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NEWS AT A GLANCE

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The King has a collection of 170 curious walking sticks. One is made from one of the piles of old London Bridge.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Wednesday, April 10 1907
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All the best people are born in October.

In Moldova (and Czechoslovakia), ‘carp’ is spelled ‘crap’.

In 1492 Native Americans discovered Columbus lost at sea.

Exultant language is reserved for the mountains.

Ye cannae shove yer granny off the bus.

You can get syphilis through wooden spoons.

Real men wear real clothes.

Termite baiting is currently in progress.

Max Hastings is the author of 27 books, most about conflict.

Not all of Mozart’s paintings were perfect.

Scotland have been knocked out of the Rugby World Cup.

One of the known properties of honey is that it drips.

Some Russian villages purposely elect the village idiot.
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Briefs from the field

RAIN MEN vs WHITE HUNTERS
Sunday August 11th 2019

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‘Remarkably few ‘keepers have become captains; and many of those who have have quickly given up the job.’
— Mike Brearley, The Art of Captaincy

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On strict assurance that he was about to leave the country, the Chairman, Selectors, and Life Members/Platinum Donors Circle of the Rain Men CC collegially thrust the almond-scented chalice of captaincy at your present correspondent, for his final, as it were, run-out. His first act was to press-gang a competent vice captain, N Pool.

This is the East Hants game that Marcus every year says will be played ‘in Bumble’s back garden’; which is completely true, except it’s more like his manorial lands, the whole place is entirely unsignposted and satnav-proof (‘Guy Burgess country’ ©A Doggett-Jones), the ‘garden’ is an impeccably-mown field, off a farm track off a private lane around the corner from a deeply private school (#XMen more like), and hidden even then behind the log piles, garages of classic cars and clubhouse big enough to host wood-burner, hunting trophies, vintage F1 kit, and bespoke toilet poetry. Oh, and said bloke ain’t the actual Bumble. But apart from all that…

We were on time. Almost. And even had a crowd – comprising Marcus, Sam, Amelia and Martha… to say nothing of the dog, who filled in at deep extra cover for the first few overs.

Overwhelmed by the responsibility, the captain promptly lost the toss, but White Hunters agreed to bat first, anyway: the format a match of 70 over total (and you thought you’d seen everything…!), enabling the declaration, draw, and all that jazz, plus local rule of not-out-first-ball which their captain said he was sometimes slightly embarrassed to offer opponents but which Smyth, mindful of how some people get a lot of golden ducks, said would suit us just fine thankyouverymuch.

D Brook, in his first appearance of the year, gamely let himself be volunteered to start the bowling, and plans hatched earlier in the week (gasp!) saw P Reidy stationed at mid-off, to which their opener promptly slapped the first ball. Initially appearing to pouch an absolute sitter, Reidy clearly then recalled the first-ball business, and dismissively allowed the ball to hit the ground.

Thus notified, their No.1 fell anyway to a comfortable catch by D Owen (the only kind he knows, apparently), all part of Brook’s extremely economical 7 overs for just 9 runs. The No.2 went to a sharp run-out (also from Owen). And thus strode to the crease the dark-haired Morgan-Grenville – the first of two or three handsome young spunkers in this team who like to spice things up by playing ‘Name That Tree’ before they heave their 6s into it.

Our would-be-nemesis began despatching it to all parts… and never stopped, Pool and S Sutton manfully absorbing the worst part of the onslaught. Our fielding was actually quite reasonable (above ground, at least), but M-G 1 needed no help to take his opportunities, and by the time he switched to left-hand just to be sure he could hit good clean boundaries that way too, Pool, at what was suddenly mid-off, felt he might as easily admire the strokeplay from the comfort of the grass.

Unbloodied and emphatically unbowed, Morgan-Grenville was graciously recalled to the dressing room on 51 (alas! we shall not see his like again, etc.), whereon one might have thought our luck would start to turn.

