Category Archives: Guardian

Hillary and Trump beneath the Upas tree

The prolificly-mischievous George Steevens perpetrated one of his literary hoaxes, allegedly translated from the diary of a Dr Foersch, a (fictitious) Dutch surgeon, in Java. He invented  the upas-tree:

Erasmus Darwin, physician and scholar, a figure of some standing in botanical science and the author of several botanical works including The Loves of the Plants (1789), was another of Steevens’s victims. The London Magazine for December 1783 (pp. 511–17) carried Steevens’s description of the upas tree of Java which could kill all life within a distance of 15 to 18 miles, his source being an entirely fictitious Dutch traveller. Darwin was taken in and admitted the upas tree into his Loves of the Plants, from which Coleridge derived information…

That from the Dictionary of National Biography.

Once invented, the upas-tree had a life of its own, and became a metaphor for deadly power and influence. Southey had it, perhaps as the first, as the punch-line of Thalaba the Destroyer:

Enough the Island crimes had cried to Heaven,
The measure of their guilt was full,
The hour of wrath was come.
The poison burst the bowl,
It fell upon the earth.
The Sorceress shrieked and caught Mohareb’s robe
And called the whirlwind and away!
For lo! from that accursed venom springs,
The Upas Tree of Death.

Byron reckoned that Thalaba the Destroyer was one of Southey’sunsaleables, but that didn’t get in the way of borrowing the Southey reference in Childe Harold, Canto the Fourth (verse CXXVI):

Our life is a false nature — ’tis not in
The harmony of things, — this hard decree,
This uneradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree,
Whose root is earth, whose leaves and branches be
The skies which rain their plagues on men like dew —
Disease, death, bondage, all the woes we see —
And worse, the woes we see not — which throb through
The immedicable soul, with heart-aches ever new.

Our modern Upas

… is the toxic media.

  • We have it in the tabloid press (the British version might seem uniquely venomous, but — sadly — not).
  • We have in the shrill populist excess that is Fox News.
  • We have it, in excelsis, in the vowel evacuations of the shock-jocks.
  • Above all, it is the proliferation of web-sites and social media even further beyond the pale than Breitbart.

In this dispensation, anything short of vitriol is soft-soap.

How many times in recent weeks have we encountered hand-wringing despair such as this from Paul Waugh:

No one is pretending that either Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are perfect or all-wise, far from it. As the two candidates with the most negative poll ratings in history, the voters seem to be choosing which is their least worst option, via the least worst form of government. Here’s just one example: Trump’s repeated lies are well documented (a Newsweek reporter last night tweeted 100 of his worst ones, from business to politics to even fibbing about his golf score). And yet he polls ahead of Clinton for honesty. For many voters, their loathing of Hillary outweighs their distaste for Trump.

Today’s edition of The Guardian was a fine effort, with several articles of enduring worth. For now, I’ll stick with the First Leader:

… the only alternative to Mrs Clinton is Donald Trump. It needs to be said again, at this fateful moment, that Mr Trump is not a fit and proper person for the presidency. He is an irascible egomaniac. He is uninterested in the world. He has fought a campaign of abuse and nastiness, riddled with racism and misogyny. He offers slogans, not a programme. He propagates lies, ignorance and prejudice. He brings no sensibility to the contest except boundless self-admiration. He panders to everything that is worst in human nature and spurns all that is best.

Fear and Loathing revisited

Beyond the valid charges made by The Guardian, Trump is a prime example of a media creation, a thing spawned by his own monomania. Hillary Clinton is a lawyer and a politician.

And therein lies the difference.

Clinton still works within accepted patterns, professional disciplines, of behaviour. When use of a private email is a crime, we are all guilty. Every one — especially a successful, practising political operator — has their “private channels”.

Trump, though, is a fraud, a bully, a liar.

He is poison.

But he survives this far by anti-toxin imbibed from long sojourn under the Breitbart/Fox upas tree.

So I am reminded of the fable Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin generated from the upas tree:

Deep in the desert’s misery,
far in the fury of the sand,
there stands the awesome Upas Tree
lone watchman of a lifeless land.

The wilderness, a world of thirst,
in wrath engendered it and filled
its every root, every accursed
grey leafstalk with a sap that killed.

The king sends a slave to collect the poison:

He brought the deadly gum; with it
he brought some leaves, a withered bough,
while rivulets of icy sweat
ran slowly down his livid brow.

And, mission accomplished, the slave expires.

