The Secret History of Writing: musings

The BBC’s three-parter, The Secret History of Writing with Lydia Wilson, is running through and it is a corker. It has been a delight to see a history programme on Auntie which plays it straight and not for some political aim (though we will see with later episodes whether the actual historians have managed to keep the politicos’ dirty hands off their work).

The history of writing is not actually secret: the development of the alphabets of the world has been written about since at least Tacitus, who traced the Roman alphabet back to the Phœnicians and Egyptians when discussing the three new letters introduced by Claudius (which did not survive). It is perhaps little known outside the right academic circles, and for such a dramatic development of humanity that is surprising. As the programme said, for almost the whole of humanity, there was no concept of writing, let alone of alphabetical script – it is only about 5,000-odd years ago that it was invented and, in time, exploded across the face of the earth.

The programme shows the obscure carvings in the rock by a turquoise mine in Sinai which are the earliest alphabetical signs. Egypt’s obscure hieroglyphics were fit only for priests and had to be carved by skilled craftsmen: though inspired by the shapes of the hieroglyphs, these new letters were made to serve the cause of ordinary men of other tongues (initially a tongue very close to Biblical Hebrew). That was the remarkable break-out: writing could now belong to everyone.

From Sinai to the Holy Land and to Phoenicia and thence to the world: ordinary folk could make their words heard beyond earshot and even beyond the span of their lives.

I have never been quite convinced that an ‘A’ looks like an ox, or a ‘B’ a house nor a ‘C’ a camel and so forth, but that is part of the liberation of writing, that it is seen for its own sound alone, not from an origin.

The first programme looked at Chinese writing too; the second original writing system. It was treated respectfully as it should be, but really Chinese is still stuck barely further than the pictograms. It is a much later development too: when the script was regularised under the first Chin Emperor the Greeks had been writing laws, plays, histories and ribald jokes in their own alphabet for centuries, and brought it to China’s western borders. Long before them those lands had already for centuries been writing in scripts derived from Aramaic. China went its own way: it is in truth an island.

It is fascinating to see the sudden spread of writing as an art across the world, showing itself to be indispensable to civilisation or those who aspire to civilisation, such that nations which acquire the art could never imagine being without it. It is a thing of the settled nation, as without that there can be:

no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society

However, I am more interested in cultures without writing. It is because we cannot imagine being without it, that they should interest us all the more as a lesson in humanity. As the programme observed, many millennia of human society passed with no forms of writing at all. Mankind was no lesser a being for this – it was just not needed until towns and markets appeared.

Here is a point though: even in the four thousand years or so since writing became available to all, the vast majority of people even in lands with writing got by without it. Up to the Reformation, most people could not read nor write even in wealthy England. Change was driven by the Reformation: the Bible was published in English and Welsh and all people were encouraged to read it; funded schools spread across Scotland; but even at opening of the Industrial Revolution, Scottish Gaelic remained an unwritten language. There is no reason it should not have been written – its Irish cousin had been written for a thousand years since – but the Highlands remained a pre-literate society, in the wealthiest, most civilised nation on Earth. They do not seem to have been greatly harmed by the circumstance.

The revolution brought by those first Phœnician trading ships was a very slow one indeed. It permitted Greek and then Roman civilisation and seeded the world with the means to develop beyond imagining, but many tribes and nations bumbled along without writing all the same.

Even today, most languages of the world are spoken with no written form. In highly literate societies like ours there are still those who, for whatever reason, cannot read and write: the Beeb had a story not so long since about a man who held down a teaching job without being able to read (and you may wonder what that says about the New Mexico educational system, but he got by; he is an author now).

Modern society is impossible without writing, but life is not. It is not an indispensable condition of being human. Therefore if we cannot imagine life before writing existed, that may be a lack of imagination, because that condition has been with us well into the modern age.

Update

The series, in its short span, became all the more fascinating in its detailed look at the development and change of writing across the world and across cultures, and this international view is vital to understanding the subject. It has certainly lived up to the promise of the opening episode. It tells a story with more dynamic to it than the subject matter may seem to have on its own: as I observed after the first episode, the art of writing was necessitated by the first civilisations, and then it became a necessity for civilisation.

The programmes showed that is more complicated than this though: detail will make and mar the whole course of civilisations. Even the writing medium and the form of lettering are not mere choices but drivers of change, to prosperity or to poverty. The medium, of paper or cloth or parchment, will determine the form of letters as the medium presses back against the pen, which was beautifully demonstrated, but it goes far further than this. We all understand the world-changing effect of printing, but the disappearance and reappearance of paper is barely a footnote in books: here we were shown that papyrus paper disappeared when the Roman Empire tottered, leaving the Middle Ages barely literate until the secret of papermaking was wrenched from the unwilling Chinese: there is direct correspondence between the sophistication or otherwise of world civilisations and the medium of writing. These minutiae are not minutiae at all.

