Wednesday, 16 November 2011

"The weather moulds me like wax"

My dear departed Friend John Brigham, one of my early Quaker mentors, would often begin his vocal Ministry “The weather moulds me like wax”

The weather here is glorious.  It strikes me that it is no wonder so many Americans are inherently optimistic – they have so much good weather for so much of the year.  We had a stretch of rain in September, and people complained as though they were entitled to fine weather.  We had a very unusual snow fall, which cleared after a few days, and now snow shovels sit by each door in case paths need to be cleared.  I’m not sure why, but we failed to capture this snow on camera.  The week-end of the snow fall, I was doing a ‘workshop’ (course) on Compassionate Listening.  At the end of one evening, we saw a stag out of the rear windows Waysmead, of one of the buildings.  It moved away from the window, into the darkness.  But clearly not very far.  For as we left the building, with the snow falling softly onto the ground, it started up from its ruminations  in alarm, and galloped right in front of us  - softly, magically, across the carpet of snow.  It did not gallop far, like all animals on the grounds, the seem to know they are safe, and so it slowed to a gentles trot, then a walk, and walked off into the night by Firbank, the building where we have our apartment.

We saw what we think is probably the  same stag this last week-end, as we walked  in bright sunshine, in temperatures of 70 plus degrees, through the woods across the road from the main house, toward a building called Brinton House.   We stood there for several minutes, our group of four, and the stag, enjoying each other’s company.  Then a man with two dogs on leashes appeared, and the stag took off, raising its two young ones, which had been browsing in the undergrowth behind, in the process – it was clear in retrospect he had been guarding these.

The last few days have been very busy.  I undertook another workshop on the history of Quakerism with Ben Pink dandelion, Eldered by Deborah Shaw.  It was simply superb.  Whilst I was engaged in that, Gwyneth went down to Florida to see a long-time friend of ours from Turkey days.   And then we had a visitor over the week-end – Eleanora, a young woman I’d met on a train back home.  She proved interested in bi-lingualism and Quakerism, so she came over to have supper with us in Monfa, to meet a bi-lingual Quaker family.  (She herself is Italian, and speaks 4 languages!!!) . It transpired she was visiting scholar from Penn State, and recognising we were coming here we kept in touch; and so she was here to visit this last week-end. The end result of all this is that we managed to tire ourselves out, and have been getting by until today, the first of our two days off.

Meanwhile, the trees here have turned a rich, deep red. We cannot bring this to you on camera, since somehow or other the camera did not make it back from Florida. Luckily, all photos are downloaded onto the computer, and stored on a Friends external hard drive as back up.

However, I can offer you pictures of trees from about a fortnight ago, and hope you enjoy them as much as we did walking around and taking the photographs.  

At the entrance of Pendle Hill

Gwyneth and the tree she planted in Septemebr

Magnificent maple - the camera does not do justice

Fountain at Brinton House - My favourite spot - unknown walker

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Ocean Grove

I am a little behind with the blog, as you can see from the last posting. This blog refers to a trip we took October 25th/26th.  It is an unreflective blog, but we hope you enjoy the pictures. 

It seems quite a common feature of life for many in Pennsylvania to visit the beach.  We had heard about Ocean Grove from one of Tom's relatives earlier in the summer, and were intrigued.  When it was mentioned again by a Friend in Pendle Hill, we took the opportunity to visit, and were delighted.  An ex-Methodist holiday centre, consequently teetotal, it stands as a little bit of Victorian Americana.  I will spare you the details of the epic journey to arrive there, including getting lost in Trenton.  Readers of Stephanie Plum, or fans of The Sopranos, know you should not be lost in Trenton, New Jersey.  We were given helpful directions by a group of young African Americans surprised to find a middle aged white man speaking in a peculiar accent approaching them and asking directions.  

When we eventually arrived, we stayed in Quaker Inn, which has no link to Quakers other than its simplicity.  It seems a feature of mine to encounter elements of American religious experience - when I had been  to have my hair cut in Media,  the local town to Pendle Hill,  in the barber  I encountered a sincere, devout Catholic who knew of North Wales through recordings he had of the St Beuno's Jesuit retreat centre, near St. Aspah in North Wales,  where Gerard Manley Hopkins lived; he ended up loaning me the American equivalent of The Tablet and a DVD by a priest called Raymond E. Brown.  Here in ocean Grove a similar thing happened.  On this occasion, we wandered in a cafe for tea, only to find it staffed by an evangelical minister who used the cafe as a ministry to reach out to people,(a la Liquid Church thinking) and would pray for people on request. Despite/because we were Quakers we were warmly welcomed.

All the houses in Ocean Grove are 'Victorian', and some of them were actually built in the nineteenth century!!!! 

The beach was superb - an unspoilt 'boardwalk' - nothing like  Burt Lancaster's final  film Atlantic City!!!!!

