Ireland marks the Easter rising centenary

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The 1916 rebellion that led to the end of British rule in the 26 counties

Easter has long been hugely significant in Ireland, and not just for religious reasons. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 marked the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, despite later tragedies such as Omagh. But the really significant event was the Easter rising of 1916, which Ireland marked today on a grand scale.

I blogged a decade ago that 2006 was the first time Dublin had staged a public parade to mark the Easter rising since the start of the  Northern Ireland Troubles in 1969. That murderous conflict complicated Ireland’s relationship with 1916. Ireland and Britain have an even stronger relationship now than in 2006, as the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and Irish president Michael D Higgins’ state visit to Britain three years later showed.  Continue reading

Our longest reigning monarch: Queen Elizabeth II

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The Queen reached a landmark this week: she is now Britain’s longest reigning monarch. On Wednesday she overtook Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days on the throne.

For most of us, she has always been there – a constant presence. The photograph at the start of this post shows the Queen with my father Bob Skinner earlier this year, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death and the creation of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust as the great man’s memorial. Dad was an early beneficiary of this noble trust, which offers British citizens the chance to travel overseas to learn a new perspective on their personal or professional lives. Bob spent time in Japan studying how that country’s great cities communicated with the people – a fascinating perspective given that London and Tokyo were similarly sized world cities in 1971. Dad found that Japanese mayors were far keener to engage with their public. His boss quickly dismissed the idea of holding public surgeries. How things change..

In 2015, a monarch wouldn’t be anyone’s obvious choice of head of state. How could you possibly decide that a family chosen by fate centuries ago should lead you country? Yet we’ve never found the idea of President Blair or Thatcher more attractive or compelling. We recognise that the monarch holds no power. So why change? Overwhelmingly we admire the Queen’s 63 years of service to the nation and the Commonwealth. (It’s striking that Australia, Canada and New Zealand have been no more enthusiastic about ditching the Queen, despite being confident independent nations.) Time will tell if that changes under Charles III.

I’ll end on a personal note. All my grandparents were Victorians, born in the reign of that extraordinary monarch. Nan, Dad’s mother, turned 10 the year Victoria died, yet lived through 42 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign to the amazing age of 102. Continuity is a huge factor in British history, and that applies to any family.

Quintinshill: Britain’s worst railway disaster 100 years on

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill

Disaster hits the Royal Scots at Quintinshill, Gretna Green

The 498 soldiers of the 7th battalion of the Scots Guards must have had mixed feelings as they boarded their troop train at Larbert in Scotland in the early hours of Saturday 22 May 1915. They were off to war as part of the ill-fated Gallipoli expedition. No doubt they pondered their chances of surviving in battle. Yet within three hours, over 200 were dead and a similar number injured in Britain’s most deadly railway disaster at Quintinshill near Gretna Green.

Quintinshill: the inferno

Quintinshill: the inferno

They were victims of a shocking act of neglect by two signalmen and other railwaymen, who failed to notice that signals had been cleared for their troop train even though a local train was standing in its path. The driver of the soldiers’ train had driven Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, but there was nothing he could do to avoid catastrophe as his train swept downhill at high speed into the local train. The 213 yard long troop train was compressed to a mere 67 yards. A third train ran into the wreckage, killing many survivors. Worse still, the coals of the engines set fire to the gas used to light the ancient wooden coaches causing an inferno that consumed the dead and the living.

A local reporter noted the incongruity of the mixing of human cries for help with the ‘sweet trills of the mavis and blackbird’.

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Roll call of the 64 unharmed Royal Scots Quintinshill survivors

Quintinshill: the verdict

Quintinshill: the verdict

The accident report laid the blame firmly at the door of the signalmen who had forgotten the presence of the local train under their noses in broad daylight, and the fireman of the local who was in the box to remind the signalmen of the presence of the train. The inspector also strongly urged the abolition of deadly gas lighting on trains. (A danger similar to that posed by hydrogen-filled airships.)

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

Quintinshill: military funeral in Edinburgh

The Royal Scots victims were buried in Rosebank cemetery in Edinburgh two days later.

Despite its poignant status as Britain’s most deadly rail crash, the Quintinshill tragedy is less well-known than the Tay bridge disaster or the 1952 Harrow and Wealdstone crash. No doubt the fact it happened in wartime and involved a troop train ensured its anonymity.

PS: there’s an excellent Facebook page about the century commemoration of the disaster at Rosebank cemetery on 23 May 2015.

London remembers Britain’s latest Afghan war

It was a shock to see armed police at Marylebone station yesterday. It was so out of the ordinary. But then I saw this:

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

This Austin 1973 police car was parked on Horse Guards Road, opposite HM Treasury. It was one of a series of police vehicles along the road, with soldiers also present. Shortly afterward a police lorry went by. What on earth was going on?

