One comment I have received for my post can we learn lessons from historyis that we should but we never do. We keep repeating our mistakes. I remember the words of David Steele, at the time the leader of the Liberal Party, speaking about Mrs Thatcher’s dealings with Northern Ireland. David, himself a Scot, said:
‘the trouble with the English is that they never remember, and the trouble with the Irish is that they never forget‘.
He was, sadly, right, at least in that context. We repeated the mistakes of the past for another decade.
Whose side am I on?
I know the Monmouth motto, ‘utrique fidelis’ meaning ‘loyal to both‘, refers to England and Wales, but I would like it to apply to England and Ireland too. Does loving the one mean being disloyal to the other?
Back to the mistakes of the 1930’s ?
I am concerned that today a lot of countries are making the mistakes made in the 1930’s again, austerity and nationalism being the most obvious. Has nobody heard of J M Keynes? And as to nationalism, in the present age, I would have thought international cooperation was more, not less, essential than in the 1930’s.
How do you look at it?
Even if Brexit is inevitable, conducting the negotiations via the tabloids, seeing every warning or criticism from the EU as a threat and treating it as a win-lose situation, rather than aiming for a win-win, cannot be good for anyone in the long run.
Even if better control of immigration is necessary, let us avoid blaming immigrants for all our problems.
This is a time when we really need to learn the lessons of history and not repeat its mistakes.
Here are my thoughts on Ranters Wharf, which I have recently read. I hope some of you will find them interesting. For the first time, I learned what ‘ranters’ were, as I will explain later.
What is it about?
This is an unusual book, a mixture of fact and fiction, which tells the story of one man and his son, in a semi-biographical form, covering the period from the late Eighteenth to the mid Nineteenth Century. It is set mainly in the Lincolnshire Wolds and the town of Grimsby, places seldom visited by novelists. The book looks at the economic, social, religious and political challenges of the period through the eyes of the main characters. They experience external and internal conflicts as they try to reconcile personal ambition, family loyalty, Christian faith and political activism. They do not find easy answers.
What is Ranters Wharf like?
This is not a book for readers who like their history to be romantic and comforting. Poverty and social injustice, in both town and countryside, are always in the background, when not in the foreground. The period detail is fascinating, but without over long descriptions or intrusive pedantry. The historical notes at the end helped sift fact from fiction, but this is no history textbook: the characters and situations are real and engaging, even the minor characters. Some of the incidents are quite moving.
What did I not like about it?
Inevitably, as being true to history, the story tended to be rather depressing. Perhaps the author could have created a little more ‘light and shade’, without losing the book’s sense of reality. A little more humour would also have helped.
I found it a bit slow to develop a theme. For several chapters at the beginning, I was looking for the plot. It began to take shape only when the main character encountered the Primitive Methodists, a group of which I knew little before reading this book.
Who were the ranters?
People used to call certain kinds of preachers ‘ranters’, because they were people who ranted, i.e. shouted their views. It was a derogatory term. The author appears to have had some personal experience of lively nonconformist Christianity. The book reminds us that not all preachers in those days were either naïve or hypocrites, and that not all expressions of the Christian faith have opposed social and political change.
What about the way it was written?
The language and style seemed appropriate for the period: easily readable, but not irritatingly modern.
What is my general opinion of Ranters’ Wharf?
Overall, I found the book fascinating and thought-provoking. A good antidote to the Merrie England type of historical novel.
Some of the most unlikely events are actually drawn from real life. You couldn’t make them up.
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.
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.
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!
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Firepower, or archery power.
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.
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.
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