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CIVILISATION IN TERMINAL DECLINE

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Our society appears to be suffering a terminal decline. At least that’s the conclusion traditionalists and devout Christian believers like myself have been forced to conclude. As the old-world withers and vanishes, a culture of selfishness, moral relativism, and general immorality has been allowed to grow in its place. The culture that produced Vivaldi, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Aristotle has been replaced with one that has as its major ambassadors the likes of Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber.

The first clue that a monumental change had taken place came in the guise of Princess Diana’s farce of a funeral in 1997. An event that was cynically exploited by politicians and celebrities and recorded for public consumption by round-the-clock news coverage (her funeral would be watched by two-and-a-half-billion people). As Gerry Penny of The Conversation noted, Diana’s death marked the beginning of the ‘mediated death.’ A death that is covered by the mass media in such a way that it attracts as much public attention, and therefore revenue, as possible.

Compared to Princess Diana, Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965 was a spectacle of old world pomp and ceremony. After lying in state for three days, Churchill’s small coffin was carried by horse-drawn carriage along the historic streets of London to Saint Paul’s Cathedral. His procession was accompanied by Battle of Britain aircrews, royal marines, lifeguards, three chiefs of staff, Lord Mountbatten, and his own family. The silence that filled the air was broken only by a funerary march and the occasional honorary gunshot.

Much like Diana’s funeral, tens of thousands of people came to witness Churchill’s funeral. But unlike Diana’s mourners, who did everything they could to draw attention to themselves, Churchill’s mourners were silent and respectful. They realised, unlike Diana’s mourners, that the best way to commemorate a great man was to afford him the respect that his legacy deserved.

Cynics would dismiss Churchill’s funeral as nothing more than a ridiculous display of pomp and ceremony. However, these events serve an important cultural purpose by connecting the individual with his community, his culture, and his heritage. In doing so, they bring about order and harmony.

Winston Churchill was the great Briton of the 20th century. Like Horatio Lord Nelson in the early 19th century, it was Churchill’s leadership that saved Britain from Nazi invasion and it was his strength and resolve that gave ordinary Britons that courage to endure the worst periods of the War.

And understandably, many Britons felt something approximating a kind of personal gratitude towards him. A gratitude deep enough that when he died many felt it to be their duty to file reverently pass his body lying in state or stand in respectful silence as his funeral procession passed. What Churchill’s state funeral did was give the ordinary person the opportunity to pay their own respects and feel that they had played a part, if only in a minute way, in the celebration of his life.

Winston Churchill’s funeral and Princess Diana’s funeral represent eras that are as foreign to one another as Scotland is to Nepal. While Churchill’s funeral represented heritage and tradition, Princess Diana’s funeral symbolised mass nihilism and self-centredness.

But why has this happened? I believe the answer lies in the dual decline of Western culture and Christianity.

The French philosopher, Chantal Delsol described modern Western culture as being akin to Icarus had he survived the fall. (Icarus, of course, being the figure in Greek mythology whose wax wings melted when he flew too close to the sun). Where once it had been strong, resolute, and proud, it has now become weak, dejected, disappointed, and disillusioned. We have lost confidence in our own traditions and ideals.

Of course, the decline of Western culture has a direct correlation with the more consequential decline of Christianity. It is faith that informs culture and creates civilisation, and the faith that has informed the West has been Christianity. It is the moral ideals rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition – that I love my neighbour, that my behaviour in this life will determine my fate in the next, that I should forgive my enemies – that form the axiomatic principles that undergird Western civilisation.

This faith has been replaced by an almost reverent belief in globalism, feminism, environmentalism, diversity, equality, and human rights. Our secularism has made us believe that those who came before us were ignorant, superstitious, and conformist. And what has the result of this loss of mass religiosity been? Mass nihilism and a decline in moral values.

But when faith falls so too does culture and civilisation. If we are to revive our civilisation, we must be prepared to acknowledge that tradition, heritage, and religion are not only integral, but vital.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

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This week for our weekly cultural article we will be examining the David Lean’s (1908 – 1991) 1946 film Great Expectations, considered to be one of the greatest British films ever made. When it was released in 1946, it was met with glowing reviews. Today, seventy years later, it has been described by Criterion as “one of the greatest translations of literature into film.”

David Lean’s Great Expectations captures the essence of Charles Dicken’s (1812 – 1870) literary genius by juxtaposing his memorable characters with the artful film direction of David Lean. Leans use of black and white to add to the foreboding and melancholy atmosphere of the film.  Then there are the numerous dark, creepy, rundown, and ultimately human locations that burn themselves into the memory: the creepy graveyard where a young Pip first meets escaped convict Abel Magwitch, the Kentish marshes, Miss Havisham’s dilapidated and macabre home whose clocks are stopped at the exact time Miss Havisham learnt of her fiance’s betrayal, 19th century London, Mr. Jagger’s offices whose walls are decorated with the death masks of defendants lost to the gallows, the prison where Magwitch dies, and so forth.

Then there are the wealth of memorable characters the film presents to us. The most notable of these is Pip through whom we see all of the tragedy and injustice of early 19th century England. Pip acts as more of an observer to the world around him than an actual protagonist. We first meet Pip (Anthony Wager, 1932 – 1990) as a young orphan being raised by his overbearing older sister (Freda Jackson, 1907 – 1990) and her kindly blacksmith husband (Bernard Miles, 1907 – 1991). It is during this time that Pip first encounters Abel Magwitch (Finlay Currie, 1878 – 1960), a kind yet ultimately decent escaped convict, in the cemetery, and when his heart is broken by the coquettish Estella (Jean Simmons, 1929 – 2010) and the dishevelled and deranged Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt, 1900 – 1969).

As the film progresses, we see Pip grow into a young man, played by John Mills (1908 – 2005), who, it could be argued, was perhaps a little too old to play Pip in his early twenties.  This Pip has been bequeathed a large allowance by an unknown benefactor and travels to London with the view of becoming a gentleman. There he forms a friendship with the Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness, 1914 – 2000) who helps him refine his manners. The adult Pip finds himself corrupted by the ponce and ceremony of the English upper-class and is ashamed to admit that he would have paid money to keep Joe Gargery, dressed in his cheap suit and awkward manner, away. Pip is forced to reexamine his views after discovering that his benefactor is none other than the escaped convict Magwitch, who was so struck by Pip’s childhood compassion that he was inspired to make something of himself and become his benefactor. Magwitch’s kindness and gratitude cause Pip to regain his lost humanity.

Great expectations represents a type of film that no longer exists: one that deals entirely with the human condition. These films are no longer made because they often do not involve exciting elements, but rather present characters that are flawed and suffering and places these characters in stories that are essentially tragic in nature. These films are no longer made because they do not fit into the blockbuster formula. Rather than the larger-than-life heroes of the blockbuster, films on the human condition feature characters that are ultimately flawed and suffering. These characters are placed in stories that are ultimately tragic in their nature. A far cry from the often over-the-top plots of the modern blockbuster.  There is something deeply satisfying about films like Great Expectations which shows normal people to be capable of leading a dignified existence regardless of the tragedy and suffering they are forced to face.