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MILFs & Boon

Or; in the kitchen with my best friend’s mum

About mid-February last year, we were sitting around one afternoon, exchanging the usual disenchantments on the subject of St Valentine’s Day, when my best mate’s mum casually dropped into conversation the fact that in her younger days she once co-wrote a book for Mills & Boon.

Well. I was agog, I don’t mind telling you. My cup of furtive, post-adolescent imagination ranneth liberally over. Slavering and drooling may have been involved.

The rest of the room went rather quiet. “Is there, erm, any chance that I could… see it?” I asked, trying not to sound too excited. My mate (we’ll call him ‘Dominic’) was now looking decidedly uncomfortable.

His mum got up and went to fetch the volume from wherever heirlooms of inestimable value are kept hidden away from prying eyes. Returning to the living room, she placed this Holiest of Holies gently in my hands. “Enjoy yourself,” she said, in the voice of Charlotte Rampling.

I was not disappointed. Spine rent asunder, pages falling out through excessive consultation, and a familiar but unplaceable tacky residue all over the dog-eared and faded cover, the image whereon showed a young gentleman in C.18th servant’s garb, surrounded by a good many permutations of Great British flora and fauna. The jacket copy alone promised ‘girls’: ‘attractive’, ‘interesting’, ‘expensive’, and ‘repeatedly used’. Not to mention ‘evidently enjoyed’!

And inside, oh my…! It was everything that I could possibly have hoped for. 239 pages of sizzling – not to mention educational – elaborations on the finest and most ancient of arts, up to and very much including the latest hand-held technologies, comprehensively accompanied with dozens of ‘specially drawn illustrations’ (even if, rather disconcertingly, it said ‘the artist has relied for reference on diagrams’).

As befits a manual of this nature, the introduction warns of ‘disappointment’ and ‘frustration’, and cautions against being ‘too ambitious,’ or ‘making excessive demands on skill or resources’. But it hopes ‘a girl who has been shown a given method may try [X, Y or Z] with a good chance of success’. ‘Freedom to experiment’ is key, and the ‘collective teaching experience’ highly rewarding in the case of ‘girls who work enthusiastically’. ‘After a demonstration lesson,’ the reader is all-but-promised, ‘girls go eagerly to the bookshelves…’ And not just the girls, I thought! I could feel myself moving rapidly along the predicted spectrum from ‘very slow’ to ‘very hot’.

Dom’s mum had used a pseudonym, I noticed. And tended to refer to ancillary lace-wear (e.g.), rather coquettishly, as ‘doyleys’. But who can blame her? North Derbyshire in the early Seventies wasn’t exactly a hotbed of open-minded cosmopolitanism. So in general the language tends towards the blunt and technical (the narrative not being of the utmost importance in these situations, if you catch my drift), but already one can detect the signs of a pervading Continental influence – ‘in the French style’, and so forth – counterbalancing the slightly staid, Victorian English fare.

It’s a classic tale of ‘fools’ and ‘tarts’, ‘Swedes’ and ‘beef’ – an oyster-laden romp of liaisons involving maitres d’hotel and maids of honour positively dripping with ‘almond essence’. There is, it is true, no clearly identifiable heroine; but I like the sound of an evening with Bain-Marie, and Chicken Maryland seems like she ought to be a game bird. The sub-plot of Rich Short-Crust (seeks Quiche Lorraine) reads like an outré outtake from the Pilgrim’s Progress. And the delectable Chelsea Buns ends up with a nasty case of rose hip (something to do, no doubt, with overuse of her Rabbit fricassée™). She’s partial to a bit of ‘cod Portugaise’, is our Chelsea. But frankly she’ll take anything, even, asked nicely, a ‘chocolate truffle’. We get more than a few glimpses of her friend Eve’s ‘pudding’.

The dramatis personae are not all from the top end of the social spectrum, mind you (‘We have often preferred margarine to butter’, remarks a Bertoluccian sub-protagonist, unblinkingly. It makes it ‘easier to cream’) and in the seamier passages there is much otherwise unremarkable dialogue concerning ‘raw weight’ and ‘average portions’. One of the minor characters contracts, at one point, a touch of ‘small mould’ on his ‘Welsh rarebit’. (SPOILER ALERT: they make you wear an arrowroot cup.)

That said, this particular reader can now consider himself enlightened as to the ‘savoury tricorne’, one (or more) ‘toad(s) in the hole’, the ‘tossing of salad’, and the timely application of a ‘Viennese finger’. ‘Macaroni a l’Americaine’ sounds a lot like something I might want to try, and ditto the enigmatic ‘Victoria sandwich’; but trust me, you don’t want to know about ‘cheese butterflies’. The ‘Russian pie’ sounds positively non-consensual.

All animal, vegetable and mineral life is here. No two pages pass without something being either on or off ‘the bone’, the pinching of fat, or the kneading of knobs of one kind or another, and altogether too much talk of liquids on the whole. Considerable space is given over to the forms and attendant etiquettes of ‘rough puff’. I am still not sure which is more difficult on the sensibilities, the stomach-turning passage about ‘removing the skins from nuts’ (‘the nuts are immersed in cold water, then brought to the boil…’) or the frankly harrowing ‘loosen each segment from its enclosing skin with a grapefruit knife’!! And I am pretty sure the ‘Yule log’ is illegal in most UN signatory countries.