Thursday, 3 November 2011

America and Railways

We are on a train.  We wanted to see Fall colors (!!!!) in such a manner that both of us could enjoy, without the responsibility of driving. We looked at train schedules, looking for the furthest north we could get in a day whilst remaining comfortable,  stay overnight, and catching the train back the next day arriving at a comfortable hour.  We eventually decided to travel to Amherst, in Massachusetts, and took sounding from travelling Friends on the best week to travel, before finally alighting on this particular week to travel. 

America built great railways, in order to build America.  Where Chinese ‘coolies’ working from the east and  Irish workers from the West met in 1869, dignitaries hammered in a spike to join the rails.  History was made.  A journey across the US which used to take five or six months  now took a week. 

Railways occupy an iconic place in America – in the film Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone grand operatic masterpiece of a western, the opening scene, which seems to last forever, is set awaiting the arrival of a train.  A few scenes later the heroine arrives at the station, and passes through,  only for the camera to move in a swooping soaring shot,  accompanied by an equally soaring score, and   reveals the town which is being  built  on the progress which the railway brings: the railways in America are associated with coming of civilisation and progress.  Of course it was not really like this. The film itself demonstrates  the  story of corruption and corporate  banditry: an operatic plot shows the railway company to be at the heart of a land grab for water, allowing nothing to stand in its way.   Henry Fonda, plays  against his usual   role of  decent lawman  by brutally  slaying  a child . But, as an outsider, Leone has grasped the mythic quality which lies at the heart of America’s relationship with railways, and which was played out again and again in the Westerns of the 50’s, (think of High Noon, which is runs in real time set against  the arrival of a train)  even as America had fallen in love with the new object of its affections, the car.*  Only a nation which revered and celebrated railways could build magnificent structures like Grand Central Station, New York or 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. 

   Only a nation that knew it could  function only if it were linked together across thousands of miles, and recognized that railways were the only means of achieving this could run trains with names – and what names! – like The Silver Meteor, The Empire Builder and the Sunset Limited.  We ourselves are travelling on The Vermonter, which once each day makes the journey from Washington DC, via Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York up to St. Albans in Vermont, just south of the Canadian border.

Only a country which fundamentally enjoyed railways could build American trains.  They are so big! – huge, and hugely comfortable.  Unlike my most frequently used British system, Virgin West Coast main line, there is plenty of leg room.  On some trains there is a system of checked in luggage, so like an airline you check in luggage and it then is taken from you so that you do not see it until the end of the journey when it is placed on the platform for you. And even when this facility does not exist, there is a system of porters, or Red Caps that will take luggage for you and place it in the generous space at the front of the railway ‘car’, or carriage.
For decades railways in the US have languished, with the system failing to capitalize on its strengths, falling well below it potential, and undermining its standing in the eyes of the public.  Horror stories abound on a system which prioritises freight; with travellers stuck for hours as passenger trains are side-lined and so a train may well arrive several hours late. Although Amtrak owns and runs trains, the lines are mostly owned by freight rails companies, who, not surprisingly, run their track in their own interest.    
On the stretch of track that Amtrak does own, the north eastern  corner of the US where we are, the infrastructure has been allowed to decay, for years.    When, starting in the 1990’s,  Amtrak wanted to upgrade the system  where it might be most used – the Washington –Boston corridor that we are travelling on for a significant portion of our journey -  it found it had to replace rotting railway ‘ties’ (i.e. the wooden blocks between railway tracks that we call  which we call sleepers) and ancient bridges.

This malaise at the heart of the system inevitably affects the staff running the system. On the SEPTA (South eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) commuter line into Philadelphia  on the line just behind Pendle Hill, on which we start our journey, the station ticket office  is staffed by a man who appears to be  in his 70’s, who is barely helpful (would I be helpful if I had been expected to work into my 70’s?); on arrival in 30th Street Station concourse, the machine refuses to print our prepaid online ticket, and we are directed around a number of points to the ticket office, where the questions are framed in style, tone and manner as more suitable to an immigration service  assuming  wrongdoing,  than simply a failure of a machine to register a bar code;  the  indifference of the man serving in the  café car once we are on the train is a clearly  the equivalent of a PhD in indifference, and a lifetime of applied resignation at being asked to do anything. His question “What can I do for you sir” was a master class in method acting.  .
American left leaning liberals will time and again express a malign role for corporations that sometimes seem to amount to paranoia.  Only whilst researching this article did I learn that railway improvements within a state could only be undertaken with states funding; a state which wanted to improve its road system could apply for 80% of its costs to be covered by Federal funding.  “Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you” – one does not need to look too far to assume the influence of corporate oil   on policy makers in Washington. The Obama administration has lifted this restriction, and offered Federal funding to states.  Some, whether for ideological, political or pragmatic reasons, have refused.  But it seems to place in jeopardy the possibility l of replacing an ageing, creaking infrastructure with   a high speed system.

Effectively, it may be too late, just as it might well being for BritainJapan, France, Spain have all systematically developed a high sped system.  Obama has promised $8billion to develop a high speed system; China is expected to invest $200 billion over the next five years. According to a Radio 4 programme, China has more or less stolen Japanese technology, and is now developing trains expected to run at 300 kph – that is 189  miles per hour! So, a nation which put a man on the moon with less computing power at its disposal than the current day notebook I am using to typing this Blog on places itself in a position where it is less than a world leader in the field in which it once excelled – transporting people by rail. 

