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A little less conservation…

Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Non-Human World
by Emma Marris
Bloomsbury
£20 (hardback)

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Stepping slightly sideways from where she left off in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Emma Marris now turns her attention to a series of ‘exercises in practical philosophy’ on the ethics of humans versus(?) wild animals.

From the conservation of songbirds in Hawai’i to the extermination of rats in one part of New Zealand (and protected status in another), she asks what, in our overwhelmingly-human-dominated 21st century, the very concept of ‘wild’ might still even mean. Outside of Yellowstone National Park, for instance, almost no wolves manage to die from natural causes. The Great Condor, meanwhile, had to be rendered 100% captive in order to ‘save’ it.

And to what extent are our domestic pets and livestock distinguishable, ethically, from ‘wild’ animals? Should we feed struggling Arctic polar bear populations at the expense of many thousands of seals? Are species even inherently valuable? The argument is made that helping animals might constitute a lack of respect. Besides, some chimpanzees are jerks.

Since when were humans not a part of nature, anyway? All ecosystems are built on death – and the ‘obligation’ not to hunt or kill is purely human. (Even vegans cannot ‘fully opt out of ecological existence.’) She is openly disconcerted by her conclusion that evolution and biodiversity are not objectively ‘good’, per se, but rather ‘completely amoral… just time and sex and death and mutation and chance.’

She cites renowned philosophers who say it is catastrophic human arrogance to play God (yet further) with animals, and others who recommend a scientific ‘extinction of all carnivorous species’. Amid the conflicting ‘claims’ of natural processes, species and individuals, predicting the ripple effects of any intervention is extremely tricky. Time-frames could run to many generations. And it is hard to find enough terrain where animals can truly be left to their own devices.

These are deep ethical waters, and I don’t think it’s unfair to say there are more questions in Wild Souls than answers.

Ultimately, Marris makes a plea for faunal ‘physical autonomy, not genetic or ecological purity’, and advocates humility and limits on our interference in troublingly vague states of ‘wilderness’ and ‘nature’. ‘Make room for other species and fight for climate justice,’ she says: take the path of least harm, and try to live with the ‘moral residue’.

‘Note: there may not be a correct answer.’


For Geographical

Kreises of conscience

All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days
The True Story of the Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler
by Rebecca Donner
Canongate, £16.99, pp576

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In 1928, modest young blue-collar English lecturer Mildred Fish arrives in Berlin to begin her PhD in American Literature.

In the febrile, polyglot atmosphere at the ‘crossroads of Europe’, some papers are still mocking Adolf Hitler; few take him seriously. Mildred sees (up close) the brokenness of American and German capitalism, and (distantly) the apparently level playing-fields of Communist Russia. As the Nazi Party gets its claws into the body politic, she teaches an overtly socialist syllabus: Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, et al. Halfway through her dissertation, the university fires her. She promptly starts work at a free night-school for working class students. “Should Hitler be Chancellor?” she asks them, in her ‘English’ class.

But within six months he turns the country into a dictatorship. Newspapers are closed, political opponents taken into ‘protective custody’, camps built. ‘The situation grows steadily worse,’ Mildred writes to her uncomprehending mother back in Wisconsin. ‘We must change this situation as soon as possible.‘ She and her friends convene a regular ‘discussion circle’ (or Kreis) in her apartment, made up of students, aristocrats, bohemians – even a former member of the Hitler Youth.

She marries the equally-earnest Arvid Harnack (they honeymoon on a picket line in Colorado), a German economist with a fondness for the Soviet model. Arvid is a cousin of the Bonhoeffers, one of whom gets him a job at Lufthansa, then at the Ministry of Economics, where he reports directly to Hjalmar Schacht. He begins urgently leaking evidence of Germany’s war preparations.

Mildred, meanwhile, leverages her friendship with the US ambassador’s giddy daughter Martha Dodd for access to sympathetic American officials, their drinks parties and high-ranking guests. Working as a literary scout, she is able to travel surprisingly freely. In London, once, she tries to recruit Rebecca West.

The Kreis steal documents, print and distribute leaflets, helps Jews escape through consular contacts, translate and smuggle foreign speeches into German factories and government departments (incl. Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry!), expose war-profiteering and German atrocities in uniform, and attempt to give crucial economic and military intelligence to the soon-to-be Allies.