You can have things ‘plain (rubbed in)’ or ‘rich (creamed)’, and with or without a succession of ‘melting moments’, ‘roly poly’ and ‘kebabs’, or any one of about 37 different types of ‘stuffing’. There’s even a section relating to the manufacturing, and use of, ‘stuffing balls’ – though I believe those are now called something slightly different.

‘Strain’, ‘taste’, ‘refresh’, the book exhorts us. ‘Decorate with half a glacé cherry!’ ‘Suggestions for piping’… ‘Making a cream horn’ (or was it vice versa?)… But never forgetting that this is, in the end, an instructional text – to wit, the mindful, prophylactic advice: ‘Pack your joint in a polythene bag, foil or moisture-proof paper[!?]’ Well, it is an old book, and perhaps back then times were, um, hard.

Discerning readers of a certain vintage and/or persuasion will by now have twigged that the magnum opus in question is, of course, a cookbook. Specifically, The Alfreton Cookery Book (M&B: London, Sydney, Toronto, 1972) by the maidenly threesome of Gillian Crompton, Mair Boothby and Jean Smith, with drawings by Eileen Posteen: a GCSE-level collection of recipes for the edification of 15-year-old Home Economics students. And while Mills & Boon do indeed produce many themed erotic sub-genres (Historical, Intrigue, Medical Romance and so on), cookery – alas – is not yet one of them.

But too late! Once you have set off down this single track (as any schoolboy, current or retired, could tell you), pretty much everything becomes ridiculous. The index alone becomes an absolute snort-fest (not a sex-move…), from ‘cream-cheese balls’ to ‘coating’ via ‘vegetables: general methods’. There is, disappointingly, not a single mention of ‘tongue’. But the ‘Manchester tart’ comes, as it were, right before the ‘Mandarin tartlets’. Or so I’ve been told.

To tease out just one (randomly-selected but) obvious euphemistic theme: ‘clear gel’, ‘savoury jelly’, ‘apricot glaze’, ‘economical batter’, ‘barley water’, ‘stuffing marrow’, ‘lattice jam’, ‘lemon curd’, ‘shellfish cocktail’, ‘egg wash’, ‘celery soup’, ‘scotch broth’, ‘almond paste’, ‘savoury milk’, ‘American frosting’, ‘yoghurt dressing’, ‘chuck casserole’, ‘white sauce’, ‘Dutch sauce’, ‘mock Hollandaise sauce’ (obviously, anything with the word ‘sauce’ in it), and – I absolutely promise you – ‘devilled butter’, and ‘confectioner’s custard’. It’s enough to make Fanny Hill blush.

Left unmolested, of course, a typical paragraph will more usually run: ‘All the recipes have been repeatedly tested, and the 25g basic unit is the same as that recommended by the Working Party of the UK Federation for Education in Home Economics. Oven temperatures have been left in degrees F, as we understand that cookers marked in degrees C will not be available for some considerable time yet. However a conversion table is provided.’

Still. A boy can dream.

ASH Smyth is a happily-married man. For now.

The Alfreton Cookery Book remains, tragically, out of print.

Readers interested in exploring the ‘Swedish tea ring’ are encouraged to write in for details. No perverts, please.

The Chris Moyles of the Falkland Islands

On becoming the Breakfast Show host on Falklands Radio

‘Are you an early bird? Do you love music? Do you enjoy interacting with members of the public?’

Well, no; yes – but with major caveats; and, er, not in most cases, honestly.

‘If so, Falklands Radio may have the perfect job for you.’

Oh, well. In for a penny…

Two months before, I’d still been living it up in the tropics. And then my wife, a school teacher, spotted a job in Stanley. Now we were on one salary, plus hungry three-year-old, and in a place where cucumbers cost almost four quid. The shipping bills, also, required a hasty fix.

The alternative jobs that week were Biosecurity Inspection Assistant (£16k, full time, irregular hours) or a job in ‘building services’ (‘must be of sober habits’); so I fired off my letter of application ‘outlining any previous experience’ (nil) and ‘reasons for applying’ (domestic equilibrium), and to my slight surprise I got an interview. Perhaps I was the only applicant.

They asked me what would be in my dream Breakfast Show. “Three hours of Handel opera, probably.” I reckon that was where I really landed it.

Still, I’d barely set foot in a studio, and certainly never sat behind the control panel – so there would be a serious amount of training needed. A month or two at least, I thought.

Ten hours, it turned out; then I was live on air. That first Friday I had to let myself in to the building.

It was a soft-ish launch, in fairness: two weeks co-hosting mentor Liz’s Morning Show, becoming the voice of her new ‘Checkout!’ shopping quiz, and making myself useful when Prince Philip died and the station suddenly needed somebody to line up a few days of Sombre Classical.

And then I started, for real, on Monday 3 May. May Day, in fact – and you needn’t think I didn’t make that joke (and then instantly wonder if it wasn’t a disastrous, perhaps even illegal, thing to say over the airwaves). My first track was Avicii’s ‘Wake Me Up’, an earworm dance number I’d once been stuck with for six months while in Afghanistan, and which the playlist hasn’t brought up since. (Some things are simply meant to be, I guess. As frequent listeners will vouch, I’m partial to a good coincidence.)

