11 December 2017

Adding value - professional archaeology

This week the German journal Archäologische Informationen published a paper by Gerry Wait and I on the value of independent professional accreditation for archaeologists and cultural heritage practitioners. The journal is read by members of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Ur- und Frühgeschichte e.V. (DGUF), who are interested in the ways in which CIfA has evolved to enhance the professional status of archaeologists.

This is the abstract:

There are many approaches to archaeology and cultural heritage across the world. These tend to be situated on a spectrum between total state control (the ‘national patrimony’ model) and the regulation of private actors (the ‘social licence’ model). Whichever model – or combination of models – is used, the success of any archaeological or cultural heritage programme depends on adequate resources,
community and stakeholder engagement, and strong regulation and oversight. It is also essential that the archaeologists or other heritage practitioners have the necessary skills and operate in a professional framework which is independent of political or financial structures. What should such a professional framework look like, and how should it be managed? How can an independent professional framework achieve recognition from government and private-sector archaeology and cultural heritage practitioners at all levels? How can such a framework retain the respect of politicians, developers and other professions whose work impacts on archaeology and cultural heritage? What value does an independent system of accreditation add for the public?

You can read the full text here.

It is worth having a look too at the DGUF website, as well as the homepage of the Archäologische Informationen journal.

This is one of a number of international initiatives that Gerry and I are pursuing on behalf of CIfA, and hopefully there will be more news to report on these soon.

8 September 2017

European Association of Archaeologists 2017

This year's EAA conference took place in Maastricht last week. The old town of Maastricht is a delightfully tangled arrangement of narrow streets and little squares. However the conference was held in the MECC, a concrete convention centre about five minutes by train from the old town.

Vrijthof Square, Maastricht

Nevertheless this was a good venue in that everything was under one roof. As usual the Netherlands impressed with its efficiency and friendliness. For personal reasons I was in Antwerp for part of the week, so spent some time on various trains shuttling between the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium and the Netherlands, passing through the French-speaking part of Belgium on the way. This reminded me in a very happy way of our massive pan-European road trip earlier this summer, which I should post about sometime.

Anyway, the conference was held in the shadow the 25th anniversary of two important international agreements. First of course the eponymous treaty which led to the creation of the modern EU, including the notions of 'European citizenship' and 'ever closer union'. Sadly a handful of xenophobic bigots in the Tory party have rudely pulled the UK away from these ideals which have brought peace, prosperity, freedom of movement and cultural exchange. This annoys me immensely: I really don't understand why so many old people in the UK think peace, prosperity etc. are bad, and have decided to destroy their children's futures in such a horrific and incompetent manner.

Perhaps more relevantly, the second treaty is of course the catchily-named 'European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (Revised)', more commonly known as the Valetta (or Malta) Convention.

A gratuitous photograph of Antwerp, to make a point about freedom of movement.

There were two principal activities for me at the conference - aside from catching up with people, which I was not able to do as much as I would have liked.

Firstly I was there to help Jeroen Bouwmeester - a friend and colleague from the Netherlands - run a session on urban archaeology. We had of course done our first session together on this subject in the Hague (2010) and this was followed the following year by another one in Oslo. Despite further discussion in Helsinki, other things had intervened in both our lives and so it took until now to return to the subject.

Previous sessions had focussed very much on the act of urban archaeology and in the results that emerged. So there had been lots of discussion of exciting forms of medieval town plan, cesspits and so-on. This time however our focus was on the management of urban archaeology in 'highly dynamic' urban centres. The session was very much about the difficulties of extracting information under extremely pressured and difficult circumstances. We had a great range of papers from the Netherlands, Lithuania, Norway, Switzerland and Italy, and a superb discussion with wide-ranging contributions from as far away as the US and Jerusalem. As is often the case, there is much in common.

It was clear that Valetta had made some difference to the situation (in a good way) although there were still some alarming tales of the way in which archaeology had been dealt with in the past.