The tragedy of Harnack’s life is that it was all for nothing. The British and French having bailed on them (and the nascent Oster conspiracy) at Munich, the Western allies continued to dismiss the idea of any German resistance movement throughout the war. Despite countless warnings, Stalin continued to stare into the funfair mirror of his paranoia until the morning after Barbarossa.

But at the time of her arrest in December 1942, Mildred Harnack was simultaneously teaching English to the SS and at the centre of one of the largest anti-Nazi resistance groups in Germany – a chaotic Venn diagram of diplomats, ministry officials, military officers, broadcasters, engineers, socialist literati, socialites, actual spies, an American 11-year-old, and a journalist turned ‘fortune-teller’ who used her sessions with German soldiers to extract strategic information. Thanks to Arvid’s formal (if reluctant) conversion to paid espionage, she was also very actually in bed with Soviet interests.

It was the Russian connection which ultimately did for them, a callow NKVD chief sending a telegram including Mildred’s name and address undisguised in it: ‘one of the most significant espionage blunders of the Second World War’. The Abwehr dropped the net, and one of the fish (not to say Fish) gave up most of the others.

Arvid received the death sentence. Mildred, extraordinarily, was given only six years’ hard labour – until Hitler personally intervened. She spent her final days in solitary confinement, translating Goethe (whence Donner’s title). On February 16 1943, Mildred Harnack was executed, age 40, in Plötzensee Prison, under the guillotine.

The job of bringing this surprising and courageous woman back to life has fallen to her great-great niece, the Canadian-American essayist and novelist Rebecca Donner.

Donner acknowledges the difficulty of biographing someone whose aim, by definition of her work, ‘was self-erasure.’ Frankly, what Harnack even did from day to day is fairly unclear. I’m not convinced the book quite lands its stated ‘heart of the resistance movement’ claim. And the material does feel a little stretched between Harnack’s arrest and even legitimately related events – like Operation Walkyrie – towards the war’s end.

But Donner’s pacey present-tense narrative – assembled from testimonials, memoirs, diaries, etc. – astutely papers over most of these unfortunate lacunae, while the short chapters and numbered subdivisions combine with clippings, photos, handwriting and so on, to reapply the human touches, add salt for international flavour (English, German and Russian), and illustrate the nightmarish job of tracking Harnack through the often-literally fragmented documentary evidence.

And out of necessity, virtue. From the Chatwinesque details – like the Moscow import-export front called ‘Foreign Excellent Trench Coats’, or the hideously creepy questionnaire the day she died: ‘Do you have especially strong passions? (Drinking, smoking, sexual excess?)’ – to the group’s mugshots, terrible in their banal officialdom, it’s an impressive and compelling excavation.

‘The archives tell us a great deal,’ writes Donner, but ‘much is missing from them.’ Now, at least, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days stands as a memorial for Mildred Harnack. As one of her interrogators once said: “It would make a wonderful novel, if it weren’t so sad.”


For The Spectator, in a different edit

The Egmont overture

or; Acts of settlement

A brief investigation of the first few Falklands conflicts

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A few months back, my family and I took advantage of the Falkland Islands Government’s TRIP scheme (a Covid-era measure to help stimulate internal tourism) and booked a flight to Saunders Island, one of the largest of the 770-odd ‘other’ islands – i.e. not East or West Falkland – approximately 90 miles to the West-North-West of Stanley. 

Internationally recognised as both an Important Bird Area and an Important Plant Area, Saunders is home to the Pole-Evans family, about 6,500 sheep, some horses, cows, one pig plainly being fattened up for Christmas, numerous dogs (pet/working status variable), albatross colonies, Johnny Rooks, a bazillion penguins of various sub-species, the occasional dead whale, and the site of the oldest British settlement in the Falkland Islands. 

Thanks to the infamously changeable Falklands weather, our little red FIGAS air taxi had been delayed for basically the entire morning, so once David Pole-Evans and his wife and daughter (see also: the fire service) had collected us from the airstrip, and we’d driven the few hundred metres over to ‘the Settlement’, and had a cup of tea, there was only really a couple of hours of mid-autumnal light left in the day. And then my eye was caught by an abandoned worksheet from the national museum’s kid’s Past Finders group. 

“How far is it to Port Egmont?” I asked. “Oh, maybe 20 minutes,” said our hosts, not glancing at the three-year-old.  

