27 May 2013

An eyewitness account of the Coronation

This was originally posted 19 August 2010 under the title ‘Genes, prep schools and Eton’. It has been re-posted ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Coronation.

In connection with the absurd claims by Alan Ryan (former Warden of New College, Oxford) that it is 'crazy' to look for a genetic element in determining intellectual ability, I may comment that I have never known, or known about, a family in which the innate variations in IQ and other aptitudes between the various members were not very definitely recognised by both parents and siblings. My colleague Charles McCreery was decidedly the most precocious of his family, although some of the others had IQs well above average, and his precocity aroused hostility and obstruction even within his own family.

Photograph of Charles McCreery
taken by Hay Wrightson, London,
at the time of the Coronation, 1953.
Below is an article by Charles (written when he was 11) which was published in the magazine* of his preparatory school after he had been a page at the Coronation. It aroused agitated reactions, and mockery of the vocabulary he had used, perhaps partly because it was accidentally published with no adult editing or alterations, so that it was unmistakable evidence of Charles’s precocity.

His form master was agitated to find that Charles had handed it in to the headmaster – ‘Oh, but you were supposed to show it to me first’ – and the headmaster, perhaps assuming that it had already been edited, published it in the magazine with no alterations at all. (The spelling, as well as the vocabulary, was all Charles’s own.)

On seeing the article, his mother also became agitated and asked him repeatedly if he had written it entirely without help. Was he sure he had? Really sure? She reverted to this issue so often that Charles started to feel guilty, as if he must have done something wrong.

At about this time his mother was colluding with his headmaster, who was also hostile to him, to prevent him from taking the scholarship exam for Eton, as it had always been assumed that he would. This was allegedly to spare him ‘stress’, but actually ensured that he would get nothing positive out of his time at Eton.

Scholars at Eton were in a different position from the others. Although a bit looked down upon socially, as they included some boys whose parents could not have afforded to pay the fees, they were the only ones in whose case it was regarded as socially acceptable to work; so it was really a necessary position for someone like Charles who had strong academic inclinations. Everyone who was not a scholar at Eton was expected to manifest indifference and to be interested only in sporting activities.


Acting as page to Lord Alanbrooke at the Coronation was a wonderful experience for me as it is a thing I will remember all my life and I will be able to tell my children when I grow up.

I met a lot of very famous people such as Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister and the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal, whom I thought was wonderful in the way he managed everything alone and yet remained calm and impassive. I was also greatly struck by the demeanour of our Queen who too remained cheerful yet dignified.

The music was very moving and impressive, with a choir of 400, an orchestra of sixty and a large organ. The service began with the Psalm "I was glad when they said unto me", some of the verses of which I learnt during Scripture.

I got to the Abbey on Coronation Day at 6 a.m. in the morning, and had to wait, in the specially built annexe, about four hours with nothing to do but watch and wait, in rather uncomfortable clothes, for the arrival of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. At last the Queen arrived, amid cheers from the people, and, after about ten minutes interlude, took up her place in the already formed procession for the entering of the Abbey. I myself did not carry a coronet because Lord Alanbrooke, being Lord High Constable, and the Earl Marshal, have two pages and my partner, being older than me, carried it instead. Beside me were four other pages, all but one carrying coronets and not far behind them the Queen herself with her six maids of honour carrying her train. On either side of the nave, west of the screen, were tiers of specially constructed seats. Although these people had a wonderful view of the procession in and out of the Abbey they saw nothing of what went on in the Theatre. My parents however were lucky and had seats on the top right of the peers who are on the right of the dais in the centre of the Theatre, on which is the real throne, and saw practically everything. When my row of pages reached the dais four of us turned to the left and one to the right; I turned to the left and proceeded up a gangway between the lovely blue velvet chairs in which the peeresses were seated. About half way through the ceremony, at a signal given by our "Goldstick", all the pages walked back down the gangway, carrying their coronets, and delivered them with a bow, to their respective peers and returned to the steps where they had been sitting. I, however, did not have to do this as my partner went by himself while I remained seated. At the historic moment when the Archbishop, Dr. Fisher, placed the crown on our beautiful Queen's head, all the peers and peeresses put on their coronets, (some of which were so small that they had to be kept on with hair combs, elastic etc.), to the sound of a fanfare of trumpets and great guns being fired from the Tower of London.

At the end of the service, all the pages walked to their peers and formed up for the procession out, to the triumphant music of the National Anthem.

C.A.S. McCreery, (aged 11).

* Cothill House Magazine, Vol. LXIX, September 1953, pp.17-18.

Statement by Charles McCreery: ‘With regard to Dr Green’s piece introducing my contemporaneous account of the Coronation service, and which describes my mother’s reaction to my essay, I can vouch for its accuracy since it is based on accounts I have given Dr Green over the years concerning this episode, and I read over her account before she published it.’

We appeal for funding to enable Dr Charles McCreery to continue and extend his Oxford doctoral research into hallucinatory experiences in normal people, which would have practical and theoretical implications both for the fields of psychopathology and for the philosophy of perception.

23 May 2013

Mother Joseph of the Ursulines

text of a letter about the headmistress of my convent school, the Ursuline High School in Ilford, who later became head of the Ursuline order in England

Mother Joseph Powell
Thank you very much for the photograph of Reverend Mother Joseph Powell. I certainly remember her with very much that expression on her face.

She was sufficiently exceptional (and old-fashioned) to come near to giving me the chance in life which I needed to have; but not exceptional enough to stand by me against the opposition which was aroused.

My father was often blamed for wanting me to have a chance in life, but in fact it was not he, but the Reverend Mother, who proposed that I should take the School Certificate exam at the last chance before the age limit came into force.

