Author of several books, most notoriously All the First Minister’s Men; the Truth Behind Holyrood, and scourge of any corrupt and self-serving establishment faction, David Black is not going away.
Launched the day the world failed to end.
December 21st, 2012
don’t excorcise – just accessorise. The festival to die for.
Never let it be said – even if they are – that the Scots are a gloomy and introspective people, much hodden-doon with a grim Calvinist heritage in which life was so dreary and doom-laden that getting out of it was probably, for many, a merciful release. Assuming one could dodge the fiery pit, you could finally lie undisturbed under your sod while your spirit frolicked and cavorted respectfully in the flowery meadows of a Presbyterian paradise (can you imagine such a place!) for all eternity. Unless you were a Catholic, in which case the music and the decor would be a bit better.
Of course this was all very well for the land of our grannies, where self-denial, misery and ecclesiastical delusions were articles of faith, but, generally speaking, nobody’s much troubled about such deep thoughts in this new age of the X-factor, cafe-society, and Das Wunderbra. The Church of Scotland went all trendy lefty sometime in the 1960s, leaving the brimstone and ashes behind, and things haven’t been the same since. Until now.
Edinburgh does all sorts of festivals other than the official – jazz, fringe, film, science, etc, so there doesn’t seem to be room for much more, but the grim reaper will not be forsworn. We are now about to embark upon a Festival of Death. How Scottish is that?
I think the idea is that since death can’t be avoided, we might as well use it as a party theme. It also allows the deathmongers, who have long been avoided, nay, scorned, to get their names up in lights. As I understand it, this all started with someone in the Royal Society coming up with the somewhat oxymoronic idea that we all deserved ‘a life affirming day about death.’
There will be something for everyone, as the more unimaginative marketing types like to tell us. The eternally ubiquitous and manically saturnine former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard ‘Yeah, verily, I am everywhere’ Holloway will be leading a number of charges. Events include a seminar entitled ‘Death and Dying; no room for Fatalism’, a ‘Poetry and Dying’ workshop, and a short story reading ‘Death in Life.’ It was a relief to discover that there was no kiddie’s event billed as ‘Death Can be Fun’, much as one gets with physics, maths, philately, and other dull subjects.
I was thinking, well, at least, there won’t be a Comedy stand-up angle, but then I noticed that an event labelled ‘In Memoriam’, jointly arranged by the University of Dundee and the Royal Society, had won something called the ‘Stephen Fry Award for Excellence in Public Engagement with Research.’ Mr Fry, like the colourful Bishop Holloway, would seem to be congenitally omnipresent. You have to laugh, though.
It’s not as if death can suddenly have become fashionable. After all, it’s been around for a long time. It can also be dealt with in a variety of ways. For most of us, it’s probably quite a private thing. Some people, of course, get all metaphysical and spooky about it; others, like an 18th century ancestor of mine who ordered his coffin during his lifetime because it could also be used as a handy item of furniture, take a more downbeat, practical view of the whole event. He’s now using it for real in Restalrig cemetery.
I don’t have anything against death, having said one or two bedside farewells myself, and attended a variety of funerals (including, on one occasion, a gay service). These can be fraught events – how can any one of us begin to console a grieving parent who has lost a child – but they can also be reflective and rewarding.
Last week I was at the funeral of the artist Derek Clarke. I last saw him chatting away to some of his former Edinburgh College of Art students (many in their sixties, seventies, and eighties) just over a year ago. That was at his centenary exhibition in the Royal Scottish Academy, when, despite his hundred hard-working years, he still had that famous irascible glint in his eye. Derek finally slipped the cable, aged 102, leaving the rest of us to consider our own mortality, but in an entirely positive way. Amongst his last wishes was his instruction that anyone coming to see him off in St Mary’s Metropolitan Cathedral should bedeck themselves in bright colours. There were tears, there was catharsis, but there was also joy at the thought that he’d given so much to the world.
We need funerals, I like to think, because we should express our affectionate regard to the memory of the departed, and share our feelings with those who were close to him. We should also reconcile ourselves to the loss, for our own sakes, bearing in mind that we’ll be on the same road ourselves, someday. They needn’t be grim affairs; on the contrary they can be oddly uplifting. Mexico’s annual ‘Day of the Dead’ is a carnival tradition which we would do well to emulate.
Even so, I’m not so sure Stephen Fry awards and brainstorming former bishops are what we all need to face the inevitable. This is not to say that dying needn’t have its humorous side. We should remember Oscar Wilde’s last quip as he was about to depart this life in a somewhat vulgarly decorated Paris hotel room.
‘Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.’
March 3rd, 2014
Whoopsie – I think I’ve lost America
Two hundred and forty years have passed since Lord North’s London government legislated to close the port of Boston in the first of his ‘Coercive Acts’. In the wake of the Boston Tea Party, the Westminster parliament calculated that by undermining the economy of Massachusetts the vociferous minority of American colonists who were demanding separation from the mother country would be fatally marginalised as the sanctions began to bite. The inevitable outcome, it was assumed, could only be that American public opinion would turn against the troublesome rebels, and the rule of law, as exercised by His Britannic Majesty’s government, would be vigorously asserted and maintained.
The result was not the one intended. Moderates like Benjamin Franklin, who had long supported an accommodation with the ‘British Imperium’, gravitated inexorably towards the independence option. Not only were the citizens of Boston enraged; their cause was taken up in the other colonies, and a newly-formed Continental Congress brought together some of the finest minds in the transatlantic demesne. Within a year, it would be British Loyalists who would find themselves isolated as the battle lines were drawn up at Lexington and Concord. In the year following that, the Declaration of Independence would sever the ties between Britain and her thirteen colonies forever.
History is now repeating itself. the British Chancellor (Finance Secretary) George Osborne, with the support of Labor’s Ed Balls and Liberal Democrat Danny Alexander, has decided to run a ‘Coercive Act’ of his own by making it clear that, come hell or high water, if Scots have the temerity to vote for independence they will suffer by being excluded from the sterling zone, and the use of the pound will be denied to them. Putting aside the questionable legal basis of this Westminster edict (the pound, after all, is British, not English, and its use was not even denied to the Irish, despite their violent breakaway) it is hardly likely to win the hearts and minds of voters in Scotland’s forthcoming independence referendum.
Former Scottish First Minister Henry McLeish, an avowed supporter of the Union, may not (yet) be a latter-day Benjamin Franklin, but one can understand why he is burying his head in his hands at this latest display of Westminster insouciance. He knows that threats and intimidation rarely succeed as instruments of policy. Not so long ago we had a gaffe by David Cameron which involved him ‘love bombing’ the Scots from a 2012 Olympic venue which only served to remind them that yet another London vanity scheme had overshot its budget (in that case from an original estimate of £1.8 billion to a turnout cost of around £10 billion, if one includes the billion or so which UK government number crunchers, a la Enron, attempted to keep off the balance sheet).
In the wake of George Osborne’s threat comes further news in the form a Coalition view that even if the referendum result is in favour of Independence, Westminster will not be obliged to concede it. This would not only breach the terms of the October 2012 ‘Edinburgh Agreement’ signed in a spirit of amity by Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond – it would also be a serious infringement of international law and a negation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, which holds that self-determination is the inherent right of any aspirant nation. ‘The basic policy of contemporary international law’ according to Professor W Michael Reisman of the Yale Law School, and one of the World’s leading authorities on the application of International law ‘has been to maintain the political independence of territorial communities’.
