Showing posts with label Britain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Britain. Show all posts

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Dilettante historians

As a young man in Sydney (in the years preceding my arrival in Paris in 1962), I often used to run into an English expatriate literary critic named Charles Higham [1931-2012], who had arrived in Australia in 1953. The news had got around that Higham was the offspring of a knighted British MP who had made a fortune in advertising. Apart from that, the young journalist from the Mother Country had the reputation of being a poet... which sounded good in our rough-and-ready Aussie ears.

— original photo Gene Maggio/The New York Times

In 1963, the Aussie press magnate Frank Packer sent Higham to California with a mission to send back interviews with celebrities, which were to appear in Sydney's The Bulletin under the title of "Charles Higham's Hollywood". Wow! This was a Women's Weekly challenge. Within a decade or so, Higham had become a successful pop biographer, specializing in the life stories of Hollywood personalities such as Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball and Howard Hughes. In 1988, he tackled a steamy subject: the US-born femme fatale Wallis Simpson [1896-1986] whose romantic affair with the king Edward VIII [1894-1972] had led to the latter's abdication.


Here's the publisher's blurb for a 2005 reedition of this inflammatory biography:
The romance of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor has been called the greatest love story of the twentieth century. However with the first edition of this biography in 1988, highly acclaimed author Charles Higham used explosive secret intelligence files to reveal a far darker side to their forty-year relationship. Now the author has re-visited and updated his international bestseller, resulting in a fascinating, and at times shocking exposé of Wallis Simpson. New and disturbing revelations have come to light, adding to the now classic story of an illegitimate child from Baltimore who rose to become the mistress of the king of England and brought about his abdication. Wallis gained control of the Monarch through sexual techniques learned in China, but risked losing everything through a reckless, long-term affair with William Bullitt, US Ambassador to France. Newly released FBI files demonstrate, as no other source has done, the extent of the Duchess’s espionage activities and how she conspired against Britain in the interest of Hitler. This is an intimate and extraordinary account of the woman who very nearly became the Queen of England.
Higham's presentation of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor is conspiracy-theory writing of a Californian kind, but not necessarily authentic history... in spite of the allusion to recently-released FBI files. Concerning the latter, it's clear that FBI agents could hardly be thought of as credible authorities concerning the murky background to Nazi events in the Old World. These agents could do little more than note down rumors that floated their way. Consequently, Higham's presentation of FBI impressions of the "secret lives" of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor deserves to be thought of as no more than poorly-written historical fiction.

Yesterday evening, on French TV, I watched a recent French documentary—presented by a bright fellow named Franck Ferrand—that sets out to demonstrate that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were traitors working for Hitler.


In the short list of books upon which the program had been constructed, Ferrand included the Higham biography... but without mentioning the fact that the author was by no means a reputable historian. Worse still, Ferrand and his three acolytes placed a lot of trust in a notorious book by Martin Allen, Hidden Agenda: How the Duke of Windsor Betrayed the Allies, published in 2002.


Martin Allen claims that the former King Edward VIII provided the Nazis with military secrets, deliberately, which were exploited to the detriment of the Allies, including France and the UK. In other words, the author is accusing explicitly the Duke of Windsor of treason. The author claims that the British government was aware that King Edward VIII was a potential pro-German traitor, and that the supposed love affair between their king and the US divorcee Wallis Simpson was simply a convenient pretext for getting rid of him, by obliging him to abdicate. Martin Allen says that the UK then used the Duke of Windsor, exiled in France, to send back information on the state of French defence installations. According to Martin Allen, Edward also sent a copy of this precious data to his friend Adolf Hitler, using as intermediary a millionaire Franco-American businessman named Charles Bedaux [1886-1944] in whose fairy-tale castle in the Val de Loire, Candé, the Windsors had been betrothed on 3 June 1937.


The following delightful image clip from the News Review magazine dated 16 September 1937 shows the Windsor and Bedaux couples bedecked, no doubt for fun, in Teutonic gear:


Martin Allen's book evokes a dubious handwritten letter in German from Edward to Hitler, which the author apparently found in his father's papers, sent to him allegedly by the stoic recluse of Spandau, the Hitlerian architect Albert Speer [1905-1981].


The only problem with Martin Allen's devastating accusations is that they are no doubt based upon fake documents introduced amazingly into the National Archives, as outlined here. Everybody has known for ages that British royalty is issued from a Germanic dynasty known as Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. But the dilettante historians of French TV were surely a little too eager to suggest that our royals (already overburdened with minor faults of all kinds, as in any big family) might have been traitors, worthy of facing a firing squad.

Monday, December 12, 2011

When Britain was great

After David Cameron's astonishing behavior at last week's summit in Brussels, the UK is henceforth wandering around on the fringe of the EU, and it's not at all clear whether the nation will indeed stay in or rather get out. Maybe get kicked out. See this article.


Once upon a time, Britain had an empire. In down-to-earth real-estate terms, it was no doubt the most vast empire that had ever existed, since it covered a quarter of the land surface of the planet Earth. When I was a child out in my native Australia, we used to persist in celebrating this majestic empire, even though it had been growing faded and starting to crack at the seams, particularly since the defection of India in 1947.

The English—who adore misty fairy tales—were told that the following photo showed King George V and Queen Mary leaving Buckingham Palace for India, a century ago.


On 12 December 1911, there was a so-called durbar in Delhi: that's to say, a fabulous ceremonial parade, involving Indian princes and maharajahs, through the streets of the imperial city. The English monarch and his wife had arrived there, to pursue the celebration of their coronation, which had taken place on 22 June 2011 at Westminster Abbey in London. Back in those days, the English had a right to take themselves very seriously. And they did, indeed.


I found the above image this afternoon on the Gallica website, which is an emanation of the French national library. I was amused by a French-language comment, in modern slang, concerning this old photographic reminder of British greatness. To express his feelings towards George V, a young French viewer of the above image said: "Il se la pète grave." Impossible to translate in a word-for-word fashion. (My daughter Emmanuelle would be able to help me, but she phoned me this morning to say that she was leaving to interview somebody in the USA.) The French verb péter means "to fart" and the adverb grave means "ultra-seriously". The bizarre but delightful construction "se la péter grave" means that somebody appears to be taking himself extravagantly in a pompously serious fashion.

Hey, wasn't that what the Victorian/Georgian Poms and their British Empire were all about? Besides, my native land, Australia, has not yet fully emerged from that antiquated dream and the obsolete ideals of a long-abandoned "empire"…

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Royal rubbish

William is a docile blob, like his father. I find this photo hideous:

What a witch! That Kate Middleton commoner (I love to have an opportunity of slinging around that shitty term) is straight out of a Harry Potter remake. Her regard is no less topsy-turvy than her crazy hat. When I observe the physical features of this potential future queen, I fear that the kingdom is in danger. But what can you expect from the mad Windsors? I find it terribly sad that many of my Anglo-Saxon brethren still seem to take this royal farce seriously. What a fucking ridiculous phenomenon. It's high time that the British people as a (w)hole—I resisted the temptation of saying asshole—pulled its finger out. Why must this royal comedy endure?

Sadly, there are many ready answers to that rhetorical question:

• Hordes of dumb English-speaking folk, from one end of the planet to the other (including my native land), seem to get a kick out of watching the antics of these so-called Royals, as if they were exotic animals in a zoo (which they are, in fact).

• In a sociopolitical context, certain serious specialists would argue—for obscure obsolete reasons—that royalty is the best, if not ideal, solution to the challenge of national guidance.

• Many lazy apathetic bastards say: Why change something that has been working for ages?

• Certain powerful individuals say to detractors (well, they don't actually say it explicitly, but rather make it known): Hey, fuck off, old chap! The existence of royalty guarantees me my privileges.

• Countless individuals don't give a fuck.

Do you want to know what I think? Well, I reckon that the antiquated phenomenon of British royalty will soon fizzle out for reasons that are not evoked, in any way whatsoever, in the above arguments. They will disappear suddenly and mysteriously, almost overnight, like the dinosaurs many eons ago, or like the Soviet Union in 1991.

We should not waste our time and energy running in circles, screaming and shouting about the absurdity of British royalty. Things will change inevitably, no matter how much or how often we scream and shout. We should give Time its due time. And that limited time is written already in the ugly face of "Queen Kate".

Friday, February 13, 2009

A lord and his lady

The name Shaftesbury might not ring a bell with many people. It's a small town on a hill in the southern English county of Dorset.

In 1973, Shaftesbury's steep street was made famous by a TV ad for a brand of bread named Hovis:



Curiously, the commentator speaks with a North Country rather than a Dorset accent. This publicity was followed by a funny spoof [which seems to have sadly disappeared from our Internet world]:



In my articles written in August 2007 entitled End of English excursion [display] and Dorset ancestral anecdotes [display], I described my genealogical pilgrimage to Blandford, which is not far away from Shaftesbury.

