Well hello there, I hope 2012 is treating you well, and vice versa. It may not feel very warm out there in our cool, damp climate but we had marigolds, statice (just about), primulas and godetia flowering, admittedly fairly weakly but flowering nonetheless, at Christmas time. Which is a queer contrast – up to 30 degrees warmer in fact – than some of the same period last year.
Hilaire-ious or not?
The humour is on me, or perhaps I should say I am on humour. I saw and purchased from a charity shop an old book from the Methuen ‘Library of Humour’ being a compilation of the writings of Hilaire Belloc; I thought it would be an interesting task, or challenge, to look at what was considered humorous in 1935 when it was first published (since it is a compilation the material is even older), though presumably it was still in print, or easily available, in 1949 when the owner inscribed their name along with ‘1949’. Initially I thought the owner’s name was ‘Nelly’ but it would actually appear to be ‘Wellsy’, so all’s wellsy that ends wellsy.
Hilaire Belloc was an interesting man, of French and English parentage, he lived most his life in England and his life span was from 1870 to 1953. He wrote widely as an historian and commentator as well as the pieces compiled in the ‘Library of Humour’ which is actually quite short – 148 pages with perhaps only a couple of hundred words to the page. Belloc was briefly a member of Parliament at Westminster, and he was an ardent defender of his Catholic faith. He lost a son fighting for the British in the First World War, not a fate you would wish on anyone. He was very critical (elsewhere) of pacifism:
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right
Note in this his use of a mocking and ‘humorous’ name for the pacifist and the description ‘Pale’ to indicate weak, sickly and so on. However, if I wanted to reply I could make the following riposte:
Roaring Bill thought that war was fine
He stopped thinking altogether as he stepped on a mine.
Two can play that game – setting up what you might call an aunt sally to knock down (though disturb an ant hill and you risk an ant sally in your direction which might be uncomfortable).
Anyway, back to Belloc-ose humour. Belloc is still known for his humorous verse and that perhaps works better than his prose when it does work. Some of the prose in this compilation is about writing and to this modern reader it tends to be dull or obscure, though his piece on ‘The Reviewer’ is mildly amusing in portraying ‘the reviewer’ having to change his tone with every whim of the editor. His poem or verse ‘Matilda – Who told lies, and was burned to death’ is still well known and while the format is very dated, the concept would not be out of place with some standup comedians today – the somewhat cruel story of the girl who cries ’wolf’ and suffers the consequences when there is a real fire. Funny? Yes, if you consider a cruel death funny, even a fictitious one. But it could be said to be similar to the fate of another girl, Veruca, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and that would not be thought cruel in modern thinking. “Maria – Who made faces and a deplorable marriage’ might just be considered objectionable by modern standards, and perhaps by progressive people at the time:
The upshot of it was Maria
Was married to a neighbouring squire
Who, being blind, could never guess
His wife’s appalling ugliness.”
While clearly English or British nationalist in sentiment, another verse work concludes about someone born outside England; “Perhaps it never will be known / What England lost in him!”. His humorous character Mrs Markham is lampooned for thinking nations other than the English cannot compose music. This is all outward looking as you might expect from someone with a background of mixed nationality. But a verse about arriving in Africa, however, has lots of racial stereotypes: “Oh, Africa, mysterious Land / Surrounded by a lot of sand /....And native rum in little kegs/ And savages called Touaregs / (a kind of Soudanese). / And tons of diamonds, and lots / Of nasty, dirty Hottentots. / And coolies from the East / ....... yes, well, probably fairly typical views for the early 20th century, even if he is trying to write light-heartedly, and don’t tell me it’s all pre-post-modern irony. Perhaps the moral in “Lord Finchley” is noblesse oblige and everyone in their place, as well as his meanness, I don’t know:
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light Himself
It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
You may consider, therefore, that I am not particularly a fan of Hilaire Belloc though he has his moments. But humour is very personal and can date very fast. It would be interesting to come back in another seventy-five years, long after I am fertilising daisies, and see what has happened to humour in the mean time. And whether Belloc’s thoughts are considered any more bello than I would analyse today. And as for my own humour....... [And what would that be? – Ed]
30 years of CAJ
To mark 30 years of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) in Northern Ireland –www.caj.org.uk - they produced a special issue of their newssheet, Just News in December 2011 looking back with a 2011 update. Absolutely fascinating how some things have moved on so much and others – well, not at all. Take the issue of supergrasses in Norn Iron; in 1983 CAJ was organising a debate about supergrass evidence undermining respect for the legal system. As Just News notes “28 years on and the Supergrass debate continues”, though it points out a difference now is that under SOCPA (The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005) a supergrass can be penalised for reneging on a commitment to give evidence “however what the legislation was not designed to do was introduce safeguards which address the fundamental issue of ensuring the evidence is credible”. It looked like supergrasses had blown away in the wind, only to blow back again.
