Gavin Weightman

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Gavin Weightman
  • 0 Corbyn and the Pseudo Baldwin

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 06-11-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    One or two political commentators, ruminating on the remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from obscurity to national prominence, have called to mind the wonderful historical work of the late Norman Cohn entitled The Pursuit of the Millennium. At the time of the Crusades a great many movements arose, fired by an irrational belief in a utopian vision, and often putting their faith in an imaginary messiah. A tramp sleeping rough in the woods would be identified as a long lost hero of a crusade and carried shoulder high and quite bewildered into town to be crowned King. Lavished with all kinds of luxury for a few months, the imaginary messiah was invariably denounced as a charlatan and forced to flee. Of the many such tales Cohn related in his book, the one which has lodged itself in my memory is of the rise and fall of the messiah he called the "Pseudo-Baldwin." When the Crusaders captured Constantinople ( Istanbul ) in 1204 they made one of their number, Baldwin IX, Count of Flounders as Emperor of a large area around the city. In less than a year Bulgarians invaded and put him to death. Back in Flanders Baldwin’s daughter Joanna became Countess but she could not resist the power of Philip Augustus of France and the lands she hoped to rule were annexed by the French. This domination was resented and when Philip died in 1223 the scene was set for an uprising. " At this point, " Cohn wrote "the age-old phantasy of the Sleeping Emperor reappeared in a form adapted to the hour." In the popular imagination the slain Baldwin became superhuman "half demon half angel". A belief arose that he had not been killed at all but had been serving a penance imposed on him by the Pope for some terrible misdeed, living as a wandering beggar and hermit. Now he was close to expiation of that penance and would soon be back amongst his people. This belief grew when a stranger appeared announcing Baldwin’s imminent return. Sure enough a begging hermit appeared looking the part with his long hair and flowing beard. Tracked down to a hut he had made of branches in a forest in the region of Valenciennes, France, close to the border of what is now Belgium, he revealed that he was the long lost Baldwin and that he had a year to go on his penance. Cohn wrote: " Great crowds streamed out from Valenciennes to see him and in April 1225 brought him back to the town on horseback, clad in scarlet robe, amidst scenes of wild jubilation." Not everyone was convinced. Joanna, Baldwin's daughter, demanded to see the man who was said to be her father. But the Pseudo Baldwin refused her invitation and instead gathered an army together to take over her territories by force. By now a Christ-like figure people fought for a lock of his hair, a scrap of his clothing or a chance to sip his bathwater. He was crowned not only Count of Flanders and Hainaut but Emperor of Constantinople and Thessalonica.. The poor worshipped him believing he would bring them riches. He began to believe that he really was an Emperor and when King Louis VIII of France invited him to visit he accepted. This was his downfall. Louis had agreed a treaty of alliance with the banished Countess Joanna who knew very well this was not her father but an imposter. In conversation with the Pseudo Baldwin it soon became apparent that he could remember nothing about events that the real Count of Flanders would have known. He was, in reality, a serf by the name of Bertrand of Ray from Burgundy, who had gone on a Crusade as a minstrel and was a notorious imposter. At his audience with King Louis he realised he had been unmasked and he made a run for it. But the Pseudo Baldwin was no longer a wandering hermit but de-throned Emperor and he was soon captured and hung. This is just one of many such stories told in Cohn's book. Why should these medieval tales be evocative of the the elevation of humble Corbyn to the front rank of politics? He is not an imposter, of course, but there is something of the "Sleeping Emperor" about him, a long lost soul who has suddenly and miraculously come back to life. The belief that he might turn the clock back and create the kind of utopian Britain left-wingers dreamed of in the 1980s has a touch of the " pursuit of the millennium" about it. And there is a feeling that his celebrity will be short lived and it will not be long before he is denounced as a liability by his own followers and returned to his position as a recalcitrant, humble backbencher: "hung out to dry" as the saying goes.

