Some observations on this and that
A few observations on this and that don't quite warrant an essay each, but they all seem worth airing.
1. I wonder if Jack Straw realised what lethal symbolism he was projecting when he decided to revive the feudal practice of walking backwards down the steps from the throne after delivering the Queen's Speech to HM, in his capacity as Lord Chancellor, one of his current roles; and doing it again after HM had read out the speech and he had retrieved it? Walking backwards was so apt for this rusty weathervane of a politician, always ready to go in any direction so long as he stays in office — any office. And how tactless of plain Mr Straw, commoner playing at Lord Chancellor (not quite the first ever, but almost), to dress himself up in the Tudor period robes of a real Lord Chancellor to perform his obsequious duties! As he prudently gathered up the skirts of his voluminous floor-length dress to avoid tripping over them as he nervously shuffled backwards down those steps, he afforded the cameras a brief view of his socks. Perfect.
2. It's Mr Straw, in another of his roles (Secretary of State for Justice), along with Gordon Brown, who has been promising us constitutional reform in the shape of a written constitution. It's somehow emblematic of New Labour, and one fears also of New New Labour, to present as a great reform the promise of a document without any indication of what will be in it. It's one of a piece with the promise of a reform of the house of lords that will apparently be entirely separate from the parallel promise of reform of the constitution, as if the one needn't bear any relationship to the other. The danger is that such constitutional reform as might eventually be granted to us will prove to be so trivial as to be almost imperceptible — and it will then be frozen for a generation in a written constitution so difficult to amend that genuine progress, for example towards a fully-fledged federal system, durably and democratically uniting the four nations of the United Kingdom, will become virtually impossible. Thank goodness this written constitution with its blank pages wasn't pledged in this week's Queen's Speech. It should be nicknamed the cart in search of a horse.
3. One should not, I suppose, speak ill of the dead, so I shall not utter the smallest hint of scepticism about the skills and achievements of a prominent exorcist, faith healer and communicator with the dead who himself died last month. The Rev. Martin Israel's obituaries in the Times and the Daily Telegraph (especially the former) should be made compulsory reading in school divinity lessons, if such things still exist (hat-tip: David Tothill, once again):
An Anglican priest, mystic, author and exorcist who was formerly a pathologist, Martin Israel was a mystic and healer before he was an Anglican priest. He became well known through his writing and lecturing, and was for a time perhaps the most sought-after spiritual director in Britain. He produced many books on the spiritual life, which tackled themes such as mystical experience, Eastern religion, and even the paranormal. … Martin Spencer Israel was born in 1927, to Jewish South African parents. He claimed to have experienced his first mystical vision at the age of 3. He was a lonely, introverted only child. His father, a leading eye-surgeon, showed him little affection, and his mother was overprotective… When he became a university lecturer he found that he was unable to raise his voice in the lecture-hall. A speech-therapist identified the problem as psychological, and Israel discovered the liberating potential of psychotherapy. His extended dark night of the soul began to lift… He discovered in himself intense psychic sensitivity and the power to heal. Seeing his gifts as an expression of the Holy Spirit, he sought to put them at the service of the Christian Church. …He was an adviser on exorcism to the Bishop of London, and a confident practitioner of the art. He performed exorcisms in the old-fashioned way, commanding demons to leave troubled souls in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also crossed exorcism with spiritualism, by communing with the tormented souls of dead war criminals. He was president of the Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies from 1983 to 1998.
Israel remained a very private man. He was a good friend and spiritual adviser to many, but seemed to others rather unapproachable and mysterious.
If you'll forgive a terrible cliché, you couldn't make it up. To be serious for a moment, though, it seems clear that poor old Martin was a pretty unhappy sort of fellow. You have to feel sorry for him. I wonder if he'll be now able to put his powers into reverse and communicate with the living?
4. Another South African, this time someone for whom I had great affection, also died the other day: Margaret Legum, widow of Colin Legum, the former Commonwealth correspondent of the Observer and a journalist of great distinction. Margaret, the epitome of a South African liberal, got her degree at Cambridge at a time when women undergraduates by the Cam were as rare as snakes' legs, in the process winning the fervent admiration of her fellow undergraduate, the poet Sylvia Plath (whom Margaret herself, years later, couldn't remember at all). Margaret fiercely espoused all the standard liberal causes, including especially the fight against apartheid: after some hairy adventures helping fellow anti-apartheid campaigners to escape from South Africa, she and Colin were forced into exile in England, returning only years later after the apartheid régime collapsed. She then became an enthusiastic supporter of the ANC and President Mbeki, whom she advised on racism questions among other things. She wrote extensively in books and newspaper columns, mostly preaching her own brand of economics — anti-globalisation, anti-free marketism (anyway for South Africa), anti-racism, but also writing touching poems in free verse. She wasn't everybody's cup of tea, but her amazing energy (even as a grandmother well into her 70s), the passion of her commitment to good (and sometimes less good) causes, her pride in her prolific family, her hospitality and the lively debates that took place around her dining room table, and the immense devotion that she inspired in countless friends from Richmond, Surrey, to Cape Town — all these will be irreplaceable. Goodbye, Margaret: we'll even forgive you your desertion of the Labour Party for the LibDems.
