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Life in the big smoke

London, my London

I took the river boat home after doing interviews around London Bridge yesterday. I looked at the grey waves, the silt. This water, it’s seen tragedy before. It’s seen suicides and bombs and murders.

London has seen a lot. London has survived a lot. I saw some quote yesterday about how this old battle scarred city shrugs and moves on. But we’re fragile. Those of us who live and love and dream and hate in this city, we’re fragile.

I’m fragile.

I’ve seen the aftermath of terror attacks in two cities I love, in two cities I’ve called home, in the space of about a week. I’ve seen fear and resilience and strength and shock. I hid my face from the sweeping broadcast cameras at the vigil in Manchester, because journalists shouldn’t cry.

This is real. This is happening. This keeps happening. This white hot madness, like a pinched nerve running through society. Why does it keep happening?

I was at Borough Market on Saturday afternoon. I bought a coffee from one of the stallholders and then I got a train from London Bridge. A normal day.

A friend of mine left Borough Market a couple of minutes before the attack. A normal evening. Shattered.

Perhaps the people who look back at this time will find a narrative. We only catch glimpses of it, rushing forward and looking out at these events as they blur. In the future some sense might be made and some answers might be found. Until then we’re stuck with the blur and with our feelings.

This is what I thought yesterday. If we don’t take care of our societies they will break. If we don’t figure out what our values are and then stand up for them, what we have will crumble. If we’re not compassionate we engender hate. And if we don’t have honest conversations about fear and anger and who to blame for all kinds of horrors those feelings will crawl out like beasts from the most spiteful corners of our societies.

I wish I could have offered my sadness to the river. I wish she would have washed it all away. But she’s seen it before, she doesn’t care. It’s up to those of us who live along her shores to do that work for her.

The dangerous legacy of Britain’s cursed diamond

It’s one of the world’s most famous diamonds. Millions of visitors gawp at a replica of it at the Tower of London each year. But the Koh-i-noor isn’t just a sparkly old rock. According to the legend whomever owns the diamond rules the world. And there is, of course, also a curse.

The Koh-i-noor is said to cause men to “know all the world’s misfortunes”. Supposedly only “God or women” can wear it safely and, according to the internet, it’s only ever been worn by female members of the British royal family.

But the diamond hasn’t always been British. There are many different tales about where and when it was found. According to Indian legends it was mined 5000 years ago near the Krishna River. And during its long history it has travelled from ruler to ruler.

In the 16th century it was said to have been in the possession of Babur, the founder of the Muslim Mughal Empire and a descendant of Genghis Khan. In the 18th century it was taken to Persia where the diamond got its current name. The Shah of Persia, is alleged to have exclaimed “Koh-i-noor”, Persian for “mountain of light”, when he saw the diamond.

nadir shah

The Koh-i-noor brought the Shah great wealth. It was part of the loot the Persian army brought back after a brutal attack on Delhi in 1739. The spoils of war were so impressive the Shah made everyone in the Empire tax exempt for three years. Eight years later the Shah was assassinated and his empire collapsed.

The diamond changed hands a couple of times after that, often accompanied by treachery and betrayal.

During the second Anglo-Sikh war, the British annexed the Punjab and took the diamond as part of the peace treaty. It became the property of Queen Victoria in 1849.

queen victoria

At first the Brits and their Queen weren’t that happy with the diamond. They thought it had a “rough” appearance (it didn’t sparkle). The Prince Consort, Albert, had it recut, getting rid of 42 percent of its weight in the process. When the re-cut diamond was shown to it’s previous owner, the Maharaja Duleep Singh, he was supposedly unable to speak for several minutes.

the koh-i-noor

Since becoming independent in 1947 India has been trying to get the diamond back and the British government has rejected several requests. Perhaps it fears that it would be the start of a deluge. On a visit to India in 2010 the then prime minister David Cameron said “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum will be empty”.

The Koh-i-noor isn’t the only thing the British took during their time of ruling over 13 millions square miles of the world. The Elgin Marbles from Greece and the Rosetta Stone are other examples of things in British museums other countries want back.

Diamonds. ... Extracted from Macmillan's Magazine. ... With a note on the Imperial State Crown and its Jewels, by J. Tennant

The Koh-i-noor will stay where it is for now and perhaps it isn’t worth reflecting too hard on what it has seen during the last centuries. Empires never collapse, after all, and strong leaders are never defeated.

Why I’ve been lying about the house

“I’m actually enjoying the mess, thanks for asking, it means I don’t have to worry about tidying”.

This is my stock answer when people ask me about the house. But I’m lying. The plaster on the walls is cracked and splotchy, every surface is covered in a fine dust, most of our belongings are stacked in randomly packed cardboard boxes behind the IKEA sofa which is missing its cover and has a fine collection of random stains. The kitchen is held together with tape. The bathtub is still full of random bits of wallpaper.

The biggest untruth is the word “enjoy”. A better description of my state of mind, underneath the sort of chirpy and cavalier “isn’t this an exciting adventure” type of attitude I tend to adopt in these situations, would be stressed, jaw-clenching, shoulder-aching, forehead-scrunching, stressed. Because this is the week when it all starts to happen.

Somehow I had managed to ignore it. The notes in my calendar saying “boiler fitter” and “kitchen arrives” were always going to happen at some point in the future. Well that future arrived sooner than expected. And the British prime minister has decided to call a new general election at the same time. So in between kitchen furniture getting stuck in our narrow Victorian hallway and men climbing up on the roof to drop down a flue for the wood-burning stove and the kitchen having to be emptied out and more things packed into more boxes (where are we going to store them!?) I’m keeping one eye on the UK political press on Twitter where there is also chaos and confusion. And it dawns on me that there won’t be any hot water for a while. And no hob, oven or washing machine. Where are we going to eat? How is it already the middle of April?

Perhaps I should just have titled this post first world problems. Perhaps I should try to figure out why everything always seems to happen at once in my life. Perhaps the answer is that underneath the stress there are bits I enjoy. These are the sort of days when there isn’t time to think too much and just about the right amount of time to act, it’s a kind of tunnel effect, a sharpened focus, or perhaps I’ve just had too much coffee and should have a little lie down. In a couple of weeks I can start worrying about tidying again. Now that’s something to complain about.

Photo by Martin Wessely.

The old yew tree of Runnymede

It sits in an ancient woodland near the river Thames and the meadows of Runnymede. It’s where the Magna Carta was signed over 800 years ago. It could be the place where Henry VIII proposed to Anne Boleyn. It’s old. Very old. Perhaps even as old as Stonehenge.

There are several places I want to visit in the UK. The list grows for every year and a recent addition is the ancient Ankerwycke yew west of London.

I discovered it in a book I’m reading about Anglo-Saxons, “The real Middle Earth – magic and mystery in the Dark Ages” by Jungian psychologist Brian Bates. Why did I buy a history book by a psychologist? Well I’m suspecting I confused it with historian Michael Wood’s “In search of the Dark Ages” (the covers are a bit similar) during one of my many Amazon binges. I also struggle to resist subtitles that contain the words “magic” and “mystery” and I quite like Jungians.

I’m yet to be totally convinced by the book, it seems to have been written to piggyback on the Lord of the Rings and the author tries to draw parallels between Britain in the dark ages and Tolkien’s middle earth. But, I wanted to start reading more about early British history, this is sort of a start.

In the book Bates attempts to explore the Anglo-Saxon mind and he visits the Ankerwycke yew to investigate why the old inhabitants of these isles regarded trees as sacred.

Runnymede, England

According to Bates the Anglo-Saxon word “treow” meant both “tree” and “trust or ”truth”. He mentions an old belief that walking or crawling through a tree that had been hollowed out, split by lightning or grown two separate trunks was to receive some of the nature’s power and protection.

On a recent trip to the forest near the house I found an ash with two trunks and decided to try this theory out. I climbed through the gap and gave the tree an awkward pat as I stepped over to the other side. Nothing magical happened, but I’d like to think the tree recognised the gesture. If trees can communicate with each other, perhaps they also have some kind of ancestral memory.

According to Bates the fields around the Ankerwycke yew were once a place where runes were cast and old kings came to listen to fortunes being told. Rune-mede became Runnymede. This is apparently completely false. Even so I’m sure the old yew tree has an interesting tale or two to tell.

Why England is the world’s most haunted place

It’s been called the first media circus. The country is at war and a huge storm hits London, overturning boats on the Thames and smashing windows, but what really mattered in the spring of 1762 was the ghost craze on Cock Lane.

You can visit the narrow alley today, a clean and sanitised short-cut between office blocks in Farringdon. Back in the 18th century it was a very different street near the infamous Smithfield market. The stench of cattle and blood must have hung in the air. Hundreds of animals were brought to Smithfield every week, some were sold and some were slaughtered. Before the cattle market the square had been the site of brutal executions. Over the centuries death burrowed its way into cobbled stones and the bricks around Smithfield.

In 1759 a young couple, William Kent and Fanny Lynes, moved in with the Parsons family on Cock Lane*. But all was not quite what it seemed with the youngsters. They weren’t married. Kent had in fact previously been married to Lynes’s sister, who had died in childbirth. The pair seems to have fallen in love after her death, but the laws at the time prevented them from marrying.

The Parsons were struggling to make ends meet, but offering the couple a room wasn’t the only way Richard Parsons, a church clerk with a drink habit, was able to buy rounds for his friends at the Wheat Sheaf. William Kent was a loan shark and lent Parsons twelve guineas.

A teenage girl and a ghost

The Parsons had two young daughters and Fanny Lynes struck up a friendship with twelve-year-old Betty. When Kent was away on one of his many business trips Fanny and Betty shared a bedroom on the first floor. And that’s when the hauntings started.

Knocks and scratches could be heard in the room, but no logical explanation could be found for the mysterious sounds. Fanny Lynes became convinced it was her dead sister come back to punish her for running away with Kent.

The noises and scratches became louder and more pervasive. Eventually Kent and Lynes were evicted from the house. It was a decisions that was set to have tragic consequences.

The heavily pregnant Fanny Lynes caught smallpox and died a few weeks before giving birth. The hauntings then intensified. Betty Parsons started suffering from convulsive fits. The Parsons decided to accuse William Kent of poisoning Fanny Lynes. It was now her ghost that haunted the house.

“Scratching Fanny”

Things escalated. The Parsons started charging for access to séances in the house. The ghost became known as “scratching Fanny”. Celebrities came. Rowdy, drunk séances were held night after night around Betty Parsons bed. William Kent tried to clear his name. Fanny Lyne’s coffin was disinterred and opened. The popular press took sides, some accused Kent of murder. Hundreds of people gathered on Cock Lane every night to get a glimpse of the ghost.

After much excitement it turned out Betty Parsons had been creating the sounds by beating her chest and knocking on a piece of wood under her bedclothes. She was taken away from her family to be examined by older male “experts”. Several people were jailed, among them Richard Parsons and his wife.

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“The most haunted country in the world”

I’ve been reading books about British ghosts. I’d stumbled across the saying “the English see more ghosts than any other people” and I wanted to find out more. Was there anything to the suggestion that England is the most haunted country in the world?

One of the best books that fell through my letterbox was “A Natural History of Ghosts” by journalist Roger Clarke. He’s had a life long fascination with all things spooky and became the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research. The Cock Lane ghost story is one of many in his book.

Clarke writes with both excitement and detachment about hauntings, séances and spooky legends of the British isles. He explores how both seeing and hunting ghosts has become important to the tourism industry in the UK. This is a country where the mention of a ghost might bring more visitors to a pub, a hotel or a castle. Perhaps that’s why the English see so many of them.

Nostalgia and boredom

Ghost sightings become more common in times of crisis. During the First World War some Brits had something called a time slip experience. People claimed to have seen an imprint of a more comfortable past, a manor that had burned down appeared to people who walked by the site at the right time of the night, the sounds of old parties echoed through time.

This hints at what is perhaps Clarke’s most interesting explanation of why the English see so many ghosts. Nostalgia and class.

“For most of the last few hundred years, only the upper and lower classes tended to believe in them. The middle classes have always deplored the idea of ghosts … Your middle-class sceptic would say that toffs like ghosts because it is a symptom of their decadence, the plebeians because they are ill-educated.

The twin polarities of the haunted British landscape make it clear: the haunted pub and the haunted stately home … If you were poor, it was because you hoped for the future; and if you were aristocratic and rich, it was because you trusted in the past.”

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*Yes readers with a dirty mind, I know this whole thing sounds like a ghost story from the Viz.