July 11, 2009

Dragging up the Druids


The history of Druidism is odd. For a tradition which boasts of its antiquity with several ancient orders of the druids around, the history of Druidic practices does not go that far back. Though Caesar and Tacitus mention them, as Ronald Hutton explains in his latest book (and Tom Shippey in a review of it in the London Review of Books concurs), the ancient evidence for them as sparce. It could be put together in about a dozen pages. There is no archaeological evidence to speak for. There are almost no monuments that can be associated with druids (Stonehenge is much older than the first mentions of druids that we have). Furthermore there are almost no Celtic traditions about the druids- these are all medieval and there are no medieval references to medieval druids, if there was a druidic tradition it managed to avoid Malory, Geoffrey of Monmouth and all the chroniclers of medieval Britain. Even the ancient evidence that we do have is unreliable- Pliny's writings about them are credulous, Caesar's justify Rome's imperial mission- a couple of pages here and there, introduced for local colour, by authors whose true focus is not Britain but Rome does not give us much to base a history of druidry upon.

What Hutton and Shippey argue therefore is that it is much more interesting to look at modern druids. Think of the analogy to King Arthur- there is almost nothing that we can know about the historical King Arthur but the modern King Arthur is an eco campaigner who has done interviews. Ultimately the two historians here are more concerned about the reflection of whatever ancient druidry was upon the modern and early modern world. What they suggest is interesting- Hutton's book, and Shippey accepts his conclusions, suggests that the druids were part of an invented tradition of welshness, created by the talented Welsh immigrants who streamed into London in the early modern period in the eighteenth century. This invented tradition was buttressed by the insane, the fraudulent and the fantastical until it became what we know today as druidism. Druidism has nothing to do with ancient druids- but it is interesting because enough people beleive that it does have something to do with them and that this is important to make it important in the modern world.

July 09, 2009

The Girl cut in Two

The Girl cut in Two comes with some substantial reccomendations- Claude Chabrol the director is one of the elder statesman of European cinema, Ludivine Sagnier the star is someone who has an interesting and enviable back catalogue of films behind her: these two figures deserve respect. Whether the film they have created together does is another matter. I watched this film and want to confess to two reactions- the first is that I was engrossed. The film has a marvellous storyline- a pretty weather girl meets two men, an old writer and roue and a young mentally unstable millionaire- both fall in love with her and she alternates between the two as the movie goes through, her alternations produce nothing but corruption- the corruption of a person through the ancient novelist and the corruption of a system through the young millionaire. The second thing that I will confess to is that I did not grow to like any of the characters beyond Sagnier's character, everyone important was vile, and to some extent, if it is true that we can judge people by the company they keep, then Sagnier's character is condemned by her friends. The film is involving but I could not get involved with the characters- and wondered out of the cinema wondering what a spectacle of decadence, sex (none seen but plenty implied) and violence was enacted to say.

In a sense I think my reaction is the one that the film drives towards. Lets take for a start the look of the film- a good place to start because we absorb films first through our eyes. Sagnier is stunning and dressed to look stunning in this film. M St Denis, the writer, looks debonaire and well preserved, M Gaudens the millionaire looks unstable and foppish- a kind of dangerous almost Byronic figure. The portrait here is one of exoticism and Chabrol uses as well the minor characters- particularly those who surround Sagnier's character as she presents the weather to give us that note of exoticism. These are TV personalities- brash and living in a world where champagne floats round a hall, where cameras are more familiar than kids. St Denis's world is one of oak fittings which conceal sex clubs, auctions where you buy pornography and the full range of Parisian taste- or at least the kind of taste that Englishmen of the eighteenth century would go to France to sample on the grand tour. It is the taste of Sade- and it is unsurprising that another glossy lover compares St Denis to Sade at one point. Gaudens inhabits fast cars, slick haircuts and shiny resturants- again wealth comes out but not the wealth of tradition and aphorism, the wealth of ostentation. Gabrielle, Sagnier's character, is being fought over by the Marquis de Sade and Cristiano Ronaldo, by Valmont and David Coulthard.

I do not think those associations are unimportant to what Chabrol is trying to do here- the spectacle of a film is often as important as its words. Chabrol is countering to us two worlds and their demands upon Gabrielle perhaps their demands upon us all. The first and second world share secrets- the first world has a secret decadence- M St Denis goes on the television to speak aphoristically of nunish behaviour (a reference to Diderot's pornographic nun, n'est ce pas- for such a learned film one would not presume the answer was no) and hides a liking to watch his beauties defiled by his friends. Gaudens has secrets about violence- he attempts Gabrielle in a dark alley and is stopped by his friend- footballers of the world would sympathise with that issue. St Denis and Gaudens hate each other from the beggining of the film because they each embody a different kind of celebrity- St Denis a witty aristocratic with pictures of naked women hanging inside his house and mistresses filing in sports cars to his door- Gaudens, idle, young, innocent expecting life to fall into his lap as he has the chance to have the wealth that others long for. Chabrol's view is that neither is healthy- and we see that in their impacts on Gabrielle- but that the former may present the possibility of survival whereas the latter may not.

Let us go a bit deeper here for the theme of the establishment brings us to a new level- a level which I think is the fundemental level of the film- the level of secret. Ultimately this is a film not about love nor class but about secrets. Everywhere you look there are secrets- even in the final denoument we see a secret enacted and when Chabrol moves his camera in on Sagnier's beaming face towards the end where she is literally cut in two, he moves us in to contemplate the secret. Recasting the film in terms of secrets brings in a final male character, Sagnier's uncle, a magician who has trade secrets of his own. He flits around Europe and the world- never where you expect him- his location is a secret. Bringing him in allows us to see what the film might actually be about- it is about a transition for the character of Gabrielle- a journey through different kinds of secret and a discovery about what kind of secret is comfortable as a fit for humanity. In a sense the film is what it says it is repeatedly- through the mouth of St Denis, through the mouth of Gabrielle's mother, through the mouth of Gaudens's mother- it is a film about growing up and growing up is about dealing with secrets.

Recast the film in your thoughts and imagine it now as a bildingsroman. Start with Gabrielle and take her through three relationships. In the first she loves St Denis because of his secrets- because he can show her how to do it- whether that it is oral sex or poetry matters not at all, the point is that it is an it. It is something that she does not know and hopes he can reveal- can take her beyond the oak pannelling into the world that we are not able to see but only hear about. The second relationship she has is with Gaudens. Here she has grown to see Gaudens's secret from the inside- she has accepted it to some extent though she does not realise its power- she does not realise that Gaudens is controlled by his secret madness. The story of her relationship with Gaudens is the story of that secret spinning out of control and destroying both their lives. The third and last secret concerns herself- she is not being cut in half- it is a magic trick- but she, her uncle and the audience all know it is a magic trick. From the charm of knowledge to the possession of knowledge, she has journeyed one step further to the control of knowledge: she has reached the point at which St Denis was in the film, fulfilled, sipping her champagne, in control of her secrets- having confronted them and explained them to herself. Confessing myself still ambiguous, I am not sure that the process is one of learning, however much it is one of growing.

I do not pretend that this does anymore than take another skin off the onion of the film's interpretation- it could do no more. But I do not feel this is an easy film to interpret. There is something unpleasant about watching old men ogle young women- something unpleasant about St Denis's lifestyle. The film of course is modelled on a real case- that of Stanford White- and Chabrol in that case was not completely in charge of his story- though he did of course choose to dramatise it and not another. Rather he has spun its focus away from the mad millionaire and the decadent roue to the girl- for the final key question at the end od the film is why, after all that has happened, is Gabrielle smiling? I'd suggest the reason is a secret.

July 05, 2009

Book Review: Soldiers and Strangers: An Ethnic History of the English Civil War

The English Civil Wars started in Scotland and finished in Ireland. They involved huge incursions by Welshmen, Cornishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen and even Europeans into England but they fundementally were always about the position of England in the Atlantic Archipelago. The problem of England in seventeenth century Britain (like the problem of Germany in nineteenth Century Europe) was central to the civil war. Religion and other issues (as we shall see) drove the war- but what Mark Stoyle impressively argues here was that the English Civil War was a war in which the other nationalities of the British Isles fought to maintain their ways of life and traditional independence against an English chauvinist imperialism represented by Parliament and particularly by the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax. Stoyle's approach is so unique and interesting because he has taken on a strand of the recent historiography, that under the guidance of two of the master spirits of that discussion- John Pocock and John Morrill, has begun to represent the war in its three kingdoms context, and he has extended it. Stoyle uses the approach of concentrating on ethnicity and nationality to explain fundemental moments within the civil war in England as well as in the wider Britain.

