This year, the English have been making fools over themselves over a posh dead guy. Wow, there’s something you don’t see every day. Sorry, did I say that’s something you don’t see every day? Silly me, what was I thinking? I meant, of course, that that’s something you do see every day. Literally, every fucking day. It’s practically our national pastime; worshipping posh dead guys. When we’re not worshipping posh live guys, that is. Everywhere in England, this is our thing. And Britain generally, if we’re honest… though the rest of the United Kingdom has the excuse that the dead guys (generally posh within their own context) they fawn over tend to at least be people who in some way stood up to English imperialism.
What a strange relationship we have in my country! (As an Englishman, I have the luxury of being able to blithely think of other people’s adjacent countries as being bits of mine… though there is some progress to be seen in the fact that, these days, that generally only works with adjacent countries.) In my country you can travel, in a relatively brief time, from a place where there are statues of English guys who became statue-material because they killed lots of Scottish people, to a place where there are statues of Scottish guys who became statue-material because they tried to stop the English guys killing those very same Scottish people. Okay, you can do something like that in America too. But at least in that case the people weren’t really different nationalities; the ones in the South were just pretending to be because a minority of them wanted to keep using black people as farm machinery, as Vonnegut put it. Also, in America, it has the decency to take longer. Even so, the pattern reoccurs across time with depressing regularity; the hyper-speed of modernity accelerates the process and telescopes it in space. And like so many political phenomena, it reoccurs dialectically at different distinct historical levels and loci. For instance, you can travel from bits of London alone where there are statues of guys who became statue-material for massacring lots of Indians to other bits of London where most of the inhabitants are descended from the survivors of the same massacres. But again, something similar is often possible Stateside too… though you have to redefine ‘Indians’ to make it work.
Speaking of America, and passing over the mounds of corpses of massacred indigenous peoples, we in Britain have had our civil wars too. Parenthetically, it often puzzles me that we talk as if we only ever had the one civil war… but I suspect the intensity with which we insist upon 1642-1651 being the ‘English Civil War’ is less to do with denying the others and more to do with effacing the fact that it was more fundamentally a revolution.
But this series of posts isn’t about that English Civil War. It’s about (albeit tangentially) one of the other ones. The one we charmingly call ‘the Wars of the Roses’. It was known at the time as the ‘Cousins War’, because the kinds of people who wrote the first draft of history then thought that it was about a family squabble. They, of course, have the excuse of having lived within the thoughtworld of late-feudalism (i.e. the hegemonic ideology of the absolute feudal monarchs and their attendant clans of land-owning gangsters). Even Shakespeare – who was writing popular drama at the fulcrum of decaying feudalism and burgeoning capitalist modernity – has similar excuses. The historians of today (especially the televised gaggle of Schamas and Starkeys), who insist upon portraying the feudal wars as, essentially, family arguments over the turkey and pudding which spiralled out of control, have no such excuses.
But I’m wandering again. To bring us back to the point, and hopefully link all this waffle up, let’s get back to that posh dead guy that the British have been making fools of themselves over this year.
Richard III reportedly got himself found in a car park in Leicester some time ago. Last March, he was interred in Leicester Cathedral. People lined the streets to see his hearse go by, as if desperate for another shot at 1997, and prepared to use the Plantagent warlord who died in 1485 as Diana-methadone. (To see how inherently funny it was to give Richard a procession of hearses, just imagine the uncomprehending terror that a car would have been inspired in him.) Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, wrote a ‘poem’ for the occasion. It would seem she did this by brainstorming a few obvious buzzwords – i.e. “time” and “crown” and “history”, etc – and randomly stringing them together into a few thuddingly ponderous and portentous sentences. Said sentences were then read at the funeral by Benedict Cumberbatch (famous for no less than two bit-parts on Heartbeat, I understand), who is apparently a relative of the Plantagent king. After all, this is still England. Even today, people who achieve his kind of success, wealth and prominence can usually still be assumed to be related to royalty at some level (c.f. prominent members of the current Cabinet, and their wives). The queues to see Richard’s tomb stretched round the block apparently, and copies of the order of service for the interment were selling at inflated prices on Ebay.
