Celebrate Burford Day!

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(Admittedly a little late)- but let us recall and celebrate the first stirrings of popular democracy in England.  The Levellers were a movement amongst the ranks of the New Model Army and the populace who believed that the whole point of the English Revolution had to be an extension of the franchise to every adult male (although women were very active and vociferous in the movement too).  Such a radical platform was opposed by Cromwell and his allies, whose real agenda was not reform but the substitution of one ruling class for another- of one body of property owners for a slightly larger and slightly less wealthy interest group.

They had opposed the radicals at the Putney Debates in 1647 and at Burford in May 1649 they finally and decisively suppressed the Leveller party.  The ideas and the words survived, nonetheless:

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sir, I think itt 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 hath not had a voice to put Himself under.”

Thomas Rainborough

Leveller’s Day is celebrated in Burford this coming Saturday, May 20th.

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The Britishness of British film

Their Finest Hour and A Half
Directed by Lone Sherfig

In the last fortnight I have seen two newly released British-made feature films, Their finest, starring Gemma Arterton, and Mindhorn, with Julian Barratt.  Both struck me with features and themes that seemed typically British (or perhaps even English- except Mindhorn was set mainly on the isle of Man).

One key feature of both screenplays was a kind of amateurish battling through.  In Their finest this was evoked through Britain standing alone against Nazi Germany, making do and mending, coping with bombing and meagre resources, keeping a stiff upper lip and bearing up in defiance of Mr Hitler.  Battle scenes were recreated with model planes, painted backdrops and a swimming pool.  In Mindhorn,  a has-been TV detective is given a chance to redeem his failed career- something he achieves by accident and in spite of his incompetence, arrogance and self-obsession.  It all comes right in the end, against the odds and against all expectations.

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Secondly, both films displayed a powerful nostalgia.  The drab austerity of the Second World War still had a homely attractiveness about it- warm beer and songs in the pub, fish and chips by the harbour and smoky rooms filled with the clatter of typewriters. In Mindhorn, the tatty glamour of the 1980s, the on-the-cheap TV series and tacky merchandising were all lovingly evoked and tacitly preferred over contemporary success and prosperity.

In both cases, this nostalgic approach tended to blend into the third typical national trait- self deprecation or mockery.  This was most evident in Mindhorn: in one respect the film was a 90 minute tourist ad for the Isle of Man, but at the same time the island of 2016 was presented as run-down and stuck in the 1970s with unrefurbished hotels and police stations and with a half-hearted celebration of ‘Manx Day’ that was inferior to most village fetes.  In Their finest a government minister recites Shakespeare and everyone is embarrassed by the national bard; the perky Cockneys in the Blitz are recalled with fondness and with a gentle humour.

Both films are worth seeing.  Their finest plays on your emotions shamelessly, but is a well told tale.  Gemma Arterton is very good (as ever) but Bill Nighy steals the show.  There were only two of us seeing Mindhorn in my local cinema on a Thursday night- it’s a laugh from start to finish and deserves better than that!

‘Etruscan tombs’- some thoughts on a Victorian poem and an ancient people

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“O wise Etruscans, faded in the night
Yourselves, with scarce a rose-leaf on your trace;
You kept the ashes of the dead in sight.
And shaped the vase to seem the vanished face.”

Etruscan tombs, by Agnes Mary Robinson (1857-1944)

Searching in my old, browned copy of the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse for something else entirely, I came across the poem ‘Etruscan tombs’ by Agnes Mary Robinson.  It stirred in me my semi-dormant love for Etruscan art, archaeology and the Etruscan language.

What has always fascinated me about the Etruscans is that a non-Indo European speaking culture could be found at the heart of the classical Roman world.  They were an anomaly and remain largely unexplained.  Somewhat like Basque, the status of their language remains unresolved.  Are they remnants of an older and more wide spread language family; do they represent, perhaps, what our Neolithic ancestors might have spoken?  These are fascinating, if unanswerable, questions.

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Recent genetic work by Tasso, Ghirotto, Caramelli and Babujani has questioned the theory that the population travelled from Lydia and the region of Troy, as had once been suggested.  Although there are some similarities between the DNA of modern Turks and Tuscans, there is very little genetic material shared between the modern inhabitants of Tuscany and their Etruscan predecessors. Overall, the DNA evidence does not indicate a wave of immigration from Asia Minor leading to the start of Etruscan civilisation in Italy.  These conclusions coincide with the view of most contemporary archaeologists (as well as Dionysus of Helicarnassus) who argue for an indigenous origin, and contradict the immigration theory of Herodotus. (See American Journal of  Physical Anthropology,  vol.152, 2013). Nonetheless, this research, whilst it does not substantially advance our understanding of their racial origins, does not contradict much else of what we know.

Later in her poem Robinson directly addresses what is for me the most intriguing aspect of the Etruscan people.

