Monday 8 February 2016
Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.


A writer, blogger, and historian, born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, now based in London. read more
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Letter to the Editor

SIPPING a postprandial Coke last week while flipping through the Irish Times, my wandering eye was drawn towards that newspaper’s report on the Madrid congress of the European People’s Party, the grouping of Christian-democratic and centre-right political parties across the European continent (Madrid congress provides forum for delegates from EU centre-right parties, Suzanne Lynch, Irish Times, 22 October 2015). The correspondent first elucidates some of the purpose of these pan-European gatherings before going on to summarise a number of the issues raised. She ends, however, on a bit of a downer by describing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “lurch to the far right”, evidenced by his “clampdown on media and internet freedoms, apparent support for the death penalty and hardline approach to refugees”.

This breezy litany of crimes is little more than shoddy journalism. The alleged “clampdown” refers to proposed internet legislation which has been withdrawn while other media laws requiring balance reflect the U.S. broadcasting rules rescinded under Ronald Reagan. The “apparent support” for capital punishment is another damp squib: Orbán called for it to be debated as intellectual speculation — a canny “dog-whistle” political move to gain votes without requiring any legislative action or serious challenge to the E.U. ban on the death penalty. (It was abolished in Hungary at the fall of communism and there are absolutely positively no government plans to bring it back.)

The refugees allegation was the most interesting, however. As it happened, I had attended a small meeting of British MPs and Hungarian foreign ministry officials the day before Ms Lynch’s report was printed. The Welsh MP David Davies gave his first-hand account of visiting the refugee camps near the Hungarian-Serb border and reported that refugees were being well-looked-after, with the quality of the facilities on the whole at least as good as when he was in the British Army, often better. An advisor from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry briefed us on the general situation, which has calmed down immensely since the Serb border has been more or less closed. He noted that broadcast media across the continent showed footage of Budapest police’s treatment of migrants gathered at the railway station without pointing out that the police were responding to violent attacks from a small minority of migrants.

Proprotionate self-defence for officers of the law is the norm across Europe, but this has mattered little when it comes to depictions of Hungary: the bien-pensant official groupthink is that anything Hungary does is wrong, so long as Fidesz is in power. Luckily some voices of dissent have emerged. The novelist Tibor Fischer — no conservative — described in The Guardian the media treatment of Hungary as “hysterical” and “ignorant nonsense”.

Anyhow, I felt obliged to send off my “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” to the Irish Times and it’s very good of their letters staff to print a diverging (if abridged) opinion. The last letter to any editor I succeeded in having printed was in the Times Literary Supplement in 2008 about P.G. Wodehouse’s career in banking at H.S.B.C. Who knows what the next shall bring…

October 27, 2015 11:42 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

In Old Rio

The city’s administrative and electoral units were its parishes, and the tallest buildings were all church towers. The day of the colonial port began with the cannon shot announcing the beginning of harbour commerce, at half past five.

This was followed by the opening of shops and homes of merchants and tradesmen. Early mass was signalled by church bells, and it was church bells which marked the day’s turn as they sounded the day’s regular prayers as the sun rose and set. …

One of the first, common sights in the city was that of Catholic brotherhoods seeking alms in the streets and shops, or, perhaps, a lady, humbly barefoot, seeking to fulfil a vow by begging alms with a heavy silver tray covered with rich cloth — accompanied by her servant, of course.

— Jeffrey D. Needell, The Party of Order:
The Conservatives, the State, and Slavery in the Brazilian Monarchy, 1831-1871

August 25, 2015 9:45 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Evolution of a Napoleonic Parliament

The Salle des états in the Palais du Louvre

Among the numerous rituals of the ordinary visitor’s pilgrimage to Paris — trip up the Eiffel Tower, lunch at a tourist-trap café — braving the teeming hordes in the Louvre to view da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ ranks near the top. What very few of the camera-toting hordes realise is that they are shuffling through the room that once housed France’s parliament. The history of the Palais du Louvre is long, exceptional, and varied.

