January 04, 2013

Sunday 12 January 1947

On Sunday 12 January 1947, Alistair Cooke recorded a letter from America. It is as ever an immensely well read and erudite document of its time- but it reflects its time and the mood of that long dead moment. Cooke recorded it whilst contemplating the election of the 80th US Congress. Like today's Congress, that Congress was a Republican Congress elected to face a Democratic President. Cooke's argument though is one that no one has made in popular print or on radio or television today- he tied his argument both to American history and to contemporary events. It is interesting to see how the world has changed since then and follow his thought.

Cooke compared the new Republican Congress to a different event which took place 70 years before he had made his broadcast. In Montana, when the West was still the West, Colonel George Custer led his troops into one of the United States's greatest military disasters. Custer's last stand became an example of heroism for the new Republic though- still recovering from the strain of civil war. Cooke suggested the new Congress like Custer was standing, for Americans as a set of heroes, embarking on a last stand- in this case an ideological last stand for capitalism. He did not elaborate on their success- and perhaps the recording, a brief five minutes was cut off, but it is a defining image of the fears of America at that point in history.

Three things instantly struck me as I listened to the letter- apart from the beauty of the language. The first was that the familiarity with which Cooke talks about Custer- of course seventy years ago is nothing in the lives of  men. There would have been living people who were alive when Custer died in 1947- Custer was as far away from Cooke as he read his letter as the Second World War is from you as you read this blog. Secondly the context of our lives has changed unutterably since the Cold War: for America to be making a last stand for capitalism in the manner of Custer, there must have been an aggressor, a foreign aggressor against whom to stand. In 1947 that aggressor existed in the Communist Soviet Union. Thirdly Cooke's artistic delivery is something we never really hear today: his talk, especially his final comment that the Republicans are making a last stand for capitalism is subject to two interpretations. One that the Republicans are like Custer making a futile stand after a foolish charge: the second that they are heroes. I don't think I've heard such subtle ambiguity on a news broadcast for a while.

January 03, 2013

Don't believe what you watch

Years ago, I visited a friend doing his PhD at Oxford. I mentioned Linda Colley's book 'Britons'- a book that when I went up to University was the staple of every aspiring undergraduate's library. He looked at me with scorn, 'That,' he said 'is a typical undergraduate's book'. Aside from demonstrating the famed art of the Oxbridge put down, my friend's comment had a serious point. Colley's book, he thought was clever and exciting but didn't do much new evidential research. I'm not qualified to comment about that volume- indeed I still rather like it- but I do think the point is well made. I've always been a bit wary myself of being the historian with the best ideas, and the least archival research. If each of us has his personal Charybdis, that is mine. Its an analogy that came to mind yesterday evening when I watched on 4oD a documentary by a chap called Francis Pryor.

Pryor produced three documentaries in 2004. They argued for a continuing British culture that underlay the Roman conquest, survived the dark ages and furthermore that this culture was not wiped out by a Saxon invasion- because the latter never happened. Now I must declare an interest: although I have never studied the Saxons properly myself, my ex-girlfriend was a student of Old English and so were many of my best friends as an undergraduate: I'm not sure their reaction would have been anything short of vitriolic to Mr Pryor's argument. Suffice it to say, I began watching sceptically and I have to say that I was not convinced by his arguments. There are many reasons why I think there probably was a massive disruption in the Dark Ages in Britain- there wasn't elsewhere in Europe and Peter Brown amongst others has changed historical minds on that. In Byzantium or Italy or even parts of France, the real crisis occured later- with the wars of Justinian or of the Persians or the Muslim Conquest.

But that's not what I want to argue with. You see the real fault of my friend's adversary- the undergraduate book- is not so much that its wrong but that it might be right, in the wrong way. Documentaries are striving to be news events: Mr Pryor in this documentary claims that his documentary breaks new ground and changes the world with its new insights. The problem is that no documentary could support such a stance. In this case for example, Mr Pryor's claims are not set against  the claims of historians who might disagree: Bryan Ward Perkins has written of the cataclysm that the fall of Rome represented for Britain (and the rest of the Western Empire) but he isn't invited as a contributor. Even when a contributor is invited to make an opposing case- as one is in the last documentary- their points are dismissed as facile and they appear to lose a rigged argument. The control of the narrator means that documentaries do not represent a place in which argument can be represented fairly. And a fair representation of the opposing argument together with the evidence for it is essential to actually understanding whether a novel argument about the past works.

So what am I saying? I am not capable of assessing Mr Pryor's evidence and deciding whether there isn't other evidence out there that he has neglected: however I am suspicious. The argument as with so many historical documentaries which seek to present 'new' evidence sounds too good to be true. Counter balancing evidence cannot be fairly represented because of the nature of the medium- nor can counterbalancing views. The fact that Mr Pryor is taking on a historical consensus does not mean he is right anymore than it means he is wrong: but for the non-expert it means that his views must be taken with a degree of caution. Ultimately to come back to my friend's point it is not the interesting idea but the idea that is tied to evidence that matters: and that must be tested in argument, either honest argument developed at length or argument within the literature. It can't be tested in an hour's television. Documentaries making bold claims should come with a disclaimer, let the watcher beware!

December 31, 2012

The Lavender Hill Mob

I often walk down Lavender Hill- its an unremarkable road near Clapham Junction in London and happens to be on my route back from work to home. My walk home- if I chose to do it- goes through Clapham and I'm accompanied by so many other Londoners on their way home. In our suits, we tread through the streets- umbrellas at the ready and with rucksacks and cases to enable us to complete the day's work at home. I'm sure the picture is the same in New York or in Paris or in Tokyo: its the uniform life of the professional middle class everywhere. In some cases its a kind of drudgery- and occasionally on my way home I start dreaming of far off lands and skies and trees, of other worlds and other work and of what I might do with a million pounds or three million or four million. I'm not a lottery player so will never win that kind of money and those dreams for me will always stay dreams.

