This is my first blog entry for some considerable time, and with good reason. My life has gone through a major change – perhaps not before time.
As you will know, I had been looking for permanent work for nearly a year after my last contract ended. My financial arrangements meant that I was not eligible for Job Seekers’ Allowance, and I am of an age where signing on for NI credits was fairly pointless, as I’d got sufficient contributions to get the state pension anyway (though I have to wait until age 66 to get it). My Civil Service pension, plus the money I was making from self-employment, was insufficient to pay the mortgage, but enough to live on otherwise – though over the months even that position eroded as work dried up. And my mortgage lender was rapidly losing patience with me; their idea of “helping customers in difficulties” basically amounts to giving you a short payment holiday, and once that’s expired, you’re on your own.
So it was a race against time for me; could I secure a job that paid sufficiently well to meet my outgoings before my house was repossessed?
Well, the job happened, as I’ve said elsewhere (after a remarkably weird day); and I came to Leicester to work for a facilities management company, based in a 1960s office block like something out of The Power Game or Reggie Perrins’ Sunshine Desserts. But two things remained as issues: the mortgage and the commuting.
The commuting didn’t at first seem like a problem., After all, I’d been happy to keep running off to Burton-on-Trent whilst I was doing contracting, and that was 35 miles each way. Leicester was a good deal closer to Fillongley – less than 25 miles – but for some reason people never seemed to think about heading in that direction for work and leisure. (There’s a geographers’ thing called Central Place Theory, which addresses the reasons why people gravitate towards one place and not another for work and leisure. I was a little odd, for Fillongley, in gravitating towards Birmingham, 16 miles away, rather than Coventry – only six miles distant – but at least the focus in North Warwickshire generally was to look eastwards towards the big city as a major hub, or north-westwards towards Lichfield, Tamworth and places further afield connected by the A38 and the M42. Looking in the opposite direction, at places like Hinckley, Earl Shilton, Lutterworth or Leicester was just off most people’s radar, partly because the transport links are less well-defined – as I was to find.)
I’d gotten into the idea of looking at Leicester as a possible place of employment whilst I was doing estate agent photography. I’d had a few assignments in Leicester, and found myself surprised as to how quickly I’d been able to get there, using either the M69 or the A47. But most of those journeys had been made out of peak hours. And the one problem was Nuneaton, a busy town with no bypass. Even an unofficial bypass route used residential roads which at peak time rapidly filled with local traffic. The school holidays weren’t so bad, but during term time, what was a five-minute segment of my commute could take between 25 and 35 minutes: more on dustbin day, when the refuse collection wagons were added to the mix as well.
All this urban driving was adding to my travel costs. The Mercedes is quite capable of returning a fuel consumption figure of 45 mpg or better; but in traffic, that came down to barely 40 mpg at best. My daily commute, I worked out, was costing me £10 a day; and whilst this was not impossible, it looked a lot when you added it up for the month.
Meanwhile, the house was continuing to be a problem for me. I loved living in Fillongley – I had a lovely location with no neighbours, I looked out onto trees and fields, and I had finally succeeded in making the house comfortable in all seasons, but with considerable impact on running costs. And the maintenance of house and garden was frankly getting away from me as the Day Job took up so much of my time for not too much reward.
So I decided that I had to move. After all, I’d been applying for jobs up and down the country, and indeed had had fairly favourable interviews for jobs in Nottingham and Sheffield. So I had come around to the idea that a change of venue was quite possible. And if I was careful in the sort of properties I looked at, I might realise considerable savings in my monthly outgoings. Rents on flats in the area I had chosen started at less than half of what I’d been paying in mortgage, and there would be other savings too. But that gave me a dilemma; now I was earning again, should I start paying the mortgage once more? My back-of-envelope calculations gave me the answer. If I started paying the mortgage again, what with the additional amount I would be levied for clearing the arrears that had accrued plus the high cost of living in Fillongley and commuting, I would not be able to build up the amount I would need to put a deposit on a flat and pay for removals for at least a year, possibly more. If, however, I cut my losses and went straight into a rented flat, I could start realising savings almost from the outset, and look to selling the house to eliminate my debt. Two different estate agents gave me valuations on the house which turned out to be very favourable, even given its rather down-at-heel condition (which gave me comfort when some people called it ‘overpriced’; it’s not as if I came up with that price myself, and indeed I even knocked £10k off the valuation when it went on the market).
So started a procession of people, coming to view the property. I had about eighteen in two months (for comparison, a friend who sold a modern detached property on a private cul-de-sac in Redditch only had five viewings in six months), but these ranged from timewasters (in and out in ten minutes was about the norm for them) through to people with quite ambitious plans – which would, of course, take money. Then there were the ones who came with totally unrealistic preconceptions, such as ‘Two bedroom country cottage, in need of some redecoration = ideal starter home’. Epic fail, as they say.
The sixth person to view actually put an offer in, though it was a little on the low side and was dependant on their selling their property and getting a mortgage. I provisionally accepted this, but as time was not on my side, I did tell the estate agent that if a better offer or a cash buyer came along, I would be obliged to accept that instead. Indeed, a couple of cash buyers did materialise, but one wanted to buy a parcel of land at the back of the house from the local farmer to provide additional car parking (he was a collector), and getting old farmers to part with land – even if they aren’t using it for much – is rather a tall order. Another buyer wanted to make major changes to the bathroom, to enable a shower to be put in. He said he’d come back with a builder, and I think he did because when I got home one day, I could see that things had been moved on and around the drive. But I never heard anything.
Then a couple turned up who wanted to build two extra bedrooms on the back, and where the lady was delighted that I’d got an overgrown garden. “I like a challenge”, she said. But this was late in the day, and the court took the (to me, somewhat unrealistic) view that I ought to have been able to conclude a sale in 56 days. Sadly, “Having an unrealistic view of the reality of selling within the UK property market” aren’t exceptionally strong grounds for appeal, even if I could afford to contest the matter in a higher court – and if I could afford that. So it was that on 11th September, I was required to hand back the keys to my house.
In the meantime, I’d been looking at rental properties. Again, my experience photographing properties came in handy; I’d seen a number of flats and apartments in my time, and some had been quite pleasant and I’d found myself thinking “I could always put a bookcase there…” Others had been shockingly poky, and indeed one property in Hinckley was quite difficult to photograph through being so small, and it didn’t even have enough space to have a door on the one bedroom. And sure enough, when I did my first internet searches for rental property in the area, a flat came up in the same block. I didn’t rush to view.
There had been a good range of properties along the A47 corridor to choose from: yet after I came out of court, I went straight into Hinckley to sign up with four lettings agencies, only for them all to say “We haven’t got anything this minute; you should have been here a fortnight ago, we’ve had a rush on them since…” The next day, I went online during my lunch break, and because I probably entered slightly different search terms, I got to a website I’d not seen before, with properties closer to the office; and almost the first property listed was a one-bedroomed flat on the ground floor of a converted Victorian villa, at a reasonable rent, and in the village of Kirby Muxloe, only two miles or so from the office!
I viewed it at the earliest opportunity. The flat consists of a living room with entry from an outside porch, a kitchen, a small bathroom, a cupboard under the stairs (though it’s not quite clear if there are any stairs there now for it to be the cupboard under!) and a large bedroom. As soon as I saw it, I felt that I could easily live there. The transition from a 200-year-old cottage to a 140-year-old villa immediately struck me as a far easier proposition than moving into some modernist shoe-box in a trendy (or worse still, faux trendy) apartment block. And I had seen very few other flats in period buildings. So the very same day, I handed over money and in due course I was in, measuring the rooms up and beginning to visualise how certain items of furniture would fit in.
I was able to arrange for a removal firm to come to carry out my move on the 10th September. I spoke to them in some detail and sent them a list of the furniture involved, including the item “seven bookcases”. I also indicated that there would be a lot of boxes, and told them the size of the biggest. Now, you’d think that having mentioned “seven bookcases” and a lot of boxes, that might indicate the presence of a lot of – well, books. Not a bit of it. When the removal men arrived, the boss announced that he had no idea there were going to be so many books, and indeed he professed doubts as to whether they could achieve the move. We compromised: I asked how long he’d allocated for the loading, he said “3½ hours”, and I said “OK, load what you can in that time and I’ll worry about the rest.” To be fair, I hadn’t completed packing up to 2:30 that morning, and the guys worked wonders in the time allotted. Everything that was packed and marked for the flat got on the van, though in the rush to dismantle the unit shelving and the model railway, a lot of things got left that I wanted to take.
