Tag Archives: history

Wessex Mysteries

I’ve been blogging for a few weeks now about crime, murder mysteries and working with David Bridger and I’m going to keep that coming because there’s plenty to think about around the project. This week we made a commitment to a trilogy, and that these will be The Wessex Mysteries.

Wessex is a wonderfully evocative name, I think. It conjures up two wildly different things. The first is Thomas Hardy, who had a fictional version of the south west that featured in his novels. I’m not a huge Hardy fan (I’ve read three now) but I am really interested in the idea of how stories relate to landscapes, and his Wessex has been highly influential for a lot of people.

Go back a bit further and Wessex is an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and has strong associations with King Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of those historical figures who stands on the edges of history and myth – he’s the one with the burnt cake story. 

The Wessex area also has a lot of prehistory in it, and I’m looking forward to giving that more thought and attention as we go along. The presence of history in the landscape is definitely going to be a theme for these books.


Making people invisible

The history we are taught, and the history we see in pop culture representations has tended to be the history of straight cis white men. It’s not accurate. Everyone else has always existed and done stuff. However, this selective storytelling has consequences. 

A lot of people – white English speaking people especially – never get further than what little history they are obliged to encounter at school plus the problematic film and cultural content that works much the same way. This means that many people struggle with the idea that anything could have happened in the past that wasn’t centred on straight cis white men. Show them any content that even acknowledges other people exist and they can be surprisingly upset.

This means that accurate content showing queer people, People of Colour, and even active women can be dismissed as ‘woke’ and inaccurate. Some people seem to be stuck in the film worlds from the first half of the twentieth century, which is grim. They are unable to imagine or accept the existence and agency of people who are not straight cis white men. You find them on social media, criticising accurate historical content and arguing with evidence because it doesn’t fit their fantasy. They also can’t handle having this kind of thing in fantasy stories, firm in the belief that even fantasy Europe can only be straight white men.

The other consequence of this is the belief that diversity is a modern invention and that diverse people aren’t really real, or don’t matter. Again, you’ll find them on social media denying the historic existence of neurodiverse people, denying the existence of trans and non-binary folk in history, denying historical female agency, and making that a basis for saying this ‘new stuff’ is pretend and does not merit taking seriously.

History is not a neutral subject. The way it is taught and represented isn’t neutral and has ongoing consequences. Many things that are intrinsically human have been left out of how we tell our history stories and that distorts cultures and societies.


The responsibilities of fiction

Clearly part of the point of fiction is to create something that doesn’t already exist. However, that always has consequences. I don’t think writing fiction gives you a free pass, ideally authors need to be responsible about what they write. There’s also the difficulty caused by readers not taking responsibility either. As an example, taking folklore from fiction and presenting that as folklore, which is worse when there is a living tradition being written over by this.

One of the biggest problems with fiction is often who gets left out. Which leaves us with some people convinced that there were no People of Colour in mediaeval Europe, for example. Or that LGBTQ and neurodivergent people didn’t exist in the past. White, western fiction has perpetuated many of the harmful stereotypes about cultures around the world. There are many white authors who have taken stories from other cultures and reimagined that to fit their purposes, beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. 

There will probably always be readers who read satires and mistake them for how-to manuels. As a writer you aren’t going to be able to do much about the people who wilfully misread your work – like the people who firmly believed Terry Pratchett would be ‘gender critical’. There are limits to the interpretations authors can be responsible for. How work will be viewed changes over time, such that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was written as an anti-slavery text, but these days the language itself is so problematic that it raises a lot of questions about how, or when, or if to teach the book. No one can write for the context in which their book might be read in the future.

Being a responsible reader means thinking about the context. If we consume fiction unquestioningly, it isn’t always good for us. It’s important to know how a book relates to the rest of reality. Fantastic reimaginings of history tend to be self announcing enough that people know it isn’t the real thing. Smaller scale mistakes, and quietly offered agendas can get by unnoticed. Historical fiction in which working people and servants don’t really exist can cause some interesting distortions to how we understand things, for example. 

Of course this isn’t just about authors. For anyone with a shot at a large readership, there were also editors and publishers involved in deciding how or if the book would go out into the world. All of whom are complicit when we get books that misrepresent people, science, history and so forth. 

