Radio 4 is putting out some fascinating stuff these days. This year being the 8ooth anniversary of King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, a document that has had major repercussions through the centuries in many countries across the world, it was good to hear that Melvyn Bragg was entrusted with the presentation of its history over four programmes.
Believed to be the foundation stone of most modern democracies today, it was astonishing to discover that the first version of Magna Carta was denounced as unlawful by the Pope within weeks of its publication, re-establishing the king’s divine right to, not only be the law-maker in his own kingdom, but also to be above the law and immune from prosecution.
The death of King John, however, brought the child King Henry III to the throne, and the rebellious barons once again saw their opportunity to re-establish the principles of Magna Carta, which was finally ratified in 1225.
Though most of the clauses have now lost their relevance in modern democracies, the very principles on which they were based are still pertinent, and have helped lay the foundation of constitutions around the world, most notably that of the United States……to name but one.
A series well worth attention: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04wtchv
At a recent gathering at Little Gidding, we celebrated the memory of Nicholas Ferrar the man who, along with several members of his own family, established a Christian community at this remote spot in west Cambridgeshire. Amongst the many reflections and readings, I offered a highly speculative view of a possible chance encounter in the early 17th century. The story goes as follows:
During Tudor times, my home village of Kimbolton was dominated by the Wingfields, a family who had found favour with Henry VIII and were granted the estates of Kimbolton Castle and its surrounds. One of the Wingfield descendants, Edward María Wingfield, inherited the dissolved properties and estate of Stonely Priory nearby, and went on to distinguish himself by being elected as the first President of the Council of Jamestown, the first successful British colonial settlement in the US. Not only that, but he was also the only shareholder (and principal financial backer) of the newly founded London Virginia Company to accompany
the colonists on their venture. The said company suffered major reversals in its short history, and many who had invested heavily in its fortunes paid a heavy price for their speculation. One such family was the Ferrar family. It is well documented that Nicholas Ferrar, politician and businessman, was so affected by the declining fortune of his family, that he gave up his life in London and retreated to the relative calm of the Cambridgeshire countryside, where he established a quietly retiring Christian community far removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
My speculation was this: had Nicholas Ferrar and Edward María Wingfield ever met each other? Were they even known to each other? If not, were they to have met, I wonder what they might have said to each other?
I reckon there is a ‘talking heads’ dialogue somewhere in this.
We Brits famously use language for a variety of reasons other than to mean what the words actually say. Take, for instance, the notoriously increasing use of reverse psychology in teenage language over recent years. Years ago, when something was exceedingly good, it was either ‘fab‘ or ‘ace‘, or some other monosyllabic grunt that obviously meant ‘very good’. But as we entered the nineties and noughties, these expressions morphed into ‘cool‘, ‘wicked‘, ‘sick‘, ‘insane‘ and ‘dark‘, and a plethora of other words too rude to mention here.
This habit of understatement (even reversing the meaning) really hit home a few years ago when, near Alicante in Spain, I entered our hotel restaurant one morning for breakfast and asked the waiter how he was (¿Qué tal estamos, hombre?) and he answered in a most uncharacteristic way for a Spaniard (No muy mal). I had never heard anyone ever use that expression before. So I asked him what he meant by it. And he replied “Well it’s what you British people are always saying: not too bad“. Now this got me thinking. What do we Brits actually mean when we say “not too bad“?
Are we simply undecided about our current condition and this is a convenient way of sitting on the fence? Are we afraid of really declaring our cards by saying we feel great or awful (as the case may be)? Or is it simply unBritish to be upbeat about our own physical and mental condition? What would a psycholinguist say?
Linguistic subterfuge in our use of language was further confirmed when a friend passed on an Anglo-EU Translation Guide. At the moment of writing, our Prime Minister, David Cameron, is confronting some of our EU partners with some very tricky questions and possible changes to the constitution of the European Union. I am absolutely certain that language will be very carefully selected to both declare our intentions publicly and to hide some of our real goals and objectives, with the hope that much will be lost in translation anyway. But back to the Translation Guide. It would seem that the reverse psychology of teenage language is also shared by adults at all levels. When someone says “I hear what you say“, does that mean they are really listening? No not at all. It really means “I fundamentally disagree with you”. But a non-British person may not appreciate the subtlety. So too for the following: “With the greatest respect” (I think you are an idiot), “That is a very brave answer” (I think you are insane), “Very interesting” (That is clearly nonsense), “You must come to dinner” (I’m really just being polite) “I only have a few minor comments” (I think you should completely re-write this) and my favourite “I’m sure this is my fault entirely” (It’s actually your fault entirely).
