The Future of History

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Mummer's Day

Season's Greetings!!

Here's a little seasonal piece I wrote for the Review Group Blog: On the Feast of Stephen.  It's mostly about Mumming.

All the very best to you all!

Friday, 20 December 2013

Five Facts About Arthur

Barry Hill, just north of Alyth in Angus, photographed by Richard Webb.  Arthur's last battle was fought near here.

I've written quite a lot about prejudice, lately.  This comes partly from my work on the final chapter for The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion, in which I analyse what makes people believe certain things - irrespective of, and often in direct contradiction of, the evidence.

Because the fact is that where a lot of history is concerned, prejudice dictates what we believe.  Hence, the revelation that Arthur was Scottish (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say North British) is either ignored or derided by people who prefer to cling to the notion that he was, in some strange, anachronistic sort of way, essentially English.

A couple of posts back, I flirted with the idea of posting a handful of facts, none of which is in any way speculative, about Arthur.  These indisputable facts point to one conclusion only - that the "King Arthur" we read about so often is a manufactured legend.  The real Arthur was not a "king".  He had no connection with southern Britain and was active somewhat later than the timeframe asserted by so many "experts".

So, here goes:

1. The earliest Arthur on record was northern.

Long before we encounter any English references to Arthur, a princely "Arthur" was written about.  He was Artur mac Aedain ("Arthur son of Aedan"), whose father, Aedan mac Gabrain, was ordained as King of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.  The Life of Columba, written by Adomnan of Iona in about 697, drawing on earlier accounts written by previous abbots of Iona, suggests that Artur was present when his father Aedan was ordained.  St Columba predicted that this Artur would never be king but would "fall in battle, slain by enemies".  The Life of Columba goes on to confirm that Artur did indeed die in a "battle of the Miathi", the tribal name referring to the southern or Lowland Picts of central Scotland.

The Irish annals similarly indicate that Artur mac Aedain died fighting the Picts - his death in a "battle of Circenn" being dated to 594 (Annals of Tigernach).  Circenn was the old Pictish province which corresponds with today's Angus and the Mearns, just north of the Tay estuary in Scotland.

Like Adomnan's Life of Columba, the Irish annals ultimately derived from the Isle of Iona, off the coast of Argyll in western Scotland.  Key events were listed alongside the Easter Tables which allowed early monasteries to calculate the date of Easter each year; these events were later transcribed into the chronicles known as "annals".  The source of the information regarding Artur's death in a battle against the Miathi Picts, fought in Circenn (Angus) in about 594, was therefore the monastery on Iona which had been established by St Columba - the very man who "ordained" Artur's father Aedan in 574.

Most accounts of Arthur's life avoid mentioning the Irish annals or the Life of Columba because they reveal that, long before there was any mention of Arthur in a southern or "English" context, the Irish or Scots had already established that an Arthur died fighting against the Picts in Angus.  There are no surviving references to anyone named Arthur before these Irish accounts, which drew on contemporary references.  Some scholars insist that Artur mac Aedain could not have been the "real" Arthur but must have been named after an earlier hero called Arthur.  But the point needs to be made that no evidence whatsoever exists for anyone named Arthur before Artur mac Aedain.

2. The early British sources associate Arthur with the North.

No contemporary British accounts of Arthur survive, although we do have transcriptions of ancient poems and stories which were copied out in the Middle Ages.  They all point to Arthur having been a northerner, who associated with northern princes of the late-6th century (that is, the lifetime of Artur mac Aedain).

Starting with Taliesin, who proudly called himself the "Primary Chief Bard" of Britain and who flourished in the late-6th century, we find repeated references to Arthur as a contemporary figure.  For a while, at least, Taliesin was attached to the court of Urien, a king of North Rheged (Cumbria) who died in 590.  By his own admission, Taliesin was also based at Edinburgh for some time.  In addition to composing poems and elegies for Urien and his son Owain, Taliesin also praised Lleenog of Lennox (Loch Lomond) and his son Gwallog.  He also sang a death-song for "Uthyr Pen" ("Uther the Chief") and an extraordinary account of Arthur's funeral (Preiddeu Annwn).

Equally, Aneirin - a princely bard of the North who flourished in the late-6th century - made mention of Arthur.  Aneirin's masterpiece is known as Y Gododdin and sang of the warriors of Edinburgh and Lothian who perished in a military disaster fought shortly before the year 600.  The earliest surviving version of Y Gododdin, written in an archaic form of Welsh, includes a direct reference to Arthur (we will return to this).

Moving onto the British stories of Arthur and his heroes, although these were transcribed by medieval monks during the Middle Ages, there is no good reason to presume that they were made up during that same period; rather, they almost certainly preserved a record which had been passed down orally by bards and storytellers.  In these stories (some of which were edited and translated in the 19th century by Lady Charlotte Guest and published as the Mabinogion or "Tales of the Early Age"), Arthur is consistently presented in the company of northern individuals of the late-6th century.

Such individuals include Taliesin, Urien of North Rheged and his son Owain, Cynon son of Clydno of Edinburgh and Peredur of York (Taliesin, Owain and Cynon are among those named alongside Arthur in Aneirin's Y Gododdin poem of a northern battle fought in the late-6th century).  These historical figures were later romanticised (Urien - Uriens; Owain = Yvain; Peredur = Perceval - compare Lleenog and Gwallog, who became the legendary father and son duo, Lancelot of the Lake and Galahad).

Others who appear to have accompanied Arthur on his forays "into the North" include St Cadog, one of Arthur's "four-and-twenty horsemen", who founded a monastery in central Scotland, and whose hagiography features several encounters with Arthur and other contemporary figures, such as Rhydderch of Dumbarton (died circa 614).  Rhydderch, meanwhile, is repeatedly associated with the Merlin-figure, Myrddin Wyllt, who "went mad" at a battle fought in the Scottish Borders in 573 and then spent much of his time in the "Caledonian forest", where at least one of Arthur's battles was fought, according to a list compiled in about 829 by a Welsh monk commonly known as Nennius.

3. The early romances associate Arthur - and the Grail - with the North.

As early as 1120, Lambert, the canon of St Omer in Brittany, wrote of the "palace of the warrior Arthur" as being "in the land of the Picts" - or Scotland, as we would now know it.  Lambert wrote in Latin, but used a Gaelic name for Arthur (Artuir militis).

Most mainstream accounts of "King Arthur" do not mention Lambert's testimony because it draws us away from the myth of the southern Arthur.  That myth was forged by Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose account of Arthur's life and career formed part of his Historia Regum Britanniae or "History of the Kings of Britain", which he completed in about 1137.  Geoffrey appears singlehandedly to have invented the legend of Arthur's birth at Tintagel in Cornwall.  He also claimed that Merlin transported the "Giant's Dance" from Ireland by magic, bringing it to England where it became known as Stonehenge.  Very few people take that claim seriously, and yet a surprising number are eager to take the equally unfounded story about Tintagel as Gospel.  (In a later account, Geoffrey placed Merlin in the company of Taliesin, correctly identifying Myrddin Wyllt as the origin of the Merlin legend and a contemporary of the late-6th-century "Primary Chief Bard", but by then the damage had been done - those who wanted Arthur to have been "English" had the Tintagel myth to turn to, even though nobody before Geoffrey of Monmouth had mentioned it.)

Still, writers in Britain and on the Continent continued to link Arthur and his exploits with the North.  Beroul, for example, whose verse romance of Tristan was composed in about 1200, stated unequivocally that Arthur and his Round Table were located at Stirling, on the River Forth in central Scotland.  There was indeed a "Tristan" who was contemporary with Artur mac Aedain.  His name was originally Pictish - Drust - but the Scots came to think of him as "St Drostan" and placed him in the company of St Columba (as "Drosten", he is named on a 9th-century Pictish stone at St Vigeans in Angus, not far from the scene of Artur's last battle; an early British account has "Drystan" fleeing with his lover, Esyllt, into the "Caledonian forest").

In Chretien de Troyes's version of the Peredur story - Perceval ou le conte du graal - the sword presented to the Grail knight by his uncle, the Fisher King, could only be "rehammered, retempered and repaired" at a lake beyond the River Forth.  The Estoire del Saint Graal, composed in about 1230, stated that both Joseph of Arimathea, who supposedly brought the "Holy Grail" to Britain, and his son Josephus were buried in Scotland.  At about the same time, one Guillaume le Clerc wrote his romance of Fergus, in which a young would-be knight encounters Arthur and his men in Galloway and then goes on a quest across much of Scotland.  The Queste del Saint Graal (circa 1230) remarked that Celydoine, an ancestor of the knights Lancelot and Galahad, was "the first Christian king to hold sway over Scotland".

An oral tradition concerning Arthur continued in Scotland - and especially in the islands of the Hebrides - until the tales were finally written down in the 18th and 19th centuries.  In one of these, which was recorded on the Isle of Tiree, very close to Iona, Arthur is "Chief Arthur son of Iuthar".

4. Arthur's enemies were northern.

Traditionally, Arthur fought against the Saxons, who colonised much of southern Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries AD.  The term "Saxon" is still used in Welsh (Sais) and Scottish Gaelic (Sasunn) to designate an "Englishman" and "England" respectively.  The term "England", however, derives not from the Saxons but from the Angles, who formed Engla land some time after they had established their kingdom of Northumberland.

The Angles did not lay claim to their first northern kingdom (Bryneich - or Bernicia, as the Angles called it) until about AD 547.  They later added the kingdom of Deira (British Deywr) in 559, and together these adjacent territories on the coast of north-east England formed the Anglian kingdom of Northumberland.  Forays were made into central Scotland (thus, Artur and his contemporaries fought them in Lennox, near Loch Lomomd, and at Craigmaddie Muir, north of Glasgow).  By 590, though, an alliance of British and Irish chieftains had pretty much driven the Angles back into the sea.  Only the treachery of a British petty-king, Morgan the Wealthy, whose power base was at the Edinburgh, caused the British resistance to collapse after the assassination of Urien of North Rheged.

Just five years later, the resurgent Angles overran much of the North.  They finally conquered Edinburgh and Lothian in 638.

Between 590 and 595, or thereabouts, the invading "English" underwent an astonishing change of fortune - from being all-but wiped out in 590 to taking control of much of North Britain in 595.

Artur mac Aedain, we should remember, died in a battle fought in Angus in 594.  During his lifetime, the Anglian threat had been contained, and almost eradicated, before an act of treachery led to the death of Arthur's companion, Urien, and then his own death opened the floodgates to the conquest of North Britain by the Angles.  The historical circumstances therefore square with the later legends of Arthur: he sought to hold back the English, and was remarkably successful in doing so, until treachery struck.  And with the death of Arthur, Britain was finished.

But the Angles were not his sole enemies.  Geoffrey of Monmouth - who acknowledged that Arthur had fought battles around Dumbarton and Loch Lomond, a very long way from his supposed base in the south - also noted that there had been "Scots, Picts and Irish" ranged against Arthur in his final conflict, and that the various factions who had been brought into alliance by a treacherous British chieftain included both pagans and Christians.  Geoffrey specifically stated that the "Saxons" were to be awarded with the land between the River Humber and Scotland - that is, Northumberland, the land of the Angles - in return for joining forces against Arthur.

5. Arthur's last battle was fought in the North.

We think of it as the "Battle of Camlann", and yet no contemporary references to any such battle survive.  The last battle of Arthur doesn't appear to have been referred to as "Camlann" until the Middle Ages, when it was entered into the Annals of Wales as Gueith cam lann, the "Strife of Camlann".

It is usually assumed that "Camlann" is, and could only be, a Welsh place-name.  This is not a reasonable assumption: the old Roman fort at Camelon, near Falkirk (just south of Stirling), is known as Camlan in Gaelic (Kemlin in Scots), and so we shouldn't suppose that cam lann was an authentic British (i.e. Brittonic) place-name.

In fact, the term cam lann translates via Anglo-Saxon - and via Lowland Scots, a derivative of the Old Germanic tongue spoken by the Angles, which had been established in southern Scotland by the 7th century - as "comb land".

Artur mac Aedain, we recall, died in 594 at a "battle of Circenn".  The term circenn combines two Old Irish words, cir  - meaning "comb" or "crest" - and cenn, meaning "heads".  The Angus region, which was then known as Circenn, appears to have been the capital of the Miathi Picts, who seem to have modelled their appearance on the boar (Galam, a chief of the southern Picts who was almost certainly killed by Arthur in 580, bore two epithets: Cennaleth, or "Chief of Alyth", and Cennfaeladh, meaning "Shaved-Head"; he was also known as "Little-Boar", Welsh Baeddan, or "Little Tufted One", Gaelic Badan, since his head was shaved to represent the tuft, crest or "comb" of a boar).

So, Artur mac Aedain died in 594 in a battle in Circenn, the land of the "Comb-heads" or the boar-crested warriors of the Miathi Picts.  His death more or less put an end to the British resistance to Anglian invasion.

The Arthur of legend died in a battle in "Comb land" or cam lann.  His death more or less put an end to the British resistance to the "Saxons", or the English as they are now known.

With this in mind, we might return to the Y Gododdin poem of Aneirin, which sang of the heroes (many of them resident fixtures of the Arthurian legends) who fought so valiantly in a disastrous encounter with the Northumbrian Angles which took place not long before the year 600 and not all that far from Edinburgh.  Indeed, Aneirin tells us where it happened:

Again they came into view around the Allaid,
The battle-horses and the bloody armour,
Still steadfast, still united ...

The "Allaid" (Gaelic Ailt) was the Hill of Alyth, above the River Isla in Strathmore, the great valley of Angus.

As previously stated, the earliest surviving version of Y Gododdin includes a reference to Arthur.  This reference has been repeatedly mistranslated by scholars who do not want to think of Arthur as a northerner or to consider the possibility that Arthur might have been present at this disastrous battle between the Gododdin warriors of Lothian and the massed ranks of Angles, Scots, Irish and Picts.  Here's the passage which mentions Arthur:

Gochore brein du ar uur
caer ceni bei ef arthur
rug ciuin uerthi ig disur ...

We can now translate this passage thus:

"Black ravens sang in praise of the hero
of Circenn.  He blamed Arthur;
the dogs cursed in return for our wailing ..."

The "hero" (Welsh arwr) of "Circenn" (corrupted to caer and the genitive ceni in the transcription) was probably Arthur, who was blamed for his own death by his principle enemy whilst his black raven warriors sang their dirges over him.

As St Columba had predicted, he had "fallen in battle, slain by enemies".  This battle was fought against a motley bunch of Angles, Scots, Picts and Irish, and it took place in the "comb land" (cam lann) of the "Comb-heads" (Circenn), where Arthur - surrounded by those very princes of North Britain who would follow him into the legends - was fatally wounded near the Allaid or "Hill of Alyth", the chief seat of Galam, the onetime boar-king of the Miathi. 

This region is also known as Gowrie, after Gabran, the grandfather of Artur mac Aedain, who had annexed the territory in about 525.  The place where Artur fell is known to this day as Arthurbank, the precise spot still being known as Arthurstone.

Southern Britain never had an Arthur, nor even a figure remotely like Artur mac Aedain. 

The myth of the southern Arthur is exactly that - a myth. 

The real Arthur, as all the available evidence indicates, was a northerner, active in the second half of the 6th century, and only blind prejudice stands in the way of our recognition of Artur mac Aedain as the hero he was.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Grail - Saints and Stones

The last but one chapter of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion is now up on the Moon Books blog.  In this 11th chapter, we break the news that the "Grail" can still be seen on Pictish symbol stones in very close proximity to the scene of Arthur's last battle.

It's a difficult chapter, I'll admit.  Working this way (a chapter a month, published online, and then on to the next chapter) has been a very interesting experience, but not always an easy one.  Usually, I'd write out several chapters, then go back and revise them, move on to the next chapters, go back, revise, move forwards, back, revise, onwards, rewrite a section, rewrite another section, complete the manuscript, then revise it ... But not this time!  Oh no.  A chapter, when it's done, goes up on the blog.  It's published.  And on we go to the next one.

I'm beginning to look forward to reading through the completed manuscript when the final chapter is published next month.  It'll be interesting to see how (and if) the whole thing hangs together.  How much repetition is there?  What needs to go, what needs to be better explained ...

Anyway, the research has been fascinating.  As has been receiving feedback on each chapter (work-in-progress) from my brother-in-arms, John Gist, and planning each of the chapter images with my very talented near-neighbour, Lloyd Canning.  Lloyd lives round the corner from me; John lives in New Mexico.  It's been an international collaboration!

A lot of new material has been unearthed during the course of this project, and I'm hopeful that the final chapter will put most of it into perspective.  I look forward to being able to post the link.

Meanwhile, in other news, the Royal Shakespeare Company bookshop is now stocking Who Killed William Shakespeare?

"Made it, Ma!  Top of the world!"

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Finding Arthur

Very exciting to see this in the Scotsman newspaper yesterday.  It's a short piece about Adam Ardrey's latest Arthurian publication, Finding Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend of the Once and Future King.

I've had some contact with Adam Ardrey in recent years - although, keen as I am to preserve my historiographical independence, we've not exactly compared notes.  I read his Finding Merlin when it came out in 2007, and we've communicated once or twice since then.  But we're hardly collaborators.

I stress that for a couple of reasons.  First, let me quote Ardrey's words from the back cover of Finding Merlin:

"If I am right, it would appear that, for 1,500 years, those with the power to do so have presented a history that, literally, suited their book, irrespective of its divergence from the evidence, and that the stories of Arthur and Merlin which form the British foundation myth are almost entirely pieces of propaganda based on various biases.  If I am right, British history for the period from the late fifth to the early seventh century stands to be rewritten."

