August 28, 2010

Winston Churchill: Oratory and Soundbites- a thought

This is a fine article from the New Yorker about Winston Churchill. One of the most interesting points that Adam Gopnik makes is about Churchill's prose as a speaker. It is fascinating to reread his 1940 speeches and notice how short of specific content they are. Its fascinating both on the levels that Gopnik identifies, but also because the tendency towards the inspecific in oratory doesn't seem to have changed. I was watching this afternoon at one point, a video that a David Milliband fan had put on youtube: what the shadow foreign secretary was recorded as saying was inspirational but content less. I'm not questioning Milliband himself here- you could do the same with most other modern politicians- but its interesting in terms of what a political speech is supposed at its best to do. Churchill's speeches, as he himself confessed, were important less because of their policy impact- nobody remembers whether he specified a piece of the North African coast to invade- but because of their emotional impact. Its that sense you get listening to him that the country will hold out against the evils of Nazi and Fascist tyranny that was key at the time. In that sense a soundbite, which is the reduction of a speech, is not really much of a reduction: perhaps the secret with Tony Blair's 'people's princess' is that whereas Churchill spoke for hours to the Commons to capture the national mood, Blair could do it with a phrase to some journalists.

August 25, 2010

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

In 1860, on a farm in the West Country a boy near on four years old was murdered. He was taken from his cot, slashed and cut at with a knife and razor and then drowned in a privy. Within hours, the local police were called in, within days a London detective, Mr Whicher, was summoned down from Scotland Yard to inspect the case. In 1944, in Australia a local paper reported on a female nurse who had worked with lepers, retired and was now celebrating her hundredth birthday. Emilia Kay died soon afterwards: leaving behind documents which indicated that she was Constance Kent, who had confessed to murdering her own brother Saville Kent in 1865, and who had since emigrated to Australia. Kate Summerscale's book links these two events, more than eighty years apart and tells a story which has several interesting features. Its an absorbing read and retained the interest of this reader all the way through, sufficiently that I only stopped reading it minutes ago at half past eleven this evening. Its absorbing but its also interesting: Summerscale is not just a popular crime writer who found an interesting hook and narrative, she writes about the mentality of the times she analyses and her points deserve attention.

The late nineteenth century was the golden age of detective fiction: Wilkie Collins, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe and Henry James wrote stories which are still read. Those stories didn't come out of a vacuum, they came out of a context. English society in the mid-nineteenth century underwent massive change: the population both expanded and became more urban. A consequence of that was that in 1822 the first police force was created by Sir Robert Peel. From the 1840s that Police Force acquired a detective branch. The detective branch of the Police was at first scandalous and hidden, resented as an aspect of continental tyranny. Policemen were supposed to wear their uniform everywhere, off or on duty so that a citizen might not incriminate himself without realising. Detection was a secretive art and was hated for being so. As the 1850s drew on though, perceptions changed. Detection fitted into a Victorian mindset in which the world was a system filled with signifiers. All you had to do was read them. Sherlock Holmes later commented that detection was a science, by the stride of a man you could know his history, by the stain on a woman's shirt you could know her profession. Detection was an inspirational art in which people might discover and infer things about the world.

This was detection as art as well as science. What Summerscale establishes is the way that intuition shaped detection. Whicher for example bluffed his way into procuring convictions: once telling a horse thief both that he was not alone and that he knew the thief was guilty, neither assertion was true but Whicher got his man and his conviction. Whicher like Holmes and Dupin and Bucket made the evidence talk. He made the world tell a story. Summerscale grasps both how enticing this was and how threatening it was for the Victorian audience. It was enticing because the detective became the knight in the forests of the under world. Holmes took on Moriarty for the sake of civilisation. It was also threatening. When Constance was first charged with murder she became a victim, even in her lawyer's eyes as much of a victim as the murder victim himself. She was being persecuted by a detective, a lower class detective, who presumed to assume she was guilty. She was being cross questioned. Furthermore to be a detective might be a position of authority: but it was also a vulnerable position. You can see that from the novels, the novelists are making a point that we should admire Holmes etc. but also they presume to understand how Holmes makes his case. Whicher was bombarded by suggestions: everyone wanted to be a detective, even Charles Dickens wrote his thoughts down.

