Opening the birdcage

My wonderful fiction publisher Cumulus have written this blurb (blush, blush) about The Birdcage, my first novel, coming out next Spring.  I hope it intrigues you!  (Can I write that?  My old English master hated that usage — sorry, Frank…And I’m not sure what he would have made of the book!)

The Birdcage, by Clive Aslet

Salonika, 1915: a city more than half-Jewish, which – until a few months ago – was one of the jewels in the Ottoman crown. After a brief Bulgarian interlude, it is now suddenly Greek. A city nominally neutral, but teeming with French, British and Serbian armies, to hold it against the Austro-German forces to the north, with their Bulgarian allies. A city seething with intrigue, where café society pursues its way unperturbed, within earshot of the fighting, where the foreign soldiery seeks its pleasures among the shabby streets, and where the native inhabitants are eager to make from them what money they can. This is The Birdcage – named after the miles of tangled barbed wire which separate the city from the fighting to the north. It is the Casablanca of WWI.

In Clive Aslet’s sparkling fiction debut we see how this kaleidoscope of nations, cultures and political ambitions shifts and re-forms around a group of English men and women, blown here by many different winds: the military; young nurses from a Women’s hospital which has been shipped out to tend the wounded; seasoned soldiers, pulled back from Gallipoli; mysterious intelligence officers. The young art student – talented but uncouth – who is surprised into love of Elsie, a doughty young nurse; Isabel, the slightly aging beauty of the Surrey Hills, who finds she is not immune to the glamour of a Serbian officer who has nothing to lose and little to offer; ‘Simple’ Simon, who pursues spying and antiquarian studies with equal enthusiasm; the Kite Balloonists, who must trade off a sort of historical chivalry towards the enemy against the need to fight and survive in this world so foreign to them.

Welcome to a world of perilous ascents – and abrupt descents – from military kite balloons; of madcap journeys by mule, by Wolseley motor car and by foot over the grim northern mountains, where the opposing armies are locked in combat; of U-boats lurking in the waters off the city; of sinister and dangerous Enver Effendi, who says he is Turkish – or is it Bulgarian? Or Even Venezuelan? What is his game? Where is all the petrol disappearing to? The breathless ride is just beginning, in a tale where the spirit of P G Wodehouse meets the world of Biggles and R C Sherriff, and the sense of time and place is uniquely vivid and real.


 War Memorial (Penguin, £20) is now out, and I’m excited by the number of people who have been contacting me to research their own local war memorials.  Some of them have asked for advice, so here are some tips for how to get started.
My publishers have asked me to make the obvious point.  A good way to begin would be to buy the book!  I’m sorry, but I would get into trouble if I didn’t say it… although in all seriousness I hope that the book will provide a template for what can be done.
After taking that important step, you’ll need to identify the individuals.  (I had to, at any rate: the Lydford war memorial only lists names and initials.  Other war memorials might help with regiments, or even, in the case of one Welsh war memorial I saw, addresses – but that was only to distinguish between the many different Joneses.)  You can usually make the identification through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  They list more or less everyone from the services who has died for his country since the First World War.  I say more or less: the roll for the First World War closed in, I think, 1921.  At Lydford, two individuals who died after this date were included on the memorial: this could be seen from the fact that their names were out of alphabetical order, J.Stephens and W.H.Daw coming after S.Voysey.
However, particularly since CWGC entries list the parishes that the men and women came from, it is usually straightforward.

After that, I should think the county record office would be the first port of call.  That would give background on the village (if that is your interest); there might be publications of local relevance, and the staff could tell you what else might be available locally.  I enjoyed looking through the register of Lydford school.

Local families may have a shoe box full of their great-uncle’s letters, diaries and medals, or an album of photographs.  Try writing a letter to the local paper to see if this puts you in touch with descendants.
For my book on the Lydford war memorial, I spend a long time spooling through microfiches of the local paper, The Tavistock Gazette.  It was a very laborious process although I found loads that was interesting, not necessarily because of a connection with the war memorial.  Every so often I would come across a reference to one of the names on the memorial — for example playing billiards or taking part in a church social.  There were also occasional obits, as well as an account of the war memorial being unveiled.  It was time-consuming but gave me a feel for both the period and the place, as well as all sorts of unexpected historical sidelights (for instance, an item from 1916 saying that cocaine was now illegal.  Before, it had not been.)

There are a couple of good websites for family history — i.e. and  I seem to remember that they give you a few months of trial period for free, although after that they charge.  However they have some indispensable records.  Ancestry in particular is linked to the National Archives at Kew, having digitised some of the records.  The census records are key.  They will help you place the men in the village.

