Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Lion in Winter

In Chinon in the Loire Valley, amongst the stones and mist and turrets and walls as deep as your arm is long, the family gathered. They came across the seas and down the mountains, through the grassed valleys and out of thickly laden forests. They came, not because they wanted to traverse their empire, but because they had been summoned.

The old King sat in his castle with his hated Queen and he called his children, both through biology and through kinship, to his side. Even though they all loathed each other with equal venom they meekly did as they were bid and arrived at the castle gates not in preparation for a summer war, but in readiness for a winter peace.

The House of Plantagent was full once again that twelfth century December.

Henry the Second had kicked and snarled his way to claim the inheritance of his mother. He bullied his way to the kingdom of England, the Dukedom of Normandy, the Counties of Blois and Maine and Anjou when that still wasn’t enough he married into the Counties of Aquitaine and Gascony. The Plantagent empire, the first English empire, in 1183 stretched leisurely all the way down from Hadrian’s wall to the English channel, leapt the sea in a single bound, grappled with most of Northern France and then snaked its lazy way down to the foothills of the Pyrenees and the summer sunshine of the Mediterranean.

For Eleanor of Aquitaine, his older wife, this was on second queenship, having already divorced the King of France after rumours of infidelity and incest abroad on the second crusade. Henry didn’t care about her age or her history. After all it wasn’t as though he loved anything about her other than the titles she carried and the land, wealth and soldiers they brought with them. It had been a strategic marriage, for Eleanor didn’t care about Henry save for the armies he commanded and the slight it struck Louis when not only did she remarry but also squashed his allegations of her infertile nature by bearing four hulking sons.

The boys: Henry the younger, Richard who would late be accused of being lion-hearted, Geoffrey the schemer and poor little John. All were the image of their father, all turned against he who had sired them not only in stroppy teenage portcullis slamming but on the battlefield. All of them were too easily manipulated by their mother. All of them were the same, yet all of them despised the other, were jealous of the others privileges, almost as greatly as they couldn’t stand their parents. Even Henry, the eldest and the heir to the sole actual crown, the boy whom old King Henry envisaged starting a mighty dynasty which through crafty marriage and brutal swordplay could one day rule the entire known world.

At least, that was, until he inconveniently died too young.

So they gathered alongside the strapling new King of France, the young Philip Augustus who was only hanging around either because he was infatuated with the beast of a man that was Richard (and maybe they did share a touch too much under a starry sky one spring night, or maybe they didn’t) or just to annoy his own father. Still, the old King played by Peter O’Toole, the Queen by Katharine Hepburn and the kids – Richard by Anthony Hopkins, Philip by Timothy Dalton, Geoffrey and John by nobodies. Because this might be history, it might be true, but it’s also the Lion in Winter. It’s a good film. I’d lend it to you, but I suspect I might be the only person still using a VCR.

The TV was down too low to hear what he’s saying, but there he was once again – good ol’Gordie Brown, the sunshine of my days, for once without his sidekick Beagle Balls. He stood behind a lectern, his jowls flapped and in front of his hands that no doubt so sweatily gripped the fake wood, a placard read: ‘A future fair for all.’

And again he managed to disappoint me (or perhaps blame should be directed at Dougie Alexander, who’s supposedly campaign managing this seemingly protracted suicide note and of whom I had expected better after listened to him speak under the dome of St Paul’s last Autumn). It’s such an empty meaningless phrase. Or grammatically incorrect, at the very least. Shouldn’t it say ‘A future (comma, hyphen, colon, some sort of fucking punctuation) fair for all’? That might actually give it some sense beyond conjuring jaded images of cranky merry-go-rounds with crackly accordion music which never end until someone puts a bullet in our brains.

Still, at least it’s better than butter-wouldn’t-melt-Davie’s campaign slogan of ‘ ‘. Or possibly, ‘hey, what-ho, at least I’m not Gordon! Who’s for a pimms on my yacht? White properly educated chaps only, of course - the sort of people who cry to the papers about possibly having to stand up and smell the same air as the hopeless on the same train to Darlington.’ It’s not very catchy, is it?

Then there’s the other one. You know: Cleggy? The one wearing the flat cap and the dark raincoat and stumbling incoherently around Yorkshire? The one who doesn’t say much at all in case it’s a dead-heat in May and he and his cohort are suddenly thrust into a position of responsibility for the first time in almost a century.

