A big thank you to Alan Mason for the latest ‘decade ‘ in his twentieth century writing collection.


For the people of Britain, the optimism which marked the sixties, declined during the seventies, culminating in “the winter of discontent” in 1978-9 with a series of unpopular strikes, which greatly inconvenienced everyone. Radical change came in the eighties, starting with the General Election in 1979, which brought Margaret Thatcher to power, as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. Her principal aim was to “roll back the State”, and reverse the “managed decline” which had typically been Britain’s usual economic situation, under all governments, since the end of WW2 in 1945.

The world of art was not really sure where to go. A whole series of short-lived “movements” had come and gone. The new buzz-words were “installations” and “performance art”. One of the largest installations was produced by the Israeli artist, Dani Karavan. Entitled, the “Museum Plaza (Ma’alot) Environment”, he made it for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum/ Museum Ludwig Cologne, in Germany. It is 50,000 square metres in area, and consists of railroad rails, bricks, concrete, granite, and cast iron (1).

Italian-born Gilbert Proesch, and George Pasmore initially saw themselves as performance artists and living sculptures covered in gold paint, in the nineteen-sixties. In their more conventional artworks, (2) they continued to appear as themselves, within a style of pop art.

In contrast, Paula Rego began producing abstract art and eventually moved into representational work. She was born to a Portuguese family in Lisbon, Portugal, but attended schools in England, where her father worked for the Marconi firm. Her paintings reflect children’s books and memories of childhood, but they have an eerie and unsettling quality (3), despite their apparent innocence. Her work is sometimes identified with the Symbolist Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as “Symbolist Figuration”.

A different kind of symbolism, one not readily understood by the Western European traditions of art. was being introduced in the eighties. This was the work of Australian aboriginal artists, like Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, (4) who was part of a Western Desert Painters group. He chose to work with modern materials like acrylic paint on canvas, rather than traditional media like sand, wood and bark. Although , “Water Dreaming” appears to be an abstract pattern, it is a symbolic map of a sacred tribal site.

The American artist, Chuck Close, is part of the “Hyper Realist” movement of the seventies, described briefly in my essay, “TWENTIETH CENTURY WRITING – THE EIGHTH DECADE”. He began experimenting with painting photographs of portraits (5), including very subtle changes, in blurring or emphasis, to create projective effects. Moving on from the earlier photo-realism to microscopic stippled effects and collages.

Of the six books selected to represent the eighties, only three are novels (1, 2, 4), one is more of a historical analysis (3) and one is on modern times (6).

1 A Month in the Country ……………………..J L Carr ………………1980

2 The Balkan Trilogy/The Levant Trilogy …Olivia Manning………1980-2

3 Government …………………………………….B Traven ……………..1980

4 Jean de Florette /Manon des Sources…….Marcel Pagnol…………1988

5 The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail………..Michael Baigent……..1982

6 The Lost Continent…………………………..Bill Bryson……………..1989

1 A Month in the Country ……………………..J L Carr ………………1980

This is a small work, only 111 pages long, in the paperback version (6). It is a quiet, gentle book, in which nothing very dramatic happens, but I still find it deeply moving, for reasons that are not immediately obvious. The front cover of the Penguin Edition features a still from the film of the same title, showing Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth, in conversation, while sitting on a churchyard tomb. The film kept, for the most part, to the spirit of the novel, but unfortunately, the temptation to insert some late twentieth century social attitudes was too great for the makers to successfully resist.

The plot is simple to relate. It is set a couple of years after the end of the First World War, and is about Tom Birkin (Colin Firth) who is spending a month in a coutry church, uncovering a medieval wall painting from its coat of whitewash. He is clearly a very damaged individual, still recovering from the horrors of the trenches, and his wife’s adultery and desertion, while he was serving overseas in the army. At the same time, Moon (Kenneth Branagh), is carrying out an archaeological excavation in the field adjoining the churchyard. He too, is an ex-soldier with his own demons, from the experiences of trench warfare. The two become good friends, and the novella traces their relationships within the small village community around the church.

The Richness of Medieval Church Interiors

Anyone, with an antiquarian or historical interest in the rich variety of medieval English churches, often finds their interiors are rather bare. This gives a false impression of what they would have been like in their medieval heyday. There would have been a richly decorated Rood Screen under the chancel arch, carrying ikons of various saints. Above the arch was a Rood Beam carrying the Rood, or Cross of the Crucifixion.

The walls would have been covered in colour paintings representing stories from the Bible, and these often followed standard positions in the church. For example, the head of the chancel arch was reserved for a portrait of Christ in Majesty; Christos Pantocrator in Greek. To the right of this, was the Doom, the Last Judgement with sinners falling headlong into Hell. The purpose of this rich imagery, was to teach, an almost entirely illiterate congregation, about Christian theology.

All this decoration was a pale, provincial reflection of the expensive mosaics of the private chapels of royalty, the bishops, and the great cathedrals of Europe. The fixed places for the Pantocrator (7) and the Doom (8), originated here.

Destruction of Church Furnishings

The present English bareness is due to Protestant extremism, in the period following the death of Henry VIII, when his litle son, King Edward VI, was under the control of of the powerful Somerset family. All Rood Beams were taken down, and the Roods were thrown onto a bonfire, along with the smashed Rood Screens, statues, illustrated books and other decorative woodwork. Finally, the wall paintings were covered in several coats of white limewash.

The ‘Lewes Group’ of Medieval Artists

In this novel, it was John Birkin’s task to reveal the unknown design beneath the limewash, and restore a little of the medieval glory of the ancient building. As he worked, he thought about the artist-designer and his team. It is easy for modern people to underestimate the careful organisation and skills of our ancestors, but, as the guide (9) to the tiny medieval church of West Hardham (har dum) makes plain, (References E), wall-painting was a highly-organised business.

“The wall paintings of Hardham are an extraordinary treasure for such a modest church. Among the earliest medieval wall paintings to survive in England, they date from the early 12th century, and form one of the most complete schemes of medieval painting in the country (10). Some forty subjects survive, providing a rare and memorable impression of a medieval painted interior. The Hardham paintings can be identified as the product of a single travelling workshop of artists.

The other paintings are at Clayton, Coombes and Plumpton, with those formerly existing at Westmeston. Together, these form the ‘Lewes Group’ of wall paintings (11), so named because two of the churches may have belonged to the Cluniac priory at Lewes, when the paintings were executed, and the priory may have been a patron. Although most wall paintings were executed by travelling lay artists, it is extremely rare for a group of paintings to survive from the same workshop.

An English Fresco Technique

There is evidence as to how the painters proceeded. A thick base layer of plaster was applied to the rubble walls, and over this a thinner layer of successive patches. Each patch was painted while the plaster was still wet, so the paintings are in the fresco technique.

The distinctive ‘bacon and egg’ palette (12) of the paintings results from the use of a very limited range of cheap, locally available pigments – red and yellow ochre, lime white, and carbon black. Even the bluish wall of the nave was produced merely by mixing white and black. The most expensive pigment was the green employed for a few haloes on the nave east wall, which is a copper carbonate produced probably from malachite.” (References E)

Figure 12 shows the colour palette clearly, but it is from the church at West Chiltington, which is only a few miles from West Hardham, but not described as part of the “Lewes Group”.

The Novel

The story opens with the principal character, Tom Birkin arriving by train in an unspecified county of Northern England.

“When the train stopped I stumbled out, nudging and kicking the kitbag before me. Back down the platform someone was calling despairingly, ‘Oxgodby … Oxgodby.’ (13)

Then the guard whistled, the train jerked forward a couple of paces – and stopped. This was enough to goad the old man in the nearside corner to half-lower his window.

‘Thoo’s ga-ing ti git rare an’ soaaked reet doon ti thi skin, maister,’ he said and shut the window in my face.

(This sounds like a Yorkshire dialect, ‘Thee is going to get rare and soaked, right down to thy skin, master.’ There is an Osgodby in Lincolnshire, 2 miles NW of Market Rasen, and one in Yorkshire, 1 mile NE of Selby)

Then the engine blew up a splendid plume of steam (14) and shuffled off, a row of faces staring woodenly at me. And I was alone on the platform, arranging my pack, taking a last look at a map, pushing it into my topcoat pocket, levering it out again to spill my ticket on the stationmaster’s boots, wishing I’d sewn on two missing buttons, hoping that it would stop raining until I had a roof over my head.

