Category Archives: Europe

Yurrup in York

I’m just returned from a public meeting, held by the Labour MP for York Central.

Rachael Maskell is a decent lass — a physio by trade,  a trade union official by experience. She is doing her best.

Because of the upsets in the parliamentary party, she chose to side with the leadership (pro tem.). As a consequence of being one of the “stickies”, she ended up, over-promoted, with barely a twelve-month Commons experience, as the fully-fledged  Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary. Again: she is clearly doing her best.

Both locally, and in the national press, she has let it be known — or any least not denied — she has difficulties with the Three-line Whip on Wednesday’s #Brexit vote. Equally, in her response to this evening’s meeting, she indicated she felt she needed to huddle close to the centre of what goes for “power” in the parliamentary party.

So to the meeting itself.

Rachael began with a (over-)long account of where she felt we were. I have to admit, try as I could, I had heard it all before. It was largely read from a script — which itself raises certain questions.

The followed a long string of speakers from the floor.

What was evident was:

  • without exception, the tone went beyond regret and remain, into the pain and the angst of the thinking middle-classes;
  • very few “new” points or issues arose;
  • nobody was prepared to come out and defend the “leave” option;
  • there was considerable distaste that the whole #Brexit charade had over-written, and was continuing to expunge the real problems of British life, welfare and economy.

More to the crunch:

  • even the odd speaker who declared “support” for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership did so with regret and reluctance;
  • more usually, there was complete scorn  for the present leadership: this was met with more enthusiasm than much else on offer.

If Rachael was assuming there were Brownie-points for loyalty to the current leadership, this alone should have disabused her.

At some personal pain, I remained silent: not my usual posture at such gatherings.

Had I been disposed, my extended thoughts would go on these lines (though, for public consumption, a lot more abbreviated):

A Burkean bit

First I bear the tradition of Dublin University’s College Historical Society. When I was elected as Librarian (a pure honorific), I discovered I had responsibility for a series of well-locked glass cabinets. In there were the minutes and records of the “Hist”, back to its foundation. Which was back to “Burke’s Club” of the 1740s. The “Burke” in this context being none other than Edmund.

I find Burke a rank Tory, and eminently readable. At this juncture, nothing of his is as relevant as his Speech to the Electors of Bristol (3rd November 1774). His opponent had just promised to accept mandates from the electors.

Burke responded:

... government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination …

… authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, — these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.

In the core of that great speech is the well-known maxim:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Which is why I feel enormous sympathy — even some pity — for each and every MP who now has to choose a way through this mire.

Which leads into a second thought.

A horror from recent history

On the substantive motion of 18th March 2003, the House of Commons gave authority to use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Tony Blair’s government majority there was 263 (412 to 149). 84 Labour MPs voted against, a further 69 abstained.

Had there been a referendum at that moment — and for months after — the British public would have largely backed Blair: YouGov polling, over 21 samplings, suggested 54-38 in favour of war. After all, the Tory media had told them to do so.

Yet we are now asked unquestioningly to “respect” a 51.9/48.1 Brexit split.

Two conclusions

  1. There are arguments against a “Nay” vote on Wednesday’s #Brexit vote; but they more to do with parliamentary procedures than rights-and-wrongs. To vote “Nay” may apparently inhibit such voters from amending the Bill at a later stage. I’ll accept, too, that such a vote can be construed as a two-finger sign to the “Leavers” — and they have yet to learn the full consequences of their expressed wish.

2. However, to vote “Aye” is more perverse. None of us was clear last June what “Leave” might entail — except the dizzy promises of “£350 million a week for the NHS” and “Take back control”. We are still very much in the dark.

However, Theresa May has helped us to recognise what she expects. It amounts to:

  • either the 26 members of the European Union bow to her will;
  • or she kicks over the table, and walks out;
  • and we are left to pay for the tantrum.

Bottom line:

Abstain. Find an urgent family crisis in Aberystwyth. Be on a reciprocal to central Africa. Whatever.

But abstain. Even at the price of a Shadow Cabinet seat.

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Filed under EU referendum, Europe, History, Labour Party, York

Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig

Sounds a good definition of what I expect in a decent beer.

It’s the motto of Amsterdam, by the way.

Which is where my diary says I’m spending the next weekend, doubtless with Jacques Brel as ear-worm:

After that, up yours, David Bowie (I award a beat-plus), John Denver (a good gamma for sheer effort, but far too sweet), and lesser lights.