Originally built as a stern castle in the 1190s, the Louvre’s secure reputation led Louis IX to house the royal treasury there from the mid-thirteenth century. Charles V enlarged it in the fifteenth century to become a royal residence, while François Ier brought the grandeur of the Renaissance to the Louvre — as well as acquiring ‘La Gioconda’. In 1793, amidst the revolutionary tumult, part of the palace was opened to the public as the Musée du Louvre, but the Louvre has always housed a variety of institutions — the Ministry of Finance didn’t move out until 1983.

Napoleon III took as his official residence the Tuileries Palace which the Louvre was slowly enlarged towards over the centuries to incorporate. The Emperor needed a parliament chamber close at hand so he could easily address joint sittings of the Senate and the Corps législatif (as the lower house was called during the Second Empire) which opened the parliamentary year. By doing so at his residence, the Bonaparte emperor was following the example left by his kingly Bourbon predecessor Louis XVIII. (more…)

March 4, 2014 9:05 am | Link | 4 Comments »

Les jours heureux du Liban

Being an omnivore of nations I’m not short of favourite countries, but the Lebanon is towards the top of my list. I’ve spent some weeks there each summer for the past few years and we’re hoping to return this July (God willing). Friday night B. invited a few of us round for an impromptu supper and in the kitchen I happened to mention that I had met his ambassador the day before — the Lebanese ambassador.

This provoked a lament on B’s part as he relayed the history of his family’s service in the diplomatic corps and of Lebanon in the old days: black-tie dinners, summer in the mountains, the casinos and the glamour of the Beirut he was born too late to experience.

It’s become a cliché for foreigners to cite Beirut’s former glory as ‘the Paris of the Orient’ and Lebanon ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Civil war wreaked its devastation on the country but its revival in more recent years has still been remarkable. Everything, of course, is exceptionally tenuous, but despite the clouds of uncertainty there remains a lot for which to be grateful.

We both wished, however, that today’s ordinary culture in Lebanon was a bit more informed by the style of the past. While old buildings are often restored, far too many of the new buildings are horrendously bland or offensively modern. Perhaps most unfortunately, a large proportion of Lebanon’s women — already endowed with a natural beauty unparalleled in the Middle East — are too mimicking of American styles: nosejobs and dyed blonde hair.

For my part, however, the conversation provoked a little dip into the photographic archives, seeking out some images of Lebanon in its halcyon days. (more…)

January 27, 2014 1:20 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

A Bunny Rampant

The carto-heraldic creativity of MacDonald Gill

If anything, I am a lover of maps, and as a cartophile it’s a fine thing that I spend half my life in South Kensington. Here you will find two of the best antiquarian map merchants around: the Map House on Beauchamp Place and Robert Frew across from the Oratory and right next door to Orsini. Milling about in front of church after mass today I received a tip-off from a friend suggesting I have a look at the window of Robert Frew, as there was a London Underground map with coats of arms of mostly abolished boroughs.

“Sounds like the sort of thing MacDonald Gill would do,” I said, and sure enough upon investigating earlier tonight it is the work of that inventive designer (and brother of Eric Gill).

The most splendid and ridiculous aspect is that in the central place among the municipal heraldry was a putative coat of arms MacDonald Gill thought up for the Underground: a rabbit rampant. Indeed, given the twin characteristics of being speedy and digging the earth, the rabbit is a perfect animal avatar for the London Underground to adopt. Don’t go looking for this design anywhere in the rolls of Garter King of Arms, though: it’s merely the invention of the creative mind of master map-maker MacDonald Gill.

January 5, 2014 11:20 pm | Link | 2 Comments »


Ghost town of the Namib

NAMIBIA IS A LAND that fascinates me, which is perhaps surprising. This arid land is sparsely populated — just 6.6 people per square mile — but its deserts are believed to be the oldest in the world. Those who haven’t experienced its harsh beauty may wonder why this land has attracted its odd and varied collection of peoples, but here the Ovambo, the Kavango, the Herero, the Afrikaner, the German, and the Bushman all call home.

