Wednesday, 29 September 2010

My father remembers his childhood

When I was two years old, my family moved to Hartlepool, where my father worked as a marine engineer and shipping inspector. I was the youngest of seven children, so apart from Ruth, who was five years older than me, my brothers and sisters had left home by the time I was growing up, and I only saw them occasionally.
Hartlepool is still well-known throughout the north-east as “the town where they hung the monkey” (see note at end). We rented a big semi-detached house on the main Stockton road, with the trams running outside the front door. I remember it as always being very dirty. We could sit in the garden and watch the smuts from the Seaton steelworks falling around us. Sometimes the night sky would glow as the slag was tipped. Ruth and I discovered that if we rubbed our hands on the trees and then wiped them on our faces, we became completely black; which did not please Mother. One night an enormous dump of tens of thousands of wooden pit-props near the railway caught fire. The flames were so bright that you could read a book by their light, and the intense heat buckled the rail track.
We didn’t often go to the seaside, although there was a good beach quite close. The sea was always cold, and I don’t remember ever bathing in it with any degree of pleasure. Further up the coast, at Black Hall Rocks, you could find coal dust washed up on the beach from an undersea seam, and the unemployed men would come to rake it up and take it home in sacks. We preferred to have picnics up on the moors at Hobhole, where I could go fishing from the footbridge. Once, when I was about 8 or 9, I proudly told Mother that I had caught two cod and five kippers.
Father was only able to take us on longer outings on Bank Holidays. For three or four summers we stayed in a farmhouse in Kildale, up in the Cleveland hills. This was a very traditional little settlement, with a pub, a church, a local squire, and even a village idiot. The farm was run by a family called Tait: a husband and wife with a son and daughter in their 20s. This was a period of severe depression in farming, and the Taits must have been very poor. They had no motor-vehicle, and just one horse to provide all the pulling-power. It was a dairy farm, and they had their own creamery, which I remember as being the only clean part of the farm. We once bought local cheese (though I think it was from another farmer) which weighed 14 pounds! The farm had no gas or electricity, water came from a spring into a trough, and the only lavatory was a hole in the ground in an outbuilding. We enjoyed our time at the farm, though I suspect Mother would have preferred something more sophisticated.
When I was about ten, Father bought me a second-hand bicycle for £3.10/-. He took me on cycling tours, stopping for bed & breakfast overnight; up Teesdale or Weardale; to Richmond or Barnard Castle. Later I went for rides with a school friend: once we did a day’s run to Whitby and back, which must have been about 80 miles.
When I was 13 I went away to boarding school, where I became a close friend of Francis Crick, who later won the Nobel prize for his work in the discovery of DNA. Then, three years later, Father retired and moved to Bexhill in Sussex, and we never returned to the north-east.

Note: Hartlepool is known throughout the north-east as “the town where they hung the monkey”. The story goes that during the Napoleonic Wars a French ship was wrecked off the coast, and the only survivor to be washed ashore alive was the captain’s pet monkey, which had been dressed in a little military uniform. The people of Hartlepool had never set eyes on a Frenchman, and they assumed the monkey must be a French soldier, so they hanged it! Hartlepool still takes a perverse pleasure in the story of their stupidity: to this day, the mascot of the town’s football team is called “H’Angus the Monkey”

(My father died this summer, at the age of 93)

Friday, 24 September 2010

The American Declaration of Independence, paragraph 2: a fundamental document of political philosophy.

(Notes and queries at the end)

“We hold these truths to be self-evident (1), that all men (2) are created equal (3), that they are endowed by their Creator (4) with certain unalienable rights (5), that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness (6), that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men (7), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed (8), that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it (9), and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness (10)”


(1) Obviously these “truths” cannot be proved in any way, however desirable they might be!

(2) What about women? Are they included?

