The Future of History

Monday, 1 December 2014

THE GRAIL ... Coming Soon!!!

A sneak preview, friends, of The Grail, coming soon from Moon Books.

Publication in March 2015.

Looking good, isn't it?

I've set up a Facebook page for the new book (click on "Facebook page" to go straight to it) and I'll keep you updated as the launch date draws nearer.

Meantime, work proceeds on Shakespeare's Son - my "Life of Sir William Davenant" - which has been keeping me pretty busy.  And hoping to have some interesting news pretty soon regarding Shakespeare's skull.

Plenty more to come, folks!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Pagan Pages

Just been told that an interview with me is now up on the website.

So, with thanks to Mabh Savage, I give you ... The Pagan Pages Interview with Author Simon Stirling.  I think it's a good one.


Monday, 27 October 2014

The Faces of Shakespeare

Morning, all!

I'll be on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire local radio this morning, talking about the story of Shakespeare's skull.  There have been developments in that arena, but I can't go public with them just yet.

HOWEVER ... Goldsmiths, University of London, have just published their GLITS e-journal for the past year, and my illustrated paper on The Faces of Shakespeare - Revealing Shakespeare's Life and Death through Portraits and Other Objects is the second item on the menu.

Here's the link to my paper in the Goldsmiths GLITS journal.

More to come later.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Matter of Scotland

The Scottish Statesman, a new online newspaper for Scotland, launched today.

Here's my first contribution.  It's about Arthur in Scotland, and the English approach to history.

More news to come ...

Monday, 15 September 2014

That Eureka Moment

Here's me - in some very distinguished company - helping to celebrate The History Vault's first year of fantastic activity.

Really glad to have been part of it.

Here's the link - please click and read.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Gunpowder Treason - a 400 Year Old Lie

96 people died at the Hillsborough Stadium on 15 April 1989.  Even as the full scale of the disaster was becoming apparent, the authorities - police, politicians, the press - were concocting a story about it.  It was all caused by drunken football fans, they said.  Those same fans had picked the pockets of the dead and urinated on the paramedics who were trying to help.

We now know that that story was a pack of lies, although it took more than two decades for the truth to come out.  But what had happened was a political elite, composed of extremists, had cooked up and spun a false yarn designed to demonise a perceived enemy.  That enemy was, (a) football fans, who were seen as hooligans, and (b) the people of Liverpool, who remained obstinately opposed to the socio-economic insanity of Thatcherism.  The disaster provided an excuse for the State to denigrate those who seemed unable to fight back while, at the same time, covering up its own incompetence.

So what has that got to do with the Gunpowder Plot?

Well, we now know the truth about Hillsborough, 25 years ago, and few commentators would have the gall to repeat the lies told by the police and the government back then.  We do not, however, know the truth about the "powder treason", 409 years ago, because historians insist on repeating the lies.

The Radio Times reports that BBC2 has "just given the green light to Gunpowder 5/11: the Greatest Terror Plot".  "It's a total retelling," says the writer, "which uses the interrogation of Fawkes's number three, Thomas Winter, who gave away the whole story."

Okay, before we go any further ...

Fawkes was not the ringleader.  That was Robert Catesby.  Guy Fawkes was essentially a hired hand.  Arguably, Thomas Wintour was Catesby's number three.  But did he give away the whole story?

"We restage the interrogation and get inside the plot, which was huge", continues the writer, Adam Kemp, breathlessly.  Restage the interrogation, hunh?  That'll be interesting.  I can only assume we will mention the fact that Thomas Wintour had been shot in the shoulder when he and his comrades were finally cornered by a local posse.  Whether he would have been capable of composing his ten-page confession in neat handwriting is open to doubt.  But the signature on the confession - a rather bold "Thomas Winter" - wasn't his own.  He spelled his name "Wintour".

Note that Adam Kemp referred to "Thomas Winter".  He's using the name used by the Jacobean government, not the individual whose name it actually was.  Which means that his "total retelling" will, in all probability, be exactly the same version of events as that which was cooked up at the time by government ministers.  It won't be a "total retelling" at all.  Just another re-tread.

He goes on: "They would have got everyone under one roof, the royal family and the entire governing elite and bishops.  There is truly nothing that can come close.  It really was big,"

Yes, it was.  It would have been enormous.  If it had happened.  And yet, truth be told, there never was even the slightest risk that the king and his lords would be blown to smithereens.  Not a chance in hell.

