Poetry is perfect for helping children to appreciate words and language

‘You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose’. So said the American politician Mario Cuomo. It is one of my favourite quotes — and not just about politics. Perhaps it is because I am someone who loves words and language (and politics) and yet has always found poetry a bit of a struggle. Cuomo’s observation reminds me of poetry’s power, magic and beauty. During the 2020 lockdown Gyles Brandreth, who gets several mentions in this blog, tweeted himself reading a poem every morning, most from memory. I didn’t hear them all, but each one I caught was a delight. Which brings us to the fact that today is National Poetry Day in the UK — the perfect day to make the case that every child deserves the chance to regularly hear and recite poetry, to learn about it and to have a go at writing it.

[National Poetry] Day starts conversations, it encourages love of language – and best of all, it’s open to absolutely everyone to join in, quietly or noisily in rewarding and enjoyable ways. As the artform’s most visible moment, it showcases the ways in which poetry adds value to society.

from the official National Poetry Day website

Here’s a great listen — a BBC Radio 4 programme in which Gyles explains the benefits of learning poetry by heart. In 2019 he published an anthology of memorable poems called Dancing by the Light of the Moon, the title a line from his favourite poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he learned by heart as a child. The book’s subtitle is ‘How poetry can transform your memory and change your life’. That’s quite the claim and one surely worth further investigation.

Most of us have probably tried to write a few lines of poetry. Like prayer it seems to be something that people turn to — is it too much to say ‘instinctively’? — when searching for a voice with which to express their innermost feelings. Think of the outpouring of verse that followed the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

I suspect that the entry point for many young people will be song lyrics. That’s how it was with me. My favourite lyricist is Neil Peart, the erudite drummer with the rock band Rush who tragically died of brain cancer in January 2020. His words were always crafted with style, wit and intelligence. This next bit is adapted from my Rush appreciation, which you can read here.

Take the song Closer to the Heart. What better commitment from loving adult to child than “You can be the captain / and I will draw the chart”? Or how about this, from the song Afterimage? What more fitting summation of the devastating impact of unexpected loss than “Suddenly you were gone / from all the lives you left your mark upon”?

My favourite is perhaps Losing It, Peart’s meditation on the effects of ageing on the creative process.

He offers us a dancer:

The dancer slows her frantic pace
In pain and desperation,
Her aching limbs and downcast face
Aglow with perspiration

And then a writer:

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow
With passion and precision,
But now his mind is dark and dulled
By sickness and indecision

Writing poetry is perhaps the most democratic of artforms. Anyone can write a few lines of verse. It can take seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks — however long is entirely up to you. You can write about whatever you like. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper. In fact, you don’t even need those, because poetry has an oral tradition dating back to ancient times. Epic poems like Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid were almost certainly written to be read aloud. And who nowadays hasn’t at some point or other made up a silly limerick on the spur of the moment?

A young student Shakespeare-to-be
Had verse writing down to a T
“I punt on the Cam
I love an iamb
And I like the occasional spondee”

As a wonderful vehicle for creativity and for learning to work with language, poetry is perfect for children — playing about with words and phrases, experimenting with rhymes, learning the basics of rhythm and metre. That’s why it is so important that children have regular opportunities to experience poetry.

Here’s one exciting way — and it is a way that helps children to learn about building relationships and about the importance of community as well as developing their communication skills and love of language. In addition to his many other talents Gyles Brandreth is the founder of Poetry Together, which he describes as his ‘passion project’. Poetry Together encourages schools to link with care homes so that young and old can learn and recite poems together. And it’s all completely free. The website is below.

National Poetry Day Website

Poetry Together Website

Rush: A Fan’s Appreciation

I blog regularly about education, particularly in relation to children aged 5 to 11, at this website about Life-Based Learning

Books, TV and Films, September 2021

3 September

As I become more and more disillusioned with day-to-day politics — whether it is the rigidity and staleness of politicians constantly reciting ‘the party line’ or the rise of political lying as an art form and the failure of both parliament and the media to hold proven liars to account — I find myself drawn back to the more civilised world of political philosophy, political theories and ideologies, and underlying values. I very much regret not working hard enough at a unit of my degree called Modern Ideologies. Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians by Adam Swift is the sort of introductory text I wish had been available back then (I am reading the second edition, published in 2006).

The book itself is split into five parts, each tackling a key idea or line of thought in political philosophy. No surprises that liberty and equality are in there. Democracy was added for the expanded second edition. Community is also there — interesting, as it means such different things to different thinkers. Also interesting is that the book opens with a discussion of social justice — a term that was very much in vogue during the Blair years, inherited from John Smith. (Blair also briefly flirted with the idea of communitarianism, before he became prime minister in 1997, in the search for that holy grail beloved of frontline politicians, a Big Idea.)

I have always assumed that social justice was a convenient way for New Labour to avoid having to use (or reject) the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘equality’, though — as Swift shows us — a conception of social justice as ‘justice as entitlement’ in the manner set out by the philosopher Robert Nozick is very far from what Blair, Smith et al were talking about. As you would expect, Swift is very clear that this book is about ideas and values, not particular policies as such. His references to the cut and thrust of party politics are relatively infrequent. Where it does crop up, he is often critical of politicians, though in an excellent concluding chapter he makes clear that the lot of a political philosopher is very different from that of a politician, and he warns us to guard against lapsing into caricature.

Politicians operate in an environment that imposes constraints far more demanding than those faced by philosophers. The competitive and confrontational nature of electoral politics means that any admission of ignorance, change of mind, or acknowledgement that one’s opponents might have got something right, will be seized on as incompetence, a ‘U-turn’ or evidence of weakness. The need to win votes, and to present one’s party as the representative of the country as a whole, makes it dangerous to concede that one is prepared to make anybody worse off than they might otherwise be. Moreover, politicians are expected to come up with concrete policies, not just abstract ideas. Policies that will work, if they are implemented, and that have the popular appeal to stand a chance of being implemented.

Adam Swift, Political Philosophy: A Beginners’ Guide for Students and Politicians, page 226

Good points, well made.

10 September

I think I have more biographies of Karl Marx than of any other individual from history or politics. A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx by Sven-Eric Liedman, first published in 2015, brings the total to five. Correction: I have six biographies of Hitler (if you count Ian Kershaw’s two volumes, Hubris and Nemesis, as separate books). As regards Hitler, that will probably be as far as it goes. Kershaw’s Hitler is surely definitive, even though both volumes are now more than 20 years old, so unless a historian I really like chooses to pick up the baton or some extraordinary new evidence about Hitler comes to light (more Hitler diaries?!), I can’t see the point of buying anything else. Much better to spend time re-reading Kershaw or (a book I keep meaning to return to) Alan Bullock’s Parallel Lives — or even, the first major history book I ever read, Bullock’s classic Hitler: A Study in Tyranny.

Minor trivia point about the excellent Denial, the film of the 2000 libel trial involving Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued by the historian David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier. In the scene showing defence team researchers visiting Irving’s home to consult his diaries at some point in the two years before the trial began, both volumes of Kershaw’s Hitler biography are clearly visible. However, the second volume wasn’t published until the year 2000 so would not have been out at the time of their visit.

Anyway, biographies about Marx are different. Marx himself wrote so much and in such depth and there are so many differing interpretations of what he wrote that every well-written biography of him offers something new. Much of the Liedman book focuses on Marx’s ideas and, for the most part, I found his exposition highly illuminating. In particular, he offers the clearest explanation I have yet read of ‘sublation’, a concept that is central to Marx’s thinking.

Liedman himself goes out of his way to justify writing another Marx biography — especially as the English translation appeared just a couple of years after Gareth Stedman Jones’ heavyweight biography. In his preface for the 2018 Verso English translation, Liedman says that Stedman Jones’ book is too narrowly focused and that, in his comprehensive account of Marx’s sources of inspiration, Stedman Jones’ writing is so detailed “that Marx’s own writing is actually overshadowed”.

I am not sure that Liedman always avoids that selfsame trap himself. He is a distinguished academic in the field of the history of ideas and science and, in his attempt to guide us through Marx’s ideas in the context of the nineteenth century, Liedman sometimes takes elaborate detours, particularly into the overgrown maze of GWF Hegel’s philosophy. This — and some of the later discussion of economic theory — is not always easy to grasp, but I guess it comes with the territory.

Of the books with which I am familiar, he has little time for Francis Wheen’s typically irreverent 1999 book — the final three chapters, for example, are entitled The Shaggy Dog, The Rogue Elephant and The Shaven Porcupine — and makes little mention of David McLellan, who I think of as Britain’s foremost writer on Marx but whose standard biography is now nearly fifty years old. On the other hand he has a lot to say about the 2013 book by Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life — most of it not particularly complimentary. I thoroughly enjoyed the Sperber book.

My main takeaway from the Liedman book is that what Marx actually wrote is very different from what became codified after his death as Marxism and even more so from the Marxism-Leninism dictated from Moscow and elsewhere after 1917. He reminds us that many of the terms (and associated ideas) we instinctively think of as central to Marxism — ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ and ‘dialectical materialism’, for example — were either used infrequently by Marx or indeed not at all. Towards the end of his life, when a new French workers’ party started to refer to themselves as ‘Marxists’, Marx himself said: “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist.” The reason? He believed that they were downplaying the importance of reformism (the role of parliament and trade unions) in the struggle for change. And for those who think of Marx as a highly dogmatic thinker, his favourite motto (so he told his daughters) was ‘Question everything’.

The writing itself is very readable, though Verso still don’t appear to have increased the copy-editing budget. It is a bit head-spinning at times to read about the nuances in meaning of certain German words when translated into English in a book that was presumably originally written in Swedish. The overall English translation creaks a little in places. I am not sure ‘brilliant’ is the best choice of word in this sentence about the fortunes of the German Social Democratic Party:

In 1890, the party was more organised than any other political party up to that point, and its election results were brilliant.

Sven-Eric Liedman, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, page 572

A sentence like this, too, seems clumsy:

Even those who lived outside direct Soviet influence were forced to constantly declare whether they accepted or deviated from accepted Marxism.

