White Dwarf and Warhammer Visions

Apologies in advance for the supremely geekie nature of this post, but it’s a lament for a lost magazine and this generation’s denigration of the written word over images.

Warhammer 40k
Warhammer 40k

For many years, Games Workshop (the company that produces Warhammer and Warhammer 40k games) published the magazine White Dwarf – the monthly fix for people who like to paint little plastic figures and then fight battles with them using insanely complex rules. As part of the gaming experience, Games Workshop also developed the universes these wargames inhabited, employing some extraordinarily talented writers to do so (Dan Abnett, Justin Hill, Ian Watson). Every month, White Dwarf contained the new releases, interviews and features about the worlds of Warhammer and 40k, and a battle report, an in detail look at a battle with lots of background information opening up on to the wider fictional universes. And I loved it – I just loved it. I didn’t play the games much – the rules and gameplay are too lengthy and complex for the time I have available – but I became quite immersed in the shared universe the company and its writers and game designers had created. I used to look forward each month to White Dwarf arriving through the post (I even subscribed, that’s how much I looked forward to it).

Image source: Bell of Lost Souls
Image source: Bell of Lost Souls

And then, they stopped it. Without any warning, Games Workshop stopped sending me White Dwarf, and they replaced it with Warhammer Visions, a handsomely produced, thick small mag/large book, full of gloriously reproduced photos of wondrously painted Warhammer and 40k figures. At first, I leafed through it in amazement. And then I looked through it again, looking for the writing. There’s nothing there. Well, not quite nothing, but where before you’d get a thousand-word feature, now there’s a paragraph. One paragraph. The battle report has become pages of beautiful photos and about four paragraphs.

Damn it, what’s with people today? Doesn’t anyone read any more? Are you all just staring into some little screen (which will turn you blind before you’re old, you mark my words!). Come on, Games Workshop. Give us our words back, give me my worlds back! I have an imagination – I don’t need your pictures, I can make my own, if you just give me the words to trigger them.

This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, not with a word but a picture.

Our Lady of Mercé

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé
Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?

Ramon Lull – the Fool of Love

Ramon Lull
Ramon Lull

All right, he’s not strictly speaking a saint, only a blessed, but Ramon Lull (1232-1316) deserves a place in any list of Catalan holy men. However, the Fool of Love was for the first 30 years of his life fool to an altogether more earthly sort of love. Lull was attached to the household of the future James II of Majorca and he eventually became its seneschal. Marriage and two children did nothing to cool his ardent pursuit of the court’s women, to whom he composed many songs in the romantic troubadour style of the period.

‘The more apt I found myself to sin the more I allowed my nature to obey the dictates of my body,’ he wrote later. Not even the shock of one of his amours yielding to his advances, only to reveal breasts ravaged by cancer, could stop his philandering. But then, in the summer of 1263, while Ramon was busy writing another song in honour of a new love, he looked up from his work to see ‘our Lord Jesus Christ hanging upon the Cross’. Lull, his poetic flow seriously interrupted, escaped to his bed, no doubt assuming that a good night’s sleep would clear his mind of such troublesome visions. But when he next returned to songwriting, the figure returned and a terrified Lull again retired to bed. However, Ramon was no dilettante libertine and three times more he returned to his love song, only to be faced with the same figure. Lull decided that these must be authentic visions rather than mental phantoms and he set himself to working out what they meant. In the end he decided that ‘our Lord God Jesus Christ desired none other thing than that he should wholly abandon the world and devote himself to His service’. This he decided to do by trying to convert the unbelievers (in Ramon’s world, this meant chiefly Muslims), by writing a book, ‘the best in the world, against the errors of unbelievers’, and setting up colleges to teach Arabic to missionaries.

Ramon then sold his possessions, though keeping some back to support his wife and children, distributed the proceeds to the poor and spent the next nine years in study. It was only then, approaching his 40th year, that Lull began the literary and missionary work for which he would become famous, known in later centuries as the Doctor Illuminatus, the Illuminated Doctor, from the series of mystical visions he had on Mount Randa in Majorca. The sheer scale of his labours almost defy belief. Lull was the author of 265 works in Catalan, Arabic and Latin; the writer of the seminal Catalan novel, Blanquerna; a missionary in almost constant travel between Europe and north Africa; a teacher at the University of Paris when it was the foremost institution of learning in Christendom; a suitor at papal and imperial courts; and the originator of the Art, a systematisation of, well, everything with respect to God’s attributes. This was the book, ‘the best in the world’, that Lull believed showed the truth and which he illustrated through diagrams, tables and, literally, millions of words.

