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Posts Tagged ‘jubilee’

Darwen Tower

You can see Darwen tower from a long way off, and from various directions, all over Lancashire. Built in 1898, it’s been under repair for some time now, embedded in an exoskeleton of scaffolding. It was also wrapped in pale green polythene to prevent the workmen from freezing to death, in such an exposed spot, and this also made it even easier to pick out from the most improbable of distances. I noticed recently, though, the scaffolding had come down, so decided to head over for a walk, and to get some shots of the renovated structure.

I was thinking I might also be able to coax myself up it, though the very top of the tower can make my legs wobble. It commemorates two notable events, one being the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Vic, the other being the opening of the moors to the public after a series of successful mass trespasses that wrestled them from the grip of local toffs. But whatever the reason, Darwen is proud of its tower, and rightly so. In these straightened times, it’s good to see it being looked after.

A friend and I once drank a toast from the top, in birthday remembrance of a friend who was recently departed. That was mid-winter, with gale force winds and pouring rain. We could not even see the bottom of the tower, and it felt like being in the basket of a hot air balloon in the middle of a cloud. We used delicate, diamond cut glasses, and sherry poured from a pewter hip-flask, though the alcohol was considerably diluted, I recall, by the rain dripping off my hat.

By contrast, today is a warm, about nineteen degrees, while a high of twenty-two is forecast, for later on, with humidity off the dial. In other words, it’s one of those muggy days that raises a sweat. A poor night’s sleep has also left nothing in the legs, though I recall I’ve used this excuse before. Starting from the Royal at Tockholes, we tread a familiar route, through the farmyard at Ryal Fold, then across meadows, and down into the sylvan ravine of Sunnyhurst woods. Here, a pack of feral school children are raising a din while tearing branches from the trees to beat each other with. I was thinking of settling here for lunch, but decide not to linger, now, and head on up through the Lynch Gate. Then it’s by the Sunnyhurst pub, and on to the more tranquil environs of the moor.

Ornamental falls, Sunnyhurst Woods

I note the Guardian newspaper this morning reports the flight intended to offshore seven asylum seekers to Rwanda, at a reported cost of £550K, has been torpedoed by a last minute appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The Daily Mail is furious, and demands to know the name of the judge who has dared hold the UK to the letter of the law, this I presume, so they could be beasted on social media. On whose authority the Daily Mail acts, I have to wonder. As I understand it, the UK is not only a signatory to the ECHR, it is one of its architects, this being in 1959, and a possibly more enlightened age. I find all this unsettling, this denigrating of the laws, and the law-keepers. One cannot help but sense a dark cloud passing over the sun, chilling the earth.

As we mount the path to the tower, clouds of flies roar from piles of horse-shit, and mountain bikers careen downhill, doing a hundred miles an hour. Mid-June on the moors sees the foamy white blossom of heath bedstraw, wrestling with the shiny green of wimberry. Then we have the broad brush-strokes of cotton grass, bobbing about against the yellow ocre, and the russet of the moor. There are still buttercups, but also the more delicate yellow petalled tormentil – used in herbal preparations – and as with all such things I wonder how the ancient apothecaries worked its properties out, and who was the first to try it.

Approaching the tower, we discover it’s actually still a building site, ringed by fencing, so we are unable to climb it. I think I am relieved. As for photographing, we have to choose our angles carefully to minimise the remaining ugliness. But I have to say the tower itself is looking very handsome indeed, with all its fresh pointing.

It feels odd, this time of year, approaching midsummer, now, and the longest day, when the summer seems hardly to have begun. Slowly, the days will shorten. Then we must make hay while the sun shines, and the clock ticks down once more to winter gales, and dark at five.

In America, they are calling witnesses in the hearing over that terrible January 6th insurrection. It seems clear there was great wrong doing in high places, yet already a feeling said wrong-doers, even if found guilty, will avoid punishment, and might indeed be left to try their hand at insurrection again. There is a sense of the meek, and the law-abiding being powerless in the face of something clever, but darkly ruthless. And then there is another school shooting, and seemingly nothing to be done about that either.

