Wednesday 25 March 2015

My kingdom for a hearse

What sort of country have we become?

Some of us were moved to ask this question by the public hysteria following the death of Princess Diana. Surely nothing could be further removed from Britain’s traditional stiff upper lip than the huge roadside crowds weeping and wailing, hurling flowers with such vigour that they risked causing a further serious accident by obscuring her hearse driver’s view.

The urge to grieve in public seems to have increased as belief in the after-life has diminished. Nearly every fatal road crash now generates a roadside shrine of fading flowers, cuddly toys, candles, crash helmets and football shirts, and woe betide anyone who suggests tidying them away.

It’s not just recent fatalities that move us, either. Witness the huge upsurge in public engagement with Remembrance events, including the observation of a two-minute silence on Armistice Day. An event that passed largely unremarked as I was growing up in the 1960s, when substantial numbers of First World War veterans were still alive.

However, our love affair with the dead and remembrance has surely reached its apogee in the bizarre performance surrounding the re-interment of the supposed remains of King Richard III.

Part theme park carnival, part religious ceremony, the overall effect can surely only be considered ludicrous, and the level of media coverage it has attained beyond absurd.

All it has lacked so far is Tony Blair choking back tears as he pronounces: “He was the people’s tyrant”.

But was he? On Sunday evening I was amused by a reported comment from the historian David Starkey likening Richard III to Gordon Brown. Both manoeuvred for years to seize a crown, but had little idea what to do with it when they got it, and failed to hold it long.

No sooner had I repeated this mild jest on Twitter than I received an angry rebuke not from a Labour loyalist but a pro-Plantagenet, accusing me of falling victim to “Shakespearean propaganda”.

Sure, Shakespeare appears to have exaggerated Richard’s curvature of the spine into a hunchback, and if the case of the princes in the Tower came before a Scottish court the verdict might well be “not proven”. But he had the motive and was not the rightful heir to the throne.

It seems odd that Leicester should be burying a potential child murderer with such grandeur and honour not long after the tomb of the child molester Jimmy Savile was destroyed, and while a campaign rumbles on to dig up and cremate his remains.

Perhaps in 500 years time his crimes will also be dismissed as hearsay, in the admittedly unlikely event that anyone remembers him at all.

The university and ecclesiastical authorities in Leicester have waged an absolutely brilliant PR campaign not just to rehabilitate King Richard the Last, but to secure the creation of a major new tourist attraction through his burial there.

In defiance, let us not forget, of his closest living relatives, who felt he should be interred in York Minster, as he himself wished.

I have a liking for tombs and have paid my respects to many of England’s former monarchs and their consorts, and I can’t say I’ve ever been knocked over in the rush. I shall be truly baffled if the new sideshow in Leicester now powers to the top of the TripAdvisor rankings.

Meanwhile the parallel with Gordon Brown, while entertaining, seems to miss an even better opportunity to draw comparisons with his successor as the leader of the Labour Party. Because while Mr Brown undoubtedly waged a long and bitter battle to seize the crown he believed was rightfully his, he did not actually defeat his own brother to obtain it.

As we endure the already mind-numbingly tedious General Election campaign, we can at least be grateful that we now change governments through the ballot box, not on the battlefield.

However much we may yearn for distraction, let us also try to focus on the living, whose existence may yet be improved by how we vote. Richard III has been dead for 530 years at the last count, and his condition is highly unlikely to change. Even if history has treated him unfairly, which I rather doubt, so what?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

For God and the Empire

Events in the UK and Vanuatu have both troubled my conscience in the last week.

Here the cause was Mothering Sunday, an event I had gladly filed in the dustbin of personal history after my mother died in 1992.

But then along came children, very late in life, and a sense of expectation in the household that they, unguided, were never likely to fulfil. So I ended up once again buying flowers and cards, and organising jolly lunch parties.

The five-year-old endeared himself to me on Friday evening when I outlined my plans for the weekend, and he sighed: “Why is it never Daddy’s day?”

Bringing him up to par with his three-year-old brother, who had played an absolute blinder that morning by escorting his mother to the checkout in Next yelling: “Put that back, Mummy! You don’t need another handbag!”

So naturally it was chocolate treats all round when I took them to buy their Mother’s Day cards and gifts on Saturday, as a step towards phasing myself out of the whole process.

The woman on the till fell into my clutches like a dozy bluebottle landing in a Venus flytrap. “Ooh, aren’t you lucky to have such an indulgent Grandpa!” she purred.

