Member Musing

Britannia Waives the Rules

By Phil Whitfield

Headline writing is harder than you might imagine. Andy Webster’s over the i’s Proms story left the rest of Fleet Street banjaxed.

‘Browsing a chum’s family ancestry former Quarry Bank teacher John Ashcroft, known to many Proprietors, says a catchy title’s needed.

‘Such as?’

‘Fuchs Off.’

‘Legendary,’ says John.

‘Unfortunately a myth,’ says I. Dr Fuchs’ trek across Antarctica in 1958 was first reported in the Manchester Guardian as Savage Cold Could Halt Fuchs.

‘Neither was it bomb spy Klaus Fuchs’ return to East Germany, as taught by some journalism profs.’

Musician, raconteur and humourist Fritz Spiegel pinned the blame on the Liverpool Daily Post for Fuchs Off Again.

Terse writers latch on to triads of facts: St. Paul’s faith, hope and charity; the Trinity’s Father, Son and Holy Ghost; Hindus’ Trimurti: Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (transformer); Buddhism’s Wheel of Life (Bhavachakra): avoiding greed and hate.

Jews believe they can experience the presence of God in study, worship and prayer. Buddhists follow the Threefold Path of ethics, meditation, and wisdom; Plato’s philosophy encompasses intellect, noble affections and lower passions.

We inhabit a place measured by length, width and height; our time by hours, minutes and seconds.

Nowadays I seldom leave home without my personal trident: mask, keys and card, just as earlier adventurers used a triangle to explore the globe.

On this day in the Athenaeum Newsroom I join a trio by the fireplace, joshing about Northern Rhodesia of all places. Where else does conversation drift into history, geography and ethnicity so effortlessly?

‘What was it called before the British Empire named it?’ asks one. Zimbabwe? An ancient city in the country’s south-east.

I’m joined by a fellow member of the Athenaeum Literature Group who recalls my admiration for the trilogy Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh’s novel set against Britain’s callous scheme to balance the Anglo-Chinese trade gap caused by the Victorians’ addiction to tea and silk with an inhumane opium culture.

In 1700 the British East India Company’s exports of opium from Bengal and Madras to China exceeded 200 chests of opium. By 1800 they’d risen to 40,000 and by 1850 leapt to 70,000 chests, 4,500 long tons, corresponding to total global opium production in the decade surrounding the year 2000.

All of which led to the Opium Wars, the ceding of Hong Kong and the consequent Chinese distain for most things British, echoed in the region’s semiautonomous shemozzle today.

On another day Proprietor Steve McLoughlin brings me up to date on his investigation of distant relatives, the Greens of Grasmere, lost in the fog on the way back from market.

Their story was captured in three books: Heroine of the Lakelands, Recollections of Grasmere and The Greens of Grasmere; the latter written bythe Greens’ neighbour William Wordsworth’s sister Dorothy.

Several of her brother’s poems can be traced back to Dorothy’s journal; the most famous example being William Wordsworth’s Daffodils, an echo of Dorothy’s journal entry on the 15th April 1802 describing a dancing, laughing company of daffodils

They tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake.

Two years later William wrote:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Three cheers for the Athenaeum’s knowledge, conviviality and hospitality.