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Armada? No, she went of her own accord

When Parliament burnt down in 1834, there was never any hope of saving the Armada tapestries. Commissioned to commemorate England’s narrow escape from the Spanish onslaught in 1588, the 10 tapestries portrayed each crucial stage of the Armada’s advance and defeat at the hands of both the British and, primarily, the weather. Eight of them hung in the chamber of the House of Lords for more than 200 years; there wasn’t room for all of them, as each was fully 14 feet tall and around 23 feet wide. By the time the fire was discovered, it was never going to be possible to rescue them and they were abandoned to the flames.

However, a project to recreate the tapestries from detailed engravings of the originals has now been completed, and 10 new paintings of the same scenes were recently unveiled. On Thursday a reception was held in the House of Lords to commemorate this restoration project, hosted by a peer for whom sea travel and trade is the subject closest to his heart. More than 200 guests from “the British maritime sector” were invited, along with a number of sea cadets and House staff, to hear presentations on naval and maritime matters and on the tapestries themselves. The final presentation—the headline act, really—was a speech by the host himself on “The prosecution of British overseas trade”. The host was Lord Selsdon.
Lord Selsdon: My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, I have always been in this position. I have always spent my life involved in trade, the development of trade, and amongst the seafaring community I always sat below the salt. I really love the sea; it’s in my blood, and all my family have died at sea. We all leave in our testament that we know the latitude and longitude of our graves or of where we die. If I die today, the latitude and longitude of this place will be on my grave, if someone were able to navigate to it.
After the presentations, there was due to be half an hour or so of mingling and canapés with even more guests in the Royal Gallery before an unusual and touching ceremony took place. Lord Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral in 1588, removed a bell from one of the ships that attacked the Spanish fleet and kept it as a trophy. Lord Selsdon described its subsequent history:
It remained there for a while but then it went somewhere else and then fell down from a tower.
Whatever exactly happened, the bell ended up in the family of Lord Northbrook. Lord Selsdon recently discovered this and was allowed to bring it to London to be restored, and on Thursday evening, for the first time since 1588, the bell was to be rung at 6pm precisely to mark the end of the first “dog watch”.

Before that, though, the guests were presented with wine grown in a French vineyard that Lord Selsdon has been known to claim has been in his family since the second century BC, although during his speech he said merely that,
... originally rosé was shipped in the second century BC to the United Kingdom, encouraged by Eleanor of Provence who of course was the mother of Edward I who built this place, and therefore the rosé has a certain significance.
The guests were intently sampling the rosé at 5.50 when we all gradually became aware of a plaintive, sonorous melody, as if someone at the other end of the Royal Gallery had started to sing a psalm. When enough conversations had subsided, though, it became apparent that actually it was Lord Selsdon speaking, but a combination of a gentle speaking voice and a lack of direct mike technique meant that no-one more than four metres away from him had even a sporting chance of understanding what he was saying. A couple of times there was a cry of “Speak up!” and he would lean forward into the mike, but he would give up after a few words and revert to a conversational tone.

Lord Selsdon was standing on a small dais, flanked by a chaplain and Admiral the Lord Boyce. Nearby stood the newly christened “Armada Bell”, flanked by two House of Lords carpenters dressed as 16th-century shipwrights [see illustration]. A semicircle of sea cadets surrounded this small tableau, with the guests packed in behind them. With everything happening at floor height and with Lord Selsdon’s voice not carrying beyond the middle of the room, many of the guests at the far end of the Royal Gallery could neither see nor hear what was going on at any point of the ceremony. At several key moments they were unaware that the ceremony was even going on at all, drinking and chattering obliviously. Lord Selsdon couldn’t understand it—this seemed to be the height of rudeness—but he ploughed on, unbowed and, in many cases, unheard.

“I have a special guest here this evening,” he said. ‘Could we bring him in, please?” A spaniel, one of the sniffer dogs used for security checks in the Lords chamber, was led in by his handler. “What’s the point of a dog watch,” Lord Selsdon asked his audience rhetorically, “if there’s no dog to watch?”

It was crucial that the timing of the ceremony be split-second. Every day at the start of proceedings in the Lords chamber, the Lord Speaker processes in along with Black Rod and a doorkeeper who is carrying the mace. She takes her position by the woolsack, and at the moment that the bishop on duty says the first word of that day’s prayers, Big Ben strikes. This aspect of Lord procedure appeals to Lord Selsdon immensely and he was very keen that the same precision be applied to his ceremony, but for that to be a certainty he had to be able to hear Big Ben. “Could you all be quiet, please?” he asked a couple of times, but the hubbub from the other end continued unabated. “WAAAAGH!” he yelled suddenly into the mike. The room fell silent.

