Aging pop star Dez joins the rowing club, because that’s what residents of millionaire’s row on the banks of the River Thames do. It is during his interview that he meets his shy and elusive neighbour – dapper businessman Max – and they form an unlikely friendship. A sinister twist soon enters their relationship as they take a cruise down the river, as Dez finds out that Max is not quite the gentleman he seems…
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Having enjoyed watching the recent Sky Atlantic television series, Britannia, I decided to find out more about the history behind it. Although it could be said that the series came to the small screen marching on the cloak-tail of the success of Games of Thrones, I found that unlike its illustrious predecessor it is more firmly rooted in history.
School history books may tell us that Julius Caesar ‘Came, saw and conquered’ Britain in 54-55 BC, but the real Roman invasion did not happen for a further ninety years. It took place in 43 AD to be precise, when a force of four legions and auxiliary support (over 30,000 men), sent by Emperor Claudius and under General Aulus Plautius, landed on Britain’s south coast. This was the start of the Roman occupation of Britain – the creation of the Province of Britannia – that would last for three-hundred-and-seventy years. Surely the telling of the story of this pivotal event in British history (albeit in a fictionalised form) is long overdue? Well, here it is – and the series overcomes an unsatisfactory start to reward the viewer with a neatly-constructed and engaging drama.
At the time of the invasion, Britain was an island which was politically fragmented, with multiple tribes each led by a chief, king or queen who – if we believe Roman writers – were constantly at war with one another. Some of the names of the British tribes, such as the Cantii (of Kent), the Trinovantes (of Essex) and the Durotriges (of Dorset), were preserved by the Roman government when they built brand new towns to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. Unfortunately, we know very little about the customs, lifestyle, outlook, language or religion of these individual tribes. Some had leaders who actively traded with the Mediterranean world, exchanging locally-produced cattle, grain, metal and slaves for wine, olive oil and exotic forms of glassware and pottery. Others seem to have actively opposed any kind of Roman influence.
The Roman Empire, which in the early 1st century AD stretched from Spain to Syria, was a resource-hungry superstate and Britain, on its north-western frontier, was a hugely attractive target. This was a land rich in metals (especially iron, tin, lead and gold), cattle and grain. Unfortunately for Rome, Britain lay beyond the civilised world, on the other side of ‘the Ocean’. Just getting there seemed a risky endeavour – especially if, as many Romans believed, the place was full of monsters and barbarians.
Julius Caesar had led two expeditions to southern Britain in 55 and 54 BC and, although these ultimately came to nothing, he had been celebrated in Rome as a hero simply for daring to cross the sea. Caesar’s heirs meddled constantly in British politics, trying to bring order to the frontier-land by helping to resolve disputed royal successions and organising lucrative trade deals. By the time Claudius came to power in AD 41, several British aristocrats had formed alliances with Rome, visiting the city in person to pay their respects and leave offerings to the Roman gods. When the political situation in southern Britain became unstable, with warring tribes threatening both trade and the wider peace, Claudius deployed boots on the ground. The fact that he needed to draw public attention away from difficult issues at home, whilst simultaneously hoping to outdo the military achievements of the great Julius Caesar, probably helped to spur this on.
Very little is known about the actual invasion, as no contemporary record survives. The popular view today is that four legions together with auxiliary support, totalling between 30-40,000 soldiers, landed on the Kent coast and fought their way inland. But there is no real archaeological or historical evidence to support this, and the landing point remains the subject of speculation.
What we do know is that the ‘invasion’ appears to have been undertaken in two distinct phases. The first, led by senator Aulus Plautius, was probably a peace-keeping mission, which saw Plautius operating with a small force in order to negotiate a truce between the various British factions whilst hoping to restore certain British refugee monarchs to power. Not all the tribes were opposed to Rome in AD 43 and many leaders would have seen the emperor and his advisors as friends. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, negotiations broke down leaving the emperor no choice to trigger a second phase of the invasion, some months later. This was a calculated display of force, designed to shock and awe enemy elements into submission. Claudius himself led the reinforcements, bringing with him a number of war elephants (he intended to arrive in style). Shortly after, Roman troops marched into Camulodunum (Colchester), the centre of native resistance, and took the formal surrender of 11 British leaders.