I have already written somewhat about Lüderitz and beyond it the Diaz Point. As you speed down the B4 from Keetmanshoop to Lüderitz — a four-hour drive passing through just the one small village of Aus — you can turn off just before you reach the coastal town and pay a visit to the eerily ghost town of Kolmanskop: Kolmannskuppe in the original German. (more…)

December 13, 2013 3:15 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

‘Bon Voyage’

Bon Voyage
Jean-Paul Rappeneau
2003, France
1 hour 54 minutes

Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s ‘Bon Voyage’ (2003) is one of those superb films that come around all too rarely. It manages to balance perfectly all the elements of drama, comedy, action, and romance, set in a convincing historical context.

In 1940, Viviane Denvert (played by Isabelle Adjani) is a fickle, self-promoting film star who enlists her childhood friend, Frédéric Auger (Grégori Derangère), to extract herself from a compromising situation. As war creeps upon France, Auger finds himself behind bars for Viviane’s crime, but in the confusion of battle he manages to escape with the seasoned ne’erdowell Raoul (Yvan Attal). All of Paris is fleeing the German advance, and on the train to Bordeaux the two come across physics student Camille (Virginie Ledoyen) who helps them reach the western city by car when the train is stopped on the line.

In Bordeaux we come across government minister Jean-Étienne Beaufort, Viviane’s lover whom she uses to get Frédéric out of a sticky situation resulting from her own manipulation of him. Meanwhile, with all of Paris in Bordeaux, Viviane comes across another ex-paramour, Alex Winckler (Peter Coyote), keeping an unnatural interest in the affairs of the government, while the physics student Camille and her mentor Professor Kopolski are harbouring an important cargo they are determined must not fall into the hands of the Germans.

For fear of spoilers, that is all I will say about the plot, but it all comes packaged in a score by Gabriel Yared, better known for his scoring of ‘The English Patient’, ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’, and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s ‘Das Leben der Anderen’. The film was nominated for eight César awards in 2004 — best costumes, best director, best editing, best film, best original score, best sound editing, best supporting actor, and best writing — while it won three Césars that year for photography, best set design, and, for Grégori Derangère, best promising actor.


November 20, 2013 9:08 am | Link | 2 Comments »

Some Aspects of the Fall of the Fourth Republic

(Only interesting, I’m afraid, to those reasonably acquainted with the situation of France in May 1958)

• When the Gouvernement Général was stormed during the 13 May protest, the enterprising businessmen of Algiers took the opportunity to destroy all the police files relating to “economic crime” (smuggling, tax-dodging, and the like).

• The French-Algerian instigators of the military rebellion led by Salan didn’t know what to make of him when he was first appointed to Algeria so they decided, just to be on the safe side, to assassinate him on his first day on the job. Salan survived the bazooka attack on his office but his ADC was killed. The general later became the only socialist freemason to lead a right-wing terror group (the OAS).

• Once the Algiers rebellion commenced and travel between Algeria and metropolitan France was cut, many supporting figures made their way across the Mediterranean by whatever means at hand. Soustelle managed to escape his police guards and get to Algiers via a secretly chartered Swiss plane, but the more romantically inclined Roger Frey — later Minister of the Interior — first tried to get to Algiers on the actor Errol Flynn’s yacht. It didn’t pan out, and instead he was forced to hire the boat of an English ex-naval officer turned smuggler.

• The man in charge of wiretapping French telephones was unsure which side would emerge on top so cautiously refrained from giving the government the full picture of the information his wiretaps revealed.

• When Corsica was seized by the rebels, Moch, the Interior Minister, decided to send in the elite of the police force, the CRS. He was afraid, however, that military transport planes would fly them directly to Algeria, so he was forced to commission Air France planes instead. Upon landing in Corsica, the entire CRS contingent was met by the rebel parachute regiment and immediately defected to the rebellion.

• So widespread was the reluctance to support the government against the military rebels that even the meteorologists send false warnings of storms in the Mediterranean in the hopes of keeping the French Navy from moving against the rebels in Algiers.

