Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.



Cosmonauts, birth of the space age, is an exhibition well worth a visit no matter how interested you are in Space. I spent over an hour and half there, and probably could have comfortably stretched another 30 minutes out of it, so even if I hadn’t gotten a gratis ticket because I have a blog I would have gladly paid the entrance fee at the ticket office, instead of at the gift shop at the end. It’s layout cleverly takes you through a chronological story from 1903 to 2010, the amount of 1st’s the Soviet Space Program and today’s Roscosmos accrued in that time is baffling. It is full of atmosphere and education, representing years of work to get the 150 or so artefacts to London from Moscow, almost none of which have ever left Russia. The guides and curators are very knowledgable and take time with people. When I was there several of them had extended conversations with an elderly Polish woman who was very voluble about her admiration of Russia, and eager to learn the details about the Cosmonauts and show her young relative around. The museum guards keep a sharp eye on those carrying cameras, so if you are carrying one make sure the lens cap is on and in a neutral position, it helps them relax. Backpacks appear to be fine, I saw two people wearing them. When I visited it was very overheated, so just in case wear something that isn’t too bulky or that you can comfortably carry around. The exhibition lets out into the well stocked gift shop and subsequently into the cafe. There are T shirts, and buttons and pins, a space dog cuddly toy, a great selection of books and stacks of postcards and prints. And if your budget goes to £100 and your style is akin to Will.I.A.M then the replica Cosmonaut jacket is definitely for you.
This exhibition was better than I could have expected, so please, when you go take your time to appreciate it to its full, it truly is a once in a lifetime show that tells a largely untold story. It is an exhibition that will make you reevaluate what you thought you knew about the Space Race, and encourage you to think about the importance of cooperation in the the future.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
Discover the story of Russian space travel in this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition
From 18/09/2015
To 13/03/2016
Price: £14 (concessions available)
Continue reading “Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.”

Book Review: Gallipoli by Jenny Macleod

Hardcover: 280 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford (23 July 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 019964487X


Gallipoli, it’s a name most know, but few can pronounce, let alone fully appreciate. In the centenary year a great drive has been made to understand its place in the history of the nation’s who fought it, and therefore get a better grasp of why it matters, why it resonates still. A slim volume, with an attractive cover, 191 reading pages in all excluding the preface and introduction, notes etc, it’s not a cut and dry battle story.

Although each book in the Oxford Great Battle’s series includes (as they must) a description of the battle in question for perspective, the focus of the series realistically lies in the investigation of how the event is passed on and remembered.
These slim volumes are rich in detail despite being less than roomy for in depth discussion or narrative. Gallipoli by Jenny Macleod follows the set pattern laid down so far.
It begins with a fairly typical account of the campaign, detailing the mistakes of the allied General’s, the suffering of the troops, the heroism of the varying national contingents and the much more creditable performance of the Turkish commanders. This section takes up just under half of the book. Hindsight is deployed to present a coherent overview, and as with such studies it is necessary to focus on the decisive elements of the action in question.
The ANZAC legend looms large over any account of Gallipoli. Modern scholarship has tried to squeeze it back into its proper place. Macleod presents the conflict from a multinational standpoint, but because the legacy of the main players is what the book is really about, there is no doubt that the British, Australians and Turkish are the central nations examined. This as a consequence marginalises the Indian contribution to the Empire forces, though they are mentioned in the account of the campaign, it may be that there has been so little recognition of the Indian story that it did not merit its own chapter later on.

The legacy of Gallipoli, from then to now, is what primarily concerns the author and should be the main selling point of the book. I highly admire this series for its excellent idea to highlight the tricky subject of how a legend gets passed down to us. The second half of the book is split in three, dealing with the legacy of the Australian and New Zealand participation, that of the British and Irish experience, and that of Turkey.

I feel this book will be a must for those seeking to find out why Gallipoli should be remembered. People who saw and liked the Water Diviner will I think enjoy it. People interested in how Battles can influence the history of nations, apart from their military significance should definitely consider it, as it is a greatly enlightening read.

Book Review: The Countess, Napoleon & St Helena

Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 1219 KB
Print Length: 289 pages
Publisher: Lally Brown; 2 edition (6 Sept. 2014)
Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
Language: English


