The Dead of Night

About 9 months after I moved from London to Dorset in the mid 90s, I picked up a job at a Texaco petrol station about 8 miles from home. It was just something to do till I got something better. It turned out that the ‘something better’ was Mexico, nearly ten years later. I had a range of shifts to do, but mostly lates (2pm to 10pm) or nights (10pm to 6am). Back in those days, most stations were single manned, other than a manager or supervisor during the day. I liked single manned shifts. Continue reading “The Dead of Night”

Churchill’s Preposterous Prepositions

Fifty years ago a chap called Winston Churchill passed away. Many people left this mortal coil that year, as they do every year. But Winston’s send off was a bit more notable than most. He is one of but eleven non-royals to be afforded a full state funeral, joining the likes of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington to have such an honour bestowed upon him. I suspect that the old chap expected absolutely nothing less.

His funeral remains the most recent state function to have occurred. Mountbatten, the Queen Mother,Margaret Thatcher and his relative through the Spencer line, Lady Di, had to make do with simple ceremonial funerals. There hasn’t been a proper state funeral in my lifetime. Dear Elizabeth isn’t getting any younger though, so I may not have to wait many years. On the other hand, if she goes on as long as her mum, then perhaps I shouldn’t hold my breath. For the time being, I’ll have to just watch old footage of Winston’s do.

It’s an interesting video, don’t you think? I love watching British Pathe films – there’s tens of thousands of them on YouTube. The footage itself offers a glimpse into the past. But it’s the commentary that really adds life to the videos, putting what you see into the context of the era. Did you stifle a giggle at the thought of Churchill being a mere commoner? Technically, he may have been. But the chap was born in Blenheim Palace. Hardly a pauper’s start to life.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was played at Churchill’s request. It would seem a strange choice only if you didn’t know of his American roots on the maternal side of his family. A British hero of partial American descent? Scandalous. Still, the Yanks helped give us Winston. We contributed to the gift of Obama. We’ll call it even?  Another lesser reported fact is that he was also born two months prematurely. Alternatively, he was conceived two months before his parents tied the not. The former was a more acceptable account of events for the society of the day.

What Churchill was really famous for was his rhetoric. His speeches have lasted the ages, and various British media organisations have been asking readers to provide their favourite quote. That’s a risky business. Churchill was, as they say, a man of his time, and spake as such. Even then, some of his comments were extreme. Others were taken out of context. The internet, mostly Islamophobes, have of late taken to quoting his warning of the dangers of Islam. Yet the truth is always more complex that a convenient soundbite.

My favourite quote? It’s controversial only in that it cannot with absolute certainty be truly attributed to Churchill. But it appeals greatly to my interest in language. It’s witty. And, whether the quote belongs to him or not, it is certainly very Churchillian. He was, the story goes, upset when an editor decided to rearrange one of is sentences. It was a breach of linguistic decorum to end a sentence with a preposition.

This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.

A Century of Remembering

Already this year there have been several important dates commemorating the centenary of World War I. Today is the special date for Britain. A hundred years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany. Arguably, it was today in 1914 that a potentially localised European war turned into a full scale global conflict. There are lots of events taking place across the country and on the battlefields in France and Belgium. Lest we forget.

There’s little chance anyone will forget. Every town, village and hamlet has a war memorial with the names of the dead of 1914 to 1918 engraved upon them. Other institutions like train stations and Royal Mail offices have their own plaques. Bournemouth has a rather grand memorial in the gardens, which I cycle past on most days. I cycled past this evening and took a photo.

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In the gardens today there were youngsters from all over Europe playing football. On the grass, not across trenches. After school or work, not during a ceasefire. The airship in the background is a balloon to provide tourists with a view, not a Zeppelin dropping bombs on civilians. I came home from the gardens to find a letter from the government. It was about my right to vote, not conscription papers.

I’m glad to be alive in 2014 rather than 1914. The young men of 1914 would probably disagree. Adventure was in the air. The survivors of 1918 would probably come round to my point of view. They were just glad to be alive at all, I’m sure. To be able to join in the annual rituals of remembrance. Alas, around the world today in Ukraine, Israel, great swathes of Africa and elsewhere, the futility of war is forgotten and ignored. But we will be able to remember them next year.