• The air force was particularly keen for de Gaulle to take power, and took to flying planes in a Cross of Lorraine formation, as well as sending troop transport planes to Algeria in case they would be needed to invade mainland France.

• Regional military commanders in France varied in their loyalty to the government and sympathy for the rebels. One commander is alleged to have told the regional prefect “M. le Préfet, I am not here to defend your préfecture, but to take it.” Other prefects warned the cabinet that any orders for the police to arrest those suspected of aiding the rebellion might result in the prefects instead being arrested themselves.

• The government had sometimes ordered firemen to unleash their water hoses against rioters in the past. As popular support for the cabinet faded away, the head of the fire brigade felt compelled to inform ministers that his men would not take part in any anti-riot measures but would merely put out any fires that erupted. “And,” he said, referring to the home of France’s National Assembly, “in the Palais Bourbon, they wouldn’t bother.”

• As Philip Williams reports in his article “How the Fourth Republic Died”:

At that night’s cabinet Pleven summed up: “We are the legal government, but what do we govern? The Minister for Algeria cannot enter Algeria. The Minister for the Sahara cannot go to the Sahara. The Minister of Information can only censor the press. The Minister of the Interior has no control over the police. The Minister of Defence is not obeyed by the army.” Said a left-wing Gaullist in the Assembly, “You are not abandoning power — it has abandoned you.”

June 14, 2013 1:40 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

African Independence

The nifty ‘Tumblr’ site Afrographique, which Africa-related facts and statistics in a visually appealing and accessible way, created a handy chart of all the countries of Africa and the years they became independent. The chart correctly gives Zimbabwe’s date of independence as 1965, even though it had a brief return to colonial status for a few months in 1979-1980. Yet it lists Ethiopia’s “independence” year as 1941, despite the fact that Ethiopia has arguably been independent forever.

The Empire of Ethiopia was founded in 1137 with the ascent of the Zagwe dynasty (responsible for the country’s world-famous rock-hewn churches), and while it was occupied by the Kingdom of Italy (whose monarch usurped the title ‘Emperor of Abyssinia’) from 1936 to 1941 with a continued insurgency and a lack of abdication by the legitimate emperor, Haile Selassie, there’s a strong case that Ethiopia retained her independence throughout but merely suffered a temporary foreign occupation.

Despite this arguable discrepancy it’s not nearly so bad as Africa Report, which published a chart claiming that South Africa gained its independence in 1994. Pray tell, what colonial power ran South Africa before 1994? South Africa was unified and gained dominion status in 1910, and Afrographique goes for the much safer independence date of 1931 when the Statute of Westminster was adopted asserting the sovereignty of the dominions of the British Empire. Some Afrikaners claim South Africa did not become independent until the Republic was declared in 1961, but this is neither legally nor constitutionally the case as the country as an internationally recognised sovereign independent nation merely changed its form of government from a monarchy to a republic.

Afrographique has a number of other interesting posts, including African Nobel Prize winners (nine of them South African, across medicine, peace, and literature) and the ten richest Africans (fellow Matie Johann Rupert is #4).

August 7, 2012 3:04 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

The Historical Sale at Adam’s

800 Years: Irish Political, Literary, and Military History – 18 April 2012

THE ANCIENT PRACTICE of lèche-vitrine is one hallowed by time and tradition. I remember one December day I had a lunch appointment with a friend who worked at the late, lamented Anglo-Irish Bank on Stephen’s Green in Dublin and, being early, I nipped a few doors down to the auction house Adam’s to engage in a bit of what I like to call thing-avarice (which the Germans probably have a word for). We do enjoy taking the occasional peek round the Dublin auction houses to see what’s what, and to examine the cabinet of curiosities that come out from ancient houses and rotting flats and appear in these bright places where commerce and refinement play their strange little waltz. When it comes down to it, though, it’s really just about having nice things — the sort of stuff you want lying around the house inexplicably.

