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December 31, 2011

The truth about Auld Lang Syne

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Update from the Telegraph: London on New Year's Eve

The Wall Street Journal tries to discover the true origins of Auld Lang Syne:

'The archaic sound of the Lowland Scots phrases—we twa hae run about the braes/ and pu't the gowans fine—gives it the ring of something both ancient and familiar. . .[But] to the millions who sing it on the midnight passage from one year to the next, the words of Auld Lang Syne remain as cryptic as the melody is ubiquitous.

In 1793, Burns sent the text of Auld Lang Syne to Thomson, presenting it as "the old Song of the olden times, & which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript, until I took it down from an old man singing." . . .It is probable that Burns rewrote a fragment he had heard on his travels. The wistful remembrance of friends and lovers past maps well onto Burns's biography: the childhood friends he left behind; the stormy relationship with a certain Clorinda, which ended with her move to Jamaica; the death of his Highland Mary.

But to claim authorship of the poem would have lessened its authenticity in the eyes of Burns, who relished his reputation as a heaven-taught ploughman. . .[on] an aesthetic and a political mission'. . .

The haunting stratspey dance tune (stratspey is a slow Scottish dance) carries the scent of gowans - wild daisies, the memory of dear friends faraway, and the happiness of the friend raising the cup of kindness with you now. Whatever its origins, Auld Lang Syne is simultaneously melancholy and joyous, just like New Year's Eve, just like our lives.

May 2012 be a very good year for you.

Charles Dickens - good on paper, great on screen

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James Delingpole's take.

December 29, 2011

Britain's future lies where?

Despite a misleading WSJ headline, Anglophiles Iain Murray and Jim Bennett suggest that Britain’s Future Lies With America and the British Commonwealth, not Europe.

'The European Economic Community (EEC) for which the British signed up in a 1975 referendum—a community of free trade and cooperation, not supranational bureaucracy—is long gone. Worse, even today’s less-palatable EU will soon no longer be on offer. Sometime in the next few years at most, Britain will likely face the choice between immersion in a powerful centralized European mega-state and full exit.

. . .Alone among EEC members, Britain narrowed some of its major trade networks when it joined. It also traded ordinary Britons' right to virtually bureaucracy-free movement, temporary or permanent, between the U.K. and British Commonwealth nations. This meant losing easy access to prosperous places like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which enjoy plentiful jobs and high standards of living, for the largely theoretical right to take a job in Düsseldorf or Lille. While much trust was lost between Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth because of this move, strong personal, cultural and economic ties remain and could be revived. Ask the average Briton where he'd feel more at home, Paris or Toronto.

Canada and Australia have well-managed, vibrant economies. Both countries sit on huge deposits of natural resources of ever-increasing value. Britain's top-tier financial sector and still-excellent technical capabilities already play a role in Canada's economy. These ties could be much strengthened. . .'

One problem is the current US Administration, which loves bail-outs and bankers, and is pushing Britain to stay in the EU. Another problem is the BBC, which for years has refused to address the costs of EU membership for the British people. Still another problem are so-called historians who claim that the EU has kept peace in Europe for the last 50 years, when it was actually the US and Britain, holding back the USSR and rebuilding Europe after the Second World War. Still another problem is the myopic British politician. . .It's a pity there are so many problems, but the problems could all be swept away by imaginative and courageous public-spirited men and women.

Link thanks to Instapundit.

December 28, 2011

House Tales

The Telegraph has a property piece on houses which makes me want to visit:

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Image: Peffermill House

'With a thick armour of ivy clinging to its ancient stone façade and its fairy-tale tower, Peffermill House, just to the south of Edinburgh, looks almost too enchanting to be real. The beauty of the house, which was built in 1636, certainly ensnared Sir Walter Scott' while he was working on Midlothian.

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Image: Winterbourne House

'I have taken the most delightful and beautiful house — cool, airy, private bathing, everything delicious,” Dickens wrote of Winterbourne House, with its views of the Channel from the Isle of Wight. 'I think it is the prettiest place I ever saw in my life at home or abroad.' He is said to have worked on David Copperfield while here.

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Image: Shakespeare House, Grendon Underwood

There is a house associated with Shakespeare in Grendon Underwood. It was once the Ship Inn, and the London News of 1847 claimed that Shakespeare 'would take a pit stop there' while travelling from London to Stratford. 'Local legend has it that one night he found there were no rooms available and was forced to sleep in the porch of the village church, where he ran foul of the village policeman. And thus was born the character of the bumbling officer Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing.' If so, a most fortuitous meeting, with Dogberry bestowing all his 'tedious' riches on us.

