Saturday, 12 December 2009




Watsonworks Blog 6, December 2009


The most beautiful countryside often hides the darkest of secrets; and, having no memory of its own, is oblivious to them and utterly indifferent. Such were my thoughts on my visit to Edale in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District. Here, decades before, my Uncle, along with five other RAF crew members, met his death as their Handley Page Heyford K6875, an all-metal biplane- bomber, hit the hillside above the village.
My visit was an exploration – looking for the site of the crash; a homage to lives cut tragically short; and an attempt to restore a faded piece of my family’s history.

A picture of my uncle – Sergeant Jim Barker, aged 26, in his pilot’s uniform, sits on my bookshelf: a good-looking man with a bright career ahead of him; and next to it is a photo of his newly-married wife, Muriel. She was my aunt, my mother’s sister, and the effect on her of Jim’s death in a vicious summer storm amid the dark peaks was to be devastating. In her grief she lost the baby she was carrying.
Though she never re-married, she made a life for herself and was a precious friend to me till her death in 1997 – when at last I felt free to satisfy my curiosity about the exact spot where the Heyford met its end.
She had spoken little of Jim; and indeed most of what I learnt about the Edale crash was gleaned from a slim but invaluable volume Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 (UK: Wharncliffe Publishing, 1990; numerous editions) by Ron Collier and Roni Wilkinson.

On a bright, clear October day I descended into the valley from Rushup Edge, itself unnervingly steep. Edale is benign but running above it to the north is Broadlee Bank Tor; beyond that, Edale Moor at 1981 feet and looming menacingly beyond that, Kinder Scout, well over 2000 feet.
On the 22 July 1937 the Heyford, of 166 Squadron, was making a navigational night flight from Leconfield. It was piloted by Sergeant Newton W. Baker from Thetford in Norfolk. The co-pilot was Sergeant Charles Macmillan from London; the wireless operator was Aircraftman Harry Grey from Aberdare. Also on board were Aircraftmen Eric McDonald and Ernest Musker – both from Liverpool. – and my Uncle, James W. Barker of Horwich in Lancashire.

Doubtful design
The twin-engined Handley Page Heyford was a potential death-box. Collier and Wilkinson describe it as ‘ungainly’ and ‘ obsolete’. In December 1936 all but one of a flight of seven Heyfords in 102 Squadron, on a flight to Finningley from Northern Ireland, crossing the Pennines in bad weather, crashed or force-landed. Three crew members died.

Collier and Wilkinson write: ‘The biplane bomber’s unconventional fixing of the fuselage to the upper wing, leaving a gap between it and the lower wing, gave the Heyford an ungainly appearance. The resulting distance from the ground of the cockpit did little to aid the pilot’s view when landing’.

What was arguably worse was the fact that the Heyford had an open cockpit, so that in bad weather the pilot was as reliant on the navigational skills of the co-pilot as on his own capacity to see though mist and darkness. Here then was a tragedy in the making and it is amazing, in retrospect, that the RAF, having lost six out of seven Heyfords in December 1936, did not ground the rest.

Searching for the spot
At the Edale Visitor Centre I asked if there was any record of the crash on 22 July 1937. At least staff were aware of this crash and many others in the dark peaks. ‘I want to find the exact spot where the plane hit the hillside,’ I said. There was a shaking of heads; after all, nature takes all things to itself and the crash had occurred decades before. I was pointed in the direction of Broadlee Bank Tor; and warned, ‘It’s a steep climb’.

Too impatient to find a path that would take me to the crest of the Tor, I made a direct ascent, attempting to guess the flight path of the Heyford. In the Collier-Wilkinson book there are pictures of the site of the crash. A dry-stone wall had been destroyed; and beyond, in the photo, very faintly, was the outline of distant hills. These, I guessed, were situated to the west of Rushup Edge.

On the night of 22 July the charms of Edale were obscured by darkness and storm. The Heyford was some 13 miles off course, either flying along the valley from the direction of the Ladybower Reservoire or more likely passing close to the top of Mam Tor to the south; certainly dipping in to Edale and heading towards the village.

‘I looked out through the window and saw…’
Collier and Wilkinson quote a Mr. W. Dearnaly who lived near to the pub in Edale, the Old Nag’s Head. He was on his way to bed around 11pm when he heard the sound of an aero engine, low-flying: ‘It was so unusual that I looked through the window and saw a huge machine just skimming over the top of Rushup Edge, heading for Kinder Scout.’

These were the days before radar, and it can only be guessed whether the crew of the Heyford were aware, until the very last minute, that they were flying off course. According to Collier and Wilkinson, and to press reports after the accident, the crew were letting off flares; later, official reports asserted that this was not the case . Accident investigator Squadron Leader Hugh Wake found, ‘having interviewed the most reliable witnesses... the engines were running normally at the time of the accident’. The plane ‘did not circle round or fire any lights…’

Bearing in mind the difficulty the pilot had of gauging the ground, Sergeant Baker deserved high marks: with a little bit of luck, he might well have dragged the plane clear of the ridge which awaited him. My own ascent was more of a climb than a hike. The side of Broadlee Bank Tor is frighteningly steep and in places the slopes cave in as if there had once been excavations here. At the same time, it tempts with false summits. The Heyford was very probably only a matter of 50 feet from open sky. Alas, the Dark Peak was to show no mercy. One wing of the Heyford struck ground, precipitating the aircraft into the hillside.

