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Friday 31 December 2010

A Very Happy New Year!

For so many people whom I have met, the year 2010 has been unusually difficult in so many ways. There seems to have been so much illness and bereavement and it has often felt to me that everything was thrown up into the air in order to come down in a different and far better place. With that thought dominant in my mind, I am so looking forward to Midnight tonight and the birth of 2011.

The year 1866 had been particularly distressing for Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Alice. The Austro-Prussian War not only meant a long separation from her husband and the sadness of seeing the wounded Hessians, but also had led to her being on the opposing side to her closest sister, Vicky, in Prussia. By the end of the year the war was over, and as Princess Alice looked forward to 1867, she wrote to her mother:

“May the Almighty give you every blessing of peace and comfort which the world can still give you....May every blessing fall on my dear old home, with all its dear ones! May peace and the glory which peace and order bring with it, with its many blessings, protect my native land; and may, in the new year, your wise and glorious reign, so overshadowed by dear Papa’s spirit, continue to prosper and be a model and ornament to the world!
This year of pain and anxiety, yet for us so rich in blessings, draws to its close. It moves me more than ever as its last day approaches. For how much have we not to thank the Almighty – for my life, which is so unworthy compared to many others; the new life of this little one [her daughter – Irene] and above all the preservation of my own dear husband who is my all in this life.
The trials of this year must have brought some good with all the evil; good to the individual and good to the multitude. God grant we may all profit by what we have learned, and gain more and more that trust in God’s love, which is our guide and support in trouble and in joy! Oh, more than ever, I have felt this year that God’s goodness and love are indeed beyond comprehension!
...I am really glad to hear you can listen to a little music. Music is such a heavenly thing, and dear Papa loved it so much that I can’t but think that now it must be soothing, and bring you near to him....”

Bring on the fireworks and the music....Ring out the old, ring in the new! A Very Happy New Year!

Thursday 30 December 2010

The Age of Innocence

Along with many people, I was disappointed by the remake of “Upstairs Downstairs”, which was shown over 3 nights this week. The original series played so prominent a role in my adolescence, when ‘James Bellamy’ was the caddish hero who so perfectly epitomised every schoolgirl’s dream! During a Latin lesson in school, a friend passed me a note to say Simon Williams, the actor who played James Bellamy, was coming in person to open a shop in Leeds that night - “Oh, be still my beating heart!” – I still have the photograph of that evening when Simon Williams put his arm around our shoulders and smiled for the camera!

There was a beautiful innocence about that time, and in so many ways the original series recaptured the innocence of the world before 1918. The final series – set in the 1920s – was a sort of aftermath. There was grief, loss, frittering away meaningless hours in trying to capture a lost innocence, the Wall Street Crash, the loss of the Bellamys’ home, and James’ suicide, which was symbolic of so much that had been lost.

The new series lacked so much because it seemed to try so hard. Suddenly it seemed so modern in that it was trying to be so politically correct that it involved the token northerner, the person with Down’s syndrome, the Asian person, the German Jewish person....and tried, in so short a time, to include historical details (the rise of Fascism, the Abdication Crisis etc.)...but it tried too hard and it was not possible to empathise with the characters.

But I think (at least for me) there was something more poignant about the impossibility of making this series, set in the less aesthetically beautiful 1930s, as captivating as the original. The beauty of the original series was its recapturing of an era which is rather like our individual nostalgia for a childhood which might not, to all outward appearances, have been idyllic, but in which to the individual who remembers childhood, there were moments of sheer awe, excitement, the belief in magic, in fairies, in dreams! The pre-1914 world was, I think, a world of innocence. It’s true that it was a world filled with injustice and yet we cannot view it clearly through 21st century eyes without first returning to the way in which it was viewed from the inside.
In the original ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, the servants were so proud to be working for an aristocratic family and they, far more than the family upstairs had such a hierarchy that was so stringent and well-defined. Under-housemaids peeped with delight over banisters to see the rich ladies in their beautiful gowns going out to a ball; butlers and footmen expected their masters to remain somewhat aloof and it was as though everyone had something to which to aspire, which was better than their own present circumstances.

People who have been in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II often speak of their sense of awe. Republicans become tongue-tied; and young, rebellious performers are suddenly so conventional when they meet her. That is the mystique of royalty. To those of us who are not royal, the very presence of a Queen, King, Prince or Princess, takes us right back to our childhood innocence and dreams and sense of wonder. The pre-1914 world was filled with such people and created fairy-tale-like occasions of pageants, processions, jubilees, coronations and royal funerals. The royalties might have lived in grand style but they created so beautiful an image and inspired such aspirations! If all their fortunes were added together and shared among the masses, each person might have gained a couple of pennies. The end of innocence came, I think, with the rise of envy. Rather than aspiring to be all that each person can be, unhappy people – led into wars by unhappy ad envious ministers and not by kings - looked at those whom they perceived as better off, and destroyed them. The murder of Tsars, Kings, the overthrow of dynasties gained nothing, but deprived us of so much appreciation, respect, awe and that child-like innocence, which we try to recapture in period dramas.

The world of ‘Upstairs Downstairs’, really ended in 1914-1918. I think it was a well-meaning mistake to try to revive it in another era, in which it didn’t really fit at all.

Friday 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever your beliefs and whatever your circumstances, thank you for taking the time to visit this blog, and may your Christmas be filled with joy!

Monday 20 December 2010

Heilige Nacht

Is there a more moving carol than the original German version of ‘Heilige Nacht’ – I can imagine Prince Albert, who brought to England so many of the Christmas traditions we still enjoy today, singing it in his beautiful voice. That beautiful carol captures so perfectly the quietness which is so inspired by the muffling of snow and the inner silence that comes so natually at this time of year. It is the sound, to me, of something so profound, so beautifully inexpressible....and it is captured quite beautifully in this excerpt from ‘Oh, what a lovely war’ – where, for a moment, men remembered who they really are and caught the true Christmas spirit...


Sunday 19 December 2010

Morganatic Marriages and Bloodlines

It is near impossible nowadays to understand the concept of a morganatic marriage – a marriage between people of different social ranks wherein the person of the lower social rank (almost invariably the wife) and any subsequent children are not eligible to share the titles or ranks of the person of higher rank. Usually the ‘inferior’ wife was given some other meaningless title, which accounts for so many obscure German and Russian titles – Princess of Battenberg, Princess von Hanau, Countess Carlow, etc. etc. The closest thing we have to it today is the title of Camilla, wife of the Prince of Wales, yet titled – for various reasons – Duchess of Cornwall. In Britain there have never been morganatic marriages – as Queen Victoria, who couldn’t understand the idea at all, wrote so simply, “Either people are married or they are not.”

The purpose of this bizarre state of affairs was to preserve the noble blood of great dynasties. I cannot imagine how anyone conceived the idea that royal blood is different from other blood and it would taint a dynasty to have a commoner’s blood thrown into the mix but the irony of the outcome of such ideas is so tragically apparent. It was a disease of the blood – the noble blood - haemophilia, which caused such havoc and agony in many royal houses; the attempt to preserve the bloodline in Austria led to so many marriages between double first cousins that the children suffered enormously, both physically and mentally; and there was also, throughout the 19th and early 20th century, a vast amount of royal blood spilled from the murder of Carlos of Portugal, through to the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
and the murder of the Russian Imperial Family. Royal blood flowed, too, on the battlefields of the First World War – the nephews of the Kaiser were killed alongside the cousin of George V of Britain and cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, and in the midst of battle it can hardly have been any less horrific for a prince than for an average ‘Tommy’.