The van left at about 1pm, and I followed very shortly after with a car-load; they stopped for a sandwich, so I got to the flat before them, had opened up and was offloading when they arrived. A bit of a problem arose when I found that the model railway, “Ruritania”, wouldn’t go into the room where I wanted it. There was enough room for it, but it wouldn’t go around the necessary corner to get into that room. So we had to go to Plan B (which didn’t actually exist until that moment), making Ruritania the centrepiece of the living/dining room. It fits remarkably well, in fact!
Almost as soon as the empty van was away, I was back into the car to head back to Fillongley for a further load. And then the next day, I had to attend at 10:45 to hand the keys over. I set out early, and arrived at about 8:30 with the aim of getting a load up to the storage unit. By the time I got back, the locksmith had arrived, and we had a chat; then the court official turned up about 10:15 and I had a chat with him. I described the process as “Scant reward for 30 years in the Civil Service”, and the official – also, of course, a civil servant – agreed.
It turned out that even though I handed the keys over, the bank changed the locks anyway. But as the locksmith also had a list of things to do – drain the central heating and hot water system, and immobilise the alarm amongst others – he had a good couple of hours’ work before him, and as I’d not made life difficult for them, they were quite happy for me to continue loading whilever they were there. It also looked as though the bank was going to hand the property over to a different estate agent, despite the progress that I’d made towards a sale; but in fact, it turned out that the agency they have placed the house with is the parent company of my own estate agent; so after a handover period the sales that I had already lined up may be in a position to continue with the same potential customers.
I was able to go back to retrieve further belongings from the property, though that only happens with the agreement of the bank and under the supervision of “a representative” (who turned out to be the bank’s locksmith who attended on the repossession day anyway).. Then it will just be a matter of waiting to see what price they get for the place. Not the way I ever envisaged things going; but then again, I never ever saw myself in a house.
Let me explain.
Back when I was a child, watching Gerry Anderson shows on the television such as Stingray and Thunderbirds, I thought a lot about the future. I did the maths, and worked out that I’d be 43 years old in the year 2000. What would life be like? What would I be doing? I had no idea. I knew even then that these shows were projections of what the future might be like, not predictions; that what was being shown might not be possible, or that things might just not turn out that way. And I had no idea what I’d be doing; I didn’t even have any vague suppositions over what I might be doing as a job. The only thing that I could dimly imagine was that I would live in a flat somewhere. I didn’t see myself as a house owner, let alone a family man; so the time I spent in Fillongley was a bonus. Yes, I’m sorry to leave; the house was in a lovely location, and it was the last place my parents lived in. I had some severe bouts of emotion at different times up to leaving (it seems that when a coming change is clearly visible, I do my grieving in advance). When my father died, people in the village asked if I was staying on in the house, and I replied that I’d stay “as long as I can”. Well, that gets to be a habit; and I’d gotten so used to fancy financial footwork that I kept on doing that far longer than I ought to have done. On reflection, I probably ought to have moved away from Fillongley possibly five, six or even seven years before I’ve had to. The savings I’m now realising in paying less rent than mortgage and having reduced outgoings might even have made staying at Ofwat through the years of austerity possible (though as I said way back when I started this blog, there were a whole range of other reasons for my leaving Ofwat not connected with money). And my sister has pointed out that things have worked out for me so well with the flat and the change of job that I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d had full control over my circumstances. (Well, I could. I could have done without the court appearances; but let’s chalk that one up to experience. Even the locksmith said “Sometimes these things happen for the best” when I told him why he was there that day, and certainly Fate was something that my father believed in.)
So now I am starting on a new phase of my life. I’m pleased with the flat, though the bathroom could do with being a tiny bit bigger; there is enough room to get the car off the road, and there is plenty of space to get more furniture (in the form of other bookcases, most likely) in. I now have the luxury of gas central heating, which gives me instant hot water on demand, and once I get my desk built I can finish off getting the computer set up and finally see how many books I have left over. I have met my new neighbours and spoken to the landlady; I have had a walk up to the castle at Kirby Muxloe and made enquiries at the local hotel to see how much it would cost for people to stay over. I can walk to work in thirty minutes or so, and there are shops, a post office and even a garage that looks as though it knows a thing or two about Mercedes’ on my way there. All in all, I can see why my sister thinks I’ve landed on my feet. Let’s see if she’s right!
And as Cathy keeps telling me (and she’s usually right, of course), my landing a new job at the age of 56 is no mean achievement these days, and I have to admit I’m pretty well chuffed about it as well. I had some junk mail the other day about ‘gracious retirement apartments in Coventry – designed for the over 55s’, and I have to admit I sneered at that big time. Another of my Facebook friends commented on my move that it took a considerable degree of courage and “real stones”, which I found somewhat heart-warming…
I’m pleased to announce that I got the Leicester job! I start on 7th July as a software test analyst for a company called Bellrock (previously known as SGP, and not to be confused with the Austrian rail engineering firm Simmering Graz Pauker). They used to be part of the Johnsons dry cleaning group, and are big in facilities management outsourcing; I realise that outsourcing is not flavour of the month amongst some of my old comrades, but needs must when the Devil bites yer bum, as they say.
The Sheffield job, which I interviewed for on the same day as I did the phone interview for Bellrock, hasn’t come back to me, though I understand that the guy who was making the decision has been on holiday all this week and didn’t anticipate taking a decision much before the first week in July. In any case: that job was as near as makes no difference a test manager role, which would have stretched my abilities and knowledge a lot. I would have to have done a lot of mugging up on test techniques and management just to keep one step ahead of everyone else, and whilst they would almost certainly have offered more money and probably thrown in a relocation package of some sort, the simple fact is that I would have been very uncomfortable operating at the edge of my comfort zone. I know that some people say that if the job’s a challenge, say ‘yes’ and learn how to do it as you go along; but that’s a high-risk strategy when you’ve not got much of a support network in an area. Oh, and a friend who works there tells me that Sheffield has become very expensive lately – and he’s an architect, so not short of a bob or two! (Certainly, what research I did on accommodation in the area bears that out, with 1-bed apartments going for anything up to £650 pcm…)
Up until I went to Leicester for the face-to-face interview, the job sounded fairly run-of-the-mill; but when I went to Bellrock, the guys there seemed enthusiastic about what I was saying, and they appear to have such a wide range of clients and different situations that there will be plenty of variety in the sort of applications I’ll be testing. They are also positioning themselves to expand, which can only be to the good.
Bellrock are based in a 60s office block on the western edge of Leicester. The building itself is in a bit of a time-warp, but it is marked for demolition in the next year and relocation is on the cards. And relocation is much on my mind right now, as well.
The simple truth is that I can’t really afford to live in Fillongley any more. Apart from the impact that nine months without full-time work has had on my ability to pay the mortgage, my house costs a fortune to heat and I haven’t been able to keep up with the maintenance in any meaningful way. And even if I did stay, in about five years’ time the bank would be coming to me to ask how I propose to pay back the outstanding capital sum, to which my reply would have to be “You surely jest.” Something like ten years ago, when I realised that my pay was not keeping pace with the increase in costs in the economy, I switched to an interest-only mortgage as a temporary measure, just until I got the promotion I felt was out there waiting for me. That’s “temporary measure” in the sense that income tax was adopted during the Napoleonic Wars as a temporary measure…
After my parents died, people in the village asked me if I intended keeping the house on, and my reply was “I’ll stay for as long as I’m able.” I should have moved away possibly five or six years ago, but I’m beginning to understand that one of my faults is an excess of loyalty to a place, or a job, or (sometimes) a person. Just as I ought to have cut free from Ofwat earlier than I did, when it became clear that the organisation had nothing more to offer me, so I should have cut the ties with Fillongley before now.
Of course, there is an emotional cost to be paid. I’ve lived in this house since 1986, and it holds a lot of memories for me. It’s in a super location, too. But I’ve worked through all that, and I really cannot see my way clear to staying here. I shall be earning enough in the new job to pick up the mortgage again, but that only defers the eventual decision.
So the house is now on the market, and I’ve already had a number of viewings, one of which was sufficiently positive for me to hope that they might put an offer in. And in the meantime, I’ve been looking at renting a flat somewhere between the West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton and the M1 outside Leicester – that means that my search is concentrated on Hinckley and takes in places like Barwell, Earl Shilton and Sapcote, amongst others. Even if I went all the way up to a rental equivalent to what I was paying in mortgage, I should still be better off as my heating costs will be at least halved, and that represents a significant saving; and the new job will pay what I was earning at Ofwat, but with the difference that whereas the pay I was on at Ofwat was something I had spent 30 years struggling up to, I’m starting from the same point at Bellrock.
