Category Archives: England

Off a-mollocking

Pardon the long silence. I’ve got a post planned and another started, but today I want to ask a trivial but urgent question: why adapt Jamaica Inn? Specifically, why would you adapt Jamaica Inn for TV if you’re completely out of sympathy with the book, or (more charitably) believe your audience will be completely out of sympathy with it?

I’d never read any Daphne du Maurier (or wanted to), but I was a bit short of light reading when the BBC’s adaptation of Jamaica Inn loomed up in the schedules, so I read it over the weekend. It’s a good read, if not always a comfortable one. The first thing to say about it is that atmosphere is everything. From the first chapter the book sets up a very strong opposition between the determined but powerless virtue of the heroine Mary Yellan and the uncontrolled brutality of the huge, violent inn-keeper Joss Flynn; the sickening fear that Mary will be drawn into his power through no fault of her own, and will be broken by him, is set up even before the two have met. There’s a lot more in the book – the romantic fiction sub-plot revolving around the dominating and devil-may-care Jem (“I’ll … take you home to your aunt, but I’ll kiss you first, whether you like it or not”); the excursions into Mary Webb territory, with odd meditations on the pagan past and bursts of nature mysticism; the strange but apparently sympathetic figure of Francis Davey, albino intellectual vicar. But, like Davey’s paintings, it’s all coloured by a strange and compellingly doomy atmosphere, a sense of a virtuous and independent-minded heroine who is threatened with being destroyed and has no power to resist.

To say that somebody could be ‘destroyed’ is obviously figurative – and there is a persistent, unspecific sense that something very bad is likely to happen to Mary. But Du Maurier does something rather clever at this point: she has Joss threaten Mary quite specifically, both with physical violence and with rape, and then tell her that he won’t be carrying out the threat. The reasons he gives for staying his hand vary – at one point it’s because she knows to keep her mouth shut about what goes on at the inn, at another it’s because he likes her independent spirit; obviously, this gives Mary a deeply mixed message. He underlines the point by having Mary work in the bar – which comes to life once a week, in a hellish vision of (male) violence and dissolution – and then telling her that he was the only thing keeping her safe: “Because you’re my niece they’ve left you alone, my dear, but if you hadn’t had that honour – by God, there wouldn’t be much left of you now!” Joss has the delicacy of an abuser, working away to undermine his target’s independence and ensnare her in contradictions (he holds back because he respects her independence, but she’s only independent for as long as he holds back). He’s also a brute, in word and deed (“Now get out, and if you ever ask me a question again I’ll break every bone in your body”). He’s an extraordinary character, and not without a ghastly kind of pathos.

Joss’s violence threatens to destroy Mary not only as a romantic heroine but as an independent person (“I’ll break you until you eat out of my hand the same as your aunt yonder”). The cowed, neurotic figure of Aunt Patience is an object lesson for Mary – this is what she could be reduced to. Patience also provides Mary with a reason to stay at Jamaica Inn until such time as she can get her away – although it’s not clear, to Mary or to us, how she could ever manage this. The threat to Mary’s independence and self-respect is all-pervading; even Jem, whose male power is depicted as alluring rather than threatening, talks of sex in terms of destroying Mary’s individuality: “Do they make you different from other women, then, down on Helford river? Stay here with me tonight, Mary, and we can find out. You’d be like the rest by the time morning came, I’d take my oath on that.” Later in the book, when Mary narrowly escapes being raped and is bound and gagged by two different people, spending most of one crucial scene face down on a beach, the irruption of actual brutality doesn’t come as a surprise; it’s the breaking of a thundercloud which has been building up for two-thirds of the book.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned smuggling – or the worse crimes of which Joss is also guilty, a darker secret lurking behind the relatively open secret of the wagons unloading at midnight. The smuggling is actually fairly incidental to the book: all that matters is that there’s something very bad going on at Jamaica Inn (something which everybody there can see but nobody must talk about), and behind that there’s something even worse (a dreadful secret, kept hidden behind a locked door). Joss is at the core of the book: first he’s set up as a monster of psychological abuse and physical brutality, then he’s depicted in his element, as the landlord of an inn which is only ever frequented by people equally grotesque. The smuggling is part manifestation of Joss’s monstrosity, part answer to the question “how does he make it pay?”.

It’s a very powerful book, but – it’s worth saying – it’s also a very odd book. Until the denouement opens the plot out a bit, only six named characters appear, Mary apart – and five of them are out-and-out grotesques. (The exception is Squire Bassat, the magistrate and sole local representative of law and order, who is at once distant, ineffectual and threatening: when he visits the inn in Joss’s absence, Mary finds herself lying to him, her desire to protect Aunt Patience pushing her further into complicity with Joss.) It’s a vivid study of brutality – psychological as well as physical – and of a certain kind of abjection, both of which are very strongly gendered: throughout the book Mary dreams of buying her own farm and working it alone, “like a man”. One way of understanding the book is perhaps to see it as a fantastic, almost fairy-tale meditation on the conditions for women’s independence in a male-built world – much more of a real possibility when Du Maurier was writing in 1935 than in the book’s early-nineteenth-century setting, but still far from being a problem that had been solved.

If you watched the first part of the BBC dramatisation last night, you won’t have seen very much of this at all. What you will have seen is this. (Italics = element not in the book.)

After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan leaves behind her childhood sweetheart Ned and travels to Jamaica Inn. At the coach’s final stop before crossing the moor, she leaves the coach and bumps into Jem Flynn, a handsome young horse thief. The coachman refuses to take her to Jamaica Inn, so she asks around until she find somebody who will. At Jamaica Inn, her aunt and uncle are not expecting her. Joss Merlyn, her aunt’s husband, is a relatively small and nondescript man with a powerful physical presence. “Is she tame or does she bite?” he asks rhetorically; Mary bites him. Her Aunt Patience is a faded beauty with a spirited and independent nature, although she admits to being frightened of Joss. She is actively involved in Joss’s smuggling operation and justifies it to Mary; Mary disapproves of smuggling because her father was killed by smugglers. Serving at the bar, Mary hears one of Joss’s customers, a man called Zeb, sing a dirty song under his breath while following her around the room; the man tries to rape her and is prevented by Joss. Later, Mary sees Joss murder a man called Abe, an associate who is suspected of informing on him; Joss is reluctant to kill the man, but does so on the instructions of a third man, who is hiding in the store cupboard. The following day, Joss, Patience and some associates make a trip to the coast (in daylight) to retrieve some merchandise which has been thrown overboard; Mary goes along and takes an active part in the salvage operation, hauling on a rope at the head of a group of men. Mary goes to the nearest town and looks for a constable, but is dismayed to find that the local constable is Zeb, the man who had tried to rape her. She finds herself in the local church, where she meets the Reverend Francis Davey, who has a pleasant manner and an unremarkable appearance; he lives with his sister Hannah (their housekeeper, Beth, is the girlfriend of William, the man who had arranged for the merchandise to be thrown overboard). The vicar is called away to speak to a parishioner whose husband Abe had not come home the previous night. On the way home Mary runs into Jem, who rescues her from a bog when she blunders into it…

Enough already. Really, it’s an adaptation in much the same sense that Fifty Shades is an adaptation of the Twilight books. The writer seems to have had a positive compulsion to change the book – altering everything from tiny details (Aunt Patience not having got Mary’s letter) to characters (spirited Patience, conscience-striken Joss, philanthropic Francis Davey). Entire scenes have been invented without regard to plausibility: it’s specifically stated in the book that smugglers don’t collect contraband mob-handed and in broad daylight; Mary, a Cornish native but a newcomer to Jamaica Inn, does have the sense not to wander into a bog but doesn’t know the way back to town. The adaptation even short-circuits a major plot point: the idea that Joss is taking orders from somebody else is floated a couple of times but never seems very believable; it is only confirmed that he had been taking orders when the identity of his boss is revealed, and (in the book) both revelations are equally shocking. (In the book, incidentally, Joss has sole responsibility for the murder; the victim is not a suspected informer but an unnamed man who wanted out of his partnership with Joss. Mary only has circumstantial evidence that the murder happened at all, and nobody else ever refers to it.)

The result is a dramatisation with too much plot, too many characters and too little atmosphere – and a disastrously misjudged reading of the character of Mary. In the book, Mary’s passivity is key to both her virtue and her weakness -attributes which in turn are central to her character: she stays behind the bar, she refuses to have anything to do with anything illegal, and when she does venture out of the inn she’s forever getting picked up by a man in a coach and ending up where he wants to take her. Mary striding through a landscape of thinly-drawn but vaguely believeable characters – instead of a gallery of brutal and mostly nameless grotesques – is bad enough, but the real problem with this adaptation is that it has Mary striding anywhere. The book is all about a helpless but virtuous woman who can only dream of being independent, and the men who – brutally and subtly, viciously and sympathetically – arrange her life around her so that she can never achieve that dream. Lose that and you’ve basically lost the book.

Update The second instalment was, if anything, even less faithful to the book: in the first quarter of an hour there was only one scene that came from the book at all (Mary confides in Francis Davey that bad things are happening at the inn), and even that was barely recognisable. Some of the set-piece scenes were there – Joss’s horrific account of wrecking, Mary’s meal with Jem, the trip to Launceston – but even here fidelity to the book was kept to a bare minimum. (“I thought you had a house,” said Mary to Jem as they sat outside his tent in the woods. You’re not the only one.) The revelation of the identity of the Big Bad, Joss’s unseen superior – a genuinely shocking moment in the book – was thrown away; a weirdly irrelevant sub-plot about Francis Davey running a soup-kitchen was bolted on, as well as a downright unbelievable sub-plot about Mary’s father having also been a smuggler. (Aunt Patience is Mary’s mother’s sister; Mary and her mother were from a completely different part of the county. The women in that family must just have had a thing for smugglers). Above all, the character of Mary rang false, over and over again – and in the same way. In the book, Mary didn’t respond to Joss’s confession with anger and defiance; she didn’t tell Jem to serve himself (in fact she cooked the meal herself, after sweeping up); she didn’t kiss Jem first; she didn’t agree to get a room with him; and she certainly didn’t dress in breeches for the trip to Launceston. (And when she was frocked up, it seems highly unlikely that she would have ridden astride.)

I suppose I can understand somebody reading Jamaica Inn and finding Mary a bit wet and domesticated, but at the end of the day it’s what’s on the page – and with good reason. You can’t replace Mary with an Independent Woman without losing any claim to historical accuracy, or – more importantly – without doing violence to the entire structure of the book.

How can a good man keep the wolf from the door?

Twenty-two years ago today, Peter Bellamy took his own life. He was 47. His discography includes three albums made with the seminal vocal group The Young Tradition and (at a rough count) seventeen solo albums, some only released as privately-produced cassettes. Most of his material was traditional; some consisted of his own settings of poetry, mostly by Rudyard Kipling; some was self-composed. One of his outstanding achievements was the Transports, a self-composed “ballad opera” written in traditional styles and telling the true story of a couple transported to Australia aboard the First Fleet in 1787. He worked with Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, the Watersons, Tony Rose, June Tabor, Dave Swarbrick, Shirley and Dolly Collins… basically, if you can think of a British folkie active in the 70s and 80s, the chances are that he worked with them at some point.

