Friday, 1 August 2014

Review: "George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat"


Diana Mitford once reflected that when reviewing a friend's book, the reviewer is inevitably predisposed towards a favourable conclusion and that only the disingenuous would pretend otherwise. In a similar spirit, I should begin this article by pointing out that I am a friend and, via my novels Popular and The Immaculate Deception, a colleague of one of the authors of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat - Claire Ridgway. Both our books are published by the same press and I helped lead two of her beautiful Tudor tours in 2012. So I approached this, the first full-length modern biography of the third Boleyn sibling, with a sympathetic eye and hopefulness that it would prove an enlightening read. 

Passion and scholarly probing saturate this book; the authors' excitement and fascination with their subject is underpinned by years of research into the compelling story of his life and the awful trajectory of his demise. Having made a career by inviting people to experience her ongoing research and education into the Tudor court with her, Claire Ridgway uses the same tactic in this book. There's a touch of Antal Szerb here, the great Hungarian-Jewish historian, who began his 1942 study on the court of Marie-Antoinette by informing the reader that "if he absolutely insists that a writer should address him in the scholarly manner, from on high, in ex cathedra tones, then he should simply toss this book on the floor. My way is to speak as one human being to another, looking to fine kindred spirits and good company." Ridgway and Cherry adopt this tactic in George Boleyn and it's very successful. If a reader finds a conversational tone grating or jarring, then this book mightn't be for them, but for many it's likely to prove, as the English say, a tonic - a refreshing and enjoyable change.

The lack of any surviving portraits of Boleyn or much in the way of letters and, crucially given the book's subtitle, his poetry, makes it difficult to flesh him out in too much detail, but both writers work with what has remained to paint a relatively convincing portrait of a headstrong but pious courtier with a passion for living and a solid mind. If George doesn't quite pop out as being as much fun as some might imagine him, it's a relief to see why he was nothing like the horror imagined in later fictional adaptations like Bring Up the Bodies or The Other Boleyn Girl. By shifting through all the available information and crucially being able to admit where Boleyn was guilty of hard-heartedness and even outright cruelty, Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway are able to present a biography that is sympathetic without being hagiographic. Rather like the latter's website which has, wholly unjustly and in a spirit of sweeping reduction, been described as a Boleyn "fan site." Empathy is not a whitewash and sympathy or identification is not always a bad thing - as shown by beautiful biographies like Antonia Fraser's on Marie-Antoinette, Lauren Mackey's on Eustace Chapuys, William Shawcross's on Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon or David Starkey's on Elizabeth I.

There are a few flies in the ointment - I would have liked to see a bit more of how George has been reimagined in culture after his death. We have seen a pious George, George the buffoon, gay George, bisexual George, kind George, saintly George, George the rapist and an incestuous George. His afterlife is fascinating and it would have been nice to see a little bit more of that, but that's a personal preference and in a biography that seeks to liberate George Boleyn from the shackles of cultural history, perhaps a facetious and contradictory one.

All things considered, George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier & Diplomat is a gem of a book. Thoughtful, erudite, charming, passionate and clever, it helps set George Boleyn centre-stage and to paint a fascinating portrait of an aristocratic career that ultimately sailed too close to the Sun and paid a tragically unfair price for it.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A lovely endorsement by Leanda de Lisle


I am so pleased that the wonderful Leanda de Lisle has provided a lovely quote for the front covers of The Emperors, which is due to be released on 28th August. Leanda described the book as, "A family story of the royal rivalries that tore Europe apart, full of fire and tragedy." Leanda is not just the author of one of my favourite historical biographies (The Sisters Who Would Be Queen), but she is also the god-daughter of Tsar Nicholas II's younger sister, the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna, who fled to Britain after the Revolution.

The book is available from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon Deutschland and Amazon Canada.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Bert, Ernie and Belfast's big "gay cake row"

Bert and Ernie - the unlikely poster children of controversy

Recently, a Northern Irish customer wanted a cake for the centrepiece at a forthcoming party. (My friends Lauren and Claire handmade one from an Old South recipe for an engagement party, but that's by the by.) This cake was to feature the fairly innocuous co-dependent duo of Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, with a slogan beneath them that encouraged the full legalisation of same-sex marriage. When this request was handed over to a local bakery, they eventually refused to make it on the grounds that to do so was "against what the Bible teaches". (So is bacon and multi-fabric dresses, but I digress.) The bakery was founded by Christians; even its name is a reference to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel - the tribe of Asher, which, according to ancient tradition, usually produced the finest bakers. The customer in question was piqued, the bakery has since been accused of discrimination and the hashtag "gaycakerow" is doing the round on the Province's Twitterspace.