The king now uses the poison:

The king, he soaked his arrows true
in poison, and beyond the plains
dispatched those messengers and slew
his neighbors in their own domains.

If Trump beats the odds, he too is capable of such savagery.

Leave a comment

Filed under Byron, Comment is Free, Guardian, Literature, Oxford English Dictionary, United States, US Elections, US politics

All gloom and doom

Expressing what I feel about the state of the Labour Party comes easier vocally. Putting it into words here is more difficult, because a stream of blasphemies and obscenities doesn’t adequately suffice.

So let me start a distance back, and take a run at it.

First there was Peter Bradshaw on screen villains in today’s Guardian G2. This on Lotso-Huggin’-Bear from Toy Story 3:

… the “loveable” Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, richly and warmly voiced by Ned Beatty. He is the senior prisoner and everyone appears to respect him as a sweet, grandfatherly figure — but, in fact, he is an insidious and creepy bully, almost like a cult leader, who rules with henchmen enforcers. That name, and the character’s bland cuddly teddybear face are both highly effective at putting across Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear’s parasitic villainy.

Remind you of anyone?

Meanwhile, the stiletto’ed arm of the Murdoch Empire, The Times, has been assiduous in rooting out the excesses of the Corbynist/Momentum Tendency. Anyone have any notion what that motive might be?

Sure enough, Lucy Fisher, “Senior Political Correspondent”, gets her by-line as the main item on today’s page 2. She starts by reporting that:

Jess Phillips, the MP for Birmingham Yardley, improved her security after an internet troll sent her pictures of a woman impaled by a spear upon which her face had been superimposed.

There’s a lot of that sort of thing around, but  — be assured — it’s absolutely nothing to do with the pro-Corbs lot. As they rarely desist from telling us.

Then Lucy Fisher, “Senior Political Correspondent”, comes up with something quite astounding:

Another Labour MP yesterday accused Momentum, the left-wing network of Mr Corbyn’s supporters, of planning to film constituents visiting his advice surgery in what he said was a bid to intimidate them.

Neil Coyle, the MP for Southwark, asked on social media why the group’s “cronies” were allegedly targeting his surgery. He said he had seen 50 per cent fewer constituents since Momentum protested outside his office several weeks ago.

On Wednesday night a left-wing activist posted on a Facebook group for Southwark Momentum details of the time and place of Mr Coyle’s next surgery. Another man on the thread, which was seen by The Times, wrote: “Be firm but polite and make sure someone is videoing.”

Mr Coyle said: “The intention to protest, the consequent police presence and the cameras outside stop people coming to see me. You don’t visit your MP unless you’ve got a significant problem — often it’s benefits issues, housing pressure, immigration concerns. People coming about these serious things are not in a mood to be filmed.”

Mr Coyle said that after he contacted Southwark Momentum, the post encouraging video cameras to be used outside his office was taken down. A Momentum spokesman said Mr Coyle’s claim that activists linked to the group were trying to intimidate his constituents was nonsense.

You see! As sure as night follows day, there’s the blanket Momentum denial. It’s nuttin’ to do wit’ us, guv! Honest!

And yet …

It all sounds terribly familiar.

My alter-ego (who must be well-identified by anyone in the know) has been there, and bears the political scars. I have mentioned them here in previous posts, and I don’t retract from them one iota.

In my case, in that lobby to Haringey Council Chamber, the push to the wall, the clenched fist waved in front of the face, the crude threat with the expletive, was made by one Councillor Ron Blanchard, a close acolyte of the Blessed Jeremy Redeemer. But, of course, there was no third-party witness. So it couldn’t have happened. Could it?

And here we are …

The whole Party mechanism has been put into cold storage, for fear of those regimented hordes of infiltrators, for fear of personal abuse, and worse. But it’s all  MI5 plotting against the Sainted Jeremy and his variant of “democracy”.

44 Labour women MPs (that’s out of a total of 99, with one murdered already) have complained of continuing on-line personal abuse. They put their grievances in a formal letter to the Party Leader:

Rape threats, death threats, smashed cars and bricks through windows are disgusting and totally unacceptable in any situation.

This is acknowledged by all factions, yet the simple words of condemnation offered in response are inadequate.

We expect swift and tangible action against those who commit such acts.

Response: oh, well, the abuse goes with the job. And anyway, it’s gotta be some other lot. It’s nuttin’ to do wit’ us, guv! Honest!