An habitual night-owl, the schedule now is I wake up round 5am, drink a properly unhealthy amount of coffee, and walk the mile down to the station, about 6ish. It’s mid-winter in the Southern hemisphere, and there are still a good three hours before the sun comes up.

One of my first tasks is to read the weather forecast for the day, which can be weird when announcing a ‘high’ sunburn risk while it’s pitch black outside. On windy days the road from Stanley to the RAF-run airport may be officially closed (to Forces personnel, mind; not civilians). And the ‘sheep chill factor’ gets a giggle from the foreigners; but that’s important info down here, especially just after shearing season. In early June I trudged, for two weeks, over mounting snow and in the teeth of South Atlantic winds, shemagh across my face, and heavy-duty jacket over a fisherman’s sweater. Plus hat and gloves, naturally.

The Falklands is a decent fit for freelancers, where having several jobs is unexceptional. But in my case, currently, the portfolio includes broadcasting, English-teaching, writing, daycare, and being in the local Defence Force. So by Wednesday, I confess, things do start getting quite sardonic; by Thursday, I can barely say what day it is; and by Friday I’m just thankful that my voice has held out.

But honestly, once I’ve got down there and turned the station ‘live’ much of the pressure’s off. To my surprise – and certainly my wife’s – I’ve not yet overslept and missed a show. Given the sparrow-fart hour and 40 years of strong disinclination for it, I don’t feel that I’m doing all that terribly. A fortnight in, I found a book called How to Be a Brilliant DJ (or thereabouts)… and opted not to look for trouble.

“Not your own personal iPod” was the phrase used in the interview. And that’s just fine, it turns out. Being, as I am, paid for just an hour of prep for every two-hour show, the only way it could be worse (for someone with a strong musical bent) is if I had to start the entire thing each day from scratch.

The playlist isn’t limitless, and the auto-generating software isn’t super-accurate. There’s a fair amount of repetition and the Rock category tends heavily towards Aerosmith, AC/DC, Nickelback and Muse – with whom I have no problem, but not all the time. Lots of songs are inappropriate at breakfast time, on various levels. Falklanders are not notably uptight, but there’s no end of skanky nightclub ‘bangerz’ out there that I don’t want to listen to at 7am. And that goes double for Little Mix boring on about their exes. Today, though, I played ‘Scooby Snacks’ – so that was on me.

I’ve a long-standing hatred of songs in which the artist names him-, her- or, these days, themselves. Ditto songs with any kind of crassly-engineered ‘placement’, such as ‘in the club’, ‘put your hands in the air’ or ‘in the USA’. The words ‘gurrll’, ‘huh?’ or ‘yeah!’ have now been added to this list. Also ‘sha la la’, ‘baby’, and anyone referring to ‘London Town’. I’m not big on voice distort technology. Or saxophone solos.

Broadly speaking I’m permitted to summarily delete anything that’s billed as Mellow, Gold or performed by Queen or Abba (as these will be requested anyway), and I’m allowed to add/swap three songs in each hour, of my choosing. In the first 60 minutes, though, what with the two big chunks of news (Forces and local), this could be almost half the tracks. I find I’ve become remarkably forgiving even of completely un-ironic 1980s stuff, so long as I’ve not heard it for, say, six or seven years. Even Jason Donovan has had a look-in.

Needless to say, you can’t please everyone – and I don’t even try. (Half the country hate Country. The other half live for it. Don’t ask me why.) And of course these things are all dependent on mood. I keep wanting to play ‘Jolene’ (White Stripes cover of), but it’s totally devastating. Same with ‘Zombie’ by the Cranberries – but the computer threw that up, and so I left it in one morning, just for laughs.

And speaking of laughs, it was only after I’d been doing the job about a month that a mate of mine asked if I’d been briefed on what to do if the Argentinian army should come through the door again. I chuckled… and then I realised that I hadn’t. I keep a copy of Borges at hand, in case I need to strike up conversation – but since it’s bookmarked by an invitation to the Governor’s residence, addressed to ‘Pte Smyth’, that might not prove quite the get-out-of-jail-free card I’m hoping.

Two of my presenting confrères were actively involved in 1982, though, and one of them told me quite plainly I should leave the door open. I’ve also met the brave man, Patrick Watts (MBE), who was on air when Argentina came a-knockin’. Given that we have ‘Actions On’ for eventualities ranging from the loss of power to the death of royalty, it is perhaps a bit weird we don’t have a handy laminate for… that.

Other colleagues, meanwhile, include a helicopter pilot, a retired policeman, three fellow schoolteachers, a sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly, the government’s chief prosecutor, an ice-hockey player, and several more who work within the station full-time, as boss, head of content, chief technician, and so on. And then there’s the erstwhile Chilean-used-car salesman, news editor, ex-MLA, Defence Force veteran, security officer, and penultimate incumbent of the Breakfast Show: all one bloke ( – and quite the personality, at that!

One of the station identifiers we use says, “Falklands Radio – your local, national radio station!”, and the local news segments will typically feature up to eight minutes of commentary on pub darts, coverage of the annual Horticultural Show, and features on the reopening of the municipal swimming pool, to say nothing of the Fish-Catch Chart (which I maintain should have been named ‘LoLiga’). Last month we live-cast the ‘blood moon’ eclipse – at any rate until the snow clouds moved in and obliterated it.