I cannot imagine how stifling and how utterly nonsensical it must have felt to have been a prince or princess for whom the choice of a marriage partner was based primarily on dynastic considerations, with some strange idea that this would preserve some kind of superiority. I can imagine, though, how someone like the very intelligent Franz Ferdinand felt when the woman whom he loved devotedly was constantly humiliated because of her ‘inferior’ blood. He had seen Crown Prince Rudolf slide into a life of utter decadence due to the stifling of the Court; and had seen Rudolf’s mother drift deeper and deeper into depression for the same reason. Franz Ferdinand loved Sophie. In the Court and in the world at large he was seen as brusque and unsociable, but at home he loved his children, loved his wife deeply and it is small wonder that in such circumstances he despised the coterie of snobs who stood between him and his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef. Forty or so years earlier in England, Prince Albert wrote of the need to bring new, stronger blood into the dynasty. I think, perhaps, he and Franz Ferdinand (a man whom admire more, the more I learn about him – except for his mass-slaughter of animals) would have had some brilliant conversations had they been around at the same time, and between them might have brought about a great deal of good.

The whole notion of blood seems to go back to Biblical times when the Hebrews were wandering in the desert and discovered that the blood of certain animals made them ill or even earlier when Greek and Roman doctors believed blood was something mystical. There remained a superstitious view of it for so many years that even today we speak of ‘blue blood’ – a rather apt idea considering the presence of porphyria in some dynasties - and ‘full-bloodied’.

I am glad that, for all our faults, we never entertained the notion of morganatic marriages in Britain.

Saturday 18 December 2010

The Power of Persuasion and Propaganda

Charles Edward, Duke of Albany and Duke of Coburg, was the son of my favourite of Queen Victoria’s sons – Prince Leopold. It’s very sad that most of what is remembered of Charles Edward is depicted in these photographs of him wearing the swastika and sitting beside Hitler.

Even today, 65 years after the end of WW2 there are frequent condemnatory references on websites and in books to the affiliation between various royalties and the Nazis but it is staggering that while we, even to this day, are subjects of so much propaganda, we judge with self-righteous hindsight the people of the past.

Hitler was obviously a deranged megalomaniac and tyrant but, had I been part of a noble German dynasty who wanted the best for my people, and had seen them suffer the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, I might, in the 1930s – without access to all the information we have so easily today - have been swayed by the message of someone who said he could restore our country to its sense of dignity. I might have seen it as an opportunity to restore dignity, too, to the people I believed I was here to serve and govern, and live up to all that had been instilled in me about my duty as a member of the family of rulers to do the best for those in my duchy. I might even have heard Hitler’s voice as the one glimmer of light in the darkness of our country’s history. Perhaps I would have recalled brothers or friends who had died ignobly on the Somme or the Marne, and wondered why it was okay for Britain to raise Cenotaphs to her glorious dead, when my friends and family were seen as aggressors. After all, those real people who died had no more idea about why they went to war than my English or Russian cousins did, but the cousins were heroes and we were demons....though they all set off with the same idea of this being the right thing to do. Since then, I had seen my country brought to its knees, humiliated, emasculated and basically leaderless. Then, in the midst of weakness and despair, came a voice that gave hope....the voice of someone promising to restore all I loved...the voice of Adolf Hitler.

Remember, I had been raised as a grandchild of a prince who believed with all his heart that princes were there to serve and do the best for their people. WW1 left me with a sense of having failed in that....and a sense of my own confusion and sorrow at having witnessed so much slaughter for nothing, and having been cut off from my cousins and siblings.

In such circumstances of desperation and hope of a better future, I doubt I would have been aware that such a man, who gave me hope, was so deranged as to be planning genocide or anything of the sort. I doubt I would have even thought about anything other than the possibility of returning to the ideals of my youth when Germany was a prosperous and respected nation. Perhaps when the reality of what was happening – the madness, the mass slaughter of Jewish people, Polish people, gypsies, homosexuals, people with learning difficulties, all kinds of innocent people – dawned on me, it was too devastating to even think about.

Charles Edward, Duke of Coburg, son of beautiful Prince Leopold, sat alone, watching on television as his sister and cousins attended the coronation of our present Queen in 1953 because he was not allowed into this country, being seen as a ‘traitor’. I just wonder what any of us would have done in such circumstances.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Shells of Souls

Getting out of the car at a supermarket today, I saw, very close to my foot, a perfect ‘shell’ of a squirrel. He lay on his side, quite dead, in a place where, until a couple of days ago, there had been a mound of snow. He looked like a young squirrel – not our original native red squirrels which are so rarely seen nowadays, but a grey one (an American variety!) with unusually white fur across his chest.
I felt sad to think perhaps he had frozen to death in that mound of snow, for there was nothing about him that suggested he had been attacked and he looked very young. I walk often in the woods and see countless lively squirrels but have never ever seen a dead one, so it seemed odd that this little one should be lying there like litter in the supermarket car park. The most striking thing, though, was – and please forgive me if this sounds macabre – that shell-like look that all bodies have when Life has moved on from them. I was a nurse for a while and, being around the ‘dying’ (I write it in inverted commas because ‘dying’ sounds so final and that, I am sure, is not so) there was always such a noticeable time when a hush fell over the ward, and such a sense of awe at the moment when someone seemed to move out of their body and all that was left was a shell.

This is the anniversary of Queen Victoria’s ‘dreadful 14th’ – the day on which her husband, Prince Albert and, seventeen years later, her daughter, Princess Alice, left this life. One snowy night, around this time of year, when carols were playing on a hospital ward, I held the hand of someone else, who will probably not be remembered by anyone since this person was neither a prince nor a princess and had no family as far as we knew, as they passed on. I hardly knew this person except in their most intimate moment of death. It was late on a dark December evening, just before Christmas. The ‘patient’ had been moved to a side room, the ward was quiet and so I went to sit with this person. I was tired, didn’t really want to be there and hated working nights but my head was filled with the carols I had been hearing, “where charity stands watching, and faith holds wide the door..” and this person sighed deeply and was gone, “the dark night breaks, the morning wakes and Christmas comes once more...” That little, stark side room in a hospital, which was once a workhouse and is filled with the energy of so much death and darkness, suddenly seemed joyful. I saw the body – the shell of the soul of that person whose hand I had been holding, while feeling so dark and tired and sleepy and sad, and suddenly I wanted to dance. It seemed like all the sad stuff we hang around death is so meaningless because it’s no different from shells on beaches or fallen leaves in autumn.

There was always, in my experience, great respect shown to dead bodies by nurses and porters. In laying out a body, all the nurses I knew spoke to it, treated it with respect as though there person still inhabited it. (Newspapers make out nowadays that nurses are careless of the elderly but that was never my experience as a nurse). So, we did what needed to be done with this person’s body and my colleague was speaking to it as though the person was still there. To me it was nothing but a shell, but, after years of believing in a vague heaven, in that moment and ever since, I would stake my life on the certainty of eternal life and the very real reality of heaven being closer than we know.

On the terrible 14th – ‘dear, angel Albert’ (oh, sigh, what a beautiful man!) and ‘dearest Alice’ – how significant that Alice shares her anniversary with her beloved father, and I have no doubt whatsoever that he came to lead her on when her final words were, “Dear Papa...”
Gosh! What light she must have experienced!

Thinking of Prince Albert, Tennyson's brilliant poem comes to mind:

"Lives of great men all remind us,
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us,
Footprints in the sands of time."

Prince Albert, I think, more than any other person of the time, changed for the better the face of the British monarchy and the face of Britain itself...

It also happens to be the feast day of John of the Cross and I came across one of his very beautiful poem, which seems so appropriate for Prince Albert and Princess Alice today, and posted it here: http://hilliardandcroft.blogspot.com/(Since the snow looks set to return tomorrow, I’d be interested to hear any advice on whether we can feed squirrels or what we should leave out for them. So much has been written about the best things to do for hedgehogs but little about squirrels. Are they best left to themselves?)