Since the revisionist challenge of the 1970s, most historians accept that the main issue confronting us has been explaining where the royal army came from. Parliament raised its forces from London and the South East. One answer to the problem of where the royal army came from is to focus, as Stoyle has done, upon what threat that South Eastern force posed to the rest of the British Isles. The King and his propagandists skilfully allied themselves with the Celtic fringe (and the Northern counties fearfull of Parliament's religious allies the Scots)- the King's armies therefore came from Cornwall and Wales. Armies such as Sir Ralph Hopton's in the South West embarrassed Parliamentary forces in the early 40s- leading to the Royalists seizing Bristol for example. Welsh units crossed the border to support the King's forces- so much so that Stoyle argues the royalist defeat at Naseby was as much a Welsh defeat as a royalist defeat. The King's main strength in his second main army (the Western army commanded by Prince Maurice and then by Lord Goring) was either Welsh and Cornish foot or recruited mercenaries from the continent. These men joined up because Charles promised that Wales and Cornwall would maintain their rights and freedoms- because ultimately Parliament was an English institution whereas the monarchy was a British institution.

Stoyle's account is much more subtle than that- he shows how the King directly attempted to appeal to his Celtic subjects whereas Parliamentary propaganda concentrated on diminishing them and disparaging them. The one exception was of course the Scots- tempted to fight with Parliament because of a common allegiance to a radical Protestant religious settlement. However as the war continued, Stoyle also shows that this nationalistic commitment to royalism brought problems as well as manpower. This was evident from the first days of the war when Cornish soldiers refused to march across the Tamar- and it continued right up until the end of the war in 1646 when Welsh troops defected continually from the King's English army in order to defend their homeland. Parliament found it easy to buy off the Celtic forces through promising to appease their concerns in Wales or Cornwall- easy because ultimately their priority was not a King on the throne of England but the independence of their own national community. Stoyle's account presents us thus with a new account of how the royalist armies were created and a new account of how they disappeared- how Charles in the aftermath of one battle (Naseby) went from controlling half the country to controlling almost none of the country.

Stoyle's narrative is more complex and detailed than a brief review can cover- but I hope that sums up the majority of his argument. Stoyle's argument stops with the end of war in 1647- it stops there because Stoyle's argument fails to explain what happens later. Afterall if negotiated settlement worked in Wales and Cornwall, why did not Parliamentarian generals try it in Ireland- they had equated the Irish to the Cornish and the Welsh, what ended up being so different? That question reveals that nationalism is only part of the answer- religion ended up feeding into the way that Parliament felt about the nationalities that it imposed settlements upon. Stoyle never sets out to deal with the religious angle because he abandons his account as soon as Parliament starts governing, and therefore distinguishing between the Celtic fringes. This halt suggests that a true account of civil war nationalism and ethnicity ultimately has to fuse itself with an account of civil war religion: if Stoyle points out rightly that we have ignored nationalism to concentrate on religion, it is important that historians do not swing the other way and make the opposite mistake.

Lastly it is worth noting that Stoyle provides a further interesting dimension to the civil war when he discusses the 'outlanders'- those who came from Europe to the British Isles as mercenaries, as ideologically connected zealots or as liege subjects and relatives of participants. Characters like Princes Rupert and Maurice on the Royalist side and Isaac Dorislaus on the Parliamentary are interesting in themselves. Stoyle demonstrates an intriguing political subtext where the foreigners were blamed for the violence of the civil war- hated for the invention of plunder (which Englishmen assured themselves was a German word) and loathed for not being loyal enough. He sees the reason for the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 as lying in part in the attempt by Parliamentary independents to distance themselves from foreign mercenaries- who in their view were untrustworthy. It gives a new light on Cromwell's lauding of 'russet coated captains' when one realises that the opposite was a proffessional soldier from the thirty years war who fought for money and not for beliefs. Having said all that, I would like to have heard more from Stoyle about the re-immigrants, men like Hugh Peters who returned from America to fight in the English civil war, I suspect there is another article to be written about those men.

Stoyle's book is an important and interesting contribution to the topics he writes about- it is a partial view of the war but it is a corrective and one of the perils of being a historian is realising that ultimately all views are partial. Stoyle has introduced to us something that we should have realised- as I read his book, I sat rebuking myself for not noticing how many times Parliament declared that it fought for English liberties. One of the greatest honours in any academic discipline is to receive that accolade that you have started a debate- Mark Stoyle should receive that accolade.