So the house is getting uncluttered, the shredder is working overtime, and I am up to my neck in cardboard boxes and parcel tape. I’ve already shifted a vast amount of stuff out to a storage unit a couple of miles away (which I can actually see from the front of the house!). It’s in some old farm buildings which have been converted to storage and small industrial units, and it’s run by a character not unlike a member of the Grundy family in “The Archers”, which is actually fine for a rural area. it will be a big change, though I’ve got time to acclimatise – I doubt I shall have enough money for a deposit and bond money much before the end of August or even September. I suspect this also means that I will have to miss the World SF Convention in London, or at the most only do a couple of days there, but we shall see.
Onward to pastures new!
Today was a two interview day. The first was a telephone interview set for 9:45am for a firm in Leicester. The second was a face-to-face interview at 2pm in Sheffield. What could go wrong?
So I was woken this morning by a telephone call at 5:35am. I surfaced from sleep and picked up the phone: the caller display said “Out of area”. “Who the hell rings at this ungodly hour?” I muttered to myself (or something like that) and thought “That can go to voicemail if they can be bothered”. Ten minutes later, at 5:45am, the phone rang again. “Must be an automatic dialler” I thought; but when I picked up the phone, the display said “Private caller”, which usually means a mobile. So I answered it.
It was my telephone interview. And my alarm clock was showing a time wrong by four hours. Fortunately, the first call had woken me up, though I sounded a bit groggy, as you do first thing in the morning.
So I delivered the interview from my bed! Not as bad as a boss I once had when I worked in Ofwat’s press office; she arranged a telephone interview with the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme (a fairly heavyweight news and current affairs programme, for overseas readers) for 6:15am, only to have a similar alarm clock malfunction and having to deliver an interview to air from bed…
So you’ll understand it if I say that I didn’t really get any good or bad vibes from my telephone interview. We spoke for about half an hour, and the questioning seemed quite straightforward. Only when I got back from my second interview and picked up voicemail did I find that I’d got an offer of a face-to-face interview on Monday for the Leicester job. So I must’ve been doing something right after all. Perhaps that’s where I’ve been going wrong all these years…
I’ve bought new batteries for the alarm so I don’t have the same problem on Monday!
Then I had to get myself up, much later than I anticipated, and get ready to go to Sheffield,. But first I had to go to put diesel in the car and buy – and post – a birthday card for my sister. The upshot of this was that I didn’t set out for Sheffield until nearly mid-day, and it’s a good hour-and-a-half drive to Sheffield. A long section is on a two-lane motorway, and of course the traffic seemed slower than I would have liked. Then, on joining the main M1 motorway, I ran into a lengthy stretch of roadworks with a mandatory 50mph speed limit, enforced by average speed cameras. So I didn’t get to Sheffield until 1:35, but I had a cunning plan. I’d use a park-and-ride tram system, which I knew would put me into the city centre in ten minutes or less, from where it was only a short walk to the offices of the firm I was going to see.
I got to the tram stop, only to find a sign pasted to the ticket machines – “No trams from here until end of June.” But there was a replacement bus service – every half-hour, on the hour and half-hour. I hot-footed it to the bus stop – right at the other end of a large car park – boarded the bus, and was reaching for my phone when the driver started the bus up and pulled away. I was back on track!
Except that the bus stop in the city centre wasn’t in the same place as the tram stop I’d intended using; fortunately, Sheffield equips its bus stops with helpful city centre maps, so I could clearly see a quick route to the interview venue. It took me little more than five minutes to walk across town, and I arrived at the office front door on the stroke of 2pm.
Except there was no sign of the company on the entryphone or the list of tenants. Well-known (if not notorious) MP and former Minister David Blunkett’s constituency office was in the block, but not the company I was there to see. I was just debating who to ask (and tending toward Blunkett’s office on the basis that there probably would be someone there) when someone came out of the building and I was able to gain access. I went to the first office I could find and asked if anyone knew of this company. No-one did. But by the power of Google they were able to direct me to the company’s new offices. Unfortunately, Google maps aren’t 100% accurate, so I had to do some walking around and try a couple of other anonymous office blocks before locating them. Then I pulled a muscle in the arch of my foot stepping off a kerb, so by the time I finally arrived – at about 2:25pm – I was pretty dishevelled, limping badly and not feeling or looking at my best.
The guy who was interviewing me was really good about this (and it looks as though the agency, who sent me an e-mail with the shocking news that I’d been given an address two years old about the time I was entering the right building, managed to contact them because they knew l’d been to the old address). It felt more like a really pleasant conversation rather than an interview, we managed to make light of my misfortune, and I was very pleased both with the reception I got and the way I was able to deal with his questions (though having been working on a few days’ casual work up to yesterday, my preparation for the interview was less than I would normally have done). I did wonder if I was getting a slightly easier ride out of sympathy for the state I arrived in, but perhaps not. We shall see.
But i could do without another day as weird as this one.
I realise that I’ve not posted much recently. That’s because my days are taken up with looking for work, and not a lot else, though there was also a recent domestic crisis that took up quite a bit of my time. I’ve been getting interviews and travelling up and down the country to them, but I see little point in doing a major blog entry until I’ve got something to significant to report.
Part of the irritation of not having much money coming in is the impact on one’s social life – another reason why I haven’t had much to blog about. But I do allow myself a minor entertainment – attending meetings of the Sutton Coldfield Model Makers’ Society. After all, I’ve been a member since 1985, so that club and its members have been a pretty big part of my life for quite some time now. So it was that I went off to Sutton for a meeting last Wednesday. The meeting was one of the Society’s occasional auction evenings.
Most of the time, the stuff that goes into the auction is a bit tired – half-made kits, usually, not the latest releases; and quite often, there is stuff that people are actively trying to get rid of – including books, which some people don’t hold in the quite the same regard as I do. So I was looking at the offerings last week, and one of the books on the table was one of the Ian Allan ‘Aircraft Annual’ series, edited by the redoubtable John W.R. Taylor. This one was just titled “Aircraft 1974″, dating from a time when Ian Alllan were trying to modernise the image of the series and drop the “annual” tag, which did tend to suggest that it was aimed at children.
I leafed through the book to see if there was anything of interest in it. No articles struck me immediately, but on a second look, a name fairly leapt out at me. That name was Bob Shaw.
Bob Shaw was a name very well known to me. He was a science fiction writer from Belfast, whose novels were the mainstay of the Gollancz line-up in the 1970s and 1980s. He had been a major figure in the science fiction fan community from the 1950s, and won Hugo Awards in 1979 and 1980 for his fan writing. He started selling short stories in the 1950s, but paused for a while when he and his family temporarily emigrated to Canada. He returned to Northern Ireland in 1958, and went to work for Shorts, first as an aeronautical engineer and latterly in their PR department. He was the science correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph in the middle 1960s. In 1973, he became so concerned over the Troubles that he chose to leave Belfast and secured a job at Vickers in Barrow, also in their PR department, before turning to full-time writing in 1975.
Bob was possessed of a great wit, which came out in his writings. He was also popular at science fiction conventions – perhaps too popular, as he had a reputation as a drinker and at one stage considered himself as an alcoholic. He died in 1996.
Bob’s novels and stories were always inventive – his imagination was that of an engineer, so he was always thinking of odd devices and new solutions to old problems – but also quite lyrical. He was also fond of putting places and situations he’d encountered into his work, so his books often have a good sense of place. His 24 novels cover all the traditional SF themes, and some that came out of his own imagination. Perhaps his best-known short story is his 1966 tale “Light of other days”, in which he introduced the concept of ‘slow glass’ – glass that light takes an appreciable time to pass through, so that someone looking through a pane of slow glass can see a scene that the glass was exposed to years before. He explored the implications of this idea in a number of stories; but ‘Light of other days’ is the best remembered of them. It is generally considered one of the finest examples of the genre and is regularly anthologised even now. It can be read online here.
