How the Blog Works

How the blog works

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Friday, 19 February 2021

Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul Talk by Bijan Omrani 15 December 2021

 Those Lit. Soc. members who had daringly crossed their personal Zoom Rubicon gathered in virtual conclave to hear Bijan Omrani discuss his recent book on Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. The swots who had done their pre-talk prep and read the book would indubitably have had their appetites for things Classical whetted by the fulsome front cover  testimonial from the nation’s best known scholar in the field, Boris Johnson.  Eton  also lit the spark for our speaker’s opus as, like an embattled gladiator in the arena, he fought to avoid ensnarement in a net of languid ennui from his Lower Sixth Latin class who were signally failing to see the foundation stones of Western European culture in Book V of Caesar’s Gallic Commentaries, finding only “irrelevant linguistic roughage”.   

With barely a pause for an Ecce Homo, Bijan plunged into his hero’s biography. Auspiciously born on the threshold of a new century in 100 BC into an impoverished blue-blooded clan and having had to assume the role of head of household at age 15, Julius Caesar focussed on his ascent of the political pyramid of the Roman Republic.  Within a year he was nominated for the post of Flamen Dialis in the priesthood of Jupiter, drawing the unwelcome attention of Rome’s dominant military figure, Sulla, who pressed him to demit  office and to divorce his wife.  Caesar wisely granted himself a temporary exeat before returning to his cursus honorum and scrambling up the ladder of sequential state offices;   the Roman Bar, quaestor in Spain, Curule Aedile, Pontifex Maximus, Praetor and eventually Governor of Spain.  The acquisition of these offices entailed disbursing large sums in bribes and public entertainments, panem et circenses, which in turn necessitated lavish borrowing of money. Becoming a provincial governor created a situation which could be exploited for personal profit. 

With the groundwork now laid for political power, it was time for the next step – general of an army.  The Roman Republic’s army had given up its citizen-soldier format in favour of a professional outfit  whose troops’ primary loyalty was to the general, like the condottiere bands which ranged across medieval  Italy.  Caesar had a role model in his uncle by marriage, Marius, who had risen from the ranks to lead an army which had defeated the Gauls before he became the leader of the patrician Populares faction in the Senate – antagonists of Sulla’s equally patrician Optimes faction.  In emulation Caesar led his army into Gaul and fell on the Helvetii tribe as they moved in transit across southeast Gaul, killing thousands of them.  These Gallic Wars continued for years  culminating in the successful besieging of Alésia where the leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, surrendered -  to be paraded in Caesar’s army’s triumphal procession into Rome.  After 6 years incarceration he was garotted and his corpse flung in the Tiber in a fitting coda to a particularly bloody campaign. 

In the course of the next century Gaul was incorporated into the empire and the natives were assimilated into a Gallo-Roman culture.  Our speaker demonstrated the residual, archaeological legacy of this with examples like The Arch of Glanum, just south of St. Rémy-de-Provence, site of van Gogh’s creatively productive, voluntary confinement in the local asylum.  The Arch, dating from the reign of Augustus Caesar, has side panels showing Gauls as Roman prisoners but also functions as part of a dam-aqueduct complex representing Roman dominance going hand in hand with life-enriching engineering skills.  The impressive amphitheatres at Arles and Nîmes still offer eloquent testimony to the benefits of urbanisation under the Roman aegis and less than 10 miles from Arles the aqueduct of Barbegal with its 16 integrated water wheels which powered multiple flour mills is a reminder of the sophistication of Rome’s hydraulic engineering.  At Autun the skeletal remains of the Temple of Janus constitute an imposing local landmark.  Individuals could assimilate and flourish in the Gallo-Roman culture.  Ausonius’ mastery of Rhetoric saw him made tutor to the Emperor’s son in the 4th century AD and build on these contacts to be made a consul. 

Quod erat demonstrandum?  Would Bijan’s Etonian Classics  recidivists now see the light – the Roman Empire as the keystone of France’s cultural flowering?  Was the spirit of the Gauls, like the good of Shakespeare’s Caesar, “oft interred with their bones”?   Marcel Proust, on an unaccustomed foray from his habitually  introspective narrative  pathway, comments approvingly in “Swann’s Way”  on the belief  that the souls of France’s Celtic forebears can return to share his  life, springing forth from centuries long imprisonment in objects and animals.  These recalcitrant ghosts of a stubborn, unyielding France were to emerge in the flamboyant journalism of de Maupassant and Zola in the leading, late 19th century Parisian daily Le Gaulois, in the guise of the Gauloise cigarettes clamped between the lips of the resolute poilus defending Verdun – extrapolated in the inter-war years as a symbol of an unflinching France profonde  -- and an aromatically smouldering baton passed to the hands of today’s gilets jaunesEven hard done by Vercingetorix might draw a quantum of solace in the survival of his emblematic suffix in René Goscinny’s  irrepressible cartoon Gaul, Asterix, who was sometimes interpreted as symbolising the less vertically-challenged Charles de Gaulle, resisting American domination rather than that of Caesar’s Rome. 

