A castle, a bridge, and the law

RIVER CROSSINGS HAVE often had great historical significance. The small town of Wallingford in Oxfordshire has been a place for crossing the River Thames since Roman times or maybe even before. According to “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names” by someone with an interesting name: Eilert Ekwall, a fascinating book that I picked up for next to nothing at a local charity shop, the town was known as ‘Waelingaford’ in 821 AD, as ‘Welengaford’ in c893 AD, and ‘Walingeford’ in the Domesday Book. The meaning of the name is ‘The ford of Wealh’s people’, clearly referring to a river crossing place. It is said the William the Conqueror used the ford. Today, a fine bridge with many arches crosses the river.

Wallingford Castle

There has been a bridge at Wallingford since 1141, or before. The construction of the first stone bridge was probably constructed for Richard, the first Earl of Cornwall (1209-1272), a son of King John, who became King of Germany (Holy Roman Empire) in 1256, a title he held until his death. Some of the arches of the bridge may contain stonework from the 13th century structure. Much of the present bridge dates from a rebuilding done between 1810 and 1812 to the designs of John Treacher (1760-1836). During the Civil War (1642-1651), four arches were removed and replaced by a drawbridge to help defend the besieged Wallingford Castle.

The huge castle was built on a hill overlooking the town; the river – an artery for water transport in the past; and, more importantly, the bridge, which was an important crossing place on the road leading from London to Oxford via Henley-on-Thames. Between the 11th and the 16th centuries, the castle was used a great deal, being used as a royal residence until Henry VIII abandoned it. During the Civil War, the castle was restored and re-fortified and used as a stronghold by the Royalists. It was of great importance to them as their headquarters were at nearby Oxford. To simplify matters, the Parliamentarians began laying siege to Wallingford Castle in 1645. This initial attempt was unsuccessful because the besiegers had underestimated the strength of the castle’s fortifications. After the Royalists were defeated at the Battle of Naseby (14th June 1645), Wallingford was one of only three strongholds in Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire) still loyal to King Charles I. A second siege of Wallingford commenced on the 14th of May 1646, shortly after the Parliamentarians had laid siege to Oxford. The latter fell on the 24th of June 1646, but Wallingford held out until the 22nd of July 1646 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallingford,_Oxfordshire). The castle was demolished in November 1652.

The castle grounds are open to the public. Here and there, few and far between, there are ruins of what must have once been a spectacular castle. Within the grounds of the former castle, there are several informative notices that give the visitor some idea of which part of the castle used to stand near the signs. From the grassy areas that formed the motte and bailey of the castle, there are fine views of the river below and some of the town.

Although our first visit to Wallingford was brief, I learnt that the judge Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) had presided as the Recorder at Wallingford from 1749 to 1770. “So, what?”, I hear you asking. At first, I hoped that he was something to do with the road, where we lived in Chicago (Illinois) in 1963: South Blackstone Avenue (number 5608). But I think that thoroughfare was more likely named after the American politician and railway entrepreneur Timothy Blackstone (1829-1900). The Wallingford Blackstone, who lived in the 18th century, was most probably a distant cousin of Timothy’s father (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Blackstone). Related or not, Sir William Blackstone had an extremely important influence the legal affairs of the USA.

Having studied at the University of Oxford and the Middle Temple, where he was called to the Bar, Sir William taught law at Oxford for a few years. Just before resigning his prestigious academic position in 1766, he published the first volume of what was to become a best-seller, a real money-spinner, “Commentaries on the Laws of England”. Eventually, this work was completed in four volumes. They contain:

“… first methodical treatise on the common law suitable for a lay readership since at least the Middle Ages. The common law of England has relied on precedent more than statute and codifications and has been far less amenable than the civil law, developed from the Roman law, to the needs of a treatise. The Commentaries were influential largely because they were in fact readable, and because they met a need.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commentaries_on_the_Laws_of_England)

The “Commentaries” are widely regarded as being the definitive sources of common law in America before the American Revolution. Blackstone’s writings were influential in the formulation of the American Constitution. His words embodied his vision of English law as a method of protecting people, their possessions, and their freedom. Blackstone’s ideas are well exemplified by this quotation from the “Commentaries”:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

This is known as ‘Blackstone’s Ratio’.

