from Louis in Johannesburg: Organic Gardening, churches and world leadership

September 14.

The spring has sprung and the crops are in the fertile ground nourished organically by compost from last year’s leaf drop, irrigated from our granite-based spring water.

Spinach in the foreground, cabbage in the RHS distance, onions peeping over the palisade in the LHS, radishes and more. Growing vigorously in the early morning spring sunlight under bird-proof netting. We can’t wait for the harvest in a couple of weeks. Morogo, cole slaw, radishes in the salads, onion relish etc.

Returning to the description of the various places of worship in the vicinity of our small farm and vegetable garden.

I was struck recently by a comment by one of the political commentariat about South Africa being “Russia with a good climate.” A couple of years ago I was visited by Slawa, a Russian friend. His father translated the ship’s log of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama from the Arabic – they were written into Russian. How I wished I could read Russian to trace the early days of discovery of this part of the world. Da Gama is one of the first visitors to Southern Africa in the 1490s.

Slawa wished to attend the celebratory service of St Stephen at the local Russian Orthodox. St Stephen, who’s feast day falls on April 26, is one of the most successful and dynamic missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church. I duly transported him to the exquisite church a few kilometres away across the valley. This beautiful church was built by the Russian community living in Midrand.

The Russian community consists of approximately seven thousand souls living in close proximity to our home in Midrand. Midrand provides equal access to Pretoria and Johannesburg as it is situated approximately halfway between the two cities. Slawa reported in a hushed voice that he had identified a number of KGB agents attending the service as well. Apparently they are easy to spot. I wondered what they pray for?

https://www.st-sergius.info/en/

St Saviour’s church, literally two doors up the road we live in, has a more interesting history. Its building was part of the property developer’s strategy when he developed Randjesfontein in 1980. I moved in in August 1980. St Saviour’s used to be a local church in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal Province now called Kwazulu-Natal (KZN). The St Saviour’s building was acquired for R1 and moved to our suburb where it was rebuilt to its original design. The link below provides easy access to it. One of the annual events I used to arrange during my fifteen year corporate tenure at Eskom was a reception held on our property. One particular year we hired the African Jazz Pioneers to provide music while we celebrated another successful year. There are a number of dams on the property.

On that occasion, we were sitting on the lawns approximately where the vegetable garden in the above pic is now situated. The St Saviour’s church was visible from where we were partying. During one of the breaks in the music flow the trombone player signalled to me to approach him to talk privately.

He said. “I used to live in Pietermaritzburg and walked daily past a church that looked very much like that church up the road on my way to school.”  But, he continued, “I know churches do not move from one city to another.”

I replied hastily, “Well, this one did!”

St Saviour’s has a lovely acoustic amongst the vaulted, yellowwood beams and open ceilings. Many an operatic recital was held in it and art exhibitions in the cloisters adjoining the church with a magical herb garden in its centre. It has become a popular venue for weddings. The graveyard opposite its entrance silently bears witness to its past. The patriarchs of the Erasmus family were laid to rest here in the 1880s. Many generations later the Chaukes and Sitholes also were accommodated in the small cemetery.  The Erasmus family owned vast tracts of land and gave their name to many developments and suburbs in the vicinity such as Erasmusrand, Erasmia and so on. The property now called Randjesfontein Country Estate (RCE) is where we have lived since August 1980. More than 400 families call it home. See link below for details and visuals.

https://www.midchurch.co.za/cp/7243/st-saviours-church

Yesterday, was a red letter day for me marking the 150 anniversary of the passing of Jan Smuts. My family were ardent supporters of Jan Smuts and Louis Botha. We visited the “Big House” he and his family lived in Irene, a twenty minute drive from here. Once again I was awestruck by the colossus of Smuts the polymath. He overshadowed and struck fear into the hearts of the apartheid government who voted him out in 1948 to begin the path to becoming the polecat of the world. South Africa is one of the few countries where Smuts’ contributions to the establishment of the United Nations and other international contributions does not form part of the school curriculum.

