Brother Ivo is undoubtedly a “Christmas person”, much preferring the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord to merely that of the turning of the year. Granted, New Years Eve has a jollity and optimism about it amongst the young, but for those of older years, it tends towards the rather mawkish and sentimental.
Our Scottish cousins have a different view, and may they have a thoroughly good time of it, but it is not for Brother Ivo.
Notwithstanding this, the turn of the year traditionally challenges us to focus upon some improving notion and the one that currently draws Brother Ivo’s thoughts is that of tolerance.
The context of this is the recent furore created by some rather over privileged students at Oriel College Oxford who wish to to do away with a statue of Cecil Rhodes.
Brother Ivo is no expert on Rhodes, but it is undeniably the fact that he left significant funds for the benefit of future generations and they now seem now seem intent on repaying his generosity with priggish ingratitude.
Many other philanthropists had enemies. Andrew Carnegie, for example, endowed libraries across the world but was so hated for his tough line with Trades Unions, that the anarchist Alexander Berkman attempted to kill him. Plainly philanthropy never did equate to perfect morality.
The problem with Rhodes is that the controversy is intergenerational. The new generation feels entitled to judge out of time, out of context , and all too often out of ignorance.
This is a pity because we need to be reminded of our history, and to have important figures set within it like landmarks by which we orientate our way through its twists and turns. The present controversy appears to turn upon this generations lack of tolerance towards those of another time with which it currently feels out of tune. There is much moral vanity on display and no great subtlety of understanding.
It is not a uniquely British phenomenon, indeed there appears to be a rather desperate ” me too” element involved: if New Orleans can reject Robert E Lee (forgetting his role in post American Civil War healing) , then we too must show ourselves no less diligent in repudiating historic wrongs.
Pondering the question of such memorials set Brother Ivo to reflect upon some odd quasi-juxtapositions.
Parliament Square / Whitehall sees memorials to both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Past generations appear to have lived comfortably enough with that. The fact we do so does us credit. The most difficult of disputes to resolve are those where each side “has a point”.
The Embankment has both William Tyndale and Thomas Moore memorialised. One wonders if the passing crowds ever reflect upon how remarkable that equality of honour might appear to those who fought over religion, in past eras,
In Parliament Square we have comparatively recently raised a statue to Nelson Mandela without having felt the need to evict that of Jan Smuts with whom he might have had have several differences of opinion. Happily for the General, most Oxford students won’t know who he is, so he will probably hold his place.
In the same vicinity we have Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill who were far from close friends or political soul mates, indeed a recent book about them bore the sub title “The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire”.
Indian sub-continental rivalries are further memorialised with statues of Nehru and Jinnah almost within hailing distance of each other around the Law Courts, Nehru outside Kings College, and Jinnah over the road in Lincoln Inn Fields.
As far as Brother Ivo recalls, there is no enthusiasm from the Human Rights lobby to remove the statue of Che Guevara from its place on the Embankment despite the jolly homophobe’s penchant for killing political prisoners. Similarly, there is no apparent pressure to rename the two Stalin Avenues in Chatham and Colchester.
We have not yet called to mind the bust of Karl Marx, set appropriately enough in a cemetery, but no doubt were we to do so, Diane Abbott would argue that he did more good than harm, though her accountancy methods might attract some scrutiny on that point.
Such benevolence to the heroes of the Left continues. There is a plan to erect a statue of Friedrich Engels’ beard at Salford University, ( yes, seriously ) presumably not to far from the BBC so it will have plenty of visitors.
Looking at the plan, Brother Ivo could not help but mischievously note that they have not felt it necessary to depict space for a brain, but actually there is more fun to be had than that .
The spokesman for the design group responsible, Engine, declared that “We aren’t interested in making a “hero on horseback” which is something Engels would have been horrified by”.
Except he probably wouldn’t.
Engles declared himself never happier than when on horseback – riding to hounds! He once wrote to Marx “On Saturday I went out fox hunting – seven hours in the saddle….That sort of thing always keeps me in a state of devilish excitement for several days: its the greatest physical pleasure I know…. I was in at the death”.
It is this kind of dichotomy that delights the English. it is probably why we are content to have a degree of incoherence in our historical statuary. We take what we like and put up with what we don’t – and there is a lesson for many in this world.
We are happy to celebrate, in death, aspects of character of those who were bitter opponents in life. We know there is nothing pure or logical in history and that Marx was wrong – there is no historical determinism. We got where we are in a muddled way but somehow we manage ok without continually tearing each other apart. It is this penchant for tolerance that so exasperates the ideologues.
Tolerant peoples are better than “black and white” in their judgements and thank God for that.
It was this acknowledgement of complexity that enabled Mandela and De Klerk to find a way forwards in South Africa – though sadly less broad minds may yet put an end to the hope.
Some of us recall the bonhomie that unexpectedly broke out between the late Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams after they had concluded the Northern Ireland Peace process.
The ability to avoid stiff necked principle is a virtue that has to be learned with age and experience. It is plainly not a common one amongst the self styled elite of younger generation which seems certain it is right about everything, not least where historic statuary is concerned.
In the interests of fostering an ability to compromise. perhaps the way forward for Oriel College, is to offer a historic compromise. They should offer to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue together with all the finance with which he endowed the University, upon condition that it is replaced by a mounted statue of Friedrich Engels riding to hounds.
such a solution would simultaneously be a triumph of the Left, an affirmation of the importance of truthfulness in historic matters, a tribute to an indispensible feature of the English countryside and a reminder that few of us are as predictable as some would have it believed.
On that quirky note, may you have a Happy and idiosyncratic New Year