 

 

 

Nelson’s Legacy

This is very much a follow on from my last post. Visiting London, especially for the first time, is an awe inspiring experience. It’s a vast city, awash with grandeur, rich is history and still one of wealthiest places on earth. Famously, it was the centre of the world’s biggest empire, which reigned over foreign territories for five centuries. Well, we can argue the dates, but I go by the dates of 1497  when the first English settlers landed in Newfoundland, to 1997 when the UK returned control of Hong Kong, the final ‘proper’ colony, to the Chinese. The dates are convenient if nothing else. But the main question that visitors might ask – how on earth did this small island end up controlling a quarter of the world’s land surface and up to a third of it’s population?

There is no single answer, most historians would agree. But I’ll venture to propose that if we had to whittle down the explanation of a small island conquering huge chunks of land across the globe, we can whittle it down to one man. You’ll see him and references to him across London and the UK. And his legacy envelopes London almost completely. The man is Horatio Nelson. Aka, Lord Nelson or Admiral Nelson. Britain’s most famous sailor. He came only 9th in the 100 Greatest Britons, which was a travesty.

You see, in 1783 Britain lay at a crossroads. The American colonies were lost. Enemies were circling Britain like lions round a wounded gazelle. Napoleon was wreaking havoc across Europe. In the minds of many, the British Empire was in decline, near its end even. Invasion by the French was a serious threat. If ever the nation needed a hero, it was now. As they say, cometh the hour, cometh the man. He revolutionised naval warfare, taking British fleets into conflict against often superior enemy formations and quickly annihilating them. Five battles  later, including the final devastating destruction of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, and Nelson had won control of the seas for Great Britain.

He was a legend in his own, short, lifetime. It often helps to die in your prime to maintain that status. He had his controversial moments, for sure. But enemy admirals feared him. Just a mention of his name would have French fleets turn tail and head the opposite direction. His funeral was as grand as they come. Even today his flagship, the Victory, remains a commissioned Royal Navy warship in dry dock at Portsmouth. You’ll see paintings of him in galleries. Busts of Nelson always take centre place, even at Windsor Castle where you can also find the bullet that killed him enclosed in a glass cabinet. His sarcophagus in the crypt of St Paul’s is the most prominent. And of course, there’s Nelson’s column in the centre of Trafalgar Square.

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There’s a point to all this. The question was, why did Great Britain end up with the enormous empire it did? And not, as looked likely in 1783, a second rate European nation with a few rag tag colonies. You can see the ‘before and after’ maps of empire above. Nelson didn’t just win battles. He destroyed both the fleets and hearts of Britain’s rivals, the French and Spanish. Neither of whom ever again made any genuine effort to compete with Britain on the seas after the Battle of Trafalgar. The world’s oceans were now Britain’s almost exclusive territory, opening the way for trade, colonial expansion, industrialisation, invention and wealth creation. Admittedly, with a large dose of ethnic cleansing, exploitation and genocide included for good measure.

When you walk around London admiring the grand Victorian architecture, the Palace of Westminster, even the modern glass towers, they were all made possible by the wealth brought in by the British Empire which was itself made possible by Nelson. To understand London today, London’s history of the last two hundred years, the place Britain has taken in the world and even the history of much of the world over the previous two centuries you should take a little time to learn about Nelson. The man, his victories, his legacy. There’s a 90 second account of Trafalgar here. But here’s the funny version…

 

Lincoln

Things come in threes. Usually, but not always. In the mid 1860’s we nearly had one unwelcome trilogy – all out war between Great Britain and the United States. The Unionistas and Confederales were battling it out in the American Civil War, whilst the British sat as an itchy fingered spectator. The public and majority in parliament were generally against the original War of Independence – it wasn’t popular at all back home. And when the US civil war rumbled into being, most people sided with the Yankees. But common interests aren’t always very common, and there were plenty of people whose best interests would have been served with a victory for the South. And yet others who would have profited from the war rumbling on a few years more.

Britain declared neutrality, but tensions were tetchy. A pair of Confederates were plucked from a British ship. Perhaps not a smart move. The Royal Navy was put on a war footing and plans to take New York (again) were drawn up. But a chap with foresight had second thoughts, and returned the Confederates to the Brits with an apology. A quick look at the chart below, detailing sea power over the last 150 odd years reveals why. There were a few more tantrums along the road, but nothing that couldn’t be resolved with diplomacy. There was no third US – UK war, and nor, I’m sure, will there ever be. As peoples we are similar, with ideals and goals that are largely shared. We’re the most natural of allies. War in the 1860’s would have served no purpose* for either country, both of whom had more important matters to hand that needed dealing with.

