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Wednesday 29 September 2010


There sometimes seems to be a fairy tale which we haven't outgrown. In a fairy tale there are heroes and villains and everyone wants the hero (or the victim princess) to win and the villain to get his/her comeuppance. We're brought up on this idea from the wicked fairy in the Sleeping Beauty, to the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella and the manipulative Rumpelstiltskin (who actually made a fair deal and was cheated out his winnings!). Things are black and white and everyone fits the template.

The danger is that it detracts from the depths and many facets of each person and leads to a complete toppling of them from a pedestal which they had never asked for. In Victorian times, a few people were raised as great heroes: Gordon at Khartoum, Florence Nightingale, Baden-Powell, Lawremce of Arabia, Kitchener and many more whose statues grace the streets of London and elsewhere. As a child, I read of these people as brave heroes and later saw programmes or read articles which aimed to completely destroy the myth about them as some kind of super-human beings (like the shattered Ozymandias in the picture). This is why I so dislike the idea of canonisation. The moment someone is set up as an ideal character, someone attempts to turn them into a plaster cast ideal and along comes someone else to point out their flaws and topple them from that pinnacle.

Recently, after a relatively few years of people admiring the courage and sanctity of Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, much has been written about her flaws and attention is drawn to that. It's another knocking off a pedestal on which I don't believe she ever wanted to stand and I have never perceived her as a saint or as a sinner - though I greatly admire many aspects of her character, love her hidden warmth and her response to events. The same is undoubtedly going to happen to Karl of Austria; the same is already happening around John Henry Newman. The reason the Tsar and the Imperial Family was murdered was because someone idolised them, and then felt let down by them. They didn't ask to be someone else's excuse for his/her own failure - they were just doing the very best they could and became the scapegoat for the unhappiness of the masses.

I think it's because there is no template of what is 'perfection' or saintly. In a garden there are countless flowers and weeds, all growing as they grow, not trying to fit another plant's pattern; in fields of animals, there are all different and individual versions of that species, and none of them seems to care how they look in comparison to the others. Only among humans do we create heroes and villains and, while we are all quite happy to see ourselves as way above our villains, nothing seems to be more satisfying than to topple a saint/hero from his/her pedestal.

I think all of the people of the past - those I admire, and those I do not like - were doing the best they could in their own circumstances. They didn't ask to be saints or heroes or anything of the sort, any more than the villains intended to be villains. They probably knew their own flaws better than anyone else could, and I think it is better to observe and love and learn from all of them and recognise that they really were paving the way to new ideas and new aspirations. For that, I am very grateful. Pedestals and statues make me smile - it's lovely to see people honouring others' achievements - and it's lovelier to attempt to understand than to idolise or condemn.

Saturday 25 September 2010

The Little Temple of Temple Newsam

At the top of a slope in the woods at Temple Newsam there is a listed building folly called 'The Little Temple', which is sadly now fenced off due to years of decay and vandalism. Beyond the fences now surrounding it, are a couple of benches from which one can view the House, the trees as they change through the seasons, and the meadow where the Opera takes place each year. It is a most beautiful spot and a place where I often pass the time of day with people who happen to be sitting on those benches. Sometimes there are dog-walkers (for a while, a couple of years ago, I saw a beautiful black poodle named Claude but he and his people no longer seem to come by and I would love to hear where he is now) or families or couples or mothers with prams and push chairs or joggers taking a break or pensive people on their own...it's always so lovely and reminds me often of the beautiful "Bread & Fishes" song about meeting people by chance and meeting angels.

Alas, the Little Temple itself falls daily into a greater state of decay.
Not only does the unpleasant graffiti remain alongside the fences surrounding the folly, but there are signs of rotting timbers and the whole structure being abandoned. Sometimes I imagine all the people who sat there when it was first erected; the vision of the builder, the brilliance of the landscape gardener, Capability Brown, who created such beauty, and the thoughts they thought, the dreams they dreamed....and did they ever know how many people would come to enjoy such loveliness? There is a notice which says it is undergoing restoration, and that same notice has been there for so many years that I wonder how much it will cost to restore it to its original beauty and how to raise the money for that to take place.

The actual stone upon stone, pillar upon pillar is irrelevant really, I suppose. It's just that it's at the perfect spot amid those incredibly beautiful trees and has such an atmosphere of centuries of being attuned to Nature...It's just somewhere I happen to love and, when I reach my fortune, I would like to restore it to its original glory...

The photos here are not recent - I just found them on the net - the first from here (I trust it is alright to take this from your site - thank you!)


and will post my own next time I take my camera....

Thursday 23 September 2010

Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler

No one can deny that dreadful atrocities have been committed throughout history, and uncovering the truth of the past seems to bring some kind of resolution to terrible situations but I fear there is often a danger of laying crimes at the feet of rulers who had little say in what exactly happened.