But while some of my presenting colleagues lean quite local in their musical tastes (squeezebox), banter (pixies, peat-stoves, donkeys) and even quiz questions (“In 1976, what was the name of the mother of the owner of the wriggly-tin building which now houses Southern Imports…?”), we do have evidence of a much wider audience. So I’ve taken the opposite tack, introducing, whenever an excuse presents itself (and often when it doesn’t), anything from Uzbek pop to Nina Simone’s 10-minute epic ‘Sinnerman’ to my mate Paul’s rock band, One Day Elliott.

I’ve also shamelessly used friends’ birthdays, book releases, gig dates, anniversaries, et al. as hooks to generate requests, from cricketing chums, thriller writers, a Fellow of All Souls, my apprentice Teddy (who has his own Bristol-based radio show), an American Army Lt Col (ret), a professor of film in Vancouver, a Booker Prize judge, a conductor, and a rich South Asian scioness who works on HS2. Thankfully, most local requests come in after I have left the building.

I’ve read aloud dad jokes and James Blunt’s tweets; essays (by me – ahem) on bibliomania, the Skinners’ Company, and JS Mill; and I try to chuck in two or three funny international news items near the end, just to leaven the fare (though you try Googling ‘funny news stories Kazakhstan’, and see how far you get!). Oh, and a disquisition on the theremin.

Thanks to internet radio options, there are regular listeners in Germany, Australia, England, Portugal, and very northern Canada, and I’ve more or less coerced drop-ins from Denmark, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, Jordan, and Sri Lanka. I’d like to think everyone’s at least equally dissatisfied; but they may well be switching off in droves – I wouldn’t know. (There is a button in the studio marked ‘Fans’. Thus far I have withstood the urge to push it.)

Really, the nearest thing I get to feedback is on the quiz questions. Half of the punters say they should be more tricky, and half less difficult. Almost all my contestants phone rather than e-mail – because they’re of a certain age, and/or because the internet’s so damn expensive here – and they’re commendably unembarrassed at giving the wrong answer and then saying they will go away and do some more ‘research’. Already I’ve come to recognize a couple of dozen people simply from the sound of their voice. And although when someone new calls in I take that as a mark of broadened reach (which it doubtless isn’t), I’m more pleased when a friendly regular emerges victorious from the Friday prize-draw.

Almost inevitably, of course, my mother won in my first week (the station generously sent some branded coasters). A fortnight later (a hardback on the Falklands War), it was an old school friend in Sydney, to which I said “Well done, Rob,” and rolled the dice again. I warned a mate in Singapore he might not want to win the pack of toothfish cheeks…

Despite all that, the station is – like every other organisation in the Falklands (pop. 3,500) – an unabashed community affair.

Even the number of people with whom I have daily quiz chat (as contestants or indeed prize-donors) includes several who’ve presented the Breakfast Show. I know that Tigger hates the ‘Wellerman’ sea-shanty remix, and that Willie, poor chap, has problems with his eyesight. Some people introduce themselves by where they live, so when ‘Sue along the road’ or ‘Annie from Salvador’ are thrown up by the random-number generator, I have to put out an appeal for their contact details. Occasionally, somebody phones with only 20 seconds of a song to go, and/or fails to interpret “How’re you doing?” as a rhetorical question; but I suppose one takes the rough with the smooth, in any line of work.

Venture outside the capital and the place gets even smaller. Coming over the brow of a hill on distant Saunders Island, in the company of a farmer who views Stanley as a corrupting beast good only for bi-annual dental trips and doctors’ check-ups, I was momentarily perplexed to hear my own voice blaring “Checkout!” late one morning. Two days before, we’d been flown out there by a man whom I would later find to be the chairman of the Falklands Media Trust. And on Landing Day (21 May), at San Carlos – a day off and two-hour drive from the radio station – I heard myself quite audibly picked up on Falklands Radio, singing the anthem.

No limo, then, no ‘gang’, no mega-millions book contract. I go about my day in cheerful anonymity. Last week, my mother wrote to say the website doesn’t even have my picture on: Chris Moyles, eat yer heart out. At 9:05, I head back up the road, to one of my three other jobs.

You can listen to the Breakfast Show – and indeed any other Falklands Radio programming – by hitting the ‘Listen Now’ button at (GMT-3)

For Perspective magazine, in a shorter version

A Kentish field (June 6, 2019)

Between the dungheap
and the budding field of rape,
a line of poppies.

Trouble at’ Mill

Notes on the life (and afterlife) of JS Mill, philosopher

The classical liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill was born and died this month – in, respectively, 1806 and 1873 – and in between he wrote (or co-wrote, with his wife, and then his step-daughter) On LibertyUtilitarianism, Principles of Political Economy, Considerations of Representative Government, The Subjection of Women, and A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation.

I – The Incidental Mill Symposium

Everything I know about John Stuart Mill I learned in a beach hut on the West coast of Sri Lanka.

Some 18 months ago, perhaps, a former thinktank sparring partner got in touch to say that he was on the staff of a new politics-and-culture magazine, and they were looking for somebody to write a ‘Curious Lives’ pen-portrait feature. Possibly regularly. Would I be interested? Well, yes, of course I would.

