indignantly. “I can’t even see you!”

The woman, whoever she was, seemed unconvinced. “There’s always one, isn’t there?”

“Look, I’m just trying to find my way out of here,” Dan objected.

“Way out, he says!” The man behind him laughed. “That’s a good one.”

“Yeah, Carlton. We’ve got a right comedian here.”

As they fell silent, Dan listened. In the distance there were fog-muted sounds, a voice that managed to be insistent, official and creepy all at the same time. It sounded like an emergency announcement, but it was too remote and full of echoes to properly make out. What had all this fog come from so suddenly? Whatever this place was, it certainly wasn’t Westminster Bridge ...

The fog seemed to be thinning, and the woman in front of Dan began to materialize out of it. She was dressed in a long, black dress, had a colorless face, black lips and a mane of wild hair that was in keeping with her world-weary manner. Dan let out a yelp, then tried to head towards the back of the queue, but an even bigger figure in a black and white striped football shirt reached out a big hand and stopped him. He was oddly colorless too.

“Whoa! You don’t want to go that way.”

“Why not?” Dan asked, sensing that something awfully hard to explain had happened to him.

“Why not? Because you’ll lose your place.”

“He’ll lose more than that if he doesn’t stop pushing and shoving.”

“Oh my God,” Dan spluttered, looking at the woman. “What on earth happened to you?”

“What’s the matter, never seen a Goth before?”


“Yeah, kind of ironic don’t you think?”

Dan tried to remember where he’d been and what he’d been doing, but once again his mind failed to cooperate. He blinked, as if doing so would help his eyes penetrate the fog. “Has there been some kind of … a disaster?” he asked, at last.

“You could say that,” the woman told him. “On a deeply personal level.”

Dan stared through the thinning fog, saw now that he was part of a long queue. A dismal city street began to appear all around. “I’m sure it wasn’t foggy when I got off the bus,” he said, bewildered.

He began to pat himself down, then exclaimed suddenly, “My wallet, my phone ... I’ve been mugged!”

“Will you stop that?” the woman asked him. “Jesus, you’re like a headless chicken. Can’t you let other people rest in peace?”

But Dan wasn’t listening. He was looking down at his naked wrist.

“They’ve even taken my watch!” he groaned. “It wasn’t even a real Rolex.”

“Well, you can’t take that with you,” Carlton said, and laughed.

Dan began to lose it. “Will somebody please tell me what’s going on? I’m having a dream, right? No, it’s not a dream. This is a nightmare. I’m delirious. I’ve got alcoholic poisoning and they’ve put me in hospital. Nurse! Nurse!”

Carlton put a hand on his shoulder. “Will you have a bit of thought for other people? We’re none of us exactly thrilled to be here, you know.”

“I don’t think he knows where he is.” The woman turned to Dan. “I suppose yours came right out of the blue, did it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your come-uppance.”

“My what?”

“What did you do?” Carlton asked. “Wrap your motor round a tree?”

Dan, still in shock, could only stare into the blankness. Nobody was making any sense. “I don’t even have motor. I was on a bus. A number 12. And the driver threw us all off, and then the next thing I know I’ve been hit by it.”

The woman chuckled. “Oh, yeah! Run over by a bus. Classic!”

“This can not be happening,” Dan muttered. And what about Belinda? He turned to Carlton, his voice shaky and agitated now. “Let me get past. My girlfriend’s waiting for me. If I’m late she’ll kill me!”

But Carlton only grunted. “She’ll have a job on her hands there.”

The queue shuffled forward again, carrying everyone along with it, Dan included. The sounds were coming closer, distorted, repeating, like orders spoken through a huge speaking trumpet.

Thank you. You are held in a queue. Your presence is important to us. You will be dealt with as soon as possible ... Thank you. You are held in a queue ...”

As the fog cleared further, there appeared out of the gloom what looked very much like a London Underground station. The sign read, “BRITISH MUSEUM.”

“I shouldn’t be here!” Dan said, panicking.

“Oh, I should,” Carlton said ruefully. “Too much booze. Smoking far too many cigarettes. Lying on the couch, sucking down all them half-pound grease-burgers instead of going out jogging in the freezing rain. Seemed like a great idea at the time.”

“What are you trying to say?” Dan said, drawing back. He was really starting to get scared now.

“He’s trying to say ‘myocardial infarction’,” the woman said.

“They used to call me Carlton, by the way.” The big man offered a hand. “Heart attack. Sorry about the cold hands and all.”

