Book review: Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History

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Peter and Dan Snow’s Treasures of British History: The Nation’s Story Told Through 50 Important Documents. Carlton Publishing Group. Out: now. RRP: £20

Like a real life, latter-day Henry and Indiana Jones, father and son writing and broadcasting team, Peter and Dan Snow apply their formidable powers to an analysis of our nation’s history through an examination of fifty key historical documents. This isn’t, of course, very similar to ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in most respects (most things aren’t). But what this lacks in machine guns, Nazi airships, cameos by Alexei Sayle and the ghosts of medieval crusader knights, this more than makes up for in incisive and intelligent historical insight drawn from the Snow Boys’ seventy or so years of collective writing and journalistic experience.

All the usual suspects are here such as Magna Carta, the Domesday Book and the Munich Agreement. There are also a few unexpected treats like the Queen’s chilling ‘speech in the event of a nuclear war’ from 1983.

The documents are reproduced nicely, making this an attractive and readable book: a coffee table read for someone with a huge cup of coffee.

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Some kings called George

Here’s a quick round up of all the British kings called George…

George I (1714-1727)

German. Born in Germany. Only spoke German. Didn’t like England and spent most of his time in Germany. Buried in Germany.

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George II (1727-1760)

(George I’s son). The last king to lead his men into battle. Died on the toilet, like that other great king, Elvis.

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George III (1760-1820)

(George II’ s grandson). The longest reigning British king (sixty years) although did not reign for as long as his granddaughter Victoria (63 years) or her own great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth II. Not that he would have known that as he was a) mad and b) dead. Sometimes just called “King George” so as not to confuse Americans who might think he was a sequel.

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George IV (1820-1830)

(George III’s son). Regent first. Fat, lazy and lecherous rather like Henry VIII, Edward VII or Boris I.

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George V (1910-1936)

(George III’s granddaughter’s grandson). Technically murdered as two of his doctors deliberately gave him an overdose of morphine on his deathbed. Last words were “bugger Bognor”. Ironically, it was still illegal to bugger Bognor at this time.

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George VI (1936-1952)

(George V’s son). Famous stammerer portrayed by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech. Had he reigned for as long as his daughter, he would still have been king in the year 2002.

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George VII (2058 -2109)

(George VI’s great great grandson). Married Prince Alfie in 2037.

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A century of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath

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They seemed almost like total opposites.

Wilson seemed working class to the core, Heath seemed posh. Wilson seemed jovial, dynamic and witty, Heath seemed stiff and awkward. Wilson was the family man who holidayed in the Isles of Scilly ever year, Heath was the European, conductor and champion yachtsman and lifelong bachelor.

Both men were actually more similar to each other than they seemed. Both ruled the nation for as long as Thatcher, eleven and a half years (October 1964 to April 1976) between them. And both were born a full century ago in the year 1916.

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Wilson emerged first, beating two older men George Brown and James Callaghan to win the Labour leadership following Hugh Gaitskell’s death in early 1963. Always brilliant – he had become the youngest British cabinet minister of the century at 31 – Wilson was also wily and had reinvented himself from being rather a dull figure under Attlee to a dynamic, raincoat-wearing, pipe smoking working class hero ripe for the TV age. Wilson, like all successful politicians, was lucky: the Tory government fell foul of the Profumo Affair and Harold Macmillan gave way to the much less formidable Alec Douglas Home in October 1963. But Wilson was also a brilliant opposition leader and spoke of “the white heat of revolution” an exciting but largely meaningless term. He led Labour to a narrow victory in October 1964. It is surprising he didn’t do better.

Young and from a similar background (his father had been a carpenter) and the first grammar school boy to be Tory leader, Heath was elected in 1965 partly because he was seen (wrongly) as the Tory answer it Wilson.

