Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

william le queux, german spy system, spy novelist

By 1900 William Le Queux had already written over 20 spy and war pot-boilers spurring invasion fears and infiltration by Kaiser Wilhelm’s agents. When this book was published in 1915, Le Queux had asked for police protection from German agents but the authorities declined. He was ‘not a person to be taken seriously’.

Modern British spy fiction dates from the beginning of the 20th century as an expression of the anxieties of international rivalries. The British took most readily to spy fiction and it is British writers which have received most critical attention and acclaim. Spy stories provide a window into the shadowy world of espionage and clandestine operations for readers who have been denied knowledge of the activities of British Intelligence through official silence, gagging and cover-ups. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many writers of British spy novels were themselves employed by Britain’s intelligence services and consequently brought a supposed authenticity to their stories. One such writer has even invented a new vocabulary to describe the tradecraft of the spy and in doing so has made it seem more credible.

The Birth of the Spy Novel 

The earliest example of the espionage novel was The Spy (1821) by the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. The action takes place during the American Revolution with the forerunner of the spy, Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious, prowling about on his subtle errands, pursued by friend and foe, and finally driven to his destiny, which at once both destroys and honours him.

The Dreyfus affair in France in which a young artillery officer was falsely convicted of treason in 1895 and sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, dominated and divided French politics. Though Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906, the details reported by the world press in the intervening years with tales of penetration agents of Imperial Germany betraying the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army, and French counter-intelligence agents sending a charwoman to rifle the waste papers baskets of the German Embassy in Paris, contributed much to public interest in espionage and inspired the writers of spy fiction. This extraordinary miscarriage of justice was the basis for An Officer and A Spy (2014) by Robert Harris.

Early British Spy Novelists

joseph conrad, secret agent, adolf verloc, greenwich observatory, spy novelist

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel set in 1886, has indolent Adolf Verloc working as a spy for an unnamed country (presumably Russia). He has to redeem himself as a agent provocateur by blowing up Greenwich Observatory.

The major themes of spying in the lead-up to the First World War were the continuing rivalry between the European colonial powers for control of Asia, the growing threat of conflict in Europe, the domestic threat of revolutionaries and anarchists, and historical romance.

One of the first novels by a British writer to introduce intrigue and rivalry between powerful countries was Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901), in which Kim, the orphan son of an Irish soldier, journeys across India against the backdrop of The Great Game, the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia in the mid 1880s. The ‘spy novel’ was defined in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers, in which amateur spies discover a German plan to invade Britain. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes became involved as spyhunter in The Adventure of the Second Stain (1904). The Anglo-French journalist and writer William Le Queux capitalised on invasion fears in The Invasion of 1910 (1906), one of his many pulp-fiction spy stories that had been published going back to 1894. The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad examined the psychology and ideology that motivated the members of a revolutionary cell who were determined to provoke revolution in Britain. G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was a thriller based on the infiltration of an anarchist organisation by detectives; but it was also a vehicle for exploring society’s power structures.

During the First World War 

john buchan, thirty nine steps, richard hannay, spy novelist

John Buchan’s novel was written in 1914 before the outbreak of the First World War. The hero Richard Hannay bumps into a freelance spy, who is then murdered, and he has to go on the run from the police. He is pitted against German spies and the Black Stone group who are fomenting war in Europe.

During the War, John Buchan, who had worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau, became the pre-eminent British spy novelist. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), an archetypal English spy thriller, was the first of five novels that featured Scotsman Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. In the novel which was set just before the outbreak of war in 1914, Hannay discovers a plot by German spies to steal British naval intelligence, but is forced to go on the run to Scotland to escape the police who suspect him of murder. At the end of the novel, the spies are waiting in a house in Kent above a private beach where a yacht is waiting until high tide to take the spies back to Germany. The path down to the beach has 39 steps. Buchan described his novel as a ‘shocker’, an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.

The Inter War Period

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the spy story was often concerned with combating the ‘Red Menace’, which was perceived as another ‘clash of civilizations’. Mysterious characters who threatened anarchy and who sought to overthrow governments were common in these stories. In 1922, Agatha Christie’s second detective novel, The Secret Adversary introduces the characters of Tommy and Tuppence, a duo of likeable upper-class detectives, who land themselves in all sorts of dangerous situations. They are employed by the British Government to locate a secret treaty signed before the war which if revealed could lead to a Bolshevik coup. The pair has to find out the identity of Mr Brown, the Bolshevik’s shady and elusive puppet-master.