At this point, though, the oppo asked what might be ‘sensible’ to aim for, re ‘making a game of it’: 170? 180…? We said 150 might prove quite competitive – but, inexplicably, they did not seem convinced. They also raised the as-yet-undiscussed issue of bowlers being limited to 7 overs, which scoffers, naysayers and milquetoasts of all stripes had feared could pose a problem for us. Sensing our difficulty (ha!), they then withdrew this stipulation; but we agreed the only gentlemanly way though this slight awkwardness was now to demonstrate our veritable smorgasbord of strength in depth.

Step forth gallantly T Russell.
…….“Bowler’s name?”
…….“Russell!”
…….“Russell…?”
…….“As in ‘Bertrand’,” quoth he, rolling his Rs, his eyes, and his sleeves up. He took 3 wickets off his ‘allotted’ 7, including two steeplers which held up in the wind to the advantage of Sutton and a one-handed running grab from Pool at mid-wicket. Russell also took a catch off F Peckham, who was in turn relieved by Doggett-Jones (2 overs for only 7 runs), then joined in the attack (‘…’) by D Fenton, released at last from his grim posting downwind and at the bottom of the slope. He held the line with an extremely creditable 2-0-6-1 (caught behind), while Doggett-Jones relieved himself beneath the conker tree.

Also making his/its season debut, T Russoff’s ‘broad church’ bowling (it’s where he practises?) was, in the circs, unlucky not to claim a wicket. There was the matter, too, of his blown run-out, Owen – having secured his own first, mind – genially offering that the wicketkeeper might have hit the sticks so hard that the ball was not in his gloves at the point of contact (Russoff himself levelly remarking that if the keeper had left the ball entirely alone the Arm of the Lord™ might well have flattened them directly).

At 140-ish for 8 it had seemed possible that we might hold them to a manageable total. Inevitably, though, the remaining gun bats now came in (M-G 2 and Schooler, remembered from his Dulwich College 1st XI kit last year), and proceeded to swash and buckle their way through approx. another 50 runs.

All but one White Hunter having reached double-figures, they declared, amid a few raised eyebrows (and after exactly half the overs), on 195-7. The tea included Skittles – which we chose not to interpret as some pass-agg mindgame.

The captain had but one instruction for his ten Rain Men and true: to smash a six off every first ball – if only, really, to see what might happen.

What happened is that no-one tried it.

Russell was clean-bowled (philosophically) in just the second over, and Doggett-Jones fell shortly after him. Both Davids were now at the crease, though, which boded well, especially once Owen started clipping casual maxima into the woods. His reward, alas, was some debilitating back pain, and he was stumped, most uncharacteristically, and on ‘only’ 29 runs (our second highest), taking a hefty swing at something that was – how to put it? – not there. Brook too was batting fluidly, until a “no-yes-no” mishap, remarkably reminiscent of this same fixture last year, sent him back to the pavilion on an unusually low score.

The Hon. Capt. was welcomed to the crease with a face-height no-ball that he had just enough time and survival instinct to flail over the slips for 4. (The bowler did concede that it was probably a 5.) But, a golden duck having been howsoever Jesuitically avoided, he thus opted for Set Menu B: the familiar series of near-edges, agricultural hoiks, and the essential dropped catch – in this case to the tune of “Oh, bollocks…!” as the ball carved gently and magnetically towards deep backward square… only for the poor fielder to be blinded by the early-evening sun at the right instant.

When Smyth was undone by – natch – a straight ball, we had well over half the runs required, and half our wickets in hand. Or, viewed another way, we had six batsmen left, and perhaps no more than six overs to trouble them.

But Rain Men aren’t renowned for riding out inevitable, boring draws without them getting just a *bit* exciting.

Sutton went for a duck, and Pool followed not long after with an edge to slip. Fenton chose this strategically crucial time to boost his averages, clubbing away a couple of healthy fours before obligingly taking on an unproblematic ball about a yard outside off stump and dinking it to M-G 1 at mid-on. And behold, suddenly blood was in the water, and White Hunters needed two wickets to win.

