The forgotten European empire

The Roman Empire seems to be a constant source of fascination two-millennium later. From 27 BCE to 476 AD (or CE if you prefer) the empire ruled Europe, Asia Minor and parts of Africa. Immortalized by Shakespeare and many others, you can now even watch a series on Netflix that tries to dramatize many of its major events. It had a good run in its five hundred years until the Visigoths finally sacked Rome and ended the empire.

Still, the Roman Empire can’t quite hold a candle to the Holy Roman Empire for endurance. The Holy Roman what? The Holy Roman Empire, dude! You say you never heard of it? You are hardly alone there. I think it was about fifteen years ago, reading a history book that I first encountered mention of the Holy Roman Empire. Maybe my course in European history was a bit rushed, but I was taken aback that there was this other empire that far outlasted Rome, which I never heard of before. Yet it lasted a thousand years, from 800 to 1806 AD. So it’s an empire that lasted twice as long as the Roman Empire and even shared much of its name. Yet at least here in the Western Hemisphere it’s largely unknown.

During the time of Emperor Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Empire technically owned much of the known world, including the New World, recently discovered by Christopher Columbus. Yes, technically Massachusetts where I live now was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, as was all of North, South and Central America, not to mention much of central Europe because in the beginning there was only Spain in the new world. At the time Spain was a kingdom but also part of the Holy Roman Empire, so Emperor Max had lordship of a sort over all its dominions.

In November of last year I was in New York City and took in an exhibition on chivalry during his reign at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I learned this fact and more, and well as walked around mouth agape at the astonishing array of shiny and ornate armor preserved from his reign, which you can see in this book, which my wife bought me. She also bought me a history book of the empire by scholar Peter H. Wilson.

For about six months I’ve been slowly slogging my way through the book. It’s quite scholarly but not particularly engaging, but certainly feels comprehensive. The bulk of the book is over six hundred pages long; and there are nearly half as many pages of footnotes and a bibliography after that.

So why does the Roman Empire get all the credit while the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted twice as long and is certainly the longest lived empire in the West, hardly get any mention?

Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, founded the empire. Charlemagne kept conquering other countries and territories. An empire is basically a collection of countries and territories, which is why the Roman Empire wasn’t a true empire until 27BCE. It first had a reign as a republic that lasted a few centuries. The Holy Roman Empire though was basically central Europe. It had no established capital, but its heart was modern day Germany, Switzerland and Austria. It also included Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland, as well as many minor Baltic states like Lithuania. It also generally included Italy, which is where the Roman part comes in, as well as parts of Spain, France and the Netherlands. Technically even Sweden was part of the empire. Austria and Prussia though were two major powerhouse countries in the empire, often chafing at the presence of the other.

Its name really made no sense. It was neither particularly holy, nor really Roman (predominantly it was German) nor arguably much of an empire. Its borders were constantly changing, as well as the way it was managed. Here in the United States we can’t help but remember our own Civil War. States within the Holy Roman Empire were often at war with each other, something I believe the Roman Empire largely escaped except with the partition of its eastern and western spheres. It’s a world that to us Americans looks pretty weird. Its name was probably an attempt to assert it was a newer and better Roman Empire, with Christianity at its core.

It was however an institution of a sort that worked reasonably well in a hands-off, decentralized way, which turned out to be good considering all the change it endured over a thousand years. It began in a post Roman, pre-Medieval world and ended with the Industrial Revolution. It might be creaking around today had not Napoleon finally brought the empire to its end in 1806. No common language really united it, although German was the predominant one. In its early years, to deal with all the language issues, Latin was used to conduct business, and most of its rules were oral; there being no printing presses back then. Fealty was really important to make it work at all. There were plenty of non-German speaking people in this empire, which had something to do with its amorphous feel of not being a real empire. Over its thousand years though three groups generally controlled it: the Carolingians, the Hohenstaufens and the Habsburgs.

Its governance today looks really strange too. One of the problems reading the history I read is to understand the bizarre assortment of controlling entities, which constantly shifted. The empire was a collection of kingdoms, and the kings were generally given broad discretion in exchange for fealty. But there were also princes, lords, knights, margraves, dukes, counts and lots of other titles that seem lost to history and meaning today. Wilson doesn’t bother to explain much about what these titles meant, but I was able to pick up quite a bit of it. Princes actually had dominions in the olden days that they controlled. They were basically minor kings. Counts were like minor princes; indeed the term county apparently comes from the fact that they were ruled by counts.

Then there were various ecclesiastical figures, not to mention ecclesiastical territories managed by clerics, which got much more complicated during the Reformation. In a way the empire’s wishy-washiness was an asset during the Reformation, giving it agility to hold a loose conglomeration of people together despite these seismic religious changes.

But perhaps the real reason the Holy Roman Empire isn’t talked about much is that its accomplishments were pretty mundane. It was often too busy fighting wars on multiple fronts to act imperialistic. Turkey was a constant threat. Except for during Maximilian’s reign, it really was never a gigantic empire. Unlike the Mongols, it didn’t control territory that amounted to all of Asia.

But like a brown dwarf star, it was good at enduring, just sloppily. Any entity that can stay together, even as a loose confederation, for a thousand years must have done something right. While the empire never felt like it excelled in accomplishments, it at least excelled at endurance. It needed to be sexier though, which is probably why it seems so forgotten while the Roman Empire’s shorter stint seems much more worthy of remembering.

Chaos causes more chaos

For those of you pining for anarchy, look around. Happy yet?

