Tag Archives: history

The Consolation of History

I have read a fair few books about history and pre-history. There’s not much logic to it, my knowledge is patchy and random. My main interests are in radical history, and the lives of ordinary people. There is consolation to be found in reading history, and I’m feeling that keenly at the moment.

When you read about the lives of ordinary people – in any place or time, things are invariably a bit shit. Sometimes things are devastatingly shit. I read, and I wonder how anyone kept going in face of that. How people kept pushing for rights in face of tyranny. But they did, and when you look at grander sweeps of time, even as individual movements have often failed, there is a bit of a progress narrative and on the whole ordinary people have slowly gained more rights.

When I feel daunted and overwhelmed, I remind myself about my ancestors. All those ancestors of radical thinking who tried, and failed, and tried again. I remind myself that many, many people in history and pre-history have faced the end of their culture, their civilization, their people, their world. When I feel really grim about the state of things, I remind myself that many others have been here before me and I am not facing anything new. This helps me keep a sense of perspective.

The timescales of pre-history are good for perspective, too. We are a tiny, toxic blip in the history of humanoid life. Other humanoid species have fallen away in the past, it may be our turn now. Nothing is forever, including us.

We repeat history, whether we’ve studied it or not. We are not so very new. We are no cleverer or wiser than the people who went before us. As a species we seem able to learn some things very quickly, but the important lessons elude us – how to live well, how to live sustainably, and what purpose to make of our lives.


The Conscientious Objector – a review

I admit I wasn’t sure how I would do with this book. I absolutely loved The Factory Girl Trilogy – review here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/the-factory-girl-trilogy-review/. Moving into a book that follows on from that but clearly wasn’t going to have my favourite character in, gave me a fair few feelings. As a younger reader I had bailed from series at times like these. Older and wiser me is more willing to have a go, and I regret nothing!

My other area of uncertainty was that this is an alternate history novel set around the First World War. It’s a period I know a fair bit about and find highly emotive. Would I be ok with WW1 re-imagined to include automata and other devices? For me, Stephen said everything that needed to be said about the grim realities of this awful war. He didn’t downplay the horrors, or sanitise anything and the bringing in of Steampunk elements did not feel disrespectful. As with The Factory Girl Trilogy, the fantastical elements were used to highlight and explore the period issues, not to write over them. And so I was as miserable in the trenches section as I needed to be.

I will freely admit that I wasn’t in the best headspace for reading anything when I read this. Normally I adore books where I have no idea what the story shape is or what’s going on. I love to be surprised. For the first three quarters of the book I had no idea where it was going, what kind of story it was, what it meant, and I flailed a bit. I think this is a book that will greatly benefit from being read in the right headspace, don’t pick it up if you want to be comforted by familiarity. However, at the three quarters mark, give or take, there is a revelation that blew me away. Suddenly the narrative crystallised, everything made sense, and I read the last quarter pretty much flat out in a state of utter delight, being frequently surprised. Read this book when you want to go on an adventure.

The underlying themes in this story are highly pertinent. This is a story about how we see ourselves, and whether we are willing to find out how others see us. This is a tale that questions the wisdom of living in an echo chamber and champions the need for different perspectives. It’s also a protest against all forms of absolutism. There are always exceptions. There should always be room for nuance and difference. When people insist there is only one truth, only one way to live, or love, or think about things, nothing good can come of it.

With war in Europe as the backdrop, this is without a doubt a book that has a lot to say about Brexit and the state of our culture, letting us view the present day from the perspective of more than a century ago.

Heartily recommended!

(And yes, that is a Tom Brown cover)


Peterloo, 200 years on

Two hundred years ago today, St Peter’s Fields in Manchester – now St Peter’s Square, was the site of a massive protest.  Some 60,000 people gathered in a peaceful pro-democracy, anti-poverty rally. Their circumstances were desperate and starvation was a real threat.

In response to this, local magistrates read the riot act and set armed forces on the assembly, killing some and injuring hundreds. The name ‘Peterloo’ was chosen to echo Waterloo – then a fairy recent battle. For more of the history visit http://www.peterloomassacre.org/history.html

One of the things we’ve been told in the run up to the UK ‘government’ being set on no deal brexit, is to expect civil unrest. This is likely to be the consequence of hunger, as we have nothing in place to enable us to deal with creating hard borders. Food, medicine and toilet paper from abroad won’t be so available, and the consequences will be ugly for many people. Push so many people to the edge and trouble is likely.

And what does our inglorious leadership propose to do for the hungry masses when the time comes? Send in the army to put down any misbehaviour.

We were one of the richer countries in the world when desperate, hungry people gathered in Manchester 200 years ago. Much of what was creating the hunger then was that our laws made bread prices too high for the poor to afford. Those laws served the rich landowners growing grain. We remain one of the richer countries in the world, and we remain a place where ordinary people go hungry. Which to me means that how we measure ‘wealth’ is clearly wrong. I want a definition of wealth that has more to do with everyone’s wellbeing and less to do with the riches of the few.

A nation that turns its army on its own people is a nation that has failed. A nation that lets its people go hungry is a nation that has failed. The right are keen to talk about patriotism, but anyone who is happy to see their neighbours suffer, go hungry, die for lack of medicine, and the like, for the sake of a political idea, has no love for their country. A country is not some abstract idea, it is a group of living people. When you don’t see those living people as inherently worth taking care of, there is no national identity. There is no community or collective co-operation at a national level. How anyone can identify as a proud nationalist, and not connect that pride to the wellbeing of all is a mystery to me.


Seeking discomfort

One of the hardest things to do is wilfully challenge the ways in which you are comfortable. Yesterday’s blog – Seeking comfort brought up a comment about white poverty in the southern states of America, “Why do people so often assume that to be white means to have a privileged life?” I’ve been in this conversation quite a few times before. It makes people uncomfortable.

Privilege is relative, and not an absolute condition, you can have privilege in some ways and be massively disadvantaged in others. You can be dirt poor and better off than someone else who is dirt poor and of a minority religion, sexual identity or racial background. It’s not that white privilege means we white people all have it easy, it means there are people who, by dint of skin colour, have it harder than us. In just the same way, having straight privilege, or male privilege, or cis privilege or being mentally and physically well does mean you live a charmed life. It means you have a certain set of advantages that you may be taking for granted.

If you’ve never looked at how your life may advantage you in some ways, it tends to be an uncomfortable process. If you are invested in the idea of your disadvantage, it can be really uncomfortable looking at how realistic this is. There’s a lot of difference between being poor in a peaceful country that has a social safety net and being poor in a famine or a war zone. And of course there are some vocal young men out there on social media keen to get across the idea that middle class straight white boys are the most persecuted minority in the world. If you think being able to flag up how persecuted you are creates some kind of social advantage, of course you’ll want to persuade people you are the ‘real’ victim. That kind of behaviour can only come from a place of not understanding what it means to be disadvantaged.

Having our stories challenged is never comfortable. We all exist in contexts that involve other people, culture, history… we are all still implicated in what colonialism has done around the world and what capitalism does, and the exploitation and abuse these things involve. It isn’t comfortable. It’s much more comfortable to pretend you don’t benefit from the things you benefit from. It’s much easier not to look at how you fit in the bigger picture.

Being able to resist such discomfort by refusing to engage with it, is the biggest privilege there is. Being able to deny your position in your culture and history is a place of power. Those who are trapped by culture and history don’t get to pretend it isn’t happening to them and have that be an effective solution.

Willingness to be uncomfortable is necessary for change. If we aren’t willing to be uncomfortable, we won’t work for fairness, or justice or equality. And if we’re making other people uncomfortable, it’s important to ask are we doing that by doubling down on what’s already hard for them, or are we doing it by pointing out where things might be better for them than they’ve acknowledged. If people are living in a state of discomfort, the right answer is to try and ease that where we can. If people are comfortable and oblivious to how much they have – they urgently need to feel uncomfortable. Most of us fall somewhere in between, advantaged in some ways and disadvantaged in others and better off when we can see how that works.


Tommy Catkins – a review

Tommy Catkins is the new novel from Stephen Palmer, whose Factory Girl Trilogy I was very taken with. It’s a story that mixes history and fantasy, and does not encourage you to feel confident about what’s real, and what’s delusion brought on by trauma.

The central character – Tommy – is a massive enigma. The odds seem good that his name is not really Tommy Catkins at all. He’s lied about his age. He doesn’t remember a lot of what happened to him. He doesn’t know if he’s mad, or too afraid to go back to the trenches. He doesn’t know if what he sees in the puddles and river are real, or manifestations from his own broken mind. In some senses he’s an everyboy, all the kids who signed up to fight in the First World War, and who paid with their minds and bodies. There are hints about a personal background, but we’re never allowed to see it, we can only wonder. The story keeps us very much on the outside of his experiences, which of course we are bound to be, because we weren’t there, and we don’t understand.

For me what was most interesting about the story is the way is catches shifts in mental health understanding. Up until the First World War, mental anguish was often treated as a female issue – hysteria – and not taken very seriously. The impact of shell shock on officers and men alike changed public and medical attitudes to the issue of trauma. We went from shooting men for cowardice to taking their broken nerves seriously. The novel explores some of the appalling methods that were attempted as ‘cures’ and the pressure to get sick men back to the front. The idea that mental anguish in face of experience might be the root cause, not a physical reaction, is something the book explores.

This isn’t a comfortable read. It’s a haunting and deeply uneasy book that won’t offer you tidy solutions. If you’re looking for uncomplicated escapism, this isn’t it, but it is a book that can speak in some unsettling ways to that urge for escapism.


Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?


Alternative history

What happens when an author deliberately re-writes history to offer us an alternative? It’s pretty much a given in steampunk writing, it can be highly entertaining but it’s also problematic. I’ve been pondering this for a while now, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

I think the first key question is to ask what the re-imagined history does with actual history. One of the things speculative fiction does well is to create coherent and fast moving realities in which you can look at real issues. If the alternative bits serve to drive a story so that you can explore real historical issues, clearly this is going to work out well. I recently reviewed Stephen Palmer’s Factory Girl trilogy which is a case in point, using automatons as a quick way in to talking about the rights issues of the industrial revolution and Victorian era.

Alternative history is problematic when it simply takes out all the awkward bits and creates an impression that they never happened. History without the racism and sexism, without the grinding poverty, the colonialism, the exploitation, can serve to prop up the illusions of people with privilege who don’t want to deal with how things really were. Entertaining though Gail Carriger is, I think she’s an author who is a case in point here.

Alternative history can go further than this in the harm it does, by deliberately minimising real issues. My go-to title for this is an alternate Second World War story were aliens turn up so the humans have to work together. I think it’s a vile premise, encouraging the reader to treat the whole Nazi project as no big deal. I cannot remember the name of the series, or the author.

What occurred to me as I was thinking about this is that all historical fiction is alternative history. Even when the characters existed, the author puts words in their mouths and comes up with motives and explanations that are entirely speculative. We see the past through the filter of the present, we take our beliefs and preferences with us, and we imagine historical figures on our terms. We focus on the kinds of characters we find appealing and ignore those we don’t care for. Every story about the past is a re-writing, and is no less vulnerable to the problems I’ve mentioned above than openly speculative work is.

Our willingness to tell stories – especially romances- about the upper classes, with scant regard for where their money comes from and what enables their lavish lifestyles, is perhaps one of the most pernicious problems in the fictionalising of history. We romanticise wealth and power, and all too seldom do we look at the exploitation underpinning it.

Speculative fiction can encourage us to focus on what’s been added to history, but often the most important question to ask of any historically set book is – what, and who, has been left out?


The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion – a review

I’m no Arthurian scholar, although my wide ranging reading habits and interest in folklore and mythology mean that I’ve run into King Arthur and the grail from all kinds of perspectives already. I was interested to see what Simon Stirling would do with the idea. I don’t feel qualified to comment on this as a piece of historical writing, but I found it in many ways persuasive.

In this book, Simon makes the case for King Arthur being Scottish. I found this argument compelling. To establish his case, Simon draws on mediaeval writing, period history (such as it is) place names and the names of known historical figures. He also explores why we have a southern Arthur and how that benefitted the church.

I found the exploration of texts and history to be especially interesting. One of the things this book does especially well is to look at the relationship between history making and myth making. These things are deeply related to each other. We tell stories to reinforce our sense of history. We use history as propaganda. We reinvent our stories to reinvent ourselves. Arthur has been used repeatedly in this way, and I found the exploration of the mechanics to be really helpful.

One of the other things that stuck out for me is the way language changes over time. The poetic sources Simon deals with are full of kennings, allusions and metaphors. It represents a world view rather different to our own. There’s a blurring of edges created by word play and pun, and resonance that may easily be lost to a modern reader. There’s no knowing how literally our ancestors took any of this – whether we’re dealing in straightforward symbolism where Bran = raven, or whether in some sense ravens are Bran, and Bran is ravens… How much mythology could be grown from a misunderstanding of poetic language? For me, this raises more questions than it answers, and I am very glad to have them raised.

I do not emerge from this book confident that I know what the Grail is. The case Simon makes is fascinating and I very much enjoyed reading it. It is a pleasing addition to my sense of what the grail might be, and might have been, but I’m not one for definitive answers. I’ve certainly learned a lot about how different people have perceived the grail. For anyone looking for a non-Christian take on the elusive artefact, this is a good book, I think regardless of whether you find the central argument persuasive.

For me, reading this was like investigating an ancestral dream world. Simon draws on sources from all over the world to explore ideas about what it means to be human, because in many ways, the quest for the grail is always a quest for something fundamental about humanity. This take on the grail is very much the warrior poet, masculine grail, and it has most to say about male mysteries around what is often taken to be an innately feminine object. It often reminded me of reading The White Goddess – this is not a wilfully obscure book, but it has that same sense of being a hairsbreadth from absolute truth, while never enabling me to completely grasp it. As I appreciate that sort of mythic, deep dreaming experience in a book, I really enjoyed reading this. I suspect different readers could have radically different experiences of this book, depending a lot on what you know and believe already.

Mote about it here – http://www.moon-books.net/books/grail


The Burning Times

The first time I heard the song The Burning Times, I was a teenager at Bromyard Folk Festival. By the end of the second verse, I was in tears. It’s a powerful song. Especially that second verse, about how the Pope declared the Inquisition, and 9 million European women died as a consequence, mostly burned to death, apart from those in the last lines of verse 2 ‘and the tale is told of those who, by the hundreds, holding hands together sought their deaths in the sea, singing in the praises of the mother goddess, a refusal of betrayal, women were dying to be free.’ It took me a long time to learn it, because singing it reduced me to tears.

In my twenties, I started reading more seriously about Paganism, and it didn’t take me long to start finding a lot of reasons to question the Burning Times myth. In the UK, we tended to hang witches, not burn them. The Inquisition was mostly about Christian heretics. There weren’t enough people in mediaeval Europe for a death toll of 9 million to make sense. The whole argument for smooth continuation of witchcraft practice coupled with witch burning doesn’t stack up properly. Whatever happened, verse 2 of the Burning Times isn’t it.

I took to doing a short history note before singing the song. But it bothered me, because this is a myth that isn’t, I think doing us any favours.

This autumn, out of the blue, a thought came to me. The Burning Times is now. And so I re-wrote the second verse.

 

If you aren’t familiar with the original, you can hear it here – https://youtu.be/RsNmJ7GKOUQ


How the present changes the past

“History changes, I’m telling you. OK, the things that actually happened way-back-when don’t really change, but our interpretation of them sure does. It’s amazing how much our understanding of ancient Minoan culture has changed in the century or so since Sir Arthur Evans first uncovered the ruins of the temple complex at Knossos.” Laura Perry – it’s a great blog post and you can read the rest of it here. http://witchesandpagans.com/pagan-paths-blogs/the-minoan-path/how-history-changes-the-minoans-and-their-neighbors.html

The relationship between the present and the past is something that fascinates me. How we tend to look at timeframes that seem to resonant with where we are now, and how we read the past to make sense of the present, and read the past through the distorting lenses of currently in-vogue glasses.

Take, for example, the way we’ve made sense of the graves of the ancient dead. Weapons = warriors = men. Beads and mirrors = women. Start from that perspective and it’s not possible to think you’ve dug up a warrior woman. So the past can have no warrior women in it, which in turn validates the idea that women are passive and domestic things, and men do all the important, active stuff. Only now we can do DNA analysis its getting obvious that buried items and the gender of the body do not always match up this way.

Rare, exotic and costly grave goods buried with the ancient dead are understood as status, symbols of power and importance. As such, they ‘prove’ the existence of a ruling elite, validating the idea of a ruling elite as a timeless truth about how human societies are. It’s possible that our ancient dead had completely different ideas about the meaning of items placed in graves. Does burial have to relate to personal ownership? No. Do rare items neatly equate to kingship? No.

It’s very easy to make the past say almost anything we want it to. It’s especially easy to think we’re seeing evidence for things we already believe are true. I’m not a believer in the idea of one true way and I think truth is often complex, shifting and multi-faceted. But here’s a bit of personal dogma for you – if you can’t imagine more than one interpretation for something, you’re probably wrong, because you’re probably too busy seeing what you think is true to have thought about what’s actually in front of you.

For more of this sort of thing, Druidry and the Ancestors… http://www.moon-books.net/books/Druidry-Ancestors