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It might seem that I’m providing a history lesson. Given that my stats tell me most of my views come from the other side of the pond, I’d be preaching to the converted. I am providing a history lesson, but perhaps not the sort you’d imagine. What I’ve just imparted is pretty large chunk of my total knowledge of the US Civil War.  Add in the Gettysburg Address, Generals Lee and Grant and the fact that victory came, after much spilt blood, to Lincoln’s Union army from the north. And that’s the lot. It’s just not a greatly taught war this side of the Atlantic. Jeez, we have more than enough wars of our own to learn about to start getting into other nations turmoils.

And yet Lincoln remains one of the most iconic, popular presidents for Brits. He has a high rating here. Real high. Being assassinated helped, it always does. There’s little to no controversy over his character, decisions and life in general. But there’s something enigmatic about him too. I could tell you he’s smart. Determined. Righteous. Fair. Decent. I couldn’t really tell you why though, other than he fought a war to free the slaves**. He was also the guy I referred to earlier who had had second thoughts. Oh, and he had a heck of a beard. Only Abe could pull that one off. Not that he always sported such chic facial grooming. I found a set of CC photos of him on Flickr in the Library of Congress Collection.

[Abraham Lincoln, candidate for U.S. president. Half-length portrait, seated, facing front] (LOC)

So what has me warbling on about Lincoln and the Civil War? The movie of course. Steve Cotton gave it a thumbs up, and he’s generally a good guide – his review is here. I’d have wanted to see it anyway. Do I give it a thumbs up? I did find it a fascinating film. It dwells on the issue of slavery, and leaves the actual blood and guts of the war out of sight. Out of sight, but it’s deathly breath hangs ever present in every scene. The costumes and scenery are superb. The acting is top notch. Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln shone in particular. For me, anyway. Did Americans mind that an English actor played the role? But then Lincoln was descended from an Englishman. I was a little surprised to find, given that the US had existed for less than a century, that you had to go as far back as his great, great, great, great grandfather to find the last English born Lincoln.

But I digress. Back to the movie. Storyline, costumes, scenery, acting, all a thumbs up. Script and production? I’m a little more reserved. I like epics. But I didn’t think Spielberg put enough meat on the bones of this script to warrant a film lasting two and a half hours. But even having said that, it remained utterly watchable.  If I spoil the end for you by telling you that Lincoln is killed, I apologize. But seriously, if that’s the case, get down the library and read a book. You’ve already spent too much of your life in Blockbusters methinks***. I did think the end lacked the drama of the occasion though. It was, like (I think) Steve suggested, it became a little overly messianic. Overall, I’ll give it a thumbs up. A seven out of ten.

Which president will next get the movie treatment? You’d have thought it’d be JFK. It’ll soon be the 50th anniversary of his infamous killing. But I’ve heard nothing of a film in the works. I’ll just have to watch the 1983 three parter starring Martin Sheen that I have on DVD. There’s also another new J Edgar Hoover movie to watch. But I’d really like to learn more about the US Civil War. Despite my professing ignorance, I did many years ago read a book, but anything I took in has long since departed. Can anyone recommend a really decent history of the war? Especially one available on Kindle. To finish this rather long post, a YouTube video. I first found it quite some time ago. I found it fascinating. You feel you can almost touch distant history when watching it.

*As an aside, I found this encouraging, given the state of today’s world – financial crises of the sort we’ve seen in recent years are almost always followed by war.  Back in the 18060’s, we imported 40% of our corn from the US – famine may well have followed a confrontation. On the other hand, a full British naval blockade and the destruction of US coastal cities wouldn’t have done the people of the US much good. An early form of mutually assured destruction. Both countries were economically dependent on one another to a large degree. A large enough degree to see to it that common sense reigned over inflamed passions. The world today is far more integrated economically, so perhaps for once we can get through economic turmoil without shooting the crap out of each other.

** That might be a point of controversy in the US, but not here.

***If you’re a Brit, you might not long have the option to choose between the two. How refreshing that the publically owned option isn’t the failure! 🙂

Windsor Castle

England is a land full of castles. There are dozens of them, littering the landscape. Hundreds, if you include those where little of them remains. Some are grand, others less so and quite a few in ruins. For castle nuts, there are some choice classics to visit. Leeds Castle in Kent. The Tower of London. Herstmonceux and Bodiam Castles. Mrs P and I went to see one the weekend before Christmas. The granddaddy of castles. We went to Windsor. If it’s good enough for Her Majesty, who calls it home, then it’s probably good enough for us.