Sven-Eric Liedman, A World to Win: The Life and Works of Karl Marx, page 612

22 September

Series eight — and, I think, the last — of the excellent drama prequel Endeavour. We have arrived at 1971, just 16 years before the first appearance of John Thaw in the original Inspector Morse series. The individual plotlines are sometimes a bit too convoluted, perhaps, but the acting has been excellent throughout and the characters well drawn — Detective Inspector Thursday, Joan Thursday and, my, how I have grown to love Chief Superintendent Bright over the years. And it has been fascinating to follow how the series writers have attempt to evolve the characters of Morse and Jim Strange. [Apologies if anyone objects to the use of ‘evolve’ as a transitive verb.]

Morse now lives in his 1987 house and drives a Jaguar, though not yet a red one. He is on good terms with fellow sergeant Strange, who by 1987 is a chief superintendent and, more to the point, Morse’s boss, though Morse clearly does not regard him as his intellectual equal. Strange was using ‘Matey’ from the off, and he is now initiated into the Masons. More of a problem (for the writers) is his weight. Sean Rigby was presumably originally cast in the role back in 2013 partly because of his size. However, between series seven and eight Rigby has shed the pounds and with it the waistline; I guess you can’t write ‘No losing weight’ into a contract.

DS Strange is now courting Joan — term deliberately chosen — to whom Morse once proposed. I have the final episode, Terminus, yet to watch. I fear things will not end well. After all, though he certainly has his moments, Morse is not yet the fully paid-up curmudgeon that Thaw portrayed so magnificently all those years ago.

30 September

I am enjoying The Body in the Library, the second Miss Marple novel, published in 1942. My interest was piqued by the recent news that 12 distinguished female writers, including the wonderful Kate Mosse, are to publish an authorised collection of Marple stories. The Body in the Library is certainly more satisfying than any of the Poirot novels I have so far read (click here for The Mysterious Affair at Styles, here for Peril at End House and here for a couple of lines about Hercule Poirot’s Christmas). Perhaps it is because I come to Miss Marple with more or less a blank slate; more likely it is that Christie was writing better novels by this time (the first Poirot novel had appeared more than 20 years earlier).

I have never watched Miss Marple on film or TV and I have certainly never read any of the books before. It’s Agatha Christie and it’s the 1940s (though you wouldn’t know from the book that there was a war on) so certain things come with the territory — principally the overriding importance of status and class. As usual, there is the familiar backdrop of maids, manservants, cooks, large houses and the rest, and everything plot-related revolves around wills and inheritances.

I have a five-novel Miss Marple omnibus — the individual novels (again, like their Poirot equivalents) seemingly randomly selected. The Body in the Library is not, alas, the very first Marple book (that’s The Murder in the Vicarage), though there was a gap of 12 years between the two and I read on Wikipedia that the earlier iteration of Marple “is a gleeful gossip and not an especially nice woman. The citizens of St Mary Mead like her but are often tired by her nosy nature and how she seems to expect the worst of everyone.”

First impressions. St Mary Mead appears to be a village inhabited largely by spinsters, a suitably old-fashioned word defined by Lexico as ‘an unmarried woman, typically an older woman beyond the usual age for marriage’. The entry goes on that it is now “a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, and repressed.”

It is striking how little Miss Marple actually features in the first half of the book. All the detective work is done by, well, detectives. How extraordinary. Marple’s USP appears to be the ability to read character, largely due to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the inhabitants of the village, past and present, which enables her to draw analogies with the behaviour of the various suspects in the case at hand.

When asked about her methods, she herself explains:

The truth is, you see, that most people — and I don’t exclude policemen — are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.

Agatha Christie, The Body in the Library, Chapter XXII

Books, TV and Films, August 2021

2 August

A first look at The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, which is repeated regularly on one or more cable channels and dates from the mid-’90s. It is based on the books (which I have never read) by Ngaio Marsh. Series one episode one (as usual). It is not intended as a criticism to describe it as ‘as expected’; extended detective dramas were very much the in-thing following the trailblazing Inspector Morse in the ’80s and remain so today. It is Poirot-ish in its social setting and Morse-ish in terms of Alleyn’s awkwardness with women (in Alleyn’s case, one woman in particular). As always, Patrick Malahide is perfect as Alleyn, all refined manners and impeccably cut-glass accent. What a delightful contrast with his comic portrayal of Detective Sergeant Chisholm in Minder.  

7 August

I always look forward to the publication of a new novel by Robert Harris. His previous, The Second Sleep, certainly didn’t disappoint — an intriguing stab at what-iffery, not unlike his very first novel Fatherland, which was set 20 or so years after a German victory in the Second World War. His latest effort, V2, is on more familiar Harris ground — weaving a compelling story out of real historical events, in this case the German V2 rocket programme and British efforts to foil it.

The ingredients I associate with Harris are here, principally a cleverly structured novel that keeps us turning the page (even though, like previous novels such as An Officer and a Spy and Munich, we already know the outcome) and helps to contextualise and humanise the cast of believable, human characters. Thus, the use of flashbacks to fill out the life story of the German scientist Rudi Graf and his longtime friend Wernher von Braun doubles as a history lesson in the German rocket programme.

As with his novel Enigma, mathematics, science and technology are an essential part of the story. Harris wisely spreads the technical detail across the book and keeps it relatively light and manageable for the non-specialist. His work is always carefully and thoroughly researched — a sine qua non of good historical fiction. One thing I did find odd. At several points he chooses to take off the mask of the novelist and reveal himself as a historian. Here’s an example, describing a V2 that hit a department store in Deptford, killing 160 people:

One young mother, with a two-month-old baby in her left arm, walking up New Cross Road on her way to the fabled saucepan bonanza, recalled forty years later “a sudden airless quiet, which seemed to stop one’s breath.”

Robert Harris, V2, page 38

Or this — the context in this case that several V2s were fired on the same day:

What happened to the third missile remains a mystery. It took off perfectly at 10.26am, but there is no record of its impact anywhere on the British mainland. Presumably it must have exploded in mid-air, perhaps during re-entry.

Robert Harris, V2, page 76

10 August

More fiction woven out of fact. This time it’s the film Red Joan, starring Judy Dench as an octogenarian widow arrested and charged with treason for giving the Russians secret information about the atomic bomb at the end of the Second World War. The film is loosely based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, a high-value asset for the KGB who passed on classified work which helped the Soviet Union to develop an atomic bomb earlier than they otherwise would have done.

Judi Dench is, of course, wonderful in a role that reminded me at times of the part she played in Philomena — a woman in later life confronting her past and reacting in (to me, anyway) unexpected ways: Philomena is prepared to forgive the Catholic Church; Joan, once publicly exposed as a spy, is defiant in defence of her actions, believing them to have helped prevent a third world war.

Also excellent is Sophie Cookson as the young Joan Smith, a physics student at Cambridge in the ’30s who goes on to work on Britain’s top-secret atomic bomb development project. Like the excellent Hidden Figures with racism, the film lays bare the sexism — both structural and casual — of the day. Also interesting is its depiction of the young communists of the time, some of whom make the journey from youthful idealism, borne of a horror of war and disgust at the ugliness and wastefulness of capitalism, to fanatical Stalinists, prepared to sacrifice all — including friends and family — for Moscow. Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross all attended Cambridge in the ’30s.

11 August

My interest in the Middle Ages continues, as do my belated — and somewhat haphazard — efforts to fill the enormous gaps in my knowledge of medieval history. In the last year or so I have read a biography of Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset and an excellent account of Henry VII’s life by Thomas Penn. Dan Jones has a big book coming out in September, which looks to be highly ambitious in scope. In the meantime, and continuing to work backwards, there is a 2019 biography of Henry VI called Shadow King by Lauren Johnson. I am hoping that she will prove a trusty guide through the endless and frequently baffling dynastic rivalries of the fifteenth century.

16 August

I finally watched The ABC Murders, the three-part Hercule Poirot drama shown on the BBC at Christmas. Based on advance publicity I very much had my doubts — John Malkovich as Poirot?! No moustache?! — so I am delighted to say that it was a gripping and thoroughly excellent reworking of Agatha Christie’s 1936 novel.

The ABC Murders was, I think, the first of the long-form ITV Poirot dramas that I watched back in the ’90s. This is another radical reimagining of Poirot (the other being Kenneth Branagh’s recent swashbuckling Poirot on the big screen in Murder on the Orient Express), far more haunted than the David Suchet incarnation, at least in the latter’s early series (the ITV dramas became considerably darker from series nine onwards after the original writing-production team left).

Poirot is a faded star, his career effectively over. In place of fame and celebrity is ridicule and suspicion. There is no Hastings, no Miss Lemon. Inspector Japp drops dead in the opening scenes and Poirot is forced to work with the deeply hostile Inspector Cromer (played by a barely recognisable Rupert Grint) who reveals that Poirot has himself been under investigation by the authorities, who discovered that he had lied about his past when he arrived in England as a refugee from Belgium. The events of the First World War continue to haunt Poirot. In the background, too, is the growing menace of xenophobia (depicted as increasing popular support for fascism), a none too subtle nod by the writers in the direction of Brexit, one assumes.

23 August

Lauren Johnson’s Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI has been hugely enjoyable. It is well written and (importantly for me) user-friendly for the non-specialist. I have always steered well clear of the fifteenth century in general and the Wars of the Roses in particular, put off as much by the baffling family trees as anything else. Johnson offers frequent reminders of who people are, their titles, former titles, familial connections etc, as well as a comprehensive Who’s Who as an appendix. And rather like Dan Jones’ very enjoyable The Plantagenets, the writing has an engaging narrative drive to it, with chapters typically ending on a cliffhanger.

My first impressions of Henry are of how unorthodox he was. As a king utterly out of step with the medieval view of monarchy, he seems to have had much more in common with Richard II, who was also deposed and murdered, than with his warrior-king father Henry V. In an age when ‘rules’ and codes of behaviour were all-important, it is no surprise that his actions (and inactions) caused such discombobulation.

Reading about the younger Henry’s unwillingness to follow the accepted rules put me in mind of President Woodrow Wilson and his attempts to remake the international order at the end of the First World War by ditching the old system of power politics and alliances in favour of collective security and a League of Nations. There is also a parallel of sorts with President Trump, a blundering amateur who disregarded almost all foreign policy norms and conventions, believing that he could do personal deals that would solve age-old problems and end age-old rivalries. In reality, his meddling did more to stoke than to solve conflict.

