Tuesday, June 19, 2012

One way ticket

A cousin recently mailed me an image file showing a painting of Henry VIII being beseeched by a woman on her knees, presumably one of the wives he sentenced to death. Below that is the logo of the London Underground and next to it the words: "A return trip to the Tower, and a single for my wife". It turns out this is a genuine ad that was used by the London Underground in 1977 and praised by a member of the House of Commons in these words: "It is that kind of imaginative approach which visitors to London find so interesting." On searching the web I also found a more recent ad, for an exhibition at the Tower of London titled: "Henry VIII: Dressed to Kill".

Of course old Henry did a lot of things both good and bad. He founded Trinity College and I dined for three months under his glowering portrait. But he had two of his six wives beheaded, along with a number of others. During the execution at the Tower of London, in 1541, of a certain Lady Salisbury, the axe failed to fall correctly and the half-beheaded lady sort of ran around the room for a while until they could get her head properly off, for which they had to hack her 11 more times. I was told this story in the room where it happened!

The British love these stories, as you can see from the way Henry VIII features in government-sponsored advertising. Mysteriously his life does not make British culture look barbaric -- while similar stories of barbarism in the history of the Orient tend to rub off on contemporary citizens, who still have to live with the image of being marauding Turks and Afghans for example.

An example is Timur the Lame. Wikipedia tells us he "stood forth in history as the supreme example of soulless and unproductive militarism. On the other hand, Timur is also recognized as a great patron of art and architecture, while he interacted with Muslim intellectuals such as Ibn Khaldun and Hafez." But ever since I've heard the name I've only associated it with barbarism (his sweeter side never came across) and I'm pretty sure the Turks don't make jokes about his violent methods. Nor do the Indians find his great-great-grandson Babar particularly funny...

No comments: