Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The English teacher

In which we see a corrupt aristocrat administer a revolutionary lesson

The Felix

Chronicles, # 20

(adapted from the current edition of the ECF Reporter magazine)

It’s the fall of 1760, and Benjamin Franklin has done it again: the wily Pennsylvanian has convinced the British colonial administration to finance the first annual Society of American Pioneers Convention somewhere in America in 1762. Franklin has persuaded His Majesty’s government that an event like this is a desirable means to inter-colonial cooperation in commerce and military affairs in anticipation of the coming victory in the war with France. What he didn’t quite succeed is in getting a commitment to hold the convention in Philadelphia. There’s a lot at stake for the city that does play host to the event, including bragging rights, revenue from free-spending convention-goers, and a potential boost to the regional economy if the British government commits serious financial resources for postwar development.

Four cities are in the running to host the convention: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston. All the New England colonies, naturally, are in Boston’s corner. The Southern colonies of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia are for Charleston. New York has the support of its colony and East Jersey; Philadelphia has the backing of Pennsylvania, Delaware and West Jersey. Representatives of each of these colonies will caucus and present a pitch on behalf of their city before a noted colonial administrator based in Albany. Your team’s job is to develop the best pitch you think will lead the convention being awarded to the city you represent.

That administrator’s name is Lord Damien Moretaker. Lord Moretaker is, to put it mildly, skeptical of this whole idea. He thinks of the colonists as ungrateful children, and the whole idea of a convention as an incredibly stupid waste of time and energy. But he needs to stay on the Prime Minister’s good side, so he’ll go along with all this nonsense. Just keep in mind that this is not a man who suffers fools gladly and probably would rather be in a London whorehouse than a stuffy meeting room in near Albany.

Lord Moretaker [that would be me, wearing a purple graduation gown and a mop for a wig, both of which have been procured from the performing arts department] bursts into the room. “All right then,” he intones in a loud but wan voice. “I am Moretaker. Now let’s get this hideous exercise behind us.”

The students, unprepared for such an abrupt entrance, are disoriented but amused. They take a moment to realize that Lord Moretaker is serious, and return to position in the clusters of desks around the room. “Boston?” He asks. “Where are the people who represent this pimple on the arse of the British Empire?” Uneasy laughter.

The reliable Susan is the group’s spokesperson. “We believe the conference should be held in Boston,” she says, “because Boston is the commercial capital of New England.”

“Well, that makes you a giant among pygmies,” Lord Moretaker observes. “My understanding is that Boston is declining in importance as an imperial port.”

“Well, yes,” she says tentatively, probably as much because this is news to her as much as grudgingly conceding the point. “But –”

Jason leaps to her rescue. “We have a wonderful education system in Boston, she notes. Maybe you’ve heard of Harvard University?”

“What in God’s name is a ‘university’?”

“I mean Harvard College.”

“That’s Harvard College, my Lord.” Snickers.

Harvard College, my Lord.”

“Well what has Hovel College got to do with anything?”

Susan has recovered. “Because we believe that our people should be educated – ”

Moretaker cuts her off. “Let me get this straight,” he says. “You believe that having a lot of educated people is a good thing?”

“Yes, my Lord,” says Lisa. “We believe people should be well informed. People should know what’s going on in the world and have their own ideas.”

“So every idiot is supposed to have an opinion? And this is why we should have this conference in Boston?” The other teams are greatly entertained to see these girls getting a hard time.

“Yes, my Lord.”

“How charming,” Moretaker says with a mirthless smile. “All right, then.” Moretaker turns away from this group and is about to speak when Lisa interrupts. “My Lord –”

Moretaker scowls. “I have a few more reasons why Boston should host the conference,” she begins.

“That’s enough,” Moretaker snaps.

“But –”

“That’s enough!” The class laughs at this flat rejection of a good student’s work. Lisa and her team look upon Moretaker with a combination of amusement and shock. (Will they credit for doing all that homework?)

New York,” Moretaker says. “Where’s New York?”

"Right here, my Lord," Joey replies on behalf of his group. He looks confident, even cocky: He’s picked up the rules of this particular game and he thinks he can win. “My Lord, we believe that New York will be an excellent location for the inter-colonial conference. First of all, New York has much better weather than Boston. Boston is wet and cold –”

“– while New York is a tropical paradise?” Moretaker asks sarcastically. “You’re going to have to do better than that, New York.”

“Well, My Lord, I believe we can. New York is surrounded by water on three sides, and has a very good deep water port.”

“Hmmm,” Moretaker says, absorbing this, apparently approvingly. “And what about the Dutch? Is New York still a Dutch-infested city?”

“Well yes, my Lord. Actually, New York is a very diverse city. We have many different kinds of people here who –”

“Oh it is, is it? And this diversity you describe is a good thing?”

“Well, yes.”

“Now I’ve heard everything,” Moretaker says, genuinely amused. “Thank you, New York.”

But Joey isn’t ready to give up yet. “Your brother, my Lord.”

“Edmund? What about him?”

“Well, we believe that New York is a city of opportunity, even for people with a drinking problem, and –”

“Who said anything about Edmund having a drinking problem?”

“Oh. No one. I’m sorry, my Lord. I only meant to say that we may be able to work out something for him and other veterans.” Joey’s voice trails off. His partner, Ben, is smilingly approvingly.

“Oh we will, will we?” Moretaker pauses to gaze inscrutably at Joey. “Thank you, New York. Philadelphia?”

“That’s us, my Lord,” Lisa says brightly. Her team makes a brisk presentation emphasizing Philadelphia’s dynamic growth and location in the middle of the North American colonies. It enjoys relatively good relations with Indians, and has a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Lord Moretaker is visibly bored, and becomes more so as the presentation proceeds. He yawns; he squirms in his chair. His head begins to bob noticeably. Lisa’s partner Katie makes some mention of Benjamin Franklin, and Moretaker suddenly perks up.

“Did you say Benjamin Franklin?”

“Yes, my Lord. As you may know, having an inter-colonial conference was his idea.”

“Oh I know, all right,” Moretaker responds irritably. “We all know about the positively marvelous Mr. Franklin. Let me ask you something. Is Mr. Franklin actively lobbying to for Philadelphia to be awarded this conference?”

Lisa looks confused. But she’s smart enough to adjust her script in light of the circumstances. “I’m not sure, my Lord.”

“Not sure, huh? Very well then. I think I’ve heard enough about Mr. Franklin. Charleston! Where’s Charleston?”

“We are Charleston,” says Nate. “My Lord, we’re in a really good location. Right near the Caribbean. We think you should hold your conference here.”

“I can assure you that this will not be my conference,” Moretaker replies.

“Well OK, Nate continues. "But we also want you to know that we are fully prepared to show you and your brother a really good time. The class laughs – apparently at both the idea and the fact that it’s Will who’s pitching it.

Moretaker shows no visible reaction. “After a pause, he asks: And what about the Negroes?”


“Yes, the Negroes. I hear they murder their masters in their beds.” More laughter.

“Oh no, My Lord. We have the Negroes under control. You and Edmund will have a really good time.”

“A good time,” Moretaker repeats. He turns suddenly to Joey. “New York, say a few words more about what you have in mind for my brother.”

Despite its unexpected arrival, Joey is ready for this opening. “Oh, there’s all kinds of things we can do. Programs for lots of veterans like Joey. Why, we can –”

“Yes of course, the veterans,” Moretaker interrupts. Excellent. All right then, he announces to the class. “After hearing your presentations I have made my decision. New York will host this conference, pending some final arrangements. You will be hearing from his majesty’s administrators for colonial affairs shortly. Now I am going to see if I can’t find me a half-decent glass of port in this reeking Dutch sinkhole of a village.” He departs without salutations.

I return to the room a moment later, sans costume, amid some smiles and a few mock scowls. “So, I ask, what did you learn?”

“I learned that Lord Moretaker is a real jerk,” Lisa says.

“A real arsehole,” Katie says, prompting laughter.

“Careful,” I say. “He might just hear you.”

“I couldn’t believe how corrupt he was,” Lisa says.

“Well, that’s the way a lot of people felt at the time about the British Empire, in the late eighteenth century” I reply. “That it was poorly run mostly by people who were in it only for themselves. Fortunately, we know that the world doesn’t work that way any longer.” Some smiles at that.

“Let me ask you something,” Susan says. “Was this whole thing decided from the very beginning? That the conference was going to go to whoever did the best job of bribery with Edmund?”

I smile. “Now that wouldn’t be fair, would it?” I reply. “See you tomorrow,” I say, pulling open the door.