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Saturday 31 October 2009

Ever in the Field of Human Conflict

Now, as it is poppy time again, and already fireworks (in the pre-Bonfire Night days) are exploding all evening - reminiscent of the battlefields of the Somme - I was thinking of Churchill's much quoted lines and would like, without taking anything from the bravery of those RAF pilots of WW2, to turn it around.

Churchill said, "Never, in the field of human conflict, has so much been owed by so many to so few."

Looking back at the slaughter throughout history, it is apparent that ever, in the field of human conflict, so much has been given by so many for so few. The average soldier, and later the average conscript of the First World War, was misled by the lie that this was the war to end wars. So few people manufactured that idea, and yet millions marched off with some ideal that this massacre could bring peace on earth. Millions more suffered the loss of a father, brother, husband or friend. These men were just going about their lives, had no axe to grind with the Germans or Austrians or anyone else from another country. Nor did the average German conscript have any axe to grind with the British, French or Russians...Yet somewhere, a few people had a disagreement, felt a need to dominate, and invariably those people had a sense of their own inadequacy and a total inability to look inside themselves at their own problems and so played them out on the world stage at such a cost.

Hitler - poor little, weak fellow - found the means to attract to himself like-minded people because he appealed to the sense of weakness in a nation (a sense of weakness brought about, of course, by the terms of Versailles). Churchill was, I think, no less a megalomaniac - he just happened to be on the 'right' side, but would have done anything to ensure his own sense power - external to himself - to make up for the lack of self-esteem he felt in childhood. Ivan the Terrible - identical story. Alexander the Great - identical story. William the Conqueror, Richard the (so-called) Lionheart....The list is endless

And for the internal conflicts of these men - and such people throughout history - so much has been sacrificed by so many.

Okay, supposing I am wrong....well, here's a question. How come that the people in power, presumably those who are most intelligent, capable and aware, have again and again and again been unable to speak with one another to reach amicable conclusions. I have seen little schoolboys so angry with one another being brought to sit together and in five minutes they make an amicable agreement and become friends. Neither goes away feeling humiliated or having had to compromise their own beliefs. In five minutes, children can sit beside one another and become friends again. Yet some so called heroes of history couldn't do that?

Truly, ever in the history of human conflict, so much has been given by so many to ease the wounded child and ego of so few.

Friday 30 October 2009


The night is so dark and misty - the perfect setting for the lead up to Hallowe'en, and what a set of bizarre reactions there are to that night! Here in England, I have heard from several quarters, a strange sort of backlash against this 'American import' this year. A few years ago, I heard a priest raging against it - calling it 'dangerous' like some kind of satanic ritual.

It's true that until maybe five or ten years ago, beyond the scary ghost stories and occasional pumpkin in a window, it seemed to have died out in England. There were no 'trick or treats' - instead there was (on November 4th) Mischief Night - which really meant stealing the wood from other people's bonfires before November 5th. Mischief Night escalated into putting treacle on door knobs, then throw eggs at windows or stealing someone's gates. People said how bad times were - forgetting that right back to the Middle Ages any excuse for disorder was welcomed! Trick or treat is mild in comparison and, personally, I think it's fabulous fun for children and a great American import Thank you, America!

The priest's reaction seems to go back to another era. The era when we didn't all live so indoors, hiding behind central heating and double glazing - when the dark night wasn't scary and the change of seasons was celebrated; when animals were brought indoors and there was no separation between humanity and the other creatures of the earth: the era, perhaps, before Christianity in its impurest sense arrived on these isles. The darkness of the night, the respect of the seasons was not something to be feared, but something to be respected. It spoke of the darkness within us - the fears, the judgements, the bitterness and the need to hide from ourselves. Samhain, like the May time Beltane, simply marked that contrast in Nature, that is reflected within us. It spoke of our fears as surely as springtime speaks of our hope. And here's an interesting thing: in the days and cultures where such things were acknowledged, respect for the wisdom of the elders was profound. Now, in our culture that fears the dark, we treat elderly people badly. We want only spring, only to be insulated from the natural flow of the seasons, and wonder why the world is as it is.

Hallowe'en - All Hallows Night - Hallowed (the same word that appears in The Lord's Prayer to describe God's Name) is not a nasty scary thing of ghouls and vampires and skeletons. It's no less a Feast Day than any other. Unless we face our fears, we are destined to be haunted by them, and it seems to me that our greatest fears are facing up to our own shadows - our own resentments, judgements, unforgiveness.

So...thank you again, America, for reviving our ancient tradition of remembering All Hallows Night - after all, if God/Life is omnipresent, everything is holy!

