The Future of History

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.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Justice for Daisy

If you follow this blog, you might have spotted that I've mentioned the "Heroic age" a few times recently - and, indeed, what I call the New Heroic age, which is the return to a crass kind of medievalism.  The New Heroic age is what we are living through now.  We are being led backwards, away from democracy and high standards of scientific inquiry and evidence, back to the intolerance, inequality and savage injustices of the Middle Ages.

Why - you might ask - do I keep mentioning this?  Well, it's partly because I'm approaching the end of my work on The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion for Moon Books, in which I have sought to explain how the stories of Arthur and the Grail were corrupted in the Middle Ages.  The "Heroic age" mentality which altered and reinvented the original tales has not gone away.  Historians are especially prone to Heroic age thinking, and there are many - way too many - Arthurian scholars and commentators whose Heroic age obsessions blind them to the historical facts of Arthur's Britain.  I hope, in my final chapter for The Grail, to explain how the contemporary rush towards medieval thinking (with "wealth-creators" as the new aristocracy and transnational corporations as the new Church) is, and will be, such a disaster for mankind and for the planet.

It is probably unavoidable.  I suspect that there is a historical inevitably to all this.  Every previous civilisation has foundered and collapsed, usually because of personal greed and a too literal approach to certain religious beliefs, and so we should expect our civilisation to go the same way too, and for the same old reasons.  Every Tea Party fundamentalist, every hard line Conservative ideologue, is committed to unravelling the achievements of science and democracy and reviving "god-fearing" feudalism.  We are pretty much doomed.

But that does not mean that we shouldn't make a stand for what is right.

I came across the story of Daisy Coleman recently, and it struck me instantly as an example of the New Heroic age stamping its disgraceful attitudes onto our modern world.

Daisy was a pretty 14-year old living in Missouri when she and her 13-year old friend were raped and left for dead by a bunch of boys.  That's bad enough.  But the ringleader of the abusers was a popular football player from a prominent local family.  And even though the sexual assault on two underage girls (who had been rendered insensible by alcohol) was filmed, the boys escaped prosecution.

Instead, the local town - closely followed by the internet - chose to blame the girls for being drunken sluts who had sneaked out of their homes that night and were obviously begging to be raped.

This, dear reader, is the Heroic age at work - in all its despicable, cruel and heartless glory.

1) the rapists were not only protected by their own families; the police and prosecutors bent over backwards to protect them, because they belonged to a sort of local "aristocracy", and the prosector even seems to have lied about the victim's family having refused to co-operate with any investigation - this, it would seem, because political favours were being "called in" and the local Republicans were closing ranks to defend their own;

2) the right-wing media (e.g. Fox News, which is doing all it can to reintroduce the worst kind of medievalism to our planet) happily vindicated the abusers and blamed the victims for allowing themselves to be violated;

3) the hatred of the victims (who were 13 and 14 years old, let's remember, and were left unconscious in the snow after their ordeals) quickly spread to the internet - which is a great conduit for Heroic age spite and political/religious intolerance - where Daisy was libelled, among other things, as an "uber-slut".

There is some good news.  The hacktivist collective known as "Anonymous" took up Daisy's cause.  Obviously, if her hometown was not prepared to give her justice, it would fall to the international community to demand a proper investigation of these brutal and inexcusable crimes and the prosecution of the perpetrators - those privileged youths who committed their vicious sexual assaults apparently in the knowledge that nobody would take action against them for raping and nearly killing two teenage girls.  The case, it would appear, has been reopened (although vital evidence, including the recording of the incident, was seemingly "lost" during the initial inquiry).

The dreadful story of Daisy and her friend is a near-perfect example of the New Heroic age at work.  First of all, it establishes a powerful clique of rich and influential individuals who pretty much have the entire neighbourhood under their fat thumbs.  That clique breeds offspring who see themselves as a race apart, untouchable by the law, because they are protected by their parents and their parents' political friends.  Worse, though - such offspring are raised to believe that they are, in some way, special.  That the usual rules do not apply to them.  That they are somehow "better" than others.

So when these sociopathic youngsters decide to rape two impressionable, underage girls (the circumstances suggest that the double rape was planned) and then dump them, they did so in the belief that they had some sort of right to do this, and that they would get away with it - which is pretty much what happened.

After all, if in doubt, the full force of Heroic age wrath could be directed - not at the psychopaths who committed the crimes, but at the younger victims.  The criminals came from "good" families.  One, at least, was a promising football player.  Their parents were well-connected (and, I'm sure, churchgoers).  Therefore, the boys were not at fault.  But the girls!  Well ... we know how the Church in the Middle Ages treated women.  Especially nubile young women.

In the twisted world of Heroic age thinking, the boys were "good" and the girls were "bad".  Powerful bodies, united in self-interest and political/religious extremism, came together to keep the boys out of trouble and to deflect all the outrage onto the girls.  Like a medieval knight exercising his feudal rights, the boys (sportsmen, we remember) were simply doing what God expects them to do - to rape defenceless girls and then leave them to die of exposure.  And if anyone made a fuss, an avalanche of hatred and abuse could easily be directed at the victims and their families.  They would be effectively excommunicated, vilified, cast out like the harlots that they so evidently were - if they sinfully forced those good ole boys to get them drunk and rape them.

This one case illustrates how the New Heroic age works.  And if you care for justice, democracy, decency, morality, civilisation and the rights of the victim, you will be appalled by it.  Or you might just think, "Hey, it's Bible Belt America, where this sort of thing happens all the time."

