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Wednesday 30 March 2011


550 years ago yesterday, on a bitter Palm Sunday in a hail storm, the bloodiest battle ever to take place on English soil was fought in the Yorkshire village of Towton. Today, half a millennium later, people still place flowers and light candles in memory of what took place that day when Englishmen murdered other Englishmen and thousands were killed in a rout which led to men stepping on their comrades’ corpses in their desperation to escape.

Ostensibly, it was a battle between the Yorkists and Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses but really, nowadays, who knows what was in the hearts of those young men when they went to war? Now, when the outcome of the battle is really of no significance, the descendants of those soldiers who died in that place feel only the silence that hovers over battlefields that seems to say, ‘why?’

A long past battle brings people together. On Armistice Day the veterans who fought on opposing sides of World Wars have stood together, acknowledging each other’s courage and each other’s loss. When the war is over and the cause is long-forgotten, the enemies stand together mourning their lost comrades and the loss of innocence and, perhaps, wondering what all the shouting was about.

The same is true of natural disasters...in the midst of the chaos people of all nations reach out to one another and come together. In grief, in tragedy, in the aftermath of wars, we drop our defences and find we have so much in common.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did this naturally, without the tragedies or wars? If episodes like this:


or this:


were the norm?

Monday 28 March 2011

Leeds Union Workhouse

One hundred and fifty years ago today the Leeds Union Workhouse opened. Over the past century and a half, it has developed into one of the country’s most prestigious hospitals with many wings and modern buildings, but there are still visible remnants of the old workhouse (much of which is now museum).

The workhouse – yet another vile product of the industrial revolution – was among one of the first institutions that, to my mind, marked the dehumanising of humanity. When England – and particularly the north of England – was largely dependent upon farming, most people lived in villages or parishes, where they worked the land, paid rent and a couple of days labour a year to the local landowner or squire, weaved and spun in their cottages and took their wares to sell in the nearest market town every week or so. (Even today, Yorkshire is filled with road signs pointing to ‘Historic Market Towns’). It wasn’t by any means an easy life. Most cottages were pretty squalid; when harvests were bad, people starved, animals and people were often undernourished...On the other hand, there were some advantages: people were people. Whether you were the village idiot or the eccentric midwife, local witch or passing labourer, you were a unique person, accepted in your own right. You contributed – often by tithing – to the parish poor fund, and the local parson handed out that money to the elderly or those who could no longer work. Parish Relief, as it was called, worked quite well when the harvest was good and not many people were claiming it.

The Enclosure Acts changed everything. Cottagers were evicted from their homes. Animals were cruelly fattened beyond recognition. Village idiots were placed in institutions and, as the towns developed into industrial cities, churning out more cloth in a day than an ordinary weaver could produce in a year, more and more people were thrown ‘on the mercy of the parish.’ Since the Parish Relief couldn’t meet the growing demand, the government authorised parishes to group together in a Union and, instead of handing out money, they should build workhouses – hence the Leeds Union Workhouse.

The workhouses were created to discourage people from being poor.
They did this by making these places as dehumanising as possible so you would only go there if you were absolutely desperate. Men and women were segregated and, since many people who arrived at the workhouse were elderly couples who could no longer work, this meant that people who had been married for decades were not allowed to see each other again. Forced into uniforms, sitting in rows, eating and working in silence, the workhouse inmates’ lives were as appalling as those of the people who later were forced into concentration camps.

Who was responsible for this? Not monarchs, not princes, but petty-minded officials who believed themselves to be the elite, more intelligent than the masses, and the only ones capable of controlling an unruly and unintelligent society.

Today, of course, we are far more enlightened. We no longer allow ourselves to be regimented by people who know better; there are no longer elite groups who believe that most people are ignorant and need to be put in their place...

Wednesday 23 March 2011

Overthrowing Tyrants

It is Spring...the daffodils are blooming; the sky is blue and the sun is shining, the lambs are frolicking and the world looks so beautiful...That matters far more than what comes next in this post...

In 1914 the Russian army rolled into war to defend ‘little Serbia’ which had come under attack from the Austro-Hungarians who were intent on crushing the Slav dream of a united South Slav Kingdom. To the average Austrian, the attack was a righteous response to the murder of their heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and a necessary measure to protect the peoples of their Empire. To the average Russian, the defence was a righteous response to a bully who was placing impossible demands for reparation on Serbia. They were all fighting – apparently – to protect someone else....but who they were fighting for became lost in the scale of the slaughter. In the end there was nothing but disillusionment for all who lived through the First World War.