Spy fiction was dominated by British authors, often former intelligence officers and agents writing from inside the trade. In his collection of short stories Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928), W Somerset Maugham portrayed spying in the First World War. It is said that he based Ashenden on himself and on his experiences working for the intelligence services in the First World War. The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) the first of 24 spy and mystery novels by Alexander Wilson conveyed an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original ‘C’, the initial that is still used as a signature by the head of MI6. Though there is no evidence that Wilson worked for the intelligence services in the First World War, Wilson led a mysterious and secret life. There were suspicions that he was involved in shady diplomacy in India in the 1930s, and he did work briefly for MI6 in the Second World War until he was dismissed because he faked a burglary in his London flat and because he was in trouble with the police.

compton mackenzie, water on the brain, spy novelist

Written in 1934, Water On The Brain was an unkind satire on the inadequacies of the British secret services. In a plot of Byzantine complexity British agent Major Arthur Blenkinsop is sent to the fictitious country of Mendacia. The novel was Mackenzie’s revenge for his having being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act the year before.

Water on the Brain (1933) by Compton Mackenzie, best known for his comic novels set in Scotland, Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen, was the first successful spy novel satire. Mackenzie worked for British intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean during the First World War, and later published four books on his experiences. Mackenzie was prosecuted in 1932 for quoting from supposedly secret documents but the trial ended with him being fined £100.

The Dark Frontier (1936) by Eric Ambler was the first of six novels that he wrote  in the years leading up to the second world war, which brought a new realism to spy fiction. His tales of ordinary men and (sometimes) women caught up in the machinations of malign international corporations, or of stateless refugees facing an uncertain future in a volatile and unwelcoming Europe, revitalised the British thriller, and rescued the genre from third-rate imitators of John Buchan. Above Suspicion (1939) by Helen MacInnes about an anti-Nazi husband and wife spy team, was the first of many fast-paced spy novels occurring against contemporary historical backgrounds.

 

 

(more…)

Read Full Post »

large hadron collider, cms detector, cern

This is the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) detector which analysed the data for the Higgs boson discovery in 2012. It is one of four separate detectors on the LHC ring. At 12,500 tonnes, it is the heaviest, containing twice as much metal as the Eiffel Tower.

The Large Hadron Collider under the France-Swiss border captures the headlines every so often. The big story this spring was that the LHC had been successfully re-started with protons circling the 27km long accelerator ring for the first time in more than two years. A month later proton beams collided at 99.9% of the speed of light at the ‘record-breaking energy of 13 TEVs’, and the machine began to deliver the much sought-after physics data.

But one news headline caught my attention. ‘What would happen if you got zapped by the LHC?’ One might guess it wouldn’t be very nice.

The LHC is the largest particle collider in the world and the largest single machine ever built. Although one TEV (or tera-electron volt) is roughly equivalent to the energy of motion of a flying mosquito, the energy within the LHC is squeezed into an extremely small space, about a million, million times smaller than a mosquito, and it is this intensity which causes the protons to be smashed apart. I’m not sure the mosquito analogy works. I know that energy like this can’t be quoted in terms of so many London buses or Olympic size swimming pools, though I did read somewhere that each beam contains the energy of a Eurostar train travelling at full speed. That’s more like it.

large hadron collider, accelerator ring, beam pipe, cern

The ring encloses two vacuumed ‘beam-pipes’ along which the protons travel in opposite directions at a speed of 11,000 revolutions of the ring per second before being made to intersect at four locations, at each of which there is a massive particle detector.

Back to the zapping. You’ve managed to get through security, down one of the eight shafts (which are up to 175 metres deep), and you’ve found a quiet spot in the 3.8 metre concrete tunnel close to a hypothetical inspection hatch into the accelerator ring. Though the collider should shut off if anyone starts tampering with the ring whilst it’s running, make believe that you’ve by-passed the safety systems and managed to stick your head inside the ring and into the proton beams. What happens next?