A youngish girl, her face flattened against a windowpane, stared at me from the stationmaster’s house. It must have been my coat which interested her; it was pre-War, about 1907 I should imagine, wonderful material, the real stuff, thick herringbone tweed. It reached down to my ankles; its original owner must have been a well-to-do giant.

I saw that I was going to get very wet; my soles were letting in water already. The stationmaster stepped back into his lamp-room and said something, but I didn’t follow his dialect. He seemed to understand this.

‘I said that you could borrow my umbrella,’ he repeated in tolerable English.

‘Where I’m going isn’t too far,’ I said. ‘According to the map, that is.’

The folk up there have an invincible curiosity.

‘Where would that be?’ he asked.

‘The church,’ I said. ‘I expect I can dry out when I get there.’

‘Come on in and have your tea first,’ he countered.

‘I’ve arranged to meet the Vicar,’ I said.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’m Chapel. All the same, if you want for ought, send me word. I say, I hope it’s there.’ He seemed to know why I’d come.”

Social Customs

The author, JL Carr catches the social nuances beautifully. The hero, Tom Birkin, is clearly a Southerner, who finds the North of England to be alien country, and the accents unintelligible, mainly because the people still use an archaic form of English with “thee, thou, thy”, instead of the modern, “you, your” etc.

Birkin does not immediately recognise the kindness of the stationmaster, who not only offers him an umbrella against the rain, but invites him into his own home for tea. The invitation is couched in a different form from that used in the South of England. Instead of the Southern, “Would you like, etc” the stationmaster is direct, “Come on in and have your tea first,” The use of the possessive “your” converts an order into an invite. It is YOUR tea, just waiting for YOU to come and consume it. Similarly, “If you want for ought, send me word.” translates as “If you need anything just ask me.”

In those days, the working class Christians worshipped in Chapels, which were plain Victorian buildings. The middle and upper classes worshipped in churches (15), which were mostly medieval buildings, but always much larger and expensively made than the chapels. When Birkin meets the Vicar, Mr Keach, a professional Christian, he finds him far less filled with the milk of human kindness, than the generous stationmaster. Keach is businesslike, but does not see Birkin as a poor, wet traveller, in need of shelter, a kind word, and a warm cup of tea. He is merely an inconvenience to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

He does not approve of the will of the church Patron, to have Birkin uncover the wall painting. “Whatever it is,” he said curtly, “It will distract attention from worship.” The one surprise is that Keach, played in the film by Patrick Malahide, has a stunningly beautiful wife (16), played by Natasha Richardson.

J L Carr

The author (17), Joseph Lloyd Carr, (1912 – 1994) was born in Thirsk, Yorkshire, the son of a stationmaster. He planned to to train as a teacher, but his academic standards were initially too weak. He worked for a year as an unqualified teacher, and then took a year on teacher- exchange in Huron, South Dakota, during 1938. With the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, he joined the RAF and trained in photographic reconnaissance, serving in West Africa, and later in the UK as an intelligence officer.

He returned to teaching after the war, and within seven years had become a prmary school headmaster in Kettering, Northamptonshire. He held this post for fifteen years, from 1952 till 1967, when he retired to become a full-time writer. He was first published in 1957, and he has produced a remarkable variety of works, including eight novels, specialist dictionaries, works on social change and children’s books. Many of these have been based on his experiences in the USA, Africa and the UK.

Carr described himself, in a 1986 Vogue interview, as “a back-bedroom publisher of large maps and small books who, in old age, unexpectedly wrote six novels which, although highly thought of by a small band of literary supporters and by himself, were properly disregarded by the Literary World”. He died of leukemia at the age of 81 in 1994.

Personal Responses

My enthusiasm for the novel is coloured, largely by an antiquarian interest in medieval churches, but also by personal issues, like the fact that my grandfather was a stationmaster on the North Kent Railway. My mother was born in the stationmaster’s house beside the railway line. Like the fictional Birkin, I am a Southerner, but unlike him, I feel quite at home when visiting the North of England, mainly because, as a child I grew up in Yorkshire, and Northern accents are perfectly intelligible to my ear. I went to school in a village like “Osgodby” which had not only a railway station, but also a very fine railway viaduct.

2 The Balkan Trilogy/The Levant Trilogy …Olivia Manning………1980-2

Six Novels

This is the story of a marriage and is quite clearly autobiographical. Although I would not normally read this type of novel, I had great sympathy for the newly-married heroine, Harriet Pringle, and her exasperating, but interesting husband Guy. It has a large cast of fascinating and varied characters, and is played out against a vast backdrop. It begins in Romania at the start of WW2, then moves rapidly to Greece, and eventually concludes in Egypt and Palestine.

The six original novels have been collected together as two trilogies, and given geographical titles. “The Balkan Trilogy” covers the action in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, and in Greece. “The Levant Trilogy” refers to the region where the sun rises, (French, lever = to rise), more specifically the countries of the eastern Mediterranean. This trilogy covers Egypt at the time of the Eighth Army’s successful campaign against Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and Palestine at the time of the British mandate, before the state of Israel was created in 1948.

The whole sequence was described by novelist, Anthony Burgess, as “the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer”. It needs to be said, however, that the novels are really about the impact of a widespread war on the civilians caught up in it, rather than on the military campaigns themselves. It has the added interest of being set, initially, in Romania, a part of Europe that most Western Europeans know very little about.


During the time of the Roman Empire, (c. 100 BC – 500 AD) the Latin language spread across Europe, and eventually the demotic (people’s) version transmuted into what are now called the Romance languages (20). The Latin pater/mater (father/mother) became padre/madre (Spanish, Italian), and père/mère (French). What is clear from the map in Figure 20, is how isolated Romania is from the rest of the “Romance Countries” of south-west Europe. Even the name of the country emphasises the fact that it was once a province of the Roman Empire, although its Roman name was Dacia.

The position of Romania among the states of Europe (21) is made clearer, by showing how many of them were Fascist states or dictatorships in 1939 (22), when Olivia Manning and her husband, (or the fictional Harriet and Guy Pringle) travelled to the capital, Bucharest.

Opening Chapter

The book opens with Guy and Harriet, on the Orient Express train, heading towards Guy’s new job in Romania.

“Somewhere near Venice, Guy began talking with a heavy, elderly man, a refugee from Germany on his way to Trieste. Guy asked questions. The refugee eagerly replied. Neither seemed aware when the train stopped. When the train was suddenly shunted into the night, she thought: ‘Anything can happen now.’

Guy and the refugee went on talking across the carriage, their eyes fixed upon each other. Guy’s sympathy had drawn the German half out of his seat. He held out his hands, cupped, palms up, side by side, occasionally shaking them for emphasis, while Guy gave him an anxious attention that lightened into excitement as he nodded his head, indicating that all he heard was exactly what he had expected to hear.

‘What is he saying?’ asked Harriet, who did not speak German.

Guy put a hand on hers to keep her quiet.”

With Compassion for All?

This passage neatly summarises the flavour of the book. Guy is so passionately interested in the brotherhood of man, in the person of the German refugee, that he ignores the one human being who is closest to him – his new wife. Apparently, the man has mysteriously lost his ticket and all his papers, so that he is arrested when the ticket-inspector and police come to the compartment.

Harriet goes on,

“In France they were among friends. Italy, which they crossed next day, seemed the end of the known world. When they awoke next morning, they were on the Slovenian plain. All day its monotonous cultivation, its fawn-coloured grainland and fields with hay-cocks, passed under a heavy sky.” (23)

Railway Puzzles

The Orient Express is the name of a long-distance passenger train service, not an actual train. Neither does it necessarily mean luxury carriages with mahogany interiors and Hercule Poirot with spats and moustaches. The essence of the service originally was that it ran from Paris, direct to Istanbul (24), taking in a large number of eastern European cities on the way.

However, the precise route, and the nature of the rolling-stock has been changed many times, over the years, since it began in 1883. A puzzle for me was that Guy and Harriet were, “somewhere near Venice”, which must have been Mestre. Of course, trains do not run through Venice itself, but the rail traveller gets off at the main line station in Mestre, and changes to a local train for the short journey across the Causeway to the Scalzi station in Venice (25).

Presumably, Guy and Harriet had travelled from London to Paris, and across eastern France, to Lausanne in Switzerland, across the north Italian plain, through Turin, and Milan to reach Mestre, and on to Trieste. The more direct route for the Orient Express ran through Munich and Salzburg on its way to Istanbul, but the war was imminent. The line which Guy and Harriet were on would reach Ljubljana, just beyond Trieste and head south-eastwards through the Balkans to Istanbul. I wondered why the German refugee from Nazi Germany would have gone to France and northern Italy to reach Trieste, which was part of Fascist Italy? It seems to be a long way round to reach a rather uncertain save haven.