Detection was important in the case of the Road Hill murder because of another interesting facet, that Summerscale brings out. The murder occured in a house which was filled with a single family. The doors had been locked. Nobody but the servants and the family could have done the murder. She brings out two latent ideas from this. First is the confinement of Victorian life. The testimonies of Constance Kent (anonymously from Australia in 1928 and in her trial) and others suggest a confined world in which resentment might spin into madness. Secondly though there is the secrecy. Summerscale makes a plausible case that Samuel Kent, Constance and Saville's father, may have suffered from siphilis and retreated to the provinces to hide it. That kind of retreat, that kind of secret fills the book. Its the things which aren't said which are important. The things which lie hidden in the family's past. Samuel Kent blocked off access to his house from the local village and there is a sense that even now many details about what happened are still blocked off. Ultimately this is a world in which Emilia Kay could disappear, quite literally, and turn up in Australia: a secret that only she and perhaps her brother William actually knew.

I have probably told too much of the story but this isn't just an absorbing book, its an interesting one. It portrays a society undergoing massive changes: I think we too often forget how large those changes were and how much effect they had. This is the world of Thomas Hardy in which the patterns of centuries were reversed in decades. The craze for detection had its roots in sudden urbanisation and in scientific revolutions. The privacy of life in rural England was breaking up and the power of the press intruding. Men and Women might be scattered across the globe by fortune. The murder and its tale are interesting but far more interesting are the broader sociological points the book raises. Summerscale warns us upon starting to read that her story is unique: the family she studies odd because a murder occured and that every detail we read comes from the fact that someone investigating the murder found it interesting. With that qualification though, the book still tells me an immense amount about Victorian Britain.

August 24, 2010

Public Enemy


Public Enemy has all the glitz and glamour that a film about John Dillinger should have. I have problems with the film but I have no problems with Johnny Depp’s performance, the intersection between cool and inarticulate bluntness, nor with that of Marion Cottillard, who has never been more charming. The direction is good- there are some nice tracking shots, as Cotillard and Depp traverse the screen, there is a wonderful use of light in general. The details, so far as I know, are broadly correct- Dillinger was a bank robber who profited from the failure of America to have a federal criminal policy in the thirties (as an aside, its interesting to see Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger dodge in and out of state lines to avoid state police, its a larger version of the problem of censorship in early modern London where a pamphlet published in one City ward and printed in another was immune from prosecution). But there is something unsettling about the movie.

The movie has two story lines- two plots. One follows Christian Bale playing an FBI Agent, the other sees Depp playing Dillinger. Bale’s story is all about the technicalities of investigating and catching this man- the question which involves suspense is will he get him in the end. Historically he did get him and as I went in with that spoiler- we all know as the film goes on that he will get him. The question is when. Actually the Bale story is not as tense as it could be: you get hints of the politics surrounding the early FBI but apart from at the beginning of the story, there is no real hint of the pressure that Bale’s character must have been under to catch Dillinger. To put it simply the FBI grounded its existence upon the argument that the Feds were the people to catch a Dillinger or a Clyde, failure to do so would mean political vulnerability. There is a very interesting story to tell here about J. Edgar Hoover (incidentally if ever a subject cried out for a biopic or a series of biopics- then Hoover is that subject), his relation to his agents and his relation to the criminals he was searching for. But this is not that film. Bale’s story is told straight, as a secondary tale to the main event- the story of Dillinger.

So what’s the story of Dillinger. Well in part it is the story of Dillinger’s career of a criminal- actually you might think that but the film isn’t really the story of Dillinger the criminal. Crimes punctuate the narratives but they aren’t the focus of the story. The focus of the story is the relationship between Dillinger and Billy, his half Indian, half French girlfriend, played by Cotillard. The actress does the role well- the fact she could both play the ‘girlfriend’ part in this film and a part in Inception a couple of years later which demands her to be the ‘wife’, a movement from the mid twenties to the mid thirties, demonstrates her versatility. But the character itself is not very interesting. Dillinger’s wooing of her is possibly the most interesting bit of the romantic storyline: he woos her by saying that I like whisky, robbing banks, baseball and you! What sounds at the time a confident and bold declaration (Dillinger doesn’t feel he has to say anymore because any girl hearing that would go with him) turns as the film goes on, subtly into a declaration that this man is not actually that clever or that interesting. He says things so bluntly and so curtly because he doesn’t actually have much to say.