The issue of a Bill of Rights is another old perennial. In 1984 Just News was reporting a resolution urging CAJ to set up a working party to draft a Bill of Rights “with particular emphasis on group rights applicable in Northern Ireland.” Despite the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 stipulating a Bill of Rights particular to Northern Ireland, this has not happened. Obviously there are reasons why it has not happened – a substantial part being a failure of political will by the British Government - but it certainly seems strange that 13 years after the GFA we are still nowhere near having one. As Just News reports, in 2008 the Human Rights Commission “fulfilled its obligations and gave detailed advice to the UK Government as to its content. It refuses to act on this advice because of a stated “lack of consensus” on the subject amongst Northern Ireland parties. This ignores the fact that the Bill of rights was one of those subjects, like policing and criminal justice reform, which were made subject to independent review and recommendation, precisely because local political consensus would be unlikely.”
This look back includes coverage of the European Convention on Human Rights (current British Conservative threat to row back from some of it), police complaints (the current Police Ombudsman is in a resignation process following three damning reports regarding political interference in its work), parading (the 1998 Public Processions (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 remains in place following a long imbroglio) with this issue being far from reaching the end of the road (Ho, ho, ho – Ed) yet. Also covered is staffing within CAJ (12 full time or part time in 2011, first staff person recruited 1985), mental health issues in prison (still major issues there) and fair employment. CAJ will be producing a new ‘CAJ Handbook’ on ‘Human Rights in Northern Ireland’ during 2012, the 5th edition, co-edited by Brice Dickson and Brian Gormally (CAJ Director).
Congratulations to CAJ on staying the course for thirty years. Human rights issues remain crucial in Northern Ireland for building a lasting peace as well as a just society. Here’s to CAJ’s next thirty...
Fitting into the genes
Modern research on nature and nurture continues to throw up all sorts of information, some of which is rather different to received wisdom; but this isn’t the path I was going to trek down here, rather, genealogy in the shape of family history. Challenged by the imminent arrival of cousins to dig up some ancestors (metaphorically speaking of course!), I took some time to sort out family papers which I inherited. Now, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to family history but once you start it can be difficult to stop, and the time taken can be enormous; I am interested, even fascinated at times, but prefer to keep the time dimension under control – I have other things to be doing in life.
There is, in truth, no such thing as a boring family if you dig deep enough or back far enough. Everyone has their share of bright sparks and dastardly devils, even if only relatively speaking, in the shape of successes and black sheep [Is this a sheepist remark? – Ed] and acts done and undone, apart from interesting and intriguing events that people lived through or which befell them. And the received wisdom, passed down to you deliberately or picked up as an impression, of relations and events may well be – is even likely to be – challenged for good or ill by what you discover. When it comes to our family we are never neutral, and the impression we are given of someone and the events surrounding them may be quite different to the facts of the matter. And even deciding what the facts of the matter say when people are dead and gone, with no one to consult, can be difficult.
Discovering about our family’s past is partly about our own identity, connectedness and origins. Trying to understand the dilemmas and issues which our foremothers and forefathers grappled with, no matter how many generations back – one or a number - is an intriguing and sometimes perplexing occupation. We know enough to make some judgements but probably never enough to judge truly; we may feel we stand in another’s shoes but even if we know what they expressed on a matter, was that truly what they felt inside?
It was either luck or good judgement that I decided to retain any relevant family history documents I could from my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, and while the older generation was still around got a guided tour to the oldest photos in the collection which would date back to the 1880s, so I can identify people who are in some cases dead for more than 120 years. Retaining newspaper cuttings and other documentation, which could have been thrown out when the generation before me died, has been extremely useful but is also frustrating at times in knowing how and where to store it. I have written before about the various costs of being an archivist. All I would advise you is to keep what you think might conceivably be of interest in the future, if you possibly can – and that may come down to storage space (or finding someone else to act as custodian), for photos, letters and other documents. If you have time to sort it, well and good; if you don’t, keeping it for a time you may want it is well worth while. And you can’t beat paper; digital archives are very handy but in the longer term are only good while they last, uncorrupted and in a current format.
I won’t bore you with the details of the side of my family that my cousins were interested in, or other sides of my family that I also know about though there are some interesting characters knocking about and even skeletons in cupboards at times. One of the most revealing documents I have is a letter written by a US cousin of one side of my family written when visiting in 1936; the letter is witty, perceptive, even revealing, and the family concerned, now all dead, come alive once more and stand in front of me in what is an extremely well written pen portrait.
