Friday, May 18, 2018

Skip the wedding, reflect on how Chicago once hated British royalty


     Are you kidding? Get up at 6 a.m. Saturday to watch a royal wedding?
     Another royal wedding? Didn't we just have one of these, what, just seven years ago? How many more do we need?
     And no, I'm not drawn in by the bride's Northwestern connection — hail to purple, hail to white and best of luck to all fellow alumni. But it's important, with all the crazily-obsessive media attention building for months, to give permission to ignore the festivities, even sneer at them. To remind ourselves that not only do Americans reject the notion of royalty — it's kinda how our nation came to be — but Chicago has a particular history of despising British aristocracy.
     The oft-cited quote is Mayor William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson's threat against King George V: "If George comes to Chicago, I'll crack him in the snoot." The common assumption is that this was a tossed-off remark, perhaps to appeal to Irish voters.

      It was not. Rooting out the British menace was the linchpin of Thompson's 1927 mayoral bid, what one historian called "one of the most absurd campaigns ever waged in an American municipal election."I will not rest until I have purged this entire city of the poison that's being injected into the heart of American youth," Thompson said appointing a gambling buddy as special commissioner to weed British influence from Chicago's libraries and schools.
     Needless to say, Thompson won. A reminder that Donald Trump didn't invent getting elected by damning foreigners, he merely refined it.
     Ridiculing the English is uniquely satisfying and consequence-free; I'm surprised people don't do it far more often. While most nationalities have weaponized their cultural pride, the English can be mocked openly, boldly denounced as swine, provided of course you reach for the proper literary fig leaf, such as D.H. Lawrence's deathless rant: "Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates ... the sniveling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulseless lot that make up England today."


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The photographs are "Distortographs" of William Hale Thompson by British photographer Herbert George Ponting, mostly known for his Arctic photographs of the Scott Expedition. In 1927, he patented a lens attachment he called  the “variable controllable distortograph ... a revolutionary optical system for photographing in caricature or distortion,” submitting these photos of Thompson along with his application. While I have found no evidence connecting Thompson's anti-English campaign to these creations, due to the timing, a link seems likely.  (Photos used with permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) 

8 comments:

  1. Uh oh...I just set my coffee cup on the Sun-Times and left a big sloppy ring on the royal couple. The Queen isn't one of those "Off with his head!" types, is she?

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  2. " The English, the English the English are best.
    I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest." Flanders and Swan

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  3. My father was the dearest man, he worked his brains out to support us and never once complained, but he had certain...intellectual eccentricities. One of these was a visceral and almost comically absurd hatred of the British. It was so all-encompassing that if he even saw a movie with a bumbling or buffoonish character, he would declare that it was part of the British conspiracy to make Americans look like idiots.

    None of us could figure out where this came from. He had never been to England (or anywhere else outside the U.S., except the South Pacific during World War II), nor, as far as we knew, known any British people. Finally I put it down to his having absorbed the ranting of Col. McCormick that the war was just a big bailout of the British. But this really made no sense either, since he was a lifelong liberal who loathed, along with the British, reactionaries like McCormick.

    This column makes me understand a little better what might have been going on in his head. Yet one more example of how demagogues who win elections by sowing hate leave a hateful crop in the ground to sprout.

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    1. If I were to make a list of "un-American things", royalty would be near the top. Celebrity politicians would be right up there, too.

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    2. Col. McCormick's hate against the British Empire is a bit unfathomable, as he affected the dress and manners of an English gent.

      Coverage of the wedding started the day off in a sunny fashion, with Neil's column bringing to mind the gentle put down by Flanders and Swan of the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh. Which led to a look up of Tom Lehrer's "National Brotherhood Week." Depressing only in the recognition that no such wits bestride the public stage these days.

      But then, the sunny mood couldn't last all that long. It's Friday, and there is a school massacre in Texas. Ten dead.

      Tom

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  4. My wife's college roommate is obsessed with the Royals (the family, not the baseball team) the way some people are obsessed with sports franchises (like me, for one...I have a Cub Room in my house). She has a "Royal Room"...books and other stuff going as far back as Edward VII (the father of George V) and even some Victoriana. Makes it very easy to give her birthday and Christmas presents. Many of the objects in that room came from us.

    Royal weddings? Pish-posh. They are nothing, compared to what happens when a British monarch dies and the successor ascends to the throne. Royal weddings are just the playoffs...a Coronation is the Super Bowl and the World Series and the Final Four...all on the same day. It's not even all about the new monarch...it's the ritual that counts, a ceremony going back at least a thousand years. When Edward VIII abdicated before his coronation to marry a commoner, back in the Thirties, preparations proceeded. It was business as usual. Even the date of Edward's would-be ceremony was unchanged. George VI quietly took his place. Life went on.

    Unlike the immediate swearing-in of a new chief executive after an American president dies in office, planning for British coronation ceremonies last the better part of a year. It's a really big deal.
    I'm old enough to remember the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II...the first one ever televised, in glorious black-and white. Instead of getting up to watch the event in the wee hours, Americans saw it later that day, after a six-hour time delay. RAF fighter jets flew the film to Canada, where it was televised. The signal was picked up by a TV station in Maine, and relayed to the rest of the country. The whole process was considered to be a technological miracle in 1953.

    And after Elizabeth dies, the crowning of Charles III will be an even bigger spectacle. Perhaps it will be William, if she outlives her son. The tired old joke is that Charles has had the longest career as a waiter in the history of the planet, 65 years and counting. And a heads-up to collectors: If you come upon a commemorative coronation plate for Edward VIII, jump on it. It's only worth a few bucks, but it's more valuable as a cultural and historical oddity...a never-was. Similar to "JFK Second Inaugural, 1965"...or "Chicago Cubs, World Champions,1984."

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  5. Hasn't Trump already made some absurd remark about the wedding? If not, it's a cinch he will sooner or later. Wish the Trump Show were a comedy and not a tragedy.

    john

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    1. He's probably miffed...or even pissed...that he was purposely not invited, like the drunken uncle that you know would make a spectacle of himself, and try to make the day all about HIM. Since Daddy isn't coming, he might even want to walk the bride down the aisle. Drunken uncles are like that. They really are. My wife had one, who made a botch of many family gatherings.

      Unfortunately, Unca Donald just happens to be the Current Occupant of the Oval Orifice, and he has the nuclear codes. I still can't believe we're in this mess. I used to have nightmares and wake up to find everything was okay. Now I go to sleep and everything's pretty much okay. But then I wake up...

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