Thursday, 31 January 2019

Avoiding the living and meeting the dead

Gran Canaria is not our usual sort of holiday destination. However, we were keen to escape from Brexit and desperate to experience some warmth. Neither aim was entirely achieved but it was an enjoyable enough break nevertheless.

Deliberately choosing the north of the island in order to avoid the crowds and overdevelopment of the south, we paid the price in the weather - and in our purses. I had never expected to have to go shopping for thermal fleeces on an island off the coast of Senegal. Once you have got used to the fact that the extensive banana plantations along the coastline are hidden beneath acres of artificial canvas, you no longer expect the picturesque, so are agreeably surprised when you find it. And find it we did, in our lovely old hotel Finca Las Longueras, and in the tranquil streets of unassuming market towns like Teror.

The visitors to the north of Gran Canaria are mostly quiet and well-behaved walkers from across northern Europe. Inland, the impressive volcanic terrain makes for dramatic vistas, distinctive geological features and lush vegetation. Our hiking days are currently in abeyance so walking was mostly a spectator sport. Conversations with other visitors were therefore brief and usually over the dinner table.

Perhaps a time will come when we Britons will no longer feel embarrassed and apologetic when conversing with our European neighbours. Long used to lording it self importantly in other people's countries, we have been so convinced of our unique position in the world that we haven't even bothered to learn their languages.

The first query on the lips of our fellow diners was inevitably about Brexit. The only possible response is to express remorse and shame for the incompetence, untrustworthiness and arrogance of our political leaders and the rudeness and bigotry of so many of our countrymen. Nobody can quite believe with what stubborn determination we are pursuing our path to self destruction. In their own countries, the articulate and widely-read French, Germans, Dutch and Swedes at our communal table routinely listen to and watch our unbalanced BBC reporting, read our poisonous popular press and follow the ill-informed, narrow-minded and hate-filled commentary of the vox pop whose views are sought but never ever challenged. Because of their highly developed language skills, our European neighbours are well aware of the insults thrown at them by sections of our society, the prosperous as well as the so-called 'left behind'. On our own media, they observe bizarre expressions of nostalgia for the Second World War, hankering after Britain's erstwhile colonial domination of large areas of the world's population and mad baseless accusations that the EU is trying to 'colonise' our country.

While people like us are well aware that the intolerance and prejudice expressed on our screens and in the comments on online stories are typical only of a minority of the UK's population, most of whom by now would choose to remain within the EU anyway, that is not how it appears to outsiders, or even to some of our own communities. The views of the tolerant and educated majority are rarely reflected by the media.

'I've never liked the French,' said a grumpy ignorant old man at the end of one such news programme last week, his xenophobia rewarded with a girlish giggle by the cowardly C4 interviewer.

What has become of us?

As for conversation with fellow Brits sharing our table, the 'B' word scarcely passed any of our lips, for we weren't quite sure of each other's stance but had picked up enough to wish to sidestep potential confrontation.

So, on the whole, Stuart and I avoided the living. The dead, however, were fascinating.

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Canarians, or Guanche, were guinea pigs for the violent colonisation by the Spanish of central and southern America. On Gran Canaria, the Castilian invaders found a Neolithic society descended from the Berbers of north Africa.

The people lived a troglodyte existence, in caves and stone houses built over natural cavities, which they decorated with red and yellow repeating patterns, as they did their pottery. In Galdar, excavations have uncovered an entire village surrounding a large central cave whose walls once bore the distinctive colourful Canarian geometric designs: the Cueva Pintada. Reconstructions of a handful of houses provide a clear impression of how the people lived their lives.

Canarian communities kept their food stores in natural caves on cliffsides. At Cenobia de Valeron, they constructed a giant granary, high above a deep ravine, with 300 or so silos.

And when they died, the Canarians were either buried in similar mountainside caves or, as here in Maipes, in 'tumuli' constructed over cists. The stones were naturally formed, spewed out of the nearby volcano during a major eruption 3000 years ago. In all, there are some 700 tombs scattered along the inland quiet valley where we were staying.  In the stratified society of the indigenous population, the style and size of your tomb reflected your status: rudimentary for hoi polloi, two-storey for the important.

The original inhabitants of Gran Canaria have long disappeared. They died in battles with the Spanish conquerors, they were enslaved on their stolen farms and their strong young men were transported to South America to contribute to the colonisation of other hapless civilisations. Nevertheless, recent scientific studies have found that about 30% of the DNA of the current population of the island has been inherited from the original Canarians, more among women than men, for more of the men were expelled.

It is a truism that history belongs to the winners.

So, off to Las Palmas to see the house of Christopher Columbus, where he stayed in 1492 on his way to cross the Atlantic, thus paving the way for the soldiers, priests and settlers responsible for the deaths of 60% or more of the indigenous population of the Americas. A beautiful house, it eventually became the seat of the Spanish Governors of the Canaries. Columbus, of course, couldn't have known what would happen as the result of his American expedition, though the experience of Gran Canaria would surely have given him an inkling.

Mind you, Columbus was probably more concerned with the wellbeing of the sailors who would later have to transport them all home again. The fact that he thought he had landed in India just adds piquancy to the story.

As with any account of past conquest and colonisation, it is difficult to know what 'to do' with the evidence of great violence and cruelty alongside the beautiful artefacts which can sometimes be side products of the same behaviours.  The British should know this more than most, or at least as much as the Spanish, Belgians, French, Germans and Dutch for all of whom this period was the beginning of an age of exploration, invasion and settlement that lasted for another 500 years and transformed the rest of the world as well as their own societies.

Rivals for so long, preying on each other's shipping, competing for territory and transporting their vicious wars to foreign lands, Europeans have, since the Second World War, been learning to live with each other and cooperate on constructive developments. Except Britain, of course - always awkward, always wanting to be a special case, always demanding different arrangements. Our allies have needed all their patience to keep us within the fold. And now that patience is coming to an end as Britain seethes with invented grievances and its population turn on each other.

Colonisation by Europe? That we should be so lucky!