It depends on how many protons collide with nuclei in the tissues in your head, and how many zip through undisturbed. If the beam was of single protons, there would be little chance of impact, but there are 320 trillion protons spinning around each pipe of the LHC, and the beam would almost certainly burn a hole through your head. And as protons fling off secondary particles when they hit something, which incite another round of collisions, the beam would create a space that spreads out laterally. Rather than boring a hole a few microns wide in your head, a beam might carve out a large cone of tissue. You would be toast!

anatoli bugorski, proton beam, large hadron collider, u-70 synchrotron

The beam burnt a hole from the back of Bugorski’s head, through his skull and brain, and exited just beside his left nostril. And the Russian machine had only one hundredth the power of the LHC

Is this all conjecture? Well not entirely. In 1978, Anatoli Petrovich Bugorski, a 36-year-old physicist at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, Russia, was checking a malfunctioning piece of equipment in a particle accelerator, the U-70 synchrotron. The machine was switched on inadvertently, and unfortunately the safety mechanisms failed to work. Bugorski’s head was in the path of the 76 GeV proton beam. Reportedly, he saw a flash ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ but did not feel any pain.

Over the next few days, the left half of Bugorski’s face swelled up and his skin started peeling around the spots where the beam had entered and exited his head. Believing that he had received far in excess of a fatal dose of radiation, Bugorski was taken to a clinic in Moscow for observation as the doctors fully expected him to die within a few days. Bugorski survived however, though he lost the hearing in his left ear, the left half of his face was paralysed due to nerve damage, and he was to suffer from occasional seizures. However, there was virtually no damage to his intellectual capacity. (more…)

Read Full Post »

It’s a dog’s breakfast. It’s a dog’s dinner. What lovely phrases. Figures of speech that I think are a delight to use, provided of course that you’re not involved. So where do they come from and what do they mean?

Animals figure prominently in many expressions. A kettle of fish, the cat’s whiskers, pearls before swine, the cat that got the cream, a fly in the ointment, the bee’s knees, a pig in a poke, a nest of vipers. Dog expressions for some reason are particularly numerous: gone to the dogs, why keep a dog and bark yourself, in the doghouse, it’s a dog’s life, a shaggy dog story, the tail wagging the dog, every dog has its day.

‘It’s a dog’s breakfast’ means a complete mess – something or someone that ​looks ​extremely ​untidy. Or a muddle, a shambles or a botch – something that is very ​badly done – as in ‘we’ve made a real dog’s breakfast of it’. There’s a few other phrases that mean much the same: a pig’s ear, a hodgepodge, a mare’s nest.

It’s a 20th century phrase that was first cited in the 1937 edition of Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English as ‘a mess: low Glasgow (1934)’.

dog's breakfast cartoon, waiterThe reference to a dog and breakfast suggests that the phrase had something to do with a cooking calamity: a half-cooked omelette, watery porridge, burnt sausages. Couple this with the notion that a dog will eat anything – though dog lovers would not be amused at this idea – and you have the phrase. But nowadays, whatever its origins, this figure of speech covers much more: a badly planned party or meeting, instructions that are incomprehensible, a do-it-yourself disaster.

There is a similar phrase ‘a dog’s dinner’ which many online references say means the same as ‘a dog’s breakfast’; that it is used interchangeably to mean a mess or a muddle.

But the full phrase is ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’, or ‘done up like a dog’s dinner’, meaning to wear ridiculously smart or extravagant clothes, clothes which are inappropriate for the occasion: ‘My mum really embarrasses me, she always dresses like a dog’s dinner, even when we’re just going to the shops!’. It’s a fairly negative way to describe someone, and it would be more polite to say someone was ‘overdressed’.

It is also used to express surprise what someone dresses in an unexpected way. If you were a man used to wearing a morning suit or white tie in the evenings you might not think twice about what you looked like. But if you usually wore more casual clothes: jeans, open neck shirts, trainers, then putting on a business suit and tie – even if it was necessary for an interview or a formal occasion – might draw comments from family or friends that you were ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’.

dog's grand dinner party, dame dingles series, mcloughlinIt’s not clear how two similar phrases have completely different meanings, at least when ‘dressed up like’ is added to ‘a dog’s dinner’. How is being dressed up likened to a dog’s dinner? It is said to refer to the stiff collars that were the height of male fashion in the 1890s and which actually looked very like dog collars. But where does the dinner come in?

