Archive for May, 2013

I once had a flying friend who had been a secondary school English teacher for thirty years. He looked and was very disillusioned. He told me that when he had first become a teacher he had been full of enthusiasm and idealism. But years spent in an inner-city London comprehensive school trying to educate hordes of  unruly and ungrateful adolescent gits, had, when coupled with having to deal with the ever-changing demands of Whitehall education bureaucrats,  finally worn him down. It wasn’t a very uplifting tale.  

It’s unfortunately true that the efforts and commitment of countless individual teachers do tend to go unacknowledged and are often under-appreciated.

In another short article I mentioned the fact that so many of us have a story to tell of a particular teacher we had – a story of care and inspiration, a story of a good teacher. This is mine. It is the story of how one of my English teachers, a Mr Rawlinson (for that was his name), inspired in me a love of English literature and language that abides with me to this day.

Before getting to Mr Rawlinson, I can’t resist mentioning one of my earlier English teachers in the Grammar school I attended. I don’t remember his real name because we called him ‘Drac’ – obviously short for Dracula. He must only have been in his fifties, though he looked much older. His stoop, his gangling gait, his wizened face and his ripped and paint spattered university gown spoke of a life of some hardship and experience. And experience he certainly had. Drac had been captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell in 1942. He had suffered three years of imprisonment, cruelty and torture in the hands of those gentle and enlightened Japanese. This had affected his mind; he’d gone slightly mad. He entered the class silently and rather spookily, like a sort of pale-faced but dark ghost.

I remember more than once moving my chair a little in class and accidently scraping it along the floor. Drac would instantly look up, spot who had made the sound, me, and launch into an exchange along the following lines:

‘Do you know where boys like you will end up Lewis?’

‘No Sir’ I would reply.

‘You’ll end up in Stafford prison Lewis, that’s where you’ll end up boy!’

It did no good at all to try to argue the toss, to argue that all you’d done was move your chair. No, Drac was off on his rant. I don’t know whether he really believed what he was saying or not; he was after all a bit unhinged.

Eventually Drac would decide that it was time to teach us a bit of English literature – usually Shakespeare. How to get out of that? The trick was for one of us to raise his hand (it was a boys’ grammar school).

‘Yes boy what is it?’ Drac would say.

‘Sir, did you see the cricket on Saturday?’

That was enough. Drac loved cricket and he was off. Stroke by stroke he’d give a detailed commentary on the latest test match. He loved it and so did we – because before he or we knew it the bell would go and the lesson was over. He was a sweet man. May God bless him wherever he is.

Our next English teacher was the Mr Rawlinson I want to talk about. He was a quite different character:  rotund, dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit yet still with the compulsory MA Oxon academic gown – though this time not ripped. Mr Rawlinson at first scared the living daylights out of us. For a few weeks we thought he was a mean bastard. He was strict and a real disciplinarian. The cricket trick didn’t work anymore. Even in the middle of the jocularity and laughter of his class, he only had to say ‘Quiet’ and even the most stroppy boys (and that included me) would sit up straight and pay attention. Yet once he had established his authority he was lovely and he played the fool with gusto and abandon. He would prance and ponce around at the front of the class, playing a comic Falstaff. He would read Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon with such tenderness and bitterness it even moved we cynical and ignorant adolescents, for whom the middle-ages and the First World War were equally remote and foreign countries. And then he made us read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. We didn’t know then, but I know now, that this is one of the greatest evocations of the suffering and exploitation of the English working class that has ever been written. Mr Rawlinson surely knew this. Then there was To Kill a Mockingbird, Cider with Rosie, Nineteen Eighty- Four and On the Road. What was he thinking! More Shakespeare of course: the Scottish Play, both parts of Henry the fourth and even Hamlet. He strutted and fretted and we laughed. He was a clown but we loved him.

It’s not just that I can, if I try, still drag up long quotes from these books today; it’s more that he showed us that ‘literature’ wasn’t a dry thing, it was living, it had relevance, it had something of importance to teach us. And, in a few great hands, it could make the English language soar.

This is what a great English teacher taught and inspired in me.

There were and are many teachers like Mr Rawlinson. Let us be eternally grateful that despite their under-appreciation such talented and wonderful people still do become teachers.

I was going to call this muse simply ‘Why is the French language so irritating?’ I thought I’d add the ‘if you are English’ bit as a sort of get out of goal free card. Maybe other nationalities don’t think the same? Maybe even other English people don’t. It’s funny this as I’ve lived in France for eight years and, although I hate to admit it, I find most individual people here extremely pleasant and the country itself has much to teach shabby old Britain. But still I find French irritating. Why is this?

Where do I start? Many English people find French a beautiful language, though usually, it has to be said, when they don’t understand it. I personally much prefer German – its sound, its poetry. Most French people will tell you that French is a very difficult language to learn. Actually it’s no different in terms of difficulty to any other language. I guess it’s just that the French are the world’s worst at speaking any language other than their own. The British used to hold this honour, but no longer, while the Americans can certainly give the French a run for their money.

