The Oliver Observations

‘Shadows begone! Richard’s himself again!’ – some thoughts on Richard III

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I wrote must of this piece on Monday, 4th February when Richard’s bones were found, but have only just got round to finishing it and posting it – always the first with the breaking news.
(The title is an inaccurate but fitting quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III as used by Walter Scott for one of the epigrams in Ivanhoe.)

This morning I played my own small part in the media circus surrounding the rediscovery of the body of King Richard III by archaeologists at the University of Leicester.

While Channel 4 may present popular archaeology shows fronted by Tony Robinson, BBC Radio Sheffield relies on his near namesake – Sheffield institution and general polymath Rony Robinson.
I was interviewed on his radio show, giving my reaction to Richard’s re-emergence, along with osteologist Linzi Harvey from the University of Sheffield’s Archaeology Department offering her expertise in bones and John Mann, MP for Bassetlaw, offering a wonderfully passionate/shameless case for why Richard’s skeleton should be reinterred at Worksop Priory in his constituency.

We offered some thoughts on the discovery, sandwiched between such appropriate music choices as Dem Bones.
(I was only surprised they didn’t have a topical reworking of The Funny Bones theme ‘In a dark, dark town, there was a dark, dark carpark…’)

If you’re interested the recording is up here (at least for the time being)
The discovery is discussed throughout the show, and I’m on at 21.40 and again at 1.49.40.
[Rony’s show is easy enough to do given as one colleague said ‘He laughs uproariously at anything!’

I tried in my rather brief appraisals of Richard’s record to strike a balance between the ridiculously evil devil incarnate portrayed by Tudor propagandists, and the sentimental, saintly figure depicted by some of his defenders.
I’m not sure how much I succeeded – coming down a bit too much on Richard’s side, presenting him as a lovable ne’er-do-well; ‘Of course he had a few of his enemies murdered, but which of us hasn’t done that.’ etc
But I genuinely meant it when I claimed that ‘This is the greatest day for the Plantagenet cause since the Battle of Tewksbury’.

News of the archaeologists declaring ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that the skeleton is Richard’s instantly went international, and the last Plantagenet King of England was soon the subject of chatter and jokes at water coolers and watering holes across the world.
To me all this publicity is great for the debate around Richard, and for increasing awareness of Medieval History. I think historians have to be honest and admit this find will do more to ignite interest in the prototype Game of Thrones saga of The Wars of the Roses than a thousand academic books and journal articles could.
Such a discovery is also great for the discipline of archaeology showcasing the depth of the field (or indeed car park), and for Leicester itself, putting both the City and the University onto the world’s front pages.

I doubt the University of Leicester’s Archaeologists will have much difficulty demonstrating their ‘research impact’ in next year’s REF.
As prince of the Higher Education wonks, Mark Leach, put it ‘Breaking: Public value of education discovered under a car park in Leicester’.
Knowing how academia often contains as much jostling for tradition as any Medieval court, I did find myself momentarily thinking ‘If you were working on other research at the University of Leicester just how fed up with Richard III would you be now…’


Most of all, however, this week where Richardian references were everywhere has made me ponder the continued public interest in Richard III, and why this might be.

Of course I’ve no more idea than anyone else why public interest, which can be as fickle as the false, fleeting, perjured Clarence, has maintained a fascination with the ill-fated monarch over the centuries but I’d hazard a guess at a few possible factors:

The very fact that he was doomed and ill-fated is intriguing. There’s a sentimental romance and glamour that clings to a lost cause, whether it’s Jacobites pining for Bonnie Prince Charlie, Yorkists for Richard or Republicans for Mitt Romney.

There’s an undying debate around Richard’s record and character – was be a villain and a tyrant or a virtuous man and just King unfairly maligned?
People always even joining such a debate and picking partisan sides, rather like the arguments over whether Saul in Homeland or Snape in Harry Potter (pre-the Seventh Book) are good guys or bad guys – stretched over half a millennium.

The debate comes complete with the classic murder mystery – including the conundrum of whether there was even a crime – of The Princes in the Tower. Were they murdered? By whom? If not where did they end up?
The truth is of course lost in the mists of time, thicker that the fog at the Battle of Barnet, but this hasn’t stopped generations enjoying trying, and failing, to solve this mystery of history for centuries.
Depictions of the princes as wide-eyed, golden-haired innocents, straight out of a Millais painting have only added to the comic book villainy of traditional interpretations of Richard.

This depiction of Richard as a cartoonishly evil figure has also ironically helped ensure his memory lives on. As King John, or the executive Producer of the millionth ‘Great Dictators’ documentary for the History Channel, will tell you – there’s much more marketing potential in a villain than a dull saint.

Whichever side of the debate you’re convinced by, Richard is a colourful character, and probably one of few English Monarch’s instantly recognisable to than yeoman in the street. The larger than life, controversial Richard III and Henry VIII still charge their way through popular culture and bestride the history curriculum like a Holbein portrait, whist the well-governing bureaucrat Henry VII between them vanishes in comparison.

The facts (if such they be) of his life appeal to the Ladybird Books school of History, while many people vaguely remember the strong images of his story, taught at school or picked up through cultural osmosis – the poor little princes locked in the tower, their Uncle, tormented by the phantoms of his victims, screaming in his sleep on the eve of Bosworth, Richard personally killing the ‘poor old man’ Henry VI while he kneels in prayer, and overseeing Clarence’s drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine, before meeting his dramatic end crying ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’ within striking distance of killing Henry Tudor and winning the war. (As the rainbow itself tells us the colourful Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.)

The crown of course rolls into a gorse bus where it is picked up, given to Henry Tudor, who immediately marries Richard’s niece, and unites the nation in a stroke of design genius by delighting both feuding houses in the War of the Roses with the Tudor Rose Logo.
(I suppose had he used different PR consultants he could have united Richard’s white boar and the Tudor’s Welsh dragon as a flying pig…)

If nothing else Richard would maintain a place in pub quizzes as the last English King to die in battle, and indeed the first since Harold Godwinson at Hastings in 1066. If we believe the Tudor chroniclers’ tales of his murdering Henry VI and the boy Edward V, he would also, I think, be the only King to kill two of his predecessors – though I’m open to being contradicted.

The manner of the discovery is bound to be the latest chapter in this memorable tale of Richard, and ‘the King in the car park’ does make an excellent addition to the story.

Richard’s royal status inevitably also plays a part in fuelling interest. Catherine Fletcher, from the University of Sheffield’s History Department, strikes a note of caution amidst the enthusiasm, detecting an element of historical hierarchy and snobbery in the interest around the discovery, featuring as it does ‘celebrity and royalty’.
She does have a good point – if the skeleton had turned out to be a 15th century equivalent of the unknown soldier, interesting as this would have been, it would have been lucky to get much publicity beyond a ‘News in Brief’ paragraph in the BBC History Magazine.

As in so many of our national identity, Shakespeare was a major influence in shaping our picture of Richard, and the villainous version, guaranteed to please his Tudor patrons, depicted in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, is probably the biggest reason of all Richard remains so well remembered.
Famous actors across the centuries from David Garrick to Laurence Olivier portraying Richard and refining the stereotype have also been largely responsible for his imprint on popular culture.

This stereotype has also proved self-sustaining, with such performances, particularly Larry Olivier’s, being constantly parodied, memorably by the two Peters – Sellars and Cook; Peter Sellar’s performing a wonderfully sinister cover of The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night in the manner of Olivier’s Richard III, and Peter Cook providing some brilliant cod-Shakespeare in Beyond the Fringe (Performed here with Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, and Terry Jones as a worthy stand-in for Dudley Moore at the first of Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Balls in 1976), and of course years later in the first episode of Blackadder.