Others say that in Medieval England the finest shoes were made of dog skin, and that if you were invited to a castle for a feast you would dress in your finest, and for shoes, you would ‘put on the dog’, meaning shoes made of dog skin. In the full Oxford English Dictionary, ‘to put on the dog’ was ‘to assume pretentious airs’, but did this become ‘dressed up like a dog’s dinner’?

dog's dinner party, harrison weir, routledge

This picture from The Dog’s Dinner Party by the renowned Victorian children’s illustrator Harrison Weir, shows Mr Foxhound presiding over dinner. © harrisonweir.com

In the 19th century, a number of children’s books came out on the theme of a dog’s dinner party. In America in 1869 there was the The Dog’s Grand Dinner Party with illustrated verse. In Britain a year later, The Dog’s Dinner Party was a story in My Mother’s Picture Book with lavish illustrations that gave the dogs apparent human traits and personalities. In Cock Robin’s Picture Book published in 1873, an illustration of a dog’s dinner party has the caption:

At last the day of the grand dinner-party arrived, and the guests all assembled, in good spirits, with keen appetites for the feast. Never had so many sleek, well-dressed dogs met together before, and the variety of their coats and countenances was very striking.

Is it possible that these stories somehow gave rise to the phrase?

But back to ‘it’s a dog’s breakfast’. I wonder why its origin is said to be ‘low Glasgow’ in 1934? Do any Glaswegians know?

Read Full Post »

It wasn’t who was thrown off Hammersmith Bridge, but what. And as it happened over a hundred years ago, you’d expect it to be long forgotten. But someone couldn’t help dredging up the past. Before we get to that however, I’ll need to tell you a little about typefaces.

When books and newspapers were typeset manually, a font referred to a particular size, weight (light, bold) and style (regular, italic) of a typeface. Each letter in the typeface had its own type or ‘sort’ like those at the end of the hammers of an old-fashioned typewriter. A typeface comprised a range of fonts sharing the same overall design. The word font (traditionally spelt fount in British English) comes from Middle French founte meaning ‘something that has been melted; a casting’ and refers to the process of casting metal type at a type foundry. All this has of course been superseded by and large by digital printing, though we still refer to electronic typefaces as fonts like Calibri, Helvetica, Times Roman, and Verdana.

edward johnston, johnstone typeface, london underground, roundel

The Johnston typeface first used in 1916, and an underground roundel from the 1920s that uses the typeface. A licence is required from TfL if you want to use the font or its successor New Johnston.

Some typefaces are better known than others. Johnston has been the corporate typeface of public transport in London since the foundation of the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) in 1933. Its use is one of the world’s longest-lasting examples of corporate branding, and it remains a copyrighted property of the LPTB’s current successor, Transport for London. Edward Johnston was commissioned in 1913 by Frank Pick, Commercial Manager of the Underground Electric Railways Company of London to design a typeface as part of his plan to strengthen the company’s corporate identity. Pick specified to Johnston that he wanted a typeface that would ensure that the Underground Group’s posters would not be mistaken for advertisements, and that it should belong ‘unmistakably to the twentieth century’. The typeface was originally called Underground, then Johnston’s Railway Type, and later simply Johnston. In 1979 the typeface was re-designed to make it more versatile and this became New Johnston.

eric gill, gill sans typeface, edward young, penguin books

Gill Sans was used by designer Edward Young on the modern, minimalist, and now iconic covers of Penguin Books. This was one of the first editions launched on 30 July 1935

The Johnston typeface however was not available for use by anyone else. It was one of the public faces of the London Underground and no one else would be allowed to use it. One of Johnston’s students at London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts, Eric Gill, who went on to become a well established sculptor and graphic artist, had however worked on the development of the Johnston typeface. He went on to produce a new typeface, Gill Sans, that blended the influences of Johnston, classic typefaces and Roman inscriptions. The design of the new font was intended to look both cleanly modern and traditional at the same time. When it was released in 1928, it was an immediate success, with the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) using it for its posters, timetables and publicity material. On its formation in 1963, British Railways continued to use Gills Sans. In the digital age, Gills Sans remains in widespread use, and is one of the fonts bundled with Mac and Windows software.