Monday 13 December 2010

An Unlikely Friendship

A couple of weeks before his fatal visit to Sarajevo, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria entertained Kaiser Wilhelm II at one of his favourite homes, Konospischt Castle,
just south of Prague. There, the Archduke had followed his passion to cultivate roses and the Kaiser brought along another avid rose-breeder, Admiral von Tirpitz.
Since Franz Ferdinand had recently been created an admiral in the Austrian navy to enable him to continue his work as Inspector of the Armed Services in Austria-Hungary, one might think, with hindsight, that the meeting of these three men was a political or military meeting in preparation for war. I think, though, that it was simply a social visit, which must have meant a great deal to Franz Ferdinand whose marriage to a lady-in-waiting had led him to feel so excluded from and angry about royal events within Austria.
As I see it, Kaiser Wilhelm and the Archduke formed a friendship which partly accounts for the Kaiser’s horror at his murder a couple of weeks later. (All the other Royal Houses of Europe were equally shocked – in Britain, George V declared a week of mourning; in Russia, Tsar Nicholas declared 14 days...other countries also were in mourning for him).

It has been a little baffling to see what brought together these two men, Franz Ferdinand and Wilhelm, who in so many ways seem so different, and to understand the basis of their friendship, which I believe was genuine. Their contradictions in character and belief are part of the fascination...and, yet again, bring the delight of seeing how this ‘family’ of monarchs of the era seem like a microcosm (or macrocosm) of the contradictions in everyone’s life.

Franz Ferdinand was brusque, unsociable and seemed to despise so much pomp and rigidity in the Habsburg Court.
Wilhelm loved to be the centre of attention, revelled in display and pageantry, laughed too loudly and enjoyed everything to do with display. Franz Ferdinand had forward thinking ideas about basing the government of the Austrian Empire on the American model – a sort of federal group of states.
Wilhelm despised the American dream as republican and in 1911 had the bizarre notion of sending battleships towards Manhattan. Franz Ferdinand was utterly devoted to his children and wife; they were always foremost in his mind and he was willing to suffer the humiliation of declaring his marriage morganatic in order to marry the woman he loved. Wilhelm had a difficult relationship with his sons, particularly the Crown Prince for whom he seemed to feel a kind of envy. Wilhelm cared intensely about what people thought of him. Franz Ferdinand didn’t care at all whether or not he was liked.

Apart from their friendship, both were in themselves so contradictory. Wilhelm loved and despised Britain at the same time. He was genuinely kind on occasions but could turn in an instant if he saw his kindness appearing as weakness. He adored his grandmother but had a love-hate relationship with his mother. He banned his sister, Sophie, from returning to Germany because she had converted to Orthodoxy then eagerly encouraged his cousin, Alix, to convert so that she could marry the Tsar. Franz Ferdinand loved roses and nature, but was also one of the most prolific hunters of his age, killing thousands of innocent creatures. He railed against the traditional Habsburgs way of doing things but was not willing to abdicate his position in line to the throne (as Franz Josef’s father had done). At home with his family, he was a doting father and romantic husband who adored his wife....yet to the outside world he appeared so unsociable.

What created a friendship between these two men? I think they both considered themselves outsiders within their own families. Wilhelm, I think, too, saw an opportunity of appearing as benevolent and wise advisor to a man who would soon become Emperor; Franz Ferdinand, I think, was so grateful that Wilhelm was gracious to his wife, who had been so humiliated by his own family.

Had Franz Ferdinand not been murdered, I wonder how it would have all played out...and imagine that the the friendship of these two unlikely men might have created a perfect balance between tradition and progress. Endlessly, endlessly fascinating since neither of them is as one-dimensional as most superficial histories portray them.

Saturday 11 December 2010

All for 'A Scrap of Paper'

In 1914, on hearing of Britain’s intention to declare war on Germany unless the Kaiser’s troops withdrew from Belgium, the German Chancellor (who had, incidentally, gone out of his way to create peaceful ties with Britain), declared that it was all for ‘a scrap of paper’. It’s amazing what devastation a scrap of paper can cause – the Ems telegram and the Franco-Prussian War, for example – and perhaps nowadays, it would be ‘for a website or an email’ that a man is imprisoned on jumped-up charges...However, that’s another story...

In the light of the ugly scenes in London this week, including the appalling attack on the car of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall,
the pointless burning of statues and attacks on innocent taxi drivers, and the alleged high-handedness of the police, the rightness or wrongness of the students’ cause has been somewhat lost but three things come to mind.

Firstly, Charlie Gilmour, the Cambridge student and son of the Pink Floyd guitarist, said he was ‘mortified' by his ‘moment of idiocy’ in climbing the cenotaph. I think virtually all of the students and others who involved themselves in that situation would be among the first to be appalled by Hitler’s henchmen or the savage butchery of innocents in the French Revolution. But Charlie Gilmour’s ‘moment of idiocy’ shows what happens when people are so roused by a cause that they quite forget what they are doing and lose themselves in a mob mentality. I think it can happen to anyone. I wonder how many of the boys who smashed up synagogues on Kristallnacht went home the next day and were mortified by their own behaviour. Being part of a crowd might seem to be the way to make changes, but really, looking at history, crowds banding together tend to bring nothing but chaos.

Secondly, it seems to me – if we are to learn anything from history – that those who have brought about the greatest changes for the better, have been individuals who had the courage of their own convictions and simply went about doing what needed to be done. Nothing that is happening today with young people could compare to the plight of children at work or pauper apprentices in the 19th century. There were no riots, no wrecking of statues or anything of the sort by those who brought about change. On the contrary, it took brave and sensible people like Richard Oastler,
Robert Raikes and the like to follow their own path and make changes because they had absolute faith in the rightness of their cause and didn’t need a mob to support them. Prison reform – Elizabeth Fry, the great heroine of that cause - did she call for a demonstration? No, she went about improving the lives of individuals and made a massive difference. The reform of nursing (in the days when nurses were mostly drunken women who couldn’t find another job) – Florence Nightingale – did she march to Parliament? No, she got on and changed things from the inside. Compare their effects with those who led revolutions: the French Revolution gained a mob mentality beyond belief – people literally torn to pieces in the street, people’s heads torn off and paraded on poles, people being arrested for something as simple as sighing in a queue! The Russian Revolution – the murder of an entire family followed by Stalin’s mass murder of his own people...and so on and so on....I do not believe we gain anything from banding together in crowds and demanding ‘our rights’ since they always become distorted and the anger seems to end up being vented on the wrong people.

Thirdly, to return to the scrap of paper and the actual student protest....I had what you might call the good fortune of growing up in the 80s when students received grants but I wonder what good the scrap of paper (certificate) I received at the end of it actually meant. Everything that interests me, everything that has been of any value to me, I learned for myself. The scrap of paper might have paved the way into a job I didn’t really want and I studied for a degree because it was expected that that was what you did next. I say ‘studied for a degree’ but I put a heck of a lot less time into studying what I had been signed up to study than I did before or since in studying what I really wanted to know. The protests seem to me to be missing the point. This is probably the wrong thing to say but what's so important about having a degree? Why do we need someone else – some university board – to justify and verify our existence or our learning? Isn’t it enough to follow what you love? It’s so much better to follow your own path than to be spoon fed by some university course. The greatest people of the past – the architects and designers like Brunel and the inventors like Hargreaves and Jethro Tull were self-taught...

Of course there are some subjects - medicine, dentistry, engineering etc. etc. where tuition is necessary but a large number of university subjects seem to narrow down rather than broaden the scope of learning.