I’ll pass over the rather comic institution called the Académie française, a type of bureaucratic thought-police that determines which words are allowed to be French. Luckily most French people are not so limited. Let me start with a few expressions which when my English ears hear them invariably make my hackles rise. Vous n’avez pas le droit is the first one. Literally it means ‘You don’t have the right’. It’s used all the time. Who the heck are these people telling me I don’t have the right to do something? I always want to answer in good Anglo-Saxon ‘Fuck off!’ In a similar vein there’s C’est interdit. This means ‘it’s prohibited’ – same reaction from me. As my father used to say, laws are there to be broken.

Why are such everyday expressions so irritating? For the French they mean no more and no less than ‘It’s not allowed’ in English. Of course the French legal system is based on a Napoleonic Code that tries to stipulate every situation that might arise and provide a law to cover it. French jurisprudence tries to avoid ambiguity and interpretation. There is a law with a long number for every conceivable situation. The law defines that you need a medical certificate if you go on a school trip or play any sport. The law tells you if you can swim in the sea or not. Sometimes I joke that that there is a law telling you when you can go to the toilet. It’s all very different to the base of English law, although I hate to say that this is changing too, and in the wrong direction. When I studied English jurisprudence – which is all about how you make laws – with the late and magisterial Professor Twining, we literally spent weeks on trying to define the entry rules or criteria for a club for bearded men. Should the criterion be the average length of facial hair? The density of hairs per square inch? The proportion of the face covered? Did a moustache count? You could never define these things precisely enough and certainly never to everyone’s satisfaction. So the drafting of English law was supposed to be about defining some basic things but allowing enough room for later interpretation and judgement by the courts.

If I hear that something worthwhile that needs to be done is ‘not allowed’, ‘prohibited’ or ‘against the law’, my reaction is to look for ways to get round it. Not so the French. It’s ‘interdit’; end of story!

Moving on, even simple everyday French words can annoy me, even seemingly innocuous words. The other day I was driving my normal route to Bayonne. It had been raining for days and days, the roads were flooded. There were signs warning of inondations, floods. Why did this annoy me? Having thought about it I realized it had to do with the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.

Most of you will know that the English language has a massive component of French; in fact Norman French brought in by William the Bastard and his henchmen. All these French words were slowly added to our Germanic Old English, which morphed first into Middle English and then the English we know today. But the hated French Normans were the conquerors, they became our rulers. The French despised the English and their language, in fact some of them still do. French became the language of the English nobility, the rulers. It’s why we so often have two or more words for the same thing in English. We have the Germanic cow for the animal in the field and we have the French ‘beef’ (boeuf) for the meat the thuggish nobles ate. It’s the same with swine and pork or sheep and mutton. In fact modern English is a completely mongrel language. Most of the basic words, the words for everyday living, are Germanic, as is our basic grammar, while all the highfalutin, even ‘educated’, words are either French or derived from Latin or Greek.

To me this is the explanation for my irritation with the French language. It’s all to do with the connotations a word has. For the French inondation just means a flood. English people know that a flood can be called an inundation, as well as an inundation being just some overflow of anything. But if an English person were to say: ‘Beware of the inundations today’, you’d probably think that he or she was being at the very least pretentious, if not something of a prat. It’s all to do with what linguists call ‘false friends’. We hear a word in for instance French, a word which we use in English too. We think we know what it means in the original French, but we are mistaken. Its whole register, all its connotations, might be different.  An English person calling a flood an inundation tells me something about them. A French person saying inondation, simply means he’s referring to a flood.

Inondation is a rather mild example of all the French words and phrases that irritate me. I now know the reason for my irritation but it still doesn’t help, the language still irritates me. And I’ve not even got to the French themselves! That’s for another day.

There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.

Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.

A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.

So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.

The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.

Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.

After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists.  Yet I can still dream.

Neutral Moresnet

Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral  – ‘Neutral  Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.

But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.

First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist).  And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?

And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.

I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?

In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.

Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.

Dr. Wilhelm Molly

The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.

Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.

The Vennbahn Corridor and The German Enclaves in Belgium

I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.

Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.

The Baarle Enclaves

Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.

The Baarle frontiers run through houses and shops

The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!

And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter.  If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.

Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.

What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’

Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’

Belgium and its Languages

Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.

Maybe it’s my age or something. But where has all the protest gone? It’s not that the horrors have gone away – the wars, the exploitation and the repression. But in popular culture today who now sings about it? Who now writes poetry about it? There are worthy newspaper reports but nobody is really shouting out ‘No. Stop!’ Protest it seems is no longer a fashionable thing. It wasn’t always thus.

I won’t venture here too far back into history, though I could. Do you remember Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today…

Where are the equivalent popular songs today? And then there was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son:

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer More! more! more!

Both of these were protests against the Vietnam War; a war I remotely watched every day on British television news in the safety of rural England. How much I heard about the Mekong Delta and the Tet Offensive! But in Britain too we had an abundance of protest. We all know John Lennon’s Imagine:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Nice words indeed. But there were protest songs everywhere. I guess you don’t remember Tony McPhee and The Groundhogs? I remember seeing them in a South London pub. Tony was by then a sort of under-appreciated guitar hero. But in 1970, in Thank Christ For the Bomb, he sang:

In 1914 a war began, a million soldiers lent a hand,
Weren’t many planes to give support, hand to hand was the way they fought.