The National Party and its adherents systematically continue to erode his legacy in South Africa. He remains relatively unknown in South Africa, his home, to which he regularly returned from abroad. Christ College, Cambridge ranks Smuts with Charles Darwin and John Milton as the three brightest alumni in their history. He later became Chancellor of Cambridge. A new curator to the Smuts House Museum has reorganised exhibitions in the house around the theme of “a boer family and their life at home”. Gratefully Isie his spouse or “Ouma Isie” as she has become affectionately known has been featured prominently. Smuts coined words such as holism (in his writing, “Holism and Evolution” completed in 1927), “commonwealth” to replace “Empire” in a more meaningful way capturing the essence of a post-colonial era.

In the context of the era he lived in, Isie Krige Smuts matched Smuts intellectually and emotionally. She spoke Afrikaans, English, French, German, Spanish, Greek and quoted biblical passages in classical Greek to which Jan Smuts would reply also in classical Greek.

The “Big House” as it is known has been superbly curated and improved. The two centres of the house are Smuts’ library and the kitchen where “Ouma Isie” would cater for a constant flow of guests including royalty from Great Britain and Greece. Reigning King George’s family including a young future Queen Elizabeth visited in 1947.

Smuts did not suffer fools easily. However, he indulged children. One of his feats he would engage them with was to invite them to pick any book from his library of approximately six thousand copies. They were requested to read any two pages from the selected book. He would then tell them the title of the book and recite the two pages back to them word perfect.

Social distancing was absent during the two lectures we attended on Jan Smuts and Ouma Isie. However the passionate curator painted a picture of a modern partnership, even by today’s standards between Isie Krige-Smuts and Jan Smuts. Ouma Isie often stood side by side with Smuts and delivered campaign speeches, translated his writing into other languages and provided support where needed.(see link below for more information)

https://www.smutshouse.co.za/   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Smuts

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Farina – travelling to an Outback ghost town

September 13.

Farina township, established in 1876, is now 7 hours due north of Adelaide, 630 kms on good roads. You can leave home at 8am, stop for tea in Port Wakefield, a lamb pie in Port Augusta, coffee and a Quandong pie in Hawker and arrive into the ghost town around 4pm. Without speeding.

But pause. Farina was once a month’s ride away or two months if you were on a wagon. Farina, for me, stands as an example of the struggles endured by Australia’s early settlers. You cannot but admire their tenacity at the same time you acknowledge their ignorance of this country.

It would have been a harsh lesson in an unforgiving land.

On our recently trip to Witchelina Nature Reserve, 30 kms west of Farina, we travelled this route north, taking in the landscape as it changed, as the green became brown, as the trees shrunk and disappeared, as the towns became smaller, as the wedge-tailed eagles (Australia’s vultures) became more numerous lifting from the roadside off dead kangaroos. Heartbreak land. Hard to love, hard to survive.

Kanyaka Station – half way to Farina – was established in 1851. Early on, there were 41,000 sheep on the property. In 1867, 20,000 sheep died in the drought.

We did not want to be depressed. This was our keenly anticipated holiday after 6 months of being home-bound thinking of little more than family and the issues of the daily news: how many new cases of Covid-19? How were our children doing in the USA? In Australia? In South Africa?

We were escaping to look at the landscape and geologyof the Adelaide Superbasin. We would have experts: geology professors and practitioners, biologists and bird watchers in our group. We would be beyond the reaches of WiFi. No TV, no shops. We were looking forward to evening discussions, communal meals and shearers’ quarters for 8 nights.

Farina landscape

Farina lasted for many years after the dreams of wheat and barley farming faded with the rain decreasing to the normal levels of 6.5 inches a year. The town, at its maximum had 600 people: Aboriginal people, Afghan cameleers and European immigrants. Once there was water at Farina but it did not last. The town only struggled on after the 1890s due to the railway line – closed in 1980.

The empty rooms of Farina

Over the years, it has become a ruin and a tourist attraction for Outback travellers in their A-Vans and sleek Ultimate Caravans. A café is being established there with an underground bakery. Winter is the time for the Outback when the days are warm and sunny and nights cold. In summer the temperatures can reach 50 degrees.

There is something that draws us in awe to these golden stone ruins, stark in the gibber plains. No roofs remain. The walls impress all who stand before them: the massive rectangular rocks that form the lintels last the longest, holding up the doorways and chimney places. You have to admire the workmanship that went into the stonework. There is confidence in these buildings as well as a warning for the hubris of those who ignore nature.

Arriving at Witchelina Nature Reserve

Our group passed through Farina in our 4-WDs, complete with spare tyres, Air-Con, Satellite phones, 2-way radios, GPs, cameras the size of a pack of cards, binoculars and bottles of spring water. If those early settlers could have seen us what would they think?

from Anne in Adelaide: the long Trail of Memory.

July 24. Yesterday, I was contacted by a gentleman from Muscat, Oman. He is my age and says he is planning to write his family story and would appreciate some help. His family originally came from Yemen but spent many years in Zanzibar including the period of the 1964 revolution. In those days, people travelled with the monsoon to and from the Gulf States and Eastern Africa.

The 72-year-old is wanting help to fill in gaps of his father’s time in Zanzibar. He has appealed to me to answer specific questions about the period 1963 to 1964. Most importantly, he wants to know more about what happened during the Zanzibar Revolution.

This revolution caused a diaspora of surviving Zanzibaris. Although it was punishable by death, anyone who could leave, did so. Nowadays, you will find Zanzibaris settled in London, Toronto, Muscat and Adelaide, for example.

Following the end of the Cold War, when Zanzibar relaxed their one-party state by holding multi-party elections, (1995) people begin to return. After all, this was where they spent their childhoods, where their grandparents were buried. Half hidden throughout Stone Town, Zanzibar, there are private cemeteries. Most of the private houses had been nationalised without compensation by the revolutionary junta. However, nowadays, whenever a picture of Stone Town’s streets is posted on Facebook, people remember whose house it was and whose little shop or duka was below. The streets of your hometown are never forgotten.

And it is in honour of one’s parents to try to recall their world, the history they lived through, the challenges they faced.

The British, in recalling their history, might not remember the Zanzibar Revolution, or if they do so, would like to forget it. It is a mere blip in the history of Africa, a fallout of the Cold War. After all, the resulting genocide is a small one: maybe 5-10,000 people in a population of 300,000. (It is listed in Wikipedia’s list of historical genocides).

The point is, the British bear considerable responsibility: the British Colonial Office had ran the country since 1890 and had organised every detail of the series of elections leading to independence or ‘Uhuru’. There’s no other way to say it. A month and two days after the pomp and ceremony of the 10th December 1963 Independence Celebrations attended by Prince Phillip, the new government was overthrown.

A sprinkling of British officials had remained in the government administration, security and police – including my father. When the rebels attacked the police stations, a desperate appeal for help was made to the British Government (through Aden) but they refused, ‘declined’ to send in troops. They said that Zanzibar was now an independent nation. They had first asked if any white people were being attacked.

However, a British Navy ship promptly arrived and moored offshore in view of the city but did nothing except take off the English people. The revolutionary leader, John Okello, had told his mobs not to touch any Europeans. Instead, Okello directed his mobs to slaughter the Zanzibari Arabs.

(Two weeks later, on 28th January, 1964, there was an army mutiny against President Nyerere’s government in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika, and Nyerere appealed to the British for help – the British promptly sent in their paratroopers and quelled the insurrection.)

I realise that the gentleman who contacted me will eventually come down to asking me about this question of why the British did not help. It’s over 50 years since these events, yet still the question comes.

I cannot help thinking what the effects of the massive devastation of countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria must be: what personal stories of loss will be told and passed down from generation to generation.

From David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Only Connect

In my capacity as a temporarily returned member of the Open University History Department, I have just taken part in an online research seminar.  As with most of my many video meetings in the lockdown, it achieved its basic purpose.  A group of interested scholars was gathered together.  The two presenters were able to outline their work, switching between their spoken account and various illustrative documents.  Questions were asked and answered.  We ended the session knowing more about the potential of using search engines to conduct textual analysis – in this case the deployment of the word ‘nationality’ in Hansard in the nineteenth century.  It turns out that the technical challenge of the process somewhat outweighs the insights yielded into the political history of the period.

I thought by now I was if not the master then at least a competent user of video technology.  However in addition to Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, I was now faced with Adobe Connect.  As has been the case in first encounters with each of the technologies, the ten minutes before the session began was a time of mounting panic, with emergency downloads of apps, repeated attempts to get them to work before, for no apparent reason, suddenly there was a connection and we were away.  But Adobe Connect, at least in the version I had found, lacked the mute / unmute switch.  So when the time came to ask my own penetrating question, I could neither be heard nor could I know that I was excluded from the conversation which was continuing without me.   It was a kind of waking nightmare, when you know you are speaking, but not that no-one can hear you.  Eventually one of the presenters noticed my gesticulating hands and, as the new language has it, let me in.

The world of virtual discussion has placed a new premium on listening.  Physical face-to-face conversations have become a rare privilege, and those conducted electronically lack many of the visual clues by which we communicate meaning.  In the case of an arcane branch of the digital humanities, this may not matter so much.   But when it comes to medical consultations, it becomes much more important.  I was talking yesterday to a nurse sent out from my surgery to conduct a routine blood test in my home.  How are the practice staff managing with a limited number of physical consultations and the rest conducted on the phone or by video link?  Not well she thought.  You need to see someone, how they look, how they hold themselves, to understand what they are, and crucially, are not, telling you. 

This applies particularly to the field of mental health, which as I discussed in the entry for June 30 is especially vulnerable in the pandemic lockdown.  A newly qualified mental health social worker is interviewed in today’s paper.  Thrown in at the deep end, he has had to refashion his newly-acquired diagnostic tools.  He is compelled to meet his clients virtually.  “The challenge,” he explains, “and the negative side of that, is that I am not going into people’s homes so I don’t get to see the full picture. You can get a real sense of somebody within seconds of seeing them. People might be able to present quite well on the phone but be feeling quite unwell.” The pandemic has caused him to hone and refocus his skills: “I have had to learn to practise with my ears open and really listen to people and hear what they are saying.” 

We speak of love at first sight, not at first hearing.  To get even someone you know, let alone a stranger, fully to express themselves in words, is hard.  Harder still is the patience and the attention required to understand what they mean.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Anti-Vax

Edward Jenner

July 7. After half a year of the pandemic, we should be immune to shock at the responses to it.

But this morning there is published a finding which is startling and depressing in equal measure.  A survey conducted by YouGov, an entirely reputable polling organisation, has found that almost one in six British adults will ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ refuse a coronavirus vaccination when one becomes available.  Another 15% say they are not sure what they will do.*

We expect this kind of anti-science in the United States, where according to the latest research, only a third of the population believe in secular evolution, a century and a half after Origin of Species.**  But Darwin is our man, indeed my man, born and educated in Shrewsbury (his parents, for an unexplained reason, are buried in the churchyard of Montford parish church, just down river from my village and some distance from the town where they lived).  Surely we are beyond so irresponsible a rejection of medical research.

In the popular history of medicine, Edward Jenner lines up with Alexander Fleming as a hero-discoverer of life-saving remedies.  In 1796, as every textbook tells it, he vaccinated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with cowpox, which gave him immunity to the disfiguring and frequently lethal illness of smallpox.  Crucially Jenner not only applied a remedy which was already being investigated, but conducted a series of tests to prove that it had worked with young Phipps and later triallists.  There then followed the first public legislation in the field, with Vaccination Acts in 1840, 1853 (the first to make the vaccination of children compulsory), 1867 which tightened the regulation, and 1898 which introduced a conscience clause for parents still opposed to the practice.