Anyhow, the historical auction at Adam’s is coming up on 18 April and sure enough their senior rival Whyte’s is having a similar sale just a few days later on 21 April. We’ll only look at Adam’s here — if we considered Whyte’s as well, we’d be here all day. (more…)

April 9, 2012 12:45 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Cardinal Manning

Over at Reluctant Sinner, Dylan Parry has an excellent post on Cardinal Manning, the second man to serve as Archbishop of Westminster. Manning is all too often forgotten, despite being one of the most widely loved and respected men of his generation. His funeral, famously, was the largest ever known in the Victorian era. Besides his wisdom at the helm of England’s most prominent see, the good cardinal’s greatest legacy might be his influence on Rerum Novarum, the great social encyclical of Leo XIII. Dylan is planning on writing further on the subject of Cardinal Manning, giving us something to look forward to. (more…)

January 16, 2012 7:50 pm | Link | No Comments »

A Breath of Fresh, Northern Air

The Dorchester Review Proves That Canada is Still Thinking

This summer I received an email from my friend Bruce Patterson, all-around nice guy and Deputy Chief Herald of Canada, informing me of a new historical and literary review just founded called the Dorchester Review. Intrigued, I obtained a copy and was pleasantly enthralled with what I found. The first issue of the Dorchester Review contained a variety of thoughtful articles on fascinating subjects. I spent an entire morning sitting comfortably on a café sofa and imbibing the intelligent and enlightening contents of the magazine.

The editors did issue a brief statement explaining the genesis of their new review. They had me at their Pieperian first sentence: “The Dorchester Review is founded on the belief that leisure is the basis of culture.”

Just as no one can live without pleasure, no civilized life can be sustained without recourse to that tranquillity in which critical articles and book reviews may be profitably enjoyed. The wisdom and perspective that flow from history, biography, and fiction are essential to the good life. It is not merely that “the record of what men have done in the past and how they have done it is the chief positive guide to present action,” as Belloc put it. Action can be dangerous if not preceded by contemplation that begins in recollection.

The endeavour of reviewing books, the editors acknowledge, has too often been reduced either to brief puff-pieces in the Saturday insert of the local paper or more high-minded but uncritical praise of like-minded academics for one another. “There are too few critical reviews published today, particularly in Canada, and almost none translated from francophone journals for English readers.” As someone with a lifelong love of Quebec, I am relieved that finally there is a review in my own language willing to take Quebec seriously.

“At the Review,” the editors continue, “we shall praise the good books and assail the bad.”

They also forthrightly explain their rejection of the narrow nationalist perspective that has been on the ascendant in Canada throughout the past century, especially since the foundation of The Canadian Forum. The Dorchester Review effectively throws Canada’s doors open to a more reasoned understanding of the country’s relationship with Europe (Britain and France particularly), America, the Commonwealth, and the world.

But the Dorchester Review is not a publication just for Canadians. There is a great deal of Canada in it, but also a great deal of the world. The second issue (just printed) features articles with titles such as “Why Marx is Still (Mostly) Wrong”, “1789: The First Counter-Revolutionaries”, “What Sort of Autocrats Were the Popes?”, “Can Vichy France Be Defended?”, and “The Scots Fight Back” (the last in response to an article in the first issue: “How the English Invented the Scots”).

Contributing editor Chris Champion is interviewed by CBC Radio here. A number of the contributors (Conrad Black, Paul Hollander, etc.) readers of The New Criterion will already be familiar with. The latest number also includes a book review by this, your humble and obedient scribe.

Head over to to find out more or subscribe.

December 4, 2011 9:00 pm | Link | No Comments »

Valle Adurni on Catholic France

The blogger ‘Pastor in Valle’, who writes over at his blog Valle Adurni, recently composed a splendid overview of Catholic France basically from the baptism of Clovis onwards. Of course, it’s a very general overview, but Pastor has rather skillfully managed to manage to pack a lot into relatively few words.

It’s in five sections: here are the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.

