Book Review: Iris Origo ~ War in Val d’Orcia: an Italian War Diary 1943-4

Iris Origo was a wealthy American who married an Italian aristocrat in 1923. They bought nearly 9000 acres in the Val d’Orcia and began a 20th century version of a feudal relationship with their 57 farms. When war came she was, surprisingly, left untouched by Mussolini’s fascist government.

During the war they kept their heads down, doing minor acts of resistance such as listening to the BBC’s broadcasts. The Germans weren’t involved in Italy in 1943 but when Mussolini began to lose his grip they were more in evidence. Throughout the two years the family were a focal point for the welfare of their tenants. Once Italy was invaded by the Allies Iris’s involvement massively increased. Refugees from northern Italian cities, escaped prisoners of war, partisans and Italian men who were trying to avoid conscription became the stuff of daily life. All of which was incredibly dangerous. Their wealth was liberally used to help these people, which meant Iris’s house became famous. Not every one thought they were wonderful and so they worried constantly of betrayal and became cunning to survive. Below is a wonderful quotation from the diary, which is full of colour and intimate detail whilst giving a vivid insight into the reality of occupation by Nazi Germany.

One little boy of twelve, who had helped his mother in guiding the prisoners in the hills, on going one day to his aunt’s house, opened the door to find an S.S. man standing there, who pointed his revolver at him, and took him in charge. Eventually he was allowed to go home, where he reported all that had occurred, and his aunt’s arrest, with complete self control and clarity—only that night, as he was going to bed, his mother noticed that his pants were moist. He blushed. ‘When that man pointed his revolver at me, I couldn’t help it!’ Origo, Iris. War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary 1943-1944 (Kindle Locations 1721-1725). Pushkin Press. Kindle Edition.

Why you should read this book: It’s a vivid, unsentimental insight into how war effected one community in Italy.

Why you shouldn’t read this book: You don’t like diaries

Buy it at Amazon


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Land of hope and glory

Once upon a time
This title might have been true
However, sublime the music
This current Government
Flies in the face of this paradigm.

Food banks now feed the desperate
Job security; a past closed door
Vast fortunes, built by workers
Now to expect poverty – damnation
Hope and glory – no more.

A once proud nation
Brought to its knees, by greed
Where the rich swagger, in contempt
Focused only on their need
To rule without consent.

Was it ever thus
The gap between, them and us!
Wider – it daily grows
Where will it end?
No one knows.

A class war, breeds discontent
If the poverty is not addressed
If a festering sore is not lanced
The unjust might just find
Their privilege – is no more.

Beggars, rough sleepers – the poor
Might one day. Stand up and say
“No more, to austerity, we’ve had enough
Stringent authority is not just”
No more will be the raconteur.

Injustice will change, or be driven out
Inequality, will hide from shame!
Tables will turn this unfair story
Absolutely, into a –
Land of hope and glory.


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A courageous Italian Spy

Three French, English and Italian spies are captured. The Frenchman is tortured for two hours before he tells all of his secrets. 
The Frenchman is thrown back into the cell and the English spy is next. He’s tortured him for four hours before he tells them what they want to know.

The Italian spy is pulled out of the cell. His hands are tied and the torture begin. Four hours go by, and he stays silent. Four becomes 8, then 16 and after 24 hours the torturers give up and throw him back into the cell.

The French and English spies are incredibly impressed. They asked how he managed to endure the torture.

“I wanted to talk, but my hands were tied.”


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The right to bear arms in the USA 1791-2017

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. The second amendment 15th December 1791

Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms (see above). The second amendment says, “A well regulated militia…” from which I infer organised training takes place. The 18th century American milita was based on the British template. The second amendment promotes access to weaponry to defend the nation-state. This is as an obligation of citizenship. The concept militia has disappeared with the introduction of police forces, national guard and the federal army. There is a residual sense that although militia is an anachronism it’s part of American identity and has a role, no matter how tangential, in the 21st century

The classic role for the militia was in the Revolutionary War* By the summer of 1775, the Virginia Revolutionary government had established a three part military establishment consisting of regular full-time soldiers, a militia composed of most free white males, and a smaller, elite militia group to be called “minutemen” who were to be given extra training and provided with hunting shirts and leggings. The militia was ineffective when called on to resist external threats. The 1791 second amendment was a sentimental nod to a myth rather than a statement of military reality. The militia’s painfully inadequate and cowardly response to the British invasion in 1812 culminated in Washington being burned down. This destroyed the myth of the citizen, amateur army.

The 1878 Possee Comitatus Act** revived militia style arguments for an armed citizenship, “a county sheriff, or other law officer, conscripts any able-bodied man to assist him in keeping the peace.” The ‘posse’ was ineffective despite being a much loved trope of film-makers. Later in the 19th and early 20th century there were racist lynch mobs*** in the Deep South whilst in the ‘wild west’ whites were the usual victims of ‘rough’ justice. This reflected the sense of entitlement, by non-authorised citizens, to mete out extra-judicial murder. The second amendment can’t be held responsible but it provided a fig leaf of respectability for citizens’ rights in matters related to perceived ‘threats’. The infamous Ku Klux Klan acted on the belief they had a right to enforce their opinion of law. The Ku Klux Klan perceived as threats black-Americans, Roman Catholics, Jews and anyone else who gave them offence and who broke the ‘peace’ by virtue of existing. Having broken the peace they suffered extra-judicial murder.

