A history of the Great and the Good?

Laurie Cunningham Statue

Laurie Cunningham

Reflecting on the pulling down of Statues

There’s been a lot of talk of public statues since the citizens of Bristol decided to dump the bronze monument to slave trader Edward Colston in the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest. A couple of days later the statue of slave owner Robert Milligan was removed from its plinth in West India Quay down in Docklands in a more orderly fashion. And now there is much debate about who should be removed next and where this ends.

For me there is a wider question, that of whose history do we tell, who are the figures that we celebrate. Pick up a pre-war History book and they are littered with the deeds of the ‘great and the good’. Ordinary folk barely merit a mention, certainly not by name. You’d think that the pre-1945 world was populated purely by brilliant Lords and Ladies, Dukes and Earls. And even though Historians have done much to redress that inbalance in recent years, the legacy of that view of the past can still be found in the names of our streets, parks, buildings, and yes many of our public statues.

Thankfully this is trend that has started to change. Many beloved public statues now reflect more local histories celebrating people and events with resonant connections to communities rather than burnishing the reputations of the wealthy. The statue of Laurie Cunningham in Coronation Gardens, Leyton is much loved by local people. As the first black footballer to play for England at senior level and the first Englishman to be transfered to the mighty Real Madrid, he was a true trailblazer that we can all admire. Likewise the statue of Ada Salter in Bermondsey, who was the first female Mayor in London, and with her husband Alfred Salter, did much to improve the lives of people in the area.

Joan Littlewood statue

Joan Littlewood

Names of places are changed all the time to reflect contemporary mores and politics. Marsh Lane Fields in Leyton was changed to Leyton Jubilee Park in 2012 to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The Royal Family themselves changed their own surname from Saxe-Coberg and Gotha to Windsor in 1917 due to strong anti-German sentiment caused by the First World War. Other streets and buildings that were given German names to honour Prince Albert were also changed at this time.  Changing names and removing statues is a normal evolution of the public realm.

Now is a good time to re-evaluate what history we want to tell ourselves.

Origins

‘Everything has its origins in the place we are born’

– Dario Fo

I was asked again recently, at an informal talk, how I had got involved in what I ‘do’ – meaning really walking, writing, making films and videos. I think the first time I was asked this question in a public setting was by Gareth Evans at a screening of The London Perambulator in Greenwich (my film about Nick Papadimitriou), and I think prompted by the appearance of the comedian Russell Brand in that film alongside Iain Sinclair and Will Self, which many people find incongruous but is perfectly logical to me. But to answer Gareth’s question I spoke about the great Italian satirist and playwright Dario Fo and how he was an important inspiration for me early in my creative journey. This took Gareth by surprise and to be honest I hadn’t thought much about how to properly articulate it.

So when I was asked the question again in a more relaxed setting, I once more started with Dario Fo which again prompted raised eyebrows. Now, I should be preparing for tonight’s talk with Iain Sinclair at the Wanstead Tap but I really feel the need to share this and clear my mind a litte – even if I don’t get much further, and whenever I attempt this explanation – man it really goes on. But simply:  my interest in politics (my undergraduate degree) and comedy (Young Ones, Blackadder, Ripping Yarns etc.) led me to Fo. Added to that my childhood love of history and mythology and it was all there in the work of Dario Fo. The final ingredient that tied it up with walking was reading how Fo drew heavily on the culture and topography of his region of Italy.

I grew up walking, everywhere, but what stayed with me particularly was walking with my Dad in the hills around Wooburn Green in Bucks, where I grew up. The old man is still a great story-teller and I loved listening to his tales of the characters he knew around the villages, scrapes with game-keepers, ferreting when he was a boy – all that stuff. The landscape for me was a place rich with narrative. Later, inspired by Fo, I went looking for older stories from that same landscape and found tales of heretics and martyrs, Mummers, and minstrels and I wanted to mix it all together somehow with things from my own time. Some of that resulted in the Remapping High Wycombe project. And there’s a fairly straight line from there to here.

The other element to all of this is how digital media played a role in providing a platform to articulate some this. I’d started out in small fringe theatres and moved online, starting blogging, initially as an extension of the work I’d been doing in live venues but then realising that I really preferred to document the world around me than to try and be sardonic or satirical or polemical. Of course sometimes, when asked, I progress to talk about how I ended up working with Russell Brand and why he’s in London Perambulator (he introduced me to Nick in 2005 realising we had a lot in common – they met through drug recovery programmes – this is in the film).

Of course when you say this out loud it can be a bit confusing, it’s probably a bit confusing written down.