Wilson trounced Heath in the 1966 election which saw Labour’s majority surge to almost 100. Both men would struggle in the next four years. Wilson was lucky to survive a sea of economic troubles especially with many of his colleagues (Brown, Jenkins, Callaghan, Healey) keen to usurp him. Heath was criticised for sacking Enoch Powell after his inflammatory 1968 Rivers of Blood speech on immigration. In fact, he was right to do so. But the press remained critical of Heath and he remained unpopular. Polls predicted another easy General Election win for Labour in 1970, Heath’s last chance. As in 1992and 2015, the polls were wrong and the Tories were back with a majority.

As Prime Minister, Heath led Britain into the Common Market, a towering achievement the like of which neither Wilson or indeed most prime ministers ever manage. Sadly, the rest of his premiership was a disaster derailed by the oil shock, inflation and his battle with the unions.

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Asking “Who governs Britain?” Heath went to the polls early during the Three Day Week in 1974. He was overconfident. Enoch Powell urged voters to back Labour and though the Tories got more votes, Labour got slightly more seats. After an unseemly and unnecessary attempt to court the support of Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, Wilson, to his surprise was back. A second election later in the year gave him a majority, albeit a similar one to the one he had started as PM with a full decade earlier.

Heath was now in trouble. Arrogant and supremely overconfident, he never expected to be overthrown by his former Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975. Few had done. He never forgave her and he still seemed a plausible rival to her leadership until the early 1980s. The Incredible Sulk had begun.

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Wilson had problems too. Inflation was sky-high, the pound was low, Labour’s majority y was vanishing and the party was at odds over Europe. Wilson was also drinking heavily, well past his best politically and possibly already suffering from the dementia which would blight his old age. He resigned very suddenly in 1976, damaging his name further with his botched Resignation Honours list. Wilson was consumed by paranoia. It is true these were paranoid times; many of Wilson’s colleagues DID want his job. Sections of the MI5 were also convinced he was a Soviet agent who had poisoned his predecessor Hugh Gaitskell. They were wrong: Wilson had not been expected to succeed Gaitskell at the time of his death anyway. But Wilson’s own paranoia nevertheless got out of hand.

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Neither man has been served well by posterity. Heath looks worse than Thatcher in most Tory eyes (she did win three large victories after all, he lost three and won one). Although the abuse allegations raised in 2015 seem unsubstantiated at this time, Heath was most likely gay and suppressed his homosexuality in favour of a political career (his contemporary Jeremy Thorpe attempted to do both: the results were disastrous). He remained a visible and vocal public figure until his death in 2005. Now eleven years on, his most cherished achievement: our place in Europe is under threat.

Wilson’s tenure saw some major changes: the legalisation of abortion, homosexuality and the abolition of the death penalty and reform of the divorce c laws. Neither Wilson nor Heath can be described as a total success. But their decade or so in power, undoubtedly changed Britain.

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Maggie vs Tony Benn

Politics - Anthony Wedgwood Benn
Two giants of the post-war political stage have died within the last year. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn were both born in the year 1925 and both died within twelve months of each other.

Benn’s influence was enormous and wide ranging and he is rightly hailed as one of the great British statesmen of the last century.

But the reaction to Lady Thatcher’s death was both greater and more enduring. For there is no denying it: in the Game of Thrones battle of post-war British politics, she was the victor.

A betting man (or woman) observing the two rising stars at almost any point before the late Seventies would doubtless have favoured the young Anthony Wedgewood Benn to succeed over the young Margaret Roberts. Benn was both the son and the grandson of former MPs. Roberts was of humbler stock and had to overcome both the snobbery and sexism of the times. Thatcher’s biographer John Campbell speculates that the two must have met at Oxford University where both were active in student politics. Neither ever mentioned having done so.

After serving in the RAF, Benn entered parliament at 25. He had already been an MP for almost a decade when the now married Thatcher managed to secure the Finchley seat in October 1959.

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Then things shifted, while the young Thatcher impressed many as a junior minister under Macmillan, the death of Benn’s father threatened to end his political career forever. It took three years for Benn to renounce his peerage, a struggle he did not always seem likely to win.

Once back as an MP in 1963, the rest of the decade saw Benn in power achieving most of his political successes as the rising modern technology-obsessed minister in the Wilson Government. Thatcher, in opposition from 1964 to 1970 struggled, her marriage to Denis even wobbling in the mid-Sixties.