Naturally, I bid on the book and secured it for the princely sum of £3.50. The article by Bob was one from his time at Shorts, and was about the Shorts Skyvan in the service of the Sultan of Oman’s Air Force. But it contained typical examples of Bob’s writing:
“At Salalah the atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of the Desert Air Force in Second World War days, with the dust, the shimmering heat, the eye-pulsing brightness, and the constant movement of camouflaged and work-stained aircraft. At night the principal recreation is attending an open-air cinema, where seats have to be booked in advance and the stars glitter overhead like coach lamps strung from the palm trees, undimmed by the lights of civilisation.”
I last saw Bob at the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow, where instead of the “Serious Scientific Talk” he usually gave at conventions (and which were neither serious nor scientific!), he gave a heartfelt account of his time as an sf fan and writer. It was clear to me then that he was delivering a farewell, and so it proved. But his novels, though little remembered now by those who knew them not, are a fine tribute to this warm and talented writer; and I was pleased to be reminded of him in an unlikely circumstance.
‘Ask the powerful five questions:
What power have you got?
Where did you get it from?
In whose interests do you exercise it?
To whom are you accountable?
How can we get rid of you?
Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no-one with power likes democracy and that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it; including you and me, here and now.’
I encountered Tony Benn on only a few occasions: once at PCS Conference in 2006, when he addressed a Stop the War Coalition fringe meeting; then a few months later, at a mass lobby of Parliament; and later in 2010, when he addressed a conference in Birmingham. I’d been on the front row at the conference fringe meeting to secure good pictures; when he saw me in a similar place at the parliamentary lobby rally a few months later, he recognised and acknowledged me. Not much of a claim to fame, but the best I can do.
In one week, the British Left has lost two iconic figures: one, Bob Crow, general secretary of the rail workers’ union RMT, was one of the last traditional trade union leaders; the other, Tony Benn, was a member of the aristocracy who turned his back on his background and took up the cause of the Left. Both men polarised opinion; both held their views steadfastly whether they were popular or not. Of both men, colleagues and opponents alike have praised their personal integrity, steadfastness and honesty – qualities sadly lacking in so much of the political establishment nowadays.
More of my photographs of Tony Benn can be seen here.
In the coming few years, we are going to be deluged with events marking the centenary of events during the First World War. One thing that I am certain of is that those events – at least in the UK – will focus upon the loss of life on the Western Front and some of the more iconic events during the war. I predict that Christmas 2014 will be wall-to-wall with the Christmas Truce and its resulting football match in No Man’s Land, for example. And the commemoration events will have a political subtext depending on who is doing the retelling.
We are already hearing a number of commentators – including some who claim to be historians – blaming the First World War on “German expansionism” and “Prussian militaristic values” and glossing over the confusion and jockeying for position that took place in the years leading up to 1914. Yet many of the ills laid at the door of Germany, including militarism and expansionism, could be found in the establishments of all the great European powers at that time. Our modern commentators are merely repeating a view held by some politicians and commentators in 1914; but they were a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
I very much also expect that the events of the summer of 1914 will be glossed over, partly because they are difficult to understand, partly because they rely on the politics and events of the preceding thirty years, and partly because they throw up political issues that will be uncomfortable for some today.
I have been doing some reading around this subject over the past few years (not specifically in anticipation of this anniversary), and I felt I ought to put my own thoughts down to get them straight. I offer them for the information of others.
Although the events in Sarajevo were just the trigger point for a lot of different issues that had been boiling away for some time, the story bears retelling. In the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary was made protector of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina on behalf of Turkey in 1878, following an international conference. But in 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Hercegovina and made it formally a part of the Empire. This was a source of irritation to Serbia, which for years had harboured the idea of turning back the clock to the fourteenth century in pursuit of what they called “Greater Serbia”. This was not a direct political policy as such, but more of what we would now call a “national aspiration”, backed by various politicians, newspapers and opinion formers. Serbia had therefore expressed hostility towards Austria-Hungary for a number of years, and after the Serbian coup of 1903 and the Second Balkan War of 1913 Austria in turn had determined that at some point, war might very well prove necessary against Serbia, and began to plan accordingly.
“Greater Serbia” was also the aim of a number of extra-legal pressure and terrorist groups which operated within Serbia with a degree of official collusion; the most notorious of which was known as “Black Hand”. The Black Hand was run by an individual code-named “Apis”; this was the unofficial identity of Lieutenant-Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, who rose to the position of Chief of the Serbian General Staff’s intelligence service. This meant that the Black Hand had access to military resources at the highest level.
On the morning of Sunday 28th June, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, was making a visit in his role as Inspector General of the Army to inspect military manouevres being conducted in Bosnia. He brought his wife, Sophie, with him. The Black Hand determined that the Archduke would make an ideal target and selected a team of Bosnian recruits who were trained, armed and given encouragement in their pan-Serbian aims. Between May 26th and June 4th, Gavrilo Princip was inserted into Bosnia with the aid of agents of the Black Hand to meet his fellow conspirators in Sarajevo, brief them and then to carry out the assassination.
Franz Ferdinand was not just a target because he was a figurehead. He was also a target because he had plans for Bosnia-Hercegovina. He had come to the view that in the interests of peace and prosperity, and the improved development of political life in the empire, the south Slavic lands – today, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina – should be constituted as the third kingdom within the Empire, thus changing it from the “Dual Monarchy” to a “Triple Monarchy”. Austria-Hungary was two countries with separate political systems, Parliaments and state machineries, but ruled over by a single monarch (at this time, the ageing Kaiser Franz Josef). Archduke Ferdinand’s plan was to accord the south Slavic lands the same status within the Empire. This would vastly improve the rights of the people of Bosnia-Hercegovina; but it would cement the nation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and sideline Serbian ambitions.
The three assassins, armed with bombs and pistols, had ample opportunity to carry out their attacks. The Imperial party was travelling down main roads in open-topped cars and with minimal security. Yet the first two attempts on Franz Ferdinand’s life failed. The first assassin lost his nerve before throwing his bomb. The second threw his bomb, but it bounced off the Archduke’s car and detonated under the following vehicle which contained various senior officers. Upon hearing the explosion and seeing the commotion caused and one of his fellow conspirators arrested, the third, Gavrilo Princip, decided to abandon his attempt, but to wait and see if the Archduke returned via the same route.
Franz Ferdinand continued to his engagement, an official reception at Sarajevo town hall, but afterwards decided to break from the planned schedule and visit the injured officers in hospital. However, no-one thought to inform the drivers, and they made the turning to carry on to the National Museum, the next destination on the original itinerary. When they were told to stop and turn around, the three cars of the motorcade stopped to make a turn in the street, directly opposite where Princip was standing. The Archduke’s car came to a halt no more than a few feet from him. Unable to untangle his bomb from concealment under his clothing, Princip drew his pistol and fired two shots directly at the Archduke and his wife. The crowd seized Princip (and he would most likely have been lynched had the police not intervened) whilst the car sped off to the Konak palace, official residence for the duration of the visit; but Sophie, the Archduke’s wife was dead by the time they reached the palace, and Franz Ferdinand bled to death from a wound to his jugular vein very shortly afterwards.
Strangely, the only crowned head of Europe who attended Franz Ferdinand’s funeral was the Emperor Franz Josef himself. All other heads of state stayed away; “security” was given as the pretext, but then (as now), that was hardly a very sound argument. Instead, Franz Joseph, by now aged 84, had declared himself unable to cope with the stress of anything more than a family funeral. Had a state funeral been given, with all the major European heads of state attending (after all, Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Imperial throne), some level of discussion would have inevitably taken place and some degrees of consensus might well have emerged over what Austria’s next steps would be and what would be acceptable to all the Powers.
The car that the Archduke and his wife were travelling in can still be seen today, in the Arsenal Museum in Vienna. It is a chilling reminder of the events that were to shape the rest of the twentieth century. After the assassination, Austria-Hungary determined that this was the final straw in their long-running exasperation over Serbia in its hostility towards Vienna. Using plans already drawn up, they decided that they should act against Serbia. They reasoned that elements within the Serbian military establishment were behind the assassination (the signs were quite clear), but they had no hard evidence. Following a ministerial meeting on 7th July, they agreed to present Belgrade with an ultimatum. Further meetings established a timetable, which envisaged sign-off on the final draft on 19th July, and presentation to the Serbian Government in Belgrade on 23rd July.
There then followed a period of intense diplomatic discussions, shuttle diplomacy and leaks, which gave all parties time to prepare their responses and reactions. Matters were complicated when the Russian minister in Belgrade, Nikolai Hartwig, died suddenly of natural causes. Hartwig was a skilled diplomat and was actually in a meeting with his Austrian opposite number when he suffered a massive heart attack. This cut off a line of communication between Vienna and St. Petersburg (and by extension, Belgrade) which might have averted or ameliorated the chain of events that followed.
