22 December, 2013

"For Such As Care To Attend....."

Susanna Cibber - a scandalised woman but
at the premier of the Messiah her faith
showed through and her sins were forgiven!
On Monday night Pat’s choir took part in the annual Community Messiah in our local Church – St Peter’s. As I have blogged about before for many, including myself, hearing Handel’s great work marks the beginning of Christmas.  It is a “Community Messiah” – in other words anyone can come along and join in. The conductor, instead of having his back to the audience as is usual in a concert, on this occasion faces the audience and choir as they stand together in the pews and join to sing Handel’s great music. And at the end everyone, choir and people stand side by side to applaud – not, perhaps, the quality of the performance, although that is always wonderful, but rather the great music, the coming together and, most importantly, the message that the Messiah brings.

After the event Pat commented that the four soloists had all been good and in particular she mentioned the bass – a gentleman who has sung the part with the choir since the choir’s inception half a century ago. She was right, and she was also right when she commented that he sang every word as if he believed totally in the words he was repeating. We know that he is a committed Christian so, I suppose, that was to be expected but the fact that he was not just reciting the musical score made the performance even more memorable. The great music and words when combined with his obvious belief gave it an extra “edge.” It reminded me very much of the oft told tale of the first performance of the Messiah in Dublin in 1742. The women soloists on that occasion were Christina Maria Avoglio and Susannah Cibber well known opera singers of the time. In those days opera singers, actors and the like, although stars of the theatre, were every much regarded as rather dubious and amoral people. To have these two women singing part of a religious work was, in 18th century terms, risqué. In the case of Cibber, however, it was worse - only three years before she and London society had been scandalised because Susanna had been at the centre of a great court case having been proved to be part of a menage de trois with her husband and their lodger! During that first performance of the Messiah, however, a Dublin clergyman, Rev. Delaney, was so overcome by her rendering of "He was despised" that reportedly he leapt to his feet and cried: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" Clearly her faith showed through!

We will be back at St Peter’s over the weekend when, as usual, we will be attending the annual carol service. I have no doubt that the church will be packed as it usually is for this event. And on Christmas Eve, we will go with our children and grandchildren to their local church to join in the annual Christmas Eve children’s service where any child can dress up as a member of the Christmas story and take part in the retelling of the great tale. At the end of the service the children will be at the front in tableau form - the Christmas message will be passed on. And each year up and down the country and across many nations the story will be told of those happenings in a far off country over 2000 years ago.

In this day and age I’m sure few actually believe that the events as described in the Bible actually took place in the way that they are depicted in carols, in nativity plays and on Christmas cards. The story, though wonderfully told, is to most of us, a matter of faith – we believe it no matter how unlikely it sounds. Perhaps it is all little more than a few facts becoming entangled over 2000 years - the Roman rule of Palestine, a great census, an unusual birth in a small town in Palestine, a rather bright comet that happened to appear at about that time,  a young preacher achieving a certain notoriety in the Roman occupied land - and all the rest - maybe this is all there is to Christmas myth.  Author Doris Lessing’s comment that “myth is a concentration of the truth”  - is maybe right, that disparate events are simply concentrated into one tale to make a “whole”. Certainly,  if one looks at the story as told in the Bible or as seen on millions of Christmas cards it would be easy to find yawning gaps in the absolute “truth” of it. "Clever" people like the famous atheist and humanist Richard Dawkins would have no trouble at all in demolishing the events of Christmas story but that, however, misses the point. It is not the story but what it represents that is important and this in turn brings in the notion of faith; I cannot prove there is a God, or that Christmas happened as the Bible says, but I believe it to be so. That is faith. And it is the nature and nub of all of the world’s great religions.
Putting away the Sikh Holy Book

Some years ago Pat and had the good fortune to visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar, the spiritual home of all Sikhs. It was a hugely humbling and moving experience where the innate faith and goodness of that religion were positively tangible. We walked through the Golden Temple at night and listened to the Sikh Gurus reading from their texts and at the appointed hour watched, fascinated and in awe as the great Sikh Holy Book was transported from the Temple, as it is each night, to its resting place. The crowds gathered around desperate to touch the golden Ark carrying the book – this was faith in its rawest form and humbling. The book, in addition to any guidance that it gave Sikhs, was a symbol of their faith and belief as the Christmas story is to Christians.

I was rudely reminded of this faith issue last week when there was a minor uproar in the UK. A vicar was taken to task by parents at a school in Wiltshire. He had been talking to the children and explaining the legends of Santa Claus and his links with figures from the past like Saint Nicholas. I have done that many, many times in Christmas school assemblies  – indeed the tales he was telling were the very ones that I have used over and over. Unfortunately some incredibly stupid parents accused him of ruining the belief that young children have in Santa – and, bizarrely,  that the children might no longer believe in the tooth fairy!!!!!. Hmmmm? They took it still further by threatening to burst into his church on Christmas Day and shout that the Christmas story is not true. Clearly, that says more about the parents than it does about the unfortunate vicar. Obviously they didn’t quite “get” the bit about faith – most Christians like adherents of most great religions do not, I suspect, believe in the literal story of their God or spiritual icon, it is faith as represented by the tales and symbols of the religion that sustains them. Were I in that church if and when they burst in my response would be “and your point is? – we know the story is myth and it matters not one jot – I believe it”! Of course, this sort of thing is not new when people hear things that they don't like! It's all rather reminiscent of the story of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in the 12th century.  The King, Henry II, did not like the stance that Becket took and in a fit of fury angrily asked "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest"? The rest is history: his comment was heard by four of his knights who travelled to Canterbury and killed Beckett as he knelt at the altar. People, be they kings or parents of young children in Wiltshire, don't like their worlds being upset, their desires thwarted or the fun and cuteness of Christmas being sidelined by such people as  priests! So far as the Wiltshire parents are concerned and using sporting parlance it seems to be Santa, Rudolph, presents, turkey & partying 1 the sacred, the serious and faith 0! 
Angry Wiltshire parents and their troublesome priest!

But there is another dimension of this. In the UK (and I am sure, too, in other western nations) it is common for the right wing media to complain that our essential national identity is being sidelined, eroded and compromised by the beliefs and traditions – especially religious - of other nations. The globalisation of the world and the mass movements of people that are a characteristic of the modern age mean that the faith and beliefs of others can easily clash and, over a period of time, be marginalised. There is perhaps an inevitability about this – and it causes problems at an everyday level – as immigration alters the ethnic make up of populations. I recently read that the Girl Guides Association have, rightly, changed their Guide’s Promise so that it is inclusive of other faiths. Their action has, however, caused much consternation. Issues such as this are often depicted as “threatening” to the indigenous culture by right wing extremists. Whatever the truth of that I do not believe that our society helps itself. As a society we have consistently secularised Christmas and confused the Christmas story as set out in the Bible with a hotchpotch of other beliefs and celebrations – Santa, parties, mince pies, Christmas trees and so on – things that have little or nothing to do with the essential nature and message of the Christian Christmas story. Christmas, like other great religious events throughout the world is, of course, a time  of celebration – but increasingly in the west we have allowed and encouraged the celebration aspect over its religious foundations.

I have just been looking at the TV schedules for this year’s Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; despite there being some 102 hours of TV programmes on the six main terrestrial channels there are only five religiously based programmes -  BBC has four and ITV has only one. This gives a total of two hours and fifty minutes devoted to the Christmas message – less than 3% of the time available. Equally, when I turn my TV on and see adverts for programmes or goods all are prefaced and based upon Santa, reindeer, snowmen, elves and the like – God is nowhere to be seen! It has not always been so. As a child I can remember that each year we watched (for example) on our little black and white TV the story of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” – the opera by Menotti. My parents were not opera enthusiasts nor particularly religious, and to be fair my father grumbled all the way through, but it was a way of “keeping Christmas”. And throughout the days of Christmas we would tune in to the various carol services and the like that were then offered as part of the scheduling. In short we are today giving away Christmas in favour of fun and party poppers.
If you haven't read it you are missing a treat

I am reminded of George Layton’s wonderfully poignant and explosively funny short story “The Christmas Party” (in the book “The Fib and Other Stories”) . In the story, on the day of the school Christmas party the teacher, Miss Taylor, asks her class what is the most important thing about Christmas. “Presents, Miss” shouts out one of the children. Miss Taylor replies “No. Tony, not presents. Christmas is when the baby Jesus was born, and that is the most important thing, and when you are all enjoying your presents and parties, you must all remember that. Will you promise me?” And, says Layton, “Everybody promised that they’d remember baby Jesus...... .”  Sadly, however, I fear the birth of Jesus will not be on the minds of the majority in our allegedly Christian societies as we enter the festive period - but I find that hard to blame on Hindus or Moslems or Sikhs or indeed confessed atheists, agnostics or humanists! As a society we increasingly choose the flippant, the mercenary and the cute over the profound, the serious or, in this case, the sacred! But, hey, let's have a good time - get another drink in, pull another cracker, turn up the radio so we can hear the latest Christmas number 1 we don't want seriousness or religion to mess up Christmas.

