The Two Richards

The first half of the room is wooden floored but the second half is glass, allowing the viewer to look down into what appears to be the foundations of a previous building on the site. On the far left is a shallow depression that is quite clearly the imprint of a former grave. Upstairs, one can see a replica of the skeleton that was discovered lying in this grave – and what is immediately and painfully apparent is the remarkable serpentine curve of the spine. Surely the person in possession of such a abnormality would have been in constant, terrible pain and subject to an obvious physical deformity? Could the person with such a spine have conceivably lived a normal, healthy life?

I am, of course, describing the recently discovered remains of King Richard III, as displayed at the new and absorbing King Richard III Centre in the heart of Leicester, built directly above the site of the former Greyfriars Priory where the battered, mutilated body of Richard III was brought, slung unceremoniously over the back of a horse. I have long been fascinated by, and attracted to, the character and ‘legend’ of Richard III as I, too, was born with the same spinal curve, or scoliosis. Not only did we share a first name but we also shared the same vertebrae! This interest was galvanised when I studied Shakespeare’s famous play, the source of much of the negative modern image of Richard – a shuffling, scheming, murderous hunchback; an image given malevolent form in Laurence Olivier’s portrayal in the 1940’s film. As I surveyed this labyrinthine coil of bone, my memories flooded back to my experience of scoliosis.

I was diagnosed with scoliosis when I was four years old, back in the early 1970’s. The treatment at that time involved virtually my entire body being encased in plaster, save for my face and fingers and toes. I vividly remember that two small iron bars supported the plaster on either side of my face, impinging constantly on my vision. This treatment was only available at a hospital for sick children in Liverpool, a considerable distance from my home in Derbyshire – to this day, the sound of a Liverpudlian accent instantly transports me back to that time.

Memory, as neuroscientists inform us, is a fickle, malleable entity. We tend not to remember actual multifaceted incidents, but instead just retain our singular last memory of the incident, and these are constantly reconfigured, remoulded, even reimagined throughout our lives. Experiments have shown that people can have very different memories of exactly the same event. With this caveat, I still possess certain specific and vividly haunting memories of that time. The strongest is of me crying and screaming for my parents not to leave me, not to abandon me to this strange and threatening environment, inhabited by people with strange costumes and even stranger accents. This is the earliest memory of my life and it is one of trauma and separation. Allied to this is the even more threatening memory of being subjected to numerous X-rays. I have in my mind’s eye, the imprinted image of me lying on a hard, cold bench surrounded by looming figures wearing masks, subjecting me to an alien and utterly mystifying procedure. Finally, there is the memory of the terrible itches and pricklings that afflicted my skin beneath the plaster shroud. When I finally left hospital after a period of roughly six months, I had to wear a brace around my neck and back which, weirdly, reminds me of the suit of armour Richard III would have worn on Bosworth field.

I have often wondered whether the seeds of my lifelong battle with depression were sown during those lonely, bewildering and frightening days and nights in a Liverpool hospital ward. I have certainly inherited an ineradicable feeling that I am somehow physically repellent – misshapen, deformed, unlovable, even a mutant. Shakespeare famously has his Richard III determine “to prove a villain” as he “cannot be a lover”. I know for certain that when I am in the depths of my mental troubles, I can feel like a small, abandoned and malformed child, crying out for warmth and protection from a overpoweringly hostile, irredeemably intimidating and downright sinister world. The fear and distress I felt when a child invades my adult brain and leaves me as helpless and as rejected as I felt then. This now seems such a part of my mental and emotional make-up that I find it impossible to imagine being free of this fear and dread. In some profound sense, I am psychologically frozen at that time, still a broken child.

The type of scoliosis Richard III suffered from, I learned, is known as idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis, meaning in layman’s terms that unlike mine, it wasn’t present at birth but developed after the age of ten. No Liverpool hospital, X-rays and fearsome matrons for him. As I took my leave of the museum, though, I felt a definite affinity across the centuries with the defeated king. Perhaps the allegedly dark and suspicious aspects of his character were, quite simply, the outward expressions of a man battling with the psychological consequences of his disability in a world lacking sympathy and understanding, while still trying to exude the majesty of monarchy.


