Monday, 30 December 2013

Thoughts on Forces of Nature on a Wintry Walk - 30.12.13

It was a late departure. It had been pelting with the most attractive rain all morning, and yet, having a few hours to myself in the flat, I delayed going out to enjoy it. At first I thought perhaps I had missed it, but no, it continued pelting. In fact, at one point, and for the first time certainly since we moved here, and maybe in a year or two, I did actually consider turning back, as I contemplated the dampitude of my trousers in the Achilles heel between waterproof anorak and wellingtons. But I am made of sterner stuff, and it was not a choice to be regretted.

I walked up the hill through the playground, thinking, rightly, there would be no one there (apart from a council employee in a van, doing no ostensible work, nor with any work ostensibly to be done) and headed for my favourite subway. Last time - Christmas morning - it was odiferous. Not this time. A veritable torrent was streaming through it. It wasn't flooded, just puddley, and with this really strong current on one side. As it's the lowest point until quite a few yards down the hill, where the water goes is a mystery. As I walked up the slope on the Headington side, I was greeting with not just the rain again, but the traffic spray from the ring-road, flung a good ten or twelve feet from the road itself, and enough to make you soggy. I retreated and took the steps instead. Today at last the final victims of the Christmas weather were reconnected to sources of heat and light in various parts of the country, and it amazes me every time how when nature flexes her muscles, vainglorious humanity is laid low. It's just water, for heaven's sake, but in the right quantities, in the right places, it makes every difference, and there seems to be precious little (at least whilst our rulers remain in Climate Change Denial Mode) we can do about it. There is a nobility in the might of nature to subdue its most powerful child.

And so to Bury Knowle Park, of which I am very fond. A boring vulgar manor house in the middle of Headington, whose only merit is to house the local library, which, alas, is to be known as "Headington Library" rather than "Bury Knowle Library". The house may be plain, but it, and its park, have a pleasing name. My usual bench being occupied by some dastardly interloper, I headed for the perimeter path, one I rarely use, and headed for the Co-Op to buy salt for our dinner (if he's good, I might add food to it), before continuing my peregrination through to Headington Quarry. By now the sun was beginning to shine but the paths and puddles still justified the wellingtons. What was quarried here, apparently, was clay, and the resulting pits have made some very unusual and architecturally interesting dwellings, as every inch of this prime real estate has been turned to suburban profit. It is full of ups and down, unexpected alleyways and turns. Even here, though bourgeois humanity has taken his loot, nature still seems to be calling the shots.

Over the road, and into Risinghurst, the posher part of our bit of "over the ring road" Oxford. A right turn into C S Lewis Way, and so past the writer's house, The Kilns, to his eponymous nature reserve. The Kilns is surprisingly meagre. It's low and squat, with small windows. It has a poorly-attached extension, making it an L-shape on the ground floor. It looks damp. It probably isn't. The notice telling visitors not to knock on the door without making an appointment has been torn up, which seemed meaner than the notice itself. But what the house lacks, the little nature reserve amply compensates for. All of this land was originally Mr Lewis's garden, and other (rather nicer) houses have been built on it too, perhaps providing an endowment for the reserve, and any other favoured projects of a man with no children nor other heirs.