Towards Romania

“Guy, who was doing this journey for the second time, gave his attention to his books. He was too short-sighted to make much of the passing landscape, and he had to prepare his lectures. He was employed in the English Department of the University of Bucharest, where he had already spent a year. He had met and married Harriet during his summer holiday.

As she gazed out into the dark heart of the forest, she began to see small moving lights. For an instant a grey dog-shape skirted the rail, then returned to darkness. The lights, she realised, were the eyes of beasts. She drew her head in and closed the window.

Guy looked up as she joined him and said:

‘What’s the matter?’ He took her hands, saw they were shrunken with cold and rubbed them between his hands:

‘Little monkey’s paws,’ he said. As his warmth passed into her, she said: ‘I love you,’ which was something she had not admitted before.

The moment seemed to her one that should expand into rapture, but Guy took it lightly. He said: ‘I know,’ and, giving her fingers a parting squeeze, he released them and returned his attention to his book.”

Fleeing for their Lives

This is a long book, (924 pages), and I only want to illustrate the relationship between Guy and Harriet, and give some idea of the turbulence of the times. It becomes clear that the young couple were always just one step ahead of disaster. They had arrived in Romania from Britain in 1939, just before war was declared, and from then on, German influence gradually increased. The Iron Guard, a home-grown Romanian Fascist force, engineered the abdication of King Carol, and the rise of the dictator, Ion Antonescu, to supreme power. He invited Hitler to send German troops into Romania in October 1940.

Guy and Harriet leave Romania, for the comparative safety of Greece, as they would probably have been arrested as enemy aliens had they remained in Bucharest. Greece (26) provided only a temporary respite. It had entered the war against the Axis powers, Germany and Italy, and had successfully defended itself against the Italians. When it was invaded by the Germans, the Greek government was forced to surrender in April 1941. Guy and Harriet once more had to flee for their lives, this time to Egypt (27).

At that time, Egypt seemed no safer than the places that Guy and Harriet had left. Although British forces had comprehensively defeated the Italians in North Africa, the German General, Erwin Rommel (28), had recently taken charge of the Afrika Korps and the remaining Italian troops. He was mounting an offensive with the aim of capturing Egypt and the Suez Canal. After 19 months of uncertainty, (April 1941 to Nov 1942) Guy and Harriet, and all the other civilians in Egypt, breathed a sigh of relief following the Battle of El Alamein, when General Bernard Montgomery (29) and the Eighth Army defeated Rommel’s forces and drove them back, hundreds of miles across the North African desert.

From Egypt, Guy and Harriet, transferred to Jerusalem (30) in Palestine (31), in early 1943, which was under a British mandate. In WW1 the British had captured Jerusalem, and Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. The region was not a colony, but was administered by Britain under an international agreement.

Olivia Manning’s Early Life

The author, Olivia Manning, was born in Portsmouth, in 1908, to a naval officer, and his wife, who came from Belfast in Northern Ireland. As a child, Olivia’s time was divided between England and Ireland, leading her to complain, rather self-pityingly, of “a sense of belonging nowhere”.

She had a rather unhappy childhood. Although she loved her father, who was a warm, convivial man, and a womaniser, he was often away at sea. He was forty-nine when she was born, and hence more like a grandfather to her. By contrast, she described her mother as “having a mind as rigid as cast iron”, and this relationship was an unhappy one. When her brother, Oliver, was born five years after her, he was a delicate child who needed much more of her mother’s care. Olivia was always jealous of him, fostering the attitude of self-pity, that has been referred to earlier on.

She was at schools in Portsmouth and Northern Ireland, but never went to university. Her father encouraged her literary and artistic efforts, but her mother was critical and very discouraging. Her first novels were published, under a masculine pseudonym, by the local newspaper, beginning in 1929, when she was twenty-one.

Olivia in Literary London

Olivia broke free from her mother, by taking a typing job in London, and living there, nearer to the literary scene and literary agents. She had received encouragement by letter, from Hamish Miles, of publishers, Jonathan Cape. Although Miles was a married man with children, he and Olivia soon became lovers. Cape published her first acknowledged novel, “The Wind Changes” in 1937 when she was twenty-nine. Miles died that same year from a brain tumour.

Remaining in London, she met the poet Stevie Smith and the two women became immediate friends, but were described as “a malicious pair of snobs”, by the novelist and literary critic, Walter Allen. Their friendship broke up when Olivia met R D Smith “Reggie” in July 1939, and they married a month later. She was thirty-one, and he was on summer leave from his job as a British Council lecturer in Bucharest. Within a few days he was recalled to Romania, and they had to leave at once. Stevie Smith received a letter from Olivia in Bucharest, asking her to look after the flat and her possessions while she was away, but, as events proved, the friendship was now broken totally and it never recovered.

Olivia’s Husband was a Spy

R D Smith made no secret of his Marxist beliefs, but MI5 revealed much later that he had been recruited as a communist spy by Anthony Blunt. This happened on Smith’s brief visit to Cambridge University in 1938, when Blunt was part of a web of homosexual Marxists recruited by the Russian KGB to enter the British Secret Services and betray their country.

It is unlikely that R D Smith ever presented a danger to Britain, because he was quite open about his political beliefs and was never in a position to betray any important secrets to the Russians, but MI5 knew he had been working to extend Soviet Communism in Romania and the Middle East, throughout his time there. What is more remarkable is that he chose to be in such dangerous places as Fascist Italy, and the dictatorships of Romania and Greece. Any Fascist or anti-Communist sympathiser might easily have had him killed for ninepence.

Olivia in Romania

Olivia’s movements during the war period followed exactly that described earlier, for Guy and Harriet, concerning the plot of the novels. As the wikipedia article on her says, “She was a shy, provincial girl who had little experience with other cultures. She was both dazzled and appalled by Romania. The café society, with its wit and gossip, appealed to her, but she was repelled by the peasantry and the aggressive, often mutilated, beggars.”

Bucharest was described “as being on the margins of European civilisation, ‘a strange, half-Oriental capital’ that was ‘primitive, bug-ridden and brutal’, whose citizens were peasants, whatever their wealth or status.” However, Olivia enjoyed the brief interlude in Greece so much, that she commented happily that, “Romania is abroad, but Greece is home.”

Olivia in Egypt

In Egypt, she and Reggie initially arrived in Alexandria, which was a British naval base and regularly bombed by the Luftwaffe (German air forces). They moved to the capital, Cairo, was much safer as it had no military value, but had to return to Alexandria, when Reggie got a job at the university there. Olivia found the air-raids intolerable and went back to Cairo.

Olivia continued to write and publish while in Egypt, and for the three years she and Reggie spent in Palestine, mainly in Jerusalem. In 1944, at the age of 36, she gave birth to a still-born child and was unable to have further children. This led to a deep depression and in 1945, with the end of the war, she returned to England alone. When Reggie came back he began to work for the BBC mainly in the Drama department. As with many Marxist intellectuals, the scales finally fell from his eyes in 1956, when Soviet Russian forces invaded Hungary to suppress a workers’ uprising against the oppressive regime. He realised that, far from fostering an international brotherhood of peace and socialism, he had simply been a tool of Russian imperialism and dictatorship.

Last Days

Olivia wrote for the BBC, as well as publishing novels, and occasional journalism. In the late fifties and sixties, Olivia worked on the novels for “The Balkan Trilogy” which were published to mixed reviews. She continued with her war recollections during the 1970s, (36) as she developed “The Levant Trilogy”, despite increasing ill health. The final volume was published posthumously as she had a stroke and died in July 1980. As she had anticipated, her literary reputation began to rise after her death, especially as a 1987 television series (37), “The Fortunes of War”, starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Harriet and Guy, brought her work to a much wider audience. Interested readers should see the long wikipedia article on ‘Olivia Manning’, giving a much fuller account of her life than here, and a full analysis of the themes in her work.

As is often the case, the books I have chosen trigger personal recollections, and I have been encouraged by a close friend, who said, “They make the reviews come alive.”