The last of the 19th century Acts reflected the power of the anti-vaccination movement which had grown up as regulations were introduced.  In the present moment, Leicester is in renewed lockdown, at least in part because of the failure of sections of the population to observe social distancing advice.  Here is the same city in 1885, with up to 100,000 anti-vaccinators marching with banners, a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner:  “An escort was formed, preceded by a banner, to escort a young mother and two men, all of whom had resolved to give themselves up to the police and undergo imprisonment in preference to having their children vaccinated…The three were attended by a numerous crowd…three hearty cheers were given for them, which were renewed with increased vigor as they entered the doors of the police cells.”***

The Victorian era was notable not so much for the progress of medical science, which for the most part was more successful at diagnosis than therapeutic intervention, but for the growth of mass literacy, which turned every citizen into a consumer of the printed word.  With newspapers came advertisements for every kind of quack medicine.  With the Penny Post of 1840 came the machinery to distribute products by mail order, using stamps as currency.  The most credulous were not the newly literate farm labourers whom Jenner had treated, but the confident, educated middle classes.  In 1909 the British Medical Association, alarmed at the success of patent medicines, conducted an inquiry into the market:

It is not, however, only the poorer classes of the community who have a weakness for secret remedies and the ministration of quacks; the well-to-do and the highly-placed will often, when not very ill, take a curious pleasure in experimenting with mysterious compounds.  In them, it is perhaps to be traced a hankering to break safely with orthodoxy; they scrupulously obey the law and the Church and Mrs. Grundy, but will have their fling against medicine” (BMA, Secret Remedies (1909), p. vii).

Facebook and other sites, which bear a criminal responsibility for the resistance to orthodox medicine, are merely the inheritors of a long tradition of self-medication weaponised by commercial forces and facilitated by communication systems.  The medical profession itself has not always been as secure a bastion against these pressures as it might wish to be seen.  It took twelve years for The Lancet finally to retract the article it published in 1998 falsely claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

It is, of course, possible that if and when a vaccine is made available, there will be less resistance to it than is now threatened.  History offers scant comfort that this will happen.

* https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/one-third-uk-may-not-get-coronavirus-vaccine-one-developed-new/

**https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/11/darwin-day/

*** https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-anti-vaccination-movements

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Six Giants

William Beveridge

June 24.  In the matter of identifying the aftermath of the pandemic, history has to be used with caution.

Peter Hennessy (see June 23) knows well that the Beveridge revolution was initially resisted by the war-time Conservatives.  Churchill believed that planning for a post-war future was simply a distraction in the middle of a conflict whose outcome was far from certain.  His attempt to bury the Beveridge report was defeated by its dry-as-dust author, who proved surprisingly adept at deploying the media of his time to publicise his document.  The report was full of practical detail, but by couching his target in terms of the five ‘giants’, Beveridge tapped into the moral subconscious of the British people, engaging with a tradition of social justice that stretched all the way back to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The report became a best-seller.  My dog-eared copy once belonged to my father, who used it in the latter days of the war to lecture to his fellow sailors with whom he was serving in a naval outpost in Sierra Leone.   It was central to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 (though Beveridge was himself a Liberal), and in turn the scale of that majority was critical to overcoming the opposition to many of the proposals, ranging from the Tory Party to a host of vested interests.

Starmer’s Labour Party will need another landslide, and another document to energise the electorate.  The Beveridge Plan offers only a partial model.  Lakes of ink have since been spilled over its recommendations.  Eligibility for relief was centred on the outdated figure of the male breadwinner with his dependants.  The ‘National’ in the NHS and other reforms reflected a passion to centralise every form of welfare, in most cases denying effective local participation in the provision of services.  There was no engagement with the environment by a Labour Government which spent its time in office burning every ton of coal it could get out of the ground.

There is a case for simply taking on the same giants and this time slaying them properly.  Anne Chappel has directed me to a recent article which points out in convincing detail how Beveridge’s agenda is still yet to be met.*  We still have work to do with poverty, health, education, unemployment and housing.  Nonetheless, three quarters of a century on, it is perhaps time to update the mission.

I would slightly re-shape Hennessy’s agenda.  The giant of Squalor remains a task in the form of social housing.  Idleness remains a task in the form of the vast numbers, barely visible in 1945, beyond working age and needing affordable social care as they grow old.  Ignorance remains a task in terms of acquiring the skills to combat and exploit technical change, including artificial intelligence.  Want has worsened since 2010, a permanent stain on the record of successive Conservative administrations.  There is a new giant of Pollution to be attacked.  And there is a new giant of Power, collected at the centre since the war by both parties, and now needing to be distributed to the localities in which the new sense of community is now flourishing, and more effectively devolved to the nations, where Labour urgently has to relaunch itself.

Above all we must revive and give purpose to the closing paragraph of the Beveridge Report: 

Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them. Winning it needs courage and faith and a sense of national unity : courage to face facts and difficulties and overcome them ; faith in our future and in the ideals of fair-play and freedom for which century after century our forefathers were prepared to die ; a sense of national unity overriding the interests of any class or section. The Plan for Social Security in this Report is submitted by one who believes that in this supreme crisis the British people will not be found wanting, of courage and faith and national unity, of material and spiritual power to play their part in achieving both social security and the victory of justice among nations upon which security depends.(para 461)

* https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/10/beveridge-five-evils-welfare-state

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Numbering the days

June 8.  Besides his weekly column in the Observer, and sundry research activities at Cambridge, my friend and former colleague John Naughton is maintaining a daily blog, Memex1.1, to which is attached a short oral diary.  Both are well worth attention.  And the oral diary begins with a shock.  Yesterday: ‘Sunday June 7.  Day Seventy-eight.’

Seventy-eight?!  If asked I would say perhaps a month since the lockdown began.  Likewise, with this diary.  About twenty since the site was established.   But I count back and find that this is my fiftieth piece (unlike John I don’t write at weekends).

Time has collapsed.  We have only a distant sense of it passing.  This is the immediate consequence of erasing our diaries when Johnson confined us to our homes.  In my case, out went working trips to Cambridge and London and Ireland, a short holiday on the West Coast of Scotland, and various visits, planned and not-yet planned, to and from family and friends.  Events to embed in the memory the succession of days and weeks.

In response to this common experience, it has been reported that increasing numbers of people have been occupying their spare hours by anchoring their present in the history of their own families.  Some years ago, on behalf of the OU History Department, I manned a stall in the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ show at London’s Olympia, where tens of thousands of people paid £22 a head to wander past stalls helping them with their genealogies.  Next to my table was ‘Deceased.Com’, a database of tombstones, which remains a favourite electronic address.  My pitch was that if you want to understand what it means to have a family tree, you need to study some history of those times.  I didn’t get as many customers as my neighbour.

Now I too have paid my shilling to Ancestry.co.uk, the largest of many online resources for this activity.  In my filing cabinet are the paper records assembled by my parents at a time when such research meant physically visiting archives and buying copies of birth, death and marriage certificates.  I have long meant to put these in electronic order for the sake of my children and those that come after them.

Besides providing a template to set out the family tree, the value of the resource, I have discovered, is not the now digitised census records, which only provide one line of information and for the most part had already been visited by my parents.  Rather it is the access it provides to the work of other amateur genealogists.  Each of my forebears, going back to the late eighteenth century, also feature in up to a dozen other family trees which have already been industriously assembled.  The past is now a networked world.  All I have to do is call up one of these lists, and most of my work is done.

I have filled out the detail of a story I already knew.  That my parents were the first to break out of the ranks of the labouring classes.  That amongst their forebears were a scattering of skilled workers – a postman, a policeman, an overman miner – but at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most were just farm labourers.  In what way their wives and daughters contributed to their family economies is almost never recorded.

Above all, across the six generations or so that can be traced, my family is utterly English.  There is some movement out of a common point of departure in Sussex to the new employment opportunities in the capital and the north Midlands, but no hint of a connection even with Wales and Scotland, let alone further afield.  Marriages were contracted by people of the same social standing, usually in nearby villages and towns.  Until, that is, my children’s generation.  My brother and I, who went so far as to take wives with a Scottish heritage, have sons and daughters-in-law from Japan, France, Ireland, and Iran by way of the United States.  These alliances are for the most part the consequence of higher education and attendant gap years, experiences wholly denied my forebears. 

Just as my family tree largely conforms to what I know to be the broader demographic transition in Britain, with an evolution from large Victorian families to the tight two and three-child units of the twentieth century, so also this sudden internationalisation of the Vincent tribe may well be the common experience of the generation born in the closing decades of the last century. 

