Hugh Rants: The Zebra Crossing Conundrum

Hugh Coates

This next gripe of mine is I’m sure quite familiar to the majority of you. As an impoverished student sustaining himself on the thoroughly underwhelming pay of a waiter, the use of motorized transport is a privilege. As a result, I am often necessitated to join the walkways of Great Britain.

Taking to the footpaths and pavements is in no way demeaning to me nor is it that much more of a hindrance to my day-to-day life as it currently stands. In fact, there is really nothing much to complain about when it comes to using one’s legs to propel yourself from A to B…well, actually there is just one thing.

Pavement congestion of an inner city is logical, you can’t help it. Homeless people practically tugging at your purse strings as you shuffle into Primark doesn’t get under my skin. I can even restrain myself when getting cut-up by a kamikaze cyclist. There is, however, just one aspect in the wanderings of a pavement-traveller that truly astounds me. I am referring to the strange social conventions surrounding those familiar black and white walkways that allow us to safely navigate across a road. Zebra crossings.

My complaint has nothing to do with the way in which you take you’re life into your own hands when navigating these black and white death traps. I have come to accept that you cannot simply expect a car to stop at a Zebra crossing, this is modern-day natural selection which I am merely adapting to. What I do fail to comprehend, is the the ambiguous motorist-pedestrian relationship at this point in our journey. Here we have a recognizable feature of the Highways, one that, if the narrow pass in my theory test has taught me, gives pedestrians the right of way over road users and requires them to stop by law. So why then do some people, including me on occasion, wave to thank these apparently charitable road users for abiding by the recognized laws of this country and indeed of most others?

It is something the more you think about, the more ludicrous this action becomes. To pluck a most extreme comparison, it would be like walking down the high-street, stopping random people and publicly applauding them for not assailing you. Why do we thank people for something they are supposed to do? There just isn’t a reasonable explanation for expressing gratitude towards someone for not maiming you with there vehicle as you saunter down to One-Stop. Maybe people just like saying thankyou.

To date, my most far-fetched conclusion is that there is a widely held idea of a very immediate form of karma. That it has now become mandatory to thank road users as some sort of courtesy to the next pedestrian, and failing to do so may result in said motorist going on a demonic rampage running-down frail old ladies on Zebra crossings across the land.

I am still very confused by this behaviour….

Olga Gray: a Secretary and a Spy

Hugh Coates

In the early stages of the 1930’s, the gaze of British Intelligence lay not on the maneuverings of a failed Austrian art student, but on the insidious threat of the ‘Red Menace’ which seemed to threaten peace and order in Europe.

Despite the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) political impotence (not a single seat was gained in the 1931 elections), the effect of Communism on social stability was considered the greatest threat to Britain between the war years.

MI5 Spymaster Maxwell Knight, widely held as the inspirations for Ian Fleming’s character ‘M’, sought to infiltrate communist activity within Britain. Maxwell Knight was an unusual man by the standards of the time. He was known to keep an array of exotic animals and later went onto become a naturalist. Knight further stood out from his peers in his support for the use of female agents. The most successful of these agents, was Olga Gray.

Maxwell Knight

Gray, the daughter of a night editor at the Daily Mail, was recruited by Knight in 1931. She was a talented secretary and provided the perfect fit for Knights model of infiltrating a ‘subversive body’. Knight believed, so as to limit suspicion, that it was most prudent to wait for the investigated group to make the first contact with the agent and not the reverse.

After putting herself ‘out in the open’ by becoming a member of the Friends of the Soviet Union and doing work for the Anti-War Movement, Gray was approached – Knight’s plan had worked.

Gray was approached by a member of the CPGB whom she had met through her past work to undertake a ‘special mission’. At was at this stage where Gray experienced one of the most peculiar situations of her career as a counter-espionage agent.

Gray had been instructed to deliver key messages to Communist elements within India. This was a trip fraught with potential problems and seemingly doomed to fail. Travelling to India in the monsoon season was highly unusual and was bound to attract attention from the authorities. Furthermore, a single woman entering the country at that time of year would almost certainly result in her being turned back as a suspected prostitute.

Gray thus had to turn to Knight to enable her to enter the country. A ludicrous scenario ensued whereby Knight and MI5 needed to provide Gray with a cover to enter the country and perform her duties for the CPGB to maintain her invaluable position within the organisation.

Knight wrote on the whole affair:

Our department was faced with a peculiar situation whereby Miss ‘X’ had to be assisted to devise a cover-story which would meet the requirements necessary, without making it appear to the Party that she had received any expert advice.

In 1935, Gray dropped her undercover work, citing the strain of the job making it impossible to work effectively. Nevertheless, the threat of Communism had shown little signs of abating and experienced agents were still sorely needed. Knight managed to persuade Gray to at least remain in contact with her former communist employers.

Gray was later contacted by Percy Glading, a member of the CPGB who she knew from her past days within the Anti-War Movement. Glading instructed her to hunt out a flat for the Party. Knight recalled that Gray was ‘none to keen’ to be embroiled in undercover work again, he soon persuaded her.

Gray discovered that along with the frequent meetings at the Holland Road flat that it was being used to photograph top secret documents from Woolwich Arsenal. This exchange went on for a number of months. On the 21 January, Gray informed to Knight that Glading was to meet with his contacts from the Arsenal at 8.15pm at Charing Cross station. The meeting was targeted by the authorities and resulted in the arrest of Glading and 3 others.

After the successful trial of Glading and his accomplices, the judge congratulated Gray (or Miss ‘X’ as she was referred to during the trial) for her ‘extraordinary courage’ and ‘service to her country’.

Percy Glading given six years for his activities.
Percy Glading given six years for his activities.

Olga Gray’s career with the B5(b) section of MI5 ended over a lunch at the Ritz; with a cheque for £500 and a thanks for her service. She went on to change her name and settle in Canada. It is believed that Gray was aggrieved by this fairly demeaning end to her loyal service. Maybe at this time, the threat of Communism within Britain was not as great as the highest authorities believed. But there can be no question marks over the commitment of this one, rather uncelebrated, brave lady.


‘Should have done Medicine’…Or Should I?

Hugh Coates

I write this with a tear in my eye as Mike Skinner’s lachrymose song about heartbreak and rejection trundles along in the background. Don’t be mistaken, my current melancholy has not been caused by a female, but by a more pressing issue, that of my career.

I am more than half way through a BA in History. I have thoroughly enjoyed the degree thus far (I haven’t started the dissertation yet…). Delving into the debauchery of Henry VIII was both enlightening and well, saddening, what good times they were…if you were king. Equally pleasurable were the occasional skirmishes with sanctimonious pacifists who had somehow found themselves in a module entirely dedicated to war.

What I am trying to say is that you will struggle to find a more stimulating degree. Passion for a subject, for myself and others like me, has resulted in many taking up a humanities degree without even considering how this will fit into their career. While this is admirable, when you consider that paying £27K+ is fairly large financial burden to place on anyone, let alone a 21 year old, for pursuing an ‘interest’, it is not enough to cling to. Eventually, we must all board the train of life and find the carriage for us, whatever career that may be (unless you are a benefits cheating scum-bag ARRRRRRGHHHHH!)

It is now July, a fair amount of time before I throw my mortarboard to the sky. It is at this time where I face that common question, ‘what do I do now?’ I petulantly whine to anyone that will listen, usually whichever unfortunate parent is around, about how I should have chosen a degree with a more defined career path. ‘Why didn’t I do medicine!” I cry (the fact that I was/am academically incapable to enroll in such a course has been politely ignored by myself and my family so far). Why hadn’t I thought about this when I was applying through the torturous UCAS process instead of trying to procure a fake ID? I curse myself for choosing a humanities degree, I brought this upon myself.

Ignoring my behavior on this matter, there is actually a lot out there for us humanities students – not that we knew this when we submitted that final personal statement about how much we adore history a few years back.