The Pole-Evanses, I think, mainly commute by quad bike; but my wife had said we would not need the ‘baby’-carrier… so under a chilly, clear sky, we tramped out of the settlement, child on our backs, along the coastal path, between the black mud of the water’s edge and the Eastern slopes of Mount Egmont (259m), up a gentle valley, through long moorland paddocks of befuddled-looking sheep and hairy cows, until, as the sun began to disappear precipitously behind the hill, we reached a newish-looking gate, beyond which a Union Jack could clearly be made out flapping vigorously at full mast, amid the ruins of some low stone buildings.  

The kid, of course, was now asleep. So we lay her down among the diddle-dee and ferns, and took turns to explore the territory.
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Port Egmont 

Strictly speaking – as David P-E points out – Port Egmont is in fact the watery, calm, thoroughfare between West Falkland, Saunders, Keppel Island, and a handful of other tiny land ‘masses’. 

Before the second half of the C18th, most sightings of the Falklands were by lost mariners, blown off course from the coast of Patagonia, before or after efforts to make their way around Cape Horn. All ships approached the islands from the West, not least because of the prevailing, often very forceful, winds. For this reason – and in the continued absence of a North West passage (and/or a Panama Canal) – the Falklands was about to become an important staging post for European ships either preparing for or recovering from voyages to the Pacific, and a potential strategic position against, specifically, the Spanish, in the eventuality of war.  

Regardless of who may first have seen/found/mapped what we now call the Falkland Islands, and when (the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British all make claims. There is, importantly, no evidence whatever of any indigenous, pre-European, population), on January 15th/21st/23rd/25th 1765 (the sources vary), Commodore the Hon. John Byron of HM frigate Dolphin landed at Port Egmont, and formally took possession of the Falkland Islands. ‘The Union Jack was erected on a high staff and being spread I named the whole of His Majesty [George III]’s isles which I claimed for the Crown for Great Britain, his heirs and successors.’ 

The Port Egmont settlement (sometimes called ‘Jason’s Town’) and the body of water in front of it, are crucially sheltered, by Mount Egmont, from the westerly winds, which in the age of sail could often make it impossible to get out of a harbour in that general direction. (The next day, at the opposite end of Saunders Island, I found myself walking at almost 45 degrees – both left and forwards – just to stay ‘upright’.) On top of good water, good (if shallow) soil, ‘antiscorbutick’ plants and plentiful edible wildlife – everything, in fact, except wood – Byron proclaimed the place ‘one of the finest natural harbours in the world… All the Navy of England might ride here together very safely.’ He named it for the Earl of Egmont, then First Lord of the Admiralty (Admiralty office-holders and ships between them accounting for much if not most of the coastal nomenclature down here). And he wrote: ‘I am almost certain that We are the first Ships that ever have been there since the Creation, & I coasted the Island above 70 Leagues afterwards, but saw no Smokes nor Signs of any Bodys being there…’  

This last bit was not merely tempting fate.  

Nine months before, the French had secretly set up shop around the corner (a lot of corners, admittedly) on East Falkland. This was Port Louis, established on the 17th February (or the 5th of April) 1764, by Louis de Bougainville, with a population of 74 mainly Nova Scotian refugees (one of whose children, Sebastien Benoit, may well have been the first man ever to be born in the Falkland Islands), his expedition having set out from St Malo – whence ‘Malouines’, and, latterly, ‘Malvinas’. 

News of this settlement had become public in August, while Byron was at sea; but it had been passed on to him by a British supply ship off the coast of South America. Byron had also encountered Bougainville’s ships there, and guessed their business. It is presumably indicative of some basic political savvy that Byron hastily wrote to Egmont highlighting the British claim of Richard Hawkins (1594) to have discovered the islands; but it is also illustrative of the geography of the Falklands that the rival settlements spent almost two years failing to find each other (and when they did they exchanged officerly hospitality). 

In 1766, a Captain John Macbride returned to Port Egmont with HMSs JasonCarcass and Experiment. They secured possession, constructing buildings, installing a garrison, and leaving a ship on permanent stand-by. Over the following years, as the settlement developed, its composition and layout took on forms familiar to anyone who’s ever read an C17th/18th sea-faring yarn, or indeed played with pirate Lego.  