You walk down a muddy path, through a clipped gate, and straight onto a large pond. It's another of those quarry hollows, filled to the brim just now, of course, and surrounded by tall, very English-looking, leaf-bare trees. There was a bike chained to a notice to the right, but no sign of a cyclist, not when I arrived, not when I left. In fact, not a human soul all the time I was there, sitting on a little bench overlooking the pond from its narrow end. The pond is bigger than several tennis courts, but smaller than a football pitch. I may not be a lot of use on scales and distances. And so I sat, thinking my thoughts about something quite other, occasionally noticing the antics of the mallards and moorhens, when a flash of unmistakable blue made me pay attention - a kingfisher. It dived, splashed, bobbed straight up, and disappeared again into the bank opposite. Kingfishers, unlike waterfowl, do not have natural lamination, water makes their feathers damp and heavy, that's why they have to dive, and fly out of the water, so fast. It's also why you never see them bobbing on the water like ducks; they would sink. And then it flew closer. And then very close. Twenty feet away from me, and looking me right down the beak. Stunning awe and wonder. If you've never seen one, they are tinier than you can imagine: apart from the fish-stabbing beak, about the same size as a sparrow, but transfigured by colour, the blue on top, the russet below, the black and the white, and I dare say others in between. They are the most tiny, dazzling, forces of nature you can see. It was about to set off - I wasn't disappointed, this had already been a bonanza of a show - but it hovered instead to a higher branch. It reminded me of the hummingbirds we saw in Brasil, the ferociously beating wings, the absolute control of the air. They call the hummingbird the "beija-flor - the flower-kisser (of course, the verb comes before the noun, rather as when His Lordship says "stop bus", but that's languages for you).

The journey home required another subway trek, this time under the A40, but this one is near the Sandhills Park and Ride commuter and commercial line into Oxford, and out to London, so it's never odiferous. Emerging on the other side, the cold, ferocious winter sun was blindingly bright. It reminded me of the other day in the car when the sun was so fierce that we had to stop the car. The force of nature.

Rain and sun and quarries and kingfishers. What a little creature a man is, and how blest to enjoy them all.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2013

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Thoughts on a Walk to early mass on Christmas Day

Thoughts on a walk to early mass on Christmas Day

I like Headington. It's the township out of which Barton, where we live, was carved - after Headington Quarry and Risinghurst. Our bit is rather new, but it has old parts. The village church is in the oldest part, and is indeed one of the oldest parts itself. Dedicated to Saint Andrew, it flies the blue and white saltire from its tower in all weathers and seasons, lending a faintly subversive, independent air to this most respectable of suburbs. The church has aged well, with the help of a well-heeled congregation, so its ancient stones are upholstered by much newer carpentry and stained glass, and its parish priest was decked in a most shimmery and pleasing golden poncho for the occasion.

Dawn was just beginning as I made my way up the hill. There's a local church here in Barton, but they are too friendly. Almost as if they're after your soul. Or at the very least your name on a rota. So it was up the hill, and under the ringroad through the rank-smelling subway and out of lumpenproletariat Barton and into the Groves of Bourgeoisie. Funnily enough, the first road you come to, after Barton Lane itself, is the inspiringly named Ash Grove. But as you plod closer to the moneyed heart of "Old Headington", the houses are bigger, stonier, and walled. I noticed a most impressive chimney and was surprised that I'd never seen it before. But it was a trick of the light - it actually belongs to the furnace of the John Radcliffe Hospital some way away. It's hard not to wonder precisely what goes into a hospital furnace, and once you've started, you wish you hadn't.

The service was (mainly) from the Book of Common Prayer, so I knew it, which was just as well as no one thought to proffer me a copy. Apart from the smiling vicar, the congregation, of about 12, all looked as if they'd had lemons for breakfast. What an attractive thing this Good News of ours must be to make everyone so happy! I arrived just in time to hear the end of the Gospel - "and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." Always spine-tingling words. I detest the clutter of Christmas, but like any true Anglican, I'm a sucker for the Incarnation, the sine qua non of all our theology. There was no homily, and the Gloria was at the end, as it should be, so we rise from our knees, to end the service standing and ready to go out glorifying God in his world. I exchanged brief words with the parson, complimenting him on his outfit - "if a vicar can't shimmer at Christmas, when can she?" he replied, jovially.

And so back, through the now-bright lanes with views across the valley of glorious bright, sharp, winter countryside. I passed Mather's Farmhouse - from which our street in Barton takes its name - and noticed the prettiness of the sparrows in the climber round its door. If you can get close enough, these are such delightful little finches. A blackbird singing in that rude, outrageous way they have. A fat old wood pigeon in a tree looking for all the world as if it had won the lottery, or at least done a very good deal with the taxman.