“And I’m Nena,” the Goth told him. “In my case, it was two boxes of pain killers washed down with a bottle of vodka. I don’t recommend it, guys. It’s a really crap way to mend a broken heart.”

Dan, terrified now, whimpered.

“Still,” Carlton said, “let’s try to look on the bright side. That means she’s got a pretty good idea where we are now.”

Nena tapped the Tube sign. “In case you were wondering,” she said, “there is no Tube station called British Museum. There hasn’t been one there since the 1930’s. You might as well get used to it — you, me and Carlton here — we’re all ancient history now.”

As they shuffled along toward the entrance Dan became aware of music playing. It was opera, which was not really his thing, but despite that he recognized it as something he had once heard on Classics Radio. It was the excruciating Queen of Night’s aria, from The Magic Flute, and it was being produced by a buxom, caterwauling singer and a string quartet. They were sawing away just inside the Tube station entrance, and just in front of them was a man dressed in a bright coat like a steward. He was carrying what looked to Dan like an old-fashioned speaking trumpet.

“Let’s keep it moving, shall we, folks?” he announced in a chipper, encouraging voice. “Almost there now.”

Dan felt a flood of relief as all his hopes became suddenly focused on the man.

“Steward! Please, I have to go,” he begged.

The steward looked askance at him. “Couldn’t you have gone before you started?”

“I mean, go back!”

“I knew what you meant, sir. Just my little joke.”

“Look — how do I get out of here? There’s something very important that I have to do.”

“Just you stay calm, sir,” the steward told him, laying a reassuring hand on his arm. “As you can appreciate, we’re doing our best to keep everybody moving as fast as we can.”

Dan drew near to the steward and lowered his voice, which was now quavering on the point of hysteria. “Actually, it’s these people, I’m with — I’ve got to get away from them. They’re dangerous lunatics. They think we’re all —”

He was about to say “dead”, but couldn’t quite bring himself. But the steward seemed to understand anyway, because he grinned.

“It’s no good working yourself up, sir. Why not just take a nice, deep breath and listen to the pretty music, eh?”

“But I told you — I have to be somewhere by ten o’clock. My girlfriend Belinda’s waiting for me and I mustn’t be late. Do you know the time? You see, I’ve had my watch stolen and I —”

The steward cut short Dan’s babbling with a shake of his head. “There’s no ten o’clock here, sir.”

“No ten o’clock? What do you mean?” Dan whispered, aghast.

“How can I put this? Did you ever hear that phrase, ‘one of these days you’re going to wake up dead?’“


The steward leaned closer and indicated the top of a stubby, swanlike wing protruding from the back of his jacket. “Well ... you just did.”

Dan felt suddenly as if he was going to faint. As the music swelled, so did his hysteria until it seemed he was going to burst. By now the sequin covered Queen of Night was screeching out the high notes of her aria with wincingly enthusiastic gusto, and Dan finally admitted to himself that, for him, the fat lady really had sung.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Grammar Blog No. 1

Being a writer does something odd to your brain, Noble Reader. Given enough time it can turn an ordinary, well-disposed individual into a crazy word-Nazi.

Yes, I'm talking about pedantry here. We writers spend thousands of hours working with words, and sooner or later we get to love them, even if we didn't to begin with. It's like the relationship a craftsman builds up with his tools. And like that craftsman, the writer winces when he sees those tools chucked around and stomped on.

We all spend a lot of time in Internetland these days, and many people who have things to say don't necessarily have the tools for the job. Specifically, they have poor spelling and poor grammar. That's fine to some extent. I'd rather they contribute to the Great Ball of Wisdom than fail to do so on account of embarrassment. But ...

One little plea from me. One little favour (or should it be favor?) to get this particular piece of grit out of my shoe. Please, Noble Readers, ask your less-educated friends to learn this one simple rule: the word "its" is not the same as "it's".

That little apostrophe makes all the difference. What it does is show that a letter has been left out, and that's because "it's" is a short version of "it is". That's the only time "it's" uses an apostrophe: when it means "it is". Please remember the one simple rule and do your duty in relieving a part of this immense suffering. Thank you.

As a little distraction, here is a photograph of a beautiful statue of a horse taken in the grounds of Woburn Abbey in the lovely English countryside ...

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Language of Stones Trilogy

Author's Note

This is an excerpt from the first volume of an epic fantasy where the Wars of the Roses are raging, but this is not England as we know it. Young Will and Master Gwydion, a wizard, struggle to save the Realm from the stones of power. A kind of magic flows through the veins of the earth in the Realm and this is used by wizards and misused by sorcerers to change history.