You should be ecstatic. For the rest of us, it’s feeling a lot like hell. Yesterday’s job report showed a 14.5% unemployment rate and more than twenty million newly unemployed people. The real unemployment rate is likely above twenty percent. Meanwhile, civil society is getting increasingly uncivil. Although less than thirty percent of us want to stop social distancing, those thirty percent are making a huge ruckus. They want to go back to the way things were, as if that were suddenly possible. Who cares if it kills grandma? Real freedom means being able to eat a Big Mac at 2 AM.

A few dozen of these idiots were protesting locally in Northampton, Massachusetts on the Coolidge Bridge, which spans the Connecticut River. The good news is that Massachusetts’s idiots are not quite a stupid at Duval County Florida idiots; some of who are rubbing shoulders on Jacksonville area beaches. About half of our protesters were wearing masks and at least attempting to keep a social distance. I hope they got it out of their system and returned to staying at home. We’ve managed to plateau COVID-19 infections here locally. It wouldn’t take too many of these protests to push the rate up again. And these idiots would be some of the most likely to contract the disease, and show Darwinism in action.

We spend billions of dollars a year supposedly to mitigate the risks for pandemics like we are experiencing. This crisis has revealed how poorly these agencies are doing their jobs. The Centers for Disease Control apparently has a set of guidelines for more safely opening up local economies. But they won’t see the light of day because the Trump administration won’t let them publish them. The part of our government that is supposed to function, the Executive Branch, is being held hostage by a constantly vacillating “president”. Voters elected Donald Trump because he was going to bring change to Washington.

Well good news there! Trump has brought change to Washington. He’s changed our government from one that often worked in the interests of the people to one wholly captive to his constant changes of mind, mood swings, tweets and general obnoxiousness. He has no idea what he is doing because he has spent his career running things chaotically. And his narcissism makes him impervious to criticism.

He’s a seventy-something Calvin (from Calvin & Hobbes), still in his terrible twos. I was all for his White House COVID-19 task force shutting down. They weren’t doing anything useful anyhow, because doing something requires a plan. Trump is incapable of adhering to any plan and will change his mind on a dime if he thinks it will improve his reelection prospects. The result of course is chaos. A chaotic mind with power is bound to cause a lot of chaos.

So of course we’re not doing the sensible stuff other countries have done to get them out of their COVID-19 quagmires. The USA has 5% of the world’s population and as of today 32% of its reported cases, and the number of reported cases vastly undercounts the likely number of cases. We also have 28% of the deaths, also probably vastly understated.

The testing that we are actually doing is a tiny fraction of the testing needed to determine whether it is safe to reopen local economies. There is no coordination or marshaling of resources so the pandemic can be fought logically. Trump finds it convenient to push responsibility onto the governors. It’s easier to do this than think and plan, things he is utterly incapable of doing. And of course, it allows him to blame others. Meanwhile his son-in-law Jared Kushner has been trying to deal with the issue by getting unpaid interns to dial around for masks and personal protective equipment. They have no experience in this and have proven ineffective, but neither does Jared Kushner.

We do have this entity called the Defense Logistics Agency whose mission is to adroitly find, marshal and distribute supplies just for things like this. It has 26,000 people trained to do exactly this who could be put to work. Logistics though is anathema to this administration. Logistics implies thought, order and planning. It’s quite likely that no one in the White House even knows the DLA exists. If Trump wanted to help his reelection prospects, he could put a general in charge of the effort then shut up about COVID-19 and let the professionals do their work. But of course he can’t. He will vacillate on anything. The DLA’s role in this crisis is ancillary at best.

Trump likes to say that nobody knows more about X than he does. The truth is just about anyone, even you, know more about X than he does. I suspect any of you reading this could do a better job of managing the procurement of nasal swabs than Trump or Jared Kushner. In fact, when Trump says nobody knows more than me about X, it’s a sure sign his narcissism is acting up again and he feels the need to cover for his deficiencies. Nobody knows more about nuclear proliferation than Donald Trump, someone who hardly ever reads. Yet some of his supporters actually believe this stuff. The truth is, Trump is dumb as dirt. By applauding this idiot his supporters are revealing they should be considered dumb as dirt too.

Trump’s one skill is simple carnival barking. He knows how to throw up a show. He knows how to entertain. He knows how to project what he wants to project. He gives his supporters what they want: validation, outrage and entertainment. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we need competence and true governance, something he is incapable of.

The result is the chaos all around us: twenty million unemployed and a country rapidly devolving into third world status. If that’s what you voted for, congratulations. Trump is doing a great job.

Remembering Apollo 11

My best friend Tom and I were big space program fans back in the day, but in truth most Americans were as well. We were just more obsessed about it than most. The space program was a BFD in the 1960s, and our nation’s progress in space went at an extremely accelerated rate. That can happen when the nation focuses on a problem and it was a good problem to have. It made us feel better about not having put the first satellite or astronaut into space. Unlike the unwinnable war in Vietnam it didn’t involve killing anyone. Rather, it stirred our imaginations and better natures. We felt so lucky to be alive when an event of such importance was happening. Even better, we could watch grainy images of the events at time from 230,000 miles away, the general distance between the earth and moon, with about a second and a half delay.

I was twelve years old at the time, and these events came in rapid succession. Just eight months earlier, Apollo 8 had orbited the moon and safely returned, our first manned journey beyond earth orbit. That too was incredibly dangerous and daring. Apollo 9 tested the lunar module from the safety of an earth orbit, minus the actual landing of course. Apollo 10, less than two months before Apollo 11’s landing, did the same a few miles above the moon’s surface. Even so, Apollo 11 felt daring and in truth it was very dangerous. NASA generally did things cautiously, but arguably it should have been more cautious. The late President Kennedy had challenged the nation to put a man on the moon before 1970, so the pressure was on.

It would take moving to Florida some years later to see an actual rocket launch. I saw two of them: the last Saturn V launch which catapulted Skylab into orbit from about nine miles away, and a Saturn 1B launch that was used for a joint docking exercise between the USA and the Soviet Union from about three miles away (we got a special pass). For one of them my friend Tom made the journey from New York to see it with me. But by 1972 the nation lost interest. Apollo 11’s landing was a great climax. Apollo 13’s misfortune made for a great national story, but generally the nation quickly moved on after Apollo 11, which was a shame because each subsequent mission got more interesting and more challenging.

So my perspective of the landing came from a lot of obsessive reading about the space program and a lot of watching TV. One of the few decisions we had back then was which network to watch it on. We chose CBS because then CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite was equally obsessed by the space program. Astronaut Wally Schirra, who managed to fly Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, was Walt’s right hand guy giving an astronaut’s perspective. That was a hard combination to beat. Aside from the many, many commercials from Tang and the International Paper Company on CBS, there was some cheesy CBS animation depicting events that could not be televised. CBS’s animation showed the lunar module landing some thirty seconds before when it actually did. There was no way to slow it down with the animation of the time.

There was that and the static-filled conversations between astronauts in Eagle (the lunar module), Columbia (the command module) and Mission Control in Houston, much of it technical and hard to decipher. The landing happened in the afternoon for us on the east coast. The first moonwalk though was the even more exciting event, which happened sometime around midnight. We got special parental dispensation to stay up late, but Aldrin wasn’t even on the surface before I was shuffled off to bed. The images from the lunar surface were in black and white, and were later broadcast in color in later missions. Buzz Aldrin noted the “magnificent desolation” of the moon and it sure seemed that way to us here on earth. It was a time of great national pride and unity, which is pretty much the antithesis of what we have now. Fifty years later, our country looks like a shell of what it was in 1969, even factoring in the divisive Vietnam War and racial strife that also characterized the 1960s.

I’ll certainly be dead 50 years from now, but there’s probably an even chance I’ll be alive to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Apollo 11’s landing. Two of the Apollo 11 astronauts are still with us (Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins), but we lost Neil Armstrong in 2013. Both Michael and Buzz look ancient as they are both age 89 at the moment. But both still have their wits about them. I’m glad they are still around to share their memories.

Fifty years later, we can unquestionably say that this was the biggest event in the history of the human race, at least so far. Even a manned landing on Mars will feel anticlimactic. Should we ever make it as as a race to a planet around another solar system, that will be perhaps a greater event. If it ever happens though, it’s unlikely anyone who watched the crew depart will be around to celebrate.

An appreciation for George H.W. Bush

There is perhaps some irony in the passing of our 41st president and the sad sack of shit we currently have as president. I loathed George W. Bush as president, but his father was a good president, which is hard for this Democrat to admit. George H.W. Bush was a moderate Republican from a different era, and one of the few Republicans that I genuinely respected and whose presidency was effective and well managed. In the future, if Republicans want to have any hope of having their nominee elected, he or she will have to act and look a whole lot more like 41 and a whole lot less than 45.

That 41 (I will use his number for convenience) did not win reelection was something of a fluke. He should have. It’s just that the 1992 election was weirdly complicated. Specifically, it had a viable third party candidate, Ross Perot, who managed to siphon off 19% of the vote. Most of Perot’s votes came from Republicans or Republican-leaning independents. Both parties learned from Perot’s candidacy. Mainly they learned to nip these in the bud and not let an independent candidate get in an official presidential debate in the first place. Perot was in many ways a harbinger of Donald Trump: plainspoken, rich but unlike Trump transparently honest. Tea-partiers to be found a lot to like in Perot: something unconventional and different who was also very concerned about spending and outsourcing. So did some Democrats, who didn’t particularly like Bill Clinton as their nominee.

41 was an effective president for many of the reasons that disqualify nominees today: he was one of those elite insiders. His father was a senator from Connecticut who groomed him for public life. 41 was thrown at a variety of bureaucratic roles and mastered them all from U.N. Ambassador to CIA Director. Bush was basically a stereotypical New Englander: born in Massachusetts, residing in Connecticut through his childhood years and spending summers in Kennebunkport, Maine. Officially he resided in Texas, but he never really seemed Texan. He was a New Englander in spirit, and that included his moderate Republicanism. New England is one of the few areas of the country where you can still find moderate Republicans.

Of course he was not a perfect president. It’s not hard to find things about him that rankled me, such as his cutting of funding for AIDS research. But he was unusually sober, and fully versed on the complexity of the modern world from having experienced it in so many roles in service of his country. He was perhaps best as Commander in Chief, assembling a coalition to evict Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, doing it at a modest and shared cost, and mindful (unlike his son) of the complexity of politics in the area, and the danger of removing Saddam altogether.

He was wise enough when running against Ronald Reagan to declare that Reagan was a believer in “Voodoo economics”, a term I’m pretty sure he coined. He was proven right; both Reagan, his son and now Trump ran up disastrous deficits. His attempt to stem the federal deficit by increasing revenues in a compromise with a Democratic congress earned him heaps of scorn from fellow Republicans, but it was a smart approach. Unfortunately this, plus an ill-timed recession largely due to the Gulf War ultimately doomed his reelection prospects.

In 2006, I rated our 20th century Republican presidents. George H.W. Bush is my pick as the best of the lot since Teddy Roosevelt. Pragmatic, world-wise, affable, sober and serious, he turned out to be the president we needed, just not the one we wanted.