The ultimatum itself required Serbia to:
suppress the various pro-Serbian unity organisations and newspapers who had spread anti-Austrian propaganda,
take action against compromised military personnel and officials implicated in the assassination plot,
immediately arrest two named Serbian officers who Austria (rightly) considered to have taken an active role in the conspiracy (one – Apis’ deputy – had recruited the three assassins; the other was a “sleeper agent” in the Serbian railways who was the team’s handler),
explain the official pronouncements from various Serbian senior officials following the assassination that expressed satisfaction with the killings;
give access to Austrian investigators to allow a full examination of the facts, and
allow Austrian officials free rein to carry out that investigation in Serbia and to ‘suppress’ such individuals identified by that investigation.
A response was demanded within forty-eight hours.
The opinion across Europe, even in those countries sympathetic to Serbia, was that this was harsh but fair. Whom, after all, would do any different? At the same time, it was widely recognised that the last two points were such a major breach of Serbian sovereignty that no-one could imagine the Serbians complying with it. Moreover, the pan-Serbian organisations were beyond the reach of the Serbian government, both in law and in terms of public support. They had committed no crime against Serbian law, and the ultimatum demanded their suppression as a pre-condition, not as the result of any investigation that might lead to them; and the level of support they enjoyed within the Serbian military almost certainly meant that any investigation would have been frustrated from the outset by non-cooperation or even blatant refusal to submit to legitimate instruction from the civilian authorities.
However, the extended timescales of drafting and submission, although allowing time for the European powers to consider their reaction and the reactions of others, did not allow enough time for Austria to mobilise its own forces, which were scattered across the empire. Military thinking at the time had not grasped the concept of ‘asymmetric warfare’ and thought only in terms of moving regiments, engaging in mass troop movements and invading foreign territory. Nowadays, a state faced with a similar issue would insert a small unit of elite forces with a specific objective and extract them again when that objective had been achieved. Military planners did not think that way in 1914.
If Austria had been able to achieve its immediate limited war aims in the July or early August of 1914, honour would have been satisfied, none of the other European powers would have had time to mobilise or to start thinking about the knock-on effects of mobilisation, and a general war could have been averted. Instead, by sharing the terms of the ultimatum with the other powers, Austria-Hungary gave away its hand and allowed others time to consult, plan and consider the consequential effects of making military moves.
As it was, the Serbian response – initially drafted to concede the vast majority of Austria’s demands – was stiffened by Russia communicating that they were prepared to stand by Serbia. This drew Germany into the conflict, ostensibly to stand by its ally, Austria-Hungary, but also to precipitate a war that the General Staff had seen as inevitable for some time. Russian mobilisation caused France to prepare for hostilities in support of Russia. This in turn caused Germany to plan for a war on two fronts. Their war plan, based on the infamous “Schlieffen plan” of 1905, required a lightning attack to knock out France first before turning to engage Russia. The terms of the 1904 Entente between France and Britain set out a number of measures (such as the withdrawal of the bulk of the French navy from the Channel) which had as a natural consequence British intervention should an attack on France come from that direction. In any case, such an attack by Germany had to involve moving armies through neutral Belgium; and both Britain and France had treaty obligations to protect Belgian neutrality. German attempts to obtain Belgian agreement to their armies passing through the country were rejected by the Belgians as unacceptable at any price. Once the armies began to move across Europe, all the pacts and treaties came into effect, nations felt their hands were being forced, and one by one the nations of Europe declared war on each other.
The reasons why:
1) War as politics
There is a famous quotation from von Clausewitz: “War is the extension of politics by other means”. This was certainly the expectation of many European governments in the nineteenth century. War was seen as a cyclical occurrence, out of the control of governments, let alone populations. (This attitude persisted into the Cold War era: I have a particular memory of US civil defence films that give advice on what to do “…if The Bomb goes off…”, as if it were some sort of accident or natural event.)
Europe was a continent where war had been a regular occurrence; military staffs had always planned for the next war at the end of the last one. Most commentators felt that certain countries were more guilty of this than others, but the truth is that most nations worked on this basis. The question of which nation would be pre-eminent in Central Europe, Austria-Hungary or Prussia, was settled by the two states going to war in 1866 (Austria-Hungary lost. Things might have been very different had they won). Accordingly, when that question raised its head again in the first decade of the twentieth century, the assumption made by the military General Staffs in Austria, Germany, Russia and (to a lesser extent) France was that the matter would be settled in the same way, by a limited war, a duel of nations. There were nine wars in Europe in the twentieth century before the outbreak of the First World War, and only 1901, 1902 and 1909 were free of any conflict.
The results of previous wars, of course, coloured opinions in the defeated countries. In 1913, France elected Raymond Poincaré as President, and he had belligerent views against Germany that were based wholly upon revenge for France’s defeat by Prussia in 1871.
2) Extra-legal factions in Serbia
The assassination in 1903 of the Serbian king and queen was carried out by a faction within the Serbian Army. This faction then continued to organise and agitate after the overthrow of the monarch, in pursuance of the Serbian “national aspiration” of Greater Serbia. Furthermore, these factions went unchallenged by the government, partly because they were afraid of a public backlash (orchestrated by the press) if they moved against a party advocating Greater Serbia, and partly because there was an element of sympathy within government for that ambition. The extra-legal factions became increasingly organised, first with openly active groups, like the Serbian National Defence (formed in 1909), and later with secret groups, the most infamous of which was “Union or Death!”, formed in 1911 and better known as the ‘Black Hand’. The Black Hand was organised in a classic cell structure and employed elaborate initiation ceremonies which were reminiscent of those said to be encountered in freemasonry.
Opinions were also inflamed by emigré Serb groups in America, who felt able to agitate with even more bellicosity from afar than those at home (a pattern repeated in conflicts since then).
More broadly, the acceptance of patriotic aims, no matter how aspirational, as a driver for policy influenced the Serbian government and made them reluctant to act against the Black Hand and similar para-military and extra-legal groups.
3) The European Arms Race
Two of the major European powers, Britain and Germany, had been engaged in an arms race for the preceding twenty years. The application of turbine technology had led to the development of a class of super-battleship, the ‘Dreadnought’ and ‘Super-Dreadnought’ – the ‘ultimate weapons’ of their day. With ships like these, any nation could project power on a global scale, although they did require considerable logistic support in the form of coaling and provisioning facilities at harbours remote from home waters. This was, in turn, one of the major factors behind imperial expansion in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
Britain and Germany had played tit for tat in planning and building new ships for their navies. This led in turn to an opinion in some quarters in the German General Staff that war might be necessary at some point in the near future simply because if Britain was allowed to get too great a lead in increasing the size of the navy, Germany would never be able to catch up. (Having said that, there appears to have been a number of dates by which the German General Staff are accused of wanting war by; although 1914 is mentioned with regularity – mainly because of the widening of the Kiel Canal – other discussions centred around 1920 as the date by which the German and British navies would be expected to achieve parity.) This is turn is reflective of attitudes within the military establishment and governments which I shall mention later.
At the same time, the continents’ militaries were becoming more professionalised, with the establishment of Staff Colleges turning warfare into a profession. Much of the military strategic thinking and planning came out of the different staff colleges. The mechanisation of warfare was a pan-European issue, with alliances driven as much by the financing of military expansion as by political expediency. France, for example, was financing the re-arming of its ally, Russia, and Russia’s client states in the Balkans.
Just as Germany feared losing credence in naval power when compared with Britain, they also feared losing similar credence in ground forces when compared with Russia. Again, the German General Staff considered that a war against Russia would be necessary before the decade was out, as by the early 1920s Russia would be more powerful in land forces than Germany.
4) The role of the monarch
Constitutional monarchies were still comparatively uncommon in Europe at the time. Even those nations with long-established constitutional monarchies, such as Great Britain, were still evolving the roles, duties and obligations of the monarch or members of the Royal Family, especially when dealing with other monarchs (often blood relatives) whose role was less well established. Often, monarchs saw themselves as useful additional diplomatic resources, whereas in fact the opposite may well have been the case, that they became “loose cannons”. Indeed, when the German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg was appointed in 1909, having previously been Minister of the Interior, he had no knowledge of foreign affairs – but that was no problem, said Kaiser Wilhelm, because (in his view), he – the Kaiser – could “look after all that”. The Kaiser had, indeed, created a number of military posts that reported directly to him from the time of his accession in 1883. Ultimately, the entire General Staff reported to the Kaiser rather than to the elected civil government. (This was not unique to Germany.) This is a similar problem to:
5) The lack of collective responsibility within governments
On looking at the various diplomatic and state interactions over the period immediately before the outbreak of war, it is notable that on many occasions, Ministers and ambassadors of different countries made undertakings that they were not empowered to do, or created policy “on the hoof” that had not been cleared with their respective Cabinet colleagues. Partially this can be attributed to the absence of any profession of “diplomat”; diplomatic posts were still decided for the most part by patronage and influence. The principle of collective responsibility does not appear to have existed; or if it did, then it was disregarded by very many ministers of all nations. The German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, for example, had bypassed the Reichstag by early 1914 due to political stalemate and was virtually ruling by decree. And as late as July 28th, the Kaiser’s instructions to his foreign minister, Jagow, to communicate his intention to mediate for peace between Austria and Serbia were ignored. This, in turn, is related to:
6) The failure of governments to exercise the chain of command over the military
The lack of collective responsibility extended into the military command structures and General Staffs. There was an assumption that the military were a law unto themselves, and the concept of civilian control over the military based on the supremacy of the civilian legislature was not well established. In military matters, general staffs were given carte blanche to make policy as they wanted and to formulate plans that drove the diplomatic agenda rather than vice versa. Indeed, military and civilian decision-makers often kept their plans secret from each other. The best-known example of this was the German General Staff’s war plan which permitted the fighting of a war on two fronts by making a lightning attack on France to achieve its defeat before moving whole armies across Europe to fight Russia. A war with Russia required an attack on France whether France was acting aggressively or not, and additionally required tactical invasion of Belgian territory purely as a matter of convenience. There was no challenge to the concept of this plan; the civilian administration was not given the option of ordering war against Russia alone. Indeed, the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, was not told of the existence of this plan until 1912; it had been in existence since 1905.
The German war plan was, however, far from the only example. At about the same time as von Schlieffen was setting out his ideas for a war on two fronts, Anglo-French general staff negotiations concluded an agreement to deploy a British Expeditionary Force to the Continent in the event of France being attacked. This plan was kept from most members of the British Cabinet until the eve of the war. All nations possessed war plans, and all had various stages in their implementation that were short of war, or made war inevitable. Unfortunately, all those plans were different, and different stages in escalation were attached to certain actions. These were exclusively military matters, so even within governments, the civilian authorities had to take the miltary’s word for what a particular level of mobilization meant. Comparing different countries’ plans and divining the implications of a particular stage of escalation was impossible.
7) International power blocs
The so-called “Schlieffen Plan” started out as a budgetary bid for the war Germany expected to have to fight in future. The assumptions it made arose from the existence of competing power blocs in international politics. Acceptance of the power blocs as factors forcing different nations’ involvement in conflict meant that plans were drawn that required nations to act according to their allegiances or the allegiances of others. But the existence of those blocs prevented governments from thinking “outside the box” to try to isolate nations according to the issues. Furthermore, the blocs themselves were considered to be indissoluble; so, for example, if Germany had to choose between an alliance with St. Petersberg and Vienna, the assumption – which became fact – was that it would always choose Vienna. Once established, regular joint military planning meetings between General Staff members of these blocs further cemented them into permanence.
When push came to shove, not all the power blocs lined up entirely as expected – Italy, for example, was part of the Triple Entente that included Austria and Germany, but it remained neutral in 1914 and later joined the Allies (though some have claimed that Italy’s neutrality in 1914 was in part due to it not having sufficient uniforms for its army). Indeed, in many instances the power blocs prevented earlier wars, in that member states discouraged their allies from acting on issues that only concerned one country (though this probably only helps explain why war was delayed until 1914 and did not occur earlier). But the existence of the power blocs certainly influenced the thinking and planning in preparation for war, and therefore influenced the decisions taken during the summer of 1914.
8) Colonial possessions
…were seen at the same time as both markers of national prestige and bargaining counters in international relations. Such possessions could be swapped between nations as part of trade agreements, or could themselves become causus belli in the event of international tension. The existence of colonial possessions and their potential as bargaining counters made war thinkable because the exchange of colonies was seen as one outcome of a peace settlement that would not seriously inconvenience a defeated nation.
9) The political belief in Austria-Hungary as a declining state
In 1866, Austro-Hungary and Prussia had gone to war over the question of which country was to be pre-eminent in leadership of the emerging pan-German nation. Austria-Hungary lost and the focus of European power moved to Berlin. Over the following years, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy suffered many setbacks: the assassination of the Empress Elisabeth, the scandal of the deaths at Mayerling (where, in 1889, the then heir to the throne, Crown Prince Rudolf, shot his teenaged mistress and then committed suicide), the fiasco of the doomed attempt to establish the emperor’s brother, the Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico (which ended with Maximilian in front of a firing squad) and indeed the marriage of Ferdinand to the countess Sophie, who although a member of the nobility was nonetheless considered too close to a commoner for the comfort of the Viennese hierarchy. Nationalist pressures in various parts of the empire were manifesting themselves as popular movements; paradoxically, efforts by the Monarchy to accommodate these were seen as weakness; other states would have chosen repression of such movements. However, the technique of creating and governing what we would now call a multi-cultural state was in its infancy, and mistakes were made. The multi-culturalism manifested itself in Vienna in the form of MPs contributing to parliamentary debates in their own languages without any translation facilities, with the resulting uproar, lack of efficiency and legislative paralysis.
Franz Ferdinand achieved more popularity in Austria after his death than in life. He was not a likeable man, but this was probably partially brought about by a hardening of his public persona following his marriage. In 1900, Franz Ferdinand married for love, taking a minor member of the aristocracy, Sophie Chotek, as bride. Although Sophie ranked as a princess, the intricacies of Court protocol meant that she was ranked behind some thirty archduchesses for ceremonial purposes, and she had to ride in a separate carriage on formal court occasions. The price of the wedding was that Franz Ferdinand was forced to accept a morganatic union; Sophie would never be declared Empress when Franz Ferdinand ascended the throne, and their children would not be in the line of succession. Nonetheless, their marriage was happy, marred only by continuous snubs delivered for the most part by the Court’s Master of Ceremonies, Prince Montenuovo. This major-domo was responsible for organising the couple’s lying in state and funeral, but he continued the petty vendetta against them even in death; their coffins were delayed at every stage in the journey from Sarajevo to their eventual resting place, the castle of Artstetten near Pöchlarn in the Danube valley (not in the Imperial family vault in Vienna). These calculated insults so shocked the officials and soldiers that witnessed it that their indignation turned into belated hero-worship for Franz Ferdinand, which in turn stoked up public determination that their murders should be avenged upon Serbia at any cost.
Ironically, Franz Ferdinand’s aim was to defuse separatist pressures in the southern Slavic lands under Austrian control by bringing them fully into the Empire as a third kingdom, making the Empire a tripartite state with a greater role for the Slavic lands and populations. This was his preferred solution to the instability caused by Slavic separatists in what were then the occupied lands. These pressures were contributing to the view of the Empire as a moribund entity.
Vienna was also the home to a number of avant-garde artistic, intellectual and scientific movements, ideas and individuals (Freud, Mahler, Klimt and Kokoschka to name but four) which contributed to the air of instability or decadence, depending on the viewpoint adopted. This meant that certain governments in Europe, on viewing Austro-Hungary as preparing for war, saw such a conflict as likely to result in the end of Austria-Hungary as a viable nation, and consequently were reluctant to commit resources to its protection or continuance. War was seen as a social-Darwinist means of precipitating the collapse of such a moribund state. Others – including many subjects of the Monarchy – thought that if the Empire were now to die, it should die honourably.
10) Patriotism and the impact of popular news media
Popular news media were novel in the early 20th century, but they were gaining ground everywhere and quickly finding their feet as manipulators of popular opinion. The media in Serbia were quick to seize and amplify the national mood for ‘Greater Serbia’, and in other countries newspapers played the patriotic card. The British Daily Mail ran a campaign against, of all things, German restaurant waiters in 1905, branding them as ‘spies’. But in many countries, the press appears to have stoked up divisions between nations. The media were quick to wrap themselves in the flag, and whether they led or were following the people is very much a “chicken and egg” question. At the same time, there was a popular opinion in Britain that Germany was set on an expansionist path; contemporary writers and commentators speak of this whilst not giving full credence to voices within Germany who were reining back so-called “Prussian” values.
The Archduke Ferdinand was not a popular man in life, but the Austrian popular media did much to promote his better qualities in the days following his death; when coupled with the treatment given to him after death by the Imperial court (see above), this accounted for a major change in public opinion after the assassination. The Austrian media also widely reported the reaction in Belgrade to the assassinations, which the Serbian media, who were wholly supportive of the conspirators, were happy to report at length.
11) The outcome of previous wars
In the 19th century, nations had adopted von Clausewitz’s dictum that “war was politics carried out by different means”. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 had been fought entirely to settle a political issue, and afterwards Prussia and Austria considered themselves as allies, with honour having been satisfied. Although the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 did involve a loss of territory (Alsace-Lorraine becoming Prussian), the bulk of France was not occupied, Prussian troops did not march into Paris and the main other outcome was that France was required to grant Prussia “most favoured trading nation” status for a period of time. The outcome of war was increasingly being seen as a diplomatic issue that would be settled by negotiation after a military victory. Indeed, in the preparation for war, Germany offered Belgium generous terms for compensation in advance for the forthcoming military invasion in fulfillment of the Schlieffen Plan. This expectation that wars would be short, decisive, and followed by negotiation to arrive at mutually acceptable terms made war as a political tool acceptable to many European governments – so much so that none of the international disputes of the twentieth century before 1914 were referred to international arbitration as had been suggested by the 1899 Hague Conference.
12) The expectation of a short war
Those previous wars had also been short wars of movement followed by diplomatic negotiation. The various powers had no expectation that the coming war in 1914 would be any different. Austria was expected to rapidly humiliate Serbia; the European powers seemed surprised that this did not happen, giving them time to think too much about the ramifications of general war and mobilise accordingly. The opinion on both sides was “It’ll all be over by Christmas”. It was also assumed that industrial production would not support a long war; in this, military planners underestimated the expansion of industrial capacity across Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century. As the military and civilian establishments did not communicate with each other (see above), this information was not available to the military planners, assuming that it even entered their minds.
13) The Zeitgeist
There was a social Darwinist belief that military prowess was the measure of a civilization; and also a misinterpretation of Darwin as suggesting that “survival of the fittest” meant the most aggressive rather than the best adapted. “Honour” was also considered to be very important in the definition of national character, and something that it was worth going to war to satisfy. Many nations had conscription (though Britain and the USA did not), and all viewed the profession of arms as a necessary part of a young man’s passage into adulthood. Again, this was an acceptable viewpoint given the expectation that wars would be short. The military was celebrated in a range of popular cultural outlets, from songs and plays to books, articles in the popular press and even the ubiquitous military band in the park on a Sunday. The German general, von Moltke, felt that war was almost a divine imperative that would restore the virility and vital force of the nation, even as he simultaneously recognised that in the new age of mechanized warfare, a European conflict would kill millions. He was not alone in holding both those opposing views simultaneously. And although these were identified as specific “Prussian” virtues, they can be found in all the great European powers.
In many countries, especially those with a patchwork history of struggles for national identity, the military was a mechanism for cementing social and national unity. And in all countries, patriotism was still a major social force; once war broke out, men rushed to the colours in numbers and with a fervour not seen before or since. At the same time, the patriotic and nationalist movements of the time inspired thoughts of revolution amongst activists of both Left and Right; Lenin was in exile in western Europe, publishing the Bolshevik newspaper Iskra (“Spark”) in Geneva, and indeed at the outbreak of war he was temporarily living in Poronin, in what is now Poland but was then part of Austro-Hungary; by September of 1914 he had moved back to Switzerland.
At the same time, the intellectual climate was also embracing ideas of the value of destruction. Futurism was a nascent artistic movement of the times, but it held within it the seeds of Fascism and an acceptance of destruction as an artistic statement. Although the artistic, cultural and scientific environment of Vienna was interpreted as ‘decadent’, the rest of Europe was undergoing no less of a revolution of thought; Nietzsche had declared that “God is dead!” in Thus spake Zarathustra and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had sparked a riot at its 1912 première in Paris. The atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School (which, despite its name, was not wholly based in Vienna) was beginning to be noticed. In popular fiction, the scientific romances of H.G.Wells had sparked speculation about the nature of time, space and humanity’s position in the universe (which might be distinctly temporary); and this had in turn sparked imitators and related genres, such as the ‘future war’ story.
War in 1914 came about because of all of the above; it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise. The immediate cause of the outbreak of war was based on the toppling of a series of dominoes, but those dominoes had been set up by each of the major players in the twenty or thirty years beforehand. (Historians debate over how far back it is possible to identify events that led to war in 1914. Some point to events centuries before.) And there were enough drivers of conflict in place to make war hard to avoid even if one or two of the factors I have described had not materialised. In particular, German insecurity over their relative status drove the General Staff to encourage an aggressive posture and to influence the Kaiser over the need to support Austria-Hungary to precipitate a war against Russia.
And yet there were plenty of voices all over Europe who were pressing for peace, who were trying to avoid war. At various times, the German Kaiser, the French president Poincaré and the Austrian government were seen by their General Staffs or other ministers in their own governments as being too firmly wedded to peace; indeed, Kaiser Wilhelm was prepared to mediate for peace between Austria and Serbia as late as July 28th. Britain, too, was continually offering to intervene through hosting peace conferences and offering to facilitate negotiations. Yet the impetus towards war was too great, mainly caused by the interests and manouverings of the two great power blocs.
Still, war could have been avoided. The Cold War shows many of the same features as were present in Europe in 1914; and there were serious flashpoints in that conflict that could have precipitated war more total than anyone could have imagined in 1914 or 1918. But there were three differences. The first was that in 1914, no-one imagined the might and inertia of the military-industrial complex that stood behind each of the belligerent nations. The idea that a general European war could be sustained for four years never occurred to anyone, either in industry or the military. Little more than twenty years later, the world repeated the exercise, with weapons far more advanced and sophisticated than those available in 1918. The end of the Second World War showed a terrifying leap forward in the destructive power available to the military; and that gave commanders and politicians pause for thought. The exercise of control by the civilian authorities over the military had been refined in the Western powers by 1945; indeed, the Third Reich had caused constitutional experts to seriously re-evaluate that entire issue.
Secondly, that same advance in destructive power had caused a change in the direction of public opinion. This is not to say that populations across the world suddenly rejected war and embraced peace: far from it. But pressure for the avoidance of war was expressed more openly than ever before; and Western governments could not ignore it completely, no matter how they might like to. Pacifist opinion existed in sufficient quantity to tip the scales away from overt belligerence.
Thirdly, the advance of communications meant that overseas wars could be brought home to populations, contributing to the formation of opinions. It also meant that individuals of influence could communicate with each other without the delays forced by long overland or sea journeys for face-to-face meetings; and those communications were not restricted to national leaders, although the personal correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev may well have contributed to the decision by the latter to pull back from the brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. But the installation of the telephone “hot lines” between world capitals, and the range of other improved communications, meant that leaders and opinion formers in different countries were better able to begin to understand each other, to arrange to meet, or just exchange ideas and viewpoints that could lead to acceptance and tolerance of other viewpoints and the early defusing of potential misunderstandings.
We cannot be complacent, however. As one threat diminishes, new ones take their place. Countries in different stages of political development recapitulate events that other countries have already experienced. The often-repeated (and misquoted) saying, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” may by now be a cliché, but like most clichés it encompasses a truth. And Fromkin points out that whilst it takes two countries to maker a peace, it only takes one to cause a war.
Mark Allinson – Germany and Austria, 1814-2000 (2002)
J. Ellis Barker – Modern Germany (1909)
Gordon Brook-Stevens – The Austrians; a thousand-year odyssey (1996)
William Carr – A History of Germany, 1815-1990 (1991)
Christopher Clark – Iron Kingdom; the rise and downfall of Prussia, 1600 – 1947 (2006)
Christopher Clark – The Sleepwalkers; how Europe went to war in 1914 (2012)
I.F. Clark – The Great War with Germany, 1890-1914: fictions and fantasies of the war-to-come (1997)
Edward Crankshaw – The Fall of the House of Habsburg (1963)
William Harbutt Dawson – What is wrong with Germany? (1915)
Norman Davies – Europe; a history (1996)
David Fromkin – Europe’s last summer; why the world went to war in 1914 (2004)
Eric Hobsbawm – The Age of Empire, 1875 – 1914 (1987)
William M. Johnston – The Austrian Mind; an intellectual and social history, 1848 – 1938 (1972)
John Keegan – The First World War (1998)
H.W. Koch – A History of Prussia (1978)
Peter T. Marsh – Bargaining on Europe: Britain and the First Common Market, 1860-92 (1999)
Robert K. Massie – Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War (1991)
Frederic Morton – A Nervous Splendor; Vienna, 1888-1889 (1979)
Richard Pipes – The Russian Revolution, 1899-1919 (1990)
Jasper Ridley – Maximilian & Juarez (1992)
The news agenda in the UK today is occupied by two fairly big political stories about the past. In one, the annual release of Cabinet Office papers under the Thirty Year Rule* has taken place, and these reveal interesting things about the conduct of (amongst other things) the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.
The Miners’ Strike became an iconic event in British labour history. Arthur Scargill, then hard left leader of the Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), led his members out on strike over a programme of pit closures. The Government of the day claimed that his accusations of an extensive round of closures were not true, and that Scargill was leading a politically-inspired campaign to bring the government down, as had resulted from another miner’s strike some ten years before (though the fall of the government then was based mainly around a political miscalculation by the then PM, Edward Heath, who decided to go to the country on the question of “Who runs the country?” and got the answer “Well, certainly not you, sunshine.”).
The miners’ strike became highly divisive because Scargill had not sought a ballot of the miners before calling the strike. Certain coalfields, such as Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, continued working (see below). The NUM mobilised “flying pickets” to picket locations where coal was distributed as well as working collieries. These were met by mass police actions, and there was considerable violence. Evidence is now emerging that in some cases, strikers were prosecuted for public order offences on the basis of fabricated statements from police officers; in other cases, there were acts of violence perpetrated by some who supported the strike. It was very much like a civil war; the fallout from the strike has persisted in some former mining communities, with families irrevocably split. Margaret Thatcher was assumed to have an intention of destroying the NUM and, by extension, the trade union movement generally. It was seen as the start of the de-industrialisation of Britain, and the fallout from the events of 1984 are things that every working person in the UK has had to live with since, because it set the whole industrial/labour relations landscape for years to come.
The decimation of the coal industry followed within a few years of the end of the strike in 1985, as Arthur Scargill predicted. Britain has now only got three deep pit coal mines working, due to economic factors and the impact of environmental legislation. There remain considerable coal resources underground that are not now going to be worked in the foreseeable future. A fourth colliery, Daw Mill, is just a couple of miles from my home; it was due to close this year but actually shut down in the Autumn of 2013 due to a serious underground fire. I drove past the site in daylight for the first time in a couple of months a few days ago, and was surprised to see that the site is being cleared with almost indecent haste.
My grandfather was a collier at Bolsover, in north Derbyshire; I was brought up in areas with a long connection with the coal industry. So I have a great appreciation of what the industry was and what it means, both industrially, and as a former trade unionist, socially. The Cabinet Office papers released today have shown that the Government did have an extensive programme of pit closures that went beyond what was publicly announced at the time; that Margaret Thatcher in particular knew that this was going to be a political dispute (though it is a truth that any industrial dispute involving an arm of the state, be that government or a nationalised industry, is as political as either side wants to make it, irrespective of whether the issue at stake is the closure of collieries or the length of a tea break), and that the Prime Minister is now publicly revealed as having considered declaring a State of Emergency and bringing in troops to move coal and keep other essential supplies moving.
I remember these things from the time and since, and I offer these recollections without further comment.
1) At one time, I had a family connection with the treasurer of the independent UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers), a rival union to the NUM who organised within the coalfields that worked during the NUM strike. Their argument for not joining the strike was that they had not been balloted on the strike action; the likely reason was that the outcome of the vote in the Nottingham coalfield would most likely have been rejection of the strike call. In turn, the reason for this was based around the strategy that Arthur Scargill had followed in the years before the strike. Many of the Nottinghamshire colliers by that time were relocated Scottish miners (there were also a number of Scots miners in the Warwickshire coalfield, which I later became familiar with). Many of these Scottish miners were on their third or fourth pit, and they held a certain amount of animosity towards Scargill, because many of them said “Where was Arthur when OUR pits and OUR coalfield was being closed down?”
2) On the Good Friday of 1984, I was travelling on a train from Derby to London. As it was a Bank Holiday, the train was so crowded that I could not get a seat, so I stumped up the extra £5 to go in First Class. There I found myself sitting next to two camera crews, one from ITN and the other from the BBC who were travelling back to London after covering the picket at Orgreave.
They were quite exercised by the accusation that was being levelled at them of ‘media bias’. Their line was that no matter what footage they shot, they weren’t responsible for the final edit or how that package would be placed when the news broadcast was made; depending on how the news agenda worked out that day, three minutes of footage shown on the six o’clock news could be ninety seconds by nine o’clock and possibly 30 seconds’ worth on Newsnight…
3) Later in my life, I had a work colleague (now deceased) who was working for the Department of the Environment in the 1980s. Although stationed with the Birmingham Rent Assessment Panel, during the miners’ strike he was posted to the Civil Contingencies Unit. The preparations for the State of Emergency were more advanced than the released papers suggest. Working from a control room under the Government Five Ways complex in Birmingham, this colleague said that at one point they were on standby for a State of Emergency being declared within the next 36 hours. Just because the Prime Minister was “considering” declaring a State of Emergency, that did not mean that it was only ever a paper exercise. There were steps to be taken to bring the necessary machinery into action so that a State of Emergency could be declared, and those plans existed as part of the national Civil Defence programme. Of course, now all this has been devolved to local authorities; whether a Government now or in the future could declare a State of Emergency in the same way is an interesting question.
The second political story is that the current Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has launched an attack in the newspapers on the current teaching of the history of the First World war. He criticises one of the main academic authorities on twentieth-century history, Professor Sir Richard Evans, for himself “crititcising” those who went to war; and he advances the view that the First World War was a “just” war. This link takes you to the full article:
(Interestingly, as someone pointed out, the view of the British troops on the Western Front as “lions led by donkeys” didn’t start with an analysis by a Left-wing academic, but rather with a book by an historically-minded Conservative MP, “The Donkeys”, by Alan Clark (son of Sir Kenneth Clark of ‘Civilisation’ fame).)
That piece by Gove is itself a piece of partisan rubbish. He quotes Richard Evans but does not actually understand what Evans said (or has deliberately misunderstood it). Evans is not ‘criticising’ those who went to fight; he says that they believed something but were wrong, mainly because they were not in possession of the facts.
Gove then carries on to repeat the simplistic explanation that the First World War was the fault of Germany and Germany alone. This was the view put about at the time in Britain, and it persisted at Versailles which put in place many of the conditions that would lead to the Second World War. It was a political view at the time, and it is a gross over-simplification. I’ve been reading around this subject for the past couple of years, and I’ve identified eleven factors that led to war in 1914. (I’m putting this into some sort of order and I intend to publish my views here – and possibly elsewhere – in due course.) A lot of these factors were due to common attitudes and failings held by governments across Europe, including Britain.
Gove says that he encourages “an open debate on the war and its significance”. But in making his story wholly about the loss of life and the direct British contribution to the war on the Western Front, he is trying to direct the whole argument entirely to an agenda which serves his political ends. I see no sign of any examination of the causes of the war, and I expect that there will be very little examination of the war on the Eastern, Balkan and Italian fronts (though I hope to be proved wrong on that, though I won’t hold my breath). (There were British troops involved on the Italian Front – Italy were on our side in 1914-18 – but their story is rarely told and their role was quite minor.) We’re going to be told that we were the key players in the Great War against Germany, and I don’t see Michael Gove or anyone else encouraging views that look elsewhere for a greater perspective on the war of 14-18.
And I lost a great uncle on the Somme; a whole branch of my family never came into existence. Every family in the land suffered some loss or another, and our histories were irrevocably changed. I’m not trying to undermine any of that; I’m just trying to understand the bigger picture.
* Note for non-UK readers and people who are not politics geeks: in the UK, the Cabinet Office is the section of government responsible for the running of the Prime Minister’s office and co-ordinating the administration of the country. It runs the Civil Service and acts as gatekeeper for a range of cross-Departmental issues. Minutes of Cabinet meetings and a lot of inter-Departmental paperwork, conserved by the Cabinet Office, are archived and are kept secret for thirty years, after which they are released into the public domain.