The oldest story in the World

The oldest story in the World, intriguing… How many ancient tales survive among our own nation? Very few.

Once there would have been more, but while printing saved stories, it lost them too by its silence, so the first printers gave new life to the Canterbury Tales, they ignored peasant stories, which have been lost. One 15th century writer said he would pass over in disdain such traditions ‘Concerning Wade and his bote called Guingelot, and also his strange exploits in the same’ but what is this lost tradition?  Soon came the Reformation, and old, heathenish stories were cast out deliberately.  It was a blessing to the nation overall, but incalculable loss to our folklore.

Writing discourages the oral transmission of stories, perhaps because we look to the page for confirmation, perhaps because those written down lose their vitality when nailed to paper, perhaps because the old is drowned in the huge volume of new, printed stories. Many of our traditional fairy takes survive only because the Brothers Grimm hunted them down in the forests of Germany and Walt Disney committed them to film. We have a lot to thank Mr Disney for if the opposite of ‘Disneyfication’ of stories is losing them entirely from our consciousness.

The oral tradition is stronger than a book-bound people can imagine.  The Book People at the end of Fahrenheit 451 are a fantasy suggested by oral stories but are actually celebrating the written word. We are Book People. Beyond our paper culture, the story long handed down is a phenomenon.

For bookless people, a story is more immediate.  When John Ross moored his ship further north in the Arctic than any ship had hitherto sailed, the local Eskimos told his crew of another fleet which had visited them, and recounted all the detail as if it had been yesterday: but it was Martin Frobisher’s fleet of three hundred years before.

Britain has some older stories surviving from a distant age, like those of Beowulf, and the lively tales of the Mabinogion, which would have been lost if not written down. Ours is a young nation, of just fifteen centuries or so.  Beowulf is but a youngster, and the older stories it recounts, of the Volsings and of Waldere reaching into pan-Germanic legend, are wet behind the ears compared with the classics.  We have some older snippets – the legend of the Lady of the Lake, who wed her suitor on condition that she be touched with no thing of iron, may come from the collision of the Bronze with the incoming Iron Age.  Even this story is young.

The Trojan War reaches deep into the Bronze Age.  The names of Graeco-Roman deities can be traced to the early Indo-European languages, but not their legends. The Bible reaches back to Creation itself, but the earliest actual stories are of the Bronze Age, and in parallel the earliest written stories from Babylon and the east tell of the great flood, which happened millennia ago in many places across the world.

We can tell stories that are written in the landscape, as Rudyard Kipling did of his beloved Sussex, and wind yarns about the bits of history we know and the castles, the carved hillsides and the ancient standing stones, but this is not a living story of those times.

See you the dimpled track that runs, All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns That smote King Philip’s fleet!…
And see you, after rain, the trace Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place, When Caesar sailed from Gaul!
And see you marks that show and fade, Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made, To guard their wondrous towns!

In Australia there are tribal tales that have no dates and were not written down, until white anthropologists passed by. We may think of Australia as young, but its native people had the place for untold ages without interference.

There is in Victoria a mountain called Mount Eccles with a slot-like crater lake in its heart, and around it a wet landscape, inhabited since tie beyond estimation by the Gunditjmara tribe, and they have a creation story of the High Head emerging from the earth, spreading his blood and teeth across the landscape and creating the wetlands, just as the lava did when Mount Eccles erupted. Stone tools have been found buried in ash from that time, so the people were already here.  The thing is, the scientific data for the eruption puts it at 36,900 years ago, when even in Europe the Old Stone Age hunters were still wandering an untamed continent.

It is unimaginable that a story could be told uninterrupted since Palaeolithic times, but somehow among a tribe in a once forgotten continent there is proof of a form of immortality of the spoken word.

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Books

A less preachy BBC: praise be

I read that a new David Attenborough series is coming to the Beeb, which is always a great event: Green Planet. The name may strike dread into the hearts of those used to throwing bricks at the screen whenever another lecture on climate change is delivered, but it is a description of the subject, plant-life (just as Blue Planet was about the seas, not the worldwide success of Thatcherism).