Friday, 11 January 2019

Reflections on the missionary position

A gap of six months between blog posts looks sloppy. Of course I do have excuses: serious illnesses, house removal, furniture storage and limited internet access. In fact, I had almost decided to abandon this blog. However, weeks of sorting out and shelving boxes of books, some of them inherited and acquired by my family 70 years or so ago, some even longer, have got me thinking and writing again.

In these boxes, I came across language text books and primers for Hindi and Urdu, printed on fragile yellowed paper, nibbled by exotic bookworms and conscientiously annotated by my parents in almost indecipherable pencil. There were summaries of British colonial law and advice on Indian social habits dating back to the late nineteenth century and purchased from second-hand booksellers in the cities now called Kalkota and Dhaka. There were sacred texts of different religions and cultures, written in various languages, together with volumes of poetry, published diaries, travelogues and accounts of folktales and legends. My father's Bibles were among them: Hebrew, Greek and Urdu texts, again annotated in pencil, to be referred to not just in preparing sermons but when following the readings in church and even when providing extempore translations. Many of the volumes were so well worn that my parents had had them re-bound while they were abroad. Among the pocket Bibles were even some in Welsh, belonging to my grandparents and great grandparents.

Above all, however, the boxes contained eye-witness accounts, memoirs and biographies of missionary lives, dating from the early nineteenth century until twenty years or so ago, scores of them. Thousands of words written, not just about the India my parents experienced, but about mission posts and activities across Africa and China - and some nearer to home, in Wales - records of the lives of friends, colleagues, family members and communities.

I had rescued these books when my mother went through a destructive phase following my father's death. Asked to take them to the local Book Aid depot (my mother being under the illusion that ancient Urdu grammars were bound to be of interest abroad), I rebelled and, with her permission, returned to the Highlands with a boot-load of my father's life.

So, none of these books came as a surprise during unpacking. I welcomed them with affection as I lifted each volume and riffled their pages, releasing clouds of dust and fragments of paper. As I do periodically, I sifted through them, reluctantly whittling them down yet again to just the few which I cannot bear to get rid of. Four boxes when I was in Inverness have become one box in Dunbar.

Why is all this coming to mind just now?

Well, missionaries have been in the news - unusual for these days.

Shortly before Christmas, a young adventurer from the USA, John Allen Chau, was reported to have been killed by 'natives' on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands administered by India. Somewhat controversially, he was described in much of the media as a 'missionary'. He did not seem to have belonged to any well-established missionary society, nor have undertaken even the most basic training in his chosen calling. However, a religious outfit called All Nations seems to have been egging him on. Chau seems to have spent the last couple of years bumming around the world as young people tend to do these days - and good luck to them. Most backpackers, however, do not not make illicit landings on prohibited territory and risk the lives of all the inhabitants, as well, of course, as their own.

The Sentinelese are a protected tribe, and travel to their island is banned by the authorities. Too many previously uncontacted tribes in many areas of the world, have been wiped out by diseases inadvertently introduced by travellers. Ancient ways of life have been destroyed under pressure from newly introduced social practices. Tribes have been exploited for gain, both monetary and spiritual. All in all, few of us these days have much respect for those who deliberately choose to impose their values and beliefs on others living in regions such as Papua New Guinea or the Amazon - or the Sentinel Islands - who have very different cultures.

Yet, missionaries have not always been regarded as interfering busybodies. Contrary to popular belief, they were not part of British colonial machinery. Indeed, in many parts of the world colonial officers despised and resented them, for missionaries stood with the people. Like my mother, many missionaries wore local dress and all were required by their sponsors to develop high levels of language fluency, tested by means of demanding examinations.

This does not mean, of course, that the interactions of missionaries were always sensitive to, and respectful of local culture. Nevertheless, I think we have to be careful here of applying our current values to the actions of those living in the past. We should also avoid being sentimental. Not all cultural traditions are positive. The work to save newly born twins from being put to death in Calabar, started by Mary Slessor of Dundee, still continues in the work of local nurses. Human sacrifice has been difficult to eradicate from some African cultures where animism is still strong, has its roots in poverty and exists alongside the established religions of Christianity and Islam.

In some countries, missionaries supported and encouraged the native population in their struggles for self-determination. The independence movement in Malawi was nurtured in the mission stations of the Church of Scotland and those of its Free Church compatriots. My own parents loathed the Raj, were shocked by the arrogance of many British colonial officers and their wives and appalled by the millions of deaths during the Bengal famine shortly before their arrival, a direct result of actions by the British government. Inherited 'benefits' such as the railway network, designed for the easy extraction and transportation of raw materials for shipment to the 'mother country', can never be considered sufficient excuse for the rape and exploitation of entire continents. No wonder that many colonial officers were suspicious of missionaries' motives and activities.

Memorial to John Adam, a Scottish colonial officer who rose through the East India Company to become Governor General of India. Buried in a colonial graveyard in Calcutta.

Missionaries established hospitals and local clinics. They founded schools, which was more than the colonial authorities did. The number of government secondary schools in existence in British colonies and protectorates by the 1960s when African countries gained their independence was minimal - often just one or two schools and a teacher-training institution per country. None had universities. If it had not been for the mission schools, few of the local population would have developed the knowledge and skills required to take their countries into the future. Here is a picture of the student hostel in Dhaka of which my father was warden when he first arrived and while he was learning Bengali and Urdu.

I was born in Chandraghona, in a hospital established and still run by the Baptist Missionary Society (BMS), delivered by a local midwife from one of the indigenous hill tribes, trained by a British doctor. One of my cousins worked there as a doctor many years later. I wasn't supposed to be born in Chandraghona, in those days quite a remote place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, near where the Royhinga refugee camps are these days. The only hospital near my parents' mission station at the other side of what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, was government run and had a poor reputation. My mother was supposed to cross the border to West Bengal in India for her delivery. However, this was just a couple of years after Partition and the border was closed. Riots and massacres were taking place all over India and East and West Pakistan.

My father was desperate. The situation was volatile and he feared for the safety of his family. Shortly before I was due, he managed to get my mother, my brother Christopher and our ayah to the port of Sadarghat in Dhaka, using local public transport. There he paid for passages on a steamer which took them across the Bay of Bengal to Chittagong.

