Domestic bliss to great world catastrophe

A podcast prompted by David’s Kensington Virtual Tour. Some reflections it gave rise to…


London Calling

David here.

Just finished giving my Virtual Tour of Kensington. Sights and Secrets of Kensington.

It runs weekly but if that Virtual Tour were an annual event, today, November 21st, might well be the best possible date for it.

And why is that?

Because November 21st was the birthday of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s first child, Princess Victoria. She’d be 180 years old today.

So what’s the point about November 21st and Princess Victoria?

Well, for starters, we think of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria as embodying domestic bliss. And that their first child should be born exactly nine months after their wedding day, well, no need to be knowing about that, no need to leer. Good on ‘em, good for them – happy for them – surely, that’s the response that’s called for.

The thing is, though, you can’t help but look into the seeds of time of that happy event. I’m talking about another giving of birth, less than 18 years later. Princess Victoria’s first child: the future Kaiser Wilhelm, the German Emperor. Think World War I. That historical trajectory – from the domestic bliss of baby Vicky’s birth on November 21st, 1840 to the great world catastrophe that got underway in August 1914 – death piled unimaginably high, toxins released into any number of national bloodstreams, toxins that are still playing themselves out, still with us a century later – that’s a historical trajectory that’s almost unbearable to contemplate.

You can’t help but ask, what would Prince Albert have thought of the world his first grandson helped to usher in? That’s a rhetorical question. We know what he would have thought of it. We know he would have abhorred it. We know he would have been crushed by it

Abhorred it – crushed by it – precisely because at the other end of Albert’s zeitgeist – the far end from his (and Queen Victoria’s) legendary domesticity – was internationalism. An internationalism of peace, progress and prosperity – the cornerstone of which was “free trade.” It was the great hope, it would bring nations together. Bring mankind together. Or so Albert and his cohorts fervently believed.

And that of course brings us to 1851, to the Crystal Palace, the Great Exhibition.

Held there in Hyde Park, a stone’s throw away from Kensington Palace. 100,000 exhibits, 12,000 exhibitors  – from all over the world. And of course it was fabulously successful. Made a huge profit. From it came Albertopolis – the museum quarter, the Royal Albert Hall, etc.

That said, there were dissenting voices. The Tory MP for Lincoln, for example. One Colonel Sibthorp. He was appalled at “hordes of hypocritical foreigners flooding into London.”

These events – the sentiments – of 170, 180 years ago are still very much with us. Not just with us, they inform our lives, our experience. In ways that are of passing interest. And in other ways that are of serious interest.

Of passing interest, well, consider a couple of the point outs – the sights – on my Kensington tour. For example, the statue of William III in front of Kensington Palace. It was a gift of Kaiser Wilhelm to Edward VII. And if you take a good look at it, I think you’ll agree with me that in its strutting, vain, arrogant finery and posture and demeanour it’s much more about Kaiser Wilhelm than it is about William III.

And we can think of a little boy from Kent – he was 11 years old in 1851 – who was brought to the Great Exhibition by his father. Brought up to London, to the Great Exhibition, from their humble home in Maidstone. That little boy was John Barker. He would grow up to found a great commercial retail empire – Barker’s the grand department store in Kensington High Street being the flagship of that empire. The formative experience for that little boy was that visit to the Great Exhibition. I show my walkers a wonderful image of the Crystal Palace, with hordes of ordinary people crowding round the entrance. One of those “ordinary” people was that little boy. Bowled over by that experience he vowed then and there that when he grew up he was going to pursue a career in retail.

And for that matter, the Great Exhibition also, in a very real sense, gave us the Harrods that we know. Harrods was located there in Knightsbridge in 1849 in anticipation of what the Great Exhibition was going to do to that area, do for that area. Without the Great Exhibition, Harrods in all probability would not have ended up in Knightsbridge.

Your turning this matter over in your mind, you even have to think about the construction of the Crystal Palace. It was erected in just six months. That was made possible by what was then a revolutionary approach to the delivery of its component parts. What today we call “just in time” delivery.

“Just in time” delivery. That’s fundamental to the way we do business today. Fundamental though it may be it gives every appearance of having a very rough ride ahead of it come 2021 and Brexit. And if it has a rough ride… well, by definition, we’re certainly going to catch that cold.

It’s wake and feel the fell of dark, this helter-skelter.  I mean, Prince Albert being a great proponent of Free Trade and Just in Time delivery delivering the Crystal Palace…

And here we are, counting down to the end of all that. Free Trade being traded away, Time being called on Just in Time.

I ask you, does Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach not speak to all of this. The lines with which he opens the final stanza. With one slight emendation.

Goes like this.

The Sea of our EU membership

Was once, too, at the full, and round our shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

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