Some tribes, like the Trinovantes – based around what is now Colchester – seem to have actively resisted the advance of the Roman legions whilst others, such as the Atrebates (of Berkshire), supported the newcomers and were subsequently very well rewarded. The native town of Camulodunum (Colchester) was subjugated by the Roman military and had a legionary fortress built directly over it. Elsewhere, the Trinovantes were treated as a conquered people whilst the Catuvellauni tribe, who had helped the Romans, were awarded special status in the province and had a brand-new town, full of civic amenities, built for them at Verulamium (St Albans). Having lost the first stage of the war, the British resistance leader Caratacus fled west, stirring up tribes in what is now Wales against Rome. Eventually Caratacus was betrayed by the pro-Roman queen Cartimandua, and handed over to the emperor Claudius in chains.
Aulus Plautius was probably nothing like the battle-hardened veteran depicted in the TV series (by tough-talking Mancunian, David Morrissey), being more of a capable and reliable member of Rome’s ruling senatorial class. Although Plautius would have had some experience in the army, he was ultimately a career politician (a safe pair hands) and, for military advice, would have relied on the more experienced legionary officers under his command.
Unlike the male-dominated world of Rome, ancient British society was more egalitarian with both men and women wielding political and military power. We know very little about the command structure of British tribal armies opposing Rome during the invasion. Although the names of some leaders survive on Celtic coins and in the pages of Roman writers and historians, there is, unfortunately, no historical evidence (yet) for the female war leaders Antedia and Kerra (played by Zoë Wanamaker and Kelly Reilly in the TV series).
A king called Antedios certainly seems to have ruled in Norfolk just prior to the invasion whilst the leader of the British resistance was a king called Caratacus (who later became target number one for the Roman government). There were certainly strong and militarily capable women within the British tribal armies – this was a point often used by Roman generals in an attempt to ridicule their foe. Later, in the AD 60s, Queens Cartimandua of the Brigantes (in Yorkshire) and Boudicca of the Iceni (in Norfolk) emerge. Both, however, were, at least during the early stages of the invasion, firm supporters of Rome, seeing the obvious benefits of siding with a Mediterranean superpower.
In popular culture, the druids are usually seen as being integral to Celtic society: part mystical, religious teachers and part hard-line resistance leaders, constantly stirring up trouble for Rome. The problem is that we really have very little evidence for their existence in Britain. In Gaul (France), Julius Caesar had noted their presence in the mid-50s BC, but there is only one definite reference to them in the British Isles, on the island of Anglesey where, so the Roman writer Tacitus tells us, they were committing acts of human sacrifice in AD 60. Modern writers and historians tend to view druids as part of an all-encompassing religion (druidism) and, thanks to fictional accounts (most notably in the stories of Asterix the Gaul) suggest that every tribe would have had one: a prehistoric equivalent, perhaps, of a parish priest or holy man. The trouble is, as plausible as this theory may appear, there is absolutely no evidence for this.
On Monday, 8 December 1980, John Lennon was shot dead by ‘fan’ Mark Chapman in the archway of the Dakota Building, his residence in New York City. The ex-Beatle had just turned 40 and had recently recorded a new album, Double Fantasy, that celebrated his new zest for life – his single Starting Over was still in the charts. Now, on the 37th anniversary of his shocking murder, I’ve decided to share my personal memory of that day…
I woke up, got out of bed and dragged a comb through my tangled mop of red hair. It was dark outside – my alarm had gone off at the ridiculously early time of 4.45am on the morning of Tuesday 9th December 1980. I was a 19-year-old trainee reporter for a Liverpool news magazine, The Woolton Mercury, and had an appointment at BBC Radio Merseyside studios in central Liverpool to write a piece on the workings of local radio. I was a tall, skinny youth, still living at home, who dressed almost exclusively in black. My musical tastes had moved on from the Beatles and Glam Rock to punk and new wave, reflected in my music column that featured new releases and gig reviews. I was a member of Erics club in Liverpool where I saw punk and new wave bands most weekends including: Joy Division, Magazine, Buzzcocks, OMD, Teardrop Explodes, Stiff Little Fingers, The Stranglers, The Damned (featuring Lemmy!)… you get the picture.
