Could the Grenfell Fire teach us anything?

As I have been trying to come to terms with the horrors of the Grenfell fire and its aftermath, and think of its implications, I have half-remembered a poem by Rudyard Kipling. I have looked it up and I reproduce it in full below. It is over a hundred years old and is about a flood disaster, not a fire, but I think it is no less applicable today.

Kipling uses a the failure to prevent a flood as a metaphor for a deeper failure in Society. He wanted the poem to be a wake-up call. Is the fire a metaphor for some greater failing today? We still need to wake up!

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The Dykes
WE HAVE no heart for the fishing, we have no hand for the oar —
All that our fathers taught us of old pleases us now no more;
All that our own hearts bid us believe we doubt where we do not deny —
There is no proof in the bread we eat or rest in the toil we ply.Look you, our foreshore stretches far through sea-gate, dyke, and groin —
Made land all, that our fathers made, where the flats and the fairway join.
They forced the sea a sea-league back. They died, and their work stood fast.
We were born to peace in the lee of the dykes, but the time of our peace is past.Far off, the full tide clambers and slips, mouthing and testing all,
Nipping the flanks of the water-gates, baying along the wall;
Turning the shingle, returning the shingle, changing the set of the sand…
We are too far from the beach, men say, to know how the outworks stand.So we come down, uneasy, to look, uneasily pacing the beach.
These are the dykes our fathers made: we have never known a breach.
Time and again has the gale blown by and we were not afraid;
Now we come only to look at the dykes — at the dykes our fathers made.O’er the marsh where the homesteads cower apart the harried sunlight flies,
Shifts and considers, wanes and recovers, scatters and sickens and dies —
An evil ember bedded in ash — a spark blown west by the wind…
We are surrendered to night and the sea — the gale and the tide behind!At the bridge of the lower saltings the cattle gather and blare,
Roused by the feet of running men, dazed by the lantern glare.
Unbar and let them away for their lives—the levels drown as they stand,
Where the flood-wash forces the sluices aback and the ditches deliver inland.Ninefold deep to the top of the dykes the galloping breakers stride,
And their overcarried spray is a sea — a sea on the landward side.
Coming, like stallions they paw with their hooves, going they snatch with their teeth,
Till the bents and the furze and the sand are dragged out, and the old-time hurdles beneath.

Bid men gather fuel for fire, the tar, the oil and the tow —
Flame we shall need, not smoke, in the dark if the riddled seabanks go.
Bid the ringers watch in the tower (who knows how the dawn shall prove?)
Each with his rope between his feet and the trembling bells above.

Now we can only wait till the day, wait and apportion our shame.
These are the dykes our fathers left, but we would not look to the same.
Time and again were we warned of the dykes, time and again we delayed:
Now, it may fall, we have slain our sons, as our fathers we have betrayed.

Walking along the wreck of the dykes, watching the work of the seas!
These were the dykes our fathers made to our great profit and ease.
But the peace is gone and the profit is gone, with the old sure days withdrawn…
That our own houses show as strange when we come back in the dawn!

 

Where have I been?

You may wonder where I have been, as I have not been blogging much lately, although I have managed to keep tweeting. It is because my life has been disrupted by decorating and other works at home, where I usually do most of my writing.

I hope to be back to a more regular routine next week, but I have managed to find time to work on Highwaypersons Book II, The King’s Justice and still hope to publish it this summer.

I have also been working on another historical novel that I have been wanting to write for a long time. It is set in the Stone Age, a much neglected period. One of the challenges is that the geography of the British Isles has changed since then, so readers may not know where they are, unless I do some explaining, but I don’t want to write a textbook, just a novel.

Risk Dice

I am working with the assumption that, although geography, technology and society have all changed a lot since then, people have not changed very much, deep down. When and where don’t matter: sex, violence, love, hate, deceit, and loyalty were probably as common then as they are now. So I hope you will be able to relate to at least some of the characters.

I will say more about it in future blogs.

Watch this space!

Why do horses never side with the peasants?

As a lover of horses and of history, I could not help noticing a long time ago that horses have often been used successfully to suppress peasants’ revolts. (The most recent example in England was at Orgreave Colliery.) I used to often wonder about this. After all, cavalry, although important, did not play a decisive part in most battles between armies. Lots of other factors came into it.

Three things could usually defeat cavalry.

  1. Other cavalry.
  2. Firepower, or archery power.
  3. Well trained infantry: the Roman tortoise, the Saxon shield-wall, the 16th and 17th century hedgehog, Wellington’s red squares.

So they were not invincible. Why did they always seem to defeat revolting peasants? Were they just lucky?

On looking into it, I soon discovered that rebels were often indisciplined and ill-led.

  • They tended to rush towards the enemy, especially if they believed they had the advantage in numbers. Rushing against a mounted enemy never works. The trick is to stand still and strike at the right moment. It is impossible to time your blow with sword, spear or axe correctly when running. You cannot judge the speed of an approaching horse, while you are moving too.
  • The opposite is not true. A cavalryman is always good at timing his blow at an enemy on foot, whether running or standing.
  • If you are on foot, the advantage of numbers works best if you stick together. Rushing almost always means getting out of formation and allowing the men on horses to strike you down one at a time.

Class war?

  • The above point is even more true when you remember that cavalry were almost always professional soldiers or men of the ‘noble’ warrior class. Men who spent most of their time practicing fighting on horseback.
  • Peasants were usually in part-time forces and their quality varied. They were usually accustomed to being led by their social superiors, who were, naturally, on the other side when they revolted.

And this explains why horse-ownership was banned or discouraged in the Bible (e.g. Deuteronomy Chapter 17 verse 16).

It is thought that the reason for the rather negative view of horses in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is that God did not want the leaders of Israel to employ cavalrymen or charioteers, because they would use them to oppress the people and because they would be tempted to go in for unnecessary foreign wars. On the other hand, an infantry made of local volunteers would be harder to use in such ways. (I do not believe God was opposed to owning horses as such. So there is no need to feel guilty if you are a horse-owner.)

All this I learnt a long time ago. One big question continued to bother me for a long time, however.

Why did the peasants not try to form their own cavalry, even temporarily? All right. They didn’t have horses and they couldn’t ride! (A lot of farm work was done by oxen until the 18th century.) But surely they could have stolen some horses, even if they did not have any of their own. And at least some peasants must have been reasonably competent riders?

When the answer occurred to me, I was annoyed that I had not thought of it before. As I so often find. It is due to a certain physical property of horses. I will explain it in detail in another article. Until then, think about it.

 

 

 

Horse Shoe

Do you like your heroes to be proactive or reactive?

One criticism I have received, concerning Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, is that the main character, Billy, is not very proactive. In other words, things happen to him. He does not make things happen. I would love to know what you think.

  • Is that true?
  • Is it fair?
  • Does it matter?

You might argue that it is realistic. Perhaps you find yourself always having to react to events, rather than being in the driving seat all the time. Is Billy therefore someone you can relate to better than a more proactive hero?

You may wonder, whether there will be a change of emphasis in the sequel, Highwaypersons II, The King’s Justice. Will Billy take charge of events to a greater extent? He is. of course, the same character, but perhaps circumstances will lend themselves more to his being able to make more positive decisions.

On the other hand, when major national and international events occur, such as the War of the Spanish Succession, or the Jacobite Rebellion, everyone is likely to be swept along with the tide. How they react is the crucial question.

It will be published this Autumn.

If you have not yet read Highwaypersons, Debts and Duties, it is available on Createspace

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or Kindle https://www.amazon.com/Highwaypersons-Duties-Mr-Geoffrey-Monmouth/dp/153731999X

ASIN: B01LXU6LHE

Look out for special offers on Kindle.

Can cliches defeat terrorism?

I did not blog or tweet yesterday in response to the Manchester bomb. I soon found everyone else saying everything I might have said. I felt all I had to offer was a string of cliches.

