The low-key centenary of the Soloheadbeg Ambush

About ten years ago, a friend of mine working in a ministerial department told me about the concern the government had about the “decade of centenaries” marking the anniversaries of the events leading up to Irish (partial) independence. There was a concern to commemorate these properly, so that extreme elements couldn’t hijack them, without alienating Unionism. Thus the lavish 1916 centenary, and associated events in the years before (and since)

A few months ago I wondered what official commemoration would mark the 100th anniversary of the Soloheadbeg ambush, which marked the outset of the War of Independence.  The ambush took place on 21st January 1919, and on 20th January (ie tomorrow) there will be ceremonies to mark the anniversary.

I mean no disrespect to Minister Josepha Madigan by suggesting her presence as the government representative is a little less high profile than that accorded to other events.

I remember as a child visiting Kilmainham Jail, which sold a booklet which went into great detail about the various Fenians and 1916 leaders who had been imprisoned and executed there, and a brief page on the War of Independence. There’s always been an ambivalence about the War of Independence, largely due  to the Civil War which followed, and the ambiguity about the outcome with partition of Ireland. Also, one surmises, while 1916 was a military failure and is therefore something of a blank slate (the commemorations of both 1966 and 2016 reflected contemporary concerns and attitudes as much as anything else), the War of Independence did lead to an Irish state and involved almost all of the main political protagonists of the first few decades of that state.

Clearly the political dynamics of 1919 have not gone away and right now are taking centre stage in not only Irish or British but European politics. On Monday 21st 2019 Theresa May will present (or is supposed to) her “Plan B” after a Brexit plan floundered, to a large extent on the “Irish Question.”  Furthermore, while Soloheadbeg had a far smaller death toll than 1916, there is something much more personal about the killing of two local Catholics who happened to be RIC men. The reality that the Irish state (like every state, pretty much) was born in conflict, and that all the main Irish political parties arose from or were strongly linked with paramilitary forces of various kinds is one that a veil is often drawn over.

All in all, one wonders if the current Government would rather not make much of a fuss about the whole thing, and one wonders if this could backfire somewhat. A whole raft of centenaries – of ambushes and assassinations and of the Treaty and the subsequent debates – is following in the coming years.

 

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1000 miles in 1000 hours: the athletic feat of 1809

Walking a mile in a hour sounds straightforward. Walking ten miles in ten hours sounds reasonably doable, even leisurely. How about walking a mile in each of one thousand successive hours – ie walking a thousand miles at the stately pace of 1 mph, for hour after hour after hour after hour (continue up to 1000)?

Robert Barclary Allardice is aptly described in the opening line of his Dictionary of National Biography entry as:

Allardice,  Robert Barclay  [known as Captain Barclay]  (1779-1854), pedestrian
The DNB recounts his most famous achievement as follows:
Captain Barclay’s most noted feat was walking 1 mile in each of 1000 successive hours. This feat was performed at Newmarket from 1 June to 12 July 1809. His average time of walking the mile varied from 14 min. 54 sec. in the first week to 21 min. 4 sec. in the last, and his weight was reduced from 13 stone 4 lb to 11 stone. He was so little exhausted that he started for the Walcheren expedition on 17 July in perfect health
Wikipedia’s entry on the walk includes a contemporary report from The Times:
The gentleman on Wednesday completed his arduous pedestrian undertaking, to walk a thousand miles in a thousand successive hours, at the rate of a mile in each and every hour. He had until four o’clock P.M. to finish his task; but he performed his last mile in the quarter of an hour after three, with perfect ease and great spirit, amidst an immense concourse of spectators. The influx of company had so much increased on Sunday, that it was recommended that the ground should be roped in. To this, Captain Barclay at first objected; but the crowd became so great on Monday, and he had experienced so much interruption, that he was at last prevailed upon to allow this precaution to be taken. For the last two days he appeared in higher spirits, and performed his walk with apparently more ease, and in shorter time than he had done for some days before. With the change of the weather, he had thrown off his loose great coat, which he wore during the rainy period, and on Wednesday performed in a flannel jacket. He also put on shoes thicker than any which he had used in the earlier part of his performance. He said that during the first night after his walk he would have himself awoke twice or thrice, to avoid the danger of a too sudden transition from almost constant exertion to a state of long repose.
One hundred to one, and indeed any odds whatever, were offered on Wednesday; but so strong was the confidence in his success, that no bets could be obtained. The multitude of people who resorted to the scene of action, in the course of the concluding days, was unprecedented. Not a bed could be procured on Tuesday night at Newmarket, Cambridge, or any of the towns and villages in the vicinity, and every horse and every species of vehicle was engaged. Among the Nobility and Gentry who witnessed the conclusion of this extraordinary feat, were:—
The Dukes of Argyle and St. Alban’s; Earls GrosvenorBessborough and Jersey; Lords Foley and Somerville; Sir John Lode, Sir F. Standish, &c. &c.
Capt Barclay had a large sum depending upon his undertaking. The aggregate of the bets is supposed to amount to £100,000.—He commenced his feat on the first of June.