Sadarghat today
Modern ferry at Sadarghat

 From there, my family travelled by local boat (I think) up to Chandraghona.

Chandraghona was neither a general hospital nor a maternity hospital. It was, and still is, a leprosy hospital, one with an impressive reputation across the region, not just in Bangladesh. It did and does, however, also run clinics for ordinary medical treatments, hence the midwife. I was the first white baby born in the area, apparently, and caused much interest.

My father did not remain at the hospital until I was born, however, one of the reasons why I ended up with a somewhat idiosyncratic birth certificate. It was, after all, Partition and his duty was with the school of which he was Principal, and the mission community in Barisal. So he left, retracing his passage. He had got us to Chandraghona just in time. By the time of his return, people were being killed all along the riverbanks. The boat was overrun by terrified locals, who forced their way into the cabin which my father was sharing with a High Court judge, physically grabbing hold of their clothes in an attempt to keep themselves safe.

How do I know all this? Many years later, when my father was very ill in an English hospital, he grabbed my arm and, in his delirium, relived the events of that terrible time, sobbing 'I didn't know what to do! I didn't know what to do!' But he did know what to do, although he didn't realise it at the time. His family all survived, which is more than can be said for thousands of the local population. Partition was a decision made by the British colonial authorities.

Missionaries have been attacked and killed in many places over the centuries. The Anglican Bishop James Hannington was killed in Buganda in 1885, though having expressly disobeyed the instructions of the Kabaka. When I was growing up, the story of five US missionaries led by Jim Elliot and his pilot, who were speared to death by Auca Indians in Ecuador in 1956 became a worldwide sensation. As with Chau, many at the time questioned the appropriateness of Elliot's brand of evangelicalism.

Many more missionaries, however, avoided unnecessary confrontation and suffered or even died of hard work, disease or accidents. Graveyards across the continents are filled with dead missionaries, who gave their lives to the cause to which they were devoted and, more questionably, imperilled those of their wives and children. The American Baptist preacher Adoniram Judson died in his bed in 1850, but as a long-term consequence of the imprisonment and torture he suffered at the hands of the Emperor of Burma. His wife also died, as did his child. Scottish Presbyterian Alexander Murdoch Mackay from Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, who taught carpentry and farming, died of malaria in Buganda in 1890.

William Carey of Serampore, like many missionaries, came from a very modest background and was self taught, one of the reasons, perhaps, why he and others insisted on educating children from all castes, including girls. He worked for 41 years without a furlough, his first wife dying after a terrible mental breakdown: sacrifices could be too great for family members. A BMS missionary, Carey translated the Hindu classic, the Ramayana, into English, and the Bible into Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Marathi, Hindi and Sanskrit. The breadth of his cultural understanding and linguistic skills was impressive.

The lists go on for ever, many, but not all of them, household names such as the Scot David Livingstone. Robert Moffat, a Congregationalist and father of Mary, Livingstone's long-suffering wife, was born in Ormiston, East Lothian. Trained as a  a gardener and farmer, he spent his life in what is now South Africa sharing practical skills in building, carpentry, printing and as a blacksmith. He even translated the Bible into Setswana before unromantically dying in Tunbridge Wells. The Cornish explorer George Grenfell worked for the BMS in Cameroon and Congo, dying of blackwater fever. More recent missionaries, such as Constance Hornby who introduced girls' education to Uganda, have been fortunate enough to die in their beds following long years of service.

And it was not just in the nineteenth century that missionaries demonstrated determination and heroism. Gladys Aylward worked for the China Inland Mission and then the Chinese government, dissuading families from binding the feet of their baby girls. She went on to save the lives of 100 Chinese orphans during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s.

Many missionaries have been awkward, obstinate, opinionated characters, perhaps inevitable if one considers the strength of mind and purpose that is necessary for them to carry out the tasks they have set themselves - or which 'God' has set them - in the contexts in which they have worked. The controversial Alsatian theologian and musician, Albert Schweitzer, who trained as a doctor and set up the hospital at Lambarene, in what is now Gabon, was not afraid to challenge authority.
Oh, this 'noble' culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different colour or because they cannot help themselves. This culture does not know how hollow and miserable and full of glib talk it is, how common it looks to those who follow it across the seas and see what it has done there, and this culture has no right to speak of personal dignity and human rights...
I will not enumerate all the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice. People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind upon them. Think of the atrocities that were perpetrated upon people made subservient to us, how systematically we have ruined them with our alcoholic 'gifts', and everything else we have done... We decimate them, and then, by the stroke of a pen, we take their land so they have nothing left at all...
Criticised for his paternalistic attitudes and the inadequacies of medical practice in his hospital compared with more modern expectations, Schweitzer nevertheless articulates some of the conflicting elements at the heart of the missionary experience, among them selflessness, bravery and resilience.

My final example of the tensions at the heart of the missionary position was brought to my attention by another of my cousins, herself born on a Congolese mission station run by the BMS. Her father, a doctor, had had to leave his clinic in Xian, China, after it was destroyed by Communist fighters. Her elder siblings had been born in China.

My cousin and I had been discussing the contradictions and pressures of missionary life and its impact on children. My parents' decision to leave East Pakistan was based on their concerns to avoid separation from my elder brother and to protect the life of my yet unborn younger brother. My parents, Christopher and I had all been near death at various times, because of the combination of acute malaria and dysentery and risks arising from local epidemics of smallpox and cholera. There were also tensions within the European missionary communities which could be difficult to deal with. Whereas my mother was absolutely certain that leaving was the right decision - it was in fact her decision - my father never came to terms with leaving India and what he regarded as his vocation: God had called him to India, but God had not called him back.

It was my cousin who recommended an interesting and moving book by Prudence Bell and Ronald Clements: Lives from a Black Tin Box which I have just finished reading. It recounts the history of members of her extended family on her father's side from the family's origins in St David's in Wales to their terrible deaths in 1900 in Shanxi Province in China during the Boxer Rebellion.

Chinese suspicion and resentment of foreigners, particularly the British, had its origins in the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century. European colonial powers had put pressure on the Chinese government to let them to set up trading stations. In one of the most disgraceful episodes in colonial history, the British forced the Chinese to accept the importation of opium from British India. America was also involved. Both British and Americans made huge fortunes.