I will conclude this piece by saying something about the connectedness which family research engenders. I know more about some long dead members of my family than I did. But I am also fascinated by the way that connectedness broadens out. Go back 9 generations and you have 512 direct ancestors; go back 10 generations and it is 1,024, go back a millennium and you start to be connected with most people around (if ‘your people’ have been around in the same neck of the woods as the other people around you). So what is an ‘exclusive’ pursuit – knowledge about the people that are closest to you and connection to them – ceases to be exclusive and begins to become inclusive, even if we don’t know who those people were. We are all connected and we all have a common African ancestor. There is one human race.
Some short time after all the genealogical activity, I sorted the family photos and papers to put them back in their drawers again. When I had it all sorted and put away I felt a sense of sadness, a remembrance of bereavement and loss. It’s that sense of connection.
The British nonviolence magazine Peace News www.peacenews.info ‘For Nonviolent Revolution’ is currently having a makeover with a new design and slightly cubist masthead, and a great looking new website. As well as covering as much as you could want to know about peace activities across the nearest water, PN has some excellent international coverage – the current (February) issue has an interview with Medea Benjamin of Codepink in the US and another interview with John Tirman, executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT and author of “The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars” (Oxford University Press, 2011).
It was Tirman who commissioned the 2006 ‘Lancet Study’ which found that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the 2003 invasion by the US and UK, the civilian proportion of this probably being 70% - 80%. On Vietnam he says the death count varies from two to four million with 80% civilians. I would add that I presume this doesn’t include deaths in neighbouring countries and the deaths coming from the emergence of Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in Cambodia as a direct result of the Vietnam war. He says the accepted count in the Korean war is three million with 50% - 70% civilians.
Asked why the ‘American’ (sic) public are indifferent to civilian casualties he points to three factors; racism, the frontier myth of the USA (including ‘manifest destiny’, he explains that “violence is inevitably a part of what happens on the frontier because you have to subdue the savage”), and a social psychology explanation whereby the victims get blamed. And indifference, he points out, means that politicians are given licence to do it all over again. The article ends with a question about what citizens and activists can do – awareness of the human cost of war, the financial cost, and the “total destruction of Iraq. It is a smoking ruin”, and raising questions of moral concern that aren’t raised elsewhere.
Finding the error of their ways
I had occasion recently to be looking at the Free Presbyterian Church website www.freepres.org which includes displaying an Irish tricolour for its two churches in the Republic in the directory section. Very helpful the site is too if you want to look up the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) which describes the Pope as “that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.” What I didn’t expect to see listed was the Free Presbyterian minister for Convoy, Co Donegal as having an address at “Strabane, Co.Donegal, Eire, BT82 0AA”. It is hard to know which way repartition has worked here – has Strabane crossed the river and joined the Republic or Co Donegal been given UK postcodes? I presume someone from outside Ireland compiled the list and didn’t realise their mistake which is bordering on the ridiculous, and making Donegal not so much the Fort of the Stranger as the Fault of the Stranger. Reminds me of the time I saw some of the singing Free Presbyterian Minister William McCrea’s CDs in my local music library placed under ‘Irish’ music – I wasn’t sure who would be more offended!
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That’s me for now. Just getting organised to start sowing seeds indoors again, things that take quite a while to get to flowering/cropping, so the propagator is out of the shed and the tofu containers that I use for seed sowing are gathered to be washed. Hope springs eternal of that bumper crop, that fantastic bloom (I was really captivated by Chinese asters when they came to flower last year). The reality may be more prosaic, especially in our weather, but the future should be about hope. Anyway, I hope the future is blooming marvellous for you too, even if it is a window box or a pot in the back yard.
Next month we’ll be hosting our eminent and annual Adolf Awards for Conspicuous Disservice to Peace, Human Rights and the Environment. Feel free to make some nominations (to the INNATE address), you know there are plenty of people deserving of such an award – just tell us what award they should receive, and why.
is Billy King? A long, long time ago, in a more
innocent age (just talking about myself you understand),
there were magazines called 'Dawn' and 'Dawn Train'
and I had a back page column in these. Now the Headitor
has asked me to come out from under the carpet to write
a Cyberspace Column 'something people won't be able
to put down' (I hope you're not carrying your monitor
around with you).
Watch this. Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman
pass by (because there'll almost certainly be very little
about horses even if someone with a similar name is
found astride them on gable ends around certain parts
of Norn Iron).