55 years later, Emma Sharp overcame various acts of skullduggery to become the first woman to achieve the same feat and thereby raise monies to buy a rug making enterprise:

Emma Sharp (1832–1920) was an athlete famous for her feat of pedestrianism completing a 1000-mile walk in 1000 hours, the event first completed by Robert Barclay Allardice in 1809.[1][2] She is thought to be the first woman to complete the challenge, finishing on 29 October 1864, having started on 17 September that same year.[3][4] This ‘arduous task’ was reported in the newspapers of the day,[5][6] in which she was described as having a medium build but an active frame, dressed in male clothing with the exception of her straw hat which was adorned with ‘feminine ornaments’.[7]

She rested in the Quarry Gap pub in between walking approximately two mile stints every 90 minutes and completing 14,600 laps of 120 yards over the course of 1000 hours.[8] It is reported that her food was drugged and people attempted to trip her to prevent her from finishing, for the last two days she carried a pistol to protect herself. At the end of the walk the weather was extremely wet. The event was heavily wagered upon both in Leeds and provincial towns.

One wonders when the last 1000 miles in 1000 hours walk took place? It strikes me as an event ripe for reviving….

“Shopping Centre” – a poem from September 2007

Came across this rather randomly lately, will leave it as is, with its hilariously unsubtle allusions to this and that intact, as  a memorial of pre-bust Ireland:

Shopping Centre.

Time outside time is still time.

Clean floors shine. Clean escalators, eternal
As they disappear and reappear, shine. Screens
Shine. Shops shine. Glass and air shine. As in a casino, no
Sign of time here.

Try and avoid anything as obvious as disdain. Try and accept
This shining universe as all that is the case.
These clean floors, these clean escalators, eternally
Dis- and Re-appearing, this timeless void, this void
Filled with sales and selling, shining.

Time outside time is still time.
The shopping centre is on still time.
Amidst the repetition of escalators, elevators, shoppers, sales
You achieve a kind of eternity.

This Be The Best

In 2013 I entered this in one of the Spectator’s poetry competitions, if memory serves a version of a well-known poem endeavouring to convey the precisely opposite message. With apologies to Philip Larkin:

They raised you well, your mum and dad,

You might not think so, but they did.

They made the most of what they had

And tried their utmost for their kid.

They were well brought up in their turn

By dedicated caregiver, teacher, and so on.

I am glad the soldiers were made return,

So our children could afford this glorious dawn.

Man hands on incremental progress to man

All rising, clear shore to sunny beach.

Reproduce as quickly as you can

And always enthusiastically teach.

The man who rode zebras: Lionel Walter Rothschild

walterrothschildwithzebras
Photo credit Wikipedia

Here’s an extraordinary character, Lionel Walter Rothschildfrom the Nigeness blog a few years back:

Lately I’ve been browsing in the biographies [of The Aurelian Legacy: British Butterflies and Their Collectors] , which is where I found the chap with the zebra cart above – Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild of Tring, who sounds like a delightfull fellow. Temperamentally unsuited for the normal occupations of the world, he devoted himself entirely to building up the largest collection of animals ever assembled by one man – everything from starfish to gorillas and giant tortoises (144 of them), with butterflies and moths to the number of 100,000 species, with the greatest range of variants ever seen (‘I have no duplicates,’ he declared). As a student at Cambridge, he kept a much-loved flock of kiwis, and kangaroos, ostriches and, of course, zebras roamed free in his grounds at Tring. He once rode a zebra carriage and four through Piccadilly to Buckingham Palace. Such exhibitionism is often a product of shyness, and Rothschild was cripplingly shy. He was also apparently unable to control his voice, which alternated quite unpredictably between a low stammer and a loud bellow. He grew very stout, tipping the scales at 22 stone, his vast 6ft 3in body balanced on tiny feet, giving the effect, when he bowled around his mansion, of (in his niece Miriam’s words) ‘a grand piano on castors’.

