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Gavin Weightman
  • 0 Russian Outrage

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 21-09-2016
    0.00 of 0 votes

    News that a Russian aircraft carrier and accompanying warships are in the English Channel on their way to the eastern Mediterranean should put fear into the hearts of North Sea fishermen. Here, from my book The Industrial Revolutionaries is an account of what happened in 1904 when a Russian fleet, en route to Vladivostok to confront the Japanese Navy, mistook Hull fishing boats for the enemy. The illustration above is from a postcard captioned the "Russian Outrage!". On the afternoon of Sunday 23 October 1904 two fishing trawlers limped back to Hull on the north east coast of England, their flags flying at half mast. Those who came to greet them were at first puzzled, then horrified. The boats, the Mino and the Moulmein, were riddled with shell-holes. On board they carried the bodies of Henry Smith who had been skipper of another of the Hull Gamecock fleet, the S.T Crane, and his boatswain William Arthur Leggett. There were six wounded. It was a wonder that there were no more casualties, although in time the explanation for that became clear: the Hull trawlermen had been attacked at night by a huge armada of Russian ships whose nervous crews had rained shells on the fishing grounds of the Dogger Bank in the North Sea in a blind panic. Astonishingly, they thought they were being attacked by Japanese torpedo boats. As the Russian fleet of forty eight destroyers, cruisers, supply ships, torpedo boats and a motely collection of superannuated craft steamed on to the English Channel, not stopping to inspect in daylight the damage they had caused or to offer assistance to the stricken trawlermen, British Naval Officers arrived in Hull by train. What they heard was soon to be published in the Times and other newspapers under the headline of the "Dogger Bank Outrage. " Alongside the fleet of trawlers was a "Mission Ship" the Joseph and Sarah Miles which picked up one of the survivors of the Crane who gave the first and most vivid account of that terrible night. "We had just hauled and shot away again," he said, "and were in the fish-pound cleaning the fish and passing jokes about the war vessels, which we could see quite plain, and heard their firing, when suddenly something hit us. The third hand said,'Skipper, our fish-boxes are on fire; I'm going below out of this,' and walked forward, the skipper, who was on the bridge, laughing at him for being frightened. We were hit again forward, and someone called out and said, 'The bosun is shot.' I went forward to look, and found the boatswain bleeding and a hole through our bulwarks, and the fore companionway knocked away. I went to tell the skipper. Before I got aft a shot went through the engine-casing, and I began to feel frightened. I could see that the skipper was not on the bridge. I went aft, passed the chief, who was bleeding, gave him my neckcloth to stop the blood, went right aft and saw the skipper lying on the grating. I said, 'Oh, my God, he is shot!' I picked him up and saw that his head was battered to pieces. I dropped him, rushed down the forecastle, and saw the boatswain lying on the floor, with his head battered in. "Another shot came and hit us, I didn't know where. All hands were shouting out they were shot. I jumped on the bridge to blow the whistle, but that and the steampipe were knocked away. I tried to alter the wheel, but the wheel-gear was smashed. I then found we were sinking. I went to the boat, cut the grips,plugged her up, and put the painter on the winch to heave her aft, but found some of the winch smashed. Then something hit me on the back. I saw the GULL launch her boat. I dragged the skipper forward and got the third hand up on the deck and went for the chief. He was unconscious. By this time the GULL's boat came alongside and we put in the skipper and bosun, and got in ourselves - how, I don't know. "When the boy came to me and said, 'Where is my father?' that was a pill I could not swallow. For the life of me I could not tell the boy what had happened to his father. "The searchlights made everything like day. The fireman, while he was in the engine-room, saw the warship that was firing on us - saw her through the hole they made in the ship's side. They made a target of us. They meant doing for us. They needed no lights to see what we were. The searchlights told them plain enough." While British naval vessels followed the Russian armada as it headed down through the English Channel urgent diplomatic negotiations were begun. Admiral Rozhdestvenski in command of the Russian fleet insisted that torpedo boats had been sighted, and that one had been sunk. However he had realised that his crews, most of whom he despised, were firing on fishermen who were desperately holding up their catch to indicate that they were neither Japanese nor combatants. The London Times thundered: " For twenty minutes, we are told, the Russians poured shrapnel on the helpless fishing boats. They then steamed off without waiting to ascertain what was the character or nationality of the craft on which they had directed, without warning, this deadly fire, and without making the slightest effort to rescue the crews of the boats they had sunk.....It is almost inconceivable that any men calling themselves seaman, however frightened they might be, could spend twenty minutes bombarding a fleet of fishing boats without discovering the nature of their target.....The only surmise we can make with our present knowledge of the facts is that the Russians were themselves the victims of a disgraceful panic. The telegram from our Copenhagen Correspondent shows that they were in a state of extraordinary nervousness as they passed through the Danish waters. All sorts of cock-and-bull stories about the preparations made by Japanese spies for blowing the Baltic fleet sky-high ...." For a few tense days the possibility of war between Britain and Russia was discussed in London Clubs and amongst the highest authorities. The Russian Baltic Fleet had been directed to the Far East by the Tsar, Nicholas ll to confront and defeat the Japanese who had come to challenge territorial control of Manchuria and Korea. The Japanese wiped them out at the battle of Tsushima.

