Well it is that time of year when you have a little time to reflect. And I have decided that I am no longer happy using Facebook. I hate the experience and they are undermining democracy. And I waste too much time on Twitter. I love the experience but I can’t seem to take it in moderation.
I loved the Narnia books as a child and borrowed them all from my local public library. I read most of them multiple times, and knew them pretty well. But I stopped reading them once I got to about 12 or 13 and have never gone back and reread them. I wondered what rereading them as an adult would be like. So I picked one at random. Well not quite at random. The Silver Chair was the one I remembered least, and couldn’t actually remember the plot. So that was as good a reason as any.
Ever been a bit short of cash? If so, consider getting together with a close friend and revolutionising poetry. It worked for Wordsworth and Coleridge.
The Lyrical Ballads were knocked up to fund a holiday in Germany. Poets have never been known for their financial prowess, but this pair seem to have hit on a winning formula. They were unknown at the time but pretty savy in the growing romantic movement. The financial partnership was just a means to an end and when they got to Germany they split up. Creative differences led to Coleridge staying on to soak up German philosophy, while Wordsworth came to a deeper appreciation of the English countryside and returned home to write poems about it.
This book is basically a polemic. Its thesis is simple. Britain has failed to make the most of its relationship with the rest of the European Union because from the very start it has underestimated the resolve of the other members to make the project work. Consequently the various initiatives and developments over the years have been met with lukewarm approval at best. Britain has been content to snipe from sidelines in the belief that whatever was being proposed was going to fail anyway. Why get worked up about things that are never going to happen? So we end up outside some of the most beneficial aspects of the project. We don’t enjoy the stability of the single currency. We opt out of some of the social protections. We don’t even save ourselves some bother by joining the passport free zone.
Nothing that simple is every literally true of course.
Why did I choose to go to Chichester to see this play? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else. The facts are clear enough. I had seen it was coming, and thought it would be interesting. But I didn’t book tickets until the last minute. I didn’t realise how popular it would be. How could I? So by the time I came to book nearly every seat was taken and I had very little choice of which seat to take – and there were no nights where two seats were left next to each other. Is that why I went alone? Or did my wife’s reluctance to go and see a play about a couple of physicists with a total cast of 3 and no prospect of any singing or dancing have something to do with it. Did that hold me back from getting my credit card out. Did I only commit when I had a valid excuse for why I was going alone? I literally don’t know the answers to these questions, even though it all happened in my head in the last month. Our brains and how they work are a mystery to ourselves. Michael Frayn could probably get a play out of this.
We are at the end of chapter 43 and we find Gibbon in full on enlightenment mode. The reign of Justinian happened to coincide with a couple of comets, some significant earthquakes and a major plague. Previous ages would have agreed with the Byzantines themselves and taken these as communications from God but Gibbon is a modern man and instead gives us the science. The plague was probably the biggest event in history since the fall of the western empire and had profound effects many of which are still being unpicked today.
The kingdom of Aragon was a major naval power in the Middle Ages. Its sailors skills at seacraft gave it power – and that power was used to carve out a maritime empire in the western Mediterranean. Indeed its influence was felt in the eastern half of that sea as well. At its height it comprised in addition to its heartland on the southern side of the Pyrenees: Catalonia, Sardinia, Corsica, Athens, Sicily, Naples and the bit of Italy near to Naples and the Balearic Islands. Naples was no mean possession at the time. It was the largest port in the Western Mediterranean. There were several notable people of aragonese extraction who important figures in the late Middle Ages.
My latest dollop of Gibbony goodness as I continue my extended review of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And on the subject of extended things, in Chapter 43 we are looking at an empire that has just been considerably extended. Or rather, it is not so much extended as overextended. Let’s start with the newly reconquered province of Africa.
History books themselves have their own history. History has always been a subject that interests people, and it was always a reasonably large proportion of whatever the available media of the day was. And as parchment gave way to paper, and paper in turn became a mass market commodity more and more people were able to afford to indulge their interest in what had gone on in the past. So the popular history book intended for just anyone who was curious about the past started to appear in the 1930s and by the 1950s was an established genre.
One of the giants of popular history was Thomas Costain whose books sold in huge quantities. I think I missed out growing up because I have a feeling my teenage self would have loved them. The style of writing is the key. This is history written as a story.
So what you get out of this history book is basically a rather old fashioned view of history – but that is in itself quite interesting. How people in the fifties thought about history tells us quite a lot about what they believed in general. They were interested in character and had a much clearer idea of what was right and wrong than we do. So when a medieval king fiddles the system to his advantage, Thomas Costain regards this as a personal failing of the king involved.
It is worth exploring this one a bit. The king in question was Henry III and his modus operandum was to swear to comply with requests from this subjects for concessions. And once he had done so, he would apply to the pope and get the agreement annulled. This annoyed his subjects and in their exasperation they turned to Simon de Montfort. He proceeded to get parliament going, setting up history for several centuries of progress in the direction of democracy.
So basically the formula is that history is full of characters, and it is legitimate to invent stuff you don’t know to fill in the human side of things. History has a direction and a purpose and like fiction it always contrives to have a happy ending.
Is this sort of history any use today? I have to say I find it grating to read more than a small dollop at the time. Hearing how pleased William the Marshall was when he finally got home after the wars for a bit of a rest is just annoying when you know there is simply no data on his emotional state. The frequent value judgements are irritating even when the values expressed are ones we still hold, which we often don’t. But it does make things very memorable, so if you want to have an overview of what was happening in the Middle Ages it isn’t a bad option.
I like the unpredictable. So today as a way of doing something I would not have chosen to I decided to go and see whatever was on at my local theatre. As it turned out it was Present Laughter by Noel Coward.