The opening attack returned – but sadly for them their efforts were, quite literally, misdirected, a dozen immaculate away-swingers coming down like the wolf upon the fold in first slip’s flannels. (If only they had thought to aim, er, at the stumps.) Under a barrage of ‘encouragement’ from the fielding side, Peckham displayed the sang froid of a Victorian statue, and Reidy – under categorically unambiguous direction from his teammate – was obliged to put the willow on the leather just once.

And then, with two balls to go, it was no longer possible for them to win. It’s not the done thing, I’m sure, for the square-leg umpire to be seen punching the air; but there we have it. With Russoff d.n.b., we’d clinched the ‘moral victory’* by a parson’s nose.

We repaired, all in good sporting humour, to the Thos. Lord pub, in West Meon, where, high on the fumes of having locked in a better all-time captaincy record than S Rose, I could have sworn I saw a diorama of dead woodland animals above the bar, playing a cricket match.


* We came joint second by exactly 60 runs. Or ten 6s, NB, in your old money

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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The Paris Louvre is in future to be guarded by watch-dogs.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Monday, July 13 1908
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The human population has almost doubled since we landed on the Moon.

Genital preferences are transphobic.

The third umpire will have the final say on the snatch.

It is against the rules to take a lamb to school.

The market for Argentinian chewing-gum manufacture is very hard to break into.

Greek philosophers were not always as wise as they claimed.

Josef Stalin trusted only one man: Adolf Hitler.

An average sentence in a German newspaper is a sublime and impressive curiosity.

Florence and Bertha aren’t among the top 10,000 girls’ names now.

There is no phone reception in West Sussex.

As many histories as possible should be written.

The going rate for one song at a funeral is approx. £150.

The thing that’s best if you’re feeling glum is coconut water with a little rum.
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Applause for thought?

Midori Goto’s violin recital in Colombo, reviewed. (Along with half the audience.)


For the Sunday Times (SL)

NEWS AT A GLANCE

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Football was a crime in England during the reign of Henry VIII.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Tuesday, October 2 1906
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The moon is up for longer than the sun.

Your antivirus expires in 29 days.

The Dogmata Theologica of Petavius are a work of incredible labour and compass.

The steep limestone walls of a huge rock can make it look, from a distance, like a ship without sails.

Without yin, yang dies on the battlefield.

Eggs are probably not a type of fruit.

Oscar Wilde was pardoned for the crime of homosexuality in 2017.

The laws of Sri Lanka can be bought for Rs74,000.

Russians are the opposite of elephants.

Spitting is prohibited.

The American university is one of the few remaining places in the United States where reflection and study can take place in an almost utopian fashion.

The chief duty of man is service to man.

There’s always a few arseholes.
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NEWS AT A GLANCE

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John Stow, author of the Survey of London, was rewarded by James I with a licence to beg.

The Nelson Evening Mail, Friday, August 17 1906
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In Germany, young ladies have no sex.

‘Silver Billy’ Beldham was blond, and is said to have fathered 39 children.

Thom Yorke’s left eye is made of arse muscle.

The state of Nevada was very nearly called ‘Humboldt’ instead.

Strong fences make good eel traps.

A fairy can still win a wheelbarrow race.

There is no law against declaiming Chinese poetry.

There is no other word for ‘synonym’.

You are no longer safe online.

Edward Said never taught anything about the Middle East.

Xerxes’ plans all miscarried in ships of the sea.

Britain is on track to experience a cauliflower shortage.

People in rich countries can afford to be stupid.
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Ducks and cover

Ducks, Newburyport
by Lucy Ellmann
Galley Beggar Press, £14.99, pp1020

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Why, I asked some months back, in these pages, do the protagonists in American fiction these days seem so lost? What is it they’re all so het up about?

Well… everything. At least according to the narrator of Ducks, Newburyport.

Lucy Ellmann’s monster novel is a more or less non-stop narration of the thoughts of one Ohio housewife, a former college teacher who now bakes pies for money, attempts to keep her household shipshape, feels the pinch of post-bail-out America, is frustrated in the usual ways, and frets persistently about the physical, moral and emotional safety of her offspring (other people’s too) in those ostensibly United States.