My other problem is the eternal Interbrew/InBev crisis.

orval-mugOne of my Red Lines is to avoid anything from that Leuven monster. So no Stella (as if …), Bud (snarf, snarf!), Boddingtons (the froth of “Manchester” — now fizzed somewhere out in Lancashire) or Bass. Only the last of those four is any great loss. Leffe: hmmm … but I’d prefer any genuine Trappist, especially Orval (I’ve still got the pot mug, bought 1967, and awarded originally to Dear Old Dad).

What’s going to make Amsterdam easier is I’m hearing good things about some new boys:

  • the Amsterdamsche Stoombierbrouwerij (an in-house brewery in De Bekeerde Suster, Kloveniersburgwal 6-8, Amsterdam);
  • Butcher’s tear, who allegedly do a sequence of seasonal beers, with the winter Ex Voto coming particularly recommended;
  • Brouwerij ‘t IJ, down by the docks, again with seasonals and a formidable triple Zatte.

There ought to be a PhD thesis in here somewhere, how the emergence of monopolies leads inexorably to a re-emergence of better, smaller rivals. Despite the heavy hand of InBev, the Low Countries have a flourishing small brewing industry. It happened, too,  in East Anglia, when Watneys took over both the remaining Norwich breweries (Bullards and Stewart & Patteson — the latter’s winter Old K-ale being another lost national treasure). As sure as night follows day, lesser lights eventually shone through the gloom — Woodforde’s of Woodbastwick do a more-than-decent winter ale, the Norfolk Nog.

And after Amsterdam, in almost weekly slices, the Black North of Ulster (highlight: back to Bushmills) and Prague (conveniently, but not accidentally, close to Novoměstský pivovar — The New Town Brewery).

Gezondheid! Guid forder! Na Zdravi!

It’s a hard life, this retirement business.

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Filed under Beer, Belgium, Europe, Northern Ireland, travel

Prerogatives derogated

In that previous post I found myself saying:

I can just about conceive circumstances in which “Royal Prerogative” might need to be invoked — short of a declaration of War. Say the administration of a devolved Assembly became totally unmanageable …

That post was already over-long, so I omitted the small matter of:

prerog

This is an interesting document, because (at the end of the last Labour government) it attempted to identify where the Royal prerogative persisted; and even where it should be going.

Not entirely surprisingly, once Tories are running the show, that script-line gets lost. We haven’t entirely overcome the ancient Royalist and Roundhead cleavage.

One surprise, though, was just how restricted the Prerogative had become:

para12

All of a sudden, it looks “containable”, though there’s an obvious (and very relevant in the context here) quibble in the final sentence there.

When we arrive at the “summary” of the document’s purpose:

to provide an overview of areas where ministerial prerogative powers are exercised, or have been exercised recently

Here again we encounter an account of Prerogative with a particular significance in the #Brexit context:

foreign

Happily, on that basis, Messers Boris Johnson, Neil Fox and David Davis (messers all), with Madame May “directing”, can carry on diplomatically. Not that diplomacy seems to have been the name of their recent games.

May be I’m being picky (what’s new?) but then I have to see something awry:

The “Power to make and ratify treaties” doesn’t logically extend  to abrogating them.

And that’s what Article 50 does.

 

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Filed under Conservative Party policy., EU referendum, Europe, History, Law, politics, Tories.

1014 and All That

Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle

Æthelred in an early thirteenth-century copy of the Abingdon Chronicle

We have just had one of those moments when everyone brushes up on the English Constitution.

The High Court has pronounced on #Brexit; and dropped a great dollop of whoops-oh-nasty onto the May Government. The May Government will now try to appeal to the Supreme Court. For in law, as no where else, the Siphonaptera applies:

Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.

With some small joy, the BBC political editor, Laura Kuenssberg (herself only two generations descent from one of the great Scottish jurists) was relishing that the High Court had cited a precedent from 1610:

27. Sir Edward Coke reports the considered view of himself and the senior judges of the time in The Case of Proclamations (1610) 12 Co. Rep. 74, that

“the King by his proclamation or other ways cannot change any part of the common law, or statute law, or the customs of the realm”

and that :

“the King have no prerogative, but that which the law of the land allows him.”

So, phooey to you, Theresa May and your claims of “prerogative”.