Young men were called up for the cause, for king and country and the cross,
In their naivete they thought it was for glory, so they’d been taught.

In 1939 once again there came the sound of marching men,
Occupying European land, all the way to North French sands,

But, in the final year of that war, two big bangs settled the score,
Against Japan, who’d joined the fight, the rising sun didn’t look so bright.

Since that day it’s been stalemate, everyone’s scared to obliterate,
So it seems for peace we can thank the bomb, so I say thank Christ for the bomb.

Who sings stuff like that now?

British folk singers sung about the theft of the common people’s land in The World Turned Upside Down, a song dating back to the 1640s:

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command.

The list of popular protest is truly endless. And it wasn’t just a thing for a few intellectual liberals; it was part of everyday culture. I haven’t even touched on poetry and literature. But please do tell me where this protest is today? I really can’t see or hear it.

What’s going on?

Most people believe that the Earth where we all live is being despoiled and threatened.  Only a few would deny that there is any problem at all. Various reasons for this predicament are proposed and various remedies offered. Some think that nothing can be done, or even that nothing should be done – that’s just the way it is. So let’s enjoy it while we can. Others put their faith in a technological fix. Yet others suggest that it’s all a question of individual consciousness – each of us needs to change the way we think if we are to live sustainably. But, wherever we might locate ourselves ideologically, how we express our views is important. Are we being precise? Do we make statements that are capable of empirical confirmation or refutation? Or are we obfuscating the issues? Knowingly or not, diverting attention away from the real causes of environmental disaster?

Here are two quotes, two uses of words

Mankind has already caused the extinction of thousands of species with processes like deforestation. (1)

The essence of the Western idea of progress can be simply stated: mankind has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and may be expected to continue advancing in the future. (2)

I’ve given the sources for these quotes at the end. They were both taken from extremely well researched and well written articles. I chose them more or less at random. There are thousands of similar ones. My point is not whether the statements are in some sense correct or not. Neither is it whether I or you agree. By concentrating on the use of words such as Mankind (Man, Humankind, or Humanity), I want to suggest that they are distinctly unhelpful in any debate, and certainly the debate about ecology and the environment. I could equally well have highlighted the reified word Western in the second quote, but for brevity I will refrain from this.

What do such statements really mean and what are the implications? This short essay is in part a critique of some of the language used in the ecological and environmental debate, and in part a plea for the use of more concrete and specific language. Before I continue, I would like to qualify my qualifications in this matter. I am not an academic linguist, nor a philosopher of language. I am certainly not an expert in semiotics. I am just a simple economist, historian and writer – with a concern for future of the Earth and all its inhabitants. Readers might take issue with some of my linguistic analysis. So be it! I just ask that the thrust of this argument is considered for what it is.

Let’s start with a simple sentence:

Sentence 1: George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.

This sentence uses correct English grammar, uncomplicated syntax, and doesn’t contain much lexical ambiguity. We know the subject, George, who did the cutting. We know he went somewhere, and we know which forest he went to. We also know what he did there: he cut down ten trees.  If we are sure that the person reporting the information is reliable and honest, we might even accept it as a fact and say it’s a true statement.

Now imagine that it was your neighbour who one day walked into your garden and announced: ‘George went into the New Forest and cut down ten trees.’ What does he mean by this? What is his intention in telling you? After all, without some sort of context, it would be a rather bizarre thing to do. He might add the context himself by going on to say that this is wonderful news because George is building a house and he needed the wood. On the other hand, he might not feel the need to add anything at all because he knows from past experience that both he and you are concerned about the survival of the forest and, therefore, without it needing to be said, George’s action was reprehensible. Even if your neighbour had no intention at all when he uttered the sentence – which might be a little strange – you could, and probably would, want to put your own interpretation on the news. Sometimes you might be able to do this without any more information at all. You know George, you know what he’s up to and why, and you know what you personally think of such actions. On other occasions, you might want additional information before you can make up your mind what this sentence really means to you. For example: Did someone pay him to do this? What did he use to cut down the trees? What type of trees did he cut down?  Why did he cut the trees down? How many trees are there in the forest?

Once we obtain the extra information we think we need, we can interpret what the sentence means to us. We can even, if we wish, make a value judgement, based, at least in part, on our own morality and ideology: ‘I think that what George did was good (or bad) because…’ Was he a hero or a villain? We might even decide that something has to be done. Either we decide to go and help George next time he goes to the forest, or we might start to look for ways of stopping him.

The key point here is this: whatever our interpretation and whatever our ideology, the sentence itself has not unduly hindered us from making up our minds.

Sentence 2: He went into the forest and cut down ten trees.