What you should realise, though, is that this is the situation which we are all being driven into.  One in which a wealthy and powerful minority wield power of life and death over the rest of us.  One in which there is no justice, only the rule of the local, like-minded, conservative clique.  One in which some are born to rape and the rest of us exist to be their victims.

That's the New Heroic age.  And it will destroy our civilisation within - ooh, at a rough guess - twenty years.

(You can keep up with developments in the campaign to see Justice for Daisy here: Operation Maryville)

Friday, 18 October 2013

What is History For?

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.  When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

- George Santayana

You might not have noticed it, but economists aren't really scientists.  They like to pretend that they are, and that they devote themselves to the objective and dispassionate study of statistics in order to arrive at universal and immutable truths.  But that's not true.  Most of the time, they're making it up.

This has undoubtedly been the case in the past 30 years or so.  The emergence of so-called "think tanks" (like the Institute of Economic Affairs) and the neoliberal ecomomists of the Chicago School (patron saint, the loathsome Milton Friedman) allowed the political agenda to be hijacked.  The post-war consensus was thrown out.  Suddenly, economists and pundits were spouting free market fundamentalist dogma.  And a right old mess it's gotten us into.

If you look carefully at what these people say, the studies the produce and the arguments they advance, something really should strike you.  The "evidence" they quote is ... well, how shall we put it? ... selective, to say the least.  Rather as if a government department chose to prove that crime rates have fallen by citing the number of highwaymen arrested last year, these ideologues decide in advance what they believe and then seek out the "facts" to prove it.

Their studies do not proceed from the basic question, "What does the economy need?  What would work best?"  They start with a belief, an assertion, and then move heaven and hell to come up with something that looks a little bit like science.  But it isn't.  After all, the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea was able to prove by means of mathematics and logic that Achilles would never win a footrace against a tortoise.  Common sense, experience, and limitless amounts of genuine evidence tell us that, more often than not, Achilles would beat the tortoise hands down.  But if you're willing to cheat when trying to prove your point, if can be done.

"What's this got to do with history?" I hear you cry.  Simple.  We like to think of historians as being essentially scientists.  They comb the records of the past to bring us the truth of what happened.  But that's poppycock!  Just like those economists who don't care how ludicrous their methodology has to be so long as they prove their point, so many historians start out with a set of prejudices and then bend history to fit them.

A few months back, I got hold of a copy of Sir Arthur Bryant's Set in a Silver Sea, the first volume of his sweeping "History of Britain and the British People".  After reading a few pages, I felt such absolute disgust that I gave the book away.

The problem I had with the book was that, in just the first few pages, Bryant repeatedly stressed, in the ripest of terms, that Christianity was the best thing that ever happened to the British Isles.

Now, you might agree with that.  And I'm not attacking Christianity, here.  The point is that there is another side to the argument (e.g. "Christianity destroyed the native culture and plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, from which it didn't emerge until the Renaissance").  But Sir Arthur Bryant was stating his personal belief as if it was undeniable fact.

That's not how history works.  Or rather, it's not how history is meant to work.  It's the equivalent of those economists who load the dice before they write up their reports.  Everything that followed Bryant's opening remarks would naturally be skewed in support of his fundamental beliefs.  He would, in short, not be giving us an objective history of the British Isles.  It would be history as Sir Arthur liked to see it - a history which was extremely selective with the evidence.

Sir Arthur Bryant grew up in a house next door to Buckingham palace.  His father was the chief clerk to the Prince of Wales, before becoming registrar of the Royal Victorian Order.  Young Arthur was schooled at Harrow.  He was, you could say, born and raised to defend the monarchy.

As I have observed elsewhere (including my recent post, "The New Heroic Age"), aristocracy and religion go hand-in-hand.  One might say, you can't have the one without the other.  Both represent an entrenched point-of-view and a hierarchy which, so they claim, is divinely ordained.

Such an outlook is profoundly medieval.  It is hardly surprising that Sir Arthur Bryant's paean to a Britain of lords and bishops was first published in 1984.  You could hardly pick a more appropriate year for the start of the New Heroic age and the reintroduction of feudalism (by the back door, of course, and at the insistence of neoliberal economists).

By 1984, the process of social evolution was turning around.  Slavery was being hailed as "freedom", social progress as "communism".  We started heading backwards, away from equality, meritocracy, social mobility, and towards inequality and oligarchy, nepotism for the rich and inescapable poverty for everybody else.  Sir Arthur Bryant's obsessively religious-aristocratic vision of British history could not have appeared at a more apposite moment.

But here's the point: there was some history in Bryant's book, but it was not history as such.  No more than Milton Friedman's ravings were genuine economics.  Both were biased, lopsided arguments - a pickled past in which all good things sprang from the Church (and the monarchy, of course) and a ruinous future in which all good things are snatched up by private corporations.

It is noteworthy that Sir Arthur chose to entitle his revisionist puff-piece, Set in a Silver Sea.  It's a quote from Shakespeare.  I analyse it at the start of the second section of my Who Killed William Shakespeare?  The speech is routinely mistaken for a gushing hymn to England, a sort of "Land of Hope and Glory" written by our very best playwright.

But the speech is nothing of the sort.  Those who quote the "patriotic" part of it ignore the speech as a whole, it really being a furious condemnation of the betrayal of England by greedy aristocrats and self-serving lawyers.  In other words, the speech as Shakespeare wrote it is the exact opposite of what the flag-waving demagogues imagine it to be.  It is not a praise poem for merry old England.  It is a bitter critique of neoliberal economics.  And, since Shakespeare wrote it, all we have done is turn full circle.

Being selective with the evidence in order to bolster a point-of-view based on deep-rooted ideological convictions results in a false and gravely misleading message.  We remember only the "set in a silver sea" part of Shakespeare's Richard II speech and quietly overlook what was actually said.  We choose the bits we like and ignore the rest.  We rewrite history to suit our prejudices.

The period since Bryant published his attempt to airbrush reality out of British history has also been the period of neoliberal economic dogma.  It is impossible to divorce the corruption of genuine history from the blinkered and dishonest diktats of various right-wing institutions.  They are, if you will, two sides of the same coin.  One misleads us about the past, the other lies to us about the future.  The results are economic chaos, political disenfranchisement and Downton Abbey.

So this poses a crucial question.  Do we really want to return to the stagnation of medievalism and the enforced ignorance of the Dark Ages?  Or do we believe in the rights of man (and, more importantly, woman), along with science and democracy, opportunity and reward, truth and freedom?

If we want to pursue the latter course - resuming, as it were, where we were heading before the crazies took over - then we must reclaim history from the deluded pedagogues of the New Heroic age.  We must stop them flogging us their pseudo-historical religious-aristocratic nonsense.  We must demand that they tell us the truth about the past.  That way, we can make our own minds up and decide which mistakes we wish to avoid repeating.

If we don't - that is, if we'd prefer to be serfs toiling in the fields for our idiot masters, punished for having ideas and dying of preventable diseases - then we're heading in the right direction.  We're letting false prophets frame our past, our present and our future.

The decision is ours.  True history, or party political propaganda?  Evidence-based economics or ideological gibberish?  Enlightenment or fanaticism?  Democracy or feudalism?

If we're not sure, we need only do some proper research into life in the Middle Ages - because that's where one-sided history books, rose-tinted costume dramas and neoliberal economists are leading us.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Dangerous Friendships of Princes

A few weeks back, I posted a short series of blogs examining the so-called Cobbe portrait and subjecting it to much the same detailed analysis as I carried out on the Beoley skull, the Darmstadt death mask and the familiar portraits of William Shakespeare in my runaway bestseller, Who Killed William Shakespeare?

Today, I had an email from a friend who just happens to have visited Hatchlands Park in Surrey recently, where the Cobbe portrait is on show along with a portrait of Shakespeare's noble patron, the third Earl of Southampton.  My friend remarked that he couldn't help noticing the strange bump or blister on the nose side of the left eye socket in the Cobbe portrait (which is said to be of Shakespeare).  Having read my book, he found this particular detail in the portrait "fascinating".

So I was reminded of the work that remains to be done on the Cobbe portrait.  Various features compare rather chillingly with the damage to the skull at Beoley Church, those features also showing up on the death mask, the Chandos Portrait, the Droeshout engraving and the Davenant Bust.  These correspondences would appear to indicate that the Cobbe portrait does indeed show an image of Shakespeare - one which was made posthumously, using the death mask as a model.

The image is that of a youngish man - not the middle-aged, semi-retired poet of the second decade of the 17th century, when the portrait is thought to have been painted.  This means that, though the portrait was almost certainly posthumous (witness the fatal head injuries), it presented Will Shakespeare as he had been quite a few years earlier.  Perhaps when, aged about 30, he had been friends with the Earl of Southampton.

The inscription at the top of the portrait reads Principum amicitas! - the 'Friendship of princes!'  The words come from one of the Odes of the Roman poet, Horace (Book 2, Ode 1: "To Pollio, Writing his History of the Civil Wars").  The opening verses of that Ode translate thus:

You're handling the Civil Wars, since Metellus
was Consul, the causes, mistakes, and methods,
Fortune's game, and the dangerous friendships
of princes, and the unatoned-for

bloodstains on various weapons:
a task that's filled with dangerous pitfalls,
so that you are walking over embers
that smoulder under treacherous ashes.

Now, if you've read Who Killed William Shakespeare? you'll know how relevant this verse is to Will Shakespeare.  He wrote about the "Civil Wars" and disturbances which had troubled the land ever since Henry VIII decided to tear England away from Rome.  In other words, he exposed the cruelty, the violence and the sickening oppression of the governments of Elizabeth I and James I in their efforts to destroy English Catholicism.  And for that, Shakespeare paid with his life.

Don't let the Muse of dark actions be long absent
from the theatre, continued Horace, writing to his friend Asinius Pollio, a Roman poet, playwright,literary critic and historian: soon, when you've finished covering
public events, reveal your great gifts
again in Athenian tragedy,
you famous defendant of troubled clients ...

Let us assume, then, that the Cobbe portrait really does show us an image of Shakespeare, backdated (as it were) to the time when his patron was the Earl of Southampton.  The inscription chosen for the posthumous portrait refers to a Roman poet and playwright, a "famous defendant of troubled clients", who was playing with fire by writing a history of his violent times and thereby "walking over embers that smoulder under treacherous ashes."

These words came from the Roman poet Horace, who gets more mentions in my Who Killed William Shakespeare? than any other classical poet.  The reason for this is that Shakespeare seems to have been considered - by his contemporaries - as something of a modern Horace; a writer who was inclined to quote Horace a great deal and (like Horace) a genius who was mocked and satirised by a slavish underdog (if you've read my book, you'll know who I'm talking about).