I was interested to hear the Prime Minister saying something similar to what I was thinking. I am now saying it in my own words, so apologies if I misinterpret her at all.

She said that whenever there is an incident like this, politicians all say the same things:

  1. Condemn and deplore the wickedness
  2. Sympathise with the victims and their families
  3. State that we will not be cowed or divided.

Then she said something important: that these things get repeated so often precisely because they are TRUE. They do not become less true just because they have been said before.

All I can do is to agree, for once, with the Prime Minister, one hundred percent. A thing becomes a cliche because it has often been found to be true or helpful. I remember reading a comment to this effect by Graham Greene. He said it was difficult for writers to find new ways of saying things that had often been said. Ordinary people, not writers, don’t worry. They come out with cliches all the time. He said that was especially true when we are responding to something which touches our emotions. We express joy or sadness, anger or love, in cliches.  And why not? I agree with Graham. If a thing is true, let it be said as often as it is needed.

Finally, let me remind you of an article I wrote in response to the last terrorist incident in Britain, the one outside Parliament. I think everything I said there is true again this time. http://geoffreymonmouth.co.uk/blog/wp-admin/post.php?post=284&action=edit

The terrorists can’t win.

 

Will I hit my target with the sequel to Highwaypersons?

I have suggested that the second book in the Highwaypersons series, The King’s Justice, would be available by June this year. That was a target I had set for myself. I have to warn you that it is looking increasingly unlikely that I will be able to keep to that timetable.

What has gone wrong? Why can I not hit the target?

  • Have I been diverted to other projects?
  • Had domestic problems?
  • Just been lazy?

None of the above. Well, not to any great extent. The fact is that I recently reviewed the almost-complete draft and was not satisfied. At first, I could not decide what was the matter: what parts should I cut out? Eventually I realised that, although I was quite pleased with most sections,  the fault lay in the overall structure of the book. The story did not flow.

What have I done about it?

I have been thinking it over, and now I have a revised outline. Most of the previous elements are there, but they are not going to be in the same order. If Eric Morecambe comes to mind, well, why not? He had a point, hadn’t he? Some sections will need to be rewritten, although I hope I can keep the best features of each.

I have also decided to add a few new elements to the story. They will make the book longer and more complex, but, I hope, they will give it a better structure.

 

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So how far back does this put things?

I am aware that I have certain other commitments that will take up a lot of time in June and July, so I have to be realistic and say the book will now most probably not be published until September. I think most readers would rather I took as long as I needed until it was as good as I could make it, rather than making the achievement of some self-imposed target the most important priority.

 

 

Should Blasphemy be a Crime in the 21st Century?

As a writer, I admire people who are good with words, spoken or written. One great entertainer with words is Stephen Fry, who has fallen foul of the authorities in Ireland, because of things he said two years ago in an interview. He had expressed his opinion of God. An opinion which could be construed as blasphemy, which I now know is still a crime in Ireland.

I have heard Stephen express anti-christian views, many times. Of course, he says things in a colourful way, which makes them memorable and thought-provoking. Well, provoking, anyway. I disagree with him, but I am aware that many others do not. I am sure they would be amazed to learn they were breaking the law by saying what they thought.

I know that in Pakistan there are blasphemy laws, by which you can be prosecuted for saying things derogatory of Islam or the Prophet Mohammed. The laws are used to stifle discussion or dissent. They are also used to further personal disputes. I have recently heard that Indonesia has something similar, by which the governor of Jakarta is currently being prosecuted.

Soap Box

In other places, Moslems are sometimes so incensed by anything perceived as an insult to their religion that Christians and other non-Moslems have to be very careful to avoid violent reactions to their words, even if spoken in response to things said against their religions. Many people are concerned at these official and unofficial restrictions on freedom of speech and of religion.