Hands held up to their faces
Instantly the valley of Edale was lit by a fireball of such intensity there was no chance of the crew surviving. The bodies of the six airmen, disfigured beyond recognition, nevertheless retained the defensive shape of their last living moments: some of the crew were found to be crouched, with their hands held up to protect their faces.

I scoured the high ground attempting to guess the exact spot of the crash. At one of the ‘false crests’ I found a wall, demolished as much by wind and weather as by any possible collision with a crashing aircraft, but it did resemble the photograph in Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 in which Rushup Edge across the valley was framed by the rough curve of tumbled stone.

At that time in Edale there was a temporary camp for the unemployed. Edward Beeley, committee member of the Hyde League of Social Services, witnessing the crash and the flames that engulfed the Heyford, called for volunteers. Collier and Wilkinson quote him as saying, ‘Five men went with me and we took with us a stretcher and an ambulance box. We did not follow the ordinary path but made a beeline up the mountainside and it was hard going’.

It took them almost an hour before they reached the wreck, and they soon saw ‘that the occupants were past our aid’. What Edward Beeley and his team of would-be rescuers saw ‘was a terrible sight… and I hope I never see anything like it again’. Collier and Wilkinson write, ‘With the first light of dawn the appalling nature of the crash could be fully appreciated. The Heyford had struck the slope some 50 feet below the summit of the hill, ripping through the undergrowth, gouging a pit in the black earth, before smashing through a dry stone wall’.

In his book, Peakland Air Crashes: The North (UK: Landmark Publishing, 2006), Pat Cunningham describes the Heyford as capable of ‘a speedy 143 mph (124 knots)’. It had earned the nickname ‘Express’ and been ‘good value as a crew trainer’. It was ‘stable and pleasant to fly. But like all aircraft it needed airspace, and when this was denied it, the results could be catastrophic; as they were for the occupants of No 166 Squadron’s K6875 on 22 July 1937’.

Lucky for one
While all on board the Heyford died instantly, it could be said that there was one lucky survivor. He was Pilot Officer D.M. Strong. When K6875 had been allocated to 166 Squadron it was Officer Strong whose duty it was to fly it, and to keep an inventory of all equipment on the plane.
Collier and Wilkinson explain, ‘Although an officer, he [Strong] normally flew as second pilot to Sergeant Baker, however having crossed swords with the flight commander, he had been given other duties’.
His place on K6875 was taken by Sergeant McMillan. Pilot Officer Strong survived the war, becoming an air commodore: who knows what advancement the others may have won for themselves in the war ahead if the Heyford had managed, in the swirling storm, to skim instead of strike Broadlee Bank Tor.

‘…a slight error’.
After my Aunt’s death I found among her possessions a green canvas wallet in which she had preserved newspaper cuttings reporting the crash and letters of commiseration. In a letter to Muriel Barker dated 29th July 1937, Squadron-Leader Wake, the accident assessor, was at pains to correct what he seemed to see as press misreporting: ‘I blame no one for the accident which was due solely to the aircraft being slightly off its course and over high ground. Had it been on its course it would have been clear of the hills. This slight error could easily occur in conditions of low cloud, and, as we know well, happens frequently to all of us.’

Pat Cunningham explains how easy it was in those days for an aircraft to shift off course: ‘And if it is hard to credit that trained, or even trainee, aircrew could stray so far off track, it has to be remembered that they had few of the modern aids which now more nearly make air navigation a precise science…should an aircraft stray just one degree from its compass course, then having travelled sixty miles it will be a full mile from its planned track’.

Bureaucracy: a callous edge
Whether Squadron-Leader Wake’s assurances set my Aunt’s mind at rest must be left to conjecture; but other, more official letters from the RAF, necessary as I’m sure they were, must have been particularly distressing. One letter, dated 12 August 1937, dealt with such mundanity as ‘preferential charges’, that is ‘Mess bill, charges for lost RAF equipment etc.’.

I can only guess at my Aunt’s reaction to the sentence, ‘If you would let us have back your husband’s great-coat as soon as possible, these charges will be very small’. On 15 January 1938, a Mr. A.W. Donald, for the Director of Accounts, wrote: ‘514997. Sgt. Barker, J.W. (Deceased). Madam, I am directed to inform you that a sum of £26.17.9 is held by this Department in respect of the estate of your husband…I am, Madam, Your obedient Servant.’

