Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A History of Britain


Our tour guide in this series, one Simon Schama, is not known to me, though he’s apparently written a number of popularized history books and is well-known on the BBC. He insisted it be called “A” History of Britain, not “The,” and that was wise of him. Though it runs 18 hours, you can only say so much on television, particularly when a fair amount of time is devoted to things like shots of falcons, deer, water crashing on rocks, and the white cliffs of Dover. (While I think this stuff could have been dispensed with, I realize you have to fill in the blanks with something; a man talking through an entire hour would be too much like a lecture, and would turn viewers off. It’s necessary, and handled reasonable well.)

Schama is a slightly disheveled fellow who looks the part of an Cambridge don; you wonder where he misplaced his mortarboard and robe. Maybe it’s because he had professorships for a long time at Harvard and Columbia. Though he appears frequently in the settings he’s describing, as is standard in these sorts of series, and he doesn’t have the loopy enthusiasm of our old friend Sir David Attenborough or the polish of Sir Kenneth Clark, I find he’s growing on me. This is a personal take on England, and he has some insightful and funny things to say.

Volume One:
Beginnings. I learned the most from the very first one, because I had known practically nothing about Neolithic Britain apart from the fact they built Stonehenge, and very little about the Roman occupation, such as the real function of Hadrian’s Wall. I wondered who Schama was talking about when he mentioned Boudica, which he pronounced Boo-di-ka. I finally realized it was the woman I’d seen mentioned as a classical reference here and there, but had been spelled Boadicea, which I had been mentally pronouncing Bow-ah-di-see-ah. But I didn’t even know who she was. Turns out she was a Roman Era Joan of Arc, without all the religious hysteria. She gave the Romans a very hard time for a while, but ultimately lost.

Invasion. Then, after a brief mention of Alfred the Great, we move pretty rapidly on to Edward the Confessor without a single mention of guys like Edmund (Blackadder?) the Magnificent (murdered), Edgar the Peaceable (rule uneventful, surprise, surprise), Ethelred the Unready (who may have crapped in the baptismal font as an infant), and Harold Harefoot (only hobbit King of England?). Well, okay, makes sense. A history shouldn’t be just a list of kings, and none of those guys made a huge mark on British history. On TV you’re going to have to stick with the superstars, both the good ones and the monsters. (Though Harefoot did get the throne by blinding his half-brother’s brother, which should earn him some points.)

Now comes Harold Godwinson, last of the West Saxons, and his defeat by William the Conqueror, first of the Normans, at Hastings in 1066. This story is told mostly with the Bayeux Tapestry, that most lovely of comic strips, still looking great after almost a millennium.

Dynasty. The third episode spends most of its time with Henry II, and you can’t help remembering the film Becket, which made quite an impression on me when I first saw it. Apparently Peter O’Toole was totally wrong for the part, as Henry was a robust barrel of a man, and we’d call him hyperactive today. Schama gives a totally different picture of Becket than what I recall, too.

Of course you can’t leave out dauntless, good, kind, warrior king Richard the Lionheart, or craven, lickspittle John … only it wasn’t like that, of course. John was widely hated, true, but Richard was an asshole who was hardly ever in England, which I suspect he didn’t like very much. He got himself killed in an idiotic way, and thus we got the Magna Carta. Or that’s how it sums up, anyway.

Volume Two:
Nations. First we learn of the subjugation of Wales, and the less successful adventures in Scotland and Ireland. I hadn’t known most of this. We get a more accurate picture of William Wallace, that man who Mel Gibson so parodied in Braveheart, and of Lenny the Bruce. Sorry, I meant Robert, but believe it or not, when I think of him I always think Lenny first and have to correct myself. Wallace died an even worse death than in the movie, by the way, a rare instance of Gibson passing up a chance to lay on the gore even thicker.

King Death. Then on to the star player of the 14th Century: The Black Death. I thought I knew about it, and I guess I knew a fair amount, but after getting some of the gruesome statistics out of the way, Schama illustrates an effect I hadn’t thought about. With close to half the population dead, there was a lot of stuff lying around without an owner, and some of that stuff was land. People appropriated it, or bought it at fire-sale prices, and thus were laid the foundations for many a fine family fortune, and the beginnings of the gentry, or maybe even of the middle class. They increasingly became a power in England.

Burning Convictions. The last part deals with that old scalawag Henry VIII. Instead of another tiresome chronicle of his six wives, Schama concentrates on the rather astonishing and unlikely, in retrospect, events leading up to and during the break with Rome and the founding of the Anglican Church. Henry didn’t even want it, and things seesawed back and forth for a while, with his son a firm Protestant, then Queen Mary a firm Catholic, and finally, Elizabeth, who was all for a happy medium. Much great art was destroyed in this time in the name of anti-Popery. The most impressive scene is a special effect where CGI is used to re-paint, re-gild, and restore the awesome stained-glass windows in a cathedral that was stripped long ago back to the bare marble. One thing you can say for the Catholics, they know how to build a cathedral. What a shame to have lost all that.

Volume Three:
The Body of the Queen. So now we move into territory I’m a little more familiar with: The sad saga of Mary Stuart and that master politician, Elizabeth R. Apparently, the portrait etched by the brilliant Miranda Richardson in Blackadder II wasn’t all that far off the mark. The Virgin Queen was spoiled and extremely full of herself. But I knew this story pretty well, and aside from Schama’s characteristic insights into the minds of these historical figures (which you can agree with or not, as you choose, but you have to admit are clever), I didn’t learn a lot that was new.

Revolutions. On to Oliver Cromwell. Schama enumerates all his many failings, but then cuts him some slack here and there. I found myself wondering if it was because Cromwell invited the Jews back to England, and Schama is Jewish. (Did you know there were no Jews in England for about 350 years? I didn’t. Edward I taxed them until there was no more blood to suck, then banished them—those he didn’t kill, like the 300 beheaded in the Tower for treason, i.e., running out of money he could steal from them. While they were still in residence they were forced to wear a yellow patch in the shape of two tablets. Shades of the Third Reich! Jeez, I knew the Jews had it rough everywhere in Europe, but for some reason I had thought the Brits were the exception. I don’t know why I should have thought that; they were as loopy on religion as anyone else.) Anyway, the Commonwealth and the Protectorate both sound a lot better than they were. There was a reason for the Restoration of Charles II after they’d gone to all the trouble to kill his daddy, and it wasn’t because the English hated democracy. But in a series of unlikely accidents, according to Schama, what they ended up with was a kind of constitutional monarchy that was probably the best one could hope for in those times. It took a lot of sorting out, of course, and there were still lots of bumps along the road.

Myself, I don’t like anything about Oliver Cromwell. He was the worst sort of leader: one driven by his faith in God. He did ease up on the Jews, not out of any particular love for them but, astonishingly to me, for the very same reasons so many radical Christians, believers in the Rapture, are pro-Israel today: Because the Second Coming can’t happen until the Hebrews reenter Zion, or some bullshit like that. He was “born again,” having had some sort of mystical experience (read “mental breakdown”) in mid-life. The Born Again come in two varieties, as recent history has shown us. Some, like Jimmy Carter, are humbled by it, and devote their lives to doing good works. Others, like the turd currently swimming in the toilet bowl of the White House, take their new asshole-buddy relationship with their latest frat brother, Jesus H. Christ, as a license for unlimited self-righteousness and total lack of moral doubt. Cromwell was one of those. Fuck him and the Puritan pony he rode in on.

Volume Four:
Britannia Incorporated. The 18th Century saw a lot of important beginnings, things that we’d recognize today, though they were in their early stages back then. George I was a joke; he didn’t even speak English. The country was run by the first Prime Minister, de facto: Robert Walpole, who believed that what was good for business was good for England and Englishmen. And he was right, as far as it went, which was only to the merchant and landowner class. Everyone else lived in incredible squalor. Whigs and Tories represented the elite, and everybody else could go fuck themselves as far as most of them were concerned.

Most, but not all. I don’t know if the State maintained any social welfare programs, other than the workhouse (businessmen bid on the rights to run them … and charged the inmates for food, lodging, and shackle rental. I’m not making this up! Shades of neo-con “privatization.”) and debtors prison. Schama doesn’t say, but I doubt it. Charity was left to the individual dropping a farthing in an alms pot, and the Church. But one man, Captain Thomas Coram, an old salt and successful merchant who apparently had more heart than any 1000 Londoners put together, was appalled at having to step over the corpses of children every day in the streets. He gathered a group of businessmen of the sort Ebenezer Scrooge turned away on Christmas Eve, and they built a foundling hospital. (Shades of our present-day charitable foundations!) Of course, there were so many abandoned kids they had to hold a lottery to determine which mothers would be able to put their children in, and the mortality rate was 50% … but as Schama points out, it had been nearly 100% before. 50% survival was an improvement.

It was a peaceful time, as these things go, although Bonnie Prince Charlie marched almost unopposed to Derby, 120 miles from London, because the cream of the army was fighting a jolly old war in Spain …then he turned back, which is why all Englishmen today don’t wear kilts. The Jacobites returned to the highlands to mutter into their haggis and ale, and Scots finally turned to what they were good at (they were shitty at war), which was business, science, philosophy, industry, and tossing the caber. They promptly produced the first real economist, Adam Smith, who argued that the role of government was to stay out of the way of business, and the result would be a self-regulating money machine that would make everyone rich. It was an interesting idea and maybe even good, for the time, but it’s rather amazing that there still so many who believe that such a simple solution still applies in the 21st Century.

The Wrong Empire. Having studied history mostly from an American perspective, I find Mr. Schama’s British perspective quite interesting. I don’t always agree, but most of the time I do. Here he chronicles how the Brits lost the Empire they wanted—America—while picking up one they’d never really aspired to—India—almost by accident, and by the aggressive tactics of one man, Major-General Robert Clive: “Clive of India,” played so memorably (and no doubt inaccurately) by Ronald Colman in 1935.

Freedom and democracy had by the mid-18th Century faded to little more than a lick and a promise in England. That wouldn’t do for the American colonists, who in less than a generation went from solid Englishmen to wild-eyed radicals chafing at the taxes supposedly imposed for their “protection,” which actually went to fund silly foreign adventures. “No taxation without representation! Let’s brew some tea in Boston Harbor!” Schama devotes some time to John Adams, a personal favorite of mine.

Then we hear of the Black Hole of Calcutta, which functioned as a sort of Pearl Harbor in that it enraged the folks back home. Through bribery, chicanery, betrayal, and, we must never forget, a hell of a good army (often composed largely of Sepoys), England suddenly found itself in possession of the whole Indian subcontinent. He maintains they never actually wanted it (certainly debatable), but having it fall into their laps they became very rich off it indeed.

Forces of Nature. This episode tries to cover a lot of ground. It devotes more time to the philosophies and political thought and arts of the time than previously, chiefly the “back to nature” romantics who, as usual, didn’t have a clue as to what their beloved nature was actually about, nor much of a notion of the lot of the common people who lived close to it. They were aghast to discover the grinding poverty that had existed all along, just down the road. (Remember the “discovery” Appalachia in the ’60s, one impetus for the War on Poverty? It was as if this giant mountain chain had risen overnight, complete with its filthy, illiterate, desperately poor Hatfields and McCoys. “Where did they come from?” liberals must have wondered. “Who cares?” responded the conservatives. (Guess what? They’re still up there in Hootin Holler, and still poor.)

Schama devotes a lot of time to Mary Wollstonecraft, founder of early feminism, who he clearly admires greatly. Dumb me, I hadn’t realized there were two of them. This is the mother of the author of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Really terrible gaps in my knowledge of history … and I believe I know more of it than most Americans.

With all this talk of philosophy there is hardly time for little things like the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Well, that’s a little harsh, Schama does deal with both, and once again I’m struck by how much history repeats itself. All the progressive intellectuals, Mary W. prominent among them, were staunch supporters of the Revolution … and to be fair, I probably would have been, too, if I’d lived then. After all, the French monarchy was corrupt, decadent, irrelevant, and as we say in Texas, needed killin’. But soon it degenerated into a bloodbath, a tyranny probably worse than Louis XVI, and the Brits and most Americans went home to brood about it. You can’t help thinking of John Reed and a lot of other well-intentioned folks in the 1920s, watching the Russian Revolution go into the toilet.

Something I didn’t know: Our very own Red, Tom Paine, came within a whisker of losing his head, literally, after being clapped into a French gaol. I didn’t even know he was over there. Stay home, Tom, stick to your own knitting.

Volume Five:
Victoria and Her Sisters. Adam Smith’s pure, unregulated economy has had a long time to work now, with the predictable results: Manchester and Birmingham and other cities so clotted with soot that the houses and trees and people are quite black (environmental laws interfere with business); children of six or seven given the most dangerous jobs in the mills (the workers/sheep can always breed more); workdays of 16 hours for terrible pay which the workers are pathetically grateful to get at all; massive boom-bust swings that leave up to 1/3 of workers not only out of a job but homeless; laws to protect British growers from cheap foreign wheat, such that a poor man can’t afford a loaf of bread; “match girls” inhaling poisonous phosphorus (we don’t need no steenkin’ occupational safety laws!). Business is thriving—except when it busts—and everybody else can go fuck themselves.

Victoria is not at first totally insensitive to these outrages, but does little about it, and I get the impression that after her beloved Albert dies, she spends most of the rest of her life in a deep depression. When she sees the common people, they are given a bite to eat first, and carefully scrubbed, sort of like the audience for a George the Smirking Chimp “Q&A” session.

But the social conditions don’t pass entirely unnoticed by the educated classes. We all know of Charles Dickens, and John Stuart Mill. But Schama concentrates here on the women, the aforementioned “Victoria’s Sisters,” with a big dose of irony. Victoria was opposed to all aspects of the nascent women’s liberation movement, believing that a woman’s place was in the home at the side of her man. And the laws made damn sure she stayed there. Upon marriage all the woman’s property went to her husband. He was entitled, by law, to beat her, so long as the stick was no thicker than his thumb.

I had not heard of most of these women in my history classes, which is a good argument for curriculum reform and women’s studies. And I’m sorry to say that the only one who was easy to find was Harriet Taylor, who I got to through a wiki link from … her husband, J.S. Mill. Bitter irony, as I do recall that before they married he—eagerly—signed what may be the first non-royal pre-nup, relinquishing all his “rights” to her estate.

As I watched I had the feeling I should be taking notes, writing down the names of these unsung heroines … but hell, this isn’t a class, there won’t be a pop quiz, this is just a review. You want to know them, see this DVD or read a book.

Empire of Good Intentions. Gladstone and Disraeli. The Great Mutiny in India. The potato blight in Ireland. And the business of Empire rolls on. Sometimes good business requires that tradable commodities, such as wheat, be stockpiled to maintain a good price. Never mind that it could alleviate a famine not very far away; giving it away would depress the price, don’cha know. So a million starved to death in the west of Ireland, and 16 million in India, sometimes right at the gates of the granaries. No wonder the Indians loved their masters so much.

Well, don’t worry about it, the market will eventually take care of such things. There will be adjustments, Adam Smith says so. Fewer mouths to feed, old boy. Pity about the plan to fatten up Irish children for English tables; have to put that one on hold, as an Irish child these days wouldn’t bring very much on the open market. Too much gristle and bone, not enough meat. The very thought turns one’s stomach.

The crazy thing is, the Brits really did think they were doing the right thing, in the bigger picture. The Empire would civilize the wogs, i.e., make them more like us virtuous Brits, make them into productive citizens. And it can’t be denied that much of India was a mess … but it was their mess, and most people would prefer it to a British mess, just as most Iraqis today would have preferred to deal with their own mess under Saddam Hussein than have to endure an American mess. The thing about empire, no matter how well-intentioned, is that by its very nature it involves a lot of foreigners coming into your country and taking over your affairs. No matter how fucked up those affairs may be, and no matter that the populace may very well, at first, welcome the “liberators,” it is an inherently evil situation, whether it’s Romans or British or neocon chickenhawks looking for cheap oil.

I was a little sad that Schama didn’t mention the Opium Wars, one of the more bizarre things in world history, where the Brits essentially went to war with China because they weren’t buying and using enough opium, which trade the Brits controlled.

The Two Winstons. Ah! Here is a mention, though brief, of the Opium Wars.

Obviously this episode will be dealing with Sir Winston Churchill. When I read the title I imagined some theory of Schama’s that would postulate two sides of the man. The youth and the adult. The man good at war but terrible at peace. Some psychological complex. I should have known better. Churchill, from all I knew about him, was as unconflicted a man as ever lived. Steadfast, maybe to a fault, sure of himself, capable of transferring his unshakable faith to his people, the perfect man to lead a country facing the biggest threat in its long history. The worst man to have as your leader when more subtle problems are involved.

No, the other Winston is Winston Smith, creation of Eric Blair, aka George Orwell. This choice perfectly sums up Schama’s whole approach to his history. He sketches in the broad sweeps of events we all learned in history class, but often it’s only in passing. He concentrates on the men and women who made a difference, often names that aren’t too familiar. Even during the age of all-powerful kings, he often skips right over a lot of them with only a brief nod. WWI, for instance, is here mentioned only in relation to Churchill’s huge blunder at Gallipoli, for which he atoned by enlisting and serving in the frontline trenches. We get none of the ebb and flow of WWII battles that most histories concentrate on. Instead, we get a comparison and contrast of the committed socialist Orwell (not communist, he hated communism) and the rugged old Tory. It is a fascinating comparison, and too complex for me to get into here.

I’ll sign off this long review with Orwell’s most vivid sentence from 1984. Seldom can one line sum up a whole book, but I think this one does. “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face …forever.” That gave me chills when I first read it, many years ago, and it still does, perhaps more than ever in the plight we find ourselves in today. Always before I imagined that boot to be a Nazi jackboot, or one from the Red Army or the People’s Army. I had never realized that, in America, it might be a cowboy boot crusted with Crawford cowshit.