Saturday, 28 June 2014

   In a BBC poll to find the ‘100 Greatest Britons’, conducted in 2002, Sir Winston Churchill came first, while Livingstone barely made the cut, being ranked a lowly no. 98, outshone by such luminaries as Robbie Williams (no. 77) and Michael Crawford (no. 17). The top spot in fact should be occupied jointly by two 7th century figures, SS Hilda of Whitby (d.680) and Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (d.687).
   St Hilda was born ca. 614 at Bamburgh Castle, on the mainland just down the coast from Lindisfarne, and was baptised by St Paulinus of York, who had come to Britain in 597 with the Gregorian mission of St Augustine of Canterbury. In 657 she founded Whitby Abbey, then known as Streoneshalh, which was chosen to host the Synod of Whitby in 664. St Bede describes a woman who was quite possibly the Mother Teresa[1] of her day:  

“[As Abbess of Whitby she] taught the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that after the example of the primitive church, no person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all, and none having any property.” 

"THUS this handmaid of Christ, the Abbess Hilda, whom all that knew her called Mother, for her singular piety and grace, was not only an example of good life, to those that lived in her monastery, but afforded occasion of amendment and salvation to many who lived at a distance, to whom the blessed fame was brought of her industry and virtue."

   St Cuthbert deserves equal honour for his closely related exertions in the cause of Christian unity, so dear to the Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. A native of present-day Scotland and educated in the Celtic tradition, as Prior of the Abbey of Lindisfarne and later its Bishop, Cuthbert’s immense standing among his brethren enabled him to implement, eventually, the rulings of the Synod of Whitby, most important of which related to the Roman method of calculating Easter. Without his patient efforts, there might very well remain to this day discrepancies among Christians in different regions of the British Isles; hence, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and Britain’s favourite building, Durham cathedral, are fitting tributes to his greatness.

   However, there are a number of good reasons why Livingstone deserves to be esteemed at least as highly as the war-time PM.

   Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and a wealthy American heiress, was born with a doughty and incontrovertibly aristocratic silver spoon in his mouth. At Harrow he received the best education of the day, from where he made a straightforward transition to Sandhurst, then military service, and then a political career in which, while he had to work hard, nevertheless quite a number of exceeding useful doors were open to him. Moreover, on being entrusted with high office in WWI he made a very serious hash of it, bearing the lion’s share of blame for the calamitous adventure that was Gallipoli in 1915. Having subsequently been shunted from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty to the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster, our hero’s reaction, in volunteering to serve alongside ordinary conscripts in the trenches for a couple of months, may have been admirable,[2] but in any case it did not in itself make good the damage done by his previous blunder. Yet he learned his lessons of course. Once established in the post of prime minister, in 1941 he promoted General Alan Francis Brooke, later Field Marshall Viscount Lord Alanbrooke KG, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO & Bar[3] to be his Chief of the Imperial General Staff – the most preposterously under-rated and under-appreciated military commander in history. Churchill didn’t stand a wildebeest’s chance in the Serengeti of ever being able to bully or intimidate his CIGS;

“When I thump the table and push my face towards him what does he do? Thumps the table harder and glares back at me. I know these Brookes – stiff-necked Ulstermen and there’s no one worse to deal than that!”[4]

Brooke alone among the top brass had the PM’s exact measure, and was capable of keeping his most reckless tendencies in check. Several years after the war, Churchill summarised his own contribution thus:

“It was the nation … that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

…but what he didn’t mention, was that without Brooke’s unflinching and remorseless pains to strangle the PM’s more barking flights of fancy at birth, this roar might very well have petered out into something more like a whimper. 

   All the same, how can Livingstone’s achievements hope to measure up? Well to begin with, the contrast in Livingstone’s upbringing is instructive. His father Neil Livingstone was a Sunday School teacher and door-to-door tea salesman. From the age of 10, David was required to work 12-14 hour days in the local cotton mill. The fact of his having had the tenacity and brilliance to overcome these childhood circumstances and qualify as a doctor (allowing of course for the necessary help he received from Fr Daniel Gallagher), is nothing short of staggering, and ought probably to have earned him worldwide acclaim in itself. However, the last thing one might expect of Livingstone was that he could ever be content to rest on his laurels. The singular intensity of his faith in the saving power of Our Lord Jesus Christ and, proceeding from this, his ardent desire to render Him good and honourable service, led Livingstone in his missionary journeys to adopt an attitude of utter fearlessness, in the face of rampant disease, sometimes murderously hostile local tribesmen, and perilously insecure supply lines, for years on end! Famously, he was nearly killed by a lion;

“Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier dog does a rat...Turning round to relieve myself of the weight, as he had one paw on the back of my head, I saw his eyes directed at Mebalwe, who was trying to shoot him at a distance of ten or fifteen yards."
…a run-in which caused the splintering of his right upper-arm, pointing to indescribable agony in the days before anaesthetic; but he oversaw its setting, and a few months later (though his arm was left with a ‘false joint’), he was involved in building a house. This episode alone gives us ample reason to believe that Livingstone’s moustache concealed one of the stiffest upper lips in history. However, his great legacy derives from the life-long war he waged against the slave trade, to which I hope to return in later chapters, making him not merely one of the greatest heroes of the Victorian era, but one of the greatest heroes of all time. Tied closely to this, as a missionary, while he made very few conversions to Christianity in his own lifetime, nevertheless he facilitated the later evangelisation of vast swathes of the African interior, primarily by virtue of the favourable impression he left on thousands upon thousands of local people. Furthermore though, without Livingstone, it is quite conceivable that in Britain and North America, the popular revulsion to Apartheid (South Africa’s white supremacist system of administration), which was a vital factor in its unlamented downfall in 1993, might only have existed at a significantly reduced level.
   On the morning of May 4th, as it was the first Saturday in the month, after a nourishing breakfast courtesy of Fr Slavin, I availed myself of the sacrament of reconciliation in the church. I then said some prayers in front of an Icon of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Czestochowa, housed in a side chapel that serves as a corner of Poland in Glasgow, with stained glass windows depicting Bl Jerzy Popieluszko and St Maximilain Kolbe. Fellow pilgrims then began to gather in Café Simon, for what is in fact an annual trek to Blantyre, but given special significance by that year’s bicentenary. A deacon spontaneously gave me £10 for Mary’s Meals, after which there were group photos to be taken, of perhaps 35 of us in all, outside the church. Before the starting pistol I was grateful to be able to give my baggage to Sr Mary from the parish, for her to put in the boot of the support car she was driving – and we were off. 

[1] Both St Hilda and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta (and incidentally St Hilda’s contemporary, St Etheldreda/Audrey) founded religious communities that comprised both men and women. NB also: “Five men from [Whitby Abbey] later became Bishops and two also join Hilda in being revered as saints – St John of Beverley, Bishop of Hexham, and St Wilfrid, Bishop of York.” [Wikipedia] She converted a local farmhand, Caedmon, into England's first vernacular poet, and thus was instrumental in establishing the tradition that would lead to Chaucer, Shakespeare et al.
[2] Though it should be noted that he only resigned the Chancellorship when he realised that it gave him insufficient scope to influence the direction of the war.
[3] KG (1946), GCB (1942), OM (1946), GCVO (1953), DSO (1916), DSO Bar (1918), Order of Polonia Restituta 1st Class (Poland) (1943), Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Netherlands Lion (1948), Croix de guerre (Belgium) (1918), Grand Cordon of the Order of Leopold with Palm (Belgium) (1946), Croix de Guerre 1940 with Palm (Belgium) (1946), Grand Cross of the Order of the Redeemer (Greece) (1946), Grand Cross of the Order of Dannebrog (Denmark) (1951), Order of Suvorov 1st Class (USSR) (1944).
[4] Quoted in ‘War Diaries 1939-1945’, Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke; Danchev, Todman, editors.

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