Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens: a Suffolk mystery

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On 2 March 1901, William Tricker, a man who described himself as “a gentleman of independent means,” but who actually worked as a gamekeeper for the local Suffolk gentry, was walking through his home village of Ashbocking (or Ash Bocking, if you like, the name derived from the ash trees that flourished there and an ancient family of landowners called the Bockings). He decided to take a look at the edge of some land he was renting, which was opposite the pub, the Lord Nelson. He’d spotted some watercress growing at the edge of his pond, he said. The pond was tiny, about twelve feet in width but it was also deep and several of the villagers used it for their fresh water supply. As Tricker looked at the watercress, his eye caught something else, a sight that he would never be able to forget. About eighteen inches below the surface of the water were two pale faces, staring up at him like phantoms, white and bloated, floating there like twin moons.

Something glimpsed on the periphery of his vision, as if it were an incident in an M. R. James ghost story. William Tricker might have been forgiven for not believing his own eyes, but it would have only taken him moments to realise that both of those faces were familiar. They belonged to eighteen-year-old Edgar Hardwick and twenty-three-year-old Robert Richer, who had been missing since the previous Wednesday. The two young men had spent most of their short lives in the village, the Richer family were near neighbours of Tricker, who lived at the White House at Ashbocking Green. The Richer family’s cottage was almost next door.

It’s possible that M. R. James may have, consciously or subconsciously, used a few details from the strange events at Ashbocking in A School Story, published in 1911, ten years later. This typically subtle and chilling tale ends with the discovery of two bodies found tied together in a well in Ireland. A coin on a chain was found “amongst the rags of the clothes that were on one of the bodies. A bad business, whatever the story of it may have been. One body had the arms tight around the other.”

Compare that to this report of the inquest into the deaths of Richer and Hardwick that appeared in the Ipswich local newspaper, The Evening Star, on 4 March 1901: “Standing one in front of the other, the two, after having connected their belts, seem to have wound them around their waists, and afterwards entered the water. Another curious circumstance in the case is, that on Thursday, the morning after the deceased were last seen, a carter named Wood, in the employ of Mr Turner, of Witnesham, saw a watch and chain on the railings by the side of the pond. Seeing it had not been taken when he passed the spot again in the afternoon, he took charge of the watch and chain, intending to give it to Mr Tricker, to whom he believed it belonged. However, on hearing of the tragedy, he handed the watch and chain to the parents of one of the deceased, who identified them easily.”

It is quite likely that Montague Rhodes James read the newspaper coverage of the story, whether he was in the Cambridge University study where he told his students ghost stories on Christmas Eve, or back home in his rectory at Great Livermere in Suffolk, neither were very far from Ashbocking. The two male bodies tied together has an obvious pre-Freudian subtext – obvious to us in these post-Freudian days anyway. The writer, Anthony Powell, a pupil of James at Eton said that “I myself have heard it suggested that James’s (of course platonic) love affairs were in fact fascinating to watch.” James may have been hinting at something in his story that was never made explicit in any of the newspaper coverage of the true events of 1901. In his story, an exotic inscribed Byzantine coin on a chain replaces the more prosaic discovery of a watch and chain, but the echoes are clear.

But this was no ghost story and the corpses at Ashbocking Green were all too real. Tricker quickly realised that he did not have the strength to pull the two men out of the pond without help, and he ran across to the Nelson, returning minutes later with several helpers. They hauled the bodies out and carried them to the nearby Toll-gate house. It would have taken a very short time to identify Richer and Hardwick. They had left the pub the week before and people in the village said that everyone assumed they’d gone off to join the army. It was the time of the second Boer War and Robert had a bit of form as far as going off without telling his family was concerned. Once he’d disappeared to London for several weeks without “acquainting his parents of his whereabouts.”

Both lads had jobs locally. Robert worked as a labourer, along with his father, also Robert, for the Stanford family who farmed at Ash Hall, and Hardwick worked as a labourer employed by someone called Simper. Edgar’s father David Hardwick was a horseman on another farm. Few people in Ashbocking were not involved with agriculture in some way. Their families would not have been wealthy, but were described as “comfortable” and appear to have been respected by the other villagers. The discovery of the bodies, and in particular the way that they were found, sent shock waves through this remote community. The local press certainly made a great deal of the story, as a “village mystery” and a tragedy, but the inquest, which was held very quickly, appears to the modern reader to be full of contradictory evidence and hastily concluded. Very hastily indeed.

Ashbocking is one of those Suffolk parishes that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. Nowadays the old clay cottages, barns and timbered farmhouses have been converted and there is an air of second or holiday homes about it. There are swimming pools in some gardens. It has a peaceful beauty, if only in the sense of the Talking Heads’ song: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It is only eight miles north of Ipswich, but it is quiet and it has always been quiet. The only event that appears to have occurred here, if it can be called an event, was the expulsion of its vicar, Rev. Theodore Beale, by the notorious Committee for Scandalous Ministers in 1644. They were turbulent times. Suffolk’s own William Dowsing was on a mission to smash up idolatrous images in East Anglian churches and in the same year, Matthew Hopkins, of Manningtree, appointed himself Witchfinder-General and started his persecutions, many of them in East Anglia. You could be burnt to death for stepping out of line in 1644. It was a time to keep your head down and keep quiet, even in Ashbocking, but Beale was an outspoken clergyman and had preached sermons that said more than enough to cause the Puritan government to order the sequestration of his living and property. He was thrown out of Ashbocking and some people said that he died in prison.