Being prevented from taking the School Certificate exam left me in a terrible position from which I have never been able to recover, although my position now is less bad than it might be. But the harm done to the lives of my parents was never remedied, although I was always trying to improve my position by building up capital sufficiently to allow me to do so.

Potential supporters or associates could come to live nearby, perhaps by buying a holiday home in the first instance. Cuddesdon is a pleasant hilltop village with clean air and good views of countryside, accessible to Oxford and the main road to London.

Many thanks again for the photograph.

12 May 2013

Margaret Thatcher and the BBC

Where she [Margaret Thatcher] did not think she was among friends … she scarcely made the effort to convert anyone. Most Leaders of the Opposition take great pains to woo the BBC: not so Mrs Thatcher. In her demonology, the BBC was the very heart of the pinko-liberal conspiracy which was dragging Britain down. The Director-General, Ian Trethowan – a good friend of Ted Heath – insists that the broadcasters were not ill-disposed towards her. But she certainly believed she was venturing into hostile territory: ‘the lady arrived with all guns firing, she showed scant interest in, let alone tolerance of, the editors’ problems and berated them on their failings over a wide area, particularly their coverage of Northern Ireland.’ Mrs Thatcher came into office in May 1979 already determined to bring the BBC to heel. (John Campbell, Margaret Thatcher: The Grocer’s Daughter, Jonathan Cape, 2000, p.408)
Margaret Thatcher
John Campbell seems to suggest that Margaret Thatcher was mistaken in her attitude to the BBC. Actually she was right in identifying it as a central element in the ‘pinko-liberal’ movement that was ‘dragging Britain down’. The use of the word ‘conspiracy’ is unhelpful, as it deflects attention from what was clearly going on, to insoluble questions about who originated these tendencies, who said what explicitly to whom, and so on.

Communists knew that in taking over a country it was important to infiltrate its centres of influence. Marxist ideas were in evidence when Margaret Thatcher was at Oxford in the 1940s; and active exponents of them at the BBC interacted with like-minded Oxford academics.

Dame Janet Vaughan was already Principal of Somerville College, and Mary Adams was Head of Television Talks at the BBC, both of them committed Fellow Travellers, as communist sympathisers were then called.

A decade later, when I was at Somerville, the ideological revolution had progressed; the Labour landslide and Education Act of 1945 signalled the onset of the Welfare State.

From the start, the forces of collectivism and egalitarianism scarcely even hinted at their real objectives. One needed extensive experience of what results were being brought about in practice to see that a far more extreme and well worked out agenda was being acted upon, overriding previous principles of respect for factual objectivity, for an individual’s right to make decisions about his own affairs, or for individual differences in ability, and so on. This, however, happened without the previously accepted set of principles having been explicitly rejected.

Mary Adams
Mary Adams of the BBC was the mother of a friend of mine at Somerville, so that I often visited her house. On one such occasion, hearing my father's voice on the telephone when he came to pick me up, Mary Adams said dismissively, ‘He sounds very common’. She did not invite him in to hear his interesting views on education in East London, of which as headmaster of a primary school he had direct experience. The only times she spoke to people with accents as common (or commoner) than my father's was when they were members of the Labour Cabinet and hence freely welcome at her tea parties.

Of course, the people I have described as ‘communists’ were usually careful not to identify themselves as such. Like the Fabians, radical socialists in sympathy with communist ideology had to proceed slowly and cautiously. They might agree with every element of the Marxist perspective, but being described as a communist has typically been controversial, and was therefore to be avoided. Rejecting innate ability, inheritance, private capital, inequality of outcome (at least for others), and the idea of anyone having servants, people such as Mary Adams nevertheless had to call themselves ‘socialists’ and wait patiently until the things they believed in came to be regarded as harmless and normal, indeed barely ‘socialist’ at all – which they duly did.

06 May 2013

E. Nesbit and the Fabian Society - a topsy-turvy world

Extract from Five Children and It:
[The Psammead to Jane] ‘Just wish, will you, that you may never be able, any of you, to tell anyone a word about Me.’

‘Why?’ asked Jane.

‘Why, don’t you see, if you told grown-ups I should have no peace of my life. They’d get hold of me, and they wouldn’t wish silly things like you do, but real earnest things; and the scientific people would hit on some way of making things last after sunset, as likely as not; and they’d ask for a graduated income-tax, and old-age pensions and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that; and get them, and keep them, and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy. Do wish it! Quick!’

Anthea repeated the Psammead’s wish ...

(E. Nesbit, Five Children and It, Puffin Books 1959, pp.213-214)
Edith Nesbit wrote a number of highly popular children's books, under the name ‘E. Nesbit’. Five Children and It, first published in 1902, is about children who find a Sand-fairy, or Psammead (a small furry creature which is able to grant wishes) in a gravel pit.

Edith Nesbit was a founder-member of the Fabian Society, dedicated to social reforms in a generally socialist direction, so she may well have been in sympathy with the developments which the Psammead deplores as likely to turn the world topsy-turvy.

The Fabian Society took its name from a Roman general* noted for his delaying tactics, and its motto was ‘Festina Lente’ (hasten slowly). Its logo was a tortoise. The Fabian Society was soon superseded by other socialist societies with a more aggressive and collectivist approach, which eventually led to the Welfare State in 1945.

By now we have all the social reforms which the Psammead would have liked to avoid (and more), Western civilisation is on the verge of collapse, but almost no one would question the desirability of ‘free’ secondary education, of the vote depending only on reaching a certain age, or of graduated income tax, as well as of miscellaneous ‘benefits’.

The national health service had not yet been thought of in 1902, and Nesbit does not mention it in the extract quoted. But it was not difficult to predict that reforms of this kind, once they started to be made, could never be reversed (Margaret Thatcher’s ‘ratchet effect’) and would eventually ruin any society which adopted them.

* Fabius Maximus