Edward the Caresser

Unlike, say, Alfred the Great or Elizabeth I, King Edward VII, or Bertie as he was known, rarely troubles the list of greatest British monarchs. He is more often talked of in the same breath as his Hanoverian predecessor, George IV – both overweight, philandering, dissolute men who besmirched the good name of the monarchy with their antics. I decided to find out whether Edward’s reputation was deserved or whether a healthy dose of historical revisionism was due. I turned to Jane Ridley’s recent biography (‘Bertie‘, Chatto and Windus, 2012) for clarification.

Surprisingly for one who gave birth to so many children, Queen Victoria actually disliked babies, complaining of “their frog-like action”. Edward was no exception to this aversion and he compounded it by appearing to be “retarded” too (he was always accused of having an “inborn philistinism”). Victoria complained of Edward’s

painfully small and narrow head, those immense features and total want of chin“.

Bertie: “total want of chin”

Such lack of parental affection was perfectly in keeping with the Hanoverian tradition of loathing the eldest son of the family. Edward’s lack of physical or mental prowess were as nothing, though, compared to his perceived moral depravity. In 1861 there were rumours that Edward had cavorted with a lady of easy virtue, Nelly Clifden, in Ireland. Prince Albert, who possessed a horror of unbridled sexual licence, was truly appalled to hear of this and visited his son to remonstrate. Within a matter of months Albert had died, probably of typhoid fever, but Victoria was convinced the shock of Edward’s debauchery had contributed to her beloved’s untimely demise.

As his mother retreated into secluded excessive mourning, Edward continued to live the high life and Ridley recounts a seemingly unending series of mistresses, including Daisy ‘Babbling’ Brooke and, most famously, Lillie Langtry (possessor of a lauded Grecian profile and an “augustly pillared throat”). Along the way, Edward became embroiled in a number of scandals and even had to take to the witness box to defend his good name. Even a brush with death in 1872, after a nasty bout of typhoid, failed to persuade him to mend his ways, although it semed to bring him slightly closer to Victoria.

Smoking appeared to be Edwards’ favourite vice, and he was rarely seen without an enormous cigar. Millions of birds, stags and other wildlife are butchered along the way. Surprisingly, Edward did seem free from the typical racial prejudices of his time – he had many Jewish friends (who lent him a staggering amount of money), and disliked people being treated differently because of the colour of their skin.

When, in 1901, Victoria died and he finally ascended the throne he did actually rise to the job. He worked so hard that he became dangerously ill; his abdomen grew alarmingly and his appetite (never weak) became abnormal and he would bolt down vast quantities of food. He certainly became popular with the people who seemed to enjoy Edwards’s love of ceremony after the long, barren years under his mother.

King Edward
King Edward VII – loved his uniforms

Despite the bluff bonhomie, Edward does not come across as a particularly likeable man, if not the egotistical monster his mother became. In fact, most of the time he comes across as a pretty ludicrous figure. He was certainly not as intellectually able as his father, seeming to find endless fascination with such trivia as the correct buttons on a regimental uniform; he would dismiss people from his presence if their attire was slightly inappropriate or incorrect. His treatment of women was pretty appalling and he could be bullying towards his cronies.

It is, though, an eventful life and Ridley tells it entertainingly, wittily, and often waspishly (Edward is decribed as “seedy-looking” in one photo). The intricacies of the European dynastic houses can be a bit bewildering (lots of Mecklenburg-Strelitzes and the like) but overall it is well worth a read if you wish to learn more about this controversial monarch.


Gove Goes Forth

2014 is, of course, the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. We have been promised a catalogue of commemorative events and ceremonies to mark this anniversary – and this season has been kicked off in grand style by former Thunderbirds star, Michael Gove. Mr Gove had clearly suffered a rather dyspeptic Christmas because January had barely begun before he went over the top and walked headlong into the No Man’s Land of the Daily Mail to give us his considered views on the sanguinary conflict.

