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Monday 30 August 2010

Bertie and Queen Victoria's passing

When Queen Victoria died in January 1901, the whole of Europe seemed to reel in shock at the end of a magnificent era. Her granddaughter, the then Crown Princess Marie of Roumania, wrote: "To see it all again if only for a day or two…to have a last peep at the old house…with out dear old Granny the last link is cut off!...I tell you it is inconceivable sorrow for me..."
Another granddaughter, Alice Albany (later of Athlone) wrote: "I had come to regard her as permanent and indestructible - like England and Windsor Castle.”

And a granddaughter-in-law, the future Queen Mary of England wrote: "The thought of England without the Queen is dreadful even to think of. God help us all.”

However, her heir, Bertie, King Edward VII, while dutifully paying his respects to his mother, seemed to breathe a huge sigh of relief and took very little time to throw out many vestiges of her reign. Statues of her favourite servant, John Brown, were disposed of in no time; Buckingham Palace was redecorated and Osborne House was given to the nation (with the exception of the Queen's rooms, which were for many decades gated off).

It might seem quite cold that Bertie should change everything so quickly and, at the same time, the Queen's passing was the passing of a person whose name had become synonymous with all that was best and worst of almost a century. Even to this day, the epithet of 'the Victorians' evokes so many images and it is interesting to look at the small woman who created such a mystique, with which her eldest son was so eager to dispense. "The Albertian era" would probably be more accurate a description of that time, since virtually all of the Queen's positive influence came from the influence of beloved Albert.

For Bertie, though, life in such a household was not an age of enlightenment, but an age of incarceration and asphyxiation. He was unfortunate in being the eldest son of a mother who had such fear of anyone in her family turning out like her 'wicked' Hanoverian uncles, and a father whose horror of infidelity sprang from the effects of his earliest childhood. These parents wanted to do the very best for their son - to keep him 'pure' and turn him into the ideal prince, and eventual king. Instead, unwittingly, they attempted unsuccessfully to curb everything which they saw as 'wrong' and to mould him into their image of what was perfect. Small wonder the poor boy sought outlets in excess; small wonder, too, that while he loved his parents, he strained at the bit and, eventually finding freedom, threw out so many relics of their era, which seemed to him the age of oppression.

Equally interesting is the speed with which Grand Duchess Elizabeth altered everything following the murder of her husband, Serge. Within a few months her life changed in such a way that it appears she must have been dreaming of something quite different for years. It's almost like a simmering, overheated engine that suddenly blows a gasket and it is shocking....but suddeny settles down into a quite different place. The influence of one person over another is tremendous but ultimately, everyone finds his/her own level and nothing lasts forever...

It's interesting that when someone passes on, there are those who choose to mourn for a length of time, and those who choose to move on. There's a weird obligation to feel sad about them, and about someone's passing and not to feel sad is seen as heartless but that isn't always the case. Bertie, without sentimentality, was surely correct. It was immensely sad that the era had gone...but to him a tyrant had let go of the reins and he was free.

It's a bit of a pity that Bertie didn't live long enough to really come into his stride and enjoy the power of his own benign influence for longer. King for only 9 years...had he lived as long as his mother did, I think the First World War might have been avoided.

Saturday 28 August 2010

First Impressions

Moretta of Prussia (pictured here with her sisters, Mossy and Sophie), sister of Kaiser Wilhelm, daughter of the Empress Frederick, and granddaughter of Queen Victoria lived such a sad life that I have often wondered about. It always seemed that she 'came in' at such a difficult time for her mother. It was the middle of the Austro-Prussian War, and her elder brother, Sigismund, had just died of meningitis while his father was away in battle. Her mother, Vicky (Queen Victoria's eldest - and probably most intellectually brilliant - child) was deeply mourning Sigismund's death and worrying about her husband, and the strained relationship with her sister, Alice, whose husband, as heir to the Grand Duchy of Hesse, was fighting with the opposing army - what a mess to be born into!!

In Moretta's earliest years, she was noted as having a horror of old ladies in black - unsurprising when you consider the extent of Victorian mourning.
Her life didn't improve much. After several failed romantic attachments, she despaired of ever finding happiness and eventually settled for someone whom she might or might not have loved, only to find further heartache in that she could not have children and the estate they expected to inherit became subject of a law suit. When World War 1 broke out, she was thrown into further disarray because she, though German, had great affection for her mother's native England, and, following the death of her husband, she eventually re-married a much younger man who ran off with her money and abandoned her.

This week, an elderly relative passed on. She was born in 1917, in the middle of the horror of WW1, only 6 months after her mother's favourite brother and several other members of that family had been killed on the Somme. I guess, at that time, most people were going around in mourning and wearing black a lot. My relative's life was, like Moretta's, filled with misery, darkness and gloom - one illness after another for 93 years.

Herein lies the question! In everyday life, first impressions count for a lot with most people. They say we make up our minds about someone within the first 4 or 5 seconds of meeting them. Imagine coming into this world and following that trend. Perhaps, within the first few minutes of being here, we decide how life will be and look for evidence of it all around us: "this is a dark, nasty world....", "this is a sad world where things don't work out....", or, "this is a beautifully happy place...." "Wow! I'm here!"

The good thing is that, whatever we decide then, if we are aware of it, we can change it. I think we all make choices. Some people seem to settle into patterns of gloom and remain there. Others walk through the darkness, maybe look for meanings and work their way out of it. Others live in the moment, smile and shake off the ideas of previous generations. It's our choice, I think. Had Moretta known her own power, her life might have been very different and the same is true of all of us....perhaps....

Saturday 21 August 2010


Growing up in the more or less leafy suburbs of a northern city, founded and once flourishing on the wool trade, and much preferring the more original Yorkshire landscape of moors and rivers and crags and gardens, it often seemed to me as a child that the nearer I went to the city centre, the uglier the city became. The main problem was bricks! Thousands upon thousands of them - millions even! Travel, in those days (the 1970s) by car, and there were endless rows of terraces. My school itself, which I loved and which was beautiful, was built of countless red bricks. Travel by train, and there were numerous red brick bridges, tunnels and sidings. Bricks, bricks, bricks; walls, walls, walls....and they all seemed so very ugly, so uniform and confining, so colourless and dull. They were solid. They didn't flow like rivers flow. They were static. They didn't change like the trees change. They lacked the creativity and beauty of the original stone walls that divide fields and which blend so beautifully into the landscape. They were just there - millions and millions of red bricks. Occasionally I wondered who could have spent so long putting them there and wasn't it utterly soul destroying to have to start placing one brick on another to create even a small wall, let alone miles upon miles of tunnels and terraces. To some extent they stood for all that was the worst about the Victorian era and the industrial revolution - that terrible (to my mind) change from living with Nature, to living with so-called progress. The era when people were no longer people but merely cogs in the wheel of industry. (Incidentally, I also think that was one of the most beautiful eras in the whole of history - the age of civility, house parties, Queen Victoria, monarchs and pageants and loveliness!).

The other day, though, I saw part of the BBC programme about 'Great Railway Journeys' in which the presenter spoke so enthusiastically about Isambard Kingdom Brunel's brilliance in standing up to the all the cynical voices which say something can't be done. Rather than arguing, Brunel just went ahead and did whatever he had planned and he succeeded in all of it. His railways, his ships, his bridges - everything flourished because he believed in them and didn't give the cynics a second thought. What a brilliant man! What a brilliant mind! One bridge, according to the programme (possibly this one??*) involved him measuring the angle of every single brick - wow!! Who could be so single-minded as to do such a thing? Better still, Brunel created beauty. He combined his engineering skill with an aesthetic sense (and this was a man whose father, like Dickens' father, was stuck in debtors' prison) A long time ago, I saw a couple of other programmes about the building of the sewers in London (how many bricks are there??) and the building of the London Tube (again - all those bricks!!). Those feats of engineering are so awe-inspiring. More awe-inspiring are the aspirations of those Victorians who had a vision of something and brought it into being.

I still find the brick walls ugly but that is probably a fault in my vision. Some people love and find beauty in power stations and cooling towers. Personally, I prefer rivers and trees and the changing scenery of Nature but I do stand in awe of that vision and the almost Zen-like attention to detail of those who day after day place one brick upon another and enabled me to travel by rail to town. I guess that without all that Victorian engineering, there would never have been room for people to move on to develop such fabulous things as computers, the internet, the ability to write on blogs and to be in contact with people from all over the world.

Next time I see the brick tunnels, I shall say, "Thank you!"


Friday 20 August 2010


Recently I heard a brief news report about the necessity of making battlefields heritage sites and therefore protected land . Apparently, as the law stands at the moment, anyone can build anything on the sites where people fought and died - and there are so many of them around England. Initially, I thought, "Yes, of course, they must protect these sites...." and then began to wonder...