Britain has many romantic and charming houses, and many of those houses have tales. . .

Transcribing the King James Bible by hand

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Phillip Patterson has spent the last four years transcribing the King James Bible by hand, all 921,820 words. He has continued despite an illness which has brought him to the brink of death. If he has to, he works in his bed. When he can, Phillip works outside. Image by Laura Glazer

We wrote about the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, at the beginning of 2011. This story seemed like a good way to end for it reflects the interest in the King James Bible outside Britain, and contains an end and a beginning.

In an entry published in St. Peter's Press, the monthly newsletter of St. Peter's Presbyterian Church in Spencertown, New York, which he attends, Phillip wrote:

For many of us the waning days of winter have not simply been filled with difficult weather but full of personal turmoil as well. There were moments when my own soul was too weak to find the strength to write from my King James Bible. Thus I had failed to recall that the Bible is a strength unto itself.

Then on a forgiving afternoon I found myself turning the few pages of Lamentations. There my eyes casually fell upon a verse that read Thou drewest near in the day that I called upon thee: thou saidest fear not. I believed those words and began to write again. I cannot say that all my trials are behind me. Nonetheless, I am assured that there is solace before me.

The King James Bible has infused Phillip's own words with music. It has been infusing English literature with spirit and music for 400 years.

He hopes to live long enough to write the luminous last line: The grace of our lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

December 27, 2011

Conflict between the material and the spiritual?

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Marley's Ghost, dragging a chain of money boxes, confronts his old friend Scrooge. Illustration by John Leech, a member of the Punch Brotherhood, 1843.

Andrew Lambirth writes about John Leech, a friend of Dickens and an illustrator of his books, in this charming and inspiring Spectator essay. The material and spiritual worlds seem to be in conflict today - perhaps as great a conflict as they have ever been in. But neither Christianity nor Dickens support that conflict (nor do we) and consequently I was taken with this graph in Lambirth's piece:

Scrooge is the embodiment of accountability: his behaviour can alter society for better or for worse, and the book’s conclusion is so heartening because his personal redemption means the improvement of the condition of others. The material is not opposed to the spiritual in the book, only the wrong attitude to material things is shown to be harmful. When matter and spirit work together, the outcome is seen to be joyful. In part Dickens’s tale of a redeemed miser is effective because he himself understood so clearly the power of money, being a self-made man from an impoverished background.

The material is not opposed to the spiritual. . .only the wrong attitude to material things is shown to be harmful. When matter and spirit work together, the outcome is seen to be joyful.

That, I think, is profoundly right.

December 26, 2011

The Queen's Christmas Message

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The Queen's Christmas message was wonderful.

Accompanied by many images from around the world as she spoke, The Queen was inspired by the 'remarkable resilience of the human spirit' and how the people of communities facing terrible adversity reached out to help each other. She spoke happily of the friendship which after great sorrow and forgiveness has blossomed between the United Kingdom and Ireland and of the 53 nations of the Commonwealth.

She spoke of the joys of family and paid tribute to the Armed Forces and their families. And she infused all this with the radiance of her concluding words:

Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: 'Fear not', they urged, 'we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

'For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.'

Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves - from our recklessness or our greed.

God sent into the world a unique person - neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God's love.

In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there's a prayer:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin

And enter in.

Be born in us today.

It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas."

December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas to every reader

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Bring in the holly,

the ivy, the pine,

the spruce & the fir tree

together entwine

-Old English Carol

May your Christmas be sweet and merry, full of light and kindness of heart.

December 23, 2011

David Cameron pays tribute to Czech freedom hero Vaclav Havel

Thank you.

December 20, 2011

In the frosty season

And in the frosty season, when the sun

Was set, and visible for many a mile

The cottage windows through the twilight blazed,

I heeded not their summons. Clear and loud

The village clock tolled six; I wheeled about

Proud and exulting, like an untired horse

That cares not for his home. All shod with steel

We hissed along the polished ice in games

Confederate, imitative of the chase

And woodland pleasures, the resounding horn,

The pack loud bellowing, and the hunted hare.

So through the darkness and the cold we flew,

And not a voice was idle. With the din,

Meanwhile, the precipices rang aloud;

The leafless trees and every icy crag

Tinkled like iron; while the distant hills

Into the tumult sent an alien sound

Of melancholy, not unnoticed, while the stars,

Eastward, were sparkling clear, and in the west

The orange sky of evening died away.


from The Prelude by William Wordsworth

What a marvellous description. The sunset, the cold, the skaters hissing through the dark. . .

Wordsworth moved poetry out of the 18th century and into 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. . .recollected in tranquility'.