And so to home, and cats and Christmas, greeted by a smiley vicar and adorned by cheerful birds, freshly fed on the Word made Flesh.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Thoughts on the Mystery of our love for Animals - 21.12.13

The 'Pider Under The Step

The 22nd anniversary this last week of the death of our family's springer spaniel, Gunner,
has started me thinking about the place and role of animals in our lives. People can have strong opinions for or against sharing our homes with other creatures. On balance, I'd say most of my friends are in favour. Less so my relatives. Whether this is representative is hard to know, as perhaps those of us who are animal-friendly are drawn to other people who share the same enthusiasm and sentiment?

For me it all started with the 'pider under the step. My late father was trying to play football with me in our little garden in pre-genteel Cobham, in Surrey. Well, football was a lost cause in any case, but on this occasion it was lost to the sheer fascination of the spider under the kitchen door step. I remember the garden, and the step, and I have other memories going back to that time, which ended when I was about three, but this memory I think is strictly speaking one I have borrowed from him. To his credit, he gave up on the football, and came to have a look at the 'pider with me. It was the beginning of a shared fascination which was a big part of our friendship.

One memory which I know to be true is from about the same time. It was a garden, possibly an indoor one, at some kind of department store, which had a pond with pathways over it, full of goldfish. This was immensely fascinating. I remember the huge size of the fish - they weren't koi - which reflects my own smallness, so I know it's a true memory. And of course, there is the added thrill of giving one's parents the panic of possibly toppling in and drowning, and how embarrassing that would be in public on a Saturday afternoon.

From then, it became an enthusiasm for animals of every sort. I was not so grand and intellectual back then to dismiss the popular ones - the polar bears (one, Pipaluk, was born at London Zoo when I was two, just in time to help me learn to read - I still have the book), giant pandas, tigers, gorillas, and the rest. A schoolfriend dismissed my interests as those of a "woolly naturalist", but fascinating too were the creepy-crawlies underneath the rockery in the garden of our house in Wimbledon, newts, butterflies, Chinese alligators, tortoises and turtles, snails, and a host of others. When I was about ten, I think, I was determined that we must find a toad. These days I would head straight for the Houses of Parliament, but then it was a matter of marshalling my father and his car, and stopping at every pond and muddy ditch we saw, overturning stones and fallen bits of tree, and all in vain. Then one day, on a visit to friends of my parents in Bexhill-on-Sea, I found a toad in their garden. In jubilation, I brought it in to show the grown-ups who were having tea after lunch; it was sitting apparently calmly in my cupped hands. And then it pissed. Toads are not very big, and I don't suppose my hands were then, either, but altogether, the toad and its panic measure, filled them. I fled to the garden door, to spare the carpet, and my ears the sound of adult guffaws. "Woolly naturalist" indeed!

I was a regular at London Zoo from the late 1960s, and remember seeing Chi-Chi the giant panda there shortly before her death in 1972. My oldest memories are of animals and even buildings and complexes which no longer exist. Being indulgent people, my parents would take me to the zoos within reach of London - Whipsnade for its rhinos, Windsor Safari Park for its killer whale, Woburn for its bongos, and Fritzi the hippo, amongst many other beautiful creatures. And we went on holiday to places near some of the best zoos in the country - Bristol (okapis), Chester (Indian elephants), Marwell (Siberian tigers), Howlett's (gorillas and snow leopards) - and stayed on or near farms which had their own marvellous fascination of poultry and cattle and donkeys and dogs.

