Sunday, December 26, 2010

London 3

Another chance encounter in London last week: a beautifully spare publication of 150 rare documents spanning the last six centuries, each carefully selected to commemorate the sesquicentenary of the Victoria Tower in the Palace of Westminster, Charles Barry’s facility for housing in perpetuity the parliamentary archives, in so many ways the greatest loss in the fire of 1834. The tower was completed in May 1860, and was at first, as Claude Monet demonstrated fifty years later, the dominant symbol of Westminster, long before the slenderer bell tower came to replace it as a shorthand symbol of London, much bolstered by the chimes of Big Ben broadcast by the BBC in wartime.

Victoria Tower Treasures from the Parliamentary Archives, by Caroline Shenton, David Prior, and Mari Takayanagi (House of Lords, 2010) is much more than a souvenir, or a digest of the greatest archival hits of the British Houses of Parliament. It deftly explores the meaning of ancient documents; the purposes of their preservation, and their role as the very receptacles of key moments in the history of parliamentary government.

The earliest, an act for taking apprentices to make Worsteds (12 Henry VII, c. 1, 1497) is astonishingly legible, and was the Tudor equivalent of an economic stimulus package for the wool industry of Norfolk. The most recent is the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came into effect on January 1, 2005. In between there is a wealth of intelligently chosen manuscripts and printed documents, ranging from gigantic, defining constitutional matters to brief, apparently trivial, but powerfully evocative ephemera, and everything in between.

On January 24, 1581, Queen Elizabeth sends a sharp message of rebuke to the Speaker of the House of Commons for having permitted the voting through of an unauthorized day of public fasting, prayer, and preaching for the members. Letters patent incorporating the Company of Beaver Hat and Cap makers are granted on February 19, 1638, liberally decorated around the margin with illuminations of aquatic rodents—a valuable reminder of the persistence and political sensitivity of sumptuary legislation. Charles I requests the House of Lords to show mercy for the Earl of Strafford. Eight years later fifty-nine commissioners sign and seal the King’s death warrant, thereby in most cases preparing the first working draft of their own. Permission to make coffee in the Palace of Westminster is granted to a caterer by the Earl of Lindsey, Lord Great Chamberlain of England, on November 3, 1681. A messy draft Declaration of Rights, dated February 12, 1689, arising from the so-called Glorious Revolution that deposed James II, is on the same day beautifully copied and certified as “engrossed.” Extremely sinister letters, addressed anonymously in November 1690 by persons who might best be described as shivers in search of a spine to run up, warn of a second and entirely fictitious gunpowder plot, shamelessly exploiting the Popish Plot hysteria of 1679. The peers of Scotland feebly sign the Articles of Union on July 22, 1706. An Act for naturalizing three German foreigners, including George Frederick Handel, receives royal assent as 13 George I, c. 2, in 1727. Handel composes his Zadok the Priest for the coronation of George II later that same year. The Duke of Cumberland dashes off a blasé report to the Lord Chancellor concerning the grisly fate of “that unhappy infatuated Multitude” so brutally dealt with at the Battle of Culloden on May 15, 1746. On January 20, 1778, a word-perfect copy of the American Declaration of Independence is laid before a stunned House of Lords. Printed tickets are issued in April 1793 for admission (and re-admission) to the trial of Warren Hastings. Plans of new roads, canals, harbour facilities, and eventually railways, are meticulously gathered, scrutinized, and preserved throughout the Industrial Revolution. Slavery is abolished in 1807. In 1821 the longest piece of legislation in English history is enacted, providing for the appointment of commissioners to collect the land tax. It consists of a huge roll of 757 vellum membranes joined end to end (above), measuring roughly 380 yards long when unravelled. The Dominion of Canada is created in 1867; the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and legislative relations with the other dominions partly adjusted and clarified by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Women aged thirty and older are given the vote in 1918, and the disparity with men aged twenty-one and older finally abolished in 1928. Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in the House of Commons, takes her seat for Plymouth Sutton in 1919. King Edward VIII abdicates the throne at the end of 1936. Life peerages are created in 1958, and in 1978 evidence of a disastrous oil slick from a North Sea tanker is collected from a beach in Norfolk, deposited in a small plastic bag, and submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

The brief commentaries here are cogent and revealing; the photography exquisite, and you are left with an overarching sense of the longevity of the Mother of Parliaments, its organically intelligent behavior, and of the cautious, incremental but occasionally radical nature of British constitutional and parliamentary reform—that particular genius of the British nation.