The Search for Rick seems to have been funded mainly by ‘Ricardians’, people who are members of the Richard III Society, and who tend to aggressively defend his reputation. They pooh-pooh the idea that he had anything to do with killing his tower-bound nephews and concoct plausible-sounding alternate theories about Henry Tudor and/ or his mother Margaret Beaufort. To be fair, neither of those ambitious and ruthless entities would have been above a spot of child-murder if it’d furthered their ends. But there’s no evidence that they had anything to do with the permanent disappearance of the ‘Princes in the Tower’. Ockham’s Razor isn’t sharp enough for them to slash any throats with. Richard, by contrast, had means, motive and opportunity, and is by far the simplest, most obvious candidate. It matters nothing that he’d been a loyal brother to the princes’ father, his brother Edward IV. This is to automatically ascribe honesty and consistency to a person who may simply have been a hypocritical chancer for all we know. He wasn’t above bad behaviour. In one infamous incident after the battle of Tewkesbury, he and his brothers had several Lancastrian prisoners who had been dragged from (semi-official) sanctuary in Tewkesbury Abbey executed after very brief trials. Moreover, it is to assume that there is such a thing as ‘character’, an irreducible core to people which never varies or fluctuates. Which is silly. We can often see what how silly it is when we’re talking about people other than posh dead guys, but the English adulation of posh dead guys makes us believe that they have stuff like ‘character’, and thus also ‘nobility’ and ‘honour’ and so on and derp and thingy and whatnot and blah. Richard was, in many ways, like a consiglieri in a crime family. This is probably the best modern analogy for what aristocratic families were like under feudalism… except that, like today’s ruling class gangsters, what they did often wasn’t ‘against the law’ (not that they really had modern law as we’d think of it). Moreover, he was from a family with a history of uncles usurping thrones from nephews and then having them killed. There were also pragmatic concerns. Nobody much liked the idea of a king in his minority, especially so soon after the last gust of the Wars of the Roses. Richard (and a lot of other people) disliked the new king’s mother and her family. The Woodvilles were thought to be ambitious, and it was thought that they would try to control the new child king through his mother and uncles. As someone who considered himself right-royal, Richard would have shared the aristocratic disdain for the arriviste Woodville family. In short – no shortage of motives. Basically, he did it. He’s as obviously guilty as Oscar Pistorius… though he didn’t get off as lightly.
Ricardians have also been fond of disputing that Richard could have been a ‘hunchback’. “How could he have worn armour and gone into battle?“ they have cried. Which is all very ironic, given that one of the things that supposedly makes the car park skeleton so convincing is that it has scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Some tune-changing has gone on there.
There are legitimate doubts in some quarters about whether the skeleton is actually Richard. Your present author takes no definite position (outside my paygrade and above my wheelhouse)… but check out the objections raised by Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester, and Martin Biddle, archaeologist and director of the Winchester Research Unit, reported here and evaluated here. It seems that there can be little meaningful certainty… and, to be fair, absolute certainty has never been formally claimed by anyone credible. This hasn’t stopped the various interested parties acting like there is absolute certainty. It may be that the state of evidence is enough to make the argument that the bones belong to Richard into a reasonable assumption, with the onus now on critics. Either way – and more interestingly to me – the case has been deemed sufficiently secure culturally… or perhaps I just mean sufficiently attractive culturally… for the bones to be treated with sudden extravagant reverence that would have been denied them otherwise. Even today, an uncertain evidentiary record is enough to endow some old bones with some kind of supernatural aura of extra-meaning, as long as it points to them having belonged to someone who was descended from William the Conqueror. If you wanted to be charitable to the British character, you could argue that there is also the matter of Richard III’s cultural profile, what with the play and everything. I’d also want to argue that he has a special place in our concept of our national history for other reasons, which I’ll get to in another post.
There’s also, always, the bottom line. To be a bit uncharitable, I guess the notion of finding the last remains of a famous, lost king was very tempting for all involved. TV documentary makers, Leicester University, the Leicester Tourist Board, the Ricardians… everyone had a finger in that pie; wouldn’t do to declare it empty of filling. I’m not saying anyone’s lying… and, as I say, maybe the evidence makes the claim valid. Also, I don’t want to stumble from vulgar Marxism into a kind of economistic Behaviourism. But there really is no better generator of confirmation bias than money. In that respect, one can be a little more forgiving to the Ricardians than some of the others. At least the Ricardians (for all the money some of them have undoubtedly made out of this) are basically motivated by a dream.
Of course, it’s harder to be sympathetic to Ricardians when you actually look at some of them. Phillipa Langley, the Ricardian most involved in the search for Richard’s body, can be seen in action in the documentary The King in the Carpark. She tries to drape a flag bearing Richard’s coat of arms over the cardboard box full of bones when she claims the honour of reverentially placing it on the back seat of a Mazda. (Langley – a screenwriter, who wanted to dig in that particular carpark because of a ‘feeling’ she had when visiting in it – generously allows that sceptics like Hicks and Biddle are ‘entitled to their opinion’… but then I guess I shouldn’t talk, since with my politics I’d want to argue that most professional economists have got their subject wrong.) She’s one of the many people who has rushed to get books out about this issue… but she strikes me as basically in it for the emotional satisfaction, for the validation of her ideals.
