Cruise Ships

Between 2007 - 2019 I was a guest speaker on 10 cruise ships visiting in particular the Indian Ocean and South Asia as well as the Baltic and west coast of Africa. (“Never say you are a lecturer; it sounds boring” said an Entertainment Director). I gave joint presentations with my wife Margret Percy, a former BBC speaker, and we compiled beautiful power points on history subjects related to the voyage, 5-6 per 14 day cruise. For example, cruising up the east coast of Australia we presented two talks on the convict settlements.

Now I have retired I may evaluate for you the cruise ship experience.

We would never be passengers on a ship that carried more than 1,500 passengers, and many cram in 3,000 - 4,000. Fancy travelling to exotic parts of the world surrounded by a large crowd from home. Yet that is increasingly the case for economic reasons. The ships look monstrous and the crowds are claustrophobic.

Secondly, we never liked cruises with many ‘sea days’, like crossing the Atlantic or Pacific: boring. The advantage of a smallish ship is that you can travel to places that other forms of travel cannot reach. For example, the Norwegian fjords or approaching St `Petersburg from the sea which is not to be missed. In fact, a Baltic cruise ticks most of the boxes with every other day in port.

Another limitation is that 80% or so of passengers are retired, quite a number geriatric. This is understandable and means that there are many life experiences to draw on conversationally across the table, but after a while the lack of youth is depressing. Perhaps that’s why the Ships Company singers and dancers are so attractive.

As for the ‘guest speaker’ experience, it is quite a challenge. The audiences are very big, perhaps 250 - 300,

but that is because there is only one lounge and many passengers go there for a comfortable seat without knowing who the speaker is or why he/she is there. To the speaker they are a sea of expressionless faces. However, after a while you build up a following and it is some of these passengers who become drinking/ eating companions for the rest of the tour.

In my experience the guest speaker experience has been down graded over the years. We used to be called ‘enrichment speakers’ but now ‘enrichment speakers’ tend to be commercial speakers on subjects like ‘Faberge Eggs’ (this is our last tour to St Petersburg) whose aim is to lure audience to the boutique afterwards We have shared platforms with excellent wildlife photographers or a Cambridge academic talking about world religions, yet as often as not the relevance of the speaker is hard to understand; a retired policeman from Bermuda? A home security expert? The only requirement given by the Director of Entertainment is to “be entertaining”.

The cruise lines we have travelled with, mostly Fred Olsen, are generous, friendly and efficient. The guest speaker is not paid but the 14 days cruise is free for him and his partner, more or less. Bu why is it that every cruise experience ends up being much the same? In future we will go as paying guests in small groups on more adventurous holidays.


Where I live in Wales we have a lively association to help asylum seekers from abroad who are stranded either waiting for a visa or an appeal against the refusal of a visa. But there is also the spooky ruin of an Asylum, or institution where a century ago 'lunatics' were locked up. What is the connection? The word 'asylum' means 'a place of refuge' and the mentally  ill were supposed to benefit from 'a place of refuge' against the  stress and embarrassment of the world outside. 

I have written the history of the Mid Wales Mental Hospital, as the asylum became, to show how we treated the mentally ill over the last century. It was always less an asylum than a dustbin - hence the phrase 'loony bin' - for the most inadequate and unwanted people in society,  the mentally defective (as they were known) and senile as well as the mentally ill. Thus the name was changed to improve the image. 50 years later, after the illness  schizophrenia came to be commonly accepted in the UK,  mental hospitals like the Mid Wales tried out drastic treatments like frontal lobotomies, electro convulsive therapy and deep coma insulin treatment to  try and cure what was then thought to be incurable. This was a 'brave new world' in terms of innovation but it failed, and at a cruel cost to patients.

'Community care' must have come as a blessed relief, for by this time the mental hospitals were clogged up with incurable and institutionalised patients. It meant off-loading as many patients as possible for care in hostels, half-way houses and foster families. This turned out to be another drastic solution, as many patients were dumped outside who had, many years ago, been dumped inside.

Once again, western societies have much to learn from the supposedly less developed parts of the world where the extended family takes responsibility for its own members. However,  new medications and psychiatric treatment such as cognitive behaviour therapy have made considerable strides. Life for the mentally ill has become better. 

A depressing tale perhaps, yet full of heart warming and humorous examples of human behaviour. If you have seen the film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" you will know what I mean. My conversations with many ex-nurses round the Mid Wales, and one or two former patients, have restored my faith in humanity.

The title 'Up Top' I took from the nickname for the Mid Wales Mental Hospital among the residents of the local town of Talgarth: 'Up Top', you see, because it was above and out of sight of the town - just as other asylums were built 'round the bend', away from other habitation. 'Up Top' is published by YLolfa, a Welsh publisher, and there are lots of pictures which you won't forget. Most bookshops in Wales will have copies or if you are further away, Amazon will oblige.

