Monday, September 6, 2010

Be Of Good Comfort, Master Ridley

Last week, my grandfather's ring broke. I have worn it on the second finger of my right hand all my life. I'm told it can't be repaired without removing most of the original metal, and I don't want them to do that, so I'll keep the fragments in a box until I can find a goldsmith who can make it whole again.

When I was about sixteen, and my grandfather was beginning his long death, he gave me the ring he had worn all his life, and I have always treasured it as a physical connection to a man I loved.

At about the same time, I first travelled abroad alone.

My family had gone on holiday to the north of the Netherlands, to see the broad flats of the land reclaimed from the Zuider Zee.

It was a wonderful holiday, with marshes and birds and windmills and cycle trips, but I wanted to see Amsterdam, with its promises of drugs and sex and freedom, and I wanted to be there for the dawning of the age of Aquarius.

And so when it came time to go home, I announced that I would hitch-hike home via Amsterdam and Belgium to Calais and the ferry. I had hitched in England before, but I'd never been alone abroad before.

My parents weren't enthusiastic, but they had little control over me by then. I did what I wanted to and no one could tell me anything, because I already knew it all.

Amsterdam was wonderful. Bars that sold beautiful lager that was nothing like the filth they sold in England in those days. Coffee shops where they sold marijuana to smoke while you played chess and drank tea. And the women. Oh the women...

I had almost no money, and couldn't afford anywhere to stay, so I slept in public parks.

Lots of people did in those days, and there were always little camps of backpackers. Sometimes we had fires and people brought out guitars and sang. I sang too.

One night, cruising from bar to bar I met an Italian man. We started to buy each other drinks, and he had some cocaine, and we had a very pleasant evening talking about where we were from, and what it had been like to grow up in our home countries.

He was half gypsy. His father had been a travelling man, and had got his mother pregnant and then disappeared. He'd only ever seen photographs of his father until he was twenty-two.

And then, on the day that he graduated from university, his father appeared at his graduation ceremony. They'd made eye contact as he was up on the stage receiving his degree, but when he came down from the vice-chancellor's dais, his father had gone.

Luca had felt the call of the wild.

During the evening, we met a French boy, another travelling student, and we combined our resources and our stories. It was a fine evening.

When we'd finally exhausted the collective contents of our pockets, I showed them my favourite park, just out of the centre of town. It was quiet and had a little river to sleep by, and wasn't overlooked. We got out our sleeping bags and lay down.

As Luca was taking off his outer clothes to get into his sleeping bag, I saw that his arm was covered in scars, from where needles had been.

Even at sixteen I knew that this would mean trouble. You can learn that in Sheffield.

I slept for a couple of hours, and then woke up. The French boy was gone, but Luca was still asleep, and I started to carefully and slowly pack my things into my rucksack, being careful not to make any noise.

As I started to leave, Luca's eyes opened. They were full of suspicion and anger.

"Wait there," he said.

He began to go through his bag. One of the first things he found was a long knife. Not a kitchen knife. One for killing. He had a crazed, desperate look in his eyes, like you do when the hunger is on you.

Inevitably, something was missing from his bag.

I couldn't run. I've never been able to run fast. He'd have caught me easily and stabbed me from behind.

He demanded to look in my bag. He went through it, slowly and methodically examining everything, putting everything that he could use in one pile, and everything else in the other. My jersey, spare shirts and clothes, and the bag itself. He took my father's Blue John cuff-links.

Screaming wouldn't have helped. We were too far away for anyone to come quickly, even if anyone had come.

And then he looked at me, and asked to see the contents of my pockets. What could I do? He had a knife. One of the first things a martial artist learns is never to fight someone with a knife. Even if you have a knife yourself.

He took my wallet and cards. He took my passport. One of the old elegant blue hard-covered British passports that started off with Her Majesty's polite request to render the bearer all possible assistance. I never had one of those again. The police told me that it would have been worth about £200 even before it had been modified.

And then he noticed my grandfather's ring. Granddad was still alive, but it didn't look like he would be for long.

"Give me that," said Luca.

And I knew I should, but I couldn't.

"Listen," I said.

"I'll fight for this. It's family. I'll die for this.

"If you make me fight, you'll probably win. But you might not.

"It's hardly worth anything. Just a tiny piece of cheap gold. You might sell it for 60 guilders at best. The other things you've taken are worth much more and you can have them and you're welcome to them. You need them more than me."

And he looked at me for a long time, and nodded, and walked away.

I wish him luck. I'm sure that his road has been harder than mine.

After he'd gone, the French boy emerged from the trees, where he'd been watching. He was white and shaking with fear.

"Did you take anything from his pack?", I asked him.

"Of course not."

"No", I said. "I didn't think you would have done."

"Would you really have fought him for your ring?"

"Yes. I love my grandfather."

"It's true what they say about you English. You have ice instead of blood."

At the time I didn't think much of that. Of course we have ice in our blood. We won the second world war against impossible odds and our history is full of people who made witty remarks as they were put in cauldrons by cannibals or made desperate last stands.

Later on, when I'd grown up a bit, I realised that people are basically the same all over the world. There's nothing special about us, not nobility or sang-froid or fair play or courage or thoughtfulness.

History is written by the winners, and racism and the confirmation bias does the rest.

Everyone in Europe is descended from the same people. If Alfred the Great has living descendants, then I am one. The same is true of his pig-herder. I claim descent from both if anyone does.

The same is true of William the Conqueror, and Julius Caesar, and Aristotle, and Socrates. I claim
descent from them and from their slaves. And so do you, if any of your ancestors were Europeans. That's how it works.

But now, with my broken ring reminding me of that night a long time ago, I wonder if there is something special about us after all.

Kate Fox, in her wonderful book "Watching the English", tells us convincingly that we are a different, lonely people. That we talk spontaneously and openly to animals and to children, but not to other adults. And that how we talk to children is how normal people in normal countries talk to each other.

And so there is something special about us. Maybe it's the stories that we tell. Maybe it's the way that English men are essentially alone. Screaming doesn't help.

Maybe it's the way that to be a man in England involves remaining calm. Not gushing. Not showing emotions.

You might know a man you drink with every Friday night. You might have done this for twenty years. You might die for each other. This goes without saying, and so it never needs to be said. You may well not know the names of his children. He may well not know when their birthdays are. That's woman's stuff.

And there are the stories.

Captain Oates heading into the snow to die. I am just going outside. I may be some time.

The orchestra on the Titanic playing as the ship went down, as the passengers formed orderly queues for the lifeboats.

In patriarchal, class-ridden 1912, if you were a woman travelling in steerage on the Titanic, you had more chance of life than if you were a rich man in first class. Because the English and American passengers' code of honour said 'women and children first', and they stood in orderly queues waiting for the lifeboats to run out even when they knew that they were about to die in terror and in pain. But they stayed calm. I bet that there were jokes. Sad jokes, but funnier for the waiting horror.

We tell of gallantry and fair play even in war. Surely it is all lies. But they can be self-fulfilling lies.

We remember and celebrate Latimer, about to be burnt at the stake in Oxford with Ridley. Ridley was terrified, and Latimer said:

"Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

I can't even remember whether Latimer was a Catholic or a Protestant without looking it up. Surely since he's one of our heroes he was a Protestant, but maybe not. We respect gallantry in our enemies even more than in ourselves.

We remember Rommel and Marshal Ney, and when we remember Rorke's Drift the memory is bittersweet for all the brave Zulu men who died.

I don't imagine that Latimer would have defined himself as Catholic or Protestant. He wouldn't have thought in such terms. It doesn't matter. The beliefs for which he died would be unrecognisable even to modern Anglicans.

He is remembered.


  1. Well written.

    Thanks for sharing the memories.

  2. 1. Only an Englishman would be hitchhiking across Europe with cuff links in his bag. Splendid.
    2. It's not all lies. I'm not convinced all Englishmen are essentially alone though.
    3. Englishness is more than a nationality, it's an attitude, a set of beliefs and values. We recognise other 'Englishmen', even if they are German. Incidentally, your article 'Honesty is the Best Policy...' struck me as quintessentially English.
    4. Could your Grandfather's ring be re-cast as narrower band?

  3. @Chris

    I just re-read 'Honesty is the Best Policy' in light of 3, and you're right. I sound like Baden-Powell. I still think it's true though!

    I've no idea why Cellini won't fix my (signet) ring. When I first got it it was very thin on one side, and used to break all the time. They used to mend it regularly until one day I asked if they could add more gold to make it thicker. They did this and it lasted something like twenty years. Now it's broken again they say nothing can be done.

    I need a goldsmith to talk to!

  4. I wanted to like Kate Fox's book but I found her smug and patronising in her description of classes evidently 'other' (i.e. lower than hers) and overly simplistic in her description of class distinctions. She is also clearly a daddy's girl, too inclined to reference his work with excessive deference. Her style annoyed the hell out of me. I think I would have enjoyed it more had it been written by say, a Dutchman. Working class chip I think. I prefer Spike Milligan's war memoirs as an insight into Englishness - it's not about whether we eat 'Tea' or 'Supper', or how much we spend on a sofa (or 'couch'!). Grrrr....

  5. @Anonymous

    I didn't much like it at first either, but a friend of mine kept going on about it so much that I kept dipping in randomly, which is what I usually do with reference books.

    In fact that turns out to be the wrong strategy.

    My mother had a copy, and one Christmas when I was visiting for a couple of weeks I picked it up and started reading from the beginning.

    What appear to be isolated and uninteresting observations when approached out of sequence are actually a convincing and disturbing thesis that *there's something wrong with us*. Not that it's all bad, just that we're curiously disabled in some ways. It makes grim and compelling sense to me, and she is to be congratulated for seeing through her own blind spots and looking at us in the way her father would have looked at recently-contacted islanders.

    As for the chip thing, get over it! The mark of an educated man is to be able to empathise with all backgrounds.

    No one can talk sanely about the English without mentioning class, and her Dad was a very famous anthropologist. She shows proper filial respect by referring to his work, which clearly inspired her.

    Refusing to hear what she is saying because the way she says it rubs you the wrong way is a problem with *you*, not her.

    You don't have to let the class system bind you. Just say "I am a free man". And you will be.
    It's not treachery. It's liberation.

  6. I'm not bound by the class system, merely irritated by those that would reinforce its trivial and outdated distinctions.

    Making judgements about people through the terminology they use, or their social conventions is an anachronism in modern England - and clung to predominantly by those that believe this confers on them some form of social superiority.

    The issue I have with the book's style is that there's a whiff of this type of judgement. It's not just about classification. For all her attempts at mateyness, it's clear that it's a feint. Fox is posh and she's watching 'us'. She's an imposter.

    Who needs to be told how to pronounce 'caff'?Is she writing this book for aristocratic time travellers from the past? This is where she gives the game away.

    Also, the distinctions she describes no longer offer a coherent set of rules. Access to education, the redistribution of wealth, diluted ancestry and globalisation have messed it all up. The rules don't stack-up. They exist only as independent social conventions, no longer sets.

    Englishness transcends class. 'Sofa vs couch' says nothing about the values or beliefs we share. In accurately describing increasingly peripheral and no longer consistent distinctions, I think she might have missed the target, or perhaps distracts us from it.

    I should of course finish the book, which I resolve to do (!).

  7. Hi! Great post - very interesting story to read!

    Just want to note, that saying that British people won the second world war is a bit rude with regards to millions and millions of people of all kinds of nationalities that died during the war.

    I don't want to start a holy war, but I'm afraid that at least USSR had great impact on defeating the Nazis. Just look at the facts and numbers... It doesn't make Britain's role in the war smaller at all. But saying "british won the second world war" is just being wrong.

    Sorry if I hurt your feelings,

  8. Forgive me. I only remember my own mobile phone number because it starts 07943. Stalingrad.

    *I* don't think that England won the second world war single-handed. But I think *we* do.