I’m feeling conflicted . . .

Many countries recognise achievement or service among their citizens through a system of honours or awards. One exception I discovered is the Republic of Ireland that has no formal honours system whatsoever.

In the USA, for example, the highest civilian honours are the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. In France, it’s the Légion d’honneur.

The UK has a long history of handing out honours and awards. Currently there are six orders of chivalry and four orders of merit. The oldest, The Most Noble Order of the Garter dates back to 1348, and is entirely at the discretion of the sovereign, as are The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (for Scotland), and the Royal Victorian Order.

For centuries, honours and awards were given almost exclusively to government officials and members of the armed forces. There was little recognition of members of the public.

That changed in 1917, when King George V wished to create an Order to honour many thousands of those who had served in a variety of non-combatant roles during the First World War.

Insignia of an Officer of the Order of the British Empire

The outcome was the founding of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, which recognises contributions to the arts and sciences, work with charitable and welfare organisations, and public service outside the civil service.

Twice a year, at New Year and on the occasion of The Queen’s Official Birthday in early June, a list is published in the London Gazette (the UK’s official journal of record) with the names of those nominated for one of the ranks of this Order (or other honours).

In the 2012 New Year’s Honours I was surprised and honoured to be nominated as an Officer (OBE) of the Order for services to international food science. I spent much of my career in international agricultural research, helping to bring the best of science to address the worldwide problem of food insecurity, especially among the poorest nations.

I attended an investiture at Buckingham Palace on the 29th February, receiving my award from HRH The Prince of Wales, who was standing in for HM The Queen as is often the case nowadays as she takes on fewer commitments.

So why am I feeling conflicted? Being an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (whose motto is For God and the Empire) does not sit comfortably right now. I’m surprised that in the wake of the recent brutal killings in the USA of African Americans and the surge of Black Lives Matter protests worldwide, and calls for the removal of symbols of Britain’s imperial and colonial past (many linked to slavery), that there have not been any—that I have seen—to scrap the Order of the British Empire.

It wouldn’t be the first time. During Tony Blair’s tenure as Prime Minister in 2004 there were calls for the UK honours system to be reformed, and some honours scrapped. Titles in the honours system were “redolent of past preoccupations with rank and class, just as the ‘Empire’ is redolent of an imperial history,” said the [parliamentary] Public Administration Committee, chaired by the Labour MP Tony Wright. 

Colonial titles, such as the Order of the British Empire, should be consigned to history. “This is anachronistic and insensitive, an inappropriate symbol for today’s Britain,” the committee said.

There was even a suggestion that the Order should be renamed as the Order of British Excellence, an idea revived by Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy while campaigning to become Leader of the Labour Party earlier this year (before the latest protests). She proposed overhauling the honours system by removing reference to the British Empire in medals awarded to high-achieving individuals. 

She cited British poet Benjamin Zephaniah who rejected an OBE in 2003. He wrote: “It reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of the thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.” Zephaniah is not the first person to reject recognition on this basis.

There are, of course, Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) recipients of the Order, but not as many as White recipients, because there are fewer BAME nominations apparently. Some are high profile individuals like athletes Jessica Ennis-Hill DBE and Kelly Holmes DBE, or slavery historian David Olusoga OBE, and others. Here are recent statistics up to 2019.

We cannot erase history. What happened, happened. Good or bad. Rather we must learn from the past, placing those events and individuals in context. And explain to current and future generations what that history means. Getting rid of statues, such as happened recently to the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, as well as repeated calls for Cecil Rhodes’ statue outside Oriel College in Oxford to be taken down, does remove however the daily reminders that so many find offensive. These statues are best placed now in museums where the roles of the individuals they depict can be explained and contextualised.

So this brings me back to the Order of the British Empire. Should its name be changed? I don’t believe that is the appropriate thing to do. Maybe create a new Order in its stead.

I hope I do not sound hypocritical. When I was nominated for and accepted the OBE, I never even made a connection with the Order’s imperial foundation. I appreciate that some will perhaps find this response unacceptable. Thoughts of empire never crossed my mind. I’m sure that for most recipients of one of the Order’s five ranks or the UK population at large, there is no longer (and hasn’t been for at least a couple of generations or more) any concept of empire. It was what it was when the Order was created in 1917. I nevertheless acknowledge that ‘imperial links’ do not sit well today.