Although most of the ‘settlers’ slept aboard their ships, an archaeological survey carried out in 1992 identified some 50 distinct man-made features, from the harbour complex to the Governor’s residence, and one can still see significant remains of a large store/barracks building, houses, and gun emplacements, as well as numerous low, gorse-topped banks that denote more former structures, long since abandoned and/or trampled by the grazing animals. Alas for tourism (perhaps), much of the locally-available building material, like peat blocks, tussac grass and whale ribs, was biodegradable – and what was not was ultimately removed or ‘upcycled’ by one party or another. But bits of brick, sea-smoothed glass, and fragments of tile are visible along the seashore; chinaware, penguin-boilers and other evidence of daily life have also been found. 

Those with a good imagination will not struggle to imagine that ‘an appointment so remote, and so unfavourable’ – in the words of ship’s surgeon Bernard Penrose – was hardly thought of as a cushy posting. He too complains of the weather: that the ice was two feet thick on the ponds in winter, and in mid-summer hailstorms destroyed their vegetables. When not on board ship, they often lived in makeshift buildings that ‘in England would not have been used even as kennels for dogs.’ Resourceful, but hardly over-resourced, these men (I find no mention of women or children, NB) certainly had to be industrious: Penrose recounts them bending the edges of a spade as a replacement for their frying pan. In all, he found, the South Atlantic experience ‘distinguishes the man of perseverance.’ Both officers and men were unabashed in their enthusiasm when they were relieved. 

Above the settlement, a small cemetery, containing half a dozen graves, stands on the side of Mt Egmont, surrounded by a well-tended white paling fence: testament to an age when spending time on Saunders Island – let alone getting to and from the Falklands – was a lot less of a jolly than it is today. One man died after losing half a leg to a sea-lion. On another occasion, a grassfire nearly burned the entire settlement to the ground. 

On his arrival, Macbride’s first actions were to lay out several gardens and erect a blockhouse for artillery. The gardens were self-evidently important (fresh fruit and veg remain a problem in the Falklands, even now). The blockhouse, though, was more-or-less totally symbolic (one report referring to it as ‘a pigeon-loft’); if even a small armada sailed into the bay, Port Egmont was clearly indefensible. 

And of course this is exactly what happened.  

In 1767, the Port Louis settlement was ceded to Spain (who had made, hitherto, no physical impression on the islands) and who now invoked the notorious C15th Papal contrivance of the Treaty of Tordesillas. Bougainville was personally remunerated, and the French settlers all left. The name was changed to Puerto Soledad (and sometimes also ‘Puerto Luis’, the maps forever being rendered out of date), and under the Spanish the population hovered around the hundred mark, half of them convicts. The transfer ceremony took place on – ahem – April 1st (see 1982), the French essentially insisting that the Spanish maintain the settlement to ward off British claims. 

Having finally discovered where the British were, in June 1770 a Spanish commander arrived at Port Egmont with five armed ships and 1400 soldiers. The tiny British garrison fired their guns once, for honour’s sake, and then capitulated.  

Penrose noted five years later ‘what considerable share [the Falklands] lately had in the politics of the times.’ Lord Nelson wrote that the expulsion from Egmont was what inspired him to join the Navy. The estimable Dr Johnson was considerably less excited by the idea of ‘a colony which could never become independent, for it could never be able to maintain itself.’ But amid threats of open war, the British and the Spanish settled, as it were, out of court, and Port Egmont was fairly cordially handed back, inventory and all, in 1771. But less than three years later, a Royal Navy strategic review (spurred by the impending American Revolution) resulted in the garrison’s withdrawal. (Veterans of, say, the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may feel a twinge of recognition here.) 

The departing CO, Lt Clayton, affixed a lead plaque to the blockhouse door, inscribed thus: 

Be it known to all Nations That Falkland’s Ifland, with this Fort, the Storehoufes, Wharfs, Harbours, Bays and Creeks thereunto belonging, are the Sole Right and Property of his Moft Sacred Majefty George the third, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith. In Witnefs whereof this Plate is fet up and his Britanick Majefty’s Colours left flying as a mark of Poffeffion… 

Sealers soon re-occupied the settlement, until the Spanish burned the buildings down in 1780. Clayton’s lead plaque was taken away to Buenos Aires, and later to the Tower of London, where it was, somewhat ironically, lost in a fire in 1841.
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Port Louis/Puerto Soledad 

Port Louis/Puerto Soledad hung on after the Brits decamped, until the Spanish – now struggling to control their own rebellious colonies – removed their Governor in 1806, and evacuated the place altogether in 1811. A lead plaque was left here, too, claiming possession for Fernando VII of Spain; but in reality the Falklands was abandoned to the needs of American and British sealing and/or whaling vessels. 