Ashbocking returned to peaceful ways for several more centuries. Nothing ever happened. The land, owned by the Tollemache family, was cultivated to grow crops: barley, oats, peas and beans. That was all there was in Ashbocking by the beginning of the twentieth century, plus a public house called the Nelson, now closed, and demolished. It was a small parish of 289 residents who lived in 66 dwellings, mostly cottages. Everyone in this isolated parish would have known almost everything about everybody else in the village.

The inquest was not held at the Nelson. It was quite usual to use a nearby public house for an inquest but perhaps the Ashbocking Nelson was too involved, too close. It was very quickly decided to have the inquest in a neighbouring village and it opened a few days later at Pigstye Farm, Witnesham. (Pigstye Farm is called something else now, perhaps it was not an ideal name for a holiday home.) The coroner was Mr. Walter Brooke and a jury was hastily assembled, presumably made up of local people. Were feelings running too high in Ashbocking for a jury to be trusted there? There is nothing to tell us. We do know, however, that Superintendent Hubbard of Woodbridge represented the Suffolk police. The Cambridgeshire Advertiser reported the inquest in full. Could this have been where Montague James saw the story? It’s likely, and perhaps a few of the details stuck in his mind, to be brought out ten years later in A School Story. It’s interesting to try and spot the differences and omissions between the detailed report in this newspaper and those published elsewhere, and so I will give it in full, except where it repeats things that we already know:

“DOUBLE DROWNING MYSTERY AT ASHBOCKING: TWO LABOURERS DIE STRAPPED TOGETHER
Robert Richer, labourer, Ashbocking, identified the deceased, Robert Richer, as his son. Witness last saw him alive on the previous Wednesday morning, about 6.30, when leaving for work. As the morning was wet deceased did not go to work – he was employed at the same farm as witness – and seemed more inclined to stay in bed. Deceased expressed the intention of attending a pigeon match at Otley, and deponent believed he came home about ten o’clock, after writing a letter to his sister, who is in service at Henley.
The Coroner: Have you seen the contents of that letter? – No, Sir.

A Juror: The letter is important.

Witness added that his son did not return home on Wednesday, but he made no report to the police, as deceased on a previous occasion left home and did not return for several weeks. He did not think his son and Hardwick “palled” together much. Deceased had been in good spirits.

The Coroner: You never heard him express a wish that he was out of the world, or anything of that sort? – No, Sir.

You do not know of anybody about here who owed him a grudge? – No, Sir; he always appeared happy and comfortable.

At the conclusion of the witness’s evidence the Foreman (Mr. Fred. Miller) expressed the opinion that it would be best to have the letter written to deceased sister produced.

The Coroner agreed.

George Hardwick, labourer, Ashbocking, said the deceased, Edgar Hardwick, was his brother, and he last saw him alive at the White Hart, Otley, on the previous Wednesday, between 8 and 8.30 p.m. Deceased, who appeared in his usual health and spirits, was drinking hot rum and water. Deceased remained in the house four or five hours. Witness had been with him to the pigeon match, and deceased was in Richer’s company throughout the day. The two deceased men left the White Hart about 8:30 p.m. His brother had been in very good spirits, and, as far as deponent’s knowledge went, he had had nothing to worry him.

The Coroner: Has he ever made use of any expression in regard to his life? – No, Sir.

Was he a drinking man at all? – No, Sir.

The Foreman: Did the deceased man Hardwick lose any money at the pigeon match? – I can’t say, Sir.

Did they shoot somebody? – No, Sir.

Witness, continuing, said he lived with his brother, who got up about nine or ten o’clock on Wednesday, taking his meals as usual. Witness notice nothing peculiar in his manner that morning, although during breakfast they had no conversation upon any subject.

The Coroner: Had you and he had any row of any sort? – No, Sir.

Did you often have your meal together without talking? – Yes, Sir.

That is rather unusual proceeding? – Yes, Sir.

A Juror: Did he have much drink during the day? – I can’t say.

The Coroner: Had there been any friction at home? – No, Sir.

Was he a genial and good-tempered fellow? – Yes, Sir.

Mr Geo. F. Meadows, surgeon, Otley, who had made an external examination of the bodies, said he could detect no marks of violence. The cause of death in each case was asphyxia by drowning.

Richard Tack, postman, Coddenham, deposed that he had just finished his delivery in Ashbocking, and was in the Nelson Inn, when informed of the previous witness’s [Tricker’s] discovery. Witness assisted in the removal of the bodies, and during the operation the two belts with which the bodies were strapped together gave way.

Alfred Hatcher, labourer, Otley, said he had known the deceased for four or five years, and met them at the White Hart on the Wednesday evening. They were both drinking ‘mild’ beer at the time, but just before they left the house they had some rum and water.

The Coroner: Were they quite sober? – Well, they seem to have had a little beer, but they could walk and talk all right.

Were they much accustomed to taking too much drink? – I can’t say, Sir.

Did they seem in good spirits? – Yes; they were laughing and talking.

How many glasses of beer did they have in the house? – About two apiece.

Frances Diggens, daughter of the landlord of Ashbocking Nelson Inn, said she occasionally served in the bar, and knew the deceased, who frequently visited the house. On the previous Wednesday they came into the bar at 9.30 p.m. and she served them with a bottle of gingerbeer each. The men remained until closing-time, and appeared sober and very quiet. The deceased had nothing to drink beyond the gingerbeer.

Supt. Hubbard: Was it unusual for them to have ginger beer? – They usually drink beer.

