Archive for December, 2011

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Peter the Great – a visionary Tsar who modernised mediaeval Russia

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Royalty on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about Russia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Peter the Great, picture, image, illustration

Peter the Great visiting a shipyard by Richard Hook

Michael Romanov was only 16 when he was elected tsar of Russia in the year 1613 a.d., and he was not strong enough in either health or character to measure up to the job.

So – why was he chosen? Because the men of power in Russia were up to their old tricks again, distracting attention with a figurehead while they steered the ship.

This was the way things were for the first six years of Michael’s reign. Then his patriotic father, whose enemies had banished him to Poland, was permitted to return, and it was he that now became the man at the wheel, directing Russia’s course until his death in 1633.

By the middle of the 17th century Russia had increased greatly in size and population, which now stood at around 10 million, and Moscow had become as fine a city as any of the capitals of Europe. But the country was still mainly agricultural, still backward compared with most of her neighbours.

Michael died in 1645 and was succeeded by another 16-year-old, Alexis, who again was no more than a figurehead. The control of the ship of state now rested in the hands of his tutor, Morozov, a man from the rich landowning class. It is a measure of how mediaeval Russia still was that at the height of his power Morozov owned over 30,000 serfs, which is merely another word for slaves.

But Morozov went too far. His rule became so harsh that in the year 1648 the people of Moscow rose against him and he had to take refuge in a monastery.

Moscow was a troubled city at this time. In the mid-1650s it suffered a crisis of a different kind when it was ravaged by an epidemic of smallpox. A few years later, in 1662, a mob of some thousands protesting against injustices besieged the tsar’s palace.

Alexis promptly called upon his courtiers and guards to protect him. The result was indiscriminate slaughter of the populace by a spate of executions and the permanent exile of whole families to Siberia.

Throughout all this confusion one thing remained constant, and that was the basic cause of it, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. The great families of the land were granted more and more rights and privileges while those of the poor people were steadily reduced.

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The power of the war correspondent’s pen: W H Russell of ‘The Times’

Posted in Communications, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Literature, War on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about journalism originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

W H Russell, picture, image, illustration

William Howard Russell, the War Correspndent of ‘The Times’ in the Crimea

“The blackguard ought to be hung!” roared a bewhiskered senior officer, speaking for many of his friends. Others wanted the man horsewhipped.

Who was the appalling person who so deserved the rope? No less a figure than the first and greatest of all war correspondents, William Howard Russell of The Times. What was the crime of this “vulgar low Irishman”, as one apoplectic general dubbed him? Simply that he had dared to tell the terrible truth about the conditions the troops were enduring in the Crimean War. Every despatch he sent to his paper was likely to cause a sensation by its brutal frankness and honesty. Young officers and the troops they commanded were grateful to him, but authority loathed him.

The Crimean War broke out in 1854, almost 40 years after the Battle of Waterloo. It was the first major was Britain had fought since Waterloo, when Napoleon had been finally beaten. Britain now had her old enemy, France, as an ally, with Russia as the enemy. Alas, the great Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo, was dead. In command was an officer who had served under him, Lord Raglan. He had none of his old chief’s genius and was a very poor leader, as events were proving.

Yet he can hardly be blamed for the abysmal way the expedition had been organised at home, the woeful lack of medical supplies and the criminal way in which the transport situation had been handled.

His main fault was that he was a pleasant old man, not a dynamic leader. He and his fellow generals were to find that Russell was more dangerous an enemy to them than were the Russians.

The only senior officers who were experienced in war were those who belonged to the British army in India, but their expertise was not called upon. This neglect had fatal results.

Meanwhile Russell went on wielding his deadly pen. He was the first to praise the bravery of the soldiers and their junior commanders. It was he who invented the immortal phrase “the thin Red Line”, when, in his despatch from Balaclava, he described how the Russians “dash on towards that thin red line of steel”. He also wrote memorably about the fateful charge of the Light Brigade, while castigating the men who were responsible for it.