The conflict weakened the Qing dynasty, resulted in millions of Chinese in the coastal cities and beyond becoming addicted to opium and a large section of the poverty-stricken population becoming coolies for the British. China, which had been one of the biggest economies in the world until the early nineteenth century, was forced to open up treaty ports and provide western countries with preferential trading conditions. Researchers have said that ten years after the second Opium war, China's GDP had fallen by a half. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the privileged status of westerners was resented.

In 1860, after the second Opium War, Christian missionaries had been given the right to preach anywhere in China and to buy land on which to build churches. Thus the ground was laid for the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century, an anti-foreign, anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising. Boxer rebels, groups of nationalist martial arts fighters with magical spiritual beliefs, massacred Christians throughout northern China. Cixi, the Empress Dowager of China, one of the last of the Qing dynasty, ended up supporting the fighters and declared war on all foreign powers. Government troops joined in the slaughter. Many missionaries tried to leave, supported by local Christians who tried to hide them and suffered the consequences. In all, 136 Protestant missionaries and 53 children were killed, 47 Catholic priests and nuns, 30,000 Chinese Catholics, 2,000 Chinese Protestants, and 200 to 400 of the 700 Russian Orthodox Christians. 

Among the 'martyrs' of the Boxer rebellion were the Dixons, part of my cousin's extended family. Shortly before their deaths, they had left their four children in England, to be brought up in boarding school and lodged with foster parents. Undoubtedly, this decision had saved the children's lives. My cousin and I, however, had discussed the morality of missionary parents bringing children into the world and then sending them back to Britain to be brought up by other people, an issue which I had discussed with my mother. The Dixons, however, were doing significant work, running a clinic with an impressive reputation. They had set up a school for girls and embarked on a programme of unbinding women's feet. They were doing the work which they believed God had called them to do. Their work was quite separate from the political activities of the British government.

When the rebels moved in, the Dixons and some of their fellow BMS and Chinese colleagues tried to flee, but too late. After various vicissitudes, they were captured and imprisoned. Despite being promised their freedom, they were accosted on their way out of the city. Elizabeth Dixon was stripped completely naked and beheaded before her husband and the rest of the group, her attackers taking several strokes to complete their act. Her husband, Herbert, and their companions were then also murdered. Their children became orphans.

It is difficult to know what to do with stories like these. They raise so many issues about the relative importance of family ties, religious belief and parental responsibilities. The children of missionaries can sometimes be damaged by their childhood experiences: the separation from their families, the intensity of the religious beliefs among which they are raised and the 'selflessness' of their parents which may sometimes involve sacrifice of their children. How can parents avoid their children developing a sense of 'superiority' in a context in which 'doing good' is the raison d'etre for their way of life? How can children make real choices for their own lives when most people they know, at least in their family network, are missionaries, where being a 'missionary' is regarded as a 'normal' career choice? It is not just the Moffat/Livingstone family in which family member after family member has been drawn to the missionary life.

And finally, of course, there is the major issue about the 'right' of missionaries to change aspects of other people's countries, particularly their beliefs. There, surely, is a degree of arrogance in assuming that Christianity is a superior religion to other forms of belief (see the words of the hymn From Greenland's icy mountains recorded below). By the time my parents went out to East Pakistan, however, missionaries like them did very little overt evangelism. Unlike John Chau, they shared real practical skills. They set up and ran schools and hospitals in an attempt to convert by example but also, of course, because 'doing good' is the right thing to do.

I think we have to accept that trying to change things for the better in other people's lives is a normal - and admirable - aspect of being human. No one, for example, questions the proselytising activities of political and social activists. It is the religious aspects of missionary activity, their usually unquestioning faith, which make people uncomfortable, because they are so different from our own more wishy-washy attitudes. Finally, it is the potentially sacrificial aspect which we also find difficult, particularly when it involves others, like their children, who do not have a choice.

I am still uncertain how I feel about the missionary position. What I do accept, however, is my respect for most of those who adopt it.

All Nations

John Allen Chau: US missionary killed by tribe on North Sentinel Island 'may not have acted alone', Adam Withnall, Independent 29 November 2018

Killed for Christ in the Amazon, BBC Witness, 28 November 2018

Lives from a Black Tin Box by Prudence Bell and Ronald Clements

You may also be interested in these other posts:

Promoting girls' education in Kigezi

Following the Scots to Cape Maclear, Malawi

Making connections, changing lives: Stone Town, Zanzibar

Polygamy, Christianity and the Royal Family of Buganda

In memory of my mother

In 1819 a royal letter was sent to all parishes of the Church of England authorising a collection to be taken to aid The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Lands (SPCK). Reginald Heber was asked to write an appropriate hymn. Twenty minutes later, he produced the words below, part of my childhood worship. When he wrote it, Heber didn't know that India did not have coral strands, nor did he realise he would soon be appointed bishop of Calcutta, India, where he would later die. 

From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand;
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain.

What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft on Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile;
In vain with lavish kindness
The gifts of God are strown;
The heathen, in his blindness,
Bows down to wood and stone.

Can we, whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high;
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has learned Messiah’s name.

Waft, waft, ye winds, His story;
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till, like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature,
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

More in common across the Border

If you haven't already come across it, I do recommend 'The Marches' by Rory Stewart, which I finished shortly before crossing the Border between Scotland and England. Indeed, it is one of those few books which has been so absorbing that I will read it again.

The Marches is a fascinating account of Stewart's 600 mile walk from the south to the north of this 'Middleland', including along Hadrian's Wall. Its Roman beginnings provide historical perspective. It is also a moving portrayal of Stewart's relationship with his father. Both had been military men, but from different times and traditions. Stewart's father was a proud supporter of Britain's colonial past. Stewart himself is not.

The Wall, that dividing line across Britain, was of course a military installation for the supreme colonial power of the time, Rome. Stewart considers the Wall in the context of his own experience of dividing lines in Afghanistan, where he used to serve as commanding officer and across which he also walked and wrote about in The Places In Between.