I have done two things here: Replace the noun George with the pronoun he, and taken away the information telling us which forest George went into. All the considerations that were applicable to Sentence 1 still apply here. But because he is a little vaguer than George, we might first need to ask: ‘Who’s he?’ or ‘Which forest?’

Sentence 3: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees.

A little semantic obscurity creeps in here. Did he cut down ten trees in total or ten trees every day? But this could soon be cleared up by asking another question. The sentence could then become:

Sentence 4: He went to the forest every day over the last twelve months and cut down ten trees each day.

Let’s go a step further:

Sentence 5: Over the last twelve years, logging companies have gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

The scale and duration of the tree cutting has increased – but we still know something about who was responsible, who caused it: it was logging companies, though we don’t know which ones. Yet we still don’t know where the forests are that are being cut down.

This means we might (or we might not) need to ask additional questions before we think we have enough information to be able to interpret the information the sentence provides. We will probably still want to know more about the context of the logging. Which forests? Why was it happening? Was it to build roads? Was it to provide open land to rear cattle to supply hamburger chains? Who is profiting? What were the effects of the logging on local communities? Is ten thousand trees a day a lot?

When we have asked enough additional questions, and obtained what we hope are reliable answers, we can then make up our minds:

‘This is wonderful! With nine billion people on the planet we need to supplement agricultural land wherever we can!’


‘This is horrendous; we are destroying our eco-systems and bringing destitution to countless local people!’

Logging companies is, in linguistic terms, a plural countable noun. We can say ‘four logging companies’ as well as ‘some logging companies’. Let’s change the sentence again:

Sentence 6: Over the last twelve years, business has gone into the forest and cut down ten thousand trees each day.

Note that I have skipped the step of using a simple plural countable noun such as businesses. Instead I have used the word business, which is called in linguistics a singular uncountable noun. It’s singular because we say ‘business is’ not ‘business are’; it’s non countable because we can’t say ‘five business’, although we can still say ‘some business’.

This starts to make our task of giving meaning to the sentence and making an interpretation even more long-winded. More questions need to be asked – if we can be bothered. Questions such as: Which businesses do you mean? What type of companies are they? How many? And so on.

In addition, we can also remove any information regarding the duration of logging, the number of trees cut, or even mention of ‘the forest’ itself, or of any specific forest:

Sentence 7: Business continues to deforest the world.

This sentence may still be a true statement of fact; but we are getting so far removed from knowing who precisely has done what, where, and with what result, that it’s starting to become a little meaningless. But at least the verb deforest still has some understandable meaning, and the noun business still points, though very dimly, at the responsible subject.

The penultimate sentence is this:

Sentence 8: Humans continue to deforest the world.

Again it’s still true, but now any precision whatsoever regarding who is actually cutting down the trees has disappeared completely. It’s just the collective plural humans. It completely begs the whole question of which humans? Never mind all the other questions we have already asked; such as: which forests, where, when, for what purpose, who benefits and who loses? It seems to imply, I would suggest, that we (or we humans) are all responsible; the small peasant farmer in Africa just as much as the large capitalist agri-businesses or ‘roving-pirate’ logging companies.

And so to our final sentence:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation.

One could equally say Mankind, but Humankind is a little less gender specific. Here we reach the apogee of vagueness. Indeed, we have now somehow reified everything. Reification, from the Latin word res (meaning thing) usually means making a concept real, bringing it into being or making it something concrete.  More generally:

Reification in thought occurs when an abstract concept describing a relationship or context is treated as a concrete ‘thing’, or if something is treated as if it were a separate object when this is inappropriate because it is not an object or because it does not truly exist in separation.

As is often the case, German has a much more expressive word: Verdinglichung. Literally this is the process of ‘turning into a thing’. This process is of great importance. Often we talk about reification as being the act of changing abstract concepts, say truth, beauty or beautiful, into supposedly real or concrete things: Truth or Beauty. Notice how reification nearly always involves capitalization! But it’s not just limited to this. We can also turn a meaningful noun such as a man into a vague, reified concept such as Mankind – and give this concept the qualities of a real thing.

Philosophers, particularly it should be said German and French philosophers, and mostly of the Idealistic or Existential variety, love to reify concepts or processes. One could mention Heidegger’s ‘The Being of Becoming’ (Das Sein des Seiendes), or Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’ (L’être et le néant) – to mention just two vacuous ontological obfuscations. ‘To be’ and ‘to become’ are verbs of condition or process: I am a man; a seed becomes a tree. You can’t hold am or becomes; and you certainly can’t talk to them or hold them responsible. But this is precisely what reification does. We make the simple verb ‘to become’ into a real thing and then we can start to interrogate it and even pass judgements on it!

George is a real thing or object. Actually he is a person (who can even act as a subject as well). Even the pronoun he refers to a person in our example. ‘A human’ usually refers to somebody concrete, though it can be used otherwise. With the use of humans, though it is tremendously vague, if it is used in the present tense then we could, at least in theory, go and introduce ourselves to all these humans, whether that means all homo sapiens or just a proportion of them.