This rainy summer's evening, driving home as often happens across the site of Towton - the 'bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil' (with 'losses' - euphemism for slaughter - which, by the size of the population at the time are equivalent or perhaps exceed the slaughter on the first day of the Somme) - I looked across the fields and wondered whether there is an inch of land anywhere on which people didn't die and kill for someone else's beliefs. There are many people who keep alive the memory of what happened at Towton that Palm Sunday, nearly 600 years ago. They enact the battle sometimes, I think, and the same is true of all of the English Civil War battles and perhaps many others from the Wars of the Roses. Perhaps old wounds and old causes are somehow rooted in our psyche, but it's interesting that no one yet dares to re-enact or play at the First or Second World War battles. Perhaps they need that buffer of history to soften the blow of what really went on.

So, at Towton, the Lancastrians were basically massacred and it was a great Yorkist victory. But, as far as I can make out, the bizarre thing is that the Lanscastrians were were more 'northern' and the Yorkists were based more or less in the south - so, like all wars, it was nothing like it first appeared, nor was it fought for the reasons that history presents. I guess most of the thousands of young men (boys) who died that day were either just looking for a better way of life or looking for excitement. How many of them really knew what they were fighting for? Even now, centuries later, it's so hard to know what they were really fighting for.

Another odd thing about wars is that when they are over and monuments rise, we always speak of people dying for this or that just cause. It's never really mentioned that they actually killed other human beings for the same cause. There is something heroic about dying for a cause and nothing heroic about killing for one....basically, the causes are never just, and there has never been any truth in 'the old lie' (quote Wilfred Owen) 'dulce et decorum est pro patria (or anything else!) mori"

I would not like to see a car park or tower block or anything else built over Towton or any other battlefield but I sometimes think it would be beautiful if, instead of honouring 'heroes' of old wars with monuments, we simply put a wreath of flowers that said, "ooh...we made a mistake there..." and perhaps, rather than honouring where we went wrong so often in the past, we raised many more monuments in places where we got it right. Perhaps the odd daisy chain in a happy park one summer's afternoon or a bluebell filled wood one May day might say,

"Here,thousands of people came over centuries.
They spent their afternoon watching birds soar through the wisps of clouds in the brilliant blue sky,
Watching swans glide over the water,
Listening for the hum of earthworms in the soil,
The sound of grass growing,
And the love song of the bee to the buttercup.
Here, people laid aside causes and lived one happy summer's day,
and they were free."

Tuesday 17 August 2010

The Ragamuffin Sun

The Ragamuffin Sun is a collection of 32 of my poems together with an appendix of brief selections of lyrics from the musicals 'Branwell' - based on the life of Branwell Bronte - and 'Tsaritsa' based on the life of Alexandra Feodorovna, the last Tsarina of Russia. A few of the poems in the collection are taken from my earlier volume 'Child of the Moon' (Downlander 1986) but most are previously unpublished or have been availble only in magazines.

Since the poems were written over two decades, I do not see the world in the same way as I did when I wrote all of them though, of course, some things remain the same.

The collection will be available on Amazon Kindle within the next 24 hours.

Saturday 14 August 2010

The Incredible Wealth of Kings

Much is written of the incredible wealth of the Romanovs and other monarchs and most of it is written in a way which implies that the greed of the few contributed to, or was responsible for, the poverty of the many. Here's a question (which is not original, but is so true!) : If I become as sick as I can be, will I make the sick people well? No...obviously not. If I become depressed, will I make sad people happy? No...obviously not. If I am penniless, will I make the poor people rich?....

Occasionally, articles appear in newspapers about how much 'it costs the tax payer' to keep our Royal Family. It turns out it is a heck of a lot less than keeping a president, and if the money were to be distributed among all the people who paid that tax, they would gain a couple of pennies and nothing more. On a personal level, our Queen lives very frugally. Nicholas II also lived a frugal life - he once corrected his son, Alexei, for not taking care of the furniture in one of the palaces because, Nicholas pointed out, 'it doesn't belong to us, but to the country and we are custodians.'

A great pleasure for me is visiting beautiful places - stately homes, once owned by the very rich - and seeing beautiful belongings there - hand- carved furniture, beautiful paintings, beautiful buildings, landscaped gardens (I go almost every day to one such place and stand in awe of the beauty of it, filled with gratitude for the vision of the person who once owned it and the countless people he employed to create it and there are signs all over the place of people who took such pride in their creation of it) . I do not imagine that I will ever own such a place, but seeing it brings me joy and a sense of beauty. Supposing the owner of that house had said, "I am rich and there are poor people so I will share all this out...." There would be nothing there for me to enjoy today.

Nowadays, as in the past, the very wealthy (like Bill Gates and Richard Branson) employ vast numbers of people. The people don't have to work for them; people can do as they please but some people love their work. Many people employed by the Romanovs and Louis XVI were probably in the same position of wanting to be employed and enjoying their position. Many others, of course, didn't enjoy that and so set up on their own - there are countless rags to riches stories of people who stopped being victims and rose out of their poverty. Others were simply jealous and wanted power for themselves. Others surrendered to their victimhood.

Yes, the aristocrats squandered their wealth while others starved. Yes, the Romanovs owned jewels that were beyond price and in their own country others died in their poverty but had the Imperial Families given away all they possessed, would people have still starved? Yes, they would. Look at what came afterwards. Tsarina Alexandra of Russia tried to engage the aristocracy in meaningful work but they mocked her. The Terror in France did not heal the poverty of those who were poor. The Revolution in Russia led to huge queues for something as small as a bath plug. Nicholas personally (along with other members of the family - notably, of course, Grand Duchess Elizabeth) gave massive amounts of money to help those in need during the famine of of the early 1890s. His father, Alexander III, stopped the exports of grain (as is happening again today due to the fires) at a massive loss to the economy of the country so his own people could be fed. After the Khodinka Meadow tragedy, Nicholas paid for the funerals of each of the victims.

The Tsarina's sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, - someone to be greatly admired, I think, and an extremely wealthy woman - gave away all she possessed to make life better for the poor. She trained as a nurse, lived as a nun in the worst part of Moscow and cared for people, tending those who were so ill that the hospitals wouldn't treat them. Come the revolution, Lenin shut down her hospitals, orphanages, murdered her and scattered her companions, sending them into exile.

The Romanovs, like the Bourbons, were extremely rich. Did their wealth deprive the poor of wealth? Does my health deprive the sick of health? Does my joy deprive the sad of joy? Wealth, joy, health....they're all freely available when we stop projecting our problems onto others, don't you think? Bless the wealthy people who have left such a legacy of beauty. It's a whole load better than the squalor of slums and the legacy of the poor.

Friday 13 August 2010

Nicholas the Autocrat

Here's another odd thing about the portrayal of Tsar Nicholas II: if ever there were an example in history of a multi-dimensional man on whom so many historical projections have been based, Nicholas must be a prime example. The Soviets certainly were successful and brilliant at destroying a character and presenting an image that suited their aims.

When the myth of his 'weakness' and foolishness is blown away, he is accused of being an autocratic tyrant, clinging to personal power. The two accusations are quite contrary. On the one hand he is weak, on the other a tyrant. Yes, there were weak tyrants (aren't all tyrants weak - hiding their insecurities behind shows of power over others) but Nicholas was obviously not a tyrant, primarily because tyrants seek power and Nicholas didn't - in fact, he would have shunned it if he could.

This is what is seen as his greatest mistake: his inability to share power. If you were raised in a religious family, or raised in a politically active family, or a family which believed in any kind of system (as most do) you will surely know the extent to which that influences your views and behaviour. Imagine if, from your earliest childhood, you had been told you were to become the Tsar of All the Russias. You were raised by parents who didn't want you to be arrogant about this and so they ensured you lived a relatively simple life - sleeping on camp beds, not seeing yourself as superior to others, not having too much food, but being restricted in your view of the world outside your own home - and at the same time, you had tutors and mentors who told you from the start you had a special role to play and, what was more for a spiritually aware child in a religious background, were told that that role was given to you by God and how you must do your duty at all costs: to protect the autocracy; to be solely responsible like a father to your people...and then at the age of 13 you saw your grandfather, who had tried to soften the autocracy, blown to bits by a terrorist's bomb...Imagine being in those shoes.

So, unexpectedly at 26, you find yourself having to step into the role of autocrat. By nature, you are a gentle, simple person - a man who enjoys the outdoors, loves his family (and suffers enormous pain, seeing his sick son) but, at the same time, you have this 'duty'. What would you do? You would work every hour you had - as Nicholas did - to try to do the best for your people. You would be so occupied with affairs of state that you hadn't even a moment to reconsider where you were at, what other options were open to you, but you would do your very best. Nicholas did that. He did it from the moment he came to the throne and he genuinely wanted to do the best for his country.

