Wednesday 24 September 2014

'We are watching in awe and deep emotion'

The blog has been silent for a while, whilst I hurtle to the finishing line on a book. I've now sent the manuscript off to the publishers and am enjoying a short lull before they remind me of all the things I have not supplied - bibliographies, source notes, map briefings etc etc. For the past three years I've been living with the deeds of the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. The first people to establish a sea route to India, and the first conquistadors. It's been a long and fascinating voyage for me too - leaving the Mediterranean for once for the seas beyond: a tale of ingenuity and endurance, sea battles and, at times, terrible brutality - all paving the way for the global world in which we live today.

Meanwhile, scanning the news, I've been fascinated by the discovery of a royal tomb in Greece, dating back to the time of Alexander the Great, that has temporarily distracted the Greeks from their modern woes:

Two sphinxes guard the entrance to the tomb

As the archaeologists patiently burrow their way into an extraordinary mausoleum, the Greeks dream that it's the tomb of Alexander himself and the nation holds its breath: "We are watching in awe and with deep emotion the excavation in Amphipolis,"said the Greek culture minister. You can read the story here

Monday 4 August 2014

Candles in the dark

'The lights are going out all over Europe.' People in Britain have been asked to turn off their lights for an hour between 10 and 11pm this evening in memory of the time an exact century ago that the country declared war on Germany. And so I'm writing this by candlelight. It's a beautiful, tranquil August night here in the countryside, the moon clear in the sky, an atmospheric time to remember. And historians still seem unable to come to a consensus as to exactly why the people of Europe needed to churn their continent into the mud.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Today Germany honours

This man:

Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg is surrounded by his children (from R) Berthold, Franz-Ludwig und Haimeran in 1940

The aristocratic Col Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. Today, at 12.30, seventy years ago, the one-armed, one-eyed von Stuaffenberg entered a meeting with Hitler at the Wolf's Lair, put a bulky black briefcase down on the table, and departed. He heard the explosion in the distance as he left the compound. He was certain that Hitler was dead.

It was just bad luck. The briefcase had been moved off the table. Four men were killed, but Hitler, shielded by the heavy table, survived the blast - though his trousers did not. I can't help thinking how big the trousers are beside the soldier holding them up. Did they find a particularly small man to display them or perhaps substituted another pair with faked lacerations to give the German public an idea of the enormous size of The Great Leader, and his invulnerability?
The trousers Hitler was wearing when the bomb exploded

Von Stauffenberg, along with many others, was rounded up and shot. He was 36 years ago. The story here from the BBC which has been interviewing his son.

Friday 27 June 2014

28 June 1914

A hundred years ago today two pistol shots that changed the world. On 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip and five other Serbian nationalists were lining the streets of Sarajevo, awaiting the arrival of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who had come with his wife to open a hospital. They were armed with pistols and hand grenades and carried cyanide capsules. It was to be death or glory.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Dutchess Sophieat Sarajevo on 28th June, 1914.
The Archduke and his wife arriving in Sarajevo on the fateful day

As the cortege passed, one of the conspirators hurled a hand grenade at the Archduke’s car. The grenade had a ten second delay on it; the chauffeur accelerated away, the grenade hit the fourth car, exploded and seriously wounded two of the dignitaries inside. The other conspirators were unable to react as the archduke’s car sped off. The attack had failed.

Later the archduke decided to visit the wounded in hospital. As the car made its way by another route, the chauffeur took a wrong turn. Realising his mistake, he attempted to back. The car stalled. It was about 10.45. By pure chance Princip was standing on the pavement by a cafĂ© as the car ground to a halt. This was his moment. He stepped forward and pulled the trigger. At five feet it was impossible to miss. The first shot hit the Archduke in the neck. Princip took aim again – this time at the Austrian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina – but members of the crowd were trying to grab him. The archduke’s wife had flung herself in front of her husband but was hit in the stomach as the second shot flew wide. The archduke lived long enough to murmur to his wife “Sophie, Sophie don't die, stay alive for our children." By 11 they were both dead.

Princip tried to swallow a cyanide capsule but it failed, and the pistol was wrested from his hand before he could shoot himself. He was hauled away:

Too young to be executed he died a lingering death from TB  in prison in 1918, before the end of the war that the shot had launched, killing some 16 million others, including a quarter of all Serbians. The car, the pistol and the Archduke’s bloodstained shirt are in the Military Museum in Vienna and Princip is a Serbian national hero. I share my birthday with the date of his ‘lucky’ shot.