Not since the sublime Marie-Antoinette allegedly told everyone to up their carb in-take with some brioche have pastries proved so controversial. (Marie-Antoinette, shown rocking a linen gown and casual day-time ostrich plumes to the left, never said "Let them eat cake," by the way. Whatever else her faults might have been, crass insensitivity to suffering was not one of them. But that's the historian in me talking, not the cake enthusiast.) That Gay-Cake-Row somehow managed to make the front page of tonight's Belfast Telegraph is depressing enough; so important were North Belfast's butter-cream quandaries that they bumped the story of an 18 year-old girl, raised in a devoutly Christian family, who had been caught on camera bouncing through a night-club in the holiday resort of Magaluf (imagine Sodom and Gomorrah with perma-tan and too much gel and you're half-way there) pulling the penises of approximately thirty random guys into her mouth in return for a free holiday. ("Holiday" turned out to be the club's name for a cocktail. One of the more sordid elements in a story that offers tough competition in the sordid stakes.) Horror at the girl's antics and rather more touching concern for the level of shame both she and her family must now be suffering thanks to Twitter and the media's explosion of the issue, all acting with pearl-clutching disingenuous disbelief that this kind of thing goes on in Magaluf, has all swiftly been replaced by the debate over whether or not the bakery was right to refuse to make "gay cake" and if their offended customer was right to report them to the Equality Commission.


I have been a citizen of the World Web Wide long enough to know that there are few groups in the world who are quicker to scream "discrimination" than ultra-conservative Christians the minute 1000-years of habit is turned on its head and they are no longer allowed to do anything they like based on their religious philosophy. "Discrimination," in this context, all-too-often means "limits." And "gay-cake-row" (oh, what a ludicrous world we live in) has kicked that hornet's nest. Out in full force once again are the bible-thumping zealots who claim to speak for their entire religion and twisted, bitter armchair commentators, who mutter darkly about the "gay agenda", the "lavender brigades", the "gay mafia", the "same-sex totalitarianism". (A similar dispute about a bakery in America produced deadly-series opinion pieces on the blogosphere which compared the gay rights movement to Lenin's League of the Militant Godless, which was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Russian Christians and the dynamiting of Russian churches, Nazism and the martyrdom of Thomas More in 1535.) Equally, the liberal and pro-gay-marriage media were broadly, though not universally, sympathetic to rumours that the bakery would or could be prosecuted for discriminating against minorities, under current British law.


Little-known fact: there are some subtle differences between the Soviet Union's League of the Militant Godless (shown above, practicing for the execution of priests, nuns and ordinary Christians) and the insidious modern gay agenda (shown below, with actor Neil Patrick Harris, his husband, chef and actor David Burtka, and their two children. Notice how they're forcing their lifestyle choices on the camera - gross, right? Deliberate? Preach it.) Can you spot the differences? I imagine the people Lenin's censors cut out of  photos like the one on the left could.

In the interests of transparency, I should nail my colours to the mast on the gay marriage issue: I am strongly in favour of it. I think the fact that Northern Ireland is the only area of Her Majesty's United Kingdom that does not have marriage equality is absurd - it offends both my unionism (of the slightly to the Right of NI21 variety before things took an embarrassing turn for the shambolic) and my humanitarianism. In a nation in which secular marriage has been a fact courtesy of registry offices for over a century, it makes no more sense for religious institutions to claim they have the right to define what marriage is simply because they have their own version of it than it does for them to claim they have the right to define what architecture is based on the fact that they happen to own and run quite a lot of buildings. However, I also believe in common sense and limits to the current climate of go-to litigiousness.

If a hotel chain refused to serve a gay couple on religious grounds, I would be outraged and I would support legal action. A corporation cannot take that stand unless it was prepared to refuse service to single mothers, unwed couples, people who have lost their virginity outside of marriage or, if we're really going to go to town with Leviticus or Saint Paul, those who oppose the abolition of slavery. (No deluxe room with a riverside view for you, Mr Wilberforce.) Similarly, if a teacher casually and passively observed homophobia in their classroom, I would want answers as to their dereliction of duty, regardless of their religious faith. (Teachers still do this and they get away it. I carried out interviews with teachers for the bullying storyline in The Immaculate Deception and I came away frankly horrified by what some of their colleagues can get away with.) But when the issue comes to smaller, family-run businesses like Asher's Bakery of Belfast, it's not the same thing as a public sector employee or a national or multi-national business.

