18 December 2014

18th December 2014

More nativities: here's an update to one of the best, the 2010 Sausage Nativity. Everyone thought there was only one photo of it on the web. But here's a rare unreleased close-up of the Wise Men:

And we only found out about this today - it's the world's largest nativity, with 1000 people taking part!

17 December 2014

17th December 2014

Imagine a jigsaw made of 1000 pieces and 1000 colours. Using CMYK colour codes, the creators have made a challenging but ultimately beautiful picture. Watch the video at the link here.

16 December 2014

16th December 2014

Apologies to the 22 of you who tried and failed to see yesterday's calendar (web scripting error) and well done to the 3 who just changed the web address to '15' (sneaky hacker's trick for you there).

We've always been a fan of Percy Pig and his tasty sweets, now you can celebrate the season with this stylish Percy jumper with sparkling detailing. There's also a video you can watch at http://www.marksandspencer.com/percy-pig-jumper/p/p22336527 I think the thing we're most impressed about is that M&S managed to get Penelope Cruz to do the modelling.

15 December 2014

15th December 2014

by U.A. Fanthorpe (born 1929)

This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future's
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.

This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.

This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.

And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.

14 December 2014

13 December 2014

13th December 2014

Another Saturday, another anniversary. Last week we looked at the Radio Times from 1964, today it's 1914. While the Christmas focus has been on the battlefield football, there's a wealth of information about what was happening back home. First though, here's a 100 year old version of A Christmas Carol. No Muppets, no music. You'll just have to make up your own:

Anyway, back to the war at home. In his book, The Fateful Year: England 1914, Mark Bostridge describes how:
...the celebration of Christmas was considered a patriotic duty, the only concession to the war, now four months old, being the replacement of tinsel and paper chains with strings of brightly coloured allied flags. In London, the West End was thronged. In the suburbs, poulterers fairly bulged with geese and turkeys; happily, the cost of Christmas dinner would be only a touch more expensive than in peacetime. All the same, those who went out, baskets on arms, couldn't help but notice that this wasn't any old Christmas. According to the writer Katherine Mansfield, on Oxford Street the shop windows were filled with "khaki and wool and pots of Vaseline and marching socks". More poignantly, the department stores had baskets prominently on display into which shoppers could drop gifts for "Our Men at the Front". Among the more popular presents for soldiers were "tinder lighters with their natty little plaited rope and striker" and – oh, how the heart aches to read this! – "waterproof squares for trench seats".
Another story of the time I find fascinating is how paranoia led people to suspect German spies were everywhere:
The next delusion was that of the grateful German and the Tubes. The commonest form of the story was that an English nurse had brought a German officer back from the door of death, and that in a burst of gratitude he said at parting, “I must not tell you more, but beware of the Tubes in April (1915).” As time wore on the date was shifted forward month by month, to September, when it died of expectation deferred. We took the trouble to trace this story from mouth to mouth until we reached the second mistress in a London Board School. She declared that she had had it from the charwoman who cleaned the school, but that lady stoutly denied that she had ever told so ridiculous a story.
This early urban myth is from Chapter 4 of Basil Thomson's book about his work in the Police and Secret Service, and you can read lots more about popular delusions in my blogpost here.

12 December 2014

12th December 2014

This weekend sees the first of Adam's 5 carol services and concerts he's playing the organ in. The tunes from each have been going round in his head, even in his sleep, and the current winner is a beautiful anthem by John Rutter we are singing at ChristChurch Woking at 5pm and 7.30pm on Sunday. Do come along!

But who invited the monkey? And why is the host wearing a 1950s toupée? Oh, he's French :-)

Bonus track: another one we're doing is a little track I like to call "Mary, with the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight and theological interpretation, did you know your baby would be able to walk on water and annoy Richard Dawkins?"

11 December 2014

11th December 2014

It's time for a round-up of nativity scenes we have spotted in real life and on the web.

Who can fail to be charmed by this scene in an Southend shop window?

Meanwhile, Playmobil seem to get further away from the true meaning of Christmas:

OK, to be honest, that's an Advent Calendar, not a nativity. But it's still not very Christmassy. Try this one:

Let us know if you have spotted a nativity scene, good or bad!

10 December 2014

10th December 2014

Have you chosen what you are going to wear on Christmas Day yet? There seems to be a trend this year for taking traditional Christmas jumper patterns and putting them on all sorts of things.

So if you are getting a new bike for Christmas, why not try this:
on sale at RedBear

To add a touch of festive flair, why not wear:

available from Shinesty

And to help make your baby part of the decorations, knit them this:

pattern at Crochetville

Thanks to Miriam & Peter for the suggestion!

8 December 2014

9th December 2014

Where do you imagine the Capital of Christmas is? Lapland? Bethlehem?
Perhaps if we called it "Capitale de Noël" that might be a clue...

In fact, it is the beautiful city of Strasbourg, nestling in north-east France on the border with Germany. This year they are marketing themselves as the Capital of Christmas, and in addition to their usual beautiful architecture, storks, and European Institutions, they also have a range of Christmas markets.

Our friend Manuel and his family are our favourite Strasbourgeois and we had the pleasure of visiting them in April this year. We first met "on the internet" sharing our love of IKEA soft toys.

One thing that caught our eye on the Christmas website is that they are having a Belgian market. Waffles! Speculoos! Of course, but we hadn't come across cuberdons before. These are purple, cone-shaped, raspberry-flavoured candy with a liquid centre. We really will have to seek them out the next time we are Benelux-bound.