Let's start with the gunpowder.  It was sourced from the Tower of London, where the government (which had the monopoly on gunpowder) kept its supply under the supervision of Sir George Carew.  Carew, a government insider, had just become Baron Carew of Clopton.  He somehow managed to let Clopton House, his estate just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, to the gunpowder plotters.  Nobody seems to have thought that was odd.  But the government resolutely blocked an investigation into how the gunpowder had been removed from the Tower.

How much gunpowder was there?  Good question.  A credible source said one barrel.  Guy Fawkes confessed to secreting twenty barrels in the Parliament building.  Sir Robert Cecil, who knew more about the plot than anybody, wrote of there having been 34 barrels.  The figure eventually settled on was 36 barrels.

So nobody was quite sure how much gunpowder had been involved, and no explanation was ever given for its mysterious disappearance from the government's store.  A large quantity of gunpowder was returned to the Tower a couple of days after Fawkes's arrest and was registered as "decayed".  Its constituent elements had separated.  It would never have blown up anything, let alone the royal family and entire governing elite.  There wouldn't even have been a puff!

Reliable witnesses saw the real ringleaders - Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy - emerging from Sir Robert Cecil's house in the early hours of the morning, just days before the plot was discovered.  That's like the perpetrators of the 7/7 London bombings being spotted sneaking out of 10 Downing Street a few days before they detonated their rucksacks on crowded tubes and buses (except, of course, that the gunpowder plotters explosives were "decayed" and weren't going to blow up).  Thomas Percy himself was a government insider, in the king's service at the time.  His job was to make sure that the plot proceeded and to implicate his kinsman, the Earl of Northumberland, whom Sir Robert Cecil has sworn to destroy.

Catesby, on the other hand, spent much of the year leading up to the plot's discovery trying to trick Father Henry Garnet into condoning the plot.  The government repeatedly delayed the opening of Parliament so that Catesby would have more time to incriminate Garnet.  Catesby was aided in his attempts to entrap Garnet by William Parker, Lord Monteagle.  Monteagle was eventually credited with exposing the plot and rewarded handsomely - every mention of him in the plotters' confessions was redacted.  Both Catesby and Percy, who had engineered the plot, were killed, rather than taken alive, on the instructions of Sir Robert Cecil.

The simple fact is that the Gunpowder Plot never really was.  True, some of its members were ardent Catholics who joined what they believed would be a blow for freedom.  But the main players were government stooges (William Shakespeare - who was alarmingly close to the events - made this clear in his plays, Macbeth and Coriolanus).  In other words, the Gunpowder Plot was pretty much the same as every other plot of its time.  These supposed "plots" were "discovered" on a more-or-less annual basis, and they all followed the same pattern - a good example being the Babington Plot of 1586.  A Catholic patsy was lured into a fake conspiracy by government agents, who then "discovered" the plot which they themselves had manufactured.  There was massive publicity, and the Protestant extremists at the heart of the government got to enact the policies which they'd been hankering to put into place: the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots - a Catholic contender for the English throne - or the execution of Father Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuits in England.

The constant repetition of the government's lies about the Gunpowder Plot is an offense to history.  It amounts to a 400-year propaganda campaign, and it speaks volumes that British historians would rather regurgitate the falsehoods about Catholic militancy than investigate the truth about Protestant duplicity.

The Gunpowder Plot is more than just an iconic incident-that-didn't-happen.  It led to the English Civil War; John Pym and John Milton were obsessed with it.  Like so many others in those paranoid times, they had swallowed the lies spouted by the likes of Sir Robert Cecil (for his own personal gain).  So successful were the propagandists in broadcasting the cooked-up story of the Gunpowder Plot, it fuelled the anti-Catholic rhetoric of the fanatics for decades.  Arguably, it continues to fuel our irrational fears of some nefarious, fanatical "enemy within" which is "out to get us" because it "hates our freedom".  That sort of nonsense has been doing the rounds since the Gunpowder Plot, and it's precisely why the plot was invented.  Fear is a useful tool of government.