There’s a nice extra bit in quoting Coke on the customs of the realm, because that takes us so far back behind the veil of history.

The Lady in My Life’s tattered paperback copy of G M Trevelyan’s Shortened History of England seems to have gone AWOL, so I’m having to pull this bit from Wikipedia:

The Scandinavians, when not on the Viking warpath, were a litigious people and loved to get together in the ‘thing’ to hear legal argument. They had no professional lawyers, but many of their farmer-warriors, like Njal, the truth-teller, were learned in folk custom and in its intricate judicial procedure. A Danish town in England often had, as its main officers, twelve hereditary ‘law men.’ The Danes introduced the habit of making committees among the free men in court, which perhaps made England favorable ground for the future growth of the jury system out of a Frankish custom later introduced by the Normans.

Trevelyan then moves on to remark on Æthelred (the Redeless/ the Unready — yes, him).

51njn6gh8nl-_sx331_bo1204203200_That sent me to Maddicott: The Origins of the English Parliament of which a clean, crisp copy I do have here. Because I knew there (on page 37) I would find this:

The turning point came in 1014: a year of disasters in which the victories of the Danish king Swein, culminating in his capture of London, had forced Æthelred to take refuge overseas. What followed set a precedent for future bargaining between kings and councils. Æthelred was recalled from a brief exile in Normandy by ‘all the councillors (þa witan ealle) who were in England’. In advance of his return he promised to be a gracious lord to his people and to reform what they all hated, on condition that they gave him their unqualified allegiance. John of Worcester adds that he also undertook to fall ion with their advice. These terms were clearly imposed by the councillors as the price of Æthelred’s restoration. As Sir Frank Stenton long ago pointed out, they are ‘of great constitutional interest as the first recorded pact between an English king and his subjects’.

If anyone is still in doubt: the whole government case for being able to invoke Article 50, without prior parliamentary approval, lies in a claim that the Prime Minister has the residual Crown prerogative.

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Stamping one’s place in the world

That previous posting would be incomplete without the coda. It isn’t just in newsprint that we find the curious ephemera of history.

There’s that fly-speck (one of many) on the map that is the Italian enclave of Campione, entirely surrounded by Switzerland and hunched up on the eastern side of Lake Lugano:

campione-d-italia-12

How it got there, and how it remains there is explained succinctly by wikipedia:

When Ticino chose to become part of the Swiss Confederation in 1798, the people of Campione chose to remain part of Lombardy. In 1800, Ticino proposed exchanging Indemini for Campione. In 1814 a referendum was held, but the residents of Campione were against it. In 1848, during the wars of Italian unification, Campione petitioned Switzerland for annexation, but this was rejected due to the Swiss desire to maintain neutrality.

After Italian unification in 1861, all land west of Lake Lugano and half of the lake were given to Switzerland so that Swiss trade and transport would not have to pass through Italy. The d’Italia was added to the name of Campione in the 1930s by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and an ornamental gate to the city was built, both in an attempt to assert the exclave’s Italian-ness.

It’s that “Italian-ness” that intrigues me:

  • The commune seems to operate happily with two currencies: the Swiss franc and the Euro (and, however one pays, the change comes in whichever is less-flavour-of-the-month — i.e. almost inevitably, in Euros).
  • On the other hand, there is no VAT. But then Campione does very nicely, thank you, from the “sin tax” of its huge casino, well patronised by the Luganesi (where may be found other “attractions” — a decade ago, the “colourful” son of the last King of Italy was arrested, procuring prostitutes for the casino’s patrons).
  • Swiss customs regulations seem to apply.
  • All vehicles seem to be registered in Switzerland, and bear Swiss plates.
  • The police are the Italian Carabinieri, but the emergency services — fire and ambulance — seem to be Swiss.
  • There’s a curiosity in telephone dialling: one has to use the international +41 prefix code for Switzerland, followed by the regional 91 code for Ticino.

But this post was meant to focus on historical ephemera

Which brings me to the curious history of Campione during the Second World War.

It all went pera-shaped when the Mussolini régime collapsed in the late summer of 1943. On 8th September 1943, with the Armistice of Cassibile, the “official” Italian Bagdolio government was now with the Western Allies. The Nazis rushed in with Fall Achse, and in ten days had 0ccupied the whole of northern and central Italy.

Leaving Campione in a bit of bind.