September 11, 2011 8:00 pm | Link | No Comments »

A Rioplatense Kingdom?

New book explores the monarchic projects of the River Plate, 1808–1825

A book recently published in Buenos Aires sheds new light on the difficult transition period between the Spanish Empire on the River Plate and the foundation of the Argentine Republic. The launch party for Bernado Lozier Almazán’s Proyectos monárquicos en el Río de la Plata 1808-1825. Los reyes que no fueron (“Monarchic projects in the River Plate 1808–1825: The kings who weren’t”) was held recently in the Quinta ‘Los Ombúes’, home of the municipal library, museum, and archives of San Isidro, the city in the Provincia de Buenos Aires known as Argentina’s ‘Rugby Capital’.

Proyectos monárquicos highlights the forgotten truth that most of the Argentine ‘patriots’ — San Martín, Belgrano, and Alvear among them — were monarchist, not republican. Proposals involving the courts of Spain, Portugal, France, and even England were proffered, and there was even an interesting proposal to marry a European prince to an Incan princess and offer him the throne of the Río de la Plata. (more…)

September 8, 2011 8:30 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Cape Town’s ‘Nazi’ Street to be Renamed

Oswald Pirow Street will rechristened after Dr. Christiaan Barnard

The city of Cape Town has recently effected a small number of street name changes decided at the end of last year. The N2 route as it heads into the centre of the city, currently called Eastern Boulevard, will be renamed Nelson Mandela Boulevard. The open square between the opera house and the city offices will be renamed Albert Luthuli Place. Most significantly, Oswald Pirow Street on the Cape Town foreshore will be renamed Christiaan Barnard Street.

The renaming of streets and other places in South Africa has proved a controversial and unsettling task. Many streets named after leading figures associated with the 1948-1990 apartheid regime remain. In 2001, the New National Party (NNP) mayor of Cape Town, Peter Marais, attempted to rename Adderley Street and Wale Street after Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk respectively. But Marais’s plan provoked a surprising public backlash, as well as opposition-for-opposition’s sake from the local ANC. The proposed ‘Nelson Mandela Avenue’ had already been renamed once: originally Heerengracht, the grateful citizens of Cape Town rechristened it Adderley Street in 1850, as a token of thanks to Charles Bowyer Adderley MP (later 1st Baron Norton) for his successful campaign against turning the Cape into a penal colony. (more…)

July 25, 2011 8:02 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

Senator Eugene McCarthy: A Kirkian Anecdote

Russell Kirk, the great St Andrean and American man of letters, relates this anecdote in his article “Will American Caesars Arise?” (Modern Age, Summer 1989):

The most interestingly complex of all recent aspirants to the presidency, [Senator Eugene] McCarthy obdurately called himself a liberal during years when that appellation was sinking swiftly in popular favour – although he abjured all forms of liberalism earlier than Franklin Roosevelt’s. (During the past few years, as he now remarks, he has employed the word ‘‘liberal’’ as an adjective merely.) In his political theories, actually, McCarthy has been a conservative: He declared long ago that Edmund Burke was his political mentor, and no one has more warmly praised Tocqueville. He has read seriously and written intelligently. In the White House – per impossibile – he might have turned the most imaginatively conservative of Presidents.

Or perhaps not. Once upon a time I had an assistant who was a graphoanalyst, an expert on handwriting. Having examined a specimen of Senator McCarthy’s handwriting, my assistant pronounced him rebellious, a hard master, and desirous of power. A touch of Caesar even in Caesar’s adversary? However that may be, McCarthy’s only considerable assertion of power was his unseating of President Johnson by running a good second in the New Hampshire primary of 1968.

A congenital no-sayer, Eugene McCarthy never ran with the hounds. He was candid and witty always. He and I first met as debaters before a large audience, in Boston. After this exchange, sponsored by the Paulist Fathers, a reception was held for us. Up to Senator McCarthy came a zealous young Paulist, inquiring, “Senator McCarthy, don’t you think that Jack Kennedy is the finest president this nation ever has had?” (This occurred during the first year of the Kennedy administration.)