  • 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 The Page 99 test

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 25-10-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    The novelist Ford Madox Ford wrote that you could judge the quality of writing in a book by picking a page at random to see how it reads. Page 99 would do for any book, probably somewhere in the middle. I knew nothing of this until contacted by Marshal Zeringue an American blogger who runs a website on which he publishes the response of authors to an invitation to check out page 99 in their own books. He asked if I would have a go with my most recent publication Eureka: how invention happens (Yale). This was the result:  My page 99 ......obsolete their creators are liable to be dismissed as misguided or backward. But it is their pioneer work that generates optimism and draws out the backing for the more advanced technologies which replace them. However, when Farnsworth began his labours, the industry view was still that some version of mechanical scanning of images was the most promising way forward for the transmitter. It was not that people were unable to see that a cathode ray tube camera would be superior. That was not in question. Very little work was being done on it because the problem of discovering how to manipulate electrons in a vacuum tube involved experimentation with a much less accessible technology than the Nipkow disk or any of the other mechanical scanners. With the mechanical scanners you could pretty much see what was going on with the naked eye. How electrons were behaving in a sealed glass tube was not apparent and involved a highly sophisticated understanding of physics. The key discovery that electrically charged particles a thousand times smaller than atoms would travel through a vacuum had been made in the nineteenth century. It had been shown, too, that when these particles, or electrons as they became known, hit a photoelectric surface they could produce an image. Farnsworth’s all-electric television system would have to manipulate this laboratory equipment in some way so that the cathode ray tube performed the same function as the Nipkow disk and the selenium cell. He was not the first to attempt this but he had a chance to be the first to make it work. The biggest problem was with the camera. As Everson had anticipated, California provided Farnsworth with some much-needed expertise as well as with financial backing. Bill Cummings, in charge of glass blowing for the University of California in Berkeley, who had made them their first tubes, taught Cliff Gardner the art. In time he became very skilful. Meanwhile, Everson and Pem worked with Farnsworth making magnetic coils and experimenting with the photosensitive materials. At the outset, Farnsworth was wildly optimistic about what he could achieve in a short space of time. In 1927….. My commentary Page 99 of Eureka: How Invention Happens lands the reader somewhere in the middle of a chapter I called "Seeing with electricity". Looking at it a good while after I wrote it I would say it reads well enough, though it is not especially evocative or enticing. No publisher would chose it as an extract for publicity: there are other pages in this account of the invention of television which are much more fun. The page 99 test originally was a way of judging fiction. My book is non-fiction and is bound therefore to contain a good few pages of prose which I hope are readable and interesting but which are not going to dazzle the reader. How much the text on page 99 would give a sense of the central theme of the book I am not sure: it is there alright but, out of context, I suspect it is not really evident.  Eureka is an account of what I have called the "ancient history" of five twentieth century inventions: the aeroplane, television, the bar code, the personal computer and the mobile phone. Each of these inventions was made possible by a long accumulation of scientific understanding, technological advance and inventive genius stretching back at least as far as the eighteenth century. One invention would lead to another and technologies would merge. Scientific understanding was always crucial but the breakthrough – what I have called the "eureka moment" when an invention works for the first time, however crudely – has often been achieved by an amateur or outsider. This is not so surprising when you consider that only one of the inventions in my book, the bar code, could be said to have been a "necessity". Established industries had no need for television, the mobile phone, the aeroplane or the personal computer.  Some of the flavor of the book is there on Page 99 as a rank outsider, the American Philo Farnsworth, struggles with the near impossible task of creating an electronic television system in the 1920s. He nearly made it but the effort broke him...now read on!

  • 0 It's probably on page three

    • History
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 14-09-2015
    0.00 of 0 votes