“I’m not their Grandpa,” I replied, inserting a sinister pause to savour the rising panic in her eyes before adding, “I’m their Dad.”

This always elicits a flood of apologies and explanations that can only make things worse, like trying to extricate yourself from the hole of asking a fat woman “When’s it due?”

I enjoyed it all immensely. But as I struggled to cook our Sunday roast (not too bad, but not as good as Mummy’s, which is surely how it should be) I did reflect on how much I take for granted.

So much so that I went back to my wedding vows and checked how I was doing. We had the 1662 full Monty, avoidance of fornication and all. My results were surprisingly good.

I may be falling a bit short on the “honour her” front, and will try to do better in future, but nothing like as short as Mrs Hann has consistently fallen in the small matter of “obey”.

A vow she was foolishly induced to make, along with “serve”, by the vicar’s assurance that the words had different meanings in 1662 and 2009. I think he probably had his fingers crossed at the time.

Anyway, what has all this got to do with Vanuatu? A place of which you had almost certainly never heard until it was flattened by Cyclone Pam.

Until 1980 Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides, despite bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the Scottish originals, and was that rarest of colonial hybrids: an Anglo-French condominium (no, not an apartment) with two sets of administrators, speaking two different languages, and a similar choice of laws.

They didn’t go quite as far as driving on opposite sides of the road on alternate days, but everything else about the set-up seems to have been as absurd as you might imagine.

I know this because 39 years ago I started a PhD on British imperial history. Not long afterwards I was awarded a scholarship restricted to students “who intend to go on to devote their lives to the service of the British Empire”.

Reader, I have plainly failed in that duty. Though I can cite the reasonably good excuse that the British Empire had largely disappeared before I could get around to devoting myself to it.

What makes it worse is that one of my contemporaries did fulfil what should have been my mission. He joined the colonial service at its last gasp in the New Hebrides and was killed there when a camping stove exploded.

But for the subsequent Falklands War, I might have been able to cite him as the last person to lay down his life for the Empire on which the sun never set.

I can find no trace on the internet of his sacrifice, but if anyone ever deserved an MBE (Motto: For God and the Empire) it was surely he. Sadly, there is probably an equal chance of me getting one for cooking Sunday lunch.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Please, sir: can I have some vision and passion?

Few things gave me greater pleasure in 2014 than the resignation of Alex Salmond after his referendum defeat.

I was not so naïve as to suppose I had heard the last of him, but at least I hoped for a decent interlude of remission from the dread disease.

Instead he is back in the headlines and all over Conservative billboards as the great bogeyman of the forthcoming General Election: the one-issue obsessive who may well determine which of the leading contenders enters Downing Street.

And, of course, he will do so at a high price. This will mean either another independence referendum that he will surely be odds-on to win, if the SNP has indeed eliminated Labour as a political force in Scotland; or a “devo max” settlement that it will be hard to discern from independence by the naked eye.

As political stratagems go, there can surely be few that have failed more spectacularly than Labour’s brilliant idea of creating a devolved Scottish parliament with a voting system rigged to prevent the SNP ever attaining a majority, thus granting themselves a cosy fiefdom they could rule forever.

But then the fundamental problem seems to be that contemporary politics is all about stratagems. Trying to outmanoeuvre the other side with the promise of a tactical tax cut here, a raid on someone else’s savings there, or yet another scare story about the NHS.

And always seeking to crow that someone who has wandered off-message by saying what they genuinely think about any issue has committed an unforgiveable “gaffe”.

From "two Jags" Prescott to "two kitchens" Miliband, apparently the key election issue of 2015

It’s a contemptible game. Small wonder, then, that the British public has come to treat politicians with such contempt. Condemning them to a Western Front-style stand-off in which both sides pound away with small hope of gaining more than a yard or two of ground, let alone clinching an outright victory.

I no more understand the Scots’ sense of grievance that propels the independence movement than I can comprehend what drives the militants of Islamic State. Both seem to me to be based on a misreading of history.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the piscine double act of Sturgeon and Salmond can tap into a genuine passion for a cause, however wrong-headed it may be. So do other smaller parties like UKIP and the Greens, even though on closer examination many of their policies prove to range from the ill-thought-through to the howling mad.

Beer, fags, lentils ... and fruitcakes?

Where is the passion and vision in the campaigns of the two major parties? How are they going to save Britain from break-up, and ensure that we are properly defended, whether that be from Islamist terror or President Putin?