This way madness lies …

If ever there was proof positive that a point-of-view was plain wrong, it has come from the mouth of Diane “unsuitable blonde, blue-eyed Finnish nurses” Abbott.

Here she is, given her hat-stand and rope-to-hang-her-arguments-from by The Times:

… it is interesting to compare and contrast Corbyn and Sanders. Their political programmes are very similar. Like Sanders, Corbyn is proud to call himself a socialist. In fact Sanders calling himself a socialist is remarkable in a country where, in living memory, using such a term was enough to get you witch-hunted out of public life. Even in Britain, under New Labour, calling yourself a socialist was forbidden to anyone with serious political ambitions…

Both are treated with cool disdain by their political establishments. Email leaks this week revealed how antagonistic Democratic bigwigs were to the Sanders campaign. As a result the chairwoman of the Democratic national committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had to resign. Goodness knows what the leak of similar emails by the Labour Party would reveal. But it is easy to guess

But the big difference between the two is the way they have been treated by their respective country’s media. Mainstream media in the US has been very sceptical about Sanders’ policies, particularly his signature policies on healthcare. This has been bruising, but fair.

By contrast the British media has scarcely discussed the policies on which Corbyn campaigned. Instead they have concentrated on tearing him down as a man and delegitimising  him as a political actor.

For the record, as long ago as 1974, when my alter-ego put out an election address  and described myself as a “socialist”, eye-brows raised. Even Tribune, which was my spiritual home in many ways, felt the usage worth notice.

What we need to underline (as I do above) is the paranoia that Diane Julie, M.A. (Cantab) radiates. Len McCluskey knows it has to be MI5. Diane Julie sees pale-pinkos machinating against the Blessed Apostle in the National Executive.

Is it all hopeless?

Well, it’s going to be hard to drain the swamp while we are up to our arses with rabid alligators. But for the sake of having a real Opposition, delivering for the people (not just the mouthy student types) Labour has properly sought to represent these hundred years and more, it has to be done.

Owen Smith may not be the instant solution. He’s an improvement on the Corbs lot, and I’ll be doing my bit in the cause. And if Smith doesn’t hack his way through the swamp of Momentum dis- and mis-information, we’ll have to try again.

1 Comment

Filed under British Left, Guardian, Labour Party, politics, Times

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.

1 Comment

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

Pick and choose our standards?

Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard. We cannot say, “We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home.” We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere. All Government, all influence of man upon man, rests upon opinion. What we can do in Africa, where we still govern and where we no longer govern, depends upon the opinion which is entertained of the way in which this country acts and the way in which Englishmen act. We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.

An expert ear hears the classical, Ciceronian style and intuits the speaker. It’s Enoch Powell. Yes … him. 27th July 1959, and a late night debate on the Report of the Hola Camp massacre.

Hola Camp was a detention centre out in the wilds of Kenya. It was to hold the hard core of the Mau Mau, and brutal to the point where in a single incident eleven detainees were beaten to death, and a further two dozen were hospitalised.

I was entering the sixth-form, at Dublin’s High School, by that stage. The Irish press did not tread lightly on British susceptibilities. When the report came to debate, I also read the accounts of Powell’s speech (and those of others) in the Daily Telegraph — in those days a paper of clout, second only to “Bill” Haley‘s The Times. If there was a single event that sparked my commitment to politics, it was Hola.

First as horror, then as worse?

We’ve come a long way since Alan Lennox-Boyd ran the Colonial Office and Evelyn Baring ran his satrapies in East Africa. Thanks be.

Our standards ought to be higher.

Then we come across

Shaw

Near 350 pages addressing the national scandal that is “Immigration Removal Centres”. There are — to my bestaggerment —

11 designated Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), four designated Residential and Short Term Holding Facilities and one Non Residential Short Term Holding Facility. Four of the IRCs are managed by the Prison Service and the others are outsourced to private companies including MitieGEO GroupG4S and Serco

How convenient for the Home Office to delegate the immediate responsibility and “answerability” to “service-providers”.

I guess you didn’t come across too many media reports of the Shaw Report: The Guardian had Alan Travis on the case, but — hey! — what ya expect?

Full credit, then, to Ian Dunt at politics.co.uk. His conclusion is worth repeating:

The Home Office has been quietly putting the brakes on the expansion of the detention estate for months now. One centre was recently closed while another had its expansion cancelled. Campaigners suspect that the top of the department has become alarmed at the stories coming out the detention centres and the escalating costs of maintaining them. A series of internal reviews were commissioned. And then today’s report came out.

