Discussing Franz Ferdinand on the top deck of the bus

The man and his wife and three children came up to the top deck of the bus. Bound for the beach, they carried bags with beachwear, towels and a picnic.

Emaciated, and shaky, the man had taken a day off from the fish and chip shop in which he worked. This was to be a day of which he would make the most.

He sat behind me, noticed a blue scarf and asked where I was bound. I told him and we chatted about sport. Then he asked me what I did, I told him and we began a discussion.

He said he loved history and had been watching a documentary on Franz Ferdinand. It prompted me to refresh my own recollections.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand was heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, an empire that included much of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. On 28th June 1914, his visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, one of the countries in the empire, aroused hostility among those in Bosnia who sought independence.

Nedeljko Čabrinović, one of the Bosnian nationalists, threw a grenade at the archduke’s car. Čabrinović’s act of terrorism failed; the grenade exploded behind the car carrying Franz Ferdinand and injured the occupants of the vehicle following them.

Franz Ferdinand was enraged. Going to the residence of the imperial governer, the archduke protested, “So this is how you welcome your guests – with bombs!”

It was not as though political assassinations had not happened before and not as though the imperial administrators were not aware of tensions in the city. As the man on the bus pointed out to me, an elementary understanding of security would have told them that Franz Ferdinad should not travel further that day, and, when he did move, should only do so under strict security. Instead, astonishingly, he and his wife were allowed to leave the residence in an open car, to visit the hospital to which those wounded by the grenade attack had been taken.

Even the foolish decision to travel the streets need not have been fatal, had the drivers taken the correct route, there would not have been a problem.

No-one had thought to tell the driver of a car, that had been subject to a bomb attack that same morning, that  the route had changed. The drivers of the vehicles had to turn around, which need not have given an opportunity for further attack, were it not for the fact that one of the cars stalled, bringing the whole line to a halt.

A competent administration would have ensured the archduke’s car was immediately surrounded by policemen or soldiers, but Franz Ferdinand was left unprotected.

Gavrilo Princip, another Bosnian nationalist was sat at a cafe and saw what had happened. He walked across the street and took out a low-powered pistol, at which point one might have expected him to have been brought down by gunfire from those charged with the archduke’s protection.

Princip did not even shoot Franz Ferdinand first; he shot the duchess Sophie in the abdomen before shooting the imperial heir in the neck. The archduke died at the scene, the duchess on the way to the hospital.

The incompetence of the imperial authorities contributed much to the conversation on the bus.

Posted in Out and about | Leave a comment

Attics and Christian Science

I was thinking about my grand aunt.

We called her ‘Nell’, my grand uncle called her ‘Helen’. Only by doing research for the family tree did I discover her official name was ‘Nellie’. It was not a name that had the lofty tone of gravitas she assumed in her conversations with people the status of a lowly nephew.

Anyway, Aunt Nell would have had something to say on the matter.

Having a third floor apartment in a three floor block brings the benefit of having an attic, somewhere to put all the stuff luckier people put in their garage or garden shed. It means that there is a slight semblance of order in the living space, although I cannot imagine what it would be like if someone else were living with me.

Of course, having an attic is only useful if there is a regular gathering of the detritus of ordinary existence and a climbing of the loft ladder.

On the last such elevation of random items, the light bulb in the attic blew. I am not sure why this is such a frequent phenomenon, it is not as though the light is used that much. Perhaps attics are subject to greater variations in heat.

Anyway, I decided that the lack of  light in the roof space made it a dangerous place to be without light as the space is interrupted by beams at various angles. To make it safer, I needed to go up and find what sort of bulb was required.

Taking the bayonet fitting bulb out of its socket, I turned for the hatchway and cracked my head on a beam I couldn’t see. Slightly discombobulated, I missed a step at the bottom of the loft ladder and skinned my shin. I knew I had skinned my shin because I could feel the blood trickling down my leg.

Now, Aunt Nell.

Aunt Nell was a Christian Scientist, or claimed to be anyway. Her chief religious activity was watching Songs of Praise on television and complaining if she didn’t like the hymns.

Christian Science seemed to have little by way of Christianity, and nothing by way of science, but for Aunt Nell it meant that illness was caused by attitude. So my asthma, she told me, was caused by me thinking in the wrong way.

‘It’s got nothing to do with the brochii in my lungs not working properly, then?’ I once asked her.

‘What are bronchii?’ she asked.

Aunt Nell would have seen all illnesses in terms of my attic experience. Wrong decisions leading to painful consequences.

I can’t find a bayonet bulb anywhere.

Posted in The stuff of daily life | Leave a comment

Dressing up for an outing

It is the season of school outings.

Yesterday morning, a teacher leading an overnight hike came to talk to each class taking part urging them to remember where they were going and to wear clothes appropriate for hill walking – and to please bring soap and deodorant.

It seems that the tendency to see school outings as an occasion to wear best clothes and footwear which are then spoilt as students participate in activities. The teacher seemed mystified that anyone would wear good clothes on an outing.

A jumble of memories from the past surfaced.

There was a memory of a Sunday School outing to Portrush on the coast of Northern Ireland in the early-1990s.

Dressed in a cable-knit sweater, cotton trousers and canvas shoes, I remember getting on the bus and feeling underdressed when compared to some of the men of the parish who had come in their dark Sunday suits (and who sat on the beach still wearing jackets and ties).

The outing might have been one of the few days in the course of the year when they got away from their farms: it seemed they felt it was an occasion for which they wanted to look their best.

There was a memory of a school outing from our Somerset village of High Ham to London. It was the week that Arsenal achieved the double, so must have been 1971.