And the Lit. Soc. audience was left to conclude that they had enjoyed a talk which like Caesar’s Gaul fell nicely into 3 parts; history, Classical culture and travelogue.   

 William Doherty  


Tuesday, 15 December 2020

The late Alan Mckinna



 As most of you will have heard, Alan, such a central figure in our Society, died suddenly on Saturday evening, 12 December. Many members will have memories of Alan that they'd like to share, and the first of these appear below. Please add your own contributions by e-mailing them to Thanks to David Page for the picture above. Others, preferably as .JPG files, would be welcome. Alan's daughter Fiona has asked me to thank the Society's members for their support.

from HilaryRoome:

Always exceptionally kind, generous and supportive, Alan was for many years the President of Literary Society and was an enthusiastic participant.  He will be greatly missed.

from Pam Buxton:

I would just like to add my voice to the tributes to Alan. He was one of the kindest men I have ever met. So thoughtful, so caring and so observant. Winchelsea will be a lonelier place without him

 from Ann Dawson:

There are so many memories of Alan that one could mention but there is one I will never forget.  One evening, when my husband Michael was nearing the end of his long battle with cancer, I had to go out for a short time leaving him in the care of my daughter Caroline.  On my return I was surprised to be greeted by gales of laughter from upstairs where I found Alan, the much respected and eminent consultant from the Marsden Hospital, with his sleeves rolled up struggling, with Caroline, to instal and activate a special mattress, the arrival of which had coincided with Alan’s visit.  Michael was sitting in a chair in fresh pyjamas and Alan insisted on going on to make the bed, departing with a bundle of sheets to put in his washing machine.  A true friend indeed.

from William Doherty:

 Every life has many facets and in most instances we are only familiar with a few, which inevitably gives an incomplete picture in any attempt at memorialising but some people inspire us to try The American poet and writer advised us  

"When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."   

I believe she had in mind the revelatory slip, (think Boris Johnson’s recent Scottish Devolution’s a disaster and the attempts to row back from it which could most charitably be described as unconvincing).  It was different with Alan who unobtrusively showed us  a succession of admirable qualities; loyalty – to family, church, professional vocation,  community down to clubs and societies; reliability,  an unfailing courtesy, that quiet sense of service which saw him delivering supplementary background information to interested members of his Book Group after he presented his last choice  On Chapel Sands   and the self-effacing generosity that had two bottles of wine appearing  unheralded on the table at our medical lunches 

My younger self would never have imagined me having a role model at my age and stage but Alan provided it – the Christian life, well lived.  

from Howard Norton:

 When I introduced Alan at my ‘With Great Pleasure’ session last Friday, I called him ‘The Grand Old Man’ of the Literary Society.  That description was sincerely meant and so well deserved.  He was a Founder Member of the Society and the most loyal of supporters over many years.  I am not even sure that the Society would have survived, let alone flourished, without his enthusiastic commitment.  I always sensed that, although Alan was involved with almost every aspect of Winchelsea life, the Literary Society was closest to his heart.  As secretary for many years, he was so good at affirming other people’s contributions and modest in downplaying his own.  His financial generosity was proverbial; few people knew that for several years he subsidised the Society by providing our wine. 

 Alan emailed me on Saturday morning to thank me for asking him to read - he was always so gracious in that regard.  (On the rare occasions when he couldn’t attend a meeting he would never fail to send his apologies.)  He went on to say how sorry he was  that a couple, long associated with the society, were not able to join in because they couldn’t Zoom.  How typical of Alan that, in the last hours of his life, he should be concerned for others.

His death leaves a void which can never be filled but also a deep gratitude that we were privileged to share his company for so long.

 from Ann & Jonty Driver:

We were shocked to hear of the death of Alan McKinna, especially so soon after we had heard him reading splendidly from Alan Bennet at our latest Zoomed meeting of Howard Norton's "With Great Pleasure" only a few days ago. We shall miss greatly his generous and wise presence in our meetings and social gatherings. Alan was widely cultured ; this was apparent from his own "WGP" session last year. We remember too his contribution to the discussion of John Davison’s talk about Walter Scott. After that talk, Alan decided he wanted to send John a gift to show his personal appreciation.  This was something he insisted he would do on his own, outside the WLS. It seemed to us typical of the man.

