When Britain burned the white house

I returned to the Town Hall on Monday to hear Peter Snow’s talk “When Britain burned the White House” as part of the Essar Chester Literature Festival.

My first thought was that Peter Snow’s career is particularly noteworthy. He has worked for the BBC and ITV. He has appeared on Newsnight and ITN news. He has shown us the future on Tomorrow’s World and uncovered the past with his son, Dan Snow. Perhaps, most famously, he made General Elections come alive through the legendary *swingometer*. He now writes books.

He is a force of nature

Before launching headfirst into his talk, Mr Snow informed us that he first came to Chester fifty odd years ago, and mentioned a visit to a local ballroom and dancing with many ladies – the old rogue. My wife speculated that this visit probably coincided with a trip to see the in-laws – Dan Snow is married Lady Edwina Grosvenor, daughter of the Duke of Westminster. He did mention they lived down the road. Who knows and who cares.

Now for the talk…

The title of the talk takes its name from the title of Peter Snow’s latest book. Told through the eyes of Harry Smith – the hero of his previous book *To War with Wellington* – and focuses on this little known episode in our special relationship.  The talk revolved around Whitehall’s wish to end this ridiculous war with the Americans by giving the Yanks a *good drubbing*. The cast featured a singular group of incompetent, insubordinate and indomitable folk. Rear Admiral George Cockburn, the driving force behind the sacking of Washington and man to whom orders were discretionary. Major General Robert Ross, Cockburn’s accessory and a man of derring-do whose bravery led to his premature death. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, a man who had the good sense to change his position to make political capital.

So far, so British.

On the US side, there’s President James Madison:  a man of great intellect, but not overly blessed with battle smarts. His redoubtable wife, Dolley, who refused to leave the White House until the bitter end. John Pendleton Kennedy, a writer who went into battle wearing dancing shoes. Francis Scott Key, a lawyer who composed the *Star Spangled Banner* as he witnessed Baltimore being bombarded. They all sounded so much more glamorous, heroic and likeable than the Brits.

Along the way to the White House, we learned a few interesting titbits. Only the British army and Al Qaeda have managed to attack Washington.  The high command of the British army dined at the White House – finishing off a dinner party prepared for the President – before then ransacking the *People’s House*.  Only two presidents have fled the White House, James Madison and George Dubya Bush. The Americans burned the Canadian parliament a few years before the White House burned (Karma?).  A gentlemen called William Thornton convinced Cockburn to spare the US Patent Office because of the contents *usefulness to humanity*. Cockburn saw off a Yankee soldier who had the temerity to fire at him with the words *I’ll give it to you, damn Yankee!*. In recent years, both David Cameron and Tony Blair have apologised for the burning.  Finally, there is a place called *Bread and Cheese Creek* in Baltimore County. My wife would very much like to live there.

The talk was enlightening and the pace was galloping, as if delivered on horseback. Peter Snow reminds me of my history teacher, Mr Winter. He once taught a lesson using only his tie collection, which encompassed the Silk Road, the swinging sixties and the Victorians. They are of the same ilk, able to breathe life into history through enthusiasm, passion and knowledge. They are very special people indeed.

Another lovely night out courtesy of Chester Performs.

PS. after the talk, my wife suggested that military history would be my next passion. Apparently, I am travelling along an evolutionary arc – beard, real ale, cycling – which will inevitably bend toward this subject. Thoughts?


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