Book fest hears account of forgotten war

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Peter Snow, the eminent broadcaster, talked about his new book, “When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington”.

He details the military campaign that Britain launched against America from 1812, in which British forces defeated American forces, successfully taking Washington and burning much of it, including the White House and Congress. Snow was fascinating in contextualising a war that has been largely forgotten.

Peter Snow, Scottish Power Marquee.

Peter Snow, Scottish Power Marquee.

Snow outlined a number of causal factors, among them Britain stopping American trade with France to oppose the ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte and American seamen being press-ganged into the Royal Navy. This led to Americans invading Canada. However, with that invasion floundering and Napoleon defeated and exiled, Britain could now focus on the war with America.

With 50 ships, and 4500 men, the British attacked near Washington, landing at a place called Benedict. Meeting hastily gathered US forces at the battle of Bladensburg, veterans of the Spanish Peninsular campaign against Napoleon were able engage and defeat the Americans who were deployed in three lines but weren’t able to support each other. The British forces then marched into Washington and set fire to key buildings. However, Snow notes, this split opinion in Britain, the future George IV not being overly pleased at the news, and nor were some MPs.

This event was gave a very interesting insight into an overlooked episode in military history.

Horse and Bamboo Theatre staged in the Bladnoch Distillery a theatre production of Angus: Weaver of Grass, detailing the life of a crofter from Uist, Angus McPhee, who, while serving in the Second World War, was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He was sent to Craig Dunain hospital in Inverness where he spent most of the rest of his life. However, while there, after having chosen not to speak, Angus started to weave grass into many different items, such as hats and coats. A visitor to the hospital saw this and thought that these were artworks, paving the way for these items to be put on display art exhibitions. However, when the “Care in the Community” policy was introduced, Angus was returned to Uist, sadly dying soon after.

This was staged very well, with the effective use of puppetry, though the scene where shock therapy was used on Angus may have been a little too much.

The day before, Polly Pullar, a field naturalist and wildlife writer for Scottish Field, discussed her new book, “Fauna Scotica”, an illustrated guide to Scotland’s wildlife which she has co-written with Mary Low.

This was very informative as Pullar talked about our wildlife with personal anecdotes as well the interaction of wildlife with humans. For example, she noted Scotland’s huge diversity of habitats for its size, including the beaches of North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands, where sheep graze on seaweed. She also noted the close relationship that Shetlanders had with their livestock to the point where they almost view them as family members. She also recalled setting out to Lewis in the Hebrides to try “guga”, a delicacy made from gannet flesh.

Asked about the possibility of “re-wilding” nature, she replied that she didn’t think re-wilding would work and that nature should be left to take its course. However, having seen the environmental history lecture by T C Smout on September 28, which challenged the idea that the history of humanity is distinct and separate from nature, it is questionable whether nature can be left to “take its course”, if that means no human influence on the environment.

On Thursday, October 3, Charles Emmerson talked about his new book, “1913: The World before the Great War”. This looks at the period through 23 cities, from Shanghai to Buenos Aires, seeing the time as an interconnected, fast-paced and exciting world that had many possibilities. As he pointed out, headlines in London were more likely to feature the turbulence in Ireland at the time.

Emmerson argued that 1913 was not some fag-end of the Victorian era, but was a time of automobiles and planes as well as increasingly fast communications with mass newspapers and cinema. Emmerson also pointed out that three monarchs, George VI, Kaiser Wilhelm and Tsar Nicholas, whose countries would be major combatants in 1914, were in Berlin for a wedding of the daughter of Wilhelm. As Emmerson showed with a slide, this event didn’t show a frosty atmosphere. Emmerson also pointed out that rising tensions had be taken in context of a vibrant, modern and interconnected world.

This was a fascinating talk with a glimpse into a world that has too often been seen as merely a prelude to the carnage of the First World War.