Gove’s artillery was aimed principally at those left-wing portrayals, such as ‘Oh, What a Lovely War!’ and ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ which, he believes, give most people their only knowledge of the war. This ties in with the ‘lions led by donkeys’ thesis which depicts generals such as Douglas Haig throwing vast numbers of young men into certain death whilst sat quaffing champagne in luxurious chateaux well behind the lines.

Gove: “Is that an unpatriotic account of World War One I can hear?”

There was one particular sentence in his Daily Mail article that I found rather disturbing:

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.”

An ambiguous attitude to this country? He is clearly implying that any historian who does not accept the view that WWI was just and Britain always acted honourably has a dangerous view of his country. It is not the job, though, of the historian to peddle national myths and praise their country in spite of any contrary evidence; those who do so are not historians, they are propagandists and demagogues. Criticism of one’s country and its historical record does not and should not cast into doubt one’s allegiance to one’s country. How on earth is Britain to improve its ethical behaviour if any criticism is automatically labelled as an attack on one’s country?

Then there is the classification of patriotism as a virtue. Virtue means, basically, behaviour showing high moral standards. I have no problem with courage being a virtue but patriotism? I feel relatively proud to be British but it is not something I particularly think about from day to day. I don’t put it in my CV and I have never raised it at job interviews. Too often, it seems to me, it can be deployed, as in Gove’s case, to imply that anything that Britain did in the past, if it was done in the spirit of patriotism, is therefore virtuous – and, therefore, if you are critical or mock such behaviour, then you are unpatriotic and unvirtuous. This is dangerous and can lead to the kind of unthinking fundamentalism we are so quick to criticise in our adversaries.

Mr Gove poses as the rescuer of the ordinary British soldier from the calumnies of modern day, trendy liberal intellectuals and comedians; he is on the side of the average Tommy who fought the war in full agreement with the aims and values of their betters. But he is doing no such thing. By classifying critical and satirical accounts of the war as unpatriotic he is merely enforcing the dominant narrative of the ruling elite and demanding an unthinking and dangerous attitude to Britain’s past and, ultimately its present.


Weather Warning

Warning from the Met Office: a deepening system of scaremongering will blow in from Bulgaria and Romania today. This will result in persistent torrential downpours of xenophobia and severe gales of hate which, falling on ground already saturated by lies in the Daily Mail/Express, will cause localised flooding of utter nonsense. This has the potential to lead to a deep depression amongst UKIP voters, and significant accumulations of bullshit are therefore highly likely.


Spot the Fake

Cameron: making no sense

There was outrage across the world yesterday when it was revealed that a major participant in Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was, in fact, a fake. The man, named as David Cameron, infiltrated the ceremony by claiming to the British Prime Minister. Onlookers became suspicious when Cameron was seen forcing his way into a ‘selfie’ with Barack Obama and the Danish Prime Minister. “A real Prime Minister would never have behaved in such a bizarre and undignified fashion”, said one onlooker. Another observed that “he was clearly making everything up as he went along. The structure of his hands, his facial expressions and his body movements clearly indicated he did not know what on earth he was saying”. Mr Cameron has reportedly said that he had suffered a Toryphrenic episode during the event and had lost concentration because of voices in his head saying “Mandela was a terrorist” and “no sanctions against apartheid”.

He said he had started hallucinating, and saw an apparition of Margaret Thatcher coming into the stadium. An inquiry has now been launched into how such an obvious impostor managed to attend such a prestigious event.


A Night in the Life

Insomnia has the punishing capacity to render a thinking, rational human being into a complete and utter zombie; a mere wraith who feebly flickers; a creature that that is frantically chewing their pillows while everybody else is snoring like a Triceratops. Here is my experience of a sleepless night and the gradations of mood one endures during its torrid wastes.

Midnight – 2.00am – This is the ‘honeymoon’ period of the night. You have recently turned in, a fresh combatant in the battle for sleep, hope is still high that you will nod off fairly quickly as you do feel tired. Perhaps a listen to the radio will help (the repetitive cadences of the Shipping Forecast, perhaps), or read for a bit. Even towards the end of this period, you still feel that you might get enough sleep to function the next day if you go under now – but doubt is scratching at your mind.