The effect of this mixing up of Christmas messages, of confusing the Bible story with the ancient mid-winter celebrations and beliefs about Santa, reindeer, elves, parties, presents and the rest means that as a society we are actively “watering down” our own beliefs. Given that scenario it is not surprising that the strong convictions of those other religious groups within our society – Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and the rest begin to look threatening. It is not the fault of these other religious groups – they are simply being true to their faith. We, on the other hand, increasingly wish to be less true to ours and substitute the essential Christian messages with tales of reindeer and jolly men with long white beards. In short, our beliefs and traditions are being overridden not by people of other faiths but by our own disinterest and commitment to our own. One only needs to think about the tale I quoted above about the parents in Wiltshire or look at the TV scheduling to see the truth of that – Santa is quite simply more important to than the Christian message. And if any further proof is needed, then consider the recent comment by Sarah Palin the American politician and one time presidential candidate:"I love the commercialization of Christmas because it spreads the Christmas cheer the most jolly holiday on our calendar ... obviously." American blogger, Leann ruefully and rightly commented “I can't make this stuff up people!” (http://crazyworld-leann.blogspot.co.uk/ ).
Rudyard Kipling
Each Christmas I am reminded of the importance of faith and belief when I think of Rudyard Kipling's great, powerful and thought provoking poem, Eddi’s Service (AD 687). I used this poem often at school in the run up to Christmas and it has formed the backbone of a number of the carol concerts that I organised over the years. Although Kipling wrote this almost a century ago and it refers back to a time in the distant past it has that strange and wonderful quality of being almost more relevant today than it was then. When I first discovered the poem many years ago I was mystified by its title and it was only when I did a little research that it all made sense.

Eddi, refers to Eddius Stephanus who was chaplain at the tiny church of St Wilfrid's in Church Norton, Sussex in the late seventh century. Church Norton was also known as Manhood End. Little is known about Eddi except that he was a follower of St Wilfrid and it is thought that he was also called Stephen of Rippon. Wilfrid had been shipwrecked off the Sussex coast in about the year 680 and so violent were the local Saxons that he only escaped with his life to the north of England to York. Wilfrid is mentioned in the writing of Bede, the mediaeval monk and scholar and he was appointed to be Bishop of York where he set about rebuilding the church – later to become the great York Minster - which had fallen into some state of disrepair. It was while in York that Wilfrid appointed Eddi as his singing master to teach monks plainchant. Presumably that is also the connection for Eddius with Ripon – for that town is just down the road from York.  Eventually, Eddi and Wilfrid set off in the late 7th century and travelled together to convert the unruly Saxons throughout the length and breadth of England and at last they arrived back in the Sussex area.
Eddius Strephanus' "Vita Sancti

During that time Eddi is thought to have written of the life and work of Wilfrid in one of the first Anglo Christian documents. Vita Sancti Wilfrithi. This  document, written in mediaeval Latin, is now housed in the British library in London and in the Bodleian in Oxford.  Wilfrid was determined to convert the Saxons of Sussex to Christianity and was lucky in his dealings with them. He met the local Saxon king who was impressed by Wilfrid’s religious conviction and  his bravery in coming to such an unruly and heathen place and so he gave Wilfrid land upon which he could support himself and his followers and where he could build a church. This church became a cathedral and local folklore has it that this is now under the sea near Selsey which is at the very tip of the Manhood Peninsula. Legend has it that its bells may be heard ringing in stormy seas warning sailors and recalling Wilfrid’s first visit to the area when he was shipwrecked. As Wilfrid’s influence spread other churches were built – one of them was at Church Norton or Manhood End as it is also known and Eddi became its priest.

Eddi’s Service (AD 687)

Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid, in his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service for such as cared to attend.
But the Saxons were keeping Christmas, and the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service, though Eddi rang the bell.
“Wicked weather for walking,” said Eddi of Manhood End.
“But I must go on with the service for such as care to attend.”

The altar-lamps were lighted, - an old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited, and stared at the guttering flame.
The storm beat on at the windows, the water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock pushed in through the open door. 
“How do I know what is greatest, How do I know what is least?
That is My Father’s business,” said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.

The chapel at Manhood End - scene of Eddi's
Christmas Service

“But - three are gathered together - listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!” said Eddi of Manhood End.
And he told the Ox of a Manger and a Stall in Bethlehem,

And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider, that rode to Jerusalem.

They steamed and dripped in the chancel, they listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops, Eddi preached them The Word,
Till the gale blew off on the marshes and the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together wheeled and clattered away. 
And when the Saxons mocked him, said Eddi of Manhood End,
“I dare not shut His chapel on such as care to attend.”
Rudyard Kipling

St Wilfrid
Rudyard Kipling lived quite close to where all this supposedly took place and knew of the tale – hence his poem – and each time I read it I am reminded of the simple faith of Eddi. Its truth doesn’t matter – it is a matter of belief – and has just as much resonance today as the true meaning of Christmas is so often under threat by the commercialisation of the season, the drunken office parties and pub crawls  and  the silly parents complaining about a vicar “ruining” the tale of Santa or the tooth fairy for their spoiled children. Our church was full the other night to hear the Christmas story as told by Handel in his great Messiah  but it was not so full as the pubs clubs of Nottingham. And the church will be full again on Sunday for the carol service and my daughter’s church will be standing room only for the children’s Christmas service on Christmas Eve. But the reality is that the majority of the population will not be there. Just as in the heathen 7th century Saxons were celebrating mid-winter and ”keeping Christmas” in their way so, too, will the modern Saxons be keeping theirs in the shopping malls, the pubs and the clubs and by watching "Strictly Come Dancing" or "Downton Abbey" and the rest on their flat screen TVs. Most will not, as Eddi put it, “care to attend” their local church or Messiah.

Fra Angelico's 15th century painting of the
Christmas story - no Santas, reindeer, or
shopping malls. There is, however, an ox and an
ass - just like the ones who cared to attend Eddi's

 Eddi’s service and the Christmas story, as told in the Bible, are the real messages of Christmas  - not Santa, not Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, not the latest supermarket offer or technological must have, not the over used and meaningless “Merry Christmas”, not the excess of alcohol, part poppers or partying. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the birth of Jesus – for Christians it is a time of joy and celebration. Nor is there anything wrong with celebrating midwinter – be it in pagan AD 687 or in (perhaps even more pagan!) AD 2013 - or believing in Santa, or leaving a mince pie and carrot out for Santa and Rudolph, or partying or revelry, or spending a fortune on trivial and unnecessary gifts. There is nothing wrong with all this so long, that is, that we don’t confuse it with the Christmas story, which has a totally different and opposite message to those trivial and secular matters. The Christmas story is about the nature of life, belief and humanity and as Miss Taylor, asked in George Layton’s story, we need to know what is the most important thing about it. Eddius Stephanus would have understood that perfectly.

14 December, 2013

It's the thought that counts!

Without any shadow of doubt my favourite Christmas poem is John Betjeman’s great work “Christmas”. I have read this to children and practised it with them for school Christmas Carol Concerts more times than I care to remember and each time I read its words I am in awe of the evocative scenes that Betjeman conjures up and the gently chiding nudges that he uses to point us to the real and greater message of the festival.

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say,
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

I often think, at this time of year, as we scurry around buying and wrapping presents of the words of the penultimate verse:
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

Rightly or wrongly Christmas always has been, is, and it seems increasingly becomes, a time of buying “sweet and silly Christmas things”. In recent years, however, it seems to me that “sweet and silly Christmas things” have  become a self indulgent gorging and fulfilling of our every whim, fancy and expectation as we trawl the shopping malls and exhaust our credit cards on line. The way in which our modern society gorges upon the Christmas buying spree becomes with each year that passes ever more difficult to comprehend. I know that as my own grandchildren rip off the paper around their presents on Christmas morning I will sit there and sadly fear that as each gift is ripped open it will be forgotten as quickly as it was squealed at. Increasingly, it seems to me, Christmas stockings are filled with  Christmas must haves - immediately obsolete technology or the latest fashion accessory which will soon fall out of favour when the next computer gimmick or TV chef comes along to influence the mindless.Christmas is increasingly the vehicle by which you can gain domestic heaven and social acceptability  at your dining table or street credibility amongst your peers by ensuring that you ask for the latest craze to be included in your Christmas stocking!  I sadly look at the gifts waiting to be wrapped in pretty Christmas paper and think not about the cost but how long will they find favour before they are left forgotten, battery discharged in the corner of the playroom or sitting long unopened on the kitchen cookery book shelves as some other fashion takes their place. Last night I watched adverts on the TV telling me that  I should purchase or request the "perfect gift" - a Sat Nav at only £79, a computer tablet at only £159. This sort of money can feed a family for a week or two even in this country and in some foreign lands it will feed them for a year. But,  these "perfect gifts" will, I suspect, fall out of favour as the orgy of spending moves on and Christmas jollity morphs  into the New Year sales. In this week’s Guardian writer John Harris comments upon “the sticky chicken lollipops on sale at Marks & Spencer -  £14 for a box  complete with a Japanese condiment sweet soy, mirin and ginger glaze". He goes on to mention the hi tech must haves like iPads and PS4s and rightly suggests in order to provide these Christmas fripperies  “the ghoul of debt is lurking”. All this is what our society has become as we are brainwashed and happily accept the notion of what it is to be a real 21st century family surrounded by our designer house and our wealth of material things – and, as each year passes Christmas takes this materialism to its extreme.  
From this week's Guardian

It certainly seems to have moved a long way since the kings and the shepherds took their gifts to a stable in a far off town!

