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Tuesday 28 June 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven

I think often that heaven is far closer and more accessible than we know. It cannot possibly be simply a ‘place’ we go to when we die. Heaven, I was taught as a child, is where God is; and at the same time was told that God is omnipresent – therefore to those who believe in heaven, it must be with us now. ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is within you’ or ‘among you’ (depending on the translation). It seems to me that physical life is but one aspect of who we are. In physical life there appears to be time but there are moments when we ‘glimpse eternity’ and realise that time, like so much else, is only a tool to help us order our lives. Beyond time, beyond all the boundaries that we put in place to create order, it often feels that in the timelessness of everything, we have access to all that has ever been and all that ever will be, since it all is really in the great ‘eternal now’.

Believing that to be so, it has always seemed perfectly logical to me that we can talk as freely and as naturally with those who are no longer in physical life, as we can with those around us. I do not mean table-tapping or Ouija boards or any of the other weird and dark things people use – on the contrary, I mean that through the purity of our own being and the Light of the Divinity within us, we can be in tune with anyone from any place or any time. Churches have always believed this – prayer, conversations with saints etc. are not dark and do not require darkened rooms or spooky goings-on; they are light and pure and natural. It was always perfectly natural to me to converse with saints, since that is what my Catholic upbringing showed me. It only began to dawn on me later that many saints were not really very nice people, and many had been canonised for political reasons...in fact some were downright racist, sexist, bigoted and quite nasty pieces of work. If, however, it was perfectly natural to converse with those people, was it not equally natural to converse with anyone?

It seems that there are wavelengths on which we operate and some of these coincide with the wavelengths of others, and just as we are attracted to or have a rapport with those around us though sometimes we do not know why we are just drawn to some people, we can be equally drawn to or have a rapport with those who are no longer on earth and from that place we are perfectly in-tune with them. It is a very remarkable and beautiful experience, I think. Some people might consider this a load of balderdash but I believe it.

On the anniversary of the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, I cannot help but think of the sheer joy that both of them experienced at the moment of their ‘death’. Such a horrific event, so pre-meditated and with such dire consequences for humanity (and for their beloved children), and yet whenever I think of them on this day, I have such a powerful sense of the joy that they both felt – a great release and a huge amount of laughter and exhilaration.

Did you ever attend a funeral expecting to be moved and tearful only to find it was an amazingly joyous and uplifting occasion? If so, maybe you’ll agree with these thoughts about Franz Ferdinand and Sophie.

Monday 27 June 2011

Ninety-Seven Years Ago Tonight

Ninety-seven years ago this evening, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, hosted a banquet for officers and local dignitaries at their hotel in Bosnia. The orchestra of the Sarajevo garrison played for them and I imagine that on a summer evening, the guests were entertained to such beautiful and popular music as Strauss’ Roses from the South and the Emperor Waltz. (Strauss' music being the epitome of Vienna at that time, I put his picture here).
That evening was so perfect for Franz Ferdinand. Someone once said that the three ingredients to happiness are something to enjoy, something to look forward to, and someone to love. In his role as Inspector of the Imperial Army, Franz Ferdinand had just witnessed a successful series of military manoeuvres and, considering that he had often despaired of the state of the Austrian army, that must have come as a great relief to him. He had, only weeks earlier, cultivated a friendship with Kaiser Wilhelm and together they had planned closer co-operation with Russia and the other major powers. More importantly to Franz Ferdinand, he had enjoyed a summer of seeing his wife accepted by the people at the races and at the opera; and he had spent time with his beloved children. He certainly had something to enjoy.
Tomorrow would be his fourteenth wedding anniversary and, perhaps for the first time, he and Sophie would travel together in the same motorcade – no longer would she be relegated to the role of an inferior. What’s more, he would have the chance to explain his views on giving greater autonomy to the different regions of the Empire. His uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, weakened by his recent bout of bronchitis, could not be emperor forever and very soon, it would seem, Franz Ferdinand would be able to implement his own ideas. He had a lot to look forward to.
And Sophie beside him. This woman, for whom he had endured the alienation of his family and the court, and who was probably the only person in his life (apart from their children) who truly understood him, meant more to him than anything. He truly loved her.
Yes, indeed, I imagine Franz Ferdinand was very happy on this night, ninety-seven years ago.