The Principum amicitas! inscription therefore lends weight to the possibility that the Cobbe portrait shows us Shakespeare, since Will Shakespeare was seen as being like Horace, as well as being a "Roman" (i.e. Catholic) poet and playwright, like the recipient of Horace's Ode.

The inscription also carries a very dark hint.  The Ode refers to the "heavy" or "dangerous friendships of princes" (grauisque principum amicitas), which has a particularly poignant significance in the context of Shakespeare's death.  The silencing of William Shakespeare, that "famous defendant of troubled clients", was - I have argued - ordered by King James I, who had no wish to see the eloquent playwright championing the cause of the king's former favourite, Robert Carr, who was about to be tried for murder.

According to a tradition passed down by Shakespeare's godson - and probably his natural son - Sir William Davenant, Shakespeare had once received a friendly letter, written in the king's own hand.  And so the inscription on the portrait serves as a reminder that the friendships of princes could be destructive.  King James was in fact a weak and paranoid king, while Shakespeare was an outspoken critic of his murderous regime.  He wrote about the "civil wars" of the English Reformation - the causes, the mistakes, the methods, the unatoned-for bloodstains on various weapons ... it's all in his writings.  He also referred repeatedly to "Fortune" as a sort of perverse monarch, the capricious and vengeful spirit of the times.  He knew "Fortune's game" and, ultimately, he lost.

We might think of the Cobbe portrait as a sort of dreadful memento mori.  Perhaps it was a gift to the Earl of Southampton (commissioned by person or persons unknown) which, in itself, sought to explain the sudden death of the Earl's former poet-protege.

For if Southampton ever thought back to his youthful days, when he had William Shakespeare as his pet poet and playmate, and wondered why Will had been so suddenly silenced, the portrait would explain it all.

Shakespeare had been walking on hot coals, writing true histories which it was not safe to write.  And so he was, in the words of Ben Jonson, "stopped", before he could plead for any more "troubled clients".

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The Literary Medievalist

I just had to share this with you.  A very good Facebook friend in Texas, DS Baker, who specialises in all things medieval, was kind enough to invite me to be the first author interviewed for his new blog.

I hope his new venture thrives and prospers!  So please do pop over and have a look:

The Literary Medievalist

A Deed Without a Name

Growing up in the 70s and 80s with a curiosity about the supernatural, I was frequently disappointed.  There was, for example, one book I remember in my school library (never quite figured out what it was doing there) which took a scattergun approach to the subject.  A page or two on every aspect of the "occult", very little of which made any sense at all.

It took me many years to realise that what we call the Supernatural is, in fact, the Natural (just as the "paranormal" is actually the "normal").

What I mean by that is this: the world we inhabit is infinitely more interesting - and stranger - than we care to admit.

Do miracles happen?  Yes, all the time.  Just look around you.  Creatures are born, plants grow, wounds heal, every now and then there's a rainbow ... and while science can explain what's going on (most of the time), it still can't get to the fundamentals.  It can tells us how something happens.  It can't really tell us why it happens.

And then there are the things that science just won't go anywhere near.  These are the things which tend to get classed as "Supernatural" (or "paranormal").  But that classification is false.  It implies that the "natural" is what can be measured, dissected, categorised.  Anything else is, by definition, "supernatural" - and, as far as science is concerned, it doesn't exist.

In reality, though, the "Supernatural" is pretty much everything that our official culture wants to pretend doesn't happen.  Over time, we have gone through a situation in which certain forms of supernatural activity were tentatively accepted (by the Church) to one in which nothing of a supernatural nature is tolerated (by science).  This does not mean, however, that the supernatural has gone away.  It can't.  Because it's only natural.

Now, even I was quite taken aback when Moon Books sent me a copy of Lee Morgan's A Deed Without a Name for me to read.  Why?  Because the book ventures into what I would consider one of the most problematic areas of occultism.

The subtitle gives the game away: "Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional Witchcraft".  A Deed Without a Name makes no attempt to portray witchcraft (ancient or modern) as fluffy, in a New Age sort of way.  Rather, it goes straight to the heart of everything we were raised to fear and distrust about witches.

There has long been a debate about the accounts of witchcraft given in the many trials of witches which took place in the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods.  To what extent did the inquisitors invent examples of scandalous behaviour and impose their own ideas of witchcraft onto their victims?  Or, if you prefer, were the infamous witchcraft trials of ages past really informed more by Christian prejudice and propaganda than by anything that genuine witches might have done?

Lee Morgan takes the position that the tales told by the inquisitors - and the witches they tortured and killed - might well have been true.  It's a startling angle.  If you've assumed that the witchcraft frenzy which swept through Europe around the time of the Reformation was a kind of wildly deluded displacement activity, a sort of massive outbreak of paranoid delusion and insanity, then it comes as a shock to be told that the witchfinders weren't really making anything up.

But Morgan's argument makes sense, for the simple reason that much of what the medieval witches were accused of falls within the scope of shamanistic practice.

Shamanism is probably the oldest form of religious activity in the world.  Every culture had its shamans.  They were the healers, the seekers, the walkers between worlds.  They interacted with their environment (both in its natural and supernatural forms), usually for the good of their communities.  However, as Lee Morgan makes clear, the spiritual realm is not all sweetness and light: it has its negative, as well as its positive, aspects (indeed, such definitions are wildly subjective - best to think of them as the dark and light sides of the same thing).  There were good witches and bad witches, the benandanti and the malandanti; those who worked for the community against the malevolent forces of the Otherworld and those who served those malevolent forces (both helping to preserve a form of balance, with the latter especially reminding the living community of its debts and responsibilities to the unseen forces and the dead).

Morgan takes us through various aspects of traditional witchcraft and makes a point of preventing the reader from retreating into the modernist "oh those poor women" approach to the witches of yesteryear.  She makes it clear that many of the witches - male and female - who were hanged and burned were not accused of things they had not done.  Rather, it was simply the fact that their (Christian) inquisitors did not understand the workings of traditional shamanism which created a rather skewed picture of what the witches were actually up to.  Did the witches have intercourse with the Devil?  In a sense, yes - because spiritual forces did enter them, passing on their fiery power and exchanging vital energies.  And who has never dreamed of having sexual intercourse with a stranger, a dream lover?  Such things are only natural - but, being beyond the vision and the tolerance of the churchmen, they were deemed supernatural, and therefore worthy of damnation.

Overall, then, Morgan reclaims the traditions of witchcraft from the bloody hands of the Christian inquisitors (and, by extension, from the disinfected hands of the laboratory scientist).  It might be difficult for the reader to confront the possibility that werewolves and vampires, the Revenant and the Leannan Sidhe, might actually exist.  We have adopted a strictly either-or position in recent years: either such entities are real (as certain religious fundamentalists might aver) or they are mere fantasies (as the materialist of today would suppose).  Lee Morgan indicates that neither position is strictly accurate.  The fundamentalists and the materialists bring their own prejudices and delusions to the argument.  But if we go back, to the universal experience of the shaman, we find that such entities are very much out there, demanding recognition and respect.  They are part of our world, and if we refuse to acknowledge and interact with them (or insist on damning them out of hand), then we are the fools.

The book offers much in the way of ritual activity designed to help the novice witch discover who or what their "fetch-beast" is (the animal soul-guide of the shaman), how to communicate with the demon lover, how to conduct an exorcism, how to produce healing.  On a psychological level, many of these exercises make sense - "Donning the Mask", for example, is really just a case of confronting and assimilating the Shadow, as C.G. Jung called it, which is an essential part of the individuation process.  There is, of course, no requirement that every reader attempt necromancy - and arguably every reason to recommend that they don't - but that is beside the point.  What Morgan has done here is to open a window on an ancient world, a window which had seemingly been slammed shut by intolerant propagandists of the past, but one which needs must be open if we are to recognise and acknowledge the role of the supernatural in our lives.

More importantly, perhaps, she has rescued the witch of old from both ideological extremes - that of the Church and that of the scientific materialist.  For ancient societies knew perfectly well that our world was at least as spiritual as it was material, and probably a great deal more of the former than the latter.  Today, we know only how to relate to the material side of existence (and we're not very good at that).  We have been taught to ignore and forget about the spiritual, and if we do allow it into our consciousness at all, it is on the basis that it's all rather lovely in an escapist sort of way.

Morgan reminds us that the Other side isn't entirely lovely, that demons do exist, and that some of us will always be called upon to interact with these unseen forces, some to help and some to harm.  In short, the witches of yesteryear have been misunderstood in two different ways - portrayed as the slaves of Satan by a bigoted Church and dismissed as fantastists or victims by modern commentators.  But they were none of these things.  They were our own homegrown shamans, the inheritors of traditions and practices that go back to the very mists of our earliest history.

They flew, as all shamans do.  They copulated with spirits in human, daimonic and animal form, as shamans often do.  They healed and they blighted, blessed and cursed, as shamans the world over have done.  They were part of the natural equilibrium that we upset about 2,000 years ago and have failed to reinstate ever since.  And they had much to teach us about our world, both in its natural and supernatural guises.

A fascinating book, then.  And a brave addition to the growing corpus of material which looks at our spiritual past in a way that is sensitive and sensible.

They were not witches in pointy hats with warts on their noses.  They were native priests and priestesses, herbalists and exorcists, who knew how to interact with our world in ways that we have forgotten.

And if we are to rescue our precious world from the ravages of science and religion, we must listen to their voices again and prepare to greet the darkness - before it overwhelms us completely.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The New Heroic Age

A few posts back, I discussed the new Romeo and Juliet movie, for which Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay.

Mr Fellowes "updated" Shakespeare's language to make it more "accessible".  I queried whether Julian Fellowes was really the right choice for the job - he's not known for being down with the kids.

Well, Mr Fellowes has endeavoured to explain himself.  Apparently, he feels that he's capable of understanding Shakespeare because he had a "very expensive education" and "went to Cambridge".  Since most of us did not enjoy those advantages in life, it goes without saying that we are terminally thick and can only watch a Shakespeare play with our mouths open and our knuckles dragging on the ground.

In just a few words, Fellowes appears to have rendered the entire Shakespeare industry redundant.  If you didn't go to private school and Oxbridge, the chances of you being able to "get" Shakespeare are nil.  So the greatest dramatic works in the English Language become something that only the social elite can possibly appreciate.  The rest of us have to make do with bookmarks, T-shirts, and "adaptations" which are written down to our educational level.

