The International Slave Trade was in force between the mid seventeenth and the late nineteenth centuries. Although it was abolished in 1838 it didn’t magically stop on that date.
And in that time millions of men, women and children from Africa were treated as if they were subhuman, disposable objects, moving parts of a machine, whose sole purpose was to make even more money for the wealthy European traders.
Every great English country house I visit has a history to tell; and when I look into that history I look for the words “business interests in the West Indies“, and then I know that the grandeur of this house rests upon the exploitation of those enslaved Africans.
So complex is the tapestry of wealth and advancement and progress and exploitation of human lives in the International Slave Trade, that we cannot ever extricate ourselves from the fact that many of the institutions upon which we rely for the comfort and privilege of our lives here in this Western consumer society, are founded upon the misery and pain of millions.
In William Walton’s choral work Belshazzar’s Feast there is a powerful bass aria in which the singer enumerates all the wealth and magnificence of Babylon, over which King Belshazzar reigned. The once-mighty city of Babylon in Iraq has been described as “a microcosm of human history.” The bass sings:
If you visit this gallery, you’ll find yourself totally absorbed and caught up in an imaginative, interactive experience, in which you examine and reflect upon and enter into the heart of that slavery experience. You’ll consider all the facets of racism, both during those times, and up to the present day; and quite possibly, during the time you’re walking through the gallery, you’ll be drawn to identify with those who suffered, and will feel personally responsible and involved in that massive crime against humanity.
If you’re in London, I urge you to include the Museum of London Docklands on your list of places to visit; it has many other galleries, too, telling you of London’s history, and you will find it a thoroughly engrossing experience.
Free will means that even in the most totalitarian regime, individuals keep within their hearts and minds their secret thoughts and views: but with ingenuity they will find a way of expressing it.
When Private Eye editor and TV personality Ian Hislop stepped out of his Private Eye offices – as shown on video at the entrance to this brilliant exhibition – he went round the corner to see if he could find signs of dissent within the hallowed portals of the museum.
As he says at the beginning of the exhibition, he had set out to answer these questions: “Have people always shown signs of dissent? Are there artefacts in the British Museum relating to people forming views against the government?” Fortunately, the answer was YES.
As you wander through the exhibition examining the artefacts, one thing becomes clear: the fiercer and more authoritarian the government under which the artists or creators lived, the more subtle and more clever the signs of dissent. And of course sometimes it can be done unconsciously, or can be just what the paranoid authorities choose to see as dissent.
Throughout the ages, through ceramic vases, badges, banknotes, coins, rugs, engravings, paintings, individuals have expressed their dissent against the established order and the powers that be.
A winking owl was taken by Chairman Mao to be a statement that his health was failing – and won the artist arrest and imprisonment. An ancient Egyptian craftsman fed up with constantly producing artefacts for the Pharaoh which were going to go in the tombs carved his own face in place of the Pharaoh’s; another added his own name where only the name of someone high and mighty should be.
In Afghanistan, a traditional rug had helicopters woven into it instead of flowers, to protest against Soviet invasion.
Soviet invaders were show with devil’s horn on another rug; and those being invaded were shown in the same position as an avenging god.
Later we saw that people have also dissented against the British Museum itself. The famous artist Banksy had done a cave painting of a man pushing a shopping trolley. It was placed in the British Museum with a very authentic looking cheeky label – and stayed there for three days before it was noticed.
Cleverly defaced banknotes and engraved coins were intended to stay in circulation with their dissenting message for as long as possible.
The ring worn by a Royalist during the rule of Cromwell opened up to reveal a portrait of King Charles I who had been beheaded.
A copy of the Bible opened up to the Ten Commandments revealed that the printer had printed “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Ironical typo…… or expression of dissent?
The exhibition was wonderfully diverse and didn’t just represent one ideological stance on the part of its curator Ian Hislop. There was no biassed view, for instance, of leftist dissenter against totalitarian regime. All views were represented, even those of a Russian who objected to Gorbachev’s attempts at control of alcohol; and someone who opposed Barak Obama. And there was before us an object which consisted of elaborate Catholic items, heavy with Catholic symbolism, turned into a supposedly inoffensive salt cellar to use in Reformation England.
George IV apparently wasted a huge amount of public money trying to suppress insulting images of himself.
And an English cartoon of William Pitt’s and George’s III’s decapitated heads followed shortly after news from France of Louis IV’s beheading.
And how about the right wing Brexiteers wearing yellow jackets? In Hong Kong those dissenting from China’s plans for political change all carried yellow umbrellas as a sign of their protest.
In one part of the exhibition Ian Hislop had written, “I was disappointed to discover that Spitting Images was not new.”
And of course – in former times the Turks had got there first with their own puppets lampooning those in authority over them.
There displayed for us to see were certain treasures of the age before the Norman Conquest. Here were the magnificent original illuminated manuscripts, the highly ornate and jewelled medallions worn by high-ranking women, inscribed with runic symbols; and other time capsules left to us by the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later. Behind these original objects lay the spirits of the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots; and the mighty, such as Offa, “a king who terrified everyone” and who built a great dyke between Wales and Mercia.
King Canute, we learned, was a great giver of books to churches. I wonder what Edmund Ironside would have though of that, had he known it when he was desperately fighting to stop the Danes from ruling England? Or would he have thought it just a pathetic attempt to make reparation for all the upheaval and battles and loss of life he had caused? And we learned, too, that even the Christian kings were thought to have descended from the Norse god Woden. The exhibition contained an original prayer book, the very volume found by St Cuthbert’s head in his tomb at Durham Cathedral, which was indeed an awe-inspiring object to contemplate.
It was fascinating to learn of the intersection between English and European art and thought, and to discover that many went on pilgrimage to Rome. Canterbury and Jarrow were the two major spiritual centres; Canterbury represented the influence of Augustine and Rome, while Jarrow in Northumbria represented the Celtic Christianity which emanated from Ireland.
Here was evidence of intense hours of devotion by scribes and craftspeople and artists and gold and silversmiths; of devotion to study and scholarship and piety by these people who we tend to dismiss because they came before William the Conqueror. A rich and thought-provoking exhibition with much scope for contemplation and meditation upon our own history and what it means for us.
I know when I lived in Australia for four years, this wonderful institution was much prized for its almost legendary status amongst the Australians, even if they did think we British are a bit weird to go around drinking warm beer all the time.
And at the Museum of London, Docklands, I had the chance to listen to a talk on the social history of this, the most iconic “hostelry”.
Crowded into The Three Mariners, a replica of a small historical pub within the Museum’s Sailortown recreation, we listened to a most engaging talk on the subject. I learned that the social history of drinking in Britain began when the Romans introduced the taverna to the natives of these isles, and thus began the habit of drinking wine.
Then, later on, after the Romans had given up on us and left, the Vikings invaded – and introduced beer. then we British became used to the alehouses. Ale was a natural choice for England, and later inns began to appear.
During Tudor times, Henry VIII introduced licensing laws.. He wanted the “public house” regulated and ordered.
Then on into the 1600s and 1700s – and gin was the thing. It was very cheap and easy to make; and we know of course from vivid engravings and from our social history, the effect that the craze for gin had on our society.
And onto William Gladstone – when he was Prime Minister he decided it would be morally superior for us to revert to wine drinking. Prior to his time wine had only been available in kegs. Now he introduced the bottle of wine, and promoted the idea that there was some kind of social refinement or even moral virtue about drinking wine as opposed to beer.
And now of course we have inherited these social presumptions about our drinking habits. Who, our guide asked, would dare request a strawberry daiquiri when he’s sitting amongst his mates in the pub and they’ve all ordered beer? Social meltdown, at the very least!