When I was 7 or 8 I was totally absorbed by castles and the history of the 12-14th centuries. School got in the way of my learning. At 12 years old I learned everything there was to know about the suffragette movement because it fascinated me. Much as I loved my school, school work and homework got in the way of my studies because I loved going to the reference library and copying whole books out by hand (as there were no photocopiers then and you were not allowed to take them from the library). I remember all I learned then because I loved it, and I remember so little of what I was taught for my degree. I know someone who knows everything there is to know about transport – he knew it when he was about 8 years old, knew more than his teachers ever did and he didn’t need a piece of paper to prove it. I know someone who knows so much about Egyptian history – he taught himself. We have more access to learning than we ever had before and I wonder, do you want to be taught or do you want a scrap of paper? When I began studying Queen Victoria’s family avidly someone advised me to gain a doctorate and I thought, “What a horrid idea! How stifling to need someone else to tell me what I need to write, to study, to learn...” If we love a subject, we can follow it – we have books, the internet, access to so many materials nowadays....or are you protesting because you feel deprived of your right to become a cog in the wheel, another person with another scrap of paper – a certificate to tell you that you are intelligent or learned. You don’t need that! And if it’s a question of a degree leading to a better job and more money...look at Jamie Oliver, Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, Susan Boyle, Simon Cowell ....all more successful than most graduates...hmm...Just a thought about whether or not it's worth rioting and causing so much damage for a scrap of paper...

Monday 6 December 2010

Princess Marie Louise and the Kaiser

This post is in response to a comment by ‘Anonymous’ on the previous post.

Throughout Marie Louise’s lovely book, there are many references to Kaiser Wilhelm and they present him as a sympathetic, cheerful and warm man for whom Marie Louise obviously had great affection. While Marie Louise was living in Anhalt, she often took tea with the Empress Dona – who comes over as a little bit stiff (e.g. being thoroughly shocked that Marie Louise was – horror of horrors! – once seen riding a bicycle, and another time travelling in an ordinary fiacre rather than a royal carriage!). They obviously had a friendly and close relationship though. Here are a few excerpts from: “My Memories of Six Reigns”:

“I want to give all...a true and quite different side to the character of that much-maligned man, William II, German Emperor. At heart he was pro-British, though not, I agree in his policy for there his country and its interests had, of necessity always to be first. He was devoted to his grandmother, Queen Victoria, and admired everything English....I can say in perfect truth that the Emperor did not want war. He was against the invasion of Belgium for two reasons – first, he did not wish Germany to break her word, she having guaranteed to neutrality of Belgium, and second that he knew it would bring this country [Britain] into the war. I can also say that when the Emperor saw the telegram sent to Serbia by Berchtold, he was terribly upset....”
“To return to the affection he had for my parents, the following fact will give you a very touching proof of what I am endeavouring to tell you. In 1916 my parents celebrated their golden wedding. I spite of the war, it was a very happy day...in the afternoon, while we were talking, the steward handed a telegram to my mother. It was from the Crown Princess of Sweden, Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Connaught. The telegram was as follows: “William asks me to transmit to you his loyal and devoted good wishes to dear Uncle Christian and Aunt Helena on the occasion of their golden wedding.” “
Marie Louise’s brother, Albert, served in the Prussian army. She writes:

“Although he was on the retired list when war broke out, he was honour bound to place his services at the disposal of the Emperor. But he made on stipulation: that he would under no circumstances serve on the Western Front. The Emperor fully understood his objections and in consequence appointed him to the staff of General von Loewenfeld, who was in charge of the Berlin defences. The General’s mother was an English woman and the Emperor, knowing this, told my brother that he had arranged this appointment on purpose, realising that the General was in an equally difficult position.”

Sunday 5 December 2010

Princess Marie Louise's Ghost Stories

In the dark, snowy nights of December, when everything seems so bleak and stark and the trees look like skeletons with their white limbs all frozen, it’s small surprise that there is an ancient tradition of telling ghost stories. Perhaps Nature’s hibernation is designed to take us on inner journeys at this time of year – a sort of balance with the activity of Spring. Or, perhaps, it is just that from days long ago there was nothing else to do on winter nights but tell stories and the season lends itself to mystical or ghostly tales.

Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein,
in her most beautiful book, “My Memories of Six Reigns” – in which she comes across as such a delightful, interesting, lovely person of great humility and filled with admiration or understanding of almost everyone she met (including her husband who treated her so badly) – writes of some fascinating and interesting mystical/ghostly experiences. This one, however, is so touchingly beautiful.

“On my return to England, after the dissolution of my marriage, I took a small house in South Kensington and this is what happened to me soon after I moved in. I was arranging my books and odds and ends in my sitting room when the door opened and in walked my eldest brother, Christian Victor. “Oh Kicky, [the pet name we brothers and sisters always called him by], how nice to see you again.” He replied: “I just came to see that you were all right and happy.” He sat down in the chair next to the fire, and I then noticed he had his favourite dachshund on his knee. We talked a little, then he got up and told me I was not to follow him downstairs, that he was very happy and all was well with him. After he had gone and shut the door, I realised that he was in khaki but did not have his medal ribbons on. I then remembered that during the South African War, an order had been issued that officers were not to wear their ribbons so that the enemy would not be able to distinguish them from their men. Only then did I suddenly realise that this dearly beloved brother had died eighteen months previously and lay in his last resting place in South Africa.
My sister came to see me that same afternoon and I told her of what had taken place. She was sitting in the same chair as he had done and when she got up she remarked, “I know he has been here – I can feel it.”

Some people might write it off as some psychological response to her grief for the death of her brother and the stress of the unhappy annulment of her marriage, but both Marie Louise and her sister, Thora, were very down-to-earth women and I believe it completely.

Thursday 2 December 2010

The Victorians and the Balance of Heart and Mind

(I have temporarily put on hold the remaining excerpts from ‘Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters’ as they concern WW1 and, as a result of research for a book I am working on, much more detailed information has recently come to light).

In the meantime, this bitterly cold night when everything is knee-deep in snow brings to mind some thoughts about the Victorian Age in general and what an incredibly bizarre era it was. The Age of Sentimentality at its peak – Christina Rossetti’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’; Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Little Match Girl’;
Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; Dickens’ account of the death of Little Nell,
which had people weeping in the streets as they read it; countless sentimental songs about dying children of drunken fathers – and I wonder if that excessive sentimentality was some kind of attempt to balance what was happening at the other end of the spectrum: the sudden supremacy of learning/mind/education. The balance of Yin & Yang perhaps, in what is regarded as ‘New Age’ parlance, but is really very ancient). The sentimentality was ‘the heart’ (or perhaps the Feminine aspect) to its extreme and it might well have been a response to the ‘Intellect’ aspect (which is regarded as more Masculine).

Until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Britain, along with the rest of Europe, was predominantly agricultural. What happened in governments had little impact on the everyday life of people who moved with the seasons and seldom knew what was going on in some government somewhere else. Their lives weren’t easy but they lived in harmony with Nature. Dependent on sunlight, they got up later in the winter and earlier in the summer. Every season was celebrated for its particular gifts with festivals like Easter and Christmas or Beltain and Samhain; Michaelmas, Martinmas, Lady Day; equinox or solstice.

Suddenly – dramatically! – there was an explosion of ‘progression’. It almost seems like the adolescence of humanity. Brilliant engineers appeared; brilliant inventors, brilliant designers and the whole way of life was thrown into turmoil as industry flourished. Brilliance was brought into the lives of ordinary people - railways with gorgeous stations; soap, running hot water, warmer clothes, richer diets...It was all meant to create a better way of life for people and today we are the inheritors of that better way of life (with our access to transport, communication etc. etc.) but it happened so rapidly that something was temporarily lost. People lost their way for a while. People forgot their humanity, too, and many were treated as mere commodities, herded into slums in cities that were not ready to receive them. I stand in utter awe of the bridge-builders, the railway designers, the people who began the age of invention that led to all the benefits we enjoy today (not least the internet!). It all moved so quickly that it became overly ‘Yang’ – all intellect and commodity, and no heart, so soul anymore, so people tried to reach back to that with over-sentimentality.