And so, the morning after Gordie’s crime against English slogan launch, the Observer, the Observer of all places – one of the ones that supposed to be on his side – voiced accusations of bullying at number Ten. By Monday morning a charity mysteriously endorsed by Davie and his polo club chums broke ranks and confidence and confirmed that it has had ‘numerous’ emails and calls (‘well, two actually’) from staff in Downing Street about being bullied. Shamelessly, the charity’s Chief Executive refused to concede that her move was political, claiming that she acted solely out of concern for the bullied in question. Those who are now, presumably, completely exposed for a fully fledged round of fires of hell being released, of Chinese burns and of having their homework flushed down the toilet, by the grouchy dour monster that lives pretty darn close to the peak of our government.

‘And where are you in all this?’ asked the cute blonde in the bar with the view the of city yawing, exposing its electric silver teeth as it fleed across the horizon. ‘When do I get to see the real you step out from behind the front?’

I paused. Hmm, perceptive, I thought. But, sssh, whisper it, I’m actually swamped at real work pretending I have a clue what’s going on, hoping to just muddle my way out the far side as per usual. So, a lot of this is taking place in my head. Or if not in my head, then in the space between my fingers and the keyboard.

I find bullying such an emotive word, such a tricky subject to handle. In one sense I am on the side of the bullied, for when I was child I frequently came home from school bruised and bloodied both inside and out. I suffered seemingly endless taunts with nothing being left sacred. Mocked and relentlessly ridiculed for my weight, my stance, my size, my posture, my mass, my intelligence, my bulk, my lack of height, my density, my disinterest in sports, my inappropriate bulges, my interest, my utter fatness.

‘…I’m mean you,’ my friend said back in the summer, within the context of the conversation, as she lit a cigarette ‘you don’t have to worry about these things, being naturally so thin.’

‘Hah,’ I replied choking on my umpteenth glass of wine.

‘In that case,’ she leant forward and exhaled slowly, ‘you hide it very well.’

Okay, I’ve kept off the weight I shed through the heartbreak diet ™ and even piled on a bit of muscle, but that’s not the point: I’m still overly conscious of my size, not least from being reminded of it on a daily basis as a child.

But then, you know, kids are kids and what’s the harm in a little joking, a little laughing at your absurdities. It toughens you up, doesn’t it? It steels you for adulthood. I’m not exactly known for holding back a quip, cruel or otherwise, if I think it’ll get a laugh. Many times have I had to backtrack, apologising, because it sounded funnier in my head.

But the fights were the difference – and these too were my fault. Me and my increasingly short temper. Frustrated that at the time a witty comeback was beyond me, I’d lash out with my fists and feet. But I was a round kid; neither strong not tall and once that first punch had been thrown, then violence became fair game. A game I routinely lost.

We’ve got to take responsibility for our own mistakes.

Of course, being bullied as an adult in the workplace is very different. No-one throws your bag into the tall steel bins, or down in the gutter running out the sports hall toilets. No-one kicks you in the ribs rather than the face so as the marks won’t show in class.

I've heard people throw the word bully out almost as a default defense mechanism, as though it will get them off the hook for consistently getting it wrong. Being pressurised to meet a deadline or complete an element to a project you don't particualry fancy doing is not being the same as being continually tormented - being bullied is not the same as being given a bollocking for cocking something up.

I could well be proved wrong. This is a political game and Ali, Petey and all the others are avoiding mentioning any real detail about what’s been going on behind that famous black door, but given the amount of disasters and fuck-ups that have plagued Gordie’s premiership I think the guy’s probably allowed to expect better, to ask that mistakes don’t happen again and again and again and when they do, well, perhaps the hairdryer treatment is too tempting. Those on the receiving end could do well to look at themselves, pull their boots back on and get back to work.

Within Chinon’s impervious walls, the fractured family came together for Christmas and there they bullied one another. They taunted and twisted and throttled the next youngest down. Henry bullied Richard, Richard bullied Geoffrey (with a side interest in tormenting Philip), Geoffrey bullied John who in turn, being the very youngest, had no-one of his own to bully (aside from the servants, obviously). So bereft was John that he screwed himself into so many tight circles until he accidentally ended up on the throne, after Richard got an arrow in shoulder trying to storm a French castle and bully Philip some more. Once King, John had a crack at bullying everyone, especially dead Geoffrey’s young son Arthur who also ended up in a grave, but the robber barons who made up the nobility were too much of bullies themselves and so the whole mess came to a conclusion in the field near Runnymeade and the signing of a document: Magna Carta, the foundation of our law formed to make everyone play nice.

‘Life,’ said Suggs being interviewed for Madness’ The Business boxed set and asked whether he agreed Chas Smash had unexpectedly assumed leadership of the popular eighties ska combo group, ‘is made up of bullies. Barson was a bully and Carl’s a bully. And I’m a bully.’

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