In terms of researching their careers under arms, I would suggest going first to the National Archives at Kew.  Their catalogue is online.  You can look up the records of individual servicemen where they exist (some records were destroyed in the Blitz).  Soldiers were entitled to various medals, depending on when and where they fought; the medal cards which list who was due what are available online.  Silver war badges or medals were awarded to soldiers who were wounded.

If you go to Kew in person, the staff will explain what the different records mean. 
The next step is to find if the battalion war diary exists for the relevant battalion.  All battalions had to keep one but some of the records were destroyed along with the other records.  I was generally lucky with mine.  If the soldier wasn’t away from the battalion (e.g. through illness, which will be recorded on his papers) you can tell what he must have been doing on any particular day.  The deaths of officers are noted by name, other ranks are generally just given as numbers.  The quality of the war diaries varies but they make fascinating reading.

The Imperial War Museum and National Army Museums are invaluable.  The IWM in particular has a vast archive, of every conceivable kind of record – letters, diaries, official papers, photographs, voice recordings, film, memorabilia.  It is digitising some of those for the First World War in time for the centenary I believe. 

If you know when a soldier was with a battalion, you can find records from people who were, so to speak, standing beside him.  They might take the form of diaries or letters — sometimes quite brisk and businesslike, but others very vivid indeed.
Good luck.  I hope you will enjoy your project as much as I enjoyed mine.

Mountain villagers preserve the memory of a British airman

I thought you’d like to see my new best friends in Greece.  They’re from Delvine.  It’s a little village just on the Greek side of the Albanian border: after scrambling over the bumpy mountain roads, you go under a homespun arch that tells you you’re in Greece.  I came to Delvine because an airman is buried here: not one of Herby’s 211 squadron but someone else who took off from Paramythia, Harold Sykes.  He was a fighter pilot and collided with an Italian plane he was attacking.   
The RAF initially reported him missing, because his body could not be found.  Later his remains were buried just outside the village cemetery, among the long grass, quiet and wild like everything in this practically semi-deserted village.  In the Communist era, the grave was kept hidden because the villages feared what would happen to it as a supposedly ‘capitalist’ grave, even though it was technically in Greece; it might have been destroyed.  But in the 1990s, it was rediscovered.   
Sykes’s family decided not to have his body repatriated; they were living in Australia by that time, and felt that it was a peaceful spot.  But the Commonwealth War Graves Commission made it a headstone.  It is to the same pattern as all the other CWGC headstones in war cemeteries across the world.  Only this one stands alone.
Incidentally, if you’d like to see the cover of my book War Memorial, which took me to the mountains of Northern Greece, click here.

Greek pilgrimage — I pay my respects to history and the Herbert family

This is Paramythia, in northern Greece.  It means the valley of the legends, and to the Ancient Greeks it was the limit of the known world.  Nearby flows the river Kalamos, which was to them the river Styx across which the dead were ferried on their way to Hades.  It’s a broad valley, high up and surrounded by mountains – a good place for the British to hide an airfield when they were attacking the Italians, attempting to invade Greece from Albania, which is not far away.

211 Squadron came here, bombing ports along the Albanian coast.  They had previously been in the Western Desert, again fighting the Italians; and it was because the Duce had done badly there that he turned to Greece.  But despite his boasts, his army was miserably equipped and poorly led, and the Greeks drove it back.  Then the Germans decided to do he job properly, and came down through the Balkans.  Between them, the Greeks and the RAF could muster around 80 planes, whereas the Luftwaffe had 700.  It was an unequal contest.

I took the ferry from Corfu to Igoumenitsa, and from there a taxi.  There’s a new road, sliced out of the mountainside, and it’s safer than the old one, with its corkscrew bends.  When 211 Squadron were here, local people travelled by donkey.  There were so few buildings in the valley that the airstrip could have been put anywhere that was flat.  That’s not quite the case now; a few villas have been built in the valley and the village of Paramythia has spruced itself up.  A café has some pictures of the old days on its tables and walls.  The taxi driver took some advice about lunch, and we ate something with a friend of his; extra beers were pressed on us, plates of specialities that we hadn’t ordered brought out.  But after the courtesies had been observed, we were able to follow his little car for a few kilometres out of the village.  This was where the airfield had been, he told us.  A road cut across it, and a new villa with orange trees in front of it stood to one side.  There was nothing to be seen but reeds, a bit of scrub; the local people no longer have to wring every last ounce of profit from the land.  It was, though, from here that Richard Herbert – Herby as he was known to his fellow officers and crew – took off on Easter Day 1941.