For more tourist information, check out our Strasbourg and our Brussels travel guides.

7 December 2014

8th December 2014

Thanks to Adam's father who came up with our first guest contribution to the Calendar - you too can suggest something you'd like to see by emailing adamcreen@hotmail.com or leaving a comment below.

In 2009 a large-scale recreation of the Mona Lisa was made with a staggering 3,604 cups of coffee, and 564 pints of milk. Measuring 20ft by13ft – nearly ten times the size of Leonardo da Vinci’s original masterpiece - it took eight people three hours to complete. It was created for The Rocks Aroma Festival in Sydney, Australia, and was seen by 130,000 people who attended the one-day coffee-lovers’ event.

6 December 2014

7th December 2014

It was weird for Advent Sunday to actually be in November before anyone had opened their Advent Calendar. Today is officially Advent 2, and many churches are having their Christingles today. Here an army of Christingles is massing to take over the world:

Photo by Graham @ramtopsgrum who I knew 20 years ago on teacher training, and who then popped up again organising the #notgb40 hashtag for Greenbelt absentees last summer. Thanks Graham!

In case you don't know what a Christingle is, here's the song:

A Christingle Song (Tune: Give me oil in my lamp) 
The Christingle begins with an orange, telling us of the world God made.
For creation is full of his glory; all around we see his love displayed. 
Sing Christingle! Sing Christingle! Sing Christingle, it’s the light of Christ.
Sing Christingle! Sing Christingle! Sing Christingle, light of Christ. 

Every year we give thanks for the seasons, and the fruits of the earth to share.
The Christingle is here to remind us that the love of God is everywhere.
Sing Christingle...
God of love, we give thanks now for Jesus; we remember his birth again.
But the red ribbon round the Christingle tells the story of his cross and pain.
Sing Christingle... 
To complete the Christingle: a candle, shining out in the darkest night.
Jesus promised to lead us and guide us; come and celebrate the world’s true light!
Sing Christingle...

6th December 2014

This year the Calendar is all about anniversaries, so let us take you back to 1964. The amazing website Genome has been launched by the BBC to catalogue its archive, including old Radio Times. So 50 years ago here's what the Christmas Day schedule looked like ... Penguins! The Great War! Welsh Singing! Repeats! Disney Time!

A German film based on a story by the Brothers Grimm 
Commentary by Johnny Morris

Words and music for this Festive morn with IVOR EMMANUEL, JACQUELINE DELMAN, OWEN BRANNIGAN and CY GRANT 
BBC Midland Light Orchestra Leader, JAMES HUTCHEON 
Producer: Reg Perrin
Produced By: Philip Lewis

10.30: The World of the Penguin
Whether they breed on Antarctic ice or African sand, the penguin's true home is the sea. Master swimmers, they cannot fly, yet some travel miles inland. Sometimes comic, sometimes graceful, to millions they are the most fascinating birds in the world.
Commentary written and spoken by Alan Gibson
Research by John Sparkes
Film editor, Betty Block
Produced by Christopher Parsons

Preacher, Dr. Howard Williams 
Organist, GERALD BARNES , F.R.C.O. 
Television presentation by Innes Lloyd

invites you to MEET THE KIDS in hospital at Christmas with Peter Glaze , Harold Taylor and The Bert Hayes Trio 
An Outside Broadcast from the Children's Ward of Hackney Hospital, London 
Produced by Robin SCOTT 
Leslie Crowther is appearing In Tbe Black and White Minstrel Show ' at the Victoria Palace. London

What does it mean? Does it matter? 
Sing it out, loud and clear, with a group of singers from Bangor, North Wales 
Meredydd Evans introduces Ivor Emmanuel and The Proclaimers 
Joining in the fun are some young people from Anglesey and Caernarvonshire 
Directed by RUTH PRICE

A Western film series starring JEFF HUNTER as the young Texas lawyer who finds action and adventure in his fight for individual rights and frontier justice

in Christmas Pig-tale with JIMMY THOMPSON as Asst. General, P.P.C.T.V. 
Presented by JAN and VLASTA DALIBOR 
We Belong Together words and music by NORMAN NEWELL and ALYN AINSWORTH 
Written by ROBERT GRAY Design by Stuart Furber 
From the North of England

14.30: COMPACT
A Surprise for Christmas 
Camilla has a surprise, Ian has a warning, everybody has a party, and David has a shock 
Film sequences made with the co operation of the staff and children of Dr. Barnardo's Homes 

15.00: THE QUEEN

A special performance for Europe from the ring of the world's largest tenting circus 
Frank Bough behind the bars of the big cage introduces 

Julie Andrews introduces this year's Walt Disney programme with the emphasis on comedy
Films by courtesy of Walt Disney
Presented by Richard Evans

who appeals for The Royal National Institute for the Deaf 

Adapted for television by EDDIE LESLIE and LEN LOWE 

19.15: Christmas Night with the Stars

BRIAN RIX presents 
Simple Spymen by JOHN CHAPMAN 

22.15: THE NEWS

A twenty-six-part history 
PART 11: Hell cannot be so terrible 
Written by ALISTAIR HORNE and GORDON WATKINS with the voices of SIR MICHAEL REDGRAVE as Narrator 

The Ballet Folklorico of Mexico in a programme of Latin-American folk dance 
Choreography by AMALIA HERNANDEZ 
First transmission on July 31
Producer: Patricia Foy

with The Rev. R. T. Brooks

23.50: THE WEATHER: Close Down

5 December 2014

5th December 2014

Two Advent Calendar traditions today - posting late so everyone up before 6am complains, and putting on a great music video for Friday - play it in the office and turn it up LOUD! It's Belle & Sebastian...

