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Friday, 29 January 2016

I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts

In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, David Cameron said this:

"The idea that those two right honourable gentlemen would stand up to anyone in that regard is laughable. Look at their record over the last week. They met with the unions and they gave them flying pickets, they met with the Argentinians and they gave them the Falkland Islands, they met with a bunch of migrants in Calais and said they could all come to Britain - the only people they never stand up for are the British people and the hardworking taxpayer."

Prime Minister’s Questions is a piece of parliamentary flimflam, a Punch and Judy knockabout that many tune into, more for entertainment than anything more serious, though at the same time judgements are made on the calibre of leadership.
In this particular case four words were seized upon:
‘a bunch of migrants.’
For the easily offended it was pass the smelling salts time.
For the more politically astute the faux outrage that followed was essentially an attempt to score points—their constituency, those already opposed to the government’s policy on immigration.
For Cameron it was a piece of tough talking argot calculated to appeal those who thought he wasn’t hard enough. Politician and P.R. man, he knew the constituency he was after.

This post isn’t about politics. This post isn’t about the merits of immigration or otherwise. It is about our weird and wonderful language and one particular word.
One dictionary definition is:
 a group of things of the same kind that are held or tied together or that grow together. : a group of people or things that are together or are associated with each other in some way. : a large amount

Bunch is wonderfully versatile. You can use it in any context but one:
 A bunch of banana, a bunch of grapes, The Wild Bunch. Girls can wear their hair in bunches. You can have a bunch of mates around for a drink, especially if they’re a great bunch of mates. But conjoin bunch with migrants and all hell in a teacup breaks out.

You might ask which word is actually at fault here. It’s a linguistic question. I’m not saying migrants as migrants are at fault. They have every right to try and better themselves by moving to another country, just as an established community has every right to decide how many it wants. Sincere views will be held on both sides.  The question is how the conjoining of two words makes something toxic in one context and not in another. So why is ‘a bunch of mates’ acceptable and a ‘bunch of migrants’ not?  Answers on a post card please.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

He who gets the last word. . . sometimes loses out.

He who gets the last word sometimes loses out, as a tombstone in Monmouth illustrates.

Mrs Murr died in 1820 and paid the stonemason to put this on her tomb.

‘Ye, who possess the brightest charms of life,
A tender friend, a kind indulgent wife,
Oh, learn their worth!
In her beneath this stone,
These pleasant attributes shone,
Was not true happiness with them combined?
Ask the spoiled being she’s left behind.’
The ‘spoiled being,’ her husband, died a few years later but there was insufficient space on the headstone for anything but this: ‘He’s gone, too.’

 Almost as good as the comedian Spike Milligan's headstone: 'I told you I was sick.' Do you have any favourites or ideas for your own? :)

Friday, 15 January 2016

'Himmler's Rasputin'

The third book in my trilogy The Gift is based like the other two in the Interwar years. The research has been almost as much fun as the writing. Sometimes more fun when inspiration flags. But for anyone seeking material, search no further than the interwar years.

The period is weird for so many reasons. It makes Robert E Howard appear relatively mainstream.
 Where do you begin? Who or what do you select? An obvious contender is Karl Maria Wiligut, nicknamed ‘Himmler’s Rasputin.’ Born in Vienna in 1886 Wiligut began an orthodox military career with considerable success.

The weirdness set in whilst stationed at Znaim in Moravia. There he became fascinated by prehistoric menhir — to the layperson, a bunch of stones — and began delving into Ariosophy, a relatively new moment that dabbled in the occult and the potent myth of Aryan Supremacy. Sometime after 1908 he joined the Order of the New Templars where he told startled members that he had intimate knowledge of Rune and had been entrusted with family secrets by his grandfather. Now at last the secrets were to be divulged:

Karl Wiligut was the last descendant of a long line of German sages, the Uiligotis of the Asa-Uana-Sippe, dating back to prehistoric times. As a result he was able to recall the history of his tribe over thousands of years by virtue of his ancestral-clairvoyant memory.

According to Wiligut Germany was originally settled in 228,000 B.C by survivors of Atlantis, and that his family originated in the magical city of Arual-Joruvallas (present day Goslar). He insisted that the events of the New Testament had taken place in Germany not Palestine, and that Jesus Christ, far from being the son of God was an avatar called Krist, founder of the Irminist religion in 12,500 B.C. The Wiligut family were Irminist sages, driven into the wildnerness by rival sorcerers in 1,200 B.C.

World War I interrupted the dreaming and Wilgut resumed his military career. Defeat saw him lost in bitterness, the feeling that Germany and Austria had been betrayed and that salvation lay in a new and stronger German empire. In 1924 he was committed to the Salzburg mental asylum where he was certified insane. He remained there until his release in 1927.

