Tuesday, 30 June 2009

A Forbidden Word?

Winston Churchill said - and this must necessarily have been some time ago: "There is a forgotten, nay almost a forbidden word, which means more to me than any other: the word is "ENGLAND". Once we flaunted it in the face of the whole world like a banner. It was a word of power. But today we are scarcely allowed to mention the name of our Country. I want to revive the grand old name of Englishman!"

Monday, 29 June 2009


I am always sad when June comes to an end. It is the quintessentially English summer month - the month of the Derby, Royal Ascot and Wimbledon, of swallows and strawberries, champagne and roses. June contains the longest day of the year, when it hardly seems worth going to bed, the month when winter is farthest away and it even seems possible that the sunshine will go on for ever. June is long, light evenings and lazy afternoons on the river, Pimms in the garden, swifts screaming overhead, open windows, blackbirds singing in the summer dusk. July, while a great month in its way, is quite a different matter.

Friday, 26 June 2009

A Summer Sound

The high summer sound of swifts screaming overhead reminds me of the extraordinary lives of these magical and much-loved birds. They spend their entire life on the wing: they sleep on the wing, they eat, drink, collect nesting materials and mate in flight (the only bird known to do so), and the only time they ever come down is to nest. They can't take off from the ground - a grounded swift must be helped back into the air. For their size they are long-lived and can live up to 20 years. Once the young birds leave the nest, they instantly take up an independent airborne life and are apparently ignored by their parents. They are then in the air permanently for the next two years or so, until they build their own nests. A young swift can be hundreds of miles southwards on its first trip to central African winter quarters within 48 hours of leaving the nest. Swifts migrate between Africa and England, where they spend only three short months before returning on the long flight home, since once they have raised their young, they have no reason to stay. Their swooping screaming is the sound of summer, evocative of June and sunshine and long, warm evenings.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009


by Edward Thomas Yes, I remember Adlestrop - The name, because one afternoon Of heat the express-train drew up there Unwontedly. It was late June. The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat. No one left and no one came On the bare platform. What I saw Was Adlestrop - only the name. And willows, willow-herb, and grass, And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry, No whit less still and lonely fair Than the high cloudlets in the sky. And for that minute a blackbird sang Close by, and round him, mistier, Farther and farther, all the birds Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

A New Speaker

Congratulations to John Bercow on his election as Speaker of the House of Commons. I wish him well, but it was sad to see the way in which he was elected. It seemed to owe more to the desire of the Labour members to annoy the Tories, among whom he is not a popular figure, than to any considered reasons. It is clear that MPs have learned nothing from recent events. If only they were mature and sensible enough to have set aside party politics and chosen a Speaker who would have been a unifier, someone with the experience and dignity to control the House and to set about the reforms which are so necessary. Of those standing, Sir George Young would have been perfect . Of those who did not stand for election, I would have thought Frank Field would have been ideal. It may be that John Bercow will fill the role admirably, but I don't think this was the reason he was elected, and that diminishes both him and the House of Commons.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Midsummer Morning

When I was at boarding school in Salisbury in the 1950s, one of the privileges given to us in our leaving year was to bicycle to Stonehenge on the morning of June 21st to see the sun rise over the ancient stones. It was intended to be an experience we would never forget, and indeed I have never forgotten it. We were woken in the very early hours and given some sustenance in the form of bread-and-butter and a hard-boiled egg. Then, accompanied by a couple of the mistresses, we rode out of the sleeping city in the pre-dawn darkness, arriving at the magic circle as the sky was just beginning to lighten. The sun came up and struck the stones as it should, and we were suitably awed and impressed. The extraordinary thing was that there was no one else there - or perhaps just a very few people, certainly not enough to spoil the numinous moment. Today I read that more than 35,000 people were at Stonehenge to see the sun rise yesterday. The police were out in force, there were arrests, drugs, confusion, car-parking problems. What it can have meant to those present, I can't really imagine, but I don't believe it can have been anything like our experience of more than half-a-century ago.

Friday, 19 June 2009

The Ascot Gold Cup

Yesterday at Royal Ascot there occurred one of those sporting moments that live for ever in the memory of those who witness them. The long-distance stayer, Yeats, who had already won the Gold Cup three times in a row, was attempting to win for a record fourth year in succession. This beautiful horse, eight years old and trained by Aidan O'Brien in Ireland, is a great favourite with the crowd, who were willing him on, and as he swept into the lead three furlongs out the roar of cheers and encouragement could already be heard from the stands. It was a thrilling race, and Yeats triumphed with ease amid scenes of emotion and rejoicing, to enter the history books. He is exceptionally good-looking and combines his beauty with speed and stamina, a real class horse. It was a marvellous moment and a privilege to see.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Nice People?