3 December 2014

4th December 2014

If you haven't got yourself an Advent Calendar yet, don't worry, it's not too late. For only £12,000 Harrods will sell you this little beauty:

It's a doll's house, made by Wedgwood, with 24 windows that open up to reveal:

Read more in this Daily Mail article:

The most amusing thing is that the Mail makes 2 glaring mathematical errors. See if you can spot them both!

2 December 2014

3rd December 2014

This year has seen our renewed interest in modernist architecture, and we had a happy weekend in Stevenage looking at the New Towns and Garden Cities of Hertfordshire. We can recommend John Grindrod's book Concretopia, and so we were delighted to find a blog combining gingerbread houses with Brutalist design. Check out the Present and Correct blog. Our favourite is the Vitra Design Museum in Basel, because we've been there!

Shout out to Shaun & Samantha Jordan, friends of Adam from school and college (who met and got married without knowing they had a mutual acquaintance in him), who were first off the blocks with their Christmas card which arrived today. How many have you received so far??

1 December 2014

2nd December 2014

You'll pleased to hear Sarah enjoyed the first chocolate figure out of her Carluccio's Advent Calendar. It was a small mushroom, made by Caffarel, a Piemontese chocolate manufacturer. Too much information?

Today's picture is of the mascots for the 2016 Olympics. Rio has done some great branding and promotion, and they want all of us to choose the names for their Olympic and Paralympic mascots.

Visit their website where you can take a selfie with them, find out more about what the Olympics stand for, and get exciting about the next Olympic Games!

Of course our favourite mascots ever are still Miga, Quatchi, Sumi and Mukmuk from Vancouver 2010!

30 November 2014

1st December 2014

Welcome to our 12th annual Advent Calendar! We're celebrating anniversaries this year, with 40th, 50th, 100th and 150th all making an appearance. If it's a special anniversary Christmas for you this year, why not let us know?

Maybe you've been getting things ready this weekend, like we have. No tree yet, but we certainly have bought a lot of party food! Our greatest find was at Carluccio's, which has just opened in Woking. We missed them last year, but we have this year's cream of the almond crop, it's the delicious Ricciarelli:

What have you done to get ready for Christmas? Let us know in the comments. And of course, tell your friends about this Advent Calendar. The quick link is: bit.ly/adcal2014

Advent Calendar 2014

16 November 2014


With visits to the cinema becoming few and far between (ironic given the Year of Film in 2003-4 where winning an unlimited cinema pass meant over 50 visits) I wanted to mark the latest blockbuster I've seen on the big screen. It's all about spectacle not subtlety, and is the third in what I call the Space Trilogy:

  • Prometheus
  • Gravity
  • Interstellar

Where the first of these was fatally marred by unscientific behaviour, and Scott not leaving his earlier greatness well alone, the second was like a road movie in the same way that Hanna was, with less emphasis on the science and more on the journey (physically and emotionally). Now Nolan (and Nolan) have their own space epic to promote, and they take a third route, that of explaining the metaphysical power of love.
Spoilers abound, as there's no way I can write a review without talking about the plot.

I thought it was a particularly neat trick to give McConaughey a daughter who looked like a young Anne Hathaway, so that viewers who had already heard that characters would get a lot older, would see the girl and imagine her as an adult. But then the rug was pulled from under us, Hathaway is Michael Caine's daughter. At least that's what we are meant to believe. Right until Jessica Chastain appeared, I was sure this would be a cunning Nolan twist.
But no, Hathaway is a tragic wide-eyed scientist, pining for her planet-bound love interest. Along with the equally wide-eyed Amanda Seyfried, I find Hathaway a tiresome actress who runs the full gamut of emotions, from A to B (as Dorothy Parker once said about Katherine Hepburn). There are too many close-ups of her face, and she's sure to win the Oscar for Big Eyes again.

How clever to have Ellen Burstyn as the first person who appeared in the When Harry Met Sally-style interviews that appeared at the start to frame the Dust Bowl story, and therefore the first person in the final credits. Nolan had seen Ken Burns's documentary The Dust Bowl (2012) and wanted to use some of the interviews from that film. So when we see the much-older Murph at the end of the film, we get a sudden flash of recognition.

In space, no one should be able to hear the strings. But the problem that Interstellar shares with Gravity is a need to fill the silence, and overpower the visuals with intrusive and repetitive orchestral motifs. Hans Zimmer (who I'm contractually obliged to remind you wrote the theme for Going For Gold) takes up Steven Price's baton and provides driving themes that are even more exhausting than the action they underscore.
Whether it's driving a truck through fields of corn, synchronizing rotations with a runaway Endurance, or some other nail-biting scene, the sense of relief when the music ends matches ‎Matthew McConaughey's exhaustion at having jumped through another hoop on the way to the future of the human race. I just wish Nolan (and Cuarón) had had Kubrick's vision to let space speak for itself.

The sudden appearance of NORAD when the secret space program is revealed was a great filmic reference to Wargames (1984) with its super-computer WOPR. And when the monolith-like TARS and CASE appear with their 4-letter names, and their slightly-unbelievable scraping/walking motion, we're expecting a double dose of HAL. I hope the Blu-Ray has a LOT more information on these two not-evil-at-all robots. They get the best lines as well.
TARS should appear in more films: link.