Many of the top graduate schemes are not degree specific at all. It has even been suggested that to practice law, a ‘proper’ career, it is actually preferable to have a grounding in another academic field, like history, before converting. I could be here all day saying we are all going to be alright etc. God knows the careers advisers at university have tried.

The unreasonable 20-year-old of a few months ago is a victim of his own decision to choose a degree that allowed him to pursue an interest while, unknowingly, preparing him for the workplace.

Humanities students must not complain about a lack of clarity in their career path, after all, they chose their degree. And while I am saying we mustn’t feel sorry for ourselves, we must also must relish the rich choice available to us.

Quitting Like You’ve Never Seen it Before!

Hugh Coates

Quitting smoking, not the easiest task by any stretch. Plenty try and most fail. Those adverts designed to persuade us to quit smoking certainly don’t do much to alleviate the stresses of the guilty smoker, with dangers including: arteries rammed full of yellow gloop and idiotic children trying to puff on a crayon (frankly, this advert concerns me for more reasons than than passive smoking). A world that includes skyscraper sized cigarettes is certainly not one that I want to live in. In spite of the trials of the modern day smoker, imagine living in a time where your habit would have had you labelled an ‘ape’ and a sinner by your own king.

James I, king of England, successor to Elizabeth I, survivor of the Gunpowder plot was also a vehement critic of smoking. In 1604, his work ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’, became one of the first anti-smoking publications of all time. James was a talented and well educated man, he authored many works and earned himself the unshakable title of ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’. Whether this title is wholly complimentary is certainly questionable, James’ attitude towards smoking and more specifically Tobacco, was not.

Just as James I had done some 300 years earlier, a certain Austrian dictator was also to publicize the perils of smoking. Whereas Hitler, as he had done for most of Germany’s mishaps, blamed the importation of this nefarious habit upon the Jews, King James I was equally contemptuous towards the ‘barbarous’ Indians for introducing this disgusting new trend into his beloved country. To James, smoking the Native American remedy for ‘pocs’ was tantamount to imitation – the great people of England may as well be walking around naked with feathers in their hair.


What James I lacked in racial tolerance, he made up for in some disturbingly familiar observations on the practice of smoking tobacco. Although seriously hindered by the medical knowledge of the time, James I still managed to identify some causal links between smoking and its side effects. For instance, he recognised that smoking was ‘dangerous’ to the lungs, while those around him nonchalantly puffed away on this new delight from across the Atlantic. The boy born in Edinburgh Castle was certainly right in assuming that the foul smell of tobacco smoke did not bode well for our poor little alveoli.

“A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.”

‘Peer pressure’, just another aspect of smoking that James I correctly identified.

“We cannot be content unlesse we imitate every thing that our fellowes doe, and so proove our selves capable of every thing whereof they are capable, like Apes, counterfeiting the maners of others, to our owne destruction.”

The number of people who started smoking as part of some disappointingly familiar guise to be ‘cool’, will forever stagger me, old James I saw it for what it was.

By today’s standards, a remedy for gout, that could make an alcoholic sober, induce sleep – while also being useful in keeping you awake, and one that could alleviate stomach problems, is certainly a dubious one. This being considered, James was by no means the Stephen Hawking of 17th Century England for finding holes in the ‘omnipotent power of Tobacco!’

While identifying the link between smoking and lung problems is probably the most striking achievement of this publication, James I also identified a few other features of smoking that, if we’re all honest, we loath in equal measure.

Lets be be truthful, we all hate the breath of a smoker – James I was also not a fan. He proclaimed that a man who smoked, was a selfish man. He argued that a man who smoked tobacco should be ashamed of himself, for he was corrupting the ‘wholesome’ and ‘clean complexioned’ woman that he called his wife. At the very least, a husband was damning his wife ‘to live in a perpetuall stinking torment.’

He, like many of us, was repulsed by the idea of people smoking at the dinner table. He condemned smoking in the ‘Dining Chamber’ as being unclean, it polluted the air and the food on the table. James is remembered as quite a lavish king, it is hard to see his meals as being less than decadent, it is hardly surprising therefore, that he viewed those who soiled his epic meal time with such disdain.