The Nazis were clearly unable to occupy the fly-speck, with no wish to aggravate neutral Switzerland (and the Commune of Ticino) by doing so. Similarly, the Swiss had to balance neutrality with the way the political wind was plainly shifting. So a discreet game of footsie went on: the OSS moved a discreet operation into Campione — I’m assuming as a branch office of Alan Dulles at Herrengasse 23, in Bern. In true Dulles fashion, the OSS kept a low profile in Campione while the Swiss chose not to notice: there’s scope here for the likes of Alan Furst to produce a fiction (and may well already have done so),

By 1944 the Campione post office was running out of stamps. For international mail (and in view of the currently-ambiguous situation of Italy) it was necessary to shufty up the road a bit and post by courtesy of the Swiss PTT. For the local stuff, a bit of national pride was involved: Campione began to issue its own stamps, designated in Swiss francs, valid for mail across Switzerland and Liechtenstein, but not acceptable to the international UPU. Added to which, Campione is quite small; and the Campionesi didn’t have much business with that wider world. So, if you’ve got any of these, they are very collectable:

stamps

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Filed under Europe, Fascists, fiction, History, World War 2

Hell upon earth

Two ways into this:

  • I’ve not a regular with The Guardian‘s Long Read. It’s there. I’m glad it’s there. I’m delighted that at least one British quality daily has a commitment to serving its readers with more than pap. It’s just that — well, err — there’s only so much worthy fretting one can do in one short day. But today is the exception …

My grandfather, my great-grandparents, and even their parents originated from Wisbech, deep in the Fens. For two generations they are “AgLabs”, the staple agricultural labourers in many family trees. Then Great Grandad Matthew, who was an apprentice blacksmith, lost an arm, became a “letter-carrier”, and rose to Post Master.

  • Furthermore, I grew up in North Norfolk — the contrived town motto (even Latinised) was “between land and sea”. That was a statement of fact: the economy of Wells came from whelking and farming, with a bit of bunce from a few short weeks of summer visitors. In the 1950s the farm workers’ strikes of the previous generation were still painfully remembered.

So I’ve just spent the length of three cups of tea, reading with fascinated horror Felicity Lawrence’s dissection of The gangsters on England’s doorstep, a recital of how Wisbech (and other small towns in the profound depths, well away from the metropolitan consciousness) have become infested with crookery and thuggery imported from eastern Europe:

A web of several competing eastern European gangmaster operations hiring out migrant labourers seemed to be connected to an increase in crime — although it was politically charged to say so. There had been a spate of apparent suicides among young eastern European men who had come in search of work — five within a year between 2012 and 2013. Three of the dead had been found hanging in public places around the town; one of them had been recovered from a small park near the BP garage next to graffiti that translated as: “The dead can’t testify”.

These were not the only disturbing deaths: a 17-year-old Latvian girl had disappeared from Wisbech in the summer of 2011, and her partially clothed, decomposed body was only discovered five months later, on the Queen’s Sandringham estate. A Lithuanian courier was killed in an arson attack on the van in which he was sleeping. There had also been reports of knife attacks by migrants on migrants but victims would disappear or turn out to have been using false identities.

The “locals” have felt their only way to fight back was to make grumbling noises and vote UKIP:

Most of us do not see the brutal parallel universe at the heart of the mainstream economy. But in the Fens, it has been highly visible – along with the transnational organised crime running a part of it. This has made people very angry. Now they want out of Europe – more than two–thirds of voters in Wisbech’s parliamentary constituency said in a 2014 survey that they would favour the UK leaving the EU.

Lawrence, though, sees beyond the cleavage in Fenland society, to look to fundamental causes:

From the late 1980s on, new technology allowed employers to eliminate much of the financial risk from their end of the chain. Supermarkets, for example, only reorder stock when a customer buys an item and its barcode is scanned, generating an instruction to their suppliers to replace it by the next day. Orders can double or halve within 24 hours, so workers to process and pack the goods are called in at short notice. This reduces costs and increases profits, since businesses no longer have to keep inventory or pay for full employment. Instead they have outsourced labour provision to agents or gangmasters. Agriculture and food processing pioneered this lean approach to business, but its zero-hours practices have spread to other sectors – to care homes, catering and food service, hotel work, cleaning, construction, and personal services such as nail bars and car washes.