I’m not sure why it is that the political  left, along with  Quakers,  have such an attraction to trains, and the Right of Britain and America seems so viscerally opposed.  It may be something to do with the apparent freedom of the car.  The car appears to be a triumph of individualism and freedom to go where one chooses at a time of one’s choosing.  Such at least, was Mrs Thatcher’s celebration of the car. In contrast, perhaps even a  deliberate contrast, Mr Major offered a (wilfully?) naïve, sentimentally nostalgic   evocation  of the 30’s railways where every station master apparently looked after his station  platform with flowers from his garden.  His government then went on to offer a  a botched privatisation which probably contributed significantly to the accidents at Hatfield and Ladbroke Grove  And , before all this, of course it was a Macmillan Government which encouraged Dr. Beeching to wield his infamous axe, which tried to excise all social responsibility from a national rail network, and ensured that there are now regions of the country – especially in Wales and Scotland – with insignificant access to a   rail network.  Those of a certain age will remember that the Minister of Transport at the time was Ernie Marples, and remember him riding his bike into Whitehall.  What will be less remembered, if known at all, is that he owned a construction company with a direct interest in road building.   The M1 had recently opened in 1959; there was clearly a fortune to be made in building roads.  When it was pointed out to Mr Marples that he might have had a conflict of interest, he agreed – and promptly passed his shares over to his wife. 

The Right has alwys demanded  deregulation, and having untrammelled, completely free  access to markets and resources.    And a rail network, by definition, runs on train lines.  On a train journey, one is constrained in terms of direction and time of travel. And the traveller goes in a particular direction   with other people:  there is a public quality in participating in a rail journey, with the need to accommodate oneself to a public arena, as opposed to the car which offers private space and apparently unlimited freedom.

 But I think the opposition to the railways goes deeper than this. Railways demand infrastructure, heavy investment and long term planning for both track and rolling stock.    For any reasonable person these days, this means heavy government involvement.  To governments of either persuasion on the continent this seems a reasonable. However, the Anglo Saxon Right wing mind is viscerally opposed to any government role in economic life of a nation.  And I think we are often unaware the extent to which the political parties of both sides of the ideological divide on both sides of the Atlantic enjoy cordial relationships and exchange ideas.  Thus it is that the American Right, which to the liberal mind seems increasingly bizarre and out of touch with any kind of reality as we know it, has much greater influence on the right wing mind in Britain than many of us would recognise or enjoy, enjoying the easy connection between peoples who nominally speak the same language and can communicate relatively easily.

Returning to railways, it was not always like this of course. At the outset of railways in Britain and America, capitalism built the railways. It was the ‘Railway Mania of the 1840’s which laid down most of the system we still enjoy today, all funded by private capital newly released by the development of  joint stock  companies, and the development of a banking system.  Huge fortunes were won and lost on both sides of the Atlantic . 

Quakers played a significant role in this stage of the economic development of Britain.  Quaker reputation for honesty of dealing in business affairs meant they were ideally placed to play a vital part in the development of the banking system – the banks we know today as Lloyds and Barclays had their origins in Quaker banks.   What is less well known is Quaker involvement in development of the railways.  The first railway was the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Edward Pease, a Quaker MP, worked with the engineer Stephenson,  invested funds,  and brought the bill before Parliament to secure the foundation of that railway. Even today, the Darlington football team are known as The Quakers.  It is a matter of conjecture whether it is this title, the economic decline of Darlington reflecting in their ability to buy players, or any other factor that means The Quakers now play in the Conference League!

The railways also offer a model of the development of human consciousness – that it is extremely difficult to see the present moment in terms of our past, and we can only with difficulty see beyond the limitations of the present moment to envisage an alternative reality.  The first railways were tracks along which ponies would pull tubs of coal.  Initially it was thought that these tram lines might serve for both the new-fangled steam engines, and local carts.  We devised our train gauge because Stephenson, the first great railway engineer, measured one hundred local carts to have an average of four feet eight and a half inches.  I am not a good engineer or mathematician, but even I know that such an average does not mean that even one of these carts could use this line:  a system was imposed which did not server the present or the future. *** The system for carrying passengers also reflected the deep inequalities of a cavalier inspired society (see previous blog)  - so there was not only a First and Second class railways system, but even a Third class,  with an accordingly punitive system of discomfort built in,  reminding the passengers not only were they poor, but must be punished for being so.  And of course, the carriages themselves are so called because if one looks at the very earliest attempts to develop conveyances for passengers they were modelled, not on a vision of what this new form of transport could be, but on what existed – the stagecoach.  In this as so many fields, human beings looked at the current moment through the eyes of their past experience, and  failed to recognise it for what it was for itself.
This railway system was all laid out in the 1840’s. And it may be the hard Right truly believe that this kind of entrepreneurial capitalism can provide such investment for major projects today, despite evidence to the contrary from across the world (the much vaunted investment in the railways since privatisation as been achieved  by increasing government subsidy, and marked by const overruns and spiralling – ironical, since we have been repeatedly told, again and again ad nauseum, that governments cannot manage, only private companies can manage efficiently)   Repeatedly in news broadcast and analyses I  hear the economic right indicate that such providers of entrepreneurial success deserve their huge rewards – we are told it again and again so often that we perhaps we begin to doubt our interior judgement, this must be a self-evident ‘fact’  might even appear to be true.

