Friday, 24 January 2014

The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England

This review was originally written on August 7th 2000 and further edited on March 1st 2004.

I have just finished ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ by George Dangerfield, published by Constable in 1936. I had this book on loan from Paddy Lynch who had a very high opinion of it, particularly because of the author’s views about Anglo-Irish relations before the Great War. Dangerfield has a rather florid style but his book, which refers entirely to the period 1910 to the commencement of the Great War in August 1914, is of particular interest for three reasons.

He deals in detail with the suffragette movement which he describes as the women’s rebellion. This movement was inspired by the widow of a Lancashire barrister. Her name was Emmeline Pankhurst. She was joined in her campaign by her two daughters, Sylvia and Christabel. The suffragettes were involved in an extraordinarily wide and violent movement up to 1914, creating major problems for the then Liberal Government led by Asquith.

The second theme of the book was the increasing unionisation of the workers and the widespread and numerous strikes which took place in Britain during these four years. A prominent part in encouraging the strikes was played by James Larkin and James Connolly.

The third and perhaps the most important theme of the book deals with Irish nationalism, and the conflict between the North of Ireland and the South, and what appeared to be the inevitability of civil war because of the intransigence of the Northern Loyalists, supported as they were by Bonar Law and other Tory leaders, and encouraged as they were by the refusal of the British Army to intervene in the disturbances in the North. The book brings out the gross weakness of Asquith and the impotence of the Liberal Party in furthering the Home Rule legislation in the face of Tory and Loyalist resistance and the insubordination of the army leaders.

One is left with the impression from reading this book that Britain was facing possible civil war and certainly a serious threat to its parliamentary system, largely because of the Irish question but also because of the suffragette movement and the deteriorating labour situation, particularly in the areas of the mines, transport and the ports. It is quite clear from the activities of the Unionists in the North that there was little hope of reconciling the North and South on the issue of Home Rule, and that partition was inevitable if the Nationalist Irish leaders could be induced to accept such a solution.  Partition might have been accepted by the South if the two counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, with their predominant Catholic populations, had not been included in the demands of the Northern leaders. Such a solution might have been less destructive to the long-term outlook of a united Ireland but the Unionists were unwilling to have their territory reduced to four counties and could rely on the Tories to support their claim to the larger area.

Dangerfield was a prolific writer. He was born in Berkshire but he eventually emigrated to America where he became a naturalised citizen. The book is certainly most interesting and revealing ,  but may not have been as popular in Europe as in the United States because of his critical attitude to the Establishment in Britain and particularly to the Tory Party. He was of the opinion that the refusal of some of the Tory leaders to accept the decision of Parliament on the Home Rule issue was little short of treason.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

A forest of these trees is a spectacle too much for one man to see.

David Douglas – Explorer and Botanist. Ann Lindsay Mitchell and Syd House. Aurum Press,  London, 1999. pp X1V + 241.

This review was written on January 3rd 2004

In 1974 I acquired 40 acres of fairly rough farming land as part of a summer home for my growing children. Family circumstances prevented me from proceeding with our plans and I planted 30 acres of Sitka, Japanese larch and Monterey pine rather than adding farming to my medical profession. This endeavour was to prompt a great interest in trees. After my later retirement I became active as a member of the Irish Tree Society, a representative of an Taisce on the Irish Tree Council and, among other arboreal interests, I wrote a book about the relationship between ivy and our hedgerow and woodland trees.

This biography was largely based on diaries and letters Davis Douglas had sent to Britain during his various travels to the North American continent and to Hawaii. Douglas was born in Scotland of humble parents but was possessed of an extraordinary enquiring mind, particularly in relation to natural history. He became one of the most famous and adventurous of the large group of Scots who contributed so much to the exploration of the natural world. He had an obsessive interest in plants and trees and was fortunate to have been employed by prominent horticularists and botanists from the time he left school.