Going back a little further...At the time of the War of Independence when the Americans were throwing off the yoke of oppression imposed by Britain, Simon Bolivar was leading an equally successful campaign against Spanish rule in South America. He enlisted to his cause many foreign troops – including some high-minded British officers and soldiers who believed that Bolivar would do for the South what George Washington had done for the North. Some of those soldiers were in it for themselves, believing they would be rewarded with land, but others believed they were fighting to ‘save’ the native South Americans from a tyrant. In fact, Bolivar, having disposed of the Spanish, simply continued to oppress the ordinary people, and those soldiers ended up disillusioned.

Going back still further...in the Middle Ages, knights from all over Europe, hearing of the oppression of Christians in Jerusalem, set out on a series of great Crusades to rid the Holy Land of Islamic tyrants. After some hundreds of years of slaughter and carnage, wins and losses and atrocities committed on both sides, the Knights were not only defeated but made outcasts by their own Church.

In each case – and there are hundreds of such cases throughout history – the dream inspired in people was the removal of a tyrant and the protection of that tyrant’s victims. It’s a tried and tested formula that works well because most people want to help their neighbour in need and want to protect the innocent. What greater feeling can be aroused in a good man than that he might be a knight in shining armour defending someone in distress? Isn’t that honourable and noble, and don’t we have a duty to help our neighbour in need?

And yet...and yet...How many more countries will we bomb? How many more tyrants will we set out to overthrow? How many more wars – now euphemistically described as ‘military intervention’ – will we fight before we realise that there is always a quite different agenda behind what the news stories tell us? History shows us that nothing is ever as it appears in the news at the time...Wars are never about what they are said to be about and the overthrowing of tyrants is rarely quite as simple as it appears. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya...

It’s a dangerous business, overthrowing tyrants. Of course, no one wants tyranny but there wouldn’t be any tyrants if there weren’t always people ready to fire the guns for them....and the people who fire those guns are inspired by the same kind of ideology that they, too, are knights in shining armour, doing what is best for others. Can one man really hold so much power over others?

It is beyond bizarre that after all these thousands of years of wars and tyranny and all the rest of it, we still go on and on engaging in these mindless conflicts. It couldn’t happen if people stopped listening to politicians and leaders. It wouldn’t happen if we minded our own business and simply paid attention to who we are, not blaming others for our misfortunes or trying to impose out ideology on others, but recognising our own individual brilliance, being quiet within, and seeing in everyone the expression of the Divine.

I prefer to listen to birds and look at daffodils and talk to trees than to listen to political leaders. People who talk to trees are seen as quite mad...but what could be more mad than failing to learn from the past and continuing this relentless nonsense of killing each other in the name of freedom?

Sunday 20 March 2011

"There's Nowt So Queer As Folk"

There’s a saying here in the North of England, “There’s nowt so queer as folk” – roughly translated as ‘People are very bizarre.”

It’s very true, isn’t it? This is the first of a few posts about how bizarre things seem to me. I appreciate that some things might be controversial and that it might sound arrogant to express such an opinion, but what the heck! The deeper you delve into history or look at the present state of affairs, the more bizarre things appear and it is astounding really that so many things are taken for granted or old mistakes are incessantly repeated without being questioned. These are just my thoughts...

It’s bizarre that ‘The Tamworth Two’ – the two pigs who became a legend after
escaping from an abattoir and finding their way to freedom – became national heroes and everyone smiles at their brilliant escape....and then the same people who smile at that, sit down to a pork dinner or a bacon sandwich???

It’s bizarre that people who gush at the beauty of new born lambs think nothing of tucking into a chop, as though those beautiful and inspiring creatures had no feeling at all.

It’s bizarre that Christian countries could ever have been so anti-Semitic when Jesus was Jewish.

It’s bizarre that virtually every revolution or war that was fought in the name of ‘Liberty’, simply paved the way for greater tyranny, and people accepted it.

It’s bizarre that while the whole world is united in our desire to do all that we can to aid the Japanese people who are enduring the effects of the tsunami and earthquake, we silently sit by and watch the planes fly over Libya possibly killing many more people (as happened in Iraq)....

It’s bizarre that our planes now attack Gaddafi who, only a short time ago was being
embraced by Tony Blair and by the (unelected) president of the European Union.

It’s bizarre that every military intervention in recent times is described as an effort to protect the innocent people who are being attacked by dictators, yet we did nothing in Zimbabwe or other African countries.