5. In a recent e-mail J. reminded some friends of my occasional insistence that Camilla, mysteriously known as the Duchess of Cornwall, is actually the Princess of Wales, parliament having carelessly omitted to pass a law preventing the wife of the Prince of Wales from holding that title. Either Camilla or her husband, conceivably both, evidently fear that for her to use her title would stir up the wrath of the citizenry, most of whom no doubt believe that there has only ever been one Princess of Wales and that for anyone else to usurp that sacred title would be blasphemous. By the same token, if and when Camilla's husband becomes King, Camilla will become Queen, whether the monarchical couple like the idea of her being so recognised or not. Again, it would take an Act of Parliament to prevent the wife of the King being the Queen — and indeed even an Act of the UK Parliament would probably not be enough to rob the old lady of her rightful title, since the other 15 countries of which the UK's King or Queen is also the head of state would also have to agree, some having to pass their own parallel legislation. Here the problem is not only the fear of popular resentment of anyone else assuming the role and title once expected to pass to an earlier Princess of Wales: there's also the confusion between a queen regnant, like our present head of state, and a queen consort, whose queenliness springs from being married to a king. Some people are less than keen on the idea of Camilla succeeding Queen Elizabeth II and performing her functions in her place, which of course she won't, whatever title she is made to content herself with. Meanwhile our media commentators continue to refer to the wives of our successive male prime ministers as Britain's 'First Lady', apparently forgetting that the lady down the other end of the Mall comes First. We're all supposed to be enthusiastic monarchists, so it's strange that there are so many misconceptions about the institution and its numerous members.
6. Talking of the royal family, there's been much speculation in this country about the identity of the minor royal allegedly blackmailed by alleged rascals allegedly threatening to expose his (or her?) alleged sexual peccadilloes unless the royal victim paid up. As is usual in blackmail cases in Britain, the court has forbidden the media to name the alleged victim of the alleged attempted blackmail. The media overseas, however, have not felt bound by the same constraints. Hands up those of you who have resorted to Google to solve the mystery — and failed! But a relative in the US apparently found the name via Google within two minutes. Has Google UK, unlike its American parent, decided to obey the court's injunction not to reveal the name by suppressing links to, for example, the relevant stories in the Sydney Morning Herald which had no such inhibitions? Happily, Technorati, being (I assume) US-based, also had no inhibitions, although most of Technorati's hits on blogs purporting to reveal the royal name got it comically wrong. (Ooops!)
7 (and last, you'll be relieved to know). The (London) Sunday Times is still, despite its precipitous decline since being bought by Richard — sorry, Rupert — Murdoch, a newspaper with some claim to seriousness. Anyway, presumably there are still serious people who continue to read it, if only out of habit. And some outstanding columnists continue to write for it. A lurid light is however cast on the once-great newspaper by its accompanying glossy magazine, Style, which is clearly aimed at women, and well-heeled women at that. Every week, Style magazine devotes a page to advice on so-called 'alternative' medicine, a dangerous enough description of a brand of quackery apparently purporting to be an alternative to the real thing, and thus tempting the credulous to think they can safely ignore conventional treatment for what may be serious illnesses. Almost as bizarrely, Style magazine also has a weekly page of astrology. Can anyone with sufficient gumption to read the Sunday Times at all really believe all that pseudo-scientific rubbish about the alignment of the stars and their supposed effects on our lives? It would slander the editors of the Sunday Times to suggest that they provide the serious parts of the newspaper for the men and Style magazine for their feather-brained wives and daughters, but what other explanation can there be? The awful thing is that presumably the presence of all this nonsense in the magazine is justified by scientific market research. Or perhaps Mr Murdoch is an avid consumer of alternative medicines and a devout believer in astrology. He believes plenty of other things that are scarcely less far-fetched, so perhaps that's the explanation.