As Stewart states, the Wall was NOT a border between England and Scotland, though it is commonly described as such. There could be no such purpose to its construction, for, at the time it was built, those countries did not exist. In fact, there were no racial, cultural or national differences between the people living to the north of the Wall and those to the south. The Wall cut indiscriminately through tribal lands and their inhabitants, leaving them forever separated from members of their families, communal meeting places and holy sites. Stewart helps us see the Borders landscape through the eyes of those tribesmen, their view suddenly and forever constrained by this blank edifice, like those of the Berliners of fifty years ago or modern Palestinians and Mexicans. Too often, he implies, we have adopted the Romans' perspective because of our admiration for their impressive engineering skills. Rarely do we consider the impact of their actions on the indigenous population.

Roman investment in the Wall was huge, with many forts to be built, maintained and manned by shivering Spaniards and other Provincial troops. All of them needed to be provisioned and their leaders kept in the style not necessarily to which they were accustomed, but comfortable enough. Several centuries later, the British did the same in Afghanistan, India and south-east Asia, as well as many of the countries in Africa and the Middle East.

In fact, the Border between Scotland and England was not firmly fixed until relatively recently, after the Act of Union in 1707. In the 7th century, the Kingdom of Northumbria extended as far north as the Firth of Forth, one of the reasons why the great abbeys and their lands and sites of pilgrimage, even the little priory of Abercorn just outside Edinburgh, were part of the Pictish Northumbrian Church and managed by the Bishops of Lindisfarne or Hexham. There was no Scotland then, or England.

Stewart's contention is that borders create differences, just as the Wall created differences, between people, between families, between communities, between societies. Borders rarely mark differences which are already there. He writes interestingly about the great Borders families. Allegiances were far more to local lords than to any monarch far away in Edinburgh or London. The allegiances of the Afghan tribesmen encountered by Stewart in his travels, were similarly local rather than national, separated as clans were by deep valleys and high mountains, and dependent on the protection of the nearest warlord.

That does not mean of course, that the skirmishes and attacks across the the England/Scotland border were not serious. They were deadly serious. However, they did not always take place because of some great national purpose. They were as likely to happen within the cross-border cultural tradition of cattle raiding, common still among pastoralists in northern Uganda, Kenya, Mali or Nigeria. The Borderlands were often perceived as almost ungovernable by the established political powers. The King of Scotland was no more able to control the Border barons than the King of England, despite the fact that both monarchs might call on them in time of military need. Sometimes a great family like the Douglases - or even a minor family like Rory Stewart's - would fight on one side and sometimes on the other, depending on marriage ties or promised rewards. National armies might sweep across the indeterminate dividing line, but after Flodden and the last death in battle of a ruling monarch, the Scottish King James IV, it was clearly a risky business. Anyway both English and Scottish monarchs had enough problems controlling their own nobles.

Border raids eventually petered out after the Act of Union. After all, what was the point? England and Scotland were one kingdom now, and, as the eighteenth century progressed, an increasingly prosperous one. That prosperity was largely associated with joint ventures by the two united countries. Those joint ventures principally consisted of raiding other people's countries for slaves, occupying and colonising their land and pillaging their resources to feed the ravenous maws of the British Empire. Not that much different from the Romans.

Divisions have often been as much internal and social as military and national. Scots fought on both sides during the Battle of Culloden. It is doubtful whether the population of Lowland Scotland wept for the destruction of the Highland clans. Much social transformation in both countries came about during peacetime as the result of agricultural and industrial factors, not armed conflict. The Enclosures in England and Scotland's Highland Clearances were caused by evictions and confiscations by local landowners. In both countries, they resulted in depopulation, emigration and a drift towards industrial cities like Manchester and Glasgow.  Landscapes were changed forever. It is difficult nowadays to imagine the bare moorlands of Cornwall or the north of England as the cultivated areas they used to be, or to recall the time when the Highland straths were populated by townships on what is now only 'empty' land, ruined crofts and shooting estates. English and Scots working people sometimes have more in common than they realise.

So, what do I, an English woman who has lived in Scotland for 47 years, feel about relationships between the two peoples?

Firstly, I don't feel that there are any significant differences between ordinary Scots and English people. I have friends and family on both sides of the Border. Speaking to English friends is little different from speaking to Scottish friends, apart from the accents. After all, in any community, we tend to mix with those who share our outlook and views on life. Cultural differences, literature, music, Mystery plays, Highland dancing and the Notting Hill Carnival enrich rather than divide. Caithness compared with Lanarkshire, Teesside compared with Suffolk: individual regions may be as different from each other as any national differences between England and Scotland. Learning about other areas is one of the benefits of living in a unified yet diverse country.

I do wonder, however, how much learning actually happens. There are still too many inhabitants of Scotland who think that 'England' is London's Oxford Street and who have never penetrated beyond it to meet some of the 52 million English people who live outside the capital. Interestingly, I have never met an English person who does not admire Scotland, even if their admiration may be a bit 'shortbread' and 'tartan'. When I say I live in Scotland, English acquaintances always say how lucky I am. I haven't come across that reaction, I have to admit, in reverse.

That doesn't mean that life is always difficult as an English person in Scotland. Most of the time, you don't even think about it. However, prejudice, when it shows, can take one's breath away. My first experience of it was shocking, personal and quite unexpected. It was also a very long time ago, when I had already lived in Aberdeen for two years. As a student at both university and training college, I had experienced no unpleasantness at all, which is hardly surprising. Universities are generally open institutions, drawing their staff from many backgrounds and countries.

When I got my first teaching job, however, it took only a week or so for departmental colleagues to protest to the headteacher about my appointment, demanding that I receive a lower salary than them as I 'only' had a degree from an English university. Fortunately, the headteacher gave them short shrift, though the teachers concerned took some pleasure in boasting about their complaint to me afterwards.

It was ignorance, of course. They had no experience beyond the Aberdeen area and their own education system, and no idea what study at an English university involved. Fifty years ago, entry to Scottish universities was by examination grades alone and often a year earlier than in England. English universities, in comparison, were very selective. Scottish and English education systems were different then, and remain different now. I am not going to go into this, but, believe me, there are benefits and drawbacks to both.