The entire 20th century, it seems to me, was an attempt to come to terms with all of that. First there was the anger – exploding in two World Wars – and deciding that the cause of all the distress was the monarchies (so we’ll kill them)). Then we don’t know who to turn to, so seek new ‘strong’ leaders – like Hitler, Lenin, Stalin – and that doesn’t work so there comes the backlash of the 60s with the ‘make love not war’ slogans and attempts to escape via drugs etc. Gradually, too, there came a return of people trying to balance Nature and Creation/Heart and Intellect...the rise of the New Agers, which wasn’t really new at all.

Today, I think, we live in a time where we have the benefit of all that has gone before. We live in an era where we can bring things into balance again. Between the extremes of political correctness and hypersensitivity, to the extreme of being pawns of the state or cogs in the wheel; and between the extremes of intellectual mastery or superstitious peasants, there is always a balance. To my mind, it is always the balance that takes place within the individual person played out on the larger scale of humanity - the perfect balance of the heart and the mind – the thought and the feeling, the Masculine and Feminine, the Arts and the Sciences – the wonderful balance of Creation of Divine design.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

"The Bulgarians Have Gone Off Their Heads" - More of Queen Victoria's Granddaughters

Due to a new agreement with Amazon Kindle, it has been necessary to delete this post but the information is available in my book: Queen Victoria's Granddaughters 1860-1918

Thursday 25 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

A very, very Happy Thanksgiving to all American readers, from chilly England!

Saturday 20 November 2010

Sentimental Suffering

It’s a wonderful thing, I think, that Kate Middleton was descended from – obviously among others - a northern miner and a lorry driver and yet was educated at one of the most prestigious schools and universities in Britain and is marrying their heir apparent to the throne. It shows that, contrary to what the victim mentality of the welfare state would have us believe, no one is bound by the circumstances of their birth or family. Grammar Schools, like the one I attended (free of charge!) and loved (Notre Dame, Leeds), were disbanded by a socialist government that believed that they created a division between classes. In my school there were children who came from very wealthy families, the daughters of professional people, and the daughters of all kinds of workers and unemployed people. The pupils came from a wide area from the inner-city, to suburbs, to places out in the country. There was a board on the wall, inscribed with the names of people who had gone on from there to achieve a university degree (dating back to the days when women didn’t get degrees) but by the time I attended the school, the names had become so numerous that they had stopped filling it in and it was removed soon after. When the socialist government put an end to that and said it was an unfair system, schools drew together people who, regardless of their particular gifts – whether academic or practical or a mixture of the two – all lived in the same catchment area so people only mixed with the people who came from a similar background. And that was an attempt not to make everyone equal but to make everyone the same.

People are not the same, in my opinion, nor are they equal, if equality is synonymous with ‘same’. A large oak tree is not the same as a small crocus, though each can be beautifully awe-inspiring, and a park filled with only oak trees isn’t half as interesting as one which is filled with the variety of trees, creatures, tiny shrubs, little bugs, giant water plants, exquisite Birds of Paradise, sparrows and huge crows.

It has often seemed to me that there is a tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator, rather than fixing our eyes on the best that we can be. I have known children who cannot write a sentence but who can sew the most most beautiful embroideries or cook the most beautiful dishes but they were told they needed to have some meaningless qualification in order to be recognised. Cooking lessons went out of schools, to be replaced with ‘food technology’ – but some people were brilliant cooks who were made instead to write essays about cooking in order to gain some pointless qualification because someone once had the idea that it required a qualification to verify your worth! I have known people in psychiatric hospitals who draw the most brilliant pictures but who were labelled as ‘mentally ill’. Let the cooks cook; let the artists paint or draw; let the academics study; let the crocuses be crocuses and let the oak trees be oaks trees and let everyone, in each subsequent generation achieve all s/he can achieve.

Sadly, I have also known people who spend their lives saying, “It isn’t fair....the rich get richer....and we are poor, underprivileged, sick, oppressed....” and the worst possible response to that is to agree with it because in so doing we perpetuate that myth.

At risk of sounding like a terrible old Scrooge or something like that tonight....It is the evening of ‘Children in Need’. Truly I would give my last penny to raise anyone from any difficulty in which s/he temporarily found himself, but nowadays there is an endless series of tales of woe, all of which are presented as heroic. Sick children are always described as ‘brave’. Healthy children do not have such an accolade. We endlessly, endlessly, endlessly cater to the victim and I wonder often about the children who are not suffering, who are not apparently ‘in need’ but who are trying to find their own way in the world. Those who suffer are given holidays in lovely places; trips to America; hailed as heroes....In fact anyone who is ill is hailed as hero on the local news nowadays.

Perhaps if we began to look more at success, at hailing the healthy, admiring the differences between people, acknowledging the wonder in all of us, we wouldn’t need this victim-stuff or this sentimentalising of suffering...If we want to end suffering, we need to stop honouring it, don't we?

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Prince William's Engagement

Hurrah for the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton! What a dignified, level-headed and beautiful couple, with both dignity and ‘the common touch.’ Diana, Princess of Wales must be ‘looking down’ in sheer delight at the way in which times have moved on from the days of her more-or-less arranged marriage, to that of her son to someone he genuinely loves. Congratulations to them and may they be blessed with every blessing!

An interesting phenomenon about the British is that only 3 things seem to really unite us as a nation. The first is football: when a major tournament (like the World Cup) is taking place, we suddenly become patriotic and, (with the ‘triumph of hope over experience’!) think that this time we might, just might, actually win....Alas! That hope usually fades pretty quickly! The second is some minor upset like a little extra snow or a flood or some other ‘extreme’ (by our standards) weather. The buses can’t run or people are stranded and suddenly we see ourselves in the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ – everyone pulling together for the common good. Neighbours help neighbours, strangers help strangers and everyone feels good about it all....then the thaw comes or the flood subsides and we all return to our British singularity.

The third thing, however, is perennial. It is the Royal Family: give us a jubilee or a royal wedding and suddenly the whole mood of the country shifts and we all have the excuse to celebrate, shed our English reserve and come together again! I admire all the work done by our Royal Family (who, for all the complaints of their critics, work extremely hard) and I have heard even the most ardent Republicans express their amazed sense of surprise when they came face to face with members of the royal family – the magical mystique of royalty! – but there is one thing they do better than anyone else: they have the ability to embody the hopes of a nation. People get engaged every day and it is no big deal....but when a prince (particularly so charming a prince as Prince William) is engaged, the entire country feels the ripple of joy. I guess that after centuries of having a monarchy, what happens in the lives of individual princes affects us all. It’s something that goes right into the very cells of our bodies and all the inherited memories of past generations, I suppose.

All in all – a very happy day for the country and I am grateful for the joy that the Royal Family brings us! Congratulations to William and Kate!

Sunday 14 November 2010

The Opium of the People?

At the time that he wrote his famous line: “Religion is the opium of the people” it cannot be denied that in many ways, Marx spoke the truth. Religion had, for centuries, long been used as a tool to keep the social order in place. During the enclosures in Britain, when the greater part of the rural population was illiterate, village parsons gave sermons threatening people with hell if they failed to obey and respect their ‘masters’ (no matter how cruel those masters were). In the Middle Ages, the illiterate people were, by means of pictures of hell (which must have come from the most macabre and unspiritual minds as many of them are more horrific than the worst horror films shown today) the consequences of not obeying their king. Basically, the message was, “You cannot think for yourself. You must obey those whom God has placed over you or you will spend eternity undergoing the most horrendous tortures imaginable....oh and, by the way, God is love!” And people believed it.

