28 Aug

‘Victor Hugo’s Conversations with the Spirit World: Literary Genius’s Hidden Life’ by John Chambers. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1998.

Eggheads! Did you know that Victor Hugo (1802-1885) wrote ‘The Miserables’ on Guernsey in the Channel Islands? He spent nearly twenty years in exile, three years on Jersey and most of the remainder on Guernsey. While this book is not a biography it does limn the relevant elements of this gargantuan writer’s gargantuan life. His books were big and so was he, and as big as he was his ego was even bigger. He regarded himself as the greatest writer ever, full stop, period, and end. He did not mean the greatest French writer, though he meant that, but the greatest writer of all, including William Shakespeare, who latter confirmed this judgement! (The best French writer had to be the best, because French was the best language per Hugo, though he had no knowledge of any other languages. It was a priori knowledge.)

Hugo book cover.jpg

No he was not a Mormon but yes the long-dead Shakespeare did concede Hugo’s surpassing genius … in a séance, for he dabbled, practiced, and studied spiritualism with the same intensity he did everything else. At first he was disinterested in the many waves of spiritualism that washed around Europe in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, but tolerated his wife’s interest, and then himself became hooked when it seemed that he could communicate with his dead daughter, the first born who he loved (almost as much as himself, as one wit had it).

MAp-2.gif Some may remember 'Bergerac.'

It was a time when the line between the living and the dead was a veil to some. Magnetism, mesmerism, table talking, automatic writing, rap rap, these were all in vogue. Once Hugo tasted this activity he drank deeply of it. A séance might start at 8 pm with a dozen participants in his Guernsey house and as the others departed or fell sleep in place, he continued on and on into the small hours of the morning.

And why not, he was H U G O after all and the spirits of the many dead crowded around to meet him! To the dead, he was a celebrity. [Pause.] Thus did Shakespeare rap out a message as did Aeschylus, Molière, Niccolò Machiavelli, and the Emperor Napoleon. Ego, indeed. He found further confirmation of his own self-estimate in these exercises, as if the chorus of praise from his contemporaries was not enough. Gargantuan that ego.

Seance.jpg A sêance.

Hugo was not a Christian and yet he prayed. Hugo was not a socialist and yet he spoke for the dispossessed. Hugo was not a monarchist and yet he support Louis Napoleon. Hugo was not a democrat but he came to oppose Louis Napoleon. Hugo loved Paris and yet lived in exile in the Channel Islands. Hugo was principled and yet he broke his word more than once. Hugo despised politics but twice served in parliament. He is a hard man to categorise. Hugo make a point of defying classification with any one side or position. The words of Walt Whitman came to mind: ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contract myself, I am large, I contain multitudes' (‘Leaves of Grass,’ 1855). Hugo was a multitude.

victor-hugo-statue.jpg Statue Hugo on the island.

Among the spirits who paid court to Hugo was Niccolò Machiavelli during a sèance 16 December 1853 and on two other, later occasions (p. 224), and that is why I had look at the book. Most of the séances were transcribed by a scribe as the spirits spelled out their messages a letter at a time, mostly in French, sometimes in Latin, and occasionally in an incomprehensible mishmash. While several participants including Hugh himself wrote up the experiences using the transcripts, most of the original transcripts have joined the spirit world, i.e., they have been lost. In this book we find that Machiavelli visited Hugo twice, the first two times they talked politics, and the last time the subject was reincarnation and a summary of that last conversation is presented. Nothing further is said about the political discussions. Given the Hugo was proscribed by Louis Napoleon III it is likely that Hugo denounced tyranny to Machiavelli, ah hem, in the summaries Hugo does a lot of the talking, and Machiavelli agreed.

John Chambers.jpg John Chambers

The book is well written and based on Hugo’s own accounts and those of contemporaries and it reads like a novel with asides for exposition. However, I had no interest in the summaries of sessions which form the bulk of the book.

This is a personal memoir of a French officer who was on the front line in Flanders in 1940 during The Defeat. He was a supply officer who managed fuel for tanks, ambulances, motorcycles, cars, and trucks with Henri Giraud’s First Army. Bloch was a professor of history at the Sorbonne, and he volunteered to serve in 1939 again, having been an infantry captain in World War I. Some may recognise the name for Bloch was also a remarkable historian whose two volume study, ‘Feudal Society,’ is one of the most compelling works of history I have read.

Strange defeat.jpg

Bloch wrote ‘Strange Defeat’ as a diary in the last months of 1940, and it remained unpublished at his death in 1944. He was in the Resistance, arrested by the Gestapo, tortured for information, and then murdered. None of this figures in his pages but it is a grim reminder of the mortal gravity of the place and time.