It all brought me back to the first time I tasted alcohol. My first love was Asti Spumante; and Blue Nun was the order of the day too, along with Mateus Rose. And when I was at university, I remember such combinations as Guinness and Grapefruit, Dry Martini and Lemonade, and American Dry and Whisky – along with the much-favoured Snowball (Advocaat and Lemonade). And I have long loved a gin and tonic…
But how amusing it is to think how easily we attribute a social value to anything we might do… and no wonder the drinking of alcohol has not escaped this natural tendency of human nature.
But it was great fun to listen to our enthusiastic and lively speaker setting all our ideas about alcohol firmly in the context of English social history.
At the National Portrait Gallery recently, as I wandered through the Victorian and Twentieth Century and Contemporary Galleries, I realised that I was surrounded by all the most amazing people who have moved or inspired me or touched my heart, during my lifetime.
It is truly a moving experience to gaze upon the faces of each of these people, and to reflect upon the impact each one of them has had on my life. Some of them look very unexceptional; others have been portrayed in a way which truly conveys their individuality. But what all have in common is this: they are like a cloud of witnesses, a gallery of masters who have found their way into my heart and mind over the generations and seasons of my life, through something they’ve written, or painted, or thought, or expressed.
To gaze upon their faces, even imperfectly rendered – for how can I tell the accuracy or the insight of the artist, having never encountered the sitter in person – is to be deeply touched.
I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.
Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…
I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands; foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;
I have in mind the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition: the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.
So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers, the ministers, the politicians, and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town
In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.
Over Christmas a biography came to me which is one of the most compelling and moving accounts I have ever read. Out of the Forest (published by Penguin Australia) is the memoir of a man who spent ten years living as an alcoholic drug-crazed recluse high in the New South Wales forest, (with occasional forays down the mountain to the local hippy community to sell his crop of marijuana, and spend his income on alcohol).
This man now holds a PhD and is an academic at the Southern Cross University at their Lismore campus in New South Wales, where he teaches Social Sciences. His name is Dr Gregory Peel Smith, and his story takes him from a severely abusive childhood and period of torment in a Catholic orphanage, through years of mental suffering, self-destructive behaviour, alcoholism and drug addiction and self-imposed isolation, to his present life.
Partly because I know the area Gregory is writing about (having lived in Brisbane for four and a half years myself, and having visited the areas of the New South Wales coastline, and spent time in the very mountains of which he speaks) I read this account with intense interest. But as Gregory describes his journey through the depths of human anguish, into self-imposed exile from human society, and all the gruesome details of what it takes to survive in isolation in the wild, I was totally captivated. This book has a strong spiritual character, despite Gregory’s disavowal of the Christian religion (not surprising when you read of the physical and spiritual and psychological abuse he received from the Catholic nuns in the orphanage.)
And the way in which Gregory rehabilitates himself, upon emerging from ten years in the forest, is deeply moving and inspiring. Although later on he is greatly helped by certain individuals whom he identifies as angels, in the early stages he transforms his life solely through his own inner resources. He describes in detail his method for “mounting a mental counter-insurgency” against his inner demons which I believe would be immensely helpful for anyone who has gone through any experience approximating to his kind of mental suffering and turmoil. Though his case was extreme I believe it will be of great value to many, and not only those who have been through comparable extreme experiences.
Naturally I highly recommend this book, and not only to a general readership but to those interested or engaged in psychotherapy and personal spiritual transformation.
We recently made another visit to Stoneleigh Abbey, very near where we live in Warwick: a stately home that has been beautifully restored since it was devastated by fire in 1960.
Originally home to an order of Cistercian monks granted land by Henry II in 1145, this later evolved into a gracious seventeenth century residence, formerly owned by the Leigh family, and it is the subject of one of the chapters in my forthcoming illustrated non-fiction book Spirit of Warwickshire.
I can also thoroughly recommend the historical house tour, and also the Jane Austen tour. The guide is both highly entertaining and full of fascinating historical information.