Of more comfort to her was a letter of sympathy from the mayor of Beverley, C.H. Burden. ‘We remember,’ he wrote on the day after the Heyford crash, ‘that your late husband died on duty, and we are grateful to those who bravely face dangers to fit themselves for our defence’.

No commemoration
Many of us, in travelling through France or Belgium, have paused at the war cemeteries, so lovingly preserved over the years. Generations have been able to walk the ranks of white headstones, simply inscribed, and muse on the sacrifice of so many, so young; and upon the lives that they might have led.

Yet as I searched the high ground above Edale, cooled after my climb by the October wind whistling across the valley, finding nothing, I felt an acute sense of vicarious grief and loss – that nothing remained, not even a white headstone buried in the heather. I felt the victims of the K6875 crash deserved better; indeed deserved something to commemorate them. Could it be, though, that to pay material tribute would be to saddle the Dark Peak with a daunting reputation, of an aircraft graveyard, while at the same time casting a quizzical historical spotlight on the lesser glories of the RAF?

After all, within the area of a few short miles disaster stood in wait for the Swordfish P4223 at Heydon Head, January 1940 and four days before Christmas, the Hampden X 3154 at Chapel-en-le-Frith. 1941 proved a particularly bad year for Dark Peak crashes – in January the Blenheim Z 5746 at Ox Stones, in February the Wellington Z 8491 at White Edge Moor, in July at Crowden Tower – Edale once more – the Blenheim 1V Z5870, in August the Defiant N3378 at Bleaklow Stones and in December the Botha W5103 at Round Hill.

‘Is there anywhere in the High Peak,’ I asked at the Edale Visitor Centre, ‘where the deaths and injuries, and the colossal number of crashes that took place, are officially recorded? Is there a plaque to acknowledge the secrets hoarded in this lovely landscape?’ Apparently there is not; and in my view there should be; in addition, that is, to the books written by Ron Collier with Roni Wilkinson and Pat Cunningham which serve as impressive monuments to the dead as well as providing invaluable documentary evidence.

At the very least, one might expect a permanent tribute in good Derbyshire limestone registering all the aircraft that crashed on the Dark Peak and the names of those who died in the cause of King and Country.

Shared grief
What is beyond commemoration and strains even at the powers of record is the effect such tragically early deaths had on those left behind. My Aunt was far from alone in her grief. She had kept a very special letter, written only five days after the crash of the Heyford. This was from someone she did not know – a Mrs.Grace Ramsden of Huddersfield. Her daughter had been married only eleven weeks to Sergeant Pilot Wilkinson when he had met his death in an RAF plane crash in the Lake District.

In reaching out to comfort Jim Barker’s widow, Mrs. Ramsden perhaps said it all; for despite the loving comfort and support Dad and Mum could offer their grieving daughter, ‘only time and her own brave spirit can soften the blow’. A PS is added: ‘My daughter has been going to write to you, but didn’t know how she could comfort you, being so much in need of comfort herself’.

How such words resonate down the years, stirring thoughts of what might have been. Eventually on Broadlee Bank Tor I gave up my search. I sat on the broken wall that might or might not have been victim of the Heyford’s last moments so many decades ago. In the valley below a group of hikers was setting out on the Pennine Way. The Old Nag’s Head Inn, proud of its location in the ‘Switzerland of the Peak District’, promised another century of the finest ales; and the breeze up from Edale seemed to whisper ‘Who remembers? – not I!’

Postscript: the story continues
In 2002 Derbyshire Life magazine published a version of this article. Suddenly my search for the site of the crash of the Heyford was about to meet with success. Mr. Douglas Rowland of Chapel-en-le-Frith, having read my piece, wrote informing me that as a teenager, he, with his brothers, had visited the site of the crash the day after it had happened.

He had rescued from the wreckage the plane’s brass data plate, the Engine Particulars of the Rolls Royce Kestrel Series V1. It was in perfect condition, dutifully cared for over the years by Douglas, though the lower edge of the plate had been burnt into holes as a result of the intensity of the fire that destroyed the Heyford. Douglas kindly offered to take me to the site of the crash the next time I was in Derbyshire. On a bright June day the two of us set off from above the Information Centre in Edale to pay our respects.

Doug was turned 83 (and has now reached 90), and the route up to Broadlee Bank Tor was steep enough to tax a fit and energetic 20 year old, but with many stops for breath on the ascent, we reached the still-broken wall and the site where K6875 met its end.

There was indeed a kind of memorial – a circle of roughly assembled stones, by unknown hands. There was a mesh of metal parts and lodged among these were two crucifixes, one white, with the word ‘Memories’ inscribed on it. As to what happened here, who was killed on that fateful stormy night, or who had left these sad traces of anguish and respect, there was no explanation.

It turned out that on my first visit to Broadlee Bank Tor I was only a couple of hundred yards away from the scene of the crash. Across from us, as Doug and I savoured the splendour of Edale, we could see Rushup Edge over which the Heyford probably flew, 13 miles off course, its crew either desperately attempting to establish the plane’s location or blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited them.