The government response is encouraging – which isn’t something you say very often when it comes to detention. It says it accepts “the broad thrust of [Shaw’s] recommendations”. It lists a series of reforms (the devil will be in the details) and then concludes:

“The government expects these reforms… to lead to a reduction in the number of those detained.”

It is a sentence anti-detention campaigners have waited a long time for. The government is now explicitly aiming to detain fewer people.

It’s not a total victory. There is nothing in the report – or the government response – about a time limit. And the managed decline of the detention estate will undoubtedly be done in the usual haphazard manner which the Home Office does everything. But the ship has started to turn.

Shaw may have spared the home secretary’s blushes, but his report could be a turning point in the secret world of Britain’s detention centres.

Leave the qualms about escalating costs aside: for the record, we are talking of 3,000 detainees at around £100 a day, each (so — allowing for departmental dissimulations, plus/minus £110 million a year, minimum).

More important, the moral dimension.

If the stories coming out the detention centres have alarmed the Home Office, then it needs public awareness, leading to public pressure to sort out these institutions.

Opposition MPs (more kudos to Catherine West) are on the case. What we need are more Tories to speak out, as potently as Enoch Powell did.

Leave a comment

Filed under Conservative family values, Guardian, History, politics, Racists, Tories.

“Bad” King John ?

I feel provoked into this by Martin Rowson:

CMCJAnkWEAAkuYg

51hN3TGP63L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_That is his rendering of King John as an utter prick. And, yes — since you didn’t ask — I have the book on order.

The Ott v. Lydon, c.1962

There was, in my days at TCD, a cleavage of opinion over John. Two of our academics held violently opposing views on him and his reign. Examinees learned to check which one was setting the examination paper, and tailored answers accordingly.

The dispute goes back to Stubbs versus Green. Stubbs in 1873 held:

What marks out John personally from the long list of our sovereigns, good and bad, is this — that there is nothing in him which for a single moment calls out for our better sentiments; in his prosperity there is nothing we can admire, and in his adversity there is nothing we can pity … John has neither grace nor splendour, strength nor patriotism. His history stamps him as a worse man than many who have done much more harm, and that — for his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects — chiefly on account of his own personal share in the producing of his own deep and desperate humiliation.

Phew! But did you notice the small caveat: his reign was not a period of unparalleled or unmitigated misery to his subjects? It almost makes one muse what, from the view down below, a medieval monarch was useful for.

Almost at the same moment, publishing in 1874, along came J.R.Green:

the ablest and most ruthless of the Angevins … In the rapidity and breadth of his political combinations he far surpassed the statesmen of his time.

Green’s was the view that predominated for much of the twentieth century. So we find A.L.Poole, for the fourth (originally third) volume of the Oxford History of England:

He was cruel and ruthless, violent and passionate, greedy and self-indulgent, arbitrary and judicious, clever and capable, original and inquisitive. He was made up of inconsistencies.

We’d also need to remember that almost all the contemporary opinions of John come through churchmen and the chroniclers — if one likes, a synthetic view.  Doris Stenton wrote (page 46) of that:

No chronicler should be believed who is not strictly contemporary, and is not supported by record evidence when he makes extravagant claims about the King’s evil deeds.

And John was no dutiful, obedient follower of the church. The records, though, suggest a different creature — and, should one like to characterise it, an analytic approach. The second shows us a king who knew the law, and applied it (arbitrarily, but that is the mark of the times).

The great script writer

William Goldman did more for my appreciation of “Bad’ King John than all the lectures and books.

This from The Lion in Winter:

Henry II: Power is the only fact. (indicating Richard) How could I keep him from the throne? He’d only take it if I didn’t give it to him.

Richard: No, you’d make me fight for it. I know you. You’d never give me anything

Henry II: True, and I haven’t. You get Alais and the kingdom, but I get the thing I want most. If you’re king, England stays intact. I get that. It’s all yours now… the crown, the girl, the whole black business. Isn’t that enough? (He exits) 

Alais: I don’t know who’s to be congratulated. Kings, queens, knights everywhere you look, and I’m the only pawn. I haven’t got a thing to lose. That makes me dangerous. (She exits)

Eleanor: Poor child.

John: Poor John. Who says, “poor John”? Don’t everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames, there’s not a living soul who’d pee on me to put the fire out.

Richard: Let’s strike a flint and see.

John: You’re everything a little brother dreams of. You know that? I used to dream about you all the time.