But reification isn’t only about transforming an abstract concept such as beauty or beautiful into Beauty, or even a verb such as ‘to become’ in Becoming. It can also involve transforming simple nouns or adjectives into collective concepts, and then treating these concepts as though they had real concrete qualities – qualities such as volition or the ability to cause physical effects in the world. We can also reify a noun, signifying a real entity, such as a man, into Mankind, or a human (or the adjective Humane) into Humankind.

This isn’t to imply that using such reified words as Mankind, Humankind, or Humanity leads to a complete semantic lack of meaning. If I write the rather inelegant sentence: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with Humanity’, I guess most people will roughly understand what I’m getting at. Some might even place the word Humanity inside inverted commas. Not to signify a quotation, but rather to alert the reader to the fact that the word is some sort of abstract concept, or perhaps that its meaning is contested, or even to signify some sort of post-modernist irony. But Humanity is not a living thing; it can’t have empathy with anybody! Ultimately it’s not an ‘it’. I might want to make my sentence slightly more understandable by writing for example: ‘Humanity’s greatest redeeming feature is it’s empathy with other parts of Humanity.’ Immediately you can notice that I’ve already split up Humanity into parts or groups – in order to be more precise with regards to whom exactly it is I might be suggesting has empathy with whom? I might go a step further in this direction and rewrite my sentence as follows: ‘The greatest redeeming factor of all people is that they have empathy with all other people.’ Immediately, I would suggest, by de-reifying the words it’s much easier for readers to either agree with the statement or want to refute it. The path is immediately open for anyone to say: ‘Well that’s not true; most people don’t empathize with others!’ It is also much more amendable to the design of a scientific test of the validity of the proposition. Of course, it could be argued that the original sentence, which twice uses the word Humanity, can be equally contested in the same way. That it is equally amenable to scientific refutation or confirmation. But one can’t test any statement about Humanity as it doesn’t exist. In order to do so one would need to translate the statement into a testable form – by using such words as ‘all people’.

A final point on Sentence 9 is perhaps of interest – though it is not critical. Here is the sentence again:

Sentence 9: Humankind is causing deforestation

It is surely a wonderful thing that English, and many other languages, can evolve and create such verbs as deforest and a noun such as deforestation. Google begets ‘to google’!  But using the word Deforestation is also reification. Deforestation isn’t a thing, I would argue it’s not even a process, it’s an idea. So if we say: ’Deforestation is causing major problems for the people of Bangladesh’, this is just evasion. Somebody, or some group of people, somewhere is actually cutting down the trees for a specific purpose.

So in what way does this all matter? In general or as it relates to the debate about ecology and the environment. Surely it’s all semantics – both in terms of the scientific and linguistic meaning of the word and in its everyday usage! I would contend not. My argument regarding the use of vague or reified words such as Mankind, Humankind, Humanity and such like can be summarized as follows:

  • The subject is not a real person or group of people. It is not even an identifiable group: a class, a government or certain private companies.
  • Reified concepts such as Humankind can’t do or cause anything.
  • Even if the statement is understandable, has some meaning, and even if it is in some way ‘true’, it is usually just a platitude or a tautology.
  • This means that who actually is causing the effects, the damage (yes ‘cause and effect’) can’t be identified or held accountable.
  • Implicitly or explicitly, the culprit is everybody – even though this is blatantly not the case.
  • This can lead to Quietism, to a turning in on one-self. I am as much to blame as anyone else so I must work on myself!
  • As I do so the real culprits can just go on as if nothing matters – except their own profit.

That is not the end of the story. If I write the sentence: ‘the majority of the destruction of the forests in the Amazon over the last thirty years has been carried out by private capitalist companies from the rich countries; intent only on their own profit.’ This is a statement that is amenable to confirmation or refutation. For the sake of argument, people at either extreme of the ideological divide might even agree to it. But even if capitalist companies were the proximate cause of the felling, there are at least two retorts. One is that while this may be true it is Mankind’s incessant demand for resources and industrial and consumer products that is the underlying or ultimate cause. The logging companies are only meeting that need. Once again we are back to the reified concept of Mankind. Whose consumer needs are being met? Another often used retort is simply that the desire to maximize profit lies at the core of a successful economy and must be encouraged in all circumstances. Fair enough, but at least we know the field upon which the battle must be fought. It’s not a question of Mankind’s collective culpability, but purely a question of who really benefits and who loses – including, we might add, in the non-human world.

Finally, I think it is important to add that many contemporary commentators and historians do not fall into this quagmire of language. They try to tell, as explicitly and truthfully as they can, what is happening now and or what happened in the world in the past. This might be regarding commercial logging in Africa or Indonesia or it might be what is their interpretation of what happened during the land clearances and Enclosures in Britain.

Here are two sentences that I have written – one contemporary and one historical:

Despite the ban on commercial whaling, every year hundreds of whales are still being illegally slaughtered by Japanese commercial whalers in the Antarctic sanctuary – using the pretence of Research.

Note I haven’t written: ‘Mankind is killing the whales.’

The Ariège forests in France were not decimated by hundreds of years of communal usage. Most trees were cut down by rich private capitalists for private gain following the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  

Note I haven’t written: ‘Humans caused deforestation in the Pyrenees.’

