Monday, December 31, 2007

Wounded Knee meets Glencoe

I read in the Cambridge Evening News on 29 December that it was the 117th anniversary of the Battle of Wounded Knee, which was the last major conflict between US troops and Native Americans, in this case the Lakota Sioux. The Battle was later referred to as a "massacre" by the leader of US forces, General Nelson A. Miles.

So what's the connection to the draughty old fen? I'm the connection, because I used to live in Glasgow.

In 1992, a member of the Cherokee nation called John Earl came to Glasgow on holiday. He went to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, where he came face to face with a Ghost Dance Shirt, which had been sold to the city in 1892 by George C. Crager, who had come to the city with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. The shirt is believed to have been robbed from the body of one of the Lakota killed at Wounded Knee.

The Ghost Dance movement was propagated by a member of the Paiute nation called Wovoka, who later took the name of Jack Wilson. The properties of Ghost Dance Shirts were taken to be metaphorical to greater or lesser degrees by different nations, but the Lakota Sioux took it as revealed truth that the shirts, made of fabric, would stop bullets. The stage for the massacre was set, the rationale for the building conflict being that "lazy Indians" were workshy: they had in fact been maneuvred into reservations with the most barren soil by a process of gerrymandering that allowed Americans and Europeans to appropriate the most fertile land. 150-300 Lakota Sioux were killed, some by bullets, others by hypothermia, in a man-made tragedy that mirrors the Glencoe massacre in my own land. One hopes that the scars of Wounded Knee will heal in a shorter time than it took those of Glencoe to.

In November 1998, I squelched through a path to the Burrell Collection Centre (Glasgow) with my friend, a decorated US veteran and historian called Colin Heaton, who is now a world-renowned educator and published author. All this history weighed heavily upon us, perhaps more than the iron Scottish sky. We formed part of an audience for a meeting of Glasgow City Council which was receiving representations from the Lakota Sioux, and was charged with making the final decision as to whether to repatriate the Ghost Shirt. Museum curators the world over followed the proceedings, which had the potential to set an international head of steam for the return of other peoples' artifacts, and were later reported to a Parliamentary Committee.

The chief negotiator was Marcella LeBeau from the Lakota Sioux nation, who was articulate and passionate in her desire for the return of the Shirt to her nation, so that there might be some healing for the evils of addiction and gambling in her people. She spoke as a mother and as a master of her topic, and afterwards in the reception, which I was able to attend with Colin because, like many ostensibly white American people he is part Native American, the compassion she evinced for her people made me want to cry. The chief negotiator for Glasgow Museums, who had blunted his Slavic-like voice perhaps in the hope of things to come, had no chance. At the end of the day the Council had to think of the voters of Glasgow, many of whom knew what it was like to be forgotten.

Many of the Glaswegian chattering-classes spoke of superstition, in the hope that they could use this occasion to cast aspersions on all religious sentiment. But do they not hold onto their mothers' wedding-rings? Do they not keep photographs of people who have passed away?

At the time when I struggled along the path with Colin I had walked away from my faith: but life is full of twists, turnovers and U-turns that would give a surrealist a headache. Having returned to the Roman Catholic Church, the story of the shirt's repatriation reminds me of the driving sentiment behind Nostra Aetate (the Second Vatican Council document on relations with non-Christian religions): "We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man [sic], created as he is in the image of God."

The Ghost Dance Shirt, I believe, was repatriatriated to the US in 1999, in anticipation of a museum being built specifically by the Lakota Sioux to hold it. Nothing heals you as well as feeling you've got your pride back.

It felt great to meet Mrs Le Beau's son, Richard, on the day of the decision. Choked, he told me, "it's coming home". I wish his nation and all the peoples of America well. If they figure out some way to bypass misery, I hope they tell me.

I headed home, through scenes of increasing disorder, until I became one of the forgotten among the forgotten of my city. Then one day I found the draughty old fen.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


Causing shockwaves as far as the draughty old fen, the assassination of Ms Bhutto in Pakistan is bad news, even for those of us who agree that General Musharraf's continued leadership is best for world peace. Now chaos is crowned king in a land already so chaotic that it was unable to deal with the gestation of the group that became known as the Taliban, which did not so much cross the border to take control of Afghanistan, but rather was drawn into it by political osmosis. And the symbiotic parasite of the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, gave the world 9/11 (or 11/9) and 7/7.

The world would be a different place now if NATO's nerve hadn't failed in the wake of 9/11, when it was deciding on a proportionate response to the destruction of the Twin Towers. To be sure, the towers weren't felled by nuclear or biological means, and if the burning jet-fuel that melted the iron girders supporting the structures were to be classed as a chemical weapon, it would be by a piece of lateral thinking so prodigious that it would have left a crab wondering about the next step.

The aeroplanes, however, were definitely used as weapons of mass destruction. It would have been a terrible thing to have replied in kind, but could it have left a more terrorised world than the one we now inhabit?

What if NATO had announced that the response was to be a low-yield nuclear warhead dropped on a sparsely-populated area of Afghanistan with 48-hours notice? Hopefully the authorities would have moved the population out in time for the blast, and those countries which sponsor terrorism would have been given a clear message from large swathes of their populace - that they had no wish to be turned back into stardust. Alternatively, the Taliban might have bussed civilians into the blast area, which would have given an equally devastating message to the populations of rogue states.

Whichever way, there's no doubt that civilian lives would have been lost - but the attrition may well have been both more effective and numerically less than that suffered by British and American troops, and the foreign nationals who have died alongside them while trying to return civilisation to their countries.

I got an excellent book for Christmas called What If?, subtitled Military Historians imagine what might have Been, edited by Robert Cowley, published by Pan (in Great Britain at least). If the centenary version of this is passed by the Euroland Censor, I am sure that it will include September 2001 as the greatest hinge upon which 21st-century history never turned.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sauce for the goose...

It's good to have the Excess back, but I'm still having withdrawal symptoms from the Nuntii Cantabrigienses.

The Christmas messages in the CEN were interesting. There was a message from an Anglican priest and a Catholic one, all well and good. This year there was a third one at the bottom of the page which caught the corner of my eye, and I expected it to be from a rabbi, a cleric from the religion in which the historical Jesus lived and died: He was the Jews' Christmas present to the world, and there have been several rabbis on various pauses for thought on Radio 2 during Advent.

The third message was, in fact, from an imam. He wished us all season's greetings, which was nice, but also took time to express his surprise at the amount of pagan symbols and festivals which had been subsumed into Christianity. I'd have went to the foot of our stairs, if I wasn't downstairs already. Doesn't he know the origins of the holiest place in Islam, the Ka'aba?

Still, I'm sure the gentle imam was sincere in his good wishes, and nobody said anybody was a slave of anybody else. But was the absence of a Jewish voice an oversight, or was there nobody available - or was it a manifestation of the sustained low-level anti-Semitism that exemplifies the creeping Islamicisation of the UK?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

In a draughty old midwinter

The first Christmas-related religious event of Christmas Eve was the Crib Service at the Anglican Chruch, where the Rector and Curate chose actors for the slightly deconstructed Nativity scene on the spot, which avoided scenes of stars stomping off to their trailers - and not just stars, but also shepherds, kings, inkeepers et al. Maxima and I proudly watched Minima play the inkeeper with space in the stable, while Minora sulked fashionably. All the little girls wanted to hug baby Jesus in his plastic glory while the boys stepped back. It was a pity there were no feminists of a certain outlook in the audience, I should have liked to see them spontaneously combust. Really.

We went to the RC Mass at Addenbrooke's Chapel later that evening, where many of the staff went to the Christmas vigil Mass. predominantly Philipinos. It annoys me when people grumble about "immigrants" in relation to the Philipinos, as most of them, in Addenbrooke's and environs at least, were specifically recruited from their country by the NHS and nursing-home owners.

The choir was unrehearsed but still professional. One of the songs they sang during Mass was "When a Child is Born". This surprised me somewhat - it is a wonderful. beautiful song, and my domestic Christmas would be a little diminished if it were absent from the radio: but it is not a hymn. They redeemed themselves, however, with "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" by the great hymn-writer Charles Wesley.

At the Anglican Service that night, the sense of holiness was amplified by the sense of community. Anglican communities are still small enough, because they have enough clergy - so far - to keep it so. The twin attritions of stress and time are harvesting RC priests at a rate of knots, at precisely the time when Eastern Europeans, predominantly Catholics, are flooding into the country (something we know about because the news articles, with agendas more richly layered than a WAG's wedding cake, have been bleating recently about the imminent rise in population in the UK because of the fecundity of foreigners).

But it was good to be able to kneel at altar-rails to receive a blessing during the Eucharist, albeit heartbreaking not to receive the Host while my friends were receiving it around me. May we be one as You are one. Pretty damn quick.

Stayed up late to start this blog, very enthusiastic, but discovered that I'd forgotten my tablets in the morning, naughty naughty.

Up earlier than planned, Minora and Minima had woken up to their presents. Far be it from me to say that escape to the Service in the Village was a blessed release, but by the time of my return Maxima had borne the brunt of the mania.

By the time the girlgoyles had to go to bed, Maxima's soap operas had shown scenes of everybody getting upset and depressed, so it was good to see that Britain plc was running as normal.

Frugal Dougal: an eejit abroad

I've decided that there are far too few crusty old right-wingers offending liberals on the web: cyberspace needs me.

As far as I'm aware, the term "draughty fen" was coined by Jenny Diski in New Statesman - publishing her essay was probably the only meaningful thing the troublemaking rag did.

I've decided to insert "old" into the phrase, because the memories of Tony Blair, after his beatification, bleating about Britain being a "young country" still get up my nose. Anyway, there's a lot of history in the Fens; history is about what worked, what lasted, what didn't need fixing until some eejit or other came and broke it. The Fens are old. Therefore, Madam Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to charge your glasses and toast: "Tales from a Draughty Old Fen".