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A1 Love – The Greatness of The Great North Road

Mark Simpson goes on a road trip connecting four countries: England, Scotland, the UK – & Yorkshire

What’s so ‘Great’ about ‘The Great North Road’? Better known in our more impatient era as the A1?

Well, if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in the south, it takes you to the north – or ‘The NORTH’ as the signage rightly has it. And unlike the more popular M1, it goes all the way NORTH – instead of petering out like a big Jessie near Leeds. And that’s the proper shining, horny helmeted, be-sporroned NORTH. Not the damp, camp north west of the M6.

For all its butchness, the A1 is also the most glamorous road in Britain, connecting the capitals of four countries – England, Scotland, the UK, and Yorkshire. The A1 is a metalled Union, starting in the English Baroque shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, flowing up the eastern side of England, past the Romano-Viking-White Rose splendour of York, once England’s second city, spooling up and over the much-contested border fortress town of Berwick Upon Tweed, and finishing with a flourish in the Caledonian heart of Edinburgh with the grand panoramic, kilted sweep of Princes Street.

True, along the way, you also have to go through Holloway, under Hatfield and past Stevenage, but glamour always has a price. For size queens out there, the A1 is also the biggest. At 410 miles it’s the longest numbered road in the UK.

Above all, the A1, still mostly dual carriageway, is a road with a view – on the past and the present. Not a virtual ‘M’ road built and engineered to connect industrial centres as fast and as boringly as possible, the A1 is a road that takes time to tell you a story. (Thankfully, plans to downgrade the whole of the A1 to motorway were dropped in 1995).

OK, very often the view it offers is the back end of two lorries labouring up a hill, one overtaking the other at a speed differential of 0.5 MPH. Or during the summer months, those suburban juggernauts of despair – otherwise known as caravans. But nonetheless, and despite all the by-passes and ‘upgrades’ to stretches of it, detouring the A1 from the old ‘coaching’ Great North Road route of Dick Turpin yore, it’s a road that still allows you to see or at least glimpse England and Scotland, instead of hiding it behind cuttings and another Unwelcome Break.

A lush, lowland Eastern England of market towns and fertile arable farms, grain silos and Cathedrals, country houses and garrisons – and, just outside sleepy Grantham… a roadside sex shop. Try finding one of those on the M1. Near Doncaster you zoom around Ferrybridge power station’s colossal steaming cooling towers, looming like concrete castles with dragons lurking within – a legacy of the rich coal seams of Yorkshire that helped fire the Industrial Revolution.

Just before the York turn off you pass a mile west of Towton, site of the bloodiest battle on English soil, where in 1461 the Yorkists triumphed over the Lancastrians leaving 28,000 dead and dying in the snow.

If you look to the West before Scotch Corner, site of the Angle’s decisive defeat of the Goddodin in 600, you might on a clear day glimpse the preposterous beauty of the Yorkshire Dales. As you head up through the land of the Prince Bishops and past Durham, its Romanesque Cathedral and final resting place of the father of English history, the Venerable Bede, is sadly hidden from the current A1 route. But as a consolation prize you might be able to fleetingly scope Lumley Castle, once the residence of the Bishop of Durham and now a luxury hotel where travellers can break their journey in turreted style.

Onwards to Gateshead, where Antony Gormley’s famous Angel of the North, welcomes you, wings outstretched over the A1 like a Norse god, braced forever against the wind sluicing in off the North Sea without the benefit of even a Geordie t-shirt. ‘The Gateshead Flasher’ as locals dub him, is a steely sign commanding you to start paying serious attention, man, pet.

For after you skirt Newcastle’s Western suburbs and fly over the mighty Tyne – with or without fog on it – towards Morpeth, you enter the enchanted Middle Earth of Northumberland, where the A1 frequently narrows and slows to a single lane the better to allow you to enjoy the timeless, undulating landscape, and permit you perhaps to catch a glimpse of mighty Alnwick Castle, seat of the Duke of Northumberland and easily most photogenic star of the Harry Potter movies. A little further on, bold Bamburgh Castle, ancient seat of the Kings of Northumbria. And just beyond, holy, lonely Lindisfarne, where St Cuthbert, patron Saint of the North, got up to whatever it is saintly monks get up to.

Why ever did they film Lord of the Rings in plain and dull New Zealand?

Over the Tweed and just over the border you can enjoy Scotland’s own very abbreviated Amalfi Run as the A1 snakes you along the top of cliffs overlooking a shockingly blue North Sea, and on to the glittering Firth of Forth, with the brooding promise of the Highlands beyond – if it’s not raining horizontally again.

But keep your eyes peeled at all times for the anti-Sassenach speed cameras.