(Photograph courtesy of Andre Hilliard www.andrehilliard.com )

Wednesday 28 October 2009


I know an elderly woman who dislikes most people she meets but the moment that they pass from this life, she turns them into saints and won't hear a bad word spoken of them. In some ways she resembles Queen Victoria, I think. Although she adored Prince Albert, Queen Victoria made much of his life so difficult by her mood-swings and criticism and her own neediness. The same is true of her daughter, Alice, who - because she had criticised John Brown - Queen Victoria described to relatives all over Europe as having 'too high an opinion of herself', but the moment she died, she was suddenly a perfect example of humility!

How odd people are in their worship of those who are no longer physically here, and how quickly someone who was vilified in life can be turned into a saint once they have passed on! It's fascinating how many so-called 'saints' were hounded by bishops during their lifetime, and only later the good they did was recognized. John of the Cross, for example, was imprisoned - I believe - by the Church. Julie Billiart was constantly criticised by bishops; Bernadette of Lourdes was all but banished to her convent to keep her out of the way (and typically thought suffering was the only way to heaven, so died young). Jesus was crucified by the Church authorities.

I wonder why it is that people are so drawn to messages only after someone is no longer here to expound their message further?? Is it because it is too challenging to face when they are still here? It's safer and easier to create the image in our own likeness when there is no possibility of that false image being challenged?

In my opinion, heroes are never really heroes - they are all the products of our own image of what we would like to be and believe about all that is finest in ourselves. Dead heroes don't challenge that so it's easier to enshrine them and fit them into boxes. Truth be told, there are thousands of heroes - people who have lived out their lives according to their own lights, and bringing more joy and wonder into the world. The heroes established by 'history' - which often means by the government of the day - are seldom any more or less than the small child walking past their monument, doing whatever we do to get by, to improve our understanding, to be who we really are, unswayed by the need to fit in or fit someone else's mould of how we should live.

I like statues of heroes (and England is littered with them!), and what is most interesting, is scraping the surface to find, underneath, a person who is no different from all the everyday people we pass and talk to as we go about our daily business. We don't have to be dead to be heroes. We just have to be our true selves.

Sunday 18 October 2009

Nursery Rhyme Heritage

A bizarre row is going on because the BBC changed the last line of the nursery rhyme 'Humpty Dumpty' for a children's programme. The original ends with 'all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again.' The changed version gave it a happy ending with the king's horses and men making Humpty happy again.

The row is about changing age-old rhymes to make them less frightening for children and making everything jolly. Apparently, another nursery rhyme about Miss Muffet being frightened by a spider has been changed to make the frightened woman make friends with the spider. Nanny state gone mad!!!! Children are scared of many things - fairy tales are filled with scary characters to help them deal with that. Wrapping them in cotton wool and pretending everything is lovely, while news programmes and political propaganda is creating an atmosphere of fear is utter nonsense - creating people who are unable to cope with something as shocking as a spider or Humpty Dumpty falling from a wall! In the age of double-glazing and super-clean environments which don't allow children's immune systems to develop, this hardly seems surprising. A nation of ninnies will be all that is left, and they will be at the mercy of any tyrant or control-freak who chooses to take power.

However! In this case, the BBC said they were only being 'creative' with their alternative ending. That is all very well but someone somewhere in the corporation must realize that there is a lot more to nursery rhymes than simply nonsensical verses. In the ages before newspapers, TV and radio, the best means of communicating the news was by stories that were easy for the messenger to remember. Rhyming verses are easier to remember than prose and so it was by verses that news travelled the country. Obviously unbeknown to the people who decided to change the end of the verse, Humpty Dumpty tells the story of a cannon that was smashed to pieces during the Civil War. Changing the end of it is rewriting history. It's not a matter of being creative, it's a matter of preserving the ancient traditions of the country. Folk songs carry the same historical traditions, as do Morris Dancers, Maypoles and Mummers. It seems to me really important that these things are preserved as surely as we preserve old buildings and other parts of our heritage. Please don't start messing with nursery rhymes!!!

Saturday 10 October 2009

Meaningless Trophies and Jobs for the Boys

I once had the good fortune to be invited to an award dinner for something I had done. I didn't win the award but thoroughly enjoyed the occasion and was honoured to be there because the people I met were very pleasant. Afterwards I was told confidentially by one of the judges that it was quite exceptional that I was there at all because - I quote - "...they like to keep this among themselves and promote their own. It's not a matter of how worthy you are or what you have done, but about how they want to promote their own things with people they control or know." Being naive and young, I just took that as a compliment that this outsider had somehow broken into a closed group. Now, still happy to have had that experience, the meaninglessness of such trophies handed out by little groups becomes more and more apparent.

