Tag Archives: history

Roman Holiday

imageI can’t quite believe I’ve got to my age and I’m only just about to do this now. In a couple of weeks time I’m going to Rome for the very first time.

In fact that will be only my second ever visit to Italy, a country that has always fascinated me and whose ancient history was the focus of my higher and university education. Long before I got to exam-level education I was as a kid reading about what the ancient Greeks and Romans got up to while my younger brother got a more rounded education on his skateboard with friends in the street. I was more fascinated by the Greeks than the Romans and was a key influencer in persuading my Ancient History teacher at College to arrange a class trip to Greece, which they hadn’t done before and so we did. One of the best trips abroad I ever made and still lives that way in memory now.

Italy and the Romans never grabbed me like Greece and the Greeks and so I’m only now heading out to what has been dubbed (in error) by some as the ‘eternal city’. That will only always be Jerusalem for me.

This trip will be a follow on from my unplanned and impulsive explorations of places I’ve never visited last year. I booked it last year on the cheap and then more or less forgot about it until now and only now I’m wondering whether I’m giving myself enough time.

imageIt will be a 3 night stay in a small city hotel in the heart of Rome a short walk from the Colosseum. I read that it will be noisy. I had initially in mind to see as many of the ancient sites I read so much about as a student. The realisation is only now dawning on me that as a Londoner I think I live in a city steeped in history. Rome was the ancient equivalent of a high-rise megacity while Londinium was, well, no more than a northern irrelevant minor city (a bit like Leeds today).

imageThen I remembered that I could nip across the border into another country again just a few miles from my hotel. Two-countries-in-ones were a theme last year and so it continues. The world’s smallest independent state, The Vatican, should also be a must on my trip. Not sure if I have to carry my passport as I step out of Italy and into the Holy See. I’m not a Roman Catholic and so the place will not be of any awe to me this side of my visit. I will be posting up my feelings t’other side though so let’s See.

imageFinally it just struck me that I’m going to the city one of my favourite films of all time was set and filmed in: Roman Holiday starring Hollywood legends Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. I know I will want to seek out some of the locations in that movie: the steps where she eats her ice cream after she cut her hair short. The cafe where she and Peck first had coffee, the fountain of hopes and, of course, the Mouth of Truth.

How much will I get to do without being disciplined at setting a pace that will enable me to capture and experience a Rome in that best of all cameras – my memory – will be up to me to manage wisely at the time.

Dawsons Field: Part 1

EL ALThe Pilot suddenly plunged the airliner into a steep nosedive throwing the two hijackers off their feet. Back in the passenger cabin, Flight Attendants grappled with the female on the floor. Also thrown, the male in desperation hurled his hand grenade down the aisle. By some miracle it failed to explode. As he pulled his gun and shot and wounded a Cabin Steward, he was hit over the head with a whisky bottle by a passenger. The last thing he heard was the bullet from the gun of the Sky Marshall that brought the heist to and end. With all passengers shaken but safe, the airliner made an emergency landing at London Heathrow and the hijack was over.

No, not snippet from a thriller novel or my first attempt at a short story but what really happened on EL AL Israel Airlines flight 219 from Tel Aviv to New York via Amsterdam with 148 on board in September 1970. If you have forgotten or are too young to know, 9/11 was not the world’s first spectacular multiple hijacking. Why September seems to be the optimum month for such events I do not know and how much a part the events of 1970 had to play on the timing and style of 9/11 can only be guessed at. As events unfolded, they threw the world at the time into chaos causing acrimony between the UK and the USA, leading an Arab state to implore Israel to strike other Arab states on its behalf, almost bringing the entire Middle East to war, superpowers to loggerheads and shaping the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it stands today.

imageEL AL 219 was one of three international flights originally targeted for hijack along with TWA 741 from Frankfurt to New York with 155 on and Swissair 100 also with 155 on heading from Zürich to New York. What is it about New York and hijacks? The Israeli plane was seized shortly after leaving Amsterdam and due the swift actions of the Flight and Cabin crews the male hijacker was killed in the air and the female, a Leila Khaled, was overcome and handed to the UK authorities where she was interned. What no-one knew, and again in a chilling similarity with 9/11, was that not all the hijackers had made it on board. Two were left at the gate in Amsterdam. Not to be thwarted, these two bought tickets to board Pan American 93 heading from Amsterdam to New York with 162 on board. Seems like hijacking planes was as easy as stealing cars in those days.

Dawsons field

Dawsons Field

With the EL AL jet safe on the ground in London, the TWA and Swissair flights headed to a little known former Royal Air Force Base in Jordan known then as Dawsons Field (Zarka today). The Pan American flight, a Boeing 747 and the largest of the 3 airliners captured, needed a longer runway to land on than Dawsons Field offered. The flight touched down in Beirut to pick up additional hijackers and explosives, and then headed for Cairo. All in a 1970’s hijackerman’s normal working day really.