At the same time, Bellamy had a fierce commitment to his own vision – wherever it was leading him at any given time – and a reputation for independence bordering on self-imposed isolation. What his politics were nobody seems quite sure, but he had little time for the Communism of many of the 50s and 60s revivalists, or for the more woolly Guardian-reader liberalism which characterised the later folk scene. Traditional songs were his passion, and if (as it turned out) there were rather few traditional songs about fomenting revolution, going on strike or hunt sabbing, it didn’t bother him; he would sing what was there, even if it was about less right-on topics such as fox-hunting, fighting for England’s glory and loyalty to the boss. Take the political wrong notes this attitude produced, add his fascination with Kipling (the great poet of Victorian Empire), his spiky personality and his insistence on accompanying himself on concertina rather than the more ‘normal’ acoustic guitar, and it’s not entirely surprising that the 1980s – the ebb tide of the folk revival – weren’t kind to him.

By the end of the decade it seems as if the folk world had decided to leave him to it. At around this time of year a few years ago, his friend Michael Grosvenor Myer gave some details of his last days in a thread on Mudcat, from which I’ll quote a couple of lines here:

I remember his once showing me an almost empty forthcoming gigs diary, and saying words to the effect that “I did The Transports, everyone loved and respected it – and from that moment my bookings practically ceased and my career went phhhttt!” … a few days before he died, he spent the entire evening playing right back through all his records, listening carefully and as best he could objectively, and said at the end, “Well, I AM good! What the hell has gone wrong?!”

Was he good? He was an inspired songwriter, a superb interpreter of traditional songs and a unique, unforgettable singer. Yes, he was good. I don’t know what the hell went wrong, but twenty years on folkies up and down the country, from Bellowhead and the Young ‘Uns on down, are paying him the homage of listening to his music and singing his songs. If he’d hung on a few years he could have been massive. How he would have hated that.

Heffle Cuckoo Fair (Kipling/Bellamy)

Minesweepers (Kipling/Bellamy)

The Innocent Hare (traditional)

I once lived in service (Bellamy, arr. Dolly Collins; sung by Norma Waterson)

The fox jumps over the parson’s gate (traditional)

Death is not the end (Dylan)

If there’s a king in Heaven high

Attention conservation notice: just under 8,000 words(!) on varieties of religious experience, the size of the universe and the work of Jeremy Deller. Includes three pictures, one audio clip, one virtual gallery link and two hymns. Hat-tip to Ken Macleod.

1. Nobody knows who they were

The other Sunday we went here:

Sacrilege

It was just about as good as it looks. It was in Preston, for one day only – the day being the final day of Preston Guild, which we also saw a bit of (although we weren’t around for any of the processions). We booked a holiday in Guild Week the last time it came round – in 1992 – so I was glad that we’d showed our faces this time.

I’ll say a bit more about Sacrilege – the “bouncy Stonehenge” created by Jeremy Deller – a bit later. (If you want to skip straight there, find the next mention of Deller’s name.) Now, though, we’ll break for a hymn.

2. Heaven and earth shall flee away

God is working His purpose out
As year succeeds to year;
God is working His purpose out,
And the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time,
The time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

I love that hymn. It’s completely barmy, but I love it. There’s that amazing, exorbitant image of the world being completely transfigured by the glory of God – just as wholly, just as ubiquitously as the sea is wholly and everywhere wet. I think what makes this verse really powerful, oddly, is the combination of that visionary image with the calm plod of the first six lines, which take quiet confidence to a new level of placidity: it will happen, it will definitely happen, and what’s more it will happen within a finite, countable period, such that we can actually say that the passage of time is bringing us nearer to the time when it will happen, as it definitely will. Sorry, drifted off there for a moment – when what will happen, again?

When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
As the waters cover the sea.

Oh, that. Fancy me forgetting.

The traditional Christian view of time was built on some definite fixed points at beginning, middle and end – all with Biblical warrant. In the beginning, Adam and Eve had sinned and been kicked out of Eden and into the real world, setting the whole thing going; in the middle, Jesus had redeemed mankind through His sacrifice; at the end… well, people weren’t sure exactly what would happen at the end, but it would certainly involve the end of time, the heavens being rolled up like a scroll and so forth. Now, we were somewhere between middle and end. We probably wouldn’t live to see the end, but as long as we died as Christians we could be sure that we would be there on the big day (or end of days). In between death and the end, depending who you talked to, was oblivion (which would be OK) or Heaven (which is nice).

If you took a few steps back from it all, the fixed points looked a bit different: all you really had was the need to put your faith in somebody who lived a very long time ago, to save you from the consequences of something that had apparently been done by somebody who lived an even longer time ago, consequences which would supposedly take effect at some unknown point in the future, almost certainly after you’d died. (The part about you dying, though – that definitely would happen.) As soon as you let doubt in on one corner of that picture, the whole thing goes a bit awry. What strikes me now about that hymn is how blithe its confidence is, how closed it is to any doubt or questioning. God – our God – has a purpose for the world; He’s putting it into practice, and when He’s finished the results will be (literally) heaven on earth; and this is definitely going to happen, possibly quite soon. It’s positively enthusiastic (OED: “Pertaining to, or of the nature of, possession by a deity”; “Pertaining to, characterized by, or of the nature of mystical delusions in religion.”).

From its tone I assumed initially that the hymn had found its way into Church of England hymnals either from a Methodist source or from even later revivalists, perhaps the Great Revival of the first decade of the twentieth century. I got the period about right, but otherwise my guess couldn’t have been more wrong. “God is working His purpose out” was written in 1894 by Arthur Campbell Ainger, who was a House Master at Eton. There seems to have been quite an appetite for under-the-counter millennialism in the nineteenth-century Church of England; for example, Lewis Hensley’s Thy Kingdom Come O God (1867) doesn’t just see the end of days as coming soon, it asks for it to hurry up (“Apocalypse now, please!”). There’s an anxious edge to Hensley’s hymn, as well as a weary Arnoldian pessimism (“By many deeds of shame/We learn that love grows cold”); his fixation on the end of the world is mildly desperate where Ainger’s is calmly confident. In their different ways, they both have a preoccupation with eternity which seems quite at odds with their comfortable social and theological position (Hensley was Vi­car of Ip­o­lyts-with-Great-Wy­mond­ly, no less).

As for Ainger, among his few other composing credits is “Carmen Etonense”, the Eton school song, whose chorus translates roughly “For as long as England’s shores are bathed in kindly sunlight, let Eton flourish! Eton shall flourish!” “Until the sun goes out” is a curious way to say “forever”; perhaps it was at the back of Ainger’s mind that the heavens would eventually be rolled up like a scroll, and that this would change things even for Eton College. It seems more likely, though, that Ainger saw God working His purpose out and Eton flourishing as very much the same thing. Perhaps the confident tone of the hymn came less from a sense of personal contact with God, more from the sense that Ainger and his class had always been blessed by God and always would be.

To be fair to Ainger, although his socio-cultural situation was more comfortable than most, the security he expressed in that hymn has been available to every other Christian since the second century AD. Existentially speaking, feeling that the whole of human history is put into its proper context by two irruptions of the divine – Christ’s sacrifice (firmly in the past) and the end of days (firmly in the future) – makes quite a comfortable framing for one’s own life. (You’re still going to die, admittedly, but you can’t have everything.) But how would it be not to have those anchor points? Or rather, how would it have been?

3. And Christ receive thy soul

The Harrowing of Hell is a traditional Christian belief; it’s not in the Bible, and can be seen as a bit of folk embroidery to patch up a hole in the Bible story. The thing is, Moses was damned. Great man and all that, met God and took down the commandments and so forth, but if you’re a Christian none of that’s going to get you saved. Faith in Jesus Christ is what you need, and that’s a tall order for people who were born several hundred years before Bethlehem. Bad luck, Moses – for the want of any alternative, he must have been damned to Hell, along with Aaron, King David, Abraham, old Adam and all. Of necessity this wasn’t spelt out in the Bible – the writers of the Old Testament didn’t know they were writing the Old Testament – but it was a logical deduction from the facts of salvation as set out in the Gospels (John in particular). This belief in turn gave rise to a folk belief that, before rising from the dead, Jesus had visited Hell and liberated everyone who was there purely because they were born at the wrong time – everyone who would have believed in him if they’d had the chance, in other words. Hell was ‘harrowed’ in the sense that it was thoroughly searched – combed, we’d say now – for righteous souls, who were permitted to ascend into Heaven.

That’s fine – well, it’s a bit of a hack, but it can be made to work – if you’re talking about a relatively limited number of people and a finite period of time. If you take into account what we now know about the number of different ways people have lived and the number of different places they’ve lived in, it starts to get a bit Horrible Histories…

JC: Greetings! I bring the good news of salvation through My death and resurrection to save all mankind, past, present and-
Aztec Priest: Sorry, could you repeat that? I was a bit distracted, what with all these demons gnawing my entrails and sticking knives in my – Ow! Look, stop that for a moment, will you? Sorry. You were saying.
JC: [sighs] Greetings-I-bring-the-good-news-of-salvation-through-My-
AP: Salvation? You’re going to get me out of here? Good man! I thought Quetzalcoatl would have sorted it out by now, to be honest, but I suppose he must be busy. Hang on, you’re not-
JC: No, I’m not Quetzalcoatl. I’m the Son of God. Well, I say ‘son’, I’m actually God in my own right as well. It’s quite interesting actually, God has three persons but at the same time-
AP: Son of a god? Which one? Not that I mind – if you’re going to get me out of here that is – I’m just curious.
JC: No, no, no, not son of a god, son of God. Look, can we get on with it?
AP: You’re the son of a god who thinks he’s the only one? Sounds a bit weird, but whatever. So which way did you say the exit was?
JC: No, it’s not quite that simple. Look, when you were alive, you didn’t believe in me, right?
AP: I’m not sure I believe in you now, mate. No offence, but the hallucinations you get after a few centuries of mind-numbing torment are something else.
JC: So, OK, you didn’t believe in me, but what I’m interested in now is, were you good?
AP: Well, I was a pretty good Aztec priest. It wasn’t always easy, though – I had to make a lot of sacrifices. Sacrifices! Get it? Oh, suit yourself.
JC: Yes… That’s actually not quite -
AP: No, I know what you mean. I think I was a pretty good bloke, really. Ask these guys, they all knew me. If you can get the demons to lay off long enough, that is. Look, will you stop that? We’re talking!
JC: Oh, this is ridiculous, I’ll never get round at this rate. Hold still for a moment, would you, I’ll just look into the secrets of your heart.
AP: Help yourself – with the work these demons have been doing you can probably see my heart from there already.
JC: Yes… yes… and it’s… yes. What do you know – apparently you’re one of the good ones. Off you go to Heaven. Over on the right – you see that dazzling light? Just head for that and keep going, they’ll sort you out when you get there. Come on, chop chop – I’ve got another three million to get through just in this corner, and that’s not counting the Incas.

