Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Tantallon Castle, teetering on the cliff edge

The Douglas family of Tantallon Castle in East Lothian trod a dangerous path, sometimes supporting the Scots monarch and sometimes the English king. The latest post on the blog Reflections from the Borderlands is called Tantallon Castle,  teetering on the cliff edge. 

Saturday, 25 May 2019

No, I don't feel sorry for Theresa May

The voice wobbled and broke. The mouth bent out of shape. The eyes filled. Who would not feel pity for this woman overwhelmed with grief?

Well, me, actually.

Theresa May was a woman weeping for herself, for the end of her own career, for her own wasted and lost opportunities, for her own public humiliation, for her own failure.

She was not weeping for the hundreds of child refugees who had rights under international law to join their families in this country or who, entirely alone, might have looked to our rich nation for support and care, but were denied such help. No, Theresa May had made sure that those without families would remain friendless, that those without education would stay untaught and that those at risk of sexual and physical abuse should continue to experience it. No, Theresa May was not weeping for the children whose futures she had blighted. She was weeping for herself.

She was not weeping for the thousands she had forced into debt through delays to payment of universal credit, for those relying on food banks to feed themselves and their families, for those bringing up their children in bed and breakfast accommodation or, as lone adults, sleeping on sofas, in hostels or on the streets. She was not weeping for those trapped in inadequate or unsafe housing. Theresa May was not weeping for those deemed fit to work when demonstrably incapacitated. No, she was weeping for herself.

She was not weeping for the family members she had imprisoned in detention centres and deported to their countries of origin or for the children left behind or partners bereft or relationships destroyed. She was not weeping for those of Caribbean heritage to whom she had denied healthcare and employment and removed to islands which were no longer their homes. She was weeping for herself.

Theresa May was not weeping for the European professionals who have contributed to our country's public services and our ageing population but who no longer feel welcome, or who must jump through administrative hoops to prove their rights to remain. She was not weeping for their broken families, damaged careers or the impact on our country's overwhelmed medical and social services. She was not weeping for the crops left unpicked and land left uncultivated. She was weeping for herself.

Theresa May was not weeping for the thousands suffering unfairness and injustice through denial of legal aid and devaluing and underfunding of our police forces. She was not weeping for the intolerance, racism and bigotry promoted, nurtured and rewarded by her policies. She was not weeping for her invention of impossible paper targets that destroyed the lives of real human beings. She was not weeping for the young people to whom she had denied the right to seek jobs in other countries, for the scientists removed from international research projects or for our poorest communities whose access to European social funds is ceasing. No, she was weeping for herself.

Theresa May was not weeping for our underfunded health services, despite much lauded intervention, still suffering from eight years of austerity. She was not weeping for the inadequate education resources she provided or for damaging the prospects of the most vulnerable and needy. She was not weeping for rewarding the richest at the expense of the poorest. She was weeping for herself.

Theresa May knew that Brexit would be disastrous for our country. Ambitious and determined, she chose to take up the challenge of fulfilling a task she knew to be undesirable and impossible, aware that every word she thereafter spoke about the benefits of leaving Europe would be dishonest. She stubbornly continued with actions she knew would not succeed, refusing to work with other British politicians and belittling and insulting our European friends. She justified her actions by calling on 'the will of the people', but took account of only half of them.

In the end, Theresa May wept out of loss and regret that she could no longer 'serve 'the country she loved', a telling phrase which focuses on an abstract entity rather than on the human beings who people it. Conformity and conservatism were her masters, flexibility and understanding qualities to be feared.

Perhaps aware at last of her inability to relate to the living and breathing casualties of her government, Theresa May was weeping for herself.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Remembering Notre-Dame de Paris

Those of us fortunate enough to have visited Paris will all have our own memories of our first sight of its great cathedral of Notre-Dame as it was before yesterday's fire. My first visit was when I was twelve; my most recent was almost exactly two years ago, when these photos were taken. For me, and for many others I suspect, it is that external view of Notre Dame which is the most memorable, the structure rising like a great ship sailing majestically along the Seine.

Yet, it is not just the grandeur of the building but also the detail of its stonework which attracts the eye. The sculptures around the doorways, looking quite dour in these rainy day pictures, would have drawn the largely illiterate, congregation in, for they told the stories of their shared faith. In earlier times the colour and gold leaf with which much of the stonework was covered would have dazzled the eye.

