This blog does voluntary work for the National Trust for which it seeks no applause – the free biscuits are reward enough. Nobody in their right mind would wish to let me run amok on the nation’s heritage with a hammer or scythe – so they found me a committee to sit on. (One tenet I have held dear throughout my career is that you can simply never have enough committees, in the same way that there are just never enough town planners to go round).
This week, said committee met at Runnymede which had not enjoyed the benefit of this blog’s presence since its school days. I have always regarded Runnymede and Magna Carta much as I do the “Oracle at Delphi” or the Roman forum. These are places, I felt when young, best left to the imagination and a sense of wonder. Once visited, I feared that I might recall the condition of the toilets or the price of a bag of crisps rather than their rightful place in the global pantheon of awe.
I am something of a convert, let it be said, to the National Trust, which owns and tends much of Runnymede. Perhaps I was taken round too many “improving” Trust properties in my youth and encouraged to admire too many cabinets of glass or porcelain or dark, depressing portraits of ugly children, but my main impression of the organisation was of something worthy but hardly radical. I am now far more conscious of the achievements and aspirations of its founders, notably Octavia Hill, a leading social reformer with a major commitment to public housing and access to green, open spaces. Which makes it all the more appropriate that the Trust has, in recent years, “reinvented itself” – a bit like Madonna, then? – by developing ambitious programmes to encourage multi-generational, multi-ethnic enjoyment, not only of its own properties but also of buildings and land in which it holds no formal, legal interest. Opening up the Big Brother house in London may not have endeared it to some of its old stagers – nor indeed to Ann Widdecombe – but it certainly generated publicity, nearly all of it highly positive.
So, Magna Carta.
In the words of Sellar and Yeatman (“1066 and All That”), the Great Charter “was therefore the chief cause of democracy in England, and thus a Good Thing for everyone (except the Common People)”. Perhaps it’s a bit like the Post Office, or Clare Balding – you know it’s right to tick the “like this” box but you can’t remember why.
Let me help you a little with the intricacies of its contents in case they may have slipped your mind.
I’m happy to give my full backing, should it be required, to Clause 23 of the Charter, that “no town or person should be forced to build a bridge across a river” – at least, not if they’re just on an unpaid internship and it’s the only available alternative to shelf stacking at Tesco. Clause 33, “requiring the removal of all fish weirs”, was clearly long overdue and we really should indicate our profound regret that it has now been repealed. Clause 54 established in law that “no man may be imprisoned on the testimony of a woman except on the death of her husband”: I make no comment on this, I merely report the facts. As regards Clause 56 “relating to disseised Welshmen”, I have absolutely no idea.
Next year will mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Charter and plans are, as you may imagine, afoot to mark the occasion – safe in the knowledge that, in this instance, we won’t be outbid by Russia or Qatar for the right to host the big party. My only concern at this stage is that enterprising locals should not, as per the Olympics, be prevented from getting in on the act. I haven’t checked whether Pizza Express, no doubt “Official Pizza Partners for the Magna Carta”, have secured monopoly rights for the sale of all dough based products within 1,000 chains of Magna Carta Island, but I fear the worst. Freedoms? What freedoms?
What those of us fortunate enough to live in Lewes do know is that within 50 years after the barons forced King John to sign the thing, the Crown was back to doing what it did best in the days before they got to unveil plaques in ball bearing factories and appear on It’s a Knockout. That is, they had torn up the Charter and returned to business as usual, fish weirs or no fish weirs. It took Simon de Montfort, “very notable as being the only good Baron in history” (thank you, Sellars and Yeatman), and the Battle of Lewes, 1264, to reclaim the high ground – both literal and metaphorical. It seems to me that (a) we have not as a society moved particularly quickly since then in achieving all we might in terms of the sharing of wealth and power, and (b) Lewes has usually been, and remains, a tad on the nonconformist side. With 2014 marking the 750th anniversary of our very own Battle of Lewes, the bonfire boys are no doubt out there gathering kindling as we speak.
Footnote, of no relevance to anything really, but I sometimes suspect that I’m turning into my father:
- I’ve taken to getting down to the shops extremely early before the parking spaces disappear and the queues build up at the tills in Waitrose. Indeed, it seems, before the shops actually open.
- I’ve started asking “So when does the tune actually start?”