I wrote recently about British and American mythology. I said some myths are harmless, but others do harm. Here are some more American myths that we need to correct, from the Wild West.
The mythology of the gun
There is a myth that the Wild West was dangerous and you survived only if you were quick on the draw. FACT: more people – far more – died of starvation in the Old West than died in gunfights. Life was hard and people had to battle the elements more than other people.
The mythology of the Indian Attacks
The westerns give the impression that Native Americans were always attacking white settlers, especially those on wagon-trains. FACT: A few violent acts by Native Americans got a disproportionate amount of publicity. Many tribes have disappeared, probably because white Americans perpetrated a lot of violence against them rather than vice versa. FACT: Native Americans seldom attacked wagon-trains. That is probably because a wagon-train comprised a lot of white people in one place (the trains were usually much bigger than we imagine) and they often had cavalry escorts. When Native Americans did resort to violence, they usually targeted isolated farms or ranches.
The mythology of the individual
When we think of the Wild West, we tend to think of brave individuals who solved all their own problems, and somehow all their individual achievements added up to the arrival of civilisation. FACT: the railway, which was a major corporate government-sponsored endeavour, was the biggest factor in the spread of civilisation.
Does the mythology matter?
It does. It misinforms the gun-control debate, encourages a belief in individualism, makes white Americans feel justified about their treatment of Native Americans in the past, and probably affects the way they look upon Native Americans today. As starvation was the big killer in the past, perhaps everyone should be more concerned about poverty and inequality today.
These myths are often about the formation of the nation or its fight for independence. I have enjoyed the recent series about American mythology presented by Lucy Worsley. The myths about the War of Independence were particularly interesting for a Briton. I remember reading some time ago that some Americans couldn’t understand why Independence Day wasn’t celebrated in the UK. Of course, I could think of few Brits who would like to celebrate it, but not for the same reason as the Americans!
To have lots of myths you need lots of history!
The Americans have to extract all their myths from history since 1776, whereas we in Britain go back forever. We’ve got King Arthur, Boudicca, Robin Hood, all before Columbus made his famous voyage. We’ve even got a story about a certain John Cabot finding America before Columbus and another about a Welsh Prince who sailed off somewhere to the West. Every village in Britain seems to have its local myth.
Do myths do any harm?
Usually not. They add a bit of local colour to history. They help us feel good about ourselves as a nation. But they can do harm. Lucy Worsley showed that the myths of the Old South made slavery seem respectable. All those contented, well-fed slaves; their charming, noble masters and mistresses. States rights sounded like an ideal concept, not just the right to keep slaves. It reminded me of the myth of Merrie England, where happy peasants danced around the maypole, bowing happily to benevolent lords and ladies, with their loyal, loving servants.
Myths do two types of harm
Firstly they make us feel the past was better than the present. They brush the poverty and injustice under the carpet.
Secondly, they encourage a national sense of superiority and a dislike of foreigners. We were always the Good Guys: no British war-crimes ever happened.
During the War (World War II, of course) it was probably useful to boost morale by exaggerating the extent to which we were all in it together, helping our neighbours, doing our bit. It was therefore justifiable to suppress information about the rise in crime, looting, black-marketing. But it’s been over for a long time. We need to grow up and face the facts.
I will write about some specific myths that I think need challenging, in my next few blogs.
John McDonnell has called Winston Churchill ‘not a hero but a villain’.
Isn’t Churchill our greatest national hero? How can John McDonnell, or anyone, say he’s a villain, not just overrated or not as great as some other hero? Why would anyone want to attack Churchill’s legacy or his memory in this way?
What crime did John McDonnell say Churchill committed?
John referred to the 1911 riots in Tonypandy, in the Rhondda Valley, South Wales, by striking miners and their families, when Churchill as Home Secretary sent in troops to restore order, resulting in many injuries and allegedly one death.
Is John McDonnell correct?
It depends who you ask. People disagree as to the facts, let alone their interpretation. The Army says it sent troops, but they never fired at the rioters. Anyway, Churchill did not order the Army to intervene. In fact, he ordered them to wait until the authorities asked again. Meanwhile, he sent more police. Many people say the police did more harm than the Army. Others argue that the miners were being violent and someone had to intervene.
Who were the miners attacking?
Mainly, local shops and shopkeepers. Were they looting? People disagree. Why then attack shops? The miners thought of shopkeepers as capitalists, enemies of the workers. Also, they refused to give credit to striking miners, thus putting pressure on them to go back to work. People say the miners were also attacking mine owners’ homes and other property.
Does Mr McDonnell know how many people were injured?
Nobody knows. Estimates vary wildly. Up to 500? How badly were they injured? Nobody knows. Most rioters didn’t want to go to hospital for treatment as they didn’t want to admit to their part in the riots. Was someone killed? Yes, but nobody knows who did it or whether it was deliberate. A blunt instrument to the head. It could have been a policeman’s truncheon, or there again… almost anything. Nobody claimed to have seen what happened.
Is John McDonnell alone in blaming Churchill?
No. Many people blamed him at the time: some for being too heavy-handed, others for being too soft! Arguments have flared up every few years. Of course, Conservatives defend him, socialists, trades unionists and Welsh people tend to blame him. (Welsh Conservatives are so rare, they don’t count).
Do I blame Churchill? I think the authorities are in a no-win situation when riots break out. Remember Toxteth? Or Tottenham? With hindsight, I think Churchill could have handled it better, but it doesn’t make him a villain.
What do I think of Winston Churchill?
I think he was a great man, a great prime minister and the man who saved the nation in World War II. I also think he had many shortcomings, political and personal. He made a lot of mistakes, but the person who never made a mistake never made a thing. He was human. Not Superman, not the Son of God, not a plaster saint. I have my faults but also a few good points. What about you?
I will celebrate Churchill as a hero. As for my assessment of John McDonnell – it’s too soon to say!
Pigs in Mud is a story about my Stone Age Detective, Quest
The pigs episode might or might not appear in the published version of The Stone Age Detective, but it will give you a taste of the setting of the book and introduces four of the main characters. Five if you include the dog.
PIGS IN MUD
I told my older brother about my latest failures at hunting and the strain this put on my marriage. He was named Dark because he had the darkest hair and darkest complexion of anyone in our clan, although they said I was looking more like him every day. He was also born on the darkest night anyone could remember. At seventeen he was only one year older than me, but was already respected as a successful hunter and was everything I wanted to be. Dark suggested we should go hunting together. Just us. He would try to teach me a few things. We set out in a direction nobody had hunted in for a while, hoping there would be a good chance of finding game there. Climber the dog followed us. He was called Climber because he climbed trees. He was probably as glad as we were to get away from both our wives, whose moods had not been improving. Dark’s wife, Vixen had accused him of infidelity, and my wife, Doe, had become inpatient at my lack of hunting skills.
Our route took us close to an area nobody ever entered. They said there were evil spirits there. People and animals disappeared. We were not going to go into that area.
Dark found some tracks. Pigs. A big herd. We followed them for a long time. They began approaching the forbidden area. People said animals rarely went there. Perhaps the pigs knew it was now safer than before. Or perhaps they would only go to the edge. We followed. Cautiously. Climber got excited as he sniffed at the fresh tracks. Although we were in open country, we couldn’t see any pigs, or any other animals. We kept following the tracks.
We came to some trees in a dip in the ground. They marked the edge of the evil place. We looked at the tracks, then at each other. Climber kept sniffing and going forwards. Wouldn’t even a stupid dog sense danger? He didn’t seem worried. We went up to the edge of the trees. Squeals came from beyond. We crept forwards. There were a lot of pigs. In their midst a large boar’s head showed above the mud. Then it disappeared. Another was in mud up to the top of its legs. Then it too sank from view.
Dark whispered, “This is too good to ignore. Let’s get a couple at least.” He knocked an arrow to his bow, which he aimed at the biggest pig in sight. I aimed at another, which was nearer. A fox appeared, grabbing a small piglet and running off, with a sow chasing it. They all vanished in the blink of an eye. I hesitated. Dark loosed. I loosed. Two pigs ran squealing into the mud and disappeared.
I said, “I think we should go.”
Dark said, “Yes. Let’s retrace our steps.”