I had thought that there was no equivalent in Europe or the English-speaking World. I mean, that opinions on religion or any other subject could be freely expressed, whether in serious debate or through satire or other forms of comedy. As a writer of historical fiction, I have addressed religious intolerance and the resulting conflicts in their context. I had thought that they belonged in history.

What did Stephen say? That if there was a god, he must be cruel, capricious and irrational, or words to that effect, and that such a god would not be worthy of our worship or allegiance. He is far from alone in such an opinion. Something like it has been expressed many times over the years, by many commentators.

As a Christian, do I find that offensive? I find it hurtful, but I expect many people find it hurtful to be condemned as sinners by some preachers. Such differences are a fact of life. My strongest reaction is not hurt, but sadness. I find it sad that a sensitive and intelligent man such as Stephen sees the negative aspects of religion and of the World, rather than the positive ones. I find it sad that he has not realised that Christians down the ages have struggled within themselves with the problems of pain and injustice, and have found answers that led them to continue and even grow in the faith. Read The Problem of Pain by C S Lewis. (Another man who loved words).

Doubt

What does the Bible say? It does not ignore the issues Stephen raises. The epistles are full of reference to suffering. The Book of Job delves deeply into the matter. And above all, the very centre of the Gospel is the story of the crucifixion, where Jesus dies a horrible death as a result of injustice.

So what about the Blasphemy Law? Christians do not need any laws to defend God’s Truth. The answer to critics is…to answer them. To set out our views. As long as there is freedom both ways, we have nothing to fear. Let’s leave oppression and intolerance to history!

 

 

Can you believe the Excalibur story?

Some of my favourite stories are the ones about King Arthur.

There are many versions of the Arthur legend. One collection was written by the man whose name I have borrowed, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in the Twelfth Century.

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These stories contain a fascinating mixture of fact and fiction. Some are hard to place into either category. Perhaps the hardest to believe, or even make sense of, is the story of Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. Well, two stories, really. In one, he draws the sword from a stone to prove he is the rightful king. In another, he is given the sword by the Lady of the Lake, to whom it is finally returned.

What? Can this be serious?

For a long time, I was mystified. Then I learnt a few things about pre-Roman Britain. Yes, I know Arthur is supposed to be a king of post-Roman Britain. I will come to that later, but bear with me.

The times before the Romans came are known as the Bronze Age, followed by the Iron Age. This indicates the importance of those metals in the societies which came after the Stone Age. Swords were made of bronze and later of iron. Possessing one made a difference.

How do you make a sword?

Start with a piece of iron, or bronze? If you can. First you had to get your metal. How? Find some ore and smelt it. What is ore? A kind of rock. So you start with a stone and turn it into a sword! Not many people could do it. In those days, as any other, knowledge was power. Unlike today, however, people kept it to themselves and passed it on only to their closest friends or relatives. They did not write books or give seminars. You had to be in an inner circle.

So if you could make a sword, you were someone important, powerful.

In 2002 archaeologists discovered the remains of The Amesbury Archer, near Stonehenge. He lived at the start of the Bronze Age. He was obviously a man of great wealth and power. Probably a king. But he was also apparently a man with knowledge of bronze-making. Perhaps the man who introduced the craft to Britain? Was Arthur a bronze-smith or iron-smith?

So they didn’t jump out of lakes, then?

No, and yes! It is amazing how many bronze swords have been found in lakes and in rivers. Now, I refuse to believe that bronze-age people were so careless as to lose their swords whenever they crossed a river or fished in a lake. Swords were valuable. So important that they were given names. Like Excalibur. Lakes and rivers were also important. Vitally. You need water to live. But people drown. Water can be a barrier or a highway. You need to keep on the right side of the gods or spirits of the water. Bronze-age historians generally believe that these swords were placed in water intentionally as offerings to gods or spirits.

So who was the Lady of the Lake?

She could have been the goddess or spirit or angel of the lake. Or else some sort of priestess who served the deity. She could have given Arthur the sword of an ancestor or hero who had given it to the god. That would have been a sign of divine favour. Useful when you apply for the position of king.