Compare that to tyrants - his predecessors, Ivan the Terrible or Peter the so-called Great had massive power-complexes. Nicholas didn't. Even in our own time, in a smaller way, we see those Prime Ministers and Presidents who claim to come forth with a dream of how life can be better for everyone else if we listen to their way of thinking, but in fact they have struggled tooth and nail to get into those positions of power and wish to impose their views. Nicholas didn't struggle for it. He didn't want it. He was a man doing the best he could with a great love of his country and its people.

I think that Nicholas is accused of both tyranny and weakness because he was such a genuine man the like of which we seldom see. It's usually simple to spot the flaws in a tyrant but Nicholas was quite different and, though history has scraped the barrel to find his flaws, it has never come up with a complete and honest portrait of man who loved his people and, like France's Louis XVI, wanted to do his very best for them...and might have succeeded had it not been for those who were the really autocratic tyrants, wishing to impose their views on others.

Thursday 12 August 2010

Franz Josef and Queen Victoria

Had Queen Victoria been born a decade or so later and lived until 1914, I wonder would the First World War ever have happened.

Franz Josef of Austria was only 11 years younger than Queen Victoria and, like her, he was only 18 when he came to the throne and lived through some of the most momentous changes the world had ever seen (perhaps, in its way, similar to the reign of our present great Queen Elizabeth). During their reigns, their countries moved through so many scientific advances that the people hardly had time to keep pace with transformation from one way of life to another. The result was not merely a terrible mess of people suddenly finding themselves horrifically poor (after all, the 'poor' had always been present since the beginning of time) but also going through a whole rearrangement of the way society had been running for hundreds of years. Change almost invariably leads to discontent and tension. There are those who long for the dawn of a new era and those who fear the collapse of all they hold dear. The Age of Victoria and Franz Josef was probably a time of the those most profound change since the discovery of fire or the invention of the wheel! (And we are still racing, even more rapidly, through that era).

Apart from the obvious difference that Franz Josef was an autocrat and Victoria a constitutional monarch (though one who was not backward in coming forward in making her views known to politicians!), I think there are similarities but a difference that made all the difference in the long run. Franz Josef, in my view, was an honest and well-meaning man but he was deeply entrenched in old conformist ways. As a young man, dominated by his mother and her intransigent views, he was also a staunch Catholic, bound by the memory of the long-gone Holy Roman Empire. Basically, he was enslaved by tradition. He also came to the throne at a time of revolutions and must have felt the need then to take a firm stand. Victoria, on the other hand, threw off the shackles of her mother the minute she came to the throne and, thanks mainly to the influence of the incredibly wonderful Prince Albert, became slightly more tolerant and open to different views and different opinions. Life taught her to yield and adapt, whereas life seemed to teach Franz Josef to cling even more firmly to tradition.

More significantly to history, Queen Victoria had a finger in every pie all over Europe, due to the marriages of her children and grandchildren, but Franz Josef, having fewer children and being confined to Catholic marriages for them, lacked that ability to influence the rulers of other nations.

Franz Josef, though, like so many others, is one of those unfortunate monarchs whose whole life seemed to be one tragedy after another. I think, the more I read of him, that he was a 'good' man, who meant well and was greatly loved by his people and wanted to do his best for them but he never quite managed to assimilate his role as a husband and father with his role as Emperor, in the way the Queen Victoria managed to assimilate her role as mother and wife....and Queen of Great Britain and Empress of India.

Golly, what responsibility and what a time to have been living!

Saturday 7 August 2010

"Beggars and Kings"

I would be so grateful if someone could contact me about a particular song I heard once or twice about 25 years ago.

I was in France and, before leaving, had left a tape in the deck to record some music to take with my Walkman. Long story short, in Paris one afternoon I came into a very tricky situation involving a rather scary man. At a moment of intense fear I had, for no apparent reason, the clearest image in my head of a particular soldier who was killed on the Somme, as though he were standing immediately beside me, at which point the scary man suddenly looked terrified, raised his hands and ran away. I then seemed to be led back to the boat train and, listening to my Walkman, heard this song...which I have never heard anywhere since and have been searching for the writer of them for 25 years.
The lyrics, as I remember them are:

"....In the cool November air, I thought I heard you calling
But I knew you were not there.
I was standing by the telephone
Where the farmers go to pray
For those who died, waiting to send them on their way....

Beggars and kings all seem the same when it's over,
Buried below the ground on a frozen day...
Beggars and kings all have to get older
Whether they lose or win,
Whether the wind blows kindly or the rain sets in,
Beggars and kings...."