Bloch muses on his own reactions to the approach war and his decision, at age fifty-two, to take up arms again and reflects on the men with whom he served, and analyses the Defeat from his captain’s eye-view.

bloch_marc.jpg Professor Bloch or the Sorbonne

He emphasises that the military shibboleths of order and method could not bend but only break. That is, there was little sense of urgency when the German attack began. He had fuel requisitions rejected because a corner was torn or the ink had run, which meant a long drive back to complete a new copy and get it signed by field officers whose troops were engaged with the Germans, and then return along roads strafed by the Luftwaffe. None of these exigencies were sufficient to compromise protocol. There was all the time in the world, until time ran out and then panic set it.

Even when the First Army retreated, it did so at a leisurely pace, moving back twenty kilometres. His point is that the insistence of procedure and these short retreats were measured against trench warfare of World War I, not against the mobile warfare of the Panzers. A twenty-kilometres retreat was but less than an hour from the next tank attack, which was never enough time to re-set the line of defence. Yet French Army doctrine would not permit a longer retreat, and so nothing was available to facilitate it in the way of equipment, maps, communication, and expectation. (To retreat a longer distance required an order from Supreme Command and Supreme Command could only reached by courier and no courier could get through. Supreme Command refused radio and telephone communication even in distress.) The First Army then retreated in these bite-sized steps five or six times before it completely disintegrated. At each retreat more units lost contact, were cut-off by marauding Panzers, read the map sideways and wandered into a Belgian bog, or collapsed in exhaustion and fear.

Then there were the personal rivalries he saw in the career officers in the many headquarters where his duties took him. To say to one colonel that he had instruction from another colonel meant he would get no hearing at all, because these two colonels were old adversaries in the promotions list. After mentioning the first colonel’s name, Bloch watched helplessly as the second colonel dropped his requisition into a drawer and with an icy word dismissed him. Clearly that chit was going no further up the chain of command.

There are many other examples but perhaps enough has been said to make the point. The procedures were cumbersome, inviolable, mysterious, and most of all based on absolute obedience at the expense of any initiative. (By the way, German intelligence services were aware of French army procedures and took them into account in their own planning.)

Black was the day, but Bloch also met, worked with, and observed many officers who manfully did their duty despite the circumstances. More than one staff officer stayed at the radio or telephone directing retreating units to Dunkerque even as shell fire fell on them. Bloch is one of those thousands of men who spent days on the sands at Ostend as British troops were evacuated while the Luftwaffe strafed the beaches and artillery fire grew closer.

dunkirk_small_boat.jpg The miracle at Dunkirk

Along with more than 120,00+ other French soldiers he was himself evacuated. (Winston Churchill personally ordered the Royal Navy to make no distinction among Allied soldiers and to board them first-come, first-served. For a day or more before that order the Royal Navy had only taken Brits.)

Bloch landed in Dover, marched to the train station, stopping for tea and scones served to the group of French troops he was with at the local lawn bowls club, then onto a train to Plymouth where he boarded a ship for Bordeaux, and thirty-six hours later he was again in France. The 120,000+ French troops shipped back to French Atlantic ports like this were without weapons, some had lost clothing, particularly boots in the surf at Ostend-Dunkerque, some were wounded or injured, and devoid of any chain of command. Bloch and the compatriots he shipped with were billeted in a health camp near Bordeaux, where, he observes, they were received with far less warmth and civility than they had experienced in England where he and his fellows were heroes who had stemmed the tide of the Boches, but in Bordeaux they were burdensome failures.

In World War I the city of Bordeaux was a million kilometres from the front; not so in the mechanised age. No sooner did Bloch arrive than did the Germans. He became one of those poilus, dirty, dazed, ragged, head down, among a thousand others on a road, escorted by a lone Wehrmacht private with a single-shot carbine, marching into captivity.

prisoners-1.jpg Les poilus

At fifty-two the Germans deemed him too old for slave labour in the Reich and he was paroled to begin his career in the Resistance shortly thereafter.

Bloch plaque

A book to be read in parallel with ‘Flight to Arras’ from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, he of the ‘Little Prince.’ St.-Ex was an air force pilot who flew combat in 1940, then fled to Algeria to continue the war with the Free French. He, too, died in 1944 while on a mission.

‘What experience and history teach is this: That people and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on principles endued from it.’ Thus spake George Hegel in the ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of History.’

In contrast Ernest May explains the German victory ‘in terms applicable beyond its character or epoch’ as a parable for other times and other places. We can learn from history is the burden of this phrase. We can but do we.

Strange victory.jpg

This tome sets out to qualify, refute, and set aside the three most common interpretations of the Fall of France. Instead the Allies’ major error was to misunderstand German intentions, both politically and militarily.

