Unreal nobility

AristocratsI already knew that pre-revolutionary France had a great many people were aristocrats – they throng the pages of Nancy Mitford and Antonia Fraser – but I was unaware how many were fake. Now I am fascinated to read that “in 1788 the royal genealogist Antoine Maugard estimated that, at most, a quarter of noble titles [in France] were genuine.” (Beckman, J  How to ruin a queen. London 2014, p21) citing Chasset, A Les nobles et les villains du temps passé. Paris, 1857. p208)

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Rio De Janeiro, 1846

A lady traveller’s impressions of imperial Brazil include this vignette, courtesy of Project Gutenberg:

“I was fortunate enough during my stay in Rio Janeiro to witness several different public festivals.

The first was on the 21st of September, in the Church of St. Cruz, on the occasion of celebrating the anniversary of the patron saint of the country.  Early in the morning several hundred soldiers were drawn up before the church, with an excellent band, which played a number of lively airs.  Between ten and eleven, the military and civil officers began gradually to arrive, the subordinate ones, as I was told, coming first.  On their entrance into the church, a brownish-red silk cloak, which concealed the whole of the uniform, was presented to each.  Every time that another of a higher rank appeared, all those already in the church rose from their seats, and advancing towards the new comer as far as the church door, accompanied him respectfully to his place.  The emperor and his wife arrived the last of all.  The emperor [Pedro II] is extremely young—not quite one and twenty—but six feet tall, and very corpulent; his features are those of the Hapsburg-Lothering family.  The empress, a Neapolitan princess, is small and slim, and forms a strange contrast when standing beside the athletic figure of her husband.

High mass, which was listened to with great reverence by every one, began immediately after the entrance of the court, and after this was concluded the imperial pair proceeded to their carriage, presenting the crowd, who were waiting in the church, their hands to kiss as they went along.  This mark of distinction was bestowed not only on the officers and officials of superior rank, but on every one who pressed forward to obtain it.”

Pedro II

Pedro II

From Ida Pfeiffer A woman’s journey round the world.  Vienna, 1850 ch 2

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Their Majesties’ descent

Who gets to be queen consort to a British king?  For centuries, the answer was simple: only a lady with regnal rank would do.  But that started changing in 1893.  From that date onwards, there has been something of a decline in royal brides’ status.

Consider: the prince who became King Edward VII was married to the daughter of a king, in 1863; 30 years later his son George V married the daughter of a duke; in 1923 the prince who became George VI married the daughter of an earl, as did his grandson Prince Charles in 1981.  His son Prince William married a commoner descendant of the Leeds middle class and the NE England working class.  It’s difficult to see a future male heir to the throne getting married to some royal princess. He’ll make a better choice.

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Out of the way, doc!

It’s as if a street brawl between two bare-knuckle bruisers is suddenly interrupted by a doctor claiming that a passer-by has been felled by a stray punch and is now dead.  In response, one of the protagonists starts beating up the doctor before others can intervene.

Thus the irruption of MH17 into the Ukrainian civil war, literally out of the blue.  The first reaction by the Russian authorities seems to have been one of unthinking, knee-jerk support for the insurgents – who deny any claim that they were responsible for the fatal attack on an airliner which happened to be passing by and who treat investigators as ‘spies’ – and an attempt to hide the evidence.  In Moscow as at the crash site itself, there appears to be bemusement at the attitude of foreign authorities anxious to reclaim the bodies, treat them decently and find out the answers to all the obvious questions.

What is this?  Slav fatalism?  Cynical contempt for those unfortunates who just got in the way?  Whatever it is, it’s disgraceful public immorality, and should be branded as such by the other, more civilised countries involved, trying to handle this tragedy in an ethical, caring and dignified way.

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Scots vote

Three things about the forthcoming Scottish referendum seem wrong to me.  First, what about the immense worldwide Scottish diaspora?  Don’t they all deserve a vote, too?  Second, if the UK is the real issue, why don’t we English (and Welsh and Irish) get to vote too? Third, the most obvious option, DevoMax, the most sensible way to go forward, will not appear on the ballot paper.  So how much attention does this exercise deserve? Not much, I think.

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Indian tea party

Through relatives and family get-togethers, we are connected with the great Indian diaspora.  This weekend, our particular branch of this network – cousins, aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, siblings and toddler – met up again in a middle-class suburb in northern England, to lunch together in a wake for a lady recently departed.

Long resident in the UK and the US, these are not the sort of people serving at your local Indian take-away down in Station Road.  Among the party were doctors, businessmen, a research chemist, somebody in the City, IT people, a UN official and some retired folk still able to get about.  Those too elderly to be with us included a former, very senior member of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).  The conversation was wide-ranging, civilised and light of touch.

I ask what they made of the election victory of the BJP.  Heads shaken, lips pursed, grim smiles.  One bursts out, “It is as if Ukip won the election here.”  Then they change the subject and are soon laughing again.  Thoughts of an Indian tea party movement slide away. into the warm afternoon.

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Shrinking monarchy

Coronation 1953

Coronation 1953

Whenever it is, the next coronation in Westminster Abbey will, one hopes, not include some of the more recherché features of the last one, in 1953.  Charles III, presuming it is he, will sign up to a job rather different from the one his mother took on 60 years ago.  Continue reading

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Who knows where MH370 is?

When the search for Osama Bin Laden was over, there were some parts of the media prepared to say that his whereabouts had been known all along.  The allegation was that senior figures in Pakistani national security kept that secret so that they could continue to draw on western aid funding being provided for the search.  It would not surprise me.  So who’s to say that no-one knows where MH370 is?  Is it inconceivable that the plane has landed in some secluded location NW of SE Asia, and is sitting there while some kind of secret negotiations decides its fate?

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The tocsin sounds for World War I

This year we are so used to hearing that the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was greeted by cheering crowds that it’s worth pausing to check diaries and memoirs of the time to see what people really thought about it a hundred years ago.  Here is how one well-travelled English aristocrat heard the news, and what he felt on hearing the sound of the tocsin presaging war: Continue reading

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Sicily to America

CustonaciTouring Sicily in the years before the First World War, the writer Henry Festing Jones reaches Custonaci, ponders the guestworker phenomenon and makes a prediction:

‘“You see all these young men?” said the shoemaker.  “In another couple of months they will be in America.”

I spoke to some of those who had returned from the States and from South America.  Those who have been to the States like an opportunity to speak English, but they are not very strong at it, and it is more than tinged with Yankeeisms.  One of them told me that in New York he was treated very well by his Capo-Boss.  They earn more over there than they can at home; every week brings American money-orders to Custonaci and on mail days the post-office is crowded with wives, mothers and sweethearts.  When they have saved anything up to 5000 lire (£200) they return and buy a bit of land on which a family of contadini can live, or they embellish the family shop or open a new one and hope for the best.  If business is bad and they lose their money before they are too old, they can go back and make some more.  It is the same on the Mountain; the young men emigrate and bring back money and new ideas.  The time will come when Cofano will see what influence this wooing of Fortune in a foreign land by the sons of Mount Eryx and Custonaci may have on the next incarnation of the goddess who reigns in this corner of the island.’

From: Diversions in Sicily (London 1920) p213  Courtesy of Project Gutenberg

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