Previous Olympic opening ceremonies bear scant comparison with Danny Boyle’s droll attempt to distil the British spirit. It certainly didn’t look back to London 1948, where the occasion was marked by the release of 2500 pigeons (a pestilent legacy still raining over London’s landmarks). Neither did it take any cues from Beijing where the opener was more evocative of the awe striking and disturbing spectaculars managed by Leni Riefenstahl for Hitler’s Third Reich. No, if the extravaganza of 28 July, 2012, in London has any echoes, they rumble from centuries before the Olympics were reinvented.

Recent opening ceremonies have set out to make a statement to the world about the host country and have usually done it passably well. Boyle went a step further. His was not a mesmerising snapshot of the present or desired state of things, his was a cultural discourse, a compelling argument not for how Britain is, but for why Britain is. He sought to engage and instruct where others have tried only to impress.

The political purpose was entirely different but this style of cultural manipulation reached similar heights in the Jacobean court of the newly united kingdom. For Danny Boyle and his writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, read Inigo Jones and Ben Jonson.Jones and Jonson turned a sycophantic and frankly lascivious type of court entertainment into a theatrical art form infused with political persuasion. The masque was an amateur dramatic entertainment, popular among the nobility of England as the 16th turned into the 17th century, which consisted of dancing and acting performed by highly costumed players representing mythological or allegorical figures. Since the players were usually drawn from the highest echelons of the audience they tended to wear masks to enable them to slip into character more easily. In the reign of Elizabeth, the noble amateurs drew on the minor literary talents of men like Gabriel Harvey to provide the framework for some highly elaborate dressing (or undressing) up. Under the Stuart kings, the masque became a diversion in more senses than one. They seized on culture as a way to overcome obstacles to royal policies. A way to imply a more tractable reality and to divert the minds of courtiers from the distastefulness of the true political situation.

It is arguable whether it was Jonson or Jones who was most instrumental in transforming the masque into an artistic event of considerable worth and effect. Jonson was a highly learned and moralistic playwright who in his time cast a  broader shadow than Shakespeare. He could be hired but he couldn’t be bought. Seizing on the court masque as an unfettered vehicle for his dramatic imagination, Jonson penned serious literary works which moved beyond the heavy satire of his plays to instruct as well as applaud his courtly audience. He didn’t do it without help, however. Jonson did not share limelight easily and It irked him that his powerful audience were wowed more by the form than the substance of the great masques presented to the court of King James. The form belonged to Inigo Jones and the jealous Jonson ridiculed him in a series of his works, written over a span of two decades.

Masque costume for Countess of Bedford by Inigo Jones

Inigo Jones not only brought great Renaissance architecture to Britain, he brought the breathtaking theatrical design of Palladio and the Parigis to British entertainment. Jones was an apprentice joiner who rose to fame (and the office of Surveyor-General of the King’s Works) by devising costumes and scenery for masques, plays and other court entertainment. Before he built magnificent buildings, Jones brought unity to the diverse elements of the masque, allowing Jonson’s moral and poetic message to seep through. In much the same way, Danny Boyle and his Technical Director, Piers Shepperd, gave coherence and impact to the ideas of Boyce, the designs of Suttirat Anne Larlarb and Mark Tildesley, and the music of Rick Smith.

The reach of the Jacobean court masque and that of the 2012 opening ceremony is markedly different. Hundreds of English and Scottish courtiers versus global billions. Their political and cultural impacts are less far apart. Neither court masques nor Olympic opening ceremonies are created in a vacuum. They are not individual or idiosyncratic artistic creations. They have a political job to do and their creators must answer to at least part of the agenda of those who pay them. The governments of England during the opening decades of the 17th and 21st centuries were both vulnerable, the first to political instability, and the other to economic vulnerability. They needed masques and Olympic ceremonies to disguise dissatisfactions.