When James I became king on the 25th July 1603, he inherited a kingdom in a very poor economic condition. Desperately looking for sources of revenue, it is unsurprising that in 1604, he should turn to the very lucrative Tobacco trade as a new source of income. The cynics among us, will say that ‘A Counterblaste to Tobacco’ was just a means of legitimizing an onslaught on a highly lucrative industry by emphasizing its perverse features.

It is doubtful if we will ever find out the true root and cause of James I’s vigorous assault on tobacco smoking, which in parts, was well ahead of his time. James I work seems even more impressive, when we consider that he advanced his ideas in an age where medical treatment amounted to treating conditions such as syphilis with a good old bath of mercury. Still, Adolf Hitler is widely credited as the first major leader to oppose smoking. However, after studying James I’s critique, we can quite safely say, back off Hitler, James beat you to it.


The ‘Black Widow’ of Sochi

Hugh Coates

37,000 extra troops are being brought in to Sochi to man the so-called ‘Ring of Steel’, in spite of these seemingly inordinate measures, the whereabouts of one person in particular is causing a degree of concern for the Russian authorities.

Ruzanna Ibragimova is one of 4 women suspected of having intentions to attack the games.
Ruzanna Ibragimova is one of 4 women suspected of having intentions to attack the games.

The individual in question is a woman, Ruzanna Ibragimova. She belongs to a group females evocatively named the ‘black widows’. A ‘black widow’ is supposedly motivated by vengeance for a personal loss. Ibragimova, like the 3 other female suspects, is the widow of a militant killed by Russian forces in the Caucasus region. The 22 year-old is alleged to have intentions to attack Sochi and is feared to have have broken the tight security ring around the city.

You don’t have to look far to see what Ruzanna Ibragimova looks like, with wanted posters in various hotels and airports in Sochi, it is clear that these women are being considered as a genuine threat. The Russian security forces have every right to be concerned, after all, in the past female bombers have been extremely successful in bypassing even the most stringent of security measures.

Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, demonstrate the capability of female bombers. In one scene, 3 females successfully evade French checkpoints to plant three bombs in the French zone of the city, the ensuing blast results in horrific devastation. We could debate the use of films as historical resources all day. However, even if the accuracy of this film is questionable, events of the last decade or so certainly vindicate what it portrays: that females are becoming a hugely dangerous weapon that security forces are struggling to get to grasps with.

The use of suicide bombers is not a new feature of warfare, with no need of an exit-strategy, low cost implementation and a high probability of inflicting significant casualties – attacks of this nature are becoming all to familiar.

Battle of Algiers (1)
In ‘The Battle of Algiers’ female bombers are used against the French.

Why specifically a female bomber then? In 2002, Hamas, rejected the use of females in such a way, yet in 2004, they unleashed their first female suicide bomber. Why this change in tactics? Hamas had denounced the use of women on the grounds of it being ‘against modesty’, not on a lack of faith in their operational value. The most plausible explanation, is that security forces have become more proficient in searching and identifying threats. With a female, there is a certain reluctance to search adequately, if it all – an error so ruthlessly exploited in ‘The Battle of Algiers’. Perhaps there is even disbelief that females would partake in such brutality, this is purely speculation but not altogether unconvincing as an explanation. It has also been suggested that the psychological impact of female bombers is much greater, as it only increases the web of suspicion and fear among the security forces and the local populace. That being said, it is certainly misleading to say that female bombers are completely attached to such overarching tactics and strategies – as demonstrated by the ‘black widows’ – personal motivation can be hugely powerful driving force.

The Russian security forces are quite familiar with the capabilities of female bombers. In the year 2000, two Chechen women entered a military base in Chechnya riding a truck packed with explosives, killing 27 Russian soldiers. The 1,500 mile ‘Ring of Steel’ may seem excessive, and although its necessity is not solely dictated by the threat of these 4 women, the authorities will be keenly aware of its importance in preventing such attacks. If the history of this field has taught us anything, it is that female bombers are very capable of attacking high profile targets, in 1991 the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a female suicide bomber. With a much swelled population in Sochi and the presence of certain dignitaries and high profile targets, the importance of such security seems especially apparent.

