Saturday, 8 May 2010

Red and yellow and blue and green

Nailing my own political colour spectrum to the mast, I am more than satisfied with this week’s election results. For the first time ever we have a member of the Green Party elected to Westminster, a sign of the increasing importance of environmental issues amongst voters. Even better, not only did the right-wing extremist party, the BNP, fail to win a single Parliamentary seat at Westminster, despite fielding a record number of candidates, they also lost the 12 Council seats they had held at Barking and Dagenham. This was after they had received unprecedented access to the media, including taking part on the BBC’s popular current affairs programme, Question Time. Until Thursday’s election, I was resigned to the possibility that the BNP would receive a significant surge in the numbers voting for them. History teaches us that when times are hard scapegoats must be found. It is so much easier to target scapegoats if their very skin colour sets them apart. Certain media forums seemed to be dominated by their supporters. Yet far from people flocking to their cause, the BNP’s heightened exposure in the British media proved the maxim: give them enough rope and they will hang themselves.

I was also pleased at the results for the three main political parties. I can’t say I was keen on any of them winning overall power. The Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s and their successors, the Labour Party, became more arrogant and out of kilter with public opinion the longer they held office. They have become used to dividing the main offices of state between them as if of divine right. No wonder their respective media supporters are in a tizzy now that we have a hung Parliament. They are predicting all manner of dire calamities for straying from the true path of the Two Party system.

The current Tory leadership is dominated by a small clique of men who appear to have gone to the same public school (Eton) or Oxbridge. It amused me when an acquaintance of mine came out of a meeting, extolling the virtues of the Eton schoolboys he had spoken to there. I was not as impressed as he was given that historically, with few exceptions, the criteria for gaining access to such a privileged education has been limited to those with considerable family wealth, beyond the means of the vast majority of the populace, and being classified as male on an original birth certificate. Ironically, Eton was established in 1441 as a charity school to provide a free education exclusively for boys from poor families. Over the centuries that worthy principle has been quietly forgotten. Yet despite their great personal wealth, it seems certain Conservative MPs were not above expecting the general public to pay for the cleaning out of their moats, the installation of floating duck islands, paying someone to change light bulbs on their chandeliers and repairing their tennis courts. All the latter were genuine expenses brazenly submitted by Tory MPs. It is hardly surprising therefore that David Cameron failed to win a resounding mandate from the British public, when he is surrounded by party members so indifferent to the genuine financial hardships facing ordinary tax payers, they have the gall to claim for such outright luxuries.

Financial sleaze was not limited to the Tory party of course. The equally unedifying spectacle of Labour MPs making at best unethical and at worse fraudulent expense claims has also been exposed to view. What was astounding was the self-serving clap-trap some MPs gave in mitigation when they were found out. Harry Cohen, a member of the left wing Socialist Campaign group, claimed that he, along with other MPs, had been prompted to maximise his expense claims by no less a person than that redoubtable Marxist firebrand Margaret Hilda Thatcher. It was suggested that Margaret was reluctant to publicly give her backbench MPs pay-rises at a time when she was insisting on financial constraint from public sector workers. As their expenses were not thought to be subject to public scrutiny, it was deemed a crafty means of giving MPs a de facto pay rise. Regardless, it almost beggars belief that a dyed-in-the-wool socialist would have accepted any advice from Margaret Thatcher at the height of her clashes with the Trade Unions and public sector workers.

Nor have the Lib Dems emerged unscathed from the scandal. Given the circumstances I not surprised that the electorate have failed to overwhelmingly endorse any one party. It was all so very different thirteen years ago. Then I found myself staying up until the early hours, mesmerised by the unbelievable sight of so many hitherto safe Conservative seats falling to Labour one after the other. After the Thatcher years, it seemed nigh on impossible that there could even be a Labour win, let alone by such a huge majority. After snatching a few hours sleep I went to join friends for a champagne breakfast in Smithfield’s. We had not arranged our get-together to coincide with the elections but to mark the departure of a colleague for a new job. At the time, pubs around Smithfield’s meat market were allowed to start serving alcohol from 6 o’clock in the morning. Traditionally their clientele would have been stallholders and delivery men, hence the special dispensation. It seemed rather decadent to indulge in a traditional full English breakfast of toast, fried eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, bacon and pork sausages all rounded off with a glass or two of champagne before strolilng nonchalantly into work.

