Tag Archives: 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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

14 Comments

Filed under archaeology, books, history, reviews

Against the proposed demolition of the Cleveland Street workhouse

London's last surviving Georgian workhouse: 44 Cleveland Street, London W1

Tired out from pondering the rights and wrongs of George Osborne’s selective hacking away at child benefit, Iain Duncan Smith’s modest proposals for the wholesale reformulation of state welfare provision, the general conference-season ambience of broken electoral promises, simultaneous and self-contradictory accusations of ideological inflexibility and half-baked desperation, the whole unsatisfactory spectacle of a Conservative Party enjoying no shared coherent vision about where the line ought to fall between public provision and private responsibility and hence muddling through as best it can, encumbered all awhile with a coalition partner whose history, instincts and commitments with regards to state welfare provision could hardly be more different?

If so, well, then here’s an easy question for you, by way of light distraction. The question concerns an old building. Just to make it even easier, there’s a photo of it above.

The question? Here goes. Which is a better idea — demolishing an attractive, conveniently-sited, structurally sound Georgian building, replete with historical associations which we’ll discuss in a moment, in order to throw up in its place an unremarkable tower-block providing a mixture of residential accommodation and some office space — or in contrast, preserving the old building, which could easily be converted to suit present-day purposes, including, err, residential accommodation and perhaps even a bit of office space as well?

Not exactly difficult, is it?

The historical case for preserving 44 Cleveland Street is particularly strong, not least for the commentary it offers on the past few centuries of welfare provision in London — a story, as it turns out, with more than a degree of contemporary resonance. Continue reading

17 Comments

Filed under architecture, history, London, Tory things

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

Comments Off on On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

Filed under archaeology, culture, history, war & peace

On the Museum of London’s new galleries

What does it say about the new exhibition space at the Museum of London that all the Museum’s own publicity — even the branding on their own website, e.g. here — refers to these as ‘the new £20 million Galleries of Modern London’, the ‘£20 million’ price tag conjoined with the galleries’ name as firmly as the constituent parts of some Homeric trope?

Not much, perhaps. Yet it’s worth going on to read the other claims the brief online synopsis makes for the Museum’s redesigned lower floor rooms:

Three years in the making, five new galleries tell the story of London and its people from 1666 to the present day. 7,000 objects, show-stopping interactives, specially designed family areas, film and changing displays transport you through the capital’s tumultuous history, rich with drama, triumph and near disaster.

As is so often the case with history, it’s the rhetorical colour that lingers long after what detail there is has begun to fade away — in particular, that familiar emphasis on novelty, abundance and spectacle.

Combine this with the launch of the Museum’s own iPhone app, Streetmuseum — and for those interested in the relationship between the launch of Streetmuseum and the opening of the new galleries, there’s a fascinating interview with the Museum of London’s marketing manager here — and the nature of the ‘repositioning’ underway here could hardly be more obvious. Out with the merely didactic displays, the rows of carefully-labelled items, silent and thoughtful contemplation of history’s wreckage, the dark romance of extreme street-by-street specificity and hard-won local knowledge — in with diversion, distraction, sensory skimming over the surface of a past at once highly generalised yet also fragmented into incoherence, projections both metaphorical and literal, noise, restlessness half-attention always in search of something marginally more interesting — in a word, ‘entertainment’, which is what the new exhibition space seems to be all about.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the Galleries of Modern London have already proved an enormous success.

Continue reading

9 Comments

Filed under history, London, reviews

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

8 Comments

Filed under books, history, Tory things, war & peace

Worth the wait: ‘Rome and the Barbarians’

Rome and the Barbarians

As a child — shy, bookish, obscurely discontented with my lot and fairly certain that something more interesting lay elsewhere, chronologically if not geographically speaking — there was little I loved more than curling up in an armchair in some half-lit room, seeking escape from the supposed inadequacy of ordinary things through the pages of really good picture-book.

My sense of ‘really good’ was, admittedly, eclectic and gappily critical. At the time, so immaculate was my intellectual innocence that I accepted as mere point-and-shoot accuracy, for instance, the hard-won Neo-Romantic dreaminess of Bill Brandt’s photography in Literary Britain (1951) without consciously noting its function as both commentary and criticism of that other picture-book favourite of mine, an enormous volume of photographic images of the Second World War, a topic broadly construed as taking in everything from Nanking to the Berlin Blockade, the not-yet-revivable glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Rita Hayworth co-existing as a matter of fact alongside incomprehensible if unforgettable visions of burning cities, tangles of broken and tortured bodies — a rich if unruly grammar of visual imagery not entirely tamed, if memory serves, by the broadly reassuring commentary of its post-war American editors on what was, at least in the mid 1970s, America’s ‘good’ war, to be recalled and even celebrated in the context of more recent and problematic conflicts. Or so I remember thinking at the time. (Perhaps, on reflection, I wasn’t as innocent as all that.)

But of course there was more to my canon of picture books, even in those days, than moody mid-century photography. Continue reading

8 Comments

Filed under art, books, culture, history, reviews

Jacobinical hyenas, we’re watching you

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

Samuel Palmer, 'The Herdsman's Cottage' (1850)

“The ricks burnt around Shoreham, within sight of Palmer‘s house, under the moons that he had painted broad and full. The moons charmed away neither fire nor reform, and on June 4th, 1832, the Reform Bill was passed the House of Lords. The anti-Reformers still saw some last hope in the General Election which followed in December, and while purple banners were being stitched for the Tory candidate in West Kent with the arms of the county, St. George and the Dragon and ‘King and Constitution’, Palmer left painting to gesticulate in print against the change and the future. Continue reading

Comments Off on Jacobinical hyenas, we’re watching you

Filed under art, politics, religion