I've often been intrigued by the fact that the names Skeffington and Shaftesbury have almost identical etymologies. Let me explain. The remote ancestors from whom I acquired my Skyvington surname were Normans who sailed across the English Channel with William and usurped a Saxon settlement (tun) in Leicestershire whose patriarch was called Sceaft, meaning shaft. Maybe this Saxon elder had earned this name through his skills in spear-throwing. In any case, this fellow was not an ancestor of the Norman invaders who chased the Saxons away. The Anglicized name of the place where my Norman ancestors settled down, Skeffington, was simply a reminder of the original Saxon name. I have no reason to imagine that any of the original Saxons mated with the Normans invaders, giving rise to offspring with genuine Sceaft genes... because I'm a lousy spear-thrower. In the case of Shaftesbury, too, the Norman invaders appear to have usurped a Saxon stronghold (burg) created by a patriarch called Sceaft.

Apart from that, whenever Shaftesbury and Dorset are mentioned, I think immediately of the beautiful face of Nastassja Kinski in the film Tess [1979] by Roman Polanski. In fact, although the novelist Thomas Hardy [1840-1928] located Tess of the d'Urbervilles in Dorset, Polanski's movie was actually shot in the north of France. Now, I'm letting myself get led astray...







In the 17th century, a Dorset fellow named Anthony Cooper, with no outstanding qualities or world-shaking talents, nevertheless persuaded the king to name him the Earl of Shaftesbury. Later, his descendants left the town with the steep hill and moved to a tiny place in Dorset named Wimborne St Giles, where they erected a red-brick mansion, and transformed themselves into posh aristocrats.


The Shaftesbury earldom still exists. As in all old families, some peers were fine men, whereas others were nincompoops. [Young readers might need to look that word up in an old English dictionary.]

In France today, we're hearing a lot about the 10th Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper, whose decomposed body was found in April 2005 at the bottom of a rubbish-strewn ravine on the French Riviera. He had been strangled in November 2004 by his brother-in-law, Mohamed M'Barek, now serving a 25-year jail sentence.



Last night, at the end of an appeals trial in the splendid Provençal city of Aix, the late lord's third wife, Jamila [shown in the above photo with her barrister, at her first court appearance, in May 2007], was sentenced to 20 years for complicity in this crime.

Getting back to etymology, we might say that the outcome of the appeals process in Aix-en-Provence confirms that—as they say in the classics—Shaftesbury got shafted. The ingredients of this sordid affair [wealth, sex, cupidity, stupidity, crime... themes that you can look up on the web] form a more dramatic cocktail than anything the Dorset novelist Hardy would have ever imagined. Polanski, on the other hand, would surely be capable of tackling such powerful stuff.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Rebirth of a new old nation?

Tony Blair has had no more luck in his bid to achieve a political victory in Scotland than in dealing militarily with Iraq. And the Scottish Nationalist Party of Alex Salmond, committed to national independence, appears to have made a giant breakthrough.

When you think about it, if Scotland were to gain independence, there would be fabulous retirement jobs in Edinburgh for Bush, Blair and Howard: respectively US, UK and Australian ambassadors to the new nation... unless, of course, by that time, they had already accepted similar posts in Iraq.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Live in Britain?

For young Australians of my generation, having completed their education at the end of the '50s, it was the "done thing" to live in the UK for a while. We could easily get a winter job in London, sleep in a sleazy flat in Earls Court, meet up with other Aussies and drink warm lager in a pub of a Friday evening, visit the Tower of London and the Tate Gallery of a weekend, and abandon Britain for a hitchhiking tour of the Continent as soon as the weather warmed up. Back then, that was the nearest thing to what you might call a packaged overseas holiday deal.

In reality, I resided in London for no more than the harsh winter of 1962-63. So, when I returned to Great Britain briefly in 1977 as a tourist, to gather material and impressions for my future guide book, the truth of the matter was that I knew almost nothing concerning the subject about which I was going to write. In spite of this inexcusable ignorance, my book turned out to be quite successful, probably because I produced it in much the same logical way in which I had designed and written computer programs. [That's a big and complex subject, which I don't intend to tackle here.]

Since then, I've returned to England for a day or so from time to time, but I don't look upon Britain as a good place for a holiday, and the idea of living there has never tempted me at all. There are, however, many Commonwealth people who would like to live in Britain. Apparently too many, because the authorities have just decided to introduce culture tests for prospective immigrants. Here are a couple of typical questions:

In what year was Elizabeth II crowned?

How many members are there in Scotland's parliament?

I don't know whether or not ordinary Australian candidates (if such individuals exist) would find it easy to pass this test.

For me, today, the fact that my native land still declares its allegiance to the United Kingdom is a total mystery, which neither bothers me nor even interests me. It's simply yet another indication that Australia has not yet had the courage and imagination to take its destiny into its own hands. The nation bows down to the Crown just as it has been bowing down to Bush. Vive la République !