2.00am – 4.00am – You are starting to toss and turn with more violent rapidity; more frequent anguished glances are cast at the clock. You are continually calculating just how much sleep you are now capable of getting, “If I nod off now, that means I will get 4 hours 40 minutes and 37 seconds; that will be enough to enable to give my presentation without starting to gibber – won’t it? WON’T IT?”. Every nanosecond that passes now, though, eats into that safety zone and is a nanosecond of sleep you will not get; panic starts to prowl the perimeter of your mind – “Christ, I’m going to feel so bad tomorrow, I won’t be able to cope, I’m going to be a slobbering mess!”. You long to be able to reach out and grasp Time and somehow prevent its inexorable advance. By around 3.30am, you feel as if you have been in bed so long that you must have retired sometime in the Neolithic period. You are entwined in a cruel paradox: time seems to pass with glacial slowness yet also appears to be hurtling towards the time when you must arise, a derelict wreck of a being. 

4.00am – 5.00am – This is it. The Dead Zone. The Bottomless Pit. This is the worst time of all, the true Dark Night of the Soul, a time of fear and trembling. You are now manacled to sleeplessness. All your problems and anxieties, which you obsessively and futilely ruminate upon, are now magnified to become hydra-headed, blood-soaked giants. A nameless dread, with no discernible object, haunts your by now disintegrating brain. 4.00am is said to be the time when the human spirit is at its most depleted; when your strength and will are at their most puny. I have certainly felt this to be the case – the terrors and imaginings reach their highest pitch of intensity; one is stripped of the outward trappings of adulthood, and you simply curl up in a foetal ball, a desperate, lonely child seeking warmth and comfort from somewhere, anywhere. You can almost envision sleep as a physical presence; you can see where it is located, almost touch it – but it remains cunningy elusive and gradually draws away, twirling its skirts with disdainful scorn. 

5.00am – 7.00am – you have emerged from the desperate hour, purged and scourged, and almost get a little boost from having survived without launching yourself through your bedroom window. In summer, it is now light which, though indicative of the approaching day, also pushes back the worst irrational fears. In winter, though, it now seems as though it has been dark since about 36 minutes after the Big Bang. Part of you has now come to terms with the fact that you will get no sleep at all – a kind of resigned serenity; another part has fastened on the faint chance of grabbing at least an hour or so. Either way, the alarm clock always sounds harsher, more discordant than ever as it erupts with its baleful message – time to get up! 

And so, with limbs the weight of the Angel of the North and eyes seemingly containing enough grit to keep the roads of Leicestershire free from ice for a whole winter, you stumble into the day. You know with chilling certainty that you are going to feel this bad all day and it will last an eternity; you are like the Voyager spacecraft just embarked on its epic voyage to the far reaches of the Solar System. You grimly step forth on the true horror that is the commute to work after a sleepless night – being forced to stand next to a braying businessman who is bellowing about “those guys in marketing” needing to “raise their game” into his mobile. Then there is the ordeal of colleagues who, inexplicably, are bright, bumptious and positive at 8.30am. They seem to belong to a separate species from you and are blithely unaware that a hand grenade has gone off in your brain, and you feel like you are moving through syrup. Your urge to disembowel them with your computer mouse is almost irresistible. Large stretches of the day are spent in a kind of stupor, a sort of awake coma. You suddenly come to and you realise you have been gazng vacantly at the same page for 45 minutes; you see things out of the corner of your scarlet-rimmed eyes and keep twitching and starting like Jack Douglas in an old Carry On film. You try and speak and you can feel your lips slap uselessly together and a strange, disjointed language emerges, sentences tailing off into useless silence.

Somehow, though, you get through the day. You will try and avoid going to sleep too early for fear of waking in the middle of the night, so you keep your anvil-heavy eyelids open for as long as possible. So you stay awake until midnight – and then……





Bozza and the Cornflakes

Boris Johnson, we are constantly told, is that rarest of creatures: a popular politician with a sense of humour and some sort of personality. Many in the Conservative Party see him as the saviour who will one day rescue them from this insipid chappie Cameron, and lead them to glorious electoral victory – whereupon they can really let rip. This week, though, Bozza may perhaps have let the mask of bluff bonhomie slip quite markedly.

