Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Reflections on the death of the Dowager Marchioness of Anglesey, died 21st Jan 2017

For four decades I have been a devoted follower of Vera Brittain, as earlier posts in this blog will testify. 

Yesterday, I happened upon the wonderful free archive called Soundcloud, on which is to be found a 90 minute discussion held at The London School of Economics.  The two guests were Vera Brittain's biographer, and her daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams.

Shirley Williams is now 86 years old, (born July 1930), and speaks as forcefully and lucidly as she ever did.  The discussion was wide-ranging, and, as might be expected in a lecture programme which is named after the controversial Marxist philosopher Ralph Miliband (father of David and Ed),  drew some biting questions, the most critical of which had nothing to do with Vera Brittain.  Shirley replied astutely, calmly, and politely to all questions asked of her.

Shirley, now a member of the House of Lords in her own right, was educated at St Paul's Girls' School, then, as now, an elite private institution, and at Oxford.  This was a privileged education, notwithstanding that her father, George Catlin, stood in the 1920's and 1930's again and again as a prospective Labour Member of Parliament, and is acknowledged by Shirley as a greater influence on her political thinking than was her mother.

I find it quite taxing to ponder this question of elites.  Another female who has served the public in many roles and would appear, on the face of it, to be a member of an elite, has died recently.

Today, in The Times, (which unfortunately is behind a paywall), I read the obituary of the Dowager Marchioness of Anglesey. 

Picture credit The Womens' Institute
There are many links between these two women. 

Both were christened Shirley.  Vera Brittain wrote that she called her daughter after Charlotte Bronte's "gallant little cavalier". Lady Anglesey was also, according to her obituary, named after CB's heroine.  Both were born to parents who had been deeply, and tragically, involved in the First World War.  Shirley Williams is daughter to the writer of the seminal "Testament of Youth".  Lady Anglesey was the daughter of the novelist Charles Morgan.

I have written extensively about Charles Morgan, and his links with Vera Brittain here.

Both Charles Morgan and Vera Brittain came from solidly middle-class backgrounds.  Charles's father was a President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vera's a successful manufacturer.  It was their middle-class success that paid for their children's educations, and the confidence of such a background led to first-generation success in letters and public life, and second-generation public honours.  Shirley Williams is a Baroness in her own right.   Lady Anglesey gained her title by marrying into the aristocracy, but was awarded CBE and DBE.  (Her Times obituary claims she was offered a peerage in her own right by all three political parties but turned it down).

So an elite education was a springboard to success.  And also, perhaps less controversially, it seems to have nurtured a devotion to duty, and to public service and to clarity of thinking.  These things are positive attributes which might be found in any member of the population, of course.

However, it is much harder to achieve a position where such attributes may be recognized if your parents and grandparents are from the lower levels of society. One of Baroness Williams' first points in the LSE lecture was about how the whole of the First World War, in the way it was staffed and the way officers and men were selected, was absolutely rigidly controlled by the class structure of the time.  She pointed out, this was far less so in the Second World War and subsequent wars. 

Aside from the Army,  it is still true that if your parents and grandparents were from the working classes, even today you have to really struggle to make a mark in the world.  And if you don't make your mark, your habits of thought will not develop robustly in public debate.  And your contributions will not be used in public debate.  And they need to be. The more people who are thinking clearly and debating rationally, the better.

Lady Anglesey's obituary remarks that her "characteristic acumen, backed by charm, curiosity and assertiveness" soon brought her a number of public appointments, where her devotion to duty and to serving the public eventually brought the honours referred to above.  That's good, and the nation has undoubtedly benefitted.  It could benefit  more. 

Others may have exactly the same personal qualities, but will never be heard of in public life. For example, my cleaning lady, who retired two years ago, held these same qualities but will never be asked to contribute to public debate. Nor would she ever have the confidence to embark on a career in local government, or volunteering, which are ways to start in public service.

There must have been, and still be, many hundreds of thousands of such people who are never heard.

This is why my thinking is conflicted on the subject of elites.  One can only regret the continued disproportionate influence of a privileged education. However, the existence of at least a few people possessed of robust common sense, a sense of right,  a concept of public duty, and an ability to make themselves heard, are better than none at all. 

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Delight of The Mundane

I recently read a biography of Ted Hughes by the magisterial Professor Sir Jonathan Bate (OBE), previously more famous for his work on William Shakespeare. 

The New Statesman review is an excellent and thoughtful one. 

My purpose is not to review the biography, or to talk of my views on the behaviour of Ted towards Sylvia.  Suffice it to say that she HAUNTS this biography, and comes out of the story in a much better light than she does in an older biography devoted to her alone, published in Ted's lifetime, called  "Bitter Fame" 

Aside ---  On this point, a good link is  The first reviewer here comments on the relentless criticism of Sylvia that permeates that book.

Another Aside ---  And a historic link  A unique exchange of letters between the author of "Bitter Fame" (Anne Stevenson), Ted's sister Olwyn, and the poet and erstwhile "friend" of Sylvia, Al Alvarez, who appears in both biographies.

No, I'm actually commenting on how good it probably is NOT to be a poet, or anyone else tortured by artistic struggle (think Van Gogh, for example).

It's the everyday that keeps you grounded.  Good to bear that in mind, in the dark, dismal days of January.

Monday, 2 January 2017

A Post Festive Analysis

Here are some things I DIDN'T say

  • That dog is completely untrained

  • You are a completely selfish  *****

  • Don't keep going on about how the beef is overcooked

  • I am never doing Christmas again

  • I want to spend Christmas alone next year

  • The dog is a nervous wreck because it gets no consistency in the reactions to its whining and pawing

  • I want a divorce

So that was quite an achievement.