Used as we are to the light and space of the great English cathedrals, the interiors of their continental equivalents can take a bit of getting used to. We forget that our own cathedrals were knocked around by Cromwell, losing their frescoes and statues. They would probably look quite empty nowadays to sixteenth century worshippers.

To my eyes, the baroque extravaganzas of southern German and Austrian churches appear quite alien, while French cathedrals can appear dark and cluttered. I was brought up on the cathedrals and minsters of Lincoln, York, Durham and Wells with their creamy white stone pillars and soaring arches. They are what I know and love. Yet, Notre-Dame has its sombre beauty too.

Like our own cathedrals, Notre-Dame has weathered a lot since its foundation, back in the twelfth century. It may be the national church now, but it was badly damaged during the Revolution representing as it did the status quo. It was used as a warehouse and its statues beheaded. Over the last few years, by all accounts, France has begrudged the funds which would have addressed the most pressing priorities for restoration, secured its future and - dare one say it - perhaps prevented yesterday's fire.

However, Notre-Dame is not just a building. It is difficult for those of us who are Protestant by upbringing to appreciate the significance of some of the artefacts which people risked their lives to save, the Crown of Thorns for example. However, it is what these relics mean to people that matters rather than their often dubious historical provenance. For me it is other aspects - the great roof, the organs, the mediaeval stained glass of its rose windows, the ancient painted wooden panels - which surely matter most. Astonishingly, many of these features have survived.

Terrible fires, earthquakes, floods and warfare are inevitably among the hazards which ancient buildings face. Structures rise and fall. York Minister, Coventry Cathedral, Windsor Castle have all experienced partial or total destruction. The Great Fire of London destroyed almost all of the mediaeval city, a horrifying experience for its inhabitants. The cities of Europe were devastated during the Second World War. Paris survived because France capitulated, thus saving its architectural treasures.

For this reason, the extent to which Paris and other French cities have retained their old buildings can seem remarkable to those familiar with the hodge podge of London, where ancient architecture often sits awkwardly beside more modern structures built on erstwhile bombsites. Dresden, Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Hiroshima and Nagasaki: all experienced  deliberate destruction, their populations waking up - if they were lucky enough to do so - to see all their familiar landmarks and vistas destroyed.

German cities rebuilt most of their devastated architectural treasures. London did not. There is no way in which Britain could have funded restoration, or justified it given the needs of its people at the time. At the end of the day, the choice is always going to be between spending precious resources on the building itself or on the lives of the people who live in its shadow. The last time I saw Notre-Dame, an asylum seeker family were huddled by a nearby wall begging, in the pouring rain. When considering the 'value' of a national treasure like our great cathedrals, whether in Britain or France, we always need to also weigh against them the value of a human life. And not just human. I have also read a couple of articles over the last couple of days reflecting on the continuing extinction of other forms of life on our planet and our reluctance to support their survival.

Fortunately, no one lost his or her physical life in the Notre-Dame fire. This surely is the most important outcome. Yet, the psychological impact on the French people is clearly significant. For Parisians, for whom Notre-Dame has been a constant presence in the landscape, the fire is heartbreaking. The cathedral is a national symbol, more national perhaps than religious for the fiercely secular French.

Despite England's own glorious cathedrals, my feeling is that none of them, not even Westminster Abbey or St Paul's has the same status as a national symbol as Notre-Dame. The same is true of Scotland, whose rather more modest cathedrals have retained their status as religious rather than political or national monuments. If St Paul's, Westminster Abbey or St Giles burnt down, would the citizens of London or Edinburgh gather outside and sing? Somehow I doubt it.

Why is that? The historical, national or political symbolism of such buildings is not enough. It is the stunning location of Notre-Dame at the centre of the city, on an island, which is so striking. The combination of all the architectural elements of the cathedral takes one's breath away: the way the church rises from the river, the two solid towers with the delicate spire behind, and the leaping buttresses holding it altogether.

The photograph at the beginning of this post and the one below were taken within a day of each other.  Of the two I prefer the one below. Against the rain-filled clouds, the cathedral stands solid, a determined presence. It looks as if it will be there forever.