It’s bizarre that people are swept up in the idea that we are responsible for climate change when we all know that the earth has moved through so many climatic shifts (ice ages, times of heating etc.) long before humanity had any part to play in it. (Who was responsible for the extinction of dinosaurs or dodos??)

It’s bizarre that the First World War is often called an imperial war when in fact not one single monarch or emperor wanted that war and it was all devised by politicians and ministers behind the scenes.

It’s bizarre that those who ousted the kings couldn’t wait to step into their palaces...and people still believed that these people were acting for their good!

It’s bizarre that most of us spend our lives living by the clock instead of by our natural instincts to rise when we’re ready and sleep when we’re ready and eat when we’re ready. Animals and plants seem far more attuned to Nature, and are far healthier!

It’s bizarre that the sick are so often seen as ‘brave’ or ‘heroes’ and in Christianity, sickness is seen as something that can be offered to God. Many saints of the past longed for suffering and martyrdom as a sign of their love??! – bizarre!!! If Jesus had thought that way, when he met a leper or a blind man, he would have praised their sacrifice rather than telling them they were healed!

Well, that’s a start...I hope to go into more specific details in the next few posts and trust that if this is offensive or simply arrogant, it is merely a record of my observations...

Friday 18 March 2011

The Making of a King

When their first son, Bertie, was born Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – both of whom were still so young – sought guidance about his upbringing from Prince Albert’s mentor Baron Stockmar. His advice couldn’t have been more detrimental to the poor Prince of Wales whose memories of childhood were so unhappy that as soon as he became King, he disposed of that great (and beautiful!) symbol of his childhood, Osborne House. As a boy Bertie could never please his parents. He just couldn’t fit their (or Stockmar’s) ideal of the perfect prince. Gauche, not studious or particularly academically intelligent, his natural talents for diplomacy and charm were so often overlooked. I adore Prince Albert and think that the one mistake of his life was his treatment – albeit well-intentioned – of the future King Edward VII. In later life, the perceived traumas of this strict regimen showed up in Bertie’s addictions to food, sex and gambling and anything else that brought him comfort. His life, however, was not a tragedy! He was well-liked, affable, had the common touch alongside great dignity and he was a great statesman and ambassador, though his reign was so brief.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria wanted to raise the perfect prince.

Seeing the footage of Prince William in New Zealand today, I was over-awed by the thought that it took a few generations and far less strict regimen for that dream to
come into being. Prince William was amazing! One moment dressed in casual clothes, shaking hands with the crowds, crouching to have his photo taken with children, and chatting to them as freely as if they were old friends. When someone in the crowd called out, “I will see you in London on the 29th!” Prince William, with genuine delight replied, “You’re coming? You are all invited!!” The next minute, in a smart suit and a Maori ‘stole’ he was addressing the earthquake victims with a solemnity and wisdom that was so touching. He spoke of his grandmother and the advice she had given him – and who could fail to notice that he, having lost his mother at such a young age, understood grief - and his dignified references to Her Majesty also showed such respect for the Queen (as did the way he sang the National Anthem, ‘God Save the Queen’, with such gusto).

Kipling's wonderful lines immediately came to mind:

“If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings nor lose the common touch...”

If ever the British monarchy needed a lift when the scurrilous newspapers go in search of scandals, I am sure this young prince is the perfect person for the job. Not only would his mother be so proud of him, but also his great-great-great-great-grandparents, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria must surely be looking down at him and thinking, “Well, we got there in the end!”

Monday 14 March 2011

"The Great"

On the beautiful blog ‘Tea at Trianon’ there is a wonderful post about Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs.

Tea at Trianon

I read this shortly after watching a brilliant TV documentary last night, which
included so much fascinating information about King Frederick the Great of Prussia. From his most famous quotations and the little I had read of Frederick, he had always seemed to me to be a rather stereo-typical war lord who earned the epithet ‘the Great’ through his conquests and military strategies. It’s always so wonderful to be proved wrong! Frederick, it turns out (as I am sure most other people already know, though I have been a complete ignoramus about him and intend to rectify that!), was so enlightened! He lived a very simple life, totally dedicated to his people and his county, encouraged education and learning, built some of the most beautiful buildings in Potsdam and the rest of Prussia not for his own use but for the well-being and edification of his people, and he wrote some magnificent lines which, unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find, about the role of a king as a servant of his people and if the king’s and the people’s interests are conflicting, the king must subjugate his own wishes. For these reasons, far more than for his military conquests, he surely earned the ‘Great’.

Becoming absorbed in this new insight, I realised at once that I felt the same
excitement as I felt on discovering the truth about Catherine the Great many years ago. Until then, all I knew of her was the story that she murdered her husband and allegedly had many lovers, and the curious and totally unfounded story about the bizarre manner of her death (she actually died of a stroke). Discovering the truth about Catherine was enlightening. She was one of the most forward-thinking monarchs of the age. Seeing her footmen standing around with nothing to do, she handed them books and when she was told that they couldn’t read, she arranged classes for them. She cared intensely about her people’s welfare and, although she had been virtually dragged to Russia at an early age and forced into marrying a sadist, she dedicated her life to the Russian people.

Alexander II, Frederick and Catherine – three very different characters but each with the good of their people at heart. Sadly, Alexander II hasn’t been called ‘the Great’ but, like his grandson Nicholas II, and like the majority of the 19th and early 20th century monarchs, too, he dedicated himself to a life in the service of his people. I wonder often, has there been a royal tyrant in Europe the past two or three hundred years? I don’t think so...but there have been several socialist or revolutionary tyrants who seized power from the royalties.

(In our more sophisticated age, there are shady politicians, bankers, corporate financiers and arms dealers who carry out their tyranny behind the scenes and manipulate currencies, the news and world affairs...but history shows that those who seize power inevitably end up being destroyed by it.)

Saturday 12 March 2011

Liberty and Lilies

(I trust this doesn't appear as a mere aside to this post but words are inconsequential in such times and it would be inappropriate to say more - sincere thoughts and sympathy to the people of Japan at this time).

As soon as he heard of the unleashing of the French Revolution, the English poet, William Wordsworth – a young man at that time – hurried to France to be part of this great movement towards liberty and individual freedom. Impassioned and animated by what was happening across the Channel, he believed that people had cast off the shackles of centuries and a new age was dawning and he wrote some of his most wonderful poems...Then he witnessed the murder of a king and the indiscriminate slaughter and bloodshed that followed and he returned disillusioned to England where eventually he bought a beautiful house in the Lake District and wrote some of his dullest poetry!

Wordsworth’s zeal at the outbreak of the French Revolution is understandable. It becomes even clearer in the light of William Blake’s poems (and Blake, in my opinion, is far better and more genuine poet). Blake saw the de-humanising of people that came about throughout the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions, where people who had lived a rural life, in tune with Nature, were suddenly – due to the Enclosure Acts, and the advances in technology that led to ordinary journeymen losing their livelihood – thrust into slum dwellings in appalling conditions, deprived of dignity in places where children (especially those poor little pauper apprentices) were horrendously overworked, abused and disposed of in those ‘dark Satanic mills’ (the towers of which, incidentally, still line the ugly view from the train window between here in Leeds and neighbouring Bradford). Seeing the world move towards such a mechanical and inhumane way of being, where people were no longer individuals but simply cogs in the wheel of industry, I think I, too, would have rushed to France for that Revolution or rather that attempt to stop the way that people were being turned into automatons.

The question is, though, what where they rebelling against? And who took the blame and became the scapegoat for all the wrongs that people suffered?

They were rebelling against so-called ‘progress’ that was depriving them of their individual humanity and creating a sense of insecurity, and yet they chose as their scapegoat a king who, without having chosen such a role, actually cared about their well-being. The King, unlike the industrialists, had nothing to gain from turning his people into mechanical parts. He hadn’t looked for power. He hadn’t sought a throne. He did what he thought was his duty and would have been happier mending clocks. Yet this innocent man who had been forced into marriage, humiliated for his early failure to produce an heir and whose life had been mapped out by others from the start became the scapegoat for the angry dissatisfaction of his people.

No matter how deeply I delve into history, I don’t understand this obsession with Revolutions and killing or blaming kings. The average French person in 1789 probably had no more interest in who was on the throne than the average Yorkshireman cared about what was happening in London. What mattered to people then – and matters to people now – is the quality of their lives. If life is hard, if business fails, if there is massive inflation, the immediate response is either to look for someone to blame and be angry with them to the point of rioting or sending them to the guillotine, or to surrender in submission as a victim of circumstance. Are we so weak and dependent and lacking in the ability to take responsibility for ourselves that we need always seek a scapegoat?

There’s another way forward, I think. All these revolutions in the name of liberty merely exchange one notion of tyranny for another. If ever there were anything to learn from history it surely is that no one outside of us has power over us. No one outside of us controls our circumstances unless we allow them to do so. The alternative to ‘allowing them to do so’, isn’t to behead or shoot them, since we would then merely replace them with another perceived tyrant. The alternative is to realise that no one, absolutely no one else, is responsible for our experiences. We get to choose how we view the world and how we are with other people. There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ anymore. There are no ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and so there is no need to squabble over power.

After all, “Look at the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin (nor get up with the clock, nor feel jealousy or fear, nor kill kings nor stir up trouble in other countries so we can make some oil deal) and yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these...”

Saturday 5 March 2011

A Return to The Age of Elegance

If ever you feel down in the dumps or under the weather; or if ever you look around the modern world and feel a little disheartened at much of what passes for music, fashion, literature and art today, and you long for a return to the Age of Elegance and culture...and sheer joy... I cannot recommend Andre Rieu highly enough!

Within about thirty seconds of watching the DVD of his Australian concert, I was transported to another world! Here is a little clip of it:

Andre Rieu

His beauty, the beauty he creates and his joie de vivre are so uplifting and his work is like a brilliantly shining light in the world of Art and Entertainment. Isn’t it interesting that thousands of people flock to his concerts? People of all ages and cultures laugh and cry at his concerts because his music and, even more, his passion for recreating that Golden Age of Imperial Austria seems to touch something of the beauty within us all.

Friday 4 March 2011

Rudolf: the Mystery and the Tragedy

Some years before I knew anything about Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, I listened to this very moving song ‘C’est a Mayerling’ by Mireille Mathieu:


and imagined this to be a most tragically beautiful story, somewhat like my adolescent interpretation of the film, Elvira Madigan, where hopeless lovers shoot themselves under a holm-oak tree to the strains of a Mozart sonata; or even the heart-rending “Les Amants d’un Jour” by Edith Piaf – both of which seemed so romantic and beautiful. The reality of suicide is, of course, something entirely different and anything but romantic. This post, however, is not about suicide but about tragedy and mystery of a different kind.

Crown Prince Rudolf and Mary Vetsera – their story has been made into films and
written up in various magazines while the mystery of their supposed suicide pact in the idyllic setting of Maylerling is presented as one of the great romances of the era. Alongside the romantic aspect, comes the mystery element: so many unanswered questions leading to theories that the whole thing was a set-up and Rudolf was murdered (a hypothesis which Empress Zita appeared to believe) or that Rudolf killed Mary and then killed himself...and there are so many different ideas about what happened, combined with the fact that Emperor Franz Ferdinand reputedly said that “anything but the truth” should come out and the official papers surrounding the event mysteriously disappeared. As happens with so many people who die in dramatic circumstances, Rudolf’s death overshadows the more interesting and perhaps more tragic details of his life.

I am not convinced that Rudolf killed himself, but that is irrelevant here. The great tragedy of his life, rather than the overplayed tragedy of his death, is his decline from being an astute and learned young man, into one who appeared to give way to despair. His affair with Mary doesn’t seem such a great romance, when she was but one in a string of lovers whose help he sought in overcoming his loneliness and the frustration of feeling that his opinions had no place and his aspirations no outlet in his father’s court. His similarity with King Edward VII of Britain is quite striking. Both, I think, were intelligent men who had ideas which differed so starkly from those of their monarch-parents and both were denied the opportunity to express their views of implement their dreams and plans. Both, too, felt as though they were somehow a disappointment to their parents and in their frustration, filled the empty hours with habits that became addictions: drink, food, drugs, mistresses - something to fill the inner vacuum.

Rudolf had many ideas which were so at odds with the Habsburg Court but some of which might have even saved the Empire. Had he been less passionate about these ideas, it would have been easy for him to slip into the frivolous lifestyle of many of his relations, biding his time until he came to power and he could have lived to a ripe old age. The fact that he felt such despair that his ideas weren’t well-received or recognised, shows, the depths to which he believed in his own vision of the necessity of change. Where he isn’t portrayed as the romantic hero who died for love, he is often portrayed as a rather pathetic waster who squandered his talents and wealth in a hedonistic lifestyle. Neither of these portrayals rings true. Like his mother, he was a free-spirit gasping for air in a claustrophobic court, and had he not had such visions of how to improve things, he wouldn’t have felt that lack of improvement so desperately.

The tragedy isn’t what happened at Maylering – whether had lived to 31 or 101 he would have left now anyway. The tragedy is that he is remembered in a way that never really seems to capture who he was, what he thought, what he felt and what he dreamed. To me he remains so mysterious and really quite beautiful.