Richard is one of three Herbert brothers whose names are on the war memorial at Lydford in Devon.  All joined the RAF, all were killed.  Richard was slight, pale, with neatly brilliantined hair.  He was 21, quiet but popular in the mess.  He loved flying and it was difficult to keep him on the ground.  In September 1940, he and his crew had had a near brush with death when they flew a Blenheim Mk 1 bomber out to the Western Desert.  They hit a thunderstorm and only just succeeded in limping into Malta to refuel.  But he’d recovered his sang froid by the time they flew over the pyramids, observing laconically: ‘terrible waste of stone, what?’
That Easter Day, April 13, 1941, the squadron was attempting to halt the German advance, as troops poured through the Monastir Gap near Florina.  One Blenheim was sent off on a reconnaissance mission.  There were six other functional Blenheims, one of them being Richard’s.  He had already flown twice that day.  Usually the aircraft were escorted by Hurricane fighters.  This time the Hurricanes weren’t there.  Over Florina, the Blenheims were spotted by German Messerschmitt 109s, better armed and more manoeuvrable than the Blenheims.  211 squadron formed up into a defensive box and headed west, into the sun – it gave their gunners an advantage.  But it wasn’t enough.  Every one was shot down.  Richard’s plane came down over woods near Lake Prespa.  Airmen were seen jumping, but it was already too near the ground for their parachutes to open.

There is little enough to see at Paramythia.  But I still feel that coming here is a pilgrimage.

More about my book War Memorial here.

In Parliament, there’s more talent in the Lords. Or so Lady Thatcher told me

Stop me if I’m boring you, but here is the second in my series of extracts from my book Inside House of Lords. It was published in 1998, on the eve of the last paroxysm of reform, and so in some respects has a nostalgic cast.  But I like the quotation from Lady Thatcher.

The best moment to see the Lords is at Question Time, which starts at
two thirty–five on every day that they sit.  Your first impression is
probably of the chamber itself: rich, solemn, encrusted with decoration,
dominated at one end by the blaze of gold which is the throne: on all
occasions except the State opening of Parliament, an empty seat.    Red
is the colour: it has been since the sixteenth century. 
Look a little more closely, and you will start to think that architecture is telling you something.  There are knights in the canopy above the throne,
knightly figures (in fact Magna Cart barons) along the walls between
the windows, frescoes (if you look for them) showing the Black Prince
and other chivalric heroes, all manner of heraldic devices in the
ceiling, if only distance and the bright lights necessary for the
television cameras would let you see them.   Valour is interwoven with
religion, since much of the ornament, with it angels and other carving,
might have come from a church.  A big fresco above the throne depicts
the Baptism of King Ethelbert by St Augustine.  As represented through
the decoration, this is an Upper House for saints and heroes. 
But then regard the peers, sitting on their leather benches in rows,
rather as though they were in a particularly well–appointed railway
carriage.  Unexpectedly, perhaps, every seat on the benches is taken.  In
the middle of the room, in front of the throne, reposes the rather lonely
figure of the Lord Chancellor, isolated both by his position on the
woolsack and the unusual circumstance of his wearing a long grey wig. (Remember, I wrote this before the Blair reforms outlawed the Lord Chancellor’s stockings.  In fact abolished the Lord Chancellor altogether.  He’s been replaced by the Lord Speaker.) There are three clerks, also in gowns and wigs: short wigs but of different styles, either soft and round like a powder puff or rolled into hard curls.  Around them peers who cannot fit onto the benches have lodged themselves on any available surface.  Some stand at the bar: so to speak, the altar rail that separates the holy of holies from the outside world.  Peers speak; ministers answer; most of the figures on the benches sit immobile as effigies.  But there is also a constant
current of movement, as the chief whip passes a note to one of the
clerks and a doorkeeper, immensely grand in his tail coat, white tie and
gilt chain –– far better turned out than any of the peers –– scans the
faces of those present to deliver a message.  At the end of each reply, a
handful of peers half rise to their feet, then subside again, deferring
with good–humoured, if sometimes over–elaborate, courtesy to the one¿
of their number upon whom it falls to ask the next question.  The
constant bustle suggests a station waiting room when the train is
about to move off.
Ignore all the movement, and even the questions, and run your eyes
along those robustly upholstered benches.  They present a remarkable
study in physiognomy.  The rich panelling, with its endlessly repeating
linenfold, could almost have been designed for the display of heads.
There are heads of all kinds: some familiar from political stardom and
media appearances, some unknown outside the chamber, some
intellectual, some etiolated, some fleshly, some shrunken, some
bearded with a profusion one had thought to have gone out of fashion
with the daguerreotype, some of an singularity so marked as to be
unbelievable at first sight.  The character and variety of these heads is
really one of the wonders of Britain.  They show individuality.  Often
they bear the impress of years, and are none the worse for it.  These
are not the septuagenarian baby faces that one sees, for example, in the
United States, from whose tanned surface all evidence of past
struggles has been erased; the physiognomy of Britain’s peers is, on the
whole, an essay in long experience.  Here we have what might be
described as a whole menagerie of facial types, from marmoset to
marsupial, from ox to osprey, from collie dog to camel.  There are peers
who are squirrels,  peers who are reptiles, peers who are tufted owls.
A menagerie or an aquarium: the gene pool from which they are fished
is, quite obviously, deep indeed. 
Some peers inherit their titles, some are appointed by the prime
minister of the day for life.  It is for god, rather than man, to say
whether this assembly possesses wisdom, but it certainly forms a
repository of specialist knowledge.  ‘There is more expertise per
square foot here than in any forum in the world,’ says the rabbinical
scholar Lord Jakobovits.  He finds that he must put more effort into
preparing a speech for the Lords than for a learned society.  Lady
Thatcher, who never seemed to have much time for the Lords when she
was Prime Minister, now says there is ‘better talent here, particularly
in the sciences, than in the House of Commons’.  The talent takes
various kinds, balancing knowledge of world of politics and men with
expertise in science, foreign affairs, agriculture, the arts, justice and
religion, which can in turn be broken down into a thousand specialisms
from pesticides to fine art auctioneering.
More on the wide-ranging expertise of the hereditary peers in my blog for the Daily Mail.  I see that Oxfam in Wallingford are offering a good deal on a second hand copy of the book if you’re interested.