The rest of the conversation I can broadly summarise as follows:

JS MILL: [writes 33 thick volumes of economics, history, philosophy and earnest journalism]
MARC: ‘Please write 800 words on JS Mill’s life and output. We’d need it in by Tuesday at the latest. Oh, and make it funny.’

That wasn’t space (or time) even to summarise the YouTube Mill tutorials. Also, one cannot, sadly, pop out to a bookshop in Colombo and expect to find a tome on JS Mill. What’s more, my family and I were just about to leave for a long seaside weekend.

So I downloaded Mill’s Autobiography and Richard Reeves’ John Stuart Mill, and set about urgently ‘researching’ the (I suspected) piously steady JS Mill on my daughter’s purple rubberised kids’ Kindle, from a cabana at my friend Dilsiri’s distractingly-beautiful kitesurfing resort outside Kalpitiya.

And when, predictably, my mind began to drift, I flipflopped across the sandy coconut groves to the bar (duh), where I was promptly introduced, both in person and, creepily, by Facebook, to a barrister called Niran, whom I had never met but with whom I had, inexplicably, all of the degrees of Kevin Baconayagam, and so spent much of the evening drunkenly discussing… the philosophy of JS Mill.

The next day’s prep was somewhat slower than the first, but to my surprise – and certainly relief – I found that Mill’s life had indeed been very curious. I got the piece done (OK, 200 words over: Mill was too interesting!), and sent it off, and was quite handsomely remunerated.

And then the mag went bust before it even came into existence.

II – Put through the Mill

When JS Mill was born, his father, the Scots philosopher-historian-economist James Mill, challenged one of his friends to ‘race with you in the education of… the most accomplished and virtuous young man’ – and wasn’t kidding. The name of that other child has not gone down in history; but he may well have dodged a serious bullet.

Learning Greek at 3, writing a history of Rome at 6, and tutoring his own siblings from the age of 8, John Stuart’s childhood quickly became synonymous with intellectual hothouse upbringings.

Groomed to be the strict Utilitarian offspring of his father and Jeremy ‘greatest happiness’ Bentham (Mill’s mother goes resoundingly unmentioned in his Autobiography), he was prevented from associating with kids his own age, was permanently off-games, and was woken up at 5 each day to work, unpaid, on James’s History of British India. If mistakes were made, he got no lunch.

Some of his father’s peers expressed concern – while those merely impressed were kept away from John in case he got a big head. Mill was occasionally allowed such treats as Don Quixote, or Jeremiah Joyce’s Scientific Dialogues; but reading poetry for pleasure was banned, despite the fact the family had once lived for a spell in Milton’s cottage, and that for homework he once wrote a sequel to the Iliad.

At 14 he took a gap year (as well one might), which he spent hobnobbing with French politicians and taking university courses in chemistry, zoology, and higher maths. (It was noted, though, that at this advanced stage he could still not comb his hair or tie a tie.) Back in England, he was arrested for distributing frank family-planning literature in poorer areas, and by the age of 20 he had nothing left to do but have his mid-life crisis.

In the circumstances, it is amazing that Mill turned out not merely functional but, in the assessment of Reeves, ‘the greatest public intellectual in the history of Britain – and perhaps even the world.’

With the help of Wordsworth’s verse (indeed), he began to distance himself from the Utilitarians, deciding he should worry less about ‘the greatest happiness’ in the doctrinal sense and more about his – and others’ – personal freedom and bog-standard contentment.

Already educated beyond university, and almost employability, Mill purposely took an untaxing clerical job with the East India Company (he finished work round 1pm), and embarked on the enormous side-career of strident political journalism that would make his name: or, in Edward ‘Clerihew’ Bentley’s wry summary, ‘By a mighty effort of will, / Overcame his natural bonhomie / And wrote Principles of Political Economy‘.

A unembarrassed ‘elitist democrat’, Mill believed that people could and should govern themselves, in the interests both of personal choice and broader social improvement, free from the tyrannies of law or majoritarian social attitudes – but that The People needed education and constraint. His faith in parliamentary democracy was not unqualified.

Individuals should be free to act as they wished, unless it would cause harm to others. ‘Offence’, NB, did not count as ‘harm’. In fact free speech was critical, for the airing of minority opinions and for bringing questionable views into contact with much better ones.

As an indication of the currency of these and other high-minded attitudes, when he was 31 The Spectator included Mill in a fantasy (sic) radical cabinet, though he was not even at that time a politician.

Politically and personally, he was probably a hard man to be friends with. He viewed Coleridge as a poetic genius, but also an ‘arrant driveller’ on economic matters. Macaulay he called a ‘dwarf’, and Carlyle a ‘true voice for the Devil’ – an a/enmity not defrosted by his maid using the only copy of Carlyle’s French Rev vol.1 to light the fire (cf. Blackadder).

He found eccentricity preferable to uniformity and stagnation, and his fallings out with former allies were almost always over their perceived political inflexibility. He had a marked penchant for slaying heroes, including, famously, Jeremy Bentham himself.

Pensioned off after the East India Company’s disbandment, Mill was finally at liberty to put his money where his professional mouth had been for over 40 years. In 1865 the titanic philosopher became a Liberal MP, by the unusual expedient of admitting at the hustings that he had called his working class would-be constituents ‘habitual liars’ (much cheering).