The most devastating example of an attack by female bombers occurred in 2008, where 99 lost their lives at two popular Baghdad pet markets. The terrifying ease with which these female bombers inflicted devastation is obvious, however, females haven’t until recently been acknowledged by the FBI as an active group of Al Qaeda. It is clear, therefore, that the strong measures being employed in Sochi are necessary, and, in part, necessitated by a fear of this threatening new group of attackers.

With the world watching, security has been maximised at the games.
With the world watching, security has been maximised at the games.

We are now well within an age where war has taken a new face, where rigid frontlines and state-on-state warfare seem a distant memory. We can only hope that female bombers do not become just another familiar feature of warfare in our time.

The Wehrmacht: A Glorious Myth?

Hugh Coates

When the German army rolled into Paris on the 14th June 1940, the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since Napoleon’s Grande Armée . After all, the German army had rendered the Maginot Line redundant, a set of fortifications so modern that it was said to be of better living conditions than a modern city. The Wehrmacht bypassed it through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest in 5 days. It is perhaps unsurprising after so much hope and resources had been invested into this state-of-the-art defense, that contemporaries saw the German army as something hereto unseen before – a truly unstoppable force.

the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since their very own Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

There is an idealized vision of the Wehrmacht: as an ultra-mobile, ruthless and highly motivated force, a view that does not lack justification. Although Germany lost the war, is it really credible to blame the Wehrmacht for this? To talk of the Wehrmacht one cannot avoid talking of ‘Blitzkrieg’, a concept so fundamental to early German successes. There is a commonly held image of ‘Blitzkrieg’, one that is often portrayed as relentless waves of tanks steamrolling through inferior opposition. This was not certainly not the case in France. French tanks were better armoured, better equipped and more numerous than their German opposition. General Auchinleck in the defense of Norway, commented that the German forces had much greater morale as a result of their superior training. Therefore, can we call an army that defeated superior opposition on numerous occasions an incapable one?  The early victories in Europe, particularly France, certainly vindicate the superiority of the German military doctrine, however, a fully functioning modern state-of-the-art  force they were not.

The Maginot line was a modern and complex hive of defences.  Entrusted with defending France.
Entrusted with defending France was the Maginot line,  a modern and complex hive of defences.

In so far as the battle for France was concerned, the numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe was certainly pivotal. The German army itself had only mechanized 10% of its ground forces by this point. This was as a result of a production deficit from the pre-war years, one that Nazi industrialists had predicted would only be remedied by 1945 – a fact that was to be ignored by Hitler at great cost. The ramshackle fashion of which the Wehrmacht retreated from Russia in 1943 is perhaps its most ignominious moment. A rapid German army, with its immaculate coordination and communication is a vision that is hugely undermined by this campaign. Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to make up for the lack of modernization that beset the Wehrmacht at this time. Some 148 divisions were expected to fight across a front of almost 2,000-kilometers. It is clear that the Wehrmacht was not as polished a force as it has often been seen as being.

Russland, bei Targowi Sawod, deutsche Truppen
Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to support the Wehrmacht.

At times the Wehrmacht was an unstoppable force, one that laid the way for modern day warfare – where mobility and inter-service cooperation were the order of the day. The Eastern Front may have been calamitous for a whole host of reasons other than just the frailties of the Wehrmacht.  However, there is no ignoring the deaths of 4 million men and boys, soldiers that made up what had proven to be an undefeatable army. Maybe Nazi Germany would have succeeded in winning the war if it had the industrial capacity of the USA or Russia, but does this really restore the image of the Wehrmacht? There is no hiding from how fragile the Wehrmacht proved to be. A one dimensional force unable to adapt in the face of a resilient opponent. It had succeeded against weak and disorganized opposition in the past, but as its enemies learned from its mistakes, the Wehrmacht stuck to its principles, even though to follow such principles was no longer possible.