Police in force in Horse Guards

Police in force in Horse Guards

Later, I found out that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and political leaders were taking part in a commemoration at St Paul’s marking the end of Britain’s participation in the Afghanistan war. I saw the end of the flypast marking the event:

Flypast marking end of Britain's latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Flypast marking end of Britain’s latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Britain’s latest entanglement in Afghanistan was an extraordinary development. In 1978, I learned about our disastrous 19th century Afghan wars during O level history. A year later, the Soviet Union invaded that country, with equally ill-fated results. I never imagined I’d see Britain repeating these disasters. George W Bush and Tony Blair were mad to embark on another Afghan adventure. How sad that 453 British troops (not to mention countless Afghans and Americans) lost their lives as a result.

Magna Carta revisited

Where Magna Carta was signed

Charting the dawn of democracy: Magna Carta memorial, Runnymede

You expect revolutions to take place in crowded cities. Yet the event that marked the dawn of modern democracy took place in a peaceful meadow next to the River Thames at Runnymede, Surrey. This is where King John sealed Magna Carta, the agreement that forced rulers – in those days kings – to obey the rule of law.

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How a 13 year old taught me about Rosa Parks

We never stop learning. And it’s a special feeling when a child teaches you things you never knew.

I’ve had two examples of this in the past week. My six year old son Owen started teaching me the piano, passing on what he’d learned in his first piano lessons. Then the older brother of one of his friends opened my eyes to the extraordinary story of Rosa Parks. Continue reading

The end of the Victorian era, 114 years on

Ethel Land, Britain's last Victorian

Ethel Land, Britain’s last Victorian

Queen Victoria died 114 years ago this month. Her last subject in Britain died last week. Ethel Lang was born in 1900 as the Victorian era drew to a close.

Me and my Victorian grandmother

Me and my Victorian grandmother on her 100th birthday, 1991

It was a poignant moment for me as I was always rather proud that all four of my grandparents were Victorians, born between 1890 and 1893. Amongst my six great aunts and uncles, only Auntie Mabel was born after Victoria died – in 1903.

At a time when stress is defined as having to produce a PowerPoint presentation in hours, my Victorian relatives knew what a tough life was. Imagine living through the Great War, and losing friends and relatives to war, only to be faced with the Great Depression and another world war.

We are very lucky.

Winston Churchill, 50 years on

Churchill by Karsh of Ottawa

Winston Churchill, the man who saved Britain

Fifty years ago this week, Britain and the world mourned the man who defied Hitler. Winston Churchill’s long and extraordinary life had ended after 90 years.

It was the end of an era. Few other people’s passing prompt or justify that hackneyed phrase. For Britain, it marked a moment in history perhaps only matched by Queen Victoria’s death 64 years earlier. (How appropriate that the last Briton born during Queen Victoria’s reign, Ethel Lang, died this very week.)

I’ve always been enthralled by Churchill’s life. When my O level history teacher Dr Davies set us an essay in 1979, I deliberately ignored the instructions so I could write more about WSC. I loved ITV’s 1981 Sunday night series on his Wilderness years starring Robert Hardy. Later, I read several Martin Gilbert volumes of the monumental official biography.  Continue reading

Great War memorialised: Tower of London poppies

Poppy pageant: London's Great War centenary memorial

Poppy pageant: London’s Great War centenary memorial

The 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War has been movingly commemorated at the Tower of London by the planting of a ceramic poppy for every one of the almost 900,000 British and Commonwealth deaths during the war.

We visited on Wednesday evening as it was getting dark. The sea of red was a stark reminder of the scale of the carnage. How lucky we are to live in an era of relative peace.

Poppies in the moat, Tower of London

Poppies in the moat, Tower of London

The poppies themselves are beautiful. Here, near Traitor’s Gate, you can see the stems.

Not everyone is so moved. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian mocked the poppy pageant as false and trite. His argument hardly convinced: he says the poppies represent British losses and so represented a nationalistic tribute. Hardly – they include Commonwealth losses. In any case, his view of the poppies as glorifying war is the same as the regular criticism of the annual poppy appeal as perpetuating war. The British people are more sensible than newspaper writers.

Remembering Arnhem, the bridge too far

Operation Market Garden

The bridge too far: Arnhem 1944

It was the bridge too far: the operation designed to end the second world war by Christmas 1944. The airborne assault was audacious and partly succeeded. Nijmegen was captured. Yet Arnhem proved the bridge too far, as Lieutenant-General Frederick Browning was claimed to warn in the famous film A Bridge Too Far. The allies lost twice as many casualties in Operation Market Garden as at D-Day.

That film was one of the last great movies about the war. I saw it with my friend Gareth in Cardiff when it came out in the autumn of 1977. (I remember having to pay full fare on the train into Cardiff as I had just turned 14.) I enjoyed the film, but didn’t really understand the story. You needed some understanding of Market Garden.

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