Henry also resembled Richard II in displaying a fatal incompetence at crucial moments. For all that Henry’s mindset might suit the modern day, it was not acceptable in a medieval monarch. A man of honourable intentions, he was undermined by indecision and by an unwillingness to be sufficiently ruthless at key moments of his reign. He was deeply pious and equally deeply naïve. Time and again he chose to accept the solemn oaths and declarations of loyalty of his rivals, only to be later betrayed.

And despite being schooled in kingship from a young age, he came to depend on others, to the point that whoever controlled him controlled the kingdom — a recipe for disaster. Again, there is a parallel with the disastrous presidency of Trump: what to do when the top person is simply not up to the job. Henry VI was not just a poor decision-maker, he also suffered serious bouts of mental illness.

Having praised Johnson’s writing, one thing I didn’t like is the inclusion of seemingly spurious detail. Take this, just one example from many, describing the loading of a ship with treasure at the port of Sandwich in 1432:

In the darkness of the harbour mouth, lights flashed and glared. Above the low creak of ships’ timbers, men’s voices punctured the frosty stillness of the night. Occasionally there came a low thump of coffers hitting the decking. A groan. A cricked back. And then the great chests lifted again, edged closer, step by heavy step, towards the tilting flank of a ship called Mary of Winchelsea. [ch 7]

Lauren Johnson, Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI, from chapter 7

All very atmospheric but more the sort of thing I would expect to read in a Hilary Mantel novel. The footnote attached to the paragraph as a whole refers to a biography of Cardinal Beaufort (whose treasure it was) and presumably relates to a fact about the value of the cargo, Beaufort’s entire wealth.

28 August

I am finishing the month with another Sam Bourne page-turner. Jumping ahead of sequence (I don’t yet have a copy of 2008’s The Final Reckoning) this is Pantheon, published in 2012. Two minor coincidences here. The setting is the Second World War, the same as Robert Harris’s V2 [see above]. And the backstory is set amidst the left politics of the 1930s, anti-fascism and the Spanish Civil War, as was Red Joan [see above also].

This is very unlike the other Sam Bournes I have read, much more of a slow-burner. The first half of the book seems to be a (fairly) conventional story of a man searching for his wife and child, with just occasional hints of something more at play, such as his feeling that he is being watched. Our suspicions are finally confirmed in chapter eighteen when we learn that he has “stumbled into something much bigger than you realise. Bigger and more dangerous.” The chapter ends with him catching a peek at some photographs: “It took him a while to absorb what he had seen. Once he had, the images both shocked him — and explained everything.”

Dennis Wheatley and To the Devil a Daughter

After the runaway commercial and critical success of Hammer’s version of the Dennis Wheatley novel The Devil Rides Out in 1968, the actor Christopher Lee, the film company Hammer and Wheatley himself were all keen to have a go at filming another of Wheatley’s black magic novels — this time To the Devil a Daughter. However, though a box office hit on its release in 1976, the film is much less fondly remembered than its predecessor. The production was beset by problems and the film itself is controversial. Wheatley disowned it and refused to allow Hammer to film any more of his novels, having previously given them free rein. A rich (in more than one sense) history stretching back to the 1930s came to an abrupt end: To the Devil a Daughter was the last film Hammer Film Productions made in the twentieth century.

Yet, for all its undoubted flaws, I am a big fan. Looked at together, the two films — The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter — have a lot in common, much more than just dodgy special effects. Both are far superior to the original source novels. Both feature iconic scenes and quotable dialogue. Both are genuinely scary at times. And both feature towering performances from their star — Christopher Lee.

Wheatley’s novel, published in 1953, opens in France with the mystery of Molly Fountain’s reclusive young neighbour who — we eventually learn — had the ultimate bad start in life: she was the trade in a pact with the Devil, exchanged by her good-for-nothing father, Henry Beddows, for business success and material wealth. To redeem this ‘bond’ he must deliver his daughter Ellen to a group of devil worshippers on her twenty-first birthday. With the fateful day now approaching, Beddows has sent her away from England, hoping to protect her from what he has subsequently learned is to be her fate: a human sacrifice in a black magic ceremony.

As noted in the first part of this blog trilogy, notwithstanding the ‘black magic’ label, Wheatley offers up “a largely standard adventure-novel diet of kidnappings, escapes and manhunts, served up with lashings of derring-do.” The action switches between the French Riviera and the rather less glamorous English countryside. Indeed, the very name Canon Copely-Syle, leader of the devil-worshipping sect, is one more likely to conjure up an image of a gentle and good-natured, if slightly eccentric, vicar living in some quiet country village or other. Copely-Syle’s devilish goal is to create the first of an army of homunculi, human-like creatures brought to life via an unholy mixture of black magic and pitiless scientific experimentation. It is Ellen’s blood and spirit that will animate the homunculus.

The Hammer film version, on the other hand, is set in London and Bavaria (the latter because some German money was involved in financing the film). That certainly isn’t the only change; in fact, other than the title, the film bears little resemblance to that of the novel. Lieutenant-Colonel William Verney (‘Conky Bill’, on account of his large nose), a very British hero of the secret war against the Nazis and now of the postwar intelligence world, becomes John Verney, American writer of occult novels, played by Richard Widmark. One wonders if this change was made specifically to shoehorn in a relatively big-name Hollywood actor. Molly Fountain and her son John, who feature prominently in the book, are written out of the film altogether.

We now have Beddows tricking Verney into looking after his daughter — now Catherine, 17, rather than Ellen, 20. And instead of Canon Copely-Syle we have Father Michael Rayner, a heretic from the Catholic Church who has formed a breakaway sect based in Bavaria called the Children of the Lord. Catherine is under the influence of these devil worshippers. In another change, it was her birth mother who as one of Father Michael’s followers willingly handed her over, not her father who gave her away for material gain.

The homunculus of the book has become the demon Astaroth (or perhaps ‘Asteroth’), essentially the Devil, and Catherine is to be its avatar — its incarnation or embodiment — on Earth. The exact nature of Father Michael’s heresy, for which he was excommunicated, is not made altogether clear. We are told that he believes in the absolute capability of Man. The film script uses science to explain why this is such an alarming proposition: “Mankind is a freak of evolution … his brain is partially programmed for catastrophe.”

But it can perhaps be better understood in philosophical and theological terms, as a challenge to a fundamental pessimism about the human condition that was widespread in Christian belief systems down the ages, arising from the idea of the Fall of Man and the related notion of original sin. In the nineteenth century this ‘philosophy of imperfection’ underpinned conservative opposition to change and reform and to progressive ideologies such as socialism, at the heart of which is the belief that it is possible for humanity to build a better society.

All that Catherine has ever been taught by the Children of the Lord is that “[t]he youth has lost its way. They need something new to follow. We will provide it.” In reality, this means worldwide chaos and catastrophe, presided over by Astaroth, who will renew the ‘vital spirit’ of the world.

It is not too much of a stretch to see this as a corruption of the Christian message. Christianity is founded on the idea of a Chosen One or Anointed One (Christos in Greek; Messiah in Hebrew). The early Christians like Paul believed that the resurrection of Jesus was a sign that the end times were at hand and that the Second Coming would herald the thousand-year kingdom of God on Earth.

In more recent times fascism — and in particular Nazism — included elements characteristic of a messianic cult: a saviour who would deliver his people from disgrace and decay, and lead them, particularly the young, to glory. The ‘vital spirit’ — élan vital — is an idea sometimes associated with the philosopher Henri Bergson; its links with the idea of intuition and instinct made Bergson briefly popular on the anti-rationalist, anti-intellectual right at the start of the twentieth century.

Anyway, back to Father Michael’s satanic scheming. According to the Grimoire of Astaroth — a grimoire is a book of magic spells — Catherine, having been baptised in the blood of her dead mother, is to be rebaptised on her eighteenth birthday in the blood of Astaroth. At this point she will in effect become Astaroth and take her place as the ruler of the world, in Father Michael’s words fulfilling “his [ie Astaroth’s] great purpose and her great destiny”. The ceremony of baptism in the blood of the mother involves tying the mother’s legs together as she is about to give birth so that the baby is forced to erupt through her stomach à la the scene involving Kane (played by John Hurt) in 1979’s Alien. This is how Catherine came into the world, on the altar of a Christian church.

All this is good fiendish fare for fans of the genre, though it is by no means always easy to follow. We have already seen a baby born in just this way, to Margaret, near the beginning of the film — our first indication that the Children of the Lord are not all they seem. Margaret’s baby, we later learn, is Astaroth, who will be sacrificed during Catherine’s rebaptism ceremony. Hmmm. This viewer was left wondering exactly why Margaret’s baby is Astaroth. Is it due to the way it was born, helped along by the presence in the room of Catherine’s childhood toys? More likely it is linked to a black magic ceremony that haunts Catherine’s memories, in which Father Michael has sex with Margaret (presumably impregnating her) while Catherine herself simulates sexual intercourse with a life-sized version of the symbol of their Church — Astaroth on an upside-down crucifix, legs splayed, ready for what is to come.

Nothing of this derives from the original novel. As noted in a previous blog, anticommunism is central to the Wheatley worldview. The superiority of western civilisation — of Christianity, of the white Anglo-Saxon race — is axiomatic. Progressive ideas are deeply suspect. Communism is the work of the Devil.

The object of these high-up Satanists is to deliver the world up to him [the Devil], and the only way they can do that is to cause the breakdown of good rule so that misrule may take its place. With that as their goal they do everything they can to foment wars, class-hatred, strikes and famine; and to foster perversions, moral laxity and the taking of drugs. There is every reason to believe that they have been behind many of the political assassinations that have robbed the world of good rulers and honest statesmen, and naturally Communism has now become their most potent weapon.