There’s a place in the world for stories that are not necessarily true. Sometimes we need them to put back in the people traditional history deliberately left out. Sometimes we need to imagine how things could have been better, kinder, more interesting – I’m all in favour of fiction that tells us how it could have been, perhaps should have been and that opens up new perspectives. It’s important to remember that history itself is a form of storytelling, written by the victors and leaving out far more than it includes.

There are reasons to question the kinds of stories that persist in writing people out of history. We need to be wary of the kind of colonial storytelling that asserts the brilliance of the white male conqueror and portrays him as a saviour for the savages – Victorian fiction is rife with this sort of thing and it continues to turn up in many guises. It’s not the job of fiction writers to tell the truth, but it pays to take a hard look at the kinds of untruth the publishing industry as a whole is happy to keep putting out there.


The fall of Colston

All four defendants on trial for taking down the statue of Colston in Bristol have been acquitted. Not because they didn’t do it, but because taking down that statue was the right thing to do. Of course there’s a howling backlash from people who think this means anarchy, or the end of history. I have thoughts.

The Colston statue wasn’t an historic artifact from the time Colston was alive. It was put up far later. It didn’t record history, it hid the colonial, slaving violence that was part of Colston’s actual story. He was not a nice man, putting up a statue to commemorate him distorts the real story. History itself is not harmed by taking him down. Further, at this point he’s on his side in a museum with information about both him and his statue, so overall this has led to more history, not less of it.

I’m not a Bristol person, but I live close enough to have been to The Colston Hall as a child. I had no idea what the name meant. Thanks to the toppling of the statue, I now know a lot more about Bristol and Colston history than I did.

History is written by the victors. It’s a story about the past, the selected highlights that someone wants to focus on. It may be a story that tells us who we are or that encourages us to believe certain things about ourselves. Celebrating Colston is the story that goes with colonialism and making heroes out of people who are rich because they do such a fine and sustained job of exploiting others. Toppling Colston gives us a new story, and right now it’s a story about exposing the grim truth, community solidarity and being better people moving forward.

Right now, the victors who get to write the story are people who don’t want to whitewash the history of slavery, or excuse the ‘great white men’ that we’ve previously celebrated. This works for me. I don’t want to be part of a culture whose touchstone for celebrating people is that they be white rich men. I think we need to talk a lot more about how certain people, and certain families manage to accumulate so much wealth. It isn’t their own hard work, that’s for sure. Contemporary wealth is often built on the backs of historical slaves, on the backs of colonised people past and present, on the backs of exploited workers, and with the materials taken from the earth with no care for the lives, landscape and ecosystems destroyed in the pursuit of profit.


Modern Druids

I don’t write much about historical Druids and in truth I’ve never been that interested in trying to reconstruct what ancient Druids did. Religions tend to evolve over time and where there is continuous tradition, there doesn’t tend to be fixed practice. What the ancient Druids did is not likely to make sense in our era of climate crisis, and capitalism, with the majority of humans alienated from the land, tradition, each other, their work…

I’m fairly well read, in that I have a passable knowledge of a fair body of mythology, alongside some awareness of history, pre-history, folklore, religions in general, and the modern Pagan movement. I have some idea what comes from the last few hundred years and what is older. I’m interested in the ideas and inspiration that can be drawn from what we know of history but when it comes down to it, I’m more interested in contemporary Druidry and where it is going, than I am in what we might figure out about where it has been.

People do all sorts of interesting things under the banner of Druidry, and have done for some time now. It’s a term that has inspired cultural efforts, and also fraternal groups designed for mutual care. It’s a spiritual movement that includes atheists, animists, polytheists, Christians and many others. Something about it attracts people from a broad range of backgrounds and beliefs, and these people can come together and share things in ways that are often meaningful.

I’m fascinated by how Druidry has changed in the last twenty years or so. When I first started volunteering for The Druid Network, Druidry was dominated by a few voices, and organised around Orders and Groves. It was about working in groups, and there were a small number of Very Important Druids who tended to dominate the whole thing. But now we have blogs, and youtube, and small events and a proliferation of people doing Druidry in all sorts of ways and talking about it. We have far less hierarchy and authority and, I think, far more Druids who just aren’t that interested in being important and who want to share what they’re doing.

