Did Magna Carta die in vain?

Posted on September 27, 2012

Today’s news of David Cameron’s trouble remembering what Magna Carta means on theLetterman Show inevitably recalls Tony Hancock’s classic “Twelve Angry Men” episode of Hancock’s Half Hour:

With the immortal words:

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?

Hancock reduced the audience to gales of laughter, and secured yet another entry in the annals of comedy history.

And yet, there’s also something rather sad about that clip, echoing down from 1959. If a prime time comedy show made that gag today, how many people in the audience would laugh and how many would be left scratching their heads over what it meant?

If you go to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed – laying the foundation stone of English freedom – you will find a memorial. Its inscription reads

“To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law”

But it was not erected by the British public, or by our Parliamentarians, or our legal institutions. It was put there by the American Bar Association who, it seems, value Magna Carta more than we do.

Perhaps Hancock was right – Magna Carta means nothing to us. She died in vain.

The great events of history are within touching distance of the modern day

Posted on August 04, 2011

The stated topic of this blog is politics, but I reserve the right to stray off into other interesting areas from time to time. This is one of those times.

In one of these pleasingly highbrow moments which proves that the internet is not just about videos of cats and moon-walking budgies, a clip has gone viral on Twitter today showing a 1956 TV appearance of the last surviving eye witness of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination:

By that time the man in question was 96, an impressive achievement for a lifelong pipesmoker born in the mid-19th Century.

The video itself is an interesting historical curio, but the message it carries is even more interesting. We tend to think of history as being distant – particularly that history which is not recorded in colour or even in film or sound. In reality, though, it’s remarkably close.

I’m told that as a small child I met a lady in her 90s who had when a small child herself met someone whose father fought at the Battle of Waterloo. That’s three degrees of separation between me in the 21st century and a British soldier in 1815. Similarly there must be quite a number of people still living who met the gentleman in the Lincoln video.

Taking the social theory of everyone in the world being at most six degrees of separation from one another, and flipping it into time rather than geography, it’s easy to see that these events which seem so far away and long ago are actually almost within touching distance.

How times have changed

Posted on September 30, 2010

I wouldn’t normally just repost something from elsewhere but this post made such a neat point so succinctly I thought it’d be worthwhile just this once:

“This is Chauncy Morlan, and around 100 years ago his obesity was so shocking that people would pay money to see him as he toured the country as a circus “fat man”. I find the unremarkableness of his size to be a telling sign of how we’ve pushed the limits of obesity in the past 100 years. Imagine, if you will, what society would look like if 100 years from now if what passed as spectacularly obese today would not even turn heads at the mall.” (from Modeled Behaviour)

It’s unusual to get such a stark example of changing attitudes and social norms from history, but this is a remarkable one. Are there any others anyone can think of?