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Black Lamb


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Civil War

June 1st, 2003


In the late Eighties and for much of the Nineties I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia (KSA). Life there was for the most part pleasanter and easier for westerners than we are usually prepared to admit, but it was not entirely without hardships. charlesiNotoriously, we couldn’t buy booze or bacon — many people regard not being able to get hold of those two as a hardship — but it was also very difficult to lay our hands on books. His Majesty’s Customs made it so difficult for bookshops to import them that in the end they just didn’t bother, and private individuals trying to bring them into the country were liable to have wait for what seemed like hours at customs while every book was inspected — the cover not the contents, though. The result was that we tended to read what came our way.

Two of the books that came my way in that period were Veronica Wedgwood’s The King’s Peace (1955) and The King’s War (1959), her account of the Civil War (the civil war of the 1640s), a period of history that I had passed over fairly rapidly and negligently at school and had not seen anything in to draw me back later.

Insofar as I thought about the question at all, I had assumed that my sympathies would be entirely with the Royalists — such pretty clothes, such nice music and poetry, such dash, such joie de vivre, etc. — and so I found it quite startling, once I started reading, that the people I in fact admired in Wedgwood’s narration were all on the independentist wings of the parliamentary side. I don’t think my general way of life would lead my acquaintances to think of me as particularly puritanical, but that’s the camp I unexpectedly found myself in. The book brought out in me a fundamental (I think atavistic) fellow-feeling with people who say “no” — in this case, the side defying royal authority — and a loathing of selfish wasters of other people’s time and money, in the person of Charles Stuart.

Citizen Stuart’s unexamined assumption that his convenience took precedence over everybody else’s provoked the war, and his incompetence at managing his finances lost it for him (I interpreted Wedgwood as saying). His unshaken belief that it was his duty to live in a certain style and that it was other people’s duty to pay for it had me throwing the book in rage at the wall by the fourth chapter. Since he absolutely couldn’t do without more and more lace, he was obliged as a Christian king to sell heiresses from the court of wards, to sell monopolies, to instigate mischievous prosecutions in the church courts in order to raise cash. He was greedy and stupid and seems to have passed on those qualities to most of his descent.

Here in Rome when I go round St Peter’s with friends, I always take them to spit on the Stuart monument there, set up to the self-styled kings Charles III and Henry XI, Charles’s great-grandsons. They died in exile in Rome and in what they thought was poverty, but, thanks to unearned pensions from the Pope (in reality, contributions from the “faithful”) and from the Hanoverians (read: British taxpayers), they never went hungry or needed to go to bed sober. Seeing the monument invariably sets me off on a rant about what an appalling bunch of malignancies the whole family is — how one of the few reasons to be proud to be English is that the English once knew how to get rid of stupid despots.

It might then seem a little perverse that I spend so much of my time in Rome in the company of countesses and baronesses, but since they are two-a-penny here you can hardly avoid them. But of course it’s not titles in themselves that annoy me, but certain attitudes often associated with them: a selfish contempt for the convenience of others, a belief that one simply must have certain things and that the money to pay for them will always turn up, and a blinkered lack of awareness that other people make do with less, quite happily. The appalling harridan I used to work for regularly tells us the story of the first time she came to Europe in the Sixties. She hitchhiked around Italy and Greece, and, being the type of girl that she is (her family, she assures us, owned thousands of acres somewhere), the first things she packed were cashmere cardigans and a rope of pearls. As a result she never got bothered by the men that gave her lifts because once they saw the cashmere and the pearls they knew immediately what sort of a young lady they were dealing with and behaved like gentlemen. She would advise any young woman travelling alone to take the same clothes. She tells this to everybody, with a self-satisfied smirk, and never notices the looks of horror on the faces of young women who can’t afford to spend as much on feeding their children as she spends feeding her cat.

It is an almost infallible rule, I find, that if you let yourself go criticizing some aspect of your acquaintances’ behavior, you will find yourself in the next few days doing exactly what you have been blaming them for. A few weeks ago, talking about the war in the Persian Gulf, trying to sound brutally realistic, undeceived by the hypocritical hooey that was filling the press on the topic, I heard myself saying in a patronizing tone to a rather younger interlocutor, “Well, you don’t get to be rich and comfortable by being nice to poor people.” This is a proposition I hold to self-evident — up to a certain point — but how shameful that Charles Stuart, too, if he had been capable of sufficient frankness, could have said it. •

Posted by: The Editors
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