His murder the next day was such a major world event that there hasn’t ever been a history book about the First World War that doesn’t mention him. Even in my ‘O’ level classes and the rather dull text books that described this amazing time, there was a faint photograph of him on that fateful day, and, in the index of the book there was only one reference to him to say he was murdered and consequently war broke out.

His murder and the subsequent slaughter was not, I am sure, merely the work of some tubercular student with notions of nationalism, but rather a well-defined plot in which Princips was only the ‘patsy’. Had this man lived, the history of the 20th Century would have been very different but, since we cannot directly change the past, we can, at least, recognise the true character of a man who – like so many others – had been so maligned or ‘written off’ by historians.

I am so glad that his last evening was spent with his beloved Sophie and that, it seems, he was truly happy that night.

Sunday 26 June 2011

"For the Children"

I guess that in moments of extreme physical danger reactions are not always indicative of a person’s character. I once saw a documentary about ‘Heroes’ which included several interviews with people who had been in perilous situations, some of whom had later been hailed as heroes and others as cowards. One example was a man who, on a sinking ferry, turned himself into a human bridge, risking his own life so that others could literally walk over him to safety. He was later awarded for his courage and yet he said that he had suffered nightmares ever since and didn’t remember anything of his thoughts at the time. On the same programme was a woman who, in a panic to escape from a burning plane, had trodden on her fallen fiancé's body in her desperate attempt to escape. Her fiancé died and she had lived with a great burden of guilt ever since. Both reactions, it seemed, were spontaneous and one certainly could not condemn that poor woman who, in different circumstances might well have been a heroine.

Having said that, it seems that in times in heightened emotion people tend to become most truly themselves. Some people become very calm and quiet and ‘something else’ appears to take over (I consider that ‘something else’ to be their true self, and the God within each of us). Others tend to panic or talk a lot or burst into tears or behave in ways that appear out-of-character and that seems to me to be a desperate need to control the situation from a solely physical aspect. Either way, sooner or later, it all comes down to who we really are – that powerful Divine life that is the very breath of our being.

One thing (among many!) that seems to be often forgotten about Franz Ferdinand, is what he said when the fatal bullet struck him. This man, who is so often relegated to a footnote in history and so mistakenly described as nothing more than a bull-headed angry man, at the moment of his death said to his wife as she died in his arms, "Little Sophie [Sopherl, Sopherl] you have to live for the children....” A term of beautiful endearment to his wife, and his thoughts turned at once to their children. It says a great deal about the man, I think, that this was his priority at that moment. What a loving and devoted husband, in an age where many men of his station kept mistresses; and what a loving father, in an age where many men of his station had little to do with their children. Had the First World War not been stage-managed to come about as a result of his murder, I really believe that history would have learned to see him in a very different light. I hope with all my heart that “Shattered Crowns: The Scapegoats” (which is very close to publication) will at least begin to touch on the reality of this much maligned and misrepresented man.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

"If I Ruled the World"

It’s not surprising that the phrase “divide and conquer” is taken from the Latin ‘divide et impera‘ since this age-old practice goes back to the Romans and probably even earlier. If you want to take control of another country, one way of achieving your aim is to rouse discord among the people, divide them and then step into the chaos and take charge. I think this tactic was probably used by the Romans in Palestine/Israel in New Testament times, when Herod the Great’s sons inherited different parts of his kingdom. A more modern example is Bismarck’s incitement of the Magyars, following the Austro-Prussian War, so that they would basically rabble-rouse against their Austrian ‘overlords’ and in so doing would weaken Franz Josef’s Empire. (Alas, all over the world, we see the same strategy being carried out today).