In a typically idiosyncratic and principled career, he prophesied the environmental dangers of unchecked economic development, but referred to the abolition of the death penalty as ‘effeminacy’; he continued to argue against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ in domestic politics, but was at peace with ‘despotism’ (his word) when it came to British rule in, e.g., India; he suggested learned folks should have more votes than the uneducated, but was the first man to bring a parliamentary vote on women’s suffrage.

He was, perhaps surprisingly, willing to compromise in the name of practical governance; but interested neither in party politics nor in ministerial advancement, he used the Commons as a pulpit to speak on as-yet-hopelessly-unpopular progressive issues. Unhelpfully, he also turned out to be an unconvincing public speaker. Having wound up Conservatives and Liberals alike, he lost his seat just three years later.

In 1851 he’d married the widow Harriet Taylor, with whom he had been spending considerable time – ‘platonically’ – for decades, notwithstanding, and sometimes in, the presence of her husband (alive and, well, unstimulating). Tragically for Mill, she died in 1858; but such was the impact, both morally and intellectually, of ‘the most admirable person I had ever known,’ that he dedicated much of the final phase of his life to the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, recruiting Florence Nightingale (originally sceptical) and being hailed by Millicent Fawcett as the ‘principal originator of the women’s movement.’

And so, while Bentham sat in state in his ‘auto-icon’ pickle-jar at UCL, Mill – later described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as ‘the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century’ – died an outsider, thrown out of one last club, just months before his death, for his outspoken views on land redistribution.

As the man himself wrote, there is ‘a tinge of melancholy in all biographies; the more interested we are in the hero, the sadder is our foreknowledge of the inevitable fifth act.’ Despite Monty Python‘s slanderous assertion that Mill became particularly ill on half a pint of shandy, it was actually a skin disorder what got him: erysipelas, or ‘holy fire’ (fittingly or otherwise, for an avowed agnostic in the former papal state of Avignon). He received the diagnosis with consummate dignity – “I have done my work” – and went to his grave believing his life had been ‘uneventful’, leaving one stepdaughter, Helen, and one godson (surely not the mot juste), Bertrand Russell.

He is commemorated by an unremarkable statue in Embankment Gardens, a portrait by GF Watts, an austere and lumpy-headed photo by the London Stereoscopic Company, and no small number of caricatures.

III – Chair of philosophy

Last weekend, I was unpacking the final boxes of my stuff laboriously imported from South Asia, and found my (highly collectible!) proof copy of S—- magazine. For a couple of minutes I leafed idly through it – looking wistfully at the frankly excellent piece on Mill, as well as all the other names like Tom Holland, Matt Ridley, Joy Lo Dico and Vernon Bogdanor, and wondering what might have been if only whichever oligarch/trustafarian had not gone bust and/or withdrawn his funding – before realising I really didn’t have time for this, as we’d a dinner obligation (not at all the right word) across the racecourse, in just under half an hour.

Our date being with a philosopher (three quarters of his immediate family are philosophers, in fact – or, at any rate, Philosophers), it was really no more than expected that when we arrived Ru thrust a glass of Bollinger in my direction and invited me to sit down in a characterful antique, mahogany, upholstered armchair. “Of course,” he mentioned, casually, “you do know this was JS Mill’s chair?”

I nearly leapt up out of it. Why the hell would I have known that?? And what in the System of Logic could Mill’s chair possibly be doing in the damn Falkland Islands, anyway!?

Well, I’m glad you asked. It turns out the chair more directly belongs to mine host’s wife Eliza (an educationalist in her own right), whose great great uncle – Frederick Langmead FRCP – purchased it, while in France, from a sale of Mill’s Avignon household effects, most likely in the years following Helen Taylor’s departure and death in the early 1900s.

Despite being one of the medical profession’s first paediatric specialists, in one of life’s sad ironies, Langmead and his wife were themselves unable to have children. So when he died he left the chair to his niece, Eliza’s grandmother, who in turn gave it to them as a wedding present, since Ru had (indeed still has) a degree in Philosophy as well as – nice triangulation – a professional interest at the time in medical ethics.

A couple of days later, Eliza dropped round with a copy of great great uncle Fred’s obituary, and a 1960 Times article about the Avignon house.

Travelling through France with her husband in November 1858, Harriet Mill suddenly fell ill, and died in a room at the Hotel d’Europe, Avignon. The story goes that the bereft JS promptly bought all the furniture from her hotel room (so it’s quite possible – likely even? – that Ru’s chair first belonged to the hotel), and re-established it in a small, two-storey, tile-roofed house bought for this purpose, from the study window of which he could look out and see Harriet’s grave (and indeed, from 1873, his own), fashioned from the same marble as the Pantheon.

The piece goes on to mention that, besides the Mills’ two ‘ghosts’, the house perhaps contained a third, that of Mill’s friend, the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, whom Darwin called ‘inimitable’ and whose ‘free thinking’ (teaching girls biology) got him into trouble at the local university. Sacked and turfed out of his accommodation, Fabre was aided, both financially and emotionally, by the militant defender of the conscience Mill. They became good friends, and went on various bugs-and-botany trips together (on which Helen proved a historically-important assistant). And, as if to demonstrate that philosophers, too, are not immune to Fate’s cruel humour (no good deed going unpunished, etc.), it was on one of these trips that Mill caught his fatal disease.