“Thank you,” he said. He looked at his watch, slightly puzzled. “Now, I’ve got a feeling my watch might be a little fast…” Suddenly I had an explanation for why, when I could have sworn that I had arrived at the reception on the nose of 4.30, I had already missed Lord Selsdon’s introduction and half the opening speech. “So,” he continued, “if you could all remain silent, we should be ready in about three minutes.” I have to report that the 300 guests did not remain silent for three minutes.

“WAAAAAGH!” cried Lord Selsdon again, at fifteen seconds to six. The crowd quietened down. The artist in charge of the Armada tapestries project stepped solemnly forward and waited. As the first chime sounded he rang four bells, in two groups of two. The semicircle of sea cadets dropped to the floor in unison, crouching on one knee, where they stayed for about 10 minutes.

Lord Selsdon stepped down from his dais, handing over to the chaplain to read a couple of suitably naval prayers. Clearly and crisply, the chaplain’s voice intoned the first intelligible sentences that much of the throng had been exposed to since entering the gallery. As he detailed which prayers he was going to read out and why, the sniffer spaniel was getting increasingly excited. His handler tried every technique to calm his animal down but none of them were working. The chaplain began his first prayer. “O Lord,” he began. The spaniel started barking loudly in delight, visibly startling many of the furthest-flung guests who were unaware that a dog was even present in the first place. The chaplain, however, was a pro, and he continued smoothly while the handler guided his excitable charge outside.

The remainder of the event passed off without misadventure; the cadets were eventually allowed to get up, a couple more speeches were made and a new coat of arms was presented, and the crowd slowly dispersed. For many of them this will have been their first exposure to Lord Selsdon’s unique oratory, and I can’t think of a better introduction to it. Although devoid of most of its accompanying pictures, for those who wish and have the time, his speech is reproduced below.

[There are some gaps in the transcript as I had to work from a recording taken in the room. The event was recorded by the BBC for use in a programme about the Armada tapestries but no-one seems to expect much of Lord Selsdon’s speech to be used in the show, so I’m afraid aficionados will have to make do with this frustratingly incomplete bootleg.]
Lord Selsdon: My Lords, ladies and gentlemen, I have always been in this position. I have always spent my life involved in trade, the development of trade, and amongst the seafaring [community] I always sat below the salt. I really love the sea; it’s in my blood, and all my family have died at sea. We all leave in our testament that we know the latitude and longitude of our graves or of where we die. If I die today, the latitude and longitude of this place will be on my grave, if someone were able to navigate to it.

What I’m going to try to do now is be like Winnie-the-Pooh: “Sometimes I sits, sometimes I thinks; sometimes I sits and thinks”. I have sat and thought a lot about [inaudible] here today reminds me that I have got into the muttering mood; I mutter all night. What I want to try to do to you now is to take forward and have a [inaudible] while we are talking. So a carrier lasts 50 years, and I was thinking we should think 20 years ahead. Well, 20 years is four governments, not one government—not “What do you do with the Harriers?”, “What do we do with the carrier?”. It is strategic thinking on the long way.

Normally John has been pressing the slides, but I am going to press my own slides to make sure I’ve got them in the wrong order. [Slide 1: policemen in rowing boat next to Parliament] This is the picture that was taken when I sponsored the Metropolitan Police rowing non-stop, changing their crew, all the way to Paris. They were training outside the Houses of Parliament. It’s not a put-up picture; it is them training. It was that picture that made me go mad and offer to help fund them. [inaudible]

[Slide 2: The formation of the Council of Trade] Of course, after the Armada, we had an economic problem. Everyone has an economic problem after wars because people spend a lot of money and, unlike Drake, they haven’t raped and pillaged enough. So James, who actually was the one who bought the paintings from Howard, formed a Council of Trade, “to take into their consideration, the true causes of the decay of trade and scarcity of coyne within the Kingdom and to consult the means for the removing of these inconveniences”. This led in due course to the creation of the Board of Trade and the Council of Trade.

Now I’d like to move on from the Armada. Just press the button, John, and see what comes up. [Slide 3: Sir Stafford Cripps] Ah, 1947. There’s my uncle Stafford Cripps, having a problem with the devaluation of everything else, et cetera. It was a few years after the war. Let’s just go to the next picture and see what his problem was.