The Realm is poised for war. Its weak king - Hal, grandson of a usurper - is dominated by his beautiful wife and her lover. Against them stands Due Richard of Ebor and his allies. The two sides are set on a bloody collision course.

The Language of Stones - Chapter One – Out of the Vale

Willand son of Eldmar turned his gaze away from the Tops and ran down towards the village. The sun was warm today, the sky cloudless and the grass soft and thriving underfoot. His long hair streamed freely in the sun like golden wheat as he ran past a cluster of thatched cottages and came at last to the Green Man.

‘Is Tilwin here yet?’ he asked, hoping the knife-grinder was already slaking his thirst. But Baldgood the alehouse keeper shook his head. There was no sign of Tilwin, nor of his grinding wheel, so Will went out and sat on the grass.

Sunshine blazed on the white linen of his shirt. It was a fine spot just here. Daisies and dandelions had come out all over the green, as if it had known to put on its summer best. Every year it was fine and sunny at Cuckootide. There was racing to the Tarry Stone, kicking at the campball, and all the other sports. And afterwards there would be the bonfire. Songs would be sung and there would be dances and games and contests with the quarterstaff before the drinking of dragon soup. It would be the same this year as it had always been, and next year it would be the same again and on and on forever.

In the Vale they called today Cuckootide, the day the May Pole was put up and all the world came out onto the green to have a good time. But Will knew he could not have a good time – not until he had talked with Tilwin. He looked up at the round-shouldered hills they called the Tops and felt the longing again. It had been getting stronger, and today it felt like an invisible cord trying to pull his heart right out of his chest. That was why he had to speak with Tilwin. It had to be Tilwin, because only he would understand.

‘Hey-ho, Will!’

He knew that voice at once – whiskery Leoftan, the smith. His two thick braids hung like tarred rope side by side at his left cheek. He wore a belted shirt of white linen like Will’s own and a cap of red wool.

‘Your dad’ll be putting in your braids soon enough now, eh?’

Will shrugged. ‘It’s a hard week to turn thirteen, the week after May Day.’

Leoftan put down his armful of wooden tent-pegs. ‘Aye, you’ll have to wait near another year before you can run in the men’s race.’

Will scrubbed his fingers through his fair hair and stole another glance at the Tops. ‘Have you ever wondered what it’s like up there, Luffy?’

The smith stood up, gave him a distracted look. ‘What’s that you say?’

‘I was just thinking.’ He nodded towards the Tops. ‘One day I’d like to go up and see what’s there. Haven’t you ever thought what Nether Norton would look like with the whole Vale laid out down below?’


The moment stretched out awkwardly, but Will could not let it go. Once he had seen a small figure riding on a white horse far away where the earth met the sky. In the spring there were sheep – thousands of them – driven along by black dogs, and sometimes by men too. He had seen them many times, but whenever he had spoken of it to the others they had fallen quiet, and Gunwold the Swineherd had smirked, as if he had said something that ought not to have been said.

‘Well, Luffy? Haven’t you ever wanted to go up onto the Tops?’

Leoftan’s face lost its good humour. ‘What do you want to go talking like that for? They say there’s an ill wind up there.’

‘Is that what they say? An ill wind? And who are they who say that, Luffy? And how do they know? I wish – I wish—’

Just then Baldulf came up. He was fourteen, a fleshy, self-assured youth, and there was Wybda the Gossip and two or three others with him. ‘You want to be careful what you go a-wishing for, Willand,’ Wybda said. ‘They say that what fools and kings wishes for most often comes true.’

Will gazed back, undaunted. ‘I’m not a king or a fool. I just want to go up there and see for myself. What’s wrong with that?’

Wybda carried her embroidery with her. She plied her needle all the time, but still her pigs turned out too round and her flowers too squat. ‘Don’t you know the fae folk’ll eat you up?’

‘What do you know about the fae folk?’

Baldulf swished a willow wand at the grass near him. ‘She’s right. Nobody’s got any business up on the Tops.’

Gunwold grinned his lop-sided grin. ‘Yah, everybody knows that, Willand.’

They all began to move off and Leoftan said, ‘Aren’t you going over to watch the men’s race?’

‘Maybe later.’

He let them go. He did not know why, but just lately their company made him feel uncomfortable. He wondered if it was something to do with becoming a man. Maybe that was what made him feel so strange.

‘There’s a trackway up over the Tops,’ a gritty voice said in his ear.

He started, and when he looked round he saw Tilwin. ‘You made me jump.’