I remember having a pale yellow T-shirt and cream-coloured shorts and thinking the shirt was not so different in colour from the yellow in which Arsenal had played in the FA Cup Final. A trip to London was a rare occurrence in the life of a ten year old boy from deep in rural England: it was obviously an occasion in which everyone tried to look their best.

The most unlikely memory to arise was that of a talk in 1998 on James Orr, who was a poet from Bsllycarry in Co Antrim who had participated in the United Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Marking the bicentenary of the Battle of Antrim, the talk noted that those setting off to fight in the United Irish cause had put on their best coats and clothes. they must have regarded a battle as the sort of occasion to look one’s best.

Compared with dressing up for the bloody slaughter of 1798, the idea of dressing up to get wet and muddy while walking hills seems almost sensible.

Posted in Out and about | Leave a comment

Reading of an end to childhood

Still sorting the boxes of books that arrived from High Ham last week. I put Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side on a shelf of novels.

It is a book with a moment of sad beauty.

‘Mr Nolan used to read to Ed at night’, says Lilly Beere. ‘He possessed an old volume of Winnie the Pooh, and they liked to read that together. I would hear them, in the American evenings, so unlike Irish ones.

‘One night, when Ed was about eleven, going in to give him a kiss goodnight, I found Mr Nolan sitting on Ed’s bed. The both of them were weeping. Or rather, Mr Nolan was shedding a dark tear, and Ed looked blank and stunned. They had just got to the end of the book. Christopher Robin, Ed told me, was going off to boarding school, and Pooh wanted to know if he would still exist when Christopher Robin was gone.

‘It’s about the end of childhood’, said Mr Nolan inconsolably.

Sebastian Barry knew his readers. He knew who would read the passage and understand perfectly the feelings felt by Mr Nolan.

In that moment in the closing paragraphs of  The House at Pooh Corner, Christopher Robin’s days of doing Nothing with his cuddly toys ­Winnie the Pooh, Piglet and the rest – are at an end. He begs Pooh not to forget him – but we know that childish things are being put away. There is sense of childhood’s fleetingness, of life’s fleetingness.

The anguish of Christopher Robin as he tries to explain his going away and the incomprehension of poor Pooh are beautifully human and bring tears to the eyes of someone whose children grew up on tales of Pooh and Piglet, someone who misses the happy friendship of those days:

‘Then, suddenly again, Christopher Robin, who was still looking at the world with his chin in his hands, called out ‘Pooh!’

‘Yes?’ said Pooh.

‘When I’m – when – Pooh!’

‘Yes, Christopher Robin?’

‘I’m not going to do Nothing any more.’

‘Never again?’

‘Well, not so much. They don’t let you.’

Pooh waited for him to go on, but he was silent again.

‘Yes, Christopher Robin?’ said Pooh helpfully.

‘Pooh, when I’m – you know – when I’m not doing Nothing, will you come up here sometimes?’

‘Just Me?’

‘Yes, Pooh.’

‘Will you be here too?’

‘Yes, Pooh, I will be really. I promise I will be, Pooh.’

‘That’s good,’ said Pooh.

‘Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.’

Pooh thought for a little.

“How old shall I be then?”


Pooh nodded.

‘I promise, he said.

Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.

‘Pooh,’ said Christopher Robin earnestly, ‘if I – if I’m not quite’, he stopped and tried again –  ‘Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?’

‘Understand what?’

‘Oh, nothing.’ He laughed and jumped to his feet. ‘Come on!’

‘Where?’ said Pooh.

‘Anywhere,’ said Christopher Robin.

* * * * *

So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing’.

Mr Nolan’s tears were justified.


Posted in Unreliable memories | Leave a comment

Voltaire in the village

One of the most memorable things about growing up in our small Somerset village was the inculcation of respect for the values and beliefs of everyone, no matter how odd those beliefs might seem to those of us who took the rational and scientific perspective on life adopted by most English people since the time of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment.

There were fundamentalist Christians in our village, they would come to our house to get haircuts from my mother.  They were Creationists whose understanding of the beginning of time was very different from that in our house, but at no time would the thought have occurred to mock them for their faith.

My father would not have tolerated the abuse of anyone, no matter how eccentric their views. A thought attributed by a biographer to the Eighteenth Century French writer Voltaire was one of his favourites, ‘I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it’. (Voltaire almost certainly didn’t say it, but the facts shouldn’t spoil a good story).

The English toleration of almost anything, fruitcakes, zealots, weirdos and all, came out of the bloodiness of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.

By 1888 in England, there was a law that allowed those who professed no religious belief to hold public positions. A pluralist tradition developed, a tradition that depended on everyone tolerating everyone else.

Perhaps it was a form of political correctness, but it allowed the development of a society where there was freedom and tolerance. The only thing we would not tolerate was intolerance

Ireland’s political tradition has been very differently shaped, it has been characterized by a violent repression of religious traditions.

English rule brought centuries of discrimination against Roman Catholicism. The establishment of the new state in 1922 allowed a Protestant hegemony to continue in Northern Ireland and the rule of the Roman Catholic bishops to emerge in the new Republic.

The rejection of oppressive theological traditions led to bitter sectarianism in the North and to anti-clericalism in the Republic. There never seemed to develop the tradition of indifference that had grown up in England, an indifference that was indifferent to everything except intolerance.

The spirit of indifference rarely infused the discourse of those who burned effigies on Ulster bonfires and sadly now seems equally absent from those in the Republic who have developed a casual contempt for the Roman Catholic traditions.

Watching the Northern Ireland election results and the discussion that has followed, it seems that the challenge for the future will be to foster apathy!

Posted in This sceptred isle | Leave a comment