Tag Archives: arguments


There have only been Lord Mayors of Norwich for just over a century; before then the position was Mayor plain and simple. That was established in 1404 under the Charter of Henry IV. The first Mayor was William Appleyard, a prominent citizen whose house in Bridewell Alley is now the Museum of Norwich. Some famous names have been Mayor down the years. In 1846 for example the founder of the famous mustard business Jeremiah Colman held the position. The first Lord Mayor was Ernest Blyth, whose title was conferred mid-term in 1910. The current Lord Mayor is Martin Schmierer, leader of the Green Party in Norwich since 2016. He was born in Germany but came to Norwich as a seven-year old. Martin is the second member of the Green Party to be Lord Mayor of Norwich. At 31 he is probably the youngest councillor to become Lord Major of Norwich (I don’t think anybody has taken the trouble to research this thoroughly). He attended the Norwich School, where he was a contemporary and friend of my son Peter. Peter has returned from London to attend the Mayoral ceremony on July 7th. After attending the afternoon tea party with Martin he joined the Mayor on his Procession through the City centre. The theme this year was The Circus.

Some other Lord Mayors of Norwich have included the notable author Ralph Mottram, who was appointed for the year 1953/54. Sir Arthur South was another Lord Mayor; he was a prominent Labour Party politician who was also appointed during the 1950s. The South Stand at the Norwich City Football Club has nothing to do with the points of the compass – it is named after Sir Arthur. What is now less well remembered is that he also had a business in the city; it was a shop selling furs. This is now a very non PC business – so much so that such establishments (called furriers) no longer exist. Fake fur may still be purchased, but even this is frowned upon by many. Poor Sir Arthur lived into this period of severe dislike of fur. For some reason people will still tolerate leather goods to a certain extent, but merely to venture a millimetre further to the fur that grows on the animals’ skin is to bring the whole weight of popular disapproval down upon your head. Unless they are vegetarians people will happily eat animals, but are shocked at wearing their fur.

The book The Lady Lord Mayors of Norwich by Phyllida Scrivens was published earlier this year (2018). It covers the 17 women who have held the position since 1923, when Ethel Colman became the first. She was the second daughter of J. J. Colman, nephew of Jeremiah. He  it was who brought mustard making to Carrow. (She commissioned the pleasure wherry Hathor, which we saw moored outside Howe Hill on the river Ant on the 2nd June 2018.) Ethel Colman was obviously a powerful lady, being one of the first female deacon at Princes’ Street Congregational Church, among other things. She was unmarried, as was the second female Lord Mayor – her name was Mabel Clarkson and she was a member of the Liberal Party like Ethel Colman.

Mrs Ruth Elsie Hardy, Lord Mayor 1950-51.

The third Lady Lord Mayor, Ruth Hardy (née Peachey), was the first to be a married woman. She had risen from the lowest level in society (unlike her two predecessors). Her father earned a living catching rabbits, and she worked her way up from the bottom, beginning as a pupil teacher. She was a forceful character and became a leading light in the Independent Labour Party before the Second World War. I was too young to remember her period of office in 1950, but I met her many times during the twenty-five years thereafter. This is because she was my great-aunt.

Local government has a long history in Norwich. It has developed, particularly in the 20th century, first in the title of the senior member of the council, and then by including people of both genders in that role. The payment of expenses is a relatively recent feature. The 19th century mayors had no need of remuneration, being such people as brewers, architects and insurance magnates. Those of a humbler station in life (such as my great aunt) had more need of financial support. Although in her time she was granted few expenses, there were other subtler ways of gaining from the position. Until the end of her life I continued to benefit from Marks and Spencers’ shirts which she passed on to me. These were returns from which the labels had been removed, but were otherwise perfectly serviceable. It wasn’t much, but this was one of the perks of having been Lord Mayor! No doubt there were others.






Depression is widespread in the modern West; common certainly, and an affliction it may be, but I don’t see it as a mental illness, as many claim it to be. Why? Well you could say that it seems quite logical to be depressed about our prospects, both on an individual level and as a species. We ultimately have no future, on this earth at least; ages after we have all passed away the whole world will be destroyed, along with everything we know. For what reason is being depressed about this fact seen as abnormal?

