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The Gift

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Anthony Trollope: Power, Land, and Society 1847 - 1980

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Saturday, 10 November 2018

Vauxhall Field

Walking to Monmouth is always a pleasure. People nod and say hello. This is almost the first thing I see on leaving the house 

Twenty minutes later I'm in Vauxhall Field, dog capital of Monmouth. 
Vauxhall Fields changes with the seasons and has a mystery all of its own. It’s hard to believe it’s only five minutes walk away from Monmouth Town centre and that in the late C18th it was laid out as a Pleasure Garden by a Mr Tibbs of the Beafort arms and named by him after the more famous Vauxhall Gardens in London. Monmouth never lacked ambition.

Early morning mist from the Kymin.
Spire of St Mary's

It hosted the Monmouth Races until 1933 and was for a time the centre of National Hunt racing. It has hosted the Wales International Kite Festival, steam rallies, dog shows, an annual fair, and hot air balloon flights. Most days it’s a place where people walk their dogs  and one can only hope that, after an unsuccessful attempt in 2011, housebuilders don’t get their grubby hands on it.

And then frost and gloom and autumn mists

When you see the field like this, it’s easy to slip in time to 1233 when the field hosted the Battle of Monmouth* on the feast of St Catherine* (25 November)
Henry III had some admirable qualities but had an unfortunate penchant for French favourites, in particular the Poitevans. They cluttered up the court, hogging all the best positions and keeping good Englishmen out. A rebellion was predictable, and Robert Marshal 2nd Earl of Pembroke duly obliged. Allied with Welsh princes, who were in it for what they could get, he besieged Monmouth Castle. 

The Battle, as described by the Chronicler Roger of Wendover, in his Flores Historiarum took place on this very spot – the most exciting thing to occur there before a bi plane flown by lieutenant Fox landed on it in 1912

For those desperate to know, the rebels won, and Wendover’s account can be read below.

Prior to the Battle,  the man in charge, John of Monmouth, reputedly ran away,and the defence of the castle was left to the mercenary Baldwin III Count of Guines and a garrison of Flemish and Poitevins. Baldwin, not realising the full force of the rebels sallied forth:

(Robert Marshal met them head on.)  He...kept them at a distance, brandishing his sword right and left, and struck down whoever came within reach, either killing them or stunning them by the force of his blows, and although engaged single-handed against twelve enemies, defended himself for a length of time. His enemies at length, not daring to approach him, killed the horse he rode with their lances; but the Marshal, who was well practised in the French way of fighting, seized one of the knights who was attacking him by the feet, and dragged him to the ground, and then quickly mounting his adversary's horse, he renewed the battle... At this juncture... a cross-bowman amongst the Marshal's company, seeing his lord in danger, discharged an arrow from his bow, which, striking Baldwin, who was dragging the Marshal away, in the breast, entered his body, notwithstanding his armour, and he fell to the earth believing himself mortally wounded... Whilst these events were passing, news had been carried to the Marshal's army of the danger he was in, on which they marched with all haste to his assistance, and soon put his enemies to flight. A bridge in the neighbourhood of the castle, over which the fugitives hoped to make their escape, was found to be broken, on which great numbers of them threw themselves into the river and were drowned with their horses and arms; others, having no means of escape, were slain by their pursuers, and some were made prisoners, and few of those who had sallied out from the castle returned safe."

* There was of course a less significant Battle of Monmouth fought somewhere in the colonies.
* St Catherine's feast day is still celebrated by the Girls School in Monmouth. Pupils and teachers in gowns walk from the school to St Mary's church - perhaps without a glance at the field where a battle was fought. 

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Confessions of a Dystopian Cretin

The last time I had a flu jab was four years ago and it was done on doctor’s advice a few months after my lung operation. Apparently a collapsed lung made me vulnerable. Against my better judgement but following his, I joined the queue at the appointed time and it was then my dystopian vision kicked in. The queue was long, snaking out from the surgery and extending almost as far as an adjacent supermarket. Waitrose, for those interested in detail.

We shuffled forward, a Napoleonic army of old codgers fleeing Moscow in an orderly line. And I couldn’t help but think: ‘demographic holocaust.’ That’s the curse of a dystopian mind. Next minute I was in. A glance. Jab. And out on the street.

Four days later I developed a lung infection that took over a month to clear and my dystopian demon crowed in my ear: ‘Sucker’.

I haven’t had one since. Whenever I weaken or hesitate, I hear that faint word again: Sucker. Last year hundreds and hundreds of elderly people died from the flu despite being vaccinated. The official response was that it was the wrong kind of flu, one that didn’t match the vaccination shots prepared some time in advance.

