Battlefield prediction

For years I have tried to trace, but without success, the original source of this outstanding quotation, supposedly an aphorism of Moltke the Elder: the actual wording is as I recall it:

“In war, the enemy will have three courses of action available to him; of these three he will invariably choose the fourth.” Continue reading

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The fall of princes

For the best comment about Prince Andrew, recall this remark by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written in 1764:

“The generality of princes, once stripped of the purple and cast naked into the world, would immediately sink to the lowest rank of society.”


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Whom to marry

Spurred on by family word-of-mouth, we have been streaming the hit TV show The Bachelor, in both its American and British versions, and enjoying it.  The experience is both weird and compelling: distasteful on first viewing, but full of benign, almost illicit interest thereafter. Continue reading

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UK’s perfect storm

For British politics now, the truth is that we are living through a fivefold crisis, unfolding horrors every day; trapped in a nightmare from which there seems no escape.

An existential crisis: the very concept of the Union is now under threat as the four countries that make up the UK wonder aloud about its resilience and adjust their breakaway plans accordingly.

A constitutional crisis caused by government’s attempt to exclude Parliament from meaningful roles in the Brexit process, as shown by the Miller case, and by the lamentable behaviour of most MPs which is dragging the legislature down.

A legislative crisis brought about by the needs for regulatory alignment with the EU, with all those new statutory instruments now required, and broken links repaired.

A government crisis: as all Whitehall hands are sent to the Brexit pump the business of government has ground to a halt.  Think of everything not happening. British politics is ill.

A socio-economic crisis: the impoverishment looming especially for the many who voted Leave, post-Brexit unrest, the rise of thuggish populism and the post-austerity revelations showing just how divided we are.

Even to write about all this is depressing; fearful, too.  Where are heading?



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Apocalypse soon

Accessing the media nowadays risks plunging into a sea of grime and gloom. At this stage in human history there appears to be so much to go wrong.  But this is true of any age.  The feeling has been personified with imagery transmitting angst.  Thus, for instance, the four horsemen of the apocalypse as imagined by the writer of Revelation two millennia ago – Disease, Famine, War and Death – there are certainly more in the meme now.

It only takes a moment to draw up a modernised list of threats to our well-being – to that of all of us – to arrive at a dozen horsemen now.  Some of these risks are old, familiar ones; others are rebadged or new; all are baleful.  These are my candidates.

  • Pandemics: epidemics writ large over millions
  • Climate change: the base and driver for so many adverse circumstances now
  • Diminishing resources: oil, living space, water
  • Environmental degradation: desertification, ice sheets, plastic,
  • Geophysical catastrophes: earthquakes, eruptions, flooding
  • Nuclear accidents: Chernobyl, Fukushima
  • War: including war crimes, cyberattacks
  • Globalisation: cross-border depredations, banks v states
  • Maximum surveillance: in the air, on the street, in your home
  • Artificial intelligence: job-killers
  • Despotisms: the encrustation of populism, sick societies
  • Religious fanaticisms: the perversion of misunderstood ideals

The truly frightening thing about this list is how little governments seem to be doing to counter such threats (and refrain from exploiting them), and protect us from them.  If so, perhaps it should be regarded, on a larger scale, as an illustration of where and how, at this stage in human history, we are wilfully blinding ourselves in the face of uncomfortable and damaging realities.

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The Russians are coming

My own take on the CBW attack in Salisbury is that it has three objectives and plays to three distinct audiences.  The first objective was to carry put a live-firing exercise to see if the Novichok agent could be used effectively by deploying it against a civilian leading a normal life in a provincial city and, if so, by what method of malign administration.

Second, the attack would answer the important tactical question about how well, or not, local services would react to identify, respond, contain and attribute the agent.  It’s the aftermath that the Russians will be studying right now: how well are we handling this attack and what effect is it having on public and government opinion in the UK?

Third, it is a drama intended to play to three principal audiences in particular.  The most immediate of these is the UK government: a warning reminder that despite having a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Britain would find it difficult to undertake any kind of serious retaliatory action or military might.

Then there are the countries bordering Mother Russia, including the Baltics: a demonstration, if any were needed, of the power just over the eastern horizon and its willingness to ignore international norms and agreements concerning state use of CBW capability.

Third audience: the Russian people who are, by all accountns, happy to see any kind of force used to bolster Russia’s standing in the world, and used dramatically.  Coupled with cyber-warfare, this is a package of threats designed to warn, and warn decisively.  Welcome to the new age of state hostility, symbolised by an old man and his daughter slumped, barely alive, on a park bench in Wiltshire.


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When the cars came

An interesting old picture postcard appears on the Hanslope village noticeboard this week.  It shows our High Street as it was in 1907: completely empty save for a family on bicycles, stopping to have their picture taken on a sunny summer’s afternoon.

The date is notable. It’s the decade when the majority of wheeled traffic in London, fifty miles from here, changed from horse-drawn to motorised vehicles.  This obviously happened at different times in different parts of England.  My great-aunt Muriel Nash was, we were told, the driver of the first sports car to be seen on the Isle of Wight, and that was in the Twenties.  I reckon that cars of all shapes and sizes came to Hanslope during that decade.  There are none parked in the photograph from 1907; how son that would change.


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Trump time

I am not an American citizen, so I have no right to criticise the choice of president the American people made in November 2016; except to take on the role of critical friend of the office whose holder has some influence on every other person in the world and comment accordingly. Continue reading

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Italian pride

Stendhal’s love of gossip, acerbic comment and piercing observation throw up a continual stream of delight. Here he is, in 1816, on Italian pride speaking truth to power.

In Bologna, it would take more courage than I possess to hint that Mr Astley (of Bond Street) makes better boots that signor Ronchetti – a well-known shoe-maker of the city, renowned for his love of paintings no less than for his dauntless stand against [Marshal] Murat.  Murat had ventured to observe that no one outside Paris understood how to make a pair of boots fit to be worn; in revenge, Ronchetti refused point-blank to make him a complete pair.  The King of Naples, having approved one boot by trying it on, demanded its fellow. “Have it made in Paris, Sire!” retorted Ronchetti.  (from: Stendhal. Rome, Naples and Florence; tr Richard Coe. London, 1959.  p189)

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The British abroad

Britain and Europe: an 18th century warning

“Upon the whole, I think it is next to an impossibility for a young man of fortune to pass a year or two in Paris, the southern parts of France, Italy, &c. without running a great risque of being beggared by sharpers, or seduced by artful women; unless he has with him a tutor, who is made wise by years, and a frequent acquaintance with the customs and manners of the country: an honest, learned Clergyman tutor, is of less use to a young man in that situation, than a trusty Valet de Chambre. A travelling tutor must know men; and, what is more difficult to know, he must know women also, before he is qualified to guard against the innumerable snares that are always making to entangle strangers of fortune.”

From Philip Thicknesse A year’s journey through France and part of Spain.  Dublin, 1777  Volume 1, Letter 14.  (Project Gutenberg)

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