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Posts Tagged ‘Chelsea’

Sometimes a single factoid can change the way you look at the world. Here was a recent one for me, quoted in this month’s Prospect, and originating from Geoff Mulgan of the Young Foundation:

One third of British citizens live within five miles of their birthplace.

I tend to imagine that we live in a culture defined by movement and change; that people are being constantly uprooted; that our sense of belonging (whether for a place, a tradition, or a set of values) is becoming weaker and weaker. There must be some truth to this, distorted by my own prejudices and the experience of living in a metropolis like London.

But there is the factoid: twenty million of us Brits live within walking distance of where we were born. We may not feel very rooted, and we may have been somewhere else in between – but that is where we have planted ourselves now. Belonging is more powerful than I thought, whether it is through a lifestyle choice or through harsh economic or social necessity.

It was only a few seconds later, after wondering about all these ‘other people’ who lived so locally, that I realised it was true for me too – born in Tottenham Court Road and now living in Chelsea, about three miles as the crow flies. I’ve ended up pretty near ‘home’ (the maternity ward at the old University College Hospital), with a few detours on the way.

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I live on the site of St Thomas More’s home in Chelsea. It was here that Holbein drew the sketches for the celebrated More family portrait. The sketches survive; but Holbein’s finished image, sadly, is lost. It was not a canvas or board, but a huge linen wall-hanging, about nine feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the 1590s Rowland Lockey made various copies of this image, with sometimes major adjustments in the composition. The best of these ‘reinterpretations’, from 1593, now hangs at Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire.

Margaret, Thomas’s favourite daughter, sits at the front of this group, holding a book in her lap, with her fingers pointing very precisely to some specific lines. There have been two puzzles. Were these lines present and given such prominence in Holbein’s original (if so, presumably on More’s instructions)? And what would their significance be?

John Guy, in his book A Daughter’s Love that I referred to a few posts ago, thinks he has the answer:

What Margaret holds up to view is no less than Seneca’s classic defence of the ‘middle way’ or unambitious life, the passage in which he counterpoints the security of a lack of ambition with the dangers of a public career.

His message is about the relationship of human beings and fate. No one can predict what will happen to those who enter the counsels of princes. Fate is an irrevocable series of causes and effects with which not even the gods can interfere. Rather than urge an honest man to take the plunge, Seneca points out to him the perils of high office and the inevitability of fate.

Using Plato’s metaphor in The Republic of the ship of state, he says if he were left to his own devices, he would trim his sails to the light westerly winds: ‘May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along; may life bear me on safely, running in middle course.’

Most compellingly, Seneca cites the example of Icarus who, attempting to escape from prison with his father, Daedalus, flew too close to the sun so that the wax melted on his wings and he fell into the sea, where he drowned. And it is to the very line in which Seneca describes how Icarus ‘madly sought the stars’ that Margaret points with her finger. [175]

I’m not discouraging people from going into politics – far from it! But it is fascinating to discover the coded warnings given by someone as astute and involved as More to those who seek high office.

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