This indefatigable man continued working throughout his long life. At 75 we find him, on a mission to north Africa, ‘beaten with sticks and with fists, and forcibly dragged along by his beard, which was very long, until he was locked in the latrine of the thieves’ jail’. Ramon continued in this vein until the end and whether his death occurred in Tunis, or on a ship sailing back, we can say that few men have ever packed so much life and adventure into the second half of a life.

Catastrophes and Cataclysms

The discovery of the deep past in the Victorian era by geologists such James Hutton and Charles Lyell carried with it an equally deep commitment to the principle of uniformitarianism: that the Earth of the past operated in the same way as the Earth does today and, as a corolllary, that the planet was formed and is formed by gradual processes; an immortal sparrow, wiping its beak every day upon a mountain will grind even Everest down to dust, given enough time. In part this commitment was born from revulsion against Biblical catastrophism and the explanation of everything by reference to events like the Flood.

Only, it turns out, the Earth’s history is full of catastrophic events that wiped lands from the face of the planet and brought peoples to extinction. Here’s just a couple that occurred over the last few thousand years, a heartbeat in geological time.

The Storegga Slide happened 8,000 years ago, when a huge area of coastal shelf off Norway slipped into the Atlantic abyss, triggering a huge tsunami that inundated the eastern side of Britain and drowned Doggerland, the low-lying land mass that stretched into the North Sea and physically linked Britain to the continent.

Here’s a short video about the Storegga Slide.

The Earth had suffered through the long cold of the last Ice Age and, at last, the glaciers were retreating and people started moving north again. The warming seems to have been extraordinarily fast, and the glaciers melted quickly. Unfortunately, melting glaciers produce water, lots of cold water, and that has to go somewhere. Most drained into the oceans, but the geography of North America was such that an immense lake formed roughly where Lake Winnipeg lies today – only it covered a vastly greater area. Lake Agassiz contained more fresh water than all the lakes and rivers in the world today, and a chain of still unbroken glaciers held it in place, stopping the water draining into the ocean. But then, the dam broke.

Lake Agassiz
Lake Agassiz

Vast amounts of cold fresh water drained into the North Atlantic Ocean, reducing its salinity and stopping the Gulf Stream dead in its tracks. The Ice Age went into reverse, the glaciers started grinding south again, and the cold returned, just as quickly as it had left.

The Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino.
The Battle of Lepanto by Andrea Vicentino.

A neutral observer in the sixteenth century would have concluded that it was only a matter of time before the armies of Islam conquered all of Europe. Since the Arabs had burst from their desert fastnesses in the seventh century they had carried all before them. The first surge had seen all the previously Christian lands of north Africa and much of the middle East become Muslim, while the Persian Sasanian empire had also fallen. By 750 Islam ruled all the countries in a broad band from Spain in the west to what is now Pakistan in the east. Only the Byzantine Empire, the Christian successor to Rome founded by Constantine, prevented the advance of Muslim armies into Europe.

Centuries of consolidation and gradual expansion followed, as the strength of the Byzantines was gradually whittled away until, a millennium after its foundation, Constantinople fell in 1453 to the forces of the expanding Ottoman empire and its great sultan, Mehmet II, who was aptly nicknamed ‘the Conqueror’. Internal struggles temporarily halted the Ottoman onslaught, but with the accession of Suleiman I (1520-66) the attack on Europe resumed. Hungary was conquered and Vienna besieged in 1529. If freak rain storms had not caused Suleiman to abandon his artillery it’s almost certain that Vienna would have been taken, leaving the advance into Germany clear.

So by the 16th century the Christian world had been reduced to a remnant of its former extent and Europeans gloomily forsaw a time when Islam would have conquered all. Even the Crusades, which we so often see as some sort of imperialist adventure, were more like a desperate attempt to turn an inexorable tide. Sebastian Brant, in one of the most widely read books of the era, The Ship of Fools, summed up the mood:

Our faith was strong in th’ Orient,
It ruled in all of Asia,
In Moorish lands and Africa.
But now for us these lands are gone
‘Twould even grieve the hardest stone….

