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Wednesday 27 January 2010

Shaken Not Broken

One evening, many moons ago, while walking out with friends I witnessed a horrific fatal road accident in which someone was knocked down and killed. At the time it happened, it was natural to go into 'autopilot' and do all the things necessary to attempt to save a life. I felt nothing other than, "What needs to be done...do it now!!" There was no sense of shock, only the need to respond.

After the ambulance and police had been, there was nothing else to do but walk on and by the time we reached the pub we had gone through the inevitable bad-taste jokes made to dispel the gloom and once we had all calmed down a bit and began to speak of the events of the evening, there was a sense of appreciating each other more, knowing that a life could end like that of the young man who died on the road that night. We were all more attentive to one another. Later that evening, still unaware of feeling anything about the tragedy, I ordered a drink, took it from the bar and it immediately fell straight through my hand to the floor and smashed. A kind of physical delayed reaction to shock, I expect.

It has sometimes seemed to me since, that the world, which moves at a slower and surer pace than any individual part of it, goes through the same motions of delayed reactions. People nowadays latch onto the phrase of 'broken Britain' - which is rather odd for we are no more or less broken than we ever were. The 20th Century was the bloodiest in history (in terms of how many people died in battles) and it often seems that what we live through now is the delayed reaction to the horror of the world wars. The 60s and 70s in their bizarre dress sense and over the top exhibitionism were kind of like the jokes on the way to the pub. In the late 80s the Berlin Wall came down - the sense of appreciation for what was left of the mess - and the whole 'Free Nelson Mandela' concert and Live Aid and love-ins. Then by 2000+ we dropped the glass and decided we live in a broken world.

We don't. The world is so much bigger than we are and we are simply living with the shock of recent years.

Though it seems so recent and therefore so much more powerful, the 20th Century was not more bloody than what had gone before. What percentage of the population was wiped out by the Black Death and the subsequent plagues? What percentage of the population of young men were killed at Towton - the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil? News comes faster and we think things are worse but they are not. Things are how they have always been and always will be until we realise that no battles ever really achieved anything and no matter how 'just' the war appears, it never put an end to war. Whatever the 'scare' of the moment - be it climate change, swine flu, bird flu, SARS, or whatever else we come up with next - people will always be people and choose whether to live in fear or to live for the moment and be free.

Monday 25 January 2010

The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin by Margarita Nelipa

A new book, The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin by Margarita Nelipa looks set to be 'the one to read'. The research is sure to be meticulous and I am sure there will be so much new information and insights in it. It's wonderful when something refreshingly new appears!

Please click on the link to read more about it.

"The Murder of Grigorii Rasputin"

Sunday 24 January 2010

Helen's Nose, Willy's Arm

Some wise person whom I cannot remember once pointed out that 'if Helen of Sparta's nose had been half an inch shorter" it would have changed the whole course of history. The reference is, of course, to the Trojan Wars as described by Homer, wherein Helen - she whose face 'launched a thousand ships' - was abducted by the Trojan, Paris, which led to the decade long battle and siege. Had she been less beautiful, (her nose half an inch shorter) the war might never have happened.

Had the German Kaiser Wilhelm II's disabled arm been a few inches longer, would it have changed the course of history? I doubt it, really, because - like young lads spoiling for a fight - the ministers of most European countries were so geared up for war that it seemed inevitable. It would, however, have made a great deal of difference to Wilhelm himself. His was such a difficult birth that the doctors had almost given up on his chances of survival and, as he wasn't breathing, wrenched his limb and shoulders to such an extent that his arm failed to grow properly and remained quite useless - and quite an embarrassment - to him. Throughout his early years, he suffered greatly at the hands of doctors using various unhelpful appliances to try to make the arm grow. He could not ride without falling from his horse, found it impossible to use cutlery and, most humiliating of all, overheard whispers that a 'one armed man could never be Kaiser.' It says a great deal for his own strength of character that he learned to ride skillfully and overcame this disability, even succeeding, by the use of pockets or selected poses, in hiding the deformity on his photographs. Original film footage, however, shows his difficulties far more clearly. What today would seem like nothing, at that time seemed like a major handicap for a Prussian King and German Kaiser and the saddest part of his story is that somehow he held his English mother responsible for it. Alternatively hating and adoring her, he likewise hated and adored all things British. His English grandmother, Queen Victoria, was someone whom he deeply loved but his mother, the Empress Frederick, seemed to epitomise to him some mythical ideal that had let him down so badly.