While ignorance is to be regretted, vindictiveness based on ignorance is unacceptable. If the Vice Chancellor of Durham University had ever found out the contempt with which a degree from that university was regarded in Scotland, he would have been appalled.The humiliation was hard for me to bear.

That bias against employing English teachers in Scottish schools persisted for many years, yet all that was required was for someone official to work out equivalencies among qualifications. Even at times of shortage, English friends, including experienced and qualified science and maths teachers, some of them ex-heads of department, were unable to get jobs in Scottish schools, in fact, were not allowed to be appointed. At one time, four such science and maths teachers in the school where I worked were restricted to operating as technical assistants while the classes which they could have taught were supervised by history and French teachers. Yes, some English teachers like me made it through, but it was usually difficult and we didn't always feel welcome. I have never noticed any differences in capability between teachers educated and trained in England and those who went through equivalent processes in Scotland. Teachers on both sides of the Border have more in common in their commitment to children, than any superficial differences originating in the location of their training institutions.

You might think that after that unpromising start, I would be desperate to return to England. Well, to be honest, I was a bit unhappy to begin with. However, on the whole, I have been quite content to remain here in Scotland. In the past, unsure of my welcome, I sometimes used to pass myself off as Welsh, courtesy of my paternal grandfather. I wouldn't bother about that now. Attitudes towards the English can vary depending on where in Scotland one lives. I never experienced any disparaging comments at all when I worked in the Highlands and Islands and life here in the south-east of Scotland is mostly event free. Unpleasant incidents tend to be restricted to encounters with people I don't know, usually on public transport. I have to stress however, that while they are still infrequent they tend to be upsetting because of their unpredictability. I have had fists shaken in my face, and once had to be escorted off the Glasgow train at Waverley Station by an older man who placed himself between me and the young men harassing me.

What does bother me, though, is that on the very rare occasions when I have recounted such incidents to Scottish friends, they haven't really believed me. For them, Scotland is the best of all possible worlds. For this reason, I think it is best not to talk about harassment or prejudice, though to deny them means they go unrecognised and unchallenged.

During and after the Scottish referendum in 2014, I really wanted to move back to England. I had experienced a run of relatively minor but unpleasant incidents. That feeling of dislocation faded, however, as Scotland settled back into near-normality. Yet the discomfort returned recently when newspapers were filled with pictures of flag-waving nationalist crowds marching through Glasgow and the central belt, more reminiscent of Hungarian right-wing populism than democracy in action.

Banners displaying the legend "Tory scum out!' were shocking, as was the presence of the ethnic nationalist group Siol nan Gaidheal. The reluctance of the Scottish government to condemn nationalist bigotry of this kind was disappointing. There are good people in the SNP - John Swinney, Kenny MacAskill, Tommy Shepherd - who surely do not regard Conservatives as 'scum', no matter how much they may disagree with them. Such attempts to dehumanise groups of people make for a dangerous precedent.

Attempts to intensify internal divisions are made worse by ongoing religious bigotry which still survives in the central belt. Why was Arlene Foster invited to support the Orange Order in Fife? Why are Orange marches still tolerated? Last week, marchers spat on a priest. The year I moved to Edinburgh the Orange Order marched down Princes Street on the first day of the Edinburgh Festival, photographed by fascinated foreign tourists who thought it was some kind of quaint folk tradition. I was brought up in a Lancashire mill town with a large Catholic population, and cannot remember anything like an Orange March ever taking place. It sometimes seems as difficult for Scots to live with each other as to live with their English neighbours.

Speaking of which, of course, it is now football which divides. I don't actually care who wins the World Cup. I tend to support the underdog, so hopelessly cheered along Panama in their game against England and supported Sweden because I think it's a better country. Stuart, like many of his Scottish friends, is supporting England but, like me, was dismayed by the pictures of boorish English fans jumping on ambulances and displaying their underwear. I certainly don't think that football as a sport is a force for good in a divided world.

Presenters and pundits are thoroughly irritating whatever team they are pontificating about. If Scotland had got as far as England, its commentators and supporters would have been just as annoying. It is, after all the country which sang 'England didnae qualify' on that rare occasion when Scotland actually did. Bragging is repulsive, whoever does it. So is the spitefulness demonstrated by SNP MPs who forced a vote in the Commons and then walked ridiculously slowly through the lobbies to prevent their English counterparts from watching the game. All as petty and childish as the 'Anyone but England' trope. The more savvy attacks on the World Cup team avoid using the term 'English' but are, nevertheless, transparent. And no, they are not just 'banter'.

Sparked off by the World Cup are the trivial ongoing grievances which have been flooding through Facebook and online journalism again: Scottish bank notes occasionally refused in English shops and, this week, not being able to use your Glasgow bus pass in London. I wonder how many Birmingham bus passes are accepted on the route to Govan?

Nevertheless, the venomousness currently expressed by many Scottish football fans about the English team is said to be significantly less than it used to be twenty years ago, or so asserted England-supporting Kevin McKenna and other Scottish journalists this week. Stuart, who knows about these things, would agree. Perhaps things are getting better, at least on the sports pages.

It may seem as if this post is a long resume of resentments. In actual fact, what is clear is how lacking in substance most of them are. Not even the most passionate Scottish fan is going to demand separation from England on the basis that England got further than Scotland in the World Cup and bragged about it. I hope not, anyway. Political resentments can be something else, however, though not for this post.

Soon the World Cup will be over and the bitterness will die down again. Friends, we hope, will return to being friends, whatever teams they supported. And that friendship extends on both sides of the Border for, as the ruins of Hadrian's Wall tell us, we are, after all, the same people.

Or, as Jo Cox put it, 'We have more in common than that which divides us.'

[The photos in this post were taken at Chesters, a cavalry fort on Hadrian's Wall, not far from Corbridge.]

Monday, 25 June 2018

Flodden, an unexpected symbol of friendship

This ground, known as Flodden Field, was once a field of battle, enmity and carnage. But today, there is the spirit of reconciliation, co-operation and, above all friendship.

So run the words on the information board erected at the bottom of the path which leads up to the Flodden Field memorial. I was taken aback. I really hadn't expected anything like that. I thought this site would be the English counterpart of Bannockburn.

