Like a Strange Marriage

I have not always been a good friend to Gale, which is a pity since, among other things, he has written a book on the importance of friendship. Too often I have found him to be burdensome, and there is no doubt that he can be a bore. The urge to abandon and forget him has filled me many times. Yet it is like a strange marriage: for better or for worse I am dutifully bound to him for life.

We first met in a library many years ago. I’d already heard a little about him; not much, but enough to suspect that I might find him interesting. Our initial encounter confirmed my suspicion: his knowledge of philosophy, theology, history and literature was impressive and enviable, and he brought to it a clear, if unorthodox, intelligence. Above all, it was Gale’s ideas that drew me to him, not that I agreed with many of them. Some of his thinking seemed wild and bizarre, the result of a rather obsessive commitment to the philosophy of Plato and a predilection for understanding history according to the Bible. But there was never any hint of madness; rather, I considered him simply wrongheaded and misguided, but attractively so for his assured and calm conviction that he was in pursuit of the truth. Over time, it is true, my enthusiasm paled as I sensed that he embodied a wasted brilliance; intellectually I grew to realize that for all his vast erudition, he was trapped in a dead end. His ceaseless, learned harping on his favourite themes could become tiresome and frustrating, and almost pathetic: I have come to think of him as akin to Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, desiccated, pedantic and increasingly hard to like. It’s a marvel, therefore, that I have continued to find time for him—but then I have always been oddly attracted to heroic futility, and Gale’s whole life seems to be the epitome of that.

As I got to know him better I learnt that he was originally from Devon, that he had had an aborted academic career at Oxford, and that after Oxford he spent a year living in France before moving to London to write and privately tutor. It seemed he wasn’t particularly good at the latter; there were stories of certain tutorial disasters, about which Gale has consistently remained reticent. Indeed, he is not forthcoming about much of his life. I have never been able to ascertain any interest in romance or relationships, and of his sexuality I have come to the conclusion that he has consciously chosen celibacy and may very well be asexual. He dislikes alcohol and considers smoking to be loathsome, only adding to the wonder that I consider myself under an obligation of loyalty to him. It is a loyalty arising from the fact that I liked and admired him once, and, every so often, find myself liking and admiring him still.

Above all, I once vowed to stand by him, no matter how wayward his ideas, how annoying his intellectual faults, and how sparse his friendships. I met him at a critical point in my life, and without doubt I owe to him an important meaning and direction that I found at a difficult time, however much I have moved on since then. So I am still happy to give him my attention, even to raise a glass to him. And I am still resolved to make a pilgrimage to his headstone, lying somewhere deep within Bunhill Fields cemetery, on which there is the simple engraving: ‘Theophilus Gale M.A., Born 1628, Died 1678.’

Possibly my feelings are similar to those of many PhD students: we cast around to find a suitably interesting subject, frequently lighting upon some neglected figure from the past who then becomes the focus of our energies and devotions for several years. Such was my discovery of the nonconformist theologian and philosopher, Theophilus Gale, the author of several lengthy tomes hard to surpass for their scholarship or for their ultimate intellectual failure. I could never make a convincing case that he is someone really worth reading, apart from by a few dedicated specialists of certain early modern currents of thought. But nor could I ever say that he deserves to be neglected and forgotten.

I often reflect on my relationship with him: the reasons why I chose to work on him in the first place; the sense that he might have been pleased that at last, after several centuries of little more than cursory attention, someone was prepared to read the several thousand pages of his writings; and the almost mystical notion that in finding him and giving him something of life again, that this may also happen to me (or to any one of us) at some point far in the future when I am long gone and almost completely forgotten. Perhaps this explains the emotional bond I feel towards Gale: it crystallizes that need for the living to love and to cherish the significance of the past and the memory of the dead.

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In Memoriam ‘Wag’

Both individually and socially we engage in acts of remembrance. We commemorate and memorialize, sometimes controversially, sometimes with mistakes and distortions, but always because memory is important. For memory is the fabric out of which our identity is fashioned. We remember the past—or think we remember it—because it is the past that provides the lines and contours of the present. The more we forget, the less we know who we are; and profound amnesia invariably leads to a serious disturbance of identity. One reason why history is essential is to prevent the loss that follows from forgetting.

To study history is to be made acutely aware that the overwhelming majority of people who have ever lived have left little or no trace. Only rarely, and then usually owing to astonishing chance, has anything other than the names reached us of one or two out of the millions and countless generations who worked the land, who serviced farms, villages, towns and lords, who established households and raised families—and there are millions more for whom not even a name will ever be attached in the historical record. Within such vast gaps is it possible to remember?

Charles Reginald Pearce (1911-89), ‘Wag’ to his family and friends, was my maternal grandfather. Suffolk was his county: he was born, he lived and worked, and he died there, and probably spent no more than a few days in total anywhere else. In this most rural of places, where fields and soil are the body and blood of the community, he never owned any land—but he worked it throughout his life, one of the thousands of farm workers who together secured the most fundamental needs of society.