You might or might not agree with my two statements, but at least they are clear. And it wouldn’t be too difficult to go about confirming or falsifying them. It’s even pretty obvious (if you accept them) what might need to be done!

I am not immune to using the type of language I have described, but I think it is unhelpful and even invidious and I will try to avoid it in the future.



2. Robert Nisbet, Idea of Progress, Literature and Liberty, Cato Institute, 1978.

Blue Remembered Hills

Not so long ago I had the pleasure to attend a gathering where ‘storytelling’ became important. Over the course of several days, each of us listened to stories and told our own. The point, I guess, was to find our own ‘voice’. When it was my turn, I was at a loss as to what story I should tell. Then, as if from nowhere, a favourite poem came into my head. One of the few poems I have ever memorized by heart. This poem was by the English poet A. E. Housman, and is usually called The Land of Lost Content, but I prefer to call it Blue Remembered Hills. So I started to recite the poem:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

At first, I recited the poem quietly, gently and with a sort of wistful nostalgia. Surely the poem speaks to those of us who are a little older – as we look back on our seemingly innocent, but certainly lost, youth? Next, I tried a voice that was more pessimistic, that recognized the fleetingness of life and our own mortality. Maybe the poem is about how we will all die and, perhaps, that we should treasure each moment of our lives? I then tried a tone that sought to evoke the physicality of the place; the sense of the peaceful and never changing landscape of the Shropshire Hills. Several more renditions followed. Eventually I hit upon a ‘voice’ that really expressed what this poem meant to me: I told it with anger.

The poem was part of a cycle of sixty-three that Housman published in 1896, under the title A Shropshire Lad. At least in part, I think that Housman meant the whole cycle to be a cry against the wanton and needless loss of young men’s lives – as Queen Victoria expanded ‘her’ Empire. This, I believe, can be seen clearly in another poem from The Shropshire Lad, entitled 1887:

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns,
The shires have seen it plain,
From north and south the sign returns
And beacons burn again.

Look left, look right, the hills are bright,
The dales are light between,
Because ’tis fifty years to-night
That God has saved the Queen.

Now, when the flame they watch not towers
About the soil they trod,
Lads, we’ll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.

To skies that knit their heartstrings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home to-night:
Themselves they could not save.

It dawns in Asia, tombstones show
And Shropshire names are read;
And the Nile spills his overflow
Beside the Severn’s dead.

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

“God save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

The Nile “spills his overflow besides the Severn’s dead.” We are implored to “get you the sons your fathers got” and, with a large hint of irony, “God will save the Queen.” Now Housman wasn’t an overtly anti-war poet in the manner of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen. Yet I think his social and political stance is clear.

A. E. Housman

But it doesn’t really matter if my interpretation of the poem corresponds with Housman’s intention or not. It’s not often I have a kind word to say about the post-modernist school of literary criticism, particularly when it is imported into the writing and reading of history. But regarding my reading of Blue Remembered Hills, and what it means to me, it is surely right. My own ‘angry’ reading of the poem is my ‘discourse’; one amongst many.

For generation after generation, young men in England, and in every country in the world, have been cajoled and pressured to go and fight in distant wars. Wars about which they have not the slightest conception. They go to fight an enemy whom they don’t know. And, if they did, they would probably find them to be very much like themselves. Whether English, German or French they will die, often screaming for their mothers, in the trenches of Flanders. These young men have been betrayed by their rulers; who saw them as just so much ‘cannon fodder’ – to be used in their quests for greater power and glory.  This is why an angry reading of Blue Remembered Hills resonates so much with me.

It’s not surprising to learn that, after an initially lukewarm reception, Housman’s poems received much more attention during the Boer War and the Great War.

As a last thought, I feel the ‘sense of place’ in these poems is important. Housman wasn’t from Shropshire, yet he evokes this small region of England perfectly:

Clunton and Clunbury,
Clungunford and Clun
Are the quietest places
Under the sun.

In this day and age, when many of us seem to have lost a sense of belonging to the land, and to any specific locality, I love Housman’s sense of rootedness. Perhaps it’s because my own family lived in Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills for centuries; but I do hope his wonderful poetry will continue to find a wider audience, wherever they may be.

Atrocities are committed in all wars. Indeed war itself is an atrocity. Some atrocities are remembered, some just disappear from the historical consciousness. The bombing of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Condor Legion at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1937 is remembered, not least because of Picasso’s famous painting Gernika. But an arguably even more horrendous atrocity was committed in 1813 by Wellington’s British and Portuguese troops on the people of the nearby Basque town of San Sebastian. With the exception of a yearly commemoration of the event in the town itself on 31 August, the memory of what happened there over a period of  five days has almost totally disappeared, and even at times been suppressed. In some small way I’d like to rectify this.

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

If you read books or watch television programmes on the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly those touching on the Peninsular War, you will more often than not find descriptions of Wellington’s army’s siege of San Sebastian, which lasted from 7 July 1813 until the capture of the town on 31 August and the final surrender of the French on 8 September. It is a tale of military struggle, of tactics, of suffering, of death and of acts of valour and heroism. But what followed is rarely if ever told.