Too much has been made of the Kip Thorne Black Hole invention (link). As anyone who's seen Disney's The Black Hole (1979) knows, bad things happen when you travel with a robot into a singularity. But they were going to have to go into it anyway, and if you can accept that they don't die being made into strands of spaghetti, the eventual 3D/4D/5D tesseract they arrive in fits pretty well with the ideas introduced in Abbott's Flatland.
I was also impressed by the explanation as to why a wormhole would be spherical not circular. So there, Stargate SG-1.

Isn't he OLD?

So the only plot-hole I'm going to complain about is the 5-dimensional beings. If they can make everything else happen, couldn't there have been an easier way that didn't involve driving off cliffs, falling off cliffs, etc? If they can send information back through time, why not just do that? It reminded me of the Asimov concept of the Eternals (link) where humans in the future have shaped the past to ensure that their own existence occurs. It also reminded me of Bill and Ted at the end of their Bogus Journey, where they have to remember to do all the things they will have done in the future to ensure that De Nomolos gets captured.

Well, what were you expecting? Philip French or Mark Kermode? Hope you enjoyed my thoughts anyway.

2 November 2014

Nicosia Travel Guide

This is slightly different to our usual guides, as it covers a capital city that many would never consider visiting, as Cyprus is very much seen as a resort destination. However there is much to see and very little information about the practicalities, ironic as most Cypriots speak English, and many things are similar to the UK, not least the plug sockets and driving on the left!

Getting to Cyprus

Direct flights from London airports:
Cyprus has 2 main airports, Larnaca and Paphos.
From Heathrow, you can fly BA to Larnaca – from Terminal 5, and often Club Europe can be a very cheap upgrade that gets you lounge access and better meals.
Ryanair flies Stansted to Paphos, and Easyjet flies Gatwick to both Larnaca and Paphos. BA also has some flights from Gatwick to Larnaca.
Cyprus Airways flies Stansted to Larnaca, and for middle-of-the-night flights, you can always try Monarch from Gatwick and Luton.

Getting to Nicosia

Larnaca Airport:
There are not a lot of options. Taxis are around €50. There is no public bus, and Cyprus does not have a rail network.
The Kapnos Airport Shuttle runs every hour, and is only €8, but drops you at a car park on the outskirts of Nicosia, from where you would have to take a taxi (which they also run).
There is meant to be wifi on the bus but it is password protected and the driver did not have the password.
Another option is the shared taxi service which picks up people as a group and drops them at their individual hotels. Prices from €11 per person, not personally used, but a big company in the city.

Paphos Airport:
Kapnos also run a shuttle from here, but only at 11am, 7pm and 11.30pm. It takes 2.5 hours and you are really advised to fly into Larnaca.


Number 1 on TripAdvisor is Asty Hotel, which Adam stayed at many moons ago. It’s a budget hotel, expect to pay around £50 a night including breakfast. It’s about 15 minutes walk to the city walls, so not ideal for everyone.

The Holiday Inn is poorly rated and does not seem to match the usual quality of the brand, so we’re not recommending it. Nearby is the Classic Hotel, which is inside the city walls on a busy street, so may be noisy. Pay around £70 a night.

For luxury, expect to pay £200 a night at the Hilton Cyprus, 20 minutes walk out of town along the main high-end shopping street.

Tourist Information

Within the city walls is a small pedestrianised area full of gift shops called Laiki Geitonia. The tourist office is here, but is very small and can offer a map of the city. There are free walking tours within the city walls on Thursdays at 10am (recommended, lasts 3 hours), and bus tours on Mondays at 10am (also recommended, need to book). These go to Kaimakli and Chrysaliniotissa, two outlying suburbs of Nicosia, a visit to the Mayor's house and art collection, several churches and craftsmen's workshops, and also views of the Green Line, with historical background.


The Leventis Museum is in Laiki Geitonia, in a pair of mansions that have been modernised. It has many artefacts from the island, pottery and jewellery, as well as a history of the city to British times. Free, and has a nice cool courtyard ideal for relaxing and snacking.

The Leventis Art Gallery is one of two brand new skyscrapers to the south of the city walls (the other was designed by Jean Nouvel). Over three floors, it houses a family’s collection of French (mainly classical), Greek and Cypriot art. €2 only.

The State Gallery of Contemporary Art, on the corner of Leoforos Stasinou and Kritis, just south of the City Wall, has many modern Cypriot artists. Some figurative, some historical, some reflecting op art and sculpture, it gives a broad sweep of artistic styles. Free.

The Shacolas Tower is above the Debenhams store on Ledra, and has a panoramic view from the 11th floor. €2 to enter, there are touchscreens and photos and videos of Nicosia through the ages.

The Postal Museum is at 3B Agiou Savva St, and has displays of Cypriot stamps, explanations of historical background, and a 'post office' with a badly-coiffured mannequin. You can also buy stamps for your postcards here.

The Bank of Cyprus Cultural Foundation is in the first bank building on the island, backing onto Ledra but with the entrance on Faneromenos. It has permanent exhibitions on bank notes and coins, and temporary exhibitions about the island.

The complex of buildings based around the Archbishop’s Palace have many interesting sights. As well as the Cathedral of St John, there is the Folk Art Museum, and the Byzantine Museum with an impressive display of icons.


Inside the city walls is the main street Ledra. As well as a Debenhams (see above) it has Next, McDonalds, Starbucks and a post office at the north end (open 9am to 3pm).
There is a non-threatening checkpoint into Northern Cyprus, with free passage between the two halves of the city, but have your passport handy. We’ve never been across but there is a similar range of tourist sites and shops.