The customer in question had no reason to know the bakery was named after a Biblical figure when he placed his order. Even if he had, he may have assumed they would take his order because there are millions of practicing Christians all over the world who are strongly supportive of gay rights and, indeed, there are millions of gay Christians. The customer may even have been upset, hurt or mortified by the bakery's refusal of his order - who wouldn't be? But does that automatically justify a letter to the Equality Commission? In my heart of hearts, I'm just not sure that it did. Asher's did not refuse to serve him because he was gay, they refused to make a cake that contained the phrase "Support Same Sex Marriage" because they felt it contradicted Holy Scripture. Were they right? That's for theologians to decide, and they agree with their colleagues even less frequently than economists or historians do. The point is that Asher's were more than within their rights to refuse to make a cake that they felt morally or politically uncomfortable about. To shrink things down to their most reductive, would we expect a bakery situated in a strongly republican area in Belfast to make a red, white and blue cake to celebrate the Twelfth of July showing William of Orange, our most popular 17th-century Dutch invader, astride his marzipan-sculpted horse? Or a bakery at the opposite end of the town to gladly make a cake for this year's Ard Fheis?

Tobias and the Archangels
From Moses to Corinthians, bread, leavened or otherwise, plays a big supporting role. For those interested, left to right, it's Saint Michael, Saint Gabriel, Tobias and Saint Raphael.

People in small businesses like Asher's have a right to hold onto their opinions. Equally, the jilted customer can let his or her friends know that this bakery is opposed to gay rights etc., and those people can, in turn, choose to take their custom elsewhere for all future orders, regardless of their nature, if they feel strongly enough about the issue. That's freedom of choice; it's what makes capitalism, big and small, tick. And, for what it's worth, it's a big running theme in Genesis and its 65 critically-acclaimed sequels. (78 if we're counting the Apocrypha, which we should be, but that's a different debate for a different time. Maybe a dinner party over a glass of wine? Who knows?) One could justifiably query if someone should go into business with these kind of views, but I tend to think people should be able to and then pay the price for having principles, whatever that might be. There is so much nonsense written about gay people and Christians online and in the press, and this story does neither group any favours. Is the conscience of a privately-run bakery and their choice of what to ice or otherwise really worthy of front page news? Asher's Bakery aren't martyrs, even though there are those who will be quick to wreath them in the garland of John 15:18. (Only an era as soft as this one could see the crown of martyrdom in something like this...) They are a bakery who made a decision based on how they interpret a few verses in a much-debated religious text. For somebody else, the dividing line on where to bake might be politics, syntax or the imagery itself. Would a baker who was gay or who supported gay rights be wrong to turn away a cake that asked them to craft in icing, "Keep marriage between a man and woman" or "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve"? (If they did, I can take a guess at who would be the first people to claim discrimination.)

There are bigger fish to fry/cakes to ice (what a truly awful pun, I detest myself) than this. Let's bring solicitors and the press into the fray only when the situation really warrants it. If you feel strongly about something this specific, this localised, then, for me, the answer is in our wallets, not a solicitor's office. And to the customer in question, I hope whoever made the cake in the end did a fantastic job and that you had a wonderful party. To the Equality Commission, this seems a bit like over-egging the proverbial cake. (Once you've hit one stinker of a metaphor, it's best to keep going, I find. No regrets.) To the bakery, to paraphrase an apocryphal quote so often attributed to that old rogue of the Enlightenment Voltaire, I don't agree with what you said, but I have to reluctantly defend your right to act upon it. And any previous cakes I've nibbled from your shop have been delicious. 

Thursday, 12 June 2014

"George Boleyn" competition winner!


Congratulations to Eliza Nastou, who was the winner of our George Boleyn competition. She has won a signed copy of Claire Ridgway and Clare Cherry's new book George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by correctly answering the question that actress Natalie Dormer, who played George Boleyn's sister Anne in The Tudors, is currently playing Margaery Tyrell in HBO's Game of Thrones.


Sunday, 8 June 2014

The death of George Boleyn: A guest post and blog tour


It's been quite the start to summer for fans of Tudor biographies, with studies on the lives of those usually defined by their relationship to the royal family's star players appearing to flesh out our knowledge of Henry VIII's dazzling but terrifying court. First, Lauren Mackey's biography of Eustace Chapuys, the prolific diplomat whose correspondence all historians owe a debt to, and secondly Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway's biography George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat, which seeks to give a fairer understanding of Anne Boleyn's notorious brother, who perished in May 1536 on a fabricated charge of commiting incest with his sister the queen. Described by David Starkey as having all of Anne's confidence but only half her talents, George has recently been resurrected in popular culture in many different guises, featuring the novels, plays, television dramas and movies about the Henrician court.

With so much fascination and even more speculation about George Boleyn, Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway (above) have teamed up to produce a biography of him, which I'm reading at the moment and which I can certainly recommend. To win your own signed copy of the book, read on to the end of this extract from George Boleyn, an account of his execution and interest in the Reformation. Thank you to the two Cla(i)res for this excerpt; it's a pleasure to host them as part of their blog tour to promote their new book.

***

George Boleyn was executed on Tower Hill on 17th May 1536. He had gone from palace to prison to execution within 15 days, and it is a testament to his courage and strength of character that he was able to defend himself so well at his trial and give such an impassioned speech on the scaffold, when lesser men would still have been in shock. He made a long penitent speech, which found admiration with the vast crowd gathered to witness the executions. There are a number of different versions of George’s speech, but they all agree on the basic content. Only Chapuys has George confessing that he deserved death for “having so contaminated and so contaminating others with the new sects”, and praying everyone to abandon such heresies. That is clearly not what he said, and is more a matter of wishful thinking by Chapuys.

The site of George Boleyn's execution
 After stepping on to the scaffold, George addressed the crowd:

“I was born under the law, and I die under the law, for as much as it is the law which has condemned me.”

According to two eyewitnesses, he said this three times, almost as if he were collecting his thoughts before continuing. But there was another reason. To say he died “under the law”, rather than admitting his guilt, was the closest he dared go to declaring his innocence. Therefore, he ensured the point was reiterated to the vast crowd of spectators, many of whom knew him personally. He went on to say that he was not there to preach a sermon but to die. He told the vast crowd that he deserved death because he was a wretched sinner who had grievously and often offended. He did not relate his sins, telling the crowd that they would derive no pleasure from hearing them, and that he would derive no pleasure from stating them. He merely said that God knew them all. He warned everyone present to use him as an example, especially his fellow courtiers. He warned them “not to trust in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flatterings of the Court, and the favour and treacheries of Fortune”, which he said raised men up only to “dash them again upon the ground”. He blamed fortune for his current pitiful condition - or rather, he blamed himself, saying he had leaned too heavily on fortune, “who hath proved herself fickle and false unto me”. He said he prayed for the mercy of God, and that he forgave all men. He begged forgiveness of God and of anyone he might have offended. He begged those present to ask anyone not there to forgive him if he had offended them, and he told them that “having lived the life of a sinner, I would fain die a Christian man.”

There has been much speculation in the latter part of the twentieth and the early years of the twenty-first century about what it was to which George Boleyn was referring to when he said he was a wretched sinner who deserved death, but refused to name his sins. The condemned had their families to protect, and no protestations of innocence would have been acceptable to the Crown. Besides, it was the honourable thing to accept that death was deserved. The Christian doctrine was that we are all sinners deserving of death because of original sin. The shame and dishonour George says he dies for is clearly the incest conviction (“with worse shame and dishonour than hath ever been heard of before”), but at no point in the speech does he make an admission of the offence of which he had been found guilty.

Though one of the sins he refers to, but does not mention, is suggested to be sodomy, there is no evidence for this. George Cavendish suggests that George was referring to promiscuity. This may have been partly true, but the behaviour for which he apologises could refer to an amalgamation of supposed sins. Although George did not ask for the King’s forgiveness, he did ask forgiveness of anyone whom he might have offended. Indeed, he went further than this and virtually begged for forgiveness. As a Christian man about to face death, he would have been acutely aware of his flaws and faults. He was proud, and totally lacked humility. He was typically ruthless and self-seeking for a man of the age. He sat at the trial of Thomas More and was present at the appalling executions of the Carthusian monks, despite his protestations of being a “Christian man”. He showed no sympathy or compassion towards Catherine of Aragon or her daughter Mary. We do not know how he treated his wife, but his reputation as a high-living womaniser would support the notion that he was not ideal husband material. He had even turned his back on his sister Mary in her hour of need. When facing death, George Boleyn, a highly intelligent and religious man, would have been painfully aware of these failings. Hence his speech went above and beyond that which was expected of him.