“No,” said McCarthy, unsmiling.

Although taken aback, the Paulist returned to the charge: “But surely you agree, Senator, that President Kennedy has given this nation a new hope, a new vigor, a sense of moving forward toward great things?”

“No,” said Eugene McCarthy.

The Paulist persisted: “But of course you’ll agree with me when I say, Senator, that the Kennedy family have brought to our life a culture, a refinement, a meaningfulness, that we have not known before.”

“No,” said Eugene McCarthy.

“But – but Senator McCarthy, surely Jack Kennedy is a very nice man personally?”

Eugene McCarthy turned his back upon the Paulist and slowly walked away. He knew how to say no, he was not ensnared by cliché and slogan, and he had a poet’s attachment to truth.

June 20, 2011 9:00 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Nobility and Dignity at the Café Valois

Readers of this blog who don’t know me might be under the false impression that I suffer from nostalgia: in fact, I am quite comfortable with the twenty-first century and am glad I was born when I was.

One of my underlying intentions, however, is to remember that there is something we have lost, and we should recognise and admit it as a loss rather than blindly worshipping at the altar of the god Progress. I challenge anyone to read this story and deny that we today have lost something profoundly good.

The story is related by Auguste de Belloy and was published in the nineteenth-century periodical L’Illustration under the title ‘Customs of the Café Valois’.

Farewell, O good old days! Farewell, O affable visage of the proprietor and smiling and respectful reception of the waiters! Farewell, O solemn entries of the Café Valois’ dignified customs, which people were curious to see. Such was the case with the Knight Commander Odoard de La Fere’s arrival.

At exactly noon, the canon of the Palais-Royal heralded his arrival. He would appear on the threshold and pause for a moment to sweep the salon with an affable and self-assured gaze as someone eager to practice a longtime custom. His right hand pressing firmly on the white and blue porcelain handle of his cane, he threw his old faded brown cape over his shoulder with a swing of his left hand. No one ever snickered at this, since not even the most elegant mantle with golden fleur-de-lys embroidery was ever thrown back with a more distinguished movement.

In 1789 the former steward of the Prince of Conti ran the Café Valois; it was rather devoid of political colour and local flavor at that time.

Among the frequenters of the place, standing out by his noble manners, stately demeanor and wooden leg, was the Chevalier de Lautrec. He was from the second line of that family, an old brigadier of the king’s army, a Knight of Malta, of Saint Louis, of Saint Maurice and of Saint Lazare.

The Chevalier de Lautrec was a middle-aged man who lived a modest, though very dignified life on his small pension. Though he rarely appeared in society, he could be seen most often at the Palais Royal and the Café Valois. He was a very cultured mind and an assiduous reader of all the newspapers.

Deprived of his pension overnight, it was never known what the Chevalier de Lautrec lived on at a time when it was so difficult to live, and so easy to die. But here we have something that sheds at least a dim light on this mystery.

One morning after finishing a very modest breakfast in the Café Valois, as was his custom, the Chevalier de Lautrec rose from his table, chatted with all naturalness with the proprietress, who stood behind a counter, bid good-day to the master of the café with a slight gesture of the eyes, and walked out majestically saying nothing about the bill. (more…)

May 29, 2011 8:12 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Antipopes We Have Known

The University of St Andrews is commencing the celebrations of its 600th anniversary, as the institution was founded in stages between 1410, when teaching started, and 1413, when a bull was issued recognising it as a university by Pedro de Luna, an antipope who styled himself Benedict XIII. Yesterday I attended a fascinating lecture by Dr. John Rao — From the Triple Papacy to the Council of Constance — as part of the 2010–2011 lecture series organised by the Roman Forum.