One of the plainest speakers in recent times has been the King of Spain, Don Juan Carlos. A few years ago at the
Ibero-American summit, when Hugo Chávez was at his most rumbustious, Juan Carlos lost a little of his customary self-control. Chávez said some very negative things about Spain and Spanish politicians, and the King lost his rag just inches away from a live microphone, saying “Why don’t you just shut up!!” (¿Porqué no te callas?). A most unkingly thing to say at any time. The nett effect was that this linguistic sound-bite circulated the globe virally in a matter of seconds, it was picked up by a ring-tone company, and by the end of the
day they had sold over half a million ring-tones of the King shouting to Chávez “Why don’t you just shut up!!” For a brief moment, the King had done wonders for a small sector of the Spanish economy. And this led to many other spin-offs: mugs, scarves, T-shirts, framed wall-mounts, bracelets and a host of other things, all proudly displaying the defiance of their King in front of the iron man of Latin America. In fact my own study is now draped with a large scarf which shouts at anybody who comes in with the intention of disturbing me: “¿Porqué no te callas?“
“If you are carrying any food or drink, throw them in the trash can over there”. Such was the welcome to the United States Capitol, the ultimate place to visit when in Washington DC. So we emptied our bags begrudgingly, but the guided tour (which was free of charge!) around the old Senate Chamber, Hall of Columns and the National Statuary Hall made it a small price to pay. The new Visitors’ Centre has opened up the Capitol to the general public as never before. And as we made our way through the Capitol chambers, I caught sight of a small plaque on the floor that revealed the spot where John Quincy Adams (6th President of the US) had had his desk when
he was a Representative in Congress. Why should this little plaque have tweaked my interest? Well, his ancestors hailed from the tiny hamlet of Achurch, of some 20 houses, just a few miles from where I live in the UK (click here), a historical fact that gives this diminutive community disproportionate importance in world history. But fascinating nevertheless.
Washington is a monumental city. There is a plethora of memorials, state buildings, museums and beautiful open spaces to discover, but in this city of national government, there are always threats to national security, real or unreal. In the few days we were there, an internet messaging board put out that the Capitol was occupied by terrorists, and hostages had been taken, and all this was supported by video-clips and photos. It was quickly revealed that it was a hoax, but it had been expertly staged. But not so the threat by a Boston man who had designed a remote-controlled model plane to deliver high explosives to the Capitol, to give a well-deserved ‘jolt’ to the enemies of Allah (click here). This was not a hoax, but had fortunately been nipped in the bud at a very early stage.
A fascinating piece of entertainment throughout our four days in Washington were the ‘abseilers’ on the Washington Monument. The east
coast of the US had suffered an earthquake, and worrying cracks had appeared in the monument, resulting in its closure till safety-checks had been carried out. So enthralling was the drama that TV crews were on permanent stand-by to film the proceedings.
The Capital Bikeshare scheme was just too tempting to ignore. “One day membership only $5” is what I read, but the small print (which I ignored completely) said something quite different! You
can tell what an urban bikeshare virgin I was! When I checked the credit card statement a few days later, I’d been charged a whopping $35 for my 5 hours of fun. But, without question, it was a lot of fun, and worth it. I would recommend it to anyone, but remember swap your bike every 30 minutes to avoid the charges!
Even better was the tandem ride along Pennsylvania Ave, with Jenny ‘wowing’ with delight on the back. Unbelievably, the cycle lanes run up the middle of the Pennsylvania Avenue, and as we proceeded from the White House towards Capitol Hill, we were not only privileged with the perfect view of the Capitol ahead of us, but we could wave ‘presidentially’ at the excited crowds lining both sides of the street as we progressed statesman-like on our ‘limousine-bike’. Can you imagine it?………;0)
We learned so much more about life in the capital (and in the US in general) from a former student of ours who is currently pursuing an accelerated Masters at Georgetown University. Quite a change from a small village environment in the UK!