Before you regard me as a very sad person I must make one thing crystal clear; I am almost never depressed myself. In this respect I think it must be me rather than the rest of you who is acting strangely. Why am I so happy in the circumstances? I will come to that, but first I have some more observations to make about depression. You only have to run through some of the unpleasant side effects of antidepressants to wonder if the cure is worse than the disease; nausea, constipation, weight gain and drowsiness (or alternatively weight loss and insomnia) are just some of them. The loss of sexual appetite is sometimes also cited as an undesirable side effect, but in the circumstances I would call that a positive boon. I have no problem sleeping, and I am of about normal weight, so as you might have guessed I have never taken antidepressants. It is not these pills that keep me so jolly, but without them there would be a lot more depressed people about.

Why is this prevalence of depression such a factor today? In spite of what I have said it is a mystery to me; life has always been depressing if you let it be, but everything is so much more comfortable now in every way. The lack of anaesthesia, infant mortality, no retirement for most people, even widespread hunger; things really were grim in the past. Yet depression was not a major problem back the days of yore, or if it was no one talked about it. Perhaps people were far too busy merely surviving to bother about anything else; and this brings me to my recipe for avoiding depression.

In my late teens I was in danger of being deeply depressed. I remember lying in bed one morning, and I was not merely depressed but positively terrified at what the future might hold. Those awful things have indeed mostly come to pass; many of those who I loved have died, and I myself have been quite severely disabled. All those years ago I resolved to ignore anything that I could not alter, for what is the point of worrying about the inevitable? Living for the present has worked well for me, and it is a much better way to resist depression than medication or visits to the psychotherapist. Also it costs nothing, neither to one personally nor to the National Health Service.

The other way to avoid depression is to laugh a lot; I defy anyone to feel depressed with a smile on their face. The two things are incompatible; even a wry smile will do. People have often remarked how I laugh a lot, and sometimes they complain that I laugh when there is nothing (in their eyes) to laugh about. But if you didn’t see the funny side of life it would really be a tragedy. As I said in the beginning, it is quite rational to see life in tragic terms, and maybe it is mad to laugh about it; nevertheless, it is infinitely preferable to see the ridiculous side of things. Would you rather laugh or cry?





West (or Little) Poringland was pronounced ‘West Pauling’ or ‘Little Porland’ in the days when it existed as a separate medieval parish. It lay between East Poringland and Shotesham. The church of St Michael had fallen into dereliction before the Reformation. It had formerly been administered under a curacy and in 1540 the spiritual needs of the small population were taken over by the Rector of Howe, although the church of All Saints in East Poringland was in fact slightly nearer. The poor of the parish were looked after by East Poringland, who also took care of the roads. The hamlet of West Poringland remained as a churchless parish for over three hundred years.

The site of St Michael’s church is in a farmyard off Shotesham Road, the only remaining vestige of the ancient West Poringland village. I imagine that the large pond and meadow between the farm and the road are what remains of the village green. All traces of the church have now been lost, but the walls still stood at just over shoulder-height in 1800. It was at this time that the land in the village was enclosed, and no doubt that was when the village green was incorporated into the local farm. In 1845 the village had a population of 57, compared with 520 in East Poringland. In 1840 there were four tenanted farms in West Poringland, all owned by the Lord of the Manor.

All the principal buildings and businesses were located in East Poringland – pubs, two windmills and a National School, set up in 1841 and still taking pupils a hundred and twenty years later when I was a lad. In the nineteenth century the surnames of Minns and Tubby were already known in the village, and both families were distant relatives of mine. My connection with Poringland arose from my parents moving there shortly before I was born, and the fact that it was also the home to these relations is coincidental.


Leafy Oak Lane was a popular dog walking place for me and my sister nearly fifty years ago. This is in West Poringland. Dove Lane, which leads off it, and eventually ends up at the Dove Public House, was a green lane (i.e.not made up) and so no traffic passed that way; it was perfectly safe for our dogs who would happily run and sniff along the lane. Leafy Oak Lane is a lovely name, but most of the oak trees must have been felled a hundred years ago or more, and the fields now do not even have hedges. It is near where the Poringland Oak is said to have been, and as there is a pond where Dove Lane meets Leafy Oak Lane this may have been the exact spot where Crome painted his famous picture.

Unfortunately the local farmer had taken to dumping farm effluent in the pond some forty years ago, and the result was not pleasant. Luckily nature soon recovers, and although I have not been there for many years I am sure that the scene is again tranquil and serene.