As we now know, one should never presume to attach a word like 'forever' to a monument like Notre-Dame. Buildings only last if we make determined efforts to ensure their survival. The French will probably try a little bit harder today and tomorrow than they did the day before yesterday. And in Britain too, clerks of works and facilities managers will be having sleepless nights thinking of the risks attached to the monuments for which they are responsible.

If we want national symbols, we need to pay for and nurture them, while also considering their cost in human lives. Permanence cannot be presumed.

Friday, 12 April 2019

Rwanda, Tewkesbury and life going on

The last few months have been horrible for many different people in many different places across the world. That is a truism, a banal cliche about life, but the point about truisms is that they are true. War, man-made disaster and murderous violence: such actions and events seem to typify our century.

In Britain, our horror, indeed our humiliation, stems from Brexit. Racism, xenophobia and post-colonial arrogance have always been part of our country's secret psyche, but now this shameful legacy is openly given oral and sometimes physical expression by insular elitists and parochial pub bores. Immigrants to our country, people who contribute immensely to its life, its services and its culture, are now often afraid to speak their own languages in the street. Their children are bullied in the playground while teachers struggle to counteract the poisonous prejudice deliberately nurtured in families and communities by our popular press. Our country's other inheritance - that of democratic expression, free speech and tolerance - can sometimes seem woefully inadequate to the challenge of combating what has now become normal.

While our own country, the disunited United Kingdom, tears itself apart in the process of sundering itself from its European friends and neighbours, while we fear potential violence from our right-wing mobs, while Brexit has already resulted in the murder of one highly respected MP and the near-murder of another, we are, nevertheless, currently, just about holding it together.

However, as the terrorist attack at Christchurch has shown, horror can descend on its victims unpredicted except in retrospect. The racism endemic in neighbouring Australia contaminated the apparently safe and stable country of New Zealand. As a result, scores of Muslims were massacred at prayer in the very place where they should have been most secure, their mosque.

At the other side of the world, the horror of Syria has continued, with the suffering inflicted on ordinary families by Isis and other players in the conflict now also being experienced in turn by the perpetrators and their families. Black-clad women carry and drag their wailing children out of ruined cities and across the desert, experiencing themselves the misery they once imposed on others. We Europeans look on or turn away, depending on our dispositions, feeling unable to help and able only to despair.

In an entirely different set of events, huge areas of southern Africa have been flooded, destroying the homes and livelihoods of those who were already living on the margins, victims of climate change for which they themselves have not been responsible. The African floods were not an 'act of God', were not part of the natural order. They were a direct result of the unwillingness of the rich and selfish west to control its consumption and its waste of global resources.

Today is one hundred years since British soldiers, unprovoked, massacred almost a thousand Indians - men, women and children - at Amritsar. We have never apologised. Despite such horrors, a vocal section of our society still persists in claiming the Empire as a great achievement. The other day, I heard someone on the media claim that the word 'Great' attached to the word 'Britain' was an acknowledgement of our superior international status. The word 'Great' is simply a geographical description for a group of islands.

Yet countries can experience, weather and recover from even more terrible events than those described so far. This week marked the twenty fifth anniversary of the Rwandan massacre: untold thousands slaughtered in the most horrible ways by their friends, neighbours and even family members. One of the worst aspects of the horror was the active involvement of avowed Christians. Rwanda, like its neighbouring countries, perceives itself, and is perceived as a majority Christian country.  Tutsis and Hutus who tried to protect their neighbours took refuge in churches but were betrayed by priests, pastors, nuns and congregations who led the murderers to these sanctuaries and enthusiastically joined in the slaughter themselves. Those taking refuge were stabbed to death and burnt alive. There was no mercy even for children and babies. And before you start responding that this was a uniquely 'African' reaction, remember that very similar events happened in France during the Second World War, and were enacted by middle Europeans against their Jewish neighbours.

Yet, despite the horrible deaths of one tenth of its population, Rwanda has succeeded in remaking itself. This week we have seen acts of national remembrance and the institution of a hundred days of mourning, one for each day of the massacre. Neighbours have made peace with neighbours. Whatever you may think of the political life of contemporary Rwanda, none of us can deny the impressive acts of leadership and determined national will which have brought about reconciliation. Rwanda shows us that it is possible to leave hatred behind.