While writing Shattered Crowns: The Scapegoats, so many things struck me as disturbing and having parallels in the long past and in the present. One aspect of the First World War that cannot be overlooked is that in 1914 there were 4 major autocratic powers in Europe (the fourth might be called under another name): Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia and the Church (in fact 2 Churches: Orthodoxy and Catholicism). If you or I were – as in a game - of a mind to take control of trade, industry, banking and above all the mind-set, beliefs and aspirations of humanity, autocracies would be the first obstacle to be overcome, particularly if those autocracies were built on deep-seated beliefs such as religion. Russia, a deeply spiritual and independent nation wherein Orthodoxy and Tsardom were so intertwined, and Austria-Hungary, the ‘Apostolic Empire’ with its close connections to the Roman Catholic Church, would be the prime targets. By 1914, Austria-Hungary was already disintegrating, but there was a danger that if the elderly Emperor Franz Josef died and his nephew, the forward-thinking Franz Ferdinand, were to succeed him, the Empire, through Franz Ferdinand’s reforms could not only be restored but could also make peace with its neighbours. (Two weeks before Franz Ferdinand’s fatal trip to Sarajevo, he entertained Kaiser Wilhelm at one of his country estates and the two men discussed, among other things, greater co-operation with Russia and the need to create peace in the Balkans.)

By 1918 the autocracies had been wiped out and with them Orthodoxy and Catholicism no longer held any territorial weight in Europe. Those past autocrats could be either wiped out of history (as happened in Soviet Russia) or portrayed quite differently to the reality (that, too, is an old trick – look how Richard III was described by the usurping Tudors! – and so it continued with ‘weak’ Nicholas and ‘mad’ Wilhelm). Society could be first secularised and then ‘dumbed down’, fed a diet of sex and shopping, pleasure-seeking and desperation, ‘action films’ and advertisements. Hey-ho! Now we can brainwash the world and people become mere puppets, repeating the old histories....

The only problem is that if you ever lay concrete flags in a garden and build walls and sanitise everything, little sprouts of green still push between the flags, weeds and flowers flourish in the most unlikely places and Nature continues to show her face no matter how much effort you put in to oppressing her. People will go on fighting wars without meaning and others will go on in their game of control but really the human spirit and the depths of Spirituality, Life and Humanity in all its forms can never be crushed by these games. Sooner or later the Truth always comes out.

(Personally, to quote a song, 'If I ruled the world....' I'd say to everyone, "Here, you rule you, and I'll rule me and we'll all get along just fine!")

Sunday 19 June 2011

"Shattered Crowns: The Scapegoats"

The first novel in my trilogy, Shattered Crowns, is shortly to be released. The trilogy follows the royalties of Europe from 1913 to 1918 and the first novel (1913 to the outbreak of the First World War) has the subtitle The Scapegoats. I chose this title because, after ploughing through so many opposing opinions and documents, and from thinking of the characters involved it is clear that Tsar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm and, to a lesser extent, Emperor Franz Josef have been made the scapegoats for such a terrible war whereas not one of them – not even the Kaiser! – wanted war.

It is particularly striking, seeing how they were – against their will - hoodwinked, cajoled and pressurised by ministers and others into allowing the war to happen, that these three monarchies were destroyed by the war. It is so striking that it seems almost a deliberate plot to overthrow them, particularly when you consider that both Russia and Germany refused to be drawn into the international banking legislation of the time and were fiercely independent. I firmly believe that – after years of trying to make sense of how this terrible war came about – the real cause lies very deeply hidden in something far more sinister that can easily be described here.