I met a complete stranger out on a walk on Boxing Day, and she burst into tears following our ritual greeting "Did you have a nice Christmas?"

We hugged.

After New Year's Eve, I told my husband that I am never going to do a New Year's Eve dinner party with the neighbours again, neither at theirs, (the next two years) or at ours (which would next be in 2019). 

Hubby has just read his Ladybird book.  Last year I gave him the Ladybird Book of the Shed.  This year I gave him the Ladybird book of Boxing Day.  He grudgingly admitted that it had been slightly amusing in places. 

Fortunately there is football on almost all the time over the festive period.

Monday, 26 December 2016

And it's only Boxing Day Morning

I've already upset my younger daughter's partner,  my older daughter, my husband, and my brother.  Also I snapped at my sister-in-law.  Last year and the year before, my strategy of keeping off the alcohol worked very well.  This year even that is not enough.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Poem by Edward Thomas, "The Owl"

The warmth of the hearth - and anxiety for those who are outside at night in winter ....

Beautifully summed up in this poem, by Edward Thomas (1878 - 1917) 

The Owl

DOWNHILL I came, hungry, and yet not starved,
Cold, yet had heat within me that was proof
Against the north wind; tired, yet so that rest
Had seemed the sweetest thing under a roof.

Then at the inn I had food, fire, and rest,
Knowing how hungry, cold, and tired was I.
All of the night was quite barred out except
An owl's cry, a most melancholy cry.

Shaken out long and clear upon the hill
No merry note, nor cause of merriment,
But one telling me plain what I escaped
And others could not, that night, as in I went.

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered too, by the bird's voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice

Thursday, 8 December 2016

100 Good Things About Growing Old - Part Two - One Has Learned more about How to Handle Relationships

Husband - will be dealt with in a separate post

 Other relationships -  Good Things Which I Have Realised at Last, but only because of the passing of years   .....  Items 11 -20

11. It's not necessary to like my sister-in-law, merely to be polite and hide my true thoughts.

12. It's not necessary to clean the entire house to the point of exhaustion immediately prior to a visit from my mother-in-law.

13.  It's not necessary to like my mother-in-law, merely to be polite and hide my true thoughts.

14.  Although, actually, I have found, at this late stage, that I do in fact like my mother-in-law.  Or at least I respect her for her longevity, survival instincts, and exceptionally positive attitude to enjoying life. 

15. In fact I can learn from my mother-in-law on the subject of not apologising for my existence and actively seeking to enjoy life.

 With regard to the partners of adult children,

who may well become sons-in-law in the medium term, a set of different rules apply.  By this time, it is a good thing to have realised with age some things that caused problems in earlier days.

16.  I've learned - Never, ever criticise.  Anything.  Even when it is implicitly invited - eg "Mum, those curtains you've just bought are SO MUCH NICER than the ones we've just bought."

16.  I've learned - Never utter divisive comments about one sibling to another.

17. I've learned - Never offer any opinion at all on the subject of either the partner, his parents, siblings or family.

18.  Exactly as above in (17), but further, never offer such opinions to anyone, even my best friend, and only in very limited circumstances to my husband.  Because it becomes a habit, and one may say it in the wrong place or to the wrong person, or it may be repeated to the wrong person.

19.  I've learned  - never offer any opinion on the subject of money, how to handle it, or inter-personal relationships and money.

20.  I've invented a strategy - "The Clothes-Peg Rule". 
The clothes-peg rule came to me in an adult education class, when I realised that I normally said far too much, and that this was not a good thing.  In order to keep this habit under control, I must take a clothes-peg with me to class, and at awkward moments, grasp hold of it inside my pocket, and imagine it firmly clamping my top and bottom lips together. 

The clothes-peg rule also comes in handy in group social situations.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

100 Good Things About Growing Old (Part 1) Winter Aspects.

It's a marker.  After years of saying, "forty is the new thirty", and then "fifty is the new thirty", followed by "sixty is the new forty", one can no longer put it off any longer - the realisation that one is actually old.  It's the physical signs that one can't ignore - the knees which hurt, the not being able to read anything at all without a pair of reading glasses, the having to ask people to repeat what they just said. 

However, there are many upsides.   After the introversion, the looking back at history and the prevailing gloom of my thinking since June 24th, I have turned a corner.  I am now going to focus on the positive.

One hundred good things about growing old - I'm starting today with seasonal aspects.
  1. Turning the heating up to 21.5 degrees no longer seems like an indulgence, but a necessity.
  2. I don't feel guilty about writing very little (or nothing) in Christmas cards to people I seldom see.
  3. I don't feel guilty about letting people "slip off the list" of Christmas cards if we haven't met for more than 30 years.
  4. I don't feel aggrieved if a sick child (now aged 29) keeps me occupied for a week.  Instead I feel grateful that she's under my roof and control, not out walking their dog or going to "gigs" whilst suffering from flu.
  5. I don't feel sad and heartbroken when said child leaves my premises after staying a week.  Instead I feel grateful to have my own time and sofa and footstool back.
  6. I take it as a badge of honour, instead of an insult, when said child tells me that the old "weird" couple on Gogglebox are the ones her dad and I have most in common with.
  7. It's easy to walk straight past the dresses, handbags and shoes in John Lewis without a second glance.
  8. Instead of drinking up that glass of wine, and then having another, the first thing I do is mentally step back, think, "What will I feel like in ten minutes' time, and what might I say which will cause terrible upset?" and refuse.
  9. Instead of worrying about what people will think of me if I decline an invitation I really dread, I simply apologise in simple terms and move on.
  10. On meeting people I've known for years while out doing Christmas shopping, I shut up after "How are you?" instead of going on to ask about everything they've done in the twenty or so years since I last spoke to them.
More soon.