The depth of the past, and the sheer geographical breadth of the past, are a bit of a problem for this model, at least in terms of surface plausibility. The problem’s compounded if we take into account the number of people living since the death of Christ who, with the best missionary will in the world, (will) have lived and died without any exposure to the Good News. Presumably they’re also Hell-bound, at least on a temporary basis, and presumably some kind of sorting-out operation will rescue the good ones at the end of days. If you put it all together, an awful lot of people are getting temporarily misfiled, and condemned to centuries or millennia of excruciating torment as a result.

And people aren’t the half of it.

4. O’er heathen lands afar

The observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 46 billion light years. (You may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.) There are, on the latest estimate, in the region of 3 x 10^23 stars in the universe. I don’t know what proportion of those are Sol-like, but with numbers that high it doesn’t matter a great deal; even if the proportion’s one in a million, and only one in ten of those stars have small (non-gaseous) planets (which itself is a very low estimate), we’re still looking at a multiple of 10^16 rocky extra-solar planets. Not only that, but the universe is 1.4 x 10^10 years old – ten billion years older than Earth. (Which makes the idea of a ‘year’ a bit notional, but never mind.) Space is vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, and so is time – and my God, they’re full of stars.

What that means, though, is that there are innumerable times and places that the Good News of Christ’s resurrection doesn’t and cannot reach, thanks to the finite lifespan of stars and the limit imposed by the speed of light. As speed limits go, the speed of light is quite a high limit, but it is a hard limit: nothing in the universe can travel any faster. Which has some significant effects.

Picture a star as a dot, and picture a ring around it: we can call that the distance travelled by light in a second. Now imagine a whole series of concentric rings, representing the distance the star’s light will travel in one second, two seconds, three and so on. Now, as simple as it is, that diagram is overloaded – we’re using the distance between concentric circles to represent two different things, the distance travelled by light in a second and the second it takes to travel it. To remedy that we’ll need to use the third dimension: picture those concentric circles coming up out of the paper, each widening circle higher up than the one before. Height now represents time, while the horizontal dimensions represent distance in space. The shape you’ve got, if your visualisation is the same as mine, is a cone. As you move away from the star (the point at the bottom) you simultaneously move upward (the passage of time) and outward (movement in space). The angle of the cone represents the speed of light – the distance in space (horizontal) it can cross in a given time (vertical). Most importantly, light cannot reach any area outside the light cone, because doing so would involve a flatter angle – more horizontal movement (in space) for the same vertical movement (passage of time), which is to say a speed higher than light speed.

In reality, of course, stars emit light in three dimensions; real light cones are four-dimensional and hence quite difficult to visualise. The main point is that any localised event has a future light cone – a region of spacetime which it’s physically possible for information from that event to reach – and a vast region outside that light cone: all the places that light (or radio waves, or by extension any form of information) cannot reach, or rather cannot reach yet. Equally, any point in spacetime (such as the one you’re at now) has a past light cone – a region of spacetime from which it’s physically possible for information to have reached an observer at that point. Anything outside your past light cone can never have had any effect on you. If Mark and Q had been equipped with high-powered radio transmitters, the Good News might have travelled getting on for 2,000 light years by now; that’s quite a long way, but our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide.

Suppose that, a thousand years from now, radio broadcasts from Earth reach a solar system a thousand light years away, one of whose planets supports multi-cellular life. Suppose that an intelligent (and religiously-inclined) species had existed on that planet, but had destroyed itself a couple of centuries earlier, dying unsaved in their millions for want of the Good News. Now multiply out by all that time and all that space. Even if only a tiny proportion of life-sustaining planets harbour intelligent life, the likely numbers of alien civilisations that exist, have existed or will exist somewhere in those 4 x 10^32 cubic light years within the lifespan of the universe are – there’s no other word for it – astronomical. And, given light speed as a hard limit, the proportion of all alien civilisations that can ever be reached by the Good News is astronomically tiny. There will be an awful lot of catching up to do at the end of days; the Harrowing of Hell starts to look a bit parochial.

Not only that, there’s been plenty of time for a star to halt over a stable somewhere else, before we came along – even before Earth came along – and plenty of places where it could have happened. The believing Christian (whose persona I’m borrowing for a lot of this post) would shrug this off: we know it could have happened like that, but we also know it didn’t, because it happened right here, in Bethlehem. But what if we can’t be so sure?

5. You’ll remember Mercury.

As Gary Gutting (via Ken) says, one solution to the problem of evil – the question of why an omnipotent and benevolent God permits pointless suffering – is an appeal to our own ignorance. God, on this argument, is not only all-powerful but all-knowing; our knowledge is imperfect and incomplete, so it may well be that events which make no sense to us have their place in a divine plan. Or, in a stronger version of the same point: we know our knowledge is imperfect, while God’s is perfect; as such we know that we cannot know the mind of God, cannot understand the divine plan. Seeing suffering as incomprehensible, on this argument, is a sign of our humanity; we should not aspire to understand tragic events better, only to be reconciled with them through prayer.

The Harrowing of Hell fits neatly into this framework, despite the sufferings involved being mythical. Being born in the time and place that he was, Moses had no way of knowing the true nature of God; he and all his followers lived all their lives without ever having a full revelation of the divine, and consequently died without being saved and went to Hell. This is an unpalatable thought: surely no benevolent and all-powerful God would condemn the Fathers of the Church to the torments of the damned, even temporarily. (I say ‘temporarily’ – after the first couple of centuries I imagine it wouldn’t feel very temporary.) They would effectively be condemned for being born in the wrong time and place – and, what’s worse, for being born in the precise time and place where they needed to be born in order to lay the groundwork for Christ’s coming and hence fulfil the divine plan. Moses, in short, copped a millennium of Hell for doing everything right.

We can understand this – or rather understand our failure to understand it – by invoking God’s superior (perfect) knowledge: there are things in the divine plan that we don’t understand and never can understand, and presumably this is one of them. (If you think this sceptical argument is unpalatable, incidentally, you’re not alone. From a believer’s point of view it’s very unsatisfactory, not least because it opens up the possibility that the nature of God is unknowable and may be entirely different from what we believe it to be. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the argument was formulated by somebody – David Hume – who was at most a theist. On the other hand, it’s the closest thing I know to a good answer to the problem of evil.)

Now bring all that space and time back in. If a tiny fraction of the planets orbiting other stars have produced or will produce intelligent life, that will amount to millions of alien races – the vast majority of which will realistically never get to hear about Bethlehem, not least because most of them are, were or will be physically incapable of doing so (light cones again). To begin with we can trot out the same response – yes, it seems a bit rough, but there you go, all part of the plan, nobody said the plan would be comprehensible, and so on. But then it gets worse. Think of all those hypothetical intelligent alien races, whether past, future or outside both our light cones. Presumably they have some conception of the divine or numinous – it’d be a sod to convert them to Christianity otherwise – and presumably they’ve made some sort of fumbling semi-contact with the divine and had some sort of glimmers of revelation. (Somebody spoke to Moses in that bush; he still went to Hell.)

Now the trap shuts: how do we know that our revelation was the real and complete one, the one that’s true for all time and all space? The sceptic answers: we don’t know and we can’t know. If we believe in Christ as the incarnate son of God, we’re committed to believing that untold millions of people – and other intelligent beings – lived or will live without any possibility of a true and complete apprehension of the divine. This may seem a bit tough, but our knowledge is imperfect, so we have to trust that it’s all in God’s plan. If we are serious about our belief in the imperfection of human knowledge, however, we have to concede that the Christian’s belief in Christ as the incarnate son of God may not be a true and complete apprehension of the divine. God’s true revelation may have taken place three billion years ago, on a planet orbiting a star in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud; the good Good News may not reach our area until the sun’s a red giant. Christians, as much as Jews or Buddhists, may only ever get a glimmer or half a glimmer of the divine – and this too may be part of God’s plan.

6. “God is dead,” Nick said. “They found his carcass in 2019.”

Still with me? Brace yourself; this is where things get strange.

Hume’s argument from imperfect knowledge has been answered by an appeal to a different kind of knowledge. Human reason may be imperfect, this argument runs, but there’s no gainsaying human experience:

There are two ways to learn that something is possible. One way is to form a clear conception of the possibility. The second way is to discover that the thing is an actual fact. For example, I know that it is possible for bumblebees to fly because I have observed them actually flying. I can know that bumblebees actually fly without first having proved to myself, independently, that it is really possible for them to fly

Similarly, the Christian knows that it is possible for God to communicate with her because she knows it has happened. By happy extension, she also knows that it is possible for the God whose nature we know to communicate with her, and hence that God’s nature is the nature we know. Collapse of stout sceptic.

There are two ways to answer this argument. The short answer – and, I think, the one Hume would have used – is that the argument assumes its own conclusion. What our Christian knows is that she has had a certain experience; when she sets about understanding that experience she’s necessarily thrown back on her own knowledge and reason (including her knowledge of the Christian religion), and we’re back to square one.

Gutting offers a longer (and stranger) answer.

Their confidence in salvation, [believers] say, comes not from philosophical arguments but from their personal contact with God, either through individual experience or a religious tradition. But what can such contact provide concretely? At best, certainty that there is a very powerful being who promises to save us. But there may well be — and many religions insist that there are — very powerful beings (demons or devils) intent on leading us away from salvation. How could we possibly know that the power we are in contact with is not deceiving us?

The inevitable response is that an all-good God would not permit such a thing. But that takes us back to the previous difficulty: there is no reason to think that we are good judges of what God is likely to permit. God may have to allow us to be deceived to prevent even greater evils.

Got that? Direct, immediate experience of contact with God might turn out to be a quite genuine experience of contact with something else. This is a monstrous possibility (literally), but remember, our human knowledge is imperfect; and if our knowledge is imperfect, then God’s plans are unknowable. And, if God’s plans are unknowable, He may make it possible for demonic entities to exist, and for people to make contact with them while believing they’re in touch with God. It’s a bit like the (apocryphal?) preaching of Buddha that Brahma wasn’t the creator of the universe, but a misguided spirit who had come to believe that he was the creator of the universe. Indeed, given that God has all of time and space to work His purpose out, He may make it possible for entire civilisations to gain their only experience of the divine from contact with demonic entities – which would condemn those civilisations to damnation even at their highest levels of religious exaltation. And, if God’s plans are truly unknowable – and what other kind of ‘unknowable’ is there? – we can’t know that our civilisation isn’t one of them. Pulling back out to the cosmic scale, we can’t know that our entire planet – what the hell, our entire galaxy – isn’t doomed to this kind of counterfeit revelation. We can trust that things will be sorted out at the end of days – assuming that at least we’ve got that right – but the God who does the sorting may not be what we expect at all.

We can put the same argument in slightly less alarming terms – and beat a retreat to the short answer – if we say, more simply, that many people through the ages have experienced what they thought to be direct contact with God and been mistaken about the nature of the experience, to put it no more strongly than that. As sceptics, we can accept that God may exist and genuine contact with Him may be possible, while leaving open the possibility that everyone who has ever believed they have made contact was suffering from enthusiasm. We can doubt, if we feel like it, that contact ever will be made from Earth, or from any other planet out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy. (I say “the Galaxy”; obviously I mean this galaxy.)

7. Against principalities, against powers

As I said earlier on, the Humean sceptical argument is unpalatable to believers. I think bringing in deep space and deep time has made it clear just how unpalatable it is. Whether the alternative to a true revelation is the machinations of powers in the air or simple human delusion, the result is much the same. The believer would be committed to holding two mutually antagonistic beliefs simultaneously:

  1. I believe in God: an omnipotent and omniscient being who created the universe, loves His creation, makes Himself known to believers and will grant salvation to them.
  2. I am human, and consequently acknowledge that God’s nature may not be as I believe it to be, God may not have truly made Himself known to me and may never do so, the tenets of my religion may have no connection with God’s true purpose and my faith may not save me from eternal damnation.
  3. But GOTO 1.

So where is all this going? The point is simply this: the version of Christian belief we’ve just ended up with is monstrous and untenable. Hume’s scepticism leaves open the possibility of genuine revelation, genuine contact with the divine, but at the cost of introducing radical uncertainty as to whether any given experience of the divine is that genuine contact – and by extension whether any known experience of the divine has ever been genuine. In the Humean view, it’s entirely possible that nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian has ever had a genuine contact with the Christian God, or ever will. Not only is it possible, it’s entirely compatible with belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God, working His purposes out as year succeeds to year. And yet nobody who considers him- or herself to be a Christian could believe that: it would undermine everything they believe.

So where does religion go if we take this argument seriously? I don’t believe that it disposes of religion altogether, although it does make things a bit difficult for certain kinds of religious belief (and not only Christian belief). One possibility is that the divine retreats to a kind of abstract realm of unknowability. God may or may not exist; this or that revelation of the divine may or may not have been valid. Whatever the answer is, though, it can never be proved and will never affect us either way. Hume himself leant towards this position; at one stage he described the argument between theism and atheism as a purely verbal disagreement, or as we’d say a difference that makes no difference. This way of thinking about religion clearly doesn’t include an eschatology – even Hume could hardly miss the Last Trump; more broadly, it tends to erode religion’s purchase on the present-day social world, reducing the numinous to an aesthetic experience and differences of belief to philosophical debating points. In practical terms this may be no bad thing, but it’s a substantial scaling-down of the claims of religion.

Another answer, which I think is more interesting, gives scepticism the field and then goes somewhere different. But first, another hymn.

8. Everywhere all the time

Every star shall sing a carol,
Every creature high or low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

When the king of all creation,
Had a cradle on the earth.
Holy was the human body,
Holy was the human birth.

Who can tell what other cradle
High above the Milky Way
Still may rock the King of Heaven,
On another Christmas day?

Who can count how many crosses
Still to come or long ago.
Crucify the King of Heaven?
Holy is the name I know.

Who can tell what other body
He will hallow for his own?
I will praise the son of Mary,
Brother of my blood and bone.

Every star and every planet,
Every creature high and low.
Come and praise the King of Heaven,
By whatever name you know.

God above, man below,
Holy is the name I know.

“Every star shall sing a carol” (1961) by the great Sydney Carter. Cards on the table, I’m not a Christian, but I think that’s absolutely brilliant – and it points to a different way of dealing with Humean scepticism. The problem that deep time and space poses for believers is the same problem that was originally patched up by the Harrowing of Hell, and it’s the problem of singularity. (The state of being singular, that is. Nothing to do with that singularity.) If there is one true revelation of the divine, what becomes of all those people who could only have a glimmer or a distorted half-revelation? And – the Humean adds – how can we know that we aren’t among them?

Carter’s answer is to reject the premise of singularity. (I don’t know if Carter read much science fiction; you could see this hymn as a riposte to C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra, in which the inhabitants of Venus say how privileged Earth was to be the planet Jesus chose.) This hymn – and, from what I know of it, Carter’s own religious faith – points us to a world in which Moses wasn’t damned in the first place, and a universe in which there are many different revelations of the divine. Some of them are false, predictably, but many of them are true – equally true, and true in different ways. Encounters with the numinous then cease to take their bearings from one true revelation, and simply become something that happens to people – and would happen to other intelligent species.

Consistently with this idea of multiple revelations, you could see religious observances in all their variety as just something that people do – or rather, something that societies do, and quite possibly something that the societies formed by other intelligent species would also do. Religions would then be different ways of attending to the numinous things in life, different ways of adopting a reverent attitude to phenomena that deserve reverence (birth, death, community, that kind of thing). As for the experience of the divine, perhaps that could be situated at the end of the process rather than its source: not the phenomenon to which reverence needs to be paid, but an emergent property of the practice of reverence.

9. Sweetness follows

A couple of things follow from this way of looking at religion. Four, to be precise.

Firstly, (almost) all religions are (more or less) equal. If you believe that you should do this when somebody’s born, this when somebody dies and this at regular intervals (weekly, monthly, annual, whatever); if you can look around you, at least occasionally, and see other people who believe the same; and if you believe that those commitments are involved with your relationship with something immaterial or intangible; then the chances are you’re doing religion, practising reverence to things that deserve it.

Secondly, religion is a shared practice of life. Religions may start with a single enthusiast (somebody like George Fox), but they only take root in groups – people who do things together. They grow through groups, as well, or at least recruit through affinity networks. Show me a religion that recruits by ones and twos and I’ll show you a religion that’s either very new, struggling to survive or both. Raymond Williams defined – or insisted on defining – ‘culture’ as a ‘whole way of life’. Religion has something of that quality: it’s part of how people do what they do, together. And, I think, the quality of religious experience comes out of that common practice, rather than being something that existed prior to it and which it was constructed around. Insisting that the religious experience takes priority over the common practice can have some odd results. My mother was brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant group with strict ideas about most things but not much internal hierarchy. At their communion services, the Brethren would break and share actual bread rather than the wafers they use in the Church of England, this being what the Disciples had done at the Last Supper (“this do in remembrance of me”, remember). According to my mother, one member of their ‘Meeting’ argued that modern English bread was just as inauthentic as the wafers, and that they should be using unleavened bread. He lost the argument, but no matter; from then on he brought along his own supply of unleavened bread, wrapped up in greaseproof paper, and communed with himself.

Thirdly, religion happens (or doesn’t) in the life you’re living. Pace Robyn Hitchcock, it does matter what you was – what you is is what you are, but what you was is how you got here – how you came to be what you is. Are. We think of conversion experiences as wiping previous religious (or non-religious) commitments completely, like a wave coming in and washing away the scribbles on the sand, and I dare say it would feel like that, to begin with at least. Personally I’m a kind of not-quite atheist agnostic, which is a bit of an uncomfortable, liminal position – you could say I’m the kind of person who doesn’t actually believe in anything but doesn’t want to commit to not believing in anything. If I converted to Catholicism tomorrow I can imagine the tide of faith coming in like a comfort blanket. But there are habits of thought I’ve acquired over the years, not to say habits full stop, which would be very hard to shed – and that includes habits which go back to my rather distant upbringing as an Anglican. Like people who settle in rural villages and find themselves referred to as newcomers twenty years later, I’d be a Catholic convert for a long time before I was simply a Catholic. Even then I’d be an ex-Anglican, formerly-atheist Catholic. And that’s a belief system not very far from the one I grew up in; becoming a Buddhist would be the work of a lifetime.

Religion is a big commitment: it takes people sharing ways of living for it to happen; it takes time and patience to make it a reality in your life. Anything short of that is just playing at it. People play at religion a fair bit, if you look around; a lot of what people ostensibly believe in most strongly seems to be awfully dilettante and and-a-pony-ish. The stall at a local church fund-raiser selling prayer flags – how would that work? The woman we saw at a stone circle in Cornwall, staggering and holding her head from the sheer power of the vibrations – didn’t it seem at all odd to her that nobody else could feel a thing? (Then again, as Ben Goldacre points out, electrosensitivity has real and often distressing symptoms; megalithosensitivity may be something similar.)

On the other hand, grumpy sceptical reactions like that often suggest something being disavowed or studiously ignored. I think what’s nagging at me in this case is that (fourthly) playing is really important. Play starts in the ‘potential space’ that infants first start to explore under their parent’s gaze, and it goes on for as long as you’re making new discoveries, learning how to do things, making other people laugh or just messing about with ideas. Play is exploratory; playing is a way of finding new meanings, new connections, new ways to act or live. Playing with religion as such may not be a great idea, if only because it puts the idea of a religion ahead of the practices that make it happen. (Think of that Plymouth Brother with his flatbreads in greaseproof paper; a less earnest approach would, if anything, have cut him off from the rest of the Meeting even more completely.) What does make sense is the idea of playing with shared practices of life – playing with ways (finding new ways) to offer reverence to things, events, experiences that deserve it. And that’s where, at its best, art comes in. Art and religion are quite closely related, in this way of thinking. Art is a way of playing with images, symbols, practices; a way of directing a concentrated, reverent attention to everyday social life; and a way of bringing out the unnoticed meanings of the lives we’ve been living.

10. The marvellous revealed

I’m convinced that Jeremy Deller is a genius. In 2006 he co-curated the Folk Archive, the catalogue of which is now available online as a kind of virtual exhibit. I didn’t see the real-world show, but the virtual gallery is quite wonderful. Head over there now, I’ll just put some music on until you get back.

The Folk Archive

You back? Great. (Good, isn’t it?)

In 2009 Deller organised Procession, a work which I still haven’t made my mind up about – by which I mean that I’m still not sure what it was. It was an artwork in the form of a procession; it was a tribute to the social practice of holding processions; it was a satirical comment on past processions; it was a sincere attempt to envisage a procession for contemporary Manchester; it was all the above. It was a really good procession, in any case. It was led by a Boy Scout band (playing “Hit the North”); bringing up the rear came a float carrying a steel band (playing “Love will tear us apart” – and if you haven’t heard “Love will tear us apart” played by a steel band at the tail of a procession, you’ll have to imagine how good it sounded). In between there were Ramblers, goths, a celebration of fish and chips, a series of hearses carrying floral tributes to defunct Mancunian nightclubs, a group of Unrepentant Smokers… and, as they say, much more. Each group had an embroidered banner in the old style – I worried to begin with that the cumulative effect would make the banners look arch and silly, but they were such magnificent pieces of work that they simply gave greater dignity and impact to the procession, as banners always have done. It was one of those works that look rather weightlessly ironic on paper, but in reality turn out to be powerful and genuine: it was called Procession, and it was a procession. The silliest element was supplied by reality. As well as their own, the Unrepentant Smokers carried a small additional banner with a health warning. I assumed this was a satirical reference to the elf-n-safety hoops that march organisers have to jump through these days, but it turned out that there was no satire about it: the City Council wouldn’t allow them to march unless they carried it.

And did I mention, lots of people came and watched. We all stood, lining the street, and we watched the procession go by. It was great.

It brought people together; it created strange and unexpected moments of beauty; it celebrated the lives people were and had been living. I’m not saying Procession was a religious work, but I do think that what remains of religion – if you forget about looking back to a singular revelation and looking forward to the end of history – has very similar qualities.