Richard’s rediscovery with its saturation media coverage inevitably produced some good jokes (and some terrible groan-inducing ones)
I particularly liked the twitter account @HMRichardIII (which had about 500 followers when I checked on Sunday before the findings were announced and now has over 8000) where our late lamented King provided commentary such as:

Looking forward to a good catch up with my nephews. Oh….wait.

The two Princes may or may not be buried underneath the Swindon branch of Lidl. That’s all I have to say on the matter.

500 years in a wooden coffin. Talk about splinters of discontent.

Burying people in multi-storey car parks. That’s wrong on so many levels.

I wonder if Chris Huhne could get his wife to pay my parking fines for me.

My jokes are like my legs – lame.


Whatever the reason, Richard III is clearly embedded even deeper into our national consciousness than he was under a Leicester car park.

And whether through a mawkish love of celebrity and spectacle or a noble desire to comprehend the past, I did feel a bit of a thrill seeing images of him, knowing this is the first time he’s been seen in nearly 528 years.


As a lover of historical what-ifs I’ve also found myself idly wandering this week just how different England and the world would be if Richard had won the Battle of Bosworth and remained King?
The answer is of course nobody has a clue but its intriguing to speculate…

There would have been no Tudor dynasty and no King Henry VII or King Henry VIII. In fact there would have literally been no Henry VIII as his parents would never have married. Though given the rumours in the last year of his life that Richard planed to marry Elizabeth of York it’s quite possible a future King of England, sharing half Henry VIII’s genes could have come to the throne around the same time.

Without Henry VIII of course there would have been no single, dramatic break from the Church of Rome, and it’s quite possible England would still be a Catholic country today, subjects perhaps offering a prayer during mass for the royal Saint Richard of York.
There would almost certainly be no established ‘Church of England’ whatever the national faith.

Broadly speaking, most histories will tell you that Henry Tudor brought relative stability to England, uniting the warring Houses of Lancaster and York, providing children and a clear line of succession which had been sorely lacking, and growing the treasury through years of shrewd management and scooping up taxes with Morton’s fork.

We could assume that if Richard’s reign had continued this stability would have been missing and the Wars of the Roses might have continued.
Though it is at least arguable that stability and peace might have been attained a different way.
Richard might have united managed to unite the country, either through clever politics and strategic marriages, or by shear force having won the battle, killed Henry Tudor, and supressed the House of Lancaster.

If Richard had won in 1485 the House of York would have held the throne continuously since 1461 (apart from Henry VI’s sad and sorry second reign for five months in the winter of 1470-71), and with every year the likelihood of a Lancastrian revival could have faded.
Richard might also have reigned King a long time, being only 32 when he died at Bosworth. (His Father also died a violent death, like his father before him, but his mother lived to be 80 so it’s not fanciful to imagine a triumphant Richard ruling well into the 16th century, by which time the civil war would be long forgotten.)

Had he triumphed at Bosworth it’s fair to assume one of Richard’s first priorities would have been to remarry, (after his wife’s death the year before) possibly to Princess Joan of Portugal, and produce a ‘son of York’ to succeed him.

We might also assume the Treasury would have recovered under Richard, if a period of peace could have been provided, given many of Henry’s policies were built on initiatives begun under Richard. He had also presided over the Council of the North before becoming King, which can be seen as overseeing early attempts at regeneration or prototype-Keynesian economics, aimed at boosting the North’s economy which had never quite recovered from the devastation wrought by the Harrying of the North after the Norman Conquest.
If Richard had remained King might the North-South divide now be reversed and the country’s economic hub be – perhaps – York under the shadow of the even larger Minister Richard intended to fund?

Another fascinating point to consider is whether a hypothetical post-1485 King Richard would have listened to a Genoese gentlemen who visited England in 1488.
Christopher Columbus, during his long quest to finance his crazy sounding scheme to discover a new world, or at least sail to Asia, dispatched his brother Bartholomew to the English Court seeking patronage. Bartholomew was received by Henry VII and the King was intrigued by his plans but eventually they didn’t pass his risk assessment and he refused to put up the cash.
The Columbus Brothers eventually received capital from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain and the rest is history…

Had England had a King less fiscally prudent than Henry, say with a history of taking brave gambles and sanctioning investment in large projects, South America could well have been claimed for England generations before the Pilgrim Fathers and others colonised the North.

To sound a bit like a Ladybird Book, for once it’s no exaggeration to say the course of History as well as the King changed with the slash of a sword (or it now seems the blow of a battle-axe) on the 22nd August 1485.


The Boundary Changes Showdown: The Result

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I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest and non-sarcastic kind comments my last post, with its rather obsessive analysis of the parliamentary arithmetic of Tuesday’s vote on boundary changes, or the Electoral Registration and Administration Act (2013), received.
I was also pleased Andrew Sparrow kindly included it in his excellent Guardian Live Blog of the day’s events (I now have no ambitions left in life).

So, due to popular demand – i.e. no open dissent – because I’m still getting quite a bit of search engine traffic from people clearly after information about the vote, I thought I should update it with details of the result.

Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham and High Priest of parliamentary arithmetic, rebellions and back-bench behaviour, has already written two fine analyses the vote. In the first he addresses the vexed question of whether this can be described as a ‘Government defeat’, when part of the Government was clearly delighted to defeat the rest of it, while in the second he examines five more aspects of the result.

Intriguingly he notes that the Commons Authorities actually miscounted the result and therefore the Tellers – the MPs who announce the result declared the result as 292 votes for to 334 votes against, while in fact 335 MPs who went through the No lobby – meaning the Opposition’s majority was 43 rather than 42.
This doesn’t make as much difference as the occasion John Major’s Government lost in the Commons by one vote, to find later it was a miscount and they’d actually won, but it does show the result was even worse for the Conservatives than initially thought.

In terms of the way MPs actually voted, David Cameron’s much heralded plans to get MPs from minor parties to vote for the bill came to nothing.
Or not quite nothing as I was wrong to assume that Naomi Long, Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, would vote against, along with the Alliance’s sister party the Liberal Democrats, as she in fact became the only non-Conservative MP to vote with the government.
According to the best available source – Alliance Party members on twitter – this was because on principle the party believes in reducing the number of MPs.

Nadine Dorries, not technically a Conservative MP after having the whip withdrawn last year and presumably anxious to get back in the party’s good books, also voted for, leading to online mockery from Labour MPs.

As well as failing to attract support from outside the party, despite their appeals Conservative whips were unable to keep all their own MPs onside.
4 Conservative MPs voted with the Opposition – David Davis and Philip Davies, whom I’d predicted would, and John Baron and Richard Shepherd whom I hadn’t.
2 others on record as opposing the boundary changes – Glyn Davies and Andrew Percy – abstained, which in such a tightly whipped vote I think can fairly be counted as a rebellion.

Conservative whips could at least have comforted themselves over a brandy after the vote that the rebellion wasn’t even bigger.
Some Conservative MPs who’ve previously opposed the boundary changes (such as Geoffrey Cox) clearly voted in favour on the day. Perhaps such MPs had been won round by the strength of the arguments, or maybe felt they needed to be loyal seeing their party being done over by the devious Lib Dems. They might also have felt they could comfortably vote in favour, not wanting pointless rows with the whips or possible damage to career progression, safe in the knowledge that the changes had no chance of passing anyway. We can draw our own conclusions depending on our level of cynicism.