Childhood reflections are not always tranquil, but they occur in tranquility, I think, often in a suspended moment when the call of a bird at dusk or an old school cap transports us into the past. . .

An open letter from Frederick Forsyth CBE to German Chancellor Angel Merkel

In the Daily Express:

Dear Madam Chancellor,

. . .In my 20s I was posted as a foreign correspondent to East Germany in 1963, when you would have been a schoolgirl just north of East Berlin where I lived.

I know Germany, Frau Merkel, from the alleys of Hamburg to the spires of Dresden, from the Rhine to the Oder, from the bleak Baltic coast to the snows of the Bavarian Alps. I say this only to show you that I am neither ignoramus nor enemy.

I also had occasion in those years to visit the many thousands of my countrymen who held the line of the Elbe against 50,000 Soviet main battle tanks and thus kept Germany free to recover, modernise and prosper at no defence cost to herself.

And from inside the Cold War I saw our decades of effort to defeat the Soviet empire and set your East Germany free.

I was therefore disappointed last Friday to see you take the part of a small and vindictive Frenchman in what can only be seen as a targeted attack on the land of my fathers.

We both know that every country has at least one aspect of its society or economy that is so crucial, so vital that it simply cannot be conceded.

For Germany it is surely your automotive sector, your car industry.

Any foreign-sourced measure to target German cars and render them unsaleable would have to be opposed to vetopoint by a German chancellor.

For France it is the agricultural sector. For more than 50 years members of the EU have been taxed under the terms of the Common Agricultural Policy in order to subsidise France’s agriculture. Indeed, the CAP has been the cornerstone of every EU budget since the first day.

Attack it and France fights back.

For us the crucial corner of our economy is the financial services industry. Although parts of it exist all over the country it is concentrated in that part of London known even internationally as “the City”.

It is not just a few greedy bankers; we both have those but the City is far more. It is indeed a vast banking agglomeration of more banks than anywhere else in the world.

But that is the tip of the iceberg. Also in the City is the world’s greatest concentration of insurance companies.

Add to that the brokers; traders in stocks and shares worldwide, second only, and then maybe not, to Wall Street. But it is not just stocks.

The City is also home to the “exchanges” of gold and precious metals, diamonds, base metals, commodities, futures, derivatives, coffee, cocoa… the list goes on and on.

And it does not yet touch upon shipping, aviation, fuels, energy, textiles… enough. Suffice to say the City is the biggest and busiest marketplace in the world.

It makes the Paris Bourse look like a parish council set against the United Nations and even dwarfs your Frankfurt many times.

That, surely, is the point of what happened in Brussels. The French wish to wreck it and you seem to have agreed. Its contribution to the British economy is not simply useful nor even merely valuable.

It is absolutely crucial. The financial services industry contributes 10 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product and 17.5 per cent of our taxation revenue.

A direct and targeted attack on the City is an attack on my country. But that, although devised in Paris, is what you have chosen to support.

You seem to have decided that Britain is once again Germany’s enemy, a situation that has not existed since 1945.

I deeply regret this but the choice was yours and entirely yours. The Transaction Tax or Tobin Tax you reserve the right to impose would not even generate money for Brussels.

It would simply lead to massive emigration from London to other havens.

. . .This would not help Brussels, it would simply help destroy the British economy.

Your conference did not even save the euro. Permit me a few home truths about it. The euro is a Franco-German construct.

It was a German chancellor (Kohl) who ordered a German banker (Karl Otto Pohl) to get together with a French civil servant (Delors) on the orders of a French president (Mitterrand) and create a common currency.

Which they did. IT was a flawed construct. Like a ship with a twisted hull it might float in calm water but if it ever hit a force eight it would probably founder.

Even then it might have worked for it was launched with a manual of rules, the Growth And Stability Pact. If the terms of that book of rules had been complied with the Good Ship Euro might have survived.

But compliance was entrusted to the European Central Bank which catastrophically failed to insist on that compliance.

Rules governing the growing of cucumbers are more zealously enforced.

This was a European Bank in a German city under a French president and it failed in its primary, even its sole, duty.

This had everything to do with France and Germany and nothing whatever to do with Britain.

Yet in Brussels last week the EU pack seemed intent only on venting its spleen on the country that wisely refused to abolish its pound.

. . .the euro will not be saved. It is crumbling now. And since you have now turned against my country, from this side of the Channel, Madame Chancellor, one can only say of the Euro:

YOU MADE IT, YOU MEND IT.

Frederick Forsyth

Forsyth was one of the youngest pilots in the RAF. Later a foreign journalist for the BBC, he became the author of best sellers such as The Day of the Jackal.