Tilwin gave a knowing grin. ‘I’ve made a lot of people jump in my time, Willand, but what I say is the truth. They’ve sent flocks along that trackway every summer for five thousand years and more. Now what do you think about that?’

Tilwin never said too much, but he knew plenty. He was not yet of middling age, and for some reason he wore his dark hair unbraided. He came once in a blue moon to fetch necessaries up from Middle Norton and beyond. Twice yearly he took the carts down to hand over the tithe, the village tax, to the Sightless Ones. Tilwin could put a sharper edge on a blade than anyone, and he was the only person Will knew who had ever been out of the Vale.

‘Who are the men who send the flocks through?’

‘Shepherds. They come this way because of the ring.’

‘What ring?’ Will’s eyes moved to the smooth emerald on Tilwin’s finger, but the knife-grinder laughed.

‘Ah, not that sort of a ring. Don’t you know there were giants in the land in the days of yore? There’s a Giant’s Ring away up on those Tops. A circle of standing stones. It’s a place of great magic.’

A shiver passed down Will’s spine. He could feel the tightness forming inside him again. Maybe it was the Giant’s Ring that was calling to him.

‘Magic … you say?’

‘Earth magic. Close by the Giant’s Ring stands Liarix Finglas, called the King’s Stone. Every shepherd who’s passed this way for fifty generations has chipped a piece off that King’s Stone until it’s now crooked as a giant’s thumb.’


‘Oh, you may believe it is so.’

‘Why do the shepherds do it?’

‘For a lucky keepsake, what do you think?’

Will did not know what he thought. The talk had set his mind on fire. ‘Fetch me a piece of it, will you, when next you go up there?’

‘Oh, and it’s a piece of the King’s Stone, you want now, is it?’ Tilwin had a strange way of speaking, and a strange, deep way of looking at a person at times. ‘Ah, but you’re lucky enough in yourself, I think, Willand. Lucky enough for the meanwhile, let’s say that.’

The strange feeling welled up and squeezed his heart again. His eyes ran along the Tops, looking for a sign, but there was none. And when he looked around again Tilwin had vanished. For a moment it seemed that the knife-grinder had never been there at all.

 IF YOU WANT TO READ MORE, FIND THIS BOOK AT http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008AK7QRC




Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Death Valley Scotty

Author’s Note
This is the first chapter of my novel, and it is based on a true story. There really was a Death Valley Scotty, and it’s worth reminding ourselves that the California that Scotty lived in is only a little over a hundred years out of date.

Today, if you’ve a mind, you can visit Scotty’s Castle. They say it’s a great place to ride to if you have a motorcycle. The Castle stands there in Grapevine Canyon much as it ever did, and a lot of people make the trip every year to pay homage to one of California’s great characters.

It’s always been a puzzle to me that with Hollywood just over the mountains there never was a movie made about Scotty. Now that we have the Coen Brothers, maybe there will be. I hope so.

Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California
High Summer, 1905

A BEAUTIFULLY DESOLATE desert landscape shimmered in 130 degrees of heat. The ground down here was a cracked salt pan. To the west distant mountains rose up gray-purple. A little nearer, red bluffs, deeply fissured, eroded, guarded the way eastward.

A man with a white hat got down from his mule and wiped his face with his hand. He was looking intently at something in the brightness, blue eyes narrowed. When he pulled a red bandana up over his mouth and nose he looked like he was about to rob a train. But it was only to combat the stink.

The mule he had been riding was leading a second, loaded with gear. Both animals stood amiably in the dusty heat. They were apt to be a little stubborn at times, especially if they were asked to do something they didn’t think much of, but they were the right companions for this place, and hardier than any horse.

The man walked around the bodies of two horses lying dead in their traces and bloated by the heat. They had been pulling a four-wheel wagon. As he approached, a mangy black and white sheep dog crept out from the shadow of the wagon. The noise it made was pitiful. It seemed like the dog had survived by licking at the seepage from a water barrel warped by the heat. The dog might have been waiting here four or five days. It was now shaking and crazy with thirst, but its nature remained unthreatening and so he charmed it until it came to him.

“Hey, now, feller. How long you been here?” He unstoppered his canteen and gave the dog a drink of sweet water from his hand. “Who’s your master?”

The man finally steeled himself to look up at the body of the dead prospector. He was still sitting up there slouched over on the buckboard like the minute he had died. Only now he was attracting flies.

“Howdy. Weather’s a mite warm for this time of year, don’t you think?” As he searched the desiccated body the man talked to it as if it was still alive. It made things seem less spooky. “I guess your heart just give out. Happens to a lot of folks who try to get across here.”