Mrs Emma Daniels, married woman, of Swilland, gave evidence to the effect that both men, while in the Nelson Inn, seemed quite sober; their conversation mainly referred to a bracelet worn by Miss Diggens. On leaving witness noticed that the men did not turn in the direction of their homes, and remarked, ‘That is not your way home.’ Richer turned round and exclaimed, ‘I am going to leave this _____ country.’

The Foreman: Did Hardwick make any remark? – No.

In reply to a juror, witness said she was rather timid at the time, as she thought the deceased men were going to have a ‘skit’ with her; consequently she hurried home with her daughter. Witness and others had thought Richer was not exactly right; he seemed to have had some ‘funny schemes’ recently. On one occasion recently he fired off a gun in front of the Nelson Inn, and slightly injured his hands. Richer then remarked that he would just as soon sink as swim, or die as live; he would shoot anybody who stood in front of him.

The Coroner: Was he drunk at the time? – No, Sir. I have never seen him drunk in his life; he was not even ‘freshy.’

What sort of man was Hardwick? – He was a nice quiet boy.

A Juror: Had there been a row in the Nelson when Richer threatened to shoot anybody? – No.

The Coroner here observed that he thought it would be advisable that Miss Richer, who had received a letter from her brother, should attend the inquiry, together with David Hardwick, the father of the other deceased man.

The Foreman: I should like to see the letter. It is a most extraordinary case.

Some discussion ensued among the Jury as to the advisability of an adjournment until March 18th, and it was pointed out by the Coroner that in the event of this course being pursued it would be possible for the police to make further enquiries. Eventually, however, after a consultation, the Foreman announced that the Jury had decided that the enquiry should proceed as they had already practically made up their minds in the matter.”

Richer had a letter from a Miss Ethel Furnish in his pocket. The Coroner told the Jury that he had seen it and it contained nothing important. They were also told that both Richard and Hardwick had money in their pockets.

“The Coroner, summing up, observed that a person, by the law of England, was considered to be sane unless the contrary was proved, and in this case there seems to be little or no evidence – with the exception of that given by Mrs Daniels – as to the state of mind of either of the deceased men. Mrs Daniels evidence seemed scarcely sufficient to show there was really any unhinging of the mind which would make the men unaccountable for their actions at the time. Unless there was evidence of that kind it was the usual course, by the law of England, to return a verdict of felo-de-se.” [A felo-de-se is an arcane legal term for suicide.]

The jury, after a brief consultation, returned an open verdict of “found drowned.”

Apart from the excessive interest in the drinking habits of the dead men, reminiscent of Hillsborough enquiries in our own time, what’s most interesting are the things that, like the dog that barked in the night, were not heard. Richer’s father claimed that his son was not paricularly friendly with Hardwick, although it seems unlikely in a tiny village that two young men of a similar age were not close, unless they had reason to dislike one another, which was obviously not the case. In fact, when Edgar Hardwick’s brother George was asked if the two young men were “very intimate,” he answered quite unequivocally: “Yes.”

Even if the jurors accepted the Coroner’s opinion that the letter from Miss Furnish found on Robert’s body was irrelevant, it seems astonishing that they weren’t interested enough to wait the short time it would have taken to retrieve the letter he had sent to his sister from Henley, a village just outside Ipswich. It might have explained everything. Even if the members of the jury were desperate to go home, it’s surprising they didn’t have enough interest in the case to wait for this letter.

The story was taken up by newspapers around Britain, as far away as Dundee, and, as these things are, it was altered and embroidered in the telling. The words – only witnessed, allegedly, by people in the Nelson – reportedly spoken by Robert Richer to the effect that he wanted to die and “would be better on the morrow” were soon ascribed to both young men. The jury was instructed to find a verdict of suicide, but it didn’t. You don’t have to be a devotee of Line of Duty to know that the police and court officials would have been destroyed by a Edwardian equivalent of Superintendent Ted Hastings. The most basic enquiries were never made. The rush to a verdict was unseemly to say the least – and there the story ended.

It seems obvious that the deaths of Robert and Edgar were probably suicide. The reason that dared not speak its name being the most likely explanation as to why two young, healthy men, who were described as being happy, enjoying life, and taking a holiday to have some fun, suddenly disappeared to be found dead in this bizarre manner, but I think there may be another explanation. Certainly, if Robert and Edgar were lovers their lives would have been difficult. At the Old Bailey in 1901, consenting adult men were sentenced to periods of between six months’ and ten years’ hard labour for “sodomy.” It was the era of Oscar Wilde, but I doubt somehow that Richer and Hardwick were going about mid-Suffolk wearing green carnations – although it’s clear that Richer (“I’m going to leave this _____ country.”) was unhappy in some way. In backwaters like early twentieth century Ashbocking though, it would have been possible to conduct some kind of illicit love affair in secrecy. There were plenty of hidden places for clandestine trysts. It’s interesting that, unlike the London courts, the Suffolk criminal registers don’t have any records of such offences at this time. In the eighteenth century, homosexual men from Suffolk were forced to stand in the pillory on Ipswich Cornhill, or were even hanged, but by the twentieth century, all had gone quiet. It seems that people did not even want to recognise the existence of same sex love – but that doesn’t mean the hostility and hatred had abated.

The only noise in this case was the babbling of the people at the Nelson, who seemed very anxious to brand Robert Richer as a bit of an oddity. The inquest only had the word of the witnesses in the Lord Nelson about what really happened when the pair left that night. It was from those people that the inquest heard that the boys went in the wrong direction on leaving the bar. But what if they weren’t telling the truth, what if everyone in that bar knew what happened but they just weren’t saying?

The police and the Coroner rejected any idea of “foul play” out of hand. It would have been too difficult, they decided, for even a large group of men, to strap the lads together in this way. Would it have been? And what happened to Robert and Edgar between the time they left the Nelson on Wednesday night and when William Tricker discovered their bodies on Saturday morning? We have no scene of crime officers or forensic scientists to help us, but it’s unlikely that the bodies had been lying in a clear pond used for public drinking water unnoticed for more than two days.

There is no way of knowing what happened, because no one, not even Robert and Edgar’s families, would have wanted us to know. Ashbocking Green returned to its usual state of rural sleepiness, undisturbed by the presence of violent death in its midst.

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Football, war and the meaning of silence

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At the end of the First World War, the whole of Britain was in a state of numbed paralysis. After four years of bloodshed and carnage, in which almost an entire generation of young men was wiped out, the only response available to the nation was silence. It was to silence that people turned when they made their first memorials to those they had lost. On 11 November 1919, when the Manchester Guardian wrote of the first Armistice Day commemoration, it spoke of “silence which [is] almost pain … And the spirit of memory brood[ing] over it all.”

The men who survived the trenches also chose silence. For several generations, their families knew that they would not speak of the war, that the father, grandfather or great-grandfather, with the musty box of medals and the Old Comrades’ Association mug in his cupboard, was not minded to talk about it, but preferred to remain silent, although perhaps he might have shared a few memories over a pint if he ever ran into a pal who’d been through the same.

Silence is there in the work of our war poets like a shroud. In Siegfried Sassoon’s The Death Bed he writes of “silence and safety…” while for Wilfred Owen it meant danger (“Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . / Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . . / Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . . / Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous, / But nothing happens.” (Exposure)

For all of them, silence is also death.

So it is strange now that we live in a time of such clamour and noise, made for the most part by the overpaid attack dogs of Murdoch and Rothermere, demanding everyone pays appropriate tribute on Remembrance Day. Those shouting the loudest are unlikely to have seen war at first hand. Similarly people who work in what they would probably call the football industry appear to have decided that they too have a role in shaping our collective memory. Only a few days ago, the Premier League posted this on their website, despite there not being one iota of consultation of supporters who are expected to participate in or watch these rituals (which is hardly suprising given the general attitude of the football authorities to fans).

The introduction of the one minute of silence at football matches has been a slow process. I’ve tried to find out when it first began but I haven’t been able to. It’s difficult to know exactly how our football grounds became places where the nation gathered for such commemorations. It’s fatuous to suggest that football has replaced religion but sports events are often the only place where communities come together. I can see that. What I can’t see is who decides who, what or why we remember and how we go about it. We are – at least we’re told we are – “the football family” and like every family we have things that we share, but we also quarrel, squabble and don’t necessarily all agree on very much at all.

Silences were once held to remember former players or club officials who died. Sometimes a silence was observed for a member of the Royal Family who had died, although this was always controversial. Occasionally they were held because of a local tragedy. I remember a particular occasion at my club’s ground, Portman Road, which was both moving and comforting. It felt right. Since then, however, it seems that we are being called upon to hold silences for all kinds of things, without being consulted on whether we agree with them or not. The assumption that we must all agree about these things is contemptible in my view, and I decided long ago that, although I would never be disrespectful if I were present at any such event, I would not participate in it myself unless I happened to agree with it.

This is made easier, of course, by the inability of many people to remain silent for as long as sixty seconds, which has resulted in that interesting phenomenon “the minute’s applause.” We are not a generation that has known much of war or death, and the “silence that is almost pain,” and so, perhaps, silence is difficult for some.

I am told that holding silences to commemorate our war dead at football matches came with the Help for Heroes campaign and that seems about right, at least in the timing of it. The militarism that has become more and more prominent in our public life has been obvious to anyone who has regularly attended football matches in the last ten years. It seems that to even question this will result in accusations of anything from not caring about injured troops to treason, so hysterical has our public discourse become in recent times. However, the imposition of the commemoration of war – rapidly morphing into a celebration of war as this egregious photograph of children in this year’s British Legion press release demonstrates – is simply wrong.

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It’s wrong because it forces people to participate in something they may not agree with, or may even find objectionable. It’s wrong because it presumes a social cohesion and shared beliefs that ultimately results in the dangerous mentality that “if you’re not for us, you’re against us.” It is wrong, particularly in the context of a football match, because it’s based on a fantasy about war itself, and a fantasy about the relationship between war and football. From the Christmas card imagery of the fabled match between Fritz and Tommy in the First World War trenches onwards, football is increasingly being used to sanitise the experience of war.

In 1914, there was in fact tremendous hostility in Britain towards professional footballers. Football club chairmen, ever with money at the forefront of their minds, insisted that players kept to their contracts and most footballers, understandably reluctant to be blown to bits for their country, declined to join the army. The bravery that consumed some journalists as they sat behind their typewriters encouraged them to attack the players. The Times thundered: “These professional footballers of England are the pick of the country for fitness. Nobody has the right to say that any body of men are not doing their duty… but when the young men week after week see the finest physical manhood of the country expending its efforts in kicking a ball about, they can’t possibly realise that there is a call for every fit man at the front.”