As, in its own way, did Sacrilege. One of the starting-points of this post (if something the length of an academic paper still qualifies as a ‘post’) was my perversely-maintained conviction that playing on a life-size bouncy-castle Stonehenge, set up on a recreation ground in Preston, is actually more ritually appropriate – more real – than holding a Druid ceremony at the real Stonehenge. That’s not an entirely serious point – I’ve done one and not the other, apart from anything else – but I think I can make a case for Sacrilege, and one which relates partly to its fairly ostentatious inauthenticity.

Stonehenge, if it’s anything, is singular: we all recognise it, and we don’t know anything else like it. (In point of fact, I’m not sure there’s any other stone circle like it anywhere; those triliths are extraordinary.) This singularity is accentuated by Stonehenge’s close association with Midsummer: not only is there only one Stonehenge, there’s only one time to go there. Stonehenge also tugs us back to a distant past that we know little or nothing about. About the people who originally used Stonehenge, Nigel Tufnel was right: Nobody knows who they were… or what they were doing. Any attempt to recreate the ritual significance of Stonehenge now has to be fairly speculative and voluntaristic; contemporary Druid practice springs out of a prior commitment to a certain kind of religious experience, rather than the experience emerging from a practice and the practice growing out of a shared life experience. They’re playing at it, in other words – and playing seriously, rigidly, adhering to rules they believe were revealed to them and shutting out all non-believers.

Compare Sacrilege. Nothing singular about it: it was set up and taken down in a whole variety of places all around the country. It’s not about the distant past; it takes the very contemporary form of a bouncy castle (so contemporary that I’m too old ever to have been on one before, although for some people reading this they were probably a childhood memory). It’s not about playing by the rules and restricting participation to an elect of believers; it’s about admission for all, and it’s about playing. It’s also – and this is the genius of the work – unavoidably about the numinosity of Stonehenge itself. Play in such a setting inevitably takes on ritual aspects: I set myself to run around the inside of the outer circle touching all the ‘uprights’ once, then do the same around the outside of the inner circle, and by the end I felt I’d done something. (I also felt extremely out of breath. How do kids do it?) Play takes on ritual aspects, and then it sheds them again; I’ve got vivid memories of leaning back against a gently yielding monolith, squeezing between the uprights of a trilith, dropping to a kneeling bounce on the turf, then rolling over and watching the world bounce past… None of this meant anything – it didn’t derive significance from any kind of liturgy – but at the same time it meant a lot. It reminded us of the grandeur and beauty of the stones themselves, and evoked all the rather cliched images of mythic power that they’re linked with. At the same time it drew on the history of non-reverence towards the ancient stones and the contemporary rationality which disregards them, which it at once restated (there’s nothing very reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge) and playfully subverted (there is something irreducibly reverential about bouncing around Stonehenge – and there’s nothing very rational about bouncing, come to that).

The sheer playful excess of the work, combined with the sheer symbolic excess, produced something hilariously enjoyable and powerfully beautiful. As such, what Sacrilege did was something nearly, but not quite, religious; something much closer to Sydney Carter’s idea of religious experience than to traditional versions; and something it shared with Deller’s other work. Sacrilege doesn’t say “the ancients had Stonehenge; we have nothing but bouncy castles; woe is us”. It says “they used to have Stonehenge; we have bouncy castles; what now?” In just the same way, Acid Brass said “they used to have brass bands, we have acid house”, while Procession said “they used to have Whit Walks and Wakes Weeks, we have goths, outdoor smokers and a closed Haçienda”. (I’m very glad that Sacrilege hit Preston in the week of the 2012 Guild, incidentally; if it was a coincidence it was a remarkably good one.) Each time, the work doesn’t assert that this is the contemporary equivalent of that; instead, it brings out the elements of play and celebration in both, then asks, is this the contemporary equivalent? Is this where our contemporary rituals of sense-making take place, where we honour the numinous things in life? Is this where our traditions are being laid down? If so, what do they look like and feel like – how do they honour the numinous and strike sparks off the everyday? And are there any precautions we should be taking?

11. Careful now

Title credits: Trad., Nigel Tufnel, Christina Rossetti, Trad., Lewis Hensley, Edwin Morgan, Philip K. Dick, St Paul, Russell Hoban, Michael Stipe, Peter Blegvad, Dougal McGuire.

In dark and empty skies

Nineteen years ago today, Peter Bellamy ended his life.

I didn’t pay much attention to folk music between about 1976 and 2001, so Bellamy’s death in 1991 passed me by. More to the point, I’m afraid that Bellamy’s career passed me by; I remember hearing one track by his unaccompanied vocal group The Young Tradition, but at the time I just didn’t get it. (Who would want to sing folk songs unaccompanied, in a raw and unadorned style that harked back to the way people used to sing them? What can I say, I was so much older then.)

After I started getting back into folk music, and in particular after I started spending time on the Mudcat, I began to hear Bellamy’s name dropped. I followed up a few suggestions and rapidly realised I’d been missing something big. Bluntly, anyone who thinks they know about the folk revival of the 1960s to 1980s and doesn’t know about Peter Bellamy is a bit like a classical music expert who’s never heard of J.S. Bach.

It’s hard to overstate Bellamy’s achievement – although not, sadly, his success. For me he towers over Ewan MacColl, and may even have the edge on Dolly Collins. Consider: here’s Bellamy in the role of (in his own words) “boring bleating old traddy”, singing a song from the Copper Family repertoire with Louis Killen singing harmony.

Here’s one of Bellamy’s settings of poems by Rudyard Kipling, sung by the Young Tradition (the poem can be found here).

And here’s an eighteenth-century broadside ballad sung by June Tabor:

I lied: “The Leaves in the Woodland” is a Bellamy composition – words and tune. It’s one of the highlights of his extraordinarily ambitious 1977 “ballad opera” The Transports, which tells the true story of a couple transported to Botany Bay in the late eighteenth century. In 1977 I had other things on my mind, musically speaking, and with one thing and another I didn’t hear The Transports until quite recently. I’m regretting that now – it’s stunning. It’s through-composed (music by Bellamy, arrangements by Dolly Collins) and played on period instruments; the lead roles are taken by Mike and Norma Waterson, with supporting parts for June Tabor, Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, Cyril Tawney and Bellamy himself, among others.

But the songs are the thing. Most folkies, even those most immersed in the traditional repertoire, never turn out more than a couple of songs which can be sung alongside traditional songs and not stand out. Exceptions are rare and striking (Tawney, MacColl, Dylan before he got bored and moved on). In The Transports, Bellamy basically wrote a whole album of them (a double album in its time – the CD version is 75 minutes long). Not only do his songs sound like long-lost traditional ballads, they each have a place in the plot of the opera – and in most cases advance it. The most remarkable example is “Roll down”, a shanty (sung by Cyril Tawney) which has entered the repertoire of contemporary shanty-singers like Kimber’s Men, despite the fact that its lyrics include a fairly detailed account of a transport ship’s voyage from England to Australia.

Not every song is as strong as “The Leaves in the Woodland”; come to that, not every singer sounds as good as June Tabor (Mike Waterson’s singing on this album is something of an acquired taste, to say nothing of Bellamy’s own). But The Transports is a towering achievement in anyone’s language. And I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of Bellamy’s traditional work, or his long and fruitful engagement with Kipling, to say nothing of his love of the blues and his ear for a cover.

I suppose I should say something about Bellamy’s politics, although it’s hard to know what. His father was Richard Bellamy, a fairly high-ranking member of the British Union of Fascists, but it would be absurd to label Peter Bellamy as an extreme right-winger. Certainly he was never on the Left, and regarded the radical wing of the folk revival with suspicion and hostility; I think he’d have agreed that traditional songs were songs of the people, but interpreted that last word more in patriotic than class terms. (What he would have made of the Imagined Village is anybody’s guess.) But at the end of the day I think he was genuinely uninterested in politics; a cultural patriot rather than a political nationalist. That he was a personal friend of Dick Gaughan speaks volumes; according to Gaughan, Bellamy “spent his life in the place Hugh MacDiarmid called “where extremes meet”, the place where I believe all artists should live”.

Bellamy’s suicide, at only 47, remains a tragedy and remains a mystery. Dick Gaughan commented,

it is my belief that Peter never quite produced the masterpiece which his talents suggested; he came close on many occasions but always gave the impression that each was just another step on the road to truly finding his real voice. I have a suspicion that frustration with this search may have played a part in his death.

“Try again, fail again. Fail better.” We all fail in the end, God knows, but few musicians ever tried so hard or so persistently, or failed with such superb results, as Peter Bellamy.

“Bernard, Bernard, he would say, this bloom of youth will not last forever: the fatal hour will come whose unappealable sentence cuts down all deceitful hopes; life will fail us like a false friend in the midst of our undertakings. Then, all our beautiful plans will fall to the ground; then, all our thoughts will vanish away.”

Peter Bellamy, 8/9/1944 – 24/9/1991

Late in the evening

I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point. A prison sentence is a bad thing to inflict on anyone, and one which often has bad effects on the lives of those who suffer it; the government’s priorities should be to maximise the chances of good outcomes, through education and training opportunities, and to minimise the number of people who go to prison in the first place. If that’s what Ken Clarke is saying, then I’m with Ken Clarke. I’ll add that our government should follow the Scots in abolishing short sentences, many of which only last long enough to disrupt offenders’ lives and exacerbate the problems they already have; and they should certainly abolish the monstrosity of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection. It seems strange to place any hope for liberal reform in a Tory government, but – sadly – not as strange as it would have been to place those hopes in New Labour. (Incidentally, isn’t it funny the way we’re not talking about the crucial moderate and liberal influence being exerted by the Lib Dems? Yellow Tories, now and forever.)

So I’m a bit wary of Dave’s Conservative contradictions on crime and punishment. He’s certainly right about the contradiction between Clarke’s decarceral rhetoric and policies which will cut both welfare and jobs; Tory social policy is going to make for a landscape of unparallelled bleakness for the released ex-offender to return to. I’m just not sure that this tells against Clarke in the way Dave seems to think. I’m also concerned about a rather dodgy bit of cost-benefit analysis which Dave quotes, apparently approvingly. Dave:

Several academics – such as Prof. Malcolm Davies – have come forward to suggest that actually leaving potential re-offenders at large (and even with continuing educational measures, reoffending jumped by 8% from 2006-8) costs more than prison.

I don’t know about ‘several’ (more than two?) but here’s Davies.

Prof Malcolm Davies, from Thames Valley University’s law school, said sending criminals to jail was often the cheapest option.

“It costs a lot more to have persistent offenders out on the street,” he told the BBC.

“If you add in the full cost, other than sending to people to prison, which is the processing of the police, the prosecution time, the cost to insurance, the cost and trauma to victims.”

(BBC News story, but taken from an aggregator – the current version of the story doesn’t include the Davies quote.)

This poses two questions. Firstly, can it possibly be true? Secondly, would we want to act on it even if it was? The reoffending rate for released prisoners currently stands at 70%, up from 50% when Michael Howard took over as Home Secretary from Ken Clarke (for it is he); it’s reasonable to assume that this increase has something to do with the change in prison regimes brought about by Howard, for whom prison was all about locking up the bad men and not so much about education and training. But let’s assume that Clarke only manages to make a small dent in the reoffending rate, and it goes down to 66%. Then let’s assume that the aggregate cost of their offending is 1.6 times what it would have cost to keep them inside. So keeping all of them inside would be cheaper than letting them out. Of course, releasing the 34% who aren’t going to reoffend would be cheaper still, but unfortunately we can’t know who they are in advance, so we’re a bit stuck. So the only revenue-neutral option is to do a Minority Report on the 66%, incarcerating them in advance of the crimes they would have committed if they’d been released – and do a massive, unpardonable injustice to the 34%.

Then it gets worse. We’ve saved money – or at least broken even – in year 1, but what do we do the next year? Remember, we don’t know who the likely reoffenders are. For any given group of 1,000 prisoners, all we know is that it will cost society £38 million (say) to keep them all banged up, while – given our 66% reoffending rate multiplied out by victim costs, police costs, prosecution cost, insurance cost, other tax and so forth – it will cost £40 million to release them all. So when we look at each individual prisoner, we see an average loss to society of £2,000 per year if we let him out. But if prisoner X being free in year 1 costs £2,000 more than keeping him inside, then the same will also be true of year 2, year 3 and ever year thereafter until he’s too decrepit to offend. Ergo we should give everyone a life sentence for the first offence, with eligibility for parole only when they’re too old to hang out with drug dealers, too rheumy-eyed to hot-wire a car and too feeble to leg it when the police show up.

Either that, or we should try understanding a little more and condemning a little less; find fewer pretexts for locking up our fellow citizens and put fewer obstacles in the way of releasing them; and put most effort into giving offenders chances to go straight, both in prison and out of it. New Labour’s term was a long 13 years for anyone hoping for liberal reform to the criminal justice system. Let’s hope the Tories, in spite of everything – in spite of being Tories, apart from anything else – will do better.

Up you comes and down you goes

Mixed message of the day:

As soon as this pub closes, there'll be no future for you!

You remember that song, surely?

Dreams
Can come true
dum dum-de-dum dum…
You know you’ve got to have hope,
You know you’ve got to be strong
dum-de-dum dum…
Thirty years of hurt
dum-de-dum…
There is no future
In England’s dreaming!

They don’t write ‘em like that any more.

(The beer, incidentally, is very nice indeed – one of those heavy pale bitters, quite a full-on flavour and a big bitter finish; if you like Summer Lightning, you’d like this. If you don’t like Summer Lightning, whyever not?)

Feels like Ivan

Cohenwatch left this alone, possibly because the numbers are solid and the argument seems pretty reasonable. Slightly shorter Nick:

The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he [Ed Balls] told the Guardian. In the Sixties, people worried about mods and rockers ‘beating each other up with their bike chains’. In the Seventies, they panicked about the punks. ‘Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.’

[Balls' argument derives from] Geoffrey Pearson, a sociologist who in 1983 published Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, the most influential study of crime of the last generation. Rereading it now is disconcerting. Pearson is clearly a man of the left. He attacks the frightened middle-classes of his day for thinking that the young were out of control and the country was going to the dogs. Didn’t the dunces realise the middle classes have always thought that?

Yet for all his apparently radical scoffing at panic-stricken stuffed shirts, Pearson and his many imitators were rather conservative in their way. There is no change for better or worse, they implied, and nothing new under the sun. Britain t’was [sic] ever thus and didn’t need to combat crime with radical programmes from left or right to redistribute wealth or clampdown [sic] on lawlessness.

At the same time as Balls was unconsciously repeating the theories of Eighties’ academics, the impeccably liberal Centre for Crime and Justice Studies issued a grim report on homicide. The number of murders and the rate of murder have both doubled in the past 35 years, it said. Overwhelmingly, the victims and perpetrators lived in the modern equivalent of the slums.

It’s a minor point, but Nick’s reference to the CCJS’s publications is a bit confused. The Centre published an analysis of homicide trends between 1979 and 1999 in 2005; it’s linked from this recently-published analysis of the figures between 1995 and 2005. Ironically, anyone reading only the recent publication could get the impression Nick had misread the figures. There was a sizeable rise between 1995 and 2002/3 – from 662 homicides per year to 952 – but most of that was cancelled out by a decline in the next few years; the 2005/6 figure is 711.

Compare the older figures, though, and you can see that Nick saith sooth: homicide figures in the early 1970s were in the 300-400 range, and the increase since then has been concentrated in certain social groups. The CCJS study goes into some detail about exactly what’s changed since then; it’s worth a read, and Nick can be commended for giving it a plug.

It’s just a shame that he had to get there by misrepresenting both Ed Balls and Geoffrey Pearson. Scroll up:

The murder of Rhys Jones told you next to nothing about modern Britain, he told the Guardian

You’ll look in vain for the name ‘Rhys Jones’ in Jackie Ashley’s interview with Ed Balls. Here’s the actual quote:

I was struck by how brusquely Balls dismissed the Tory charge of a broken society. “Most kids come out of school, walk home and do their homework, and most kids are probably a member of a club, or play in a sports team, or might do some volunteering. Every generation has always had kids that get into trouble. I got into trouble at school from time to time, like everybody did. There are always going to be some kids that get into more serious trouble with the law, but we shouldn’t demonise young people.

“Does the murder of Rhys Jones tell us anything about modern Britain?”

“Are we living in a ‘broken society’, as your political opponents claim?”

Slightly different questions, I think we can agree.

But I’m less bothered about Nick’s misrepresentation of Ed Balls – possibly the only contemporary politician always referred to by his full name – than by his travesty of Geoffrey Pearson’s argument. By way of background, here’s another take on the “nothing new under the sun” thesis which Nick attributes to Pearson:

Clearly we are in the midst of a ‘moral panic’ concerning hoodies, knife attacks, gangsta rap, gun culture, ASBOs, chavs and bling and the rest of it. But that is not to say that nothing is going on: in some neighbourhoods, local residents do live in fear of gangs of youths; the use of knives and guns is an extremely worrying problem; drugs are a relatively new aspect of risk culture for young people to engage with, whereas the demon drink is an old friend and foe. A common vulgarisation of the concept of ‘moral panic’ is that what is represented in the media is simply ʻmade up’, whereas the true concept emphasises the way in which media images magnify and amplify certain aspects of a phenomenon, while obscuring and down-playing others. So that, what is wrong with government and media responses to youth crime and anti-social behaviour is its emphasis on the unprecedented nature of the problem, while losing its grip on the actual social and historical background.

In other words, the point is not that nothing new is happening, but that our entrenched habits of thought make it harder for us to see what’s happening – and to work out why it’s happening, and what ‘radical programmes’ might be appropriate to deal with it. Social change is real, but we can’t grasp it by endorsing the lament that everything is worse now than it used to be – because everything has always been worse than it used to be.

The passage above is quoted from a 2006 issue of Criminal Justice Matters, the publication of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The author? Geoffrey Pearson.

What Nick’s straw-Pearson does is to collapse the space between “they’ve got nothing to worry about” and “they’re worrying about the wrong things”. To criticise people’s fears, Nick suggests, is to deny that they have anything to fear; to oppose a particular solution is to deny the existence of a problem. To be realistic is to accept the reality of what you read in the papers. There’s a wearily Decent quality to this move. Things are as they seem! Why must the Left continue to deny it?

God save history

Andy:

It is inevitable that there will be a debate about our English identity, and the values that we wish to embrace in our culture. The left needs to participate in that debate, and fight against the Little Englanders. However, we will be greatly aided in this if we recognise that the British state, and the imperial project it entails, greatly disadvantages our people. … the economic policies of the British state, in promoting London as a major financial centre whatever the cost to the underlying economy, and encouraging economic growth in the South East at the expense of the rest of the country must also be challenged.

Andy’s excellent post reminded me of something I wrote for the Socialist Society back in 1988 (yes, that is quite a long time ago, isn’t it?) A version of this piece appeared in Radical Wales; a different version appeared in the Soc Soc’s own magazine Interlink. Needless to say, I don’t hold exactly the same views now as I did in 1988. At the time I wrote this, I was still reeling from the discovery that there are places in England which aren’t blighted by being in London’s cultural rain-shadow. A suburban upbringing will do that for you.

Here’s the article, anyway, fresh from the vault.

The final assumption of Labour’s campaign is ‘Britishness’. In a sense this follows naturally from assumptions about power and the party (…) Just as power disenfranchises the individual and the party neutralises the pressure group, so the nation state marginalises the regions. The whole is structured to fail the sum of its parts. (…) In Chesterfield [1987] one question being asked was not whether Wales and Scotland get decentralised powers, but how to do the same for the English regions. The Irish/Scottish/Welsh ‘problem’ is being recognised for what it has always been: the ‘British problem’.
(Peter Keelan in Radical Wales, Summer 1988)

And there was London, spread out before us like a great capital city and major financial centre.
(Stephen Fry)

Looking out from London, as most of the news media do, England is made up of two places: London on one side (where things get done) and “the regions” on the other (where things happen – floods, motorway pile-ups, mass pickets). Between the centre and the regions, though, there is a grey area, neither central nor provincial: towns widely considered – by their inhabitants as much as anyone – to have nothing going for them except ease of access to London (“it’s amazingly cheap considering”, “it takes no time in the car”). The significance of this is that, from my own experience of living south of London, when you look at “the regions” from London what you see is the grey area: there is London and there are the other towns, and the other towns are probably all awful places with a cinema, two car parks and no soul. Said in the right tone of voice, Preston sounds as funny as Woking.

Of course, where towns like Woking are concerned, it is not just metropolitan snobbery that reduces the town to the role of base for London workers. The subordination of the civic life of these towns to the priorities of the capital is a real and continuing process. But this process – this acceptance, as if by the town itself, of a position of subordination to London – does not apply to towns outside the grey area. It is not that being outside commuting distance of London somehow grants independence from the London-centred economy or the London-based state: indeed, the Scottish experience shows how little cultural autonomy depends on socio-economic autonomy. It is a matter of how easy it is to attempt – or to formulate – alternatives to the economic and cultural hegemony of the British state; and of the extreme difficulty of doing this in a place with too long a record of unchallenged exploitation by the capital of that state.

It is a question of history. On one hand, there is the long concentration of wealth and power in London, and its effect on the rest of the country. On the other, there are “regions” which have never been either wholly independent from London, or wholly reduced to raw material for London. The grey area, appearing to prove that only London is culturally alive, in fact shows the deadening influence of London’s drain on resources – which, in the grey area, has had its full effect. Elsewhere social and cultural resources, and the degree of freedom for new developments, are not so circumscribed. It may be true, as Londoners will assume it is, that Penrith and Dudley and Ipswich are “stifling”, “socially impoverished” “cultural backwaters” whose young people make for the metropolis at the first opportunity. What is certain is that the apparent barrenness of these places (which should not be over-stated) is the result, not of an original sin of not being London, but of their own histories – histories that will supply, if anything can, the means of overcoming that barrenness.

I am arguing against two very British assumptions: that England is composed of a metropolis (definitively English) and a periphery (regional English); and that an English social and political culture – culture of any sort, indeed – is not to be sought in the latter. We need to break with these, not only by denying the superiority of London, but by re-evaluating – and downgrading – London: prising the large city in the South-East of England apart from the home of Britain’s State and most of its Establishment. An English challenge to Britain is needed; and, as a first step, the development of an idea of Englishness rooted in the lives of the actual people of England, most of whose relations with “Britishness” are relations of vicarious participation, indifference or exclusion.

Nor is this only a cultural question. Nothing will impede the development of a politics of England more than continuing to organise nationally from and in London. Our political organisations should at the very least be articulated across England. Their activities should take place as much in Coventry or Newcastle as in London, not out of a desire to “build a presence in the regions”, but because to continue to do otherwise is to reproduce the centre/provinces, government/governed split at the heart of British politics.

A couple of disclaimers. It is easy to over-emphasise the regional issue, either by ranking it above those of class and economic power or by assuming that they are the same thing – “Manchester people will take no shit from no one”, as a Moss Side-born friend once said to me. This is mysticism. The idea of England I am proposing and the received, patriotic-pastoral version are polar opposites. I am not talking about pride in being English, but awareness of being in England: nationalism growing from a sense of common purpose, rather than a sense of common purpose drummed up out of nationalism. The SNP’s poll tax campaign exemplifies this approach.

We can understand the potential of the English perspective by thinking about internationalism. Maybe it is possible to feel international, to “support our lot” in exactly the same way regardless of country. Alternatively, maybe it can be proved that feeling ashamed of the British government is simply a sign of wounded chauvinism. If so, the old axioms hold good. The working class has no country; nationalism is inherently reactionary; progressive forces throughout the world have one allegiance only – the international proletariat. (Hooray!) It seems to me, though, that national feeling can be neither denied nor reduced to its reactionary uses – that the nation is not simply a hangover from the past, but one of the arenas in which history continues to be made. It follows that socialist internationalism is not an indivisible class’s loyalty to itself, but a pooling of national class loyalties; and support for national struggles which does not spring from a nationalistic solidarity is ultimately only dogma or philanthropy. Raymond Williams once described himself as a “Welsh European”. It is that combination of national and international perspectives which we have to realise.

“Nationalism? But I’m English!” Britain is a young nation – not 300 years old yet. There is no genuinely British nationalism; instead, we grow up speaking the nationalism of England’s governors, re-labelled “British” as a reminder that we run the whole island. This lack of a distinctively British national identity has led to the widespread feeling that the British are somehow post-national – “past all that”, too mature as a nation to bother with tribal relics like loyalty to your own turf. This is an illusion: British nationalism is as strong now as when it was first fabricated. The English have the worst of both worlds: a learnt loyalty to the tribal symbols of the English ruling class, and no means of voicing an alternative.

Which is where we come in. It is not just that the project of a Socialist Enlightenment cannot succeed in England unless it provides an alternative to Great British Old Corruption. The English situation merely accentuates a universal phenomenon: the need, integral to the socialist project, for a new national culture rooted in the experience of the people. This is why organising nationally, for those of us in England, must mean organising throughout England; and why we must take on board the sense that there is an England which, as much as Scotland and Wales, potentially has a political agenda other than Britain’s. To quote Raymond Williams again, “Ingsoc is no more English socialism than Minitrue is the Ministry of Truth”: English socialism, a radical politics of the people of England, has still to be developed. And it will be developed outside London, because that’s where England is.

The Wehrmacht never got in here

Chris has a point:

Whereas Britain pursues overseas expansion, England stays at home. The great statements asserting the rights and the dignity of the ordinary man – and it was the Englishman G.K. Chesterton who said there’s nothing ordinary about the ordinary man – are all English: Magna Carta, the Putney debates, Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause.England stands for freedom, Britain for conquest. England stands for quiet dignity, Britain for glory. England is grown and natural, Britain is imposed by the ruling class.

Britain, he might have added, is Great (originally to distinguish it from Brittany, the lesser Brétagne, but never mind). By contrast, England is Little.

But being a little Englander has never really been respectable. The spectre of the little Englander haunted last year’s debate over the EU Constitution, and doubtless would have got more of an airing if we’d had a chance to vote on the damn thing. Little England means isolation rather than co-operation, conservatism rather than progress, nationalism rather than federalism: to be a little Englander is to cling to the myth of autarchic national sovereignty in an interdependent world.

At least, it is now. For the original little Englanders – Chesterton among them – the connotations of the stance were quite different. As Patrick Wright wrote in 2005, referring to Chesterton and co-thinkers like Hilaire Belloc:

Their beleaguered “England” was on the side of the people against industrialism, monopoly capitalism and the rules and bureaucrats of what Belloc called “the servile state”. Chesterton and Belloc would join the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in seeking to preserve traditional “thatched” roofs against the big businesses that could spend fortunes pushing synthetic alternatives. Yet if theirs was emphatically a “little England”, this was also because it entailed a strong rejection of British imperialism. Chesterton elaborated on this aspect of his Englishness in an article entitled “On Rudyard Kipling and making the world small”, included in his book Heretics (1905). Here he took issue with the epigram in which Kipling asked “what can they know of England who only England know?” It was, contended Chesterton, “a far deeper and sharper question to ask, ‘What can they know of England who know only the world?’” As an imperial “globe trotter”, Kipling may certainly “know the world; he is a man of the world, with all the narrowness that belongs to those imprisoned in that planet. He knows England as an intelligent English gentleman knows Venice.” Insisting that Kipling’s devotion to England was the outcome not of love but of critical thought, Chesterton values it far less than the “real” (by which he means instinctive and unreflected) patriotism of the Irish or the Boers, whom Kipling had recently “hounded down in South Africa”.This attempt to dissociate “England” from the British empire may indeed sound attractive. Yet it remained a thoroughly defensive definition of Englishness – one that was formulated in bitter awareness that the world was actually moving in the opposite direction. Its anti-imperialism was less a critical engagement with the British empire, than an act of retreat and even denial.

The last point deserves making, just as it’s worth bearing in mind that Chesterton and Belloc were reactionary Conservatives of a fairly high order. But the main point remains: so far from resisting encroachments on British sovereignty from trans-national federalism, the original Little Englanders were against the imposition of British sovereignty on large tracts of the world. It’s almost a 180-degree reversal, with ‘little England’ counterposed to two different ‘Britain’s. What has remained constant is the fact that ‘Britain’ represents a long-term governmental project – and a project which may take precedence over mundane everyday concerns such as the welfare of the people who live here. This, I think, is the heart of Chris’s opposition between ‘England’ and ‘Britain’.

Oddly enough, the original form of the ‘little England’ slur has been making a comeback recently. Here’s Nick Cohen from 2004:

The beneficiary of the great left-wing revolt against Blair has turned out to be the right. The Tories are doing better than they have done for a decade. Voters disillusioned with established politicians are turning to the United Kingdom Independence Party rather than to the left. The reactionary shift should not be a surprise. The only unanswerable anti-war argument was the generally conservative, Little England case that it is no longer in Britain’s interests to tag along behind the United States.

And here’s Nick again from last week:

It is not at all clear that modern, middle-class, liberal-leftists are either liberal or left wing in the old senses of the words, although they will always be middle class to their bones. Many of them are becoming little Englanders, all for human rights and democracy at home but not abroad.

The argument in the first extract isn’t so much constructed as free-associated: to argue that Britain should not take a subordinate role to Bush’s USA is to be a ‘Little Englander’, to be a Little Englander is to be a conservative, ergo the anti-war movement was in some unspecific way stirring up conservatism. (Presumably CND were to blame for Thatcher.) The second extract is more straightforward: if you care about human rights and democracy then you should sign up to the Euston agenda, endorsing Bush and Blair’s strategy of promoting those causes by military force. If you don’t, you’re a little Englander.

The ‘ethical foreign policy’ of our period bears a distinct resemblance to the ‘enlightened imperialism’ of Chesterton’s; once again, we seem to find ourselves between England and Britain. Chris: England is about cultivation, improvement and the assertion of liberty. Britain is about conquest, albeit often in a good cause. On that basis, you can call me English. (And part-Welsh, but that’s another story.)

And when I have destroyed you

This is the country where I grew up:

The half-sheet of neatly typed paper is still where it has been for the last 40 years, tucked under the perspex cover of a map table in an underground operations room beneath a nondescript suburb of York.”Thirty minutes after the above occurrence the DC is to check Display A to see if the burst designation has been underlined in Yellow Chinagraph pencil, indicating that the first and/or amended communication has been incorporated in a MIDDD BB message. If not, enquiries are to be initiated to rectify the omission.”

If there had been a failure in the yellow pencil department, that would probably have been because the observers who phoned in reports of nuclear bombs falling on the moors and dales of Yorkshire, and the operators who took the messages in the bunker, were all dead.

“This bunker was designed to contain a full complement of 60 people for up to a fortnight, but it couldn’t have withstood a direct blast or even one reasonably nearby,” said Kevin Booth, curator of the building, whose steel door will soon be thrown open to the curious for the first time. “It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

It’s all there. There’s the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, coupled with the (well-founded) suspicion that the government’s main priority in responding to this threat would be to ensure that its own bolt-holes were in working order. I was too young for the first Cold War (although I heard great things about the destruction of RSG 6), but in the 1980s Protect and Survive made radicals of us all – and War Plan UK made a lot of us into conspiracy theorists. Then there’s the atmosphere of insanely detailed bureaucracy and jobsworthery (enquiries are to be initiated, indeed) – and that’s coupled with the lingering suspicion that none of it, when push came to shove, would have actually worked.

It was a strange country, Britain in the 1960s and 1970s. I miss it, sometimes.

There’s more on the Holgate bunker here (visiting times) and here (pictures); this page has more about English Heritage’s bunker estate (and there’s a phrase I never expected to write).

Some things remain from that distant post-war landscape. There’s the pottering enthusiasm of bright-eyed antiquarians like Kevin Booth; small-town museums, bookshops and tourist attractions have been staffed by people like him for as long as I can remember, and it’s good to hear that a relic of the Cold War will receive the same kind of care. And there’s understatement – blessed British understatement.

“It’s perhaps just as well it was never tested to destruction, because I’m not sure how well it would all have worked.”

I do like that ‘perhaps’.

Into the fireplace

As a postscript to this, here’s Stephen Sedley from the current LRB:

When I read for the English Bar in the 1960s, the legal history lecturer stopped when he reached 1649 and explained that he was now moving directly to 1660, because everything that had happened between the trial of the king and the restoration of the monarchy was a nullity.

That’s some nullity.

Sedley’s reviewing Geoffrey Robertson’s The Tyrannicide Brief, a vindication of the regicides collectively and Charles’s prosecutor John Cooke in particular. Sedley’s conclusion demurs from some of Robertson’s larger claims, but leaves one significant claim intact. (‘Bradshawe’ is John Bradshawe, the president of the court which tried Charles.)

Robertson claims too much when he credits Cooke, first in his courtroom defence of John Lilburne, then on his own arrest, with introducing the right of silence into the common law. The supposed right, which developed in the early canon law, had by Cooke’s time acquired a mythological status: widely believed in, respected in the ordinary run of cases but ignored in favour of torture when anything serious was at stake. Cooke’s fate, however, was by the time of his arrest so firmly sealed that there was little point in pressing his interrogation. Nor, I think, could Robertson make good his suggestion that Bradshawe was breaking new ground, in anticipation of Locke and Rousseau, when he said to Charles: ‘There is a contract and bargain made between the king and his people … The one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty.’ This embryonic notion of constitutional monarchy, looking – through a reluctantly commercial metaphor – for middle ground between traditional liberties and government by divine right, was by 1649 a commonplace of political theory. What was novel was Bradshawe’s pointing out to a captive king the consequence when it was the monarch who broke the contract: ‘Farewell sovereignty.’

When it comes to justified rebellion against over-mighty rulers, in other words, the Americans have nothing to teach us. The English did it first – and ushered in a decade of legal nullity, a short-lived no man’s land in which the impossible could become possible. I’m not (solely, or necessarily) talking about Abiezer Coppe or Winstanley, or even about the Levellers. 1649 saw a permanent defeat at Burford as well as the brief nadir of the monarchists, but it wasn’t Thermidor: Cromwell himself was venturing into terra nullius.

It was not the Bill of Rights of 1688 but Cromwell’s Instrument of Government of 1653, still lost in the official void three and a half centuries later, that first set out some of the foundational principles of a modern democracy: triennial parliaments (for a united state of England, Scotland and Ireland), not to be prorogued except by their own will; a non-hereditary Protector, empowered to legislate, tax and govern only with the consent of Parliament and to make war only on its advice; abolition of the established church, and religious toleration (except of ‘Popery and Prelacy’). But not then, or after 1660, or after 1688, did it come true.

From what I know of him, I’ve got a lot of respect for Charles Stuart as a person – and I certainly don’t think Oliver was a nice guy. But it’s not hard to choose between the two. The constitutional ferment of the English Revolution remains a landmark in the country’s history: unsurpassed in many areas, in some still unattained.

A night to kill a king

Justin:

It was also, today, another anniversary: another less famous than once it was. Less famous than it ought to be: it is the anniversary of probably the most significant day in all this country’s history, a day with greater consequences for politics, government and religion than any other.

One day Herr Keuner was asked just what he meant by ‘reversal of perspective’, and he told the following story. Two brothers, who were deeply attached to one another, once adopted a curious practice. They started using pebbles to record the nature of each day’s events, a white stone for each moment of happiness, a black one for any misfortune or chagrin. They soon discovered, on comparing the contents of their jars of pebbles at the end of each day, that one brother collected only white pebbles, the other only black. Intrigued by the remarkable consistency with which they each experienced a similar fate in a quite different way, they resolved to seek the opinion of an old man famed for his wisdom. “You don’t talk about it enough”, said the wise man. “Each of you should seek the causes of your choices and explain them to the other.”

Thenceforward the two brothers followed this advice, and soon found that while the first remained faithful to his white pebbles, and the second to his black ones, in neither of the jars were there now as many pebbles as formerly. Where there had usually been thirty or so, each brother would now collect scarcely more than seven or eight. Before long the wise man had another visit from the two brothers, both looking very downcast. “Not long ago,” began the first brother, “my jar would fill up with pebbles as black as night. I lived in unrelieved despair. I confess that I only went on living out of force of habit. Now, I rarely collect more than eight pebbles in a day. But what these eight symbols of misery represent has become so intolerable that I simply cannot go on living like this.” The other brother told the wise man: “Every day I used to pile up my white pebbles. These days I only get seven or eight, but these exercise such a fascination over me that I cannot recall these moments of happiness without immediately wanting to live them over again, even more intensely than before. As a matter of fact, I long to keep on experiencing them forever, and this desire is a torment to me.” The wise man smiled as he listened. “Excellent, excellent”, he said. “Things are shaping up well. You must persevere. One other thing. From time to time, ask yourselves why this game with the jar and the pebbles arouses so much enthusiasm in you.”

The next time the two brothers visited the wise man, they had this to say: “Well, we asked ourselves the question, as you suggested, but we have no answer. So we asked everyone in the village. You can see how much it has upset them. Whole families sit outside their houses in the evenings arguing about white pebbles and black pebbles. Only the elders and notables refuse to take part in these discussions. They laugh at us, and say that a pebble is a pebble, black or white.” The old man could not conceal his delight at this. “Everything is going as I had foreseen. Don’t worry. Soon the question will no longer arise; it has already lost its importance, and I daresay that one day soon you will have forgotten that you ever concerned yourselves with it.”

Not long thereafter the old man’s predictions were confirmed in the following manner. A great joy seized the people of the village. And as dawn broke after a night full of comings and goings, the first rays of sunlight fell upon the heads of the elders and notables, struck from their bodies and impaled upon the sharp-pointed stakes of a palisade.
- Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-faire à l’usage des jeunes générations

Charles Stuart, 19/11/1600 – 30/1/1649

Under the mirror

Not so much a Googlism, more a Google.co.uk-ism (thanks to Mr Bartlett for the inspiration).

What could be more British than…

the quintessential Village Inn
a sweet cup of tea
Heinz Baked Beans
the zebra-crossing
fair play
a young builder sharing a fish and chips supper with his girlfriend
Thousands of people camped out in the mild evenings drinking tea
a nice cup of tea
roast beef with all the trimmings followed by apple pie
fish and chips
a gastro pub, situated in the heart of London’s East End
a garden, to remember the 67 British victims of September 11th
cheese and chutney sandwiches
The Times or The Sun
a jolly old picnic in a park
the Royal Family
“Here’s a picture of my bum”
Newcastle
marching peacefully through London
war, spies, betrayal
a breakfast of bacon and eggs
the Vulcan
A fillet of haddock in crispy batter, served with chips and peas (mushy if you prefer)
a Curry
the red, white and blue rosette of the British Motor Corporation
fish and chips, donkey rides, Ovaltine and Bingo
a cup of sweet tea
the old “working class hero” routine
Stoic, restrained, humorous, lousy teeth
real ale
a pint of beer
tea and scones
Huge bosoms, pert bottoms, and lots of innuendo
the sight of a cricket bat in the boot of a Jag
“Bloody Hell”
communing with God in a garden
a story about a Scotland Yard inspector investigating the murder of a star soccer player
inventing a sport, and then losing at it to every other nation for centuries afterwards
a long wheelbase Jaguar
the Henry Moore Statues ‘Double Oval’ and ‘Oval with Points’
Lawn Bowling and Afternoon Tea
a Mini
the Big Garden Birdwatch
muscular Islam
a good old motorway
a car that lends itself to having the Union Jack painted on its roof
total lack of enthusiasm
the National dish of England, Chicken Madras
hanging painted wooden or ceramic ducks on the wall
the ultimate symbols of the monarchy, the Crown Jewels
Michael Caine
an Indian banquet
the traditional “cuppa”
“doughy and bland”
an Oxford Companion to JMW Turner
Ealing Studios
a symbol of Britannia carrying a shield that clearly shows the Union flag motif
to have your Mini painted in the red white and blue colours of the Union Flag
Roger Moore in a safari suit
to enjoy a cup of tea
a record of Rolf Harris’s “Two Little Boys”
Goodbye to Berlin, Women in Love, The Heart of the Matter or A Passage to India
British Airways, Rover cars and Moss Bros
blue jeans and a tan pork pie hat
tea

Rather a lot of food and drink in there, wouldn’t you say? Fish and chips, real ale, and of course a nice cup of tea – can’t beat it. (Bill Bryson said that one of the things that first struck him about the British was our ability to get “genuinely excited at the prospect of a hot drink”. Well, yes and no, Bill. We get genuinely excited at the prospect of a nice cup of tea.)

Being the artsy-bloody-fartsy type, I was also reminded of T.S. Eliot, who wrote this about ‘culture’ in 1948:

It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.

As Raymond Williams noted ten years later, “This pleasant miscellany is evidently narrower in kind than the general description which precedes it. The ‘characteristic activities and interests’ would also include steelmaking, touring in motor-cars, mixed farming, the Stock Exchange, coalmining and London Transport.” (What could be more British than coalmining?) “Any list would be incomplete, but Eliot’s categories are sport, food and a little art – a characteristic observation of English leisure.” It’s a good argument, but fifty years on the folksonomic zeitgeist of Google tends to agree with Eliot: food, sport and a little art, plus cars, protest, a total lack of enthusiasm and Newcastle. Nice to see protest coming up as part of the national character, mind you – better that than Henley.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google’s view of English culture isn’t very different, although there’s less about cars and more about gardening. Oh, and buggery:

Gilbert and Sullivan
afternoon tea
fine fabrics and fibers [sic]
a fish and chip shop
consort music
Dr. Doolittle
to see THE QUEEN in all her royal gloriousness
an exhibition of original Flower Fairies watercolours
marching peacefully from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square
a country church with a tower
a laburnum in full flow
Sunday dinner with the vicar
A man dressed in medieval costume emblazoned with the cross of St.George
rain
Gardens and tea
Shakespeare
a lazy Sunday afternoon watching cricket on the village green
Steak and Kidney Pudding
drinking imported German lager and tucking into a plate of chicken and chips
beginning a meal with a chilled soup made with fresh strawberries
feeling too diffident to complain
Tea and scones overlooking Kensington Gardens
a fried breakfast
buggery and croquet
Curry houses
a Peter Noone song with a corny, contrived introduction
a May Day Bank Holiday Brass Band Concert
a pink rose
Terence Stamp
good old-fashioned boarding-school style buggery
poking fun at Americans

Poking fun at Americans? Wouldn’t dream of it. Purely by way of contrast with the previous two lists, here’s what Google thinks is typically American:

the gold rush
a Beer run
apple pie
baseball and apple pie
a can of Campbell’s soup
a marketplace
blue jeans
buying the best
standing up and saying “no, not in my name you don’t”
an African-music concert in an Irish/Italian neighborhood
migrating to a thinly-settled area to experiment with liberty
blatantly trying to get money out of a tragedy
blowing stuff up
the idea of a second chance, a fresh start, Act Two
a barbeque
doing our best to abide by the law
choice
an afternoon at a Braves game
the automobile
the dollar bill itself
the lawsuit
kids
Easy Rider
money
the eternal optimism that we can always improve our lot
the saying “you can’t stop progress.”
a trial by media
a composer grounded in Hollywood, but who has belatedly rediscovered his concert music identity
a tailgating party at a football game
equating second place with failure
Michael Moore
small-town citizens coming together to solve problems by consensus
a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air
a vote
an Oreo
baseball
Columbus Day
Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life
mud wrestling
standing up for the Constitution
reaping just rewards for your own labor
a history textbook that decides, halfway through, to be a detective novel instead
betting $1 million on the flop of a single card
corn growing on an Iowa farm
a hotly contested college football game between division rivals
the right to choose for oneself
the American Red Cross
Little League
watching commercials
pizza
baseball, hot dogs, and the Fourth of July
a fun-filled day at the park
suing the bastards
giving people a second chance
protesting and exercising our rights
raping the expressive and unique nature of a foreign culture for material gain
the socialist goals of social justice, equality of opportunity, economic security, and peace
Guns and money
fair play
pro-choice
baseball, hot dogs, and the Democratic Party
the flag
french-fries and hamburgers
democracy
pie

Phew. Tea, anyone?

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