(3) The obvious question that arises here is “what about the slaves in Virginia?” Thomas Jefferson, who wrote most of this document, was a slave-owner, and it led Dr. Johnson to remark in his anti-American pamphlet “Taxation no Tyranny”, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?” Indeed the whole question of slavery was buried for the time being, for how else could slave-owning Virginia unite with free New England against British rule? But there is more to the question than just the slavery issue. In what sense is everyone equal? It is quite obvious that some people are bigger and stronger than others, some are cleverer than others, some have more musical talent than others, and so forth (for that matter, women as a class are physically smaller and weaker than men as a class. It is no longer accepted that black people as a class are less intelligent than white people, though there may be empirical evidence that they are better at certain sports). How much do these differences matter, and what should result from them? It is generally accepted that people of superior talents may justifiably claim commensurately greater rewards, such as higher pay, and it would be wrong for untalented people to earn the same rewards as the gifted (“Equality of outcome“). But all should have an equal chance to make the best use of their talents (“Equality of opportunity“), with all forms of racial or sexual discrimination being inherently wrong. Furthermore everyone, regardless of race, gender, wealth or talent, must have an equal claim to justice, and in principle no-one without good cause may claim preferential treatment, or natural authority over another person. (The last political creed to deny fundamental equality was Fascism) How far real equality can ever exist is debatable: the Marxists, for instance, maintained that equality was a sham as long as society was divided into rich and poor - especially since both riches and poverty tend to be hereditary. Thus, how can there be equal justice for all when rich people can afford better lawyers? How can there be equality of opportunity through education when rich people can afford to send their children to expensive fee-paying schools?

(4) There is virtually no mention of God in the entire document. The 18th century was not an age of faith. Thomas Jefferson was at best a Deist rather than a Christian believer; that is, he accepted the likely existence of a God, but not any more detailed religious doctrines. The USA was from its inception an entirely secular state. At the same time, however, it does seem that these human rights stem ultimately from God. This revives the famous mediaeval doctrine of "Natural Law". So a philosopher like Thomas Aquinas might have put it this way: it cannot possibly be in accordance with God's will that innocent people should be executed or imprisoned, and states which behave in this unjust fashion are clearly going against God's command. John Locke (see below) derived his doctrine of "Natural Rights" from "Natural Law", and therefore ultimately from God.

(5) This means “rights which may not legitimately be taken away from you”. (But see note 9)

(6) Most of the rest of the paragraph is lifted directly from John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government”, written in England a century before. Locke’s three basic human rights were life, liberty and the possession of property; the Americans changed the last one to the rather vague phrase “the pursuit of happiness”.

(7) As the European explorers ventured overseas in the 16th and 17th centuries they discovered Stone Age tribes who had no towns, no metals, no written languages and even no agriculture. This was something new to the Europeans: nothing in Classical literature, or the Bible, or their contacts with the Islamic world had prepared them for this. It set the intellectuals wondering whether their own ancestors had once lived like this, and they coined the term “State of Nature” for life before civilisation. But how had the first governments emerged from the State of Nature? It could only be through the people getting together and agreeing to have a government, because they believed that their lives would be better as a result. This hypothetical agreement was called the “Social Contract”, or the “Original Contract”. The most famous writers on the Social Contract were Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau.

(8) “Government by consent”. Governmental authority is only legitimate insofar as the people agree to it. As one 18th century radical, John Wilkes, put it, the people only “lend” their rulers the authority to govern. This loan may be recalled! But notice also that the word "democracy" appears nowhere in the document. This is because it was not then a word in common use. Rousseau revived the word in his "Social Contract", but used it to mean a type of government where the mass of the people take all the key decisions, and pointed out that this was extremely rare and probably impractical. He called our system of government "elective aristocracy". (See my essay on "Rousseau definitions" for more on this point)

(9) The sole justification for government, Locke argued, is that the people’s right to life, liberty and property is better protected under government than in a state of nature. For this reason we agree to restrain our natural freedom by living under laws. Those who break the laws may justly be deprived of some of their natural rights: for instance, those who commit crimes may thus forfeit their right to liberty (suffering imprisonment) or to property (fines) or even their right to life (execution). This is necessary in order to protect the rights of the peaceful, law-abiding citizens. But it is quite different if a tyrannous government imprisons or executes citizens without good cause or due process of law, because in such a case the citizens are worse off than they would be in a state of nature, which is illogical. A tyrannous government has broken the social contract, and the citizens have every right to rebel and institute a new social contract in the place of the old one. In answer to the crucial question, “Who decides whether the government has broken the social contract?” Locke gives a truly radical answer, “The people shall decide” The American Declaration of Independence follows this doctrine. The remainder of the document consists of a long series of complaints against King George III personally (“He has done this” …. “He has done that”) in order to justify the argument that the king has broken the social contract and his American subjects therefore have the right to renounce their obedience and start again.