Eventually the pressure was so great that most young footballers did join up and many were killed or maimed so badly that they never played again. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, things were different, players were determined to “do their bit” and were able to carry on playing football as well as serving their country. Aware of the importance of football for public morale, the government made it easy for top players like Stanley Matthews, Tommy Lawton, Frank Soo and Joe Mercer to be stationed in England where they could continue to play as guest players for other clubs, if they couldn’t play for their own. Very few star footballers of the time ever saw open warfare.

Unlike now, there were no loud demands for footballers to wear poppies or for commemorative silences to be held at football grounds after either of these wars. Players who had lost comrades or family members did what everyone else did and remembered in church, or at their local war memorial, or alone in silence. They had their own thoughts, feelings and memories and it wasn’t necessary to make a public show of them. So why now? Why do the people who write newspaper columns, or football administrators, feel they have the right to insist that players and supporters participate in such events? It is a compelling part of the romanticisation of war, this conflation of the football player and the soldier, but it is not one that bears much scrutiny when faced with the realities of combat: the severed limb, the pitiless impact of war on the lives and minds of survivors, or – to go back to Wilfred Owen’s poem, Exposure – “The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp, / Pause over half-known faces. / All their eyes are ice, / But nothing happens.”

I have written before about the social pressures associated with poppy wearing and this year the controversy continues but I would question why any footballer should wear a poppy on his shirt while playing. Why has this suddenly become an issue for football when for decades, no one felt the necessity of asking players to commemorate war, certainly not the people who actually fought in one? My answer is that there are people behind it who have political motives to encourage an atmosphere of nationalism  and its concomitant hostility to “outsiders,” and the public celebration of war, rather than the private mourning of those affected by it which is, in fact, more traditional in this country.

I’ve also written about the digitisation project which I worked on in 1999/2000, Picture Norfolk, in which the extant portrait photographs of every Norfolk serviceman killed during the First World War were made available online. These images have had an immense effect on me. In the age of the selfie – the preening and posturing of the shallow and the self-obsessed – they seem even more poignant. The lack of self-awareness, the direct, honest gaze, the unpretentious stance, these were images quite consciously made for the loved ones who were left behind. Each silent face preserved so that it would be remembered over the long years to come, when all that remained of the subject was a treasured sepia photograph, hanging above a quiet fireplace.

Age of Consent

img_2029In the early 1990s I was working for Age Concern in Norwich. Most of my job consisted of giving advice about welfare benefits, providing support for the various extremely acrimonious and seriously misnamed older people’s Friendship Clubs, and reading a lot of social policy documents. I wasn’t there long and the one thing that has stuck in my mind from that time is my boss, an experienced social worker, coming into the office and telling us that a woman had been raped in Great Yarmouth. I misremembered her age. I’ve been thinking she was in her 90s. In fact, as this extract from an article by Linda Grant in the Independent tells us, the victim was 100 years old. Her assailant, whom I’m pleased to see was later convicted, was a 16-year-old boy. What is most clear in my memory, I’ll spare you. It was about the fragility of the woman’s bones.

Most people reading that – even those who have been celebrating the overturning of Ched Evans’ rape conviction – will be sickened. Despite the nastiness and the appalling misogyny that has been let loose by the Evans case, I believe the discussion is missing the point. Rape is not about sex-gone-wrong. It’s all about power.

That’s not to say the issue of consent isn’t important. It is an important issue and young women (and men) need to be protected by society from the victim blaming/shaming culture that fails to recognise that having sex with someone without consent, and that includes being too pissed, stoned, or unconscious to give it, is rape. Date rape is an important issue and I’m not saying it isn’t.

For me, though, we’ll never solve the problem of rape and sexual assault unless we address the fact that it’s rarely (I’d probably say never) about sex. It’s about power. It’s why footballers, who have partners at home and brag about the number of women queuing up to have sex with them, do the kind of things that happened on that fateful night. Forgive me if I’m being a bit naïve, but I still believe most men prefer intimacy with a conscious, sentient being. The Ched Evans case was never about sex. That’s why the debate about consent is a red herring – important in itself, but irrelevant to this case. Unfortunately, making it about consent also meant his conviction was overturned, thereby giving free rein to every keyboard warrior in the country to opine about how much the woman concerned “deserved” it.

Every woman knows what it’s like to live in a society where it’s necessary to think constantly about your own personal safety. Every woman has a long list of the assaults, from minor to major, that they have to put up with, often from people in a position of trust. Most women will also tell you that other women are frequently not supportive when these incidents occur. That the most common response, even from friends, to hearing about sexual assault is to make the victim feel she is somehow to blame. We are seeing this now with the female support for Evans and also in the fact that Donald Trump, who is the archetype of every sleazebag boss you ever had, is a smidge away from becoming President of the United States. The ultimate power trip.

Rape is about power which is why it is a weapon of war. Mass rape has gone on since ancient times and it continues. While girls and women are seen as property, they will remain the spoils of war.

Rape is about power which is why the victims of rape range from babies to, as we have seen, 100 years old.

Sexual assault is about power which is why every woman knows what it’s like to have to fend off the unwanted attentions of your boss, your teacher, your Presidential Candidate, or any other authority figure in your life.

Sexual assault is about power which is why, even in the 21st century, women’s lives are circumscribed by fear. Fear of making a mistake and being in a position of vulnerability. Fear of missing the last bus or train home. Fear of the landlord who you know illegally has a key to your flat and uses it. Fear of the father of two charming children you babysit for. Fear of your neighbour. Fear of your friend’s granddad.

Yes, it’s obvious that a lot of men and women need educating about consent. We need to recognise that the sexual oppression of women is about more than that though.