The surprise return of the Tories in 1970, however, saw her as the Education Secretary demonised as the “milk snatcher” and alongside Barbara Castle and Shirley Williams becoming one of the most high profile women in politics.

It was at this point, Benn shifted to the Left, dropping the “Anthony Wedgewood” from his name and increasingly angering many of his colleagues on the Left and Right as unlike say, Michael Foot, he increasingly began to favour principles and “ishues” (as he  himself would have put it) over party unity and consensus. He became the source of intense media interest. The Sun dubbed him “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Benn claimed he once witnesses a man emptying one of his dustbins and taking it to a nearby limo. It would be amazing if he had not been under security service surveillance.

Thatcher’s victory in becoming Tory leader in 1975, owed itself partly to bravery, partly to luck. Ex-minister Keith Joseph had destroyed his own chances with a desperately inflammatory speech about the working classes and birth control. Thatcher stood in his stead. Few expected her to stand. Few expected her to win (least of all Ted Heath). Few expected her to become PM even after she had become Opposition leader.

Benn faced a much more crowded field in his first Labour leadership contest in 1976. He came fourth but was pleased to do as well as he did.

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Thatcher struggled against Callaghan in Opposition. But the Winter of Discontent changed everything and in 1979 she won the election and became the first woman Prime Minister. Benn remained likely to face her as Opposition leader. But he as contrary enough to sit out the 1980 contest (ultimately between Denis Healey and Michael Foot) on the grounds that the leadership contest rules were soon to change anyway. Benn felt any leader would be a lame duck.

The years 1981 and 1982 would settle the battle once and for all. Benn mounted his hugely divisive bid against Healey and the Deputy leadership in 1981. Many in his own never forgave him. He came very close to winning yet Healey survived. Thereafter Benn’s influence which had peaked steadily started to wane.

Thatcher was already deeply unpopular until the Falklands War in 1982 boosted her with a momentum which would propel her through two more landslide election victories and to the end of the decade.

The 1983 election underlined Thatcher’s triumph. She won the biggest post-war Tory election victory of the post-war era achieving a majority of 144. Benn, after twenty years, lost his seat. In fact, his defeat was largely a result of boundary changes. Benn had loyally refused to switch seats. But the result was largely blamed on an overly Bennite manifesto anyway. In retrospect, his defeat was total.

He would return as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. But Labour was now moving inexorably towards a “New Labour” direction. Benn had missed the 1983 leadership contest won by Neil Kinnock. Thatcher would beat Kinnock soundly in the 1987 General Election. Kinnock would soundly beat Benn in his last unnecessary challenge in 1988.

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Benn became an increasingly avuncular and much loved figure in old age. His diaries will prove an invaluable historical resource. He remained active well into his eighties. One senses he was a much happier and well rounded figure than Lady Thatcher and had a happier family life. Thatcher, in contrast, had no interests outside politics, no real sense of humour and was unlucky enough to be struck down by dementia. It is thought that she never had a good day after leaving Downing Street in November 1990 until her death last year.

But the Britain we live in today, of a diminished welfare state, high unemployment, strong markets, privatised utilities, a pro-US foreign policy, a modernised Labour Party and a Murdoch-dominated press is recognisably hers and not Benn’s.

Benn achieved much, more than many Prime Ministers have. But this was a battle he could not win.

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A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s book review

A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s.

Alwyn W. Turner.

Published: Aurum.

RRP: £25

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Some might think it a bit soon to be writing histories of the 1990s. Perhaps they should think again. This volume, the third and final part of Alwyn W. Turner’s trilogy takes Britain up to the General Election of June 2001. It was a sleepy campaign, enlivened only by the celebrated “Prescott Punch” when the Deputy PM John Prescott was filmed punching a voter.