The house is famous for Jane Austen’s visit with her mother Cassandra in 1806, when they were both invited by Cassandra’s cousin the Revd Thomas Leigh to come and view his surprise inheritance. Cassandra – who does sound as if she was rather snooty, and a perfect model for some of Jane’s class-conscious characters – was delighted and enormously impressed by everything she and her sharp-eyed daughter saw aand experienced during the ten days of their visit, and Jane herself, whilst admiring the physical attributes of the house, imbibed many subtle details which would later emerge in her novels, especially Mansfield Park.
Their visit came a few years before Thomas Leigh commissioned Humphrey Repton to landscape the grounds, or she would have certainly have memorised her impressions and taken due note of details there too.
Now the rooms and chapel open to the public may often be the scene of a Jane Austen tour; guided by an experienced actor and devoted Jane Austen enthusiast, you may once again imagine that 1806 visit, enhanced as it will be by your close reading and knowledge of all Jane Austen’s novels.
At first glance, it seems our choice between the two is clear. After all, we are rational twenty-first century beings. We’ve had the Reformation and the Enlightenment, we know all about logic and philosophy and psychology and the laws of cause and effect. We have modern medicine. We know about viruses and bacteria. We have innoculations. We live in a much more civilised, controlled, functional world, don’t we, than our predecessors?
Or do we? Take your choice:
Do we trust mathematical predictions through algorithms?
or do we rely on the magical thinking in which humankind has engaged for centuries?
or… do we hold both of these in our consciousness as we proceed through this world, along with other outlooks as well?
Do you ever wonder where those politicans get their statistics from that they throw at us during media interviews, to underline or prove or disprove certain policies? As a statistician, Prof Silverman has advised the government on many vital issues, including the numbers of people involved in modern slavery, and those taking certain classes of illegal drugs and those involved in drug-dealing, and how to handle a massive influx of migrants into the country. He employs his expertise to predict and manage probabilities and to anticipate situations on a scientific basis, and thus to provide solutions to the best way of handling problems.
Once someone said to him incredulously, “You mean, you found that out by…. using algebra?”
To which he replied, “…as opposed to just guessing? Yes.”
He researches data and then fits a mathematical model to it, and then gives impartial expert advice to support government. He did say it’s up to science not to overplay the evidence; and it’s incumbent on scientists to explain what they’ve found in terms people can understand; findings should be informed by expertise and not solely by the scientists’ personal opinions.
He was asked about the ethical challenges to scientists and he said the only real danger is when the Chief Scientific Adviser gets captured by the agenda.
In order to guard against that, he or she must:
a) make sure advice is in the public domain
b) have several people to whom he or she is accountable
c) listen and observe – after all, that encapsulates the scientific method.
Having listened to Professor Silvermen I felt heartened and encouraged, and left the church with a much more positive view of our country and our system of government and indeed our politicians. I felt that with the Chief Scientific Advisers behind them, we have good reason to trust our politicans, perhaps, much more than we do.
Then I went to the exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Spellbound: Magic, Ritual and Witchcraft.
Here we found displayed many objects which testify to the reliance our forbears placed upon the idea of changing the external world and their circumstances by manipulation of objects through magic.
I found the exhibition aroused many different emotions; it was at different points, creepy, sad, disturbing, distressing, moving, thought-provoking. And as I went round the exhibition, I thought Humans are not essentially rational creatures – they are kaleidoscopic creatures.
When we look at English history we may consider the following paradoxes:
Henry VIII chopped off people’s heads and condemned them to be hanged drawn and quartered, and was in many ways a monster… and yet he was the first monarch to ensure an English translation of the Bible should be in every church, so the people could read in their own language the Gospels he himself clearly had not read (because the message of love, mercy and compassion had evidently not got through to him).
Elizabeth I fought to stop the idolatry and superstition of Catholic practices, and to institute her new Church, enlightened, rational, flower of the Reformation… and she also employed John Dee, Court Magician ( some of whose magical objects were in this exhibition). And women were persecuted and executed as witches right up until 1680 – 22 years into her reign.