Ok, I’m glad I shared that with you. I nearly lost the lot when the wifi went down just now so it must be fated that I actually post this. Now to prep for tonight’s talk with Iain Sinclair at the Wanstead Tap.

The New Kings Cross

I found myself in Kings Cross on Friday and finally made a video documenting some of the new development around the back of the station that has been emerging for a couple of years now. It’s a peculiar new zone of the city that many people seem unaware of, hidden away around the back of St. Pancras International and Kings Cross Stations and off the side of York Way.

Pancras Square Kings Cross

Pancras Square

To remind myself of what it used to look like I skimmed through the Mike Leigh film High Hopes where the main protagonists live in a council flat between the stations in the redevelopment area – their handsome block of flats and the Victorian terraces demolished. Checking an out-of-date A-Z shows that the location used in the film, Stanley Passage is perhaps somewhere beneath the new Google HQ and YouTube Space. Other streets that have disappeared under Pancras Square and Battle Bridge Place include Wellers Court, Clarence Passage, Battle Bridge Road, and Cheney Road.

Stanley Building Kings Cross

fragment of the old Kings Cross

It was hard to look at the tower blocks rising from those fields between Islington and Marylebone and not to think of the lines from Blake’s Jerusalem,

THE FIELDS from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold;

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Spirit Roads

Spirit Roads Paul Devereux

“There was an almost universal and abiding belief of great antiquity that spirits cannot cross flowing water, and that rivers were boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead.”

– from Spirit Roads by Paul Devereux

I find two pages of notes inside my copy of Spirit Roads by Paul Devereux. The yellow American size paper dates the notes to sometime around 2010-11 when I was occasionally making work trips the U.S. It’s a fascinating and compelling book, Devereux a key earth mysteries researcher for many years.

He writes about the ‘cognised landscape’ – the mapping of mindscapes that were projected onto the physical landscape in past times.

“Any worldview is dependent on the context to which it belongs”. Belief systems projected into the landscape as “invisible mental structures”.

Countryfolk, Devereux tells us, believed they shared the land with spirits – the Church preached that the spirit left this plane altogether for another, non-physical realm. There was a clear link between ghosts and locality that the Church denied.

Stiles were said to be the favourite perches of ghosts – if you sat there through ‘stile divination you could interrogate passing ghosts’.

“the virtual spirit paths traversing the folk mindscapes of old Europe”.

The Pyramids of Essex – Bartlow Hills

Last May I was taken out to Pinehurst near Hertford by Dave Binns and Gary Lammin to look at a Bronze Age burial mound in the middle of a housing estate. Dave made reference to a paper he’d written about ‘The Pyramids of Essex’ (or that was how I remembered it) which sounded astonishing. A couple of weeks ago Dave led an expedition to the Bartlow Hills – ‘pyramids of Essex’ – with Gary and I in tow. I’m delighted to be able to publish Dave’s paper on the burial mounds at Bartlow. A video of the field trip can be found at the end of the article.

BARTLOW HILLS: PICTURES OUT OF TIME

DAVID BINNS

Bartlow Hills
A little known cluster of burial mounds stands to the south of Bartlow village, on the border of Cambridgeshire and Essex.  More conical in shape than their prehistoric antecedents, the structures are believed to date from late first and early second centuries AD.  That chronology locates their construction firmly within a period (in southern England) of Romanised hegemony, more than a century before the recognised beginning of the uneven, long term decline of Roman material culture. (Foulkner, 2000)  In view of the discovery of foundations from a supposed “villa” and other Roman artefacts in the vicinity (Hull, 1963), it is assumed that the mounds were associated with an established residential presence.

Initially the mounds present themselves as entirely distinct from the more common flat roadside cemeteries of Roman Britain.  As such they provoke reflection on the extent to which relatively indigenous cultural practices continued within the political edifice of empire.  The implications of such a line of reasoning are not easy to codify or contain.  Even so, one approach to interpreting apparently Romanised mound-building practices would aim to situate them within the dynamic and decay of empire itself.

But first, what remains to be seen by travellers to Bartlow?  Four of eight (some accounts suggest seven) original barrows have been spared annihilation by the dual assault of agriculture and railway building.  The tallest of the survivors, astonishingly, peaks at more than thirteen metres above ground level.  In addition to the structures themselves, just sufficient is reliably known to make speculation difficult to resist.  Most of the excavated contents were destroyed by accidental fire mid-nineteenth century, but surviving descriptions indicate rich grave goods, pointing to a high status family or group of families. (Dunning and Jessup, 1936)  The presence of such apparently elite goods suggests the expanding power of consolidating classes, but how far was the associated cultural nexus specifically Roman in character?

Bartlow Hills
An insightful early analysis by Cyril Fox suggests close resemblance between the contents of mounds and flat graves during the Roman period.  Discovery of wooden chests and brick tombs in both types of burial implies, for Fox, that mound burial at the time was “…not associated with any particular rite.” (Fox, 1923, p.198)  A mound, nonetheless, is not a flat grave.  The survival of mound building under occupation complicates the widely assumed image of a systematically Romanised social and political elite.  In David Braund’s strong formulation of that conversion model, across lowland Britain in particular, a thoroughly transformed ruling stratum “…competed to display its wealth through imported styles and architectural splendours.” (Braund, 2000)  Against that perception, while acknowledging the less rounded profile of the Bartlow mounds by comparison with earlier equivalents, Fox concludes that the former denote “survival” into Roman times of an older cultural custom (Fox, 1923, p.199).

Circumstantial evidence including that of accepted chronology provides support for Fox’s hypothesis.  Archaeological views converge on the decades around 100AD as the key phase of development at Bartlow.  The mounds, to put that another way, were raised just half a century or so after the final military suppression of both the Druid core on Anglesey and the specific tribal insurrection associated with Boudica.  The builders of the mounds and most of those whose cremated remains were placed within them were probably closer to Boudica in lived memory than today’s humans are to Winston Churchill or Ho Chi Minh.  It is even conceivable that the Bartlow mound builders were directly associated with the Iceni tribe that Boudica had come to head, with its substantial territories in what is now called East Anglia a few miles to the north and east.

For at least some of those directly associated with the mounds, it seems highly likely – almost inevitable – that recollections and interpretations of what the Roman imperial outlook had disparaged as sub-civilised existence and resistance would, one way or another, continue to reverberate.  Over time those memories, like everything else, were subject to change.  As the immediacy of the invader onslaught receded, culturally transmitted associations would be reinterpreted and reassessed.  Each recollection engendered new adjustments and unexpected tensions.  Eventually some multiply reinterpreted memories took on entirely altered significance.  Remembered, but increasingly distant experiences would shift and realign, recombine and reincarnate within difficult-to-recognise manifestations: a battle chant transformed into a children’s rhyme; a curse morphing into a lullaby, or vice versa.

Such echoes of reflections inspired, consoled and tormented human lives over generations through to the turmoil of the close of the fourth century (Laycock, 2006) and far beyond.  It is highly feasible that tribal identities and alliances of some type, as well as inter-tribal tensions, resurfaced within the implosion of empire.  Recent research tends to support the notion of the revenge of disparaged identity.  The tribalism of the late Iron Age, it is increasingly recognised, already had a fluid and in some respects ephemeral character.  Simon James notes the “often-transient” nature of the “‘tribal’ groupings” of the period.  For James the key to their kaleidoscopic quality is that “…these groups did not yet have substantial contacts with other, obviously different groups with whom to contrast themselves…” (James, 1999, p.94)

The indeterminacy in relation to ethnic identity that James describes has implications for the decades and centuries that followed. Who were the “Romano-Britons” of Bartlow?  How “Romano” as distinct from “British ” or “tribal” were they within the universe of their own self-conceptions?  From their descendents’ point of view, how, if at all, did Rome’s loss of control in the far west of southern Britain by early fifth century (Jones, 1996) impact upon identity in the south east?  Perhaps both most important and most elusive, to what extent did imperial consolidation of the social hierarchy already intensifying before Roman involvement encourage complex, many-sided identities to emerge and in their turn change?   Far from assuming some common early or proto-British identity, such questions permit an approach to ethnicity as fluid, shifting and more likely than not at odds with itself.  They also raise the potential of people, then as much as now, to be underwhelmed by resistible invitations to hide behind a flag – however often such behaviour is mendaciously theorised as a hallmark of being human.

Bartlow Hills
In connection with what is known of Bartlow, artistic and apparently wealth-expressive grave goods are also associated with mound burial in the pre-Roman “Iron Age”.  Typical grave artefacts from that earlier period are in addition commonly taken to signify what James Dyer has called “…a strong preoccupation with the after life.” (Dyer, 1997, p.157)   However that interpretation is interpreted, there is no doubt that on excavation the Bartlow mounds were found to hold remarkable, even poignant depositions.  Archaeologist Alison Taylor writes: “Lamps of iron or bronze had been left burning when each burial was sealed, and when excavated they still contained a ‘fatty substance’ and a partially burned wick.” (Taylor, 1998, p.18)  Such an arrangement strongly suggests intentionally prolonged internal illumination after the tombs were sealed.  Was the contrivance a means to enact some conception of conscious continuity across the transition to another world?  Was there, perhaps in addition, some recognition of the tendency of light – literal or metaphorical – toward eventual extinction?  What precisely did that aspect of entombment signify to the people who witnessed it with anguish, relief, indifference, even curiosity?