Travelling to Venice

My interest in the train journey made by Guy and Harriet stems from similar journeys I have made in more peaceful times. Taking the train from Florence to Venice for the first time, I was immediately struck by the indicator board in Florence station, showing the train I needed, with “Wien”, (Vienna in German) at the top. A British traveller easily forgets in continental Europe that trains cross national frontiers. The train I was taking, went north from Florence, near to Venice, and on to Vienna where it terminated. On the train, the ticket-inspector said to me, “Venezia, cambio a Mestre” and I replied, “Si, si, capisco, cambio a Mestre” (For Venice, you must change at Mestre. Yes, I understand, I must change at Mestre.)

There were four of us in the compartment, a middle-aged couple, a dapper elderly gentleman, and myself. A woman came in selling paper flowers. My Italian is limited, but I followed the conversation. The old gentleman aked, “Are you an Italian woman?” “Yes, sir.” “Sell only to Italians.” “Yes, sir.” The married couple gave her a little money, but took no flowers, as did the old gentleman. This was an interesting piece of Italian social manners. The old gentleman did not object to the woman begging on a train, but he would not let her shame his nation by begging from foreigners like me.

When the couple left the train, the old gentleman and I got into conversation. His daughter lived in Mestre, and she was ill, so he was paying her a visit. When we left the train at Mestre, he promised to show me the platform for the train to Venice.

The Orient Express

I have also travelled on the cheaper versions of the Orient Express. I went from London to Dover by train, crossed the Channel by ferry, from Dover to Calais, and took the train to Paris Nord. From Paris, I travelled on the Orient Express line which went through Strasbourg and Munich, but I got off the express at Salzburg in Austria. Each compartment had six seats only. At night, the day seats folded down to make the two lowest bunk beds, and the middle and top bunks were slid into position. All six passengers could lie flat with a pillow, so they might sleep, lying down flat. How far they undressed for bed was a matter of taste.

3 Government ………………………………………………..B Traven …………….1980

As a surveyor in his forties, B Traven went to Mexico, in 1924 and he took part in several scientific expeditions within the country, and it coloured his literary outlook for the rest of his life. Traven was deeply sympathetic to the poor people of Mexico and their struggle to make a living in a country where political corruption was endemic at every level of society. His novels, far from being out of date, are very relevant to the twenty-first century, when we are concerned about political corruption in African states, in the oil states of the Middle East, in Russia, in Afghanistan, and even in Europe with banking scandals.

Mexican Peasants

The cover of the Allison and Busby paperback (38) shows Mexican peasants collecting heavy bundles of sugar, cane, while a mounted overseer, armed with a rifle, supervises the work. It is from a painting by the Mexican artist, Diego Rivera, called, “Sugar Plantation, Tealtenanga, Morelos”. He produced a large number of paintings and murals of Mexican peasants, and of political life in Mexico (39), like “La dictadura” (Dictatorship). These were painted in the 1930s, precisely the times of which B Traven was writing. Many of B Traven’s books had Mexico as a background and he lived in the country for nearly fifty years. Finally, in his old age he married an old Mexican friend, Rosa Elena.

The Novel

The basis of the widespread political corruption is set out from the start;

“The government was represented in the eastern district by Don Casimiro Azcona. Like every jefe politico, (political chief) Don Casimiro thought first of his own interests. He served his country, not for his country’s good, but in order to profit at its expense. He worked better on those terms and, above all, he lived better. If a man can earn no more as a servant of the State than he can by running a snack bar, there is no reason whatever why he should aspire to devote his energies to his country’s service.

After he had taken care of himself, he thought of his family. Then came his intimate friends. These friends had helped him obtain his post and now he had to humour them so that they would let him keep it, at least until one of them decided the moment had come to take it for himself.

Every member of his family to its remotest branches—nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law, uncles, brothers and their nephews, cousins, brothers-in-law, and sons—all were taken care of. They were given jobs as tax collectors, postmasters, chiefs of police, justices of the peace for as long as he himself could hold his. For this reason they were all on his side, whatever he might do. He might steal to his heart’s content—provided always that when they in turn stole he did not order an inquiry into their conduct. Whatever they might do, lawfully or unlawfully, had to be right in his eyes.”

Don Casimiro had a friend, don Gabriel down on his luck, so he offered him a job as Secretary of a remote Indian village. “The prison was very important—as everywhere on earth. Everywhere the building of a prison is the first step in the organization of a civilized state.

The secretary could not live and support a family on his paltry salary, and the government did not expect him to. He was, after all, the secretary of a place inhabited by active and industrious Indians.

No one expected a governor, a chief of police, a mayor, or a tax collector to live on his pay; nor did the jefe politico imagine for a moment that he had to live on his.

So it was also a matter for the secretary to consider how he was to arrive at a decent income for himself. The jefe politico expected a good share of it, just as a chief of police looked to the police under his command for a share of their pickings, in order to feel justified in continuing to employ them. How they came by their pickings was no affair of his…”

Political Resistance

In a situation of such profound, and amoral corruption, it was hardly surprising that the poor were attracted by the idea of communist revolution. Both the native American peoples, (called Indians in the book) who were agricultural labourers, and the industrial workers, of Spanish descent, were prepared to fight against the continuing oppression. Rivera, who was himself a communist, depicted the beginnings of an uprising with, “The Arsenal – Frida Kahlo Distributes Arms” (40). Frida was a woman painter and friend of Rivera.

Who was B Traven?

B Traven wrote a wide range of novels, (25 million copies sold by 1980) some of which were turned into successful films. The name, “B Traven” is a pseudonym and the “B” does not stand for anything. The author was a German who went to great trouble to conceal his identity through a whole series of aliases. As technical consultant “Hal Croves” he was present when his novel was made into the film, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” directed by John Huston, and starring Humphrey Bogart.

The story of this enigmatic author was unravelled by Will Wyatt, a journalist and TV producer, together with Robert Robinson, the radio and TV presenter. It is described in Wyatt’s book, “The Man who was B Traven” where he reveals that Traven used at least 29 aliases (41, 42). The wikipedia article, “B Traven” discusses a number of conflicting theories of the identity of this author.

4 Jean de Florette /Manon des Sources…….Marcel Pagnol…………1988

Marcel Pagnol was a popular French playwright and film director, perhaps because his characterisation is so good. In the 1930s he wrote the “Fanny” trilogy of plays about three characters, (Cèsar, Marius, and Fanny) in the Vieux Port of Marseille (mar say ee, not mar sails). Cèsar was a popular and loquacious bar owner on the Marseille waterfront. His son Marius was expected to follow his father in the business, but the boy had ambitions to go to sea. Fanny was the daughter of another waterfront shopkeeper who hoped to marry Marius. This charming series of plays had a powerful nostalgic pull for the French, and for Francophiles everywhere.

Old Marseille

The setting (43) in the Vieux Port (the Old Port) before WW2 is one of poverty, but intense vivacity on the part of the people living there, imbued as they are with fierce pride in the culture of the Midi. The Midi is the hot southern part of France, literally the land of the mid-day sun, which had a long history of independence from northern France. During the war the Germans destroyed much of the area of the Vieux Port, so the plays have this feeling of nostalgia for a small world which has passed away. One surprise result from the German destruction was the discovery, after the war, of the foundations of a Roman warehouse from the Roman port of Massilia (44).

Massif d’ Etoile

Inland Provence is composed of limestone hills, (45) some of them stretching down to the coast. The location for “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources” is also Pagnol’s beloved Provence, but this time it is a rural setting. The limestone hills of the Massif d’ Etoile, (Star Mountains), are just a dozen miles east of Marseille (46). The southern French word, “bastide” (bast eed) translates as “small country house”, and Pagnol uses it for his fictional village of Les Bastides Blanches (The White Houses) based on the real village of La Treille, (lar tray ee) where Pagnol spent his summer holidays with his beloved grandparents. Their house was called “Bastide Neuve” (47) (House Nine).

These two novels are also concerned with a lost epoch; this time, the twenties, when times were difficult for rural communities and it was hard to make a living. The Common Market created greater prosperity in the post-war period for French farmers, and the era of mass tourism produced many more jobs in the coastal region for unemployed country people. The conditions of rural life are vividly described in the novel,

“The garigue* (48) of the Bastidians (the people of Les Bastides) was nothing more than a series of immense plateaux of bluish limestone, separated by deep ravines, which they called vallons (49). Here and there in these vallons were level patches of shallow earth, deposited over the centuries by the wind and runoff from the rain, and that was where they established their fields, bordered by olive trees, almond trees, and fig trees.

There they cultivated chick-peas, lentils, and buckwheat, that is, plants that were able to grow without water; and the little Jacquez vines that had defied the phylloxera. But around the village, thanks to connections made to the pipeline to the fountain, there were rich vegetable gardens greening, and orchards of peaches and apricots, whose fruits were taken to the market.

They lived on their vegetables, the milk of their goats, the lean pig they killed every year, a few hens, and most of all on the game they poached in the immensity of the hills.”

[*Garigue (gar eeg) is a French word which has no exact English equivalent. It describes a rough scrubland of evergreen shrubs and aromatic herbs, typical of dry Mediterranean climates, and consequently unknown in Britain. This is why the translator, W E van Heyningen, has wisely left it in the original French.]

A widely reproduced still from the film, (50) appears on later editions of the book, showing men of village playing petanque (pay tonk) or boules (bool) in the main square.

Jean de Florette

“Jean de Florette” is about a local town boy, Jean, (51) who inherits a farm from his mother Florette. He is illegitimate and has little knowledge of farming and is consequently held in low regard by the other local farmers. He sets to work with a will, but he is frustrated in his endeavours because of a lack of sufficient water. Two malicious neighbours, Papet (51) and Ugolin (52) have deliberately blocked a hidden water source, high in the hills, so that the normal irrigation supply is suspended. The neighbour hopes to get the farm for himself once Jean’s attempts have failed, and the poor man dies as a result of his exertions.

Manon des Sources

Jean had a wife and baby daughter, Manon (52). As she grows up she runs wild among the high beautiful hills of the region. She is nicknamed, “Manon des Sources” (Manon of the Springs). As a small child she had observed the blocking of the spring which frustrated her father’s efforts to cultivate the land. She in turn blocks another spring which supplies all the farms surrounding the village. The novel traces the course of her life, and ultimately the malicious neighbour, Papet, makes an amazing discovery which turns everything upside down.

The two novels were turned into two excellent films which remained close to the original plots. The setting among the vallons made them visually stunning, and there was a star-studded cast of French actors. Gerard Depardieu played Jean, and Emmanuel Beart played Manon. The two malicious neighbours were Ugolin played by Daniel Auteuil, and Cèsar (known as Le Papet – the Little Pope) played by the veteran actor Yves Montand, who was then aged sixty-five.

One of the effects of the success of the films was to popularise the region for the French themselves and the discerning Francophile tourist. The landscape settings, the rough peasant characters, and the halting, slow dialogue were widely used in TV advertising for the lager “Stella Artois”. The association of a cold foamy lager with the thirst of men in a hot, steep landscape was a masterstroke.

For a minority of aficionados, the recollection of Jean’s thirsty, dry farm, and the release of the cooling waters by the lovely Manon added to the pleasure of this lager. Curiously, lager is a northern French drink and Artois is as far away as one can get from Provence and still be in France. Did any of this affect the drinking habits of the Provencals? Have they abandoned their pastis (53), for lager?

5 The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail………..Michael Baigent……..1982

Pseudoarchaeology and Pseudohistory

This term, “pseudoarchaeology” is used to describe a popular genre of literature, meaning it has all the appearances of an academic book, being apparently well-researched, with copious references, a closely-argued case, and yet which flies in the face of established knowledge on the subject. The very fact that its conclusions are unorthodox, makes it popular with the general, or non-specialist reader, and yet, at bottom, it is unscientific, and hence “pseudoarchaeology”, or “false archaeology”. Erich von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” (54), published in 1968, is a classic example of this genre. Michael Baigent’s book (55) stands somewhere between “pseudoarchaeology” and “pseudohistory” in its similar use of argument, sources and evidence.

Perhaps one of the factors creating the book’s popularity is the way it gathers together a whole bundle of historical mysteries from the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD, through the Jewish Diaspora to Europe, the Frankish Visigothic Kingdoms, the strange origins of the Merovingian Kings of France, the Arthurian Cycle of romances, the Quest for the Holy Grail, the Crusades, the capture of Jerusalem, the rise and fall of the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and much, much more, so the head reels. Any one of these topics has kept scholars busy for a lifetime.

The Da Vinci Code

The more recent interest of Baigent’s book is that, some twenty years later, it formed the basis of a runaway bestselling book, “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, and the following film, with the wooden Tom Hanks (56), and the delicious Audrey Tautou. One of the principal explainers of the mysteries, is “The Teacher”, a man called Sir Leigh Teabing, whose surname is an anagram of “Baigent”, and whose forename is that of one of Baigent’s collaborators, Richard Leigh. This is as far as Dan Brown goes in acknowledging his major source of information and ideas, but the controversies following the book and the film have managed to generate a minor publishing industry (57) in itself.

Unwisely, Baigent and Leigh had recourse to law in 2006, accusing Brown of plagiarism and copyright infringement. The outcome was failure, when High Court Judge rejected the claim, and in 2008 they lost their appeal. They were left with a bill of three million pounds. The problem was that Baigent and Leigh’s book was supposedly factual and most of the evidence was in the public domain, whereas Dan Brown’s book was fiction, and the plot bore little relation to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”.

A Bloodline or Not?

The main hypothesis in the book is that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene (58) and had a daughter, before the Crucifixion, and thus left a bloodline of descendents. Put baldly like this, it is easier to pick out the problems in the argument. The authors are not believers, or practising Christians, and therefore do not believe that Jesus Christ was God. In that case, Jesus was just an unlucky man, who fell foul of the authorities, two thousand years ago. Why should anyone be remotely interested in whether he left descendents or not? It is only if Jesus was something special that the survival of His bloodline is of any interest.

The other problem that gradually emerges during the course of the book, is that the “bloodline” begins with a normal pattern of inheritance, from one person, to their children of the next generation, but by the end it has petered out into some kind of an association. That is, people who knew each other and conferred some vaguely defined distinction from one to another.

Three Significant Issues

This is a long book and I want to examine only three aspects of it. Firstly the argument that JESUS WAS A MARRIED MAN, to illustrate how the authors handle historical evidence. Secondly, the issue of the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR, because of the supposed continuance of their influence into later times. Thirdly, the matter of Fr Berenger Saunière and his parish of RENNES LE CHATEAU in France, because it is nearest in time to us, and there is more substantial evidence available.


The book points out that the Old Testament encourages Jewish men to marry, “be fruitful and multiply.” Although the New Testament does not state that Jesus was married, the authors claim that He must have had a wife, because being single was so unusual that it would have provoked comment, and been recorded. So, we go from silence as proving nothing, to silence as proving a positive.

The other piece of supposed evidence comes from the New Testament account of the Marriage at Cana (59) in St John’s Gospel, chapter two. The four gospels were composed about thirty years after the Crucifixion, about 60 – 70 AD, within the memory of people alive at the time. They were written in Greek, the international language of Mediterranean scholarship in those days, although the words of Jesus had been translated from the Aramaic language. The Latin version of the Bible, which is known as “The Vulgate”, was produced by St Jerome in the Fourth Century A D.

In using the Marriage at Cana as evidence, the reported words of Jesus and Mary have been filtered through several sets of translations, (Aramaic – Greek – Latin – 17 C English – Modern English). I have tried to simplify the problem by using a 20 C English translation directly from the original Greek (References U).

“THREE days later there was a
wedding at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples were also among the wedding guests.

The wine ran short, and Jesus’ mother told him that they had no more.

He said to her:

‘Lady, why bring your troubles to me? My time has not yet come.’

Whereupon his mother said to the servants,

‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Now the Jews rinse their hands in water before meals, and for this purpose six twenty-gallon stone jars were standing there. Jesus said to the servants:

‘Fill those jars with water.’

And they filled them to the brim.

Then he said to them:

‘Draw now, and serve the Master of the Feast.’

And they served him. The master tasted the water, which by now was wine, and not knowing where it came from (though the servants who had drawn it knew) he called to the bridegroom and said:

‘It is the usual practice to begin by serving vintage wine, and when the guests are drunk, to serve a poorer kind. You have kept the vintage wine till now.’

Thus at Cana in Galilee Jesus wrought the first of his miracles. It bore the mark of his glory and his disciples’ faith in him was fixed.” (References U).

Baigent makes the point that Jesus was often called “rabbi” (teacher) by his followers, so that he may have had formal rabbinical training, and Jewish law stated, “An unmarried man may not be a teacher.” Curiously, Baigent uses an antique translation of the Bible, probably the King James version of 1606, like “Whatsoever he saith unto thee” with all the attendant translation problems already stated. He is absurdly over-critical, with his comment that the mother of Jesus, ‘just happens’ to be at the wedding, and her presence there is never explained in the Gospel. Yet only a few lines earlier, he describes the occasion as “a modest local ceremony – a typical village wedding”, so it would have been more surprising if Mary was not present with her neighbours.