What is consciousness? Well, in one sense it just means being awake, and this is a common feature across most of the animal kingdom. Even a worm is conscious of stimuli; if you prod one it will wriggle. In people consciousness means more than just the opposite of being unconscious however; it means self-awareness among other things. Those other qualities include an ability to look to the future. In most people’s minds these are properties unique to humanity. Cognition is a different matter, and it means the ability to think. A high degree of intelligence is exhibited by other primates, and even my dog is much smarter than me in many ways (for example I cannot find things simply by sniffing them out). But can any animal conceive of this time next week? We cannot ask them, but nothing indicates that they can. Self-awareness and a knowledge of the passing of time are two aspects of consciousness, but no one can say exactly what consciousness is. There is no science of consciousness; it is embraced by philosophy, and it has recently been considered by psychologists, though without any success. Where it fits in the scheme of things is still a complete mystery.

I do not know how common my experience is with regard to consciousness, but I suspect it is quite rare. The dawning of my own self-awareness was (as you might expect) also my very first memory. I was sitting on the hearth-rug at home; then it came to me in a flash of inspiration. One minute I was just playing with something as toddlers do, and then suddenly I realised this basic truth; “I’m me!” The memory is still vivid, I can even remember the colour of the rug that I was sitting on. That was how it occurred to this individual, and in spite of its brevity, it was an awesome discovery. A lot of important things go with self-awareness. The concept of individuality is dependant on that of self, and so one needs to have an idea of what self means. The knowledge of good and evil too cannot exist without it. Returning to my dog for a moment, he appears to have a knowledge of right and wrong; he knows it is wrong to bite me, and right to wait until told to eat his dinner. But are these not just just my principles which have been instilled into him? If he had been allowed to grow up as a wild animal he would never have developed these traits.

The story of Adam and Eve is the story of the dawning of self-awareness. Until Adam took the apple humanity had no shame in nakedness, no knowledge of the approach of death and no appreciation of right and wrong. The Book of Genesis is an allegory that contains a deep truth; as I understand things in our post Darwinian era, at some stage in its evolution the animal that we came from became aware of itself, and that was when Homo Sapiens began. In a more personal sense it is a genesis that we all go through, and it comes suddenly like an electric light being turned on. It is me on the hearth-rug all over again. We have no way of knowing if it was a process that took many generations or not, but to me the knowledge of self is either something you have or something you lack. Can it evolve over time? Perhaps Homo Erectus or some progenitor of mankind had a dim awareness of self, but what ‘dim awareness’ means in this context is not clear to me.

It is on a more profound level than a purely scientific one that the idea of consciousness should be regarded. The rationalist whose deterministic universe has no place for such intangibles has nothing to say on the subject.  Yet self-consciousness undoubtedly exists. Perhaps theologians have a better understanding of self recognition. What is consciousness? Heaven knows.





This container traffic from the port of Felixstowe has grown from nothing in 1960 to the huge operation it is today. Fifty years ago just a handful of containers left Suffolk for Harwich, which was the major freight terminal in the district; one or two trains a day were assembled there for onward distribution. Now Felixstowe takes 40% of all the containers that are imported into the UK and the port is the largest in the country for this kind of traffic.

Dr Beeching had thoughts of closing the line from Ipswich to Lowestoft, but the track would have remained as far as Leiston to carry nuclear waste from Sizewell power station. (I wonder why this hazardous substance always goes by the safe and reliable railway?!) Anyway, that would probably have preserved the goods line to Felixstowe too. In view of today’s pivot role of the port complex in the freight infrastructure of the country, the fact that it retained a rail connection is just as well. Felixstowe Pier station was the original passenger terminal in the town, on the site now occupied by Felixstowe Port. It had opened in 1877 and closed to passengers in 1951. Goods traffic continued in very small quantities.

Of course a lot of containers go by road along the A12 and A14; these highways have had money spent on them, but they are still pitifully inadequate for the 21st century. There is no motorway running into Suffolk, which shows how little priority is given to East Anglia’s transport needs. This is even more true of rail; think how many heavy lorries would be taken off these congested highways by an increase in rail capacity. The line to Felixstowe is single track for nearly its entire length – this was not the case in 1959, although traffic was much lighter then. The work of redoubling the track is not expected to be finished until 2030 moreover, and even then it will not be complete. It is hard to understand why it has taken so long to begin to return the line to its former importance, let alone why it has taken so long to start to upgrade it.