Dennis Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter, Chapter VI

Later we learn that Copely-Syle is counting on the Kremlin to support his dastardly schemes:

…a government such as that of Soviet Russia, which is not hampered by the scruples and inhibitions of its people, might consider it well worth its while to segregate for several years large numbers of female children, in order to ensure their retaining their virginity until they reached an age when they could be used [ie sacrificed] for the production of homunculi. You see, for any country bent on making war the process offers a new weapon of inestimable value. As suicide troops these fabricated beings would prove enormously superior … because they would require no food other than the blood of their enemies…

Dennis Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter, Chapter XV

Risible though Wheatley’s attempts to link communism and satanism are, it at least has the virtue of clarity. The sometimes baffling plotline of the film, on the other hand, hints at a troubled history. It was made by Hammer in 1976, but with British cinema in the doldrums the company’s glory days were over. Hammer was broke. Despite securing financial backing from EMI, the film’s budget was a mere £360,000 — and it shows. By contrast, the big box office success The Omen, made in the same year, had a budget of $2.8 million. A further difficulty was that, though the film boasts a terrific cast, Richard Widmark seems to have been difficult to work with — “Nobody liked him.”1

The original scriptwriter had declared the novel unfilmable. An initial script was produced and then rewritten and then rewritten again (the original rewrite being described as unusable by the new script consultant), even as filming was already underway, with new pages being produced on a daily basis. The ending, in particular, was a mess. Michael Carreras, who ran Hammer, is quoted as saying that he tried to secure additional money to remake the ending but that EMI refused.2 We are left with an unintentionally comical climactic scene — Catherine’s rebaptism ceremony — in which Verney and Father Michael play out a mixture of Top Trumps and the spoof game Spoons from the comedy show Friends, in which random rules, conditions and exceptions are invoked to bemuse the contestants.

VERNEY: I read the book of Astaroth. You’ve just butchered Astaroth. The demons hate you, Rayner. They’re waiting for you.

RAYNER: The circle of blood protects me, as you know, if you have read the book. Very soon Astaroth will live on in this child and all will be well.

VERNEY: You really think that this circle will protect you, don’t you? It won’t.

RAYNER: It will because this circle stands upon a hill of flint. Flint is the sacred stone of Astaroth.

VERNEY: But this stone of Astaroth [which he had picked up off the ground and just clobbered Rayner’s accomplice with] has the blood of your disciple on it. Now the demons will protect me.

Cue dodgy special effects on a par with Dr Who circa 1974 as Verney crosses the circle of blood. Here the film abruptly ends, Verney carrying Catherine away in his arms. There is, however, the merest hint of ambiguity. Father Michael, floored by the stone thrown by Verney, has disappeared. Have the demons claimed him, as Verney warned? Or has he managed to escape? Meanwhile, Catherine is now safe, the rebaptism ceremony not having been performed. But what is that look in her eyes in the very final shot? Was the image of Astaroth entering her as she lay on the altar really just a dream? To add to the confusion, we now know that this latter image was not originally part of the rebaptism scene at all but inserted post-filming in an attempt to strengthen the film’s ending.3

At least this hastily concocted rebaptism scene helped them overcome another script-induced headache. An earlier scene, showing another of Father Rayner’s disciples — Catherine’s surrogate mother Eveline — giving her life by squeezing the blood out of her own body until she dies, had been overlooked, the purpose of her self-sacrifice not made clear. Now we learn that it is to create the circle of blood that will protect the rebaptism ceremony. [It’s quite remarkable how many women seem to have chosen to join this cult considering the bloody fates that await them compared to their male counterparts.]

The film’s problems didn’t end there. Far from it. In contrast to Hammer’s version of The Devil Rides Out which he loved, Dennis Wheatley hated To the Devil a Daughter, not simply because it departed so markedly from the novel but also because he found some bits of it obscene — presumably the bloody childbirths among them. Though actually made only eight years apart, it feels as if decades separate the two films, and not just because The Devil Rides Out retains its original 1930s setting whereas To the Devil a Daughter is updated to the (then) present day.

The soft-focus softcore nudity and comic-book gore of Hammer classics like Twins of Evil, Lust for a Vampire and The Vampire Lovers had by the mid-’70s been superseded by films with an altogether harder edge. Ken Russell’s The Devils had already caused a furore on its release in 1971 due to its (for the time) explicit sexual and violent content and the religious themes it explored. Then came the success of The Exorcist in 1973 — and not just at the box office: it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and was the first horror film to be nominated for Best Picture.

To the Devil a Daughter is less restrained than The Devil Rides Out in its depiction of sex and violence, though by modern standards it steers clear of anything too graphic. It is the bloody aftermaths of the babies’ unnatural births and the murder of Anna Fountain (played by Honor Blackman, the character’s name a seemingly pointless half-nod to the novel’s Molly Fountain) that we see, not the events themselves. A brief orgy scene obscures more than it reveals. Even the penetration of Catherine by Astaroth in a dream sequence (or is it? — see above) is more suggested than shown.

Far more controversial, considering that Nastassja Kinski was only 14 or at most 15 when she made the film, is her full-frontal nudity when Father Rayner tries to use the virginal Catherine to tempt Verney. An earlier nightmare scene, with Catherine writhing around on the bed in a sweat-drenched nightie, is also filmed in a gratuitously suggestive way.

One of the few points of convergence between book and film is the need to retrieve Henry Beddows’ pact with the Devil. The book does this rather better than the film, the latter taking Verney and his friend David Kennedy to the very altar on which Catherine was born eighteen years previously. Kennedy’s girlfriend has just been brutally murdered with a pair of scissors by Catherine (under Father Michael’s malign influence, of course) to enable her to effect her escape. Though — or perhaps because — Kennedy is motivated by revenge, his will is weak and on grasping the pact he spontaneously combusts (the fate that awaited Henry Beddows if he tried to recant). The special effects — a sudden gust of wind and a ghostly appearance by Father Michael — reflect the size of the budget.

In the book, the pact is a piece of paper stored (with many others) in the sinister vault of Canon Copely-Syle — part satanic temple, part chamber of horrors, containing not just a consecrated altar to facilitate his devil worship but also the hideous results of his experiments in creating life. Verney’s and John Fountain’s very souls are in peril as they attempt to reach the altar until, at the final moment, Verney begs for divine intervention:

There was a blinding flash. A fork of light streaked down through the roof striking, not them, but the centre of the altar slab, shattering it into a hundred fragments. God had intervened. Instantly a deafening din broke out. Cries, screams, moans and groans sounded from every direction, as the minions of Hell fled back into the dark underworld.

Dennis Wheatley, To the Devil a Daughter, Chapter XXII

Verney was presumably unaware of the Sussamma Ritual, used by the Duke de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out to save him and his colleagues from damnation. This is not as flippant a comment as it perhaps sounds: earlier in the novel Copely-Syle refers to Mocata and Simon Aron (“a wealthy young Jew”), so Wheatley was clearly not averse to linking the two books.

The film of To the Devil a Daughter sits, unloved and half-forgotten, in the shadow of the magnificent The Devil Rides Out, but for all its flaws — the convoluted script, the done-on-a-shoestring special effects, the weak ending — it is a worthy addition to any film buff’s library of occult films. The basic plot idea —a girl raised in seclusion by a cult of devil worshippers led by an excommunicated priest, to be baptised as Lord Astaroth on her eighteenth birthday — is at least as good as that of the novel, and there are some eminently quotable lines:

[The presiding bishop recites words in Latin, one of which is ‘excommunicatus’.]

It is not heresy and I will not recant.

Father Michael’s excommunication

[The doctor attending Margaret begins to prepare a pain-killing injection. Father Michael stops him.]

RAYNER: Show it to her. Tell her what it is.

DOCTOR: It’s morphine, Margaret.

RAYNER: Answer him, Margaret.

The birth of Margaret’s child — without morphine

98% of so-called satanists are nothing but pathetic freaks who get their kicks out of dancing naked in freezing churchyards and use the Devil as an excuse for getting some sex. But then there’s that other 2%… I’m not so sure about them.

John Verney’s initial thoughts on the matter

I have a feeling I’m dealing with that other 2%.

John Verney the next day

She died as she wished to die. You were nothing to her. And I will not have this sacrament profaned by any drunken tears. Look at me! There is nothing in you, Henry Beddows, of any strength or grace or value at all.

Father Michael’s withering assessment of Henry Beddows

The acting more than compensates for the shortcomings of the script. I have loved Anthony Valentine ever since watching him as the chilling Major Mohn in the TV series Colditz (and then as the much more gentlemanly Raffles). Given her age, Nastassja Kinski’s performance is remarkably assured. I suspect that it is the character of the bookish John Verney than I am drawn to, rather than Verney’s role in the film (the script doesn’t help him) or the performance by Richard Widmark. The wonderful Denholm Elliott plays a role that, very unfairly and probably because of the Indiana Jones films, I instinctively associate with him — as someone permanently midway between a drunken stupor and a nervous breakdown.

Above all, there is another magnificent performance by Christopher Lee — not this time the righteous and upright Duke de Richleau but the devil-worshipping Father Michael. Who else could make an occult ceremony involving the upturning of plastic-looking plates or the tying of a rope around a hand holding a telephone receiver so terrifying? And in the finest moment of the film, as doctor and nurse turn away in disgust at the hideous birth of Astaroth, we see Father Michael/Lee looking on, his face a picture of both pure evil and pure delight: “Margaret, you shall die now,” he says soothingly.

Dennis Wheatley Blog Trilogy

Part 1:
Dennis Wheatley’s Horror Novels

Part 2:
Comparing The Devil Rides Out Book and Film

Part 3:
To the Devil a Daughter


Books, TV and Films, July 2021

1 July

The Cement Garden was Ian McEwan’s first novel (well, novella; my copy is just 138 pages), published in 1978, though he had previously released some short stories. The story of four children who lose first their father and then their mother within a year or so following a debilitating illness, it is a blend of, on the one hand, the mundane and the ordinary and, on the other, the absolute extraordinary, principally the concealing from the authorities of their mother’s death by encasing the body in cement in the cellar.

The story has something of Lord of the Flies about it as, free from all adult supervision and control, the children regress to an almost primitive state of existence, for example neglecting essential housework and the needs of the youngest child. Meanwhile, the two ‘grown-ups’, Julie and Jack, are discovering their sexuality. Julie, 17, is seeing her first boyfriend — a snooker player in his 20s — who lavishes gifts on her, though she refuses to have sex with him. Jack, meanwhile, an obsessive masturbator, (literally) comes to sexual maturity during the timeframe of the book. McEwan early on captures the sense of adolescent curiosity and sexual awakening: during a game of ‘doctors and nurses’ involving younger sister Sue, “Julie and I [Jack] looked at each other knowingly, knowing nothing.”

5 July

With reference to Hilary Mantel I wrote back in January: “Historical fiction — the well-written variety — can be a friend to the uninitiated, an entrée into worlds only dimly understood. As well as requiring encyclopaedic knowledge and command of the sources, the writing of historical fiction takes a different approach to that of the historian or biographer and requires a different skill set. There is, for example, no room for ‘possibly’, ‘probably’, ‘maybe’, ‘on balance’. It is, in part at least, history of the imagination.”