He goes on, “Mary not merely suggest to her son, but in effect orders him to replenish the wine. Why should two ‘guests’ at the wedding take on the reponsibility of catering?” All of this wild exaggeration could easily be countered by the idea that Mary was a close neighbour, even a relative of the bride and groom, did not want to see them embarrassed in public, and simply wished to help. From such exaggeration and strained argument Baigent claims that the Cana wedding was between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

“The Wedding Feast at Cana” has been a popular subject for artists and their patrons for centuries, but it is always presented as a very grand affair set in contemporary times, (59, 60, 61) perhaps in order to feature portraits of the patrons or local worthies.

Conversion of Supposition into Fact

One of the book’s techniques is to make a suggestion, that is not necessarily true, but is possible, on the strength of the evidence available, like the marital state of Jesus. The suggestion is then repeated several more times, with fewer and fewer limits each time, so that it then begins to appear as a freestanding truth.


There were two military orders in medieval Europe and the near East; the Knights Templar (62), and the Knights Hospitaller. They were fighting soldiers, but also monks who had taken the three traditional vows of poverty (they were not allowed personal property), chastity (they may not marry or have mistresses), and obedience (they were always under orders from lawful superiors).

The Templars and the Hospitallers had arisen during the Crusades, which began at the close of the eleventh century. At the time, Christian pilgrims were encountering robbery and harassment by Muslims on their journeys to, and within the Holy Land. They complained to the Greek Christian Byzantine Emperor, Alexius II Comnenus, in Constantinople. He had in turn, appealed to Pope Urban II in Rome for help to assist the Christians in the east, with a hope that they might recover the Holy Places from the Muslims.

However, all was not as simple as it appeared on the surface. Alexius was cunning and duplicitous, and not above making treaties with the Muslims when it suited him. What he really wanted was a mercenary army of Western Christians to do all the fighting for him, so the Byzantines could reap the rewards of their labours. The Crusaders had besieged the city of Antioch for many months, and just as it was about to fall, it surrendered to the envoys of the Emperor.

Alexius was not forgiven for this, or ever trusted again, by the Crusaders. Pope Urban, a Frenchman, had preached the First Crusade in 1095 at Clermont in France, and it left Europe in 1096. After many difficulties, the Crusaders succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, and Jerusalem (63) was captured in 1099. They established the feudal “Kingdom of Jerusalem” (64) in the land of Palestine.

Baigent explains that there is an enormous volume of published material on the Templars but he concentrates on the traditional, or “orthodox account” of their origins, based on the work of Guillaume de Tyre, writing between 1175 and 1185. Unfortunately this is 50-60 years after the event, and is thus largely hearsay or oral tradition. Moreover, the work of Guillaume is often vague, and his dates, says Baigent, quoting Steven Runciman, the great historian of the Crusades, ‘are confused and at times demonstrably wrong’.

Baigent shows a very proper scepticism about the supposed origins of the Templars,

“According to Guillaume de Tyre, the Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon was founded in 1118. Its founder is said to be one Hugues de Payen, a nobleman from Champagne and vassal of the count of Champagne.

One day Hugues, unsolicited, presented himself with eight comrades at the palace of Baudouin I – king of Jerusalem, whose elder brother, Godfroi de Bouillon, had captured the Holy City nineteen years before. Baudouin seems to have received them most cordially, as did the Patriarch of Jerusalem – the religious leader of the new kingdom and special emissary of the pope.

The declared objective of the Templars, Guillaume de Tyre continues, was, ‘as far as their strength permitted, they should keep the roads and highways safe … with especial regard for the protection of pilgrims going to Jerusalem’.

So worthy was this objective apparently that the king placed an entire wing (65, 66) of the royal palace at the knights’ disposal. According to tradition, their quarters were built on the foundations of the ancient Temple of Solomon, and from this the fledgling Order derived its name.

For nine years, Guillaume de Tyre tells us, the nine knights admitted no new candidates to their Order. They were still supposed to be living in poverty — such poverty that official seals (67) show two knights riding a single horse, implying not only brotherhood, but also a penury that precluded separate mounts. And yet there was, at this time, an official royal historian, employed by the king. His name was Fulk de Chartres, and he was writing, not fifty years after the Order’s purported foundation, but during the very years in question.

Curiously enough, Fulk de Chartres makes no mention whatever of Hugues de Payen, Hugues’s companions or anything even remotely connected with the Knights Templar. Indeed there is a thunderous silence about Templar activities during the early days of their existence. Certainly there is no record anywhere —not even later — of them doing anything to protect pilgrims.

And one cannot but wonder how so few men could hope to fulfil so mammoth a self-imposed task. Nine men to protect the pilgrims on all the thoroughfares of the Holy Land? Only nine? And all pilgrims? If this was their objective, one would surely expect them to welcome new recruits. Yet, according to Guillaume de Tyre, they admitted no new candidates to the Order for nine years.”

Essentially, Baigent believes that this is a “cover story” and the real story and motivations are quite different.


Baigent uses this particular issue to open his book. Again, the story is relatively quick to tell. Bérenger Saunière (69) was a French boy of poor origins, who trained for the priesthood, and seemed to be full of promise, but failed to succeed, despite his intelligence and energetic personality. At the age of thirty-three, he was sent to the poor parish of Rennes le Chateau (68) in the far south of France, quite near his birthplace at Montazels.

Yet he was able to have a new church renovations built over the shell of the old medieval one; have a new priest’s house built, and have a modern metalled road constructed up the hill to the village of Rennes. He also contributed generously to other public works in the village, and was consequently very popular. The obvious question is, “Where did he get all the money to do this?” The obvious answer was that he had discovered some buried treasure, and this still remains the popular opinion. Baigent, however, regards this as too simplistic a view.

He delves into the period following the end of the Roman Empire, when there was a Visigothic kingdom in SW France (70) and the town of Rhedae was close to Rennes le Chateau. His thesis is that a group of Jews, including Mary Magdalene and her daughter, fled from Palestine in the First century, AD, and set up a colony in southern France. They were not Christian, but followed a Gnostic tradition from the Middle East. This continued with the Visigoths and the Cathars of the medieval period, who were suppressed in the 13 century, by the Catholic church. Rennes was in the heartland of Cathar resistance (70).

The story Baigent puts together is a long and complex one, and it is essential to read the book to follow the details, but the fundamental theory is that an “underground stream” of Gnostic belief and practice has survived below the Christian surface for the last two millenia. The Magdalenian “bloodline”, the Cathars and the Templars were a part of this Gnostic tradition. He is very fond of using the words, “flagrant, impugn, and tantamount” and I marked their appearance at regular intervals.

Michael Baigent

The author, Michael Baigent (72), was a New Zealander, born Michael Barry Meehan in 1948, in Nelson. His father deserted his wife and family when Michael was eight. Michael and his mother then went to live with his maternal grandfather, Lewis Baigent, a sawmill owner, and subsequently Michael took his surname.

He went to Nelson College, and Canterbury University, Christchurch, New Zealand. He was brought up in a devout Catholic home, and although he initially planned to study science at university, he switched to comparative religion. He studied Buddhism and Hinduism as well as Christianity, travelling to south-east Asia, and Australia, before graduating with a degree in Psychology. Later, he went on to obtain an MA in Mysticism and Religious Experience at the University of Kent, in Britain

He was an active Freemason and a Grand Officer of the United Grand Lodge of England. He married his wife, Jane, and they lived in Bath, England, and had two daughters. He died of a brain haemorrhage in 2013 at the age of sixty-five.

6 The Lost Continent…………………………..Bill Bryson……………..1989

Britain and America

It is often quoted that “Britain and America are separated by the barrier of a common language”. The same English words and phrases may be understood quite differently by the two nations, leading to misunderstanding or embarrassment. Sometimes, an English person may say, as a compliment, “You are not at all like an American,” and be surprised when the American person is deeply offended.

The expansion runs thus. “My stereotypical idea of Americans is that they are loud, brash and uncultured, so when I meet an American who is quiet, gentle and cultured, instead of changing my stereotypical idea, I think he must be untypical, and compliment him on the fact.” These comments are made by way of introduction to Bill Bryson’s amusing book.

Reading his account of a tour round the USA, as an Englishman I was continuallly surprised by Bryson’s reactions to his fellow Americans; they seemed more like the way an English person would respond. His book “The Lost Continent” is wryly amusing, but I must admit to laughing out loud several times when I picked it up for this review. Its flavour is distilled in the opening sentence.