Darwen moor is beautiful this afternoon, the cotton grass running up the low rise of Cartridge hill, picking out the contours and the hollows in between, adding shape to the landscape as a painter brushes in highlights. There is a slight haze, but plenty of fair weather clouds sailing like galleons in formation, their sails full of a billowing jolliness. There are curiously few birds. I see larks, but they are keeping their heads low, and there is no rapture about them, as if the mugginess has put the same lead in their wings and as it has put in my legs.

On Darwen Moor

There are notices about heath fires. The moor is very dry, now, and I note the rushes in even the worst of the bogs are showing pale brown, and look brittle, like they are dying back for want of a drink. The paths are dusty, the moor is wide open, and hot, but mercifully less humid at altitude. We come to the little oasis of Lyon’s Den, a green fold in the upper reaches of Stepback brook – cool shade from trees planted around the ancient dwelling, which is now just a pile of mossy stones, while the trees live on. Here, we try some shots against a dynamic sky, and wonder about the small lives that were passed here. We imagine ourselves born into those same times, and wonder what we would have been, what we would have made of ourselves, if there would have been the same pathways out of humble beginnings.

And then we’re back at the car, ready for coffee, and a rest from the heat. We click the radio on to hear the government’s ethics advisor has resigned, after coming under pressure to approve of something unethical and, in his words, “odious”. There is some doubt if he will be replaced. In the history of our islands, all of this strikes me as a very grave state of affairs. We turn the radio off, dislike its company these days, and drive home. Mid-June on the moors. They have the most colour, I think, and the cotton grass is especially beautiful just now.

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Photo by David Jakab on Pexels.com

Over this last long weekend of the Platinum Jubilee, there has been much pomp and spectacle. The British do pomp and spectacle rather well, with much spit and polishing of breastplates. Then there’s all that far-eastern manufactured bunting, to say nothing of the screaming of the Queen’s guards. As for press coverage, it has been varied, swinging from the swooning deference of The Daily Telegraph, who reminds us: “Why the British still cherish their public service monarchy” to the Guardian newspaper’s more nuanced lamentation that: “This jubilee has been a kind of soft-focus funeral for an era”.

As for the international perspective, The New York Times describes it, somewhat more pragmatically as: “The party before the Hangover,” and that the: “Queen’s Jubilee offers Britons respite from their woes”, these woes, we presume, being rampant stagflation, food shortages, the unaffordability of energy, housing, fuel, and the BA2 Covid variant. I also liked the Irish Times’ irreverent take, voiced some time ago, that: “It’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

Taken from the broader perspective then, the British present an eccentric image, one that is admired, loathed, or seems merely ridiculous. Are we objects of pity, on the world’s stage, or deserving of our cum-uppance? Is the monarchy a stabilising force in these troubled times, or mere bread and circuses? Opinion divides. Certainly it seems odd to our international friends that whilst Britain, in common with all post-imperial powers, has been declining in wealth and influence, it should appear so averse to grasping the nettle of its own future, and instead seems prone to sentimentally idolising its past.

What the Daily Telegraph does not tell us is that it’s mostly old people who see the monarchy as still relevant to British life, while most young people don’t. This is understandable, since, for the old, most of their lives lie in the past. The young, however, have most of their lives ahead of them, and are more concerned about whether their country is a place where they can raise happy children, find fulfilling work for fair pay, and where they can live with open minds and hearts. Does the monarchy feature at all large in these respects? The data suggests the young have concluded it does not.

While the faithful waved their Union Jacks this past weekend, the former leader of the Labour Party – who could hardly be mistaken for a Royalist – reminded us of the distribution of foodbanks across the entire UK. There are rather a lot of them. Worse, they have become a normal and accepted part of our way of life, as have crippling working hours, the dismantling of the welfare state, and the seemingly wanton destruction of the health services. The justification for being proud of Britain, as it is today – a place to live, work and grow – is a flimsy one, unless you have sufficient wealth to cushion you, in which case justifications are best avoided.

But the redistributive politics of the left are not coming back. It may be the other side is just too strong in these days of late capital, and the nation’s media will dutifully demonise any even moderately left leaning voices. Or it may be the British are genetically incapable of valuing labour, even when they are the ones providing it, and will always swing towards deference at the voting box.