Boris was delivering a speech called ‘What Would Maggie Do Today?’ to the Centre for Policy Studies. Now, politicians always tailor their comments to the specific audience being addressed, so it would have been somewhat of a surprise if he had called for the immediate beatification of Arthur Scargill, or for the renaming of the Falklands as the Malvinas.

The tone is set in the first paragraph where, whilst delivering a misty-eyed description of St Margaret of Grantham’s funeral, he manages to wrench in an obligatory dig at the BBC. We are whisked through some of the holiest events in the Thatcherite canon: the miner’s strike and the Falklands conflict; inevitably, the hoary old British Empire is dragged in, with Boris braying that “of the 193 present members of the UN, we have conquered or at least invaded 171 – that is 90 per cent“. Huzzah, and Rule Britannia! It was Thatcher, he drooled, who put the ‘great’ back in Great Britain. This reflects the deeply unpleasant view that Britain is only ‘great’ when we are butchering foreigners.

So far, so repellently Thatcherite. The most controversial aspect of the speech, though, occurred when Boris turned to the thorny issues of equality and intelligence. He declared himself unapologetically in favour of inequality:

some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity“.

Traditionally, of course, greed and envy, far from being laudable attributes, are two of the Seven Deadly Sins (along with lust and gluttony, whch he also appears to know a good deal about). The Conservative Party has also traditionally been associated with the Church of England and Anglicanism. So Boris here is advocating a very different brand of conservatism; a conservatism that is amoral, that is red in tooth and claw, where some people are fated to live lives of unfulfilment and waste, purely so that the lucky few may prosper. It is a deeply dispiriting and shallow view of human nature and the motivators of human behaviour. There is no room for altruism, self-sacrifice or public service. You are born, become racked with envy at those richer (and therefore cleverer) than you, and become consumed by greed in an effort to become as rich as them.

This view is buttressed by Boris resurrecting the discredited notion of levels of IQ. Now I’m no expert on this measurement, probably because my IQ is too low, but all the comment on this speech has derided it as badly researched and shoddily presented. Boris said:

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent have an IQ above 130. The harder you shake the pack, the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.”

Boris: very high IQ

No mention at all of the social, environmental and familial factors that influence how a person’s inteligence is nurtured and developed. This is deliberate, of course. Boris would like you to believe that his privileged upbringing, his attendance at Eton, and then Oxford, had no impact on his subsequent success – it is purely his IQ level that helped him on his way. The bizarre cornflakes analogy really reveals the brutality of his beliefs, the fatalistic determinism that animates his shrivelled philosophy.

He then praises the super-rich (and therefore the super-clever) by pointing to how much income tax they pay, even though he is in favour of reducing the amount they pay. The super-rich do indeed pay a lot of tax and there are two simple reasons for this – they earn a lot of money and can therefore afford it, and, well, it’s the law. Tax rates still bear more onerously on the working classes than they do the rich for the simple reason that if you take money from people who do not earn much in the first place, it constricts their choices considerably; the super-rich may have to consider whether to forgo a particular luxury, but that is nothing like deciding whether to heat or eat.

Boris’s one concession to basic humanity was to hope that the rich don’t indulge in flaunting their wealth, as he admits they did in his beloved Loadsamoney ’80’s, and that they evince “a genuine sense of community and acts of prodigious philanthropy“. This is another phrase for the ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics, whereby the richer people get the more money will flow down the social scale; ‘ a rising tide lifts all boats’. Sadly, there is very little sign of this happening, as inequality has increased dramatically since the 1970’s. This view basically states that if the rich don’t feel like donating some of their wealth to charity, then you are on your own because the State has no business helping you.

There is no question that Boris is an extremely intelligent man, far clever than wot I is. He can be amusing, supposedly possesses charisma, has a refreshingly different persona to most machine politicians, and carefully and delicately cultivates the dishevelment of his hair. But he is a politician and it his views that ultimately matter, not whether he could appear on ‘Have I Got News For You’. This speech reveals the brutish, amoral, free-market zealot that lies behind the cynically manufactured veneer of bumbling amiability. It was, in short, a load of wiff-waff.