Behind us, our tracks were almost invisible in the shade of the trees. We started going in the direction of the light coming through a gap in the trees. Climber looked around, sniffed the air and began following us. Dark slipped, fell flat on his face and began to get up. Suddenly he disappeared from the waist down. I grabbed a hand and pulled. I knew he was heavier than me, but not that much. It was as if something was dragging him down into the mud. I pulled as hard as I could and lost my balance. I fell flat on my face, but onto firm ground. The gods or spirits had mercy on me. Dark said, “Can you stay there?”
“I think so.”
He took hold of me by one arm and the middle of my coat and began to haul himself up. I felt myself slipping towards him and grabbed at the ground. I found a big root which I hung onto. One leg slid off the firm ground and it felt as if it was being sucked into the mud, almost as if it didn’t belong to me. I put as much pressure on my other leg and the hand holding the root as I could. Dark crawled onto me, before crawling away in front of me. I made a huge effort, freed my leg and began to crawl. We crawled out of the trees onto normal ground. We were both covered in disgusting mud. It smelled far worse than any I had come upon before. Dark had lost his coat and his bow. We were just happy to be alive. Climber was not in sight. We called to him but got no answer.
There was no clean water around, so we set out for home as we were. As the Sun went down, it became colder. I let Dark wear my coat for a while, to get warm. He gave it back, just as I began to shiver. In the dusk, it was hard to make out landmarks and we got lost. We heard voices and called out to whoever owned them, hoping they were friends. Soon a hunting party from our village came to us. They commented on the smell. At least they knew where we were and guided us home.
Doe and Vixen were angry. My younger brother, Flint, was pleased to see us. So was Climber. Vixen said, “We were worried about you, when it got dark and you weren’t back, and the dog had come home without you. Where have you been? What’s that smell?”
Doe asked, “Did you kill anything? Did Dark teach you anything Quest?”
Our answers didn’t make things better. We failed to explain why we had entered the forbidden area. Dark, Climber and myself had to sleep outside that night. Dark said he thought things would improve when we got to the Northlands. I couldn’t see why, but I hoped he was right.
People keep saying our present problems are unprecedented.
If you read much history, you will soon realise that hardly anything is unprecedented. We’ve made the same mistakes before. Usually many times. We don’t learn from them anything like as much as we think, as I have said before.
Isn’t Parliament’s failure to manage Brexit unprecedented?
Not really. There have been other times when our politicians couldn’t agree on anything and parliament became ineffective. The early days of the reign of George III come to mind. After he forced Pitt the Elder to resign, and sacked most of his supporters, the king found he couldn’t find a leader with enough followers to form an effective government. There followed years of indecision, ended with the appointment of Pitt the Younger, but he got off to a rocky start.
Our present mess is similar to that of 1660. Was that unprecedented?
In 1659 Oliver Cromwell died. Parliament tried to rule the country, but was ineffective, partly because they couldn’t agree about anything, and also because they kept debating the wrong things. Law and order began to break down. Things weren’t getting done. Then the exiled Charles II issued the Proclamation of Breda, promising (in summary) to be a good king, unlike his father.
What did they do with that unprecedented offer?
Nothing. They wouldn’t even discuss it, unlike everyone else, who did nothing else. They came to their senses when Major-General Monk arrived from Coldstream on the Scottish Border and demanded they debate the Proclamation. He was backed by his soldiers, the predecessors of the Coldstream Guards. Parliament invited Charles to return. That’s why we have a monarchy and parliamentary government.
So a military coup wouldn’t be unprecedented?
Not really, but Monk didn’t set up a military dictatorship. He probably saved us from one. I am not advocating military intervention. Perhaps a second referendum would be gentler. But Parliament needs to act to break the deadlock. Other outcomes would be both undesirable and unprecedented.
Why have I so far avoided using the term ‘cave-man’ in my blogs?
For many people, the term ‘cave-man’ carries a lot of meaning, but misleading meaning. We tend to think of a very primitive human, who may not even be homo sapiens. Perhaps you think of a neanderthal? You might think of images from Hollywood movies, which mostly give our early ancestors a bad press.
What do you think a cave-man was like?
Most people imagine someone of low intelligence, aggressive, violent and selfish. That is not how I see the Stone Age Detective, or most of the characters in the book. I believe that people living around ten thousand years ago were very similar to us. Their bodies and brains were about the same size as ours. They lived in communities and must have cooperated to survive. They made a variety of tools and weapons, which were very good for the purposes for which they were made.
Didn’t cave-man have only a club and a hand-axe?
They didn’t only have the so-called ‘hand-axe’ or multi-purpose flint tool, although they did make them. The quality of stone arrowheads from that period was better than that of similar ones that people made in later ages. Archaeologists think that is because people didn’t depend on them so much once they began farming. They probably had professional flint-knappers in the early Stone Age, who went out of business once most people turned to farming.
Didn’t cave-man live in a cave?
Not always. We know that people in that period made houses. On Orkney, there are houses of stone that people made in the Stone Age. In the rest of Britain, evidence from post-holes suggests people made houses of timber posts and covered them with skins, thatch and/or turf. Some were so big that large numbers of people must have worked together to build them. My characters live in a village made of such houses, but use caves at certain times. Does that make the Stone Age Detective a cave-man? You must decide, but don’t expect him to be stupid or bloodthirsty.
For more discussion of the prehistorical background to The Stone Age Detective, see my previous blog.
A Christmas purist is someone who complains that not everything we associate with Christmas has roots going back to the First Christmas. Purists especially dislike any new 21st Century features on our cards, in the decorations on the tree, in what we eat or what we do.
What sort of things doesn’t a purist like?
They are not all the same, but a lot object to non-traditional decorations like unicorns, spaceships and hobbits. Then there are those who say Christmas dinner has to be turkey and all the usual accompaniments. I expect they won’t like any carols written this century either.
As I love history, why aren’t I a purist?
Christmas has been celebrated for two thousand years, as the rest of the life of Jesus has been. So too has his death and resurrection. People have found new ways of celebrating these events in every generation. I don’t know much about the early years, but I know a bit about the Mediaeval Christmas and the ways new items have been added, and sometime old ones dropped, in every period since. People made the Christmas story and the Christian message, relevant to their age. That is why they do it differently in different countries.
Is it wrong to be a purist?
I don’t mind other people choosing to try to make their Christmas as authentic as possible, if they don’t give the rest of us a hard time. However, I do think they are on a hiding to nothing. If you throw out everything that you can’t be sure was there in the First Century, you won’t have much left. I don’t think anyone knows how the first Christians did celebrate it. Each Purist probably has his or her own views as to what is or isn’t OK.
Why I really don’t want to be a purist.
Christmas is a time of goodwill and joy. Let’s not spoil it by bickering. If you want curry and fizzy drinks instead of Turkey and mulled wine, go for it! If you love the old carols, listen to them, or (better) sing them with gusto, but if you like songs from Jesus Christ Superstar or even more recent ones (there really are some!) then have a great time with them.
If I’m not a purist, what am I?
I like a bit of everything. For instance, I’ve just been to a fairly traditional service of nine lessons and carols, but some someone had put some to new settings. The readings were in modern English. There was a sketch where Herod was like a present-day megalomaniac. The vicar reflected on the sketch and what the humble birth of God’s son told us about power. On Saturday, I will be going to a panto-nativity in the open, where I will be providing a plywood-and-carpet donkey and a real sheepdog. I haven’t seen the script, but am looking forward to it. Some would say I am catholic, but not in the high-church sense.
What if you don’t buy the baby-in-manger stuff anyway?
Enjoy the holiday, the parties, the presents, the food – as much of all that as you like. It’s joy to the World andgoodwill to all – get it?
People expect dinosaurs in any book set in the Stone Age
This is mainly the fault of Hollywood, because producers (used to) think any story in prehistory had to have these large reptiles to make it exciting. They could have made movies about dinosaurs without any humans. I suppose that would have upset a lot of people, especially actors.
Why can’t a movie or a novel have humans AND dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago, give or take a few. According to scientists, the earliest type of humans appeared a mere few million years ago, and they were not people as we know them. There were several species with long Latin (or Greek?) names. The earliest evidence for proper humans, homo sapiens, puts them on the planet a couple of hundred thousand years ago.
How sure are we that humans and dinosaurs never met?
Even if the experts are wrong, the margin for error is so vast that even a sceptic could hardly imagine that dinosaurs survived tens of millions of years and didn’t leave a trace. Likewise, there might have been humans around, a few hundred thousand years sooner than we thought, but millions?
No dinosaurs? Does this mean there are no monsters in the novel?
It depends on your definition of a monster. No jokes, please, especially political ones. At the end of the Ice Age, say ten thousand years ago in Britain and the nearer parts of the EU – sorry, the Continent – there were lots of big mammals, both herbivores and carnivores. Life for humans, and a lot of other species, was pretty precarious. The carnivores were out to kill anything edible, including us, whilst the the big herbivores could be dangerous if you tried to hunt them. Some were bad enough, even if you were just passing by.
What mammals were as scary as dinosaurs?
A soldier once told me that the deadliest weapon wasn’t the nuclear bomb, but whatever someone was pointing at you at the time. Some of the things people hunted in the Stone Age, and some that hunted us, are now extinct. These include mammoths, woolly rhinoceros, sabre-tooth cats (I don’t say ‘tigers’ because we don’t know what colour they were) and giant ‘Irish’ elk. These lived in what is now England as well as Ireland. They were probably unionists. One of the most dangerous animals that people often killed was the aurochs. We know this from the bones that archaeologists have found around human settlements. They were wild cattle, much bigger and more aggressive than the domestic kind. Nine feet at the shoulder. Scary enough?
What else went the way of the dinosaurs?
Apart from those, there were plenty of other animals that are now extinct in the wild in Britain but survive elsewhere, including British zoos. Wolves, bison, musk ox, and several kinds of bear. I wouldn’t want to bump into any of those unexpectedly.
It’s a good thing Stone-Age Man had his dog to help him.
One key character in my novel The Stone-Age Detective is a dog.
I hope you have read my blog about my prehistoric detective novel. Even if you like what I say there, you may think everything I say about the dog in the novel is pure fiction, fantasy even. Well, I have found, to my surprise, how much scientists think they know about Stone-Age dogs. They have studied DNA from skeletons to establish that the ancestors of dogs were wolves, but by the end of the Ice Age they were two separate species. Dogs were generally similar to but smaller than wolves.
What colour were dogs in the Stone-Age?
The obvious answer is ‘we don’t know’, but there is a clue. A few years ago, Russian scientists experimented with selective breeding arctic foxes, to see how long it took to turn a fierce wild animal into a suitable pet. Not many generations. They found, unexpectedly, that the tamest ones were also different in other ways from their wild ancestors. In particular, they found the tame foxes were more often two-coloured. At first, white socks and tail tips appeared, but later some were 50/50. The scientists believe the colour element in the animals’ DNA is linked to the element affecting temperament.
Wouldn’t Stone-Age Man have preferred plain dogs?
As in my novel, many people probably thought plain dogs were better at hunting, but some would have liked more conspicuous canine hunters, because the prey moved away from them towards waiting humans. This phenomenon probably led to the development of the use of dogs for rounding-up domestic livestock. That is perhaps why most sheepdogs are black and white.
Could a dog climb trees?
Most dogs don’t. Whether they could, is another matter. I once owned one who did, usually when chasing squirrels. She didn’t often catch them. I gave my fictional Stone-Age dog that ability to add something to the story.
They say such reconstructions bring history to life, much like the reenactments often performed at historic sites in Summer. Some even say the same of historical novels, as they too fill in the parts the textbooks leave out.
What’s not to like about dramatic reconstructions?
The historian and presenter, Mary Beard, among others. She says many are of poor quality. I have seen some that were, but I found others very good. However, that is not her main point. She is concerned that reconstructions fix images in the mind. Therefore, you tend to think that is how things were, not just how they might have been. That is obviously misleading when you think about it, because they show only one version of how things might have been. I fear she may be right, but perhaps it is a price worth paying to make history more interesting and easier to relate to. What do you think?
Are novels as misleading as reconstructions?
I don’t think so. I hope readers know they are reading fiction and that even the historical background in a novel is likely to be only that author’s view of how it was. Most readers probably also realise that we usually adjust the history in places for dramatic effect. Personally, I try to admit to such adjustments in the historical notes I include in my books, but I might not remember to mention them all. A novel is not a textbook.
How can you avoid being misled by reconstructions ?
I think the best solution is to watch plenty of them! If you see several versions of the same story, you will be able to see how historians – and TV producers – differ. Be critical, in a good way. I don’t even mind if you read other historical novels to compare with mine. As I do.