If so, it will do much to explain why the young are so unattracted by the petty nationalism of Brexit, whilst the old cling to the world contained in the carefully-assembled family trees.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Repentance

June 4. As an historian, I’ve had a nagging feeling that something is missing from the menu of responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Where is the National Day of Fasting?

In part, my sense of omission merely reflects the secular bubble in which I live.  When I enquire, I find that the World Evangelical Alliance designated 29 March as a Global Day of Prayer and Fasting.  ‘The theme of the initiative’, explained the Alliance, ‘is “Lord help!”’  Its impact on Britain passed me by.  On the last Sunday of the month there must have been more people watching their diet because of their waistline than as a form of spiritual apology.

There is a long Christian tradition of responding to outbreaks of infectious disease in this way.  Fast days were instituted in Britain during nine plague pandemics from 1563 to 1721. The theological rationale derived from the concept of special providences and divine judgments.  Natural disasters were seen as God’s punishment for the sins of a community, and required petitionary prayers and promises of repentance if they were to be averted.

During the nineteenth century the growing salience of medical explanations of infectious diseases marginalised this reaction.  According to Phillip Williamson, an authority on this subject, a decisive moment came in 1853, when the Home Secretary Lord Palmerston publicly rejected proposals for a fast day against an outbreak of cholera, arguing that the solution lay in better sanitation and public health.  Now the churches have left the centre of the stage.  Whilst car showrooms have just been re-opened, religious buildings, together with public houses, remain closed for at least another two months.

My view of the marginal role of the Church of England was increased by its response to the Flight out of London.  The Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, was reported as threatening to sever relations between church and state.  “Unless very soon we see clear repentance,” he said, “including the sacking of Cummings, I no longer know how we can trust what ministers say for @churchofengland to work together with them on the pandemic.”   I don’t know why the church of Cranmer and the Prayer Book is now reduced to a twitter hashtag, nor can I understand why any bishop should suppose that Johnson is going to repent of anything.  It’s like asking him to take up ballet dancing or synchronised swimming; it’s just not something he has ever done, knows how to do, would ever want to do.

And yet.  As a Christian, the Bishop had a perfect right to speak of repentance.  It is central to the spiritual rule book of his calling.  There are values, and a structure of faith, forgiveness and redemption to cope with their inevitable infraction in a fallen world.  For all the political excitement, Cummings encountered a basic moral dilemma.  Unlike his employer, he is, by report, a deeply committed family man.  When the virus entered his home, he was faced with a choice between the wellbeing of his immediate social unit, and that of society more broadly.   His panicked solution may have been the wrong one, but he is scarcely the first to make such an error. 

In the event, repentance would have been not only morally but also politically the better course of action.  If in the Number 10 rose garden Cummings had explained his actions and then asked for forgiveness for a mistaken judgment, most of the subsequent damage to his government, and, more importantly, to the public’s trust in the state, would have been avoided.  

We still have a shared moral discourse, the remains, in part, of a Christian heritage.  It is worth reinforcing.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Flowers…

May 29. Flowers!  On May 19 I discussed the very high level of domestic gardens in this lock-downed country.  It is a practice with a long and much-described history.  During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, specialised plant-rearing spread out from country houses to the mass of the population.  By the beginning of the Victorian period there was a large industry of specialised nurseries, supported by a burgeoning literature which in its way supplied as much useful and timely information as Monty Don’s Gardener’s World.  The 1803 edition of John Abercrombie’s Every Man His Own Gardener, for instance, ran to 646 pages of monthly tasks, followed by another hundred pages cataloguing plants and then a thorough index.  Artisans joined together in associations which offered annual prizes.  A survey of the industrial north in 1826, identified fifty auricular and polyanthus shows annually, together with twenty-seven tulip, nine ranunculus, nineteen pink and forty-eight carnation competitions. 

