Category Archives: war & peace

On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

When it comes to the international trade in antiquities, the UK has for centuries enjoyed the status of net beneficiary. This happy fact is evident not only amid the airy echoing courts and endless lesser galleries of the British Museum, various far-flung corners of the V&A, the renovated treasure-houses of the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, dozens of excellent regional and local collections, but equally so from the riches which private collectors and their trustees have chosen to share with the viewing public — these last ranging from a few marvellous cameos in the Royal Collection to the magnificent holdings of some of our more acquisitive aristocratic families, or, as far as that goes, intellectually stimulating displays at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sigmund Freud’s house in Hampstead — as well as what’s there to be seen, all the year round, in the salerooms of our larger and smaller auction houses and in the galleries of commercial dealers in antiquities.

Britain is, in short, notably well-stocked with the material residue of other countries’ ancient civilisations. Other countries are, in contrast, rather less preoccupied with the material residue of Britain’s ancient civilisations. When it comes to the past, we import more than we export. Or to put it another way, without a lively and long-established progression of antiquities out of their far-flung places of origin and into Britain, some of our greatest museums, galleries, stately homes and smaller collections would be looking rather empty, at least from the point of view of anyone who cares about ancient history.

Should we regret this? Not entirely. As the previous examples ought to show, Britain’s vast holdings of other people’s cultural legacies stems as much from the stuff of cross-cultural curiosity, profound and productive scholarly engagement, aesthetic receptiveness, political stability and  peaceful exchange as it does from military or economic imperialism, exploitation or outright theft. Rather like our tail-wagging mongrel of a language, our ability to absorb all those various successive lapping waves of inward migration, our default tendency towards tolerance cross-cut with a strand of fairly gentle irony, Britain’s acquisitive regard for other countries’ ancient history says the sorts of things about our culture that, at least when couched in positive terms, most of us are only too anxious to believe.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t stop and think carefully about where antiquities purchased today come from, how they came to be there, or the sort of incentives produced by their sale — or indeed, about whether repatriating those antiquities might now suit our moods and purposes better than retaining them. But it does suggest, surely, that we’re not in much of a position to complain when our own antiquities end up finding new homes abroad.

All that being the case, when, why should we strive to ‘save’ — i.e. to retain within the UK, in a public collection — that article of Roman cavalry parade armour now known as the Crosby Garrett helmet, due to be auctioned at Christie’s South Kensington on 7 October? Continue reading

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On the Saville Report

One of the few house rules operative here at Fugitive Ink is a prohibition on posts that merely re-duplicate an obvious point almost certainly made better elsewhere. The web, we all know, is too cluttered already. Why advert to the defects of CGT, for instance, or deplore the persecution of David Laws MP, when there’s scope for a 20,000 word piece on some dead diarist’s minor intellectual inconsistencies instead?

All the same, however, despite several hours of trying, I can’t quite stop myself from posting a few quick lines on the Saville Report, published yesterday — less because I have anything distinctive to say about it, than because the obvious things to be said about it are so crucially important, both for our understanding of recent history and for what civilian commentators believe to be the case about our own armed forces, both then and now.

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On Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’

Amongst the lesser pleasures of parenthood should be numbered the opportunity, not only to re-visit the favourite books of one’s own early childhood — those fictive universes invariably now out-of-scale and slightly unconvincing, like some once-familiar infant school encountered in later life, the ceilings far too low, the chairs too small, the prospect out the window disenchanted, no water-dish put out for the headmaster’s gentle ambling dog, presumably now dead these thirty-something years or more — but also — perhaps even more so, because less obviously blurred with the stuff of memory and mortality — the opportunity to encounter as an adult the children’s books one missed in childhood. Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is very much a case in point.

Some children’s books are, admittedly, too much like hard work for the old. I spent most of 2006-07, for instance, reading Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea. The experience was, looking back on it dispassionately, akin to that of some seventh-century anchorite walled up in his desert fastness, having bid farewell to the world outside forever, resigned to mouthing that hieratic, unearthly liturgy through dry lips — reading while the light held, reciting when it failed — in those early months perhaps seeking to understand the words he enunciates, later meekly accepting them, finally seeking only to appease his sometimes angry, often capricious but eternally untiring Listener.

Yet although I expended more time, effort and persistence on my examinations of this slim volume than I had, for instance, on any text related to my own doctoral dissertation, the Tiger‘s essential mysteries did not, in the end, reveal themselves to me. Almost certainly, I was not worthy of them. Continue reading

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On forgiveness

For all the calumny so regularly and indiscriminately heaped on it by Conservative commentators, the BBC does sometimes earn its keep. For instance, by accident this afternoon, washing up after lunch and half-listening to the news, I stumbled over this, in which BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner interviews Lord Tebbit on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Brighton hotel bombing.

Gardner, who in 2004 while on a routine reporting assignment in Saudi Arabia was shot and left for dead by al-Qaeda gunmen, remains paralysed from the hips downward — none of which has prevented him from continuing to pursue a demanding career. His book about all of this, Blood and Sand, is significantly more interesting than the money-spinning disability misery-memoir one might reasonably have expected under the circumstances.

As for Lord Tebbit, his own serious injuries sustained in the Brighton Hotel bombing — an atrocity that killed five people outright, and caused great suffering to many more — have done little to constrain the energy, forthrightness and courage with which, as even plenty of those who don’t always agree with him ought to concede, he engages with the great issues of our day. The bombing did, however, change his world, leaving his wife, Lady Tebbit, permanently disabled, requiring round-the-clock care.

About a decade ago, I happened to see the Tebbits out together, shopping for a birthday card in a big London department store. Lord Tebbit pushed Lady Tebbit’s wheelchair, paused in front of the display of cards and discussed various likely options with her. Quiet, unflashy, in some sense totally unremarkable, the scene has stayed with me ever since, both as a vision of what real, serious, until-death-do-us-part married love ought to mean — and as testament to what terrorism all too often does mean in practice. (Department of silver linings: the disaster also forced Lord Tebbit to learn to cook, and my carnivorous family members assure me that his recent game cookbook, rather beautifully illustrated, turns out to be very useful, too.)

Anyway, in the interview about, Gardner and Lord Tebbit discuss quite a lot — not just what terrorism means, or who should be held responsible for it, either, but also the extent to which forgiveness is truly possible, especially where the terrorist still, in effect, holds that what he has done was justified. These aren’t simple questions, nor can they be answered easily, even by those in position to say something particularly interesting about them. Thanks, then, to the BBC for providing an interview which never slips away from moral complexity into mawkishness or sentimentality — perfect viewing, anyway, for a rainy Sunday evening, and highly recommended.

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On Richard Overy’s ‘The Morbid Age’

not very morbid at all

The research, erudition, earnestness and effort that went into Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars might well have made up three or four striking and worthwhile books. Instead Overy has given a single volume, 521 pages long, in many ways highly unsatisfactory.

In The Morbid Age, Overy seeks to demonstrate that in Britain during the period 1919-1939 ‘a strong presentiment of impending disaster […] touched many areas of public discourse’. Although the economic slump of the late 1920s and the rise of Hitler constituted ‘real historical dramas’ — to which, presumably, at least a degree of pessimism would seem an appropriate response — he tracks this ‘culture of crisis’ back to the 1920s, and indeed the period prior to the Great War, where — he implies — they may have been less appropriate and, hence, more similar to the ‘phantoms and extrapolated fantasies’ he detects in our own time: ‘how often in the last few years has the “defence of our way of life” or “the defence of democracy” been mobilized as an argument, as if they really were endangered from within or without,’ he laments early on, although the bracing parallel seemingly proposed is, in the end, never quite followed up — a serious disappointment jostling amid a crowd of less profound ones.

For the first few chapters of The Morbid Age, minor annoyances provide a distraction from more fundamental flaws. Let’s start with the editing. In his Acknowledgements, Overy thanks his ‘new editor in New York’ who has ‘rightly asked me to make the “Englishness” of the text more accessible and has made it a better book as a result’. The most obvious fruit of this enterprise is the proliferation of those banal and bleakly reductive explanatory tropes so beloved of trans-Atlantic middlebrow journalism, whereby, upon introduction, Albert Schweitzer must always be ‘the distinguished missionary Albert Schweitzer’, Arnold Toynbee ‘the historian Arnold Toynbee’, Siegfried Sassoon ‘the poet Siegfried Sassoon’, Wyndham Lewis ‘the futurist artist and writer Wyndham Lewis’, and so on, ad infinitum and before long also ad absurdum, so that by the time one encounters ‘the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’, ‘the Cambridge economist John Maynard Keynes’ and ‘the German philosophers Georg Hegel and Karl Marx’ — the dictator Adolph Hitler is, I think, uniquely honoured in being allowed to enter the text unadorned with an explanatory adjective — one begins to wonder whether readers to whom the names ‘Hegel’ and ‘Marx’ suggest very little might actually be better off setting out on what might well be a rather long intellectual journey with the help of something other than Overy’s bulky, dense yet often meandering survey. Continue reading

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Not the typical Roman holiday …

Torcello

To compensate for this unprecedented and rather depressing run of two ‘parish news’ posts in a row — and also, admittedly, because while everyone else of any consequence is clearly now on holiday, I’m still here in London — let’s turn our attention, however briefly, to far horizons, judged either geographically or chronologically — specifically, to some nondescript and dessicated fields just north of Venice’s Marco Polo airport.

Most ‘news stories’ precipitated by press releases, seeded into the apparently endless news-drought that is August, deserve the torrent of indifference they generally receive. This, however, is something else entirely. Scholars have, I suppose, always known that a (pre) Roman settlement called Altinium, located on the Venetian terrafirma but also very near the island of Torcello, was more than just a tactful myth designed to confer upon a great Renaissance city some semblance of a respectably ancient Roman lineage. The site of Altinium, near the present-day hamlet of Altino, was well known. Excavations had already taken place, uncovering part of Altinium’s necropolis.

A dry spell in July 2007, however, revealed much more. Based on aerial photos taken in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter, it has been possible to reconstruct the street-plan of Altinium, complete with basilica, forum and theatre, as well as a canal. This latter feature is fascinating, suggesting as it does that long before the Lombard invasions of the seventh century, the inhabitants of Altinium were already learning the arts of embanking, draining and canal-building — all of which would later prove so central to history of the world’s most beautiful city.

Some might pause to wonder why a Soho-based Tory blog remains so preoccupied with Romans and barbarians, their various conflicts and eventual partial synthesis. Good question! Much of the fascination, I guess, lies in the gloomy romance of Torcello’s foundation-story. No matter how much archaeology, science or all-purpose rationalist daylight is beamed upon it, there’s still something in that tale of a tiny embattled enclave, encircled with lapping brackish water and odd-smelling muddy reed-beds — a glimmering reliquary of older rituals and manners, so improbable in its bare survival and yet so magnificent in its later Venetian successes — that stirs my reactionary heart.

And the rest of the fascination lies precisely in the pleasantly distant nature of these stories and predicaments, capable of functioning not only as metaphor, but as a sort of escapism, too. Holidays, after all, can take many forms. Enjoy yours, if you’re having one — and I’ll get back to poring over my maps of dried-out, distant, anciently depopulated fields.

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Salutary truth: ‘War and Medicine’ at the Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Library, London.

Microscopic section of human lung from phosgene shell poisoning: death at 19th hour after gassing, c.1917. Colour halftone on board by A K Maxwell. Image: Wellcome Library, London.

It’s hard to know exactly what to say about the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, War and Medicine, except that after worrying about it for several days — worrying about the way in which going around the exhibition reduced me to unfamiliar near-speechlessness — I’ve concluded that this is, in fact, indication less of some fault or flaw either on my part or that of the curators, than a token of War and Medicine‘s real, if often uncomfortable achievement.

So let’s start with that achievement. Most of us — and here I mean, specifically, young to middle-aged Anglophone civilians, whose experience of conflict is both historically atypical and in most ways extremely enviable — generally avoid thinking very clearly about war, that persistent form of highly specialised cultural practice in which the norms of everyday life are suspended, if not wholly inverted. War, much of the time, seems to give us the world we want — but oh, how easy it is to leave the question of means to others, and then to feign shocked disapproval when confronted with those means, when of course what we ought to admit is more like a willed and culpable ignorance. And if we are ever asked to come to grips with war, as of course sometimes we must be, our society is richly resourceful in the provision of pleasant packaging. War appears, if at all, wrapped up in the tritely interchangeable visual tropes of 24-hour news broadcasts, the inhuman calculus of strategy, patriotism and its ceremonial symptoms, the voyeuristic sentimentality of literature or film, the affectless and numbing repetition of video games, even the not-quite-redemptive aestheticisation of my own beloved, if not quite critically respectable, official war art.

And by the same token, most of us avoiding thinking much about medicine, except in conventional, generously mediated, indirect ways: which is to say, through the subjectively occluded vision of medical dramas, twinges of hope induced and dispersed again by the steadily-thumping pulse of the Lancet‘s press department, sly fingering of our own hypochondrias, the sternly encroaching inevitability of whatever will harm, hinder and eventually slaughter us in the end. Continue reading

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