A coming home
After descending from Broadlee Bank, Douglas and I rested our weary feet in the Old Nag’s Head. We surmised on how many people’s lives had been altered for ever as a result of a ‘sight error’. On my return home to Kent I found a small parcel awaiting me, mailed from Chapel-en-le-Frith. Douglas had made me a gift of the precious data plate of the Heyford 6875.
Framed, it now hangs in pride of place, as polished as if it has only just been fitted – except for the evidence of the flames that demolished the plane and its crew. Beside it is the photograph of my Uncle Jim Barker, as real to me as though he had penned this narrative himself.

Recommended reading
Ron Collier followed up Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 with a supplementary volume, Wrecks 2. Pat Cunningham’s Peakland Air Crashes: the North is impressively comprehensive and includes a section on German aircraft crashes in the region, plus a couple of pages dedicated to answering the question, Do Ghostly Aviators Haunt Peakland’s Moors?, which he answers with deepest scepticism, rejecting ‘this lurid sentimentalism that conjures up spectral aviators’.

A retired aviator himself, Cunningham concludes by quoting Peter Jackson, 36-years a part-time Peakland ranger and for 27 years a mountain rescue team volunteer: ‘the Peakland moors encompass many a truly beautiful mystique; but not a single mystery.’ Walkers interested in visiting the scenes of Peakland crashes will find a trusty guide in John Merrill’s Dark Peak Aircraft Walks (Walk & Write Publications, 2002).
Jim's next blog, January: HAPPY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

WATSONWORKSBLOG Number 5, 10 November 2009

And some little-known facts

In researching for my novel Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa (Spire Publishing, ISBN 1-897312-72-5), linking the tribulations of women’s soccer with human rights abuses in Ukraine, I was startled to discover that once upon a time in Britain women’s soccer was all the rage and drew prodigious crowds. There were even professional women players.
At Goodison Park, Everton, in 1921, Dick Kerr’s Ladies FC attracted a crowd of over 50,000. On 5 December in the same year – cataclysm: the Football Association (all male, of course) suddenly put women’s soccer to sleep for a generation, banning women from playing on FA-affiliated grounds; their explanation, that ‘the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged’.

Doldrum decades
In a Guardian article, ‘When women ruled the pitch’ (10 September 2009), Anna Kessel writes, ‘It is hard not to suspect this was, at least in part, a defensive move made by male officials who felt threatened by the success of their female counterparts’.
She goes on, ‘And so the women’s game was allowed to wither on the vine, missing out on half a century of development while the men’s leagues established even stronger roots’.
Though the ban was suspended in 1971, women’s soccer has continued to be one of the cinderellas of British sport, inadequately funded, largely neglected by the media; yet guess what? Statistics indicate that football is the premier sporting interest of women and girls.
Take a closer look at the sporting scene and you discover that women’s soccer has not only advanced in public interest, the FA has worked to remedy its ban and its neglect. As Anna Kessel points out, if the FA ‘is culpable for invoking that highly damaging ban in 1921, it has, since assuming responsibility for the women’s game in 1993, made significant inroads and investment into promoting it’.

The extent of women’s soccer in the UK is startling. A survey conducted in 2008 identified 1600 women’s teams in England, while girls’ teams numbered 4,800, a doubling of the number in the previous year. The FA Women’s Club Directory cites over 30 prime status clubs, from Arsenal to the Bristol Academy, from the Lincoln Ladies to the Millwall Lionesses.
In addition there are more than 30 Centres of Excellence operating in the major cities but also in towns such as Milton Keynes and Northampton, and areas such as north Yorkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Somerset.
Predictably America leads the way in women’s soccer, at least in terms of cash and enterprise. Cyberspace is abuzz with footballing websites such as Soccer America (, Women’s Soccer World ( and in the UK, When Saturday Comes (

Quality on the pitch
Anyone who watched England’s impressive performance in the Euro final against Germany in September would confirm that women’s soccer is ready to compete, for skill, tactics, speed and commitment at the highest level.
True, the German team beat England convincingly, but they are a squad – and have been for many years – that have proved pretty well invincible, characterised in their play by vision, pace and finishing power that matches anything to be seen in the men’s game. However, when it comes to remuneration, an England player earns in a year what an average male player in the football league earns in a week.
The England women’s team, under their manager Hope Powell, goes from strength to strength, but back in the sticks clubs face penury and in some cases – like Bristol City and Fulham Ladies – closure.

Gender fixation
The obstacles to the progress of women’s soccer are as much cultural as financial, each tending to undermine the other. By tradition, football has been regarded as a sport for men. Hockey and lacrosse are still the sports of choice for girls in secondary education.
The editor of a publishing firm I submitted Fair Game to was of the opinion that, surely, if the subject was football, the book should be aimed at boy readers; thus casting a woman footballer as the key protagonist of the story was simply to have mixed my genders if not my metaphors. This response to a work of fiction matched stereotypical thinking about women’s soccer in the real world.
In Fair Game Natasha’s aspirations to play soccer for her country are frustrated not by lack of ability or determination, but by factors beyond her control, and chiefly off the pitch.
Of course gender remains a crucial feature in the narrative but aligned with it is the sense that football mirrors and encompasses the struggles of life itself, the challenges, the disappointments, the joy, the let-downs, not to mention the bruises, the sprained ankles and the slagging off, in reality as much a part of the women’s game as of the men’s.