Surely a belief is the most powerful force there is, and when that belief is associated with the most basic and most prominent aspect of ourselves – our spirituality, who we really are, our view of what God/the Divine/Life is – the concoction is more powerful than sticking your fingers into an electric socket. Powerful people learned that very early in our history and used it to their own ends. Even the Emperor Constantine realised that the best way to control the Roman empire was to use religion, and hence the world became Christian, with a message very far removed from the message of the Galilean who first preached it. Terrorists today still kill innocent people when their spirituality is warped into the notion that they are doing God’s work.

But, paradoxically, some of the most powerful people on earth – the kings of the past – were more bound by that belief than by the masses who felt themselves wronged and to whom Marx was preaching. This, it seems to me, is a great and much misunderstood tragedy. A great many people, even now, condemn Charles I of Britain, Louis XVI of France and Nicholas II of Russia for clinging to their autocracies, yet
each of them was a devout man: a Protestant, a Catholic and an Orthodox king, all raised from their earliest years that they must accept their God-given role, as surely as the workers, the illiterate peasants and the masses must accept theirs. The Victorian hymn sung often in churches said:

“The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate.
He [God] made their lofty standing,
He made their low estate.”

It was all God’s will. Neither Louis XVI nor Nicholas II wanted power at all. They were obeying the belief instilled in them since childhood, that God had called them to sacrifice everything for this. They were no different, in that respect, from the drugged masses about whom Marx was writing. However, very few people condemn the drugged masses – on the contrary, there is great sympathy for the poor and downtrodden who chose to remain in that state through some mistaken belief that God wanted them to suffer.
Many people, however, speak glibly of Nicholas and Louis as arrogant and stubborn, whereas they were devoutly following what they saw to be their duty and they, along with Charles I, were literally martyred for their beliefs.

Much good came from religion in the past – education, the establishment of hospitals, schools and orphanages – but most of that came from individual thinkers within the institution of religion (and often encountered initially a great deal of resistance from the hierarchy of religion – how many saints met opposition from bishops!). Much good comes for some from religion now – the creation of communities and bringing people together, but the history of it is of so much manipulation and – to my mind – the greatest crime of all, depriving people of their immediate connection with the Divine.

It seems to me often, looking at Nature and Creation as the surest expression of what the Divine is, that religion is lacking. The word, coming from its Latin root ‘re-ligio’ means to reconnect with the Divine. When I was at school it was defined as a ‘measuring stick’ – something ordered and against which we measured how well we were doing, which so suited the interpretation of Empires when everything needed to be kept in line – the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate – but Nature, along with the orderliness of tides, planets, seasons etc. is absolutely wild as well: the chaos of overgrown gardens, the intermingling of colour at this time of year, the lavish wastefulness of leaves being shed year after year, the variety of creatures...And nowhere do you see a dog telling a cow that, “My way is the right way. I have the Truth”, or a daffodil telling an oak tree, “You are appointed as God’s king and must rule me.” Humans are so odd – and nowhere more so than in our powerful beliefs which are at the heart of all that is good in the world, and all that is catastrophic.

Thursday 11 November 2010

"In Flanders Fields the Poppies Blow....."

This morning, along with most of the rest of of the country in supermarkets, work places, at memorials and anywhere anyone happened to be, I stood for the 2 minutes silence of Remembrance Day. I thought of Max of Hesse-Kassel, Maurice of Battenberg (2 members of the same family killed on opposite sides of WW1), and I thought of my own great-uncle – an ordinary northern working man who went off to war to ‘do his bit’ and whose wife gassed herself when she heard of his death on the trenches, and another great uncle who had been married for only 3 days before he went off to die in some hell-hole battle....for what? I guess they thought it was noble and for freedom, just as the Austrians, the Germans, the Australians, the French, the Russians, the Americans and every other nation which took part in that war did).

Then I thought Agincourt, Afghanistan, Bosworth, Battle of Britain, Camp Hill, Cambrai, Culloden, D-Day, Edgehill, the Falklands, Gallipoli, Hastings, Helmand Province, Indian mutiny, Iraq, Jutland, Kings Norton, Korean War, Marston Moor, Mons, the Marne, Naseby, Passchendaele, Seacroft Moor, Towton, Worcester, Ypres....So many centuries of British battles...so much slaughter for what? So many people at home crying for their dead, so many soldiers believing they fought for what is right...but who now really remembers Towton (the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil) or why they were dying at Hastings or Agincourt...or the Somme? Just pointlessly, endlessly pointless fights that achieve nothing.

90 years ago today, the Cenotaph was unveiled to honour those millions who had died in the First World War. The Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey and it must have seemed as though humanity had reached its glut on the carnage of war. After all, that was the ‘war to end wars’, and remembering it with poppies and due respect to the courage of all those who had died and demonstrated sometimes incredible bravery and other times, sheer terror, was surely meant to be the lesson that after centuries of inane killing, we realised that nothing was ever achieved by it. 90 years, an even longer world war, and numerous other wars later it continues. Now, the German fighters of WWII stand alongside their ‘enemies’ in Britain to honour the dead. Of all the thousands of wars and battles in history, only one, to my mind, makes any sense, and that is WWII – stopping Hitler’s bizarre view of the world, but it strikes me as mightily odd that Britain ostensibly went to war to protect Poland and yet, at the end of the war was happy to see Poland handed over to the totally insane Stalin.

I just wonder what it’s all about and – to quote the song – ‘when will they ever learn? when will they ever learn?”

If we stand in silent awe before cenotaphs, surely part of the awe is at our own inability to see how we can continue perfecting the arts of war with bigger and better weapons, and still not knowing really why anyone is still fighting.

Forgive me if this offends you on this day on which I, too, wore my poppy with pride. I honour every single one of those people who were brave enough to do all they did. I honour, too, the objectors - though that is so much less glamorous - and I honour those who were shot as deserters when they couldn't take any more of the horror of it. I just don’t know what it is, or what it was ever for.

Wednesday 3 November 2010


Bonfire Night draws near and it is striking how close it is to Poppy Day when, in the murky November evenings, the sounds of fireworks and flashes of light through the night sky seem quite reminiscent of the shells on the Somme and the Marne. It is such an evocative time of year!

First comes Halloween and it shocked me to learn that throughout history 13 million (!!) witches have been murdered in the name of religion. These witches were, for the most part, country folk who clung to the ways of Nature which now, after 200 years of industrialisation, is back on the political agenda as though the idea is something new! The so-called witches never ‘consorted with devil’ – they listened to the earth, watched the seasons, saw the grandeur of Nature and the way in which any contemplation of it inevitably leads to a sense of there being a Divine hand behind all of it. They saw the healing properties of herbs. Perhaps they danced in joy as the seasons changed....basically they were free spirits who couldn’t be controlled...and were burned as witches.

Then comes Bonfire Night – ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ – the man who not only gave his name to a kind of festival that has lasted for over 400 years, but whose name became a slang word for any man. Few people realise that the word ‘guy’ comes from this one man, who was basically a terrorist (and also a local lad in these parts - a Yorkshire man!). After several decades of religion swinging one way then another in Britain - first Henry VIII started killing Catholics, then his daughter, Mary, started killing Protestants, then Elizabeth tried to create a balance and allow freedom of worship, but was excommunicated and flt obliged to outlaw Catholicism – the country had a most ineffectual and unpleasant king in James I. The son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, he was a staunch Protestant, and Guy Fawkes, along with some cronies, decided to blow him to bits in the name of Catholicism. That, of course, was a really Christian thing to plan to do!! (I am, of course, being ironic). The plot having failed, Guy Fawkes was caught and hanged and to this day children stand in the street with scarecrow-like figures and ask for ‘a penny for the Guy’, who is then thrown onto the bonfire. You would think, from the countless fireworks, that there is something to celebrate in this but it is really celebrating the failure of a plot to to blow up a failure of a king. Of the many wonderful things that have happened in British history, it is bizarre that this remains a constant annual feature. No one (thank goodness!) celebrates victories at Waterloo or Trafalgar. No one celebrates the ends of the world wars. No one celebrates the Queen’s birthday really....yet this silly man and his plot to kill a silly king remains a celebration. How odd the English are! It’s probably more a question of timing than anything else. The clocks go back, we need something to lighten the gloomy nights between summer and Christmas....Bonfire Night happens.