This was a hugely enjoyable session - and with 50 or so people in a small room it seemed very well-attended. All the credit for pulling everything together must go to Jeroen, who also provided a very interesting theoretical and methodological overview. This time we are determined to produce a publication - so we shall see how that goes!

My second main purpose at the EAA was to support my colleagues from the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) in developing links with the EAA itself and with archaeologists in particular countries (notably Germany and the Netherlands) who are trying to find ways of developing professional accreditation systems of their own. As well as two discussion sessions, the meeting also saw the signing of a formal Memorandum of Understanding between CIfA and the EAA. This means that the two organisations can mutually support and assist each other, and is a good step forward.

Signing of the MoU by Pete Hinton (left) of CIfA and Felipe Criado Boado of the EAA.

As ever the EAA was a wonderful event. There was much that I missed. Some of that was my own fault but some of it was also the very nature of such a large and complex event with 2,000 delegates and lots of overlapping and clashing sessions. Nevertheless I did find time to learn about medieval earthworks in Denmark and Iron Age fortifications in eastern Europe.

I am looking forward to the 2018 conference already!

21 July 2017

Brexit and borders

As an archaeologist who voted in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, it is impossible not to consider the historical dimensions of Brexit. A particular concern for me is the potential loss of the freedom of movement that I have been able to take advantage of as an EU citizen. I have been thinking a lot about borders, particularly the one I cross every day – between Wales and England.

The train from Aberystwyth to Birmingham International 
passing the Shrewsbury Sutton Bridge Signal box, August 2016.

The current Anglo-Welsh border was created as part of the process of fully incorporating Wales into the English legal system. This was done in 1535 and 1542 by two pieces of legislation collectively known as the ‘Laws in Wales Acts’. The legal status of Wales as part of England was fixed by the Wales and Berwick Act 1746. In the long term, the effective abolition of Wales as a legal entity has had the opposite effect - increasing nationalism in the nineteenth century has led to the current situation where Wales has its own government, and even, following the 2017 Wales Act, the potential to create its own Parliament (as opposed to the current 'Assembly').

However in the direction this country is currently being taken it seems quite likely that the Tory government in Westminster will seek to 'take back control' of some of the powers that have been devolved to the constituent parts of the UK. This seems most likely to take place first in the realm of agri-environment schemes and agricultural subsidy more generally, when EU funding will entirely disappear and is promised to be replaced by money from the UK government. The mechanisms for this have not been worked out, and in the meantime the whole system seems to be grinding to a halt, which doesn't inspire much confidence. We shall see.

It is of course ironic that a government committed to 'the Union' of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is blindly and increasingly incompetently trying to pull the UK away from the European Union. This year is the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty. This document, contentious for Tories and ultimately fatal for John Major, laid down the principles of the modern EU and began the road to the Euro.

The EU demonstrates that it is possible to have freedom of movement, freedom of trade, peace, prosperity and mutual support whilst still retaining independence and individuality. Ironically of course regions like Wales benefit the most from the redistribution of wealth within the EU through structural funds. One very stupid thing about Brexit is that the UK is not in Schengen (so we have control of our own borders) and we are not in the Euro (so we have control of our own currency).

Hopefully the incompetence of the current government is simply a clever ruse to stop the whole thing altogether. Again, we shall see.

Happily I am about to go on holiday next week on an epic road trip which will take me from Shrewsbury to the Black Sea - passing through or visiting no less than seven other EU countries. Some of these were at various times part of the Habsburg Empire, which managed in a slightly crazy way to hold together various national, linguistic and cultural groups in a structure that permitted freedom of movement, expression and trade.

29 September 2016

European Association of Archaeologists 2016

This year the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) met in Vilnius. This was my first visit to Lithuania, and I enjoyed it thoroughly; I always find eastern Europe to be vibrant, forward-looking and positive and this was no exception. The EAA is a wonderful forum for bringing together archaeologists across Europe, facilitating dialogue across a range of boundaries. This year's conference took place in the aftermath of the creation of a new boundary - the result of the UK referendum on EU membership.