Earlier waves of migration brought foreign workers to other East Anglian towns, but the availability of cheap housing has drawn gangmasters more recently to the Wisbech area. The last census of Wisbech in 2011 put the population at around 25,000 but officials accept that it is now probably nearer 30,000, with about 10,000 of those people recently arrived foreigners. The size of the private rental market doubled in a decade to more than 2,000 properties in 2015. Houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) – the gang-run houses where new migrants mostly live – now account for a substantial percentage of housing stock. Government agencies trying to reach vulnerable migrant groups visited around 500 homes in the year from January 2014. By then, three of Wisbech’s wards had become some of the most deprived areas of the country.

Her article painstakingly traces the central villains’ progress from running labour gangs, to slum-landlording, to money-laundering, to exploitation, to theft, to prostitution and fake marriages, to … what else? When the nasties came to court:

The trials conjured up a nightmare of Fenland life, where there were no rules where you expected them to be, and when rules did exist, there was no one to enforce them.

Note that: no one to enforce them:

There were also only three housing officers for the whole Fenland district council to carry out inspections at the time – the council had suffered a 37% cut in its budget since 2010. […]

HMRC had just 142 national minimum wage inspectors for the whole country. According to the government’s migration advisory committee, this means that the average business, statistically, should expect a visit from an inspector once every 250 years. Unions that might have overseen conditions in fields and factories in the past are in decline. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has lost staff, having had its budget slashed over the course of the last parliament by 20%.

I’ve written about the causes of all this before. It’s not just the “cuts” (though they are bad enough). It is more, much more to do with the savage assault on workers’ protection over the years. I was making these points eight years ago, and tracing the causes back to a root. Allow me to dig up that oldie (slightly updated):

Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred ..

Malcolm’s alter ego originated in Wells-next-the-Sea, which in those distant days enjoyed the privilege of a Labour MP.
In 1945 Eddie Gooch, of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, displaced the squirarchical Tommy Cook, though the radical tradition had been there even before Noel Buxton took the seat for Labour back in 1929.

The North Norfolk seat later, in 1964, was inherited by Bert Hazell, then President of the NUAW.  Bertie survived into his 102nd year, to die in 2009 the longest-living former MP of recent times.

It was always, sneeringly, implied that Eddie Gooch’s and Bert Hazell’s tenures of the constituency were helped by the local farmers who voted to keep them at Westminster, rather than causing them problems through the NUAW. That canard ignores the local tradition of radicalism.

The years the locust ate

Après Bertie, le déluge.

The complexion of the constituency changed. Employment on the land fell rapidly. That also drained much of the bitterness that had persisted since the agricultural depression of inter-war years, and the farm-workers’ strikes of 1923 and 1926. Moreover, the second-homers started to arrive. Added to which, North Norfolk is now home to the largest “retired” percentage of the national population.

All conspired so that for the next two decades, the ’70s and the ’80s, the North Norfolk constituency was the fiefdom of Ralph Howell.

Howell, like Peter Mandelson, was one to whom taking an instant dislike saved a deal of time.

He was xenophobic, rabid, a Thatcherite before the Lady, an apologist for white racist régimes in Africa, and a supporter of the Turks in Cyprus.

He was instigator of the “Right to Work”, which sounds well but (in his terms) amounted to a curious, even Stalinist notion that the unemployed should be conscripted, either into national service or be otherwise deployed by the state. Howell had come close to defining “Workfare”.

Yet, he had saving graces: a good war-record, served his constituents conscientiously, was afraid of nobody (even his own Whips): a self-made (and proudly so) agri-businessman.

Reaping what the Thatcherities sowed

Wisbech didn’t get into this situation willingly. But this situation has been willed.

As Lawrence reminds us:

The Agricultural Wages Board, which set out employment terms for field workers, was abolished in 2013. The EU working time directive aims to prevent workers doing dangerously long hours, but the UK allows an opt-out, seeing it as a burden on business. The pressure on large producers to cut costs – one of the key drivers of labour exploitation – is often blamed on supermarkets squeezing their margins. A recommendation by the competition authorities in 2000 that this excessive buying power be countered by a groceries adjudicator took 13 years to be implemented. The adjudicator only acquired the power to impose penalties in 2015, and has yet to do so.

Liberalising trade rules and financial flows has enabled the free movement of goods and capital across Europe – and, with them, people. But while World Trade Organisation rules prescribe global hygiene standards in minute detail, they are largely silent on the social and labour conditions in which the goods are produced.