There’s no implication that Prime Ministers, any more than Kings, input heavily into these bombastic entertainments. The results bear no relation to propaganda. It would be easier to teach a grizzly to samba than to get Boyle or Jonson to work to order. Surprisingly, the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (and their Jacobean counterparts, Queen Anne and the Countess of Bedford) understood that sheer entertainment could be more persuasive than instruction. With the chokingly awful Millennium Dome a not too distant reminder of any British government’s inability to package culture, creative genius was allowed to flower unwatered at the London Opening Ceremony. Of course there were political undercurrents in both ceremony and masque but these stemmed from Boyle and Jonson, not their political paymasters. That’s why a Conservative MP, as loud of mouth as low of intellect, could fume about “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen…”. Yet the overall effect was as uplifting, or diverting if you prefer, as any royal or politician could hope. Britons, unsure of their identity in a new world order, revelled in Boyle’s exposition of a tattered but still proud nation who gave much to the world but kept its effortless sense of humour very much to itself. Just as English courtiers, for a time, learned to tolerate a vain, corrupted and uncouthly Scottish king when they took part in the lavishly staged and costumed dramas with highly moralistic messages put together annually, if the Plague allowed, with no regard to cost by Jonson and Jones.

Without wishing to offend any current author, is it alright if I contend that there isn’t a writer today who can outshine Shakespeare, Raleigh, Spenser, Sidney or Jonson in their command of the English language? If that’s true, I find it very strange.

I’m perplexed because those Elizabethan greats laboured under a considerable disadvantage. Whatever school they went to, whether grammar school, song school or writing (scriveners) school, English literature wouldn’t have been big on their curriculum. In turning a phrase, they couldn’t borrow from an English classic. They had Malory and Holinshed, of course, but, even to them, Chaucer only just about counted as writing in English. Those apart, the great English writing cupboard was pretty bare. Where did all the vigour and mellifluence of the Elizabethan writers come from then?

When I write, I’m aware of linguistic constructions and gambits that have lodged with me as a result of a fairly catholic but exclusively English literary upbringing. I imagine that is the case for everybody writing in my vernacular. Yet in spite of all the inspirational examples to draw on, English prose has hardly developed in leaps and bounds since the seventeenth century, has it? Were Shakespeare’s lot simply more talented or was there something in the air?

It’s difficult to know how much English was spoken in Elizabethan schools. Teaching in the vernacular,  which had been encouraged by Alfred seven centuries previously, was finally recovering from the throttling it had suffered at the hands of the Normans and their Francophile successors. At the grammar and independent schools, the junior forms were introduced to the rudiments of their own language. That was necessary to teach what came next.

16th Century school

‘The Method of Teaching’, outlined in the Canterbury statutes, is representative of what was on offer from most schools of the period. The Form II books were Cato, Æsop and Familiar Colloquies. In Form III, it was Terence and Mantuanus’ Eclogues. in the Fourth Form, the pupils practised writing Latin letters. By the Fifth Form, they were beginning to write Latin verses and translate poets and historians. In the Sixth Form, they read Erasmus’s Copia Verborum and turned Latin sentences from the oratio obliqua to the oratio directa, and from one tense and mood to another. They were also required to read Horace, Cicero and other authors of that class. Outside of school. some might have had the linguistic skill to dip guiltily into Ariosto, Boccaccio or Rabelais. I haven’t read a single author on that list. If I had, I doubt that my ability to write fluently and imaginatively in English would be greatly enhanced.

The implication, or at least my inference, is that exposure to great English literature does not improve your ability to cook a delicious sentence any more than an enforced diet of Latin and Greek classics. I’m tempted to go further – it might even be that it constrains it. The vibrancy of Elizabethan language could simply reflect that it was completely unfettered by the educational system.

Back then, English words were sounds not shapes. What every tutor wanted to invest in his pupils was the ability to argue persuasively out loud. Declamatory not literary prowess was the desired result at the grammar and independent schools. The rigours of spelling and pronunciation were restricted to Latin and Greek. Rectitude in those was beaten into you. By way of enjoyable contrast, writing in the mother tongue was a freeform flight of invention.  The tyranny of Bill Gates’ spellchecker never impeded a Tudor quill. You wrote down what you heard in your head and you were as consistent with your words as you were with signing your name (was it Shakespeare, Shakespere or Shagspere; Raleigh, Ralegh or Rawley?). Publishers like Richard Field would bring some uniformity to their catalogues by making thousands of ‘corrections’ to the manuscripts submitted to them, more as a justification of the importance of their role than a mission to standardise the language.

