Harriet Beecher Stowe – a summary

Born into a family of ministers and abolitionists who worked with the Underground Railroad, it would have been surprising for Harriet Beecher Stowe not to have been a bold free thinker. Stowe is credited with writing the fictional story that threw the spark that ignited the American Civil War. Even Abraham Lincoln himself spoke of her as the “little lady who started this great big war.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Harriet Beecher StoweHer novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century. Based on stories that Stowe heard told by escaped slaves, the story depicts a variety of slave situations. The main character is Uncle Tom, a slave who is sold by his owners due to their financial troubles. His new owner is a kind man. But when Tom is sold again, he falls into the hands of the evil Simon Legree who is determined to break Tom and his faith in God.

Another character, Eliza, is owned by the same family. But upon learning that she might be torn from her son by the sale, she takes the child and runs away. She has the good fortune to encounter abolitionists along the Underground Railroad who help to keep her from being captured by a slave catcher.

Stowe’s book enraged Southern slaveholders. Some Southern authors retaliated with their own “Anti-Tom” literature, defending slavery and condemning Stowe’s work. One of the most popular “Anti-Tom” novels of its day was The Planter’s Bride by Caroline Lee Hentz. The story is seen through the eyes of a Northern abolitionist’s daughter who marries a slave owner.

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Under the Wire by Paul Conroy – a review

Veteran war photographer, Paul Conroy, has written a compelling and direct book on his experiences in 2012 covering the conflict in Syria while working alongside American journalist, Marie Colvin. Weaving between the Syrian narratives, he also describes their adventures, the year before, in Libya during the final days of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule and his brutal end.

Under the WireEarly on in Under the Wire, Conroy describes Colvin giving a speech in a church on Fleet Street, London, in which she argued ‘passionately’ for the need to send reporters to dangerous places. And Colvin had certainly been to several dangerous places; hot spots such as Kosovo, Libya and Chechnya. Her raison d’être, Conroy tells us, was to inform the world of injustice, and to use mass media to hold governments to account.

To bear witness

Roy Greenslade, writing Marie Colvin’s obituary in The Guardian, quoted her as saying, ‘My job is to bear witness. I have never been interested in knowing what make of plane had just bombed a village or whether the artillery that fired at it was 120mm or 155mm’. It was this, in February 2012, while reporting for the Sunday Times, that motivated their mission into Syria and to the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs. At the time, Homs was heavily under siege with the forces of President Assad relentlessly pounding the city on a daily basis.

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Ben Jonson – a summary

Ben Jonson was an English actor, poet, dramatist and critic. Active in the early Stuart period, he is one of the most influential literary figures of the time, although perhaps less popularly revered than William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. His plays include Every Man in His Humour, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fayre. He also co-wrote the now-lost play, Isle of Dogs,with Thomas Nashe, which, for reasons unknown, was suppressed by the authorities.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van BlyenberchJonson was born in London on 11 June 1572, a month after his father’s death. His widowed mother struggled financially until her remarriage a few years later to Robert Brett, a bricklayer. The family then took up residence in Hartshorn Lane, near Charing Cross. (Pictured: Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch).

As a child, Jonson attended an educational establishment run by St Martin-in-the-Fields church, before moving on to Westminster School at the age of 7. Here he studied under William Camden, an antiquarian who wrote the first definitive history of Elizabeth’s reign. A tradition of Westminster School was to encourage the study of English translations of Latin and Greek writings, which influenced his future work.

The stage beckons

Once his education had ended, there was a brief foray into the world of labouring. It soon became clear, however, that there was no hope of Jonson entering his step-father’s profession as it was something he ‘could not endure’. In the early 1590s, the young man signed up to fight with English forces in the Netherlands. Upon his return, he was drawn to London’s theatre world, where he began work as both an actor (he is believed to have played the role of Hieronimo in Thomas Kyd’s most well-known play, The Spanish Tragedy) and a playwright.

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The Death of Charles Dickens

In May 1867, Charles Dickens began considering a second tour of America. His motivations were purely financial and, as much as he hated the thought of leaving his mistress, Ellen Lawless Ternan, behind, he believed that a series of public readings in the US would be far more profitable than another novel. Thus, on 19 November 1867, after a farewell banquet, he set sail for Boston, arriving on 2 December, and departed from New York on 22 April 1868.

Charles DickensFinancially the American tour was a great success. Dickens gave 76 readings to over 100,000 people and made a profit of £19,000 (around £860,000 in modern currency). His reputation, however, did not fare so well. The American press criticised him heavily for his legal separation from his wife, Catherine, and rumours of adultery. He was also regularly portrayed as greedy and materialistic. Poor health, particularly exhaustion, also plagued the tour.

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D-day and Omaha beach – a brief summary

D-Day, 6 June 1944, a date that altered the course of history, saw the largest amphibious invasion ever launched. Led by troops from the US, Great Britain and Canada, and involving Allied divisions from across the globe, the invasion of Occupied France, codenamed Operation Overlord, had been years in the planning and subject to the utmost secrecy.