Alas, the article – capped with a weird black-and-white photo that appears to show three ‘types’ breaking into the already fire-ruined house through the perimeter fence, like some piece of Chapman Brothers art – turns out to be about the post-war population boom in France, and the drive for far more social housing.

Although ‘Our Own Correspondent’ allows that in many cases French cities and towns desperately needed to ‘throw off their nineteenth century aspect’, and that such changes ‘are welcome to the working class families’, the main thrust of his article is that ‘the new wave of housing means that the homes of France’s famous visitors, which have for years been places of pilgrimage for foreign travellers, are gradually disappearing.’

The following year, just over a century after Mill himself moved into it, the house was bulldozed and replaced by a large block of flats. How terribly Utilitarian.

For Falklands Radio

Beneath the mountains

Review of Alexandria: the Quest for the Lost City, by Edmund Richardson.

For The Spectator

She’s a lumberjack – and she’s not OK

Review of Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, by Suzanne Simard.

For Geographical

(Re)building a library

Confessions of a bibliomaniac in the South Atlantic.

For The Critic

The Very Old New Normal

An ancient livery company celebrates St George’s Day and a year of successful ‘virtual’ operation in the teeth of Covid-19

A year ago today, around the swelteringest part of the Sri Lankan year, I clambered to the roof of our apartment building in Colombo, donned my lairiest tropical shirt, cracked a Lion ‘larger’, and, as the sun plunged into the Indian Ocean (GMT+4.5), drank a toast “to the Queen, St George, The Worshipful Company of Skinners root and branch, may they continue and flourish for ever,” as well as to all frontline workers, and our disappointed guests.

The Skinners’ Company’s (rightly renowned) annual St George’s Day lunch had, of course, been cancelled, thanks to Covid, and replaced with a forgivably ad hoc ‘virtual’ toast, centred on Facebook.

Well, I’m not in Sri Lanka any more; but it’s St George’s Day AD 2021, and once again the lunch is off – and in the intervening year that’s pretty much been the consistent pattern, even the venerable ‘Great Twelve’ livery companies of the City of London forced to bend before the onslaught of the abiding international crisis.

Bend – but not break. Incorporated by Royal Charter in 1327, the Skinners’ Company and its Dowgate Hill HQ have seen much worse. Blitz spirit, and all that. I mean, for one thing, it survived the actual Blitz. And the Fire of London. Even the construction of Cannon Street station. ‘The postponement or cancellation of our gatherings,’ the then-Master wrote, ‘is a relatively small inconvenience; nor is it unprecedented. The Beadle alerted us to a Court minute in 1625 that accompanied the election of William Cockayne as Master for the third time: “Dinner was forborne by reason of God’s visitation of ye plague of pestilence.”’

At just a few years shy of seven centuries old, a lot of the Company’s traditions and whatnot are ‘very old’ at least – if not perhaps technically ‘ancient’. Ermine gowns, seriously antique loving cups and sung graces still generally obtain. And while the Company has long since registered the prevailing need to modernise – we’ve been on Facebook for five years, you know – I think it’s fair to say that even at the start of 2020, probably no-one was expecting ever to read the sentence ‘today’s Corpus Christi church service premieres on YouTube’.

But over the ensuing annus horribilis the Company has done a remarkable job (as have, for sure, thousands of comparable organisations of every size and stripe) of not only keeping its head above water, but of continuing – perhaps even improving – its delivery of both core charitable functions and social engagements for the Skinners membership. In this regard, matters were helped, no doubt, by the fortuitous incumbency of a tech-positive Master, whose social media posts (and love of Austrian desserts, protracted puns, and the odd liturgical bonfire) had already been going down a treat in several quarters.

Advertorial as it may be, I was particularly proud of the Marsh Academy in Romney, Kent (where I was formerly a governor), which promptly redistributed unneeded food and toilet rolls – the school being shut – to local residents. Tonbridge School and Skinners’ School in Tunbridge Wells manufactured and donated PPE directly to healthcare professionals. And the Company en tout has, in a joint Livery Kitchens Initiative, been providing meals for NHS workers and deprived communities in the East End of London, to the tune of £630,000 so far. This against a background of routine provision of grants and awards administered to the Company’s seven schools, two almshouses, and a host of otherscholarships and charities.

In terms of internal Company business – as has been said for years by all right-thinking people everywhere – it turns out many meetings can be had without the trouble of stepping out of one’s bedroom study. The first Zoom Court meeting of the Worshipful Company of Skinners duly took place, and everybody dressed more-or-less appropriately for the occasion, albeit one was in slippers, the senior active member was in his garden, and the soon-to-be-Past-Master solemnly gavelled in proceedings with a schnitzel-basher.

At the final Master and Wardens Committee meeting of the year (July), the usual boisterous do was ‘distanced’ across at least three venues: the Hall’s roof garden, the Courtroom, and several members’ own domestic dining tables. Once the new Master was sworn in, his predecessor put the ceremonial gongs down on the desk, retreated a few steps, and watched as the incomer picked them up and put them round his own neck.

A little low-key. But in time, the membership received a video of the new Master’s maiden speech, along with stills of an event not normally witnessed by those not in the livery (or even the court, perhaps?). All this and more, facilitated by a revamped website/membership portal which the Hall staff suddenly found themselves ‘blessed’ with time to work on.

Other things, of course, are rather harder to pull off remotely.