“A carven slab recalls his name and deeds,
Writ in a language no man living reads.

IV.
Here lies the tablet graven in the past,
Clear-charactered and firm and fresh of line.
See, not a word is gone; and yet how fast 45
The secret no man living may divine!

What did he choose for witness in the grave?
A record of his glory on the earth?
The wail of friends? The Pæans of the brave?
The sacred promise of the second birth?

The tombs of ancient Greeks in Sicily
Are sown with slender discs of graven gold
Filled with the praise of Death: “Thrice happy he
Wrapt in the milk-soft sleep of dreams untold!”

They sleep their patient sleep in altered lands,
The golden promise in their fleshless hands.”

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Their art exists for all to see, still, and is one of the great monuments of the Etruscan culture. Furthermore, their language is less impenetrable than it was when Robinson wrote, but our comprehension is still limited and probably always will be.  The bulk of our sources remain funerary, giving a very skewed and limited vocabulary from which to work.

For those fascinated by both the linguistics and the culture, you may find some interest in my small book, The Etruscan language- a brief introduction.  This examines the language in the context of our knowledge of their rich culture and was published by specialist language publisher Joseph Biddulph in 2008; you might find an old copy through Amazon (try Temperley Texts for example).

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Divisions- the sickness of Albion?

jerusalem.e.p85-Vid-del-Antrhropos-en-William-Blake

Britain has been plunged into a new election.  Is this the time for the Children of Albion to speak up for unity and and a new way and to reject the old politics?

We are faced with division and separation on all sides.  Brexit has of course motivated the poll, but we will hear much of the politician’s favourite imaginary unit, “The Hard Working Family” over the next few weeks.  Surely it’s now time to reject these attempts to divide and conquer?  What about the retired? the disabled and sick? what about single people? childless couples?  what about the unemployed- or even those who work just enough to live but won’t slave more for their employers?  All of these, seemingly, are excluded from politicians’ consideration by tedious and automatic repetition of this meaningless phrase.  We’ve heard too much of it over the last few years, but it has become ingrained in our stagnant political discourse.

We are encouraged to accept and subscribe to difference on all sides- between Britain and Europe, England and Scotland, working and non-working, native and immigrant, ‘family’ and ‘non-family.’  Division and distinction are the sickness of Albion and Albion is sick of it.  It’s time for a new way.  It’s time for a new aspiration.

Albion is for the rejection of what has gone before.  Albion is for unity.  William Blake wrote:

“Awake! awake oh sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand! I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine.  Fibres of love from man to man through Albion’s pleasant land.  In all the dark Atlantic vale down from the hills of Surrey, A black water accumulates.  Return, Albion, return!” Jerusalem I, 1

“They walked before Albion, In the Exchanges of London, every nation walked.”  Jerusalem, I, 24.

Is it time to create an Albion where everyone can share mutual love and respect- or shall we perpetuate and aggravate separation and division?

Festivals of Albion? the start of a new people’s calendar

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“It’s not made by great men” The Gang of Four

Here’s the beginnings of a list of suggested new dates for national festivals for the children of Albion to celebrate:

March 31st– in 1990, the date of the Poll Tax Riot in Trafalgar Square London.  A violent conclusion to the popular protests against the community charge (poll tax) which led within 8 months to the resignation of Mrs Thatcher and the scrapping of the tax;

April 1st– in 1649 Gerard Winstanley and the Diggers founded their self sufficient community on St Georges’s Hill, Surrey;

April 4th– in 1958 the start of the first march by anti-nuclear protestors from Trafalgar Square to the atomic weapons establishment at Aldermaston;

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May 17th– in 1649, the Leveller revolt against Cromwell was brought to an end at Burford, with the execution of three of the Leveller men;

June 1st– in 1985 police prevented the Peace Convoy from attending the Stonehenge festival.  The convoy was forced off the highway into a field and a ‘police riot’ followed in which mobile homes were smashed and individuals assaulted.  It has been called the ‘Battle of the Beanfield’, although it was almost entirely a one-sided attack on travellers including families and single mothers;

June 15th– in 1385 the Peasant’s Revolt effectively ended at Smithfield with the killing of Wat Tyler;

June 18th– the date in 1984 of the Battle of Orgreave.  Striking miners faced a paramilitary police force during the miners’ strike.  Described by Tristram Hunt MP as a “brutal example of legalised state violence.”

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August 16th– in 1819 demonstrators were unjustifiably attacked and cut down by the militia at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester- the so-called Peterloo massacre;

August 26th– in 1541 Kett’s rebellion was crushed at Norwich by armed forces;

This isn’t meant to be final or definitive and you’re very welcome to make suggestions for additions.

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“Albion”- where, when and what is it?

Plate 4 of 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion' c.1795 by William Blake 1757-1827
Plate 4 of ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’ c.1795 William Blake 1757-1827 Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the National Gallery and donations from the Art Fund, Lord Duveen and others, and presented through the the Art Fund 1919 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03374

“All the nightmares came this year/ And it looks as though they’re staying here.”

I have been blogging about the idea Albion for some weeks.  Where can it be found; what does it look like? When will we arrive there?

Albion is a three part concept, derived from the work of poets, painters, visionaries and radicals.  Albion is:

  • a place- Albion is a landscape; it is an ancient land, made by nature and by generations of it s occupants.  It is the white cliffs; it is the chalk figures of Cerne Abbas and Wilmington.  It is an environment and an expression of culture- high hedgerows and deep-worn lanes; clumps of trees on barrows high on hill tops. Albion is not the same as Britain, though.  It may share its island boundaries but it is a new land without labels.
  • a story- Albion is myth that is the subject of stories and of poems.  It is how we imagine ourselves and the story we tell ourselves about our past and our possible futures.  It is a giant, it is a nation, it is a dream.  As it is a story that we tell ourselves, it is a story that we can choose.  The story of Britain is a familiar one- it is an nation alone in adversity, it is the underdog bravely struggling- it is Dunkirk, it is the Battle of Britain, it is the first day of the Somme.  It is bravery against the odds, it’s all about keeping your head when all around are losing theirs- etc.  The myth of Albion need not be identical; we might instead choose different struggles to commemorate- Peterloo, the battle of the Beanfield, the battle of Orgreave, for example- if we are creating a new nation we get to tell its founding stories.  We get to choose our heroes too- perhaps Arthur returning from his centuries’ sleep instead of Churchill and Kitchener?
  • a dream- Albion is a better land than Britain; it is a fairer society than that in which we live.  It is something we can aspire to and aim for, something to build.  It is a concept; it is a dream yet to be dreamed.  Albion is a blueprint for another way of life that has yet to be made, yet to be lived.

Albion can only be when we want it to be.  Some have already worked to create it; some are working now.  Has the time come to awake and arise?  Without the striving and the struggle, nothing will be achieved and nothing made.  Let’s not forget William Blake’s (edited) words on this subject:

“And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:

On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.”

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Me, David and Bill

ziggy

In a recent post I quoted a very early song by David Bowie in the context of a discussion of the free festivals movement and the idea of the Albion Free State- a state with a state, a community of people living according to different rules to those of mainstream society.

During the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when I wrote for a literary magazine in Southampton called The definite article, and contributed a piece linking Bowie and the politics of anarchism, I tended to read a great deal into David’s lyrics.  This conviction that he was a writer of depth, with a message to convey, was inspired by a Melody Maker special issue I found in the late 1970s.  This included a piece that analysed the intellectual foundations of Bowie’s work, noting his references to Tibetan Buddhism, Nietzsche and Kabbalah.  I was seventeen or eighteen at the time, and the essay in question seemed to contain the philosophising of an undergraduate of about the same age to me.  I was deeply impressed, nonetheless, and I was convinced that Bowie understood the meaning and structure of society in a way that I did not and saw that we were heading inexorably for the collapse of our society, perhaps after a nuclear holocaust (and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was all too easy to believe in the doom represented by cruise missiles parked just up the road at Greenham).  He predicted panic in Detroit; he envisaged failed revolutionary struggle and only a singe survivor of the National People’s Gang; he feared a nightmare world in which tribes of peoploids roamed the streets; as 1984 drew nearer he foresaw the spread of a totalitarian state in which love might be an act of defiance.  He predicted that we only had five years left…

AS

I was convinced that Bowie’s analysis of the solutions was the same as mine- a demolition of hierarchies and an more egalitarian society instead.  I am far from sure now about the validity of my understanding.  Society didn’t collapse as David had imagined- and very possibly he never seriously expected it.  I doubt too whether he had any real sympathy with my stateless solutions.  At the time I first got hooked by his music and his changing personas, he was in Thin White Duke phase and toying with dictatorship.  But- as in all great artists- we can find meaning in their work even if they did not wholly intend it- in that form or even at all.

 

Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 by William Blake 1757-1827
Nebuchadnezzar 1795-c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05059

Great songs or great literature can provide a springboard for our imaginations; they can offer the material from which to construct new stories and images of our own.  In a 2016 posting on my broadcastbarnsley blog on WordPress I noted that Martin Fry, of early 1980s pop stars ABC, appeared to have stolen a line from John Keats.  And why not?  Great lyrics are great lyrics, whatever their source and always deserve to be reworked.  Art very often echoes and quotes from what has gone before, to some degree or other.

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William Blake more recently has offered me the same food for thought- and has been a source of inspiration for many.  He had his own dense and convoluted symbolism with its own arcane meanings.  Whilst I do not understand many of these these, and do not always sympathise with them, they can offer a starting point for me to construct images and myths of my own.  Blake’s concept of Albion provides the bedrock for a twenty first century conceptualising of an Albion that might meet our current needs and concerns.