He found the man’s dusty jacket, took out a well-worn blue notebook. In the front was a name, but not a whole lot besides.

“Pleased to meet you Mr. – Jeremiah Wilson,” he said, looking up at the discolored face. “Walter E. Scott’s the name, but folks call me Scotty, and you can too, if you’ve a mind.”

Scotty set the jacket aside. He’d go through the rest of the pockets when he’d done what he knew he should.

“Say, you wouldn’t have a cold beer on you? No? Least you could do for a fellow prospector. I should have asked them in Barstow if they had any grave-digging shovels.” He grinned, despite the bad air. “Don’t mind me. Just my idea of a little joke. I can see this is going to be one hell of a job.”

He unshipped a spade and a pick from the flank of one of his mules and began to bite laboriously into the rock-hard ground ...

A couple of hours later, with the grave dug and filled in again and Mr. Jeremiah Wilson decently sent to his reward, Scotty jabbed the pick and spade back into the ground with finality. He composed himself and addressed the mound of broken earth.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” he said. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. Amen.”

It was as much as he could recall.

The jacket wasn’t of a quality worth keeping. But one of its pockets might have been worth all the tea in China because it contained a little piece of rock – a very special little piece of rock.

Scotty took off his hat and mopped his brow. “Mr. Wilson, now where in the world did you find that?”

It was what they called ‘picture rock’. A vein of yellow glittered in it. Scotty turned the rock over this way and that, appreciating the value of what he had found. Then he clasped his hand around it, knowing that he had been well paid for his labor today. A plan was already forming in his mind, a plan to multiply that payment a thousand-fold.

Read the rest of the story at:



Thursday, 22 August 2013

Vintage Flying - WW1 Planes in Flight!

On Sunday 18th August I went to a fabulous air show at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire in the UK.  My mission was to see a B.E.2c in flight as vital research for my next novel.  If you did not know, replicas of First World War planes are still being flown by intrepid pilots, many of them ex-members of the Royal Air Force or serving pilots.  These guys do it for fun ... and it must be fun getting into a plane made of wood and fabric and taking to the skies.  It was great to watch on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the grounds of a beautiful stately home ...

The plane below is a Tiger Moth

Woburn Abbey is the pile that belongs to the Duke of Bedford, and I expect that holding air shows like the de Havilland Moth Club goes some way to paying the bills ...


If you are a people watcher, then these shows are an absolute must.  There is a definite hierarchy with pilots in flying  overalls, engineers, officials, aficionados with a bewildering array of camera equipment and vintage car enthusiasts and, of course the band!  Why is it that the plane with Nazi insignia attracted the most attention?

And the vintages cars!  More Lagondas than you can shake a stick at. This roller belongs to the Duke of Bedford's mother ...

I am going to see another air show at the end of August - Shoreham RAFA.  I'll keep you posted.

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Unregarded Fact

One of the things I love about writing historical novels is the opportunity it gives me to burrow into the past and dig up strange or otherwise unregarded facts. Occasionally they illuminate an historical figure or situation in an unexpected way This usually happens as a consequence of  researching a novel, and comes as an aside, having little or nothing to do with the research in question. One little gem I recently discovered while reading a book on the American Civil War is that Lloyd George was keen on phrenology.

Who was Lloyd George? And what on earth is phrenology? I hear you cry.

David Lloyd George became British prime minister in 1916, and phrenology is the notion that you can tell a person's character traits from the shape of his head - I'm sure you've seen the plaster heads with varios areas labeled with such things as "self-esteem" and "cautiousness" and so on. Phrenology is a Victorian pseudo-science which was wholly discredited by medical science well before the turn of the nineteenth century, and so it surprised me to learn that a British prime minister, or indeed any educated person, could ever have supposed there might be any truth in it.

Apparently, Lloyd George took against Neville Chamberlain (who was later prime minister just before Churchill in 1940) on the basis of the size of his head, and mobilized a considerable following against him. On the other hand, he approved of French general, Robert Nivelle, for precisely the same reason. At a conference during the Great War, Lloyd George all but committed the British Army to a subservient role vis-a-vis the French in the planning of a rather optimistic grand strategy - at least until General Haig managed to put a stop to it.

It's astonishing, I think, that such a whacky belief as phenology might easily have tipped the balance at two crucial turning points of history, astonishing and more than a little scary. So next time you see a political leader, spare a moment to wonder what bizarre, out-dated and irrational nonsense he or she may be harboring in his or her well-groomed head.