Eleanor: Ah, Johnny.

John: I’ll show you, Eleanor. I’ve not lost yet.

Goldman wasn’t finished with John there.

I have here his 1979 novel (now badly decayed), Myself as Witness. It covers the period of 1212 to 1219. The first-person narrator is a version of Giraldus Cambrensis (who, in reality, was already retired to Lincoln). It remains one of my favourite historical confections. Goldman is unashamedly positive about John. Here, from the introductory A Note to the Reader is Goldman’s near-apologia:

I have written about King John before; he makes appearances in both The Lion in Winter and Robin and Marian. Following the mainstream, I conceived him as a violent, unstable person with no principles at all. Not so this time around. Several years ago, this completely villainous King John began to seem increasingly improbable to me. He was too black, too terrible. And so I went back to the history books, and the more I read the more it seemed apparent that tradition had it wrong: a very different John must have existed. What had begun as an emotional conviction gradually seemed to be substantiated by the facts.

What are the facts? Remarkably little survives that was written while John was alive, and the picture of him that emerges from these scattered sources is surprisingly complimentary. The evil monarch we have come to know begins to appear in chronicles written a generation or more after his death. On top of which , the writing of history was a curious procedure in those days, and the chroniclers on whom we have relied give us reports of devils and dragons with the same conviction and seriousness that they accord verifiable political events.

Why these chroniclers made John into a monster is an unanswerable question. Possibly because England had had enough of Henry and his children, possibly because John’s reign saw more defeats than victories, possibly in response to political pressures of the moment.

 I think that’s where I came in here.

Those chronicles on which much history has been based are:

  • Roger of Wendover, about 1225;
  • Abbot Ralph of Coggeshall, who cannot be writing before 1221;
  • the Barnswell chronicler, again writing in the 1220s and adding to the record until 1232 or so;
  • the biography of William Marshal was started in 1221 and not finished until 1225-6;
  • the Histoire des Ducs de Normandie ends in 1220, and was probably written at or after that date;
  • the Margam annals must be even later in the thirteenth century;
  • the annals of Burton are found only in late-thirteenth century copies.

All good sons of Mother Church (which John was not). All good retainers of the baronial class (which John tried to contain). Let us now conceive — for an analogy — that any future account of the Labour government of 1997-2010 will derive from the Murdoch press of and after the second half of the present decade (2015-20+).

I see here [page 290]:

Three aspects of John particularly appeal to a modern sensibility. First, his love of books. He had a small library which he carried round with him on his restless travels and often swapped titles with the abbot of Reading; we hear of John’s interest in Pliny and in the history of England — not something we can ever imagine Richard bothering with. In an age when personal hygiene did not rank as one of the human priorities, John was positively oriental in his liking for baths and cleanliness; the records show that between 29 January and 17 June 1209 he took eight baths at different places on his itinerary and even possessed a dressing gown. Yet what most intrigues the historian of the early twenty-first century is John’s alleged atheism.

What’s not to like?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Andrew Gimson, History, MArtin Rowson, Trinity College Dublin

On order

I’ve just divvied up (courtesy of Amazon Prime) for Andrew Gimson’s Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Forty Monarchs since 1066. The selling points here are just two:

  • Gimson is a Tory, but a decent, liberal one (which means he must be severely distrusted by many in that Party). More than that, he is one of the better, human and humane centre-right bloviators who are readable.
  • The illustrations are by the excellent Martin Rowson, who is a long urban mile away from anything right-of-centre.

@MartinRowson (hint! hint!) is generously sharing his illustrations through the social media. Here are the first two: Guillaume Batard Self-evidently Guillaume le Bâtard, the only contemporary image of whom I know is from his seal: 31-William-Conqueror-great-seal-s Then comes the curious Guillaume-le-Ros, a.k.a. William Rufus — apparently the cognomen was from his ruddy face, while William of Malmesbury (writing a score of years after Rufus’s sad end) reckoned he had sandy hair: Billydeux   Rufus seems to have become King of England by a bit of sleight-of-hand. On his death-bed (and it was a long five weeks of dying) Guillaume le Conquérant sent his third (and second surviving) son to Lanfranc, along with the royal baubles and the English hostages. Once in England Rufus seized the treasury at Winchester, and within the fortnight had himself crowned by Lanfranc at Westminster Abbey.

Leave a comment

Filed under History, MArtin Rowson

Musings on Cecils (both deceased)

The lottery of life

The lion is lost and gone for ever.