He died tragically in 1834 at the age of 35 but during his short life and his three visits to America he provided an enormous amount of information about the plants and trees of the United States and the contiguous parts of Western Canada. He contributed his findings to the Historical Society in London which employed him during his travels. Because of his systematic and enquiring mind and his indifference to hardship and the dangers of exploring unknown and hostile territory, he proved to be an excellent choice by the Society and acquired an early reputation as an explorer, traveller, botanist, student of natural history and a diplomat and linguist who could deal with the most hostile and isolated indigenous tribes.

Monteray Pine
Leaving London in July 1823 he first went to New York where he collected valuable information about the trees and plants of the area.  Having returned from New York he put his collection of seeds and plants in order and wrote up the details of his travels.  He was then sent to the largely unexplored west coast of North America where, after spending eight months rounding the Horn, he landed at the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now the State of Oregon. It was here that he accomplished his remarkable work into the local flora. He managed to send by various routes details of his huge collection of seeds and seedlings to London. They were based on his discoveries, the product of which now adorn our gardens, estates and arboreta. They include a variety of sequoias, the Monterey pine, the Sitka spruce and the rediscovery of a few others. Another addition to fashionable tree lovers in the 19th century, the monkey puzzle tree, was discovered by an earlier explorer in the late 1700s in Chile.

It is difficult to understand the toleration to hardship endured by explorers like Douglas during long sea voyages and travelling through wild and dangerous country without any of the modern comforts and conveniences which make travel nowadays so much easier.

A man examines white fox pelts at the Hudson's Bay Co.
Douglas, during his first voyage to North West America, observed at close range the appalling impact alcohol had on the indigenous tribes of the area. Rum had become the major currency and was the principle item which was bartered for furs. The Hudson’s Bay Company, which had a complete monopoly of the fur trade at the time of his visits, is stated to have used about fifty gallons of strong rum and brandy carried overland from the East which, when diluted, made up a quarter of a million gallons for a native population of some one hundred and twenty thousand. According to Douglas alcohol leads to mass addiction and the destruction of families, communities and the indigenous way of life. Many of the employees of the Company in North America pleaded with the authorities in London to cease trading in rum but such pleas went unheard. Later firearms were also used as barter. These proved equally destructive to the indigenous population. There appears to be no limit to the adverse effects which can be inspired by the profit motive and by human acquisitiveness. Man’s inhumanity to man is ubiquitous. Worse is man’s inhumanity to Nature for it will inevitably lead to Nemesis.

Red cedar
Douglas is mainly remembered as being the first person to introduce some of the great trees of North Western America to Europe They included the Douglas and Monterey pines, Sitka spruce, the various Sequoia and the Thuja or Red Cedar among others. Most  have thrived in the British Isles and Europe, and some such the Sitka are now hugely important commercially and are widely grown in commercial forests in Europe.. A few, such as the sugar pine, have been less successful, and failed to survive the 19th century in this part of the world.

David Douglas spent about two and one half years in North Western America during his first visit. He returned to London to fame and claim having crossed Canada on foot or by canoe from the Columbia River in the West to Hudson Bay in the East where he arrived at the end of August 1827.  It is extraordinary the hardship he and his companions endured during the four months trek of three thousand miles or more. One can only wonder how they could have survived with little equipment, poor clothing, an unreliable supply of food, some hostile inhabitants, and the extraordinary vagaries of the weather and the physical environment.

David Douglas
In 1829 Douglas was again sent by the Royal Horticultural Society to the West where he arrived in California in 1840 after a further journey around the Horn. Here the Spanish were still in charge. It was a better settled and more southerly region than the Washington and Oregon areas and he suffered less hardship there. Although a Presbyterian, he received great kindness and assistance from the Spanish monks. Again he worried about the balance of Nature being destroyed because of the policies of the explorers and particularly of the Hudson Bay Company. The Company had a policy of clearing all the animals from the areas occupied by them, leaving large tracts bereft of indigenous fauna. He expressed his concern about the slaughter of the animals to a leading employee of the Company but he was vigorously confronted and advised to mind his own business.

Douglas found new trees in California, including the Monterey Pine (Pinus radiata) and some of the giant sequoia. The Monterey had previously been described by Menzie but was first introduced to Europe by Douglas. He also found and introduced the big cone pine, Pinus coulteri.

