There have been world wars, genocides, whole cities obliterated and great economic depressions. There has even been the Black Death. But we can never identify a period when the whole human race has been shut down in the face of an invisible foe with the potential to kill untold millions and perhaps wipe out half of our elderly mothers and fathers.
Had we not become a scientific species which had acquired a keen understanding of how viruses transmit, this may very well have happened. But today, in my country after three months of hiatus, the shops are permitted – under strict conditions – to resume business. This in itself is a first. There are so many of them. Never before have traders countrywide been prevented from plying their wares. But equally, never before had all human activity which involved close contact been forbidden and the entire population placed under what amounts to house arrest.
Because these constraints so obviously impinge on the ability to do business, economic activity has taken a hit greater than any since the arrival of the Black Death seven centuries ago. Billions of humans have been sent on enforced sabbaticals, and in many cases have lost the will to work. In this glorious spring and summer weather, they have actually enjoyed not having to report for work in the early morning and suffer the burden of having to constantly maintain output, work schedules and the annoyance of being bossed around by their superiors.
Society now faces the herculean task of firing up again all these beach-comers and new enjoyers of public spaces ever since they were permitted to exercise and take the air to maintain health and sanity. But just as daunting are the hitherto unheard levels of public debt incurred to keep as many businesses as possible on life support. Governments around the world knew that, despite breaking every record in the economic rulebook, millions of enterprises will never recover and untold millions will find themselves relying on the public purse to survive. This is particularly galling to those governments – including our own – which managed their affairs well and were looking to a golden future. No one knows what the consequences of so much public debt will be, but consequences there surely will be.
In handling this crisis, my own country has been found seriously wanting. While our freshly minted prime minister has won the first big test of his premiership – exiting the European Union – he has failed abysmally on the second, COVID-19. Failing to put the country in lockdown sooner cost tens of thousands of lives. Failure to test, track and trace added to the litany of woes, as did failure to provide personal protective equipment. But perhaps the most scandalous failure was that of not throwing a cordon sanitaire around the people most likely to die: those in care homes. Hospitals sending infected patients into care homes may be said to have reached the bar of criminal negligence, as was the failure to provide protection for those who look after them. But as if these failings were not enough, we must add four more: an insistence that two-metre social distancing be maintained; a mule-like refusal to accept that face masks can make it harder for the virus to jump from person to person; a tardiness in getting the least at risk back to school; and the lunacy of introducing travel quarantining after the horse has bolted.
But beyond these events, there is an important geo-political dimension. Where has the European Union been in all this? Nowhere, so far as anyone can see. Brussels has been criticised by virtually every member state for interfering in matters they say don’t concern it. But here was a life and death issue which affected all of them equally. Would any have complained were the Union to have taken the lead in protecting them? After all, health issues have always been a major concern of Brussels. It extends even to the much maligned bent or undersized banana.
It has been truly absurd that 27 member states ended up doing their own thing. This was never better illustrated than in our own small island, where devolution allowed for four different solutions to the same problem. We ended up in a Kafkaesque world where an Englishman for the first time in eight hundred years could be stopped from entering Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Various national leaders – and none more so than our own – will face a harsh reckoning when the story of this crisis is finally written up. Had the European Union taken responsibility for managing the crisis, those leaders would have avoided all the brickbats that will now come raining down on them in what many consider the great project of our time, the European Union. And had the EU, for its part, acquitted itself well, it would have provided a mighty fillip to those who have always lauded its creation and pine for a United States of Europe.
As we grapple with COVID-19, we are left wondering how we overnight got from a happy confluence of a strong government, a finally successful Brexit exit, a strong economy, a budget which promised to regenerate our country, into a downturn of unimaginable proportions.
A deadly virus had mutated in an ancient land which, despite being at the cutting edge of so many modern technologies, still hangs on to disgustingly unhygienic animal practices more worthy of witch doctor days.
Precious weeks were lost in a miasma of deceit, cover-up and punishment of those who sought to tell the truth. I am not saying that we in the West do not have our share of such practices, but they are the exception rather than the rule. And where our unfettered media ferret out such goings on, things change and frequently heads roll. Those in power – who can be held to account – know this and that is why such happenings are the exception. Democracy is what does it. As Churchill once said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
No authoritarian, one party state, such as China, would tolerate for an instant the daily press briefings whereby the most powerful man in the land submits himself to a grilling in which he is obliged to answer unscripted questions. Nor would such a state allow its media to tear into its handling of any matter. Furthermore, all such dictatorial states insist on imposing their own narrative to events. They will brook no counterview and punish those who try, often by torture and all too frequently by death. All this makes it galling to the nth degree when the perpetrator of the terrible events which have gripped the world shows no contrition, but rather starts boasting how well it has handled it all. To add insult to injury, it sends hapless foreigners rushed supplies of PPE, much of which is defective.
