Tuesday 31 July 2012

A very British idol

The Olympics opening ceremony, says its creator Danny Boyle, was designed to “represent us and feel truthful”.  Actually, I think it succeeded in that.  The British are rather good at being truthful about themselves, sometimes perhaps too good.  Some have wondered whether the spectacle of our green and pleasant land being torn up and disfigured by the greedy ravages of the Industrial Revolution was a bit more truthful than the image we want to project to the world.  Perhaps.  But it is what actually happened, and is a crucial factor in the subsequent development not just of Britain, but of the entire planet.  Britain exported industry to its empire: factories and railway lines became as much a part of the local landscape in Bombay as in Birmingham.  This changed, profoundly and irrevocably, the way in which millions of us live; and for all its dirt and squalor and destruction, it was a revolution that spun us into what we think of as the modern world.  You can argue about how “good” this was; you can’t argue about how formational.  And it started here.  It is right that it should be included in a tableau of who we are in the world.

And then there was the NHS.  A headline in Monday’s London Evening Standard above a still of that child jumping above a hospital bed asked: “Is this the scene that won Labour the next election?”  Maybe.  But probably not.  I didn’t see it as having much in the way of political impact.  As part of a representation of who we are, the creation of the NHS is undoubtedly up there.  It’s easy to forget that, when it was implemented, the welfare state was itself truly revolutionary, unique in the non-communist world.  It changed people’s lives – including those of my parents and grandparents – immeasurably, and unquestionably for the better. Others have admired and been inspired by it.  And we did it – and did it, moreover at a time of acute national austerity. Of course we should celebrate it - even if so fulsome a tribute to something as apparently mundane as a healthcare service seems slightly mystifying to non-British audiences.

But there’s a clue here.  Because the reason we celebrate the NHS, of course, is not just because of its ground-breaking nature.  It’s also because we believe in it.  I’ve blogged before about it as a “national religion” and about why it’s not the one I profess.  But there’s an awful truth in Chesterton’s aphorism: "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing - they believe in anything”.  For, while I accept that there are plenty of us who believe in both God and the NHS, I suspect the British people have largely stopped consciously believing in the former, and that the latter is as good an “anything” as you could suggest.

That it is not good for them to be Godless, I have no doubt.  But that is it not good for the NHS to be elevated to take His place, I am also quite sure.  It is a system for delivering health care, nothing more.  It was revolutionary; it was altruistic; it was courageous.  But the world, and Britain, has moved on.  What promised a sort of salvation 60 years ago now has an uncanny knack of making people frustrated and angry.  A more-than trebling of its funding over the last 15 years has revealed that the NHS’s real shortcomings are too deeply seated for money to reach.  Yet if a government so much as proposes to tinker with it, it is showered with abuse and risks political suicide.  The NHS does not need reforming; it needs rebuilding.  And for something new to be built, the pre-existing structure has to be demolished.  But who will dare to break the idol?

Saturday 14 July 2012

The History Boy

I really wish I had done history O-level. 

When I reached the age at which you had to choose your subjects, it had become clear I was the arty type.  Not that I was any good at what we called “art” at school.  My middling academic strengths were clearly going to lie in what were then called Modern Languages; and indeed I went on to do French and German (alongside English) at A-level and subsequently at university.  Already at the age of 14 it was plain that I had a fairly astringent aversion to mathematics and science; and my aim was to avoid them as far as possible for the rest of my education – and ideally the rest of my life.  I couldn’t avoid doing maths O-level, because like English Language, it was compulsory.  But I could avoid physics and opt for history instead.  But this was an age when most of us still did pretty much what our parents thought best for us; and my Dad was concerned that I should retain a breadth in my education that he thought would serve me well in later life.  So he made me do physics.

I continue to believe this was a mistake, and not just because I got an ‘H’ in the physics O-level.  I seem to have spent a good part of my adult life wishing I had a better grasp of the history of my own country and planet; and doing a fair bit of later-life learning about it.  But knowledge acquired in middle age doesn’t stick as well as that inculcated in childhood and adolescence.  I can still manage in French and German (I’m writing this in France) and although my once decent command of both languages is now laughably hesitant, I know that the linguistic structures are deeply embedded somewhere inside my head, and would creak back into life if I found myself in a French or German speaking context for any length of time.

But with history, I have to check basic facts over and over again.  While I have developed a kind of mind-map of English history, watching the current BBC Shakespeare history productions The Hollow Crown and reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies sends me back time after time to historical sources on the Wars of the Roses and the English Reformation.  The point of this, for me, is that the events of both periods were formational in terms of where – and who – we are now.  And they are of course not the only such periods - there’s the subsequent multiple tsunami of the Civil War, Commonwealth, Restoration and Glorious Revolution - 60 years that changed not just Britain, but the world.  Understanding our route thus far can help with seeing current events and pre-occupations as part of a continuing journey.  Patterns emerge; underlying tendencies are revealed - and modern controversies come to look like major weather events taking place inside items of domestic crockery.