Having said that, much as I might find the heedless pursuit of a dream to be endearing, there’s something inherently worrying to me about the whole notion of a Richard III society. They sometimes say that they are motivated by a concern for the underdog… but I’m afraid I can’t see how a king could be described as an underdog, even an ostensibly libelled king. Surely, if underdogs are your thing, you should be setting up societies to rescue the real histories and reputations of the ordinary people who lived and worked and fought and died so that the king could wield power and luxury? This concern for the underdog is often alleged to be ‘very British’, which is a laugh. Loathing and contempt for the weak and vulnerable is a deep strain in British psychology, largely owing to our empire and its legacy. This contempt has only been fostered in recent decades, by the near-destruction of our social democratic traditions and the ruthless cultural and political enforcement of the habits of mind which best serve neoliberalism. We’re not really talking about concern for the underdog. We’re talking about concern for a member of the ruling class who supposedly hasn’t been given enough of the deference and uncritical adulation he supposedly deserves.
We can get a snapshot of what Ricardians are probably mostly like (yes, I know, I’m generalising from the particular) from the Tony Robinson documentary about Richard III that Channel 4 (again) aired in 2004. A twin set and pearls says “Richard seems to have been a very efficient administrator. Oh how we wish we had Richard III now. Haw haw.” No, actually. I don’t wish the country was run by a medieval autocrat. New Labour too left-wing for you, was it?
This is symptomatic of all kinds of sick, jaundiced bollocks. Sick, jaundiced bollocks of a very English kind. Firstly, it buys totally and uncritically into the notion of History as a list of kings… or, more broadly, of Big Men (still mostly men). Okay, that particular ideological delusion isn’t limited to England, but it is one that the English arguably initiated and have clung to with monomaniacal determination long after most everyone else on the planet has at least grudgingly said something like “well, I guess it’s probably more complicated than that, I suppose…”. Like most English mental disease, filthy lucre is a major factor. Never underestimate the venal hypocrisy and crude cupidity of the English. Aside from its historical roots in absolute monarchy, and its repurposed utility as an ideological tool of a bourgeois state symbolised by constitutional monarchy, the King List version of history sells a shitload of middle-brow books (fiction and non-fiction) and middle-brow TV shows (drama and ‘documentary’) and middle-brow films, etc. One of the latest crops of middle brow history books to hit the market were about the topical figure of Richard III, for instance. There’s a kernal of truth to the old saw about the royals bringing in lots of tourists. The way Britain – and particularly England – markets itself is steeped in the monarchical mode. It’s part of the brand. That isn’t to say that the royal family (or their history) actual have any real utility as financial benefits to the nation. To believe that, you have to buy the idea of the nation, of the spurious ‘us’. Then you have to imagine that the current bunch of feckless, pampered, obscenely-wealthy, arms-dealing parasites actually do anything that the relics of their ancestors wouldn’t do anyway. Richard seems to have done wonders for Leicester without being able to smile and wave. (But that’s a different post.)
Secondly, this sort of just-hidden-behind-a-self-effacing-giggle yearning for the supposedly lost certainties of ye olde goode olde dayes is en-fucking-demic in Britain, especially in England. (As noted above, when the other bits of the UK indulge in similar sentimental and reactionary pathologies they are usually at least partly excused by the fact that their origin lies in resistance to imperialism rather than in imperialism itself.) It often takes the form of nostalgia for the 60s. Or 50s. Or 40s. Or the whenevers. You can put 19s in front of those decimals, or 18s, or whatever you like. We have a collectively-hallucinated, ideology-soaked, ‘past’. Hence the heritage industry in England. Hence the knee-jerk, sentimental backwardness of organisations like English Heritage, redolent of philistinism and nimbyism, and in thrall to the tourism industry.
The point is, the British can sentimentalise their reactionary yearnings using just about any half-confabulated golden past. I know everybody does this but, as with so many unpleasant habits, the British seem exceptionally proficient at it. It’s a speciality national vice of ours, like refusing to learn other peoples’ languages, or celebrity paedophilia. The now-defunct British gift-shop chain Past Times (now, ironically, a thing of the past; a casualty of the recession, and vanished from high streets) catered to all nostalgiac tastes in their weirdly postmodern high street premises. They used to iterate in every high street in every British town, cluttered with overpriced gubbins like replica WWII wireless sets (containing modern digital radios) jostling alongside faux-Saxon jewellery. Which of the confabulated blue-remembered-hills you yearn for depends upon your age and class possition. There’s a serried layer of people in Britain whose chosen locus of nostalgia is the pre-modern or early-modern; another reason for those swarms of middle-brow biographies of Elizabeth I and Henry IV (and so on) which infest every branch of Waterstones.
I suspect that the early-or-pre-modern serve a particular need because they provide – at least in the form in which they are confabulated – winning combinations of strife and fixity, of bling and grittiness, of luxury and stability, of certainty and cruelty. Power and authority coincide with gorgeousness and opulence in a world where there are dirty people to look down on who never object because they accept their lot. Men get to slice each other up while radiating honour and nobility; women get to luxuriate and self-subjugate in a version of femininity steeped in both virtue and beauteous uselessness – and all without any of the guilt that a modern context forces on almost all of us. It’s the apotheosis of the mindset which likes to volubly complain about the sorts of things they’re not allowed to say anymore because of political correctness. The sorts of things they’re not allowed to say might not always technically be as retrograde as the ideology of the middle-ages (though you’ll find plenty of people in Britain who say, with straight faces, “bring back the stocks!” and worse), but the supposedly untroubled nature of the medieval nonetheless provides an attractive and extreme example for them. The pre-modern or early-modern is repurposed as a sequined and/or sword-wielding exemplar for the anti-modern. And the great thing is that you can enjoy your anti-modernity immaculately packaged for you by the modern publishing industry, and the modern TV industry, and the modern film industry. You can yearn for the certainties of the medieval via DVD. Capitalism is happy to commodify your pre-capitalist yearnings. These are often the psychological expression of resentment at what is perceived as loss of privilege and security and status – sometimes rightly, given that austerity is eating into the middle classes as well as the lowest of the low. There is some connection to be made with the pre-modern yearnings which get serviced and utilised by the ideology of fascism, and fascism’s great appeal to the middle classes and the petit bourgeoisie, but I don’t want to Godwin myself, not with things as they are.
There is, however, a way in which the fixation upon history – even the middle-brow, processed, commodified, heritage-ized History™ we get provided to us as history-methodone – can be seen as progressive, or at least potentially open to the progressive. History has one great and almost insurmountable, irrepressible virtue: it changes the world. As a discourse, it allows us to read about, and think about, and contemplate the possibilty of other worlds, other societal possibilities. For all their divergences, there is a fundamental convergence between SF and Fantasy, in that both are obsessed with history. To be crude: SF obsesses over the future while Fantasy obsesses over the past. The transmuted past of Fantasy is just as ‘unreal’ as the speculated future of SF. And just as charged with change, or the idea of change, or the idea of the possibility of change. SF/Fantasy are the quintessential genres of modernity, since one of the things they are fundamentally about is the frenzied, terrifying, unstoppable historical process. Upwards, downward, sideways, whatever. All directions occur. The direction doesn’t fundamentally matter anymore than does the setting or time period. Other worlds, yet always fundamentally our world. Changing, having changed. That’s the point. And this isn’t unique to SF/Fantasy. SF/fantasy just provide the most vivid example. All modern texts are obsessed with this same thing. It’s true that pre-modern texts engage with the past and the future, but the texts of modernity engage with history as a thing in itself, as the experience of modernity. Modernity changes faster and harder and more fundamentally than any previous age. It is based on the capitalist mode, which constantly revolutionizes the instruments and means and relations of production. It’s built into capitalism that it must do this. Consequently, whereas our pre-modern ancestors (at least the ones born after the agricultural and urban revolutions) were born and died in basically the same world and age, we in modernity are all time travellers from one world to another, to a world drastically altered. Our pre-modern ancestors used waterwheels and handaxes from youth to old age. We play with cheap disposable technology as children that would’ve seemed like magic to them. And then, when we get old, we look back on that antiquated magic and laugh at it, while taking fresh miracles as everyday facts of life. And the byproducts of all this pile up as wreckage and waste and rubbish. Hence SF’s obsession with entropy and obsolescence and ruins. Hence time travel. And hence Fantasy’s related but differently located and inflected obsession: the technology-like magic which intrudes on the pre-modern, on the crypto-feudal. Hence dragons as nukes in a time of swords.
There’s nothing inherently progressive (still less subversive) about this, but it provides an opening. Crudely, it allows people to countenance the idea that there are other conceivable ways of organising societies and economies and polities – something we can’t just take for granted in the neoliberal millennium of TINA (There Is No Alternative). More sophisticatedly – and more pertinently to the present discussion – it allows us to grieve the rise of modernity (i.e. the bourgeois epoch), and to mourn for what we lost.
But isn’t that the very sentimental, reactionary syndrome we were attacking earlier? Well, that is certainly one form it can take. And that’s my point. I might want to absolutely abjure feudalism as a brutal, exploitative system in which millions toiled in slavery or near-slavery for gangster clans of bling-laden masters, oppressed by a quasi-totalitarian church, stunted by poverty and tied to the land, etc etc etc… and yet there is no denying that something was lost when the feudal world was slowly destroyed and usurped. To get at what it was, and why Richard III seems particularly relevant to our consciousness of it, we need to awake, like the bewildered Winston Smith, with the word ‘Shakespeare’ on our lips.
TO BE CONTINUED…