An article in the 'Daily Mail' today, describes a new book: "The Kaiser's Holocaust", which relates an appalling story of cruelty and murder in Namibia. The horrendousness of the story needed, perhaps, to be told but I cannot help but feel unsettled by the title or one phrase in the article which speaks of the 'tacit consent' of the Kaiser, while at the same time showing a very large picture of Wilhelm in uniform, looking every inch the German conquering hero.


Willy was, there is no doubt, racist - as were a large majority of Europeans at that time (with a notably exception in Queen Victoria) - but he was not a sadist and to compare him to Hitler, or worse, lay the blame for Hitler's abominable crimes at the feet of such a man is so unjust. Much as he would have hated to admit it, Kaiser Wilhelm was not a great leader but one who was often disregarded by his ministers who had their own agenda and desire for power. The more they took power from him, the more uniforms Willy acquired and the more aggressive poses he adopted on his photos and portraits, but at heart he was not an aggressive man, but simply a patriot in a new country, and one who wanted his country to stand equally alongside the other 'major powers' of Europe. It must be remembered that by the outbreak of WW1, Germany, unlike the other powers, had known 40 years of peace and prosperity. Germany was way ahead of other countries in caring for the unemployed and the aged, and advancing rapidly technologically. Willy simply wanted that to be recognised by the rest of Europe (and especially by Britain) and, alas, his own personal hang-ups, made it impossible for him ever to feel happy in his skin. I very, very much doubt though that he would have willingly accepted this horrendous slaughter in Namibia. During the Boer War, the British were 'inventing' concentration camps in S. Africa and, all that time, Queen Victoria was writing letters to her generals and politicians, urging them to respect the culture, religion and way of life of native peoples. Willy, I think, wanted to be like his grandmother....but never lived up to his own image of what he wanted to be.

A lot is written about the subsequent involvement of some of the German princes, grand dukes etc. with the Nazis. Making it absolutely clear that I utterly, totally and completely reject all forms of racism, control etc. and find the Nazis abhorrent, I have to say we cannot judge it all as it was then from the position of hindsight when we see the full horrific effects of how it played out. Imagine, though, if you knew and had lived through a time when your country prospered; a World War, for which you were not solely responsible, that led not only to shame of defeat and the memory of how many young men had died in vain, but also to the bankruptcy of your great nation, the loss of so many lands, being humiliated and deprived of an army to defend your borders (the Treaty of Versailles was so short-sighted!!*)...and suddenly there appeared a man who promised to restore a sense of pride. I think, before they understood the true manic and perverse nature of this man (Hitler), it is understandable that many believed in him.

None of that, of course, excuses believing in him so much that you would willingly attack your neighbours (literal neighbours - the Jewish people who lived next door; or national neighbours - like invading Poland!) but nothing is ever quite what it appears. No nation has been totally blameless and I think the large picture of the Kaiser in that newspaper, alongside such a headline, merely prolongs the mistaken myth of the Kaiser being an evil war lord and the German nation being behind all the aggression in Europe and beyond.

(And I write this as a full blooded English person!)

* Incidentally, during the Balkan Wars, the nuch-maligned Tsar Nicholas II was one of the very few people who understood the effects of short-sightedness. He knew that humiliating Bulgaria, would lead to resentment in that country and tried to broker a fair deal for everyone. What a pity he wasn't present to offer his wisdom at Versailles!)

Sunday 19 September 2010

Saints and Such

It bothers me a bit when institutions beatify or canonise someone because it often seems they strip that person of their true humanity, their true light, and use them for some political or religious end.

I spent my childhood among saints - studying, labelling, listing every one I could find, trying to learn everything about them, who was patron of this or that (ask me now and I can still tell you at once the patron saint of just about anything from cab drivers to charcoal burners or from heart conditions to haemorrhoids!!) - and attempted to imitate their impossible virtues, most of which involved a great deal of unnecessary suffering. Suffering, martyrdom and all kinds of self-abasement went with the territory of being a saint, unless you were one of the wacky Irish saints who sailed across oceans on cabbage leaves, or my 'patroness' the Roman martyr, Christina, who was noted above all for being unable to bear nasty smells to the extent that she rose out of the stink of her own coffin! Saints are such a strange lot! In the olden days, the wackier the better but since the Reformation, politics moved in and people were canonised or hailed as heroes by different denominations to suit the politics of the institution at the time. The idea is then that they are 'worthy of imitation'...and it all smacks of something unpleasant nowadays. How can anyone be 'worthy of imitation' if everyone is unique and beautifully brought into being by a beyond beautiful Divinity who has infinite variety? Imitation is folly and unworthy of anyone.