In the present day the militia has disappeared. The 5th November 2017 Texas church massacre was halted by armed civilians who behaved as a sort of possee. Johnnie Lagendorff and an unnamed other man chased the assailant who crashed and killed himself. At the other end of the scale is George Zimmerman – a self-appointed community safety officer – who shot black teenager Trayvon Martin in the back. (Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defence****.) Zimmerman was an unappointed freelance vigilante, or, in his eyes, a community safety officer. Zimmerman didn’t meet the criterion for a possee in the Wild West unlike Lagendorff. Possees operated under rules where their actions were defined by the sheriff. The possee’s role ended when the sheriff said so. Interestingly Zimmerman was found not guilty of both murder and manslaughter despite the fact that he provoked the original interaction. The racist possibilities of that judgement didn’t escape notice and became part of the Black Lives Matter, campaign.

The current interpretation of the American constitution on gun laws seems odd. The justification for the second amendment was specious in 1791, never mind the 21st century. Nonetheless powerful commercial interests and lavish support for politicians has retained the right of the population to bear arms. As a sovereign state the USA can make whatever laws it wishes but it seems a quaint way of conducting affairs in the 21st century. The line from the 18th century militia to George Zimmerman is intellectually flawed but is now part of the institutional fabric of the USA.

Addendum~ ‘open carry’ in the USA

‘Open-carry’ Texas 2013

“Forty-five (45) states allow open carry of firearms….Varying restrictions on open carry in some states does not alter the fact that 45 states allow open carry.”




**** If you want a comprehensive list of shootings in the USA during 2017 go to the site below. Page 10 on that site for 7th April 2017 has a total of 10 dead and 6 injured in three shootings in Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas i.e. one days casualties. This is normal shootings and not the spectaculars such as Las Vegas, October, with 58 dead and Texas church shooting, November, with 28 dead.


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The Wehrmacht’s use of horses in the Polish and Soviet Union campaigns 1939-44

Blitzkreig attacks were a logistical impossibility on the eastern front, which meant the Polish experience couldn’t be repeated. Germany relied on the Soviet Union for oil supplies, which ceased with their invasion. The wehrmacht’s early successes were a ‘winner’s curse’ as they achieved an unmanageable hostile territory five times greater than Germany itself and a nightmare of a supply chain. For example it’s 700+ miles (West-East) Warsaw-Moscow and 950 miles from Leningrad to Stalingrad (North-South)*. All of which was intensely defended by partisans. Soviet railways were a different gauge to Germany’s and their trains could only run after Soviet track was modified. The importance is that 1600 lorries, 1941 capacity, equalled one double-tracked railway line**. Soviet roads were in very poor condition and weren’t paved. As a result the Autumn rains turned them into quagmires. The logistical challenge therefore was, 1) no readily available oil supply, 2) insufficient motorised transport, 3) incompatible rail gauges, 4) very long supply lines, which were attacked by partisans and finally, 5) an integrated use of horse power, which was very slow. The wehrmacht used circa two million horses on the eastern front and this represented a logistical weakness, which is indicative of their industrial weakness relative to the USA and the Soviet Union***.

*Roughly this is 665000 square miles, which equates to 5 times larger than Germany itself. Remember Nazi Germany also had armies of occupation in the whole of western Europe; principally France, Belgium and Holland. The logistics of manpower shouldn’t be under-estimated in addition to their industrial weakness.

**Martin van Crefeld Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton p143

*** This is a very good site.

Wehrmacht cavalry invading Poland in 1939

Wehrmacht horse pulled light artillery

Waffen SS cavalry in Soviet Union

Wehrmacht horse pulled light artillery in Soviet Union

Wehrmacht provisions supplied by horse and cart in Soviet Union


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Film review ~ Molly’s Game (Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba)

Molly’s Game is a biopic of Molly Bloom, the ‘queen’ of gambling. Her life is tedious, which is a fatal flaw for a biopic. Aaron Sorkin the scriptwriter and director should have noticed this and added drama. His film could be a radio play. Hanging about watching a few guys play high stakes poker isn’t drama. Having Molly smile a delicious smile and look knowing isn’t drama. An Apple laptop isn’t drama. Not knowing what a spreadsheet is isn’t drama. Having a boss who’s a born-again knuckle dragging moron isn’t drama. Sorkin, as director, just doesn’t get it.

Notwithstanding all of this Chastain does justice to Sorkin’s script, which is terrific. Drama comes very late in this 140 minute film. Idris Elba as attorney Charlie Jaffey makes the very best of his few opportunities to shine. A caricature Russian Mafia cameo of extreme violence lightens the boredom notwithstanding the cliché. The denouement, such as it is, is pure treacle.

Why you should watch this film: You want a character building experience.

Why you shouldn’t watch this film: You don’t think that you should pay for boredom

An alternative review is here


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A pub for pensioners

Four retired saw a pub called “Old Timers Bar- all drinks 10p.”

Obviously they thought it was a scam but having plenty of time on their hands they go in.

The bar-tender, is about their age, and he calls out, “What’ll it be gents?”

They order pints of beer with whiskey chasers and are charged 20p each.

Seeing that they’re puzzled he say, “Don’t worry it isn’t a scam. I won £10m on the Lottery and I haven’t a family so I thought, How do I meet lots of different people? This is what I came up with.”

The four men relax and have a few. One of them says, “What are those guys doing at the end of the bar? They’re not drinking and keep looking at their watches

Oh them. They’re from Yorkshire and they’re waiting for the Happy Hour to start.”


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