The real Baldwin lX Count of Flanders in his crusader armour

One or two political commentators, ruminating on the remarkable emergence of Jeremy Corbyn from obscurity to national prominence, have called to mind the wonderful historical work of the late Norman Cohn entitled The Pursuit of the Millennium.  At the time of the Crusades a great many movements arose, fired by an irrational belief in a utopian vision, and often putting their faith in an imaginary messiah. A tramp sleeping rough in the woods would be identified as a long lost hero of a crusade and carried shoulder high and quite bewildered into town to be crowned King. Lavished with all kinds of luxury for a few months, the imaginary messiah was invariably denounced as a charlatan and forced to flee. Of the many such tales Cohn related in his book, the one which has lodged itself in my memory is of the rise and fall of the messiah he called the “Pseudo-Baldwin. “


When the Crusaders captured Constantinople ...

Read more



Corbyn and the Cenotaph


The first Cenotaph in Whitehall in 1919 covered in flowers placed by the public.


As Remembrance Day approaches, Labour Party supporters who regard  their new leader as something of a loose cannon, will be clutching their red poppies and hoping that Jeremy Corbyn does not commit another political faux pas. Will he attend the commemoration at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on  Sunday? After all, he seems to regard it as a symbol of Imperial pomp commemorating a war between declining Imperialist nations. It is said he once laid a wreath not to the war dead but to those he regarded as victims of police aggression. This time will he wear a white poppy if he does turn up?

I wonder, in fact, if Corbyn knows anything of the history of the Cenotaph. If he does then I cannot see why he should feel it his political and moral duty to break ranks and, in doing so, offend a great many of those people who regard the memorial in Whitehall as a place for national mourning rather than a ...

Read more



The Page 99 test



Taking the Page 99 test


The novelist Ford Madox Ford wrote that you could judge the quality of writing in a book by picking a page at random to see how it reads. Page 99 would do for any book, probably somewhere in the middle. I knew nothing of this until contacted by Marshal Zeringue an American blogger who runs a website on which he publishes the response of authors to an invitation to check out page 99 in their own books. He asked if I would have a go with my most recent publciation Eureka: how invention happnes (Yale). This was the result: 




My page 99

......obsolete their creators are liable to be dismissed as misguided or backward. But it is their pioneer work that generates optimism and draws out the backing for the more advanced technologies which replace them.

However, when Farnsworth began his labours, the industry view was still that some version of mechanical scanning of images was the most promising way forward for ...

Read more

 My father John in party mood. He was a great raconteur and essayist

During my time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary College, London I found that many students, and especially those who were diligent in their research, imagined that they could not start to write an essay before they had worked out in their head what it was they wanted to say. Yet whenever they began to write they found they were overwhelmed by the knowledge they had acquired and could not find a way into it. It is a familiar dilemma for anyone writing factual articles or books. Students would tell me they had been advised to map out their essay before they started writing, to follow the rules about referencing and to make sure they had a clear and firm conclusion. What they presented to me as a draft was, nevertheless, invariably a jumble of quotes and propositions which were barely intelligible.


They would ask if I could help them with grammar and “writing style” as if that was ...

Read more

A centerpiece of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film, Mr Turner, is the artist’s painting of a once proud Royal Navy ship of the line, the HMS Temeraire, being towed up the Thames on its last voyage. It is heading for a breaker’s yard at Rotherhithe where it will be stripped of its oak and other timbers and sold off to make snuff boxes, householder furniture and a variety of domestic items. The end of the Temeraire is especially poignant as it was credited with saving Nelson’s ship HMS Victory when it beat off an attack from Spanish and French ships at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It has been suggested that for Turner, fascinated by ships and the sea, the demise of the Temeraire reflected in some profound ways his own life. He was a young man at the time of Trafalgar and Nelson’s victory mirrored his own success as a painter: Turner was a prodigy who became wealthy early on his canvasses sought after by rich patrons. At the time of the breaking up of the Temeraire ...

Read more