Song lyrics, boarlets, clickbait headlines, bits of her children’s homework, first world problems, Schubert, shopping, getting cancer, the Amish, things she’s forgotten, assassinated presidents, FOOSH injuries, actors’ names, wordplays, her mother’s death, Revere Ware pots (me either), the life and works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, styptic sticks, lines from Shakespeare, fake-brick wallpaper, captions for YouTube videos, her husband’s fear of bridge-collapses, her own Mid-West gosh-darn-it lexicon, the plots of classic movies, ‘Indian’ burial mounds, lists of places/diseases/brandnames/pies (Umberto Eco would have very much approved)…

All human – at least, All-American – life is here. And death too, obvs. There are, in case you hadn’t heard, a lot of shootings.

At random, from page 52: ‘Miss America, misanthropy, missed opportunity’ … ‘willy-nilly, folkloric, the fact that a female police officer led a double life for nine years, Horror Movie Hotel’ … ‘the fact that it’s not just my outfits that bug Stace though, the fact that it’s everything I do, or don’t do, the fact that, boy, she keeps a beady eye on me…’

These ‘facts’, the hooks for her seemingly ever-expanding tapestry: ‘the fact that anyway I think you can overdo remembering stuff’, ‘the fact that everybody’s got a gun now’, ‘the fact that it begins to seem positively unAmerican to internalize things’, ‘the fact that Philip Glass can get a little bit repetitive’, ‘the fact that I think there’s maybe too much emphasis on facts these days, or maybe there are just too many facts’.

So by ‘everything’ I really do mean everything. Through all these facts, distracts, and (mis)rememberings (there is an iffy G&S line somewhere), our unnamed Everywoman becomes a living, breathing information overload, perhaps the most intensely real depiction of the life of the quotidian mind I’ve ever witnessed.

And while ‘neurotic’ might be overstating it, this is a woman who is worrying 24/7, across the entire imaginable gamut (she worries about that too), rising to quite alarming levels of morbidity, especially – and you can rather see this coming – with regards to violence against women, mothers and/or children in every corner of the faunal kingdom. Intermingled with her own glacial release of biographic data (what one might otherwise be calling ‘narrative’), there appear sporadic scenes from the unfolding story of a mountain lioness and her cubs – which come to bear.

In all, in its assessment of the Big Contemporary American Themes of violence, headline news and environmentalism, what Ducks… amounts to is one great trauma diagnosis for the entire country: ‘the fact that people are always saying this isn’t “who we are as a nation,” but, well, it kind of is.’ The book was published, with mordant wit, on July 4th.

Unless you too are a nervous, baking-enthusiast Ohio housewife it’s fair to say your sympathy will wax and wane a little as the book goes on; but Ellmann’s Joycean achievement is to drag you along, complicitly, in her endurance marathon of anxiety and trivia – not least, of course, because you’ve no idea what might or might not turn out to be trivia (‘ducks, Newburyport’).

It’s a colossal feat. And if you didn’t exactly see it cluttering the Beach Reads lists this summer – it may yet be more read about than read – it’s now been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (announced next month), and frankly that’s no less than it deserves.


For The Spectator

 

‘Bad in life, good in the book’

A Q&A with writer and artist Dan Richards.


For Geographical

Hit and miss

Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943
By Max Hastings
William Collins £25

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By 1943, after nearly four years of war ‘ameliorated [only] by a thin gruel of successes,’ Britain and her western allies had little to boast in terms of their offensive victories; the lion’s share of the burden was very clearly being shouldered by the Soviet Union; and even the notably (not to say uniquely) busy Royal Air Force had not grabbed headlines since the Battle of Britain, three years previously.

Then, on the night of the 16th/17th May, the RAF launched a surprise attack on half a dozen dams in north-west Germany, the (secretly) avowed intent of which was to unleash billions of cubic feet of water and land a single, knock-out blow to the Ruhr industries, thereby crippling the Nazi war machine and proving – as the jargon goes – ‘decisive’.

The attack was most surprising because it was basically impossible. Indeed, the Germans had identified the threat before the war (and likewise eyed up British dams), but dismissed such operations as unworkable. The Möhne valley was so quiet that German troops were sent there for recuperation.

By night, meanwhile, Britain’s Bomber Command could currently identify no target smaller than a city, so even at the conceptual stage the technical demands of breaching a dam were assessed by the RAF as ‘highly problematic’. Big enough bombs – ‘bouncing’ or otherwise – did not exist, nor did the planes to carry them. Said bombs (depth charges, codename: ‘Upkeep’) would also have to be dropped from extraordinarily low levels (100 times lower than usual, in fact, at heights that would usually see pilots court-martialled) and in bright moonlight.

The ‘madman’ Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, was – not alone and not unreasonably – flatly against this as a hopelessly speculative waste of unaffordable resources. But the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, signed off on Operation Chastise as ‘a good gamble’. Only a single squadron of bombers was authorised, however: what Max Hastings calls ‘a niche operation’, indicative of British ‘gesture strategy’.

The recruitment of 617 Squadron began just weeks before the dams were set to reach their fullest, and though several of the crews were quite experienced, many others were extremely raw or had not flown before as working teams. Their Avro Lancaster bombers needed to fly almost at ground level over the lethal terrains of occupied Europe, which meant that mishaps of any kind would almost certainly entail the deaths of everyone on board. The new planes were strained by the technological requirements of the operation, and full of jury-rigged modifications. The frantic training schedule did not go well, and by the time the operation was launched most crews had not flown planes with even full-scale dummy Upkeeps. Whatever Portal said, the odds on Chastise making a decisive impact were frankly miserable.

It was, at best, partly successful.

There were immediate repercussions from the lack of navigational technology, inexperience, and other issues, once they reached the Dutch coast. Only one plane in the Sorpe wave even made it to the target. Many pilots and crews were simply not up to the intimidating task: eight planes out of 19 went down, and 56 out of 133 pilots and aircrew died.

Two dams, the Möhne and the Eder, were breached, unleashing a biblical horror for which (of course) the Germans coined a new word (‘Möhnekatastrophe’); but almost all the approximately 1,400 victims were civilians and more than half of them were POWs – our allies. There was significant infrastructure damage, knock-on effects on gas and coal production, and diversion of resources. But this did not curtail ‘a quarter’ of the Reich’s industry, Barnes Wallis’s promised ‘disaster of the first magnitude,’ and the dams were repaired within a few months (a process with which, astoundingly, the RAF did not attempt to interfere). The secret weapon of the bouncing bomb, once used, could not be used again, either inland or – as had been the Navy’s fervent hope – at sea.

But the aircrews – men barely out of school who ‘still thought it the best joke in the world to pull off a man’s trousers after dinner’ – were heroic in a more than usually tough, physical sense, exemplified and led by the hard-driving, amply-decorated 24-year-old bombing veteran Wing Commander Guy Gibson (to say nothing of his dog). There were also the heroic feats of engineering (and politicking) by Barnes Wallis, the ‘white-haired evangelist’, and his team.

And so Chastise was fundamentally – if not unimportantly – a propaganda victory. It represented an ‘amazing example of team-work and co-operation’, and was billed as ‘a turning of the tide’ to the advantage of the Allied powers. In Hastings’ estimation it inflicted a ‘trauma’ on Germany, and demonstrated to Germans that their homeland was not invulnerable. It was, he notes, also ‘unmentioned in Allied warlords’ private diaries.’

Hastings is a ‘big picture’ narrative historian, who tackles head-on the not inconsiderable task of making a compelling narrative out of a time-honoured national myth. In all, Chastise is a calm but forthright reappraisal, not prepared to swallow the triumphalist (and ‘victimless’) impressions of, e.g, the 1955 film version, nor to have any truck with flimsy modern notions of winning ‘a war of national survival’ without the taking of lives.

And not just German lives, of course. One of the last remaining Dambusters died only this year; but it was a sad, blunt statistical inevitability that, for all their heroism, the vast majority of Chastise men, including Gibson, did not live long enough to see VE Day.


For The Oldie

The future starts… in Brighton

Review of John Higgs’ The Future Starts Here: Adventures in the Twenty-First Century.


For Geographical