Running south-east from the southern city gate is Archbishop Makariou Street, with more expensive fashion shops, and some British brands like M&S and TopShop. You’ll be underwhelmed by the choice and prices.

The Mall Of Cyprus is a medium-sized shopping complex out of town. It has an IKEA and a Carrefour supermarket, a food court and the usual high-end shops.
To get there, catch a 158 or 160 bus from the bus station at Solomon Square, just inside the southern city wall gate. Tickets are €1.50 each way for a 20 minute journey. Get off outside IKEA (the first stop after the bus turns off the motorway). The bus stop back is on the other side of the road and is labelled Nicosia 158 160. Buses run regularly twice an hour.
(Limassol has a bigger and better mall if you are driving.)


Have the tastiest lunches and take home the best Cypriot treats with a visit to ZORBAS, a chain of bakeries. Fresh savoury and sweet pastries, cakes, ice cream, and gift boxes of baklavas are all good value. Although most branches are in the suburbs, there is one close to the city walls, at 24 Digeni Akrita Avenue, two blocks from the south-east gate.

You can also get nice pastries in the Food Hall in the Debenhams stores on both Ledra and Arch. Makariou.

The streets Diagorou running into Themistokli Dervi to the south-west of the city walls have TGI Fridays, Wagamama, Ocean Basket (cooked fish and also sushi), Souvlaki Bar, and a bit further on, a large Starbucks. The best of these is the souvlaki restaurant, with massive meze and kebab plates for under €10.

4 August 2014

Sir Basil Thomson

adapted from Wikipedia:

Sir Basil Thomson (1861–1939) was a British intelligence officer, police officer, prison governor, colonial administrator, and writer.

After studying at Eton and Oxford (a university career cut short by depression) he secured a cadet position at the Colonial Office, where he assisted the Governor of Fiji from 1884, but was then invalided back to England after contracting malaria. He returned to Fiji after his marriage, and then on to Tonga.
Back in Britain, he was admitted to the bar in 1896. Instead of becoming a barrister, Thomson accepted the position of deputy governor at HM Prison Liverpool, then as governor of Northampton, Cardiff, Dartmoor, and Wormwood Scrubs prisons.

In June 1913, Thomson was appointed Assistant Commissioner "C" (Crime) of London's Metropolitan Police, which made him the head of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at New Scotland Yard. When World War I broke out in 1914, the CID found itself acting as the enforcement arm for Britain's military intelligence apparatus: while the newly formed Secret Service Bureau (later known as MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service), and the intelligence arms of the War Office and the Admiralty, collected intelligence on suspected spies in Britain, they had no arrest powers.

One who he interrogated was ‘Mata Hari’, the Dutch exotic dancer later to be executed by the French as a spy. In 1916 she was taken off a ship sailing from Spain to the Netherlands at Falmouth as a suspicious person and brought to London where she was interrogated at length by Thomson. He refers to this in his book Queer People.

In 1919, while remaining Assistant Commissioner (Crime), he was appointed Director of Intelligence at the Home Office, in overall charge of every intelligence agency in the country, but in 1921 he fell out with Lloyd George and was asked to resign. The reasons for this remain mysterious.

He started writing in 1894, beginning with a book about his experiences in Fiji, South Sea Yarns. His book, Queer People (1922), covers his time at the CID and during the First World War.

Life in 1914: part one

(corrected text from Internet Archive, download PDF)


LIKE most Englishmen, I read of the murder at Sarajevo without a thought that it was to react upon the destiny of this country. It seemed to be an ordinary case of Balkan manners, out of which would proceed diplomatic correspondence, an arrest or two, and a trial imperfectly reported in our newspapers. It did have the immediate effect of postponing a ball at Buckingham Palace on account of the Court mourning, but that was all. During the postponed ball on July 16, so petty were our preoccupations at this moment that when a message came in that Mrs. Pankhurst had just been recaptured under the Cat and Mouse Act. I thought it worth while to find the Home Secretary and repeat it to him. A few days after the murder I met von Kühlmann at luncheon. He can scarcely at that time have expected a rupture of relations, for in talking over Dr. Solf, with whom I had been associated in the Pacific, he said, “He has climbed high since you knew him, and some think that he will go higher still (meaning that he would become Chancellor). He is coming to London in August, and I shall write to him to arrange a meeting with you.”

A few days later England began to feel uneasy. I overheard a certain Under-Secretary remark at luncheon of his constituency, “Well, all I can say is that if this country enters the War there will be a rebellion in the North of England.” He left the Ministry when the moment came, and has now disappeared even from the House of Commons. I think that we all had at the back of our minds a feeling that a European War on the great scale was so unthinkable that a way would be found at the eleventh hour for avoiding it. A staff officer in whose judgment I believed remarked that if this were so he would emigrate, because he knew that the day was only postponed until Germany felt herself better prepared for the inevitable war. There were, in fact, no illusions at the War Office. Some day the story that will do justice to the services of Lord Haldane in those very critical weeks will be written. The plans that had been made during peace time were all ready; the names and addresses of the known German spies were recorded. We could only wait for midnight on 4th August. I was actually in the Tube lift at Gloucester Road on the stroke of midnight, and I remarked to the liftman that we were now at war. “Is that so?” he replied, with a yawn.