I am, however, far more interested in interesting people than in politics and one of the most interesting revelations to me during my research is the character of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This man, whom most people remember only because his murder is said to be the cause of WW1, was a far greater and more perceptive man than the hot-headed, unpopular person he is usually shown to be. His ideas for future government of Austria-Hungary (based on the American idea of independent states and a federal government); his determination to refuse to be crowned King of Hungary until universal suffrage was granted; his understanding of the balance of power and his opposition to the annexing of Bosnia-Herzegovina, are quite wonderful!

Interesting, isn’t it, that he was invited to Sarajevo on his wedding anniversary and Sophie, his beloved wife who had been so shunned in Vienna was also invited to appear with him in public that day? Did someone fail to mention that it was also a day of great national symbolism for the Serbs (St. Vitus Day – the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo). Strange how, in such a turbulent area, there was no military protection...even stranger how, after the first attempt on his life, he was still driven in an open car through the streets and the car took a wrong turning - because the driver hadn’t been informed of the change of route to the hospital – and so had to reverse into the path of the killer. Strange too that we accept that the Black Hand was a recognised criminal organisation who had carried out many atrocities when, in fact, apart from a couple of so-called failed or aborted assassination attempts, I cannot find any evidence of their supposed crimes. Also, if that group was – as Austrian ministers claimed – made up of military officers and high ranking Serbian officials, would they choose some drop-out nineteen year old student to carry out so important an assassination? There is a great deal more to say of this but perhaps it is inappropriate here.

To the end of her life, Empress Zita maintained that there was something far more
sinister about the plot to kill Franz Ferdinand than meets the eye. In the aftermath of war, Franz Ferdinand has largely been forgotten; Kaiser Wilhelm (who was always a bit unbalanced) has been made out to be the mad and evil plotter - though he was tryng desperately - in the midst of his many hang-ups - to avoid war and he vehemently opposed the invasion of Belgium; and Tsar Nicholas (who was way ahead of many others in his understanding of and attempts to bring a peaceful solution to the
Balkans wars, and who worked often through the night with no rest in his attempts to broker peace) is portrayed as dancing on the deck of his yacht letting the world go to hell in a handcart because he was ‘weak’. Amazing how easily often repeated stories begin to be believed.

"Shattered Crowns: The Scapegoats" isn’t an attempt to change perceived history or anything of the sort, but is rather written out of love and respect for these ‘scapegoats’ of history.

Monday 13 June 2011

"Golden Fleece"

What a treasure of a book I received as a gift last week! Bertita Harding’s “Golden Fleece” – the story of Franz Josef and Sissi of Austria. Apart from the wonderful feel and smell of the paper that only comes with ‘old’ books(this was published in 1939) the style and brilliance of the author is so appealing that it is amazing that she isn’t better known!

Written in the style of a novel but totally true to history, this book is a masterpiece of psychology, humour and sincere respect for its subjects.The style sometimes reminds me of Dickens – the little asides that are universally and timelessly amusing – but is far less heavy; and the story itself is told in such a captivating way that it is both hugely informative and easy to read. There are magical, but not verbose, descriptions and anecdotes, and each page reads like watching a film unfold. There are moments when I literally laugh out loud at some of the occasional comments (e.g. regarding Sissi’s parents: “Marriage had been difficult, a matter of mostly avoiding each other. Even so, eight children....bore witness to an occasional meeting...” or, of her father, Duke Max, “He rejoiced in the reputation of being the most unpractical man of his time.”) but – true to the formula of ‘make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry’ – there is such insight into the characters that you can feel Sissi’s grief and frustration without being allowed to succumb to it. Basically, the author grasps how both Emperor Franz Josef Empress Elizabeth felt at various times, so we understand exactly their position, but at the same time the author manages to point out (often with small humorous phrases) that their feelings were not necessarily their finest feelings.

Bertita Harding, about whom I can find very little information, must have been one of the most underrated authors of her age; and one of the most underrated authors of royal history. This book is really one to treasure!

Friday 10 June 2011

Happy 90th Birthday to Prince Philip

A very Happy 90th Birthday to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. He might have made many controversial comments and he is the very opposite of ‘political correctness’ (which is sometimes rather refreshing!) but he has carried out his duties as Prince Consort so diligently for over fifty years.