Just a few words by way of context: For five years the British army had been in the Iberian Peninsula trying to help the Spanish and Portuguese throw out the French occupiers, while also, it has to be said, trying to loosen the grip of the French blockade of Britain. After the Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, the French army, first under Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte (who Napoleon had made king of Spain in 1808), and later under Marshal Soult, had retreated to the Pyrenean borderland of France and Spain. Wellington, who commanded all the allied British, German, Portuguese and Spanish forces, didn’t want to move further into France until the threat posed by the French garrison still stationed in San Sebastian had been removed – hence the siege of the town.

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

If you’re interested in the siege itself there are many fine, full and accessible accounts. I will start at the siege’s end. On 31 August 1813, British and Portuguese troops managed to pour through a large breach that had been made in the city’s inner wall. The French garrison retreated to find refuge in the town’s citadel, called Monte Orgullo. As the English and Portuguese were capturing the town there was, to use the words of the most famous early English historian of the War, Sir William Napier, ‘a thunder storm, which came down from the mountains with unbounded fury immediately after the place was carried’. This ‘added to the confusion of the fight’. Napier continued:

This storm seemed to be a signal of hell for the perpetration of villainy which would have shamed the most ferocious barbarians of antiquity. At Ciudad Rodrigo intoxication and plunder had been the principal object; at Badajoz lust and murder were joined in rapine and drunkenness; but at San Sebastian, the direct, the most revolting cruelty was added to the catalogue of crimes. One atrocity of which a girl of seventeen was the victim, staggers the mind by its enormous, incredible, indescribable barbarity. Some order was at first maintained, but the resolution of the troops to throw off discipline was quickly made manifest. A British staff-officer was pursued with a volley of small-arms and escaped with difficulty from men who mistook him for the provost-martial of the fifth division; a Portuguese adjutant, who endeavoured to prevent some atrocity, was put to death in the market place, not with sudden violence from a single ruffian, but deliberately by a number of English soldiers. Many officers exerted themselves to preserve order, many men were well conducted, but the rapine and violence commenced by villains soon spread, the camp-followers crowded into the place, and disorder continued until the flames following the steps of the plunderer put an end to this ferocity by destroying the whole town.

I have started by quoting from Anglo-Irish Sir William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula, because you might otherwise think that what follows is Spanish or French propaganda. It is not.

Immediately after the events Napier described, the ‘town council, cathedral chapter and inhabitants’ of San Sebastian compiled a report or ‘manifesto’ which they sent to the ‘Spanish nation’ describing what happened. Its full title is: Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town. ( Tolosa 1813). They affirm: ‘We take it on our own head as to the exact truth of this relation that we present to you and that we have all signed.’ What follows is my inadequate verbatim translation of some extracts from this report. I have taken it from a book published in France in 1813 which contained a French translation of the Spanish report. I apologize if my rendition of a two hundred year old French version of a Spanish text has lost something in translation, but I think you will be able to get an idea of what happened to the people of this Basque town:

The town of San Sebastian had been set alight by the allied troops who had besieged it, after these troops had unleashed a horrible sack and its inhabitants had experienced a treatment such as one has not had any idea in civilized Europe…

… The patriotism of the loyal inhabitants of San Sebastian, for a long time suppressed by the severity of the enemy (the French), shone out in many ways, as did the joy and the affection with which the allies were welcomed; but these, insensible to this demonstration, as sincere as it was pathetic, responded to it by taking rifle shots at these same crossroads and balconies from where these felicitations came, and on which a large number of inhabitants perished, victims of the expression of their love of country, a terrible presage of what was to follow…

These horrors were only a prelude to many others, even the memory of which makes one quiver. Oh day forever unhappy; Oh cruel night!… At the extremity were found the enemy, cornered at the foot of the chateau, to save themselves from the unprecedented excess that the pen refuses to describe.

The pillage, the massacre, the rape were pushed to an unbelievable point; and what we discovered for the first time at the fall of night, after the retreat of the French into the Chateau, were limitless scenes of horror. From every quarter we heard the cries of distress of women who were being raped, without regard either to their tender youth or to their respectable age; wives outraged under the eyes of their husbands, girls dishonoured in the presence of their parents; one girl was the victim of the brutality of a soldier which happened on top of her mother’s dead body… Other crimes more horrible yet were committed on this day, and it’s only a sense of ‘modesty’ which prevents us naming them.

Throw a veil over this sad tableau, we’ll put our sights on another, no less deplorable: We have seen innocent victims having their throats cut…. even people of renown. Don Domingo de Govocehea, an old and respectable churchman, and a great many others, who we will not name, were murdered; the ill-fated Joseph de Larramaga was killed while trying to save the lives of a young girl, who had been raped, and her young son, by holding them in his arms.

A huge number of people were dying each day from the bad treatment that they had received. The citizens who were neither killed nor wounded were to suffer in a thousand ways; many of them stripped and left entirely naked.