Leaders of the American Revolution recycled the idea with words such as:

“It is of more importance to the community that innocence should be protected, than it is, that guilt should be punished; for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world, that all of them cannot be punished…” (John Adams; 1735-1826), and:

“…it is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer…” (Benjamin Franklin; 1706-1790)

As already mentioned, Sir William presided in the court in Wallingford from 1749 onwards, three years after being called to the Bar. During his career, he served as a Tory Member of Parliament a couple of times: for Hindon (1761-68) and for Westbury (1768-70). In the House of Commons, he was:

“…an infrequent and ‘an indifferent speaker’: during the seven years 1761-8 only 14 speeches by him are recorded, mostly on subjects of secondary importance. Very learned and original, over-subtle and ingenious, in major debates he showed a lack of political common sense.” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1754-1790/member/blackstone-william-1723-80)

The Blackstone family owned a large estate at Wallingford including 120 acres of land by the River Thames. He died in Wallingford and was buried inside St Peter’s Church, which is close to the bridge over the river.  

What little we saw of Wallingford, its castle, its riverside including the Thames towpath, its attractive market square, and streets rich in historic buildings, during our brief visit recently, we saw enough to whet our appetites for a future and lengthier visit.

Oliver Cromwell in Essex

YOU CAN NO LONGER ENJOY a tankard of ale at the Sun Inn in the Essex town of Saffron Walden. However, you can still enjoy the fine pargetting (moulded sculptured plasterwork) that adorns it.

The building that housed the former Sun Inn was built in the 15th century. Late in the 16th or early in the 17th century, an upper floor was added. Indeed, one of the gables with fine pargetting bears the date 1676. This might have been the date when the present pargetting was created or when the upper floor was added, or even both. The former inn has an opening that allowed wagons and other traffic to enter the yard behind it.

The pargetting is described well in a website (www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol1/pp228-260) as follows:
“… in the middle bay are two late 17th-century panels in plaster, one with a design of foliage and birds, and the other with a stocking; in the S.W. gable is a design of the same date in plaster, which consists of a circular panel divided into twelve segments; on each side is the figure of a man in a long coat, knee-breeches and high-heeled shoes; one figure holds a sword and buckler, the other a long club.”

One of the panels, that with the man with a sword and the other with a long club, respectively represent Thomas Hickathrift and the Wisbech giant (https://heritagerecords.nationaltrust.org.uk/HBSMR/MonRecord.aspx?uid=MNA108635). Thomas (‘Tom’) Hickathrift was a mythical East Anglian giant-killer, a giant of a man, whose exploits included slaying the Wisbech Giant.

Today (late 2020), the group of beautifully decorated houses that includes the former Sun Inn is empty. The ground floor of part of the building bears a shop sign ‘Lankester Antiques & Books’. Run by Paul Lankester of Thaxted in Essex, the shop closed after 48 years of business in July 2015. Another sign near it reads ‘The 14th century Old Sun Inn. Oliver Cromwell’s Headquarters 1647’. In 1647, when Cromwell’s New Model Army had won the first civil war for the Parliamentarians, they gathered in Saffron Walden. For various reasons the war weary army was becoming dissatisfied. Cromwell and his officers arrived in Saffron Walden on the 2nd of May 1647 to try to satisfy the troops’ various demands and to deal with their grievances (www.saffronwaldenreporter.co.uk/news/a-lasting-place-in-history-1-377880). He was unable to do so and returned to London after staying in the town for 19 days. 

Although the town has many other attractions, seeing this old building with its exquisite external decorations is on its own an excellent reason to pay a visit to Saffron Walden.

Blinded by Bosnia

HERE IS A BOOK that provides a fascinating view of the crisis that afflicted Bosnia and its people during the 1990s. It reveals that what happened in that beleaguered part of the Balkans was far from a simple black and white conflict in which Serbians were the villains and the Bosnian Muslims were the innocent victims. It records that often the Bosnian Muslims and their allies behaved far from virtuously. What the book reveals is extremely disturbing and of great relevance today, so many years after the end of fighting in and around Bosnia.

“UNHOLY TERROR” by John Schindler is about the Bosnian crisis in the 1990s and its dangerous consequences. Using his  personal experiences (he was a US spy in the Balkans) and a variety of credible sources, he demonstrates how Bosnia’s post-Communist Muslim government misled the West, and especially the USA, into believing that the Bosnians were fighting the Serbs and Croats to achieve a multi-ethnic non-sectarian state, where all beliefs are tolerated. The author describes that the opposite was true: the Bosnian government was converting Bosnia from a racially and religiously tolerant community to a hard-line fundamentalist Islamic state.