The price of free speech
The decision to set the novel in Ukraine was influenced by that country’s human rights record: it was ranked in 2004 by Reporters Without Borders as second only to Columbia as the most dangerous country for journalists, notorious for the beatings up in stairwells of editors, photographers and reporters; and the murder in 2000 of Georgi Gongadze, an online correspondent whose delving into state corruption was leading him to the heart of government.
Ukraine’s is an amazing history – occupied by foreign invaders over centuries, subject to Stalinist tyranny during the 1930s only to be savagely overrun by the Nazi war machine during the 2nd World War.
It is a country ‘of which we know little’ but it deserves better in its struggle to emerge from the shadow of Soviet rule and Iron Curtain mentality.

Search for identity
Among the key tasks of fiction writers is the shaping of the identities of their characters within the contexts that surround them. Those contexts too may be in search of identity. As a nation, Ukraine has been described as a ‘land without borders’, in the post-Soviet era, a country struggling to define itself.
Yet one of Ukraine’s most positive identifiers is its record as a footballing nation, typified by Shakhtar Donetsk or, most famously, Dynamo Kyiv. Here again, however, tragedy is likely to be the spectre in the wings. Dynamo’s website records a tournament which took place in the city during the German occupation.
Professional teams from Hungary and Germany were ferried in by the Nazis with a view to demonstrating that they were as superior with the football as with the gun. Probably believing that for once they were being granted an even playing field, Dynamo beat their German opposition.
They were not to be feted or forgiven: the winning side was arrested and duly despatched to a concentration camp where several were executed.
Of course in the 21st century Natasha and the Under 19s Ukraine women’s squad do not have to face that kind of horror; but the obstacles to achieving fair play as contrasted with the cynicism and malice of fair game, are real and formidable. They demand great resolution, courage and – yes, teamwork, to overcome them. Women footballers in Britain might well say Amen to that.

Recommended reading
Beheaded: The Killing of a Journalist by J.V. Koshiw (Artemia Press, 2003). The story of the life and death of Georgi Gongadze in 2000 and of the so-termed Melnychenko Tapes.
The Damned United by David Peace (Faber, 2006), featuring the stormy reign of Brian Clough during his 45 days as manager of Leeds United. A humdinger of a novel.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

WATSONWORKS Blog No. 4 October 2009


Apart from the pleasure of happening upon new knowledge, researching for a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, springs memorable surprises. Currently I’ve been reading up on 19th century radical editors and journalists for a five-part play for voices, Out Damned Spot! Such radical wordsmiths as William Cobbett, Richard Carlile, Henry Hetherington, Bronterre O’Brien, John Cleave, James Watson (no relation, alas) and George Julian Harney were men of unbounded resolution facing, throughout their professional lives, the most brutal censorship.
They faced prison sentences, bankrupting fines, the seizure of their presses, type-founts and stocks of paper. Not only were the producers of the radical press persecuted by successive Tory and Whig governments for evading Stamp Duty, those who sold their papers – the hawkers – also faced imprisonment or transportation to Botany Bay.

Women in the thick of it
What has tended to be overlooked is the role and contribution of women in the so-termed War of the Unstamped and in the Chartist campaign for the reform of the British Parliament. Notable among these stalwarts of liberty were Jane Carlile, first wife of Richard Carlile, and his sister Mary-Anne.
When Richard was thrown into jail for publishing the works of Thomas Paine – the Rights of Man and The Age of Reason – Jane and her sister-in-law took on the editorial, management and distribution responsibilities of the Republican.
In 1921 Jane in her turn was charged and sentenced. She ended up joining her husband in Dorchester Jail. Mary-Anne carried on the family business – campaigning against monarchy, the established church and demanding parliamentary reform.

O Susannah!
Among Richard Carlile’s shopmen and women and the hawkers of his publications, was another remarkable woman – Susannah Wright. The wife of a Nottingham bookseller, she was one among scores of volunteers who rallied round the radical editors and defied the government spies who were as numerous as modern-day CCTV cameras.
Susannah was subjected to a charge of blasphemy in 1821. Such were the passion and articulacy demonstrated in her first court appearance that on her return to court she was greeted by cheering crowds. Leaving her baby in safe hands, Susannah challenged the validity of both the charges against her and the status of the court which dared obstruct an Englishwoman’s right to freedom of speech.
‘I should enjoy even a dungeon,’ she declared, ‘in advocating such a cause as that in which I am engaged…I am bold to tell these persecutors, they never can, they never will, put down these publications.’