Russell is best remembered now for his description of the horrors of the military hospital at Scutari, which led to the appearance there of Florence Nightingale and her devoted band. Long before his truly sensational account of the squalor there, he had stressed the hell the men were enduring, especially the wounded. He described the horrors of a Crimean winter:

“Our men have not either warm or waterproof clothing . . . the trenches are turned into dykes . . . and not a soul seems to care for their comfort or even for their lives.” As for his descriptions of the wounded, and the horrors they endured, they stunned the nation.

Stunned is perhaps too weak a word. Did the soldiers of the greatest Empire ever known deserve to be treated in this way? Not if The Times could help it. Its leading articles used information privately sent to the editor, in which Russell went even further than he did in his official despatches. His information came not only from what he saw and heard, but from very many army officers and men who wanted the facts made known.

And the result? The unfortunate Raglan cracked and died under the strain, being made the scapegoat for the imcompetence of the Government and many others. The Government itself was brought down, so great was the public indignation. Things began to improve. And never again was a British army so badly administered.

Russell’s most enduring triumph, however, arose from his Scutari despatches, mentioned above. They blazed with anger. Sentences like, “The manner in which the sick and the wounded are treated is worthy only of the savages of Dahomey,” caused utter dismay at home, while the revelation that the French had excellent nurses, the Sisters of Charity, and good hospitals and doctors, shamed every Briton. Soon Florence Nightingale and her nurses were on their way to the Crimea.

Russell was to describe many other campaigns. He dared to reveal the terrible massacre inflicted by the British on the mutineers of the Indian Mutiny, and on innocent Indians. He would not be silenced and nor would his great paper. In the end the establishment had to bow to public opinion, and in 1895, he was knighted.

A famous train made moreso by Agatha Christie: the Orient Express

Posted in Historical articles, History, Railways, Transport on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about trains originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Orient Express, picture, image, illustration

The Orient Express was introduced in 1883, by John S Smith

Colonial officials on their way to duty in India or Egypt, after taking their home leave in Europe, used to travel in coaches like Victorian drawing rooms on the famed Orient Express.

This train, which ran from Paris to Istanbul, made its last trip on 20th May, 1977. With it there ended an era of train travel which, in its heyday, had been glamorous and luxurious, but which, in recent years, had sadly deteriorated.

Introduced in 1883, the Orient Express was the brainchild of a Belgian engineer, Georges Nagelmackers. It reigned supreme among the world’s famous expresses until the 1960s, when it began to decline. It finally ceased operating because passengers had deserted it in favour of air travel.

Not the least romantic part of the train’s make-up were the engines which hauled it towards Turkey. Our picture shows a Hungarian tandem compound, with outside pipes and steam domes, struggling through the terrain east of Vienna.

Faster the plane might be, but the romance of the Orient Express will never be replaced. Wild weather, wolves and other disquieting factors – natural or man-made – were always at hand. Right to the end, the train promised adventure – and often fulfilled its promise.

Some of nature’s creatures enjoy a human life-span

Posted in Animals, Insects, Nature, Wildlife on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about nature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

Termites, picture, image, illustration

The Queen Termite, protected by a soldier outside her cell, can continue to lay eggs for fifty years

Captain James Cook, the adventurous 18th century navigator, visited the Southern Pacific island of Tonga in 1773. As a gesture of friendship, he presented the island’s king with a tortoise, to which the Tongans gave the name Tui Malela.

In 1966, Tui Malela died at an age of over 200. This record lacks proper documentation. But if it is correct, the Tongan tortoise led a long, if uneventful, life.

As a general rule, however, few creatures live longer than man, whose greatest age is 110, though the average is nearer 70.

Man’s closest rival is the tortoise, which holds the record for long life among the vertebrates. A male Marion’s tortoise has lived to become 152 and a European pond tortoise more than 120.

Birds have far shorter lives. One sulphur-crested cockatoo was known to have lived for 56 years. Another record, listed as “probable”, gives an age of 73 for a greater sulphur-crested cockatoo. This Australasian bird is a member of the parrot family. An owl reached the age of 68 and an ostrich survived until it was 62.