Schindler convincingly demonstrates how the Bosnians hoodwinked the West into believing that it was only the Muslims who were victims of aggression in the fighting following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.  Most in the West, including a former US president, were happy and only too willing to believe that it was the case that the Muslims were being subjected to genocide by the Serbs. Anyone who dared contradict this was ignored and/or ridiculed. Whilst it was true that many Bosnian Muslims were being murdered and otherwise persecuted, Schindler gives evidence that they were not alone: the Serbs, Croats, and moderate (not hard-line or Wahabi) Muslims living in Bosnia received much aggression from the forces under the control of the Government of Bosnia.

The USA and its allies helped the Bosnian Muslims with military matters alongside(!) the Iranians, the Saudis, and other promoters of hard-line Islamism.

This book describes how Muslim fighters, Mujahadin and jihadists, moved into Bosnia (some had been fighting in Afghanistan) to assist their Muslim ‘brothers’ with the struggle. Schindler suggests and gives evidence for these imported fighters’ role in establishing a fundamentalist Muslim state in Bosnia, a state in which Christians and moderate Muslims were treated as hostile.

Bosnia’s wartime president Izetbegovic skilfully hoodwinked the West into believing he was creating a tolerant forward-looking state whilst he was actually creating an Islamic state that adhered to a hard-line form of Islam known as Wahabism.

Following the apparent end of hostilities, Bosnia became home to many determined Jihadists and a nest of terrorists whose activities included likely involvement in the 9-11 attacks in New York City, the Madrid bombings and many other dreadful acts. It appears that many terrorist activities after 1990 can be traced back to Bosnia.

Schindler’s fascinating and highly readable book could well be called “Blinded by Bosnia” because that is precisely what Izetbegovic and his government did to the critical faculties of the USA and its allies. I read this book with great sadness. I was upset to read that a part of the Balkans, which I had grown to like during the 1980s, had been transformed into what Schindler’s book (published 2007) describes as having become a dangerous rogue state after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

The kindness of strangers

SARA 4 BLOG

I VISITED YUGOSLAVIA frequently during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Often, I travelled between towns on public transport, often using the efficient networks, each of them operated independent bus companies, of inter-city buses. I travelled routes all over the country from Subotica in the north to Ohrid and Skopje in the south, and from Zadar in the west to Zaječar in the east. It was on these vehicles that my love of the varied forms of Balkan folk music was born. Every bus was fitted with loudspeakers and a radio. For hours on end the bus passengers were treated to an endless, and in my view delightful, stream of folk songs and folk music. On one of these bus trips, my first to Sarajevo, I met someone who was to become a good friend.

Dubrovnik was the point of departure for my first visit to Sarajevo. I bought a ticket at the bus station just outside the walls of the old city, entered the bus, and headed for the seat, whose number was printed on my ticket. In those days, and maybe this is still the case today, passengers were assigned specific numbered seats on long-distance buses. Whenever I knew that I would be travelling a day or two ahead, I used to buy my ticket in advance in order to get one of the seats numbered 1 or 2, which were at the front of the bus, and therefore with the best view, and, incidentally, also with the highest risk of injury in a head-on collision.

On this particular occasion in the bus station at Dubrovnik, I found a young French tourist was sitting next to his girlfriend in my seat. I started explaining, in my poor French, that he was occupying my reserved seat. As I was doing so, a middle-aged woman, sitting near the rear of the bus, explained the situation in fluent French. The French couple vacated the incorrect seats and settled into their assigned places. These happened to be close to the woman and her friend. I could hear them conversing in French as we wound our way up along the valley of the Neretva River and away from the Adriatic coast. I felt a little miffed that they had found someone to converse with, but I had not.

After a few hours we stopped in a village perched high on a hillside. The young French couple said goodbye to their new friends, and left the coach. Our bus, which should have arrived in Sarajevo well before nightfall, remained parked on a steep slope in the small mountain village for hours. The few passengers who were continuing on to Sarajevo sat on a bench under a tree in the sultry afternoon sun. Eventually, I asked the lady, who could speak French, what was happening. She explained that one of the tires of our bus had been punctured, and that it was taking a long while to repair it. She revealed that she was an inhabitant of Sarajevo and that her travelling companion, an old friend of hers, was a schoolteacher from France.

Finally, our bus was ready to depart. As it was now almost empty, I sat near to the two women and chatted to them. The sun was setting, and we were still only halfway to our destination. Soon after we began moving, the heavens opened. The mountainous region through which we were slowly making our way was filled with crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning. Torrents of rain made driving slow and difficult. I began despairing of ever reaching the city where the Hapsburg Archduke was shot in 1914. And, I was becoming concerned. I was heading for a city, which I did not know and where I had no accommodation arranged, and it was beginning to look as if would be almost midnight by the time we reached it.