We should still worry. Sir David’s more recent outing in Our Planet was one big lecture on how naughty we all are, with facts skewed and altered to fit the narrative of climate change being behind everything. (It isn’t; only some things.) That series was sponsored by a campaigning organisation and was so blatant that even the BBC rejected it. That sort of thing does not enhance the reputation of the broadcaster, nor the narrator.

This time we are promised a production that is more positive and less preachy. That will be a welcome change.

Mankind does tread upon the face of the Earth with giant boots, ill-regarding what is underfoot. An occasional reminder is welcome and it may help more of us in a solipsistic, screen-dominated society to appreciate what is there and to wish to care for it. However being told that all plastic bags are evil because one ended up in the stomach of a cute porpoise is untruthful and economically damaging (unless you actually throw your bags in the sea, in which case you deserve all those curses).

We can look beneath our big feet and appreciate the wonders of nature and that may be the better way to start mending it. Even in the concrete jungle there are persistent weeds breaking through the tarmac and through any flaw in the concrete, and that is a reminder of how limited is man’s dominion over the Earth in the face of nature. I think how hard it is to get a particular plant to grow in a particular spot in my garden, and then I see a burst of herb-Robert growing out exuberantly between the salt-scoured stones of a harbour wall in the Arctic Ocean and realise that nature is stronger and stranger than we could imagine.

The positive message we are promised in Green Planet is an active one: not just ‘look how beautiful’ but ‘this is what you can do personally’. That is only a bit preachy, but in an encouraging way. When the message is ‘write to politicians as they are all to blame’ or ‘every light left on drowns a polar bear’ that is displacement activity and discrediting science, but a personal positive with a to-do list that will actually have an improving effect, however small; that it exactly what the BBC should be doing.

It is the positive and practical message which Prince William has adopted in framing his ‘EarthShot Prize’, and that goes beyond the headline-grabber of ‘global warming’ to wider issues that are more important.

Yes, do show us the clumsy tread of mankind: we can see how the perennial floods in Bengal are worsened by the loss of forests upstream, or how the Communists poisoned the Aral Sea and turned Ethiopia into desert, and yes, we can see that corrupt practices in some countries leaves plastic waste dumped in the Pacific Ocean, but there is nothing realistically we can do but pray. We can however plant plants, and bee-friendly plants. Anyone can then get out in the country and learn to use their feet while they take in the glories of creation. That way you stop relying so much on electricity and heating and plastic comfort, and to tread more lightsome upon the face of the Earth.

Maybe that normalisation of a natural life will inspire those creative entrepreneurs who are popping up with greater frequency to find that less wasteful techniques are more profitable, as did the later Victorian mill-owners when they used fuel more efficiently and found that workers are more productive when not being poisoned and wool sells better when not smeared with soot.

If it is as we are promised, I can have high hopes for Green Planet. Seeing and understanding nature is the best way to appreciate it, and starting to become part of nature and to nurture it is a very positive message. Getting yet another lecture about how global warming is responsible for everything from shrinking fish stocks to Liverpool losing the cup makes me want to go out and batter a seal cub.

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Books

The Salisbury Review, still brilliant

The Salisbury Review may be the most intelligent quarterly review there is. The founding editor was Sir Roger Scruton no less, and he served unpaid for 18 years.  Though he retired from the editorship in 2006, the Review has continued, with its insightful look at society and the world.  It is a courageous look too, as most magazines would fear to publish what the Salisbury Review will.

All those of influence should subscribe to the Salisbury Review, even if they do not agree with even half the articles contained.

The magazine is named after the Third Marquess of Salisbury, one of the greatest of Conservative Prime Ministers, whose picture used to grace the cover of every edition. It helps too that the Sixth Marquess was one of the founders. (I sometimes wonder if the title misleads those who might otherwise stock it into thinking it is a local mag for Wiltshire.)

If you read a magazine only to have your existing knowledge and thoughts confirmed, you are missing the point. An intellectual magazine should challenge you, and show you new fields, new ideas and new ways of approaching topics. I frequently get up in arms about some of the articles, but that is rather the point. This is not the bland sap in the large publications. Larger magazines are unable to define their own ‘Overton window’ and are too easily swayed by an apparent tide of opinion, to suppress ideas which may cause a fuss and just churn out the usual, with perhaps a new artist or author featured or a new country to wander in, but new ways of thinking might cause a fuss and shed a reader or two. The Salisbury Review on the other hand had its greatest boost in publication when it caused a major scandal that reached the national news.

The scandal was the Ray Honeyford article, describing his experience as a teacher encountering cultural attitudes from some Asian parents at his school. The magazine republished the article on later occasions, and I recall the first time I thought it true but inflammatory, the second time mild, and the third time I could not see what the fuss was about. Sir Roger himself wrote an article about the article and what the resultant storm tells us about the race-industry:

The magazine has had many stellar contributors: Roger Scruton of course, but also Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Margaret Thatcher, Václav Havel, Hugh Trevor-Roper and many more. In such company, we cannot fail to be enriched.

The magazine features each quarter an eclectic selection of articles which may range from the personal to international politics. Academics and journalists at the conservative end regularly appear, some under a pseudonym for reasons we well understand, or individual one-off contributors, but being high-brow is not enough: one of their recent regular contributors is a tattooist, who gives a moving insight into a part of society with which many readers may be unfamiliar but would be better to understand. Theodore Dalrymple regularly contributes, telling of the those who pass through a doctor’s surgery or a prison infirmary. With the fall of the Red Wall we must look beyond the cosy circle of our own dinner party guests.

Perhaps as enlightening are the regular book and television reviews, both positive and negative – there are many eye-opening books with which I would have been unfamiliar otherwise, and other I now know to avoid. It reintroduced also many ‘conservative classics’. (As a result, Dostoyevsky is now back on my reading list.)

It is a shame that public libraries are not stocking the Salisbury Review. Libraries do carry magazines with political themes, but never this one, for some reason. Maybe the title confuses them. If readers can break that wall, do.

The magazine has never tried to be fashionable: its contributors were elucidating the reason and necessity of Brexit long before it became popular, and exploding fashionable nostrums for the nonsense they is I every issue, and not just by rants but by cold logic and data.

It is uplifting to find a magazine which actually writes what I am thinking and speaks those truths which those of us with jobs to keep quiet about. If it were just a confirmation of existing prejudices though it would be of little use, and instead the Salisbury Review every time takes me outside my comfortable circle to new, unfamiliar areas or new ways to see those I thought I knew, and for that I cannot but praise it and urge others to subscribe.

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2019 in review, with Fay Kinuise

2019: I couldn’t have written it better myself. The art of satire is dying not through a PC world, but by life exceeding art. In 2019, Patisserie Valerie collapsed, the Woke Lords tightened their grip, oh, and there was some politics too.

Celebrate the New Year, and do not mourn it!

In the meantime, if all serious journalists have written a review of the year, it behoves the rest of us to do so too.

January: ScotRail whacked up its prices: the biggest thing to hit local pockets since the last time the SNP did anything. Greggs used the boost in its sales from the Christmas Number 1 to launch vegetarian sausage rolls, which got their names in the press and boosted sales of the real thing. (Clever, lads, clever.)

Then in Parliament (the real one, not the playtime parliament in Edinburgh) a Grievous soul started a new rebellion, that ended in 230 against the government, in which all the anti-Brexit MPs voted for a no-deal Brexit. No, I don’t know either. (Howsoever smug that soul may have been in January, he was exorcised from Beaconsfield in December.)

Patisserie Valerie went down, alas for us all! Where the money went I might say, but for libel lawyers. It took months for the viennoiserie to be saved, by which time, hadn’t the mille feuilles in the window gone off?

A retired cop from Yorkshire was questioned by the police for noting that men are indeed men. No one found an actual crime, but expecting the police to limit themselves to crimes is old-fashioned thinking.

Alex Salmond was arrested for multiple attempted rape allegations, presumably by women with broken ribs – it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving chap, Alex, and Fiona Onasanya was sent down for being an idiot, although how the rest of the House of Commons survive on that criterion is incomprehensible.

February: The month started with heavy snows, ice, closed schools and roads and what the Met Office called exceptional weather conditions – and what we call “winter” in the north.

There came another defeat for Theresa May, who thus became officially entitled to the title “The Hapless”. It happened again later in the month.

On 18 February 7 Labour MPs left to form “the Independent Group” as a sort of “sane Labour”. Then two days later they killed their own group by admitting three Tories.

March: More defeats for The Hapless Theresa May, leading up to 29 March 2019: the day Brexit should have happened, for which preparation had been made for two years but which still seemed to come as a surprise. This was officially “the day where it all went wrong for Theresa May“. Conservative poll ratings crashed to below 20% – quite an achievement: you go girl! (Actually, do go.)

A tax consultant was dismissed for saying that a man is a man and a woman is a woman. Usually when you hear someone say that he is making a pass. No one thought of sacking the complainant for harassing a fellow employee. Later in the year a tribunal judge agreed that there is no justice in the world, as if there were then there would be no need for tribunal judges. A diversity officer was seen sharpening a blade behind the arras.

L K Bennett collapsed too, in embarrassment after wearing the wrong heels.

April: Edinburgh Waverley finally stopped charging to use its loos. Surely that is the most significant event of the year?

Extinction Rebellion burst out in London, claiming it was to do with climate change, but we all know the real reason, don’t we?

I expect there were more defeats for The Hapless Theresa May, but there were so many I lose track. There was a breach in security too, concerning discussions about the Huawei, which forced Gavin W and his venomous spider out of office. Be fair to the leakers though: they had to get the news out before it reached the Chinese government that afternoon.

In Australia, where men are men, Barry Humphries had his name stripped from an award for suggesting just that. Presumably the judges think that Dame Edna Everage is actually a woman.

May: The end of May at the end of May. Before then, the birth of a new Prince. Oh and a vanity election, won by the Nigel Farage Party.

The political and philosophical worlds were shaken in May, when the thomashobbes blog was founded.

June: ChangeUK (or whatever they were called that week) burst apart and various MPs went in various directions (we lose track of where Heidi hid and Sarah Something sloped off after Chuka chucked it in).

July: Bored with politics now. Have been since about mid-January. Still, a stand-up comedian got into the news this month as he was seen walking into Downing Street unchallenged. It later turned out that he was the Prime Minister.

At the same time Jo Swinson was chosen as brief leader of the Lib Dems. No, I’m not interested either. Even Milngavie wasn’t interested.

James Brokenshire finally crawled in humble apology to the world’s greatest living philosopher (no, not Adrian Hilton – Sir Roger Scruton). Having removed Sir Roger, whom he had somehow never heard of, in a Twitterstorm last year, Brokenshire made this one last repentance before he was promptly thrown out of his office.

Elsewhere, the police informant ‘Nick’ was banged up for perverting the course of justice while being perverted himself. The Met took advice on breaking him out, as he remains the only source of information they really trust. Later they considered exhuming Titus Oates to testify.

August: By this time the year had been going on far too long.

The Met Office said that temperatures were high. It’s what we call “Summer”.

September: Parliament was prorogued and all opposition parties, the Leader of the Opposition now being Dominc Grieve, it seems, proclaimed that a coup was taking place. Foreign observers excitedly waited for tanks to roll into Parliament Square and for dissidents to be shot en masse, but had to be disappointed. Turkish army officers mocked Boris Johnson for not understanding how to do a coup properly.

Attention at last turned away from Parliament to the courts, but still on Brexit, where the Court of Session threw out a challenge by Jolyon Maugham (the one who wears women’s clothes to hunt foxes), then changed its mind on appeal. The Supreme Court joined in the fun. Millions of pounds were spent arguing over four lost sitting days.

In all this, Ruthie left us. Where are ye, lassie? But a bairn on your knee is a joyful burden. No word of the father, but rumours say it is not Boris Johnson.

Police failed to make any arrests in Operation Casement after losing their main source of information, Nick.

Scientists discussed whether the Loch Ness Monster could be a monstrous Sturgeon.

October: Six years after the Clutha helicopter crash, finally the Sheriff Principal made a finding. Oh, and there was more politicking. And Parliament was prorogued, again, and this time Jolyon and Gina did not try to stop it.

Jeremy Corbyn had to tell an audience that his preferred pronoun is “he”. Aye pal: the beard and barely concealed aggression are a bit of a clue.

The Met Office reported to a shocked world that leaves were falling from trees across the length and breadth of the country. Extinction Rebellion came out onto the streets again to protest.

November: Are we not there yet? Finally, a dissolution of Parliament! The nation speaks, and says “Just get on with it”.

Even Brenda from Bristol was begging for an election.

December: Oh thank goodness – an election. A stonking majority and a proud Johnson up front.

The voice of Scotland in the election spoke strongly, to say ‘Where is Ruth when we need her?’

The Met Office declared a crisis of global cooling after measurements showed the whole Northern Hemisphere to be suffering much lower temperatures than when measurements were taken in August.

And sausage rolls again reached number one.

Now can we have Christmas?

A New Year wish: a quiet year please, and Brexit at last.

The War of the Worlds on the BBC – a review

A long-delayed review of the BBC’s War of the Worlds (now that election things are past), and I find myself in a muddle for comment.

There is a snarling, lefty theme in two places which grates horribly and is not in the original, but for that later – as a whole the theme and presentation are ambitious and exuding a pervading cloud of inevitable, hopeless doom, just as in the book.

Peter Harness’s three-part adaptation of H G Wells’s work was broadcast by the BBC in November, and is still available on the iPlayer, and in the shops on DVD for Christmas.  It was greeted at the time of broadcast with some howls of rage from reviewers in advance – anonymous shall be the reviewer who said “it’s all woke in Woking” and others accused it of political correctness gone mad (or words to that effect).  It was certainly different, and with modern preconceptions filling in the gaps, but the main problem screaming out of the box is this: It is not H. G. Wells.

The scene is set in Edwardian Britain, in suburban Surrey and then in London; so far so much like Wells (though Wells wrote in 1898 and hinted at its being set at that moment): the series references the brief war scare of 1904. It begins just as the book does, in a picture-perfect suburban village: Wells’s narrator lived in Maybury, a village now engulfed in Woking, and here it begins, and on Horsell Common where the first cylinder lands (or in this retelling, a sphere). Like the book, the series counterpoints the confident civilisation of the period with sudden destruction to show how fragile the show of empire is.

A major contrast between the book and this series is that the Martian invasion is brief in the book and civilisation begins to pick itself up again afterwards, but in the series the whole world is affected and for many years after. Its postscript world, smothered in the red weed is one in which all civilisation has broken down, in which it resembles more that a later book by Wells, The War in the Air. That book looked at how flimsy an apparently well established society can be when once broken (and don’t we now know it when we look at what was Syria). The War in the Air is more realistically Hobbesian in its picture of a destroyed society than Harness portrays for us here.

In context, Wells was writing in the midst of a fashion for ‘invasion literature’, which is a whole different subject. He even opened his novel with a riff off the book that started the trend, The Battle of Dorking. Today though we have other concerns for our own culture’s fragility.

Wells constructed his book as a personal account, by a journalist or writer describing first-hand his experience of the Martian invasion.  It is wholly centred on the (unnamed) narrator, except for some chapters describing in the same tone the adventures of his (equally unnamed) brother. All other characters come in and out of the action as observed actors, not principals. Even the scene of action is limited: the narrator barely strays from Surrey; his brother journeys from London and Essex, and it is strongly suggested that the Martians go no further either. All the action is over the course of a month or so. That keeps even a world-changing event as an intimate personal experience. Conventional wisdom though is that this does not make for good television so Harness chose another route allowing for dialogue and grand, wasted vista.

In Peter Harness’s retelling of the story the narrator is  named George (Wells’s middle name) and he is modelled on Wells himself and his not-quite-wife and named Amy after Wells’s second wife (though I keep wanting to call her Demelza: she is played by Eleanor Tomlinson and in an identical manner to her portrayal of Demelza in Poldark), and she takes the main role. In the original book, the narrator and his wife are unnamed, though there is a ‘George’ mentioned: the lost husband and last hope of a delirious lady on the road, and in bits, that little narrative reappears here, expanded and applied to the main characters.

It makes it a little puzzling to find bits of the book here and there; snatches of monologue / dialogue from the book, characters becoming other characters, and one character definitively slain by the first heat-ray in both productions turning up alive at the end of this one. It is well done as a work on its own, but what kept getting at me throughout is that it is not H. G. Wells.

It is a hard book to render into a different medium, but many have turned their hands to it. Orson Wells famously panicked America with a radio adaptation in 1938 at the ‘eve of war’; Jeff Wayne wrote a techno-rock musical version, which works well; more recently, in 2005, Stephen Spielberg pulled a blinder with his film version that was far more faithful to the book, and better for it, but then Spielberg is a genius. He got over the monologue problem but having the narrator (played by Tom Cruise) leading his daughter to a hoped-for safety.

Back to the BBC drama though.

Is it woke in Woking?

Well, not as such. Any new BBC modern adaptation will be under suspicion for that, but most of the scene comes out well. The writer tries to be more Wellsian than Wells in setting the scene, for Wells in his ideas was a political radical – anyone who could be thrown out of the Fabian Society for extremism is going it some, and travelling in Soviet Russia, praising in the midst of the terror famine while bunking up with Gorkiy’s mistress is not exactly a shy Tory. He does not let this out in the War of the Worlds though: its strength is in its conventionalism. It was written in his high period, before he lost that magic: as Chesterton said of the later work: “Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message“.

The opening domestic scenes are not radical: Amy being a capable lady with ambitions to study equally with men, though not in the book, would be nothing unusual for the literature of the late Victorian / Edwardian period nor anything unusual in real provincial society. One trope of retro literature is the ambitious woman held back by a disapproving husband, but that does a disservice to the menfolk of the age, who were more likely to support their wives’ ambitions, and did so, and young, Tory husbands led the way. No, that aspect is not radical nor left-wing.

It does depart from the book – the wife there is a cypher. She is a prime motivation for the narrator’s actions but is not a fully coloured-in character, as to colour her in would change the personal structure of the narrative.

The lefty bit is none of this; it is the class-warfare. No-one is authority is anything but a caricature: the unseen proprietor of the newspaper which employs George, ‘His Lordship’, is portrayed as a cruel patrician, and the Minister who employs his brother is a pompous, out of touch, elderly fool straight out of central left-wing casting. (The actual Minster of War in 1904 was a rather vigorous, 49-year old H. O. Arnold-Forster, who was a writer, Mr Harness might note.)

(On screen, the Minster’s dying concern, portrayed as mad militarism, is how to get hold of one of the Martian tripods as a war-fighting machine. That is in the book as the idea of the thoroughly working-class artilleryman.)

Then at the end comes a swipe at religion, with a preacher trying to drag people to the Dark Ages, but again that is no more than a lefty idea. The alleged split between science and religion is largely the invention of Thomas Huxley, of whom H. G. Wells was a student – Huxley gets a mention in The Island of Doctor Moreau, and in later years his son, Aldous, caused Wells to despair at being surpassed as a writer. This religion as anti-science idea is nowhere in the book though. It is an unnecessary dig.

I might forgive the writer for falling for clichés, but surely he could have tried harder. The story overwhelms such failings though and though it is not H. G. Wells, the overarching theme from the book is here too: as it shows mankind’s differences swept away as a new master race descends, and is ultimately defeated by the humblest of God’s creations (and that line at least did get in).

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