About 15 years ago tourism to St Helena was going through a spate of popularity. Despite an average of only 1,500 visitors a year several travel books resulted in some of the trips. They are mostly similar in theme. A person, whose interest in Napoleon is a principle motive, (which indeed probably accounts for the majority of St Helena tourism) travels to St Helena and discovers the uniqueness of the place, finds that there is more to the Emperor than they had ever imagined and are torn between sadness for his fate and the beauty they themselves find there. My favourite is Kauffman’s “The dark room at Longwood”, probably because of its originality and because he is French, but it requires a foreknowledge of history and indeed St Helena to be appreciated. Therefore was I ever to head out to this immortal lump of rock I would in addition to it take two companion volumes. One is “Napoleon’s Briton’s” which is a straight history rather than a historical travelogue and the other is “The Countess, Napoleon and St Helena” by Lally Brown.
In this book the author has crafted a dual narrative that acts as a mirror to itself, in which we read of Countess “Fanny” Bertrand’s trials and tribulations while attending on Napoleon’s “Court” at Longwood House, and then we are given a parallel view to Brown’s own time living in the house built for Fanny and her husband on the island.
Here those used to reading the up close and personal accounts of Napoleon’s last years, can see more of how those around Napoleon, specifically his French companions dealt with the isolation, the British jailers and the Emperor. Much of the book is dedicated to a sort of diary or journal, which while admittedly is not the Countess’ own, is compiled from rare archival sources such as her letters, and which I found to be a very origional way of presenting the story. In this “journal” the Countess takes you through the events and gossip of everyday life. It is interspersed with Lally’s own experiences every few chapters. Interesting snippets from Fanny, include dangerous rats, numerous “abominations” that make her despair of ever getting off the island, constant watching for American Ships and the Emperor’s beloved garden which he defended from local chickens, domestic goats etc with a fowling piece.
Amidst this lively stream of interesting anecdote and poignancy, Lally intersperses her own reminiscences that are pertinent to the story. They are quieter and more reflective, semi nostalgic scenes and vignettes of island life, which if I am honest were my favourite parts. The author I’m sure would do well to write a full account of her time there. All in all, if you are going to travel to St Helena, or if you want to broaden the picture of Napoleon’s last years, buy this book.

Quatre Bras.

The Battle of Quatre Bras was a vital action for both sides. However it was of greater strategic significance to Blucher and Napoleon than Wellington and Ney. In some ways it is very similar to the Battle of Busaco in 1810, but not for the reasons most people think. Continue reading “Quatre Bras.”

Brussels in the Summer.

The Brussels Waltz. It was the age of the Waltz. That scandalous peasant dance that was exhibited at Almack’s in 1812 which had so many ladies of a certain age reaching for their smelling salts. With the hands in constant contact, palm to palm, with bodies pressed close and the gentleman’s arm around the lady’s waist, it was the romantic ideal that encapsulated the spirit of the age a decade before Strauss wrote a note. The Times and oddly even Lord Byron had dressed it down in typically high minded prose but by 1814 this continental obscenity, this affront to good English taste, was the rage of all the fashionable house parties and balls in Brussels who wanted to cause a stir. Any dandy officer worth his salt would have paid good money to be taught how to masterfully twirl a lady around a dance floor with gentlemanly grace and manly reserve. It was as if a stage had been set by a genius of dramatic production. All the ingredients were there, elegant young ladies, fashionable gowns, brilliant uniforms and dashing young officers, a dinner party every night and a ball or two every week. With hindsight it is plain that there was almost a mathematical certainty that romance and tragedy had to collide at some point and create a legend. However at the time the large British expatriate community were blithely unconcerned with the march of history.

Wilson's Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.
Wilson’s Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.

British Invasion. Almost as soon as peace was declared in 1814 the invasion began. The city had always been an attractive destination for the aristocracy before the French Revolution, indeed as a young man the Duke of Wellington had lived there with his mother for a while. It afforded a slightly cheaper cost of living, in a fashionable European city, that in many ways resembled a British Spa town, and had none of the current dreary political upheaval then occurring in other capitols. The Belgian capital was best accessed by canals from Ostend, after a sea crossing most civilians were unceremoniously dumped on shore but had the consolation of a barge trip through the countryside to the city. Separated into upper and lower towns and ringed by the old defensive walls, life in Brussels centred on the salons of the wealthy inhabitants, the fine lawns and landscaping of the park, the fine avenues and the grand hotels. Since the “Little Peace” of 1803 had afforded the well heeled in Britain little opportunity for travel, they quickly seized their chance to descend on the Low Countries in 1814 and live it up after 12 years of isolation. The British quickly made themselves at home & the Belgians were shocked and perplexed by the balls that usually lasted past midnight and their copious drinking habits. Yet these glitterati were not the first to besiege Brussels. There had been a British expeditionary force operating in the country under General Graham since 1813, and though he had not convinced the French to surrender a single fortress, he had at least managed to keep them bottled up inside them. Graham had briefly assumed command of the allied forces, and had his headquarters in Brussels, before giving up command to the Prince of Orange in August 1814. Thus there were already a good deal of scarlet uniforms and gold lace present in Brussels when in March 1815, news came that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was once more in control of France. If anything the slow buildup of British, Hanoverian, Dutch, Belgian and other national troops across the country only added to the glamour of the social scene, and most likely extended its shelf life. Instead of packing up and going home the British expatriates stayed on, after all the allied powers were to attack into France to fight Napoleon, not defend Belgium.

A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.
A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.