Magician or Maniac?

Hugh Coates

On the first day of 2014, after marveling at how Moffat and Gatiss believed that they could get away with toying with the expectancy that gripped all avid Sherlock fans with some fairly half-arsed explanations, I thought I would put on Channel 4’s new show, Real or Magic starring the illusionist David Blaine.

As a big fan of Bradford’s greatest export, Dynamo, my feeling was that if Real or Magic could match up to Magician Impossible in any way I would be satisfied. I mean who couldn’t be impressed with a man who could walk on water – allegedly. Prior to David Blaine’s show I knew a little of his previous exploits, which included: starving himself, failing in one water-related stunt and what appeared to be him punching a stingray.


After a while David Blaine’s card tricks lost my attention. There is no doubting how impressive smuggling the correct card into the pocket of his all-trusting members of public. I just didn’t care after a while. Perhaps, I was just longing something on the same level as the ‘transported man’ in The Prestige, then again, that was a film.  Anyway, after more card hocus pocus , this time messing with the harmony of the Smith family, he moved onto star of Indiana Jones and Star Wars, Harrison Ford. Ford is known for some brilliant lines, most memorably in the ice cold utterance of ‘I know’, crushing the heart of Princess Lea – he did not disappoint here either. Blaine’s trick this time was to plant a card in an Orange in Harrison Ford’s kitchen, unsurprisingly Harrison showed signs  of befuddlement, befitting of a man of his age. After pulling himself together, Ford slowly raised his head and as if he was about to trade a witty remark with his Nazi captor typical of the Indiana Jones days, stared David Blaine in the eyes and said in a slow but audible voice, ‘get out of my house’.  At the time it was unsure if this was more Harrison Ford acting gold or a prelude to a modern witch burning.


David Blaine’s acts also included creating money, unsurprisingly he didn’t perform this trick to his celebrities, which included Katy Perry and Jason Sudekikis. The show then took a turn for the downright weird. I had been transported from a sporadically exhilarating, fairly easygoing show, to a documentary covering the antics of a recently released lunatic.

First to be tested was Ricky Gervais. This time, Blaine’s ‘trick/illusion’ included him shoving a 12 inch metal pin through his bicep, as was quite rightly pointed out by a rather revolted Gervais, ‘that isn’t a trick, you’ve just shoved a needle in your f******arm’. Quite right Ricky, I was yelling the same thing. Blaine then went on to further strengthen his credentials as a maniac by filling his stomach with a unhealthy amount of water, and then topping it up with healthy splash of, you guessed it, Kerosene. As a rule of thumb, when someone in a scratchy black and white video from 30 odd years ago is trying what looks to be a fairly unsafe trick and was then later known to have died as a result, is it really worth following his footsteps as Blaine tells us he is doing? We are taken through a series of Rocky-esque montages, except instead of running and drinking raw eggs, Blaine just spews an impressive volume of water into a bath. This final act required him to regurgitate the Kerosene onto a fire, intensify the flames, then put it out with the water retained in the stomach. While he performed this I carefully watched the reaction of those surrounding him, which he did flawlessly I will add, however, it was impossible not to notice the slightly confused looks of the audience. This unanimous look of bewilderment was completely understandable. This man has just started a fire, then proceeded to make it worse, then spewed stomach water all over it. All of this effort just to put out a fire that he started himself, producing some fairly uningraciating noises in the process.

For me, the show was summed up well when Blaine met Macklemore. Blaine pulled a thread out of his eyeball- I cannot flesh this description out anymore I’m afraid, that was literally it. The Seattle born rapper nervously laughed clearly feeling uncomfortable I’m sure having expected to see some illusions with less gut wrenching crudeness.  I just felt this show was a tad too real for the sleepy headed new years day TV viewers. David Blaine is a very talented man, but his reliance on shocking the audience through self-harm let down an illusionist who is capable of producing some wondrous acts.