Cross of Fire by Colin Forbes

Although this book is fiction, there are many accurate descriptions of towns and cities you might like to visit…

This is an extremely long thriller at over 550 pages. It needs to be though as there are so many characters not all of whom are what they seem to be at first appearance.

The good people are: Paula Grey, Newman (who appears to be in a permanent bad mood), Nield, Butler, Tweed, and Marler. They have allies in France and Germany. These people are up against a would-be General de Gaulle named General Charles de Forge, who along with his supporters including Dubois, leader of a political party called Pour France, and Louis Janin, Minister of Defence is out to topple the government of France by fomenting an ever-increasing storm of hatred including riots in Bordeaux, Lyons, and Marseilles and attacks on Jews in the south of France. All these attackers are brandishing a burning Cross of Lorraine.

The story starts with two identical murders, one in Aldeburgh in Suffolk and the second in Bordeaux around 24 hours later. Both are committed by a mysterious assassin Kalmar. The story then moves at speed from London to Aldeburgh, Geneva, Basle to Paris, Bordeaux, Arcachon, The Landes. Gradually drawn into the story are characters you can never be sure about such as Jean Burgoyne, a mistress of General de Forge, Victor Rosewater a captain in Military Intelligence, Isabelle Thomas, girlfriend of a murdered British agent, Lieutenant Berthier who serves under General de Forge and his colleague Major Lamy. There’s also a second assassin called Manteau who keeps calling de Forge demanding money for the assassinations he claims he’s carried out, including the derailment of a TGV on a viaduct, a crash that kills both the President and Prime Minister of France.

There’s also a sinister English Lord, Dane Dawlish who owns a magnificent catamaran called Steel Vulture and has an unhealthy interest in the sunken village of Dunwich. This boat has been seen visiting Arcachon.

All these characters are skilfully woven into a coherent story by the author. The only item that jars slightly is that all the characters are extremely good at everything they do. They’re great shots, experts at self-defence, dress impeccably, can speak many languages and are attractive to the opposite sex. It’s like having a lot of James Bond’s (both male and female) all in the same novel. But that’s a minor quibble about an otherwise wonderful book.

A very short introduction to Alexis de Tocqueville

This very short introduction allows the reader to understand the writings of Alex de Tocqueville most famously known for the two volume Democracy in America.

Tocqueville travelled for 9 months in America in 1831-32 with his great friend Gustave de Beaumont. The first volume of Democracy in America appeared in 1835. This volume was about the country of America and its virtues and faults and was rapturously received. The second volume published in 1840 and more about Tocqueville’s fears for the future of democracy didn’t register on the same scale as the first volume.

It’s fair to say Tocqueville appraised democracy in his work and only praised it when he saw it in action, notably in the townships of America.

Tocqueville also wrote about the revolutions in his home country of France. In The Old Regime, he argues that the 1789 – 95 revolution started in the society it was to destroy and that it was the work of the Old Regime of the French monarchy which set out deliberately but mostly unconsciously to destroy itself. Tocqueville argues this Revolution started in around 1439 or 1444 when Charles VII ordered a new tax without the consent of the nobility.

His other major work, Recollections, is an account of the 1848 revolution in France which Tocqueville witnessed and acted in. This revolution was a failure and shows what happens when citizens are inspired by philosophers.

Life on the Golden Horn – Book Review

This is number 6 in the ‘Great Journeys’ series by Penguin.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu travelled to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1716 with her husband who had been appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire by King George I. This idea didn’t turn out very well and they were recalled in 1718.

I’ve not seen any of the other books in the series in a second-hand bookshop anywhere, so I must try harder as this was an excellent book and really well edited because there’s hardly any repetition of information in the letter in this book.

They travelled through modern day Holland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Serbia and Bulgaria before arriving in Adrianople where they stayed for a number of months before reaching Constantinople.