Again from Wikipedia, here is Baron Rothschild on a tortoise:

rothschildtortoise

Geoffrey Langlands RIP: major, Dieppe Raid survivor, educationalist, 97 year old coup leader

I had never heard of Geoffrey Langlands, who has died in Lahore aged 101, until coming across his death on Wikipedia’s Recent Deaths page.  His Wikipedia page has been subjected to a fair bit of editing since I first read it, with some of the more colourful phrasing being removed.

Like many long-lived folk, Langlands lived a full life. Aged one, his father died in the flu pandemic of 1918, like a son of Drangan (who also lost his mother) HIs mother died of cancer ten years later. Ultimately he became a teacher, and on the outbreak of World War II joined the army, surviving the disastrous Dieppe Raid (one wonders how many other survivors are left) and receiving an emergency commission in the then British Indian Army. Electing to remain in Pakistan on Independence (and Partition) as a military trainer, he began a storied educational career at firstly the “Eton of Pakistan”, Aitchison College, and later started his own school. Current Prime Minister, cricket legend and reformed playboy Imran Khan, is among the many elite pupils of Langlands over the years.

This story in the Daily Telegraph (where else?)  marked his retirement at 95:

Five years separate Major Geoffrey Langlands from his centenary, so it was to be expected that he would remain in his chair during the show marking his retirement from the school high in the Hindu Kush that bears his name. Yet, even at the age of 95, the old boy is far too wily to let a photo opportunity slip by. When pupils of Langlands School and College broke into a folk dance from their native Chitral, he was up, walking stick discarded, twirling around, hands raised above his head. The boys and girls of the school whooped with delight as their old principal temporarily abolished the passing years, mobbing him as he danced. Langlands, last survivor of the Raj, certainly knows how to work a crowd. “How do you follow that?” asks Carey Schofield, the woman who arranged the surprise party in Langlands’ honour on Tuesday. “It is very hard to take over from the Major. He is quite literally irreplaceable.”

Carey Schofield was to discover just how literally irreplaceable he was. In  2013 however it was all going so well:

In post for only a few weeks, Miss Schofield has forsaken her home near London’s fashionable Sloane Square for a mountain fastness. So why, at the age of 59, has she abandoned an enviable lifestyle in Britain to come here?

“Because it would be nice to make a difference,” she says, speaking for the first time about her new job. “It is good in middle age to be able to do something useful. The College and its associated primary schools educate a thousand pupils. If we can turn them around it will improve a thousand young lives. The job is daunting but worth doing.”

And the Taliban? “Chitral is safer than Chelsea. There have been a few incidents but most of them involve goat rustling, not terrorism. There was a bad incident in 2011 when members of the Chitral Scouts were killed during an attack from Afghanistan but that was further south. Chitral is unlike the rest of the North-West Frontier, more tranquil. The risk is very slight.”

.

The risk from the Taliban might have been very slight, but from another source the risk was more substantial. Fast forward to another Telegraph article two years later:

Pakistan is rather used to military coups, but even by its standards the attempted putsch at one of its leading schools is somewhat unusual.

 

The protagonists are Major Geoffrey Langlands, who stepped down from his post as the school’s principal in 2013 and his anointed successor, Carey Schofield.

 

Whether he was unhappy in retirement or displeased at how the school was being run, Major Langlands, 97, decided he should resume control of the institution which bears his name and numbers a number of the country’s leading pupils among its alumni.

 

The old boys include Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, who was enlisted by the major in his attempt to oust Miss Schofield.

With Miss Schofield, 61, in London, Mr Khan was persuaded to revoke her visa, effectively preventing her from resuming her post.

Believing he had ousted his rival Major Langlands returned to the school at Chitral in the North West Province to resume control.

In case you are feeling Torygraphed-out, we can turn to The Grauniad for the resolution of this episode:

Carey Schofield was greeted by crowds of parents and teachers when she finally flew into the former princely state of Chitral last week after a spectacular falling out with Geoffrey Langlands, a celebrated Raj-era army officer who taught a generation of Pakistan’s political leaders.

Her return was made possible by the decision of the school’s entire staff to travel more than a thousand miles on a rickety school bus to lobby Langlands to drop his opposition to Schofield, whom he accused of mismanagement and overspending.