  • 0 Corbyn and the Cenotaph

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 02-11-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    As Remembrance Day approaches, Labour Party supporters who regard their new leader as something of a loose cannon, will be clutching their red poppies and hoping that Jeremy Corbyn does not commit another political faux pas. Will he attend the commemoration at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on Sunday? After all, he seems to regard it as a symbol of Imperial pomp commemorating a war between declining Imperialist nations. It is said he once laid a wreath not to the war dead but to those he regarded as victims of police aggression. This time will he wear a white poppy if he does turn up? I wonder, in fact, if Corbyn knows anything of the history of the Cenotaph. If he does then I cannot see why he should feel it his political and moral duty to break ranks and, in doing so, offend a great many of those people who regard the memorial in Whitehall as a place for national mourning rather than a triumphal structure. It is there not by government decree but in response to a spontaneous outpouring of grief in July 1919. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which marked the end of the War and the surrender of Germany, a Peace Parade was planned in London. It was organised with great haste and a decision was made to place along the route of the procession memorial structures of some kind. The eminent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, already working with the War Graves Commission, was asked to come up with a design. In Paris the French had decided on a catafalque, a figure above a coffin on a raised dais. Lutyens, Lloyd George and the ministers involved rejected that. A Catafalque was Christian and the war dead included men and women of many other faiths. Lutyens came up with a design which was secular, austere and simple. The intention was for it to be in place in Whitehall for just two weeks. It was made of wood and plaster and would be taken down when the Parades were over. However, within a short time the base of the monument was submerged under thousands of flowers placed by the public. Lutyens himself recalled: "It was a mass-feeling too deep to express itself more fitly than by the piles of good fresh flowers which loving hands placed at the Cenotaph day by day. Thus it was decided, by the human sentiments of millions, that the Cenotaph should be as it is now." In 1920 the Remembrance Day commemoration was duly held by a Cenotaph built of Portland stone, as it is now. It is not a triumphal memorial nor does it represent one faith. It is understated and sober and, as one newspaper put it 1919 "consecrated by the tears of many mothers." Without the demands of the public it would not be there now. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn should bear that in mind as he contemplates his approach to Remembrance Sunday.

  • 0 In the Dark

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 14-09-2011
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    I was up late watching the thrilling final of the Men's Singles at the US Open and Djokovic was about to serve for the match in the third set. Would Nadal hold on? Before the World No.1 hit his first serve everything went black. I looked into the road and could see some lights on, but there was a dark area where the street light opposite our house was out. I lit candles and found a phone book with the Electricity Emergency number. They did not know of any faults in my area. I checked the fuse box and that was OK. They would send someone round, should be within four hours. I tried to get our clockwork radio to work in the hope that I might find the result of the match in New York, but the band connecting the generator to the spring had snapped. So I lit candles, read a bit and then went around with a candlestick in my dressing gown like someone from a BBC Victorian drama . Eventually I went to bed. I was woken not long after I dozed off by a phone call. The men from EDF Energy were at the door. They were a cheery pair who checked out my fuse box, noted that the junction box dated from around 1900, and said they could do nothing. As they emerged by torch light from inspecting the equipment in the cellar I thought I would show them the book I had published earlier this year. They trained their lights on the cover of Children of Light: how electricity changed Britain for ever. I thought they might have offered to buy a copy but they simply showed mild surprise that I was the author, the man in a dressing gown carrying a candle. It occurred to me as they left what strange continuities there are in history. The men, as British as you like, were working for the company EDF. This is the acronym for Electricité de France which now owns a big chunk of our power networks. It was similarly a French company, the Société Général d'Eltricitié which had lit the Embankment in London with arc lamps in the 1870s at a time when Britain was a little tardy in introducing the new technology. I went back to bed and was woken again by a call to tell me another team would be out to look at the problem in the next few hours. I was asked if I minded them using heavy machinery in the early hours of the morning. I said I did not mind but my neighbours might, and we left it at that. Around 5 am I woke briefly to see that the lights had come on again. I went around re-setting the freezer and checking everything that might have been affected. I went back to bed and slept in. When I woke I felt pleased with myself for getting the problem solved. My wife, however, looked disgruntled and I wondered what was wrong. It turned out that in my travels around the house in the black out I had dropped wax everywhere, much of it now solidified in the carpet. The art of nightly candle-carrying has been lost, in my household at any rate. No heavy machinery was needed to put the power back on. I have no idea what went wrong, but it was likely a fuse in our local sub-station. Only two or three houses appear to have been affected. Next door, our neighbour, who usually sets off for the City about 5.30 am, was late for work. His alarm was run off the mains. There is nothing like clockwork for reliability: provided the elastic band does not snap.