Siir Walter Raleigh

The phonetic freedom of English during the first golden age of English literature was brought home to me by comparing the writings of Mr and Mrs Walter Raleigh. I’m no admirer of Walt the man. He was a preening, piratical, atheistical, bisexual fantasist. As a wordsmith, I am in awe of him. His forgiving wife (Bess Throckmorton, famed for her apocryphal  ‘Sweet Sir Walter! Sweet Sir Walter, Ooh!’ response to their first carnal embrace against a tree) was much nearer the literate norm for her time.

For different reasons, they both wrote to Cecil, principal minister of England. Sir Walter commiserated over the death of Cecil’s wife with this peerless prose:

“There is no man sorry for death itself but only for the time of death; everyone knowing that it is a bond ever forfeited to God. If then we know the same to be certain and inevitable, we ought withal to take the time of his arrival in as good a part as the knowledge; and not to lament at the advent of every seeming adversity, which we are assured, have been on their way towards us from the beginning. It appertaineth to every man of a wise and worthy spirit to draw together into suffrance the unknown future to the known present; looking no less with the eyes of the mind than those of the body (the one beholding afar off, the other at hand) that those things of the world in which we live be not strange unto us when they approach, as to the feebleness which is moved with novelties. But that like true me participating immortality and knowing our destinies to be of God, we do then make our estates and our wishes, our fortunes and our desires, all one.”

Elizabeth Raleigh

Some years earlier, Bess had importuned Cecil for her husband’s release from prison with these uniquely framed words:

“…Now, Sur, for the rest I hope for my sake you will rather draw sur watar towardes the est then heulp him forward toward the soonsett, if ani respecke to me or love to him be not forgotten. But everi month hath his flower and everi season his contentment, and you great counselares ar so full of new councels, as you ar steddi in nothing; but wee poor soules that hath bought sorrow at a high price desiar and can be plesed with, the same misfortun wee hold, fering alltarracions wil but multiply misseri, of wich we have allredi felte sufficiant. I knoo unly your parswadcions ar of efecke with him, and hild as orrekeles tied to them by Love; therfore I humbelle besiech you rathar stay him than furdar him. By the wich you shall bind me for ever.”

Cecil didn’t help Bess but it wasn’t because he thought her illiterate. The deformed dwarf was always loath to help anyone taller or more famous than himself.

The conclusion to which I am drawn is faintly ridiculous. Reading a lot of brilliant English language books and taking care with your spellings are no help, and may be a hindrance, if you want to release the full potential of your written English. Either that or Shakespeare and his cronies are highly over rated.

It’s a given that inventiveness is a characteristic of great writing (although it may be frowned on when the subject matter is non-fictional). You can’t be a successful author without having a highly inventive mind, can you? So why have so few writers used their power of invention for practical purposes?

Ben Franklin

Authors invent all the time. Remarkably few of them can dream up an invention. If you consult Wikipedia’s long list of inventors, you’ll find a bizarre cast of characters ranging from Mary Anderson, the cattle rancher and viticulturalist who thought up the windscreen wiper, to Fausto Veranzio, the sixteenth century chancellor of Hungary, who designed and tested the first parachute (aged 65, jumping from St Mark’s Campanile in Venice!). Only two renowned writers though. Benjamin Franklin and John Harington. Neither have many painters or sculptors been credited with inventions. Leonardo is the obvious exception while Samuel Morse and Frederick Scott Archer are worthy of honourable mention.

John Harington

This implies that practical imaginings rarely cloud the minds of creative writers and artists. This is hardly surprising and perhaps only reflects the poverty of the English language.

Invention can equally be:

(1) something defined in Patent Law as ‘a new, useful process, machine, improvement, etc., that did not exist previously and that is recognized as the product of some unique intuition or genius, as distinguished from ordinary mechanical skill or craftsmanship’, and,

(2) ‘an act or instance of creating or producing by exercise of the imagination, especially in art, music, etc.’.

There’s quite a gulf between ‘invention’ and ‘an invention’. The gulf of reality. Plots and characters can be wildly inventive but the book in which they come together is not seen as an invention because it’s the carrier not the essence of the author’s imagination (by the same token, the ‘Mona Lisa’ is just another wallcovering).  An aeroplane or washing machine is an invention because it is an expression of itself through itself, integrally real. So an author can be outrageously inventive but not an inventor while someone with a relatively prosaic mind can be an important inventor, as in Percy Shaw and his Catseye. Although an impressive wordstock, the English lexicon doesn’t have enough shades of meaning to differentiate the results of artistic creativity and practical creativity.