I asked Marija, the French-speaking lady from Sarajevo, whether she could recommend a hotel for me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that as she lived there, she did not know about hotels. At this point, her companion said to her in French:

“Whenever I meet foreign students in my hometown in France, I invite them to stay in my home.”

Marija said nothing. It was my impression that she had not needed to hear this bit of information.

It was late at night when we eventually arrived in Sarajevo’s bus station. It was located far from the town centre on the main road that led to the spa at Ilidža. Miodrag was waiting for Marija, his mother-in law, and her French friend. I was told to get into his tiny car with them and all of our baggage, and we drove along ill-lit rain soaked streets through the darkness of the night until we reached the end of a short, steeply inclined cul-de-sac in central Sarajevo. We entered Marija’s second floor flat, and Liljana, Marija’s daughter, served us a huge, tasty supper. At the end of the meal, I still had no idea where I would be spending the night. Before I could ask where I would be staying, Liljana showed me her mother’s spare bedroom, and told me (in good English) that I should sleep there.

After breakfast the next morning, I set off to find a hotel in which I could stay for the rest of my visit. It did not take long to find one and to reserve a room. Next, I bought a bunch of flowers – they were stems of gladioli – for my kind hostess and returned to her flat. I entered, gave my bouquet to Marija, thanked her for looking after me, and told her that I had found accommodation. She told me not to be ridiculous; I was to cancel the hotel and to stay with her and her family.

Marija and her family lived in two flats in the small houses that lined a short street that led off one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Marshal Tito Street. It was within a few metres of the Baščaršija, the old bazaar area of the city. From my centrally located base, I was able to explore Sarajevo with ease. Set on both sides of the River Miljacka, the city stretches along a long narrow valley and spreads steeply up the hillsides flanking it.

The Baščaršija district looked just like a typical Turkish bazaar. When I showed pictures of it to Mehmet and Saadet, some Turkish friends in London, they said that it looked just like Bursa, their hometown in Turkish Anatolia. Like most oriental bazaars the one in Sarajevo was divided up into areas specialising in different trades. For example, there was a cluster of copper-beaters, another of silversmiths, and yet another of leatherworkers. I fell in love with the city.

I visited Sarajevo several times, always staying with my new friends. On several occasions, they visited me in London and once they stayed in our then family home in north London.

In the late 1980s, Miodrag and Liljana expressed their concerns about political changes that were happening in Bosnia. This was before the city became entangled in a fearful struggle for life during the complex and bloody civil war that occurred during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. They decided that they needed to leave Yugoslavia and start a new life elsewhere, which they did. Miodrag and Liljana and their daughter migrated to an island in the Indian Ocean, where life was calmer and prospects better than in Bosnia. Although we met them on one of their visits to London from their new home in the Indian Ocean, I have lost touch with them unfortunately. As for Marija, who remained in Sarajevo, I hope that she did not suffer during the attacks on her city.

For more of my experiences in the former Yugoslavia, please read my “Scrabble with Slivovitz”, available on Amazon, Bookdepository.com, Kindle, and lulu.com.

Stay away from the windows

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Many years ago sometime during the 1980s, I spent New Year’s Eve in Belgrade, which was then the capital of a country that no longer exists: Yugoslavia.

I was staying with my good friend Raša. He enjoyed a good party. We set out to attend one in New Belgrade, which was built after WW2 on the left bank of the River Sava, a tributary of the Danube.

The air was chilled when we left Dorčol, the old part of the city where Raša lived. There was an odour in the wintry air that I always remember: the smell of the smoke from the lignite that was burned in central heating units in the city.

As we travelled in the tram towards New Belgrade, my friend explained that many retired military personnel lived in New Belgrade. Many of these people kept guns and rifles in their flats.

Raša advised me to keep off the balcony and well away from windows as the last midnight of the year approached. The reason for this was that as the new year began, drunken people would begin firing their weapons to celebrate. There was a good chance both of being struck by poorly aimed bullets and by others that ricocheted when they struck walls and so on.

Midnight came and went, but I cannot remember hearing any gunshots. Maybe I had imbibed too much vodka and other highly alcoholic drinks such as sljivovitz and loza!

Now, Yugoslavia is only a fond memory as is my friend Raša. I last saw him in May 1990. He passed away several years later after having done much work to help refugees caught up in the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia apart.