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Get to know A Bit About Britain - an idiosyncratic view of places to visit in Britain, British history - and stuff. Warts and all. Where shall we go today?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Glasgow and the art of religion

Shiva Glasgow, religion Scotland, museum of religion, Glasgow
There’s a little museum in the small Cathedral Precinct area of Glasgow, the St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art.  Towering next door is the medieval cathedral, where St Mungo (aka St Kentigern and Glasgow’s patron saint) is said to have established a church in the 6th century.  Across the road is Provand’s Lordship, Glasgow’s oldest house.  The museum is built in Scottish baronial style on or near where Glasgow Castle once stood, the site now largely covered by the massive tired-looking Edwardian Royal Infirmary.  Were it not for the traffic coughing its way along Castle Street, the area could be an oasis of ancient tranquillity in the midst of this busy modern city.  And there’s no doubt that the museum is a lovely building.

St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art is, according to its propaganda, ‘award-winning’ (though it neglects to say which awards it has won).  It aims “to promote understanding and respect between people of different faiths and of none, and offers something for everyone.”  Trying to please everyone can be a Bad Idea in my experience and suggests a certain lack of focus in their marketing; but who can argue with the aspiration of achieving understanding and respect between faiths?  God knows we could do with some of that.

Notwithstanding a few fringe nutters, and the efforts of terrorists and the deluded PC brigade, the Britain I know is a pretty tolerant place.  I’m very impatient with intolerance.  But of all the locations in Britain to set up a museum dedicated to religious harmony, some might think that the choice of Glasgow was an ironic one.  Or maybe it was inspired.  It’s a city oozing with culture.  Glaswegians are, with some justification, proud of themselves.  They get on with things; they are, in the Scottish tradition, welcoming and amazingly hospitable; look at the way the city embraces international events, such as the 2014 Commonwealth Games.  ‘People make Glasgow’ runs the slogan (unlike other places which are made of pink fluffy bunny rabbits).  I have giggled at the dry, often self-deprecating, Glaswegian humour – which is not limited to comic geniuses such as Billy Connolly.

Yet one of Glasgow’s dark sides is a history of religious bigotry – known locally as ‘sectarianism’ – predominantly between a minority of Roman Catholics and Protestants.  Glasgow’s Protestant/Catholic sectarianism partly manifests itself in rivalry between two football teams, Rangers and Celtic, known collectively as ‘the Old Firm’, that goes beyond any sane person’s concept of sporting competition as thug-like fans verbally, and sometimes physically, abuse each other.  The ferocity of the rivalry has often escalated into awful violence and vandalism.  ‘Protestant’ Rangers’ fans misuse the Union Flag as their emblem, whereas ‘Catholic’ Celtic fans wave a foreign flag, the tricolour of Ireland.  The rivalry therefore has dangerous political undertones of unionist v republican and ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.  The roots of the tedious religious hostility of course date back centuries.  But there was a tidal wave of emigration from predominantly Catholic Ireland after the Famine of the 1840s, much of it to mainland Britain in search of jobs in industry, mining and the docks.  In Scotland, many settled on the west coast and in the east end of Glasgow.  It is said that traditional antagonism due to religious differences was exacerbated by competition for jobs and, later, discrimination by Protestant or Catholic employers.

Orangemen, Sectarianism in Glasgow, Scotland religious bigotry

So it was with some fascination that I coincidentally witnessed a march by the Orangemen past St Mungo’s Museum on the very day I visited.  The Orange Order is a Protestant ‘fraternal’ organisation with roots in Northern Ireland and with various branches, or ‘lodges’.  They stop the traffic on the streets of Glasgow to celebrate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic-leaning James II (VII of Scotland) at the Battle of the Boyne on 12th July 1690.  Something like this should by now of course be a tourist attraction, but it does not come across as anything of the sort.  Indeed, you may be excused for finding the spectacle of grim-faced men and women, many in paramilitary uniforms, still banging on in an apparently triumphal way about an event that took place more than 300 years ago, profoundly disturbing.  I gather the Catholics parade too.  According to an article in the Glasgow Herald in 2011, around 75% of Scots want all such marches banned. The whole thing is anachronistic and, to anyone fortunate enough to be brought up in a non-tribal environment, it is both alien and deeply puzzling.

Jesus Crucifixtion, St Mungos, Peter Howson artist, Scottish
St Mungo’s Museum covers sectarianism and was treated to its own dose of bigotry just two months after it opened in 1993, when a man claiming to act in the name of Christ damaged the museum’s statue of Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance).  The Museum explores all of the world’s main religions, particularly Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism.  It’s not simply some kind of show-case for different cultural mores, but really does try to embrace its aim of promoting understanding and respect between faiths.  Good luck with that.

But you can get a cup of coffee there.  And it has a Zen garden which, as everyone knows, is a harmonious arrangement of stones and gravel…

Whilst on the subject of religious tolerance, my reader may be amused by this clip on YouTube of Tom Lehrer singing his ‘VaticanRag’.  Nothing whatsoever to do with Glasgow - or Britain really.

And you can check out a bit more about St Mungo’s Museum by visiting the Glasgow Life website.

Friday, 11 July 2014

End of the line for Eleanor

Charing Cross, Victorian memorial, Edward I, Eleanor, London
Network Rail, the people that own and operate Britain’s rail infrastructure (after someone sold it by mistake) say that 37 million people pass through London’s Charing Cross Station every year.  (That’s equivalent to the population of Uganda.)  It’s not the same 37 million people passing through every year, though I daresay one or two risk doing it several times, but in any event a lot of them will also pass by this monument outside the station entrance, which commemorates a 700-year old love story.

When Eleanor of Castile, beloved queen of Edward I, died near Lincoln in 1290, the tough but distraught King of England ordered that a memorial should be built at every point where his wife’s body was rested on its long journey south for burial in London. Twelve memorials – or crosses - were built and last in line was one in the hamlet of Charing, just outside the King’s Palace of Westminster.  The original Charing Cross stood where Trafalgar Square is now.  The location marks the spot from which distances to London were calculated, but the Cross itself was pulled down by order of Parliament in 1647.  At least three of the regicides, those who signed King Charles I’s death warrant, were executed on the site and, in 1675, a statue of King Charles I on horseback was erected there – where it remains to this very day.

Charing Cross Station, Trafalgar Square, visit London
Though the memorial had gone, the name of the area, ‘Charing Cross’, stuck - though not derived from ‘cher reine’ (dear queen) as some fancifully suggest but, as I mentioned, from the little settlement that once stood between the City of London and Westminster.  (There is another Charing in Kent, by the way, near Ashford – a lovely village.)  So it was natural to call the nearby railway station, when it came, Charing Cross.  The South East Railway commissioned a recreated Eleanor Cross to celebrate the opening of the Charing Cross Hotel in 1865 and the result was a typically magnificent Victorian Gothic Thing in Portland and Mansfield stone, with Aberdeen granite, that stood 70 feet high and cost about £1,800.00.  By the turn of the millennium, that monument was in a poor state of repair and Network Rail, successors to the South East Railway, set about renovating it at a reported cost of £350,000.  The original cost Edward I about £700 at 13th century prices.

So there it is.  It is lovely.  But each time I pass it, it has been surrounded by cars, bikes, contractors’ rubbish – even a skip.  You have to ask why such a fuss was made about renovating the thing if it’s going to treated with such little respect.  The real villains of course, were the members of parliament who ordered the first Charing Cross to be pulled down.  There are three surviving original Eleanor Crosses, at Waltham, Hardingstone and Geddington.  You can read a bit about two of them, and the love story, by visiting Eleanor’s Cross, Hardingstone and Eleanor’s Cross Geddington.

Friday, 4 July 2014

John F Kennedy Memorial

This post is dedicated to our American cousins.