History will treat he and his administration very kindly. It has already rendered judgment on his son’s, and it’s not flattering.

A short visit to Minneapolis-St. Paul

Life can be busy when you are retired. For me it’s been busy in a good way, meaning I took a mini vacation last week. This had the effect of keeping me from blogging. It meant a 4-day trip to Minneapolis-St. Paul to attend a reunion related to my last job.

Our hotel turned out to be a mile away from the Mall of America (MoA), so when we weren’t doing tours or attending a banquet we were often at the mall for dinner and to gawk at its immensity, its indoor amusement park and its four levels of shopping. It’s so big that there are two or three stores for some retail brands in the Mall. I guess they want to make sure they have you coming or going.

The MoA is definitely worth a visit, even if you are not into malls or shopping in particular. If it’s available for retail, it’s probably somewhere in the MoA, if you can find it. Thinking of our tiny Hampshire Mall, I’m guessing you could fit a hundred of those in the MoA and still have a floor or two to spare.

The trip was a good change of pace. Minneapolis-St. Paul is a beautify area, at least near the end of summer: prosperous and clean where the run down houses are few and the streets look regularly swept. If life were longer I might want to move there. It has it all: two major cities close to each other, light rail connecting cities with the burbs, three major rivers including the mighty Mississippi, bluffs along the rivers, major arts, sports and events venues and 10,000 glacial lakes to choose from within the state.

It’s also got history of sorts. St. Paul was a big gangster haven during and after Prohibition. We took a Gangsta Tour that included a tour guide who was also an actress. She stayed in character the whole time as we looked at a speakeasy built into some sandstone cliffs and saw houses where various mobsters and gangsters hung out. She played the sister of a woman married to the mob and provided colorful insights into the mobsters of the time. St. Paul was known back then as a safe city, not meaning it was a particularly safe community but that gangsters could hang out there with impunity as long as the police got their payola and you refrained from open violence.

Today the biggest scandal is probably Garrison Keillor’s (“A Prairie Home Companion”) alleged sexual harassment. He did well enough though to buy a fine home in St. Paul’s most exclusive neighborhood: Summit Street, which we drove down. He shares this street with previous luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis.

With Hurricane Florence wreaking havoc on the Mid-Atlantic States, I was a bit anxious about flight delays. Thankfully we had direct flights between here that were on time, making our air travel relatively painless for a change. Florence did eventually catch up with us here in Florence, Massachusetts. It resulted in three inches of rain yesterday and the report of one missing woman who was stupidly swimming in the local Mill River. They are looking for her body on the river.

Back to more germane topics in the days ahead.

Two book reviews: “After Lincoln” and “City of Dreams”

I’m back home after 19 days away. I’d like to say I was on the road but most of it was on a cruise ship so technically I was on the seas. When not at ports of call, cruise ships do give you downtime. With no Internet, there was time to do something I should do more of: read books. I completed two books on the trip, both worth your time if you are into histories.

After Lincoln: How the North Won the Civil War and Lost the Peace
By A. J. Langguth
ISBN 978-1-4516-1733-7

It’s curious how many books you can find on the Civil War but how few you will find about Reconstruction: the time after the Civil War when the slaves were technically freed but not quite equal citizens. This book by the late USC professor A.J. Langguth (1933-2014) finished in the year of his death delves into the messiness of the post Civil War years. You are introduced to a cast of characters including a number of rogues. The title gives away the ending, in case you are unfamiliar with U.S. history. What is truly heartbreaking is how much overt discrimination remains 140 years later. Moreover, the parallels between Andrew Johnson (who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination) and Donald Trump are more than a little creepy. (Trump though is actually worse.)

The book does not start immediately after Lincoln’s murder. Most chapters delve into particular historical figures, fills in their biographies before reconstruction and tell the roles that they played. It’s quite a gamut of figures: from Nathan Bedford Forest who founded the KKK (and led a very successful cavalry for the Confederacy) to Pickney Pinchback, half black by birth (white slaveowner, black slave) but all black in the eyes of society. He won election to the U.S. House and Senate for Louisiana, but was not permitted by Congress to actually be seated. There are also names that might ring bells from newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, to Secretary of State William Henry Seward (who bought Alaska for the U.S.) to presidents that served during this time. Johnson is the most infamous since he was impeached (but not convicted), but the book also covers Ulysses S. Grant’s eight years as president and ends with his more obscure successor: Rutherford B. Hayes.

Langguth’s approach works pretty well because it illuminates these figures while constantly adding backstory and connecting characters. The chapters are just the right size to be comfortable reads without feeling overwhelming. They also draw you in. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were progressive tools that should have made most of these class and race issues moot. By dropping out of the Union, states of the Confederacy gave power to the Republican Party to pass these progressive amendments freeing the slaves, giving them full enfranchisement and equal protection. To say the least the Southern states were put out. They became experts in passive and overt resistance that was occasionally quelled by the introduction of federal troops.

Langguth gets into all the details of how we lost the peace. Basically the South sort of won the Civil War after it lost it for two reasons: Jim Crow laws that courts were reluctant to strike down and northern Republicans who tired of the whole equal enfranchisement business. Essentially a critical mass of white America stopped caring.

At 375 pages (without appendices) it’s an appropriately sized history that should sustain your interest despite the known outcome. The movie Lincoln gave us a taste of some of these figures (like Thaddeus Stevens played by Tommy Lee Jones). Langguth colors in these characters and exposes the macro and micro forces at work during this time. In short, you’d have a hard time finding better book to read about Reconstruction, in part because so few have been written.