Sounds a bit like me, doesn't it?  I too have argued that propaganda and bias have dictated the retelling of the Arthurian legends through the ages - just as propaganda and bias dictate what we allowed to hear, think and believe about William Shakespeare.

What is more, though, Adam Ardrey argues in his Finding Arthur book, not only that Artur mac Aedain was the original Arthur, but that he was buried on the Isle of Iona.

So we agree on that, too.

In other words, both of us have - independently - identified a known historical prince as the original "King Arthur", and we have both tracked down his grave to the sacred royal burial isle of the Scottish kings.  That's two intelligent and inquisitive individuals who have each devoted years to the subject arriving at very similar conclusions.

I posted the piece in the Scotsman newspaper (link above) to Facebook yesterday, and it was quickly shared by a very successful historical novelist.  The responses were most telling.

First came the observation that a Scottish historian had received coverage in a Scottish newspaper for his theory that Arthur was Scottish.  Evidently, this was all very suspicious (I pointed out that I'm an English historian with Welsh roots, and so the suggestion that only a Scot would think Arthur might have been Scottish doesn't quite stand up).  What makes this kneejerk rush to judgement so interesting is that there is no basis for it.  It is, in fact, a form of projection.  The fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that Arthur was what the English like to think he was gets instantly spun round, becoming no other culture is allowed to claim Arthur as its own, regardless of the evidence.

I posted a few days ago about the Ossian poems, translated from the Gaelic and published by James Macpherson in the 1760s, and the English response to the evidence of a thriving, heroic Gaelic culture at a time when England didn't even exist.  The response was nothing short of blind fury - a kind of spluttering outrage that the "primitives" and "savages" of the Highlands and Islands should presume to imagine that they had any pedigree, any marvellous history, for such cultural treasures belonged only to the English!!!

The same prejudice shows itself whenever the Scottish Arthur is mentioned.  Without viewing the evidence, the instinctive response is: "No, he can't have been."  I repeat - without viewing the evidence.  So we are not dealing with considered judgements here.  We are dealing with prejudice, pure and simple.  The implicit racism is apparent in the suggestion that only a Scottish historian would try to place Arthur in Scotland.  Even though the very first Arthur to appear in any historical record was a Scot!

There is, then, a wall of prejudice encountered by anyone who, having spent years studying and researching the evidence, concludes that there was only one viable candidate for the prestigious role of the original Arthur - and it was Artur mac Aedain, whose father was ordained as the King of the Scots by St Columba in AD 574.

It is reassuring, then, to find that others who have devoted themselves to uncovering the historical truth behind the Arthur legend have arrived at much the same conclusion as me - he was Artur mac Aedain, and he was buried on Iona.  The question, then, is when will the tide turn?  When will the wall of prejudice crumble in the face of the evidence?  When will the English finally admit that they have no claim at all to Arthur?

(I don't include the Welsh here because Arthur was British, and Welsh-speaking Britain extended at least as far north as the River Forth in his day; there are no grounds for presuming that, if Arthur was the son of a Scottish king, then he couldn't have been Welsh: rather, that argument is based on a misunderstanding of the geopolitics of 6th-century Britain.)

I'm tempted to post, over the next few days, a number of indisputable facts about Arthur.  These are not assumptions, but genuine facts.  And they all point in one direction, and one direction only.

The English might fight tooth and nail to cling to their myth of King Arthur.  But there can be no reasonable doubt as to who the original Arthur was.

Unless you're determined to ignore the evidence, that is.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The History Vault

A moment of fame ...

The wonderful online History Vault magazine has published a five-minute interview with me!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Ossian: Culture and Prejudice

It's taken me a while, but I've finally got round to researching the poems of Ossian.

"So what?" I hear you cry.  Well, each to his own.

Let me fill you in.

James Macpherson was born in the Scottish Highlands in 1736.  A native Gaelic speaker, he wasn't quite ten years old when the Jacobite rebellion under Bonnie Prince Charlie came to a terrible end at Culloden, not so very far from where Macpherson had grown up. 

There had been prominent rebels in his family - including Cluny Macpherson, who makes a colourful appearance in Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped.

James Macpherson was clever, quick-witted and well-educated.  In 1760, he published Fragments of Ancient Poetry - Collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language.  These Fragments introduced the world to the ancient world of Fingal (Fionn mac Cumhail), his son Ossian and grandson Oscar (yes, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was named after him).  They were an instant success.

The Scottish literati then raised the funds for Macpherson to make a research trip to the Highlands and Islands with a view to collecting more scraps of traditional Gaelic verse, either orally or in manuscript form.  The result of this expedition was Fingal: An Ancient Epic Poem in Sixth Books.

Macpherson had made his name.  His Ossianic collections were the talk of Europe and beyond.  Thomas Jefferson considered them his favourite books; Napoleon Buonaparte never went into battle without a copy to hand, and Goethe was hugely inspired by the Gaelic epic.  Romanticism - the predominant aesthetic movement of the 19th century - owed a great deal to Macpherson's work.  Felix Mendelssohn made a sort of pilgrimage to the Western Isles after reading the Ossian poems, and was inspired to write his stirring Hebridean Overture, although sea-sickness had prevented him from viewing "Fingal's Cave" on Staffa.

But the English hated the Ossian poems.  Led by the bullish figure of Dr Samuel Johnson, the southern establishment poured scorn on Macpherson's efforts.  Johnson demanded that Macpherson reveal his sources and produce the Gaelic manuscripts from which he had drawn his translations.  As far as Dr Johnson was concerned, the whole thing was a hoax.  There were no historic manuscripts concerning Fingal.  Macpherson had made the whole thing up.

Not true.  There were mentions of Fingal and Ossian in historical manuscripts, and subsequent research has shown that Macpherson did indeed base his work on original, authentic Gaelic poetry.  And yet Macpherson - and Ossian - are little known today.  So one could say that Dr Johnson and his English crew succeeded.  They threw enough mud for some of it to stick.

Why, though?  Why was it so important to Dr Johnson, and others like him, to undermine James Macpherson's achievements?

At the time, Gaelic society was in decline.  It has since been sentimentalised and fetishised, but first its roots had to be torn up and the culture pretty much destroyed.

The crowns of England and Scotland had been united in 1603 under James Stuart, the sixth King James of Scotland (but usually referred to as James I - his English designation).  It was not until 1707, though, that the Scots were bribed and bullied into accepting an Act of Union with England.  This was very much to England's benefit - it meant that France lost a valuable ally north of England's border - and very much to Scotland's disadvantage.  Indeed, the Union was detested on both sides of the English-Scottish border.

The last serious attempt to break up the Union, or to restore the Stuart line to the throne (if only in Scotland), came when Charles Edward Stuart landed with seven men in the Outer Hebrides.  It ended with the disaster at Culloden in 1746.  The English, under the "Butcher" Duke of Cumberland, a son of the reigning Hanoverian king, raped and massacred their way through the Highlands.  The wearing of Scottish dress (the tartan kilt) was banned, as was the possession of weapons.

Before too long, the time-honoured clan system was breaking down.  The clan chiefs were replaced by landlords, who held no sense of responsibility to the inhabitants of the Highlands.  Sheep were more profitable than people, and so houses were burned down, possessions confiscated, and thousands of men, women and children herded into overcrowded vessels to make long and painful journeys to the farthest flung corners of the Empire.  The Highlands became a wasteland, an exclusive playground for the very rich.

With the determined annihilation of Gaelic culture well and truly underway, Macpherson's publications were a bit of a problem.  They demonstrated that the culture of the Highlands (and, in particular, the west) was truly ancient.  Some even considered the Ossianic poems comparable with the works of Homer and Virgil.  It was as if, just as the English and their supporters in the Lowlands were systematically crushing Highland society, a Highlander had come along and shown that the Gaels had a culture and tradition which far surpassed anything that any Englishman could boast of.

To men like Dr Samuel Johnson, the Scots were primitives, a ragged bunch of scheming savages.  English racism - never very far from the surface - was making exaggerated and hysterical claims about Scots migrating en masse to London and taking jobs, houses and women (sound familiar?).  South of the border, words like "Scot" and "Scottish" were a form of abuse

Things worsened when John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, became the first Scottish prime minister of Great Britain.  Bute was a favourite of King George III (the "mad" one), but he bore the hated name of Stuart, and he was a Scot - so the English loathed him.  Macpherson had dedicated his Ossianic works to Lord Bute, which gave Englishmen like Dr Johnson another reason to attack Macpherson and his discoveries.

There is much that is magnificent in the Ossianic poems, even if Macpherson had embellished the original Gaelic verses he collected throughout the Highlands and Islands.  They give flashes of insight into a heroic society and glimpses of life at a time when Christianity was just beginning to establish itself (there are no Christian references in the poems).  What is more, they offer proof that the western seaboard of Scotland was home to a remarkable culture before the invading Angles and Saxons converged to form England.  They deserve to be better known.  No; more than that - they are part of the ancestral heritage of the British Isles, and it was a cultural atrocity on the part of the English to try to wipe them from the record and to impugn the reputation of the man who collected, translated and published them.