It would seem that Westminster’s Loyalist Troika is in a state of alarm, and has resorted to hauling out a heavy weaponry which includes the kind of punitive sanction normally targeted at rogue states like Zimbabwe. It didn’t work in 1774, and there is a very real and present danger that it won’t work now. There are many sound and rational arguments for promoting the case that Scotland should remain in the Union, but backing them up with threats and intimidation should not be part of political discourse in any modern democracy. If London mishandles this one the precedent may not be 1774. It may be 1776.
February 24th, 2014
Another fine mess. Will the Scots tell Dave to get on his bike?
David Cameron may have his Scottish connections – the last Jacobite to be executed for treason on Tower Hill, Dr Archibald Cameron of Lochiel, was a distant cousin – however his difficulties in reaching out to the demotic Scots in the referendum debate are all too clear. He might even deserve an iota of sympathy, given the manifest lack of love north of the Border for any ex-Etonian Conservative smoothie who chooses the leafiness of Chipping Norton for his country demesne, rather than his bleak ancestral heath, but whoever it was who advised him to invoke the Olympic spirit and ‘Team GB’in his latest appeal to the tartan hordes may have done him a rank dis-service.
Putting aside the obvious fact that politicians who desperately invoke sporting metaphors have usually run out of well-reasoned arguments to support any case they seek to make, and leave many of us feeling both patronised and singularly uninformed, it would seem to be even more risky, in the present circumstances, to cite the 2012 London Olympics as a reason for keeping Britain together.
Yes, we should applaud the successes of individual sports men and women who won medals for Britain, but it’s as well to remember that this was a grossly mis-managed budget-busting London glut-fest which saw investment in sports and the arts being slashed elsewhere in the UK as costs rose from the initial £1.8 billion figure computed by Ove Arup at the outset, to over £9 billion – despite which Olympics minister Tessa Jowell made the bizarre claim that the completed project had come in ‘under budget.’
The clue, as they say, is in the name. The London Olympics, like the Millennium Dome before it, was an overblown prestige project which required a massive injection of cash into Britain’s wealthiest city. When costs ran out of control, it was necessary to pare budgets elsewhere and redirect lottery funding to meet the shortfall.
The featherbedding of the London city-state is not simply an issue for Scots. A recent report on state spending on the arts said it all – London gets £69 per head, while other regions in England have to get by on a paltry £4.58 per head. That said, it is doubtful if the Olympics remotely benefited the majority of Londoners.
It certainly cheesed off a lot of Scots, who had to contribute through their taxes towards yet another London extravaganza which brought no benefit at all to them.
It goes without saying the the innocent punter should always be wary of any politician who seeks to siphon a bit of the feelgood factor from the sportsfield as a means of burnishing the spin (that was not a cricketing metaphor, incidentally).
Dave’s Olympian ‘red white and blue’ sporting metaphor will only remind Scots how much they had to hand over for yet another pumped-up London indulgence. He may just have scored an own-goal with this one, as former Scottish First Minister and footballing wizard Henry McLeish might have said.
February 8th, 2014
Many years ago the free-wheeling ‘international entrepreneur’, Peter De Savary, proprietor of the furthermost tip of mainland England, Land’s End, decided to buy John o’ Groats, its Scottish mainland equivalent. There was an element of predictability to his subsequent dinner-table jest – ‘ All I need now is the bit in the middle’. Even for De Savary that was on the far side of the hubris scale, though he did scoop up Skibo estate, scene of Madonna’s ill-fated wedding, and various other nuggets for his further profit and amusement.
The Old Town of Edinburgh, too, has a bit in the middle. It lies between the oldest inhabited Royal Palace in Europe, Holyroodhouse, and one of the most dramatically situated castles in the world, which clings to the rugged core of an extinct volcano at the head of Castlehill. Further interest derives from the architectural palette of buildings on the main thoroughfare, not all of them as ancient as such gems as Huntley House and Gladstone’s Land. The Scottish Poetry Library, for example, is a tasteful modern intervention. The Queen’s Gallery is a Victorian charity school which was brilliantly converted into a venue for exhibitions from the Royal Collection by the architect Benjamin Tindall. Panmure House, once home to the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, is about to be brought back into use as a monument to his genius. Near the top of the hill is Riddle’s Court, a hybrid complex dating back five hundred years which, subject to further fundraising by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, will one day house a learning centre dedicated to the world renowned pioneer of town planning, social regeneration, and historic preservation, the great Patrick Geddes.
The bit in the middle, in this case, is the Lawnmarket, the High Street, and the Canongate, popularly known in the tourist literature as ‘The Royal Mile.’ About two thirds of the way down the hill, and in an area properly designated The North Back of the Canongate, there is an enormous cleared site which, since it nestles beneath the brow of the Calton Hill, was rechristened ‘The Caltongate’ by the first of its proposed developers, Mountgrange, which has since gone the way of Lehmann Brothers and other crash ‘n burn disasters of the overheated economy of 2008.
It would be no exaggeration to say that this is currently one of the most important cleared site opportunities in any historic city in Europe – or anywhere in the world, for that matter. Unfortunately, neither the developers, past or present, nor the officials and councillors of Edinburgh, seem to have entirely cottoned on to that fact. The first of the Caltongate schemes, almost unbelievably, proposed the demolition of a number of listed buildings on, and around, the Royal Mile, and filled the void with a wallpaper developer architecture of such utter mediocrity that one wonders if it would have had planning consent in post-industrial Wolverhampton, never mind in the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The fact that the MD of now-defunct Mountgrange was also a commissioner of English Heritage, tells us all we need to know about the catastrophic collapse of that particular state regulator.
There was great relief all round when Mountgrange fell off a cliff, along with its sterile project, and a glimmer of hope that something better might emerge – indeed, perhaps even something really, really good – don’t forget that we are talking about a historic location of international significance here. Another firm with the reassuring name of Artisan Real Estate Investment, headed by one Lukas Nakos, turned up and bought the asset, along with a planning consent which the council obligingly re-activated, all except for the less expensive housing component which had been one of the few community-orientated elements of the Mountgrange scheme.
Sadly, Artisan REI has come up with yet more bland developer schluck, though they pulled back somewhat on the demolition proposals. The truly tragic aspect of this whole affair is that if both the council and the developer were to take a bit of time, and advice, and think this one through something very special might emerge – something which could even make Artisan’s investment more profitable. After all, this is a site which comes with a unique selling feature – - it lies right at the heart of one of the world’s best love historic cities, and could capitalise on that fact.
The character of Edinburgh as shown in Gordon of Rothiemay’s famous ‘gutted haddie’ map more than three hundred years ago is still discernible, and should unquestionably be the leitmotif of a development in such a sensitive site. Think about this, for example – - the Traverse Theatre, currently operating in cramped basement premises under Saltire Court, would like to move to somewhere more suitable.
