If you’ve noticed the theme of Google’s home page today, you might know that eight hundred years ago, on 15th June (today in England), King John of England signed the Magna Carta. He was an unpopular king, apparently spiteful, petty and regularly placing himself above the law. He often features as a villain in tales of Robin Hood. A group of 25 barons rebelled against him, forcing negotiations which led to the signing of the Magna Carta. No other king has ever taken his name, so he’s just King John – no numbers required! Despite his contentious reputation, he is also connected to the Magna Carta and it’s significance in the history of Britain and her empire.
In short, the charter was an agreement between King John and the rebel barons, signed at Runnymede in Surrey amidst controversy related to the King’s persistent behaviour during and beyond the negotiations and signing. Among other things, the Magna Carta acknowledges that noone – even the King – is above the law. It also instituted the right to a fair trial and limited arbitrary taxation. To this day the charter is said to underpin the principles of British law, both in Britain and throughout the historical British empire. Four original copies of the charter survive; two of them at the British Library, one at Salisbury Cathedral and one at Lincoln Cathedral.
A good friend was coordinating some of Lincoln’s Magna Carta festival celebrations this weekend and I went along to volunteer. I’d never experienced behind the scenes of an arts event before and it was electrifying. We walked 15km on Saturday and another 11km yesterday, stewarding the performers who alternated in groups so that from 10am until 10pm (Saturday) and 11am until 5pm (yesterday), there was always a performance happening in the town centre. Street parades with a huge King John puppet, dancing/prancing skeletons, mice, cats, pigs, cows and dance troops, grooved to the beat of an amazing percussion band as we moved through Lincoln town centre and engaged with a very interactive street audience. This morning a school group who created a 20-metre-long scroll with ideas about the meaning of freedom, representing the basis of the Magna Carta, paraded their massive scroll through Lincoln and up the hill to Lincoln Castle, next to the Cathedral. Here, the giant King John puppet was met by a real-life King John who spoke at length to the individual students about their creation, not before asking our puppet “are you supposed to be me?”, with typical British satire! “Our” puppet even made BBC news today! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-33134971
Reading the ideas and values on the children’s scroll this morning I couldn’t help but feel that we still have a long way to go. Around the same time as we were parading through Lincoln, Prime Minister David Cameron addressed a crowd at Runnymede, including Queen Elizabeth, speaking about the Magna Carta’s relationship with modern day justice and freedom and the balance of power between the governed and governments. Yet in today’s Daily Telegraph, as a single example, headlines include health system executives “temping” for £47,000 per month (up to £600,000 per annum) in health trusts struggling to balance their books. Underneath that headline is a story about British companies only employing new applicants from top universities and schools, describing the phenomenon as a “class ceiling”.
Not to mention of course, the humanitarian crisis playing out around the world, manifesting itself in wealthy countries as a refugee crisis. The Australian government are currently facing a furore after it was alleged that they paid Indonesian people smugglers to turn their boats back! The doctrine of the Magna Carta, that justice will neither be bought, denied or delayed for anyone, is still a pipe dream, eight hundred years on, even in the English-speaking, privileged world.
Another fun British Bash I went to recently was the wedding of my friend’s niece, Hannah. She was only two when I met her and sixteen years later she traveled to Australia to live with me for three months in Alice Springs. She had just met her groom-to-be at that time, and he joined us briefly before the two of them went traveling on Australia’s east coast. So it was a special wedding. The ceremony was held on the waters of a Norfolk Broad, an absolutely beautiful rural setting.
The British Museum deserves a special mention here also. It is on a par with New York’s Metropolitan Museum, both in relation to the immense and beautiful building, as well as the monumental art and anthropology collections within. When I mentioned my visit to the British Museum to an English friend last week, I nearly fell over laughing at his observation : “How can they call it the “British” Museum? It’s really the “What-The-British-Stole-From-Other-Countries-Museum””! He has a point! They hold a lot of disputed items which have been removed from countries as far away as Australia and as disconnected from England as China.
I specifically attended the British Museum to view an Indigenous Australia exhibition which is showing until early August before it travels to Canberra later in the year. It was an informative and enjoyable exhibit, showcasing 170 previously unshown items from the museum’s permanent Indigenous Australia collection. In today’s controversial climate, with calls being made from a number of countries, including Australian indigenous groups, that items be returned to their rightful homes, this seems to me, to be a step in the right direction.
When the exhibit travels to Australia later this year, a brewing storm could well erupt as indigenous activists are keen to see many items held by international museums, returned to Australia. In 2004 the British Museum loaned some bark etchings and a ceremonial headdress originating from the Dja Dja Wurrung people of Victoria, to Museum Victoria in Melbourne. Members of the Dja Dja Wurrung attempted to seize these items via an emergency court order, accusing the British Museum of “colonial arrogance”. This seizure attempt led to new anti-seizure legislation in Australia, ensuring the return of items loaned to Australian institutions from overseas.
Last week Chris and I hung out in medi-evil Lewes, in East Sussex, for the day. I highly recommend this as a day trip from London, although England is brimming with medi-evil charm and the options for day trips to the middle ages are countless. The train from St Pancras took me directly to Brighton where Chris picked me up and we laughed our way to and through Lewes and the South Downs before Chinese takeaway at his home near my old student nurse residence.
Two Sundays ago I went for a family lunch with Laura and her extended family, all of whom I’ve now known for 25 years. Her daughter is my god daughter, herself now an honours law graduate working for a company in the financial district. A few days later Laura and I had lunch with my old boss Bianca, who I was secretary to 26 years ago when the three of us first met at our offices at 1 London Bridge. As a 20 year old, my boss Bianca was a 35 year old management consultant with a Cambridge University degree. She took me out for lunch at an expensive French restaurant on my 21st birthday and I remember feeling very out of place. Despite this, and the fact that I deserted her when another consultant offered to send me to Turkey for a month on a project which needed a typist, she was only ever very kind and sincere towards me. Since then she has survived a cancer diagnosis and now works in consultancy offering advice and support to cancer sufferers, about their rights as employees. I had never thought about cancer as a condition which attracts workplace discrimination. We reconnected because Laura is now nearing the end of treatment via an oncologist on Harley St and she is facing difficulties with her employer. Proving how small this world is, she encountered Bianca at a seminar on workplace discrimination, about a week before my arrival back in the UK! Bianca took us both to a fancy Italian restaurant at Leadenhall Market, in the financial district, where we talked non-stop like old friends and not an ounce of youthful intimidation was felt.
With so many reconnections to my previous life, it will be more than a little difficult to leave when I finally force myself to book a ticket out of Europe. The time is approaching, but not before a few more stories of England and France unfold. I probably need to try and blog more often, so that my posts are not such a hodge-podge as this one seems to be!