Thursday, 18 April 2013

Lord Nelson and Baroness Thatcher

 It is difficult to overstate the importance of British naval sea power at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain's growing domination of the sea was a major contributor to the successful creation of the British Empire. The naval dockyard at Portsmouth was the base for much of this activity and is now the resting place of HMS Victory, flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson at the critical battle of Trafalgar. Nelson's death at the battle elevated him beyond heroism to a place among the major iconic figures of British history. My recent visit to HMS Victory was memorable. The place below decks where Nelson breathed his last after being shot by a sniper from the Redoutable is especially poignant, marked by a crown of oak leaves and a replica of the barrel in which his remains were transported back to England. 
     At the same time you have to marvel at how a ship like HMS Victory worked and the secrets of the success of the navy at that time. The most obvious point is that they could, through drill and order, fire their guns three times faster than the enemy, so in a close battle of attrition there could only be one winner. HMS Victory was a first rate ship of the line with 100 guns arranged over three decks and capable of delivering a murderous broadside. In addition the ordinary sailors were better looked after than their foreign counterparts by the standards of the time. They were well fed and enjoyed healthcare unavailable to land lubbers. They were also better led than the French and Spanish sailors who had to contend with the narrow talent pool of their respective aristocracies. Nelson didn't have a privileged background; his father was a vicar from Norfolk.
I broke off writing this blog to watch Baroness Thatcher's funeral on TV. Inside St Paul's Cathedral I realised that the Iron Lady's coffin was sitting directly above Nelson's tomb in the crypt below, placed there after his much more elaborate state funeral 207 years ago. Are there any connections between the two of them? Nelson's attack philosophy was simple, 'straight at them' was his approach to the enemy. That was more or less her policy as well. The first hymn sung at her funeral service was 'He who would valiant be,' a rather muscular John Bunyan belter. The first reading from Ephesians 6, robustly read by her granddaughter backed that up.
 'For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.'
Thatcher saw enemies everywhere but except for Galtieri, they were nearly all within; in the conservatism of the British state establishment and the City of London. She was suspicious of the toffs who ran the Tory party, in their own class interest. She was equally disdainful of the trades unions especially their role in the state controlled industries of the day. Defeating internal enemies creates losers and resentment, hence the accusations of division and confusion about her true legacy, but remember that cuddly Harold Wilson closed more coal mines than she did. Her Falklands campaign came straight from Nelson's textbook; he would have loved it, although she would not have approved of his relationship with Lady Hamilton. 
It's also interesting to note that the advantages for Britain won by Nelson and the Navy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries led to the creation of the world's greatest empire. Economic success peaked in about 1870 after which Britain embarked on a long slow decline relative to her main competitors. That continued into the 1970's and was only arrested by the dramatic Thatcher reforms of the 1980s. 
    The congregation contained many familiar faces from her governments, in old age caricatures of their former selves, more closely resembling their spitting images than they did at the time.
She's now firmly in the hands of the historians and will no doubt be the subject of  many revisions in the years and centuries to come. We're unlikely ever to see her equal at the political helm again. 

Alan is the author of The Glorious Twelfth published by Museitup.

 Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon


Saturday, 6 April 2013

What's up with Males?

I've decided to inject some popular science into the blog mix. I'll try to choose subjects that are of general interest and not too specialised. Feedback will help me to get the balance right.

What's up with Males?

There is something of a spate of learned and media articles both sides of the Atlantic on the suggested relationship between violent crime, mainly committed by young males, and levels of lead in petrol. More particularly have crime levels fallen because tetraethyl lead has been removed from petrol and hence the environment or is this merely an incidental association?

     The arguments for a positive correlation are persuasive and published in peer reviewed journals. These correlate levels of lead in petrol (or air) with a reduction in violent crime (murder, manslaughter and burglary), allowing for a time lag of between 18 and 24 years between exposure and effect. The work has been extended internationally and holds true for most so called advanced nations. Previous work had already shown a correlation between lead exposure and lower IQ in children and it is well understood that lead can affect the nervous system as a neurotoxin.
     This environmental explanation for the reduction in crime rates casts doubt on the claims of politicians (notably New York Mayor, Rudi Giuliani) that crime reduction is a direct result of their policies. In the same way we need to take with a pinch of salt, police claims that reducing their budgets will lead to more crime. So be sceptical of vested interests in the crime debate.
     What other explanations are possible for an apparent decline in male aggression? Many other studies point to an attack on the essential features of maleness. In a major study, sperm count, a key indicator of male fertility, has been shown to have fallen by one third between 1989 and 2005, a very dramatic decline. In the same period testosterone levels have also fallen. Testosterone is the most important male hormone, high levels of which define the aggressive so called alpha-male, a frequent inhabitant of romantic novels but possibly an endangered species. Many different explanations are cited, both lifestyle degradation leading to obesity, diabetes etc and more insidious effects from chemicals called endocrine disrupters which have the potential to feminise males.
     The most apocalyptic prediction comes from bio geneticist Professor Bryan Sykes, who predicts in his book, Adam's Curse, that human males will disappear completely in the next 200,000 years, a mere evolutionary blink. This results from the deterioration in the male sex defining Y-Chromosome, which is passed on theoretically unchanged from father to son. However minor errors of transcription are accumulating at such a rate as to make the chromosome non-functional at some point in the future. No doubt science will find a way of keeping the species going, but at that point all romantic novelists will be writing historical romances!
Alan Calder is the author of  two novels.
 The Glorious Twelfth  published by Museitup

 The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon


Monday, 1 April 2013

The Glorious Twelfth- Inspirational Caithness 2

The dominant geophysical feature of Caithness is its rugged coastline backed by high cliffs, with few inlets for harbours. An added disadvantage is that much of it faces east, making that shore doubly inhospitable during an easterly gale. In the early days of the herring fishing, boats were kept in natural harbours like the one shown below, The Haven at Clyth. It does not look to be much of a haven! Access was via a set of steps, all but disappeared, that were tucked into the cleft shown below right. This harbour was used by my eighteenth century ancestors.

Where there are cliffs there are caves drilled into the softer layers of the Caithness flagstones. Often only accessible by sea these secret chambers fire the imagination as hiding places. A particular feature  associated with sea caves is the gloup. This is a hole in the land surface above the cave where the roof has collapsed inwards. In The Glorious Twelfth, I called this feature the sea hole. The hero, Ben Harris, falls down it in the dark and lands in the water below. The example shown, ringed by primroses, lies near Sarclet in Caithness. The cave shown on the left is the nearest to the Sinclair mausoleum at Ulbster and is large enough for a small boat to enter.


                                The Glorious Twelfth by Alan Calder published by Museitup
Also by Alan Calder, The Stuart Agenda published by Willowmoon