Just south of Dunbar the A1 takes you right through – and over the bones – of the bleak battlefield where in 1650 Cromwell routed the Scottish army loyal to Charles II, who had been proclaimed King of Scotland in defiance of the Commonwealth. Next year of course the Scottish vote on whether to divorce the English and end the 306 year-old Union. If it’s a ‘Byazz!!’, then the A1 will become a truly international road again. Possibly with border posts, passport checks and maybe even the occasional border skirmish and raid just like in the good old days.

Call it what you will, and ‘upgrade’ it as much as you like, The Great North Road is the axis by which Scots and English, invaders and defenders, Romans and Britons, Vikings and Saxons, rebels and loyalists, Catholics and Protestants, Rugby Leaguers and Rugby Unionists, have sought to impose their will and their map-reading on these British Isles.

This piece originally appeared at leaseplan.

Niall Ferguson: Butch or Bitch?

Niall Ferguson’sThe Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World‘ reviewed by Mark Simpson 


(Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 2001)

How sexy and right wing is the historian Niall Ferguson? It’s no idle question, since sexy right wing historians can gain fame and fortune, that’s to say – money and power – in the modern world.

The first name is a good start, reading as it does like a Celtic battle-cry. And he’s young. In fact, the half-profile picture of him on the inside jacket is rather fetching and flirtatious, in a rugby-playing New Romantic kind of way (dark, round, inviting eyes, but the flattened nose hints at brutality). The title of course is certainly ‘sexus’, while the subtitle, ‘Money and Power in the Modern World’ practically promises pornography. Just in case we miss this, the jacket blurb tells us that money is ‘the sinews of war’ and that the cash nexus ‘is the crucial point where money and power meet.’  (And yes, there are illustrations).

Unfortunately, The Cash Nexus is a terrible tease, and, for the most part, Ferguson turns out to be not nearly sexy and right wing enough for my cash. Alas, you see, he’s too busy being an historian. The ‘crucial point where money and power meet’ turns out to be a sober, painstaking, somewhat frigid history of taxation, national debt and the bond markets. Diligently researched, full of tables and graphs (many of the latter impressively unreadable), balanced and dispassionate, The Cash Nexus is exactly as sexy a book as you would expect to find emerging out of a year spent in the bowels of the Bank of England Library; the vital statistics Fergie’s interested in are unlikely to raise many pulses outside academe and accountancy internet Newsgroups.

This is not to say that Ferguson’s findings, particularly about the crucial role of financial institutions in spreading the huge costs of war (and the crucial role of war in developing financial institutions), aren’t in themselves interesting or important, it’s just that for much of the book they haven’t been martialed into a cohesive argument, or even into particularly muscular prose. This is one of the strengths of the book as a resource, but not as something you might actually want to read. I found myself begging Fergie to say something outrageous, to stick his rhetorical jaw out and lash me with a reactionary soundbite, to wave a whopping great weltanschuang in my face, choke me on the audacity and arrogance of a sweeping generalisation but, except for the occasional mean-spirited kicking of Marxist historians like Eric Hobsbawn and pinko sociologists like Anthony Giddens, it mostly didn’t happen.

Like many British right-wing historians, Ferguson is too busy being besotted with institutions to be really provocative. For Ferguson it is the superiority of British financial, fiscal, and parliamentary institutions – and above all property rights – which guaranteed British hegemony in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century, despite the fact that France wielded a much larger population and paper resources than Britain. Britannia, helped by Mr Rothschild, was better able to make efficient use of her resources and revenues and maintain a much higher level of war debt and ultimately grind the Froggies down (producing over three times as many ships). He may well be right, but it’s really too depressing to think that France was defeated not by Hornblower and the jolly jack tar, but by tax collectors and rentiers.

It isn’t until almost at the very end of the book, after a Long (and dusty) March through the Institutions, that Mr Ferguson finally takes off his bifocals, rolls up his shirtsleeves and begins to get seriously sexy and right wing. Taking on the commonly held notion of ‘overstretch’ and the crude economic determinism behind it, in which Empires are thought to fatally weaken themselves and hasten their downfall by excessive military spending to meet their over-extended commitments, he argues – tightly – that in fact understretch is the real problem. Britain, for example, could, he claims, have afforded to spend more on  defending the Empire before 1914 and 1939, and he manfully quashes the slack, pinko consensus that it was inevitably doomed, that we couldn’t have afforded to maintain a land army large enough to deter the Bosch.

By the same token he argues strongly against the idea that the Imperial US is now suffering from overstretch. He shows that Reagan’s military build-up of the 1980s was not as costly for the US as is generally thought and that in fact since the late Eighties the proportionate level of US defence spending has been historically low. On the other hand, the USSR probably did suffer from ‘overstretch’, but mostly because economic stagnation, poor institutional development and a failure to access the bond market meant that the arms race cut into production and investment and thence into production again.

