Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red

A couple of weeks ago I met my Mum at Tower Hill tube station. She was in her raincoat and trying to make her phone work when I found her.  We walked the few yards to get our first glimpse of the poppies at the Tower.  This wonderful installation, by Paul Cummins and my good friend Tom Piper, is an extraordinary spectacle.

IMG_2565Even so early on in the work to plant 888,246 ceramic poppies, the scale moved me. Each poppy was a life lost and by November the moat at the Tower of London will be full.  It is very beautiful and I will keep going back to see it unfold.

For my Mum it was particularly moving.  Almost one hundred years ago to the day her father joined up.  Unlike his brother George, he survived, but he never recovered his health following the gas attacks in the trenches.

A member of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women awaits the beginning of a Lights Out WWI remembrance ceremony at the Bevis Marks Synagogue (from The Guardian)


Then last week I met up with a friend for dinner.  We had a lovely meal, I had yellow fish curry, at Granger & Co in Clerkenwell Green.  We were talking about the centenary of WW1, and she told me that she had been involved in some of the events in the Jewish community.  The Lights Out remembrance ceremony at Bevis Marks synagogue sounded particularly  special.

Naturally our conversation went on to discuss the impact of the awful events in Gaza and Israel.  Sadly too many people struggle to see the difference between the actions of the Israeli government and Jewish people generally.  There is an awful rise in anti-semitic attacks in this country as a result.

That in turn reminded me of a conversation I had two weekends ago at a party on a boat in the Lagoon at Venice.  I was a guest of the Kinnernet Italy conference organised by Yossi Vardi. Yossi and I were having a quiet chat in between the food, wine and dancing.  He was encouraging me to come to Israel to visits some of the schools he supports for Israeli Arabs.

It is too long since I last visited Israel and Palestine, and saw for myself the dangers of taking sides in the conflicts there.  Watching BBC2’s wonderful The Honourable Woman this weekend also reminds me of the layers of complexity in the region, and the pitfalls for those who try to stay neutral.

This weekend I have also been dragged back into  There I find more on the war records of my relatives.  I have found out a little of what I think is my wife’s grandfather who also fought and survived in the trenches.  I think I have found his pension record showing an honourable discharge on health grounds from the Royal Sussex Regiment after three years service.

But there is another member of Anna’s family I found out about through Ancestry.  Marks Cohen was her great grandfather.  He was born in Russia, the son of a rabbi.  He escaped forced conscription into the Russian army aged 14 and arrived in London speaking only Hebrew and Russian.  Fourteen years later he too signed up and was one of those many Jews who fought in the British army during the Great War.

All of these stories are reasons why I was so pleased when my friend Hannah asked me to help with the education programme for the Blood Swept Lands installation at the Tower.  By researching our own family stories of the war we can reconnect and remember their sacrifice, but we can also remember what binds us together.  The terrible conflict in the Middle East is so divisive, and yet commemoration of the Great War can also remind of us that however different each of us is, there are bigger things that bind us.



Hereditary Peers’ By-election – Not a Silly Season Story!

On Friday, when I got home to Weymouth and opened the post, I found a House of Lords Notice. I ignored my usual irritation at the waste of money sending post rather than email, and extracted the green notice from its plastic wrapper. With great amusement I read the headline:

Hereditary Peers’ By-election

To many this may be confusing. Many would only know the Lords as an undemocratic house of Parliament made up of political life appointees, like me. Others may also think the Blair government got rid of the hereditary peers fifteen years ago. So what is this by-election, and how come those who are there by birth are also elected?

The green notice opens by saying:

“The death of Lord Methuen on 9 July 2014 has created a vacancy among the expected hereditary peers who sit in the House of Lords. Under Standing Order 10, this vacancy is to be filled by means of a by-election.”

This all goes back to the deal that was done under Lords reform back in 1999. The Labour government wanted to get rid of all the hereditary peers, but needed to persuade them to vote for their own abolition. The compromise was that 92 were allowed to remain, as long as the rest lost their seats.

Now you might think that was an elegant solution; that the Grim Reaper would then slowly reduce that number down over time until all the Hereditary Peers literally died out. But you would be wrong.

The compromise also included the deal whereby if one of the 92 passed away then their place would be filled by a by-election, hence this procedure to give someone the right to make law in this country.

So who can vote and who can stand?

“All Members of the House … are entitled to vote in this by-election.”

So that is clear, the voters are the Lords themselves and polling day is on 21st October 2014.

On who can stand, there is some boring detail but in this case:

“Those eligible to stand are all those hereditary peers whose names are listed in the register of hereditary peers wishing to stand for election as members of the House of Lords.”

So the hereditary peers were not abolished at all. The larger pool of hundreds lost their right to sit and vote but they, and their successors, are on stand by to get elected when there is a vacancy.

Which is why, in this eccentric country we know and love, the only people elected into our second house of Parliament are those that are there by birth!

PS There are also elections to Labour’s NEC. For those that are interested, I have voted for Luke Akehurst, Johanna Baxter, Crispin Flintoff, Florence Nosegbe, Ellie Reeves and Peter Wheeler