In so many cases, as well, the materiality of the document reflects, even captures the essence of its content: the almost pathetic flimsiness of the 1936 typewritten instrument of abdication, for example, and the king’s extraordinarily adolescent signature; the superabundant elegance of the hand of Charles I, even when riffling impatiently through the cipher and occasionally ditching it entirely whilst writing gloomily to Prince Maurice after the Battle of Naseby in 1644; the panic and disorder clearly apparent in the notes hurriedly scribbled in the hours following the assassination of Spencer Percival, the only British prime minister ever to have suffered that fate, so much more shocking because he was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons; the creaking, proto-Dickensian complexity of evidence submitted in support of special divorce legislation arising from individual cases of incestuous adultery prior to the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857; the preposterous size of that land tax, which was abolished only as recently as 1963. The list goes on. Three cheers for the Parliamentary Archives!

Now, please, an Act to Provide for the Better Adminstration of British Airports and Railways During Snowy Weather.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

London 2

This week, whilst kicking my heels in London, I chanced upon a gem of a book in a remote corner of Hatchard’s of Piccadilly. It is an anthology drawn from Corona, the journal of Her Majesty’s Colonial Service, 1948–1962. The selection was made for I. B. Tauris in 2001 by Anthony Kirk-Greene, formerly of the Nigerian Administrative Service, and it shines brilliant beams of light over the multitude of tasks carried out by members of the last and probably most able generation of British colonial administrators, and every sort of problem they weighed on long tours of duty. It also captures the complex moods brought on by the withdrawal from India and partition, ranging from bombast to pathos. British officials singlehandedly juggled any number of responsibilities that in most jurisdictions are now handled by whole departments of state, and handled each with impressive efficiency, and despatch. In most cases there was very little supporting infrastructure, quite often none at all, and rapidly dwindling support in Whitehall, on the contrary: Harold Macmillan’s Wind of Change rhetoric made it clear that the days of colonial administration were drawing to a close, yet morale remained determinedly high. How did these men and women spend their time? Here’s how: Trying to defuse lethal sectarian violence between villagers in the Gwoza District of Nigeria; completing tours of inspection of the “ulu” in Sarawak, in other words “impenetrable jungle coupled with discomfort and/or romance among the head hunters,” or the far more pleasant ulendo of the northern province of Nyasaland; enforcing regulations according to which the licence of an Indian proprietor of a coffee shop in Malaya could be renewed upon his passing a scrupulous medical examination; improving methods of disposing of slaughter-waste and dung in rural Kenya; calculating and levying royalties on the export of guano from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, paying the salary of the wireless operator, and returning to H.M. Treasury his income tax; preventing French planters from selling cheap, actually lethal home-made liquor to thirsty sugar cane workers in the New Hebrides; gathering intelligence concerning the Mau Mau; persuading the Sultan of Perak to prevent the stoning to death of a young couple who confessed to adultery in Terengganu; finding an affordable boarding school in England for the son and daughters of a young district commissioner temporarily detained on official business in Micronesia; investigating the connection, if any, between the discovery of the remains of a giraffe (game properly belonging to the local chief, and therefore protected) and the cultivation of illegal narcotics in Barotseland; authorizing during “Good Manners Week” a dicey experimental landing by a Polish test pilot of a Dakota and then a bigger, heavier DC–3 on the newly completed but temporary landing strip on St. Vincent; sourcing adequate supplies of toothpaste and mosquito netting in Uganda; monitoring food hygiene in Hong Kong, specifically making discreet inquiries as to the real origin of snake, bear’s paws, and other