Whether it is a greater feat to invent a book or poem that becomes a classic than to invent, say, a television, is an intriguing argument. Made more intriguing be the likelihood that the mechanical inventor regards the creation of great literary fiction as an incomprehensible achievement while the writer is similarly amazed by the workings of a scientific brain.

What does that say about Ben Franklin and John Harington? It suggests that they are the unicorns of the human race, wondrous in their fusion of the artistic and the scientific mind.

They are not unlike each other. Inveterate letter writers and collectors of the papers and works of others, they used wit to question the social and political moralities of their times.

Franklin was the great hoaxer, creating the voices of Silence Dogood, Poor Richard and Polly Baker to debunk the colonial follies he saw around him.

In his seminal work, ‘The Metamorphosis of Ajax’, which remained in print for four centuries, Harington used Latin pseudonyms to satirise the great Elizabethans in whose circle he moved (the heavy disguise being necessary to save him from being hung for treason).

Franklin and Harington were likeable men whose company was valued by their contemporaries for the humour and insight they could bring to social gatherings. Both were outrageous flirts who enjoyed long and happy marriages.

Franklin lightning rod

The scientific achievements of Franklin are more numerous and diverse. Among his many creations were the lightning rod, the glass armonica (a glass instrument totally different from the metal harmonica), the Franklin domestic stove, bifocal glasses and the flexible urinary catheter. He did not seek to profit from them since his printing press business kept him comfortably off. An altruistic man, he dedicated his scientific works to the increase of efficiency and improvement of the human condition.

Although a persistent and unsuccessful seeker of office under Elizabeth and James, Harington was also a social reformer who did not expect to gain from his one great invention, the flush toilet. He designed it to impress his Godmother, Queen Elizabeth I. It is difficult to assess whether the flush toilet was entirely down to him. His assistant, Thomas Combe, was the mechanical mind behind the privy that was eventually installed in Richmond Palace. Yet the driving force behind one of the great breakthroughs in sanitation was undeniably Harington’s. Despite the ‘shyte place’ being the talking point of the 1590s in England, only the French took his design seriously. Sadly, it was two centuries before flush toilets reappeared in any number in England.

Flush toilet based on Harington's design

It is difficult to say how many lives have been saved by the lightning rod and the flush toilet and the point is not to compare the social significance of either. The point is to celebrate two highly unusual men, probably the only men who did both of the things that Franklin himself thought worthy of lasting fame.

“If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”

Writers are no longer worthy

It was a shock to discover I had been banned from competing in the Olympics at what I do best. If you’re reading this, you’re probably banned as well. You didn’t know, did you? The ban was introduced in 1954, in preparation for the Games two years later. Juried competitions for writers, artists, sculptors, musicians and architects were removed from the Olympic roster. Apparently, people like us undermine the true Olympic spirit.

I’m not casting aspersions on your affection for noxious substances – what you do to summon the muse is your own business. We are not a bunch of Dwain Chambers’s. In the eyes of all the Olympic Organising Committees since the XVI Olympiad in Melbourne, we are more reprehensible than that. We are, or hope to be, professional writers and professionalism is the antithesis of the Olympic ideal. On those shaky grounds (what’s amateur about the athletes, footballers, tennis players etc. who’ll be strutting their stuff in London this year?), you and I have been denied the chance of winning an Olympic medal.

Some of our near-ancestors walked around with Olympic Gold medals for literature around their necks. Well, only if you have any of the following in the family album: Pierre de Frédy (the familial name of the founder of the new Olympics, Baron de Coubertin – bit iffy even if he did enter under a pseudonym), 1912; Raniero Nicolai, 1920; Charles Louis Proper Guyot (aka Geo-Charles), 1924; Kazimierz Wierzyński and Ferenc Mező, 1928; Paul Bauer, 1938; Aale Tynni and Giani Stuparich, 1948. A motley crew of artists, musician, sculptors and architects earned similar distinction.

