Tuesday, 29 May 2012

My ancestors in the age of revolution

Last week I wrote about the way that one’s historical sympathies can be swayed by one’s ancestors’ political affiliations, and I mentioned my discovery that my Robb forebears had supported the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 as a case in point.

For the family historian with an interest in political history, discovering an intersection between your ancestors’ lives and wider historical events is always thrilling. However, until recently, I believed that my family had always been on the 'wrong' side of history. Besides their support for the romantic but reactionary Jacobites, there was also the case of Reverend William Robb (1763 - 1830), the brother of my great-great-great-grandfather Charles Edward Stuart Robb. He was an Episcopal clergyman in St Andrews, chaplain to Lord Elibank, and a poet: in fact, the only member of our family until the current generation to make it into print. In addition to a number of verses ‘illustrative of the genius and influence of Christianity’, William Robb wrote a long poem entitled ‘The Patriotic Wolves’ in December 1792 ‘when [as he says in the introduction] the agents of France, and those seditious societies, falsely styling themselves “The Friends of the People”, threatened the subversion of our happy constitution’. The poem,  a ‘fable’ characterising reformers as ravenous wolves threatening the sheep-like British people, was published in the arch-conservative ‘Anti-Jacobin Review’.

Handbill produced by London Corresponding Society, 1793

I’ve had a longstanding fascination with the late eighteenth / early nineteenth centuries, the age of revolution and reform, the period covered by E. P. Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class: an era when radical politics was still untainted by bureaucratism, when Enlightenment rationalism had yet to give way to pious Victorian sentimentalism, and when the cause of liberty had a romantic sheen and boasted literary luminaries such as Hazlitt, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Byron and Shelley: bliss was it in that dawn indeed. So while it was intriguing to find that one of my ancestors had contributed to contemporary political debates, it was disappointing to discover that he had been an implacable opponent of progress.

Francis Place

The only marginal corrective to this ancestral conservatism was the fact that, when my 3 x great grandfather Charles brought his family down to London some time in the 1820s or 1830s, they found lodgings at 29 Charing Cross – the very house that had once been occupied by the radical tailor Francis Place. This provided a rather tangential link with radical history - I’m fairly sure my ancestor Charles would have had little sympathy with the politics of the previous occupant of his house - but it was better than nothing.

So much for my father’s family: mind you, in the next generation they would switch from Episcopalianism to Wesleyanism, slip in class terms from distressed gentry to respectable working class, and move from the West End to the East End, their line culminating in my late grandfather, a teetotalling Methodist, council lamplighter and NUPE shop steward in East Ham.

Westminster election campaign, 1784

However, I’ve recently found out that my ancestors on my mother’s side were of a more radical cast, and in precisely the historical period that interests me. Thanks to the excellent London Lives website, it’s now possible to find out who voted in elections in the Westminster constitutency during this period: the poll books contain details not only of their addresses, occupations and property values, but also the way they voted (no secret ballot in those days). And since Westminster had a wider franchise than some other boroughs, it included some of the craftsmen and tradesmen who populate the upper branches of my maternal family tree.

Among them was James Blanch (1755 – 1840), one of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers. Born in Tewkesbury the son of a Quaker heel and patten maker (pattens were the metal over-shoes worn to protect against the mud of the eighteenth-century streets), he grew up in Bristol and came to London as a young man, an apprentice in the same trade as his father. Living in Compton Street, Soho, James married for the first time in 1779, to a young woman who was probably the daughter of his apprentice master. The Westminster poll books record the votes of James Blanch, patten maker, in three elections: 1780, 1784 and 1790.

Charles James Fox

I was delighted to discover that James voted for the most radical candidate in two out of three of these elections. In the election of 1780, he cast his vote for the radical Whig politician Charles James Fox. The latter was a supporter of the American and French revolutions and a campaigner against slavery and in favour of religious tolerance and individual liberty. Victorious in the 1780 election, he was lauded with the title ‘Man of the People’.

However, my ancestor was obviously not a party man, since in 1784 he hedged his bets and voted for both the Tory Samuel Hood (perhaps because he was something of a national naval hero) and the Whig Sir Cecil Wray – even though Fox was standing in the same election. This was the controversial ballot in which Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, toured the streets offering kisses in return for votes on behalf of Fox, who won narrowly.

John Horne Tooke

By the time of the 1790 election, James Blanch was living in Cross Lane in the parish of St Martin-in-the- Fields: on this occasion he voted for the radical John Horne Tooke. A prominent member of the Bill of Rights Society and the Society for Constitutional Reform, Horne Tooke was strongly influenced by the writings of Tom Paine and was a supporter of the working-class London Corresponding Society. His involvement in organizing an abortive constitutional convention led to his arrest and imprisonment in the Tower, along with leadings lights of the LCS, on a charge of treason. To great popular acclaim, the jury returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’.

I find it nicely ironic that John Horne Tooke, the favoured candidate in 1790 of my mother’s ancestor James Blanch, was exactly the kind of person that my father’s ancestor, Rev. William Robb, would satirise and condemn in verse two years later.

Joseph Priestley

James Blanch’s votes for Fox and Horne Tooke are the only definite evidence I’ve found of radicalism among my direct ancestors. However, I remain intrigued by the fact that, two generations later, my great-great-grandfather Daniel Roe, another shoemaker (he married Mary Ann Blanch, the daughter of James Blanch’s son John), named his youngest son (my great-grandfather) Joseph Priestley Roe. This was almost certainly a tribute to the great 18th century dissenting minister, inventor and radical reformer. Joseph Roe was born, in 1862, in Great Windmill Street, Soho, just a few doors away from the Red Lion pub, where Marx and Engels had hammered out the first draft of the Communist Manifesto, fourteen years earlier.

Guy Aldred

Finally: I can claim a much more distant family connection with a more recent radical. Also on my mother's side of the family, it seems that the anarcho-communist writer and activist Guy Alfred Aldred, who died in 1963, was my fourth cousin twice removed. To put it another way: my great-great-great-grandfather was his great-great-great uncle...well, you get the general idea.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Something for the weekend

Just heard this online at KCSM, the Bay Area Jazz Station. It's 2.30 a.m. over there, but I often find their lazy late-night moods match mine on a slow Saturday morning. Lots of wonderful things about this - the Hoagy Carmichael tune, Oscar Peterson on piano, Satchmo's growl. But just marvel at the purity of Ella's voice...

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Roundhead or Cavalier (or a bit of both)?

I imagine serious historians must tear their hair out at programmes like Roundhead or Cavalier: Which One Are You? which was on BBC 4 last night (though I noticed quite a few of them among the contributors: they must have been reading this). Me, I gave up a couple of minutes in, when the presenter described Cromwell as an ‘egalitarian’. From the little I saw, the programme committed the cardinal sin of history documentaries: reading modern debates and divisions back into an era utterly unlike our own.

Nevertheless, the parlour-game format around which the programme was built – where can we see the ‘two tribes’ of Roundhead and Cavalier in contemporary Britain, and which one do you belong to? – is a bit of harmless fun. The trouble is, speaking for myself, it’s not a question I find easy to answer – not any more, anyway. Once, in my far-off youth, it was all so much simpler. Brought up a Methodist, with early stirrings of socialist sympathies, I was an instinctive Roundhead. As a child, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ was probably my favourite in the Ladbybird history series: I felt a natural sympathy for the spiritual simplicity, the political reformism, even the clean, proto-modern lines of the uniforms, clothes, hairstyles. As for the Cavaliers, they were so obviously everything we aspiring-working-class Nonconformists were against: hierarchy, pomp, ritualism, tradition.

But then, as I grew older, it became more complicated. In my early twenties, I had a short-lived flirtation with Catholicism. That’s to say, I converted, but lapsed soon afterwards, though I retained strong residual sympathies in that direction, and if I were ever to become a practising Christian again, I can’t imagine belonging to any other denomination. I was inspired by the Catholic Worker movement and the liberation theologians of Latin America, and my conversion fractured the connection within me between Protestantism and political radicalism. (It helped that evangelical protestants, the modern-day heirs of seventeenth-century Puritanism, tended to align themselves with the political right). Left-wing Catholicism offered me a way of being traditionalist and sacramentalist in religion, while supporting social justice on the political level.

Complicating things still further, my researches in family history led to the discovery that my father’s forebears had been Aberdeenshire Episcopalians who (so family tradition had it) fought for the Bonnie Prince in the ’45: indeed, my great-great-great-grandfather bore the name Charles Edward Stuart Robb in his memory. As a result, I became fascinated by the Jacobites and by extension the Stuarts: their cause seemed far more glamorous than that of their dour Presbyterian opponents, with their grim sabbatarianism and censorious kirk sessions (before which some of my ancestors were apparently hauled for various offences against purity and sobriety).

My theological and genealogical sympathies have also inspired some recent revisionist historical reading, from which I’ve learned, inter alia, that it was the Catholic Mary Stuart who tried to introduce a degree of religious tolerance to Scotland, only to be thwarted by the fanatically Calvinist and misogynist John Knox, just as it was her great grandson James II, who, for all his autocratic ways, wanted to extend religious rights to both Catholics and Dissenters, a policy that in part prompted the so-called Glorious Revolution – supposedly the foundational moment of modern liberal democracy, but from another perspective a coup by the Protestant elite. As for Charles II, he was just a lot more fun than his predecessor Cromwell: I enjoyed reading Jenny Uglow's biography, especially the unforgettable image of Charles and James rolling up their sleeves to help put out the Great Fire.

Then, last year, I read Michael Braddick’s superb revisionist account of the English Civil War, a period I’d never really studied properly before. Braddick sees the various internecine wars of the seventeenth century in these islands, not so much as the beginnings of English political radicalism, but as a continuation of the religious conflict sparked by Henry VIII’s rupture with Rome in the previous century. I found the book revealing about the religious as well as the political beliefs of those who rebelled against Charles I. I don’t think I’d realized before quite how important Calvinism was to the religious outlook of the Puritans: rather than simplicity of worship and equal access to the scriptures being their prime motivation, as the Whig version of history taught us to believe, it was their core belief in the doctrine of predestination - in the divine election for salvation of a chosen few (and therefore the uselessness of human ‘works’) - that galvanised their opposition to Church and King. Far from the Puritans being egalitarians or proto-democrats, this was about the most elitist worldview imaginable, not to mention one that tended towards a strident paternalism, a knowing-what’s-best for the unsaved and unwashed.

For all of Charles I’s many faults and missteps, Braddick’s book showed the battle for legitimacy between crown and parliament as much more finely balanced  than I remembered. And the victory of the parliamentary cause seemed, in the end, more like a military coup than a democratic revolution. In recent years, there has been a tendency to confer retrospective secular sainthood on groups like the Levellers and to throw an ahistorical social-democratic patina over the Roundheads generally. But reading Braddick’s history, Cromwell seemed more like Lenin or Mao than Attlee or Bevan. As for the New Model Army, seeking to impose their theocratic will by force of arms and (when in power) banning Christmas, closing down theatres and imposing strict dress codes, one was reminded less of the dear old Labour Party than of the Taliban or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And if you want to see what happened when the Puritans got a chance to found their own God-bothering commonwealth, just think of New England later in the seventeenth century: the memory of what happened at Salem is a useful corrective to any notion that they foreshadowed modern egalitarian tolerance. Nearer to home, the three words ‘Cromwell in Ireland’ should be enough to undermine any simple notion of a great democratic liberator.

It goes to show that you shouldn’t try to interpret past conflicts in terms of modern categories. ‘Roundhead’ and ‘Cavalier’ aren’t timeless universals, but labels with very particular meanings in a very different historical context. The same goes for ‘Tory’ and ‘Whig’ in the next century, labels which are easily misconstrued in terms of today’s Conservative-Labour divisions, when in fact (for example) Tories began as supporters of the insurrectionist Jacobite Pretender, while the original Whigs were those dour and paternalist Presbyterians again.

Two more points. What if, rather than representing two persistent ‘tribes’ of Britons, the Cavaliers and Roundheads reflect two complementary aspects of the British spiritual and political psyche that were unnaturally split apart some time in the sixteenth century (the Reformation having a lot to do with it)? And what if, rather than representing a cleavage in society, these labels reflect a fault-line that runs through each of us? After all, it was said of Robbie Burns that he was both Jacobin and Jacobite, a paradoxical position that sounds impossible to sustain, but one with which I have an instinctive sympathy. What if there’s both a bit of the Roundhead and a bit of the Cavalier in anyone with any kind of sympathetic imagination, and the struggle isn’t to decide which one you are, or to defeat one or the other, but to reconcile the warring tendencies within oneself...?

Friday, 11 May 2012

Brody and blowback: reflections on 'Homeland'

So farewell then, Homeland: or rather, farewell Season 1, since we’re told that a second series is currently being filmed. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to find out whether Carrie’s delayed memory of Brody muttering the name of Abu Nazir’s son in his sleep has been wiped by electro-convulsive therapy. (Apologies to non-aficionados: it would take far too long to explain…)

As others have said, Homeland really has been the best thing on television for a long time: combining an original premiss, nail-biting plot, intelligent script – and superb acting. From such a stellar cast, it’s invidious to mention individual performances: though Claire Danes deserves every award she’s got for her depiction of obsessive CIA agent Carrie Mathison, while Mandy Patinkin as her grizzled colleague Saul, and Morgan Saylor as Brody’s teenage daughter Dana also stand out, and (as with The Wire) it was good to see two British actors, Damian Lewis and David Harewood, taking on key roles.

Any criticisms? To my mind, the first half of the series, which cleverly played with our suspicions about whether or not Brody had been ‘turned’ in captivity was more engaging than the later episodes, which substituted the more traditional suspense of the thriller - will he/won’t he (blow up himself and half the US government)?  And I half-agree with Ed West that Brody’s conversion to Islam, and his turning from loyal US marine to potential al Qaeda suicide bomber, was not entirely convincing. (For those with an interest in matters theological, West links to a couple of interesting articles about the show by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith – the first piece headed by a photo of three of the show’s photogenic stars which provides more, ahem, eye candy than one is used to seeing in the Catholic Herald).

My own marginal reservations about Homeland are slightly different to West's. I wonder whether, in attempting to provide a plausible reason for why a loyal US soldier would turn into a terrorist who would attack his own country, the programme-makers have failed to reflect what we know of the actual motivation of Islamist terrorists, and risked giving comfort to those who blame the West for providing the rationale for terror.

At about the half-way point in the series, we see the hostage Sergeant Brody – unwashed, long-haired, bruised and beaten – being taken from his hellish captivity, to the home of his captor, the terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir, in a remote corner of northern Iraq. Brody is allowed to wash and shave and given clean (ethnically and religiously appropriate) clothes. The experience looks like a new birth, a rising from the dead, and indeed Nazir’s house - clean, bright, book-lined – resembles a kind of paradise, after the purgatory of captivity. The picture is completed by Nazir’s cute son Issa, whom Brody is to teach English. Can this really be the hide-out of a notorious terrorist? It looks more like the retreat of a noted scholar, or a spiritual master, and indeed in this and subsequent episodes, Abu Nazir is often depicted in this way.

It could be argued that Homeland does, in fact, show another side to Nazir. After all, before being given this chance of new life, we see Brody (in scenes that are almost too gruesome to watch) being beaten, tortured and (he believes) forced to murder a fellow prisoner. But the programme fails to show any connection between Nazir the torturer and planner of terrorist outrages, and Nazir the scholar, man of God and loving father. Perhaps it’s expecting too much of as primetime thriller to get inside the mind of a terrorist, but what’s surely missing from the depiction of Abu Nazir and his world is the obsessiveness, the puritanical paranoia, the warped religiosity of the fanatic, with which we’re all too familiar from al Qaeda propaganda videos and the like.

The portrayal of Nazir is actually of a piece with Homeland’s sterling efforts to show Muslims in a favourable light. Back in the US, we see the FBI pursue Tom Walker, another ex-captive American marine who definitely has been ‘turned', into a DC mosque, where a number of innocent worshippers get killed in the crossfire. The programme goes out of its way to depict the imam and his wife (despite her traditional headscarf, shown as equal in status to her husband) as gentle, inoffensive types, with the programme-makers’ desire not to offend reflected in the Arabic greetings and general cultural sensitivity of Carrie and her colleagues. It feels like reverse or compensatory stereotyping, of the kind we’re familiar with from depictions of native Americans in anti-Westerns of the 60s and 70s, in which every Indian seemed to be of the ‘we come in peace’ variety, as if deliberately making up for decades of crude Hollywood racism. It’s not to say that such imams and such mosques don’t exist, far from it: but would a terrorist stooge like Walker, and his Saudi (and presumably Wahhabi) contact choose this kind of mosque for their rendezvous? Wouldn’t it have been more convincing – if risking accusations of more traditional negative stereotyping – to show something more like the Finsbury Park or East London mosques?

As for the explanation for Brody turning terrorist – the death of Nazir’s young son, to whom Brody has become close,  in a drone strike ordered by the programme’s one unmistakable ‘baddie’, the US vice-president - one can see why the scriptwriters hit on this, as it provides a powerful and intensely personal justification for Brody’s anger against his own government. But I think Lucie-Smith is right to question whether someone like Brody would ultimately put revenge for his captor’s son ahead of his attachment to his own children. Ed West is also right that drone strikes of this kind are hardly typical, and the episode distracts attention from the undoubted fact that almost all of the massacres of innocent men, women and children in Iraq after the fall of Saddam were carried out not by US forces but by al Qaeda and their sectarian surrogates – led by people rather like Abu Nazir - and were deliberate acts of mass murder, not accidental or ‘collateral’ damage.

Moreover, by choosing this event as Brody’s, and by extension Nazir’s motivation for a terrorist attack against the United States, the programme provides implicit support to blowback theorists, who misinterpret acts of Islamist terror as tit-for-tat repayment for western actions, rather than as the working-out of a twisted clerical-fascist ideology. As I’ve written before, blowback theory gets it back to front: the reactionary worldview comes first, and the sins of infidel westerners are mere excuses that play into an existing narrative. Even if the actions of western governments were blameless (and even when they are in support of Muslims, as in Bosnia), they would still hate us: not for what we do, but because of what we are.

By making Brody’s decision to work for Nazir a calm, rational choice based on emotions with which the viewer can identify, Homeland is certainly convincing on the superficial plot level, but in doing so it leaves no room for the role of ideology, or for the kind of brainwashing process that has always been evident in the few cases of hostages ‘turning’ to identify with their captors. There are hints earlier on in the series of Brody developing a kind of love-hate attachment to his erstwhile torturer, Nazir, but this is soon dropped in favour of the simpler motivation of revenge for Issa’s death. The only sign, on Brody’s return, of his continuing identification with his captors is his conversion to Islam, but this is kept in a kind of sealed box (literally as well as figuratively: he says his prayers in a locked garage after his wife and children have gone to bed) that is separate from his dealings with his family and friends, and the programme misses an opportunity to show how his new faith might have changed his outlook, for good or ill.

Having said all that, it’s surely a sign of Homeland’s general brilliance that, despite these cavils, I still think it’s the best television programme of the year. In its temporary absence, it’s time to settle down and watch the original Israeli version