Turner argues the 2001 election saw Britain winding down after the industrial unrest of the 1970s (chronicled in his earlier Crisis? What Crisis?) and the battles and mass unemployment of the 1980s (detailed in his second volume Rejoice! Rejoice!). 2001 was at any rate still a considerable time ago. E-readers, iPods, the Iraq War and Credit Crunch were still in the future. But the book starts with Thatcher’s fall in November 1990. Twenty four years ago, this is definitely the stuff of history.

In 1990, Britain was preparing to go to war over Kuwait (a much less controversial war than the Iraq conflict which began twelve years later) as the nation licked its wounds from the ordeal of Thatcherism. It is arguable that Britain has not fully recovered from her leadership even today and certainly the Tory Party don’t seem to have done so.

Mrs Thatcher’s successor was John Major who Turner reminds us, was at the time the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century. We have got used to younger leaders since. Major was 46, Blair who would succeed him would be 44. Cameron in 2010 was younger still and all three major party leaders today are under 50. Major  at any rate did what no Tory leader has achieved in the 22 years since, winning his party an overall majority in the General Election of April 1992. Thereafter, it proved to be a very bad decade to be a Tory.

Major’s economic record was much better than Thatcher’s. But he was a poor leader and after the election win the party went into freefall, alienating any group who might have potentially supported them. The number of Tory MPs fell by more than half during John Major’s leadership of the party between 1990 and 1997.

Had he not died, another John, John Smith would surely have won power in 1997. Sadly, we will never know how a Smith premiership might have turned out (Turner is certainly harsh on the Blair Government) and it will remain forever one of the great pondering points of post-war party politics.

This isn’t just about politics though, far from it. As before, Turner covers seemingly every aspect of British life in the decade including Lad Culture, the comedy scene, the recovery of the British film industry, the rise of Britpop to the death of Diana, in massively comprehensive detail.

I wouldn’t share all his emphasises. Much as I love the sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, Turner quotes from it a bit too much. It is odd also that he devotes time to mediocre TV offerings like Waiting For God and Root Into Europe too while never mentioning memorable dramas House of Cards or GBH. I wouldn’t have described Alan Rickman as “fresh from his triumph in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves” in 1999 either. The film came out in 1991, eight years before the point  Rickman was touted as a possible London Mayoral candidate.

(For the record, Michael Foot became Labour leader in 1980 not 1981. And William Hague was never the youngest Cabinet Minister of the 20th century. Harold Wilson was only 31 when he was appointed by Attlee in 1947).

But these are minor quibbles in a book spanning well over 600 pages. Alwyn W. Turner has triumphed yet again. His three volumes on the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties should be required reading for all students of popular culture, politics and history during the period between the grinning smiles of the grumpy bachelor Mr. Heath and that nice Mr. Blair.

In defence of Blackadder

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The year 2014, as every schoolboy knows, marks an important anniversary. It is twenty five years since the final series of perhaps the best British sitcom of all time, Blackadder: Blackadder Goes Forth.

It is a shame then, that some have used another anniversary (the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War) to attack the much loved series.

Unpopular Education Secretary Michael Gove is only the latest to do so, launching a broadside at the sitcom during a wider attack on “left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders” in The Daily Mail.

“The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite,” Mr. Gove has written.

Gove seems to have thrown Blackadder into the attack almost as an afterthought. Blackadder is not , after all, a “drama”. Watching the series again, it is difficult to understand what he is on about.  It is hard to see where, for example, he feels Blackadder “excuses Germany of blame” for the war.

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Presumably, he is unhappy with the portrayal of the real life Field Marshall Haig by Geoffrey Palmer in the last episode. At one point, Haig is shown callously brushing “fallen” toy soldiers off a replica battlefield with a dustpan and brush. The Education Secretary also doubtless dislikes Stephen Fry’s portrayal of the buffoonish General Melchett.

“We’re right behind you!” Melchett reassures Baldrick (Tony Robinson) as he sets off for the Front.

“About thirty five miles behind you,” Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) responds dryly.