Douglas memorial at Scone
He went from California to Hawaii where he died at the age of 35 apparently having fallen into a cattle pit but there is considerable doubt about the exact cause of his death and there were persistent rumours of his being murdered. He had gone to Hawaii to continue his botanical studies and to climb and explore the islands’ great mountains and volcanoes. His death proved to be a major loss to Britain, Ireland and Europe, and a source of great regret to his many admirers in the world of botany and forestry. He is buried in Hawaii and there is a 23 foot memorial to him erected in the churchyard in Scone in Scotland where he was born. The memorial was provided by tree lovers, botanists and gardeners from many lands. His real memorial is to be found in the gardens, landscapes and forests worldwide.

A Douglas Fir at Scone Palace
His contribution to forestry should not overshadow his seminal contribution to botany. He found hundreds of new species of shrubs and plants, nearly all of which reached Britain safely, thanks to his careful preparation of seeds and seedlings, and to his care in sending these by different routes to ensure that at least one sample would arrive safely in London or Glasgow. The biography lists a large number of the trees he introduced and some of the plants which adorn our gardens to-day. The great revival of interest in trees in Ireland at the beginning of the nineteenth century was shared by Britain which had also reached dangerous levels of deforestation. The turnabout was largely due to Douglas and the introduction of so many valuable trees of high quality timber which found a suitable environment in these islands and indeed in many other European, African and Australasian countries.

Like other human tendencies to exaggerate, the tree lover or even expert may exaggerate the age of trees but we know from the late introductions by Douglas that none in Europe can be older than 175 years. Whether the imported trees will have the same long lifespan as their progenitors growing on the Pacific Coast of America remains to be seen. Following Douglas most of our great estates in the British Isles and Europe were planted with his trees widely. More than one and half centuries later you will find these trees singly or in groups everywhere, even in such areas as suburban Dublin as well as in parts of the countryside where estates have been taken over by farmers, parks and suburban areas, The sequoias are among the greatest trees known and are long-lasting in their normal habitat in Western America but five of the 17 Wellingtonias near our house in South Dublin are showing serious signs of leaf loss and diminished growth in the past ten years. The cause of their decline is not clear but it does not augur too well for their long-term survival,

Trunk of  a Wellingtonia Sequoia
Postscript (2014). The above review was written in 2004. Some of the Wellingtonias are now dead or nearly so, and the others are showing various degrees of distress. They lie in about two acres of ground in a building estate close to my house and it is likely that they are suffering from the effects of honey fungus, a slow invasive infection of the roots of trees which, because our failure to find a remedy of the disease, will inexorably lead to their final destruction. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Germany and Bismarck

Bismarck and the Foundation of the German Empire. James Wycliffe Headlam, 1899.

This review was written on January 12th 2012

This was the third book I ordered on the Kindle. It was free and had been contributed by volunteers because it was out of copyright. I had been searching for a suitable biography to read and found it immediately on the Kindle list. I had never read of Bismarck and I knew little about the formation of modern Germany apart from being aware of the crucial role Bismarck played in its formation.

The Bismarck family was first heard of in the 13th century in Northern Germany in that part of the country which eventually became part of Prussia. They claim to have been always part of the aristocracy. They were big land owners and had a long military tradition. The subject of this review, Otto Edward Leopold Von Bismarck, was born in Brandenburg in 1815. He was popular in his youth and early adult life but until the age of 30 or so his career varied while at this stage he became responsible with his brother for the care of some of his family’s properties. He was obviously well educated, and capable, even if somewhat given at times in his early days to the normal escapades and drinking habits of his contemporaries.