Five years later, secret voices told him to leave Austria for Germany and he settled in Munich. A disciple introduced the elderly sorcerer to Heinrich Himmler who fell under his spell.

In 1933 the sixty-seven year old Karl Wiligut joined the S.S and became intimate friends with Heinrich Himmler, spellbound by Wiligut’s tales of old Atlantis. Wilgut did more than tell tales. He designed the sinister SS Totenkopf ring, the hat badge, and a whole host of runic symbols used on black SS  uniforms and flags. He was made an SS General and ordered to construct Wiligut’s tunnel. 

This tribute to madness was a tunnel in Hungary, ten miles deep and designed to carry an elevator car that would lower Himmler and Wiligut to the ‘Inner World of Agharti’ – something akin to Edgar Rice Burroughs Pellucidar. Age and ill health saw him resign from active duty in the SS in August 1939 (remarkably good timing) but work on tunnel continued, nevertheless. Millions were poured into it — until November 1944 when lack of supplies, and perhaps the advance of the Red Army forced the SS project to close.

Wiligut inspired Himmler to send out teams of explorers in search of Atlantean secrets, but the old man himself spent his declining years lost in runes and spells and ancient artefacts. The British briefly interrogated him after the war but released him. The old magician died in 1946, taking his ancestral secrets with him. 

How to end this with a snap? Wiligut and Himmler, a relationship akin to Robert E Howard and Donald Trump. No, that is grossly unfair on both men and wreaks havoc with chronology. Aleister Crowley and Stanley Baldwin? No, that is even more unbelievable.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Colonising the past

The past is a foreign country they say, and rather like tourists historians have always tended to interpret the past through filtered lenses. Thus the great Whig historians saw history as one of progress reaching its zenith in British supremacy; Marxist historians the great struggle and inevitable triumph of the working class. There may well be Jihadi historians; who knows?
Then we have totalitarian historians who reshape and expunge the past so it fits more perfectly a fabricated image. It may have been Stalin who began it with his infamous expunging of Trotsky in soviet records and photography.
                                             Now you see him (right of the podium)

                                                                 Now you don't.

Stalin did the same with Nicolai Yezhov, former head of the Secret Police

                                                             Now you see him.

                                   Now you don't. (He's tucked him in his breast pocket.)

Not to be outdone, Hitler illustrated his disapproval of Goebbels over something or other so like all dictators indulged in altering history to control the present or at least its narrative. Luckily for Goebbels it was a just a minor hissy fit and his image was restored

Even Canadian Prime Ministers are tempted. Mackenzie King had George VI removed from this photo because he thought the royal presence detracted from his own presence

In recent years we've had the destruction of ancient Buddhist statues obliterated by the Taliban because, presumably, they offended said Taliban. 
Now another set of people with equally strong feelings are upset over a hundred year old statue of Cecil Rhodes. 

It's another example of colonising the  past. You might see such a process as relatively benign. No one gets exploited or killed unless you anthropomorphise scholarship and truth. Just a few pesky statues obliterated in the same manner as medieval stained glass to a new breed of puritans.

The great British imperialist Cecil Rhodes is the latest in line for this treatment. He was no nicer or worse than any of the ‘great’ men who mark our history. Those who feel ‘oppressed and marginalised’ as they walk past his statue are opening the floodgates to a whole host of precious souls. 

What about the Welsh and the Scots who have to walk past effigies of Edward I? Perhaps we should destroy every statue of Cromwell for fear of offending the Irish, Disraeli for making Victoria ‘Empress of India.’ Then again what do we do about Abraham Lincoln?

Cecil Rhodes was a cultural imperialist but no racist. He believed that black Africans were culturally inferior but not biologically so. And unless we want to rewrite history, this was essentially true in terms of science and technology, perhaps morally too if we assume our present distaste for forced marriages, honour killing and despotic cruelty has any validity. But here we tread in the quicksands of cultural relativity.

 Rhodes was ambitious and rapacious but he also believed in Britain’s civilising mission. Many will see this as paternal condescension. True enough, but on the other side of the same coin, he argued furiously that every black African within the British sphere of interest was entitled to the vote. For Rhodes, cultural inferiority was not set in stone.

But getting back to Abraham Lincoln who once said: ‘There is a profound difference between the black and white races that will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality.’ It shows again how spot-lighting the past is highly selective. In short, it's essential that history is scrutinised and reinterpreted but done so with a degree of humility. I don't know how you can topple a statue with humility, nor reinterpret statues by smashing them. Why not burn offensive books?

 As for the future, who knows?  The Lincoln Monument may be quivering already