Gove points to new revisionist histories which he says paint both the role of Haig and the merciless slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in a new light. But it is unfair to attack Blackadder for this. Not only were these new interpretations not around in 1989 when the series was made but they are highly questionable anyway. Gove argues that the Somme which occurred in 1916, more than two years before the end of the war in November 1918 can now be viewed as a “precursor to victory”.

It is worth remembering that on the first day alone of the Battle of the Somme, British fatalities alone were close to twenty thousand, seven times the entire number of deaths from the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. And not a single British General died on the Somme.

Although the Daily Mail has captioned pictures surrounding Gove’s words with phrases like “Captain Coward” for Blackadder himself, this is unlikely to be a view shared by many who viewed the programme. The series, of course, ends with all the main characters charging wilfully towards death on No Man’s Land. They know they are probably going to die, but proceed anyway. What on Earth is cowardly about that? Gove argues that: ”For all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.” Nobility and courage? Don’t the deaths of Captain Blackadder, Lieutenant George, Captain Darling and Private Baldrick perfectly exemplify these qualities?

Attacking popular culture rarely works out well for politicians. Michael Gove’s botched attack on Blackadder is no exception.

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Book Review: Tony Benn A Biography by Jad Adams

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Few people who have ever lived can claim to have enjoyed as long and diverse a political career as Tony Benn.

Today, Benn is a socialist lion in winter, bearded, in poor health and approaching his ninetieth year. He ceased writing his celebrated diary four years ago. He has been a widower for some thirteen years now and has been out of parliament for almost that entire period. With the notable exception of Denis Healey, almost all of the other leading political figures of the Sixties and Seventies (Wilson, Callaghan, Heath, Jenkins, Whitelaw, Thatcher) are now gone.

There is more to Benn than longevity although his endurance is certainly worth dwelling on for a moment. Benn was born in 1925 and as a child was introduced to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramsey MacDonald, David Lloyd George and even Sir Oswald Mosley by his father, a Secretary of State for India in the second Labour Government. Benn himself first entered parliament during the last days of Clement Attlee’s hugely successful government during the reign of George VI. Benn would never be Father of the House: his spell in parliament was interrupted twice, first by the battle to renounce his peerage between 1960 and 1963 and again for a year following the loss of his seat largely due to boundary changes in the 1983 General Election. But he would still be in parliament during the age of Tony Blair and William Hague. And from 1963 onwards (and intermittently from the Forties), he kept a diary.

The young Anthony Wedgewood Benn, as he then was, is easy to like. Dynamic, energetic and youthful, he made his mark through regular appearances on Any Questions?, a major role in condemning the 1956 Suez Crisis and a position on Hugh Gaitskell’s front bench. But it could so easily have ended in 1960 with his father’s death.

His father had slightly thoughtlessly accepted a peerage assuming Benn’s older brother who was bent on a career in the church would eventually inherit the title which would forbid the holder from serving as an MP. But his brother, Michael, died during the war, a personal tragedy that affected the future politician deeply. But there was also now a practical problem. Benn would inherit the title Viscount Stansgate and when he did so would no longer be able to serve as an MP. Fortunately, on his father’s death, despite the obstruction of the likes of Macmillan and Rab Butler as well as some in his own party, Wedgewood Benn was only able to renounce his peerage after an epic three year battle to change the law. An odd side effect was that Lord Home was thus able to renounce his peerage a few months later. Anthony Wedgewood Benn was thus inadvertently responsible for the brief premiership of Tory Sir Alec Douglas Home.

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Benn enjoyed perhaps his most productive period in government as Postmaster General during the first Wilson Government. He opened the Post Office Tower, facilitated the creation of the giro scheme, the flight of Concorde and put the postal service firmly into profit despite intense resistance from a conservative (and often Conservative) civil service. Less happily, he introduced the ban on pirate radio stations (something he later regretted) and a scheme to remove the Queen’s head from the British stamp was thwarted despite Benn getting the impression (falsely) that the Queen herself was happy to go along with it.

