Life in the blitz: the hairdresser’s forgotten customer

Mum told me a funny (true) story when I went home to Wales yesterday. During the war, her mother was at the hairdressers in Penarth when German bombers raided. I imagine this would have been in 1940 or 1941, when Mum was 12. Her father heard a loud noise, and went into the garden to investigate. He crawled back to the house under the shelter of the garden wall after experiencing a loud explosion. (A bomb going about 500 yards away.)

When the all clear sounded, the hairdressers emerged from the shelter – and remembered that they’d left my grandma under big hairdryer. She knew nothing of the air-raid because of the noise of the dryer!

Review: Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden's Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden’s Great Western Railway

Andrew Roden is a brave man. The Great Western Railway is the most chronicled railway in Britain, if not the world. So any additional book about it has to be very good to justify its existence. The good news is that Roden has risen to the challenge, although a series of irritating factual errors spoil what would otherwise be an outstanding history.

My Nan gave me Frank Booker’s one volume history of the GWR as a Christmas present in 1979. Booker’s account was a much easier read than McDermott’s legendary account, published by the GWR over 80 years ago. Roden takes a different approach, giving a vivid insight into the lives of ordinary passengers and railwaymen, as well as the social impact of the railway. This alone makes his book a worthy addition to GWR literature.

Roden is particularly strong on the GWR’s troubled years in the 1860s. He explains how the broad gauge had become a millstone at a time when financial crisis brought the company almost to its knees. Yet the GWR bounced back, with the extraordinary achievement of the Severn Tunnel and the 1892 gauge conversion: an engineering and organisational triumph.

It’s a shame that this fine book is riddled by factual errors. Wootton Bassett is misspelled repeatedly (odd, given that town’s current high profile). Roden claims the Severn Tunnel to be eight miles long (it’s actually half that). He describes 20th century GWR chairman Viscount Churchill as Winston’s father – bizarre, as WSC was just 10 years younger, and was in fact the son of 19th century politician Lord Randolph Churchill. ASLEF is the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman, not Enginemen and Footplatemen as Roden suggests. (Where did he get that howler from?) There are others…


A short history of time in Britain

It’s hard to imagine Britain having different time zones. Yet it’s well under 200 years since Britain had the same time across the nation.

The railways created the need for the whole of Britain to be on the same time. When life moved at a horse’s pace, it didn’t matter that Cardiff time was some 15 minutes behind London’s. Time was local – determined by a sundial. But when the steam engine took people hundreds of miles within hours, the idea of a common time became urgent. Railway time or London time was the result.

Brunel’s Great Western Railway provided the impetus, along with the electric telegraph. In November 1840, the GWR adopted Greenwich Mean Time for its timetable, followed by almost all our railways by 1848. It meant that Bristol was no longer 10 minutes behind London. By 1855, almost all towns in Britain had adopted the unified time, although this only had legal force in 1880. Within 50 years of the GWR’s move, most major countries followed suit, although larger countries did so with multiple time zones.

Bristol time. Photo: Rod Ward, via Wikipedia.

Yet to this day, Bristol’s Exchange clock shows two minute hands: one for London time, the other for Bristol time. It’s a timely reminder of the days when time was a moveable concept in these islands.

Rex Hunt: hero of the Falklands and Britain

“You have landed unlawfully on British territory and I order you to remove yourself and your troops forthwith.”

With these stirring words, Sir Rex Hunt, who has died aged 86, expressed his contempt for the Argentinian troops who had invaded the Falkland Islands, and made his reputation as the islands’ most famous governor.

Falklands report

Hunt’s death recalls one of the most extraordinary episodes in post-war British history. As I recounted in my blogpost marking the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war, it was a huge shock in 1982 to find Britain at war. Especially against a country with which we shared very close links. As an 18 year old who had a typically boyish interest in the second world war (put that down to Thames Television’s magnificent The World at War and endless Airfix kits), I was fascinated by that Falklands spring.

There were many links between the 1982 conflict and the second world war. Argentina’s cruiser, General Belgrano, was an American warship that survived Pearl Harbor as USS Phoenix. (It wasn’t so luck in May 1982.) Argentina’s aircraft carrier Veinticinco de Mayo was launched in 1943 as HMS Venerable. The flagship of Britain’s naval task force, HMS Hermes, was also laid down during the war. And the RAF’s extraordinary feat in bombing Port Stanley airport was assisted by the Vulcan V-bombers’ H2S radar – first used in the RAF’s deadly firestorm raid on Hamburg in 1943.