It’s an impressive beast that has benefited from the patronage of numerous Kings and Queens, who have taken it on and redeveloped it over the centuries. It might have been founded by William the Conqueror but I suspect there’s little to nothing left from his day. Subsequent monarchs have added/ rebuilt/ restored a splendid palace inside the grounds.

The surrounding area is pretty glorious too, although there is one view that smarts a little. And begs the question – who on earth decided to put ghastly Slough there? Aside from having one of the ugliest towns in the country as a neighbour, Windsor does have another little issue, which begs a second question – who on earth decided to put Heathrow’s flight path directly over the castle? Seriously. World’s most famous castle, right underneath the world’s busiest airport’s flight path. It beggars belief.

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Windsor Castle has had its ups and downs over the years. Mostly ups. But there has been a significant down in recent times. Twenty years ago, a fire ripped through some of the most spectacular rooms of the castle, bringing down floors and turning numerous, priceless treasures into smouldering embers. More than a hundred rooms were utterly destroyed. The Great Fire of Windsor. For whatever reason, we British like to refer to anything of magnitude or importance as being great, even when it is quite patently not great at all. This was most certainly an event of magnitude. A national cultural tragedy indeed.

But our dear Royal Family are a resilient lot. I dare say that Phil, Chaz, Eddie and Andy were out and about to hire some tools to restore Windsor to its full glory within hours. That’s how I imagined it happened. It probably required some slightly more sophisticated tools than a few saws and screwdrivers, and perhaps even a degree of expertise.  I suspect some professionals were called in. I suspect they brought in some pretty high spec tools with them. And they did a splendid job. It also turned out to be a significant turning point in the restoration of the monarchy itself.

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My last visit to Windor was pre-fire, as a school age child. My memories of it are quite dim, to be perfectly honest. I think I may have been more impressed had we been allowed to fire off some cannon balls, or loose off a few arrows. Or had we been allowed to set fire to stuff. Boys in general, and me in particular, are like that. I’ll hasten to add that I had nothing to do with this fire. I have a number of alibis, thank you very much.

Restoring a castle of the grandeur of Windsor is a big ask. The walls were ok. Twenty three foot thick stone can take a few licks of fire without too much trouble. The wooden ceilings and interior fared less well. But no matter how big an ask something is, if you throw sufficient cash at it, it can be done. And a fine job they’ve done. Using unseasoned oak, just as had been done originally, the roofs and panelling have been reconstructed. You can see the cracking and imperfections that come with this old fashioned style of construction.

The restoration wasn’t an attempt to create (or recreate) an aged interior. It was simply rebuilt as new, and will be allowed to age naturally. As it did before. I was mightily impressed. Mind you, anyone who could stroll through the State Apartments with all their pomp, splendour and indulgence without being impressed is a soulless creature. Photos? Of course. You can see much Windsor Castle set by clicking here.

The Paris Catacombs

My trip to Paris took me through some dark twists and turns and a few morbid corners. None more so than the catacombs deep under the streets of the city, where the bones of six million Parisians lie stacked up. It’s a mind-boggling number, is six million. There’s a whole Jewish holocaust’s worth of former city inhabitants there, the remains almost decoratively arranged.

Each and every one of them was a person with a life, with a story to tell. I did wonder, as I looked into the sockets of a few skulls, who they were, what they did and what was the final affliction that sent them down here? There’s so many of them though. You soon stop wondering, and start to understand the logic behind Stalin’s theory of what makes a tragedy and what adds up to a statistic.

The bones are stacked in just a small corner of the catacombs. Apparently they account for only 1/800th of the space available. That means there’s almost enough room left for the entire global population. The catacombs exist for a simple reason. All that stone in the buildings above the streets had to come from somewhere. I have more photos on Flickr, and not just of skulls. There were some very cool rock carvings down there too.

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Surrender

Ever wondered what a surrender looks like? The image below is the document signed by the man in charge of Argentine forces in the Falkland Islands, thirty years ago today. It’s a fairly bland and insignificant looking piece of paper. I’m sure it was painful to sign. A flourish of ink signalling the end of a dream. It also meant that the hundreds of Argentines killed in the conflict died in vain. Not that he had any choice other than to sign it. His poorly trained, equipped and supported conscripts may have held numerical superiority, but they had been routed at every turn by a professional army.