A change undoubtedly overcame Benn after Labour lost office in 1970. The experience of power seemed to make him more keenly socialist, not less (Harold Wilson claimed he “immatures with age”). Certainly, there was a change in attitude with Benn valuing the educational benefits of the politician’s role more highly. It was also at this point that he went officially from being Anthony Wedgewood Benn to just Tony Benn.

The Seventies and early Eighties were certainly Benn’s heyday. The levels of media interest in him were huge. A substantial amount of effort was put into unsuccessful efforts to find evidence that either Benn or his American wife Caroline were super rich and thus supposedly hypocrites (they were not). At one point, Benn’s children were verbally abused by photographers as they went to school. On another occasion, Benn witnessed his rubbish being taken away by a man in a limousine.

Benn was clearly viewed by much of the media and security services as a socialist bogeyman: “the most dangerous man in Britain”. Many on his own side fell out with him too. Leftists such as Michael Foot were more interested in establishing agreement within the party than Benn was and his unsuccessful bid for the Deputy leadership in 1981 was seen by many as hugely divisive.

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It is possible to view Benn’s career as a long and unsuccessful campaign to become PM. But this is probably misleading. Even allowing for the fact that they were being written for posterity, Benn’s diaries reveal little interest in power for power’s sake. At any rate, he never came close. He scored well in the 1976 leadership contest but didn’t come close to Foot or the victor Callaghan. He refused to stand in 1980 when he might well have won as the leadership contest ballot rules were being changed imminently. He felt any leader elected under the old system would quickly become irrelevant. He might have beaten Kinnock in 1983, had he not lost his Bristol seat in the 1983 election. He was returned as MP for Chesterfield in 1984. His bid for the leadership against Kinnock in 1988 was never likely to succeed and was more to promote his own arguments than anything else.

The last thirty years have inevitably been ones of declining influence for Benn even as the gradual publication of his diaries has boosted his reputation. He had little time for Kinnock or Blair was notable for his opposition to Iraq and became a familiar elder statesman-like figure whether appearing on Question Time, meeting up with the likes of Billy Bragg or his friend the actress Saffron Burrows or being duped by Ali G.

This updated version of Jad Adams’ excellent biography from Biteback, jumbles chronology a little in the updated chapters. But it remains a worthy companion piece to Benn’s own diaries (the final volume of which A Blaze of Autumn Sunshine will be reviewed here shortly) and is a comprehensive tribute to one of the great political lives of the last century.

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Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson: fifty years on

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Sudden deaths in front-line British politics are mercifully quite rare. In 1970, Iain Macleod died suddenly a month after becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, a desperate blow to Edward Heath’s new Tory Government. In 1994, Opposition leader John Smith died suddenly of a heart attack. Had Smith lived, it seems virtually certain he would have led Labour back into power in 1997, instead of Tony Blair.

Although he had been leading Labour for seven years at the time of his death fifty years ago, (he led the Opposition for longer than any other post-war leader except Neil Kinnock) it is less certain Hugh Gaitskell would ever have enjoyed the trappings of Downing Street even had he survived what turned out to be his final illness. True, Labour did win power again in October 1964. But this was only after Gaitskell’s successor Harold Wilson had immeasurably boosted the party. And even then it was a narrow win. Gaitskell had lost the 1959 election heavily and might well have led the party to defeat again. We will never know.

The youthful, combative Harold Wilson was undoubtedly the right choice for the party at the time, even though his subsequent leadership after the Labour landslide of 1966 would ultimately prove disappointing. George Brown, who came second in the race, was to prove a notoriously erratic figure and later that year appeared drunk on TV (having just provoked a fight with US actor Eli Wallach) on a  programme on which he was being interviewed about President Kennedy’s assassination which had occurred earlier that day. James Callaghan, who came third in the 1963 leadership, would eventually lead Labour and the UK himself between 1976 and 1979.

Alas, Hugh Gaitskell famous for his two conference speeches in which he tearfully pledged to “fight and fight again to save the party we love” and another in which he declared that European integration threatened to end “a thousand years of British history” would never get this opportunity to lead his country.  After years spent fighting the Left and working to keep the party alive, he died just as things were finally falling into place.

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