(10) In Britain, theories of natural rights, a social contract and the right to resist were the basis of the political creed of Whiggism, in opposition to Toryism, which stressed the duty to obey the king and the established church. Dr Johnson, a lifelong Tory, once said that the first Whig was the Devil!
There is a story that, some years ago, an airline security guard heard a hippy-looking passenger reading out loud something about the right to rebel. Fearing that this man might be a terrorist or hi-jacker, the guard confronted him and asked, "What's that Commie trash you're reading?" and was informed that the man was reading the United States Declaration of Independence! The guard spoke truer than he realised!

Friday, 10 September 2010

Israel, Palestinians and Terrorism

Some time ago I attended a lecture by a spokesman for the Israeli government. He talked about Israeli claims to Palestine and responses to Palestinian extremism, but I doubt if he won over a single person present (he began by referring to Abraham, which is hardly the best way to approach an academic audience). The questions afterwards were not much better, consisting largely of monologues intended to show the speakers' pro-Palestinian views. So it was all a disappointing and depressing experience. I was unable to ask a question expressing my ideas on the subject, which would be as follows:-

We in Britain were for many years well accustomed to dealing with terrorist attacks from the IRA, in which both civilians and police were killed, and which in one case came within an ace of assassinating the entire cabinet at Brighton. But as far as I know we did not respond by ordering the killing of Gerry Adams and his friends, by shelling the Bogside, or by sending the RAF to bomb IRA bases in the Irish Republic. When I ask myself "Why not?" I can think of four possible reasons:
1. Such actions would be immoral
2. They would be strategially counterproductive
3. The Americans wouldn't have let us
and 4. When all is said and done, the Irish are, after all, white men

I do not know which of these considerations dictated British policy towards the IRA, though one would hope it is the first rather than the last. Israel, by comparison, does not acknowledge such restrictions when dealing with the Palestinians: they regard assassination, shelling and bombing as a justifiable and useful response, the Americans encourage them (at least tactitly) in such actions, and the Palestinians are not white men: they are comparable to the Caananites, Amalekites and other indigenous inhabitants of the region whom, according to my Bible, the Israelites slaughtered in order to gain their Promised Land in the first place.

The old cliche goes thus: a freedom fighter is a terrorist who's on my side; a terrorist is a freedom fighter who's on your side.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A note on Stevenson's "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde"

Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel added a new phrase to the English language; that of the "Jekyll-and-Hyde" character, meaning an individual who exhibits two contrasting personalities at different times, usually one peaceful and one aggressive. Almost everyone knows at least the outlines of the story: how the mild and perhaps somewhat repressed Dr. Jekyll, wishing to recapture the days of his irresponsible and carefree youth, developes a drug that transformed him into the violent, amoral Hyde. There is also an antidote that enables him to return to the character of Jekyll. The climax might be foreseen: after several uses the antidote eventually fails, he becomes trapped in the persona of Hyde and eventually dies.
This is often taken to be a description of schizophrenia, as indeed the "Jekyll-and-Hyde" phrase implies, but having reread the book I would question this. It is not only Jekyll's personality that changes when he becomes Hyde, his physical appearance and his voice are also altered so radically that even Jekyll's servants and his oldest friends fail to recognise him. His face is much uglier, his form is shrunken and repellant, and the backs of his hands are described as being covered with coarse black hair, which apparently disappears immediately he once more becomes Jekyll. It was this last detail which suggested to me that Stevenson was not dealing with modern notions of schizophrenia, but had actually developed a new, pseudo-scientific variation on a very ancient legend: that of the werewolf. I'm sure no reader ever takes seriously the account of Dr Jekyll's drugs that effect the transformation: they are the least convincing aspect of what is otherwise a gripping story.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

American Gangsters: Bill Clinton & Owen Madden

In the final part of my essay on American gangsters, I mentioned the retreat to Hot Springs, Arkansas of Owen Madden, the ex-bootlegger who owned the Cotton Club in Harlem and who was incidentally the only major gangster to have been born in England. Madden lived there until his death in the 1960s, long enough to have met the young Bill Clinton, and I wondered whether they did ever meet. In Clinton's autobiography, "My Life", I have found the following information on page 25-26:-

Hot Springs, says Clinton, was run by a corrupt Mayor, Leo McLaughlin, who operated a gambling racket alongside Madden. After the war, a reform group under Sid McGrath took control, but gambling continued, with payoffs to police and politicians. There was never any Mafia involvement (perhaps because of Madden's presence?), and overt mob violence was limited to a couple of firebombings in which nobody was hurt.

