Wednesday 25 April 2018

'The lights are going out...'

On the evening of the third of August, 1914, Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, looked out from the window of his room in the Foreign Office to where the lamps were being lit along the Mall. 'The lights are going out all over Europe,' he remarked. 'We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes.' Unlike many of the most famous quotations, this one was genuine, verbatim, and endorsed by the man to whom Grey made the remark, J.A. Spencer, editor of the Westminster Gazette.
It is a truly great quotation, one that evokes a whole world – one of European peace, imperial stability, the golden age of Edwardian England – as it faces its dissolution, localising the impending catastrophe in a simple image of St James's Park and the Mall in a summer dusk as the lamps are lit, one by one.
 Grey (who was born on this day in 1862) is still known for this quotation, but for little else, despite the fact that he was the longest-serving Foreign Secretary we have ever had (1905-1916). That he even became Foreign Secretary, let alone lasted so long in the post, seems wildly improbable in the light of his early years. The well-born Grey naturally went up to Oxford, but was so idle that, even with extra tuition, he only managed a Second in Mods. After this, he devoted most of his time to becoming university champion at real (royal) tennis. Sauntering back to Oxford after a break, he switched to jurisprudence, thinking it might be the cushiest available option, but was expelled after a few months. Allowed back to the university to sit his finals, he managed a Third, the 'gentleman's degree'.
  Not the most auspicious start, then, but after university Grey, putting his misspent youth behind him, suddenly and surprisingly developed a keen interest in politics, sought an opening, found one (he was nothing if not well connected), and became, at the age of 23, the youngest MP in the Commons. So began the illustrious career that would culminate in his long reign as Foreign Secretary.
  As well as his youthful sporting achievements, Grey was also an accomplished fly fisherman, fishing by touch in his later years when his eyesight was failing. Anticipating the legendary J. R. Hartley, Grey published a classic on the subject, titled simply Fly Fishing. He was also a keen ornithologist, writing a book on that too – The Charm of Birds. That's him below, with a robin on his hat.

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