Looking backwards

Years ago it was still possible to make use of a direct train service between Oxford and Cambridge. A single-track two-carriage diesel unit ambled slowly from village to village or hamlet halt along the way, crossing the West Coast main line at Bletchley. Now the track has been cut down into unconnected lengths and it is the X5 five counties coach service that runs several times a day between the two ancient cities; beloved by me, who went to school in Oxford and university in Cambridge.

One thing that the coach does not offer, however, is a rear view for passengers. Taking the train always held out the opportunity to move to the back and take one of the rearward facing seats there. There was nothing quite like slumping there, with the sound of the diesel engine burbling underfoot, and watching beneath half-shut eyelids the countryside slip by through the hot, sunny afternoon, the farms and copses steadily receding towards a flat East Anglian horizon.

Remembering those summer journeys is to recall how the bridges and signal boxes appeared to view, now large beside the track, then dwindling away to vanishing point as the train ambled inexorably onwards, leaving all such features behind. So it has been throughout the years between there and here, then and now, as receding distance exacts its toll on what we think important, resizing all the events and interpretations of our lives to features newly dimensioned, to be resized in turn, all along the track.

Looking backwards redraws our history. By comfort or threat it diminishes what we once thought of as great. But it only works if you acknowledge its basic reality: that all the while you are watching the past recede, with all the various regrets and rewards that brings, you are inescapably travelling forward towards a different perspective, with its own gifts and anguish still to come.

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Around here

We live in Hanslope, a village in Buckinghamshire.  This morning I asked a local craftsman if he was ‘around here.’ He said no – his family was from Castlethorpe, these past 350 years. So, not from here.

Castlethorpe is all of a mile and a half away.  You can walk there across the fields, but it is still a way different from around here.

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Britain’s Foreign Legion

Being in hospital these past 20 days – Milton Keynes General, with a fractured hip – brings into focus, as nothing else could, the workings, care and ethos of the National Health Service. Seen at bed level, as it were, the NHS  gives a striking picture of dedication to patient well-being: tenderness and respect; endless patience and humaneness. But these traditionally British virtues (as one would like to think so) are being deployed by a workforce that is 40% non-British. Does Ukip know that and appreciate its implications? Where would the NHS and we be if immigration policies were allowed to compromise the work and commitment of this, our own foreign legion, through thoughtlessness?

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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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