December 19, 2011

Courage

We waited for Peter Hitchens to write about his brother Christopher, who has recently died.

Peter has now written in Memoriam in the Daily Mail, where he is a regular columnist. There were many things Peter and Christopher intensely disagreed about, and many things we intensely disagreed about with Christopher Hitchens, but this is something worth quoting about Christopher:

Here’s a thing I will say now without hesitation, unqualified and important. The one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’. By this I don’t mean the lack of fear which some people have, which enables them to do very dangerous or frightening things because they have no idea what it is to be afraid. I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it.

Yes, that is what we want: . . .a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it.

Preparing for Christmas

Canterbury Cathedral and lit Christmas tree at night with nativity creche

Christmas celebrates the moment when God became a man and lived among men. Men and women who follow His teachings of love know themselves and every person to be valued by God. They believe in the fundamental dignity and equality of each individual. If a person needs help, they reach out a helping hand. Or so we hope.

The birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has been celebrated in Britain for at least sixteen hundred years.

Ancient winter solstice traditions of holly, firelight, and feasts were united with Christmas carols, candlelit Christmas services, Christmas giving and Christmas feasts to celebrate the coming of the Christ child and the opening of human hearts to love. These British traditions have wreathed the world:

BRITISH CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS

Christmas cards

Children and tree on Christmas card

A Brit invented the first printed Christmas card in 1843, the same year that Dickens published A Christmas Carol. The first card in the world showed a happy family raising a festive glass, while side scenes showed the family clothing and feeding people in need. The man who commissioned the card was Sir Henry Cole, the founder of the Victoria & Albert Museum. The painter was John Calcott Horsely. Printed in black and white and then coloured by hand, 1,000 cards were produced for "Old King" Cole.

But the tradition didn't take off until Christmas 1862 when printer Charles Goodall produced a simple card with the words A Merry Christmas.

All credit to the Postal Service for delivering barrowloads of mail efficiently. (And to Rowland Hill for inventing and spearheading the world's first adhesive postage stamp and a uniform postal charge.)

Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols at night in Haworth

Image: Haworth, Beautiful Britain

Among the carols Brits wrote and still sing:

Angels We Have Heard on High

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

Deck the Halls

O Come, All Ye Faithful

Joy to the World

In the Bleak Midwinter

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Good King Wenceslas look'd out

Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, is heard at St Paul's Cathedral, London:

Lessons & Lessons and Carols are held at almost every church and cathedral in Britain, carols are sung everywhere, indoors and outdoors; and Christmas Eve carol services fill the night before Christmas with song, releasing listeners into the starry beauty of Christmas, even when it's raining. The spirit of the English cathedral choir has travelled abroad. . .

Boys choir in red and white robes

Image: Episcopal Church of the Redeemer Church, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

Scrooge

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"Bah, humbug!" shouted Scrooge. Then he was visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future. . .

Image: Bristol's Tobacco Factory Theatre production

The idea for A Christmas Carol came to Dickens like “a bright, clear jet of light” and he wrote at a white heat, finishing the book in less than two months as "he wept over it, laughed, and then wept again". (So wrote Les Standiford, author of The Man Who Invented Christmas.)

The result is a phenomenon of insight, power, passion, and Christmas delight. Dickens sent out presentation copies on December 17th, 1843. (The official release date was the 19th.)

By December 22nd, he had sold every copy. A Christmas Carol has been a bestseller for 150 years, and has been adapted for film, theatre, and television.

The story evokes almost every British Christmas tradition, especially the one Dickens considered the beating pulse of Christmas. . .reaching out to others with love, cherishing children, particularly children in want, and living with joy.

Christmas Panto

Panto

Image: Richard Wilson Archive. Richard Wilson is on the right.

December finds giddy children and their parents at festive pantomimes. On stage, actors in big wigs and hats and gaudy costumes – with the occasional man decked out as a woman and a woman masquerading as a man – deliver saucy send-ups of fairy tales while bounding on and off stage, singing, and imploring the audience to respond. Audiences giggle, clap, shouts warning, laugh and roar.

Christmas Eve service

Christmas Eve at Salisbury Cathedral /Image: The Anglican Communion

Christmas Eve & Christmas Day Services

The reading for the Christmas Day Service is always 1 John 4:7-16: My dear friends, let us love one another, because the source of love is God. . .

It has been said that God's voice can be heard in the birth of Jesus like a beating heart, a heart beating gently, sending us one simple message: 'Will you receive Him? Will you receive?'

