Can we learn lessons from history?

What could we learn from Donald Trump?

I recently said that I agreed with Donald Trump (!) that we should not try to rewrite history but study it and learn from it. I went on to say that history teaches us of the dangers of extremism and racism.

Do I need to illustrate that?

I have seen an interesting and moving account of the Partition of India, presented very sensitively by Anita Rani. It showed the terrible effects of mob violence based on religious divisions. It seems to have been mostly spontaneous, unlike the planned genocide conducted by the Nazis just a few years before, but the results were similar. At least a million deaths.

What about the present?

My previous blog,Beautiful statues? Must we be slaves to the past? Could Trump be right? was prompted by the violence in Charlottesville, but many nationalists in Europe and some of our own Brexiters have been exploiting intolerance. It is all too similar to the way things began in the 1930’s. Then there’s ISIS. If Islamic extremism is evil, as we (almost) all agree, let us not react against it with its mirror image. That is what everyone seems to have done in India in 1947. Fortunately, not quite everyone. There were some beautiful examples of courage on all sides: helping victims and trying to bring people together. Learn from them!

Will India learn?

The present government in India seems determined to encourage Hindu nationalism at the expense of all that country’s minorities.

Listen to Mr Gandhi, or even (in this respect) Donald Trump, or just look at history and learn before it’s too late.

Learn the lesson or follow a demagogue?
Is this a demagogue or a warning from history?

Beautiful statues? Must we be slaves to the past? Could Trump be right?

How controversial can statues be?

The terrible events in Charlottesville seem to have originated in a decision to remove a statue of Robert E Lee: to some a Confederate and local hero, whilst to others a symbol of white supremacy and the defence of slavery. In many places in the USA, statues of Confederate leaders have been removed recently as they are offensive to many people and considered as reminders of a painful period in American history – some say actually symbols of racism. The same is true of the Confederate flag, ‘the Stars and Bars’.

In Britain we have had a similar argument over a statue in Oxford of Cecil Rhodes, a controversial figure in his own time and still today. An imperialist, blamed for, and certainly involved in, the British take-over of much of Southern Africa. There has also been a move to rename the Colston Hall in Bristol, as Mr Colston, although in many ways a philanthropist, made most of his money out of the slave trade, possibly being unaware of the real horrors of that trade.

What about statues of Robert E Lee?

It is ironic that Lee in particular should be the centre of so much of this controversy. He was not personally in favour of slavery, or of secession. That is why it was not so ridiculous that Abraham Lincoln offered him the command of the Union Army at the start of the Civil War. He said he refused it because his first loyalty was to his ‘country’ – meaning Virginia.

Lee wrote in 1856:

In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.

Most of us today would find a lot of that unacceptable, but it is far from the most robust defence of slavery or white supremacy I have ever read. Lee is not a good choice to be the personification of racism.

What about Donald Trump? In what way could he be right? About statues at least?

(A concept many people find hard to imagine!)

He said ‘we should not try to rewrite history but learn from it‘. If you reject everything else he ever said, as you might, you should think about this. Of course, the lessons of history tell us to beware of extremism, to reject white supremacy, and to respect human rights. I love history. Let’s not rewrite it. But let’s not be slaves to it. Rather, let’s look hard at it and learn. I wrote about the lessons of history in my blog “Would Brexiters or Remainers have preferred the Eighteenth Century?”   You may see its relevance now.

What about my writing? Does slavery come into it?

In Highwaypersons, Book II, The King’s Justice, which I hope to publish soon, Billy and Bethan have several encounters with the slave trade, of which they initially know hardly anything. Their reaction to what they learn has a big impact on them and on the story. You may find some surprises, as they do.

Forget statues, what about the present?

I am concerned we can get too obsessed with the statues and symbols of the past and forget the very present evil of racism. Then there’s slavery. It still goes on. At least the British authorities are now aware of it and taking action. Let’s put an end to it. And let’s act against discrimination, show respect for all people. TODAY.

Don't be two-faced about racialism - it's not all about statues
Don’t be two-faced about racialism – it’s not all about statues

So why did horses never favour rebellious peasants?

I have previously written about one reason for the failure of peasants’ revolts of all kinds down the ages. It was the use of cavalry by the ruling classes. See So why did horses never favour the peasants.  In that blog, I raised the question of why the peasants never fought fire with fire, using borrowed or stolen horses.

This is my theory.

When horses were the main form of transport, many people probably rode from one village to the next. Few would have needed to learn anything at all advanced. Most beginners find it is relatively easy to ride a horse at a walk, although a trot can be quite uncomfortable until you get used to it. A canter is often easier – until the horse stops or turns!

People would have found a real difference between basic riding and the more advanced stuff, if they rode in a battle, even in a skirmish. Sharp turns at speed are difficult. In everyday situations, you would probably be going in straight lines, or something like, most of the time. In battle, manoeverability is usually everything.

It was the way horses moved!

The reason horses were so unhelpful to the peasants is a result of their way of moving. At a trot, a horse moves diagonally opposite feet together: left fore and right hind, and vice versa. At a canter, one diagonal pair breaks up, making a three-time rhythm: lead foreleg, diagonal pair, other hindleg. On a circle or a bend the animal will keep its balance best if its lead foreleg is the one on the inside of the circle. To ride a figure of eight, you should change the lead, and hence the pattern of the other legs, in the middle. This may sound a bit sophisticated, but wild horses often change leads when cantering round bends or zig-zags, although many have a favourite lead, like being right or left handed.