City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York
By Tyler Ambinder
ISBN 978-1-328-74551-4

Published in 2016, this book is one that I don’t think has been done before: a deep dive into New York City’s 400 years of history with a special emphasis on its many immigrant communities: who came, how they interacted, where they settled, who succeeded, who failed and the many tensions of living in this biggest of cities. Ambinder, a professor of history at George Washington University, fills out the story in part by documenting his own relatives’ paths.

This is a real tome: 738 pages, 570 pages without the appendices. It’s also the kind of history that I like best: that tells me things I would never learn otherwise. It’s a work of immense scholarship but written so well that at times you can’t put it down. To me the most interesting and appalling part of the book is its discussion of immigrants transit to America in the mid 19th century, which for most of our ancestors meant steerage class on a sailing ship: a slow trip to America in the bowels of the ship where sickness, overcrowding, darkness, dysentery and literal bowels made the journey hellish with many casualties along the way. The fetid atmosphere described almost rises from those pages.

Curiously it intersects frequently with After Lincoln since the era around and after the Civil War forms a significant chunk of this tome. You see some of the same characters in both books, such as Horace Greeley and cartoonist Thomas Nast. Both books cover the draft riots in New York during the Civil War too. New York started out as New Amsterdam and was hence a Dutch colony, but the Dutch couldn’t hold onto it particularly as colonies around it became British possessions. People arrived by the boatloads. New York quickly became the largest city in the world. Jamming so many people into the city was done poorly at best. Most immigrants ended up in crazily crowded tenement housing, with populations per square mile so dense that they rivaled anything ever seen before. Ambinder also shines with his extensive look into tenement housing, whose details are equally as appalling as the passage of people in steerage class during the days of the sailing ships.

New York first previewed America’s coming ethnic tensions. How could it be otherwise when so many ethnicities were jammed together into so small a space? Then as now people self segregated themselves by ethnicity. For a very long time the Irish dominated the city. If the word Tammany Hall rings a bell, you’ll learn a lot about the Irish that ran it mostly corruptly while also giving employment to huge numbers of immigrants.

Ambinder though shows us that regardless of the time it’s always the same story. It’s only the cast of characters that rotate. In the 19th century the Irish were oppressed. The cartoonist Nast even drew them with gorilla foreheads. The No Nothing Party of the 19th Century was formed principally to keep the wrong kind of immigrants (the Irish in particular) out. Like Trump today, the No Nothings wanted only the right people to be Americans. Eventually though it was the Irish that saw themselves the most legitimate of New Yorkers and they worked to repress other groups, like the Italians. Having felt discriminated they seem to delight in dishing it out.

Ambinder’s detail is often staggering, but mostly it’s an engaging read. If it drags, it is only near the end where we see New York’s latest immigrants (mostly from the West Indies) going through this pattern yet again. As recently as the 1990s, whites in Queens were bashing in the heads of West Indies immigrants when they happened to stray into their ethnic enclaves. With Muslims pouring in today, Ambinder makes it clear that they too will become part of our fabric and that our fear of them is ridiculous.

I read a lot of history books and City of Dreams is definitely in the top ten percent of my favorites. It may be a tome, but it is definitely worth your time.

London, Part 5 (Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, Oxford and some travel notes)

We reserved our last day in London to escape it and see something other than an impressive city. Fortunately it’s not hard to do. There are bus companies that do these sorts of things. (We chose an Evan Evans tour.) One advantage of being sixty is for one of the first times in my life I could get a senior discount. Also, the tour company picks you up at the hotel and delivers you back to an Underground station, so it was convenient as well. The trick is to not pick too long a tour. One that took us to Bath would have been more than 15 hours! As it was ours was a busy twelve-hour tour.

You also get a feel for life outside of the city. Southern England is not exactly flat but there are no mountains to speak of. The closest parallel here in the United States is southeastern and central Ohio, with the exception being that England has a much better infrastructure. There are fewer large roads but more railway stations. Since it gets plenty of rain and moisture, it is a lush if often overcast land.

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle – Buckingham Palace in London is the Queen’s primary residence, but it’s not particularly pretty, just very convenient for facilitating her busy schedule. She puts in more than 300 appearances a year, not bad for an old monarch who recently turned 90. I can understand why given the choice she would prefer to be elsewhere. In fact she was in residence when we visited Windsor Castle, as evidenced by her flag flying from the castle’s flagstaff. It didn’t slow us down taking the public tour, along with thousands of others – it’s quite a hopping tourist destination. The Queen stayed in her private chambers while we walked its inner courtyard and then ascended into the residence itself. The tour is quite impressive. Windsor Castle is on par with Versailles but has quite a view on its knob of a hill. The tour will take you through many rooms, including the king’s bedchamber, various libraries, studies and whole rooms that are nothing more than pantries with priceless plates and such that are probably rarely used. (Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the residence.) It’s unlikely that Britons will have to fight off an armed invasion with swords, pikes and suits of armor. Should it ever be necessary, there are thousands of these items to gawk at behind secure displays along with endless amounts of artwork. Originally built by the French during the Norman years, today the castle still impressed; even on a dreary day like the day we visited. The city of Windsor can be found just outside its gates. Windsor Castle is definitely worth a day trip.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

Stonehenge – To visit Stonehenge, drive a couple of hours west onto the Salisbury Plain. You can see Stonehenge from the highway in the distance but of course it’s better to get a closer look. It’s a Celtic henge (a circle of stone or wooden uprights; there were wooden ones too that did not survive) that acted as something of a calendar and celestial navigator for these ancient people, not to mention a place of public sacrifice. It’s not exactly the pyramids, but Stonehenge at least predates most of the pyramids. For its time it was quite a logistical feat to simply quarry and move the stones more than thirty miles into position, let alone to position them for astronomical events. Stonehenge sits literally in the middle of nowhere. It is frequently windy on the Salisbury Plain with gale force winds the day we were there. It was hard not to be swept away by the wind. You can’t actually touch the stones but you can walk around it. There is a visitors’ center a short bus ride away. What you will learn is how little is actually known. You can see many earthen mounds nearby, burial sites for prominent people of the time it was built and most actively used (3100BC – 1600 BC). We toured Stonehenge a few days before the equinox, which explained a long row of RVs nearby. There is still a pagan community in England (and elsewhere) to celebrate these celestial events.