'Brexit' session at the EAA. Photograph by Felipe Criado Boado.

Indeed there was a special 'Brexit' session, hastily convened and well-attended. Interestingly, UK archaeologists have always comprised the single largest bloc of EAA delegates (estimates ranged from 30-40%); naturally as archaeologists we tend to see the broader temporal and geographical commonalities rather than differences. After all the British Isles only became an archipelago about 8,000 years ago.

The session effectively fell into two halves.

The first was a discussion about Brexit. This covered territory that was familiar to UK colleagues - essentially a hand-wringing self-therapy about the loss of academic funding and contacts, the loss of free movement, and the potential loss of free exchange of ideas and ways of working; as well as the depressing expressions of xenophobia, racism and insularity which seem to characterise present-day public discourse in the UK.

However the second part of the session was much more interesting and indeed positive. Several delegates reminded us that the EAA had unwittingly conflated itself with the EU: the timetabling of next year's meeting at Maastrict to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the eponymous treaty was emblematic and symptomatic of this. We were reminded of previous conferences in Russia (2003), Norway (2011) and Turkey (2014) as examples of the EAA reaching out to a wider Europe that was culturally defined, rather than politically defined. The feeling seem to be that we had the opportunity to redefine 'European' archaeology on much wider terms.

The outcome of this session was therefore a very positive one. Ultimately there will be a rethinking of the role of the EAA as a mechanism for inclusivity of all archaeologists working on, in and around the continent of Europe as broadly as it can be defined. A working party has been established to consider how this might be achieved, and some very positive post-conference conversations have been had around this.

Archaeologists have a very important voice in the development of future society. We have an understanding of the long-term social changes that have taken place, and recognise the wide variety of environmental, territorial, technological and economic influences that give rise to those changes. Past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future, but there is a lot that our policy-makers for the future could learn from an understanding of the past. We need to be more self-confident in articulating some of those lessons.

There were other interesting sessions, of course, including one on climate change that was very challenging... the subject of a future post. The social events were fabulous. Many thanks to our hosts, and to the EAA committees who organised another memorable meeting.

12 August 2016

Archaeology and archaeologists in a new Europe

Another month has passed since the EU referendum, and whilst things are still unsettled it is now possible to see consequences for archaeology other than the immediate negative impacts which I described in my previous post - namely a loss of public and private funding from all parts of the sector.

Offa's Dyke, near Oswestry, Shropshire. Once a fiercely contested border on the edge of Europe; 
now just a dotted line on a map and a place for nature, relaxation and togetherness.

That will of course still happen. Many of the economic consequences were detailed by Doug Rocks-Macqueen in his excellent pre-Brexit blog post (which has had a number of post-Brexit addenda). I think Doug's analysis was basically correct - economically it will be at best bad, or it could be very bad, or worse.

Additionally there is the Brexit dream of cutting 'red tape' - specifically 'streamlining' the planning system to enable development. Since most UK archaeology is undertaken as part of the planning process, this represents a very real potential threat. 

In the longer term the greatest danger is a diminution in European archaeological co-operation, particularly when the frameworks for much of that co-operation are multi-partner projects with European public funding. Any restriction on freedom of movement will massively hamper the ability of archaeologists in all countries to continue meaningful research, and to share best practice.

However, positivity is essential, and we need to proactively and enthusiastically fight our corner. In this context I was delighted that the CIfA met with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport last week, and argued that:
  • the UK needs to retain is heritage legislation
  • new funding streams must be established to mitigate for the loss of EU ones
  • free movement of accredited archaeologists is essential

We need to think positively about how to develop new and potentially more interesting and flexible frameworks in the future. After all there are also active and very constructive collaborations going on all the time with our colleagues in non-EU European countries, as well as with those in the US, Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

It is also the case that the Brexit vote is likely to have an impact on the EU too. There will be reconsideration of processes, policies and funding streams; and in particular much soul-searching about the relationship of EU structures to national and regional populations.

It is perhaps ironic that UK archaeologists are among the most enthusiastic and numerous participants in the annual European Association of Archaeologists meetings, and have consistently strongly influenced the direction of travel for professional archaeology across most of north-west Europe and elsewhere. We are all well aware that modern national boundaries are essentially meaningless in the longer durée of archaeological time.

So I am very much looking forward to this years' EAA meeting, which is coming up in a few weeks. Indeed there is a special session on Brexit and its implications for European archaeology, which will be fascinating. This is a critical time for engagement with European and global colleagues, to refresh existing networks and create new ones.

What is done is done. This is not a time for regrets, it is a moment to create and enjoy new opportunities. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.

16 July 2016

The EU referendum and UK cultural heritage

It has been a turbulent few weeks, politically, personally and professionally, and only now have I found the time to reflect on one of the most momentous political upheavals of my lifetime.

On 23rd June 2016 a referendum was held in the UK, which asked whether voters wanted to 'remain' or 'leave' the European Union. The referendum was a consequence of a manifesto commitment by the Conservative Party which had not expected to win the 2015 General Election, and had been made to appease a minority of its backbench MPs. Like many colleagues I went through a 'grieving' process - utter disbelief, followed by depression and anger.

Flags outside the Welsh Government buildings in Aberystwyth, on 12th May 2016.

Friends will know that I am a passionate enthusiast for European unity. I see the EU as the best mechanism for maintaining peace, equality and prosperity across most of a continent which has been in almost continual warfare for all but the most recent 70 of more than 3,000 years. I welcome open borders, and I am happy that a small part of my taxes goes to support citizens in other EU countries. In my lifetime the existence of the EU has helped Spain, Portugal and Greece to emerge from fascist dictatorships, and has helped large parts of eastern Europe to emerge from behind an 'iron curtain'. 28 democracies working together - not always in agreement, certainly, but working together constructively.

Archaeology does not respect modern national borders. Indeed it is only relatively recently that the British archipelago was separated from the mainland. Whilst there is no doubt that co-operation will continue with European colleagues, there will be some very serious impacts in archaeology and cultural heritage which are deeply regrettable.

Firstly, academic colleagues will lose an enormous amount of funding, and it will be much more difficult to co-operate internationally. Already long-term projects with European funding and EU partners are under threat. There is a danger of increasing insularity, isolationism and ultimately the marginalisation of UK academia.

Secondly, with arts and cultural heritage funding already very much at the bottom of the list of priorities for any UK government - particularly the current one - a diminution of funding in particular areas threatens those of us who depend to a greater or lesser extent on public funding. Wales receives a large subsidy from the EU; when that money is no longer available then other budgets - such as heritage - will be cut to make up for the loss in areas such as health, infrastructure and employment.

Thirdly, the uncertainty during the period between the referendum and the eventual moment of leaving will create at best economic stagnation, and at worst a deep recession. Archaeological colleagues whose funding relies largely on the construction industry - whether it is housebuilding, industrial expansion or infrastructure - will also suffer.

It is less than a month since the referendum, and the political situation is still unsettled. But the next few years are going to be tough for archaeology, and archaeologists, in the UK.

27 April 2016

Urbanisation: an interdisciplinary perspective

It has been a privilege to spend a few days in the beautiful lakeside city of Lausanne, at a symposium on urbanisation in the British Isles. This was a remarkable meeting of academic and professional linguists, historians, geographers, sociologists (and one archaeologist!).

Stepping out of my archaeological 'silo' was refreshing, and discussions from a range of perspectives about life in industrial urban spaces over the last 500 years were very illuminating.

Switzerland in the foreground, France in the background.

Organised by scholars in the department of linguistics at the University of Lausanne, the symposium developed from their 'Emerging Standards' project which began in 2013. This project aims to shed light on the 'complex processes that are involved in the emergence and development' of language - specifically the period c.1400-c.1700, using the written records of non-metropolitan England to trace the formalisation of English.

The symposium was a very brave venture into uncharted waters by scholars seeking the broadest possible context in which to situate their work, and as a result was a stimulating meeting.

The deliberately broad topic and date range gave everyone very free rein to describe their work and to discuss a variety of themes. Everyone agreed how refreshing it was to have a genuinely interdisciplinary experience - so often we use the phrase 'interdisciplinary' when we are really still in the comfort zone of our own specialism.

The programme is on the symposium website, along with abstracts.

Contributors explored the dark underbelly of Victorian London, the liguistic complexity of late-medieval England, the post-colonial geography of 1960s New Towns, the impact of new world urbanisation on rural Ireland, suburban house names in the nineteenth century, and the social life of park benches in contemporary London.

My own contribution was a slightly random paper providing an archaeological perspective on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century urbanisation in England, using Sheffield, Birmingham, the East Shropshire Coalfield and the Black Country as examples.

Sheffield Canal Basin and the 'Sheaf Works', February 1992.

Despite the disparate range of perspectives, we all had a great deal more in common than perhaps we might have expected. And because of the disparate range of perspectives, we all learned a great deal from the understandings that emerge from different disciplinary developments.

The archaeological approach most obviously overlapped with historical geography, but linguistic scholars - working in a discipline which was the least familiar to me - are also mapping social geographies of time and place. There was a strong colonial/post-colonial narrative running through all of the papers which was particularly interesting.

Speakers at the symposium.

Discussions around the formal programme were - as is often the case - also illuminating: touching on present-day meanings of ethnicity, the politics of identity (and politics generally!), urban planning and civic engagement, and the role of academics in modern social and political discourse. It was interesting to observe that the pendulum swinging between archaeological 'theory' and 'practice' over the last couple of decades had been swinging very similarly in other disciplines too.

So, many thanks to Anita Auer and Marije van Hattum and their colleagues at the University of Lausanne, and to all of the delegates for interesting conversations. Discussion is already continuing, publication is being planned, and a follow-up meeting would be very welcome. I have been inspired to look at my work in different ways, and this was a wonderful opportunity to provoke new ideas and directions.

21 March 2016

Historic Environment (Wales) Act 2016

Today is an historic moment in the history of UK heritage legislation. After years of consultation, debate and political manoeuvering, the Historic Environment (Wales) Bill today received Royal assent and so has become law.

This picture - taken from the Twitter feed of Deputy Culture Minister Ken Skates - shows some of the people whose hard work has resulted in this important piece of legislation.

Photograph from @WG_CultureMin on Twitter. Copyright probably Welsh Government.

As a relative newcomer to the historic environment scene in Wales, I have found the process of preparing the bill and consulting on it to be refreshingly open and honest. Many of us have had more than one opportunity to comment in detail about the provisions in the legislation. I would have preferred stronger mechanisms to deal with damage to Scheduled Monuments, but - given the complex political circumstances, and the fact that the Act seeks to modify existing legislation - the Act is to be welcomed.

The full text of the Act can be found on the 'legislation.gov.uk' website; and more detail about the process of the creation of the Bill, some of the background and key changes are available on the Welsh Government website.

For me the Act brings about two main improvements.

Firstly - for the first time in the UK, and almost certainly the world - it is a statutory duty for Welsh Ministers to maintain an Historic Environment Record (HER). Placing the duty on Welsh Ministers rather than local authorities (as was originally intended) gives greater solidity to the present system in Wales, and is certainly a much better position than the rest of the UK

Secondly the powers of Welsh Ministers - exercised through Cadw and to some extent sometimes discharged through the Welsh Archaeological Trusts - to stop unauthorised works to Scheduled Monuments, and to compel owners to rectify the damage (as well as enabling access without permission) have been increased. Whilst the full 'defence of ignorance' which was a feature of the 1979 Act has not been eliminated entirely, the new Welsh Act certainly makes it more difficult.

It will be interesting to see how the divergence between English and Welsh systems which this Act represents will actually manifest itself on the ground on monuments that are both in England and Wales - such as Offa's Dyke, for example.

It is of course early days. Some provisions of the Act won't come into force for a while, and much of the underlying regulations and guidance are still in preparation. Nevertheless this is a positive piece of legislation which reinforces the role of the Welsh Archaeological Trusts, and places the historic environment in an important position in Welsh cultural life.

29 November 2015

Some thoughts on corporate governance

I have been thinking a lot lately about corporate governance in the heritage sector, and particularly how relationships between non-executive directors (the Board) and the executive (CEO and others) are managed.

This stems from my current roles on both sides of that particular fence - firstly in my day job as the executive Director (ie. CEO) of the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT), and secondly as a non-executive director (ie. Board member) of both the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) and the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA).

The trick is to strike the balance between having the support and advice of the Board, without micro-management. The Board also need to have a long-term strategic vision, and each member of the Board needs to have as wide a perspective as possible on the issues facing the organisation.

There are two things which need to be in place to make it work well: people and protocols.

Firstly, it is important to have a range of people on the Board whose experience is not entirely from within the sector within which the organisation operates. It is clear from recent events that the Boards of some charities have not worked as they should have done, and I suspect that in the cultural heritage sector we could do with improving the ways in which business is done.

Past and current experience is that archaeological organisations in particular tend to draw from a very narrow pool of people. The same can also be true in the museum sector, and perhaps elsewhere. This may not matter so much in the context of a learned society - where in fact focussed expertise from the discipline or sub-discipline is arguably more important - but even there the value of an outside perspective is perhaps under-rated.

Recent recruitment to the BCLM Board, for example, has been through an open and transparent process. Gaps in the skill set of the Board have been identified and a selection panel manages the recruitment of new members. This has resulted in a transformation of the Board in recent years - former members had been very long-serving, and some posts were 'institutional' ones. Some of these worked very well, but others were occupied by disinterested individuals who weren't willing or able to contribute to the strategic development of the organisation. Now we have a diverse board of people with a general heritage background, people from other independent museums, people from the broader arts and cultural sector, and people from business and industry in the region. We are still bedding down as a 'team' but every meeting is extremely interesting and I think we all feel that - whatever our background - we are making a valued contribution to the governance of this very successful educational charity and visitor attraction.

Secondly, protocols are important. Lines need to be drawn so that the CEO feels supported and respected, and not undermined by the Board in day-to-day decision-making.

Here the example of the CIfA Board is worth noting. At a recent special Board meeting we received governance training from Andy Friedman of the Professional Associations Research Network. This was extremely valuable, and we followed this with a session which roughed out a 'responsibilities protocol'. We all broadly agreed where most of the lines should be drawn. Things like the long-term strategic plan and the financial plan should be designed by the executive but approved (and monitored) by the Board, whereas the Board itself should be responsible for setting pay and health and safety.

The CIfA Board (like my own Board at CPAT) is at the moment drawn entirely from within the profession, but I think we have recognised the need to at least consider widening the membership.

I think that there is a great deal that the cultural heritage sector, and particularly those organisations who are charities, could learn a lot from the experience of our counterparts in the for-profit world. Sure, there have been some high-profile failures (notably in banking and finance) but - in the Anglo-Saxon world at least - corporate governance in the private sector seems to be robust and efficient.

At the moment I have to admit that the governance of CPAT falls short of best practice, but valuable lessons on how it can be improved are being learned.

1 February 2015

Escaping fascism: my family's experience

Having recently moved house (again), all sorts of long-forgotten things are surfacing from boxes. This includes some family history. Today (1st February) would have been my late grandmother's 101st birthday. She led a fascinating life as one of four daughters of an expatriate British-Canadian oil prospector, growing up mostly in Romania but with periods of education in Turkey, Germany and Scotland - qualifying as a medical doctor in the 1930s. A remarkable woman; here she is in Romania in 1923 (aged 19).

One of the very interesting recently rediscovered documents is an account by her father (my great-grandfather) of his escape in 1940 from the Nazi invasion of Romania. It is a short typescript, and a remarkable insight into a world that is now completely lost - as well as an interesting journey that would not now be possible.

Leaving Constanta on 23rd October 1940, they travelled by steamer to Istanbul, then by train to Baghdad (via Aleppo and Mosul - 'we arrived in Mosul about 12 in the night where we were received by the British Committee who served us a very nice tea with sandwiches and cigarettes'). After refreshments in Baghdad (provided by 'a gentleman, Mr. Matheson, a bank manager') they took the overnight 'desert sleeper' train to Basrah, where they were hosted by the British Consul. Another steamer took them down the river past miles of date plantations, stopping at Bahrain to collect American oil workers and their families ('and also two very rich Arab pearl merchants'), arriving in Karachi on 21st December.

'Karachi is the capital of the Sind Province of India [it is now of course in Pakistan]. We went on shore and had tea and bought some tobacco. We left Karachi on 22nd December and spent Christmas on board the "Varela".'

Arriving in Bombay on 26th December they were met by the 'Committee of the McKereth Organisation for the Balkan Evacuees'. They stayed there for a couple of weeks and then went to a camp at Satara by train, where they spent the best part of five months, 'during which there were pleasant, but more unpleasant moments ... the food was wholesome and sufficient, but one must get used to the food of India.'

They then went by train and bus - 'a very tedious journey of four days' - to Naini Tal, where they were 'received by Officials and transported by "dandies" (a sort of chair carried by four coolies) to a big bungalow on the top of the hill'. This was one of several temporary accommodations whilst in India, before returning to the UK later in the war.

This is a map of the journey.

I hadn't mapped this before. For me the whole account and episode is very interesting for several reasons.

Firstly: although there were clearly hardships on the journey this appears to have been a well-resourced and at times relatively leisurely middle-class retreat through largely British-held (or at least British-friendly) territory, facilitated by officialdom. Some luggage needed to be left behind at various places, and several aspects of accommodation and transport were evidently distressing; their house in Constanta and possessions left there were subsequently destroyed. Nevertheless it doesn't really compare with so many harrowing accounts of others' escapes from fascism in other parts of Europe at the same time.

Secondly: I am astonished that train/bus travel was sufficiently efficient in 1940 to enable land transport from Istanbul to Basrah in only four days. Would that be possible today?

Thirdly: this is a journey I would love to retrace, partly because it passes through so many places of enormous historical and archaeological significance, as well as for its genealogical interest. Sadly there is no longer a ferry from Constanta to Istanbul. This is the least of the problems, however. For, despite the fact that - just like my great-grandfather - I have a passport which declares that 'Her Britannic Majesty requires and requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely etc. etc. etc.' I suspect that just at the moment Her Majesty's word is not particularly highly regarded in places such as Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad and Basrah.

More importantly, the situation in the various regions through which my great-grandfather passed in 1940 is massively and utterly horrific for the millions of people who have been affected - in many cases disastrously and catastrophically so - by the whole sequence of events in the last couple of decades. Certainly some of the outcomes are the result of UK foreign policy (which of course has its origins in the protection of the British interests which my family were helping to pursue at the time), but UK foreign policy is only one of a number of factors here.

The answer is not, of course, a return to British imperialism. I don't know what the answer is. The situation is massively complex. But part of that answer must involve dialogue and mutual respect.

Islam is a beautiful and compassionate religion; so is Christianity. Together with Judaism were are all fruits of the same Abrahamic seed. Fascism can root itself perniciously within any of those religious contexts, and it is to be regretted when it does so - whether it is the Crusades, Nazism, aggressive Zionism, or the 'Islamic State'.

I still hope to be able to retrace this journey in my lifetime. Meanwhile my thoughts are with those in Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad, Basrah and elsewhere whose hopes and dreams and lives are shattered by fascists from whom there is no avenue for escape.


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