Everything about him was driven to proving himself: proving that he was powerful in spite of his arm, and proving that he could surpass his mother and all that she stood for (read 'Britain') in every way. Had he been as powerful and autocratic a ruler as he thought he was, he might have succeeded in preventing the outbreak of WWI, but in reality, his ministers paid him little attention and everything was already signed and sealed to prove German supremacy in Europe in 1914. He was such a beautiful and attentive-looking young boy and the tragedy is that, behind that stiff moustache and all the medals and uniforms, the little boy is always visibly searching for acceptance.

'Willy' unfortunately came down through British history as some cartoon character whom we defeated. In fact, Kaiser Wilhelm II was, in my opinion. forever a lost little boy, playing at being a brave man and wanting to feel loved. Had his arm been a few inches longer, things might have been very different. What a shame that we pay so much attention to appearances!

Tuesday 19 January 2010

"The Weak & Ignorant Tsar"

There have been so many television programmes - not to mention the countless books and forums and websites - in which professors sit in their university studies making pronouncements about the weakness of the 'ignorant' Tsar Nicholas II. On one such programme a 1 minute clip of film footage of the Tsar dancing with his daughters on the Imperial Yacht was used to demonstrate that he spent his life in the lap of luxury frittering away the hours in amusements. Interesting how an oft-repeated lie is taken as truth.

Imagine if you - and only you, one person - were faced with trying to sort out the the present situation in Afghanistan and the recent conflict in Iraq , together with all that happened in Serbia and Bosnia a couple of decades ago, and on top of that you were personally responsible for the well-being of 180 million people from different cultures in one of the largest empires on earth, and in the middle of a time of great change through industrialisation and the speed of advances in technology...oh and you also had a son, whom you loved very deeply, who was seriously ill and a wife who was badly treated by your own family, and that same family had, for the most part, decided not to support you...Well, that is a little of what the 'weak' and 'ignorant' Tsar Nicholas faced every day. It wasn't his choice. He would have liked to have lived a simple life on a Dacha somewhere, caring for his family and spending his time outdoors, but he had been saddled with this responsibility and with more moral courage than any of his contemporaries he tried to rise to that challenge.

In 1913, while King George V (who is never described as 'weak' or 'ignorant') shot over 1000 pheasants in one day for 'sport' or pored over his precious stamp that had cost him over £1000, and while Kaiser Wilhelm strutted around in his uniforms, laughing too loudly and playing at being a king, the weak Tsar, Nicholas, who frittered his life away in luxury, was spending all day and most of the night trying to resolve the crisis in the Balkans. He wrote to the Kings of Bulgaria and Serbia, offering to arbitrate between them and even when 'Foxy Ferdinand' of Bulgaria, refused to listen and sent his troops into a disastrous campaign, Nicholas had the foresight to realize that if the Bulgarians were humiliated by their defeat, it would lead to resentment and future carnage. Nicholas successfully persuaded his ally, Serbia, to relinquish some of their gains to Bulgaria. Meanwhile, he was faced with the problems of German interests in Persia (Iraq) and trying to maintain the balance of power to prevent the outbreak of war.

These are some of the most complex problems in modern history and even today they have not been resolved no matter how many government departments have tried to resolve them. Nicholas faced these problems alone and spent his time in his simple surroundings (so different from how they appeared to the outside world - see Marie of Roumania's description of how the glittering appearance of palaces changed the minute one stepped over the threshold into the simplicity of his surroundings) working from dawn till dusk trying to do the best for his people. Would any of those professors in their ivory university towers have been more capable of solving so many issues? Would they have been willing to sacrifice all that they really wanted in order to carry out their duty as Nicholas did?

A weak Tsar? Well, was Kaiser Wilhelm ever described as weak? No, he just liked to dream of power and loved his uniforms and strutting about, so he must have been strong. Was George V ever described as weak? No, he shot thousands of birds and so proved himself to be a real man! Franz Ferdinand, Franz Josef, Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Ferdinand of Roumania....was any other ruler at the time described as 'weak'? No, only Nicholas, and I have yet to hear one single reason why he, the strongest of all of them, deserves the horrendous epithet of 'the weak Tsar.'

Friday 15 January 2010

Class - A peculiarly English Trait?

It's amusing that in the run-up to this year's election, some of the first 'shots over the bow' have been an attempt to raise class-consciousness again. It's a sure-fire starter for raising hackles and getting the underdog to feel abused and inspiring the victim to feel the injustice of his/her plight. Without a doubt the class system, which harks back to the days of feudal overlords, still exists in Britain but nowadays it is very much misunderstood.

In the beautiful days of yore (i.e. prior to the 1914-1918 war!) some of the strongest advocates of a hierarchy dwelt in the basements of the well-to-do. 'Below stairs' where the servants lived, there were more stringent rules than ever existed 'upstairs'. The butler was above everyone; the housemaids and the kitchen maids kept their distance from one another; who was served first at dinner mattered far more downstairs than it ever did upstairs - in short, the class system was very much an invention of the 'working classes' as an excuse for their own unhappiness.

The whole system was and still is, of course, utterly bizarre. Either you succeed or you don't and it has nothing to do with where you are born or what opportunities you have. Some people are born with the advantage of a wealthy family to support them; others are born into families who struggle to survive but neither of these situations is a guarantee of success or failure and no government can take from or add to the individual's choice of what to make of his/her life. The only choice we really have is to create our own lives and live according to what we feel to be true.

If, as politicians sometimes claim, the poor are deprived of opportunity and so cannot succeed, why is it that so many of our cities were built by those who came from apparently nowhere but simply held to their dreams of what they might achieve? If the rich are so blessed, why is it that we hear to many stories of drug-addicted aristocrats or public school boys who squander their opportunities? And the stories of 'poor little rich girls' are as old as the hills.

The truth is that whatever the circumstances of our birth, we make of our lives what we will. The politics of envy is the most pernicious of all. It panders to a victim mentality and, rather than raising everyone to his/her full potential, drags everyone down into the sense that 'if I had their money, I'd be okay....' No, you wouldn't. No amount of outside intervention can save you if you cannot save yourself. No amount of hand-outs will ever help beyond a temporary stop-gap until you find your feet again and step up to your own potential.

Personally, I was not born to privilege - though, one of the greatest treasures of my life is the wonderful education I received - but I write this as the granddaughter of a mill worker who said that when she was young Schofield's Department Store in Leeds didn't allow millworkers in shawls to enter the shop for fear of them 'lowering the tone'. Rather than creating envy, it created aspiration and my grandmother, who worked in all kinds of places as a cleaner and a cook amongst other things, continued her interest in poetry and literature, in spite of the poverty and many tragedies of her early life. Maintaining her accent she always remained in her 'class' but rather than being envious, simply enjoyed the beauty of what other people had.

Class does exist in England and always will, I think, but it isn't a bad thing - it's not about how much money you have or where you come from. It's just about what you choose to do with your life.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

"Ask Sir James" by Michaela Reid

A first glance at the cover of "Ask Sir James - The Life of Sir James Reid, Personal Physician to Queen Victoria" might cause one to think it would be a very dull medical tome but it is an utterly absorbing book, filled with so many fascinating details, which are not recorded elsewhere. Written by Sir James' daughter, Michaela Reid, the book follows the doctor through the reigns of Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V, and has a foreword by Elizabeth Longford.

Among countless other anecdotes, it includes the riding accident of the Queen's youngest granddaughter, Ena of Battenberg - the future Queen of Spain - and the story of the dreadful shooting accident in which the Queen's son-in-law, Prince Christian, lost an eye. Although that might appear macabre, Reid's description of Queen Victoria's response to the necessity of surgery to remove the eye is almost amusing:

"Her Majesty said that it was quite unnecessary as formerly she knew several people with shot eyes who did not have it done and who did not become blind; that nowadays doctors were always for taking out eyes; and in short she spoke as if Lawson and I wished to do it for our own brutal pleasure...."

Another tiny detail concerns Grand Duchess Elizabeth sending for Reid, while she was in London for her grandmother's jubilee, in order to treat a small spot on her face - which he did with nitric acid!

All in all, it is a really wonderful book to return to again and again!

Monday 11 January 2010

Emerson on Courage

A wonderfully inspiring quotation from the master of perfect quotations, Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there will always be someone to tell you, you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs. Peace has its victories but it takes brave men to reach them.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Queen Victoria's Family in Winter

Oh, what a pity I missed posting this before Christmas! Still, it is as snowy as the photo so maybe it's not too late...

It comes from the 1991 series "Victoria & Albert" and I think it captures the family and dear Prince Albert's relationship with his children better than any other portrayal of their lives:

Queen Victoria's Family in the winter

Tuesday 5 January 2010

"Beloved & Darling Child" Edited by Agatha Ramm

Agatha Ramm's collection of the later letters between Queen Victoria & her eldest daughter, Vicky, (Empress Frederick), is such a touching book. After reading all of Roger Fulford's editing of the earlier letters, this books is at once a continuation and yet quite different. From the Queen's Golden Jubilee and the decline and death of Vicky's beloved husband, through the death of several other members of Queen Victoria's family and her concerns for the soldiers in the Boer War, the letters are obviously not so light as some of the earlier ones. But there are brighter moments - the Jubilees and the little reminiscences of holidays etc. It is terribly moving to read the final words of the letter written only a week or so before the Queen's passing, when Vicky herself was already approaching her own end: "God bless you, dearest child."