Boy was Benedict a baddie! Even the council he called passed resolutions condemning him and the cardinals he appointed turned against him. He ended his days maintaining his schismatic claim, holed in island fortress of Peñiscola. The day before he died, he appointed four cardinals, who elected de Luna’s friend Gil Sanchez Muñoz y Carbón as Clement VIII. Or rather, three of the cardinals did while the fourth — Jean Carrier, the archdeacon of Rodez — wasn’t present, so he went and single-handedly elected his sacristan Bernard Garnier as pope, who took the name Benedict XIV.

Garnier was permanently in hiding, and his location was only ever known to Carrier. B-14 did manage to choose four cardinals of his own, and on the antipope’s death they elected Carrier pope, who was inconveniently captured and imprisoned by his rival antipope, Clement VIII. Oddly, having just succeeded the supposed Benedict XIV, Carrier chose to use the name and style Benedict XIV also. A novel by Jean Raspail (L’Anneau du pêcheur) depicts a line of anti-papal successors to the two Benedict XIVs.

As a lecturer, Dr. Rao is both informative and entertaining, and I’d encourage anyone interested to attend the remaining lectures in this year’s series. There’s always wine on offers and little things to nibble on, with a box for generous donations to be made towards the cost of the program. The next lecture is Martin V and the Troubled Return to Rome — this week is the 593rd anniversary of that pope’s election, as it happens.

Also, Dr. David Allen White, retired Professor of World Literature at the United States Naval Academy, returns to New York in December for the Syllabus of Errors Weekend, on the subject of Charles Dickens and the Evils of Modernity. I went to last year’s Syllabus of Errors weekend, and Professor White is entrancingly engaging, a veritable font of knowledge.

November 8, 2010 9:00 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

Imperial Mexico

The Forgotten Monarchs that Shaped a Great Nation

THE NEW WORLD has such a republican reputation these days. Even though there remain thirteen monarchies in the Americas, concentrated in the Caribbean, there are only three monarchs between them (all, curiously, women: Elizabeth II, Beatrix, and Margrethe II). But it’s usually forgotten that the Americas have had two great empires of their own: the Empire of Brazil in South America and the Empire of Mexico in North America.

Napoleon’s Peninsular War in Spain had caused quite a ruckus in the Spanish Americas, where liberals had seized the opportunity to wage long, rebellious wars of independence with fluctuating levels of popular support. In Mexico, two of the rebel generals, Agustín de Iturbide and Vicente Guerrero composed a plan to change the balance of power in the Spanish empire as a whole while simultaneously securing Mexican independence. The three main aims of the ‘Plan of Iguala’ were: 1) Catholicism as the established religion, 2) The independence of Mexico, and 3) The end of legal distinctions between the races; summed up as “Religión, Independencia, y Unión”.

But the larger scheme of the Plan was to convince King Ferdinand VII to move to Mexico and become Emperor of Mexico, shifting the center of power in the Spanish empire from Madrid to Mexico City. If Ferdinand would not accept, then the crown would be offered to his brother and the rest of his family down the line until someone accepted, or if even that failed then to a member of another European dynasty. (more…)

October 29, 2010 1:16 pm | Link | 14 Comments »

Zuma: Government Will Mediatise Six of South Africa’s Monarchies

Six of South Africa’s thirteen monarchies are to be mediatised, the country’s president announced in July. A report by the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims of the South African government concluded that the six dynasties had been raised from chiefdoms to monarchies by the apartheid government for purely political reasons and suggested that their government funding and recognition be ended. President Zuma said the aim of the move was to correct “the wrongs of the past” but that no one was being accused of collaboration with the apartheid authorities. The six incumbent rulers will retain their styles and dignities while their successors will revert to the rank of princely chiefs.

“We have been waiting for this decision for a long time,” Khosi Fhumulani Kutama, the Chairman of the National House of Traditional Leaders told the media. “It is important that people accept it not only for the institution of traditional leadership but for the whole country.”

But the indications so far are that the six monarchies will take the government to court in an attempt to forestall the demotion.

Up to this point, the most significant spate of mediatisation was during the Napoleonic era, when Talleyrand arranged the demotion and reorganisation of conquered German lands.

September 7, 2010 12:30 pm | Link | 4 Comments »
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