These are the three common explanations of the German defeat of France.
1.That the Germans had a crushing superiority of men and material.
2.That the French and British were badly led.
3.The French people were morally lax.

Of course, there is some truth in each, which is why they have taken root, but May’s claim is that they are not decisive either alone or in combination. The Defeat was not a sure-thing, but rather a long shot with such a high risks that only a singular mad man like Hitler would do it. ‘Singular’ is not the right word. What I mean is that he alone decided, while in the Western countries there were many hands at work.

Against (1) the French and British had better weapons, e.g., French tanks, and more airplanes in the RAF. In addition, there was that large and well-equipped French Army. The German generals were dubious that they could match the Allies, and said so repeatedly to each other and to Hitler.

Against (2) there were many excellent leaders in a situation that defied rationality, i.e., Hitler wanted war and that was a fact Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier could not perceive, themselves horrified at the prospect of another war. The most significant leadership failure is probably Belgium's King Leopold’s vacillation and that of his government. Certainly May does not gloss over this one. He also acknowledges that French generals (1) did not switch from peace time budget politics, crying poor, to war time reality easily and that there were political rivalries among them that were more important to some than the fighting and (2) the leisurely way communications were done by courier rather than telephone and the many levels orders had to go through to be issued and obeyed. These latter points were structural, it is true, but they were designed and implemented by the very French generals who later complained of these cumbersome structures, e.g. Gamelin. As to the former, May admits that Daladier had little hold on either cabinet or parliament and that Paul Reynaud's decision to replace Gamelin in the midst of the battle with the seventy year old Weygand who had to fly to France from Syria was bound to fail. But Reynaud had to show the public he was acting. Well did he? Or would a stronger leader have weathered that expectation?

Against (3) the French had developed a resolve to resist by the time the Polish crisis occurred. Indeed the political leadership sensed this swing in public sentiment and that is what caused both the French and the British governments to go to war on the assumption that the public would not tolerate another compromise. Maybe but it is also true that there thirteen political parties, each jockeying of position, in the French parliament and they had a professional interest in disagreeing.

That there were doubts, fears, worries, hesitations among German generals is well known. Is not that always the case? Even the most bellicose general, when D-Day dawns has doubts, hesitations, delusions. Think of George McClellan’s fantasies about the grey hosts over the hill. Of Bernard Montgomery's endless demands for more until he outnumbered the rump of the Afrika Corps 15 : 1 and then he still waited. Think of General Hermann von François waiting too long to execute his part of Schlieffen Plan. Think of General James Longstreet waiting for hours before ordering Pickett’s Charge. No general can ever had enough to be absolutely sure at any level of command. That the German victory was against the odds may well be true, but the qualms of generals is not proof of that contention. May seems to be insensitive to this general tendency.

And surely part of that demand for ever more material and men before committing to battle is done with one-eye on history. If made to fight now, and I lose, it is the politicians who are responsible for pushing me into the fight ill-prepared. If made to fight right now, and win, it is because I overcame the odds. Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. Many reports, appraisals, estimates are written for history to exculpate the writer, or to wring more funding from the niggardly political masters or both. ‘History memos,’ cynics call them. May seems insensitive to this common occurrence.

The divisions among the French cannot be papered over, though the author argues that there were periods, most of them of two or three years, when there were different alignments. Yes, and no. Yes there were accommodations but no, because many of the differences were deeply etched into history, regionalism, ideology, and religion. I am not convinced that there were significant changes. The social divisions in France were many and ran deep, and they certainly did not make France strong and imposing in Hitler’s perception. May seems to treat these divisions too lightly and to conclude that by September 1939 they had disappeared.

One of the things I do get from this book is that Hitler rose above the details of the arguments, how many airplanes, what range of flight, the number of bombs, the rate of production, the thickness of armour plating, the training time of pilots, and thousands of other technical details about training and equipment of all arms, and concentrated his assessments of France and England on the willpower of the elites to resist, to fight. While German officials and officers would cry poor because of the myriad of technical details involved, Hitler set little store by these facts. After an hour presentation on some such aspect of preparation by a general, he would wave it away with hand and talk about setting a date, next week, for the assault, leaving some general in stunned silence. The German generals delayed and argued for ever later dates. If left to their own devices, they would have been still planning the Western offensive in 1960. For them, planning, like management today, was an end in itself.

Also themselves deeply involved with technical details, Allied generals supposed that at some point German generals would talk Hiller out of a Western offensive, since on all the data the combination of France and England had the advantage, the more so adding Belgium and the Netherlands. Though Hitler saw this combination of allies as a weakness instead of a strength because the consultations would slow things down, the differing procedures would lead to confusion, the many heads involved would disagree, and there would be language barriers. He was right in all of these. May is silent on the fundamentals of Allied cooperation.