Between Vienna and Belgrade they passed through the town of Peterwardein (now part of the city of Novi Sad) where 7 months previously there’d been an almighty battle between the Austrians and the Ottomans which the Austrians won. The detritus of battle and the skeletons of men, horses, and camels were still visible to the travellers.

However, this book is fascinating mainly because of the author’s descriptions of the lives of the ladies of the Ottoman Empire and the riches of their dress and jewellery where no expense was spared with emeralds, diamonds, pearls, and other precious stones worn on a daily basis.

Lady Montagu is quite taken with certain aspects of the architecture of buildings, the design of the clothing, and the lifestyle of the ladies and cheerfully admits that some things are better than in England and in Western Europe, although slaves are of course ever present in the background, so you have to bear that in mind.

Where did the universe come from? Book Review.

OK, this is pushing the boundaries for a travel blog, but I would count a journey to the stars as travel!

I suppose I should have expected the answers this book provides. I won’t say what those are because that would spoil the reading of the book for some people.

Basically, physicists face a fundamental problem in that they have come no nearer to creating / finding a Theory of Everything in the last hundred years. To me this begs the questions – does there have to be one, does there have to be a theory of everything? This is more a philosophical conundrum than one for physicists to answer.

A Theory of Everything would combine one of the four fundamental forces of nature – Gravity – which applies on a grand cosmological scale with the other three: The Strong Nuclear Force, Electromagnetism, and the Weak Nuclear Force which apply at the quantum level i.e. at the smallest levels of the universe. Gravity is in the world of Albert Einstein and General Relativity and the other three belong in the world of Heisenberg, Bohr, Schrodinger, and Quanta.

The two worlds can’t be combined and yet they both exist before our very eyes. So what is going on?

Well, I think the problem might just be human logic wanting to close the circle on our understanding of the universe by creating a nice formula to explain everything. On the other hand, as this book indicates, differences and lack of symmetry do occur in the universe for example in the amount of matter vs the amount of anti-matter. Different amounts of matter and anti-matter were produced by The Big Bang otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write this review, so why did that happen?

Not everything has to fit into a nice logical system does it?

As you can probably tell, this book raises more questions than it answers, which seems to be the fate for physicists for the foreseeable future.

Being Better – a book on Stoicism

Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism at the Stoa Poikile – the Painted Porch – a colonnade that stood outside the public market in Athens over two thousand years ago.

Zeno’s followers took the name of the porch rather than Zeno’s name which says a lot about this philosophy. Zeno argued that there is only one destination worthy of a lifetime’s journey (a tenuous link for it to appear in a travel blog I know) .

That destination is eudaimonia – happiness, flourishing, fulfillment, well-being, or the good life. Zeno believed that the path towards eudaimonia is open to all and that reaching it is the highest aim for humankind.

This book shows you how to achieve this destination today. The authors gather timeless insights from Zeno as well as those who followed him including Cleanthus, Musonius, and the outstanding Marcus Aurelius to challenge us to discover well-being not only for ourselves but those around us.

Do the right thing for the right reason.

Goddess of the North and the Angel of the North and Blanchland

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The chances are that you will have heard of one of these sculptures but not the other. The Goddess of the North or The Lady of the North or Northumberlandia is a huge land sculpture in the shape of a reclining female figure, started in 2010 and completed in 2012, near Cramlington in Northumberland. She is made of 1.5 million tonnes of earth from the neighbouring Shotton Surface Mine, is 34 metres high and 400 metres long. The sculpture is set in 47 acres of public park and there are a number of trails in and around her contours. Northumberlandia was designed by world-renowned architect and artist Charles Jencks, who took inspiration from the distant Cheviot Hills, which are pulled into the foreground by the curves and shapes of the female form.