Love at first sight
If Susannah Wright became a celebrity, Eliza Sharples was to become a star. On Carlile’s release from jail, he toured the country condemning the imprisonment of his friend, the Reverend Robert Taylor, nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Chaplain’. In the audience for Carlile’s visit to Bolton in Lancashire was a highly intelligent, highly impressionable and strikingly beautiful young woman, Elizabeth Sharples.
Privately educated, the daughter of a counterpane manufacturer, and the issue of a strict Methodist family, Eliza listened, took note – and fell passionately in love with Carlile. After corresponding with him, she headed for London, bewildering this middle-aged man with an ardour he could scarcely comprehend in a woman 14 years his junior.
Soon they were lovers. By this time the marriage of Jane and Richard had cooled, in part due to the stressful experience of sharing prison quarters at Dorchester. Though displaced, Jane never relented in her support for Carlile and the cause to which they had dedicated their lives. As for Eliza, she became Carlile’s pen and his voice during his next term of imprisonment, and self-confessedly his ‘disciple’.

The Lady of the Rotunda
Carlile and Taylor had together established at the Rotunda in London’s Blackfriars Road a centre for meetings and debate. Carlile’s current publication, the Prompter (renamed after being called the Lion), had given rousing support to protests about pay and working conditions by agricultural workers. This provoked the wrath of the Whig government. Carlile was swiftly back in jail, at the Giltspur Street Compter.
Eliza became her lover’s conduit to the free world. At first, the speeches she delivered at the Rotunda were composed by Carlile, but soon she stepped out of his shadow: her beauty, elegance, passion and radicalism, especially her advocacy of equality for women, drew the crowds.
She was no longer Eliza but Isis, after the Egyptian goddess of fertility and wisdom. She was also referred to as Eve, as Liberty and, less optimistically, as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher and martyr raped and murdered by the Romans.

Till superstition is extinct
At the Rotunda Eliza dispensed the poetical as well as the political, standing on a floor of white thorn and laurel. In her first address, she urged the women present to ‘seek that equality in human society which nature has qualified us for, but which tyranny, the tyranny of our lords and masters, hath suppressed’.
The Prompter became Isis. The May 1834 folio volume of the periodical Eliza dedicated ‘To the Young Women of England for Generations to come, or until superstition is extinct’. She declared that human society would not improve ‘until women participate in an equality of knowledge’. She signed off with the designation EDITRESS.
A grateful Carlile said of her, ‘Such a lady shall be my daughter, my sister, my friend, my companion, my wife, my sweetheart, my everything’. Eliza worked closely with the Female Society, also known as the Friends of the Oppressed, established in 1932. She saw women’s oppression at the hands of husbands as a parallel to the working class’s oppression by a government unrepresentative of British society: ‘If we cannot be your rational companions, we will not be your slaves’.

Falling star
Eliza bore three children to Carlile, and it was one of her two daughters, Theophilia, who eventually wrote her father’s biography. Crippled by debts and increasing poor health, Richard Carlile died in 1843.The Lady of the Rotunda was no more, faced as she was by unremitting poverty: Isis had become Hypathia.
Yet Eliza Sharples Carlile was to continue serving the cause of humanity, giving the young radical Charles Bradlaugh a home after his family had disowned him. Bradlaugh described Eliza as ‘quiet and reserved…who had her ardour and enthusiasm cooled by suffering and poverty’.
I’d like to think that the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square might one day feature and celebrate the radical women that history has tended to forget; but I hear the whispers – ‘Some hopes!’


Eliza Sharples features in a play for voices, Out Damned Spot!
by James Watson. The five parts are: Peterloo, The War of the Unstamped, Knowledge is Power, The Lady of the Rotunda and Kennington Heath.

Recommended reading
Martin Priestman, Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830 (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Radical Femininity Women’s Self-representation in the Public Sphere (UK: Manchester University Press, 1998), edited by Eileen Janes Yeo. See Chapter 2, Helen Rogers’ ‘The prayer, the passion and the reason’ of Eliza Sharples: freethought, women’s rights and republicanism, 1832-52.

Contacts welcome - back soon, Jim.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Is nothing sacred?


Reports suggest that the city council of Kyiv, capital of Ukraine, faced with a dearth of hotels as the Euro Cupfest of 20012 approaches, is planning to allow hotel development on or near the site of Babi Yar.

At this spot, over a period of two days in September 1941, over 33,000 Ukrainians Jews were lined up along the ravine of Babi Yar and executed by the SS Einsatzcommando, assisted by Ukrainian Nazi sympathisers. Near on 100,000 more victims followed, their bodies to be tipped into the gorge below and buried.

Later, the Soviet government resisted calls for the establishment of a memorial to the dead and when one was finally erected in 1976 there was no mention that the majority of those murdered were Jewish.