Five beaches

The Americans, it was decided, would land on the two western beaches in Normandy, codenamed Utah and Omaha; while the British would attack via the middle and eastern beaches, codenamed Gold and Sword; and between these two, the Canadians would land at Juno.

At 5.50, on 6 June, the 1,738th day of the war, 138 Allied ships, positioned between three and thirteen miles out, began their tremendous bombardment of the German coastal defences. Above them, one thousand RAF bombers attacked, followed in turn by one thousand planes of the USAAF. Between them, the aircrews flew 13,688 sorties over the course of D-Day alone.

From their ships, soldiers, weighed down with weapons and seventy pounds of equipment, scaled down scramble nets and into their flat-bottomed landing craft. It took over three hours for the vessels to traverse the eleven or so miles to the coast. The men, trembling with abject fear, shivering from the cold and suffering from severe seasickness, endured and held on as their tightly-packed vessels were buffeted by six-foot high waves and eighteen-miles per hour winds. At 6.30, the first US troops landed on Omaha and Utah beaches.

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The History of the “Reel of the 51st Division”

One of the most spectacular Allied successes of World War Two was the evacuation of more than three hundred thousand British, French, and Belgian troops from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4, 1940 . The men had been cut off and surrounded by the German army, and would have been slaughtered or captured if not for a hastily assembled flotilla of more than eight hundred military and civilian vessels, which achieved what became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk.

Jocks_of_the_51st_Highland_Division_in_France_1940Among the troops fighting to hold off the Germans and make the evacuation possible were the 7th and 8th Battalions of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. Their officers read them these orders: “You will hold this position; you will either be killed, wounded or made a prisoner of war.” (Pictured: Jocks of the 51st Highland Division in France 1940).

At 3 p.m. on June 5, twenty-six-year old Lieutenant J. E. M. Atkinson of the 7th Battalion, surrounded by German troops who had just shot off his wristwatch, surrendered near the French town of Saigneville. He was not alone. After Dunkirk, the 51st Division was charged with recapturing the Abbeville bridgehead on the Somme, but they were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties, and on June 12, their commander Major General Victor Fortune surrendered at St. Valéry-en-Caux. In The General Danced at Dawn, George Macdonald Fraser tells of the remnants of his regiment of the Gordon Highlanders singing “We’re No Awa’ to Bide Awa’” “as they waited for the end.”

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Crisis Hunter – The Last flight of Joe Kennedy Jr

Exactly 70 years on, a new book re-opens the events of August 1944 when US Navy pilot Joe Kennedy Jr, older brother of future US President John F. Kennedy, was killed over the Suffolk countryside in a top secret mission pioneering drone aircraft for the first time. In this new short book, Kennedy-era researcher Paul Elgood, who uncovered the long forgotten story of JFK’s visit to Birch Grove shortly before his 1963 assassination, recounts these wartime events and journeys to the site of the tragedy, finding the last scattered remains of the long lost plane.

Crisis HunterHigh expectations were placed on the first born son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy. In the wake of his support for the pre-war policy of appeasement, Joseph P. Kennedy knew he would never be President. He seamlessly transferred his ambition to his children, anointing the oldest, Joe Jr, as his proxy for the White House. Joe Jr was living the Ivy League life of the east coast social elite until the call to England interrupted his idyllic lifestyle as President Roosevelt appointed the elder Kennedy to be his ambassador to England. Joseph Sr placed huge pressure on Joe Jr, instilling his Irish American insecurities on his son to always compete and win. In peace and war, Joe Jr’s pursuit of excellence propelled him forward. War hero was the next expectation place on him.

Tour of Duty

After two tours of duty in war-weary England, Joe Jr had flown enough combat missions to make him eligible to return home, his war over. Instead, Joe volunteered to stay in England, taking on even greater risks piloting dangerous missions to target Hitler’s devastating V-bombing campaign, in an operation named Aphrodite. By August 1944, he stepped forward to co-pilot the launch of a top secret, perhaps near suicidal drone bombing mission. Departing from RAF Fersfield in Suffolk, the flight went badly wrong and the plane exploded shortly after take-off. The crew’s bodies were never found. Eyewitnesses described two explosions and a huge ball of fire with debris scattered for at least a mile.

A magnificent example

However, mystery surrounded the mission Joe Jr gave his life for and it took decades for details to be declassified. Even the official letters to his powerful father gave little detail away. Writing years later, his brother Senator Ted Kennedy recalled: “After completing his required twenty-five combat missions and earning his right to return home, Joe had volunteered for a mission so dangerous that some of his ground crew pleaded with him not to go. Along with a co-pilot, he was to take off in an experimental drone loaded with high explosives and pilot it on a trajectory toward a target…Whatever the cause, the drone had exploded into a fireball just minutes before the pilots were due to bail out.”

