Monday, 12 October 2015

A monument is worth a thousand words

Love him or hate him? Doesn't matter - he's a character
This is a tale of two characters, a hero and a villain.

Not that long ago, I was down in London doing the tourist bit and visiting one of my favourite places, Westminster Abbey. I come away with a different thought every time I visit and this time was no exception. This time I was struck by a tale of two politicians. Forgive me if they seem a little obscure but they are old friends from my A level history. I’ll tell you a little about them. 

George Canning and Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh. Contemporaries, born less than a year apart in 1769 and 1770 respectively. Castlereagh was a scion of the aristocracy and Canning, according to Wikipedia (yes, I know) was “the son of an actress and a failed businessman and lawyer”. Both spent almost three decades in the high offices of state,with Castlereagh reaching the dizzy heights of Foreign Secretary and Canning equalling and exceeding that by becoming Chancellor and, eventually Prime Minister.

It’s fair to say that, though colleagues, they didn’t get on. Canning refused a cabinet post because he didn’t wish to serve in the same government as Castlereagh — probably wise, because at one stage when they were both were serving in the cabinet their enmity became so bitter that they fought a duel at dawn on Hampstead Heath. (The aristocratic Castlereagh wounded the novice Canning, who had never fired a gun before). 

Both men have their monuments just inside the entrance to Westminster Abbey. Canning’s caught my eye, so much so that I had to write down what his contemporaries thought of him. He was, I noted down on the back of the business card that was all I had to write on “endowed with a rare combination of talents, an eminent statement, an accomplished scholar, an orator surpassed by none…he united the most brilliant and lofty qualities of the mind with earnest affections of the heart.” And then I ran out of space on the card.

His predecessor as Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, stands opposite him. His epitaph is as cold as the stone from which it’s carved. I didn’t write it down but it was quite short and went something like this: “History will record that he reached the highest offices of state.”


If you know anything about Castlereagh, it’s probably the cruel little rhyme that circulated about him during his lifetime: “I met murder on the way/he had a face like Castlereagh”. Or perhaps you know Byron’s jaw-droppingly scathing: “Here lie the bones of Castlereagh/Stop, traveller, and piss.”

Ouch again.

Castlereagh, his mental health deteriorating, eventually took his own life while Canning went on to become the shortest-serving PM the country has ever had, dying of a fever in 1827 having succeeded in alienating seven cabinet members and 40 other members of the government. I’m not quite sure how that ties with what’s on his monument. Perhaps he had the better spin doctor?

I think I feel a novel coming on…