Oxford
Oxford

Oxford – In fact, there is no official Oxford University, but there are a host of independent colleges in Oxford butt up against each other that compete with similar universities in Cambridge, England for being the center of learning, really in the world. Among its graduates were our tour guide, who has a degree in History from an Oxford college and apparently a peerage title he never uses. He regaled us with fascinating stories of what it’s like to study there, and showed us many of the haunts frequented by the best and the brightest, including pubs that go back to Tudor times. He showed us the pub where C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien argued about religion (Lewis was COE, Tolkien a Catholic). While not quite the Shire or even Bree, you can certainly understand why Tolkien found inspiration here. Oxford is chock full of the best and brightest with impossibly high standards and rules that are easily broken and usually lead you to be dismissed if you transgress any of them. If you can afford the tuition and can get accepted, there are no barriers based on age or national origin. Bill Clinton studied at Oxford. The Thames River is much narrower in Oxford, but annually it still hosts a rowing race with Eton College in Cambridge. Oxford is definitely best appreciated with an experienced tour guide and we were blessed to have one to make this grey place flood with color on a dark and dreary evening.

Travel notes

  • It’s not often that I fly on a foreign carrier. We flew British Airways between Boston’s Logan Airport and London’s Heathrow Airport on 747s. Even way back in coach where we were, the service and standards were quite superior. Our meals were tasty, wine didn’t cost extra and the entertainment system was first class. Seats were still narrow and cramped but British Airways easily outshone any American airline I have ever flown on lately. Thanks for making flying fun again!
  • Heathrow is a very impressive airport, with five major terminals but just two east-west runways (a third will apparently be built). Heathrow is also something of a shopping destination as each terminal is pretty much a high-end shopping mall where gates seem somewhat incidental. At least where we were in Terminal E the standards were quite high.
  • No one likes jet lag, but direct flights do make a huge difference in minimizing it, so it’s worth getting a direct flight if one is available. Having a hotel you can crash at without waiting for check in time helped too, and we had that luxury. Getting through customs though was a lengthy process. I was surprised how quickly I adjusted to local time and how fast I adjusted returning home as well.

London, Part 4 (Some sights)

A week in London isn’t much time, so we mostly hit highlights. Even so we missed a lot of things you might think would be must sees: Buckingham Palace, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Parliament (although we did pass Big Ben), 10 Downing Street and many other places. That will leave plenty for our next trip but even with another week, London is so massive that we’d still be scratching the surface. Anyhow, here’s places we did see while in London, aside from theaters, roughly in this order.

Elizabethan Gate to St. Bartholomew the Great Church
Elizabethan Gate to St. Bartholomew the Great Church

St. Bartholomew the Great Church – This church goes back to the 12th century and still has an active congregation. The Priori Church on the main level shows the influence of the Norman architecture of the time. St. Bart was apparently martyred by the pagans for his proselytizing, reportedly flayed alive. In the back of the church you can see a remarkable gold statue of St. Bart holding his own skin, a fairly recent addition and on loan from the artist Damien Hirst. This less often seen church in entered through the Elizabethan Gate, which is one of the few Tudor houses still around.

Sherlock graffiti at St. Bartholomew's Hospital
Sherlock graffiti at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital

St. Bartholomew’s Hospital – England’s oldest hospital it is still in use and not a tourist attraction at all. We didn’t go inside but our guide Helen asked us if it looked familiar. It did, sort of. Here they shot a scene from Sherlock where Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) jumped off the roof to what seems like certain death. Fans of the show left plenty of graffiti on the granite near the street.

Mummy at the British Museum
Mummy at the British Museum

British Museum – The United Kingdom’s human history museum, it makes the Smithsonian’s American History Museum look tiny. It is massive and we only had a chance to see parts of it. The Rosetta Stone is here but so much more, most of it pilfered by the Brits during their colonizing centuries earlier and never returned. We mostly hung around the most ancient parts of the museum, which included a lot of Egyptian mummies, and then we wandered into even more ancient areas like the Sumerian Dynasty. We are looking forward to a few more days to spend exploring it.

Piccadilly Circus
Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus – London’s Times Square hosts a hub on the London Underground and offers a variety of theaters and shopping nearby. No circus here, unless you mean what Brits call a circus, known in the states as a traffic circle or roundabout, and it’s a small one. If there is a center to London, it’s here although it’s actually in Westminster, not the official City of London.

Trafalgar Square
Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square – If Piccadilly Circus is the center of London, Trafalgar Square is its heart. It’s a large open plaza with a huge statue of Lord Horatio Nelson, who is celebrated for his massive victory at Trafalgar off Spain in the 19th century. The epic sea battle led by Admiral Nelson largely destroyed the Spanish Navy and kept Britain from the threat of invasion until Hitler’s time. You can feel Britain’s soul here and probably hear some first class buskers playing on the plaza steps too. We did.

Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral – It’s worth a walk across the Thames to see this cathedral although St. Paul’s gets more attention. Constructed started in 1106, it’s still an active church, although it is Anglican now. You will find a Shakespeare here, not William, but the grave of his brother Edward. William does warrant a reclining statue and a stained glass window. Restored in the 19th century it’s quite impressive to visit even with so much competition.

Thames River
Thames River

Thames River – The river stretches for hundreds of miles but in London it’s a tourist attraction in itself, with its constantly moving rush of tidal waters and many bridges that carry both autos and foot traffic across it. River cruises with or without expensive dining options are available and are constantly chugging up and down the river. Many prime attractions are right along its banks including the Tower of London, the Parliament and the Eye (London’s large Ferris wheel). We had many opportunities to cross it during the day and at night and it’s always breathtaking.

St. Martin's in the Fields Church
St. Martin’s in the Fields Church

St. Martin’s in the Field – Silly me, I imagined this church somewhere in rural England, but it’s right next to Trafalgar Square. One of many very old churches it is still very active, liberal and caters to the poor. The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, known for its exquisite classical music, is based here but mainly it’s a real church, just not terribly ornate. The Crypt in the basement is a good place to get hot, fresh and cheap food.

Tower of London
Tower of London

The Tower of London – Allot most of a day to see The Tower, which is in fact many towers and you can go through most of them. There are few places in London that are older than the Tower, or with a grislier history. You can see the exact spot where many of Henry VIII’s wives were beheaded, along with many other noblemen and women like Sir Thomas More. Outside the gates and near its underground you can see markers where lesser-known but still distinguished people met their grisly ends, often by drawing and quartering. If you don’t know what that is, trust me, you don’t want to know more; those were barbaric times. At least those in the Tower sometimes got reprieves and lived pretty well. There is more than death to sell the Tower. It’s primarily an armory and you can tour one building that attests to the how well it was defended. It also houses the crown jewels, and there are many to gawk at (and more at Windsor Castle, as we discovered). The Tower has never been captured. Primarily a pricey tourist attraction, today it’s well worth the entrance fee. After the first bombing of London, Hitler sent a surrender demand to the King. Replying for the King, the Queen Mum (Queen Mary) ordered Hitler to report to the Tower for punishment. The Tower has probably not seen its last prisoner.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey – A totally awesome church that’s more cathedral than church where Britain’s monarchs are ordained and most of the country’s highest nobles are buried. Elizabeth I (Church of England) and her predecessor Queen Mary (Roman Catholic) have coffins side by side in a crypt that you can walk right next to. Around the corner is the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots that Elizabeth I had put to death. You can also find tombs of notables like Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Darwin. You can’t take pictures inside which is a shame because it is spectacular. The outside pictures don’t do it justice. This is a must see attraction. The center of the English spirit surely must reside inside. It’s a short walk to Big Ben, the Parliament and Downing Street.

Extraordinarily large mammals at the British Natural History Museum
Extraordinarily large mammals at the British Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum – Similar to the British Museum, this museum is massively huge and requires more than a day’s visit to do it justice. You’ll find it in South Kensington, which was close to our hotel so we saved it for our final day. Footsore from walking 8-10 miles a day, we made a half-day of it and saw maybe a quarter of it. The earthquake simulator was neat, as was the Dinosaur exhibit and the Darwin Museum. Admission is free and there are plentiful places to eat inside.

London, Part 2 (Ancient London)

Not a whole lot is known about London prior to the arrival of the Romans. Even most Britons don’t pay much attention to their history prior to the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans from France in 1066. Which means if you want to discover really ancient London, you will need a guide, because it is hard to find. My wife’s friend Helen turned out to be one of the few Britons interested in this period. As such last week she made it her business to show us ancient London, or what’s left of it.

Most of it disappeared more than a millennium ago. What’s left of it is mostly inaccessible, or buried deep underground. Modern London was built on top of previous incarnations of London. If you know where to look though you can find scattered Roman ruins and get an experience few tourists and Londoners ever get. You can find a lot more of Anglo Saxon London, which generally built on top of whatever the Romans left.

Londinium as the Romans called it was established around AD 50, about seven years after the Romans invaded Briton. It doesn’t appear that the Celts and other inhabitants of the island were much interested in cities or conquest so the Romans pragmatically picked a place that facilitated commerce (the Thames River) but was wide enough but not too wide for a Roman bridge, hence London’s birth. It’s unclear why it was called Londinium, but the speculation was that Londin and Lundin were common Roman names at the time.

Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London
Roman and Norman ruins at Tower of London

If you visit the Tower of London, you will discover that this infamous tower was built on top of Roman ruins at the sight. Some of it can still be seen, but it’s hard to discern which part the Romans built and which the Saxons built. (Hint: the Roman part is closer to the ground.) In the City of London itself, Roman ruins are few and far between but can be found by the adventurous traveler.

 

Roman wall in London
Roman wall in London

Perhaps the best-preserved portion of the old Roman city wall can be found next to what is now the Grange City Hotel on Cooper’s Row. It suggests that the entire wall was quite impressive in Roman times.

For much of the rest, look underground. At St. Bride’s Church off Fleet Street, if you venture below ground and into the crypt you can see Norman walls and arches. You also can glimpse (through a mirror) at a portion of the old Roman wall. Fleet Street by the way is over the Fleet River, which still flows into the Thames, but is now well below the pavement. It used to be London’s principle and smelliest open sewer.