If China wishes to be admired and respected by the rest of humanity, it must be honest and upfront on issues which affect the entire planet. This is particularly necessary where health and survival of the species is concerned. It has to be said that there was a certain inevitability – given ancient animal practices carried out in live wet animal markets in the Far East – that such outbreaks as coronavirus would be regular occurrences. A family member, not long ago, drew my attention to a YouTube expose of animals being skinned alive in China. It was so horrific that I quickly had to avert my gaze. In those parts of the world where human rights are given short shrift, it is not surprising that those of animals are virtually non-existent. Not until all of us treat each other humanely can we expect those who don’t to extend the same protection to our fellow creatures.
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – as the US Constitution has it – may even be said to be the right of animals too. As the only part of Creation blessed (some might say cursed) with a mind capable of understanding the issues, we should regard our role as that of a high steward – the ultimate protector of all that has evolved on this orbiting accretion of stardust.
We should regard the outbreak we are currently living through as a wakeup call for the next pandemic coming down the track. And down it most definitely will come. When it arrives, we may not be so lucky as we have been this time with a virus which kills, it is thought, one in a hundred and which largely leaves the young and the fit able to survive it with minimal discomfort. Pity, though, the old and those with health issues.
Deaths worldwide are likely to be under a million from a world population of 7.3 billion. The SARS coronavirus, only a few years ago (also from China), had a mortality rate ten times higher than the COVID-19 coronavirus, but it was somewhat harder to catch and showed symptoms earlier. Luckily it was contained. Spanish flu, on the other hand, one hundred years ago, spared the old and ravaged the young, killing in the region of fifty million out of a then world population of 1.8 billion – a fraction of today’s 7.6 billion. One third of humanity is thought to have contracted the disease. Woe betide us if the next pandemic has the killing power of the Black Death. Then, half the human race vanished.
It is a perennial worry of our species as to what its ultimate fate will be – an asteroid strike, Global Warming, a runaway population explosion (1.8bn to 7.3bn in one hundred years) the exhaustion of the Earth’s raw materials and nuclear annihilation – but pandemics are our biggest enemy. A new, incredibly murderess and fast-moving virus strain against which no antidote can be found before it kills half of humanity or even more.
People think that the world has only recently become interconnected, but the worlds of the middle ages and even antiquity were fully aware of each other’s existence and traded. Albeit their ships were smaller, slow-moving and the overland routes dangerous, but they still pulled it off. It took many months for the Black Death to move from the East to the West – and it never reached the Americas because there were no overland routes and we didn’t even know they were there. Now our coffin-shaped jets – acting like high-flying incubators – can bring it to us in hours. Had China included international air travel when it put a ban on movement in and out of Wuhan, there is every reason to believe the world would have been spared this health and economic catastrophe.
The lessons to be taken from our present travails are speed, transparency and isolation. Also, nations must be obliged to create war chests of PPE, test kits and ventilators, since the failure of any one of them puts the rest of us at risk. Primitive practices such as live, wet markets must be banned worldwide.
If all nations insist on maintaining military establishments with their horrendously expensive tanks, planes and warships, they surely can afford to protect themselves from a potentially greater enemy than any state poses by maintaining health service capability. After all, no neighbouring, hostile state ever enjoyed the advantage of invisibility.
As I write, world leaders are gathering in a European Union country to remember the arrival, 75 years ago, of the Red Army at the gates of Auschwitz to discover a horror unique in the annuls of our tortured species.
Using the tools which a newly industrialised world had created, one of its present member states had set about the extermination of an entire people.
It would be wrong to say that the state in question was unaware of the evil it was perpetrating, as it tried every means possible to hide what it was doing. What it did believe fervently was that, in the fullness of time, when the world woke up to the fact that the twelve million Jews of Europe had vanished, it would ‘applaud the courage’ of the country that had risen to the challenge and done the unthinkable.
What warped form of logic could ever make an otherwise cultured people harbour such thoughts? The answer is simple. If a criminal gang gains control of a country and spends two decades reigniting ancient hatreds using all the means of modern propaganda and pseudo-science, an entire people can be brought to the edge of madness.
Right up to the advent of Hitler, Germany was no more anti-Semitic than any other country in Europe (actually less so than many). Jews fought with distinction for the Kaiser, gaining hundreds of Iron Crosses. They considered themselves safe and at home and loved their Fatherland, the birthplace of Goethe, Beethoven and Schiller.
Had a similar criminal gang gained control of another European country – at a time of acute economic distress and political humiliation following the vengeful Versailles Treaty – and employed the same brainwashing techniques as did the Nazis, that country would have ended up the same. We have only to look at North Korea today to see what brainwashing can achieve.
Two things allowed Nazi Germany to take matters to their logical conclusion. The first was the astonishing rapidity and breadth of its conquests; the second was its industrial might and legendary efficiency.