[Slide 4: Balance of trade figures, 1947 to present] In 1947 we actually had a balance of trade. Actually, at the time of the Armada, as Malcolm Hay has reminded us, the government was in credit. She bought the Ark Royal from Drake—from Ralegh—she was originally called Ralegh—for £5,000, which was paid in tally sticks, and the burning of the tally sticks is what ultimately burnt down Parliament, but that’s another story. This is our principal trade. These are our goods, and 90 per cent of them go by sea. What we should still be saying is we are relying on [inaudible] 90 per cent of everything, so there is a £100 billion deficit on trading goods. Let’s move on to the next one.

[Slide 5 – Figures showing devalution of sterling] Let’s look at what my poor great uncle Stafford Cripps had to deal with. In 1947, when he used to lead me on my pony which had never been broken in and seemed to be calm when he was leading it but bucked me off otherwise, he explained to me why he had to devalue the pound to pay for vital war [inaudible] from the Americans, all those ships that they charged us for; we only finished paying for them a couple of years ago. Look at the decline of sterling over that period of time from 1947 to 2000—quite significant. It all got camouflaged a bit when the euro came in. John, could we move on to the next one?

[Slide 6 – Painting of a clipper in full sail] Oh my God. Completely the wrong one. This actually is a painting that my cousin [name inaudible] produced, because my family—Malcolm—half of my name—on the Scottish side found in Scotland that things were poor after the Napoleonic wars, and they went off to Australia and went to Tasmania. Malcolm [name inaudible], my great-great-grandfather, after whom I’m named, a young captain, ran around off King Island. The lascars took to the rigging when the crew were aboard. He stayed on board and then, lashed to the spar by the cabin boy, made it—well, he didn’t make it; he drowned. That is the story, and I love it. Now, are we in a difficult economic position? Possibly we are. Let’s move on.

[Slide 7 – Police in rowing boat near Tower Bridge] My police friends are beginning to show the way. They were the first to take the international route, and there they are passing the City of London. And look what the City of London with all its financial services has done, including the art world. We’ll move to the next one.

[Slide 8 – Graph showing increasing money made by UK-based financial services] [The figures] have gone up like that. But this is what is difficult: they hide somewhere, and suddenly they disappear into a hedge fund somewhere else in the world. Never mind. That should weigh the balance, but we don’t make things.

[Slide 9 – Map of the world showing locations of all British shipping, 1937] I spent a long time in this House when I was young, trying to save the shipbuilding industry. I didn’t realise that I was so young that I was human cannon-fodder. I spoke all night and I was accused of filibustering. But then at the end of the day the Department of Transport gave me that as a Christmas present. It is the position of international ships at sea three weeks after I was born in 1937. It’s really quite evocative. It actually proves what we were was worldwide even in those days, and we have to be worldwide because there is no future unless we are.

[Slide 10 – Three world maps: extent of British empire in 1914, French empire in 1914 and Soviet empire in mid-80s] So I thought, “Let’s have a look at what we can put together”. I looked at the British empire in 1914 and looked at the French empire in 1914, and I then looked at the Soviet Union empire at the height of the Cold War. So that’s a map of the world. Maps are evocative. How do we put things together? I said some time ago, “What about merging the [inaudible]? Much to their own surprise.

[Slide 11 – Figures showing comparative length of national coastlines – top figure is for the Commonwealth] Coastlines. Now, as you will know, the British coastline is longer than that of India. Does that mean anything? It means we‘ve got lots of in-and-outs, but in-and-outs are good for shellfish. We used to catch £45 million of shellfish a year. [inaudible] When you look at the Commonwealth, you find we have 44,000 kilometres in length—as much as the former Soviet Union and more than France. But does length of coastline matter? It might do in one place.

[Slide 12 – Graph comparing number of ships per country. The commonwealth dwarfs all the other individual countries along the axis] Then let’s look at the world shipping industry, which is in such a bad state of affairs. If we take the Commonwealth fleet and put that together, we suddenly find that although the biggest may be the Japanese with 4,000, the Commonwealth has got the lot. I have taken each ship, looked at the weight and so on, and said, “Is there anything in that?” Because probably, since we are obliged in some way to the European economy, we should look at their shipping fleet too.

[Slide 13 – Number of ships sailing under red ensign compared with other flags] I had a big idea one day when they removed radio licences. I thought that anyone who flew the red ensign or who wore the red ensign—I’m still not sure which way it should be, and everyone has their view—ought to pay something each year for that privilege. So I proposed to introduce a flag tax. I asked questions in Parliament and went to see Ministers. I asked if they could please tell me how many foreign-owned vessels there were that were using the red duster or a Union flag in the corner. They couldn’t tell me because there was no registry. That is surprising enough, for all the ship that. according to my last parliamentary question to the Department of Trade and Industry, effectively have the right to travel.

Now, there is some thought about this. Anyone who does fly the flag might be willing to make some form of voluntary contribution to security, to safety, to training, anything of that sort, so I tried it out on people. We talked about super-yachts. There are 50 super-yachts over 100 metres and 100 super-yachts over 50 metres. I said, “What would they pay?” Someone—one of the experts—said he was prepared to pay the price of an expensive dinner a year. I said, How much is that?” They said, “Oh, £10,000”. I thought that if the Navy were to be agreeable, we would take this up [inaudible] on to them the right to the protection of Her Majesty’s Navy—consuls, proconsuls and plenipotentiaries, wheresoever they be upon the face of the earth.

[Slide 14 – Map of the world’s oilfields] Then I look at the world of oil. This is just a map of roughly where it is. Don’t worry—it’s everywhere. So were we, and so should we be.

[Slide 15 – Photo of wind turbine with 19th-century ship behind it] Are we going to end up, if we can’t afford our oil safety, effectively with wind farms? It’s a jolly good picture, but I couldn’t see whether it was a French or Italian vessel behind. Maybe we will.

Finally, if we go to the last picture… [Slide 16 - I can't glean enough clues from the audio to help me remember] Oh, sorry, we’ve got one more. [inaudible] supply chain [inaudible] I rather thought Admiral Hudson would say something about this so I grabbed this one quickly when I was putting this together. What they’ve done is put all the points on the map [inaudible] of the tropics, and that is the case.

[Slide 17 – Met police in rowing boat on the Seine] Finally, we made it to Paris. It was a great achievement by the Metropolitan Police. They decided too that they would be international. Now, if we haven’t got a Navy to defend us, we can rely upon the police, but also the police have one special team, which you will meet later. John, the last one?

[Slide 18 – Police sniffer dog wearing helmet with semi-automatic firearm lying across its paws] This is a real gun. [inaudible] He acted in the underground [inaudible]. He went out on his own with a piece of string right the way down the tunnel and came back.

Very shortly now, we will be next door for a little event. Encouraged by Anthony, I managed, when having a drink with a friend, to come across the Armada Bell. Lord Northbrook, who is here, didn’t know what he was going to be [asked], but he was drinking quite a lot of my rosé, which you will be receiving tonight, because originally rosé was shipped in the second century BC to the United Kingdom, encouraged by Eleanor of Provence who of course was the mother of Edward I who built this place, and therefore the rosé has a certain significance. The bell is the Armada Bell of that great ship, the Ark. It was sitting in Frank’s new house; it had been burnt down. I picked it up the other day, brought it back to London and took it to the Whitechapel Bell Company. It has dropped a clanger—dropped a clapper—but I think originally when it fell down it dropped a clanger and that’s the origin of “dropped a clanger”.

The bell, which is next door, has been restored by shipwrights, as they are now called—the carpenters of the House of Lords have been promoted—and at exactly four bells, the end of the first dog-watch—Two bells? Four bells?—Anthony is going to ring it. We have been training him to ring it. It has not been rung, of course, since the action at Cadiz. Howard of Effingham, like all good entrepreneurs, grabbed it as a trophy and took it back to his house. It remained there for a while but then it went somewhere else and then fell down from a tower. Frank’s family, through the female line, brought it back.

Now we will move into the gallery next door and, hopefully, because it’s got to be exactly on time—you see, when we have prayers in the Lords, the Lord Speaker comes in and the moment when the vicar, or the bishop, opens his mouth for the first word of the first prayer, Big Ben sounds. So we’ve got a stopwatch exercise. Anthony will ring the bell at exactly the moment when Big Ben strikes six. That will be the moment of celebration.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 8th, 2010 01:58 pm (UTC)
I want to marry Lord Selsdon.
Nov. 8th, 2010 03:09 pm (UTC)
I recently bought my stepson a House of Lords teddy bear.

"What's his name?" he asked me. "Selsdon," I told him. And so it has proved.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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