A Night at the Proms

Early in September my wife and I went to a Promenade Concert in the Albert Hall. It was a sell out event because Daniel Barenboim was conducting a German orchestra playing Mozart's 'Coronation' concerto followed by Bruckner's Sixth Symphony. The evening was hot and humid. Our seats way up on the sixth floor at the back were cramped and vertigo inducing; we could hardly see the orchestra. So at the interval I decided to do what I have not done before which was to walk up a further three flights of stairs to the gallery at the very top of the Albert Hall where at least you can walk around and the view could not be any worse. What an experience!

At first I was aware of the smell - picnic supper mixed with body odour. Then I saw I was among a vast crowd completely surrounding the circular gallery, both at the front by the rails and at the back windowless wall. The crowd  brought to mind  exhausted pilgrims  who were gazing down from the mountain top on to the promised land below. Promenaders lay on the floor, propped themselves up against the front and the back walls, wandered around picking their way over supine bodies. Only a few had the rail to lean on and they were crammed together so that they were sideways on.

Not many could see the orchestra but that did not matter. Under the flying saucer like dishes hanging  just under the ceiling that  obviously were there for acoustic purposes, the sound  was terrific; absolutely clear and undimmed without any reverberation off the ceiling. And music is an aural not a visual experience, unless you watch an orchestra on TV where the close  - ups pick out the intense concentration of music making. 

I wedged myself at the back stretching out my legs. In front of me a young couple lay on their backs, legs crossed at the ankle, motionless like the medieval tombs of knights and their ladies  in churches. In front of them stood an old man. He was hunched and bent and raised one heel off the floor as if his foot was too painful to bear pressure; he had nothing to hold onto.  His elderly wife was propped against the rail more lying than sitting. Neither moved; their faces showed rapt concentration for the whole hour. While the sticky heat rose from the thousands of bodies below and the prospect of exiting down nine flights of stairs before cramming on to the late night underground got nearer and nearer, they were aware only of the music. I felt a warm kinship with the other pilgrims. We were suffering for Bruckner and Barenboim, united in the Proms Experience.


A Film Teacher's View of Brexit

 woke up on 24th of June with a sense of dread quickly confirmed by the news; the UK had Brexited! What folly! What a nasty, irresponsible and lazy referendum campaign had caused it. Then the perpetrators resigned like rats leaving the sinking ship. We have been badly let down by our politicians. What happened to the constitutional rule that sovereignty belongs to the people in Parliament?

However, for those reading this blog so far I assure you that is the end of the whinge. What I want to contribute is to show the decision will affect one small, micro, area of the creative arts.

EsoDoc is an EU Media documentary film workshop to encourage and enable young filmmakers to work for human rights. I was Head of Studies for 11 years until 2014. We began the very day that the EU expanded to include East European states like Bulgaria and Rumania and from then on  it was usual for members of 12-13 different countries to come every year to our three workshops.

Many conscious-raising docs are made drawing attention to environmental and human rights issues-  on mining destroying communities, on drones casually killing civilians, on state sponsored cruelty towards Romas.

Perhaps more important, we started courses in participatory video to train non film-makers like Indian villagers or incarcerated prisoners how to to shoot and edit documentary film. Out of this, for example, grew Video Volunteers in India where 250-300 cameras are now in the hands of the urban and rural poor shooting their own news stories. These are sold to TV or shown on the internet and the payment returned to the film-maker. It's a 'win - win' situation.

Then we moved to mixed media on the internet. Google 'Awra amba' for example and you will watch and interact with everyday life in an utopian Ethiopian village.

All this is highly subsidised by the EU Creative Arts programme, the cost of the workshops, grants towards the development and distribution of films. Ultimately the European tax payer pays of course but at the sharp end the young Euro film-maker is encouraged to work on worthwhile projects rather than waste their time with TV.

The result of Brexit, presumably, is that UK teachers and students will no longer be welcome; no longer receive the financial benefits, no longer able to co-produce and network with  fellow Europeans. No wonder the Scots want to stay in. Esodoc will be impoverished too because much of the talent comes from the UK where the film industry is healthy, or was.

EsoDoc is miniscule, but its part of the EU Creative Arts programmes that runs thirty of so projects from which the UK will now be barred. And that is a small thread in the patchwork of cultural and educational organisations that help to bind Europe together. 

I feel ashamed.

Literary Festivals

I have been speaking about "A Very Private Celebrity" at first the Blenheim Palace  and then the Hay on Wye Winter Literary Festivals. In the UK these are now a big feature of the literary landscape. There are well over 300 festivals every year and they offer the best opportunity for an author to meet the public and sell his book. As I live near Hay on Wye which, remarkably, for the last twenty years  has presented the biggest and  best literary festival in the world - indeed my daughter used to work for it - I have been an observer of the festival long before I became a participant. I offer these comments.

