May 14, 2008

Where would you go?

James Higham has a rather amusing post up this evening about the battle he would love to reenact- for James its Culloden. It got me thinking though about I suppose a different question, which is if I could go back in time to see something happen, what would I go back to see- its not an easy question to answer. For a start I'd exclude seeing all battles- a battle is a disorientating and unpleasant experience- to see a battle like say Hastings or Naseby, you wouldn't see the historical events taking place, you would see a massive confusing carnage, bloody and uncertain, there would be nothing to admire or enjoy in that! To go back to the past to see something, you would want to see something that was staged for a purpose, that was presented in a sense to you. Personally that for me means two sets of events- the one is a debate, the other a play. If I could go back there are four things which I would love to actually see: the first would be the Putney Debates of 1647, debates about democracy and monarchy that stretched over three days, I studied them for my PhD, they are amazing filled with great rhetoric and stunning thought. They were heavily involved and incredibly tense- at one point a soldier present tells the rest that unless the debate is concluded by the morning, the King will come and get them and hang them all. They were important and about deep principles- the questions of religious obligation, the authority of the state and political promises, the authority of an assembly of the people, the degree to which we can justly destroy rights granted in law, the degree to which war destroys law- all of these things were discussed.

My other three things are perhaps more obvious and well known. Next in line comes the Norway debate of 1940, when every great orator of mid century British politics- Llyold George, Winston Churchill, Leo Amery, Neville Chamberlaine etc- all spoke. Forever in most people's minds it is linked with three great moments- when Amery leaned over to the Labour benches as Arthur Greenwood then acting Labour leader put the motion of no confidence in Chamberlaine and shouted "Speak for England, Arthur", when George called on Churchill to avoid making himself an airraid shelter for other ministers (particularly the Prime Minister, Chamberlaine) to hide under and when Amery again rose to his feet and said (repeating Cromwell's words to the Rump), 'I say now what has only once been said in this house before, Depart I say and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!'. The upshot of those moments was that Churchill became Prime Minister, and Britain decided, in the words of Lord Keynes, to throw away an empire in order to defeat Naziism.

Thirdly, well who could ask anyone to name a moment to go back and see and not appreciate this. The opening night of my favourite Shakespeare play, which happens to be the one I studied as an A-Level student, Othello. I would love to see how Shakespeare himself made those lines on that wooden O appear, love to see the way it was set up, love to appreciate the skill of those immortal words- lines that even Milton acknowledged were as perfect as pyramids (and praise from Milton for poetry is like praise from Einstein for physics!) . Imagine being in the audience as Iago, Othello, Desdamona and the like strode into the world's consciousness for the first ever time- imagine the wealth of theatrical experience available to the Englishman of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century- seeing Macbeth, Lear, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V and all the rest for the first time ever- not to mention the works of Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher et al- not to mention the poetry of Sidney and Spencer- not to mention if one had lived long enough to see Milton's Comus and in an exceptionally long life to be there for the Restoration and the plays of Aphra Behn and others. If I could I would see them all- if you reduce me to one- its Shakespeare and its Othello.

The fourth moment I would see is a different kind of moment- a moment which in a sense gave birth to all the others. I would love to have been present when Socrates gathered around him his pupils and talked- and argued and questioned truth. I would love to have seen his trial, partly to know who out of Plato and Xenophon got it right, whose account was accurate. But more to have known the man- in many ways our modern pursuit of knowledge, our modern enterprise and consciousness is still a Greek dream and if it is the dream of any one man, is the dream of Socrates. Ancient Athens was an incredible place- this was a place where at a drinking party one could find, so Plato has us beleive, Aristophanes and Socrates might be joined by Alcibiades. The forefathers of history- Herodotus and Thucydides thrived and lived at the same time as the great playwright Euripides (imagine being in the theatre for Euripides and Aristophanes- there were Greeks who were). If one place holds my imagination and the imagination of the West, it is Athens and it is that era. If I could go back.... that's where I'd go....

but I'd be back here pretty quickly- all of those places would be pretty smelly. Nostalgia is a good thing until you remember that they all lacked anaesthetics!

and I didn't mention the sermon on the mount, or the Don Pacifico debate, or meeting Bede, or watching Feynman give a paper to Einstein, Pauli, Fermi et al or the Lincoln Douglas debates or the first performance of Pushkin's Boris Godunov or or or or or....- truth is I am a glutton for the past, I'd be always travelling back in time had I the chance, perhaps its better that I don't...

Oh and furthermore its a frivolous pipe dream!

Ok guys, I've done mine where would you go?

8 comments:

Unity said...

Ooh, this is easy...

For a debate, I'd take June 30th 1860, Oxford University Museum - The evolution debate between Wilberforce and Huxley.

From the arts, the first performance of Beethoven's Ninth will do very nicely.

And to have spoken with Galileo during his first observation of the moons of Jupiter...

James Hamilton said...

Ideally I'd like a week in 1909 or thereabouts, to roam the pre-Beeching railways at their height and to take in some cricket and football. So it would have to be a week in May..

but if it were to be one occasion, what about the premiere of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony - which was also the premiere of the Sixth - at which the man himself played his fourth piano concerto and you would also hear parts of the C Major Mass and the Choral Fantasy. Puts the Apple rooftop concert somewhat in its place, doesn't it?

Sean Jeating said...

:)
I'd find interesting to interwiev all writers of so-called holy books, or rather the protagonists / 'prophets'.
Returning to present time I'd not be amused of any 'blasphemy-laws', as when there is no god there is no blasphemy.

As for my previous commenters: Good thoughts. Only recently I happened to read Beethoven's 'Heiligenst├Ądter testimonial' and some of his statements / thoughts. Impressive, indeed.

As for this very post, Tiberius, just a short com(pli)ment: Chapeau!

Ian Appleby said...

Wasn't there actually a habit during the American Civil War of spectators going to watch the battle? From which arises the urban myth of a soldier getting a testicle shot off, and making a woman spectator pregnant with the ricochet. Of course, he did the decent thing, and married her.

I think Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace does something similar. Spectating at a battle, that is, not marrying under unusual circumstances. As you say, there could be no hope of watching the tactical interplay unfold, so any watchers must have been bloodthirsty enough.

As for me, I'm stuck in ideas of the Industrial North just now; perhaps accompanying Engels on his tour - in which he singled out Bradford for its particular horrors even compared with the other Northern industrial towns - would offer challenging sights and fascinating conversation, as one of the writers of the Communist Manifesto forms his political philosophy. Che's Motorcycle Diaries, except by steam train.

dreadnought said...

Spectators watch initially, until First Bull Run, when it was realised that war was a dirty and disgusting spectacle after all.

Gracchi said...

I agree Dreadnought- war would not be a good thing to view- disgusting and also confusing, I like the description in War and Peace of battle where it is much more confusing than it appears in the cleaner accounts of bad military historians.

I like all your suggestions- though I'd say one thing- they are all quite modern last two hundred or four hundred years- it is interesting I wonder whether we relate better to people closer to us.

And James, lets make it a date- the 1909 FA Cup Final- if either of us can ever find a time machine...

I'm up for Beethoven concerts as well- though Shakespeare plays interest me more and anyone up for Ibsen!

Ian Appleby said...

Thanks, Dreadnought. It seems amazing that they could have thought war to be anything other than dirty and disgusting, but perhaps my surprise is a function of living after the Great War, which, now I come to think about it, I am taking as the moment when ideas of dulce et decorum est... etc. were comprehensively discredited.

Did Remarque, Sassoon etc have their analogues from the American Civil War?

James Hamilton said...

There IS an American Civil War answer to Remarque et al, but I can't remember what off hand. In terms of explaining people's eagerness to watch battle, it's worth remembering that the US had not been at war in any huge way during the lifetimes of those present at Bull Run - they had to turn up in order to find out just how bad it would all be.

Gracchi - can't we go to MUFC's 3rd round game that year, instead of the Final? Much better game. Have you read Kingsley Amis's short stories in which a minor UK government department accidentally invents a time machine and uses it to find out what happens in the future to their favourite drinks?