Our cricket grudge match v. the Merchant Taylors’ (all 6s count as 7s) was scrubbed, as was the inter-livery real tennis, the Great Twelve quiz, and even the annual sheep drive over London Bridge.

Most of the standing social events in the calendar fell victim to a rolling month-by-month ‘postponement’ barrage – the worst of all, for my money, being the loss of the Summer Drinks Reception, a light-hearted, champagne-flute-clinking event, open to all ranks and their guests. The 2019 incarnation was my last Skinning act before I left the country, and that evening alone I met, just off the top of my head, a sky diver, a professor, at least one senior partner at John Lewis, a minerals broker, about a dozen teachers, several members of the cricket team, our first lady Master (whose name, impeccably, is ‘Dudley’), a Lord, a General, a specialist in Romanian music, one of the animators of Peppa Pig, a sometime organist at Hereford Cathedral, a man who’s been to Antarctica, a dabbler in/on Renaissance lute, and no end of other top chaps and chapesses, all in their finery (humorous socks optional).

But here too the Company bounced back.

There was nothing to stop even the lowliest member from joining in a week or so after the Corpus Christi feast (sic), when a condensed highlights reel was made ‘public’ (although having to cook one’s own grub could be viewed as something of a minus point). The inter-livery shooting competition did manage to take place. The Company annual review got itself compiled and sent out both digitally and on paper, despite trying working conditions for such a team production. Then there was a virtual wine-tasting (the wine was real enough) in November, followed by the carol service (a surprisingly recent ‘tradition’) at St James’, Garlickhythe, in early December. Numbers were capped, needless to say, so even though I unexpectedly found myself in England for the ‘festive’ season, I watched it on the internet, somewhat disconsolately, along with a couple of hundred other people.

The new year has had its ups and downs, but distanced visits, competitions and other fun have all been had at the Skinners’ alms houses. The mid-May golf against the MT’s is still scheduled to go ahead. A late-June ‘lunch on the Thames’ has been merely moved to September, rather than cancelled. And so wildly popular was last night’s online British-salmon-and-wine-tasting evening that a second, overflow event had to be scheduled before the first had even taken place.

There have also been announcements of adjustments to the rules of apprenticeship, so that potential later generations will not miss out on anything courtesy of arbitrary deadlines. And last month, for the first time, Bindings and Freedoms themselves took place online: ceremonies which, under normal circumstances, would involve exchange of peppercorns, oaths in Latin, and the use of vellum. I’m pleased to read these new members will be the first in line for hearty welcomes at the Hall, when Covid restrictions finally are lifted.

Meanwhile, the Company’s active approach to social media means that one can maintain links (or indeed ‘lynx’ – our furry mascots) with Skinners all around the world, learn about opportunities to get involved in the committees and governing bodies, read personal Instagram accounts of Skinning life (@skinnerstories), see footage of various school events and online performances by Skinners’-sponsored Guildhall music students, watch online lectures about the history of the Company, get updates on, e.g., the artefacts being unearthed by excavations in the building (a jug’s just been found, dating to the time of the Great Fire of 1666), and even – in an avowed attempt to get folks off their screens – enter a paint-by-numbers competition to win tickets for this year’s Autumn Dinner. The current Master is also hosting regular online ‘Meet the Master’ events for recent members, an opportunity for the sort of face-time which genuinely might not, in previous generations, have presented itself to a new Skinner for several decades.

Today, I write from Stanley, in the Falkland Islands. We’re four hours behind the UK, now (no daylight saving) so the ‘lunchtime’ toasts did feel a smidgen early, and for the life of me, I couldn’t locate my Hawaiian shirt. Not that that’s a problem here, mind, where autumn temperatures are already pushing zero, and winds routinely gust at over 40 miles an hour. The Master tells me that the weather’s aptly glorious in England. But since the Company’s St George’s celebrations are of course again online, that meant that I could join in, cost-free, howsoever clad, and same as anybody.

Last June, his predecessor rightly prophesied the Corpus Christi service would be better attended virtually than it has been, historically, in person. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Covid has opened up a range of Skinners interactions and involvements to many of us too junior, skint, or distant to otherwise participate. It may also prove to have been beneficial when it comes to the Hall’s imminent closure for a two-year renovation marathon – another sign of the regenerative spirit of the Company, ancient and modern. Far be it from me to suggest that many a British institution might have the turning circle of an oil tanker; but, undesirable as the situation is for now, who knows if one day we won’t look back and see this as an accidentally helpful boost into new ways of functioning?

But that silver lining, obviously, implies the cloud, and the lack of company – not to say Company – is still a heartfelt problem. An institution that exists solely for fraternal charity and fellowship cannot realistically be operating at full-throttle where people aren’t allowed to congregate. No-one would claim the current circs are anything other than suboptimal.

So it is heartening to read in monthly e-news, mailouts, and the rest of it that spring is in bloom at the Hall, the staff are back, real-life events are being pencilled in to diaries, and if I colour in my rampant lynxes very carefully, I might yet be there for the Autumn Dinner.

As broadcast on Falklands Radio

Zooming windows

Interview with members of the George Formby Society, as they attempt to break an online ukulele-playing record.

For The Critic

Antarctic adventure

From the submarine service to the world’s southernmost post office: Q&A with dentist Sally Owen, in the sub-Antarctic.

For The Critic