The lexicon of popular history,
With its ridge and furrowed semantic fields and stories,
Opens doors of childhood perception,
To fields of knowledge, imagination,
Wonderment and enchantment –
But, I think, especially enchantment.
Take, for example, an Anglo-Saxon tale,
The tale of Alfred the Great and the burnt cakes:
The moral of the tale presented to me in childhood books
Was all about the humility of a king
(A king in a common kitchen, indeed!),
And the curtness of the woman in the kitchen,
When discovering that the stranger –
Preoccupied with Vikings rather than griddles –
Had ruined the cakes.
But could a different moral have been presented to my boyhood self?
Where’s the next meal going to come from?
The woman in the kitchen has so many things to do.
Cooking cakes is, in fact, a difficult and highly skilled task.
Popular histories for grown-ups carry on this approach,
Textually rather than through pictures perhaps,
But the effect is the same.
Take the phrase ‘ordinary people’, for example:
The word ‘ordinary’ is, I think, used almost as a pejorative,
Rather than as a synonym for majority;
And what synonyms do we find for ‘ordinary’?
Ordinary, as in ‘not distinctive’ …
Common, everyday, humdrum, run of the mill …
What have historians enchanted by the study of Romano-British
history ever bequeathed to us?
And why have they been enchanted?
I suppose it could be the Stockholm Syndrome,
The affection felt by the captive for the captor sort of thing,
Or perhaps we should call it the St Albans Syndrome,
Or the Verulamium Syndrome …
But there’s so much more, I know,
(Or is there?)
Deference, perhaps, or ‘Borrowed status’,
As the sociologists put it,
The cult of the classics in grammar schools,
The dominance of the English public school;
The cult of the nineteenth century amateur,
Antiquarian and archaeologist,
Often a country curate;
The simultaneous growth of the British Empire,
Parallels drawn with Pax Romana,
And the civilizing mission
Of ‘The White Man’s Burden’;
The tantalizing nature of the evidence
Of the Romano-British centuries:
Tangible yet numinous;
Chance finds as the country was industrialised,
New roads, new footings, foundations and factories,
Those rural curates on new railway lines,
The Ozymandian nature of it all:
‘Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair.’
The M.R. James winter ghost story trope,
The feeling that those twilight Celtic gods
Lie just beyond the veil of imagination.
The way that the history fitted in
With a British jigsaw of stereotypes:
England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland,
Circles without Class Ceilings
Why can prehistory be so entrancing?
Why do some people find prehistory so entrancing?
Why do they become so spellbound
When walking by, let’s say, a long barrow?
How do they become so transported in time and space?
What’s it all about?
Is it because a standing stone, a circle,
A tumulus, barrow, or whatever,
Demonstrates the fragility of knowledge,
The equivocal nature of understanding,
In a sense, the ‘negative capability’ of John Keats:
Being conscious, simultaneously,
Of knowing and yet not knowing?
The recognition that sometimes any presumption
Of understanding the meaning of an edifice,
Can only be speculative
(Despite the accumulation of evidence and artefacts,
Despite measurement, mensuration and comparison,
Despite a commitment to the rigours of empiricism),
And a reflection of who we are in the here and now –
Or can Homo sapiens merely develop
A restricted trope of meanings, recognizable
And familiar, across time and space …
So some speculations are bound to be valid …
Or is signification, itself, a trope of modernity?
Nature and Nurture:
How circumscribed are we by time and space?
And how universal are we across the same?
What do these structures reveal and indicate
About what is quintessentially human?
So, prehistoric structures,
In an a priori, apostrophizing, manner,
The manner of an innocent wonderer,
As yet unread on the subject,
I question your meaning:
What were you for?
As the traffic rumbles past on Cotswold roads,
It’s hard to hear the chip of stone on flint,
Or the croak of corvids with their blood-drip beaks,
Or the breaking of the bones of a skeleton,
Or smell the rotting flesh on the capstone,
Or taste the ashes of the dead on the nightfall wind,
Or see the blood red sunset behind the silver river
Or the standing stone’s silhouette,
But try hard on a winter’s afternoon,
And you might just slip down a wormhole of time,
To rituals of death and memory,
And recognize the prehistoric past
For what it is and was:
Not something primitive and alien,
But something shared.