The car park is close to the road and you walk through the trees to the site. There is a station for electric cars to use in the car park. I am unsure whether the electricity was generated by coal or wind-power. I say this because from the head of Northumberlandia in one direction you can see around sixteen wind turbines turning gracefully in the icy north-easterly breeze – the long-term future – and in another direction you can’t help but notice the scar of the surface mine – the past and very short-term future – with the lorries seemingly like ants scurrying around performing various carrying roles. If anyone ever complains to me about wind turbines being an eyesore I will tell them to come here and see whether that’s still their opinion after looking at the vast mine and comparing it with the turbines in the sea.  

Whereas Northumberlandia is rather hidden away, the Angel of the North is not. You would have to be concentrating really hard on your driving not to see this amazing piece of work by the architect Antony Gormley soaring above the A1 at Low Eighton, Gateshead. The Angel is 66 feet tall, with the wings measuring 177 feet across. The wings are angled 3.5 degrees forward to create “a sense of embrace” and as with Gormley’s other work, the Angel is based on a cast of his own body.

Work began on the project in 1994 and cost £800,000 with most of the project funding coming from the National Lottery. The Angel was installed on 15 February 1998. Due to its exposed location, the sculpture was built to withstand winds of over 100 mph with the foundations containing 600 tonnes of concrete that anchor the sculpture to rock 70 feet below.

According to Antony Gormley, the significance of using an angel was threefold: first, to signify that beneath the site of its construction, coal miners worked for two centuries; second, to grasp the transition from an industrial to an information age, and third, to serve as a focus for our evolving hopes and fears.

To get a closer view of the Angel, follow the signs from the A1 and park in the lay-by around 100 yards from the statue. The statue is brown at the base though this is not rust as the statue is made from COR-TEN weather-resistant steel like the Roman centurion at Segedunum. The body weighs 100 tonnes and the two wings weigh 25 tonnes each.

Blanchland is situated in the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a conservation village built of stone from the remains of a former Abbey and lies in the Upper Derwent Valley. This is a dark place at night and the rooms at the Lord Crewe Arms Hotel have telescopes so you can investigate the stars. The village flourished during the 19th century lead mining boom. I visited after seeing all the sights along Hadrian’s Wall. I had wanted to come to this place since reading The Pie At Night: In Search of the North at Play by Stuart Maconie, which mentioned another book I’d read called From Ritual to Romance by Jessie L Weston, which suggested there might be a connection between Blanchland and the Arthurian legends. Weston postulated that Camelot could have been situated around modern-day Carlisle and the Holy Grail might have been associated with a chapel in Blanchland. The church in the village is the Blanchland Abbey Church. The original abbey was built in 1165. The buildings and houses all look strong and sturdy as though designed to withstand the cold winters that must surely come their way.     

Hadrian’s Wall – Corbridge, Chesters, Brocolitia, Housesteads

An excerpt from the book: Travels through History – North-East England

The permanent conquest of Britain by the Romans began in 43 AD and by about 100 AD there were army units along the stretch of land between the River Tyne and the Solway Firth. Their forts were linked by a road, now known as the Stanegate, between Corbridge and Carlisle. The Emperor Hadrian came to Britain in 122 AD and the building of his wall began that year, taking at least six years to complete. The original wall was built of stone or turf, with a guarded gate every mile and two observation towers in between, and was fronted by a ditch.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Roman army of Britain. These three legions of regular, trained troops, comprised about 5,000 heavily armed infantrymen, though they were assisted by auxiliary units. The Wall was manned by auxiliaries organised into regiments of 500-strong mixed infantry and cavalry units and each fort on the Wall appears to have been built to hold a single unit.

Hadrian’s death in 138 AD brought emperor Antoninus Pius to power and he abandoned Hadrian’s Wall, moving the frontier to a line further north between the Forth and Clyde valleys, where he built the Antonine Wall out of turf. This had a short life of about 20 years before being abandoned in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall.

The effectiveness of Hadrian’s Wall had been compromised after it was abandoned, towers were removed and crossings thrown across the ditch. These changes were corrected and Hadrian’s Wall appears to have continued in this form into the late 2nd century. A major war took place shortly after AD 180, when the tribes breached the Wall and killed some Roman soldiers.

The forts on Hadrian’s Wall had a life of 300 years. Many modifications took place to the barracks, the headquarters buildings and the commanders’ houses because the Romans were always learning how to improve. All the forts continued to the end of Roman Britain, that is into the early 5th century. The latest coins found on Hadrian’s Wall were minted in AD 403–6.

Not all the sites to see were once fortresses. Corbridge was once a bustling town and supply base where Romans and civilians would pick up food and provisions. It remained a vibrant community, with two short interruptions in 105 AD and 180 AD,  until the end of Roman Britain.

As a visitor I was able to walk along the main market street of the Roman town and then branch out to admire the the granaries, barracks, commander’s house, water tanks, shrines, and even a strongroom. Inside the museum I saw the Roman armour and knick-knacks uncovered in an excavation in 1964, known as the Corbridge Hoard. This collection is an astonishing assortment of personal possessions, weapons, and armour buried by a Roman soldier. It’s the segmented plate armour that gives the hoard international significance. This find helped archaeologists understand for the first time how this armadillo-like armour fitted together. Today you can see the remains of the armour and a reconstruction side-by-side in the museum.

Travels through History – France – Pont du Gard

Extract from the book ‘Travels through History : France” available here

This famous aqueduct and bridge, visible from airplanes heading to Marseilles-Provence Airport, is between Remoulins and Vers-Pont du Gardon, 13 miles from Avignon. The Pont-du-Gard was built in just five years using 51,000 tons of stone . No mortar was used. The structure is on three levels – the first two are the arches of the bridge and third and smallest level is the aqueduct carrying the water 160 feet above the Gardon river. The whole structure is the second tallest Roman building in the world, just six feet lower than the Coliseum in Rome.

The Pont du Gard was the most important element in the water system taking nine-million gallons of water daily from the spring at Uzes a distance of 30 miles to the castellum at Nimes. The drop in height was only 40 feet over the whole distance, an average of one inch for every 330 feet, a quite remarkable achievement given that the majority of the system was underground. The water took one day to make the trip and the system worked for 150 years. This engineering marvel was created in the 1st Century AD.

The water was carried in a four-foot-wide, six-foot-high channel that was lined with waterproof mortar. This mortar contained a quite remarkable substance called pozzolan. Vitruvius, an engineer and architect for the Emperor Augustus, wrote 10 books on architecture and engineering. He devotes an entire chapter in his second book to pozzolan, stating that “there is also a kind of powder which from natural causes produces astonishing results. It is found in the neighborhood of Baiae and in the country belonging to the towns round about Mount Vesuvius. This substance, when mixed with lime and rubble, not only lends strength to buildings of other kinds, but even when piers of it are constructed in the sea, they set hard underwater.” In other words, here was a lime mortar from the slopes of Mt Vesuvius that would set hard underwater and ensure that the aqueduct wouldn’t leak.  Roman water channels in use today used pozzolan in their construction.

At the Pont du Gard my guide told me an interesting story. He was French and spoke very good English. I live in Canada, but I was born in Leicester in England and so my guide knew all about Leicester City and also about Leicester Tigers, the Rugby Union team. He knew that The Tigers had reached two semi-finals this season and lost them both. He then said that his brother lived in Canada.

“Where does your brother live?”

“He lives in Montreal. I visited him earlier this year.”

“Really, how did you find the differences between French, your French, the traditional French and Quebecois?”

“Well, you know, I didn’t because I only spoke English.”


“Yes, the people, they claim not to understand me, they tell me I use wrong words, no ‘computer’, no ‘sandwich’, no ‘snack’, so I spoke English for the whole time, it was easier that way.”

I thought this was hilarious and wondered whether French tourists visiting Morocco and Indochina would encounter the same problem.

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