It’s easier to find Norman architecture. While visiting the crypt at St. Bride’s Church make sure to check out the church upstairs too because you are visiting what is arguably London’s oldest church, at least of those still standing, but with still an active congregation. The Normans liked semicircular arches, which makes their structures easy to identify. The first stone walled St. Bride’s Church goes back to AD 600. In 1205 the church hosted the Curia Regis, a precursor to parliament. The Tower of London also has some remnants of the Norman Conquest visible in its architecture.

St. Brides, arguably London's oldest church
St. Brides, arguably London’s oldest church

Nothing quite this old exists in the United States of course, which is why I was drawn to it. There were various Indian civilizations of course, but they left little for archeologists to marvel at. Probably the oldest structure in the United States can be found in St. Augustine at the Castillo de San Marcos, which didn’t become a proper fortress until 1695, but had earlier wooden variations. By that time of course the Normans were long gone from England and St. Bride’s could already trace its origins back a thousand years.

Proper British history seems to begin around the reign of the Tudors. I’ll be looking at some of the many places impacted by the Tudor reign in subsequent posts. Get ready for some very bloody stories.

Book Review: The First Salute, by Barbara Tuchman

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912 – 1989), a noteworthy historian and author, churned out eleven histories in her career. I have read a couple of them over the years. Some, like A Distant Mirror can be challenging reads but all are flawlessly researched and illuminate periods of history that generally need illumination. Her last book, The First Salute is ostensibly about the American Revolution. In fact, the American Revolution feels sort of shortchanged in this 347-page book published a year before her death. It’s still interesting reading, but it’s just not what you expect from the subtitle: “A View of the American Revolution”.

And a view it is, principally from the Dutch perspective. I certainly had no idea that the Dutch had anything to do with our revolution. So I didn’t get quite what I was hoping for in learning about the American Revolution. Many battles of that war are at best alluded to, such as the Battle of Brandywine, rather than covered. Only the last year or so of the war is covered in any real details. You do get a new perspective of the war. The book’s main contribution is to illuminate who funded our Revolutionary War, and that turned out to be not just the French but also indirectly the Dutch.

To cast light on this part of our history, Tuchman takes us deep into the Dutch empire at the start of the Revolutionary War. You might think the Revolutionary War revolved around Lexington, Concord and Yorktown but much of the action actually happened out of country. Tuchman’s tale takes us frequently to St. Eustatius, a tiny island of just eight square miles in the Dutch West Indies, on the far eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

It was at St. Eustatius that the Dutch became the first government to salute a U.S. Navy vessel, thanks to its free-market governor. It was an act that effectively thumbed the Dutch nose at the British government. The Dutch were notorious free traders and St. Eustatius was the principle trading point for vessels of all sorts, mostly going between Europe and the Americas, and hence a strategic location that knitted together its empire. If you know anything about the Revolutionary War, you probably learned that colonists were upset by the British government’s taxation policies. It required that colonists buy British imported goods only. Living in the colonies was expensive, but doubly so when you had to pay usury rates for goods from the British East India Company. Americans involved in commerce quickly used their wide geographical disparity to run around these rules, mostly through smuggling as I noted in 2005 in a review of To Rule the Waves.

Since the Dutch didn’t like the British, but tried not to go to war with them, American vessels found it convenient to trade goods at St. Eustatius, often under the watch of British ships. The British tolerated St. Eustatius for many years but it eventually became too much for them. Sir George Rodney, a British admiral, eventually was given the task of invading St. Eustatius and other Dutch islands in the area, principally to help cripple this illicit trading with the United States. These acts though started a war between the Netherlands and Great Britain, a war Great Britain thought it could win but simply proved to show how overextended its empire had become as it fought wars with many great powers simultaneously.

Great Britain was at least empowered by the weak Dutch government and which had off and on again wars with Spain, which claimed territory nearby. Still, trade was the lifeblood of the Netherlands. Having its trade with America reduced made them angry and caused their economy to tank. The British were liberal boarding its vessels looking for contraband, and these actions too caused a lot of resentment.

Eventually the French allied with America but the Revolutionary War nearly sputtered to a halt simply from lack of funds to feed it. Funds bought what the Colonial Army really needed: basics like guns and gunpowder. Pay for troops was sporadic at best. The American public itself was divided on the war, roughly half supporting those wanting a new nation and half wanting America to remain a colony, but few willing to risk life and limb to achieve it. One of the most interesting aspects of the book was to learn just how precarious our army was, which was mostly a ragtag group of militias and volunteers frequently hungry and impoverished.

The first half of the book sets the stage for the second half, which finally takes us mostly into America and follows George Washington as he tries to maneuver his troops intelligently across the colonies. This was a time that preceded the railroads. Moving troops by sea was usually not an option due to the British blockade, so troops had to walk, often surreptitiously around British strongholds like New York City. With often little more than cattle tracks between cities, movement of troops took a lot of time. Lots of volunteers found it too much and simply went home. Intelligence was spotty at best. It took a lot of British bungling, good fortune and Washington’s strategic thinking to bring the war to its end in Virginia with Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. It also took the French, and French General Lafayette’s help to neatly box the British inside the Chesapeake Bay, to end the war and start a new nation. It’s curious how few of us know that the French army and navy helped win our independence.

Tuchman’s major accomplishment is this backstory, particularly how important the Dutch turned out to be in our revolution. It was not through much in the way of overt aid but in how the British discovered that bloodying the Dutch proved counterproductive, and engaged other macro forces that found it to their advantage to support America. George Washington and his colonial troops (plus troops supplied by Lafayette at the end of the war) certainly won the war in the United States, but it’s unlikely it would have succeeded had not engagement with the Dutch kicked off all sorts of events elsewhere in the world. This would move so many pieces on the chessboard that these actions far from America’s shores would prove pivotal in our eventual victory.