Boasting bronze

Meanwhile, in Senegal, a vast bronze family ensemble rises 49 metres above Dakar, the capital. In its shadow reside the poor of a country on the very edge of starvation. In the case of Dakar, the purpose has not been one of remembrance but of aspiration (for Africa as a whole) over actuality, of propagandist history being written before it has happened.

Visitors to Britain cannot mistake reading in the cityscape of London the narrative of the country’s military past, the symbols of victory and conquest. Here, as elsewhere, public art speaks of priorities, values, assumptions, and sometimes of misreadings of, or at least glosses on, historical events, by the established elite.

Cueing recollection

The past, to some, may be another country, but for good or ill it is there to be exploited, commercialised, reconstructed, swathes of fact omitted, cut-and-pasted and, in all sorts of ways, faked. Nevertheless, what breaths through the record is human memory carried forward through recollection, so long as that recollection can be captured and preserved in time.

Do monuments and sacred spaces serve the aim of true remembrance? Does it matter if the Ryurik Regency, the Grand Cossack, the Shevchenko Imperial, the Pushkin Astoria, the Lobanovsky Towers eventually, as 2012 dawns, cast their ten-storey shadows over the site of Babi Yar? Surely life has to move on? The price might be history itself.

Questions of identity

The issue is not whether we should acknowledge history in case we repeat its mistakes; rather it concerns how we see ourselves in the light of history. The name Ukraine means ‘land without borders’, suggesting both the immense transformations that characterise the country’s history and doubts about a clear and recognisable identity.

To compromise the sacredness of memory in the interests of international finance, tourism and sport certainly suggests a kind of progress, with a guarantee thrown in of shared affluence for Kyiv, the state and its people. But it may put at risk an advance of another sort, that of the national identity of a country emerging from the strictures of Soviet hegemony.

Egotism, authority

Senegal’s Dakar statue actually resembles in size and heroic expression similar monuments of the Soviet period, and it serves a similar purpose, glorifying the spirit and vision of those in power. It will undoubtedly be a tourist attraction. It will bring in the cash, whether it is deemed great art or crass propaganda.

It will also be a constant reminder of the contradictions between publicity and reality; a £17 million statement not about equality but elitism. And talking of reminders, it can be argued that the memory of Babi Yar does not solely belong to Kyiv or to the people of Ukraine as a whole: it is a stark symbol of the necessity of universal remembrance; one that resonates wherever Nazism and other evils were suffered and fought against.

Gilt-edge investment

Babi Yar is our monument and we should support those who object to plans to build on, and over, the place where humanity was seen at its worst. In contrast, there is no unbuilding of the Dakar monument. Of course, as with most great monuments, the future will forget the details – the fabulous expense, the human sacrifice; after all, the poor are always with us while investment in art, despite the ambiguities of its message over time, largely secures its lordly bonuses regardless of recession.

However, as far as Dakar is concerned, objectors might at least condemn the decision of Senegal’s 80-year old president, Abdoulaye Wade, to top-slice for himself 35% of the profits derived from tourism attracted by Africa’s answer to the prestigious monuments of the West.

PS: Within days, the leader of Kyiv Council put a block on such plans.

Recommended reading Ukraine’s Forbidden History by Tim Smith, Rob Perks and Graham Smith (UK: Dewi-LewisPublishing in association with the Bradford Heritage Recording Unit, the British Library Sound Archive and the University of Sheffield, 1998).

Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism by Neal Ascherson (UK: Vintage, 1996). This is a compulsive read but is shamefully out of print.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


No. 2

Benign bulls, deafening ducks

James Watson blogs a literary prize with a difference

One of the most picturesque towns in North Germany, a half an hour’s train ride from Hamburg, Buxtehude has for over 40 years awarded an annual prize for books written for Young Adults. It was originated by a local bookseller who was inspired by a peace-not-war tale, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

This was published in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, often described as a brutal rehearsal for the 2nd World War. Big and strong though he is, Ferdinand lacks the natural ferocity of contenders in the bullring. In fact he is happy to sit in the shade of his favourite cork tree and smell the flowers – until, one day he does not look where he is sitting and plonks himself on a bumble bee.

El Torro Ferocio
And wow, does that sting hurt! Suddenly Ferdinand is puffing and snorting and pawing the ground, so impressing his owner that in no time at all he is promoted as El Torro Ferocio, Ferdinand the Fierce. Everyone, from the banderillos and the picardores not to mention the matador himself are afraid of him.

But will Ferdinand fight? Alas, no, for as soon as he sees flowers in the lovely ladies’ hair, he just sits down quietly and smells. He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did: ‘So they had to take Ferdinand home. And for all I know he is still sitting there, under his favourite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy’.

A bull statue
The book is beautifully illustrated byRobert Lawson and slim as it is, it speaks volumes on the priorities of life. Ferdinand became the cast iron statue which each winner of the Buxtehuder Bulle Award receives, along with a victory garland and a generous monetary prize.

The best thing about the Buxtehuder Bulle is that authors are invited to the town, feted, encouraged to give talks, interviewed on radio and TV; in short, made a real fuss of. In my case, because Talking in Whispers* was set in Chile, the evening had a Latin American theme, with the Simon Bolivar Duo providing the entertainment.