  • 0 Nuclear Dreams

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 20-03-2011
    0.00 of 0 votes

    We tend to fall in love with new technologies and to imagine that in no time they will solve all our problems. In the autumn of 1881 the pretty Surrey town of Godalming pioneered a public supply of electric lighting with a generator powered by a watermill on the river Wey. This, thought a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph was the beginning of a new gas and coal free era in civilisation. Wey ahead of his time, you might say: " It has been reserved for little Godalming to turn its river, the slender and rippling Wey, into a piece of machinery, and set it, just like any other mechanical servant to the task of lighting the streets....The days when gas companies can pump into our houses a noxious, explosive vapour like carburetted hydrogen, through uncertain machines called meters and charge an abnormally extortionate price for it are numbered. ...We shall not want the stoke and the collier so much if only the example set by the good people of Godalming be followed. "The waterfalls, millheads and rivers will quietly be making all our electricity by day and we shall be consuming it as easily at night, or the winds and tides will be made to labour for us. Nature in all her varied moods will be called in to help us fight against the dark, and we shall be able eventually to turn night into day by the bright lights which Nature herself kindles for us. " Sadly, when the river Wey flooded the generator ceased to turn and a steam engine had to be brought in. It was too expensive to run and within four years the gas lamps were back on in Godalming. This was a story I researched from my book Children of Light: how electricity changed Britain for ever. Another was the dawn of another technology which promised to free us from dependence on coal and gas: atomic energy. At the official opening of Calder Hall, the world's first industrial scale nuclear power station in 1956, Her Majesty the Queen said: " As the power begins to flow into the National Grid all of us here know that we are present at the making of history. For many years now we have been aware that atomic scientists, by a series of brilliant discoveries, have brought us to the threshold of a new age. We have also known that, on that threshold, mankind has reached a point of crisis. Today we are, in a sense, seeing a solution of that crisis as this new power, which has proved itself to be such a terrifying weapon of destruction, is harnessed for the first time for the common good of our community. " Calder Hall, sited in the wilds of Cumbria, was not, in fact, built just to produce electricity. Its reactors enriched uranium to supply the material for Britain's" independent nuclear deterrent. " The heat generated in this process was used to turn it into a glorified steam engine. Chapman Pincher, star reporter of the Daily Express, was there in October when the power was turned on: " The giant uranium furnace which has been producing high-pressure steam for more than a month was secretly linked with the dynamos last week. Top men of the project stood by as steam roared through the turbines, and the dynamos began to hum. As the output mounted, more lamps, more heaters, and more machines were fed with the new power on which so much of Britain's industrial future is being staked." The production of what Pincher called " atomic electricity" was exciting, promising a bright future. There appeared to be no concerns about safety, which is perhaps surprising as Calder Hall was opened just eleven years after the terrible destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 by atomic bombs. Among scientists at the time there was a confidence that the dreadful power of nuclear fission could be reigned in and promised a wonderful future for the post-war world. " More power for Britain–in the nick of time" was the headline of a piece in the left-wing News Chronicle, the paper my parents used to buy, heralding a piece by the President-Elect of the British Association, Professor P.M.S. Blackett in which he wrote: " It is nearly true to say that the prosperity of any nation is proportional to the energy at its disposal Vastly more energy will be needed to maintain and advance the prosperity in the next few decades than can easily be got from coal. For the world as whole, nuclear power has come at the right time: for Britain only just in time. " Professor Blackett waxed lyrical: " The world in which our children and grandchildren will live depends on our efforts, now and on the legacy of material power and scientific and technical know-how which we bequeath to them. The houses they will live in, the clothes they will wear, the health they will enjoy, the leisure in which they will be able to cultivate and appreciate the worthwhile and beautiful things of life......all these things will depend on our material command over nature and especially on the amount of energy we can extract from the natural world. " Only a year after the inauguration of power at Calder Hall, a graphite core in the nearby Windscale reactor caught fire. The same children who had come to see the Queen open the nuclear power station were told they could not drink the milk from local dairy herds. High counts of radioactive iodine had been found and milk from farms within a radius of 200 miles of Windscale was poured down the drain. Even after the fire and the milk ban, the leak of radioactivity was not considered to be very serious. Dr. W.G.Marley, head of the health physics division at the atomic research station at Harwell, was quoted in the Times as saying that the radioactivity resulting from the leak was considerably less than the “background level” in many other parts of the world–particularly India and Brazil. The chief atomic safety officer, Mr F.R. Farmer, reported that only two people living in the area had taken advantage of the offer to be medically examined. Only a few employees at Windscale were contaminated, said Mr Farmer, and in most cases a wash with soap and water was enough to give them a clean bill of health. What confidence there was then in the ability of scientists and engineers to tame the awful destructive power of nuclear fission. Certainly Japan, only a few years after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was investing in nuclear power, confident that its peaceful use would not endanger the nation intent on rapid recovery and economic advance.