Although Bill Clinton never met Madden, his mother once had to anaesthetise Madden for surgery. The X-rays showed twelve bullets in his body (a relic, no doubt, of the gangster's early days as a street-fighter), which she "laughingly" told Bill reminded her of stars in a planetarium!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Staffordshire M.P.s in the 18th century; part 4: Sheridan in Stafford

After the 1780 general election there were no longer any Bagots or Chetwynds in the House of Commons, instead Stafford was represented by a complete outsider. Richard Brindsley Sheridan was born in Dublin in 1751, the son of minor literary figure remembered only for being roundly insulted by Dr. Johnson. Richard received a traditional education at Harrow, but from his early years was fascinated by the theatre. He married an opera singer, Elizabeth Linley, in 1773, after fighting two duels with a rival suitor. His first great success was “The Rivals” in 1775, followed by “School for Scandal” in 1777 and “The Critic” in 1779; and in 1776 he bought a share of Drury Lane theatre on the retirement of David Garrick. This brought him in touch with smart society, where he was an immediate success, especially with the Whig leader Charles James Fox and with young Prince of Wales. But the king, George III, quarrelled with the prince and hated Fox and Sheridan, whom he blamed for leading the prince astray into a wild, immoral and extravagant lifestyle. (The king was certainly right in this suspicion!)
At the 1780 general election, with Britain slipping to defeat in the War of American Independence and Fox leading the opposition to Lord North’s government, Sheridan was keen to get into Parliament; and first considered Honiton as a constituency before settling upon Stafford. A contemporary biographer of Sheridan described Stafford as:-
“A place free from all suspicion of ministerial influence, and where the arts of corruption had ever tried, without effect, to undermine the independence of the electors”,
- which sounds good, but then he added:-
“A certain degree of expense, which has for a long time blended itself with the purest proceedings of the electoral system in this county, was found unavoidable”
In other words, it would be necessary to bribe the voters! Sheridan needed the “moderate sum of £1000” to get in. He didn’t have this much money; but fortunately the other opposition candidate, Edward Monkton, was a much richer man, and offered to work alongside Sheridan (remember thatStafford elected 2 M.P.s). The rest of the money he presumably borrowed from his rich friends - and probably never paid them back: he seldom did; because although a man of great and varied talents, Sheridan was by any definition an utter rotter in his personal life!

The Stafford electors knew nothing of Sheridan, but he impressed them with his friendly manners and by “enabling them to indulge their sensual inclinations for a moment” - in plain terms, buying them loads of drink! Monkton and Sheridan were duly elected. Their opponents petitioned to have the result overturned on the grounds of bribery, but in the Commons Sheridan was strongly defended by Fox, and the move failed.
In Parliament, Sheridan at once emerged as a brilliant orator and major personality, but in terms of governmental ambitions he had joined wrong side, because after some political confusion William Pitt the younger became Prime Minister at the end of 1783, and Fox’s Whigs were out of power for the next 20 years. This also meant that Sheridan, having given up writing plays and having no access to government money, was in financial trouble for the rest of his life. He and Monkton continued to represent Stafford through to the end of the century, despite a big nationwide swing towards Pitt in the 1784 election.
Politics was an expensive business. Sheridan’s election expenses for 1784 show that he paid the 248 burgesses of Stafford 5 guineas each, having promised to pay them whether they voted for him or not! This cost him £1,302: a huge sum for the time. Over the years until the next election, he spent £57 a year maintaining his house in Stafford, and another £86 a year on various other local expenses, charity subscriptions and so forth: the biggest single item being “ale tickets” (that is, free drinks for his constituents) at £40 a year: the voters of Stafford were clearly a thirsty bunch!
After the outbreak of the French revolution in 1789, Fox and Sheridan came in for wildly libellous attacks on their sympathy for the French. It was even suggested that they planned to execute King George III! Monkton by contrast became a supporter of Pitt’s government. In the end, inevitably, Sheridan went bust, had to abandon Stafford, and died a bankrupt in 1816. But at least he had added colour to the political scene, both in Stafford and nationally, and is unlikely ever to be forgotten.

(This is Chetwynd House in Stafford, which Sheridan rented during his time as Member of Parliament for the town. The house had been ransacked by a mob in a riot during the election of 1747. In the 20th century it became a Post Office, and is now a restaurant)