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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Justice in the round

One of the many things I find strange about te English judicial system is the way that Crown courts are laid out physically.  It might be a trivial observation, but I fail to see how using what appears to be a collection of horse boxes and paddocks, all in dark wood, advances the cause of justice. Worse, the impression it gives is of an intensely hierarchical, intimidating mise-en-scène designed to emphasise one aspect of the system and one only: the majesty of the law.

By way of contrast I remember seeing a TV movie in the 1970s starring Don Murray and James Farentino – set in Texas – which featured a climactic courtroom scene.  As I recall, the layout of the courtroom was in the shape of a circle – a ring of light-coloured wooden desking behind which judge, jury, prosecution and defence sat equidistant from each other.  This had the effect of emphasising the interrogatory nature of the proceedings: citizens met together, on equal terms but with different reasons to be there, so that the truth might be arrived at in the arena of fairness and deliberation.  Why don’t we consider having that here?  Anything to improve the reputation and hence the effectiveness of the law.

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12 English country towns

A personal list of 20 of the most attractive small towns in England:

Abingdon
Alnwick
Ashbourne
Beverley
Bishop’s Castle
Burford
Bury St Edmunds
Chipping Campden
Cirencester
Marlborough
Hawes
Hay-on-Wye
Kendal
Lavenham
Richmond (Yorks)
Romsey
Saffron Walden
Stratford-on-Avon
Wimborne
Wells

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Woman’s strength

Watching our daughter and her husband bring up our first grandchild, now a year old, fills me with awe.  So this is where women’s strength and grasp of the essential comes from.  They are the qualities in any mother most needed, often clamantly, by her child.  That fierce protectiveness, that attention to detail, that fortitude and combativeness is woman’s endowment with which she faces the world.  Take it or leave it.  Those of us men who are easily bruised or humbled by these qualities when they are manifested in a loving male/female relationship would do well to remember why those characteristics are required and for which good purpose: as Goethe put it, “Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan.”

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Forgiving ourselves

128px-Johns_shieldSome years ago D and I attended a dinner at St John’s College Cambridge, for those of us who matriculated there in 1965.  After the meal, we found ourselves chatting with a fellow of the college I had not met before.  I confessed to him that I felt guilty being there on such an occasion, surrounded as we were by so many others who had done so well, as my university career had been anything but distinguished.  I felt a fraud.  He demurred.  The precise class of my degree did not matter at all, he said, since I was a member of St John’s and always would be; that was all that needed to be said.

I was astounded by this, and very moved.  I have never forgotten it.  But still, in a deep part of me, I felt that I had done the college wrong.  Elected as an Open Scholar, I had frittered away my privileged position, in drink and others forms of fun, and ignored major opportunities which, had I recognised them at the time and taken them, would have given me an assured future; in several respects better, I sometimes thought, than the life I had actually had since graduation.

Only recently have two reformed ideas about this occurred to me.  The first is obvious: it doesn’t matter.  I have had five careers since leaving St John’s, and found something to enjoy in every one of them.  Getting a poor degree did not prevent me from being selected for a galaxy of rewarding experiences all over the world.

The second realisation leads on from this:  I had a great time at the college, albeit most of it outside the lecture hall, and learned much of the non-academic kind – friendship and love, music, conversation, intellectual challenge, worship even – and for that I will always be grateful.  It made me, though I did not know that at the time.

Ah, time. The Cambridge I knew in the late Sixties doesn’t exist any more, but it lives on in my gratitude.  I left it as soon as I could, in a self-propelled exit from Eden.  So I did pay back to St John’s, but not in the way I thought.  I started to become an adult while I was there, but only recently come to see this, and forgive myself.  I was young.  Cannot any of us forgive ourselves for being young?  What more can be said?  “The child is father of the man”, as Wordsworth put it, and he should know.  He was a Johnian too.

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Sentenced to be flogged

India, 1853: a young British army officer finds himself in a difficult situation:

“One very painful circumstance stamped itself on my memory. I was obliged to be present at a flogging parade— the only one, I am glad to say, I have ever had to attend, although  the barbarous and degrading custom of flogging in the army was not done away with until nearly thirty years later. A few years before I joined the service, the number of lashes which might be given was limited to fifty, but even under this restriction the sight was a horrible one to witness.

The parade to which I refer was ordered for the punishment of two men who had been sentenced to fifty lashes each for selling their kits, and to a certain term of imprisonment in addition. They were fine, handsome young Horse Artillerymen, and it was hateful to see them thus treated. Besides, one felt it was productive of harm rather than good, for it tended to destroy the men’s self-respect, and to make them completely reckless. In this instance, no sooner had the two men been released from prison than they committed the same offence again. They were a second time tried by Court-Martial, and sentenced as before.

How I longed to have the power to remit the fifty lashes, for I felt that selling their kits on this occasion was their way of showing their resentment at the ignominious treatment they had been subjected to, and of proving that flogging was powerless to prevent their repeating the offence.

A parade was ordered, as on the previous occasion. One man was stripped to the waist, and tied to the wheel of a gun. The finding and sentence of the Court-Martial were read out—a trumpeter standing ready the while to inflict the punishment—when the commanding officer, Major Robert Waller, instead of ordering him to begin, to the intense relief of, I believe, every officer present, addressed the prisoners, telling them of his distress at finding two soldiers belonging to his troop brought up for corporal punishment twice in a little more than six weeks, and adding that, however little they deserved such leniency, if they would promise not to commit the same offence again, and to behave better for the future, he would remit the flogging part of the sentence. If the prisoners were not happy, I was; but the clemency was evidently appreciated by them, for they promised, and kept their words. I did not lose sight of these two men for some years, and was always gratified to learn that their conduct was uniformly satisfactory, and that they had become good, steady soldiers.”

The officer was Second Lieutenant Frederick ‘Bobs’ Roberts who ended his career as Field-Marshal Earl Roberts of Kandahar VC and the last Commander in Chief of British Forces. Ths passage is from his memoirs, thanks to Project Gutenberg.

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Media change

De Gaulle in Algiers

De Gaulle in Algiers

As they develop, all media begin by subverting the established order.  The Reformation could not have been so disruptive, particularly for the church, without the print revolution which preceded it and partly caused it.  In a more recent era, the transistor radio enabled De Gaulle to win in Algeria by circumventing his mutinous generals and broadcasting direct to servicemen in the front-line.  Television, which in a famous phrase brought the Vietnam War into people’s living rooms, thereby helped end that conflict.  Now we have social media to thank for exposing official obfuscation but also channeling videos of jihadist outrages.  What new form of communication is waiting in the wings to subvert our present paradigms?

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