Historians repeat the Gunpowder Plot lie for a simple reason.  Englishness has always been difficult to define.  It's easier to explain what being "English" means in terms of what it is not - Catholic, Jewish, Irish, Scottish, French, etc. - than in terms of what it is.  That is why the English lay claim to a "tolerance" and a sense of "fair play" which they so seldom exhibit.  If they were honest with themselves, they'd have to say that the simplest way to be "English" is to hate, fear and abuse anyone who isn't.  But that problem created its own national myth, embroidered by generations of Whig historians anxious to justify every atrocity and outrage of our past as a necessary part of our Manifest Destiny.  The State had to persecute Catholics because the Catholics wanted to blow up the State (even though they never did; never actually came close).  To be English is to be Protestant.  The Catholics were, ipso facto, the enemy - like those football supporters who died at Hillsborough.  They were "not on our side", so they could be slandered.

It really is time to put the lie of the Gunpowder Plot to bed.  And I doubt very much indeed that the BBC's Gunpowder 5/11: the Greatest Terror Plot will even try to do that.  No.  Just going by the title alone, it seems most likely that it'll be yet another repetition of the old, old lie, designed to excuse the most vicious persecution of English citizens who happened to be Catholic. 

Such a slavish acceptance and repetition of past propaganda isn't history, though.  It's telling fairy tales for political purposes.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The X Factor

I treated myself, the other day.  I bought a copy of Allan Campbell McLean's The Hill of the Red Fox.

It must be 35 years since I borrowed that book from my local library in Birmingham.  Time spent on holiday in Scotland had planted a deep-rooted fascination, bordering on thirst, for all things Scottish.  The Hill of the Red Fox, which sits comfortably alongside Stevenson's Kidnapped and Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps, was one of the stories which allowed me to keep in touch, as it were, with western Scotland when I was back home in the West Midlands.  It also inspired my interest in the Gaelic language (there is a little glossary of Gaelic terms in the back, and this fascinated me as a kid - the Gaelic has a dignity, a romance, and a connection with nature that English seldom matches).  When the chance arose, I opted to take Gaelic Studies at the University of Glasgow, largely because of the glossaries I had previously found in such books as The Hill of the Red Fox.

Rooting around a charity bookshop in Evesham, a day or two after I'd read The Hill of the Red Fox, I came across an old copy of another novel by Allan Campbell McLean.  The Year of the Stranger.  I'm reading it now.

Like The Hill of the Red Fox, it's set on the Isle of Skye.  But whereas the former novel takes place during the Cold War 1950s and involves espionage, murder and nuclear secrets (all grist to my adolescent mill, back in the late 70s), The Year of the Stranger takes place in the Victorian era.  And it paints a perfectly clear picture of the gross injustices of aristocratic rule in the Highlands and Islands.

There's a referendum coming up.  The people of Scotland have a choice - do they want independence, or are they anxious to remain in the United Kingdom?  I don't have a vote, although I wish I did.  The vote will take place the day before my 12th wedding anniversary.  I married a woman who is half-Scots.  We were married on the Isle of Iona.  I can think of no more exciting anniversary present than a resounding YES to Scottish independence.

There are many, many reasons why it's a good idea.  Some of them are to be found in The Year of the Stranger.  It's a reminder that, after the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, the people of Scotland pretty much lost every last one of their rights.  They were cleared from their native lands, forced out of their homes to make way for sheep (a lucrative business, but one that destroyed the ecology of the Highlands) or simply to provide an absentee landlord and his wealthy friends with even more empty land to call their own.  Servile deference was demanded by the anglicised gentry.  That deference was not just demanded - it was imposed by force.  While the aristocracy turned Scotland into their own exclusive playground, those to whom the land had belonged were shipped off to America, Canada, Australia, in their thousands.  Those who remained behind had no choice but to tug their forelocks and grovel to the latest outsider who called himself their landlord.  A terrible punishment awaited those who resisted.  The fish in the rivers belonged to the aristocracy; the deer on the hills were theirs.  They owned - or believed that they owned - everything.

The spirit of the Highlanders was all but broken.  Many went off to fight in Britain's wars (sustaining a disproportionate amount of casualties, compared with the rest of the UK).  Those at home found themselves oppressed, not just by the aristocrats, who could buy the law, but also by religious extremists, who forced their neighbours into ever more demoralised forms of mental straitjacket.  As always, aristocracy and religious zealotry went hand in hand.  The once-proud people learned to live in fear of their outlandish landlords and their crazy preachers.  They had become little more than slaves.

It took the 20th century to pull Scotland - and the rest of the UK - out of that moral, political and economic insanity.  Votes for all, regardless of income and gender; universal education; welfare; healthcare; collective bargaining.  Gradually, civilisation dawned.  But all that has now been undermined.