Evil May Day revisited

David Cameron’s decision to make a speech about immigration in the run up to local elections may be surprising to some. It is unusual for a political leader in Britain, whether a monarch or a Prime Minister, to make such an overt statement about immigration.  Nevertheless, there is a history of violent, albeit short-lived outbursts of anti-foreign feeling in Britain, usually as a result of rabble-rousing by a demagogue like Oswald Mosley

One example took place in London in 1517 and became known as “Evil May Day.” This sudden, and probably terrifying, riot occurred two weeks after an inflammatory sermon by a Dr. Bell, in which he appealed to “Englishmen to cherish and defend themselves, and to hurt and grieve aliens for the common weal.” Attacks on foreigners began immediately, but events came to a head on the first of May when apprentices, later joined by Thames watermen and city porters (these three groups seemed always to be up for a riot) ran wild in the city of London, attacking foreigners, looting their homes and shops. In this case, the “foreigners” were mainly French, but such outbreaks of aggression took place periodically, aimed at Jews, or the Dutch or other groups who were identified as being an economic threat to the indigenous population.

Here’s a contemporary account from Hall’s Chronicle (ca. 1548) which was sympathetic to the rioters: “[The Eighth year of King Henry VIII.] In this season, the Genevese, Frenchmen and other strangers said and boasted themselves to be in such favour with the king and his council, that they set nought by the rulers of the city; and the multitude of strangers was so great about London, that the poor English artificers could scarce get any living; and, most of all, the strangers were so proud, that they disdained, mocked and oppressed the Englishmen, which was the beginning of the grudge.”  … Allegations of assaults and a murder follow before the account continues, “For, amongst others that sore grudged at these matters, there was a broker in London, called John Lincoln, which wrote a bill before Easter, desiring Doctor Sandish at his sermon at Saint Mary Spital, the Monday in Easter week, to move the mayor and aldermen to take part with the commonalty against the strangers.  The doctor answered, that it became not him to move any such thing in a sermon.” Lincoln then succeeded in persuading a Dr. Bele or Bell to give a sermon about the dangers the foreigners posed to those “born in London.”…  “Of this sermon many a light person took courage, and openly spake against strangers.  And, as the devil would, the Sunday after, at Greenwich, in the king’s gallery was Francis de Bard, which, as you heard, kept an Englishman’s wife and his goods.  And with him were Domingo, Anthony Caueler, and many more strangers; and there they, talking with Sir Thomas Palmer, knight, jested and laughed that Francis kept the Englishman’s wife, saying that if they had the Mayor’s wife of London, they would keep her.  Sir Thomas said, ‘Sirs, you have too much favour in England.’ There were divers English merchants by, and heard them laugh and were not content, in so much as one William Bolt, a mercer, said, ‘Well, you whoresome Lombards, you rejoice and laugh; by the mass, we will one day have a day at you, come when it will;’ and that saying the other merchant affirmed.”

The chronicle then goes on to describe the riots of the following May Day: “Then suddenly there was a common secret rumour, and no man could tell how it began, that on May day next, the city would rebel, and slay all  aliens …” The rioting involved many hundreds of people and there was considerable destruction to “foreigners’ ” property, although it was not recorded whether anyone was killed or not.

After intervention by Sir Thomas More, the riot was quelled and hundreds were arrested. Henry VIII pardoned most of them but 13 rioters, including John Lincoln, were executed for treason. It is interesting to compare how, even in the 16th century, the authorities were aware of the dangers of allowing tensions about immigration to boil over into violence and hatred.

History tells us that the smallest thing can exacerbate tensions, particularly at a time of economic hardship. Perhaps our current leaders should study a little more history.

*

I wrote this back in April 2011 and, obviously, attitudes to immigrants and refugees have hardly improved since then. I was reminded of it because I watched an interview that Ian McKellen gave to Owen Jones in which he referred to a speech about Evil May Day, delivered in the character of Sit Thomas More, in an eponymous play, which has now been attributed to Shakespeare. I tend to be very sceptical about “new’ Shakespeare writing, but I can quite believe that he was involved in this speech. Besides which, it’s remarkable in its own right and so apposite to what is happening in Britain right now not to be important and moving. So I have added a link to the McKellen interview, the text of the speech taken from a piece by Sylvia Morris on The Shakespeare Blog and another clip of Ian McKellen talking about and delivering the speech at a film festival. It’s worth listening to the whole thing, because his introduction is important too. Finally, here’s (probably) Shakespeare’s  writing from Sir Thomas More:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

 

 

Why no demo ever shouts “what do we want? The one per cent Oxbridge elite”

I have to confess to having a bit of a problem with Tristram Hunt MP. It’s probably terribly unfair, and a manifestation of some class-based prejudice about people named after Arthurian knights but there it is. It’s just he’s an MP for Stoke-on-Trent, and whenever I see his name, I hear my North Staffordshire-born mother saying: “What kind of name is that? I bet he didn’t go to a comprehensive in Longton.” (I’ve looked Stoke schools up and its all the Stanley Matthews Academy and Business and Enterprise colleges now.) To be fair to Tristram, it isn’t really his name that’s the problem, although I was amazed the people of Stoke voted him as their MP. They elected Oswald Mosley’s wife, Lady Cynthia in 1929 though, so who really knows?