Wag’s life would almost certainly have comprised decades of toil. For most of the twentieth century few occupations were as hard and poor as that of the farm worker. Little value was attached to agricultural workers: pay was pitiful and considerably lower than those working in industry, insecurity and exploitation were rife. Many were as good as worked to death—they ‘toppled over’ at the end of their working life, as one farm worker comments in Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield (1969). George Orwell frequently noted the dreadful plight of the farm worker (see, for example, his 1931 essay on ‘Hop-picking’), and in his novel Coming Up For Air (1939) Orwell’s narrator George Bowling reminisces: ‘The farm-hands worked frightful hours for fourteen shillings a week and ended up as worn-out cripples with a five-shilling pension and an occasional half-crown from the parish.’

But of my grandfather’s personal experience I know little. I remember him fondly: he talked sparingly, but he was always warm, humorous and kind, and had an aura of contentment. He played a good game of village bowls (there were several trophies on his mantelpiece) and an intimidating game of rummy–intimidating because of his tactic of announcing at tense points in the hand that he needed only ‘one card’. Despite the enduring poverty and meagre circumstances (it was only in the late 1960s, for example, that his home first had electricity), he seemed to have been satisfied with his life: the roots that he had established in the land and his work were themselves, it seemed, more than adequate compensation for the hardships and lack of material rewards.

It was only later, however, after he had died, that I truly reflected on his life. As a child, for all my love for my mother’s family, I embodied the conventional superiority towards common rural folk. Suffolk people seemed a strange, unsophisticated, backward, amusing lot, and their rustic concern for turnips and beetroot, crop rotation and weather patterns, struck me as primitive and hardly deserving attention in comparison to the higher civilization of cars and computer games, Thatcherite economics and mortgage patterns, of the Essex that I inhabited.

In my first year at university, a few months after the death of my grandfather, I had to write an essay on eighteenth-century agriculture. An impossibly tedious topic, I thought—but somehow I needed to summon up the enthusiasm to get started on it. So I forced myself to think—to meditate even—on what the land meant, on the work that goes into it, on the vitality of this work, for without the labours of millions throughout the centuries, among whom Charles Pearce was one, nothing else would be possible. And suddenly, not only was I able to write my essay with real interest, but I also came to a deep respect for the life and work of my grandfather.

WagLast year I saw a photograph of Wag sitting on a tractor; it must have been from the 1960s, a decade which witnessed the mechanization of the agricultural economy accelerate in pace. It was a revolution: centuries, millennia even, of traditional practices were disappearing; an entire way of life and working was being obliterated within a thin slither of historical time. My grandfather was one of the last generation to have worked in the older rural economy; with him, and his rural contemporaries, would die our last connection to a social and working world that had been the bedrock of our history. George Ewart Evans introduces his oral history of a Suffolk village, Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay (1956), on precisely this theme:

An attempt has been made in this book to record what is left of the old rural community as seen in the East Suffolk village of Blaxhall and district around it. For this purpose, the experience and memories of a group of old people have been set down… [T]he oral tradition is at this time of the greatest historical importance. During the past fifty or so years the life of the countryside has been revolutionized and the rate of change within this period has been greater than it has ever been in recorded history… At present, old people in this countryside are survivors from another era. They belong essentially to a culture that has extended in unbroken line since at least the early Middle Ages. They are in some respects the last repositories of this culture; and for this reason should have the respect given to any source of valuable historical information… [O]nce this knowledge is under the soil no amount of digging will ever again recover it.

Gazing at the photograph of my grandfather astride the tractor, I wanted to ask him about his life, what he felt about tractors replacing horses, his experience of the social and cultural changes of his world, and his memories of the old world. But he is gone and with him the experience and memory is lost, almost forgotten now—which is why the work of George Ewart Evans, of Ronald Blythe in Akenfield (which also preserves the memories of a Suffolk village during the same period), and memoirs such as Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie (1959), similarly suffused with the sense of a long age in rural England drawing to a close, are so valuable. Among other things, they are memorials to a world that we have lost but without which our own world would not be.

My grandfather was not only a farm worker; he was also a husband and father. He married Rosie (1920-2005) and together they brought into the world, and brought up, Mick, my uncle, and Brenda, my mother. Wag and Rosie had four grandchildren: my cousins Jason and Caroline, my sister Anna, and me. There are great grandchildren too. Even if the life of Charles Reginald Pearce leaves little impression on the historical record, traces exist.

Wolf Hall Revisited

Wolf Hall Revisited (pdf file)

Attached to this post is a long review of Wolf Hall, both Hilary Mantel’s novel and the stage adaptation by Mike Poulton.