It’s the corresponding lack of historical perspective that allows the Church, idiotically, to describe the prospect of gay marriage as “one of the worst threats it has faced in 500 years”.  No, my dears; among the worst threats during that time have been the Commonwealth suppression (during which Anglicanism was effectively abolished); the Non-Jurors scandal (in which 7 bishops and hundreds of clergy split the Church by refusing to swear allegiance to William & Mary); oh, and just possibly (if that’s all a bit too 17th century for you) the Church’s steep loss of public support, respect and influence over the last 50 years.  Of actual “threats” to the Church since the Elizabethan Settlement, gay marriage is probably about 89th out of 100 on the seriousness scale.

And you don’t even have to read history to learn about it.  The likes of Schama, Starkey and McCulloch offer it digestibly and engagingly on TV.  Even The Hollow Crown offers a version of the English history of the late 14th and early 15th centuries whose consequences we live with to this day.

The history of my country and my Church is one of high drama, appalling conflict and true heroism in the face of seismic shifts in human perception, loyalty and conviction.  Gay marriage?  Women bishops?  Do me a favour.

History on my doorstep: the Talbot Memorial in Castillon, SW France, marking the spot at which the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, and England finally lost Aquitaine to the French

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Between Two Seas

We are Entre Deux Mers. The "seas" in question are in fact mighty rivers: the stately Dordogne which rises 500 km to the east in the Auvergne, and her sleek southern sister the Garonne which flows even further, down from the Pyrenees. They merge to form the vast Gironde estuary by which both torrents meet the Atlantic above Bordeaux. The land upstream of their confluence is green, fertile country; undramatic and undemanding. Were it not for the hectare after endless serried hectare of it laid to vines, you could be in any of half a dozen lowland English counties. Perhaps, subconsciously, that's half the reason the English clung on to this region of Aquitaine for 300 years. That, and the wine.

Just over the ridge from here is the terre sainte of Saint Emilion, the town named for the peripatetic confessor and hermit who settled here in the 8th century and whose successors started the production of wine which has been described as "the Belgravia of clarets". Its hallowed and fiercely regimented vineyards, Romanesque churches and expensive-looking shops are now a UNESCO world heritage site. But the area boasts wine of all colours and qualities, including the light, garnet-coloured clairet (from which is derived the English name for all Bordeaux reds) made from skimming red wine to reduce its alcohol content. Deliciously refreshing chilled; and even - with a lack of snobbery all the more welcome for being unexpected - with ice. 

It's odd how la France profonde can remind you of l’Angleterre ancienne of your imagination. Sloping down from the front elevation of our chateau, a lawn gives way to a tree-shaded wildflower margin and then to a wheatfield: the ripening yellow ears dancing at your knees and the farther green fields and copses undulating to the horizon. Your step through the mown allees crushes carpets of wild thyme, its scent ascending from your feet as from the aisle of St Mary's Bourne Street during the procession on a high feast-day. Around you in the grass are sky-blue chicory, scabious and viper's bugloss. From the green depths of the elms and poplars in the middle distance comes the brief but repeated, low, liquid call of a golden oriole. High above, a black kite wheels noiselessly on a warm updraft.

The nearest neighbours are at least half a kilometer away as the crow flies. Every morning we are visited by their dog: an old, butter-soft, rheumy-eyed retriever, his blond fur wet from the dewy fields and vineyards he has crossed to reach us. He waits patiently on the threshold for a biscuit - and as much of a tummy-rub as you care to provide. He is utterly without fear or suspicion of these strangers; and is apparently bilingual. We speculate on his name: entirely inappropriately, I want to call him Talbot, after the fearless English general who finally lost Aquitaine to the French in 1453 at the battle of nearby Castillon, effectively ending the Hundred Years War. So revered was "Old" Talbot by the victorious French that they raised a monument to him on the battlefield - to which the modern visitor is directed by tasteful brown tourist signs. 

Our ancestors fought hard to retain this province; and now we seem to be occupying it again. Anglophone people of all conditions have made their home here. British voices are routinely heard in the markets, and the indigenous French are more than tolerant of their presence. The roads are still empty enough to accommodate the influx of Landcruisers with their big, tell-tale UK number-plates, each of them a promising sign of potential investment and spending-power in this depopulated corner of Europe. President Hollande is threatening a tax on second homes to help finance his counter-intuitive, non Anglo-Saxon economic recovery; but even the leader of this proudly commerce-averse nation will not want to risk discouraging this generally well-heeled British diaspora, with its helpfully endless demand for builders, gardeners, pisciniers - and all the sea-lampreys the brown, tidal Dordogne can yield.

Ironically, under the jeu sans frontieres that is the EU, if the French continue to move out while the English continue to move in, the latter may end up effectively getting Aquitaine back. I can't decide what Old Talbot would make of their bloodless revenge.