Tom Holland

Diary - 1 September 2016

Also in Tom Holland’s diary: the knives of Corsica; Olympic verbing; and a London wildlife wonder

Diary - 1 September 2016
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European unions come and go. Back in 1794, one of the more improbable ones was founded when Corsica joined Britain as an autonomous kingdom under the rule of George III. It didn’t last long, and by 1796, after an ignominious Brexit from the island, the Corsicans once again found themselves under French rule. Today, the episode is chiefly remembered for the injury sustained by one particular officer during the initial British capture of the island: it was during the siege of Calvi that Nelson lost the sight in his right eye. ‘Never mind,’ he wrote to his wife, ‘I can see very well with the other.’ Naturally, as an appalling hypochondriac myself, I had always wanted to visit the site of this magnificent display of sangfroid — and so last week, during a visit to Corsica, I took my chance. The spot is still marked by a marble plaque. True, it is riddled with bullet holes — but then again, pretty much every sign in Corsica is riddled with bullet holes. I found it impressive enough that the plaque was there at all. I doubt there are many memorials to Napoleon in Nelson’s home county of Norfolk.

Beautiful Corsica may be — but it has also always had a certain relish for violence. The days of the vendetta are supposedly long gone, but it is noticeable how many shop windows, even in the most touristy of resorts, boast rack upon rack of long knives. The spirit of Corsican nationalism is in evidence everywhere, from the French names crossed out on signposts to the Francophobic graffiti plentifully scrawled on walls. The French state, though, is not the only object of resentment. A fortnight ago, a Corsican village became the third local authority in France to impose the burkini ban. Confrontations between North African immigrants and locals have regularly been turning violent. I found it difficult to look at the Corsican national flag, which boasts the severed head of a Muslim, and not feel a certain tremor of unease. Any attack by Isis supporters in Corsica is unlikely to be taken lying down.

As Napoleon did in 1799, when he paid his last ever visit to the island of his birth, I came to Corsica from Egypt. ‘From the heights of these pyramids,’ Napoleon had told his men as they readied for battle on the outskirts of Cairo, ‘forty centuries look down upon us!’ In fact, his estimation was out by some 300 years — but much should be forgiven him. No general in history has done more for the study of ancient history. The story that French soldiers used the nose of the Sphinx for target practice is a particularly outrageous calumny. As I watched the sun rise behind the Great Pyramid, I had in my lap a copy of the Description de l’Egypte, which scholars in Napoleon’s train had compiled to provide a visual record of the country’s wonders. Prominent among these were the first detailed illustrations ever to reach Europe of the architectural glories of the pharaohs. Looking at Giza, I could not help but have in my mind’s eye an image of its antiquities that derived ultimately from the Description de l’Egypte. Restless, vainglorious, brilliant, Napoleon was a man who made history in more ways than one.

Back in Britain, I’m relieved to find that the end of the Olympics hasn’t meant an end to this summer’s most enjoyable linguistic craze: verbing. Commentators who lauded athletes for podiuming, medalling and golding have clearly been an inspiration across the board. A friend, texting me to find out the date of my return from Corsica, asked me when I was ‘planeing’. A mountaineer has announced her plan to ‘summit’ 50 peaks in 50 days. Best of all is a witch who, angry with Richard Branson for being horrible to Jeremy Corbyn, and delighted to learn that he had crashed his bike, declared that it had happened because she had ‘spelled’ him. I suppose ‘spelling’ is what they learn to do at Hogwarts.

Waiting for me in the post was news of a great honour: that I’ve been appointed an ambassador for the London Wildlife Trust. No organisation has done more to protect the 13,000 species that have been recorded across the capital’s mosaic of green spaces: from parks to gardens, and from nature reserves to waterways. Anyone wondering what can be done should take the Tube to Manor House, and then stroll down to what was once an abandoned reservoir laced with chemicals, but is now alive with birds. Woodberry Wetlands should serve as a reassurance to even the most smog‑choked Londoners that nature is not just something that lies beyond the M25, but is part of the very fabric of the capital — and deserves their support and help. Rus in urbe indeed.

Tom Holland is a historian; his books include Dynasty and Rubicon.