RhodesUnprompted, I assume he was named in honour of the equally-late Cecil John Rhodes.

A long while ago I did prompt myself to hunt down the original of:

I think it was X who said that to be born an Englishman is to win first prize in the lottery of life.

Inevitably, in different variants “X” is Winston Churchill (the usual mouth of last resort) or Rudyard Kipling. Go to a dictionary of quotations and the version that often appears names Cecil Rhodes, usually addressing “a young friend”.

Clearly, from the infrequency of early occurrences, the expression only became a clichéd commonplace quite recently, and — sure enough — the earliest version I could locate was  quite commonly aforesaid Cecil Rhodes. After poking around I became convinced the source for all this was page 64 of Peter Ustinov’s 1977 memoir, Dear Me. There Rhodes (indeed, it is he) is responding to a nervous young officer, about to go off and Assistant-Divisional-Superintend a benighted corner of the British Empire (also deceased).

There was old Dunne …

… young Dunne,
And young Dunne’s youngest son.
Young Dunne will be a Dunne
When old Dunne is done.

My mother could rattle that off on many a barely-reliant occasion. The only “explanation” I’ve found for that appears as always good for kids (or drunk college crowds) if you do the hand gestures to go with the chorusThe best I can do is to adapt John Donne to the sad death of Cecil-the-younger:

Every lion’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind

Before I move on, allow me to acknowledge the many truths that Simon Jenkins included in his essay, yesterday, for The Guardian, not least:

I am appalled at the idea of killing any animals for pleasure. But animals get killed. I eat meat sometimes, and my garden is afflicted with vermin I would readily slaughter. But in Botswana I was mostly left wondering what would Britain’s reaction be if hundreds of well-heeled Africans arrived to abuse us for not protecting “the world’s” red squirrels and songbirds. We would think it most rude.

That piece opens with a nice inversion:

A dentist from Wisconsin goes hunting in Zimbabwe and bags its most famous lion, Cecil. In response, Cecil’s friends have gone hunting in Minnesota in the hope of bagging its most infamous dentist, Walter Palmer. Welcome to the world of charismatic mega-species, their predators and protectors. One thing only is for sure, the predators are winning.

Jenkins’s “solution”, so called sustainable ranching, is a sensible approach — but I’m sure I came across that one years ago in The Economist. Just because it may not be an original concept, doesn’t render it less sensible, of course.

Selective breeding

Perhaps we should take Sir Simon’s prescription a stage further?

Evolving a big cat, whose skin came pre-fitted with Velcro or zippers — like a sofa, would make it possible for the creature to lend its outer cover yet allow more to engage in the earthly delights:

Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

Odd that the “dig” at Elinor Glyn (née Sutherland) has prevailed longer than any of her original torrid-verging-on-the-tepid writings. Anyone with an idle few seconds can sample her wares, for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg, and what prompted that little ditty. Try Chapter 11 of Three Weeks:

The next day was Sunday, and even through the silk blinds they could hear the rain drip in monotonous fashion. Of what use to wake? Sleep is blissful and calm when the loved one is near.

Thus it was late when Paul at last opened his eyes. He found himself alone, and heard his lady’s voice singing softly from the sitting-room beyond, and through the open door he could perceive her stretched on the tiger, already dressed, reclining among the silk pillows, her guitar held in her hands.

“Hasten, hasten, lazy one. Thy breakfast awaits thee,” she called, and Paul bounded up without further delay…

The light of all the love in the world seemed to flood the lady’s face. She bent over and kissed him, and smoothed his cheek with her velvet cheek, she moved so that his curly lashes might touch her bare neck, and at last she slipped from under him, and laid his head gently down upon the pillows.

Then a madness of tender caressing seized her. She purred as a tiger might have done, while she undulated like a snake. She touched him with her finger-tips, she kissed his throat, his wrists, the palms of his hands, his eyelids, his hair. Strange, subtle kisses, unlike the kisses of women. And often, between her purrings, she murmured love-words in some strange fierce language of her own, brushing his ears and his eyes with her lips the while.

Might Cecil have such an after-life? Anyway, sic transit Gloria Monday, Elinor Glyn and Glenda Slagg.

And, of course, a genetically-adapted sesquipedalian (“foot-and-a-half”) pachyderm would solve the problem of just the four umbrella-stands to the standard elephant.

Umbrella stand

Leave a comment

Filed under Comment is Free, Economist, Guardian, reading, Simon Jenkins