I look at how many companies have not ceased their final lump sum pension schemes. I see how many of my ex students,  some of them with Masters Degrees, who are working for minimum pay.  I listen to the rhetoric , again and again, that ordinary people must be content with minimum pay increases, or none at all; how  they  must be grateful that they have a job; that social security is presented as a huge system for scroungers and the work shy……………….whilst providers of wealth need to be richly rewarded for their ‘labours’ – none more so than the bankers who exercised such judgement and foresight that they brought the world economic system to its knees. These are exactly the arguments used by factory owners, mill owners and those who fought against every advance in decency and humanity won in the last century and a half. 

In the false Darwinism of the right wing world view, it is nature red in tooth and claw, and where there are economic winners, there are economic losers.  In the 1840’s women and children worked down mines, factory laws were non-existent and children worked 14 hour days.  According to the evidence at the time, factory owners saw nothing wrong with this, for when the children were released they immediately began to play.  And of course, ran the argument, if they had enough energy to play, then they clearly had enough energy to work harder, longer.

Since that time, it has been a long, slow battle to establish decent working conditions for a reasonable working wage.   In the nineteenth century, worker pay is stopped at the fifteen minutes to the time they had an arm pulled off in a machine. Such economic slavery is now dead in the West, and capitalism has successfully outsourced such appalling conditions, along with many of the actual jobs.  But when I hear much of the political Right arguing that restrictions should be lifted for businesses to thrive, I realise that many of those regulations are about ensuring a right to strike, establishing sickness, maternity and paternity benefits as part of the dignity of work, along with paid holidays and a pension.   Of course the argument is made that we cannot compete with economies which do not support such obligations on employers, with the assumption that such rights could be removed from workers in the west.  Would it not be more reasonable to assume that all workers in the world such have access to such rights, at levels appropriate for the median wage levels of a particular country?  Quaker factory owners such as Cadbury’s were model employers, offering  sickness pay and pensions long before they were compelled to do so by government regulation.  And still made a profit. 

I am completing this blog entry heading back south on The Vermonter.  We have had a wonderful visit.  The Fall colours were very rich – the variety of yellow was particularly striking. And while we had a wonderful sunny day travelling up, the rain promised by the TV weather forecast last night materialised, but had the effect of making the colours more startling. At one point the train has to turn round in the small town of Palmer to head south on a different line.  It makes for an extensive delay for the serious travellers, who furiously type into their spread sheets and power point presentations all around me, even as I type this piece for you; but for us the train goes slowly, silently and mysteriously through dense woods on either side of the track, allowing a sense of the deep mystery of New England forest.

  I’m sure that the colours further north were even more startling, given that it is colder, but this is more than sufficient for us now – and this far north  felt significantly colder after nightfall as we walked from the Persian restaurant where we had supper.

Amherst is a lovely university town of green spaces, small bookshops , funky eating places, and shops devoted to personal  grooming – hair, skin, nails  could be taken well care of in the numerous small shops  which abound.  Each state has its own liquor laws, so it was interesting to see in a small town the number of shops devoted to wine and spirits.   It must have been a very different town for the poet Emily Dickinson, and I wonder to what extent she would recognise the town she lived in.  Her housed now museum, offers an insight into gracious living.  And  for a liberal, white American in regular  I can imagine Amherst  must be as pleasant as it gets – the university ran a day’s symposium of the Civil War earlier in October,  clearly demonstrating its sympathies; a casual chat with a teacher of Afro American studies at the university reveals that most people of colour here are immigrants, who  have as much difficulty grasping the issues of black experience in America as white and Asian students; the upwardly mobile  black taxi diver who drives un in the rain clearly enjoys a town with so many restaurants, and so little crime, other than university students “getting a little crazy” at the week-ends.   As a white liberal, I could envisage living here and having a wonderful life – urbane, cultured,  much the same as we would have enjoyed had we continued to live in our village near Cambridge all those years ago with the additional attraction of such rich, stunning scenery, including  easy access to the ski areas of Vermont. The white Quaker lecturer in African  American studies we meet at the station tell us that one of his challenges is relating the Black American Experience not only to the white students he teaches, but to the black students he teaches, for they are mostly immigrants, and have no  relationship to the experience of African Americans. 

As we leave Amherst, we encounter one part of the town which would Emily Dickinson surely would have known and recognised: the railway station which seems to have been untouched by time

Besides the Autumn poets sing
A few prosaic days
A little this side of the snow
And that side of the Haze—

A few incisive Mornings—
A few Ascetic Eves—
Gone—Mr. Bryant's "Golden Rod"—
And Mr. Thomson's "sheaves."