Livestock of our own were longer coming. My sister had a much-neglected rabbit, Fluffy. My father and I caught some "tiddlers" (sticklebacks) in the Thames one time (he had to catch me several times during the expedition), but they didn't last long in a tank, and I didn't much mourn them. There were Tommy and Fred, the tortoises who, rather embarrassingly, ran away. Then in 1977 along came Claudius the Hamster. I don't recall his having very much character, and what there was, wasn't very pleasant, but he didn't smell, and rarely bit, and when he died in 1979, I was heart-broken. Two years later George, his daughter, died too - she had been the product of a mating with a schoolfriend's hamster. I happened to have an enormous crush on the friend at the time, but I'm not on the couch today, and we're not going there. George was little more pleasant or interesting than her father, but her death, which was sudden and dramatic, was a sorrowful trauma.

But by then we had a consoling presence in the house. In the autumn of 1980, Gunner arrived. We had done immense amounts of research to find a good-natured, child-friendly, all-rounder breed of family dog, and we got it just right, he was perfect. And we were lucky with him, too, he was scrupulously fastidious, and very quickly house-trained. He even agreed to use only one particular patch of the garden for deposits, which made tidying up after him very easy. When my parents were trying to sell the house the next year, we (my sister and I) and Gunner were locked in the front room while viewers looked round. He banged on the door repeatedly to go out, and we told him to be patient because he wasn't allowed. It was only when the viewers left that we looked behind the sofa to see why he'd been banging on the door. More fool us - he'd given us every chance. One special blessing of Gunner's arrival was that it coincided with our Grandad's departure. We didn't know he was dying, although in retrospect with increasingly chronic lung disease after a lifetime's smoking, it was pretty obvious, but he adored puppies, and there are few dogs more puppyish than a spaniel. He had had one of his own as a child, many years before, when he was living under the kitchen table as a deposit on a debt to a "friend" of his father. Two of the sons of the house ran the puppy over with a cart as a laugh. Over later years, he had many dogs, but none who lived to old age - they moved house so many times, the dogs were usually given away when they passed the puppy stage. He adored Gunner, and the feeling was mutual, as absolutely no one else would let Gunner lick their ears.

And then we moved to Sussex, which was a change of scene, and lifestyle, of birdlife, and places to walk. Gunner now had half an acre of garden to run round (the day he found a dormouse, which ran up his ear, and hid there, with him manically trying to find it, until it could leap off to the safety of a rose bush, was delightful in every way - I'd never seen a dormouse, still less one that could provide such panto), but even so he preferred to be out and about - new smells, please! We could never walk him safely off the lead - in Wimbledon for fear of the roads, in Sussex, for fear of sheep farmers and their shotguns (they only have to return the collar, no questions answered) - but he and I walked miles and miles through the Forestry Commission woodland, and onto the South Downs, and saw pheasants and partridges, and hares, and deer (Japanese imports, but beautiful nonetheless), and kestrels, and bluebells, and violets, and cowslips, together. All new things we hadn't seen in London. And at home, I kept geese (Pompey, Wombat, Josie, Tiny, Pegleg, and the ill-starred Trotsky and Adolf).

Then there was a long, long, break. I went to Oxford, and obviously no pets were allowed there (although Ben O'Flynn smuggled his beagle, Tracker, in and out of the college in a holdall, with the connivance of the scouts and porters) and then to a life of bedsits and small flats and sharing with people who were not generally very animal-friendly. Back, home, Gunner grew old and died, so did the cats, which were brought down from London a few years after we moved to help with the rats and mice who found the geese just as interesting as I did. A new dog, Bertie, a cocker spaniel, came along. I had four jobs in the Church of England, but only the first afforded me a garden. At the time, I was toying with the idea of getting a bloodhound, a breed with which I had fallen in love on a farm in Somerset when on holiday many years before, but I dithered (they are very slobbery) and my next job came with a first floor flat in the middle of Cambridge.