What could be better than a revival of Allan Ramsay’s ‘Canongate Playhouse’, which could become the centrepiece of a new cultural and residential quarter? The publicity might even gain considerable traction if it could be run as an international architectural competition, though that route, too, can have its downsides.
Anyone who has visited the area around Venice’s famous Fenice, which was gloriously rebuilt after a fire some years ago, can envisage how inspiring such a series of connecting spaces can be, with alleyways leading into little courtyards, restaurants, galleries, boutique hotels, homes for the rich and not-so-rich – get the mix right, and a buzz would be guaranteed. The one thing this really needs, of course, is atmosphere and human scale, and that comes down to getting the architecture right – which is certainly far from the case with Artisan’s latest proposal.
One appreciates that every company has a fiduciary duty to return a profit to its investors – in this case if the formula is pitched in the right way, profitability could arguably be enhanced. Besides, no developer wants his scheme to attract adverse comment – that can always put one’s profitability at risk.
With Caltongate, the adverse commentary seems to be coming in thick and fast, and it isn’t just from anonymous locals who object to their own views and interests being ignored. Edinburgh is a designated city of literature, so it is perhaps no surprise that writers of global repute, like Candia McWilliam, are stepping forward to defend their city. ‘What respect can this plan command? she asks ‘what affection can it summon? The eye slides over the proposed glassy belly, only to be caught on decoration so thin and parodic that one might be at a derelict funfair with its emptied carousel – there are more visual and mrally literate plans, surely.’
A further damning opinion has been advanced by Alexander McCall Smith, one of the world’s best-selling writers. ‘I think what is proposed is a disastrous project for out beloved city. How can we destroy the very thing that brings people from all over the world to Edinburgh? How can we allow inappropriate and ugly developments when there are plenty of constructive ways of regenerating old areas? How can those in charge of these matters ignore the chorus of well argued and concerned criticism of such plans?’
In the 18th century, the Lord Provost and Magistrates of Edinburgh had the vision and the confidence to great one of the world’s great urban neoclassical masterpieces, the New Town. In the 19th century, Lord Provosts like reform-minded publishers William Chambers and Adam Black replaced many of the worst slums of the decrepit Old Town with neo-baronial housing of stunning quality for the ordinary citizens of Edinburgh. Even in the aesthetically bleak 20th century, the character of the Old Town was retained by the sensitive interventions of such architects as Ebenezer MacRae, Ian Lindsay, and Robert Hurd.
That legacy should not be betrayed.
January 29th, 2014
Does Dave need Vlad’s help to screw the Scots
A little speculation can go a long way, particularly when the speculator is the Republican chair of the US House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, and the subject under discussion is the dishing of the NSA and its surveillance glut-fest. According to Congressman Rogers, the now exiled intelligence contractor Edward Snowden could not have leaked the highly embarrassing information which found its way to the Guardian newspaper without some sort of outside help. Mr Rogers then goes on to suggest that such outside help ‘may have’ been provided by Russia. Well, he could be right. On the other hand, he could be wrong. The words ‘may have’ would scarcely impress a judge in any properly constituted court of law, amounting as it does to little more than the sort of soft-baked innuendo so engagingly reminiscent of Senator Joe McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee. As evidence goes, ‘may have’ doesn’t quite cut the judicial mustard.
It does raise an interesting point, though. If, indeed, it turns out to be the case that Mr Snowden was deriving a degree of succour and comfort from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, what do Congressman Rogers and other Snowden bashers like Democrat Congresswoman Dianne Feinstein intend to do about British Prime Minister David Cameron who, according to a report in The Herald, has been doing much the same thing in his mission to thwart the ambitions of the Scottish National Party? The source of the Herald story was the state-owned Itar-Tass Russian news agency, which ought to know what it is talking about, and may be presumed to have had the nod from upstairs when it put out a report that the UK government is ‘extremely interested’ in gaining the support of the Kremlin with a view to putting a spoke in the wheel of Alex Salmond’s Scottish independence bandwagon.
A sophisticated Jesuitical interpretation of that word ‘support’ is not entirely convincing when it comes to the necessary Downing Street rebuttal. On the one hand a Downing Street spokesperson slaps the rumour down firmly, and without a hint of ambivalence. ‘There has been no approach to the Russian Government for help in the independence referendum, and there won’t be one’ apparently. Phew, that’s all right then. But hey, what’s this? Another Downing Street spokesperson seems to believe that the difficulties of Afghanistan and Scotland are both ‘issues whose resolution requires international formats, albeit it of different modalities.’
We should of course be grateful for the last clause – this would seem to rule out drone strikes, at least for now. Nevertheless a close study of the text suggests that Mr Cameron might after all be seeking to cosy-up to the man who, according to former US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in his excellent recent autobiography, has the ‘eyes of a stone-cold killer’, and who, what’s more, is currently presiding over the G8 Group of leading global economies.
The point could certainly be made that a vote for Scottish independence will have repercussions outside Scotland. The loss of North Sea oil revenues, for one thing, might take a bit of the gilt of London’s gingerbread. Some imagine it may also imperil Britain’s place on the UN Security Council, a fear which has clearly been noted on Capitol Hill, and possibly inspired a somewhat inaccurate leader in The Washington Post last October – in fact Vlad would probably advise Dave not to get to exercised over that one, given that Russia seamlessly took over the collapsing USSR’s place shortly after the Berlin Wall came down. England only need cite the precedent to confound her enemies.
Think what you will about Edward Snowden – people’s hero, or treacherous snitch, depending on your political partialities – and believe what you will about Scottish independence, though the lack of cogent and considered argument doesn’t seem to be helping, for now. The big question is this. If it turns out that David Cameron has been discussing the internal affairs of the United Kingdom with Vladimir Putin, what are Congressman Rogers (a former FBI special agent) and Senator Feinstein going to do about it? Shouldn’t they be seeking Mr Cameron’s extradition, in the interests of consistency, leaving him with little alternative but an application for asylum in Moscow, and a new life?
Such an outcome would seem to be unlikely, yet we should earnestly hope the Prime Minister has decidedly not been seeking advice from the Russian President – a man who, lest we forget, has a particularly robust manner when it comes to trouncing nationalism inside his own borders. It would be downright silly to describe Scotland as ‘England’s Chechnya’ in which case there would be little point in Mr Putin advising Mr Cameron to do for Edinburgh what the Russian government did for Grozny – roll out the heavy artillery, and pound it until there’s nothing left.
That would hardly go down well in the New Club, after all.
January 21st, 2014
House of Lords. Caution advised – may contain nuts
Like some querulous old Capo in a gangster movie, the ex marketing man who is now Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, seems to be given to muttering dark and sinister warnings about the awful things that might happen to us if we fail to do his bidding. Know whadda mean, mon ami? Poor Dave – he’s just not cut out for the role. He’d have been much better off sticking to his previous occupation, which included promoting a sickly layered cocktail shooter known as ‘Slippery Nipple’ to the 18-25 age group – at least that was keeping him out of politics.