I was prepared to give Tristram a chance. I believe in equality and people can’t help coming from a privileged background any more than they can help coming from a deprived one. But the privately-educated son of Julian, Baron Hunt of Chesterton, has really started to get on my tits. I’ve been irritated for some time by the juxtaposition of his New Labour stance supporting Tory welfare cuts with the reports that children in Stoke were searching in bins for food, or his seemingly bizarre views on education when shadow minister. It’s his most recent remarks I’ve been most irritated by though. The Labour Party, Trist opines, needs to be run by Oxbridge graduates, people – uncannily similar to Mr H himself – he seems to believe are automatically greater of intellect, or ability, than trade unionists, or care workers, or Poly-then-red-brick types like me. Like Tony Blair, I think Tristram Hunt is a believer in “meritocracy” – a term coined by sociologist Michael Young, later Baron Young of Dartington (although I have been reminded that Young meant it satirically – see comment below).  It was the second worst thing he ever did after fathering the egregious Toby. I’m not going to write about how much I detest the idea of meritocracy here. I’ll simply say that it’s an idea that, oddly enough, is normally beloved of those who consider themselves to be meritorious. It’s bound up with the whole idea of the successful or unsuccessful, the deserving or undeserving. It raises up a specific view of what is “intelligent” whilst ignoring that there are so many other ways that people can contribute to society – altruism, compassion, technical skills, parenting, and so on. The path to becoming one of the 1% at Oxbridge is not only smoother for those from certain backgrounds but it also priviliges those who think in a certain way, who have been schooled in certain kinds of knowledge. Apols, Boris Johnson, but I’ve never found Latin to be very useful in my life.

Perhaps, Tristram, we might look at education in a fundamentally different way. Not so much a pedagogic survival of the fittest, training and schooling pegs of all kinds of shapes into differently-shaped holes, but a way of giving everyone a chance to learn about all the things that make life worth living, to lead a fulfilled life. For some that might involve being in business, or becoming a politician, but for others it might be literature, art, science or sport that allows them to lead a happy life, contribute to society in the best way they can. A friend of mine once told me that his father, a London bus driver, would come home every evening and the first thing he would do was listen to a complete opera record. He hated his job, but he had a window into a world of beauty that he loved. Only education – in its truest sense – can do this.

But I digress, because what I wanted to talk to an eminent historian about was the history of workers’ education. I won’t have to tell him about the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Working Men’s educational associations, the WEA and so on. The rise of workers’ education in towns like Hanley and Stoke, or like the Sutherland Institute in Longton gave opportunities to generations of people. Now they’re withering away from under-funding and neglect, in order to throw money at private organisations to promote a divisive and damaging form of elitism that will leave most people behind. It was through these institutions, now deemed old-fashioned, that people from my background gained access to education. Through evening classes, part-time study, free public libraries, Access to HE courses, the Open University (the brilliant brainchild of an Old Labour government, now priced out for many), not elitism, meritocracy, Grammar schools or privately-owned academies. Not testing and training people to become unquestioning automata.

It was through these institutions that, if I can use my own family as an example, two generations could go from illiteracy to, not only postgraduate studies, but to become rounded human beings who have spent their entire lives contributing to this country’s economy, as well as to society through teaching and librarianship, and to have lives that have been enhanced by its culture.

The Labour Party doesn’t need to be led by your 1%, Tristram, but by people who’ve had no advantages in life, who have not benefited from an expensive education, or parents who could pay for educational “extras.” Those people have a big enough say already, don’t they? Why don’t we make the Labour Party (shock, horror!) a party that speaks for the poor, the dispossessed, the single parent, the carer, the zero hours worker?

Because, Tristram, meritocracy looks much easier when you start your climb of the social ladder from near to the top.

What the Poppy is not

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Some years ago, I was privileged to work for Norfolk Libraries on a brilliant project digitising thousands of old photographs. Amongst these was a collection of portrait photographs of the Norfolk Roll of Honour – those members of the armed forces who had been killed during the First World War. I have written about it before and I still find the images of those men incredibly powerful, and for a short time afterwards, I started wearing a poppy. I remember having to restrain myself on a train home from London to Norwich when an American student made a lot of pointed remarks, directed towards me, about the politics of anyone who wore a poppy, that it was somehow a demonstration of support for the Iraq war. I didn’t. It wasn’t.

Now I have stopped wearing poppies, but for the opposite reason. The current jingoistic, militarist atmosphere that seems to prevail in Britain, led by its cheerleaders in the tabloid press – almost completely owned by people who don’t live in this country for tax reasons – had politicised what was, in fact, always a fundraising effort by the British Legion. It should be comparable to the daffodils people wear when they’ve donated to a cancer charity, but some people with an unpleasant political agenda are attempting to use it as something more sinister.

I’m not a pacifist. I believe in self defence. Although I haven’t agreed with any of the reasons we’ve gone to war, or occupied other countries, during my lifetime, I’m aware that many people join the army to escape poverty, lack of opportunity, and unemployment. The British Legion look after people who have served in the forces, because as a nation, we have never done right by them, and organisations like the BL, SSAFA and Combat Stress have had to step in. From the days when injured soldiers and sailors from the Napoleonic wars had to beg in the streets upon their return to an ungrateful nation, we’ve failed those whose lives are forever blighted by physical injury or psychological trauma incurred by the experience of war.

So why won’t I wear a poppy? Because it is being twisted into a symbol of patriotism, of conformity, of all kinds of things it was never meant to represent. Last week, social networking was full of abuse by Tory supporters who were scanning the shadow cabinet, looking for someone who hadn’t pinned a poppy to his or her lapel. They thought they’d found Tom Watson out until it was clear that he was wearing a small enamel one. It’s only a matter of time until they find someone to attack on this issue. Irrespective of their own personal feelings, no politician or TV celebrity would dare appear without a poppy. The enforced poppy-wearing has now spread to sport where what might have once been a bucket collection will now involve a minute’s silence, a parade of service men and women, and the players having a special strip with a poppy on it. Is it all to raise money for a good cause, or part of the pressure to conform to nationalism, and its corollary, hostility to outsiders?