Thirteen years later my own view of Tony Blair is what a huge disappointment he has proved to be as the Iraq Inquiry has aptly demonstrated. Perhaps we have all become a touch more cynical and less likely to be  as readily duped by our politicians as we might have been in the past. In which case the 1997 political anthem “Things can only get better” might still have resonance. I sincerely hope so. Although from my experience, the light at the end of the tunnel is usually from an on-coming express train.

Elephants on parade.

After having spent last Monday with Mandip at Tate Modern, more of which anon, we parted company at the Millennium Bridge.  As it had turned into a fine albeit blustery afternoon, I decided to take a stroll along the Thames path. However due to   work being carried out on one of the bridges crossing the Thames, I had to take something of a detour along unfamiliar streets and stumbled came across some almshouses, whose existence I had hitherto been unaware of. 

In his will of 1731 Charles Hopton, a wealthy fish-merchant, left money so that almshouses could be erected to provide homes for poor single men in his parish. Unlike Sir Robert Geffrye’s grander almshouses across the river  (A farewel to almshouses)Charles Hopton’s more modest almshouses still provide social housing today. From what I could ascertain from my restricted view from outside the gated entrance, the almshouses follow a similar pattern to those at Shoreditch, in that they form a range around a central building block, presumably the site of the original chapel.

Echoing the Biblical story of the Widow’s Mite, when the Widow Simon died in 1798 she left, amongst other bequests, a cottage for “four poor women.”( A farewell to almshouses )As a poor spinster of this parish I might one day be eligible to walk across the road and take up residence in Elizabeth Simon’s Georgian almshouse. It used to be the custom that when the well-to-do died, a diamond shaped board, emblazoned with the deceased person's coat of arms and known as a hatchment, would be hung for a time from their place of residence. Some of these hatchments have found their way into the local parish church. Thus, there is one on display for Elizabeth Simon as well as for Sir William Hamilton and Horatio Nelson; the latter two gentlemen being the husband and lover of Emma Hamilton respectively. There is also a hatchment for King Charles I. As we share the same initials, I rather fancy the idea of recycling his regal hatchment for my own use should the occasion arise. The parish church of St Mary the Virgin also contains a fine memorial to the Tudor courtier Sir Gregory Lovell, depicting him with his two wives and nine children from these marriages. For quite some time I was under the delightful misapprehension that Sir Gregory had been a personal hairdresser to Queen Elizabeth I. It did seem rather odd that Queen Elizabeth should have shown such marked favour towards Sir Gregory. She is said to have visited his former house along my road on at least three occasions in the 16th century, whilst en-route to her palace at Nonsuch. Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth was known to have been more than a little vain and even a Queen of England might think it prudent to keep on friendly terms with the man tending to her precious locks. Except that Sir Gregory was never her hairdresser. I had confused coiffeur, from the French for hairdresser, with cofferer, the latter referring to a principal officer at Court and in Sir Gregory’s case, a treasurer. 

One of King Charles II’s embroiders has a tomb in the graveyard outside the church of St Mary the Virgin. History does not reveal whether the Merry Monarch would pop by the neighbourhood whenever he needed an item of clothing darned. If he had done so and I had been in possession of a time-machine I would have exchanged a few choice words with him regarding his lamentable decision to hand over Henry VIII’s magnificent Nonsuch Palace to his erstwhile mistress, Barbara Palmer. The philistine had it pulled down and the material sold off for scrap to pay off her gambling debts. But then the Stuarts always were more than a little jealous of their Tudor counterparts, knowing they could never hope to live up to their glorious reputation.

Whilst I was photographing Charles Hopton’s almshouses, Mandip sent me a  text-message stating she had just seen "the elephants". I did not have a clue as to what she was talking about and wondered if she had been secretly imbibing gin from a concealed hipflask all day. It was only when I got to the Southbank and saw a small herd of exotically painted elephants that I realised she must have seen similar sights on her way home. There are 260 such elephants dotted around London to raise money for the Elephant Family charity. At the end of the summer they will be auctioned off in the hope of raising two million pounds for the elephant charity. If I had the space and equally importantly the money, I would be solely tempted to bid for one. That would be one elephant in the room that everyone would be talking about.