Alfréd Hajós, one of only two people to win sporting and cultural Olympic medals

Since 1948, those of artistic or cultural persuasions have been invited to the Olympic sideshows but not allowed to enter the main events. (Cultural medals should have been awarded at the 1952 Games but the Finnish organisers couldn’t be bothered to set up the competitions and they stuck up a few paintings instead.)

What upsets me is not that I could have been an Olympic contender. Arrogant I may be, but I accept that my chances of winning an Olympic medal for literature would be slimmer than a stick insect on hunger strike. No, the annoyance is that after sitting through so many televised Olympic Games, I never grasped what the Olympic movement was supposed to be about.

This revelation came about, as several others have, because I was doing historical research (okay, I was surfing the net to help me with an article I was writing). What historians do is scrabble at the rocks fallen from the tallest cliffs in the world, the Heights of Ignorance. The pebble I turned over was Baron de Coubertin.

I was aware of his part in recreating the Greek, down-swords festival known as the Olympic Games, now generally accepted as the greatest international event in the sporting calendar. What I didn’t appreciate was that the ancient Greeks got up to a lot more than naked running, throwing and wrestling at the Festival of Zeus in the Olympia valley near Elis.

The Olympic festival also provided the occasion for Greek city-states to glorify achievements in architecture, mathematics, sculpture, and poetry. Poems, called Epinicians, were commissioned in honour of athletic victors and were written by the most famous poets of the day. Coubertin tried hard to retain this cultural aspect in the new Olympic Games. In his mind, Olympism was inseparable from culture, and should educate the intelligence as well as the body.

That explains Olympic Charter (Rule 44: Cultural Programme) which insists that a host city organises a cultural programme running parallel to the sporting competitions. It doesn’t explain why I never knew that culture was supposed to be as important an organ of the Olympics as sport. Or that nations were supposed to embrace each other, not just in sporting rivalry, but also in mutual cultural appreciation. I don’t feel lonely in that ignorant company. How many of you knew that GB is masterminding a Cultural Olympiad of 1,000+ events taking place from Shetland to Cardiff, from Enniskillen to Margate?

Embarrassingly pink London 2012 logo

I have no criticism of the job Ruth Mackenzie, Director of the Cultural Olympiad, is doing, although finding out that her nickname is ‘Childcatcher’ did cause me to catch breath. She simply hasn’t got the PR profile to match that of the Chairman of the Games Organising Committee, Lord Seb, quadruple Olympian, multi-millionaire, international evangelist and, with a good 2012 in his pocket, soon to be a deity to rival Zeus. Baron Coe of Ranmore (witty bugger isn’t he?) has the Stratford village and all the new sports stadia to shout about while Ruth has a lot of pink ribbon. This ribbon will mark any event designated as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. It’s a legacy of the pink abomination of design known as the 2012 London logo (thank you, Wolff Olins, that really marked us Brits out as artistically aware). So if you see any show, circus, play, carnival or morris dance emblemised with a pink ribbon, rest assured this is not a tacky tourist attraction, it’s an Olympic event.

Pop along because you’ll be signing up to the Olympic creed, set out by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot at a service for Olympic champions during the 1908 Olympic Games:

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”

Just don’t expect a medal for it.

What’s peculiar about Jack and John? A couple of things. Firstly, they’re anthroponyms as well as popular first names. They’re also perfect examples of how England and the US are divided by a common language.


In what way are they anthroponyms? They are anthropomorphised synonyms for a particular room in an English speaking household. They aren’t the only anthroponyms for that room but that room is the only one in the house to attract anthroponyms. You don’t cook in the Mary, sleep in the Katie or sit in the David. Although the kitchen, bedroom and lounge have their fair share of synonyms, no one has tried to turn them into a man or woman.

What do you call it?

What people do a lot of in America is go to the john (sadly, it’s rarely capitalised). The English used to want to speak to Jack but that euphemism is no longer in common use. There are plenty of others taking its place and some of them are equally anthropomorphic. Going to see a man about a dog is a popular catchall description for an activity you don’t wish to divulge and has been frequently used when someone is off to the bathroom/ toilet/ wc/ lav/ loo. Travellers, I understand, prefer going to visit an aunt. A number of people like to associate their excretory habits with childishness and pop to the little boy’s or little girl’s room. People with a more humorous turn of mind, and no liking for the legal profession, have been known to remark that they wish to be excused while they give birth to a lawyer.

Clearly there’s a lot of social history wound around the way we describe ‘the smallest room in the house’.

What I’m not sure of is whether the Anglo-American compulsion to anthropomorphise the human waste disposal room is shared by many other cultures. I don’t think it is. However, I’m ready to be put right about that especially since I was once in Bavaria with a group of locals who found it hilarious to constantly ask whether I needed the Winston Churchill.

Divided by language

John. Jack. Why did the Americans anthropomorphise it differently?

Mucking about with English has always been a mildly rebellious pastime for England’s once upon a time colonists. Some of their linguistic transgressions are understandable, even admirable.

  • If you’ve got an O, you rarely need a U after it, because that doesn’t change the way a word sounds one iota.
  • Z’s a perky little letter and I can’t comprehend why we English took against it so. Perhaps it was anti-Hanoverian sentiment. I’m no etymologist but I can’t spot any underlying rules behind the way we’ve weeded out Z. It’s both amazing and amusing to me that I’ve never been amased or amuzed. If Bill Gates wasn’t so relentless in trying to make me do it, I would thoroughly applaud ending verbs with ‘ize’ instead of ‘ise’.
  • America’s played a huge role in the development of the car, sorry, automobile. I therefore can’t argue with giving it a trunk (boot), hood (bonnet) and fender (bumper) before filling it with gas (petrol).
  • My bile begins to rise at the way the billion has been devalued a thousandfold from its 13 number origin in English.

    Carlos Slim, richest man in the world but not a billionaire?

  • It’s the use of gotten that really gets my goat. Horrible, guttural, Teutonic noise which in no way improves upon got.

Jack to john is another unnecessary fiddle with the English language. In defence of America, you have stuck with it a lot longer than we did with Jack.

Where did john come from?

How and why it came about is what a favourite Elizabethan of mine wants clarified. His name was John, he was known as Jack and he more or less invented the only anthropomorphised room in your house.

It’s possible that John Harington put his name to the American water closet. John Harington (Jack to Queen Elizabeth and other noble acquaintances) was the man who came to mind whenever the privy came into a conversation in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He invented the mechanically flushing toilet – sadly without the S bend or a sewer system – and then wrote a famously impenetrable book about it, ‘A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax ‘.

John Harington, the name behind the john?

As its title suggests to those of us who are as fond of a pun as he was, the privy was associated with the name Jack well before John ‘Jack’ Harington was about. By Shakespeare’s time, the jack of the early Tudor period had become the jakes and Harington thought it classically witty to use an immortal Greek to pun about the privy. His wit went over a lot of people’s heads and the English didn’t see much of a future in his cock and vice, perfumed flushing system either.

The French did and took it up enthusiastically. In all likelihood, it was the French connection that encouraged our former colony to take up the flush toilet that came to be known as the john. Jefferson and co. were impressed with anything French.

Was it still known as the jack or jakes in the early days of the USA? Did de Tocqueville or some other visiting French intellectual amusingly refer to the call of the ‘jean’? Did Americans call it the ‘john’ as a jibe at, or homage to, the British inventor whose foresight had been ignored by his fellow Englishmen?

Rather like the origins of OK, it’s not one of history’s greatest conundrums but a puzzle nevertheless.


Belva Lockwood, Presidential candidate 1884 & 1888

While researching the lovable Lizzie Borden, I was surprised to find that Maggie Thatcher and Angela Merkel came out of a mould made in the USA by Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood as long ago as 1872.

Both those redoubtable women were the Presidential nominees of The Equal Rights Party between 1872 and 1888. Although women could not vote in every American state until 1920, some states granted women suffrage before then, starting with Wyoming in 1869. Unsurprisingly, neither Victoria nor Belva got within a sniff of the White House in their four attempts.

In the succeeding 130 years, many women across the rest of the world have been elected leaders of their country.

As Presidents in: Argentina, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Finland, Guyana, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liberia, Lithuania, Malta, Nicaragua, Panama, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Serbia and Switzerland.

As Prime Ministers in: Australia, Bangladesh, CAR, Croatia, Dominica, Finland, France, Germany, Haiti, India, Israel, Jamaica, Mozambique, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, Poland, Peru, Sao Tome & Principe, Senegal, Slovakia, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, UK, Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

There are also two female prime ministers who ruled (horrendously) in non-democratic countries (CAR and Yugoslavia).

In 2011, twenty women were leading, or led, their countries: in Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Costa Rica, Croatia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, India, Ireland, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Lithuania, Peru, Slovakia, Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago and Switzerland.

Women who led their countries in 2011

A further six ruled symbolically as Queens or Governors: in Australia, Antigua & Barbuda, Denmark, Netherlands, Saint Lucia and UK.

In USA, no woman has successfully achieved nomination by a major party for Presidential Office, let alone attained that office. (British novelist, ex-convict and peer, Jeffrey Archer, was about the only one daft enough to think it possible – read ‘Shall we tell the President?’ On second thoughts, please don’t.)

In USA, no woman has even made it to number two. Two women have been nominated by a major party as vice-presidential candidates: Geraldine Ferraro for the Democratic Party in 1984 and Sarah Palin for the Republican Party in 2008. Their running mates failed them. Men, eh?

Sarah Palin, near miss?

The nearest the US has got to a female political  powerhouse is Condoleezza or Hillary.

There must be a reason why American women haven’t finished what they started two centuries back. I know as much about US politics as I do about pigeon strangling though I get the impression that the outcome is often similar. So anything I can suggest is pure conjecture.

In democracies with universal suffrage, women tend to represent at least half the voting population. The likelihood of gender empathy operating in leadership elections is therefore quite high and is currently working in the 20 countries detailed above. The intriguing thing is that democracy bloomed earliest and fullest in two countries which have never granted primacy to someone of the fair sex: America and France.

I can’t fathom France. Of all the great nations, France is the most proudly and impossibly feminine. The famous nouns of France, République, Liberté and Raison are all feminine. The statue of Marianne symbolises the state in town halls and law courts across the country. She represents breaking with the Ancien Régime, which was always led by men. Yet, as poor Ségolène Royal found out, France does not want to be ruled by women. She prefers little Napoleons. There was a small feminine hiccup when Edith Cresson made it to number two under the devious Mitterrand, only to become the shortest serving PM of the 5th Republic.

I should be able to understand the US much better but maybe this ‘divided by a common language’ thing goes deeper than I realise. I’ve met my fair share of American women and never got the impression they were particularly recessive. I’ve met my fair share of American men and I wouldn’t vote for any of them.

Why then has America never found a Maggie or a ‘Mutti’ (as Merkel has been affectionately called by her countrymen)?

  • The Roosevelts, Kennedys or the Bushes never had any female children stupid or crooked enough to carry on the family dictatorships?
  • American women spend too much time in therapy to think straight?
  • Sarah Palin proved that no US woman politician should be taken seriously?
  • American women are too intelligent to be Presidents?
  • Who’d want to decorate an oval office?
  • US women are too busy being apple-pie-baking mommas?
  • Who in their right mind would wanna be Pres?

Somebody must have a better explanation.

Researching for an article or a histfic novel teaches you a lot. Not just about a period, a person or a society, about yourself.

Because I was doing a small piece on Shaka and Robert Mugabe, I rediscovered a book about the rise of the Zulu Empire by E A Ritter. I’d read it over 40 years ago and it had stayed with me longer than anything by Rider Haggard. Intellectually but unfortunately not physically. So I bought a 1960 edition from The Book Depository and it now sits next to a book I’ve devoured many times but never used as a research source: a comprehensive history of native American tribes by Alvin M Josephy Jr. entitled ‘500 Nations ‘.

The juxtaposition made me think about how racist I was and how that affected my work.

There’s no doubt that I’m a racist. I was born in pre-‘Empire Windrush‘ Britain to the chant of ‘Remember, Remember Empire Day, the 24th of May’. It was quite a few years before my birthday degenerated into the PC nonentity of Commonwealth Day. My thesis was on the British in East and Central Africa. The best I can claim is that I grew up an enlightened colonial imperialist, aka pink racist.

The strange thing is I never put the Zulu, Ndebele  (aka Matabele), Masai and Kikuyu in the same box as the Apache, Shoshone, Cree and Cheyenne. My built-in racist attitudes, forgivable or not, were reassembled by American cultural imperialism not by historical study.