Still, is the bustle in the Brook—
Sealed are the spicy valves—
Mesmeric fingers softly touch
The Eyes of many Elves—

Perhaps a squirrel may remain—
My sentiments to share—
Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind—
Thy windy will to 

The name—of it—is "Autumn"—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the 
Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels— 

Emily Dickinson

 These pictures are from Pendle Hill

*Or apparently in love.  One only has to watch any Hollywood blockbuster to recognise America’s deeply ambivalent attitude to cars – the inevitable car chase, with the ensuing mayhem, chaos and destruction as cars collide, crash and destroy each other, with no apparent effect on the humans driving them.

** The art of ju-jitsu is to apparently use the strengths of the opponent against them. In the America of 2001 terrorists learnt to fly in a market economy where flying lessons are a commodity on offer like any other service and where airlines fought to offer the cheapest fares, to as large a group of consumers as possible, and had insisted in offering a walk-on/walk-off service, in the face of advice, saying that their customers did not want to be hindered by security checks on internal flights. 

*** The remarkable engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel devised a gauge of seven feet for use in the west country (The Great Western Railway – GWR), where train speeds could be higher and the journey more comfortable, But eventually Stephenson’s system won out, a fact which I remember with annoyance every time I stumble with a cup of coffee form a Virgin train line café on my way back to my seat

Thursday, 13 October 2011

The American Civil War - A Personal Reflection

I find  the American Civil war  fascinating for many, many reasons.

It was a Civil War.  This meant that brother was truly set against brother.  Men on the eastern United States had to choose which side to fight on, and many families were divided for any number of reasons.  In the West, as Mark Twain found,  life could go on, pretty much as life went on at home in the First World War, oblivious to the suffering of men engaged in war.

It was a war fought over a relatively small part of the country.  I was surprised looking at a map, how near the war came to Washington, and reading Team of Rivals: Abraham Lincoln’s Political Genius  showed me just how worried they were that Washington would fall to the secessionists.

 Also because in many ways it prefigured many of the horrors of combat from the following  century.  The American Civil war initiated trench warfare; and the sight of some prisoners of war resemble survivors of concentration camps. ( Indeed, the word Deadline comes from the Civil War– soldiers guarding prisoners were ordered to shoot any prisoners crossing an imaginary line.   Although the machine gun was yet to be invented, advances in the technology of weapons production meant that often rifles were used instead of muskets, with greater range, accuracy and force, which in turn meant that sending massed troops against a fixed point was a stupid waste of human life – if First World War generals had studied the lessons of this war, they might not have wasted human life as they did.   At sea, iron clad ships routed wooden warships. Mechanized warfare clearly had not been imagined, but far from being the heavy weapons of medieval warfare, the role of the cavalry had significantly diminished. Sherman’s march into the heartland of the South wreaked a trail of destruction which is apparently is still talked of in southern families – much as the English Highland Clearances in Scotland generations later – and prepares us for the wholesale targeting of civilians which happened during the  bombing campaign of  cities Second World War . The images of destruction are still painful to see – reminiscent of so many images we have seen subsequently, but never before had the horrors of war been laid bare so publicly.

These  advances in the technology of photography also meant it was typical of soldiers to be photographed in uniform before going off to war,  and also for photographers to visit the battlefield. So we have hundreds and hundreds of images  of  soldiers, the battles they fought, and  the effects of battle.  Photographers learnt to ‘compose’ their image, even if it meant moving bodies to achieve a more poignant image (insert) 

 War promotes rhetoric.  This war prompted one of the most moving speeches ever recorded. I first came across it from the lips of a Ghanaian man, working nights as a security officer in London, who had had to memorise it as a child in school in Ghana.  It says something about the provincialism of an English education that I had not met it up to that point, and yet it has the majesty and strength of Shakespeare and the Bible, and is a touchstone for any true lover of democracy. Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the war, gave a short speech at the graveyard where so many of the Gettysburg dead had been buried.  The previous speaker had spoken for over two hours.

Lincoln stood and said: 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth

For this,ultimately, is what fascinates me about this conflict: it  was a clash of ways of seeing the world embedded in completely different ways of life. The south, with its antebellum, gentlemanly ideal, based around the slave- worked plantation, was faced by on industrial power based on free labour.  It was more than north versus south, industrial versus rural:  it was a true test of slave economy  versus free. Virginia was settled essentially by families from the south of England, wanting to recreate their lives of ease and leisure based upon the efforts of others. For this, they needed slaves.  And thus the notion of slavery entered the American continent – and this was the central issue around which the Civil War was fought.
History, of course, is always re-written by each generation and as a professional historian myself I am fascinated by those issues where scholars disagree and consensus seems impossible to reach. But approaching this subject anew with the producers of this series brought home to me the fact that these areas of disagreement are really about details – on the really big questions, scholars are now in complete agreement. None of the historians we spoke to for these programmes – and no others that we could have found – dispute the fact that the war was caused, fundamentally, by slavery (although they disagree vehemently about precisely how slavery caused the war).
There were other issues, to be sure, that agitated northerners and southerners in the years leading up to the war, but all are related pretty directly to slavery. Slavery was not the prime motivation for most northern soldiers when the war began, but most of them came to the view that in order to end the rebellion and prevent such treason from happening again, slavery had to be uprooted. Most southern soldiers were not slaveholders and they were fighting for hearth and home, yet the society of which they were a part depended on slavery. It was bound up into their way of understanding the world. So there is no getting away from slavery as the core issue – its role in creating the circumstances in which war could happen and the way in which it shaped the way the war unfolded.
(BBC website – my emphasis - and Quakers from the South tell me that this is not the history taught to them; nor is it the story Southerners tell themselves - see : )