Hilary Mantel’s trilogy audaciously recreates the life and times of Thomas Cromwell. Most historical fiction is of course much less closely aligned with real people and real events, perhaps using a time and a place, an individual or an event as the starting-point for a story, the author using their knowledge and skills to interweave fact and fiction in order to create something plausible and convincing. I enjoyed the SJ Parris novel Sacrilege, set in the time of Elizabeth I, and quickly realised that I had landed in the middle of a series about a free-thinking and adventurous Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno.

I have done the same with The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor. It is perfectly readable as a standalone novel, but is also apparently the fourth in the Marwood and Lovett series set in the London of the mid-1660s — a time of plague, the Great Fire and (in this novel set in 1668) plots against the Crown. Taylor is an excellent guide to the England of Charles II, with impressive knowledge of Restoration London. He brings out superbly the etiquette, codes and manners, the rigid social hierarchies and the contradictions of the age — particularly the fabulous wealth juxtaposed with gut-wrenching poverty, and the public displays of morality, decency and civility so often masking disreputable and hypocritical private behaviour.

6 July

The actor Stuart Damon has died. He made his name in the ’60s, starring in The Champions alongside William Gaunt and Alexandra Bastedo. The series made a lasting impression on me: one of my earliest memories is of wanting to play/pretend at being The Champions, so I am guessing I watched reruns in the early ’70s.

The Champions either fed on or began a childhood interest in shows featuring people with secret superpowers or extraordinary skills — programmes like The Invisible Man starring David McCallum and later on Kung Fu with David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine. Even something like Alias Smith and Jones. I was fascinated with Thaddeus Jones/Kid Curry, the reluctant gunman who was nevertheless lightning-quick on the draw. Above all, there was The Six Million Dollar Man and then the spin-off, The Bionic Woman.

As a child, I found series like these much more exciting than, say, The Avengers or The Saint; for all their ingenuity, the likes of Steed and Simon Templar were, after all, mere mortals with no particularly outstanding skills or powers. It was only when I was a bit older that I started to appreciate the style, wit and sheer quirkiness of (first) The New Avengers and then The Avengers.

28 July

I have long been a fan of political diaries, ever since I used to stare at a multi-volume set of the Crossman diaries in the room of one of my politics tutors at university. I bought the complete set of the Tony Benn diaries as and when they came out, starting with Out of the Wilderness 1963–1967 (published in 1987). The lengthy descriptions of Cabinet discussions in the Labour governments of the ’70s are riveting. The diaries of Gyles Brandreth, published as Breaking the Code and covering his time as a Conservative MP in the ’90s, including a spell as a government whip, are also excellent, well written, as you would expect from Gyles, but also insightful and revelatory. I have also read some of the Chris Mullin and the Alan Clark diaries.

The diaries of Alastair Campbell, however, surpass them all. I read the extracts published as The Blair Years after he left government service in 2003. Good as they were they omitted much of the nitty gritty of the tense relationship between Blair and Brown, both then still in power, of course. I have decided to read the full, unexpurgated diaries (eight volumes so far, the most recent covering the period from 2010 to 2015).

Campbell is a workaholic. Despite a punishing work schedule he somehow found time to write or dictate lengthy diary entries at some point during the day. The writing inevitably has something of an of-the-moment feel to it. References are not always explained or contextualised, multiple topics are often covered in the same (long) paragraph and the use of indirect speech (‘he said/she said’) sometimes makes sentences hard to follow, as in this example:

I saw Andy Marr and raised what GB [Gordon Brown] had said. He said he had said no such thing. He said the only time the Leader’s Office was raised in any discussions was from Ed Balls saying I had pulled the wool over their eyes in convincing them CW [Charlie Whelan] was behind all these stories.

Prelude to Power 1994–1997, Alastair Campbell, 12 March 1997

Volume One, Prelude to Power 1994–1997, begins with the death of John Smith in May 1994 and ends with the election campaign of 1997. It is an extraordinary read — frank, detailed and remarkably honest. Very little seems to be off-limits. For example, Campbell is completely open about the impact that working for Blair had on his home and family life.

The diaries totally disprove the idea that as the dysfunctional Major government imploded during the mid-’90s New Labour was a well-oiled machine preparing for power. Campbell shows that in reality the Labour Opposition was equally dysfunctional: blazing rows, extraordinary displays of petulance and perpetual in-fighting. These random extracts are entirely typical.

Back at the House I went up to see him [Prescott] because he was so offside and we ended up having a furious row. He said he was excluded from anything and he was just going to walk away from it all … I said who is going to be helped by that? He was by the door by now, and he walked back towards me, looking very hurt and angry, and for a second I thought he was going to get violent. But he stopped short, looked at me, and there was just a sadness across his eyes and his face.

Prelude to Power 1994–1997, Alastair Campbell, 2 February 1996

Peter [Mandelson] came back later [after a row with Brown] … and TB [Tony Blair] said “You cannot talk to Gordon like that in a room full of people,” and Peter said in that case he was happy to quit doing the job that TB had given him. “I have had enough. I am not going to put up with it any longer, being undermined by GB and getting no support from here.” He picked up his jacket, walked out again and slammed the door even louder than before. I looked at TB and he looked at me, and we both stood there shaking heads. TB sat down and said “What am I supposed to do with these fucking people? It’s impossible.”

Prelude to Power 1994–1997, Alastair Campbell, 9 May 1996

Campbell pulls no punches. His judgements are frank, unvarnished and often brutal. One wonders how the likes of Chris Smith, Harriet Harman and Clare Short must have felt, reading about themselves as not up to the job (Smith, p439), soporific (Harman, p654) or “a fucking nightmare. Never was so much effort required to deal with someone so useless” (Short, p503). It’s no wonder that when a new volume comes out public figures are said to turn to the index first to see what Campbell has written about them.

And for all his admiration for Tony Blair, Campbell is equally withering at times about (among other things) Blair’s mood swings, his self-obsession and lack of consideration for his staff, and his inability to deal with all the infighting.

And then this comment, from the ’97 election campaign, made me laugh out loud:

I left to see the liveried buses down at the depot where the work had been done. They were good, though not quite as spectacular as I had been hoping for. Maybe there is only so much you can do with the side of a bus.

Prelude to Power 1994–1997, Alastair Campbell, 27 March 1997

29 July

Redemption Day, a 2021 film starring Gary Dourdan — brave soldier suffers trauma in battle, struggles with mental health in civilian life, wife is kidnapped by terrorists in Algeria, flies over, kills the bad guys, rescues her, politicians and CIA agents are corrupt. The same old same old. Just awful. The scene involving being tailed by a car is just comically bad. Why do I watch this drivel?! Hit the Delete button, man!

Immersing Children in Nature from a Young Age Is a Massive Win-Win

The Woodland Trust’s State of the UK’s Woods and Trees 2021 report made the point that children who learn about woods and trees “are much more likely to grow up to be environmentally responsible adults”. Taking an interest in, and learning to care for, the natural world is not just good for the planet. It benefits individuals and communities. It is educational. It is fun. And it boosts mental and physical health and wellbeing. From a young age children need to be learning about — but also experiencing and enjoying — nature and the environment as part of a fully rounded curriculum.

Robert Macfarlane is a British writer and academic best known for his books on the natural world. On the Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs this week he talked about children and nature.

Children are naturals at nature. They do it far better than [adults]. They lie down in it. They eat it… I would love to see every primary school in this country twinned with a farm. I would love to see every primary school planting trees in the cities and the countryside around. Some of that is already happening, but we could do so much more of it, and in that way we grow together people and place.

Robert Macfarlane, quoted on Desert Island Discs

In 2017 he published The Lost Words, created with the artist Jackie Morris, which was joint winner of the Children’s Book of the Year at the British Book Awards. The ‘lost’ words of the book’s title are twenty of the names for everyday nature — words like ‘acorn’, ‘wren’ and ‘otter’ — that were controversially dropped from inclusion in the Oxford Junior Dictionary due to under-use by children.

Research commissioned by The Wildlife Trusts in 2019 showed that children’s wellbeing increased after they had spent time connecting with nature: “the children showed an increase in their personal wellbeing and health over time, and they showed an increase in nature connection and demonstrated high levels of enjoyment.”

The research also indicated that the children — of primary-school age (ie pre-teenage) — also gained educational benefits as well as wider personal and social benefits:

  • 90% felt they learned something new about the natural world
  • 79% felt that their experience could help their school work
  • 84% felt that they were capable of doing new things when they tried
  • 79% reported feeling more confident in themselves
  • 81% agreed that they had better relationships with their teachers
  • 79% reported better relationships with their class-mates

The Wildlife Trusts describe themselves as “a grassroots movement of people from a wide range of backgrounds and all walks of life, on a mission to restore a third of the UK’s land and seas for nature by 2030. We believe everyone, everywhere, should have access to nature and the joy and health benefits it brings.”

Their website offers lots of opportunities to get involved — from signing up and making a donation to volunteering and fundraising. There is plenty of information about events and campaigns happening across the UK and the website is also packed with tips on how individuals and families can do their bit to support nature.

The website is exceptionally good at showing how children can learn through nature and have fun at the same time and is a terrific resource for home-schoolers. For example, the page Help wildlife at home lists simple things that families can do to support nature — from building a pond or a bat box to conserving water and using less plastic. It also has a fantastic page devoted to citizen science projects, both national and regional.

My recent blog Being involved in positive change can boost children’s mental health called for a bold and imaginative approach to boosting children’s post-lockdown mental health and wellbeing, offering “every young person encouragement and, more importantly, easy-to-access opportunities to make a positive difference to the environment.”

I also highlighted the BBC’s Plant Britain initiative, a fantastic opportunity to boost nature education and a chance for children and young people, families and schools to get involved in improving the environment and help make a visible difference for the future.

I blog regularly about education, particularly in relation to children aged 5 to 11, at this website about Life-Based Learning. This is a slightly edited version of a recent blog.

Image at the head of this article by Amanda McConnell from Pixabay.

“Don’t look at the eyes, Rex!”: Comparing The Devil Rides Out Book and Film

The Diogenes verdict on the Hammer film adaptations of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic novels? In a word, terrific. Superior supernatural fare, you might say. The original Wheatley novels themselves, on the other hand — errr…no thanks. Not even a quick burst of the Sussamma Ritual could rescue them from the literary abyss, sizeable chunks of Wheatley’s text being all but unreadable. Click the link to read Part 1 of my Wheatley blog trilogy, Dennis Wheatley and The Devil Rides Out, for more on this.

Hammer filmed two of Wheatley’s supernatural novels; a third on which they took out an option — The Satanist — was never made. Of the two novels, The Devil Rides Out (published in 1934) and To the Devil a Daughter (1953), the first is the better one, though ‘better’ very much in a relative sense, like saying that a two-day migraine is better than an abscess on a tooth. Having said that, the pentacle scene, when Mocata sends various manifestations of evil to claim back Simon, is excellently written and genuinely unsettling, even for the modern reader:

A dim phosphorescent blob began to glow in the darkness; shimmering and spreading into a great hummock, its outline gradually becoming clearer. It was not a man form nor yet an animal, but heaved there on the floor like some monstrous living sack. It had no eyes or face but from it there radiated a terrible malefic intelligence.

Suddenly there ceased to be anything ghostlike about it. The Thing had a whitish pimply skin, leprous and unclean, like some huge silver slug. Waves of Satanic power rippled through its spineless body, causing it to throb and work continuously like a great mass of new-made dough. A horrible stench of decay and corruption filled the room; for as it writhed it exuded a slimy poisonous moisture which trickled in little rivulets across the polished floor. It was solid, terribly real, a living thing. They could even see long, single golden hairs, separated from each other by ulcerous patches of skin, quivering and waving as they rose on end from its flabby body — and suddenly it began to laugh at them, a low, horrid, chuckling laugh.

The Devil Rides Out, Chapter XXVII, Within the Pentacle

Even scarier than a giant spider, I’d say.

Up to this midpoint of the story, the later film (very) roughly follows the original book: Simon Aron, young friend of the Duke de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn, has become embroiled with a group of satanists and must be rescued before his satanic baptism. Though Rex is ignorant in these matters, the duke is something of an expert. The film script — aided by Christopher Lee’s wonderful delivery — conveys gravitas but not pomposity: “Though I have never mentioned it, I have made a very deep study of these esoteric doctrines.”

In the book, on the other hand, Wheatley’s typewriter habitually develops a Caps Lock problem as the duke repeatedly serves up double helpings of Very Important Words.

…for Light typifies Health and Wisdom, Growth and Life; while Darkness means Disease and Ignorance, Decay and Death.

The Devil Rides Out, Chapter III, The Esoteric Doctrine

We also get the Spirit, the Elixir of Life, Black Magic, Way of Light, Way of Darkness, Black Masses, a Satanic Temple, Devil Worshippers, Witchcraft and so on. A major flaw in Wheatley’s writing is his show-off tendency, inserting huge dollops of turgid and unnecessary detail into pages of long, ridiculously unrealistic dialogue. The duke and Simon, for example, have an academic-level conversation at Stonehenge about alchemy; the duke is, naturally, an expert on the subject. There’s also a lengthy de Richleau lecture on Set, the evil brother of Osiris, from Egyptian mythology. The man is, cliché alert, a veritable walking encyclopaedia.

Anyway, back to the plot. There’s the search of Simon’s house and the confrontation with ‘Embodied Evil’ (an astral body that just happens to be black-skinned in book and film — see here for more on Wheatley’s racism), Rex meeting and falling in love with Tanith Carlisle (another member of the satanist group who like Simon has yet to receive her satanic baptism), and Tanith’s escape from their care.

So far, so (fairly) similar.

‘Iconic’ is a much-overused word (not least by me). The online Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as ‘very famous or popular, especially being considered to represent particular opinions or a particular time’, and chooses the following as its three illustrative examples: John Lennon achieving iconic status after his death, the gunfight as the iconic image of the Wild West and the characters, dialogue and music of the film Casablanca.

The appearance of the Goat of Mendes at the sabbat, the already-mentioned pentacle scene and the climactic ritual of the child sacrifice on the altar can all justifiably be called iconic. As noted in my previous Wheatley blog, a 2019 Daily Mail story about devil worshippers in the English countryside used a ‘Goat of Mendes’ still as a photo to accompany the text.

The Great Sabbat itself is a good example of where book can outdo film. Wheatley imagines it well over several chapters. The satanists’ meeting place is a grand house in the village of Chilbury, the sabbat itself somewhere on the plains of Wiltshire in a “saucer-shaped depression”. The duke and Rex follow the satanists in their car; Tanith, meanwhile, is lured there by malign forces. In the (very) low-budget film, on the other hand, the grand house appears to be handily placed just round the corner from where Mocata’s evil powers have caused Rex’s car to crash and Tanith to effect her escape from him.

And then there’s the Goat of Mendes — “the Devil himself!”:

…the manifestation took on a clearer shape; the hands, held forward almost in an attitude of prayer but turned downward, became transformed into two great cloven hoofs. Above rose the monstrous bearded head of a gigantic goat, appearing to be at least three times the size of any other which they had ever seen. The two slit-eyes, slanting inwards and down, gave out a red baleful light. Long pointed ears cocked upwards from the sides of the shaggy head, and from the bald, horrible unnatural bony skull, which was caught by the light of the candles, four enormous curved horns spread out — sideways and up.

The Devil Rides Out, Chapter XVI, The Sabbat

After the rescue of Simon (though not, in the book, Tanith) the duke takes them to the ancient sanctuary of Stonehenge to see out the night safely. We learn that Simon is Mocata’s gateway to acquiring the Talisman of Set, which will allow him to summon the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse into the world. In a twist to what we read in the history books, it appears that the horsemen were last summoned in 1914 and that Germany is therefore absolved of all guilt for causing the First World War:

…every adept knows that it started because one of the most terrible Satanists who ever lived found one of the secret gateways through which to release the four horsemen.

The Devil Rides Out, Chapter XX, The Four Horsemen

Behind it all was the Russian monk Rasputin, according to the duke “the greatest Black Magician that the world had known for centuries”. Coincidentally, it was Christopher Lee who played the “Evil genius” in question in the 1966 Hammer film Rasputin the Mad Monk.

Our heroes head down to the Eatons’ house — Cardinals Folly. In the film Tanith is with them, having been rescued with Rex from the sabbat. She runs away from Cardinals Folly, fearful that it is through her that Mocata attacks the others. Rex catches up with her and they spend the night in a deserted barn or stable in the woods. In the book, on the other hand, she calls Rex from the nearby village inn, having found him via the process of automatic writing. They resolve to stay there all night. In both film and book Tanith is killed, a casualty of the Angel of Death, summoned by Mocata and seen off by the duke with the final two lines of the “dread” Sussamma Ritual.

Ah, the Sussamma Ritual, to utter which is to do a thing which shall never be done except in the direst emergency when the very soul is in peril of destruction [italics added by Wheatley, presumably in case we didn’t grasp how dire things need to get before it can be called upon]. Its words are right up there with ‘Klaatu barada nikto’ from The Day the Earth Stood Still as truly iconic gibberish:

Uriel Seraphim Io Potesta, Zati Zata Galatim Galata.

The final two lines of the Sussamma Ritual, as spoken by the Duke de Richleau

Well, actually not gibberish. Christopher Lee himself apparently visited the British Museum to consult the Grimoire of Armadel, a seventeenth-century book of ceremonial magic, in search of a spell or incantation to add authenticity to the scene.

The final third of the film is completely reimagined, presumably on cost grounds. Following the death of Tanith and his failure to prise away Simon, Mocata kidnaps the Eatons’ young daughter (Fleur in the book; Peggy in the film) in order to offer her as a sacrifice in a black mass. In the film, the location is close by and easily accessible. In the book, on the other hand, our heroes are forced to traverse the continent of Europe. Handily, Richard Eaton has an aeroplane parked at the bottom of the garden. Cue breathless flights to Paris and then to an inhospitable mountain range in Greece for the final showdown between good and evil.

In the film the duke’s courage fails him and he refuses to repeat the Sussamma Ritual, even though Peggy’s soul is very obviously in peril. Mrs Eaton (another name switch — Marie rather than Marie Lou) comes to the rescue, possessed by — presumably — God, though speaking with the voice of (the dead) Tanith. The subtext would make CS Lewis blush. Evil has been vanquished not so much by ‘the Powers of Light’ or ‘Goodness’ but by Christianity. The paraphernalia of and participants in the black mass are consumed by fire (though the dutiful Christians standing just to the side are not so much as singed) and the room is magically transformed into a place of Christian worship, complete with giant cross on the wall.

The very final words of the film are:

DUKE: … Mocata is dead.

SIMON: Thank God.

DUKE: Yes, Simon. He is the one we should thank.

from the film version of The Devil Rides Out (1968)

In the book the denouement takes place in the crypt of an age-old monastery. With our heroes imprisoned in an invisible magic circle, the Goat of Mendes makes a guest reappearance, this time above the altar on which the (naked) child is to be sacrificed, glaring at them with its “red, baleful, slanting eyes” and belching “fetid, deathly breaths from its cavernous nostrils”.

At the final moment, with Mocata’s knife poised above the body of the child, Marie/Marie Lou saves the day. In the film she utters a slight variation on the words “They only who Love without Desire shall have power granted to them in the Darkest Hour”. In the novel we are told that it is from the Red Book of Appin and that she is somehow able to visualise these words in her mind. In the film she then steps forward, wakes her daughter from her trance and walks her through the Sussamma Ritual. In the book Marie Lou “spoke a strange word — having five syllables”. The effect is the same — to destroy the black mass, to kill Mocata and to reverse time and space, so that they are back at Cardinals Folly and with Tanith alive and well (after a brandy), Mocata’s soul having been claimed by the Angel of Death instead of hers.

Though filmed only eight years apart, The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter seem like products of completely different eras. In part that is because the former retains its 1930s setting whereas the latter is updated to the present day (well, the ’70s). In part too, perhaps, it is because The Devil Rides Out was made just before Hammer embarked on its blood-and-softcore-sex phase. Publicity shots of Mocata about to ravish/sacrifice what looks to be Tanith are not from the film itself. In fact, there is no gore in the film at all — the animal sacrifice at the sabbat is off-camera — and it features surely the first mass orgy of sexual depravity where all the participants keep their clothes on. Indeed, the scariest part of the film is probably the opening credits, with its spine-tingling score and a backdrop of satanic symbols.

Several of the interiors seem familiar, almost certainly from episodes of TV series like The Saint and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased); the garden/driveway shot of Cardinals Folly has also definitely cropped up elsewhere and apparently the country lanes are where The Avengers (Steed, Mrs Peel etc) was often filmed. And the naffness of the special effects — particularly the ‘giant’ spider and the Angel of Death on horseback, the repeated reverse footage used to simulate the horse’s attempts to penetrate the circle — is one of the film’s most endearing qualities. In fact, the most unsettling moment in the pentacle scene is when the duke utters the words: “The lights…”

Christopher Lee as the Duke de Richleau — an utterly inspired piece of casting. It seems that Wheatley and Lee knew each other well, that Lee shared Wheatley’s interest in the Occult and that Wheatley had pressed for Lee to be cast in the role of the duke. Lee himself was not keen on playing the Mocata role, it seems: “I told Hammer, ‘Look, enough of the villainy for the time being, let us try something different and let me be on the side of the angels for once.'” Casting Charles Gray — smooth, suave, debonair — as Mocata was also an excellent decision, a deliberate move away from the repulsive Mocata of the book. The oddest piece of casting is perhaps that of the opera singer Leon Greene as Rex; he has the chiselled good looks and the action-man physique but it was decided that his voice needed to be dubbed.

The film script includes so many memorable lines memorably delivered — Christopher Lee, in particular, often using short … pauses … between … words … for … added … dramatic … effect. Here are some of my favourites:

REX: What do you want to look at his blasted telescope for?

DUKE: I don’t.

At Simon’s house. The duke has already twigged what is going on

The power of darkness is more than just a superstition. It is a living force which can be tapped at any given moment of the night.

The duke explains all to a disbelieving Rex. Immediate cut to Mocata using his powers to attack Simon even though he is in a hypnotically induced sleep

Don’t look at the eyes, Rex! Don’t look at the eyes!

Sound advice from the duke when facing Embodied Evil

REX: Oh, may I borrow a car?

DUKE: Yes, take any of them.

So says the duke, moments after informing us that the curator of the British Museum is a good friend of his

REX: What has this Mocata done to make you so afraid of him?

TANITH: It’s what he’ll do. Oh god, it’s what he’ll do.

Rex continues to believe that he can keep Tanith safe from Mocata

The Goat of Mendes — the Devil himself!

Gatecrashing the sabbat

MARIE: Uncle Nicholas, how can we help?

DUKE: You’re already helping, my dear. Simon’s resistance is practically nil because he’s been under the influence of Mocata for so long. And the same thing applies to Miss Carlisle. Rex and I are at a low ebb after last night. Your coming fresh into the battle now is of paramount importance.

Arriving at Cardinals Folly, the home of Richard and Marie Eaton

I do not propose to discuss with you the rights and wrongs of practising the magic art. I will confine myself to saying that I am a practitioner of some experience.

Mocata, modest as ever

I shall not be back. But something will. Tonight. Something will come for Simon and the girl.

Mocata — possibly the best line of all in the film

RICHARD: Frankly, I think we’re behaving like a pack of idiots.

REX: It begins.

Mocata tries to find an easy way to break the circle by manipulating Richard

The Bride of Chaos! The Rider upon the Beast!

Mocata prepares to sacrifice Peggy

It is all too easy to poke fun at the not-very-special special effects and the budget-driven plotholes and shortcuts, but for me The Devil Rides Out is up there with The Wicker Man as one of the great British horror movies. The script is a vast improvement on the original source material and the acting is top notch. Terence Fisher’s direction is also widely praised by critics at a technical level — notably the pentacle scene but also the earlier scene in the library when Mocata hypnotises Mrs Eaton. The pace of the film is also unrelenting, right from the off: within seconds we are aware of Simon’s mysterious behaviour, and when at Simon’s house the duke suddenly whispers “We’re going to be asked to leave, Rex” the viewer is completely hooked.

Though it was much less commercially or critically successful, I am also a big fan of the second of Hammer’s Wheatley adaptations, To the Devil a Daughter. More on this film to come.


More about Books and Films

Dennis Wheatley and The Devil Rides Out (Part 1)

Dennis Wheatley and To the Devil a Daughter (Part 3)

‘Fake History’ and Film

Books, TV and Films, June 2021

4 June

If Carlsberg did books, they would probably publish something like Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. This is a BIG book — big in scale and scope, big in ambition, big in subject matter. In lager terms, much more of a flagon than a pint. It’s a book I immediately want to read again, this time at a far more leisurely pace so that I can enjoy more of the cascade of fascinating information that washed over me first time around. (On second thoughts, I really ought to read the same author’s In the Shadow of the Sword, which covers some similar ground, first.)

Dominion tells the story of the profound influence of religious belief, and primarily of Christianity, on how we live our lives, on how we think — our core beliefs, values and assumptions — and even on the language we use. As someone interested in the etymology of words, I was fascinated by Holland’s explanations of the origins of words and phrases that are part of our everyday language — how, for example, the ‘universal’ message of Christianity (katholikos in Greek) distinguished it from the ‘God’s chosen people’ exceptionalism of Judaism; and how the word ‘canon’, identifying a specific and limited number of chosen writings that supposedly contained the authentic message of Christ, derived from the Greek word for the chalked string used by carpenters to mark a straight line.

Holland has a telling eye for detail. The book itself is sweeping and panoramic, but each chapter opens with a specific time and place, perhaps somewhere familiar like Wittenberg c1520, perhaps somewhere remote and obscure (to this reader anyway) like Mount Gargano, a rocky promontory jutting out from south-eastern Italy into the Adriatic Sea, in the year 492.

It wasn’t always like this for me; I have written elsewhere about a blinkered and narrow-minded outlook that led to me focusing almost exclusively on modern political history. I am still working my way through Tom Holland’s back catalogue, but in books like Persian Fire and Rubicon he has helped open my eyes to the richness of ancient and early modern history.

As another advertising slogan didn’t put it, reassuringly brilliant.

8 June

A few months ago I watched The Odessa File; yesterday it was The Day of the Jackal. Both films are based on novels by Frederick Forsyth which I read as a sixth-former. I may already by that time have read books by Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins and Jeffrey Archer (Shall We Tell the President? — a recommendation from my friend Chris), but the ‘Jackal’ book was memorable for its extraordinary attention to detail. I bought and read a new Forsyth novel, The Fourth Protocol, in 1984 because of my interest in CND and the politics of nuclear disarmament (the film features an impossibly young-looking Pierce Brosnan as the Russian baddie), but — as with Archer — Forsyth’s Conservative Party loyalties increasingly got in the way. I did read a few of his later novels — titles long forgotten, though The Fist of God was definitely one — which struck me as shallow thriller-by-numbers rubbish.

12 June

It was a bit of a shock to see BOX 88, the new novel by Charles Cumming, out in paperback when I visited my local Waterstones. It had been advertised on Twitter earlier in the week — the first I knew of it — and I had no idea that it came out in hardback in 2020. Cumming writes excellent spy novels. I first discovered him when I read The Trinity Six, a novel that played with the idea of a sixth Cambridge traitor alongside Burgess, Philby, Maclean, Cairncross and Blunt.

This is set to be a bumper few weeks of quality fiction reading for me. Robert Harris’ V-2 is out in paperback in early July, I still have Kate Mosse’s City of Tears to read and Sebastian Faulks has a new novel out in the autumn — apparently a sequel of sorts to Human Traces, my favourite book of his.

18 June

This is a month of football rather than TV and film watching. I was intrigued enough, however, to watch one of the TV Rebus dramatisations from the noughties. I know nothing about this series, except a vague awareness that John Hannah was originally (mis)cast in the role of Rebus before Ken Stott took over.

Three things struck me. First, ‘my’ Rebus and ‘my’ Edinburgh are of the ’80s and ’90s — I am up to Black and Blue, which was published in 1997 — in my reading whereas the setting of the episode I watched, Strip Jack, one of the earliest Rebus novels, first published (and therefore set) in 1992, has switched to the Edinburgh of the noughties, the time of filming. In these more enlightened times (and the second switch) is that Rebus has a female boss — no longer ‘the Farmer’ but a rather cold and aloof Gill Templer (in the books she and Rebus had previously had a sexual relationship).

The third (and main) difference, however, is the enhanced role given to DS Clarke, played by Claire Price. Whereas the book version of Rebus is a brooding, introspective loner — with much of the heavy lifting done by the narrator’s voice — in the TV series DS Clarke is essential as Rebus’ sidekick and foil. It is intriguing casting against type. Claire Price is physically slight and has a fresh-faced innocence about her that seems a world apart from the denizens of Edinburgh’s criminal underworld — I particularly associate her with the role of a rather demure and wide-eyed young woman from an episode of Poirot — but clearly DS Clarke has a steely, no-nonsense determination about her.

22 June

With the completion of the excellent Thomas Kell trilogy of novels — A Foreign Country, A Colder War and A Divided Spy — it looks as if BOX 88 is the start of another Charles Cumming story arc, featuring the characters Lachlan Kite and (possibly) Cara Jannaway. Like his other books BOX 88 is well plotted, exciting and believable. The spy novelists’ spy novelist is, of course, the incomparable John le Carré. Cumming’s writing, by comparison, though still packed with jargon and tradecraft, is easier for the non-specialist reader to disentangle.

Le Carré was a master at writing dialogue. Whether it was a stray enigmatic utterance, characters talking at cross purposes or an unfinished thought left to float off into the ether, le Carré used dialogue to help weave his webs of mystery, deception and obfuscation. Cumming’s approach to dialogue is a bit clunky at times. Take MI5 team leader Robert Vosse’s penchant for naming team members after characters in television shows — ‘Eve’, ‘Villanelle’ and so on — and the vulgar plain-speaking. Smiley, it isn’t.

“Are you lot taking the piss?” he shouted. “Villanelle’s in outer space. Cagney and Lacey went the wrong way on Piccadilly. What the fuck are you doing on Curzon Street? Get your arse back to the Playboy Casino. BIRD’s probably gone in there for a flutter with his pal from the Middle East.”

from BOX 88 by Charles Cumming

25 June

I have mentioned before that I don’t as a rule buy books about contemporary politics. They very quickly date. Peter Oborne’s book, The Assault on Truth, will be no exception — its subject matter is largely the Johnson premiership — but I decided that, in these days when memories are short, news stories are deliberately twisted and mangled like never before in modern times and the internet daily exposes us to endless new stories to absorb, it was important to own a physical copy, something to refer back to when today’s outrages are largely forgotten. (I had a pub conversation last week with two people prepared to argue that Johnson led the country well during the first stages of the pandemic.)

There is little in Oborne’s book that hasn’t been written about elsewhere, but he does a good job of setting out in a systematic way the evidence of lying by Boris Johnson (and his ministers and political cronies) and to a lesser extent Trump.

The most important parts of the book are where Oborne explains the damage that political lying — the catch-all term he uses to cover deceit and message-manipulation as well as the telling of out-and-out porkies — does to the public realm, to public trust in our political process, and to the norms, conventions and institutions that constitute the bedrock of our system of liberal democracy — principally parliament, the separation of powers, the impartiality of the civil service, freedom of speech and the rule of law.

He reminds us of the background to the seven Nolan principles (published in 1995 following a cash-for-questions scandal) governing standards expected in public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. At the recent G7 summit, Johnson and President Biden resurrected the spirit of the wartime Atlantic Charter. We need something similar for the Nolan principles. They set the standard by which the actions and behaviour of those in public life should be judged, and they are as relevant today (in fact, even more so) as they were more than a quarter of a century ago.

I happen to be reading the book as the story has broken of health secretary Matt Hancock’s affair. It is an indication of the breakdown of integrity in public life that this is just the latest in a long list of scandals (and I don’t mean sexual scandals) that have demeaned politics in recent years. I am a believer that, ordinarily, a minister’s private life ought to be none of our concern. However, these are anything but ordinary times and this is not simply a private matter, even though several Cabinet ministers were initially wheeled out to claim that it was.

A government, led by a prime minister with strong libertarian instincts, has spent more than a year regulating our lives in a way unprecedented in peacetime, even down to dictating who we may and may not hug or have sex with. All, it says, for the public good. Trust and credibility are essential to the compact between government and people in a liberal democracy. In this case the government minister in charge must be seen to be following the tough, freedom-restricting rules and guidance he himself was responsible for introducing. Nothing undermined trust and the credibility of government messaging more during the first lockdown in 2020 than Dominic Cummings’ ridiculous Barnard Castle escapades and the popular perception that he had flouted the stay-at-home edict.

And then there is the ministerial code, the breaking of which is supposedly a resigning matter. Government ministers are expected, it says, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. Gina Coladangelo was a non-executive director at the Department of Health, appointed by Hancock himself, her role an oversight one. Neither Hancock nor Johnson, it seems, felt that Hancock’s actions involved any appearance of impropriety and therefore this wasn’t a resigning matter. How times change. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, the foreign secretary Lord Carrington immediately resigned. And in the same year, as Oborne reminds us, the home secretary and Thatcher confidant Willie Whitelaw — “every prime minister needs a Willie” — offered his resignation when an intruder broke into the Queen’s bedroom.


I am preparing this blog for uploading on the day after Xi Jinping’s setpiece speech in front of 70,000 people in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mark the centenary of the birth of the Chinese Communist Party. He said: “We have never bullied, oppressed or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will.” Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s deputy chief executive is reported to have said in a speech: “While safeguarding national security, residents continue to enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and demonstration, and others according to the law.”

This is not simple China-bashing. This week the prime minister Boris Johnson shamelessly tried to rewrite history by claiming that he sacked Matt Hancock as health secretary. In an excruciating and shameful PMQs on Wednesday, probably mindful that an outright lie in parliament could put him in difficulties, he repeatedly said that the Matt Hancock story had broken on the Friday and there was a new health secretary by the Saturday, citing this as evidence of swift and decisive action. He omitted to mention that his spokesperson had repeatedly briefed on the Friday that the PM had accepted Hancock’s apology and the matter was closed.

A Gymnasium of the Mind That Everyone Can Join

One of my favourite episodes of The West Wing, ‘Hartsfield’s Landing’, uses the game of chess as a metaphor for US–China brinkmanship over the Taiwan Strait. Chess — and various earlier iterations — has been around for hundreds of years and is surely one of the oldest games in the world. The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal supposedly described it as the gymnasium of the mind. And now chess is surging in popularity worldwide — young players apparently attract a huge following by streaming games online — driven first by the Covid lockdown and then subsequently by the phenomenal success of the drama series The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. The approach of ChessFest 2021 is an ideal time to promote chess in schools, a perfect complement to brain-based learning.

The vocabulary of chess enriches our language. The fascinating book White King and Red Queen by Daniel Johnson — an exploration of the part played by chess in the Cold War — reminds us that words and phrases like keeping an enemy ‘in check’, treating someone ‘like a pawn’, ‘stalemate’, ‘gambit’, and even the name of the UK Treasury, the Exchequer, all derive from the game of chess. It is the most inclusive of games, open to all regardless of background, gender, race, ethnicity and so on. It is also a game for all ages. Frederick Waldhausen Gordon is 10 years old and has been playing chess since the age of six. Within a week he was beating his parents, who both have PhDs in maths, and he has already defeated a chess grandmaster.

Chess is a terrific teaching tool for young players with lessons that extend far beyond the board. The game teaches strategy, logic, pattern recognition and spatial reasoning. However, it also introduces history, new vocabulary terms, and social and emotional lessons such as how to win and lose as an individual. Chess players learn that actions have consequences. Progressing with the game means considering the thoughts and motivations of an opponent, and taking responsibility for personal decisions.

So says the ChessKid website, an outstanding online chess learning and playing zone designed for children aged 5 to 11. It helps children who have no prior knowledge of chess learn how to play the game as well as challenging those children who already know how to play. It makes learning and playing chess easy, fun and (most importantly) safe. A premium offer gives access to lots of additional features and there are also tools to help parents, teachers and coaches manage a chess club or teach chess (including the provision of lesson plans).

A 2016 survey of tutors, teachers, parents and pupils for the UK charity Chess in Schools and Communities shows the remarkable impact that chess can have:

  • 96% of staff felt that pupils enjoyed the lessons “tremendously” or “quite a bit”
  • There was widespread agreement that chess had improved thinking skills (97%), problem-solving (97%), sportsmanship (97%), self-esteem (90%) and concentration (89%)
  • 77% of children played chess with friends, 65% with a computer and 53% with parents
  • Parents saw improvement in coping with winning and losing (95%), self-esteem (92%) and sportsmanship (92%)

The mission of Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC), it says, is “to improve children’s educational outcomes and social development by introducing them to the game of chess.” Its website is packed with information about the work it does to support schools and the community. As a charity, it is particularly interested in working with disadvantaged children.

The charity is hosting ChessFest — a three-day chess extravaganza — in London on 16–18 July, with the highlight a day of chess activities open to the public at Trafalgar Square on Sunday 18 July. Plans include free lessons for all ages, grandmasters taking part in speed and blindfold chess, and the involvement of 300 children from 30 inner-city schools from across the UK. The image at the head of this blog is from the ChessFest Twitter feed (@ChessFest2021): “32 actors play the role of the chess pieces on a giant 10-metre square chess board bang in the middle of Trafalgar Square on Sun 18 July — themed for the 150th anniversary of Alice Through the Looking Glass.”

I blog regularly about education, particularly in relation to children aged 5 to 11, at this website about Life-Based Learning.

Awe and Wonder

It is probably Hollywood’s most enduring movie myth, that when the director of The Greatest Story Ever Told suggested to John Wayne (in a cameo role as the Roman centurion guarding the dying Jesus on the cross) that he deliver the line ‘Truly he was the Son of God’ with a bit more awe, Wayne came back with “Aww, truly he was the Son of God”. The ‘awe and wonder’ moments — it’s a decent working definition of what we mean by spirituality in the curriculum. And there are few things more awesome than gazing up into the heavens on a clear and cloud-free night — which is why the ambition of Scotland’s astronomer royal to give every child a window into the universe is so exciting.

The astrophysicist Professor Catherine Heymans is Scotland’s new astronomer royal. She herself did not even look through a telescope until she worked as a tour guide at Edinburgh’s Royal Observatory to help pay for her education. Now, she says in a Guardian interview, she is hoping to give every child the chance to do so by installing telescopes at Scotland’s residential outdoor learning centres, where children traditionally spend a week in their final year of primary school.

She says she got the idea after her own children returned from a school trip: “The centres are all in these fantastically remote locations, so the skies are really dark. It’s a perfect place to do astronomy, and all our kids, no matter what background they come from, will pass through one of these centres, so what a way to reach everyone.”

England’s national curriculum for science covers ‘Earth and space’ in year 5 (when children are aged 9 and 10). However, the dry language of the document fails to capture the beauty and wonder of the cosmos and its ability to profoundly move us. Richard Dawkins is (as always) word-perfect in his book for young people, The Magic of Reality, when he talks of ‘poetic magic’:

We are moved to tears by a beautiful piece of music and we describe the performance as ‘magical’. We gaze up at the stars on a dark night with no moon and no city lights and, breathless with joy, we say the world is ‘pure magic’. We might use the same word to describe a gorgeous sunset, or an alpine landscape, or a rainbow against a dark sky. In this sense, ‘magical’ simply means deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more fully alive.

from The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins, Chapter 1: What Is Reality? What Is Magic?

Awe and wonder is an essential element of truly inspirational teaching and a truly enriching curriculum. Not every child can escape the city lights. Still fewer will be lucky enough to own their own telescope and to have access to a garden in which to begin their voyage across the vastness of space (though this is a great article from the BBC’s Sky at Night magazine on getting children started with astronomy). That’s why we need ambitious and radical thinking — and the investment to support it — if we are to provide those life-changing ‘light switch’ experiences for children of all backgrounds.

It is brilliant initiatives such as Professor Heymans’ idea of giving every child the chance to peer into the infinite that are key to firing children’s imagination. Who knows where it will lead: we may witness the birth in the coming years of a new galaxy of bright and gleaming stars — scientists, engineers, inventors and the like, leading their respective fields in tackling the immense challenges the world faces, their passion for exploration and discovery triggered by a peek into the Great Unknown on a remote Scottish hillside years earlier.

I blog regularly about education, particularly in relation to children aged 5 to 11, at this website about Life-Based Learning.

Image at the head of this article by Lizeth Lopez from Pixabay.

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