In the past, most people might not have fully understood all this, but you can get the practice right without understanding the theory. Any professional cavalryman would know how and when to ride a change of lead. A peasant would not.

How important is this?

If you try to make a horse do a sharp turn on the wrong lead, there are several ways it might respond:

  • ignore the stupid instruction
  • make a very wide, gradual turn
  • drop down to a trot (this can be most unseating if you are not expecting it)
  • try to change leads and stumble or even fall (I have known this to happen)
  • do a neat change (if it is an experienced, agile horse)

You can guess that you would not like any but the last option. You could find even the last a bit unseating if you were not prepared. If you are wearing any sort of armour and carrying weapons you are top heavy and more likely to fall off or cause the horse to stumble. In battle, any mistakes can be fatal. You do not want to be fumbling.

I believe this explains, at least in part, why a handful of trained cavalrymen could usually defeat a lot of revolting peasants. Don’t blame the horses!

A Horse's Shoe - horses were unlucky for some
Horseshoe – horses were unlucky for some!

Review of The Curse of Arundel Hall, by Jackie New

I reviewed this book several weeks ago and recently thought it might be worth posting here. I would be interested in other people’s views on the same book.  It is nothing like Highwaypersons and is in no way in competition. There is room for lots of kinds of historical fiction. I would also be interested to read any reviews there may be of Highwaypersons. We always need to learn and improve. To avoid creating a spoiler, I will say very little about the curse.

Review of The Curse of Arundel Hall

Summary.

This is a whodunnit, set in the Golden Age of Crime Fiction, the inter-war years, on an island apparently somewhere off the Kent coast. The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, a young widow who lives in a haunted cottage. She tries to uncover its various secrets, notably the reason for the haunting, possibly connected to an old curse. The protagonist befriends several local people, all of whom are guests at a dinner at the Hall of the title, when a murder takes place. She has to struggle with her personal feelings for the suspects as she uses her local knowledge and investigative skills to help the police find the killer.

How many secrets will she uncover and how much danger will she be putting herself in, as she tries to solve the murder and the haunting? Is the legend of a curse true?

A detective of the golden age of crime fiction: can he solve the mystery of the curse?
A detective of the golden age of crime fiction: can he solve the mystery of the curse?
Plot.

This is a decent two-layered mystery with plenty of clues appearing as the story unfolds. I did not guess the killer’s identity.

The backstory unfolds unevenly. The protagonist’s early life comes out in a concise and interesting way, up to her marriage. There then seem to be big gaps until we come to the start of the main story, when it settles down. The missing narrative is apparently in a previous book, but the author could have dealt with the link more smoothly.

The writer sets out the history of the Hall well and in a quite interesting way, but gives it in one big dump. Teasing it out, perhaps from different sources, might have been better.

The curse of the cliche!

Having all the suspects under one rather grand roof is a plot device used a lot by crime writers of the period, as is the denouement, where the detective gathers all the suspects together and goes through the reasons for suspecting each one and for ruling out all apart from the killer. It is a popular and logical approach, but a bit of a cliché.

I found it hard to believe that such a senior police officer would have got so involved in an investigation, but I acknowledge the author’s attempt at addressing that point, even if I remain unconvinced.

Ending.

The book ends with the mysteries of the murder and the haunting being solved, but several loose ends remain. This leaves scope for the reader’s imagination plus the possibility of a series. I was impressed with the shock at the very end. (Sssh!) I was left hoping for a sequel.

Pace.

The pace was satisfactory throughout. The story moved forward steadily, once we had got past the first few chapters. It did not get bogged down in superfluous description. Perhaps a little more pace and/or tension would have helped, but this genre does not require them.

Sex and Violence.

The plot did not involve sex or violence, other than the inevitable violence of the murder itself. The discussions of forensics did not become too gruesome.

Character.

I liked the protagonist, whose character came through in both narrative and dialogue. I liked her attitude to the ghost: fascination rather than fear. The other characters were all well drawn, but tended to resemble those found in too many detective novels of the period.

The most original and delightful character was the phantom cat.

I applaud the writer’s practice of showing rather than telling.

Character Development.

There was not much development of any of the characters, but we discover different aspects of each as the story develops. As it is a whodunnit, the author rightly did not give too much away too soon.

Descriptions.

For me, the level of detail of description of people and places was just right. The only exception to that was the island. I would have liked to know its size, location and nature. A couple of short paragraphs would have done.

Language.

Generally, I found it appropriate to the period, without being unnecessarily old-fashioned. I did however find a few clichés and also some modern expressions which grated in a novel of this type.

I was pleased to see the writer did not find it necessary to resort to profanity. She has a sufficient vocabulary to express thoughts and feelings in other ways.

General.

I enjoyed reading this book and found a lot to like, in spite of noticing many things that needed improving. The work would have been improved by more originality and thus fewer clichés, in plot, setting and characters, as well as phraseology. That would have done justice to this work.