I’ve newolf-hall-mantelver been particularly drawn to the historical novel. But Mantel’s Wolf Hall clearly could not be ignored, not only due to the wide acclaim it received but also for the simple reason that her subject, Thomas Cromwell, is someone who figures large in the Tudor history courses I have taught. I was curious, if somewhat sceptical, whether the novel would have historical value: as an historian of sixteenth-century England, would Wolf Hall contribute in any way to my understanding of the period? Could it, as certain historical films do, approach the past in interesting ways that fall outside the traditional practices of historians? Inevitably a stage adaptation invites a view on why the original was adapted in the first place. Beyond that, similar questions can be asked about the historical merits of Poulton’s play.

My review attempts to address all these questions. Suffice to say, my responses to both novel and play were not what I had expected in advance.

The King of Sweden and I

When I tell people that I am an historian I am often met with an enthusiastic declaration of interest in history alongside a regret that this interest had once been dulled by dictation. For a long time the principal method of teaching history seems to have been to dictate long narratives of facts and events. Certainly that was my experience at secondary school in the 1980s. In a monotonously metallic voice and military manner (as befitting the Commanding Officer of the school’s Combined Cadet Force), my history teacher would, week after week, term after term, read from his script, only occasionally breaking off to invite questions from the mostly numbed class. History seemed an unchallenging subject (a good thing I thought at the time), but also painfully dreary (a bad thing). That I would, after such inauspicious beginnings, end up becoming an historian seems an unlikely tale. But then along came the king of Sweden and suddenly I got interested.

Sweden struck me at the time as a cool and appealing place. My chequered teenage knowledge of the country associated it with solid cars, metronomic tennis players, wholesome pop music, racy pornography, liberalism, egalitarianism, neutrality and pacifism–I was quite drawn to various of these things. Sweden compared extremely favourably in my mind with the Britain of Thatcher. Britain stood for militarism and social injustice; Sweden for peace and social justice. (Teenagers ought to be forgiven such simplistic thinking.) And in my limited historical understanding I somehow assumed that Sweden had long been a country of virtuous and pacific ways–it had never featured in any of the history I had done, so I presumed that, while the rest of Europe was busy ending one war then beginning another, the Swedes were quietly getting on with building a welfare state and a prosperous liberal society.

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Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld (1631)

So I was astonished when, in the middle of the teacher’s wearying narrative about the Thirty Years War (a remarkably violent conflict, largely in Germany–you can understand why I supposed history remained rather static), seemingly out of nowhere the Swedes, led from the front by King Gustavus Adolphus, invaded Germany. Surely they would go the way of the Danes before them, I guessed, and quickly succumb to comprehensive defeat. But no, Gustavus, the Lion of the North, won a spectacular and crushing military victory against a larger force, turned the tide of the conflict which had hitherto been going only one way, and established the foundations for Sweden to emerge from the war as one of the leading European powers with territories extending around the greater part of the Baltic. All this seemed wondrous, both because it was achieved by a country with a tiny population, and because it revealed an imperialist phase in Swedish history that I would never have previously imagined. I remained equally gripped as I learnt about the fortunes of this empire, particularly in the Great Northern War at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The Danes, the Poles and the Russians combined in an effort to dismantle the Swedish empire, now ruled by the 18-year-old Charles XII. Naturally I was impressed at how this teenager defeated each of Sweden’s enemies in turn, displaying a remarkable military genius. But superior numbers generally win in the end: the Russian army under Tsar Peter the Great inflicted a crushing defeat on the Swedes at Poltava in 1709, resulting in the exile of Charles in Constantinople. Even then he attempted an audacious and valiant recovery of the Swedish position, before eventually falling in battle (probably accidentally shot by one of his own men) in 1718.

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Charles XII of Sweden; mezzotint portrait by John Faber the Younger; early 18th century

I have often wondered why it was early modern Swedish history that got me hooked on the past. Most likely it was the apparent incongruity of the imperialist history of a country that had become synonymous with peace and neutrality. I also felt slightly ashamed to be so keen on this history–after all, for all my avowed liberal and socialist views, here I was drawn to, and consciously fascinated by, a clear example of imperialism and military adventure (even after I learnt how the Swedish army, consisting mostly of mercenaries, was notorious for its brutality against soldier and civilian alike). Perhaps this is a good example of what history can do: it can surprise us, not only in relation to our assumptions and expectations of the world around us, but also in relation to ourselves. It also reveals that, even when the presentation is uninspiring, the past can always touch us in arresting and exciting ways.

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Poster for the 1933 film, Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo and directed by Rouben Mamoulian

My fascination with early modern Swedish history continued at university (and was much indebted to the work of Michael Roberts, the leading historian of the period), but gradually my wider interests moved onto the history of ideas. I found myself focusing more on the meditations of Descartes than the martial exploits of Gustavus Adolphus. But even then Sweden added an irresistibly exciting touch to, and connection between, my interests. For Descartes, at the end of his life, became the personal philosopher of none other than Queen Christina of Sweden (the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, notorious for her later conversion to Catholicism and retirement in Rome, and glamorized in film by Greta Garbo). Accustomed to warmer climates and sleeping late, Descartes suffered under Christina’s insistence on beginning her studies at five in the morning. A year after arriving in Sweden, the great French philosopher died in Stockholm.