‘You believe that?’ my demon whispered. ‘You really believe that?’ His voice filled my head: ‘Wrong kind of flu or wrong kind of flu shot?’

And now another flu season approaches and the media is awash with dire warnings, but now with an extra dystopian twist. There are two kinds of shots being offered, though offered is the wrong word. Those under 65 are being offered shots against four strains of flu. Those over 65 are being offered shots against three strains of flu but with an added adjuvant, one designed to boost the immune system and thus make the vaccination more effective. Apart from the bureaucratic arbiteryness of 65 being the cut off point it appears a thought-out and sensible policy. But not if you’re a dystopian. ‘Sure, we keep the employable,’ the demon whispers, ‘but you’re in the wrong demographic, baby. They have a special one for you.’

In a mad fit of trust I went to the pharmacy and enquired if I could be given the four shot jab, the one reserved for the young. She looked at me grimly through her severe rimless glasses. ‘No,’ she said. ‘That’s impossible.

And I thought of my father. He had refused to sign the permission form for me and my brother to have the polio shot when it first came out. ‘Guinea pigs’ he muttered and that was it. Victorian obduracy, you might say, but then is that any worse than dystopian cretin? However much you play with them, Dystopian Victorian, obdurate cretin or dystopian obduracy, they all amount to much the same thing, though I think my dad comes out on top with Victorian Obduracy.  It must come from somewhere

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Reggie and Lois


In William Cross’s own words, ‘This is a dirty little book.’ In it he publishes the ditties and rude limericks from two adventurous but ultimately  tawdry figures of the 1920’s – one ‘a bright young thing,’ the other less youthful but appreciating it greatly in others. Lois Sturt was nineteen when she hitched up with the thirty-nine year-old and married Reginald Pembroke. Pembroke was a peer of the realm, an earl and major landowner. Lois was the daughter of a baron who later went on to marry the predatory homesexual Evan Morgan. She died with chronological neatness—in Budapest—aged thirty-seven in 1937.

In between she bedded Prince George, Duke of Kent, Edward Boulanger, Duff Cooper, Tim Cooper, Augustus John and Luffy Loughborough. She partied hard, drank harder, and starred as Nell Gwyn in The Great Adventure – the first British colour film. She trained racehorses and flew planes. A rich life that took its toll.

And this is the beauty of this wicked, scurrilous and gossipy book, the kind of history that never finds it way into school textbooks.  The limericks and ditties are puerile – one of their bedtime hobbies in between other things, but they'll  fascinate those who like peering through keyholes. Cross,  though, intersperses their ditties  with other examples doing the rounds at the time, which makes fascinating history but left me a little confused as to which belonged to whom.

One can take a high moral stand, in Plato’s words: Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.’ In other words it isn’t great poetry, but it does allow some insight into the time. And it's not all bad verse and bawdy shenanigans. Reggie is quite clearly in love:

I want you to be sitting beside me when I write. I want you to come and fish with me and walk with me and God how I want you to sleep with me . . . It is as you say almost terrifying to want anyone so much, but it is wonderful too isn’t it darling and when we remember that we flighty and light-hearted creatures, who have never stuck to anyone much longer than six weeks at a time, should have been absolutely faithful to each other for nearly 2 years . . . it makes it more wonderful still. 

In fact the affair lasted off and on until 1926 when Reggie went back to his long suffering but dutiful wife who refused to divorce him.                

The book then  opens a little known window into an age long gone, though it must be remembered that some wouldn’t recognise brightness if it hit them in the face.

Father John Degan for one. In a sermon, he urged upon women his own ten commandments:
1 Don’t parade the streets as if you were ‘in search of an adventure’
2 Don’t accept jewelry, clothing, or money from men folk, especially if they be blackmen
3 Never either enter a public house or a nightclub
4 Avoid those dancing halls where ‘dipping’ and other low class antics are tolerated
5 Leave cigarettes, intoxicants, and drugs severely alone
6 Remember that powder and paint and daring frocks are the hallmarks of the minx
7 Play hockey or lacrosse in winter and tennis in summer, but leave football to the men.
8 Beware of the ‘something for nothing’ man with marcel-waved hair, who offers you a   joyride in his car.
You’ve got the drift.

Father John's s own solution for raising up wholesome boys was the provision of a toolshed and a couple of hundred adventure books. And to discourage any daughter from becoming a ‘helter-skelter, promenading flapper,’ the provision of a piano, some sheet music and a  sewing machine would do the trick. You’ll have to buy the book to discover what one rebellious girl sent him on Valentine’s day.
As I said, a wicked, scurrilous and gossipy book and blessed, as always, with copious footnotes that lead you down into other rabbit holes.