For a decade or two, the various claims now became quite chaotic. In 1820 an American privateer, Colonel David Jewett, in the service of the United Provinces of the River Plate (proto-Argentina) – fighting against the Spanish, that is – arrived in Puerto Soledad, and pluckily claimed the settlement, and the 50 or so civilian ships floating off shore, for the ‘Argentinians’. The British Antarctic explorer Weddell – he of the ‘Sea’ – recorded these swashbuckling theatrics. But Jewett was a pirate; no documents ever suggested he was operating under orders; and the optimistic ‘claim’ was reported in London and indeed in Salem, Massachusetts, before it was noted (under ‘foreign news’) in Buenos Aires. For what it’s worth, that year in Argentina there were apparently 24 governments, including three in just a single day. But Jewett’s own letter of resignation (mid mutiny) in February the following year, makes no mention of any claim or occupation. The Colonel was last seen switching sides, to the Brazilian navy. 

Jewett was followed by the German-born French Huguenot Louis Vernet (keep up, keep up!), employed by Argentina as a combination of businessman and consular officer, with some astutely-engineered acceptance/awareness from the British consul in BA, the unimprovably-named Sir Woodbine Parish. 

Vernet had some on-off luck with his concession for killing wild cows on East Falkland; but then he allowed himself to be named ‘Political and Military Commandant’ by Buenos Aires, and started seizing American sealing ships for his own business purposes – at which both the British and Americans predictably reacted. The USS Lexington swiftly ended Vernet’s piratical career, destroying the guns at Puerto Soledad in 1832, and removing the settlers, most of the slaves, and anyone else who wanted to leave.  

Perhaps concerned that the Americans themselves were now getting in on the colonial act, at the end of 1832 a small Argentine garrison arrived, under the command of Major Esteban Mestivier… whom they promptly murdered. Within weeks, a detachment of Royal Marines under Captain Onslow arrived aboard HMS Clio, and expelled the Argentinians. They left unmolested a civilian population of about two dozen, which Charles Darwin shortly afterwards characterised, accurately enough, as ‘more than half… runaway rebels and murderers.’ A few months after Darwin’s visit, the settlement manager, former Antarctic explorer Matthew Brisbane, was killed by gauchos. Quite incidentally, the Royal Navy (now also thoughtful about American naval activity in the region), despatched HMS Challenger to raise the flag once more and reassert their sovereignty over the islands. 

For a while, the Brits called the place ‘Anson’s Harbour’, before reverting to the former French nomenclature. But a report from Admiral George Grey in 1836 likened the ‘little Colony’ to ‘a preventative station on the coast of Northumberland’ – and though a few outlines of these old settlement buildings are still visible, Port Louis soon became, and is today, a modest sheep farm.
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Port Stanley 

In 1841, at the tender age of 28, a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, Richard Clement Moody, was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the Falkland Islands. He was tasked with recce-ing the best available ports and the viability of ‘establishing a regular authority’ – in short, whether to proceed with a full colonisation. 

Moody arrived at Port Louis in 1842, along with 26 volunteers from the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners, and their families (the total population of the islands at this point numbering just 62). He soon discovered his first priority would be the founding of a new colonial capital, and Port William (less than 20 miles to the South East, as the crow flies) seemed, from both a naval and commercial perspective, the leading candidate.  

Moody had his reservations about Port William – namely that it was ‘very wet and swampy’ (it’s snowing right now, and when it melts there will be peaty puddles in our garden for some days) – but on the personal recommendation of the renowned polar explorer James Clark Ross – he of HMS Erebus and Terror (cf. the recent, and pointlessly-supernatural, TV series) – Port Jackson in particular (pretty much every inlet in the Falklands is a ‘port’) was identified as the safest and best harbour, in particular because it lets out almost immediately onto the ocean to the East. 

