Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tales from the Slippery Slope: II

Yesterday evening I found the Slippery Slope dark and empty except for Keith the landlord talking to Fr Hawker at the bar. The priest seemed to have just come in. When he saw me he took off his overcoat and sat on a stool.
“We might as well wait here to see who shows up,” he said. “I doubt there’ll be trouble finding a table.” Keith asked what we’d have. I wished him a good evening and asked for a pint of bitter; Fr Hawker asked for the same. While Keith pulled the pints he remarked that it would be nice when he could open up onto the deck.
“I suppose it’ll be some time before the weather is warm enough for long enough,” said Fr Hawker, “or even to do without a fire.”.
“That’s right,” said Keith, and handed us our pints.
We drank in companionable silence for a while, chatting about minor personal affairs. The pub door opened, and a lovely breeze came in, along with Tom Chllingworth and John Strype, who were discussing something heatedly. On this Fr Hawker got up and led me over to the table by the fire to welcome our friends, who stopped their talk long enough to greet us.
The pause wasn’t long. “Everybody knows he said it!” said Strype as if that clarified everything. Then he looked at the priest and me: “Oh, sorry. Tom has been trying to tell me that C. D. Howe never said “What’s a million?” He looked at Chillingworth as if he had three heads. Just then Keith came by to take drink orders.
When the beer arrived, Tom said to me, “Will, I'm aware that when you hear the words ‘Everybody knows’ you reach for your automatic, so I'm sure you’ve heard that “What’s a million” was what the Opposition made out of a remark in a War Appropriations debate, but that Howe really said something like “A million dollars from the War Appropriations Bill would not be a very important matter."
I replied quickly, “Well, actually Tom, I’ve never really looked into it. I’ve seen things, but that's not to say that I know anything. For that I’d have to look up Hansard and old newspapers. It’s enough for me to know that everybody remembers that it was said. And I'm not about to bother” Since John seemed ready to leap back into the fray I quickly added, “Anyway, what brought this on?”
“Oh, John was going on as he usually does about governments and their cavalier spending habits, and used the “What’s a million” line as an example. So rather than get into a serious discussion on a Thursday evening, I used your favourite trick and derailed the argument with a quibble.
Just as I was starting to carefully distinguish my usual objections from quibbles, Fr Hawker said, “Cavalier spending — hmmm— reminds me of a story — more of an anecdote really — about making spendthrift ruler realize the value of money.
John said, “Sorry, Father, but no stories till after we’ve eaten!’
“All right," he replied, and called over to the bar, “Keith! what’s Mark worked up for us tonight?” Mark is Keith's son, who had trained as a chef, and shares a flat above the pub with his friend David, who waits on tables and for admission to grad school.
The landlord called over, “Rabbit in a mustard sauce, small white potatoes boiled and green peas. There’s a consommé and salad.”
Dinner was a pleasant as it sounded, and with the excellent house wine it was enjoyed by all. At last we were sitting back comfortably, and Fr Hawker said, “Now let me tell you how about the value of money.
“When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne as James I ….”
I had to interrupt. “James VI & I! I can never help reading that in a book title as “James the Sixth and I,” as if it were the author’s memoirs of court”. A bit arrogant, eh?
The painful silence that ensued was broken by Tom. “And you never get tired of saying it, do you. Let Fr Hawker get on with it.”
So the priest began again,
James VI & I and Robert Cecil's Lesson on the Value of Money

When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne, he must have felt as if he has been made king of El Dorado. In Scotland in those days there wasn’t a lot of money in use. The English used to sneer that a Scottish pound wouldn’t pay for the shoeing of a horse. But James was generous, and had favourites, always an expensive combination.
Some said that Robert Cecil, his principal secretary, whom he later made lord treasurer, had persuaded him that the treasure left by Elizabeth and the other resources of England were an inexhaustible mine and all he had to do was dig. This wasn’t fair to Cecil, who seems to have been more concerned with curbing James’ profuse spending than inciting it. He once remarked to the Earl of Shrewsbury that so many people came to the King for relief of their poverty that he scarcely know how to get money for the day-to-day needs of the royal household.
In his "Traditional Memoirs of the Reign of King James," Francis Osborne tells how Cecil tried to teach the King the cost of extravagance. This story must have happened after 1608, when Cecil became treasurer, and before 1612, when he died. Osborne gives no dates, and I don’t know where he got the story.
James’ first English favourite was a young man named Robert Carr. At one point in Carr’s rise in favour and influence, he had obtained from the King a peremptory warrant to the Treasurer for £200,000. When Cecil saw this warrant he realized, as Osborne put it, that “not only the Exchequer, but the Indies themselves” would in time be unable to feed so immense a prodigality, and that he would have to find a way to show the King the value of what was demanded, fearing that he would easily be led into even greater expenditures. The plan he hit upon was simply to put £200,000 in gold on the floor of a room that he knew the King would be passing through.
When the King went into the chamber, he was amazed at the quantity of money, perhaps more than he had ever seen before, and asked the treasurer, “Whose money is that?
Cecil answered, “Your Majesty’s, before you gave it away.” At this James fell into a violent passion, and crying out that he was abused, and had never meant to give any such gift, he threw himself down on the heap of gold and, quickly grabbing two or three hundred pounds, swore that Carr should have no more.
So he learned his lesson – at least for the moment. What almost spoils the story is that he learned the lesson too well, and Cecil had to backtrack. Carr was still the favourite after all, or as Osborne says, the “minion,” and it wouldn’t do to put his nose that far out of joint. So Cecil had to calm the king down, speak in favour of Carr, and with no little difficulty, get him half the original sum.

We didn’t say much about finance after that. For my part I was afraid anything I could say would make James I seem like an expert in economics. Tom sighed and wished that we could track down where old writers got these anecdotes, and that got us off onto discussing sources and footnotes, and that kept us happy till Tom called “Time” and I toddled off with the priest to the Rectory, a nightcap, and slumber.

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