And there's more.  The Ossian poems give us an insight into the society of Arthur.  Yes, Arthur.  That Arthur - the one the English falsely insist on calling "King Arthur".

English prejudices run deep.  If they can't have Arthur all to themselves, then no one can.

The real, original, historical Arthur was a Scottish prince.  There never was an "English" King Arthur, and no evidence at all exists for an Arthur in the south.  He was a North Briton, and his world was the world of Fingal and Ossian and Oscar.

But just as English scholars refused to allow the Scots to have an ancient, heroic culture - refused even to let them have a language, or a home - so English commentators continue to tell lies about Arthur, if only to prevent the world from knowing that his father was King of the Scots.

One day - let us hope - the Ossianic poems will take their place alongside the native tales of Arthur and his heroes (which continually refer to "the North").  Macpherson will be honoured as he should be: as the man who preserved these traces of authentic tradition and was cruelly satirised and savagely lambasted for doing so.  The crimes committed against the culture and people of the Highlands will be fully recognised and acknowledged.  And it will be possible to investigate and celebrate the genuine Arthur of history, rather than the insipid legendary concoction foisted upon us by the propagandists of the south.

Thursday, 5 December 2013


I was in Holland when I saw the TV images of him being released from prison.

A year or two later, I was on an open-top bus, travelling the carnival route of the Birmingham Mela.  There was a member of the ANC - soon to become the governing party of South Africa - also on the bus.  He was there to observe local government.

Not so long after that, I was in Birmingham's Town Hall, becoming an instant fan of Hugh Masekela, and especially his stunning Stimela (The Coal Train) song.  A few feet away from me sat Madiba himself, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, in whose honour the concert was being held.  We gave him a standing ovation.

Now, Madiba is gone.  His long walk to freedom is over.

I had wanted to blog about the hypocrisy of a right-wing politician who called for him to be hanged, and who helped to prolong the despicable apartheid system in South Africa, going on television to describe this good man as a "hero of our time".  I had wanted to refer to Charles Moore's review of Conservative MP Daniel Hannan's absurdly revisionist "history" of what he calls the "Anglosphere", with its fanatical pretence that England singlehandedly invented liberty and freedom (Moore even acknowledges that Hannan's ludicrous argument relies on "a bit of false memory syndrome", but he lets him off because apparently some historical lies are "good").  I had wanted to query how Moore's observation that "In all countries, at all times, there are a shocking number of people who want to diminish freedom" squared with his own party's hatred of freedom-fighters like Nelson Mandela and its active and determined support for the brutish, fascist regime which imprisoned him and brutalised his people.

But I won't.  Rest in peace, Madiba.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Saint William?

With apologies for taking so long to post since my last offering, let us now return to the subject of Shakespeare portraiture.

It's a thorny subject.  There are quite a few portraits which have been "identified", at one time or another, as Shakespeare, but only a few appear regularly enough to be considered "authentic".  But maybe we're missing something here.

This is the so-called "Flower Portrait", which has been in the Royal Shakespeare Company's collection since it was donated by Mrs Charles Flower in the 19th century.  The portrait is so similar to the more famous Droeshout engraving - printed at the beginning of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays in 1623 - that for many years it was assumed that the portrait was the original upon which Martin Droeshout the Younger based his engraving.

It was probably the other way round.  Although the Flower Portrait bears the inscription "Willm Shakespeare 1609", it is not contemporary with Shakespeare.  The gold paint visible on Shakespeare's doublet was not available before the early 1800s.  The portrait is a late forgery.

But let us not dismiss it straightaway. It might be a rather crafty copy of a better known image of Shakespeare, but that does not mean it has nothing to tell us.

The Flower Portrait was, in fact, painted over an earlier image.  That earlier image represented the Virgin Mary with the Christ child and St John the Baptist.

I was intrigued when I first came across that snippet of information.  It meant that this image of Shakespeare was painted over a religious image - a Catholic image, you could say.  Bear in mind the fact that William Shakespeare's parents were John (Shakespeare) and Mary (Arden), and you should spot a fascinating coincidence: the Flower Portrait of Shakespeare replaced, as it were, an image of a special child accompanied by two sainted individuals who happen to have borne the names of Shakespeare's mother and father.

Maybe that is just a coincidence.  But the portraits of Shakespeare present us with a conundrum.  The only hint that there might have been portraits of William Shakespeare around during his lifetime comes in a play performed by students at Cambridge University in 1601.  In The Return from Parnassus a character named Gullio expresses great admiration for "sweet Mr. Shakespeare" and vows to obtain a picture of him for his study.

Otherwise, there is no evidence that any of the surviving portraits said to be of William Shakespeare was painted during his lifetime.  But quite a number of "Shakespeare" portraits appeared after his death.  Why?  And why are so few of these accepted as genuine?

There are perhaps two problems here.  The first is, what would count as an authentic image of Shaespeare (and how would we know it if we saw one)?  The second, then, is: what if some Shakespeare portraits were not intended to be exact likenesses, but were intended to perform some other function?  Getting a portrait painted was usually a pretty costly business.  You'd have to be a big fan of the dead poet to want your own version of his portrait.

I think the Flower Portrait might provide the key to this problem.  It was obviously a copy of a well-known Shakespeare image, and it was painted over a religious image.

In the years that followed Shakespeare's death in 1616, a radical and fanatical faction - the Puritans - enjoyed a period of predominance.  These Puritans hated religious imagery with a passion: they considered it "papist" and somehow anti-Christian.  The ownership of any such Catholic imagery would not only be an invitation for an armed mob of Puritans to visit your house and destroy your precious artwork - it would be seen as proof that you were a "popish" traitor.  You could then be imprisoned, tortured, possibly executed, and all your possessions seized.

On the other hand, there were plenty of people who retained their Catholic faith, and many of these belonged to wealthy families.  Whether they supported the Royalist side during the English Civil War or simply clung to the Catholicism of their forefathers, these people bravery trod a dangerous path.  Their ultra-Protestant enemies sought for any opportunity to denounce and ruin them.

Now, as I have tried to establish in Who Killed William Shakespeare?, the Bard was a victim of the vicious sectarian infighting which was rife during his lifetime.  As a Catholic, or a Catholic sympathiser, Shakespeare was always a little suspect, and his death became inevitable when the Puritan faction began to gain ground at the Court of King James.  His death was then followed by a suspicious, eerie silence, as if those who knew anything at all about Shakespeare's beliefs and the circumstances surrounding his death thought it prudent to keep very, very quiet indeed.

If Shakespeare was indeed a martyr to the old religion, his image would have become rather precious to those who, like Shakespeare, kept the faith through the terrible years that followed.  To have a portrait of William Shakespeare would perhaps seem relatively innocuous - "I'm a lover of literature, that's all" - but, at the same time, it was a way of remembering and honouring a famous victim of Puritan malevolence.

The Flower Portrait might be an extreme example of a Catholic devotional image (the Virgin Mary, Christ child and St John) being hidden beneath a portrait of William Shakespeare (parents, John and Mary), but that fact might help to explain the proliferation of Shakespeare portraits after his death.  They were a way for certain families to commemorate a Catholic martyr whilst being able, at the same time, to deny that they were anything other than devoted lovers of plays and poems.

This would indicate that there are, in fact, two kinds of Shakespeare portrait.  These two kinds are not in any way mutually exclusive.

On the one hand, there are the portraits - like the Chandos Portrait in the National Portrait Gallery - that are about as accurate and authentic as you could get.  On the other, there are portraits which were definitely intended to represent Shakespeare, although they might not have aimed for the exact same degree of truth-to-life as the Chandos example.  But they were, all the same, portraits of the Bard, commissioned by an individual or a family which wanted to honour a victim of the Protestant ascendancy and its trademark brutality.

They were, that is, relics - of a sort - and further proof that Shakespeare was a dissident.  Born to Catholic parents, he spent much of his life and career pleading the cause of the embattled "papists".  It was a cause he died for.  And those who remembered this commemorated him by means of his portraits.

We would have known this, had we not been forced into forgetting Shakespeare's Catholicism and the ferocious violence and illegal persecution which was meeted out against the Catholics by the new order.  Such was the determination with which later Protestants sought to distance Shakespeare from his Catholic roots that they perversely created relics of their own - secular mementos designed to honour Shakespeare, not as a Catholic dissident, but as a Protestant mouthpiece.  And after a while, the purpose of the many Shakespeare portraits was forgotten.  They became mysteries, uncertain images of an uncertain subject.

The subject, though, was probably Shakespeare - and the likenesses, though not exact, were close enough to reflect the man who was being remembered and honoured, like a British saint.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Grail - CAMLANN

Chapter 10 of The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion - entitled "Camlann" - is now up on the Moon Books blog!

I've written about the Battle of Camlann before on this blog, and with The Grail I have been able to put the fruits of yet more research out there.  I have finally (I believe) tracked down the original meaning of cam lann - which is how the place-name first appears - and it confirms that Artuir mac Aedain was the one and only Arthur of history.

There is quite a lot more detail given of the final battle in this chapter, especially in terms of topography (what the sources tell us about the scene and where those references show up on today's map), leaving precious little room for doubt as to where Arthur's last battle was fought.  And all this builds up to a revelation which will be made in the next chapter:

The Grail can still be seen in the immediate vicinity of Arthur's last battle!

That chapter will be up in about a month's time.  I'll let you know.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Remember, Remember

There are three kinds of history.

The first is popular history.  This is what people can just about remember - the easily-digested, overly-simplistic view of history which was so beautifully spoofed by Sellar and Yeatman in their hilarious "Memorable History of England", 1066 And All That.

According to the popular account, a fiendish proto-terrorist named Guy Fawkes had planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament on Tuesday, 5 November 1605, but was caught at the last minute.  He was found lurking in an underground cellar, poised to light the fuse.  His motive?  Well, he was a Catholic.

The problem with popular history is that it is almost invariably wrong.  Fortunately - for those who are interested - there is also real history.  Usually written by academics (some of whom enjoy a sort of celebrity status), real history is considerably more detailed, and often more interesting, than the Disney-esque popular version.

Real history teaches us, for example, that Guy Fawkes was not the key player in the Gunpowder Plot.  The ringleader was Robert Catesby, originally of Lapworth in Warwickshire.  Catesby had recruited several diehard Catholics with his proposal to blow up the Houses of Parliament (along with King James and Henry, Prince of Wales, and most of the government) as an act of revenge.  Numerous swingeing anti-Catholic laws had been passed by the Parliaments of Elizabeth I.  When she died in 1603, it was fervently hoped - and widely believed - that her successor, King James VI of Scotland, would be more tolerant.  James, however, demanded more anti-Catholic legislation, and so Catesby and his secretive band resolved to destroy him and to set up his young daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, as a puppet monarch.

There was no underground cellar.  Fawkes was caught, at a little after midnight on Tuesday, 5 November 1605, in a ground floor vault.  As a professional soldier, he had been chosen to guard the vault and to light the fuse when the time came.  But even though it is his image (or a fanciful idea thereof - he actually had reddish-brown hair) which smiles inscrutably at us from a million "Anonymous" masks, he was a fairly minor player in the great conspiracy.

Still, real history has its problems, in that it too often repeats what was previously said.  And there is a third kind of history.  I think of it as "secret" history.

If popular history tells us what everyone thinks happened, and real history tells us what did happen, then the secret history explores what was actually going on.

So, did a small band of Catholic fanatics plan to blow up the Parliament building during the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605?  The answer is, yes and no.

Yes, in that several of the conspirators do seem to have willingly joined the plot with the aim of putting a violent end to the State's violence against them and their co-religionists.  We cannot explain the involvement of individuals such as John Grant of Snitterfield, near Stratford-upon-Avon, and his brothers-in-law, Robert and Thomas Wintour of Huddington in Worcestershire, unless we are prepared to accept that they really did plan to blow up the ultra-Protestant bigots of King James's Parliament.

And no, in that no explosion would have happened.  We do not know how much gunpowder had been stockpiled under the Peers' Chamber (the authorities came up with differing accounts), but we do know that the gunpowder which was returned from the Parliament Building to the Tower of London on 7 November was registered as "decayed".  Basically, its chemical ingredients had separated - a natural process, and one which meant that no amount of encouragement would have caused that gunpowder to go bang.

Besides which, the man responsible for the government's monopoly of gunpowder, and the supply kept in the Tower of London, was Sir George Carew, who had recently become Baron Carew of Clopton.  His new seat - Clopton House, one mile from Stratford-upon-Avon - was promptly let to one of the gunpowder plotters, the very man indeed who had been asked by Robert Catesby to acquire a large amount of gunpowder.  Doesn't that sound a bit odd?

What about the fact that William Parker, who had recently become the 4th Baron Mounteagle, had offered his services as a reformed Catholic to King James, and was then engaged on the king's Parliamentary business ... as well as spending time with Robert Catesby, trying to get the Jesuit Superior of the Province of England to condone mass murder.  Father Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior, was the ultimate victim of the foiled plot.  In fact, he could be described as the intended target - if the entire plot is looked at, not as a Catholic conspiracy, but as a government-backed false flag operation or 'black op' designed to compromise and damage the Jesuit mission in England.

And further to enrich Robert Cecil, the man who really ran the government.  He was a close friend of Sir George Carew's, and he made sure that all embarrassing references to William Parker, Lord Mounteagle, in the plotter's confessions were removed (Mounteagle was also handsomely rewarded for his dubious activities).  Cecil was also said - by reliable witnesses - to have allowed both Robert Catesby (the plot's supposed mastermind) and Thomas Percy (the plotter who invariably got things moving) into his house in the wee small hours via a back entrance.  The clear implication, and it is a credible one, being that Catesby and Percy, those twin pillars of the "powder treason", were Cecil's agents.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I explore Will Shakespeare's connections with the plot and the plotters, indicating that Shakespeare (as his own writings prove) was more aware than most of what had really been going on.  The devious Robert Cecil had recruited several lapsed Catholics or Catholic patsies - Catesby, Percy and Mounteagle being just three - and used them to entrap others, including the superior of the underground Jesuit mission.

There never would have been an explosion, because the plot was always going to be "exposed" in the nick of time.  Cecil and his agents had been aware of the plot (and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, had been actively directing the key plotters) for many months.  The whole thing was a set-up.

When Parliament finally reconvened, after the gunpowder scare, if passed an Act demanding the regular annual celebration of the king's deliverance from his enemies' malice on 5 November.  The Bonfire Night festivities - which are celebrated at this time every year - are, in fact, part of a 400-year old propaganda coup.  We are meant to celebrate the failure of a few jihadists to destroy parliamentary democracy, monarchical rule and the Church of England.  But as the plot was, in reality, more of a State intelligence operation than a terrorist conspiracy, what we are really commemorating is a cruel and cynical ploy to justify the horrendous persecution of Catholics.

That's what I mean by secret history.  You might think that you're celebrating Guy Fawkes' failed attempt to blow up Parliament.  You might be slightly better informed, and realise that there were several people involved, and that a surprising number of individuals (including priests) were brutally executed as a result of the "plot".

But if you read Who Killed William Shakespeare? you're more likely to realise that we were had.  The Gunpowder Plot was propaganda, pure and simple.  It was violent, bloody, and its effects were awful (if you happened to be Catholic).  But there was no threat at all to the king and his lords.

So what, you might ask, are we really celebrating when we remember, remember (as we were told to by the very Parliament which passed the merciless anti-Catholic laws) the "gunpowder treason and plot"?  A conspiracy that never really existed?  The public butchering of priests?

Guy Fawkes was a brave man, whether you approve of his beliefs or not.  And the men who set him up, betrayed him, tortured him and then executed him were among the worst liars this country has ever produced.

Enjoy the bonfires and the fireworks.  And if you must burn anyone in effigy, please make it Robert Cecil - the real villain of the piece.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Waking the Dead

Just thought I'd share this with you - it's a seasonal post I wrote for the Review Group blog:
Have a very happy Samhain, everybody!

Culture Wars

I first became interested in the Gaelic language back in my teens.  The BBC had a programme on Sundays called Can Seo, which was effectively a short course in conversational Gaelic.  I sent off for the book and the long-playing records which accompanied the series.

Later, I signed up for the "Celtic Studies" course at Glasgow University, which included the study of Gaelic.  I didn't hang around at uni for very long, but I managed to pick up a bit more of a sense of the history and development of the language, along with a fair amount of Gaelic literature.

I love the sound of the Gaelic - for me, it brings to mind peat-smoke and the salt-sea tang.  It is a soft, musical language which survives most obviously in place-names and songs.  Many Scottish place-names have remained essentially unchanged for centuries.  They record the impressions of the people who named them, and the history of the immediate area.

Gaelic was brought over to the Scotland from Ireland in the early centuries of the Common Era, and many a Gaelic place-name preserves memories of that period when the English language did not yet exist.  A large-scale map of the Highlands and Islands can therefore serve as a sort of relief map of ancient history: a peek into times forgotten by all but the archaeologist and - perhaps - the native Gaelic speaker.

The Scotsman newspaper published a rather snide, borderline offensive article yesterday which really riled the Gaelic-speaking community, and with good reason.  It claimed that Gaelic was a dead language, kept on life support only through huge injections of public subsidy, to which it had no right.  Confusingly, the piece also discussed the supposed decline of the Scots dialect, which has nothing to do with Gaelic (Scots is, in fact, a parallel development of English, both having evolved out of the Northumbrian Old English which had taken root in southern Scotland by the 7th century AD).  By the end of the comment piece it was difficult to know what the commentator was really on about - was he bemoaning the apparent decline of everyday Scots at the expense of the longer established Gaelic tongue, or did he hold both in equal contempt?  Hard to tell.

In many ways, the article resonated with a history of its own.  Gaelic is, and was, predominantly a language of the Highlands and Islands.  The Scots tongue belonged predominantly to southern and central Scotland, to Edinburgh and the Lowlands.  So, if we assume that the writer of the snarky little piece was campaigning against the survival of Gaelic, and allowing himself a twinge of nostalgia when it comes to Scots, then he was really resuscitating an ancient prejudice - what the Gaels of the Highlands thought of as the Lowlander's "great hatred".

But I'm not so sure.  Let us not forget that next year - 2014 - sees an opportunity for the people of Scotland to vote for an independent Scotland.  Right now, it's looking pretty close.  And, if I'm honest, I think independence for Scotland would be a very, very good thing.  In the increasingly fevered atmosphere of the independence debate, though, culture becomes a battleground.  The not-so-veiled attack on Scottish culture and the linguistic heritage of the Highlands and Islands which comprised the bulk of the Scotsman's article should be seen in the light of the independence furore.  What it's basically saying is: "Your language is rubbish and it should be dead.  And with it, the memories of your people, your ancestors, your ancient history.  Your culture is pants.  Forget it.  We're all English now.  In fact, we're becoming American.  So anyone who wants to speak the language of Scotland is some sort of effete subsidy junkie draining the public purse in order to maintain a Gaelic-language TV channel."

(For the record, BBC Alba is lovely - some of the very best music on television.)

There are times when you sense that history never changes.  The tone of the Scotsman piece is depressingly familiar.  You hear things very much like it throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  It's the boring jawing of the colonial mind, with all its implied superiority.  It's the thinking that gave rise to the Glencoe Massacre and the Highland Clearances.

It is, all in all, a pretty silly attempt to justify the Act of Union of 1707 (England didn't really want Scotland, and most of Scotland didn't want England, but for strategic reasons it was in England's short-term interest to forge a political union with their northern neighbours.  England paid just under £400,000 for the privilege, most of which took the form of compensation for the failure of a financial scheme which the English had done their utmost to ruin.  The common people of Scotland gained little or nothing from the deal - in fact, the Highlands were forcibly drained of people and stocked with sheep instead, those few Highlanders who remained then being employed by wealthy English people to be little more than forelock-tugging gamekeepers.)

The author of the Scotsman piece seems to advocate some kind of Year Zero.  The abandonment and complete forgetting of the past (which the Gaelic and Scots tongues retain - the outlooks, worldviews and memories of their people).  He seems to want to draw a line through the present.  Everything before hand goes into the rubbish bin of history.

As he put it himself, "Like most educated people, I find the Mither Tongue almost unintelligible."  Note the superciliousness of that statement.  His education hasn't stretched to a curiosity and interest in the living heritage of his own people.  The statement would make as much sense - and, arguably, somewhat more sense - if it read, "Like most uneducated people, I find the native language of my fellow countrymen perplexing - because I never bothered to learn it - and barbarian, because I have a false sense of cultural superiority."

The same intolerance, the same violent denial of a peoples' right to their own memories and capacity for self-expression, has been used in the past in numerous attempts to stamp out other languages (Welsh schoolchildren were once cruelly humiliated if they let a Welsh word slip from their lips, because the English didn't want them to be able to express themselves in their own terms and in the language of their fathers).  It's not the mercy killing of a dying language that we're looking at here - it's the deliberate denial of another person's way of thinking, their memories and the way they see the world around them.

It's an argument we've heard, over and over again, since Roman times.  What it demands is absolute conformity.  No linguistic or cultural memories.  No history, in fact.  Forget everything.

None of that quaint, homespun wisdom, the bleak memories of past atrocities, the songs of love and loss and longing and rebellion.  No roadsigns telling you what the true name of the place you're looking for is.  Blanket conformity, and the smothering dominance of an alien culture.  What you might call, the Clearances all over again.

Let us hope that the Scots find the courage and confidence to vote against this sort of imperialist gibberish next year.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Tobacco & Masturbation

Hello.  This is your Friday blogpost, and its all about tobacco and masturbation!

Well, no, actually, it isn't.  But if you found us through Google - ha!  What were you looking for?

Here's a list of things that would have got you admitted to West Virginia's Hospital for the Insane (Weston) - otherwise known, much more musically, as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum - in the second half of the 19th century.  Which, in real terms, wasn't all that long ago.

It's a fascinating list.  I'm prepared to accept that some of these symptoms might have led to temporary insanity.  "Kicked in the Head by a Horse" would do it, as might "Fits and Desertion of Husband", "Shooting of Daughter" or "The War".  And maybe "Women Trouble".  But the "Salvation Army"??

"Laziness" seems a slightly odd diagnosis for insanity.  "Exposure and Quackery" doesn't really mean very much to me; neither does "Gathering in the Head", although it does conjure up images.  "Asthma" - is that a mental condition?  And what is the difference between "Deranged Masturbation" and plain old garden variety masturbation?  When do normal vices become "Vicious Vices"?

Looking down the list, there seem to be some recurring themes.  "Grief", for example, can upset the delicate balance of sanity, which is fair.  Masturbation is evidently tricky, whether it is "Deranged", "Suppressed" or indulged in with "Tobacco" or over the space of "30 Years" (presumably, "Masturbation & Syphilis" was about as mad as you could get).

And then there's "Mental Excitement".  "Novel Reading" isn't usually considered a sign of lunacy these days, but "Over Action of the Mind" (or "Over Taxing Mental Powers") might be an indication that you're overdoing things.  Your problems might then take the form of "Political Excitement" (possibly in conjunction with "Bad Habits") or "Religious Enthusiasm" (as a result of "Over Study of Religion", and perhaps exacerbated by "Jealousy" or the "Salvation Army").

What the list tells us is that madness can be difficult to define.  It apparently has as much to do with social norms and a sort of moral consensus as any actual illness.  Some experts have even questioned whether mental illness is real (in the sense that cancer is real).  Thomas Szasz felt that psychiatry was a pseudo-science designed to label people who had no disease as such, but who simply behaved in ways which society didn't like.  Such people were struggling with life's problems.  The tendency of religion to control people's thoughts and actions had been inherited by the scientists (the "priests" of the democratic age), and therefore the diagnosis of mental illness was really a kind of social control.  Szasz highlighted the 19th century moral campaigns against masturbation as an example of society throwing a fit and locking up people whose behaviour was considered a bit odd.

R.D. Laing more or less agreed: he, too, identified psychiatric illness as a social or cultural, rather than a biological, problem.  It was, more often than not, a problem caused by society.  An individual can find him or herself placed in an impossible situation at the mercy of conflicting or contradictory demands or instructions.  The outcome is what we (mis)diagnose as madness.

The list of admissions to the West Virginia mental institution would appear to confirm this.  There is something of a preoccupation with moral behaviour.  Men tend to go off the rails (from drinking "Bad Whiskey", for example, or experiencing "Business Nerves"), while women are predisposed to psychological problems, whether they take the form of "Imaginary Female Trouble" or "Uterine Displacement".

Reading the list, we might sense a sort of moral policeman - a doctor who prowls the wards looking for signs of unacceptable behaviour, such as "Self Abuse" or "Snuff Eating for 2 Years".  Neither is likely to land you in a mental institution today, but back then these were serious abnormalities, as were "Bad Company" and "Superstition".  We all have to draw the line somewhere, and clearly "Greediness" or "Hard Study" were not acceptable in West Virginia.

Here's another list.  I've seen it go by on Facebook a few times, and the thinking behind it makes the West Virginia headshrinks look positively enlightened in comparison:

The issue, once again, is social control - the imposition of a certain kind of moral norm.  Now, admittedly, some of the practices mentioned here might be thought of as mildly dangerous ("Lycanthropy" should only be attempted with extreme caution), but most of them aren't too bad.  Okay, Scientology is bad.  But Vegetarianism?  Really?  (I'm relatively confident that Christ was a vegetarian, by the way).  And Postmodernism?  Meditation?  Earth worship?  Yoga?

(Note the presence of "Fornication" on the list as a gateway to demonic possession - we're dangerously close to the 19th century list of bad behaviour, here).

The point is that whoever drafted that list above doesn't want other people to live their lives, and certainly not to enjoy popular literature ("Lord of the Rings" or Harry Potter - "Novel Reading", as the West Virginia list put it) or other pastimes ("Video games", "Rock music").  Indeed, anything that might be construed as interesting, enlightening or experimental is absolutely ruled out.  If you don't obey these diktats, you're going to hell.  That's how certain religions work.

Okay, so it's a bit extreme, but the list above compares with the one at the top of this post.  Both seek to impose a rather narrow standard of behaviour.  If you look a bit excited, or unhappy, or you've been having a bit too much fun, there's a chance you'll be locked away in a madhouse or Satan's lair, and you'll be lucky to get out again.  You will do as you are told, or our moral policemen/religious fanatics/cultural arbiters/men in white coats will electro-convulse your ass!!

At least the 19th century doctors recognised that "Religion" could be bad for you (Pope Francis recently made a distinction between genuine Christianity and "ideological" Christianity, which he felt - rightly, in my view - was a sort of dangerous infection).  The list above is as good a sign of madness as any: the madness of insisting that everybody should be just like you.

What I would like to see is a new cultural norm.  We have a habit of certifying or sectioning people whose thoughts or behaviour strike us as unacceptable and socially destructive.  So let's do it properly.

There is real madness out there.  It takes the form of the politician who tells blatant lies for short-term political gain.  The speculator who destroys businesses and livelihoods in order to turn a quick buck.  The economist who quotes false figures in order to justify yet more theft from the public purse by greedy corporate drones.  The religion extremist who preaches vicious, hard-right gibberish.  The newspaper editor who invents crazy headlines to incite racial hatred.  The historian who leaves out vital evidence in order to convince you of something that isn't true.  The NIMBY who spreads stupid stories about solar or wind farms in order to agitate the neighbours.

That's madness.  Those people inhabit a parallel universe, in which they make up their own realities and then try to impose them on others.  But for some reason, we tend to treat these people as our superiors.  We even vote for the loons!

Look at the list at the top of this post again.  See there, between "Dropsy" and "Epileptic Fits"?  You could be locked away for "Egotism".  So they got that one right, back in the day.

If we sectioned the Egotists in our society, and treated them with psychiatric drugs, we'd be getting somewhere.  Politics and Religion would cease to be manifestations of mental illness, then.  And we wouldn't be in quite the same mess as we are today.

Have a nice weekend!

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Kitchen Witchcraft

Witch.  It's such a troublesome word, isn't it?  So many negative connotations.

Centuries of misinformation, prejudice and propaganda turned the very notion of "witchcraft" into something hideous and fearful.  We see similar processes at work today - in the United States, for example, where a positive word like "liberal" (meaning generous, open-minded, and inclined towards favouring individual liberty) has been turned into a political insult.  Whenever we see something like that happening - wherever a perfectly good word denoting a perfectly decent political or religious stance is transformed into a term of abuse, becoming a sort of catch-all "bogeyman" for the majority to fear and loathe - we have to question the motives of those who drive that semantic change.

One way or another, witchcraft is an extremely ancient pursuit.  It's difficult to separate "witchcraft" from its companion concept, "paganism".  Both have been enjoying something of a resurgence, lately - and, overall, that's a good thing, because this represents a return of sorts to an older and more natural way of doing things.

The term "pagan" means, simply, country-dweller (paganus).  While the more elaborate cults flourished in the cities of the ancient world, those cities were utterly dependent on rural communities to provide the food for their markets and their tables.  And those rural communities remained in touch with the processes of agriculture, the cycle of the seasons, the hardwork, care, attention and - yes - hope which are all necessary if we are to enjoy ample harvests.

Typically, city-dwellers came to look down on the country-folk as rural idiots, even though the urbanites were dependent on them for the absolute necessities.  The country-folk knew that the weather mattered.  They knew that water was essential; anything that polluted a water-source was a huge threat.  Better to keep the water-spirits happy.  And to do whatever you could to secure good weather.  And cherish the plants and animals that provide for us.

Various rituals and forms of worship evolved in order to make farming - that most essential of occupations - as successful as it could reasonably be.  We do much the same these days, only we do it all wrong: pesticides, intensive farming, GM crops are all signs of a system under immense strain.  We have forgotten how to farm, and keep trying to make it more "efficient", and to compensate for the damage we did previously, by piling on the pressure.

What the pagans of old knew - and what others, like the Findhorn Community, have discovered since - is that you can't bully nature.  You can try, but it'll backfire on you.  You have to coax it, work with it, be nice to it.  The whole thing is a transaction between us, the human community, and the multitudinous spirits which inhabit the natural world.  If we are good to them, then they'll probably be good to us.  If we ignore them, and then ruin their habitats, they'll make our lives more difficult.

So that's paganism - the cautious, conscientious and frequently joyous process of interacting with the natural environment in the hope of securing positive outcomes.  And every community had those (male or female) who were just a little bit more expert at this sort of thing than the rest of us.  They understood which plants were good for treating which ailments of the body, mind or spirit.  Though most of us lived close to nature - right in amongst it, if you like - they lived as part of nature, doing the deals that were needed to be done.  To be more precise, such people worked with the spiritual side of nature, including past members of the human community.  If a priest intercedes between man and God, the witch interceded between man and the gods.

Rachel Patterson lives in a city.  But she also knows that her home and garden benefit from a little care and attention, on both the material and spiritual levels.  A clean kitchen is one thing; a kitchen that is in tune with the seasons and used as a place in which to celebrate the seasonal round - the systole and diastole of winter and summer - is not just clean: it is happy.

Rachel's book, Kitchen Witchcraft: Crafts of a Kitchen Witch - part of the Moon Books "Pagan Portals" series - is delightful.  She writes with a great sense of fun and real love for the world around us.  And the book serves as a sort of primer, a very gentle but effective introduction to the ideas and principles of contemporary paganism.  Forget about magical oils made out of bats' wings - today, we use essential oils.  They make our candles smell nice.

What really works about this book is that it fits in so comfortably with the modern obsession with home improvement and that all important do-it-yourself ethos.  Rachel acknowledges, early on, that the kitchen (or hearth) is the heart of the home.  It is where our food is prepared and cooked - and often eaten.  It is a personal space (most cooks like to work alone) and a convivial space, a place of conversations, hearts-to-hearts.  No other room is quite like it.  And, like the hearth of old, it needs to look and smell and feel special.  We need, in effect, to love our kitchens - and to show that we love them.  We need to personalise them: not out of a catalogue, but with our own arts and crafts.

There are blessings in this book, and meditations, but nothing remotely "witchy" in the sense of diabolical (and why should there be? - who wants bad spirits running amok in their kitchen?).  As with so much that is useful in the pagan world, much of it is just sound psychological common sense, comprising various activities which can put you in a better mood and improve the mood of your environment (the two go hand in hand).  At the same time, Rachel Patterson provides quick rundowns of some of the basic elements of the pagan worldview - the regular festivals, the essential elements - and works these into her simple "recipes" for a happy home.

Anyone who is offended by anything in Rachel's book has real problems.  Only the worst kind of superstition, fostered by indoctrination, could view Kitchen Witchcraft as a menace to Creation.  But then, that indoctrination is so often applied by mindsets that are addicted to suffering.  Rachel Patterson, in her lovely, short, joyful book, implies that suffering might be natural, but it is not to be encouraged.  The kitchen should be a place of life, not death.  A few flowers, candles, stones and shells are unlikely to do any harm, and if they improve our relationships with ourselves, with our kitchens and with the world outside, then what's wrong with that?  We need more of this sort of thing.

Reading the book reminded me of the Pagan Pride festival in Nottingham, this past August.  It was a lovely event, with a pronounced fancy-dress feel (including a rather glamorous Robin and Marion duo), and amounted to little more than a relaxed and good-humoured celebration of life.

After I had given a talk on "Arthur and the Grail", we made our way out of the park, walking behind two elderly ladies who had dressed up as witches.  Lovely homemade cloaks and pointy hats.  And I was really touched to see that these two women were having fun.  They had been allowed to announce, in public, "Yes, we are witches.  We belong to a most ancient tradition."

Were they evil?  I doubt that very much. They were probably heading home for a cup of tea.  And I'd like to think that their kitchens are sacred spaces, where nourishment is lovingly prepared.

Their playfulness, their honesty about themselves, and the fact that - thankfully, at long last - it is possible, once again, to admit that you have a relationship with the earth, with water, with air, and with fire, and that you can only be happy when working with these elements to achieve balance in your life (and really delicious cakes) ... that is what I was reminded of when reading Rachel Patterson's book.

Don't get hung up on words like "witch" or "pagan".  We could all do with a little more magic in our lives - and a good place to start looking for it is in Rachel Patterson's little book of Kitchen Witchcraft.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Bard?

I came across a recent comment piece in the Telegraph, entitled There is no reason to be afraid of the Bard.  Well, that's a relief!

The commentator, one Harry Mount, began by explaining that many an actor is utterly terrified of Shakespeare.  Michael Gambon, for one.  Christopher Ecclestone and Zoe Wanamaker can't get their heads round iambic pentameter (or "blank verse", as they called it in Shakespeare's day).  Ralph Fiennes admits that he doesn't really understand King Lear.

Fortunately, Harry Mount was on hand to dole out some advice on how Shakespeare should be spoken.  This advice boils down to "avoid the theatrical and keep it real" - which sounds to me a bit like the summary of a PowerPoint demonstration given by a management consultant.  Or pretty much anyone, for that matter.  E.g.: "We in the West Highland Mountain Rescue Service have one motto, and that is - 'Avoid the theatrical and keep it real.'"

It so happens that Nicholas Hytner, the outgoing artistic director of the National Theatre, seems to agree with Mount (for the record, the incoming artistic director of the National Theatre, Mr Rufus Norris, was once crucified, naked, in one of the very first stageplays I had produced in London, so we've got a bit of history, me and the National's new Mr Big.  Anyway ...)  Nicholas Hytner has said that Shakespeare should be acted in "spontaneous, comprehensible, natural speech patterns".

Harry Mount helpfully provides us with an illustration of how Shakespeare's dramatic words should be delivered.  He points to Withnail's sozzled speech from Hamlet which closes that wonderfully actory movie, Withnail and I.  And yes, Richard E. Grant doesn't do a bad job, intoning Shakespeare to some bored and bedraggled-looking wolves.  (Strangely, Harry Mount seems to feel that Shakespeare always works best in the pouring rain - too many outdoor productions, methinks.)

Okay, so Messrs Hytner and Mount think that actors should forget all about the iambic pentameter and just say the lines as if they were written in prose.  Unless I'm very much mistaken, that's what they're saying.  Forget the rhythm.  Just imagine you were having a chat around the watercooler.

Sorry - but that's just about the most atrocious advice I could possibly imagine (short of something really extreme, like "put a couple of quail's eggs inbetween your cheeks and your jaw when you do Hamlet - if one of the eggs breaks, you're doing it wrong").  No.  That is entirely the wrong way to tackle Shakespeare.

Think about it: why, why, why would Will have gone to the trouble of writing in blank verse if he knew that, give it a few hundred years and they'll just speak the words as if they're reading out an autocue?  When Shakespeare wanted his characters to speak in prose, he wrote those speeches in prose!  Indeed, there was a distinct difference between the parts written in prose and those written in verse.  Prose was for comedy, the low-grade characters and the pretty mundane stuff.

Reducing all of Shakespeare to some lazy sort of modern prose is basically rewriting him.  Harry Mount is proposing an outrage almost on a par with Julian Fellowes rewriting Romeo and Juliet on the grounds that most of us scum just won't understand the movie otherwise.

There's nothing that weird about blank verse anyway.  It's essentially our normal speech pattern.  Take a line of Shakespeare (e.g. "The quality of mercy is not strained") and think of something more modern and everyday which fits the same sort of space (e.g. "I wouldn't mind a coffee and some cake").  Was that difficult?  Does the rhythm of either of those two quotations strike you as odd, or do both sound fairly natural when spoken in English?

Where actors really go wrong with Shakespeare is when they try to make him sound perfectly normal by abandoning the verse.  Why so?  Well, first of all, because the lines weren't written in prose.  Blank verse offers a very effective guide to the rhythm of the words and (roughly) where the stresses should fall (e.g. "To be or not to be, that is the question"), and once we throw that to the four winds, anything goes (e.g. "To be, or ... not ... to be - that is the question!").  At that point, actors start indulging.

I caught part of a production of Hamlet on TV, not so long ago (I won't identify which production, so as to protect the guilty).  It was horrendous.  Everybody seemed to be moving in slow motion.  And when they weren't moving, they were strangely still, like bad extras.  Whenever an actor had a line to speak, he seemed to think about it for a while before actually saying anything.  Then the next actor would gather his thoughts before opening his mouth.  The result was that the scene seemed to drag on and on till the crack of doom.  It was turgid, pretentious and boring.  And that's not what Will Shakespeare had in mind!!!

Shakespeare, I believe, spent much of his career trying to persuade his actors to speed up a little.  As a dramatist and occasional director, I know how difficult it can be to get actors to have their thoughts and utter them as rapidly as people do in real life.  Something happens when they step on stage: everything slows down.  Shakespeare described one of his plays as a "two-hours' traffic".  They're usually performed these days like a three-and-a-half-hour traffic jam.

The blank verse actually works like a kind of metronome.  It effectively tells the actor how fast he or she should be speaking, and how quickly they should respond to the previous speech.  If Shakespeare had wanted an actor to take a pause, he would have worked in a space by not completing the line.  If the rhythm remains unbroken, then there is no pause.  That keeps things fairly snappy and - I would hasten to add - more realistic.

When I edited The Tempest for a production in Germany recently, I had one rule: keep the rhythm!  I cut out almost half of the text, but did my utmost to make sure that there were no ragged lines.  It wasn't meant to be spoken in prose, or some sort of loose collection of random quotations.  Rhythm matters in Shakespeare, and even if you cut a speech down, you need to keep that rhythm.  It's what's needed to keep the actors on their toes.  Without it, they go all "natural", and it sounds hugely unnatural.

Of course, our inability to understand Shakespeare has nothing to do with the rhythms of his verse.  Nothing at all.  It stems from our refusal to understand his life and times.

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you - trippingly on the tongue, said Hamlet to the actors.  Suit the action to the word, and the word to the action, with this special observance: that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature.

In other words, speak the speech as it is written, allowing the iambic rhythm to carry you along (if you turn a speech into prose, you'll cock it up, because many of Shakespeare's sentences are long and convoluted, but if you let the rhythm work through you, you'll get through them without imposing your own ideas on how the sentence should sound).  Don't overdo it, and don't go too slowly.  Just do it as it is.  Cleanly.  Honestly.  Straightforwardly.  Listen to me.  I've shown you how to do it, with as much precision as I can.  It's all in the verse.

And don't pause every time it's your turn to speak!!  Because that gets very, very boring!  It slows down the scene and pretty soon the spectator hasn't a clue what you're on about and has probably lost interest.

(Okay, it was the RSC's Hamlet).

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Shakespeare in Terror

How interesting!!

On the Leeds City Council website, an advertisement for a production of "Shakespeare in Terror" this November.

It's a new play, written by Helen Shay, and here's what the blurb has to say:

You've seen him in love, but what about terror?

A quick soliloquy with a skull is not always the answer, as our hapless bard - dumbstruck by writer's block - discovers in a chance meeting with a certain 'Guido Fawkes', arguably the first home-grown terrorist.  Historically possible, this brief encounter raises questions of whether words do speak louder than action - or even gunpowder.  Laced with dark magic and even darker lust (not to mention three untraditionally-glamorous witchy 'midnight hags'), this comedy-drama brings an extra bang to the firework season.

I like it!  If I could, I'd go and see it.  It sounds like a lot of fun.

And, maybe, more than fun.  Because most of my work on Who Killed William Shakespeare? started with The Scottish Play and the Gunpowder Plot.

I don't know whether or not Will Shakespeare ever met Guy Fawkes.  It doesn't really matter: Shakespeare was familiar with some of the other gunpowder plotters.  Fawkes was a professional soldier, and his role seems to have been as an adviser and someone who could light the fuse.  He wasn't the main plotter - not by any stretch of the imagination.

However, for one reason or another, Fawkes became the "face" of the Gunpowder Plot.  And he's more popular than ever.  Take the Guy Fawkes mask made famous in the V for Vendetta movie and now the public face of the Anonymous movement.  Fawkes didn't actually look like that - he wasn't quite so inscrutable, in an Asiatic sort of way, and his hair was auburn, not black - but he is, for better or for worse, the face of discontent and incipient revolution.

Shakespeare's connections with the Gunpowder Plot became the springboard for my book.  Frankly, I believe that most of the Plot was made up by the government - in particular, the utterly loathsome and creepy Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (so it's satisfying to see that Cecil plays a role in the forthcoming comedy-drama Shakespeare in Terror).  It is not quite true to call Guy Fawkes "the first home-grown terrorist", because he came at the end of a twenty-year period of plots and conspiracies against the English State, most of which were made up by the English State and its agents simply to discredit Catholics and to justify the horrific persecution of said Catholics.

The tendency amongst historians has been to treat the Gunpowder Plot as if it were genuine, and to accept the government line that a small bunch of fanatics, led by the diabolical Fawkes, really did plan to blow the parliament sky high, using far more gunpowder than was actually necessary.  But study the records and you'll find that (a) there was no agreement at the time as to how much gunpowder was involved, and (b) the gunpowder itself was "decayed" (i.e. useless).

So, in fact, the Gunpowder Plot is very similar to the Shakespeare story.  What we're told, and what really happened, are two different things.  The historians who are happy to repeat the propaganda put out by Robert Cecil and his ilk are just as eager to misrepresent Shakespeare.  It's all part of the rich tapestry of English history - rich, and wrong.

For a better idea of what the Gunpowder Plot was all about, and how it affected Will Shakespeare (particularly his Timon of Athens, Macbeth and Coriolanus), please read Who Killed William Shakespeare?

And if you're in the Leeds area, maybe check out Shakespeare in Terror - and let me know what you think of it.  Those "untraditionally-glamourous witchy 'midnight hags'" sound good!

Except, of course, that in Shakespeare's Macbeth, the witches have beards.  They are men.  Three very powerful men, in fact.

It's all in the book.