The South echoed the world of the English Cavalier world  which gave rise to it: a world of privilege, class and effortless achievement based on the work of others.   The north was essentially, however imperfectly,  based on the democratic values of free men and women choosing their own government, freely offering their labour.  To this extent, it could be argued that the American Civil War   was a continuation of some the issues and values of the English Civil War, which culminated in the execution of the King for treason in 1649. 

In the  England of the 1650's, for a very brief time, it appeared that ideas could be a valid currency for all men and women, and such remarkable ideas as a more inclusive voting system, regular parliaments and   the distribution of land as the  means of  production were seen as an essential part of the human condition (see The World Turned Upside Down – Radical ideas During the English Revolution – Christopher Hill; The Covenant Crucified – Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism – Douglas  Gwyn).  The Restoration of 1660 suppressed dissent, and the free exchange of ideas; it restored hierarchy, and with it rank and power in the hands of a few, based on the possession of wealth.  Once again the English became subjects, not citizens, and seem remarkably content to remain so. 

But these radical ideas refuse to be subdued, surfacing again and again in English (the Scots and the Welsh generally being more egalitarian than the English) History– the Chartists, and the history of the rise of Trade Union are two examples.  Arguably, Britain after the Second World War instituted many of the reforms which a modern democracy needs to function – I sense that there was a feeling on all sides that we were genuinely all in it together:  evacuees from industrial heartlands to middle-class families demonstrated the vast inequalities which existed in pre-war Britain; politicians of all colours had seen that a people acting together, with clear government direction could achieve huge things.  There was a sense that we could achieve a fairer, more decent society for all, and that government had an important role to play in that.
These assumptions were undermined by Mrs. Thatcher and her government in Britain in 1979 – as we came to the end of the generation of politicians who had served in the war.  Even more consistently, by Ronald Reagan on this side of the Atlantic.   The left of centre has not yet found a compelling counter narrative to market forces, unlimited choice and consumer driven ideology “There is no such thing as society – there are only individual men and women and families”………………. 
America is not a society at ease with itself. Our fellow Friend in Residence, Marianne, speaks movingly of her adolescence growing up in small town Kansas after the Second World War – a time of innocence, plenty, and boundless possibility.  Little of this America survives. America has shipped many jobs abroad – Apple creates the technology in America, but manufactures in China.   That is one reason why America has shrunk, evidence of which is all around us - its cars are smaller, its people struggling to make ends meet: even people on reasonable salaries struggle to meet college fees, health insurance, and save for retirement.  But this hollowing out of the industrial base is a result of policies framed in the Reagan/Thatcher era,  as are the decisions which have made average Americans poorer, to the benefit of the very, very rich.  The Right has successfully framed the discussion so that taxation is a dirty word, symptomatic of governmental failure and intrusion into the rights of the individual (see George Lakoff - )  The Tea Party, with its demands for minimal central government,  is echoing the cry of the American south.  There are those who would argue that what the American Right are trying to achieve is an undermining of all that was achieved in the 20th century in terms of enabling poor people to have a voice. And in America, poor people are often black people.
There will be another blog at some point in the future about America and race.  For now, it needs to be noted that African Americans had to wait one hundred years for the implications of their emancipation to begin to emerge.  Not until the huge civil rights struggles of the 60’s, did a Democratic President enacted laws which brought home the fruits of the Republican President Abraham Lincoln.
It is one of the great "What ifs...." of history what might have happened had Lincoln not been assassinated, and  his leadership had been allowed to dominate the peace, as it did the war I indicated in the previous blog, the Civil War defined America, and is arguably still defining America today.
And what has all this to do with us Quakers – pacifists?  What role Quakers and politics?
It seems to me that Quakers are in the world, but not of the world.  We should care passionately about the kind of society in which our fellow citizens are required to live their lives. We should hold our democratically elected politicians to account, and expect of them that they pursue policies which are just and equitable.   However, at root our role in the world is not to be a pressure group, or adjunct to a political party  despite what some well meaning journalists might think:   Our role is to model a different way of being, in which conflict is not ignored, but neither is it settled by war; in which difference is not met by exclusion, but by welcome; in which ways of life are sustainable and healthy, not consuming and greedy. Our role is to show what the beatitudes look like in the twentieth century, and offer a vision of the Kingdom of Heaven not as an abstract reality, but as a concrete, material, alert, dynamic living community here on earth.  The Quaker way of defining oneself in history is to create that Kingdom here, now; and history will be complete when   “justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”.
I can write those words, I do not know what role I have to play.  I have not the slightest idea how to begin speaking Truth to those in power I hear every day on radio and TV  speaking  only the language of greed and consumption, and who devise and implement policies which are designed to make the rich richer, and are  literally costing the earth; and who would dismiss the last part of this blog as naïve hogwash, if they even gave it any attention.  
I am slowly unlearning the habits of a lifetime, and learning not to feel deeply angry.  I await further guidance from my Inner Teacher.  