Four sisters of our Church you find,
They’re of the patriarchic kind:
Constantinople, Alexandria,
Jerusalem, Antiochia.
But they’ve been forfeited and sacked
And soon the head will be attacked.

In this light, it’s no wonder that the battle of Lepanto in 1571, when a Christian fleet commanded by the 24-year-old Don Juan of Austria defeated the hitherto invincible Ottoman navy in one of the great naval encounters in history, caused rejoicing all over Europe. Poets, painters and writers celebrated the victory, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I decreed services of thanksgiving for the triumph of the Catholic Holy League and Pope Gregory XIII declared 7 October, the anniversary of the battle, the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. For once, Europe was united. Miguel de Cervantes, who fought in the battle, losing the use of his left hand, called it ‘The most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen or future generations can ever hope to witness.’

The Museu Marítim in Barcelona has a full-scale replica of Don Juan’s flagship, La Real, on whose forecastle ‘the last knight of Europe’ danced a joyful galliard in the face of an enemy fleet that stretched to the horizon.

TV is evil


The great Theodore Dalrymple on the evil screen in the corner. I spent many years repairing televisions, and this is one of the reasons why, when broadcasts went digital, we did not follow. There were too many houses I visited were the TV was the first thing switched on in the morning and the last thing switched off at night – and in some households, it was never turned off, but remained, on mute, a flickering presence through the night. Our TV, analogue and out of date, allows us to watch DVDs, but we are not drawn into the passivity of channel hopping and slack-jawed staring at a screen. If further evidence is required, here is the good doctor on the people who make TV programmes.

To my shame, and against my principles, I have occasionally agreed to appear on television, though even less frequently than I have been asked. I have found those who work for TV broadcasting companies to be the most disagreeable people that I have ever encountered. I far preferred the criminals whom I encountered in my work as a prison doctor, who were more honest and upright than TV people.

In my experience, TV people are as lying, insincere, obsequious, unscrupulous, fickle, exploitative, shallow, cynical, untrustworthy, treacherous, dishonest, mercenary, low, and untruthful a group of people as is to be found on the face of this Earth. They make the average Western politician seem like a moral giant. By comparison with them, Mr. Madoff was a model of probity and Iago was Othello’s best friend. I am prepared to admit that there may be—even are—exceptions, as there are exceptions good or bad in every human group, but there is something about the evil little screen that would sully a saint and sanctify a monster.

Turn off, tune out, drop completely.

Why Do Writers Do It?


The last two sentences of The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

‘Have you had a nice dream?’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I have.’

Why? John Masefield, why did you do it? I’d followed Kay Harker through 308 pages of adventures, from mysterious strangers, who apparently remembered this land from pagan times, warning him that ‘the Wolves are running’, through trips in time, changes in size, encounters with talking animals and medieval philosophers, flying cars, pompous policemen – and I’d even read the poems you’d stuck in the text, word for word, and how many readers do that and don’t just skip the poems and carry on with the story, and then, and then, you go and spoil everything.

It was all just a dream.

Is there any more pathetic, more deal breaking, more deceitful and fraudulent phrase in the whole of literature? I, as the reader, have accompanied the writer through the story, accepting it and embracing it, and then, at the end, the writer turns around and spits in your eye: Ha! Fooled you! It was all a dream.

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In the Pink on Yeavering Bell

Yeavering Bell is an Iron-Age hillfort in Northumberland, one of the largest in the country. The tumbledown ramparts, still clearly visible in the photograph below, were originally 10 feet high and they enclose an area of  some 12 acres.

Yeavering Bell with ramparts clearly visible.
Yeavering Bell with ramparts clearly visible.

The hillfort looks over the site of Ad Gefrin, Edwin’s royal palace and the place where Paulinus baptised for thirty days in the River Glen at the bottom of the valley. Ad Gefrin is now a wind-swept field of grass, but it remains a hugely evocative place.

The field of Ad Gefrin, with Yeavering Bell in the background. 'Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.'
The field of Ad Gefrin, with Yeavering Bell in the background. ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’

The rock that was used to build the ramparts of Yeavering Bell is a local andesite that, when first quarried, is bright pink, before lichens and weathering grey it. Where a stone has tumbled, revealing a previously hidden face, it’s possible to see just how Barbie-esque the fortifications would have been when first built.

The salmon pink of fresh andesite - once all the hills were laced with it.
The salmon pink of fresh andesite – once all the hills were laced with it.

There is, to my mind, something wonderful about the thought of these grim hills – almost all of them had hillforts on them – necklaced in salmon pink.

Unlikely London Clubs

London is the most clubbable of cities, but the true heyday of societies and associations was the late-19th century. Then, alongside the clubs and societies that have continued through to the present, there were many others whose loss I mourn. They included the Surly Club, where men met to practice contradiction and foul language, as well as a Lying Club and a Mock Heroes Club, a No-Nose Club and a Farting Club. There was the sinister Man-Killing Club, which required members to have done what it titled itself, and the melancholic Club of Broken Shopkeepers, for bankrupts and failed businessmen. And, my favourite of all, the Humdrum Club, for men who ‘meet at a tavern, smoke their pipes & say nothing till midnight’.

The Last Solderslinger

For many years, I worked repairing TVs and videos, driving around in my white van. It was a family business, and it had kept us all gainfully employed for twenty years or so. But sometime in the late 1990s we realised that our days wielding the soldering iron and the Avometer were numbered. Most of the other repairmen, men who had started when you could warm a house from the heat generated by the thermionic valves in the back of a television, also lay down their irons around this time. I wrote this piece for us all.

Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.
Cyril Dennis retires after 53 years repairing TVs.

The last solderslinger drove out of town. It was showdown time. The Cyber Cowboy was going to pay. Twenty one years ago the last solderslinger had rolled into the city, sniffed the petrol in the air, and settled down to raising kids. Now the young whippersnappers thought they could steal stock from right under his nose. Well, today they were going to see the old timer still had a few tricks left in his toolbox.

The solderslinger pulled up in his Transit outside the new ‘light industrial unit’. Things sure had changed since he started riding the range twenty one years ago.

Striding towards his enemy’s stronghold, he remembered his first van: £4141 in 1980. Then only this year he had gotten a brand new transit from Dan Dan the Van Man for £11926.

But in that time his stock, ah, his stock. The first time, alone and nervous, he had gone out to see a sick TV was in 1980. There were three TV channels and BBC 1 played the national anthem shortly after midnight and went to bed like decent folk. And the TV, a Sony KV2204, complete with Trinitron tube and plastic wood appearance fascia, that fine piece of livestock had cost £530. Now a Sony KV21X5 went for £260.

Then his stock was 12.8% the cost of his nag. Now it was 2.2%. If he wanted to keep his ranch he was going to have to take out the Cyber Cowboy.

The last solderslinger burst through the doors, solder gun in one hand, Avometer in the other.

‘Come on then, you varmints, eat solder!’

The Cyber Cowboy looked up, startled. On the bench before him, innards indecently displayed to the watching world, lay a Sony KV28-DX30 hissing in pain from the torture instruments plunged deep inside its gizzards.

‘What are you no good son of a bitch doing to that there TV?’ demanded the last solderslinger, waving his gun menacingly.

‘Er, repairing it?’ said the Cyber Cowboy, some little whippersnapper who looked like he’d never even gotten a decent electric shock when disconnecting the EHT lead.

‘Sure,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘How?

‘Well, I just hook it up to the PC and it runs a set of diagnostics and then I do what it tells me to do,’ said the Cyber Cowboy.

‘Pah,’ said the last solderslinger. ‘Call that repair? Bet that gear costs thousands. Give it here and I’ll sort it with my Avometer in an hour flat.’

‘What’s an Avometer?’ asked the Cyber Cowboy.


A little while later the solderslinger sat in his van. He had lost. They had taken away his solder gun and Avometer and given him an application form for a training course in basic IT skills for the over-fifties.

He opened his flask and drank, but the milk tasted sour. No longer the last solderslinger, just the millionth mousketeer.

He got out of the van, went to the back and scratched a couple of words in the dirt, then got in and drove away.

‘For sale.’

A soldering iron.
A soldering iron.
An Avometer.
An Avometer.