Bad Willie’s Crime

20 Sep

Every family has its black sheep and in our family, it is William Cunningham Cunninghame Graham of Gartmore and Finlaystone (1775 – 1845), who is known by a number of soubriquets: “Bad Willie”, “The Runaway Laird” and “The Swindler”.

Born into a wealthy family and given every advantage, William was described as “a person of considerable accomplishments” who “although he possessed a love for the fine arts, it was in the more imitative and mechanical ones that he excelled”, being “without rival at turning the lathe”. And, indeed, he left some very fine ivory pieces, including a chess set with which my grandfather and I used to play our coffee-house games.

In his youth, William fell in with the Prince Regent’s set becoming an inveterate gambler.  He squandered the family art collection and the estates he had inherited (hence, “Bad Willie”) and by 1828 he had been forced to flee to the continent to escape his creditors (earning him the epithet of “Runaway Laird”).  But it is how he came to be known as “The Swindler” that is the most interesting part of his story.

Having lived briefly in Brussels and Tours, Bad Willie moved to Florence in 1832 with his second wife, Janet, their son Alexander and their daughters Susan and Margaret.  He was joined a couple of years later by his stepson, Allan George Bogle, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who had been on half-pay for about two years.

Bad Willie made his living in Florence by mechanically reproducing the rare engravings of artists such as Rafael Morghen, Domenichino and Guido Reni with great genius by use of a machine of his own design.  It was there that he fatefully made the acquaintance of the Marquis de Bourbel, a schemer, who had married an English heiress, and was now plotting to swindle the bankers Glyn & Co out of £1,000,000 by means of forged letters of credit.

Bad Willie was clearly at the heart of the plot, as was his stepson, whom he helped to enter into a partnership with two respected gentlemen of commerce to form a new bank “Bogle, Kerritch & Co, whose business rapidly grew to be highly profitable thanks to Mr Kerritch’s business contacts.  In 1839, Bad Willie introduced the Marquis de Bourbel to Bogle, Kerritch & Co as an investor.  But that was not his main contribution to the plot.  It was Bad Willie’s particular skill and his tracing machine that De Bourbel wanted so as to mechanically forge to perfection the signatures of Glyn, Hallifax, Mills and Co for the faked letters of credit.

The plot moved on apace when De Bourbel went to London where he encountered an old friend, another gambler of good family, the Baron d’ Arjuzon, who gladly joined the scheme.  Together they managed to procure the same paper Glyn & Co used for their letters of credit and then in January 1840 obtained a genuine letter of credit from them from the strong box of Bogle Kerritch & Co. of which Bogle was the custodian.

Another of the band, calling himself Comte de Paindry, tested his forged letter of credit by presenting it at Bogle, Kerritch & Co and received £200.  However, he returned the money the following day claiming that a shopkeeper had cast doubt on the authenticity of the letter.  He stated that rather than have his honourable name brought into question he would rather cancel the transaction, which the bank did, noting on the letter that it had been done at “the request of the bearer.”  This had the benefit of allaying suspicion and reassuring other lenders.

Once they had their forged letters, 6 of the conspirators travelled in pairs to different countries under assumed names to start presenting their letters on the same day, 19th April.  At first, all went well and they were able to draw large sums, but as is often the case, they got greedy.  D’Arjuzon successfully withdrew £750 in Brussels, but his companion, Perry (alias Ireland), was refused a further £750 in Antwerp the following day as the banker was suspicious that another advance was needed so soon and contacted the police.  Perry was arrested on the Ostend Ferry fleeing the country, which news caused the rest of the gang to decamp in great haste.

Nonetheless, they had managed to defraud various banks in Italy, Belgium, France and the Rhineland of the vast sum of £10,700 6s in just 6 days.  Surprisingly, none of the principal conspirators suffered any serious consequence.  Bad Willie’s family were not so fortunate.

The Times had published a letter on 26th May from one of their correspondents, Joseph Lawson, in which the fraudsters had been named, including Bad Willie, his son Alexander and his stepson, Allan Bogle.

Bogle sued Lawson for defamation of character.  However, the evidence of his involvement was such that the jury awarded him the paltry damages of just one farthing, and, as the judge refused to certify, he had to bear all of his legal costs.  His reputation and finances ruined, he died 10th April, 1843 in Westminster.