Stuart hadn't wanted to visit Flodden. In his words, it was because 'the Scots had made an arse of it'. I wanted to visit, however, because a friend had told me what a moving experience she had found it. Stuart is being nice to me these days because I've been ill, so we went.

Flodden Field lies above the village of Branxton, on the English side of the border between England and Scotland. And for most English people, who almost certainly have no idea what happened here, and for others from across the world who make up the majority of this blog's readers, it is probably necessary to explain the events of which, for a day or two,  this tiny hamlet was at the centre. Scots, of course, or at least Scots who know a bit of history, are only too well aware of these events and quite a few of them, like Stuart, don't really want to be reminded.

So, here goes, in a nutshell. Scots can skip over the next bit.

In 1513, King Henry VIII, the English king, was at war with France, as part of the War of the League of Cambrai - a war between the mainland European powers. King James IV of Scotland, which was allied to France under the Auld Alliance planned to attack the English in order to divert Henry away from the French. Henry had asked James to join the English side. They were, after all, brothers-in-law for James' wife Margaret was Henry's sister. James refused. For this breach of his peace treaties with England, James was excommunicated. So far, so complicated - but it gets worse.

James sent advance notice to the English of his intention to invade in a month's time, as one did in the Middle Ages, apparently. That gave Catherine of Aragon, Henry's wife and Regent while he was in France, time to raise another army and collect the banner of St Cuthbert from Durham Cathedral. That banner had led the English to success in previous battles.

James invaded England, as he had said he would. He took up a strong position on Branxton Hill, and then, unwisely, launched an attack on the English downhill and across marshy ground. Historians have pointed to the old-fashioned Scottish weaponry, the pike, as ill-suited to that kind of attack, and to the fact that the Scots placed their officers in the front line, as among the other reasons for the disaster that followed. James was killed and with him the 'flower' of the Scots nobility.

As the Branxton board puts it:

On that fateful day, near five hundred years ago, it was the hills, the valleys, the rivers, the streams, the hidden denes, the boggy ground, that were the key to victory. It was here, where today cattle graze and crops flourish, that cannonade crashed and men fought and died.

Ballad makers on both sides of the border sang of the losses at Flodden Field for centuries after. Here is a stanza from the lovely Scots lament, Flowers of the Forest.

We'll hae nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The flowers of the forest are all wede away.

After the battle and its terrible losses, the Scots expected the English to invade. Indeed,  the people of Edinburgh threw up a city wall, still called the Flodden Wall, to protect them from attack. In fact, the English made no attempt to invade Scotland,  despite its vulnerability under its infant king.  King James V, son of James IV,  was only 17 months old when he was crowned, immediately after news of the defeat reached Stirling Castle, where Queen Margaret had anxiously been waiting to hear of the outcome of the battle.

You might expect the English to regard their victory over the Scots at Flodden with a similar triumphalism to that of the Scots who still consider their victory at Bannockburn in 1314 as the defining humiliation of their hated English foe.

Far from it. While the Scots still sing of Bannockburn at every sporting event and nationalist demonstration, particularly when confronting the English, the English have long forgotten their victory at Flodden. They certainly don't sing about it every time they face the Scots across the rugby pitch or recall it when they want to be particularly insulting to a hapless representative of their historic enemy, as happened to me only two days ago.

Back to the Branxton noticeboard.

It was here, on the quiet byroads and deserted tracks, that opposing armies once trod. And it is here, that this story of success and despair should be told.

For, at Branxton, there is no National Trust or English Heritage visitor centre. How different from Bannockburn. Indeed, no stirring account of the victors' triumph and the crushing of the defeated is inscribed indelibly into the national psyche of the English. Remembering has, instead, been left to the villagers of Branxton. And this is what they say.

Branxton is the small village that encompasses this hugely important and yet relatively unknown historical site. We hope that our efforts will inform and educate, and bring visitors to this part of the Borderlands, and help consolidate the bonds of friendship across the Border that are today, the hallmarks of life hereabouts.

I would love to say that I have seen a sign like that in Scotland about the English, a sign that celebrated a 'spirit of reconciliation, co-operation and, above all friendship', but there, I haven't.

In fact, Scotland was never conquered by England, contrary to popular belief. However, less than a hundred years after Flodden, it was the Scottish King, James VI, James IV's grandson, who in 1603 set in train the eventual union between the two countries. Inheriting the English throne from the Tudor Queen Elizabeth, the last of that Anglo-Welsh dynasty, he brought about the Union of the Crowns. His descendants, the Scottish royal family called the Stuarts, ruled England for the next hundred years.

And so we now have a United Kingdom, thanks to James VI and the Scots.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Picking up the threads after chemo

It's time to get back to where I was. No, that's not quite right, as no one can ever get back to where they were, particularly if the previous few months have turned one's life upside down.

No, it's more like picking up the threads, and weaving them into something quite different from the diagram on the pattern one believed one was following. I had thought I knew exactly what life had in store for me. A year ago, I was expecting just a few more journeys to Malawi to complete my work. More importantly, I was also looking forward to some real travelling, for interesting and beautiful though Malawi is, I spend most of my time in the office or on the road. Worthwhile though my work is, it has also had significant opportunity costs. Among these costs has been time to explore the rest of the world. I had been looking forward to making up for it by embarking on journeys to a range of exotic and far-flung destinations.

Ah well, some mischievous sprite must have been listening to my ruminations, for even these tentative plans to see the world collapsed. I haven't travelled anywhere for months, for the medical reasons set out in my earlier post Thank you, Scotland's NHS.  There has been no visit to Ethiopia, nor to any of the regions of India. I haven't visited Namibia nor the Tanzanian savannah. South-east Asia remains completely unfamiliar, as are central and southern America. I've never been to Russia. So many places to visit and so little time. While I have been frequenting the Edinburgh Cancer Centre, my friends have been exploring the world. Despite living vicariously through their Facebook posts, I must admit to twinges of envy.

I have been fortunate. Mine was one of the most common cancers and has been caught early. In fact, a few years ago, I would simply have undergone surgery and radiotherapy. The prognosis would still have been very good.