The Lavender Hill Mob is about a dreamer. Henry Holland does not much like his life- he doesn't like his name for a start. He doesn't like his job at the Bank [of England] escorting gold round London. But he does have what I don't- a plan to get enough money to live the life he wants to lead. We get a sense of what that is in the first scene of a film, sitting in some bar in Rio, he chats to a pretty girl (welcome Audrey Hepburn in her first screen appearance), drinks a glass of something with the British Ambassador and is the life and soul of civilisation, a good fellow to boot. He allies with another dreamer- an artist called Pendlebury. The artist quotes Shakespeare and makes busts: he lives though by making replicas of the Eiffel Tower. Holland wants to be a proper person, Pendlebury a proper artist and all they need is money: cue plot.

They can dream about this plot because they know what they are doing. The film makers themselves were advised by the Bank of England about how to steal the gold in concern (that's the urban myth on IMDB and I rather like it, true or not :)). Holland is the man who guards the gold which goes out from the Bank. He is one of those people who is paid little to perform a responsible position. They can do so because they are 'honest' men- a line actually used in the film itself. This counterposition gives the opportunity for the crime but produces a lot of the comedy. Two rather fabulous middle aged men, quoting Shakespeare, hire some hoodlums in the same way you might hire graduate trainees (see what they can do on the job)- they proceed to get involved in a police chase which resembles something between a real chase and a pair of undergraduates stealing another college's mascot! One of the great comic moments in the film where a respectable landlady explains criminal argot to the police relies on the counterposition between her politeness and her language.

Coming back to Lavender Hill and my walk home, it seems now not so odd a counterposition. Whether Lavender Hill was more realistically down and out then than it now is doesn't really matter. Actually the comedy of the film is enhanced by the fact that this mob now comes from a postcode that every young professional in London seems to desire to live in!

December 30, 2012

Chinese Traditions

Mara Hvistendahl argues that China isn't undergoing a sexual revolutionl; it's rediscovering its past (Andrew Sullivan)
Changes in China are really important to the rest of the world today. Whether you are a believer in the Chinese rise or subscribe to theories that say China's glorious future is an illusion, you can't ignore the country. Its sheer size demands attention- not to mention the size of its economy and its army. We watch Chinese films, we eat Chinese food, in a couple of years time we'll probably listen to Chinese music in a way that our grandparents would never have done. So that makes understanding China really important and makes accounts of China as a place vital. We have received lots of those accounts over the last few years- but something sticks in my throat when I think about some of them.

The statement above was taken from Andrew Sullivan's blog. Sullivan writes a lot about sexuality from a particular perspective and he welcomes the rise of Chinese 'liberalism' regarding sex. Sullivan sees that as a positive thing. I've cited from one of his posts where he discusses a review of a book about Chinese attitudes to sex in the past. Sullivan's post makes one statement which is supported by the review he cites: China has not always been a conservative place when it comes to sex. However I think his insert might lead you, or me, to make two errors about the place of sex in Chinese society in the past and present and future- errors which I think have wider resonances for how we understand other societies.

The first of these errors is to say that China is more liberal than the West when it comes to sex (or more conservative). This is an error for a very simple reason. There is no such thing as China. What do I mean? There is obviously a China which exists today and which people believe that they are a part of- just as there is a Britain or America. There is a China in the past as well that people believed that they were a part of. When a Chinese person believes they are part of this present China they might connect it with a history of a particular thing- including a particular word or their family's ancestral political commitment. But that does not mean what happened in the past determines what the content of China is in the future. Think very simply: there is nothing innately Chinese about Communism- anymore than there is something innately Russian about it or innately British about liberal democracy. If you had gone back to 1500 and introduced the concept that Russia and China were innately communist and Britain was innately democratic, the elites and peoples there would have fried you alive for saying it. Things happen to countries- but we should not read them back into the past or forward into the future.

The second of these errors is to say that every sexual liberalism or every sexual conservatism or every similar position is the same. There are a number of different reasons why modern Chinese liberalism about sex will be different from anything that went before. Firstly we understand the mechanics of sex in a different way today: noone in the 8th Century believed as we do in evolution. Secondly we see sex differently: contraception and pornography mean that any modern Chinese understanding of sex has more in common with a modern Western one than it does with an ancient Chinese one. This does not only apply to sex. A modern religious fundamentalist is not in the same position as a medieval one for a simple reason: he or she has almost certainly read more things. He or she participates in a culture where it is not assumed that one has to be Christian or Muslim. The belief either in sexual liberalism or religious fundamentalism may look the same- but it is not the same. This doesn't just work over time- but over space as well- its very likely that Chinese sexual liberalism or conservatism looks different to Western sexual liberalism or conservatism. Its also probable that my sexual liberalism or conservatism differs from yours- because we have different experiences to make our ideas out of.

Sullivan's statement is right and its useful to know that China has a 'liberal' past with relation to sexuality- but its fatal if we start saying that China is innately liberal or conservative- just as its fatal to say that about Britain or anywhere else. There have been liberal and conservative Chinese people and at times China has been liberal- over its entire history it may well have been on average more liberal than the West or less liberal. Ultimately though the past does not determine the future. Ultimately its dangerous to be essentialist about nations or any other group of human beings. We are as the crowd in the LIfe of Brian puts it, all individuals.