Christmas Dinner & Christmas Pudding

Carrying in the flaming Christmas pudding

Christmas Dinner follows the Christmas Day Service. Pull your Christmas cracker with a bang, and put on a paper crown. The menu is beef, lamb or fowl (with substitutes for vegetarians), hot chestnuts, red apples, luscious pears, mince pies, "seething bowls of punch", trifle, and Christmas pudding.

Made a month before Christmas, usually on the first Sunday in Advent, Christmas Pudding makes a flamboyant appearance at the end of dinner. Blazing in brandy, decorated with Christmas holly, Christmas pudding looks, in the words of Charles Dickens, "like a speckled cannon ball".

Taking a walk on Christmas Day

St Cross

Image: Adrian Harvey, The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty

Whether you are in the country or the city, visiting friends or family, with a dog or without, a walk follows dinner on Christmas Day. Those who decline are sure to repine.

Yule log burning in old fireplace

Burning the Yule log. Before central heating, when heat was provided only by fires, the Yule Log was a fine log to burn.

Messiah!

Handel came to Britain to earn a living, became a British subject, and worked feverishly to complete Messiah, which received its first performance on April 13th 1742 in Dublin. The proceeds went to support local hospitals.

Messiah is immensely popular in America, and is usually performed during Advent as a pre-Christmas concert. Everyone jumps to their feet during the Hallelujah chorus at the end of Part II. (The 200-year-old tradition is said to have begun when George II rose to his feet as the first triumphant notes of the Hallelujah Chorus rang out, and the whole audience stood with him.)

During Part III, a pure and heartbreakingly beautiful song floats into the air: I know that my Redeemer liveth. . .

Bethany College, West Virginia, has only 900 students, but its choir pours its heart into the Hallelujah Chorus, as did the Shawford and Compton Choir and many others all across Britain.

Little boy smiling in Christmas box

Image: Beautiful Britain

"I don't know what to do!" cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoön of himself with his stockings. "I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to every-body! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!"

December 17, 2011

A generous time

A few years ago, Cold Play frontman Chris Martin was busy with the stopcocks and cisterns of a temporary shelter for alcoholics run by Crisis. (Daily Express, 21 December 2007). A Crisis spokesperson who declined to comment said: 'We have 7,000 volunteers helping at Christmas.'

The British people are among the most generous people in the world. They have established thousands of trusts and given hundreds of millions of pounds to teach and feed children, help alcoholics, stop cruelty to animals, preserve the countryside, establish art museums, rescue the injured, and treat disease at home and abroad.

Love and charity, forgiveness and trust, making children happy, sharing good times with friends - these are some of the essential lessons that Jesus taught and that many Britons have followed for hundreds of years.

In 2006, in her annual Christmas message on Christmas Day, The Queen said: 'A familiar introduction to an annual Christmas Carol Service contains the words: Because this would most rejoice His heart.

She asked us to remember, 'In His name, the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and those who mourn, the lonely and the unloved. . .each one of us can. . .help'.


Speak up for Christianity, PM says

At an event to mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, Prime Minister David Cameron said: ‘We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.

'The Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today. Values and morals we should actively stand up and defend.'

[Our book, Share the Inheritance, does defend these values. See sidebar. -ED]

The PM continued: ‘Whether you look at the riots last summer, the financial crash and the expenses scandal or the on-going terrorist threat from Islamist extremists around the world, one thing is clear, moral neutrality or passive tolerance just isn’t going to cut it any more.'

Or, as St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians urged: 'Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.'

And speak of them.

December 16, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jane

And many are the happy returns to her readers!

December 15, 2011

Happy Bill of Rights Day to Brits and Americans

By the 18th century, men and women in Britain had struggled for more than a thousand years to affirm these rights—

The freedom to own and sell property
The right to habeas corpus and to trial by jury
The right not to be fined excessively or punished cruelly
The right to be silent under interrogation
The right to speak freely
The right to your house, free of government searches or seizure—‘your home is your castle’
The right to petition your government
The right not to have soldiers quartered in your home
The right to bear arms.

As we've noted in our book, the Americans who fought for freedom were British subjects. Many of their ancestors had arrived in America from Britain. In the run-up to the American Revolution, Americans told the Lord Mayor of London that they were fighting for "the bright inheritance of English freedom".

So it's not surprising that the rights listed above became part of the US Constitution as the Bill of Rights. There were a few other key amendments, such as the 10th Amendment, which affirmed that powers not designated to the federal government belonged to the people and the states.

On December 15th 1791, the US Constitution was amended with the Bill of Rights. We think it's a day to celebrate. Brits may be pleased that Americans took their inspiration seriously, and carefully wrote out the rights for which Brits had fought for more than ten centuries.