During Bismarck’s earlier years before 1850 there were 37 different German States, including Austria and Prussia. The latter states were the most populous and powerful. The mid-1800s were greatly disturbed by the urge to bring all these states together as a German nation but this was opposed by Austria and by some others of the smaller states and by some leading figures in politics and close to the King of Prussia. This early section of the book is much involved with the attempts to provide this union of states and it is, I must confess, difficult for the reader to understand the author’s chapters on this period. It is clear that the union of the states was ultimately achieved some years later, and that Bismarck played a crucial role in achieving this end.  The Austrian Empire remained outside the confederation (until it was absorbed by Hitler in 1937). During these earlier years and after Bismarck joined the diplomatic section of the Prussian government, he played a very conservative if somewhat peripheral part in the proposal for union but he was to support radical policies in later years.

In 1848 an assembly of the states passed a German constitution and the King of Prussia was elevated to the Kingdom of Germany but a union of states was to await some more years before Germany was fully united. In the following years until 1860 Bismarck remained without any direct political power although he was active as one of the minority of leaders who espoused conservative views about his country’s policies on Germanic union. He became influential as a diplomat representing his country, rubbing shoulders firstly in Frankfort with the representatives of Austria and the other smaller Germanic states. Later he represented Prussia in St. Petersburg. At this time he became close to the King of Prussia (and later the Czar) and he was not infrequently consulted by King William whose power and decisions according to the Prussian constitution were binding on his subjects.

After some years in the diplomatic service and as his relationship with the King became closer he was appointed the chief of state and from then on he shared the power of the King in fact if not in theory. The setting up of the North German Federation in 1862 and the introduction of universal suffrage was the first step in German unification and was the first major step in his progressive and enlightened policies. The southern states of Germany were to wait some further years before they, with the exception of the Austrian Empire, were to form the modern Germany which exists to this day. Although the Prussian King was constitutionally all powerful and did not always agree with his chief minister, almost invariably Bismarck, if he was seriously committed to any policy, eventually got his way. He was responsible for the decision to go to war with France and Napoleon in 1870 when the French were humiliated by the Prussian forces and when both Alsace and Lorraine were ceded to Germany. At this time too he welcomed the enthusiastic application of the southern German States, dominated by Bavaria and the more Catholic areas.

Kaiser Wilhelm I
During his 20 years or more as the power beside the throne he showed a passionate interest in Prussia and in the unification of all the German states. His influence and power were not infrequently maintained against a hostile parliament and the political parties. Parliament became more influential at the time of unification. He was always conscious of the important role of the Prussian army in relation to foreign affairs and he appeared to have been influential in establishing the later militarism of Germany in the next century. He also played a crucial part in later years in encouraging German industry, in encouraging international trade and in improving the social circumstances of the workers and of families. He tended to be anti-Catholic but these sentiments were provoked by interference by the Vatican in religious and educational affairs in his country and by the pope’s declaration of infallibility.

Both in internal and external matters Bismarck dominated German politics from his appointment as chief minister until the death of King William in 1888 and the death a few months later of his son and successor, Frederick. The latter’s son, Wilhelm, was still a young man when he ascended the throne. Unlike his two predecessors, he was less than happy with Bismarck and the latter was soon aware that the new king was seeking advice from others without consultation with his chief minister. Bismarck was humiliated and angry with the new monarch and, on subsequently asking the King if he was out of favour, the latter confirmed his lack of support.

Kaiser Wilhelm II
Bismarck very reluctantly resigned in 1889 but, although he was revered by the public and by many of his colleagues, and he received many honours during the last ten years of his life, he failed to reconcile himself to his dismissal by the monarch and his loss of power. He continued to interfere inappropriately in national and political affairs almost until his death ten years later in 1898. He was never reconciled to this loss of influence in German affairs and remained ungracious in his rejection by the King until his relatively lonely death. He must be held up  to the present day as one of the great statesmen of the world and, no doubt, if he had accepted his retirement from affairs with humility and with thanks for the many things he achieved for his country and the many honours bestowed on him , he would surely remain  the greatest.

It is said that politicians always finish their careers as failures. The transition from fame to the loss of public recognition leaves a lacuna in the politician’s mind which can be hard to accept philosophically. And this applies to other people who have been prominent in the public mind. In my advice to older  people who  wish to enjoy the third stage of life I urge them to respond to lost fame and public recognition with a sense of pride and satisfaction that they have made their contribution, however small, to the betterment of humanity.

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Boy in the Bubble

The Boy in the Bubble – Education as Personal Relationship. Mark Patrick Hederman, Veritas, 2012. pp201.

This review was written on February 27th 2013

This is the eleventh book published by Mark Patrick Hederman since Kissing the Dark was published by Veritas in 1999. He was co-author of the Splintered Heart in 1998. His productivity, knowledge and wide interests are evidence of his wide academic training and his spiritual vocation. His knowledge appears to be encyclopaedic and his writings, particularly over the past 15 years, cover from the distant Greek enlightenment right up to the present day (and the latest five star film!). He can write about current and popular affairs with the same authority and familiarity as he devotes to the more profound subjects of spirituality, philosophy, history, education and human behaviour. 

This book is a plea to reject the traditional rigid three R system of education and instead adopt an educational policy based on a wider syllabus for the child and a different relationship between teacher and pupil. The child should be allowed greater freedom of initiatives and better opportunities to exercise his or her imagination and interests; the teacher needs to be a guide to the child, providing support to him or her in the areas of freedom of thought, expression and initiatives. And the teacher too can be a learner.

For the teacher, the current ‘’oppressor and oppressed’’ syndrome currently perceived by Hederman in our educational system needs to be replaced by a closer, warmer  and more equal relationship between teacher and child, and by encouraging  the child in a wider syllabus than the current three Rs.

I found the first chapter heavy going because of the author’s recourse to the spiritual and to mythology, metaphysics, the unconscious and Jungian psychology and by his long metaphor of Rowling’s Harry Potter and the latter’s influence in stirring the imagination of the young.

The author’s proposals in later chapters were stimulating and radical but perhaps largely unrealistic in the context of the problems facing this country with a high proportion of children, with limited financial resources, with compulsory education up to 16 years and with the conservative attitudes of our teaching profession, politicians and Church, and particularly with the problem of dealing with incompetent and uninspired teachers.  Of course,  some have had the good fortune to meet and be taught by an inspired teacher who conforms closely to Mark’s concept of  what teachers should be like in a perfect world and these fortunate people will always remember the  debt they owe to their mentor.

The methodology Mark Hederman suggests for an educational system would eliminate the “oppressor and oppressed” image of the present system.  He quotes three important sources that support his contention that we urgently need a change in our education system where the teacher adopts a sympathetic and loving approach to the young person as well as maintaining his role as a teacher, while the young person should have a greater degree of freedom in his or her own development.  At least this is what my interpretation is of the three quoted experts I note in Chapter 5 Pat Clarke and Paulo Freire.

Glenstal Abbey
I think the closest one can find to the perfect system can be found in Glenstal and perhaps in Glenstal only. Their curriculum includes not only sport but an emphasis in such areas as natural history, the environment, hobbies, music, art, drama and organised productions by the boys, I suppose they are also encouraged to respond to natural curiosity.

The Glenstal system is possible because of the vocation of the monks and the teaching staff, and their interest and commitment to the welfare of the boys. As far as I can judge from reading  chapter 5, the concept of the educational system put forward by the author  and those  he quotes would be virtually impossible in this globalised world and possibly the type of freedom that he envisages for the children might lead to more frequent aberrant behaviour than is currently the situation.  Whatever about the other chapters, this chapter 5 makes essential reading if we are to understand the thesis put forward by the author..

If the Glenstal school measures up to some of the criteria favoured by Hederman, it is because of  the policies enunciated at its foundation 90 years ago and perhaps too to the example set by the Benedictine monk, Father John F. Sweetman, who came from Downside Abbey to  found Mount St. Benedicts close to Gorey in Co. Wexford. His approach to the students and teachers conformed to the liberal approach advocated by Hederman. It was before the foundation of Glenstal and was quite revolutionary at that time. The first mention of it was in 1905 but it is not clear when the school was established. It may have preceded St. Enda’s, established by Patrick Pearse, whose radical educational policies were similar to those of Sweetman and not different from some of the ideas put forward by Hederman in this book. Was it a coincidence that both Sweetman and Pearse were also extreme in their political views and both had English blood in their veins? Added to Griffith, Casement, Childers, Brugha and others, there appears to have been no shortage of English blood among our revolutionaries! Sweetman’s initiative was to lead to considerable controversy among his brethren, including the allegation that he housed Sinn  Féin activists during the troubles.