Joseph Patrick KennedyThe word hero is often overused, but in Joe Jr’s case it is entirely justified. The Commander of the US Navy wrote to Joseph Sr (pictured) to console the distraught parents, telling them “to be very proud of your son for his courage, his devotion to duty, and the magnificent example he has set for the rest of us”. The Navy Cross, Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal were awarded for “extraordinary heroism”, but were in reality little consolation to the father for losing his first son. Joe Jr’s likely place in Congress and the Senate were taken by his brother, John F. Kennedy, who went onto fulfil their father’s dream in 1960 to see a Kennedy win the White House. A thousand days later he too was killed in the line of duty, and by 1968 Bobby, the third brother had fallen. About Joe, JFK himself wrote “I’m only trying to fill his shoesIf anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our younger brother Teddy would take over.”

It is now seventy years since the events of August 1944. Sightings of the wreckage of the plane were last recorded in the late seventies. Yet during the intervening years the remains of the drone aircraft have been relatively undisturbed as they lay scattered across remote woodland in the Suffolk countryside, remaining a well-kept local secret. No full survey of the site, has since been undertaken.

“It is hard to believe it all happened seventy years ago now”, said one crew member stationed at the same airbase as Joe Jr. Senator Ted Kennedy recalled the tragedy as “a wound that does not heal”. Today, except to those in his family and the few surviving veterans, the sacrifice of what took place in August 1944 is near forgotten.

Crisis Hunter: The Last flight of Joe Kennedy Jr by Paul Elgood, published by Columbia Point, is available on Amazon and other outlets. Paul is on Twitter as @palmeirasquare.

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Robert Capa – a summary

‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’

Considered one of the greatest war photographers, Robert Capa’s images, especially those taken during the Spanish Civil War and the D-Day landings, are among the iconic images of the twentieth century.

Robert CapaBorn Andre Friedmann in Budapest on 22 October 1913, Robert Capa had, by the age of eighteen, turned into a political radical, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Hungarian regent, Miklós Horthy. In 1931, Friedmann was arrested and imprisoned by Hungary’s secret police. On his release, after only a few months, he moved to Berlin where he studied journalism and political science while working part time as a dark room apprentice. In 1933, alarmed by the rise of Nazism, Friedmann, who was Jewish, moved to Paris.

Famous American photographer

Two years later, while in Paris, Friedmann met Gerta Pohorylle, a German Jew who had also fled Hitler’s Germany. Together they worked as photojournalists, fell in love and, in an attempt to make their work more commercially appealing, pretended they both worked for the famous American photographer, Robert Capa. Friedmann took the photos, Pohorylle hawked them to the news agencies and credit was given to the fictional Robert Capa. (The name ‘Capa’ was chosen as homage to the American film director, Frank Capra.)

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Spies, intrigue and afternoon tea: St Ermin’s Hotel and the Secret Intelligence Service

What were the Secret Intelligence Service and Churchill up to in Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster in London during the 1930s?

Every street in London has a story to tell. Some stories might be as simple as a birth or a death, a lasting legacy originating from someone coming into the world or someone leaving. The blue plaques which adorn many London buildings will happily point you in the direction of these important locations. But there is another type of London history. There are locations around the city which are wrapped in intrigue. Homes and hotels which have altered the course of the country’s history with little to no fanfare. While it might be important to know where an old poet breathed his last, those with a historical interest might be fascinated to discover the history which hides within some of the subtler city walls.

St Ermin's HotelIn terms of threats to the country, there were few which were more feared than the Nazis. The waging of the Second World War was a caustic and exhausting campaign, fought in the fields of France, in the skies above the city, on sea, sand and snow. But it was also the birth of modern spying. The war was a global concern, but the heart of the British effort was born in a clandestine series of locations in West London. Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster saw the arrival of British spying, and the creation of the vaunted SIS.

The birth of spies

Espionage in the British Isles has its roots in the end of the Victorian era. The Secret Service Bureau was established in 1909 with the intent of evaluating the capabilities of the German Navy. This service became formalised and evolved as the First World War began to take hold, with the branch devoted to foreign investigations becoming known as MI6. Although the service achieved middling results, it was able to collect a great deal of intelligence in neutral countries.

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The Birth of the Modern Bicycle‏

It’s easy to take the modern bicycle for granted. It’s simple, relatively cheap, and has been around from childhood on. Despite that, the modern bike has only been around for about 120 years. Before that, things were very different.

How was the modern bicycle born? And what happened to old-fashioned bikes with large wheels? The birth of the modern bicycle actually says a lot about how technology can drive huge changes in our lives.

Bicycles Have Been Around For A While

Though we can trace the modern bicycle to the 1890s, bikes have been around for a while. Surprisingly, the older they are, the more familiar they appear.

BoneshakerCommonly known as velocipedes or bone-shakers, bikes have been documented from the 1820s on. They looked similar to normal modern bikes, but with hard metal or wooden wheels and, typically, wooden frames. That was the problem. The form of the bicycle was safe and well-calibrated, but inflexible frames and tough wheels made riding them extremely painful. If you’ve ever ridden on two flat tires, you’ll know the feeling. The problems were only exacerbated by poor infrastructure, unlike the silky smooth concrete we ride on today. Like anything, mainstream adoption depended on ease and comfort. Old bikes had neither, but that was about to change.

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