James I has given his name to first much-revered King James translation of the Bible, and no more women were executed for witchcraft during his reign, and he fought to maintain Protestantism….except that he was obsessed with witchcraft, he wrote a book on it, and Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please James I, and took the witches’ (genuine) spells directly out of James I’s book.
Yes, here in the twenty-first century we are rational beings… but we still have within us black spots of what has been called wilful self-deception.
People for centuries have ostensibly followed Christianity yet believed in magical objects and rituals and spells. Clergymen have fought a losing battle against superstition, and caches of magical objects – used everyday items imbued with magical spells – have been found even in the twentieth century, secreted in hiding places in old houses. Some of these caches were on display in the museum; a pair of man’s breeches; a child’s shoe; several teeth; a number of small medicine bottles, and all sorts of items, almost like a curious time capsule, stashed away up the chimney or under the floorboards to somehow magically influence the lives of their owners.
But are we so civilised and enlightened that we can look down on all that with incredulous disdain?
Do we cross our fingers, or avoid walking under ladders, or feel uneasy with the number 13? Do we have a dream catcher in our bedroom, or a lucky duck from Whitby sitting on the shelf? Do we pass on Irish blessings over social media with a threat that if you don’t forward it to 7 others something bad will happen to you? do you believe in house blessings, or keep crosses or icons around the house? Do you buy guardian angels on chains to wear as a pendant, or take a St Christopher on a journey with you? If we write, do we always use a special pen, or follow a certain ritual before beginning?
These and many other little rituals show that we still use magical thinking.
Certainly we can understand where JK Rowling got her ideas from and why her books have such a powerful hold on us…
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, 2, 602
Surely the best places to reflect upon the universal truths that lie behind Shakespeare’s words above, are the many historical sites to be found in his county.
Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon sanctuary.
It’s in St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, which lies to the north west of Stratford-upon-Avon, on the way to Henley-in-Arden. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.
Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the manor) of Wootton before 1066, probably holding court in the estate farmstead and hall of Wudu Tun which sat securely within ancient moated banks. He is known to have been a companion of Early Leofric, who founded a monastery at Coventry in 1043. But at the time of his lordship at Wudu Tun near the river Alne, the minster church had been here since the early 700s. I wondered about Lord Wagen as I looked through the exhibition. When William the Conqueror took over, this woodland village in the forest of Arden was one of the many land holdings that came to his attention. He confiscated the land from Wagen and gave it to one of his own pals (as was the way of many English monarchs). In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.
The Dynasty of the Staffords, lasted through to 1521 when the last one was executed by Henry VIII. Thus centuries of royal favour and privilege came to an end for that particular family.
It is thought there may be a Shakespeare connection with the church at Wootton Wawen: a Victorian author claimed in 1890 that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in their courting days used to visit their friend, John Mascall, the Vicar of Wootton, just as Mascall was beginning his 60 year stint as pastor of the parish. The same Victorian author also speculates that John Mascall may have been the officiant at Will and Anne’s marriage in the private chapel of Shottery Manor, owned by the same family who at that time held the manor of Wootton. (And who knows, perhaps John inspired Will for the character of Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet!)
Along with this exhibition in the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought played into my musings: a TV documentary I had seen about the fifty greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC drama production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; and our visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, was killed.
Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind.
A Viking with bad attitude buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found by chance 1300 years later.
Henry V triumphed at Agincourt then married Catherine daughter of the French king. Henry died when their son was 9 months old. When he grew up, that son, Henry VI, later revered as a saint, shrank from the role of king whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Meanwhile Catherine had gone off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.
Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future. But her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, her Catholic husband deserted her, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.
So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune and how they interface with our lives.
English history is full of “what-ifs.” Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of history and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.
In the face of these truths it seems that success or failure are not determined by hard work and striving. Perhaps we have to live with a healthy awareness that they may in a moment be swept away and rendered irrelevant by a quirky twist of fate.
Thus we may find ourselves pondering, as we wander around such a place as the Saxon sanctuary in Wootton Wawen.