The construction the short (1.2 km) stretch of line between the East Suffolk Line and the Great Eastern main Line (technically known as a chord) means that trains no longer have to pass through Ipswich and reverse on their way to Nuneaton, where many of them terminate. The chord opened in 2014 and was constructed at a cost of £59m, but this is only a small part of the investment needed on the line to the midlands. Trains on this route are expected to more than double in the next ten years as track improvements make this feasible, but as this is one of the premier freight lines in Britain it seems impossibly slow progress.  The result will still be an inferior service. From Suffolk County Council’s point of view the port generates over 10,000 jobs and (in my opinion) much greater investment is needed to preserve Felixstowe’s attractiveness. Other ports are trying to take a share of the business, in particular the new London Gateway port on the river Thames. This will take some of this traffic in the future, but hopefully the increasing trade in the UK will be enough for both ports to prosper.

The redoubling of the line through Soham and the redesign of Ely junction are just two of the improvements urgently required on this line. Unfortunately many of these upgrades will merely be the reinstatement of track that existed in the past, until ‘rationalisation’ took place. At least we have stopped singling these lines now, but it is a pity that this was ever done in the first place. The taking up of track is not done without cost, and the relaying of it is even more expensive. The restoration of two-way working on these few miles to Ely has thrown up so many problems that the project has been abandoned for now, which means that the reintroduction of a station at Soham has also been put on hold. Even the improvements to Ely junction proved too expensive for Network Rail’s current budget and have been delayed until some future time.

The other route by rail through Ipswich to Stratford in East London at present still takes most of the containers from Felixstowe, although this is a pinch point. As more trains run on the Elizabeth Line through Stratford more goods traffic will be routed through Bury St Edmunds instead. The chord in Ipswich will go some way to make this transfer possible. The chord was planned as a freight only line, but this has been upgraded to dual use to include passenger traffic. I can understand specials being directed this way, carrying those wanting to experience the new route, but I am at a loss to envisage any regular passenger services wishing to avoid Ipswich station. The chord has the infrastructure already in place for eventual electrification, although there is no date suggested for when this might be done. It would require the electrification of a mainly freight line, and Network Rail are having difficulties even in electrifying the main line to Bristol. I do not see this electrification to Felixstowe happening any time soon.

It is not generally realised that another chord was introduced on this line nearly one hundred years ago, which created the direct line from Ipswich to Peterborough. Although the term chord was not used then, this short length of track connected the Ely to Newmarket line with the Ipswich to Cambridge line just to the west of Kennett station. The original line from Ely to Newmarket has been returned to agricultural use, but it can still be traced on Google Maps’ satellite view. Before the Soham/Kennett chord was constructed there was not a direct route from Bury St Edmunds to Ely, but a few trains a day went this way by reverse at Newmarket – quite a performance with the locomotive hauled trains of the time.

Things were very different then; there was no Bury to Ely line, but there were lines from Bury to Thetford  and Long Melford, besides the lines to Ipswich and Cambridge. Bury was then a hub for local trains; goods wagons were loaded and unloaded at virtually every station on the network, while the idea of long distance freight traffic from Felixstowe to the midlands had not entered railway planners’ minds. Now Bury is a station where freight traffic is a heavy user of the line, but obviously these trains do not stop there. It is on a long distance route that did not even exist in the heyday of steam.

Another chord was recently proposed at Reedham in Norfolk, this time reinstating the line of 1847 which connected Yarmouth and Lowestoft directly. This link was made redundant by the opening of Yarmouth South Town station in 1859. This chord would reopen the  direct service from Yarmouth to Ipswich (and perhaps eventually Liverpool Street) via the East Suffolk Line, but this proposal from Network Rail got a dusty answer from the not-very-impressive local MP. He merely said it was a pity the railways had been so drastically cut in the 1960s. Indeed it is, but what is the point of regretting the past? I can do it in a blog like this, but a politician should be looking to the future. It is true that the railway through the Berney Arms halt would need improvement to bring the speed limit up from the current snail’s pace, but this would only be a plus.

Will it ever happen? With the pace of progress with the vital container traffic on the Felixstowe line and the lack of local support I doubt it.






I was a student in ’68; it was my first term at university and I was inevitably drawn into the protests that erupted across the West during that year. In the circumstances the international disquiet that was seen in many places in Europe and the US inevitably had its effect in the UK. It was inconvenient therefore that we, in this country, had little to protest about. Unlike the Americans, who definitely had something to complain about, we were not involved in the Vietnam war (thanks to Harold Wilson). We hadn’t been tearing up the cobble stones like the students in Paris either. Naturally, as this was France, sexual politics played a large part in these riots in the Latin Quarter, but in England this was not an issue. There were no widespread working class strikes in Britain to show that these protests involved anything other than the gilded youth of the upper middle classes having a bit of fun before taking up well paid jobs in medicine or the law. We were the baby boomers, those with less to protest about than any other generation before or since, but that did not stop us.

This was at Oxford by the way, and by the time that the events of May in Paris had sunk in it was the long vacation, so it was October before the undergraduates reassembled to consider their response. As there was nothing obvious to protest about we had to invent something. The student leadership came up with the demand that the University should no longer keep files on the students. I was dimly aware that some records were kept on us, but on sober reflection I now realise that they probably only included things like our Health Service and National Insurance numbers. I very much doubt that they held anything substantial about our opinions, which is what exercised the student body; there is little of substance to be known about the thoughts of teenagers after all. Nevertheless, I joined in the protests. I can remember standing in the square beyond the Bodleian, voicing our ridiculous demands. Some of us even occupied the main reception area of the Clarendon building. We probably screamed some meaningless slogans. In the supine way that the University Authorities have usually caved in to the junior members ever since, they did their best to accommodate us. With the recent case of the Rhodes statue they were about to defer to the activists yet again (and rewrite history in the process), but the matter was taken out of their hands by the alumni’s threats of withdrawing funding. Money talks louder than the most vocal student.

In 1968 they did what they could to placate the radicals but this is now totally opaque to me. I wish  that I had done something else – anything else – with my time; it would have been so much more productive. Still, for the most part, I got on with my studies and the ordinary activities of daily life. Let me give you a taster of what this entailed. I went down to breakfast while my scout made my bed (honestly), perhaps I attended a lecture, had too much to eat for lunch at the Chinese restaurant in Ship Street, wandered down to the Radcliffe Camera to snooze it off (in theory to browse the history books) and then had a pint or two at the Welsh Pony in George Street. I had dinner in Hall before an evening with Elizabeth Jennings at the Poetry Society. Back in my room I made a cup of coffee on the gas ring before retiring to bed.

As for the financial side of things, don’t forget all this was free; the university fees were paid for us without our being concerned about where the money came from, and even the beer and chop suey were purchased out of our generous maintenance grants. Students today cannot believe what a pampered lot we were. As the autumn turned into to winter it got too cold to go on demonstrations. We returned to our incredibly cosseted lives. We took prelims (the only exams we did in the whole three years before finals) and then went home in early December to prepare for Christmas. Downtrodden? No wonder we protested.

Joe Mason and Bill Wragge, Rimini 1968.

Fortunately it did not take me long to realise how foolish it all was. It was another demo, one involving Enoch Powell, that persuaded me that such direct action was pointless when it was not positively counter productive. Some of my contemporaries (like Peter Hitchens) took far longer to abandon their Trotskyist past, and a few have never done so. While I was not at Oxford I continued with my life’s routines of ordinary affairs, only they weren’t really ordinary at all. I spent the spring on the island of Guernsey (where my sister was working) and then went to Italy for a holiday with my friend Bill. There we  spent a morning going round the railway depot at Rimini (it was still full of steam engines); nobody seemed to mind. It was quite unlike a railway works in Britain – there were geraniums growing between the tracks! In Venice we enjoyed a trip down the Grand Canal in a gondola. Back in England I paddled my canoe on the sea off Lowestoft with my Dad, while catching dabs and plaice. These events were in every way far more real and rewarding than the all the intellectual nonsense of meaningless protests. However I must admit that the graffiti was witty; the walls of the colleges were still black with the grime of centuries of coal smoke (cleaning got underway in the 70s), and were perfect for chalking up cheeky messages . Yes, that was the best part of 1968 as far as Oxford was concerned: the rude epithets.





RALPH HALE MOTTRAM and other writers

When we consider the poets of the First World War, it is as a part of history that they are now remembered. All through my school career however, when I was I was studying the poems of Siegfried Sassoon (and others) he was still living. So too was another of his contemporaries, Robert Graves. They remain a part of my literary environment, and are not to me historical figures. The poetry is what first drew the public’s attention to these writers, but it is their autobiographical works that I most remember. In Graves’s case this was Goodbye to All That, and in Sassoon’s it was the trilogy that begins with Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man.

R. H. Mottram

Another trilogy which concerns experiences in France and Flanders during World War One begins with The Spanish Farm. It was written by a local man, Ralph Hale Mottram, who was brought up in Bank House in Norwich. There his father was Chief Clerk and Ralph too began his career as a bank employee. He had already published two books of poems before the war; in 1915 at the age of thirty two he volunteered for Kitchener’s Army.  The Spanish Farm was his record of the war and was published in 1924. It went on to win the Hawthornden Prize* in the same year.  The trilogy was published in single book format in 1927.

Mottram lived into my era, although as a young man I did not appreciate him. His star was no longer burning brightly in the literary firmament compared to other writers of the wartime years.  Everybody has heard of Wilfred Owen, but few beyond Norfolk know the name of R. H. Mottram, and fewer still are familiar with his work. This a great shame because he wrote most engagingly. This lack of recognition may have something to do with the fact that, although he had been friendly with the author of The Forsyte Saga John Galsworthy (and even wrote his biography), he never fully joined the metropolitan literary establishment. He preferred to spend his life involved in the affairs of his native county. He was of the same generation as my great-aunt Ruth, and became Lord Mayor of Norwich four years after her, in 1955. He died in Kings Lynn in 1971.

The Spanish Farm is a novel, although it draws heavily on Mottram’s experiences as an officer in the Great War. There is one small point that would not be worth mentioning, had not the centenary of the Royal Air Force recently been celebrated; he mentioned members of the RAF being among the crowd at horse show held in 1916. He was two years too early. How careful authors must be to avoid these little mistakes! This small error in no way detracts from the pleasure I take in the unfolding story, though pleasure is perhaps the wrong word. With the horrors of war always lying in wait, the proper description would be anticipation, tempered with a sense of dread. (A horse show might seem a strange thing to occur within a few miles of the Front Line in Flanders, but that is to ignore the position held by the horse in the affections of the English Officer Class.)

The three parts of the trilogy begin with the war as experienced by the civilian residents of Spanish Farm, especially the youngest daughter of old Vanderlynden, Madeleine. She was about twenty-one when the war broke out. This volume is grim, but the story is not as awful as that of life and death that occurred on the Front. This forms the plot of the second book. I can relate to a few (very  few) parts of this, as the main character returns home for a week’s leave, after many months in France. The place is obviously Norwich, and home is  the Cathedral Close and the architect’s practice there. A few decades later my cousin was that architect; the frisson of recognition is mixed with a sense of the continuity of life. Wars may come and go, but the architectural demands of the diocesan church buildings will remain.

Why was the conflict so prolific in producing great writers? As well as those already mention there was the playwright R. C. Sherriff (Journey’s End), and we should not ignore that great comedic production, written under the appalling conditions of the Front Line, The Wipers Times. They were mostly British authors, but we must not forget Ehric Maria Remarque. This German novelist’s best known work is known in this country by its English title, All Quiet on the Western Front. No war before the Great War had produced anything comparable, nor did the Second World War repeat the example. The poem High Flight by John Gillespie Magee is the aviator’s favourite poem, and that was written in the Second World War, but that was a one-off. Was it the horrors of the trenches or the large number of literate young people who were thrown into them that led to this outburst of creativity? It was certainly both of these things, but it was something else as well. It was the last flowering of the Victorian age, and the war both revealed this great literary tradition in its awful climax, and destroyed it for ever.

*The Hawthornden Prize was established in 1919; authors to have won it include such well-known names as Graham Greene, Vita Sackville-West, Lord David Cecil and Henry Williamson. Both Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon also won the prize, but Mottram was one of the first to do so.




O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us…

...To see ourselves as others see us.

The Internet has given us that power, which Rabbie Burns could only dream about. I have been listening to the thoughts of foreigners about England on Youtube, and these come from all kinds of people; mostly they are Americans, but they also include Canadians, Poles, and many others. I thought everybody outside the UK pitied us for out health provision, but this is apparently not so; it has been quite an eye-opener to hear how Americans in particular envy us our NHS. Although we have our grumbles about the service (and I am appalled by its growing inefficiency) you can be bankrupted by illness in America. At least this can never happen here. The nation over that side of the Pond spends twice as much on every patient as well. We take the NHS very much for granted, but it was a ground-breaking utility in the 1940s when it was introduced; as an infant I owed my life to it. On taxation too the Americans envy the simplicity of PAYE. There everybody has to fill out a tax return every year – an enormous source of income for accountants, an interest group that ensures the inefficient systems will continue.

Europeans say we all have jobs over here, and indeed we have an unemployment rate of around 4%, compared with an average approaching 25% for youth in Southern Europe. We tend not appreciate how lucky we are. With the railways we still look back with remorse at all the lines that were closed under Dr Beeching, but foreigners are amazed that the trains still go everywhere in the UK, and frequently too; in the Americas you are lucky to find one train a day on many routes. One train every two hours tells you that this a sleepy rural route, and on the Tube they now have trains every two or three minutes in rush hour. But everybody admits that the trains here are expensive.

Another thing we in this country deprecate is English cuisine, but people from abroad think Cornish pasties, Stilton cheese and Bakewell tarts are delicious, to name but three; even Scotch eggs and Melton Mowbray pies have their supporters. The English pub we regard as a feature that is rapidly vanishing, but we ought to cherish it, because it has a friendly quality that is quite lacking in the bars that are found abroad. In spite of its endangered status, the English pub is still evolving. In my lifetime it has changed to a family friendly environment, which is a good thing, but the relaxation of licensing hours and the consequent growth in binge drinking has been wholly negative. It was rather amusing to watch some young Chinese sampling Scotch on Youtube. As first-timers I think they might have got on better if they had not tried to drink it neat!

Our weather is characterised as dull and drizzly, but I for one much prefer our gentle climate to Canada’s six months of snow. The narrowness of our roads is undoubtedly a downside as far as driving is concerned, but the twisty lanes can be very picturesque compared to straight highways. Everything, from a simple WWII bunker to the ancient remains at Hadrian’s Wall or Stone Henge, fascinates our tourists. This observation doesn’t apply to Europeans (who have plenty of monuments of their own), but for our transatlantic visitors the history that greets you at every turn is a great attraction. For the more reflective Europeans the fact that we have not been invaded for nearly a thousand years makes our heritage rather special. The small size of our dwellings is a noticeable feature of the UK, even in comparison with much of Europe.

I can now see through foreign eyes the more interesting things we have to offer. The comments of the visitors who spend 48 hours viewing the sights of London are less revealing. The fact that all the great museums in London are free amazes the Americans, and indeed it makes me give a wry smile; I wish our museums here in Norwich were free, but I recognise the fact that someone has to pay for these collections.






Going about your business in Cambridge is difficult at the best of times; even cycling has its problems, particularly finding anywhere to leave your bike during term time, due to the sheer number of students attempting to attend lectures. A recent improvement has been the new Cambridge North station, which has provided direct access from the Science Park to the national rail network. There is also local agitation to reopen the lines from Haverhill and Wisbech into Cambridge, although both these campaigns appear to be stuck in the mire of local authority approval and finance. The guided busway that was built on the old railway line westwards to St Ives has been controversial; during construction the cost more than doubled, and there have been problems with the noisy track. It is above all the centre of the town that is the real problem; a high density of historic buildings makes the building of an overground light railway or even a tram system impossible.

Before the railway arrived bringing trains from London in 1845, the only way of transporting heavy materials into Cambridge was up the river Cam. The stone that built the colleges was all carried in this way. The nearest quarry was at Barnack (near Stamford), and it is from this stone that much of the architecture of Cambridge is constructed. Although the best Barnack ragstone was exhausted by the middle of the fifteenth century, the demolition of the Fenland monasteries after the Reformation released more material for continued construction in Cambridge. Although the river Cam is now connected to the Inland Waterways of England, the Fenland drains that today provide access for powered river craft were not suitable for horse-drawn barges; they have no towpaths, and the high banks made sailing impossible. Canal narrowboats may now venture up the Cam as far a Jesus Lock near the centre of town, but historically the Fenland rivers formed an independent network of waterways. These extended to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and Thetford in Norfolk, and via Bishops Lynn (Kings Lynn) to the Wash. The Isle of Ely was the watery hub of this system.

As for air transport, Cambridge International Airport to the east of the town (commonly known as Marshall’s) has been the base for military and civilian aircraft contracts since it was built in 1938. It has never had a regular passenger business, although periodic attempts are made to fly to destinations in this country; I am at a loss to explain its ‘International’ moniker. The airport was to have been relocated to Mildenhall when the USAF base there closes in 2024, releasing a large amount of land there for thousands of much-needed new homes, but this plan has fallen through and the airport will remain in its original location near the Newmarket Road.

There is nothing new about providing a transport infrastructure in Cambridge; a horse-drawn tramway was opened as long ago as 1880, and ran for 34 years until competition from the Ortona Bus Service eventually caused its closure in February 1914. A tramcar of the Cambridge Street Tramcar Co. remains and has been acquired by the Ipswich Transport Museum, where it is currently undergoing restoration. Today there is a proposal to build an underground transit system through the centre of Cambridge. This would not be a tracked system, but would use modern technology to allow the trains to run along a dedicated roadway.  The vehicles would use rubber tyres thus removing the expense of providing rails, and they would be battery-powered. Once outside the town centre the route could emerge as an overground system, but still using a dedicated route. Also, like the Dockland Light Railway in London, it would be driverless; all these features would reduce the cost of construction and operation substantially. On current projections the overground section could be up and running in as little as three years time, while the whole system could be completed by 2025. Something certainly needs to be done before the whole urban area grinds to a halt.

A Cambridge horse-drawn tram and an Ortona motor omnibus





“Histories make men wise.” Francis Bacon

What is history? My father had a saying: history is everything up to now. This is true in a sense, but it is obviously impossible to study everything that has ever happened in the world. We have to extract stories from this mass of information, and in doing this we shape the past in ways that should enable us to make sense of it. A mass of meaningless incidents can be distilled into a few events, which can be made  meaningful. Of course a problem for historians is that the vast majority of evidence was never a matter of record, and even with the tiny fraction that was recorded, most of those records have been lost. However this problem is also a benefit; it narrows down the possibilities of history and makes it manageable.

It ought to be obvious that history should try to tell us objectively what happened in the past, but far too many historians attempt to make subjective judgements. This particularly true in the matter of conformity with contemporary custom. As observers we must all have opinions about the good as well as the bad, but these opinions will inevitably change over time; our attitude to capital punishment (for example) is very different now to what it was a century or two ago. The facts of history on the other hand do not vary with the changes in beliefs. There will always be scope for a certain amount of disagreement about what the facts of history are, and our interpretations of them may change, but factual opinion should not stray into assessments of moral rectitude. We should all be seeking the bare bones of history. We can never ignore morals, but these are the province of the study of ethics and not of history.

We can all agree that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066; we may be even more specific and say it occurred on the 14th October; we may speculate on the view of the Anglo-Saxons, as their land was irrevocably changed to Norman England. This all is a legitimate part of history. On the matter of the introduction of serfdom (equivalent to slavery) by the Normans we may deprecate it, but this is part of our moral attitude, and should not the concern of historians. We can all agree that we do not want serfs to return today, but whether the Norman Conquest was morally positive or not must surely be irrelevant after a thousand years. It happened; how and why is what we want historians to tell us, not to wring their hands over the evils of serfdom.

I think most people would accept this, but as we get closer to the present this distinction gets blurred. We may regard the history of Imperial Rome dispassionately, but it is much harder to take the same stance with the doings of the Fascist leader Mussolini; he was active in living memory. Yet he is as much a figure of the past as the Emperor Caligula. In comparison with the actions of the Romans, those of even the most extreme of twentieth century Italians were relatively mild (I could not say the same of the Germans). Nevertheless I think that the task of the historian is not to take a moral position, even in its most stark reality, with the appalling behaviour of the Nazis. I can do that for myself. I want to know what happened and why; the ‘should’ and ‘ought’ questions are important, but they are not within the remit of the historian.

I am well aware that many people disagree with my position and the distinction I draw is lost on many modern writers. For example, the history of the British Empire is a case in point. Like most empires it had its positive and negative sides, but none of us can do anything about them now. It is still very common to read highly politicised accounts of Imperial Britain. Is anyone writing about the Roman Empire as a great evil? Of course not. It is a fact of history, and although we may be appalled by the doings of the Emperors, this is only obliquely relevant to the nature of Imperial Rome.  What is important historically is what an Emperor did, rather than our opinions of whether he was a nice man or not. So there you have my opinion; history is about what happened, not a tract on the good or otherwise of those things.




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