… Pursued by the soldiers, they envied the fate of the people who had found a momentary asylum on the roofs or in the ‘pigsties’…

These excesses lasted several days after the affair, without anything being done to stop it… They appeared authorized by the commanders, since the goods stolen in the town were sold publically by the English and Portuguese in full view, and right next to, the military head-quarters.

When we thought the spoliation had finished, the allied troops found that the flames weren’t making enough progress; they fed them with a whole mixture of artefacts that they threw into the cauldrons, by which means they propagated the fire with frightening rapidity…

In this manner the town of San Sebastian perished.

Of the six hundred and some houses that were contained within the ramparts, there were only thirty-six left. It is remarkable that those saved were all adjoining the Chateau that the enemy occupied. The two parochial churches have also been conserved, as they served as quarters and hospitals for the victors. All the rest have been delivered to the flames… Fifteen hundred families were without bread and shelter eking out an existence worse than death.

Goods, furniture, merchandize, shops, boutiques, all had fallen prey to rapacity or incendiary… San Sebastian exists no more.

Oh unhappy town! Honour  of Guipuscoa! You who had given such proof of constancy, who had regarded the English as liberators, could you believe that you would be destroyed by the same hands which should have broken your chains! To how many dangers were the inhabitants exposed during the five years that the French occupation had lasted!

When, on 25 July, we saw English and Portuguese prisoners arrive, we wanted to help them; the most delicate women ran to the hospital to lavish them with linen, food and care; the recompense for such fidelity has been the destruction of our town.

San Sebastian today

San Sebastian today

When the survivors came to survey what remained of their town, they found, as was reported, only thirty-six houses and two churches left standing. The houses had been spared because they were being used by British and Portuguese officers when they were attempting to force the surrender of the French holed up in the Chateau – the French capitulated on 8 September. A census of inhabitants showed that before the siege there were about 5,500 people in the town, the massacre had reduced this to 2,600!

San Sebastian had to be rebuilt from scratch. The beautiful city you see today is the result of that rebuilding.

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

We often hear tell that Wellington was a great enforcer of order and military discipline and that he punished any pillaging in the most severe way. After San Sebastian, when his allied army was moving into France, he declared that he had not come to France to inflict pillage on the local people. Supposedly this was in reference to the pillaging and attacks of Spanish troops on the local French (Basque) population. He sent most, though not all, of the Spanish troops under his command back to Spain.

Wellington was not present at the fall and destruction of San Sebastian. The besieging army was under General Thomas Graham. But not only were no measures taken against the British and Portuguese troops who had run wild, but no mention was ever made of what happened in any official letters written by either Graham or Wellington. On 8 September, Graham wrote to Wellington: ‘My Lord, I have the satisfaction to report to your Lordship, that the castle of San Sebastian has surrendered.’ After giving more military details, he adds: ‘Thus, giving your Lordship another great result of the campaign, in the acquisition to the allied armies of this interesting point on the coast, and near the frontier.’ He also enclosed a copy of the terms of surrender agreed with the French.

Wellington sent the news to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War, on 11 September: ‘The town of San Sebastian was taken by storm on the 31st August, and the garrison capitulated in the castle on the 8th.’ No mention of any ‘atrocities’. But on the same day Wellington wrote to the Spanish General Freyre: ‘Sir, I shall be very much obliged to you if you will send the civil engineer of Biscay…. in regard to the repairs of the place of San Sebastian.’ He also requested that the civil magistrates sent masons, carpenters and ‘common labourers’ to ‘perform the works necessary’. He was no doubt fully aware of what had happened to the town.

British War Memorial in Sean Sebastian

British War Memorial in San Sebastian

There is in San Sebastian a memorial to the British liberators of the town in 1813. It is located on the slopes of Monte Orgullo (Urgull) and was unveiled by the Spanish Queen on 28th September 1924. The two inscriptions read, in both Spanish and English: ‘England has confided to us her Glorious Dead, Our Gratitude will Watch Over Their Eternal Repose’, and, ‘In memory of the Gallant British Soldiers who gave their lives for the greatness of their own country and for the Independence of Spain’.

Knowing what happened after the British entered the town, reading these words is enough to make one weep.

The state this memorial has been allowed to fall into is deplorable and should no doubt be remedied. But perhaps it is small wonder if the people of San Sebastian do not want to remember their British and Portuguese ‘liberators’. Perhaps they still remember and wish to mourn the atrocity which was perpetrated on their town?

Sources and references:

Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town,  Tolosa, 1813; Sir William Napier, History of the War in the Peninsula, Vol 3, 1835-40; Victoires, conquêtes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Français de 1792 a 1815. Par une société militaries et de lettres, Vol 28, Paris, 1813; Javier Sada, Historia de San Sebastian, 1995; The Dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington, Vol 11, London, 1838; Lieutenant Mazars, Les divisions espagnoles de l’armée de Wellington, Revue des Pyrenees, Vol 25, Toulouse, 1913; J. W. Fortescue, History of the British Army, Vol 9, London, 1920.