The poverty of available facts is an unavoidable element of the situation.  Imagination, it follows, must play a part in any attempt to account for the meaning – or meanings – of the flames of the Bartlow lamps to those who placed and observed them alongside the human remains that they illuminated briefly.  Ambiguity pervades all possible theorisations of those perishing flames which could even, in the end, be the most relevant metaphor for the changefulness and multi-potentiality of identity and ethnicity.

Certainly the presence of Bartlow’s towering “fairy hills” – as ancient and prehistoric barrows have been popularly visualised and imagined (Harte, 1997) – lends an otherwordly quality to the landscape of which they remain a part.  Much as with the mounds of Neolithic and Bronze Age centuries, it seems unlikely the creation of that experience of “otherness” is an unintended consequence of landscape transformation.  Go among them and to this day you enter another kind of space.


Selected sources:

Braund, D. (2000) “”Britain AD”, “History Today”, Jan. 2000.

Collingridge, V. (2006) “Boudica”, Ebury Press/Random House, London.

Dunning, G.C. and Jessup, R.F. (1936) “Roman Barrows”, “Antiquity”, 10.

Dyer, J. (1973) “Southern England: An Archaeological Guide”, Faber and Faber, London.

Dyer, J. (1997) “Ancient Britain”, Routledge, London.

Faulkner, N. (2000) “Decline and fall”, “British Archaeology”, 55, Oct 2000.

Fox, C. (1923) “The Archaeology of the Cambridge Region”, University Press, Cambridge.

Harte, J. (1997) “Hollow Hills”, “At the Edge”, 5.

Hingley, R. (2005) “Freedom Fighter – or Tale for Romans?”, “British Archaeology”, 83, July/Aug 2005.

Hull, M.R. (1963) “The Bartlow Hills” in “Victoria History of the Counties of England”, ed. R.B.Pugh “A history of Essex” vol. 3, University of London Institute of Historical Research/Oxford University Press.

James, S. (1999), “The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?”, British Museum Press, London.

Jones, M. (1996) “Rebellion remains the decisive factor”, “British Archaeology”, 20, Dec. 1996.

Laycock, S. (2006) “Britannia: the threat within”, “British Archaeology”, 87, March/April 2006.

Taylor, A. (1998) “Archaeology of Cambridgeshire Vol 2: South East Cambridgeshire and the Fen Edge”, Cambridgeshire County Council.

Text copyright David Binns_(c)2009

 

Corruption and prostitution in 17th Century Holborn

I have a copy of the Middlesex Sessions Records 1612-14 sat on my floor. I feel guilty for leaving it there, pick it up and open at random:



26 July, 11 James I [A.D. 1613].

Roger Williams [Williamson] alias Davies  of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, scrivener, and Margaret his wife, for being common barrators and disturbers of the peace at the same; and for keeping a common bawdy house at the same.

Both guilty. To be carted in a cart from the gaol to their own house, the said Margaret in a blue mantle like a bawd, and there to be openly set in the stocks, and afterwards to remain in prison till they find sureties for their good behaviour.

Prosecutors:- Giles Henley, William Dennis, Roger Usherwood, Christopher Archer, Nicholas Elmye, Robert Osborne.

Sureties for the said:- John Askewe of St. Gabriel’s, Fenchurch, gentleman, and William Roberts of St. Bartholomew’s-the-Great, tailor.



Roger and Margaret sound like a right pair – aside from keeping a brothel and generally creating a racket, barratry was the crime of “bringing a groundless lawsuit or lawsuits” or the corrupt practice of the “sale or purchase of positions in church or state.”

The Record Shop That Never Was

I was taking a walk in the rain yesterday morning when I remembered the time on a day just like this one in 1992, at roughly the same hour of the day, that I impulsively bowled into Barclays Bank on Mare Street, Hackney dressed in my baggy blue sweat pants and HUGE green jumper that I’d slept in and asked for an appointment with the small business adviser. It was only when I was sat there answering questions I’d never considered, like ‘Did I know anything about running a record shop?’ that I realised I should have thought this through a bit more.
I didn’t get the loan. I never opened that record shop.