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Graham Hill would win the now coveted Triple Crown

Posted in Cars, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about motor-racing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Graham Hill, picture, image, illustration

Hill escaped a massive pile-up at the start of the 1966 Indianapolis 500, which he won, by Graham Coton

“Drive a car around Brands Hatch. Only £1 for four laps.” This advertisement in a local paper sparked off the career of one of the greatest racing drivers of all time, Graham Hill.

At that time in 1953, Hill was an apprentice motor mechanic. He had no intention of becoming a racing driver, but thought that the experience on the track would be worthwhile. The rickety 500 cc Formula 3 car he drove felt very different from his own cosy Morris 8, but four laps later, Hill had only one clear desire – to become a professional racing driver. He talked his way into the track’s racing school as an instructor, though Hill had only those four tentative laps to put to his name. There would be no wages, only the occasional chance to drive the cars himself.

This set the pattern for Hill’s early progress in motor racing, for he spent the next few years trading his services as a mechanic in return for free races and practice sessions in racing cars. He led his first race briefly (finishing second), then got a job with Lotus at £1 a day. He helped Colin Chapman to build cars for customers and was loaned out by them to their customers to assist their mechanic at race meetings.

Again, he was given an occasional drive, and gradually began to develop his race-winning skills. In fact, Chapman was so impressed that he allowed Hill to build up his own Lotus XI at the factory and race it himself. Painted bright yellow, Hill’s pride and joy soon earned the nickname of Yellow Peril and won many club races during the 1956 season.

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Italy’s most ancient competitive horse-race – the Palio

Posted in Historical articles, Sport on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about horse-racing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Palio, picture, image, illustration

The Palio in Siena by Walter Tyndale

Rivalries between towns are widespread and traditional, but keen competition between districts within one town are rare. The Italian city of Siena has 17 districts, and for 363 days in every year nobody is keenly conscious of being a man of Onda, Istrice, or Lupa.

But on 2nd July and 16th August every year the city undergoes a remarkable change – for these are the days on which chosen horsemen from 10 of the 17 districts compete in the main square – the Piazza del Campo – for the palio, a victory banner.

The race, known as the Palio delle Contrade, was first held in 1644, and has taken place twice annually ever since except in times of war or plague. The city, about 100 kilometres south of Florence, is nowadays packed with visitors hoping for a vantage point in the crowd of sixty thousand round the square.

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Suffolk’s Woolpit owes its name to wolves, not wool

Posted in Animals, British Countryside, Interesting Words, Language on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about place-names originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Wolves, picture, image, illustration

A pack of wolves

Do you live at Woolpit?

Woolpit is a picturesque little village in Suffolk. But you would be wrong if you thought that it got its name from producing wool – Woolpit’s name came from its wolf pits. These were deep holes dug in the ground to catch the wolves that used to menace the countryside.

However, in the 11th century, during the reign of King Stephen, something very strange happened in Woolpit.

Two children, a boy and a girl, suddenly appeared from nowhere. They seemed perfectly human apart from one thing – their skins were green.

They said that they came from St Martin’s Land, where it was always twilight. They had entered a cave, trying to trace the source of some music they had heard coming from it. This had led them into Woolpit, but when they turned around the cave’s entrance had shut behind them.

The two green children stayed in the village into which they had so mysteriously come. The boy died fairly soon afterwards, but the girl is supposed to have married a man from King’s Lynn.

Mary Shelley – mistress of the macabre and feminist pioneer

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, Literature on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about English literature originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Frankenstein and monster, picture, image, illustration

Frankenstein and his monster by John Keay

Have you ever gone to bed shaking with fear after watching one of those old horror movies on TV?

If so, the name of Frankenstein will send a familiar cold chill down your spine. The horrific monster (portrayed at its best by Boris Karloff in 1932) has starred in countless films and spin-offs, but originally he was the star of a book written by a woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the famous romantic poet. She got the idea for her book after visiting Switzerland with her husband in 1814.