 


 

Taking a last look at Hanbury Hall

As regular readers of my blog will know, my wife Steph and I are enthusiastic members of the National Trust (and English Heritage). At every opportunity, weather and other commitments permitting, we take off for an outing to one property or another. We are fortunate that there are so many within 50 miles of our home in Bromsgrove in northeast Worcestershire (just south of the UK’s second city, Birmingham). In recent years we have also taken short breaks to explore properties much further afield in Northern Ireland (in 2017), Cornwall (in 2018), and East Sussex and Kent and Lincolnshire (in 2019).

The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown put paid to these lovely outings. Until yesterday! Our last outing before lockdown was in the middle of January when, on a very misty, moisty morning, we had an excellent walk around our ‘local’ property, Hanbury Hall, an elegant ‘William and Mary’ house in the Worcestershire countryside, just over six miles from home.

We have visited more than twenty times since we joined the National Trust in 2011. In fact, Hanbury Hall was the first property we visited after we became members.

We just enjoy walking around the park and the magnificent parterre that is, in my opinion, one of the best among all the Trust’s properties. We’ve been inside the hall itself only three times, and two of those occasions were to see the Christmas decorations.

Here are some images of the parterre taken over the years and in different seasons. While not as colorful as some of the parterres we’ve seen, like those at Waddesdon Manor, Charlecote Park, or Witley Court (an English Heritage property), I really do appreciate the elegant simplicity of the Hanbury version, with beautiful clipped box hedges and cones, holly shrubs, and sparse planting.

During lockdown, I have been able to get out locally almost every day for a 2-3 mile walk. But the same routes have become rather stale after all these weeks. So, after three months of lockdown, it was great to be able to get timed entry tickets to Hanbury Hall yesterday. This is only the second week that Hanbury (and many other National Trust properties) have re-opened, but not fully. Visitors are being limited currently to allow for sufficient social distancing. On arrival we were made welcome in a safe manner.

What a joy! We’ve been ‘starved’ of the opportunity of just deciding, on a whim, to put on our walking shoes and head off for a stroll of just under three miles around Hanbury’s park and garden.

Here is a link to the album of photos from yesterday’s visit.

I mentioned that Hanbury will no longer be our local National Trust property. That’s because we have sold our house (subject to contract) and expect to move to Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England by the beginning of September. Well, that’s the plan and we hope there are no glitches and hitches along the house selling pathway.

We already know several of the National Trust and English Heritage sites across the north east, and a little further south. We look forward to exploring those once again, and seeking out many that are still on our bucket list. Exciting times!

Cockwomble-in-Chief

What a delightful word. It just rolls off the tongue.

It is, so I have read, of Scottish origin having equivalents in other languages, like gilipollas in Spanish (or maybe cabrón in Peruvian Spanish that I am familiar with).

I came across it for the first time the other day in a Facebook post referring to Donald Trump. Well, from its definition, that seems a most apt description. It refers to a person, usually male, prone to making outrageously stupid statements and/or inappropriate behavior while generally having a very high opinion of his own wisdom and importance. *

Doesn’t that just sum up Donald J Trump perfectly? President Cockwomble, Cockwomble-in-Chief.

A couple of days ago I became involved, briefly, in an ‘exchange of views’ about Donald Trump with someone in the Philippines (an acquaintance of my former secretary Sylvia) who had stated that Trump was not an incompetent president.

My reaction: As John McEnroe used to scream: “You cannot be serious!”

Our exchange ended with him ‘accusing’ me of being a Democrat. Well, for those who don’t know me, I’m British but have a keen interest in US politics. My elder daughter is now a US citizen. It’s irrelevant whether I’m Democrat or Republican.

However, if I’d lived in another age, I guess I might well have been a Lincoln Republican. But the Republican Party of the mid-late nineteenth century was rather different from the GOP that (dis)graces our TV screens and the news in general on a daily basis today. If I were a US citizen, I would be voting BLUE.

It’s not revulsion of the GOP per se that makes me take a strong stance about Donald Trump. He is, in my opinion, simply a loathsome human being, as I blogged about just a few days ago.

Through social media I came across this article, British Writer Pens The Best Description Of Trump I’ve Read, on the journal of a grumpy old man blog. The original was penned by Nate White, and I’ve transcribed it below for easier access. I couldn’t have described Trump better myself. It’s had a lot of traction since first appearing around the beginning of 2019 I believe. It’s even more apt today.

A few things spring to mind. Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed. So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman. But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers. And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface. Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul. And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist. Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that. He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat. He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully. That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead. There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
• Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
• You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss. After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum. God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid. He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart. In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish: ‘My God… what… have… I… created?’ If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set. 


*  Also perhaps, the Pennsylvanian Dutch snollygoster, a smart person not guided by principles, although I would dispute the ‘smart’ in DJT’s case.


 

Minnesota isn’t the laughing stock, Mr President. You are! Zipp it!

Mr President, if you can’t open your mouth without inflaming an already tense situation—dangerous even—then please don’t say anything at all.

And if you can’t—or won’t—show leadership of your great nation, then please vacate the Oval Office as soon as possible*. I don’t think you have any understanding what true ‘leadership’ means. Other presidents have had it spades. Particularly your immediate predecessor.

Since the day of your inauguration, you have demonstrated on a daily basis just how unfit you are for public office. You are not exactly full of the milk of human kindness, but are morally bankrupt, devoid of empathy, narcissistic and, frankly, stupid. Despite your many protestations to the contrary, I don’t see any evidence of your stable genius. You have failed!

Heaven knows we have a dearth of leadership on this side of the Atlantic. Boris Johnson is, in my opinion, the worst Prime Minister in living memory (well, my memory at least and I’m 71). But we should be thankful for small mercies. He’s not Donald Trump.

By Andy Marlette, The Pensacola News Journal

While the emergence of Covid-19 per se cannot be laid at Trump’s door, his government’s pathetic response to the pandemic has brought about a catastrophe beyond all measure. More than 100,000 deaths from the virus, and while not the highest per capita toll (unfortunately I believe that ‘accolade’ belongs to the UK) it is a terrible indictment of what the USA has become under the Trump presidency.

As for the economic fallout, with a calculated 40 million job losses that disproportionately affect those already worse off in US society, Trump and the Republicans do not seem to care. They have, it seems, been more concerned about bailing out big business than providing real support to the needy. And now US society has to contend with demonstrations (some violent) that have sprung up across the whole nation.

By Clay Bennett, The Chattanooga Times Free Press

Over the past week, Steph and I have watched with horror as the United States has fractured once again along racial lines following the killing in broad daylight of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The nation-wide civil disturbances that this outrage has sparked come in the midst of a health crisis unprecedented for a generation or more. In terms of health care, race relations, and the economy, the USA is in turmoil.

There is surely a clear connection between the killing of George Floyd last week and Trump, early in his presidency, encouraging law enforcement officers to be more ‘vigorous’ with suspects. No wonder many saw this ‘signal’ from the man in the Oval Office as a licence to continue to threaten, subdue, and brutalise an already downtrodden sector of society.

By Chris Britt, creators.com

Now he wants Governors and mayors to get even tougher.

I could go on. Others have written more cogently than I ever could, so I am not going to repeat their observations on Trump’s presidency and all of its many failings perhaps numbering more than the lies he tells on a daily basis.

Some years back I wrote a piece about Watergate, and how cartoonists then very quickly got Richard Nixon’s measure. Cartoonists today have taken political commentary to another level when it comes to Trump. And they are spot on. Just take a look at the Facebook page Editorial & Political Cartoons (unless Mark Zuckerberg has temporarily taken it down for too obvious anti-Trump bias, as happens from time to time).

By David Rowe, Australia


Steph and I take a special interest in Minnesota, which we have come to know and love. So it has been distressing to see another side to the state through that appalling killing at the knee of a ‘rogue’ Minneapolis police officer (but how rogue?), and the protests that flared up in its wake.

Since retirement ten years ago, we have travelled to the USA each year. Had this had been a ‘normal’ year, we would probably be in Minnesota right now. Why? Our elder daughter Hannah lives with her family in St Paul, MN (the other half of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul). Having resided there since attending university from 1998, Hannah became a US citizen last year. We’d probably be half way through one of our epic road trips that we have enjoyed across so many states over the past decade.

We hope that the civil disturbances die down very soon, and life returns to normal in most respects. But let the summer of 2020 be remembered as the year when finally Black Lives Matter becomes more than a slogan. Let’s hope for real change, and the departure of Donald Trump come the general election next November.


*Joe Biden spoke these words at City Hall in Philadelphia yesterday after I posted this story. He focuses on the lack of leadership.