He admitted he had relied too heavily on fortune and trusted too much in the vanity of the world and the flattery of the court. His positions of favour and power had resulted in sycophantic flattery by friends and enemies alike, and he had swallowed it whole. He had waltzed around the court with an air of arrogance in the certainty of his position, and because of his confidence in himself and the respect in which he was held. Yet those same people who had fawned over him were here now, watching him die. It was all false, and only at the very end did he realise this.

In his speech he went on to highlight his religious convictions, as previously quoted in the chapter on religion, before finishing by praying “God save the King”. Knowing the sort of irreverence to which George Boleyn was prone, this last sentence could be read with a great deal of irony; but whatever was happening to him, his upbringing would never have allowed him to think ill of the King. As far as George was concerned, this was his own fault.

Following his speech, he calmly and courageously knelt down, placed his head on the block, and submitted his neck to the axe. His head was removed with a single stroke, and his severed head was held up to the crowd as the executioner intoned the words, “So ends the lives of all the King’s enemies.” George Boleyn had many faults, but treason had never been one of them, and Henry must have known that. None of the men’s heads were put on display on spikes, as was usual with convicted traitors; this would surely have been the case if Henry seriously thought they were guilty, just as Thomas Culpeper’s would be five years later. It was the only small consideration that Henry showed his innocent friends. George’s body and head were taken to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower, where his sister would join him two days later. The other men were buried in two graves, two men in each, in the chapel graveyard.

It is unlikely, as Chapuys alleges, that Anne was forced to watch the executions of her brother and friends, but she may have seen the men congregated together before they were marched out of the Tower - perhaps allowing her one last look at her beloved brother. One man who did witness the executions was Thomas Wyatt, who was imprisoned in the Tower still and who wrote about them in verse, illustrating the danger of being too close to the throne:

“These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The Bell Tower showed me such a sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet, circa Regna tonat.”

In a way this verse reiterates the words of George Boleyn on the scaffold, when he warned his listeners not to trust the vanities of the world and the flattery of the court. His “blind desire of estate” and his “haste to climb” had led him to this end. This was certainly the passage of his speech that was specifically remembered by most of those present, particularly courtiers. On 18 September 1536, John Husee had cause to write to Lady Lisle, “but now I remember my Lord of Rochford’s words, who exhorted every man to beware of the flattering of the court.” There was many a young courtier who heard those words with trepidation.

George’s body and head were taken to the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula within the Tower, where his sister would join him two days later.


Notes and Sources

* Bentley, Samuel, ed. Excerpta Historica Or, Illustrations of English History. London, 1831, pp. 261–5.
LP x. 908
* Constantine, George. Archaeologia, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity. Vol. 23. ed. T Amyot, The Society, 1831, pp. 64-6.
Gruffudd, Elis. “Gruffudd’s Chronicle”. The National Library of Wales.
St Clare Byrne, Muriel, ed. The Lisle Letters. Vol. 3. University of Chicago Press, 1981, p491.
* The Chronicle of Calais In the Reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII to the Year 1540 (ed. Gough Nichols, John).
* Thomas, William, The Pilgrim, London, 1861, pp.116-17
* Wriothesley, Charles. A Chronicle of England During the Reigns of the Tudors, from A.D. 1485 to 1559. ed. Camden Society 1875., pp. 39-40.

COMPETITION

Win a signed copy of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway by answering this question. Please submit your answers like a comment, complete with your e-mail address; neither will be published. But when we use a generator to randomly select a winner from the entrants, it'll be helpful to have your e-mail address for me to let you know you've won! The e-mail addresses, perhaps needless to say, will not be passed on to any third parties. (Also please leave comments about the article, with any of your own thoughts or queries about George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. It's always a pleasure for authors to hear from people interested in their work!)
QUESTION: George Boleyn's sister Anne was played by English actress Natalie Dormer in the Showtime series "The Tudors". What is the name of the queen she is currently playing in HBO's medieval fantasy "Game of Thrones"? 