A complex web of small rules widely obeyed – from paying your tax to insuring your car, to giving workers proper breaks – are the threads that weave a democratic social contract and a protective state. Many people in Wisbech have become more rightwing, in protest at what they see. The collapse of totalitarian structures of state control in former-Soviet eastern Europe has combined with a shrinking of state in the west. This shrinking of the state has created the vacuum into which organised crime has rushed.

I’m sure “Sir” Ralph Howell would approve of much of all that. So, ironically for the folk of Wisbech, would UKIP (but can’t and won’t say so locally).

There are remedies, and obvious ones:

  • ensure that agencies are properly resourced. In the Fenlands the “cuts” are not just financial: they are also human lives, and deaths. Lest we forget:

    A police force that handed over the bulk of its back-office functions to the private sector now spends the lowest amount per head of population on policing in England and Wales, a report has said.
    Lincolnshire Police has slashed its spending by nearly a fifth or £5 million per year, equal to the cost of 125 police officers. 
    The police force cut their budget through a deal with security firm G4S, transferring several administrative departments over to the private firm.

  • with those resources, beef up the enforcements of housing conditions, “fair rents”, over-crowding and minimum wage.
  • The “light-touch” regulation of gangmasters has clearly failed. In the light of what Lawrence’s article shows, read between the lines of this self-exculpation by (oh, the irony!):

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime (Karen Bradley)

The GLA [Gangmasters Licensing Authority] is an organisation which regulates the supply of labour to the farming, food processing and shellfish gathering sectors and protects workers in those sectors from exploitation. The GLA works to embed a framework through which workers are treated fairly and labour providers and labour users operate on a level playing field. The GLA also plays a significant role in enforcing the protection of workers and directly tackling those who choose to abuse the system.

  • eliminate, make illegal, the gang-master system. We used to have efficient employment exchanges, through which workers [were] treated fairly and labour providers and labour users operate[d] on a level playing field. Would it be a gross affront to liberty to have all short-term agricultural employment channelled through them, rather than factored clandestinely, in the early hours, on the forecourt of a petrol station? And, if not, might wage-payment be made through the same channel — that proper amounts paid and deductions made?
  • ensure that migrant workers have “champions”. These used to be called “trade unions”.
  • make the “social market” work for decent people.

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Filed under Conservative family values, Conservative Party policy., crime, economy, Europe, Guardian, Tories., UKIP, Wells-next-the-Sea

The gaps in heroes … and Europe

Yesterday I heroically strutted abroad with a badge on my jerkin:

Cry God for Harry, England and St George!

Red text on white. You can buy them for a few bob at the RSC.

After all, the coincidence of a quadricentenary and the annual non-saint’s day will come around just the once in my lifetime.

In my strutting I had (as one does) to visit the local Oxfam book-shop: an eclectic lot, these York literati, so a prime place for Autolycan snapping-up of others’ unconsidered trifles.

And, lo! it was so. Here’s Peter Stanford’s The Legend of Pope Joan. Only when home did I realise it was a duplicate, a re-title for the American market of The She-Pope, already on my shelf, a gap between the weightier Peter Heather and John Julius Norwich.

The co-incidence of these events prompted an extended (and inconsequential) musing. Hence this post.

Bill’s words:

Curiously, leave aside Much Ado About Nothing (where she is a character), the word “hero” is not much in evidence in Shakespeare. If challenged, about the only reference I could offer would be Hamlet:

Hamlet: A dream itself is but a shadow.
Rosencrantz: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.
Hamlet: Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows. Shall we to the court? for, by my fay, I cannot reason.

[Act II, scene ii]

Hold about! On second thoughts there’s Parolles in All’s Well:

Noble heroes, my sword and yours are kin.

[Act II, scene i]

The nature of a “hero”:

Well, they come cheaper now than they used to.

The “epic hero” had to fulfil a set of criteria.  When I had to stand before a chalk-board and vamp them, it would go something like this (assuming one were still allowed to get away with such arrant sexism):

  • a noble birth;
  • overlooked in childhood, although even then he might be capable of a marvellous deed;
  • he has to go wandering, on a mission;
  • he is scorned by his lady-love, but eventually wins her over;
  • he becomes recognised as a great warrior, usually by an act of conspicuous individual opposition to overwhelming (but overwhelmed) odds;
  • he has a magical weapon, or a supernatural power;
  • he also has some congenital defect or weakness;
  • despite his achievements, he remains humble, “one of us”;
  • he saves his people;
  • he dies in the moment of his greatest triumph.