“I come from Des Moines (73). Someone had to.”

Des Moines

(For English readers, the locals pronounce it day moyn. It was originally, “Fort Des Moines” taken from the Rivière des Moines, ‘Monks’ River’, named by the French voyageurs exploring the region in the 16-17C.)

“When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there for ever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there, for ever, and ever.”

“Hardly anyone ever leaves. This is because Des Moines is the most powerful hypnotic known to man. Outside town there is a big sign that says ‘WELCOME TO DES MOINES. THIS IS WHAT DEATH IS LIKE. There isn’t really. I just made that up.”

Leaving America

“Then one grey Sunday afternoon when I was about ten I was watching TV and there was a documentary on about movie-making in Europe. From that moment, I wanted to be a European boy. I wanted to live in an apartment across from a park in the heart of a city, and from my bedroom window look out on a crowded vista of hills and roof-tops. As soon as I was old enough I left. I left Des Moines and Iowa and the United States and the war in Vietnam and Watergate, and settled across the world.”

Returning to America

“On another continent, 4,000 miles away, I became quietly seized with that nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle of your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took some of you with him.

I wanted to go back to the magic places of my youth — to Mackinac Island, the Rocky Mountains, Gettysburg — and see if they were as good as I remembered them. I wanted to hear the long, low sound of a Rock Island locomotive calling across a still night and the clack of it receding into the distance. I wanted to travel around. I wanted to see America. I wanted to come home.

So I flew to Des Moines and I acquired a sheaf of road-maps, and one September dawn in my thirty-sixth year I crept out of my childhood home, and slid behind the wheel of an ageing Chevrolet Chevette. Ahead of me lay about a million square miles of quietly rustling corn (75). At the edge of town I joined Iowa Highway 163 and with a light heart headed towards Missouri. And it isn’t often you hear anyone say that.”

Never Go Back

Unwisely, Bill Bryson first drives to see the home of his long-dead grand-parents in Winfield, finding the house neglected and dilapidated. The small town was seedy, “like an abandoned film set” and nothing like the friendly, thriving community he knew as a small child. Ruefully, he reflects, “It was the first time in my life I had turned my back on a place, knowing I would never see it again.” I followed the first part of his route on a good road map of the USA, (76) but could not find Winfield. It is possible he has used a pseudonym for his grandparents’ home town, “lest the people come to my house, and batter me with baseball bats.”

The Mississippi River

“Keokuk is a Mississippi river town where Iowa, Illinois and Missouri face each other across a broad bend in the river (76). I had really looked forward to seeing the Mississippi. Crossing it as a child had always been an adventure. Dad would call, ‘Here’s the Mississippi, kids!’ and we would scramble to the window to find ourselves on a bridge practically in the clouds, so high it made our breath catch, and the silvery river far, far below, wide, majestic, serene, going about its timeless business of just rolling on. You could see for miles — a novel experience in Iowa. You could see barges and islands and riverside towns. It looked wonderful (77).”

The Perfect American Town

Bryson vividly describes driving these enormous distances across the sheer tedium of the American midwest. He explains; “One of the things I was looking for on this trip was the perfect town. I’ve always felt certain that somewhere out there in America it must exist.” He formed his idea of this perfect town from watching old movies from the 1930s and 1940s on TV when he was a child and teenager.

“The one constant in these pictures was the background. It was always the same place, a trim and sunny little city with a tree-lined Main Street full of friendly merchants and a courthouse square, and wooded neighbourhoods where fine houses slumbered beneath graceful elms. There was always a paperboy on a bike slinging papers onto front porches”.

He was finding the reality was different, “the places we passed through were hot and dusty and full of scrawny dogs, closed-down movie theatres, grubby diners and gas stations that looked as if they would be grateful to get two customers a week.”

But I felt sure that it must exist somewhere. In this timeless place Bing Crosby (78) would be the priest, Jimmy Stewart (79) the mayor, Fred Macmurray (80) the high school principal, Henry Fonda a Quaker farmer. Walter Brennan would run the gas station, a boyish Mickey Rooney would deliver groceries, and somewhere at an open window Deanna Durbin (81) would sing.”

Movie Icons of Yesteryear

Bing Crosby, James Stewart and Fred Macmurray were popular movie stars of the thirties, forties, and fifties in the USA, as well as Britain and the rest of the English-speaking world. They were familiar icons of my youth, but Deanna Durbin was less well-known to me. She had a beautiful soprano voice and had appeared in a host of musical comedy films, none of which I have seen. My eldest brother, serving in the Royal Navy during WW2, had a pin-up picture of her, and she was heard occasionally on BBC radio record request broadcasts. She retired from film-making in 1949 and refused any intrusions into her private life. She was married three times, and survived, as did my eldest brother, into their nineties, in the second decade of the twenty-first century. She was generally known, rather unkindly, as “the Steel Magnolia”, because she scorned the sexual immorality and drug-taking culture of many Hollywood stars.

Southern Beauty

Bryson does find some beauty in urban America, “I stood agog in Lafayette Square in Savannah, Georgia, amid brick paths, trickling fountains and dark trees hung with Spanish moss. Before me rose up a cathedral of exquisite linen-fresh whiteness with twin Gothic spires, (82) and around it stood 200 year-old houses (83) of weathered brick, with hurricane shutters that were still clearly used.

I did not know that such perfection existed in America. There are twenty such squares in Savannah, cool and quiet beneath a canopy of trees, and long straight side-streets equally dark and serene. It is only when you stumble out of this urban rain forest, out into the open streets of the modern city, exposed to the glare of the boiling sun, that you realise just how sweltering the South can be.”

Spoiling Gettysburg

By contrast, Bryson was deeply disappointed by how modern commercialism has spoiled the Gettysburg battlefield that he remembered from his childhood. Personally, I have never been a “battlefields buff”, but being interested in history, I have often visited battlefields when nearby, mostly in Britain, and also in France. Without exception, the ones I saw, had a proper dignity, and there was no obvious commercialism.

Around the battlefield of Verdun, in France, the longest and most costly battle of WW1, notices declare, “C’est une Calvaire de l’Armee Francaise” (This is a Calvary of the French Army.) This helps to create an atmosphere of sober reflection. Battlefields are sad places, because they are watered with women’s tears; mothers who will never see their sons again; wives and sweethearts whose men will never return. Gettysburg was the high-water mark of the Southern Confederate cause; its aim was to carry the war into the heart of Union territory. It failed and this battle ended the campaign. For the South, it was downhill all the way to the final defeat at Appomattox.

As Bill Bryson explains, “I drove to Gettysburg, where the decisive battle of the American Civil War was fought over three days in July 1863. There were over 50,000 casualties. The visitors’ centre had a small, ill-lit museum with glass cases containing bullets, brass buttons, belt buckles and that sort of thing. There was precious little to give you any sense of the battle itself. It was more like the gleanings of a treasure hunt.

The battlefield had the great deficiency common to all historic battlefields. It was just countryside (84). There was nothing much to distinguish this stretch of empty fields from that one. I could clearly see how Pickett’s troops had advanced from the direction of the town, a mile or so to the north, sweeping across the Burger King parking lot, skirting the Tastee Delite Drive-In and regrouping just outside the Crap-o-Rama Wax Museum and Gift Shop.

It’s all very sad. Ten thousand soldiers fell there in an hour; two out of every three Confederate soldiers didn’t make it back to base. It is a pity, verging on the criminal that so much of the town of Gettysburg has been spoiled with tourist tat and that it is so visible from the battlefield.”

In Conclusion

“I visited all but ten of the lower forty-eight states and drove 13,978 miles. I saw pretty much everything I wanted to see and a good deal that I didn’t. I had much to be grateful for. I didn’t get shot or mugged. The car didn’t break down. I wasn’t once approached by a Jehovah’s Witness. I still had $68 and a clean pair of underpants. Trips don’t come much better than that.”

Life Story

Bill Bryson (85) was born in 1951 and he attended Drake University (1970 -1972) before dropping out, at the age of twenty-one, for a four-month backpacking trip around Europe. Next year, 1973, he returned to Europe, paying his first visit to Britain, where he took a porter’s job in a Surrey psychiatric hospital for two years. He married Cynthia Billen, a psychiatric nurse at the hospital, and in 1975 they went to the USA for Bill to complete his degree at Drake University. In 1977, when he was twenty-six, they decided to settle in Britain and remained there for 18 years until 1995, living mostly in Kirkby Malham, North Yorkshire.