The competition closes on Thursday 12th June 2014. Thank you.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Review: "Inside the Tudor Court" by Lauren Mackay



I once came across a comment on-line from Lauren Mackay fairly highlighting the difference between a blogger and an historian, and rather self-deprecatingly pointing out that having achieved her masters she did not yet consider herself an historian. It is therefore something of a relief that she has since used the work undertaken for her MA to pen this wonderful biography of Eustace Chapuys, the Hapsburgs' ambassador to England for most of the last two decades of Henry VIII's reign.

In much the same way as Chapuys' negative appraisal of Anne Boleyn helped shape her historiography for so many years, the academic swing in her favour following Eric Ives's 1986 biography saw Chapuys cast in the light of a malign intriguer who got more wrong than right when it came to Boleyn - and, by an extension of logic, everyone around her. Mackay sets out to rescue her subject from this two-dimensional view and she does so with great success. If Anne Boleyn was much more than suggested by Chapuys, he too is worth a lot more than the Anne Boleyn matter. The biography brims with the author's passion for her subject, beginning with a charming and vivid account of his home town in Annecy, where he is still commemorated in street names and local architecture. Mackay does well too where the sources are silent by sketching the broad outlines of his life before he was sent to England in 1529, freely admitting that there is much we do not know about Chapuys's life but credibly suggesting various possibilities based on what we do know. It's what all Tudor historians have to do from time to time, it's full of pitfalls and Mackay does better than most in weaving her way through it. Once Chapuys gets to England, where his legal training was intended to help the beleagured Katherine of Aragon, Mackay is able to make use of the mountains of letters that her subject wrote to the Emperor and the picture becomes clearer still.

Mackay's strengths are not just her zeal for the thin and rather elegant man she's writing about, but also her ability to analyse his thoughts and to make full use of his lengthy and colourful correspondence. She is right when she points out that without Chapuys's letters Tudor history, as we know it, would not exist. There were a few times when I did not agree with her conclusions and I thought there were one or two moments when she was slightly too prepared to take Chapuys at face value. However on moments when I, or any reader, might disagree with Mackay's conclusions on certain minor points they are still well-argued and well-written enough to be taken seriously and respected. There are no unreasonable assessments in Inside the Tudor Court and she presents the information clearly enough that she allows her readers to make their own conclusions. She invites them, as it were, to share her enthusiasm for Charles V's servant.

This is a wonderfully useful book that brings to life the colourful and often confusing world of the Henrician court, as seen through the eyes of one of its most gifted if controversial observers. Lauren Mackay deserves considerable praise for setting Chapuys back in his context and reminding us, regardless of whom he quarrelled with or why, what a debt we all owe him. She makes him both an esteemed intellectual but entirely human, she allows him her foibles - I particularly enjoyed the point she makes about his correspondence's relative lack of descriptions of the English court's numerous entertainments: he didn't enjoy them and thought them slightly frivolous, so he told the Emperor he wouldn't bore him with the details. There has long been a need for a biography of this brilliant and complex figure and Lauren Mackay has certainly delivered it.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Why I'm voting NI21 on May 22nd


In his epic history of the Russian Revolution, A People's Tragedy, the British historian Orlando Figes suggested, "It would be absurd - and in Russia's case obscene - to imply that a people get the rulers it deserves." And yet only a few sentences earlier, he had suggested that the Russian people were as much "the participants in their own revolutionary drama rather than as 'victims'..." The point he was trying to make, I think, was that the Russian people did not deserve the governments they got after 1917 but they were nonetheless participants in making them possible. The same situation seems to me to be equally, if less bloodily, applicable to Northern Ireland as we hurtle rapidly through the second decade of the twenty-first century with a government at Stormont that absolutely nobody seems enthusiastic for, but which we're yet to do anything about changing.