But then comes poppy day. Already just about everyone is wearing a poppy (and so do I, but not out of hailing heroes, but as a reminder of the pointlessness of wars and out of respect for those who paved the way to this understanding). It is good, in some ways, to see that November 11th – the Armistice of World War 1 – is still remembered and all those who died in the wars are respected. The other day, though, as part of research for a book, I read a lot of articles and watched many videos about the battles of Verdun in 1916. The utterly unrelenting and incomprehensible slaughter, I thought as I saw it, was surely the biggest lesson in history about the pointless of killing other people. If only, as we pin poppies to lapels and lay wreaths at the cenotaph, we saw how nowadays - as Germans and British veterans stand side by side, and Germans and French veterans stand side by side and Japanese and all other past enemies stand side by side- it is all nothing more than a children’s game that sometimes goes very wrong. All through history in the name of righteousness, people have killed other people. Whether they be witches, Catholics, Protestants, Germans, Nazis, kings, beggars....no matter how many righteous arguments were put forth to explain why it happened, not one of those murders was justified really, was it?

So, on with the sparklers and the Roman candles, and the fun of being alive in November!

Monday 1 November 2010

History's Homeostasis

The most interesting and practical idea in medical or nurse training is, for me, the realisation that all interventions are an attempt to restore homeostasis – the body’s own ability to regulate itself. Medical practitioners attempt it with drugs or surgery and I often think that the less intervention, the better. The body is so remarkable in its ability to restore itself to balance. Homeostasis doesn’t mean everything is always the same, though. It implies growth and development – just as a baby becomes a child and then an adolescent and an adult. Humans are no different from the rest of nature in that respect. When an area is concreted over and apparently deprived of any living thing, it takes so small a time for weeds and plants to sprout through the gaps, and colour to appear as though the world naturally returns to its own equilibrium of growth, stasis, balance.

Like the beautiful song, “From a Distance”, the world looks quite different from the air where patterns are clear – oceans, conurbations, fields, countryside, cities usually clustered around rivers and the whole history of the area – its growth and the development of humanity – is so apparent. Geologists, I imagine, see the same patterns in the way rocks are formed – though I know zilch about geology!

Stepping back a little and looking at the patterns of history, it really seems as though there is a brilliant design of homeostasis built into it. Like those executive toys (Newton’s balls),
it swings this way then that way as ideas come to the fore, and every single time returns to a kind of balance again. Some people thought they ruled others and others thought they were oppressed, but from the larger perspective, it’s clear that everything was working together for the development of the whole. For an example in English history – the country is under Roman rule and there is strict Roman order....then the Romans are suddenly gone and it swings back to a wilder time (I think, in spite of our reputation for being so stiff upper-lipped and stifled, the English are quite Nature bound at heart – after all we are a maritime country and our history has been greatly influenced by the ebb and flow of tides!). There are whole centuries which appear to be quite dormant – nothing significant happening at all – then suddenly a flurry of activity for a century or two....then dormant again. By the time of the Tudors, opposing religious opinions had swung to extremes. First the Protestants killed the Catholics, then the Catholics killed the Protestants, then the Protestants killed the Catholics again...and then it settled on a new level of tolerance – a homeostasis. In the 18th Century, the monarchs were viewed as debauched and the fashionable society of the time seemed to revel in petty intrigues (basically, who was having an affair with whom), and by the 19th century we had gone to the opposite extreme of what is viewed as Victorian prudery (Queen Victoria, however, was anything but a prude). It was the balancing out of what had gone before. In the 20th Century, there was the sabre-rattling of militarism which led to the slaughter of the world wars, followed almost immediately by the opposite extreme of the ‘make love not war’ slogans of the 1960s. In the 1970s, as I personally recall it, there was a whole dreary move of socialism, followed by the extreme Thatcherism of the 1980s. At the same time, pop music of the 1970s was filled with glitz, whereas in the 80s it was far more intense – achieving a balance between the popular culture and the political culture of the time.

Of course, it’s impossible to write of so many things in so short a post but my whole point is that I think that no matter how powerful leaders think they are or how aggrieved or victimised others might feel, it is all part of a glorious unfolding of humanity, which always, just like an individual body, finds homeostasis. A much greater hand is at work here and no matter how many people like to tell us that the future is bleak or we are under threat from all kinds of dangers, the grand design is so beautiful and it is a great thing to be a part of it all! On a personal level, I believe each of us has the power to create our own history, our own lives and our own futures and in so doing we contribute to the beautiful work of art that is life!

And, on the birthday of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, it is also the anniversary of the death of Tsar Alexander III who made his own contribution to life, not least by bringing into the world his very gifted, kind and much underestimated son, Nicholas II.

Friday 29 October 2010

The Bizarre Idea of Suffering and Martyrdom

On the beautiful and interesting blog: “Cross of Laeken” there is a quotation from the Belgian Queen Louise-Marie, who was undoubtedly a saintly and ‘good’ woman, who had the best interests of her people at heart. She wrote - quoted from that blog - : “We live in hard times...we must be able to suffer and think only of those dear to us.” (Please see http://crossoflaeken.blogspot.com/2010/10/claremont-house.html for the whole story).

This is not at all about criticising any royalties or others of the past (or present) who dedicated themselves and risked their lives in service of others; it is about seeking to understand what drove these people and why their lives turned out as they did. It has been an age old question for all of us, “Why, if there is a loving God, do good people suffer?” and it becomes more apparent all the time, that so many of the most religious or devout people suffer more than any other group of people. How many who spent their lives in service of others became martyrs? (Check out any dictionary of saints and count the martyrs!). How many of the most admirable royalties came to a horrid or rather sad end? So many of the loveliest, most saintly people – and this is particularly noticeable among the most dedicated royalties of past centuries – seemed to have an almost subconscious idea that martyrdom or suffering was inevitable and holy, and in this they seemed to create their own sad fate. I do not believe they actively sought martyrdom but on some level they had absorbed the idea that suffering was a necessary part of holiness and the more one suffered, the holier and closer to heaven one was.

If I may give a personal example, my point will be easier to explain. I, for some strange reason, grew up obsessed with saints’ lives. I read and copied and absorbed quotations such as: “We must suffer in order to go to God. We forget this far too often.” (St. Madeleine Sophie Barat) or “We can only go to heaven through suffering...” (St. Vincent de Paul) or “If God causes you to suffer much, it is a sign that he has great designs for you...” (St. Ignatius Loyola) or “Jesus gives his Crown of Thorns to his friends....” (St. Bernadette) - and there are hundreds more such quotations! Even though these ideas were no longer generally taught as I grew up, (they were far more prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier), I worked often in Lourdes – one of the loveliest places in the world – and found there that the sick and suffering are exalted. I appreciate how contentious that sounds but it is my experience. I wrote in an earlier post of the way in which everyone is roused to a hope and a cure by the litany of wonderful quotations from the Gospels but it always ends with the rather sad and resigned, “Thy will be done.” as though the will of God is something nasty. For years and years it never occurred to me that this was absolute nonsense but when it did occur to me, it was like a Damascus-road experience! Good heavens! From a Christian perspective, if suffering is good, why did Jesus heal the sick? Why didn’t he bless them instead and say, “Oh, this is good...this is the will of God! You are blessed!” ? He spent 3 years telling people: “You are the Light of the world” and “You are the salt of the earth” and “every hair on your head has been counted” and “the works I do, even greater works will you do....” But somehow, someone wanted power and rather than concentrating on his 3 years of good news about how brilliantly beautiful we all are, twisted it to concentrating on his 3 hours of suffering...and since then, particularly in the 18th/19th centuries, holiness was synonymous with suffering. The very opposite, I contend, is true. Suffering is our own creation. We believe in it and we experience it and then either blame God for it, or see ourselves as holy because of it.