However, like most women these days I was also offered chemotherapy which would, I was told, add an extra 5% to my chance of surviving into old age. And I accepted. Whether this was the right decision, I am now not so sure.

Everyone knows that chemotherapy can cause nausea and sickness. We all know that you are likely to lose your hair, and not just on your head either. These side effects were, in my case, the least of the problems. Medical staff control sickness quite successfully. A bald head is upsetting, but not painful, though lack of eye lashes results in sore and constantly weeping eyes. You don’t feel great, but, nevertheless, you can soldier through side effects like these. (Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair)

And not all people suffer all possible side effects. The drugs used may differ for different people. Some drugs are particularly harsh.

No, the side effects which really made me wonder if it was all worthwhile were those I was not warned about. It is only recently that I have started to google them. These side effects have included agonising pain in the marrow of every single bone and every single tooth, terrible mouth sores and desperate exhaustion which sometimes made it difficult to climb the stairs to bed, let alone the three flights to the flat itself. My eyesight developed problems which made writing and driving difficult. My muscles still ache as if from some endless marathon, while the stinging sensation in my hands and feet are signs of damaged nerve endings, a temporary condition, I hope. Some potential side effects like damage to the heart can be serious. Damage to bones makes fractures more likely, despite ongoing treatment.  Drastically reduced white blood cells may result in dangerous infections, even sepsis, and require rapid hospitalisation.

The oncology department can mitigate most of these conditions, but not all of them, and not necessarily completely. In some people, the side effects may, apparently, persist to some degree for ever. Nevertheless, for patients with many other kinds of cancer such effects are clearly worth the pain and discomfort.

However, was the chemo worth it for me?

That is a difficult question to answer.

What if some of these side effects continue, as they may? That may put paid to any more serious foreign travel to unusual destinations. This ‘first world problem’ may sound like the whining of a spoilt child. I have, after all, benefited from the some of the most advanced treatment anywhere in the world.

However, there are a couple of other issues worth considering.

Firstly, I did not have an unusual or difficult-to-treat cancer. I think it is justifiable to ask whether losing a couple of years now, ‘losing’ as in experiencing a reduced quality of life during the active early years of retirement, is completely compensated for by having a couple of extra years of life in one’s late eighties. Over the last few months, I have scarcely seen my grandchildren, because of the risk of infection but also because I just wasn't up to it. I have largely missed the progress and milestones of the three youngest, and the sporting and other successes of the eldest. The disruption to these relationships has been difficult.

Secondly, there is the issue of how NHS funds are deployed. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not ungrateful. I am aware that the treatment I was offered, an offer which I could, I suppose, have turned down, was proposed in good faith as providing the best possible long-term prognosis. After every three-weekly out-patient appointment and occasional unscheduled hospital visit, I would return home with at least one bag filled with remedies for the side effects of chemo – not just numerous anti-nausea tablets, but steroids, anti-fungals, anti-virals and anti-biotics. I received painkillers, of only moderate effectiveness, mouthwashes and eye drops. At one stage I was put on medication for my heart. All these remedies made things a bit better. However, what did they cost in financial terms, not just for me but for all the other women with early-stage breast cancer like mine?

Indeed, what did the chemo itself cost, not just the pharmaceuticals, but staff salaries and the organisational processes by which treatment is managed?

Excellent support systems like the Cancer Helpline provide telephone triage for those suffering serious side effects and organise immediate treatment if necessary. While the out-patient wards where routine chemotherapy is given run like clockwork, unscheduled visits to assessment clinics can reveal a system under severe stress. Hard-working staff convert out-patient cancer clinics into impromptu hospital wards for daytime and overnight care. After admission, I have waited five or six hours for a doctor, quite rightly when other patients suffer from far more serious conditions, but still upsetting and uncomfortable. Trolleys may be used instead of beds. I have observed patients in severe pain sit up on chairs for hours when not even trolleys were available. We may have had a bad winter, but surely weather does not affect cancer.

The question has to be asked: can we afford all this care for people like me?  I would quite probably have made a satisfactory recovery after lumpectomy and radiotherapy, with relatively few side effects and a quicker return to normal life.

In different contexts, other questions may also be asked.

Shortly before she died, Tessa Jowell called for increased research into the treatment of brain tumours. Her intervention raises questions about the relative neglect of less common cancers.

Recently in England, thousands of older women of a similar age to me, were found to have missed their final mammogram because of problems in the breast screening programme. Some are said to have shown symptoms of cancer.

These stories got me thinking about how comparatively well resourced primary breast cancer is. When caught early enough, the disease is to all intents and purposes survivable. The system grinds into action and patients like me work their way through various well-planned procedures.

The reaction of some well-respected oncologists to the breast screening debacle was interesting. They wrote that women who missed their final screening should not be overly concerned. They would be fine. In the west, routine screening may have led to over diagnosis and, perhaps, over-zealous treatment.

Might the money spent on chemo for people like me not be better spent on researching and developing treatment for more obscure tumours like Tessa Jowell’s or, indeed, not on cancer at all but on widespread and distressing conditions like dementia?

There is general acceptance that the health systems both north and south of the border are underfunded. One answer, rightly, is to decide whether to increase funding to meet the level of need. However, we also need a debate about whether in some circumstances some high-tech treatments are unnecessary or may not be worth the discomfort they result in.

Until now, I have not discussed this issue with anybody apart from Stuart and one or two close friends because I know how fortunate I am to have been diagnosed so early and to have received medical treatment of the highest quality.

And this is where my post finished yesterday evening, to be uploaded today.

At least, that was until I heard on the car radio that a major research study in the States had concluded that 70% of women with the most common early stage breast cancer did not benefit from chemotherapy.


Who knows whether the treatment I received was, strictly speaking, absolutely necessary? At the end of the day, good medical treatment depends on patients’ trust. It is for researchers and practitioners to follow the latest evidence and provide advice according to their professional judgement. I do not doubt for one minute that that was what happened in my case. If medical thinking has moved on, then that is all to the good, even if it is quite galling to consider that my chemo might not have been necessary after all.

All this is academic now. Best to move on, pick up the threads and get the most out of life, however different the pattern is turning out to be from the one I had in mind.