In England, type foundries, where typefaces were designed and type was cast, began in 1476, with the introduction of the printing press by William Caxton. The creation of typefaces required considerable design and typographic skills (typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language readable and appealing), and type designers were immensely proud of their work. In fact most people in the printing trade were characteristically proud of their work. In the early 1900s, a bitter dispute over a typeface between the two partners of a printing press led to one of the most infamous episodes in typographic history.

emery walker, thomas james cobden-sanderson, doves press

Emery Walker and Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson: friends, business partners and then bitter enemies. © Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery

The Doves Press was a private press based at 1 Hammersmith Terrace in west London, and was named after the Dove Tavern, an old riverside pub nearby that still stands today. The press was founded by a bookbinder Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson (who already ran the Dove Bindery on the same site), and an engraver and printer Emery Walker. Cobden-Sanderson and Walker had been close friends of William Morris, the English textile designer, poet, novelist, and socialist activist, who had died in 1896. It was Morris’s wife, Jane, who had encouraged Cobden-Sanderson to become a bookbinder, and Walker’s expertise and his collection of 16th-century typefaces inspired Morris to create the Kelmscott Press. All three men were closely associated with the British Arts & Crafts movement.

Cobden-Sanderson chose the books and had the final say in their design, and Walker managed the technical side of the business. Cobden-Sanderson had commissioned a new typeface in 1899 which was to become the Doves Type. It was crafted by master punchcutter Edward Prince, based on drawings produced by Percy Tiffin of the pioneering Venetian type created in 1470 by the French designer and engraver Nicolas Jenson.

john milton, paradise lost, doves type, doves press

A page from John Milton’s Paradise Lost illustrating the Doves Type which was printed in two volumes by Doves Press in 1902-05.

The books published by the Doves Press looked very different to most private press books of their time. The clear typeface and the lack of decoration gave the books a very simple and austere look. The only decoration in the books were the capitals created by Edward Johnston (who was later to design the Johnston typeface described above) and ink flourishes by the calligrapher Graily Hewitt. Although most of the Doves Press books were simply bound in vellum, many of the bindings produced by the Doves bindery were very ornate and elaborate. The masterpiece of the Press was their five-volume Bible, completed in 1905. It was set by hand and printed on a hand press, with the only decoration being printed red initial letters by Johnston.

But while the books were successful, the partnership between Walker and Cobden-Sanderson became unworkable.

(more…)

Read Full Post »

Do you lie on the sofa or on the settee? Do you eat pudding or a dessert? Do you wear spectacles or glasses? What does it matter? Well at one time, in post war Britain, that is after 1945, your use or choice of words was said to be an indicator of the social class to which you belonged. A lot of nonsense or a matter for serious debate? Or just lighthearted fun? It all started in 1954 when an article titled Linguistic class-indicators in present-day English by British linguist Alan Ross, Professor of Linguistics at Birmingham University, appeared in a learned but obscure Finnish academic journal.

Ross’ article covered differences in word usage, pronunciation, and in writing style, but it was his thoughts on the differences in vocabulary that received the most attention. He coined the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ to refer to the differences in English language usage between social classes. ‘U’ indicated upper class, and ‘non-U’, not upper class, though it focused on the aspiring middle classes. Ross considered that the middle classes preferred to use fancy or fashionable words, even neologisms (meaning a newly coined word) and often euphemisms, in their attempts to make themselves sound more refined. The speech of the working classes was not dealt with, as in many instances Ross considered they often stuck to the same plain and traditional words that the upper classes used, since being conscious of their status they had no need to make themselves sound more refined. Ross added that ‘it is solely by their language that the upper classes nowadays are distinguished since they are neither cleaner, richer, nor better-educated than anybody else’.

nancy mitford, mitford sisters, bright young people, pursuit of love, u and non-u

Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) was one of the ‘bright young people’ on the London social scene in the inter-war years, and is best remembered for her novels about upper-class life in England and France, and for her sharp and often provocative wit.

In his article, Ross used the semi-autobiographical novel The Pursuit of Love published in 1945 by the English novelist, biographer and journalist Nancy Mitford, to exemplify upper-class speech patterns. Nancy Mitford was the eldest of the renowned Mitford sisters. There were six sisters, daughters of David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles, and they have been caricatured by the journalist Ben Macintyre, as ‘Diana the Fascist, Jessica the Communist, Unity the Hitler-lover, Nancy the Novelist, Deborah the Duchess, and Pamela the unobtrusive poultry connoisseur’.

Mitford picked up on Ross’ reference to her novel and incorporated the U and Non-U thesis into an article she was writing, The English Aristocracy, for the magazine Encounter. Her argument was that the more elegant euphemism used for any word was usually the non-upper class thing to say, or, in Mitford’s words, simply ‘non-U’. Thus it was very non-U to say ‘dentures’; ‘false teeth’ would do. ‘Ill’ was non-U; ‘sick’ was U. The non-U person ‘resides at his home’; the U person ‘lives in his house’, and so on. Nowadays, the distinction between U words and non-U seems antiquated. Were U words really plainer or ‘better’, or did the upper classes simply need to use them so as to distinguish themselves from everyone else?

U Non-U
Lunch Dinner (midday meal)
Dinner Evening Meal
Vegetables Greens
Pudding Sweet or dessert
Ice Ice cream
Jam Preserve
(no equivalent, there would be separate containers eg. salt-cellar) Cruet
(Table) Napkin Serviette (unless you are literally in France)
Sofa Settee or couch
Drawing-room or Sitting-room Lounge or front room
Chimneypiece Mantelpiece
Lavatory or loo Toilet or WC (unless you are in Italy, where ‘toiletta’ is U)
Looking-glass Mirror
Mad Mental
Decent Civil (behaviour)
(no equivalent) Rude (indecent)
(no equivalent, except possibly ‘civilised’) Cultivated or cultured (people)
Sick Ill
Die Pass on
Graveyard Cemetery
Rich Wealthy
Smart Posh
False teeth Dentures
Dinner jacket Dress suit
Knave Jack (cards)
Scent Perfume
Spectacles Glasses
Writing-paper Note-paper
Wireless Radio
Bike or bicycle Cycle
Riding Horse-riding
Master or Mistress (also prefixed eg. maths-mistress) Teacher (children also say ‘Teacher says …’)
England (Britain) Britain

(more…)

Read Full Post »

horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Map of Horsell Common. The common also has three Bronze Age barrows which are scheduled ancient monuments protected by law, as well as a Muslim Burial Ground which dates back to the First World War. In the 1890s, Horsell, in the lower left, was a small village of no more than 50 houses.

To the north of the modern town of Woking in Surrey, England, is the village of Horsell, and to the north of Horsell is Horsell Common. The common, which is mainly heathland with many areas of woodland, 355 hectares (880 acres) in area, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Horsell Common Preservation Society has owned the common since 1966 and it is one of only a handful of privately owned areas of common land in England with public access.

In 1895, the writer H G Wells, Herbert George Wells, moved with his wife to nearby Maybury Road in Woking, and there he wrote his classic science fiction novel The Wars of the Worlds. With his brother Frank, Wells had explored the lanes and paths of the surrounding countryside either walking or on their bicycles. The original idea for The War of the Worlds came from his brother during one of their outings, who pondered on what it might be like if alien beings were suddenly to descend on the scene and start attacking its inhabitants. The Wars of the Worlds was first serialised in 1897 and then published in book form in 1898. The novel tells of the landing of spacecraft from Mars and the wholesale destruction of London, and much of the countryside to the south, by Martians in heat-ray emitting tripod machines. The unnamed narrator, a middle class writer of philosophical papers, lives in Maybury, and a sandpit on Horsell Common is used as the landing site for the Martian space craft.

horsell common, sandpits, h g wells, the war of the worlds

Horsell Common. Sand and gravel were extracted from the woodland areas of Horsell Common for many centuries, much of it used in the construction of local houses. Sand extraction ended in the 1960’s and the remains of old sandpits, roughly in the centre of the common, can be seen today.

Chapter 1, The Eve of the War, starts:

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. …

At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.

horsell common, h g wells, the war of the worlds, henrique alvim corrêa

This illustration of the first Martian to emerge from the cylinder that had landed on Horsell Common, was one of 30 drawn by Henrique Alvim Corrêa and which appeared in the 1906 French translation of The War of the Worlds.

In Chapter Two, The Falling Star, the Martians land:

But the very early in the morning poor Ogilvy [a well-known astronomer], who had seen the shooting-star and who was persuaded that a meteorite lay somewhere on the common between Horsell, Ottershaw [a village to the north of the common], and Woking, rose early with the idea of finding it. Find it he did, soon after dawn, and not far from the sand-pits. An enormous hole had been made by the impact of the projectile, and the sand and gravel had been flung violently in every direction over the heath, forming heaps visible a mile and a half away. The heather was on fire eastward, and a thin blue smoke rose against the dawn.

Today science fiction fans visit the sandpits on Horsell Common where H G Wells’ Martian spacecraft landed. In nearby Woking, a 23-foot tall Martian tripod, designed by Michael Condron, was erected in 1998 to mark the centenary of the publication of The War of the Worlds.

Read Full Post »

How well do you know the counties of Britain? At one time every town and village in Britain was located in one of 92 counties, with many of the names of the counties ending in ‘shire’. Where was Banffshire, Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Montgomeryshire, Sutherland or Westmorland? And Middlesex? Well that used to include most of London north of the Thames including Westminster and the West End, apart from the City of London. And where are the counties of Barsetshire, Hallamshire, Midsomer, and Trumptonshire?

From 1888 to 1965, local government in England, Scotland and Wales was based quite closely on the boundaries of historic counties but as a consequence of the numerous reforms of local government since then, few local authorities now have an area anything like the historic county in which they were previously located.

britain, historic county, mediaeval, saxon, wessex, association of british counties

The division of Britain into 92 counties goes back to mediaeval and feudal times starting with the division of the Kingdom of West Saxons, now referred to as Wessex, in the 8th century. All the historic English and Scottish counties were established in one form or another by the 12th century, and the Welsh counties by the 16th century.
© The Association of British Counties

Although twenty-seven county councils still exist in England, most cities and many large towns are not governed by the county council for the area in which they lie. Portsmouth and Southampton once part of Hampshire are now unitary (all-purpose) councils in their own right. The same goes for Blackpool and Blackburn in Lancashire, Bristol in Gloucestershire, Maidstone in Kent, Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, Plymouth in Devon, and so on. The list is long. And in Scotland and Wales, historic counties were merged from 1974 onwards, so for example Powys County Council in Wales was formed from three historic counties, and Highland Council in Scotland was formed from the whole or part of seven historic counties.

Many public agencies, such as some police and emergency services, and voluntary bodies such as wildlife trusts, are still based on historic counties and are named after them. And so too are cricket teams and local radio stations. But in 2010, the Royal Mail deleted county names from its Postcode Address File database, which lists every address in the UK. There is an interesting article here on the BBC website about the confusion over historic and administrative counties.

The Association of British Counties (ABC) exists to promote ‘the use of the historic counties as a standard geography for the UK’, and you can find out more about its aims and the counties here. You can use the map above to find the historic counties mentioned at the start.

One notable exception to the diminution in the status of historic counties is Rutland. Once the smallest county in England, and first mentioned in 1159, Rutland (motto Multum in Parvo or ‘much in little’) was abolished in 1974 and it became part of Leicestershire as a district council. In 1997 however, Rutland became a separate county again, and the council has the name Rutland County Council.

There are lots of counties that you won’t find on the ABC map. Here are some of them, most coming from literature or TV, and a surprising number from the novels of Agatha Christie.

warden, anthony trollope, barsetshire, michael sadleir

The Warden, the first of Anthony Trollope’s novels set in Barsetshire, was published in 1855. This is Trollope’s drawing of Barsetshire first printed in Michael Sadleir’s Trollope: A Commentary in 1927. Sadleir was a British novelist, literary historian and book collector, who specialized in 19th century English fiction, notably the work of Anthony Trollope. Sadleir later re-drew the map so as to make it more consistent with the descriptions in the Barsetshire books

Barsetshire – the setting for the series of mid-19th century novels Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope, Also as the setting for the series of 29 romantic and satirical novels by Angela Thirkell, and as the supposed location of St Trinians School in the original comedy films

Borsetshire – a county in the Midlands, location of the village of Ambridge in the long-running BBC radio drama The Archers

Diddlesex – used in the satirical Punch magazine in the 1840s as the abode of an ex-servant who becomes rich, and in the 1890s to Parliamentary consideration of the ‘East-West Diddlesex Railway Bill’. Also the ‘North South East West Diddlesex junction’ song in the Gilbert & Sullivan opera Thespis, referring to a shadily run railway company

Downshire – the location of the village of St Mary Mead in The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Ffhâgdiwedd – a county borough of South East Wales, the setting for the science fiction and mythological novel Waliens – Close Encounters of The Welsh Kind by R W Finlan and Darren Bowker-Powis (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »