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Orczy

Today is November 12th, so to whom shall I send a greeting card, and which card will it be?

It’s the anniversary of the death of Baroness Orczy (1865-1947), the author of the Scarlet Pimpernel books and play. Her hero, Sir Percy Blakeney, pretends to be an ineffectual dandy, while secretly being the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel, an adventurer who bravely rescues aristocrats from Madame Guillotine during the French revolution and smuggles them to safety in England.

Orczy, whose parents fled from their Hungarian estate in fear of an uprising when she was a child, believed in the superiority of the aristocracy and was an ardent supporter of British Empire. The Pimpernel’s mission to facilitate the escape of imperilled, fellow aristocrats aligned perfectly with her own refugee status and need for acceptance in upper-class, London society. The British public lapped up the romantic derring-do and identified enthusiastically with the entitled, English hero and the victims of revolutionary injustice, even though they might have been from a privileged class and foreign to boot.

The British like nothing more than helping the underdog. Could Sir Percy’s mission be a template for current British foreign policy, applied to refugees fleeing Syria and Afghanistan, who now find themselves on Hungarian and Polish borders and the French side of the English Channel? These poor souls, including children and orphans, may not be from aristocratic families but they deserve to be rescued from their predicament. Just as the guillotine unfairly chose many of its victims by labelling all aristocrats as corrupt, so anti-immigration laws and government policies unjustly deny innocent individuals their right to life and decent treatment just because they are refugees and many in number. While governments try to push back against migration, a dark cloud hangs over our values as a society.

My choice of card reflects the darkness of the present hour. The image shows Notre-Dame de Paris with its splendid spire, la flèche (the arrow), as it used to be before the conflagration of 2019. The cathedral was trashed also in the 1790s by revolutionary mobs, angry at the role of the church and at its royal connections. It was restored to its important national position and magnificence during the 19th century. Whether that restoration refurbished its religious mission is another matter, which might also be the case with the efforts to rebuild after the recent fire. The physical is much easier to mend than the metaphysical.

Here, on our card, the light of hope fringes the cathedral, a sign that might (if a building can be faithful to the holy message) stand for the dawn of human generosity and kindness. I think the Baroness would approve the symbolism. If you are sceptical of that interpretation, you could, alternatively, construe the electric imagery as a divine thunderbolt directed at a hypocritical symbol of nationalistic institutionalism.

The card should go to the Prime Minister and Home Secretary with a reminder that the British public, despite the bouts of jingoistic ranting and posturing by the press, has a proud history of doing the right thing by persecuted refugees. “We”, the British people, including our politicians (and these politicians in particular), all have origins elsewhere. “They”, refugees, should not be denied a civil welcome to this or other safe countries, just because they miss the boat, arrive at closed borders with little or nothing of market value, or resort to desperate and risky means of reaching safe harbour. We should do the right thing.

 

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