Boats against the current

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

The famous last line from The Great Gatsby has been rattling around my head recently.

We live in interesting times. And much hinges on the past, on the stories we tell about who we were and how we got here. My job is to explore things from the past, to build narratives from those Old Things, to apply retrospective significanceand in doing so, to illuminate the present.

This matters. “Who controls the past”, wrote Orwell, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

But these past few months, my Old Things have been mute.

There’s a fine cartoon by Tom Toro: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it”.

But I have written before that the past is never repeated; besides, there is no such thing as ‘the past’. And to assert that situation x is equal to situation y gives an easy response to those who disagree. Conditions are different, they will say, the comparison is not accurate. The test is not whether the analogy is a perfect fit, but whether it is useful.

Yet my Old Things: my potsherds, the soil beneath my fingers, the bones I lift from the cold earth… all are silent. They tell me nothing, offer no balm for these times of tumult.

I have a difficult relationship with my own past. I am reluctant to subject it forensic study, perhaps because I am not fond of the version of myself that I find there.

The same can be said of societies. We like our narratives clear, and resist challenges. Revisionism has become a pejorative term. We do not like to see our imagined foundations undermined. Historical narratives are attractive because they offer the illusion of permanence.

“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,

The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.”    Edward Thomas, Early One Morning

We’re comfortable with visions of our past selves that emphasise an honest struggle, a purity of ideals, identities, and common purpose.

But national narratives are prone to conflating two different visions of the past: remembered glories and ideas of longevity. A case in point is the phrase “we have always been”: you’ll see it everywhere. A fortuitous set of circumstances for one nation at a point in time is not a replicable model. For all our accomplishments, there is nothing innately superior about the British or American psyche, nor are we inevitably destined to prosper. The wave we rode through much of the 19th and 20th centuries has dashed itself against the breakwater of history, and much as the likes of Trump and Farage may tell us that we can go back, it is gone. I fervently hope we can find a new path through the surf, but history is rarely kind to those who would seek to slavishly recreate past glories.

And still my Old Things are silent, and Gatsby echoes around my head. I wander, and I draw. I beat on, to a small village church.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Alfrick, Worcestershire

St Mary Magdalene, Alfrick

It’s old, a muddle of mismatched masonry. The porch leans, the roof curves and the deep-sunk windows peer from behind choking coniferous fronds. Its original form is lost in countless rebuilds, its style a collision of architectural trends. I don’t agree with much of what’s said within it, but I’m fond of it. It makes no sense in isolation; it is part of a network, sharing resources and visions. In its ideal form, it is a place of sanctuary, welcome and tolerance. It’s not a bad analogy for a country.

Every step you take through the churchyard draws you deeper; your tread taps the resting places of all those who passed before and lie there still. The ground itself bulges skyward with the sheer volume of burials. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. You cannot escape it. So, embrace it; history has much wise counsel to offer.

There are cyclical patterns at play. We are caught in an eddy, disturbing dormant silts of self-interest, and snagging on the rotten branches of those who promise a free pass to a better life back upstream. No such promised land exists, nor has ever done so. 

Above all, be critical. History is not whatever you make of it. Not all histories are equal. Over the next few years, many will invoke histories to warn or promise. To beat on through the mire will require effort and struggle, and not merely the passing of time. The course of human history does not run smooth and straight.

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Duck stamps and Goose steps

Early on Friday morning, I woke to an agonising feeling that part of my identity had been swept away, emphatically rejected by over 17 million of my compatriots. Over the garden wall, our overseas neighbours wept into morning cigarettes. Dazed, sick with worry, I walked to work, past the jubilant strains of a group of construction workers whistling The Great Escape.

On my desk, waiting to be photographed, was a small bag of pottery from a site in Gloucestershire, occupied around 2500 years ago, in the midst of the European Iron Age. One piece bears a beautiful example of a duck-stamp, a decorative motif resembling swimming ducks. It’s an example of a tradition of waterfowl depictions on ceramics originating in the Aegean and spreading via Italy to the South and West of England, where it is commonly found on pottery from Cornwall and the Severn valley.

Middle Iron Age 'duck stamp' Malvernian pottery, found in Gloucestershire

Middle Iron Age ‘duck stamp’ Malvernian pottery, found in Gloucestershire

I was struggling to focus. After all, what do pots matter, in the grand scheme of things? The economy was tanking, and I was staring at a row of swimming ducks. There is an argument that it is not for archaeologists to embroil themselves in current affairs: that the role of the public intellectual should be to present facts, not deliver arguments, to inform debates rather than to shape them. Any sympathy for this view on my part has long-since disappeared in a welter of sinuous half-truths peddled by all sides on the issue of Europe. Besides, working in an austerity-susceptible public body, my post chiefly funded by the freefalling construction industry and small public research and education grants, my employment prospects are bleak. So I’d best make hay while the clouds gather.

The lessons of history are as tangled and complex as the national and cultural identities they have shaped, and the one thing all can agree on is that no-one knows what Brexit holds in store for us. Why, then, should you listen to what I have to say? Haven’t the British people, in the words of Michael Gove, had enough of experts? The climate of anti-intellectualism is one of the most pernicious aspects of the Brexit affair. The Leave campaign scoffed at experts. The Remain campaign listed reams of them, numbers drowning out personalities, and repeated their message ad infinitum in the manner of a jaded sports commentator. Repeat after me: 90% of economists agree

Personally, I’m wary of the term ‘expert’. I tend to find that those quick to define themselves as such turn out to be nothing of the sort. But specialist knowledge is hard-earned, and it matters. And the more complex the issue, the less consensus there’s likely to be. Judge all you like, but don’t ignore expertise, and don’t believe that all opinions are equally informative. I hope I know a good bridge if I see one, but you’d be a fool to trust me to tell you how to build one.

So what of the historical precedent? There are no easy answers. Gerda Lerner put it well:

“What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are ‘the lessons of history’? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way.” Gerda Lerner

She knew. An Austrian Jew, born in 1920, her formative years were spent in a febrile atmosphere of nationalist sentiment and antisemitism. A teenage anti-Nazi activist, her father’s attempt to send her to safety in England backfired when she was lodged with supporters of Moseley’s blackshirts. Following Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, she was arrested and imprisoned. But she understood that nothing is ever repeated.

I’ve seen many invocations of Godwin’s Law over the last few days. . From the dangers of referendums and warnings of allegiance to country over society, to a sickening wave of hate crime, it seems that all roads lead to Hitler. But accusations of fascism are casually made, and easily refuted. The very definition of the term is so disputed that its meaning is obscured. And there are key elements of the 21st century political landscape that make the goose-stepping authoritarian dictatorships of the mid-20th century all but unthinkable. Key elements such as the legislative and economic union of fractious, warring European powers in the ashes of postwar Europe. The union we’ve just voted to leave.

So, what can we draw from our two lines of comparison, the duck stamp and the goose-step?

There are ugly sentiments afoot, bubbling up through the cracks in our society, drawn out by a vote perceived as a confirmation of legitimacy. And those who have stoked them, through neglect or incitement alike, must counter the narrative of conflict and division. If your vote fans a flame, you cannot walk away from the bonfire. If you warned of the dangers of playing with fire, you cannot throw up your hands in passive despair.

The rise of such sentiments does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs against a backdrop of an internalised vision, a climate in which a much-needed overhaul of the teaching of history in schools became a uncritical exercise in navel-gazing, drawing protest from government supporters and detractors alike. A climate that emphasises nebulous ‘British Values‘ – not human values, not common values, but British values. Repeat it often enough and we start to believe that our values are exceptional, different, better. There’s a wonderful document, drafted by British lawyer David Maxwell Fyfe, that sets out exactly what those British values were seen to be, at the end of a war in which Britain fought with moral conviction in the name of European unity: it’s called the European Convention on Human Rights.

Leave voters, by now, will doubtless be aware that immigration will not fall steeply, that there will be no windfall bonanza in public spending, and that if we’re to have the faintest hope of clinging on to what remains of our economy we’ll need to accept the vast majority of EU regulation that we’ve just voted to ditch. Remain voters are coming to terms with the fact that, legally binding or not, a referendum re-run or parliamentary veto isn’t likely. I do not believe we will not end up dictated to by serried ranks of goose-stepping blackshirts, but something equally dangerous is lurking.

Leave voters were promised pride, control and a brighter future. The turmoil currently engulfing Westminster, and the reluctance of any of the Leave campaign’s most ardent campaigners to seize the nettle or present a coherent plan, risks leaving a dangerous vacuum. If delivery of the promise is delayed, watered down, or abandoned altogether, a sizeable proportion of those 17 million, whose vote was an emphatic rejection of the status quo, will feel betrayed.

There is no more dangerous popular feeling than betrayal. The lever that gave a foothold to the most infamous of all 20th century dictatorships was the festering sore of Dolchstoßlegende: the pernicious ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth of a hearty German army betrayed at home by a self-serving political elite, a heady fictional cocktail of Jews, Marxists and liberal politicians. That wound was ruthlessly exploited by the ascendant right, and helps to explain how decent people, in difficult times, can be drawn into a cycle of increasing division and internal conflict. Nigel Farage has already expressed concern over ‘backsliding’ on immigration issues. If concern turns to anger and a feeling of betrayal, we risk a fragmentation that no Winnie-the-Pooh meme can fix.

So, what of those duck-stamps? What lessons can we possibly learn from a thumbnail -sized scrap of 2500 year old pot? Well, I pin my hopes on that row of swimming ducks. Those ducks are a marker of European identity that stretches from the late Bronze Age Aegean to a muddy Iron Age field in Gloucestershire. It is unusual to see any figurative decoration on pottery from prehistoric Britain; indeed, some of the ‘ducks’ are pretty abstract. I’m not suggesting the potters consciously paid homage to some ‘Golden Age’ Aegean ideal in an act of European solidarity, or that their humble stamps were an attempt to copy the extraordinary bird-vases of Greece and Cyprus. But they did come into contact with a design which resonated with them. Quite what that resonance was is hard to unpick: was it aesthetic, symbolic, religious? Whatever it meant, it meant something: duck pots are a thing – a prehistoric meme, if you must. And 2500 years ago, it’s a thread that binds the Iron Age people of the Severn Valley to the south Cornish coast, to Italy and to the Aegean – from east to west across a continent.

As one part of the western edge of Europe seeks to detach itself, reports are coming in, as I write, that the eastern edge of the continent –  the gateway to Europe – has erupted into carnage. We are, inextricably, a part of Europe, geographically and historically. We share in its triumphs and tragedies. We have never existed in isolation. Let us not seek to do so now.