Not every tragic hero has to show every characteristic, but the template applies from Beowulf to Superman (and even to “real” people, such as Nelson or Churchill). Doubtless, as a homework, Year Ten would then be told to write a short homework essay explaining which of those (or other) points makes their chosen subject “heroic”.  Alternatively, try to construct a similar check-list for the ideal female hero (with optional reflections on what that says about in-built cultural prejudices).

Filling the gaps

The problem comes when we cannot be satisfied with our hero, when we feel the need to generate fillers for the gaps in the story. Back to Bill:

Enter Rumour, painted full of tongues

Rumour: Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.

Henry IV, Part 2Act I, scene i, Prologue

If you believe that process has gone away with the arrival of wholesale literacy and 24/7/365 rolling “news”, wake up and hear the gossip. So we have everything from “local tradition says” to the “infancy gospels” of Jesus’s childhood, which seem to have become current as early as the fifth century, and persisted well into early medieval times, and even to EU banana myths. Then, as now, when the “authorities” (i.e., the Church in the earlier case) control the information, Rumour, painted full of tongues, will fill the void. As John Julius (a good Roman Catholic lad, comprehensively dismissing the Pope Joan story — see pages 60-67) ambivalently observes:

Rome, sacked by the Saracens in 846, was still going through her Dark Ages. All was confusion, records were few and untrustworthy, and the notion of a woman Pope was, perhaps, just conceivable …

Nevertheless, that story had by then been firmly established in the popular mind; and there for centuries it remained.

Which brings me back to Stanford and Pope Joan. For Stanford makes play of an apparent gap in papal succession, mid-9th century, between Leo IV and Benedict III. And where there are gaps, Rumour, painted full of tongues, likes to insert some Polyfilla. Even if Joan didn’t exist, she might need to be invented on that ground alone.

Hapax legomenon

Huh? Well, if you’d done your Greek under Dr Reynolds at the High School, you’d know that means “a once-reading”, a word that crops up just the once, so therefore we have to reach for its precise interpretation. Such a word, in Shakespeare is Europe: which, to my momentary confusion appears … ahem! … twice. In Henry IV, Part 1, there is Falstaff’s laboured (running) joke about Bardolph’s nose:

Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern: but the sack that thou hast drunk me would have bought me lights as good cheap at the dearest chandler’s in Europe.

[Act III, scene iii]

Why a European chandler might be more costly then a local one, let’s leave to the Kippers.

The one I wanted to exploit there is Bedford making his promises at the start of Henry VI, Part 1:

Farewell, my masters; to my task will I;
Bonfires in France forthwith I am to make,
To keep our great Saint George’s feast withal:
Ten thousand soldiers with me I will take,
Whose bloody deeds shall make all Europe quake.

[Act I, scene i]

My question is: what was the Elizabethan concept of “Europe”? What did the term mean to Shakespeare, with his notorious geographical illiteracy?

Ours is the 28 states of the European Union — though a glance at the stylised map on €-note suggest even that is wider than we at first grasp — there’s that strange little hieroglyphic at the bottom, beside 𝜠𝜰𝜬𝜴, reminding us of the DOM-TOM. For most of my life, “Europe” was Western Europe. and ended violently at the Iron Curtain. Geographical Europe, in the Atlas, extends to the Urals — yet I struggle to find Russia “European”. I’ve taken the ferry across the Bosphorus from Istanbul, stood on two continents within an hour — and not appreciated any great difference.  If my — our — concept of “Europe” is so vague, what would it be 400 or 1200 years ago? What is it for those unfortunate refugees from Syria, and elsewhere, leaving all (including, for many, life itself) to find “Europe” — which is at best going to be a dingy suburb of Mannheim, Mons or Manchester.

So, for the last time, back to Pope Joan. She is, according to version, English or German, particularly from Mainz. Stanford goes to lengths to make a road for Joan from the convent at Wimborne in Dorset, via the shadowy St Lioba, to Fula, on to Athens, and back to Rome. Joan, then, ticks at least some of those boxes for the popular/epic hero.

She may be Hamlet’s dream… but a shadow, but we need her to fill in the gaps of our “knowledge”.

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