There's nothing new here.  In the very first section of Who Killed William Shakespeare? I examine the intellectual (and social) snobbery of the late-18th century, which determined that the people of Shakespeare's hometown were congenitally stupid and only Londoners with money could comprehend the genius of the Bard (although, when it came to quoting him accurately, the metropolitan elite were rather lax).

So Julian Fellowes's excuses for wrecking Shakespeare's language are true to type.  Basically, he's saying "I'm posh, you're not.  Therefore, I can understand Shakespeare, while you're likely to struggle with the semiotic intricacies of Fifty Shades of Grey."

Now, bear with me here.  I touched on the work of Giambattista Vico at the end of The King Arthur Conspiracy, but it's so important, so relevant, that I revisited Vico's theories very early on in The Grail; Relic of an Ancient Religion for Moon Books.

Giambattista Vico looked back across history and identified three major phases in the development of civilisations.  The first, we might call the Divine age.  This is essentially a primitive or indigenous society.  The gods are all around us; we walk with them and talk with them, and everything we do is designed to appease them.

Then, certain individuals decide that they are descended from the gods.  They lay claim to certain areas of land and found families or dynasties, which likewise claim direct descent from the gods.  At about the same time, a priesthood appears which insists that it, and it alone, has access to those gods (or God).  The priesthood and the aristocracy work hand in hand, claiming privileges which they deny to the rest of the populace.  This, we might call the Heroic age.

Finally, the people wake up to the fact that they are every bit as human as their self-appointed masters.  They demand an equal share in the decision-making process.  We get democracy (and its corollary, scientific materialism).  We might call this the Human age.

Okay, so far so good.  We start out as "superstitious" primitives startled by thunder.  We invent a single god, so that the more wealthy and powerful can claim that there is a divinely-ordained hierarchy which cannot be challenged.  Then we discover Liberty, Egality and Fraternity.

But what happens next?  Giambattista Vico was way ahead of his time, here.  He recognised that all civilisations collapse.  There is what he called a ricorso, a "return" to the start of the process.  From the heights of science and democracy we are rather suddenly propelled back into a state of wonder at the world around us, reliant on the gods for everything.

What causes this ricorso?  Dudley Young, in his wonderful Origins of the Sacred, suggested that democracy is inherently anarchic, and so a period of anarchy results in the demolition of democratic institutions and, inevitably, the end of civilisation.  However, this theory is - I believe - fundamentally flawed.

What destroys civilisations is greed.  Pure and simple.  And how does that greed infect the carefully calibrated mechanisms of science and democracy?  Easy: it does so by reinventing the Heroic age.

In other words, once a society has developed, progressing through the primitive/magical/theocratic Divine age and the religious-aristocratic Heroic age to the democratic and scientific systems of the Human age, a form of regression starts.  Those who always preferred the certainties of the Heroic age (summed up, basically, as a landed aristocracy supported by the Church) begin to fight back against the principles of science and democracy.  They start claiming more - much, much more - for themselves.  And civilisation implodes under the weight of their regressive and selfish demands.

That is what is happening now.  In many ways, we can replace the "Church" with "Corporate Capitalism", because they amount to the same thing.  But anyone seeking enlightenment is recommended to read Naomi Klein's excellent, if chilling, The Shock Doctrine.

The post-war consensus - which was about as scientific and democratic as it is possible to be - began to crumble in the late 1970s.  A small group of fanatical economists sought to undermine the certainties of the Human age.  They argued that the State should have no involvement in everyday life.  Everything should be in private hands.  Their theories (mostly emanating from the Chicago School of Economics, which shall be forever cursed) could only be applied at the point of a gun.  So a clever new step was invented.  Naomi Klein called it "Disaster Capitalism".

Essentially, it works like this.  A group of greedy individuals either invents or quickly moves to exploit a traumatic event (like a civil war, a tsunami or a perceived economic crisis).  While the populace is too shocked to do anything about it, everything they thought they owned is transferred into private hands.  The rich grow immensely richer.  Everybody else suffers - and is tortured or "disappeared" if they dare to speak out.

No end of specious claims are made to justify these atrocities.  Some of these are rather subtle, but they are all part of the ongoing conspiracy to steal from the people what the people once owned.

In cultural terms, we all own Shakespeare.  And though a fairly decent level of education, and an awareness of history, are valuable in making sense of his rich words, there really is no barrier to anybody enjoying his works.

So the new aristocrats seek to claim him as exclusively their own.  Only those who have enjoyed the Heroic age privileges of private education and automatic entry to Oxbridge can understand Shakespeare.  He's not for the likes of you.  He belongs to the rich and powerful.

Shakespeare himself would be utterly horrified by such a suggestion.  He would be mortified.  In fact, he would realise that he was being murdered all over again by such Heroic age fantasists as Mr Julian Fellowes.

(Consider this: Downton Abbey is a worldwide phenomenon, its success proof of the popularity of its cosy vision of the Heroic age in all its pompous finery.  It hit our screens at about the same time as the most right-wing, privileged, "aristocratic" British government in living memory sneaked into office, and shortly before the Heroic age started flexing its muscles in the United States, where federal - i.e. democratic - government has been shut down by a bunch of Bible-bashing conservative fundamentalists from the Tea Party.  In these regards, Downton Abbey is symptomatic of the New Heroic age, which covers up what its real agenda is by flogging us an attractively misleading story of the past.)

Science is under attack, these days (mostly from the fundamenalists of the religious-aristocratic school).  So, too, is democracy - and the assaults are coming from the same direction: the New Heroic age.  Call it jihad.  Call it "Disaster Capitalism".  Call it the New World Order.  It's all the same.

It's the backwards-looking medievalism of the super-privileged eagerly driving us all back into a kind of feudalism.  It's the special pleading of corporate lobbyists and uber-rich tax-avoiders.  It's the old Etonians asserting their rule over the plebs.  It is naked greed masquerading as the remedy to all our problems.

We must, must, must NOT allow such people to lionise William Shakespeare and his works.  They might believe that they hold the exclusive rights to his memory - by dint of birthright and expensive upbringing - but they simply cannot be trusted with it.

Why?  Because they don't understand him at all.  They are only too quick to misrepresent him to us (see previous posts).  They bend him to serve their own ends.

So Julian Fellowes has Downton Abbeyed Romeo and Juliet.  He's selling you a false image of Shakespeare, one that surely suits his ideal of a New Heroic age in which the landed aristocracy - in cahoots with the Church of Corporate Wealth - look down from their charmless heights on the rest of us, who are just there to wash the dishes and make the beds for them (on zero-hour contracts, of course).

Remember the ricorso.  If you want our civilisation to fall apart, that's the way to go.  And everything Shakespeare was telling us will have gone unheeded, because we weren't considered capable of understanding him, and so we allowed our social "superiors" to interpret him for us. 

And they lied.  Because they always do.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Wise Words

It's October. Autumn is here, Winter just around the corner.  Halloween - or, as some of us prefer, Samhain - approaches.  Time for spooky tales to chill the marrow!

Many thanks to Louise Wise who published my short post about SHAKESPEARE'S SKULL on her wonderful Wise Words blog.

More Halloweeny goings on to follow, I'm pretty sure ...

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

How Conspiracies Work

Buoyed by the news that Who Killed William Shakespeare? has sold out its first print-run within two months of publication, I've been wondering what Shakespeare would think if he came back today.

At first glance, you'd imagine he'd be pretty chuffed.  Nearly 400 years on from his death in 1616, he is still far and away the leading figure in his chosen field.  No one comes near him.  Shakespeare is, without doubt, the most famous poet-playwright ever to have walked the planet.

He might find the internet exciting.  He would surely be impressed that the journey from Stratford to London can be done in two hours, as opposed to the two days it took on horseback.

But, to be honest, I think he would be appalled - and certainly very uncomfortable.  After all, it's one thing to be celebrated as the world's greatest dramatist and poet.  It's another thing altogether to be completely misremembered.

The Shakespeare industry is as busy as it ever was.  New books about Shakespeare appear all the time.  And most of them spout unadulterated rubbish about him.

There seem to be, essentially, two sides to the argument.  On the one hand, Will Shakespeare was a humble Warwickshire lad of extraordinary gifts - and, more than anything, humble and self-effacing; he went to London, made his fortune, wowed the Queen and then the King, and then he thought, "Ah well, I've had a good run, time to go home", and he sort of vanished.

The alternative argument goes something like this: That semi-transparent and quite frankly boring individual, better known for grain-dealing in Stratford, could never have been the universal genius who penned those marvellous comedies, histories and tragedies.  So somebody else must have done all the hard work.  William Shakespeare was just a frontman, a cardboard cut-out, undeservedly remembered as the greatest writer in the English language.

Both arguments are fundamentally flawed and - to put it bluntly - stupidly simplistic.  The latter arises from the former.  For as long as the academics, the Shakespeare experts and the tourism industry insist on selling us a see-through Shakespeare, a man who kept himself to himself and wrote entirely from his own imagination, steering well clear of the controversies of his day, there will always be those who cry "Foul!" and demand to know who the real William Shakespeare was.

And, if they happen to be of the all-aristocrats-are-excellent-and-infinitely-better-than-the-rest-of-us school (which dominates so much comment these days), they will insist that Shakespeare must have been an aristocrat - like the Earl of Oxford (who died while Shakespeare was still busily writing plays) or, more crazily, Queen Elizabeth I (ditto).

These are two extreme positions: Shakespeare was just an ordinary bloke, and Shakespeare must have been someone of high social standing.  They are the curse of Shakespeare studies.  Neither standpoint does any credit to William Shakespeare himself.

In a sense, what we are looking at is two sides of a conspiracy theory.  The first - and, apparently, the more innocuous - side claims that Shakespeare was just a patriotic middle-class Englishman; the second argues (quite rightly) that such a Shakespeare is a sham.  But, ultimately, both sides are wrong.

In Who Killed William Shakespeare? I examine the circumstances of Will's life and death.  It's been described as a conspiracy theory.  Which it isn't.  The real conspiracy theory continually pours out of Stratford and the cloisters of academe, fiercely countered by the fanatics who want to believe that somebody else altogether was the true genius.

Let us take a moment to consider the similarities between Shakespeare's lifetime and that of Arthur - the first historical Arthur on record, that is; not the silly and mythical King Arthur.

First of all, even though these two individuals lived a thousand years apart, their periods were subject to very similar strains.  In Arthur's day, a foreign religion (Christianity) was taking root at the same time as Germanic settlers were forcibly conquering much of southern Britain, beginning with the eastern side of the country.  In Shakespeare's day, a sort-of foreign religion (Protestantism) had entered the country from Germany, working its way across the land from the eastern counties.  One of the results of the spread of Protestantism was enormous social change.  The old gentry was almost entirely ruined, as Protestant parvenus stole fortunes and scrambled for precedence.

In other words, both in Arthur's day (late-6th century) and Shakespeare's day (late-16th century), a dangerous and disruptive movement was spreading across the country from the east and seeking to destroy and/or seize everything in its path.  The old religion (paganism, first; Catholicism, later) was under concerted and violent attack.  If you adhered to the old form faith and the social order which had obtained before the 'tempest' blew up, you were more or less doomed.

Both Arthur and Shakespeare stood for what could be called the 'true' Britain.  Arthur was no Christian, but there were Christians in his circle.  Shakespeare tried to pose as a Protestant, only to return to the faith of his forefathers when he saw just how vicious and corrupt the regime of Elizabeth I really was.  Neither of them was a fundamentalist, in any meaningful way; rather, they saw that what Britain needed was an end to the religious strife that covered a multitude of sins.  As Shakespeare had John of Gaunt say in Richard II:

"That England that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself."

I believe - and have offered evidence to support my belief - that both Arthur and Shakespeare were treacherously betrayed.  Murdered, to all intents and purposes.  Why?  Because both of them, in their different times, stood in the way of the triumph of Britain's enemies - the greedy, the self-serving, the corrupt, the dishonest, the over-zealous, the cruel and the depraved.

Now, here's where we enter the realms of conspiracy.  And the simple fact is that no conspiracy can succeed if (as is commonly supposed) it comprises just a handful of shady individuals.  Any conspiracy of that kind is likely to fail, or at least to be quickly exposed.

If it had been that simple - if, that is, the premature deaths of both Arthur and Shakespeare, had been brought about by just one or two fanatics - then we would have known the truth for some time.  But I would argue that such a scenario is pretty much the opposite of a conspiracy.

The real conspiracy requires many, many more people to engage in the cover-up.  It needs generations of commentators to collude in the crime.

In the case of Arthur, the treachery stemmed from the early Church - and, one could say, a particular religious establishment set up by one prominent churchman.  In the case of Shakespeare, the treachery stemmed partly from professional rivalry and partly from the paranoia that was loose at the court of King James.

Now, consider this: could future generations, wedded as they were to the cause of Christianity, acknowledge the role played by the early Church in the assassination of Arthur and the destruction of Britain?  Were there own beliefs not essentially the same as the beliefs which led to Arthur's death and the betrayal of Britain to her enemies?

And consider this of Shakespeare: the very people whose devious and bloody-minded behaviour was exposed in his plays ended up running the country.  Protestantism, which provided so many of these ogres with the excuse they needed to rob and slaughter their fellow countrymen, became the official religion of the land.  Future generations of scholars set out to prove that this was an inevitable and desirable process: it's what made Britain great.  And so, if Shakespeare had opposed this very kind of extremism, and his vocal opposition had led to his death, then it was absolutely necessary that the biography of William Shakespeare should be rewritten and the circumstances of his death ignored and forgotten.

The original conspiracies - the murders of Arthur and Shakespeare - required only a few determined and unscrupulous individuals to succeed.  Initially.  After that, though, huge numbers of likeminded people had to play along, to connive in the original crime, to become complicit in the cover-up (for reasons of faith and/or political expediency).  They became accessories after the fact.

It continues to this day.  There are still scholars who spout absolute gibberish about Arthur.  They steadfastly refuse to explore his northern roots.  They get unreasonably angry at the very suggestion that the first Arthur on record might have been the original Arthur.  Why?  Because they are colluding in the conspiracy that led to Arthur's death.  They are studying Arthur purely from the point-of-view of his enemies.  They are happy to continue the cover-up, because their mindsets and belief systems would have led them to participate in the original crime.

The same goes for Shakespeare.  His story is repeatedly written up by his enemies - even though they claim to love and admire him - because they harbour the same set of beliefs, ultimately, as the men who killed him (the one who wielded the weapon, the one who commissioned the crime, and the faction which kept it quiet).  So the conspiracy continues, perpetuated by the very character-type that was involved from the start.  Naturally, these academics cannot tell the truth about Shakespeare.  They might not have been there at the actual assassination, but they can continue to assassinate him by lying about his life, his works, his beliefs and covering up the harsh reality.

That's how conspiracies work.  If it were just a hugger-mugger huddle of plotters, their crimes would soon be exposed.  But it isn't.  It's an ongoing propaganda war.  Those who would have applauded and approved of the crime continue to cover for the criminals.  They misrepresent Arthur and Shakespeare and attack anyone who points to the realities of the time.

So Shakespeare, I believe, would find his visit to today's world a truly depressing experience.  His enemies triumphed.  They continue to tell his story, and to tell it all wrong.

And here's where we should take note.  Conspiracies can only prosper in a society, in a world, where there is sufficient fanaticism for the crimes to be covered up.  We don't all have to wield the knife - only to lie to ourselves and each other about what really happened.  And we do so because our belief systems are so horribly skewed.  We will justify atrocities because our blind prejudices assure us that they were justifiable.

Have you been on Facebook lately?  Read the below-the-line comments beneath any online newspaper story?  Fanaticism is flourishing.

Somewhere out there is today's Arthur, today's Shakespeare.  They will be betrayed and put to death.  And future generations will be none the wiser.  Because there are enough maniacs out there who will happily spread lies in support of their extremist positions.  And that's all that is needed for conspiracies to succeed.