In her book (simply called Frankenstein), a young medical student of that name tries to build a man out of bodies stolen from graveyards.

He succeeds in giving his monster life by charging it with electricity – but his creation has human emotions and longs for affection.

Denied this by the townspeople, who run away screaming whenever he appears, the monster escapes from Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory and goes in search of warmth and friendship.

Nevertheless, as Mary Shelley portrays him, he seeks to revenge himself on the man who made him. He relentlessly pursues Dr Frankenstein and his relatives. In the end, Frankenstein enrols in an Arctic expedition in an attempt to escape from the monster, but even there it catches up with him. The doctor dies from despair at his ruined life and the monster disappears into the ice and mist.

Considering she wrote her book in 1817, Mary Shelley’s ideas were frighteningly advanced.

Wilton House – country seat of the Earls of Pembroke

Posted in Architecture, Country House, Historical articles, History on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about Wilton House originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Wilton House, picture, image, illustration

Wilton House

The most beautiful house in England . . . that is the claim made by the publicists of Wilton House, the Wiltshire home of the Earls of Pembroke. It is perhaps a dangerous claim.

Yet any visitors – be they from Missouri, Manchester or Margate – are likely to agree completely when faced with the beauty of Wilton House, near Salisbury. Quite simply, it is stunning.

The fortunes of the Pembroke family were founded by a tough Welshman called William Herbert.

In 1534, Herbert married the sister of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. Yet even before that marriage, William Herbert held a high position in the royal esteem – he was given Wilton and its lands by the King.

The first Wilton House was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1647, when all but the centre of the east front was burned down. Already it had seen much history, however. Elizabeth I had stayed there and the poet and valiant soldier Sir Philip Sidney was the brother-in-law of an early Pembroke. Many poets and playwrights visited the house and it is highly probable that Shakespeare and his company performed two of his plays there.

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The White Rajah of the Islands sells out to Australia for £4m

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics on Saturday, 31 December 2011

This edited article about the Cocos-Keeling Islands originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Coconut palm tree, picture, image, illustration

Copra was exported from the islands, by Gordon Davies

The world’s only feudal kingdom where 600 natives live happily under the rule of a benevolent Scotsman is coming to an end. Two atolls made up of 27 coral islands are to be bought by the Australian government for around £4 million because of the strategic position they occupy in the Indian Ocean.

The sale of the Cocos-Keeling Islands provides a sad finale to a romantic tale that began in 1609, when they were discovered by a British sailor, Captain William Keeling of the East India Company. The islands, however, remained uninhabited until 1826. Then the first settlement was established on the main atoll by an Englishman, Alexander Hare, who stayed for five years. Before he left, a second colony was set up by a Scottish adventurer, Captain John Clunies-Ross, who landed on the islands with several boatloads of Malay seamen.

The captain was captivated by the exotic necklace of islands spread over an azure sea. Here were inviting melon-slice beaches shaded by lofty palm trees, and lagoons and reefs that churned up a frothing sea. He decided to stay and his Malay seamen, who also fell under the spell of the islands, stayed too. Their descendants have been exporting copra ever since.

They enjoyed an idyllic existence under the tropical sun. The captain assumed the role of monarch, and the Malays became his subjects. So was born the legend of the “White Rajah of the Islands”. His feudal rule was accepted by everyone as an accompaniment to the lazy kind of life that usually only finds portrayal in novels of the Far East.

Yet officialdom was never very far away. In 1857, the islands were annexed to the British Crown and in 1878 responsibility was transferred from the British Colonial Office to the government of Ceylon. Eight years later they came under control of the governments of the Straits Settlements and it was in that year, too, that Queen Victoria granted the land on the islands to the Clunies-Ross family and to their heirs in perpetuity.

Certain rights were reserved for Britain, but the head of the family was granted semi-official status as resident magistrate and representative of the British government.

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