Unfortunately Slippery Dave is very much in politics. He hasn’t yet tried out the old Brando trick of stuffing tissues in his mouth to add that edge of menace to his pronouncements, but one feels it’s only a matter of time. His other problem is that he doesn’t altogether convince. Indeed, he doesn’t convince at all. In the case of his New Year encyclical to the Scots about the dire consequences which would ensue if they as much as thought about voting for independence in the forthcoming referendum the result seems to have been distinctly counter productive – a mid-term poll of voter intentions published on New Year’s day showed support for the Nationalists soaring skywards.
Rationally speaking, there may be one or two sound arguments which could be rallied for voting against independence. The creation of a single Scottish police force like Generalissimo Franco’s Spanish Civil Guard is not one of the SNP’s better ideas – even police officers have taken to inveighing against it. Likewise it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find a lawyer who warms to Justice Minister MacAskill’s abolition of the corroboration rule, long a feature of Scottish legal due process. Then there’s the proposed demolition of Perth City Hall, a crime of the highest order (corroborated or otherwise) whose proponents seem to include SNP councillors who hate old buildings. More recently, the Scottish Government decision to award Scottish Heritage chief Ruth Parsons an eye-watering £300,000 after she left her job amidst a welter of bullying and harassment allegations has raised more than a few eyebrows – this is supposed to be the sort of scandalous thing they do at Westminster, dammit!
But the British government, Dave included, doesn’t do rational. Ever since MPs were first exposed on the expenses scandal, every sentient being from Penzance to Papa Westray has worked out that the Westminster Parliament is an assembly of devious self-serving rogues bent on their own unjust enrichment. Obviously we know deep within our hearts that this isn’t really true, but perception is all, and as the cell door slams on yet another ex-cabinet minister who fiddled his expenses, the moral stock of the Westminster machine inevitably plummets even lower.
One can only reflect, with a frisson of horror, that by casting a ‘no’ vote in the forthcoming referendum, a Scot would be surrendering the future of his or her children and grandchildren to rule by an essentially venal and corrupt London regime. For a lot of people, this is a bit of a worry. Apart from all other considerations, Boris’s London is basically an over-privileged medieval city state which sucks the life blood out of the rest of Britain, and it’s run for the benefit of feckless bankers and foreign oligarchs who like to invest their ill-gotten gains in £60m Regent’s Park Mansions. Ask anyone in Penzance or Papa Westray what they think of Britain’s pampered capital, and count the expletives. Indeed ask any normal mortal in London who isn’t a banker or an oligarch and you might find a similar level of cynicism.
A recent report on state spending on the arts said it all – posh London gets £69 per head, while other regions in England have to get by on a paltry £4.58 per head. We can forgive the Medici, just a little bit, for over-indulging Florence, since at least they were helping to deliver the Renaissance. In London, it’s tacky nonsense like the uber-expensive Millennium Dome and the tacky 2012 Olympics, the cost of which rose from under £2 billion to around £9 billion, notwithstanding which Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell lied repeatedly about the whole tasteless extravaganza being ‘on budget’ – an accountancy technique she possibly picked up from her old pal, Silvio Berlusconi.
Dave’s bluster isn’t just about how sensible it would be for Scots to stick with his diamond-encrusted chums in London. It extends to other areas, too, such as the need to control the press. He warns that unless all print titles sign up to his ‘Royal Charter’ which is disingenuously described as an ‘arms length’ mechanism devised with the benign intention of helping the press control itself, then there will be trouble. With the words ‘statutory underpinning’ emblazoned on the tin one instantly senses that this is exactly what Slippery Dave is claiming it isn’t – state control of a printed media which was last subjected to such strictures in the late 17th century.
The excuse being used in this case is the phone hacking scandal, the unravelling of which saw the Murdoch family being arraigned in the dock of the House of Commons Culture Select Committee and interrogated by such ornaments as chubby expenses claimant Tom ‘Witchpricker’ Watson, who engagingly compared the News International empire to the Mafia as an opportunistic way of puffing sales of his book ‘Dial M for Murdoch’.
As it happens, the phone hacking scandal was due to be dealt with by real, grown-up courts, rather than the kangaroo affair known as the Culture Committee – a body of the unctuously self-righteous which, for good measure, refuses to look into an allegation that state regulator English Heritage, which is meant to be subject to its oversight, engaged in a business arrangement in 2008 which breached the 2006 Fraud Act. How strange that these scrutineers can’t be bothered to scrutinise something within their own sphere of responsibility while blithely breaching the principle of the separation of powers by second guessing coming verdicts in court proceedings concerning Coulson, Brooks et al.
Not surprisingly, the Murdoch stable would seem to be less than in love with the British establishment these days, a disposition which may have something to do with the way it was treated by the more egregious members of the Culture Committee. This may account for an alarming cover story in its US tabloid celeb ‘n scandal rag, The Globe, which I recently felt I had to buy in a Boca Raton supermarket. Under the label ‘Royal Exclusive’ we are informed that our ‘Dying Queen’ has just had her last Christmas and has told Kate ‘I have 6 months to live’, Naturally, I asked the check-out assistant if I could get my money back in July if Her Maj was still kicking around. She generously agreed.
Some sense of what the Americans must make of basket-case Britain can be gleaned from this vitriol enhanced tale about how Her Majesty wishes to cut Charles out of the succession because he’s supposedly a bit of an eccentric. Camilla, not best pleased, is cruelly scheming against Kate and Wills, and trying to manipulate their elderly granny – the only ingredients lacking are a poisonous apple and a mirror on the wall. Whether there is a constitutional provision which would actually allow the reigning monarch to break the line of inheritance according to whim is doubtful. There almost certainly isn’t. As I recall Queen Vic was less than cheered by the thought that her sybaritic eldest, Bertie, should take up where she left off, but the poor old thing just couldn’t do anything about it. Edward the Seventh it was, love him or loathe him.
In any case, since the entire gorgeous panoply of monarchy is, in its own way, an ancient eccentricity made glorious by centuries of custom and usage, the alleged eccentricity of the Prince of Wales should surely be accounted a good thing, particularly given what would seem to be his decent intentions. A more pervasive form of British eccentricity recently featured in The New York Times. In an article by their London Bureau’s Stephen Castle, a man called Tom Galbraith explained how the House of Lords was in some mystical sense superior to the US Senate insofar it lacks the blocking powers of the latter institution, thus avoiding political deadlock. ‘Mr Galbraith’, as he was neatly styled, turned to be out none other than his eminence My Lord Strathclyde, former Tory cabinet minister and leader of the Conservative interest on the red benches.
The House of Lords, it seems, is multiplying at an alarming rate. This has nothing to do in the sense that most of us understand it, namely natural increase. In the olden days you attained a peerage courtesy of your mum, who’d been made large with child by Charles IInd. You, as the progeny – assuming you were a male brat – would simply adopt a name like ‘Fitzroy’ (literally ‘royal bastard’) and take on the appropriate airs and graces.
Then something approaching parliamentary process kicked in, when the Whig Prime Minister Robert Walpole introduced a non-biology related system known as graft and corruption, which meant that he could simply sell peerages to his rich pals for big bucks and pocket the proceeds. Biology still counted for something, however. The Provost of Linlithgow, Sir James Glen, for example, attained the governorship of South Carolina in part because his sister was the doddering Walpole’s mistress in his last years. The principle of succession through the male line also guaranteed that the descendants of those who had greased the Prime Minister’s palm could Lord it over the rest of us for all time coming, provided they kept producing brats. Thankfully, this system had its own inbuilt self-regulating mechanism, insofar as the occasional heir might be ‘batting for the other side’ (gay, in today’s parlance) or might be ‘declared fatuous’ (ie. was a slobbering imbecile) so from time to time lines of succession died out gracefully.
Tensions began to show in the late 18th century onwards, with the Town Party versus the Country Party rivalry, which roughly translated means that the po-faced non-conformist industrial rich of the Midlands and the North of England were damned if all these foppish old Tory landowning types with their drunken dalliances and silver coat-frogging were going to rule the roost forever. Matters were sorted out somewhat by the 1832 Reform Act, though it would be a further 96 years before Britain became a fully fledged democracy, at least in the case of the ‘Lower Chamber’ (the keep-em-in-their place name for the elected House of Commons).
The circus was still in town, however, in the form of the Lords, where biological succession persisted until the end of the 20th century, at which point the ‘hereditaries’ had their numbers cut down. The Walpole Graft and Corruption system and pals’ preferment scams had never quite gone away. Lord Salisbury became responsible for the phrase ‘Bob’s your Uncle’ when he anointed his nephew, Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister. The Liberal Premier Lloyd George, in whose presence few men’s wives were safe, blithely sold peerages to anyone who could come up with a bung.
All terribly quaint, and of course with the arrival of the post-war consensus and Mr Atlee’s welfare minded Labour government such corrupt practices were instantly swept away. Don’t you believe it! People like Tony Benn, the ex-peer who had shown his disdain for the institution by resigning from it, suggested that the Lords could simply be stuffed with new peers who could then vote for its dissolution, much as the old Scottish Parliament had in 1707. This would have been a perfectly sensible measure, except that nobody – including Harold Wilson – was buying. Indeed Wilson abused the system as much as anyone by making his crooked raincoat manufacturer, Joe Kagan, a Peer of the Realm. It was to be Tony Blair, however, who took abuse of the system to new heights (or should that be depths) with the dawn of the million quid peerage. Amazingly, he got clean away with it, though certain judicious adjustments to the Walpole system were necessary, with the bungs being re-classified as long-term loans, and the like.
Tommy Galbraith’s declared belief is that the Lords is better than the US Senate (whose members are actually elected, which he didn’t seem to notice) because it has no real power, and is only there to revise and advise on certain matters, and whose revisions and advice the expenses claimants in ‘another place’ (the preferred sniffy name for the Lower House’) were free to ignore. In that case, why bother with the Lords at all? Other countries, like the Netherlands, seem to operate bicameral systems based on democratic accountability, but in the fools’ paradise known as Britain we are not only continuing with this decrepit Medieval assembly of the elderly unelected (161 peers are over 80) – we are actually expanding its numbers. This is largely due to a ratcheting-up system in which one political party seeks to gain an edge for itself by packing the Lords with its own appointees, none of whom can be booted out when an opposing party takes over. The new incumbents then repeat the folly by packing the chamber with an even larger number of their own followers, and so on ad infinitum. At this rate, I estimate that by 2175 everyone in the land should be a Peer of the Realm – it won’t even be necessary to have had an ancestress who was fertilised by Charles the second.
More amusingly, at the present time it isn’t even possible to evict a peer who has served his time in prison for committing a criminal offence. The popular novelist my Lord Archer, for example, was banged up for perjury after denying he’d given a lady of easy virtue an envelope full of banknotes at a railway station, while my Lord Watson, the former Scottish Culture Minister who had been ennobled by Tony, tried to burn down A-listed Prestonfield House, where Benjamin Franklin had once plotted revolution with his Scottish friends. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the building hadn’t been stacked to the rafters at the time with Scottish editors and TV anchors – attempting to set such people alight is not a clever way to get a good headline. Both the perjurer and the arsonist are fully entitled to sit on the red benches, drawing their expenses and helping to delay the legislation from their inferiors in the Lower House.
If the Lords has no real powers, one can only wonder why it is that our ruling establishment persists with a system which would embarrass a chimpanzee from Mars. In fact the Lords has the power to delay legislation, which means that a particularly contentious policy can effectively be killed by Britain’s answer to the filibuster by being starved of parliamentary time. It suits all factions to have this facility to hand, thus the folly and madness is perpetuated by all the major parties, and so we are doomed to our Ruritanian fantasy of an ermine and red velvet upper chamber.
The House of Lords is now – The New York Times informs us – ‘the world’s largest legislative body outside China’, and growing , with 836 members heading towards 1,000. In fact in Blair’s second year in office the total had surged to 1330, then all but 92 of the hereditaries were expelled, and the numbers fell back – but thanks to Tony’s habit of rewarding party donors with a peerage, the seats were soon filling up again. Tommy Galbraith tells Mr Castle this doesn’t matter a hoot, tautologically describing complaints about numbers as so much complaining. However, there is some fear and alarm, according to one Labour peer, that when the tally reaches 2000 it’s going to be jolly difficult to book a table in the Lords’ dining room. My God, I never knew there was such suffering!
The voters have no say in who sits in the Upper House, or how many of them there are – though whether they’d be too impressed by the fact that they’d could be shelling out around £2 million in allowances and expenses for each and every five consecutive days of full attendance by unelected Lords is perhaps a moot point. On the other hand, if this exponential growth continues, then by the time our future King George the VIIth’s grandchild inherits the throne (assuming our present queen has passed away) everyone in Britain will be a member of the House of Lords, and true democracy will have arrived.
America’s constitutional democracy, by contrast, will then be seen to be a sad and piffling thing, and the late unpleasantness of 1776 will be exposed for the misguided folly it truly was.
Or maybe not.
January 7th, 2014
Key West, like Perth & Kinross, is a wrecker’s paradise
Strange though it may seem, there would appear to be a most curious link between Key West, the semi-tropical southernmost point of the United States (currently 86 degrees – sorry about that) and the Fair City of Perth. That link can be summed up in a single word – wrecking.
First, you’ll be needing some history, so here it is. As the American Revolution was drawing to a close thousands of loyalists crowded into New York, the last hold-out the British army after the defeat at Yorktown. The game was a bogey. America had won its independence, and the loyalists were in retreat, having lost everything they’d ever owned. It was agreed that they could be shipped out in safety, if also in penury, the bulk of them to Nova Scotia where they could start again.
Many of these loyalists had formerly lived in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, and didn’t take too kindly to the Canadian climate, so when the opportunity arose to move on again to the northern islands of the Bahamas they grabbed it with both hands. The island of Abaco, in particular, seemed like an agreeable place, though they scattered themselves around and established a number of island plantations.
In theory, this new enterprise was much more rooted in the principles of liberty than the newly liberated United States. The last Royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, had effectively declared an end to slavery with his 1775 ‘Offer of Emancipation’, though possibly for reasons of expediency, as much as morality – he needed the active support of African-Americans in his fight against the rebels. Dunmore was, however, reflecting the views of his Scottish Murray kinsman, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chancellor of England (born in Perth – we’re getting there!) who, in the landmark 1772 Somersett case, had declared slavery both ‘odious’ and unlawful in England. Idle speculation might suggest that Mansfield’s sympathy for the slave, James Somersett, was possibly not unconnected with the fact that he had a half-black niece, Dido Belle Lindsay, who lived as a member of the family in the Adamesque splendour of Kenwood House in London, to the outraged horror of at least one visiting American, Governor Thomas Hutchinson of Massachusetts.