On the one hand there are programmes like "The X-Factor" where people with talent find an opening. Such programmes are viewed as 'tacky' by some people, and it is true that the public vote always runs the risk of mass hysteria or being swayed by the media coverage. All the same, a person of talent gets up and people all over the country can have their say. This, though, is scorned by the intelligentsia and seen as hype and tacky.

On the other hand, there are prestigious awards that are seen as having more meaning. The Nobel Prize, for example....It's interesting that Alfred Nobel was the chemist whose work with the armament industry and his association with explosives led him to want to leave a better legacy after his death and so he instituted the prizes. The Peace Prize, he said, would be awarded to to "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses..."

The nominees for this year's award were:

Sima Samar, women’s rights activist in Afghanistan: “With dogged persistence and at great personal risk, she kept her schools and clinics open in Afghanistan even during the most repressive days of the Taliban regime, whose laws prohibited the education of girls past the age of eight. When the Taliban fell, Samar returned to Kabul and accepted the post of Minister for Women’s Affairs.”

Ingrid Betancourt: French-Colombian ex-hostage held for six years.

Dr. Denis Mukwege: Doctor, founder and head of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo. He has dedicated his life to helping Congolese women and girls who are victims of gang rape and brutal sexual violence.

Handicap International and Cluster Munition Coalition: “These organizations are recognized for their consistently serious efforts to clean up cluster bombs, also known as land mines. Innocent civilians are regularly killed worldwide because the unseen bombs explode when stepped upon.”

Hu Jia, a human rights activist and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, who was sentenced last year to a three-and-a-half-year prison term for ‘inciting subversion of state power.’

Wei Jingsheng, who spent 17 years in Chinese prisons for urging reforms of China’s communist system. He now lives in the United States.

And President Obama who has er.....talked a lot. What was it that person said to me at the award I attended? Ah yes, I remember now.

Friday 2 October 2009

Rudolf - What makes a tragic hero?

In the days of so-called 'reality' TV (which consists for the most part of minor celebrities airing their dirty linen in public or people grabbing their fifteen minutes of fame by being as outrageous as possible), it is beautiful to remember a more refined age when nothing was so rushed, so trashy, so 'throw away', and where people didn't make 15-minute idols out of people whose sole contribution to society was a desire to present themselves at their worst.

In all ages, however, people seem to have sought an escape from humdrum lives by looking at someone else whose life appeared to be more enchanted. Going right back to the foundations of drama, theatre and the modern cinema, Aristotle's idea of tragic heroes (which so inspired Shakespeare) still rings true. The tragic hero and protagonist had to be of noble (better yet, royal) birth and had to have a personal 'fatal flaw' that led to his downfall. Rudolf of Austria is such a man and if Hamlet were based on a real person, he might have been based on poor Rudolf.

Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria -Hungary was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His 'daddy is rich and his mama good-looking' - he was born into the age of Strauss waltzes, of radiant ballrooms where soldiers wore dashing informs and ladies wore entrancing ball gowns. He came from one of the most powerful countries in Europe, with a genealogy reaching back to the Holy Roman Empire. Gifted, handsome and with everything handed to him on a plate, the world seemed perfect for Rudolf....but he had Shakespeare's.Aristotle's 'fatal flaw.'

Nothing is ever as it seems and here is a different version of his story.

Rudolf was born of a mother who came from a life of freedom and adventure; a minor princess who had enough money to enjoy life without the responsibilities of power. She loved freedom, galloping apace on fast horses and wandering about barefoot. At a young age, caught up in the emotion of the moment, she married a handsome Emperor but had no idea that the Emperor's court was so confined by tiny rules that from that day forth she would be constantly in the public eye, and any infringement of those rules would be criticised. Like a butterfly caught in a net, she was confined and the only son of that marriage was a boy who seemed to share his mother's longing for freedom. Freedom to follow his own path; freedom to love and be and to live...But he was a Crown Prince, and as such had to fit that role. It tore him apart. He could hardly sigh in his sleep without someone reporting it and it absolutely destroyed him because he was forever in an act and never able to be himself.

His suicide at Mayerling is not a romantic story. By then, Rudolf was already destroyed - probably by syphilis and drugs, but more so by his own mind that had so yearned for freedom, as had his mothers.

Nowadays, when people display their dirty laundry on TV for their couple of minutes of fame, it's interesting to think of people like Rudolf who never sought that fame but were destroyed by it (along with the stifling atmosphere of the Austrian Court). Fame is not nearly as glamorous as some people believe.