If you are or know the writer of this song,or are the person who recorded it (I think it was recorded by someone called Linda...) please get in touch and tell me where I can find a copy.

Thanks in anticipation.

Friday 6 August 2010

More Contradictions of Queen Victoria

Yet another contradictory trait in the endlessly fascinating character of Queen Victoria is her attitude to 'women's rights'. When told of the aristocratic ladies who wanted female suffrage, Queen Victoria was outraged by the idea and wrote: "I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of 'Women's Rights', with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feelings and propriety. Feminists ought to get a good whipping. Were woman to 'unsex' themselves by claiming equality with men, they would become the most hateful, heathen and disgusting of beings and would surely perish without male protection." This was a woman who commanded the attention of so much of the globe that even today there are countless cities, rivers, bridges, districts and roads named after her. This, too, was a woman who appeared to have one rule for herself and another for society in general.

It was typical of the time that a princess had rather a worse fate than an average factory worker. The latter could, at least, choose whom she would marry and would usually remain among familiar surroundings and friends. A princess, on the other hand, had to go wherever her husband happened to be. Two of Queen Victoria's five daughters moved, at an early age, to Germany to be with their husbands. The next generation saw an even greater upheaval where her granddaughters moved to Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Spain, Roumania and Germany and each of them had to fit in - often with intense suffering and nostalgia - to the Courts of their husbands. Yet, Queen Victoria herself wrote the above passage from a place wherein she had not only wrenched her own husband from all that was familiar, but had also ensured that when it came to her own life, she kept her youngest daughters close at hand.

Louise, her fourth daughter, was 'allowed' to marry a Scottish earl while Lenchen, her third daughter, and Beatrice, her youngest, married more or less penniless German princes who were all but obliged to remain close to the Queen so that she could keep her brood together. Sadly, though Prince Christian (Lenchen's husband) seemed to thrive, 'Liko' (Prince Henry of Battenberg, husband of ultra-controlled Beatrice, sought every means of escape and died an unheroic death during the Ashanti Campaign).

One of the most fascinating details of the Victorian Age is the amount of contradiction within it, all of which is a sure reflection of the woman who occupied the throne. This was an age of prudishness, where even piano legs were covered to preserve decency, yet an age of decadence and mass prostitution. This was an age of civility - of house parties, country houses, beauty and culture, of Tennyson and Elgar and Rossetti alongside the Brontes and Dickens - and an age of destruction of the individual in favour of the 'system'. The age of industry and the brilliance that came from that....at the expense of the individual, when people were no longer someone known and accepted in the village, but rather a mere cog in the progress machine. It was an age of elegance, the swansong of beautiful Prince Albert's dream of what it meant to be beautiful; the age of follies and mock-Gothic castles built on the sweat of those who were happy to slave-labour for bringing forth a new age by those who dreamed of a more enlightened time.

And on top of it all sat a tiny woman - Queen Victoria - trying to come to terms with the changing times. Kaiser Wilhelm, at the outbreak of WW1, said that such a terrible thing could never have happened in his grandmother's time. She must have been one incredibly brilliant being to have been able to span the gap between the old world and the new and. had Prince Albert lived, how different the 20th Century ,might have been....

Wednesday 4 August 2010

August 4th 1914

On a rather chilly August evening in 2010, it's hard to imagine the euphoria that resounded on the walls of Buckingham Palace ninety-six years ago tonight. Crowds cheering and singing the National Anthem as though they had just been liberated from some terrible oppression. Three days earlier, the same frenzied elation rang out, too, through Germany and Russia and France....and this for the declaration of the 'war to end wars' - the great crime and catastrophe that would lead to the downfall of dynasties, the massacres of millions, the overthrow of kings and the murder of a Tsar.

That bizarre euphoria always gives me the impression of the relief that comes at the onset of a fever after days of feeling vaguely ill. It reminds me, too, of Friday nights many years ago, walking past a local pub and seeing young boys spoiling for fight. Once, while I was passing a typical brawl, a young lad on the end of a push fell at my feet. He stood up shaking his fist in anger and swearing that he was going to kill the *******. When I asked why, he looked completely befuddled and shaking his knuckles showed me a slight scratch, "Because...because....look what he did!"
"It's a small scratch." I replied and he looked even more confused.
The next day I saw him and his 'attacker' pushing trolleys together in the local supermarket. A lot of sound and fury about nothing.

The tragedy of the First World War is that it was for absolutely nothing.