That said, the current Conservative government is growing in unpopularity, even among those who represent it, let alone those who voted for it. Even before the limp jubilee bunting has been taken down, there was launched a night of the long knives, and a possible leadership challenge. The pundits will no doubt enjoy this unwholesome spectacle, as it unfolds over the coming weeks. But whoever is to be the true-blue, Jack waving incumbent of number 10, they will have a difficult job winning back public trust, this side of a general election. Then again I doubt a Labour, or even a Labour led coalition will significantly alter any of the privations of modern Britain, which seem now so institutionally, and culturally embedded, it will require the work of generations to merely fill the potholes, let alone build fresh inroads to another place entirely.

But what has all this to with the British Monarchy? Well, nothing. Since it is not obvious their role is to ameliorate the excesses of their own kind, one has no expectation they will ever do so, no matter how much they are adored by those so impoverished by those same excesses. Perhaps, like actors in the grand myth of the decline of nations down the ages, they merely take their places, as do we, and all of us are powerless to divert the narrative from its nihilistic conclusion.

Thus, we line the mall at every opportunity. We wave our flags, and we tune in to the BBC’s breathless coverage. It is a very British aberration, then, one to be cherished or avoided, according to taste and demographic. Whether the Royals be wholesome fayre, or mere bubblegum, is very much a vexed issue, the discussion of which perhaps distracts from other, more pressing matters of State. But if it’s true what they say, and the myth must be acted out to its inevitable conclusion, then the British must accept their fate, in which case idolising the past is the very best we can do, if it takes our minds off the increasingly obvious and unfortunate fact, the past is all we have going for us.

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A quick, but not too hopeful scan of the charity shop bookshelves this morning yields an odd find, among the usual slew of well thumbed novels, cook books, and the occasional, but not unusual, copies of a “Souvenir Guide to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee”. It’s what I suppose you’d call something from the popular science genre, a kind of “Special relativity and field theory, for dummies”, with equations. It was written by Leonard Susskind, a professor of physics at Stanford University, and a terrific communicator of very hard science. I was briefly tempted by it but, after a bit of soul-searching, I put it back. As for the Diamond Jubilee books, they reminded me of something I’d read the evening before, my opinions of which were as yet unformed, but forming. More of that, later.

We’ve talked on the blog about the various piles we readers have for books. The common one is the “to be read pile” – books waiting for us to get around to them. We add books to it, as we go along, but we do eventually get around to reading them. Then I have a “books to be read again pile” – books I enjoyed, and tell myself I want to read again, though whether I ever will is another matter. Then there’s the “books which, in all honesty, I’ll never read, though I tell myself I want to” pile. I’ve had one on there, for thirty-five years, called “the makers of mathematics”. I’ve never read it, but keep telling myself, I might, one day. Another one I have on there is “Teach yourself calculus”, similar thing: thirty years, and the spine not cracked once.

They’re books I had the mind for, in my student days, and occasionally fool myself I have the mind to get back into, but never have done, and probably never will, because my mind has changed shape, over the years, and moved on. I’m thinking this book of Susskind’s will end up on that pile. There’s something worthy about it, intellectually challenging, and deeply interesting, but it’s beyond anything I could make use of these days. Plus, you can find a lot of Susskind’s lectures on YouTube, which likely cover the same material, should I feel so inclined. And these books linger on the shelves. They pine for attention like neglected puppies and, given the nature of puppies, I cannot part with them. So, it’s better not to acquire them in the first place. Thus, the decision is made, and I put the book back. Let someone else have the pleasure of it. I have enough to be going on with the “to be read” pile.

Speaking of which, I’m reading “People of the Abyss” by Jack London, prompted by a reader of the blog (thank you). We read him at school. I remember White Fang, and Call of the Wild, but People of the Abyss was never mentioned at the time – this being the account of him basically going undercover as a down-on-his luck Yankee seaman, in London’s East End, around the time of the Coronation of Edward the 7th. Along with Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, and Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, it’s one of the most detailed and damning accounts of engineered destitution ever written.