Bryson supported his family by journalism, and a succession of humorous travel books, and in 1995 he returned to the USA with his wife and four children. They lived in Hanover, New Hampshire for eight years, until in 2003 the whole family returned to Britain. Bryson was then fifty-two, and has lived in Britain ever since, mostly in Norfolk.

He has been honoured by his adopted country, receiving an OBE, degrees from several universities, and the Chancellorship of Durham University. In 2013 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society for his work in popularising science.

Des Moines, Iowa has even forgiven him, giving him the “key to the city” in 2006, and making the 21 October, “Bill Bryson Day.”


I have used a number of reference works to check facts or details, and as a source of illustrations.

A. “20 th Century Art”, Museum Ludwig Cologne, Taschen, 1996

B. “The World’s Greatest Art”, editor Robert Belton, Star Fire, 2006

C. “Byzantium” by Philip Sherrard, Time-Life, 1967

D. “Venice, Queen of the Sea” Edizioni Sforza, 1981-86

E. Guide to St Botolph’s Church, Hardham, West Sussex, “The Wall Paintings”, Courtauld Institute of Art, 1994

F. Historical Atlas of the World, editor Ludwig Kônemann, Parragon, 2010

G. Family World Atlas, Verlag Wolfgang Kunth, 2008

H. “World War 1939-45” Peter Young, Pan, 1966

I. “Classical Greece” editor Leonard Krieger, Time-Life, 1966

J. “Alamein and the Desert War”, editor Derek Jewell, Sphere, 1967

K. “Jerusalem”, by Colin Thubron, Time-Life, 1976

L. “The Holy Land” by David Baldwin, Catholic Truth Society, 2007

M. “Crete” Michalis Toumbis Editions, 1990

N. “Rivera” by Andrea Kettenmann, Taschen, 1997

O. “The Man who was B Traven” by Will Wyatt, Cape, 1980

P. “501 Must-Visit Destinations” editor Emma Beare, Bounty Books, 2006

Q. “Jean de Florette /Manon des Sources” by Marcel Pagnol, translated by W E van Heyningen, Deutsch, 1988

R. “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, Cape, 1982

S. “The Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code, by Michael and Veronica Haag, R G, 2004

T. “Fra Angelico” by Gabriele Bartz, Könemann, 1998

U. “The Four Gospels” translated by E V Rieu, 1952, Penguin

V. “Jerusalem”, by Norman Atkins, APA, 1989

W. “Lines of Succession” by Jiři Louda and Michael MacLagan, Little, Brown, 1999


1. “Environment”, by Dani Karavan, 1981-86 (Ludwig Cologne, op. cit)

2. “Helping Hands” by Gilbert and George (Belton, op. cit)

3. “the Cadet and his Sister” by Paula Rego (Belton, op. cit)

4. “Water Dreaming” 1982, by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri (Belton, op. cit)

5. “Cindy II” by Chuck Close, 1988 (Belton, op. cit)

6. The Penguin Edition (Personal copy)

7. Christos Pantocrator, from Delphi, Greece (Sherrard, op. cit)

8. Doom (Judgement) a detail from a mosaic in Torcello Cathedral, Italy (Sforza, op. cit)

9. The Guide (References E)

10. Interior of the church at West Hardham showing the wall paintings at the eastern end of the Nave (References E)

11. Churches in West Sussex with medieval wall paintings of the “Lewes Group” (Author)

12. ‘Bacon and Egg’ colours in medieval wall paintings (Author)

13. “Oxgodby” played in the film by Levisham station on the North York Moors Railway (google image)

14. The Locomotive (“GWR Locos through time”, Delta)

15. “Oxgodby” in the film was Radnage church, Buckinghamshire (google image)

16. Mrs Keach (Natasha Richardson) talks with Tom Birkin (Colin Firth) (google image)

17. Joseph Lloyd Carr, (1912 – 1994) teacher, headmaster, RAF intelligence officer, writer, & publisher (google)

18. Front cover – Harriet Pringle (Penguin, personal copy)

19. Back cover – Guy Pringle (Penguin, personal copy)

20. The Romance languages of Europe (Author)

21. Romania in 1939 (After Kônemann, op. cit)

22. Fascist states (red) and dictatorships (purple) in 1939 (After Kônemann, op. cit)

23. “Grainland and fields under a heavy sky” Olivia Manning (Kunth, op. cit)

24. Istanbul is the destination (wikipedia)

25. Scalzi station, Venice (Sforza, op. cit)

26. Greeks working in the fields (Toumbis, op. cit)

27. Servicemen on leave in Cairo (Jewell, op. cit)

28. General Rommel and his Afrika Korps (Jewell, op. cit)

29. General Montgomery of the Eighth Army (Jewell, op. cit)

30. Jerusalem: Dome of the Rock from the Dominus Flevit church (Thubron, op. cit)

31. Palestine: The Sea of Galilee (Baldwin, op. cit)

32. Young Olivia Manning (google image)

33. Stevie Smith (wikipedia)

34. R D Smith, teacher, Communist spy (BBC Producers)

35. A/B Bucharest (before and after WW2 (wikipedia)

36. Olivia Manning, writer, 1908 – 1980 (google image)

37. Kenneth Branagh (Guy) Alan Bennett (Lord Pinkrose) and Emma Thompson (Harriet) in the 1987 TV series “The Fortunes of War” (google image)

38. Book Cover (Personal copy)

39. Detail from “La dictadura” by Rivera (Kettenmann, op. cit)

40. “The Arsenal” 1928, (Kettenmann, op. cit)

41. The first two aliases of B Traven (Wyatt, op. cit)

42. Two later aliases of B Traven (Wyatt, op. cit)

43. Vieux Port, Marseille (Beare, op. cit)

44. Remains of the old Roman port of Massilia in modern Marseille (google image)

45. Hills above Marseille (google image)

46. Location of village called “Les Bastides Blanches” based on real village of La Treille (google image)

47. “Bastide Neuve” home of the grandparents of Marcel Pagnol (wikipedia)

48. Provençal landscape – Garigue and Massif des Maures (wikipedia)

49. Vallon de Mollires covered in garigue or evergreen scrub (wikipedia)

50. Provençal men in the village square, playing boules (van Heyningen, op. cit)

51. Film stills from “Jean de Florette” (van Heyningen, op. cit)

52. Film stills from “Manon des Sources” (van Heyningen, op. cit)

53. A refreshing cool glass of pastis (google image)

54. Pseudo-archaeology (Personal copy)

55. Pseudo-history (Personal copy)

56. Wooden/Delicious (wikipedia)

57. The Da Vinci Code industry (Haag, op. cit)

58. St Mary Magdalene (Bartz, op. cit)

59. “The Marriage at Feast at Cana” by Giotto, 1267 – 1337

60. Cana in Art, David & Vermeyen

61. Cana in Art (2), Vasari

62. A Knight Templar, left, & a Knight Hospitaller (google image)

63. The ancient Madaba mosaic map of Jerusalem (Atkins, op. cit)





64. Heraldic Arms of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Louda and MacLagan, op. cit)

65. Jerusalem in the 12 C (Author, much simplified, from map in References R)

66. The Jerusalem Temple in the twelfth century (Author, much simplified, from map in References R)

67. Two Templars on one horse (google image)

68. The hilltop village of Rennes le Chateau with the original Visigothic town of Rhedae in the valley tothe left of the photograph (References R)

69. Bérenger Saunière with his parishioners at Rennes (References R)

70. Rennes in SW France (Faber Atlas)

71. The Cathar heritage in southern France within the environs of Rennes le Chateau (Author, from References R)

72. Michael Baigent, writer, lecturer, 1948-2013 (wikipedia)

73. Des Moines, Iowa, USA (wikipedia)

74. The Arts Ccentre, Des Moines, Iowa (wikipedia)

75. Mid-Western cornfields (google image)

76. Bill’s route from Des Moines, via Winfield, and Keokuk to Quincy (Philip’s Record Atlas and Gousha Chek-Chart)

77. The Mississippi River near the City of New Orleans (wikipedia)

78. Bing Crosby (wikipedia)

79. James Stewart (wikipedia)

80. Fred Macmurray (wikipedia)

81 Deanna Durbin (wikipedia)

82. Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Savannah, Georgia (wikipedia)

83. The “Sorrel Weed House”, Savannah, Georgia (wikipedia)

84. Part of the battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (wikipedia)

85. Bill Bryson

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