The sight of Harrier jump jets taking off into the South Atlantic mist sealed the nation’s love affair with this amazing aircraft, echoing the previous generation’s affection for the Spitfire and Hurricane. I delayed my walk to school one morning as the BBC promised the first film from the South Atlantic – naturally featuring the Harrier. (“At last! BBC Brian Hanrahan film from Hermes, shown at 8.50am. Go in to school slightly later,” I recorded in my diary.)

Rex Hunt’s defiance in the face of impossible odds burnished the legend of ignominious defeat turned into honourable retreat. Britain’s victory in the ensuing war led to his return in triumph later in 1982 – and his happy place in history.

Back to RAF Museum, London

Owen and the immortal Spitfire and Hurricane, November 2011

We went back to the RAF Museum, London in Hendon, London, today. It was Owen’s choice – he loved our two visits last winter and couldn’t wait to return.

As I blogged last November about the RAF Museum, Owen enjoyed the hands-on gallery that explains how aircraft fly. This time, we watched the moving and impressive film about Our Finest Hour – the RAF’s role saving Britain in 1940. flight works.


After three visits, we’ve still not seen the whole of the museum. We’ll be back!

Finally, here’s the video I made of our first visit in November 2011.

Tony Blair on Neville Chamberlain: a noble ambition

Tony Blair’s reputation has been shredded by his disastrous decision to back George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. That conflict was one of many Blair plunged Britain into. So much so that John Kampfner devoted a book to Blair’s wars.

So Blair seems an unlikely person to seek to explain and sympathise with arch appeaser Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister who sacrificed Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 at Munich in the vain hope that it would ensure peace.

Yet in his memoirs, A Journey, Blair speaks eloquently of Chamberlain’s mission:

“A comparison to Chamberlain is one of the worst British political insults. Yet what did he do? In a world still suffering from the trauma of the Great War, a war in which millions died, including many of his close family and friends, he had grieved; and in his grief pledged to prevent another such war. Not a bad ambition; in fact, a noble one.

“One day [at Chequers], I picked up his diaries and began to read his account of his famous meeting with Hitler prior to Munich … in Berchtesgaden… He recounts how Hitler alternated between reason … and angry ranting, almost screaming about the Czechs, the Poles, the Jews… Chamberlain came away convinced that he had met a madman, someone who has real capacity to do evil. This is what intrigued me. We are taught that Chamberlain was a dupe; a fool, taken in by Hitler’s charm. He wasn’t. He was entirely alive to his badness.

“I tried to imagine being like him, thinking like him. He knows this man is wicked, but he cannot know how far it might extend. So, instead of provoking him, contain him. Germany will come to its senses, time will move on and, with luck, so will Herr Hitler.

“Seen in this way, Munich was not the product of a leader gulled but of a leader looking to postpone… Above all, it was the leader with a paramount and overwhelming desire to avoid the blood, mourning and misery of war.”

It’s intriguing to compare Blair and Chamberlain. The man who sacrificed Czechoslovakia for a mirage of peace had a sense of destiny and certainty. Blair was similarly driven by a near-religious confidence in his judgement, especially after 9/11.

I’ll leave the last word to Winston Churchill. Just six months after succeeding Chamberlain, Churchill had the sad task of paying tribute to the man who had ignored his warnings of the mortal threat Hitler’s Germany posed to Britain. (Chamberlain died of cancer six months almost to the day of being ousted.) Winston said:

“Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity .. and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead for what is called the verdict of history is concerned.”

Could the Lib Dems revenge Tories for 1922 Carlton Club rebellion?

Here’s an intriguing thought. This Friday marks the 90th anniversary of the Carlton Club rebellion of Tory MPs against the coalition with the Liberals. It forced David Lloyd George‘s resignation as prime minister. Could the Liberal Democrats exert revenge nine decades later by bringing down David Cameron in similar dramatic fashion?

The 1922 Tory backbenchers were unhappy with the coalition, especially after it nearly went to war with Turkey in the Chanak crisis. The party’s leaders wanted to continue the coalition, but the backbenchers won the day. Lloyd George was out, never again to hold office. King George V said he was sorry to see him go, but added that ‘Some day he will be prime minister again’. The king was wrong.

The Liberal Democrats have proved spineless in coalition. They broke their election pledge on student fees. They cravenly allowed the Tories to break their own promise not to reorganise the NHS. They have let the Tories wreak havoc with brutal spending cuts that have plunged us into a double dip recession. The list goes on. Will they one day reach breaking point and say ‘no more’?