The Corinthian capital of polished society….and of the British Parliament

‘Nobility is a graceful ornament to the civil order.  It is the Corinthian
capital of polished society.’
                           Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790.  

In 1998, when the House of Lords was on the eve of its last reform — the one that threw out most of the hereditary peers — I wrote a book about it.  Inside the House of Lords was the title, and it was magnificiently illustrated by one of the peers, although one who did not attend very much: Derry Moore, whose other name is Earl of Drogheda.  It was a sumptuous production, but now out of print.  Now, Lords reform has limped back onto the agenda.  After blogging about it yesterday for the Daily Mail, I thought I might see if I could find the electronic text.  Yes, and by a miracle of digital memory, I did.  Over the next few days I’m going to resurrent salient passages in case anyone thinks they’re worth revisiting.  

The House of Lords is, almost literally, an incredible institution.  You
can hardly believe it.  Nobody would have invented it, in its present
form.  Nobody have done so: no single brain, even that of a
constitutional genius or comic opera librettist, could have devised the
peculiar means of selection, the character of those attending, the
rigmarole to which grown men happily (usually it is happily) submit
themselves, the anomalies, the curiosity of the traditions or the
panoply of the architecture (it took both Charles Barry and A.W.N.Pugin
to do that).  Nor, in an age of democracy, can very  much of it be
defended, except by one cogent argument –– the most cogent of all.
Most people, certainly if they are peers, seem to think that it works.
Governments wishing to reform Britain’s upper house are apt to find it
a tough bird to chew.    
The Lords have influence, but remarkably little power: that lies in the
Commons.  But they are the senior house.  Their history is longer;
constitutionally, the Commons look up to them just as they look up to
the monarch.  Their chamber, not that of the Commons, is, strictly
speaking, the Parliament, for it is only there that the three estates of
the realm –– Monarch, Lords and Commons –– assemble together (albeit,
these days, only at the State opening of Parliament).  This hierarchy is
expressed in the architecture.  The Palace of Westminster is still
exactly that: a royal palace.  The most ornate, most gilded, parts are
those associated with the Queen.  Decoratively, the climax of the whole
work is the Queen’s throne in the Lords chamber.  Naturally, since the
monarch has not been persona grata in the Commons since the Civil
War, these areas of pageantry occur only on the Lords side of the
building.  And the whole of the Lords, being the upper house, is more
sumptuous than the Commons.  There is more carving, more colour and
more gold.  The architecture implies that, to its nineteenth century
creators, the Commons might just as well have been peopled with
tradesmen as Members of Parliament.  It is the Lords that forms, as the
Illustrated London News ineffably put it on April 17, 1847, ‘the most
elaborate specimen –– the artistical nucleus, as it were, of the superb
and stupendous whole.’
In the twentieth century these differences have been exaggerated by
the Blitz –– a time still remembered by the ninety–year–old Lady
Hylton-Foster (until two years ago the convenor of the unaffiliated
cross–bench peers in the House of Lords), whose nightly job it then
was, as a red cross nurse whose father happened to be the Speaker of
the House of Commons, to patrol the dozen or so first aid posts around
the blackened corridors of the Palace with the aid of nothing but a
pencil torch.  (‘One night I got lost,’ she remembers.  ‘I sat down on
something and found it was the Woolsack.)  Bombing destroyed Barry
and Pugin’s Commons chamber, blew out most of Pugin’s glass from the
palace, but did little damage to the Lords.  When the Commons was
rebuilt after the War, its decoration was simplified, while that in the
Lords, however, survived with every crocket and trefoil of its original