Sunday, 23 December 2012

A Day Like Any Other Day

I have confessed several times in this blog that my understanding of history is poor, and arranged around various tropes from popular culture.  For me, there are the Pirate Times, the Age of Wigs, the Moustache Era, and so on.  In recent times (that is, Internet Times) I have attempted to address this failing, mainly through the medium of historical novels, films and TV series.  If I now have any greater understanding of the Napoleonic Wars, it is by following the adventures of Richard Sharpe and Jack Aubrey.  I am aware that this is like trying to grasp the Cold War Era by watching James Bond films, but I simply can't handle too many books without pictures and conversations any more, and it's not as if I'm going to be sitting any exams.

One thing this approach has revealed, is that popular culture has its blind spots (as does the school history curriculum).   The 17th century, for example, is quite poorly represented, even that period of turmoil known variously as the Civil War, the War of Three Nations, or the English Revolution.  This is very odd, given that the conflicts of this era and their outcomes are the crucible of our modern world.  I'm not sure whether Germans have a similar amnesia about the Thirty Years War, but I suspect they might.

It's largely to do with religion, of course.  Most modern Brits have reverted to a sort of secular paganism, our default spiritual setting, one which regards cruelty to animals as the Sin Against the Holy Ghost, and Live And Let Live (except for paedophiles) as the whole of the law.  I doubt many could point out the dogmatic differences between a Protestant and a Catholic, let alone the internecine issues that separated the Church of England from the various emerging "low church" sects in previous centuries.  These once heartfelt things are complex, and impossible to dramatize.

"So, Ensign Brown, we are agreed that rule of the church by bishops is an outrage?"
"No, colonel, I hold that all priests are usurpers of God's word!"
"Why, sir, I go further, and hold that God's presence in my soul means I am saved and therefore free to do whatsoever I do like.  And I do quite like your wife!"
[A scuffle breaks out]

Complexity is pop-culture poison, and the whole thing is as mystifying now as, in Jorge Luis Borges' words about the Falklands War, two bald men fighting over a comb.

The broader issues of liberty, democracy and freedom from tyranny are easier to grasp.  When I was a student, in the heyday of the New Left, there was a vogue for seeing the radical wing of the Parliamentarian cause -- the so-called Levellers, Diggers and Ranters -- as an alternative, dissenting strand in British history, suppressed and sublimated, but eternally bubbling under.  There is clearly a great deal of truth in this, but it is equally clearly a demonstration of the idea that we make history in our own image.  In the end, the demands for democracy, freedom of worship, and religious puritanism were as inextricably linked as a box of tangled Christmas-tree lights.

A puritan Christmas flag

Which brings me to Christmas.  Oliver Cromwell is remembered as The Man Who Banned Christmas.  Gasp!  In the Disneyfied world of 2012, what greater crime against consuming humanity could be imagined?  Unless it is closing down the TV channels, which -- if you consider the theatres as the contemporary equivalent -- is exactly what they did.  Strictly Come Dancing is henceforth banned.  Graham Norton is to undergo re-education.  The revolution will not be televised.

The first part of the TV miniseries The Devil's Whore shows Croyland Abbey under siege by the troops of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough -- the highest ranking Leveller in Cromwell's New Model Army -- on Christmas Day.  In a brave attempt to dramatise some of the conflicts within the Army, Rainsborough is shown rounding on a subordinate who suggests that shelling the Royalists in the Abbey on Christmas Day is, well, perhaps a little OTT?  Rainsborough snarls, "It is a day like any other day!"

At which point, either your inner Roundhead or your inner Cavalier is roused.  Christmas:  blessed occasion for revels and extravagance, or wasteful descent into mindless hedonism?

Perhaps, like me, you are conflicted, but take a firmer grasp of your pike, remembering Rainsborough's rousing words at the Putney Debates:
I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it's clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he has not had a voice to put himself under.
Christmas would have seemed a small price to pay for that, wouldn't you say?  It was surely a high point in our history, but one that doesn't get celebrated much or mythologised in popular culture.

A certain number of Brits didn't like what happened next:  the betrayals, the compromises, the broken promises, the Restoration of the monarchy, enclosures of common land, industrialisation, endless repeats of  The Snowman on the TV...  Some decided to ship out to the New World, and become Americans.

Sorry about that, you Wampanoags, Pequots and all tribes west.  They meant well.  Puritans always do, but it somehow never quite works out, and always seems to end in tyranny and massacres.  History, eh?


Gavin McL said...

Christmas has been almost a "day like any other day" in parts of the United Kingdom in living memory. My maternal Grandmother who was from South Yorkshire married my Grandfather in mid 1945 and moved to the Scottish Borders his home. She still recounts with how she was horrified to learn that you only got a half day holiday on Christmas Day, so that you could attend church, before heading to work in the mills. I don't know for sure but this might have been a hangover from the long history of strict Presbyterian sects in the area - but that wouldn't explain the two days of debuachery that heralded the new year a few days later.

Mike C. said...


I think in Scotland in general Christmas has never been much of a deal, compared to Hogmanay, though this may be largely to do with a Presbyterian disapproval of Christmas as a papist affair.

It's quite amusing watching Scots reinvent a Norse paganism in places like Edinburgh and Glasgow, with fire festivals, etc., at New Year -- lots of fun, but pretty specious.


Zouk Delors said...

Freedom? That's just some people talking...

Anyone care to speculate on the "manifest destiny" of the poor of this country?

PS Happy New Solar Year to all.

Gustaf Erikson said...

Comparing Patrick O'Brian to Ian Fleming is a bit unfair - he did a really good job of bringing the Napoleonic era (at least at sea) to life, and "Post Captain" is an affectionate homage to Austen.

In terms of historical novels, I really enjoyed Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" which at least lay some of the groundwork to the Civil War.

Neal Stephenson deals with the aftermath of the Civil War in entertaining if nerdy fashion in The Baroque Cycle.