It wasn't until leaving the paid ministry and its accommodation that at last I acquired a pet of my own. Or rather, being a cat, she acquired me - or us. It was New Year 2011 when we first saw Cleopatra in the arms of a young couple who had rung our doorbell and wondered whether she was ours. We weren't allowed animals of any kind. As we chatted, she broke free, and zoomed round the house, entering every room, but perfectly tractably being handed back. A few nights later as we put the rubbish out, a small dark shape hurried in, and never left. It was as if she had cased the joint, and we were Chosen. A few months later, Ruby came along, originally intended as a Fathers' Day gift for my father, who rather liked Cleo, and His Lordship didn't understand the convention that you don't give live animals as presents without prior consent. So, Ruby stayed, and then we had two, and I wouldn't be without them. When we had to move in June, from a convenient ground-floor flat to a less convenient first-floor one, I was convinced they would move out and find a better offer. But no, they are prepared to suffer the inconvenience of the new regime, and once again, we are Chosen. It is rather a nice feeling.

So what is this business with animals all about? Over the years, I've been a member of various clubs connected to London Zoo, the Otter Trust, the Parrot Society, the WWF and its present incarnation, and the RSPB. The domestic enthusiasm is backed with a national and a global one. Most of us who like them at all, like animals in general, and some animals in particular.

With pets, for some, it may be a sort of power. Dogs, of course, lend themselves to this more than cats. Dogs have owners, cats have butlers. Fish and birds have fanciers, which always seems amusing. But if power is the key in any relationship, something hasn't grown right. At its best, any relationship must have something to do with love. We are fashioned capable of many different sorts of love, and sometimes the supply - as we see when a new dog or cat or budgie or aspidistra or rowan tree or friend comes into our lives - seems inexhaustible. And with other creatures, there is the fascination of differentness, wondering how they think and feel, and whether and in what respects their experience is like ours. They can provide an undemanding company - some food, access to the garden, a walk, a cuddle, some idle banter; they ask for very little, but we don't feel alone with a cat sleeping quietly in the corner of the sofa.

John Donne said "all divinitie is love or wonder". Love we have seen. And the wonder? That all comes down to the 'pider under the step. I hope never to grow out of that.

Richard Haggis
December 2013

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Paying for Care - Letter in the Daily Telegraph, 17.12.13

Dear Editor,

If the chaotic inflation in house prices over the last thirty years is to have any good effect, it is in providing capital for care in frail old age for those lucky enough to have been able to buy their own homes. That the elderly rich should [sponge off] take from the state in their declining years without being required to sell up and fork out to pay their way, is surely anathema to every Conservative principle.

Yours faithfully,

Daily Telegraph, 17.12.13 (my original words in [])

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Thoughts on a Walk with the late Queen Mary

Royalty has always fascinated me. This has a lot to do with genealogy. When I was relatively young, I had three favourite books - I, Claudius (Robert Graves), Lord of the Rings (J R R Tolkein), and Victoria R I (Elizabeth Longford), and they had one thing in common - in the back of each of them were extensive family trees, which I could copy and re-draft to my heart's content. The Roman Imperial family is so incestuous and multiply-married, that it is almost impossible to draft it on one (large) sheet without repeating names (although I did once manage it!). Tolkein's family trees lost a little by being made up. But royal family trees are manageable. They are not generally too incestuous, apart from the Habsburgs in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then they become absolutely hilarious (and finally concentrated genetic defects into the Spanish branch to such a degree that they died out, which is funny in itself - they were so grand that they could only marry other Habsburgs, and it was their own undoing).

The British royal family has never shied from cousin marriages, but has preferred not to repeat the process too closely over successive generations. It's as if someone is keeping quite a close eye on the quality of the bloodstock - in much the same way as I suspect Her Present Majesty pores over the bloodlines of her racehorses. As both the Queen and Prince Philip are descendants of Queen Victoria, it was immediately easy to see how. They are also, and more closely, descended from King Christian IX of Denmark, although in different generations, but as the Queen's great-grandmother was a Princess of Denmark, and Prince Philip before his marriage a Prince of Greece and Denmark, that too wasn't tricky to trace. What I wasn't expecting was that King George V and Queen Mary would be cousins. This was delightful, because I took a shine to Queen Mary from quite early on.