But here is my problem. Lets put it like this. The last scene of the film is a scene in which Billy’s love for Depp is reinforced and exonerated. Again Cottillard plays the scene well. SPOILER ALERT. Dillinger when shot told an agent that to send a message to Billy that he loved her. The last scene of the film sees the agent coming to Billy and presenting these last words: Cotillard’s face does exactly the right thing, she seems in the moment to express several emotions, the crushing sadness of remembering her lover’s passing, anger at the police officer who shot him, regret and love. Its a wonderful piece of acting. But as a last impression of a film about a man who was a great bank robber and murderer, it feels odd. As if, on a much greater stage, a film about Hitler, left the audience with the regrets of Eva Braun. I realise I’ve broken Godwin’s law but I have used the comparison to shock: we think sometimes of Dillinger and his like as an outlaw, a rather nice creature, he was though a vicious murderer, a serial killer, and it seems odd that a biopic concludes not with the victims but with the face of the woman who loved him, grieving for his death.

This is a film from the perspective of John Dillinger. That in part might justify the last moments. For Dillinger his crimes were probably episodes, a means to an end, and the victims crumpled on the floor but didn’t really die, they just went pouf and were no longer problems. Here perhaps the film making is too objective, it attempts to be a history, a biography as well as a vision through Dillinger’s eyes. We also have to ask how interesting Dillinger’s eyes are: I found myself wondering about another great gangster film- Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie and Clyde’s virtue is that it shows the destructive potential of a philosophy (I’ve written about that here) but also that it shows you the paranoia of being on the run. Michael Mann the director may not share the philosophical take on the New Wave that Arthur Penn promulgated, but the paranoia is a constant between the two films. If this was a film about Dillinger, then we don’t get the sense of the sheer terror of being chased. We don’t see how uncomfortable it is to be chased. Again a scene will suffice- Cottillard and Depp are at the side of a motorway, there isn’t anywhere to stay that the police haven’t got to and they huddle together and cuddle to keep warm- but you don’t get any sense this is uncomfortable, the mood is romantic. Cottillard’s Billy doesn’t ever seem in danger- the bullets go round her, that might be Dillinger’s illusion but it can’t be ours- Faye Dunaway got her hair mussed, Marion Cottillard’s hair is always perfect.

Back in the thirties when Dillinger was around, films about gangsters had to have a moral end. During Little Caesar, Chico is gunned down by a set of posters, Jimmy Cagney’s brutes are sent to the electric chair, even a sympathetic loner who has stumbled into crime like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past has to die to vindicate the point that murder has a price. Perhaps that was too much- there isn’t a correlation necessarily between being right and being happy. Mao Tse Tung lived to a ripe old age, while philanphropists died around him. But I’m not asking for such a ‘moral’ end- art always makes an argument about morality and I wonder whether focussing on Dillinger the lover, we give him too much credit. Its an odd film in which I want Marion Cottilard to appear less, but this is that film. We do not understand Dillinger if we do not understand something about his victims, something that makes them more than a pouf and an actor with ketchup on his neat shirt. Instead we exonerate him of his crimes. The only brutality in the film comes from the police- whatever we think of some of the more aggressive tactics of the police in the thirties in Chicago, a film about a serial killer where its the brutality of the police which shocks, misses the point about the killer himself!

August 22, 2010

The Origins of the English Parliament 1 The Witan and the Council

John Maddicott's volume on the Origins of the English Parliament covers such a vast swathe of English history that any review needs to be split up between several posts. The ultimate origins of Parliament are uncertain and mysterious. It doesn't take much for an enterprising historian to suggest that they might lie deep in the Germanic forest (many Victorians did) or for his sceptical colleague to argue that they the first Parliament was the first event so called (in a court roll of 1236). Maddicott, a distinguished Oxford historian, takes neither view. The first chapters of his book cover what he views as the real antecedent to Parliament- the Great Council- which began meeting as a Witan under Athelstan in the 920s and whose importance continued through the West Saxon, Norman and Plantagenet Kings right down until the reign of Richard I (1189-99) at which point it fundementally changed its character. Over that two hundred and fifty year period, England was ruled by a succession of Kings and dynasties, first the West Saxon Kings (924-1016, 1042-1066), then Cnut and his sons (1016-42) and then the Normans (1066-1189). Throughout this entire period though the form of the council remained important to Kingship- to what it meant to be an English King and an English subject.

There are several reasons that Kings preferred to use council rather than other means to govern their state. Council swere places in which feasting, gifts, complaints, patronage and appointments were performed. They were opportunities to bind together a political nation- Maddicott's account starts with Athelstan because he increased the size of the council, it became a council of the English nobility. England's unstable political history demonstrated the worth of such councils: in 1014, the 1020s, 1042, 1086 and 1100 such councils were used by Kings to legitimate their rule, to make an offer to the political nation and to have that offer accepted by that nation. When Ethelred the Unread made his attempt to regain the throne in 1014 he did so by telling a council that he would reform abuses within the state and obtained their allegiance. In 1100, Henry I outbid his brother Robert Curthose for the crown by making a similar offer to the barons in his so called charter. Such moments allowed the King to claim that he had the support of the nation in his claim to the throne. By the 970s, under Edgar the Peaceful, Englishmen and women knew about the existance of such an institution- the Witan of the English people- and whereas under the Normans it became more of a feudal great council the fundemental point remained the same. Kings used council because it demonstrated consent. It also extended the King's reach. It isn't a surprise to see the council evolve first under Athelstan into a large body. Athelstan was the first King to penetrate the northern borders of England and one of the first councils that we see him hold was to exact homage from Constantine of Scotland. Councils were mechanisms through which power could be extended throughout the state- not merely residing with the King but spreading through the tendrils of the feudal body.

Maddicott uses two main sets of sources in his discussions of these early councils. On the one hand he uses the signatory lists of charters- what we have here are decisions that the great noblemen of the day acceded to by fixing their signature to them. On the other he uses chronicle sources- in particular the Anglo Saxon chronicle and later monastic chronicles. These sources obviously do not record the contents of the meetings but they allow us to make guesses about those contents. They record the decisions taken. The chronicles record as well the imperative upon the King to take counsel with his noblemen. Counsel taking was a moral imperative for an Anglo Saxon King. Ethelred in 1014 promised to take advice from his noblemen. One key change brought in by the Norman Conquest was the concept that counsel was a feudal duty from the nobleman to the King as well. The King might demand his noble attended council and gave him advice- thereby involving the nobleman in any decision taken there. A further key Norman development goes back to the conquest itself. As Dr Garnett has explained the conquest made a radical change in the structure of English land holding: it created a bond between Kings and tenants-in-chief and their sub-tenants. Knights were not merely the feudal tenants of their noblemen, but also of the King. The oath of Salisbury in 1086 seems to have included knights as well as Dukes and Counts and from the 12th Century they too were being summoned to Council.

Maddicott's first chapters sketch out a realistic scenario for why and how council developed. Curiously English instability put council on a higher footing than it might have been. Instability meant that Kings competed as rival claimants at various points and attracted nobles and others too them through using the mechanism of offers made in council. Furthermore such offers (such as the Coronation Charter of Henry I 1100) became key moments in constitutional history. The Council though by the 12th Century could have fallen into abeyance. This is not a teleological history at all: indeed Maddicott leaves us in no doubt that during the reigns of William I and William Rufus the council fell back as an instrument of government. Its function changed as well in the 12th Century with a decline in royal crown wearing in council. Furthermore by the 12th Century the structure of English society was changing fundementally: we can see that councils started granting taxes (the 'Saladin tithe' of 1188 is perhaps the best evidence for this) and that they did so in a culture that was increasingly legalistic. As the council became established, its role also became established within political culture. The Abbott of Battle in 1140 might argue that 'although the king could at will change the ancient rights of the Kingdom for his own time' he could not do so for posterity 'except with the common consent of the barons of his realm'.

What's so interesting about this early period is in part the wealth of data that does survive and in part the degree to which Maddicott is able to avoid both the Whiggish and the revisionist dangers. Something was happening in England but that something could potentially have led to other things than the Parliament of the 14th Century. Most interesting perhaps is the degree to which he shows us the challenges that Councils met for Kings. The scholarship on Elizabethan Parliaments has long moved in the same direction: an expanding power in the Commons was demanded by the crown as much as by the Commons. The initiative was not seized by Parliament but was handed to it by a crown that perceived a strong Parliament or Council as being in its own interest. In a sense what Maddicott describes is not so much a prehistory of Parliament- as a context of revolt, rebellion and size which drove forward the development of council and then of Parliament as an instrument to cope with that size and instability. I'll move on to the later sections of the book later, but I think this point about the context of conciliarism is crucial to understanding why and how royal power and conciliar power developed.