In any event, the black American loyalists who ended up in Nova Scotia were slaves to no-one, though they might be living in poverty and enduring a harsh climate, like their exiled white compatriots. It would seem extraordinary that bewigged Scottish aristocrats had a rather more enlightened attitude to race than the revered founding fathers of the United States, a fair number of whom were slave holders, but there we are!
Those African Americans who onward-migrated to the Bahamas with their white fellow loyalists would not find their positions quite so well defined – the entire economy of the West Indies, after all, was based on slavery. The picture was mixed, however. For example the Scottish-American loyalist Charles Farquharson, who had been a planter in Craven County, South Carolina, ended up with a 1500 acre plantation on the out-island of Watling, and served as a magistrate. He also had a son, James, who was described as ‘a free man of colour’ which can only mean that Farquharson’s wife, Kitty, was black. This didn’t seem to be such a big issue at the time – compare and contrast to the United States, where laws against ‘miscegenation’ (or inter-racial marriage) had to wait until 1954, when they were set aside in a Supreme Court Ruling, only being fully enacted as statute in the last southern state as late as 2000.
Unfortunately the Farquharsons were exceptions to the rule, a point well illustrated in 1847 when an American vessel docked at Green Turtle Cay harbour and a young black female slave escaped to the shore, where she was welcomed by the black community, which promptly adopted her. Some members of the white community, however, had other ideas, and claimed that under the law she should be returned to her ship. This was duly accomplished, and race riots were the result.
In reality, the Abaco settlements, far from replicating the situation in Nova Scotia, were anything but perfect models of racial integration and harmony. Many of the white loyalists, after all, had once been Southern planters, with deeply ingrained racist attitudes. In addition to this, the resident white elites of the Caribbean Islands, with their traditional slave-based economies, were less than enthusiastic about any neighbour which might establish a more progressive socio-political model. To cap it all, the local economy was not entirely sustainable, the chosen crop of cotton being wiped out by infestation in the 1840s. Those who could afford to began to leave for the Florida Keys, in some cases taking their houses with them on barges.
Thus Lucretia Saunders, daughter of fleeing loyalist, William Saunders, and descendant of Scots-born South Carolina Captain David Saunders, moved to Key West, where she married the harbour pilot and ‘wrecker,’ John Hurling Geiger. Another descendant of a Scottish Loyalist family, William Curry, also set himself up in the wrecking business – this involved rescuing crew and cargo from ships which had become stranded on the coral reefs in the waters around the Florida Keys.
The Key West wrecking trade was ostensibly all about helping out those who had come to grief on some coral bar on the basis of a negotiated division of the value of the cargo, though Geiger in particular was said to be an expert in the art of setting fires which were designed to lead vessels on to the rocks in the first place. William Curry was equally adept at salvaging shipwrecked cargoes, and became Florida’s first millionaire, building himself a substantial house which his son would later transform into an opulent mansion.
The difference between the wreckers of Key West and the ones in Perth who would like to smash down the beautiful historic City Hall is that the former opportunists knew how to accumulate money, and built themselves beautiful homes (which still survive) while the latter would appear to be intent on throwing the ratepayer’s money away – the cost of demolition and slabbing over the site of Perth City Hall will reportedly cost in the region of £3 million.
The truly mind-boggling aspect of this attempt at crass municipal vandalism is that it is being cheerleadered by Scottish Nationalists such as the MP Pete Wishart and several councillors. Time was when it was demotic Labour dinosaur types who wanted to destroy historic buildings, while enlightened Nationalists of yore like Moultrie Kelsall, Maurice Lindsay, and Nigel Tranter fought tooth and nail for the honour of Scotland’s built heritage. It seems sad, to say the least, that their political heirs are now contending for the title of masters of bovine ignorance and philistinism where Scotland’s historic buildings are concerned.
Moultrie, Maurice, and Nigel must surely be spinning in their graves.
December 24th, 2013
No shirking chaps. Indolent writers beware.
With the death of 89 year old William Stevenson, author of 90 Minutes at Entebbe, the flashback memory of a moment of trauma which swept across the global English-speaking writing community must have come back to haunt many writers of an earlier generation.
Until 1976, most practitioners of the literary craft assumed that they were entitled to a bit of leisure and pleasure. The lifestyle usually involved a lot of hanging out with one’s writer pals, sweet talking girls, dressing rakishly in tweeds and cords, imbibing copious amounts of alcohol, and – just now and again – doing a little bit of writing, or at least thinking about the activity in an abstracted way. Tom Conti’s portrayal of an angst ridden Scottish writer in Reuben Reuben was remarkably accurate. Then along came William Stevenson, and the world changed forever.
In 1970s Edinburgh, where my own horizon began and ended, the writers’ salons of choice tended to be the bar of the Traverse Theatre, the Abbotsford, and Milne’s. Elderly Hugh MacDiarmid would occasionally call in for a flyting with fellow poets Robert Garioch and Norman McCaig in such watering holes. That was the old guard, of course, and it had to be admitted they had written a lot of stuff, much of it very good. Their best days were behind them, however.
For a lot of the younger writing types, things were much more difficult, what with all this bantering with pals, the hang-overs, and – for an increasing number – the soporific effects of jazz cigarettes and other mind-altering substances. Sensing that I was becoming a bit of a misanthrope, I largely withdrew from such demanding activities, not least because it was getting really boring listening to certain people who were still grappling with the truly ground breaking novel you eventually realised they’d never get round to writing. I also discovered that the successful published writers were the ones you never, ever met in such places. They were at home sweating over typewriters.
Stevenson’s contribution to the craft was to engage in a project that took three weeks from start to finish, the outcome being a perfectly well written book. No longer could foppish arty types spend endless years dreaming up books which would probably never be written while still posing as writers. Their cover was blown. Stevenson had done for them, and they were less than pleased. As far as they were concerned 90 Minutes at Entebbe simply couldn’t be a ‘real’ book, because no one can write a real book in a mere three weeks.
Except that William Stevenson had done just that.To encourage him to produce his account of the grim experience of over 100 hi-jacked Israeli hostages who had fallen into the hands of the crazed dictator, Idi Amin, he’d been locked up in a room in the Algonquin Hotel on New York’s 44th Street and been told to damn well get on with it. His son Andrew was allowed to act as his assistant, ordering up Caesar salads and pizzas and delivering ten pages of manuscripts at a time to couriers who could then whisk them away for compositing. Admittedly, it can’t be too bad being locked up in the Algonquin. I stayed there once myself and was most impressed by the custom of putting a couple of foil wrapped chocolate mints under one’s pillow. This must have cheered up Mr Stevenson no end.
As it turned out, Stevenson didn’t encompass all his thinking on the matter to within that three week time frame because, as something of an insider in the intelligence community (his father had been a Bletchley Park code breaker) he knew all about the preparations in advance. Indeed, he’d spent some of the lead-up period in Israel where he’d been briefed by some of his old Mossad pals, spoken to the leaders of the crack commando squad which was preparing to go into action, and interviewed a number of the hostages who’d been released. Having spent some time in Kampala as a journalist, he was doubtless well placed to offer advice, and could only be regarded as part the story
The raid was carried out on the 4th of July – a propitious date, for all lovers of democracy, American and otherwise. It was led by Israeli paratrooper and star Harvard Graduate Yoni Netanyahu, the onlyIsraeli commando to die in an operation which was otherwise spectacularly successful. Benjamin Netanyahu, now Prime Minister of Israel, readily admits that his brother’s death gave rise to his own well known hard-line intolerance of terrorism. It would seem that the reaction to an event which took place almost forty years ago has to some extent shaped the politics of the middle east today.
It also helped to shape the future of the writing industry. Stevenson’s fast turnaround from opening line to books on the shelves was something of a publicity coup, and immediately sent 90 Minutes at Entebbe to the top of the bestseller lists. This glittering success concentrated more than a few minds in the lotus-eating literary community.
In Edinburgh, the bars began to fall silent. Several girls remained unsweet-talked. A new age had come to pass – an age in which writers were increasingly beginning to write. All that work paid off. In 2004 UNESCO declared Edinburgh to be Europe’s first City of Literature. Authors such as Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, and JK Rowling were joining the ranks of the super rich.
Thank you, William Stevenson. You did us all a big favour – apart from the hard work, that is.
December 10th, 2013
And the Band Plays on – New York classical gem still afloat
Another day, another protest on the steps of one of the most loved historic buildings in America, the marble wonder that is the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue. Foolishly, I’d assumed that now that the Bloomberg Era has drawn to a close, and with the city’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, being a green tinged liberal who is likely to prefer affordable housing programs to unaffordable big-ticket vanity projects like my Lord Foster’s proposed $300m revamp, the bizarre proposal to gut the bookstack levels of Carrere and Hastings fin de siecle masterpiece should be a goner. Not so, it seems. The trustees are still the trustees, and they intend that the plan should proceed.
We dealt with my Lord Foster’s extravagant and wholly unnecessary proposal in an earlier effusion (Dear Reader, look out, my Lord Foster’s about) and wondered why it was that one of the most architecturally confident countries in the world felt the need to import one of the unlamented Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia pre-used court architects in the first place. Couldn’t the American Institute of Architects have made one or two suggestions?
More to the point, is this project necessary at all? If it feels a bit churlish blaming an architect when the underlying cause is the commissioning party, then in this case I find it strange indeed that the library has launched a desperate appeal to its users for a paltry $300,000 before midnight on December 31 to keep their ‘programs and vital services available’ to students and readers. The words ‘cognitive’ and ‘dissonance’ would seem to apply here – perhaps even the words ‘utter’ and ‘lunacy.’ Who would give these people a brass sou when they plan to blow $300m to ‘democratize’ (their euphemism for dumbing down) one of the great libraries of the planet?
The psychology seems to be that no great Victorian or Edwardian building should be left as its original designer intended it to be. This dysfunctional thought process was made manifest recently at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, a Ruskinian gem which was given a mega-million pound makeover to supposedly make it fit for the 21st century. The architect, Page & Park, is a highly regarded practice with the proven ability to design perfectly good buildings, but the effect has been akin to forcing a gracious elderly matron to wear a Lady Gaga outfit – humiliating and grossly obscene. The once much-loved SNPG has been robbed of every vestige of the character that made it appealing with this recent airport-lounge intervention – and, what’s more, the purchase grant for paintings and works of art is now at an all-time low. The collecting policy seems to be not to collect. Soon it could be an un-collecting policy, rather in the style of Croydon, which flogged of its Riesco collection of precious Chinese ceramics at auction in Hong Kong, only to make around half the amount it was anticipating. This defeats the purpose of such institutions, and rather suggests we have all now entered the V&A’s once notorious Esteve-Coll world of an ‘ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’ and things such as artefacts – rather like New York Library’s books – are just a nuisance.
If saying these things invites accusations of Ludditism, too bad! Someone’s got to point out the emperor’s lack of wearing apparel. On the other hand, there are occasions when the right modern intervention can work – I cite again Renzo Piano’s recasting of the Morgan Library, which actually succeeds! Indeed my Lord Foster himself is the author of an addition to Boston’s Museum of Fine Art which, while not sparing us his techno-modernist hallmark style, more than redeems itself by creating 53 additional galleries. One suspects that in each case the commissioning parties knew what they were after. These are, sadly, rare exceptions.
Badly thought out intervention is not the only threat to historic buildings, of course. Indifference and neglect can be just as pernicious. This thought crossed my mind only a few days ago when I walked past the only piece of neoclassical architecture in Central Park, the Naumburg bandshell. This stunning little fragment of ancient Rome was looking decidedly frumpish, unloved, and run down – how so? New York is one of the richest cities in the world, and the locals have been fiercely protective of its architectural character ever since the trauma of the 1960s demolition of Penn Station and the successful resistance to the attempt by city boss Robert Moses to run an expressway through the middle of Greenwich Village.
I tried to piece together the story – which is more than anyone seems to have been doing for the bandshell, which has lost its decorative urns. The tale begins with a musically gifted, but dirt-poor, Bavarian immigrant by the name of Elkan Naumburg, whose inability to find the money to buy a $7 ticket for the legendary concert of Jenny Lind, ‘The Swedish Nightingale’, left him deeply disappointed, not to say distraught.
Eventually Elkan became a wealthy clothing magnate and Wall Street banker, and decided to ensure that no other poor child in his adopted city should suffer a similar disappointment (ironically, the money raised in Lind’s sellout tour had been used to promote free education in Sweden, amongst other good causes) In 1912 he launched his plan to fund a bandstand for free concerts in Central Park. The Parks Department supported a scheme by New York Library architects, Carrere & Hastings, but the city’s Art Commission voiced concerns about its scale and proposed location, and by the time the problems were sorted out the First World War was underway.
Work finally commenced in 1923, the year before Elkan Naumburg’s death, to a modified 1916 design by his nephew, William Tachau, recently returned from the Ecoles de Beaux Arts in Paris. The $125,000 bandshell took the form of an apsidal semi-dome of a style similar to Robert Adam’s niche in the great hall of Syon House, with coffering based on the dome of the Roman Parthenon. It was also built to the highest technical standards with a view to achieving maximum acoustic performance. The base of the stage was emblazoned with the gilded words ‘Presented to the City of New York and its Music Lovers, Ethan Naumburg’. Needless to say, it was a wow with the public, particularly during the depression years, when money for such indulgences as recreational leisure was particularly tight.
It seems extraordinary that, just over sixty years later, proposals were mooted for the bandshell’s demolition. There was no question of the site being redeveloped – it seems that the park authority simply couldn’t be bothered with meeting the costs of the structure’s continuing maintenance, despite its legal obligations under the terms of Naumburg’s bequest. There was, predictably, an outcry from music lovers, architectural conservationists, and an enraged public. Press support and a 15,000 signature petition began to turn the tide. The demolition was finally prohibited by court order in 1992.