It began, I think, with a book of cartoons ("We Are Amused") published, no doubt, in the Silver Jubilee Year (1977), and a depiction of contrasts - Queen Mary and the new Queen Elizabeth (known for half a century in her widowhood as the Queen Mother). It is very simply drawn, but in a few lines the cartoonist has shown a difference in style - Queen Elizabeth is all curves and smiles and a gay tiara, Queen Mary is all stern lines and a severe toque. It is marvellously done. I instantly preferred Queen Mary. I have never been drawn to try drag, for which the world gives an intermittent sigh of thanks, but if I ever were, hers is the style I'd aim for. And that is what I wanted to learn something more about, so a little while ago I sent off for the official biography by James Pope-Hennessey.

To be honest, I wasn't all that hopeful. "Official" biographies are likely to be heavy on detail, and access to records, but thin on real critique, and I thought the book's only real merit would be some unfamiliar photographs. I was very happily disappointed in this expectation. The prose flows at a pace, and despite the author's obvious regard for his subject, he pulls no punches about her failings and weaknesses, complexities and contradictions, and I found myself being drawn in to her story, and drawn to her character. After quite a long time reading - it's quite a long book - I was left pondering why I had enjoyed it so much, and I think here's why.

Princess May of Teck was born as a poor relation to two royal families. Her father, Francis, Duke of Teck, was a scion of the royal house of Wurttemburg, but, because his parents' marriage was morgantic (the father royal, the mother merely noble), he was excluded from the succession. So, he wasn't much of a catch, and was on the look-out for someone else who wasn't, and he found her in Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Her father, the first duke of Cambridge, was a son of King George III, so Mary Adelaide was a first cousin of Queen Victoria, in that remarkably thin generation considering that King George and Queen Charlotte had fifteen children. She had an allowance for life from Parliament, but no capital, no prospect of ever inheriting her very fertile cousin's throne, was thirty years old, and more than merely buxomly overweight. In her kindly family, she was even known as "Fat Mary". But to everyone's delight, these two also-rans made a go of it, and had four children - Princess May, and then three sons. As well as eating all the pies, Princess Mary Adelaide was also a party animal, and a spendthrift. Prince Francis was an enthusiast for furniture and decoration. Within no time they were massively in debt, and on the brink of her teens, Princess May accompanied her parents into exile in Europe at the firm suggestion of Queen Victoria, and her mother's brother, Prince George, the second Duke of Cambridge. The Duke was head of the army, and the Queen was head of everything, so there was no arguing. I had had a hunch that the "poor relation" status was very important in the formation of Queen Mary's character, and Mr Pope-Hennessey confirmed this richly.

After their rehabilitation in England - and it can hardly be stressed how enormously popular Prince Mary Adelaide was - the family's star rose markedly when Queen Victoria was looking for a consort for her heir's heir. This was a new thing. Kings and Queens, well-upholstered though they were, didn't live so long in those days. Victoria had grown bored of German princes (whatever would Albert have thought?) and wanted someone closer to home for her grandson to marry. But she wasn't that keen on the nobility, either. Princess May of Teck was perfect - royal, British (born and raised, ignore the genealogy), and malleable. Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, although he had a certain debonair look, wasn't much of a catch. Half-witted, louche, and unpredictable, he would probably have made a less than indifferent king. Fortunately for England, the Grim Reaper played an early card, and Princess May was jilted some months before the altar. There then followed a fascinating grooming process, in which it is quite clear Victoria intended to hang on to May, and to fix her up with Albert Victor's brother, George, Duke of York. He was actually a much better bet. Less of a party animal, a bit solemn, but dedicated and devoted and dutiful. And grateful. Both of them took the bait, they married, and the Queen was delighted. They remained married for the next 42 years. Despite both coming from rather warm families, and having decidedly gushing and clinging mothers, George and May were personally diffident and emotionally awkward. Their expressions of love were made in letters, not face to face. King George told the BBC person about his broadcast of thanks to his people for their enthusiastic kindness in his silver jubilee year (1935) that they must move his words of thanks to the Queen to the end, because if he had to say them at the beginning, he wouldn't be able to continue.