 Tears stream from my eyes
because of the destruction of my people! 
My tears flow endlessly;
they will not stop
until the LORD looks down
from heaven and sees.
My heart is breaking
over the fate of all the women of Jerusalem
Lamentations Ch. 3

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The Battle of Gettysburg: A Meditation on the Quaker Peace Testimony

Battles change history. Marathon; 1066; the two Battles of Hakata Bay; Bannockburn and Culloden; the successful siege by the Turks of Constantinople in 1453, and the unsuccessful Siege of Vienna in 1683; Stalingrad: again and again battle defines history. In so doing, it offers an opportunity for men to construct a defining narrative -   for men to impose themselves on events, and in so doing to achieve meaning and purpose.  

Battle also allows men to define themselves.  In his opening to his book Going to the Wars, Max Hastings talks about a crucial  fact for men of my generation who grew up in the years following the Second World War – we always wondered how we might measure up compared to the older generation around us who had fought in that war.  In a group of Quaker men, some years ago now, gathered to discuss men’s issues, the one issue we agreed that defined being male was the need not to be thought a coward.

So the field of battle is also a field of dreams.  And time and time again in history men play out their dreams through battle.  Unless we Quakers comprehend this, truly understand the powerful forces that motivate men to fight, our call for the human race to allow itself to be transformed so as to build the kingdom of heaven, where metaphorically the lion lies down with the lamb, and peace and justice reign supreme, falls on deaf ears. 

Shakespeare understood this.  The speech he places in Henry V’s mouth just before Agincourt perfectly captures the sense of purpose, of subsuming one’s life into a greater struggle, of achieving a brotherhood with one’s neighbour; it   shows deep insight into the  male psyche:

From this day to the ending of the world,
.. we ..shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

Indeed, this “band of brotherhood” can extend even to the enemy – John Macmurray  in his Swarthmore Lecture recalls how he felt he had more in common with the enemy in opposing trenches in the First World War,  than the  congregations to whom he preached the futility of war on his periods of leave. There was a clarity, even purity, of purpose, and a refusal to engage in rhetoric and flag waving on both sides, in stark contrast to his own countrymen  who sickened him with their jingoistic slogans encouraging war,  whilst sitting at home.   It was as a result of these experiences that he left all Christian churches , though continuing to practise and attend conferences as a Christian, until he retired from his post as Professor of Philosophy in Edinburgh, at which point he became a Quaker.

So what has this to do with Gettysburg?

Well, we visited Gettysburg on our first two consecutive days off last week.  We had visited before, some years ago, hosted by an American couple who hired a tour guide for the day.  This time we visited a much revamped museum, superbly curated, with a good film narrated by Morgan Freeman, and bought a self-guided audio tour.

It is a pristine battle field.  No building development has taken place, so it is very easy to see the sites  of the three days of fighting, study the points where troops moved, and why, and  to recognise the different phases of the battle and what the generals, especially Robert E. Lee, was trying to achieve  It is a physically very lovely landscape. On a beautiful sunny day to gaze out at this Pennsylvanian landscape, it is a feat of the imagination  to visualise the sights and sounds of battle – to see this serene landscape   transformed by shot and shell into carnage and horror. 

 On this field of battle men were conducting a fight about meaning – the nature and meaning of America as a country.  Soldiers – most of whom were not professional soldiers, but very ordinary young men from quite ordinary occupations- fought fiercely, but above all courageously, with honour and valour.  Men from Alabama fought  with incredible ferocity, after marching twenty five miles overnight, suffering from hunger and raging thirst, attempting to take a small lump of rock, an objective they could have walked up only a few minutes earlier.  Young boys from Maine – Maine! – many of whom I’m sure had never seen a black face, were told to hold a position “With all due hazard” – i.e. to the last man.  They fought fiercely to retain that position, against young boys who fought equally fiercely to take it.    A Union officer asks if an order is meant, and assured that it is says, “Well it is murder, but it is an order” and leads his men to almost annihilation.  Running out of ammunition, a Union Colonel orders his men to bayonet charge the enemy, who surprised and shocked, retreat, enabling the position to be held. Again and again men of both sides show remarkable heroism in the face of overwhelming odds.   

  Little Round Top

(From this point,Union Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren saw this point - vital to the Union line -  was undefended, and asked for reinforcements.  They arrived minutes before a force from Alabama.  What followed was some of the fiercest fighting of this battle, and the war.)