Of all the biographies, autobiographies and memoirs I have ever read, there are few I return to so often as the letters between Queen Victoria and Vicky or her second daughter, Alice. If anything ever spoke from the heart, these letters do and they are beautiful. All life is there - the gossipy bits, the prying, the family concerns, the jokes, the descriptions of art and nature and many places, the wonderful descriptions of different characters who, too often, appear as little more than names in history books. These beautiful books really bring these people alive again...and on a snowy night like tonight, what a pleasure to be surrounded by them!

Sunday 3 January 2010

Treasures of Queen Victoria

So many, many books have been written of Queen Victoria and so many websites speak of her, and happily, unlike books and sites about other members of her extended family, most are appreciative. While doing a New Year sorting out today, I was looking at several books that have become 'dear friends' and would just like to mention them.

The first is so seldom seen and difficult to find (I wanted to send it to a friend and couldn't find a copy anywhere). I bought it at Osborne House and it was first published by Hamish Hamilton in 1978 (reprinted later in paperback) and it has the most beautiful title: "Dear Osborne" by John Matson. Before the lovely book by the Duchess of York appeared, this was the loveliest link to Osborne. I hope other people find it easier to come by.

The second is also a slim volume, purchased in Northumberland at quite some expense but worth every penny. It is the letters written from Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Moretta of Prussia, to her mother, the Empress Frederick (Queen Victoria's daughter, Vicky) during her brief sojourn in Britain on the anniversary of her father's death: "Queen Victoria at Balmoral & Windsor" edited by James Pope Hennessey. It is such an intimate book; the thoughts of a young lady in mourning for her father and for her own lost love. Very, very beautiful.

The memoirs of Fritz Ponsonby in his autobiography, and the recollections of the Queen's doctor, Sir James Reid, written by his daughter are equally fascinating....as are the somewhat acerbic views of Marie Mallet, as seen in her letters compiled by her son. The letters compiled by Roger Fulford and later Agatha Ramm are continuously absorbing. Princess Marie Louise's "My Memories of Six Reigns" is beyond beautiful...how gently she describes people she knew!

There are so many more but if I were stranded on a desert island, these are the ones I would take in the 'Queen Victoria' section! What treasures these books are and how lovely that we can still read them!

Saturday 2 January 2010

The 'Weakness' of the Courageous Tsar Nicholas II

I read yet again on an otherwise beautiful website, Tsar Nicholas II passed off as 'weak'. It is truly amazing how glibly that word is added to his name when it is a word so little understood and written of a man so little understood.

Nicholas was in an impossible situation due to the rapid advance of industrialisation, which made governing so vast an empire virtually impossible - and let us remember he was not the only monarch swept away by the rising tide of socialist fervour. Why he has come down through history as 'weak' is beyond comprehension. Here was the one monarch who remained totally true to his allies and to his people. The sole cause of his abdication - which cost him dearly as he firmly believed in his Coronation Oath - was to prevent those regiments which remained loyal to him from attacking his own people, and to ensure that Russia would not abandon her allies who, treacherously then abandoned him. I would say that if anyone in those circumstances was weak, it was the cowardly George V who withdrew his offer of assistance to the cousin who had sacrificed his own throne so as not to abandon his commitment.

Nicholas was popular among his fellow soldiers as a young man (that is hardly a sign of weakness). Physically, he was hardy and enjoyed active physical pursuits such as chopping wood and being outdoors. His concern for his soldiers was such that he walked many miles carrying the pack of an ordinary soldier to see what hardships he would have to endure. Intellectually, he spoke several languages fluently; had an excellent grasp of history and literature and was widely-read. As a husband he was clearly a passionate man whose wife adored him and at the same time, here was a man with great moral strength, continuing his duties in the face of caring for a desperately ill son and a wife who was so stressed that she could barely think.

Ultimately Nicholas was betrayed by the careless members of his own family and his own allies. Small wonder that many people who carried the guilt of that betrayal were happy to see him passed off as 'weak'. Then, of course, the despotic tyrants Lenin and Stalin were happy to continue that lie...and sadly the lie continues to this day and is taken for granted so glibly by so many people.

I would love someone to explain why Nicholas is so often so unjustly described as 'weak'.