Five other Conservative MPs didn’t vote. Two, David Amess and Lee Scott [who I remember for his resignation as a PPS during the tuition fees vote], weren’t eligible to vote as they’d served on a Committee of the Whole House. I’m afraid my parliamentary knowledge fails me as to quite why this means they weren’t couldn’t vote – presumably they’d previously scrutinised the Bill and had therefore had their say, and therefore need to remain neutral.
(The latest edition of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Procedure is currently reduced to a mere £274.05 on Amazon if anyone really wants to know.)
Regardless of the obscure reason, they were joined as non-voters by Labour’s Katy Clark who also served on the Committee. (Thanks to the @LabourWhips‘ helpful twitter feed for this information.)

Three Ministers also missed the vote – William Hague, Ken Clarke and Helen Grant.

William Hague was in the United States hosting a farewell dinner for Hillary Clinton as she leaves the State Department.
As the only foreign country to have their offer to host a farewell event accepted, you can see why the Foreign Office wanted the Foreign Secretary in attendance rather than voting to redraw boundaries in Westminster. Though given Hillary Clinton’s fondness for David Miliband, perhaps they could have struck a deal where the two were paired and co-hosted the dinner?

A bit of digging reveals Ken Clarke was in Brazil as part of his new role as the Government’s roving trade envoy (or as some journalists have put it ‘Minister for not writing his memoirs’).

While Helen Grant, the Equalities Minister, was meeting Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty; either going AWOL as Labour MP Chris Bryant suggests, or being allowed to miss the vote as the whips knew it was already lost.

The opposition in contrast were at their full strength with all the 254 Labour MPs eligible to vote present, including two serving as tellers, and all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs – including the 9 months pregnant Jenny Willott [another MP who eventually resigned as a PPS over tuition fees] – turning up to vote against their Conservative Coalition partners.
They were joined by all 6 SNP MPs, 3 SDLP MPs, 3 Plaid Cymru MPs, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Respect’s George Galloway, and the Independents Sylvia Hermon and Eric Joyce.

Only the Democratic Unionist Party weren’t at full strength – with 2 of their 8 MPs, Sammy Wilson and Jeffrey Donaldson not voting (perhaps absent in there Northern Ireland constituencies – where Wilson also serves in the Northern Ireland Assembly as Minister for Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive?), while the remaining 6 joined the opposition.

And that concludes more than anybody could ever want to know about the boundary changes vote. The full division lists can be found in Hansard.


As Tim Shipman, The Daily Mail’s Deputy Political Editor reports in an article full of vintage vitriol, the vote has caused real resentment amongst Tory MPs towards their Coalition Colleagues, with much talk of Lib Dem betrayal in the air.

Given how big the defeat was, despite the time and effort committed to trying to force the new boundaries through, it’s hard to see how David Cameron’s authority, and hold over his own party isn’t damaged to some extent by this.
For example if you’re a Conservative Minister and want to vote against a measure you disagree with at some time in the future, why should you have to resign to do so when Liberal Democrat Ministers can remain it their posts while voting against Government Bills?

As the next election slowly hoves into view, and the tension both between and within the Coalition parties grows, we can’t rule out seeing more such split votes, and maybe even some new precedents for just how loyal Ministers have to be to Government policy.
Parliamentary arithmetic fans will be delighted.

Odds and Sods of Parliamentary Arithmetic – The Boundary Changes

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Even as someone who tends to cultivate rather niche interests, there’s one I’m careful not to mention in conversation unless I want to see the eyes of the person I’m talking to either glaze over or frantically flick around the pub for someone they can suddenly realise is a long lost acquaintance requiring instant greeting; I’m mildly obsessed with parliamentary arithmetic.

I say ‘mildly obsessed’ as it doesn’t keep me up at night, or even particularly interest me, but on any given day I can of course tell you what the Government’s majority is, on paper and in practice, and whether the strength of each party has changed during the current parliament. Can’t everyone?

This condition can be diagnosed as dating back to my time as a Students’ Union Sabbatical Officer during the long run up to the vote to increase tuition fees, eventually held on the 9th December, 2010.
In the months beforehand, as we campaigned and lobbied to try to stop the vote passing, I walked around with a running total of how MPs were voting in my head, and the figures for how different combinations would add up burnt into my brain. I could never have anticipated I’d spend so much time in the study of obscure Liberal Democrat MPs.

As the vote drew closer and our efforts became more and more desperate [‘Can we get that MP who’s facing trial for expenses fraud to turn up to vote before he’s suspended from Parliament and goes to prison?’ (Yes) ‘Any chance we can get that MP who’s in Mexico to fly back without alerting the whips?’ (No)], I covered an office wall with movable slips of paper listing how MPs were intending to vote.

A low budget West Wing
(As one friend said on seeing it ‘It’s like a shit episode of The West Wing.’)

Of course we lost that one – though I was proud of our efforts, given me faced the full might of the Government machine and Whips’ Office armed primarily with post-it notes.

Neil's filing system cropped
(A fuzzy image of my colleague Neil demonstrating our filing system on another occasion.)

Gradually the figures and the increasingly bizarre contortions of MPs faded from my mind.
But I’ve subconsciously retained a good working knowledge of parliamentary arithmetic and feel my ears pricking up whenever I hear talk of a vote in the House of Commons potentially being close.

A long awaited Government defeat?

Particularly in the first year or so of the Coalition Government there was frequently excited chatter that votes on controversial topics (and almost everything this Government does is controversial to some extent) could be very close, and that Lib Dem MPs in particular could cause a Government defeat by rebelling and voting with Labour. This has never come to pass, and much heralded defeats for the Government have always vanished on being approached like the will-o’-the-wisp.

[True parliamentary watchers will know this isn’t quite true – the Opposition did win what now looks like a distinctly pyrrhic victory in October 2012 when a Labour non-binding amendment, supported by Tory rebels, calling for a cut in the European Union’s budget passed by 13 votes.
The Government also lost a December 2011 vote by 134 votes in strange circumstances, when Labour forced an unexpected vote on the motion ‘This House has considered the economy’, a banality which Government whips had expected to pass without a vote, but which was defeated as most Coalition MPs had gone home.
Proposals for House of Lords reform were also withdrawn on the day of the vote, as they faced almost certain defeat.]

But now finally – the moment has arrived! The unashamed parliamentary pedants and scourers of division lists are to be rewarded after years of patience!
I don’t see any way the Government can avoid defeat in tonight’s vote on boundary changes.

The pros and cons of the proposed boundary changes probably deserve a separate post (the BBC have a good introductory Q&A on them), but the debate has become one about shear party political advantage, with the changes seen primarily as an attempt to boost the number of Conservative MPs and increase their chances of winning the next election, ever since last year’s headlines like ‘’Reform Lords or it cost you 20 MPs’ David Cameron told’.
Fundamentally, they also face defeat for reasons of party advantage – the proposals have appeared in serious trouble ever since the Liberal Democrats announced last August their intention to vote with Labour to block the changes, in retaliation for Conservative MPs effectively scuppering Lord’s Reform.

This all, by the by, raises the vexed question about whether this can be considered a Government defeat given that the Government is clearly split, and its Deputy Chief Whip and Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the jovial Orcadian Alistair Carmichael, will clearly be encouraging part of it to vote against the other.
It may therefore be fairer to refer to this as the first major Conservative defeat of this Parliament, although as it’s a key part of the Government’s legislative programme I imagine many commentators, will with justification, refer to it simply as a defeat for the Government.

But back to the lovely arithmetic

It’s often reported that Labour and the Liberal Democrats together have 315 MPs to the Conservatives’ 307 [though as we’ll see below neither of these figures is quite correct] so it would seem that their defection alone should end the chance of a vote passing.
But some slightly obsessive number crunching is required just to make sure:

The Major Parties?

In 2010 the Conservatives won 307 seats – from these we should deduct the Speaker, John Bercow, and the Deputy Speaker, Nigel Evans, who due to their roles don’t vote, and Louise Mensch’s Corby seat lost to Labour in a by-election last year.
We should also technically – and technicalities are important in this – deduct Nadine Dorries, who had the Conservative whip withdrawn amidst controversy over her decision to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here. Despite requests, she hasn’t had the whip restored as of yet, so is not officially a Conservative MP.
This makes 303 Conservative MPs.

Labour won 258 seats in 2010, to which we currently need to add Andy Sawford, winner of the Corby by-election, but subtract the Bradford West seat, lost to Respect’s George Galloway last year.
We also need to subtract Lindsay Hoyle and Dawn Primarolo who don’t vote as Deputy Speakers [Deputy Speakers are traditionally chosen for balance – given the Speaker is currently from the Conservative side of the house he is joined by one Conservative Deputy and two Labour.]
Eric Joyce, who had the Labour whip withdrawn in circumstances even more bizarre than Nadine Dorries, should also be subtracted, making 255 Labour MPs.

The Lib Dems have 57 MPs so 255 + 57=312
Even IF – and it’s a big if – all Conservative MPs vote in favour of the new boundaries, this would result in a clear defeat 303 for – 312 against.

The Odds and Sods?

Roy Hattersley recalls in his memoirs how in the late 1970s when Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost its overall majority the Chief Whip would convene regular meetings before each vote to run through a list of ‘Odds and Sods’ – MPs from minor parties or independents who might be persuaded to support the Government and help it survive another day.
(This strategy came to an end on the dramatic night when the sods outnumbered odds and the Callaghan Government, faced oddly enough by a Conservative-Liberal-SNP-Ulster Unionist alliance, lost a Vote of No Confidence by a single vote. This precipitating the 1979 general election and, though no-one could know it at the time, 18 years of Conservative rule.)

So who would the current Whips Office be counting as odds and sods?

In terms of MPs outside of the three main parties we have:
(In Nothern Ireland)
The Democratic Unionist Party – 8 seats
The Alliance Party – 1
The Social Democratic and Labour Party – 3
The Independent Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon – 1

(In Wales and Scotland)
Plaid Cymru – 3
The Scottish Nationalist Party – 6

(In England)
The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas – 1
Respect’s George Galloway – 1
Nadine Dorries –1
Eric Joyce – 1

A total of 26 – easily enough to swing the vote in either direction.

[On paper the the Nationalist Sinn Fein have 5 seats, or 4 following Martin McGuinness’ recent resignation, but not recognising Westminster sovereignty over Northern Ireland they do not take up their seats. While I remember some mordant speculation the Government might offer them a united Ireland in return for their voting in favour of tuition fees, I think they can safely be discounted.]

Some of these votes are relatively easy to assign, only making the picture even bleaker for the Tory whips.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party informally take the Labour whip and will almost certainly vote with them.

The Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, left the Ulster Unionists in 2010, after she disagreed with the party forming an alliance with the Conservatives.
She made clear she would support the re-election of a Labour Government and, after being re-elected as an Independent, has usually voted with Labour. It seems likely she’ll do so again.

The Alliance Party is the sister party of the Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland, so likewise their MP, Naomi Long, will presumably vote with the opposition.

Eric Joyce has also continued to vote with Labour, so we can presume he’ll attend and vote with the opposition.

The Green’s Caroline Lucas has called the proposed changes to her Brighton Pavilion seat as ‘absurd’ and has said she’ll vote against.

This gives the Opposition 320 against to 303 for.

So can the Conservatives find the extra 16 votes they need in the remaining diminished pool?
It looks highly unlikely.

Respect’s George Galloway is an equally lost hope having said he opposes the boundary changes, so the best Conservative whips can hope for is that he doesn’t turn up.

UPDATE: Diane Abbott tweets that Geogre Galloway has shown up.
Conservative MP Ben Gummer also tweets to report a sighting: ‘Mon dieu – the lesser spotted Galloway is in the chamber!’

How Nadine Dorries will vote is a bit of a mystery. As of May 2012 she was strongly opposed to the boundary changes, understandably given they’d abolish her Bedfordshire constituency.
However, clearly eager to be readmitted to the Conservative Party she won’t want to antagonise the whips further. Perhaps they can hope she’ll abstain?
Or just possibly vote in favour, calculating she can afford to, knowing the changes won’t pass and that she probably won’t have a seat either way if she’s not able to stand as a Conservative candidate?

A Nationalist/Unionist Alliance?

There has been much speculation, as recently as last week in The Guardian, and the week before in The Telegraph, that David Cameron might still be able to win the vote by doing a deal with Northern Ireland’s Unionists and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

We can see why Tory whips would consider the proposal, and why they’ve reportedly been ‘trawling for support’.
If theoretically they were able to attract the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party’s 8 MPs, the Scottish Nationalist Party’s 6, and Plaid Cymru’s 3, they could theoretically have a chance of squeaking the vote through against all the odds.

303 Conservative + 8 DUP + 6 SNP + 3 Plaid Cymru = 320 for
255 Labour + 57 Lib Dem + 4 SDLP + 1 Alliance + 1 Green + 1 Sylvia Hermon + 1 Eric Joyce = 320 against

This still assumes Nadine Dorries and George Galloway and Nadine Dorries at best abstain, and would require the Speaker to cast a tie-breaking vote for the first time in 20 years, which would also open a big constitutional can of worms over how he should apply Speaker Denison’s rule, but there is admittedly an anorexically slim chance.

So how likely is such an alliance? Doomed, it would seem on three counts.

Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru MP, Jonathan Edwards, ‘speaking in a personal capacity’ in October 2012 tried to publically bargain with Downing Street, saying that his party would be ‘open to offers’ to support the boundary changes in return for ‘huge amounts of power devolved’ to the Welsh assembly, to make up for the cut in the number of Welsh MPs, and a ‘permanent Tory majority’ in Westminster.

However this rather cynical sounding deal hasn’t come to pass – two months later ITV were quoting an unnamed Plaid Cymru MP saying ‘It’s all over for boundary changes’.
The Guardian last week reported Labour were keeping in close contact with Plaid Cymru and hadn’t ‘detected any sign’ they intended to vote with the Government.

The Scottish Nationalist Party

There has been various speculation that the SNP’s six MPs might be more amenable to the government.
Mark Seddon in The Guardian discussed whether David Cameron and Alex Salmond would strike a deal ‘effectively reshaping the United Kingdom without any public debate’.
The plan being that the Prime Minister would offer the Scottish Parliament much greater powers, just short of full independence, in return for the SNP voting for the boundary changes; ‘According to former Conservative MEP John Stevens, Cameron could announce shortly after the European elections in 2014 that the Scottish referendum would be a choice between “devo max” and full independence.’

In terms of narrow political tactics both parties stand to benefit from anything that damages the Labour Party, and the SNP were also reportedly pleased that the changes would protect their existing six seats while potentially making more winnable.

There were reports up to last week that the SNP were ‘in talks’ with the Conservatives, but yesterday’s Scotsman quotes an SNP spokesman saying no deal had been done and that the party had ‘no intention’ of voting with the Conservatives.
The paper adds ‘There was speculation that the six SNP MPs will now abstain on the vote with the party refusing to say whether they would vote against.’ – which seems to be the best the Conservatives can hope for.

UPDATE: Word is SNP will not simply abstain but will vote against.

The Democratic Unionist Party

This leaves the Democratic Unionist Party looking like the Tory whips’ last hope of attracting any support outside their own party.
The Guardian speculated last week that they might vote in favour – ‘history has shown unionists have been willing to trade with the government in return for specific concessions’, and the Conservatives have clearly been bidding for their support.
However, DUP MP William McCrea has said he won’t vote in favour of the boundary changes, and called for them to be scrapped straight away to avoid wasting public money.
It’s unclear whether he’ll vote against or merely abstain, and the Conservatives may still have faint hopes of attracting his seven colleagues into the Aye lobby, but even this would seem most unlikely.

UPDATE: The Irish Times reports, as of this morning, that the DUP caucus of MPs had not yet met to decide how to vote. Word on the street is – i.e. I saw somebody tweet it but can’t remember who – that they will now certainly not vote in favour, but will either abstain or vote against.

These dismal figures, would leave the Tory Whips facing a result anywhere between

A ‘best’ case scenario

303 Conservative MPs + 1 Nadine Dorries + 7 DUP MPs vote for = 311

The SNP, Plaid Cymru, William McCrea, Eric Joyce, and George Galloway don’t vote.

255 Labour + 57 Lib Dems + 3 SDLP + 1 Alliance + 1 Green + 1 Sylvia Hermon vote against = 318

An opposition majority of 7.

Or a worst case scenario

303 Conservative MPs vote for
255 Labour + 57 Lib Dems + 8 DUP + 6 SNP + 3 Plaid Cymru + 3 SDLP + 1 Green + 1 Alliance + 1 Sylvia Hermon + 1 Eric Joyce + 1 George Galloway + 1 Nadine Dorries vote against = 338
A comfortable opposition majority of 35.


Under the highly unlikely ‘best case scenario’ you can see why the Conservatives want to press ahead with the vote, desperately hoping something will turn up, or that they’ll be saved, as Government’s have been before, by poor attendance from the opposition.

Though they might hope that a few Labour MPs won’t actually turn up for the vote, this seems unlikely given how important this is to Labour, and their briefing The Guardian that the vote would be close.

Mark Seddon also argued that ‘the Tories will probably be able to buy off some Liberal Democrat MPs threatened with extinction with a place in the Lords or on a quango’. Even taking into account the fact that some Lib Dem MPs could personally see their constituencies become safer under the changes, it seems unlikely even the most pro-Conservative Lib Dem (David Laws springs to mind) would be willing to risk the fury of their colleagues by doing the Conservatives a favour.
Most will probably relish a rare chance to vent months of lingering resentments against their Coalition allies. Though it’ll be interesting to see whether any of the 57 fail to turn up for the vote.

David Cameron also reportedly suggested, presumably in joke, that the whips could ‘lock a Lib Dem in the loo’ during the vote – but it looks like an awful lot of Lib Dems would have to find themselves mysteriously trapped before it altered the outcome.

Even if by some miracle opposition MPs don’t turn up, or the Conservatives are able to tempt the DUP, SNP and Plaid into the Aye lobby, to give them a wafer thin majority, there’s another rather large problem.

Many Conservative MPs themselves hate the boundary changes and would like to see them defeated.

The Tory Rebels?

It seems at least a couple, and potentially many more, Tory MPs are ready to defy their party over this.

As Isabel Hardman noted in The Spectator, Glyn Davies, MP for Montgomeryshire, used the modern form of political dissent – a blog – to announce he was considering voting against, saying if his constituency were carved up ‘The outcome would be so horrific I simply couldn’t carry on’.
Apparently he hasn’t however decided whether to vote against or simply abstain.

The BBC’s Welsh politics correspondent, David Cornock also writes ‘As I understand it, at least two other Welsh Tory MPs have serious doubts about the plans’.
Given the Conservatives only have 7 other MPs in Wales, 2 of them Ministers, it shouldn’t be too hard for a journalist how really cared to find out who these are – I’d think David Davies, MP for Monmouth would be a good bet for one.

Clearly the Davies are a rebellious breed, as Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, has also told The Telegraph he’s always opposed the changes ‘on a matter of principle’ as he disagrees with reducing the number of MPs.
While another near name-sake David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden and David Cameron’s former rival for the leadership, tells the same paper ‘I shall probably vote against.’

Fellow Northern MP, and another regular rebel, Andrew Percy of Brigg and Goole has also said he’ll ‘fight against’ the changes which ‘should be scrapped’, so can presumably be counted in the No camp.
The Telegraph also says ‘Three more MPs are also said to be preparing to defy Tory whip’. Might these be the same three MP for Cornish seats, George Eustace, Sheryll Murray and Sarah Newton who previously opposed the changes?
It’s also probably safe to assume another South-West MP Geoffrey Cox, who represents Torridge and West Devon, will could vote against, given he told the BBC in October ‘These are the zombie proposals. They are the walking dead proposals which will never see the light of day’.

Rory Stewart, the exotic MP for Penrith and the Border, has also said he was pleased the Lords voted to delay the boundary changes until 2018 as he wants to continue representing the same constituency. It doesn’t sound like he’ll vote for with any enthusiasm.
Perhaps Mark Field, who has previously called the boundary changes disruptive, and would see changes to his Cities of London and Westminster seat, might also be tempted to vote against, while South Derbyshire MP Heather Wheeler has said she would be ‘hugely disappointed’ if the changes to her seat go ahead.

Even if there are no other Conservative rebels, this makes at least 11 MPs who can’t be counted as certain to vote with the party, taking the votes they can definitely muster in favour down to 292.

Against an opposition of anywhere between at the very least 318, and – if all MPs from minor parties and unhappy Conservatives, including the mysterious Welsh pair, vote against – 351.

This means we could see the ‘Government’ losing tonight by anything between 7 votes and 59.

Of course the result will probably be somewhere in the middle, and nothing’s certain until the tellers read out the result, but it would seem Labour’s talk of a ‘close’ vote is merely managing expectations, and the Conservatives could be about to lose very badly indeed.


Some, or rather most, might question why anyone would take any notice of a single parliamentary defeat, and indeed there’s no immediate impact beyond some embarrassing headlines and a further blow to Conservatives’ morale. But in the long term the outcome of this vote will be very important.
Fighting the next election on the current boundaries could make all the difference in a close contest to who wins, and to the make-up of the next Government.

As The New Statesman says ‘Note the date – 29 January 2013 – it may well be remembered as the day that the Tories’ hopes of outright victory in 2015 finally ended.’

UPDATE – The Result: The final result was 292 for – 334 against, so an opposition majority of 42. Not the absolute worst it could be but a pretty bad day for the Conservative Whips.

Tim Shippman from The Daily Mail tweets that Conservative David Davis (the English one), Philip Davies, and John Barron and Richard Shepherd whom I didn’t predict voted with the opposition.
According to the Labour Whips Office on twitter Andrew Percy and Glyn Davies eventually abstained.
Ministers William Hague, Ken Clarke and Helen Grant all missed the vote. I knew William Hague was abroad but had ignored this as I’d assumed Ministers away on Government business would be paired – but maybe not in such a contentious vote?

Intrguingly the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman spotted Tory Minister ‘Grant Shapps deep in conversation with Nadine Dorries who walks off with him into the lobbies’ – it’ll be interesting to see if he managed to entice her into the Aye lobby, or whether she subsequently broke away.

Tim Shipman also captures some of the prevailing feeling tweeting: ‘Labour cheers as they win the next election’.

I’ll be interesting (for anyone who’s read this far down the post) to see just how MPs voted when the full division lists are published, but we can assume given the low number in the Aye lobby Conservatives failed to convince a significant number of their own MPs to vote with them, let alone any from minor parties.

I’ve posted about the final result here if you just can’t wait for more excitement.

A Throng of Ice and Fire

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Apologies if this short post has a slight quality of the stoned hippy drawling ‘Wooow, look at this man, but I just wanted to share these great pictures from the BBC website.

In Chicago this week a warehouse caught fire being completely burnt out. But there was a silver, or at least crystal, lining when the water the firefighters used in attempting to douse the blaze froze encasing the building, fire engines and the surrounding area in an eerie coat of ice.

I think the resulting pictures, viewed in flurries around the world may be my favourite images of this winter.
Even better than the County Durham grandmother who built her granddaughter the ‘tallest snowman in the UK’.

Written by oliverobserves

January 25, 2013 at 12:48 am

Five things to spot in Les Misérables

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I thought I’d write my second post on the new Les Misérables film directed by Tom Hopper. (Because no one else is focusing on that at the moment..)

I went to see it with some colleagues yesterday and, in common with seemingly everyone else I know posting adoring tweets and gushing Facebook statuses, I hugely enjoyed it.

Any film which takes nearly three hours to see and has the audience feeling sorry when it ends, rather than provoking mass glances at watches and clutches at bladders half-way through, must be good.
I thought the film perfectly captured the beauty and energy of the musical, combined with the grandiose epic and moral force of the novel.
It’s quite an achievement to tell a story which spans 18 years, 365 chapters, 1900 pages (or more depending on the edition), and hundreds of characters, and still make the storyline easier to follow for the audience than Love Actually.

All in all, a jolly good show.

So in a spirit of celebration, for unashamed fans of Les Misérables in whatever incarnation, here are five (spoiler-free) little things I liked, you can watch out for if you haven’t yet seen the film:

1. The Bastille Elephant

One thing I liked about the film was the way it worked in authentic 19th Century Parisian scenery, which the stage musical is understandably rather limited in doing, notably Notre Dame Cathedral (when it all got a bit Hunchback of Notre Dame with Javert clambering about on the rooftops).

The Elephant of the Bastille, suitably dilapidated, crumbling, and with a broken tusk, is also shown, with the street urchin Gavroche, who sleeps inside the elephant in the novel, seen on top of it.

The original statue stood on the site of the Bastille Prison, the storming of which in 1789 signalled the start of the French Revolution the radical students in Les Misérables hope to emulate.
It was commissioned by the Emperor Napoleon to commemorate the site of the now demolished Bastille (and his own military victories) who originally planned it to be built of bronze, melted down from captured enemy cannons.
Work began in 1810, with a full-size plaster model being completed in 1814. But with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 – itself described wonderfully if extremely tangentially in Victor Hugo’s novel – work on the bronze version was abandoned.
Despite rather sweetly being protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs, the plaster elephant was vandalised and became infested with rats over the years that followed, finally being removed in 1846 – denying it the chance to become as iconic a part of the Paris skyline as the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe.
But we can now see it recreated in all its shabby 1830s glory in Les Misérables.

Victor Hugo himself might have shed a tear. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure if Hugo would have approved of the Les Miz industry. He left directions that none of his poems should be set to music after his death, but luckily for the makers of Notre Dame de Paris, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Les Misérables amongst others said nothing about his novels.
In fact, given there were no less than three operas and a ballet based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame produced in his lifetime (one of which, by Louise Betin, he wrote the libretto for) we can assume he wouldn’t have minded seeing Les Misérables as a musical. Plus I’m sure he would have approved of the inevitable spike in sales of the novel bookshops across the world will be experiencing in the coming weeks.

2. Colm Wilkinson

Fans of the legendary Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson, who played created the role of John Valjean in the original 1985 London stage production of Les Misérables – for which the music was rewritten in a higher key to accommodate him – and played the part on many subsequent occasions such as the 10th Anniversary Concert, will be delighted to see him turn up in a small but crucial role.
(Harder to spot but also featured is an appearance from Frances Ruffelle who played Eponine in the original London production.)

I did wonder if, given a film version has been planned since at least 1988, this was a bit of a consolation prize as Wilkinson missed out on playing the main role of Valjean.

Valjean is not the only character musical theatre lovers owe Colm Wilkinson a debt of gratitude for helping create, as he also played Che on the original concept album of Evita, where his distinct voice, which somehow manages to be simultaneously husky and clear as a bell is instantly recognisable from the opening lines of ‘O What a Circus’. He also played the Phantom in the first performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the Sydmonton Festival.
More recently I enjoyed seeing him take part in another historical rebellion and come to a grisly end playing one of the instigators of The Pilgrimage of Grace, the sadly non-singing Lord Darcy, in The Tudors.

It seems fans of Les Misérables should also be grateful to Tim Rice. The story goes that the original London production team were having desperate trouble finding an actor suited to the part of Valjean, until Director Trevor Nunn asked his friend Tim Rice if he had any ideas; ‘The problem is we need someone who looks like a convict, and very strong as he needs to carry a man around on his back, but who also sings like an angel.’
Tim Rice instantly replied ‘That’s Colm Wilkinson’ – and so it came to pass.

3. Marius’ Grandfather

I was really pleased with how the film makers managed to translate the sprawling drama of Victor Hugo’s novel, full as it is of moving minor characters and sometimes frankly ludicrous coincidences, to the screen.

I was particularly pleased that they incorporated some aspects of the book not included in the stage musical, including the convent storyline, which explains where Valjean and Cosette conceal themselves for years. I think in the stage musical nearly a decade and hundreds of pages of the novel pass in a single subtitle reading ‘Paris, 9 years later’.
The film also includes Eponine and Cosette’s shared childhood, a nod towards Valjean’s miraculous underwater escape at one point, and also reincorporates Valjean and Cosette’s first meeting in the wood. (According to one story this was cut out of the London production, to Trevor Nunn’s disgust, after worries it might encourage children to talk to strangers.)

It also includes some truly gruesome depictions of the poverty described in the book – poor Fantine being forced to sell not just her hair, which you can see in any school production of the musical, but her teeth!

But I was particularly pleased Marius’ grandfather makes (I think) three very brief appearances – as he’s a great character in the novel. The nonagenarian Monsieur Gillenormand, an obsessive monarchist at odds with his revolutionary grandson, provides, like the Thenardiers, some much-needed comic relief after chapters of unrelenting misery. His anguish at his estrangement with Marius and subsequent delight at his return only adds to the readers’ hopes that Valjean can ‘Bring him home’.

Despite appearing in the original French concept album, where he and Marius sing a quick duet of reconciliation, he was cut out of the stage musical.
So I was pleased to see, however briefly, he can be spotted in the film, which also gives a little more of Marius backstory as a rich young man choosing, due to his ideals, to live amongst the poor.

[For all the people finding this post through searching for ‘Who plays Marius’ Grandfather’ and such like, the character is played by Patrick Godfrey.]

4. Alistair Brammer

I thought the entire enormous cast of the film were brilliant (with the possible exception of the extra who plays Corpse #37 whose acting I found a bit wooden) but I wanted to give a special mention to Alistair Brammer, whom I went to college with.

Alistair, a talented and amiable chap, plays the role of student revolutionary Jean Pouvaire, seen in the film decked in a blue jacket waving flags and shouting a lot, having previously played Marius in the West End.

I always thought I’d see Alistair getting his head smashed in one day, but assumed it’d be outside Roccocos Nightclub in Exeter, rather than by the bayonets of soldiers suppressing a revolution against the government of Louis Philippe in Les Misérables.

But it’s great to see him doing so well. Exeter College’s main claim to fame is no longer that it educated 50% of Dick and Dom.

5. The Song written to win an Oscar

I didn’t know there was a new song in the film until I saw it, but I shouldn’t have been surprised as only ‘original songs’ are eligible to win Academy Awards.
Having been performed on stage and TV millions of times none of the other songs would qualify as ‘original. Therefore, writing a new song in an attempt to bag an Oscar has become a tried and tested technique for film adaptations of musicals.

For example the song ‘You must love me‘ was added especially for the film version of Evita – when, sung by Madonna, it succeeded in winning the 1997 Oscar for ‘Best Original Song’.

Hoping to repeat the trick Andrew Lloyd-Webber also wrote a new song for the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, ‘Learn to be lonely‘ before sacrificing a possible Oscar by cutting it for artistic reasons, deciding it interrupted the flow too much.

I didn’t begrudge this addition at all as I thought the new song fitted the storyline and characters perfectly, and it’s always a pleasure to hear anything new from the trio of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer.
Their plan also seems to be working as they’ve received a nomination for ‘Best Original Song’. Good luck to them.

I’d urge everyone to go and see the film to enjoy a rousing musical for about the tenth the price of a West End show, which will hopefully have even the most cynical amongst us leaving the cinema humming with a spring in their step.
As the jaded Javert would say ‘My heart is stone, yet still it trembles.’

I can’t wait for the DVD to be released, when I might update this post as ‘50 things to spot in Les Misérables’. I’m very open to suggestions of moments I’ve missed.
Failing that, I’ll have to find a spare year to reread the novel for ‘500 things to spot in Les Misérables’.

Wilde times in Sheffield

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For my first proper new post I thought it was only right to go back to something old, so I’ve dug out this on Oscar Wilde and Sheffield which I wrote in (I think) the summer of 2010.
Hence the reference to it being written in the hotel where my Dad was staying on a visit to Sheffield. Re-reading it today I was intrigued enough to muse on it a bit more, and add the bit about John Ruskin and his museum.
If anyone’s got more information I’d be very happy to hear it.


As someone with a keen interest in Victoriana, and particularly the fin de siècle London literary scene, I’m familiar with the works of its great stage presence Oscar Wilde, excitedly reading first The Picture of Dorian Gray, then his entire ‘Collected Works’, over one summer when I was fourteen.
Through my teenage years I happily read everything by or about him I could get my hands on; even resorting to dubiously researched biographies, transcripts of his tragic trials, and those books of collected quotations which attribute every possible witty remark or amusing anecdote to Oscar Wilde (sometimes supported by Winston Churchill).

As such I know the letter Wilde wrote to his friend Lily Langtry, telling her ‘I am going to be married to a beautiful girl called Constance Lloyd‘. The letter is particularly interesting for Wilde enthusiasts, as providing ready proof that Wilde genuinely loved his wife, who he describes in a cascade of classical imagery and purple (or at least violet) prose as ‘a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a blossom, and wonderful ivory hands which draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her’.

What I didn’t know until now was that Oscar Wilde wrote the letter in Sheffield, in the very hotel in which I’m now writing this.

On being told, while visiting the Royal Victoria Hotel in Sheffield (now rebranded as a Holiday Inn) that Oscar Wilde once stayed here, I smiled politely and murmured interest, while privately thinking ‘Yeah sure. What nonsense’.

Oscar Wilde can’t have visited Sheffield! Surely the apostle of aestheticism, when not in Ireland or on the Continent, Algeria, or America would have spent his time in rather further down South? Surely the darling of Duchesses’ Drawing Rooms would have preferred the more genteel metropolitan surroundings of the Cafe Royale or The Savoy Hotel?
Surely the Prince of Paradox would only ever venture north to Lake Windermere?

Finding myself in Western Bank Library (itself slightly incongruously opened by T.S. Elliot now I mention it), for a meeting, I decided to make a quick detour to investigate further. Turning eagerly to the index of Richard Ellman’s gargantuan biography of Wilde I found no reference to Sheffield, or indeed Yorkshire at all. Clearly the whole thing was an inaccurate story dreamt up by an unscrupulous hotelier in a bizarre attempt to increase business.

Disappointed by such a dead-end I decided to cheer myself up with a quick dip into the Rupert Hart-Davis edition of Wilde’s letters. But lo, what should I see when turning to a letter addressed to ‘Dearest Lil Langtry’? The sender’s address in the top right-hand corner: ‘Royal Victoria Hotel, SHEFFIELD’.

I am sorry I ever doubted the wise stewards of the Holiday Inn. Thanks to Hart-Davis I now know Oscar Wilde did indeed spend at least two days in smoky Victorian Sheffield in January 1884, and that one of ‘the uttermost parts of the earth’ Wilde rushed back to see Constance from was South Yorkshire. Strange to think of him ambling along Division Street or strolling around the Botanical Gardens.

Of course I’d love to know what brought Wilde to Sheffield and what he did with his time here.
A possible dully prosaic answer Wilde was merely staying in the city to break a journey, in an age where rail journeys between Sheffield and London took even longer than they do today. The Royal Victoria Hotel would have served many travellers using the now defunct Sheffield Victoria station. (A viaduct of the vanished railway line can still be seen behind the hotel’s car park.)
We also know Wilde was in Belfast at the beginning of January 1884 so could certainly have been travelling the country.
However, a stay of two days to rest during a journey seems a bit excessive, even by the standards of a man who said ‘Whenever I feel like exercise I lie down until the feeling passes’.
Wilde presumably came to Sheffield with business in the city itself.

While it’s tempting to imagine Wilde throwing buns to the bears in the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, exhaustive Google-based research reveals this popular attraction had already been removed by the time of his visit (clearly health and safety gone mad).
It’s also nice to think Wilde may have come to visit his fellow poet Edward Carpenter, later an early pioneer of gay rights, who lived in a series of houses in and around Sheffield, and was certainly in Wilde’s wide circle of acquaintance. Tantalising as this is, I’ve no evidence for it.

My strongest theory is that Wilde came to Sheffield to visit a museum.

John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, writer, social thinker, and early advocate of environmentalism, founded the St George Museum in the Walkley District of Sheffield in 1875.

Being a great admirer of the steelworkers and craftsmen of Sheffield he wanted to provide a museum which make art and culture available to the working man and their families.
To provide maximum accessibility entry was free and it was open until 9pm on weekdays, and on Sunday afternoons (those were the days).
The little cottage in which it was housed was also stuffed full of historical and artistic treasures – paintings by Turner, Burne-Jones and others, drawings by Albrecht Dürer and William Blake, Medieval artifacts including a de Croy book of hours, and plaster casts of decoration on Venetian buildings Ruskin had visited such as the Doge’s Palace (literally The Stones of Venice).
As a keen geologist Ruskin also ensured many rocks and minerals were displayed, hoping this would encourage visitors to enjoy their natural surroundings.
He knew the steelworkers of Sheffield were very unlikely to ever see his beloved Italy, but hoped the heights of the Peak District could be as rewarding as the Alps, and that the seven hills of Sheffield a worthy substitute to the seven hills of Rome.

Many of the St George Museum’s items can happily still be seen today by working men and others, in the Ruskin Collection at Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries.

In the days of booming railway travel, the St George Museum became a major Victorian attraction, attracting thousands of visitors from Sheffield and further afield.
These included many working families from Ruskin’s intended audience, but also such famous visitors as William Morris, and Queen Victoria’s son Prince Leopold.

Wilde hugely admired Ruskin, from whom he picked up much of his fascination with Renaissance art, and his concept of the aesthetic. During his time as an undergraduate at Oxford Wilde had befriended Ruskin, who was then the University’s Slade Professor of Fine Art, and the two kept in touch, Wilde later writing to Ruskin in 1888 ‘The dearest memories of my Oxford days are my walks and talks with you…there is in you something of prophet, of priest and of poet’.

Wilde also shared Ruskin’s interest in Socialism and the working class, as he explored in his essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’.
(During Wilde’s later trials the establishment was scandalised not just by Wilde’s sexuality, but also by the revelation that he was on intimate terms with men of a much lower class than his. Wilde declared to the Prosecution’s shock that he would happily talk to a street urchin ‘As long as a street urchin wanted to talk to me’.)

It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to think Wilde came to Sheffield to visit and admire his friend’s museum.
The museum’s building remains standing, much expanded and altered. I doubt many of the people hurrying past the nondescript apartments on the junction between Rivelin Street and Bole Hill Road have any idea they are passing what was once one of the most popular places in Sheffield.

This minute information on the young Wilde’s whereabouts may seem incredibly pointless. But I’m glad I took the time to research it, as it reminded me that Wilde, remembered chiefly in Britain for the Greek tragedy of his passionate personal life, was first and foremost a great writer, specialising in both hauntingly evocative imagery and the wonderful wit of juxtaposed ideas.

He’s one of those writers where you can turn to any page at random and find a brilliant phrase or something to make you smile. Hart-Davis includes another letter Wilde wrote while in Sheffield to the American sculptor Waldo Story, which contains a great description of the practical problems of being ‘desperately in love’:

‘I have been obliged to be away nearly all the time since our engagement, civilising the provinces by my remarkable lectures, but we telegraph each other twice a day, and the telegraph clerks have become quite romantic in consequence. I hand in my messages, however, very sternly, and try to look as if ‘love’ was a cryptogram for ‘buy Canadian Railway Shares’ and ‘darling’ a cypher for ‘sell out at par!’
I am sure it succeeds.’

UPDATE: I’ve very pleased this first post has attracted so many views after one day, and kind comments from friends and others. However, due to one of those comments I have a very exciting update – John Highfield, Sheffield’s resident PR guru and all round theatre expert sent me a tweet saying ‘I always thought Oscar came to Sheffield on one of his lecture tours, perhaps to the Cutlers’ Hall?’
Although it might undermine my whole Wilde about Museums argument, this was too good a tip not to follow up.

Sheffield’s Cutlers’ Hall, the Headquarters of the cutlery makers who for centuries brought the City so much prosperity, was built in 1832, so it would have been an perfect venue for Wilde to visit.
However there the trail went cold – there was no reference in any of the Cutlers’ or Sheffield records which online enquiries could bring up to any visit from Wilde – surely something at least to note, if not to celebrate. Even given Wilde’s notoriety after his 1895 conviction, which saw his reviled name painted over on theatre hoardings and Oxford prize boards, couldn’t have brushed him out so completely from History?
No the much more likely, and more prosaic explanation was that Wilde never visited the Cutlers’ Hall.
The usually exhaustive Ellman was no help – his doorstopper of a biography includes a list of places where Wilde lectured, but makes no mention of Sheffield.
It was time to give up and dismiss the lecture idea as some theatrical legend John heard in a bar.

But then I thought, purely out of interest, I should see where Wilde did lecture in England, and pulled up this excellent ‘Mr. Oscar Wilde’ German fan site, which includes a much more comprehensive list of the venues where Wilde spoke.
As well as revealing that Wilde spoke in such unexpected Northern places as Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Huddersfield, and at least three times in nearby Chesterfield, this included the crucial entry:
1884, January 21-22 Firth College, Sheffield: “The House Beautiful” and “Impressions of America”
Wilde clearly gave two lectures in Sheffield on two consecutive nights – surely the same two consecutive days that month we know we sent letters from the Royal Victoria Inn.

I had found Wilde’s reason for being in Sheffield.

But what really delighted me of course was the venue for his lectures; Firth College was the City’s educational hub, teaching men, and radically at the time women, Medicine, Sciences and the Arts. In 1905 it became the University of Sheffield, the very University where I work – and where, proving all things are circular, I’m now writing this.
I love the idea that students here nearly 130 years ago would have crowded in to see the up-and-coming guest lecturer, who was causing such a stir. And maybe to see if he really carried a sunflower and looked like Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.

I can also argue that this doesn’t diminish the likelihood of Wilde visiting Ruskin’s museum, during the daytime when he wasn’t lecturing. If anything it might anecdotally increase it.
Firth College had been opened five years before in 1879 by the Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s artistic, intelligence, but sadly sickly son. It was in the delight of this royal visit that Sheffield’s Leopold Street and Leopold Square were named after the prince.
Prince Leopold had been in the year above Oscar Wilde at Oxford, where he had also been taught by John Ruskin, and took the opportunity while in Sheffield to open Firth College, to visit his old tutor’s celebrated museum in Walkley.
Surely it would have only been polite and natural for Firth College’s next distinguished visitor to do the same?

Now it only remains to establish in which building Wilde spoke – almost certainly the former Firth College building on the corner of Leopold Street and West Street. This means another Sheffield hotel can claim a Wilde link – as it’s now the Leopold Hotel.
And of course to plan an elaborate Wilde themed 130th anniversary around this time next year.

Another year, another blog: Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the internet…

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The tell-tale signs of the birth of another year are all around us.
You can’t take a walk without an increased number of joggers puffing past, faces lined with grim determination to at least go five more minutes before giving up. You can’t go to a pub without seeing an increased number of people glancing mournfully behind the bar before asking for a lemonade. Nicotine patches have replaced Christmas jumpers and comedy antlers as the soon to be discarded seasonal fashion accessories.

With a similar burst of New Year’s Resolution driven enthusiasm, I’ve decided to start a blog.

One friend I mentioned this plan to wasn’t overly impressed, saying dismissively ‘You’ve been threatening to start a blog for years!’
Indeed I have often said that I’d like to start a blog, but never actually found the time or the will to do it. Actually that’s not quite true, as I did have a blog for about a year between 2009-10 which I was rather fond of, until under pressure of work its posts became fewer and further between, and its demise became as inevitable as Crossroads or The News of the World.

I’ve hesitated to try again, partly due to the fear that blogs can easily become ridiculously pretentious and self-centred, and also worries about inferiority – knowing there are others who can say things more elegantly, forcefully, and certainly more concisely than me.

But I’m eager to give it a shot

  • Firstly, because I can be pretentious and self-centred,
  • Secondly, to provide a place to record thoughts I can’t fit into a 140 character tweet,
  • Thirdly, in the hope it serves as somewhere to record pleasant or interesting things which happen before I forget them,
  • And lastly, but not leastly, just to see what happens and how it goes.


I’m not planning any theme as such, but anticipate it might include posts about Higher Education policy and news, politics, history, comments on historical places I visit and books I read, and maybe Arthur the Aardvark.

I’ll going to try to post something at least once a week, so you have something new to see if you decide to check back.


I’m also extremely open to suggestions of an alternative name. The Oliver Observations was the name of the old blog which I’m just transplanted here. It was only ever meant to be a placeholder until I came up with something better, but I never did.
(It was also originally a very niche in-joke as my friend Kyle Christie had a blog at the time called The Christie Communiques. My friend Dannie Grufferty also briefly followed the alliterative pattern with a blog called The Gruff Grumbles.)

I remember rejected suggestions at the time included Joe Bloggs, Oliver’s Twist-ing Kaleidoscope, and Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dream…Blog. But it anyone can think of anything better I’ll be eager to hear it.

I’d also really welcome any feedback telling me what you think of issues I cover or the blog itself so do please leave a comment or get in touch.

The happiest of New Years to all friends, associates, and those misguided here by search engines,

Joe x

Written by oliverobserves

January 14, 2013 at 1:11 am