delicacies putatively shipped from northern China; mastering the tribal politics of the two chiefdoms and eleven sub-chiefdoms of the Ha people of Kibondo, a region lying roughly half way between Lake Tanganyika and the Belgian Trust Territory of Rwanda; eradicating malaria in Cyprus; insuring the delivery of UNICEF milk to children throughout the Windward Islands; single-handedly providing medical attention to the entire population of the Falklands; doing battle with the tick, the worm, and the tsetse fly in Sukumaland; draining swamps in Selangor, the better to create and irrigate viable rice paddies; finding ways to prevent soil erosion in Fiji, without setting Fijian labourers against Indian farmers; collecting statistics relating to the better regulation of forestry in Hausaland; adjusting and refining the school curriculum in Antigua and Montserrat; defending from inter-clan hostilities the new trade unions of West Africa; maintaining port facilities in North Borneo, adapting them for the use of tankers should oil ever be discovered (it was, to the infinite delight of the Sultan of Brunei), and trying to keep the harbour master off his grog; insuring that officials of the Public Works Department and non-English-speaking Chinese draughtsmen were on the same page in respect of tall buildings that were creeping onto increasingly vertiginous sites in Hong Kong, with poor drainage and scarifying exposure to typhoons; keeping the peace in Jerusalem; meting out justice to surprisingly violent Norwegian sealers on South Georgia; studying cyclonic conditions and other meteorological phenomena on Mauritius with an eye to their global application; acting as returning officer in federal elections in the Malay states, and at the same time serving as registrar of births, deaths, and marriages, collector of land revenue, and chairman of the liquor licencing commission; running (for an official of the Home Office”) a Mrs. Boye, wife of the manager of the Vanikoro Kauri Timber Company, who for many years in the Solomon Islands very effectively spied for H.M. government, mostly on the United States Navy; helping to prevent most forms of medical malpractice as an especially watchful operating theatre sister in Gibraltar, Nicosia, Nairobi, and then Mombasa— she saw everything, and was intimidated by no surgeon, however eminent; encouraging bridge parties and Scottish dancing as morale-building distractions during the hurricane season in British Honduras, with mixed success; providing to the Foreign Office a crisp assessment of the personal character and political ability and/or limitations of His late Majesty King Malietoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa; auditing the public accounts of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha—perhaps the most spectacularly boring occupation ever devised by man, even worse than proofreading the telephone directory (as Nick Trumble once pointed out to me, someone must have had to do it); and, perhaps above all, moving—constantly moving; moving so often that up sticks was for hundreds of British colonial officials and their families the domestic occupation of a lifetime, and retiring to somewhere in West Sussex or Shropshire or Devon or Midlothian during the mid- to late 1960s the most painful, bewildering, and dislocating transition of all. Beyond all this, there are telling flecks of detail contained in the crisp and straightforward advertising copy. Life insurance policies tailored for colonial servants by Acworth, Gaywood & Co., of Essex Street, Strand, balanced the extremely high premiums against the real likelihood of ill health, the perils of local riot and warfare, or misadventure at sea or in the air. The National Bank of India at 26, Bishopsgate, offered superior banking facilities in Kenya, Zanzibar, and Aden. Listings of sporting, theatrical, musical, cricket, and tennis highlights of the London season provided a convenient framework for planning your home leave. Lawn & Alder of 32, Sackville Street, W.1., offered personal shopping services: no matter what the need may be, a tropical suit, a domestic utensil, a silver trophy, or a newspaper subscription, the L. & A. service is always at your bidding. Wanted: Administrative Officer’s sword. T. N. Rosser, Glenfield Crescent, Galashiels.A marvelous, engrossing read, especially in the circumstances. (See London 1.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

London 1

I have just returned to New Haven from a working trip to London. I should have returned a week ago, but I got marooned in what will no doubt be long remembered as the great Heathrow collapse of December 18, 2010. Last Friday and Saturday a considerable amount of snowfall was forecast over southern England. Early in the morning, on December 18, I rang the airline and inquired whether, knowing how unusual any amount of snowfall is in England at this time of year, and also that British Airways had already cancelled all of its flights out of Heathrow that day—whether in view of all this, my Delta Airlines flight to New York (Kennedy), scheduled for later that morning, was also cancelled. Oh no, came the reply: It’s on time. So out to the airport I went, checked my bags, and settled down to wait. The departure board told an increasingly forlorn story as the morning unfolded. A constant and especially uninformative and passive process of incremental lying and postponement gave way to the even more depressing hold-all message of “Please wait.” Meanwhile the snow came: four inches in two hours, not much by North American standards, but by England’s a blizzard of inconceivable disruptiveness. I knew we were in trouble when I looked out of one of the carefully concealed windows at Terminal Four and observed two little old men half-heartedly wielding shovels—not the useful broad plastic sort for snow, but old-fashioned wrought-iron gardening implements, suitable for the transplantation of rhododendrons. Hello, I thought. They’ll be still going in February. I was right. The airport closed, and all flights were put on hold. The initial plan was for the airport to reopen at four o’clock in the afternoon, but that never happened. At about 4.30 p.m., every remaining flight was cancelled—several hundreds, all at once. Throughout the day, no accurate information was made available by the airlines, for the entirely plausible reason that none was made available to them by BAA, a hugely profitable Spanish-owned company that runs Heathrow, along with all the rest of the British airports. At this point, all passengers were funneled back through customs and immigration, then required to retrieve their bags from one of eight provocatively slow and enormously overstretched luggage carousels. There were thousands of us, and no sign of any airline representatives, except for one long-suffering bloke who was, with rapidly deteriorating temper, passing out to a bewildered multitude sheaves of photocopied pieces of paper with the telephone number of Delta Airlines on it—a telephone number that immediately jammed because of the sheer volume of calls from tens of thousands of cell phones, and also a cheerful invitation to log onto the airline’s website. Naturally by this time the server had crashed under the weight of the same number of smart phones. And those were not the only things that crashed in Berkshire by this time: The Piccadilly Line was caput; Heathrow Express was gummed up with too many refugee passengers, the Eurostar services were at first put under extraordinary pressure by smart travelers thinking on their feet, and with a grim determination to reach France. Then they collapsed entirely, leaving queues of desperate people waiting outside St. Pancras, snaking for more than a mile, clinging to the vain hope that canceled services might just be restored. Back at Heathrow, the flow of London taxicabs slowed to a trickle, just as the taxi queues lengthened preposterously. Devious passengers were shamelessly nicking cabs at the back of the line, thumbing their nose at a forest of CCTV cameras, but there were no Metropolitan police in evidence. Not one, only a couple of outsourced Poles and a lady in a burqa, all cowering next to a wan little radiator inside the taxicab hutch. It took five hours to retrieve my bag, and another four and a half to get back to Central London. For the first time in my life I lost feeling in both feet, such was the biting cold. All up, I was stranded at Heathrow for sixteen hours and eleven minutes.

To my infinite relief there was room at the inn: Blessed Durrants Hotel, my home from home, put me back in my old room, and turned on a double whisky, and game pie with mashed potato.

In the days that followed I never managed to reach a human being at Delta in the United States, though it was mildly interesting to learn that my call is important to them. On Monday or Tuesday my office managed to get me shifted onto an Air France desperado escape ticket via Paris yesterday—a 23-hour journey, as it turned out (because of more snow in Paris), but a good proportion of the nearly 500,000 other displaced travelers who got stuck in London this week were not so lucky. Many are still kicking their heels there.

The larger question that troubled many minds in London this week was this: How is it possible for an admittedly unusual four inches’ worth of snow—a tiny amount by most realistic wintry standards—to bring the entire British nation to its knees, and prompt the daily newspapers to use language such as “national embarrassment,” “abject humiliation,” and worse? This is a country that eighty years ago, thanks to a few handfuls of dedicated clerks in Whitehall, quite competently ran a global empire, but is today wholly and demonstrably incapable of functioning under a light dusting of powdery snow. The rail network collapsed. The roads clogged with 24-hour, forty- or fifty-mile gridlock, as on the main artery between Edinburgh and Glasgow two weeks ago. I experienced this for myself. What has gone wrong? It’s not just that there is no conception of the need to shovel (to prevent the formation of lethal floes of pack ice—this happens when temperatures rise, the snow melts, but then freezes again when the temperature drops back down again at night, producing a far denser, and more dangerous frozen surface). For decades it seems there has been no eye trained even on the possibility of snow, nor on the need to maintain the infrastructure and supplies of salt or de-icing fluid that are needed to keep the place moving if indeed the snow comes fast and, by English standards, plentifully, as was the case last Saturday. Yet for the last couple of years this is precisely what has happened. Britain is getting more snow every winter, but the transport system has not yet equipped itself after the manner of Boston, Mass., Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., Toronto, Winnipeg, or Saskatoon. And in England the general population doesn’t yet understand what those of us who live in snowy places know we have to do after a storm: Get out there and shovel, or, if you’re not prepared to do it yourself, pay someone to do it for you, and if you fail to take either step you can expect a hefty municipal fine. Perhaps worst of all, where was the spirit of the Blitz, or of Dunkirk? The kindly farmers volunteering with tractors, or hatted, scarved, and gloved matrons bringing thermoses of cocoa and McVitie’s digestive biscuits, or impeccably stoical queueing—in other words the quiet genius of England in times of trouble? Gone, gone, gone—alas. Gone the way of the Empire, almost certainly never to return. It is very sad indeed.