Instead of a direct attack on France the Allies anticipated an attack on Netherlands to get airbases on the English Channel, and perhaps on Belgium to close the port of Antwerp. Hitler played to that assumption with the first attack there, which proved to be a diversion, but it took far too long for that to be realised. That is, the French along with the British Expeditionary Force moved into Belgium to meet this attack and then got cut off by the main offensive in the south.

Added to that mindset the myriad of false alarms from November 1939 to May 1940, and the author does a good job of showing just how many false alarms there were, and how heavily qualified each was, along the lines of an ‘immediate attack will occur tomorrow, maybe, possibly, or not.’ He compares these occurrences to the warnings about Pearl Harbor to good effect. Some of these false alarms may have been planted by the Germans to weary, distract, confuse the Allies. It worked.

That Hitler did not attack the West immediately after Poland was at the time proof to many that the Germans were afraid of the might of the French army and the British airforce and would not attack later. This became another article of faith that led to the belief that an attack on the Netherlands and Belgium was most likely.

Meeting Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier face-to-face at Munich sealed the deal. Hitler saw no fight in either. At Munich Daladier said nothing, literally nothing. He was completely worn down by the back-biting and conflict within the French parliament and was counting the days until he would be displaced. (On Daladier, see the superb 2009 novel ‘The Ghost of Munich’ by Georges-Marc Benamou.) Benito Mussolini dominated the proceedings speaking a German no one could understand, but eschewing translators. That fog and mist suited Hitler for whom the meeting served other purposes (showing his generals he was willing to negotiate though he was not, buying time for preparations, courting world opinion, keeping the Soviet Union guessing, more closely involving Italy in his machinations, misleading all those who took him at his word, and, finally, assessing his opponents), the details were unimportant since he had no intention of sticking to any agreement. Chamberlain understood no German, no French, and no Italian.

We have that film of Chamberlain’s return from Munich with peace for our time, because Chamberlain mobilised the news media, including the BBC to record it. He made a point of mobilising and directing the media, says our author, far more than had been done previously by either Stanley Baldwin or Ramsay McDonald.

For their part it took Chamberlain and Daladier, and those around them, a long time to realise that Hitler really did want war. Many of them had been in the trenches themselves and they all knew others who had been and who had been maimed or killed. They could not conceive that anyone wanted to repeat that. It was only when it became numbingly apparent with the invasion of Poland that Hitler would not stop that they realised there was no point in further delay. The passing of time would favour Germany, as it added new territories and capacities, growing confidence, and allies, and the passing of time would see the British and French populations grew more and more fearful and demoralised. All that is the standard HSC interpretation from my years as an HSC examiner.

The French penchant for detailed planning meant everything was complicated. Because everything had been anticipated and planned, when a French unit came under fire there were pages of protocols to govern responses, and one has the impression that some officers were furiously leafing through the manuals to find the right protocol rather than directing their men.

The Belgians oscillated between clinging to neutrality and so denying cooperation with the Allies, or seeking Allied protection. Accordingly the move into Belgium when it was finally made, was too slow. Belgium also played a role earlier in stopping the extension of Maginot Line along its border. Belgium relied heavily on its own mini-Maginot Line in the impregnable Fort Eben-Emael near Liege, which was partly built by German contractors who turned over all the blueprints to the Wehrmacht, which meant the fort was put out of action by fifty men in a few minutes.

Eben wall.jpg Eben-Emale was carved into this cliff face and dominated a river valley. There were many gun ports and block houses that do not show in this contemporary picture.

In building Eben-Emael successive Belgian government had declared it to be the essence of Belgian defence when it capitulated after one day, the psychological blow was decisive.

The Allies’ major strategic mistake was the belief that the Ardennes Forest was impassable to a large army, especially one with tanks and trucks. Even the evidence of eye witnesses did not overcome this conviction. It was fact-proof. Nothing would convince a distant senior officer that tanks and trucks were pouring out of the Ardennes even as they were pouring out.

ardennes_1.jpg The Belgian Ardennes

But once the shooting started, the crucial tactical difference was that the Germans combined air and ground forces which the French did not do that for strategic reasons, and which the British did not do it for political reasons. The French air doctrine prohibited use of aircraft as air artillery! The cannons do that, period. The only tactical role of aircraft is to defend their airfields. The only strategic role is to bomb cities, which was ruled out at the time, not wishing to provoke the Germans into retaliating. The RAF wanted to keep all its aircraft to defend the homeland when the time came and flying low into columns of German armour would certainly mean heavy losses. Ergo when there were terrific traffic jams with thousands of German tanks and trunks on narrow roads, they were not bombed. Ergo when the French armies were pounded by the Luftwaffe as the Germans advanced, they had no air support of their own.