The last and unexpected piece of the puzzle was the taking of British flight BOAC 775 heading to London from Bahrain with 114 on board. 775 joined the party with the Swiss and American flights at Dawsons Field while Pan Am 93 sat on its lonesome in Cairo.

And so the eyes of the world focused on the remote and little known former RAF base in the deserts of Jordan known as Dawsons Field from where ripples would spiral bringing superpowers and global allies to logger heads and the armies of the Middle East mobilising for war.

(to be continued…)

6th November

imageOn this day…

The first European set foot in Texas.

Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States of America.

Mahatma Gandhi was arrested in South Africa.

The Bolshevik Revolution began in Russia.

The Republic of Poland was born.

Stanley Baldwin was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Herbert Hoover was elected President of the United States of America.

The Hawker Hurricane flew for the first time.

imageThe first H-Bomb was exploded.

President Eisenhower was re-elected to govern the United States of America.

President Roosevelt was elected President of the United States of America.

The United Nations condemned Apartheid in South Africa.

Ronald Reagan was re-elected as President of the United States of America.

Australia voted to keep the British monarch as Head of state.

The Dominican Republic became a sovereign nation.

Canadians celebrated their first Thanksgiving Day.

imageThe Japanese fleet was readied for assault on Pearl Harbour.

12,000 Jews were executed by the Nazis in Minsk, Belarus.

Saudi Arabia abolished slavery.

Lunar Orbiter 2 was launched.

NASA Surveyor 6 landed on the Moon.

imageThe Sex Pistols debuted.

Ayatollah Khomeini became leader of Iran.

President Boris Yeltsin of Russia outlawed the Communist Party.

President Yitzak Rabin was buried in Israel.

Americans went to the polls to vote Barack Obama back into the Whitehouse.

Puerto Rico bacame an American state.

Actors Ethan Hawke, Nigel Havers, Thandie Newton, Lori Singer, Maria Shriver and Sally Field were born.

On this day I was also born.

It is said of people born on this numerical day of the year…

You are a dynamic, passionate person who has a lot to give, but who also expects the same level of commitment in return. You are determined to follow through on your own commitments and responsibilities, and you generally do what it takes to achieve your goals. Your charisma sets you apart from others, and you find that others quite easily respect you. Willing to help out, but never a pushover, you know your limits and you don’t have much trouble communicating them. You are somewhat of a perfectionist, and your tendency to try to control things is most apparent in your career and on the home front. You are an executive, but you also know the value of teamwork and charm, so you don’t come on too strong. Your distaste for the superficial is marked.
You are determined, strong, intense and often controlled. Anything that is superficial doesn’t appeal to you. It’s all or nothing. You are never content to look only at the surface of matters. You dig deep, question motives, and instinctively feel what is going on in the environment around you.

Bollocks. Well….some of it. I’m not saying which.

So you think you know St.George?

st_georges_crossToday is the feast day of St. George, the patron saint of England. You know..that knight on his horsie, duffing up the dragon to save the pretty blonde tottie just in time for a cool glass of Pimms.  Not that you would know it, mind.   You see we English are not as demonstrative about our nationalism and saints as our Welsh, Scottish and Irish cousins.   Everyone knows when it’s St. Paddy’s day as all Ireland and the Irish diaspora paint the town green, white and orange, get absolutely wasted and start warbling about pixies before bursting into Riverdance.  The Scots celebrate their patron saint, Andrew, in the depths of winter and their men enjoy one of the few legitimate excuses to dress up in a skirt (though nothing really prevents them from doing so any other time they fancy) and bar-b-que the first Englishman they can find.  Even the Welsh are known to commemorate their St. David with a frenzy of Daffodil waving, sheep sh…earing and death by male voice choir.  You see England is a mongrel nation made up of wave upon wave of immigrants all mashed together from ancient times. Celts, Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, Italians, Germans… good Lord even the bloody French…have all crashed onto these island shores, stayed and mulched together. Today’s immigrant waves hail from much further afield from the 4 corners of the old British Empire – Asia, Africa, Australasia, the Americas and Caribbean. England is a melting pot like no other country in Europe of races and cultures reflected in the 300 or  so languages spoken in our capital city; London. So long has the English melting pot been on the boil that we no longer have the clear defined sense of national identity that the Celtic nations conjoined with us do. I guess hardly surprising to find, then, that even our patron saint George (or Georgiou as we ought to call him)…is also an immigrant.

Gorgeous St. Georgiou was in fact of Greek descent but born in the Roman province of 170px-Icon8Judaea, what we know today as Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  Now I did not know that and given that I have an acute interest in all that goes on there you would think  I might have come across this before.  The ancient Greek civilisation extended beyond the shores and islands of Greece proper to all the eastern Mediterranean coasts, North Africa, Egypt, Spain, up into Turkey and the Caucasus and thanks to Alexander The Great…across to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

George was born into a Christian noble family. His father was from Cappodocia (in modern-day Turkey) and served as an officer in the Roman army. His mother was born into a Christian noble family in the town of Lydda (modern-day Lod in Israel).   Barely 300 years after Christ’s death, Christianity was then regarded as a dangerous sect that had stemmed out of Judaism and was regarded with suspicion by both traditional Jews and Romans.   Georgiou lost both his parents at a young age and so decided to make his way from Lod to Nicomedia near what is now Istanbul to enlist as his father had done in the Roman army.   The Emperor at the time was Diocletian who knew and had great respect for Georgiou’s father, one of his finest officers. The young George excelled in his military training and by the time he was 20 had risen to the high rank of Tribune of the Imperial Guard stationed at close quarters to protect the Emperor.

aaThe exponential rise of the Christian ‘sect’ continued to raise alarm bells in Rome and in AD 302, Diocletian issued an edict to root out and arrest all Christians serving in the army and force them to renounce their faith and worship the gods of Rome or face a terrible death. George, in an attempt to save his fellow believers, used his favoured status to approach Diocletian but to no avail.  Then in public before the Emperor and his fellow Tribunes, George renounced the edict of the Emperor, declared himself to be a Christian and his faith in Jesus Christ.   Horrified at this turn of events and for the sake of his friendship with George’s father, Diocletian did all he could to persuade and even bribe George away from his stand, offering wealth, slaves and land but George would not relent. Defeated, Diocletian pronounced the death sentence over his erstwhile friend and Georgiou from Lydda in Judaea was brutally tortured and then beheaded in front of the city gates of Nicomedia and is body was returned to Lydda where it was buried and later became a destination for pilgrimage after his sainthood in 494AD.

The veneration of St. George started in the eastern Mediterranean in Judaea/Palestine and gradually spread out into north and west into eastern Europe and Turkey and then up into Georgia but it was the Crusades and the clash between Christianity and Islam that accelerated the saint’s profile in western Europe and in particular in England where eventually in 1222, the Synod of Oxford declared an official Feast Day for St. George. England is one of many countries that claim the patronage of the saint from Lydda in Israel.

No mention of the Dragon then after my very short and non-exhaustive look into who England’s patron saint was but glad I read the story nonetheless.   I never did get on with the story of St. George and the Dragon (which is in any case shrouded in myth and mystery) and I fancy that it probably started in medieval urban folklore after the first time England mashed the Welsh at playing Rugby…something we are sadly less prone to do nowadays.






More about where I live…

I’ve previously blogged about Harrow, where I live, on the north-west corner of the sprawling mass that is London.  The famous boys school on top of the hill is legendary for the great and the good who have been educated there. I also discovered while researching for that blog that Harrow-on-the-Hill was where the UK’s first fatal road traffic accident occurred.  Well, it seems that Harrow also has another unhappy claim to fame that I barely knew about: the scene of the UK’s 2nd worst ever passenger rail disaster.

At 08.19 on this day in 1952, no less that three passenger trains collided at Harrow and Wealdstone station from where I used to regularly commute into London Euston station. A local commuter train heading south into Euston from Tring was stationary at the platform when a high-speed sleeper express travelling at 50-60mph coming down on the same line from Perth in Scotland ploughed into the back of it.  The explosive collision not only brought down the overhead walkway bridge for foot passengers to cross over to the other platforms, but it got strewn across the north-bound rail tracks…just as the London-Liverpool express, also travelling at 50mph was heading in the opposite direction.

A total of 112 people were killed that day. The 9-coach long commuter service bore the brunt with 64 fatalities, 23 perished on the 11-coach southbound express and 7 in the 15-coach Liverpool express. A further 14 deaths are thought to have occurred among passengers on the platforms or walking across the bridge.

The severity of the crash was such that of the 16 rail cars destroyed that day, 13 of them were compressed into an area 41m long, 16m and 9.1m high.

The cause of the disaster was eventually attributed to the driver of the southbound express and is officially recorded as ‘SPAD’ – ‘signal passed at danger’.  There had been reports of patchy fog that day around the area where the crucial warning signal had apparently been ignored was but it was not thought that visibility was that poor. To this day no one knows why the driver and fireman of the Perth express passed the danger signal as both were killed in the crash. This accident and one at Lewisham shortly after sped up the introduction of AWS (Automatic Warning Systems) on trains throughout the UK.

While the Harrow & Wealdstone disaster may seem like the rail equivalent of the Tenerife double jumbo air crash in its mind-numbing scale, it may have slipped by you as it did me that it was the UK’s second biggest rail crash.  The biggest one took place in May 1915 near Gretna Green at a place called Quintinshill.  5 trains were involved in that one claiming 230 lives, many of them WW1 troops in transit with 240 injuries.  Cause of that one was put down to signal failure.

So there’s a cheery thought for you if you are reading this on your daily commute this Monday morning but let’s think on.  While we all moan about public transport from time to time it took the lives of those killed on this day 60 years ago to make our journeys that little bit safer.