I am glad to report that Carey Schofield is evidently of a forgiving disposition, if her contribution to Langland’s subsequent 100th Birthday party is any guide:

Principal Langlands School Ms. Carey Scholfield spoke of Langlands’ services to the country.

Review of Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition”, Nthposition 2009

Another review of mine from the departed nthposition.com. I quite enjoyed this from Robert Pogue Harrison. And  I am now even further along my immersion in the “dull adult world”, ten years later.

 

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition

Robert Pogue Harrison

University of Chicago Press.

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In adolescence, gardening seems to embody the dull adult world. Why waste time weeding and pruning and mowing when you could be listening to some angry young band or other convince you that the world is there for the easy changing, or wrapping you in a comically soggy blanket of miserabilism? As you get older gardening begins to gain some appeal, though if you need some convincing of the value of it Robert Pogue Harrison’s book is invaluable.

 

Harrison is the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford University, and has previously written on forests and on graves. He is poetic, digressive, discursive – with some respect for the sciences of botany and horticulture, but ultimately siding with poets (especially female ones).  “When it comes to speculation about origins we would do better to credit the intuition of poets rather than the conventional wisdom.”

 

Harrison begins with Voltaire’s injunction at the end of Candide  that “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” and ends with Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano haunted in his alcoholic despair by his own mistranslation of a sign encouraging us not to destroy este jardín  on a neighbouring municipal garden. Firmin believes the sign is really a statement of threat, and one of Harrson’s themes is the Western perception of life as being all about force and purpose. We are “driven but aimless” in his conception, and he writes well and passionately about our times of goal-setting and to-do lists but of nothing beyond narcissism to do.

 

Harrrison rather grudgingly gives us a note on Versailles, which for him is incarnates “highly refined vice…The cultivation of envy, spite, pride or greed does not transform those vices into virtues: on the contrary, by submitting them to extremely regimented rules and protocols, it gives them a style that renders them sublime while leaving their vicious essence intact.” The majesty of Versailles is exactly that, majesty, and for Harrison the vast scale and order of the place incarnate a certain evil.

 

He writes of the magic gardens of Gilgamesh and the Garden of Eden, ideal pleasure gardens perhaps but ones which humankind could not bear for very long. Think of Odysseus desperate to leave Circe’s idyll. For Harrison, humanity was shaped by Care (personified in an ancient fable as moulding and naming humanity) and needs to exercise Care to achieve fulfillment. Gardening is the epitome of care taking –  all gardeners are constant gardeners. The Czech author Karel Capek (who coined the word “robot”) is a particular favourite. His “The Gardeners Year” is the source of some of Harrison’s most impressive and thought-provoking reflections. For Capek, before becoming a real gardener, “a certain maturity, or let us say paternity, is necessary” – in youth, one “eats the fruits of life which one has not produced oneself” and one believes a flower is “what one carries in a buttonhole, or presents a girl with.” The gardener is concerned with long time, with the future in the broadest sense.

 

Gardens and thought are closely related. A garden can be the most exciting place in the world, a place suspended in time, away from the world and yet part of the world. For Harrison, a garden should not be isolated from the world around it, for to be a “still centre of the world” requires the tension that comes from the presence of the world. He writes about Plato’s Academy, a garden for training future leaders, and contrasts it with Epicurus’ Garden School with its principled “idiocy” or withdrawal from public life and competition, and cultivation of gardening and friendship.

 

We read of princely gardens intended to embody state power, of university gardens, of Japanese gardens, of the convent gardens profaned by Boccacio’s heroes, of the gardens of the homeless in New York City. The book is wide ranging, allusive, and erudite, but it is not authoritative or definitive. There is no Montaigne, or Shakespeare. There is no Garden of Forking Paths. Harrison deals with monastic gardens incredibly briefly and dismissively. His big ideas are at times fascinating, at times tendentious. He devotes much energy to suggesting that the faultline between Islam and the “west” is partly due to the specificity of the Islamic conception of paradise as a pleasure garden of fulfillment, versus the vagueness of the Christian, which may indeed involve further yearning. More profitable is his use of Orlando Furioso as a key text to understand the chaotic nihilism of modernism.

 

We stray quite far from the garden in the later pages of the essay, and one is relieved to get back to the firm earth. If the gardener is opposed to anything, it is to nihilism. The garden is life-affirming because of its very insistence on care and need for care. Care is what makes life worthwhile, and in Harrison’s reading it was Eve who agitated to get out of the Garden of Eden because everything there was provided all too easily.