A few months ago I read a wonderful book by American philosopher Michael Sandel. The book, “What Money Can’t Buy” explores some of the moral and ethical issues surrounding how we spend money and what things, if there be any, should not be “buyable”. In one section Sandel considers the issue of gifts. I must here declare an interest; I have long railed against the notion of Christmas gift lists – these were things unknown to me until I married. When I met my wife’s family I soon realised that it was the norm. One provided a list of items that you wanted for Christmas or one's birthday or Father's Day and people would say – “Yes, I’ll buy you that”. In the years since I know that this sort of thing has become endemic and it is clearly an efficient practice – it saves the buyer having to think too hard about what to buy someone, hopefully the gift will be well received by the recipient – it is after all what he or she has asked for. In harsh economic terms it makes sense is not wasting money on an item that might never be used. But, no matter how hard I try, deep down I am uncomfortable with it. For me there seems something wrong, it detracts from what I perceive should be an important element of a gift, namely that it is the result of thought on the part of the giver and as such is a two way process. It gives pleasure to the receiver for he has got a  gift and pleasure to the giver for they have identified what pleases the receiver. But, back to Sandel’s book – it clarified it all for me. He points out that to the economist the notion of a “gift” is a bit of an anathema – it fulfils no economic function. So if you are to make the best economic sense it is better to give the person money in order that they can buy exactly what they want – then the money is not wasted as it might be if you buy a present which is not exactly what the recipient desires and therefore one has, to a degree, wasted one’s money. But this, suggests Sandel, misses the point. The very act of giving a gift to someone is a very personal thing – it is a sign of your affection and desire to please that person – as the old saying goes “It’s the thought that matters” . Sandel argues: “.....a good gift not only aims to please, in the sense of satisfying the consumer preferences of the recipient. It also engages and connects with the recipient, in a way that reflects a certain intimacy [which was after all the reason for you buying the gift in the first place]. This is why thoughtfulness matters”. Sandel goes on by suggesting that friendship or intimacy – the basis upon which the gift was given - are about more than simply being useful or economical which is what is  implicit in simply giving someone the money or buying them what they ask for. To do that is just simply to provide a utility - I will buy this for you because you need it.
And also from the Guardian

Taking that to its logical extreme I might give my wife a new set of tyres for her car this Christmas. Since I know that she will need some in the near future surely she would appreciate this? Sadly, if she found four tyres under the tree on Christmas morning I suspect things would be chilly in our house for some little time! In fact I remember many years ago, my father on law when asked what he wanted for Christmas asked for a bag of compost for his garden (he was keen gardener) – this caused great consternation amongst his daughters who did not see this as a “proper gift”. They wanted to buy him something “nice” something that he might not otherwise buy himself – in Betjeman’s words a  “sweet and silly Christmas thing”. My wife and her sister’s discomfort at being asked to buy a bag of compost suggests to me that they understood that there is something “extra” to gift giving other than simply satisfying a utilitarian or economic “want”. There is a dimension that involves the giver and his or her feelings towards the recipient and those feelings in turn are linked with the desire of the giver to find something that “speaks” to the recipient over and above the ordinary utilitarian function. Christmas gift lists or simply giving the money detract in some way from that essential nature of gift giving and importantly, they also remove an essential ingredient as far as the giver is concerned. If I simply buy what the recipient has asked for or give him/her the money then as the giver I am being denied a basic pleasure of gift buying. The old saying that it is “the thought that counts”  is never more true.  As the giver, if I simply buy what I have been asked to buy or give the person some money then I have not given it any thought whatsoever. I have not been allowed use my knowledge of that person and what I believe are their preferences, I have not been able to express my particular feelings or thanks by giving something that I feel is quite appropriate for the person or the situation. And this in turn means that I have not had the pleasure of knowing that the recipient appreciated my skill and thought in understanding what would please them. Instead I am simply buying something much as I might buy a bottle of sauce from the supermarket – it is a purely utilitarian action with little emotional involvement whatsoever. And then, nonsensically, we complete this utilitarian or economic exercise by wrapping our gifts in ever more decorative and flamboyant wrapping papers, with false bows, tinsel, tassels, silver bells and the rest.  I suppose to make what is inside (which is usually known anyway since it has been asked for!) more seductive, mysterious and appealing – Betjeman’s “tissued fripperies” made real! I don’t expect the shepherds and the wise men bothered too much with that. I don't remember the bit on the Bible that says Mary exclaimed delight at the beautiful wrapping paper and bows and baubles,  and, in any case I’m sure that Mary didn’t notice the lack of wrapping paper when they passed over their mysterious and deeply thought out offerings!  

Of course, giving a gift based on utilitarian or economic bases is sometimes very understandable and will undoubtedly be much appreciated by the recipient – for example, if one lives a long way from the recipient it may be far better just to send the money. Equally, a gift given with good intent may be entirely useless to the recipient and might easily be thrown away unused. I know that my mother in law occasionally incurred the wrath of her daughters because she would often after Christmas take gifts she had been given given back to the shop from where they had been purchased and “get her money back”. That might sound unacceptable - certainly it infuriated my wife and her sister - but as Sandel suggests it would make absolute sense to the economist for it is making best economic use of the item!  In short the the whole area of gift giving is not so simple as it would appear!

The potential for “abuse” in gift giving is well illustrated by Michael Sandel when he describes a wonderful example of the ultimate utilitarian present scenario. When I read it, I thought this is what we will soon become as we hurtle towards gift giving becoming an economic activity rather than an intimate reflection of one’s esteem and affection for another. Sandel tells us of “….a recently patented system for electronic regifting. An article in The New York Times describes it as follows: Suppose your aunt gives you a fruitcake for Christmas. The fruitcake company sends you an email informing you of the thoughtful gift and giving you the option of accepting delivery, exchanging it for something else, or sending the fruitcake to an unsuspecting person on your gift list. Since the transaction takes place online, you don’t have to bother repacking the item and taking it to the post office. If you opt for regifting, the new recipient is offered the same options. So it’s possible that the unwanted fruitcake could ricochet its way indefinitely through cyberspace.”  Given that scenario then I can’t not believe that we are losing our way a little with our Christmas gifts. Of course, perhaps we should give thanks that this “regifting service” was not available in Bethlehem 2000 years ago – it could have completely altered the whole of the last 2000 years if Mary had simply “regifted” the gold, frankincense and myrrh!
John Betjeman

“It’s the thought that counts”. I thought of this in relation to my own childhood. I was lucky, although my parents were not well off, I know that they scrimped and saved to ensure that on Christmas morning I had plenty of presents to open. I can still remember many of them – indeed, I have occasionally seen some of them on TV programmes like the Antiques Road Show! One, however, stands out above all others in my memory. I was, I suppose, about 7 or 8 at the time and although I still believed in Santa I knew that this gift was coming. I knew that Santa hadn’t magically worked out what I wanted because for weeks before Christmas I was aware that it was being made. In my Dad’s little shed in the back yard he and his friend Alf worked for many nights to make me a toy fort. Alf was a lorry driver like my Dad but a skilled woodworker, too, and he, with Dad’s help made the fort out of old bits of wood. I never saw it until Christmas morning but I knew it was being made. When I came downstairs on Christmas morning the fort was there, already erected, painted a kind of grey stony camouflage colour, complete with a little home made paper flag on its highest turret and standing around its walls and in its keep were my tin soldiers – with a few new ones added. In those days tin soldiers broke notoriously easily and it always seemed to be the feet that broke off so they couldn’t stand up. On that Christmas morning I found that all my “wounded” soldiers had been repaired and each had a shiny soldered base to ensure that they stood up perfectly. I knew this was not a shop bought fort, that it was homemade – indeed when I looked at the bottom of the fort where it was unpainted I recognised the wood as being from my Dad’s shed, it still had “English Electric Co. Preston” stencilled in yellow letters on the bottom! My Dad had obviously “borrowed” some wood from his workplace!  But that didn’t detract one little bit – I was thrilled with it. I played and played with that fort and even when I became a teenager it still stood in the little curtained off alcove in my bedroom with the soldiers standing on its walls and pointing their guns and bows and arrows through its crenellations. I’m sure that my mother and dad probably wished that they could have afforded to give me a flash shop bought toy fortress and new tin soldiers, but equally I think they might have got quite a buzz out of seeing how much I loved it – and certainly, I’m sure, Dad and Alf enjoyed those nights swearing and cursing as they made it in the little shed lit only by a paraffin storm lamp. It was, indeed, the thought that counted!

And finally, I am reminded of the American writer William Sydney Porter, more famously known as O. Henry, who wrote a wonderful, magical tale of Christmas giving which puts it all into perspective and perhaps speaks more than any other of the personal nature of gifts and the importance of thought in the process. In O.Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” Jim and his wife, Della, are a young couple living in a modest New York flat. They are not well off and each has only one possession in which they take pride: Della's beautiful long, flowing hair, almost to her knees and Jim's cheap but much treasured shiny gold watch, which had once belonged to his father and grandfather. Christmas, they knew, would be a poor affair but they were determined to make the best of it.

On Christmas Eve, with only $1.87 in her purse, and desperate to find a gift for Jim, Della goes shopping. She can find nothing for $1.87 but then she sees a sign in a wig makers – hair wanted!  She sells her hair for $20 and leaves the wig makers shorn of her lovely locks – sold to make wigs for the rich ladies of New York. She scours the shops and eventually finds a splendid watch chain for Jim – an ideal gift for $21 the perfect gift to enhance Jim’s much loved watch.  Delighted, she runs home and begins to prepare their humble dinner. She has just 87 cents left in her purse.

When Jim comes home after work, he looks at Della’s shorn head but is too polite to comment. Della at last admits to Jim that she sold her hair to buy him his present. Jim, a tear in his eye gives Della her present – an assortment of expensive hair accessories and especially a lovely pearl handled comb for holding long hair in place but completely  useless now that her hair is so short. Della expresses delight and tells Jim not to worry – her hair will grow again. She hands  Jim the watch chain that she has bought for him. Another tear runs down Jim’s face as he sadly confesses to Della that he has sold his treasured  watch to get the money to buy her the combs. Jim and Della are now left with gifts that neither can use, but they realise how far they are willing to go to show their love for each other,  how priceless their love really is – and how the symbolism of their Christmas gifts are far more important than their economic or utilitarian value.
A Hollywood version  of O. Henry's

The innocence of O.Henry’s tale, of Betjeman’s poem, and, indeed, of my home made fort  is a long, long way from the Christmas present stampede and gorging of today. Each speaks of a different time and a time when thought seemed to govern our affairs and our giving of gifts. Today’s Christmas gift giving is increasingly to do with reflecting and satisfying personal desires as expressed in the Christmas gift list,  the latest fashion trend and commercial  advertising campaigns. And these in turn are all wrapped up in the latest supermarket or on line offer. Less and less it seems we give gifts based upon our thoughts, feelings and intimate insights for that person. Today’s Christmas gift giving is a mercenary affair both in the amounts spent and the implicit expectations of utilitarian value that is increasingly demanded by the receiver – “Oh, give me the money then I can buy what I want”. And we wrap it all up false bows and tinsel to make the whole thing more appealing so that the receiver can express delight and surprise when they see the gift, although they know full well what is beneath the wrapping! Can there be a sadder misrepresentation of the Christmas message. Is this what happened in Bethlehem on the first Christmas – I suspect not or Christianity would never have got off the ground! Christmas gift giving today is far removed from Betjeman’s “hideous tie so kindly meant” or, as I could easily substitute, a “home made fort with repaired tin soldiers”.  But it is within these simpler but more sincere things that the very essence Christmas resides.

02 December, 2013

Santa, Rudolph & The Church of the Nativity

Under the Bethlehem Christmas tree
Last night on the TV news the world was told that the Christmas lights had been switched on in Bethlehem and the screen showed us the thousands of people there, the bright lights, the huge tree and all the rest of the Christmas glitter. We were told that Christians and non-Christians alike were in the crowd and that a series of people had given political speeches. As the two minute item closed and the newsreader moved onto the next bit of news - the weather forecast - I darkly muttered “I wonder what Jesus thought”?
I am not overwhelmingly Christian nor do I wish to put a stop to people enjoying the Christmas festivities – my wife and I are already planning our Christmas, wrapping presents, buying in a few bottles of wine and the rest. But I have to say I did feel that the Church of the Nativity, where Christmas allegedly began deserved better than baubles, bangles, beads, tinsel and turkey. Is there no where in the world that can remain “sacred” – whatever that means – has all to be sacrificed at the altar of commerce and the contemporary imperative to have a good day, chill out and party?
Just as Jesus remembered it on that first Christmas!

I do not deny that perhaps other great religions may have the same situations; I am sure, for example, that the millions of pilgrims who attend the Hajj at Mecca each year also bring their various forms of enjoyment and commercialisation to the event, for after all, the event and the venue is, like Bethlehem, a reminder of the central core and, at the same time, celebration of their faith. I believe too, it was probably  always thus – one only needs to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales  to know that even in medieval times pilgrims went on their journeys to holy shrines for a variety of reasons and on their journeys often  displayed anything but Christian ideals! But having said that what I saw on TV: Christmas Trees, people dressed in Santa Claus outfits, plastic “statues” of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and the rest all seemed at the best incongruous and at the worst totally inappropriate. It seemed a sad and profane mix of sacred belief with pagan tradition, cheap modern commercialism and the general mood of modern society to reduce all to its lowest level – the “cutification” of everything into Disney type characters, soft cuddly toys, “onesies” and pretty in pink dresses.
Is this a reverential pilgrimage and a sacred venue -
or simply a commercialised party?

Of course, we see this increasingly each year – the Christmas commercial hype seems to ever more take over the Christmas story, our TV scheduling shows a decline in programmes with any kind of religious base in favour of programmes that will “entertain”, our shopping centres increasingly gear their year around the Christmas excess with sales beginning on December 26th.  and elves, fairies, reindeer and jolly white bearded men decorate our homes, front gardens and high streets where once seraphim, cherubim, kings, shepherds and angels heralded the season. And, as I saw last night, even at the place where it all began the elves and fairies appear to have taken over where the stable is thought to have been. Perhaps it has escaped the good folk of Bethlehem (and indeed the rest of the world) that somewhere in the Bible I seem to remember that Jesus threw out the money changers and their like from the temple:
Giotto's depiction of Jesus expelling the
money changers

  "And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. 
(Matthew 21:12–13). 

What would Jesus have thought of Bethlehem and commercialism around  the church built on the spot where he was supposedly born, I wonder?
When you go to Bethlehem at Christmas you must
have a balloon and a Santa hat after all

In this context it is perhaps good to occasionally remind oneself of the simplicity and non-commercial aspects of the Christmas tradition – not from any overwhelming Christian faith but simply because we celebrate Christmas, in whatever form we perceive it, largely because of its basis upon the Christmas story which reputedly began in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. At that time, allegedly, a woman gave birth to a baby in a stable. There was no Christmas trees, not Rudolph, no Santa, no tinsel or turkey, no partying, no excess of alcohol or chocolate – just a dark stable and probably a good deal of poverty. Without that beginning there would be no Santa or Rudolph or turkey – it is good to remember that.

A poem by Clive Sansom which I often used at school puts it well, I think:

The Innkeeper’s Wife

I love this byre. Shadows are kindly here.
The light is flecked with travelling stars of dust,
So quiet it seems after the inn-clamour,
Scraping of fiddles and the stamping feet.
Only the cows, each in her patient box,
Turn their slow eyes,
Their slowly rhythmic mouths.
As we and the sunlight enter.

‘That is the stall,
Carpenter. You see it’s too far gone
For patching or repatching. My husband made it,
And he’s been gone these dozen years and more…’
Strange how this lifeless thing, this degraded wood
Split from the tree and nailed and crucified
To make a wall, outlives the mastering hand
That struck it down......my husband's warm firm hand.
‘No, strip every board, let the fire take them
And make a new beginning. Too many memories lurk
Like worms in this old wood. That piece you’re holding –
That patch of grain with the giant’s thumbprint –
I stared at it a full hour when my husband died:
Its grooves are down in my mind. And that board there
Baring its knot-hole like a missing jig-saw –
And I remember another hand along its rim.
No, not my husband’s and why I should remember
I cannot say. 

It was a night in winter.
Our house was full, tight-packed as salted herrings –
So full, they said, we had to hold our breaths
To close the door and shut the night-air out!
Mantegne's 1492 depiction of the Nativity
And then two travellers came. They stood outside
Across the threshold, half in the ring of light
And half beyond it. I would have let them in
Despite the crowding – the woman was past her time –
But I’d no mind to argue with my husband,
The flagon in my hand and half the inn
Still clamouring for wine. But when trade slackened,
And when all our guests had sung themselves to bed
Or told the floor their troubles, I came out here
Where he had lodged them. The man was standing
As you are now, his hand smoothing that board –
He was a carpenter, I heard them say.
She rested on the straw, and on her arm
A child was lying. None of your crease-faced brats
Squalling their lungs out. Just lying there
As calm as a new-dropped calf – his eyes wide open,
And gazing round as if the world he saw
In the chaff-strewn light of the stable lantern
Was something beautiful and new and strange.
Ah well, he’ll have learnt different now, I reckon,
Wherever he is. And why I should recall
A scene like that, when times I would remember
Have passed beyond reliving, I cannot think.
It’s a trick you’re served by old possessions:
They have their memories too – too many memories.
Well, I must go in. There are meals to serve.
Join us there, Carpenter, when you’ve had enough
Of cattle-company. The world is a sad place,
But wine and music blunt the truth of it.

Clive Sansom
Fra Fillipo Lippi's Nativity from 1450 - it beats Bethlehem 2013

29 November, 2013

"Let them eat cake" - 2013 style.

Occasionally, a chance event, a bit of news in a newspaper or a snippet of TV confronts us and puts into context some of the many unacceptable and bizarre aspects of our modern society.  I was reminded of this yesterday.

Nigella Lawson & Charles Saatchi - £76,000
a month credit card spend viewed as "trivial"
I popped into the local village shop to buy some milk. As I stood in the queue at the checkout a lady in front found that she did not have enough money to pay for her shopping so she asked the till operator if a couple of items could be returned. The lady did not look particularly “poor”; maybe she had simply not got as much money in her purse as she thought that she had. On the other hand, maybe she really was having difficulty making ends meet. Each week we see and read of many places up and down the UK where food banks and other emergency measures are being introduced by charitable organisations  to help people who are short of life’s essentials. The news reports of late have been full of items related to “pay day" loan companies who charge huge amounts of interest to anyone unfortunate enough to need a borrow a few pounds to get them to the next pay day.

I was thinking about this as I returned home and when I got home I read in the Guardian of the latest bizarre and worrying exposures in the Nigella Lawson/Charles Saatchi court case involving the use of company credit cards by two of the employees. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the particular trial issues or the exposures about Nigella Lawson being a drug user I am more concerned about some of the facts that seem to have emerged. I read that the court was told by Saatchi’s accountant that  “Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson considered monthly credit card bills of tens of thousands of pounds run up by their assistants to be "trivial matters", with Saatchi becoming concerned only when the sums reached an average of £76,000 a month...”. Figures like this are eye watering, offensive and obscene.  They make the rewards of the ordinary man and woman, struggling to pay their  bills - and even the moderately “well off” - quite inconsequential. Indeed, they also cast a mocking disdain over the lives and worth of ordinary people. How can people like Saatchi and  Lawson conceivably have any grip or insight into the ordinary man and woman when this is the world that they inhabit where £76000 a month is considered “trivial”?  I thought of the lady in the village shop. Sadly, however, in the UK society of today this is not unusual – the gap between the haves and the have nots is widening exponentially.
Sam Laidlow - shall I or shan't I take that £2.6 million bonus?

A few weeks ago, when public outrage was at its height about the escalating cost of gas and electricity to consumers and when the big energy companies were putting up their prices  and seeking to justify these, every newspaper, every news programme, every politician and media analyst had an opinion. Whatever the rights (if there be any) and wrongs of energy costs there was one item that attracted my attention. The chief executive of Centrica, Sam Laidlaw, announced – presumably in an effort to gain public approval – that he would be foregoing his bonus package of £2.6 million. Now, at one level I have certain sympathy for Mr Laidlaw – he was clearly endeavouring to show his unease with the very large bonus that he was entitled to and by foregoing it this would, hopefully, show that his sympathies were with financially squeezed consumers. The poor man was damned if he did take his bonus and in this case damned if he didn’t because I’m sure that there were many, like me, who whilst applauding his action, at the same time seriously queried why it should be that anyone in our society should be offered such a large reward on top of their very high salary. The bonus was described as an “incentive package” – does this mean that people like Mr Laidlaw don’t try very hard unless they get huge amounts of “extra” money?  One can only assume that to be the case since otherwise the packages would not be offered in the first place and if indeed that is the case then I can only question whether these are the right people for the job – that they only work at their best when huge amounts of money are paid to them over and above their already agreed salary. And that brings in my second point; namely that it cannot be otherwise that no-one (yes, I mean no-one – bankers, footballers, pop stars, CEOs etc.) can conceivably be “worth” this amount of money in relation to others. That Mr Laidlaw can afford to be so magnanimous that he turns down his £2.6 million begs the question how much money does he have? The eye watering amount that he can “turn down” is a profound insult to millions of people up and down the country – especially in this time of austerity – when ordinary people are being asked to tighten their belt and important money is being denied to important public services. For the vast majority of the country a tiny fraction of the money so easily refused by Mr Laidlow would be a huge fortune and difficult for them to comprehend. The whole thing sheds an unpleasant light upon the state and values of our modern society.

The worrying thing is that these mega rich are the shakers and movers of society – the Saatchi’s, the Lawsons, the Laidlows et al are the people who wine, dine and party with senior politicians and who make decisions and have influence on our behalf – while most of the rest of the population metaphorically stand out in the cold and press their noses to the window while they gaze inside at the merry Dickensian scene. We have apparently not moved far in the past century and a half since Dickens wrote his scathing social commentaries. These are the sort of people like Peter Mandelson, a senior Labour Party politician and government minister, who a few years ago said he was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” and then added, as an afterthought, when he was criticised “as long as they pay their taxes”. Sadly, of course, tax havens and clever accountants ensure that these people rarely pay their due in taxes and Mandelson’s comments sound hollow coming after spending a holiday with Russian oligarchs and other international shakers and movers on the Greek islands.

But few of us are immune, as George Monbiot reminded us in the Guardian earlier this week. The mega rich influence us all and make us all envious and greedy and want more. Monbiot rightly commented upon the latest Christmas must haves as advertised in the Guardian magazine:

“.........Saturday's magazine contained what looks like a shopping list for the last days of the Roman empire. There's a smart cuckoo clock, for those whose dumb ones aren't up to the mark; a remotely operated kettle; a soap dispenser at £55; a mahogany skateboard (disgracefully, the provenance of the wood is mentioned by neither the Guardian nor the retailer); a "pappardelle rolling pin", whatever the hell that is; £25 chocolate baubles; a £16 box of, er, garden twine. Are we so bored, so affectless, that we need to receive this junk to ignite one last spark of hedonistic satisfaction? Have people become so immune to fellow feeling that they are prepared to spend £46 on a jar for dog treats or £6.50 a bang on personalised crackers, rather than give the money to a better cause..........”.
These two 50 inch TVs will just fit into my Christmas stocking!
They may well pull my wall down but hey, tasteless gross and greed is good
- the top people do it all the time so why shouldn't I? I'm being patriotic by
helping the economy, but I'm not sure which economy?

We are all the time being encouraged to jump onto the bandwagon of excess, to lose all understanding of value or worth - £46 to buy a jar to keep your dog biscuits in, £16 for a box of garden twine,  personalised crackers........ as Monbiot reflects it is an orgy in the best tradition of the declining years of the Roman empire! If you want any further proof of that read the reports today of the orgy of buying at Asda stores on the awful American import "Black Friday" where retailers offer items at knock down prices. The only problem is that it resulted in fights, arrests, unacceptable behaviour as thousands scrambled and fought for what they perceived as a bargain Christmas must have - for example, monster size TVs which are totally inappropriate, tasteless and unnecessary in the average sized home.  The orgy was repeated across the USA where, I understand, guns and knives were the weapon of choice as you fought other customers to ensure that you got your bargain in the sales at Walmart.

What have we become?
Asda's Black Friday in Bristol UK - this man had to be restrained
 when he became violent because there was a limit on how many TVs
he could buy!

When we read of and see the excesses in society compounded and promoted by the Satchis, the Lawsons, the Mandelsons, the Laidlows, the professional footballers and pop stars, the bankers and the city traders it should come as no surprise that we are, to a degree, all caught up in and influenced by it. It becomes the accepted code and gains its own ethical justification and moral acceptability. I do not believe that people like Lawson, Saatchi, Laidlow and the rest are intrinsically bad - after all, who would not turn down £2.6 million or an allowable credit card spend of £76,000 each month if it was offered? But how can people in receipt of this sort of lifestyle have any understanding of the rest of society. I am, by many standards, "well off" but we still have to count the pennies to make sure that we don't go into the red at the end of each month. And, I still find it difficult to comprehend how difficult it must be for the person who does run out of money before pay day, I did feel guilty when I watched the woman in the shop return her items of shopping, and when I watch the poor of Africa on my TV I cannot begin to understand and feel the the life that they accept as normal but which for me would be quite unsustainable. So, I do not believe that the mega rich can even begin to comprehend the lives and problems of the majority of those on the  planet - and that is dangerous, for, as I have said, they are shakers and movers who either are, or have access to, those in power.

Boris Johnson - he likes to portray himself as a lovable
 buffoon and people are taken in. He is in fact devious,
calculating and very dangerous. Watch what might happen
if he attains real power.

Already we can see a return to the sort of Gordon Gecko society that prevailed in the late 80s and early 90’s where “Loads a money”  became  the watchword and where young men and women saw fast expensive cars as an entitlement and a just reward for fulfilling their meaningless City tasks. This morning I read that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, in a speech yesterday commented that inequality was essential to foster "the spirit of envy" and that greed should be seen as a "valuable spur to economic activity”.  Gordon Gecko’s oft quoted words “Greed is good” ride again. Indeed, Johnson, in his usual flippant and light hearted way took his logic further – saying something that even Gordon Gecko might have blanched at – namely that inequality should be furthered by pouring more resources into those with high IQs. This, according to Johnson’s warped and amoral  logic would, he said (in a bizarre and flippant metaphor) ensure that more people, “like cornflakes in a packet rise to the top”.  I have no doubt that Saatchi, Lawson, Mandelson and Laidlow would echo that sentiment. I would also have no doubt that Boris Johnson would equally and greatly approve of the actions, rewards and views of Laidlow, Lawson, Saatchi and Mandelson. Having said that, however I wonder how Johnson squares this with his declaration that he is a Christian – after all, greed and envy are two of the seven deadly sins! I wonder how many of the other deadly sins Johnson and his ilk would feel might benefit our society – how about a bit of lust or a dash of sloth and one could not, of course, do without a lot of  pride and gluttony followed by an after course of wrath. I suspect that in the mad and perverted world inhabited by the Lord Mayor of London the answer to that question would be lust, gluttony, sloth and the rest are conditions only displayed by the lower orders - those of us who do not possess an IQ of 130 and are, therefore, thoroughly undeserving. For those beautiful and gifted people who sit at the Lord Mayor’s table – the Saatchis, Lawsons, Mandelsons, Laidlows and the rest - they are merely displaying fine taste and spurring on the economy, not committing any of the deadly sins - that, they might remind us is a failing and duty of the lower orders. "Pass me  another slice of your delicious chocolate cake Nigella , my dear" I hear drift out through the window and into the ears of those standing out in the cold, noses pressed to the window, envious of the good fortune and grandness of these illustrious people. 
Joseph Chamberlain

What have we become?

Governments of course wrestle with this problem – what to do about it? No one is prepared to offend the mega rich - we are told they will run off to some far tax haven if we tax them too much or don’t pay them their bonus; the premiership footballer will take his talents to Italy or Spain, the banker and CEO will depart to financial centres new in Singapore, Hong Kong or New York where greed is supposedly “good”. For my part there seems no need to wrestle, it is not a difficult problem. Let them go to where they think that the grass is greener - even if by it we are the losers  then at least we will have the knowledge that we did the right thing.  The role of government is not only to govern but to take a stand and in the end do what is the morally right. If our government cannot act from a moral standpoint then what are we to do and what have we become? In the UK we are less able to change what happens in Africa or some other desperately poor part of the world but we can do something about what happens here - just as Americans can do something about what happens there - but the will to do this needs to be present. Sadly I do not believe it is and I further believe that as greed permeates wider society it is becoming less so. But in thinking this I am also reminded of a comment from Joseph Chamberlain the 19th and early 20th century politician and statesman: “My aim in life is to make life pleasanter for the great majority; I don’t care if it all becomes in the process less pleasant for the well to do minority” . Chamberlain’s comment seems to me to be a pretty good basis upon which to take firm action in our own countries.
The Obamas giving out food in the capital of the  world's richest nation!

Today I read that Barak Obama, his wife Michelle and his children were handing out food in a Washington food bank – one of the largest in the American capital and close to the seat of government. One cannot but applaud the American President for getting out into the streets and meeting some of the less well off in his society. But the whole thing is quite obscenely bizarre and at the same time totally indefensible; that the most powerful man in the world, the leader of by far the richest nation in the world is giving out food within yards of the centre of American government. It is quite unbelievable. That the richest nation in the world cannot effectively ensure that its population is well fed and that the President feels obliged to do this on “Thanksgiving Day” whilst at the same time presiding over the most unequal society on the planet is surely a damning indictment upon how we in the west conduct ourselves. But I have no doubt that Charles Saatchi would merely think these matters “trivial”, that Boris Johnson would believe that people needing food handouts had only themselves to blame for not having an IQ of 130+, that Peter Mandelson would comment that he was “intensely relaxed” with the situation as he popped another piece of caviare into his mouth and I suppose that the lovely (I use the word in its loosest form) Nigella Lawson would simply advise the lined up poor waiting for their food handout that they should pop out to the shop to buy her latest cookery book – so that they can  make a lovely rich chocolate cake for their next dinner party! In 1789 as the hungry Parisian mob crowded around the gates of the Palace of Versailles the Queen reputedly advised them to go and eat cake if they had no bread. Marie Antoinette, it seems, is alive and well in London and Washington. Our technology might have improved since that date but perhaps our  basic humanity hasn't.
Nye Bevan

Solving this situation is not a difficult problem – it is simply one that needs acting upon. It is a moral imperative not an economic problem.  Its seriousness and implications are such that the possibility that a few might get their feelings (and bank balances) hurt is inconsequential. Joseph Chamberlain recognised this a century ago but we have largely lost this desire and resolve to take strong action. As the old saying goes “we are failing to see the wood for the trees”  -  we are not addressing the real problem of too few people having  too much wealth. Instead, governments tinker round the edges but fail to grasp the nettle and do something. The problem in recent years has been blamed on a number of factors – most notably the banking crisis. But this is largely a “cop out” – it gives those with the responsibility for leading us and taking the hard decisions an effective way out. Everything can be blamed on the crisis and meanwhile Saatchi, Lawson, Johnson, Mandelson, Laidlow and Johnson and the rest continue on their merry way. But it is not new, the banking crisis has only exacerbated it. The culture of greed that has become endemic in the latter years of the 20th and early 21st century was envisaged over 50 years ago by Nye Bevan the great Labour politician. Bevan one of the architects of the welfare state said “ Soon, if we are not prudent, millions of people will be watching each other starve to death through expensive television sets”. How  very true Bevan’s forecast has become, and as we saw yesterday on Black Friday in America and the UK people fighting in Walmart and Asda stores because they all wanted 50 inch TVs how prophetic!  The  day Bevan forecast has, it seems arrived - we have a society today that sees some individuals regarding £76,000 each month as trivial or a £2.6 million bonus as essential or “turndownable”; we have people who are willing to pay £46 for a jar to keep the dog biscuits in whilst in that very same society we have a rapidly increasing number of people dependent upon  food banks, or having to return their shopping at the till, or needing to seek out loans to get them through the next few days and put food in the bellies of their family, and inexplicably  we see the President of the world’s richest nation giving out food to his nation’s many less fortunate – good to see, but it should not be necessary. I wonder if Obama or Saatchi or Mandelson or Johnson or Lawson or Laidlow reflected upon this bizarre and indefensible situation or upon the words of Nye Bevan  as they lay in their beds last night? I suspect not.

There is something very clearly very wrong.

22 November, 2013

"The Day the Music Died........."

The start of it all.....a sunny morning in Dallas
In yesterday’s Guardian (November 21st 2013) columnist Martin Kettle commented that it is only people who are now reaching retiring age who can remember what they were doing when John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22nd 1963. Kettle’s point is well made – to the vast majority of the population it is now simply an historical event – like the sinking of the Titanic, the trenches of France in the Great War, or the Beatles in life performance – a bit of recent history captured on increasingly ancient looking flickering film. Despite this, the significance of the event has not over the years dimmed and it still has the capacity to intrigue, sadden, anger and mystify those who lived through it and can indeed remember where they where and what they were about on that fateful November day. Those flickering images can immediately transport us back to the sounds, sights and emotions of that weekend - mention Dallas or Book Depositary or Lee Harvey Oswald and I guarantee anyone of my generation will immediately be back there remembering with clarity the images and the feelings of half a century ago.
Seconds later the world changed........

I can certainly remember with precision what I was doing and where I was. It was early evening, I had just had my tea - egg and chips made by my mother - as I sat at a little table in our tiny front room. My empty plate was still on the side of the table and in front of me were my A level geography notes about the geology and topography of the Armorican Massif in north west France – the subject of an essay I was about to begin writing for my homework. My mother was in the kitchen and on the TV  the local evening news programme was coming to an end. I had sat with my mother and watched the programme while we ate our tea in front of the fire. As the programme came to a close the normal programming was suddenly interrupted and the first details began to creep through about Dallas. I called to my mother in the kitchen – “President Kennedy has been shot”  - she came an stood in the doorway, the tea towel in her hands. At that stage there was total confusion, it was not known if Kennedy had survived or not – that only became clearer later on. My mother was pretty unmoved by the whole event – she didn’t have much time for Americans or politicians of any hue but more importantly didn’t really “do” emotions, ideals or being carried away by events. She was the ultimate  utilitarian pragmatist  but I was not only totally engrossed by the developing drama but increasingly caught up in the horror and tragedy of the situation. I, like Martin Kettle, was a teenager and needed no convincing of the significance of the events - I can still remember my feeling at that time and again today as I write this blog or when I see the old footage of the events in Dallas that – in some way -  it was the day that the world’s innocence died. To my generation it seemed, and still does, that an opportunity was lost and that the world was never quite the same again.

One of the most poignant and powerful photographs ever
taken and LBJ swears the oath on the aeroplane, Kennedy's
body stowed in the hold and his wife still spattered with blood
It is, I think, a generational thing. Dallas on Friday, November 22nd 1963 has become such a talismanic event largely because it affected mostly those, like me, who were growing up into the world rather than people of my mother’s generation. It occurred at a time when there was considerable uncertainty in the cold war world of the early 60s, the Cuban missile crisis was still very fresh in everybody’s mind.  The sixties were just getting under way – it was the time of youth and optimism in a dark political and militaristic world - and at the forefront of that were the Kennedy’s, a glamorous couple who, it seemed, had the answers to everything, they had the power to inspire and the power to make things happen. JFK was undoubtedly a celebrity – but not, I venture, the shallow and hollow celebrity of today. Yes, he was young, glamorous, powerful – but above all he could inspire and lead. He offered something that no other person of the time did – and especially to the young. It has occasionally been said that the death of Diana was similar to that of Kennedy – well maybe it was memorable and the outpouring of grieve was considerable, but it did not have the same resonance and even now is fast leaving the national consciousness. Diana’s death was a shock and a loss to those who worshipped the celebrity value of a fairytale princess – but a princess who had no substance other than her glamour and her life style. She was merely the stuff of tabloids - a Walt Disney Cinderella type character. Kennedy offered – and still does - so much more.

In the hours that followed I can still remember with great detail the events as they unfolded. On the Saturday morning, as I walked around the town centre in Preston where I lived, I joined the crowds of people standing outside electrical shops and TV rental companies as everyone craned their necks to see the latest black and white images from America. In the Saturday afternoon I went to watch my football team, Preston North End, play Rotherham. Preston were at the top of the division and would have expected to win but the game, as I remember it was overshadowed by the news from America – the footballers looked uninterested, the crowd silent and the game, passionless, dragged to an uninspiring 2-2 draw. It was almost as if the players and the fans had silently agreed that on this terrible day to celebrate a goal or a victory would be tasteless and a draw seemed a respectful result.The players seemed to be waiting for the referee’s final whistle anxious to return to the dressing room and be away from the trivialities of a football match. Many fans had stayed away and when that final whistle went there were no rousing cheers or the usual chattering and joking supporters forcing their way out of the gates – everyone was silenced, their passion and emotion already spent, anxious to be away and  return home to the warmth and security of their firesides. That night the scathing satirical BBC TV ‘That Was The Week That Was’ cancelled its scheduled show and instead  put on a serious programme about the Kennedy administration  to reflect the mood and the respect: “the first western politician to make politics a respectable profession for thirty years — to make it once again the highest of the professions, and not just a fabric of fraud and sham…….We took him completely for granted”  I recall the unusually sombre David Frost announcing - the usually scathing, ribald and cynical lampooners on the show suddenly becoming serious, meditative and respectful to the dead President

My two books

And so it went on – the photographs coming out of Washington, the image of Lyndon Baines Johnson being sworn in as President on the aeroplane while Kennedy’s wife stands at the side still wearing the blood speckled pink costume she had worn in Dallas, the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, the funeral. And two years later, in 1965 – just before I went off to teacher training college – I walked into Sweeton’s book shop in Preston and paid 55 shillings (I know because the price is still written inside the front cover) for a copy of Arthur M Schlesinger’s newly published study of the Kennedy administration “A Thousand Days – John F Kennedy in the White House”. The book still stands on my bookshelf and has been read and dipped into many times over the years. It was the first biographical book or political work that I ever bought.

And as I looked into Schlessinger’s book this afternoon, reaching back to that time when I bought it as a twenty year old it was like taking a step back into the world’s and my own history - touching the past - refreshing my thoughts, feelings and fears of that time half a century ago. And as I flicked through I came across the last few pages which relate the immediate aftermath of the events in Dallas – the way that the assassination was reported across the world, the despair in Washington and across America, the tributes that poured in from the great and good and from the humble and unknown and I was immediately struck by something – how similar those last pages are to the last pages in the great biography by Carl Sandburg of another assassinated President - Abraham Lincoln. Sandburg’s great trilogy “Abraham Lincoln”  -  a book  I read at college as part of our American history course - sits on my bookshelf at the side of the Kennedy book and is also something I dip into from time to time and which I have read many times over the past 40 or 50 years.  Sandburg records that at the death of Lincoln a Swedish reporter wrote that "in the harbour of Stockholm flags hung at half mast on all the ships........Our men clenched their fists in vain fury and our blue eyed women shed many tears in memory of the remarkable man". And Schlessinger says of Kennedy's death someone in Ireland  wrote "Ah, they cried the rain down that night" - and someone else said "We'll laugh again. It's just that we'll never be young again" Maybe Schlesinger got the idea for the final pages of his work from Sandburg’s, I don’t know,  but the tributes and the words in the final volume of the trilogy “The War Years 1864-65” feel very similar to Schlessinger's

When Kennedy died I can remember reading a list of alleged similarities between the two men and their respective deaths. For example, both presidents were concerned with the problems of black Americans and made their views strongly known in '63. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, which became law in 1863. In 1963, Kennedy presented his reports to Congress on Civil Rights, and the same year was the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Both presidents had a son die during their presidency. Both presidents were shot in the head, both were shot on a Friday in the presence of their wives, both were accompanied by another couple and the male companion of the other couple was wounded by the assassin. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, ran from a theatre to a warehouse whilst Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald ran from a warehouse to a theatre. The list of “similarities” – many mythical – grew in the weeks following Kennedy’s killing and many of them have, over  a period of time, been  “debunked” but what cannot be denied is that these two men had great similarities – they were leaders who inspired and invoked great affection, they had both in their lifetime and since their deaths achieved almost mythical status and they were known for their considerable powers of oration and rhetoric and ability to express simply but powerfully the hopes and dreams of their fellow men.
Lincoln at Gettysburg - an artist's rather fanciful picture

And by a curious coincidence, this week of remembrance for Kennedy and that fateful day in 1963 is also the 150th anniversary of what was possibly  Lincoln’s greatest (certainly, most quoted) speech the Gettysburg Address delivered at Gettysburg on November 19th 1863 when America was still deeply involved in its great and terrible Civil War. The Gettysburg Address is a supreme example of Lincoln’s ability to use the power of words and rhetoric to express the feelings, the hopes, the fears, the dreams, the beliefs of a nation and of every common man:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

Abraham Lincoln
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.

Even today, one hundred and fifty years on it is difficult to read Lincoln’s words without a sense of awe – the man had a feel for the occasion and for the beauty and simplicity of words. His words that I would guess all – friend and foe – could relate to and understand and would compel anyone to rise to. In short they are the words that would make men want to follow him into battle or to aim to make the world a better place. Kennedy, too, had this power. His Inauguration Address in January 1961 gave warning of his power to inspire and many of the quotes from that speech have become part of political and popular culture:

“.....Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.......... If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich..........Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.........Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country....”
Kennedy at his Inauguration

These are the great ideals which get to the core of humanity – it is what leadership is about – inspiring others so that they want to be lead by you and they want to aspire to the things to which you aspire. And throughout Kennedy’s presidency, as with Lincoln, there came comments, quotes and speeches that caught the imagination and set these men apart from their political peers:

·         “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal.....”.
·         “The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings”
·         “I look forward to a great future for America - a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose” .

And, as we listened to words such as this from JFK we all fell under his spell – it was a dream of what we all might be. As the Pied Piper's magic flute lead the rats and then the children of Hamelin  so did Kennedy's words lead my generation. The children of Hamelin listened to the promises in the Piper's music and they believed him:

..........For he led us, he said, to a joyous land, 
Joining the town and just at hand, 
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here, 
And their dogs outran our fallow deer, 
And honey-bees had lost their stings, 
And horses were born with eagles' wings........