One often hears people saying that a sudden death must be a kind of blessing.  Oddly enough, The Book of Common Prayer specifically prays that one shouldn’t have to suffer a sudden death, we guess so one may have time to confess one’s sins and so go to judgement shriven of sin. Somehow we doubt Alan was much laden with sin;  he always seemed to us the epitome of goodness, not just a clever man, but kindness embodied, caring quietly for Mal and for any others who needed his help. One knew he had faced some immense difficulties in his personal life these last few years;  but he never complained, just got on with caring for other people. We shall miss him but are very glad we knew him.

from Jan Ziff:


I can hardly begin to express the deep sorrow I feel knowing that the wonderful, kind, loving, humorous, warm and always welcoming Alan is no longer among us.



Alan McKinna is a loss.   A force for good and, I believe, distinguished in his calling.

from Richard and Catherine Thomas:

We will always remember Alan as an exceptionally friendly and kind person, and almost alarmingly erudite, as he seemed to have read more or less the whole of English literature, and then, astonishingly, to be able to recall it all.  His devotion to Mal shone through everything that he did in these last few years as her illness deepened.  We often bumped into each other doing our morning shopping, and when I asked how things were going he invariably emphasised the positives – that at least they still had each other and could see the funny side of their situation, and were determined to go on doing so. 

At least for Alan has been spared much of the grimness of old age.  He died on his way to a concert which no doubt he was looking forward to, having spent the previous evening doing one of the things he most enjoyed and did best.

from Ann Rachlin:

 How can I sum up all that Alan McKinna meant to us in a few short sentences?    This was a man whose warmth and friendship beamed out from him like the golden rays of the sun drawn by a child.   Alan greeted everyone, friend, acquaintance and stranger with that lovely smile that put you instantly at ease and a twinkle in his eye that told you that he was a friend.

You could talk about anything to Alan and he would listen, comment, sometimes with humour and sometimes with a wry smile that meant he did not totally agree.

He was a man of compassion, always kind, always considerate and understanding.   When he retired as a doctor, he continued healing with his generosity of spirit and unfailing support whenever he could see that we would benefit from his professional knowledge.   He was never too busy to listen and always there, if not in person, at the other end of a phone or email.

Alan had humour in abundance.   Throughout this stressful year, where would we have been without his emails and his links to something funny, something serious but important, always something to warm the heart of his friends?

 When it comes to caring for the frailty of old age, there can be no finer example of “in sickness and in health till death do us part”.   His devotion to Mal, his seemingly inexhaustible patience and his obvious love for his life partner, was typical of his generosity of spirit.  For those of us who know and understand, he is a role model but a hard act to follow.

A stalwart of the Winchelsea community, to say that Alan McKinna will be missed has to be the understatement of the century.  He was always there, supporting in every way possible, all in spite of his own constant pain and fatigue.

Alan, we will miss you.   We think of your gentlemanly greetings at the Church Market.  I see you now with your shopping bag of goodies, never failing to come and greet us at the piano where Iain was playing.   No Jewish religious holiday went by without an appropriate card and greeting from Alan.   A word of support in troubled times - a friendly enquiry and, during this pandemic year, even an offer to do some shopping for us! 

 Oh yes, Iain and I will miss  Alan McKinna for he enriched our lives.   We will remember him forever with love.


from Cheryl and Guy Fraser-Sampson :

 Our earliest memory of Alan was when he visited us after Guy's talk to the Literary Society on golden age crime fiction to thank Guy for an entertaining evening.  As newcomers to Winchelsea, that meant a lot and it was so typical of what a kind and thoughtful human being he was.  We shall miss his gentle humour and friendly face.'.

 from Alfred and Caroline McKenney:

 Alfred: Alan was one of those people who, although an acquaintance felt a friend.  To me this was wonderful. A combination of thoughtfulness and puckish humour led him some years ago to give us an ancient tourist guide he had located called “Here’s England” written by a certain Ruth McKenney. Perhaps he had identified that I might benefit from a few cultural pointers.

Caroline: Alan had a sincerity about him that graced the town. Alan’s enquiring mind would quicken when discussing the natural world; its wonder seemed to increasingly reveal itself to him. A man of much compassion, he will be greatly missed.