Sceptics will say it’s unlikely. The Lib Dems face disaster at the next election – so why would they prompt an early election? (Assuming that’s even possible after the coalition legislated for a fixed term.) And the Lib Dem ministers are clearly enjoying the privileges of office.

But who can tell what pressures may build up over the next 30 months. We may yet see the creation of the Liberal Democrats’ 2014 committee, named after the year of the great rebellion that ended David Cameron’s political career…


In praise of Windsor Castle

The Queen’s at home: Windsor Castle

Castles and palaces were once remote places. But today the Queen’s homes are tourist attractions. We had a brilliant time today touring Windsor Castle. The Royal Standard was flying from the Round Tower, showing that the Queen was at home, although she didn’t say hello.

Owen loved the children’s audio commentary – but it did refer to dragons! We were moved by the account of the castle’s restoration after the terrible fire of November 1992. (The Queen’s annus horribilis.) It’s extraordinary to see how a building can flourish after being visited by that most destructive natural force. I just missed witnessing that catastrophe. I was returning from Cheltenham to Teddington for the weekend. I normally went via the M4, past Windsor, but that night went via the M40 as I was giving a friend a lift to Ealing. (But I did witness Hampton Court’s disastrous fire in 1986 as I was staying with a friend in Twickenham.)

Windsor remains one of our most lovely towns. Aside from Europe’s largest inhabited castle, it’s graced by the Thames, wonderful parks and splendid architecture. I’ve enjoyed cycling here from Teddington, Richmond and Chalfont St Giles: it’s a wonderful destination. And the old Great Western railway station is now a fine mix of restaurants, coffee houses and shops – not to mention a replica of a Great Western express engine of 1894 – when my grandmother was three.

I like coming here. I leave with happy memories and a broad smile.

Windsor walk

Diamond Jubilee remembered – unveiled by the Queen five days before

PS: Windsor Council needs to enter the 21st century

In praise of the EU – Nobel peace prize winner

The Tory Eurosceptics and Greek protesters may not like it. But the Nobel committee today named the European Union as the 2012 peace prize winner for helping transform Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace”.

It’s well deserved. Back in 1945, Europe was in ruins after six years of indescribable carnage. That followed four years of the Great War. France, Germany and the Low Countries vowed never again to go to war. The result was what we now call the European Union. It’s far from perfect, and overreached itself with the euro. But it’s infinitely better than what the continent inflicted on itself between 1914 and 1945. (And how appropriate that the prize came the day after David Cameron announced plans to commemorate the Great War centenary.)

It reminds me of a wonderful BBC series from my childhood. The Mighty Continent, narrated by Peter Ustinov, told the tale of how Europe was the world’s powerhouse in 1914. By 1945, it had destroyed and impoverished itself, and ceded leadership to the United States. The European Union may not have returned Europe to its 1914 dominance, but it has been a force for good in Europe and beyond.

Liverpool Street’s war memorial and the Irish assassins

The war memorial that proved a death knell for Henry Wilson

How many of the thousands of commuters who file through Liverpool Street station every day spare a glance for the magnificent Great Easter Railway war memorial?

The memorial to Henry Wilson

Even fewer will look at the small memorial below it to Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, above. Yet it hints at a terrorist atrocity that shocked Britain 90 years ago this year.

Wilson was a distinguished soldier who became Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the closing stages of the Great War. He was the natural choice to unveil a memorial to the railway workers who lost their lives in the first world war. Yet within two hours of the ceremony, he was assassinated by IRA terrorists as he returned to his home in Eaton Square. He was the first British MP to be murdered since prime minister Spencer Percival in 1812, and the last before Airey Neave in 1979.

The field marshal was an obvious target for Irish republican terrorists. He was a silent supporter of army mutineers against the British government’s plans for Irish Home Rule (the Curragh incident of 1914). He represented the enemy in the eyes of the republicans. Yet his death came after Lloyd George’s government signed a treaty with Michael Collins ending the Irish war of independence. The greatest irony is that while Irish-born Wilson was killed by fellow Irishmen on 22 June 1922, Collins himself was assassinated by his countrymen exactly two months later, on 22 August 1922.

Wilson’s murder shows that terrorism is far from a modern phenomenon. Just before the second world war, the IRA was killing unsuspecting people in London and Coventry. Happily, the people of Britain and Ireland have put such hatred behind them.

PS: I was shocked to see police officers at Liverpool Street station today wielding guns. A classic case of the kind of macho policing that is totally out of place at a railway station.