And so, too, did we believe Kennedy when he told us that soon he would put a man on the moon, that he would keep us safe in the frightening months and years of cold war world, that he would make everyone equal and free - like the Piper he was promising "a joyous land". And to add to this he said we could all be part of it and be important - and by association we all thought that a bit of the glamorous life that was Camelot, the Kennedy ideal would rub off on us all.

Kennedy was fortunate, he came to power at a time when global communications were becoming a reality and his words spread not only around his own country but around the world – he became not only an American politician but a world politician. The things that he said in his day and his country were immediately responded to by people in other nations and are still just as relevant today – they cannot and have not been forgotten as all too frequently are the sound bites of our modern politicians – off the cuff comments instantly made and sooner forgotten. Lincoln did not have Kennedy’s global opportunities but his words, when reported, still gave him world status for exactly the same reason that Kennedy’s did – they inspired and made people want to be better:

·         “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.......”
·         ” May our children and our children's children to a thousand generations, continue to enjoy the benefits conferred upon us by a united country, and have cause yet to rejoice under those glorious institutions bequeathed us by Washington and his compeers”.........
·         “ Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap -- let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; -- let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.......”
New Yorkers read the news

In the cynical world that we now inhabit it may be that the language of Lincoln and perhaps even Kennedy looks a bit “old hat”. Watch Kennedy’s Inaugural Address when on a cold wind swept day he did not have the benefit of auto cues and all the paraphernalia of the modern, hi-tech, media savvy politician where every word is measured and calculated, where every detail is costed and has passed through various vetting stages so that it does not promise what cannot be delivered and in being so is anodyne and neutral. Read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and understand that he penned and spoke these few words while himself being very unwell – witnesses tell that he was weak and looked haggard, he felt dizzy and a few days later went down with small pox. But in just over two minutes, he reiterated the principles of human equality,  talked of  "a new birth of freedom" and looked forward to true equality to all citizens. Just like Kennedy a century later and just like the medieval Pied Piper he held out a dream, something to aspire to and to inspire. Like Kennedy’s Inaugural address it was not  the speech of the bean counter and the HR manager, the speech of the uncommitted and dispassionate that promises nothing and inspires no one – the two men held out ideas and promises that are eternal in man’s quest for good governance, moral leadership and man’s place on the planet – and that is why they appealed to our inner nature.
An unremarkable and rather ugly building that became
imprinted on everyone's consciousness 

It is possible that the only politician of today who still has the power to inspire is Barrack Obama – and a few months ago I read an article about him and his speech making abilities. The writer referred to Obama’s powers of oration and suggested that in this country (the UK) we “do not have a tradition of rhetoric or great orators” and so should not expect it of our politicians. Given the points that the writer was making in the wider article he may well have a point but I found it difficult to believe that this was a reason for our politicians not to develop those skills – for in the end these are what people relate to and remember. I also thought it a sad indictment on the nation that has brought forth Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Cromwell, Swift, Dickens, Kipling, Churchill, Gladstone, Foot, Bevan, Lloyd George, Powell – there can be few nations on Earth with the literary wealth and parliamentary history to compete with the UK. If we in the UK - the land of Shakespeare and the mother of Parliaments -  cannot produce great, inspiring leaders capable of appealing to and verbalising our inner thoughts and aspirations as Kennedy and Lincoln did – then who can?
The Funeral 

An oft quoted comment is that “A dream without a plan is just a wish” – very true, dreams by themselves are not enough. If one has a dream for something better then one needs a plan in order to make that dream a reality – but it is the dream that is important. Sadly, our politicians of today have forgotten the importance of the dream, the ideal – they concentrate only on the detailed and costed plan. Without the dream, the ambition, the aspiration or the inspiration there will be no plan and no enthusiasm or commitment  amongst the populace. Kennedy and Lincoln knew this and were masters at defining their dream and making it the dream of others. They made their respective societies believe that every individual could play an important part in the fulfilment of that dream – and in doing that it made every individual feel better about him or herself. We could all make a difference they told us, and each of us could make the world a better place. That is why they caught the imagination of the world and especially the young. In Kennedy’s Inaugural Address some of his concluding comments spelled this out:

“All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days; nor in the life of this Administration; nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin. In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course.......”

A statement such as this is inclusive – it has a hidden message and sub conscious appeal to our inner self - that we can all be part of that dream, we can all effect change and be better people for it. It speaks to our innermost emotions and feelings. It is what leadership should be about, giving a society a direction and  something great and worthwhile to aspire to rather than the modern politician’s safe and anodyne shopping list of policies cobbled together by bean counters, media executives and special advisors. But, it has an inherent danger. Its strength is also it weakness for in appealing to our innermost emotions, ideals and aspirations it can also threaten those who  are not or do not wish to be part of that dream and different ambitions, ideals and aspirations. Kennedy was loved by millions across the world but his dream was also a threat to some. Lincoln too was loved by many but hated by others. Martin Luther King, closely involved with the Kennedy presidency, was an integral part of the Kennedy dream and he projected his vision, his dream, through his mighty “I have a dream speech” in the march on Washington in August 1963 - his vision, his dream was a touchstone that perhaps more than  any other would ultimately change the world and bring about something that had begun with Lincoln a century before – the improvement in the lot of black Americans. But it also threatened the status quo and within a few years King was dead by the sniper’s bullet, just as Lincoln had died at the hand of an assassin and so, too, did Kennedy fifty years ago today.

Fifty years ago I can remember feeling that somehow Kennedy’s death had shaken my simple faith that all was right with the world – the ideals and promises he had offered seemed now dead. Simplicity and innocence had died – now fifty years later I still believe that to true. The world changed fifty years ago today - to use today’s terminology it was a game changer. In the years since Dallas much of the Kennedy myth has been debunked - he was, it seems, a serial adulterer and he very skilfully used the power of the media to promote the Kennedy image. But in a sense that highlights how innocent we all were and how we believed what he said and promised - it does not detract from what he offered to us or the impact that he had upon our lives then and, for people of my generation still does, today. Since Kennedy politicians of every hue have realised the potential of the media and the importance of their own "image" - sadly, however, they are not, as Kennedy was, "men of substance" and their hollow words simply come out as cynical, opportunistic sound bites.  I cannot listen to the darkly allegorical song by Don McLean “American Pie” without thinking about that loss of innocence. “The three men I admire most, The Father, Son and Holy Ghost”  at one level in McLean’s song referring to Buddy Holly and other victims of the air crash which killed Holly in 1959 but metaphorically it is also about the loss of innocence and despair of a whole generation when JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King all fell to the assassin’s bullet and the world became less innocent and a poorer, more fearful and complicated place – in short, “The day the music died........”

"........I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died.....
......Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again......
.......And in the streets, the children screamed
The lovers cried and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died......"

"A generation lost in space, with not time to start again" - these words sound remarkably like the those of the handicapped  little boy in the Pied Piper who could not walk fast enough to keep up with the Piper and the following children. The door in the hillside closed before he could follow the Piper to the land of his dreams -  he felt "bereft" - and so, too,with our generation Kennedy, the "piper," was taken away - "the day the music died" and we were "a generation lost in space with no time left to start again".

".........I can't forget that I'm bereft 
Of all the pleasant sights they see, 
Which the Piper also promised me....... 
..........And just as I became assured
My lame foot would be speedily cured, 
The music stopped and I stood still, 
And found myself outside the hill, 
Left alone against my will, 
To go now limping as before, 
And never hear of that country more........"

Robert Kennedy
And perhaps the most relevant comments on Dallas came from Robert Kennedy when he himself was in the running for President in 1968. Robert Kennedy said (quoting George Bernard Shaw) “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”  This is the very essence of what his older brother John Kennedy had offered – to “dream of things that never were”.  And we all responded “why not?”  - but then came Dallas. The Kennedy's and King were all dreamers who offered their dream to mankind and, it seems, like Lincoln suffered the consequences.  Perhaps the only other person whose death had a similar effect on my generation was John Lennon - also gunned down - and he too was the ultimate dreamer. His song "Imagine" did exactly what Robert Kennedy spoke of it asked the question "why not". And Robert Kennedy went on “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation”  Again, exactly what his older brother promised us -  that we could all play a part in this great venture to make things better, and thus be better people ourselves – but then came November 22nd 1963.

At the funeral of JFK his brother Robert quoted Shakespeare (Romeo & Juliet). His words were perhaps the most apposite, pertinent and true of all the words spoken then or since for their reflection of what people of my generation  were thinking  about the man gunned down in Dallas.Juliet's words about Romeo said what we all felt and, I venture, still do even though the years have passed:

When [he] shall die
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.