Ironically, Emperor George Bush II has promised to increase military spending but also to finally abandon the US’s post-war role as ‘international policeman’ – the missile shield/security blanket being the symbol of this withdrawal. Ferguson castigates this attitude and argues that the problem with the US is that it isn’t imperial enough. It has churlishly refused to take on the responsibilities that Empire requires, in contrast to stalwart Britain in the Nineteenth Century. The US, for example, should lead an expedition against Saddam Hussein to depose him an install a democratic regime loyal to the West.

It’s an admirably explicit, manfully robust argument which Ferguson manages to present as if it is the product of the same cool accounting and dry, dusty logic that has featured in much of the rest of the book. However, I can’t help but feel that this talk of ‘understretch’ and this apparent appetite for war actually emanates from a more emotional, more passionate place – an almost Roman, visceral horror at the lax and louche enervations of decadence.


You’re the Top! You’re Mussolini!

Mark Simpson on the strangely passionate – and enduring -adulation for the ‘Roman Genius’ Benito Mussolini

(Independent on Sunday, 29 June 2003)

‘I grabbed her on the stairs, threw her into a corner behind a door and made her mine,’ wrote Mussolini recalling one of his teenage ‘wooings’. ‘She got up weeping and humiliated and through her tears she insulted me. She said that I had robbed her of her honour. It is not impossible. But, I ask you, of what honour was she speaking… She wasn’t in a sulk with me for long…. for at least three months we loved each other not much with the mind but much with the flesh.’

Benito happened to be describing, in typically Nietzchean poseur stylee, the ravishing/raping of a peasant girl neighbour, but he would have liked us to believe that he could also have been describing his seduction of Signora Italia, whom he famously ‘made his’ during his March on Rome in 1922 (which, actually, was not a march at all but a jolly day out on the train).

This more famous affair not much of the mind but of the flesh ended up lasting over twenty years instead of three months, cost Italy rather more than her honour and plenty of tears – eventually involving a hairy threesome with Adolf Hitler – and did not end until Il Duce (along with his real-life mistress of the moment) was summarily executed by Partisans in 1945 as he tried to flee to Austria disguised as a German soldier, in something of a crimine di passione.

Although Italy, like the peasant girl of his memoirs was the victim, it’s not entirely clear that Signor M was quite the towering studmeister he presented himself as being or more of a jumped-up gigolo eagerly playing the role that history paid him to.

Italia, victim or no, did love him. After sanctions were imposed to punish Italy for his unprovoked and mass-murderous invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, Il Duce called on Italians to donate their wedding rings to him – in exchange for steel ones – and other gold to help the invasion effort. Astonishingly, hundreds of thousands of Italians heeded the call from the reverse Midas, and handed over 33,622 tons of gold for steel, symbolically marrying their leader and providing the dowry themselves.

To be fair, it wasn’t just the Italians who couldn’t resist Mussolini for the first decade or so of his dictatorship. Mussolini was the first pop star politician in the age of mass communication and had a global, frenzied fan-base. The American poet Ezra Pound was besotted, Cole Porter penned a song which helped turn his name into a superlative, ‘You’re the top!… you’re Mussolini’ (the Duce-worshipping lyric was actually written by PG Wodehouse for the London version of ‘Anything Goes’). Pope Pius gushingly IX described him as a ‘man of Providence’. Before he left the Italian Socialist Party even Lenin spoke approvingly of him.

Once he became a bulwark against Bolshevism, The Times and the Daily Mail heaped praise on this ‘great politician’ and ‘foreman’ of the Italian people. Winston Churchill, that great and uncompromising defender of Parliamentary democracy and scourge of tyrants, was a passionate admirer of the original Fascist dictator he dubbed ‘the Roman genius’: ‘What a man! I have lost my heart!… he is one of the most wonderful men of our time,’ he sighed in 1927, providing an early inspiration for the character of Jean Brodie.

In fact, the only other anti-Bolshevik who was hotter for Mussolini than Churchill was an ambitious former Austrian Corporal chancer kicking around Bavaria who desperately wanted to be like his Italian ‘man of steel’. He insisted on eating in Italian restaurants and wanted to know everything about his fave popster Il Duce. ‘He seemed like someone in love asking news about the person they loved,’ recalled one SS Colonel. Hitler made many requests to meet Mussolini but the would-be groupie was continually rebuffed by a Mussolini who was not keen to share the Fascist limelight.

Until, of course, Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933. Observers noted that, on meeting Mussolini, the future merciless master of Europe had tears in his eyes. Afterwards he had nothing but praise: ‘Men like that are born only once every thousand years,’ he exclaimed. ‘And Germany can be happy that he is Italian and not French.’

Mussolini’s verdict was less rhapsodic: ‘He’s mad, he’s mad…. Instead of speaking to me about current problems… he recited to me from memory his Mein Kampf, that enormous brick which I have never been able to read.’

Nicholas Farrell, who is clearly one of Mussolini’s growing number of contemporary fans, makes much in his biography Mussolini: A New Life (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) of the Bald Big Head’s (as the Partisan who arrested Il Duce called him) dislike of Hitler, both to distinguish Italian Fascism from National Socialism – which was, we can all agree, rather nastier – and also to portray the forthright blacksmith’s son Benito as more sympathetic. Personally, however, I found myself rather touched by Hitler’s crazy devotion to Mussolini, which long outlived the Italian windbag’s usefulness and always surpassed his merits.

Mussolini’s ranting about Hitler, on the other hand, while very funny, seems almost, dare I say, unkind, or at least bitchily ungrateful. Worse, it merely supports the prevalent post-war perception of him as a comic, impotent buffoon that Farrell is so keen to puncture. Mussolini is undoubtedly more likeable than Hitler; but he’s also, for that reason, more contemptible too. At the news of Mussolini’s daring ‘rescue’ by German troops from the mountain prison he was incarcerated in after being deposed in 1943, Hitler, bless, was as ecstatic as he was at the fall of France, stamping and dancing on the spot.

But when Mussolini realised that the men who had arrived in gliders were Germans rather than English he groaned, like some Latin Alf Garnet or Sidney Trotter, “That’s ALL we need!”. As the pictures taken (for propaganda purposes) during this operation show, the diminutive ‘Roman Genius’ being bundled by towering blond Nazi Special Forces into a tiny Stork aeroplane ready to whisk him off to Hitler’s Hideaway, was definitely not a master of events by this time: he was a situationist comedy in jackboots.

Even though he probably deserves less than most other historical figures I can think of, it’s impossible not to suppress a certain amount of pity for poor Benito by this time. You see, I suspect that he was beginning to realise that Adolf was behaving rather like another Austrian in his life called Ida Dalser, an old flame who used to regularly show up shouting, ‘I AM THE WIFE OF MUSSOLINI!! Only I have the right to be near him!’ Once in power Mussolini would lock Dalser up in a lunatic asylum in Venice where she remained until her death, a prisoner of love. In a strange case of poetic-romantic justice, Hitler was to effectively lock Mussolini up with him in his own asylum until Mussolini himself expired – also a prisoner of love.

After his death, Mussolini’s widow Rachele was determined to have the pocket Caesar to herself as well, despite the fact that he famously met his end with his mistress. She claimed to have received a letter from him just before his death: ‘… I ask you to forgive all the bad things that I have involuntarily done to you. But you know that you have been for me the only woman that I have truly loved. I swear to you in front of God… this supreme moment.’ Conveniently, she said she had subsequently destroyed the letter after ‘memorising’ its contents.

Farrell has drawn on newly discovered letters to write a book that sometimes seems like a 477 page version of that phantom letter to Rachele, albeit written in the style of a Sunday Telegraph editorial, or Spectator column. For Farrell, the Fascist bully boy who abolished democracy in Italy, invaded Ethiopia, Greece, France, Russia and Yugoslavia for no particular reason other than he thought he could get away with it (and made a terrible mess of every campaign except Ethiopia where bombers, tanks, poison gas and half a million men were deployed against tribesmen) who sold Italy to Nazi Germany for the price of the Prussian goose-step (he made his short-legged Fascisti practice it to ludicrous effect) giving Hitler the green light for his European war and the apocalyptic conflagration that followed, was actually a hugely talented, likeable, big-hearted giant of a man who, unlike his “cynical” and “ruthless” leftist opponents (whom he had his Blackshirts beat, shoot or incarcerate), always had Italia – his one true love’s – best interests in mind. But who made just one small, involuntary, entirely understandable error in regard to the Second World War that was, anyway, really that nasty wop-hating knee-jerk anti-Fascist Anthony Eden’s fault.

Perhaps I exaggerate. Perhaps I have even caricatured the author. But Farrell, in a revisionist history which is not entirely without merit, has caricatured himself rather more. He is even pictured on the jacket sleeve in a black Fedora, a black shirt and black leather jacket. The text tells us that since 1998 he has lived in Predappio in the Romagna ‘where Mussolini was born and is buried like a saint.’

Mussolini, in other words, is still a prisoner of love.