They had probably been a little demotivated by what they had found on the Islands too. I know from speaking to Argentines, that they have been mislead, to put it politely, by successive governments. They still are. And many of them still believe the lies they are told. That the Islanders want to either be independent or to be Argentine. And that they most certainly don’t want to be British. The soldiers would have discovered the truth as soon as they marched into Port Stanley.

Cristina de Kerschner might have a good point when she referred to David Cameron as being ‘mediocre, bordering on stupid’. Or words to that effect. But it’s definitely a case of the pot calling the kettle black. As little respect as I have for Cameron, and it really is little, I’d pick him in an instant over dear Cristina in an election. She seems hell bent on keeping the Falklands as a British territory for an extra generation or two. I’m sure she’s aware that that is how her actions will play out. Mediocre and and bordering on stupid might be paying her a compliment. One might also ask what sort of moral authority is held by a descendant of  German/Spanish immigrants, who wiped out 99% of the native inhabitants of Argentina, when it comes to criticising colonial history.

I have met others around the world, particularly from the US, who also look disapprovingly at this relic of Empire. I have often wondered just how many of them have stopped long enough to ponder that their part of North America has actually been a part of the US for less time than the Falkland Islands have been British? That their ancestors have been on those lands for less time than the ancestors of the Falklands Islands have been on theirs. And that their lands were taken by force at the cost of thousands of lives, whilst the Falklands have only ever really had one significant settlement – the current one. Have they given much thought to handing back huge chunks of the US of A to Mexico and to the ‘native’ populations? Probably not.

This will probably be my last post on the Falklands, for a while anyway. This is the last major anniversary of the conflict for a while. As you may have guessed, I strongly support the inhabitants of the islands to be allowed the final say on their governance. But more significantly, the Falklands have played an important part of my life. I was ten years old during the war. It was then that I began to learn about Britain’s place in the world and our relationship with different nations. It was that conflict that brought the British Empire into my classroom at school as a hot topic.

It also shaped how subsequent British governments saw our future in the world, and how they funded and utilised our military forces up to the present day. It also reinforced and reinvigorated the authority of a prime minister who, in 1982, was weakened and potentially on her way out. It allowed her to force through massive political and economic changes. It’s fair to say that the Falklands War has had a huge but often over looked or under appreciated impact on our lives up to this very day.

An Enormous Penis.

What to do on a grey, rainy Sunday afternoon? Go see an absolutely enormous penis to get things underway. Then a drink in the country’s smallest pub*. Drive through a bizarre town that features a dozen traditional architectural styles but where no building is more than 15 years of age – fans of enlightened monarchy might take to Prince Charles. Finally, if you’re not wet enough from the constant downpours, jump in a river. Who says there’s nowt to do in the rain in Dorset? Now to sit back and see what sort of attention my selection of title and tagging gets my blog…

*this is one of several pubs that claim the title.

Symbols

Symbols are pretty powerful. That’s why brands have, or at least try to have, an instantly recognisable logo. That is preferably associated with positive messages. There are brands I like. When I see the Amazon logo I think ‘trustworthy, value’. When I see the H of Honda I think ‘reliable, precision engineering’. When I see Clarks logo I think ‘comfortable, hard wearing, mature’.

There are brands I don’t like, or have reservations about. To me, Apple means ‘control freak, extortionate’. Archos reeks of ‘cheap, nasty’. It wasn’t always so with Archos. Brand messages change. BP wasn’t always ‘pollution, oil slick, Gulf of Mexico’. It is now.

There’s one logo which is particularly powerful. It elicits particularly strong messages. Genocide and fascism being top of the list. But it still has some ‘positive’ feeling. Efficiency and unity. They are pretty overwhelmed by the former though. But context is everything. I was quite surprised to see Hitler dolls and memorabilia at several markets in Mexico City.

But the war doesn’t have the same meaning to Mexicans as it does to Europeans and their northern cousins. It’s just local context. Likewise, the Hammer and Sickle have become popular additions to fashion. The horrors of communism aren’t the same for everyone. But then, the logo isn’t worn as a show of support for communism, usually.  The British flag, the Union Flag is most definitely a brand. See the logo on this page to your right.

The Union Flag isn’t a positive symbol for everyone. For millions around the world, the Union Flag is their Swaztika. It’s understandable, as the British Empire claimed, potentially, as many victims as the Nazis and Soviets combined. To a lesser extent, the Stars and Stripes is not a positive image. Just goes to show, you can’t please all the people, all the time.

The images below come from my recent trip to the Military museum in the Dorchester Keep. It’s a fascinating trip through history, culminating with a fine view from the top of the building. Well, it would have been a fine view if it hadn’t been chucking it down. The prize exhibit, amongst the many model soldiers, medals and memorabilia, was Hitler’s desk.

It was taken from the Berlin chancellery at the end of the war. It still had some of his stationery in it. He’d spent many a morning and afternoon sat at that desk, doing his thing. I touched the desk. Stuck my grubby mitts around the protective glass and gave it a good rub. Just trying to get a feel for the history. To get some context. I can’t buy from Adolf, and his products only come second hand these days. But I can touch and imagine.

My photos are on Flickr here, and Google here.

Las Malvinas Son Los Falklands

Thirty years ago, during an economic downturn, the Falkand Islands became headline news in both northern and southern hemispheres. Recently, coincidentally, or perhaps not, the Falklands are again in the news, in the same hemispheres. Last time it was war. With ships, planes and infantry. This time the war is one of words. It’s been quite feisty though. It’s been front page stuff here and there over the last few weeks.

I’ve met plenty of Argentines on my travels, but the touchy subject of island ownership doesn’t often come up. The stubborn notion of Argentine ownership can be seen in many Argentine restaurants in DF though. Maps of their home country will always describe the islands as Las Malvinas.  When I have spoken to Argentines about the islands though, I’ve often been amazed at their complete lack of knowledge about the islands. Almost all of them believe the islanders to be Argentine. Almost all have professed their belief that the islanders want to be ruled from Buenos Airies, or at least that they want independence from Britain.

Almost all of them have clearly been taught ‘facts’ that bear no resemblance to reality. Although this article in the Guardian suggest that might be changing. Albeit very slowly. I’ve read the arguments in favour of Argentine ownership. They are all tenuous. There really is little basis for the claim, other than proximity. But even then, it’s hardly a stones throw from the mainland. The latest Argentine tactics of rallying the support of neighbours is all rather meaningless too. The Falklands have long been supplied by ship direct from the UK.

I do have one idea that might benefit the Argentines in furthering their claim. Accept British ownership. Quit worrying about it. Take the pressure off the situation. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Possession and a superior military is ten tenths of the law. Work on restoring normal relationships with both the British and the islanders. When all is said and done, the islanders are the ones who should have the final say in who, if anyone, is to govern them.

They stopped being colonial tenants a long time ago. They were born there, as were their parents, their grandparents, their great grandparents. It’s very clear that they currently want to be a British territory. It’s very clear that that is how they’ll think for the short to medium term. It’s very clear that current Argentine policy, together with previous Argentine policy, will only strengthen that feeling. Argentina is doing everything necessary to prevent their own aims. It’s self defeating.

How’s this for a radical idea. Once relationships have been normalised, set up increased trade programs. New tourism routes, working both ways. Sporting competitions. Work on being the islanders best friend. Work on being a beneficial neighbour, one they begin to depend upon. Work on embedding a relationship that eventually becomes more important to the islanders than their relationship to Britain.

And provide Argentines with the truth about the islands and islanders. Stop kidding them. I’m convinced it’ll work better than their current efforts. It’ll take a long time. It’s very much a case of playing the waiting game. Taking a longer view. But like I said, the short and medium term are decided already anyway.

 

 

Thatcher

The Iron Lady has hit the cinemas, Meryl Streep has hit the winners podium and the movie has been a hit at the box office. I haven’t seen it yet. But it’s at the top of my ‘must watch’ list. I’m intrigued by how such a story might be told. The many reviews I’ve read seem mixed. But as a child of the 80’s, and politically interested from an early age, I grew up knowing little different to a world dominated by Thatcherism. Her policies still, arguably, dominate the country today. The current recession could, arguably, be referred to as the product of Thatcherism.

I first heard the word Thatcher as a six year old in a school classroom. The teacher explained what a General Election was. She described the two candidates. I think she was probably pretty thin on policies. The key fact was that one of them was a woman, and that we’d never had a woman Prime Minister. I remember at the time wondering what exactly was the big deal of having a woman PM. We had a woman queen*, and a queen was far more important that a politician.

We were given the vote in that classroom. I voted for Callaghan, the incumbent Labour PM. He was clearly going to get a drubbing judging by the inability of my contemporaries to keep their voting intentions secret. I felt sorry for him. My sympathy vote counted for little. He was given the predictable drubbing. A few days later Thatcher was elected for real. A ‘frothing right winger’ who had been accidentally elevated to the position of Conservative leader due to a disorganised protest vote was Prime Minister, and the UK would never be quite the same again.

Thatcher was and is divisive. Love her or hate her. Although personally I neither love nor hate her. For me there are two Thatchers. The Iron Lady who ruled with an iron fist from 1979 to 1987. Crushing the militant and destructive unions that were crippling the country. The Iron Lady who stood up to terrorism at home and who faced down despotism in the south Atlantic. The Iron Lady who gave the people of the UK greater financial opportunities. She was also part and parcel of the political process that destroyed swathes of British industry, who plunged millions into unemployment and poverty and who set us on a course for levels of inequality not known since the worst excesses of the Victorian era.

Then there was the Thatcher of 1987 to 1990. A woman who had been ploughing forward at top speed for so long, it didn’t occur to her that she’d pretty much arrived at the land she’d promised. She didn’t know how to stop. She didn’t seem to understand the need to consolidate. She didn’t grasp the consequences of winning the Cold War, and Britain’s changing position within the world at large and Europe in particular. The didn’t seem to understand the changing dynamics of the world around her. But more than anything, she didn’t seem to grasp the fact that at home, with domestic policies, you can divide and conquer for only so long. A country with too many divisions is in trouble. Thatcher was in trouble. She’d be toppled by those around her. They could see the writing on the wall, even if she couldn’t.

The 1980’s were good for me. I was a kid. Boom and bust means little providing you still get your pocket money. I did my paper rounds and Saturday jobs and got by. By the time Thatcherism hit me, it was almost over. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Community Charge, or the Poll Tax. In theory, a perfectly fair concept. In practise, it was implemented in the most ridiculous, unenforceable, unfair and laughable manner. I moved to the borough of Wandsworth for the two years I was elibible to pay up. The first year I had to pay £140. The second year it was zero. Elsewhere in the country people were having to pay hundreds upon hundreds of pounds. Thatcher would never repeal the Poll Tax. And the country would never vote for a party supporting it. It was either goodbye for Thatcher in 1990, or goodbye to the Tories in 1991. The Tory party, understandably, chose the former.

So I look forward to the film. But I do wonder one thing. When all is said and done and the tomes of history have spoken, how will Thatcher be recorded. My photo below isn’t the best I’ve ever taken of Big Ben and Westminster. But it’s always a very awe inspiring sight. It’s so representative of London, of the UK, of the might of the British Empire, of the glories of the Victorian era, the dominance of the UK in a world now long gone. I often stare at it and wonder how on earth this building once came to be the centre of the world. How a third of the world’s population had their fates, to greater or lesser extents, determined by people working in that building.

Britain lost it’s position at the top of the global tree a long time ago. Well….only within my grand fathers lifetime, so perhaps not so long ago. But the slide down the tree, gradual as it is, will continue. Brazil recently overtook the UK for 6th place in the list of the world’s largest economies. We’ll continue falling. We’ve been sliding since the end of World War Two. But for a fleeting moment, Thatcher stopped the decline. We actually climbed up a few rungs. We punched above our weight again, albeit temporarily. Britain seemed great again.

I don’t doubt that, for better or worse, Thatcher will be recorded as one of the great British prime ministers. But might she also be remembered as the last great British prime minister? Along with the likes of Pitt, Attlee, Asquith, Churchill, Lloyd George and MacMillan? Of course, there is one prime minister I haven’t mentioned, who might lay claim to being the last great British PM. Like Thatcher, Blair won three elections. But I would regard him as being an important PM, at a crossroads in British history, overseeing – nay, guiding – the country once again into decline.

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Tea For Two

Mexicans I met in my old life generally knew three things about the English. Or British. Whichever. We are a pirate race, always on time, and love our tea. I would often be greeted by the in-laws as ‘the pirate’.  Students would tell me what time I could expect to see them by adding ‘Mexican time’ or ‘English time’ to the specified hour. And I would often be questioned about the tea drinking habits of my compatriots. Do we really stop whatever we’re doing at 4pm for a cuppa? Tsk. Sterotypes.

The first two charges are outdated. The days of Drake and co are long over, and a stroll around any mercado in Mexico, with the thousands of counterfeit CDs and DVDs on display, show that Mexicans are very much showing us the way in 21st century piracy. As for time keeping – I believe the English reputation for turning up on time stems from our railway timetables. Which is ironic.

It’s been many, many decades since our trains were anything other than a laughing stock as far as time keeping goes. Trains have been so late, so often, that the operators have pretty much run out of excuses. Two of the most famous ‘explanations’  in recent years were ‘leaves on the track’ and ‘the wrong type of snow’. I imagine they were hoping that passengers would be unaware that there had been autumns previous to that one, and that there are a whole range of different snows. There’s wet snow, dry snow, white snow…

But tea. Maybe there’s some truth in that stereotype. Mrs P had some preparation in Mexico when we had visitors from England. Who brought boxes of the stuff with them. Can you get Tetley teabags in Mexico? Take no risks. Take your own. She has been asked by her dad if we take tea every afternoon. She sighs. And explains that it’s drunk as a substitute for water.

If she needed any further confirmation, she got it this week. She was privy to a conversation about a lady who had died. She apparently passed away on a sofa with a book across her chest and a cup of tea in her hand. Upon hearing about the sad ending, there was a sad sigh from one of the participants, followed by ‘and she didn’t even get to finish her tea…’. The death was sad. That the tea had gone undrunk was tragic. Nuff said.

Little known fact. After declaring war on Germany in 1939, the British government took a look at our meagre defences. We had massive shortages of planes, tanks, guns and trained soldiers. So the government did the only sensible thing. It ordered, so the story goes, the entire global production of tea for the following five years. We would fight them on the beaches we would fight on the landing grounds, we would fight in the fields and in the streets, we would fight in the hills; we would never surrender….providing we had a cup of tea to hand. Else…sod it.

I have no photos of tea, either boxed or bagged. But every post needs a photo. So I leave you with a photo of Paola from our recent trip to London. This is from Part III of the series Paola’s London. For her friends and family back home. You can see the full set on Flickr or Google.

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London’s Legacy of War

There’s a truly obvious theme that you’d have to be blind not to notice in any visit to London. The legacy of the UK’s many wars. In Mexico, there’s really only been a few wars of note. You can count them on one hand and still have a finger or two to spare. In London, a coach load of visitors would soon run out of digits adding up the statues, memorials and other monuments to battles of days gone by. Two World Wars, the Boer War, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Crimea, the 100 Year War….it’s a seemingly endless list. To be fair, England has had 1000 years plus to tally up its long list.

Paola is, I think, beginning to grasp the sheer scale of British conflict, past and present. I’m not convinced that any other nation over the last millenia quite compares. She hasn’t been through Remembrance Day yet. She has seen videos of British troops in Afghansitan and Iraq. And old videos such as the Iranian Embassy Siege. yesterday we watched a programme about Royal Wootten Bassett, which is well worth watching.

It produces a conundrum. It’s difficult not to be proud, inspired and awed by the soldiers of the British Army, the airmen of the RAF and the sailors of the Royal Navy. It’s equally difficult  not to be impressed by the global achievements, campaigns and empire of such a tiny island. At the same time, it’s difficult to comprehend the political insanity, inhumanity and greed that accompanied them.

Salisbury

Now that I have a companion, Ive been getting out and about a bit more. Last stop was Salisbury, home of the famous cathedral. Some of the old churches and cathedrals that litter the UK are quite incredible architectural monuments. To think this was built when the Mayans were building Tulum, some 700 to 800 years ago.

The cathedral contains one of the four original copies of the Magna Carta. Which we had a good look at, behind its protective class. No photos allowed, sadly. But not unsurprisingly. That document has had quite some impact on the world, but when I look around I do think that we might be in need of a updated variant. How this would look, I haven’t yet decided. But I’d allow it to be photographed. Maybe that’s a topic for another post.

I took plenty of photos, including  a set on Flickr taken with my Olumpus Pen. But I got plenty of shots of the cathedral and town with my Samsung Galaxy S2, with the Camera 360 and Vignette apps, which I uploaded to a Facebook album. Both are great fun to use and whilst the purist might turn his or her nose up at the image quality, I think the final products are pretty funky.

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