The credit of the discovery of the German spy organisation before the War was entirely due to a sub-department of the War Office, directed by officers of great skill. They had known for some time that one Karl Gustav Ernst, a barber in the Caledonian Road, who was technically a British subject because he was born in England, was the collecting centre for German espionage. All he had to do for his pittance of i a month was to drop the letters he received from Germany ready stamped with English postage stamps into the nearest pillar-box, and to transmit to Germany any replies which he received. Altogether, his correspondents numbered twenty-two. They were scattered all over the country at naval and military centres, and all of them were German. The law in peace time was inadequate for dealing with them, and there was the danger that if our action was precipitate the Germans would hear of it and send fresh agents about whom we might know nothing: it was decided to wait until a state of war existed before arresting them. On 5th August the orders went out. Twenty-one out of the twenty-two were arrested and interned simultaneously; one eluded arrest by embarking for Germany. Their acts of espionage had been committed in peace time, and therefore they could not be dealt with on the capital charge. The result of this sudden action was to drop a curtain over England at the vital moment of mobilisation. The German Intelligence Service was paralysed. It could only guess at what was happening behind the curtain, and it guessed wrong. Ernst was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude for his share in the business, and, seeing that he was a British subject, the sentence cannot be called excessive.

The curtain had dropped not only for the enemy but even for ourselves. How many of us knew during those first few days that trains were discharging men, horses, and material at the quays of certain southern ports without any confusion at intervals of ten minutes by day and night; that an Expeditionary Force of 150,000 men was actually in the field against the Germans before they knew anything about its existence? Von Kluck has recorded somewhere his surprise when he first found British troops in front of him. After the Armistice he is reported to have told a British officer that in his opinion the finest military force in history was the first British Army, and that the greatest military feat in history was the raising of the second British Army.

Our great dread during that week was that a bridge or a railway arch might be blown up by the enemy and the smooth running of mobilisation be dislocated. Most of the railway arches were let to private persons, of whom some were aliens. On 5th August I went myself to the War Office to find a General who could be vested with power to turn these people out. There was a good deal of confusion. Every Head of a branch had left for the field that morning, and their successors were quite new to their jobs. At last I found my General, and while I was talking to him it grew dark and there was a sudden peal of thunder like an explosion. He said, quite gravely, “A Zepp!” That was the state of mind we were all in. That same night my telephone became agitated; it reported the blowing up of a culvert near Aldershot and of a railway bridge in Kent. I had scarcely repeated the information to the proper authority when the bell rang again to tell me that both reports were the figments of some jumpy Reservist patrol.

Who now remembers those first feverish days of the War: the crowds about the recruiting stations, the recruits marching through the streets in mufti, the drafts going to the station without bands, the flower of our manhood, of whom so many were never to return, soldiers almost camping in Victoria Street, the flaring posters, the foolish cry “Business as Usual”; the unseemly rush to the Stores for food until, under the lash of the newspapers, people grew ashamed of their selfishness; the silence in the 'buses, until any loud noise, like a motor back-fire, started a Zeppelin scare? Who now remembers the foolish prognostications of experts how the War would result in unemployment and a revolution would follow; the assurance of certain bankers that the War would be over in six months because none of the belligerents could stand the financial strain for longer? We have even forgotten the food-hoarding scare that followed the spy scare during the height of the submarine activity, when elderly gentlemen, who had taken thought for the morrow, might have been seen burying biscuit tins in their gardens at midnight for fear that their neighbours should get wind of their hoard and hale them before the magistrate.

I began to think in those days that war hysteria was a pathological condition to which persons of mature age and generally normal intelligence were peculiarly susceptible. War work was evidently not a predisposing cause, for the readiest victims were those who were doing nothing in particular. In ante-bellum days there were a few mild cases. The sufferers would tell you gravely that at a public dinner they had turned suddenly to their German waiter and asked him what post he had orders to join when the German invaders arrived, and that he, taken off his guard, had clicked his heels and replied, “Portsmouth”; or they would whisper of secret visits of German aircraft to South Wales by night and mysterious rides undertaken by stiff guttural persons with square heads who would hire horses in the Eastern Counties and display an unhealthy curiosity about the stable accommodation in every farm that they passed. But in August 1914 the malady assumed a virulent epidemic form accompanied by delusions which defied treatment. It attacked all classes indiscriminately, and seemed even to find its most fruitful soil in sober, stolid, and otherwise truthful people. I remember Mr. Asquith saying that, from a legal and evidential point of view, nothing was ever so completely proved as the arrival of the Russians. Their landing was described by eyewitnesses at Leith, Aberdeen, and Glasgow; they stamped the snow out of their boots and called hoarsely for vodka at Carlisle and Berwick-on-Tweed; they jammed the penny-in-the-slot machines with a rouble at Durham; four of them were billeted on a lady at Crewe who herself described the difficulty of cooking for Slavonic appetites. There was nothing to be done but to let the delusion burn itself out. I have often wondered since whether some self-effacing patriot did not circulate this story in order to put heart into his fellow-countrymen at a time when depression would have been most disastrous, or whether, as has since been said, it was merely the rather outlandish-looking equipment and Gaelic speech of the Lovat Scouts that set the story afloat.

The second phase of the malady attached itself to pigeons. London is full of pigeons - wood pigeons in the parks, blue rocks about the churches and public buildings and a number of amiable people take pleasure in feeding them. In September 1914, when this phase was at its height, it was positively dangerous to be seen in conversation with a pigeon; it was not always safe to be seen in its vicinity. A foreigner walking in one of the parks was actually arrested and sentenced to imprisonment because a pigeon was seen to fly from the place where he was standing and it was supposed that he had liberated it.

During this phase a pigeon was caught in Essex which was actually carrying a message in the usual little aluminium box clipped to its leg. Moreover, the message was from Rotterdam, but it was merely to report the arrival of an innocuous cargo vessel, whose voyage we afterwards traced.

The delusion about illicit wireless ran the pigeons very hard. The pronouncement of a thoughtless expert that an aerial might be hidden in a chimney, and that messages could be received through an open window even on an iron bedstead, gave a great impetus to this form of delusion. The high scientific authority of the popular play, The Man who Stayed at Home, where a complete installation was concealed behind a fireplace, spread the delusion far and wide. It was idle to assure the sufferers that a Marconi transmitter needed a 4horse-power engine to generate the wave, that skilled operators were listening day and night for the pulsations of unauthorised messages, that the intermittent tickings they heard from the flat above them were probably the efforts of an amateur typist: the sufferers knew better. At this period the disease attacked even naval and military officers and special constables. If a telegraphist was sent on a motor-cycle to examine and test the telegraph poles, another cyclist was certain to be sent by some authority in pursuit. On one occasion the authorities dispatched to the Eastern Counties a car equipped with a Marconi apparatus and two skilled operators to intercept any illicit messages that might be passing over the North Sea. They left London at noon; at 3 they were under lock and key in Essex. After an exchange of telegrams they were set free, but at 7 P.M. they telegraphed from the police cells in another part of the county, imploring help. When again liberated they refused to move without the escort of a Territorial officer in uniform, but on the following morning the police of another county had got hold of them and telegraphed, “Three German spies arrested with car and complete wireless installation, one in uniform of British officer.”

Next in order was the German governess, also perhaps the product of The Man who Stayed at Home. There were several variants of this story, but a classic version was that the governess was missing from the midday meal, and that when the family came to open her trunks they discovered under a false bottom a store of high explosive bombs. Every one who told this story knew the woman's employer; some had even seen the governess herself in happier days: “Such a nice quiet person, so fond of the children; but now one comes to think of it, there was a something in her face, impossible to describe, but a something.”

During the German advance through Belgium an ingenious war correspondent gave a new turn to the hysteria. He alleged that the enamelled iron advertisements for “Maggi Soup”, which were to be seen attached to every hoarding and telegraph post, were unscrewed by the German officers in order to read the information about the local resources, which was painted in German on the back. Screw-driver parties were formed in the London suburbs, and in destroying this delusion they removed also many unsightly advertisements. The hallucination about gun platforms was not dispatched so easily. As soon as a correspondent had described the gun emplacements laid down by Germans in the guise of tennis courts at Mauberge there was scarcely a paved back-garden nor a flat concrete roof in London that did not come under the suspicion of some spy-maniac. The denunciations were not confined to Germans. Given a British householder with a concrete tennis-court and pigeons about the house, and it was certain to be discovered that he had quite suddenly increased the scale of his expenditure, that heavy cases had been delivered at the house by night, that tapping had been overheard, mysterious lights seen in the windows, and that on the night of the sinking of the Lusitania he had given a dinner-party to naturalised Germans. When artillery experts assured the patients that gun emplacements in the heart of London were in the wrong place, and that even on the high lands of Sydenham or of Hampstead any tram road would better serve the purpose they wagged their heads. They were hot upon the scent, and for many weeks denunciations poured in at the rate of many hundreds a day.

The next delusion was that of the grateful German and the Tubes. The commonest form of the story was that an English nurse had brought a German officer back from the door of death, and that in a burst of gratitude he said at parting, “I must not tell you more, but beware of the Tubes in April (1915).” As time wore on the date was shifted forward month by month, to September, when it died of expectation deferred. We took the trouble to trace this story from mouth to mouth until we reached the second mistress in a London Board School. She declared that she had had it from the charwoman who cleaned the school, but that lady stoutly denied that she had ever told so ridiculous a story.

A near kin to this was the tale that a German officer of rank had been seen in the Haymarket by an English friend; that he returned the salute involuntarily but then changed colour and jumped into a passing taxi, leaving his friend gaping on the pavement. A good many notable Prussians, from von Bissing, the Governor of Belgium downwards, figured in this story; a good many places, from Piccadilly to the Army and Navy Stores, have been the scene. The best attested version is that of the English girl who came suddenly upon her fiancé, an officer in the Prussian Guards, who shook hands with her, but as soon as he recovered from his surprise the callous ruffian froze her with a look and jumped into a passing omnibus. Another version was that on recognising her German fiancé the girl looked appealingly into his countenance and said, “Oh, Fritz!” whereupon he gave one startled look and jumped into the nearest vehicle. This, it may be remarked, might have happened to any Englishman, for who would not, when accosted by a charming stranger under the name of 'Fritz,' have jumped into anything that happened to be passing? In some of these cases inquiry showed that at the moment when they were said to have been seen in London these Germans were serving on the Continent, and it is certain that all were hallucinations.

With the War, the Tower of London came into its own again. During the early months it began to be whispered at London tea-tables that the Crown Prince himself was languishing there (if languishing is the appropriate term for a person of his temperament). Later, when it became evident that he could not be in two places at once, the prisoners of distinction included several British peers and privy councillors. All these prisoners, who were at the moment adorning their several offices in free life, had been shot at dawn. These delusions may be traced to the fact that a few foreign spies were imprisoned in the Tower before execution.

A new phase of the malady was provoked by the suggestion that advertisements in the Agony Column of newspapers were being used by spies to communicate information to Germany. It is uncertain who first called public attention to this danger, but since refugees did make use of the Agony Columns for communicating with their friends abroad, there was nothing inherently improbable in the idea. In order to allay public alarm it was necessary to check the insertion of apparently cryptic advertisements. Later in the War a gentleman who had acquired a considerable reputation as a code expert, and was himself the author of commercial codes, began to read into these advertisements messages from German submarines to their base, and vice versa. This he did with the aid of a Dutch-English dictionary on a principle of his own. As we had satisfied ourselves about the authors of the advertisements we treated his communications rather lightly. In most cases the movements he foretold failed to take place, but unfortunately once, by an accident, there did happen to be an air-raid on the night foretold by him. We then inserted an advertisement of our own. It was something like this:

“Will the lady with the fur boa who entered No. 14 'bus at Hyde Park Corner yesterday communicate with box 29”

and upon this down came our expert hot-foot with the information that six submarines were under orders to attack the defences at Dover that very night. When we explained that we were the authors of the advertisement, all he said was that, by some extraordinary coincidence, we had hit upon the German code, and that by inserting the advertisement we had betrayed a military secret. It required a committee to dispose of this delusion.

The longest-lived of the delusions was that of the night-signalling, for whenever the scare showed signs of dying down a Zeppelin raid was sure to give it a fresh start. As far as fixed lights were concerned, it was the best-founded of all the delusions, because the Germans might well have inaugurated a system of fixed lights to guide Zeppelins to their objective, but the sufferers went a great deal farther than a belief in fixed lights. Morse-signalling from a window in Bayswater, which could be seen only from a window on the opposite side of the street, was believed in some way to be conveyed to the commanders of German submarines in the North Sea, to whom one had to suppose news from Bayswater was of paramount importance. Sometimes the watcher generally a lady would call in a friend, a noted Morse expert, who in one case made out the letters 'P.K.' among a number of others that he could not distinguish. This phase of the malady was the most obstinate of all. It was useless to point out that a more sure and private method of conveying information across a street would be to go personally or send a note. It was not safe to ignore any of these complaints, and all were investigated. In a few cases there were certainly intermittent flashes, but they proved to be caused by the flapping of a blind, the waving of branches across a window, persons passing across a room, and, in two instances, the quick movements of a girl's hair-brush in front of the light. The beacons were passage lights left unshrouded. The Lighting Order did much to allay this phase of the disease. Out of many thousand denunciations I have been unable to hear of a single case in which signals to the enemy were made by lights during the War.

The self-appointed watcher was very apt to develop the delusion of persecution. She would notice a man in the opposite house whose habits seemed to be secretive, and decide in her own mind that he was an enemy spy. A few days later he would chance to leave his house immediately after she had left hers. Looking round, she would recognise him and jump to the conclusion that he was following her. Then she would come down to New Scotland Yard, generally with some officer friend who would assure me that she was a most unemotional person. One had to listen quite patiently to all she said, and she could only be cured by a promise that the police would follow her themselves and detain any other follower if they encountered one.

Even serving officers were not immune. Near Woolwich a large house belonging to a naturalised foreigner attracted the attention of a non-commissioned officer, who began to fill the ears of his superiors with wonderful stories of lights, of signalling apparatus discovered in the grounds, and of chasing spies along railway tracks in the best American film manner, until even his General believed in him. Acting on my advice the owner wisely offered his house as a hospital, and the ghost was laid.

Sometimes the disease would attack public officials, who had to be handled sympathetically. One very worthy gentleman used to embarrass his colleagues by bringing in stories almost daily of suspicious persons who had been seen in every part of the country. All of them were German spies, and the local authorities would do nothing. In order to calm him they invented a mythical personage named 'von Burstorph,' and whenever he brought them a fresh case they would say, 'So von Burstorph has got to Arran,' or to Carlisle, or wherever the locality might be. He was assured that the whole forces of the Realm were on the heels of ‘von Burstorph,' and that when he was caught he would suffer the extreme penalty in the Tower. That sent him away quite happy since he knew that the authorities were doing something. The incarnation of 'von Burstorph ' reminded me of a similar incarnation in the Criminal Investigation Department many years ago. When one of my predecessors appeared to be blaming his subordinates for a lack of enterprise in the case of some undiscovered crime they would shake their heads and say, ' Yes, I recognise the hand. That is some of Bill the Boatman's work,' but “Bill the Boatman ' was a most elusive person, and he has not been arrested to this day.

On one occasion a very staid couple came down to denounce a waiter in one of the large hotels, and brought documentary evidence with them. It was a menu with a rough sketch plan in pencil made upon the back. They believed it to be a plan of Kensington Gardens with the Palace buildings roughly delineated by an oblong figure. They had seen the waiter in the act of drawing the plan at an unoccupied table. I sent for him and found before me a spruce little Swiss with his hair cut en brosse, and a general air of extreme surprise. He gave me a frank account of all his movements, and then I produced the plan. He gazed at it a moment, and then burst out laughing. ' So that is where my plan went! ' ' Yes, monsieur, I made it, and then I lost it. You see, I am new to the hotel and, in order to satisfy the head waiter, I made for myself privately a plan of the tables, and marked a cross against those I had to look after.'

The Germans, as we now know, had the spy-mania even more acutely. It became dangerous for Americans in Berlin to speak their own language: gamekeepers roamed the country armed to deal with spy motor-cars, and Princess Ratibor and several other innocent persons were shot at and wounded. Our own anti-German riots in which the shops of bakers with German names were damaged had their counterpart in the mob attacks upon the British Embassy in Berlin.