Tom Devine, probably the most respected historian in Scotland, explained why it was time to vote YES to independence.  The union was of benefit (he feels) from the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 up till the Thatcherite revolution of 1979.  But that's when union with England ceased to be of any real advantage to the Scots.  The neoliberal agenda being so ruthlessly pursued by successive British governments is nothing more than a determined attempt to turn back the clock.  While the stark picture of gross economic, political and legal inequality as presented by Allan Campbell McLean in The Year of the Stranger strikes us today as quaintly barbaric, be in no doubt that to those who currently hold power in Westminster, that sort of rampant injustice makes perfect sense.

Social and economic progress was turned around in 1979.  Margaret Thatcher's simplistic economic policies were an absolute disaster - and yet the receipts from (Scottish) North Sea Oil and Gas propped up the nation's finances, so that things didn't look quite as bad as they really were (and there was always the press to mislead us as to what was really going on).  But if the natural wealth of Scotland bailed out Thatcher's failed experiments, it was the Scots who paid the greatest price - their industry practically destroyed.  Nuclear weapons?  The English wouldn't want them anywhere near their coastal towns.  Put them within 25 miles of the most densely populated area in Scotland.  Oh, and the poll tax that nobody wanted?  That was visited on the Scots a full year before they tried it out in England.  Scotland's wealth subsidised Westminster, but rather than show the slightest gratitude, Tory commentators chose to brand the Scots "scroungers" and "subsidy-junkies".  That is what colonisation looks like.

If Scotland chooses not to free itself of the shackles of aggressive, patronising, condescending, grasping Westminster rule, it will live to regret it.  Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world, and yet hundreds of thousands of its children are falling into poverty as a result of Tory ideology (there is only one - ONE - Tory MP in Scotland).  A person from Aberdeenshire, when asked to explain why she is voting YES, said, "When I look out to sea, I see nothing but oil-rigs.  When I look inland, I see nothing but food-banks."

And that, folks, is your warning.  History is repeating itself.  A corrupt and self-serving aristocracy is seeking to take us back to those dark days in which we all had to doff our caps to the idiots who lorded it over us; that, or we starved.  They could take our homes, throw us out into the cold, send us overseas, deny us our rights and use lethal force against us.  Their obscene wealth was stolen from the millions who actually earned it.

England can, if it chooses, wrap itself up in the Downton Abbey lies about the past and carry on down the road towards government by half-baked toffs and their vicious minions, or the only apparent alternative, which is arse-about-face UKIP-style fascism.  But if the Scots want to avoid the iniquities of history being revisited upon them, they need to take the chance that is now on offer.

For one thing is clear.  Those who cling to the idea of the union do so for one of two reasons.

The first is that they are the very aristocrats who believe that they own Scotland (and its people, and its natural resources) and who insist on maintaining their privileges, no matter what it takes.

The other is that they have some vague hope that somehow, the Scots and the English and the Welsh and the people of Northern Ireland will someday turn the neoliberal juggernaut around and get us back on the road to democracy and decency.  But that ain't gonna happen.  The English are too busy blaming everybody else in the world for their mistakes to wake up to the very real trouble they're in.  The Scots are already awake.  The YES campaign is by far the biggest, broadest, most inclusive and engaged grassroots campaign I've ever seen: a genuine movement of the people.  It's not about nationalism.  It's about reality.  They know that the union is finished, and that Thatcherism killed it.  They see democracy slipping ever further and further away, as the gentry comes marching back to lay claim to what it never earned.  The NO campaign has behaved as the defenders of privilege always do: telling lies about what is in the people's best interests and issuing one threat after another.  A conniving minority is also out there, doing the gentry's dirty work, like the hated factors of old.

There's still time to read The Year of the Stranger before the referendum.  Which means there's still a chance to remind ourselves what rule by those-who-believe-they're-born-to-rule tends to mean.  It wasn't always thus in the Highlands and Islands.  But the Treaty of Union imposed the worst kind of patrician government-by-force on a proud and independent-minded people, and those people were worn down, beaten, cheated by magistrates, bullied by a greedy gentry and terrorised by paranoid ministers.

And that's where we're heading again, unless the Scots display their natural courage, intelligence and sense of social justice, and set themselves free.  It only takes an 'X' in a box to rid the land of the fear of the landlord and his factor, and to show the world the way forward again.

Alba gu brath!!