Lives in shadow and sunlight

By , 26 June 2009 6:45 pm

I am currently reading a book on the Napoleonic Wars called War of Wars by Robert Harvey. (No, I am not writing a book on the time; it’s just that it’s an appalling gap in my own knowledge I would like to remedy.) It’s an easy read although I was a bit alarmed to find from the Amazon reviews that there are a number of minor historical errors.

Anyway yesterday I came across mention of Charles Middleton, 1st Baron Barham (October 14, 1726 – June 17, 1813) a British naval officer and politician. ‘Who?’ you say, and frankly I don’t blame you: you’d have to be a specialist in the period to know him. The point is that Barham was head of the British Admiralty during the Napoleonic Wars, by which point he was in his late 70s. Essentially what we would call a ‘desk warrior’, Barham made sure that the ships and sailors were supplied with everything necessary to fight Napoleon. In an age of corruption, he was incorruptible and at a time of sloth, he was energetic. He was, by all accounts, the model of the perfect civil servant. It was his wise decisions and prudent planning that made sure that Nelson was able to resoundingly defeat the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. You will not be surprised to know that Barham was a very committed Evangelical and one of the early proponents of the abolition of the slave trade. In fact, it may even have been Barham who suggested to Wilberforce that he take up the antislavery cause. We Protestants do not have patron saints. If we did, Baron Barham would be an excellent one for civil servants and those whose lives involve sitting in offices, ticking off items on lists and balancing books. Perhaps there is a stained glass window of him somewhere.

Anyway as I was thinking of the good baron, news came in of Michael Jackson’s death. As one of the few people on the planet unable to hum a single bar of anything MJ ever sang I am reluctant to comment on his worth. I would cautiously suggest (there is a certain irony in my tone at this point) though that despite what many commentators have been saying, the loss to music is not quite on the same scale as if Beethoven had fallen off a cliff at the age of five. Nevertheless I found myself sticking up for the man a couple of occasions today when it was sneeringly suggested that he was a paedophile: the court found that he was not guilty. From what I understand (and I did once watch a documentary on him), Jacko seemed to be a tragic figure, a mixed up child whose development into a man was frozen by the glare of the spotlight. If ever we wanted evidence of the cost of fame, his all too short life surely provides it.

Anyway, I thought the two figures contrasted rather nicely. Barham, office bound, overlooked, labouring on dryly and steadily into an enormously profitable old age, and Jackson, the global celebrity, burnt out in the light of publicity at barely half Barham’s age. I know which I’d choose to be.

Things I don’t like about Britain

By , 19 June 2009 5:25 pm

In last week’s blog I accentuated the positive and praised our noble isle; it is now time for me to be negative. However I find myself with a real problem. This morning in Iran, the supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Britain of being particularly ‘evil’. (For some reason the United States of America escaped his wrath: perhaps under Obama you are no longer the Great Satan.) After a great deal of soul-searching I have decided to take the risk of providing the Ayatollah further proof of his case. (Actually your Grace/Highness/Ayatollahness, I really don’t mind you quoting me in your next rhetorical blast before ten thousand students: it wouldn’t half do wonders for the book sales.)

Anyway here goes:

  • The way that, although the British do political correctness as well as anybody else we still, deep down, believe that we are number one nation. The result is a degree of smugness and barely suppressed superiority. This leads to many other problems:
    • Our astonishing reluctance to learn any other language.
    • The general assumption that the only way to do things is our way and the sooner that the French, Chinese or Indians actually catch up with us the better they will be.
    • A quietly patronising view towards such people as Americans and frankly everybody else. We don’t like to publicly call them inferior but well……
  • A viewpoint that tends to think that cutting and hurtful sarcasm is the ultimate pinnacle of humour.
  • An attitude which greets any and every occurrence of patriotism, morality or self-sacrifice with a sneer.
  • The way we take our landscape and culture for granted and are only slightly and momentarily upset when they get trashed.
  • The appalling and overpriced British railway system.
  • The increasing prevalence of drunken behaviour. I suspect we always did have a considerable number of drunks but what seems to be abnormal is the astonishingly early hour of the day in which drunkenness can now occur and the fact that people now seem to be proud to be paralytic. By the way, a drunk in a British train is a horror squared.
  • The increasingly prevalent view that anyone who is in any way religious must be slightly damaged in the area of intelligence.
  • A ridiculous mawkish tendency to burst into tears when it comes to fluffy animals and dead princesses. It is not actually the emotion here that is to be blamed but the inconsistency. We don’t bat an eyelid about creating a shopping complex that wipes out an entire family of badgers because we have destroyed their habitat, but we get terribly upset when someone runs one over. And as for the dead princesses, well we probably hounded them to their grave.
  • The weather. I object to a continuous nine months of cold grey cloud and rain interspersed with brief moments of sunlight.
  • The utterly inconsistent British view of sex. The powers that be lament our appalling rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion while our popular media insist that the only way to have fun is to be horizontal with someone else.
  • The prevalence of the belief that someone who sits in an office doing nothing more than moving bits of paper around enriching one part of the world at the expense of another is somehow vastly superior to a man or woman who actually makes things for sale.
  • The ridiculous and frankly catastrophic view that you buy a house (or preferably several houses) as an investment. On this basis house prices going up is a good thing because it increases your investment; the fact that it harms society by creating a vast body of people who cannot ever afford to buy houses is conveniently overlooked.
  • The dreadful price of things in this country. This is largely due to the previous two ills. Because we have legitimised greed as honourable and because house prices are so expensive we all need to make as much money as we can. The only way of doing that is by such things as charging three pounds/ five dollars for a cup of coffee that tastes like mud.
  • I have a personal aversion to various products from United Kingdom that I think the world would be much better without: these include Benny Hill, Big Brother, most football stars and Jeremy Clarkson. The only saving grace of all of them is that they have contributed to the gross national product.
  • A view of history which attempts to explain many of the fine things about British culture (see last week for examples) as being somehow due to ‘Britishness’ (err, isn’t this racism?), rather than our nation’s long traditions of Christian ethics.

Well if you live somewhere other than in Britain in Britain and a stranger with a suitcase knocks on your door this week don’t be surprised. It’s me seeking political asylum. But as a concluding aside: why is it so much easier to say negative things about your country than positive ones?

What I like about Britain

By , 12 June 2009 6:30 pm

Much to everybody’s surprise the Prime Minister appears to have got off the hook despite pretty appalling European election results. The reality is that his party is in such trouble that no one particularly wants to take over given that they have to hold a general election within ten months or so.

Anyway by way of a change I thought I would run two-parter on a) What I like about Britain and b) What I don’t. Feel free to join in. What I like, in no particular order, are the following aspects of Britain.

  • No matter where you live in the UK you don’t really need air conditioning.
  • The fact that we are in hopeless confusion about what we called: Great Britain/British Isles/United Kingdom and whether we are British/English/Welsh/Scottish or whatever the Northern Irish call themselves.
  • We use a language which has a remarkable property of allowing sentences be comprehensible even when the words are put in all the wrong places.
  • We haven’t had a proper massacre on British soil for probably 400 years. (Some idea of how rare a proper massacre is can be seen when you look at the events of 16 August 1819 when cavalry with drawn sabres charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 which had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. The result was that 15 people were killed and the event became known to posterity as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’. I’ve known Lebanese family disputes with a higher death toll.)
  • Except when drunk (see next week) there is a tradition of agreeing to differ and a refusal to adopt a belligerent position. Typical English phrases include ‘I can see where you are coming from…’ and ‘Well, I suppose that’s a fair point but I would like to point out that…’
  • You have to work hard to get frostbite. (Although if you wear a swimming costume on a British beach on the average summer day something very similar seems to occur.)
  • There are no wild animals and our one poisonous snake species manages to kill two people a century or thereabouts.
  • To be an underachiever is absolutely normal. Indeed there is something wrong with your ambition if you do not want to be an underachiever. We are truly excellent at mediocrity.
  • BBC radio, BBC on the Internet and the BBC World Service. Not however the BBC television service.
  • The fact that we are now vaguely repentant and apologetic about having tried to conquer large parts of the world. We certainly have no idea of making another attempt.
  • The idea of the English pub in which over several hours people slowly drink a brown moderately alcoholic drink and politely discuss what’s wrong with the world. (Note that I said the idea: the reality is now often very different but that’s for next week.)
  • The fact that no one ever visits Britain and says (as they do in Belgium and Finland), ‘Say, did anybody famous ever come from here?’
  • The fact that the monarch is not a political appointee.
  • A national church which dogmatically holds only one belief: that it is wrong to hold dogmatic beliefs.
  • The fact that British police are generally unlikely to shoot you and when they do they are fearfully apologetic.
  • The way that we persistently and rather endearingly hold onto the belief (against all the evidence) that we really are good at some things such as comedy, car making, playing football and acting as a good moral influence on the United States and/or France.
  • We have some jolly fine museums mostly filled with splendid bits that we looted from all over the world when we were top dog.
  • The way we rejoice in our defeats (Dunkirk) and rarely get jingoistic about our triumphs.
  • Our penchant for finding the real world so distasteful that we must seek refuge in fantasy.
  • A widespread refusal to complain as in ‘Mustn’t grumble, must we?’ (This of course has the unfortunate repercussion that all manner of substandard things can persist in Britain because no one does protest about them. Just try the railways.)
  • Being nice to animals. (I was in the British Museum last weekend where there are some splendid Assyrian wall panels; listening to the bystanders it was clear that no one objected to the scenes of torture and humiliation of human beings but everyone was outraged at the scenes of lions being killed.)
  • We lead the world in fine funerals. Few people want to live as a Brit but most aspire to die like one.
  • The widespread view (unfortunately not held by newspaper proprietors from Australia) that it is unsporting to interfere with the press.

Leadership and morality

By , 5 June 2009 6:30 pm

As I have no idea of how many of you are UK residents I need to fill in a little bit of the background to the current political situation over here. These are dark days. Gordon Brown’s government, beleaguered and astonishingly unpopular, is clearly in its last days. I am not aware that he has publicly been compared to a zombie but he has certainly been recently called a dead man walking. The government is beset by defections, allegations and recriminations; the ship of state is now so deep in the water that it cannot surely stay afloat long. Indeed, by the time you read this blog Brown may have resigned. For three weeks we have had day after day of revelations on how ministers and others have sought to bend or break various rules in order to maximise their income. A vast majority of the country now firmly believes that most, if not all, of our politicians are actually corrupt.

An enormous amount of ink has been spilt on our leaders and I do not want to say any more about them in particular. What I want to comment on is the interesting effect on public morality that this succession of mini scandals has had. I haven’t exactly heard anybody say ’Well, if they can do it so can I’ but I’ve heard things are pretty close to it. There has been an almost audible slackening of the nation’s ethical standards; a collective sigh of relief that tax dodging, expenses fiddling and sharp property deals are actually no longer serious offences. If national morality was a needle on a gauge then we have had it flicker and sink ever lower. The date cannot be far away when the accused turns to the judge and says ‘Your honour, in my defence, I was only doing what my MP has been doing for years.’ I am not personally terribly surprised at these revelations (I lived in Lebanon for eight years where almost all politicians were seriously corrupt) but I do not find them uplifting. One had hoped for better things in a country famed for its decency and democracy.

Let me make three observations. The first is that this shows the utter importance of leadership. It may sound blindingly obvious – and perhaps it is – but leadership is important in setting the moral tone of the country. I am not sure how much we learn from example, but I do know that we set our standards from it. We are a species that suffers from herd behaviour. As the leaders, so the followers; as the shepherds, so the sheep. If those who lead a nation are at best greedy and at worst corrupt, then you are unlikely to find better behaviour amongst the population.

The second is this. Having said that leadership is critical, it is one of the great strengths of Protestantism or biblical Christianity that it creates an individual morality and in so doing provides something of a defence against corruption from above. My understanding of the Protestant view of humanity is that every single one of us stands as individuals before a knowing God. I’m not terribly enthused by the old phrase that used to be embroidered on wall-hangings, ‘Thou God, seest me’, but it’s undeniable that to have individuals perceiving themselves as personally accountable before God has had an astonishingly benevolent effect on society. Protestantism proves to be a great and potent bulwark against widespread corruption. There is a fascinating organisation called Transparency International which provides lists of the least and most corrupt countries. On the table of perceived corruption the least corrupt countries are overwhelmingly the Protestant states of northern Europe and their former overseas colonies. One of the biggest challenges facing atheism is how, in the absence of a supervising deity, you are going to prevent antisocial behaviour. It seems that if we remove God we must replace him with the CCTV and trial by press.

The third reflection is that this, above all, needs to be a truth that we take on as individuals. Human nature being what it is we are all tempted to be corrupt in some shape or form. Corruption is subtle, insidious and progressive. It starts small but soon grows. We need to resolve personally to make sure that we stop the rot as quickly as possible. And if we are in leadership we need to take more care, not less, to be honest.

Have a good week


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