Isn’t Arthur in the wrong century?

Apparently. Could there have been stories about a great hero or two from a previous age, possibly also called Arthur. (The name means ‘bear’). Could the legends have become confused? Or did some storyteller draw on the older tales in order to emphasize Arthur’s divine calling and/or to link him with his ancestors?

Of course, all I have said is speculation. But it is based on some scientific facts. Perhaps I will write another version of the Arthur legend, where I will try to make the Excalibur story more credible. Someone should.

 

Would Brexiters or Remainers have preferred the 18th Century?

Listening to all the ongoing arguments between Brexiters and Remainers about leaving the EU, I have noticed a remarkable similarity with the topical issues of the Eighteenth Century.

Before becoming our king, George I was the Elector, i.e. ruler, of the state of Hanover, which he continued to be throughout his reign, as did his descendants, until Queen Victoria was prevented from becoming ruler of Hanover, due to different rules of succession. For many people, the connection with a country in continental Europe was a good thing. George had experience of government and of continental politics. He continued to have access to other European rulers and politicians, some of whom might have been less well known to most British politicians.

On the other hand, this connection brought Britain into conflicts which were essentially Hanover’s problems, not ours, such as Hanover’s disputes with Sweden . At least, that is how it looked to the Brexiters of his day, although others regarded Swedish aggression as something Britain needed to oppose anyway.  That is an issue which becomes relevant in Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, to be published later this year.

George was also welcomed by some because he was seen as more modern scientific, and constitutional than the Stewarts, his main rivals for the throne. This reminds me of the concerns I have heard from some Remainers, that a post-Brexit Britain could become too friendly with undemocratic countries such as China and Saudi Arabia. Of course, those people tend to omit any reference to such places as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

As the Eighteenth Century is the setting for Highwaypersons, and as the conflict with the Jacobites is a theme running through all the books, there are chapters where you could well imagine you were reading something far more up to date. Of course, these books are not primarily about politics. They are full of adventures, mysteries, romances and personal dramas. Whether you are a Brexiter or  a Remainer,  I hope you will find plenty to enjoy in them.

Can we believe any stories told before writing was invented?

Many of us are sceptical about stories telling of events which seem to have happened before writing was invented. They are written off (the pun is intended) as myths, sagas, folklore or legends. Whatever you call them, they are not history. Are they?

How old is that?

I cannot put a date to this, as writing occurred in different places at different times. In Britain, we usually credit the Romans with introducing writing to our ancestors, along with baths, roads, laws and stone buildings. Some people say Ogham script was used here before then, but was not very widespread.

What about Jewish stories?

The earliest stories in the Bible seem to relate to times before writing was known in the Middle East. Some people claim that they were written by other civilizations before being adopted by the Jewish people. Even so, if Moses is to be given the credit for the first five books of the Old Testament, I have to say that many of the stories cover events long before he was born in a society that did not have writing, as far as we know. There is a similar problem if you say someone else wrote the books in question.

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Does this mean that old Celtic legends and the book of Genesis, for instance, must be regarded as fiction, or at least highly unreliable?

Not necessarily!

I have not been watching the recent series Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, because I so enjoyed the original TV version that I cannot imagine this one being an improvement. I would sooner watch repeats of the first one. In that story, we see American slaves keeping some memory of Africa alive by African words and by stories about their ancestors.

But they were illiterate!

These words and stories were passed down the generations orally. By the 1960’s a lot had been lost, but the remnants were enough to enable Alex Haley to find where his family came from. A village in the Gambia. Once he got there, he found local storytellers had kept the same stories alive too. The difference was that the Africans had more accurate details, because they had a tradition of learning things by heart and reciting them exactly. I understand that this is true in many societies which do not have written languages.

Perhaps the Celts and the Jews also retold stories exactly until someone wrote them down, centuries later.

When I come across old stories, nowadays, I treat them with a lot of respect, in spite of my natural caution, even scepticism. There may be more to many of them than I used to think.