Of course, Ross wasn’t going to do any of the actual work – and the relocation, it must be said, was not universally popular. The move itself was pretty tough, and Moody wasn’t wrong about the new site. The Governor and his men lived in tents and, later, turf huts while they surveyed the ground. One of their first projects in the prospective town was, unremarkably, the construction of Store House No. 1 – these days the Historic Dockyard Museum, inside which hangs a rather lovely A4-ish watercolour of the settlement (1849; Edward Gennys Fanshawe), above the following caption:  

“Of all the miserable bog-holes in the Falkland Islands, I believe Mr Moody has selected one of the worst for the site of the town.” – JB Whitington, Settler 

The Governor – for once, not being a Navy man – renamed the town Port Stanley, in honour of the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, and on 16th August 1844 the first letter marked ‘Stanley’ was posted, requesting the official name-change. (One cannot help thinking it would have been funny if, at that point, Lord Stanley had responded saying ‘No.’)

Port Stanley remains there to this day, of course – though simply called ‘Stanley’ now – and continues to thrive. We only arrived six months ago, and already there’s a whole new road (named for Prince Philip) and a new housing area. Housing is at a serious premium here, as the population explodes in a way that might have pleased (if also surprised?) Port Egmont’s settlers.

When Richard Moody stepped down as the Governor, three of his men chose to remain, including Pte James Biggs, whose descendants substantially contribute to the demographic now. One of them is a colleague of mine in two separate jobs; another is the owner of the big stone building (a rarity) I spotted from the air just as we cleared West Falkland. The names of many others, and the boats they sailed in, live on in landmarks, businesses and street names to this day. 

On Saunders Island, David Pole-Evans and his family remain the only occupants, apart from tourists – and most of those, I suspect, come for the penguins. But at Port Egmont, the Union Jack still flutters valiantly. As he drove us back down to the airstrip, David said he thinks it’s time the Falkland Islands celebrate a Founders Day, each 23rd of January. 


For The Critic, in a different edit

To the beat of her own conundrum

Conundrum
by Jan Morris
Ukemi Audiobooks
read by Roy McMillan
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Born in 1926, into Anglo-Welsh upper-middle comfort, James Humphry Morris was educated at Christ Church, Lancing, and Christ Church again, served in the dashing 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers during WWII, climbed much of Everest and broke the news of Hillary and Tenzing’s successful 1953 ascent, uncovered Franco-Israeli collusion at Suez, and reported on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Not interested in public life, or really any steady form of employment, he became one of Britain’s greatest writers (of travel, journalism, history, and eventually a novel). And then, in 1972, he went to Morocco, emerging from the Casablanca surgery as ‘Jan’. Conundrum was published only two years later (the first under Morris’s new name), reissued several times, and subsequently hailed as one of the ‘100 Key Books of Our Time’.

In a memoir that’s somehow barely five hours long, she relates the realisation, aged three (under the piano), that she’d been born into the wrong body; summarises the long human fascination with (and indulgence of) the blurry boundaries of sex and gender; mentions suicide as almost a purely-factual alternative; and is disarmingly frank about her sexual reaction to architecture, being kissed by a cabbie, becoming her wife’s ‘sister-in-law’, and a hundred and one other extraordinary situations.

‘Few people understood it’, Morris admits (the Olympics gets a mention, NB), and she’s at pains to note those whose lives have been wrecked by such decisions. But by and large she says she had quite positive reactions. It’s hard not to suspect these findings must be cushioned by class and other kinds of self-sufficiency. A born free-thinker (though not a mere contrarian), it’s fairly clear that Morris keenly maintained, on several levels, her outsider status… and also that she could afford to.

During her lifetime, transsexualism has gone, practically speaking, from ‘virtual inconceivable’ to ‘nearly a commonplace’, and today’s gender activists will no doubt have views on her attitude towards the ‘trendy’ word ‘identity’, statements about the ‘androgenous condition’ disqualifying her from writing fiction, and views on men and women (‘I did not want to be good at reversing cars…’, e.g.) now – in her updated introduction – acknowledged as ‘preposterously obsolete’.

At her death last year, aged 94, Jan Morris had been a woman for more of her life than she was not. It took a while for me to twig Conundrum was read – quite unobtrusively, but still from start to finish – by a man.


For Perspective magazine

MILFs & Boon

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

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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

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‘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 (@radio.co.fk) – 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 https://www.radio.co.fk/ (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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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