“The English people are surely the nicest people in the world, and everyone makes everything so easy for everybody else, that there is almost nothing to resist at all.” D.H. Lawrence

Monday, 15 June 2009

Sunday Lunch in the Country

The June sun shone from a cloudless sky. The garden was full of flowers: roses and clematis tumbling over old brick walls, lavender and thrift edging the terrace from which velvety lawns stretched away into the shimmering distance. Birds sang from the trees, and the dogs lay supine in the shade of our chairs. Earlier we had dug tiny new potatoes from the earth and picked young spinach and the first broad beans. Now sitting in the shade of a large umbrella, we ate them with a perfectly pink roast rack of lamb and a bottle of claret. There was salad, a ripe Somerset Brie and thick clotted cream to go with the strawberries, also picked within the last hour. Summer in the English countryside! When it is good, it is very good.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Some Figures

Charles Moore in this week's Spectator has produced some interesting figures. He points out that: "Labour got 15% of the vote in the European elections, in which only 34% of the electorate voted. That is roughly 5% of those entitled to vote. When you add those too young to vote, this means, on average, only one in every 25 people you pass in the street voted Labour last week. So when Mr. Brown emerged triumphant from the meeting of his parliamentary party on Monday, his slogan was really "The Audacity of Hopelessness"."

Friday, 12 June 2009


From an address by Edmund Burke to the House of Commons in 1775: "As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of the country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have; the more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience. Slavery they can have anywhere. It is a weed that grows in every soil ... But, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you."

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Silent Noon

by Dante Gabriel Rossetti Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass - The finger-points look through like rosy blooms: Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms 'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass. All round our nest, far as the eye can pass, Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge. 'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass. Deep in the sun-search'd growths the dragonfly Hangs like a blue thread loosen'd from the sky: - So this wing'd hour is dropped to us from above. Oh! Clasp we go our hearts, for deathless dower, This close-companion'd inarticulate hour When twofold silence was the song of love.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

European Election Results

It would be nice to think that the European Election results would give our MPs pause, so that they might understand why people voted as they did and address their concerns. I hold no brief for the BNP, but it is quite clear that the people who voted for them feel marginalised, ignored and badly treated, seeing the immigrant population given the houses and jobs that they feel should go to British workers. And the rise of UKIP sends a clear message that a large number of us think we would be better out of Europe altogether. But will they listen? No, nothing at all will happen. Immigrants will continue to pour into the country, while millions of pounds pour out of it into the Brussels maw. If only we could keep those millions! What a country we could build!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

England as seen by J. B. Priestley

J.B.Priestley said of England: "Ours is a country that has given the world something more than millions of yards of calico and thousands of steam engines. If we are a nation of shopkeepers, then what a shop! There is Shakespeare in the window, to begin with; and the whole establishment is blazing with geniuses.”

Monday, 8 June 2009

The English Jury System

From A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill "The jury system has come to stand for all we mean by English justice, because so long as a case has to be scrutinised by twelve honest men, defendant and plaintiff alike have a safeguard from arbitrary perversion of the law. It is this which distinguishes the law administered in English courts from Continental legal systems based on Roman law. Thus amidst the great process of centralisation [during the reign of Henry II] the old principle was preserved and endures to this day, that law flows from the people and is not given by the King."

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Sir George Sitwell

Sir George Sitwell, father of Osbert, Sacheverell and Edith, was a true English eccentric. He did not get on very well with his children, but Osbert's portrait of him in Left Hand, Right Hand, is extremely funny and not unkind. This is a letter (in its entirety) written by Sir George to Osbert: Dearest Osbert, Ye Rector and his attendants were travelling along an ancient ridgeway from Rotherham to Chesterfield, when, hearing cries for assistance, ye Rector was alarmed, and he hurried to the ditch (beneath an hedge of hawthorn, now blooming in palest pink and white over the lace of cow parsley, ragged robin, old man's beard and eglantine) and found ye olde fosse full of groaning villeins, dead and dying. By the side of the road was a yeoman, his stout staff beside him, with his dog lying dead at his feet. Both had passed away of ye Black Death. Even ye swine had caught ye infection! It seemed to ye Rector that the dread spectre was hidden on every hand. Voices from the sky called Beware! Ever, dear boy, your affectionate father, George R. Sitwell.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Osbert Lancaster (again)

Here is a cartoon by Osbert Lancaster in the Daily Express of 17th February 1954. It seems that little has changed in the intervening 55 years!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Pam Ayres

Here is Pam Ayres on the expenses scandal: I'm tired of being a poet, I need a change of scene. Now I'm getting older, I think what might have been. I should have been an MP And walked the primrose path; Free dodgy films for my husband And a brand new plug for the bath.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009


What do we make of the diplomatic muddle over the celebrations of the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings and France's apparent failure to invite the Queen to Normandy? It seems to me that it is all to do with the inflated egos of President Sarkozy and Gordon Brown, both of whom want to consider themselves the major representatives of their respective countries. In the case of Sarkozy, that is reasonable (though without doubt the presence of the Queen would have detracted from his media coverage), but in Brown's case there is no excuse. Of course the Queen should have been invited and as her Prime Minister he should have made sure that she was. She is the only one of them all who actually went through the Second World War and served in the armed forces. She is a contemporary of the veterans, for whom this is likely to be the last commemoration, and admired and respected by them all. For Sarkozy to want a Franco-American occasion, without including the British, and for Gordon Brown supinely to accept this, is typical of them both. Now it appears that the Prince of Wales has belatedly been invited, like some B-list guest. Our Prime Minister (for the present) has a lot to answer for.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Cut Grass

by Philip Larkin Cut grass lies frail: Brief is the breath Mown stalks exhale. Long, long the death It dies in the white hours Of young-leafed June With chestnut flowers, With hedges snowlike strewn, White lilac bowed, Lost lanes of Queen Anne's lace, And that high-builded cloud Moving at summer's pace.