It would be wrong to think such horrors are peculiarly modern or are purely the result of 'mechanised' warfare. Millions died during the Thirty Years' War and in England's own Civil War, which affected Scotland, Wales and, most terribly, Ireland, as well as virtually every community in England. While there are stories of heroism during times of plague, such as in Eyam in Derbyshire, there are also stories of betrayal and abandonment. Yet, somehow, through a mixture of pragmatism and stoicism, communities survive and rebuild themselves, though sometimes it is difficult to understand how. This human phenomenon does, however, give us some hope for our own uniquely troubled era. As the cliche goes, 'this too will pass'.

We recently visited Tewkesbury, a rural market town in Gloucestershire. Over the centuries, its small community has seen its share of conflict, like most small towns caught up in great events. Tewkesbury's abbey had weathered various practical difficulties since its foundation in the 7th century. Destroyed a century later by the Danes, it was reconstructed in 1087. At various times its tower collapsed and its windows blew in. It was flooded in 1760 and then again in 2007 - you may recall the famous picture of Tewkesbury Abbey as an island, rising above the surrounding flood waters.

The abbey remains a splendid ecclesiastical structure, similar to a cathedral in size and quality of workmanship, with glorious soaring arches and splendid wooden roofs and ceilings. Its seven lovely stained glass windows, added in the 14th century, remain among the most impressive in Europe.

The abbey and its congregation, however, had to face horror in 1471, when the surrounding marshlands became the battlefield for one of the most significant conflicts in the Wars of the Roses. At the end of the battle, a number of Lancastrian nobles and knights took refuge in the abbey. Traditionally, churches have been treated as places of sanctuary. The Yorkists, however, dragged these men out of the abbey and slaughtered them. This violating of church grounds roused such horror, that the abbey church had to be purified and reconsecrated. And then life went on.

When Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey church survived. Instead of fighting against the inevitable, the prior and his monks accepted positions as Protestant Bishop and Canons of the new diocese of Gloucester. The parishioners, anxious for their abbey church to survive, even after the monastic buildings and Lady Chapel were quarried for use as building materials, took matters into their own hands. They bought the building for £453, the value of its bells and lead roof which would otherwise have been melted down and sold. The pragmatism of both clergy and people ensured that religious practice went on within the abbey church if not as before, at least in a manner which continued to provide the familiar structure for daily life. People got on with their lives.

And so it continues to this day. Worship uses more or less the same familiar orders of service. The church has been cared for and sensitively embellished, for example with two recent outstanding examples of modern stained glass. It focuses its service to the community on the nurturing of healing and reconciliation. One feels that it will have its work cut out during these Brexit years.

When I visit a church such as Tewkesbury Abbey, an old parish church which has served its community in one form or another over centuries, I am always brought back to those words of Philip Larkin in his poem Church Going:

A serious house on serious earth it is 
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet 
Are recognised and robed as destinies.

Whatever happens to Britain over the next year or so, life will continue. But, as Larkin said, our compulsions become our destinies. There could be no better motto for Brexit than these words.

Britain is at a crossroads. It has a choice. It can continue to tear itself apart, to characterise itself through inward-looking nationalism, to shun sections of its own communities, to separate itself from the European heartland from which its own population - Saxons and Jutes, Norman French and Danes - once came, bringing their languages with them.

Or Britain can remake itself. It can cleanse itself of bigotry and insularity. It can move beyond its sentimental and fictionalised reworking of the Second World War as its abiding myth. It can accept that its domination of other countries has not always been just, fair or right. It can recognise the aridness and deprivation of its poorer communities and the bloated self-satisfaction of its increasingly wealthy elite, with their tax avoidance and ignorance of the country whose name is on their passports.

Through its recent actions, the European Union has given Britain the opportunity to 're-consecrate' itself, remake itself and move on to a more positive and inclusive future. We have a chance to leave our past behind and get on with life. Let's take it.

Friday, 29 March 2019

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Reflections from the Borderlands is the name of my new blog, about life in the borderland between Scotland and England. And here is the first post: What should we do with Dunbar's dead?

Where to find this blog in the future

As Google+ is being discontinued, this blog on Edinburgh and my new one Reflections from the Borderlands can be reached from Blogger ( or and from