On 22nd May this year, I will be voting for NI21, a new political party set up by former Ulster Unionist MLAs Basil McCrea and John McAllister. The party is unionist, it is avowedly non-sectarian (compared to some DUP candidates who feel the need to post a Facebook status every time they manage to persuade a Catholic to vote for them - news flash, it's 2014, the country's existed since 1921 and 50% of the population are Catholic; it shouldn't be a big achievement to secure support from 50% of your constituents, it should be an every day occurrence), it's actually had meaningful dialogue explaining its position with nationalists and republican groups north and south of the border, and so far it is the only unionist party to take a firm stance on supporting marriage equality. For me, the latter is a significant issue facing the country at the minute, along with the economy and education, and I stand with the rest of the United Kingdom's governments in believing that in a nation where secular marriages are allowed in registry offices, a single religion long ago lost the right to define what a marriage is. If a secular right is extended to one set of taxpaying citizens, it stands to reason that it should be extended to all - to say nothing of denominations like certain sections of the Quaker community and the Affirming Pentacostal Church who would like to perform same-sex marriages in accordance with their interpretation of theology. Not to extend the same marital rights granted to a non-believing opposite gender couple is, to me, rank inequality and vicious discrimination of the most blatant kind, no matter what verses from Leviticus you truss it up in. And I say that as a practising Christian who does not want my religion defined for me by our politicians at Stormont and then to have that put into legislation.

Civil rights for gay couples may not be one of your vote-deciding priorities, but my point is that we have got to stop voting on no other basis than how orange or green our parties claim to be. When you do that, we enable the re-election of  saber-rattling demagogues who don't have to work as hard as they should because they know that issues like flags and prisoners' memorials reach into our collective cultural memories to elicit deep emotional responses - and votes. But the result is that our politicians are essentially unaccountable, there is no opposition at Stormont giving any of the Big Two (and make no bones about it, it's the Big Two and the "also starring" support act of the UUP and SDLP) a run for their money. We need parties like NI21, we need parties with new candidates, new opinions and new attitudes to shake things up. We need, as young and old to get out there, to vote, to take a stand and to do something for this tiny part of the world that we all claim to love but with which we are all so perpetually disappointed. We need to expect better - we certainly deserve it. We love its people but we despair of its leaders; that much has been true of most people in the North of Ireland for the best part of two decades and it's time we did something to change it. The politicians work for us and yet most of us are dissatisfied consumers. When was the last time you heard anyone in Northern Ireland seem genuinely excited about any of the political parties at Stormont? Those enthusiasts may still exist, but they're a dying breed. Cynicism here is as endemic as it is justified.

In the last few elections I have voted Ulster Unionist and Alliance; for a very long time I felt genuine support for the Alliance Party. But two things jolted me out of that sympathy. The first was that a vision of a Shared Future seemed a bit less enticing when two of the party's MLAs voted against the legalisation of gay marriage in the spring of this year; I utterly respect their right to have done so, I applaud them for remaining true to their religious principles - equally, I as a voter am no longer inclined to vote for them. All principles have a cost. The second issue I had was when the Alliance's Anna Lo claimed she supported a united Ireland because she was against colonialism. The party did not censure her or hand her a disciplinary notice; I think perhaps they were right to do so. But at the very least they could have handed her a dictionary. By referring to Northern Ireland as a functioning remnant of colonialism, Miss Lo implied that the entire state was the result of an imperialist policy. The extension  of that was that everyone living in Northern Ireland who supports a union with Britain rather than Ireland was a colonialist - not yet a true son of the northern Irish soil, an interloper, a testament to a foreign presence. That is undoubtedly not what she meant, but words have nothing beyond their definition. We should not use them unless we know what they mean and that is doubly the case with our politicians of whom we should expect more, not less. Like the word "fascist," "colonialist" is an ugly word that is both overused and misused. Miss Lo's belief in the benefits of a united Irish republic are something she is more than entitled to articulate and there are some very strong arguments in favour of an all-Ireland government, I just happen to disagree with them at the moment, but to refer to the system here as colonialist was as cheap and sensationalist as it was silly and misleading.

I am voting for NI21 because I personally believe in the right to equal marriage for all British citizens, because I am excited about their policy to broaden inclusivity and cultural diversity at a council level, to increase tourism facilities in my region and because fresh blood, fresh faces and fresh politics are exactly what this province needs. I had to read all the pamphlets that came through my door to make sure I wasn't voting for something on the basis of hope rather than research, but I'm hopeful that this decision for me is the right one. Their election may not just revitalise the other parties by giving them a sense of competition, a catfish in the tank as it were, but also because the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. We live in a wonderful place with great problems but even greater possibilities and fresh politics might just help make that possible. I wish all the candidates standing the best of luck, even the ones I disagree with, because they are trying to do something to help their country and that, ultimately, is a noble thing in both the elected and the electorate.
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