Now, of course, the fatuousness of the debate, if it can be dignified as a debate, has really come to the fore in our tabloid press. Size really does matter, apparently. When I was growing up, I don’t remember seeing anything other than the one standard, paper poppy, that British Legion volunteers sold on the streets. Now, in order to show the absolutely humongous size of your patriotism, you can buy great big, massive poppies. I expect David Cameron to be wearing one the size of the moon on Remembrance Day.

The reverse of that is the accusations made against people like the footballer James McClean (an Irishman) who has been vilified because he won’t wear a poppy. Yet I know people who have spent decades serving in our armed forces who choose not to wear one. I think they’d argue that, if we are to believe the political rhetoric that we have fought some of our wars to preserve our freedom, then everyone has the choice whether to wear one of not. I’m afraid being called “scum” by Barbara Windsor, actor of dubious ability and friend of gangsters, only served to make up my mind not to wear one.

The British Legion’s website explains the history and meaning of the poppy very clearly:

Importantly, it ends with this statement:

“The poppy is NOT

A symbol of death or a sign of support for war
A reflection of politics or religion
Red to reflect the colour of blood

Wearing a poppy is a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories. It is not compulsory but is greatly appreciated by those it helps – our beneficiaries: those currently serving in our Armed Forces, veterans, and their families and dependants.”

I am not writing this to discourage anyone from wearing a poppy, or donating to the British Legion appeal, but to raise the question of how disturbing it is that we are now living in a society where conformity to an imagined political and military agenda is not only demanded of people, but that symbolic manifestations of it must be worn. That has happened before in Europe. We should not make the Flanders poppy into a broken cross.

A gift from the Polish people to Ipswich

Writing what had to be a rather short book about “secret” or Unknown Ipswich l knew that there were always going to be omissions, so I hope to rectify that here.

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One of the things that I had to miss out was this lovely Polish icon, which is in St Pancras church in Orwell Place. It was given to the church by the Polish armoured train unit that was stationed in Ipswich during the Second World War. There were twelve armoured train units in Britain at that time and, looking back, they seem very much part of that amateur Heath Robinsonish approach to defence during that war that now seems both comical and admirable. The trains, basic wagons filled with armed Polish troops, patrolled the country from Cornwall to the north of Scotland.

Having discovered the existence of the icon in Ipswich, I was interested in finding out more about St Pancras’ church which is the kind of unprepossessing, neo-Gothic construction that English Catholics were forced to build as their own churches were taken by the established Protestant Church of England following the Reformation. Unlike Victorian era C of E churches, there were few Catholic aristocrats willing to fund beautiful buildings (an exception being the Earl of Shrewsbury who financed, among others, Pugin’s over-decorated St Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire, where half my family were baptised, married and buried) and the neo-Gothic brickwork does not look so pretty to our 21st-century eyes, but this jewel of an icon is hardly known about and it must be significant to one of Ipswich’s new communities, the Poles who have immigrated to work in the town over the last few years.

Like many such holy images, the icon has lots of stories attached to it, for example that it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. It appears to have been kept in the monastery of Czestochowa, and one of the stories alleges that Czech soldiers attempted to steal it but were thwarted by heavenly intervention. It was so highly valued that in 1904 the Pope presented a crown set with precious stones to be placed above the image. It was brought to England when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and it is a measure of the gratitude and esteem of those Polish troops that they left such a significant symbol behind in Ipswich.

Researching one thing always leads to another and a reference to “anti-Catholic riots” at St Pancras’ church in 1863 could not be ignored, although in fact the reports in the Ipswich Journal of that year tell a story that is so comical it probably belongs in the pages of a Dickens’ story. On 7 November 1863 the newspaper reported that a lecture at the Temperance Hall by someone “styling himself as André Massenn, Baron de Camin” was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Things were not going too badly until the “Baron” announced that the women in the hall should be sent home. He then regaled the remaining male audience with racy stories about the goings on in monasteries and convents. Although it was obvious even to the reporter of the Ipswich Journal that Camin was bogus and a scurrilous rogue, he was wildly applauded by some of his audience, including some Protestant clergymen. The “Baron’s” great mistake was that he went on to impugn the character of the priest at St Pancras, Father Kemp, not perhaps realising that the 18th Hussars who were then at Ipswich Barracks were made up of Irish soldiers.

To avoid further trouble the Mayor decided to ban the lecture the following evening but this only served to stir up trouble. It has to be said that it seems that the “young men and lads” referred to as causing the disturbances did not need much provocation and they were soon persuaded by the “Baron” to go out and smash up the houses of the Mayor and other local dignitaries. A policeman was stabbed, although not seriously.

On the third evening the “Baron” once again spoke. This time the Ipswich Journal described it as a “rather dreary historical lecture on Popery,” so presumably he diplomatically missed out the bits about the naughty nuns. According to the report, “a noisy rabble of two or three thousand boys and lads” waited outside, unwilling to pay the 3d admission price. Afterwards they went to St Pancras’ church and smashed the windows and gas lamps.

It makes you wonder whether the Polish troops who left their treasured icon in Ipswich would have done so if they had known a little more about the history of the town.