JFK Memorial, Runnymede, 35th President of the USA

You will find Britain's memorial to JFK at Runnymede, an area of meadow land on the banks of the River Thames in the county of Surrey.  The 35th President of the United States of America was gunned down in Dallas aged 46 on 22nd November 1963, having been in office for less than 3 years.  His memorial is contained within an acre of British land, gifted by the people of Britain to the people of America in perpetuity.  The spot is a pleasant one, and appropriate; Magna Carta, the Great Charter, which many believe laid the foundation for English (and later British and American)  civil liberties was signed nearby in 1215.

The memorial is more than an inscribed monument.  The designer, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, was inspired by Bunyan’s allegory of life in Pilgrim’s Progress to create a memorial that starts as soon as you step through the simple wooden gate.  You proceed through the wild woods of human existence along a stepped cobbled path, the cobbles symbolising people met along the way and the 50 unique steps representing the States of America.  I’m not sure I get all of that, but the memorial itself, a 7 ton block of Portland stone from the same quarry used to build St Paul’s Cathedral, seems to float in the air.  Carved on it are some noble words from President Kennedy’s inaugural speech:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend or oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Geoffrey Jellicoe, Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress

It is hard, more than half a century on, to understand what the slaying of John Fitzgerald Kennedy meant to many in these islands at the time.  Even now, it does more than simply attract the interest of conspiracy theorists.  Clearly, the man was no saint and his father was, from what I’ve read, an unpleasant individual who also seemed to nurse a particular brand of tribal bigotry against my country.  But JFK appeared to reach out everywhere and, in the words of Harold Macmillan, was “one of those rare personalities who seemed born to bridge the gulf dividing races and creeds and help build the unity of all mankind.”  Not everyone will agree with that and someone obviously disliked Kennedy enough to go to a great deal of trouble to get rid of him.  However, in a civilised democratic society, you do not solve your differences through violence and at the point of a gun - for there lies the path to anarchy or totalitarianism. Moreover, taking out a properly elected political leader undermines everyone’s sense of security; if ‘they’ can get to him/her, are any of us safe?  I believe Kennedy did inspire, and symbolised something positive – a sincere belief in liberty - perhaps youth, a fresh approach less than 20 years after the bloodiest war the world has ever known?  And who amongst us can fail to see the human tragedy in his passing?  Irrespective of what anyone thought of his personality, beliefs, or policies, it was - and is - the manner of his murder that disturbs people most.  I am just old enough to remember the grainy TV news coverage of his assassination and the horrified reaction of my parents; they were stunned.  Harold Macmillan and his wife Dorothy’s personal message to Jackie Kennedy said, “We are numbed by the shock of Jack’s death.”  That feeling crossed political divides in Britain and I’m sure was echoed in most homes.

The Runnymede Memorial was made possible by a huge public response to a government-led appeal.  It was officially opened on 14th May 1965 by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh as well as Jackie Kennedy, her two children and the late president’s brother, Robert.

But there was also enough in the memorial fund to enable the creation of a living memorial, by establishing the Kennedy Memorial Trust on 4th July 1964.  The Trust provides scholarships for British graduates to study at two of the USA’s top universities, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Kennedy Memorial Trust, Fourth of July, British, American, shared values

You’ll notice the Trust was established on a fitting anniversary for the USA – Independence Day, of course, the Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate their freedom from tyrannical British Rule, cricket, decent ale, bad teeth, and a whole lot more besides.  We joke about the differences - two nations divided by a common language and all that - but sometimes forget the things we have in common.  So I think the Kennedy Memorial represents something else too.  It symbolises friendship, ties of shared heritage, culture (mostly), values and, yes, blood as well.  The world is a much smaller place now.  In an idle, idealistic, moment I speculate that there should be a friendship monument to every other signed up nation in every respective capital across the globe.  Remember we’re all related anyway.  Which, if you’ve ever wandered along the seafront at Blackpool after dark, is a terrifying thought.

Visit the Kennedy Memorial Trust website for more information.