Although this picture (taken with Prince Philip's uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten)
doesn’t quite capture it, I think there is a definite likeness between him and his grandmother, Victoria of Hesse/Battenberg/Milford Haven who played such a major role in his upbringing. I would venture that Victoria was probably the cleverest and most well-read of all Queen Victoria’s granddaughters, and was a remarkably strong personality. Princess Marie Louise’s descriptions of Victoria’s response to the news of the murder of her sister, Alix, Tsarina of Russia, and her entire family are incredibly moving. For three weeks after hearing that devastating news, Marie-Louise says, Victoria quietly worked in the gardens. Shortly afterwards, she also received news of her sister, Ella’s murder, and she was responsible for having Ella’s body taken to the Holy Land.

Victoria was a very strong and fascinating character....her grandson, Prince Philip, must be so proud of and grateful for her influence.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Those Whom The Gods Would Destroy...

When I was a very small child, I sat each afternoon on my grandmother’s knee (literally!) while she sang songs from the First World War and told me stories of people she had known and loved who were killed on various battlefields, and her sister-in-law who gassed herself when she received news of her young husband’s death on the Somme. That’s a bit of an odd start in life, when you think of Teletubbies and Thomas the Tank Engine and The Mister Men and the bright lovely stories that are more suitable to our formative years. However, the First World War always disconcerted and fascinated me and for a very long time I have tried to understand what really happened and why so many people became involved in such madness that makes no sense whatsoever.

For the past couple of years, I have been researching various aspects of that war for my forthcoming book, which will very soon be available and is the first of a trilogy of novels based on the lives of the royalties of the era, concentrating in the first novel on the Austrian Archdukes Franz Ferdinand and Karl, and the German Kaiser Wilhelm (more of the book anon!). What has been far more disconcerting than my grandmother’s stories are some of the things that have come to light about these people, and who was really behind the First World War. I am not by nature a suspicious person but the deeper you delve into these things, the murkier it becomes. There is so much to write about this but for now there are two things that specifically come to mind.

The first is a quotation from Euripedes: “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” I very much doubt that the ‘gods’ would act so malevolently but it seems pretty certain that those whom the victors would destroy, they first describe as insane. Kaiser Wilhelm is a prime example.
He is largely portrayed as a complete megalomaniac and war-monger when, in fact, despite his difficulties (and I don’t dispute that he was, to say the least, a little caught up in his own love-hate relationship with his mother and his need for acceptance and affection), he had been the autocrat of one of the most peaceable countries in Europe for the first twenty-five years of his reign and his outbursts of aggression were largely in response to what he saw (probably accurately) as attempts to undermine his ‘new’ nation.

The second specific thought, which is far more disconcerting, brings to mind the
innkeeper, Thénardier, from Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’. A long chapter of that brilliant book describes Thénardier stealing from the corpses on the battlefield of Waterloo. He is obviously an unpleasant and unscrupulous character but, while researching the First World War book, it became apparent to me that this grave-robbing and profiteering is small-scale compared to the much grander scale of people who nowadays appear very respectable but have made a fortune from wars. Since historical events cannot be isolated, my research led back to the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution and again and again the same families appear....I would go so far as to say that there were certain people and certain families (who still operate successfully today) who deliberately set out to undermine the power of autocracies – particular the autocracies of Austria-Hungary and Russia – in order to create chaos and implement their own agenda.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I do not subscribe to any particular political party or have an unflinching affiliation to a particular religion. I believe wholeheartedly in the wonder and beauty of humanity and that all Life is an expression the Divine and therefore that all people and all creatures are incredibly precious. I simply wanted to know why so many people died for nothing in the First World War (and why that great-aunt was driven to gas herself in 1916), and it opened a can of worms which a few years ago I would never have believed. It seems that very few things really are as they first appear.