The UK literary festival  is like BBC Radio 4 on location. The public are Radio 4 listeners, that is well informed, thirsty for a good dose of Knowledge, appreciative and polite. In other words an ideal audience. They like celebrities, particularly those they hear on Radio 4. Any celebrity who has written a book and talks about it will find a long queue snaking round the book tent waiting to buy it. Any writer who is not a celebrity would do well to include one in his presentation! For instance, I decided to talk about John Freeman in his role as  interviewer for the BBC seminal interview series "Face to Face" so I invited Sue MacGregor, who for years presented Women's Hour and the Today programme on R4, to interview me. This she did and it was probably Sue more than me or John Freeman who pulled in the audience. I also found film of the Face to Face interviews with global celebrities like Carl Jung, Martin Luther King and Tony Hancock and including extracts from these provided something different.

So I took a theme for my talk rather than summarise the book. For an author to summarise 350 pages in 45 minutes is in my experience usually a disaster. The talk is too dense, too unremitting, too boring. Actually, I am surprised how little care many authors take in preparing for a festival. With a captive audience at Hay on a summer's day of 1,000 R4 listeners it should be a duty to entertain them. This is not done by reading extracts from "a work in progress" and then inviting reactions; nor by racing through the book chapter by chapter. On the other hand I have been spell bound at Hay both by a famous writer talking about an aspect of his book or by a 'Celebity' who happens to have written a book talking about himself/herself. 

Selling your book should not be the main aim and an author should be realistic. Listening to an entertaining talk before going to a bar is one thing; paying £25 for a hard back you will probably not read (particularly if the author has gutted it in his presentation) is another. Celebrites do sell well because it seems that a signature and personalised message on the fly leaf is an inducement. I am relaxed about this. When my minder (usually a young woman with a degree in Eng Lit) asks 'Have you a smooth -  writing felt tip or biro with you for signings?' I smile indulgently, but I don't expect to use it much. Just don't put me at a table next to John le Carre or John Humphries. It's very embarrassing!

I notice that the British Council has a www. for Literary Festivals at home and abroad. I'm not surprised, British books are a healthy export, as are the works of Indian writers, say, in the UK. There's a big literary festival coming up in Jaipur, India,  next month (January) inspired by the famous writer on India, Willy Dalrymple. I asked him if I could talk about Freeman and his reply was typical - 'Hugh, there's nothing I would like better than to hear you talk about John Freeman, but I don't think he will play in Rajasthan". He is right of course!





Book Publishing Today

So it's out. My biography of John Freeman "A Very Private Celebrity" was published by Robson Press two months ago (early July, 2015) so now I can sit back and count the cost. That's easy to do. So far, I have spent £8,000 - £9,000 or so of which £2,000 was for a research trip to the USA and £5,000 was for buying the first 500 copies of my own book from the publisher, though at a much reduced price. I don't resent this.  I know the book will not be a best seller so Robson Press must recoup its costs. What of the rewards? It's too early to receive any sales royalties but I have received an extra-ordinary amount  of publicity.  From the time when the Daily Mail covered 3 pages with extracts at the end of June, I have been on a roll - Book of the Week in two national papers, 10 reviews or so in the national press and another 5 in weekly periodicals. That's the point. I paid for  a good publisher but I got back the services of its promotion and marketing department. Thank you Jeremy, thank you Victoria. That means the book has made a splash, which I value as much as money (they are related of course). What I did not want to happen is what happens to most writers; that you spend years writing a book - and then no-one even notices.

Since publication I have learned a lot about publishing. I offer this advice to whoever may read this and be thinking of spending hours and hours and hours creating his/her masterpiece.

First, find a Literary PR. I expect, like me, you don't know the species exists. I only found out last week when I when on a one day course called Press My Book. Emma and Katy are of this profession - ex journalists, ghost writers, experienced publishers. They don't waste their time sitting round at expensive lunches listening to authors talking about their books, like we at the Biographer's Club do, but they are on the inter net working constantly at social media on behalf of their clients. This is how to promote your book. Your own www site, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, Tumbler, Instagram, the lot. Already I have spent 3-4 hours registering on How else am I going to get rid of 500 copies of "A Very Private Celebrity" unless its by filling my car trunk full when I speak at festivals?. And here I am on the first of my blogs. A friend is updating my www. Whether I get Twitting or Tumbling is another matter but I accept that any communicator today must use social media.

This is putting the cart before the horse. My other advice is to accept that you probably won't get an advance for your book and that Waterstones won't stock it in their branches, though they will order copies. Accept that most copies will sell on Amazon, many on kindle which is cheap. Accept that you will need to find and pay for your own photographs and do your own index or pay someone else to do it. But never volunteer to do your own proof reading; it's impossible.

Why write professionally at all, you may ask, if there's little money in it? The answer for me is to hold in my hand 120,000 words crafted, honed, polished into a book - a book probably professionally published, by the way, because book design is not something you can do WELL yourself, and it does make a difference - and say, yes, I wrote that!

Best of luck!  Oh and while I'm on the subject, you can purchase a signed copy of my Freeman book at a discounted rate by clicking on the button below.