Karl of Austria is a man I hugely admire. I admire his humanity, his singular presence at the funeral of his uncle, Franz Ferdinand, and his offer to take care of Franz Ferdinand's children. I admire his devotion to his own children and his love of his wife; his opposition to the use of gas and the killing of civilians in WW1 and his attempts, as soon as he came to power, to broker peace. I fear that, as the Catholic Church has beatified and may soon canonise him, he will be transformed from a flesh and blood man into another plaster cast saint to suit political purposes.

The same is true of John Henry Newman, whose writings I first read when I was about 12 years old, and which moved me immensely. His understanding of Nature was beautiful (though typically Victorian verbose) and the final lines of 'Lead Kindly Light', regarding life beyond this earthly life, are so beautiful:

"The night is gone
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile."

I loved that man's sensibility but, while I understand it - he was a Victorian after all! - did not like his dogmatism. He wrote:

From the age of fifteen, dogma has been the fundamental principle of my religion: I know no other religion; I cannot enter into the idea of any other sort of religion; religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery.

He seemed like a free spirit but one so bound up in the intellectualism of his age. I loved his Englishness and, as an English Catholic at that time, growing up in quite a world of Irish Catholicism, I loved the way he bridged that gap, but found his need to adhere to some 'system' so stifling. What was worse, and this I think is the major theme of the Victorian age, was the idea that somehow everything that is good and 'holy' involves suffering, was the idea of some kind of need for martyrdom. His conversion to Catholicism was painful because it cost him the respect of his peers and the love of at least one member of his family, but the idea that that makes him holy is abhorrent to me and dominates much of his writing.

Later in life, once he had regained acceptance by being made a Cardinal, he seems to have mellowed. He wrote:

Let us take things as we find them: let us not attempt to distort them into what they are not... We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.
And that, I think, is what is being done - that distorting of facts - when making someone into a saint. Newman, like dear Karl of Austria, is a man whom I admire and yet his humanity (including his love of his friend) is in danger of being distorted.

Saturday 18 September 2010


The Pope's visit to England seems to be bringing up all kinds of responses and reactions. There are several things which I fail to understand, and several more thoughts about it which probably have no meaning but I shall write them anyway.

I was raised a Catholic and remained so (with misgivings) for over 4 decades but no longer adhere to that way of life. As a Catholic, I encountered, for the most part, only beautiful people, a few of whom felt a great allegiance to Rome and all that came from the Vatican, but most of whom went their own way in that faith, according to their own lights. There were saintly priests and there were arrogant priests. There were saintly nuns and there were severe nuns. There were the movers and shakers, the ones who went along for the ride, the individualists, the rebels, the dogmatists, the holier-than-thou (all of whom were interesting and these labels were only my judgement)and the kinds of people like you meet in any other group of people...and they were people like everyone of any other faith or no faith at all.

I don't understand why those who have no interest in the Church, feel a need to make a massive protest against this Papal visit. I was a part of the Church once and am no longer so, but don't object to other people doing what they or believing what they believe and don't come away needing to hate it and have meetings about it. Why have a meeting about something that has no meaning for you? It rather reminds me of those thugs who go hammering on the side of police vans taking murderers or child abusers to court. Were I the relative of a victim of such a crime, I would find it horrific to think people who did not know the victim, were using my relative's experience to express their own insecurity. The same is true of those who turn out to protest at this visit. It is true, I think, that there is much bigotry from Rome, but, if you don't like it, it makes no difference in your life. Why bother to turn up and protest against something that doesn't affect you and need not affect anyone else that you know? Make it an irrelevance and it no longer has any power over you.

Obviously the child abuse crimes are appalling and I will say no more about that because it is too appalling for words.

What was always and ultimately disturbing to me - apart from the massive disparity between the Gospel message and the Church hierarchy - was the sense of control: the arrogance of an institution, whose infamous history of murdered popes, nepotism, plunder, ambition, could then come up with the idea that a man was infallible. Far more disturbing, though, was the sense of having been robbed of my immediate connection to the Divine. For some reason, it had to pass through and be validated by this institution of men in the Vatican, and those whom they chose to ordain, before anything could be taken as Truth. This is the real difficulty I have with this visit: the condemnation of what they call relativism.

Relativism basically, I think, states that there is no 'one' truth. Churches and institutions are terrified of that idea because, claiming that they alone have the truth, it removes control from their hands. In the fear of that, it shows that they basically believe in original sin - people are pretty bad and without some kind of control, we will all become wicked. In fact, if you believe in any form of Divinity, the opposite must be true. If the Divine/God/Source of All is good and holy, then S/He surely brings forth only what is good. Within that goodness, there is infinite variety (look at Nature and the countless species) and how can any part of that brilliant expression of the Divine claim to hold some kind of singular truth or superior knowledge?

Among those who adhere to religions, there are those who find their way through drugs, alcohol, promiscuity (things which the Pope warned young people against) just as much are there those who do not adhere to religion and find their way along those paths. Among those who do not adhere to religions, there are those who adopt quite different paths...basically, everyone finds his/her own way in the end.

I just don't understand why there is the need for anyone to claim, "This way is right....mine is the only way...." - why the protests against this visit? Some people find it helpful and that is good. And why the need for this visit to spread the message of having to 'restore faith' when we don't need any outside influence to intermediate between us and our Source?

I have faith in the Truth of the Reality of each person, each part of creation as an expression of the Divine/Life. Relativism isn't a crime or a sin or anything of the sort - to my mind it is valid and, after studying many paths for many years, I don't understand why this has become the new enemy...except that it seems to be the fear of loss of control.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

The first time I came across the practicalities of death, I was a a student nurse and had to sort out, list and sign for the effects of a ninety-year-old gentleman who had died. He had, in his locker, one penny and one plastic comb. They were correctly labelled and signed for, for his relations to collect. It seemed so small a thing, so sad a legacy, in a way, for 90 years. It didn't seem to capture the man himself at all. I felt sad.

Recent events of working through the effects of an elderly relative who died, brought that gentleman to mind. Among the effects of my relative are tea sets and antique spoons, all still in their original wrappings, never used...saved 'for best'. Saved, unused for some fabulous date or some major event that would merit bringing them out. That date, obviously, didn't come in this lifetime and so they remain, still in their perfect boxes, unused and now unwanted by anyone really, but too 'precious' to the person who owned them, to throw them away.

That's the thing about stuff - the stuff we accumulate and value and 'save for best', unaware that every day perhaps we could be enjoying the best. It is a thing, it seems, of a past generation to have things that are beautiful to the eye but have to be put aside because one day someone might be impressed by them or there might be something really worth celebrating....a mythical day that never comes unless we see that it happens everyday.

I know another lady whose house is filled with gorgeous antique furniture surrounded by junk. She grows plants in expensive cups alongside those growing in plastic and lets her grandchildren play in antique chests until they become scuffed and scratched and she doesn't care as long as everyone is happily enjoying that beauty. It used to seem such a waste to have scuff marks on beautifully carved chests until I saw the fun of having children playing amid beautiful objects and using them in ways that their creator undoubtedly intended. Seeing the stuff stored in cabinets and thinking of how people always 'save it for best' it just seems such a pointless waste to postpone enjoying anything that is beautiful. The fact is, I think, things only become beautiful when we love them and enjoy them as they come to us.

It will sound very harsh but clearing the effects of the old man who died with nothing but a plastic comb and one penny, was no different to clearing the effects of someone surrounded by fine bone china, beautiful table cloths (all unopened) etc. etc.. We surround ourselves with stuff that has meaning to us, but, at the end of the day, it's all just stuff....and only has meaning if we lived it and enjoyed other people living it with us. Saving something for best is the silliest idea I ever heard!

Sic transit gloria mundi...unless we put meaning into the glories/loveliness we possess...then they could come down through generations with memories of laughter and fun, scratches, scuff marks and all, rather than being nothing but unwanted museum pieces.

Monday 6 September 2010

Albert Cottage and other Hotels

Sometimes, when things have been stressful or challenging or seasons change so quickly that you find you've missed out on summer, I think there are few things more invigorating than browsing a kind of mental photo album of favourite scenes, people and places. My first port of call in such circumstances is always the view across the Solent from Osborne House, or the gardens around the Swiss Cottage. Only 2 minutes of thinking of that image and everything else, no matter how difficult it had appeared, seems to become quite simple and beautifully easily resolved.

While thinking of 'dear Osborne' a few days ago, quite by chance I came across this website of a hotel and must hasten to add that I have no connection with the hotel nor have I ever stayed there yet, but it sounded wonderful to think it is now possible to stay actually within the grounds of Osborne and in a place so connected to Prince Albert. What a delightful thought...to stay in a place so closely connected to the family!


Some years ago, I and my business partner began compiling a collection of hotels around Britain which are in some way connected with Queen Victoria's family, and which now accommodate the public. A lot of work has been done on that project and many hotel owners have been exceptionally helpful but circumstances left the project on hold for a little while. I hope to take it further soon and would be very happy to hear from any hoteliers or publicans who have stories to tell about visits from Queen Victoria and her family or other European royalties. So many former stately homes have become hotels and while, in some ways, it seems like the passing of an era, in other ways it is just wonderful to think that now so many brilliant people have restored places to their former glory and so many aficionados of people of the past can actually stay in places they once loved.