There is no more simplistic and unworthy characterisation of good and evil than Hollywood’s early depiction of cowboys versus Indians. Even non native Americans accept that now, in a mealy-mouthed sort of way. The USA hadn’t even begun to struggle with the concept of conscience during my mindforming days. In the absurd way that the British, imperialists par excellence, claim affection for the underdog, I rooted for the Hollywood Indians. Their savage courage had a desperate nobility in the Rousseau mould.  I’ve been to Wounded Knee, I’ve drunk First Nation wine (not bad at all), I wear moccasins around the house. Tinged with British condescension, I admire native Americans.

I’ve turned into a selective racist. I don’t like admitting it, but I don’t see native Africans in the same light as the American Indians. Considering what I know about them, that doesn’t make sense.

Shaka, King of the Zulus (

Although there may be better comparisons, the Apache and the Zulu are the most emblematic tribes of their respective continents. Not that the Apaches were a tribe but a grouping of six different tribes in the South West of the USA. The Zulus were a Nguni clan and as such more on a par with the Apache tribe, the Chiricahua of Cochise and Goyathley (‘One who yawns’, more frighteningly known as Geronimo).

In savagery, the Apache did nothing that would make a Zulu shudder. Rectal impaling followed by exposure to the elements was among the more humane form s of  Zulu execution. What Richard Harris had to put up with in ‘A man called horse‘ is mild in comparison. Legend has it otherwise, but the Apache were more scalped than scalpers. They had Mexican bounties on their heads. The Nguni were more likely to decapitate than scalp you and then use your head ornamentally (but then so did medieval Europeans).

In war, the Apache were accomplished guerrilla fighters. The Zulus had their raiding parties but were masters of the pitched battle, using regimental formations to great strategic effect. At Isandlwana, their iron spears humiliated a British force equipped with Martini-Henry rifles and 7 pounder artillery pieces. There were many great Apache warriors besides Cochise and Geronimo, including Eskiminzin, Victorio, Nachez and Loco. I doubt that any of them, or perhaps all of them together, would walk away from the field if they faced the incredible Mgobozi, the most famous of Shaka’s generals, a  man born to kill.

Geronimo, Apache chief

In their attitudes to women, the Apache and the Zulu were not that far apart. In both cultures the women were allowed to fight as well as nurture. Lozen, Victorio’s sister, was not the only accomplished female Apache warrior. The Zulus, however, took the female capacity for aggression more seriously and formed complete regiments of fighting maidens. The Apache woman, Lozen, was particularly feared not only because of her violent streak but also because she was a shaman. Queen Ntomazi, a sorceress who collected the skulls of more than 30 rival Nguni chiefs, was made from an even more fearsome mould. She used hyenas as mediums for her witchcraft and fittingly died at the jaws of one (Zulu executions often had a poetic ring).

In their sexual sophistication, the Zulus outpace the Japanese let alone the Apache. When hormonally charged, I remember reading, rather sweatily,  about their puberty and ‘wiping the axe’ rituals. The Zulus are very grown up about sex. As Ritter put it, Zulu women ‘believed in hearty cooperation with their spouses and never allowed the cult of Venus to degenerate into an act of dignified acquiescence’.

If I’d thought about it, I would very likely have concluded that the Apache weren’t a patch on the Zulus. Yet it was the Apache not the Zulu who took hold of my imagination.

If only Zulus had taken to that most cinematic of beasts, the horse, or trekked nearer to that perverse institution called Hollywood, my racist attitudes would have been more inclusive.

The boring but frighteningly obvious conclusion is that racism isn’t rational. You ‘re infected by everything you see, read and watch. In no small way, historical fiction spreads its virulence. Most historical fiction is centred on white history, suggesting that there isn’t really much black history. Yet the oral folklore of the Nguni, and many similar African tribes, is as rich in story and metaphor as pre-Homeric Greece. Yes, Shaka’s had the odd film made about him but as far as I’ve noticed he’s in a minority of one.

I’m not advocating more books about Mary Seacole or more tv programmes like ‘Merlin’, which turns Queen Guinevere of Camelot coloured. All I’m saying is be aware, and own up to your influences. They’re not wrong, just you.