Britain’s national mythology – 1914-1918 gives us a chance to examine the past

The subject of national mythology fascinates me. National origins are always overlaid with all kinds of accretions, generally not quite true, if at all, and usually poorly-understood by those that accept them as the unvarnished truth.

The forthcoming frenzy of patriotic posturing by our political masters around the Great War is a perfect example of how mythology has replaced history and how easy it is to manipulate the mood of the nation.

I liked this piece by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian.

He asks the question “Can we really not do history without war?“.

I would suggest that in this country the answer is always going to be “No”.

Our national mythology is all about war – whether it is victory or defeat. The dates that resound in the public consciousness are 1066, 1588, 1805, 1815, 1914, 1918, 1939 and 1945. In some parts of the UK 1690 is as important as 1588, if not more so, but how many Unionists know that it was part of the War of the League of Augsburg (a.k.a. The Nine Years’ War) and that William of Orange was in an alliance with the Pope and the Holy Roman Empire?

People most likely don’t really know why any of those battles were fought, or why those dates are signficant, certainly the context will be vague at best, but the things that they think that they know are simple: Britain (safely forgetting that Britain didn’t exist in 1066 and 1588) won, our “brave lads” triumphed over foreign dictators and “our unique island heritage” was made safe for our “democratic traditions”. They certainly won’t stop and think that equal Universal Suffrage didn’t exist in the UK until 1928. The soldiers who endured the horrors of the Great War weren’t fighting for democracy because most of them didn’t have the vote.

People are not taught history at school, they are sold national propaganda. Even the English defeat at Hastings is somehow transformed into a victory for “Great Britain”. If you look at 1066 what you see is the founding of the Anglo-Norman elite that subsequently dominated English history until the Reformation. It is no real surprise that William’s victory is sold to generations of schoolchildren as a “win”.

History in the UK is a political weapon. The Whig narrative tradition is designed to do one thing, and that is to reinforce the position of our ruling elite. The century from 1588 to 1688 is problematic for our ruling class. On one hand it sees the rise of parliament against royal absolutism, but on the other hand it shows the common (i.e. non-aristocratic) people taking power and the monarchy being banished for a time. Of course, the 1688 coup d’etat, accomplished with the aid of Dutch military forces, is portrayed as Glorious, with a happy narrative of absolutism and Catholicism thwarted and “democracy” victorious, but the reality is actually something quite different.

Still, our method of disseminating history via military triumph is unlikely to vanish, regardless of who occupies the government benches because parliament depends on the same national mythology for its legitimacy.

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The Fall of Roman Britain and the myth of the Anglo-Saxon Conquest

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I’ve been thinking recently about post-Roman Britain and the accepted version of how the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, led by warrior leaders, displaced the native British and created the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that came to make modern England.

I think that there is a real problem with this narrative, and that problem is really rooted in the decline in urbanism and end of a money-based economy in the decades after the year 400. Continue reading

Patrick Leigh Fermor

picture: The Guardian

I first read one of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books in the 1980s. I was working shifts at the time and one of the guys on shift brought in Roumeli, having bought it because he’d mistakenly thought it was a travel guide to northern Greece.

It was a slow Sunday with nothing much to do, so I started reading it and I was hooked. I’d read about a third of the book by the time my shift ended and took the book home and finished it within a day. It was one of the most fascinating and erudite books I’d ever read. At the time I knew nothing about Patrick Leigh Fermor at all, I didn’t connect him to the film Ill Met by Moonlight, which I know I must have seen at some point, black and white war films being a staple of British Sunday afternoon TV viewing throughout the 1960s.

I looked for Roumeli‘s companion volume Mani and read that also. It was then that I read his two volumes of autobiography, A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And The Water, which were even more of a revelation. He evoked a world that was destroyed during and after World War Two, a world of Habsburg aristocrats, Mitteleuropa as it would have made sense to anyone living between 1648 and 1939 and a place where cultures collided, overlapped and bled into one another. It was a world of dashing hussars, great houses, vampire-haunted villages, Landsknecht columns and steel-clad cuirassiers battling the Janissaries and Sipahis of the Ottoman Sultans, of icon-filled Byzantine churches in remote, tree-filled valleys, the fault line between Catholic central and Orthodox eastern Europe and the crucible of imperial ambitions from the Romans onwards.

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books are endlessly romantic, he saw the world with a poetic sensibility, his writing is full of accounts of the grand sweep of history, the vanity of imperial power, the shattering of lost causes and the way that the tide of events has shaped our continent.

His writing isn’t just memorable for the huge canvas though, it is full of small details, human touches, small kindnesses and petty cruelties, the tiny events that combine to create the journal of people’s lives as they live and die within the majestic tapestry of history.

Above all, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about people. Events and landscapes, histories and geographies, these are the background to lives, his own as much as anyone else’s.

Not only a romantic and a scholar, I think that he was an optimist, his writing, full of longing and sadness for what we have lost, seems to me to be brimming with the unbounded possibilities that are there for us, so long as we have the curiosity and desire to seek them out.

Patrick Leigh Fermor was 96 when he dies, a great age. he leaves behind a great literary heritage.