The Shadows Lengthen. Despite the endless minutiae of running an army Wellington somehow managed to mix business with pleasure. There is not a work on Waterloo that does not mention a “Dalliance” or “Affair” with the heavily pregnant Lady Harriet Webburn Webster. Since Wellington never disclosed a single personal remark about who he spent his time with, I will not add to the weight of words theorising about the affair, as it can never be anything but unprovable gossip. Nevertheless what is certain that he was usually always entertaining or in attendance on fashionable ladies, probably as much for their company as the fact they probably knew more about what was going on than did his adjutant general. More important was his social strategy of bluff. The Capitol was full of French sympathisers, and while he felt certain that Napoleon was going to advance against his western flank via Mons, he knew however that this was an unsubstantiated hunch, and that intelligence gathered at this stage was nothing but an indicator. Since 1808 Wellington had worked only on firm information, therefore since he knew nothing of Napoleon’s intentions he dug his heels firmly into the ground, while watching over his right shoulder. While he waited he played, in public he was the not a military commander, nor was he stern and distant as his formidable reputation suggested, he was an aristocrat on holiday. He was charming and witty and was always seen to be having a good time, but in private he was busy organising the army, arranging payment, food and supplies, sending for trusted officers, and scanning intelligence reports, while growing more and more concerned that Napoleon would strike first. Apart from his administrational work he would breakfast alone in his house on the Park and usually dine with his staff. He had large dinners every day and by the 4th of June he had held 3 large Balls and was planning to hold another on the 21st of June to mark the second anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria, which up till then had been his greatest victory. The Duke was a fixture of Brussels society, and the star around whom the little galaxy increasingly revolved. Because he maintained an air of carefree gaiety to the public nothing changed in Brussels, except that more officers became available to socialise with. Gentlemen still went to “Reading” Clubs to gamble, there was carriage and horse riding, strolls and picnics and outings into the country, cricket matches, military reviews, hunting parties and the racing days provided by the Prince of Orange and the Earl of Uxbridge were always popular and hostesses vied with each other to entertain. However the gay and carefree British expatriate community living in the Belgian capitol, like animals scenting the air for danger, sensed the mood changing. Something was going to happen that would bring and end to their way of life, perhaps they felt things reaching a peak, and the only way to go now was down. It was no secret that the Duke of Wellington’s army was in Belgium to fight, but when it would do so was anybody’s guess. The wise heads suggested that the Duke was awaiting word that the Austrians and Russians had invaded France, which would be sometime in July. Until then there had been an air of tranquility, a miasma of springtime holiday activity in a little London created overseas, for almost a year now, hardly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape and the concentration of the Duke of Wellington’s army, indeed the influx of officers and dignitaries likely prolonged the fun, cloaking the reality that Napoleon was massing troops on the borders of France. Now spring turned to summer, the days began to stretch and the shadows began to lengthen over the lawns in Brussels park. But just as one can tell, after a long summer day of activity that the night is fast approaching, both soldiers and civilians began to realise that they were playing on borrowed time. The constant passage of military couriers seemed to tell their own story.

A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it's 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington's street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.
A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it’s 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington’s street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.

Save the date for the 15th. Charlotte Duchess of Richmond was a noted socialite, who had presided over several balls already, and she was determined to pack in as much as possible before the army marched. Seeking out the Duke of Wellington, who himself was behind many of the balls and dinners in the city, entertaining most nights, she asked him in the true regency fashion of Austen or Heyer, whether she could give a ball without it being interrupted. She asked for no secrets, and no reasons, just if she could give her ball. “Duchess” Wellington said fatefully “You may give your Ball with the greatest safety without fear of interruption” in truth he could not say anything else and maintain the facade of calm. The date was set for the 15th of June. In the meantime the round of balls continued. The Duchess of Richmond knew how to do things properly, and she engaged two officers of the 7th Hussars to hand deliver her invitations to the officers of the cavalry when Lord Uxbridge held his next field day at Grammont. Despite the rumours of the army preparing to march, no one could be sure of anything except that on the 15th the Duchess of Richmond would be giving a very select and private ball at her home in the Rue de Blanchisserie. Roughly 230 invitations were sent out, over half were to officers. Yet it was not really a large ball, though it was reasonably well attended, for there were 1,064 officers in the army and most were from the staff, nor was it yet the event of the season. It was to be a private party thrown at private expense. Had it been on any other day it would have been little different than any other ball and faded into the parchment of history like all the others, but it was not to be. Josh. Sources. The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball: David Miller. Dancing into Battle: Nick Foulkes. Wellington, the years of the sword: Elizabeth Longford. Freshly Remembered, The story of Sir Thomas Graham: Oglander. Your Obediant Servant: James Thornton Cook to the Duke of Wellington. Spencer and Waterloo, letters 1814-1816: Spencer Madan. Wellington, the iron duke: Richard Holmes.