  • 0 The Myth of the Baby Boomers

    • Issues
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 19-03-2011
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    I might as well inaugurate my Blog with a bee in my bonnet. There has been an awful lot written in the past year about the "baby boom" generation born after the end of the war in 1945. Two books began a journalistic frenzy in which I, and few million others, are accused of indulging in a kind of unwitting exploitation of the nation's resources. Born in 1945 I am, according to the popular accounts currently in circulation, a "baby boomer". My contention is that I am not. The year I was born was not a bumper year for babies. Nor was 1948, or 49, or 50, or 51, or 52, or 53, or 54, or 55 or 56. Yet David Willetts author of The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers took their Childrens' Future ( Atlantic 2010) and Francis Beckett who wrote What did the baby boomers ever do for us? ( Biteback 2010) believe they are baby boomers: Willetts was born in 1956 and Beckett in the same year as me. Whatever else the "baby boomer" debate is about it is predicated on the notion that there was, after the end of the last war, a sustained rise in births which produced a population bulge. This is certainly what happened in North America between 1945 and 1964. But it did not happen here. I am going to demonstrate this with figures for England and Wales as it is simpler than totting up the totals for the UK. But if you add in Scotland and North Ireland the pattern is exactly the same. In fact it is quite remarkable how the rise and fall in annual births goes in tandem in all three registration areas. So here are some basic facts about live births, year by year, in England and Wales beginning with 1943 to illustrate that there were more births in that war year and 1944 than there were in 1945. I have put the two post-war boom years in bold. Year Total of live births in England and Wales:  1943 - 684,334 1944 - 751,478 1945 - 679,937 (Birth Year of Francis Beckett) 1946 - 820,719 1947 - 881,026 1948 - 775,306 1949 - 730,518 1950 - 697,097 1951 - 677,529 1952 - 673,735 1953 - 684,372 1954 - 673,651 1955 - 667,811 1956 - 700,335 ( Birth year of David Willetts ) 1957 - 723,381 1958 - 740,715 1959 - 748,501 1960 - 785,005 1961 - 811,281 1962 - 838,736 1963 - 854,055 1964 - 875,972 A glance at the sequence of annual births will tell you that, with the exception of 1946 and 1947, there was no baby boom in the immediate post war years. If there is a boom at all it begins in 1956 and peaks in 1964. So the classic " baby boomer" from a bumper year was born in the early 1960s. And yet nearly every piece written about the boom generation has them as teenagers in the 1960s. Tony Blair, we are told, is a baby boomer. He was born in the Coronation Year 1953. Have a look at the figures: not a bumper year. Many fewer babies in fact than were born in the latter part of the 1960s. Some more figures: Year Live births in England and Wales:  1965 - 862,725 1966 - 849,823 1967 - 832,164 1968 - 819,272 1969 - 797,538 1970 - 784,486 1971 - 783,155 1972 - 725,440 1973 - 675,953 Of course the "baby boomer" thesis is not just about numbers: it is argued that those born during the first twenty years after the war were favoured in many ways with full employment and so on. Perhaps there is some truth in that, though our standard of living in terms of domestic comfort would nowadays be considered primitive. But if we were favoured it was because we were, in terms of births, a relatively compact generation. With the exception of 1946 and 1947, when the soldiers returned to the arms of their wives and lovers, the parents of the imaginary baby boom generation showed remarkable restraint.