German only
Sadly, the Buxtehuder award is less well-known than other literary prizes. It’s not because it’s less generous and it deserves more attention if only because half of jury is made up of young adults. No, I think it is simply because not a word of information is published in English.
On a few occasions I’ve argued in letters to the Burgomaster for dual language publicity, especially as the list of prize-winners includes British and American writers; at present, to no avail.

Ducks in the night
Buxtehude is made up of canals, ponds and triangular houses. The canals criss-cross the town centre which is fairly quiet during the day, but at night - beware of the ducks. Around two in the morning, the ducks seem to assemble for parties or political barnstorms. Either way, in the small hours they are loud enough to wake the dead.

Swans to the rescue
Shortly after I’d returned home from Buxtehude I saw a picture in the paper of a motor launch carrying a dozen or more swans, and heading for Hamburg. The caption explained that the swans were being taken to warm winter quarters. It’s a custom in the landes region that continues despite global warming.
I was looking to express my thanks for the warm welcome I’d received in Buxtehude: the noisy ducks and the silent swans suddenly connected and a story was about to be hatched.

Silencing the quacks
The Burgomaster cannot sleep for the ducks; neither can the rest of the population: how about, in dead of night, sweeping up the ducks, shipping them out, replacing them with swans –and for once getting a decent night’s sleep?
The result was The Noisy Ducks of Buxtehude (Entenlarm in Buxtehude), a dual-language story for young readers. This was taken on by a local publishing company, Verlag an der Este, translated into German by Heike Brandt and brilliantly illustrated by Bjorn Holm. it's in its second edition.

Ducks’ hotel
Of course in the story the Burgomaster’s cunning plan goes awry. Yes, everybody in the town gets a good night’s sleep, but they are all still in the land of nod when a distinguished visitor arrives – and nobody is awake to greet her. In hot water, the Burgomaster realises the ducks are the town’s vital alarm clocks. He makes amends by building them their own Ducks’ Hotel.

Life imitating…
On my second visit to Buxtehude I was strolling through the town with my wife Kitty only to stop, amazed, for there, in the centre of a large ornamental pond, was a brand new Duck House.
I like to think that the town’s real burgomaster and corporation had been reading The Noisy Ducks, and decided to do the decent thing; perhaps even eliciting a quack of thanks.

* For further details on TALKING IN WHISPERS (available in CollinsEducational Cascades), see the author's website:

Thursday, 3 September 2009

First Footer(ings)


Well, I don't know whether I should be above or below Dan Brown. As for Michael Crighton, I'd better read him to find out. FAIR GAME: THE STEPS OF ODESSA (Spire Publishing, ISBN 1-897312-72-5) joins the others, I think, as a thriller.
It is about uneven playing fields - that represented by women's soccer, and the dodgy ground of human rights.
In 2000 the decapitated body of Internet journalist Guya Gongadze was found in woodland on the outskirts of Tarascha, some 80 miles south of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. That, and other cases, prompted the organisation Reporters Without Borders to rank Ukraine as the second most dangerous country in the world for journalists; and proved a motivator for me to write this novel.

In FAIR GAME Natasha is a talented footballer, ambitious to play for her country. Her ambitions are put at risk by revelations of government corruption made by her father, campaigning journalist Victor Kaltsov. Neither Natasha nor her brother Lonya can escape the danger her father's discoveries put them in.
The story begins with a kidnap in snow-bound Kyiv and reaches a dramatic climax on the Steps of Odessa, scene of the 'most famous five minutes in the history of the cinema' - the slaughter of protesters in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin.
A key subplot sees Monika, a tour guide with a mysterious past, enter Natasha's life, at first it would seem, a rescuing angel, but who is she really, and what connection has she with Victor's enemies - the SBU, Ukraine's secret police, and the oligarchs whose manipulation of power and business corruption threaten to cripple the country?

It's long been a preference of mine to take readers beyond our shores, and to places 'of which we know little'. TALKING IN WHISPERS is set in Chile, NO SURRENDER in Angola, JUSTICE OF THE DAGGER in East Timor. The 2nd biggest country in Europe, Ukraine remains, I think, something of a mystery. Its very name seems to suggest something of an identity crisis: it means 'land without borders'. Over the centuries it has been the victim of innumerable invasions and occupations. It was devastated by the Nazis, pulverised by Stalin's purges; and it has still not entirely emerged from the shadow of the Russian Bear.
Like her country, Natasha struggles to assert her identity. As Jock, her football trainer says, she will only succeed at the game if she focuses; and she realises she will only survive at the 'game of life' if she keeps her eye on the ball, fights every tackle. There will be those to help her, those who would threaten and obstruct - even destroy - her, and there will be those, like Monika, who will love her.

For more information about FAIR GAME and other publications, please visit my website, designed by my daughter Francesca:

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