Only a large and advanced state would have the means to embark on such a programme, and within every country there are people in a criminal class willing to do the really merciless work. So complete and fixated was the determination of the monsters who drove that programme that, even as their resources were stretched to the limit on the battlefield, they still were prepared to risk defeat than redeploy enormous Holocaust resources to the front and perhaps save the day.
Genocides have been a regular feature of our benighted species, but none have so scarred our conscience as that which ended seventy-five years ago. Thankfully, it can never happen again. Our 24/7 news cycle, cameras in every pocket and inability to prevent whistle-blowers and email leaks will make any such repeat effort impossible to conceal from the world.
The United Kingdom was then a world superpower with, by far, the largest navy on the planet and the largest empire known to history. Within a year of my birth, it confronted, on its own, in a Thermopylae-like last stand, the Nazi tyranny which had enslaved all Europe and which was bent on world conquest. It seemed to all to have embarked on a suicide mission.
Roosevelt cabled its war leader in that darkest hour the words of Longfellow:
Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
In these troubled times we do not ask our fellow Europeans to repay this debt of blood and treasure, only to remember that when they needed us most, we were there for them.
It is now five years since King Richard III was re-interred: this time respectfully in Leicester Cathedral with honours appropriate to the last of a dynasty which had ruled England for 331 years. The discovery of his body under a car park proved a worldwide sensation. The confirmation of his terrible injuries as he stood, surrounded by his enemies – a small, spinally afflicted man – fighting like a Viking berserker, evoked pity as well as admiration. Notwithstanding Richard’s lifelong belief in leading from the front, history has judged him both a tyrant and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, a monster – England’s own Ivan the Terrible. It is my belief that this is a false judgement and that it is time to create a more balanced narrative.
The writing of history from the victor’s perspective began with Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars. Such was the genocidal brutality of that campaign that it is estimated a quarter of France’s then population was wiped out. Rather than Veni, Vidi, Vici, it should have read Veni, Vidi, Dedi – I came, I saw, I slaughtered. A thousand years later, William the Conqueror gave his own (literally) coloured justification for usurping the throne of England in the Bayeux tapestry, and on the way to another thousand years Napoleon portrayed his Egyptian campaign as a glorious success when in fact it was an abysmal failure. We must be careful, then, when we show ourselves willing to place undue credence on the winning side’s account.
The England Richard grew up in was convulsed in the domestic bloodletting of the Wars of the Roses. The twists and turns of that brutal struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster – both branches of the Plantagenet family – are immensely challenging, even for historians, who to this day still argue about events. Five kings came and went in the space of twenty-five years. Richard’s Yorkist, elder brother, Edward, gained the crown after the bloodiest and longest battle ever fought on English soil. Fighting the whole day long, on Palm Sunday in 1461 in a snowstorm, twenty-eight thousand perished. That represented almost a tenth of England’s then population.
Richard, therefore, grew to manhood not just in a time of unparalleled violence, but also of disconcertingly shifting alliances. Nobody knew who could be relied on. When we examine Richard’s record following the unexpected death at forty-one of his brother, the king, we really have to think hard on all these things. As well as betrayal from every quarter, much of the violence was gratuitous and mindless.
Richard’s was always with a purpose and that purpose, many would argue, was in the interest of his country as well as the preservation of his own, threatened, life and Yorkist line. As a third son, he never expected to be king and after the death of his brother gave no indication, initially, of a wish to become one. He enthusiastically backed preparations for his twelve-year-old nephew’s coronation. His brother, on his death bed, had appointed the ever-loyal Richard to act as the boy’s guardian during the years of his minority.
At the request of the king, eleven years earlier when he was nineteen, Richard had been sent to the troublesome north with vice-regal powers. He managed not just to pacify but gain the respect and even love of his northern charges. His campaigns against the marauding Scots gained England large tracts of land including the important border fortress of Berwick on Tweed, which has stayed English ever since. With his legalistic mind, Richard proved an able and just administrator which, added to his bravery on the battlefield, made him the ‘perfect prince’. These qualities, it should be noted, were exactly the ones his country needed if it were not to fall back into the miseries of renewed violence under a boy king. The nation wanted nothing more than a continuation of the much-valued peace from what was originally known as the Cousins’ War, which his brother’s stable rule had brought.
Ever mindful of a reversion to the bad old ways, Richard knew that only he had a chance of holding the country together and that it was essential, therefore, for him to carry out his brother’s wishes and govern the realm for the next several years. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that he would not be allowed to. His late brother’s non-aristocratic, but stunningly beautiful, wife with her immense family of hated and ambitious hangers-on gave every indication that they intended to take over. Were this to happen, the country would be plunged back into factionalism and warfare. Just as certain was Richard’s own fate. In those troubled times, he would have been a dead man walking. The low-born late Queen’s family had stirred up great resentment among the ruling magnates by the way they had inveigled their way into the king’s favour, gaining titles, lands as well as high offices of state. Everything that followed, which has been so much portrayed to Richard’s detriment, must be viewed in the light of these circumstances. Richard’s success during his long period of service and vice-royalty in the north had made a great impression on the country. Almost all right-thinking subjects would have preferred him to the upstart Woodvilles, the dowager queen’s family.
Another feature of Richard’s character was his decisiveness. In his present, life-threatening predicament, it would be much needed. He was, in today’s terms, a genuine action man. When he saw how heavily the dice were being loaded against him, he knew he had to act fast and he, being Richard, did exactly that. When he had cleared what was, admittedly, a very fraught path to taking up his duties as Lord Protector, a sermon was preached by the bishop of Wells and Somerset which claimed that both of his nephews – one of whom was the new king Edward V – were the illegitimate offspring of a bigamous marriage. This had been talked about in palace circles for some time. In addition to this, his own brother, the late king, had a questionable pedigree which was rumoured to be the result of a dalliance that his mother had had with a French archer during a period of estrangement from her husband, the king. Certainly, when Richard’s remains were forensically examined after that famous discovery under a Leicester car park, they bore absolutely no brotherly resemblance either in build, height, colouring or facial appearance to the strapping blond, Edward IV.
Richard was a known stickler for legality who, among other things, had long standing views on legitimacy so that when the estates of the realm started to press him to assume what they believed to be his right to the crown, and bring certainty and adult kingship to the realm, he may well have considered that he had a duty to listen to them. If church law held his nephews to be bastards, that made him the undoubted king and not a usurper. As a patriot at a pivotal moment in his country’s history, he would have felt a heavy burden of responsibility to save the realm and his Yorkist line from falling back into the hands of the Lancastrians. His lavish coronation, attended by high and low, bears testament to a will strongly felt generally, and by Londoners in particular, to see a continuation of the stable government that the country, under his brother, had enjoyed for years.
Richard was a hugely pious man. During the two years of his kingship, he enacted a string of measures that can only be described as enlightened, even by today’s standards. He encouraged widespread use of the newly invented printing press, which the powers of the day were highly suspicious of and which acted as a spur to translate the Latin monopoly of the Bible into English. Inevitably, that would have led to the churches’ monopoly of possession of the ‘Good Book’ being broken and the common people gaining their own copies and starting, perhaps, to place their own interpretation on holy writ.
Most incredibly, Richard would brook no censorship in what could be printed. All were encouraged to speak their mind. This hardly speaks of a man with dark secrets. He did away with the ability of the rich and powerful to lock a man up and keep him there awaiting trial, sometimes for years. Bail was introduced. Although a fluent French speaker – having spent part of his early life in Burgundy – Richard insisted that Parliament conduct its business in the vernacular and not Norman French. This same view applied to other agencies of the state. Another of his hates was corruption. Richard attacked and sought to do away with Indulgences, the practice which allowed the rich and powerful to purchase public offices. It was a landmark step towards a well-governed country. Richard, as we have noted, had a great interest in law and would sometime conduct a case in court himself. His passion for justice for the underprivileged may well have had its origins in his own experiences. Suffering, as is known, will often give a person greater empathy for the less fortunate.
Although – somewhat unkindly, I feel – it has been remarked the Richard had ice in his veins, he was observed to weep when his wife died and doubtless he did the same when his infant son – his only heir – did likewise. The calumny that was later put about by the Tudors, that he killed his wife so that he could marry his niece, we know to be false. His wife died of an illness, probably tuberculosis, and he was negotiating the marriage of his niece to the Portuguese royal house. Unlike his handsome, womanising elder brother, the king, Richard kept faith with Anne, his wife, after they married, something unusual for aristocrats right up to modern time.
There was much personal tragedy in Richard’s life. His father died on the battlefield when he was a boy, as did his uncle. His erstwhile older brother, Clarence, who had habitually rebelled once too often against his own older brother, the king, was condemned to death by Attainder. While the king upheld the verdict, Richard begged for clemency. The act is said to have been carried out by the bizarre method of drowning Clarence in a vat of malmsey wine in the Tower of London. Perhaps that’s because Clarence couldn’t stop imbibing on stuff that they held to be the culprit in sending him off the rails. They thought giving him a double dose would be a suitable punishment.
To add to the litany of misfortune which fell upon Richard, at around the age of eleven he was struck down with the debilitating and painful affliction of scoliosis – a warping of the spine. Little allowance has been made for these tragedies in Richard’s young life, but they must have caused him severe distress and had a profound effect on him. Furthermore, as a small man – around 5’6” – he must have felt hugely overshadowed by his magnificent, 6’6”, muscular, blond brother, the king, who to add to the mix was extremely handsome as well a gregarious. Perhaps these were very same attributes that a lonely queen, years before, had found irresistible in a French archer.
Richard must have felt a desperate need to do something to prove that he was a true Plantagenet. That led him – despite his growing disability and a skeletal frame revealed by recent forensic examinations to have female characteristics, particularly his pelvis – to take up battlefield training so that, with a superhuman effort, he eventually morphed into a warrior who could cope with sixty pounds of armour and wield a heavy mace.
In his final dash to cut down Henry Tudor, he came within feet of him, crashing through his bodyguards and taking down Henry’s standard bearer before he himself was surrounded and cut down in a fury of sword and Halbert thrusts. Ten wounds struck the battling Richard through to the bone: two of them lethal. There may have been many more flesh wounds. But most shocking of all, considering that he was an anointed king, there were a series of what are known as ‘humiliation wounds’ – struck after death. There were some to the head and one up through the posterior to the pelvis. Considering the closeness of Henry Tudor to the action, he must have watched this happen and that represents a shocking indictment of him that he permitted such desecration of a crowned monarch.
On the matter of his alleged killing of his nephews – the most damning of all the charges levelled against Richard and the deaths his enemies made the most capital of – it is universally agreed that no prosecutor would ever have gained a conviction against him. There is not a scrap of evidence linking him to their disappearance. Several suspects, beside Richard, are in the frame. My own prime suspect is his sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, who, having charge of London in his master’s absence far away, may have felt he would do him a favour by carrying out an act which he knew Richard couldn’t. There had already been one attempt to spring the princes from the Tower and there were likely to be more. Buckingham knew that while they lived, they could act as a focus for Richard’s enemies. Their elimination would settle the matter once and for all. When the question is posed, why did Richard not denounce Buckingham on his return, he must have asked himself, who will believe me? Better to let sleeping dogs lie and the mystery of their disappearance remain unsolved.
Another reason why I find it difficult to believe that Richard was culpable is that it would have been profoundly abhorrent to such a devout man. He was an ascetic, almost in the mould of the puritans who would come two hundred years later. He forswore the wearing of gorgeous apparel, which was the mode amongst aristocrats of the time, preferring to dress simply, almost like the common man who was forbidden to wear clothes above his station. He endowed more monasteries and places of learning during his thirty-two years of life than any other monarch. But even if Richard did give the order – and it remains a big if – he would not be the first to kill close to home. History is littered with similar acts. His own brother, the king, had allowed his sibling, Clarence to be killed. Two of history’s ‘Greats’, Peter and Constantine, killed their own sons. Reasons of State, some hold, override everything. Is it not just such a reason as allows us today to square our consciences over the firebombing of German cities and the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima?
Had Richard been victorious at Bosworth, as he would have been but for the treachery of the fence-sitting Lord Stanley and his 2,000 contingents, that would have been the last hope of the Lancastrians. Richard would have gone on to reign unopposed and, judged on past performance, particularly his rule of the north, we might be reading a very different account of him.
As an accomplished warrior, much in the mould of Henry V, I believe he would have taken up the challenge of the recently lost lands in France and won them back for England. The Hundred Years War might well have had a different ending.
When you consider the merits of the man who succeeded Richard, one finds it hard to mount a compelling narrative. It was an increasingly unhappy, even miserable reign. The penny-pinching, grasping and murderous Henry Tudor cannot stand against the principled, brave defender of the law and peoples’ champion, Richard. Henry is even said to have had an opportunity to sponsor Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, but turned it down as being too risky. If so, it was a blunder of titanic proportions. All of the continent, south as well as north, would have accrued to the English crown and the miser filled his boots with its mountains of silver and gold so that he would likely have gone mad at his miraculous good fortune.
The son who went on to succeed the ever-suspicious first Tudor, Henry VIII, would become known on the continent of Europe as Henry the tyrant. He would plunge England into two centuries of bloody conflict with the Catholic church. To fill his own boots with the sale of church lands during the dissolution of the monasteries, untold scores of beautiful Abbeys were destroyed. Had they survived, they would be the glory of our land today and be earning us untold tourist receipts. The wonder is that the second Henry’s butcher and vandal-in-chief, Thomas Cromwell, didn’t turn his attention next to the cathedrals. But he didn’t have time. His master had him begging for the headsman’s axe rather than suffer the fate Henry intended – the grisly end of a traitor. It is as well that the poor man’s mentor and former boss, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey – himself the son of a butcher – had previously died on-route also to face Henry’s vengeance.
So, I come back to the successful character assassination that the Tudors carried out. It has been the accepted version for five hundred years now. To this day, the royal website refers to Richard as the usurper. The first of the new Tudor dynasty’s claim to the throne was so nebulous that it is hardly worth detailing. A whole clutch of aristocrats were better placed in line of succession. Furthermore, what claim Henry Tudor did have came through the normally disallowed female line which was, itself, tainted with illegitimacy. Knowledge of this made both of the Henrys paranoiac; they murdered all the better claimants they could lay their hands on including the frail and saintly, 67-year-old Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, who was raised to sainthood in later centuries. Does Henry’s seizure of the crown by force of arms, and in these circumstances, not make him an undoubted usurper?
It is ironic that the second Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Moore – another to be beatified – bowed to the royal pressure and lent his much-respected support to the Tudor campaign of Richard vilification. His reward came later on the headsman’s bloc. Henry’s double-crossing of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace and the lethal vengeance taken afterwards represents yet another chapter in a bloody reign, which attracts nothing of the criticism levelled at Richard.
Finally, to complete the work of the victor writing the narrative the great bard, Shakespeare prostituted his otherwise gifted pen. Seeking to please Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, he wrote a favourable play concerning her father and a true stinker concerning Richard. Such a fantastic, crowd-pleasing horror story of a play is Richard III, that the world has preferred to believe that this is how it must have been. That tainted version of events included incest, gross deformity, ugliness, usurpation, infanticide and unwarranted, murderess violence. Dogs barked, according to Shakespeare, when Richard went by.
It has taken modern forensics half a millennium to demolish Shakespeare’s caricature of an ugly, limping, hunchback with a withered arm. Richard was not any of these things. Actually, after a reconstruction of the face according to his facial bone structure, he turned out to be quite pleasant looking. Why would the bard’s depiction of Richard’s character traits be any more accurate? It is now the job of historians to do their work; a task which should be evidence-based.
Shakespeare would have won no history prizes at school. Just as Scots are not taught about bad King Macbeth – he was, in fact, so safe on his throne during his 17-year reign that he went on pilgrimage – equally, there is no bad king Richard. We must start teaching something which more closely resembles the truth concerning Richard, not just give him a decent, final funeral.
Walking to my garage through my local church graveyard over the years, I have often pondered the poignancy of the hundreds of near identical slate headstones lined up row after row. Every one represented a life lived, with gripping tales to tell interspersed with heartache and joy.
Yesterday, on the eve of my 80th birthday, a line of verse came into my head which, when I got back to my shop, I developed into a full-blown poem. It brought my thoughts into focus. I hope you like it.
There is a graveyard near my shop jam-packed with myriad stones,
Lined up in serried ranks of slate to be their final homes.
They once had dreams like yours and mine of how they would succeed,
And win a place of some esteem to meet a deep-felt need.
They wanted not to slip away and none to speak their name,
As through the years of toil they sought their little share of fame.
They wanted friends and family to visit and recall
A life well-lived of joy and tears, in which they gave their all.
And so, perhaps, for several years their hopes would be fulfilled;
But time strikes down the left behind and they themselves are stilled.
The grass between the stones grows tall: no human foot is trod.
The wind blows cold between the slates, all vanish in the sod.
The rich and famous of our day, they too will pass from view;
Their fate no different from the rest as life begins anew.
We strut our hour upon the stage, then comes no more our sound;
Gone from our eyes, beneath our feet, a slowly sinking mound.
Once regarded as an exemplar of decency and civilised living, parents in suburbs of Britain’s capital now fear for the lives of their children going out to meet their peers or even popping down to the nearest corner shop.
Week after week, the stabbings continue. Violent death stalks the young of our cities like a bacillus ready to strike at random. It is amazing that we have stood back and watched this wretched tide of misery rise with almost a detached equanimity. But something happened a few days ago which seemed to shake us out of our torpor. Last week, in quick succession, two seventeen dear old white children – a girl and a boy – died.
It is a terrible thing to suggest, but I believe society gave every impression of not wanting to over-exercise its concerns because the killings have very largely been confined to the non-white community. It was black on black, and mainly part of a gang culture which had developed. How mortifying that must seem to the families of all those other kids who have died to hear the alarm bells suddenly ring and note the attention which the two recent deaths have attracted. Were their children not as worthy of equal attention?
I do not think it fanciful to suggest that if this epidemic of stabbings were happening to white children, the army would be on the streets by now.
There was an echo in all this of the working class public’s justified rage at the efforts and astronomic sums dedicated to the search for the high profile and professional class’s child, Madeline McCann. Were their children not also going missing? Why was Madeline so special? And where was the fairness in a system that only took notice and opened its purse-strings when it happened to the favoured ones in society.
Now that the wider public have finally woken up to what is happening in its cities, we have to pose the question: what is to be done? First, we have to identify the drivers of knife crime. There is no single cause – there seldom ever is – but in my book, lack of prospects must feature highly. Any youngster not benefiting from a stable family life, a decent education and challenging/enjoyable extracurricular activities is fodder for the gang leaders.
No single factor contributes more to a youngster going off the rails than the lack of a father figure in family life. And no community in the country suffers more from this of this than people of Caribbean ethnicity. Sadly, people in this community are the very ones hardest hit by the killings.
If you do not accept this argument about the importance of a father figure, ask yourself this question: how many Jewish mothers are left to get on with it because papa has done a runner? And when was the last time you heard of a Jewish boy being arraigned in court for a knifing, or indeed for any anti-social activity? That is because family life is so cohesive and all-embracing. You could almost say suffocating. The sheer shame of letting down not just your family but your community is enough.
When there is a father figure, why doesn’t dad do his own Stop and Search before his boy steps out on to the street? I know that if I lived in one of the affected areas, I couldn’t live with the thought that my boy might be armed and dangerous. I would have to satisfy myself.
Then there is the matter of policing the streets. If a cast iron assurance were to be extracted from every one of the forty-three constabularies in England and Wales that those twenty thousand cuts in police numbers would be reinstated on condition that every last one went into front line service, we could expect something quite dramatic. Even the peddling of drugs would take a severe hammering. The new officers swamping the streets would come to be seen as the nation’s protectors. They could be expected in their role to accumulate from a grateful populace veritable mountains of evidence as to where the baddies were hanging out. When arrests came, they should be processed in double quick time instead of the hours each arraignment presently takes. That in itself puts a lot of officers off making arrests.
Then we must reinstate the youth clubs and all the related facilities, which were so ubiquitous in former times. When a young person at a loose end leaves the house knowing that his mates are just down the road at the youth club, rather than hanging about on the street corner, he is much less likely to see someone he can pick a fight with to impress his peers.
Of course, so much of the downward spiral begins with school exclusions. While a disruptive pupil cannot be allowed to erode the life chances of his classmates, equally he must not feel that society has washed its hands of him, like in so many cases the father has. Funds must be made available to schools to manage such pupils in a positive and inclusive way. Being chucked out of school and bumping into classmates on the streets later is almost certain to foster a burning resentment that can only lead to trouble, as well as humiliation, for the one that society regarded as a reject. If he cannot gain acceptance anywhere, he will seek it from the last redoubt of what we unkindly regard as the loser: the gang. There he will set about burnishing his credentials by doing something dramatic. A killing in that world would do very nicely. One way or another, a young person will seek the respect of their peers, even if has to be gained at the point of a knife.
What is needed on the part of society is an intelligent and proactive response to all the issues. Compassion for what has gone wrong in the lives of the perpetrators should lie at the heart of it.
I recently visited the Little Harbour Children’s Hospice in Cornwall with my son, Grant, who has been giving his own time on weekends to teach staff and children how to use their new 3D printer.
Having spent my own childhood in care at the Foundling Hospital in more disciplinarian times, it was wonderful to see a real-life example of how childcare should be delivered. Unlike the children of my institution, who enjoyed good health in the main, tragically all of the young people passing through Little Harbour’s doors are afflicted with a range of life-limiting conditions. However, thanks to the love and dedication of the staff there, and the truly wonderful facilities and activities made available, these unfortunate children are enabled to live to the absolute full within the limitations of their conditions. The loving staff provide stimulating activities and organise daytrips for the children, and parents are able to stay there too for respite.
Little Harbour, along with many other children’s hospices, benefits from no state funding. The whole operation depends entirely on the generosity of members of the public. This generosity began at Little Harbour with a farmer who donated several of his precious acres to the cause of enhancing life-limited children’s quality of life.
I will be following this blog post up with a more in-depth look at the very fine work that takes place at Little Harbour, made possible by its many benefactors. In the meantime, if you are contemplating donating to a worthwhile cause, you really could do no better than Children’s Hospice South West.
Now that the Parliamentary Standards Committee has concluded that the allegedly sick Keith Vaz is restored to health, we hope it can get a move on in investigating his predilection for rent boys. He has, after all, been happily, and by all accounts healthily, swanning around the world while his case has been put on hold.
There never was, with the possible exception of Cyril Smith, a grosser example of a parliamentarian letting that august institution, his constituents and most of all his wife and family, down. The jury in this case can hardly be said to be out when there is video evidence to confirm the whole squalid affair.
Here is a middle-aged man who was assiduous in cultivating a caring, wholly decent image of himself while habitually engaging with young men barely out of their teens for sex. It’s ironic that the young men captured in the recordings were from the same country, Romania, that Vaz rushed to welcome off the plane in 2014 in that much-publicised photo op.
Every aspect of the case appals. The sex was unprotected so that, in selfishly gratifying himself, Vaz put at risk of life-threatening disease his unsuspecting wife. He lied about who he was, passing himself off as Jim, an industrial washing machine salesman. Then, in what I believe to be a serious criminal offence, he encouraged the youngsters to obtain Class A drugs, even offering to pay for them – as long as they hurried up as he declared himself anxious in the recordings to “get the party started”. That, in my book, is known as aiding and abetting.
Most of us want to believe that our parliamentary representatives are high-minded and honourable people. Certainly they like to be addressed as such. But what are we to make of a situation when, against all expectations, following the shocking revelations concerning him that weekend, Vaz nonchalantly and brazenly waltzed into the chamber of the House of Commons the next working day as though nothing had happened. Equally shocking was the reception he received. Instead of a hushed, disbelieving House, there were words of consolation and even back-patting. Were these from understanding and perhaps like-minded colleagues?
Vaz’s smarmy, polished mode of delivery speaks of someone anxious to be thought a thoroughly establishment, Anglicised figure. Unusually for someone born into a Muslim family, his father chose a galaxy of non-Muslim first names. Did dad think that his little boy would more easily gain acceptance by being called Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz? It’s clear Keith never felt any embarrassment as he carried the pretentions and posturing to new heights with his obsessive grandstanding, networking and search for the photo op.
Vaz represents a constituency with one of the highest proportion of Muslims in Britain, Leicester East. In the light of this new scandal, how do his constituents square their faith with their unwillingness to deselect an MP who has betrayed them so outrageously?
And let’s not forget that, as Vaz was engaging in sordid, illegal activities, he was chairing the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs while it was considering changes to the law relating to prostitution and drugs. Was there ever a case more screaming for the Mother of Parliaments to divest itself of an individual who has brought it into such disrepute? Judging from the welcome Vaz received that Monday morning in the Commons, it seems not.
As for that not-small-matter of the police ignoring prima facie evidence of ‘Aiding and Abetting’ a crime, is it that they’re running scared of going after a high-profile figure, especially if he’s not white, a Muslim and an MP? Does Vaz enjoy the same kind of immunity that has served rogue elements of his fellow Muslims so well in the sex grooming scandals in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford and Telford (and who knows where else)?
Amazingly, in view of all the many shenanigans of recent times starting with the expenses scandal, we still want to hold onto that long-standing belief that British parliamentarians are a cut above the rest: men and women with the highest of principles who believe in setting an example. But how can we hold onto these hopes when such a character as Vaz is still not only tolerated, but welcomed and indulged in parliament as “the Honourable Member for Leicester East”?
We are currently embarked on a route and branch investigation of sexual abuse in all its forms. We are also determined, once and for all, to deal with sexual exploitation of women and men in the workplace. One gets the impression that parliament would like, in its own case, for this nasty, criminal business concerning Vaz to go away. But we must not allow it. The man has taken us all for fools. We have allowed him to stretch the limits of our patience to an extraordinary extent. The time is long overdue to stop indulging him. The police should reopen its file, his Leicester East constituency party should examine itself and Parliament should get on with booting Vaz out.
For as long as politicians can guarantee the best for their own children, we will always have education inequality
Of all the great achievements of the post-war Labour government, the one, more than any other, which would have cemented its reputation as the greatest reforming government of all time would have been the abolition of privilege in education. If the rich and powerful knew that their sons and daughters depended on the state, they would pretty soon ensure that the same standards they themselves had enjoyed were established under the new dispensation. This would have been a major step in the direction of a more classless society.
That Labour failed to abolish private education following WWII – which many had begged it to do – is not a criticism of that heroic government. It was, quite simply, a bridge too far. All its other reforming zeal left it with insufficient headwind to tackle this greatest of all bastions of privilege. Had it done so, it should have included faith schools since education should only concern itself with empirical facts.
Britain will have to wait for its next cataclysmic event to enable it to deal with this most entrenched of all its inequalities. Only when the governing classes are themselves traumatised, along with the rest of us, will they yield this most precious of all their privileges. Then, and only then, will we be close to enjoying equal opportunities.
Meantime we must pray that the traumatic event required does not extend to another world war, such as before the great Labour government reforms, or a financial crash of the sort that 2008 threatened, which might very well have been 1929 all over again but for the great engine of Far East growth. But, just the same, it will have to be something quite dramatic.
While we wait, the political classes should make good on their constantly trumpeted willingness to send their own offspring to the country’s state schools. It is rank hypocrisy for the politicos of both the Right and Left to extol the virtues of state schooling, while at the same time lambasting the private sector in the process, and then go on to send their own children to fee-paying schools. Great numbers have done this, including one of Labour’s shrillest advocates for social justice, Diane Abbott. The fact she represents one of London’s most deprived boroughs, Hackney, didn’t stop her sending her son to a private school.
There is, too, something deeply troubling about the numbers who make it to the top, be it in politics, the military, the judiciary, the Civil Service, finance and business, who were once part of the Oxbridge set up. That needs also to be urgently examined. Elitism seems to be at the very heart of Britain’s privileged classes, almost as though it is in their DNA. It’s the ‘Old Boys’ network writ large. A closed shop par excellence.