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Sovereign Grace

Adversity is the diamond dust Heaven polishes its jewels with.'
Thomas Carlyle

Some reflections on the evolution of the British Monarchy on the 366th anniversary of the execution of Charles I

“What Britain needs,” a Jewish friend once said, “is a benevolent dictator.”

I confess I was amused by the idealism of this oxymoron, thinking of the less bloodthirsty Old Testament kings who stood in God's stead and often did it their way. But he was articulating the cry of a child for a parent. 

Whatever one feels about the principle of Monarchy, and whether individual monarchs are saints or villains – mostly they're just  ordinary mortals coping with an invidious task in high relief - I believe we know instinctively that we are made to honour it. A Constitutional Monarchy, based on long tradition, is probably as good as it gets. This has to  some extent been eroded in Britain, but what is largely below the waterline is the stabilising influence it still has on society. Some political theories might well appear just and logical, but they don't take into account human nature and human needs.

It provides no solution that those at the top must have their incomes protected because they are the movers and shakers and the benefits will somehow percolate downwards. The cherished moneymakers who provide the highest revenue, it is argued, are those who will be keeping the country afloat. Not, apparently, if the wife lives in Monaco.

Grants to local government are equally likely to be administered in favour of vested interests, so that money is funnelled  into private pockets. The trouble with outright democracy is that, while it may spare us the tyrants, election sifts down to the least abhorred, rather than the most revered and respected. 

As a counterweight, we need an impartial hierarchy which is there to promote, throughout the globe, the good of every law-abiding citizen of the nation - and even to mediate the fate of those who aren't! Rather than the reverse, it gives us status and colours our aspirations. It is the last link with our heritage in a post-Christian society. And if this framework revives our long-lost humility, then we are ennobled by that process. In this finely-balanced symbiosis, we are its servants and it is ours.

It is sometimes said in jest that America and Britain are one people divided by a common language. But penetrate a little deeper into the psyche of nationhood and it becomes clear that while tremendous friendship, goodwill, co-operation and esteem prevail, what separates is more than tweaks of the lexicon. It's a matter of history and geography, our respective positions on the atlas and how the interaction of both has forged diverse ways of thinking and being in striving towards fair and civilised cultures. The Atlantic is easier to bridge than at any time in the past, but it is still a thousand leagues of water.

Two years ago, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty's Coronation on June 2nd, 1953. What the 2012 Diamond Jubilee (marking the Accession) showed beyond a shadow of doubt was how loved and revered she is, how thankful we are for the blessings of our heritage, how, when all the carping about privilege and the flirting with extreme fringes of democracy are done, we recognise what has given us a frame of reference through troubled decades. We know who we are. Thankfulness is better than pride. Pride has to do with Empire and all its conceits. We are struggling with many of the sins of Empire at present. It has all come home to roost.

Our Monarch is a mirror. She reflects back the better part of our human nature. Queen Elizabeth II is no Gloriana. She has understood what humility means and nicely judged her stance through some harsh challenges, very aware of dark forces behind the scenes. As a Constitutional Monarch, she has toed a strong and delicate line. When the Divine Right of Kings was questioned in the seventeenth century, it led to the execution of Charles I. It was an idealistic notion, open to abuse on the part of monarchs and subjects alike, and widely misinterpreted. To make the concept viable in moral as well as legal terms, humility is called for on both sides. The buck stops with the Sovereign. The exalted are here to serve in God's stead, a tall order with myriad random forces at large, one that demands respect for the position itself and constant prayer for the wisest outcome when human frailty takes over.

The Commonwealth and Cromwell's Protectorate, after Charles I's death in 1649, proved neither popular nor practicable. Folk didn't take to having a commoner decide their fate and the experiment failed. The Restoration of 1660 heralded times that have never looked back, whatever modifications have been made. It's the easiest thing in the world to tear down icons, demolish old structures, whitewash church walls of their painted saints and martyrs, not so easy to lay foundations among the rubble and build a whole new regime.

Perhaps contrarily, we don't go in for role models and heroes in Britain. The notion is alien to us. Fandom doesn't have quite the same charge as it does in the States. We buy the products of celebrity to enhance our lives; we embed those we admire in the culture, but while fashions and attitudes may filter through, we take our idols with a pinch of salt. It seems there is something else already in situ within our makeup.

Across the ocean, we see space and the freedom to move and be, an enviable pioneering spirit, a people determined to pool resources and 'fork lightning' from the ruins of religious purges and ideological persecution. A generous people keen to delight in the success of others rather than cut them down to size and look for feet of clay. They have belief in opportunity, a Dream that anything is possible by dint of hard work... And, occasionally, we glimpse a people cloven from their deepest roots, living on the outer crust of history, hankering for the old countries, the inherited beliefs.

I look back to the fifties, the decade in which the Coronation took place, and smile at how younger generations view it. No, my earliest memories are not especially gilded, or bathed in nostalgia, but it was an era of citizenship, relative safety and unlocked doors. The corner shop, the linchpin of community, had not yet lost out to supermarkets. (Ironically, it is largely being restored by immigrant cultures.) Education was the watchword and degrees matched the needs of the workplace in a way they seldom do nowadays. People travelled a lot. They travelled widely in the course of their week. Infrastructure was well-oiled. Of course, the population was only half the size, maybe less if some estimates are right. Since then, technology and transport have created more haste and congestion, less speed. A letter dropped in the post to someone in the next town may now go a hundred miles out of its way before delivery.

So what is prosperity? Isn't it anything that intimates heaven, the goal behind every goal and the subliminal purpose of all striving? It is our Queen doing her best to hold the self-serving, power-hungry wolves at bay, tending her flock as faithfully as a shepherdess.

It is our Monarch imaging God's love for humanity and in that every Continent has an equal share.

My poem in honour of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee

I Hear The Music Now

Bonhoeffer as a young student of seventeen

His Berlin study

His arrest at Berlin

On Holocaust Memorial Day, I offer a poem as a tribute to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His family believed this gifted and 'lovable' man was destined to be a musician. But the Cosmos had other plans.

On April 9th, 1945, he was executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Bavaria for his stance against the abomination of Hitler's Jewish policies. Bonhoeffer's tremendous energy in the cause of justice and peace knew no bounds, even after his arrest. He inspired and gathered about him so many of like mind prepared to do the distance.

Exactly two weeks later, on April 23rd, liberation came, at Flossenburg via the 90th US Infantry. The Third Reich fell as surely as the walls of Jericho.

On that spring dawn, a tidal power was released into the universe that has carried subsequent generations. And those born into a traumatised world within an ace of his passing were touched by his shadow and have best ridden the current of that Life he set free.

'There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveller.'
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I am breaking in two
Hell opens its mouth wide
bidding Heaven fill it

Am I a whited sepulchre?
pacific as Christ
before my warden
when a heart of anger
rages under the ribs
at living blasphemy?

Pictures from the past
assail the mind
taunting and tantalising
a Beethoven sonata at dusk
my fingers dabbling harmonies
from liquid keys

praeternatural chords
that could transform
a disordered world

Vintage values, vintage leather
a timeworn oaken table
rye bread, snitzel, sauerkraut
blessed conversation
the family as one dipping
its hand into the dish

my sister's merriment
her sparkling wit, she with whom
I shared a sacred womb

Tubingen, the Neckar's sheen
willow-teased and placid
ancient gables pinked against sky
the halls of learning
prescriptive ink, mottled parchment
a smell of dust and destiny

Embattled senses piqued
drunk on heroic visions
Wagner, Schiller, Goethe
donning the mental shoes
of Luther, Hegel, Kepler
confabulating new fire

The zeal of youth!
The rampant certainty
Good systems of belief
might slay hubris and heresy
Christians foiled, resisted, banned
the torque tightening

But no cheap Grace,
Grace the other side of pain
and prayer, Grace prodigal
and purposeful, power-releasing
stone-breaking Grace
of Heaven's radiant geode!

Orgies of cleansing
God's Chosen hounded, trampled
the burning and the broken glass
the Prince of Darkness
determined to exterminate
his own reflection

The hiding, oh, the hiding
the labyrinthine whispers
earthquaking jackboots
persecution by a buckled cross
the leading where I had no wish to go
like the Lord's disciple

I ask the warden how
his diphtherious daughter does
footsteps clatter in concrete corridors
echoing against the mindless walls
It is Time, O Lord. I am Thine,
You bid me come and die

O perfect irony! O Spring!
A round, rose-tinted dawn!
Birds fly upward like broadcast seed
I see the outlined noose, the narrow way
the gallows way, a doorway framing light
This, this is where it begins...

I hear the music now...

Flossenburg Concentration Camp - courtesy of the Holocaust History Archive

Flossenburg Castle

Independent Means?

Gloucester Old Bank, 22 Westgate Street, Gloucester

Mary Cole, the protagonist around whom the Berkeley Series revolves, was born in 1767 in the parish of St Mary de Lode, Gloucester, England, the youngest of the three beautiful daughters of Susannah and William Cole, she a wet-nurse, he a butcher and grazier. A fourth child, Billy, completed their family two years later.

The parents, and in particular the mother, instilled into their children a notion of human equality. It was an accident of birth that some people were born rich and others poor. Nobility of character and a sound understanding of how to conduct themselves was key to their aspiration to a superior way of life. The daughters took this wisdom thoroughly to heart, but Billy showed sullen resistance. The two elder girls, Ann and Susan, were noted for their airs and graces among the good citizens of Gloucester, but Mary was refreshingly humble, honest and reserved. She attracted friends easily, but betrayed none of her siblings' saucy familiarity. The difference became patently clear after the death of their father on the eve of 1783 when, for economic reasons, the family was obliged to abandon its way of life.

Ann was already married to William Farren, a butcher of Westgate, Gloucester, by whom she had at least three children. Billy became apprenticed to Mr Parker, a local surgeon, while Mary and Susan went into service in London where their contrasting characters were thrown into relief. Susan was out to exploit her betters and climb the social ladder. Mary wanted only to do things the virtuous way and was even prepared to return to the Farren household to help serve in Will's shop and look after her nephews and niece when exhaustion and homesickness threatened.

In London, the girls found a good and honourable friend in James Perry, a young Scottish lawyer, entered at the Inner Temple, who was later to become the clever and widely respected editor of the Morning Chronicle, a journal with Whig sympathies.

By way of this connection, Susan was introduced to some of his colleagues and became the mistress of one of them before rapidly graduating to a peer of the realm when she began to re-invent herself and move in exalted circles with all the panache of a lady born and bred. She appears to have carried it off extremely well for the rest of her life!

Before long, Ann, who was disenchanted with her marriage and way of life, joined her. The pair then embarked on a series of amorous adventures among the glitterati of Pitt's England and the New America. There had been prolonged consultation between the lawmakers of the American Constitution and those who were constantly refining the British one. Indeed some of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence had learned the arts of their profession in London. Thomas Heyward, for instance, from South Carolina, had studied at the Middle Temple, William Paca of Maryland, the Inner Temple.

After a colourful career, Susan Cole, who at that period went by the name of Mrs Edge, married James Heyward, the much younger half-brother of Thomas Heyward. Thomas was the son of Thomas Heyward, senior's first marriage, and James, the son of his third wife. The Heywards were the wealthy owners of rice plantations.

Ann, meanwhile, had started a new family with Major Richard Claiborne, an American revolutionary, who later became a celebrated Judge.

The trail of their movements on both sides of the Atlantic has been riveting to research and has pointed up some interesting differences in attitudes to marriage and social mores. (Susan Cole had to start claiming she had been married to all the lovers by whose names she had been known!) It has revealed, too, that despite George III's 'lost colonies', links between Britain and America were being forged apace with movement between the two continents freer than ever.

Not By The Wayside

New Eve Publishing 2011

A children's play about Mary Jones, a Welsh girl of Georgian times who saved for six long years and walked 25 miles barefoot to obtain a rare copy of the Bible in Welsh. Her amazing story saw the British & Foreign Bible Society launched in 1804. This edition launched to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

This is a one-act/4 scenes play for 8-11 years and has been successfully performed in the UK and New Zealand. It runs for approximately 30 minutes and is especially designed as a children's presentation within an act of worship.

The play can also be read as a story.


Narrator (1)

It was autumn of the year 1792. Across the Channel, Revolution was rife and King Louis XVI had only months to live. In Britain, John Wesley was at rest in his grave after a lifetime of service to his Lord. His zeal for the gospel had fired all parts of the country and had helped to stem a crisis of the kind in France. Everywhere, chapels were springing up. The Methodist mission hall in the village of Llanfihangel in North Wales was well-attended and one of its most enthusiastic worshippers was a young girl of eight. Her name was Mary and she was the daughter of Jacob Jones, an ailing cottage weaver, and his wife, Molly, who made ends meet with a patch of land and their loom and spinning wheel. Mary loved nothing better than to sing the Lord's praise and to listen to the spellbinding tales of olden times from the Bible.

One evening, after a bright and blustery day, when folk had deserted the market in Abergynolwyn and gone home to supper...

Warning (with a curtsy to Jenny Joseph)



When I am an old woman, I shall wear wine-dark velvet

in a retrospective style,

with plumed hat, tilted at a rakish angle,

and toss off a brandy in one go,

and quaff champagne because the sun is shining

or the rain won't go away,

or because a deadline has taken wing for distant climes.


I shall frequent VIP lounges as a matter of course

and rap on the door of 11, Downing Street, with the crook of my stick and say I've no money for taxes. But you can put the kettle on!


I shall recline on my couch with apricot truffles

and Lady Grey Tea, scanning the script of some hopeful writer whose narrative suffers from the present imperfect

and whose pages betray dried morsels of keylime pie

which have sustained the harrowing toil of composition.


I shall hold salons where earnest young poets may air their verses and their chagrin over royalties long imprisoned

in the fist of skinflint publishers.

I shall hear their lamentations upon editors from

the camp of the Philistines

and they shall weep upon my shoulder

at perfidious girls who giggle at sonnets

and prefer to moon over the beefcake on Top Gear.


Ah, what consolation those wordsmiths shall reap upon my finely-tuned clavicle!

How I shall milk their sighs

and their misplaced ardour!

They shall learn that skin-dew is skin-deep

and divine the subtext of kid-leather wrinkles,

etched by a spirit

that has trounced ten thousand adversities.

They shall behold the slaking twinkle of an eye

fixed on shining uplands beyond the turmoil,

where eagles do not prey,

where doves pair for eternity,

where petals do not rust

and no worm excoriates the fruit,

where cancer does not consume like swarming locusts, where there is neither health insurance

nor negative equity,

nor cynical columnists spitting tacks for effect

in hopes of sinking an overdraft.


Meanwhile, a little cerebral adventure...


Pole-trekking in the Adirondacks?

Wind-surfing off Goa?

White-water rafting in the Andes?


Dancing in the aisles at Buddy?

Or strutting one's stuff through One Singular Sensation?

And yes!

Singing the Brindisi from La Traviata with Alfie Boe...

Daring to rise from the audience and mount the stage,

unscripted, unchoreographed, in a flight of spontaneous rapture

to discover all that was lost is now found:

a voice.


Maybe I should just test the bouncy castle

at the children's party,

or soar, forbidden, to dizzy heights

on the swings at the recreation ground,

a subject for Fragonard.


What fun it shall be!

How heartening that the heart-bypass

is not destined for a hospital theatre

but could take effect

while I am singing Panis Angelicus

in the Basilica at Assisi.

I shall pass from life to Life

through fleeting shadow

and leave the Dead Land...



When I am old and no longer need crutches

and the sand in the hour-glass bears

no more footprints.


from THE TWAIN, Poems of Earth and Ether