DUKE OF AUMERLE: Where is the duke my father with his power?
KING RICHARD II: No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
William Shakespeare (Richard II. Act III, Scene II)
WE HAVE HAD SOMETHING OF AN UPRISING here in England as students faced with university fees increasing threefold have painted banners, hitch-hiked, rented buses and otherwise found transportation to the main cities. London, of course, has been at the top of every protestor’s list; in particular the area of London, Westminster, near the Houses of Parliament.
A few weeks ago rioting students smashed their way into the headquarters of the Conservative Party. Watching the television coverage (Today’s riot will be shown from early afternoon until the evening, with little or no commercial interruption...) it seems to me that glass doors and windows can be smashed, demolished, breached rather easily. There seem to be a good many scruffy lads in hoodies and balaclavas taking to the streets with tins of spray paint, rather than fountain pens and artists' HB pencils, and the means to make hand-sized missiles from larger blocks, and to create flaming torches, which can be pitched at the overwhelmed lines of police. Some of these “students” have managed to get interviewed on the major television networks, out on the battle lines. Curiously, some speak little English, and rather than challenge the Government on its Education policy, they’ve ranted about the Middle East and Afghanistan. I cannot imagine this sort of behaviour being tolerated in the USA. Let’s not import anarchists!
Last week’s pitched battle in Parliament Square featured a good deal of damage. Winston Churchill’s statue in the Square was defaced. Up in Whitehall the Cenotaph was also desecrated; one of the thugs has been arrested and charged and he turns out to be the son of one of our more famous rock musicians. His eloquent apology, so heartfelt and beautifully phrased that I imagine the finest (most expensive) lawyers wrote it, was issued within a day. He claimed not to know what the Cenotaph was. As every city, town and village has a war memorial, and the Cenotaph in Whitehall is the focus of national attention every year in November (so just a few weeks ago), I find it remarkable that a university student could be so blissfully ignorant concerning its identity and purpose. During last week’s goings-on, the national Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square was attacked, and attempts made to set it on fire. Then Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, were set on in their car on the way to the theatre. Mobsters yelled: “Off with their heads!” The Prince has armed escorts, but no shots were fired. I imagine that sort of restraint would not be found in many cities of the world. Put President Obama’s children in a car in Washington DC and have dozens of thugs smash at it, and poke through the window, and spray paint about ... I’d not expect a royal wave. Security would take out the perpetrators.
Now, I sympathise to some extent with our university students, but the fees they are going to have to pony up are far less than those that students in, say, America do. I’m interested in scholarship opportunities. I’d rather see working class, but intelligent and determined boys and girls in our great universities than rich kids with parents who sit on the boards of our corporations who are in Oxbridge to party and punt and poke fun of the lower orders in footlights productions. The best, and not necessarily the wealthiest, should rise to the top.
I am in favour of peaceful protests. I know the temptation to play to the television cameras is overwhelming, and the youngsters probably feel strongly about the War in Afghanistan (Britain is broke, we hear day after day, yet we can pour money into a losing battle for a distant land with little but sand, scrub and opium poppies to offer us), but let’s talk about what the day’s banner is highlighting. I’d go to an anti-war rally and march under that banner. I cannot multi-task so well, the banner could get too large.
As our economic crisis and the increasing cuts in government funded programmes, and huge job losses, are felt, I expect the workers will join the demonstrations. We may be seeing only the beginning of a long, hard winter. Seems to me that if people dislike our governing parties, the Coalition of Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats, we should be getting rid of them at the ballot box, starting in the villages and towns, and then the counties and if parliamentary seats can be freed up for new elections by disenchanted electorates, that’s fine.
So, that’s a picture-postcard of Britain as Christmas 2010 approaches on icy feet. And I wondered what quotation I might use. One always associates King Richard II with a disenchanted populace. Richard II was born in 1367, became King at the age of about 10, and had to deal with the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 when he was just a lad of 14. I dare say, as do the historians, Richard had a fair bit of help in putting down the Revolt. He actually gave in to many of the demands of the peasants and their noble supporters, but a few years later he got his revenge on everyone he could. Richard II was the first of our kings (and hardly the last) to be convinced that he was King by the Grace of God. He had a bit of a superiority complex.
Richard’s peasants were up in arms over three sets of Poll Taxes imposed to fund unsuccessful overseas wars (in Europe). Richard married the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, King of Bohemia, and started sending considerable amounts of money, raised by taxes, to his father-in-law’s causes in Europe. An EU of the 1380s, if you like.
Of course, if you’ve read your Shakespeare (and Richard II is a popular live production as it has some glorious speeches) you will know that in 1399 King Richard was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke who declared himself King Henry IV, as one does. Richard, who had been something of a gourmet, who was fond of new and interesting foodstuffs, expanded the Palace kitchens and even commissioned a cookbook, was, after his abdication, a bit of an embarrassment and a focus for enemies of the new King Henry IV, and was gaoled and starved to death. Dead in 1400 at the age of 33. He did not lose his head. He eventually was buried in Westminster Abbey with his wife. They’d never had children.
If you are demonstrating in Parliament Square, you should notice Westminster Abbey over to one side. I suggest you go in the Abbey at the end of the day, you may be able to go inside for free (even more likely if you can persuade the doorkeepers that you’re going to attend evensong). Get yourself a guide and find the tomb of King Richard II. Pop round to Poets’ Corner too, and look up at the monument to William Shakespeare, who oversees all, and appreciate that it is probably Shakespeare who we should thank for our perceptions of King Richard II and the difficulties he had with his subjects, both high and low born.
Shakespeare worked hard, came from a fairly humble family but worked at his schooling. He phrased his opinions in words that we hug to our breasts 400 years later. He rose to the top.
Go to the demonstration, speak well (and learn how to do that, it can be done at home and at the public library), and deserve our support and respect. Represent us well.
At the end of the day, when night is darkest, we will all be gone. Our marks on the earth will dissolve and fade. Perhaps a few words will linger on for a thousand years (The Holy Bible and Valley of the Dolls come to mind). The best we can do, should do, is to teach those coming up after us to be an ensample, to create history from our footfalls.