Here are some examples, which are open to debate. Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice – one of my favourite royalties – was profoundly spiritual. Like her father, Prince Albert, she was deeply aware of the poverty around her, and wrote, “Life is not pleasure...it is duty...” She went on a spiritual search, denied herself pleasure, and died of diphtheria at 35 years old. Grand Duchess Elizabeth, her daughter – and someone I admire still more – was also deeply spiritual and dedicated her life to the service of the poor. She wrote many times of the ‘need to bear the cross’ and was eventually murdered. Tsarina Alexandra had the same mystical sense of suffering (read Princess Marie Louise’s touching account of her), as did Nicholas II – both devoutly religious people (Nicholas often mentioned being born on the Feast of Job, the long suffering – and both were murdered. Karl of Austria, sickened by war, and deeply devout, died so young and so sadly. Louis XVI of France, Henry VI of England...on some level there was a belief that they had no right to happiness as long as others were suffering and they met a lot of suffering and were murdered. They believed in martyrdom, and so it came upon them.

It doesn’t seem to demonstrate any idea of a loving God, beyond the idea that what we think about, we become. The happy truth, to my mind, is that through these ‘martyrs’ we learn the lesson that suffering is nothing to be revered. It is absolutely the opposite of Life and holiness. Life isn’t about duty or suffering or anything of the sort....You are the Light of the world...I came that they might have Life and have it to the full! As for the martyrs of the past, it is again like the wonderful quotation from Lady Constance Lytton’s book "Prisons & Prisoners" :

"Have you seen the locusts, how they cross a stream? First one comes down to the water's edge and is swept away. Then another comes and another, and gradually their bodies pile up and make a bridge for the rest to pass over." She ended by saying, "Well, perhaps I made a track to the water's edge."

Monday 25 October 2010

A Tender-Hearted Tyrant?

“I have not spent a day without loving you; I have not spent a night without embracing you; I have not so much as drunk a single cup of tea without cursing the pride and ambition which force me to remain separated from the moving spirit of my life.”
What an interesting line from one of Napoleon’s letters to his wife. In other letters he writes of the distance between them and again blames his pride – it almost seems like he was driven beyond reason to be constantly conquering somewhere or other for fear of being conquered. When he discovered that during one of his terribly long absences Josephine had taken a lover, he was beside himself with grief but rather than treating her with physical cruelty, he returned home and when she swore it would not happen again, he accepted it....on condition that he could take what mistresses he chose – and he did. What a need to be in power...and such a tender heart. He must have lived in constant conflict between his head and his heart – his driving ambition that made him quite ruthless, and his natural tendency to love and the need to feel loved in return. Even as he invaded other countries, he tried to convince himself that he was doing so to liberate them but it was surely was merely a symptom of his need to liberate himself from the many unresolved issues from his childhood and beyond.

In spite of myself, I really do find something attractive and intriguing about him – something of the lost little boy who disguised his need to feel loved behind a display of machismo. In this he reminds me a lot of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but Napoleon had the added intellectual brilliance and personal drive to be able to achieve so many of his aims. Unlike the vile Robespierre, he didn’t insist on the slaughter of innocent bystanders- he fought only opposing armies - and he did seize a crown, but only when that crown was already there for the taking. His support for the French Revolution is something I dislike but he didn’t support all that unnecessary slaughter or the paranoia that was so characteristic of ‘The Terror.’

He divorced Josephine when he considered her too old to bear him a son to continue the dynasty but he was heart-broken by that decision and he saw that Josephine was well cared for. When he heard later of her death, he retired to his room, refusing to be seen for two days. There was a man who had the wherewithal and opportunity to achieve all that Nicholas II would have liked to have achieved – a quiet life with his wife and family – but who was so driven by ambition that he could not live that ideal. Nothing except Napoleon stopped him from living a happy life with his wife but he remained driven and unhappy. Doesn’t it show how everything is in the mind of the individual? None of us is a victim of circumstance. We are victims only of our own thoughts and beliefs and, since we have power over those, the world is our oyster!

I set out to learn more of Napoleon, believing I would dislike him but in fact, I find him fascinating. (Incidentally, as a light aside, my mother told me today that when she was a small child her grandmother, for some odd reason, had a very large portrait of Napoleon hanging on the wall. My mother – being a small child – assumed it was a picture of her late grandfather! Funny...my mother’s name is Josephine!)

Here is a fascinating site with some of Napoleon’s letters to Josephine....and then to his mistresses and to his second wife.


Sunday 24 October 2010

Napoleon and Nicholas

(Another interlude from the Queen’s granddaughters...)

Napoleon is ‘before my time’ as it were but I’ve been learning more about his life and found it rather sad at the end to see him fall and die as he did in exile. Although he was, in my opinion, a desperate little boy still having to overcome the bullies and humiliations of his childhood - and so became so obsessed with power over others to make up for the lack in himself, consequently leading to the death of 13 million soldiers across Europe – there is something attractive and inspiring about him. He was absolutely driven by ambition to the extent that when everything went wrong for him, he never stopped and complained, he simply did what he did and came back again! Exiled to Elba, for instance, after having been so successful a general and Emperor of France, he simply turned himself into Emperor of Elba (small island that it was) and did what he had done in France – made the place beautiful with trees and roads etc. etc. and when he had done all he could do there, he returned to France and by the sheer power of his personality and charisma, won the hearts of those who were sent to prevent his return. Unlike many revolutionaries, I think he had a heart – he genuinely loved Josephine – but, as with everything else in his life, he would not allow that heart, which could sometimes be so tender and he was not a cruel man, to stand in the way of his ambition.

Ultimately he fell...and that is the way of those who seize power, isn’t it? They all seem to spend their lives looking over their shoulders because they know that what they have done to others, others will do to them (Trotsky’s end...William the Conqueror, even, died alone and naked...Stalin left to die alone...). It surely comes from deriving power from others. It becomes like an insatiable hunger. Napoleon achieved greatness, but was never satisfied. He had to go on and on and on, even when he knew it was hopeless, trying to fill the need to feel secure, although such a need was insatiable since he sought that security from others and was never able to find it in himself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, is Nicholas II. A man who never wanted power but had it thrust upon him and, while working just as hard as Napoleon did to maintain an Empire, dreamed always of a simple life with his wife and family. Napoleon was prepared to sacrifice Josephine, the love of his life, in order to continue his dynasty. Nicholas, a man who was secure in himself and did not need power from others, was prepared to sacrifice everything for the love of his wife and family.

Who was the greater leader and who was better off in the end? A man who achieved so much and is seen always as a hero...and who died alone and sad seeing his life’s work taken from him, or a man who is always seen as weak but who ended his life secure in his own faith, surrounded by his family and with a clear conscience? Napoleon ended his life writing his memoirs and reliving his former glories. Nicholas’ life was cut short by murderers before he had the chance to do that but I doubt he would have felt any need to justify himself anyway. I really believe that these lines from ‘King Lear’ (ah! the joy of two passions intertwined – Shakespeare and the Romanovs in one post!) could have been written for what Nicholas said to his wife when they were in captivity...

Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage...
...so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon us the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon

It’s all so endlessly fascinating!!