This was the time when the age of Marx replaced that of Burke,
The time when the ‘swinish multitude’ and ‘the mob’ became a working class,
When there was not just the economic revolution of school textbooks,
But also a presence of a possible political one,
A time when Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man (sic),
Viewed as seditious and libellous
By the nation’s rulers,
Could sell 200,000 copies in a year,
When the population was only around ten million,
And so many could not read – but they listened,
And learned and remembered,
Despite the patriotic cavalcades
And violent contrived disruption of ‘Jacobin’ meetings,
Despite the show trials and government spies,
The arrest of booksellers, the banning of political meetings,
The censorship and illegalisation of criticism of government or monarchy.
This was our land in the 1790s:
Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women,
Pitt’s repression at home and war abroad,
Food riots all around our five valleys
(‘We might as well be hanged as starved’),
The Naval Mutinies of 1797
(“An attempt was made to give to the ships
in mutiny the name of ‘The Floating Republic’.”)
‘Secret Jacobin springs’ were rumoured:
‘Jacobin emissaries and the Corresponding Society …
Jacobin management and influence is at the bottom of this evil’;
The Red Flag was hoisted;
Richard Parker was elected President by the mutinous delegates:
‘… We are not rebels to our country, our country are rebels to us.’
‘I and my brother delegates are all united, and acting in the cause of humanity;
and while life animates the heart of Dick Parker, he will be true to the cause.’
Anything else to rock the ship of state?
Riots against the Militia Act in Scotland,
Wolfe Tone and rebellion in Ireland –
When more people were killed by the army
Than in the ‘Reign of Terror’ in Paris …
Pamphlets such as King Killing;
The Happy Reign of King George the Last;
100, 000 people meeting at Copenhagen Fields, Islington;
The King’s carriage attacked:
‘No War! No King! No Pitt!’
This sung to the tune of ‘God Save the King’ at Drury Lane Theatre:
‘And when George’s Poll
Shall in the basket roll,
Let mercy then control
‘With Henry Hunt, we’ll go my boys,
With Henry Hunt, we’ll go,
We’ll mount the Cap of Liberty,
In spite of Nadin Joe.
On the 16th day of August
Eighteen hundred and nineteen,
A meeting held in Peter’s Field
Was glorious to be seen,
Joe Nadin and his big bulldogs,
As you might plainly see,
And on the other side,
Stood the bloody cavalry.
With Henry Hunt, we’ll go my boys,
With Henry Hunt, we’ll go,
We’ll mount the Cap of Liberty,
In spite of Nadin Joe.’
So how did a Wiltshire gentleman farmer
End up on the hustings at Peterloo?
How did a seemingly egotistical,
And self-regarding rhetorician,
End up being eulogized by the North,
And revered by the industrial working class?
Tell me, Mr. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt,
Up there, on the hustings and platforms,
In your self-centred, narcissistic white hat,
How did it happen?
Radical inns, taverns, alehouses, coffee houses, homes, houses, chapels,
Institutes, debating clubs and Spencean ‘free and easies’
Derived from a reading of Radical Underworld by Ian McCalman,
Radical Culture: Discourse, Resistance and Surveillance 1790-1820
by David Worrall,
William Cuffay The Life & Times of a Chartist Leader by Martin Hoyles,
The Spirit of Despotism by John Barrell,
Ian Newman http://www.1790salehouse.com/
and Francis Boorman’s thesis on Chancery Lane
First up, the Bell in Exeter Street, where the LCS was formed in 1791,
To hear Thomas Hardy, founder of the LCS:
‘The Rights of Man’ ‘are not confined to this small island
But are extended to the whole human race, black or white,
High or low, rich or poor’;
Then to the Globe Tavern, corner of the Strand and Craven Street,
Where LCS divisions met in 1794:
‘We must have redress from our own laws and not from the laws
of our plunderers, enemies and oppressors’
Next, to Soho for the Panton Street Debating Club of 1795,
And the London Corresponding Society, once more:
“If the King … dare attempt to trample upon the Liberties of the People,
I hope they will trample upon his head”;
Other LCS pubs: The Friend at Hand, Little North Street,
The French Horn, Lambeth Walk,
The Queen’s Arms, Kennington Lane,
The Fox and Hounds, Sydenham,
But we’re off to Lunan’s public house,
Academy Court, Chancery Lane,
With Jacobins and spies in Bell’s Yard, too:
‘He talked of killing the King with blow-pipe
and poisoned arrow’;