HSH Princess May of Teck became HRH the Duchess of York, and settled herself into a most engaging new task - discovering, and re-inventing, the monarchy. She had a very strong sense of history (Mr Pope-Hennessey doesn't fault this, although he trashes her taste in art), and of her own descent from George III, and saw in the trappings of the various royal households models of how royalty can be lived. Her great-grandfather was famously nicknamed "Farmer George" and it is either fortuitous, or great good sense, that she chose this as the style on which her own royal family would be modelled. She and King George lived at "York Cottage" on the Sandringham Estate, not a cottage in the language that you or I might use, but a bagatelle compared to Buckingham Palace, or Windsor Castle, or even Sandringham itself. I don't think it was a plan, certainly not at first, maybe not ever, but its consequence was to make a domestic monarchy. Not, like the Scandinavian monarchies (which, like our own, all survived the wars and other tempests of the 20th century) one of riding bikes in public, but one which wore crowns in public, but sat on sofas having tea in private. And, just like the bicycling Scandinavians, we knew that, and she meant us to.

The reasons for this are interesting. There is her own family's financial disaster, but also an awareness which few British princesses will have had until then of what it was like to live poor. Princess Mary Adelaide, for all her taste for the high life, took her children not only to gawp at the poor, but into their homes. She, and her daughter, sewed and embroidered, for the sake of children whose mucky feet they had actually seen. Clearly she found something attractive about what we might think of as "normal" domesticity. I doubt she ever had to cook, but were occasion to demand, she would have risen to the challenge. She was content to spend night after night boringly at the palace with the increasingly ungregarious King, but on the other hand, when there was royal work to be done, she would be decked out in pearls and diamonds to impress the empire of which she was Empress. She regularly wore a brooch made from two of the smaller gems cut from the Cullinan Diamond. Her Present Majesty and Princess Margaret referred to them as "Grannie's chips". Together, they were over 100 carats of first rate gemstone. Yet, when the war of 1914 broke out, and she had rallied her sewing and embroidering forces for the troops - within two days! - she had a radical re-think the next week when she was warned that all this freebie knitware was putting women out of work. So, she re-drafted the operation. That I think is remarkable in English history - for a crowned queen to have an understanding of the economics of the poorest household, and wish rather to improve, than to undermine, its circumstances.

Queen Mary arrived at her throne with a very strong sense of what the monarchy could be, but also with a sense of how it must change with the times if it was to survive. Her own mother was popular in the 1860s, when her cousin Queen Victoria, in her self-indulgent widowed seclusion at Windsor, was lighting the fires of republicanism. She knew that monarchy had to be seen, had to be charming, had to listen. And it had to do its duty. In her husband, she found the perfect partner for her enterprise - George V was just about as dutiful a monarch as we have ever had. When he had to appoint a Labour Prime Minister and cabinet in 1922, for the first time, he wore a red tie for the occasion, in the hope that it would make his new ministers feel at home. He learnt to use the radio, and to do it well. And he and Queen Mary were seen from time to time as grandparents, mainly to our present Queen, and her sister Margaret. Queen Victoria was never a public grandmother - a mother of nine, she much preferred her Empire to her family.

Queen Mary also had a profound sense of needing to learn, which I found most endearing. Like most girls of even merely aristocratic class, she knew her education had not been a priority. She was fluent in French and German, but that was about as far as it went, but throughout her life she was a culture vulture, fascinated by galleries and paintings and sculptures, and by the theatre and productions both old and new. "The Mouse Trap", Agatha Christie's play, which is still running in London after over sixty years, was Queen Mary's idea. Every time she went on a foreign jaunt, in her youth for novelty, in later life, for duty, she brought books with her, and read them, to learn about the places she was going to, most dedicatedly about India, which she visited as Princess of Wales in 1905, and again in 1912 for the Delhi Durbar, where her husband became the only English monarch to claim his title to India actually in India, in person. And even then, she gained approbation in certain quarters for wanting to know not only what went on in the "purdah" of the gentlewomen, but also the lives of the ordinary women of her Empire.