Let's not forget them.

We edit and post this piece every year.

'Eurocrats no longer trouble to disguise their loathing for Britain'

And for democracy.

Always good to know what people really think.

'Sir David Attenborough is a wonder of the world'

Agreed.

December 14, 2011

High Flight

The other day, we posted 'The eyes of the country', about the Royal . The poem we found affixed to the old Royal Observers' post in Upham was by John Magee, the son of an American father and a British mother working as missionaries in China. John was born in Shanghai in 1922. He was educated at Rugby School from 1935 to 1939, and won the Poetry Prize, just as Rupert Brooke had three decades previously. Magee was moved by the roll of honour which listed the names of Rugby students who had fallen in the First World War. Visiting America in 1939, he was unable to find a return passage to Britain due to the outbreak of the Second World War. So in 1940 he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1941, he reached England.

With the RAF he learned to fly Spitfires. He flew fighter sweeps over France and air defense over England against the German Luftwaffe, and rose to the rank of Pilot Officer. Test-flying a new Spitfire above 30,000 feet in the summer of 1941, he was struck with inspiration. When he reached the ground, he wrote the sonnet High Flight.

Three months later, while descending through clouds, Magee was killed in a mid-air collision. Carried by the pilots of his squadron, he was laid to rest. His poem, which he had sent to his parents on the back of a letter, survived:

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .


Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

New life: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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Image: Chris Watt

Good news: The exuberant late Victorian building in Chambers Street designed by Sir Robert Rowland Anderson houses the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which was founded in 1889.

Recently the historic interiors were restored to their original glory, and 17 well-lit new galleries have been added to showcase 3,000 paintings and sculptures, 25,000 prints and drawings and 38,000 historic and modern photographs. . .

Terrific Scotsmen and women are featured.

Teasing glimpses of 'the God particle', a Higgs boson

From the Telegraph:

The Higgs Boson is vital for scientific understanding of how matter and forces work at the fundamental level.

Currently, the equations that so beautifully describe the building blocks of our Universe are spoiled when we try to give particles mass – the property that stops most particles from travelling at the speed of light.

A nifty mathematical trick proposed by Peter Higgs (and others, including some from Imperial College London) some fifty years ago allows us to have massive particles, but there’s a catch: if it really is how nature works, there should be a Higgs boson (called the God particle), which we can see in our experiments.

Recently there were teasing glimpses of the boson at the Large Hadron Collider’s two giant detectors. Those who believe in God can't help but thinking that the 'God particle' may be very difficult to find for a beautiful and paradoxical truth lies concealed in the universe.

December 13, 2011

The eyes of their country

We've had a few injuries which have kept us quiet. Before they occurred, we walked through Upham, in Hampshire. We were supposed to eat in the Brushmakers Arms, but instead headed uphill to a football game between Upham's team and the Crusaders. Intense English shouts from the field as the game was played with passion. We passed an injured Crusader, his bare foot (spiked in the ankle) was bare and bound and up on the bench and his arms were around his young son. He seemed insouciant. Behind the football field were bare winter fields and a wide 360-degree view of hills and valleys. Far south, just visible, a shining line marked the Isle of Wight and further west, Southampton. A clump of trees at the very top of the fields marked a Royal Observer Corps station. Here civilian volunteers, perhaps the grandfathers of the young men playing football, spent 24 hours a day intently watching the sky for Luftwaffe planes during the Second World War.

As you know, the British radar defence system was able to warn of enemy aircraft approaching the British coast, but once having crossed the coastline, the Observer Corps provided the only means of tracking their position.

As soon as enemy planes were spotted, their height was measured, their numbers counted, their direction noted, and the type of airplane identified, and these and other details were immediately passed on to the RAF, which sent its young men speeding into the air to stop the enemy.

Without the eyes of these volunteers, the Battle of Britain would have been lost, the Nazis would have invaded, and the young men playing football might never have been born.

It doesn't seem surprising that the Plane Finder app, which allows users to point their phone at the sky and see the position, height and speed of nearby aircraft, was developed by a British firm for the iPhone and Android. Unfortunately, security firms are concerned that terrorists may use the app.

Listening to the late afternoon shouts of the young men defending against a goal, we remember their grandfathers, and wonder what dangers their grandsons will face.

December 12, 2011

The Donmar swan song of Michael Grandage CBE

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The Donmar Theatre:

Michael Grandage's swan song as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse Theatre is entirely apposite to his decade-long tenure, for "Richard II" shows Shakespeare's king come to maturity, giving up his crown with grace. Since succeeding Sam Mendes in 2002, Mr. Grandage has added continued luster to the Donmar, and made theater history with production after production.

This "Richard II," which he directs, is no exception. Richard Kent's gilded Gothic set is extraordinarily beautiful, and is made both awesome and mysterious by David Plater's lighting, while Adam Cork's music is unobtrusively moving—culminating in a passage where the king, imprisoned in "Pomfret" (Pontefract) Castle, seems to hear a vague melody and sings in quiet harmony and peace.

A decade seems a very short span, but Grandage has immense achievements and plans.

December 10, 2011

Another view on Britain's veto and the EU

The view is not necessarily ours, but it is persuasive: Nigel Farage.

Science is a delight

From the Telegraph:

"Are you ready to go wild about photosynthesis?” asks Robin Ince, a 42-year-old comedian, storming on to a Manchester stage more used to hosting rock concerts. The near-capacity crowd of 3,000 – including families, students and at least one person wearing a “Particle physics gives me a hadron” T shirt – duly start whooping and shouting.

Over the next three and a half hours they’re treated to an eclectic smorgasbord of entertainment, including numerous maths jokes; a lecture about statistical bias in the pharmaceutical industry; a song about cryogenic freezing; a tribute to the Apollo space missions and a slideshow about the origins of the universe. The evening is rounded off by an Australian comedian singing about Christmas, accompanied on the piano by a Fellow of the Royal Society.

It should be an absolute car crash. . .

But it's not. They're touring England. I'm happy so many people are interested in science. There's no reason it can't be amusing as well as inspiring and challenging.

We think of the boundless curiosity of the Royal Society's founders and their exuberance and how much of science has been engaged in 'the relief of man's estate' - the rebuilding of London, clean water, warm houses, the exploration of the New World, the development of disease-resistant wheat. . .

We'd like to laugh with delight. We are very grateful.

Britain vs EU update

Following PM David Cameron's rejection of the new EU "treaty", Der Spiegel: 'QUESTIONS THE LEGALITY of a separate Euro treaty'.

The Telegraph reports: “"The plan by France and Germany to build a separate fiscal union after Britain blocked changes to the European Union’s treaty is an 'abuse of power', according to confidential legal advice. . ."

Most crushing: The financial markets are unimpressed: "Sanctions against fiscal offenders. . .will have no legally binding character and could be revoked following the election of a new government. 'Is this really going to impress the markets?' asked an official."

The answer appears to be no. Last night "Italian 10 year bonds closed at 6.83%, Greek at 32.62%, Portugal at 13.16% all in bail out territory! French bonds were over 1% more expensive than UK gilts".

Monsieur Sarkozy and Frau Merkel have no real financial experience, do they?

December 09, 2011

Britain isolated?

If “isolated" means staying well clear of the clumsy and ultimately undemocratic eurozone project, that’s a damn good place to be.

Cameron blocks EU changes that threaten Britain

Hooray! Kudos. Thanks be.

This morning's news will be a shock to those used to hearing British prime ministers threaten a veto but never use it. As William Hague said earlier, the Prime Minister has done exactly what he said he would do: block a proposal that threatens Britain.

Janet Daley: I offer my unreserved apologies to David Cameron. The man came good after all. He stood up for Britain in a way that many of us had begun to think we would never see again.

UPDATE: There was reason: "The events of the past 12 hours have exposed a truth that many chose to ignore, namely that in its relentless pursuit of its national interest, France's strategic objective has been to drive the UK to the margins – if not out of the EU – and to destroy the City."

Charles Dickens: 'Our mutual friend'

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Julia Klein writes in the WSJ:

A1987 New Yorker cartoon at the Morgan Library & Museum suggests just how thoroughly Charles Dickens and his works have penetrated American culture. A publisher, perusing a manuscript, presses the author to clarify the famous opening line of A Tale of Two Cities: "I wish you would make up your mind, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both."

Well, yes, laughter aside, it can be both.

The Morgan Library has readied an exhibit to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.

His last novel, rescued from a train collision after he had helped to rescue passengers, was called Our Mutual Friend.

Charles Dickens is the mutual friend of every appreciative reader.

December 07, 2011

Jane Austen and PD James in Death Comes to Pemberley

From the review of the new PD James mystery:

The Darcys, now parents of two young sons, have settled into a life of happiness as master and mistress of Pemberley, the Darcy estate. But a gathering Napoleonic storm threatens peace on the Continent and possibly even the Darcys' own enclave. As Elizabeth reflects: "Here we sit at the beginning of a new century, citizens of the most civilised country in Europe, surrounded by the splendour of its craftsmanship, its art and the books which enshrine its literature, while outside there is another world which wealth and education and privilege can keep from us, a world in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world. Perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay for ever."