The streetlights were still on and a milk float rumbled into our road as I buttoned my black Crombie overcoat and headed for the bus stop. The bus was warm as I joined a handful of silent shift workers on a speedy forty minute journey to Castle Street. From there a short walk took me through a deserted city center to Commerce House – a grey 50s concrete building that had housed Radio Merseyside since its start in 1967 [note: this was before their move to their new purpose-built office on Paradise Street].
They were expecting me, as arranged, at 6.00am. I was greeted by Studio Manager, Phil Pinnington, a suave, dapper gent, who placed me in the capable hands of Studio Assistant, Janice Long (yes, Keith Chegwin’s sister who went on to be an acclaimed national radio DJ and host of Top of the Pops). I was shown around the newsroom and the newsgathering process was explained to me by Newsreader, Tony Nutter. In the pre-digital age, reel-to-reel tape recorders and spools of tapes were everywhere and two teleprinters spewed out news items on ticker tape from the national BBC newsroom in London. I was shown how soundbites (interview clips) were spliced together for use in news bulletins.
My published article in The Woolton Mercury records that at that time (about 6.30am) there were no major news stories coming through:
“One such news item that came through on the teleprinter concerned a US Army deserter who had been arrested at Risley Remand Centre with two canisters of nerve gas strapped to his legs.” Tony explained that this would be classified as a ‘human interest’ story and held in reserve to be used only if there was a lull in the news. As it turned out, it would not be needed.
Janice made me a mug of tea and I was ushered into the studio where veteran presenter, Alan Jackson, was cranking-up the breakfast drive-time show. A local lad from Prescott in Merseyside, he was warm, friendly and soon put me at ease. He asked me a few questions about my series on local media, and casually said after the next record he would do a little interview with me.
“Erm, live, on air?” I squeaked.
“You’ll be fine,” he laughed. “Just say what you’ve already told me and speak in your normal voice.”
And so my first radio interview took place, just before 7.00am on Tuesday 9th December 1980. I was scribbling a few notes in my reporter’s notebook when Phil popped his head in the studio door and announced in a hushed but earnest tone: “John Lennon has been shot.”
Alan’s eyes were wide in shock and a quick conversation between the media veterans instantly ensued along the lines of, “Call all our contacts who knew John and the Beatles – let’s start lining up responses as the news story unfolds…” This was personal. John was a much-loved son of the city and the magnitude of the event meant it instantly took center stage.
And so I sat there for the next three hours as the staff of Radio Merseyside pulled together and presented the news of John’s shooting in New York City, playing Imagine (several times) and Give Peace a Chance along with early Beatles classics such as Twist and Shout. To this day, I still get goosebumps and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck whenever I hear John’s raunchy rock vocals on Twist and Shout. For me, it will forever be associated with that day.
“…reports are still coming in that John Lennon has been shot outside his apartment building in New York…”
Alan Jackson vacated his seat for Morning Merseyside presenter, Roger Phillips, who took on the uncomfortable task of building a show devoted to outpourings of concern for John as we waited with trepidation for further news. The confirmation that John was dead came barely an hour later, and a state of shock descended on the city as the news was rolled out.
Shocked interview subjects shared their reminiscences of John over the airwaves as the city awoke to the devastating news on that cold December Tuesday. I left the studio at about 11.00 and made my way home in numb silence. It wasn’t meant to end this way for John, who had seemed to have found happiness in his new life with wife Yoko and son Sean in New York. By lunchtime, it was the headline item on the BBC television news.
The following Saturday I joined a crowd estimated at over 30,000 on the plaza outside St George’s Hall for music, readings and prayers as the city grieved over the death of a favourite son. It was the final end to hopes of a Beatles reunion, and consigned John’s body of work to the past tense. The man who asked us to give peace a chance had been the victim of an ugly act of murder by a psychotic ‘fan’ who earlier in the day had waited patiently to get John’s autograph. It was unpredictable, pointless and the cause of such grief and pain for those who loved the man and his work and who had been entertained and inspired by his music, wit and free spirit. It was our JFK moment – we remember what we were doing or where we were when we heard the news. John was dead and we had to accept it; and I know it’s a cliché but I’m going to give it an airing – his memory lives on through his music and his pro-peace sentiments.
As for me, I moved on to reporting and film reviewing for another Liverpool newspaper later that year, and in 1982 won a place to study for a degree course in Communication Studies. I became editor of the student magazine, utilising the experience I had garnered at The Woolton Mercury. After graduating, my path led me to London where I started a career working in the newspaper publishing industry – not as a journalist, but in product development and market research. Some of us are doomed to be thwarted from making a living out of doing what we really want to do. At least John had that.
The anniversary of Lennon’s death still prompts outpourings of grief from fans around the World, although this is perhaps something John himself would not have wanted.
In one of his last major print interviews published in Playboy magazine, he said: “I don’t have any romanticism about any part of my past. I don’t believe in yesterday. I’m only interested in what I’m doing now.”
As a footnote to my earlier comment that my musical tastes in 1980 had moved on from The Beatles – their music continued to provide an enduring ingredient to the cultural wallpaper of Liverpool, a city that never fell out of love with the Fab Four. Every jukebox in every pub in Liverpool had Beatles singles that were frequently played along with other rock, punk and pop classics. There was no Beatles tourism activity in the 80s – that came later from the 90s onwards when musical nostalgia grew into an industry. We knew where the Beatles lived and the places they performed – Liverpudlians will always be intensely proud of their successful sons and daughters without any shows of fuss or drama.
When writing this piece, I checked what records and gigs I had reviewed in my music column in the weeks before Lennon’s death and found, next to a gig review of The Stranglers, this:-
“This Week’s New Single Releases –
UB40 – The Earth Dies Screaming [reviewed]
John Lennon – (Just Like) Starting Over – And who knows, maybe John is turning over a new leaf. This boppy, jog-a-long song has already been hailed as a ‘shhhh, it’s almost Christmas’ single, and will have the ex-Beatle laughing all the way to the bank. His first UK single release for some time, it’s already looking like a safe bet for Christmas No.1…”
It was actually No.2 in the UK Christmas charts behind, erm, There’s No One Quite Like Grandma by St Winifred’s School Choir. The first chart of 1981 saw re-issues of Imagine at No. 1 and Merry Xmas (War is Over) by John and Yoko at No.2. The worldwide outpouring of grief for the witty Scouser led into a celebration of his life and the birth of his legend.
The head of the UK intelligence service says more attacks are inevitable as Britain sees ‘dramatic upshift’ in Islamist terrorism, says a report in The Guardian (18/10/17). Must we now accept this as the new ‘normal’?
The alarmist report continues: “Britain is facing its most severe ever terrorist threat and fresh attacks in the country are inevitable, according to the head of Britain’s normally secretive domestic intelligence service in a rare public speech.
Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, said the UK had seen “a dramatic upshift in the threat” from Islamist terrorism this year, reflecting attacks that have taken place in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge.
The spy chief said: “That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.”
He added: “It’s at the highest tempo I have seen in my 34-year career. Today there is more terrorist activity, coming at us more quickly, and it can be harder to detect.”
Clearly, it not just the terrorists who want to alarm us – the authorities also wish to ‘prep’ us and ensure we are receptive to warnings and security measures. When the two sides clash, you need to get out of the way as quickly as possible.
This must undoubtedly have a waring effect on the population, particularly of large cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. Engendering fear and intimidation amongst the civilians of a country targeted by extremist political and religious groups is the aim of terrorism, and the greater the atrocity, the more likely it is to succeed. People will inevitably be on their guard, more suspicious and more easily spooked by loud random noises and the sound of sirens. More security checks slow down people’s progress and have become a major inconvenience of modern life.
I have tried to capture some of these issues and feelings in my short story, ‘Geraniums’, in my book, ‘Postcards from London’. In this story, my main characters are retired couple George and Maggie Taylor who embark on a theatre trip to London by train. They take advantage of good weather to walk along the South Bank and onto Westminster Bridge, noting the recent addition of steel pavement furniture following a previous terrorist incident. They pose for photos with the Houses of Parliament behind them when…BANG!
“A flash of light was followed a nano-second later by a loud explosion that shook the bridge under our feet, causing us to stagger. I put my arm around Maggie and we instinctively crouched by the stone wall as bits of masonry and assorted debris rained down on us. A large black cloud billowed over the Underground station entrance – with screams and shouts providing a chilling soundtrack. My ears were ringing and I felt dazed – I looked at Maggie to check that she was all right and we slumped into a sitting position as I held her tightly around her shoulders, trying to stay calm.
Flower petals settled on us and I picked one up. I was in a surreal dream of odd shapes and noises; an unfamiliar world where time has been slowed and distorted.
“Pelargoniums,” I slurred, hardly hearing myself over the ringing in my ears. “We call them Geraniums – a single red flowering plant… native of South Africa, I believe… popularised by US President Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century…”
Maggie looked at me with a combination of shock, annoyance and concern in her blue eyes. Picture postcards of London scenes and debris from a kiosk rained like confetti. One, singed at the edges, fluttered into her lap. Tower Bridge by moonlight. Someone then tripped over my outstretched foot and stumbled, falling to their hands and knees…”
Read on in ‘Postcards from London’ – order the e-book or paperback here:-
June 1966 – England had just won the World Cup at London’s Wembley Stadium and a happy nation basked in the warm satisfaction of sporting success. Teenage boys in ironed white shirts, inch-wide ties and pleated trousers lounged against the wall outside The Ritz Ballroom in Camden Town on a balmy summer’s evening, eyeing up the girls in their colourful dresses – the hemlines having recently moved up to expose knees and thighs. The two groups exchanged banter in a timeless mating ritual – coquettish glances and shy giggles elicited macho poses from strutting cocks who combed up their Brylcreemed hair and dragged on their tabs, nonchalantly flicking the stubs in the general direction of the gutter.
Brian Smith knew whom he was after. A pretty little blonde girl he knew from school called Helen. She was one year his junior but was no longer a geeky schoolgirl – she had blossomed into an attractive young woman, and he was determined to ask her to dance. That was the protocol. Bundle inside, pay your sixpence at the box office, get a paper cup of fruit punch and line the walls with your mates – waiting for the hall to fill and the jazz band to strike up a familiar tune. Brian combed back his brown quiff and pushed off the wall, with a ‘good luck mate’ from a friend bolstering his nerve.
The crowds seemed to part before him as he crossed the hall. Her friends whispered and giggled as she looked up – it was as if she had been waiting for him. He held her wide blue-eyed gaze and asked, “Would you like to dance?”
“I can’t jive,” she said. Her friends laughed as if it was the funniest joke ever, buying Brian a few seconds to formulate his next move.
“Then let’s get some punch and wait for the next one,” he said, taking her firmly by the arm and leading her away from her friends. ‘Always try to separate them from their mates’ was the advice that came to mind, given by one of the older boys.
“Are you always so forceful?” she asked, sipping her drink and glancing over at her jealous friends.
“I’m no longer a kid. I’m joining the police next week,” he said. This was designed to impress her and it worked – responsibility and a steady job.
“I like this one,” she said, as the band played a popular hit. This time it was Helen doing the leading, as the infatuated couple found a space and held each other in a classic dance pose.
“It all seemed so easy,” Brian told his mates the next day. “As if it were meant to be. We’re going out now, so no comments or whistles.”
He transitioned seamlessly from hanging out with mischief in mind to police training college and being in a steady relationship. He even put his name down for a council flat. In those heady days of youth everything seemed possible, and his world was full of firsts. First girlfriend; first job; first pay cheque; first passport; first holiday and soon after, marriage and first home of their own.
Brian would twirl his police whistle in the pub for laughs, but cautioned his mates on their behaviour. He had the cocky confidence of his hero – football captain Bobby Moore – and each morning his feet slipped effortlessly into his size nine boots, as if this was always meant to be.
This short story is taken from Postcards from London by Tim Walker
Two things have caught my attention in last week’s news. The first – British Prime Minister Theresa May bravely battling through a hacking cough, falling signs and an unfunny prankster to sell us the unbelievable notion that her party actually cares about citizen welfare. The second – another appalling, almost apocalyptic, mass shooting in the USA.
In my own quixotic, febrile mind these two events are connected. You see, both the USA and the UK are hostages to their history and socio-cultural development. In the case of the UK, there is an obsession with home ownership that started out as a quite reasonable desire to well, own your own home. This dream has been cynically hijacked by the forces of capitalism who have now gained such a tight control over our lives that we are being slowly rendered powerless vassals to an uncaring system who see us merely as consumers on the one hand and units of labour to be exploited for profit on the other (or replaced if we ask for decent pay and conditions).
Theresa May chose to swerve the impending car crash of Brexit in her party conference speech and instead headed straight for the heart-and-soul of a creaking nation – home ownership. Since her heroine Margaret Thatcher’s ruinous rebalancing of the economy to render it up as a sacrificial lamb to the Wolf of Wall Street, our housing sector has become the Property Market and is now an investment opportunity for international crooks and money-launderers rather than serving its intended function of housing people. Citizens need to be housed, even in an aggressive advanced capitalist system, otherwise, how are they going to work and pay taxes? But there’s too much money invested, too much at stake, to reform this ugly investment beast. So suck it up, Britain.
Mrs May unwisely chose to highlight the fact that today’s younger generation, apart those with millionaire parents, have been priced out of the housing market and will never realize their dream of owning their own home. So are the Tories advocating low-cost rental schemes? No – private renting has become a huge source of investment and wealth-creation in its own right, feeding off the fat carcass of an over-inflated property market. Instead, she made a weak and insincere ‘promise’ to invest in ‘affordable housing’, to the sneers of her watching colleagues. This is from a Party hell-bent on withdrawing from all its responsibilities towards citizen welfare – the slow pulling-back of a parental hand from a dying child. The charities sector will take up the slack in a post-welfare state Britain if this lot continues to be re-elected.
Why did she do it? They certainly don’t intend to intervene to allay our misery at ongoing economic exploitation – just the usual lies and sops that at least let us know they are aware of our distress – like Fritzel feeding his imprisoned daughter and rape-victim with mock shows of kindness that merely reinforce the power relationship between the exploiter and exploited. Will we ever break away from this increasingly totalitarian global capitalist super-state? They have done a brilliant job of subverting our democracy and bamboozling our media with, yes, you’ve guessed it – FAKE NEWS.
Which brings me to part two of my rant. Our capitalist cousin, the USA, is reeling after the latest incident of mass-murder by a gun-toting maniac who had amassed an arsenal of over twenty weapons. Islamic State added a darkly sinister attempt at humour by trying to take the credit for a killing spree carefully planned and executed by a white retired millionaire accountant. The playground of the affluent – Las Vegas – became the killing ground for the insane gunning-down of hundreds of concert-goers in a carnival of pure evil. Why does the USA so proudly cling to its ‘right to bear arms’? Thomas Jefferson is long dead and the British colonisers long-gone, so why the need? Well, one gun shop owner explained to a bemused reporter that an armed citizenry prevents an overbearing state from exploiting them – in a chilling act of defiance bordering on the threat of re-opening the civil war. USA, you are in one helluva mess.
So, in conclusion, we are all living under a global capitalist system whose aim is to squeeze every penny it can out of us with as little investment in our welfare as is possible. A wealthy elite will prosper and we will all pay for it.
The difference between the UK and USA is that US citizens are armed and dangerous…
Postcards from London is a new book of 15 short stories by myself, Tim Walker, due for release on Sunday 10th September. Please ‘like’ my facebook page for news and updates, and to get the link to the FREE ebook download on the 10th and 11th September.