According to The Times, Alexander, who was described as a “debauched and dissolute young man”, was living under an assumed name in France “in great want and misery”, when he died of an infectious disease in a nursing home near Paris, less than a year after the scandal.  He was just 23 years of age.

Bad Willie was arrested in Florence – probably having returned to try and destroy his machine –  was expelled from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and banned from ever returning.  He eventually made his way back to London, where he died some five years later without ever facing any punishment.

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A Forgotten Scot called Don Roberto

24 May

It strikes me that, for her size, Scotland has produced more than her share of remarkable people and, thus, it is only to be expected that some of them are occasionally overlooked.

One such person is the man who was variously been described as “Scotland’s last and finest Renaissance man”, “The People’s Laird”, “The uncrowned King of Scotland”, “ a prince and paladin of our people”, “a writer’s writer”, the “Prince of Preface Writers” and “Godfather of the SNP”; a man celebrated in art and literature, whose friends from the worlds of politics, art and literature reads like a Who’s Who of his day. I am of course speaking of the author and politician Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham.

Don Roberto thinking

Robert was born in London on 24th May, 1852.  He was a quarter Spanish (his maternal grandmother was from a Grandee family) and three quarters Scots, with descent from the Earls of Glencairn and the Earls of Monteith (the latter being descendants of Robert II), while through his paternal grandmother, he could claim Plantagenet ancestry.  His father was heir to three estates stretching from the Trossachs through Dunbartonshire and across the Clyde to Renfrewshire – estates that Robert was to see lost during his lifetime.

Educated at Harrow, where he excelled at sports, and then in Brussels, where he acquired good French in addition to his English and Spanish, Robert travelled to Argentina to try and make his fortune cattle ranching.  It did not work out and Robert was captured by rebel gauchos and forced to ride with them until he managed to escape.  It was during this time that he earned the nickname, Don Roberto, which his friends were to use for the rest of his life.

Following a brief visit home, Robert returned to South America and travelled over land through Entre Rios to Paraguay where he hoped to make a fortune from yerba mate. When this too failed, he tried selling Argentinean horses to the Brazilian army only to find that the price had dropped.  These times, however, were to prove a rich source of inspiration for his future writings.

The story of how he met his wife is probably as apocryphal as her supposed origin (half-French, half-Chilean) and the pseudonym (Gabrielle La Balmondière) which she was to use for the rest of her life, the truth only finally emerging 80 years after her death.  She was, in fact, plain Caroline Horsfall – the daughter of a Yorkshire country Doctor – who ran away to go on the stage.  In rebellion against her father and grandfather’s strict evangelicalism, Carrie converted to Roman Catholicism.  She was to later research and write a widely acclaimed two volume biography of St Teresa of Avila.

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Caroline Stansfield Horsfall (alias Gabriela La Balmondeiére)

The romanticised version, as they told it, was that they met in Paris, when Robert was having trouble controlling a lively horse and came close to knocking her over.  On dismounting to apologise, he inadvertently spoke to her in Spanish.  To his surprise and delight she responded in the same language and they chatted and soon, having fallen in love, they decided to elope to London.  The only sure fact is that they married quietly in the Strand Registry Office on 24th October, 1878, the bride giving a false age as well as the assumed name.

Immediately afterwards, the couple left to travel through France and Germany before travelling to the USA and settling in Texas, where – apart from a spell in Mexico City (to which they travelled by wagon train), where Robert taught fencing and Gabrielle French and guitar – they remained until his father’s death in 1883, but still without making that ever elusive fortune.

Upon his return Robert became interested in politics – both his mother and grandmother were from leading Whig families, as had been his own Graham ancestors – and he stood for North-West Lanarkshire as a Liberal, though with a socialist programme which included:

 

Though a charismatic speaker known for his acerbic wit and ability to deal with hecklers, he was soundly trounced by his Conservative opponent in 1885.  Undaunted, Robert contested the seat again the following year and was elected by just 35 votes.  Frequently suspended for refusing to conform to the conventions of the House, he was the first ever MP to be suspended for swearing: the word was “damn”.

He championed the working class throughout and fought for the right for free speech and public meeting, getting himself knocked on the head and arrested, along with John Burns, while attempting to speak at the 1887 Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square.  Despite being defended by Herbert Asquith, he was sentenced to six weeks in HMP Pentonville.  He was a co-founder with Keir Hardy of the Scottish Labour Party, serving as its first President, a move which was to bring his parliamentary career to an end when he failed to win the seat as a Labour candidate for Glasgow Camlachie in the 1892 election.

Now that he was free from both the financial burden and time consuming demands of being an MP, he set his hand to writing.  At first it was a series of articles for the Saturday Review, but this was soon followed by a travel book Notes on the District of Menteith (1895) and, with Gabriela, a volume of short sketches entitled Father Archangel of Scotland (1898)He went on to write, over the next 40 years, 15 books of sketches, 2 travel books (one of which related his adventures in 1898 when trying to reach the forbidden Moroccan city of Tarudant while disguised as a Turkish doctor), 3 histories of the Spanish conquest, 7 biographies, innumerable prefaces for the books of others, as well as numerous articles for a variety of publications.

The new century was to bring double tragedy.  First, in 1901, Robert was forced by his insurmountable debts to sell the principal family estate at Gartmore, to Sir Charles Cayzer, Bt.  The estate had come to the family in the 17th century and Robert keenly felt its loss and saw it as a betrayal of his forebears. Then in 1906, his beloved wife Gabrielle, who had been a chain-smoker since their days in Texas, died in Hendaye, France, at the age of just 48.  She was buried on the Island of Inchmahome in the Lake of Menteith.  Robert, with the help of a family retainer, dug her grave himself.  Her funeral was conducted by her brother, William Horsfall, a high-church Anglican priest.  Robert never remarried, though he was often accompanied in his later years by a Mrs Elizabeth Dummet.

Though a pacifist, Robert lost no time in trying to join up as a rough rider at the outbreak of the First World War.  He was 62 years old and was naturally turned down.  Undaunted he went to talk to his friends in the War Office, and was first put in charge of a section of the Remount, and later with the rank of brevet Colonel was made president of a commission to purchase horses in the Argentine for the British Army and so spent the next eleven months riding with the gauchos as he had done in his youth.  On his return voyage to England, his ship was torpedoed by a U-boat in the English Channel, but both he and the horses all managed to get ashore safely.  However, he was not home long as he was promptly sent back to South America in January 1917 to buy beef cattle in Colombia.

In later, life he became more deeply involved in Scottish Home Rule, and chaired the meeting that led to the formation of the National Party of Scotland in 1928.  With the merger of the Scottish Party with the NPS to form the SNP in 1934, Cunninghame Graham was chosen to be its first President.  He continued to speak at rallies and summer picnics up until the year before his death.

In defiance of his doctor’s warnings that he was too ill to travel, Robert insisted on visiting Argentina in early 1936.  On his arrival he was fêted and had hardly a moment to himself.  Some of the last images of him are at Radio Splendid in Buenos Aires and a photo of him writing to Robert Morley in the home of his friend W H Hudson at Quilmes, following which he contracted bronchitis.

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Don Roberto with Fernando Pozzo at Radio Splendid, Buenos Aires, March 1936

Despite early signs that he was recovering, the bronchitis turned into pneumonia and he died in the Plaza Hotel, Buenos Aires, on March 20th 1936, aged 83.  His body lay in state in the Casa del Teatro where crowds came to pay their respects as did the President of the Argentine Republic.  The funeral procession to the docks was long and included the two horses Tchiffely, his friend and biographer, had ridden from Buenos Aires to Washington DC.  He had planned to return home on the Almeda Star on March 26th, and so he did.

He was buried alongside his wife in the ruined chancel of the Priory of Inchmahome with a rough cut stone that bears his Argentine cattle brand.  A year later a memorial to him was unveiled at Castlehill in Dumbarton (later moved to Gartmore).  It contained stones from Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay – the countries of his youthful adventures, a medallion by Alexander Proudfoot RSA and the inscription:

Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham 1852-1936 – Famous Author – Traveller and Horseman – Patriotic Scot and Citizen of the World – As Betokened by the Stones above. Died in Argentina, interred in Inchamahome – He Was a Master of Life – A King Among Men.

[Originally written and posted on the Cunninghame Graham Society Facebook page       on 24th May, 2012 – WRBCG.]

Mayhem from the Snap Dragon

21 Apr

In my open letter to Theresa May, last July, I told her that not calling an election prior to signing Article 50 would be “rank hypocrisy” given the hen-pecking she gave Gordon Brown.  She could have done so last autumn, but she wasn’t doing so well in the polls and neither she nor her ministers had any Brexit plan to put in a manifesto; she could have called one in the spring, when she finally had some kind of plan (“No deal is better than a bad deal”) but she didn’t.  Instead she spent the autumn and winter fighting against Parliamentary Democracy.

Now, having already invoked Article 50, she suddenly wants an election – not for the sake of the country but to save her majority.  Just when she and her gang of four Brexiteers should be starting the Brexit negotiations, she wants to put everything on hold while she seeks a mandate, which she claimed to already have from the referendum, for what is essentially a pig-in-a-poke.  This smacks of hypocrisy given her rejection of a second Scottish Independence Referendum on the grounds that the “terms of Brexit are not yet known”.

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(Letter to The Guardian, 20/04/2017)

So why the rush?

It appears that 24 Conservative MPs are going to be prosecuted by the DPP for electoral fraud, which would automatically disbar them from the House, instantly demolishing her majority and forcing her to seek a coalition to continue with her “hard Brexit”.

Combine this with the polls showing her party over 20 points ahead of Labour (which has less to do with Corbyn than with the relentless right wing press campaign against him that suggests that the right perceive him as a real threat, which must be neutralised at all cost; and the fifth column within his own party that constantly attempt to undermine his leadership), and she sees a political opportunity.  So, despite the 5 year fixed term rule that her party introduced in 2011 (and for which she voted) to prevent just this sort of political opportunism, she calls a snap election which Labour limply agree to (despite the very real chance of annihilation at the polls).  Yet more lies and hypocrisy from May!

The election may well hasten the end of the Union, which she, like her predecesor (Cameron), claims to be so “precious” (echoes of Gollum?) but against which her every manoeuvre militates against its continuance.  It is certain that Scotland will return a majority of SNP and pro-Independence MPs to Westminster again and the Scottish Parliament has ratified Sturgeon’s mandate for a second Independence Referendum when the terms of Brexit are clearer (ie 2018-19), which given the indications of ineptitude of the Gang of Four Brexiters charged by May to draw up policy and negotiate the UK’s withdrawal from the EU (in footballing terms, Paris Saint-Germaine vs Southport!), is likely to lead to a vote for independence.

There is another aspect to holding a snap election, which few have commented on.  Should she win with an increased majority, she has increased her period of office by a further 2 years post-Brexit, which will give her time to sell off the NHS to US health care corporations, dismantle human rights and workers’ rights before she has to face the electorate again, but with the advantage of the gerrymandered constituencies (gift of the Liberal Democrats) that favour her party and, thus, her continuing in office irrespective of her competence.

So once again, it is party before country; a manifesto that puts profit before people; a nostalgic Little Englander, dreaming of long faded glories, attitude to Brexit;  and the celebration of hypocrisy, mendacity and avarice as Party virtues.

An Open letter to Theresa May

14 Jul

First, congratulations on your appointment as Prime Minister (albeit by default); I can only hope you make a better fist of it than did your predecessor, who is generally rated the worst in over 100 years.

Your first speech as PM, in front of Nº 10 Downing Street, was impressive.  However, you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe a word of your rhetoric which is so cognitively dissonant with your track record in government and more consistent with what you so aptly dubbed “the Nasty Party”.  Austerity is hurting everybody except for the elite who fund your party.  You talked about uniting the country; it will require more than platitudes.

I like that you are rewarding Leave campaigners with senior cabinet posts as it will force them to try and clean up the mess they have created.  I’m sure that Davis and Johnson will both enjoy explaining to the EU and the rest of the world why they should trust them after they deliberately deceived the British electorate with a campaign of misinformation and downright lies.  While I’m sure you also believe that this will bring healing to party divisions, I’m not convinced that it will be anything more than the usual papering over the cracks.

You claim you want to heal the nation of the divisions caused by the referendum, yet you seem hell-bent on invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and starting Brexit despite that

  1. the referendum was advisory not binding;
  2. Scotland and Northern Ireland voted more convincingly to remain than either England and Wales did to leave;
  3. the nationally combined results gave the winning side such a slim margin that a petition calling for a second referendum received more than 4 million signatures in little over two weeks and must now be debated by Parliament.

 

I recognise there is no easy way out of this, though I suggest that allowing Parliament to debate and vote on whether or not to invoke Article 50 would be less detrimental and divisive than for you, as PM, and your Cabinet to do so through the power of Royal Prerogative.

As a “One Nation Conservative”, you have nothing to offer Scotland as we know all too well that “one Nation” means England and that when we are called British it is merely to bestow “honorary Englishness” on us, while treating Scotland at best as a province, and at worst as a colony, of Greater England.  Your precious Union has, as it always has since 1707, less to do with unity than with domination and exploitation.

Furthermore, you have no mandate for Scotland.  You actually have even less of a one than your predecessor claimed!  Though like him, you have but one MP out of 59 in Scotland, unlike him, you do not even have an electoral mandate having been selected by just 60% of MPs from your party, a party which received votes from less than 25% of the UK electorate (just 11% of the Scottish electorate).  Yet, you presume to dictate to Nicola Sturgeon, a First Minister who has a clear mandate from the Scots as her party holds 54* out 59 Scottish seats at Westminster and 63 (more than twice as many as your party) out of 129 in the Scottish Parliament  with 46.5% of the constituency votes cast.  Given that leaving the EU is not in Scotland’s interests and that the Scottish electorate voted convincingly to remain, independence is rapidly becoming the only viable option should you press ahead with Brexit.

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Given your vociferous criticism that Gordon Brown had no mandate to govern, you will, of course, be calling a General Election at the earliest opportunity and certainly before invoking Article 50.  Not to do so would be rank hypocrisy as well as suggesting that (in your own words) you are “running scared of the people’s verdict”.  After all given the current shambolic state of the Labour Party, what have you got to lose?

Finally, when Boris Johnson was elected Mayor of London, seeing the writing on the wall, I got out of the UK at the earliest opportunity and I have not seen anything that would make me regret that decision.  Now  you are asking me (and other emigrants to the EU) to choose between a star filled sky (the EU flag) and a blood-stained butchers’ apron (UK flag) – for me it is a no-brainer; I am a European and I choose the EU (flawed as it is) even if that means renouncing my UKGB citizenship to do so.

*56 SNP MPs were returned in May 2015 but 2 of them have currently resigned the Whip, though they continue to vote with the party.

Reflections on Brexit

7 Jul

 

Now that a fortnight has passed, I’ve had time to calm down, reflect and analyse the monumental Tory Party omnishambles called Brexit, and so here are my views.

What is becoming abundantly clear is that the Leave campaign not only did not expect to win but didn’t actually want to – as is made glaringly obvious by the fact that they did not have any plan following a Brexit win. Cameron, was confident enough of a Remain win that he didn’t even bother to have a ‘Plan B’ for the worst case scenario.

It appears that what they were hoping for was a very slim Remain majority (as Farage demonstrated by his rant at the close of polling), which could be used to call for a vote of No Confidence in David Cameron, triggering a leadership challenge that would install Boris Johnson as PM. Thus, it was never really about the EU, but about fending off UKIP at the 2015 General Election and who should lead the Tory Party (a beauty contest between repugnant and repulsive).

While the Remain campaign tried a re-run of Project Fear (seemingly without realising that there was no one behind whom David Cameron’s personal unpopularity could be hidden or that, unlike in Scotland in 2014, they were having to contend with a hostile press), they hardly covered themselves with glory in terms of honesty or openness. However, the Leave campaign, slogans over substance, have been accused of lying to the electorate “on an industrial scale” – misrepresentations which the Leave leaders all renounced or distanced themselves from within 24 hours of winning.

Though Leave narrowly won in England and Wales, Remain won comfortably in Northern Ireland, convincingly in Scotland & London and devastatingly in Gibraltar. While Unionists love to harp on about the divisiveness of the Scottish Independence Referendum (and never more so than now, when a second one is increasingly on the cards), they are strangely silent about the divisiveness of the EU Referendum. And divisive it has been, with a 500% increase in race-hate incidents; the potential break-up of the UK (which some Leave campaigners like Melanie Phillips see as a price worth paying for English sovereignty); divisions in England between North and South; and Wales showing Bregret, having, too late, changed their mind!

Now the architects of this debacle have all fled the field. First to fall on his sword was the Prime Minister, David Cameron, whose Cammiekazi resignation sunk Boris Johnson’s leadership challenge hopes as he, knowing how necessary the EU is to the UK’s banking sector and trade (see his quote on the EU from Feb 2016!), would not want to be the one to invoke Article 50 (mind you, he was helped out of his dilemma by his back-stabbing pal, Michael Gove). Nigel Farage, having openly incited xenophobia, steps down as leader of UKIP, not for the reasons he gave, but because his party has become an irrelevance now that its sole aim has been achieved. One wonders who the BBC will find to replace him as their favourite bigot at large.

And as for the rest of the “retro-nationals” (as Juncker has described them), IDS, Priti Patel, Lexit have all gone into hiding, while the also-rans Gove, Fox and Leadsom are squabbling over BoJo’s fallen sword, as the country looks on with increasing dis-May.

Then we have Labour. First, there is Lexit – funded entirely by rich Tories and the Tory (UKIP just being Europhobic Tories on steroids) led Brexit campaign – showing the usual arrogant, top-down, we-know-best campaign style so beloved of New Labour (despite its disastrous fallout in Scotland).

If that were not bad enough, instead of capitalising on Tory disarray, the Blairites decide to try and execute a farcical “chicken coup” that was so inept that a primary school class could have done better. What makes it even more ridiculously pathetic is that they had set up Angela Eagle’s leadership website some 10 days prior to the Referendum and briefed the Tory press about their cabinet resignation plans ahead of time.

The wonderfully expendable Angela Eagle was to be the stalking horse to be sacrificed in a leadership contest against Jeremy Corbyn (who refused to stand down), despite the 172 long knives and Rupert Murdoch’s urging people to join Labour to get rid of Corbyn (a plan so half-witted as to be risible – folk are joining Labour in increasing numbers just to vote for him!), the conspirators all meekly crawled back into Jeremy’s Shadow Cabinet when their supposed coup de maître suffer a coup de grâce.

And so the country lurches on through uncertainty; the pound and markets fluctuating and inward investment  frozen until the Tories have chosen a new leader; the Loyal Opposition progress from indulging in kindergarten politicking; and, should a government  ever get round to invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty instead of irritating the EU (not the best strategy to get the best deal for the Untied Kingdom), perhaps the process of untangling 40 years of EU membership can begin; and plans for what a post-Brexit Britain might look like as the island fortress of England sails off to an imaginary past somewhere to the west of Iceland.

The Label Fell Off

3 Mar

Recently, following a criticism about “expats living in warm countries meddling in British politics that no longer affect them“, I have been reflecting on the labels used to describe those living outwith their own countries.

Let’s start by examining the term ‘expat’ (expatriate) which was used in such an obviously denigratory sense by the critic.

The term “ex-pat”, which is only applied to folk from the UK (or former predominantly white colonies) who are living abroad, has a casual arrogance about it that hint at colonialist and racist undertones.  It typically refers to those living abroad long term who intend to return to their homeland at some point (often unspecified) in the future; or, as is so often the case in Spain, folk who have a home in both the host country and their country of origin, between which they alternate according to season and/or family ties.  They almost invariably fail to integrate with the local culture, often cannot speak the language, and only associate with other ex-pats.

Unfortunately, for I am sure that they are lovely people, the expats I have encountered here in Spain almost all adhere to a nauseating British stereotype, which was already well out of fashion in England in my infancy.  Given their intention to return to their country of origin at some point in the future, their interesed  in the current politics of their homeland is both pertinent and permissible (given that they can continue to vote for the first 15 years of their residence abroad – a privilege which the Tories would like to make lifelong) and should be encouraged rather than curtailed.

Although I now eschew the label ‘expat’, I have been one in the past. I was an expat all the while I was living in England (some 35 years) – something only Scots are fully likely to understand – never feeling settled or really at home there and always harbouring a secret longing to return home to Scotland. It is bewildering, given the much vaunted myth of the heterogeneity of the UK that I feel far more at home living in Spain than I ever did living in England!

Moving on to migrant, which is a term used to describe a person who moves abroad for reasons of work, which I did not when I left in 2008. In fact, I was unemployed for the first few months I was in Spain, having given up a good job (and turned down another offer of work) in London in order to emigrate. Yet, I have to also confess to having been a migrant; first, in 1980, when I moved from Sussex to Belfast in search of work, and again, following the completion of my bachelors degree, when I was willing to migrate to any part of the country for work, but ended up migrating to London because of my ex-wife’s PhD.

So, if I am not any longer an expat or a migrant, what labels are apposite?

It would be more apt to call me a partial émigré than either expat or migrant, as part of the reason I fled the Benighted Kingdom (as Cammie, Clegg & Co have made it) was to escape just that political eventuality. The continuance of a virtually unfettered Tory reign of terror against the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable in British society while lining the insatiable pockets of their ultra-wealthy pals, combined with the government’s rising xenophobia, is one of the greatest deterrents to ever returning to the land of my birth, where they have but negligible electoral support. Yet, when all is said and done, émigré (even if just partial) is too flash and fussy for me.

My personal choice would be for the simplest descriptions; either ‘immigrant’ or ‘emigrant’ both of which are felicitous to my circumstance. I am not ashamed to be an immigrant, despite its pejorative connotations for the small-minded. It is, after all, a factual description as I have immigrated to Spain; but I am equally comfortable with the term ’emigrant’, given the long tradition of emigration from Scotland to all parts of the globe; I am a Scottish emigrant who has chosen to permanently live in Spain.

So, when relabelling this particular person, please stick to the straight talking terms immigrant and emigrant.

The Myth of Santa Claus

23 Dec

Let’s start by stating a simple fact: Santa Claus is an entirely American invention and cultural export which has been popularised through American Literature, Hollywood film and advertising (eg Coca-Cola™).

The modern Santa Claus has nothing to do with the Dutch Sinterklass (Santa Claus coming from low German) and little to do with the much older Father Christmas tradition. Most of Santa Claus’ attributes were contrived from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St Nicholas” (a hotchpotch of largely unrelated anthropological data).

Yet, the popularity of Santa Claus owes as much to politics (the desire to reduce English cultural influences following Independence) and the national spirit of consumerism as it does to the schmaltz of Hollywood Christmas films and Moore’s poem.

If we contrast Sinterklass (St Nicolas) with Santa Claus, though both are said to bring gifts to children (as do the Three Kings in Mediterranean countries), they are completely different.

Sinterklass is a bishop (with a basis in real history), who supposedly lives in Spain whence he arrives on a steamship; he rides through the streets on a white horse during the day, and is aided by a black servant Zwarte Piet; he distributes his gifts on 6th December (the feast day of St Nicolas).

Santa Claus is a magical being with no historical basis, who supposedly lives at the North Pole, where he is aided by an army of elves; Santa rides a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer during the night of Christmas Eve and, mimicking Father Christmas, he distributes his gifts on 24th December.

Likewise, despite the much more ancient Father Christmas having been assimilated into the modern Santa Claus as though they were one and the same, contrasting Father Christmas’  original form with that of Santa Claus highlights significant differences between them.

Father Christmas was a personification of Christmas who was traditionally associated with adult revelry and drinking (showing his older pagan origins); with beneficence of feudal landlords to their tenants; and, later, with charitable giving to the poor. He had absolutely nothing to do with children or gift giving.

Santa Claus, who is seen as being not so much the personification of Christmas as of the “magic of Christmas”, is entirely associated with gift giving, and especially gift giving to children through the filling of their Christmas stockings. Some organisations (eg the Salvation Army, Rotary Club) dress their street collectors in Santa outfits in the run up to Christmas in an attempt to increase giving.

So what we have, in our time, is a Santa Claus who is a corrupted amalgamation of much older traditions, moulded by materialism and forged by infantile fantasy.

Santa – an anagram of Satan – only encourages selfish greed and (ever more elaborate) lying. His purpose, guised as a generous, harmless old man, is to divert attention away from the Christ Child and the mystery of the Incarnation.  Yet, without Christ there can be no Christ´s mass, just a celebration of the Winter Solstice, in which the rebirth of the sun is substituted for the birth of God’s only Son, with overindulgence and the accumulation of often wholly unnecessary possessions being the order of the day.