The North Carolina Monument 
It has been ever thus.  The horror and the pity of all battle, at all times, has been captured in Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles'  version of Shakespeare’s Henry 1Vth Pt. 1 and 2 (, where behind the valour and brutality portrayed on the screen, , the music weeps plangently on our behalf,  and on behalf of all humanity.But despite all the horror and carnage, I believe Shakespeare invites us to despise his creation Falstaff, who says “honour is a mere scutcheon” and in cowardly fashion avoids all engagement with the fight.

In this case, 12,500 Confederate soldiers walked almost a mile across open country into a hailstorm of shot and shell, signalling the High Water Mark of Confederate ambitions – a battle in the heartland of the union enterprise, Pennsylvania, which, if won, would have inflicted a decisive blow against Union confidence and   might have led to a suing for peace, with two nations on the North American sub-continent entering into history. Instead, from this field  Lee has to lead away a defeated force, who never again would have the men or material to fight an offensive war; and  the Union forces took heart from this and the capture of Vicksburg a few days later, and went on to pursue victory.  And thereby created history. And the America we have today.

Quakers traditionally play the role of picking up the pieces of  wars, (see the previous blog and ). Although in the American Civil War some Quakers felt led to move away from the witness of their religious community and fight against slavery, corporately Quakers oppose all war.  But it is not enough simply to oppose war.  We must speak from a deeper place.

Advices and Queries  (  )  advises us  to look into our own hearts to understand the causes of war, and eradicate the seeds of war in our own lives:

 Search out whatever in your own way of life may contain the seeds of war.

 Bring into God's light those emotions, attitudes and prejudices in yourself which lie at the root of destructive conflict, acknowledging your need for forgiveness and grace.

In my own life I have struggled with the Peace Testimony when I understood it as an intellectual construct.  It seemed to me that there must be a role for an army to protect the innocent and the weak – those unable to protect themselves.  There is a Paul Lacey’s Swarthmore Lecture is  devoted to this ( ). 

I did not find this Lecture satisfying in the way I had hoped.  I finally realised that,  for me,  it did not seem to build upon our Quaker heritage, which points me in a different direction to working with the world’s ways, offers another model, and another way of looking at reality.  It seems to me that our history is leading me to see that Quakers do not live by the rules of the world:

 I told [the Commonwealth Commissioners] I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars... I told them I was come into the covenant of peace which was before wars and strife were.
George Fox, 1651

(my emphasis)

When  I have met Quakers who seem to most fully live in the virtue of that life and power, they show me that experiencing the Light or the Spirit at a deep level within oneself, one cannot destroy that light in another human being. My maleness needs to be about expressing my courage by being faithful to the Light granted me, and following that Light regardless of my own desires – George Fox refusing to fight back when being beaten by sticks by a mob; James Naylor embracing the hangman about to bore his tongue with a hot poker.  But even more deeply still, living in obedience to the alternative reality  I experience running through and behind and beyond the world’s defining, living my life by an inward reality (the depth I find at the very centre of my being),  when I fully live from this place,  I am freed of the need to define myself by those constructs –  honour and shame, cowardice and patriotism, which form the world’s thinking.  The world willingly expends human life in a circus of folly – the Russian Government sends young conscripts into  Afghanistan; American policy arms the Taliban, including Osama Bin Laden , to fight against these young men; twenty years late it is sending its own young men into battle against these people it provided with weapons .  The role of Quakerism is not to reveal the world’s shabby cynicism in the way of secular journalism, but to reveal an absolute truth – “The sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, the just and the wicked”:  we are all bound in the net of being, surrounded by the  abundance of the gift  of life – in this net, there are no enemies, merely people who as yet I have not called Friend.   To put it another way, we are all dearly beloved by God.

I am under no illusions as to the enormity of the task. I have heard from their own lips the stories of Quaker peacemakers who have sat next to those who have inflicted utmost brutality on the human body and psyche; those who have shaken hands with murderers in the pursuit of peace – their stories pierce one to the quick.  I also have to recognise that I have unhealed wounds within my own family.  These wounds represent the extent to which I have not allowed myself to be pierced by the Light, and therefore unable to speak as one gathered in the Light, speaking from the centre.  And therefore it ill behoves me to judge others who also do not speak from the centre, from a gathered place in which we can see, along with Divine Presence, that there are no enemies, just poor suffering humanity.  It helps me enormously that my religious community does not espouse any theory of just war : I have less to shelter behind and hide from the truth –that all war, for any reason, is an offense against that spirit which runs through the teaching of Jesus, the Buddha, and all the great prophets. 

I have always been moved by James Nayler’s final words; they speak to my deep place, even as I fail to comprehend them intellectually:

In 1660, after his release (from prison) , he set out on foot for the north, intending to go home to his wife and children. On the way, he was robbed and bound, and found towards evening in a field. He was taken to a Friend's house near King's Ripton, where he died. These were some of his last words:

There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It's conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world's joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.

For further information about the Quaker Peace Testimony see: