Tag Archives: British history

On Robin Fleming’s ‘Britain After Rome’

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 should perhaps have been a different book altogether.

The product of ten years’ work on the part of Robin Fleming, a professor at Boston College (Boston, Massachusetts, USA), Britain After Rome was commissioned by David Cannadine within the Penguin History of Britain series. It covers the huge span of time — nearly seven centuries — that elapsed between the departure of the Roman legions and the arrival of William the Conqueror. As such, it follows in the footsteps of at least two other Penguin volumes: The Anglo-Saxons (James Campbell et al, 1991) and The Beginnings of English Society (Dorothy Whitelock, 1963).

Based on all this, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Britain After Rome was intended as a general introduction to this large, complex and in many ways intractable subject — a book for students, clearly, but perhaps also for the casual museum visitor who has been stunned by the splendour of the Staffordshire Hoard and wants to know more, the casual reader wondering to what degree The Lantern Bearers (1959) makes any sort of historical sense, the anxious observer of current affairs hoping acquire a longer view regarding the challenges, curiosities and catastrophes of our own time.

Yet Britain After Rome in fact strongest precisely at the point where it stops trying to pass itself off as a generalist introduction. Far and away the best thing about the book is the final chapter, “Living and Dying in Early Medieval Britain: The Fifth to Eleventh Century” [sic]. Here, with the end in sight, as it were, Professor Fleming is at last able to bypass aspects of human experience that don’t seem to engage her quite so fully — religion, politics, warfare, agriculture, craftsmanship, linguistics — and can concentrate fully on the part of her subject to which she brings the most obvious energy.

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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 James Lees-Milne and the National Trust

Blickling Hall, Norfolk, bequeathed to the National Trust by the 11th Marquess of Lothian upon his death in 1940.

Is it purely fortuitous that the decline of our civilization and the collapse of the country house way of life are coincidental?

— James Lees-Milne, ‘The Country House in Our Heritage”, in The Destruction of the Country House by Roy Strong et al, Thames & Hudson, 1974.

i.

A professed enthusiasm for the published diaries of James Lees-Milne comes, we learn too late, at the cost of having to defend their late author against a catalogue of failings — only some of these entirely imagined or misguided.

A few accusations, at least, can be fended off easily enough. Wasn’t JLM a snob? Yes, of course he was — but then he was neither the uncritical confidante of duchesses, the worshipper at the gaudy shrines of wealth and success nor the self-congratulatory anosmiac in matters of public and private morality that some believe him to be, not least because to have been any of these things would have exemplified a predictability both boring and unattractive — and JLM was, of course, neither. Wasn’t he a reactionary, though? Not really, more’s the pity. Because for all the encouraging rants against trade union militancy, redistributive taxation and Irish republicanism notwithstanding, there’s also enough Harold Nicolsonian liberalism, Duke of Edinburgh-style ur-environmentalism and dandyish personal eccentricity here to ward off any accusations of ideological consistency. Politically, as in most other ways, JLM remains hard to pin down. In these paradoxes, maddening though they can be, lies more than a degree of his diaries’ enduring appeal.

Admittedly, there are problems. JLM was, on the basis of these same diaries, both anti-semitic and racist — but so very mildly so, by the standards of his age and class, that one often ends up wondering more at the mildness itself, than at the unremarkable nastiness and stupidity of yesterday’s rightly discredited prejudices. He was capable of remarkably homophobic pronouncements — somewhat oddly, given his promiscuously bisexual, mostly guilt-free history. His patchy wartime service — six months in the Irish Guards, followed by a year of convalescence and a welcome return to civilian life — looks unimpressive, especially when compared with the heroism of so many of his contemporaries, although the stress-induced onset of hereditary Jacksonian epilepsy would clearly be a kinder explanation than whatever combination of nervous collapse and cowardice unsympathetic critics might otherwise postulate in its place. JLM also went on a lot about liking houses more than people, which is rarely a good sign — although in practice, the individual qualities of house and person tended to soften the edges of any comparison — so perhaps he can be excused on that particular score.

In any event, however, we may perhaps agree that JLM was not an unambiguously admirable human being. As the diaries make plain — nor does Michael Bloch’s brilliant biography do anything much to dispel the impression — JLM could be petty, headstrong, arbitrary, vain, self-justifying and also extremely selfish. But JLM was, as the diaries also reveal, clear-eyed regarding his failings. And herein, I suppose, reposes his greatness as a diarist. For the perfect imaginary companion, while he surely ought to be more alert, more perceptive and more fluently confidential than even his brightest readers, at the same time cannot be seen to be superior to them. ‘You were silly like us …’ Even more than his wit and social reach, JLM’s contradictions, his failings and that unsparing yet somehow affectionate self-criticism are what render the diaries perfect company, as much so on tiresome days as on happy ones. A better man would, in short, have been a worse diarist. His enthusiasts end up loving him as much for his contradictions, contrariness and flaws, real though these may be, as despite them.

Yet for all that, there is one aspect of JLM’s story which continues to fill me with unease — his relationship with the National Trust.

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