    My father John in party mood. He was a great raconteur and essayist During my time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary College, London I found that many students, and especially those who were diligent in their research, imagined that they could not start to write an essay before they had worked out in their head what it was they wanted to say. Yet whenever they began to write they found they were overwhelmed by the knowledge they had acquired and could not find a way into it. It is a familiar dilemma for anyone writing factual articles or books. Students would tell me they had been advised to map out their essay before they started writing, to follow the rules about referencing and to make sure they had a clear and firm conclusion. What they presented to me as a draft was, nevertheless, invariably a jumble of quotes and propositions which were barely intelligible. They would ask if I could help them with grammar and “writing style” as if that was the problem. Flicking through the pages they had presented to me and wondering how on earth I was going to help them in the brief hour of the tutorial I found myself relating something my father had said years earlier and which, if properly understood, could be a way to arrange their thoughts and lend their essay some coherence. What they needed was not a firm conclusion but a clear idea at the outset what their essay was about. If they could find that then everything else would fall into place. My father was an academic who had a reputation as a fine essayist and reviewer. The longest pieces he wrote were no more than three thousand words but he laboured at them for days and sometimes weeks. He made extensive hand written notes before he moved to his ancient portable typewriter to begin his first draft. I remember asking him how he decided what the opening paragraph of an essay should be. Had he worked it out in advance? He thought about it and said: "I usually discover what I want to say on page three. Everything before that is just dross which I have to get out of the way." This casual remark my father made years ago became for me a mantra in my writing tutorials. I liked the fact that it puzzled the students at first so that I needed to explain it. What it emphasized was the fact that whenever you begin to put down in writing the thoughts milling about in your head you start a dialogue with one part of your brain which has all the information and another part which is attempting put it into some kind of order. What was fluid is now there in black and white, solidified as it were. You can therefore examine it closely. In my experience those first attempts to get down what you think are always clumsy but I don’t throw them away: I keep going. I always find I am attempting to say the same thing over and over again in a slightly different way. Eventually I get a sense of what is not working and discard certain ideas and bring in new thoughts. It feels like a process of discovery which can only unfold because I emptying my thoughts onto the page. With luck, after many attempts, I will write a paragraph which gets at the essence of what I want to say. This is what I have come to think of as the "page three" revelation. With a number of students I was able to flick through their draft essay and to find, some way into their text, a “page three” paragraph. I was pleasantly surprised how often it worked. With the student sitting alongside I would take that paragraph and put it at the beginning of their essay jettisoning everything that went before. We could then work together to smarten up their opening paragraph confident that we were now "getting off on the right foot." A student of English Literature suggested that my father’s "secret of page three" was perhaps a bit like E. M. Forster’s much quoted "how do I know what I think until I see what I say?" The student believed Forster was describing his own approach to literary discovery and at first I thought it might be a witty way of encapsulating the belief in the my father’s belief in the revelations of page three. In fact, Forster was writing tongue in cheek, gently satirising an approach to creative fiction in his book Aspects of the Novel. When the French novelist Andre Gide said he would discover what his fiction was about in the process of writing he was no different from an anecdotal elderly lady, taunted by her nieces about the meaning of logic, who exclaimed "how do I know think until I see what I say." If that were to read: "how do I know what I think until I see what I have written" then I think I would go along with it. All writing, whether of fiction or factual books and articles ,involves a certain amount of "discovery". In the case of the non-fiction books I write it is about finding a way of encapsulating what you want to say in a creative way. The magic of page three says you cannot achieve that without finding out what you think by examining what you have written and throwing away the dross. This is not the same as editing, which comes at a later stage when you are happy with the structure of what you are writing and you are discarding text which you feel is irrelevant or re-working what you find clumsy or not as eloquent as you would like. I found I could not begin to edit student essays if it was obvious they had no idea what the whole thing was about. Vocabulary and grammar were irrelevant. What I looked for was always something that might serve as the “secret of page three” and if it was not there I would go looking for it by "interviewing" the student about what they had discovered in their research and what conclusions they had drawn. When you teach you rarely discover if you have been of any help but I like to think that somewhere a former student of mine at Queen Mary College has benefited from my father’s casual remark and looks to page three of their drafts to discover what it is they really want to say.  

  • 0 Mr Turner and the Temeraire

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 05-11-2014
    0.00 of 0 votes

    A centerpiece of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film, Mr Turner, is the artist’s painting of a once proud Royal Navy ship of the line, the HMS Temeraire, being towed up the Thames on its last voyage. It is heading for a breaker’s yard at Rotherhithe where it will be stripped of its oak and other timbers and sold off to make snuff boxes, householder furniture and a variety of domestic items. The end of the Temeraire is especially poignant as it was credited with saving Nelson’s ship HMS Victory when it beat off an attack from Spanish and French ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It has been suggested that for Turner, fascinated by ships and the sea, the demise of the Temeraire reflected in some profound ways his own life. He was a young man at the time of Trafalgar and Nelson’s victory mirrored his own success as a painter: Turner was a prodigy who became wealthy early on his canvasses sought after by rich patrons. At the time of the breaking up of the Temeraire Turner was entering the last and increasingly eccentric phase in his life. He had a sense of the beginnings of his own journey to the breaker’s yard. There was an account in the first biography of Turner of him taking a trip on the Thames with friends at the time the Temeraire was heading for Rotherhithe and this was the inspiration for the painting. This is now generally discounted. But if Turner had clapped eyes on the doomed ship it would have borne absolutely no resemblance to the hulk he subsequently painted. Whereas his Temeraire still has her masts, the real ship had been stripped of them and much else that could be salvaged by the Navy. Whereas Turner sets the scene at sunset, the delivery of the ship to the breaker’s yard was in daylight. Turners ship is towed by a single paddlewheel tug, the real ship was towed by two tugs. Turner’s Fighting Temeraire is not a record of something he had witnessed but a wonderfully romantic creation of the painter’s vivid imagination. Though he spent long hours observing colour and light in his excursions and walks, when he put brush to canvas the scenes he painted were imaginary. In Mike Leigh’s film surely a telling episode would have been to illustrate, with the Fighting Temeraire as an example, how Mr Turner transformed a mundane reality­–the actuality of the demise of the once proud ship–into a bathetic vision. Unaccountably, Leigh fails to do this. It is clearly not because he was unaware of the circumstances of the creation of the painting: an article in the Guardian by the lead researcher on the film makes this clear. They knew Turner was not painting something he had witnessed. Yet they went to tremendous trouble and expense in the film to recreate the scene as if it was what Turner had seen. The cameraman, Dick Pope, gave this account of the filming of the episode: "We shot it very late in the evening, just on the cusp on sunset. We were blessed with the most fantastic sunset and the actors and the whole landscape was viewed in this beautiful light. It was almost in the same place as where the painting was depicted, bringing the Temeraire up the Thames to be broken up. Then these magical guys back in London created the moving Temeraire in CGI, which I hope you found completely believable because I did. We provided everything else!" What they had re-created was something Turner had imagined not something he had seen. Leigh wants to emphasise that he was not making a documentary: Mr Turner is fiction, a drama. But why re-create, cinematically, an image from Turner’s imagination? How much more telling to film a recreation of the reality of the towing of the Temeraire and use it to illustrate the way in which Turner transformed the mundane into the magnificent. My guess is this: Leigh has Turner as a working class champion, poor boy made good. The painting is patently nationalistic, nostalgic about a British triumph. If Turner actually saw the Temeraire at sunset, its hull and masts a ghostly vision hauled by a blackened steam tug then he was merely recording what he had witnessed. But by romanticizing the scene Turner was revealing himself as a working class patriot, the kind of “salt of the earth” character embraced by wealthy patrons. What other explanation might there be for the absurd enterprise of recreating a painting that could have been quite faithfully reproduced as an image of the original shot on a rostrum camera?

  • 0 Family fun with Linda Lovelac

    • Thoughts
    • by Gavin Weightman
    • 30-08-2013
    0.00 of 0 votes

    The release of a film about the one-time porn star Linda Lovelace brings back a not entirely happy family memory. I think it must have been in 1974 when my father was writing theatre criticism for the magazine Encounter that he got an invitation from a man called Jimmy Vaughan to view a film he had imported illegally with the puzzling title Deep Throat. I think he contacted my father because he had written an amusing tongue in cheek ( as it were) review of Oh Calcutta! ( a pun on the French, meaning " what an arse you have"). My father was invited to a screening of the film in a small studio in Wardour Street and he thought to invite a few family and friends along. It was, I have to say, an eye opener. I read journalists now suggesting it was "tame" and we would not be shocked by it now. But it was not tame at all. There was a general sense of unease as the first film reel went through and then the lights went up while the second reel was put up. I don't recall how many of us were there but certainly a few slipped off into street. I remember my father, trying to sound unflustered, saying: " Now I know what it is like to be a medical student." I can't remember now if he reviewed the film, but I think not. Later he was member of the Williams Committee on Obscenity, a public duty he thoroughly enjoyed. His favourite story was of the man who ran a smutty shop somewhere on the South Coast who was asked what sort of people his customers were. He cast his eyes around the assembled dignitaries, which included a Bishop,and said: " Well, very much like the gentlemen seated here.