I have observed that most cultures have been illiterate cultures, so the writing is not necessary to life, as long as an elite can read and write. The revolutionary effect of being able to read and write is not lost on any reformer. Script reforms have been the stuff of autocrats; the Turkish script reform is the best known, and the resultant script is so perfectly adapted for the Turkish language it could not have been done by committee or compromise, but by single inspiration. (It makes the versions of Cyrillic spread across the Russosphere look maladroit, as they are.) It has always seemed inconceivable that so large a nation as the Turks could replace their whole writing system at a stroke – but that is to see it with modern eyes: when 95% of the population are illiterate, it is not so many that you have to persuade to change, and adopting a standard that so well reflects the language, with its vowel harmony system and limitless agglutination, makes it far easier. The also illiteracy itself can be reduced.

And yet, and this point reappeared, many times, if civilisation and culture are bound up so intimately with the written word then changing to a new system is to be a destroyer; a rebuilder too, but a destroyer first.

See also

Books

Ban ‘Jerusalem’? Yes: long overdue

The BBC can’t get anything right these days. The flurry today may have been an exercise in misdirection, but it showed up the angry divisions in society, as if we needed to be reminded of them. I love the patriotic songs lifting the spirit, but Jerusalem I would lose without hesitation.

The BBC organise the Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall, and have done every peacetime year since Henry Wood founded them. Today’s scandal broke from unofficial sources; a claim that the Beeb were to ban forever the famous patriotic songs which characterise the Last Night of the Proms. All hell broke loose. Actually this may have been a fake story, a softener before they revealed that the music would be there but not sung, because of the possible coronavirus risk.

A year without Rule, Britannia at full volume is unthinkable, and we must have Land of Hope and Glory belted out with gusto in the Royal Albert Hall or there has indeed been a revolution against us, the right-thinking people of the nation. They are grand, patriotic songs wrapped in the Union Jack that lift the spirit and remind us, in spite of all the vandals are trying to do, that Britons are a great nation and that we shaped and continue to shape the world and we can feel very glad about it.

(I saw this evening that Land of Hope and Glory sung by Vera Lynn has reached Number 1 in the download charts: it might restore my faith in the taste of the public.)

However one of the Proms songs, Jerusalem, or And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, should be ditched forever.

It is not one that comes under the usual woke condemnation: it is not imperial or racial or whatever other boo-words they usually use to tag things that might make them think. It has a soaring tune by Parry – one of his best, and it is a cracker to listen to because of that tune. However the words – they pretend to be a hymn but are a disgrace to theology and although Jerusalem is a very popular song and has been used as a hymn ever since it was set to music, it has been banned from many churches because its words are blasphemous nonsense.

The words are a poem by William Blake, one of the weirdest of 19th century poets and painters. He was considered mad in his own age: the calm consideration of his legacy in later years does nothing to dispel that. His ideas were both radical and irrational and he grasped for a spirituality receiving an inspiration unlike that for a prophet and more like that received by the Gadarene Swine.

The poem he wrote which has become the famous ‘hymn’ is based on a mediaeval legend invented to fleece pilgrims out of cash in Glastonbury: the monks, to ‘prove’ how ancient their establishment was claimed that Jesus himself, as a child, came to Somerset and founded the abbey. The story takes the Lord’s name in vain in a most scandalous manner but it drew gullible pilgrims in droves. Blake took that blasphemous legend and made it into a poem, and that is what gets sung at the Proms.

This has been characterised as the only hymn in the book consisting of questions the answer to all of which is “no”. And did those feet..? No they did not. That rather knocks out the whole conceit of the piece.

There is a lot to be set for inspiring listener and the singer to exertions to bring about a paradise on Earth, and the confused mixing up of images from Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and from the Book of Kings and from Blake’s fevered imagination has a breathless quality that for that moment makes you feel you can achieve – but it is built on that fatal, ill concept so that to get to the soaring verses about whacking people with swords we are made to sing blasphemous nonsense about Jesus as a bairn in England.

One should also object politically: it sings of England, not Britain. In Blake’s time the word ‘England’ was used to mean the whole of the British isles, but it sits ill today and suggests “there is a special blessing for all who live south of the Tweed – not for Scots though”.

Jerusalem the city has a long history in metaphor, and Hobbes looked at this in the scriptures in forensic detail (and if I every get round to it I will write about that). Blake’s poem though has none of that: it is heretical nonsense and should be cast out at once.

I will enjoy Parry’s tune without the words. If a poet can write better words, freed from Blake’s phrenzy, he may make something which is worthy of Parry’s triumph.

The Salisbury Poisonings – a review

It was well done. I will not pretend to have enjoyed it greatly, though I would have been worried if I had. It was tightly produced and meant well, but so soon after the events it had no drama, because we all remember what happened.

Realising this, the writer pitched it as a human drama, and that is all it could be given its constraints. The Salisbury Poisonings was the BBC’s most promoted drama of the week and must have swallowed a sizable budget for what is essentially a series of internalised tensions, not even inter-personal ones.

The series is primarily not about the poisonings at all, but about the personal struggle of Tracy Daszkiewicz, Wiltshire’s public health supremo, feeling all the responsibility that could come from slipping up just once, and over-reacting perhaps or using her influence to stop others underreacting. That is for the viewer to decide. In addition we have other individuals and households, each with their own dramas, arising from the same events but barely interacting with any linked plot. That is hardly a fair complaint though: this is the reality of how we live and this is a series about real, named people and real, horrible, deathly events and so they interact and fail to interact just as we normal people do, and as they actually did at the time.

Therein lies a difficulty: the familiarity pops the tension that a miniseries like this needs. Had it been fiction, then the scene where Dawn’s boyfriend picks a perfume bottle up from a bin (when the cross-narrative makes clear what it contains) could have been a moment of tense drama, with her future hovering between happiness and death, the audience screaming at the screen ‘Don’t do it!’; but as we know what happened, as a moment of tension it fell flat: sometimes background music is not enough. It is a pity that moment did not quite work, because it really was the moment Dawn’s life was doomed, in silence because reality has no sound-track or looming thunder.

Perhaps it is as well that Saul Dibb had this show.  Another approach, with a different writer, would have been to create an actual drama, to run it like a Frederick Forsyth piece; semi-fictionalised, following the Russians from the moment the order was given in Moscow, plotting, infiltration, execution, exfiltration (and generally spitting on the memories of those actually affected by romanticising the villains). Actually, I cannot imagine Frederick Forsyth writing about a plot so stupidly executed. Had the killers done the job properly, with a tiny dab on the neck and disappearing in the night with evidence, their target (who, mercifully, is still alive) would have passed away alone and his death put down to natural causes. Instead, we got a drama in real life which engulfed the whole of one of Britain’s most beautiful cities.

Within those limits then, it was done well – plotted, scripted, acted. The piece only really showed its depth in the third and last episode, as much of the first and second episodes were filled with the search and decontamination panic, which swallowed too much screen time, serving though to show how much trouble was caused by a tiny smear of fluid on a door handle – in the third episode, with all that done with, the piece could concentrating on the effect on people: Dawn killed and Charlie nearly so, Sergeant Bailey recovered in body but not in mind, and Tracy Daszkiewicz again with the unbearable weight of responsibility upon her and the families torn.

Those involved, both those portrayed and many others, were facing something unwonted and horrible, stepping out of the bland, box-ticking ordinariness of their bureaucratic offices: they were facing the Russian military machine, and they prevailed.

It was only two years ago and these were not paper people conjured from a script. The point was made at the very end when the dramatization was finished and to face the audience they brought the actual individuals portrayed so we could see they and their sufferings were real. If there was no traditional drama it is because that sort of drama is not real life, but they are.

Theatre online? Why then the world’s my oyster

It is a bit late in the lockdown to have discovered the wonders of theatre on YouTube. The theatres remain shut and barred, but Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Theatre and others have been putting filmed performances on YouTube. I recently watched the Globe’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which I last saw at Tollethorpe Hall many years ago (and Tollethorpe productions are always excellent). The National has a good selection too.

It is almost a shock to find that YouTube is not just cat videos and the fortnightly Moggcast.

There is a different dynamic sitting in your own house watching the grand scene, the inns, grand houses and fields of Windsor, first encompassed in a wooden O, then crammed further into a box in the corner of the room. It is done well though. The Globe is a more intimate theatre experience anyway, with the actors playing to the groundlings and often bustling in among them for their exits and their entrances. Coming into my own front room is just the next obvious step. It does not replace the theatre – the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd, the immediacy with no physical barrier between me and the action, but it is good.

The play? It was done in an energetic, chummy way. The Merry Wives of Windsor needs its own review (yet another task for another day). It is noticeable as the play where the women lead the plot more than any other. Shakespeare, alone among his contemporaries, wrote good parts for women, letting them be real characters, not passing extras with a one-dimensional role. In the Merry Wives the nominal central character is Falstaff – he is the comic turn and in a way the McGuffin – but it is the wives themselves who take the lead, ably assisted by their own comic turn in Mistress Quickly. It is said that the play was written at the specific request of the Queen herself: it shows, and is better for it. The scenes, the quips, the clever women and the befuddled men, the local folklore, the comic Frenchman and comic Welshman (whose best scenes were missed, unfortunately) and all pomposity punctured – only Shakespeare can achieve all that in a play so neatly tied together, and all in my front room and all for free.

I will have to look for more on YouTube if I can get past the cat videos.

The main point though is not to spread culture to the masses, good as that is – it is to remind us of what we have lost without live theatre, while the lockdown closes it. They are suffering and many might not survive – and it is not because of COVID-19, but because of the lockdown. When the theatres open they will bring life to all the pubs and restaurants around them too – they are vital to the local economy, in London’s theatreland more obviously, but all around the country. The limitations of the small screen should whet our appetites to see the real thing. That is the point. I will go back to Tollethorpe when I can. In the meantime though we have the theatre coming into our homes, if we just care to look.

Dane-geld

I have watched the press-pack and timorous MPs demanding a human sacrifice as the price of leaving the government alone, and making the news not breaking it, so today I leave the field to Rudyard Kipling:

IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: –
“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: –
“Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

See also

Books