Being a Very Important Druid is hard work, high maintenance stuff likely to attract conflict and drama into your life. It’s actually at odds with having meaningful spiritual experiences. There’s a lot more to be said for being a Druid on your own terms with no responsibility for numbers of students or devotees, and just sharing what you encounter with other people who are doing similar things. There continue to be Orders and Groves and people who run things, and this is good, and it no longer dominates, which is even better.

All religions change over time, depending on the intentions of the people who get involved with them. The past is in many ways a closed book. The future however, is there to be made and shaped. What people do now in the name of Druidry will inform what is to come. I think there’s a lot more to be excited about in considering the future of Druidry and how to do that well, than there is in looking to the past. But at the same time, that’s just me, and I have every respect for those people who find meaning, direction and coherence by looking to ancient Druidry. My way does not invalidate their way. Druidry should be roomy enough to accommodate this, and more.


Living with history

What happens to a site when we decide it has to be preserved for posterity? Often, it stops being a living location in actual use, and becomes a museum piece. This has several consequences. One of those is that there will be no future when an archaeologist can get excited about continuity of use beyond a certain point. We do not allow ourselves to participate in sites because to do so would be to damage them. And so there may be no future equivalent of the Viking graffiti on the Hagia Sophia – and we may be the poorer for it.

When a building, or a location can’t be used as was originally intended, it may become a tourist destination. This is not a neutral outcome that guarantees the safety of the site. Sometimes quite the opposite – with issues of erosion, damage, people taking bits of the site home with them, and the kinds of interventions you have to make to enable tourists to visit. The bridge at Tintagel is a case in point here – great that it improves accessibility, but I think it mostly exists because the weight of numbers visiting made the old route unsafe. You can’t wander hordes of tourists over a site every day with no consequences.

Historically, if a site was no longer needed for its original purpose, it would be repurposed. In some cases this has meant the stone being removed for re-use. Somewhere in the vicinity of my home is all the stone from a Roman villa, and the taking of it to build other things is now part of the history of the area. If you did that now, it would seem like vandalism. But, we have no qualms about cutting down ancient woodland to make way for high speed rail – we’re more attached to the built, historic human landscape than we are to the naturally occurring ancient landscape, and that could stand some scrutiny.

I think there’s something wonderful about buildings and locations being able to stay in use, in their original functions, so that they are alive and part of our lived experience, and not separated off as artefacts that we don’t really engage with. In the UK, I think there are two types of building where this tends to be handled well and we get continuity over time: Cathedrals, and pubs. Although tragically at the moment we’re losing pubs to redevelopment because pressures on the industry are closing them down. But, on the whole, these are locations where history is often preserved, but not at the expense of the living users of the site. Toilets can be added without building a visitor’s centre. Accessibility is a thing. Features can be removed. And sometimes by this measure, the Victorian pews from the churches and cathedrals end up in the pubs.


Statues and History

Back in the summer, the people of Bristol chucked a statue of a chap called Colston into the waterways. It was a good move – he was a slaver and should not be celebrated. Of course there were a lot of people who felt that doing this was hiding or denying history, and that this is a bad thing. What is the relationship between a statue and history?

Statues are not put up at the time of events, or as part of something historical happening. They are, like other commemorative objects, put up afterwards. They are part of a decision about the story we will be telling about the past. In America, a lot of the statuary relating to the Civil War isn’t from that period, it’s from the 20th century and went up for reasons, and those reasons had everything to do with shaping the story. Taking the statue down is no more or less an act of shaping the story than puting it up.

The people who get to put up statues have money and power to deploy. Most of us don’t have an option on commissioning commemorative statues for people we think are important. It is worth thinking about the kinds of people who are officially considered important and thus get statues. It’s worth thinking about the relationship between the statue and the community of living people who have it in their midst. The act of designating some people as important and statue-worthy and others as not worthy of a statue, is a political process. I’ve not done a formal survey, but my impression is that figures on plinths tend to be representations of rich white men who were able to use their rich white man status to get something done, or more likely, done for them.

Most of us are not represented when history is depicted in our public spaces in this way. So, if lots of people want to take down a statue because it isn’t the story they want to tell, is that denying history? I don’t think so. It is re-writing. Most of us will go into history as silences and absences, never to be noted as more than a statistic, if that. The decision that a handful of rich white men don’t deserve any better treatment than the rest of us, does not undermine history, it just asks you to reconsider what the important stories actually are.


Thinking about Civilization

I’m currently reading ‘Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age’ by Richard Rudgely, and it’s got me thinking a lot about how we define civilization and how problematic it is. Like me, the author isn’t a fan of the narrative of human progress, and that’s certainly a story that has coloured how we think about the past.

As a child, I had one of those illustrated history books, in which the tens of thousands of years of human prehistory were summed up by a single image of some people wearing skins and using stone tools. That the Stone Age was barbarous, superstitious, and lacking in all the qualities of proper civilization is something that we used to take for granted as an idea, and many people probably still do.

History, as we understand it begins with writing, so any culture that doesn’t have writing is assumed not to have history and to be rather primitive. This ignores the ancient nature of stories in oral traditions – that Australian Aboriginal stories record ancient events and creatures is thus easily overlooked. To be a civilization, we moderns think there have to be cities. This means our nomadic ancient ancestors were not civilized, and nor are any modern people who live as hunter gatherers or are otherwise nomadic – this is a view that breeds racism, undervaluing, and intolerance. We only think cities are important because we have cities.

We look to the past for things that validate our stories about the present. Where we see things that fit in a narrative of progress to the present, we tend to focus our attention. There are other stories we might want to explore – that hunter gatherer societies had more leisure time than we do. That so-called primitive people have to develop a very rational, observation based understanding of reality to survive, hunt and gather. That we see civilization in terms of material culture, and that people who live lightly leave little evidence of themselves.

To survive as a nomadic people at the end of the Ice Age, must have meant cooperation. It’s not ‘survival of the fittest’ that will have got our ancestors through those incredibly cold and challenging times when they were first coming back into the UK. It will have been care for the young, and for pregnant women. It must have meant sharing skills and resources, knowledge and experience. It must have meant people working together. And when you can only own what you carry, or what another person is happy to carry for you, the place of material goods in your life is going to be very different.

If we can re-imagine the past, and consider different ways in which civilizations can exist, we might do a much better job of organising ourselves for the future.


Druidry and Rabbits

Rabbits are interestingly complicated from a Druid perspective. On one hand, they’re cute, fluffy mammals, and on the other, they could be the poster-creature for humans messing up.

We’ve been moving rabbits around the world for a long time. When exactly they came to the UK is uncertain – could have been the Romans, could have been the Normans. Certainly the Normans had to build warrens for them because apparently rabbits back then weren’t very tough at all! Old rabbit warrens in the landscape can easily be confused for other things. There’s an interesting pair near me that, in local legend, are supposedly mass graves for a smallpox hospital.

Rabbits in Australia have been an ecological disaster. They may be small and cute, but being in a landscape where they don’t belong has had a series impact on other species. Tree loss, soil erosion and loss of other plant species causes huge knock on effects.

Then we get myxomatosis – a virus that originated in South America and turns out to have hideous, crippling effects on rabbits, who die slow and painful deaths from it. I’ve heard a lot of stories about how it was deliberately brought into the UK to control rabbit populations – a horrible choice by any measure.

We move rabbits around so that we can eat them. We keep them as pets. We use the fur of Angora rabbits for clothing, but the treatment of those rabbits, is often appalling. The problems rabbits cause in the world stem from our human assumption that they are there for us to use in whatever way we see fit. When we colonise landscapes, our impact isn’t just about moving people in, and humans – especially white, European humans – have caused a lot of harm by deliberately and accidentally moving creatures to places where they do not belong.

Rabbits invite us to look at how we use power. They invite us to square up to a long history of ecological damage and arrogance. They are intimately tied up with colonial histories and the history of invasion. From a Druid perspective, they have much to tell us about what a lack of natural justice looks like, and what human hubris does in the world.


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.