Can we please move on from foot-shuffling and pointing at the other child across the classroom (“Please, sir, it was him, sir!”) whenever the issue of cuts to defence spending is aired?

Yes, I know that campaigns trying to stir our patriotic impulses have not always proved a roaring success, notably William Hague’s “save the pound” crusade of 2001.

But these are dangerous times, and it surely behoves our would-be leaders to rise to the occasion with some real vision instead of playing party games, of which the bickering about televised debates is but the most egregious example.

To be fair, David Cameron and Gordon Brown both managed to express some powerfully pro-Union sentiments when the referendum campaign appeared to be running away from them. How much better it would have been if they had relied on that passion, rather than trying to buy off the other side with massive concessions. A ploy that never creates gratitude, and always feeds the appetite for more.

I don’t actually expect the tone and content of the election campaign to be elevated as I wish, but I do have one small consolation. According to Monday’s Times a “celebrity chef” called Valentine Warner (no, I’d never heard of him, either) is setting up a distillery in the Simonside Hills to produce Northumbrian whisky form genuinely local ingredients.

If he succeeds, he will replace at a stroke the one Scotch export on which I am reliant, and allow me to wave a bittersweet farewell to that land of midges, wind turbines, identity cards, grievance and bitterness.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

The new Vikings of the Middle East

When human beings are having their heads hacked off or being burned alive, it may seem unbalanced to get too upset by seeing some ancient artefacts gleefully smashed up.

Yet whether we are talking about the destruction of stained glass and icons in Tudor England, or the sledgehammer attacks on Mosul’s museum by the so-called Islamic State, we and future generations are all diminished by the loss of our collective cultural heritage.

In the former case, you can argue that it all turned out for the best, though only if you take a positive view of British history for the 400 years after Henry VIII: Protestantism, the great country houses, the industrial revolution, Empire and all.

You don’t have to be a Green voter to feel a doubt or two about some of that. Even the greatest enthusiast for what England became surely cannot suppress a sense of loss as they walk through a ruined abbey, and reflect on the great libraries that were destroyed and treasures melted down.

Not to mention the wholesale disruption of the established order for education, social care and charitable giving.

It is hard to feel any more positive about current events in the Middle East than the dispossessed monks and friars must have felt in the 1530s.

Someone came up with the hopeful line that only replica plaster casts had been destroyed in Mosul, with the originals safe in the British Museum. Sadly it turned out not to be true. Does it matter?

Many years ago I took part in a “balloon debate” with a difference, where the choice was between saving a human life or a great work of art. Being a bit of a misanthrope, I naturally went for the art. I lost heavily. The prevailing view was that each life is unique and irreplaceable, while art may be made again.

The trouble is that IS seems to have equally little regard for either art or life, beauty or humanity.

Perhaps it is another sign of my lack of balance, but I am infuriated by the on-going debate about who “radicalised” the man we used to know as “Jihadi John”.

Richard Cobden and John Bright in the 19th century were radicals. So were Nye Bevan and Margaret Thatcher, from profoundly different standpoints, in the 20th.

An image discouragingly obtained by Googling "British radicals"

What we are witnessing in 21st century jihad is the work of people who may properly be described as zealots or fanatics, or simply thugs and murderers.

They do not deserve the word “radical”. Unless we want to start describing the Viking raid on Lindisfarne in 793 as “a radical day trip”. From which it is but another short step to sympathising with the attackers as troubled souls for whom murder and pillage were really “a cry for help”.

"They were only having a bit of fun"

I have been astonished by the hours the BBC has devoted to the saga of the three teenage girls who decamped to join IS in Syria, trying to pin responsibility on their school, the police or the security services for allowing it to happen.

No matter how “impressionable” they may have been, they surely cannot have been ignorant of the sort of organisation they have gone to join. Yes, we should try to stop it recruiting in the UK, but the absolute priority for public protection must be to prevent those who have left the country and absorbed its ideology from returning.

While the urge to retaliate against atrocities is natural, doing so would ultimately reduce us to the same level as the perpetrators. So we must try to rise above this new Dark Age and hope that, in time, sanity will prevail.

History handily lends a sense of perspective. The Vikings ultimately settled down and became Christians and farmers, and some of us in the North East have their blood in our veins.

The first place that Vikings actually set up home in England, though, was the Isle of Thanet in Kent. The very place that Nigel Farage is hoping to capture for UKIP for this year’s General Election.

I cannot help wondering whether this is a random coincidence or the result of the locals having a very long memory indeed about the dangers of uncontrolled immigration.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.