I have on past Fridays, supplied stay-at-home food from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861Here now, for those who like me still cannot get to garden centres, is the London trade in plants as sold in the Covent Garden and Farringdon wholesale markets.  In this case the volumes are not the point; there were numerous nurseries on the edge of the capital also supplying a substantial market.  But Mayhew’s table does describe the basic tastes of Londoners in garden flowers:

Primroses         1,000                                     Polyanthus                         1440

Cowslips           1200                                       Daisies                                  1400

Wallflowers     1920                                       Candytufts                          1200

Daffodils          1200                                       Violets                                  2400

Mignonette      3800                                       Stocks                                   2880

Pinks & and Carnations   800                      Lilies of the Valley            288

Pansies              1080                                      Lilies and Tulips                 280

Balsam               640                                       Calceolarii                            600

Musk Plants       10560                                   London Pride                     720

Lupins                 1600                                     China-Asters                      850

Marigolds           10560                                    Dahlias                                  160

Heliotropes        1280                                      Michaelmas Daisies         432        (p.131)

Most of these plants, in one form or another, are the staple of modern nurseries.  It could be argued that gardens constitute one of the strongest links between the present and the past.  In most other areas – diet, clothing, occupation, health, mortality, warfare, politics, religious belief (in particular) there is a void between our own times and a period even as recent as the Victorian era.  But less so in the practice of growing flowers (and vegetables).

Rose Cecile Brunner

John Clare (1793-1864), the great peasant poet of nature, owned half a dozen gardening books, including Abercrombie, and had a deep interest in the latest developments in horticulture.  Were he to find his way into my garden, he would recognise many of the plants as versions of those that he grew, and would take an informed interest in later imports and introductions.

Above all he would understand why I spend so much time between my hedges, and what pleasure it gives me, with or without the current inconvenience.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury: fast food …from 1861!

22 May. As part of the hesitant relaxation of the lockdown regulations, some of the fast food chains have been experimenting this week with reopening their restaurants.  McDonalds has unlocked thirty-three drive-through outlets in London and south-east England.  Burger King, KFC and Nandos are said to be exploring the challenge of selling food whilst observing safety measures. 

It’s a glimpse of pleasure, the possibility of going out for a meal, whether or not these particular outlets are entirely to taste.   But in my shielded lockdown, this is still a forbidden promise.   So as last Friday, we must be content with reading about food, again relying on Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1861.

After reviewing the markets for fruit, vegetables and fish, he turned his attention to the ‘street-sellers of eatables and drinkables.’  Once more he found a trade of enormous vigour and variety.  He recognised that the demand was not necessarily for the most nutritious food.  ‘Men whose lives’ he wrote ‘… are alternations of starvation and surfeit, love some easily-swallowed and comfortable food better than the most approved substantiality of a dinner table.’  ‘Easily-swallowed and comfortable food’ is a perfect description of McDonalds and their rivals, however much their menus are deplored by nutritionists.  And like the fast food outlets of the modern day, it was essentially cheap, though far more varied.  The following feast was delivered to the penny economy of the London poor in the mid-nineteenth century:

The solids then, according to street estimation, consist of hot-eels, pickled whelks, oysters, sheep’s trotters, pea-soup, fried fish, ham-sandwiches, hot green peas, kidney puddings, boiled meet puddings, beef, mutton, kidney, and eel pies, and baked potatoes.  In each of these provisions the street-poor find a mid-day or mid-night meal

The pastry and confectionary which tempt the street caters are tarts of rhubarb, currant, gooseberry, cherry, apple, damson, cranberry, and (so called) mince pies; plum dough and plum-cake; lard, currant, almond and many other varieties of cakes, as well as of tarts; gingerbread-nuts and heart-cakes; Chelsea buns; muffins and crumpets; “sweet stuff” includes the several kinds of rocks, sticks, lozenges, candies, and hard-bakes; the medicinal confectionary of cough-drops and horehound; and, lastly, the more novel and aristocratic luxury of street-ices; and strawberry cream, at 1d. a glass, (in Greenwich Park). 

The drinkables are tea, coffee, and cocoa; ginger-beer, lemonade, Persian sherbert, and some highly-coloured beverages which have no specific name, but are introduced to the public as “cooling” drinks; hot elder cordial or wine; peppermint water; curds and whey; water (as at Hampstead); rice milk; and milk in the parks.  (p. 159)

That’s Fast Food!  Enjoy the sight.