Moreover, neither the French nor British concentrated armour or motor transport, as the German did. That steel tip of the German offensive was irresistible, even though one-on-one French tanks were superior in armour and cannon. While the Allied tanks outnumbered the German ones, they were dispersed, so in combat the French tanks were usually outnumbered five to one. The French tanks were distributed one or two to a regiment of infantry as mobile block houses. Yet on paper there were more French and English tanks than German ones.

The analysis of intelligence is a crucial point. The French intelligence services gathered information and delivered it but did not analyse or evaluate it. A rumour would be dutifully reported, but its source would not be evaluated. A fact - the movement of troops - would be reported but not placed in the context of the reports of other troop movements. No one was responsible for putting all the pieces of information together. The several intelligence services did not want the responsibility and the general staff would have resented it had it been done. Ten reports of German troop movements would be filed but no one was responsible for reading the file and adding it up to ten. Each report was a discrete fact. The contrast was the Germans who integrated intelligence findings and analysed them thoroughly so that they knew how the French Army gave orders (in such detail that quick obedience was unlikely) and how the British gave orders (with so many qualifications and exceptions that quick obedience was unlikely).

Finally, at a tactical level both the French and British demanded absolute obedience, whereas the Wehrmacht doctrine stressed initiative and flexibility at the lowest levels of command, i.e., sergeants. In the confused situation that developed many a French command waited for orders that never came instead of acting independently.

One of the important points May offers is that most leaders (and their advisors) think the past predicts the future. To know what will happen tomorrow, look at yesterday. It does not always work that way. The linear projection of today on tomorrow can mislead as much as inform, if crucial information is ignored or changes are not perceived. Today is the best predictor of tomorrow, but only because nothing else is better, not because it is perfect. The hardest thing to do is to be open-minded about changes.

The many false alarms of a German attack on the West from October 1939 to May 1940 allowed German intelligence to monitor Allied reaction, and that fed back into the subsequent planning so that Fall Gelb evolved to the feint into the Netherlands and eastern Belgium to draw the most well trained and well equipped French armies along with the British Expeditionary Force into Belgium which would then be cut-off by the main attack through the Ardennes toward the sea and not toward Paris (which the French expected in a variation on the Schlieffen Plan of 1914). That the German attack on the Netherlands did not use tanks was attributed to the terrain, and not that the Germans were moving the tanks elsewhere to attack France, although there were many individual intelligence reports of such movements. The British feared German airbases in the Netherlands and wanted to respond with the drive into Belgium.

There were two political outcomes of the Fall of France.

First, Hitler believed his own genius was proven infallible and so did many of his generals, and those that did not, could no longer say so since Hitler had been vindicated by the achievement of a victory over mighty France. This combination of Hitler's hubris and the generals' reticence led to the gratuitous declaration of war against the United States and then the invasion of the Soviet Union and these led to downfall.

Second, the catastrophe frightened Britain into accepting the authority of government without the usual party and parliamentary bickering, back-biting, and undermining. It also put Winston Churchill into the big chair, and gave him a relatively free hand to select a cabinet, a war cabinet, and to appoint generals and admirals.

May argues that in the period from October 1939 to May 1940 French, and British, too, political leaders took positions and selected evidence to support them without regard to any overall appreciation of the realities. In both cases there was a reluctance to reveal one’s reasoning since that could then be challenged. Instead one just declared something to be the case, e.g., Swedish iron ore is decisive and if we can deny that to Germany the war is won. Rather than opening the subject up for debate to test its strength, it is closed. In the poisonous atmosphere of French politics exposing one’s reasoning would be have a suicide note and May does not credit that toxic atmosphere sufficiently.

Ernest May.jpg Ernest May

The book is based on much original research and the results is a five-hundred page text with another hundred pages of notes and bibliography. The book takes its title from Marc Bloch’s moving little memoir ‘Strange Defeat’ (1944). On that more later.

The first in the series.

Alex Delaware is a psychologist who is gradually drawn into police work when a child abuser commits suicide in his office during the night. Delaware had been working with the victims of this perpetrator. That event jarred Delaware loose from his profession, his clients, his positions, his habits and much else. At the same time it also opened the door to helping the police with inquiries, in that quaint British expression.

Bough breaks.jpg

In this case, a fellow psychologist has been murdered along with his girlfriend, and while Delaware did not know the man personally, there is a professional interest and then a police officer asks for his assistance in questioning a seven-year old child who is the only witness to event in an apartment complex in Los Angeles. ‘Questioning,’ as we learn, is not the right word, but rather finding out what the child, now very frightened, saw and then interpreting that. The child arouses his sympathies and he is hooked. If it sounds rather contrived, it is not in the reading.

I particularly liked his long interview with the curmudgeonly emeritus professor who enjoys dishing the dirt. If only…. The description of the rainstorm charged by lightning was very fine, though by then I was impatient to get to the point.

The killing of the dog was too much. Every woman Alex meets is attractive and attracted to him, but he manfully remains loyal to Robin. Tedious.

All of the pieces do fit together in the plot, though it is far-fetched, but then again maybe not. Reality is sometimes hard to believe, too.


There are thirty or so Alex Delaware krimies that I have never read, despite my taste for police procedurals. It came to mind when I recently heard a Garrison Keillor ‘The Writer’s Almanac’ podcast in which he mentioned Kellerman’s long road to publication. Ten years of typing away three hours a night in an unheated garage in New York and stacks of rejections before the first publication.

By the way, this is my third Kindle book reading.

Reading a biography of Símon Bolívar left me confused about events in Spanish America, and when Amazon’s Mechanical Turk recommended this title, I had a look and liked what I saw and sucked it down into the Kindle. Well worth the $1.12 price. This is a short guide book (just under 100 pages) that summaries the sprawling history of these rebellions, revolutions, and wars, the factions and forces involved, and the geography. The print version has coloured maps and graphics that do not show well on the Kindle but on the iPad they were superb.

Fletcher cover.jpg

Terminology first, I am tempted by habit to refer to Latin America but Fletcher makes it obvious even to the geographically challenged that Spanish America in 1809 extended to Oregon, including all the eventual United States states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and parts of others, as well as Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, St Domingo, and everything south to Tierra del Fuego with the exception of Brazil.

Second, it turns out I knew a little more than I thought, since I had watched Guy Williams (Zorro) fight the corrupt and incompetent Royalist regime in Old California while I was coming of age on the Rio Platte. Though Don Diego de la Vega is pretty vague about dates, it still turns on themes relevant to the 1809-1829 period. a distant colonial master, local villains, indians and blacks with no love for the regime. Locally-born Spanish Europeans taxed and abused by Spanish officials who steal all they can before returning to Iberia.

Zorro-1.jpg Zorro-2.jpg Zorro-3.jpg Zorro-4.jpg

Third, I appreciated Fletcher’s deft summaries of the shifting divisions and alliances among both the Patriots and Royalists. Even those names are inadequate, but some labels are necessary. A score card is necessary to tell all the players, and at times they change uniform numbers, necessitating a revised score card. More on that below.

Among the American population were the three races and various combinations of them: Spanish, Indians, and blacks. When the shooting started the Spanish had been living in the Americas for nearly three hundred years. They were set in their ways. The Roman Catholic Church was a major factor. The Inquisition was hard at work in the New World.

Haiti loomed large in the minds of all Spanish, as it did in the southern United States into the 1860s. The slave revolt there confirmed the worse nightmare of many while confounding stereotypes. The blacks massacred their owners went the story, and took over, defeating two Napoleonic armies sent to teach them to respect the white man. Black slaves defeated two European armies!

There were divisions among the Royalists. Some wanted to continue the monarchy, but who was king, the old king clinging on, his usurping son, or Napoleon’s puppet. Moreover, some Royalists advocated a constitutional monarch and spoke less of a king and more of a constitution. In addition, in metropolitan Spain there were those who wanted no king of any kind, but did want to retain the empire. Each of these slivers of opinion was reflected in the Americas.

Among the Patriots were a host of differences as well. They called themselves ‘Patriots’ who were fighting for the freedom of their countries, and sometimes for their peoples, too. But which people? White, red, black, and the shades among them? The whites were further divided into those born in America, called Creoles, and those who moved there from the Old Country. Most of the blacks were slaves, but not all. The reds had tribal loyalties. Because of the methods of Spanish colonalism, the many colonies had almost nothing to do with each other. Lima was as foreign to Caracas as Madrid.

Most of the Patriots were loyal to their province with no larger conception of Spanish America. As soon as the Royalist were driven out the provinces would fall into conflict over rivers, boundaries, mines, and symbols. Sometimes they did not wait for the Royalists to be driven out before starting a war among themselves. A Columbian army would not go to Venezuela to fight the Royalists, nor would a Venezuelan one go to Columbia. And so on and on. If there is strength in unity this was one strength they did not have. Bolívar argued that if the Spanish retained one toehold in the Americas, then one day they would reassert their claims to the colonies.

Bolívar and José San Martin were among the few who saw a larger picture, the former for political purposes and the latter for military purposes. Though Bolívar had a political goal of a united Spanish American, he was not the accomplished soldier that San Martin was, but San Martin lacked Bolivar’s vision. Nor was there much chance they could work together. Bolívar was brassy, impetuous, egotistical, as well as determined, dogged, and tireless, while in contrast San Martin was reticent, careful, self-effacing, methodical, and slow (because it takes time to think), as well as a professional solider who was a strategist of note and a tactician of creativity.

Certainly a quarter, perhaps a half, of the populations (red, white, and black) in Spanish America died in this period. Many were killed after the battles, and others died of diseases loosened by the upheavals of warfare. Though Spain was feeble, on one occasion it managed to dispatch an army of 40,000 to the Americas to end the rebellions. Whole cities were murdered after battles to eradicate the enemy.

To get soldiers both sides courted the red and black races. The Spanish approach was to offer material reward, while the Patriots offered emancipation. The material reward of money would allow a slave to buy his freedom. The Royalists did recruit some individuals this way. Bolívar in contrast would declare emancipation and then recruit blacks to fight to retain this new freedom. The worked, too, on a larger scale. As a result slavery was outlawed a generation or two earlier there than in the United States. A parallel approach was taken by each side to recruiting indians. The Spanish offered individual incentives, Bolívar emancipation from forced labor and the so-called red taxes. Likewise the Patriots recruited soldiers from the captured Royalists with promises of citizenship.

In between the Royalists and Patriots were self-serving bands of armed men that preyed on both Patriots and Royalists or made temporary alliances with either to secure booty. More fearful than any of these bandits was the pestilence and disease let loose by the destruction of waterways, wells, damns, and the like.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars meant the world was awash with war surplus, and much of it went to these conflicts from northern California to southern Chilé. Likewise, there were demobilised soldiers who had no other life and who became mercenaries on one side or the other. Men who had fought each other at Waterloo ended up comrades in the European formations of San Martin’s army. Irish Catholics driven out of Ireland by Protestant England, found their way to Spanish America to serve with English veterans of Waterloo.

Brazil and Portugal also played roles in this story, trying to take advantage of the disruption among the Spanish to settle old grievances, appropriate land, secure river access, and the like. There were armed clashes between Brazilian forces and Patriots, Portuguese and Royalists, Brazilian and Royalists, Brazilian and Portuguese, and so on. All combinations.

No sooner had the Spanish given-up and left than the Patriots fell into prolonged conflict among themselves within cities and provinces and between provinces that became countries, some of the conflicts lasted until the 1860s. That goes some way to explaining the prominent role of the army in many Spanish American states. In contrast George Washington’s Continental army was under arms for eight years, but some of these Spanish American armies were at it for fifty years, e.g., in Argentina. Just as the Prussian army made Prussia, some of these armies could claim to have made the state.

As to the book, the organisation is coherent, the prose is crisp, and the pages are free from typos.
Fletcher is a UNL graduate and now a band manager.

That is Major The Honourable John Wickham Gascoyne Beresford Steed, MC, OM, graduate of Eton (where he knew James Bond as the school bully), resident at 5 Westminster Mews. Further details may be found at his Wikipedia entry or in one of the biographies of this estimable but fictional English gentleman.

Steed-1.png Steed, ready for action with bowler and brolley.

However gallant and distinguished Steed was to earn the MC and OM, he was nothing without Patrick Macnee (1922-2015). Gone recently to his reward.

Steed created the Avengers. The details are many but the nub is this. The original television series was a vehicle for Ian Hendry, called ‘Police Surgeon,’ with Steed as his assistant. When Hendry left to pursue other options, as they say in show biz, the producers gambled on Steed and reshaped the series. Therein lies an explanation for the title, ‘The Avengers,’ for the police surgeon sought vengeance for victims by identifying the villainy and the villain. I know when it was broadcast Stateside a different gloss was put on the title, what I have offered is the historical dimension.


In the 1962-1964 episodes Steed evolved into the bowler hat, the Saville Row suits, the bow tie or ascot, the umbrella, and the ever present smile. In the 1961 series he usually wore a shabby trench coat and a glum expression.

News of Macnee’s death prompted me to spin the old DVDs and watch the 1965-1968 episodes. There are many tribute web sites that say everything that needs to be said and which say quite a bit more than needs to be said. The later evolutions of the series I leave in silence, including even those that retained the services of Macnee.

avengers dvds.jpg

We are at last catching up to the technology of the Avengers:
3 D printing
Mobile telephones
TV remote controls
Self-driving cars
Web cams
Anti-gravity boots
Electronic IDs
The smart house
Satellite communication

But we still do not have Cybernauts.

More generally:
One episode concerned climate change,
another plant genetics
militant feminism
student rebellion
Arab oil
Marvel comics

Each ‘ripped from today’s headlines,’ as the movie posters once proclaimed.

On a more personal note I learned from Steed that the glass is always half full, that a smart girlfriend is essential, that tying a bow tie is de rigueur, and a boutonniere is better than a medal. He was also known to drink rosé wine. I have tried to follow his example in all these ways and more.

The award for best victim goes to J. J. Hooter (‘How to Succeed at Murder’) with a close second to Ponsby Ponsby Hopkirk (‘Honey for the Prince’).

JJ Hooter.jpg J. J.

The unrivalled champion of villainy is Z. Z. von Schnerk (‘Epic’)!

Schnerk.jpg Z. Z.

I clocked up one hundred, that is, 1 0 0, visits to the Newtown Gym on my last annual membership. That has been a goal for years, but in the last five years I have only managed ninety plus visits on a membership. The Newtown Gym is upstairs over Civic Video and the ANZ Bank on King Street next to the old Post Office.


My annual membership pays for itself after fifty visits. Were I to pay the per visit fee on each session, at fifty the cost would equal an annual membership. Get it? In that sense all trips to the Gym after fifty are free. During the working years fifty was the goal.

Gym logo.png

The routine is to rise at 7:00 a.m. and we walk the dog around the Camperdown Park while drinking the coffee we get from Russell at the Varga Bar on the way to the Park.

varga bar.jpg The blurs are us moving along!

Katie continues on home to the white orb - Majic’s bowl - to satisfy the inner puppy, while I peel off for the Newtown Gym two - four times a week. Après le Gym I return home for ablutions and eats. Doing it this way integrates the Gym into the day and gets it done. What doing it this way requires, is a conscious decision to dress for the Gym when we leave home. Morning appointments, mean I cannot go everyday. Phew!

Dr King.jpg The mural is visible from the weight room and the Upper Torso Trainers.

Dressing for the Gym? In addition to the sweat pants and shirt, which sometimes do get sweaty, it means taking along a water bottle and some amusement, either a book (or Kindle) and the iPhone.

I do some stretches in the continuing effort to reduce infernal leg cramps to which I am liable and shift some medals to see if they are still heavy. They are.

I avoid Saturday mornings, leaving these to the taxlings who crowd the Newtown Gym. Sunday mornings are very quiet as they recover from Saturday night. It is the noise as much as the crowd on Saturday morning. The classes are conducted to noise, er, music, that is ear-splitting. Are all gym class instructors in the pay of hearing-aid manufacturers? They are certainly going to make themselves deaf, if no one else. The blast from this noise blankets the exercise bicycles in an auditory miasma that I avoid. Some of it even seeps into the weight room.

Being at the clichéd edge, I use a gym app to keep on track and keep motivated.

Gym book-0.jpeg The day book. I used to get through four or five of these a year, now it is one or two.

Gym book-1.jpeg The gym app

This gym app has proven more reliable and durable than the Jaw Bone Up I had or the Garmin I now wear as a watch.

In between bursts of high intensity training on the bicycles (upright and low by turns) or the Upper Torso Trainers, I listen to podcasts. The best companion is ‘In Our Time’ from BBC4 hosted by Lord Bragg. He is a consummate seminar leader, and each week he leads three experts through forty-five minute discussion on this or that pitched at a general audience. This is intellectual candy of a high order. The topics are many and varied from archeology, physics, life sciences, history, literature, and more. He does one a week for about thirty times in a year. A considerable backlog of podcasts is now available on the BBC4 web site and I have been selectively going through them.

Somehow he manages to get the experts to slow down, spell it out, cut the armour-plated qualifications, eliminate the incomprehensible technical details upon which their careers were made, and talk on a level that an interested auditor can follow, whether the subject is imaginary numbers, Etruscan pottery, the human gut, Byron’s ‘Childe Harold's Pilgramage,’ stellar spectroscopy, or water molecules.

In Our Time.jpg

When his Lordship is not available, I turn to the daily ‘Writer’s Almanac’ with Garrison Keillor. More than once I have followed up one of Keillor’ s passing references, this podcast is short, to read John Hassler’s wonderful novels or to be stimulated anew by Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

writers almanac.jpg

And there is always ‘Lake Wobegon Days’ out there on the edge of the Prairies.

For those who must know everything, on days when I do not go to the Newtown Gym, I lift some hand weights on the balcony of the Ack-comedy and do some leg stretches there, watching the world go by, or watching the traffic jam back-up on Erskineville Road. There are some days when I do neither the Gym nor balcony routine.

Close readers, are there any other kind, will notice that is ‘annual membership’ and not a year of which I write. The membership is suspended when I travel. Last year that probably amounted to five weeks. Ergo the one hundred visits occurred over a period of fifty-seven weeks, not fifty-two. Surely that makes someone feel better.

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Thoughts on the canon of poltical theory and life.

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