Hard as it is to say though, such works no longer fire me up, as they would once have done, and, in the case of Tressell, indeed did. I used to think the solutions to the world’s ills were obvious, and easy. Now, I’m realising there’s something contrary in human nature that defeats common sense, and stymies compassion. It causes some to treat the majority appallingly, and with contempt, and for the majority to let them get away with it. Books like “People from the Abyss”, though written over a century ago, remind us of the depths to which we might yet return, because that amoral streak is still there, and it seems there’s nothing we can do about it. There will always be rich and poor, but that there is also engineered destitution, shames us all.

Had I been born into the those times, and that class, my life would have been short and unimaginably hard, but I suppose I would have accepted it, like everyone else, and no doubt still raised my cap at the passing of the King’s coronation. Something about the opening paragraph of the book shot it to the top of my “to be read pile”, nudging aside Dostoyevsk’s Crime and Punishment, which I’m struggling with. Indeed, were the latter not hailed as a masterpiece, I would have to call it one of the most tedious books I have ever attempted, and might have been better placed on that “books I shall never read” pile – except I have read a bit of it. Should there be another pile then? Books I could not finish and set aside for later?

I do not wish to put on bibliophilic airs. I am the product of a comprehensive education system, as it was in the 1970’s, and which I have always felt was not quite as good as it might have been, though I understand it was much better than things are now. I did however pick up a middling engagement with the written word, and a love of books.

When my boys were at school, however, I discovered books were not read as avidly any more. What was more important were the bullet-pointed outlines, from which the key stage questions might be answered. Books, then, were no longer touted as being worth the love invested in them. And then of course, schools cannot afford books any more except – and now I remember those charity shop copies of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – I read every primary school child this year is to be given a book in commemoration of Her Madge’s Platinum Jubilee, this at an estimated budget of 12 million. It is a work of, as yet, unknown content, beyond the diktat that it shall be “patriotic”.

For such an administration as the one we now have, I accept such a thing is more or less obligatory, though whether the children will treasure this gift, as intended, is quite another question. Whether they will read it at all is equally doubtful. All of which suggests another list of books, which, thanks to the subliminal effects of all the other books I have read, down the years, I would want to steer clear of in the first place.

Speaking of Her Madge, back in the heady days of 2012, the time of that Diamond Jubilee, though not a Royalist myself, I saw the pomp as a unifying force for a people knocked about by the crash years, that things could not help but get better after all the jolly bunting, and a stiff cup of tea, served in jubilee china. They didn’t. They got worse. Much worse. Still, there was definitely something in the air that summer, because I wrote warmly of Her Madge as being the ideal of a nation, and something – the ideal I mean – worth polishing one’s shoes for.

We do need something to polish our shoes for, I think, but I have since returned to the straight and narrow in my search for other heroes, not of nationhood, but more elusive. It’s the best in personhood, perhaps, or at any rate a thing well beyond the sticky grasp and ken of the tabloid hacks, “influencers” and the makers of cheap memorial mugs. In 2012, I was a man who enjoyed lunching modestly in my local market town. Now my town has nowhere to lunch, beyond the newly fangled sawdust and spittoon boozers, which I shudder to frequent. Instead, I take what pleasures I can find for the fiver I might once have splashed on coffee, in the charity shops, and the bargain basements, of which there are now many. We are all, in short, a little more thread-worn, our jolly bunting derided on the world’s stage as symbolically empty, and meaningless. We are, as a nation, spent and pointless. Or so it feels from the crumbling market towns of the North.

But we were talking of books, or lists of books. And we began with that book by Leonard Susskind. How about him, or those like him? Are they not far worthier of our celebration? They are, after all, the best of us, and come from many walks of life, both high and low-born. Indeed, I raise my cap, and polish my shoes to men and women of such calibre. I have had the pleasure of knowing, and working with a few. There is a certain bias in my thinking, of course, having been inspired to higher things by the likes of them, and you may have your own candidates. But is it not better, if we are to look to others as an example, we value them in proportion to what they have to teach us. Flags and bunting teach us very little, other than which way to point a gun.

Here he is, talking about black holes, and the seriously spooky nature of the universe as a hologram.

Damn. I wish I’d got that book, now. Thanks for listening.

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