She was no firebrand, of course, and her interest in change came up against inflexibilities, one of which was her elder son's abdication. She simply couldn't understand it. Here he was, a pampered boy, who'd had every opportunity, never had a worry for himself, nor for anyone he cared for, been to university, travelled the world, seen and done things she never could have, and all he had to do by way of repayment, was his duty. She had married a dead man's brother, and learnt to love him (and she never forgot her feelings for Albert Victor, however naive and slight we might think them from our lofty vantage point). And here was her son throwing away a crown and an empire for a woman so indecisive that she had been divorced twice. In her own writings there is heavy censoriousness for his dereliction of duty, but there is also a mother's concern that he has paid over the odds for damaged goods, who would never make him happy. The Duke of Windsor has described his mother as "icy", but he has also used fonder words, and he may not fully have understood, being a rather selfish man, quite the position he had put her in.

The abdication was a disaster, but one from which the royal family rose in triumph - thanks largely to the late Queen Mother, and her daughters. For years England had known a loyal and dedicated, but coughing and poorly, king, and now it had a family again. Like his mother, King George VI took on a role that was now expected of him, with no great relish, but with distinction. Queen Mary retreated to the background, although she broke convention by attending her son's coronation. And the Second World War made all things new, for everyone in the realm (if they survived). One victim was her nephew-in-law, the Duke of Beaufort, with whom she was billeted in evacuation during the war at Badminton House. She didn't like the ivy. So it was cut down. There were worse losses in the war.

She lived to see her favourite grandchild become Queen. She would far rather not have done. George VI was the third of her sons to die before her, and the famous photograph of her with the Queen Mother greeting the new Queen on her return from Kenya after the King's death, is hauntingly sad. She left the strictest orders, knowing that she was dying, that it must make not one whit of difference to the coronation festivities, which happened two months later in 1953. Duty, always. Even in dying.

I was wrong about Prince William's title. I had thought Cambridge wouldn't be used again so soon. I had reckoned without Queen Mary's towering influence on our modern monarchy, on the House of Windsor. Her elder brother was made Marquess of Cambridge. Her mother was Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge. Her Present Majesty was making a point - she's one of "granny's chips" off the old block.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Thoughts of an Accidental Radio Listener

Thoughts of an Accidental Radio Listener

I must have been a teenager when I discovered the listings in the newspaper and found that radio, as well as television, had a schedule, that things happened when it said they would. So I explored. I mainly wanted comedy, I still do, but I discovered much else by mistake. One of these discoveries was the late John Ebdon (1923-2005). He broadcast programmes on Radio 4 under the title “A Sideways Look …” and it would make my case better if I could say I can remember some of them. But I can’t. What I remember is that I listened. To the subject matter, and to his lovely voice, and that voice was the key. He spoke as if he knew something you wanted to find out, as if he had seen something you wish you had. From the comfort of your armchair, he transported you to a world of discomforts and questions and inconclusions, which left you thinking; and that was his purpose - to leave us thinking.

When he signed off from his broadcasts, Mr Ebdon used to say “Well, if you have been, thanks for listening”. That was utterly winning. “Of course we’ve been listening, otherwise we’d not have heard you!” But then, have we really listened, or did we just let the radio burble in the background while we got on with something else? But it was his gift and his charm that with John Ebdon, we had indeed been listening, because he had found us something interesting to think about, to imagine, and he had thought some of our thoughts, and imagined himself, and ourselves, into the stories he was telling.

Writers must capture us with the cold written word, warm it up, and bring it to life. The television confronts us with sweating reality. Radio provides a space between the two: if you have the sort of voice which can imply the question behind “if you have been, thanks for listening”, and know that the answer is, “yes”.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford