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Simon Parke: Salisbury’s plain at Christmas

06 December 2006

SOMETIMES everything we need for Christmas is given to us in a word from Lord Salisbury. And, as with every present, “it was nothing really.”

I was sitting in an empty room, researching something quite different, when I came across some words spoken by Lord Salisbury in the House of Lords in 1890. It was the beginning of the end of the British Empire, but also, maybe, the start of Christmas: “Up to ten years ago, we remained masters of Africa practically . . . by the simple fact that we were masters of the sea, and that we had considerable experience in dealing with native races. Then suddenly, we found out that that position, however convenient, had no foundation whatever in international law. We had no rights over all those vast stretches of coast; we had no power of preventing any other nation from coming in and seizing a portion of them.”

I warm to his bemused frustration at the end of a convenient arrangement, because it is mine also. Like Lord Salisbury, I tend to mistake my habits for my rights — which, as behaviour, has an unwise quality to it. And now, of course, we approach the season famous for such unwise assumptions.

Christmas is a minefield of supposed rights. Some people assume the right to have a good time over the festive season. Why? Perhaps it’s the strangely persistent hope that, somehow, this year will be better than before; or it could simply be the relentless promotion of the event. Whether through church or media advertising, Christmas can become so engulfed in a network of cheery expectations that we really begin to believe that something magical will happen.

Others make the opposite assumption — the right to a bad time. A chirpy colleague at work feels sick when she hears anyone talking about Christmas, and scowls in unhappy anger. For her, the festive season reminds her only of family pain: Christmas Past is not well remembered. “Don’t talk to me about Christmas,” she says, as she storms out of the canteen.

Lord Salisbury — three times Prime Minister, and four times Home Secretary — knew the world. From the Khyber Pass, on India’s north-west frontier, to the Kimberley gold mines in South Africa; from Khartoum on the Upper Nile to Hong Kong on the Chinese coast, the destinies of the British Empire were directed for nearly two decades by this depressive and brilliant man. Queen Victoria rated him above Disraeli. He mistook habit for right, however, and assumption for reality. Africa wasn’t actually his.

Sitting with him in my empty room, I wish my Christmas to be: sparsely housed, a stable bare, and away from assumption’s clutter of what is and is not mine. For much can come from nothing. But nothing can come from much.

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