Sunday, 19 June 2011

What to do about presents

Chinese Bell Tower, Arboretum, Nottingham
I'm useless at buying presents. Always have been. I remember as a young teenager buying my Mother a set of three pottery flying geese that you hung on the wall - they were all the rage 50 years ago. "O good, something else to dust" was the retort, but to be fair to her she did hang them on the living room wall, and if I was honest, they were crap. I've bought CD's of music the person didn't particularly like, or already had a copy because it was their favourite music. I've bought books that family or friends already had. I've bought perfume and toiletries that partners couldn't stand the smell of, and as the last haven of desperate men, I've bought tokens, or even worse, given cash.

Cash gives the impression that you couldn't be bothered; that you didn't care. But this wasn't true of me, I really did care; I really did put an effort in, but when it came to buying a present for someone I loved, it was as if my mind went blank, I just couldn't creatively think of something worthwhile. I have a corner in one of my cupboards where there are presents I've bought and never given, because at the last minute I felt that they were awful. I've books in my bookcase that were bought as presents and never sent for the same reason, and I've never read them. I don't think that I've ever heard the words, "Thanks John, that's an amazing present". And neither should I, because my presents never have been amazing. It's because I'm useless at buying presents. Call it an excuse if you like, but I know the truth.

2nd Anglo-Chinese War 1857 - 1860
Imagine if you will the year 1857; the place China. The Anglo-Chinese War had begun (known as the Opium War). This was a time of aggressive British imperialism. The French and Americans were also involved in treaties with the Chinese.

A treaty had been negotiated in good faith between Britain and China, but Britain demanded that the Qing authorities renegotiate it. They refused. Why? The British demands included opening all of China to British merchants; legalising the opium trade; exempting foreign imports from internal transit duties; suppression of piracy; regulation of the coolie trade; permission for a British ambassador to reside in Beijing, and for the English language version of all treaties to take precedence over the Chinese. Little wonder they refused, and the 2nd Anglo - Chinese War began. The city of Canton was captured in 1857, and one of the regiments involved was the 59th (or 2nd) Nottingham Regiment of Foot.

Imagine the General in charge of the Nottingham Regiment thinking that it would be a good idea to send a present back to their home city by way of celebration, but what should it be? I know, let's loot the local temple, and send them back a bell. Keep that imagination going. The city fathers of Nottingham are sitting in congress, and have just received the news. "Great, a bell. Nice thought, but what the hell are we going to do with it?"

They came up with a solution, which wasn't let's put it in the basement and just bring it out when the Generals in town. The Nottingham Arboretum had opened just five years previously, so the Borough Engineer, Marriott Ogle Tarbottom was asked to design a structure to house the bell. This he did in 1857, and the Chinese Bell Tower was built in 1862 as a war memorial. Allen's Illustrated Guide to Nottingham (1888) called this structure 'The War Trophy'. The current bell is not the original one, as that was removed to the Regimental Museum in 1956. I'm not sure that the General had thought through this present, for this simple gift cost the City of Nottingham a fortune to house it. It's a bit like being given a DVD/Blue Ray player as a present, and finding that your oldish TV won't support it, so you have to spend £500 to get a new TV.

The local historian, Robert Mellors wrote about the Chinese Bell Tower in 1926. In a rare insight into his views, we can take China, and substitute it for any country that we have no business to go to war with. "Is it not a pity that the memory of wars that might have been avoided, and brought us no national credit, should have thus been perpetuated? The Chinese War was to compel China to open its ports to our commerce, which included opium, and which they were determined not to have. The bell should remind us that it is our national duty to see that justice is done by other powers to China as a sovereign state, and that treaties which were wrung from her should now be revised with equity".

Crimean War 1853 - 1856
Let there be one last present to consider. The Crimean War in Russia in the middle of the 19th Century, is perhaps best remembered through Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. Who could not be moved by the words;

"Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred".

This was the Battle of Balaclava on the 25th October 1854. However, in close proximity during 1854/1855 the Battle of Sebastopol occurred.

Map of the Crimea
What brought about the Crimean War? It was a question of territory, as it is with most wars. In May 1853 the Russians threatened to invade the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia unless the Ottoman Sultan surrendered to their demands.

Lord Palmerston, Home Secretary, argued with the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, that Russia should be informed of Britain's intention to go to war if Russia invaded the principalities. Aberdeen objected to all of Palmerston's proposals, but eventually agreed to send a fleet to the Dardanelles in aid of the Turkish navy. Due to bad weather, the fleet were forced to take refuge in the Dardanelles Straits, which Russia took to be in violation of the prevailing convention of 1841. Russia therefore invaded the two principalities, and on the 28th March 1854, Britain and France declared war on Russia. To be honest, I can't totally understand why we were there in the first place, but then I've said the same thing about Iraq and Afghanistan.

The battle of Sebastopol was a success for the British, and four captured cannons were presented to Nottingham in 1859. These cannons were placed on the four corners of the base holding the Chinese Bell Tower, even though this was two or three years before the tower itself was built. Two of the cannons were removed during the second world war, possibly as part of the war effort to reclaim metal. Replicas were put in their place. But who gave the cannons to Nottingham?

It is believed that they were given by Lord Palmerston, who around the same time had given two cannons to the Arboretum in Derby. He was obviously fond of giving away cannons as presents, and it does make you wonder if he'd put in an order to the Commanders in the field at Sebastopol, "I'll take six please, they'll do nicely for Christmas". I like the Bell Tower as an ornamental feature though.

I've worried about buying presents that were useful, but here we have a Chinese Bell and Russian Cannons which are far from useful, as all they are is expensive to keep up, they just sit there, and three of the five items are not even real any more.

Perhaps that's all a present should be; something that just sits there, reminding the recipient of the giver, and the background of the gift. Have I the courage to try that one out at the next family birthday? Look out Chris, it could be you.

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