Rorke's Drift and Isandwana

We  moved near to Brecon in 2013 where there is a terrific museum commemorating the 24th Regiment of Foot (South Wales Borderers) which fought in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1878-80. So soon after we went to South Africa to visit the battlefields and a haunting experience it was too. At Isandalwana the Zulu King Cetshwayo  wrong footed Lord Chelmsford so that he split his army and left the bulk of it in camp while he went chasing off to engage the Zulu warriors several miles away; in fact the main Zulu army was in hiding waiting to ambush the poorly defended base camp. Almost all the defending forces were killed, over 1,300 British and Natal soldiers, the biggest defeat in imperial history. A small contingent held out at the staging post of Rorke's Drift nearby hence slightly redeeming the reputation of the army.

Today the battlefield of Isandalwana is much as it was. It is easy to imagine what carnage took place with the masses of British and Natal dead  and disembowelled all over the veldt, so that their spirits could escape their bodies. I do believe that when extreme pain is suffered a sense of it remains in the atmosphere, a sort of haunting. I felt it too at Cawnpore where the British community was massacred in the Indian mutiny - the other Victorian imperial disaster - and of course in Flanders on the Great War battlefields.

At Isandwana our imaginations were certainly inspired by the oration of our guide Andrew Rattray from the Fugitives Drift hotel nearby. It was unfashionable but effective - emotional, patriotic, opinionated and pro Zulu. His father David was the expert on the subject and able to fill the Royal Geographic Society in London many times over with his story telling. Tragically he was murdered by an intruder to Fugitive's Drift a few years ago.

As a postscript I discovered in Brecon when we returned that the 24th Regiment of Foot was in 1879 actually the 2nd Warwickshire Regiment which recruited in South Wales; it became the S.W.B. two years later. There is a vault under the museum, not open to the public, that contains trophies from Isandalwana. One is a Zulu shield with a neat triangular bayonet hole through it such as the  foot soldiers of the 24th Regiment carried  on the ends of their rifles. Makes you think.

Face to Face with John Freeman

07 March 2013: in the New Statesman published my 6,000 word essay about the enigmatic ex-soldier, government minister, broadcaster, editor, ambassador and professor, John "you -should- change- your-life-every-10-years" Freeman. Actually, I think I am the only person outside his family who knows he is still alive - aged 98 and living in a military care home. I think he led one of the most extraordinary public lives in the second half of the 20th century but always seeking anonymity. This 'anonymous celebrity' caught the eyes of reviewers. "A terrific read" wrote Roy Greenslade in a Guardian blog.


Story of an Anglo-Indian

Readers of my book After the Raj will remember I wrote one chapter called Kitty's Story about the declining Anglo-Indian community living mostly round Kolkata. I recently received a letter sent on by my publisher The History Press from Tangomaos Ranch, Laikipia, Kenya. It begins "As I write, I look out  from our verandah to the endless horizon that distantly shows the outline of the Matthews Mountain Range ".  The writer is Edward Taylor who was born in 1931 near Cooch Bihar of an English railwayman and an Hongkong Chinese/Armenian mother. Hence he is an Anglo-Indian. Like many Anglo-Indians he was good at cricket and hockey and well educated by the Jesuits in Darjeeling. Then at Independence he emmigrated to the United Kingdom, aged 17. Now he divides his time between East Sussex and Laikipia where his neighbours in Kenya are nearly all Welsh settlers of the 1930's or their descendants. "You will recognise the names", he writes, "Dyer, Evans, Powis, Tomlinson, still living much the same way as they have always done, and much in the same way as the India of my youth".  The names reminded me of the railway  community of Anglo-Indians living in Chakradharpur called Bannister, Green, Vengeance, Green, O'Leary and Payne, of whom I wrote in After the Raj. " My book, possibly  aided by a sundowner sipped on his verandah,  had encouraged Mr Taylor into a bout of introspection. He goes further: "Your written words have powerful wings, and can well have ranged much further than my personal world, and reached in to the deep psyche of many thousands of us who were born in India in the 1930s." His theme is "the accidents of birth". What would have happened, he asks himself, "if I had been born ten years earlier or Indian Independence had come ten years later?"  He answers his own question: "I could still be living in India, living a life somewhere between Papa Wakefield [another of my characters] and Kitty Texeira: perhaps even selling mangoes at some 'Gunge' station! Incidentally, my son in law, another Oxford graduate, actually interviewed Kitty Texeira  for the BBC".

Of course, we can all ask ourselves the 'what-ifs?' of history. But the Anglo-Indians, made insecure and rootless by the end of the Raj, have more dramatic answers than most.



A crime-writer on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme "Front Row" boasted recently that as soon as he had a new book out "I'm on Facebook and Twitter several times a day talking about it. I'll go on forums and post them under my name and various other names". Apparently not only praising your own book but trashing your rivals under a pseudonym is called using "sock-puppets". Now this is nasty but  it probably works. The literary world has enough gullible book buyers and, more worryingly, ill-informed agents and publishers who are taken in by this deceit. The trouble is that most people's morality is relative; once other authors cheat it's very tempting to follow their example. What's more I've some sympathy because the non-fiction publishing world is desperately short of money. Like other non-fiction writers I know, it's a long time since I received a decent advance payment and print runs these days are  so small that it's hard to earn much in royalties. The publisher of my last book actually fined me for exceeding the word count, though this was not in the contract.Then he  reduced the number of photo pages so that the photographs, for which I had paid the clearance incidentally not the publisher as in the old days,  were reduced in some cases to the size of a postage stamp. No wonder authors get kind of desperate to  make some money! If this is true of non-fiction writing then documentary filmmaking is even more impecunious. Many of my students have to go on Kickstarter or Indigogo to raise money for a budget. This is a form of begging. One or two I know with a burning conviction in their film actually mortgaged their houses to pay for filming and editing. I'm not talking about beginners here, but professionals with training and track record. This is a world where selling yourself by bullshitting is almost a given. The system of film credits invites it. Who may claim creative ownership of a film? The Executive Producer? The Producer? The Associate Producer? The Assistant Producer? None of them, in my view. Only the Writer and Director deserve the credit which is why I always insist their names come first or last in the list.

Then we come to the vexatious matter of the C.V., the 'curriculum vitae',  a glowing version of which is essential to get a film commissioned. I've read so many that I can pick out 'porkies' (lies) as soon as I open the attachment. But again I have some sympathy. My own view, to quote President Kennedy, is that "facts are sacred, opinion is free", by which I mean that the award/status/review cited on the C.V. must be factually correct though the significance you attach to it  is up to you. To give one example, which shows I am by no means whiter than white , you may have read on my website that in 1991 I was awarded a prestigious BAFTA for an American series I versioned called "The Civil War". Well, it's true and the certificate is on my wall, but ninety percent of the credit belongs to the creative genius of the  films, Ken Burns. The former statement is fact, the latter opinion is free. Of course, I did not qualify my award by mentioning my minor role. Its tough out there and I need all the help I can get.

So, if you have read the new version of "The Last English Revolutionary", please give it a kind review on this website; then I won't need to ask my wife to write one!!! Thanks.

Spanish Civil War

I have just returned from Spain where we commemorated the  75th anniversary of the battle of Jarama. It was here that my biographical subject Tom Wintringham commanded the British Battalion for its disastrous opening two days when it lost 200 of its volunteers. What shook me is how alive the memory is today. This is partly because the Civil War remains a live political issue today. The new government follows the Francoist attitude of burying the past while the socialists wanted to excavate it by encouraging research, heritage industry and so on. The two are in direct conflict at the University City in Madrid where the Republic defended the campus throughout the war - the closest the Nationalists came to entering the city. Recent excavations have revealed the network of bunkers but the University refuses to allow markers to show the layout, or to display what was found.

The war was very violent and very personal, like all civil wars, and this is a reason why some do not want to open their family histories. For example, we met a former Francoist family, landed gentry we would call them in the UK, living in their old 'palacio' at Albite in Castille. The grandfather had been shot and cruelly left to die by the villagers in 1936. Then his house had been confiscated by the Republic. His son  fought for the Nationalists and after the war he discovered his father's killer, so he summoned him to the town hall and shot him dead. He had his medals confiscated but kept his freedom.

The anniversary of Jarama was commemorated by a 'pilgrimage' round the battlefield by Republican supporters, British, Irish and Spanish. We paid homage at the graves of Kit Conway and Charlie Donnelly, saw the site of the 'casa blanca' on Suicide Hill, and gathered round the International Brigades memorial. Here Republican and Brigade flags were waved and 400 or so supporters burst into the Internationale.

In the Jarama museum at Morata we witnessed the unveiling of a statue made from battlefield shrapnel and Nils Wintringham read his grandfather's moving poem 'Monument', with a Spanish translation. 'Viva!' we shouted afterwards.  (Please read my earlier blog on Jarama for info about this.)

The lunch in the village taverna was something else. I shall add some photos soon.

My research was for the relaunch and revision of 'The Last English Revolutionary' to be published in May. Buy a copy of the book from the Sussex Academic Press website.




The Spanish Civil War continues to excite the historical memory. In part this is due to the revived interest in Spain where the recent socialist government encouraged research into the war from the Republican side, particularly into the location of mass graves of victims. So the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Jarama is being commemorated on the weekend of 17-19 February and a new sculpture unveiled at the museum there. The monument is made of shrapnel found on the battlefield and moulded into the shape of a combatant. Now this interests me very much because Tom Wintringham, who led the British Battalion on the first two days of fearful blood-letting, later wrote a famous poem 'Monument' which contains the lines:

'Take then these metals, under the deep sky

Melt them together; take these pieces of earth

And mix them; add your bullets

And memories of death;

You have won victory, People of Spain,

And the tower into which your earth is built, and

Your blood and ours, shall state Spain's

Unity, happiness, strength; it shall face the breath

Of the east, of the dawn, of the future, when there will be no more


Tom Wintringham's grandson, Nils, will read this poem at the ceremony and we will tramp the battlefield, now an industrial wasteland on the southern edge of Madrid. As Tom's biographer I am excited by this - indeed, I shall be giving a lecture about him in Madrid on the previous evening - and I marvel that his poem is so apposite. Incidentally, it is now to be found in Spanish on new monuments that commemorate recently discovered mass graves, a continuing link between the International Brigades and the People of Spain.

The Battle of Jarama, by the way, dragged on through February to June 1937 and ended  in a stalemate. Franco's army was still unable to encircle Madrid because it could not capture the Madrid-Valencia road near the Jarama River. The fiercest fighting was in the first two days when the British battalion lost 150 men, nearly one-third of its fatalities for the entire war.


Off Shore Island

I am still ruminating over my Prime Minister's decision to leave us without a chair at EU discussions over the euro. I suppose I am like many Brits. I call myself a European but I also want the UK to be sovereign, so I don't want us to sign up to the euro and I don't want tighter fiscal or political ties. So I should be content with what has happened but, actually, I am depressed. 1 against 26 is no negotiating position and the UK could end up out of the single market floating around as an offshore island. If the mood of Europe is united for more integration I would rather be 'in' than 'out'. I do have something special to contribute to this debate. For the last twenty years I have worked in Europe as Head of, or President of, EU Media projects designed to help the audio visual industry, in my case documentary films. I have realised that language is crucial and as long as us British only speak English then we are  not really Europeans. Before the enlargement of the Community in 2004 , we got stuck in an us/them camp consisting of those for whom English was the first or second language (the UK, Germany, Holland, Scandanavia) against  those for whom French was  the first or second language (France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, possibly Spain). The culprits were the British, who seem too stupid to speak other languages, and the French, who are too arrogant to do so. Now, at least in my industry, there are two different divides. Language is less directly important because everyone speaks English, unless the French want to be difficult - and why  shouldn't they be? This new divide is between the keen new Europeans who want to benefit from the Western market (Hungary, Rumania, Poland,  the Czechs, Slovakians and Slovenians) against some old Europeans like the British and French, again, who are selfish and stand-offish. The language barrier exists here because it is more a state of mind then anything else - a 'we are in Europe on our terms' mentality.

I find it embarrassing and deeply selfish. My present EU Media training scheme is EsoDoc, designed to enable and encourage young documentary film makers to work in human rights. We have held workshops in Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Slovenia and Romania; these relatively poor counties generous and welcoming. We have never in nine years managed to get money to hold a workshop in either France or the UK; mean and arrogant. In the UK case, philistine as well, and if you don't believe me then find out more about the right-wing of the Tory party, who belong on an off shore island.

I'm wondering how long it will be before there is some kind of retaliation. When well-wishing Europeans like me in the audio visual industry or in the manufacturing industry are told on a personal level to go and find euro-paid work elsewhere. To be bracketed with the right-wing of the Tory party would be adding insult to injury.


The Sheriff and the Wakeman

In 1941 George  Orwell wrote an essay about the British character called 'The Lion and the Unicorn". I was reminded of this yesterday when I attended a service in Ripon Cathedral for the Blessing of the Leeds Nepalese Community Flag. That was extraordinary enough with the Blessing conducted before the high altar by  an ecumenical trio of the Bishop (Christian) , Guru Chewang Gurung (Tibetan Buddhist) and Pandit Attmaram Dahal (Indian Hindu) . George Orwell would never have witnessed that. But what caught my eye was the front two pews filled by local dignitaries holding traditional offices that required the wearing of fancy dress you rarely see outside the Coronation or a pantomime at Christmas. I liked the High Sheriff of North Yorkshire (female) who wore a white feather round her  hat, a jabot round her neck, a small black bag to carry her wig over her shoulder and York rose buckles on her shoes. She told me that she was on duty at least 70 days of the year attending Lord Mayors and Circuit Judges as they performed their duties. The Lord Mayor of Leeds was more restrained wearing his gold chain of office over canonical dress for, uniquely I wager, he is a councillor, a canon and Lord Mayor all in one. The Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the County was straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta with mock 18th century military dress including ceremonial sword. Various Lord and Lady Mayors wore Victorian chains of offices and big floral hats if they were Ladies. The Bishop, Dean and Minor Canon of Ripon cathedral seemed restrained in comparison. Everyone eligible wore medals and only the cognoscenti could distinguish between a Member of the British Empire (?) civil and a Member of the British Empire, military. George Orwell would not have been surprised that these costumes and titles conferred great social authority. We  stood as the dignitaries entered and exited their pews. I noticed afterwards that several commoners bowed before speaking to them. Their authority seemed the greater when upheld by the Church of England at prayer and the flags of the British Legion and Gurkha regiments carried proudly for display before the altar. Would Orwell have found this parade of the county establishment in traditional dress ridiculous or offensive? I hope like me he would have found it entertaining; more than that, a link with the past that goes towards being British.

And the Wakeman?  He is the Hornblower who stands at the four corners of the town square at 9 pm and blows his horn to remind the town of the authority of the Mayor.   As it says above the Town Hall "Except Ye Lord Keep  Ye Cittie Ye Wakeman Waketh in Vain". Last Sunday he would have succeeded the Nepalese dancers who filled the square with their Gorkhali dancing. That's a Yorkshire town in the Year of our Lord 2011.







The 20th century historian

Like many so called 'communicators' of my age I have yet to feel a friend of the internet. At EsoDoc <> we teach New Media, or Trans Media as it is more usually called, and our young documentary film makers finance their films by 'crowd-funding' (Kickstart and Indigogo), transfer them on-line, publicise them via FaceBook, Vimeo and U Tube, and enlist Twitter to put the word around. It seems to work and sometimes leads to a paid commission from a broadcaster. I confess I find this difficult. Yet as a part-time historian I am amazed how easy research has become on-line. The Sussex Academic Press has commissioned a revised edition of my book The Last English Revolutionary because so much more information has become available about it's subject, the revolutionary Tom Wintringham.  Enter now the Grimsby librarian Phyll Smith. He is such an authority on Wintringham that no-one, including me, could write difficult enough questions should he enter for the BBC Mastermind. Through the internet we have accessed at the National Archive Wintringham's World War One military record (simple of course), Cabinet Papers and MI5 reports referring to his time as a near founder member of the Communist Party, later the divorce proceedings where he was mentioned as the third party. Its not that the records are on-line but the means of finding the right files are. Using the internet we have found at the British Library correspondence between Wintringham and George Orwell as well, of course, as every book where he is mentioned in the index. There are scores of these as Tom Wintringham's impact on public life in the 30s and 40s was like a stone dropped into a pond which sends ripples in all directions. The Liddell Hart Library at King's College London has the complete catalogue of the Wintringham archive on-line. The University of Sydney in Australia, the University of Middlesex  and, of course, the Imperial War Museum  yield sound tapes as well as written material, all identified on-line. Amazon or Bookfinder, accessed on-line, deliver long forgotten books within days or ordering.

This easily accessed abundance of knowledge about a life is scary, and it causes difficulties. It's now not a question of what to put in, but what to leave out. As we say in the film world 'more means worse'. How many pages is a biography worth for the general reader? These days he/she can forsake a book for the internet and surf, addictively,  over mixed media packages. For the writer, the lap-top is a threat as well as a friend.



Readers of my last blog will know that Anthony Baxter, a Scottish documentary filmmaker who attended the course I run called EsoDoc  mortgaged his house and raised money by 'crowd-funding' to make a documentary called 'You've Been Trumped'. This followed the  local protest  movement  objecting to the American billionaire  Donald Trump developing a wild stretch of Aberdeen coastline to build two golf courses and a whole lot of real estate. His film was a classic 'David v Goliath' scenario, or powerless victims taking on a big bully armed with helicopters, security guards and smart press department, seemingly with Scottish politicians in his pocket. During his filming Anthony was arrested, handcuffed and put in the local police nick, only for the charge to be thrown out of court. The film won the  Green Award at the Sheffield Documentary Festival and this  was greeted by a standing ovation - unique in my experience. So what has happened since? This is the exciting news. It  shows the power of a conscience-raising movie plus the internet to mobilise public opinion. His documentary showed for several nights at the Belmont Picture House in Aberdeen, watched by hundreds of locals. The news  spread; children are displaying pictures in his support on Facebook; Indian newspapers have taken up the story; more money has been raised through IndieGoGo, the crowd-funding website, to pay for Anthony's trip to New York. He has just arrived and on 7 July, at 8.30pm, his movie will premier in the billionaire's back yard at the IFC Centre Preview Theatre. Then it will go to the San Francisco Green Film Festival. So far, Anthony has made his film entirely 'pro bono'. He has received no money for his efforts and no TV sales. It's all very well occupying the moral high ground but a man has to live!

Meanwhile, I see on the TV news  that Donald Trump has stopped his Aberdeen Menie Estate development blaming the economic climate. He has one golf course up and running from a temporary clubhouse but no more.

I wonder if there's a connection here between Goliath and David, or should I say Donald and Anthony?

TRUMPED – For Nothing!

At the Sheffield Documentary Festival, on 10 June, I watched a 90 minute film called ‘You’ve Been Trumped’ about the so far successful attempts of the American property tycoon Donald Trump to construct two golf courses and associated housing on the wild Scottish coastline near Aberdeen, despite local opposition. The film maker, Anthony Baxter, who lives not far away, took the side of the protestors. It was a classic case of David versus Goliath: of powerless victims against a stonking rich bully with all the symbols of his power - helicopters, a fleet of Range Rovers and a team of sidekicks who looked like the cast of Reservoir Dogs. It was depressing to watch how power was able to buy over forces who should be neutral like the police and private security. At one stage ‘the Film Maker’ was arrested on a ‘trumped’ up charge (very appropriate word in this instance), handcuffed and gaoled for a few hours – only for the court to throw out the charge.

So far, so all too familiar we might say. But the sting in the tail of this story is that Anthony Baxter has made a Green  Award-winning film entirely at his own cost and so far without any TV showing. He has mortgaged his house, raised money by crowd-funding to edit his film and spent months hanging around the Trump landgrab without any reward. It’s not that he is an amateur documentary maker. He is a professional and his movie is in the public interest. An indignation-arousing, well-made, documentary is a powerful weapon – expect placard waving and protest when it is shown in Aberdeen soon – but why should  Anthony Baxter have to make it as a hobby?

Actually, this happens all too frequently these days in the documentary film world. The influence of  social issue docs is increasing, what with theatrical release and the global internet, but the money available is diminishing. It is common, even usual, for a producer/director to spend at least four times as much time raising money as making the film itself. Who would/could do that for a living?



Those of you who read my article in History Today last November, [ilink url=""]The Afterlife of India’s Fascist Leader[/ilink], may be interested that the book The Search for Netaji: New Findings has arrived on my desk for a History Today review. The author, a distinguished Indian academic from Kolkata, Dr Purabi Roy, told me last year that she is convinced Netaji’s  (‘The Great Leader’) supposed death in an air crash in 1945 was faked and that he escaped to the Soviet Union, there to continue his fight for Indian independence. What’s more, she said, she knew there were documents in the Russian and Indian archives that proved this. Her new book, which was the result of years of research, would provide conclusive ‘new findings’. Already, she said, she had received death threats because Bose was an iconic figure in Bengal history. Any tinkering with his almost sacred image would cause offence among his followers. Now the book is out and we await a sensation. So far none has swept across the internet. Having glanced at the book I can see why. More to follow.

Perhaps as a spoiling operation, a more orthodox biography of Subhas Chandra Bose is due out this month (May 2011) written by one of his great nephews, Sugata Bose, who is a professor at Harvard University. I shall compare the two.



It does not happen often that my writing and my film teaching come together, but very recently they did – with a bizarre result. XaioXaio, a former film student from China, invited me to the launch of her new book, in a Chinese cocktail bar in London. I cannot tell you what the book is called as it is entirely in Chinese. I was surprised to see my photo in it and realise that I had a page to myself. Why? Peering at the page in the gloom of the bar I noticed among the Chinese script the following words in English; ‘(Regent’s Park) Primrose… Lewis Chess Set… Greenwich Naval Museum… Maida Vale… Ban Stretch Limos…….19’. Was this some kind of code? What complexity of the Chinese mind was connecting these translations? Then I realised that two years ago I had answered a questionnaire for XaioXaio and I remember saying that my wish for London was to ban stretch limos and my favourite museum exhibit was the Lewis Chess Set in the British Museum. But what the other questions were I have no idea. The only other non-Chinese guest was a glamorous cabaret singer, Lily Lowe Myers. She had answered the questionnaire too and included among her answers ‘Turbine hall’ and ‘Annie’s Vintage’?? On the way out I told her my wife and I were off to see the new film ‘Oranges and Sunshine’.  ‘Look out for my mother’, she said, ‘she’s a film star and has a good part in it’.  We were so overwhelmed by the film that we forgot to notice, but I thought on the bus home that these bizarre connections throughout the evening could only happen in London.

EsoDoc 2011

The first workshop of EsoDoc 2011 starts in Bucharest on 15 May. It is our eighth year of running three summer workshops to encourage young documentary filmmakers to work in the areas of human rights and environmental protection. is an EU Media initiative administered by Zelig Film School in Italy. As always, two questions about EsoDoc concern me. Why are so many of the applicants to EsoDoc young women? – over 50 of the 65 who initially applied this year. Try as we might, 16 of the 22 who are coming to Bucharest are female. This, of course, is pleasant for us males though a better sex ratio is always a good thing. I can only think that young women have more of a social conscience than young men. In the gap year before university, a girl is teaching at a Nepalese hill school while her brother is on the beach in Goa smoking ‘spliffs’.  There has to be a reason because, if anything, more men go into filmmaking than women. This year I shall carry out a survey of motivations.

The other question that embarrasses me is  why the poorer east European nations are keen to host [ilink url=""]EsoDoc[/ilink] (and other EU Media projects) while the richer states, in particular the UK, are not interested?  The answer given is that the UK has plenty of film training courses already. Further, that UK politicians are anti-the EU and looking for every opportunity not to spend money. This may be so but it is short-sighted and mean. In point of fact, about half of the film projects that students bring to EsoDoc eventually get made, This  is surely good for the European film industry, in a small way, and each film  helps to make the world  a better place, even in a miniscule way: but thank God for something positive!