Drinking the 'poisoned cup' of the Old Vic

And flourishing.

After some early failures, Kevin Spacey has programmed successful, epic plays for the Old Vic's grand theatre, built a new space for smaller productions (in the old Victorian tunnels underneath Waterloo Station), and nurtured new talent via the Old Vic's New Voices program. He is currently starring as Richard III.

The Old Vic has had several dramatic incarnations, and name changes, but Shakespeare has been performed on its boards since 1824.

"Casting bullets from the family silver"

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We are back from work and travels. Looking round us, we found, in an essay written by Isak Dinesen, something of what we feel about England. Shortly after the end of the Second World War, the author of Out of Africa travelled to England:

I flew from Copenhagen to London in perfectly calm weather through a supernatural interplay of blue and violet colours, with an Alpine landscape of white clouds beneath me. The plane moved as if we were speeding down a highway in the air. . .

Suddenly the clouds parted and far below us was green land: England. It was still here.

I was travelling with my brother who, in the First World War, served as a private in the English army. I turned to him and said, 'It's England!' He laughed, and when I saw his face I wanted to ask him, 'Why do you look that way?' But he, at the same moment, looked at me, and said, 'Why do you look that way?'

As we flew on over the landscape with great groups of trees, church-towers, and houses beneath us, I asked him, 'What does this reunion with England mean to you? What does England signify?' He thought for a moment and replied, 'Self-restraint'. As for myself if I had to find a single word for what England signfies to me, it would have to be 'freedom'. Not merely in a political sense, but freedom to be a human being, to have leeway, to have a margin in life - freedom of movement, even where severe laws and rules must be kept. Would I now, I considered, seeing the country again, find this condition changed?

We have all read and heard about the ruins in England. I shall not describe them here. They are far more extensive than I had thought. . .

. . .Under a profound impression of the proximity of the ages, of the unity of past and future, I recall an old Scandinavian proverb: When there is a really dangerous animal on the prowl and the usual weapons fail, then one must cast bullets of the family silver, that is, of silver which has been inherited from father to son and grandson [and from grandmother to daughter and granddaughter]. There have been dangerous animals on the prowl here; some of them are still about. It is time we go to our chests and see what we have left in the way of family silver. . .From 'Reunion with England', Daguerreotypes

There is no doubt that England faces grave dangers today. The family silver does not have to be cast into bullets. Its worth needs to be known, and used, not thrown away.

It will seem immodest to say so, but the family silver is described in our book Share the Inheritance (see sidebar).

December 05, 2011

A meditation on cars and capitalism

By Boris Johnson.

Funny and sound, in its way. Missing the largest thing, which alters everything.

December 03, 2011

Secrets of The Queen's greatest treasures

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One of them is this painting of Queen Victoria, which was considered so intimate only Victoria and her husband Albert saw it.

The portrait saw the light of day in 1977, and is in our masthead. One reason we admire Victoria is that in 1863 she promised that the Indian Civil Service would be open to any applicant regardless of colour. And so it was. Satyendernath Tagore was the first of a number of Indians to pass the exam, and became one of the 'Incorruptibles'.

The BBC will examine the treasures and their histories.

'Castle creepers'

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Image: John Spinks for the WSJ

A revealing story from the Wall Street Journal.

Music rising

We mentioned Britain's brilliant choirs the other day.

I wanted to add that in November the Winchester College Glee Club and Quiristers, the Winchester Music Club (our friend Di among them), and the Winchester Music Club Orchestra under the direction of Winchester College conductor Nicholas Wilks sang Verdi's Requiem with four outstanding British soloists.

Di had been rushing off to Requiem rehearsals for weeks. On the night, the Cathedral was packed. Amateur voices, children's voices, professional voices, local orchestra members and brass fanfares created a glorious, breath-taking Requiem.

'. . .as the sound reverberated around the cathedral, one half expected to see the ancient Saxon kings rising from their thousand-year sleep. . .'

Community enterprises like this make Britain wonderful.

December 02, 2011

In praise of brilliant British choirs

Yes.

Wherever you are.

What does an Englishman do when he has to prepare Christmas dinner for 18 in the Pyrenees?

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He stirs up Christmas puddings then moves forward to bake Christmas cakes.

A report from Ireland

Not Britain, of course, but Ireland and the Irish people are dear to the British people.

Now more than ever, to look at the Irish situation is to look into a mirror.

Appalling. Instructive. Note the comments.

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