So why is it that twenty years later the bandshell continues to look neglected and run-down? Given its original noble purpose, you would think that wealthy benefactors and rich charitable foundations, not to mention A-list performers who could offer benefit gigs, would be flocking to save it. Apparently not.
Let’s just call it one of the more impenetrable mysteries of New York.
December 4th, 2013
A thanksgiving day massacre, Puritan style.
Insofar as an officially rendered episode of history is often a fabricated construct, rather than a real life event, the question arises; how should one responsibly celebrate Thanksgiving day in modern America?
The comforting legend has it that the occupants of The Mayflower were having a difficult time when they took up residence in the Plymouth area, having arrived there by mistake when they couldn’t find the Hudson River. The seas were teeming with fish, but the not-so-clever Pilgrims had brought along – as well as their famous spinning wheels – useful things like hats and silk stockings instead of practical stuff like fishing nets. You don’t catch a lot of fish with hats and silk stockings, let me tell you.
They were also less than effective at cultivating their European crops in the area’s nutrient-poor soils. According to the official version, the local native Americans spent some time looking on in pity as the wretched newly-arriveds began dropping like flies. Eventually, the locals were moved to offer assistance, and graciously turned up bearing a turkey banquet with all the trimmings, including wild rice and cranberry sauce, and possibly even brussel sprouts, with some lovely pumpkin pie for desert. A merry feast was had by all. The welcoming Wampanoag Indians, having obligingly saved the Pilgrims from death by hunger, parted the best of friends, and a wonderful rapport between the native Americans and their new neighbours from that day forth was the result. Indeed the former took such a shine to the latter that they showed them a number of nifty survival tricks, such as how to fertilize a corn-cob with a dead herring.
And so, a great tradition was born – or rather, a nice excuse for an annual family get-together amongst those who were happy to accept one of the most nonsensical myths ever promulgated in a country with a great line in myths. The truth was rather different, needless to say. There was, indeed, a feast held around the end of September 1621, the time of the Christian harvest festival, rather than the last Thursday in November, a date which was only formally adopted by Congress as late as 1941, though there had been variations on the theme throughout the 19th century.
The Pilgrims certainly didn’t refer their bash as Thanksgiving Day – a one-off event with their Indian guests which they didn’t bother to repeat. Somewhat chillingly, the first recorded use of the word was believed to be in 1637 when the Governor of Massachusetts declared ‘a day of Thanksgiving’ after the Puritan perpetrators of the infamous Mystic Massacre of 700 Pequot Indian men, women, and children returned safely from their bloody work. This hideous event was later described as a ‘sweet sacrifice’ by the Pilgrim William Bradford. Nice people, don’t you think?
As it happens, the old killjoy Puritans didn’t just have it in for the native Americans. A rather dandy gent by the name of Thomas Morton was also the object of their wrath. In 1624 Morton, an enlightened English lawyer and intellectual who was friendly with the writer Ben Jonson, and probably even knew William Shakespeare, established a community by the name of Merrymount where he entertained his native American neighbours lavishly, and without the least trace of prejudice. His visionary idea was that Merrymount could become a utopian community open to all, with no restrictions as to intermarriage or having a good time. He had an interest in, and admiration for, native American culture which seemed to be in direct ratio to his loathing and disdain for the self-regarding pieties of the Puritans. We should perhaps think of him as a cross between Timothy Leary and John Lennon, with just a dash of Ghandi.
The Puritan’s chance for revenge came when Morton erected a maypole and held a party at which dancing between his followers and their Indian neighbours was encouraged. This was accompanied by liberal quantities of beer. The Puritans took immediate action, sending in their pugnacious military commander, Miles Standish, who was somewhat peeved by Morton’s description of him as ‘Captain Shrimpe’ (he was just over five feet tall, and didn’t take kindly to being mocked). Morton was seized and sent off to a small island where he was meant to starve to death, but the cunning Puritan plan was foiled when his Indian friends kept him supplied by canoe.
It would seem, by at least one (perfectly credible) version of history, that when good, decent American families innocently celebrate Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November they are, albeit unwittingly, honoring a genocidal massacre of civilians which, today, would be regarded as a war crime under international law – it’s as though the Germans, say, were to have an annual Kristallnacht party every November 9th to celebrate the co-ordinated attacks on the Jewish community. The very idea is too shocking to contemplate.
The problem is that the truth, in this case, would not only spoil a chance for families to get together for an annual feast – not a bad thing, in and of itself – but it would also make a serious dent in the takings of department stores across the land, especially on the day following, when the shops like to clear their inventories ahead of the Chanukah and Christmas splurge. Why else would Macy’s be sponsoring the annual Thanksgiving Parade of cartoon character balloons and C-list starlets? Many in the African-American community, as it happens, take offence that the big shopping day goes by the name of ‘Black Friday’ – so that’s two ethnic groups insulted simultaneously. Not bad, eh!
It was difficult to know what to do this year, given that I’d been recently acquainted with the less well known native American view on the matter. I happened to be in the Upper West side on Thanksgiving Eve when Macy’s giant cartoon characters were being inflated, and there were crowds of excited children around. It didn’t seem to be for me, somehow, so I decided to get up at 4.30am the following morning to catch a 6am coach from Brooklyn to Plymouth, where Native Americans hold a very different type of ceremony described as a ‘day of mourning.’ The majority of those on the bus were Haitians, though there was also a handful of radical New York girls, an Irishman, and a friendly London lady of Barbadian origin who’d brought her two excited kids along.
On arrival in Plymouth the group walks past the puny rock upon which the Pilgrims allegedly first set foot – except that they didn’t. It now lies (in more ways than one) inside a sepulchral looking Doric temple which every self-respecting Puritan would have hated because of that style’s pagan Greek associations – not that any of that matters, of course, since mythmaking , by definition, doesn’t bother with authentic detail.
The following three hours are spent at a ceremony on the hill which overlooks Plymouth Bay, complete with a fake Mayflower sitting at anchor in the crisp sunshine. There are devotional prayers, drumming, a snake dance, a fire blessing, and a homage to the four quarters. This is followed by a number of speeches – impressively concise, entirely articulate – and angry. There is no mistaking the genuine sense of outrage and injustice which permeates this much wronged community. Yet at the same time everything is serene and peaceful. The crowd then processes through town to a church hall, where a feast is provided.
This was all very different from Macy’s parade – a qualified success, during which Spiderman collided with a tree, and began to deflate, and a lady had her foot run over by a golf buggy. It was noticeable that there was an enormous police presence while the balloons were being inflated in the Upper West Side, which is only to be expected, given the precedent of the Boston Marathon bomb. On the other hand, during the entire day at Plymouth I did not see a single uniformed police officer.
The native American ‘Day of Mourning’ was a curiously life affirming event, and by no means heavy with grievance or a lingering sense of injustice – except in the case of Leonard Peltier, a native American who has spent 39 years in prison as a direct result of what was clearly an unsafe verdict. Barak Obama could certainly right an old wrong if he exercised his Presidential prerogative to authorize Mr Peltier’s release when he demits office, by which time the prisoner will be over seventy years of age.
Or is Leonard Peltier destined to be just another ‘sweet sacrifice’?
December 1st, 2013