In Glenstal the pupils are privileged in the sense that most of their fees can only be afforded by the better off. They are the children of the more affluent. They are expected to spend a short time in the monastery during the summer before their first term to assess their suitability for a boarding school and for the ambience of the monastery.  If such an education system were to exist nationwide it would achieve much of what is in the mind of Mark Hederman, but would it be feasible for the State’s budget and would we need to have suitable teachers to fulfil the criteria of those who will replace the oppressor? Would it be possible to dismiss teachers who do not measure up to the author’s ideals? And would it be possible to create an organisation of retired people, suitably qualified and with the necessary vocational spirit, who could contribute to a wider education that would partly replace the current big classes and the restricted imagination of our average pupil not to mention the restrictive policies of the teaching profession?

Even within the current system, would it not be possible to use the transition year as a means of encouraging more imaginative and uninhibited opportunities for the pupil? Perhaps this is tending more to be a feature of the transition year in recent times. Also the first post-schooling year might be sponsored by a state supported system of special studies, occupation, travel or training along the lines of the compulsory army training which prevailed at such junctures in some countries in the past. In peacetime at least the army could have a major role in training on many aspects of life and future development of potential, including physical training, assessment of suitability for future  careers, the value of hobbies, interests and sports outside the limitations  of a suitable career and the preparation of young people to become part of a modern democratic society and to join a population devoted to the protection of the environment, the need for population control and the elimination of poverty.

Reading his later chapters first might be recommended as I fear some of the opacity in the early chapter may discourage the less patient reader to continue. His final conclusion of nine pages I found a useful summary of his thoughts. Reading the first chapter at the end, preferably at leisure, will help to broaden our insights into the more arcane thoughts of the author before returning the book to the library or, for the teacher and the politician, retaining it as a bedside book.  His conclusions contained in the last chapter are inspirational and idealistic although perhaps a little unreal in to-day’s world.

I next read chapter 8, Alexander Pushkin in Ireland. Sacha Duchess of Abercorn of Baronscourt in Co. Fermanagh close to the Donegal border in the Republic initiated this system of education 25 year ago. It has had some success in schools on both side of the border. The movement was principally inspired by her to heal the political and religious divisions which were so prominent in her part of Ireland. It fulfils some of the changes in education proposed by Mark Hederman. For children it is stated

There has to be the possibility to tap back into the sources of inspiration again and again. Every child has a wealth of imagination which comes naturally and is expressed in games and behaviour patterns usually ignored by the adult world.------ We don’t have to promote it; we only have to remove the obstacles ------.

The Pushkin philosophy is based on the imagination as its key and ‘’promotes creativity as the greatest asset of our people’’. More thoughts about the failure of Sacha Abercorn’s initiative to spread to a wider area of education in the island of Ireland might be worth adding.

Chapter 7 Music in Numbers is part scientific, part philosophical, part allegorical. He talks about the three parts of the brain, the neocortex, the limbic and the serpentine. His allusions and explanations may puzzle some readers. The reader may require more concentration and good insights to absorb all of its content

Mark Hederman is undoubtedly very stimulating in his writing and in his concepts but his book requires close attention and very stern concentration if one is to read the text without too much fatigue. In Music in Numbers  he pleads for much more attention to the unconscious, to what he calls “our inner snake” and for the ordinary mortal he may become a little too subtle and remote. I suspect that only a minority of people could read his 200 pages with ease and without returning frequently to reread sentences and paragraphs to be sure of full understanding. However, the Boy in the Bubble should be read by our politicians, our education authorities and all those who are interested in the welfare of our children. The message to all will be clear even if the best solutions are not always easy to attain.